Please don't do this, El. Please!
You're not safe as long as I'm here. I'm not safe as long as I'm here.
I know but I lo-… Eleven… Just… FUCK! Just…
I'm sorry. I'm so sorry.
Promise you'll find me when you're safe. Promise me.
Eleven, I -
Mike shot up in bed, his heart racing.
Marissa sighed. "You were having that dream again."
"What?" Mike asked. He cringed at her moan of sleepy annoyance as he rubbed his hands over his eyes and blindly reached for his glass of water in the dark.
"Eleven. You yelled Eleven. Again. It's like the third time in a row. What does it mean?" she slurred sleepily as she buried her face back into her pillow.
Mike laid back restlessly against his pillow. "Yeah, I… I don't know."
"Weird…" Marissa murmured.
Mike laid in silence. A cold sweat clung to his skin. He willed his eyes to focus blankly on the streetlights that painted the concrete ceiling as he let his body calm. The cars six stories below drifted up in white noise through his window. He could not catch his breath.
After a while, once Marissa's breathing returned to a steady cadence of sleep, he curled into a ball on his side and pulled away from her. Her breath tickled the bare skin of his back, but it only worked to make him colder. He bundled the blankets beneath his chin and watched the slowly flashing blue light that emanated from his computer on the other end of the warehouse loft.
It eventually worked to bleach the memory of her face from his mind, and lulled him back to sleep.
The morning came quickly.
Before he knew it, he found himself bleary eyed in front of his computer screen.
"Up so early?" Marissa cooed into his ear as she wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed his cheek. An errant strand of her brown hair fell against him and tickled his ear.
He fought himself not to shake her off, as had been his reflex. It was just that he needed all of the concentration he could muster. "Yeah, sorry if I woke you," he murmured as his eyes remained glued to the screen. "I got paged about an operation and I really need to pay attention."
"It's like you have a new operation every day," she grumbled as she crossed back to the bed and reached for her skirt on the floor.
"…I do have a new operation every day," Mike replied simply.
Marissa didn't mask her tone as she replied. "And how legal is today's operation?"
Mike failed to bite back his sigh. "It's not something for you to worry – "
"- I'm just worried about you, okay?" she cut in defensively. "Have you given any more thought to meeting up with that contact of your Dad's? It might be good to maybe find something stable, and not -"
"- I'm meeting him today," Mike interjected quickly, as plainly as he could, through his gritted teeth.
"Oh, really?" she asked, her tone instantly lighter. "That's great!"
"Yeah…great," Mike replied as he attempted to glue his eyes back to his computer screen. He failed as her footsteps neared him. He could sense her standing directly behind him as he worked.
"I, um…" He stuttered, suddenly self conscious. He threw an apologetic smile over his shoulder. "Sorry I got caught in this. I know we'd planned on getting breakfast. It's just - "
"- It's fine," she said, though he could swear he saw her eyes roll as she reached down to pick up her bag. "I was just…? Um… Did you still want to come with me this weekend?"
"What's this weekend?" he asked.
"It's… Christmas. Christmas?" she reiterated, her voice a bit dumbstruck by his question. "You know… meeting my family? Do you remember?"
"Uh… Oh yeah! Um… Yeah. Of course," Mike replied as he turned back to her.
"Oh, great," she said with a smile. She brushed her fingers through her short brown hair and smoothed it to the side with the remnants of yesterday's product as she filled him in on the details he had, admittedly, forgotten about.
He missed half of her words as he watched her talk and his mind ran away from him. He tried to see it yet again, what Dustin had noticed, but he couldn't. She didn't look like… like her… at all. No matter how many times Dustin had repeated it when he'd visited a few weeks back.
"- and I'm supposed to talk to my Mom today, so I'll page you when I have the final details and you can call me?"
"Uh, yeah. Sounds good," Mike stuttered as he turned back once again to his computer screen.
