Jonathan slinks lower in his seat and checks his watch. It’s a cheap piece, not more than fifteen bucks, that he’s had for years, but it tells the time and that’s what watches were for, right? Eight minutes to go. He managed to snag a pretty good spot in math class at least; third seat, last row. Nice and inconspicuous, just how he liked it.
Oh shit! What now?
“You heard what I said?” Niece’s tone is threatening and Jonathan knows what’s coming. “Get up here.”
He knows it’s useless to argue so he gets up; that awkward thing happens where he bumps into the front of his desk as he tried to stand, causing the whole thing to shift forward a couple of centimeters, with a tinny squeak that sounds harsher than it should in the classroom that’s suddenly gone silent. He shuffles to the front of the room, hands buried in the deep pockets of his faded jacket; he wears clothes with pockets, more often than not, for just this reason. He feels uncomfortable enough without his arms swinging stupidly at his side, like a lumbering gorilla.
“Care to demonstrate?” Niece smirks, handing him a piece of chalk.
There’s a second where his hand won’t leave his pocket, so he yanks it out, rather violently and grabs the piece from his teacher’s hand, cracking it. He bends down to pick up the broken bits, trying to ignore the sniggering that’s buzzing in his ears. It seems like an eternity before he straightens up and takes a look at the question he’s supposed to be doing.
Piece of cake…
He was honestly okay with trigonometry and algebra, unlike most. Chemistry was where his mind really clammed up, and he struggled to maintain a passing grade.
Jonathan starts writing at a furious pace. Get this over, just get this over…Thirty seconds late, he’s done, and on his way back to his seat.
“Byers! I told you to use the quadratic formula, not to complete the square.”
“I didn’t hear that,” he mutters, pausing and glancing back. He’s glaring and he knows he is, but he’s just not in the mood of dealing with his vindictive math teacher. Not today at least.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah…you’ll do questions…” Niece consults the textbook. “…5 through 15 for tomorrow, no excuses. Got it?”
He nods once, irritably, and completes the long journey back to his seat, just as the bell rings. Jonathan grabs his stuff and makes a mad dash out to the parking lot, thankful that the area around his car seems to be unoccupied. He gets into the beat-up Ford, starts it, and shifts to drive, anxious to make a quick getaway. But that isn’t meant to be. There’s a tap on the passenger side window and he looks over to see Nancy and Steve peering in at him like he’s an exhibit.
What now? This was becoming a theme. They’d taken to ambushing him every chance they got, it seemed. He didn’t get it, he really didn’t. They’d fought the damn monster together. That was it, in Jonathan’s mind, but apparently, it wasn’t. They came to the hospital with him that night, they’d waited there for hours as Will was stabilized, and they’d stayed overnight in the waiting room, leaving only to buy food for his mom and him. Nancy, he understood. Sort of. But the Steve aspect perplexed him.
Jonathan had walked back into the waiting room, looking for Nancy, when Steve had gotten up.
“Hey, Byers, can I have a word?”
They’d moved to the hallway where Steve had taken a deep breath and then launched into a speech.
“Listen, man, I want to apologize for what I said to you yesterday, earlier today, whenever…It, uh, it was way out of line…Disgusts me now, thinking about it, honestly. What I said about your mom and brother, and yourself, I’m sorry. I was an ass.”
“Yeah, you were,” Jonathan had nodded, unsure of what he felt himself. “But you did save our lives back there, so…” he’d held out his hand in what he assumed was an appropriate gesture and they’d shaken hands. And he’d assumed that that was it between the two of them, had hoped it was, honestly, because something about Steve threw him off. He didn’t know if it was the hair, or the cologne, or that ingratiating smile, but something about him was off-putting.
The tapping on the dusty window-pane is becoming more like a pounding, so Jonathan leans over and opens the door (The automatic lock stopped working a long time ago).
“What?” He rubs his eyes, trying to get the two to leave him alone.
Steve forces the door open all the way and slips inside, as though Jonathan had just given him a warm invitation. “So, we’re going over to my place to study, for that chemistry test. Wanna come? Nance seems to think that the only way we get any actual ‘studying’ done, is if you’re there…”
Nancy comes around to his side, where the window is open and leans in, resting her arms on the window frame.
Oh God, now they’re flanking me…
Jonathan sighs and looks over at Steve. “What time? Because I gotta get home and take a nap first, I’m on four hours of sleep right now.”
Before answering, Steve winks at Nancy. “That’s a record, Byers. Took just two minutes to convince you. Your average is at about half an hour, I’d say.”
