It wasn't like they'd been trying to keep it a secret— in all honesty, they hadn't talked about it, and it hadn't even occurred to Mike that they should— but it still annoyed him to no end that their friends seemed to take one look at them and just know.
Much to his disappointment, it turned out that Mike hadn't been able to see El more than in passing all day. Since the incident with Troy they had made it a point not to discuss scavenger-hunt topics in the cafeteria, and precisely because they weren't going to talk about anything urgent, El had volunteered to spend their lunch period helping the Homecoming committee with the decorations for Saturday night. Apart from lunch break, she and Mike didn't share any classes that day, so other than barely catching glances of her in the halls, he hadn't seen her, let alone talked to her until the party met up in the Hawkins High library after school was over.
Plus, he'd stayed for a few minutes after class to ask his Physics teacher a question, so now he was the last one out of the party to make it to the group study room his friends had secured for this meeting. "Sorry I'm late," he said with a huff as he closed the door behind him, separating the murmur of their conversation from the forced silence of the rest of the library. He saw that El had saved him a seat beside her and his heart skipped a beat. "Hey," he greeted her directly as he sat down, unable to stop a bright smile from overcoming his features at the sight of her.
"Hi," she replied in a sweet whisper, her smile just a little bit shy. It hadn't even been 24 hours since the last time he spoke to her, but her voice and the way her eyes shone when they met his gaze brought back all the memories from their outing the day before in one fell swoop. He couldn't look away from her for a moment, and that's why he didn't initially catch the shit-eating grin forming on Dustin's face on the opposite side of the table.
"Oh yeah, we're good," the curly-haired teen declared, leaning back and stretching out his hand behind Will's head so that Max could high-five him.
"Worked like a charm," the redhead retorted, completing the triumphant gesture with a grin of her own. By this point both El and Mike had snapped out of their held gaze and were glaring at them for their little stunt the previous day.
"I knew you guys had done that on purpose," El muttered, shaking her head.
"For the record," Lucas intervened, sitting on the other side of El from where Mike was sitting, "I was opposed to their little machinations from the beginning," he declared, signaling to the three on the opposite side of the table.
Dustin scoffed. "Please," he said with a roll of his eyes. "You feebly protested once and then folded like a napkin."
"Because I wanted them to get off their asses and make a move already," Lucas returned with a groan before leaning forward so he could see both Mike and El. "But that's done now, right? Y'all are together for good now? I hope we don't have to put up with your silly pining anymore..."
Mike glared at him, and El gasped. "We weren't pining!" she protested.
"Uh, yes, you were," Will pointed out with a sly grin, and apparently he took El's grievance as a confirmation that they were, indeed, together now, because he added, "but we're really happy for you guys," his smile turning earnest. "Oh, and if you guys want to go to Homecoming together, I totally understand—"
"No, no, don't worry about it," Mike hurried to reassure him, given everything he and El had talked about at the minigolf course yesterday.
"Yeah, we'll still go as a group," El nodded, exchanging a brief look with Mike before smiling back at Will in full support. "We kind of don't want our first date to be within view of dozens of our classmates," she added with something of a chuckle.
"Wait," Max intervened abruptly. "You mean to tell me that after all our hard work, you're not even counting the ice cream thing as a date? I am so disappointed in you two," she added with a shake of her head.
It was El's turn to roll her eyes. "Okay, one," she lifted a finger as if counting, "literally the only thing you did was leave us stranded at the mall. And two," she lifted a second finger, "we'll be the ones determining any milestones in our relationship, thank you very much."
Mike couldn't hold back a grin. Not only because he loved it when she showed more of her sassy side— one that most people wouldn't guess was there just from looking at her, but he'd been around her enough by now to know it and cherish it— but also because of her choice of words. He didn't know that one could technically call what they had a relationship since he hadn't asked her to be his girlfriend yet (though he definitely intended to do so at some point, if he managed to get the words out anytime soon), but just the idea that she could picture a relationship between them, one that went long enough to have important milestones and all those couple things, made his heart start dancing in his chest.
"Alright, fine, if you want to waste the perfect opportunity we just handed you on a silver platter," Max muttered dismissively. El stuck her tongue out at her, a gesture which Max promptly returned, and as everybody laughed, Mike wondered if this was a routine the two of them engaged in often while interacting on their own. It was cute, and it underlined how close the two of them really were. "We'll move on to Biology, then," she added, signaling to Dustin to read their new and final scavenger hunt flyer.
"'What is the heaviest known organism on Earth, which weighs six million kilograms and is located in south-central Utah?'" Dustin read, but Mike was only half paying attention as he stretched out a hand under the table to tap the back of El's. She didn't take her eyes away from Dustin, but Mike saw her smile and felt her turn her hand upward to intertwine her fingers with his.
Oblivious to the affectionate moment happening away from view, their friends launched straight into brainstorming. "So what's the biggest animal there is, then?" Max asked, passing a few pages on the book in front of her almost arbitrarily. "Maybe a blue whale? It has to be something like that, right?"