"Okay…" she said tentatively as she leaned down and kissed his cheek goodbye. "I hope the meeting goes well!"
"You too," Mike mumbled distractedly, fully back in the swing of staring at the code without a moment's hesitation.
The door opened and closed quietly. And upon the click of the door latch, his is head immediately dropped to his desk.
He had to get himself under control.
He could hardly even hear Marissa over the swirl in his head.
What was happening to him?
It had been years since he'd dreamed about her regularly. Yet, out of the blue, she had begun to appear from the deepest corners of his mind for every night of the last two weeks. Her mop of curls and shy smile had puffed up like smoke out of foggy memories at first. As the nights had progressed, however, the details of her face, long faded, had filled out and bloomed into a vivid Technicolor.
At this point, her face felt etched on the backs of his eyelids. She was no longer just haunting his sleep. She was haunting him right this moment as he stared at the computer screen.
He almost felt like he could smell her again.
To be honest, it was maddening.
It was destabilizing and it felt so very out of place. For, it had been over a year since he had finally convinced himself to move on.
He hadn't held it against himself in those first years, the waiting. Waiting for her was simply natural in that first year. Necessary, even. A committed and hopeful no brainer decision. It became nerve wracking in the second year as his expectations for her return melted into a lost sense of confusion. Years three and four had devolved into a maddening rollercoaster of emotions; a constant pull between forced hope and the specter of dark acceptance.
Around that time, it had become public knowledge around the MIT campus that Mike Wheeler didn't really date. He began to get teased about it constantly, and he finally began to ask himself why. As a result, he'd begun to try in little fits and spurts. But his random attempts at dating had always resulted in him drinking too much in order to enjoy himself. Each night had ended with him desperately alone in his dorm, trying to block out his thoughts.
He just… couldn't give up hope. No matter how hard he tried.
She said she'd come back for him…
…And she'd always kept her promises before.
However, time and age did have a way of fading past priorities… or rather, it had a way of forcing acceptance for the things he could not change. And around Day 1,800, shortly after the he had found evidence of the Philadelphia incident that had proved she was indeed alive, it finally sank in.
For some reason… she had chosen not come back.
With that, something new had opened up within him. It was an acceptance of sorts. Cold, depressing, and painful to swallow. Yet necessary. It was time.
Marissa had entered his life about a year after that.
She was a cute nerdy brain with a publishing internship in midtown Manhattan. They'd met through a mutual friend five days after Mike had arrived in New York. They had instantly clicked over the sensation of freedom they both felt from the confines of college, and their curiosity for the foreign new city they had both just begun to call home. She was witty, intelligent, decently nerdy and very cute. She had a dimple on her right cheek that drove him wild.
It had been the best summer he'd had since he was a teenager.
The fall brought a slight turn, and it had veered darker as the months had gone on. There was a little less light in her eyes and a little more point to her tone. Mike felt a little less excited, a little more defensive, and a lot more evasive as she attempted to bore deeper beneath his surface.
"It's just the end of the honeymoon phase," Nancy had offered when he'd reached out, nervous and confused, for advice after a particularly nasty fight about how 'closed off' he was. "It usually happens about this far in."
Mike could have handled 'the end of the honeymoon phase.' In fact, he had handled it…
That was, until the dreams started…
They were too much. Too heavy. Too deep.
Each night it felt like a drill was angling through his brain and spraying memories of El Hopper in every direction without fail.
More than anything else, it made him feel incredibly guilty…
…because her memory was burning his skin hot with a longing that he couldn't find the ability to control.
It wasn't the project that was causing it. He had always been able to compartmentalize that, and he wasn't willing to stop due to a few dreams. It was too important.
This was something else.
Self sabotage? PTSD? A brain hemorrhage?
Whatever it was, he had to get it under control.
