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Under the Covers

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It’s one of those weird winter mornings at the end of January, where the sky is blue and the sun is a warm blessing on your face, but you still had to wear five layers, had to wait ten minutes before driving anywhere for your windows to defrost, and had to bury deep into the scarf around your neck to keep your nose from freezing off walking from the parking lot to the school’s front entrance.  Steve has his hands curled deep into the pockets of a coat from three years ago-- all garish pink and blue and purple-- but it’s down and keeps him from freezing the moment he steps out of the heat of his Beamer.  

He feels a bit like an overstuffed marshmallow as he rocks in place next to the driver’s side door, hunching his shoulders up and hiding his frostbitten cheeks beneath the high buttoned collar of his, admittedly, ridiculous jacket as he waits for Jonathan’s old beater to putter up next to his car.  There’s steam from the exhaust still billowing out of the rear as he pulls into park, Nancy climbing out to offer a smile, and Steve risks his fingers to reply with a quick wave.  She looks lovely and a bit flush in her knitted cap, hair tucked up beneath it, making her look a bit more like a pixie than usual, eyes big and smile bright.  Everytime he sees her, even bundled up and frumpy in her winter gear, boots crunching in the ice still gathered on the ground, he remembers why he loves her.

Then Jonathan steps out and Steve idles over, hovering a few paces away.  “Morning,” he mutters.

“Hey,” he says, smile still tentative but increasingly more ready each morning that Steve waits out for them.  “Didn’t see you at the middle school today.”

“Yeah,” Steve bobs his head as they begin to file toward the school, Nancy falling to step alongside Jonathan, slightly behind Steve, a wordless agreement to get inside and get warm as quickly as possible.  “Dustin had an orthodontic appointment this morning.  Mrs. H said she’d bring him in after.”

“Ah,” Jonathan nods, eyeing Steve from the side and Steve’s already rolling his eyes before he even catches the way Nancy’s lips have pressed thin the way they do when she’s trying not to laugh.  “Nice, uh, jacket?”

“It’s fucking cold as shit, Byers.” Steve grunts.  “Judge me all you want, but at least I’m not gonna die of hypothermia.”

“No, no uh-- that wasn’t--” Jonathan’s throat works as they step into the hall, shouldering through the door, his face burning.  “I just mean, it’s a really nice--”

“Hey, Harrington!” Tommy calls, the second they step inside, lingering like a bad smell by his locker with Carol plastered to one side and Billy Hargrove pointedly not looking their way at his other.  “Nice coat.  Very preppy chic.  Is it your mom’s?”

Your mom’s, actually.” Steve says without really even looking their way, eyes wrinkling at the edges as he catches sight of Nancy covering her mouth with a mitten and Jonathan ducking his head to laugh.  “Tell her I said thanks, would you?  For last night, too?”  

There’s the sharp sound of a locker slamming shut, the hushed murmur of Carol calming Tommy down before he can start anything before first period even starts, what the fuck, Tommy , and a rough snort that has Steve glancing over with his brows high as they walk by.  Billy’s staring at him as he goes, mouth twisted up in one of those grins that would’ve promised something sharp, something biting, not six months before.

He doesn’t say anything, but Steve knows he wants to.  Can see it in the way the heel of his boot taps against the linoleum floor, in the way he tongues the inside of his right cheek, eyeing Steve like he’s a joke-- but a surprising and sometimes impressive one.  Like he gets just as much glee out of watching Steve not care as he did when Steve had cared a little too much about losing his status, about losing his loser friends, about getting swept under the rug and forgotten before Steve had realized he doesn’t give a shit if any of his little shithead peers gives a fuck about him.

But he doesn’t say anything and neither does Steve and they drift by each other without words, but Steve knows that this show of fire so early in the morning will get his ass handed to him later at practice.  It’s the only place Billy doesn’t hold back these days, after that November night where he beat Steve’s face in and Steve had nearly let a bunch of thirteen year olds die on his watch before they saved the world.  He’s still generally a dick in Steve’s general direction, but it doesn’t burn him or rub him raw the way it did in the beginning.  Steve’s not really sure if it’s because Max had-- in Dustin’s words-- nearly fucking nailed Billy’s balls to the floor, oh my god, man, it was amazing and terrifying and did I mention amazing? and Billy’s cranked it down under threat of a repeat performance, or if it’s because what insults that come Steve’s way tend to slide off like water after the whole saved the world business.  

