Actions

Work Header

Secrets better left behind blue lips

Chapter Text

Steve Harrington was a strange kid.

He partied like the apocalypse was after his ass, then holed himself up in his great big empty house, all alone.

He ignored all of his schooling and pretended not to care, but got high level scores the moment someone gave him an actual IQ test.

He was a bully, but he cared for six kids of the town like his own children.

Steve Harrington didn’t make a lick of sense, but neither did anything else in the town, is what Hopper had decided.

So when the station gets a call from the school saying that Steve had been seen robbing some guy of his lawnmower then running back to his house, Hopper had decided to investigate it himself. Especially because two days ago, Steve had been protecting the kids and the town from getting themselves killed. 

Being back by the richer part of town is always weird for Hopper, especially because of how much time he spends with Eleven now. The cabin isn’t exactly fancy living, but how can he complain, when he’s got all he needs right there.

He pulls into the driveway with a labored sigh, staring at the house before him - the type of house he might’ve lived in if he’d been richer when Sarah and his wife were still around. 

Shaking his head of past demons, he grabs a cigarette, chewing the butt end then lighting it and taking a few careful puffs. Smoke filters around his car and swirls about his face, mesmerizing.

It reminds him of his last cigarette, right before Mike had told Eleven about lung cancer and she’d forbid him from smoking cigarettes. 

He’d promised to quit eventually, but a man needs a stress reliever occasionally. 

The air outside when he gets out is chilled, and a mixture of smoke and frosted over breath comes from his chapped lips, immediately swept away by a freezing wind. He shivers as he walks forward - he’d forgotten his coat with Flo. 

Eager to get out of the cold, he quickens his pace and knocks on Steve’s door.

There’s no answer, so he knocks again, then rings the doorbell. Still, it’s silent, and Hopper dings it several more times, his frustration growing along with the cold.

“Harrington, it’s Hopper! Open the damn door!” He shouts above the noise of the doorbell ringing within the house, but still, there’s no response, not a door slammed inside or a light flicked on or off. 

The door handle is his next target. He wrenches it, hard, and to his surprise, the door swings open. Unlocked. 

It’s not uncommon for people to leave their houses unlocked while they’re at home, but leaving it unlocked and not answering when someone actually asks to come in? Steve’s asking for a robbery, and Hopper grumbles that outloud.

The house looks completely normal when he steps inside, none of the rich people flair left out or missing. 

But something - as he can immediately sense - is wrong. 

The lights in the front hall are off, the floor streaked in mud and something red. Right at the edge of where the door swings in is Steve, his curls whooshing in the breeze that blow in through the opening. 

He’s face down, legs splayed out and hands next to his head like a criminal. A disgusting smell fills the room, it’s origin being a pool of vomit and blood that Steve’s head lies in. Hopper curses and runs over, abandoning all thoughts of the drafty wind coming through the door and checking the kids pulse. 

It’s slow, thready, his neck burning with feverish heat. He curses again when he hears a low moan from Steve as he rolls him onto his back, his hands feeling like clumsy mallets as he tries his best to be gentle. 

“Steve? Kid?”

He opens his eyes around a massive yellowing bruise, blood dripping it’s way down a myriad of cuts and to Hoppers horror - out of his lips. His eyes dart around, unfocused, his pupils different sizes as they drift to stare at Hopper. 

Steve had told them all he was fine two days ago, after the last fiasco with the mind flayer. He’d told them that at the most he’d gotten punched just a bit too hard, and his mom would patch him up. 

As he looks around he realizes that Steve has been alone in this house for a long time. It’s freezing cold, and a thin layer of dust covers the few objects sitting in the front area.

He feels like kicking himself for not following up with Steve sooner - but what’s done is done, and he needs to help the disoriented teenager shaking underneath him, still in a blood stained T-shirt and jeans. 

“H- H’per?”

“Yeah kid,” he says gruffly as he runs a hand through Steve’s hair gently, wiping away crusted over blood and getting it out of his face. “What the hell did you do?”

Steve chuckles in the back of his throat, nasally and raw. “I d’know,” is all he says, before his eyes roll back into his head. Hopper shakes him and he groans, slapping at the police chiefs arms. 

