The sudden flare of the car's headlights fades, and then ...
Then they're standing in the glow of perfectly ordinary headlights, and everything is very quiet.
"Did we ..." Max's voice sounds very loud in the silence, enough to make Steve jump. "Did we ... do it?"
"I don't know," Steve says, and he's suddenly very aware of how exhausted he is, and how dizzy, and how much his face hurts.
He sinks down to the ground, and that seems to be the cue for the kids to all drop like a bunch of little bowling pins and start stripping off their protective gear. Lucas just straight-up flops down and spreads his arms out like he's lost the ability to move. Dustin collapses next to Steve, turns to him, and to Steve's shock and more than a little worry, throws his arms around Steve and buries his face in his side.
"Are you, uh ..." Steve isn't quite sure what to do with his hands; he tries giving Dustin a tentative, gloved pat on the back. "... okay?"
Dustin just nods vigorously against him, and there's a very intense sense of We will never talk about this. In fact, let's not talk about it now.
But the thing is, he gets it: the kid's 13, and they did almost die just now, and Steve is feeling pretty shaky himself, so he hugs Dustin and leans against him a little bit too, and kinda rubs Dustin's back.
"Do you think Dart's dead?" Dustin asks into Steve's shoulder, his voice thick.
Hopefully is probably not the best thing to say, under the circumstances. "I dunno, buddy," Steve says, squeezing a little tighter. The reminder of Dart makes him think that it might be a good idea to move a little farther away from the hole, since if things went badly at the gate, a whole swarm of angry demodogs might come swarming out of it at any moment. And yet, getting up sounds like way more trouble than it's worth, even if the alternative is getting mobbed by alien monsters.
Dustin's shivering has calmed down a little, and Steve's starting to be able to think a little better, though his head still feels like it's full of cotton and everything hurts. "Hey, what about the rest of you shitheads?" he says over Dustin's head. "You okay? Anybody hurt?"
There are some general negative noises and Lucas says, "Mike's ankle."
"Traitor," Mike hisses at him.
"What's wrong with your ankle?" Steve asks him.
"Nothing," Mike says, and Lucas sits up enough to punch him in the arm. "Uh. It hurts, I guess."
Right. Mike was the one who got grabbed by tentacles. Steve peels Dustin off, starts to get up, and the world tilts. He sinks immediately back down, and Dustin steadies him, though he wasn't that close to falling over (at least that's the story he's sticking to). "So how about you come over here," he says.
Mike heaves a sullen sigh -- kid's definitely working on being a teenager -- but gets up and wobbles over. It's evident that he's barely able to put weight on his foot. As he sits down, he says sheepishly, "I didn't even feel it when we were running away. Like, at all."
"Adrenaline," Dustin says. He pulls off his goggles and wipes at his eyes a little bit.
"Whatever," Mike mumbles. He hesitates, then thrusts out his leg in Steve's direction.
Steve wishes he knew how the hell he ended up being slotted into these kids' category of "adult." Maybe just because there's no one else to do it. God knows he wishes he had an adult around to hand things off to, and maybe get a hug from. But there's not, so he pushes up the cuff of Mike's jeans and whistles at the impressive bruises that are starting to emerge on the kid's shin. There are some impressed murmurs from the other kids, who have clustered around to stare.
Steve doesn't know a damn thing about first aid, but he's had a few sports injuries, so he uses that. "Can you move it?" he asks, and Mike dutifully wiggles his ankle. "Okay, so it's probably not broken or anything. We can wrap it at Mrs. Byers' place. We probably ought to be getting back there anyway."
He stares at the car, but it doesn't magically move any closer, and the whole idea of driving with the world spinning around him doesn't get any more appealing.
"We should go to the gate," Mike says eagerly. "I mean, it's totally safe now --"
"No, dickhead, we are not going to the gate. We're going to Mrs. Byers' house, and we're going to wait for everybody else there." He looks at the car. It still doesn't get any closer. "Right," Steve says, mostly to himself, and makes another effort at getting up.
