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damn good babysitter

Chapter Text

Steve doesn’t know how he makes it back to his house. He waits until everyone’s asleep, and then he heaves himself up from the chair and makes his way out to the car, leaving the sound of light snores behind him. The fresh air is like a cold slap to the face, and he shivers slightly. His head is pounding and he aches all over, but he doesn’t let it stop him. He drove the kids back once the crisis was over, he can damn well drive the car back to his warm, comfortable bed.

He drives slowly and carefully, but the stars bursting all over his vision make it hard to see, and he almost runs into someone’s mailbox three times during the journey. He parks the car shakily, half on the lawn, and clambers out of the car, staggering up the drive and fumbling with the key. He doesn’t know how he makes it home, but he’s glad that he does.

He’s glad that he doesn’t have to sit in the Byers house, with Nancy and Jonathan just a room away, and all the kids curled up on the floor together. He’s glad he doesn’t have to take the couch and feel that ever-familiar loneliness creeping in. Because it’s not the same, looking after a bunch of kids, as actually having friends.

The house is blissfully dark, all the lights turned off. He leaves them off, tripping through the hallways, shedding his shoes and socks and jacket as he goes. His parents are away, God only knows where. His mom’s probably in Hong Kong, somewhere, for a business trip, but there’s no telling where his dad is. Steve doesn’t really miss them anymore. He misses the idea of them, but not the actual people that pretend to be his parents when there’s someone else around.

God, he’s feeling maudlin. That’s what getting punched repeatedly in the face will do to you, apparently. That, and give you a concussion.

He finds a glass of water in the kitchen and drains it. He stands at the kitchen window, barefoot and exhausted, staring out at the pool, which gleams slightly in the moonlight. Morning is already a slingshot away, and he can feel the rough edges of sleep clutching at his vision.

He falls into bed at roughly four in the morning, and as soon as his head hits the pillow, he’s out.

*

Steve wakes groggily to someone poking him in the face. He slaps the hand away – tries to, but his reactions are off, and he ends up slicing a hand through the air to the left. He blinks open his eyes and groans, immediately closing them again at the sight of a fuzzy figure leaning over him.

“Shithead,” Dustin says, but he sounds relieved. He’s got that stupid cap on, and he looks tired but alive, a bit of dirt still staining the tip of his nose despite the shower that Steve is pretty sure Joyce must have made all the kids have.

“Mrs Byers made us come by on the way back,” Dustin says. “She’s pissed at you for leaving, and so’s Hopper, but I convinced him to stay in the car with El while I checked to make sure you weren’t dead.”

“Why are you with Hopper?” Steve slurs, struggling to sit up. He eventually gets himself situated, leaning against the headboard, without hurling all over Dustin’s – well, Jonathan’s t-shirt. He thinks of Nancy wearing one of Jonathan’s shirts, and his stomach rolls again.

“He’s dropped us all home,” Dustin says, poking Steve again. “I’m the last one, and then he’s taking El back to the cabin. Why did you leave? I thought you were asleep when I went to bed.”

“Dozing,” Steve mutters. “Didn’t want to get in the way.” Didn't belong there.

“Bullshit,” Dustin says. “Why did you really leave?”

“Had to feed the cat,” Steve says, closing his eyes and tipping his head back. Dustin snorts, drops something on the bedside table. Steve blinks his eyes back open, drowsy, and then launches forward to grab the bottle of pills. There’s a glass of water waiting for him, and he swallows back two aspirin, mindful of his split lip and cut tongue. His throat stings, and his stomach protests, but he isn’t sick.

“You should have stayed with us, so we could check on you,” Dustin says. Steve swings his legs over the side of the bed and staggers upright.

“Look, I haven’t been sick, and I didn’t die in my sleep, so I think there’s a pretty good chance that I’m good here, alright?”

Dustin has to stand on tip-toes to flick Steve in the forehead, and even that tiny movement sends bursts of pain through his brain.

“Yeah, thought so,” Dustin says. “You’re such an idiot. You could have died in your sleep, and none of us would have known. Steve, you got the shit kicked out of you, alright? You’re not ‘good here.’ You’re barely even upright.”

Steve glances to where he’s leaning against the wall in surprise, and Dustin laughs, but it’s not a cheerful sound.

“Come on, we’re going to Hopper. He can keep an eye on you at the cabin.”

Steve doesn’t get a choice in this, apparently, but eventually he caves. He feels like shit, and the cabin is probably better than the Byers house. He doesn’t really want to be around Jonathan. He doesn’t hate the guy, doesn’t even dislike him, but it’s pretty obvious that something happened between Nancy and him while they were off doing whatever the hell they were doing, and he doesn’t really feel like sitting through the awkward tension. Besides, Mrs Byers has a lot on her plate, what with Will just being possessed by some kind of evil monster, and Steve doesn’t want to add to that.

So, he puts his shoes on, takes a final sip of his water, and trudges out to where Hopper is sitting impatiently in the car, tapping his fingers against the steering wheel. El – the girl with the magic powers who looks like some kind of rocker chick, the one who saved all of their asses, the one Steve hasn’t actually met yet – is making an air freshener spin slowly just by looking at it. To anyone else, it might look like the work of a gentle breeze, but Steve knows better.

Hopper glances up as they draw near and whistles lowly when he gets a good look at Steve. Steve grimaces, swaying on his feet. The back door pops open on its own, and Steve looks up to find El looking at him with a small smile.

“In you get, kid,” Hopper says. “I haven’t got all day.”

Dustin shoves him none-too-gently towards the car, and Steve practically falls into the seat. The drive is mostly silent, until El speaks up, just as they reach Dustin’s house.

“Why did you leave?”

“He had to feed the cat,” Dustin says sarcastically, because he’s a little shit. He claps Steve on the shoulder, throws a salute at Hopper, and then wriggles around until he can throw himself between the two front seats and hug El. She hugs him back easily, eyes closed and mouth tipped up in a small smile. Steve can’t help but think that she looks too young, too innocent, to do what she’d had to do.

“Thanks again for saving the world, and all that,” Dustin yells, and Steve winces, jerking back as the noise goes right through him, ricocheting around his skull like one of Billy’s punches. “Later, Steve.”

“Bye, dickhead,” Steve says, reaching up to pinch the bridge of his nose. Dustin laughs, but he shuts the door gently when he gets out. Hopper waits until he’s up the drive and in the house before he pulls away, and then Steve is frozen in place by the severity of gaze in the mirror.

“You know that was stupid of you, kid, so I’m not going to lecture you.”

“Stupid,” El echoes. “We aren’t stupid.”

Hopper’s mouth tilts slightly, fondly. He meets Steve’s eyes again and says gravely, “It’s one of the rules.”

Steve doesn’t even realise he’s dropped off until Hopper’s roughly shaking him awake. His face is grim when he looks down at Steve, and Steve groans again, rubbing his eyes until it sends sparks of pain down the back of his neck.

“You need to stay awake, Harrington.”

“I already slept through what was left of the night,” Steve says. “I’m fine.”

Hopper narrows his eyes. “What’s the year? What’s your full name? What month is it?”

Steve answers dutifully, if a little resentfully, and then climbs out of the car when Hopper gives him the go ahead. El’s already gone on ahead, trekking through the woods, arms spread, hands trailing over the trunks of trees, head tipped back against the wind. She looks a little miserable when Hopper opens the door to the cabin, but he bends down and mutters something to her, and she looks at him sharply before smiling, all teeth. She’s got a sweet smile, childish, like she remembers her age.

The cabin is small but clean. It’s a bit of a mess, stuff everywhere, furniture pushed all over the place, and Hopper takes one look at the place and sighs. He casts a wry look at El, who shrugs, and Steve surmises that whatever happened probably happened while Will was here. They spend a few minutes pushing bits of furniture back into the proper place, and then Steve collapses into the nearest chair, his head spinning.

“Harrington. Here, have you eaten?”

He hands Steve a bottle of water, and Steve drinks gratefully. He feels full of led, weighed down, and he’s not entirely sure he’s all there at the moment. It feels like floating, in the worst way, and he tries to cling to the moment by resting his head on the table. A chair scrapes against the floor, and El sits down beside him. She puts a hand on the back of Steve’s neck, and Steve is so surprised that he doesn’t move.

“Sick,” El says. “Like mama?”

She sounds fearful, and Hopper is there immediately.

“No, Jane. Not like Mama. He just took a few too many hits to the head, alright?”

She nods, and Hopper ruffles her hair. Steve smiles a little, just a quirk of the mouth, and sits up properly, El’s hand falling away. They already look like a little family, and Steve wonders how long they’ve known each other. He caught the gist of it, when El came back and Mike started yelling, but he’s not really sure about this girl. Everyone sort of forgot to mention her.

He gets fed Eggo’s, although he can’t manage more than a few bites, something El looks unfathomably sad about, and then ridiculously happy when he pushes his plate towards her. Hopper digs out an old blanket that smells like must and moth-balls, and Steve wraps it around his shoulders and drops dizzily onto the couch. The world is spinning again.

After a minute, he hears the sound of the television stirring to life. The volume is on low enough that it doesn’t bother him, and even if it did, he probably wouldn’t complain, not to the magical kid and her cop father, who’ve taken him in for the minute.

“I’ll wake you in an hour, just to check your brain hasn’t turned to mush,” Hopper says, and Steve snorts, eyes already slipping closed.

He knows the world will still be waiting for him when he opens his eyes. He knows he’ll have Nancy and Jonathan and school and the concussion and his empty house to deal with when he wakes up, but he also knows he’ll have the kids and the Chief and Mrs Byers there, too. He’s not sure if he’ll have nightmares when he sleeps, if he’ll wake up in a cold sweat with images of Demo-dogs dancing in front of his eyes, if he’ll still be sick and sore and dizzy, if he’ll be able to go to school in the morning.

But he also knows that right now, he’s safe, the kids are safe, and the world doesn’t need saving for a while.

Chapter Text

Dustin is one of those people who, you give him an inch, and he takes a mile. Or, to put it another way, you give him a phone number, and he takes the piss.

“Dustin,” Steve says, praying for patience. “It is ass o’clock in the morning.”

He’s still in bed, lying on his stomach with one hand tucked under the pillow, the cord for the telephone stretched to the breaking point. He knows he looks like shit. The bruises have gone down, after a few weeks, but for some reason, Steve’s had a headache since the night the MindFlayer was forced out of Will’s body and Eleven closed the gate. And the headache means he hasn’t been sleeping, and the not sleeping has stolen most of his appetite. He eats bites, here and there, but nothing substantial, and it makes him feel dizzy all the time.

But tonight, tonight had been one of those nights where he had actually fucking slept most of the way through. He only woke up once, because of nightmares of teeth and gaping mouths and sharp claws. He swore he could taste the Upside Down – yeah, Steve knows all the terminology now, courtesy of the kids – and it had taken a while to drift back off, but when he had, oh, when he had, it had been blissful.

And now he’s awake, at approximately seven-thirty on a Sunday, because Dustin Henderson woke him up to babble in his ear about snowballs and hair spray. The only reason he hadn’t ignored the call was because of the grating ringing sound – not to mention the deep-seated fear in his gut that the world might be falling to shit again.

“Steve, this is serious,” Dustin says, his voice tinny but solemn over the line. “I can’t tell you everything because my mom’s listening, but I’m having a crisis.”

“And I’m having a bad day already,” Steve says.

“Quit whining and just get over here,” Dustin says. “We need you.”

The line goes dead. Steve puts it back on the cradle and stares at it fuzzily. Snowballs and hair spray.

“It’s not even fucking snowing,” Steve mutters.

*

Mrs Henderson is a bit of a whirlwind. She doesn’t have any of the manic energy that Joyce does, but there’s a definite element of chaos to the way she works, because no sooner has Steve rung the doorbell than he finds himself sat at the kitchen table, nursing a cup of something hot, with a plate of homemade cookies in front of him. Mrs Henderson trills loudly and out of tune to some obscure song as she sprinkles flour on the kitchen counter, a burgundy apron wrapped around her waist.

