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The Golden Girl

Chapter Text

"I'll take your X-Men 134," Jessica Henderson heard from her bedroom window. She knew the voice belonged to Will Byers, one of her younger brother, Dustin's, friends.

Dustin had been at another one of his friend's houses that night and was obviously just getting home. It was a little after eight, which meant it was a little past his curfew getting home, but their mother wasn't really strict so he wasn't going to get in trouble.

Jessica went to the window, which faced the street of their two-story house, and watched as her brother put his bike away, which meant it was parked against the side of the house, and made his way inside. She heard as he said hi to their mother and began tromping up the stairs only to stop at her doorway, which was always open to him.

"Hey, sis," he said.

"Hey, have fun at Mike's playing Dragons and Dungeons?"

"It's Dungeons and Dragons," he said, rolling his eyes because he knew she'd purposefully gotten the name wrong. "And yes. We didn't get to finish, though."

"Too bad."

Jessica knew absolutely nothing about the game Dustin and his friends played, but she did know he was very into it and so she tried to take an interest. She was just glad her brother had found a group of friends to be a part of. Her family hadn't always lived in Hawkins, Indiana, so she was relieved that she and her brother had found people to hang with.

She'd met her brother's D&D group and she liked all of them well enough. Will was her favorite out of Dustin's friends. Will was quiet and shy and the least likely to cause a problem. Dustin and Will usually rode their bikes home together because Dustin's house was on the way to Will's.

"You guys want to go to the arcade tomorrow? I have to work after school, so if you want I can take you as long as you get a ride home from someone else?"

"Sure, that'd be cool."

Jessica worked at the local theater, which wasn't too far from the arcade. Hawkins was a small town, so everything was pretty much within walking distance when you went into the main part of town.

"A'right, let the others know tomorrow and if it's okay with their parents, they can meet us here."
-----
The next morning put a hold on their plans. Will Byers hadn't gone home the night before. Joyce Byers, Will's mom, called before Jessica left for school. Her mother answered and when she asked Jessica and Dustin if they'd heard from him, they both shrugged.

"I know he was fine when he went by here," Jessica said, and Dustin nodded.

"Yeah, he got to the end of the street just fine," Dustin added. "Sometimes Will goes in to school early, maybe –"

Their mom told Joyce and, even though Jessica couldn't hear Joyce, she knew that probably didn't help her at all. Will was a good boy. He wouldn't have just left without saying anything, Jessica didn't think.

Dustin didn't seem overly worried at the moment and Jessica was glad. She didn't want her brother worrying over something unless they were certain something had happened. She would know more once she went to school. She went to school with Will's brother, Jonathan, so if he was there she would get more information.

Dustin usually rode his bike to school, which meant Jessica didn't have to wait around to take him. She had a 1970 Chevelle sitting in her driveway, and it was the reason she had a job. She'd seen it, cherry red, and had fallen in love with it. Her mom had been less than thrilled, but she'd also said if Jessica could find a job and agree to pay a decent down payment on it, she could get it and her mom would help her out.

Hence the job at the theater and picking up extra hours if she could. Most of her weekends were no longer free, but it was worth it if she could one day call that car hers.

"A'right, well, I'm heading out," she said, mussing her hand over Dustin's head of dark curls, so different from her own. Her own hair was a lighter brown, and easier to tame. "See you after school."

She grabbed her stuff, kissed her mom on the cheek, and left.
-----
Jessica's plan to find out more from Jonathan didn't go through very well because Jonathan Byers wasn't at school that day. To be fair, Jessica completely understood why. If Dustin had suddenly gone missing, Jessica wouldn't have been worried about school either. School was already barely a blip on her list of priorities that if anything ever happened to her brother she'd probably never go to school again.

The only reason she hadn't yet quit was because she didn't want to be stuck working at the theater her whole life. She hated high school, but she was actually excited about maybe going to college one day.

College, however, had nothing to do with her current situation: Jonathan not being in school, and her not being able to find out more about Will. She wondered if Mike and Lucas had heard about Will yet. She was also relieved that Dustin would be with them at the middle school for the remainder of the school day. If something had happened to Will, at least the other three had a support system they could lean on

During first period – English – Jessica zoned out for a while. She had an A in that class and could afford not to pay attention. It was mostly about research papers and how to cite sources and things like that.

Math was her second class. Her brain was usually fully awake by then. That day, however, she was more or less focused on the fact that Jonathan wasn't there. She didn't share any classes with him because she was a grade above him – she was a Junior – but his locker was right next to his, and he hadn't been there either of the times she'd gone by. She'd never really become friends with him because he was a little stand-offish, but they had said hi to each other in passing. They also sometimes worked the same shift at the theater.

Jonathan not being in school meant that they probably hadn't found Will yet, and Will hadn't just gone into school early like Dustin had suggested. He really was missing. No one else seemed bothered, and it made her realize that no one else knew. Will's disappearance hadn't been made public knowledge yet. He wasn't even officially a missing person because he hadn't been gone a full 24 hours. That was probably the stupidest thing she'd ever heard of because, sure, some kids didn't mind taking off whenever they felt like it, but Will wasn't like that. He was a good kid.

The next two classes flew by and then it was time for lunch. Jessica, not having eaten breakfast, was actually hungry enough to brave a school lunch. A slice of pizza, milk, and an apple.

She sat with a boy named Steve Harrington and two of his friends, Tommy and Carol. She sort of detested Tommy and Carol, and thought they only put up with each other as a couple because no one else would.

Steve, however, was okay. She thought he needed new friends, but she tolerated them because she did like hanging out with Steve. She liked it better when the other two weren't around, but that didn't happen often. Steve cared too much about what others thought about him and tried to appear cooler than he actually was. She hoped he would grow out of that.

He hadn't always been that way. She'd been in middle school when her family had moved to Hawkins, and she had shared a lot of classes with Steve. He'd been really nice to her – he hadn't had jerk friends then and hadn't cared about appearing cool. That came more with high school and becoming a dumb teenage guy and a jock.

She teased him about it constantly.

Steve nudged her with his shoulder so she looked his way.

"Hm?"

Steve dressed like a rich, white boy, and acted like a rich, white boy. He had smooth, slightly tanned skin, perfect hair, pretty brown eyes, and, at the moment, a concerned expression on his face.

"You should eat," he said.

Even though she was hungry, she'd only been playing with the red apple she'd chosen from the food line. She brought the apple to her lips, but as soon as she opened her mouth a wave of nausea hit her stomach so fast she put the apple back down on the table in front of her.

Tommy and Carol, sitting on the other side of the table, glanced her way curiously.

"What's up with you?" Carol asked.

"Nothing. I'm just feeling sick all of a sudden."

"Probably because you skipped breakfast," Steve said. "You've been walking around with no energy all day."

Steve would notice that. When she was under stress her stomach bothered her. Steve had figured that out as soon as he'd met her. She'd had a lot of stress then – she'd moved away from her home, left her friends behind, had worried about not fitting in at the new school.

She'd never had it so bad that she lost too much weight, and only the people closest to her knew about it, but she did skip a meal or two when she wasn't at her best. A 13-year-old Steve Harrington had taken an interest and had taken her under his wing, so to speak, and things had gotten better quickly. She remembered his hair had been perfectly coiffed even then.

"Joyce Byers called this morning. Will didn't go home last night. He passed by our house a little after eight and he seemed fine. He was headed home."

"Byers," Tommy interrupted. "You mean that freak's brother?"

"Jonathan," Jessica corrected, "and, yes, his brother. He's only twelve, by the way, since you seem so compassionate about this."

"Hey," Carol snapped. "Watch the tone, Golden Girl. Besides, he's probably just hiding out somewhere. He'll show up when he feels like it."

Will wasn't like that, but Tommy and Carol didn't really know Will. Steve didn't either, but at least he wasn't being a jerk about it.

Steve talked her into drinking her milk and eating half of the slice of pizza she had, and then they walked to the gym together, minus Tommy and Carol.

"How come I'm the only nice friend you have?" Jessica teased.

"You're not the only nice friend I have," he said. "I have Nancy."

Nancy was Mike's older sister. She didn't really know the girl, other than to say hi to, but she knew that Nancy wasn't the type Steve usually went for. She was a good girl, not a partier, and did really well in school. She was a Sophomore, but she'd caught Steve's eye for some reason.

"Nancy is not a friend," Jessica said. "She's someone you're trying to sleep with."

"Hey!" He shoved her gently, playfully. "I resent that."

They stopped walking, and Steve pulled her to the side.

"Nancy is different. She's . . . I mean, we haven't . . . not that I wouldn't if she –"

Steve Harrington was flustered. Wow. But this – exactly this – was why she was friends with Steve. This was who he was when Tommy and Carol weren't around. Kind, caring, not a complete jerk.

"I'm supposed to meet her later so I can help her study."

Jessica grinned. "Study anatomy?"

"No!" Steve exclaimed, pretending to be shocked and offended. "Jeez. Chemistry."

"You failed Chemistry." Though failing didn't mean a D or an F. He was on the basketball team; he couldn't get but so low of a grade or he would be kicked off the team.

"Nancy said the same thing."

"Smart girl." Jessica sighed. "I've gotta get in the locker room. See you in the gym."
-----
The gym was set up in a way that allowed there to be four volleyball games going at once. Jessica hated it. It was distracting, and she wasn't in the mood to play anyway. There was always the option of walking around the gym rather than do the actual sport they were supposed to be playing, and that's what Jessica eventually chose to do.

After gym, Steve suggested they hang out – just the two of them – until he had to go be with Nancy, but she declined because she had to work from five to nine that night.

After her last two classes she hurried home so she could shower and change into her black clothes and the red vest all the theater workers had to wear. She tamed her brown curls into soft waves – something Dustin could never do.

By the time she was ready Dustin was home from school. He'd come to her room immediately. He hadn't even dropped his bag off at his room.

"Mike and Lucas aren't allowed to go out until we find out what happened to Will."

She nodded. "Understandable."

"Chief Hopper came by the school to talk to us."

"Oh yeah?" He sat on her bed and she sat beside him. "Anything new?"

"No. He told us to come straight home after school."

Jessica tried not to show the new tension she was feeling. If Hopper had told them to come straight home, he had to suspect foul play of some kind. Or maybe he was just being cautious. Nothing serious had happened in all the time she had been in Hawkins, and definitely nothing involving anyone going missing. They were probably just all overly worried because this was Will that had disappeared. He was gentle and quiet, and Jessica couldn't imagine what would happen if he was ever in the position where someone was trying to hurt him.

"You okay?" she asked, mussing his hair with her hand.

"Yeah. Just worried about Will."

"Yeah." She shrugged. "I can go check in after work."

"That'd be great." Dustin grinned, most of his front teeth missing, and began digging through his backpack. He came out with a Hershey's bar and a pack of cheese crackers. "In case of emergencies . . ."

Jessica smiled, shook her head, and took what Dustin offered.

"Thanks, Dustie. Love you."

He grimaced. "Never say that in front of my friends."

After a brief pause and one lifted eyebrow from Jessica he rolled his eyes and said it back.
-----
Work was slow that night. Being that it was a school night, most kids were at home, and the teenagers preferred late night showings. Plus, Hopper had decided to call out a search party for Will, and all the willing adults were out looking for him. Her boss had said something about Hopper having found Will's bike abandoned on the side of the road. How anyone knew that, Jessica didn't really know. She just chalked it up to Hawkins being a small town.

No matter how her boss knew about the bike, Jessica knew Will wouldn't have just left it there unless he hadn't had a choice. His mom wasn't that well off and he wouldn't have just thrown his bike away. She wouldn't be able to replace it. Something bad had happened to Will. Something bad had happened not long after Dustin had gotten home.

At that thought Jessica's stomach decided to have a full-scale revolution on her. Her breath quickened as she fought off the nausea she felt just from the thought of something happening to her brother. She also felt a little guilty from being relieved that it hadn't been Dustin who had disappeared. She knew it was perfectly normal for her to feel that way because as much as she loved Will . . . he wasn't her brother. She still felt awful for feeling that way.

She was now more determined than ever to go by the Byers' house after work to get an update and to see how Joyce and Jonathan were. So that was what she did.

She'd never realized how far into the woods the Byers' lived. It was a prime spot for a child – especially one that had been alone like Will had been - to fall prey to a predator.

On the way to the house, she passed by a section of woods that had been cordoned off with crime scene tape. That must've been where Hopper had found Will's bike.

She finally found the dirt trail that led from the road to the Byers' house and travelled down it slowly. She didn't want to hit a deer or anything. She reached the run-down one-story house that was probably considered more a cabin than anything else. Jessica knew Joyce had it hard because she was a single mother of two who had no help from her ex-husband.

Her car looked out of place in the driveway next to the two Fords, but that didn't matter. She parked close to the porch and hurried up the steps once out of her car. Joyce Byers, a woman in her late thirties or early forties, opened the door before Jessica could even knock.

Joyce's eyes were frantic and her hair was a little frazzled. She was a mom worried about her missing son.

"Jessica?"

"Hey, Ms. Byers. I, uh . . . I came to find out about Will, and –"

"Come in," Joyce said, and ushered her inside the house. "I – don't mind the mess."

"Of course not."

Once inside she noticed Jonathan on the couch, going through pictures of Will. He'd made a HAVE YOU SEEN ME? poster, and was obviously trying to find the right picture to put on it. He glanced her way to acknowledge her presence, but that was it.

"You can sit," Joyce said. "It was sweet of you to check on us. You're the first one aside from Hopper."

Jessica nodded. "I would've come out here sooner, but I was at work. Did they really find his bike?"

"Yes," Jonathan said. "They think he came home last night and was taken from here."

"Oh."

She didn't know what to say about that. If a child couldn't be safe in his or her own house, then where could they be? And if he'd made it home, and his bike had been found in the woods . . . that meant Will had been well enough to run home. Had someone chased him, then? Was there some psycho out there chasing after children? Did she need to be worried about Dustin?

She sat down by Jonathan and began going through the pictures of Will. She was sure Jonathan had taken them himself.

"I can help you put these around town tomorrow, if you want," she offered.

He seemed surprised by the kindness. They'd never really associated with each other – because didn't associate with anyone – so his surprise was understandable. "Why?"

"Because I have a brother too, and I wouldn't know what to do if anything happened to him. I would want all the help I could get. Plus, Will is my favorite of my brother's friends. I'd help for that reason alone."

Jonathan smiled, though it looked more like a grimace, and Joyce clapped a hand over her mouth as tears filled her eyes. Jessica didn't know what to do with that. Her own mother never showed real negative emotion. Should she apologize? Turn away and let Joyce compose herself? Hug her?

"We've made you uncomfortable," Joyce said.

"No, I just . . . did I do something wrong? To cause the tears?"

"It's because you're being nice," Jonathan muttered. "This town and its people . . . you know how they are."

"You mean how a lot of them are jerks? Yeah. Anyway, it's late and I should go, but let me know about the flyers when you get them done."

She stood up to leave and gave both of them a brief hug. Joyce returned it gladly. Jonathan was stiff – almost statue-like – but he hugged her just the same.
-----
Not too far from the Byers' house – yet far enough away to be a few minutes walking distance – Jessica came across three bikes, one of which she was very familiar with because it belonged to her brother, parked near the crime scene tape.

"Dustin!" she exclaimed, frustrated, slamming on the brakes. "Seriously?"

It was storming, the rain having started almost immediately after she'd left the Byer's place. She'd been planning on going straight home, but now she couldn't. She had to make sure her brother was okay.

She better not get sick because of this. It was the beginning of November, for crying out loud. Raining, thundering, cold, and she was going to chase after three kids in the middle of the woods where one kid had already been chased from.

She cursed under her breath and got out of the car. She didn't even have a rain coat, so she was going to get soaked. She was actually probably going to get lost. She didn't make a habit of playing in the woods, and she didn't have a flashlight.

This was probably the stupidest thing she'd ever done.

Thankfully it didn't take long to find Dustin, Mike, and Lucas. They'd been yelling at each other. She was proud to find that her brother seemed to be the voice of reason at the moment. He'd been pointing out that they were going in the direction of the place where Will had maybe been taken and that they didn't have a weapon if they came across the person who'd done it.

"Guys!" she yelled, making them all jump. "What're you doing? I thought Hopper said to stay home!"

"About that . . ." Dustin started.

"We're looking for Will," Mike said.

"Obviously." She rolled her eyes. "Next time you guys wanna sneak around you should be craftier about it. You parked the bikes right near the –"

An insane screeching, animal and almost demonic in sound, filled the air.

"What was that?"

The bushes around them began to move with something other than the wind and rain, and Jessica thought they needed to get out of there as quickly as they could.

"Guys, we're going now."

At least the guys had flashlights, so they'd be able to see to get back to her car and their bikes.

"But Will –" Mike started.

"Isn't here," she said, voice firm. "There were signs at the Byers' house that point to Will making it home last night. He was taken from home, guys. So, we are leaving."

The rustling sounds grew closer and Jessica tensed. None of them had anything to fight with, so the only thing they could do was run. They turned to do just that, but their way was blocked by a girl in an overly large yellow Benny's Burgers shirt – Benny's Burgers was probably the best burger place in town. The girl had dark, closely shaven hair, and she was soaked to the skin, shivering – probably freezing – and she appeared frightened.

What was she doing out in the woods dressed like that? And who was she? Jessica knew Benny didn't have a daughter – he wasn't even married, had no other family in Hawkins that Jessica knew of aside from his parents.

The boys had frozen where they stood so Jessica assumed that meant she had to take the lead, which was wrong in her opinion, because even though she was the oldest, she had no clue what to do in this situation.

"Uh, hi," she said, stepping forward only to have the girl step back. "Okay. I'll stay here, and you can stay there. We'll talk just fine this way. What're you doing out here? Are you lost?"

"Not lost," the girl said. She spoke slowly, though, as if speech were new to her.

"Is there a number we can call for your parents?" Mike asked, finally coming back to life. The shock was obviously wearing off now.

"Where's all your hair?" Dustin asked. "Do you have cancer?"

"Dustin!"

"What?"

The shock was wearing off of all of them.

"Is that blood?" Lucas asked, stepping forward so that the girl flinched.

Jessica noticed that Lucas was right, though, and there was blood on the girl's shirt.

"Stop it, you're freaking her out," Mike said.

"She's freaking me out."

"She's just scared. And cold."

She did tremble every time the thunder rumbled. Maybe the girl was going through some form of shock as well and the loud noise scared her for some reason.

Mike slid his jacket off of his shoulders and handed it to the girl. Jessica noticed she didn't flinch from Mike, so she slowly backed away and let Mike take the lead there.

"Okay, so . . . what are we doing? We can't leave her here."

They definitely couldn't take her to their house – there was nowhere to put her except for the cellar, and they weren't doing that. They couldn't take her to Lucas's because his parents actually paid attention to what he was doing, and he had a nosy little sister. That left Mike's.

"Mike . . ." she started. "You think we can sneak her in? The basement . . . you know, just for the night until we figure out what to do?"

Mike nodded. "Yeah, not like my parents will notice."

"Great."

Chances were this girl had been abused and had run away – that was how her personality read anyway – and they were going to have to be careful with her

"A'right, let's get back to the car. Mike, we'll put your bike in the back. You're coming with us. She seems comfortable with you. Okay?"

"Yeah."

"Dustin . . . Lucas . . . Are you guys okay riding your bikes?"

"Sure."

She hadn't forgotten about the screeching earlier, and she was sure that it hadn't come from the girl.

"Stay together at all times, okay?"

"Obviously," Dustin quipped. "We're not stupid."

"Hm. The jury's still out on that one."

Chapter Text

The hardest part of sneaking the girl into the Wheeler's basement was the amount of time it took to get to the house. Jessica stopped at every street corner to make sure Lucas and her brother appeared in her rearview mirror before continuing on to the next street. They were just lucky they lived in a small town and that almost everyone was already at home and not out on the streets.

Once in the basement, Mike let the girl have some of his clothes. She almost stripped in front of them, as if she had removed her clothes in front of people before and it was no big deal for her, but Mike quickly showed her where the bathroom was. When Mike went to close the door, however, she grabbed it and said, "No."

"You don't want it closed?"

"No."

"Okay, well, how about we leave it like this?"

He left the door open a few inches and she seemed okay with that, so Mike left her there to do her business.

"This is mental," Dustin said. "She tried to get naked."

He mimicked taking his shirt off and knocked his hat off his head in the process

Lucas added, "There's something seriously wrong with her. Like . . . something wrong in the head. I bet she escaped from Pennhurst, the nuthouse in Kerley County. Think about it. That would explain her shaved hair and why she's so crazy. She's an escapee, she's probably psycho."

"Like Michael Myers," Dustin said.

"Exactly. We should've never brought her here."

"So, you just wanted to leave her out in that storm?"

"Yes," Lucas declared. "We went out to find Will, not another problem."

"Hey!" Jessica snapped. "She's not just a problem, okay? She's a girl and she's obviously been through something traumatic or she wouldn't be acting this way. There's nothing we can do until we know more, but we couldn't leave her out there."

She eyed Lucas then especially, but quickly got back to the point.

"Are you sure she can stay here tonight?" she asked Mike.

"Sure. In the morning, she can sneak around the house, go to the front door and ring the doorbell. My mom will answer and know exactly what to do. She'll be sent back to wherever she came from and we'll be totally in the clear."

That was actually a good plan, as long as nothing went wrong.

"A'right, guys, head to the car," Jessica said. "I'll be out in a second. Get Mike's bike out of the car. Dustin –"

"I'm riding home. Gotta make sure Lucas gets to his house."

"Fine. Stay in lighted areas. I'm gonna stay a few minutes, make sure the girl settles in okay."

The two boys left, and the girl finally came out of the bathroom. The shirt and sweatpants Mike had given her were big on her, but at least she'd stay warm.

"We never got your name," Mike said but didn't get a response. Or not a verbal one, anyway.

The girl pushed the sleeve of Mike's shirt up, revealing a number etched onto – into – her skin in black ink: 011.

This girl didn't have a name. She was a number. She was Eleven. And wherever she had come from . . . it hadn't been a mental hospital, and they couldn't send her back.

"I've never seen a kid with a tattoo before," Mike said. "What's it mean? Eleven."

The girl, Eleven, pointed to herself, confirming what Jessica had already known. Dear God, this was Nazi Germany brought to life in Hawkins, Indiana. This girl didn't even know her maiden name; she only knew herself as the number inked into her skin.

"Eleven. Okay."

Mike was processing more quickly than Jessica would have imagined possible for a boy his age, but it made her proud. She could see why he'd become the leader of his group.

"Uh, well, my name's Mike. Short for Michael. Maybe we can call you El. Short for Eleven."

Eleven – or El – had been staring at Mike the whole time he'd been talking. She now nodded in understanding and agreement.

While Mike continued talking to El, Jessica made a place for El to sleep. There was already a fort made of blankets in the corner of the room. A yellow sleeping bag was rolled up beside the blankets, so she placed it inside and rolled it out.

It wasn't a bed, but it was the best they had on such short notice.

Once El was inside, Jessica knelt before her and slowly took El's hand, the one that had the number on it. El didn't try to pull away.

"El, I'm Jessica, or Jess, if you like . . . This – this number . . . You were held somewhere. Right?"

And she was number eleven, which meant there had been others before her and maybe some after her. They might not have escaped. They might still be locked up. Or they might have been killed.

"Are people after you?" El didn't answer. "We can't help you if you don't tell us what's going on."

Jessica looked at Mike and nodded toward El. He knelt down then and spoke.

"You're in trouble, aren't you? Who – who are you in trouble with?"

"Bad," El whispered.

"Bad? Bad people?"

El nodded. Jessica noticed that El didn't seem afraid just then, but her eyes were the saddest Jessica had ever seen on a young girl.

"They wanna hurt you?" Mike asked. "The bad people?"

El brought two fingers up to her temple and mimicked pulling a trigger. It was pretty obvious what that meant, but what scared Jessica more was when El turned the two fingers at Mike.

"We're in trouble too," Jessica said, "for helping you. Is that it?"

"Yes."

So they couldn't let anyone know she was there. Mike's plan was out the window. Mike's mom had to be kept in the dark. She would call social services if she found out El was there and then El would be taken back to wherever she'd run away from. That wouldn't end well for anyone.

"Can we keep her hidden here?" Jessica asked. "At least until we can think of something."

It was unrealistic, thinking they could hide El for more than a day or two, but Jessica didn't want to just hand her over to the authorities either, not if they would just end up hurting her – or someone else. So they needed to keep her close, at least until they knew more.

"Mom rarely comes down here," Mike said. "It should be fine for now."

"Good." Then to El, "I don't know if this word means anything to you, but you're safe here."

Back to Mike. "You gonna be okay by yourself?"

"Yeah. Thanks for helping."

"Anytime."
-----
Once Jessica got home, the first thing she did was change and take a shower. She smelled like rain and the woods. After that, she tossed her clothes and the blanket from her car in the washing machine. The blanket had really come in handy since two soaked pre-teens had been in her car. The only reason she'd even had a blanket was because she kept one in her trunk for nice nights where she could go somewhere and just lay out and look at the stars. She hadn't been getting much use out of it because it was the beginning of November, but it had definitely been useful that night in covering the girl with only a t-shirt on. And why had that been the only thing she'd been wearing? Had she escaped with only a hospital gown or something?

It was already close to eleven – she would never be able to think of that number again without relating it to the girl they'd found that night.

She probably wouldn't be able to get to bed until after midnight, wouldn't get to sleep until after one. Dustin was already asleep when she checked on him. She was amazed he'd been able to relax so quickly. She was also slightly envious.

Jessica wouldn't have been able to sleep right away anyway. She still had about an hours' worth of homework to do, that she would have been done with already if she hadn't had to stop to make sure her brother and his friends were okay. She couldn't bring herself to be too angry, though, because, even though they hadn't found Will, they had found someone else who'd needed help.

Jessica made herself some hot tea and settled herself at the kitchen table. It was going to be a long day tomorrow.
-----
It was a long day. Jessica was out of it by third period. She'd gotten maybe two hours of uninterrupted sleep, the rest of the night filled with dozing and jerking awake whenever the thunder rumbled too loudly and remembering the animal snarling she'd heard in the woods before finding El earlier.

At least she'd been able to eat breakfast that morning, and Steve had met her in the parking lot before school. The Steve part had been nice; the Tommy and Carol part had been less nice.

"What happened to you?" Carol asked, not out of any real concern, but because Jessica usually looked well put together. That day, however, Jessica had just thrown on whatever and put her hair up in a ponytail. She hadn't even tried to tame her curls, so now it was messy and bushy, a few strands loose around her face.

"Don't ask."

She'd moved past them and headed to her locker, where she found that Jonathan wasn't there again. She hadn't expected him to be, but it didn't make her worry any less. It meant that Will still hadn't been found. Statistics showed that the first twenty-four hours were the most crucial in a missing person's case, which was stupid, really, because most cops didn't consider a missing person an actual missing person until after they'd been gone for twenty-four hours. If those hours were the most crucial then why did you have to wait to file a report?

Before fourth period she caught up with Steve and the two jerks. Nancy and Barb were there too. Barb was Nancy's best friend. Jessica had met both of them before – Nancy because of Dustin's friendship with Mike, Barb because of school – and said hi to them in passing when she could. She wouldn't call them her friends, however.

Steve was having a get-together at his house that night because his parents weren't going to be home – surprise, surprise! His parents were almost never home. His dad had a lot of company conventions he had to go to, and his mother went with him because he had straying eyes and hands and other parts of his anatomy that Jessica didn't ever want to think about. The point was that Mr. Harrington had to be kept in check, which meant that Steve was left alone most of the time. He had to find companionship somehow.

Steve invited all of them there in the group.

"It's Tuesday," Nancy stated, making it sound like the most scandalous thing she'd ever heard of, for which Tommy and Carol teased her.

Even Jessica laughed, but she was genuinely amused by the innocence of Nancy's statement. She wasn't being mean.

"It's not such a big deal," Jessica said. "You don't have to do anything you don't want to. And if you decide you're not having fun, you can leave."

"Does that mean you're going?" Barb asked.

Jessica shook her head and noticed when Steve's face fell a little. She hated disappointing him, but with everything that was going on she really couldn't afford to go to a party.

"My brother did something stupid last night, and I'm pretty sure he's planning on repeating the idiocy. I can't let him."

"So tell your mom," Steve suggested, doe eyes gently pleading. Really, those things were lethal. "Come."

"Well, I –"

"Oh, look," Carol interrupted.

Because of the tone of her voice, Jessica did look. Jonathan was there, a couple yards away from them, pinning a flyer to the board of announcements the school kept near the office.

"That's depressing," Steve said.

"Should we say something?" Nancy asked.

"I don't think he speaks," Carol quipped.

"How much you wanna bet he killed him?" Tommy said, earning a shove from Steve and an eyeroll from Jessica.

"You're such a jerk. Do you ever think before you speak?"

Jessica basically stormed away toward Jonathan, not really caring what the others thought of her. When she reached him, she was surprised to find that Nancy had followed her over.

Nancy telling Jonathan how much it sucked that Will had gone missing and how sorry she was was probably the most awkward conversation Jessica had ever witnessed, but when Nancy said that Will was a smart kid and he'd be fine because of it, Jessica gave her a small encouraging smile.

Soon the bell rang, and Nancy hurried off while Jessica stayed where she was. Steve's group had no problem leaving Jessica behind. Steve had hesitated for maybe a second before heading to class as well.

"So . . . about the flyers . . . do you need help?"

Jonathan shook his head. "You know your social life is taking a swan dive just because you're talking to me?"

"Oh, who cares? The only reason people even pay attention to me is because of who I hang around."

"I don't think that's true. You'd still be the school's Golden Girl."

"I hate that name."

"Why? I mean, I know why you hate it from Tommy and Carol because they see it as something bad, but the rest of the school uses it because you're so nice. And you're not like the people you hang out with. People respect you here, and it has nothing to do with how many beers you can drink at a time."

Jonathan gave an actual real smile, though he didn't show his teeth, but it only lasted a few seconds.

"Are you sticking around for the rest of the day?" Jessica asked, trying not to show how much Jonathan's words had touched her. She realized then that Jonathan Byers wasn't detached from reality at all; he just chose not to participate in the inane things around him.

"Nah. Hopper said ninety-nine out of a hundred times it has something to do with a parent or relative if a kid goes missing."

"Your dad," she surmised.

"Yeah. Gonna go see him. He's never taken an interest before, but . . ."

"You have to do something or else you'll go crazy?"

"Yeah. See ya."

Jessica watched as he walked away and then went to her next class. She didn't really care that she was late. The teacher didn't either, really, because she didn't make a habit of it.
-----
The rest of the school day droned on in its normal boring way aside from the fact that Tommy and Carol kept looking at her as if they had no idea who she was. They acted as if she'd done something wrong by caring about Will Byers and talking to Jonathan. And Steve let them treat her that way even if he wasn't actively doing the same.

Having had enough of that kind of behavior Jessica went straight home after school even though she knew Steve would want to talk to her in the parking lot and try to get her to change her mind about the party that night. She might have been tempted if he hadn't been acting like a jerk the second half of the day.

It was good that she had gone straight home because her mother said Mike had called and needed to talk to her.

"When was this?"

"Fifteen minutes ago. He said he wanted you to call him back."

"Right." She assumed Mike had stayed home that day because middle school hadn't been let out yet. "I'll get right on that."

She went to the kitchen, dropped her stuff on the floor, and grabbed the phone receiver off the wall. The only reason she even knew the Wheeler's number was because of Dustin sometimes spending the night over there.

Mike picked up after the third ring. He seemed slightly out of breath, as if the air had been knocked out of him.

"Are you okay?"

"Yeah, I'm great. Remember how you said you'd help anytime?"

"Yeah," she answered hesitantly, hoping her words weren't about to bite her on the butt.

"El pointed to Will in one of my pictures. She . . . she might know what happened to him."

"She didn't say?"

"No, but think about it. We found her on Mirkwood, the same place Will's bike was found. And she said bad people were after her. What if these bad people are the same ones who took Will?"

"You really think she knows?"

"Yeah, just let Dustin know when he gets home. I'll take care of Lucas."

"I'll tell Dustin, but Mike . . . I'm coming with him. I'm part of this."

"Why do you think I called?"
-----
Once Dustin got home he and Jessica high-tailed it to Mike's, Dustin insisting on using his bike so he could catch up with Lucas and ride with him.

Everyone congregated in Mike's room as they arrived. Most of the stuff in it was science related, and it made Jessica feel really out of place. Science was not her subject.

