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so take the wheel and i will take the pedals

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It's as Dustin is leaving his car that Steve gets coerced into exchanging phone numbers.

“In case I ever need to call you!” Dustin explains. His face is a little scraped up, but otherwise intact, and Steve is still thanking every power known to man that none of the kids wound up worse off while under his watch. These children are fucking uncontrollable. It is, frankly, terrifying for so many reasons.

“Why would you ever need to call me?” he asks dryly, and Dustin gives him a stern glare. No middle-schooler has business looking that scornful.

“Really? After all that shit tonight you still have to ask?”

Steve raises an eyebrow and drums his fingers on the steering wheel aimlessly. “I thought that Eleven kid closed the gate for good. Are you planning on hiding another demo-dog in your house? You already lost one cat, Dustin. Most people learn their lesson after one.”

“No! But who knows when something might happen again? Just be ready, okay?” Dustin points at him while backing away from the car.

Two apocalypses is enough for one lifetime, but Steve is tired as fuck and bruised to all hell, so he's not going to argue with Dustin over this now. “Okay, alright, whatever. Just go home already.” He comes off sounding more brusque than he wants to, but if Dustin is bothered by it, it doesn’t show. Looks like Steve’s aloof charm still works somewhere.

“Can do, boss. Hey,” and Dustin grins suddenly, showing off those shiny front teeth he's so proud of, “I’m not saying we need anyone else in our party, but you're a pretty awesome NPC to have on our side. It's nice to have a fighter-class character backing us up.” He flashes a double thumbs up before taking off.

“I don't know what that means!” Steve yells after him, but he's already running through the doorway. It sounds like a nerd compliment, so Steve’ll take it.

It’s a disgustingly early hour of the morning, the sun cresting autumn pale over the sky like every other November day, as if the town hadn’t been rotting from the inside out from through a death portal just hours before. And again, today everyone’s going to go on living like everything’s normal. Just like last year. As if Barb hadn’t died. As if Mrs. Byers’ boyfriend, and everyone in that whole fucking lab and god knows who else hadn’t died too.

Maybe Nancy was right. Maybe everything is bullshit, but Steve’s still here anyway. Nancy and the kids and the Byers family and the chief – everyone who knows, everyone who still matters – they’re alive. So he’s going to drive home, scrub the dirt off his skin, and crawl under his covers to sleep half the day away, because these are the choices he can make while his heart is still beating.

By the time he sneaks back into his room, sunlight is painting the curtains, but his parents are still asleep so he makes it in without incident. In the mirror he can see blots of color forming around his nose and cheeks, the skin still stinging from Billy fucking Hargrove’s punches. Nancy helped clean the blood off his face in the Byers’ bathroom after it all, both of them pretending like their relationship was intact, but he knows they'll have to talk about it soon. He sees how Nancy and Jonathan look at each other. It's how he still looks at Nancy, but that doesn't seem to count for much anymore.

It's not that he wouldn't fight for her. It's just that he doesn't think she'd want that. And perhaps that's what hurts most of all.

Steve flicks the lights back off, and rolls bonelessly onto his mattress, exhaustion finally catching up to him. When he closes his eyes he sees flashes of last night seared into his eyelids – Mike’s fallen body entangled in those disgusting vines, Lucas violently pinned to the shelf, Max clutching tight the steering wheel of her brother’s car, Dustin holding his breath against Steve’s side as the monsters stormed past them. Will, cold and unconscious in his mother’s arms. Eleven’s face when she tells them she can close the gate.

Fire in the tunnel, bones in the pit.

For a second he hallucinates the sensation of blood on his face. Whether it's his own or someone else’s, he doesn't know, and that's what scares him. He runs two fingers across his cheek, but they come away dry, even as his sore bones protest the touch.

The blood is gone, but the pain isn't. Maybe it'll be better tomorrow.