The world swings sideways, the pain in his head spikes, and he comes close to throwing up, but manages not to. Somewhere in the middle of all of that, he becomes aware that Dustin is basically propping him up.
"I can drive," Max says quickly.
"No you can't," Steve fires back. He's still standing up (thanks to Dustin) and the sparks dancing in his vision have mostly faded. "I'm driving. Just ... get in the car."
He manages to make it to the car, crumples behind the wheel, and stares at everything for a minute before he manages to remember what all the pedals and buttons do. This is not good. It is, however, preferable to letting a 13-year-old behind the wheel after she almost killed them the first time. It's late at night in Hawkins, he thinks. There's not going to be anybody on the road. He can drive five miles an hour if he needs to.
Someone kicks the back of his seat. "So are we going anywhere, or --"
"Don't make me come back there," Steve snaps. He finally figures out why he can't get his foot properly on the pedals, and starts to lean down to peel off Max's makeshift solution for not having long enough legs to actually drive yet. This swamps his head in blinding pain again. He rests his forehead on the steering wheel.
"I've got it," Dustin says quickly, leaning over from the passenger seat and laying half in Steve's lap while he pries off Max's brick or whatever she's got taped down there. "Are you all right, Steve?"
"No, he's not all right," Max says from the backseat, "because my stupid stepbrother punched his face in. I told you we should have left him behind."
"And then you'd all be dead, assholes," Steve says without opening his eyes.
"We should take him to a hospital," Dustin says anxiously.
"We need to go to the gate," Mike says.
"We need to go somewhere!" Max says, and kicks his seat again.
"The next person who kicks my seat gets to walk home," Steve says to the dashboard, and pushes himself upright with a groan. "Okay, everyone just shut up and ... uh, tell me how to get back to the Byers' from here, because I have no idea where we are."
He does turn out to be capable of driving, if not faster than fifteen or twenty miles an hour, and he can even keep the car in its lane about half the time. That mailbox was too close to the road anyhow ...
Having four kids shouting directions at him doesn't help his headache at all.
"I was better at it than this," Max says loudly.
"Yeah, you didn't have a concussion, did you?" Steve retorts, and that's it, that's the last straw his headache needed. "Hang on," he mumbles, and veers over to the side of the road so he can open his door and hang out to throw up.
There's a chorus of disgusted noises from the kids, and a small hand gives him a tentative pat on the back. "Are you, uh ... you're really not all right, are you," Dustin says.
Steve decides not to dignify that with a response. He slams the door and leans his head back against the seat for a minute. He just wants to lie down.
"I can drive," Max says for about the fortieth time.
"Shut up!" Dustin and, surprisingly, Mike yell at her. Steve would appreciate the support more if they weren't yelling.
And now there's some sort of physical scuffle going on in the backseat. Steve decides to just ignore it. He manages to limp the car the rest of the way back to the Byers' with minimal interruptions, and parks crossways in the driveway, which he decides is good enough. It's been that kind of day.
The kids all pile out of the car and then cluster around it in a worried kind of way, while Max gets the bat out of the floor in the back.
"Now what," Steve says wearily, propping himself on the door.
"So, it's just, Billy might be in there," Dustin says, and all the kids stare at the house as if it's full of demogorgons.
Max shoulders the bat and steps out in front.
"Give me that," Steve says, hoping desperately that he doesn't collapse as soon as he steps away from the car.
"He's afraid of me now," Max says, but under the surface bravado, she's all scared kid, and he sighs and takes the bat away from her. Now she's looking at him with pure distilled irritation, which is much better than the scared look.
But Billy's not in the house. Steve gets the full story in bits and pieces, chattered at him in kid voices as he sweeps the house with the bat (luckily it's not a big house) and then collapses on the couch. He cracks his eyes open after a minute and finds Max sitting on the other end of the couch for some reason. "Hey," he says, "thanks for the save, kiddo."
