Hello, loves - after a very long season of one-shots, I am back with my second multi-chapter fic!
I have exercised heroic self-restraint and have been waiting for what feels like way too long to post this, so I'm beyond excited to finally share it. I really hope you enjoy the first chapter! (I've shared some key info in the end notes, so don't miss those)
Hawkins, Indiana - 1987
It was the third slam of his parent's bedroom door that finally did it.
Mike gritted his teeth as the force of it reverberated through the house, no doubt waking his little sister Holly and interrupting his already fitful homework session.
"I can't believe I have to go over this again!" his mom shouted, her voice notably hoarse. His dad's response was faint as Mike heard them clamber down the stairs, attempting to move the argument to a part of the house that no one would be able to hear them from.
Which was useless — Mike almost always heard; the full-blown fights and the day-to-day bickering, both of which seemed to be getting worse lately. Even the rare times he couldn't hear them, he could feel tension emanating through the house, any misstep a potential trigger to set them off again.
And Mike was sick of it.
He thought he'd gotten good at ignoring them. It was junior year, and between school and his friends he was busy, meaning that apart from nighttime, he was rarely home for long stretches anymore — not that his parents noticed, anyway. It wasn't just that their arguing had increased lately, but that they seemed to care less about whether Mike or Holly heard them.
His older sister Nancy was away at college, lucky to be spared from the battleground the Wheeler house had become. But he kept her updated via their regular phone calls, during which she always told him the same thing: "Just get out of there when they're at it, Mike. It's not a good environment."
The thing was, Mike knew his parents weren't happy together. The hints of it that he'd noticed as a kid solidified when he became a teenager, and his general awareness of people and relationships grew. It became clear that their marriage was one of convenience, the core problem being the fact that his dad was basically checked out: not just from his mom, but from Mike and his sisters, too.
Mike saw rare glimpses of fatherly love, which, if he was being honest, came across more like begrudged duty. Sometimes he tried to engage Mike in conversation about things like sports, or future career prospects — both topics Mike cared very little about — so the dialogue was always stilted, awkward.
Ultimately, Mike wasn't sure what to make of his dad; he didn't know whether to be angry, or annoyed, or just plain sad about their less than ideal relationship. Most of the time, he ended up blocking those feelings out, just like the fighting, because allowing it in was too complicated.
It was evident, though, that everything had become intolerable for Mike's mom, and this was what the fights seemed to be centered around. Listening to them, even Mike knew it was a losing battle: he wasn't confident his dad would ever change, and his mom seemed to be realizing that, too.
Hovering over everything was the loaded word he hadn't heard either of them utter, at least not yet: Divorce.
Despite how frustrated the fighting made him, deep down Mike wanted both of his parents to be happy — and he knew that if it didn't stop soon, the chances of them being happy together were slim. But divorce meant change. It meant him and his sisters shuffling back and forth during holidays, dealing with custody agreements, and, worst of all, the potential of leaving Hawkins. Mike wasn't particularly attached to the boring small town he'd grown up in, but it was where his friends were, and he was sure he wouldn't survive somewhere new without them. Nevermind the fact that an imminent move would mean he'd have to start senior year elsewhere, an utterly terrifying prospect.
So he was in limbo, then, listening to his parents argue every other night, trying to focus on homework as he wondered what all of it was going to amount to.
Mike sighed, staring down at the sloppy equations he'd scrawled so far for his chemistry homework. There was a lot more to get through, and it was nearing 10 o'clock. Just then he heard the sounds of footsteps charging back up the stairs, and he grimaced as his mom's voice rang out again.
"I am not doing this anymore, Ted! I'm not!"
Her words were followed by yet another jarring slam of their bedroom door, and in a burst of frustration, Mike threw his pencil down and stood up from his chair. Acting on instinct, he reached for his backpack on the floor next to him and started loading books into it, Nancy's voice echoing in his mind: Just get out of there when they're at it.
He had pressing things to get done, and his parents had stopped taking note of when he left the house anyway. Enough was enough.
He hurried down the hallway, halting when he got to Holly's bedroom door. He opened it just a little, squinting in the glow of the nightlight that was always plugged in by her bedside. He released the breath he'd been holding when he saw that she was fast asleep. Even though she seemed fine, he felt a pang of guilt for leaving her alone in the midst of his parent's fight.
When was I ever nervous to leave my little sister at home with them before all of this?