--

Here's where things currently stand:

Steve and Nancy officially break up on Tuesday, Steve still doesn’t know what the hell he’s going to do about his college applications or his plummeting social standing, and Billy Hargrove finally decides to avoid him like the plague. Steve would call this unfair, because if anyone’s a disease it’s Hargrove, but he’s not going to complain. He has to wonder though what’s changed, since, as Dustin said, he pretty much got his ass handed to him in that fight. He gets the feeling it has something to do with Max, but it’s not like he’ll ever find out because he doesn’t want to make a habit of hanging out with middle-school girls.

The social problem doesn’t even matter anymore – hasn’t mattered since he showed up on Jonathan Byers’ doorstep last year and almost died – and the college problem...is harder now that his study dates with Nancy are no longer a thing. Since Steve and Nancy are no longer a thing.

Sure, they’re still friends; Nancy is probably one of the only true friends Steve really has, but fuck if it isn’t awkward and painful now.

She had apologized so much, and they talked it all out, which helped a little. Not enough to stop them from breaking things off, though. He still loves her, but right now looking at her hurts more than it doesn’t, so they agree to keep their distance. Does it suck? Yeah, it really, really does, but not as much as being tortured in a shady government lab or being possessed by trans-dimensional evil, so Steve keeps on keeping on.

So that’s where he’s at, trucking through his senior year trying to figure out if he wants to stay in Hawkins, where there doesn’t seem to be anything for him anymore. Yep.

Oh, also, Dustin won’t stop calling him.

The first time it happens Steve is trying his hardest not to ruin his hair over his history essay, and losing the battle. His mom calls up the stairs to him while he’s furiously erasing the end of his last paragraph, telling him he’s got a phone call, which is weird. He’d ignored the ringing earlier, since he figured there was no way the call was meant for him; he picks it up cautiously now, not counting out the possibility of some asshole from school pulling a prank on him.

He doesn’t expect the voice on the other end, pre-pubescent and a little nervous.

“Uh, is this Steve?”

“Dustin? Dustin Henderson?” he asks in disbelief, wondering why on earth they’re talking to each other.

“Yeah! Hey, so, uh, I was wondering if I could ask you for some help?”

Help? With what? Then he remembers their conversation outside Dustin’s house, and thinks shit, of course it isn’t all over, how could it be so simple. Of course whatever monster thing they chased out of Hawkins is back again to get them. And of course this band of nerd-ass punks can’t leave it well enough alone, always ready to throw themselves face-first into danger. Christ. Steve’s going to need a stiff drink after this.

“Yeah, hang on, let me get my shit together,” he says, yanking the phone off his desk with him. It’s sort of strange that Dustin sounds so hesitant, considering he literally commandeered Steve’s car last time around, but there must be something really bad going on. How it could be worse than what they’ve faced already Steve doesn’t know, but honestly, what the fuck does he know about anything at all these days.

Fuck, where the hell did he put his bat? He kicks the shit cluttering up his floor out of the way, diving to the floor to scrabble around at the carpet, pushing papers and clothes around, but it’s nowhere to be seen.

“Shit, it’s in the car,” he mutters when he realizes, before talking into the phone again. “Okay, where are you right now? You dipshits better not be thinking of rushing in; stay put until I get there. And have someone call Hopper. We’ll probably need a gun.” And gasoline, and maybe an ax...

“What? Dude, what are you talking about?”

“What the fuck do you mean what am I talking about? You need help, don’t you? So sit your meddling asses down and tell me where the hell you are!”

“Are you- no, idiot, I don’t need that kind of help,” Dustin finally hisses. “I need like, you know, girl help. Help with girls.”

Steve stops in the middle of trying to dig out his thickest jeans and old athletic equipment. “...are you shitting me right now?”

“No?”

Jesus. Girl help. Like Steve’s qualified to be giving out romantic advice.

“Did you miss the part where I no longer have a girlfriend, or really any friend-friends anymore? You sure you really want my advice?”