“No, you’re not going to sleep Harrison, you’re going to the hospital.” As gently as possible, he lies Steve back down, the boy’s body shuddering as it meets the cold floor, so he stands and shuts the door.

A few minutes and a very strange conversation with an extremely confused Flo later, an ambulance is coming. He sighs and rubs at his temples, wondering how his job switched from being chief of police, to monster killer, to father, to injured-teenager wrangling. 

On the floor still, Steve starts to gasp for breath. 

“Steve?” He says, voice urgent as he gets back down on one knee. His eyes have slotted open only slightly, tears gathering at the edges. “Steve, wake the hell up. Kid, come on, can’t have you dying on me, your little friends would kill me.”

Steve lets out a strangled scream that has Hopper flinching back, and goes rigid as a corpse, breathing coming shorter and shorter till his lips go blue.

But - before Hopper can do anything, his body starts to convulse, spit and blood flecking onto Steve’s already soaked cheeks, his arms and legs smacking into the floor rhythmically as his eyes roll up into his head. 

Immediately Hopper is there, yanking his jacket off and sliding it under Steve’s head, trying to remember what he’d learned in first aid training. He rolls him onto his side and kicks a front room table out of the way before Steve can slam his legs into it. 

Glancing up at the clock on the wall he counts the seconds, holding his breath as Steve continues to jerk around next to Hopper. The noises that drop from his mouth are wet, raw groans and cut off chokes that Hopper knows will haunt him. 

Around two minutes it slows and Steve goes terrifyingly limp, eyes shut and mouth lax, his blue lips turning lighter by the moment as his breathing fails to restart. 

His limbs go completely rigid again as Hopper turns him back into his back again, starting cpr and swallowing back flashbacks of the last time he’d performed this.

Time seems to go slower and slower, and Steve’s heart seems to go right along with it, til Hopper is slamming his fists into the teenagers chest, only barely keeping from hurting his ribs. 

He’s going to die - that’s all that Hopper can think. This isn’t even his kid, but he’s failing another person - and Steve’s breath won’t come- 

The sharp intake of breath that falls from Steve’s lips is all it takes for Hopper to stop his pressing, immediately scooping the sickly teenager into his arms, vomit stained jacket under his head and all.

Steve’s head sits in the side of his chest and Hopper sighs, watching the boy’s chest rise and fall and listening for sirens. 

Chapter Text

The hospital looms like the Eiffel Tower above Dustin, and he gulps, walking out of his mom's car and starting to make his way inside. It’s a brisk day - there has been only one of them so far, since Steve had been brought to the hospital and fallen into some sort of coma.

He was more than thankful he hadn’t been there for whatever had happened in that cold and drafty house. Dustin didn’t know all the details yet - but the faltering stone in Hopper’s expression was enough to tell him what he needed to know.

—-

Mikes feet slam into the tiling of the hospital as he walks up the stairs to Steve’s room, Dustin and Eleven hot on his heels. He had despised Steve for a long time - he was a douche, and his sister dating him didn’t make him much better.

But these past few days had proved that Steve was a bit of a badass, and Mike was growing to like him. 

It’d probably be easier to like him right now if he hadn’t been sleeping for two days. 

—-

Max likes Steve. He’d stood up for her in front of the threat of Billy, and he’d protected them all the best he could under the circumstances. Billy was a dick - Max has threatened him with lots of creative things since she realized he’d been the cause of Steve’s hospitalization, along with Steve’s own stubbornness. She was resigned to threaten Steve later, when he woke up and didn’t have a major concussion, for example. 

The hospital chairs are rough and hard against her back, but she’s managed to find all the best ways to sleep in them when she absolutely has to. She’s visited the hospital many times, hoping that Steves three-day sleep doesn’t extend any longer.

—-

There’s an incessant pounding within his head, and an incessant beeping somewhere to the left of that. Cotton grows between the crevices of his skull, sprouting out through his throat and ears. Each breath he takes rattles like an exhaust pipe, and it feels as if someone threw him into a meat grinder.

To his left he hears quiet breathing and hushed discussion from two familiar voices, and to the right, arguing from two more. 

“He’ll like the jellybeans more,” argues someone vaguely Mike sounding.