"Yeah, well, you saved me from a stupid demo-thing back at the junkyard, so I guess we're even," Max grumbles, crossing her arms.
"Demodog!" Dustin calls before coming back from the kitchen, wrapping a dish towel around a bag of ice. "Here," he says, handing it to Steve. "And I'm gonna go see if there's aspirin or something in the bathroom."
"That'd be awesome," Steve says, heartfelt.
He drifts a little until something jostles him, and peeks out from swollen eyelids to find Dustin on the couch next to him, holding a glass of water and a bottle of aspirin. Steve swallows a handful of pills, the cold water stinging the cuts in his mouth. His head pounds in time with his heartbeat. Even Jonathan didn't do this much of a number on him last year.
He hopes Nancy and Jonathan are okay. Funny how things like, say, getting your heart broken start to feel small and petty when lives are on the line.
In the kitchen, he can hear Mike, Lucas, and Max having an argument that seems to involve the two sane(r) ones stopping Mike from charging off to the gate on a bike to look for Eleven. It's like herding cats, it really is. Steve decides to just stay slumped where he is, and not intervene unless it looks like Mike really is set on taking off.
Dustin's still sitting there looking at him with a worried crease between his brows. His face is smudged and filthy, with two paler rings around his eyes where the goggles were.
"Hey, kid, something got you in the face while we were down there, right? Do you feel weird or anything?" Steve touches his tongue to his split lip, tasting blood, and tries not to think about getting gunk from the Upside Down in open wounds.
Dustin shakes his head, grimaces, and rubs his hands through his hair. Dust sifts down onto the couch. "Nah, I just feel itchy."
"Yeah. Everybody better hit the showers and wash whatever that stuff is off us." Steve raises his voice. "You guys hear that? Showers!"
"But Eleven --" Mike begins.
"She's fine!" Or at least, if she's not, Mike showing up isn't going to help. "Showers! Now!"
"What am I supposed to do, wear some boy's clothes?" Max complains.
"Yes," Steve says flatly, wondering again how he got roped into this. He never even babysat before today. He's always kind of vaguely wished he had a little brother or sister, in spite of how Nancy used to complain about hers. Now he's turned into a living embodiment of the saying Be careful what you wish for; you might get it. "Just raid Jonathan's closet and go wash that stuff off before it, I dunno, starts growing or something."
This gets them moving without more prodding. Thank God.
It's about an hour later when headlights flare across the windows. They've all taken turns in the shower, Steve included, and now he's wearing a sweatshirt of Jonathan's and a pair of sweat pants that probably belonged to Mrs. Byers' ex-husband; there's not much in the house that'll fit him. He flopped on the couch as soon as he got out of the shower (the heat made him even more lightheaded, and hot water on all the cuts on his face was not fun at all) and decides to just stay there, tuning out the babble of kid voices, until a shadow falls across him.
"Kid," Chief Hopper says, "you look like shit."
Steve cracks his eyes open and after a moment he says truthfully, "So do you, sir."
He can see Hopper biting down on a grin. Finally the Chief says, "No phone at the cabin, so I'm gonna drive up there and check on Joyce and the rest. The kids invited themselves along to see Will." He grimaces. Steve can relate. At least someone else can't say no to the little shits either. "You in?"
Steve thinks about dragging himself off the couch and driving to a house that's going to have Nancy and Jonathan in it, with all the awkwardness that goes along with that. Then he thinks about being left here alone, with a dead demodog in the fridge and Billy Hargrove in the neighborhood. "Okay," he says.
And that's how he ends up crammed into the Chief's Blazer with five kids. There's kids sitting on top of kids as they pull out of the Byers' drive, and Steve is packed in the middle of them.
"Dude, I say this with all respect, but there better not be any puking back here," Dustin tells Steve.
"He was sick earlier?" the Chief asks, looking at them in the rear-view mirror.
"Only once," Steve grumbles and hunches down in the middle of the kid pile. It's hot and crowded and he actually does feel pretty sick, not that he'll admit it, but he ends up falling asleep on Dustin's shoulder and doesn't wake up 'til cold night air floods into the cab of the truck.