Dustin pokes his head around the door and opens his mouth to yell something, only to double-take when he spots Steve sitting at the table.

“What are you doing here?” Dustin demands loudly.

“You invited me,” Steve says incredulously. He pauses for a moment, doubt creeping in. “You did invite me, didn’t you?”

“Yes, I invited you. I meant, what are you doing in here, in the kitchen? Mom, why didn’t you tell me that Steve was here?” Dustin rolls his eyes before Mrs Henderson can answer, stomping forward to haul Steve up by his shirt. Steve lets him, almost spilling his drink as he’s steered down the hallway with a wave to Mrs Henderson, who waves back, her plump cheeks rosy-ing up with the heat from the stove.

“You leave that boy alone, Dusty,” she calls, before Dustin can slam the bedroom door shut behind them. “He was nice about my cookies.”

Dustin stares at him in horror. “You ate her cookies?”

“They weren’t that bad,” Steve lies, feeling oddly defensive. There aren’t many adults in his life that are actually nice to him, so he kind of wants to cling to the ones he can find.

“Whatever, Steve, just don’t trust her meatloaf, okay? You’ll regret it,” Dustin says darkly. And then he slams the bedroom door shut, drowning out Mrs Henderson’s singing.

Dustin’s room is exactly how Steve would have expected it to look, if he had ever given it a passing thought. There are nerdy posters plastering the walls and figurines lining the shelves and comic books strewn everywhere. Despite all the clutter, it looks surprisingly clean and tidy.

The only surprise is the fact that Will Byers is sat on Dustin’s Star Wars bedspread, looking for all the world like he’d rather be anywhere else but here. Steve stutters to a stop and blinks in surprise, and then stares at Dustin suspiciously. Dustin puts his hands up immediately, surrendering.

“I didn’t do anything,” Dustin says. “I didn’t even know he was coming over.”

Steve jolts into action at that, panic lurching up his throat. “Have you called your mom? Does she know where you are?”

“She knows I’m here,” Will says quietly. “I called her at work to tell her I was coming over.”

From the look on his face, Steve can guess it didn’t exactly go well. He can clearly picture Joyce’s panic and fear and horror at the thought of her boy leaving home on his own, in a town where everything seems to be out to get him. Will glances down at his hands, which are fisted tightly together on top of his knees. He’s sitting rigidly on the edge of Dustin’s bed, his face gaunt and pale.

“I take it she didn’t really want to hear that from you,” Steve says, and Will grimaces.

“We called Jonathan too,” Dustin adds. “He was looking after Will today, but Will legged it as soon as he could. Apparently, he’s being all lovey-dovey with Nancy or something, and they didn’t—oh shit, Steve, sorry.”

Dustin looks genuinely appalled at his own mouth, and Steve tries to pretend like there’s not a fist wrapped around his heart, slowly squeezing. He takes a deep breath, rocks back on his heels, and then reaches over to ruffle Dustin’s curls. Dustin immediately switches from looking apologetic to looking like a disgruntled kitten, like Steve knew he would.

“Okay, so, everyone knows where you are, even if they’re not that happy about it, yeah?”

Will nods cautiously.

“Jonathan was freaking out on the phone,” Dustin says. “But my mom managed to persuade him not to come over. And Mrs Byers caved eventually.”

“Does your mom know about everything?” Steve asks curiously. All he knows about Mrs Henderson is that she sings badly, cooks badly, likes cats, and loves her son.

“Hell no,” Dustin says, horrified. “And she’s not going to. I don’t need her asking about what really happened to the cat, or panicking that some monster’s going to come and eat her new one.” He pauses, and then adds, “I also really don’t want to be grounded.”

Will flinches at the mention of monsters, and Steve reaches over and swats Dustin on the shoulder before sighing.

“Any particular reason why you’re here? And why you both dragged my ass over here when I could have been sleeping?”

“I just needed some space,” Will says, shrinking in on himself. “I get why everyone’s crowding me, and I’m not going to tell them to stop. I know they’re worried. Even I’m worried. But none of that actually makes me feel any better.”

Dustin and Steve exchange a long look, and then Steve slowly sinks into the desk chair, wheeling it over so that he’s closer to Will. Not too close, not close enough to box him in, but close. Dustin doesn’t seem to know what to do, so he leans against the wall with his hands in his pockets.

“Okay,” Steve says. “I’m not good for much, but I’ve been told I’m a good listener.”

Dustin snorts. “Oh, yeah, Steve? By who? Your mirror?”

“Shut up, dipshit,” Steve says lightly, and he leans over to snag a figurine off Dustin’s desk, lobbing it at him without turning his head. From the sound of his squawk, the projectile finds its mark, and it has the added bonus of making Will crack a small smile, so that’s a plus.

“I just needed space. I’d rather not talk about it all, if that’s okay?” Will asks. He looks so damn worried, like Steve is going to get pissed at him for not spilling all his worries and fraying nerves out into the open like it’s nothing. Honestly, Steve is a little relieved. He knows that, compared to the kids, he’s an adult, that they – mostly – see him as the grown-up, but he doesn’t feel like one. Mostly, he feels a little out of his depth.

“Not a problem,” Steve says. “Talk when you’re ready. Or write it all down, or do something else, whatever you like. You’ve got a whole bunch of people waiting for you whenever you want to talk to them, including me.”

Will studies him carefully, like he’s searching for the lie, but he's not going to find one. Steve honestly means it. Even if the kid hadn’t gotten through hell, Steve would be there. He’s not going to turn away a kid in need, regardless of what that need is.

“You mean that?”

“I mean that,” Steve says. “Even if you just want to whine about homework, I’m here. Well, not here, seeing as I can’t stand the stink in here for much longer, what is that, literal shit?”

Dustin scowls at him. “I can’t get the smell out from the turtle tank. Dart ruined it, but I couldn’t afford another one, so I just taped it all up, but there’s a pretty bad smell.”

Steve glances over to see that the turtle tank is indeed taped up with tape and cardboard. Will edges away from the desk slightly, looking nervous, and Steve digs around in his pockets for his keys. The smell is making his head ache even worse than before.

“Come on,” he says, twirling his keys around his finger. “We’re going to the diner, and we’re going to eat as many waffles as we can, okay? Away from the smell of literal shit.”

Dustin mimes shooting him, and Will giggles slightly, standing up to push his shoes onto his feet. Steve herds them out the door, asks Mrs Henderson to ring the Byers and let them know that Will’s with Steve, and he’ll drop him back no later than four o’clock. Mrs Henderson pushes a bag of cookies into his hands before he leaves, and he takes them with a genuine grin, even though he can still taste the salty aftertaste on his tongue from the last one.

“I really did have a crisis, you know,” Dustin says, as Steve pushes him towards the car. Will hops in the front before Dustin can and dutifully does up his seatbelt, and Dustin bitches half-heartedly at them both from the backseat as Steve drives them towards the diner. Steve catches him glancing worriedly at Will, though, so he’s pretty sure Dustin doesn’t mean any of it.

He knows they were all friends before all of this, the four of them, the party, but he’s pretty sure that they had best friends between them, and he’s pretty sure that Will and Mike were closest out of the lot. He knows Dustin must be curious, if not worried, about why Will came to him instead of going straight to Mike.

Steve’s curious too, but he pushes it aside, and leads them into the diner. He almost groans as the bright overhead lights hit him, piercing his eyes. He shuts them briefly, wobbling for a moment as a wave of dizziness rushes over him, and then he moves to a booth at the back of the diner, near the window. Will and Dustin follow him, talking quietly to each other and laughing about something inane, some kind of franchise that Steve’s never heard of. Dustin’s been trying to educate him on nerd culture for the past two weeks, but the only thing that sticks with him is Star Wars, and that’s only because they all talk about it so bloody much. Even El likes it, now that she’s seen it.

They order three plates of waffles, and Steve picks at his until Dustin badgers him into eating more than a mouthful. Eventually he just slides the plate over to Dustin, who happily inhales it. Will manages half a waffle and looks immensely proud of himself, so Steve leans over after a moment of hesitation and ruffles his hair too, the way he does with Dustin. Will’s cheeks grow pink and he looks surprised, and then quietly happy.

“Go on then,” Steve says eventually. “What’s your crisis?”

“The Snow Ball,” Dustin says, straightening up seriously. Steve can hear the capital letters.

*

Jonathan still looks surprised to see Steve at the door, even though he knows Mrs Henderson called. The car ride had been quiet – Steve had dropped Dustin home first, just in case Will did want to talk to him, but he had just fiddled with the radio the whole time and occasionally hummed along to some of the songs.

“Steve,” Jonathan says, somehow managing to make that one word awkward.

They haven’t talked much since the night that El closed the gate. There’s a pretty big elephant in the room, although Steve can’t see any sign of Nancy at the moment, and Steve would honestly rather not talk about it. Which is probably where he went wrong with Nancy in the first place, not wanting to talk about things.

“Hey, buddy,” Jonathan says, glancing down at Will with a more genuine smile. “Mom’s not back yet, so I’m making tea.”

“What are we having?” Will says, pulling off his coat as he comes up the front steps.

“Whatever I can find. Why don’t you go in and get warm, you must be freezing. And then we can talk about not running off and giving your older brother a heart attack.”

Will shares a very small glance with Steve, as if to say help me, but Steve simply grins and pushes him gently through the door after Jonathan steps aside. Will doesn’t bother protesting, or looking offended, like the rest of the kids would have. He just sighs, gives a wave, and trudges into the house.

Jonathan shifts back into view and sort of hops from one foot to the other. Steve gets a vicious sort of satisfaction from his awkwardness until he reminds himself that he’s trying to be a better person.

"Thanks for dropping him off," he says, and Steve shrugs. There's silence for a second, and then Steve jerks a thumb behind him at his car.

"I should probably get going..."

“I owe you an apology,” Jonathan blurts out. He steps outside hurriedly and pulls the door shut behind him, but Steve is already down the front steps, both hands held out in front of him like he can ward off Jonathan’s verbal attack.

“No, no,” Steve says. “We are not doing this. I am the last person you owe an apology too, and in fact, I probably owe you a hundred of them. We are not talking about whatever it is you want to talk about, okay?”

“But about Nancy,” Jonathan says, following him down the stairs in some weird game of chase.

“Nancy is a big girl,” Steve interrupts, taking another step back until he’s standing by his car. “She’s her own person who can make her own decisions, and she chose you. Just be happy about it, man.”

Jonathan’s face creases up with guilt and pain, and Steve rolls his eyes. His throat is dry and his stomach is a churning mess of emotion, but he pushes past it.

“Look, our relationship was bullshit,” Steve says, something bitter creeping into his voice. “She said that, she meant it, and that’s fine. And if you’re worried about me fighting for her or something else as equally ridiculous, you don’t have to. I was a pretty shitty boyfriend, and I wouldn’t put her through more pain by trying to make her happy when I know I couldn’t. She’s happy with you, man. So, be happy back, okay?”

He expects Jonathan to look pleased, or at least relieved, but if anything, he looks worse than he did when he first opened the door. His expression is cracked down the centre, and there’s a kind of horror in his eyes that makes Steve want to turn around and check for Demo-Dogs. His fingers twitch with the urge to grab his bat. It's still in the boot, waiting.

“You don’t actually believe all that, do you?” Jonathan demands, and Steve pops open the car door.

“Just facts, Byers. Do me a favour and stop smothering the kid so much, or he’s going to start running away more often, and I cannot handle another wake-up call like this morning.”

“Steve,” Jonathan says, but Steve isn’t listening. He climbs into the car, guns the engine and pulls out of the drive, leaving Jonathan standing on the damp grass, fists clenched at his sides.