Eleven was there, seated Indian-style, on Mike's bed. She had different clothes on than the night before. Dustin was quiet when he saw her, Lucas was very vocal about his dislike of the situation. He wanted to tell Mike's mom.

"No. Eleven made it clear we'd all be in danger if any adults got involved."

"Her name is Eleven?"

"El for short."

"What type of danger?" Dustin asked.

"Danger danger." Mike mimicked a gun with his hand like El had done the night before and pointed it at Dustin's head.

"No. No. No. We're going back to plan A. We're telling your mom."

"Lucas –" Jessica started, but he had already opened the bedroom door.

The door, however, slammed shut seemingly on its own. Lucas tried again with the same result, only this time the door also locked. A few game pieces seated on the shelf beside the door fell over, and everyone stood frozen.

What had just happened? And how? Doors didn't just close on their own, and they definitely couldn't lock on their own.

"No," Eleven said, simply but firmly, still seated on the bed.

They all turned at the sound of her voice. El's nose was bleeding now, the crimson liquid trailing from one nostril down towards her upper lip. El didn't seem concerned about it, but Jessica still reacted by rushing forward and trying to get El to lean her head back. She didn't mean to scare the girl, but she guessed she did because El's eyes widened even as she did as Jessica said.

"It's okay," Mike said. "She's not gonna hurt you."

Eleven's nosebleed didn't last long, and Jessica soon realized she'd overreacted, and remembered what had happened before with the door.

"Did you do that?" she asked El.

If Eleven could do things like that, Jessica was beginning to get a clearer picture of what had happened to her. She had escaped from a lab of some sort, maybe even the lab that was in Hawkins, though Jessica had always believed that lab had been some Department of Energy building for the government. They'd definitely had energy, if they'd been keeping her there.

When El didn't respond to Jessica's question she asked it again, adding. "Remember what I said last night? We can't help you if you don't tell us the truth."

"Yes," El forced out.

"I don't know how much she knows," Mike admitted. "I've been showing her stuff all day – or until Mom got back home, anyway."

Mrs. Wheeler was home and had been since that morning. She'd gone to the store with Holly after Mike had left for school. He'd doubled back once his mother had gone – his father had gone to work before Mike had even woken up that morning. Mrs. Wheeler had walked in as Mike had been showing El around the house and that was why they were both up in Mike's room.

Jessica looked the boys' way. Mike seemed almost unfazed by the way the door had closed by itself, but Lucas seemed a little freaked out. Dustin's face showed amazement.

Jessica felt a natural instinct to try to find a normal, logical, reason for the door to slam on its own – like a blast of air from an open window or something. Even though El had confirmed that she'd made the door slam, Jessica couldn't get her head around the concept. Things like this didn't happen outside of books and movies.

"We never would've upset you if we'd known you had super powers," Dustin said, to which Mike punched him in the arm, and Jessica laughed.

She did not find Mike punching her brother amusing, but hysteria was building up inside of her and Jessica had no other way of getting it out other than crying, and she didn't want to do that. So she laughed instead.

"What Dustin is trying to say is that they were just scared," Mike explained.

"We just want to find our friend," Lucas added.

"Friend?" El asked. The confusion and curiosity in her voice broke Jessica's heart. She realized El had probably never had a friend.

"Yeah. Friend," Lucas said. "Will."

"What . . . is friend?"

"Is she serious?" Lucas asked; Dustin shrugged. "Uh, friend –"

"Is someone that you'd do anything for," Mike interrupted.

"You lend them your cool stuff," Dustin added. "Like comic books and trading cards."

"And they never break a promise."

"Especially when there's spit."

"Ew, we're not teaching her that," Jessica exclaimed. "It's gross, and unhygienic."

Lucas, however, had already spit in his hand to demonstrate and was now grabbing Dustin's hand. Dustin looked just as grossed out as Jessica felt, and he quickly wiped his hand off on his pants.

"A spit swear means you can't break your promise. It's your bond," Lucas said.

"And that's important," Mike took over, "because friends . . . they tell each other things. Things that parents don't know."

"Mike said you pointed to Will in a picture," Jessica said. "Do you know him?"

"No."

"Are the people who had you the ones who have him now?"

"No."

"Then how did you recognize him?"

El didn't respond, so Mike tried.

"Did you see him? On Mirkwood?"

"Wait. Where's Mirkwood? You mentioned it earlier, but –"

"The road we were on last night," Dustin said. "We call it that. It's from The Hobbit."

"Oh."

"Do you know where he is?"

"Game," El responded.

"Game?" Jessica looked at Mike. "Did you guys play a game?"

"No. The only game she could be talking about is D and D. She saw the board."

"Yes," was El's response.
-----
Mike's mom was in the kitchen fixing dinner, so getting El back in the basement wasn't a problem. Once down there, she headed to the gameboard, knocked all the pieces off but one – a wizard-looking thing – and then, holding the piece, turned the board over. She placed the piece down on the dark board.

"Will," she said.

"I don't understand," Jessica said.

"That's Will's piece," Dustin explained.

"Lucky guess."

"Super powers," he argued.

Jessica rolled her eyes and Lucas shook his head.

"Hiding," El said.

"Will is hiding?"

El nodded, and Lucas leaned over the board.

"From the bad men?" But El shook her head, eyes still focusing on the wizard thing. "Then from who?"

El picked up another piece and placed it on the board. This time it was a two headed dragon thing. Jessica had no clue what it was, but she knew it couldn't be good. It just looked evil. She suddenly remembered the horrible screeching she'd heard the night before in the woods.

"Okay, what is that?" she asked once she realized how spooked Dustin looked and how seriously Mike and Lucas were focused on the board.

"It's a demogorgan," Dustin said. "A demon prince."

"A demon prince? Naturally. Is there a way to kill this . . . demogorgan?"

"Well, in the game, yeah, sure," Mike said. "But we just want Will back."

"Do you feel the need to go back out tonight to look for him?"

"I don't think we'll find him. Not if he's hiding."

"Okay, good. You guys call if you change your minds."

"Wait, you're not staying?" Dustin asked.

"I can't. Mom will know something's up if I stay here too long. Right?"

"Right. Okay. You're going home, though, right?"

"Straight home."

She'd contemplated actually going to Steve's get-together, but after the way Tommy and Carol had treated her, and after the way Steve had gone along with it, she'd decided she wasn't going to even bother. She'd felt more included and needed in her brother's group of friends than she had in Steve's life for a while now.

And she hadn't been able to be as open and deep with Steve as she'd been with Jonathan. He'd become . . . a shallow, rich, white boy. Only . . . she knew he wasn't. He only made himself appear that way in front of Tommy and Carol because he thought it was impressive not to care.

In a way, that was worse. Steve obviously didn't think people would accept him if he let himself be himself. All she knew was that she didn't like who he had become just to appear cool in front of other people.

Chapter Text

Once Jessica got home she was surprised to find her mom in the kitchen fixing dinner. Her mother hated cooking. She wasn't a bad cook, she just didn't like doing it. Unless it was a holiday or the meal was easy to fix, her mother usually just let them eat whatever they wanted.

That night they were having spaghetti.

"What did Mike want?"

"Something to do with Will. They're all worried something bad has happened. I – I think they feel more comfortable talking to me about it because I'm not actually an adult yet."

"Makes sense."

Jessica noticed that her stuff was still on the kitchen floor, near the phone, where she'd called Mike earlier. That was one thing her mom didn't really enforce – a clean house. Unless they were going to have company, she didn't really care. She figured they would eventually get tired of looking at the mess and would clean it when they decided to.

That hadn't worked when they were younger, but once they'd moved to Hawkins both Dustin and Jessica had matured greatly, so the house stayed pretty clean. That was probably why their mother never got after them about not picking up things all the time.

While dinner was being fixed, Jessica did what homework she had and was done by six. She ate dinner with her mother. Dustin hadn't known their mom was cooking, so he'd stayed at Mike's.

After dinner Jessica, having nothing else to do, watched the news. The only things worth noting were that the search for Will was still ongoing but there were no new leads, and the story of the apparent suicide of the owner of Benny's Burgers.

El had been wearing one of Benny's shirts when they'd found her the night before, and there had been blood on it. Now Jessica knew why. Benny was dead, and he hadn't committed suicide.

The news mentioned that he'd been shot in the head, though they got the part wrong about him having shot himself. Whatever had happened, El had seen it. She'd mimicked the act of shooting, so even if she hadn't known what exactly had been going on, she had known enough to realize how bad it had been.

El had obviously stopped by the restaurant the night before and she'd either been followed or Benny had called someone to let the authorities know she'd shown up there. Benny wouldn't have known who'd had her, where she'd escaped from, and would have called local child services. Unless child services was in on this, people's phone lines were being tapped. Whoever had been holding El prisoner had to be someone high on the food chain to get that kind of help from the . . . government.

Whatever had happened, Benny had been killed for his efforts.

This was just further evidence of why no one else could become involved in this. The more people who knew, the harder it would be to keep El safe and hidden.
----------
Dustin got home safely. Apparently, Mike's parents still hadn't found out about El, which was good for her, but it made Jessica wonder just how oblivious the Wheeler's really were.

"And they're staying put, right?" Jessica asked. "No heroics?"

"Not tonight."

"And tomorrow? I have to work."

Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and sometimes weekends.

"What about it?"

"Don't do anything that'll get you killed. Mom and I would miss you. We would cry."

Dustin stood there in her doorway, awkwardly now, because of her words. She knew he already knew he was loved, but because he was a boy he found it weird to be expressed out loud apparently.

"Go to bed, Dustin," she said, suppressing a smile. "Still have school tomorrow."
----------
Steve met Jessica the next morning in the school parking lot like he did most days. Tommy and Carol were nowhere in sight, which was weird, but she was not going to complain.

"Hey," he said. At least he had the decency to look guilty. He apparently realized that her hasty exit from school the day before had been because of him.

"Oh, you're being nice to me now?" she almost hissed, grabbing her bag from the back seat and resisting to slam the car door. She wasn't in the habit of mistreating her baby.

"I wasn't being mean to you yesterday."

"No, but Tommy and Carol were, and you let them. You didn't say anything. You didn't do anything."

"Thought you didn't care what they thought."

"I don't care what they think."

"Then what's the problem?"

"The problem, Steve," she snarled, "is that I do care what you think. And you obviously don't think much of me at all if you're willing to let them treat me that way."

"What? Come on, you're my best friend."

"Yeah? Well, sometimes you don't act like it." She shoved past him. "I have to get to class."

She still had about ten minutes to spare, but she couldn't stand to look at Steve anymore, not just then. He hadn't understood why she was mad, he hadn't even understood why she felt he'd been in the wrong. He probably didn't even understand that she was hurt by his inaction, by his not standing up for her.

Maybe he really was just a shallow, rich, white kid – or a shallow, white kid with rich parents. She didn't know if their friendship would last if that was all there was to him. She needed more than just surface emotions. She craved depth, and she just didn't know how deep Steve Harrington was anymore.
----------
Jonathan was back in school that day and Jessica kind of wished he wasn't because when she saw him at his locker she had a really hard time not letting him know that her new little group might have a lead on Will. She knew she couldn't because no one could know about El, but she also didn't mention it because . . . what if they were wrong about El knowing where Will was? Jonathan's hopes would be brought up just to be kicked back down if they didn't find him.

No matter how hard she tried to avoid Steve, she couldn't get past him at lunch. He wouldn't let her. He literally stopped her by placing his hand on the door and blocking her way with his arm. Tommy and Carol were there, but Steve told them to go on into the cafeteria. Jessica was surprised, to say the least.

"Nancy is supposed to meet me here in a few, but we need to talk."

"About what?"

"Uh . . . about yesterday, apparently."

"Okay. Listening." She crossed her arms over her chest and waited.

"You're right. I didn't do anything or say anything. I'm sorry. I . . . it obviously upset you that I didn't stop them, so I am sorry for that."

Jessica sighed, releasing some of the anger she'd been feeling towards Steve. She'd really only wanted an apology anyway, so she unclenched her fists and let her arms fall back to her sides.

"You do realize the only reason it upset me is because I will always defend you. I dare somebody to look at you funny."

"Oh, Hawkins High, beware," Steve quipped, and grinned as she slapped him on the arm playfully.

"Shut up. I could so take you."

"Sure."

Nancy met them at the cafeteria entrance and they joined the other students in the line. They were having some kind of meat that looked like it was made from gel, mashed potatoes, and some kind of green mushy vegetable, and pudding. The only things Jessica would be attempting to eat were the potatoes and the pudding.

Once seated at the table with Tommy and Carol, Nancy asked if they had seen Barb that day.

"Who?" Tommy asked, stuffing his face with chocolate pudding.

"Barbara."

"I literally have no idea who you're talking about."

"Don't be a jerk about it," Steve said. "Did you see her last night or not?"

"No. She was gone before we left."

Nancy sighed. She'd obviously been hoping for a different answer.

"She probably got tired of listening to all the moaning," Carol teased, and then in a higher pitch, "Oh, Steve. Oh, Steve."

Jessica, who had been bringing a spoonful of potatoes to her mouth but was now frozen, glanced Nancy's way. The brunette was embarrassed, but she seemed to be able to ignore Carol for the most part.

Jessica glared at Carol and gave her leg a light kick under the table to make the girl stop teasing. She did.

As far as Jessica knew, Nancy had never had a boyfriend before, let alone had sex before, and she didn't deserve to be teased for it.

"Guys," Steve said. "Come on."

Steve seemed amused and a little smug, which if Nancy had really reacted the way Carol had said, then he probably was. Jessica sent him a glare too, and he knocked it off when he met her gaze.

"I'm just worried about her," Nancy said. "With everything going on with Will . . ."

"Hey, I'm sure she's fine. She's probably just skipping."

Nancy sort of nodded, but Jessica could tell she didn't believe that. Jessica didn't either. She didn't know Barb very well, but she knew the girl seemed too straight-laced to skip school for any reason other than deadly disease.

If Barb had –

Wait . . . Steve had slept with Nancy. It hit Jessica then – hard – that Steve had slept with Nancy . . . and Nancy was having lunch with them. Steve had slept with many girls and none of them had sit with them at lunch. Steve had said that Nancy was different and maybe she was. Maybe Steve had actual feelings for Nancy.

Jessica thought Nancy was a nice girl, but she still didn't want to lose her friendship with Steve because of her. Maybe she should have another conversation with Steve – only this time she just needed him to know that he wasn't allowed to outgrow her as a friend just because he had a girlfriend now.
----------
She didn't get a chance to talk to Steve about anything important that day, however, because Tommy and Carol never left his side unless they were in class, and even after school they all met up in the parking lot. A red-headed girl named Nicole was with them, and they had congregated around Jonathan's car.

"What's this about?" Jessica asked when she reached them.

"It seems Byers' has been sneaking pictures of Nancy behind her back," Steve said, taking a seat on the back of Jonathan's car.

"What? That's . . . How? Are you sure?"

"I saw them with my own eyes," Nicole said. "Today in the dark room. He just developed them."

"Hm . . . and we're waiting around his car why?"

"To tell him to stop, obviously."

Jessica still couldn't believe what was being said. Yes, Jonathan was a keep-to-himself kind of guy, but that didn't mean creep or pervert. It was probably all a misunderstanding.

She continued thinking that even when Jonathan came out and was hassled about his backpack. Tommy had grabbed the bag from Jonathan's shoulder and had then thrown it to Steve.

"Man, he is trembling," Steve said. "He must really have something to hide."

Steve set the bag up on the car and unzipped it, pulling out a stack of pictures.

"Steve, leave them alone," Jessica said. "Just . . . put them back."

"Really?"

"Yes, re –"

Steve turned one around for her to see. The picture showed the group from Steve's house the night before. They were outside near the pool.

"That's not creepy at all," Carol complained, and for once Jessica couldn't blame her or call her a jerk. She was right – it was creepy. Why had he been close enough to Steve's yard to get pictures of the group outside his house?

"I was looking for my brother."

"No, this is called stalking," Steve said.

Jessica's gut clenched uncomfortably and she suddenly felt like she was going to throw up. She'd been nice to Jonathan, had defended him, and now here she was looking at evidence of why she shouldn't have.

It got worse when Nancy joined the group and realized what was going on. Carol handed Nancy one of the photos from the bottom of the stack. It happened to be a picture of Nancy taking her shirt off in front of the window in Steve's room. Jessica recognized the curtains.

"See, you can tell that he knows it was wrong," Steve said, "but . . . Man, that's the thing about perverts. It's hardwired into 'em. You know, they just can't help themselves."

Jonathan did know that it was wrong. He refused to meet anyone's eye – especially Nancy's – and he barely moved when Steve ripped one of the pictures into pieces and tossed them on the ground.

Jessica couldn't even be mad at Steve's actions. His privacy had been intruded upon; Nancy's privacy had been intruded upon, and Steve had every right to be upset – though she did think he was more upset because it was Jonathan who had done it rather than the fact that the pictures had been taken at all.

When Steve grabbed Jonathan's camera from his bag and threatened to drop it, however, Jessica thought he'd taken it too far. Jonathan lunged forward, but Tommy stopped him from getting any further.

"Steve, you've made your point, now give it back."

"Yeah?"

He shrugged and gestured for Tommy to let Jonathan go. He held out the camera for Jonathan to grab, but before he could, Steve let the camera fall to the ground, where it smashed to pieces.

Tommy and Carol laughed. Nicole seemed shocked. Nancy just stared at the broken pieces, and Jessica shook her head as Steve began systematically tearing all the pictures to shreds. She couldn't believe what Steve had done; he'd never actually taken a turn at vandalism before.

Once done, Steve said, "Come on, the game's about to start."

There was a basketball game being held that evening in the gymnasium. Jessica cared nothing about sports at all, and she only went to the games because Steve was on the team. She had to work that day, so she couldn't have gone anyway, but even if she hadn't been she wouldn't have gone. Not after what Steve had done.

She realized then that she hadn't moved from her spot in the parking lot, but neither had Nancy. In fact, Nancy was starring at the pile from a picture that had been taken of Barb sitting poolside with her feet in the water. Nancy knelt to pick up the pieces and then took off after Steve.

Jonathan quickly picked up the pieces of his broken camera without looking at Jessica. Despite what she'd found out, she still felt a little bad for the guy.

"I'm sorry about the camera," she said. "Really. I thought . . . I don't know what I thought, but I know I didn't think he'd do that. And you should have never taken those pictures. It is stalker-ish."

"I know."

That was all he said before he got in his car. It didn't take much longer for her to make it to her own car. Then she was on her way home.
----------
Once home, Jessica went through her normal work day routine of showering and changing into work clothes. She put her hair up in a ponytail, as she had the day before, only this time she didn't leave it messy. The only thing different about that day was the fact that Dustin hadn't made it home by the time she was ready to leave for work.

She assumed that meant Dustin was with Mike and Lucas. She hoped he was, anyway. No matter where he was, she still had to go to work.

"'Kay, Mom. I'm out."

Her mother didn't work, not really. She did arts and crafts and sold them, but the settlement from Jessica's dad's life insurance policy had set them up pretty well. The only reason Jessica was working was to teach her a little about responsibility.

The short ride to work was uneventful, spent listening to rock music, until she pulled in front of the theater and parked. Once inside the building she noticed that one of the drink machines was on the fritz. Soda was going everywhere.

Apparently, none of the buttons were working to shut the machine off. Two people were working behind the counter; one of them eventually unplugged the machine.

"What happened there?" she asked.

Bill, the manager and one of the two behind the counter at the moment, shrugged.

"The thing just started going nuts. The news people have been talking about power surges – maybe that's the problem. I don't know."

Jessica clocked in and went back out to where the tickets were sold. She was glad she didn't have to work behind the counter that day; the mess was not her problem. She only really had to work behind the counter on the weekends, the two days the theater was busiest.

She had a few people come through, mostly couples, but that was it. She got bored easily, though, on slow days, and she wasn't allowed to do homework while working. Sometimes all she did was sit there.

It could get monotonous and she felt great relief when her shift was over and she could go home. The difference that night was that once she clocked out and got to her car Steve pulled up beside her in his dad's BMW and rolled his window down. At least his parents left him a way to get around when they were gone.

He was by himself. No Tommy and Carol. No Nancy.

"Hey," he said.

"Hey. What're you doing here?"

He shrugged. "Thought you might like to hang out."

After what had happened that day in the school parking lot she wasn't sure she wanted to hang out with anyone at the moment.

"Where's Nancy?"

"She didn't go to the game either. She said she had something to do with her mom."

"Oh."

"You don't think I freaked her out, do you?"

"Freaked her out? Doing what?"

"This afternoon."

"By being a jerk? I don't know. You did smash the camera."

Steve got out of the car and made his way in front of Jessica.

"He deserved that."

"No. He didn't." Jessica sighed. "What Jonathan did wasn't right, and you were right by taking the pictures away, but you only smashed the camera to impress Tommy and Carol. It's so important to you what they think of you that you're willing to be a bully for them."

"I'm not a bully."

"No, you're not. But you are when you're with them because that's what they are."

Jessica felt tears fill her eyes and she ducked her head to hide them. She accepted a hug from him, though, when he wrapped his arms around her. It eased the need to cry, but it also helped the tears that were already there to fall. That was it. No more tears after that.

"You . . . if you had found out by yourself, you wouldn't have done that. You would've talked to him and maybe taken the pictures from him, but you wouldn't have broken the camera. That's vandalism, Steve, destruction of property."

"I know. I know . . . I've upset you again."

"Yeah."

She stepped away and took a deep breath.

"It's not just you, though, Steve. Will's missing, and Dustin went out the night he found out Will had disappeared looking for him. I think he went out again today, and I hope he's with Mike and Lucas, but I couldn't go looking for him because I had to work."

And now Barb was missing too, and Jessica was helping Mike harbor someone that was probably on the run from the government. If El hadn't been a kid, Jessica probably wouldn't have been helping her, to be completely honest, and she couldn't tell Steve any of that.

But no, it wasn't all Steve's fault that her nerves were on edge. It wasn't even Steve at all, really, because she knew how he was, and she'd never complained before – though she had felt she could plenty of times – but with everything else going on she'd been standing on a ledge and Steve was the closest thing to take her frustration out on. He was also the safest.

"For what it's worth . . . your brother's bike was in the driveway of your house. I saw it on my way here."

Relief filled her and her body releasing its tension was an almost physical thing. It was so immediate and strong that she felt as if she could just sink to the sidewalk where she was standing. Her brother was home and safe.

"Did you eat dinner before you left for work?" he asked. "We could go get some food, hang out for a bit."

That sounded so good, just her and Steve hanging out. It was what she needed.

Chapter Text

Steve and Jessica ended up at a diner that was known more for its milkshakes than its food. Still Steve ordered a large plate of fries for them to share, and they both ordered a shake – Steve a strawberry one, Jessica a chocolate one. She liked to dip the fries in the shake, to which Steve turned up his nose.

"What? It's great!"

"It's disgusting."

"It's delicious. What're you talkin' about?"

Steve shook his head, his perfect brown hair moving with the motion. He was glad Jessica had decided to come out with him that night. There had been tension between them for the past few days and he didn't like it. He understood that she was worried about the Byers' kid – not the perverted one, but the missing one – but he didn't want that to hurt their friendship.

He didn't want any of the stuff that had happened to hurt their friendship. She had learned to ignore Tommy and Carol over the years, but he knew she had never learned to accept their behavior. And Steve had never even realized how much he had become like them; it had been a gradual process, so smooth it hadn't felt like a real change at all.

"You really think I'm a bully?"

Jessica looked down at the table before shrugging and looking back at him.

"I stand by what I said earlier. You can be when you're with Tommy and Carol."

"Hm. But me and you, we're good, though, right?"

Jessica grinned slyly. "I've been going back and forth."

"Hey!"

He threw a fry at her, no ketchup – which was good because it landed in her wavy hair. She looked shocked for about two seconds, and then she began laughing.

"I can't believe you did that! What, are you twelve?"

"It made you laugh."

Steve would never admit it out loud, but he lived for moments when Jessica laughed. She was always so serious that when she really let go and had fun it was beautiful. She was beautiful.

He maybe liked his best friend a little and had for a while, but she'd never acted as if she was interested in being anything other than friends, and there was no way he was going to mess it up by asking her if she'd like to give it a try.

No. It was better to have her as a friend than not to have her at all. And he did like Nancy. It wasn't like he was playing her. She was nice and beautiful. She needed to learn to loosen up a little, but Steve did care about her. And he couldn't stay stuck on a girl who didn't want him the way he wanted her.
----------
Jessica and Steve left the diner around ten, Jessica feeling better than she had when she'd gotten off work.

"Thanks, Steve. I think I really needed this."

"Like I said, you're my best friend."

They had driven their own cars. Jessica stopped Steve before he got into his.

"Steve, I . . . This probably sounds stupid, but . . . I don't have to worry about Nancy, right?"

"What?"

"Nancy. You . . . really like her. I mean, you like hanging out with her outside of the bedroom. The other girls . . . they wanted to have fun and you wanted to have fun, and that's all it was, but you care about Nancy, right?"

"Yeah," he said hesitantly. "What's this about?"

"Well, now that you actually have a girlfriend, you're not gonna forget about me. Right?"

"What?" Steve asked again, only this time he seemed incredulous.

He wrapped her in a hug again, only this time he rocked her back and forth playfully, and she had to lean from side-to-side to go with it.

"How many times do you have to hear me call you my best friend?"

"One more time," she said, her voice muffled against his chest.

He held her slightly away from him and held her gaze with his. His eyes were a pretty doe brown – and he had killer puppy dog eyes, which wasn't fair – and they were one of the things she loved about him.

"You, Jessica Henderson, are my best friend."

He was being sincere, and it made her hug him again, this one brief but heartfelt.

"Thanks again, Steve. I'll see you tomorrow in school."

"Yeah. Parking lot like always."
----------
Jessica drove home thinking about Steve's hugs. They were always nice. Soft, sweet, and short when she needed them to be, or tight and comforting when she felt she needed to be held together. And she had definitely not been holding it together well.

Aside from the affection she shared with Dustin from time to time, she didn't really receive touches from anyone other than Steve. Her mother was verbally affectionate, but physically was another story altogether. She rarely hugged either of her children, so to say Jessica craved human contact wouldn't have been wrong. Steve craved affection too, from spending so much time alone.

As soon as she walked into her house that night she knew something was off. Dustin was still up and in the living room – and he was crying. He almost never cried; he tried to stay positive. Something had to have happened.

Dustin ran to her the moment he saw her and threw his arms around her. She returned the gesture, holding on tightly because she had no clue what to do or what was wrong. She looked at their mom, who also had tears in her eyes.

"Mom?"

"They found Will earlier tonight," she said. "In the quarry."

Dustin held on tighter. It made Jessica's chest tighten. She could tell that wasn't the whole story. Dustin wouldn't have been crying if they had found Will . . . alive.

"Mom . . ."

"It was on the news. They think the ground gave way and he fell in."

He had crashed his bike that night. Maybe Will had been wounded or disoriented and . . . Maybe Hopper had been wrong about the signs of Will arriving home that night before disappearing.

"Dustin . . . I'm sorry."

She ran her hand through his hair and squeezed tighter with the arm that was still around him.

"I told him he didn't have to go to school tomorrow if he didn't want to."

"Good idea," Jessica said. "Come on, Dustin."

She led her brother upstairs and to his room. He sat on his bed, tears falling silently. Jessica sat beside him, placed an arm over his shoulders.

"What happened?" she asked him, to which he shrugged. "Were you here when you found out?"

He shook his head. "We were at the quarry."

"What? What on earth were you doing there?"

"El."

"El led you there?"

"No. I . . . After school we picked El up, and she led us to Will's house. I don't know how she knew it was his house, but she did."

"Super powers," she reminded him, earning a very tiny quirk of his lips.

"Right. Anyway, a bunch of cop cars flew by, sirens blaring, and we followed them. They ended up at the quarry."

Dustin must've seen Will's body being dragged out. He'd probably fought tears all the way back home, and it was quite a ways away from their house to the quarry.

"I wish I could have been there with you guys. You shouldn't have been out there anyway, but I get why you were, so I wish I could have been there for you."

After a few seconds Dustin admitted that he would have liked her to have been there too.
----------
Jessica stayed with Dustin until he fell asleep – a little after midnight – and then she went back down to the living room. Her mother had already gone to bed. Jessica assumed her mother had figured Jessica would take care of it, take care of Dustin.

Well, she had done the best she knew how to, and now she wanted to relax. She put The Outsiders in the VCR and laid on the couch. She had no intention of falling asleep, not for a while. If Dustin wasn't going to school in the morning, she wasn't either. There was no way she was leaving him alone with their mom. She'd have no clue how to deal with an emotional Dustin.

So, no, she had no intention of going to school or going to sleep. She passed out, however, right before Pony Boy and Johnny decided to be heroes for the kids in the burning church. She woke up to sunshine glaring in her face, and to Dustin shaking her awake.

"Oh, what? What?"

She smacked his hand away and grunted when she realized how stiff her body was. Where was she? In what God-awful position had she gone to sleep in? And why was her neck hurting so badly?

"Jess! Lucas is waiting outside."

"So?"

"So we have to go."

"Why?"

"Will!"

Jessica's dark blue eyes snapped open and she sprang up fast enough to almost collide foreheads with her brother, but he was quick enough to back away. She realized then that she was on the couch – that was why her body was hurting so badly.

"What about Will?"

"I don't know. Mike told Lucas to come over and get me. We're heading over there. Do you wanna come?"

She assumed that meant neither Mike nor Lucas were going to school that day either – maybe they were skipping without permission.

"Yeah. Tell Lucas he doesn't have to wait outside. I'm gonna go change right quick."

"I . . . if it's okay, I'm gonna head over on my bike. That way you don't have to stick around all day if you don't want to."

"Okay."

Jessica noticed that her brother didn't seem as sad and withdrawn as he had the night before. He'd had time to process and, even though she could tell he was still more than sad, he wasn't close to tears anymore.

"Hey, leave Mom a note before you leave."

Dustin agreed, and Jessica forced herself off of the couch. Once upstairs, she checked herself in the mirror. She was still in her work clothes from the night before. That hadn't helped the comfort levels while she'd been sleeping either.

Wow, she looked a mess. Her usually beautiful vanilla caramel skin was a shade lighter than normal. It didn't make her appear unhealthy, it was just unusual for her. Her hair was all kinky curls like Dustin's. The usual waves had tangled overnight, but since she didn't have to go to school she wasn't going to worry about fixing it. She brushed it and put it up into a messy bun. She decided on a deep red sweater and blue jeans with sneakers.

She took an old beaten up leather jacket with her for later. Who knew when she would get back?

If this was about Will, she had no idea what she would be needed for other than emotional support. Mike probably wouldn't have much support in the way of his parents or Nancy – she'd never really appeared close to Mike, and she now had her own friend to worry about.

Mike probably just didn't want to be alone, and she didn't blame him. His parents' lives couldn't stop because Will had died. His mom still had to be a mom to Mike's sisters – Holly was Mike's younger sister; she barely knew how to talk yet – or if she did, she played it close to the vest.

Lucas had pretty okay parents from what Jessica knew of them. He also had a pretty awesome but annoying little sister, who probably wouldn't be much help because of her age.

The point was Jessica would be there for them because they had lost a friend. They had lost a friend that Jessica had cared about too.
----------
While Jessica was getting ready to go meet Dustin at the Wheeler's house, Steve was outside the school near the exit of the gym talking to Nancy. Apparently, while Nancy was supposed to have been doing something with her mom during the game the day before, she'd actually been sneaking around his yard and the woods around it looking for Barb. He didn't know why she just hadn't come to him. He would've searched with her.

She'd seen some creature . . . thing. It was probably just some guy in a mask, but, according to Nancy, it was definitely not a human.

"But he had no face?"

"I don't know! I don't know. I just have a terrible feeling about this."

Steve was sure Nancy was blowing everything out of proportion. She was probably overly worried because of the news about Will. This was different, though, because Barb wasn't twelve years old. She was probably – and then it hit him. Nancy was going to tell the police about Barb disappearing. She had found Barb's car parked where it had been the night of the party, so he understood why, but still . . .

"Oh, this is bad. This is really bad."

Steve leaned against the brick wall as his mind started going crazy on him. Little known fact: Steve Harrington felt anxiety too, and the fact that Barb had disappeared from a party he'd held at his house was going to drive him insane. His parents hadn't known he was going to throw it, but they wouldn't have cared. They didn't much care about anything as long as Steve didn't get in trouble.

