A/N: My very first attempt at an AU tale. I may or may not flesh this out into a longer story; for now, though, it's just a really long oneshot. Let me know what you think!
Rated for language. Mike's a bit of a potty-mouth in this. You'll see.
Tuesday, September 3rd, 1985.
Fourteen-year-old Mike Wheeler's first day at Hawkins High School had officially come to an end. Now a freshman, having 'graduated' from Hawkins Middle the previous June, Mike had hoped high school would represent a fresh start for him. A chance to escape the teasing and torment he had endured all through middle school. A chance to come out of his shell, to develop new interests, to finally let himself be the person he so desperately wanted to be. Maybe even a chance to make a friend or two?
Yes, for all intents and purposes, Mike Wheeler had hoped high school would be different. And so it was to his great regret that the first day of his high school career was ending in almost the exact same way every day of his middle school career had ended.
Namely, with him getting his ass kicked by Troy Peyton.
Mike cursed hoarsely as he felt Troy's fist make contact with his face for what had to be at least the fifth time since their 'fight' began. Though it was a little unfair to call it a fight, he realized, considering his contribution to the conflict consisted almost entirely of grunting, cursing, and flailing around spastically. His nose was already a pulpy mess, with blood staining his face, hiding his usually prominent freckles and even getting caught in some of his unruly black hair.
'Please just let him go easy on me today,' Mike thought to himself as he stumbled backwards and tried to look through an eye he was sure was already turning black. 'Come on, God, please, no permanent damage. Give me that at least.'
Troy's next punch caught him right in the mouth, and dislodged a tooth.
'OH, SCREW YOU, GOD!'
The school day had come to an end only twenty minutes before and, for a second, Mike had actually thought he was going to make it off school property bodily intact. He had had a good day, all things considered: his classes didn't seem too difficult, he liked most of his teachers, and he had only been spit on by four or five people. For a second there, he really thought he was going to get the fresh start he had been hoping for all these years.
Cue Troy cornering him in the grassy lot by the parking lot. Mike had been Troy's favorite target for all of middle school, his own personal punching bag, and Mike had been hoping high school would be different. Unfortunately, this had proven not to be the case.
"God-fucking-damnit!" Mike groaned loudly as he lifted a hand up to his now-bloodied mouth. "You knocked out a tooth! I literally just went to the dentist's office yesterday, Troy! Yesterday! Now I gotta go back."
Troy only smirked, tossing aside some of his greasy hair and cracking his neck in preparation to go after Mike again.
"Serves you right, Wheeler," he said with an ugly sneer. "Can't have you thinking I'm gonna go easy on you just because – "
"Oh, wait, never mind," Mike interrupted as he pulled out the dislocated tooth and looked at it in the afternoon light. "Holy shit, I think it's a wisdom tooth! You might have actually saved me a trip to the dentist!"
"Shut up, already!"
Troy's next punch caught Mike in his stomach, and his eyes widened as he felt all of the air suddenly burst out of his lungs all at once.
"You just don't get it, do you, Wheeler?" Troy asked as he watched Mike crumple to his knees, both arms now wrapping around his stomach as he attempted to catch his breath. "You wanna know why I do this? You wanna know why I gotta beat the crap out of you every single day? Huh?"
"Shit, man, I dunno," Mike gasped as he looked up at Troy from his half-crouching position on the ground. "Cuz you peaked in sixth grade and it's been nothing but downhill for you ever since?"
"Nah," Troy answered as he kneed Mike in the face, causing him to cry out and crumple to the ground once again. "It's because you don't know when to shut your fucking mouth!"
'Fair enough,' Mike considered.
"Well, fuck, Troy…why didn't you tell me earlier?" he said slowly, still gasping for air and doing his level best to keep himself from falling over entirely. He was on all fours now and didn't even have the strength necessary to lift his head up to look at Troy.
