Steve passes his senior year. Barely, but passes nonetheless. He thinks maybe a few of his teachers gave him a pity pass but he takes it. His parents don't make it to the ceremony. They send him a huge bouquet of flowers and a card inside expressing their regrets. He thinks that really they were surprised he made it out of high school on his own and had made better plans. He feels like they always have better plans than him.
He has five tickets he won't use so he gives Dustin one and Nancy the rest. He doesn't care anymore, he thinks. He was never going to make his parents proud so he decides, at the very last minute, that he's going to go to the local community college and take some general classes and try to figure out what he wants to do. His dad, when he finds out, is irate. He tells Steve he won't pay for it but luckily Steve has a trust fund from when his grandfather had died that will pay for college. His mom passes him the information as she's leaving with his dad after he tells Steve its a university or nothing. He doesn't talk to his dad for a year afterwards.
He uses the trust fund to get an apartment in the next town over so he doesn't have to commute so far but he still goes home on the weekends at first. He misses Dustin and the other kids. Mostly he misses what he used to know. Eventually the classes get harder and Steve had decided when he got into college that even if it was “just a community college” he was going to take it seriously and do the best he could. Granted sometimes that was panicked phone calls to Nancy in New York asking her to explain his homework. Soon enough he makes friends and he finds out about campus help and he finds out that he likes school. He likes learning. Mostly he likes just being Steve and not that Harrington boy.
The summer after his first year he takes a class with a friend of his who is majoring in English and is trying to decide on getting a teaching degree or not. It's like a light goes off over his head. Steve decides that his major is going to be early childhood development one week into the class. He waits to tell his dad on Christmas so that when they leave him alone it's because he actually made them mad and not because they have other places to be. So that he can pretend that it isn't because work is more important to them. He goes back to his little apartment that night. He can't stay in that huge house all alone after getting used to the creaks and thuds of his neighbors. Being back makes him both happy and scared. Even though El closed the gate permanently he still sees creatures in the trees at night. He still has nightmares every now and then. Hawkins isn't home for him right then. A part of him hopes it's never home again.
Once Steve changes his major it's like he never realized how he had just been going through the motions. Even though he was only in a community college his major had still been business. He hadn't really thought of anything else it could be, years of his father telling him over and over that he's going to be “taking over the business”. Steve goes to college and realizes that his parents had never really seen him or cared about anything he did. He goes to college and figures out that sometimes the family you find is the family you need.
Steve goes two years at his community college and then transfers to a four year college after months of nail biting thinking he wouldn't get in. Dustin is the first person he calls when he gets his acceptance letter. He calls his mom’s phone afterwards and it just rings and rings. He waits until the answering machine picks up before he lets the call go. He sends a letter to his old house when he moves with his new address in it. She never writes him back. He thinks that maybe his dad was telling the truth when he told him that last Christmas that he was done with him. It hurts less than he thought it would. Dustin’s mom sends him a package with cookies and a letter telling him how proud she is of him and how much Dustin misses him. He holds the letter in his hand and wishes she was his mom too.
He flies through the next two years of college. He never thought that early childhood education would be where he was meant to be but he loves it. He gets work part time in a day care and the kids love him. He goes home at night and makes plans for a future he had never really thought he had. When he finally graduates he walks across the stage and there's only Dustin and his mom there to cheer him on. He had invited everyone; Hopper and Joyce and Nancy and Jonathan but life is life and schedules conflicted. Nancy calls him from New York the next morning and it's good. Steve’s finally good.
He goes back home to Hawkins because Dustin had grand plans of going to the University of Chicago and while Claudia isn't his mom he feels like she's the closet he has and he hates to think she’ll be alone in a town he thinks of in nightmares. He gets a job at the only day care they have in town and it feels weird to be taking care of the kids that have parents he can remember doing keg stands with, but even then he loves it and he loves the kids.