"The cops. They're gonna wanna talk to all of us now."

"So?"

"My parents are gonna murder me!"

Nancy crossed her arms over the pink shirt she had on and glared at him.

"Are you serious right now?"

"You don't understand. My dad is a grade-A asshole."

It was true enough that Steve's dad had never left a bruise on him, but that didn't mean his dad had never laid a hand on him in anger.

"Barb is missing, and you're worried about your dad?"

That was right. Nancy didn't know because she'd never met his parents. She didn't understand what would happen if the Harrington name ended up involved in a missing person's case.

"Okay . . . Just, when you talk to the cops . . . just," he pushed off the wall – "don't mention the beer."

Nancy's glare intensified. It reminded Steve of the day before when Jessica had been scolding him for breaking the pervert's camera.

"It's just gonna get us both into trouble and Barbara's got nothing to do with it, okay?"

"I can't believe you right now." She shook her head and began to walk away. "I can't believe you."

"Nancy."

She kept walking.

"Nancy, wait."

He didn't follow her when she didn't stop going forward. What was the point? It wouldn't change anything. He still thought they were all going to get in trouble, and he still wasn't going to be able to change her mind.

And he was still disappointing the people he cared most about.
----------
When Jessica arrived at the Wheeler's her suspicious were confirmed: Neither of Mike's parents were home. Holly was probably either with her mom or at a babysitter's, and Nancy was probably at school.

The guys were in the basement, seated in front of the little fort El had used as a bed the night they had found her. She was inside the fort, playing with the walkie talkie, or radio communicator, whatever it was called. All she knew was that they each had one, and they were long-range, and it helped when they wanted to communicate when they were apart.

El was going through the channels, and every now and then the sound of a scared little boy came through – though it was more whimpering than anything else. Mike was sure it was Will. He'd first heard it the night before after getting home from the quarry.

"We keep losing the signal, but you heard it, right?"

"Yeah, I heard a baby," Lucas said. "Mike, you probably tapped into a baby monitor. It's probably the Blackburn's next door."

"Uh, did that sound like a baby to you? That was Will."

"Mike –"

"Lucas, you don't understand. He spoke last night. Words. He was singing that weird song he loves. Even El heard him."

"Oh, well, if the weirdo heard him, then I guess –"

"Are you sure you're on the right channel?" Dustin interrupted before an argument could break out.

"I don't think it's about that. I think, somehow, she's channeling him," Mike said.

"Like . . . like Professor X."

"Exactly."

"Are you actually believing this crap?" Lucas asked.

"I don't know," Dustin said. "Do you remember when Will fell off his bike and broke his finger? He sounded a lot like that."

Jessica saw the hope in Dustin's eyes and wanted so badly to feel it too. She didn't want Will to be dead – of course she didn't – but . . . there was no way Will could be communicating with them if he was dead. What was happening was that Mike wanted it to be Will so badly that he was making himself believe he was hearing him through the walkie talkie. They were hearing someone, but it wasn't Will. It couldn't be.

"Did you guys not see what I saw?" Lucas asked. "They pulled Will's body out of the water. He's dead!"

The last part was yelled, and Dustin looked down, hope dying in his eyes.

"Well, maybe it's his ghost. Maybe he's haunting us."

"It's not his ghost," Mike countered.

"How do you know that?"

"I just do!"

"Then what was in that water?"

"I don't know. All I know is that Will is alive. Will is alive!" Mike calmed down slightly. "He's out there somewhere. All we have to do is find him."

The whole time Mike and Lucas had been yelling at each other, El had continued messing with the dial of the walkie talkie. Her eyes widened a few times when their voices had gotten louder, but other than that she'd shown no sign of distress. It reminded Jessica that they had no idea of what had happened to El before them finding her, but it had not been good.

"This isn't gonna work," Mike said. "We need to get El to a stronger radio."

"Mr. Clark's Heathkit ham shack."

"The Heathkit's at school. There's no way we're getting the weirdo in there without anyone noticing," Lucas said.

"You know, she has a name," Jessica said. "Wouldn't kill you to use it."

Though El definitely wouldn't fit in at all. Girls had longer hair and didn't wear sweats to school. Plus, El didn't relate well to people. It wasn't her fault, none of it, but to pull this off she couldn't be allowed to stand out.

"We can borrow some of Nancy's clothes. Put on some makeup . . ." Mike suggested and looked at Jessica. "Help anytime, right?"

"Right." Jessica grinned. "I'm beginning to regret those words."

Her tone was light so Mike would know she was teasing, and he grinned back.

Mike led them up to Nancy's room, and Jessica told the guys to wait outside the door. She was going to find out what drawer held Nancy's underwear and she was going to guard it with her life. She felt bad enough she was going to steal some of Nancy's clothes, the least she could do was keep Nancy's dignity intact.

"Okay, guys. You can come in."

Mike seemed to at least know where Nancy kept her makeup.

El sat on the bed Indian-style, and Mike sat in front of her, a container of blush in one hand and the brush in the other. El moved away from him as soon as the brush touched her face. Mike shrugged and grinned as if he didn't understand why girls bothered with makeup either.

Mike applied the blush, just a very light amount. They didn't want El looking like a clown.

Jessica picked a nude glow type of lip gloss because Mike had gone for the ruby red kind. El was twelve, not sixteen.

Lucas found a pink dress that Jessica thought was hideous, but it had the frills most girls seemed to want to wear and the skirt was twirly. Dustin found a blond wig - this had been in a box of old things that had been lying around in the basement. That was going to be the hardest part because El had no hair to clip it to.

Once it came to El having to actually change, the guys left the room and Jessica closed the door so they couldn't peek – not that she thought they would; they were good kids.

She noticed that El couldn't take her eyes away from the door. Jessica remembered El didn't like enclosed spaces.

"It's okay," Jessica said. "It's not locked, and there's a window."

Jessica laid the pink dress out flat on Nancy's bed and looked at El.

"I think you're very brave to do all this," Jessica said. "And you're strong too, because you survived."

El looked at her and slowly walked to her. Years of mistreatment had taught her to be cautious in her movements. Jessica hoped she would learn not to be afraid around them.

When El was in front of her, she touched Jessica's hair and said, "Pretty."

Jessica's throat suddenly felt tight and clogged. She knew then that El probably thought she was ugly for all the same reasons Jessica had thought El wouldn't fit in.

Jessica tipped El's chin up so she could catch her gaze – her eyes were such a pretty light brown.

"You're pretty too. You don't need the gunk on your face or the blond hair. Okay?"

Jessica helped El into the dress, which probably would've fit Nancy perfectly with the skirt ending above the knee but came down to about mid-calf on El. She wondered what they were going to do for shoes for El.

El had a watch around her wrist, which Jessica knew belonged to Mike, so she left it there even though it clashed with the dress. Mike had given it to El for a reason.

"Okay. Let's try the wig now. This may be tricky."

The wig was tricky, and in the end all Jessica could do was make sure the wig stayed in place as long as El didn't move too fast.

When the guys saw her, Lucas seemed appeased that El would at least fit in, and Dustin's jaw dropped open.

"Wow, she looks –"

"Pretty," Mike said. Then realizing what he'd said, he added, "Good. Pretty good."

Jessica grinned but hid it by ducking her head. It seemed Mike Wheeler was definitely sweet on El. She was sure this was his first crush. Mike was a nice kid, though. El would be fine. Mike cared about her already, and there was some weird connection between them that Jessica didn't really understand but approved of anyway.

El made her way down the hallway and stopped in front of a mirror and looked at herself for a few seconds. A small smile graced her lips and she looked at Mike.

"Pretty. Good."

It almost sounded as if El were going to cry, but she kept her composure well enough. Jessica just hoped El would remember that she didn't need the getup to be pretty.

"A'right, so . . . This is where I get off, I think," Jessica said. "I can't go to school with you."

The guys nodded. They'd already known that.

"I'll try to fix Nancy's room to how it was so she won't know we were in there."

"Good idea," Mike said. "Thanks."

"Help anytime, right?" she said.

"Right." Mike smiled – a genuine full one, the kind that could sometimes lead to laughter.

As the four kids made their way downstairs Jessica heard Mike say, "Your sister is kinda cool."

"Yeah, she can be," Dustin said.

Jessica shook her head and grinned. She knew she wasn't supposed to have heard that, but she had and she appreciated the words anyway.
----------
It wasn't long after the kids left that Mrs. Wheeler and Nancy pulled up outside their house. Jessica's cherry red Chevelle was parked on the road there. Nancy wondered why she was there.

Nancy and her mother had been silent during the drive home from the school. It was barely eleven yet, but her mom had been called to the school so the police could talk to Nancy. A parent had needed to be present for some stupid reason, and now her mom knew everything. It didn't matter, really, but she'd wanted her private life to stay private.

"You lied to the police," her mother said.

"I didn't lie."

"Nancy, how naïve do you think I am?" her mom shouted. "You and Steve just talked?"

That was what her mom was worried about? Barb was missing and the only thing her mom could focus on was her relationship with Steve.

"We slept together!" Nancy screamed back. "Is that what you wanna hear? But it doesn't matter. None of that matters!"

"It matters."

"No. Barb is missing! None of that has anything to do with her. Something terrible has happened. I know it. I . . . know it, and nobody is listening to me!"

She'd explained about going to Steve's house the day before. She'd explained what she'd seen – the creature or whatever it had been – and that after that she'd found Barb's car abandoned on the side of the road, parked where Nancy had wanted to the night of the party.

The cops hadn't found anything where the car should've been, and they hadn't found anything in the woods behind Steve's house either.

Maybe she hadn't seen anything in Steve's yard – maybe she had scared herself into seeing that creature, but she had not hallucinated the car. No way. Someone had to have moved it, stolen it maybe.

The cops thought maybe Barb had come back, taken the car, and run away, but Barb wasn't like that, and Barb had been happy at home. She would have had no reason to leave.

Nancy got out of the car and slammed the door shut. If her mom wasn't going to believe a word she said, then she just wanted to be left alone.
----------
Jessica didn't know anyone was in the house until Nancy came stomping up the stairs. Luckily Jessica had put everything back where she thought everything had been and was now in Mike's bedroom. She'd rushed in there when she'd realized Nancy was home.

She'd hoped – had thought – she'd be able to get out before anyone got back. By all rights, she should've been able to have been gone, but something must have happened.

Nancy stopped at the doorway of Mike's room. She seemed upset and confused.

"Why are you here when no one else is – and in my brother's room?"

Nancy had every right to ask her that.

"Uh, Mike, Lucas, and Dustin were here and they were all upset about Will. Dustin wanted me here and Mike said it was okay, so . . ."

"Hm. Where are they now? Mike was supposed to have –"

"He changed his mind. They all left for school about twenty minutes ago."

Nancy's eyebrows rose, questioning, and she just stared. It made Jessica feel a little uncomfortable. Nancy didn't have to say anything. Her point had been made: Jessica had no reason to be there. No one had been home; she should have left once Mike had.

"I, uh . . . I don't know why I stayed. I just . . . didn't wanna go home and have to ignore what happened to Will just to please my mom."

No matter what Mike had said about hearing Will the night before, Jessica couldn't let herself believe that. Things like that didn't happen. She had gone along with it because she'd been able to tell Mike had believed it, and Dustin too, a little. She wouldn't have been able to convince them of anything else. They needed to find out that Will was really gone on their own.

"You can . . . you can stay. I don't want to be alone with my mom either."

The offer had been unexpected, seeing as to how the two girls weren't really friends, but Jessica accepted anyway. Even though she had only used it as an excuse, she really didn't want to go home to be with her mother.

Nancy turned and began walking to her bedroom. Jessica followed. Nancy tossed her bookbag on the bed and sat down.

"So . . . did school let out early or something?"

"No, I . . . the cops came to the school. They had questions about Barb."

"Oh."

She assumed that meant the police knew about the party Steve had held at his house.

"Something happened to her. I know it. She wouldn't just leave."

"I believe you." At Nancy's shocked gaze, Jessica continued. "I didn't know Barb personally, but I do know she cared about school and doing the right thing. So, you're right. She wouldn't just leave."

Nancy's eyes misted over and she busied herself with unpacking her bag. The first thing that came out was a stack of ripped up pieces of paper; the shredded picture from the day before.

"You can sit down," Nancy said.

Jessica sat beside Nancy and was able to see part of the picture that showed Barb at the edge of the swimming pool in Steve's backyard. Nancy laid that piece down and the next one. The one after that, however, was of the woods, and . . . there was something standing at the edge of them. It looked like an alien, and its head was shaped like a – well, Jessica didn't know what it was shaped like, but it definitely wasn't human. The best way to describe it was that it looked like a larger-than-life rose bud had been placed on the top of a human-shaped body.

It looked like it should've been a monster from one of Dustin's horror movies that he loved so much.

"Nancy . . ."

"I see it." She stood up. "Hold on. I'm gonna go get some tape."

Nancy headed out of the room. Her footsteps reached the stairs and Jessica heard her go down. There was a brief conversation between Nancy and Mrs. Wheeler. Jessica couldn't hear all of it, but she did hear when Nancy explained that Mike had decided to go to school after all.

Mrs. Wheeler had probably thought Jessica had been there because Mike and the others were there. Now that she knew otherwise, she would probably have questions . . . Questions that Jessica couldn't truthfully answer.

Jessica distracted herself by putting the pieces of the picture together just so Nancy wouldn't have to worry about it. She could just tape them and be done with it.

That's what Nancy did. Once the picture was put together, it was pretty obvious that, whatever the creature, was it had been going after Barb.

"I knew it," Nancy whispered. "That's the thing that I saw."

"Wait, you've seen this?"

"At Steve's. I – I went back yesterday to –"

"I get it," Jessica interrupted. "Barb's your friend."

"Right."

A comfortable silence fell between them until Jessica thought of someone who might be able to help them.

"Hey, uh . . . Jonathan took this picture. Maybe he saw something."

Nancy seemed to hesitate, and Jessica realized Nancy might not want to talk to Jonathan. He had taken pictures of her that he never should have.

"I'll talk to him if –"

"No, I . . . it bothered Steve more than it bothered me. I was just thinking about Will. Jonathan probably doesn't want to be bothered."

"True. But Will was missing and now . . ." Jessica sighed. "I think he'd help if he could. He might have seen something and didn't say anything because he thought it was too weird or that he just imagined it."

If she had seen whatever that thing was in real life, she wouldn't have told anyone. She wouldn't have believed her own eyes, so why would anyone else?

"Does . . . Steve know about this? I mean, if it's been in his yard, he could be in danger."

"I told him. He didn't believe me. I mean, he believed I saw something, but he thought I'd freaked myself out. And then he freaked out when I mentioned talking to the cops."

"His parents?" Nancy nodded. "His dad's a jerk. The only time he pays attention to Steve is when he does something his dad doesn't approve of.

"Anyway, let's go find Jonathan."
----------
Nancy hadn't seen Jonathan at school, so both girls thought it was a good idea to head to his house. Maybe they would be lucky and catch him there. They had tried calling, but the call hadn't gone though. Supposedly the number was out of service.

Now Jessica and Nancy were in Jessica's car on the way to the Byers' residence. They weren't talking, but it wasn't an uncomfortable silence. There was no pressure to fill the silence around Nancy. Jessica didn't know if that was because she didn't know Nancy very well or if it was just because Nancy was a calming presence in general, but it was nice.

Once they reached Jonathan's house they both got out of the car and went up the porch steps to the front door. Jessica had noticed that Jonathan's car wasn't in the driveway, so he probably wasn't home, but maybe his mom could tell them where to find him.

They knocked and Joyce Byers opened the door almost immediately. She seemed confused as to why they were there. She also didn't seem as upset as she should have been seeing as to how one of her children had been found dead the night before.

"Hi, Ms. Byers," Jessica said. "Uh . . . we were hoping to talk to Jonathan."

"Oh?"

Jessica saw the living room and had to refrain from reacting. The room – meaning the walls and ceiling – were covered with Christmas lights, and the alphabet had been painted on the wall opposite the door.

What exactly had Joyce been doing?

"He's – he's not here. He's probably at the funeral home."

Then why wasn't she with him? She was Will's mother, so why was Jonathan taking care of this? It wasn't his job.

"Thank you, Ms. Byers," Nancy said politely. "We'll, uh, catch up with him later."

And catch up with him they did. He ended up being at the funeral home like Joyce had said he would be, and they interrupted him in the middle of picking out a coffin.

Will, Jessica thought.

They shouldn't have been there, they shouldn't have been bothering Jonathan with this, not today of all days. But he talked to them without hesitation. He seemed to welcome the distraction.

Nancy showed him the picture and he actually listened to her without judging or treating her as if she were crazy.

"It looks like it could be an image distortion, but I didn't use the wide angle." His voice was soft and low, almost as if he were being respectful of the place they were in. "I don't know. It's weird."

He handed the picture back to Nancy.

"And you're sure you didn't see anyone else out there?"

"No. She was there one second and then . . . gone. I figured she bolted."

"The cops think that she ran away." Nancy shook her head. "But they don't know Barb. I went back to Steve's, and I . . . thought I saw something. Some weird man or –" Nancy sighed. "I don't know what it was."

"What'd he look like?" Jonathan asked. "This man you saw in the woods. What'd he look like?"

"I – I dunno. It was almost like he – he didn't have –"

"Didn't have a face?" Jonathan interrupted.

Nancy stared. "How did you know that?"

Jonathan didn't seem to want to answer, which Jessica found weird because he'd seemed so accepting about things.

"Jonathan . . . have you seen it?" Jessica asked.

"No . . . but my mom said she saw something like this. A man with no face."

Jonathan shrugged. "I might be able to focus the picture for you, but I'd have to use the dark room at the school."

"Well, I have nothing else to do," Jessica said. "Sad to say."

Nancy huffed one brief laugh. "Same."

"I have to finish ups here, but . . . after?"

They all agreed to meet at the high school. Jessica didn't know what was going on, but, apparently, talking to dead people and trying to discover monsters was a thing in her life now.

Nothing good could come from this.
----------
Because Jessica hadn't eaten breakfast, she stopped at the diner she and Steve had gone to the night before and ordered a hamburger and soda to go. She offered to get Nancy something, but she said no.

She waited until she parked in the school parking lot before eating her food. The burger was a little greasy for her tastes, but she was actually hungry so she wasn't going to complain.

She sat in silence with Nancy, music in the background, while she ate. It occurred to Jessica that despite her brother being friends with Mike she knew next to nothing about the girl, and Nancy knew next to nothing about her. The only reason they were having anything to do with each other was because some very weird stuff was going on.

By the time Jessica was done with her food, Jonathan had arrived. Jessica tossed the bag her burger had come in – and the wrapper that had been around it – on the floorboard in the back. She'd find a place to throw it away later.

On the way inside the school Nancy asked Jonathan if his mom had seen anything else, like maybe where the thing with no face had gone, but Jonathan said no.

"She said it came out of the wall."

Jessica almost stopped walking. Things were coming out of walls now? Naturally. Why not? Mike thought he was talking to his dead friend using radio waves; a girl named Eleven could move things with her mind; Nancy was seeing this creature with no face, so . . . Why couldn't things come through walls?

"What are we going to do?" Jessica asked. "With the picture?"

"Brighten and enlarge it," Jonathan answered. "It's why we need the dark room."

"How long does it take?" Nancy asked.

"Not long."

"Have you been . . . doing this a while?"

"What?"

"Photography."

"Yeah. Well, I mean . . . I guess I'd rather observe people than, you know . . ."

"Talk to them?" Nancy finished for him.

"I know it's weird."

"No," she said quickly, sounding sincere and obviously not wanting to offend him.

"No, it is. It's just sometimes people don't say what they're really thinking, but you capture the right moment . . . it says more."

"What was I saying?" Nancy teased. "When you took my picture."

Jonathan dipped his head, not in embarrassment but in guilt.

"I shouldn't have taken that." He looked at Nancy. "I'm, uh . . . I'm sorry."

Nancy accepted his apology. She had never really seemed as bothered about it as Steve had been, and if she was able to tease him about it, she'd obviously gotten past it already. Plus, Jonathan was helping them.

Once in the dark room, lit with a deep red light on the wall to the left, Jonathan was true to his word. It didn't take long. He did some technical stuff for a few minutes and then the developing picture was put in some kind of clear chemical liquid, where it floated for a few seconds before an image began to appear.

"That's it. That's what I saw," Nancy said, pointing to the picture.

What was there on this picture was a bigger version of the alien-looking rosebud-human hybrid thing they had seen in the picture of Barb with her feet in the pool in Steve's backyard. Jonathan switched the focus of the picture from Barb to the creature.

"My mom," he said. "I thought she was crazy. She said, that the body they found wasn't Will's and that he's still alive. If this thing exists and it took Will, and he's still alive . . ."

"Barbara."

Jessica shook her head. "Are we thinking this . . . thing took Barbara and Will, and that it came from the walls?"

"Maybe not the walls," Jonathan admitted. "But this thing came from somewhere."

"Nobody will believe us," Nancy said. "Which means we have to do something about it."

Jessica didn't know if she liked that plan, but if the adults weren't going to do anything, she guessed Nancy was right and they would have to.

"Well, Will's funeral is at noon tomorrow," Jonathan said. "Maybe we could meet up after and make a plan – or at least think of ways to keep this from happening again."

Nancy agreed, and Jessica did too, reluctantly.

"I'll see if I can switch shifts with somebody at work so I can have tomorrow off."

Everyone knew that Dustin was friends with Will and that, through that friendship, Jessica had grown to care for Will. Hopefully that would be enough to make her boss generous enough to switch her shift.

Chapter Text

After making a plan to meet up again the next day with Jonathan, Jessica took Nancy back to the Wheeler house. Once there, Jessica noticed her brother's bike propped up against the side of the house, near the garage.

At least he was safe. It was nearly dark now, and she was glad he'd made it back safely.

"Mind if I come in for a minute? Talk to my brother?"

Nancy shrugged. "Sure. They're probably in the basement."

Lucas's bike was there too – and Mike's, obviously. And the guys were in the basement. They were seated around the table they usually played Dungeons and Dragons around. They had the game book out in front of them, and Dustin was reading from it.

El was there also, laid out on the couch. She seemed even more withdrawn than normal. Jessica went to sit beside her as the guys acknowledged her presence.

"So, did it work?" she asked. "Did you get to . . . communicate with Will."

"The radio kept going in and out," Lucas said.

"But he did say he was somewhere like home. Like maybe his house," Mike said.

"Or maybe like Hawkins."

"Upside Down," El said.

"What?" Jessica asked.

"Upside Down," Mike said. "When El showed us where Will was, she flipped the game board over, remember? Upside Down. Dark. Empty."

Jessica remembered that El had placed Will's wizard piece on the board and that she'd also placed the weird demogorgan piece on the board with him. Did that mean the demogorgan had Will, that Will was with whatever it was, that he was still alive and that whatever had been taken out of the quarry really wasn't Will's body? Had Mike really heard him the night before?

"El took us to Will's house to find him," Mike explained. "We couldn't find him, but what if it was because he's on the other side?"

"The other side being . . . an alternate dimension?" Jessica guessed.

"Like the Vale of Shadows," Dustin said.

"And that is . . ."

"A dimension that is a dark reflection or an echo of our world. It is a place of decay and death," Dustin read from the game book. "A place of monsters. It is right next to you and you don't even see it."

"An alternate dimension," Jessica reiterated.

"But how do we get there?" Lucas asked.

"You cast Shadow Walk."

"In real life, dummy."

"We can't Shadow Walk, but . . ." Dustin looked at El. "Maybe she can."

Everyone looked at El, who was still in the pink dress from earlier.

"Do you know how we get there?" Mike asked. "To the Upside Down?"

All El did was shake her head. Jessica thought she appeared lost in thought, and maybe also a little tired. Going new places and being around people may have worn her out.

Jessica patted the young girl's leg gently. "Are you okay?"

"Okay," she said.

After about a minute of silence Jessica stood up.

"I'm going to go now. Be careful riding home, Dustin. And, uh . . . Will's funeral is tomorrow at noon. We still have to go even if . . . ya know."

The guys nodded and then Jessica made her way up the stairs. She didn't see Nancy anywhere, but Mrs. Wheeler was in the kitchen, and Mr. Wheeler was in front of the TV in the living room.

Only Mrs. Wheeler responded when Jessica told them goodbye.
----------
The first thing Jessica saw when she pulled onto her street was that the car Steve drove was in her driveway. She wondered why he was there and why he had decided to stay when he'd found out she hadn't been home.

Then again, she hadn't been at school that day aside from the time it had taken to develop that picture in the dark room, and she hadn't been home for him to call, so . . . maybe he just needed to talk.

Inside, Steve and her mom were seated in the living room. The TV was on and neither was talking, but it wasn't an awkward silence. Steve had been over too many times for them to be uncomfortable around each other. Steve still seemed relieved to see her, however, and stood up when she walked in.

Steve seemed as well put together as he normally did, but there was an anxiousness in his eyes that she saw only because she knew him so well. She wasn't sure Nancy would have been able to tell something was wrong.

"Hey," she said, letting her surprise over him being there show in her voice.

"Hey."

"What's up?"

Steve glanced at her mom and then back at her. "Can we talk?"

"Sure. Come on."

Steve had been in Jessica's room many times, and as long as the door stayed open her mother didn't care.

"So . . ."

"You weren't in school," he said.

"Yeah. 'Cause of Will."

"I figured. You okay?"

She nodded. "I'm – I'm good."

She wanted to tell Steve about what she'd been doing all day, but she knew she couldn't. One: it would put him in very literal danger if he knew of anything of what she'd been doing. Two: he would never believe her without seeing everything himself.

"Are you okay?" she asked. "Did I miss something today?"

"The cops called my parents. They're coming home early."

"Why did they –"

"They need to talk to me and since I'm not eighteen yet a parent has to be present."

Jessica knew what that meant. The party Steve had held was going to get him in trouble – not because there had been drinking, and not because a girl had gone missing from his backyard, but because it was going to inconvenience his dad.

That was what had caused the anxiety she'd seen in his eyes. Steve wasn't afraid of his dad, not really, but he still wasn't Steve's favorite person. As far as Jessica knew, Mr. Harrington had never hit Steve, though Steve may have been pushed a few times or grabbed too roughly.

Mr. Harrington had other ways to make Steve feel bad about himself: Desiring and expecting nothing less than perfection while also telling Steve he would never be enough. It really picked up when Steve let his dad know he didn't want to go to college only to follow in his footsteps. Steve did not want to work for his dad at the real estate company.

They sat on the bed then, side-by-side, and Jessica grabbed his hand. Steve was a very affectionate person, and he responded to physical touch best when it came to comfort.

"Well, you know our couch is always there if it gets too bad."

Steve nodded and squeezed her hand gratefully.

"So, when will they be home?"

"Tomorrow. They'll take me to the station, so I'm not going to school."

"Me either. I . . . Will's funeral and all."

"Right." Steve withdrew his hand from hers. "Did you want me there?"

"Are you kidding? After what happened between you and Jonathan, I don't think so."

"Well, I wouldn't be there for him. I'd be there for you."

She smiled, and her heart felt warmer inside her chest. The truth was that if she believed Will was actually dead, she would have very much wanted Steve with her at the funeral no matter what Jonathan thought, but since she now thought Will was just in another dimension – no matter how crazy and unrealistic that was – she just wanted the funeral over with.

"Thank you," she said. "I love you, and you're my best friend, but I'll be okay. I'll be there for Dustin, and then he'll probably want to go to Mike's or something. I'll call you after and see how everything went for you."

"Okay."

She laid her head against his shoulder then, and they just continued talking for a few minutes.

Steve left about an hour later seeming much more at ease. Jessica hoped he stayed that way, and that his dad didn't come down too hard on him.
----------
The next morning Jessica got up at ten, ate a half a bowl of cereal, and then got dressed in a knee-length black cotton dress. Her shoes of choice were black flats. She didn't wear makeup, but she did tame her hair into waves rather than unruly curls.

After she was done fixing herself up, she went to Dustin's room to see if he needed help. He was good aside from the bowtie. She was tempted to tell him he was on his own on that one, but, being the good sister that she was, she tried anyway. It turned out okay – not perfect, but okay.

Their mother was already downstairs waiting for them. Her eyes were misty, but she was holding it together pretty well.

The drive to the cemetery was quiet. Jessica didn't know what to say. What if she gave away the fact that she wasn't grieving the way she should've been?

When they pulled into the cemetery and parked in the designated area, they saw that about thirty people in all were there. Mike, Lucas, and their respective families were already there; Jonathan was standing with his mom and some guy Jessica assumed was his dad. Nancy was in the back of the crowd, which was where Jessica headed. Dustin went to the front, where Mike and Lucas were, and that was the last Jessica saw of him until the funeral was over.

The service itself was simple but heart-wrenching. The minister talked about people probably questioning how a loving God could take someone as young as Will. He hadn't had the chance to live yet. It was a good question, and it made many people cry, which made Jessica want to cry. She could be completely fine, but if she saw tears in someone else's eyes, or if she saw someone in pain, the dam would open up and she would cry right along with that person.

It was not a good thing when one was at a funeral, where almost everyone cried.

Once the service was over, Nancy and Jessica met up with Jonathan a little ways away – everyone else was giving out condolences and asking if Joyce needed anything, so they had plenty of time.

Jonathan had somehow gotten his hands on a small map of the town and had marked the places he knew for sure the creature had been: Steve's house, Jonathan's house, the woods where they found Will's bike.

"It's all so close," Nancy said.

"Yeah. Exactly," Jonathan agreed. "Whatever this thing is, it's all within a mile or so. It's not travelling far."

"It's probably somewhere in the middle," Jessica suggested. The marks Jonathan had made would have formed a triangle if he'd connected them. "Is there anything in the middle?"

"Woods . . ."

"You wanna go out there?"

"We might not find anything."

"I found something," Nancy reminded them. "And if we do . . . see it, then what?"

Jonathan sighed. "We kill it."

"Uh . . . how?" Jessica asked. "We don't even know what this thing is."

"My dad has a gun in the car, in the glove compartment. He carries it all the time. Ammo and everything," Jonathan said.

"Are you serious?" Nancy asked, voice raised.

"What? What, you want to take another photo of this thing, if we see it again? Yell at it?"

"This is a terrible idea."

"Yeah, well, it's the best we've got. I mean, you can tell someone, but they're not gonna believe you. You know that."

"Your mom would."

"She's been through enough."

"She deserves to know."

"Yeah, and I'll tell her when this thing is dead."

"She'll feel better once she knows she's not alone," Jessica said. "That someone believes her."

"She'll feel better once I have proof that this thing exists."

"Uh, the picture . . ."

"Pictures can be doctored. Anyway, I've gotta get back to my mom, but we should meet later on."
----------
There was a small church on the same land where the funeral had been held. Inside the church, in the fellowship hall, a small group of friends and family were getting together for food and drinks.

Joyce Byers was off by herself at a table in the corner when Jessica, Jonathan, and Nancy walked in. Jonathan went to be with her, and Jessica took off in search of her brother. She found him, along with Mike and Lucas, at a table with Mr. Clarke, their science teacher. The only reason Jessica knew him was because she'd had him for science as well when she'd been in middle school.

The three boys were asking about alternate dimensions. Luckily, Mr. Clarke loved science and all that went along with it and didn't mind talking about it. He even thought that theoretically there were parallel universes.

"They're like our world," Mr. Clarke said. "There are infinite variations of it. Which means that there's a world out there where none of this tragic stuff ever happened."

"Yeah, that's not what we're talking about," Lucas said.

"We were thinking more of an evil dimension," Dustin said. "Like the Vale of Shadows."

Luckily, Mr. Clarke was also into Dungeons and Dragons. He already knew what the Vale of Shadows was.

"If a place like that did exist, how would we travel there?"

"Theoretically."

"Well . . . picture an acrobat," Mr. Clarke said. He grabbed a pen from his shirt pocket, clicked it, grabbed a clean paper plate, and drew a line across it. "It's standing on a tight rope."

Mr. Clarke drew another line across the plate right underneath the first one. He used a stick figure to represent the acrobat.

"The tight rope is our dimension, and our dimension has rules. You can move forwards or backwards."

Jessica watched as Mr. Clarke drew an arrow on either side of the stick figure acrobat, and then as he marked the top line with what looked like a big period with antenna.

"But what if right next to the acrobat was a flea. Now, the flea can also travel back and forth. Just like the acrobat, right? But here's where things get really interesting."