The thought made him angry, fuelling his descent down the stairs and out the front door. The old station wagon he'd been given when his mom got a new car was parked at the end of the laneway as usual, and he was glad, knowing the sound of the engine would be too faint to hear from inside the house.
Mike could feel the tension leaving his shoulders as he turned off his street, and another wave of resentment passed over him. Nancy was right: it wasn't a good environment, and his parents were supposed to make it feel safe and comforting, the way a home should be — and theirs had been, at one point.
He hadn't thought about where he would go, and as he turned onto Main Street, he ran through the options for this time of night. In a town like Hawkins, the list was short, and since Mike wasn't old enough to go to a bar, there was really only one option: Benny's Burgers.
It was the local greasy spoon diner, a go-to spot for when him and his friends were craving fries and milkshakes after school. It wasn't exactly a short drive away, and Mike had never been there late at night, but it was worth a shot.
He sighed, turning the radio dial up as he sped towards the outskirts of Hawkins. "Benny's it is," he muttered to himself.
The coffee was almost finished brewing, and El busied herself with wiping down the front counter as she waited. As usual, the handful of customers in the diner were either people working night shifts, or truckers doing long distance drives; both groups in need of caffeine at late hours.
Most of her shifts were pretty slow, and this one was no exception. Benny was in the kitchen working on some food orders, leaving El to get through her usual chores: sweeping around the register, replenishing condiment bottles, organizing the drink fridge, and so on. All menial tasks requiring little thought, which El liked — it was nice to have simple things to focus on for a while.
That was the whole point of this job, anyway: to keep El safe and distracted while Hopper worked the late shift at the police station three nights a week. Although he'd never said it, she suspected one of the goals was also for her to learn to socialize, get acquainted with the conventions she missed out on while she'd been… in that place.
The lab, El thought reflexively. Hop had suggested she start referring to it as 'that place' in an attempt to dissociate from it, strip it of its sinister meaning — but that was proving to be harder than she imagined. Spending nearly 17 years of your life somewhere, however horrible, didn't exactly make it easy to forget.
But she was trying.
She sighed, refocusing on the task before her. The job had been good for that, helping her build something that resembled a normal life, even if she was still mostly hidden away in Hop's cabin when she wasn't at Benny's.
The diner's evening shift roughly lining up with Hopper's hours at the station was ideal, but it also served another purpose. The customers that came in from 8 p.m. to midnight were either regulars (that Benny usually sat and chatted with), or strangers passing through Hawkins; people that wouldn't ask questions about El. Plus, it meant she wouldn't be alone in the cabin at night, and if anyone from that place showed up at Benny's, Hopper was close by at the station and on high alert.
It was a makeshift solution that, so far, had worked just fine.
As one of Hop's longtime friends, it had been easy to convince Benny to let El work there. He didn't know the truth, of course, but he was sympathetic to the story Hop invented: that, acting on a tip, he'd rescued El from an abusive home, which had to stay discreet because some of her family members had evaded police and might be looking for her. He said it was temporary; that he was just taking care of her until someone could formally adopt her, and although El knew it was a lie, that part still stung. She'd been living with Hopper for half a year now, and it was more of a home than she ever imagined. The idea of leaving it, and him, was painful.
It took a while, but El had grown accustomed to the easy bustle of those three quiet evenings at the diner; chatting on and off with Benny, but keeping her infrequent conversations with customers short and polite. It was what Hop had cautioned, after all: Don't get too chummy with anyone, kid. We can never be too careful.
So she did just that — kept to herself as she tried to push away the omnipresent fear that someone could come for her at any moment and disrupt this halfway-life she'd started to build.
Some days were harder than others. With all that she now knew, it wasn't exactly the kind of life she would've chosen; being confined between two places, and having to keep her interactions with people limited. There were so many things she wanted to understand through experience, not just read about in the books Hop gave her, or watch on the small TV in their living room. Still, this was more freedom than she'd ever known, and it was a good life, far better than she thought she'd have in her worst moments of despair. Despite its limitations, she was grateful.
The little bell above the doorway chimed and El flinched, unaccustomed to that sound anytime after 10, when the already slow stream of customers usually diminished entirely. She glanced up from behind the counter to see a boy shuffling inside, a large backpack slung over one of his shoulders.
