It's the 14th of December. Mike and El are seated on her bed, legs crossed as they face each other. Fat, flaky snowflakes fall against her bedroom window, dissolving into water droplets that trail down the glass. Though it's only 4:30, the world outside is already fading into a charcoal-grey, and El has to keep her beside lamp on in order for them to see each other properly.
El fidgets with the index card she's holding in her hand. As she talks, she flutters it back and forth, willing herself not to look at it.
"Genes are..." She begins slowly, mind working frantically. She pauses as she tries to remember the definition she'd copied onto the notecard. Their Biology oral presentation is only a few days away, and she has to have this memorized by then.
Mike smiles at her as he gives her an encouraging nod. "You got this!" He assures her.
El throws him a grateful look before continuing. "They're…segments, segments of…" She shuts her eyes. Maybe she can see the word if she tries hard enough.
"Deo—?" Mike offers.
"Deoxyribonucleic acid!" El exclaims, "DNA!"
"There you go!" Mike beams proudly. As El smiles proudly, he adds a hesitant offer, "Are you sure you don't want me to start our speech? I don't want you to feel so much pressure to say all these hard words."
"No," El refutes with a small shake of her head, "I want to do it. I want to get it right."
Mike gives a nod of assent. "Okay."
"Besides," El adds casually, "Pressure isn't always bad." Her voice is light, nonchalant, unrevealing. Nevertheless, Mike seems to pick up on the coy connotations she's purposely giving.
She really shouldn't do this to him, but she can't help herself. He just always gets so flustered looking and it's completely adorable.
"Uh, yeah," he admits, voice a little higher, "I guess pressure isn't always so bad."
El gives him a knowing look before continuing with her speech. "DNA synthesizes the proteins in our bodies," she states, "Each molecule is a…a double helix shape. The helix is made of two strands, one of sugar, or…deo…deo…"
Her voice trails off as she tries to think of the proper name. Why did every word have to start with deo? After a few silent moments pass, she gives up and takes one glance at her notecard. "Deoxyribose! One strand is sugar, or deoxyribose, and the other is phosphate molecules."
Mike is still looking pretty riled up. His cheeks are still pink and he keeps staring at her all wide-eyed. He's so distracted by something that he doesn't even congratulate her on her successful pronunciation.
At least, not in the way that she expects.
When he only blinks at her, El pouts a little. "I know I had to glance at the notecard," She confesses, "But I can keep trying. I don't want Mrs. Hawthorne to take off presentation points for reading off my notes."
"No!" Mike finally exclaims, "You…you sounded great!"
El gives him a skeptical look. "Then why do you look so…weird?"
"Yes," El smirks, raising her finger to bop his nose lightly. She turns her attention back to the index card in her hand. Maybe if she keeps looking at it, she'll be able to memorize all the big words easier.
"I'm sorry," Mike sighs, "It's just…you sounded really good."
"You said that already."
"No, I mean like…really good."
El frowns — not only because the words she's reading are making her head hurt, but also because there's no way her boyfriend is actually getting worked up over her reading off scientific terminology.
She glances up at him, just to make sure she's not making assumptions, but nope — he's giving her that look. The look that's a hopelessly smitten mix of flushed cheeks, dark eyes, and a hopeful smile.
He's seriously the biggest nerd ever.
"Thank you," El replies dryly, forcing herself not to smile as she looks down again.
There's a moment of silence and El can practically feel the tension brewing between them. Maybe tension isn't the right word though. It sounds so negative, and this feeling is anything but. It's like growing embers — warm and comforting with the potential for more.
After a minute or so of El looking over her notes, Mike interrupts the quiet. "Your dad's not home, is he?" He asks, glancing at the doorway.
"No," El replies, not looking up from her index card, "He has work, and then he's going to help Will's mom go get a Christmas tree. He said that we'll go to Will's house tomorrow to help decorate it." El pauses as she processes this before adding, "You know, I think Max is right. I think he might like Joyce. He's been acting so weird around her lately. I guess I'll see tomorrow."
She realizes that she's been rambling (a trait she's starting to pick up from hanging around Mike all the time), and probably taken the longest way possible to answer Mike's simple question. "Anyway," she concludes, glancing up at Mike, "He's not home. Why?"
"Because," Mike smiles shyly, "If he was, I'd kinda be too scared to do this."
"To do what?" El frowns, but then without warning, Mike cups her face in his hands and pulls her in for an affectionate kiss.
El smiles against his lips as she uses her index card to playfully swat his shoulder. She wants to tease him for being such a big dork, or maybe say 'deoxyribose,' again, just to mess with him, but as their kiss increases in intensity, she starts to lose all coherent thought.