Mr. Clarke drew arrows between the two lines.

"The flea can also travel on the side of the rope. He can even go underneath the rope."

"Upside down," the boys said in unison.

"Exactly."

"But . . . we're not the flea," Mike said. "We're the acrobat."

"In this metaphor, yes, we're the acrobat."

"So we can't go upside down?"

"No."

"Well, is there any way for the acrobat to get to the Upside Down?" Dustin asked.

"Well, you'd have to create a massive amount of energy. More than humans are currently capable of creating, mind you, to open up some kind of tear in time and space, and then . . ." Mr. Clarke folded his paper plate so it would be flat, and then forced his pen through it. "You create a doorway."

"Like a gate?"

"Sure, like a gate. But again, this is all theoretical."

"But . . . but what if this gate already existed?" Mike asked.

"Well, if it did, I – I think we'd know. It would disrupt gravity, the magnetic field, our environment. Heck, it might even swallow us up whole. Science is neat, but I'm afraid it's not very forgiving."

Jessica hated science, and this was exactly why. She now had more questions than she'd had before hearing all Mr. Clarke had said. She still respected him, though, no matter what subject he was teaching. He wasn't one of those condescending teachers that looked down on his or her students. He actually enjoyed teaching and cared about the kids. He loved when people took an interest in what he was teaching.

And he liked talking to his students; he tried to answer questions to the best of his ability and didn't try to talk down to the kids.

All in all, he was a pretty great teacher.
----------
Once the funeral was over, everyone went back to their respective houses. Once Jessica reached hers she called the theater, spoke to her boss, and easily got the night off. She'd never asked for time off before, which was probably why Bill had said yes.

Both Jessica and Dustin changed clothes, and then Dustin left on his bike to go to the Wheeler's. She would soon follow after in her car. That was quickly becoming a routine for them.

She tried calling Steve because she'd promised she would, and she really did want to know what had happened with him and his parents. She didn't get an answer, though, and decided she would try again at the Wheeler's.

Once at the Wheeler's, Jessica found the boys talking to El down in the basement. She suddenly felt a tad bit guilty for keeping the girl locked up down there. It was almost as if El had traded one prison for another. Then again, people were after her. She couldn't really go cruising around town. The basement was the safest place.

She was surprised they had gotten away with this for so long, to be honest.

Mike was explaining the gateway to El, who must have decided she liked the pink dress and the wig because she was still wearing them.

"What we want to know is, do you know where the gate is?" Lucas asked. When El shook her head, Lucas exclaimed, "Then how do you know about the Upside Down?"

El looked down at her hands on her lap and didn't answer. She and Mike were on the couch, while Lucas was on the chair opposite them. Dustin was off in the corner holding something in his hand and spinning around as if he didn't know which way to go.

"Dustin, what're you doing?" she asked him.

"I need to see your compasses."

"What?" Mike asked.

"All of your compasses. Right now."

It turned out that the boys had about eight compasses altogether. They spread them out over the gameboard on the table.

"Dustin?" Jessica questioned. "What're you doing?"

"The compasses . . . They're all facing North, right?"

"Yeah, so?"

"Well, that's not true north," Dustin said.

"What d'you mean?" Mike asked.

"I mean exactly what I just said. That's not true north."

Everyone just stared at him.

"Are you guys seriously this dense? The sun rises in the east and it sets in the west, right?" He'd pointed in the directions as he'd said them. Now he pointed another way. "Which means that's true north, right?"

"So, what you're saying is the compasses are broken."

Dustin looked as if he feared for Mike's intelligence.

"Do you even understand how a compass works? Do you see a battery pack on this? No, you don't, because it doesn't need one. The needle's naturally drawn to the Earth's magnetic North Pole."

"So, what's wrong with them?"

"Well, that's what I couldn't figure out, but then I remembered you can change the direction of the compass with a magnet. If there's the presence of a more powerful magnetic field, the needle deflects to that power. And then I remembered what Mr. Clarke said. The gate would have so much power –"

"It would disrupt the electromagnetic field," Mike interrupted.

Lucas followed their logic. "Meaning if we follow the compasses north . . ."

"They should lead us to the gate."

El had been silent throughout the conversation, which wasn't anything new, really, but she also seemed frightened. Jessica couldn't really blame her; they were basically talking about a rip in the universe, a hole that could lead to another, less pleasant, world, and El's world was already not a good one.

The boys made plans to follow the compasses to find where the supposed gateway was, and to enter it when they found it. El was going to go with them, of course, which made Jessica feel a little bit better because she couldn't go herself.

She had a demogorgan to find. She had been hesitant when hearing about Jonathan's plan, and she still thought it was crazy, but she had a brother to protect. A brother and his friends, who were brave enough to go after Will to try and bring him back.

This thing had already taken Will. There was no way she was letting it near her brother.
----------
The guys seemed a little disappointed when they found out Jessica wasn't going with them, but they understood once she explained why. She told them the truth. She had to. She didn't want them thinking she was ditching them now, now that they were going to actually have a chance at finding Will.

"I haven't seen this thing other than in a picture, but Nancy did. It's going between this world and the Upside Down. If you do find this gateway, don't go in. Not alone. Mark it down, and we'll all go in together to get him."

The fact that there was an actual, physical monster that could take them away from their world – or kill them – didn't deter them in any way, which Jessica could understand, because of Will, but it did make her wonder if they were taking the monster seriously.

She left the boys to it. They had to pack a few things – mostly snacks and water.

She found Nancy outside in the garage, a baseball bat in hand, Steve there leaning against the car. There was a distance between them, physical and metaphorical. They both looked her way when she went into the garage.

"Hey," she said. "I tried calling you, but I didn't get an answer."

"I was probably at the station," he admitted.

"Did you get in trouble with your parents?" Nancy asked.

"Yeah, of course, but it's whatever. Have you heard anything about Barbara? Have her parents?"

Nancy shook her head, and Jessica watched as Steve's expression softened.

"I'm sorry about yesterday. I panicked and I was a real dick."

"Yeah, you were," Nancy agreed.

Things were silent for a few seconds and, when it seemed that Nancy wasn't going to give an inch, Steve pushed away from the car. He was going to leave.

Jessica motioned to Nancy that she would be back and followed Steve out of the garage. The BMW was parked at the side of the road in front of the house.

"Hey, are you really okay?" she asked once they reached his car.

He shrugged. "Dad's angry, but yeah. Just another notch on the list of things I've screwed up."

Jessica hated that he felt that way, but he had been making mistakes left and right lately. Still, making mistakes was only human, and it didn't make him a bad person.

"You know, most parents would be angry if they found out their kid had a party at their house while they were gone, especially when said kid didn't have permission."

She said this gently, in a non-confrontational way. She knew Steve's dad wasn't angry about the party; he was angry that the Harrington name was now caught up in a scandal. Steve's parents hadn't known Barb, and probably didn't care that she was missing and probably dead. They did care about the fact that she had last been seen at their house.

"Are you grounded?"

"Not really. Got a stern talking to. They'll be gone again by tonight."

She touched his arm, smiled sympathetically, and said, "I, uh . . . I have things to do tonight with Dustin because of the funeral and all, but . . . tomorrow night I can meet you at your house. We can hang out. Just you and me."

"Sure. The other night at the diner was fun. I've missed that. The just you and me thing."

She grinned. "Not my fault. You're the one that likes to hang out with jerks."

Steve rolled his eyes. "Never gonna let me live that down, are you?"

"Not as long as you're still hanging out with them."

To be fair to Steve, he hadn't chosen Tommy and Carol; they had chosen him, had clung to him because of his parents' money and his last name. He'd just never gotten away from them – they were considered the cool kids, partiers, and it had helped Steve build an image he'd wanted. He was now realizing that image didn't really matter to him.
----------
After Steve left, Jessica spent the next thirty minutes teaching Nancy how to swing the bat correctly. She didn't know who had taught Nancy to hold the bat, but she'd been gripping it halfway down its length so that when she swung there was no power behind it at all.

About an hour after that, Nancy and Jessica met Jonathan out in a field near the woods where Will's bike had been found.

Jonathan had made a pseudo shooting range – he was trying to shoot some cans off of some logs. Trying being the operative word. If they were going to rely on Jonathan to protect them, they might want to think about getting him a different weapon, because he wasn't hitting anything.

"Isn't the point to hit the cans?" Nancy asked.

Her weapon of choice was a baseball bat, the one from the garage, while Jessica's weapon was a crowbar, which was still in the trunk of her car. It wasn't like they were going after the creature right at that moment.

"No, see the spaces between the cans? I'm aiming for those. You ever shot a gun before?"

Nancy scoffed, dropping a brown bag she'd brought with her – flashlights and things like that were in there.

"Have you met my parents?"

Jessica had never shot a gun either. She'd never wanted to, but even if she had . . . her mother hated guns.

"I haven't shot one since I was ten," Jonathan said. "My dad took me hunting on my birthday. He made me kill a rabbit."

"A rabbit?"

"Yeah. I guess he thought it would make me into more of a man or something. I cried for a week."

Jessica could see that. Jonathan was quiet and gentle, she didn't want to picture him killing anything that didn't deserve it.

"I'm a fan of Thumper." He shrugged. "He and my mom loved each other at some point, but . . . I wasn't around for that part."

Jessica didn't know Jonathan's dad. She'd moved to Hawkins after Joyce had split up with him, after he had already moved to Indianapolis. From what Jonathan had just said, she was glad she didn't know his dad.

Jonathan reloaded the gun, and Nancy asked if she could try. He handed her the gun and Nancy fiddled with it, getting the feel for it.

"I don't think my parents ever loved each other," she admitted.

"Must've married for some reason."

"My mom was young." Nancy brought the gun up. "My dad was older, but he had a cushy job, money. He came from a good family. So, they bought a nice house at the end of the cul-de-sac and started their nuclear family."

"Screw that," Jonathan said.

"Yeah. Screw that," Nancy agreed.

She stuck her tongue out in concentration, aimed at one of the cans, and pulled the trigger. She hit the target on the first try.

"Whoa," Jessica said. "I think we've found our gun slinger."

Nancy and Jonathan seemed to agree, and they all started back to their cars, Nancy grabbing her bag and putting it back on her shoulders before heading off.

On the way, Jessica thought about what Nancy had said about her parents and wondered if Nancy knew that she was headed in the same direction. She wasn't saying Nancy didn't care about Steve, but the pattern was the same. He was older than Nancy, his parents had money, and he would have a cushy job if he did what his dad wanted and went into the real estate business. And they probably would have a house at the end of a cul-de-sac if they ever got married and had kids.

"You never said what I was saying," Nancy said. "Yesterday, you said I was saying something, and that's why you took my picture."

"Oh, uh, I don't know. I guess . . . I saw this girl, you know, tryin' to be someone else. But at that moment, you were alone, or you thought you were, and, ya know, you could just be yourself."

Nancy didn't seem to like that answer at all. She even turned to face Jonathan, to confront him.

"I am not trying to be someone else. Just because I'm dating Steve and you don't like him –"

"You know what? Forget it. I just thought it was a good picture."

"He's actually a good guy."

"Okay."

"Yesterday, with the camera . . . he's not like that at all. He was just being protective."

"That's one word for it."

"Oh, and I guess what you did was okay?"

"No. I – I never said that."

"He had every right to be angry."

"Okay. All right. Does that mean I have to like him?"

"No."

"Listen, don't take it personally, okay? I don't like most people. He's in the vast majority."

Jonathan began walking away. Jessica was glad. Not for the first time, she'd begun to feel that she didn't exist when she was with Nancy and Jonathan, but . . . Nancy began talking again.

"You know, I was actually starting to think that you were okay. I was thinking, 'Jonathan Byers, maybe he's not the pretentious creep that everyone thinks he is'."

"Yeah, well, I was starting to think you were okay. I was thinking, 'Nancy Wheeler, she's not just another suburban girl who thinks she's rebelling by doing exactly what every other suburban girl does. Until that phase passes and they marry some boring one-time jock, who now works sales, and they live out a perfectly boring little life at the end of a cul-de-sac. Exactly like their parents, who they thought were so depressing, but now? They get it'."

It was almost dark now, and the three teens were near the cars. Jessica heard what sounded like a whimper, and she stopped in her tracks. Nancy seemed to have heard it too. Jonathan only stopped because they did.

"What is that?"

They followed the sound for a few minutes until they came across a wounded deer. The poor thing had either been hit by a car or attacked by something. There was blood on its neck and belly, and it was just lying there barely moving at all.

"We can't just leave it," Nancy said.

She brought the gun up but, even knowing the deer was suffering, she couldn't bring herself to shoot it. Jonathan took the gun from her and took a deep breath. Jessica began to turn away because she didn't want to see any of what was going to happen, but . . .

Jonathan didn't have to shoot. Something pulled the deer away. She didn't see what it had been, but whatever it was had to be strong to pull the deer. It had to have been fast too, for it to have moved without being seen . . . Unless whatever it was had powers like El.

Nancy pulled a flashlight from her bag, and passed it to Jonathan, pulled another one out, passed it to Jessica. The last one she saved for herself.

"Where'd it go?" Nancy asked.

"I dunno."

There was no sign of the deer, but there was a clear blood trail. Jessica began to have serious doubts about trying to find this thing, whatever it was. If it could do this . . . what chance did they have, and she didn't even have her weapon.

They followed the blood trail to the end and then they just looked around. No deer, no anything. The trail just stopped. Maybe the thing had hopped dimensions or something.

Nancy was the first to notice where the deer may have been dragged off to. There was a hole in a nearby tree, but it didn't belong in the tree. It was big enough for the deer to have gone through, and it was damp, liquid drip-dropping everywhere.

"Jonathan?" Nancy called out, but he'd already begun looking in another direction.

Nancy shook her bag off her shoulders and leaned forward, as if she were planning to go in. If this was what Jessica thought it was – a way into the Upside Down – they couldn't just go in. Neither one of them had a weapon. Nancy hadn't gotten the gun back from Jonathan once he'd taken it to shoot the deer.

"What're you doing?" Jessica asked, grabbing her shoulder. "You can't go in there, not by yourself."

"So come with me," Nancy said.

"We really should wait for Jonathan. He has the gun."

Nancy shook her head and dropped to her knees. She began crawling forward. Jessica also dropped to her knees to follow Nancy even though she thought this was probably the stupidest thing she'd ever done. Why had she ever thought this was a good idea? Going after some creature that had kidnapped two people and maybe killed one of them? Yeah, really smart idea.

The two girls ended up crawling through what appeared to be really slimy spiderwebs, only the material was thicker, denser. It reminded Jessica of the cocoons she'd seen in movies about people being abducted by aliens only to wake up in a spaceship laboratory.

"I think I'm gonna throw up," she said.

They eventually came out of the tunnel and stood up. The tunnel had taken longer to get out of than it should have if they'd only had to crawl the circumference of the tree trunk, and now they were in some other place – a dead, dark place. Some kind of ashy substance was floating in the air, and they probably should not have been breathing it in.

"Nancy, let's go back. This is not right. We should not be here."

"Barb –"

"Is probably dead! Now let's go."

Jessica even turned to go back. If Nancy wanted to stay and get killed, that was her prerogative. But as she turned she noticed that the opening they had come through was closing, and it was now too small for them to get through.

"Nancy . . . if we get stuck here, I'm letting that thing eat you."

"What?"

"Look."

Jessica pointed at the even smaller opening and felt a small amount of satisfaction as fear crossed Nancy's face. Maybe the girl was finally seeing the seriousness of the situation. They could die there, wherever they were.

They seemed to still be in the forest, just not the one they had been in a few minutes before. They were in the Upside Down. Jessica was sure of it, and maybe they were stuck there. Like Will was stuck . . . Maybe they could find Will while they were there.

"I think we're still in Hawkins," she said. "Just on a different level of existence. We're still in the woods, just . . . not ours."

"We should look for another way out."

"Yeah. Well . . . we know the Byers' house is a hot spot, that the thing was able to get through the wall. Maybe we can too, if we can find the house."

The flashlights weren't working, however, and Jessica thought it had something to do with the atmosphere, like maybe batteries didn't work in the Upside Down or something.

It wasn't five minutes later that they heard a wet chewing sound. They had found the creature, and it was feasting on the deer it had drug there. Jessica didn't know if it was evil, but it was definitely a predator. The fact that only two people had gone missing and that it was willing to eat an animal could mean that it hunted only when it was hungry. Considering there seemed to be nothing left alive in this dimension, it was no wonder that it had to travel somewhere else to eat.

Nancy and Jessica stood still, just staring for about a minute, and then they began backing away. Nancy stepped on a twig and it snapped, causing the creature to jerk its head toward them. It didn't growl or roar. It shrieked, which was scarier in Jessica's opinion. She recognized it from the night she'd found the boys in the woods. The thing had been so close to them that night.

"Run!" she yelled.

They both took off, and Nancy began calling for Jonathan. At first Jessica didn't understand why, because Jonathan wasn't there in that dimension, and all Nancy was doing was giving the creature a sound to track them by, but then she remembered that Joyce had been able to hear Will sometimes because he'd been able to communicate somehow. Jonathan might be able to hear them if there was an opening somewhere

The problem remained, however, of the thing being able to follow the sounds of their voices. But they could hear it too, and this time it was growling.

This thing was probably only defending its territory, but Jessica didn't care. She didn't want to die.

They needed to get out of there.

Chapter Text

Jessica and Nancy had been in the Upside Down for a grand total of maybe twenty minutes when Jonathan's voice led them back to their world. Nancy was sobbing and had pretty much started clinging to Jonathan's neck. Jessica wasn't sobbing. She didn't feel much of anything at all besides a burning desire to get out of those woods.

"I'm going home," she said mechanically. "I have to – my brother."

Dustin and the others had gone looking for an opening. What if they'd found one? What if they'd found one and were stuck in the Upside Down right at that moment?

"You need to check on Mike," she told Nancy. "He and the others know about that place. He – they've heard Will . . . on the walkie-talkie. They went looking for him."

Jessica realized that until just then she'd always, in the back of her mind, believed that they'd only heard Will because they'd wanted to, and that maybe the thing in Nancy's picture was really just an image distortion like Jonathan had suggested at first. She couldn't believe that now.

"You heard Will?" Jonathan asked.

"Well, Mike did. Or . . . he heard a boy singing that Clash song he likes so much." She knew Jonathan probably had questions, and so would Nancy, but she couldn't stick around to answer them. "I'm going home. Come on, if you want a ride, Nancy."

With that, Jessica took the lead and she made it back to the cars before the other two. It didn't matter because Nancy got a ride home from Jonathan. That meant Jessica could just go straight home to check on Dustin. That was better, really.
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On the way home Jessica had to pull over on the side of the road because even though she hadn't felt like crying before she did feel like crying then and she'd rather do it alone in her car than at home in front of her mom or Dustin. Her mom wouldn't understand, and Dustin would want to know what was wrong, and how would she explain?

It had just hit her that she could have died that night. She could have disappeared that night, and no one would have known what had happened to her. Her mother would've lost a daughter, and Dustin would've lost a sister. Steve would have lost his best friend. She would have ceased to exist in her true world, and there had been no guarantee she would have survived in the other.

She wasn't even eighteen and she'd been through one of the scariest things anyone could claim to have been through, and she was just done. Done with it all. It was interesting while it had lasted, but she was not killing herself over this. She liked Jonathan and Nancy, but they had all been stupid doing this. She understood why they had, but it had still been stupid. She wanted nothing else to do with it, and she was going to keep Dustin away from it too.

She couldn't lose Dustin the way Jonathan had lost Will.
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When she got home she felt herself loosen with relief at the sight of her brother's bike in the driveway. At least he'd made it home safely.

Once inside the house she found her mother on the couch in front of the TV. Her mother glanced up at her and then went back to watching the TV before looking at her again.

"Why're you so dirty?"

"What?"

"You look like you've been rolling around in the mud."

She hadn't even noticed, to be honest, but she was filthy. Her skin, her clothes, she didn't even want to think about what was in her hair and under her nails. She hoped she hadn't brought any Upside Down germs with her. That was the last thing she needed, to come down with some incurable disease.

"I was with Nancy on the trail in the woods and I fell . . . in the mud, like you said. I'm okay. Just learned not to play in the forest at night."

"Don't forget to throw your clothes in the wash."

"Yeah, sure."

Who was she kidding? Jessica wasn't going to wash her clothes. She was going to throw them in the fireplace and burn them.
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Dustin was already in his room, though he was not asleep. He was still dressed from earlier after he'd changed from the funeral clothes. He took one look at her and asked what happened.

She quickly shut the door and sat on the bed beside Dustin.

"I saw it. Tonight. In the woods. The thing that took Will."

"What?" Dustin's eyes lit up. "What did it look like?"

"I – I don't know how to describe it. An alien, or . . . I don't know, but it definitely wasn't from here. It has a human-like body except its arms are too long, and the head kind of looks like a rosebud before it opens up."

After a few minutes of Dustin asking more questions about the thing than Jessica had the answers to, she asked him one.

"How did it go with you guys?"

"We got nothing. El led us in a circle."

Dustin then went on to explain how El had been controlling the compasses earlier that day. They'd walked the train tracks for hours only to come out at an old abandoned junk yard. The only reason they'd even figured it out was because Lucas had noticed El's nose bleeding – or noticed the fresh blood on the sleeve of her jacket.

Mike defended El, which Lucas hadn't appreciated, and the two boys had gotten into a physical fight that had ended in El using her powers to throw Lucas off of Mike. Lucas had landed on the ground, but his back had hit an old, broken down truck first.

"Is he okay?"

Dustin nodded. "I think his pride was hurt more than anything else. Anyway, Mike yelled at El for using her powers on Lucas, and she took off."

"What?"

"Yeah. She's gone. Mike didn't mean to yell –"

"He shouldn't have yelled. She probably got scared because he was mad at her. Wherever she came from, I can almost promise that nothing good ever came from someone being angry at her."

Dustin nodded, as if he understood. He probably did. He was pretty perceptive for a boy his age.

"It's just we thought she was trying to help us find Will."

"Yeah. You guys quit that. It's not safe."

"That's what El said."

"She would know. Maybe she took you in a circle because she was trying to keep you safe."

Jessica sighed and turned to face her brother fully. She placed her hands on his shoulders. She needed Dustin to know how serious she was.

"Dustin . . . you can't do this anymore. I . . . I found an opening tonight, Dustie, and I went through it. I went through it, and that thing was there. It was feeding on a deer. I could've died. Everything's dead over there, Dustin."

Even though she hadn't wanted to cry in front of him she began to cry anyway. She knew it made him uncomfortable because she was his sister. He wouldn't just treat her as one of the guys, but he didn't know how to comfort her either.

"Are you . . . okay?"

"No, I'm – I'm terrified. I went to another world and if – if I hadn't been with Nancy and Jonathan, I probably would've been stuck there. It was dark and empty, like Will said. There was nothing there but that thing."

She dropped her hands to her lap. "I'm sorry about Will, Dustin, but unless we can find an opening near where he is over there . . . I don't think we'll be able to get him back."

She wrapped an arm around his shoulders and he allowed her to ruffle his hair when he laid his head against her. She stayed with him for a few minutes to let everything sink in, but then she went to take a very hot and cleansing shower.

The jacket she'd been wearing was filthy, and there was a rip in the arm. She didn't know when it had happened or how, but now it almost made her cry because it had been her father's jacket, and it was the only thing she had of his. It was about two sizes too big, but she loved it. Now she would probably have to trash it. It did make her cry once she was in the shower, warm water soothing out the knots in her body. Physically she felt okay, but emotionally she was a wreck, and she found herself just wanting Steve there even though he knew nothing about what was going on – or maybe because of it, she didn't know. He would make her feel better, though. Sure, he would want to know what was wrong, but he would also just goof off with her until she was smiling again – or at least not close to tears.

Not long after her shower she got a call from Nancy, who claimed she couldn't sleep. Jessica probably wouldn't be able to either, but her hair was still wet so she hadn't tried.

Jessica had a phone line in her room that she almost never used because she almost never talked about anything she didn't want anyone else to hear, but that was not the case this time. She closed the door to her room so no one could hear, especially Dustin.

"I was thinking about what you said about Barb."

"Hey, I shouldn't have said that. I was just trying to get you to leave." She really did feel bad about saying what she had even if she did think that it was true.

"If she's not dead, then she's trapped in that place. We have to find that thing again."

"What? And do what? Almost die again? I'm not going back out there. Neither should you."

"Maybe we don't have to. It's a predator, and it hunts at night like a lion or a coyote, but it doesn't hunt in packs like them. It's always alone, like a bear."

"Okay . . ."

"Sharks can detect blood in one part per million, that's one drop of blood per million, and they can smell it from a quarter mile away."

"So, you're saying it can detect blood?" That was definitely not Nancy's voice. That was Jonathan's voice.

"Nancy, why is Jonathan still at your house?"

"I didn't want to be alone. Anyway, the predator thing is just a theory."

"We could test it, but if it works . . ."

"At least we'll know it's coming."

"How exactly do you plan on testing this out? It's not like one of us is going to cut open a vein to draw it out."

When Jessica was met with silence, all she could say was, "No way!"

"This thing hunts at night, right?" Nancy asked. "Well, tomorrow night we'll look for Will at his house. He's communicated there plenty of times. Maybe we can get him out."

Of course they had to play the Will card, and of course she would help if there was a real chance to find him. She'd freaked out earlier and backed out because . . . well, it was the smart thing to do, wasn't it? She still didn't want Dustin anywhere near it. Besides, if they could get rid of the thing, maybe they would be able to find Will and Barb without having to worry about it.

"I'm so gonna regret this, but . . . okay. I'm working tomorrow from two to eight, so wait until I get off and I'll meet you at the house."

"Meet us in the morning at the supply store. We can get a few things we may need to face this thing."

"Like dynamite, maybe?" Jessica asked, only half joking.

"Hey, we are not blowin' up my house," Jonathan said, causing Jessica to realize that he hadn't only been listening to Nancy's side of the conversation.

"Why not? We find this thing and kill it, we'll probably make enough money that you'll be able to buy a new one," Jessica teased. "Anyway, see you guys in the morning. Is ten okay?"

They all agreed it was.
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Dustin was already gone when Jessica awoke the next morning. She figured he'd gone to Mike's. She hoped they had a plan to find El, and that Mike and Lucas would work things out. Mike needed to understand that Lucas was probably jealous. Mike had never really had a crush on someone before, and now he was paying a lot of attention to El, someone he had met only a few days ago. Lucas probably felt as if he were losing his best friend.

Lucas and Mike had been friends before Jessica and Dustin had even moved to Hawkins. It had been Mike, Lucas, and Will for the longest time, but they had allowed Dustin to join their circle fairly easily once they found out that they had so much in common, science-wise.

So, yes, Lucas probably felt jealous and a little hurt, and Mike needed to realize that. But Lucas needed to realize something too. Mike could like a girl and still be friends with him.

Jessica left her house around nine-thirty, grabbed an apple from the kitchen on the way, and reached the Supply Store at the same time as Nancy and Jonathan.

Jessica's eyebrows rose as she wondered whether Jonathan had spent the night at the Wheeler's, in Nancy's room. It wasn't her business, so she didn't ask, but she still wanted to know – mostly because Nancy was with Steve, so she shouldn't have had another guy in her room.

"Hey," she said.

She noticed that Nancy had dark circles around her eyes. It appeared she hadn't slept very well even after having talked on the phone.

"Hey," the other two said.

"This shouldn't take long," Jonathan added.

"Good."

Inside the store, right inside the door, was the head of a bear, its mouth open in a roar. Jonathan went past it and headed straight for the aisle where the gas cans were on display.

"So we can't blow his house up, but we can set it on fire?" Jessica quipped, and Nancy grinned.

"It's for the thing."

"Right."

Jessica followed Nancy, who picked up a handful of huge nails and a hammer.

"I don't think you want to get close enough to hammer nails into this thing."

"They're for the bat."

"Hm. I don't want to get close enough to use a bat either."

"Yeah." Nancy stopped walking and turned to face her. "We're all scared, Jess."

"Right." Jessica's eyes began to burn with unshed tears. "It's just . . . whatever this is . . . this thing, it's not supposed to exist, and here we are planning to lure it out and kill it, and we can't tell anyone. And we're just teenagers, and Dustin's just a kid and he was planning on going after it too. What if he had found the opening last night instead of us? What if Mike had?"

"But they didn't," Jonathan said from behind her, placing a hand on her shoulder. "Besides, we know there's a way back now. If they had found a way in . . . we would have gotten them back, just like we're gonna get Will back."

Jessica nodded, sniffled, and took a deep breath.

"A'right. I hear you. I'm just a little freaked out."

They picked up a bear trap and some lighter fluid. Jessica added a machete to their supply list. On the way to the checkout counter, Nancy picked up a high-powered flashlight. They had lost theirs the night before in the woods. At the counter, Jonathan picked up four boxes of .38s.

The guy behind the counter asked what they were doing with the stuff they were buying, and Nancy actually said they were monster hunting. The guy basically rolled his eyes and then rang them up.
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"Monster hunting?" Jonathan asked as they took the stuff to his car and put it in the trunk.

"You know, last week . . . I was shopping for a new top I thought Steve might like. It took me and Barb all weekend. It seemed like life-and-death, you know? And now . . ."

"You're shopping for bear traps with Jonathan Byers."

"Yeah."

"What's the weirdest part? Me or the bear trap?"

"You. Definitely you," Nancy said almost immediately, but there was no malice in her voice.

"What I find weird is dressing for someone other than yourself," Jessica said. "I've never given a second thought to what anyone thinks about my clothes."

Just then a guy in a red Mustang drove by and beeped. He shouted at Nancy – something about a movie.

"What was that?" Jonathan asked.

"I don't know," Nancy said, but Jessica heard the worry in her voice.

Nancy looked in the direction she would have to go if she were going to the theater and then began running towards it.

"Nancy, wait!" Jonathan said, and began to follow.

Jessica sighed and took off after her two new friends. Why was there so much drama in her life? She used to be so good at avoiding it, and now . . .

She passed a doughnut shop and a furniture store, and then crossed the street to reach the theater. Nancy was staring up at the marquee, which showed the name of the new movie playing that week, All the Right Moves, in black letters. Underneath that, in red spray paint, were the words Starring Nancy 'The Slut' Wheeler.

Nancy had tears in her eyes and Jessica tensed as a red, hot anger filled her. Tommy and Carol must've decided to get at Nancy about sleeping with Steve even though it wasn't any of their business. Had she made them angry or something? Not that they should have done this at all, but there had to be a reason, right?

"Nancy, don't – don't look at it. It doesn't matter. It'll wash, and other people will forget about it the next time someone does something worth talking about."

The reason Jessica had said other people would forget was because she knew Nancy wouldn't. Tommy and Carol were –

A laugh came from the alley beside the theater, so Jessica headed that way, along with Nancy and Jonathan. She hadn't expected to find Tommy and Carol. She really hadn't expected to find Steve there. Nicole was along for the ride.

Tommy was using a spray can – caught red handed, so to speak. Jessica hoped Steve had only just arrived, and that he didn't have anything to do with what was written on the theater marquee. She almost prayed he had nothing to do with it, while already trying to brace herself for that fact that he probably had.

"You're writing is terrible," Carol told Tommy.

When Carol noticed their presence she said to Nancy, "Hey, there, Princess." Tommy added, "Aw, she looks upset."

Jessica noticed that Tommy had been spray painting 'Byers is a perv' on the alley wall. He'd been doing that, and Steve had let him. That just added weight to the thought that he'd let Tommy write about Nancy too.

Nancy, who had stomped right up to Steve, now slapped him right in the face. Jessica felt no desire to come to his defense. She felt he deserved whatever Nancy threw at him.

"What's wrong with you?" Nancy demanded.

"What's wrong with me? What's wrong with you? I was worried about you. I can't believe that I was actually worried about you."

"What're you talking about?" Nancy asked.

Jessica shared a look with Jonathan, who seemed upset for Nancy, but also confused. It seemed all three of them were at a loss. The others knew something they didn't.

"I wouldn't lie if I were you," Carol said. "You don't wanna be known as the lying slut now, do you?"

"Steve?" Jessica spoke up. "What's going on? Why are those words up on the place where I work? By the way, vandalism is a crime, you know? Hate to have your parents have to come back into town right after they just left last night, especially after they had to come back once already because you couldn't keep your crap together."