"I mean…we could have come up with a signal or something, you know?" he went on, a macabre grin forming on his face, despite how painful it was to smile. "That way, next time I'm mouthing off, you just pull your ear or flash some jazz hands or something, and I'll be like 'oh, shit, I better shut my goddamn pie-hole before Troy has to come over and kick the shit outta me!' Think of all the beatings we could have saved!"
"Smartass," Troy muttered before giving Mike one last kick to the ribs, effectively sending the young man sprawling onto the ground. "Always gotta have the last laugh, don't ya?"
'Worth it,' thought Mike, before wincing in pain because at this point it literally hurt to think.
"Screw this, I got syllabus signatures to forge," Troy said as he picked his backpack up off the ground and began heading towards the parking lot, but not before taking the time to spit on the back of Mike's head. "Catch you tomorrow, Wheeler. Same time, same place."
"It's a date!" Mike responded, though it came out as little more than 'es a ate!' due to the fact that he was still lying facedown in a puddle of mud and blood.
Mike took a moment to watch out of the corner of his eye as Troy strutted into the parking lot, quickly disappearing amongst the other three hundred or so students making their way to their buses or cars or bikes. From his (less than stellar) position in the dirt and grime, Mike could make out at least three staff members directly in his line of sight, as well as several other students from a variety of grades.
"So…anyone gonna help me?" he tried asking, looking around as his fellow students continued to walk past without so much as stopping to look. "Freshman bleeding into the ground? No? Nothing to that? Just gonna keep walking?"
Mike sighed. Unfortunately, he was used to being ignored. Truth be told, he sometimes preferred it, as being ignored meant no one was calling him names or rearranging his organs with their fists. Still, a little help would have been nice.
'So much for high school,' he thought to himself as he slowly and painfully rolled himself over so he was at least facing upwards and no longer breathing in dirt and grass. 'But hey, look on the bright side, Wheeler: only four more years to college! I wonder what it will be like to get my ass kicked on a university campus?'
He tried to look up at the blue sky above him, but found it difficult with one of his eyes almost swollen shut from the force of Troy's punches. He knew it was about time he stood up, brushed himself off, and hobbled home as best he could, but he just couldn't seem to bring himself to do it. He couldn't seem to bring himself to do much of anything, really.
It had been like this ever since Mike's family moved to Hawkins in 1982, just after he had finished fifth grade. Back in elementary school, back in Montauk, he'd had friends. Will Byers. Lucas Sinclair. Dustin Henderson. Max Mayfield. The Party. He'd had support, people who cared for him, people he could be himself around.
Now? Not so much. It seemed the moment the Wheeler family had moved to Hawkins, Mike began walking through life as though he had a target painted on the back of his head. No more friends. No more support. No more life.
And why? Because he would rather read a book than play football? Because he actually enjoyed completing his schoolwork? Because, as much as he longed to have another friend, a true friend, someone he could share himself and his interests with, he nonetheless preferred to be alone most of the time, when it came right down to it?
It's not like he was a bad person. He did all of his homework and turned all of his assignments in on time. He tutored his little sister Holly and helped his mother cook dinner and clean the dishes. Hell, he was a Boy Scout, for crying out loud; he sold popcorn for charity and helped little old ladies cross the street. So what had he done to deserve this?
Troy had said his mouth was the problem, but Mike knew that wasn't it; his mouth was the effect of his torment, not the cause. It was his way of coping with the tragedy that was his social life, of working past the teasing and the beatings. It was his way of getting back at his tormentors.
At least, that's what he told himself.
"Remember, Mike, there are only two ways to go through life," Ted Wheeler had told his son upon watching him arrive home with a black eye for the very first time. "You can either laugh, or you can cry. And men – real men – don't cry. So what are you gonna do?"
I'm gonna laugh, Mike had realized that day. My life is just one big joke anyway; I might as well have fun with it.
"Are you okay?"