Mike is still the smartest person El knows. Not only that, but he's also the fastest learner she knows. He's a sponge for information. He can finish a book in a matter of hours or watch a documentary once and he'll remember practically everything he learned.
This apt for quick learning naturally extended to everything, including kissing. The kisses they'd shared during the first couple weeks of their relationship had been soft and reserved. Neither really had any clue what they were doing, but that's kind of what made it so fun — they got to figure it out together.
Mike was a very dedicated learner. He paid attention to every hitch of her breath, every contented sigh, every moan she blushingly tried to hide. Needless to say, his dedication paid off.
Like right now, for example. He pulls back just enough to capture her lower lip in an impassioned kiss. He uses his teeth to ever-so-gently tug and bite, and that's when El just melts like the snowflakes against the windowsill.
Or, at least she would melt if she could get comfortable enough. Because as wonderful as Mike's kisses are, they're both still sitting with their legs crossed, which means they have to strain their necks to reach other, and it's starting to get a little uncomfortable. Plus, they're surrounded by their Biology textbooks, notes, and binders, so it's a little crowded too.
She needs to fix this.
With a flick of her hand, El uses her powers to push all their schoolwork off her bed. It falls to the floor in a flurry of thudding books, fluttering notebook paper, and clattering pencils, but El could care less. She can always pick it up later, but she needs more of Mike now.
When their school things hit the floor, Mike pulls away in startled confusion. "What just happened?" He asks, looking at the mess.
El only grins as she uncrosses her legs and slides closer to him. "We need more room," she says simply, obviously.
"Oh," Mike grins back, looking unfairly adorable.
El leans in to pepper him with kisses because she really can't get enough of him, she never will, and she doesn't quite know what else to do with the warm, bubbly feeling growing near her gut. Her heart rate spikes as she continues to shower Mike with kisses. He's all squirms and laughs and bashful exclamations of her name and El just wants more.
She pulls back and, with a playful smile, pushes Mike back onto the pillows. Mike falls backward, looking breathlessly excited—
—And winds up gasping in pain.
"Shit!" Mike groans, rubbing the back of his head.
"Mike?" El pales, looking alarmed. She hadn't pushed him that hard, had she? He'd just landed on her pillow—
"I hit my head on something," Mike frowns, turning to look under the pillow. He retrieves the Hawkins High 1984 yearbook with a puzzled look on his face. "What the—?"
Shit, shit, shit, shit. WHY hadn't she gotten rid of that yet!?
"Give me that!" El pleads.
She throws herself at him, but Mike shifts to the side and she falls face-first on the pillows instead.
"Jesus, El!" Mike exclaims, sounding torn between laughter and alarm, "What's wrong?"
"You can't look in it!" El snaps, squirming towards him.
"Why not!?" Mike asks, moving out of the way again. He looks at the yearbook more closely and spots the yellow Post-It notes. "Why do you have pages marked?"
El uses her powers to pull the yearbook out of Mike's hands and into her own. The impact causes her to fall back against the pillows, but she doesn't let go of the yearbook. She already had to go through this with Max, there's no way she's going to do it again.
However, just like Max, Mike is incredibly persistent.
"I wanna see!" He pleads, moving to hover over her.
"No!" El insists, holding the yearbook close to her heart as she looks up at him.
"Please?" Mike begs, giving her his signature puppy dog pout.
"No!" El repeats. She has to shut her eyes to avoid his pout. It's too adorable, too powerful, and she knows she won't be able to maintain her resolve if she keeps looking at him.
Of course, shutting her eyes turns out to be a fatal mistake, as that's when Mike strikes. Without warning, he leans forward and attacks her sides, tickling her relentlessly.
"Mike!" El squeals, trying to squirm away. "S-stop!"
Mike only grins as he continues to wriggle his fingers over her stomach, sides, and hips. He knows how ticklish she is, because he's done this before, and El both loves it and hates it.
As she writhes from his tickles, she raises her arms to defend herself. This causes the yearbook to fall from her grasp, and that's all Mike needs. He catches it as it falls, straightens up, and sits on top of El's legs so that she can't get up to grab the book from him.
"Does this hurt?" Mike asks, looking down at her.
"No!" El huffs, trying to squirm away.
"Good — just checking," Mike nods, turning his attention back to the yearbook.
She could use her powers to take the book back, but at this point, it seems pretty futile. Now that Mike knows about the yearbook, El can't really think of anything she could do to deter his curiosity. So, she instead settles for crossing her arms and glaring up at him as he begins to flip through the pages.
"Alright," Mike says, turning to the first sticky-noted page, "What do we got here?"
El remains silent as Mike looks over the page. When his gaze lands on the picture, his picture, the picture that she'd decorated with heart stickers after Homecoming night, his jaw drops.
"You were looking at my picture?" Mike gasps, glancing down at her.