She hated bringing that up, but if her boss called the police and she was asked about it, she wouldn't lie just to protect Steve, not when he was actually guilty.

Steve seemed wounded by her comment and she hated having brought up his parents even more, but she wouldn't take it back.

Nancy figured it out before Jessica or Jonathan did, and she asked Steve, "Did you come by last night?" When Steve just continued staring at her, Nancy continued. "Look, I don't know what you think you saw, but it wasn't like that."

"Yeah, I'm sure you let him in your room just to . . . study."

"Or for another pervy photo session," Tommy said.

"We were just –"

"Just what?" Steve asked. "Finish that sentence."

The thing was . . . Nancy couldn't honestly finish the sentence. Jessica could see how Steve had jumped to the conclusion he had, especially if he'd seen Nancy and Jonathan together the night before. And he had a thing about cheating, anyway. It was one of his insecurities, because he'd grown up knowing his dad cheated on his mom. He still had no right to do what he'd done, even if Nancy had done what Steve seemed to think she had, which she hadn't.

"Finish. The. Sentence," Steve said again, staring Nancy down. When she couldn't, he turned away from her. "Go to Hell, Nancy."

"Come on, Nancy. Let's just go," Jonathan said, and grabbed her arm to gently pull her away.

"You know, Byers, I'm actually a little impressed. I always took you for a queer, but I guess you're just a little screw-up like your father."

Steve pushed Jonathan, not hard enough to make him fall, but enough to make him stumble a little.

"That house is full of screw-ups." Steve pushed him again. "I guess I shouldn't be surprised. I mean, a bunch of screw-ups in your family. Your mom . . . I'm not even surprised what happened to your brother."

"Steve! Stop!" Jessica shouted. She didn't want to hear the words coming out of his mouth. She couldn't believe he was saying them, not her Steve. He wouldn't, but Tommy's and Carol's would. "Please stop."

"Why? Because you're asking me to, Golden Girl?"

Her breath caught in her throat painfully – he'd never called her that in a derogatory way, in an insulting way until just then - and she whispered, "Yes."

"Well, I hate to be the one to tell you this, but the entire Byers family is a disgrace to –"

And with that Jonathan had had enough. He threw a punch that landed on Steve's jaw. It was powerful enough to make Steve lose his balance and have to catch himself on the wall. It wasn't powerful enough to make Steve fall down, though, and he quickly tackled Jonathan to the ground and they both began wrestling, neither guy really landing any blows at first.

It wasn't until Carol and Nancy started screaming that Steve tried to get up, and Jonathan punched him again. This time Steve did fall, and Tommy tried to get involved. Steve wasn't really hurt, however, and he really wanted Jonathan for himself, no help from the others, so he told Tommy to stay out of it.

Steve hit Jonathan again, not enough to fell him, and then Jonathan just started waling on Steve, hard enough that Steve couldn't get up between hits.

"Jonathan, stop!" Nancy screamed. "You're gonna hurt him."

It was true. And though Jessica hadn't liked how Steve had been acting, and even though he'd deserved a punch or two, she didn't really want him hurt. She didn't actually want to get involved either, though, because she could get hurt if she got between them.

Someone must've seen the fight and called the police, because Jessica suddenly heard sirens. Tommy suddenly grabbed Jonathan and screamed, "He's had enough, he's had enough!"

Since Tommy had Jonathan, Jessica quickly went to Steve to help him up. He was able to stand easily enough, and she pulled him to the side so he could lean against the wall. His lip was busted, and there was blood coming from his eyebrow. There were other bruises and cuts, but his lip and brow were the worst of it.

"You deserved some of that," she told him. Even so, she touched his cheek – the one that had taken the least amount of damage. "You owe Nancy an apology. She's not sleeping with Jonathan, and there was a reason he was with her last night."

"You knew?"

"Not until . . . I mean, I knew he was over there last night, but I didn't know he'd spent the night until this morning."

"How do you know what they were doing last night? I thought you were going to be with Dustin all day yesterday?"

"I – I was, but he wanted to spend time with Mike and Lucas, so I hung out with Nancy and Jonathan."

"Yeah, and since when are you friends with Nancy?" He was being so defensive, she really didn't know what to do.

"Um . . . two days ago? Maybe. I don't know. I'm helping her with something, and we may not even be friends after that, but she's okay. And not a slut."

A cop car pulled into the alleyway, parked, and two cops got out. Tommy, Carol, and Nicole took off, grabbing Steve on the way, so that only Jessica, Jonathan, and Nancy were left behind. In the end, Jonathan was taken in because he pushed an officer away when the guy began checking him over. Jessica didn't really think it had anything to do with the officer being pushed. It was more to do with the fact that the police officer escorted them back to their cars to make sure that the others didn't come back, and each of their cars had to be checked. The cops found the supplies in Jonathan's trunk and had some serious questions for him.

Because Jessica and Nancy had been with Jonathan, they got taken in too. Jessica was going to kill Steve the next time she saw him, she really was.
----------
"I gotta go home and change for work," Jessica told the dispatch woman at the police department. Jessica was pretty sure the woman's name was Flo. She was a sweet black-haired lady.

"Work can wait," she said.

Jessica thought it really could. If she went in, she would have to help wash those stupid words off of the marquee, and she didn't want to be responsible for that. Every time she thought of the red paint and the words they spelled out she felt a surge of anger unlike anything she'd ever felt before.
She couldn't believe Steve had allowed Tommy to do what he'd done. She really couldn't. She also couldn't believe that she'd been craving Steve's company the night before. When had he become this person? This guy who would allow his friends to disrespect his girlfriend that way?

"How long are we going to have to stay here?" Nancy asked after they had been there for almost an hour.

Chief Hopper wasn't in the office at the moment and Jonathan would have to wait to talk to him before he could leave. The cops who had brought them in – Jonathan in a cop car, Jessica and Nancy in their own cars – didn't want Jonathan leaving until Hopper got to look at the supplies from Jonathan's trunk.

They'd been waiting anyway, so Hopper could get statements from all three of them, but it didn't look like he was going to be back any time soon, so now Flo was fixing some ice for Jonathan, whose cheek was beginning to swell.

"You guys will be able to leave as soon as you fill out a formal statement about what happened. It shouldn't take more than a half-hour." To Nancy specifically, she said, "Your boyfriend, however, is being held for assault on a police officer."

"He's not my boyfriend."

"Well, you should tell him that. Only love makes you that crazy . . . and stupid."

Jessica sighed. "He didn't even hurt the guy, he barely touched him."

"He still pushed a police officer."

Flo handed Nancy the ice, which was wrapped in a towel, and then took them back into the main room of the police department so they could write up their statements. Jessica was pretty sure they were supposed to have parents present but was glad no one had been called.

Jessica didn't lie on her report, but she held back a little. She did put that Jonathan threw the first punch, but Steve provoked him verbally and physically

She regretted threatening to get Steve in trouble now that she really was filing a report against him. She regretted even more bringing up his parents. They would probably be called now that the police were getting statements about how he started all this crap, and he was going to really get it if his dad had to come back after having just left.

Chapter Text

Jessica couldn't get her mind off of what Steve had been a part of. He'd allowed Tommy and Carol to paint those awful words in a place where anyone could see them – they were on the main street in town. He'd let them do it even though he'd claimed to actually care about Nancy. He shouldn't have done it to anyone, but definitely not to someone he had feelings for.

What if it had been her? Steve . . . would he have let Tommy and Carol say those things about her if she'd done something he didn't like? He already allowed them to treat her as an outsider just because she wasn't a partier and didn't get stupid-drunk when she did hang out with them at parties.

On the drive home from the police station Jessica's anger pretty much dissipated, but her disappointment remained as strong as ever. Steve Harrington was not this person; she didn't want him to be this person, someone who would break other people's stuff, someone who would lash out just because things weren't going his way.

Why was she still friends with him? They hadn't been Steve and Jessica in so long she barely remembered what it felt like. No, she had just been the girl who hung around three of the cool kids in eleventh grade.

At home, she made herself a sandwich, ate only half of it, and then went upstairs to dress for work.

She told her mom that she wouldn't be home right after work because she was hanging out with friends.

"Steve?"

"No, Mom. Other people. Nancy Wheeler and Jonathan Byers. I'll call if I'm gonna be out past midnight."
----------
When Jessica parked her car in front of the theater she saw that Bill, her boss, was in the middle of washing the paint off of the marquee. He was up on a super-high ladder and his eyes practically lit up when he spotted her getting out of the car.

Great. She knew what she would be doing for most of her shift. Standing on the top rung of a ladder trying to keep her balance while washing off those stupid words. She hated heights; she was terrified of them.

If she fell and killed herself, she was going to haunt Steve Harrington forever.
----------
A few blocks over, Steve was sitting on the trunk of his car outside a Fair Mart convenient store. Tommy had gone in to get him some Aspirin and a soda. Steve's head was killing him where Byers had nailed him right above his left eyebrow. His lip and nose were busted, and there was a slash across his cheek.

"Don't worry," Tommy said once he came back out. "He'll need more than Aspirin when we're done with him."

"If the creep ever gets out," Carol added. "The cops should just lock him up forever. Did you see the look on his face?"

Carol fake punched Tommy and tried to look angry.

"He probably had the same look on his face whenever he killed his brother, right?"

Tommy swatted Steve on the shoulder in a brotherly fashion, but Steve wasn't feeling very familial at the moment. He couldn't get Nancy's face out of his mind. He'd really hurt her; she'd been angry when she'd reached them, which was understandable, but it was the tears that had been in her eyes that Steve couldn't get out of his head. He hadn't enjoyed hurting her. And Jonathan had snapped, in a way that Steve hadn't expected because Byers had always appeared so passive in everything.

And then there was Jessica. She hadn't really exhibited any anger, but he'd disappointed her by going along with Tommy and Carol. Tommy had been the one with the paint can, but Steve hadn't done anything to stop him from doing what he'd done, which made Steve just as much of a jerk as the other two.

Nancy had been right. He had gone to her house the night before, to sneak in and see her, because he'd been worried about how she'd been acting – basically finding reasons not to be around him since they'd slept together. He wanted to know why, wanted to know if he'd done anything to upset her aside from the Barb thing, because he'd already apologized for that. He'd found Byers in Nancy's bed, sitting beside her, his jacket around her, and Nancy had allowed it.

Needless to say, he left feeling jealous and hurt. Tommy and Carol had gone with him to Nancy's house because he hadn't planned on staying long at all, just go in and make sure she was okay, and then leave again. They had been the first ones he'd been with, and so they were the ones he talked to, ranted to, more like, and that was when Tommy thought of the brilliant idea of letting everyone else know what Nancy had done. If Steve hadn't been so upset, he wouldn't have agreed. He probably would've knocked Tommy's teeth in.

As it was, one impulsive decision had hurt the two people he cared most about.

"Oh, I just got an image of him making that face while he and Nancy were screwing."

"And, hey, Jessica was with them. What if he's doing her too? Our little Golden Girl." Tommy said. "What if it's like some weird triangle thing?"

"For once in your life, just shut your mouths," Steve snapped, honestly not knowing who he was angrier for – Jessica or Nancy. He knew he didn't like Tommy calling Jessica their Golden Girl.

Carol had been smiling, joking around, and she seemed confused about Steve's statement. Maybe she really didn't understand why he was upset. Maybe she didn't understand what she was doing was wrong, that her actions had consequences.

"What's your problem?" Tommy asked.

"You're both assholes. That's my problem."

"Are you serious right now?"

"Yeah, I'm serious," Steve answered and stood up from the car. "You shouldn't have done that."

"Done what? Call Nancy out for what she really is? I don't remember you asking me to stop."

Steve walked to the driver side door, opened the door, but turned to face Tommy.

"I should've put that spray paint right down your throat. You know, neither of you ever really cared about her, you never even liked her, because she's not miserable like you two. She actually cares about other people."

"A slut with a heart of gold," Carol quipped.

"I told you to watch your mouth."

"Hey!" Tommy exclaimed, pushing Steve against the car. "I don't know what's gotten into you, man, but you don't talk to her that way."

"Get out of my face." Steve shoved back, thinking he was about to get into his second fight that day.

"Or what? You gonna fight me now too? Because you couldn't take Jonathan Byers, so I wouldn't recommend it."

To be honest, Tommy had never been in a real fight, not that Steve had ever seen. Tommy had never had to fight anyone one-on-one. He'd always had someone fighting with him on his side. Steve was actually pretty certain that if he hadn't been hurt, he could've taken Tommy, but he was, so . . .

In the end, Tommy just wasn't worth the effort, and Steve left. He drove the very short distance to the theater, saw Jessica on a ladder – a bucket of something and a rag on the top rung – scrubbing at the marquee. The word 'starring' and Nancy's first name had already been washed away, but 'The Slut' Wheeler was still there, plain as day. The words made him feel sick to his stomach now.

Some other worker was there keeping the ladder steady.

"Need a hand?" he called up to her.

She glanced down. At first, she appeared to want to ignore him, but then she began to come down. She gripped the sides of the ladder tightly. Steve could see her arms shaking. He knew she hated heights. He didn't know why, but she was terrified of them.

Once on the ground she said, "You look awful."

"Yeah."

"I thought you'd only busted your lip and eyebrow, but your nose and cheek got hit pretty good too."

The blood had hidden most of the damage to the last two, but once he'd cleaned his face as well as he'd been able to without a bathroom he'd been able to see the gashes along with the swelling and bruising from all the blows that had landed.

"Who knew Jonathan Byers could fight?" Steve quipped.

Jessica's face tightened and she told the other guy – the one that had been holding the ladder – that he could go on inside. She'd hold the ladder steady for Steve. So he went in, and Jessica turned back to him.

"Do you even know why we were mad at you? Why Nancy was upset? Why Jonathan was?"

"I never should've let Tommy and Carol do this." He pointed at the leftover words. "They were with me last night when I went to check on Nancy. That's how I found out. Byers was in Nancy's bed and they were hugging. I – What was I supposed to think? So when Tommy brought up –" he gestured again at the words "- I thought 'sure, she hurt me, so why not?' I realize it was stupid and childish, but . . . There it is."

Jessica crossed her arms over her chest. "Are you sorry?"

"Would I be here if I wasn't?"

"Hm. Jonathan hates his dad. When you compared him to him . . . But he loves his mom, and you insulted her. You pretty much insulted Will too."

"If it's any consolation, I ditched Tommy and Carol."

"For good?"

Steve nodded. "They do nothing but cause trouble."

"I've been telling you that." Jessica gestured toward the ladder. "Go ahead and get started. We can still talk."

"About why you've been hanging around with Nancy and Byers?"

"Sure," she answered. "Though I don't know why it matters."
----------
Talk they did. Jessica told him about why she'd taken to hanging around Nancy and Jonathan. She explained the picture of Barb at his house, and the creature Jonathan had gotten a shot of.

"We went to him to see if there was some kind of explanation, but Jonathan couldn't think of one. We went with him to the dark room at the school so he could mess around with it. The . . . thing was still in the frame."

"The creature that Nancy saw in the woods outside my house?"

"Yeah."

"Well, she was just freaked out. Wasn't she?"

"If you say so, but Jonathan's mom says she's seen it too."

"Yeah, but Joyce Byers isn't –"

"Be careful how you finish that sentence. I'll let go of the ladder. Besides, you're supposed to be turning over a new leaf. Don't ruin it already."

She grinned to show him she'd basically forgiven him already, but he still had some making up to do. It was only fair. Plus, she wanted to know how serious he was about becoming a nice guy – or at least a non-jerk. But he'd had a point. Joyce Byers alone was not a great witness – she'd had too many anxiety episodes where she'd shut everything and everyone out, where she'd basically shut herself down. It wasn't hard for people to not take her seriously.

"I've seen it too," she admitted. "That's why I've been hanging out with Nancy and Jonathan. I . . . it's not as lonely when I'm with people who understand."

That wasn't technically a lie. It was true of her new friendships with everyone. She was a part of something huge in both of her new groups. The kids were harboring a girl that people were searching for – the people were probably working for the government and could seriously hurt them were they ever found out – and then there were Nancy and Jonathan and the creature.

She still thought they were crazy for having gone after it the night before. They were even crazier for what they were planning to do that night.

If they didn't kill the monster, it would probably kill them, but they had to try for Will.

"Why didn't you say anything?"

"I didn't see it until last night. And after what happened this morning . . ."

"Right."

"We think maybe this is the thing that got Will and Barb. Jonathan and Nancy went hunting for it . . . I went with them."

"What?" Steve said, louder than necessary – loud enough that people across the street looked their way. In his excitement he made the ladder move within her hands, causing her to grip it more firmly and yell at him to be careful. Then . . .

"I know. It was stupid, but . . . aside from Joyce, we didn't think the adults would believe us. They wouldn't do anything . . . so we did."

Once all the paint was off and Steve was down from the ladder, it was almost five o'clock. Jessica had a break coming up at six, and Steve promised to bring her a chocolate milkshake from the diner they'd eaten at the other night.

"Shouldn't you be buying Nancy a milkshake?" Not that she wasn't pleased about him wanting to spend time with her, but . . . Nancy was his girlfriend. Or had been, at least.

"She probably doesn't want to see me at the moment."

"True enough." Jessica shrugged. "See you at six then."
----------
Jessica spent the next hour behind the counter of the concession stand. She stayed fairly busy since it was a Saturday and people that held steady nine-to-five jobs were just getting off work and were able to see a movie if they wanted. Most were teenage couples, however, and Jessica was in constant motion of putting popcorn in bags or buckets, and filling cups with soda. She probably could have done it with her eyes closed, it had become that much of a routine to her.

She was glad she'd talked to Steve even though she hadn't been able to tell him everything, especially not about Eleven because that information could actually be dangerous for him to know. But at least he knew some of why she'd been acting the way she had been. No, she hadn't been doing anything too weird by normal standards, but by her standards . . . yes, she'd been weird.

Steve brought her a milkshake like he'd said he would, and they shared it since she had only a fifteen-minute break.

"So . . . I think I should warn you that they took Jonathan in earlier," she said. "He pushed one of the cops."

"I saw him get taken in. We went back to the alley and you guys had already gone, but when we came out to the main street we saw Jonathan in the back of the cop car."

Jessica felt a short bout of anger go through her at them staying hidden, but she got back to the point.

"Nancy and I were taken in too. We followed the cops back to the station."

Steve's brown eyes widened. He was truly concerned. "You didn't get in trouble, did you?"

"No. Neither of us did, but they held Jonathan for 'assaulting a police officer.' He didn't even leave a bruise on him. It's stupid."

She couldn't tell him about the weapons because he'd definitely ask about that, but she could tell him what she really wanted him to know.

"They made me and Nancy fill out an official statement about what happened. And I . . . had to tell the truth as I saw it. They didn't ask about the spray paint stuff, so I didn't mention it. I did put down that Jonathan hit you first, but that it was provoked . . . by you . . . and Tommy and Carol. Nicole was there, but she wasn't really involved, exactly."

"Jess!"

"I couldn't lie to the cops, Steve, because then I would get in trouble if they found out. I love you, but I'm not doing that! If you cared about me, you wouldn't want me to do that."

Steve made a worried – very worried – expression and said, "I know, I know that. You're right. I know you're right. I was just thinking about having to talk to the cops twice in one week and how my dad is gonna kill me."

"I know. I thought about that the whole time I was filling that thing out. I left as much out as possible. The two officers seemed to have the same IQ as my shoe size, so as long as Chief Hopper doesn't make a big deal out of it, you should be fine. Jonathan has a few bruises and that's it. He won't press charges. Your dad probably won't even know what's going on."

That seemed to help Steve relax a little, but he also seemed a little ashamed.

"Steve?"

"Why would you even do that?"

"I don't know. Because even though you've been acting like a jerk, especially this week and towards Jonathan, you're still my best friend, and I still love you. I was kind of waiting for you to see how bad Tommy and Carol were for you. And now you have."

She let him think about that for a minute and then spoke again.

"I can't come over tonight. Something came up."

"Something always seems to come up lately," he said. "Is it because of earlier?"

"No. But if nothing had come up, I wouldn't have hung out with you because of that, so good on you for catching that."

"Right."

"Anyway, you should go home, put some ice on your face. You cleaned it pretty good, but . . . everything's swollen."

"Think my pretty face will be okay?"

"It'll survive," she said and laughed. "I'll hang out with you tomorrow. Just don't go back to Tommy and Carol."
----------
Jessica was scheduled to get off at eight, but at around seven-forty-five Chief Hopper showed up outside the movie theater. If he was coming because of the words that had been there earlier, he was a little late.

Then she noticed that Dustin was with him, along with Mike, Lucas, and Eleven. What the hell? Why were the kids with the Chief of Police, and how much did he know about the girl in the backseat of his car?

"Are you able to leave here?" he asked her.

"Uh . . . I get off at 8:00," she answered.

She was still behind the concession counter, and Hopper had jumped in front of the four people that were waiting to order.

"Can you meet us at the Byers' place once you get off?"

"I was going there after work anyway. Is everything okay? Why is my brother in your car? Is he in trouble?"

"He's fine, and he's not in trouble," Hopper said, hands up in a placating gesture. "We need to talk about everything that's been going on. Dustin says you know about all this."

"Uh . . ." They really couldn't say anything other than that in public. "I'll meet you there, and we can talk. Like you said."

Hopper left and then Bill asked if everything was okay. That day had been the strangest since the one where one of the machines had gone on the fritz for no reason.

"I don't know. I hope so."
----------
When Jessica got to the Byers' house, everyone was already there inside, and Mike was explaining to Joyce, Hopper, Nancy, and Jonathan the acrobat and the flea theory that Mr. Clarke had told them. Then he explained about the gateway.

"Is this gate underground?" Hopper asked.

"Yes," El answered.

"Near a large water tank?"

"Yes."

"How d'you know that?" Dustin asked.

"He's seen it."

"Wait," Jessica interrupted. "I've been at work for the past six hours. What'd I miss?"

Because she'd obviously missed something. Last she'd checked, they hadn't wanted any adults knowing about any of this, and definitely no authority figures who could just turn El into child services.

Dustin began to explain about how these bullies had been picking on him and Mike, and about how El had saved them. It sounded serious, a knife had been involved, and whoever this kid was had basically told Mike that unless he jumped off the cliff they were standing on then he was going to cut Dustin's remaining teeth out.

"What?" she exclaimed. "Who is this kid?"

She knew there were bigger things at the moment, but Dustin was her brother and he'd been threatened with a knife. Whoever this kid was might be a psychopath in the making.

"It's okay. Mike jumped, but El kept him from hitting the ground."

Now it was Nancy's turn to be shocked and worried. Mike had actually jumped to keep Dustin from being hurt – though the bully might have just been all talk even if he'd had a knife – and he would've died if El hadn't have been there.

Then there was something about how El had been the one to create the rift in the universe. She hadn't done it on purpose, but she'd somehow caused it, which had allowed the creature to get to their world.

Lucas added his part, which was that he'd followed his compass north and had ended up at Hawkins Lab, which had military-like security. Science people drove white vans in and out of the fence that surrounded the place; guys in military garb drove Humvees.

The white van people had chased the three boys and El on bikes. El had caused an accident by flipping one of the vans and then the kids were able to get away.

"Okay . . . but where do you fit in?" Jessica asked Hopper.

"I found them in that old junkyard out past the railroad tracks. They were hiding in a bus." Hopper looked at Nancy. "We contacted them using the walkie-talkies, and Mike told me where they were. I've been figuring things out slowly over the past couple of days. I broke into the lab, began making connections."

Apparently, the lab had begun experimenting on women in the seventies, and there had been other experiments dating back to the fifties, but not in Hawkins. The lab people were curious about the effect of certain drugs when they were administered to humans. They basically kept the women coked up on whatever they were giving them – and this was all legal because the women had signed up for it, were getting paid a few hundred dollars while receiving free drugs.

One of the women had been pregnant when the experimenting had begun. She supposedly hadn't known. Whether she had or not, she'd been told she'd miscarried even though she remembered vividly having the baby, and the doctor – a Dr. Brenner – taking the baby from her. Supposedly, the doctors were certain that all the drugs would have given the baby certain telekinetic powers.

Like El's powers. But if she was number 011 then the others that had come before her had to have gone through the same treatment. Maybe the doctors went after pregnant women specifically or something.

"What made you break into the lab?"

"State officials began taking over the case. The person who supposedly found Will's body was a guy from the state. The medical examiner was from the state. Those guys don't usually get involved unless it's something heavy that they might need to cover up. The body they pulled out of the quarry wasn't Will. It wasn't even a real body. It was a rubber life-like doll, basically. It was stuffed with the crap you put in teddy bears."

All this because Will had disappeared into a place that he shouldn't have been able to get to in the first place. Scientists were always messing with things they shouldn't be messing with. They always questioned if they could do things, not whether or not they should do them.

"Do you think you could find Will in this Upside Down?" Joyce asked El.

"And my friend Barb?" Nancy asked.

"Whenever she uses her power, she gets weak," Mike said.

"The more energy she uses, the more tired she gets."

"Like, she flipped the van earlier."

"But she's drained. Like a bad battery."

"Well, h-how do we make her better?" Joyce asked.

"We don't. We just have to wait and try again."

"Well, how long?" Nancy asked.

"I dunno."

El did try, though, for a long while, but she couldn't find them. She seemed like she couldn't make the connection like she normally could. She was too tired. She began to cry when she couldn't do what they wanted. Jessica hoped it wasn't because she was scared that they would hurt her for not being able to do what they needed her to do.

"You probably just need food and a nap," Jessica said. "We can try again later."

El nodded and stood up. "Bathroom."

Joyce told her where to go, and everyone waited for her to come back. When she did she seemed afraid and reluctant to speak, but she did.

"The bath. I can find them in the bath."

She looked like she would rather do anything else, but she also seemed to be determined to help.

"Why the bath?" Jessica asked.

"Water," El answered. "I – when . . . there was water. It was dark, quiet."

"Sensory deprivation tank," Dustin said.

This led to a twenty-minute conversation over the phone between Dustin and Mr. Clarke, and they were in need of a swimming pool and fifteen-hundred pounds of salt.

"We have the salt for the roads," Hopper said. "For when it snows."

"It's not supposed to snow next week, is it?"

"Worst case, no school."
----------
Everyone ended up at the middle school, Hopper letting them in with his master key. He and Jonathan were in charge of getting the salt together. The salt was kept in one of the bigger storage rooms outside the school. Jessica didn't know why.

Jessica was with Lucas and Dustin. They were in charge of setting the pool up; Nancy and Mike had gone to get two large hoses so they could fill up the pool. It was one of those flimsy kid ones. Joyce had bought one the year before so kids could bob for apples.

Joyce was with El, helping prepare the girl for whatever she was going to do.

Anyway, setting up the pool was harder than it should have been. Maybe because they were in the gym – they needed the faucets from one of the locker rooms because the temperature had to be controlled. Not too hot and not too cold, because El had to be in it and she couldn't focus on what she was doing if she wasn't comfortable.

"How does this even work?" Dustin asked.

Mostly Jessica just stood there, amused, as the two boys struggled to keep the sides up. She knew that the pool wouldn't be steady until water started filling it.

When the pool was finally set up, filled and salted, everyone just stood back for a minute. No one but El really knew what to expect now. Sure, Mike had seen her communicate with Will via walkie-talkie, but no one had seen her do this. Just in case, Mike had brought the walkie-talkie with him and had set it up near the pool.

"What's the salt for?" Jessica asked.

"Helps her float."

It was true. They tested it with an egg, which would usually fall to the bottom of a container filled with water, and it stayed on the surface.

Joyce had made some goggles wrapped in duct tape for El. Something about keeping all her senses focused inward, so the goggles would keep it dark for her.

El took off Mike's watch and gave it back to him before stepping into the pool. Almost as soon as she was laid out in the water the lights in the gym went off. Everybody jumped. They were all kneeling around the pool, watching El, keeping an eye on her. She'd been afraid of doing this, but she was doing it anyway.

El said Barbara's name, and then began breathing heavily. The lights flickered on and then turned back off.

"What's going on?" Nancy asked. "The lights . . ."

"I don't know. Best guess is that El is doing it."

"Is Barb okay?" Nancy asked El. "Is she okay?"

"Gone. Gone. Gone. Gone." El just kept repeating that word, and Nancy put a hand over her mouth when she realized that meant that Barb was probably dead.

El began to convulse slightly, so Joyce grabbed her arm.

"It's okay. It's okay. We're right here with you. We're right here with you. You're safe."

The words eventually worked, and El began to relax. Then she started talking about Castle Byers, Will's little fort in the woods. He'd made the thing himself. Was that where he was on the other side? If that was the case, they'd been right there the night before. She and Nancy had been right there.

El made contact with Will, and his voice came through the radio Mike had set up.

"Where is this place?" Hopper asked.

"Uh, it's in the woods behind our house," Joyce answered.

"He used to go there to hide," Jonathan added.

El continued and then her voice began coming through the radio too.

"Can you tell him I'm coming? He needs to stay where he is. Mommy's coming."

After a few minutes of that, El was back with them. Whimpers had begun to come from her and the radio voice, and she'd startled awake or back into consciousness or whatever.

Joyce hugged her close as El began to cry. It hit Jessica then that El had probably never been comforted by a mother.

They had accomplished what they had set out to, though. They'd found out Will was alive, and they'd found out Barb wasn't.
----------
Joyce and Hopper left Jonathan, Jessica, and Nancy in charge of the younger ones, and then they took off for the lab. Now that they knew that Will wasn't on this side, they knew they needed to find a way to the Upside Down. The only certain gateway was at Hawkins Lab.

"We have to go back to the station," Nancy said.

"What for?"

"They took our weapons."

"All of them?"

"Yeah. Hopper saw them at the station because one of the other officers confiscated them. That's really what started all this," Jonathan said. "When Hopper saw them, he gave me a chance to explain and so I told him everything. He still wouldn't give the stuff back."

"Wow. Did he know what we were planning on doing with those weapons?"

She would totally understand not giving their weapons back if he thought they were going to go after that creature. The thing was that they were still planning on going after this thing, so they needed those weapons back.

"You guys go ahead," Jessica said. "I'll meet you at the house. I'm gonna make sure the others are okay on their own."

So that was what she did.

The others were still in the gym, seated on the bleachers. El was wrapped in a blanket, head against Mike's shoulder. Lucas was on the other side of Mike, and Dustin was seated on the row behind them.

"Hey," she said to get their attention. "I'm gonna meet Nancy and Jonathan at his house. We're gonna kill this thing. Finding Will is important, but it won't keep anyone else from being hurt or taken. This thing has gotta go."

"What?" Dustin exclaimed. "Are you crazy?"

"Just as crazy as you guys planning on finding the gate and going into it. Anyway, you guys can't go home, so I just need to know that you'll be okay here. By yourselves."

It was true. The government people had figured out who had been helping El – or at least that the boys were. They couldn't go home because their homes were being watched. According to Hopper, some of the phones had even been bugged, so if they called home the government would know.

Dustin stood up, walked down the two rows of bleachers to reach the ground, and grabbed her in a tight but brief hug. She knew then that no matter how cool Dustin tried to be, he was really worried.

"I'll be okay. If . . . if it gets too heavy in there, I'll get us out of there. Okay?"

"Don't die," El said from her spot next to Mike.

"Not planning to."

"Don't die," Dustin repeated.

More seriously now, "Not planning to. I'll come back. Promise"

She knew, though, that nobody went into battle planning to die, and that she probably shouldn't have promised Dustin anything, but she had every intention of staying alive.

Chapter Text

By the time Jessica got to the Byers' house, Nancy and Jonathan had already checked all the strands of Christmas lights to make sure they worked, and Jonathan had nailed the bear trap to the floor.

"Um, sorry, but what's with the lights again?"

"They flicker when it's around, or when Will is trying to communicate," Jonathan answered.

"Is that why there are letters painted on the wall?"

"Yeah. Mom painted them there. Put a light over each letter so –"

"So Will could spell things out," Jessica said, catching on. "Smart."

She remembered the first time she'd seen all the Christmas lights and the black paint on the wall, the day she and Nancy had come looking for Jonathan and he hadn't been there. She hadn't known what to think, that maybe Joyce had been cracking up. Jessica would have understood if that had been the case; her child was missing.

Now she knew what the lights and the paint were about and it all made sense – as long as you believed what was going on was real.

Nancy was in charge of the gun and was now loading it while Jonathan got to work on the baseball bat. He hammered the long nails into the edge of it so that the sharp ends stuck out. It was basically a manmade mace, something that probably hadn't been used as a weapon since the Middle Ages. Jessica liked it.

