Chapter 1: Changes

A/N: Hi everyone! After three long years of literary drought and the worst case ever of writer's block, Stranger Things Season 2 came along and my dead heart started hardcore shipping again. I have finally conviced myself to post this as a small contribution to the fandom. Anyway, I hope you like it!

Wednesday 29th, November 2017

If there was something El Ives put her mind to, she was sure to accomplish it. Always.

Well, most of the times.

As a matter of fact, today was one of the few rare exceptions to that rule. This, since Will Byers, El's best friend, had managed to convince the otherwise socially awkward El to finally come with him that weekend to some party at a friend's house.

They were both currently seating on the beige colored carpet of her dorm room, supposedly trying to be productive by getting their History 102 assignment done before the due date.

"Pleeease El! I'm about to beg you, it's almost Christmas break and, for once, I'd like for you to come meet my friends and not stay locked up here again like a loser", Will had been pouting at his friend for over two hours.

"Hey, I happen to like being a loser", said El feigning indignation and scowling at her skinny best friend.

Will managed to hold back his smile at his oldest friend's antics and maintained a serious expression for the sake of getting his point across. They'd been friends since the age of twelve and both knew just how determined the other could be. Holding each other's stares defiantly in a silent challenge, neither of them wanted to give in.

As she stubbornly stared into Will's lively brown eyes, El suddenly felt a wave of nostalgia wash over her. She had been having a few of those for a while now, especially whenever she thought back on their high school days on Hawkins High School. Actually, the biggest irony was thinking about how much she had looked forward to graduating and moving as far away as humanly possible from that hell hole she called hometown. Whereas, now, she couldn't help feeling strangely homesick. As a matter of fact, lately, El was often ambushed by random flashbacks from her teenage years and usually found herself wishing she could somehow go back and do it all better.

She regretted everything, actually, except for her friendship with Will.

Their friendship was yet another reason El kept thinking back in nostalgia to her high school days: even though Will and her had managed to get accepted into their dream college together and even lived in neighboring dorm buildings, she felt him more distant than ever before. Worse than that, El was painfully aware that she was the reason of the increasing (figurative) distance in their friendship and she loathed herself for it. Now, more than ever, she hated herself for her apathetic and awkward personality. Why couldn't she be a normal eighteen year old? Why couldn't she just stop feeling so nervous around other people? Because of this she was finally managing to drive her best friend away, her partner in crime, after being the closest of friends for over half a decade.

For most of their first semester at college she had declined Will's enthusiastic invitations to parties and any social events, preferring to skip them in favor of spending her afternoons in the solitude of her room either reading ahead or watching some movie or TV show. It was just easier that way, it seemed. El had never really been a social butterfly and she knew how much Will loved meeting and bonding with new people. So, she just figured that she could give him some space by making herself scarce.

However (and she'd never admit it out loud), as Will started spending less and less time with her and his invitations became rare occurrences, El began feeling terribly lonely (which was weird). She usually cherished her alone time, often glad she wasn't out there fake smiling and making small talk, getting emotionally drained after overthinking and worrying over every tiny detail of her social interactions. Nonetheless, now, it just felt like a very different kind of loneliness.

El felt lonely in a bad way, a way she hadn't felt for quite a long time: the kind of lonely she used to feel before meeting Joyce Byers and befriending her son, Will.

Finally, after glaring at Will some more, El lowered her gaze in defeat. Mostly because she missed spending more time with him, and also because she was a bit curious about going to a college party.

"Ok. Fine, I'll go. BUT I'll only stay until a reasonable hour and you better not be dragging me up there so I can be your designated driver", answered El with an annoyed huff, hurling one of her fluffy pillows on Will's general direction and feeling quite annoyed (mostly at her pathetic, abnormal self).

Her friend easily managed to catch the pillow midair and offered El a sympathetic smile that didn't quite reach his eyes. She knew he was worried about her spending so much time by herself – the fact that she had no roommate made it easier for her to just hide away for hours on end without any excuse.

"I'm only doing this for your own good El, you know I look out for you and it's about time you start having a normal college experience and, you know, getting to know people. After all, the semester is almost over".