El quirks an eyebrow at him. "Maybe."
Mike's eyes light up as his mouth curves into a smile. "Like…since when?"
Here we go.
"….Last year," El admits.
Mike keeps smiling as he turns to the second marked page, the one with his AV Club photo. "You were looking at this one too?!" He exclaims in shock.
"Yes," El sighs.
El eyes him. Wasn't it obvious? "I liked you."
"You had a crush on me!?" Mike gawks.
El, still eying him warily, nods.
"Since last year?!"
At this admission, Mike bursts into laughter. It's not a deriding or mocking laugh though, but rather one that radiates with happiness, like he's stupidly, giddily excited about something.
"What's so funny?" El asks defensively.
"I can't believe you had a crush on me!" Mike replies gleefully, "That's like, so embarrassing."
"How?! We're dating!" El exclaims, hitting his thighs (the only part of him she can currently reach with him sitting on her legs and everything).
"I know!" Mike continues to laugh, "But still!"
"I hate you," El grumbles, poking his thighs a couple more times.
"Really?" Mike asks, turning to grin at her.
"Yes," El insists, hating how her gaze lands on his smile or, to be more concise, his lips. She knows she supposed to be (pretending to be) mad at him, but it's so hard when Mike sets the yearbook down, places his hands on either side of her, and hovers over her again.
El's style is still evolving. Instead of strictly sticking to slick-backed hair and leather jackets, she sometimes opts for freed curls and soft sweaters. Other times, it's a unique combination of both. She's also decided to let her hair grow out — in the past, she had to trim it regularly so that it wouldn't look too weird when it was slicked back. Now, she's allowing herself to just leave it be and see what happens.
Consequently, her hair is a little longer, a little curlier. When Mike lowers his face so that it's inches from hers, their curls brush in a way that almost makes El giggle, because they kind of match.
Mike has that look in his eyes as he scans her over. Still supporting himself with one hand, he carefully runs his opposite hand through her hair, over her shoulder, and down her arm. Despite the chill that seeps into her room from the outside, his touch leaves trails of embers down her skin.
She loves when he's forward like this, when he's not afraid to get closer. It's admittedly rare, but lately he's been getting better, bolder.
Except for when he's not.
He's leaning in to kiss her when he suddenly pulls away, leaving her high and dry.
"Mike," El whines. She curls her fingers in the front of his shirt and tugs him back to her, "Come back."
Mike, for once, doesn't give into her pleads for kisses. Instead, he looks down at her torso skeptically, as if something has just dawned on him.
"What?" El asks nervously. Is something wrong?
"Isn't this my sweater?" Mike questions, tugging on the hem of the sweater she's wearing.
"Um," El hesitates, looking down at the article in question.
Was it his sweater? Her favorite sweater of his? The one he'd worn when he was fixing the projector, or during their first Biology lab? The sweater she'd found crumpled up on the floor of his bedroom when she hung out at his house last weekend? The sweater that she'd hastily stuffed into her backpack, just because she really wanted it? The sweater that was impossibly soft, and smelt like his soap, his laundry detergent, and the musk that was unmistakably him?
"No!" El answers innocently.
"I'm pretty sure it is," Mike smirks, "So, like, first you're staring at pictures of me, and now you're stealing my clothes?"
El feels her cheeks flush red with embarrassment. "You left me 20 voicemails!" She reminds him.
"You snuck into my house," Mike counters.
"You got into a fight for me!"
"You got in one for me!"
"You bought me every kind of Eggos!"
"You're still obsessed with me."
And you're still in love me, El wants to say, but the words die in her throat. She doesn't know if she dares to say something so…so resonant. She knows that she's in love with Mike, but she's never told him. He's certainly never told her that he's in love with her. Even though 'in' is such a tiny word, to be in love with someone somehow seems so much more weighted than to just love someone.
"You're still dumb," she mumbles instead, averting her gaze.
"And you're still wearing my sweater," Mike mutters back, idly running a hand over her sleeve.
This time, the words El wants to say come out before she can stop them. "Then come take it back," she offers, and this time, her connotations aren't coyly masked, but flirtatiously candid.
Mike's eyes widen in surprise, because she's never said anything like that, they've never done anything like that, but when El only smiles invitingly up at him, she's pretty sure she can pinpoint the exact moment his heart explodes.
"Okay," he mumbles back thickly, and then his lips are back on hers, and El is pulling at the back of his hoodie, dragging him closer to her.
She can feel her heart racing faster in her chest, filling her veins with adrenaline. She's not sure that she's ready to go super far, but she's definitely willing to test the waters a little…maybe a lot…
Mike lowers the arms he's been using to support himself. He instead allows himself to lie on top of her, all the while being careful not to move too quickly or crush her under his weight. El doesn't mind the feeling of him pressed against her though. The pressure is quite nice, actually, but it's still not enough.