Mike sighed harshly and tried to shake free of his thoughts. He stood up and crossed to the oversized and ancient warehouse window. Using both arms, he laboriously cracked one of the huge windows to get a breath of fresh air. Hell's Kitchen was alive below. Traffic was backed up on 12th Avenue below. Boats buzzed in and out of the docks on the Hudson.
It was a unique living situation, to say the least, but the appeal of living in a hacker community and operating out of a completely secure building was something he couldn't pass up. The place was Fort Knox as far as the technology protocols went. It was safer to work on his project here than he could have dreamed. It allowed him a full ability to focus what he needed to complete. In return, all they asked of him was a few hours each morning to do the 'legally dubious' hacking they needed from him.
He was so close to completing it.
If only he could find a way to tell her.
Mike's gaze fell upon his old Supercomm. It was propped up, at the ready, on an overturned box turned nightstand by his bed.
Ready for what, however, he couldn't say, because…"Pull it together, Wheeler. She's not going to be listening on that fucking radio. She's not 13. You're not 13."
Jane sat in the large windowsill of the dilapidated warehouse as she absentmindedly toyed with her necklace. The FM radio from her Walkman played softly through her thin foam headphones. The poppy tunes laid out a perfect soundtrack for the boats as they zipped up and down the Hudson River.
The city was always busy in the morning, even in the water. Despite the realities that surrounded her life, a small smile played upon her lips. New York was a foreign place, just like all of the others, but it felt oddly welcoming. After all of the anonymous cities and backwoods cabins, after any and every place that had served as a good hiding spot over the many years, she had prepared herself for New York to feel hostile. Every place felt hostile.
Maybe it was the energy, but something here felt different. Voices in the city went every which way. They filled the air with a consistent and anonymous intensity. It was a sensation that made her feel, for the first time in so long, that she could simply blend in. It calmed her. It made her feel oddly at home.
It could have also been the fact that she was so close to succeeding after all of these years. So close she could taste it. So close that she found herself dangerously daydreaming for the first time in years about all that could be once this was done.
Her fingers wrapped tighter around the necklace in her grasp.
Whatever it was, there was something in the air that made her feel hopeful, alive, and a bit more whole.
A tap on her shoulder made her jump and ripped her out of her thoughts. She wrestled off her headphones as Kali crossed to join her in the windowsill.
"Any peep out of the girl?" Kali asked quietly.
Jane shook her head, "Not yet."
Kali groaned. "You're sure she can be trusted?"
"Yes, I can feel that she's good," Jane insisted, for the 20th time in three days.
"Well, you were good. And I was good. So… it's possible, I guess," Kali said with a placating smile as she looked in the direction of the threadbare mattress and the small sleeping girl, "But she hasn't said a word in five days."
"Did you say a word for five days after you escaped?" Jane asked curtly as she threw Kali an impatient look. "I know I hardly did. And yes, she has talked. Just not to you. You scare her."
"Yeah..." Kali nodded as she ran her fingers through her untamable hair, "I just don't want this to turn out like last time."
A familiar knife twisted in Jane's chest. She swallowed hard. "It won't."
"Mike?" a small voice muttered from the other side of the room.
Jane looked over her shoulder to the small girl who was stirring and patting her hand around her on the bed. "I see him," Jane called as she jumped up and crossed to the mattress. Jane bent down, grabbed her old teddy bear, and gently handed it to her girl, "Here you go, Sev. He's doing a good job keeping you safe, huh?"
The small girl's eyes opened as she took Jane's bear. She smiled tentatively, "Thank you."
Jane nodded kindly, "Are you hungry? I have Eggos."
"No Eggos," the girl replied as she shoved her head into her pillow.
"What's wrong with Eggos?" Jane asked in surprise.
"Too many Eggos," Sev whined quietly.
"Never too many Eggos," Jane said with mock insult, "I'll get you a granola bar." The small girl nodded and closed her eyes once again.
Jane bit her lip as she rose and walked to their makeshift kitchen. Kali was right. They needed to start pushing the girl. It had been almost a week since 017 had successfully escaped the New York lab, which she seemed to have done in a shockingly easy manner.