She also liked her machete, which at the moment was still in its sheath.

"Forgive me for being unrealistic, but I'm kind of hoping this thing just runs over the bear trap and we can shoot it and beat the crap out of it until it dies," Jessica said.

"That's . . . not a bad plan, actually," Jonathan said. "If we can lure it to the trap so that it triggers right . . ."

Jonathan showed them both of the places where most of the activity had happened – the living room, which had a hole that had been boarded up on the wall near the front door, and then Will's room.

"What happened to the wall?" Jessica asked.

"Mom. She saw Will there and tried to get to him, but I guess the gate had closed by the time . . . it was too late."

"That might mean the gateway could open there tonight."

"Maybe."

Jessica didn't know how to feel about that.

"Maybe . . . maybe Will is close and we can get him that way. Maybe the creature won't even come."

At some point, Jonathan had filled the gas can he'd bought with gasoline because Jessica was told to make a trail of it from the living room back towards the bedrooms. She poured a good amount around the trap that had been set. If the thing came, the plan was to lead it to Will's room, where the bear trap had been nailed to the floor in front of the door – and not trigger the trap on the way themselves. Jonathan, who had a lighter, would set the thing on fire and, if that didn't kill it, then Nancy would shoot it. If that didn't work, Jessica would chop it to pieces.

It sounded simple enough, but they knew it was going to be anything but.

Then, of course, there was the blood they needed to lure the creature there. They would each cut one palm so that they wouldn't have to lose much blood. Nancy had mentioned that when Barb had cut her hand it wasn't a big gash or anything, but the wound had been bad enough to have blood drip from it. A lot of blood wasn't needed.

When it came down to it, Nancy had to slice Jessica's hand because she couldn't do it on her own. It wasn't the blood and it wasn't the pain, not by itself. She just had a thing against hurting herself.

After everything was set up and their wounds were bandaged, they had nothing to do but wait. It was almost one o'clock in the morning and nothing was happening. Maybe the thing really wasn't going to come.

They were all quiet, their weapons in front of them on the coffee table. Nancy's gun, Jonathan's bat, and Jessica's machete. Jessica saw Nancy sort of playing with Jonathan's hand once. She'd been rubbing her fingers over the bandage on his wounded hand. Jessica did not approve – even though Steve had seriously messed up, Nancy hadn't broken up with him, not clearly or officially, so she shouldn't have been playing with another boy's hands. Though to be fair . . . Steve shouldn't have been buying other girls milkshakes when he should have been trying to make thing right with his girlfriend.

At around one-thirty somebody banged on the front door. It was Steve. Why was he banging on Jonathan's door at one-thirty in the morning? Why was he there at all?

"Jessica!" he called. "Open up!"

Jessica looked at Nancy and Jonathan and shrugged her shoulders. It was up to Jonathan whether or not Steve could come in, because it was his house, but she still needed to talk to Steve. He had to go. Jessica didn't want him there if that thing decided to show up.

"I got it," Nancy said and got up. She didn't seem upset that Steve was there, not for her but for Jessica.

"Maybe you shouldn't –" Jessica broke off and got up with her. Steve didn't know Nancy was there, and she didn't know how he knew she was there either, but she did know that the reason he'd done what he'd done was because of his jealousy about Nancy being around Jonathan.

He'd seen the wrongness of it, but what would he think if Nancy opened the door? They opened the door together, and Steve was surprised but not angry that Nancy was there. After all, what exactly could Nancy and Jonathan be doing while Jessica was there?

"Steve, you need to leave," Nancy said.

"I'm not trying to start anything, okay?"

"I don't care about that. You need to leave."

Steve's eyes focused on Nancy's hand then, the bandage and the small amount of blood that had seeped through. Jessica saw his brown eyes soften as concern filled them.

"Hey, what happened to your hand?" he asked, and grabbed it. "Is that blood? What's going on?"

"Nothing. It was an accident." Nancy drew her hand back.

"Wait a sec. Did he do this to you?"

Steve basically forced his way into the living room even though Nancy tried to stop him. Jessica didn't blame him – he thought Jonathan had hurt Nancy – but he stopped once he saw the letters on the wall and the Christmas lights strung everywhere.

"What is – what the –"

"You need to get out of here," Jonathan said, and grabbed Steve to move him back out the door.

"What is all this? What's that smell? Is that gasoline?"

"Look, I'm not asking you. I'm telling you, get outta here."

"Just wait!" Steve yelled. "I'm here for Jess."

That stopped the confrontation for a few seconds, and everyone looked her way.

"Why?" Then, "How did you know I was here?"

"Your mom called me fifteen minutes ago. Asked if you were with me. Told me you were supposed to call –"

"If I was gonna be out past midnight. Right. I . . . was busy."

Steve looked around the living room, spotted the weapons on the table and said, "What with exactly?"

She cringed inwardly. She had to tell him, but she didn't know how the other two would take it. She wouldn't just outright lie to him anymore. It would push him away.

"Steve, I can't leave. But you should. Remember what we talked about – about what happened last night? Well –"

Out of nowhere Nancy had the gun off the table and pointed at Steve.

"You need to leave," she shouted at Steve. "It's for your own good. You have five seconds."

"Whoa, whoa, whoa!" Steve exclaimed. "What the hell, Nancy!"

Jessica moved in front of Steve and stared at Nancy. "Yeah. What the hell, Nancy?"

"We need him to leave."

"And if he doesn't, you're just gonna shoot him? Put the gun down."

As Jessica and Nancy argued back and forth, and Steve freaked out over the gun, the lights began flickering until they went out completely. Jonathan had to get their attention. Jessica stopped arguing first.

"It's here!" Jonathan said.

"What's here?" Steve asked.

Jonathan grabbed the bat, and Nancy pointed her gun at something that wasn't Steve. Jessica grabbed the machete off the table, pulled it from its sheath, and put the sheath back on the table.

"Jess?" Steve questioned, staring at the blade. "What are you doing?"

She looked at Nancy and shrugged. "Monster hunting."

The next minute or so was basically everyone turning in circles, hoping the thing wouldn't catch them off guard. Except for Steve. He was just confused and freaking out – mostly about the weapons.

"Hello! Will someone please explain to me what the hell is going on?"

That was when the creature appeared. It came tearing through the roof, over the spot Joyce had axed through, and Nancy began shooting at it. It did no good. That part of the roof collapsed and the creature landed on the floor.

"Run!" Jonathan screamed, pushing Nancy's gun hand down since shooting the thing didn't seem to have any effect on it. "Go! Go! Go!"

They all ran down the hallway, Jessica grabbing Steve's arm on the way, and Jonathan reminding them to jump over the trap. That was mostly for Steve's benefit because he'd had no way of knowing it was there.

They ended up in Will's room like they'd planned, and Jonathan closed the door.

"What the hell was that?"

"Shut up!" Nancy and Jonathan screamed as Jonathan lit the lighter.

"It's the thing Nancy told you about," Jessica said breathlessly. "Do you believe her now?"

The lights began flickering again. There was no sound coming from the other side of the door, though, so they stayed put for a few minutes. What if the thing had gone back out the living room opening and was trying to circle around to the bedroom?

"What's it doing?" Nancy asked.

No one knew. The lights stopped flickering shortly after that. Maybe the creature had actually left, gone somewhere else. Why hadn't it just busted the door open? It probably could have, right?

Jessica basically fell onto Will's bed. She'd backed up far enough to have hit it with the backs of her knees and had lost her balance. It wasn't until that moment that she realized she was shaking and that her heart was racing. What had she been thinking? Even though she had a weapon this time . . . this thing was still a monster from another dimension. What if their weapons hadn't worked against it? Maybe it had regenerative powers or something and couldn't be killed anyway.

"Is it gone?"

Jonathan was the one who checked. He opened the door, stepped out with the bat in position in case he needed it, and Nancy followed. Steve was next, and this time he had to grab Jessica to get her to follow. She did so, mechanically.

She was at the point where nothing that was happening or that had already happened felt real at all. The only thing that was grounding her at all was the machete in her right hand. She couldn't make a mistake with that. She could hurt herself or someone else.

She barely even felt Steve's hand on her arm, she just followed where he went.

Once in the living room again Jessica came back to herself a little bit, enough to notice the huge hole that the thing had torn into the roof.

"This is crazy! This is crazy! This is crazy! This is crazy!" Steve said, each exclamation getting louder, and then headed for the phone.

Nancy followed him and snatched the phone from his hand and smashed it on the floor.

"It's going to come back," Nancy said. "So you need to leave. Right. Now."

Jessica wanted to go home. She wanted to go pick Dustin up from the school and go home. But she couldn't go home, not if the government people were still after Dustin and his friends. Until this was over, she couldn't go home.

She couldn't go to her house, but . . . she could go to Steve's. They all could. She could leave – because, really, what good was she doing there? She could just go get the kids and take them to Steve's house. Nancy and Jonathan could stay and be heroes if they wanted to. She'd made a promise to her brother that she would come back alive, and she desperately wanted to keep it.

The lights started flickering again, only this time it was worse because it would go completely dark for a few seconds before the lights would come back on. Everyone gathered in the center of the room, backs to each other. With the four of them watching out every corner of the room could be seen . . . until the lights went out again.

An animalistic growl filled the room and Jonathan was thrown to the floor, the bat flinging to the floor along with him, far enough away that he couldn't reach it. The creature wasted no time in climbing on top of him. It opened its mouth and a long stream of saliva fell into Jonathan's face. Or maybe it was some sort of paralyzing venom because Jonathan didn't seem able to move. Or maybe he'd hit his head. Either way, Jonathan was in trouble.

Nancy let loose with the gun, using every bullet in the thing, but the creature barely flinched. It just turned its attention to Nancy. The gun clicked as she continued pulling the trigger. She was out of ammo.

Jessica guessed that meant it was her turn. She wasn't sure how exactly she was supposed to use the machete. She'd only seen one used in movies when someone was trying to cut through tall grass or a jungle area. This was not that, so she ended up bringing the blade down like she would if she were trying to beat someone in the head with a club.

The blow landed on the demogorgan's shoulder and got stuck, so she lost her grip on the handle of the blade. She didn't think about it at the time, but she'd made a mistake when she'd decided to use the machete as a club rather than a blade; she'd left her entire midsection open to attack. The demogorgan swung at her, and she felt its claws tear across her belly

She screamed as it swung at her again, but she was quick enough to back away even if she did fall to her knees afterwards, and then Steve came out of nowhere with the nail-bat. He must have found it, wherever it had fallen.

Steve was . . . amazing! He hit the thing right in its stomach, which made it move back a few steps towards the hallway. The blow actually seemed to have hurt it, so it's belly was obviously a weak spot. If Nancy had shot it there, it probably would have done more than just flinch.

Steve hit it again, this time in the face – or the mouth, since it didn't seem to have a face – and it stumbled back again, this time right into the bear trap. It shrieked as its leg was bitten into by the metal teeth of the trap.

Without stopping to check that the creature was truly trapped, Steve dropped to where Jessica was still on her knees.

"Let me see," he said. He didn't wait for permission, he just moved her hands and lifted her shirt high enough to see the marks the creature had left.

"Steve –"

Jessica knew that it was bad, but not as bad as it could have been. There were four claw marks there, the skin open but blood wasn't gushing out of the wounds. It was, however, trickling out. It was enough to have leaked onto her shirt, but considering the alternative . . . she was lucky.

"He's stuck!" Jonathan said, up and moving again.

He quickly lit the lighter and threw it at the creature. Once the flame hit the spot around the trap they had doused with gasoline it caught fire. The walls were made of wood and the floor was carpeted, so the fire spread quickly. The only thing they could do now was contain the fire and wait for the thing to die.

The noises it was making were horrible, loud and screechy, but they only lasted for about a minute. Then there was the smell of burnt flesh. It was enough to make Jessica want to vomit.

Once they were sure the thing was dead, Jonathan went to the kitchen and came back with a fire extinguisher that had "Property of Hawkins Police" on it, white letters over red paint.

The smoke from the fire filled the hallway even after the flames had been extinguished. Jessica pulled her shirt over her mouth and nose, and then she used Steve to help herself up even though he tried to keep her from moving too much. He was probably right. The wounds opened up more and she felt fresh blood trail down her skin towards her pants. She mostly ignored it. The marks burned more than anything else.

She began walking down the hall, and someone grabbed the back of her shirt. She looked back and saw that Steve had decided to follow her. She was completely okay with that. She had to see that this thing was dead or she would never believe that it was.

When she reached the bear trap all she saw was a big pile of slime where the thing had been, some inside the trap and a little on top of it, but there was nowhere near enough to have been the remains of the creature. There were no bones either – assuming bone would have been left over. And her machete had disappeared as well.

"Uh . . . where did it go?"

Taking a closer look, Jessica noticed that there was enough slime to have belonged to the one leg that had been trapped, but where had the rest of the creature gone? Was it really gone from there? Had it come to think of them as a threat? As far as Jessica knew, none of the others had hurt it. Will couldn't have, and Barb had been caught off guard. It had never had someone fight it, so it had never really come up against a human before.

The Christmas lights began blinking off and on, but it wasn't like before. This was more like one would come on and then the one after that, almost like they were leading them somewhere.

"Jonathan?" Jessica questioned. "What's going on?"

"It's . . . that's what Mom said happened when Will was talking to her – or trying to."

Steve's eyebrows shot up, as if he couldn't believe what Jonathan was saying. After what he'd just seen, hearing about Will speaking through lights shouldn't have come as too much of a shock.

The lights led them outside to a lamp post near the shed.

"Where's it going?" Nancy asked.

"I don't think that's the monster," Jonathan answered.

"I don't think it's the monster either. It feels different . . . like, non-threatening. Not scary."

Then the light stabilized and they were alone, outside on the porch. Jessica didn't know what they were going to do now. Just wait for that thing to come back? And what were they going to do if it did? Nothing seemed to hurt it for real. The thing had just disappeared after having been trapped and burned, and Steve couldn't fight the thing off with the nail-bat forever.

Speaking of Steve, she grabbed his arm, and he lowered the bat from the swinging position. Had he had it that way the whole time? She couldn't blame him if that were the case.

"The kids are at the school. I never should have left them there alone."

It occurred to her then that her mother would be worried about Dustin too. She probably would've called Mrs. Wheeler to see about whether or not Dustin was there. When she found out Dustin wasn't there and that Mike wasn't home either, she would have called Lucas's mom and then there really would've been a problem because Lucas wouldn't have been home either.

They were all going to be in so much trouble.

"You want to go get them?" Steve asked her.

"Yes."

He placed his hand on her back and turned her back towards the front door.

"Let me take care of you first. Your wounds didn't look too good."
----------
Steve didn't know what was going on exactly but he did know that he wanted to get himself and Jessica away from the Byers' house.

He'd been asleep when Ms. Henderson had called him to tell him that Jessica wasn't home and that she hadn't called like she'd said she would. Mostly she just wanted to know whether or not Jessica was with him. Why she'd thought Jessica would be with him at one in the morning was still a mystery to him, but it had worried him to know that Jessica was out that late because she was never out that late. He'd agreed to check on her once he found out where she was and, sure enough, there she was at the Byers' house.

He'd wondered if this was the something that had come up that had made her decide to ditch him. If that was the case then ouch because she'd made the decision before he'd messed up earlier.

Then when he'd forced his way past Nancy and the door and taken in all the weapons and the smell of gasoline . . . he hadn't known what to think at first. He'd remembered his conversation with Jessica about the creature she, Jonathan, and Nancy had claimed to have seen, but he hadn't believed her. Sure, he'd believed they had seen something, but not whatever no-face thing Nancy and Jessica had described. And he hadn't believed they had gone after it, either, but after seeing the weapons . . .

Then the thing had appeared and he couldn't not believe, not when it was right there. Instinct had taken over then and they all ran down the hallway where a bear trap had been nailed to the floor. If Byers hadn't shouted for them to jump, Steve might have very well triggered it himself and that would have been it for him.

When the monster had disappeared the first time, Steve had hoped it was gone for good but no such luck. It had come back and attacked Jonathan.

Nancy had distracted it by shooting it, and Jessica had done the same by shoving her blade into the thing's shoulder. Steve had been frozen until he'd seen Jessica go down after having been clawed. Then all Steve could think about was protecting all of them. No matter how he felt about Byers, he didn't want him to die. So he picked up the bat and started swinging. He'd led it right to the bear trap, where it snapped shut over the thing's leg. The howl it had let loose was unlike anything Steve had ever heard and he never wanted to hear it again. After Jonathan set the thing on fire, it didn't take long for them to think it had died.

It had only disappeared again, but this time they thought it was for good, at least for the night, and the lights had led them outside. Steve didn't know why or how, but he was just going with the flow at that point. They were still outside when Jessica said something about having to go get the others from the school. He didn't know what that was about either, but that didn't matter.

What mattered at the moment was that Jessica had been hurt and Steve needed to clean her wounds so they wouldn't get infected. Who knew what kind of germs that thing had been carrying?

"I need to call my mom," she said.

"Nancy smashed the phone," he reminded her.

"Right."

Jessica's eyes held some distance in them, as if she were shutting down. Steve knew it wasn't from blood loss because the wounds weren't that bad, so it had to be from shock. If he hadn't had something to focus on – helping Jess – he probably would have been going into shock himself.

Steve led Jess through the ruin of the living room to the couch. The first aid kit was already on the table – they must have used it when they'd cut their hands; he'd noticed that all three of them had matching bandages on their right hands.

"What's with the hands?"

"We lured it here with our blood."

Steve didn't say anything to that because the only thing he could think was that they had been extremely stupid in doing what they had done. He just made sure Jessica was as comfortable as she could be and went to get some warm water and a clean washcloth.

Jessica's work shirt was torn to shreds over the spot where the thing had taken a swipe at her, but she kept it on and just held it up for him when he began cleaning her off. Steve noticed that she stopped breathing as the water touched her wounds – it probably stung. They really needed some peroxide or something because he didn't know if just water was going to cut it.

"Jess? You have to breathe."

He stopped until she calmed down. He wanted to turn away when he noticed the tears in her eyes. He felt awful because he was the one causing it at the moment.

"Hurts," she said. She sounded pitiful.

"I know, but you can do it. You took that thing on with a machete. That's kind of a big deal."

Jessica tried to smile but grimaced instead. "It stings . . . the water."

"I'll try to be gentler."

The wounds were red and angry and the skin was almost puckered where it had been torn, and she really needed a doctor. He told her that as he wrapped a bandage around her middle. He thought she needed better anti-bacteria than they had there.

"I have to go to the school," she said. "I promised Dustin I'd come back."

"Well, let me come with you," he said.

"You should stay with Nancy."

"I think Nancy's okay on her own. I mean . . . with Byers."

Jessica looked towards the front door, where Nancy and Jonathan were still standing outside on the porch. They weren't doing anything inappropriate or anything, but Steve noticed that Nancy seemed more comfortable with Jonathan than she ever had with him.

Steve took her bandaged hand, careful not to hurt her, and said, "Let's go. You can't drive right now, anyway."

So Jessica grabbed her jacket, which Steve had to help her put on, and they went. They took Steve's car. He'd bring her back to get hers later. Jonathan and Nancy stayed behind because Hopper and Joyce were supposed to come back with Will, which . . . Steve didn't understand that either, because Will was supposed to be dead.

"I'll explain everything on the way," Jessica said. "You're part of it now, so I guess you can know."

They took off, Steve wondering why he couldn't have known to begin with.
----------
Jessica started from the beginning, which was the disappearance of Will Byers, and then explained about finding El when she'd discovered Dustin, Mike, and Lucas out in the woods looking for Will. She even told him about El's powers and that government people were looking for her, which meant they were also looking for whoever was helping her.

"That's why I didn't tell you," Jessica said. "Or part of the reason. I didn't want you to be in danger. Also why I waited so long to tell you about that thing."

"I still don't understand about Will."

"He's . . . That thing isn't from here. This is the weirdest part. There are rifts in the universe, where that thing can get through. It leads to another dimension. We call it the Upside Down. Everything is dark over there, and ashy."

Jessica ran a finger over one of the nails in the bat Steve had used earlier. She didn't know if he'd meant to, but he'd brought it with him, and she'd been holding it the whole time they'd been in the car.

"But the police found Will's body," Steve said.

"It wasn't Will. According to Hopper, it wasn't even a real body. It was a stuffed mannequin or something. I mean, whoever is covering this up is going to some serious extremes. Whoever it is works with the Department of Energy."

The rest of the story Steve basically knew, so she skipped it. She spent the rest of the ride to the school playing with the bat and trying not to let the fight get to her. The thing was still out there, though, and she didn't feel safe at all. There was no way to tell when or where that thing would appear because there was no way to tell when a rift would appear. Sure, blood could lure it, but from what she knew blood hadn't been in the picture when Will had been taken, so blood didn't have to be a factor.

On the way to the school, Steve had been very careful not to hit too many bumps, and Jessica was grateful, but he couldn't not hit the speed bump that ran across the entrance to the school parking lot. Crazy fact about the middle and high schools in Hawkins is that they were right across the street from each other. The middle school parking lot was mostly just a dirt road that led to a field, whereas the high school parking lot was actually asphalt. They went into the high school parking lot because that's where everyone else was. It was a nightmare. They'd seen the police car lights before they reached the school, and if Dustin hadn't been waiting for her she would have told Steve to turn back around. But there were ambulances there too, so what if one of her boys was hurt – or El.

As it was, she held her stomach and cursed as the bounce from the speed bump shook her. Steve had been going as slow as he could, but it still hurt. He cursed too and apologized as he looked her way.

"I'm okay."

"Okay. What is going on here?" Steve wondered out loud.

"I don't know. You should go, though. Just drop me off."

"No way."

"Steve –"

"No. You said I'm part of this, so let me be a part of it."

"Fine. Just . . . don't tell Dustin about what happened. Okay?"

He agreed and then parked in a free spot. They got out of the car together, Jessica more slowly, of course. She was surprised at how much it hurt just to stand up straight, and she imagined she might have caused her wounds to bleed again, assuming they had ever stopped.

"You really should see a doctor," Steve said. "You might need stitches or something."

She shook her head and began looking for Dustin through the crowd of cops. She didn't find him, but she found Mike easily enough, though, because he was seated in the back of an ambulance. His mother was there with him, so that proved that their parents had been called. Mr. Wheeler was close by. Her own mother was probably there somewhere too, with Dustin, unless she'd already come and gone.

"Mike," she said when she reached him. "You okay?"

"Yeah, I . . . banged my head."

Mrs. Wheeler looked at her then. "Will you stay with him for a minute? I need to talk to the EMT."

Jessica nodded, and Mrs. Wheeler stepped away toward the EMT. Her husband was there too.

"What happened?" she asked.

Mike seemed more upset than he would be if he'd just hit his head.

"Uh –" he glanced at Steve.

"I told him. He showed up tonight, so I kinda had to."

"El is gone," Mike said, and that was all he said.

"Gone?"

Had the 'bad men' gotten to her? After everything, had they failed to protect her? Well, Hopper was a part of this now, so maybe he could tell someone higher up and they could get El back and maybe even shut down the whole organization. But then she noticed that Mike was fighting back tears and she knew that El wasn't just gone. She was dead.

"Mike? What happened?"

"The demogorgan came."

Oh God. It had left them to come to the school. She never should have left them alone.

Mike told her about the government people coming to the school and trapping them in the hallway. El had taken care of them, though. She'd . . . killed them, and then the creature had been drawn to them because of the blood. She vaguely wondered how El had caused the people to bleed and then realized she didn't really want to know. It didn't matter anyway. El had been protecting herself and the others, so she'd done what she'd had to, and the hallways in the building were basically a blood bath.

El had done something to the creature when it cornered them in a classroom and it had turned to ash. She had disappeared with it.

Mike had been closer to El than anyone else, but Jessica still felt a sense of loss even after the few days she'd known El. She would have liked to see El free to grow and blossom as a free girl. She would have liked to see her make friends – Jessica would have liked to have been her friend.

"Mike, I'm sorry."

She wanted to hug him but didn't know if he'd accept it.

"Where are the others?"

"Lucas's parents took him home already. Your mom showed up a few minutes before you did. Dustin's talking to one of Hopper's officers."

"What exactly is he saying?"

"The truth mostly. Sensory deprivation and all that. It was an experiment."

"Okay. Well, I'm gonna go find him once your mom comes back." She touched his shoulder, hoping to bring him comfort. "Help anytime, remember?"

He nodded once. "Nancy?"

"She's fine. She's still at the Byers' house waiting for Joyce and Hopper to come back."

Jessica did as she'd said she was going to and waited for Mrs. Wheeler to come back before going to look for her brother. She found Dustin a few minutes later talking to an officer like Mike said he would be. The cop didn't seem to know what was going on and they couldn't tell him without the go-ahead from Hopper.

"Dustin!" she shouted for him and quickly went to him when he saw her. She learned that both of those things were not good to do with cuts on her stomach. She almost cursed again, but she didn't want Steve or Dustin to know how much she was hurting. Steve would probably tell her she needed a doctor.

She hugged Dustin, and her mom too when she saw her. That hurt too, but she dealt with it. She apologized to her mom for not calling. She wasn't lying when she said she'd forgotten.

"Never mind. What happened to your hand? Every time you hang out with Nancy and Jonathan, you come home dirty or hurt."

Her mom couldn't tell exactly how hurt she was because her jacket was zipped up, covering her torn shirt and bandaged belly. It covered the blood too.

"I'm fine. I cut my hand."

"It bled through the bandage. Maybe you need stitches."

"I'm fine."

"The EMT is back over there," Steve said, pointing back the way they had just come from. He gave her a pointed look, so she glared at him. He wasn't helping the situation at all.

"Hush."

All in all, they were there for over an hour, meaning it was almost four in the morning. Whatever had been keeping Jessica awake and alert had almost completely left her system and she felt as if she could just fall down and sleep where she stood. She didn't know why they couldn't just go to the station the next day and give their statements then. It was so late.

But it wasn't like they could go home anyway. Jessica didn't know if they were off the hook just yet.

Hopper showed up and pretty much broke everything up a little after four. The medical people had already left, but the crime scene crew were still inside, coming and going with the bodies of the government people.

Nancy was with Hopper when he arrived, and they pulled Dustin and Jessica away from the others.

"Where's Joyce?" Jessica asked. "And Jonathan."

"She's fine. She's at the hospital. We found Will. He's gonna be okay."

Jessica let out a breath of relief she hadn't even known she'd been holding – she may have been holding it all week. She grabbed onto Dustin – or maybe he grabbed onto her. Either way, they were holding onto each other, and Dustin was grinning while Jessica was grimacing. She'd been trying to grin, but . . . Her wounds were the kind that she couldn't even feel them until she moved wrong and then the pain came back, stronger each time it felt like. But that didn't matter. Will had been found and was going to be okay.

"Mike! Mike!" Dustin pulled away to go find his friend. "They found Will!"

Jessica turned to go back to her mom, and to Steve, who had been so strong for her when he had to have been freaking out, and so patient with her the past few hours, but was stopped by Hopper grabbing her wounded hand.

She jerked away because even though he hadn't grabbed her roughly at all, it still hurt. And pulling her hand away had jarred her other injuries more than anything else had that night. It was even worse than the stupid speed bump they'd gone over coming into the parking lot. She ended up slumped over, clutching her belly with both hands.

"What's wrong? What happened to your hand?"

"Nothing, I cut it."

"Uh-huh. Like Nancy cut hers, and Jonathan?"

"Well . . . yeah."

"Cut the crap. I know you guys lured that thing to the house. You all could have been killed."

"But we weren't, so . . ."

Hopper looked as if she'd just plucked his last nerve, so she gave him a very sheepish smile.

"Sorry. I know it was stupid, but you guys were looking for Will, and no other adults knew about it – or none that would help."

Hopper ran a hand over his face, seeming exhausted, and she felt a sudden surge of affection for the older man. He'd actually given them all a chance and hadn't just written them all off as crazy, and he'd helped get Will back. He had a right and a reason to be tired.

"Just . . . go to the hospital. Get someone to look at your hand. Make sure Nancy and Jonathan do the same."

"Okay."

"Nancy told me what happened with the . . . thing. How it got you. Get that checked too." Hopper looked around at all the chaos. "I've gotta stay here and get the story straight, but I'll be there soon. We've all gotta talk. Don't leave the hospital until I get there. Got it?"

"Yeah. I'll play watch dog, but, uh . . . Lucas went home already."

"He's already at the hospital. We got him right as they turned into the driveway."

"Okay. Is it safe for my mom to go home? She doesn't know anything."

"She'll be fine. That's . . . you're safe. That's what we need to talk about." He pointed at Steve. "What's Harrington doing here? Isn't he the one that was causing all the problems earlier?"

Jessica explained what had happened earlier and how Steve had basically saved their lives.

"So, he knows everything?"

"Basically."

"A'right. Get him to drive you guys to the hospital. Don't tell anyone else. And wait for me there."

She nodded, but then, "Are we in trouble?"

"No." He patted her shoulder. "Now go get yourself checked out."

Chapter Text

Mrs. Wheeler drove Nancy and Mike to the hospital while Steve took Dustin and Jessica. Their mother would have taken them, but Hopper convinced her that Steve could handle it. Besides, she thought that only Jessica's hand was wounded.

It was a little after five when they reached the hospital. They immediately sought out Joyce and Jonathan, who were in Will's room. A nurse told them Chief Hopper had called ahead. Jonathan had already been checked out, but the nurse led Nancy and Jessica to separate rooms to check them out. The wounds on their hands didn't even need stitches. Nancy was free to go. Jessica, on the other hand, had to stay a few extra minutes.

Because Hopper had called it in, she got to a doctor fairly quickly, a man in his mid-to-late thirties with already graying hair. He took the original bandage off so he could see the damage that had been done.

"Chief said some kind of animal got you?"

"Something did," she said vaguely.

"Hm. What did you clean it with?"

"Water. We didn't have anything else."

"Well, fortunately, we do. It's going to sting, a lot, but it will keep these from getting infected. And trust me, left untreated, these will get infected. They're on their way there already."

"So treat them then," she snapped and immediately felt bad for the attitude even though the doctor didn't seem to be offended at all. He probably dealt with bad patients all the time. She'd been awake for over twenty hours and that day had been a roller coaster of emotions. She was done.

The doctor hadn't been lying when he'd told her that it was going to sting when he cleaned her wounds. She had to bite her lip to keep from crying out once or twice.

"You couldn't have picked a worse place to get hurt," the doctor said. "You'll have to take it easy for about a week. Any sudden movement and you could reopen the wounds. Looks like you've already done that once or twice."

"Yeah. Hit a speed bump."

"A'right. I'm gonna prescribe the ointment I used. Apply it twice a day. I'll prescribe a minor pain killer, because you are going to hurt more after sleeping then you do right now. The cuts are inflamed, but the ointment should take care of that in a few days. If it doesn't, you need to come back. Okay? If you start running a fever or get sick while the cuts are still inflamed, you need to come back immediately because it could be a sign that infection has set in."

"Okay."

"Now, the wounds are mostly superficial. They could've been a lot worse, and you don't need stitches. They seem to be closing fine on their own. If you have any scarring at all it will be minor."

Once the doctor put a new bandage around her middle, Jessica was free to go with instructions to make a stop at the hospital pharmacy before leaving. She told him she'd need a written excuse to be out of work for however long she'd need to heal, and the doctor gave her one without hesitation. She found Dustin and Steve outside the room they'd been keeping her in and she felt a sudden need to cry but she was just too tired to let tears come.

"You've got a battle scar," Dustin said and pointed at her belly.

"Steve!"

"What? He was gonna find out anyway. He wanted to know why they kept you so much longer than they did Nancy."

"Oh . . . Right." To Dustin she said, "You've gotta help me keep this from Mom, okay? I wouldn't know what to say if she saw the marks."

Dustin nodded. "Sure."

It wasn't too long after that that a nurse came up to them and pointed at Steve. "Your turn. The Chief said to take a look at your face."

"I'm fine," Steve said.

"Steve," Jessica said. "Go. You might have a concussion or something."

The look Steve gave her then was full of exasperation, but he went anyway. All they did was clean his wounds, which he said hurt worse than the wounds themselves. Jessica knew that all too well.

They found the waiting room closest to Will's room, where Mrs. Wheeler, Nancy, Mike, and Lucas were already seated. Lucas's mom had dropped him off with Mrs. Wheeler because Lucas had a little sister and she didn't want her catching anything from the hospital.