Lucas gave her a disbelieving look. "Whales in Utah?" he asked dryly, and Mike had to admit he was right; that made very little sense, but at least Max was making suggestions.
"Guys, remember," he started, pulling the flyer from Dustin with his free hand and turning it around so he could read it. "Most of these clues have been trick questions. An attack wasn't the same thing as a battle. Numbers and elements weren't meant to be just numbers and elements. And in this one..." His eyes skimmed the paper in front of him. "...they ask for an organism. That means it doesn't have to be an animal."
"You're thinking it's a plant?" Will asked, pulling the book Max was absentmindedly browsing through in front of him, flipping back to the index so he could look for something specific. Max just let him take the book with a shrug.
"Giant redwoods can weigh up to four million pounds," Dustin pointed out matter-of-factly, generally the most knowledgeable in the group when it came to biology and zoology. "That's nearly thirteen times the average weight of an adult blue whale."
"Okay, so it's probably a plant, then," Max commented in an I-stand-corrected tone.
"Giant redwoods don't grow in the Midwest, though," El pointed out smartly, sneaking a peek at whatever Will was looking for in the Biology textbook. "Where would we find anything related to them here in Hawkins?"
"Maybe it's a photo, like with the polo clue," Lucas suggested, and that was a good possibility, too. "What's the location part of the clue?"
Mike's eyes went back down to the paper in front of him. "'Where did Brock Sorenson's late father work?'" he read in a dispassionate tone. Much like with all the other location clues, he had no idea what the answer might be. He liked most of Brock's movies, but he'd never been particularly interested in knowing much about the man's life.
Everybody turned to look at Max expectantly. She shrugged. "Sorry, guys," she started, a little disappointed. "I vaguely remember he was some kind of salesman, but I don't remember exactly where he worked." She turned to look at El, who similarly shook her head.
The boys all sighed; they'd have to go back to the girly magazines, something none of them was particularly enthusiastic about. El seemed to notice. "We could split up the work if you guys want," she suggested tentatively. "Max and I can go back to my place to do the location part, and you guys work on the biology part."
Dustin let out a loud, relieved sigh. "Ahhh, bless you, El Hopper. That is the best idea I have heard in days, and I love you for it." He snuck a glance at Mike. "And I mean that in a completely platonic, friendly way, of course," he added with a snort.
Mike just looked at him with a deadpan expression. "Yeah, I got that," he retorted dryly, a little amused that his friends would think he would all of a sudden become a jealous boyfriend. They'd only admitted to liking each other the day before, for God's sake. Shaking his head, he lightly squeezed El's hand. "That sounds good. But, hey, can I call you later?" he asked, a little disappointed that after waiting the entire day to see her, she was leaving earlier than expected.
"I'd like that," she replied with an enthusiastic smile. She had to let go of him in order to start picking up her books and all the school supplies she had pulled out earlier. "Or I can call you when Max goes home?" she suggested instead as she put her notebook inside her bag.
Max threw an arm around her friend's shoulders just as El was trying to grab hold of the strap of her book bag. "Yeah, she doesn't want me to be there because she knows I'll teeeeease her—" El rolled her eyes and mock-pushed her off, which made Max laugh louder than she probably should have in a library. "Alright, nerds, we'll see you tomorrow," she waved at them, making her way to the door of the study room and disappearing behind it.
"Bye, guys," El said more quietly as she finally shouldered her backpack. She looked down at Mike. "I'll call you later?" she said, a little bit more like a question and less like a statement. Then, after a moment of hesitation, she leaned forward and kissed his cheek, pulling back quickly as if she hadn't meant to do it. "Bye," she repeated, then turned to leave. Mike kept staring until the last fleck of brown from her ponytail disappeared past the doorframe.
When he turned back to look at his male friends, with what he was sure was the silliest of silly grins on his face, he found them all staring at him. Lucas's groan could probably be heard all the way to the school's main entrance. "See, this is why I was against this matchmaking thing from the beginning," he declared, signaling to Mike's goofy-ass expression as if it was Exhibit A.
Mike threw an eraser at his head that Lucas just barely managed to dodge. And then they continued reading.
The night proved somewhat productive for both groups, as the girls found that Brock's father had been a used-car salesman, while the boys had narrowed it down to a six-million-kilogram colony of trees in Utah that they weren't sure fit the question entirely, but it was the best answer they had so far.
They met up again at lunchtime to talk about it, although on Dustin's protestations that he wasn't giving up his eating time anymore, they decided to go to the alley behind the gym rather than the library. El would rather have gone to the bleachers as they had the last time, because the space was limited between two buildings, and on top of that, it smelled really weird— the student population came out here to smoke and hook up and play pranks, so she could only imagine what the source of the smell was. She could only stand to be there for so long, so she really wished her friends would hurry up.
"But wait," Will was shaking his head, not in agreement with Dustin's explanation of his findings, "the question says we're looking for one really heavy organism. How does a colony of trees count? That can't be right."
"I initially thought so, too," Dustin admitted, underlining the assertion with a wave of a hand that was still holding the last quarter or so of the sandwich he was eating. "But I found it in three books last night mentioned as the heaviest organism on the planet, so clearly scientists have a different opinion on that."