More, her thoughts plead, more, more, more.
She tentatively spreads her lips and Mike eagerly accepts the invitation. It's admittedly a little awkwardly clumsy at first — he doesn't know what he's doing, he hasn't learned, not yet — but then his tongue brushes against hers in just the right way, and El's pretty sure that she sees stars. The adrenaline pumping through her pulsates with an electric charge, like she's been struck by lightning or gotten her finger too close to an electrical socket.
As they continue to kiss openly, it idly occurs to El that neither of those are great analogies, as both would most likely get her killed. Then again, in that sense, maybe those are the perfect analogies, since Mike's kisses are certainly going to be the death of her.
His fingers are just brushing underneath the hem of her sweater when the doorbell rings.
El and Mike don't part at the sound, not at first. Instead, Mike keeps kissing her with an increased sense of urgency.
She doesn't want to stop, but then the doorbell rings a second time, and El can't bring herself to ignore it, especially since she knows who it is.
"Mike," El says as she grudgingly pulls away, "We have to go."
Mike doesn't seem to care. He stays connected to her like static cling, moving his lips to her neck the moment she breaks their kiss. He nibbles and sucks on her skin fervently, seemingly determined to convince her to stay through his kisses.
"Mike," El repeats. She tries to make her voice sound firm and reprimanding, but it's so, so hard when his mouth is doing that.
"Five more minutes," Mike pleads, breath hot against her skin.
"Our friends are here," El reminds him.
"They can wait," Mike shrugs, not moving away.
"It's snowing. They can't wait in the cold."
"I'm a nice man," Mike quotes.
"No you're not," El quotes back, "You're a scoundrel."
Mike replies by smiling into the crook of her neck. He continues to kiss and bite her there with a renewed fervor, much to El's reluctant enjoyment (also: why did he always have to get so worked up over Star Wars? He's responding way too eagerly to her quoting it to him).
"Mike," she pleads.
"El," Mike whines back.
El jokingly muses to herself that her true powers aren't telekinesis, but rather the strength it takes to pull away from Mike. She forces herself to squirm out from under him and get off the bed, making sure to step over the mess of their school things on the floor.
Mike makes a disappointed whining sort of sound, like a kid who'd just gotten a time-out. He rolls onto his back and stays on top of her bed, pouting at her.
"I have to get the door," El says as the doorbell rings for the third time.
"Why don't you get the door, bring them to the living room, then come back up here?" Mike suggests.
When El was in middle school, Hopper had given her The Talk. It was horribly uncomfortable for both of them, but Hopper pointed out that it was necessary because she was getting older and needed to be careful, since boys only ever had 'One Thing On Their Minds.'
This much is evident in Mike's case. Whenever they get intimate like this, it's obvious that he has One Thing On His Mind: not pressuring her or going all the way, but anxiously waiting until they can kiss again and planning exactly how he can make that happen. El only knows this because she often feels the same way.
Except for right now, when all of their friends are downstairs.
"I'm not doing that," El snorts.
"Please?" Mike pleads, "I miss you."
"I'm right here!"
"But you're not over here."
"Correct!" El teases.
Mike groans dejectedly and slumps back on the pillows.
"Maybe we can continue later," El offers.
"Really?" Mike asks, perking up excitedly.
"Maybe," El reiterates.
"I'll tell you."
"Fine," Mike sighs, rising from the bed. He moves to stand in front of her, leans in, and presses one final kiss to the tender sore spot on her neck.
—Wait a minute.
El gasps in alarm as she runs to her dresser and grabs the handheld mirror lying atop it. When she looks at her reflection, her worries are confirmed: Mike's left a huge, mauve-colored mark on her neck, right above her collarbone.
If their friends see it, they'll never let it go. It'd be the next Fruit Loops debacle.
"I can't believe you!" El huffs. She turns around to glare at Mike, but he only replies with a smirk. It's the same kind of smirk he'd given her when he'd said 'bullshit' just to get detention with her: accomplished, self-satisfied, and irritatingly endearing.
"Sorry," Mike says, not sounding apologetic in the slightest.
El turns back to the mirror with another huff. She plays with the collar of her (Mike's) sweater, trying to get it to lay over the hickey, but it doesn't work. The sweater just slumps back down every time, leaving her neck exposed.
"Here," Mike offers, walking over to her side. He peels off his navy hoodie and hands it to her, leaving him in a collared shirt. "This should help."
El turns to accept the hoodie and slips it on. Thankfully, the hoodie is bulky enough to cover her collarbone.
It also smells like him. So, that's like, an additional bonus.
"Thank you," El softens, already secretly plotting how she can keep this hoodie.