“No, no no no!” Says Dustin in a whisper shout. “He likes smarties more, I asked him!”

Steve cracks open an eye to see Eleven behind them, rolling her eyes next to Max, who holds an almost identical expression. Lucas is asleep in a chair off to the side, Will in the one next to him and clutching his hand. 

The scene is a kind and peaceful one, and he’s more than relieved to realize they’re all safe after everything that’s happened. He can’t quite remember what happened after that fateful night, with the demadogs and everything else that plagued the town. 

“I wish Steve was actually awake to tell us,” mutters Max. “I’m gonna rip Billy apart.”

Steve really wants nothing more than to sleep right now. His head pounds, an icepick running itself clean through his skull and out the back, but he can’t let the kids worry. 

“Don’t g’tta. Anyways, I like both, H’nderson.”

Their heads all whip to Steve at the croaking noise, and he grins in what he hopes is a smile and not a grimace at their surprised faces. 

“You dumbass!” Shouts Dustin, making him wince. “We thought you were dead!” Mike jumps up and shakes Lucas and Will awake. “You can’t do that to me, man! We’re supposed to be partners!” He jabs his hands into his chest as if to emphasize that, and Steve starts to feel guilt bubble its way into his gut.

Eleven puts a hand on Dustin’s shoulder and says, pointedly: “rude.”

“She’s right,” says Hopper gruffly, walking into the room. “It was rude of him to not tell anyone the truth.” He jams a thumb into the nurse call button and then ushers everyone else out, much to the kid’s collective annoyance. Steve is too weak to protest. “Really Harrington. You should’ve said something.” 

The guilt crawls upwards with blackened claws when he hears the softness in Chief Hoppers voice, because of anyone, he should probably find Steve endlessly annoying. 

Nurses come into his room and fret over him for far too long, in his opinion. All he really wants to do is sleep - but they make him wear stupid electrodes and look at his brain, then take random pills. He protested the wheelchair till he realized his legs felt like half-set jello, and had allowed himself to be wheeled back to his room, falling asleep halfway there.

He rests uneasily that night-day-afternoon mix, dreams of billion-teethed monsters and corpses of six specific kids haunting him as he tosses and turns. Scratchy hospital sheets bite into his flesh like a fresh punch, and he waits to find his soul ripped away as a demadog claws its way through his head. 

—-

In the morning-afternoon-night, he wakes up. The same beeping accompanies awareness, the same tampon-stuffed feeling in his nose and the same fuzzy pounding with his battered head. 

Thankfully, it seems that the kids have left. It’s not that he doesn’t enjoy their company - but Steve is weak right now. He’s meant to be their protector, their unwilling-yet-willing babysitter, not the one who passed out after a couple of lame punches from Billy Hargrove’s and landed himself in the hospital. 

Hopper and Joyce are gone as well. If anyone asked him, he’d tell them he didn’t give a rats ass where they were headed, but maybe something in his eyes could’ve hinted to his real thoughts about them. 

Now that Steve has a level of awareness the Doctor deems appropriate, he begins his droning talk of why Steve was in the hospital.

“You were found in an unconscious state with a severe concussion, several infected cuts, and pneumonia that very nearly escalated to something fatal.” He drops his clipboard. “In a pile of your own vomit and blood, with all the lights off, your door unlocked, and no sign of any parental figure at home.”

What a surprise. The last time he’d seen his parents was for his middle school graduation, and even then - only for around two hours. 

“You may be 18, but no adult or half-baked teenager should be alone like that, Mr. Harrington. You suffered from a grand mal seizure and you likely would have died if Chief Hopper hadn’t gotten a call about you robbing someone and gone to check your home.”

Steve blanches. Hopper had found him?

“Yes, Mr. Harrington,” says the Doctor, alerting Steve to the fact that he’d asked his question aloud. “And he had to perform cpr on you the moment you stopped seizing, leading to you having several cracked ribs. Now, normally we would keep you here for longer, seeing as you were asleep for three days-“

“Three days,” he says sharply, nearly launching from his bed again. “No, no that can’t be right.”

“I can assure you, Mr. Harrington, I know how to read a clock. Three. Days,” he says, annunciating the syllables as if speaking to a child. “But because your parents have arrived and we have communication with your home doctor, you are being released early.”