-….-…-…-

Friday 1st, December 2017

El bit her lip as she stared at her reflection on the mirror critically. Was her top too revealing? Was her midsection looking gross and bloated? Should she put any make up on? Was her hair ok? Were jeans and sneakers too casual for the party?

Man, I badly needed a School of Life 101 crash course, El thought with a groan.

It was always on times like this that El really wished she had a roommate or a best friend who could actually give advice on these kinds of things. It was also on times like these that El regretted not learning about this stuff back on high school. Finally, after examining her reflection some more, she decided to change her sneakers in favor of her black leather boots and apply some lipstick to her dry lips.

Feeling quite nervous, she turned her phone screen on and was surprised to see several messages from Will.

8:02 pm U excited yet for your first college party?

8:03 pm Totally getting drunk as skunks 2nite.

8:46 pm Waiting for the guys, we're coming to pick u up

9:29 pm On our way, expect a call in 15

9:44 pm Almost there

9:59 pm Ok, let's go

*3 missed calls from MY FAVORITE PERSON IN THE WORLD*

10:03 pm Pick up the phone

10:11 pm We're waiting downstairs

10:27 pm What the hell u doing? We've been here for ages

El was surprised to find out how long she had taken to get ready, her nervousness was really not helping. As quickly as possible, she grabbed her tiny purse and keys and made her way out. At that very moment, her phone screen lit up and the contact name Will had programmed for himself popped up.

*incoming call from MY FAVORITE PERSON IN THE WORLD*

Smiling, El answered.

"I'm sorry, I completely lost track of time, that's all. I'm almost there", she said breathlessly while making her way down the flight of stairs.

"No problem El, just making sure you were still up for it", answered Will sympathetically.

"Wait. So did I actually have an option?" replied El only half joking.

She really was terribly nervous, like she always was whenever she had to face a new social situation.

Will laughed at her lame attempt at making a joke and was silent for a bit, maybe trying to empathize with his best friend's nervousness.

El could hear Will's friends talking loudly on the background:

"We need to hurry if we want to get wasted before the night ends, that's kind of the point of tonight", a loud male voice whined pathetically.

"Hey, I'm actually enjoying watching this show", another male voice answered in fake annoyance.

"Booooooring", someone else interjected.

"You're too lame Wheeler", the first voice teased.

The conversation on the background grew faint as El realized Will must have walked away from his friends to talk to her privately.

"Everything will be fine and you'll have fun, you'll see. If you feel uncomfortable or something you have us", finally whispered Will before hanging up.

El had really tried to avoid meeting Will's friends for a while now, feeling resentment and jealousy towards them because her best friend spent most of his time with them now and talked all the time about how fun and loyal they were.

It actually made sense that they spent time together since they were all taking science related careers and had most of their classes together – Will was an engineer major, like Lucas, while Dustin and Mike were physics majors.

It was silly, she knew.

Calm down El, it's going to be ok, Will's friends are probably as nice as him.

Finally, El got to her building's common area. She saw four guys sprawled comfortably all over the beige couches, two of them were fighting over the remote and the other two were trying to watch whatever show was on TV.

They didn't notice her presence until she started timidly approaching Will, who was gazing at the screen with mild interest. He was the first one of the group to notice her and his face was instantly filled with a broad smile.

"You're finally here!" he exclaimed, startling everyone.

"Guys, this is El", Will said loudly. Then, pointing at each of the guys next to him, he introduced them, "These are Lucas, Dustin and Mike".

"Thanks for waiting", El managed to smile at them without making eye contact. She hoped they didn't notice her nervousness.

"No problem", said the smallest one of them, Dustin, "honestly, we were all dying to finally meet you".

"Yeah, we had a bet going on about Will's friend being imaginary", laughed Lucas.

Upon hearing that last comment, El snorted while trying to contain a laugh and turned to look at Will with amusement. Her friend merely shrugged.

"See how you make me look bad El?"

"Oh, it was only for the sake of making the bet more interesting", answered El with a laugh, "it would have been no fun without the mystery, now would it?"

The guys smiled, amused, and the air significantly relaxed. She felt a tiny bit more comfortable, and the voice in her head repeating her own doubts and fears in a loop grew quiet for the first time that night.

"So, who won the bet?" asked Will, looking at his friends.