"You're welcome," Mike smiles back, leaning down to give her lips a small peck.
El beams up at him. It takes everything within her to not lean back in for another kiss, but she knows that if she does, she won't be able to stop.
Plus, then the doorbell rings for the fourth time, and then the fifth, and sixth, and she realizes that their friends are probably getting impatient.
"Let's go," El instructs, grasping Mike's hand and leading them out of her room.
Mike follows her dutifully, interlacing their fingers as they head to the stairs. "Why do our friends have the worst timing ever?"
"They're here at the time we told them to be," El reminds him.
"I know," Mike whines, "But still."
"I still don't see why we would couldn't do this at your house," El replies as she and Mike, still hand-in-hand, descend the stairs together.
"Because, Nancy just came home for Christmas break!" Mike explains, "And the last time you guys hung out together at Thanksgiving, you went through my baby pictures with my mom and it was totally embarrassing!"
"Exactly," El replies, giggling at the memory.
"'Exactly' is right," Mike huffs.
"Well, your mom invited me over for Christmas Eve," El reminds him, "So, I'll see her then."
"Fine with me — that gives me plenty of time to hide every photo album we own."
El throws him a light-hearted eye roll before she stops in front of the entryway door and opens it.
They're greeted by the sight of all four of their friends bundled in puffy coats, long scarves, and knit hats. Their noses and cheeks are a frosted pink, and as the door swings open, a rush of icy December wind rushes into the foyer.
"Finally!" Max exclaims.
"We were freezing our asses off out here!" Dustin adds, teeth chattering.
"Thanks for inviting us over!" Will pipes up.
"Now let us in!" Lucas begs.
El and Mike move out of the way and allow their friends to hurry inside.
"I'm sorry you had to wait," El apologizes as they stomp the snow off their boots. She releases Mike's hand and moves forward to close the front door, shutting out the bitter chill.
"We were studying for Bio upstairs," Mike adds, hands in his pockets.
"I'm sure you were," Dustin smirks.
"You guys are gonna ace the human anatomy section," Max adds wryly.
El and Mike's cheeks flush even redder than their friends', which is really saying something, since their friends still look like they're freezing.
"We're studying genetics!" El defends hotly, "Not...not that."
"Yeah, yeah, whatever," Lucas sighs, taking off his jacket and boots, "Let's just get started."
"Okay," El nods. After her friends remove their winter attire, she leads the way into the living room. There's a hearty fire flickering in the fireplace and a modest sized Christmas tree in the corner. The couches that normally rest in the center of the living room have been pushed to the sides of the room to make space for the folding table and chairs she and Mike set up earlier in the day. On top of the table rests the Dungeons and Dragons game board, along with all the pieces they'll need to play.
"You have a nice house," Will smiles, taking a seat in one of the chairs.
"Thank you!" El beams back. She motions to the coffee table off to the side, "I have some snacks if you guys get hungry. There's pretzels and cookies and candy canes and—"
"Oh my god," Dustin exclaims, already rushing to grab some of everything, "Your girlfriend is amazing, Mike."
Mike turns to throw El a small smile. "She is," he mumbles, so low that only El can hear it.
El almost starts to consider Mike's proposition to leave their friends in here while they return to her room. Almost. But she knows that wouldn't be very polite, and besides, she did say that she and Mike could continue things later. 'Later' would only come after they finished this game, so she had to get a move on.
El goes to take her seat at the table, followed by Mike and Lucas. Max and Dustin join them a few moments later, both carrying several snacks.
"So," Mike begins, retrieving a binder from where he'd left it under the table, "Did you guys finish creating your characters?"
El nods proudly. She'd spent more time than she probably should have designing her Mage, but whatever — it was fun. Mike had helped her create a backstory for her character and everything. He also assured her that yes, her Mage could secretly be dating his Paladin, if that's what she really wanted (it was).
"Yeah, me too," Max concurs, "I had time to work on designing my character after I finished studying for my English final." As the words leave her mouth, She pauses and grimaces. "Oh my god, I think that's like, the geekiest thing I've ever said."
"One of us, one of us!" Dustin chants teasingly, pounding his fists on the table.
Max flicks a pretzel at him, the first of what will probably be many.
"What character class did you decide on?" Will asks Max.
"Zoomer," she answers confidently.
Though Mike's face is partially obscured by the DM's screen he's sitting behind, El's still able to catch the bewildered frown he makes. "A what?"
"A Zoomer," Max repeats.
The boys exchange hesitant glances. They all look like they're deciding whether or not to tell her something.
"That's not a real character class!" Dustin finally blurts out.
"So?" Max shrugs, "You said I could create my own."
"Your own character," Mike clarifies, "Not your own classes."