The girl was clearly powerful and cunning, or so she had seemed to demonstrate through her escape. However, she hadn't shown anything but fear and exhaustion in the days since she had tracked Jane to their new location.
They needed to get her to talk if they were going to finish this. They were so achingly close. So close she could feel the promise of freedom in her bones. It was clear, however, that they were operating more and more on borrowed time with each day that Sev remained mum about the details they needed. Kali was tasked with working her powers on overtime to keep their whereabouts untraceable. Jane could tell it was taking a toll on her.
They needed to finish this, fast.
Kali had been 'less than enthused' to say the least by the plan that Jane had created on her toes in the Void, but she had accepted it begrudgingly due to the fact that they could back out if things didn't go as planned. All they had to do was conceal their escape. It was so much less dangerous than their last attempt at anything like this, and the potential gain of gaining 017 as an ally was immense.
It had been a nerve wracking moment when the small girl had arrived, but no one was with her and no one had seemed to follow. And as such, as the first couple of days progressed, a huge bloom of hope prospered in Jane's chest. She saw the familiar trauma in the girl's eyes. She had never seen that look on another face but her own, in Mike's basement mirror on her first night of freedom.
It played on her heart.
They had gained a new sister. A new sister who could help them as they helped her.
However, in the days had progressed, that very bloom of hope had started to wilt. The girl refused to talk time and again. More and more, Jane could not shake off the feeling that they were sitting ducks.
The girl was so small. So frail. She couldn't have been older than ten years, with stark blue eyes and a shaved head with miniscule strands of chestnut hair. However, despite her age, she had shown herself to be the very best tracker any of the labs had created since 011 herself.
Jane would know. For, she'd met every single one of them in the Void.
Most of them hadn't been able to make sense of what they were seeing when Jane had made it clear that she could see them back. Sev, however, had understood immediately.
"Help," the small girl whispered as Jane appeared to her for the first time. Her body was encased in the same old sensory deprivation suit that Jane herself remembered too well. A deep chill raised up Jane's spine.
Back in the reality dimension, Jane had grabbed Kali's hand hard. Kali had seemed to understand in an instant. Her eyes had dropped shut in order to obscure the conversation from signal.
"You're safe with me. They can't hear you." Jane replied to the girl, "Who are you?"
The small girl tentatively raised her arm. 017 was etched into her skin. Jane sighed as she shakily raised her own arm, peeled back her sleeve, and revealed 011.
"Did they send you to find me?" Jane asked hesitantly.
The girl nodded.
"Is this your first try?"
The girl nodded again.
A rush of dread laced through her veins. They were getting better. Too good.
Time was running out.
Maybe it was that instant panic that had made Jane act, that made her follow her instinct despite logic. Or maybe… maybe it was the eyes of a child so much like her that called out to her in a way that left her no choice.
"Do you want out of there?" Jane asked carefully, "I can help you. Escape?"
The girl nodded adamantly as tears materialized at the edges of her eyes. "Help," she whispered again.
It was dangerous, insanely dangerous, to trust the girl to be real. She knew the quality of visions that they were capable of creating. She knew it all too well. Yet, here she was, putting in her trust fully on the line, yet again.
She thought fast.
"017, can I call you Sev? Short for Seventeen? A nickname?" Jane asked tentatively.
The girl stared at her with a blank lack of understanding.
"I'm El, short for Eleven. Just like you," she said with a smile.
"Oh," Sev said. Her brow furrowed as she seemed to piece out the concept. Ultimately, she nodded.
"Okay," Jane replied with a warm smile as she tried with all of her might to calm the girl. She walked closer to and sat within the water of the Void, "Sev? Have you ever tracked someone without the bath?"
"Y-Yes," she replied.
