The days following the events at the quarry blended together in Mike's mind, an exhausting combination of trips to and from the cabin and tense conversations with his mom and the Party. They pried and worried, but he held them off by saying that El was having trouble at home and needed him, promising that everything would be okay soon. Saying it over and over almost made him believe it.

Each time he got into the car for another drive to the cabin, his thoughts inevitably drifted to the image that had stayed at the forefront of his mind since the quarry: El, standing with her arms outstretched, her eyes steady despite how much she was trembling. El, glaring at the target in front of her, blood trickling from her nose as an invisible force surged through her.

Mike had only heard brief descriptions of her powers, but nothing could've prepared him for what it was really like to see them with his own eyes. In his then-delirious state, it had felt like he was watching one of his sci-fi comics come to life, as though the world he knew had suddenly been altered by El's hands.

She had a depth of power unknown even to herself, and it was that fact that kept Mike and Hopper on edge those first couple of days — neither of them knew the damage that might've been done, or how long it would take for her to fully recover.

They both kept vigil by her bedside, switching out when the other needed rest. When it was Mike's turn he mostly watched her quietly, his own breath catching whenever hers hitched or slowed down in the natural rhythms of sleep.

Sometimes he'd sit on the edge of the bed and bend his ear down to hear her breathing, just to be sure. And then he'd stay there for a little while, sliding his hand into her limp one, pressing his lips against her temple.

"I'm right here, El," he'd whisper, "I'm here."

The first time El woke without what felt like a thousand tonnes of weight pressing down on her body, it took her awhile to realize she wasn't dreaming. There'd been so much slipping in and out of the waking world that she wasn't sure she could trust her own mind, her surroundings.

Eventually she found the strength to turn onto her side, startling when she saw Hopper next to her, dozing off in a chair pulled up to her bedside.

Her movements must've woken him because a second later his head jerked up and he gasped, blinking rapidly at El.

"You're awake," he said, his voice groggy.

She nodded, smiling weakly as he leaned toward her.

"How are you feeling?"

El took a shaky breath. Her body was sore all over and there was a dull throbbing in the back of her head, as though her brain itself was the main site of injury.

"Better," she managed, "Still tired, but… better."

Hopper's eyes narrowed with concern but he smiled, reaching to place a hand on her forehead to check her temperature. El's eyes closed involuntarily at the gesture; it reminded her of the early days at the cabin, when she'd often wake shrieking from a nightmare and Hopper would be right there, reassuring her that she was safe.

When he drew his hand back she opened her eyes and they looked at each other, a silent acknowledgment passing between them.

"Was it a dream?" El whispered.

She didn't even know it was a question she had until she said it. Hopper didn't need to answer; the cold, tight feeling in her chest let her know that the montage piercing through her sleep for the past few days was real. Mike, perched at the edge of a cliff, beaten and bloody; Papa, flying through the air, his screams fading as he plunged toward the quarry's depths.

"No," Hopper replied. He covered one of her hands with his own. "It was real. He's gone."

Something close to relief passed through El at his words, mingling with that strange, uncomfortable emptiness that lingered at the thought of Papa's death, at her being the cause of it. She didn't realize she was crying until Hopper brought his hand up and began brushing her tears away with his thumb.

He didn't say anything and El was grateful, his sturdy presence all that was needed to pull her through the confusing wave of emotion.

A few minutes passed, and then with great effort El moved, shifting up a little before resting back against the pillows. "Where's, um…"

"He's asleep on the couch," Hopper replied, huffing a brief laugh. "We've been taking turns keeping an eye on you."

Before El could think she was pushing the blankets back, using every bit of strength to sit up all the way. She didn't care if Mike was asleep — she had to see him, had to know for herself that he was really there, and okay.

But she hardly moved before Hopper reacted, sinking onto the edge of the bed and placing both hands on her shoulders. "Hey, woah - slow down," he said, "I'll go get him. You need to rest."

El just nodded, the movement enough to make her feel winded. Hopper eyed her carefully as she settled back in place. Just before he stood up from the bed he looked back, his brow furrowing as he lifted a hand to scratch his beard.

"I'm glad you're okay, kid."

His voice was tight, strained, and El realized with shock that he was holding back tears. She'd never seen Hopper even come close to crying. Though it hurt to do so she reached for him, resting a hand on his arm.