Steve expected it to feel cathartic, getting all this stuff off his chest. Instead, he’s biting back harsh breaths as he races a little too quickly through the streets, rushing to get to the woods. He doesn’t want to bother Hopper, but it’s a Sunday, so he knows they won’t be up to much, and El makes sure to tell him every time he shows up that she wants to see him again, soon.

He slows the car as his vision wobbles slightly and nausea rises in him. All because of the confrontation, Steve tells himself, although he’s not quite sure.

All he knows is that, right now, he needs company.

Chapter Text

The Snow Ball comes and goes. Steve isn’t exactly sure that he’s the best person to be giving Dustin advice, but he does anyway. He helps him pick out a suit and do his hair, makes sure he looks bitchin’ – El’s words, not his – and then he comes back to pick him up later. Dustin is unusually quiet for most of the trip, and Steve worries, worries that maybe nobody wanted to dance with him, that maybe he got rejected. He worries about it right up until the moment that Dustin finally decides to tell him what’s going on.

“I danced with your ex-girlfriend,” Dustin blurts out suddenly, after fifteen minutes of silence. Steve almost crashes the car in surprise, and when he rights the wheel, Dustin is staring at him oddly - guiltily. He looks guilty.

“What?”

“Nancy,” Dustin explains miserably. “I danced with Nancy. I’m so sorry, Steve, I wasn’t thinking, and it didn’t mean anything, it was just a pity-dance—”

Steve almost crashes the car again, but this time it’s because he’s laughing too hard to see properly.

*

“Did you have a good time?” Steve asks. He’s sprawled on the armchair in the cabin, half-paying attention to the essay on his lap and half-watching some weird romance on the television. Hopper’s puttering about in the background, half-heartedly washing dishes and sneaking cigarettes, waving the smoke out the window. It’s open, now. All the windows are open, despite the frigid air outside. El doesn’t like being hemmed in, and Steve honestly can’t blame her.

“I danced,” El says, eyes glued to the screen. “It was good.”

Steve doesn’t know when he got pulled into this strange little family. He doesn’t feel quite on the in yet, but there’s something here. Hopper and El – Jane, Steve reminds himself – have a good thing going here, healthier than it might have been a while ago, from what El was saying. Or not saying.

He’s not around all the time, but he pops by on a Tuesday or a Sunday, after school or before his morning run, which has fallen to the wayside a bit. El enjoys his company, as far as he can tell, and Hopper hasn’t kicked him out yet, so Steve guesses he doesn’t mind much. He’s careful not to step on any toes, though, careful to put space between his visits, just in case they get fed up of him. They’re still healing, he knows.

He tunes back in to see the main characters kiss, and glances down at El. He expects a wrinkled nose, a disgusted expression, but instead he sees pink cheeks and a small smile, like she’s remembering something, and Steve is seized with the urge to go and find Mike Wheeler and tower over him menacingly.

He nudges her with his foot, instead, jerks his head at the television with a knowing grin when she looks around. “So, good time, then, huh?”

A pillow rises up and smacks him in the face.

Jane,” comes Hopper’s voice, reprimanding, but Steve can hear the laughter. “What did we say?”

El sighs. “No beating up Steve.”

*

Nancy corners him about a week later, after the Snow Ball. He’s been expecting it, after the incident at the Byers house, but he’s still unprepared for the sight of her. She waits until his head is buried in his locker to pop up beside him, and Steve will deny to his dying day that he jumps about a foot in the air and bangs his elbow against the metal door. He curses, rubbing his elbow, and then inhales sharply when he catches sight of Nancy. She looks pretty today. She looks pretty every day.

“You’re jumpy,” Nancy says, watching him with concern. Steve wishes she’d direct it somewhere else, at someone else. “Are you okay?”

“Fine,” Steve says. “How are you?”

It’s awkward in a way it never really was with Nancy. Nancy’s always been his comfort, his safe space. It just took him a while to realise that he had to be that for her, as well.

“As well as I can be, I guess,” Nancy says, always honest. “I wanted to ask you… come for dinner.”

Steve freezes, one hand stuck in his locker, resting on a textbook. His fingers twitch as he waits for the catch.

“With me and Jonathan,” she adds, and Steve cringes back.

“I’m busy,” he says, and regrets his sharpness when her expression crumples.

“Steve, please,” she says. “I want to talk to you. We both want to talk to you. Jonathan told me what you said to him, and I—”

The bell rings, then, cutting her off, and Steve slams his locker shut quickly. He’s not really in the mood for this, hasn’t been in the mood for this since he and Nancy went their separate ways. Since before that, really. He spots Tommy a little further down the corridor, leering at a passing girl, and he averts his gaze before Tommy can notice him watching.

He doesn’t want his old life back, not really. Now that he’s out of it, he can see what kind of person he was, what kind of person he was becoming, and it makes him cringe to think that he had ever been so spoilt, so much of an asshole. He was a class A jerk. So, no, he doesn’t want his old life back, but he doesn’t really want this one either. He doesn’t want a secure job at his father’s business, nothing to show for his grades and an empty house, with very little friends.

He wants more for himself.

“Just dinner,” Nancy says quietly, pleading. “We can have it at the Byers house, when Jonathan’s looking after Will. Jonathan wants this too.”

“Maybe,” Steve concedes. “Not now though, yeah? It hasn’t been that long, Nance, and I need a bit of time.”

She bites her lip, worried, and then straightens up. “I completely understand. Just… I’m still here, okay? If you need anything…”

“Same here,” he says, and means it. He’d do pretty much anything for Nancy. But he can’t help but remember her expression when she was drunk and slurring at him, calling their love bullshit – not love, it wasn’t love, Steve reminds himself, not on her part. It still stings, and he knows it’ll sting even worse if he has to sit there, pushing food around his plate while Nancy and Jonathan hold hands under the table.

“Hey, thanks, by the way,” Steve says, before he turns to go to class. Nancy looks a little confused, tucks her hair behind her ears.

“For what, Steve?”

Steve grins. “For dancing with Dustin. Little shit panicked so much about telling me that I almost didn’t find out, but I’m glad you did it. He deserved to have a good time with the rest of them.”

Nancy smiles at him softly. Something in him aches at the sight, and his grin fades slightly. He knows he’s probably being melodramatic, knows his dad would tell him to buckle up and be a man, knows his mom would tell him that he’s only young, but he can’t help it. He wants to keep that smile, carry it with him.

“See you later, Steve. Think about dinner, okay?”

She turns away before he can decline again, because she’s always been smart, and she can probably see the urge to run in his eyes. He spots Jonathan a little further down the hall, leaning against a locker with his arms full of books. He’s watching them closely. It sends a jolt through Steve’s chest, having the both of them worry about him, and he turns back to his locker before he can think too hard about it.

*

Steve’s never had to host a party before. Not the kind that Dustin’s talking about, anyway.

“Your house is huge,” Lucas says, folding his coat up and almost getting bowled over by Dustin.

“Sure is, squirt,” Steve says. He grabs the back of Dustin’s coat before he can sprint past, and gives him a sharp look. “Shoes.”

“What about them?”

“Take them off, and your coat, before you start setting up your weird nerd game.”

“It’s not a weird nerd game,” Mike says, stomping in through the door, Max at his heels. Lucas rolls his eyes at Mike’s scowl and Steve gives him a commiserating look, letting go of Dustin’s coat as the kid flails around like a fish on a hook, trying to get his shoes off one-handed.

“Mike’s pissed because Hopper won’t let El out to come and play with us,” Lucas says, rolling his eyes. Mike glares at them all before stalking down the hall, a bunch of stuff for the game tucked under his arms.

“You’re going the wrong way,” Steve calls, amused, and Mike switches courses sharply, swerving at the last minute and tossing an unimpressed look over his shoulder. Lucas snickers under his breath, and Steve abruptly decides that this little shit is his favourite one.

“I can’t believe I got dragged into this,” Max says.

“You were the one who wanted to join the party,” Dustin points out. He’s finally wrangled himself out of his shoes and coat, which are thrown haphazardly over the chair in the corner. Steve slips past him and starts folding things up, putting them away properly. He’s not entirely sure where his parents are, still. They were back for Christmas, which was stiff and quiet and awkward, and gone again by New Year. He’s pretty sure they won’t be back today, but just in case they are, he doesn’t want a bunch of stuff cluttering up the entryway.

Steve's not entirely sure why the kids want to be here, with him, but he’s pretty sure it has something to do with the amount of snacks he’s been bribed into buying.

Max takes Lucas’s hand as she passes, gripping it tightly as they trudge through the house, and Steve watches Lucas’s face brighten as Dustin’s grows increasingly sour. Steve elbows him gently, and Dustin grimaces up at him.

“Where’s Will?” Trying to take his mind off it, the ache in his heart. Not as strong, maybe as Steve’s, but still just as new, just as unexpected. Steve doesn’t really remember his crushes from that age, but he knows it felt like his whole life was breaking apart when they didn’t go right.

“Right behind us.” And here his expression turns a little guilty, a lot stubborn. “Don’t be pissed, okay?”

Steve is instantly suspicious. “Why? What have you done?”

“I haven’t done anything!” Dustin protests, offended. “Shit, Steve, have a little faith, yeah? I just maybe didn’t stop something from happening, that’s all.”

“I don’t…” Steve trails off as he catches sight of who’s coming up the path towards the house. He’s seized with the urge to slam the door shut and lock it, but then Will sways into view too, and he knows he can’t. Not that he really would anyway – he’s not that much of a dick.

Nancy reaches him first, Jonathan hanging back with Will, chatting quietly with his hands in his pockets. Nancy has her hair in curls, something pink smeared prettily on her lips, and a cautious smile on her face. Jonathan looks as he ever does, although when Steve looks closer, he notes the newness of the sweater, thicker than usual, the lack of holes in the hem. He wonders when he started paying so much attention to Jonathan’s clothes, of all things, and chalks it up to the headache he’s currently sporting.

“Nancy,” he greets, and Nancy’s smile turns apologetic. Dustin chooses this moment to respond to Mike’s yell and dashes off inside the house, sprinting out of sight before Steve can grab him and shake him and make him explain.

“I know you said you needed time,” Nancy says, lowering her voice as Will gets closer to the house. He’s laughing at something Jonathan’s said, and they both have the same smile, like they’re not sure whether they’re allowed to be fucking happy, and it breaks Steve’s heart.

“It’s fine,” Steve says, before she can carry on. “The more the merrier, right? Besides, at least now I don’t actually have to be the responsible adult and listen to these nerds whine about Space Wars.”

Dustin pokes his head around the door, cap askew, to shout, “It’s Star Wars, Steve, Star Wars, and you know it!”

“Of course, I know it, shithead, you’ve made me watch it a thousand times!” Steve yells back. “I could recite it in my damn sleep if I wanted to. I could put on a fucking play.”

Nancy covers her mouth to hide her laugh, and Steve can see Jonathan smirking. Will openly grins, a little sheepish, as he steps inside and carefully places his jacket on one of the pegs. His shoes go by the door, lined up neatly, and Steve points a finger at him and says, “You. You are my new favourite, you hear me? You get first pick of the sweets.”

Will looks surprised, and then happy as he shuffles down the corridor. Steve ruffles his hair as he passes, and Will looks delighted. It’s fucking painful and brilliant at the same time, and Steve vows to pay more attention to him in the future. He’s trying to split his time equally between all the little shits; they all need it, in different ways, and it’s not like they don’t have other people that can step in and stand up, but if he can help, he’s going to help.

Jonathan’s watching him closely when Steve looks away from Will, his gaze flicking from him to his brother carefully. He startles when Steve catches him looking, and shifts slightly, his cheeks going red. Nancy glances between them, either worried or exasperated – probably both.

“Shut the door, man, it’s freezing in here,” Steve says easily. He turns and heads for the kitchen, throwing over his shoulder, “And you can come and help me with the chips. I don’t want to be mauled because I didn’t have everything ready for their greasy little fingers.”