The words start to buzz into background noise when he hears of his parents arrival. He’s never understood why they bother to come home at all - he knows his way through cooking, through parties, through cashing their checks for him.

When they come home it means maneuvering through their disapproving glares, their alcohol and drugs, their rings and nails up against his flesh. 

Of course they’d bribed the hospital to let him out early, that was of no doubt. He wasn’t a medical professional, but after a short coma, a major concussion, a seizure and pneumonia, Steve was pretty sure that required more time in a hospital than one day. Hell, he could barely feel his legs, let alone get up and start walking home on them. 

This just meant that Steve would need to play nice with them until he was healed, and they’d leave him alone, back to their world of business and partying and too much alcohol when dad’s infidelity came out again.

He comes back to awareness with a sharp shout of his name shaking him from his thoughts. “Harrington! Are you listening or not?” 

The doctors tone reminds him far too much of a teacher and he groans softly, shoving his heard further into the grimy pillow as his head pounded harder. 

“Yeah, yeah I am,” he replies. “Alright. Alright. I’ll - I’ll do what I’ve gotta do. Take my meds or whatever.” He checks the clock. 3:30, presumably pm. “Play nice with the other kids.”

The Doctor, clearly unimpressed, just starts unhooking the few remaining machines from his body. 

A few minutes later a nurse steps in, helping to re-bandage his eye and few other cut places on his body, then smiling at him and patting his arm. “Let’s get you out to your parents. They’ll take great care of you.”

Oh, how he wishes that were true. 

He’s already exhausted when he’s finally helped into a wheelchair, his muscles feeling like hot butter as he sinks into it, gritting his teeth against the pain of hot lights blazing against his retinas  in the hospital corridors.

In the entrance stand his parents.

Mrs. Harrington. Sally Grace Harrington. Short, thin, with pinched lips and blushed cheeks covering her age. Skin pale as snow, hair pinned up in a ridiculous updo that might as well hide D’artagan within it. She clutches what is sure to be a hideously expensive handbag, her legs wobbling inside lipstick red heels that she’d never quite gotten used to.

Mr. Harrington. Henry Joshua Harrington. Tall, muscular, imposing. His lips are purses together in a look of obvious dissatisfaction, and he smooths his hair back till it lies flat against his head yet again. The gaze in his eyes is an all too familiar cold, one that Steve has taught himself to ignore or face a slap. In his left hand he holds a paper bag that rattles with the sound of pills inside. 

His hands are pressed within his pockets when he nods at Steve’s wheelchair, then at his mother. She scurries over with a look of disdain and takes the handles, pushing Steve to the doors and out while huffing and puffing with exertion. 

They don’t speak. 

The air is freezing and Steve shivers in his thin hospital gown. It seems that the hospital had been in a rush to get him out and get checks in - because they’d neglected to give him his old clothes or even a thin blanket to cover his shaking and thin arms. 

Their car is practically a limo, and the wheelchair is folded by the chauffeur and shoved unceremoniously into the backseat with Steve sitting next to it after he’d barely managed to fold in himself. 

The silence sinks into the air like teargas as they drive away. 

Chapter Text

The road is flecked with white as they drive away, snowflakes beginning their dizzying path down the sky and into the air. It’s frigid in the car - not the air, but the atmosphere. 

He expected this, really, but it still stings. His father’s careful ignorance of him, his mother's eyes not even willing to meet his own in the mirror, the chauffeurs oblivious silence. It all matches up perfectly to every other time he’d found himself in a situation like this, and the part of his heart that still wondered if they loved him - ever - withers further. 

Because Steve is a creature of habit, he stares out the window and watches the snow fall. It’s more entertaining than fiddling with the wheels of the wheelchair, and his father had sharply told him to stop when he’d tried. 

His head pounds painfully and the snowflakes start to blend together, making shapes and colorful blobs that curls across his vision. Soon enough and after far too many potholes, they’re parked in the driveway, and his father is shouting at him to get out of the car from outside his window. 

He jerks to attention and stares, then manages to pull the pile of mush that is his beaten flesh out of the car, steadying himself on the side with his entire body pressed against it. His father sneers as if he’s ruining the paint job. 