Dustin makes a dismissive noise. “Okay, so you and Nancy broke up, but you’ve still got like...experience and stuff. And we’re friends, right, buddy?”

Are they? Is this Steve’s life now? Being friends with eighth graders? He lays down flat on the floor on a pile of all the old sports gear he no longer fits into and groans. “Sure, Dustin. We’re friends. Why not.” It’s not like he has anything else going on. Might as well see if he can help. With a sigh he asks, “So what’s the deal?” He has a suspicion he already knows.

But surprisingly, it isn’t really about Max so much as girls in general, so Steve tells him the watered down version of what used to work for him, before Nancy. He’s probably more of a bad influence than anything else, but does anyone between the two of them know any better?

That’s where it begins, with Steve’s shitty love advice and Dustin’s grade-school woes, but then Dustin starts asking him about other junk, so now Steve is giving out shitty health advice and shitty running advice and not-shitty haircare advice too. It’s perhaps a little sad that he’s talking more to Dustin than anyone his own age these days, but at the same time, he feels almost halfway responsible for the kid. Having an asshole for a dad isn’t the same as having no dad, and Mrs. Henderson is a great mom, but sometimes Steve wonders if he isn’t sort of filling a role for Dustin that no one has before now. He also wonders why he doesn’t really mind.

--

Dustin’s incessant calling culminates in a promise to give him a lift to the Snow Ball, and another furtive shopping trip in the hair product aisle. He swings by the middle school A.V. club one day to pass off his contraband and they try to rope him into staying. He’s pretty sure it’s just so they can order him around or conscript him into acting as Mr. Clarke’s assistant.

“It’ll be fun,” Lucas says, holding out some electronic thing that Steve doesn’t recognize, so he puts up his hands and sidles toward the door.

“Uh, no thanks. I just needed Dustin for a sec. C’mon,” Steve says, gesturing to the door as the others look on curiously. Dustin points to himself, confused, but Steve just gestures more vehemently.

They stand around the corner, Dustin shifting back and forth on his feet as Steve pulls a paper bag out of his backpack and tries to hand it over.

Dustin just stares at the bag until Steve shakes it again.

“Just take the bag, Dustin, before someone sees us and thinks I’m trying to sell you drugs or something.”

“Is that not what’s happening right now?”

“I’m serious, you smartass, take it. It’s like, I dunno, a gift.”

“For me?” Dustin’s eyes light for a second before he narrows them in suspicion. “Is the gift drugs?”

“No, holy shit, after all the trouble I went to trying to keep you alive, you think I’m gonna get you addicted to fuckin’ cocaine?” Steve finally just opens the bag himself, shoving it into Dustin’s hands.

He watches as realization dawns, and for some reason, the slightly weirded out/slightly pleased expression on Dustin’s face makes him grin. “Farrah Fawcett?” Dustin mouths silently, and Steve mimics pulling a zipper across his lips.

“Don’t say a thing. Hide it in your bag, because I swear to god, if one of your nosy friends comes and asks me about it…”

“Yeah, I know, I’m dead meat.”

“Exactly. Remember: four puffs.”

“Damp hair, four puffs. Got it.” Dustin has the good sense to cram the whole gift down into the bottom of his backpack, beneath his binders and books, before they walk back to the door. “Hey, thanks, man. For all the help and everything,” he says earnestly, and Steve remembers again that while Dustin’s a super weird kid, he’s also a nice kid. Something that almost feels like fondness tightens around his lungs, and he tries to furtively shake it off himself.

“Don’t worry about it. Gotta look out for my benchwarmers, right?” He chucks Dustin in the arm and starts to walk away.

“You sure you don’t wanna join the A.V. club?” Dustin yells down the hallway because he has some good sense, but not enough to stop him from trying to destroy Steve’s street cred amongst people too young to drive cars. “We do some really cool stuff!”

“Not on your life,” Steve calls back without turning around, glad that no one walking past him has noticed his smile.