"Me", said the tallest boy, Mike, smiling.

He was the only one who hadn't spoken up yet, but she recognized his voice from her phone call with Will – he was the one who claimed to be enjoying the TV show while they waited for her to arrive.

Overcome by curiosity, El risked a glance up at him and was surprised to find him already looking at her, matching her interest. They made eye contact.

"So thank you for being real, I guess", he said smiling kindly at her.

She quickly averted her gaze, not knowing what to do or how to respond, and tried to keep her upcoming blush from actually showing on her face. It wasn't even a compliment, why was she reacting like this?

Social awkwardness truly sucked.

There was a short moment of silence, which was (thankfully) quickly broken by Lucas.

"Ok, let's get going", said Lucas enthusiastically as he strode to the nearest exit.

-….-…-…-

Saturday 2nd, December 2017

She'd drank too much, too soon.

Of course, the fact that Will kept refilling her red solo cup with mysterious mixes of liquor didn't help at all. But she wasn't complaining at all. All things considered, El found the whole experience quite interesting. Actually, she was pleased to realize that the alcohol numbed that voice that constantly reminded her of all her insecurities and flaws. She found this quite liberating.

She felt like she could do anything. Be anyone she wanted.

Will's friends had left them to join a game of beer pong not so long ago, which had also helped El feel a whole lot more relaxed. Up until then, she had been too scared of acting like a weirdo around the guys and so she had barely talked.

For the first time in a long time, no worries or guilt lurked El's mind.

As time went by, the music surrounding her stopped being too loud and the vibration of the bass on the floor actually made her lively in a way she had scarcely felt before. Before she knew it, her foot was tapping the floor to the beat of the unknown song. She tried to pay attention to whatever Will was saying (maybe a funny story about someone in one of his classes? What was that about a teacher?), but words kept jumbling around making it hard for her to understand anything at all.

My thought process is screwed up, El thought.

Suddenly, it occurred to her that that was the funniest, wittiest thing she had ever come up with, so she giggled uncontrollably.

Will smiled affectionately at the giggling girl beside him. He had really tried to be a good friend that night, staying with her the whole time – probably suspecting that if she got to feel too awkward, she'd escape the party.

"I loooooove you so much Willy Will", said El hugging her friend, "do you know that?"

El's ears suddenly caught onto a tune, alerting her of something.

Something quite urgent.

Do you recall, not long ago
We would walk on the sidewalk?
Innocent, remember?
All we did was care for each other

"BYERS! COME ON!" she exclaimed giddily, standing up clumsily and dragging her skinny best friend to the middle of the room, "IT'S OUR JAM!"

But the night was warm
We were bold and young
All around, the wind blows
We would only hold on to let go

Will could only smile at her random behavior. He had never been a good dancer and he had not drank nearly as much as El had, so he just sort of awkwardly tried shuffling his feet and swaying his body to the catchy song.

"BLOW A KISS FIRE A GUN, WHEN YOU NEED SOMEONE TO LEAN ON", El was screaming while swaying her hips wildly, her eyes were closed, "BLOW A KISS FIRE A GUN, ALL WE NEED IS SMEBODY TO LEAN ON".

Will tried his hardest to keep up with El's moves, but she was like a woman possessed, jumping around and twirling in every direction. It seemed that all those months of pent up energy – probably gathered after all those afternoons of voluntary isolation – were finally finding an outlet. After a couple of songs and happy to see his friend finally having fun, Will decided his job there was done.

"El. El! EL!" he screamed to get her attention.

She faced him, smiling wildly. Her face shiny with sweat from the exertion and the warmth in the room. Will couldn't help mirroring her grin.

"I just can't keep up with you!" he said teasing her, "I'm gonna go find the guys".

El stuck out her tongue at him and waved goodbye.

"YOU'RE SUCH A KID ELEVEN!" Will exclaimed as he headed to the other room, where he last saw his friends heading to.

-….-…-…-

Her feet were killing her.

El made her way to the nearest sitting space she could find, a couch on the left side of the room. She sat down for a minute in the crowded couch, slowly trying to move her toes so she didn't feel them cramping anymore. She was currently sandwiched uncomfortably between a sleeping guy and a couple making out. She tried to ignore the snores and the sounds the couple were making.