From her vantage point she could see that he was tall, at least a foot or so more than her, and he looked to be about her age. El watched as he did a quick scan of the diner, and when he ran a hand through his unruly mop of black hair, an unfamiliar knot formed in her stomach. He was… beautiful, she thought — there was no other word for it.
He moved toward a booth that was isolated from the other customers, and the knot twisted tighter as El realized that, with Benny still working in the kitchen, she was going to have to serve him. She rarely served customers; Benny usually handled that, probably because he could sense how nervous it always made her, and it was safer that way, too.
But no one remotely close to her age had ever come in during one of her shifts, let alone a boy her age; a beautiful one, at that. He began setting up a stack of books on his table, and El knew it would be rude if she waited any longer to bring him a menu. She wiped her hands on the half apron around her waist and tucked a few loose strands of hair behind her ear, taking an even breath.
She walked over to his table, coaching herself through the advice Hop continually gave her: Just smile, and be polite if you have to - that's all. He didn't seem to notice her approaching, still taking things out of his backpack and sorting them on the table top. It wasn't until she was standing right over him that he looked up, his dark eyes widening at first with surprise and then something more, something El couldn't read.
"Hi," she said, placing the menu on one of the few spaces that wasn't occupied by his things. She smiled in what she hoped was a friendly way. "Welcome to Benny's Burgers."
The boy frowned, looking down at the menu as though it were a foreign object, and then back up at El with that same unreadable expression in his eyes. "Um... thanks," he replied, his eyes darting away from her as he reached for the menu.
"Would you like something to drink? Maybe some water?" she asked, running through the usual script.
The boy cleared his throat, flipping through the first few pages of the menu. "I - yeah, water would be good. I kinda wanted a coffee, but I guess that probably isn't a good idea," he said, glancing at the black calculator watch on his wrist.
"Oh, I could make some decaf," El offered. She'd have to dig out the decaf beans from the back storage unit, grind them up, and run a whole cycle with the coffee pot, but something about him made her not mind the extra work.
He looked up, eyes suddenly alight. "Really? That wouldn't be too much trouble?"
El shook her head. "It'll just take a little bit longer than the regular stuff, if that's okay."
The boy was already nodding. "Sure, I don't mind. Thanks."
El smiled at him again before turning to head toward the kitchen, grateful for the chance to be shielded so she could collect herself. Those dark, gentle eyes, the smattering of freckles across his nose and cheeks, his soft smile… she was definitely blushing.
Great, well done, Mike thought, Can't even order coffee from a pretty girl without staring at her like a total creep.
He sighed and stretched his arms above his head in an attempt to recalibrate, but he couldn't stop his eyes from flitting to the kitchen doorway to see if she'd emerged yet.
Who was this girl? He was sure he'd never seen her around Hawkins — he'd remember if he had. Which was interesting, because she appeared to be around his age, and he'd been to Benny's plenty of times. Granted, never past 7 p.m. on a weeknight, so maybe he'd just missed her normal shift hours; and that was a shame, because…. wow, was she ever pretty, and kind, too.
Relax, you've barely spoken to her, Mike told himself, straightening up in his seat and turning his attention to his chemistry homework. He tried to work through one of the problems, but he kept glancing up every few seconds, hoping to catch a glimpse of her coming back out into the dining area.
It was almost enough distraction to make him forget why he was at Benny's in the first place, but the bitterness over his parent's fight and the thought of Holly at home in the midst of it still lingered, tightening painfully in his chest.
After a few more failed attempts to write out equations, Mike heard the kitchen door squeak from across the room. He looked up to see the girl walking through it, a bag of coffee beans cradled in one arm. She settled behind the front counter, her back turned as she began loading the beans into the grinding machine. Mike felt bad that she was doing all that extra work just for his one cup of coffee. He looked back down at his papers, figuring he probably shouldn't make it worse by continuing to stare at her.
Still, he started to feel nervous at the thought that she'd be coming back to his table shortly, and he grimaced at the obvious fact of his limited experience talking to girls. At school, him and his friends were firmly holding the collective position of total nerds.
Even though Nancy kept reminding him that arbirtrary social hierarchies shouldn't have any bearing on his chances with the opposite sex, it still seemed to put a firm rift between him and the vast majority of girls at Hawkins High.
But maybe Benny's was kind of like a blank slate, a place where his low rung on the popularity ladder wasn't as obvious, or at least wouldn't be to this mystery girl. Maybe he could attempt to be the kind of person who confidently struck up a conversation with a pretty girl, and if it went horribly wrong, well… he just wouldn't come back to the diner at this time ever again.
