"It reads almost like a recipe," Dustin commented as he read the words off the flyer he had lying on the table in front of him. It was the weekend, so they had all convened to Mike's basement once more in order to work on the fourth clue. "Or a grocery shopping list."
"Yeah, except you can't walk into a Walmart and put a hyperbaric chamber in your cart," Will quipped amusedly from the couch, where he was reading up on antiseptic substances. They'd been at it for a few hours, but this time the entire ambiance was much more relaxed than it had been the last time they'd taken over the Wheelers' basement, mainly because they already had the answer to the location part of the clue, and they were feeling pretty good about it.
When they'd picked up the latest clue flyer on Friday, they had meant to get a start on it right away. They thought they'd have to do a lot of work to get the right answers, so they were surprised when Max took one look at the location question— What was Brock Sorenson's first job?— and snorted. "Yeah, I definitely know that one," she said, handing the flyer off to El, almost with disinterest.
El took a couple of seconds to read it herself, before lifting her eyes from the paper toward her redheaded friend. "Ice cream parlor, right?" she asked. She wasn't 100% sure, but she thought she had read that fact somewhere at least once.
"Yep," Max confirmed, sounding almost bored as she popped the P sound, while all the boys just stared at them in utter shock. That easy? Yes, that's how easy it was for them to figure out that they would find their fourth clue at Scoops Ahoy.
But they couldn't very well go in there and order one of everything on the menu (despite Dustin insisting that he took that idea as a challenge), so they had to figure out the "object" side of the clue before they could even step foot in the Starcourt Mall.
They had looked at the list in several different ways. Initially, they had thought they needed to figure out what those objects on the list had in common, which quickly proved fruitless. Following their experience with the first clue, they had tried rearranging the list in alphabetical order to see if any patterns emerged. No luck there, either. They went as far as to try and rearrange the letters on each item to see if there were any hidden clues, without any success other than now they knew that if you rearranged the letters in antiseptic it spelled out tacit penis, which had them all rolling around on the floor in laughter for about fifteen straight minutes. (Boys, El couldn't help but think, conveniently ignoring the fact that Max's laughter had been the loudest.)
"We're going about this all wrong," it had been Mike who first uttered what was quickly becoming their new party motto. "The flyer says this is supposed to be about chemistry, right? So what does chemistry have to do with these objects?"
"The same thing it has to do with all objects," El had been quick to point out as she opened her chemistry textbook on her lap. They had quickly established that she and Mike were the best out of the group at chemistry, so the others were quite okay with letting the two of them take point on this one. "'Chemistry is the study of the composition, structure, properties, behavior, and changes undergone by compounds composed of elemental atoms and the molecules generated when these atoms combine,'" she read off the introduction section of her textbook.
"Exactly," Mike had given her an enthusiastic nod, and her cheeks had flushed with pride. "It's got to be about what these things are made of. So, which elements are all these things made out of?" he posed the question to the entire group.
"Well," El had then switched out her chemistry textbook with her notebook where she'd written down the list they were given in the flyer, one on each line, "diamonds are basically pure carbon," she pointed out. When Mike nodded and gave her a thumbs up, she had written down "— Carbon" right beside the word "Diamond" on her notebook.
"And the starch test," Will had called out, "we did that in our Chemistry class, didn't we?" El nodded; she and Will had been in the same Chemistry class last year and they'd done a bunch of experiments in the lab— one of which was testing potatoes and other vegetables for starch. "The substance we used to test for starch was... iodine, wasn't it?" El nodded again, diligently writing "— Iodine" right beside "Starch test" on her notebook.
The boys had then immediately launched into a discussion of the different materials electrolytic capacitors were made of, quickly coming to the conclusion that the element they were looking for must be tantalum— which surprised El because they seemed so knowledgeable about the topic even while El had no idea what an electrolytic capacitor even was. But they seemed sure of it, so she wrote down "— Tantalum" down in her notebook as they suggested.
"What about the acid, though?" Mike had then wondered aloud. "There are many different kinds of acids. Sulphuric acid, citric acid, acetic acid... how are we supposed to know which kind of acid they want us to use for this?"
Lucas had shaken his head. "Wait. There's one thing all acids have in common," he had noted, pointing to Mike with his index finger.
Mike's eyes had widened. "Hydrogen!" he and Lucas had exclaimed at the same time, and El hurried to write "— Hydrogen" right beside "Acid" on her list. That was four out of eight. She looked around at the others just as Mike asked, "Anyone else got any ideas?"
There was silence for a moment as everyone thought of the other things on the list and what elements they could possibly represent, but pretty much everyone was drawing a blank. "Matches, I think..." Dustin had started, hesitant. "I think they can be made out of different things. Wood, obviously, but that would be carbon again..."