She hadn't seen Will or any of his friends for at least a couple of hours and she was not about to go wandering off looking for them. Will was probably drunk by now, maybe talking to the cute guy from their History 102 class that he always rambled on about. El smiled fondly, remembering how much of a hopeless romantic her best friend was.

She tried laying back on the couch and closing her tired eyes, but everything was too hot and her feet hurt too much. It was way too uncomfortable.

El glanced hopefully at the glass doors that led into the balcony. With any luck, there wouldn't be anyone out there smoking.

She hated the smell of tobacco. It reminded her of him.

El shut her eyes tightly, desperately trying to chase away the memories that begged to be replayed on her mind, and massaged her throbbing temples. She tried to take a deep, calming breath and relax somehow, but the air felt too moist and everything smelled like alcohol and sweat. Suddenly, she was too aware of the extremely loud music and the annoying presence of the people around her. And there were too many people. Too many unfamiliar faces. Frustrated, El opened her eyes slowly, glancing around at the room full of strangers.

Dejection filled her thoroughly, tonight had been great so far and she just happened to ruin it by opening a door she had closed more than five years ago. She'd promised it would never haunt her, never hurt her again. But it was always there, lurking. It was always him, never allowing her to escape his choking grip.

Without even thinking about it, she had started walking on the opposite direction of the balcony, towards the main door of the house. As she stepped outside of the house, she couldn't help noticing the wide brown door was ajar. El moved forward taking slow, deliberate steps, knowing her balance was far from being the most stable.

She glanced around quickly.

Sighing in relief at the fact that she had apparently managed to escape the smokers, El leaned on the nearest wall and stared off into the darkened streets and houses. Her body still felt light, but most the energy she had at the beginning of the night had ebbed away by now, leaving her exhausted. Soon enough, she noticed that the volume of the music and the noise from the house was once again bearable for her. However, without the loud (loud! loud!) music infecting her thoughts, she was left at the mercy of the familiar cold voice in her head: it was her own voice, but ruthless and emotionless, and it never tired of always repeating everything she didn't want to hear.

She wondered what time it was, she was too lazy to get her phone out and check the time. Her fuzzy brain was making everything a lot harder.

"You ok?" a familiar voiced questioned.

El found herself staring up into the freckle-covered face of one of Will's friends.

"Just tired and hot", she replied, "it's like a freaking oven in there".

He just chuckled.

"Why are you out here?" she suddenly asked.

"Oh, just getting some air to clear my head", the tall guy answered shrugging, "I am the lucky soul who gets to be the designated driver for tonight".

El smiled in amusement.

His name is Mike, El suddenly remembered, her scattered, hazy thoughts becoming a tiny bit clearer.

"You know, I was convinced the only reason Will invited me here was so I'd have the honor of being the DD".

They remained in a comfortable silence for a while, both staring off and busy with their own thoughts.

"Will is worried about you", Mike stated after a while.

"I know", El answered sadly, "it's just hard for me, you know?"

Mike furrowed his brow in confusion.

"No matter how hard I try, it's hard for me to feel comfortable or relaxed or even normal around new people or in new places", she explained almost in a whisper.

"It's ok to feel that way", he said like it was the most natural thing in the world, his gaze showing empathy.

El snorted, fully aware that no, it was not okay to be such an introverted freak. She was not stupid. She knew it was a limitation, something that held her back from experiences and people and things she really wanted. She was all too aware that it was what isolated her from everyone and ultimately stood like a solid barrier, shielding her even from the ones she deeply cared about.

"I felt very lonely coming here at first", Mike confessed smiling crookedly in her direction, "I consider myself a lucky guy, having Dustin as a roommate and meeting Lucas and Will on my first week here".

"Will is an amazing friend", El answered smiling, "and all of you seem like pretty cool guys", she added honestly.

Mike blushed a bit and lowered his gaze, focusing on his wristwatch.

Who even owns a wristwatch these days?, wondered El with amusement as she glanced at him with the corner of her eye.

"Hey, it's barely 1 am, how do you feel about going for a drive and coming back to pick up our friends' drunken asses?" suddenly asked Mike.

A/N: What do you think so far? Please let me know if you think I should continue.