Nancy laughs again, and the sound eases something in Steve’s chest. He’s been feeling shaky all day, tremors running up and down his arms, and his head is pounding, but even with all the noise coming from the sitting room, and even with the heavy weight of two stares at his back, he feels a little better already.

“How was your Christmas?” Nancy asks. She comes right in and starts ripping open chip packets, shaking their contents into the bowls he’s got set out, ready. Jonathan leans uncomfortably against the doorway and watches.

“Fine, thanks,” Steve says. “I spent Boxing Day with Hopper and El. She’s crazy good at charades, but she cheats at everything else.”

If Nancy is surprised, she doesn’t show it. She just keeps concentrates on the snacks while Jonathan watches in the creepy stalker way he’s famous for. Steve hates himself for thinking the words fondly, because frankly, he’s still a little uncomfortable, and a bit pissed, and a lot miserable about the whole situation.

He can only really think of one reason why they might both be here.

“You’re really keen on this dinner thing, aren’t you?” he jokes, and Jonathan straightens up.

“Yeah, we are,” he says seriously. Nancy bites her lip and puts down the empty chip packet, nodding. “Look, you said a lot of stuff the other week, and a lot of shit happened between us, and we want to get it all sorted between us.”

Steve bites back a lot of unfriendly things that pop into his head. Better person, better person, better person. He’s trying, but they’re in his space, and his head hurts, and he’s not really sure where to go from here. He’s not sure what they want from him.

“Just dinner, Steve,” Nancy says softly. “At the Byers’ house. No Shadow Monsters or Demo-Dogs, just us and some food. You can complain about the kids being stuck to you like limpets, if you like. Sound good?”

Steve takes a deep breath, his arms shaking slightly as he picks up the nearest empty bowl. “Dinner. As long as Mrs Byers and Will don’t mind. And as long as I get to pick the food.”

Jonathan audibly sighs in relief, shoulders dropping as he comes away from the door and starts piling bowls into his arms. Nancy lays a hand on Steve’s wrist before he can make a run for it, her eyes twinkling.

“Thank you, Steve.”

He nods jerkily, gently removing his hand from under hers. He puts all the sweets in a giant bowl and heads ducks out of the kitchen, heading straight for Will and dumping it in his lap, much to the boy’s surprise. Dustin immediately reaches for a sweet and Steve slaps his hand away, much to Dustin’s disgust.

“Dude, what the shit?”

Nancy and Jonathan come in behind him and pile all the bowls onto the coffee table. The game is set up on the floor, the dice already in Mike’s impatient hands. They settle on one of the couches, close enough to touch but keeping their hands apart. Steve wants to roll his eyes at their carefulness, but he can’t help but be touched. The empty space beside Jonathan looks far too tempting for words, and the way Jonathan shifts the throw cushion almost makes it look like an invite. He clears his throat and sits in the armchair instead, laughing inwardly at Dustin’s offended expression.

“Steve, c’mon.” Mike looks even more grouchy than usual, arms crossed over his chest, and Lucas just looks like he’d rather be asleep. Max pops a chip in her mouth and crunches down threateningly. Steve is unmoved.

“Will gets first pick,” Steve explains. “He’s my favourite out of you little shits, and I didn’t see any of you chipping in with the purchases, so you can just sit and suffer.”

He sits back, grinning, and watches the mayhem unfold.

Chapter Text

“You know, you wouldn’t make a half-bad cop.”

The words come out of nowhere. Steve pauses. He’s got a pen between his teeth while he goes through his bag, looking for his math notes, and he spits it out before he says, “Don’t know if I should take that as a compliment or not.”

“Watch it, kid,” Hopper says, glowering half-heartedly at him while he sips on his coffee. He’s standing in the kitchen of the cabin, and there’s a half-eaten apple beside him on the counter, a remnant of his attempt to eat a little healthier now that he’s got El here. It’s kind of hard to get El to eat anything other than Eggo’s and dessert foods, but they’re trying.

El’s forehead creases. “Compliment?”

“New word for the day,” Hopper says. “It’s when you say something nice about someone. Say you told Steve that his hair looked pretty today, that would be a compliment.”

El’s nose wrinkles up even further. “Why would I say that?”

“Thanks, kid,” Steve says, leaning forward to mess up her curls. She dodges his attack while Hopper chuckles in the background, and Steve feels warmth settle in his chest. He’s been feeling it more and more these days, while he’s watching the kids, while he’s lying on the couch in the cabin, trying to explain his homework to El or while he’s surreptitiously trying to fatten Will up a bit with extra burgers.

“I meant it, though,” Hopper says. “You should come and hang out at the police station, get a feel for the place, before you head off for college.”

Steve snorts. “College. Yeah, right. Like I’m going to get into college.”

Hopper levels a look at him. “What do your parents have to say about that?”

Steve looks up in surprise, and then shrugs, scratching his nose with his pen. “They don’t say much, really. They’re pretty busy people.”

He’s startled when it doesn’t come out bitter, but not as startled as he should be. Maybe this is growth, he thinks idly, doodling on the corner of the page. Maybe this is what it means to turn into an adult.

“Huh,” Hopper says. He doesn’t sound pleased, but Steve ignores that. There’s nothing he can do about his parents. He can’t make them want to spend time with Steve, and honestly? Steve doesn’t really want them to. He loves his parents, sure, in that distant way you love relatives that are never really around, a leftover emotion from his childhood, but he doesn’t really like them, and he gets the feeling that they don’t like him. Not enough to want to stay.

No, things are fine the way they are.

Steve’s hand shakes as he tries to cap the pen, and he accidentally trails ink all over the inside of his fingers before he pushes the lid into place.

Well, maybe not quite fine.

“Hey, do you know much about concussions?” Steve asks. Hopper looks at him sharply, brows furrowed.

“Is this something for school?”

“Yeah, biology,” Steve lies easily. “Just doing some extra reading.”

The sharpness fades slightly, but Hopper still looks suspicious. “Not really. You learn some things at school, but it’s been a while, and things are changing so fast. You pick stuff up, you know, at the station and dealing with emergencies, but Hawkins is pretty quiet.”

He pauses, as if his words are just registering, and Steve and El both shoot him a droll look. El’s is a little wry.

Hopper wheezes a laugh, fishes a cigarette out of a packet. “Well, it used to be pretty quiet.”

*

Steve takes a shallow breath. It’s been a bad night – he woke up yelling, covered in sweat, sheets twisted around his ankles, visions of Demo-Dogs dancing across his mind – and the day’s about to get even worse. He takes another breath, and then another, and then he swings himself out of bed.

Breakfast is pretty simply. Steve’s gotten good at doing all kinds of things with food – nothing too fancy, but substantial enough that he can still play ball at school without falling on his face too often. He whips up some eggs, makes himself a coffee even though he hates the stuff. He needs it today, if he wants to keep his eyes open. He can feel the itch behind his eyelids, the itch that means he needs to sleep, but he knows if he goes back to bed, he’ll just lie there, awake, trembling and focusing on the pounding in his head, listening to the echoes of Dustin’s screams.

Besides, he’s got places to be today.

He takes three bites of his eggs, and barely makes it to the sink before he vomits everywhere. He wipes the back of his mouth with his hand, and then rinses out his mouth right there at the sink. This is the third time in as many weeks that he’s thrown up, and it’s beginning to scare him. Everything is beginning to scare him – the headaches, the tremor, the wobbly vision, the not sleeping.

He takes another deep, shuddering breath, and then starts to vigorously clean the sink. His stomach churns unhappily, and he ignores it, taking little sips of water in between scrubbing. When the kitchen is clean and stinks of bleach, and the eggs are safely scraped in the bin, Steve changes into his running clothes and takes a trip around the block. He keeps it at a slow jog, not eager to upset his stomach – he’d skip it completely, except that he already did that yesterday, and the day before that, and he can’t really afford to let this fall to the wayside. Who knows when he’s going to have to run from hellish shit again in this town.

He’s got a few hours to kill before he’s supposed to be at the Byers’ house, so he spends it doing schoolwork and studying, underlining things in his textbook with a wobbly hand. He finds that he’s not got much to fill his hours these days, since most of his friends consist of tiny people with chores and a curfew.

By the time four o’clock rolls around, Steve is an antsy mess. He shoves a bunch of comics in his bag that he borrowed from Will, ones that he’s intended on giving back for a few days. He’s skimmed through them, like he promised, but he can’t claim that they really hold his attention. At the very least, they’re a distraction.

Nancy is already there when Steve pulls up at the Byers’ house. Steve can see her through the kitchen window as he parks the car, turning off the engine and drumming his fingers against the steering wheel. She’s swaying slightly, probably humming under her breath, and Steve watches as she tucks a loose lock of hair behind her ear, draining something over the sink. Peas, or maybe potatoes, Steve doesn’t care. He knows he probably won’t be able to eat more than a few mouthfuls.

He’s so anxious that when Jonathan knocks on the car window, Steve jerks so hard that he elbows the horn, the blaring noise sending a spike of pain through his head. He swears under his breath, opening the door and glowering up at Jonathan, who smirks a little.

“Get lost in your own head, there?”

It’s on the tip of Steve’s tongue to say something, to tease back, but he just rolls his eyes instead. It confuses him, when Jonathan’s face melts into a frown at the lack of a comeback. He focuses on locking the car instead, waving a hand to let Jonathan lead the way into the house.

“What are you doing out here anyway?”

“I came to get an extra chair for the table, from the shed,” Jonathan said, indicating the battered piece of wood folded up in his hands. “I heard your car on the way back and thought I’d walk you to do the door.”

“Like a true gentleman,” Steve says. He jogs up the steps and into the Byers’ house after Jonathan, who leads them both into the kitchen. The chair goes down by the table, the music is turned down slightly, and Jonathan kisses Nancy on the cheek, surprising her. She turns around, a soft smile lighting up her face as she gazes up at Jonathan, and then the moment is over as she spots Steve, but the smile – the smile doesn’t go away. It changes, slightly, becomes more hesitant, but just as soft.

“Steve,” she says. “I’m glad you came.”

“You didn’t really give me much of a choice,” Steve says, but his smile takes most of the sting out of the words. “I had no idea I was so desirable, honestly.”

Jonathan rolls his eyes and pushes a bag of carrots into Steve’s hands. “Here you go, Mister Desirable. Work on these while I set the table.”

Steve gets to work on the carrots, peeling and slicing them into strips, rather than little circles. He salts the water and sets it on the heat while Nancy messes around with potatoes. Occasionally they’ll catch each other’s eye, but Steve can feel Jonathan watching them nervously, and it makes him anxious. He has no idea what they want from him. He has no idea how to act, what to say, what he’s supposed to do.

He takes a deep breath and adds the carrots to the pot, reaching for the wooden spoon at the same time as Nancy. Their fingers brush gently, and Steve feels sparks shiver their way up his spine. He drops the spoon and backs away.

“I forgot to give Will his comic books back,” he blurts out, when both of them take a step towards him, concerned. “Is he in his room?”

He makes a break for it before they can reply, but he swears he hears Nancy sigh as he ducks down the hallway, snagging his bag on the way past the living room table.

Will jumps a mile when Steve opens the door, and he curses himself for not knocking. He was so wrapped up in his own thoughts that he completely forgot.

“Shit, sorry,” Steve says. “I didn’t even think.”

“That’s alright,” Will says, putting his pencil down on the bedspread. He shifts a little awkwardly, and then pats the space beside him on the bed, which Steve gladly drops onto. “Is everything okay?”

“Yeah, don’t worry,” Steve says, digging around in his bag. “Just needed a minute. I brought your comics back, by the way, they’re in here.”

Will doesn’t say anything about the slight creases in the pages when Steve hands them over, even though he’s pretty sure if it were Dustin, the kid would have ripped him a new one. Will just smooths them out and places them reverently on the bedside table.