"Who's to say we can't have the same element twice?" Lucas had pointed out. It was a premise El hadn't thought about up until that point, but now that Lucas mentioned it, it made a lot of sense. They didn't know what kind of pattern would emerge from this list of elements, so they couldn't know what the rules were. Maybe they did need to list carbon twice.
Mike had disagreed with that premise. "If they wanted us to think of wood, they would've listed furniture. Or, I don't know, trees or something," he had noted smartly just as El had been about to write a second "Carbon" down in her notebook. "But they went with matches. So, clearly, it has to be about what matches do: generate fire. So what element does a match have that generates fire?"
"As I was saying before," Dustin had pointedly re-introduced himself into the conversation, "there can be different types of matches, and each of them generates fire from a different chemical reaction. I think there's a type that's more common than others— the most commercially available one that everybody has in their house, I mean— but I don't remember exactly what it's made out of." He then sighed. "I remember reading about it at some point, but it's not coming to mind right now."
"So we need to go back to the books," Lucas had declared, and that was when they decided to split up the work between the six of them, and start reading through the latest books Dustin had borrowed from the library for any information about the four items they had left.
"Hey." El looked up from the book she'd been reading on fungi to look at Max, who had just prodded her thigh with her foot from the couch. El's eyes were bleary from reading so much— she really ought to take a break or she was going to have nightmares about killer fungi that night.
"You wanna go shopping for Homecoming after this?" Max was supposed to be reading up on hyperbaric chambers, but she'd clearly given up on it after a while, throwing her long hair over her shoulder so she could braid it over and over again as a means to entertain herself.
"Sure, I guess," El replied. They'd agreed earlier that day that they wouldn't pull an all-nighter on this— Dustin's mom was starting to get upset about how little time he'd been spending at home lately, plus they only had so many books to search through due to the lending limitations at the library— so they would most likely be done with this session sometime before dinner. Homecoming was coming up the following weekend. Max was probably just going to wear jeans and a blouse as she often did with these dances, but she didn't mind helping El pick out a dress for the occasion; it had become a sort of tradition between the two of them that they would go to the mall together and browse through their selection while complaining about how expensive everything was. "Will, you wanna come with?"
She saw her friend hesitate. She knew Will was still nervous about telling his mom about his big secret, which is why he'd jumped at any chance to go out with his friends over the past few days, even when it didn't involve working on the scavenger hunt. Still, this time he didn't seem so eager. "I don't know," he mumbled. "I don't think I'm going to Homecoming."
That alarmed everyone. "What?" Dustin exclaimed, appalled. "You can't not go to Homecoming. That's where they're going to announce the winning team! What if we win and you're not there? You have to go!" he urged his friend, insistent.
Will sighed. "And what am I going to do there, Dustin? Dance with girls?" They all had to admit they understood how hard school dances were going to be for Will from that point on. Even if no one else knew the truth about him, he wasn't going to just pretend he wasn't gay— he'd made it very clear that he couldn't bring himself to do that anymore. So being at a function where everybody was expected to find a (heterosexual) date and dance with them was bound to be difficult for him. They all knew that.
"You don't have to dance if you don't want to. You can just hang out with us at the table," Mike suggested helpfully.
Will shook his head. "But I don't want to make you guys feel obligated to stay on the sidelines with me if you'd rather spend time with your dates and all. Don't do that just for me," he urged them, clearly very distressed about it.
El saw Max and Lucas exchange a glance. She didn't know what their plans were for Homecoming— whether they'd come to some kind of agreement of where their relationship was going, if it was going anywhere— but obviously there had been some kind of understanding there. Not anymore, though. "I wasn't planning on bringing a date," Lucas said, trying to reassure Will. "I figure it'd be awkward if we win, wouldn't it? The six of us would have to go deal with that and then we'd end up ditching our dates anyway. Doesn't seem worth it," he finished with a shrug. El was pretty sure that wasn't the real reason he wasn't bringing a date, but hey, it made sense, too.
"I'm with Lucas," Max intervened, closing the book she was supposed to be reading with a plop. "I think we should all just go stag. Makes things easier, don't you think?"
"I think it's great that you all seem so certain that I could get a date in a week," Dustin quipped with a chuckle from the opposite side of the room. "Man... I was kinda thinking of asking Jennifer Hayes, but I guess now I can't," he mumbled, sounding a little disappointed. "D'you think she would've said yes?"
His question was met with scoffs, snorts, and "nopes" from most every one of his friends, except for El, who gave him a warm smile. "I'm sure Jen would've been lucky to get to go to Homecoming with you, Dustin," she assured her new friend, because she felt someone had to.
