"Don't you dare leave me, Mike Wheeler. Don't you dare!" El screamed in her head.
Outward, her face was pale with shock, tears streaming down her cheeks. Heart pounding, she scarcely breathed, terrified as she watched in helpless silence. But inside her mind, she was screaming for him.
30 minutes earlier
It had been almost five years now, since she had escaped from the lab where she had been raised in captivity like some kind of animal. She had entered the world barefoot and alone, a scared girl named Eleven. She had found safety and friends, and a boy who came to mean everything to her; a boy named Mike, who called her El.
She had lost him for a time, dragging herself to another dimension to save the people she cared about. When she made it back to the world where she belonged, it became immediately clear she had to keep her distance from Mike, to keep him safe. After weeks living in the woods through the cold beginnings of an Indiana winter, she was taken in by the very man who had betrayed her to the lab, now determined to keep her safe. Both strong-willed and fiercely protective, they butted heads and fought almost from the start. Somewhere along the way, however, they tore down each others walls and became a family. She was the second chance at a daughter the universe had so cruelly taken away from him. In him, she found the loving father she never knew she wanted or needed. A year after escaping a tortured childhood, she got back her friends, she got a real home, and a piece of paper that told the whole world she was Jane Hopper, daughter of police Chief Jim Hopper.
For a little while, everything was right with the world. Until Starcourt. Until the night she lost everything all over again. Her father was dead. Her home was destroyed. The town was full of investigators. For a myriad of reasons, she moved with the Byers to a new home across the state. True, it was an effort at a fresh start and healing, but it was also to keep people from prying too deep into the background of the police chief's daughter with the mysterious past. She lost her town and the life she had been trying to build. She all but lost her friends. She all but lost Mike.
They kept in contact as much as they could, and saw each other as often as possible. Their feelings never wavered - if anything the distance only pulled them together that much stronger - but it was still hard. It took almost a year after that terrible night for El to work her mind through the grief and begin to let her father go; to come to terms with the fact he wasn't coming back. In that peace and clarity, her powers had returned, and in their return, she had found him alive. It had taken another six months and a series of top-secret deals between the U.S. government and the Soviets, but by Thanksgiving, he was home. Their reunion had been tearful, and the recovery on-going; now they both understood the isolation of captivity, and connected even deeper, often talking late into the night over stacks of Eggos. Three years after escaping the lab, her world felt right again, or some semblance of right at least.
After a brief stay with the Byers, Jim and Jane Hopper returned to Hawkins and moved into a new home on the edge of town. Thanks to a little governmental assistance, he was reinstated in his old post as Chief of Police and El was enrolled at Hawkins High School. The Byers followed them back to Hawkins a few months later, and for a year and a half now, life was good for Jane "El" Hopper. She was back with her father, she had a home, she had her friends, and she had Mike.
Life was peaceful. Life had an order to it. Life was finally, blissfully, normal and quiet. Until it wasn't.
It was a hot Friday afternoon, and Mike was driving them to catch a movie at the theater in town, if for nothing more than the air conditioning. Summer was in full swing and they were taking advantage of the freedom provided by the clunky Ford Mike had saved all year for. In what had become one of a hundred little traditions they shared, they stopped off at the Fair Mart on their way in to town. The theater only served Coke, and Mike, ever aware of the little things that still triggered flashbacks for El, always swung by the little market for a bottle of Pepsi to sneak in to the theater for her.
"Sit tight, I'll run in and get it," Mike offered.
"Thanks," El smiled, giving his hand a squeeze. "Hurry back!" she added as he slid out from behind the wheel.
He shot her one last smile and turned, pushing through the front door, and stepped into the cool shade of the store. Mike nodded with a smile to Mrs. Johnson behind the register as he headed back to the cold case. Late into their sixties, Mr. and Mrs. Johnson were still running the little shop by themselves, as they had for almost thirty years. They were one of those couples everyone in town knew and nobody had an unkind word to share about. Without grandchildren of their own, they had taken on the role of grandparents for all the children in town instead. They were always right there to buy boxes of Girl Scout cookies or support the Christmas toy drive. Mr. Johnson would be first in line for the football team's car-wash, even when he had just washed his old truck himself the day before.
Starting down the central aisle, Mike didn't notice the man nervously browsing the magazine rack. His thoughts were on El, the girl he loved beyond words. His thoughts were on finding her the coldest bottle of Pepsi in the case. His thoughts were on just how lucky he was that someone so singularly amazing as her, actually loved him in return. Only as the cooler door slid shut and he turned to walk back to the front did Mike hear the unmistakable ratchet of a revolver being cocked.
"Empty the register," the man ordered, gun aimed squarely at the woman behind the counter.
As he stood in the shadows, the possibilities played out quickly in Mike's mind. He might just take the money and go, or he might be the paranoid type who doesn't want to leave witnesses. Mike was still out of sight, and could easily stay there until the man left, but he knew deep down he wouldn't. He couldn't stand to see the Johnsons lose out on the livelihood they worked so hard for. The couple had never been anything but kind to Mike. Mrs. Johnson had let him off easy with a disappointed shake of her head the day she caught him shoplifting a bag of M&Ms, during the rebellious year El was gone. He had gone back the next day with a sheepish apology and the money he owed her. Mr. Johnson had given him a ride home when Mike crashed his bike and bent up the wheel on his way back from Hopper's cabin, after visiting El one icy Saturday. And if something happened to Mrs. Johnson while he stood by and did nothing...that wasn't a thought Mike could live with.
Mike Wheeler never thought of himself as brave, but he knew he had to do something. He had no plan, no idea what might happen next, but he stepped out of the shadows all the same.
"Hey," he shouted, drawing the man's attention away from the counter.