Mike was finally brought out of his mournful ruminations by a voice he had never heard before. Groaning slightly, he opened his one good eye and strained to get a good look at the person now looking down at him, their voice full of worry.
When he did, he felt his breath catch in his throat.
Standing above him, and looking down with what appeared to be a genuine look of concern on her face, was a girl. But not just any girl. It was a girl Mike had never met before, had never seen before, had no idea even existed before this very moment.
She wore what appeared to be a pair of faded jeans and a relatively baggy sweater, finishing the ensemble with a well-loved pair of Chucks. Her skin was fair, and almost as pale as his own, a telltale sign she didn't get much sun, and her hair was short and brown and unruly, falling all about her scalp in a beautiful burst of curls.
And her eyes. Holy hell, her eyes.
Her eyes were a bright brown in color, almost hazel, the color of chestnuts and autumn leaves and bonfires. They were wide with worry, worry for him – for him of all people – and piercing in their intensity, as though they could see past the blood and the grime and the exhaustion and straight into his very soul.
Anyone else might have looked right past her without a second thought, seeing just another girl among the hundreds Hawkins High had to offer. But not Mike. As far as Mike was concerned, she was the most beautiful girl in the world.
"Pretty," he mumbled.
That caused the girl's eyes to widen even further, if it was possible, and Mike silently cursed himself as he watched her face turn red; he hadn't realized he had said that out loud. Once again, his mouth was getting him into trouble.
"Me?" she asked, blinking inquisitively. "You think I'm…pretty?"
"Uh-huh," Mike admitted before he could stop himself. "Are you an angel?"
'Jesus Christ, Wheeler, you total wastoid.'
"I don't think so."
"Damn," Mike groaned as he squeezed his eyes shut and finally made to sit up. "Means I'm still alive, then."
He had barely even managed to lift his head off the ground before the girl was kneeling beside him and hesitantly helping him sit up with hands that he noticed were shaking slightly, as if she wasn't sure what to do or how to help. With her assistance, however, he managed to at least lift himself into a sitting position.
"Thanks," Mike said with a gasp as he placed a hand over his swollen eye, checking to see whether it was really as bad as he thought it was. (It was).
"What happened?" the girl asked, her eyes still wide as she looked him over. "You're…hurt."
She spoke…not exactly slowly, Mike thought to himself, but carefully, as though she was intent on using just the right word and would be embarrassed if she used the wrong one. She reminded him of a boy he had known back in Montauk who has from India and who was mostly fluent in English, but still struggled sometimes with pronunciation and word choice.
Was she a foreign exchange student? Is that why he didn't know her? Maybe she was new.
"It's nothing," Mike answered with a shrug, trying to play it cool.
The expression on the girl's face told him in no uncertain terms that she didn't believe him for a second.
'Well, at least she's fluent in bullshit.'
"Fine, I got my ass kicked by this mouth-breather named Troy, okay?" Mike finally admitted. He turned away, not wanting to be witness to the girl's disgusted or disappointed look once she discovered what a loser he really was.
As such, he almost missed it when, instead of abandoning him or looking upon him with pity, the girl instead began to giggle lightly. Confused, Mike turned to watch as her eyes lit up and the edges of her mouth curled upwards in an amused smile. She was blushing lightly, almost as though she was embarrassed to find herself laughing so openly, but as far as Mike was concerned, it only made her look more beautiful.
"What's so funny?" he asked tentatively.
"You," the girl said as she finally stopped laughing, but didn't stop smiling. "Mouth-breather. That's funny."
"You think so?"
The girl nodded, still smiling.
'Holy shit, someone's actually laughing with me and not at me,' Mike thought as he felt himself begin to smile in turn. 'I think I'm in love.'
"Here," the girl said as she stood up and offered her hand, which Mike gladly accepted.