"Thank you, El! See, this is why you're my favorite." Dustin gave her a bright, toothy grin, and stood up to cross the room and give her a bear hug so enthusiastic that it lifted her off the ground for a few seconds.
"Dustin! Stop!" she squealed when he tried to spin her around, laughing gleefully all the way. When he finally put her feet back down on the ground, breathing hard from laughing so much, she looked over his shoulder to see Mike looking at them with a soft smile on his face. El couldn't help but blush as her gaze met his. She'd been hoping he would ask her to Homecoming— or maybe she would ask him, she hadn't entirely made up her mind about that yet— but now she guessed that wouldn't be possible.
"So it's decided, then," Mike declared, throwing an arm around Will's shoulders in support. He was still smiling, and El had to tell herself she was just imagining an undertone of disappointment in his words. "We go to Homecoming as a group."
The others cheered, and Will gave them all a tremulous smile. "Thanks, guys," he told them sincerely.
Max threw an arm around his shoulders from the opposite side as Mike. "Now you definitely have to come with us to the mall," she said, reminding Will how this entire conversation had started. Will nodded, relenting now that he had no excuse to avoid the topic of Homecoming.
"Hey, if you're all getting out of here together, can you give me a ride home, Max?" Dustin implored, and past that point, it was pretty obvious their research was done for the day. They each picked up the books they'd been handed and resolved to keep working on their own through the night, hoping it wouldn't take too long to be done with this particular clue.
They met up at Benny's the next day for lunch, each carrying their assigned reading along with some other books Lucas and Mike had picked out from the library on the way to the diner.
Through the night, Dustin had figured out that most commercial matches generated fire through a reaction between red phosphorus and an oxidizer, usually a perchlorate, but that could vary; they figured the phosphorus was the one consistent part of the chemical equation, so that's what they decided to go with.
Max had sussed out that hyperbaric chambers were large tubes where patients were placed so they could be subjected to an inflow of oxygen at higher pressures than regular atmospheric pressure. Apparently this helped people deal with decompression illness and even carbon monoxide poisoning. It was pretty clear the main element involved with hyperbaric chambers was oxygen, so they quickly wrote that one down on their elements list.
El, for her part, had read up on fungicides and had determined that there were many different types of commercially available fungicides, most of them toxic to the point that it almost made her want to swear of plant-based food for the rest of her life (Mike saw her wrinkle her nose as she suspiciously eyed the lettuce on her burger, and almost laughed). Among inorganic fungicides, however, the most common ingredient (and a large part of what made them toxic to begin with) was sulfur. Seemed pretty straightforward that said element made its way into their list among the other items.
The only item on the list they were still unsure of was the antiseptic. While there were many different types of antiseptics, such as alcohol or hydrogen peroxide, Will was pretty sure the one they were looking for was straight-up Iodine— they'd all had the experience of someone, usually their parents or the school nurse, cleaning up their scrapes with iodine at one point or another in their lives. The problem was, if antiseptic led them to iodine, that would be the second time iodine came up on their list, and they still weren't sure if repeating an element was even allowed.
"But even without taking the double iodine into account," Lucas started, pulling El's notebook where she had the full list written down toward himself, "what object can we even think of that is made out of phosphorus, iodine, sulfur, tantalum, carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen?" He shook his head. "It sounds like some crazy mixture that couldn't possibly exist in anything."
"Could it be some kind of explosive, maybe? A fuel of some kind?" Dustin suggested, looking over Lucas's shoulder to read the list as well. "Like black powder is made out of sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter."
"And where, exactly, would we find an explosive or fuel at Scoops Ahoy?" Max retorted smartly, leading Dustin to groan in frustration.
"Plus, tantalum is super rare." Mike had been doing some reading of his own last night, specifically on the metal that seemed like the odd element out on the list. "It's mainly used for capacitors, but also in alloys for engine parts, nuclear reactors, tanks, and stuff like that. If it's ever used in conjunction with all these other elements, it's gotta be something really specific that we'll probably never find anywhere in Hawkins."
Most of his friends huffed in disappointment, but El, who had remained pensive through their entire discussion, pulled her notebook back in front of her. "Wait, guys," she said, as if she'd just had a realization, and they had all been so quiet after Mike's last assertion that even in a quiet tone she immediately grabbed everyone's attention. "What if it's not what these elements make, but what they spell?"