"Is there a difference?" Max asks flippantly.
"Kind of," Lucas admits.
"It's okay," Will assures Max, "I think it's cool that you created a new class." He turns to give the other boys warning looks, to which they reluctantly relent.
"Yeah," Mike sighs, "I guess it's cool."
"Super cool!" Lucas adds, sounding far more believable than Mike.
Dustin manages to not say any further challenging comments, but that doesn't stop him from shaking his head forlornly. "Anyway," he says, turning to Mike, "What's the name of this campaign?"
Mike clears his throat and replies in a dramatic, theatrical sort of voice. "Expedition to the Castle of the Forgotten King!"
"That's the title?" Max questions, raising an eyebrow.
"I didn't have a lot of time to come up with a better one, okay?!" Mike justifies, "I've been busy!"
"With studying for exams!"
"I think the title is great!" El cuts in, throwing Mike a reassuring look.
"Can we just start already?" Lucas pleads eagerly, "We haven't had a campaign in forever."
Mike clears his throat again before he proceeds to read the introduction to the campaign. He gets so dramatic about the entire thing, it's actually like, the cutest thing El's ever seen. He keeps reading in that theatrical voice, pauses to create tension, and uses his own sound effects to make it all feel so much more real.
El turns to glance at her friends excitedly, because this is already the best thing ever, but the rest of them are watching Mike seriously, listening closely, taking it all in. Even Max seems determinedly focused, so El decides that she better pay attention too.
As this is her and Max's first campaign, it takes a bit for them to fully get into it. The boys have to walk them through all the gameplay, like how to take actions, how to make die rolls, and how to gain experience points. It's all pretty complicated and confusing to El at first, but the boys are chivalrously patient with both her and Max.
As their adventure continues, the stakes grow higher. The action increases in tenfold, and soon they're all on the edges of their seats, hanging onto every last word of Mike's direction.
In the final moments of the campaign, through their collective skills and abilities, their party successfully slays the dragon that dwells in the dungeon beneath the castle. They then stumble across a trove of treasure, which Mike describes in vivid detail.
"You've found it!" Mike reads quickly, excitedly, "The lost treasure of the Forgotten King! While the dragon's lair was dank and decrepit, this room glows with the shine of thousands of jewels. Their light reflects off the towering abundance of golden coins, goblets, and crowns. Through your face is speckled with the blood of the slain dragon and the dirt of a journey long traveled, when you slip the crown onto your head, you feel the power of success flow through your veins. Your valiant efforts have paid off. You've won."
El and the rest of her friends burst into cheers. They exchange fist-bumps, high-fives, and sighs of relief.
"Holy shit! We're freaking loaded!" Dustin exclaims, "We're gonna have enough gold to do whatever we want!"
"What happens next?" El asks Mike enthusiastically.
"That's it," Mike shrugs, shutting his Dungeon Master's manual.
There's a beat of silence as everyone realizes that the story has come to an end.
"Wait, that's it?" Max frowns, "That's the ending?"
"Uh, yeah?" Mike replies, as if this was obvious.
"But we just got started!" Dustin whines.
"We've been playing for five hours!" Mike points out, holding up his watch. Sure enough, it's now well past 10 PM. The once-gray sky has now darkened into an inky black, leaving the fireplace as the main source of light in the room. The reflection of the flames dances off their faces, making everyone's faces glow with a warm amber light.
"It felt shorter," Lucas laments, "I think it should have been longer."
"Forget longer!" Max huffs, "It should have been better written!"
"What do you mean?" Mike asks indignantly.
"There's so many things that you either didn't finish, left out, or glossed over!" Max critiques.
"Like the prince!" Lucas offers, "You just left him stuck in the tower!"
"He'll get out!" Mike frowns.
"But what about the princess and her two knights?" Dustin adds, "You mentioned them like, once, and we never even got to meet them."
"Or the Captain of the Guard and the Halfling storekeeper?" Max says, "You kind of made it seem like they had some kind of relationship going on, and then it just went nowhere."
"None of those things mattered to the campaign!" Mike snaps, "All of those characters were NPC's! Why do you even care?"
"We were invested!" Dustin exclaims.
"Fine!" Mike huffs, "I'm sorry, I guess. But just because this adventure is over doesn't mean that the story of the campaign is over!"
"Are you going to continue it?" Will asks hopefully.
"Maybe!" Mike shrugs, "I dunno!"
"Well, if you do, it better be good," Lucas replies, "Like, better than this one."
"That won't be hard," Max snorts.
"Even if it wasn't perfect, it was good," El says definitively, "We had fun."
None of their friends can disagree with that.
"Yeah, I guess it was pretty fun," Max admits. Her eyes widen as she glances at everyone anxiously, "That doesn't leave this room."