Out in the car, El sat quietly humming the song that had been on the radio when they parked. She was trying to decide what movie they should see, though she didn't really care which one. She was just happy to be spending a calm afternoon with her boyfriend. Dustin and Will were both off checking out colleges, as they would all be sending off applications in a few short months when their senior year began. Max and Lucas were out in California visiting her dad. That meant she and Mike had the whole weekend, just the two of them.
Her peaceful contemplation was shattered by a distinctive crack from inside the store. It was a sound she knew all too well, one she had heard more than a few times in her life. In recent months, she had been to the range with her dad as he started teaching her how to safely handle a firearm. Long before that, she had been far more familiar with the noise than any child should, as the bad-men from the lab fought to drag her back to the prison where she had lived out her earliest years. It was those long-ago memories that flooded back as she flung herself out of the car and sprinted toward the double-doors leading into the store.
Her mind was so entirely focused on finding Mike and making sure he was okay, that she barely took notice of the man rushing out the door as she pushed her way in. She was only vaguely aware of sweet, old Mrs. Johnson frantically dialing the phone. The whole world seemed to slow to a stop as she looked around, her eyes fighting to adjust from the bright sunshine outside to the dim light of the store. Finally, she spotted Mike slumped against the end of one aisle, a circle of bright red slowly spreading from the middle of his gray t-shirt. For a long moment, El's mind refused to comprehend what she saw, and she tried desperately to figure out what he might have spilled on himself. His eyes found hers, and the barest hints of a smile tugged at the corners of his mouth.
All at once, reality slammed back into place and those jumbled pieces came together in her mind. The gunshot, the man, the phone call...and the stain.
"Mike!" she screamed, rushing over and falling to her knees beside him.
He turned to look at her, wincing in pain, a smile still returning to his lips as his eyes traced the lines of her face. He raised the hand that had been gingerly holding his stomach, and reached out for her.
"I'm sorry," he whispered. "The movie."
In spite of everything, she felt a pained laugh escape her lips.
"I don't care about the movie," she said gently. Tears burned in her eyes, welled up and broke free.
Out of habit, Mike reached up and brushed away the drops as they ran down her cheek. His thumb left a thin streak of blood in its wake while he tried to dry her tears. His hand dropped from her face and she gathered it in both of hers.
"I'm sorry," he mouthed again, "Couldn't not help."
Mike focused hard on El's eyes, seeking out the comfort he always found in their depths. His stomach hurt, but not nearly as much as he knew it should, and that had him worried. Somewhere inside, he knew there was a strong chance his time was quickly running out. Every beat of his heart was pushing a little more of his blood into places it didn't belong, but there was nothing he could do about that right now. So he stared deep into those eyes that he treasured.
"I love you," he whispered, fighting a cough and giving her hand what little squeeze he could muster.
She leaned down and pressed a kiss to his forehead, tears falling onto Mike's face, hot against his pale skin.
"I love you too," she breathed, softly. "You have to hold on."
A hand came to rest on El's shoulder, and she could pick up a few of the words Mrs. Johnson was saying. Paramedics. Ambulance. Police. She sounded a thousand miles away and the words swirled in El's head, refusing to coalesce. Still, the vague idea they represented came through; help was on the way.
It felt like hours passed, waiting for the paramedics to arrive. She held tight to Mike's hand, her eyes locked on his, afraid to do anything else. In truth, a crew from the County fire-station just up the highway made it to the store less than 10 minutes after the call to 911. She was in a daze as gentle but firm hands pulled her away, the first responders setting to work assessing his condition. There was a flurry of activity around him and El shifted from side to side, keeping her eyes locked on Mike's. As long as they stayed open and locked back on hers, she knew he would be alright; at least that's what she kept telling herself.
In just a few minutes, he was secured on a stretcher and wheeled toward the ambulance idling outside. El followed numbly, barely feeling her feet hit the ground as she walked. Mike was loaded in the back, quickly but carefully and she moved to climb in beside him.
"I'm sorry, I can't let you come," the paramedic apologized. "Policy is, only immediate family can go with him. So, unless you're his sister, or..."
"His wife," she blurted, her mind racing to find any excuse to stay by his side. Something deep inside was telling her if she lost sight of him now, she'd never see Mike again.
He gave her a skeptical look, but then nodded and extended a hand, helping her into the back of the ambulance before climbing in and slamming the doors behind them. She looked too young to be married, and her hand lacked the usual ring, but he wasn't about to argue. If she was lying, he could claim ignorance, and if she really was his wife, and he left her behind, there would be all kinds of hell to pay.
As the vehicle pulled out onto the highway, El grabbed the handle by her seat, steadying herself as the van quickly picked up speed, the siren wailing outside. She watched in silence as the two men worked to stabilize Mike while they drew steadily on toward the hospital. As one continued to start IVs and hook up various monitors, the other radioed details ahead, preparing the emergency room for what was coming.
They were nearly there, when one of the monitors began to beep a rapid alert.
"BP's dropping," one of the men called out as he put more pressure on the gauze over Mike's stomach, already soaked through, bright red.
The other grabbed a prepared syringe and plunged it into the IV line already running into Mike's arm, flooding his veins with the medications they hoped would buy him a few more minutes until they could reach the hospital.
Fighting every urge to go to him, El sat glued to her seat, knowing she had to stay out of their way if they were going to save him. Her face was pale and firm, fighting to keep her eyes locked on his, even now. Letting go of the handle by her seat, she placed both hands on his leg, the closest part of him she could reach. She never uttered a word aloud as they drove, but in her mind, she was screaming for him.
"Whatever life is in me, take it. Take everything you need."
She tried to picture pushing her very soul down through her fingertips and into him, giving whatever strength she had.
"Don't you dare leave me, Mike Wheeler. Don't you dare!"