Mike and the others couldn't quite follow what she meant, but she didn't let that stop her as she pulled her chemistry textbook out of her book bag and opened it up to one of the last pages in the back, the one that was completely covered by a well-known diagram: the periodic table. Grabbing her pencil, she started writing:
Phosphorus — P
Iodine — I
Sulfur — S
Tantalum — Ta
Carbon — C
Hydrogen — H
Iodine — I
Oxygen — O
"P, i, s, t, a, c, h, i, and o," Mike read over her shoulder. "Pistachio," he added, his voice taking on an astonished intonation as he realized this was it. They had their answer.
"We have to get pistachio ice cream at Scoops Ahoy!" Max exclaimed once it clicked with her, too. She was so excited that she stood up on the bench, hands extended toward the ceiling in victory. "Woo-hoo!" The others immediately joined in on the cheering, banging their hands on the table so hard that it sounded like rumbling thunder. Dustin's hat flew off his head and landed in some other table, and everybody in the diner was staring at them in curious inquiry, but they couldn't care less.
They'd solved their fourth clue. They were so close to winning, they could almost taste it.
As his friends cheered and danced around them, Mike turned to look at El, who was laughing so hard that tears had formed in her eyes. Her grin was wide, her laughter tinkling like bells, and every time she leaned forward, her soft neck and the slope of her delicate jaw was bared to his gaze invitingly. She looked so joyous, so vibrant, that he couldn't keep himself from leaning in and whispering in her ear: "That was brilliant."
She startled for a second, not expecting the sound, the tickle of his breath so near her skin, but then she turned to look at him, her beautiful honey-brown eyes wide in flattered surprise. Then she nudged his arm with her shoulder and gave him a radiant, knowing smile, and he knew she was, just like he intended, remembering that first real conversation they had in his car on the way to her house just a little over two weeks ago.
Had it been that short a time? It felt like he'd been inching closer and closer to her at a glacial pace, and every cell in his body was screaming at him to take a chance, to shake off his fears and make a move, and as she held his gaze enthrallingly— like the entire diner and their whole group of loud, noisy friends had disappeared and it was just the two of them staring into each other's eyes— he decided that he was going to do it. He was going to tell her how he felt. He had to.
They drove to the mall in record time and rushed to the food court in such a mad dash that they nearly bowled over a bunch of people. When they got to Scoops Ahoy and there was a line, and they started getting so impatient that Robin— Steve's girlfriend who now worked as the manager in the ice cream parlor— had to tell them to settle down and stop harassing her customers or she was going to ban them for life.
While her friends got to the end of the line and ordered a large bowl of pistachio ice cream, El stayed to the side and looked over the menu, figuring she would just be in the way and not wanting to disrupt Scoops Ahoy's clientele any more than they already had. She was browsing through their list of milkshake flavors when she felt someone move to stand close to her, and she looked down from the menu to see that it was Mike. Immediately the butterflies began fluttering in her tummy, as they always did when she was around him.
"Not a fan of pistachio?" he asked with a smile.
El couldn't help but crinkle her nose. She had a large sweet tooth and would usually eat anything so long as it was sweet, but there was something about pistachios that she simply could not enjoy. She didn't really know what it was; her dad thought it might be the green color, but she had no problems with mint or other green ice creams, and she liked nuts in general, so it couldn't be that aspect of it as well. She just knew she would prefer anything else but pistachio. That's why, when they arrived, her eyes had immediately been drawn to the menu, as if looking for other options. "Yeah... I don't really like it much," she admitted with a shrug, a little amused that she was so transparent.
"Do you want to get something else? I mean, we only need the pistachio for the scavenger hunt picture, it's not like you actually need to eat it if you don't want to," he explained, babbling a little in a way she found absolutely adorable. "We could, uh," his cheeks went a little red, "we could share a sundae or something. Um, if you want," he finally managed, somewhat awkwardly, and she had to bite her lip so as not to let out a giggle.
Before she could tell him that yes, she would love to share a sundae with him (eeeeeee!), however, their friends made their appearance with a glass bowl filled with four scoops of pistachio ice cream and urged them to find a table. "Come on," Lucas motioned them toward the seating area of the food court. "Robin said she'll take our picture."
After finding a place and arranging themselves around the ice cream bowl— plus the two solid minutes Dustin took to make sure the Scoops Ahoy logo on the bowl was perfectly centered and visible— they proceeded to take the picture, but it wasn't until they finally had it in their hands, Polaroid clearly developed and ready to be submitted to the school's Guidance Counselor the next day, that they felt relaxed enough to finally dive into the pistachio ice cream, which was half melted by that point.