With her help, Mike managed to get himself back up onto his feet, after which he let her guide him to one of the many benches lining the parking lot of the high school. The parking lot was clearing out quickly now, with all of the buses having departed and the line of cars slowing down to a trickle. Mike winced slightly as the girl helped lower him onto the uncomfortable metal seat of the closest bench, doing his best to ignore the way his heart fluttered when she sat down beside him.
"Thanks," he said again with a small smile. "My name's Mike, by the way, short for Michael. Michael Wheeler. But you can just call me Mike, or Frogface, or Smartass, or Loudmouth, or whatever the hell everyone else is calling me these days."
He was pleasantly surprised when she giggled again, and he couldn't help but smile wider.
"Mike," she finally said once her laughs had subsided. "I'll call you Mike. I'm Eleanor."
"Eleanor, huh? What do your friends call you?"
Her face fell at that, and she shrugged. "Don't know. I just moved here. I don't have any friends yet."
"Yeah? How long have you been in Hawkins?"
"Um, about three months."
That would explain why Mike had never seen her before. She had just moved to Hawkins; this wasn't just her first day of high school, this was her first day of life in Hawkins in general. No wonder she had been the only one to help him: she hadn't known any better.
"Okay, well…maybe I can call you El? Short for Eleanor?" he ventured at last, wincing slightly as his rather lame attempt to come up with a nickname for her. "I mean…if you want. Totally up to you. I don't have to call you anything if you don't want. I just thought, you know…yeah."
'Smooth, Wheeler. You've really outdone yourself this time. Gold star.'
But Eleanor didn't seem to mind. "El." She frowned as she spoke the word, as if trying it out for the first time. After a moment or so, however, she smiled. "Yes. I like that. I am El."
'Holy shit, that actually worked?'
"El it is," Mike said with a smile, holding his hand out to her. "Nice to meet you, El."
"Nice to meet you, Mike," El responded, grasping her hand with his own and shaking.
'Alright, Wheeler, time to quit while you're ahead. You made her laugh, you gave her a nickname, you even shook her hand for some damn reason. Don't push your luck!'
"Well, thanks again for making sure I didn't bleed out on school grounds," Mike said with a sad smile as he began to stand back up, "but I should probably start limping back home. If I'm not back by the time my mom comes home with my little sister, I'll probably be sporting a second black eye tomorrow."
"You're walking home?" El asked, so surprised her eyebrows practically flew off her forehead. "But…you're hurt."
"Well, like I said, limping. There's a subtle difference."
El simply shook her head, either not picking up on the humor or not caring. "Stay. My dad is picking me up. I'll ask if he can drop you off. Would that be alright?"
Mike thought about it. It's not like he was particularly looking forward to walking (limping) back home looking like an escapee from the Intensive Care Unit. And regardless of who he was and what he was saying, El seemed to genuinely like him. If it meant spending more time with her, even just a few more minutes…that would be worth it, wouldn't it?
'Yeah, tough choice. Do I or do I not stay here and keep talking with the cute girl? A real head-scratcher, that one.'
"Are you sure?" he asked, just in case. "Your dad won't mind?"
"I don't think so," El said with a shrug. "He's really nice. And he's funny, like you."
The way she was looking at him, brow furrowed slightly in concern and brown eyes soft in the gentle afternoon light, Mike wasn't sure he had much of a choice. If he didn't know any better, he would think she genuinely wanted him to stay.
"Okay," he said at last, and the smile that magically appeared on her face the moment he said that reassured him that he had definitely, definitely, definitely made the right decision. He could practically feel his heart melt in his chest.
He sat back down, smiling awkwardly all the while.
"So, um…how was your first day?" he finally asked, desperate for anything to talk about.
El shrugged. "It was okay. You?"
"Believe it or not, it was going pretty well until about half an hour ago," Mike replied, sighing as he leaned back against the metal bench, happy to take some of the weight off his aching legs. "Good old Troy. No matter how good of a day I have, I can always rely on him to find some way to ruin it. He's like a guardian angel, except he's more of a devil, and instead of dispensing wisdom, he dispenses beatings. But I guess it's good to have a hobby."