"Wait," Max intervened suddenly, frowning a little as she thought about it. "What did you say the name of this thing was? Panda?"
"Pando," Dustin corrected quickly. It had sounded funny to El the first time he'd said that the tree colony had a name, but then she figured if you were trying to get tourists to visit Utah, giving your unique attraction a unique name would make it easier for people to talk about it than calling it a "really big, really old colony of trees that you should find particularly impressive for some undefined reason."
"Yeah, that sounds familiar to me," Max divulged, pensive. "I think my dad might've told me about it once. He wanted us to go there— but it was just before the divorce, so we never went," she added with a shrug. "He said it was supposed to be this amazing thing because it's not several different trees; they're literally all the same tree."
"Like clones?" Will asked, surprised.
"Genetic identicals," Mike gasped, putting two and two together. "That would make the entire colony only one single organism, in a way."
"Yeah, and their roots are all supposedly connected underground," Max added, mimicking conjoined roots with her hands in a way that made El chuckle. "This has gotta be it, guys. This is our answer," she insisted, starting to grin in excitement.
El wanted to share that excitement with her— and she did, up to a point, because having an answer to their last academic question on the scavenger hunt was no small feat— but there was something still nagging in the back of her mind. "That might be the answer to the trivia question," she pointed out seriously, "but that doesn't mean it's the answer to the clue as a whole. How are we supposed to find a giant colony of cloned trees in a used-car dealership?" she reminded everyone, crossing her arms.
Everyone's shoulders slumped as they recognized that she was making a good point. They were silent for a minute or so as they contemplated this new conundrum and what it meant for their possibilities of winning the contest. They were close, so close, but now that they only had one clue left to complete, it really did matter how long it took them to complete it. Not only because the deadline for submitting their answer was on Friday afternoon and it was already Tuesday, but also because even if they submitted it before the deadline, they would only win if they came in first. And they had no way of knowing how far ahead or behind them any other teams were. All they knew was that they couldn't afford to waste time just standing there and thinking. Every minute was precious.
In the end, it was Lucas who broke the silence by snapping his fingers unexpectedly. "Wait, Dustin," he started. "What species did you say these cloned trees were?" he asked eagerly.
"Oh, uh," Dustin handed Will what was left over of his sandwich (which Will received noticeably gingerly, probably trying to avoid getting his hands full of mayonnaise) so he could open the biology textbook he was carrying under his other arm. It took him a little bit of time to find the correct page, but eventually he said, "Here, it's a, uh... quaking aspen."
Lucas's eyebrows lifted high on his forehead as if this revelation held some crucial significance to him. "As in the Dodge Aspen?" he asked, and everybody's jaws dropped.
"We have to find a Dodge Aspen in a used-car dealership!" Will summarized in a joyful exclamation, leading to a brand new round of cheers that were so loud that a group of freshmen passing in front of the mouth of the alley paused in their steps so they could stare at the suddenly celebrating group.
"Okay, okay, we need a game plan," Mike intervened once the cheering started to go down, always the first one to be thinking ahead, which made El smile proudly without really meaning to. "We can't waste any time. Luckily we've got three cars today, so we'll split up, and each pair will head to one of the dealerships on El and Max's list and see if they have any Dodge Aspens." After they found the answer to the location question the previous night, El and Max had looked in the yellow pages for car dealerships within the Hawkins city limits, and they found exactly three. They couldn't be sure which one was the correct one, so they would have to check all three, hence Mike's "game plan."
Everyone agreed, and they started pouring out of the alley so they could make use of what little was left of their lunch period, but before El could follow them, she felt Mike tug at her hand, so she turned back to look at him. "Hey, uh, do you wanna partner up with me?" he asked softly in that adorably tentative way of his. "When we go to the car dealerships, I mean."
He sounded so hopeful, and El hated that she had to disappoint him. "I really would love to," she stressed, hoping he could see how reluctant she was to be saying this, "but... I don't think that's a good idea right now."
His smile started visibly dropping and she hurried to clarify. "It's not because I don't want to spend time with you, because I do," she said, squeezing his hand a little to show that she really meant it. "It's just that... I haven't really told my dad about us yet," she admitted, "and if he sees you dropping me off again, he's going to start wondering, and I don't want him to think I'm hiding things from him." She bit her lip lightly before adding, "So it's probably better if I just go with Max, for now."
"Oh," Mike said. "Yeah, of course. I can just go with Will, then," he assured her with a nod, and she felt herself relax. He understood. She'd been worried because she didn't want him to think she regretted anything that happened between them over the weekend, didn't want there to be any misunderstandings or stumbles in the beginning because every time she was near him it just felt so, so right.
"Well... can I at least walk you to your next class, then?" he asked instead, shifting gears, and that she could definitely agree to.