"Good, that's really good!" Jane replied in a true sense of surprise. She scooted herself closer as she made a plan on the fly. "Sev, I need you to do that, okay? I need you to track the people you're with and learn their routes. You're in a building. You can leave. Just like them. Learn how they do it. Can you do that?"
The girl began to shake as fear rose in a torrent through her features.
"I know it's scary, but I need you to learn how they get out of the building, and then in…in three days… I need you to come back to me. We'll make a plan to get you out of there. Can you do that?"
017 swallowed hard as a terror-filled tear spilled from her eye.
"You can do it," Jane replied encouragingly, " If you do it, and you get out, I'll let you track me. You can find me. I can kind of tell where you are, but not quite, so I'll come close to you. Come back to me in three days?"
The little girl nodded as she glanced over her shoulder nervously.
"And Sev," Jane added abruptly, "Do not tell Papa. Do not tell anyone. Do not tell them you saw me. Do you understand?"
"Yes." she whispered shakily.
"Good. Promise me you won't tell Papa," Jane repeated softly as she leaned in as close to the girl as she could.
"It…" the definition came to her in a voice that was not hers. She smiled sadly as it played like a song in her mind. "It means something that you can't break. Ever."
"P-promise," the girl stammered.
"Good," Jane said as she stood up. "Find me in three days, Sev. I'll be close. Follow them. Remember. You saw nothing. And don't tell Papa."
The girl swallowed and nodded frantically before she quickly she faded from view.
Jane never expected that the girl would escape in such a clean manner. No deaths. No instant triggers. A perfectly executed escape. Jane had a habit of making quite a scene whenever did something similar, from the very beginning. Stealth had never been her strong suit. Her new small sister was clearly more powerful than she let on as she sat doe eyed on the mattress and rubbed sleep from her eyes. She sat up as Jane kneeled back down by the mattress and handed her the final granola bar and a Hi-C. Her tiny body positively swam in Jane's ratty hand me down Replacements t-shirt.
Mike the Bear was still held tightly in the crook of Sev's arm as she took the granola bar and munched quietly.
"Sev," Jane started tentatively. "If I let you sleep late will you help me today? Find the bad men? We have to find them soon if we're going to keep you safe."
The girl was silent as she chewed her granola bar.
"No," she finally said.
Jane sighed, "Sev, we need to talk about this or we're not safe."
The small girl sighed as a trill of fear coursed, yet again, through her eyes. "Tomorrow?" she finally whispered.
"Do you promise?" Jane asked carefully.
Sev grimaced and paused. She shut her eyes tightly for a moment before looking back at Jane. "I… promise."
"Okay. Tomorrow then. Get some rest," Jane replied as helpless stress rose into into her chest.
Sev laid back down without so much as another peep, the bear cuddled deeply into her embrace.
Jane rose from the edge of the mattress and crossed to the other side of the room where Kali sat with a sour face.
"Well?" Kali asked suspiciously.
"Tomorrow…" Jane replied as she steeled her nerves for the onslaught. "But she promised."
"What the hell does that matter?" Kali exclaimed, a little too loud.
"Shh, she's sleeping. She'll keep the promise."
Jane avoided Kali's eyes, though she could have drawn a picture of the face she was surely receiving.
"We don't have the time, Jane," she barked in a whisper.
"I KNOW," Jane snapped back, "It will be tomorrow. I promise."
Kali's tone was resigned as she continued. "If I'm going to do this another day I need supplies. I'm running low on energy and we hardly have anything left."
Jane nodded in a clear understanding. "Can you make me a list?"
Kali crossed the room without a word. She rummaged out a pen and paper from her well packed backpack and scratched down a few necessities while Jane wrestled on her oversized winter coat.
Kali returned and shoved the list into Jane's hand, "Wear a wig and please don't draw any attention to yourself. Be careful."
"I know," Jane huffed, "I'm always careful."
"You're usually careful," Kali corrected with a smirk. "Be careful today."
Jane nodded and crossed to her own backpack to pull out a wig, "Just keep her safe, will you? I'll be back soon."