Jonathan rolls his eyes, impatiently. “Don’t make me change my mind, Harrington.”
Now it’s Nancy’s turn to roll her eyes. When they start using each other’s last name is when she has to intervene, or they’d carry on that way forever. “Okay…seriously, about seven, right?” She looks at Steve for affirmation.
He nods quickly but makes no move to leave the car.
“You’re in my car,” Jonathan says dully, a moment later.
“Really, Byers? No shit! You’ll go far with that head of yours.”
Jonathan inhales deeply and then blows the air out slowly, before turning to Steve. “What do you want?”
“If you ask nicely I’ll tell you.”
Nancy can see Jonathan’s frustration growing. Over the past few months, she noticed this pattern in him, how he had a hard time differentiating between someone teasing him playfully and spitefully. He’d walked off on them a couple of times, much to Steve’s chagrin, when the bantering had taken a wrong turn and Nancy wasn’t about to let that happen here.
“Steve, come on, we need to go,” She says loudly. “I’ve got a couple of things I want to pick up.”
Steve is oblivious to Nancy’s tactics and grins cheekily at Jonathan before exiting the car and looping his arm around her.
I’m gonna need to have a talk with him about this, Nancy thinks, Or else, things are gonna go south between them.
Steve heads out to the Harrington garage (6 cars, if you were wondering), and finds his stash of beer, which he keeps inside a wobbly stack of spare tires that haven’t been used in years. He’s running low and makes a mental note to let his contact know; said ‘contact’ is just his cousin, but he refers to the guy as a ‘contact’ to keep it dangerous sounding.
After hauling a twelve-pack into his freezer, Steve collapses on the couch and looks over at Nancy who seems to be organizing…color-coded notes…?
“What the hell, Nance? Are those color-coded?”
“Yeah…” She sounds guilty.
He’s laughing before she can defend herself and soon she’s whacking him on the hips with those very same notes.
“To think I’d date a girl who color-codes her notes…” Steve muses when they’ve calmed down. For some reason, this statement makes Nancy think of Jonathan and her resolution from earlier.
“Steve. I need to talk to you about how you handle Jonathan,” she says firmly, letting him know that this is not in jest.
“Whayamean?” He garbles back at her, his eyes wide and his mouth stuffed with popcorn.
She opens her mouth to speak when a car grinds to a halt on the gravel outside. Nancy jumps up and goes to open the door before Jonathan has to ring the bell.
“Hi,” she smiles.
“Yeah, hi,” His hair is mussed and his eyes look squinty like he just woke up.
“You sleep well?”
“Yeah, a little too well, overslept,” Jonathan says and follows her inside. He feels the familiar sensation of detachment that comes each time he enters Steve’s house. It’s one of not belonging, of an outsider looking in, like a waiter at some extravagant party. Everything, from the leather couches to the heavy velvet curtains, just screams wealth, and that’s something that Jonathan is unfamiliar and uncomfortable with. He doubts there’s even a scrap of leather to be found in his house.
Steve is sprawled out on the couch, stuffing his face with microwave popcorn, but jumps up when he sees Jonathan.
“Lemmegoorderapie,” he says heading into the kitchen. While he’s gone, Nancy sets out her notes on the expansive, cream-colored shag rug that spans the Harrington living room.
Steve walks back into the room and sees Jonathan standing awkwardly to the side, jacket and boots still on.
“Dude, get those off,” he mutters, getting a bit annoyed at how Jonathan still doesn’t feel comfortable in his house. He doesn’t know why it bothers him so much but he just wants to see the guy loosen up for once. Jonathan's been over quite a few times, but each visit is like the first, and it takes a good hour before he warms up and starts to relax.
A few minutes in, and they’re all lounging on the rug, Nancy sitting straight, a thick notebook open in her lap, Steve flat on his back, his arms cushioning his head, and Jonathan leaning against a couch, hugging his knees. Nancy’s talking quickly, going on and on about Le Chatelier’s principle, thermodynamics, and endothermic and exothermic reactions. Steve is quickly losing her, but doesn’t ask her to go back; he’s too busy watching Jonathan who’s listening raptly, occasionally nodding and consulting his own shoddy notes. It’s a little while in when Jonathan takes his flannel shirt off. He’s wearing a plain black t-shirt underneath, that he probably doesn’t even realize is rather skimpy and does a good job of showing off his chest. Steve finds that Nancy’s voice is no more than an indistinct droning in his ears as he continues to stare at Jonathan, his mouth, as he chews on his bottom lip, his eyes, as he scrunches them up in concentration, the muscles in his biceps as he brushes a strand of hair out of his eyes…
Steve has a strange urge to get up and do the last bit himself, but he doesn’t. Instead, he speaks. “You look good in that, Byers.”