Nightmares about demogorgons and demodogs and massive ghastly smoke monsters tend to be more impacting than an asshole in tight jeans these days.  

Either way, the moment passes, and then Steve is shoving his shit into his locker while Nancy prattles on about some history test on Friday, and Jonathan hovers, giving him a look that has Steve hiding a smile into his open locker because he’s worn that face more than once when Nancy starts to go on about school the way she does.  It comes with a pang of regret and maybe a bit of bitterness, but he swallows it down because Nancy may be his ex and he may still love her in one way or another but she’s happy with Jonathan, and Jonathan is his friend now too.

“See you guys at lunch?” he asks as he shuts his locker door, gaudy jacket hung over his arm and smile a bit tight; but they both nod and smile back before parting ways.

***

As the day passes, the sky grows dark, weighed down by thick clouds that threaten cold, wet sleet more than they do a fresh snowfall, and Steve grimaces up at them during his English class where he’s sat on the far side of the room next to the windows.  He keeps tapping his pencil against the old wood of his desk, definitely not listening to whatever it is the teacher is talking about, right up until she calls on him from the front of the room.

He sits up from his slump, lips parting, and he clears his throat as a few classmates twist around to look at him as he asks her to repeat the question.

Jane Eyre , Mr. Harrington.” She says, not unkindly, but in that tired way teachers sometimes get as she gestures to the windows with a hand.  “If you could get your head out of the clouds, I’d like your thoughts.”

“On… the book, or…?”

“Sure,” Ms. Klein nods, sitting back against the edge of her desk, crossing her arms over her chest, and Steve recalls a time sophomore year when he’d had a crush on her-- tall, blonde, and always wearing the stupidest sweaters he’d ever seen-- right up until she’d sat him down after turning in another laughable essay and said she expected better of him.  “The book, the characters, the theme.  Just… contribute to the discussion, perhaps?”

“Right, yeah.” Steve huffs, flipping through the book and then clearing his throat again as he shifts in his seat.  “I guess it’s… I mean, it’s interesting?  There’s this girl--”

“Jane.”

“--right, Jane, who is-- is abused and alone, but… I dunno.  She’s nice?  Or-- Or maybe kind is a better word?” Steve shrugs.  “But she just… I guess she seems kinda lonely.  To me.  Or something.”

Ms. Klein blinks, but then her smile is one of those blinding ones, her cheek dimpling as she nods.  Steve’s had that smile directed at him only one other time, when he’d come to her for help with his personal essay after breaking up with Nancy.

“Good, Mr. Harrington.  Anyone want to help him with the phrasing?  Jane’s loneliness, even at Thornfield Hall, speaks to what theme?” Ms. Klein rounds her desk, plucking up the chalk as she talks over her shoulder.  “Come on, we’ve been talking about theme all year.  What’s the--?”

“Isolation,” Billy says, somewhere behind Steve and toward the opposite corner, and Steve twists around to look at where he’s doodling on his desk and not looking up.  “She’s isolated.  Emotionally, physically, whatever.  She’s isolated.  Always.”

“Very good, Mr. Hargrove.” Ms. Klein scrawls the word across the board, dusting her hands off with a delighted air of triumph.  “Isolation.  Let’s talk about that.”

***

Steve doesn’t see Jonathan or Nancy at lunch.  It’s not too unusual for one of their plans to change, so Steve bites into an apple, elbows on the table in the half-empty library, and works on the math homework he didn’t finish the night before.  

He doesn’t think about where Nancy and Jonathan are or what they could be doing.  He doesn’t stare at problem eleven for ten minutes, eyes stuck on the words forming the equation about the cost of electricity during summer and winter, thinking about the Byers’ house strung up in Christmas lights.  He doesn’t think about the weight of a bat in his hands, or the stink of monster in his nose, or the shadows that move, or the fact that he really wishes Nancy and Jonathan were sitting there with him.  

He doesn’t think about any of that.  Not at all.