His favorite, even though he denies it, is a four year old blonde girl with wide blue eyes and a fast mouth. She runs him ragged and never leaves him alone but he lights up each morning she gets dropped off by her grandmother. She calls him Mr. Harry because Harrington is to much and Steve is what all the other kids call him. She tells him, during the soft in between of nap time and waking, that he's her favorite of all. Her name is Ruby Langston and she tells him that the only person cooler than him is her dad. It takes Steve until the Christmas party to realize Ruby’s dad, the man she talks about every day because while he doesn't drop her off or pick her up at he gets her up and ready every morning, is Billy Hargrove. It's hard for Steve to reconcile the boy he thinks of as flying fists and black eyes as the man that apparently braids Ruby’s hair every morning and makes her lunch every day. He doesn't talk to Billy at the party. He smiles when he makes eye contact and he waves at Ruby as she's leaving for the day. He thinks that maybe that's the end of it. Billy has yet to step foot in the daycare any other time. Why should anything change.
Of course he comes back to work after Christmas and Billy walks Ruby into class for drop off. He also picks her up that afternoon. He drops her off and picks her up every day that week. Steve waits for the other shoe to drop. For something to happen. He feels like he's in this middle place of what will or what won't happen and he hates it. He asks Claudia if she knows of any rumors when he goes over for Sunday dinner. All she knows is that Ruby’s mom died from childbirth complications that probably could have been avoided if she'd told anyone she was pregnant and had gone to the doctor for check ups. The only other thing she’s heard is that Billy refused to let his daughter have his last name. That the mom, some girl from a different town had no one and named him the father and child services showed up with a baby who hadn't been named. It was the talk of the town for months. No one thought he'd keep the baby but he did and she thrived. Steve knows what a child that isn't loved looks like. He sees it in himself every time he looks in the mirror. Ruby is happy and healthy and smarter than any four year old has a right to be. Billy picks her up one afternoon two weeks after Christmas break and Steve finally just asks him what he's doing. He's not sure how Billy got him to agree to a date but later that evening he's parking in front of an apartment complex and when he knocks on the door Ruby answers and pulls him inside.
They eat pizza and watch a movie and when Ruby falls asleep spread across them and the couch Steve looks over to see Billy staring at him like something he had never seen before. “I named her after my mom,” he says into the quiet of the room. “She died a year before my dad met Susan and we moved out here. She was the only person I felt like would ever love me. So I wanted my daughter to have her name. I guess I thought if she had her name she'd have to love me as much as I loved her.”
Before Steve could say anything to that Billy stands up and carries Ruby to bed. He thinks about leaving before the other man can come back, he thinks about staying. Mostly he thinks about how his mom never seemed to care one way or another and that he'd never name his kid after her. Billy comes back and it's awkward and Steve wants to leave more than anything else.
“I'm sorry, you know,” Billy says. “That night. I never got to say anything to you but you didn't deserve all that. So I'm sorry.” Which, Steve has no idea what to say in response. Out of all the nightmares Steve has had from that time in his life Billy never was a part of them. He could tell when it had happened that whoever Billy had been beating up it wasn't Steve. It helps, he thinks, that he spent so much of his life alone and wanting, looking into other people and seeing some of what they were lacking. After four years of college and a year of working in the daycare he can look back on Billy of the past and see, with hindsight as always, the Billy was abused. Out of all the things that had happened that night Steve had actually never thought much about Billy. Possibly it was the concussion but Steve thinks it's mostly that he knew there were scarier things out in the dark than Billy Hargrove.
“Hey, it's water under the bridge man. We’ve both moved on and grown up. I never held it against you really.” Steve still feels awkward and he hates it but he's not sure what to do. He's about to make his excuses and leave when Billy grabs his face and kisses him. Not a quick peck that could be played of as being between friends, a kiss that makes Steve think about the first time he kissed Nancy. He wonders why it ever started and what it means and was this what Billy had always wanted from him, but then Billy’s tongue teases at the seams of his lips and he forgets everything that isn’t a warm wet tongue and Billy’s hands in his hair. He doesn’t stay the night but he wants to. He calls the next day and goes to the park with Billy and Ruby instead.
Then after a month, a year, a millennia of drop off and pick ups. Of pizza nights and ice cream dates, he and Billy move into an apartment together and when Ruby grows up she does it with two men that love her more than anything. She grows up with two parents that try more than anything to be there and be aware of her and they all lived happily ever after.