Jonathan’s head snaps away from Nancy to focus on him. “What?”
Damn it! Why did I have to say that? And why does Byers always have to make me repeat everything I say? “I said you look good in that,” Steve says easily, trying to make it seem like a joke. “You need to stop wearing five layers, girls would like you more.”
Jonathan blushes and shoots him a furtive smile, before returning to Nancy, who’s barely stopped talking.
Steve breathes again, thanking whoever was up there that Jonathan could not read his thoughts and didn’t know what that sly smile had done to his stomach (and something else, if he was being honest with himself). He turns away from the other boy and focuses on Nancy instead, letting his mind wander. What the fuck is wrong with you, Harrington? Is Jonathan Byers really turning you on?! Really? Someone like Conan Mitchell, maybe, but Jonathan Byers?! Steve had kissed a boy once before. It was a joke, really, a prank they were playing on another guy, but he’d realized then that perhaps he didn’t mind it as much as he should have. Steve had shoved those thoughts to the back of his head which hadn’t really been that hard; he liked girls, and all they had to offer, plenty, and it wasn’t like he’d found a guy he’d really wanted to kiss anyway. Until now, that is.
Before he can help himself, he’s back to gazing at Jonathan. He notices more this time too. Jonathan's lips are cracked and there’s a faint trickle of blood, on the lower one where he’d been biting himself, that Steve wouldn’t mind having smeared on his own. What the fuck, Steve?! What the actual fuck?! Why do you want Jonathan Byers’ blood on your lips? It isn’t the blood, in particular, that he wants. But the blood happens to be located on the younger boy’s lips, and Goddammit, but Steve wants those lips under his.
Before he has time to ponder this development further, the doorbell rings, startling all three of them.
“Saved by the bell,” Steve calls out, before he can stop himself. He gets up before the other two can ask him what he means by that and goes to answer the door.
“Mark! How ya’ doing,” Steve is very familiar with all the pizza guys in town. “How much?”
He dishes out a hefty tip and then hauls the box into the living room. “Not on the carpet guys, my parent’ll murder me if anything happens to their 8 billion dollar, authentic Persian rug.”
“Where are they this time?” Nancy says, in between bites.
“Uh, let’s see…” Steve mutters. “My Dad’s overseas, in China, or maybe Japan? Whatever, somewhere in that area. And my Mom’s out in New York, don’t know what for.” There’s a hard edge to his words which he tries to cover up with a laugh. “Surprised they trust me not to wreck the house…”
But Jonathan’s looking at him curiously, and...is that a touch of sympathy? Steve shakes his head and gets up again. He returns with the icy pack of beer and plonks it down on the couch, tossing one each to Nancy and Jonathan.
“I’ll bet the strongest thing Byers has ever drunk is apple juice,” he comments loudly to Nancy as he settles back down on the floor. She laughs and looks at Jonathan who’s got an odd expression on his face. Before they know it, the can in his hand pops open and Jonathan downs the whole thing in one shot.
He’s reaching for another one, when Steve speaks. “Slow down, Winston Churchill.”
Nancy’s head whips around to him. “Did you just reference Winston Churchill?”
“I know my drinkers, Nance,” Steve says, with a casual brush through his voluminous hair. “Supposedly, Churchill impressed Stalin with his drinking capabilities.”
Nancy’s laughing, but Jonathan hasn’t stopped drinking and he downs a second beer and then a third before stopping. Then he gives Steve the smuggest look that ever smugged. At least that’s how Steve labels it in his head. Oddly, it doesn’t irritate him; rather it makes him want to wipe the smirk off the younger boy’s face in a way that would shock him to the core. Here we go again…
“So, clearly you’ve had more than apple juice to drink…” Steve manages.
Jonathan’s smirk seems to deepen, if possible. “I’ve been drinking since before you knew what alcohol was, Harrington.”
Steve feigns surprise, raising his eyebrows to astronomical heights. “Surely you weren’t drinking before being conceived?”
Jonathan can’t help it and bursts into giggles, astonishing the other two. The sound is one of pure mirth, refreshing, and contagious, and soon they’re all laughing.
“Jesus, Byers! It wasn’t that funny,” Steve says when they’ve calmed down. It kills him to say it, though, because he’s rather pleased with himself.
“Hey, I just shoved down thirty-six ounces worth of beer,” Jonathan counters. “Anyway, is Stalin impressed?”