They (finally!) walked out of the alley and around the gym, headed toward the main building, holding hands all the way. She noticed that some people shot them looks of surprise as they walked by. She wasn't bothered by it; new relationships popped up every other day in high school and she was sure the novelty would wear off soon enough. She could see that Mike was quieter than usual, though, and wondering if the sudden attention was bothering him. "Hey," she bumped him lightly with her shoulder as they walked into the main building, "you okay?"
"Yeah," he replied, shaking his head. "Just thinking, um... when were you planning on telling your dad?" he asked, seeming a little nervous. "Not that I'm trying to rush you or anything. I mean, it hasn't even occurred to me to mention any of this to my parents," he added hurriedly, "just, y'know, it kinda just hit me that your dad is the chief of police and that's... that's a little scary, to say the least."
He might've been joking, but there was just the slightest bit of panic beneath his tone and El had to laugh. "Don't worry, he's all bark and no bite. But I do want to tell him before Homecoming, though. I know we're not technically going together, but I know he's going to ask, and I'd rather just tell him."
"What are you going to tell him, though?" he asked as they turned a corner leading to the hallway where the classroom for El's English class could be found. Some people were still staring at them, but by this point they were so into their conversation, they weren't really paying attention to any of that anymore. "Like... are you going to tell him that I'm your..."
"...boyfriend?" she finished his sentence when he hesitated, biting back a smile at how flustered he got at just the word. It made her heart beat a little faster, too. "I could," she said as they stopped in front of the door to her English classroom, just a little off to the side so they could let other students pass. "I mean, if that's okay with you."
The smile he gave her was so brilliant that it warmed her from the top of her head to the tips of her toes. "I am very, very okay with that," he said, and those words made El so happy that she felt she was going to float on air to her next class.
"Okay. Cool," she smiled back at him.
"Cool," he replied, still grinning so wide that his cheeks must've been hurting. That's what she thought the problem was when, a moment later, he let out a pained groan, completely out of the blue. But it wasn't his cheeks; instead, he surprised her by lowering his voice to a whisper. "I really want to kiss you right now," he admitted, which sent a thrill down her spine because it felt like it had been so long since she last felt his lips press against hers, "but I can practically feel Ms. Sanders's eyes boring holes into the back of my head, so I'm thinking that's not a good idea."
The sudden turn of the sentence made her burst into a fit of giggles, and she leaned a little to the side so she could see past Mike's shoulder to confirm the fact that, indeed, her English teacher was glaring straight in their direction through the open doorway, as if urging them to finalize their dalliances and get to their respective classrooms already. "Yeah, better not. Raincheck?"
"Definitely," he replied, giving her hand one last squeeze— which only served to remind her how reluctant she was to let go, even just for a little while. Boy, was she in deep. "I'll see you in the parking lot before we leave?"
"Yeah," she agreed, and he turned to walk back up the way they'd come from, headed for his own class. She watched him move down the hallway until he disappeared past the corner, and then turned to her own classroom with a sigh, wondering if she'd be able to focus on Animal Farm at all when thinking of kissing Mike Wheeler was a much more pleasing alternative.
There were few things Mike hated more in the world than Physical Education class. Being tall, lanky, physically weak and somewhat of a klutz, he'd never done well in it, plus he was sure Mr. Carr had it in for him since the first day he stepped into the halls of Hawkins High. (And whoever decided that there should be two PE requirements in high school could burn in hell, as far as Mike was concerned.)
So yeah, he hated PE. But if there was one thing he hated more than PE, it was being in the locker rooms after PE and having to listen to Troy brag to his flunkies about something or other that was usually nowhere near as impressive as he wanted to make it sound.
Mike and the guys had been dealing with Troy since forever. Thankfully, it wasn't nearly as bad now as it was back in elementary or even middle school— at some point after they entered high school, Troy had shifted his preferred method of entertainment from pummeling nerdlings to booze, sex, and parties. Not that he didn't physically assault some poor sucker every once in a while, but by now Mike and his friends were savvy enough to know how to stay out of his way.
Which is why in cases like the one he was currently in, Mike would make sure to find himself an ensconced little corner of the locker room where few people could spot him and he could change without being bothered, and then just wait until Troy and the rest of his crew left to make his way out for his next class.
This usually worked out well for him; the only downside was that it meant he had to listen to the jocks' inane conversations for far longer than any decent person should. Usually it involved them speaking crudely and graphically about their girlfriends— or the girls they were hooking up with, as it were— in ways that made Mike feel like smashing his own face against a locker just to drown out the sound, talking about some upcoming party and who'd be getting the drunkest and puking in whose car, or reliving the glory moments of their football campaigns.
Today's thread of conversation, however, was not nearly as inane, and actually rather consequential for Mike and his friends, so he couldn't help but pay attention for once, taking advantage of the fact that he was mostly out of sight.
"...I don't know, man," Troy was telling James as he changed, talking about Stacey. "Sure, she puts out, but she's getting kinda clingy again." He threw something down— his gym t-shirt, Mike figured— with a loud thud. "Maybe I'll just dump her after this scavenger-hunt thing is over. After all," he scoffed obnoxiously, "once I've met Brock Sorenson, every girl in the school is going to want a piece of this, am I right?"