"Hey, so, El and I are going to go get a sundae," Mike said as the two of them remained standing beside the table while their friends took their seats around the bowl of ice cream and started to dig in. He took a second to look at her and make sure she was up for that, since she hadn't answered before, and she nodded. "She doesn't like pistachio, so we figured we could get something she does like." At his words, however, his friends' movements stalled, and they turned their heads away from their refreshing dessert to look at the two of them, all eight eyebrows raised high in a way that El was trying really hard to pretend wasn't suggestive.
They didn't say anything, just stared. Mike and El did the same until Mike finally grew uncomfortable enough that he muttered "Yeah, okay, we're going," and spun on his heel, tugging at her arm to signal that he wanted her to come with him.
They were silent for the first minute or two, trying to shake off the remaining awkwardness of what their friends must obviously be thinking. El knew she was flushed; she hated that she and Mike were so easy to tease even without having to say anything, and not for the first time she wondered if it was worth it to maybe try and act on her feelings for him if they were going to face nothing but teasing from everyone.
But then Mike turned to her with a hopeful smile and asked about which ice cream flavor she would prefer, and she felt herself relax. She could take some light teasing from her friends as long as Mike was standing beside her, smiling down at her that way. "Strawberry," she said after giving it some thought. "That's my favorite."
Mike's eyes glimmered as he nodded. "That's good to know," he declared as if saving this little piece of information in the back of his mind for posterity. The prospect that he wanted to learn more about her likes and dislikes made her heart beat just a tiny bit faster.
Mike ordered a medium strawberry sundae and paid for it— El wanted to pay for her half but he insisted she could get the check the next time. He said it almost offhandedly but it made El blush, just the thought that there would be a next time when she and Mike shared ice cream like this. Maybe "next time" they could do it without their friends being around. That'd be cool.
Once they got their sundae they walked back to their table. Because their friends were splitting one big bowl of ice cream between four people, they were almost done with it by the time Mike and El sat down on the empty side of the table. "That looks good," Max commented, looking over at their sundae as she took one last lick of her empty spoon. As she put the spoon down inside the bowl along with the other three, though, she let out a (too dramatic to be believable) gasp. "Oh no! Look at the time! I told my mom I'd be home by dinner," she said quickly, pushing herself to her feet.
It was El's turn to look at her friend with a raised eyebrow. "It's four pm."
"Yeah, well, you know how she gets if I'm late. Better not push it," Max sidestepped her concerns with a wave of her hand, like what she was saying made complete sense when it was clear to El that she was just trying to find the first excuse she could think of to leave. "Anyone coming with me?" she asked the boys. Half of them had driven over to the mall with Max and half of them with Mike, so she could leave in her car without leaving anyone stranded.
None of the boys answered for a moment, until Max none-too-subtly kicked Lucas in the shin. "Ow! Actually, yeah, I'll come with if you can make a pit stop at the library," he finally said, shaking himself out of his momentary stupor. "I gotta return the books I took out for the chemistry clue."
"You just borrowed them this morning," Mike pointed out in a dry tone, pointing at Lucas with his empty spoon.
"Well, we might need to borrow more for the last clue, so I might as well return this batch," Lucas retorted as he stood up as well. He slapped Dustin's shoulder to get his curly-haired friend's attention. "You coming with?"
"Yeah, I should probably stop by the library, too." Dustin wasn't even pretending that he wasn't grinning at Mike and El like the cat that ate the canary. "I haven't been there since Friday. I'm sure Marissa's starting to miss me."
"Eww. She's like forty, dude," Max commented with a grimace, which made everyone laugh even though Dustin had clearly not meant it that way. El decided not to bring up Brock Sorenson this time around. "Come on, we better get going," she reminded him, pulling him up to his feet by one arm. Dustin let himself be pulled along with a quick wave goodbye.
Will watched the three of them go for a second before turning to Mike and El. "I'm gonna go with them," he decided, pushing his arms down on the table to make himself stand up. Once he was up, he gave them a somewhat amused smile. "Enjoy your ice cream," he declared before turning to follow their other three friends on the way out of the food court.
El shook her head as she watched him go. "Did you find that whole thing..." She signaled in their friends' general direction with her spoon. "...Weird?" It was only after she spoke the word that she dipped her spoon into the pink sundae and took her first bite.
Mike was still looking toward the entrance to the food court when she did. "Yeah, our friends are ridiculous," he said, rolling his eyes before turning to face her and taking his own first bite of the sundae. "Mm! Hey, this is actually pretty good."
"You didn't think you were going to like it?" El asked curiously as she took another spoonful. If he didn't like strawberry, he should've said something earlier. She wouldn't have minded picking some other flavor instead.
"No, it's not that," he said quickly, his eyes widening slightly as if he hadn't realized the implications of his comment. "I do like strawberry, it's just not my favorite flavor."