"Why does he hurt you?" El asked, looking genuinely confused.
Mike found himself laughing a little, even if it was at his own expense. "Yeah, uh…you're new here, so I guess you don't know, but I'm not exactly the most popular guy in Hawkins."
"Well, according to Troy, it's because I talk too much."
"I guess. But I mean…I'm also kind of a total nerd. I mean, I like reading books and playing board games and going to the library and taking apart electronics and putting them back together and stuff like that. And I don't like any sports and I don't go to parties or anything but, like, I just don't see the point, you know? Like, what the hell am I supposed to do at a party? Engage in social interaction with my peers? Do I look like a people person to you? Hell, I'm barely even a person – "
Mike was about to go on, but El's sudden and abrupt laughter snapped him out of his external monologue. What had started as a light giggling had steadily worked its way up to full-blown laughter, and soon El was practically clutching Mike's arm as she struggled to catch her breath.
"What's so funny?" he asked as he watched her laugh, a smile forming despite himself.
"You," El giggled. "You do talk a lot."
Mike felt his face grow hot. "Told ya. Sorry."
"It's okay," El told him with a smile, her cheeks still flush from laughter. "I like it. It's cute."
'Holy shit, she thinks I'm cute?' Mike asked himself.
"Holy shit, you think I'm cute?" he also said out loud before he could stop himself.
'Fuck, did I just say that out loud?!'
"Fuck, did I just say that out loud?!"
And though El was laughing again, she nonetheless managed to smile and nod her head enthusiastically, nonverbally confirming that, yes, she did indeed thought he was cute.
Mike just about fainted right then and there.
Thankfully, he was spared the embarrassment of having to be resuscitated in the school parking lot when El suddenly stopped laughing and looked up, as though noticing something in the distance.
"Oh, my dad is here," El said, motioning toward the parking lot as she stood up.
Squinting slightly, Mike likewise made to stand up as he looked around for El's father. Save for the two dozen cars parked in the faculty lot, the rest of the parking lot was mostly empty. The only moving vehicle he saw was a familiar Blazer slowly pulling off the main road and heading for the school, 'HAWKINS POLICE' emblazoned on its doors. Mike recognized it as the vehicle of Chief Hopper, the town sheriff, Hawkins only really having three squad cars in total.
"Where is he?" Mike asked. "Is he following the chief?"
El giggled. "No, silly. He is the chief."
Somewhere, a record scratched.
If Mike had felt like he was going to faint when El told him he was cute, it was nothing compared to how lightheaded he felt upon hearing her claim her father was the police chief. He could literally feel all the blood rush from his head as his face paled in terror and his sweat glands kicked into maximum overdrive.
'I've been flirting with the daughter of the chief of police,' he realized with growing apprehension. 'I am so monumentally screwed.'
"You, uh…didn't tell me your father was Chief Hopper," Mike stammered, feeling his throat immediately grow dry.
"You didn't ask," El said. She raised an eyebrow in confusion. "Is that a problem?"
'God, I hope not.'
Mike found himself frozen in place as the Blazer pulled right up to the sidewalk in front of them, but El didn't even wait for the vehicle to fully come to a stop before leaping from the bench and bounding over to the driver's side with a smile on her face. The driver's door opened and out came Chief Jim Hopper.
'Good lord, the man looks like he punches dinosaurs in the face for a living,' Mike thought to himself as he watched El throw her arms around him in a hug.
While somewhat hyperbolic, Mike's assertion wasn't entirely wrong. Hopper was an intimidating man with or without the police uniform, burly and bearded, and had almost certainly been a lumberjack in a previous life. Mike had only ever seen the chief once or twice since moving to Hawkins, and always from a distance, but he had heard the stories about his stone-cold stare, his omnipresent cigarettes, and the permanent scowl painted onto his face.