“Start walking,” says his mother icily.

“Mom, I-“

“The wheelchair is a symbol of your very momentary weakness, Steven. I refuse to allow you to be weak. The Harrington family will not reflect your lazy, spoiled attitude. Walk.”

Gulping down his retorts, he pressed forward off the car, willing his legs to support him. If there’s such a thing as God, Steve prays to them diligently. 

He takes his first step.

It’s also his last, as his legs fold underneath him, head crashing into the half-inch of snow accumulated, the jolt making his eyes swim with tears and head bubble up with white spots and fuzz. 

“Get up,” spats his father as the chauffeur drives the car to its rightful spot in the garage, ignoring the scene through blinders made of checks and dollar bills. “Get up, I said get up!”

He tries. He tries so hard to stand, but his legs only fold downwards, his knees starting to bleed as he bangs them into the ground over and over - till at the fifth try, his body finally forces him to stop trying. 

“Fine. Crawl then, like you did when you were a child.” 

A sharp kick hits against his side and he feels something snap - his breath rushing out all in a quick exhale as he collapses to the ground, his head thudding down and starting to explode. He watches his father grabs his mother's hand through dimming vision, and they walk to the house, shutting the door and leaving him outside in the cold. 

He stares at the snow - once so peaceful, now just bits of the white that bites at his vision. Time dies a slow death as snowflakes pull on and around him, and he can’t quite understand how long he’s been out there. His brain can’t seem to separate thought and snow anymore, and after a while, it starts to get warmer and warmer.

Steve is so exhausted, but the heat of hell runs its jagged fingers all across him, melting through his flesh and bubbling it into horrible boils. His fingers, feeling charred and burnt, draw up to his chest. Relief comes in the form of his hands shakily yanking away the horrible hospital gown, but he only manages to get halfway down his chest. 

His hands slip into the snow and his mind slips into the dark. 

—-

Dustin is old enough to know that he can be irresponsible. He’s also old enough to be responsible, should he choose to be. 

His mom isn’t exactly strict with where he goes - as long as she knows. Today, in the middle of what’s shaping up to be Hawkins first snow, He was the last one at the hospital that day, everyone else had left to either go to work or to finally take showers and sleep in their own beds, just for a bit. 

So, Dustin did what any kid might’ve done in his situation.

He went out and bought candies.

Not for himself - well, unless you counted the M&Ms he clutched in his hands. The rest of the candy was for Steve. It had been three days of sleeping - that’s all Dustin could think of. 

Hopper has seemed actually frightened by it all - and the eyes that swam with memories that Dustin met when he raced to the hospital were not the eyes of Hopper, monster fighter and chief of police. They were the eyes of a father, remembering memories long locked in iron boxes and iron glares.

It had been three days of worrying that when Dustin woke up in the morning he’d wake up to the flatlining of a heart machine, or a nurse with a hand on his shoulder telling him that Steve Harrington was sadly gone, and he’d need to leave the hospital now. 

Once he’d realized Steve would be ok, he was overjoyed, as were all the other kids. Even Eleven and Will, who hadn’t talked to him much, had begun to warm up to him once Dustin and everyone else started spouting stories about their various adventures. 

Three days later he finds himself outside the candy store, the only worker still glaring at him inside, having expected him to steal. 

But Dustin has better things to do - he's got to get back to his moms car and the hospital. She pushes his door opens and squints against the snowflakes that fly at her, smiling ever-warmly at the toothy grin he shoots her. “I’ve got skittles and smarties and red licorice, because black is pure garbage. Oh, and M&Ms.”

“That sounds lovely Dusty,” she says fondly, humming warmly to some quiet classical music buzzing through the car. Not quite Christmas music yet, and the absence somehow manages to make Dustin happy and mournful at the same time.

“Back to the hospital?”

He nods. “Yep. They’ve probably got him on liquid foods, but whatever. He can save them.” Or, Dustin can just sneak them to him - but he’s not telling his mom that. Not if he values the amount of leeway she’s given him recently - which he very much does. He probably owes her a new cat. Poor mews.