Feeling satisfied with this quasi-plan, Mike glanced up to find the pretty girl in question walking up to his table, a steaming mug in one hand. He took a breath, smiling at her.
"Thanks again," he said when she placed the mug down in front of him, "I really appreciate it."
She didn't reply, instead fishing into the pocket on the front of her apron for a small notepad and pen. "Did you want to order some food?"
Mike didn't. But he also really didn't want her to leave the table just yet, so he reached for the menu. "Oh, um… maybe," he said, feigning interest as he flicked through the pages. "What's your favourite thing here?"
There was a pause and he cringed internally, hoping he hadn't made it too obvious that he was stalling. He chanced a look at her and found that she was frowning, her expression making it seem as though she'd never contemplated the question before.
After a moment she smiled down at the table, as though the answer made her shy. "I… like the waffles," she said quietly.
She nodded. "They're really good."
Mike always went for fries or milkshakes at Benny's — he was pretty sure he'd never even looked at the breakfast menu — but it was all he had to go with. "Is there a time limit on these waffles, or would you be making another exception for me?"
He fought the urge to squeeze his eyes shut in embarrassment. That was by far the flirtiest sentence he'd ever attempted, and it was about waffles.
Luckily, the girl didn't seem to mind, or even notice. "We make them at any time," she replied, "Mostly because I'm the one eating them."
Mike folded the menu up and handed it to her. "Well then, I'm sold. Waffles it is."
She gave that shy smile again, still not meeting his eyes. "Won't be long," she mumbled before heading back toward the front counter.
Mike sighed. He hadn't exactly gotten to the striking up a conversation part yet, but at least she'd be coming back when the waffles were ready. He was in the clear for the time being, so he went back to his chemistry homework in earnest.
It didn't take him long to get into the rhythm of it this time, and he moved through the problems quickly, lulled by the comfort of solving things with ease. His home life may be sad and confusing and his skill at talking to girls minimal, but at least he had his mind; his love for learning and knowledge, and the temporary cloak of security it gave him.
He was finishing up the last two problems when a sweet smell began to waft through the restaurant, causing him to look up — it had to be the waffles. He watched as the girl pulled a plate down from the kitchen counter and began making her way toward him.
She was definitely right — he hadn't even tasted the waffles yet, but they looked amazing; thick and toasted to a perfect golden colour, with generous servings of whipped cream and syrup in small stainless steel dishes on the side of the plate. Though he hadn't really been hungry when he came in, he was suddenly starving.
He realized she was scanning the table for a place to set the plate down, and he scrambled to clear some of his books and papers away. "Oh - sorry, here," he said, making some room in front of him. "Homework's always getting in the way, huh?"
He waited for her to laugh or maybe say something in agreement, but when he looked at her, she just wore that same shy half-smile.
Although there were increasing signals that she didn't seem interested in talking to him, Mike decided to chance it anyway. "So, um, you don't go to Hawkins High, do you? I've just… I've never seen you before."
She met his eyes for a brief moment before looking away, which gave Mike enough time to reconsider how he'd phrased the question. "Um, I mean - sorry, that probably sounded weird. It's not like I keep track of everyone at school, or whatever, I just… you know, Hawkins is pretty small, and I thought..." Mike trailed off, sure that he'd given her enough room to fill in the blanks, though she still seemed uncertain.
"I'm, um… I'm homeschooled," she said finally.
Although that made sense, Mike still wondered why he hadn't seen her around town, even — most people his age tended to hang around the same few places. But he didn't want to ruin anything with another probing question, so he just nodded.
"Homeschooled - that's cool. So you probably don't have to deal with as much homework then, right? Or is it just kind of always a thing, because your school stuff is all at home already?"
She frowned, and he mentally scolded himself for how dumb the question came across. He smiled sheepishly, watching as her expression shifted from confused to something that looked more like… sad. Distant.
"It's alright. Not too time consuming, I guess," she replied, looking away again. "I don't mind it."
Mike nodded with probably too much enthusiasm, given her hesitance. "Right, that makes sense. It's probably pretty sweet that you get to just wake up whenever you want and stuff. And you don't have to like, get ready, or walk to school - sounds awesome to me."