"So, what is your favorite flavor, then?" she asked in a follow-up, scooping up another spoonful of ice cream and making sure she also got some of the bright-red strawberry syrup and the peanuts on top. "You already know mine, so it's only fair."
He didn't reply immediately but rather took his time, taking another spoonful of ice cream and bringing it up to his mouth while avoiding her inquisitive gaze. He seemed to be thinking of whether or not he wanted to answer that question, for some reason, but at the same time his lips were pressed together tightly, like he was trying to hold back a grin. Finally, after savoring that latest bite for a few more silent seconds, he sighed. "Okay, fine," he huffed out with a shake of his head. "It's vanilla. Okay? I prefer vanilla."
Something about the resignation in his posture made El burst out in laughter, and Mike mock grumpily signaled in her direction as if allowing her the opportunity to get all the amusement out. "Go ahead, tell me I'm boring," he tried to say seriously, like he'd been through a moment like this with someone else before, but in the end he couldn't quite keep up the serious facade and he chuckled, crossing his arms with a smile.
"I don't think you're boring," El assured him once her laughter died down enough for her to catch her breath. "I actually think it's kinda brave of you. Not many people would admit to preferring such a basic flavor these days."
Mike's eyebrows lifted high on his forehead, so that they got lost under his fringe. "Oh, so I'm not boring but I'm basic," he retorted, breaking out into laughter himself. "Thanks, that makes me feel a lot better," he added with a snort, which made El giggle. He shook his head. "Seriously, everybody gives me grief for it," he further explained, "but I just like that I can put anything on vanilla and have it taste good, you know what I mean?"
"There you go, you like variety in your own way," she pointed out magnanimously before taking one look at his dubious expression and breaking out into a whole new round of snickers. She loved this. She loved it here with him— they were just talking about ice cream, the most unassuming of conversation topics ever, and she already felt that she had laughed more than she had in ages. Being around Mike just made her feel happy, and she just couldn't hold that feeling in. "Next time we'll order vanilla and you'll have your chance to convince me of what the best toppings are." She narrowed her eyes at him playfully. "Knowing your tastes, I'm guessing... whipped cream?"
He sniffed, mock offended. "You'll have to keep guessing," he declared, and she wouldn't mind going down a whole list of anything even remotely resembling ice cream toppings, so long as she got to go down the list with him. He shook his head again and smiled, putting his spoon down on the table. "You can have the rest if you want," he offered, although there wasn't much of the pink now-liquid leftover at the bottom of the cup.
"Thank you!" she replied with a grin, pulling the cup toward her with an enthusiasm that made Mike snicker. She was never one to turn down extra sweets.
She dug into the leftover melted ice cream with gusto, but the closer she got to the bottom of the cup, the more she started to realize that her time with Mike that afternoon was coming to a close. She didn't want to go. She wanted to stay with him a little longer.
Her disappointment must've shown on her face, because he asked, "Everything okay?" He chuckled. "You look a bit like my little sister Holly does when she finishes her dessert too fast."
The mental image was adorable, but not really enough to get El out of her funk. "Yeah, I'm fine," she said, not entirely convincingly to her own ears, dropping her spoon inside the now empty cup and pushing the cup toward the middle of the table again. "I'm just— I'm done," she signaled to the empty cup with one hand. "Guess we should start heading back now, huh?"
His expression, which up to a second ago had been mostly amused and maybe just a teeny bit concerned, fell. "Oh," he said, as if the fact that they had no real reason to stay any longer hadn't even crossed his mind. "Well, we don't have to go... if you don't want to," he pointed out, and El's heart skipped a beat in the hope that maybe he was as reluctant to end their impromptu hangout as she was. "I mean, it's still pretty early. Maybe we could... take a walk?" he suggested, a little hesitant.
He was looking at her with such hope in his eyes that she couldn't help but squeal internally. He really did want to spend more time with her, just the two of them. She hoped that meant that he really did like her, but either way, she wasn't going to pass up the opportunity. "I'd like that," she said, grinning uncontrollably. He grinned right back at her.
There were no parks near Starcourt Mall, so they had to make do with the next best thing (?), which turned out to be a minigolf course off the back entrance of the building.
"Thanks for suggesting this," El told him as they walked past hole 1, where the artificial green twisted on itself in a closed curve that veered under a small wooden bridge, something that was sure to frustrate the three eight-year-olds that were currently attempting to play in it. "I love the mall as much as the next person, but I can only spend so many hours inside that building in one weekend."
"Ah, that's right," Mike remembered, "you guys were here yesterday. Did you find everything you came to find?"