“Dude seriously, where did you learn to guzzle like that?” Steve asks earnestly.
“You need to laugh more, Jonathan,” Nancy comments, returning to her notes. Jonathan acknowledges her with a faint smile and then addresses Steve.
“I meant it. First time I had a beer, I was probably five. The pantry could be empty, but there was always a beer,” his tone is pensive and Steve wonders what he means by it.
Nancy glances between the two boys, intrigued. Jonathan’s looser than she’s ever seen him, probably because of the alcohol, and Steve is listening raptly, an expression on his face that he usually reserves for her, when she’s in a bad temper. She doesn’t want to interfere but it’s getting late and she promised to be home by ten-thirty. “Hey, we still have that test tomorrow and I’m not even halfway through the material…”
Their heads snap back over to her and they both look a little sheepish.
“Sorry,” Jonathan mutters. “Although I doubt I can concentrate now, I’m feeling a little light-headed already.”
“Just talk, Nance. We idiots will listen,” Steve adds, settling down on a couch. “How’d you get stuck with us anyway? Little miss perfect hanging out with the moronic douche and the town weirdo?” Yes, Steve also has some alcohol in his system.
“You’re selling yourself short,” Nancy answers earnestly, though she doesn’t know why she’s trying. They’re both a little woozy and not really listening to what she’s saying. “I doubt there are two other people in this god-forsaken place who have the guts to battle a monster.” They both smile back at her and Nancy marvels at the difference between the two grins; Steve’s is broad, toothy, and kind of arrogant, while Jonathan’s is unsure and sweet, but they each make her feel good inside.
I love these guys! It hits her suddenly. She’s been dating Steve for a few months but it never occurred to her that she actually loved him. And Jonathan…she’s learned to care for him, slowly but surely. At first it was just pity, but that quickly turned into respect, then admiration, and now…love.
She glances up to see them exchange a baffled look.
“Uh…we love you too, Nance,” Steve offers, his head hanging upside down off the couch he’s lounging on.
“I said that out loud, didn’t I?” Nancy inquires, feeling a slight blush creeping over her face.
“Yeah, it’s fine though,” Jonathan adds quietly reaching out a hand and squeezing her shoulder. He’s sitting fairly close so she leans over and kisses him on the cheek, scattering the notes in her lap. She can’t find it within herself to care, though she knows it means a good ten minutes of re-organizing them. Jonathan looks taken aback but not like he would have a couple of months ago.
When she pulls away from him, Nancy spots Steve’s lazy grin and moves over to him. Jonathan is rather surprised when she kisses him, not on the lips, but on the cheek, like him.
“Well, now that we all feel well and cared for, maybe we should actually study a bit,” Steve laughs, oddly being the one to bring them back to the task at hand. Nancy settles back down and starts talking again, quickly gaining traction.
It’s on a bathroom break, twenty minutes later that Jonathan and Steve head into the kitchen to warm up some pizza.
“Do you have any spices?” Jonathan asks, leaning against the island carefully, his hands gripping the edge of the counter behind him.
“Uh…I guess,” Steve shrugs. “Look around. I don’t know where they’d be.”
Jonathan rolls his eyes and shakes his head, before gingerly starting to explore the spotless Harrington kitchen.
“What? This isn’t my domain, alright?” Steve says, throwing his hands up for effect. “I can operate a microwave, that’s about it.”
“What are you eating?” Jonathan questions, continuing with his search.
“Aah, ya’ know…pizza most nights, frozen stuff…beer,” he finishes off, pathetically.
Jonathan turns around, arm extended in middle of reaching for one of those impossibly high shelves that seem useless due to their location. Steve does not fail to notice how his shirt has ridden up and tries his best to avoid looking at the two-inch gap of Jonathan’s exposed skin.
“Someone needs to feed you,” he says, raising an eyebrow, in what Steve thinks is an attempt at light-heartedness but actually conveys an uncomfortable level of concern.
“Yeah, well…that someone is partying her ass off in the city…” Steve mutters before he can stop himself. He quickly realizes his mistake and dons the foolproof Steve Harrington Grin™ which never fails to throw people off his scent. “I’m a simple man, Byers…” he chuckles, joining in on the spice search.
All Jonathan can think is: Now I know what those books mean when they talk about someone’s smile not reaching their eyes. But he doesn’t comment. “Right, and Freddie Mercury is straight,” he says instead, gesturing at Steve's perfectly coiffed hair.
Steve grins for real this time, though his heart is hammering. Interesting analogy…is he implying something... “Some exceptions must be made.”
