Mike separated his life into groups of good days, and bad days. He fought hard for the good, and the bad often left him doubting whether any kind of future was possible. There were times the darkness would start to creep back into his thoughts, threatening to drag him under, but he was getting better about putting his worries into words and talking through them. El learned to spot the warning signs, when he was starting to feel it was all too much, and knew how to pull him back from the edge. She cared for him with boundless patience, but never hesitated to let him know when he was being an asshole and pulling away. It wasn't easy, but he eventually found himself having more good days than bad.
El had spent years learning how to trust, and nowhere was it stronger than her trust in Mike. Now it was his turn to trust her just as strongly. She had every possibility to walk away - he had practically ordered her to - but there was never a doubt in her mind where her heart lay. Mike got it, though there were days the darkness tried to make him doubt, but he trusted El when she said he was stuck with her.
Spring came, and school began to wrap up for El and the rest of the party. While he still wished he was a part of it all, their excitement was infectious and managed to draw Mike out of the gloom. Not wanting her to miss out on any important high school traditions, Mike accompanied El to prom - rented tux and all - and they still managed to have the special night they deserved. It didn't matter to her one bit that they weren't able to actually join the others on the dance-floor. She was content just being there with Mike, arm in arm, shoulder to shoulder, gently swaying to the music in their seats as they watched their friends.
At graduation, from his seat in the crowd with the rest of their families, Mike clapped and cheered louder than anyone as El's name was called to come receive her diploma. A simple piece of paper could never convey the importance of the moment - something that had felt impossible to her only a few years before - but looking out into the crowd and spotting Mike's adoring face made it a moment that would hold a permanent place in her heart. Over dinner at Hopper's that night, he surprised her with a necklace to mark the occasion; a small, gold shooting star. It was a simple piece, but El recognized the meaning behind it. They had spent countless evenings watching the sky, wishing on each and every falling star for a moment that might someday be theirs. Some had come true, some had materialized in unusual ways, but still they held on to their wishes. Things may have changed, but Mike still believed their wishes might have some life in them. With a glint in her eye, El gave Mike a surprise of her own; the drivers license she had practiced for in secret and passed the test to get earlier that week. While she had always planned on getting one eventually, it had been a "someday" thing while Mike happily drove them around. Now that things had changed, she saw no reason they had to be stuck in one place.
That summer, on the anniversary of the incident, El drove them out to make a visit to the Fair Mart. While neither had been actively avoiding returning to the place where everything had changed for them, it was still the first time either of them had been back since that day. Mrs. Johnson met Mike with a beaming smile, caught up on how both of them were doing and expressed her gratitude once again. Before they left, she pressed a cold bottle of Pepsi and a bag of M&Ms into Mike's hands and refused to accept any payment for them. As far as she was concerned, he had more than earned them.
El started her job in late July and Mike continued with his therapy, getting stronger every day. In the evenings, they were their old, inseparable selves. It wasn't uncommon for El to stay the night over at the Wheeler's, and on occasion, Mike found himself a welcome guest overnight at the Hopper house. The Chief found himself growing to accept the closeness he had once found so infuriating, seeing the connection that had before been hidden beneath youthful arrogance. He could see their love for one another, the way El seemed to sense Mike's needs - assisting but never babying - and the way Mike listened with attention bordering on fascination as she talked about even the most mundane details of her day. In truth, Hopper found himself almost jealous at times, their bond stronger than anything he had ever experienced.
Fall came, and school started again for Mike, things quickly falling back into rhythm and life picking up where it had left off. The fixed schedule gave his days a solid structure and kept his mind looking forward. Stationed at his new desk in the basement, working on homework, he often forgot about what chair he was sitting in and found peace in the fact that it didn't define every moment of his life. It was weird being the only member of the party left behind, but he adjusted after a few weeks. He wasn't sure what life would be like at school, being the kid in the wheelchair, but it turned out he had gained something of a reputation in his absence, being the guy who got shot stopping a robbery. There was an odd level of respect, from students and staff alike, that made things just a little easier.
Just as El had promised, they sent off their college applications together, as soon as it was clear Mike would be graduating in June. Their responses came back a day apart, both accepted. In June, it was El's turn to cheer as Mike crossed the stage to collect his hard-earned diploma. She had told him he would make it, and he had to admit, she was right. Maybe a few of their other plans might have a fighting chance as well.