“What are you drawing?” Steve asks, leaning over to peer at the paper before it occurs to him that Will might not want him to look. He draws back immediately, but Will just shoots him a sceptical look and lifts the paper, showing a drawing of some kind of sleek black creature with fangs.

“Don’t worry, it’s not another Shadow Monster,” Will says, when Steve’s eyes widen slightly. “I was just drawing.”

“Didn’t think it was, kid,” Steve lies. There’s silence for a moment, and then Will turns properly on the bed and looks at Steve, his gaze piercing.

“What’s wrong?”

“I can’t just hang out with you without a reason?” Steve asks lightly.

“Yes,” Will says immediately. “But that’s not what this is. Is it about the dinner? Are you nervous?”

Steve glances at the door, which is half-open, letting the low music filter in down the hallway, and then nods, grimacing.

Will looks concerned, his wide eyes skittering over every inch of Steve. “Want me to join you? Jonathan said I could eat in my room if I wanted, but if you want me out there, I’m happy to do it.”

“Of course you are,” Steve mutters, because damn, the kid could not get any more self-sacrificing if he tried. Steve is going to work on that, even if it killed him. “It’s going to be painful and awkward and it’s probably going to end with someone storming out, or a fork in the eye or something. Trust me, kid, I wouldn’t subject you to that in a million years.”

Will’s face relaxes, and he breathes a sigh of relief that makes Steve laugh.

“I have Dustin on standby,” Will says, indicating the walkie-talkie next to him. “If you need to get away, come in here for a minute. Don’t just run away, though. Between us, Jonathan’s been really nervous too. I don’t think anything will go wrong.”

“You don’t know me that well, but I have a habit of fucking simple things up,” Steve says, frowning. He can’t help but wonder why Jonathan’s been nervous. Maybe he thinks Steve’s still pissed? Maybe he still wants to try and apologise? Steve snorts. He’s not going to stand for any of that.

“I know you well enough,” Will says firmly. “You’re not going to mess anything up. Just don’t run away.”

Steve ruffles his hair, grinning at Will’s pink cheeks, and then he heaves himself up off the bed and out the door, waving over his shoulder.

Jonathan is waiting for him just outside the kitchen. He looks Steve up and down, and Steve pauses, a bit thrown off by the strange smile on his face.

“I think my brother prefers you,” Jonathan says. “You’re not trying to steal him, are you?”

“He’s definitely my favourite, but I’ll let you keep him for the moment,” Steve offers, and Jonathan laughs. It’s a soft, unsure sound. Steve isn’t quite fooled by the soft exterior – he knows Jonathan is kind and awkward and gentle, but he’s felt the boy’s fist against his face, and he knows he’s got a fire in him. Not that he’s mad about that – he totally deserved it.

The laugh is true, though. Genuine and nice enough that Steve relaxes, no longer afraid that he’s encroaching on some unspoken territory. He has to keep reminding himself that the kids aren’t his family, not really, no matter how much they might feel like it.

“Generous of you,” Jonathan jokes, and then unpeels himself from the wall and jerks his head at the kitchen. “Nancy might be pretty good with a gun, but she’s not so good with a potato peeler. I tried to help as much as possible, but she was pretty insistent. Still, this might not taste… great.”

“I know,” Steve says, grinning widely. “She made fruitcake once.”

Jonathan winces. “Yeah?”

“Even Mike couldn’t eat it, and Mike is a bottomless pit,” Steve confides. He remembers Nancy’s sour, slightly wry expression as everyone around the table choked simultaneously, and he can’t help but grin fondly.

“Listen,” Jonathan says. “I know this is awkward as hell, and I’m sorry about that. We really do just want to talk to you, be friends, that kind of thing. Normal, everyday stuff that doesn’t involve fighting monsters or leaving anyone behind.”

Steve winces, because yeah, he’s been feeling pretty left behind lately, by the world, but that’s not on Nancy and Jonathan.

“Look, don’t worry about it, man,” Steve says, waving a hand. “I agree, we need a little normal in our lives after the shitstorm that was this year. Just stop worrying, okay? Let’s just go and pretend to eat dinner.”

Jonathan doesn’t look particularly satisfied by his answer, but he nods anyway and leads the way into the kitchen.

Things go a little bit more smoothly after that. There’s still a little bit of tension in the air, and a slight stiltedness to their conversation, but they do talk, the words flowing freely, sitting around the table while everything simmers and boils.

“I’m going to take this to Will,” Jonathan says, and Steve is oddly reluctant to see him leave. He feels like he’s fine when it’s all three of them, but if you remove one of them from the equation, things get a little weird, a little intense. Sure enough, as soon as Jonathan leaves with a plate held aloft, an awkward silence descends.

“Steve,” Nancy says, as Steve starts piling food onto his plate. “I wanted to apologise.”

Steve sighs. “I swear, if either of you try and apologise one more time, I’m going to—”

“We slept together.”

Steve stops, a spoonful of peas halfway to his plate. He shoots Nancy a bizarre look and slowly lowers the spoon. “Uh, yeah? I was there?”

Nancy laughs a little hysterically, dropping her head into her hands briefly before straightening up. “No, that’s not what I meant. Jonathan and I, when we went away, to see Bauman, we slept together. While you and I were together.”

Steve laughs softly, even though there’s nothing really funny about any of this. “Nance, I kind of guessed. And we were barely together. We were basically broken up, and when you came back, with Jonathan, I guessed. And I’m not saying it’s a good thing, or that you should make a habit of it, but it’s okay.”

He winks, and Nancy laughs, slightly watery.

“We just… we feel guilty, both of us. A lot’s happened between the three of us, really.”

“Maybe,” Steve says slowly, as Jonathan comes back into the room, “we should start fresh? Water under the bridge, kind of thing? I mean, I haven’t exactly been an angel either. A camera doesn’t really make up for being a complete dickhead.”

“It’s a pretty good start, though,” Jonathan says. “And you’re better now. We all are, I think. Will’s back, and the kids are all fine, and you’ve got more people around you now, people that are better for you.”

“People that aren’t Tommy and Carol,” Nancy adds. “And I may not…” Her voice cracks, and her eyes fill with steel. “I may not have Barb anymore, but we got justice for her. We got the truth out. And we’re all here.”

“We made it,” Steve murmurs. The words seem to settle in the silence, sinking into his bones. “We made it.”

Nancy’s eyes soften prettily, and Jonathan’s smile, although small, is blinding.

“Well, this dinner got deep pretty quickly,” Steve says, clearing his throat. “I haven’t even eaten anything. Looks good, Nance.”

“Liar,” Nancy says fondly, shooting him a dry look. “You have to eat it anyway. Mike says you’re getting skinnier every day.”

“Little shit should mind his own business,” Steve grumbles, but he dutifully tucks in. His stomach churns a bit, but it’s nothing he can’t handle. The tremor’s died down somewhat, and the light are dim enough that his head doesn’t hurt, even with all the strange, tense emotions floating around in the air.

The food isn’t half-bad, and Steve eats most of it, as do Jonathan and Nancy. Will appears once to put his plate on the side – Steve takes note of the piles of food still left on his plate, and resolves to take Will out for sundaes or burgers soon. As long as Will eats something, he’s happy, no matter how unhealthy it is.

He shoots Steve a furtive look, and Steve nods back at him, grinning. Will gives him an awkward thumbs-up before scurrying back to his room.

“What was that about?” Nancy asks, watching Will leave.

“Steve is trying to steal my little brother,” Jonathan replies, and Steve throws a pea at him.

All in all, it’s not a bad dinner. A little strange at times, with Steve on one side of the table and Nancy on the other, but not bad. Just new. Different. He tells himself he’s going to have to get used to it, and gets up to bring the plates to the sink. There’s pots and pans everywhere, and he reaches for the dish-soap only to be elbowed out of the way by Jonathan, who hands him a dishcloth.

“I’ll wash, you dry. Nancy can put stuff away.”

Steve shrugs, taking the dishcloth and waiting patiently for the first plate. Nancy joins him on the other side, boxing him in between them. Steve swallows thickly at the warmth on both sides of him, and drums his fingers against the draining board. It’s a relief when he has something to do with his hands.

“There was something else we wanted to ask you,” Nancy says carefully. She sounds nervous, which is unlike her, and Steve instantly goes on high-alert. He glances at Jonathan, who’s studiously scrubbing at a bit of gravy that doesn’t need half as much attention as he’s currently giving it.

He braces himself for the worst. “Fire away.”

Nancy seems to steel herself. “Do you want to go to the cinema with us, next weekend?”

Steve stares at them, nonplussed. “Sure. I mean, why not? As long as you don’t make me watch anything the kids are going to make me watch a thousand times. I swear I practically live in that place these days. But yeah, I’m up for that.”

Nancy’s face wrinkles up, and she leans forward, putting down a fork. “That’s not quite what I—”

“Sounds perfect,” Jonathan interrupts, glancing at Nancy. Almost warningly, which doesn’t make much sense, and neither does the way Nancy glares back before sighing.

“Yeah, perfect,” Nancy echoes, and Steve takes the next plate, completely sure that he’s missed something, but not entirely sure what it could be.

*

“Steve? Earth to Steve Harrington? Over.”

Steve groans, collapsing onto his bed and digging under the cushions for the radio that Dustin had given him. Mostly for emergencies, but the kid uses it for the most inane shit that Steve no longer gets that little thrill of fear every time he hears the crackle of static.

“I’m here. And I’m not saying over.”

“Dude, what’s the point of a radio if you’re not going to use it properly? I swear, there’s something wrong with adults. So, how did it go? Over.”

“Why are you asking?” Steve asks, suspicious. “Did you have a bet going?”

“Shit, Steve, can’t I just ask because I’m a concerned friend? Will radioed me, said you were freaking out a bit. I was just curious. Over.”

“It went fine, Dustin.” Steve sighs. “We talked stuff out, there was laughter, tears, a round of hugging, and then we agreed to go to the cinema next weekend.”

There’s a long silence, and then Dustin snorts. “You’re going to the cinema together? All three of you? Over.”

Steve frowns at the radio. “Yeah?”

Dustin starts giggling, and then he explodes with laughter. There’s lots of mumbling between the laughter, but Steve can’t make head nor tail of it. He curses the day he decided to let Dustin Henderson boss him around.

“I’m switching this thing off now, you’re being weird. G’dnight.”

He clicks off amidst Dustin’s protests, and shoves the thing in his bedside drawer. Then he fishes the thing back out again and clicks on to Dustin's channel.

“Will is definitely my favourite. Over and out."

Chapter Text

The cinema does not go well, and it’s all Steve’s fault. It’s Steve’s fault for thinking he could handle the sickly sweet scent of popcorn and the stickiness of candyfloss in his throat, the glaringly bright, flickering lights of the screen and the boom of music and conversation coming from the speakers.

He braces both hands against the alley wall, his stomach still rolling. He heaves again, and then there’s a hand on his back, small and strong and familiar, and hushed, worried whispers around his head. Steve moans weakly, waiting for his stomach to settle. He spits, stands up straight, shrugs off the hand. He feels gross and queasy, his head thumping with pain. He can feel his pulse in his eyelids, in the soles of his feet, and his arms are shaking again.

“What the hell was that?” Jonathan asks, when Steve turns and stumbles away from the mess. His face is creased with concern. “You just ran out of there like your tail was on fire. Did you eat something bad?”

“Are you sick?” Nancy asks, her hands hovering in mid-air. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

Steve shakes his head, wipes his mouth on the back of his hand. He can’t look at them, so he looks groggily at the ground instead.

“I’m taking you home,” Jonathan says firmly. “Mom’s home with Will, she’ll know what to do.”

“No,” Steve says, gulping air like a starved man. He feels wrung out and tired, like he could sleep for a year. “No, I don’t want to bother anyone. That’s why I didn’t tell anybody.”

There’s a deafening silence, and Steve squints at the ground. He’s pretty sure he shouldn’t have said that.