The other boys jeered at him, and Mike rolled his eyes, shaking his head at the fact that that piece of shit was considered "cooler" than him and his friends in any way. "How can you be so sure you're gonna win?" one of the other jocks asked him.
"Because I've got the inside track, my dude," Troy replied, followed by what sounded like a snapping sound such as from a towel. Really, could they be any more of a cliche? "You know my uncle's car dealership? Well, last night, he called to tell me that they're the last location for the scavenger hunt." That's about the point where Mike's ears perked up, suddenly very interested in the conversation. "Yeah, and he told me no one has gotten to the clue yet. So we're going there this afternoon; he'll tell us what the answer to the clue is, we'll take the stupid picture, and boom, we win."
Damn. That meant that if they waited until school to go through the dealerships as he and the others had planned earlier, Troy's team might still beat them to it. They needed a new plan, a quick one— and it was all on Mike.
"I would've just skipped this joint and gone already if it wasn't because stupid old man Jablonski caught me cheating on a test last year and now he's itching to fail me on the goddamn class again..."
Mike waited until the jocks were done changing and on their way out of the gym before rushing out of the locker room faster than he ever had in his life and running to the main building's back entrance like his life depended on it. He wasn't sure what the plan was yet, he just knew he needed to find at least one of his friends, and he needed to find them now.
With his luck, most of them would already be in their next class, whatever that was— because he always waited until the jocks were gone to come back from gym class, he tended to make it to Spanish just in the nick of time— so he started peering into every classroom he walked by to see if he could catch a glimpse of any of them. Just his luck, when he carefully peered in through the glass panel on the door to Ms. Sweeney's Trig class, he caught sight of El sitting on the second seat of the row directly beside the window.
He hesitated for a moment. He knew that El had told him earlier that she'd rather go with Max to the car dealership, but on the other hand he really couldn't waste more time peeking into every classroom in the building in search of one of his other friends. And he couldn't go by himself; the rules explicitly said the photos had to be team photos, so he was afraid if he was the only one on the picture, they wouldn't count it. So it was either breaking El out of class now or wasting more time and possibly losing to Troy.
He dropped his bag on the ground beside the door and pumped himself up. He could do this. He'd taken classes with Ms. Sweeney before, and she loved him. No way this would fail, right? He just had to put on his best I'm-a-good-student-why-would-I-be-lying-to-you? face and... go for it.
Taking a deep breath for resolve, he pushed the door open, gently knocking on it as he crossed the doorway. "Um, excuse me, Ms. Sweeney?"
The teacher stopped speaking halfway through her greeting her class for the period to turn her head and look at Mike. "Mr. Wheeler. What do you need?"
Out of the corner of his eye he saw El smiling at him and giving him a small wave, but he couldn't let himself get distracted. "Er, I was sent to get El Hopper?" he let the teacher know, hoping he wasn't coming across as too hesitant. That would just give him away. "Uh, Ms. Tanaka needs to talk to her urgently." He saw El frown, probably curious as to what the Guidance Counselor would need with her at this hour.
The woman looked at him pensively for a couple of seconds and for a little while there Mike was sure she was going to call his bluff or ask for some kind of proof, but eventually she just nodded her head and waved at El to go on. Mike watched as she got up and started picking up her stuff, stopping to get a pass from Ms. Sweeney on her way out.
Once the two were out of the classroom with the door safely closed behind them, she turned to him, curious. "Hey," she started. "What's going on? What does Ms. Tanaka need me for? I don't think I've spoken to her more than twice in all my years of high school."
Mike leaned down to grab his own bag, shaking his head as he shouldered it. "Sorry, I just needed an excuse to get you out of there. Listen," he signaled for her not to speak when it seemed like she was about to ask something else. "I overheard Troy saying that his uncle owns the car dealership where the last clue is and that he and his team are going there after school to get their last photo."
El gasped. "That means we have to get there before that!"
Mike nodded as he started looking for his car keys in his bag. "Exactly. And we have no time to get the others, so it's gonna have to be you and me, right now." He finally found them, gesturing to El to start walking with a nod of his head. "Can you go first? I don't actually have a hall pass."
It was her turn to nod. "Yeah, of course," she agreed immediately, starting to lead the way toward the main entrance. "Did Troy say which car dealership it was?"
Mike shook his head, before realizing she was walking ahead of him so she obviously couldn't see his gesture. "No," he vocalized instead, "we're going to have to stop at all three. Is the coast clear?" he asked as El looked past a corner, checking to see if there were any teachers or hall monitors around.
"Yeah. Come on," she urged him forward, and boy, things were starting to get a little too Mission: Impossible for a little while there for Mike's tastes. As stealthily as they could, they did eventually manage to get to the main entrance and to Mike's car without running into anyone. El pulled out the list of the three locations she and Max had written down on Monday, and quickly directing Mike to their first destination, they pulled out of the parking lot about fifteen minutes into their last period.
"How are we going to do this?" she asked once they were on their way to the first dealership. "If we tell Troy's uncle we're there for the contest, he might not even show us the car."