Mike cursed under his breath as the train trundled through the cold mid-morning tunnel. This was… stupid. However, he could find no other way out of it.
Ted Wheeler's old college buddy Sal was intent on finding Mike a 'suitable job', which definitely meant exactly what it sounded like. Suit. Tie. The man. 9-5. Two weeks vacation. Pension. Retirement. Early Death.
It wasn't happening.
So why was he on this train at ten in the morning dragging his ass to 44th and 8th Ave for a coffee? He honestly couldn't answer it for himself. He had pushed the meeting off four times in the six months he'd been in the city. But if he pushed it off once more his Dad might actually call him and talk to him just to give him shit, and a phone call with Ted Wheeler was literally the last thing he wanted. Let alone the cold shoulder he would likely receive from his girlfriend, who seemed firmly settled in the Ted Wheeler camp of future planning.
A 45-minute coffee with the old college buddy would have to do.
However, he had made sure not to comb his unruly mop of hair, and he was certain the hoodie and jeans he was wearing were going to be seen as scandalous and wildly inappropriate for such a meeting.
That was, honestly, the point.
"42nd Street / 8th Avenue" the voice rumbled over the intercom.
Mike begrudgingly stood up, shoved his hands in his pockets, and exited the train car.
"50th Street Station - This is a downtown bound A Train"
The choppy intercom blared as Jane stepped into the grubby train car.
She absolutely loved the train.
It was electrifying to watch little girls play Cat's Cradle next to a businessman who was reading the Times, next to a junkie who was still riding the train after sleeping on its plastic seats the night before. The entire scene was topped off with erratic and impossible to read graffiti.
Everyone was anonymous. Everyone was a stranger.
It was so incredibly freeing.
She smiled as she ran her fingers through her straight blond wig. Of all of her disguises, her first was still her favorite.
"42nd Street / 8th Avenue"
The train began to slow as they reached the station.
"Hey! My purse! Get off!" A small woman shrieked as the junkie who had recently been sleeping made a fast and sloppy attempt at a snatch. The train erupted in screams as the small schoolgirls tried to back away from the scuffle.
"Shit…" Jane grumbled as she scanned the room for a heavy object. A hardcopy of John Grisham's 'The Client' flew from an elderly man's hands and through the air at full speed. It smacked the perpetrator directly in the face. He crashed to the ground as the blow rendered him unconscious.
The doors opened.
Mike dragged his feet as he slowly made his way down the platform toward the stairs. A rush of wind smashed against his face. He felt his hair fly up as a train careened out of the tunnel on the downtown track to his left.
"Good," he thought, "Please make me look messier."
The train came to a stop and the doors to the car on his left opened up to reveal intense commotion. He watched with surprise as a book flew through half of the train car and hit a man square in the face.
"Good aim..." he said to himself with surprise as the man fell to the floor, knocked out cold.
Mike jumped as a throng of schoolgirls ran screaming from the train car and almost bowled him over in their mad dash. A small old woman huffed, kicked the man on the ground, and lumbered her way out of the train. A pretty young blonde woman by the door wiped her nose casually as she turned away from the commotion and faced toward the exit.
Mike's feet froze.
Her arm hung casually from the strap of the train car as she tucked a blond strand of hair behind her ear to reveal her always delicate profile. She was draped in an oversized and unbuttoned grey pea coat. Beneath it was the same old Clash t-shirt she had worn every day of 10th grade.
It had been over six years, but it didn't matter her age. He would have recognized the arch of her lips and the exact honey hue of her eyes anywhere, in any year, at any age.
She was just as beautiful as the day she'd left.
Mike gasped and watched in agony as the doors to the train car closed between them.
"El?!" he called suddenly as his feet took him hypnotically after the moving train.
El Hopper looked out of the window as the train began to move. Her eyes locked on his.
He swore that he saw her lips mouth his name as the train sped out of the station.