"Too late," Dustin grins, "Your secret is out Max! You're a nerd!"
"I'm not!" Max insists.
"You like arcade games, Star Wars, and Dungeons and Dragons," El points out, counting off the items on her fingers.
"And Lucas," Mike teases.
Lucas and Max both try to look offended, but both of them know that everything El and Mike just said is completely true.
"We're all kind of nerds," Will summarizes, turning to give everyone a smile, "But that's good."
"Only because being normal is overrated," Max sighs, slumping back in her chair.
"It totally is," Mike nods.
The conversation concludes when one of their parents rings the doorbell. Every member of their party jolts at the sound. It feels as if some sort of spell has broken. Their adventure really is over, and it's time for them to return home.
Mr. Sinclair has arrived and offered to give Max a ride home, so the party gathers in the foyer to wish Lucas and Max goodbye.
"I'll see you Monday," Max murmurs to El as she hugs her goodbye.
"See you Monday," El mumbles back, hugging her friend tightly.
"And," Max adds, voice a dry whisper, "Next time you and President Nerd decide to get busy, you might wanna bring a scarf."
El frowns in confusion, but then she glances down and realizes that her hoodie has slipped lower, revealing that damned hickey.
El makes an embarrassed squeak as she quickly readjusts the hoodie, but Max only smiles, pulls away, and heads out the door hand-in-hand with Lucas.
Though the snowfall has stopped, the night is still bitingly cold. The streetlamp near El's house illuminates her front lawn, causing the untouched snow to shimmer. As Max and Lucas follow Mr. Sinclair to the car parked in the driveway, their steps leave wandering trails of footprints in their wake. El, Mike, Dustin, and Will watch them from the front doorway as they leave, waving goodbye forlornly.
"See ya' later dweebs!" Max calls out as Lucas boards his dad's car.
"Later, MadMax!" Dustin calls back.
For once, Max doesn't flip him off for the nickname. Instead, she only throws Dustin an exasperated smile before following Lucas into the car. Mr. Sinclair's car backs out of the driveway, and much too soon, Mrs. Henderson's car has taken its place.
Since Hopper and Joyce were going to get the Christmas tree today, Dustin's mom is going to drive him home.
"We're still gonna compare our To Kill a Mockingbird notes before our exam on Monday, right?" Dustin asks as he hugs El goodbye.
"Of course!" El nods.
"Awesome!" Dustin replies gratefully. He moves to wish Mike goodbye and Will steps up to hug El like Dustin had.
"I'll see you tomorrow, Will," El murmurs as she gives Will a comforting hug goodbye.
"I can't wait!" Will replies excitedly, "I made a new mixtape for you, this one has Bowie on it!"
The mixtape exchange is a thing the two of them started recently — Will makes one for her with some of his favorite songs, and El does the same in return. Thanks to each other, El's grown an even bigger soft spot for pop, and Will has developed an appreciation for music that he likes to call 'loud, but good.'
"Mine has Metallica!" El smiles, "I think you'll like it. I'll give it to you tomorrow."
"Sounds good!" Will nods.
More goodbye hugs and lighthearted banter are exchanged before Dustin and Will leave through the front door. The house is noticeably quiet once their friends are gone, and even though El knows she's going to see them within the next couple days, she already misses having them here.
Mike returns to the living room and proceeds to pack up his Dungeons and Dragons supplies. El watches as he carefully sorts the pieces into bags and little boxes before placing everything into the messenger bag he likes to keep it all in. Once he finishes, he sets the bag on top of the table and goes to lie on top of the couch. As he lowers himself onto it, he lets off a heavy, tired sigh.
El knows that he puts so much effort into his campaigns and that he must be pretty exhausted, but she doesn't want him to get too sleepy, not yet.
She carefully tiptoes over to him, trying to stay as stealthy as possible. Mike doesn't hear or see her coming, and when he closes his eyes to sigh again, that's when she makes her move.
"Surprise!" El squeals, throwing herself on top of him.
Mike yelps in startled surprise as El lands on him. "El!" He exclaims as she wraps her arms around his neck, pulling herself up so that they're face-to-face.
"Mike!" El giggles, rubbing their noses together.
Any indignation Mike may have harbored over her surprise attack quickly melts away. His face softens as he looks up at her. Their chests are pressed together and El can feel that her heart is still racing from leaping on top him, and from just being near him.
She hopes that he feels it too.
"What time is your Mom coming to get you?" El asks after a moment, running her fingers through the back of his hair.
"11:00," Mike replies, lips curving into a gentle smile, "So, we still have like, plenty of time."
"Good," El smiles back.