The hospital comes into sight just as he finishes his last M&Ms’s, crumpling the wrapper up and shoving it between the seats to clean in a few months. The moment the car stops Dustin jumps out, and his mother chuckles gently as she shuts the car off to see her son already rushing through the doors.

“Dustin! Wait!” She shouts as he waves, impatient,  at her to come on. 

The burst of warm air when they step inside is a welcome relief and Dustin almost whoops with happiness, his fingers finally regaining feeling. 

He decides against whooping when he sees the murderous glare of the front desk attendant, holding a phone with voices still babbling from inside. “Excuse me,” he says, ignoring her growing frown that only begins to fade when his mother steps in behind him. “I’m here to see Steve?”

“Steve… who?” She asks, impatiently. 

“Steve Harrington.”

“Uh Huh.” She nods and looks down at her computer. “Left about an hour ago.”

Dustin frowns. Steve had been in a coma for three days, he’d had a seizure, a concussion, and as his exhaustion had shown them all, his body was still in exhausted post-concussed state. 

Dustin knew from experience with Will that someone with injuries as severe as all that would require a longer stay than that. Even if Steve was injured, he was still strong - but that didn’t mean he didn’t have limits. 

Mike told him Steve was an idiot, and even if Mike was right, he was also wrong. That doesn’t make any sense - not really - but neither does Mike, or Steve, or anyone on this planet. So Dustin keeps Steve in his mind as someone to believe in. 

That doesn’t mean he can waltz out of a hospital now.

“With who!?”

“His. Parents,” she grits out, her hands inching closer to the phone she’d abandoned. “Is that all?”

“Why was he let out so early?” asks his mom worriedly. “Wasn’t it a bit early?”

“I can’t tell you ma’am.” She turns back to her computer and types, from what Dustin can see - ak el dbey12. “Now can I get back to work?” The keys continue to clack in a random pattern, not spelling anything. It’s clear that she believes she has better things to occupy herself with than a worried mother and her son. 

“Yes, of course.” The warm smile down to her from his mother isn’t even close to deserved, but she’s already looking at him expectantly, holding out a hand for him to take. 

“Mom.” He sighs. “I’m not five. 

A little hurt looking, she walks behind him, only coming to a stop when Dustin whirls around, almost running into her. “Mom, I need to use the phone.”

“But- What for?”Hey 

“I just need to use it,” he insists, going behind her and walking quickly over to the phone sitting on the table. 

He punches in 911 while the lady at the table stands, glaring at him and watching what he does, still gossiping with the woman on the phone. 

“Hey, Flo,” He says before she can get a droning word out. “It’s Dustin, I’ve got to speak to Hopper.”

“Henderson, kiddo, you know this line is only for emergencies… right?”

“Yes, yes I know! But I need Hopper and this is very much an emergency!” He throws his arms up as if she can see, then settles down and presses the phone back to his head, glaring. “A code red, tell him that, he’ll get it!” 

There’s a long pause, followed by a heaving sigh. “A code red.”

“Yes, that’s it, please? Come on, pleaseeee-“

“Ok, fine, stay on the line and I’ll get the chief. You’d better not be pranking us.” 

For a moment, there’s only silence, then the phone is crinkling the static of someone’s hand over the speaker - and Hopper speaks the moment it moves away. “Code red? 

“Yeah, Chief, and it’s actually really important shit, so if you could listen to me?”

“Language.” Dustin scoffs. “Yeah, Yeah Henderson I’m listening.”

“It’s about Steve.” That seems to get his attention, as the king goes silent, except for the soft sound of breathing. “His parents came and picked him up, I guess they’re his only emergency contact even though he’s technically an adult now.” 

“You think they might’ve done something?”

“I think they might’ve done something,” he confirms. “Can you just like, shit, go to his house and look or something?”

“Yeah. Call me back later.”

The line clicks off. 

Chapter Text

It’s basically a blizzard when Hopper finally finds his way to the Harrington’s. Weird weather for Indiana in the beginning of November, but it’s been a weird month.  

Their driveway is empty, snow flurries burying it all in white, and he climbs out of his car, hurriedly making his way to the door. He knocks on the wood and rings the bell at the same time, waiting till finally a man with thinning hair and a fancy-looking black suit opens the door. 