Nancy’s voice is quiet, a little deadly. “Steve Harrington, exactly how long have you been feeling like this?”

Yeah, he definitely shouldn’t have said anything. He groans again, avoiding their gaze, and Jonathan makes a sharp sound in the back of his throat. He strides forward, sliding an arm around Steve’s waist and starts hauling him towards the car. Steve makes a small noise of protest, but he’s either ignored or his mind is too fuzzy to hear their response, because he still finds himself being bundled into the back seat with Nancy, who takes his hand and squeezes it.

Jonathan tries to buckle him in, and Steve swats his hands away.

“I’m not a complete idiot,” Steve complains.

“Debatable,” Nancy murmurs.

Jonathan drives slow, which is good for Steve’s stomach, but not good for the tension in the air. Everything’s getting drawn out and he feels more and more anxious, until finally they arrive at the Byers house. Steve gets out of the car before Jonathan can come and carry him to the door, or something equally as stupid.

“I’m fine,” he says irritably, when both of them come around to walk either side of him. “It’s just a headache.”

“A headache?” Nancy says sharply. Shit. Should have just stuck with the feeling sick thing. Steve doesn’t miss the glance she shares with Jonathan, and he doesn’t miss the way they herd him towards the house a little faster.

The sound of laughter hits him as they step inside, and Steve instantly feels guilty for the way he’s about to destroy the atmosphere. He recognises both those giggles – Will and El, and he hates that he’s about to ruin their good day. He glares at the wall until Jonathan practically shoves him into the armchair.

“Wait here,” Jonathan says. “I’m going to find Mom.”

He disappears into the kitchen, and Nancy moves to stand beside him. Steve shifts, moving to pull his feet up, before he remembers he still has his shoes on. God, he’s a mess. He can still taste popcorn and bile, and his shirt is saturated with sweat, his hair a little lank.

It’s not just Joyce who comes back into the living room, it’s Hopper too. Steve doesn’t bother hiding his groan, because he knows he’s truly in the shit now, and Hopper’s scowl only gets more severe.

“Kid, what happened?” Hopper asks, as Joyce crouches down in front of him. She frowns, placing the back of her hand against his forehead, and then reaches out to take his pulse.

“You feel a little warm, but not feverish. Your pulse is a little high, too, but nothing out of the ordinary.”

“He was fine until about halfway through the movie,” Nancy offers. “Then he just went pale and ran out of there, and we caught him being sick outside.”

“Yeah, violently sick,” Jonathan adds.

“I’m not sure what—” Joyce cuts herself off as Will and El pad into the room on near-silent feet. Will’s expression is nervous, but El is frowning at Steve, and she comes closer until Hopper puts a hand on her shoulder to stop her.

“Steve’s not feeling too good, and we don’t want you to catch anything, okay? So, go back in the kitchen with Will, and I’ll be there in a minute.”

“I can’t catch it,” El says gravely. Hopper sighs, but Steve tenses up slightly.

“You don’t know that,” Hopper insists.

El rolls her eyes, takes a step around Hopper and marches determinedly over to Steve. She ducks around the back of the armchair and presses the palm of her hand against Steve’s head, right where Billy smashed a plate against him. Steve inhales sharply. How the hell could she know?

“Can’t catch it,” El insists back. “Not sick. Hurt.”

When Steve looks up, everyone looks vaguely confused. Hopper’s face in particular is grim, and Nancy has a hand over her mouth.

“How long have you been feeling ill?” Hopper asks.

Steve sighs, drops his head back against the armchair so he can stare at the ceiling, nearly trapping El’s hand. She takes it away and rests it against his hair instead.

“Since Billy beat the shit out of me,” Steve says, an ugly laugh bubbling up in his throat. “There was a plate, and then he kept punching me in the face.”

“Symptoms,” Joyce says, in a no-nonsense sort of voice. “Now.”

Steve shifts uncomfortably. “Headache, nausea, throwing up, like, a lot, whenever I try and eat, which I haven’t been feeling like doing. The lights kind of hurt my head, all the time.”

He’s barely finished speaking when Jonathan whirls around and moves to flick off the lights, yanking the curtains shut in rough, jerky movements. Steve is stunned silent for a second, and then he licks his lips and carries on.

“I can’t really sleep, and I know I’ve gotten even scrawnier. I haven’t, uh, passed out or anything, but I’ve kind of felt like I might. Oh, and then there’s this.”

He raises his arm so that they can clearly see the tremors running down it, the way it trembles and shakes.

“Not sure what that’s about,” Steve mutters.

There’s another one of those deafening silences.

“Hospital,” Joyce says. “Hopper, can you…?”

“Yeah, if you stay with the kids.”

“I’m coming,” Nancy says immediately.

“Me too,” Jonathan adds.

“No,” Steve says, holding up his hand. “I’ll go to the hospital, but if I’ve got to be poked and prodded by needles and shit then no offense, but I want as little people there as possible.”

“Am I on that list?” Hopper asks drily, and Steve snorts, but stops when it sends a thrill of pain through his head.

“Ow,” he says dully, and Hopper is there suddenly, heaving Steve up off the armchair and helping him towards the door. Steve pauses before they can leave and points a finger at Will.

“Do me a favour, pipsqueak, will you radio Max and Lucas and tell them I can’t take them out for burgers?” He catches sight of the pinched look on Will’s face and narrows his eyes. “And stop worrying. Everything’s fine, okay?”

Will nods cautiously. “Okay. Radio the party when you get home.”

“Not a chance,” Steve lies. “I’m not inviting conversation from Dustin.”

Will’s laugh is a little shaky, but still good, and Steve feels okay about stepping out into the day.

*

The waiting room is the sharp scent of antiseptic, the squeak of plastic chairs. It’s the quiet bustle of busy nurses, the solitary cough from the corner, the cold, creeping feeling of fear flickering down his spine. Steve doesn’t want to think about how much this is going to cost, but he thinks he’s got insurance. He’s never really had to deal with any of that stuff.

Hopper doesn’t say anything, but he does reach out to grip Steve’s shoulder when he’s called into the room at the far end of the waiting room, bunching the fabric of his shirt beneath strong palms. Steve takes it to mean that Hopper’s not going anywhere, and he’s proved right when Hopper follows him into the room and stands near the door, offering a tight smile to the doctor, who smiles placidly at Steve.

It’s good, to have someone there.

*

Post-concussion Syndrome is not something that Steve’s ever heard of before, and it’s definitely not something he ever thought would apply to himself.

The drive back from the hospital is silent, except for the growl of an old, battered engine and the thump of Steve’s heart. He feels a little distant, removed, and he clutches the prescriptions in his lap tightly as they go around the corner, crinkling the fine paper.

“We’ll make a stop at the pharmacy,” Hopper says, after the silence has reached its’ peak. “They’re bound to have most of the stuff you need over the counter, and we can put the prescription in for the rest, if we need to.”

“He said we’re just treating symptoms, didn’t he,” Steve says flatly. His voice sounds hollow, echoing around the walls of his skull. “So, it’s just medication for the sickness, the headaches, and everything else. They should have that.”

“Remember what else he said though,” Hopper says. “You’re through the worst of it. It usually resolves itself after a few months, doesn’t it? You just need the pills to help you keep your head on straight.”

“He said it can last up to a year,” Steve says, and he can feel his breath coming quicker and quicker. He barely notices as Hopper pulls the car over, only feels the little bump as they scrape up and along the curb. The engine cuts out, and the sound of his panting is all he can hear.

It’s a nice day, he thinks vaguely, staring out of the window. It would have been a good day for burgers, for hanging out with the kids.

“Breathe, Steve. C’mon, kid.”

There’s a rough palm on his chin, tilting his head, and Steve sucks in a breath. His lungs are a little reluctant to work with him, but they comply eventually, and he takes deep, steadying breaths while he watches a bird peck the top of someone’s mailbox. They’re parked pretty close to someone’s house, but hopefully they won’t mind, seeing as it’s a cop car.

“Better?” Hopper asks, and Steve should really start calling him Jim, after everything he’s done, but it just doesn’t sound right in his head, let alone out loud. “You with me?”

“I’m with you,” Steve says. “I feel like shit, but I’m with you.”

“Good, because we’re going to have a talk.”

Steve really doesn’t like the sound of that. He shifts until he can feel the seatbelt biting into his shoulder, and starts smoothing out the crinkles in the prescriptions. Hopper watches him, he can feel it, but Steve doesn’t look up. Nothing good’s ever come from an adult wanting to have a talk with him.

“I want to know why the hell you kept all this to yourself for so long. I want to know why you didn’t tell an adult, me, Joyce, your goddamn parents, that something was wrong.”

Steve swallows. The truth of it all? He was scared. Plain and simple. He’s fought Demo-dogs and Demo-gorgons and Billy Hargrove and Tommy and Jonathan. He’s fought a lot of things, but this isn’t something he can slam his fists into. It’s not something he understands, and it sure as hell isn’t something he has any control over. He can’t win against this, especially not when he didn’t know what he was supposed to be fighting.

“I didn’t know what was going on,” Steve says, voice a little hoarse. “I felt… weird, but I thought it was just because of everything we’d seen and dealt with. And I figured, everyone else has seen and dealt worse, y’know? El went through complete hell, and Will was traumatised, and Nancy lost her best friend and Jonathan almost lost his brother, twice, and Joyce had to lose her son and get him back only to almost lose him again. And the kids are all messed up in some way or another. Dustin doesn’t have a dad and his friends were falling apart around him. Lucas had to deal with fucking Billy, and Max doesn’t say much, but it’s pretty easy to see that her home life’s shit. Mike had so much going on that I’m not surprised he acts like a little shit half the time. And you’ve been trying to keep everything together.”

He sucks in a breath again, and Hopper’s hand comes back, lands on his shoulder. Steve can see the tension in his face, the little lines that means he wants a cigarette.

“I’m not denying any of that,” Hopper says. “But what about you?”

Steve keeps silent. He doesn’t really understand the question.

“Let me be straight with you, kid, okay? We all went through shit, including you. You had to keep the kids safe. You dealt with monsters and Hargrove. You lost your girlfriend—”

“Nancy’s great, and that’s all sorted now,” Steve interrupts, before Hopper can say anything, but Hopper just scoffs.

“Yeah, she is, kid. She’s goddamn brilliant, but she’s still a person, and she still makes mistakes. She was hurting, yeah, but that didn’t mean she had the right to hurt you in return. She and Jonathan made a mistake there, alright?”

Steve can’t really argue with that. “How do you even know this shit?”

“El has Dustin over every now and again, and they like to talk about all the things she missed while she was away. You come up a lot, you know.”

Steve snorts fondly. “He’s a giant gossip.”

Hopper pats him on the shoulder. His eyes grow serious again, and Steve’s eyes flick to the door; he could probably make it, if he was quick enough, but he doesn’t actually want to walk home, and he’s pretty sure Hopper would just drag his ass back inside if he did escape.

“You’re allowed to be upset about it, is what I’m saying. You’re allowed to be upset about Nancy and Jonathan and pissed at Billy and worried about the kids, because I know you are, I’ve seen the way you watch them, like you’re afraid they’re going to disappear. But when you’ve got all this rattling around in your head, all this worry and fear and shit like that, it helps to talk about it. Otherwise you just let it grow, and you turn into a bitter middle-aged man with no family.”

Steve startles slightly, and then he turns and narrows his eyes at Hopper. “That’s not you, though.”

Hopper smirks slightly, shrugs. “Maybe not anymore. But you get what I’m saying, don’t you? That if you tell people, it’ll help. We can help, especially with stuff like this.”

He gestures at the prescriptions, and Steve glances down at them. He’s grateful, of course, that it’s nothing more serious, but it’s still pretty bad, and he’s not entirely sure that he’s processed it yet. It’s still rattling around in his head, the doctor’s sympathetic smile, the words Post-Concussion Syndrome, the smell of antiseptic.