Hopper wasn't exactly pleased by news when Mike and El sat him down and informed him they wanted to get married before going off to college in the fall; he also wasn't the least bit surprised. As El so eloquently put it, they had basically been married for years now, there just hadn't been any paperwork to prove it. Ever the practical planner, El pointed out that freshmen were normally required to live on campus, in gender-separated dorms. That meant Mike would be on his own, or with a roommate. While she knew he could manage just fine, it would be more practical if they could get an apartment together, but that would require being married. He agreed, though he saw right past her talk of practicality; they were adults now, and in love, and wholly committed to one another. As much as he didn't want to see his little girl grow up and move on to that next phase of her life, he knew she was ready; they both were.
The July wedding was a simple affair, a small gathering of friends and family in the Wheeler's backyard. The Party returned from points all over the country for the occasion, confirming their commitment to always be there for each other, no mater the distance. The ceremony was officiated by a local justice of the peace, the same one who had put Mike's attacker behind bars. He was thrilled to take part in their special day, happy to see their lives continuing positively from the tragic event. They spoke their vows, exchanged rings and committed themselves to one another, but the connection as they gazed at one another through the ceremony spoke more than words ever could.
A honeymoon would wait for sometime in the future, when they could afford the trip they wanted. As for their wedding night, that was something El insisted on planning every detail of, calming Mike with a gentle kiss and a whispered "trust me." Behind the wheel of Mike's old Ford, El drove them a little way outside of town before turning up an old dirt road, the route carefully researched and rehearsed. She pulled to a stop at the top of a small hill, the surrounding countryside stretching out in every direction. A bottle of wine they were technically still too young for, and two more slices of wedding cake close at hand, they stretched out together on an old wool blanket and watched the sun go down. They talked about life and love, everything and nothing, as the stars winked to life in the darkening sky above. They planned for what the future might hold, knowing full well most ideas would change is some fashion, but there was bliss in imagining all the same. They wished on every shooting star that crossed the sky that night, some shared aloud and some kept in their hearts. The night was quiet, it was intimate. They talked, they kissed, they held each other close, and before either of them knew it, they were watching the sun come up on the opposite horizon. It was no ground-floor suite, no spirited game of chess, and Mike took El's hands in his own and promised he would never doubt her when she told him that everything would be alright.
College was hard, but no more so than everything they had faced together. In so many ways, the struggles of classes and assignments were almost laughable, so perfectly normal compared to the things that had come before. They took turns pulling each other back from the brink of giving up, late nights studying hard marked by frustrated tears and encouraging words. Life was simple and routine, and before they knew it, they were crossing another stage, collecting their diplomas amid the cheering of friends and family. They made their way out into the world, hand in hand, taking on new roles and looking to the future, but one they shared.
Jane Wheeler, El to her closest friends. A commercial architect quickly rising to prominence in a respected Chicago firm. Michael Wheeler, Mr. Wheeler to his students. Math teacher, founder of the Eastpoint High AV club, Knowledge Bowl advisor. Always on the lookout for the students that didn't quite fit in, and making sure they found each other. A home in the suburbs, one story with wide halls and a big backyard. Paul and Erin Wheeler, twins, adopted. As El pointed out, just because they weren't able to conceive children that were biologically theirs, didn't mean they didn't still have a wealth of love to give and every chance at the family they had always planned.
Stars fell from the sky, wishes were made, plans were laid down, and most came to nothing. And that was okay. Mike once grouped is days into piles of good and bad, but somewhere along the line, he stopped keeping track. The good so vastly outweighed the bad, there was no point in even dwelling on it.
The sun was sinking low in the sky as Mike tossed the ball one more time to Erin, not so much practicing anymore, but just keeping her arm loose. Softball tryouts started early the next morning and her nerves were getting the better of her, so they came out to the backyard to run through a few drills. Coming over and plopping in the grass beside her father's chair, she let out a heavy sigh.
"Nervous?" Mike asked, reaching over and giving her hair a ruffle.
"A little," she smiled, ducking playfully away from his hand. "I mean, what if I'm not good enough. Freshmen almost never make the team."
"Well," Mike began, glancing across the yard and catching El's eye as she worked in the garden, "someone pretty smart once taught me that the bravest thing you can do, is face the challenge head on, even if you're not sure how it will turn out. Because you will always be stronger, and braver, than you think you are."