But the Chief Hopper Mike saw now didn't look like he had heard the stories. Though still dressed in his police uniform, sans his wide-brimmed hat, there wasn't a cigarette to be seen, nor was there a hint of a frown. Instead, Hopper's eyes seemed to light up and a smile overtook his features the moment he stepped out of the Blazer and saw El running towards him. He even laughed as he felt the girl throw herself at him before hugging her back and then ruffling a hand in her curly brown hair.
"Hey, kiddo, sorry to keep you waiting," Hopper asked as El finally pulled away, a fatherly smile still curling the edges of his mouth. "How was your first day of school?"
El shrugged again, just as she had when Mike asked that same question. "It was okay. But I made a friend!" She frowned suddenly, as if realizing something, and then turned to look back at Mike. "We're friends now, right?"
Mike blinked, still frozen in place. "Uh, yeah?"
"Good," El said with a smile, turning back to her father. "His name is Mike."
"Wheeler," Mike added, awkwardly holding out his hand because he figured that's what he was supposed to do. "Mike Wheeler, sir. It's, um, nice to meet you, sir. Uh, sir."
"Just the one 'sir' is plenty, Mike," Hopper said as he approached the young man and shook his hand. Though still friendly in demeanor, Mike could feel Hopper looking him up and down, taking in the blood and bruises and the quickly blackening eye. "Wheeler, huh? As in…Ted and Karen Wheeler?"
"Yes, sir," Mike said, already feeling his voice growing smaller each time he spoke. "They're my parents, sir."
"Huh. I didn't know the Wheelers had a son."
"I didn't know you had a daughter," Mike said before he could stop himself. "Sir."
"Neither did I until about three months ago."
"I was an accident," El piped in with a smile, which only caused the chief to squeeze his eyes closed in exasperation.
"We've been over this, Eleanor," he said, suddenly red in the face. "You weren't an accident. You were a surprise. It's different."
El just shrugged. "I offered Mike a ride home. Is that alright?"
"I don't see why not," Hopper said with a shrug of his own as he turned back to look at Mike. "What the hell happened to you, anyway?"
"I got beat up by a kid named Troy," Mike admitted.
"A mouth-breather," El added.
Hopper frowned. "Troy, huh? Troy Peyton?"
"You know him?"
Hopper chuckled. "Yeah, I know him. He's the reason I'm late picking up Eleanor here. I caught him slashing the tires on a truck off Chestnut and had to drive him to the station. Good way to start off the new school year."
"Seriously?!" Mike exclaimed. Even he had trouble believing this. "He only lives like three blocks away! I can practically see his house from here! You're telling me he couldn't make it half a mile without committing a felony?"
"Karma's a bitch, kid," Hopper said with a smile. "Now come on, you can hop in the back. You live off Maple, right?"
And that's how Mike Wheeler found himself sitting in the back of a police cruiser being driven home on the very first day of high school. To say the drive was awkward would be an understatement, and the only thing that kept Mike from feeling like he had just been arrested was the fact that El kept looking back at him every so often, as if checking to make sure he was still there.
"Are you okay?" she finally asked him after looking back for the sixth or seventh time, only a few minutes into the drive.
"Yeah?" he responded. "I mean, aside from the black eye and the broken nose and the missing tooth and the internal bleeding. Why?"
"You aren't talking," El said simply. "I like it when you talk."
Mike couldn't stop himself. "Does that mean you don't think I'm cute anymore?"
'Damn it, Wheeler, stop flirting with her! The chief is RIGHT. OVER. THERE.'
El paused, as if studying him for a moment, before she smiled again. "No. Still cute."
Hopper coughed conspicuously, as if to remind Mike and El that he was indeed still there, and while Mike felt suitably chastised and was just about to promise he wouldn't say another word for the remaining duration of the drive (or for the rest of his life, if that's what the chief desired), it seemed to do nothing to deter El.