After that there's a short, unpleasant stumble through very dark woods. The Chief is carrying Eleven, with Mike holding a flashlight to light up the path in front of them. Steve is vaguely aware of having his trajectory corrected by kid-hands when he starts to drift off course. And then they're at the cabin, which looks basically just like he would have expected someplace the Chief lives to look.
It also looks a tornado went through it, but Steve is getting used to that sort of thing. The important thing is, the cabin has adults, actual adults, so Steve can stop pretending to be one and just collapse on the couch and pass out.
Which he does.
Or tries to, because the next thing he knows he's getting prodded awake by Mrs. Byers, who has a bowl of warm water and a wet cloth and a bottle of iodine. She's a mess herself -- are those bruises on her neck? -- but it's not like Steve's in a position to throw stones, so he just lays there and lets her take care of him. It's nice.
"I hear you're a hero," she remarks. "The kids can't stop talking about it."
He's not really sure what to do with this warm feeling. "Yeah, well, I hope they told you they were awfully brave themselves. For a bunch of idiots with no self-preservation!" he adds, raising his voice since he figures there are at least a few of them around here somewhere.
"Shut up, Steve," comes back immediately (is that Lucas? Mike?) and Steve grins even though it hurts his lip.
"You want to press charges against Hargrove?" the Chief asks, looming over him, and Steve definitely does not jump. For a big guy, Chief can move really quietly when he wants to.
"No," Steve says, closing his eyes under Mrs. Byers' warm, ministering hands. "Don't worry about it. It's over."
Getting the cops involved won't make a difference in any way that matters -- not in the school social hierarchy, not in Max's home life -- and it would lead to having to explain Max's part in it, and he doesn't want to think about any of it right now, anyway. He's aware of the Chief and Mrs. Byers having a conversation over his head, the Chief sounding deeply annoyed (not that he ever sounds any other way, in Steve's experience) and the thought occurs to him that there must be few things more frustrating, to a cop, than knowing a crime took place and having no one willing to admit to it.
Not his problem, though.
"Hey there," Mrs. Byers says, shaking him out of the haze he's started to fall into. "You can sleep soon, but not yet." She smiles at him. "I have two boys. I've had to deal with concussions before. I'm not going to take you to the ER if you can answer some questions for me, all right?"
Steve obediently answers her questions about the year and his parents' names and the city mayor. "My head hurts a lot," he admits in answer to her next question, "but things aren't spinning like they were earlier. I just want to sleep."
"I guess that's all right." She pats him on the shoulder, looking somehow at the same time very young -- he can see the girl she used to be, before her kids and Lonnie Byers, a girl Nancy's age -- and also very old and tired. "You get some sleep now. We'll wake you up a little later. Oh, and thank you for taking care of the kids."
"I guess it just needed doing." He hesitates, looking up at her face in the lamplight, with maternal concern written all over it, aimed at him, and realizes there's a very important question he hasn't asked yet. "How are they? Will and Jonathan. Did you do the ... thing?" He's suddenly not sure what they actually came up here to do. But he thinks if Will was still that sick, she'd look more worried than she does.
Her tired face relaxes into a smile, and she pats his shoulder again before gathering up her first aid supplies. "They're both going to be just fine. You sleep now."
Steve closes his eyes, and does.
He's not sure how much later it is when he jerks awake, heart hammering, his head full of ash-filled darkness and shrieking creatures with heads opening up like flower petals. Someone gasps and jerks away from him, and he's just barely aware of a hand leaving his shoulder. Steve flails a little and then puts his hands down and realizes he's looking at Jonathan Byers bending over him.
"God," Steve mumbles. His face is stuck to the couch cushion with drool and some of Mrs. Byers' iodine. Nice. He wipes at his mouth and squints (which hurts) against lamplight that seems too bright until his eyes adjust and he realizes the cabin is dark except for just a couple of lamps here and there.