"Mostly," she said with a shrug. They were walking close to each other because the walkway was narrow between the minigolf holes, and every once in a while the back of her hand touched his. He kept thinking he should just take her hand; they'd held hands before— just once for barely a minute while they took a photo at Melvald's a few days ago, but they had and that should make it not a big deal anymore, right? But trying to pluck up the courage was a different thing altogether. "I kinda want to see if I can find a new pair of shoes to go with my dress, but then I figure we're all going as a group so it's not like my outfit needs to be that fancy."
"Yeah," Mike agreed. He didn't say it, but of course he thought she would look pretty no matter what shoes she was wearing. "I mean... it's just us," he added with a shrug of his own. "There's no need to impress anyone."
She smiled at him in what he interpreted as gratitude, then chuckled. "Yes, well— dressing up is half the fun," she admitted, and it was such a girl thing to say that it made him chuckle, too. She looked up at him in a sideways manner. "This is a really nice thing you guys are doing for Will, by the way," she let him know. "I know he really appreciates it."
"Well, we just want him to feel comfortable," Mike said as they walked past a hole— he couldn't see the number— where the ball had to be pushed inside the open mouth of a clown and then out the other side. "I don't want him to feel like he has to pretend to be someone other than who he is just for our sake, you know? He shouldn't have to, even if that means I don't get to take a date."
She nodded, looking in front of them thoughtfully. They were both silent for a minute or so, strolling through the walkway past the elaborate minigolf green designs, before she turned to look at him again. "You wanted to ask someone?" she asked, seemingly curious.
And that was it. That was his chance to finally tell her how he felt, wasn't it? The perfect opportunity presenting itself to him in a silver platter, if only he could scrounge up the courage to get the words out. "Yeah, actually. I, uh..." He looked down at his feet, nervous. "I was thinking of, um..." He cleared his throat. "I kinda wanted to ask... you."
He was so focused on dodging her prying gaze and putting one foot in front of the other that he didn't notice she had stopped walking until she was already a good five feet behind him. Alarmed, he stopped and turned, hoping he hadn't offended her or anything. "I mean— I—"
"Really?" she asked and, okay, she didn't sound upset. If anything, she looked surprised— maybe pleasantly so?— and the corners of her mouth were starting to curl up just slightly as she looked at him expectantly. Dare he say hopefully?
His own mouth started stretching into an excited grin without him really meaning for it. "Yeah," he said with a relieved snicker. "Is it that unbelievable?"
She shook her head, now smiling beautifully up at him. "No, I just... I didn't want to assume," she asserted bashfully, closing the distance between them just a little by taking a step forward. "But... I don't mind," she added coyly, pushing a strand of her hair behind her ear when the wind blew it in front of her eyes.
"No?" he asked, feeling like he wasn't going to be able to stop smiling for days.
"Let me put it this way..." Another step forward, and she was now close enough to stretch out a hand to grab hold of one of his. Their fingers intertwined as they looked at each other for a heartbeat. "If you had asked me, I would've said yes," she confessed with something of a giggle before starting to walk down the cobbled path again, pulling him along by the hand.
Mike couldn't believe his luck. El wanted to go to Homecoming with him! She wasn't going to, technically, because of the promise they'd made to Will to go as a group, but hey, she wanted to. That was enough to have his heart tap dancing inside his chest harder than ever before. "So, does that mean you're going to save me a dance?" he asked, hopeful. Not that he knew how to dance, but he could do a slow song. That'd be nice.
She giggled again— and God, he loved the sound of her laugh— and sidestepped the sails of a six-foot windmill on the fifth hole that extended a little too far out of the green and into the walkway. She turned to look at him and moved to the side so she could lean against one of the walls of the windmill, one hand behind her against the brickwork and the other one pulling him closer. "I'll save you two," she said, giving him a mischievous look, "if you do something for me."
"Anything," he said breathlessly, knowing with every fiber of his being that what he was saying was true. He took a step closer to her; standing less than a foot apart, he found himself lost in the honeyed depths of her eyes and never wanting to be found.
Her impish grin softened into something more vulnerable, more tender as she looked up at him, so close that their faces were just inches apart. "...Kiss me?" she asked in a small voice, so quiet that he almost thought he had imagined it, but as she gazed at him with hope shining in her eyes, he realized she had really asked. She wanted him to kiss her.
Him. Mike Wheeler. The girl he'd been dreaming about for nearly five years was asking him to kiss her, and there were no words to describe the elation that made him feel. As it was, he could barely remember to breathe, so the only thing he could do was lean forward and press his lips against hers softly, delicately, his eyes closing of their own volition as he felt her exhale dreamily against his cheek.