"We're safe now," she murmured, "We're okay."

Hopper nodded quickly, like her words made it even harder to hold back his emotion. "I know," he whispered, more to himself than to her. "I know, I just - I thought that… I was worried that you might not…"

Tears welled up again in El's eyes and she clutched his arm tighter, trying to reassure him the way he had for her so many times before.

"But I did, Hop. I made it. We both did."

That seemed to soothe him a little, and he met her eyes again.

"Yeah," he said, offering a small smile, "We did."

"El, he made me promise not to let you go outside. You still need to rest."

"I know, but we won't tell him. It's not going to take long."

Mike sighed. Hopper had left to check in at the station, insisting — with that infamous fear-inducing glare — that Mike keep a close eye on El and not let her leave the cabin.

Her strength had been returning steadily over the past few days and she'd been begging Hopper to let her go out for a walk, but he was still too worried — both about her safety and about the fact that she might unknowingly overdo it. Mike agreed; for the most part El seemed like herself again, but he still saw that shadow of emptiness and exhaustion pass through her eyes too often.

But right then those eyes were soft and pleading as she looked at him, causing his resolve to slip.

"What if it's too much too soon, and… and you get hurt again?" he offered weakly.

El pulled her blankets all the way back and sat up on her knees, inching closer to Mike. "I'll try for a few seconds, and if nothing happens, I promise I'll stop," she replied. She took both of his hands in hers. "I need to know if I still have them."

Her powers. The force that killed Papa, and that had left her barely conscious for days.

Mike understood her desire to know if they remained, but he was terrified of something bad happening, not only on his watch but behind Hopper's back, too.

He sighed again. Cautiously, he looked up and met her eyes, which was a crucial mistake; her adorable attempt at a pouty face was impossible to say no to. "El…" he began, but even he knew it was a losing battle.

She seemed to sense this, and she leaned all the way forward until their faces were close. "It won't take more than five minutes," she whispered, inches from Mike's lips, "I promise."

"Okay fine, but I'm holding you to that, because if -"

But El cut him off by closing the gap between them and kissing him, throwing her arms tightly around his neck. The sudden force almost made Mike fall off his chair, and he scrambled to place his hands on her sides and keep them both steady. He hardly had time to relax into the kiss before she pulled back, her eyes alight with excitement.

"Thank you," she breathed. And for the first time since the quarry she smiled, really smiled in the way Mike loved.

He couldn't help but return it, despite the fear that lingered over letting her do this. Before he could change his mind, he tucked his arm around her waist and helped her out of bed.

She was unsteady at first, but by the time they reached the cabin's front door she seemed to find her footing, holding only onto Mike's elbow as they descended the porch stairs.

They paused as El looked around, her eyes presumably adjusting to the daylight. It was an idyllic day for mid-November; the sky a crisp blue, the breeze unseasonably gentle. Mike watched El from the corner of his eye, waiting for a cue as to how to proceed.

Guiding him, she walked to the right, toward the chopped wood pile that rested at the side of the cabin. Brittle leaves crunched beneath their feet as they approached. She gave Mike a reassuring nod as she let go of him, walking forward until she was a few feet in front of the pile. He stayed off to her side, breathing evenly in an attempt to quiet the thud of his heartbeat pounding in his ears.

It occured to Mike that if anyone else were to see her like this, they might think she was weak, defenseless. Her thin frame was swimming in the faded sweatpants and large navy crewneck she'd been wearing since that first night, Hopper's old plaid jacket draped crookedly across her shoulders. Her hair hung limp from having rested against a pillow for so long, and the dark circles under her eyes pointed to her sustained exhaustion.

No one would know what she was capable of, what she'd survived. They wouldn't know that she was the bravest person Mike had ever met.

She lifted her arm, and Mike's breath caught as he watched her train her eyes on the tall pile of wood. Her fingers clenched and shook, her breathing becoming laboured.

Mike counted the seconds in his mind, each one more agonizing than the next as he braced himself for the worst; that she would collapse, or Hopper would pull up in the Blazer and see that they'd broken the rules.

But just as he was about to step in and make her stop, a piece of wood near the top of the pile shot up above the rest, rotating in midar. It stayed that way for a few seconds, and then El flung her arm to the left, sending it hurtling toward the forest to the left of them.

Mike could see that El's whole body had begun to shook.