“I should have told you,” Steve admits. “I should have told someone. My parents, they aren’t… around. But I could have told you, or Mrs Byers. But I didn’t want to bother anyone, and everything’s been so quiet and good lately that I didn’t want to ruin it, and I really was hoping it would just go away.”

He grinds his head back slightly against the seat, blinking fiercely at the roof of the car. Hopper lets him take a minute, and then he starts the car, making Steve jump.

“It’s going to go away, kid. We’re going to do everything we can to make it go away. You can trust me on that.”

Chapter Text

They’re in the woods, because apparently months of weird shit going on out here isn’t enough to keep five kids and their babysitter away. Mike is up front, leading the way, with Lucas at his side, consulting his compass. Dustin and Max are just behind them, arguing over something, to no-one’s surprise. Dustin’s hands are waving around in the air as he talks, and Max looks severely unimpressed, rolling her eyes every chance she gets. Steve thinks he sees something fond there, though.

Will takes up the rear with Steve, stumbling over the thick carpet of leaves every few minutes. Steve has his bat slung over one shoulder, because no way is he leaving it in the car when there’s bound to be some kind of creepy shit around. He’s hoping it’s just a quiet – well, somewhat quiet – walk, with no danger and no drama, but knowing these kids and the trouble they get into, he’s not taking any chances.

He slides his eyes sideways and takes in Will, who yawns a bit, covering his mouth with his hand. His fingers are smudged with black from his drawings, and they match the dark circles under his eyes.

“You look tired,” Steve says, nudging Will slightly. “Not been sleeping?”

Will almost trips in surprise. “N-no.”

Steve waits, quirks an eyebrow at him until Will deflates, tugs on the hem of his jumper.

“I – uh, I just keep waking up, in the middle of the night. Y’know?”

Steve hums. He does know. “Nightmares?”

Will shakes his head slowly, ducks under a low-hanging branch. “I get cold, in the night. And then I’m afraid that the thing is back, inside me. He used to like it cold.”

Steve, frankly, doesn’t know how Will’s still standing. He doesn’t know how he’s talking, moving, breathing, because if Steve had been through that? If he’d had monsters inside his head, taking over, he’s not sure he could have come back whole, if he came back at all.

But Will has. Will’s stronger than all of them put together.

“You know, I’m kind of in awe of you, buddy,” Steve says lightly. Will snaps his head up to look at him, but Steve keeps his gaze elsewhere, fiddles with a loose button on his jacket. “You get up every morning, you go to school, you see your friends, you carry on living normally, even after everything that happened to you.”

Will’s face twists slightly. “What else is there?”

Steve grins. “Yeah, that’s what I mean. It’s brave, Will. You’re brave. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, okay?”

He pretends not to hear the way Will sucks in a breath, unable to speak. He lets it out shakily, and Steve ruffles his hair, and Will just – leans into it. Doesn’t blush, doesn’t shy away, just leans into the touch.

“I want to tell you something,” Will says slowly, hesitant. So damn hesitant that it breaks Steve’s heart. “I want to tell somebody, but I don’t know who to talk to. I don’t know if I can get the words out.”

“What’d I just tell you?” Steve says. “You’re brave. If you can’t get the words out yet, then it’s because you’re not ready to. And when you are ready, there’s always going to be someone here to listen. Including me.”

He doesn’t know if that’s the right thing to say. There’s no manual for this shit, nothing to tell him what to do or say when one of the kids look up at him with wide, pleading eyes.

“Even if it’s something bad?” Will asks quietly. “Even if it’s something awful?”

“It won’t be,” Steve says firmly. “But yeah, even then.”

*

Max and Lucas demand that Steve makes up for missing their burger date, and even as he bitches about missing it because he was in the hospital, he’s climbing into the car and driving them to the diner. He lets Max pick the music and makes sure not to drive too fast – he’s seen Billy’s driving, he knows what it must do to her, having to sit in a car with another guy driving, so he tries to make it as easy as possible.

When they get there, Steve parks the car near the back of the lot and turns around in the seat to smirk at them.

“You sure you don’t want me to leave you here and pick you both up later? You could have a nice little soiree together, just the two of you.”

It’s quite satisfying, seeing them both blush. Mac goes beet red and scowls at him, and Lucas lowers his head. Steve can’t quite bring himself to feel bad about embarrassing them, not when he doesn’t mean it cruelly.

“Dustin’s right, you are a shithead,” Lucas mutters, and Steve laughs loudly, fondly, climbing out of the car. Max tries to trip him as they head inside, but he avoids her feet and laughs again, sitting in their usual booth and tugging the menu towards him. He already knows what he wants, but it’s the principle of the thing. Max and Lucas slide into the seats opposite him, and Steve eyes the gap between them with a raised eyebrow. It won’t last long, he knows. By the end of it, they’ll be leaning against each other, hands clasped under the table. It’s sweet, and endearing, and Steve won’t begrudge them it.

They chat a bit about school, and Steve listens absently, nodding along here and there. He gets taken by surprise when Lucas suddenly turns to him sharply, eyes intense.

“Do you know what’s wrong with Will?” Lucas asks, as Max runs her finger along the greasy plastic of the menu.

“I mean, he was possessed. That probably has something to do with it,” she says. “But there’s something else, too.”

Steve waits a long time to answer. He waits until the milkshakes arrive, and then he takes a sip, swallows down the thick vanilla shake, and says, “There’s nothing wrong with Will.”

Lucas levels a look at him, but Steve shakes his head.

“I’m serious. There’s nothing wrong with him. He’s not a puzzle for you to solve, and you don’t have to go to someone else to find out what’s bugging him. Just treat him like you’d treat Dustin or Mike, talk to him, be a friend. I think that’s what he needs. There’s nothing wrong with him, he’s just going through some stuff.”

Lucas chews his lip, and then nods, no arguments. Steve smiles at him; he’s a good kid, kind to a fault, and his heart’s in the right place.

“He won’t talk to Mike, which is worrying him,” Lucas says. “But he might talk to us.”

Steve shrugs. “He might, he might not. Whenever he’s ready, you know?”

“We know,” Max says. “Relax, we’ll be nice. Can I have dessert?”

“The damn burgers haven’t even arrived yet, and you want dessert?” Steve blinks at her, rolls his eyes and waves a hand. “Sure. Have at it. If you can eat the burger, you can have whatever you want afterwards. But if you’re sick in my car then you can roll yourselves the rest of the way home.”

Max perks up happily, and Lucas grins at her, in awe. Steve hides his grin behind his milkshake. Fir the first time in a while, he doesn’t feel sick.

*

Later, he stops the car outside Max’s house. He dropped Lucas off first, just to be on the safe side, and he hates that that’s even a fucking thing they have to think about, but he’d rather be safe than sorry. Now it’s just him and Max, and he can tell by the way she pauses, fiddles with the radio for a bit, that she doesn’t want to go in. Her bag sits by her feet, and she plays with the zip while Steve pretends to be engrossed in something outside the window.

“Is he leaving you alone?” Steve asks, tapping his fingers against the steering wheel. The car smells like leather and artificial flowers, the kind that seep out of the little plastic tree hanging from the mirror. There’s a hint of Nancy’s perfume that still lingers, despite all of Steve’s attempts to get rid of it.

“Billy?” Max snorts. “He was scared shitless for a few weeks, but now he’s back to being an ass. Not that he ever really stopped.”

She tugs extra hard on the zipper, teeth grit together.

“Thanks for that, by the way.”

Steve chucks a wry glance her way. “Thanks for laying on the ground while you did all the hard work? You are so welcome, Zipper.”

“It’s Zoomer,” Max says, rolling her eyes. “And you did help. You got hurt, a lot, but you still did something. You still fought back.”

She glares at the house, and Steve gets the feeling she’s not really talking about him anymore. He can’t say whether or not her accusations are fair, and it’s not really his place, so he keeps quiet, nods a bit. He’s not sure Max even knows who she’s talking about, not really.

“Dustin said you’re still hurt,” Max says, her glare fading. Her gaze fixes on her bag, and she tightens her grip on her zip. “He said you’ve got some kind of damage to your brain.”

“Hey,” Steve says, elbowing her gently. She sways with it, grins at him slightly, just the corner of her mouth. “There’s no damage to my brain. It’s just like a concussion that’s taking a while to heal, that’s all.”

Max rolls her eyes again. “I’m pretty sure that counts as damage to the brain, idiot. But that’s not the point. You’re okay, right?”

“Yeah, kid,” Steve says. “I’m getting there. I can still lie on the floor while you kick ass, so there’s nothing to worry about. But you know, if anything happens, if he lays a finger on you, or says anything, or tries anything, you go to me and Chief Hopper, okay?”

Max scoffs, but Steve turns in the seat to face her.

“I’m serious,” he says, and he means it. “You come to me, and we go to the Chief, and we do this the right way.”

He knows she won’t appreciate it, so he doesn’t offer platitudes or clichés or reassurances. As much as Steve wants to take Max out of there, set her up in in one of his guest rooms and drive past her old house everyday just to flip Billy the middle finger, he can’t. All he can do is let her know that she’s got people in her corner, and then follow through.

Max straightens up. “If I have to do that, then you have to promise to tell someone if you feel any worse. Or even if you’re just having a bad day.”

Steve looks at her askance, surprised, and she curses under her breath.

“We’re not idiots, Steve. I mean, Stalker is, and so is Dustin, and actually they’re all idiots, but they’re not stupid, and neither am I. It’s pretty easy to see that you feel like shit a lot. So if I have to talk when there’s trouble in my life, then so do you. Deal?”

Steve’s lip twitches, and he finds himself sighing at the audacity of baby teenagers. He kind of likes it, though. He stares straight at Max’s firm, no-nonsense look, and offers a hand. She bats it away and holds up a fist instead, and he bumps it, waving her out of the car with promises to pick her up for their next burger session with Will and Mike.

He waits in the car until the front door slams shut behind Max. Billy doesn’t make an appearance, and Steve drives off with a grimly satisfied smile.

*

Hopper’s got his head buried in his hands when Steve strolls in with coffee after school. The desk is sparsely decorated, no pictures, but there are a few drawings on the wall that Steve recognises. El’s been practicing with Will, eager to learn and feeling relaxed and playful enough to indulge. The cabin is, at any given moment, littered with paper and crayons and finished scribbles, and it seems the mess has slowly crept into Hopper’s office.

“I come bearing gifts,” Steve says, and Hopper leans back in his chair with a groan, indicating the chair opposite with a jerk of his hand. He looks tense and tired, and Steve is abruptly unsure whether he’s welcome or not. He slowly slides a mug over the desk and sips at his own.

“That’s decaf, right?” Hopper says, narrowing his eyes at Steve’s drink. “You know caffeine can be bad for headaches.”

“It’s not even coffee,” Steve grumbles. “It’s juice. Flo waylaid me and stole my mug on the way in here.”

He tips the mug so Hopper can see the red liquid inside, and he snorts. “Yeah, that sounds like her.”

There’s silence for a bit as they both drink quietly, and then Steve puts his mug down and arches an eyebrow.

“Any reason why you look like a cat that just got stepped on?”

“Watch it, kid,” Hopper says half-heartedly. “Jane and I got in another fight. She’s getting tired of being cooped up in the house, and I can’t say I blame her.”

“The guy said to give it a year, right? To let things cool off?” Steve chews his lip, thinks it over. There’s not really any way for El to go out and about, to be seen in public. She’s pretty recognisable in this town as it is, despite the low profile they’ve been trying to keep. There’s always a chance, however small, that the wrong people will spot her.

“A year is a pretty long time for a kid,” Steve concludes. “Let’s do something. She can go to the Byers’ house, right? Get all the kids to go there, make a night of it. They can even use the back yard, if they want. It’s not much, but it’s better than nothing, and it might give you two a chance to cool off.”