"Anybody hear anything?" Jessica asked, gingerly sitting down in the middle one of three empty chairs.

"Will's still sleeping," Mike said. "Mrs. Byers said something about maybe having to transfer him. It depends on how well he responds to treatment here."

"Hopper said he was gonna be fine."

"Hopper's not a doctor," Lucas, ever the voice of reason, said.

He wasn't wrong.
----------
Hopper showed up a little after sunrise. They still hadn't been able to see Will, but he had woken up, so that was progress.

Jessica had dozed off against Steve's shoulder – he was on one side of her and Dustin was on the other – but woke right up when Hopper came in. Her head felt like it was floating, but she was alert enough. She hadn't even gone to get her medicine yet; she was just foggy from being tired.

"I need to talk to everyone involved," he said. "This isn't an interrogation, Mrs. Wheeler, so you can stay here. We'll talk right out in the hallway."

Once they were out in the hallway, they stood in a circle, Hopper in the center of them.

"Okay, Joyce and Jonathan already know this, but the only reason we were able to get Will back was because we made a deal."

"A deal?"

"We agreed that we would never mention the lab or what they were doing to anyone in exchange for everything we needed to get Will back. We needed the equipment to be able to survive . . . over there. We said we would forget it ever happened – all of it. It never happened. You guys never found Eleven. Will got lost in the woods, and we'll figure the rest out later."

"So . . . our safety for our silence basically?" Nancy asked. "What about Barb? She didn't get to come back, so how do you explain her?"

"I'm sorry, Nancy. She ran away." Hopper did sound sorry. "Her car was found at the airport."

"She's not old enough to buy a plane ticket on her own."

"There are ways, Nancy."

Nancy clenched her jaw shut and tears filled her eyes. Jessica was surprised when Steve didn't go to her side; he stayed with her. She would have mentioned it, but Jonathan came to get them then to let them know that they could go see Will.

Hopper nodded, so Mike, Dustin, and Lucas took off running in the direction of Will's room. Jessica followed more slowly, and when she got there all three of the boys were on top of Will, hugging him.

"Be careful," Joyce exclaimed. "Be careful with him."

"Yeah, take it easy," Jonathan added, but Jessica could tell they were both extremely happy that Will was back and that his friends were there.

"You won't believe what happened while you were gone, man!" Lucas said.

"It was mental."

"You had a funeral."

"Jennifer Hayes was crying, and Troy peed himself."

"What?"

"In front of the whole school."

"Yes!"

Will started coughing and the mood in the room came down quickly. He may have been okay, but he had miles to go before he would be completely healthy. There were dark rings around his eyes and he was pale – his lips even had a blue tint to them.

"You okay?" Mike asked him.

"It got me," Will said after catching his breath. "The demogorgan."

"We know. But it's okay. It's dead – we made a new friend. She stopped it. She saved us, but she's gone now."

"Her name's Eleven," Dustin said.

"Like the number?"

"Well, we call her El, for short."

"She's basically a wizard."

"She has super powers."

"More like a Yoda," Mike said.

"She flipped a van with her mind. And these guys were after us and she squeezed their brains out."

Jessica had to admit that she would have loved to have seen the van flip, but she was glad she'd missed the brain-squeezing thing, especially when she heard Dustin say that blood had poured out of their faces, out of their eyes. Well, she'd wanted to know what had happened that had caused all the blood and now she knew.

"Agents started grabbing us, and –"

Jessica tuned out when she felt a presence behind her. She knew it was Steve and leaned back against him when he was close enough. She was so tired.

"You should be with Nancy. She's upset."

"Well, I'm with you."

He slowly and gently wrapped one arm around her waist and she tensed for a brief second, feeling guilty, before deciding to just go with it.

"Still need to tell Nancy."

"I will. And apologize to Jonathan . . . for everything."

"Hm." She grabbed his arm with her undamaged hand. "You're learning."
----------
Steve did talk to Nancy and Jonathan. Jessica was taking her turn with Will, so it seemed like the perfect time.

"Look, I want to apologize to both of you for everything. What I said to you," he said to Byers. Then to Nancy, "What I did to you and what I let Tommy and Carol do. I'm sorry."

Jonathan took the apology pretty well – he'd accepted it more easily than Steve thought he would have, though that could have been because he was worried about getting back to Will. Steve would take it, even if he had to do more later. For now, it was enough.

Nancy stayed behind when Jonathan left.

"That was a crappy thing you did earlier," she said.

"I know, I – there's no excuse."

And there really wasn't. No matter what Nancy had or hadn't done, he never should have allowed Tommy to paint those words anywhere.

"I messed up," he said, "so much with you."

"Yeah. It probably started when you decided to date me when you're actually in love with Jessica."

"What?"

Nancy smiled gently. She wasn't angry with him. She actually seemed pretty understanding.

"I get it," she said. "You've been friends with her almost from the day she moved here."

"But . . . Nancy –"

He wasn't going to deny it, but he guessed he needed to apologize for that too.

"I do care about you."

"I know. But you care about Jessica more, and it's okay. She's a great girl."

"Yeah, she is." He shook his head once, brown hair falling over one of his eyes. "How did you know? About . . ."

She gave him a slightly coy smile. "A girl always knows."

"Oh, really?"

"Mm-hm." Then more seriously, "Yesterday morning you seemed to care more about what Jessica thought than what I did about what you did. And . . . I mean, you went out at one-thirty in the morning looking for her when her mom called you because she hadn't come home. Um . . . you were more worried about her last night than you were about me. You left with her when you could've chosen to stay with me . . . But I think I knew before that. The day you asked us all to come over and she couldn't . . . your face sort of . . . fell when you found out she wasn't coming. You almost begged her to come."

Steve let his eyes drift. He hadn't realized he'd done that. He remembered feeling disappointed, but that was only because he'd wanted to spend time with Jessica outside of school and he hadn't been able to.

"Nancy, I –"

"You need to go back to Jessica. Just . . . it's okay. Really. I'm not mad."

Steve embraced her briefly and apologized again. He hoped she knew everything his apology encompassed. He hadn't realized it at the time, but from the start he'd subtly pressured Nancy to do things she normally wouldn't have. She let him sneak into her room; she drank at the party, had sex with him there.

He'd hinted that she didn't need to study because she already had a close-to-perfect GPA, so what was one bad test score? Though, to be fair, he really had helped her study that night in her room and he hadn't gotten mad when she'd said no when he'd tried to seduce her. He'd been disappointed, sure, but not upset. Nancy had probably noticed, but he couldn't help that.

At the party, though, Nancy had decided to drink only because of his telling her that it was impressive. She hadn't even gotten a little tipsy, but still . . . he was sure it had been her first drink. He hadn't really cared whether she had a beer or not, but given the crowd she'd been hanging around . . . she'd given in.

That was also the night Nancy slept with him, the first time she'd had sex with anyone. Whether or not she'd felt pressured into it or not Steve didn't know, but she'd definitely felt guilty about it the next day. She'd felt like everyone was watching her. What if she'd thought he'd told everyone? He hadn't, but he had done something worse when he'd thought she'd slept with Byers.

He'd been a pretty crappy boyfriend. Jealous and insecure, the last of which he didn't want anyone knowing. He was King Steve. He couldn't be insecure; it wasn't allowed. He wasn't actually supposed to care about anyone, especially not about some girl he'd slept with – and definitely not about a girl he wasn't sleeping with.

But he did. He cared about Nancy, maybe not in the way he should have, not in the way he wanted to, not in the way that meant he could get over Jessica – because, really, she'd never shown any real interest in him – but he did care.

There was a lot of Jessica in Nancy – maybe that was what had drawn him to her, he didn't know. They were both kind, and neither one of them were like the girls he'd only had fun with because neither of them wanted to just have fun. They both cared about others – genuinely cared and didn't care what anyone thought about it. That may have triggered Steve's jealousy, and he'd have to work on that.

"Go back to Jess," Nancy said, touched his arm briefly, and went back to the waiting room.
----------
Jessica was still in Will's room when Steve returned. Jonathan was there as well as Joyce and Hopper, but the boys were waiting out in the hallway.

Steve didn't really know Will, so he stayed outside as well. He didn't know Lucas Sinclair at all, really, and he only knew Mike because of Nancy. They'd never really even said anything to each other. Mike had caught him sneaking into Nancy's room, but Mike had been sneaking out of the house. Dustin, though . . . he knew him, and they had spoken to each other – mostly just the basic "hey" and "what's up?" in passing when Steve had visited Jessica at her house.

It was Dustin and only Dustin, who talked to him, and that was only to say, "Thanks for protecting my sister. Maybe you're not as much of a douche bag as people say you are."

That was it, that was all he said. Steve didn't know if he should take it as an insult or a compliment because it had kind of been both.
----------
After visiting with Will for a few minutes Jessica went out into the hallway where the kids and Steve were.

"Dustin, go say goodbye to Will. Okay? We can come back later, after we sleep."

Dustin didn't complain and did as she said. She leaned against the wall and sighed.

"I still need to go get my car from the Byers' house." She rubbed her hands over her face to wake herself up a little. "I'm so tired."

Steve moved from his spot to lean beside her, shoulder on the wall so he could face her. She turned her head towards him.

"I'll take you home, and you can go get it later. After you sleep, like you said."

That was true. Steve would take her, or her mom would. Jonathan probably wouldn't mind bringing it to her if all else failed.

Dustin came back out and Jessica went to the pharmacy like the doctor had told her to. The pharmacist tried to give her a hard time about the pain pills because she wasn't an adult, and she was just too tired to deal with that, so she mentioned Hopper's name and all was well.

Steve led them to the parking lot and to his car, where Dustin hopped in the backseat and Jessica slid into the front. They'd barely made it to the road before Dustin had fallen asleep.

"Man . . . what a day."

"You're tellin' me."

They were both silent for a few minutes, and Jessica looked back at her brother. His head was propped up against the window, mouth slightly open.

"Try not to hit any bumps," she said. "I don't want him hitting his head."

"And I don't want you reopening your wounds. I'll be careful."

For the first time since arriving at Jonathan's house the night before, Jessica felt like she could breathe, which also meant it was the first time she could actually process everything that had happened.

First and foremost, they had survived against the monster, the demogorgan. No, they hadn't been the ones to kill it, but . . . they'd fought it and walked away alive. Steve had a lot to do with that.

Will was alive and going to be okay. Sure, he needed time to recover completely, but he was back, and the thing that had taken him was gone. Dead. It couldn't take or hurt anyone again.

El was gone, though. She'd sacrificed herself and done what Jessica and the others hadn't been able to do: Kill the demogorgan.

They weren't allowed to talk about any of it to an outsider. People had died, and people had disappeared because of what was going on at Hawkins Lab – the experimentation on people, and the problems that had come from that.

If they wanted to remain safe from the lab people, they had to agree not to say a word about what had happened. They had become part of a government cover-up. Not everybody could say that.

She didn't stop thinking until they were in her driveway. Her house wasn't far from the hospital, but it had taken longer because of Steve's careful driving. Jessica didn't know when, but Steve had grabbed her hand at some point – or maybe she'd grabbed his, she didn't know – and she was squeezing his like someone would squeeze a stress ball. Squeeze, release, squeeze, release, over and over like that. He let her.

"Thanks for bringing us home. I'm sorry you got dragged into all this."

"We're best friends. I'd be offended if I hadn't been dragged into this."

She allowed herself to smile at that, but only for a second. She was so tired she felt she couldn't do anything for more than a second. She didn't know how she was going to make it to the front door. Maybe they could all just sleep in the car.

"Maybe you should stay here," she told Steve. "I don't want you going home alone. We don't actually know that we're safe, and you – you should just stay."

None of them needed to be alone even if the question of safety wasn't an issue. They didn't need to be alone because of what had just happened in case they needed to talk or just needed to be around someone who knew what they were going through.

Will had Joyce and Jonathan; Mike and Nancy had each other; Lucas could talk to Mike on the walkie-talkie; she and Dustin lived together; Steve was the only one who didn't have someone waiting at home.

"I guess I can crash on the couch," Steve said.

"Good."

Jessica woke Dustin up as gently as she could, and they made their way into the house. Their mother was in the living room, sitting up on the couch, half-asleep with her head nodding down toward her chest. She'd stayed up to wait for them.

"Hey," Jessica said in way of greeting, too tired to say anything other than that. "Steve's staying over since it's so late. I don't want him crashing on the way home."

"Of course."

Jessica felt sort of bad for telling her mother rather than asking, but she chalked it up to her being tired. She wasn't usually so demanding of people older than herself. She had a healthy enough amount of respect for authority that she didn't try to order adults around.

Dustin had barely said a word to their mom other than "hi" and "good night". No one blamed him. The sun had been up for a good hour or so, and he was exhausted.

Jessica stayed with Steve for a few minutes even after her mom went to bed. Jessica found a blanket and a pillow for Steve to use and let him get set up. He knew where everything was, and even though she was hurt she felt better getting the stuff for him. She didn't question why. She was too tired to care.

"You need anything else?" she asked.

"Nope. Think I'm set."

"Mm. Wish you didn't have to sleep on the couch."

Their guest room had never really been a guest room. It was more a storage space for a lot of junk they probably should've gotten rid of a long time ago.

"I'm okay. If I need anything, I know where it is. I can get it."

"Great. I'm getting up around noon. Do you want me to wake you up?"

He said yes, and she went to her room, changed her clothes, set her alarm, and got in bed. She had no problem going to sleep.
----------
Jessica did come down to wake up Steve at noon, but he heard her coming. He was usually a deep sleeper, but not that day. He kept going over the fight at the Byers' house. He couldn't not see whatever that thing had been.

Last night could have gone a lot worse than it had. One of them could have gotten killed, and now they were all part of this government conspiracy that they were supposed to forget ever happened.

He was surprisingly okay with that. He did want to forget about it. He wished he could, but he'd never been so afraid in his life as he'd been the night before. Nothing else had ever made him have trouble sleeping either, but that monster had.

"You want food?" Jessica asked as she went by him and into the kitchen. "Eggs and toast."

"Sure," he said – more like mumbled – and got up too. He was still in his jeans and sweater, though he'd taken his shoes off before trying to sleep. "Are you sure you should be cooking?"

"I'm okay."

Steve stood in the entrance of the kitchen and watched as she pulled a pan out of a cabinet only to place it on the stove. He noticed the grimace on her face since she'd had to stretch to get into the cabinet. Why hadn't she just asked for help?

Jessica got the eggs out of the fridge, along with a carton of milk, and placed them on the counter by the stove. The salt and pepper shakers she got from the kitchen table, and a bowl from another cabinet.

She had trouble cracking the eggs because of the cut on her hand, but she still didn't ask for help because she was stubborn. And there was no way she was going to be able to stand there and scramble the eggs up without jarring the cuts on her belly, so Steve stepped forward.

"A'right, tough girl. I've got the eggs," he said. "You do the toast, and I'll get the plates down. You don't need to stretch anymore."

She seemed relieved. "Okay. Don't forget to add the milk so the eggs get fluffy."

"Fluffy?"

"Yeah, you know, like your hair."

"My hair is not fluffy. It's perfect."

She shrugged. "It can be fluffy and perfect at the same time. Now hush and make the eggs. Just do the whole dozen. I'm gonna get Mom and Dustin up too."

She made her way to the archway of the kitchen entrance and sent him an almost guilty expression.

"What?"

"My medicine is still in your car. I left it in there when we got here because I didn't know how to explain it to Mom. I'm gonna go get it before I wake her up. I don't know how I react to pain meds, so if I start getting loopy or something . . ."

"Got it."

Steve had gotten four plates down by the time Jessica came back from getting her meds, and she set the table, turned the coffee pot on, and put the milk on the table once Steve was done with it.

She dry-swallowed one of her pills after reading the warning label and said, "I'm gonna go hide this in my room," meaning the pharmacy bag with her cream and pills.

By the time she'd woken both her mom and her brother up, the eggs were almost done so she made the toast, enough for everyone to have two pieces. Butter and jelly containers were put on the table on either side of the plate of toast, along with a knife for both.

Steve wasn't used to family meals, and the ones he had been part of with his family had been full of awkward silence – or tense silence, which was worse – and any conversation that did happen had been stilted.

Not so with the Henderson's. That particular morning, they were quiet because they were all tired, but the silence and the vibe was nowhere close to awkward. Ms. Henderson seemed grateful that she hadn't had to make breakfast – or lunch, since it was after noon now. Dustin was still half-asleep even as he spread butter over his toast. Jessica was smiling fondly at her brother.

They were a family. Nothing stilted about them.

"Can we go see Will again today?" Dustin asked once he'd woken up a bit more. "I'm not gonna be able to see him much during the week because of school."

"We can go once I get my car back," Jessica said. "Right, Mom?"

"Sure. As long as you guys finish your homework."

That's when Steve remembered that Jessica had missed the last two days of the school week. Her brother obviously had too.

Steve wondered how exactly everything was going to be covered up. Will – or something people thought had been Will – had been buried. There had been a funeral for him, and they couldn't just say they'd buried a dummy look-alike.

But that really wasn't his problem, and he could let someone else figure it out.
----------
Dustin ended up doing the dishes, which was pretty normal when someone actually cooked a meal. Usually Jessica helped, but she didn't this time because of the bandage on her wounded hand. It got even more in the way when she had to shower, and she just ended up taking the bandages off of her hand and midsection. She would put new ones on after she got out. The whole point of the bandages was to keep the wound clean anyway, and what better way to clean it was there than to take a shower?

The soap and shampoo stung her cuts, but it wasn't as bad as the day before. The wounds mostly just felt tight and stiff. She hadn't reopened them by stretching earlier, though, so she wasn't going to complain.

Once clean, she stepped out of the tub, wrapped herself and her hair in a towel. Her mom kept all her medical stuff in the bathroom cabinet, so she got her gauze from there. She basically ran to her room so she could clean her wounds and rebandage them. She placed everything on her dresser and then slipped some loose, comfortable clothes on. She opened her underwear drawer and pulled out the anti-bacteria cream and placed it with the gauze.

"Bathroom's free!" she yelled to whoever wanted to shower next – probably Dustin because Steve didn't have clothes there.

In fact, once she was done she was going to tell Steve that they could drive to his house first before going to get her car. He probably wanted to shower and change. She'd felt grimy from the day before, and he probably did too.

She caught Dustin before he went into the bathroom and said, "Hey, I'm gonna go with Steve to his house real quick, but I'll come back and get you so we can go visit Will. Bring any homework you have with you, so you have something to do if he's sleeping."

Dustin agreed and went to take his shower.

"Steve!" she called out. "Can you come up here for a minute?"

She heard his quiet footsteps on the stairs and grabbed the cream and gauze. Steve stopped at her doorway and looked at her, an eyebrow raised.

"Yeah?"

"I – I need your help. I can clean the wounds myself, but I won't be able to see to put the bandage back on. And it's gonna be really hard to wrap my hand back up myself."

Steve stepped inside the room and went to her even as she continued rambling.

"Mom doesn't know, so she can't see what happened. And I'm not asking Dustin to do it because he's my brother, and –"

Steve shook his head, amusement all over his face, before he grabbed the hand with the gauze in it.

"You're so cute when you babble."

That more than anything made Jessica stop short. For a few brief seconds she felt like air wasn't getting into her system right, and her face became hot. She wasn't even aware of Steve taking the gauze from her hands and leading her to the bed so she could sit. She only snapped out of it when Steve handed her the tube of anti-bacteria cream.

"You okay?"

"You called me cute," she said, as if he hadn't been there when he'd done it. "You called me cute."

Steve grinned and shrugged. "So? You're standing there in loose clothing and wet hair, trying to think of reason why you shouldn't ask for help while also asking for it. You're cute."

Surprisingly it wasn't awkward at all when she lifted her shirt up and held it there for Steve to wrap the bandages around her – maybe because he'd already done it the night before, she didn't know, but even after his comment she felt completely comfortable having him do this for her, and he seemed comfortable doing it for her.
----------
On the way to Steve's house, Jessica's mind wandered briefly – it wasn't that long of a drive. She thought about how everything looked so normal. The sun was shining, the sky was blue with little puffs of white clouds here and there. People were out walking, enjoying the day even though it was chilly outside, it being the middle of November and all.

She'd woken up and fixed breakfast as she'd done so many times before, and they'd eaten at the table as a family as they usually did when one of them cooked. Steve wasn't usually there, of course, but he'd been very welcome at their table.

She'd showered, gotten dressed, and was heading over to Steve's house. Tomorrow she'd go to school and get her make-up assignments. She wouldn't have to work because of the doctor's excuse, but she'd just go hang out somewhere during working hours so her mom wouldn't get suspicious.

It felt weird that things weren't weird. She hadn't even had nightmares, though that could have been because she'd been too completely drained to have a nightmare.

"I kind of feel like the sun shouldn't have come up this morning," she admitted. "I mean . . ."

"I know. Everything's different, but we have to act like it's the same."

"Yeah."

The thing was . . . she didn't know if she could pretend like everything was the same. She had been to an alternate dimension, had met a girl with super powers, had come face-to-face with a monster, so of course nothing was the same.

And now she felt like crying.

"Steve?" Her voice was hushed and wet, and he glanced at her even though he was driving. "How do we do that?"

"I dunno," he said. "I guess we're just gonna have to be dumb teenagers."

"I've never been a dumb teenager."

"Well, then . . . keep me from being a dumb teenager."

She grinned a little. "Well, I've got my work cut out for me then."

Steve laughed then, which made her laugh, and it wasn't long after that that they were in his driveway.

Once inside the Harrington house Jessica made herself at home in the living room while Steve went to get cleaned up. Knowing him, he could take forever, especially if he planned on fixing his hair.

She turned the TV on to a news channel to see if word had gotten out about Will yet, and it had. The news reporters were baffled about how exactly there had been a body to bury when, obviously, Will Byers wasn't dead.

They were playing it off as "The Boy Who Came Back to Life", but Hopper had given a statement about how the medical examiner that had done the autopsy hadn't done the lab work properly and the boy that had been dragged from the quarry hadn't really been Will.

The night Will had disappeared, he'd really only gotten lost in the woods and the reason he hadn't been able to respond to anyone that had been looking for him was because he'd lost consciousness. He was sick due to being out in the cold, and he needed time to recover.

Hopper also stated that any reporters caught harassing the Byers' would be taken into custody. The police would probably be kept busy then.
----------
About thirty minutes later, Steve was back downstairs, ready to take Jessica to get her car. He'd cleaned up as much as he could, given that his face was still bruised and busted from his fight with Byers the day before.

Jessica was watching TV, though she was half-asleep on his couch.

"Hey, you gonna be okay to drive?" She hadn't gotten much sleep, and she was on pain medication.

"Yeah." Her eyes widened slightly. "Just got too still for too long, I think."

She stood up and slowly stretched, grimaced because of the movement, before heading to the door.

"I might, um, come back here. I'll drop Dustin off at the hospital and come back."

"Okay. You wanna hang or crash or what?"

"Maybe both."

Once in the car she turned to face Steve. He'd been about to start the car but could feel she was about to say something important, so he waited.

"I still don't like you being home alone. Something could happen, and I wouldn't know because they would cover it up."

"Nothing's gonna happen to me."

He was more worried about her, to be honest, because she'd been more involved than he had. If either of them was a target, it wouldn't be him.

"Anyway, I'll get some movies or something and we can order a pizza later."

"Sounds like a plan."
----------
Jessica's car was right where she left it the night before, in the Byers' driveway.

"Hey, I'm gonna follow you for a bit," Steve said. "Make sure you don't swerve or anything."

"Okay." It made sense because her house came first, and he could just go by when she pulled into her driveway.

Her driving was fine, though, and she didn't feel any different mentally from the pain pill she'd taken.

Jessica was planning on just picking Dustin up and leaving, but Hopper's truck was in her driveway. She waved Steve on by when he stopped and asked if she wanted him to stay.

"It's just Hopper, so it's probably nothing."

She couldn't help thinking, though, what now? It probably was nothing, but that didn't stop dread from filling her stomach as she got closer to her front door. Her breakfast threatened to come back up, and that was the last thing she needed, the stress of vomiting.

Her mom and Dustin were both in the living room talking to Hopper when she went inside. Everyone looked her way so she froze where she was, screen door still open before banging shut behind her, making her flinch.

Neither her mother nor her brother seemed upset at all, so maybe nothing was wrong as she'd told Steve.

"Hey," she said. "What's going on?"

"Remember how you asked last night if you were in trouble?" Hopper asked. "I said no, and you're not in trouble with me. I didn't think about it because of everything that was happening then, but I thought about it today, that you might be in trouble with your mom."

"Okay . . ."

"I told her about the fire at the Byers' house and how you were late because you were helping Jonathan. The phone was kind of destroyed, so you couldn't call."

"Right," she said. "The fire. I-" She looked at her mom. "I didn't call because of the phone, and there was a fire. I didn't mention it because of all the excitement with finding Will, and apparently my brain isn't functioning properly today."

"Understandable." Hopper turned back to her mom. "Ms. Henderson, I'm sorry for any misunderstandings. As for Dustin and his friends, they're not in any trouble either. I let them in the school last night so they could do an experiment. We had the school's permission. There was a . . . some chemical thing, and I can't explain it because science has never been my subject, but that's why there was such a fuss. The building is safe now, and school will resume tomorrow. There was a wall that was damaged, and that part of the building will be closed, but everything else will remain the same."

"Man!" Dustin exclaimed.

Jessica grinned at her brother's reaction because she knew he actually liked school – only because of science class – but if the school hadn't been cleaned he could have spent more time with Will.

Speaking of . . . "Did you need anything?" she asked Hopper. "Dustin and I were going to go see Will."

"Nope. I've pretty much covered everything."

"Great." She sent him a genuine smile. "Thank you."

He hadn't had to think of them at all or the trouble they may or may not have been in, and he hadn't had to care enough to come get them out of it if they had been.

"No problem, kid."
----------
On the way to the hospital Jessica told Dustin that she'd probably come in for a minute but that she was going back to Steve's.

"Why?"

"Because Steve's alone and I'm not completely sure we're actually safe from these lab guys. Everyone else has someone to go to home to. He doesn't."

"Hm, and you kind of like the guy."

"Well, he is my best friend," she said, intentionally being clueless.

"Jess, you've been in love with that douche bag for almost two years. And you still are or you wouldn't have put up with him. You don't hang around other people who act like he does."

That was true. She'd never willingly hung out with Tommy or Carol. They'd just sort of become a package deal when hanging with Steve. And she'd always called them out on their crap. If it weren't for Steve, though, she probably wouldn't have even known who they were, and they definitely wouldn't have known who she was.

"Look, you can't say anything to him. He and Nancy just broke up, and I don't want that . . . influencing anything."

Dustin scoffed. "Like I'm really gonna talk to that loser."

She felt a giggle bubble up her chest and burst out of her mouth. It hurt her stomach, but it was worth it to feel the joy that laughing could bring.

Dustin didn't really know Steve despite the fact that she'd been friends with him almost since the time they'd moved to Hawkins. But Steve could be a douche bag and a loser. Maybe he'd do better now, though, since he'd seemed to have learned his lesson.

Chapter Text

Will recovered pretty well over the next week, though his cough remained. Joyce confided in Jessica the fact that when she and Hopper had found Will, he'd had some tube-like thing down his throat, which was probably why the cough remained. His throat was probably irritated, and there was no way to know what exactly the tube had been doing, or why it had been in him.

Will was at home now, though he still hadn't returned to school. The environment of the Upside Down was extremely toxic – to the point that Hopper and Joyce had been made to wear haz-mat suits to go in – and the lab doctors didn't want Will around a lot of people until they were certain he wasn't contagious.

They were pretty sure he wasn't, it was just that he'd been over there for almost a full week, and they needed to make sure. Neither Nancy nor Jessica had shown any sign of illness and they had been over there, too, if only for fifteen minutes.

Jessica had nightmares about those fifteen minutes – that and the night she'd been clawed. She dreamed at least once every night. She'd been right about having been too tired to dream that first day, but now . . . boy, did she dream. She'd even taken to sleeping with the light on because it helped ground her when she woke up terrified. If there was light, then she wasn't in the Upside Down because there was no light over there.

Other than the nightmares, though, everything continued on as they normally did. She went to school and, after that first week, to work. She spent time with Steve when she could – without Tommy and Carol because Steve hadn't gone back to them – and worried about him when she wasn't with him. His parents were back home, though, and even though he was still essentially alone he had people at the house with him.

At school, things weren't that much different aside from the fact that everyone had heard about the fight between Jonathan and Steve and that Steve had lost big time. The proof was on his face, which still hadn't cleared up much. It wasn't swollen anymore, but the cuts were still there and the skin was still discolored.

Everyone knew about Nancy and Steve breaking up as well, but that wasn't big news because Steve didn't usually stay with the same girl for long anyway. The longest relationship he'd ever had with a girl was with Jessica, which didn't count because she'd never been his girlfriend.

For the few days his parents hadn't been home, Steve had picked Jessica up for school and taken her home. Because of her wounds Steve was allowed to carry her bag for her to her classes and it excused him from being late to his own.

She had her car now, though, because his parents were home, and she was at work, in the ticket booth. It was Friday and not as slow as other days usually were. Her wounds were healed up enough that she was sure they were not going to open up again, but sudden movement still made pain shoot through her.

Jonathan had started coming back to work, but he usually worked the custodial position. He preferred it that way because it meant he didn't really have to talk to anyone. Mostly he just cleaned up the popcorn on the floor after each movie and took the garbage bags out to the alley dumpster. Occasionally he was responsible for the bathrooms depending on the shift he was working.

They talked more than they used to, but it was only in passing at work because they weren't usually in the same area. She was strictly ticket booth and concession counter.

They talked at school – they all did: her, Nancy, Steve, and Jonathan. Steve and Jonathan were still a little iffy around each other, but they both had a sort of understanding that if one of those creatures ever came back around, they would have each other's back.

Jessica hung out at the Byers' house more often than before because she took Dustin over to visit Will – especially if he wasn't going to be back before dark. She didn't trust the night time as much as she used to, and the Byers' didn't live in town. Usually Mike and Lucas were there as well, still grateful that Will was alive and there with them, though she could tell that Mike was still messed up about El because he was more withdrawn than she'd ever seen him. He'd gotten close to her even though she'd been with them for only a week, and now he missed her terribly.

Joyce was keeping Will caught up with his school work – or Jonathan was, at her request. He picked up Will's assignments on his way home from school. Will had all the help he needed because they were all willing to help him.

The Byers house had been fixed – the hole Joyce had made with an ax, and the part of the roof that had collapsed under the pressure of the demogorgan ripping into their world.

It was close to Christmas vacation now, and Jessica had gone half-and-half with her mom on an Atari game system for Dustin. She would let him pick out a game for it later because she had no idea about those kinds of things.

She even asked Joyce if it was okay if she bought Will a new sketch pad because Will loved drawing, and his work was actually pretty detailed for someone his age. Plus, with everything he'd gone through he might need an outlet other than talking, and art was a healthy way to do that. Joyce had been fine with it – she was going to buy him new Crayons anyway, the pack that had over a hundred in it.

Jessica had no idea what to get Mike or Lucas – or Steve for that matter, but they always gave each other at least one thing every Christmas and every birthday, so she'd figure it out eventually.

At one point over Christmas break when Jessica was over at the Byers' place, she noticed that Jonathan had a new camera. She knew Joyce hadn't bought it because he never would have told her that his old one had been broken.

"You replaced your camera."

"Nancy gave it to me," he said, and then with a shy but knowing smile, "I think Harrington bought it, but obviously he couldn't give it to me himself."

"Right." She chuckled while beginning to feel warmth fill her insides. If Steve had bought Jonathan a camera to replace the one he'd dropped to the ground on purpose it was only fair, but it also meant that he really did want to make things right.

"No more sneaking pictures, though, right?"

"Right, well, I was only going to sneak them of you," he teased.

And with that he snapped a picture and she pretended to be offended.

"You better not develop that one."

"Why not? That'll be a great picture."

If he said so . . . He was the one who knew photography.
----------
Two days later Jonathan showed her the picture he'd taken and he'd been right. It was a good picture. Not planned, obviously, so she hadn't been posing. Her face was open and bright, but there was also a softness to it. She'd been thinking of Steve, specifically him trying to do better and be better, and that was the moment Jonathan had captured.

She was unguarded in the picture, having been in a playful mood. She'd been comfortable and it showed in the way she'd been dressed – loose-fitting shirt and jeans – and the way her hair had been up in a messy bun, a few strands down and framing her face.