When the wood crashed onto the dry leaves somewhere in the distance she exhaled, making a weak noise of victory as she dropped her hand. She tried to turn but she stumbled, and Mike sprung into action; he caught her just in time as she fell back, guiding her gently down onto the ground.

He wrapped his arms tightly around her, feeling her shaking subside as she took deep, gasping breaths, as though she'd just run a mile.

"Did you see that?" she rasped, cradling her head back into the crook of his neck.

Despite his concern Mike grinned, her excitement and pride contagious.

"I did," he replied.

She tilted her chin up to look at him, and Mike saw that special El smile for the second time that day.

One month later

"El? Mike's here!"

Hopper's voice was followed by a sharp knock on El's bedroom door, startling her from her spot in front of the mirror.

"Coming!" she called back, turning to take in her reflection one last time.

The worn wool sweater Max had helped her pick out at the thrift store was surprisingly comfortable, the red colour still vibrant, contrasting nicely with the small green Christmas trees woven on the front. Max had also leant her a pair of jeans, and showed her a simple way to pin her hair back on one side, which she'd replicated earlier.

El wasn't used to this reflection, this image of a girl who looked like she'd fit in easily with other people her age. The somewhat foreign feeling made her nervous, but beneath that was an undeniable excitement, a sense that she was looking at an image that felt like her, or close to it. She exhaled slowly, smoothing her hands over the sweater once more before turning away.

She found Hopper and Mike standing near the front door, exchanging small talk. They both looked back as she approached, Mike's eyes widening in surprise, which El hoped was for a good reason.

"Ready to go?" she asked, smiling.

He nodded slowly, as though he hadn't really registered what she said.

"Don't forget your cookies," Hopper cut in. He gestured to the kitchen counter, where the tin of homemade sugar cookies they'd made the night before (after a couple of failed, smoke alarm-inducing attempts) were resting.

"Oh, right," El said, hurrying back to grab them.

Once she made it back to the door and put her coat on, Hopper pulled her in for a hug.

"Have fun, kid," he murmured into her hair. "And be back by 11," he added. His tone dropped to a level that was slightly menacing, and El knew without looking that he was narrowing his eyes at Mike.

A moment later the two of them were out the door, hurrying through the cold toward Mike's car. Snow was falling in big, white flakes, a reprieve from the blizzard that had whipped through Hawkins a few days earlier.

Once Mike turned the station wagon onto the main road, he reached for El's hand. "You look beautiful," he said, glancing over quickly to give her a shy smile.

El blushed. "Thanks," she replied, scooting across the seat so she could be closer to him. "I'm excited. I've never been to a Christmas party before."

"Hopefully it doesn't disappoint," he replied. "I mean, it's not even really a typical Christmas party, I guess. It's always just been the five of us in my basement, goofing around and eating way too much of my mom's baking… well, that's mostly Dustin."

The mention of his mom reminded El of something, and though she didn't want to ruin the good mood, she wasn't sure when she'd get a chance to talk to Mike alone again. "Your mom…" she began cautiously, "Did you end up talking to her?"

The corner of Mike's mouth twitched as he mulled this over. "Yeah," he said after a few moments, "I did."

"How did it go?"

Mike sighed, but it didn't seem to be in a frustrated way. "Better than I expected, honestly," he replied. "I pretty much just explained how I felt, and she listened. And I could tell she was upset, but she apologized a lot, and at the end she said she was going to talk to my dad."

"Talk to him how?" El asked gently.

Mike shrugged. "I don't know - confront him in a better way, maybe, or talk about… separating, or something." His voice dipped at that, and El instinctively squeezed his hand. "But either way, she said she knows it's not fair to me and Holly, and she wants to try to fix it somehow."

El shuffled closer until she was right up against Mike's side. "I'm glad you talked to her," she said, placing her other hand on his knee, "It'll be okay."

Mike looked at her, his expression softening just so. "Yeah," he said, "It will."

"Dustin, are you sure you want to go for another cupcake? You've been complaining that your stomach hurts for half an hour now."

"Who made you the cupcake guardian, Lucas!?"

"I'm just saying, I don't think the rest of us want to deal with the outcome of what could happen if you have another one."

"Oh yeah? How about we find out if -"

"Would you two quit it?!" Max groaned, putting a stop to the bickering, "I'm losing brain cells listening to you."