“Steven, the door is un- oh. Who are you?”

“I’m Chief Hopper,” he says, flashing his badge and tucking it back into his pocket a moment later. From what he can see inside, it seems that they’ve been here long enough to clean up within. That means that they had been in Indiana - yet refused to visit their son in the hospital. “Can I ask where your son is?”

“He’s making his way inside,” sniffs the man. “You know the type - lazy, rich, thinks he knows the universe.” He chuckles, but Hopper’s having a hard time finding any mirth within the situation. “He’ll come inside eventually.”

Hopper’s eyes widen. “You- you left him outside?”

“No, I’m assuming he took off and went to his friends house - maybe Tammy or Carl or whatever their names were.” He raises a hand and waves it about dismissively. “He’ll be alright. It’s not as if he was truly hurt. Teenage drama, I’m sure. Hawkins isn’t a dangerous place.”

Gaping at the man is all he can do for a second as his brain plays the words on repeat - his anger thrumming through his veins. 

That same anger had gotten him into many right spots before. Many a punch had been thrown, or a gunshot had been fired, but never out of place. 

You see - Hopper has a fantastic temper, but also something that accompanied that. 

He knew how to wield it.

So Hopper just turns around and ignores the strange look digging into his back, going back to his car and deciding that when he’s finally found Steve, Flo will have to forgive him for not getting a warrant. 

There’s a noise.

That shouldn’t be all that out of the ordinary for a day like this - but the noise is very distinct. It’s a choked off groan, appearing to emanate from a few feet away from his truck. 

It comes from a pile of snow, only a few inches higher than the other drifts surrounding it. There’s nothing out of the ordinary about it - in fact, it blends in perfectly with the snow around it.

Except for the brown.

Tufts of hazel hair can be seen just above that has Hopper running to the pile, dusting snow away to reveal a half-torn off hospital gown, blueish skin and a body as still as any corpse - not even shaking. He’d missed it earlier - the gown and the skin had blended in with the snow piling above and around the person prone against the concrete. 

“Fuck,” he whispers, yanking his much heavier jacket off and lying it on top of Steve, then flipping him over. His lips are blue, his cheeks and nose bright red, his eyelids veiny and as blue as his lips. The hair that should curl around his neck and cheeks is almost frozen, stiff as a board and dripping limply behind him when he moves. 

The moment his back hits the ground, Steve gasps, eyes wide and unseeing as he grips at Hoppers arms with a strange amount of strength. Terror rings his expression in a way familiar to Hopper, and he winces as Steve’s already labored breathing starts to wheeze painfully. 

“It’ll be ok, kid, I’m getting you out of here,” he whispers, lifting Steve up to his chest in an effort to lift him. 

“No - no no no no no,” Steve cries, voice high and cracking with fever and fear . “No, you’ve - I’m - I’m c’ming, dad, pl’s I’m - I’m coming!”

Hopper does a horrible job at trying to ignore the cries as he lifts the hysterical teenager into his arms again, the scene painfully familiar with Steve’s underweight body. He’s quite a bit taller than Sarah - but the comparison isn’t one that his brain makes it hard to make.

 He reaches a hand down to pull his jacket up on Steve’s body some, but the boy only wrenches himself from Hopper’s arms and falls to the ground. 

“Kid, Fucking stop it!” He shouts as Steve thuds to the ground, fingers fisting down into the snow as he sinks further into the quickly falling snow. 

Hopper goes forward to get him up but before he can, Steve’s falls back into the snow.

At first, Hopper thinks it’s because he’s still trying to get away, and he curses himself and the Harrington’s both. He should’ve known - Flo had always said they were seedy, and probably paid their way through every weird thing that happened to that family. He should’ve stayed just a few hours longer at the hospital - he knew how many bribes they’d taken there over the years. For a hospital, it was more corrupt than a police station in the 20’s. 

He should’ve just done what he’d been planning to do. He wanted to stay there anyway, he didn’t trust the doctors or the hospital - or any, for that matter. He should’ve tried more.

He should’ve - he should’ve-

Steve lets out a low and painful groan, his muscles tensing and his breath choking off, right before he starts to seize. 

For a moment he’s frozen, standing there as Steve convulses.