"We're going to have to bluff our way through it," Mike answered, already annoyed that he was having to do so much of that on the same day. "We'll say your dad wants to buy you a used car for your birthday or something, and we want to take a picture so we can show it to him. It'll be fine."
Her eyes went so wide, it was almost comical. "I don't even have a driver's license!"
Mike had to chuckle. "So what? It's not like you're going to have to drive the thing, this is just to get us in the door." He shook his head, amused. "Shouldn't you be better at this kind of stuff? Your dad's a cop. Shouldn't the whole 'undercover' thing, like, pass onto you by osmosis or something?"
She stared at him with her mouth gaping open for a good ten seconds before bursting out into laughter. "That is by far the nerdiest thing anyone has ever said to me in my life," she declared, the sentence punctuated by hiccups as she laughed.
He snorted. "Yeah, well— that's me: king of the nerds!" he said sarcastically.
Still chuckling, she shook her head and leaned to the side to poke him in his upper arm. "Yes, well, lucky for you, I think it's cute," she admitted, and the knowledge made him grin uncontrollably. He'd finally found a girl who truly liked him, quirks and all. How lucky was he? "We'll figure it out," she added, going back to what they would do when they arrived at the dealership. Mike figured his suggestion was better than nothing.
The first dealership was a bust; there were no Dodge Aspens there. There was one parked in front of the second dealership, but it was a customer's car; it wasn't really for sale. Plus, when they asked the owner if he was related to Troy, he said he didn't know any Troys, so they figured this couldn't be the place, either way.
So, with limited time to get it right, they headed straight for the last location on El's list, Hoosiers of Hawkins, and got ready to put on a production.
When they got there, they were greeted by a salesman, whom they proceeded to ask about the availability of Dodge Aspens in their, uh, fine establishment. "Ah, it's your lucky day! We have a couple of them in great condition and at some great prices. Follow me and I'll show them to you."
He led them down the rows of parked cars toward two Aspens: a 1978 green one that said it was in "fair" condition but in Mike's opinion looked like it would crumble over if someone gave it a light kick, and a 1980 red one that looked like it had seen better days, but seemed in working condition, at least.
The salesman was just telling them all the virtues (and none of the flaws) of the car when they were approached by an older man with a copious dark mustache and a beer belly just barely concealed by the suit he was wearing. "Well, would ya look at this cute couple right here!" the man said with a rough, sonorous laugh as he came to stand next to Mike, clapping his shoulder so hard that it made Mike flinch. "Who's looking to get a car today, huh? Is it you? You?" He signaled to each of them as he spoke.
Mike pointed to El, and El raised her hand simultaneously, falling into an already practiced scene. "My dad wants to buy me a car for my birthday," she explained with a small smile, and Mike was glad she was coming across convincingly because as it was, he could barely hold the instinct to flinch away from the older man. He looked so much like Troy, there was no doubt where their classmate had gotten his ugliness genes. "I was thinking maybe an Aspen."
"Good choice, girlie, good choice," the man nodded, patting the hood of the car like it was a pet dog or something. "Good car. It's a good car. But wouldn't you rather get a Cavalier, instead? They're our best sellers, you see. And you could get a newer model, too. At a great price, of course. Great prices all around."
El's smile tightened a little bit— the only sign that her patience with car salespeople was starting to fray, and it was only because Mike had been looking at her and cataloging her smiles for years that he was able to tell. "I'd rather have the Aspen, thanks," she said perfectly politely, no sign whatsoever in her voice that she was starting to get aggravated. "Actually, I was hoping I could take a picture with it so I could show it to my dad?"
"Yes, sure, sure, whatever you kids need." Since he thought they were close to purchasing one of his cars, the man was nothing but accommodating. He signaled to the other salesman to come and take the picture with Mike's camera, even going so far as to pose with them while holding a large sign that said: "Only $1200 at Hoosiers of Hawkins!" (What a ripoff, Mike couldn't help but think.)
The two older men stood off to the side talking shop while he and El waited for the photo to develop. Slowly but surely the image of the three of them (and the large sign) in front of the car began appearing, and while he and El couldn't say anything that would reveal their true motive to the men, they couldn't help but grin at each other ecstatically.
This was it! They'd won! They were going to meet Brock Sorenson! Mike was so happy he couldn't help but pick El up and twirl her around, prompting a squeal and a fit of giggles from her as he did so. When he finally put her down, her arms around his neck, all he had to do was lean down a little to capture her lips like he'd been wanting to do since Sunday.
"Ah, young love! Ain't it grand?" Troy's uncle said when he spotted them kissing, causing them to spring away from each other in embarrassment. The man didn't seem to notice, though, walking up right beside Mike and putting a hand on his shoulder again. With a gruff laugh, he leaned in to talk in Mike's ear, as if imparting some secret wisdom. "Tap that, my boy. Tap it often, while everything down there's still workin', if you know what I mean."
With a frown, Mike shrugged the man's hand off. "Yeah, thanks," he mumbled, not needing to be a genius to realize where Troy got his disgustingness genes from, either. "Come on, El, let's go back." She nodded, thankfully not having heard the man's comment, and followed him back to his car, with the other salesman calling out to them to come back with her father once they made their decision.