Despite the fact that they're alone, blissfully alone, neither moves in to kiss the other. Instead, they take time to study each other's faces. Their features are still shadowed in the amber light of the fireplace, but now that they're on the couch, closer to the tree, their faces are also dotted with the colorful reflection of Christmas lights. Mike, with his warm shadows and vibrant highlights and cheekbones and effortlessly wavy hair, looks like a mosaic, like a work of art.
With the way Mike's looking at her, she gets the feeling that he's thinking something similar. He raises his thumb to brush against her lips, and El gives it a gentle, chaste kiss as it passes by.
The clock that's mounted on the wall ticks as the seconds pass. It's the only sound to be heard in this secluded living room, alongside Mike and El's steady, even breathing.
And then it happens.
"I think I'm in love with you," Mike whispers.
It's simple, down-to-earth, and not incredibly romantic. Well, at least not by the standards of the soap operas and romance movies she watches. On TV, the dashing love interests always proclaim their feelings with chauvinistic grandeur. There's sweeping music, profound and poetic declarations of love, and sometimes even a ring, depending on the situation.
All of the romance movies she watches are kind of boring like that, El suddenly realizes. The movies don't even begin to capture what love really feels like. It's not always dramatic proclamations of adoration from a hunky, dreamboat actor. Sometimes love was a scrawny kid covered in heart-adorned band-aids showing up at her door with an armful of Eggos. Sometimes love was that scrawny kid comparing her to a star system. It didn't have to be poetic; sometimes it was only seven-words — tentatively whispered, yet resoundingly true.
The more El thinks about this, the more she realizes how silly she was for ever doubting that Mike loved her. That he was in love with her. The signs were right in front of her all along, she just wasn't daring enough to admit that they were true.
And so, when Mike tells her that he's in love with her, what else is there really to say?
"I know," El whispers back.
Mike's eyes widen. "Did you just—?"
—Quote Star Wars in response to his declaration of love?
El bites down on her lip as she tries not to giggle. "Yes."
There's no way to properly describe how Mike looks at her then. The only way El can really process it is in relation to other things.
He breathes out, like the way one might as a rollercoaster finally comes to an end. Like his nerves are still jumbled, his heart is still racing, but he can finally breathe again.
His body relaxes with contentment, like the way one's might after returning from a long trip away.
He reaches out to touch her cheek and his eyes are full with reverent wonder, like the way he looks at the photographs of galaxies in his science textbooks.
He looks at her like she's his sense of repose, his home, his world.
El knows that they're still young, probably too young to be feeling this strongly about each other, but as El into his eyes, her mind flutters with perennial, fragmented words like binary stars, the one, and forever.
She can't even think in complete sentences, that's what he's done to her.
Mike leans in so that their lips are only inches apart. His voice soft, loving — he whispers, "Hey, El?"
"Is it later yet?"
In 15 minutes, Hopper will return from The Byers. Mike and El with jolt up from the couch with a start, blushing furiously and hoping that Hopper won't notice (he will).
Tomorrow, El will spend the day at the Byers, and as she helps Will decorate his Christmas tree, she'll notice the strange look her Dad gets on his face when he looks at Joyce, like he's found something.
In 11 days, it'll be Christmas morning. Mike will come over sometime during the afternoon to give her the necklace he'd gotten for her — a simple, silver chain adorned with two tiny stars. Hopper will give Mike his present — a new bike, and El won't be able to stop herself from taking a picture of the stupidly surprised look Mike gets on his face. Mike will get all huffy, because he hates pictures, but then when El gives him her present, a limited edition Star Wars comic book, all will quickly be forgiven.
In one year, one of El's best friends (and future step-brother), will finally confess the feelings he's been trying to sequester. El will assure Will that he's not a freak, that there's nothing wrong with him, just like he'd done to her.
In less than two years, during the summer between their Junior and Senior year, El will finally grow tired of wanting more of Mike, instead needing all of him. It'll be another learning curve peppered with 'are you sure?' and 'is this okay?' (she'll be completely sure; it'll totally be more than ok), but as always, they'll figure it out together.
As time goes on, there'll only be more things to figure out about love. Mike and El's future, while currently unknown to the both of them, is still unfurling and expanding with every moment they spend together. There'll be time to discover what's in store, all the time in the world, actually, but right now—
"Yes," El murmurs, brushing her lips against his cheek, then his jaw, "It's later."
[A/N]: Aaaaaand I cried writing this. Not ashamed to admit that.
I want to give a big thank you to everyone who has taken the time to read this story. Writing it has been such an experience and I wouldn't have been able to finish it without your constant love and support.
While this story has come to an end, I'm definitely going to be creating more stories and different AUs. I already have another (much shorter) multi-chap planned, as well as some one shots. Stay tuned here, or find me on Tumblr for more info!
Once again, thank you so, so, so much. You are all beautiful little stars and I love you all.