"Dad, do you think Mike is cute?"
Mike paled as he glanced up up to see Hopper's pale blue eyes looking back at him through the rear view mirror, staring at him with the same intensity Mike had seen in El's eyes when first he had opened his eyes to see her standing above him in the grass.
'Huh, like father, like daughter.'
"Cute as a button," Hopper finally stated, eyes back on the road. "Could use a little sun, though. And maybe some Neosporin."
El smiled as she looked back at Mike. "See? Dad's never wrong."
Hopper merely nodded in agreement, and Mike let out a sigh of relief.
'I might actually make it out of this car alive after all,' he thought.
"Mike said I'm pretty."
'They'll never find my body.'
"Did he, now?" Hopper asked as he glanced into the rear view mirror once again, smirking as he watched the boy's eyes widen in horror.
Mike gulped. "In my defense, sir, I have pretty much no filter whatsoever on the best of days, and I'm pretty sure I have at least a minor concussion. Sir."
"So…you don't think my daughter pretty?" Hopper asked, suddenly frowning.
"No, no, no, no, no, El is definitely pretty!" Mike exclaimed, his mouth once again working faster than his brain. "Totally pretty! Super pretty! She's, like, the prettiest girl I've ever seen, and I've seen a lot of pretty girls! Well, not a lot, I mean, I'm not a creep or a stalker or whatever, I don't go around looking for pretty girls or anything, but, like, I have cable, you know? And there's pretty girls on cable and there's pretty girls in our school, and I'm sure there are pretty girls in lots of other places I haven't been to, but El's definitely the prettiest out of all of them, and – "
Mike probably would have gone on talking until he was out of breath had Hopper's sudden snort of laughter not interrupted him, alerting Mike to the fact that (of course) he wasn't in trouble at all, and that the chief of police had just played him for a fool. Eyes wide with realization and more than a little embarrassment, he turned to El for help, only to find she was also regarding him with an amused smile on her face, biting her lip as though to keep from laughing herself.
"Oh, god," he groaned, face glowing red as he leaned back in his seat. "You were messing with me."
"Yeah, I was messing with you," Hopper confirmed, still fighting back laughter. "Got one hell of a mouth on you, huh?"
"It's how I cope."
"Yeah, with what?"
"With the fact that my life is a joke," Mike muttered, wishing the ground would just open up and swallow him whole.
Hopper laughed again, reaching over to nudge El as he did so. "You have a good eye for friends, kid. I like this one."
"Yeah," El said with a smile, her own cheeks a bright pink in color as she looked back at Mike. "I like him, too."
Mike smiled weakly back at her, his heart fluttering in his chest.
'Well, if I'm gonna die of embarrassment, at least I'll die looking at her.'
"So, 'El,' huh?" Hopper spoke up, looking over at his daughter. "That's new."
"Yes," El said with another small smile. "El. Short for Eleanor. Like Mike, short for Michael."
"I like it," Hopper said after a moment's consideration, and Mike looked up just in time to watch as the chief of police gave him an approving wink by way of the rear view mirror.
'I officially have no idea what the hell is even going on anymore,' Mike thought to himself.
Finally – finally – Hopper turned onto Maple Street and Mike sat up as the chief pulled up alongside his house, parking just in front of the driveway.
"Why don't you help Mike to the door?" Hopper asked his daughter as he sat back in his seat, clearly not intending on getting out himself. "Don't want him collapsing on the driveway."
El didn't even answer, she just smiled and nodded as she undid her seatbelt.
"You take care, Wheeler," Hopper said, turning around to face Mike as the boy also unfastened his seatbelt and made to get out of the car. "And call me if Troy tries anything again, you hear?"
"Uh, yeah, will do," Mike stammered, his hand already on the door handle. "And, um…thanks again. For the ride. Sir."
Hopper chuckled. "Anytime, kid. Now get out of my car."