They drove back to Hawkins High so fast, it was a miracle Mike didn't get a ticket. And wouldn't that have been the cherry on top, he wondered as he turned onto the street where both Hawkins Middle and Hawkins High were located, if his first time meeting El's dad as her boyfriend was while getting a ticket for speeding?
They made it to the school just a few minutes after the final bell rang, while students were still filing out of the front entrance. As he parked his car in his still-empty spot from earlier, he was not surprised to find Lucas, Will, Dustin and Max huddled up beside Lucas's truck as if waiting for them. "Where the hell have you guys been?" Lucas demanded when they got out of the station wagon. "We were supposed to meet here after school, but you two were just gone!"
Before Mike could launch into the full story, El, with a bright smile on her face, handed the developed Polaroid to the nearest person, which turned out to be Will. "Is this...?" he trailed off as he looked down at the photo, then looked up at El and Mike again.
Mike smiled at his friends' confused expressions as he nodded. "It is," he said, and then went on to explain everything that had happened since lunch while his friends passed the photo around, as delicately as if it was going to crumble if they touched it a little too hard.
When he finished, and it started to dawn on them that they had won, Mike could see that they all wanted to cheer much as he and El had at the dealership, but they all knew they couldn't draw attention to themselves while in the school's parking lot; if Troy, Stacey, or any of their cronies realized the nerds had just beat them to the last clue, they'd do anything to get rid of the photo, and that would be disastrous. No, that Polaroid needed to be protected with their lives in the distance between the parking lot and Ms. Tanaka's office.
They all looked at each other in abject wonder for a moment, before almost in unison starting to race walk toward the front entrance of the school.
Ms. Tanaka, of course, could not confirm that they had won the scavenger hunt, but they celebrated like she had, nonetheless, heading out to Pizza One the moment they left her office to share a family-size mushroom and pepperoni pizza and collectively fantasize about the epic conversations they were going to have with Brock Sorenson when they met him.
"But you know who's going to really freak out when we meet him?" Dustin commented out loud while grabbing his bag on the way out of the booth they'd occupied for the entirety of their meal. "Claudia."
Lucas tsk-ed at him. "There's no way your mother even knows who Brock Sorenson is," he declared, and while El hadn't yet met Dustin's mom, she figured Lucas and the other boys had known Dustin for long enough that they had his mom pegged down by now. From Dustin's tales Claudia Henderson could sometimes come across as a little ditzy, but the others seemed to like her well enough, so El hoped she could meet her someday.
Dustin smirked. "Nah, she's never even heard of Brock Sorenson, but you know how she gets with celebrities, right? Now imagine her baby meeting face to face with one of the biggest movie stars on the planet. She is going to flip her shit."
"Wait, Mews is meeting Brock Sorenson, too?!" Max intervened, bringing up Dustin's cat, whom they knew well because he also featured quite prominently in the boy's tall tales of life at home. The curly-haired boy responded to Max's teasing with a roll of his eyes and a nasally "ha, ha" that made Max laugh. El did not miss the fact that Dustin's mock glare melted into a soft smile as he listened to the redhead giggle at her own joke.
As Max finally was free to slide out of her side of the booth, she turned to El. "Hey, you're coming with me, right?" she asked, but just as El was about to reply in the affirmative, she felt Mike touch her lightly on her elbow, pulling her attention gently.
"Actually, I was hoping you'd let me drive you home, instead," he said, meaning only El, but really putting the question up for consideration by both, since the outcome of his suggestion affected them both.
El frowned. "We already spoke about this earlier, remember?" she asked him, wondering if he'd just forgotten the conversation they'd had in the alley at lunch after all their friends had left. "How it's probably not a good idea for my dad to see you drop me off at home for the third time in as many weeks?"
"Well, yeah," Mike nodded, letting her know that he hadn't forgotten. "But I was thinking, if you're going to tell your dad about us anyway, then there's really no point in me staying away, don't you think?" he added with a shrug.
"Ooh, you're going to tell the chief that you're dating?" Max asked, arching her eyebrows high on her forehead at this little nugget of information El hadn't gotten to telling her yet. Switching her gaze from one to the other, she let out a whistle. "Sounds official," she commented. "So... is it official?"
El ignored the question, knowing that she was going to have to tell Max the whole story of how Mike asked her to be his girlfriend (or more accurately, never quite asked her but they came to that conclusion either way). El knew she was going to have to take her time with it, giving her best friend all the details, but she thought that could wait a little, at least until she didn't have to worry about how to tell her dad. So she ignored the question, and Max didn't push. In the meantime, Mike was right: It was probably better for her to just bite the bullet and tell her dad already. No sense in dawdling.
"Okay," she told him with a smile, actually rather glad that she would get a little bit more time with him that night. It was mindblowing in a way: they'd already spent most of their day together, and El wasn't even starting to get tired of being around him yet. She just really, really liked him. "I'll call you after I talk to my dad, okay?" she told Max, who nodded, knowing that she would get the full story soon enough.