From her spot across from El she looked over and rolled her eyes, making El laugh.

"It really never ends with them, does it?"

Max shook her head. "Better get used to it."

The Party was sprawled across Mike's basement, worn out from the events of the past hour: raucous board games, talking and laughter flying in every direction, and of course, as Mike had promised, the consumption of way too much Christmas baking.

El rested against Mike on one corner of the couch, Max on the other with Lucas at her feet, and Will and Dustin were stretched out next to the coffee table. There'd been talk of putting a Christmas movie on, but no one had initiated; everyone seemed content to just lie there and chat, comfortable in one another's company.

It still amazed El how safe she felt with these people. The Party. Her friends.

They hadn't asked her anything about what had gone on a few weeks earlier, which Mike said he'd explained away as a private family situation. El had decided she would tell them everything eventually, but they had to wait until the dust settled some more, as Hopper had said.

That was a good thing, because sometimes when they hung out as a group, an idle worry rooted itself deep in her chest: that they might never look at her the same if they knew everything. But each time, with the help of Mike's reassurance, she was able to let that fear go. She was learning to trust what he had already shown her — acceptance.

The Party talked and bantered for another hour or so, until Dustin announced that his stomach ache had finally won out, and he had to go home to recover. Everyone teased him but he insisted, getting up off the floor with an exaggerated groan of pain.

"I'm your ride, Byers," he said, nodding at Will.

They dissipated after that, everyone getting up to collect their things scattered throughout the basement. Tomorrow was Christmas Eve, and as they filed up the stairs, each of them described plans of waking up early to do last minute shopping or wrap gifts, things El was coming to understand were part of typical preparations for the holiday.

Her and Mike brought up the rear, and as they ascended the last few steps he leaned in close to her. "We still have time, if you don't want to go home yet."

She turned to smile at him. "Of course, I'll stay."

They walked their friends out, everyone hugging goodbye in the garage and wishing each other Merry Christmas.

Max held onto El the longest. "I'm so glad you're with us," she whispered.

It was so unexpected that El had to bite her lip against the sudden sting of tears. "Me too," she whispered back.

And then they were waving everyone goodbye, watching them disappear into the snowy night.

Mike took El's hand and led her back into the house, where everything was dark and quiet. When they got back down to the basement she helped him clean up some of the mess, piling empty wrappers and leftover food on the coffee table.

When El wandered around to check for any remaining garbage, she noticed something off to the side of the stairs, near the table where Mike's mom kept the laundry baskets. It was a makeshift curtain of blankets, hanging so that they formed an entrance to what looked like a crawl space.

"What's that?" El asked, looking back toward Mike.

He followed her gaze, smirking when he saw what she was pointing at. "Oh, the fort? It's… we built it years ago for a D&D campaign and never bothered to take it down. Holly uses it now, to play in when her friends come over."

Curious, El walked over to it, squatting down to see that it was indeed a space big enough for a few kids at most. Still, the mess of blankets and mismatched throw pillows made it look cozy, and she couldn't help her desire to crawl inside. She turned to see that Mike had come up behind her.

"Can we go in it?"

He seemed skeptical for a second but then he shrugged, conceding. "Sure, I guess so."

El went in first, quickly realizing that it was going to be a struggle for both of them to fit. Her head squished uncomfortably against the top even with her knees tucked close to her chest, so instead she lay down on her side, curling into the fetal position.

Watching Mike attempt to do the same was comical; his long, gangly limbs contorted awkwardly as he shuffled toward her, and it took a fair bit of adjusting before he settled down, facing her. Before getting in he'd turned on an old lamp situated on the table above, so the interior around them was lit with a soft yellow glow. It felt so peaceful, a refuge that existed in some alternate dimension.

El couldn't take her eyes off Mike. She hadn't had a chance yet that night to steal some moments and just look at him, to play that game she loved where she waited for him to realize she was looking, and get all flustered when he did. It was her favourite thing; getting to trace her eyes over the very features that had left her so enamoured on that first night at Benny's — unruly curls, dark, kind eyes, and that imperfect smattering of freckles.

She could tell that he was aware she was doing it, but he didn't seem to mind, letting her take her time. Their hands were resting inches apart and Mike closed the space, locking their fingers together.

"Did you enjoy your first sort-of Christmas party?" he asked when their eyes met.

El nodded. "I loved it."