Her lips were soft— softer than he ever imagined in all the times in his life he'd caught a glimpse of her and been cast away in a daydream of doing exactly what he could scarcely believe he was doing right now. He had to lean down to kiss her but she was pushing up in return, kissing him back with the lightest pressure, so carefully that it made his heart stutter and skip.
It was a delicate kiss. Dreamy and tentative and sweet, so intimate, so emotional that it made Mike shiver from the sheer perfection down to the tips of his toes. It was everything a first kiss should be, and if the tightening hold of her hand in his was any indication, she was enjoying it just as much as he was.
When they separated, he didn't open his eyes for a moment longer, leaning her forehead against hers. They were partially obscured from prying eyes by the spinning sails of the decorative windmill, and he didn't feel like moving away from her anytime soon. If he ran his tongue over his lower lip, he could still taste the flavor of strawberry ice cream that lingered from the contact with her mouth, and it made him want to lean in again so he could savor it again. Savor her again. "I've... been wanting to do that for a long time," he admitted with a sigh.
"Me too," she admitted right back with a smile before pushing herself up to her tiptoes so she could kiss him again. The gesture was shorter this time, but just as tender. "I really like you, Mike Wheeler," she added, bringing up the hand that had up until now been behind her back to play with the wool at the neckline of his sweater.
"I really like you, too," Mike replied, unable to help himself from leaning in again and stealing another peck. The feeling of her lips pressed against his was addictive. "I think I've liked you since the day that we met," he confessed a little self-consciously, but still smiling.
She let out a short, disbelieving chuckle. "We are silly, silly people," she said, shaking her head, and only explained once she saw his confused expression. "I've liked you since the day we met, too," she admitted, now her time to be a little sheepish. She laughed. "Max is never going to let me live this one down."
He had to laugh, too. "Yeah, the guys give me grief for it all the time," he let her know, shaking his head.
"Actually," she chimed in matter-of-factly, "Dustin kind of told me that you liked me, a little while ago." She cringed a little as she said the words, but in an amused way.
Mike gaped at her. "Seriously?!" he exclaimed, indignant. "I'm gonna murder him," he declared, taking a step back almost as if he intended to go look for his curly-haired soon-to-be ex-friend right then and there, but El pulled him back by the hand before he could get too far away.
"Don't," she warned him. "I'm pretty sure it was an accident. And anyway, it doesn't really matter anymore, does it?" she asked, squeezing his hand momentarily as if to remind him of what had just transpired between them. As if he could forget.
"I guess not," he mumbled a little reluctantly. He was still annoyed that Dustin had spilled his biggest secret to the object of his affections— party rules, dammit— but at the same time it had worked out for the best, so he couldn't complain. "But... what does this mean, then?" he asked, taking his turn to squeeze her hand to indicate what he meant by "this."
"Well," she started carefully, "we definitely can't go to Homecoming together."
"No, I know," he was quick to assure her. As much as he wanted to spend every waking moment with her and shout to the rooftops that the most beautiful girl in the world liked him, he wouldn't do that to Will. "But I was thinking maybe... after we win the scavenger hunt... and this whole thing is over..." He shrugged. "Maybe we could, uh, do something together. Just the two of us."
"Like a date?" El asked, just to clarify. She was smiling again, her eyes shining up at him.
"Yeah," he replied, that fluttery feeling coming back to the center of his chest and taking residence there for the foreseeable future. He couldn't look at her without feeling like his elation was going to vibrate right out of his skin, and it was such a warm, delicious feeling that he hoped it never faded away.
It got even better when she leaned forward and kissed him again, lingering for a breathless moment before pulling back and beaming at him. "Sounds great," she declared, then let out a joyful laugh and tugged him away from the windmill, pulling him along so they could continue their walk down the putt-putt course.
They did a whole loop around the course, talking about everything and nothing, eventually making their way back to the back entrance of the mall. Their hands remained intertwined the entire time. It was nearing dinnertime by the time they made it back to Mike's car, so it was time to take El home, but he drove slowly, wanting to stretch out their remaining time, even though he knew he could only do so much about it.
When he parked outside her house, though, she leaned over the gear shift and kissed him goodbye, and he knew the stalling tactics were unnecessary. Yes, he had to leave her now, but he'd surely be thinking about her— and everything that happened between them today— the entire night. He'd probably dream about her that night. And he would see her again the next day at school. They still had to work on the last clue, no matter how impossible it would be for him to concentrate with her standing anywhere nearby, now that he knew for a fact what it felt like to kiss her.
He sighed and forced himself to drive away from her place, already counting the hours until the morning.