In the background, Dustin and Will played a round of rock/paper/scissors to decide who would get shotgun in Lucas's car. They ended up doing best two out of three because Dustin complained that Will always chose paper just to throw him off his game. Will won anyway.
El's place was fairly close to Benny's, so even when they took the long way 'round, they made it to her house in about five minutes. The short trip was quiet, with El spending most of the time fiddling with the radio until coming to land on a pop station that was playing Rick Astley, much to Mike's eternal dismay. "You and my dad would get along," she said, laughing at the pained groan he let out when the familiar chorus started blaring out of the speakers. "He makes that exact same noise whenever this song comes up when I'm in his car."
"Good," Mike chuckled. "He's got a good ear for terrible music."
El mock-pouted at him. "What? You don't think it's romantic?" she asked, turning up the volume on the radio as loud as it could go. "This song is super romantic!"
"I think it's overplayed, is what it is!" Mike shouted, and El was barely able to hear him over the sound of the music.
Biting back a smile, she rolled her eyes at him in an exaggerated fashion. "Alright, music snob," she threw back, lowering the volume again until the music was down to a decent level. "It's almost like you're trying to take Jonathan's place now that he's gone or something," she added, prompting him to scoff. "But you know what? It's okay if you don't like the song, because I just wanna tell you what I'm feeling..."
Mike burst into laughter when she started singing along with the radio. "Oh, really, you're going to do that now?" he asked, his dark eyes gleaming with amusement as he turned his head to look at her. "That's cute. Real cute." She stuck her tongue out at him before singing the next line.
"Oh, look, we're here," he said in an exaggerated fashion as he started to brake nearing the curb of her house. Once he was close enough, he put the car in park. "Such a pity you won't be able to finish out the song. You were so excited about it, after all."
She winked at him. "That's okay. It's going to stay stuck in your head for the rest of the night, anyway." He groaned again, and she had to laugh. "Look at it on the bright side: at least it'll make you think of me," she added in a bubbly tone, giving him a sweet smile as she unbuckled her seat belt.
He snorted. "I don't really need a song for that to happen," he muttered in that dry tone of his that always made her laugh, but despite the sarcasm, she thought the sentiment itself actually quite delightful. It made her feel fuzzy inside to know that he thought about her when they were not together; it made her want to giggle uncontrollably.
She stretched out a hand to cradle his cheek, turning his head to look at her. "That's sweet," she said, leaning in to kiss him. Just like every other time their lips had met since Sunday, her heart started beating faster right away, and she felt her breath catch as his hand came to rest against the sensitive skin of her nape.
She felt like she could melt into him. She wanted to. She'd spent almost the entire day by his side, and now that it came time to say goodbye, she just couldn't bring herself to do it. She initially intended this kiss to be that goodbye gesture, but now all she wanted was to keep kissing him until her lungs gave out. Man, she was addicted.
His breath came out in a sigh when they pulled apart, and he leaned his forehead against hers as if he didn't want to get too far away, either. "You don't think your dad is watching us through the window, do you?" he asked, and it took her a second for the question to parse in her mind. His lips had effectively vanished all her worries about her father out of her head.
She chuckled. "Probably not," she decided, knowing that while her dad was definitely home— the Blazer was parked in its spot in the garage— he was probably more concerned with a beer and a baseball game at the moment. Nah; if he was going to find out that Mike had dropped her off yet again, it would be because he asked her who drove her back from Benny's.
She rubbed her nose against his almost sadly, knowing she couldn't put off the inevitable anymore. "I'll call you later to tell you how it went?" she said in lieu of a proper goodbye. He nodded with an "mm-hmm" sound and gave her one last peck on the lips, pulling back with a smile.
She opened her door and, hugging her book bag to her chest, took a step out of the car, pushing the door closed behind her. She was just about to take a step toward her house when a thought occurred to her, and she spun back toward the car, leaning forward to look at him through the open window. "Hey, you wanna come in?" she offered in a hopeful manner, but also a little cautious. She was hoping he'd say yes, but at the same time she didn't want to push him if he wasn't ready for the big meeting-the-parents moment. After all, they'd only been officially dating a few hours.
He watched her carefully for a moment, and she thought she could tell pretty well what he was thinking. It's not like he hadn't been over before, and he'd even already met her father the previous week, but not like this. Obviously he understood that she wanted him to be there when she told her dad she had a boyfriend and was weighing how scary it would be for the chief of police to be aware that he was dating his daughter, particularly when the revelation came within shooting distance.
She smiled at him, trying to assuage the instinctive fear, and she must've done something right because he took a deep breath and nodded his head. "Yeah, sure." He turned the car off, pulling the key from the ignition, and unbuckled his seat belt before opening the driver-side door and getting out of the car.
Walking around the front of the car, she offered him her hand to hold, figuring they might as well come in strong straight out of the gate. "Ready?" she asked, intertwining her fingers with his and squeezing his hand in reassurance.
"Ready," he replied, and together they walked toward her front door.