***

It’s raining, just like Steve thought it would, all disgusting and half-frozen and wet, by the time practice is over.  He’s out of breath, shirt clinging to his chest, and his coach is yelling a reminder about the last game next Saturday as they all file into the locker room.  Tommy checks into him on his way by, headed toward the showers, and Steve snorts to himself with a shake of his head.

He foregoes the shower-- doesn’t want his hair freezing on the way out to his car-- stripping as the rest of the team heads into the steam.  He’s sore, aching a bit, but in a way that’s good .  His head had been on the court today, on the ball, and not on any of the soft smiles Nancy hasn’t been directing his way, or the fact that he knows he’s going to go home to find a note from his parents on the kitchen counter, or the dark tunnels that are still under the town.  So when Billy pulls his shirt on, black and cotton and just as stupidly tight as his stupidly tight jeans, and says “good job today, Harrington,” Steve just nods.

“Yeah, thanks.”

“Didn’t eat shit once,” Billy adds.  “I’m impressed.”

“Yeah.  Maybe all those hits finally knocked some sense into me,” Steve says, scrubbing a hand through his hair, and he turns, startled as Billy looks, at the laugh it earns.  

“Maybe,” Billy nods, brows pinched, eyes on Steve’s face like he’s looking for evidence from a fight that’s two months too old.  “Keep playing like that and we might actually get somewhere besides the losers’ bracket this season.”

Steve’s nose scrunches as he plops down to tug on his winter boots, discarding his sneakers.  “We came in second for the county last year.”

Billy hums, shrugging a leather coat on and placing an unlit cigarette between his lips, sweat still clinging to him just as bad as it’s clinging to Steve.  “Maybe this time we’ll come in first.”

“Maybe,” Steve says, hesitating before shoving to his feet, gathering up this things.  “Anyway, I gotta-- well, AV club is gonna be over soon, so…”

“The rugrats,” Billy nods.  “Right.”

It’s a weird thing they’ve all got in common.  Steve and Billy and Jonathan, picking up their respective preteens during the colder of the winter months, when their parents refuse to let them bike their way through the snow.  Sometimes Steve ends up picking up for Jonathan, and on rare occasions, he picks up for Billy.  Steve’s just waiting for the day they add Eleven to the mix and Hopper’s truck joins the odd line of teenagers in their cars.  

He offers Billy a little two fingered salute as he steps away, smile more a grimace than anything else, and stops when Billy calls out to him.  He half turns, stopped in the doorway, ugly jacket half on, and Billy eyes the thing with a crooked smile.

“I forgot to mention,” he says.  “Dig the coat.  Very you.”

“Original, Hargrove.” Steve’s tone is dry; his expression dryer.  “Real original.  Have fun freezing your ass off.”

He hears Billy cackle as he goes and doesn’t have a chance to feel irritated by it, too busy running through the sleet to be worried about much else.

***

It’s when he’s in his car later, having dropped Dustin and Lucas off, that he lets the weight of the day finally settle into his shoulders.  He’s tired, always kind of is these days when his nights are full of more restless turnings than actual rest, but today seemed to drag on more than usual.  

He remembers seeing Jonathan and Nancy at the middle school, picking up Will and Mike.  Remembers seeing Nancy’s quick little smile, her wordless apology for missing lunch, but then Jonathan says something and she’s looking away and the kids are climbing into the cars and they’re all going their own way.  

A year ago, he thinks that was him.  Nancy and Steve, with Jonathan at the periphery, and monsters in their past.  

Now, instead of going back to his place and inviting Nancy over because his parents aren’t home again, he goes back to his place alone.  He sits outside, in his car, engine chugging away and radio humming quiet, for a long time.  Unwilling to step alone into that big, empty house.  He watches the rain hit the windshield and knows the roads will be extra slick tomorrow.

He thinks about going in, calling Nancy up, seeing if she’d be willing to come over and help him with his essay or help him study for a test he doesn’t have.  He knows he shouldn’t, but on days like these, long and cold and lonely, it’s harder for him to remember why he can’t.  Before Nancy, he might’ve had Tommy over, or thrown a party, but that was before Nancy.  And he thinks, maybe, that’s one of the best things to come out of the entire disaster-- she may have broken his heart, but he thinks he’s probably a little bit better for it.  

He watches the rain fall, half-frozen and wet, and knows that tonight, after the sun has finally set, it will turn to snow.