And this was going to be Steve's Christmas present – or part of it anyway.

"Can I have this?"

"Sure. It is you."

"Thanks. Now . . . where's the best place to get a nice frame?"

She settled on a light brown wooden frame, one that was just expensive enough that it wouldn't break easily. She placed the picture in it and wrapped it. She wrote Steve a little note and put it in an envelope before taping it to the wrapping paper.

This wasn't anything big, but she thought Steve would appreciate it, or at least she hoped he would. Especially the note she'd attached.

She gave it to him the day before Christmas and told him not to open it until he got home and to make sure he was alone when he read the note.

At that moment, though, they were just cruising around in her car. Steve had bought her a whole collection of cassettes of her favorite bands – mostly rock and pop – and they were now listening to one of them.

Snow was falling slowly from the sky, but the roads were safe – obviously, or she wouldn't have been driving around on them. Her hand was no longer bandaged, and there was only a faint line where the cut had been. Her stomach was mostly healed now too, but the scar lines there were pink instead of white, and she still felt some discomfort whenever she moved too suddenly.

Steve's face had healed, and there were no marks left behind. She hoped he'd remember them, though, and why he'd gotten them.

"So, you're coming over tomorrow, right?" Steve asked. "Please save me from all my dad's friends and the uncomfortable silences."

The Harrington's had an annual get together early in the day on Christmas. She usually went because he always invited her. He really did hate the parties his parents threw.

"I'll come for a little while." She sent him a grin. "Then I'm stealing you away so you can have dinner with me and my family."

It was sad, but his parents wouldn't miss him, and they didn't really have Christmas dinner, anyway, not after having the party.

"That – that's awesome." Then, "Why can't I open my present now?"

"Because I asked you not to."

The truth was . . . she was a little embarrassed by the note she'd written and didn't want to be in his presence when he read it.
----------
When Steve got home that night he went to his room almost immediately. He gave his mom a quick 'hi' but that was it. That wasn't unusual, but he had a reason that night to want to get to his room.

He was curious about the note Jessica had written him. He could tell what the gift was by the feel of it, but he didn't know why she'd felt the need to write about it.

He unwrapped the present thinking he was going to find an old picture of them together, something to remind him of the friendship they'd shared and could share again now that he'd realized how much of a jerk he'd allowed himself to become.

But that wasn't what the picture showed. This wasn't a picture he'd seen before. The picture had been taken at the Byers' place – he recognized the background. She was seated on the couch, he could tell even though the picture was a close-up, her shoulders and her face. She was facing the camera, but she wasn't eyeing it, so she'd been taken by surprise. She'd been caught smiling – not beaming, but as if she were thinking of something that made her happy and maybe a little wistful. She'd also been caught in every day clothes. Clothes she wore at home when she knew she wasn't going anywhere, clothes that oozed comfort and relaxation. That meant she considered Jonathan a friend if she allowed herself to relax around him.

Her hair was up, but some of her curls framed her face messily. It made him smile. He loved when her hair was messy; it always seemed to fall in a way that made it seem as if she'd fixed it that way, as if she wanted it messy.

He moved on to the note then, opening it carefully. At a quick glance he saw that it wasn't very long, and he wondered again why she'd written it and why she couldn't have just told him instead. Then he read:

Dear Steve,

Jonathan is enjoying his new camera. He told me Nancy gave it to him, but he suspects that you bought it. I believe he's right. He snapped this picture of me when he told me that and when I realized it means that you really do want to make things right.

Admitting you're wrong and doing the right thing can be hard, but it is worth it, and I am proud of you. That's what Jonathan snapped a picture of – me being proud of you.

Love,
Jess

Steve had not set out trying to make Jessica happy or proud of him when he'd bought Byers the new camera. He hadn't even wanted the guy to know he'd been the one to buy it, which was why he'd given it to Nancy to give to him, but Byers wasn't stupid.

He hadn't expected Jessica to find out, though, and he really hadn't expected to have her proud of him. His heart jumped at the thought because not many people had ever expressed that particular emotion towards him. He found that he liked it, and that it was coming from Jessica . . . made it better, sweeter. He cared what she thought about him, what she thought about in general, and hoped that one day she'd be able to tell him she was proud of him out loud and not just on paper.
----------
When Jessica arrived at the Harrington's the next day, Steve met her at the door. They had to mingle for at least fifteen minutes so they wouldn't seem rude, but then they went up to his room. He put on some soft pop music on the radio.

She immediately found the picture she'd given him on his nightstand. If he wanted to, he could look at it before going to sleep. It was lined up with where his head would be placed on his pillow. The note was propped up against the side of the frame.

"Did you like your present?"

"I did," Steve said, smiling. "It's . . . different."

"Well, I seriously didn't know what to get you because you pretty much have everything you could possibly need. Then Jonathan took that picture and showed it to me. When he took it, I basically told him to get rid of it, but he didn't because he said it was gonna be a good one."

"He wasn't wrong."

She felt a smile begin to form at the compliment. She was happy he was satisfied with his gift and had even kept the note.

At her full height, Jessica still only reached Steve's chin, so she always had to lean her head back just a little to look into his eyes if they were standing close together, as they were.

"I meant what I wrote, Steve. I am proud of you."

Steve didn't get flustered or embarrassed easily, but he lowered his gaze away from hers as a shy smile came over his lips.

"Thanks."

She shrugged sheepishly as she felt a certain type of awkwardness fall over them, the kind that happens when there's a mutual attraction but neither person is brave enough to do anything about it. It didn't last long, but it had been there.

The thing was, they were great friends, and they obviously meant more than that to each other – but if they allowed themselves to feel that and do something about it, it could mess up what they already had. It scared her.

"Steve?" she whispered without really understand why she was doing it. She just thought speaking loudly would ruin the moment.

"Shh," he hushed, brown eyes suddenly softer but also sad. "You don't have to say anything. With everything that's happened –"

"I'm afraid," she blurted out. "Okay? I am afraid."

"Of what?" he asked, gently grabbing her arms and sliding his hands over them. "Of . . . me?"

"No!" she quickly assured him. "No. But there's something here between us, Steve. We've both felt it. Or . . . I hope you have, and that I didn't just embarrass myself."

He nodded, pulled her a little closer. "It's there. What's so scary about it?"

"Because it's us. You're my best friend. And if we did this and one of us messed up and we ended it, then we wouldn't be able to be best friends anymore. We wouldn't be able to, not after . . ."

"And what if we didn't mess it up?" He was speaking softly, his hands cupping her face now, her hands on his chest. "What if we tried and things went right?"

"Well, I –"

She'd honestly never thought of that because she'd only ever considered what would happen if things went wrong.

Steve's lips touched her cheek briefly and her breath caught in her throat at the contact. He caught her gaze with his and her heart fluttered at the small, sincere smile on his face. He had kissed her cheek before and she had kissed his, and it had never been a big deal, but this time it was. This was a turning point, so to speak, for them to either embrace their feelings and move forward or to ignore them and keep things the same as they had been.

"Was there anything scary about that?"

"Uh . . ." Her hands tightened over his shirt. "I'm not sure. Maybe we should try again."

His face brightened at her teasing, but he did as she'd requested only this time he kissed her lips instead of her cheek. As their lips met, Jessica felt something loosen inside her chest. She'd been waiting for this, she realized, waiting for Steve to want this with her and he finally did.

The kiss didn't last long – it was actually more an innocent skin-on-skin brush of the lips – but it was a good first kiss, and it made her feel warm inside because it was Steve she was kissing.

"Whoa," she whispered before biting her lip.

"Tell me about it," he said, hugging her to him.

She returned the hug and pretty much just nuzzled her face against his chest like a cat would when someone was petting it.

She wasn't afraid anymore. Sure, something could happen, but they actually cared about each other. They could at least try this out and see where it would lead.
----------
Christmas dinner at the Henderson household was not a huge affair at all. They had ham, mashed potatoes, green beans, and coleslaw for supper. The best part was her mom's homemade apple pie, still warm, with ice cream.

Everyone ate at the table, Jessica and Steve sitting across from each other. They shared not-so-secret smiles with each other, and Dustin kept glancing between them with an arched eyebrow. He even gave her a grin, and a mischievous one at that. It was enough to make her blush and look down at the table.

Dustin knew – somehow – that things had shifted between her and Steve even though her mom was oblivious. How'd he know? They weren't acting differently, really. They just smiled at each other more.

She wondered then what people at school would say when they found out she was with Steve now. They hadn't discussed it, really, but they had kissed and to her that meant they were together now. People knew Steve's reputation and would probably assume things that weren't true. She would just have to deal with it. She couldn't control what people thought or said. She could only control how she reacted to it.

After everything was put away from dinner but while Dustin and Jessica were still washing the dishes, Dustin brought up the topic of Steve. He said, "I thought I was gonna have to put up some mistletoe for you guys, but I see my help is not needed."

"Hush!"

Steve was still in the kitchen, at the table. There was nothing for him to do really, so he was just sitting there.

"What? You were basically kissing with your eyes! I don't know how Mom missed it."

Her face was flaming and probably beet red. She was tempted to throw the dish rag at Dustin's face, but that would just make a mess that she would have to clean up.

"You're not allowed to kiss in front of me."

"Dustin!"

"What?"

"Lay off her, dude," Steve said, though he didn't seem upset. He actually sounded amused, if she was being honest with herself.

She wasn't upset at Dustin either, but he did need to let it go. It was not okay to tease her. Everything was new, and she wasn't exactly secure in the fact that she was now with Steve.

"Hey, go help your mom in the living room," Steve said. "I'll take it from here."

Dustin had been drying the dishes once Jessica washed and rinsed them. That was Steve's job now.

"You okay?" he asked after Dustin left the kitchen.

"Mm-hm. I just didn't know he would figure it out so soon."

"Do you . . . not want people to know?"

She could tell that he was hurt just by the thought of her wanting to keep them a secret. That wasn't what she wanted at all. She wanted to be open about it, but . . .

"I . . . Dustin's my brother. He's supposed to tease me. But what if everyone else does too?"

"Well, now that we're together you know I'm gonna be with you whenever I can between classes, and we share a few, so . . ."

"Right." She had never cared about what anyone had thought about her before, and she shouldn't care now. "I'm just being weird."

Steve was her first real boyfriend, though. She'd been on dates and gone to parties with different guys, but none that she'd actually cared about. They'd never been Steve.

"You're always weird," he quipped. "But that's okay."

He bumped her hip with his playfully, and just like that her mood lifted.

"So . . . we're gonna have to suffer through whatever Christmas movie Mom picked out before you go home. Is that okay?"

That was a Henderson tradition. They would always watch a holiday movie after Christmas dinner. Most of the time Jessica lost interest within fifteen minutes and fell asleep on the couch, but this time Steve was beside her. Instead of falling asleep, she used the time to get acquainted with Steve's hand. It had been resting between them, on the couch, and she'd slowly slid hers under his so she could slip her fingers between his.

Dustin saw this but didn't mention it; their mother may have noticed it, but her gaze remained glued to the TV.

She took in the small smile Steve gave her as he squeezed her hand, and she began rubbing small circles over the back of his hand with her thumb. It made his smile grow and she grinned at the effect she had on him.

Steve liked physical contact, she'd always known that. Jessica had never brought it up and she never would, but she thought it was because he never got the attention he needed from his parents – neither were big on showing affection at all – and so Steve got it elsewhere when he could.

She leaned her head against his shoulder. She'd done that before in front of Dustin and her mom, so it was no big deal for anyone but Steve and Jessica. It meant more that night, and eventually Jessica brought Steve's arm up and around her shoulders so she could rest more comfortably against him.

Her mom did look at them then. Even though her mom was usually oblivious to the things she and Dustin did – or at least appeared to be – she was noticing this, and she seemed to approve, which made Jessica happy

She still didn't pay much attention to the movie, but this time it was definitely not because she fell asleep. It was because of Steve Harrington and the adoring looks she sent him and that he returned. It was nice. More than nice; it was probably the best feeling she'd ever felt, warm and content – which meant a lot considering what they'd been through. It was almost weird to feel content after everything.

After the movie was over Jessica and Dustin opened their presents – every year they each got one expensive thing and the rest were small things. Action figures and comic books and things like that for Dustin. Lip gloss and other types of make-up for Jessica.

Dustin immediately went crazy when he opened his Atari and a game called Space Invaders with it. Mom had picked it out. It was not something Jessica would have picked, considering the monster thing they'd had to face not that long ago, but her mother didn't know about any of that.

Jessica went crazy too, but not over a game system. Her mother handed her a red box, one that obviously contained clothing. When she opened it, there was tissue paper surrounding the edges, but inside was a genuine leather jacket – not the dainty ones girls usually wore, either. This was more like the kind a biker would wear, something that looked nice but would also keep her warm.

"Mom?"

Jessica had never mentioned wanting a leather jacket – or any clothing period – but she had wanted one since she'd ruined the last one she'd had.

She held the jacket to her face and took in the coolness of the material. It felt smooth against her cheek, and it had a rich, earthy scent to it. She loved it.

She thanked her mom and hugged her before trying it on. It fit perfectly for her – meaning it was at least a size too big and she could squeeze it around herself.

"I love it!" she exclaimed. "I'm already coordinating outfits in my head."

Dustin rolled his eyes, but her mom smiled at her excitement while Steve took the time to appreciate his girlfriend in her new jacket.
----------
When the night was over, Jessica walked Steve out to his car. She was in her new leather jacket, so she was nice and warm.

She noticed that Steve became alert as soon as they stepped outside. He looked around, shoulders tense, as if he were expecting an attack at any moment. With what they knew was around, she couldn't blame him.

"It bothers me too," she admitted. "Unless I'm working or with you or one of the others, I don't like being out at night."

At the car she gave him a quick kiss on the lips. Knowing her brother, he'd probably be watching from the window. The hug she gave him lasted longer.

"You'll call me when you get home, right? Let me know you're okay."

"Sure."

He kissed her once more, longer this time, because he didn't really care if her brother saw them. She grabbed onto his jacket, suddenly wondering if she really wanted him to go. He could crash on the couch again.

She felt him smile against her lips, so she pulled away.

"What?"

"You realize we got together on Christmas, so we are basically gifts to each other."

"Well, that just means we have to take care of each other," she said, meaning every word.

"I like the sound of that."

Chapter Text

One day in early January, once school was back in session, was when the kids at school started talking about Steve and Jessica. Some of their classmates made remarks such as 'finally' or 'what took you so long?' Those people were happy that they'd gotten over themselves and were now together.

There were some who were just plain uninterested. Those were Jessica's favorite because it really had nothing to do with anyone but her and Steve what was going on between her and Steve.

But then there were the jerks like Tommy and Carol, and some of Steve's old jock friends, who couldn't mind their own business or keep their mouths shut. Carol said that if she was willing to sleep with Byers then it didn't surprise her at all that she was with Steve. That was all because of the Nancy thing they'd all been part of the year before. It was like they had some square-relationship thing going, which was just ridiculous because neither Steve nor Jessica had been showing affection to anyone but each other.

And they did show affection – kissing in the parking lot outside one of their cars, kissing at their lockers between classes, or holding hands in the hallways while walking. Nothing inappropriate, really, just couple things, and they had nothing to do with Jonathan or Nancy – or anyone, for that matter. But it didn't stop Carol from making up stories.

And the thing was, Steve's reputation was being used against them both. Steve had been seen with a lot of girls – certain types of girls, girls who didn't want a relationship, just fun for a few nights, or even just one night – and so any girl he got with had to be that type. Even though Jessica had no reputation when it came to guys, the fact that she was with Steve now gave her one.

It was stupid, and Steve hated that his behavior had brought her name down, even if what Carol said wasn't true. Only certain people believed it, anyway. The ones who actually knew Jessica didn't listen to a word of it. They knew she wouldn't have slept with Jonathan Byers because she'd only just started talking to him around the time of Will's disappearance. Now . . . Steve, on the other hand, everyone seemed to know she'd liked him for a while and it wouldn't have surprised them if they had slept together already because they'd known each other for years. They hadn't slept together, though. The ones who knew her didn't care, however, because it wasn't their business what she was doing with her boyfriend.

Steve was bothered by the rumors flying more than Jessica was. Even though she'd been anxious about it before, she didn't care now that she knew it was only Tommy and Carol, and people like them, that were talking trash about her and Steve. They really weren't worth her time.
----------
It was also in January that Chief Hopper got everyone together – the kids and the teens that had been involved in the Upside Down fiasco – in the one interrogation room the police station had. No one knew what they were doing there, but Jessica had had to lie to her mom about it. Well, Hopper had, anyway. He'd been waiting for her when she'd gotten home from school. All he'd said was that she and Dustin needed to come down to the station once Dustin came home.

He just needed to talk to them, they weren't in trouble, but it was easier to do it at the station. So there they were.

At first it was just her and Dustin. Then Steve. Nancy and Mike, along with Lucas. Joyce, Jonathan, and Will.

"Hop, why are we here?" Joyce asked after they'd all settled into the interrogation room.

There wasn't much space left. The room hadn't been made for this many people.

"A doctor from the lab wants to speak with you guys about –"

"What?" and "No way" filled the air. Had they really been called here because of Hawkins Lab? Weren't these people through with them yet?

"Chill out, chill out!" Hopper said. "They want to know how you guys are, which really means they want to make sure you're not gonna break and spill about anything."

"Maybe we should," Nancy said.

She felt that way because of Barb. Aside from Will, Nancy was probably the one who'd lost the most – Barb had been her friend for years. And the thing was no one could admit she was dead, so everyone just assumed she was missing, had run away. No one else had been close to Barb, so Nancy probably felt alone in her grief.

Then there was Mike, who'd lost El. No, they hadn't been friends for years, but they'd connected on a level that was more than just friendship. According to Nancy, Mike sometimes fell asleep in the basement now. He tried communicating with El every night using the walkie-talkie.

The whole Byers' family seemed pale and withdrawn. Will was having nightmares – probably worse than the ones Jessica had – but he had a clean bill of health. The cough had gone away completely almost two weeks ago, but his skin was still paler than it used to be, and he had dark circles under his eyes. So did Joyce and Jonathan though. Jessica wondered if they were having nightmares too.

Hopper stayed with them while the doctor from the lab talked to them. The doctor was a middle-aged woman with brown hair, and she seemed nice enough and she really did have a psychology degree. She was willing to give them sessions twice a month if they felt they needed it.

"You expect us to trust you after everything?" Joyce asked.

"We don't, actually." She'd introduced herself as Dr. Lisa Lancaster. "Which is why Hopper has agreed to bring you to each session, should you decide you need him to, if you choose to accept the offer."

Jessica's initial reaction was 'absolutely not' because this was the same lab that had made it possible for a creature from another dimension to come to their world and take Will and kill Barb – and maybe a few other people they didn't even know about. Ben's death had been because he'd helped El, and Hopper had said at least two hunters had gone missing and he suspected it had something to do with the lab.

But Joyce asked, "Can you help him? He has nightmares even when he's awake."

Poor Will, Jessica thought. At least she had nightmares only at night when she was sleeping.

"He's having flashbacks. It's a form and symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder. There's been a lot of research dealing with soldiers coming back from war. They can get triggered by loud noises or flashes of light, maybe even by getting grabbed suddenly."

"Will?" Jonathan asked. "You have any of that stuff?"

Will shook his head.

"I don't like sleeping in the dark anymore," Jessica admitted, and Will did nod at that.

"Same," he said. "Or I like to turn a light on as soon as I open my eyes."

"Oh, why didn't you say anything?" Joyce asked. She didn't sound mad at anyone but herself. Her son was frightened and there was nothing she could do. As a parent, that was probably one of the hardest things to go through.

"Dustin?" Jessica prompted.

"I'm completely fine. I wondered why you were keeping the light on, though. I thought maybe Steve was just sneaking in your window or something."

"Dustin!"

The thing was, the first time she'd had the nightmare about the Upside Down and getting stuck there she'd screamed herself awake. Nothing super loud – her mom hadn't even heard it – but Dustin's room was right next to hers and he'd rushed in. She didn't know what he'd been planning to do if she'd been in trouble because he hadn't had a weapon, but the point was that he'd come for her when he'd heard her in distress. He was a good brother. But he hadn't been having nightmares and she didn't understand why.

Lucas said he was fine as well. Nancy didn't want to talk because there was nothing anyone could do for her problem. Jonathan was not a share-your-pain kind of person. Mike's pain couldn't really be helped either. Joyce, however, reserved the right to accept later if Will didn't get better.

Jessica didn't trust the woman, no matter how nice she seemed, and Steve claimed to be fine, though she knew he wasn't, but she also reserved the right to change her mind if she decided to.
----------
After they got out of the police station, Jessica, Dustin, and Steve went to a small BBQ place nearby – mostly just for the fries and drinks – and ate together. They sat in a booth, Dustin and Jessica on one side, Steve on the other. There was an arcade across the street, and Dustin went there with a handful of quarters after he was done eating.

"So, why didn't you tell me you were having nightmares?" Steve asked.

"For the same reason you keep telling everyone you're fine. Are you having nightmares?"

"No," he said. "But I'm not getting much sleep either. It's . . . Whatever. Ya know? Don't worry about it."

"But I do." She nudged his leg with her foot. "You know I do."

If Steve kept losing sleep, it was going to affect him in some way. Through his grades, maybe, which were only good enough to keep him on the basketball team, or through him maybe getting hurt while playing basketball, which would wreck his chances of getting into a decent college, because his dad had already said if Steve didn't follow into the real estate business that he wouldn't pay for him to go to college. Steve would have to either do what his dad wanted or work extra hard in school for the rest of the year and into the next so he could up his chances of getting a scholarship – and he couldn't rely only on basketball.

"Yeah, I know you do," he admitted. "I get a couple hours of sleep every night. I doze off and on during the day when I'm not doing anything else."

"I go to sleep," Jessica said, "without a problem. But then I have a nightmare whether the light is on or not, and it takes a while to get back to sleep. I keep . . . thinking about that place."

"The Upside Down?"

"Yeah. I –" She took a deep breath. "I was over there for a little bit. With Nancy. The first night we went out looking for that monster. We found an opening, and Nancy decided it would be a good idea to go in. She wanted to find Barb."

"You never said anything."

Jessica shrugged. "We were only over there for about fifteen minutes, but that thing chased us. We heard Jonathan calling for us, but we couldn't – we couldn't find him because the place we'd gone in had already closed."

Jessica could picture everything as if she were there – the dark, ashy atmosphere that made it hard to breathe, the complete silence that surrounded them until the thing had growled at them, the nasty, slimy web-cocoon stuff they had crawled through – and her heart began to race. Not in the good way that Steve caused either. No, this was the way she felt when she woke up from a nightmare, heart thudding so hard it almost made her want to vomit.

"Hey," Steve said, bringing her out of it. He'd moved from the booth across from her and slid onto the one she was sitting on. "Hey, it's okay."

But it wasn't really because whatever had just happened had caused her to start shaking, and her breath to come in gasps – she couldn't get enough air.

"Steve!" She grabbed his arms and squeezed. "I can't – I can't breathe!"

"What? What do I do?"

She didn't know. It had never been this bad before, but she'd never talked about it either.

"Steve!"

She buried her head against his chest and he wrapped his arms around her, gently at first and then more tightly when she began to cling to him.

"I'm here," he said softly. "You're here. We're together and you are not in that place. Okay?"

He just kept talking like that until she calmed down, but even when she got her breath back she felt like she wanted to cry and kept her face hidden so he wouldn't see.

She couldn't believe she was breaking down in the middle of a restaurant. It was embarrassing, and people would probably talk. That was just one of the hazards of living in a small town.
----------
When Jessica had started panicking – Steve didn't know what else to call it – he hadn't really known what to do. All he knew was that she didn't need to feel alone at all and she needed an anchor to ground herself, so he'd let her use him as one. If she was there in the real world holding onto him, then she wasn't in the Upside Down without him.

When she was calm enough he paid for their food and then led her to his car. They'd driven separately, so they had both cars, but until Dustin came back out or Jessica went to get him, they could just relax in the BMW with the heat running, music playing.

Jessica was still trembling. Steve felt horrible for not really being able to help, but he'd never seen Jessica do anything like that before. He'd never seen anyone do that before, though he'd felt that way himself the night he'd seen that monster. He'd never been so scared before. Any unusual shaped shadow freaked him out at night now, but he still couldn't imagine waking up thinking he was stuck in a messed up alternate dimension, and that's what Jessica seemed to be going through every night.

At least she was breathing easily now and not crying anymore, even if a few tremors passed through her every now and then.

"Are you . . . okay?" he asked hesitantly, afraid of causing another panic attack.

She gave a half-hearted shrug, ducking her head. She hadn't really made eye contact with him since they'd made it to the car.

"Does that happen often?"

Steve couldn't handle thinking about her waking up alone and not having anyone to help her through whatever that had been.

"No, that's the first time I've lost control like that. I mean, I wake up afraid, but I don't cry or –" She did look at him then, "- I'm sorry."

"No, it's –" He wanted to say it was fine, but nothing was fine. Nothing should happen in anyone's life to make them react that way. "You should be able to tell me these things. Okay? We should – we should be able to tell each other these things."

"Right. But still –"

"No. No buts. I – I never took Nancy seriously enough when she tried to talk to me about things. I don't wanna make that mistake with you."

Now Steve felt like panicking because Jessica's eyes had filled with tears again. What had he said that was bad enough to make her want to cry? Nothing had been offensive or hurtful, he didn't think, but what did he know about girls, really? And he was good at messing up without realizing it until after the fact.

"What'd I do?"

"Nothing."

"Then why're you crying?"

"I don't know!" she exclaimed. "You just said that stuff about not wanting to make mistakes with me, and it made me feel like crying again."

Steve decided it was best to just keep his mouth shut for a while rather than risk upsetting her further.

In the end, that worked.
----------
Jessica had calmed down by the time Dustin came out of the arcade, but her eyes were still puffy and her face was still red when he found them.

"What'd you do to my sister, you douche bag?"

"Nothing!" Steve exclaimed.

"Then why's she crying?"

"Dustin, he really didn't do anything. Okay? I'm just feeling a little messed up today. That lab lady didn't help."

Whatever righteous indignation Dustin must have felt at the thought of Steve having hurt his sister disappeared and he said, "Oh."

"Yeah. Are you ready to go home?"

Dustin nodded. "I'll go wait in the car while you kiss goodbye and stuff."

She sputtered out a laugh as he walked away and got into her car. She was sure Dustin had said that on purpose to try and lift her mood by the light teasing, and it did – a little – but still . . .

"He doesn't have nightmares," she said. "How does he not have nightmares? It's like it happened, but it hasn't really affected him negatively. He was able to –"

"He's younger. His friend came back. They do all the things they used to do. All they think is that if they keep their mouths shut they'll be safe. We . . . are not that naïve."

"Right. I do the things I used to do and I still freak out. Don't really feel safe anywhere anymore. I mean, what if the gate isn't really closed and – and there's more than one of those things?"

Steve tensed there in the driver's seat and said, "That thought had crossed my mind, but no one has mysteriously gone missing or . . . turned up dead. Nothing weird has happened since . . ."

"Yeah."

It made her feel better to know that she wasn't the only one keeping up with current events. Neither of them would have done that before all the Upside Down/demogorgan stuff, neither of them would have cared much, but now she watched the news at least twice a week.

Aside from the residual fear and grief, no one was going through anything considered weird. If they had been, whoever it was would've said something, Jessica was sure, and no one had.

"You know, if you're so afraid, I could always come over. Dustin already thought I was sneaking in . . ." he said suggestively.

"No," she said. "You don't have to sneak in. Mom doesn't care if you stay over, but you're not staying in my room. Dustin has the room next to mine. You know that."

"Comfort!" Steve said, grinning. "I was offering comfort."

"Sure you were."

She leaned towards him, head tilted just-so, and he briefly met her lips with his. If Dustin hadn't been waiting for her, the kiss would've lasted a lot longer, but he was, so it didn't.

"I really was talking about comfort," he declared, his brown eyes soft and warm. "I don't think your brother would allow much else."

"You're not wrong about that."

She was tempted, and her mom wouldn't care if Steve stayed the night – not in her room, obviously, and not in her bed, but . . .

"We should turn the guest room into an actual guest room," she said. "That way when your parents aren't home you'd have a place where you wouldn't have to be alone."

"So . . . I'll see you later tonight?" he asked hesitantly. "You kind of said no and yes within a minute."

"Yes. I'll let mom know you're coming."
----------
Steve went home for a few hours, mostly to shower and pick up a few things that he would need for school the next day.

To be honest, he was still a little freaked out by what had happened with Jessica at the restaurant. She hadn't been breathing right at all, and he hadn't known what to do because it had almost been as if she couldn't breathe right.

It had scared him, to say the least, and when he'd offered to go over that night, he really hadn't been thinking of anything other than making her feel better. As she'd said, her brother's room was right next to hers, and that kid was into everything and would have no problem bursting into her room if he felt like it.

That day in the car was not the first time Dustin had checked up on Steve to make sure he wasn't doing anything to upset his sister. Steve wasn't sure if he was just being a good brother or if he'd heard about what had happened with Nancy, but Dustin kept an eye on both of them. It didn't seem to bother Jessica, so it didn't really bother Steve.

Before Steve could leave the house, Jessica called to ask if, since he was staying over anyway, he wanted to make a movie night out of it, and that was fine with him.

"Cool," she said. "So . . . I can take care of the movies if you take care of the snacks."

"No problem. What d'you want?"

"Well, I've got the popcorn, so maybe some kind of chocolate and, um . . . soda? I guess. Dustin likes Three Musketeers."

"Okay. See you in an hour or so."
----------
Since Jessica now knew what they were going to be doing that night she and Dustin went to the video store.

"You can pick one movie," she told him, "but you still have to be in your bedroom at ten."

Dustin usually went to bed on time even if he didn't go to sleep until around midnight. As long as he got up and went to school on time, their mom didn't really care.

"So, are you guys sleeping together now?" Dustin asked. They were in the video store, so he wasn't being loud, but still . . . he had no filter and it didn't matter to him where they were.

"No, Dustin, we're not – we're not sleeping together. We've only been an actual couple for two weeks." she said. "Not that it's your business what Steve and I do."

"Eh, kind of is if you're going to be in the room next to mine."

"Dustin . . . I wouldn't . . . not with you around."

In fact, Steve had never mentioned sex at all, had never hinted at them doing anything other than kissing and some very light over-the-clothes petting.

"Okay," he said simply, and picked up a movie. Star Wars VI: Return of the Jedi. "I want this one."

She hated movies like that – well, she didn't hate them, but she couldn't get into them either.

Her expression must've given her away because Dustin said, "What? It'll give you and Steve time to suck face."

"We do not –" She broke off. "Do you not like Steve?"

"Does it matter?"

"Yes!" she said, louder than she probably should have. "It does, Dustin, because I would like for my boyfriend and my brother to get along. I'd like for you not to give him any crap tonight. Okay? I don't mind the teasing, but I don't like that you seem to think Steve only wants sex from me."

Dustin suddenly found the case he was holding very interesting. Jessica didn't get after him very often and she yelled at him even less than that. She usually couldn't find a problem with him, and she didn't really have a problem with him then, but with everything else that had happened that day, she couldn't deal with the comments coming from her brother.

She grabbed two more movies – Jaws and Christine – and led a silent and sullen Dustin to the counter to pay for the rentals.

Once out in the car, Jessica let them sit there for a few minutes in silence. She didn't like how she'd handled her brother's teasing.

"Dustie, I – I shouldn't have yelled at you. I'm – people have been giving me crap at school about dating Steve. I don't – I don't need it from you too, okay?"

All this she said gently in way of explanation and to make up for earlier.

Quietly, carefully, he said, "Are they calling you what they called Nancy?"

So he did know. Why had she ever thought that he wouldn't? They lived in a small town in Indiana. Of course he knew – all of the kids probably knew, and they knew Steve's part in it.

"Not exactly that, but close enough. And . . . Steve is trying, okay? That's why I just want you to cut him some slack. You don't have to be super nice to him or anything because that would be weird, but don't go out of your way to give him crap either. He . . . did some not good things before, but he realized they weren't good and he tried to make them right."

"I didn't know it was bothering you."

"It usually doesn't. Just . . . messed up today, like I said."

"Okay. I'll be nicer, but do I have to like him?"

"I hope you will one day. When you see that he doesn't want to hurt me."

And just like that, things were good between them again.