Jonathan hasn't gone anywhere; instead, sitting by the couch, he gives Steve a nervous, lopsided smile. "Hi. Uh. I'm supposed to wake you up and ask you some questions, Mom gave me a whole list, but let's just skip that and pretend I did it if you tell me what year it is, okay?"
"1984. Unless I slept all the way to 1985. It kind of feels like it."
Jonathan gives him another of those lopsided smiles. "No. You've only been asleep for a couple of hours."
Steve sits up with some effort, manages to remember not to rub his eyes, pushes off a blanket that somehow got on top of him at some point, and looks around. The cabin is dim and quiet. There are some blanket-wrapped heaps on the floor that are probably kids, and a light's on at the kitchen end of the cabin. The fire is banked to a dull glow.
"There's, uh ..." Jonathan waves a hand at the kitchen. "Juice and milk and stuff, and some coffee that you'll have to heat up, if you want that. And there's TV dinners if you want something to eat. Uh, and frozen toaster waffles. We all ate earlier, but Mom didn't want to wake you up. Oh, and there's Tylenol and stuff on the counter there."
Steve starts to rub his eyes again, and stops himself just in time. "Thanks, man."
"Sure," Jonathan says.
There's an awkward moment when they just sort of look at each other. Steve's not really sure what there is between him and any of these people -- his ex-girlfriend's family, her little brother's friends, and their friends and family ... there shouldn't be anything. But there is. And with Jonathan it's probably the weirdest and most awkward of all, because they've never really been friends and they have every reason to dislike each other, but Steve doesn't hate Jonathan, and hate isn't what he sees on Jonathan's face.
They fought a monster together once. And they're both part of this little club, the Upside Down club. It's a kinship not unlike that of family, the way you end up being tied to people you don't even like half the time
And there's something else, something Steve is reluctantly forced to acknowledge as he looks around the room again, at the kids piled together like sleeping puppies in a mess of blankets and old sleeping bags. Namely, that he was a total shit a year ago -- even more than he realized at the time.
He never really got Jonathan before ... before all of this. Never got the real impact of what he said to Jonathan a year ago, in that alley behind the movie theater. Never really got it, until he put himself between the kids and Billy Hargrove, until he found himself in a tunnel with a demodog pack surging at him and knew that they were going to have to go through him to get to Dustin.
No wonder Jonathan punched the shit out of him.
"I'm sorr --" he begins, just as Jonathan says, "I'm sorry about --"
They both break off and stare at each other for a minute. Then Jonathan reluctantly starts to smile, and Steve does too, even though it hurts his mouth.
"What the heck are you apologizing for?" Steve asks.
"What do you mean, what am I apologizing for? This whole thing. You know." Jonathan makes a vague hand gesture. "With .... Nancy."
"I don't know why you think you owe me an apology for that. She just ..." He shrugs, like it doesn't matter. Maybe if he keeps telling himself that, someday it won't. "She chose. Not up to you. Not up to me. You don't need to go around apologizing for her."
"Yeah, I guess, but ..." Jonathan shakes his head, hair flopping in his face. "Anyway, I don't know why you think you owe me an apology."
"Come on, man. Last year. All that stuff I said about Will."
There's an odd look on Jonathan's face. "You already apologized for that. Kind of."
"Yeah, but I don't think I really got what I was apologizing for. I thought I did, but I didn't."
"What does that mean?" Jonathan asks, puzzled.
"Nothing," Steve says shortly. He gets up, stepping carefully over the kid-heaps on the floor to get to the kitchen.
Behind him, Jonathan says, "Oh," very quietly to himself.
Steve finds orange juice in the fridge and pours himself a glass, not realizing until he takes a drink how that's gonna feel on his cut-up mouth. He curses softly and leans on the edge of the sink, running his tongue over the insides of his cheeks. He really wishes he'd gotten in a few more hits on that asshole Hargrove.
After a minute or two, Jonathan joins him in the kitchen. Steve wordlessly holds out the juice carton. Jonathan pours a glass.