Jonathan makes a scoffing noise as he opens another cabinet. “Here we are…” he mutters, finding the chili powder. He turns back to Steve, “But really, you could come by my place, get some decent food. It’s like a damn circus these day anyway, no one will even notice you’re there.”
“Why, is your Mom a good cook?” Steve asks while hauling himself up on a counter.
Jonathan’s got another one of those sly smirks on, the kind that makes Steve stomach flip, as he answers. “No. I am.” He turns back to his slice of pizza, sprinkling some spice on, but whips around a moment later. “But don’t tell her I said that.”
Steve feels an odd pang in his chest. He doesn’t know what it is, but it’s painful and difficult to ignore. The guy actually fucking cares about his mom! Then a thought so treacherous creeps in that he actually shakes his head and irons a fist over his forehead, in a bid to get rid of it. I wonder how it would feel if he cared about me that much…
“Oh, damn it,” he’s interrupted by Jonathan swearing softly. There’s chili powder sprinkled all over Jonathan’s hand, the marble countertop, and the slice of pizza. He makes for the paper towels, carelessly rubbing his eye with his right hand, which is covered in hot, red particles. Bad move.
“Shit,” he mutters under his breath. “Owowow…” His whole eye is burning up and he winces in pain, rubbing it furiously.
Steve comes over and places a hand on his back, strangely enjoying the feeling of his breathing. “What happened, man?”
“Chili…in my eye,” Jonathan manages, as his eye continues to burn and begins tearing up.
“Dude, get some water in that…” Steve leads the younger boy over to the sink and turns it on, his hand never leaving the other’s back. In the deep recesses of Jonathan’s mind, he realizes that Steve’s handling is far too gentle and that he’s far too close, but he has more immediate concerns, like his eye which feels like it's on fire. He scoops up some water and splashes it over his face, repeatedly, until the offending eye calms down enough to think. Steve finds his hand moving on its own and he pats Jonathan’s head in a reassuring manner, marveling at the softness of the other boy’s sandy hair. His own is always kind of puffy and stiff, perhaps due to all the hair products he uses.
Steve realizes that Jonathan is staring at him oddly, so he covers up his tender display with an extra-aggressive, and definitely, manly slap to the other guy’s shoulder area. Jonathan flinches a bit at the sudden forceful gesture, making Steve regret it.
“Sorry,” he mutters, turning away, very conscious of the fact that the air seems to be getting hotter by the moment. God, where is Nance this whole time?
“Why do you even hang out with me?” The question springs into Jonathan’s alcohol-muddled mind and out of his mouth.
“What?” Steve asks, pulling a Jonathan.
“I asked why you hang out with me. A couple months ago you couldn’t stand to look at me.”
“Damn you, Byers. Talk about subtlety…” Steve attempts to deflect, but Jonathan’s gazing at him intently, not letting him off the hook. “Um…I guess I saw the error of my ways…?”
“Yeah, but that doesn’t change the fact that you couldn’t stand me…” Jonathan presses, taking a bite out of his pizza, at last. “What made you suddenly able to tolerate me?”
“Well, you know, we kinda took down a real-life bogeyman together, and I can appreciate a guy who can knock the shit out of me,” Steve provides, grinning again.
Jonathan smiles but his eyes are still thoughtfully looking at Steve, as though unsatisfied with his answer. He’s about to speak again, when Nancy walks back in, all business.
Steve brushes a hand over his forehead, wiping away the sweat that’s steadily been building up there. I really need to have a chat with Nance about the length of her bathroom trips…Jesus…
They study for another twenty minutes, before Nancy calls it quits and gets up. Steve bids the other two good night, watching them pull out of the driveway, feeling a slight pang of jealousy.
Nancy insists on driving because Jonathan is still a little out of it and he doesn’t complain. His house is close by and soon they're crunching up the familiar dirt road, coming to a stop alongside Joyce’s pinto.
“So, I’ll pick you up tomorrow?" she questions, finalizing their plan.
“Yeah, that’s good,” Jonathan mutters distractedly, making no move to leave the car. “You know, you and Steve don’t have to hold back just because I’m around,” he bursts out suddenly.
Nancy’s head spins his way. “We’re not trying to…does it seem that way to you?”
“Yeah,” Jonathan answers. He sees her confused expression and regrets his words immediately. “Just forget it, it’s not important. Have a good night,” he adds, exiting the car.
Nancy smiles and wishes him good night but when she pulls up at her house, fifteen minutes later, she’s still pondering his words.
To Be Continued…