El carefully helped Mike out of the car, supporting him as best she could, though there was really little she had to do, considering Mike's problem was moreso with his balance than anything wrong with his legs. He still appreciated, however, and took the opportunity to savor being so close to El, if even for such a short period of time and for so humiliating a reason.
"Thanks again," Mike said to El as they finally reached his front door. "Like, for everything. For helping me up, for staying with me, for getting your dad to drive me home. No one else has ever done anything like this for me before, you know? And I, um…I really appreciate it. I owe you. Like, a lot."
El just smiled and shook her head. "We're friends. You don't owe me."
"No, I do, big time," Mike assured her, going so far as to reach down and take one of her hands in his just to demonstrate how serious he was. "I mean it, I'll do anything. Anything."
El stared at him for a moment, her brow furrowing in thought, as if she was trying to come up with some way for Mike to repay her right and then and there. When she finally did speak again, Mike noticed her cheeks were tinged with pink and she had a shy smile on her face.
"Anything?" she asked.
"Anything!" Mike answered. "Whatever you want! I'll carry your books to class every day, or clean your whole house, or…or give you all of my lunch money for the rest of the year. I'll even let you beat me up if you want to try it out – pretty sure everyone else has – on the condition that I get a day or two to recuperate first because I already kinda feel like I'm dying right now."
El just giggled again. "None of that."
"Answer a question."
Mike blinked. "That's it?"
El nodded. "But you have to answer honestly. No lying."
"Of course not," Mike reassured her with a small smile as he remembered the words he and his friends back in Montauk used to say to each other. "Friends don't lie."
El's face was growing red again, and she seemed to be having trouble looking him in the eye, and for a second Mike was concerned, worried that he had said or done something wrong. But then the moment passed and she was shaking her head and looking at him head-on with a much more confident expression as she finally asked her question.
"Do you really think I'm pretty?"
Mike's eyes widened. He looked at El with her baggy sweater and faded jeans; with her curly mess of brown hair and her pale face; with her autumn fire eyes that burned with an intensity that made a shiver run down his spine, and for a moment, everything else seemed to fade away.
He no longer felt the soreness in his jaw where Troy had knocked out his tooth, or his eye pulsing in his head, or the sticky blood drying around his nose. He no longer thought about Troy, or how shitty his first day of high school had been, or how much trouble he was going to be in once his parents got a look at him. He no longer saw his home, or his neighborhood, or Hopper waiting in his Blazer at the end of the driveway.
All he saw was her. The girl who helped him. The girl who laughed with him. The girl who called him cute.
And for the first time that day, Mike's mouth and brain were on the exact same page.
And Mike watched as El beamed at him, cheeks burning red, and, ignoring the fact that her father was sitting in his police cruiser literally twenty feet away, leaned in and planted a kiss on his lips so quickly he would have missed it had he blinked.
It was over before Mike even realized what was happening, but that didn't stop his own cheeks from bursting into flames or keep his heart from skipping three or four consecutive beats in a row. A dopey smile slowly made its way across his face, and he watched as El smiled back shyly, her eyes darting back and forth between his and literally anything and everything else.
"So," she said at last, "I'll see you at school tomorrow?"
"Huh? Oh! Oh, yeah," Mike said with a start, shaking himself out of whatever dimension his mind had been slowly slipping into. "Yeah, school. Right. Tomorrow. Definitely."
El smiled. "Okay. Bye, Mike!"
"Bye, El," Mike started to say as El suddenly turned on her heel and practically sprinted back to the Blazer.
And then she was in the cruiser and it was pulling out of the driveway and Mike smiled as he saw El waving goodbye from the passenger side, returning her heartfelt gesture with a small wave of his own.
'Well, the first day of high school might have sucked,' he thought to himself as he watched the Blazer disappear into the distance, his one hand still raised in farewell, 'but at least now I have a reason to look forward to the second.'
A/N: So, what do you think? Still want more? Let me know in the comments!