It's companionable, standing there, drinking orange juice and looking out at bare branches crisscrossing in the light from the window. Maybe it shouldn't feel this easy, but it does. Earlier tonight they both, though separately, fought an evil from beyond the real world; last year at about this time, they ran and fought and bled together.
"Where's Nancy?" Steve asks, because apparently he can't leave well enough alone; he's got to keep poking at that sore place, the way he can't stop his tongue from prodding at his split lip.
Jonathan tilts his head at the cabin wall. "All the girls are in El's bedroom. The boys are wherever we could find room out here."
Steve can't help grinning. He knows he probably shouldn't get a warm upwelling of satisfaction from the hint of frustration in Jonathan's voice, but at least he's not the only one who has to deal with knowing that Nancy is one locked bedroom door away. "The Chief and your mom made that rule, I'm guessing?"
Jonathan nods glumly.
Steve pats his shoulder. "Cheer up, you haven't even had to deal with Mrs. Wheeler yet. Or Mike. You have a whole world of chaperoning in your future."
Jonathan gives him a deeply baffled look, like he can't figure out if this is supposed to be an attack or not.
In all honestly Steve's not sure exactly how friendly he feels towards Jonathan, either, so he just drinks more of his orange juice and winces as the acid burns his mouth. Family still isn't quite right but (with the implicit mixed feelings and the "stuck together, not quite sure if we want to be" attitude) it does fit better than friends. But it's almost like he can see the way that it might go, to being friends someday.
Kind of like he knows he's not okay, with the Nancy thing or with any of the rest of it, but he can see the road to being okay; he can kinda feel the shape of it, how it might feel someday.
"So I'm gonna, like ..." Jonathan flaps a hand. "Pull up a piece of floor. Since you're obviously not in a coma or anything."
"Okay," Steve says, and then, feeling a little guilty over having apparently scored, by accident, one of the most comfortable sleeping options in the cabin, "You want the couch?"
"No, you might as well get some compensation for having a face that looks like ..." and Jonathan passes his hand over his face, leaving all the many possible unflattering comparisons unspoken, and goes to crawl back into a tangled knot of blankets and sleeping bag next to the lump with a tousled mop of curl hair that must be Dustin.
Steve gives up on the orange juice and pours the rest of it down the sink. He's actually kinda hungry, so he sticks a couple waffles in the toaster and stands with his finger pressed down on the pop-up lever so he can halt it in mid-pop and try not to make too much noise. He eats dry waffles while standing at the sink, listening to everyone sleep.
There's a sudden, soft cry from the girls' bedroom, and other soft voices hushing her -- whoever it was, he can't tell -- until everyone settles down to sleep again.
At least he's not the only one having nightmares.
He's probably not the only one who's been having nightmares for the past year, either. Almost certainly not. Maybe if he and Nancy had talked about it, things between them wouldn't have ... well ...
Maybe you can suffocate in what-ifs, just like you can suffocate on the choking ash-filled air of the Upside Down. He tears into the toaster waffle and chews painfully and swallows, and once again runs his tongue over the torn flesh on the inside of his cheeks where his skin tore against his teeth. He takes two Tylenol with half a glass of water, and then he goes back to the couch, stepping over sleepers, noticing for the first time that someone, at some point, took his shoes off (and he's pretty sure it wasn't him).
The blanket smells unfamiliar; the couch cushion is scratchy under his cheek. Steve isn't used to sleeping away from home. It's not something he's done much.
He's done a lot of new things today.
He's done some pretty cool things, actually. Handled yourself okay, Harrington, he thinks in an inner voice that sounds a lot like his basketball coach.
He fought some monsters, human and otherwise. Saved some kids -- or helped save them, anyway.
Lost a girl. Saved a town.
The losses don't quite make up for the wins, on a personal level. But Steve's an optimist by nature. He can feel himself starting to bounce back.
They fought an evil intelligence from another dimension and won. And they're still here. One way or another, things are gonna be okay.