That word made Mike's eyes widen just so, but El held his gaze, not wanting to shy away from whatever was beneath it.

"El…" he said, his voice notably lower. "I wanted to ask - or, tell you something, actually."

"Sure," she replied, trying to sound reassuring, "You can tell me anything."

Mike swallowed hard, his Adam's apple bobbing. "So, before the quarry… you know how you found me, in the void? When I was in the car?"

El nodded, and he went on.

"I know you told me about that afterwards, but I think - I think I sensed you, when you looked for me there."

"Sensed me how?"

He gulped nervously again. "I… heard you."

El had been vaguely following, relishing in that contented trance that came from lying close to Mike, but those words snapped her back to attention. She knew exactly what he'd heard — I love you, Mike — and had thought about it every day since the quarry. But right then nerves clutched at her throat, forming a knot she couldn't seem to fit words around.

"Heard me?" she offered, trying to buy herself time to prepare for what this was leading to. "What do you mean, heard me?"

Mike seemed to deflate a little at her words, like he was hoping she'd fill in the gaps, and he wouldn't have to go any further. "Well…" he started, his eyes darting away for a moment. "I thought I was just imagining things, because I was so out of it. But I swore I heard your voice - and I guess that would make sense, right? Based on what you told me?"

El just shook her head, and he paused before continuing.

"It sounded far away, like it was coming through the radio or something. And you said… do you remember what you said?"

He clutched El's hands tighter at that, like he was silently telling her that it was okay, that he wanted her to repeat what she'd said in the void that day. Still, El's nerves gripped her, and all the courage she'd been building up for the past few weeks seemed to disappear.

"I - um, well, I said I was going to get to you," she stammered.

Mike inched forward, so their faces were that much closer. "Yeah," he murmured, "And there was something else after that."

His eyes bore into El's, and it felt impossible for her to even attempt to find words. "I…"

But Mike didn't seem to need her to finish. He freed one of his hands and lifted it to cup her face, his fingers raking through her hair in that way she loved.

"El…" he began, and his voice was nothing but sure, determined. "I love you too. I love you so much."

Whatever response she might've given was swallowed up as Mike kissed her, his lips as gentle as they were insistent, like he was expending all of his relief over finally having said those words out loud. And El could only hope to return it, kissing him back with equal fervour as she reached to bunch up her fingers in his sweater, pulling him as close as possible.

When they finally broke apart Mike laughed a little, a giddy, childlike grin on his face as he searched her eyes.

"I love you, Mike," El said breathlessly, "I know I said it in the void, and I'm sorry I didn't - I wanted to tell you after, but I -"

But his lips were on hers again, a short, chaste kiss telling her that he understood.

"It's okay," he said after pulling away, "I just… you know, wanted to make sure it was real."

"It was," El replied, "It is."

They lay there in silence for a few minutes, Mike's hand tracing up and down El's back as she rested her head against his chest, craving that familiar lull of his heartbeat.

She thought about how this was something that would've been in her dreams, on those longing nights after Mike came into Benny's. Those nights she'd lie awake, imagining a world where she could let him in, let him see who she really was and decide for himself whether he wanted to stay. It struck her that she was living in that world now; he had stayed, and he loved her, so much, had never given up just like he promised.

"You know," Mike said after a while, "At some point over this break, we should go on a proper date."

"You mean somewhere other than Benny's?" El teased.

She felt Mike nod. "Definitely. Nothing against Benny, but I think we've earned an upgrade."

El hummed in agreement, smiling to herself.

"And it'll have to be during the day, too," Mike added, "When there's less of a chance we'll get attacked by some mobsters in a parking lot."

They both laughed at that, and El craned her neck to look up at him. "Okay," she said, "We'll go when it's light out."

She kissed him again after that, catching his smile on her lips.

The rest of Mike's basement and everything beyond was dark, quiet. It felt like just the two of them in the whole world, huddled in the soft glow of the fort — somewhere amidst the vast darkness, a spark of light.

I figured we could all use an ultra-fluffy ending, given the current state of the world. It's a scary, difficult time right now, and I hope each of you and your loved ones are safe, healthy, and coping as best you can.

Thank you, thank you a million times over for reading this story and supporting/commenting throughout. I appreciate it more than you'll ever know. Please always feel free to come chat with me on Tumblr at maplestreet. Love & well wishes to all of you!