The words brought a smile back to her face and Mike was relieved, returning it in earnest. "Yeah, I - it's nice." There was a pause, and then she motioned to the waffles. "Wouldn't want you to eat those when they're cold, so… enjoy."
She hurried away before Mike could say anything, and he slumped back in his seat, dejected. Polite as it was, she clearly just brushed him off, or at least wasn't interested in carrying on a conversation.
He thought he'd been friendly enough, if not a little awkward, but… oh well. He couldn't blame her for not being interested. Besides, how much more could he have said if she wasn't really giving substantial responses?
He looked down at his watch, which read 11:15. The diner closed at midnight, and he was done with the more urgent parts of his homework. He stared down at the plate of waffles, which seemed to have lost some of their appeal — there was nothing to do but eat them and go home.
The girl didn't come by his table again; she was occupied, flitting around the front area of the diner with a rag and some cleaning spray. Mike numbly made his way through the waffles, passing the time by flipping through his agenda to review assignments and due dates.
When he was done, he pushed the plate forward and began to pack his bag, noticing that he was the only person left in the place. He saw that the girl had gone behind the main counter again, her back turned as she dug through a drink fridge.
Mike decided to bring his plate up to the counter, which he tried to convince himself was just common courtesy, and not a final bid to see her cute smile one more time.
He approached quietly, not wanting to disturb her, but when he set the plate down she turned, her eyebrows raised in surprise.
"Just, uh - thought I'd save you the trip," Mike said, pushing the plate forward a little.
She stepped toward him to reach for it, and Mike couldn't help but stare, again. She'd pulled her shoulder length brown hair back into a ponytail, making her soft hazel eyes stand out, the slight dimples in her cheeks somehow more prominent.
"Thanks," she said, setting the plate down on a ledge below. "Were they good?"
In all honesty, Mike had hardly noticed the taste of them, the experience dampened by his failed attempt at a conversation with her. But he grinned anyway, flashing a thumbs up. "They were excellent. Top notch recommendation."
She fidgeted with the front of her apron before looking up at him. "I'm glad you liked them," she said, and Mike noticed a hint of warmth in her voice that hadn't been there before.
He took it as an invitation to say what he'd been wanting to before she walked away earlier. "I'm Mike, by the way," he blurted.
The girl looked surprised, but then she shook her head quickly, like she was willing herself back into the moment. "Nice to meet you, Mike. I'm El."
They looked at each other, and before Mike let himself become a staring idiot again he cleared his throat, slinging his backpack over both shoulders. "Well, um, maybe I'll see you again sometime? I might have to come in for another dose of those waffles."
He was hoping the words would make her smile, but instead her features shifted into that same sad, distant expression she'd had before at the table. "Maybe," was all she mumbled in reply.
He nodded slowly. "Alright, well… Take care, El."
Feeling deflated, he headed for the door, but he only made it a few steps before he heard her call out to him.
He turned around so quickly that he almost stumbled. "Yeah?"
"Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. That's when I'm here, usually. From 8 p.m. until close."
It was just basic information, but Mike felt a blush creep up his neck. If she wanted him to know her hours… maybe that was a sign it hadn't gone as poorly as he thought?
"Cool," he replied, trying not to let his excitement over this development show. "Well, I'll see you on one of those nights, I guess."
She nodded, raising her hand to wave at him. "Have a good night, Mike."
He grinned back at her, hardly able to believe this lucky turn of events.
"You too, El."
I saw a post about fanfic on Tumblr recently that was like, 'Not everything is a coffee shop AU!' - and it made me laugh to myself as I posted this, because this chapter totally makes it seem that way, doesn't it?
While there will certainly be a lot of the fluff/mutual pining that we all love in said coffee shop AUs, I can assure you there's a lot more to this story. If you're familiar with my other fics, then you'll know that I enjoy more close-up character study type stuff, and that's what a lot of this fic will be grounded in - with some action, angst, and excitement too, of course. A big part of my inspiration for this fic was to write an arc for El that has to do with finding herself, dealing with past trauma, and asserting her inner strength and independence. So, if that's something you're interested in - plus the falling in love with Mike part, of course - then I hope you'll enjoy this story!
As always, I'm on Tumblr at maplestreet (formerly writer-lia, if that's what you're familiar with), so don't hesitate to come chat with me, or drop me a line about Mileven, this fic/my writing, or anything Stranger Things related. See you in chapter 2!