Hopper looks dubious, but Steve can read between the lines and see the fear on his face, and he gets it. He cares about El, too, but this is Hopper’s family now, and he’s damn well going to protect it. He’s just a little too close to the situation to see what to do.

“Not a bad idea, Harrington,” Hopper says eventually. Steve ducks down slightly, gulping back juice to distract from the blush on his cheeks. He keeps his eyes down to avoid Hopper’s suddenly searching gaze. “How are you?”

“Since the last time you asked me? Two days ago?” Steve says, a slight grin on his face. “I’m doing good. No sickness, not with the tablets, still some tremors and a lot of headaches.”

Hopper shakes his head slightly. “Good to hear, but I meant, how are you? Not the Post-Concussion Syndrome.”

Steve startles a little. “Oh. I’m good, you know?”

“Thought any more about college?”

Steve puts the mug down, trails his hand over the desk. “Actually, I was thinking about the cop life.”

Hopper looks up, surprised and kind of pleased. “Really?”

Flo knocks on the door and pokes her head around before Steve can speak. “Chief, Mrs Doyle is here, something about a lawn gnome crisis.”

Steve grins at Hopper’s groan, and turns back to him to say, “Well, yeah. I mean, you make it look so glamorous.”

Chapter Text

Steve’s parents come home. They come home and their suitcases clutter up the hallway where the kids usually leave their shoes. Steve knows which trip-hazard he prefers. They’ll be gone again soon—he knows that too—off to the far corners of the world, living and working and enjoying life away from here. Away from him. It’s a practiced performance by now.

And Jesus, he’s maudlin again. Hanging around Jonathan really does have an effect on how he views the world, it seems, and how dramatical those views are when they exit his sad fucking mouth.

Not that they’ve been hanging out much, him and Jonathan. Just on the weekends, and sometimes after school. Steve drops by to drag Will out into the sunshine, so he doesn’t turn into a vampire, and Jonathan is there. He tags along, sometimes with Nancy in her sensible shoes and take-no-shit shiny lip-stain. Sometimes by himself. Jonathan keeps suggesting music for him that Steve… doesn’t hate... and Steve’s dragged him on a few short runs, which has been hilarious, to put it plainly. Jonathan’s fast, sure, but he’s uncoordinated as fuck, and it’s funny to watch him flail about in baggy shorts and try not to slip as he treads on people’s lawns.

But yeah. It’s not like they’re hanging out. Especially not with Steve’s parents actually around recently to notice who comes knocking.

Steve drinks in as much of their attention as he can while they’re here. He hates that he still wants them to look at him, ask him questions, pretend like they give a shit. He thinks he's fine ninety-none percent of the time until they’re here and it all comes rushing up through him like vomit.

Fuck, they don’t even know that he’s sick, not really. They don’t know that he was beat to shit and his brain is still bruised and wobbly in the aftermath.

It’s not that his parents hate him, or didn't want him. It’s not even that they don't care, exactly. It’s that all their care is on the backburner, with other, more important things prioritized over Steve.

A voice in his head that sounds like Nancy insists patiently that care doesn’t work that way, and family shouldn't work that way, and love certainly doesn’t.

“It’s not okay, Steve,” Nancy says on the phone, proving him right one night. Her voice is crackly but she still sounds soft and sympathetic, like she wants to be there with him. It hurts the still healing part of him. Picks at the scab.

“Yeah, that’s what the bossy, know-it-all you in my head said.” Steve laughs at her softly offended sound, his words lacking heat. “I guess both versions of you are right.”

“All versions of me are right, all the time.” Nancy lowers her voice. “We’re here if you need us, Steve.”

Steve’s heart is in his throat when he says his goodbyes. He knows who we is.

His dad asks about school and Steve scratches his nose, says he’s thinking about the police academy, actually, and he’s not sure about college. Dad goes back to his dinner, hums every now and again to show Steve that he’s listening, but Steve knows better. He talks anyway because he's good at that. He’s good at words that don’t mean shit, that fill the silence.

His mom asks about his love life as she’s powdering her face, frowning down at books full of numbers and graphs that Steve doesn’t quite understand. She’s sharp but not cold, and she kisses his cheek with glossy lips when Steve lies through his teeth, says there’s a few girls around, but nothing serious. He can’t remember if he ever told her about Nancy. He probably would have, if mom had been around to hear it, because for a bit of time Nancy was the only focus of Steve’s conversations. Nancy was all he thought about and all he talked about, which maybe wasn’t healthy, but was noticeable at the very least. So maybe he didn't tell her, because mom doesn’t mention her. That’s what he clings to, anyway.

Not that it matters, really, because Nancy isn’t his anything anymore—maybe his friend, definitely that, but his mom wouldn’t care about that, not really.

All in all, the days are quiet and tense, but only on Steve’s end.

Steve drinks in their attention, and feels cold and parched by the time they leave, because really, they didn’t have much attention to give.

El opens the door to the cabin with a frown already fixed in place, only moments before Steve knocks. She looks so small and frail in the shadow of the doorway, or maybe that’s Steve’s mind playing tricks on him, his mood dragging him down. Steve swallows and steps in, one of those stretched-thin grins fixed on his face. The cabin is warm and his grin tries to melt. El immediately tuts, a sound she learned from Lucas, and reaches up to poke the corner of his mouth.

“Not real,” El says, factual rather than chiding, although Steve suspects that she means it to be both. “What’s wrong?”

“Do I go around poking you?” Steve gently swats her hand away, but relents at her persistent stare. “Just tired, nothing bad.”

Steve reassures her with a few more clumsy words. El’s frown lines deepen, but she steps towards the couch, and the door bangs shut behind them. Only one lock slides into place, a placating gesture towards Hopper that only happens when El is feeling particularly charitable. He watches her get comfortable on the couch and fiddle with a hair-clip, while he stands there feeling odd in his skin. Out of place, like he’s slipped into a body that’s two sizes too big this morning.

“How was the Great Backyard Sleepover?” Steve asks, when she’s settled amongst the ever-growing pile of cushions. “Have fun?”

El tips her head back against the couch cushions and grins at him. She hasn’t yet learned to be shy with her smiles—she deals them out sparingly, but when she smiles, she smiles big and unashamed, the way kids should. Steve hopes she never learns to be shy with them.

Steve leans over and flicks her on the nose lightly. “I’ll take that as a yes. Did Henderson puke? He promised he was going to eat so much that he threw up.”

El makes this face, kind of a mix between remembered delight and utter disgust. It makes Steve laugh, and his skin grows tighter, hugging him comfortably.

“Take that as a yes too, I want to know everything. Got any food?”

“You’re the rich one,” El says, words slow and halting in a way that means she borrowed them from someone else.

“Who told you that?” Steve narrows his eyes at her, halfway to the fridge. “Was it Mike? Dustin? Because they’re dickheads, and they don’t know what they’re talking about.”

“You’re not rich?”

“My parents are, sort of,” Steve says, shrugging. He can feel his mood dampen, but he cheers up slightly when he opens the fridge and finds half a carton of his favourite juice, plus enough stuff to make a couple of sandwiches. “Hey, you want anything? And don’t say Eggo’s.”

El makes a few non-committal sounds. She’s picked up an Encyclopedia and started reading in front of the television, and she has a far-off look on her face. Steve’s not sure if that’s a good thing or not, but he just decides it’s a sign of being appropriately bored by work and gets on with his sandwich.

He’s commandeered the armchair and one of the tables by the time Hopper gets back, arms full of paper bags of groceries. He doesn’t seem surprised to see Steve there, and he doesn’t tell him to get out or stay gone, but he does sigh heavily when he spots El upside down on the couch, books forgotten, mouth wide open as Steve intermittently tries to flick marshmallows into it.

“You know you could probably just use your spooky powers every time, right?” Steve says, waggling a marshmallow in mid-air. They’ve gone through half a bag by now.

El closes her mouth briefly to grin and say, “Don't need to,” before catching the next marshmallow between her teeth, and proving herself right.

Not that Steve expected any less, he thinks proudly, watching her chomp victoriously on her spoils.

“You’re gonna get a stomach-ache, eating upside down, and I’m not gonna be sympathetic,” Hopper says, sounding exasperated as he starts unpacking the paper bags. A shiny cucumber makes a bid for freedom, rolling across the counter, and Steve hops up to help him. “Thanks. Grab the fridge stuff, will you?”

“Got it.” Steve slips easily into the monotony of putting things away, avoiding some weird jar of sauce in the fridge that Hopper puts all over his burgers no matter how much they complain about the smell. He listens absently to the word of the day, and to Hopper’s funny story about a lady that tried to hit on him in the store.

“She must have been about eighty-eight,” Hopper says, folding up a paper bag.

“Hey, don't knock it ‘til you try it, chief,” Steve says. “Besides, you’re no spring chicken.”

The balled-up paper bag hits him on the cheek, and El grins over the back of the sofa.

“Real,” El says.

Steve clears his throat while Hopper looks between them. “Sorry, what?”

“That smile,” El explains, still grinning. “Real. Not like the last one.” She turns to Hopper when Steve stays tight-lipped, and adds, “Steve was sad before.”

Hopper fixes him with a look that could sear through walls and bank vaults. Steve can feel him poking about in his sad grey brain using just his eyeballs. Hopper hums eventually, pulling out a lighter as he says, “I heard a rumour that your house was a bit more full than usual.”

Steve’s jaw tightens. “Yeah, well. Not anymore.”

There's not much to say about that. Steve shrugs one shoulder, and Hopper lets it go, although his eyebrows are pulled down. El plaits one portion of her hair badly and pins it back with the clip. When the fridge is full and the bags are empty, Hopper pops the cap on a beer and pointedly puts the rest away, not offering any to Steve. His cigarette stays unlit for a few minutes.

They're leaning against the counter and Steve’s trying not to fidget awkwardly even though this is the one place he feels the most comfortable. It's like his jittery body doesn't know he's safe, allowed to be here. It's like his brain is seeping out of his pores. Granted, that's pretty normal for Steve, but still. It makes it hard to just stand there and watch Hopper waft cigarette smoke out the window.

“Flo mentioned something about needing a hand in the office,” Hopper says idly.

The sentence drags Steve back to Earth. He stills his hands and puts them in his pockets, staring cautiously at Hopper. There’s no untruth there, in his gaze. Nothing that says he’s making fun of Steve, nothing that says it’s an empty promise.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.” Hopper blows a shaky smoke ring.

“I was thinking of the academy,” Steve ventures. “I told you that, right?”

Hopper nods. His smoke ring fades as the television buzzes with a laughter track. “Yeah, you did. This can be after school or before it, or at the weekends. Just to get you used to working in a full office where the most exciting thing that happens is someone misplacing the stapler.”

Steve snorts, relaxing against the counter. “After all the shot we’ve been through, I can cope with a boring nine-to-five job. Or, like, four until six, depending on school.”

“It's not much fun, but there's free donuts sometimes.” Hopper taps the ash out the window, grinning. “You'll learn valuable skills, like how to answer a phone, and you’ll get to practice your customer service smile.”

Steve pastes on an eerie, plastic smile that he knows makes him look like a puppet with an overeager hand shoved up his ass. He practiced it for a week straight once when he was convinced he was gonna have to work the rest of his life at the dollar store, no grades to speak of. “I'm sure I can help you with that, sir.”

A snort, and a cough, and a plume of smoke. Steve cracks up and El comes to join them, her hair tangled up on one side and her smile big, making fun of them with her eyes. Hopper wipes his mouth and rolls his eyes.

“Idiot sense of humour. You'll fit right in, kid.”

Steve snags the forgotten beer and yelps when it's snatched away before the lip can reach his mouth.

“Not until you're thirty five, either of you.” Hopper takes a big long gulp of beer and smacks his lips smugly.

El offers Steve a marshmallow in commiseration, and he takes it, biting down to hide his grin. He feels like he’s here now.

This, right here. This is what he's been missing.