For a moment, only a moment, Hopper watches in terrible silence, wind pulling at his skin and clothes, nipping at him like a dog at his heels. Snow pours down from the opened heavens and continues its deafening slamming into the ground. 

As sound and time resumes he throws himself into action, taking the jacket underneath Steve and putting it under his head, rolling him onto his side so that his blank eyes stare right at Hopper. The hospital gown draped across his legs twists around him and Hopper yanks the top back before it can suffocate him, then cursing again and again when he realizes that’s only making him colder.

It exposes the bruises as well. A great purpling one on his lower chest, bright and spreading like frostbite on snow shredded skin. 

He waits the seizure out, letting it run its course and getting even more worried when it passes four minutes - then five - then finally-

Right at the pass of five minutes and 23 seconds Steve stills, letting out one last sobbing cry before Hopper is pulling him into his arms. 

Steve is by no means small , he was a teenager after all - but he manages to look dwarfed within the car, his skinny frame sliding down the seat as Hopper buckles him into the car. He turns the heat on full blast and slams his own door shut, leaving his seatbelt abandoned at his side as he speeds off in the snow. 

Chapter Text

Dustin is terror.

The phone call, dead at midnight, is a short one. He’d been unable to sleep already, biting his nails and very nervously ignoring the bloodstained carpet near him, sitting by the phone with held breath. Hopper’s exhausted, hollow voice sparks into his half-asleep ears, telling him about what had happened.

He’d told him that Steve was back in the hospital. He had two broken ribs, severe hypothermia, and had reopened the stitches on the gash on his head. He’d also been gifted several new superficial scrapes and bruises, and he’d suffered from a second seizure. Frostbite spanned all across his back, chest, arms and face, and they were lucky it was superficial. 

Still, they didn’t know if he’d make it this time. 

(Hopper has tried to refuse to tell him that. Dustin had shouted at him till he gave the information up, and then clicked the phone off.)

All that Dustin can think in that moment after the phone is hung up is that Steve is dead. Or, Steve is dying, and there’s nothing he can do. He was too late, and now the guy who had very nearly died for and with Dustin is going die in a hospital bed all because Dustin didn’t buy his fucking candy fast enough -

—-

Eleven is anger. 

When her father comes to her late, she expects to chew him out as he tries to sheepishly explain himself. What she had never expected was for him to tiredly request that she stays at the Byers’ for the night. 

What she really doesn’t expect is the reason why. 

Her fury is melted metal and bubbling heat that explodes as he talks, inside her heart and within her veins. Steve is in the hospital, being watched around the clock by cops because if they don’t then his parents will just come back and take him.

His parents are - higher powers willing - being brought in for questioning in the morning, to eventually be tried in court. 

His parents hurt him. 

This time it isn’t just “bad men.” She can break down bad men by the bones in their flesh and blood in their veins, but these bad people aren’t people she can chase after. These are people who she must wait for - and she doesn’t have a choice. 

—-

Will is silence.

When his mom wakes him up at midnight, Eleven behind her with a bag of clothes hastily packed, he doesn’t question it. He’d barely been out of the hospital for two days now, but he doesn’t mind the extra company. 

They don’t talk. Joyce explains where Hopper is and what he’s doing with tired and angry eyes, then leaves when Will reassured her it’s alright for Eleven to stay - he would never make her leave like that.

So him and Eleven sit in silence together, her doing most of the work to build them a blanket fort with lamps tugged around it just enough to keep nightmares at bay. 

—-

Lucas is comfort.

When he’d biked over to Dustin’s house the next morning, hurrying to keep the wheels from freezing from the freshly fallen and already melting snow, he’d thought that Mrs. Henderson was going to drive them to the hospital. Instead, he’d found out that he couldn’t visit the hospital yet because Steve wasn’t allowed visitors and there was no point waiting till he was.

When Dustin rushes out of his bedroom, bags deep under his eyes and rings of tear-stained red, Lucas slams him into a hug.

Because Steve is a badass - Steve is comfort, Steve is yelling at them when they’re stupid - Steve is warm wind and strange smiles and haunted eyes mixed with kind gazes and Steve is comfort. So, when Steve is absent, Lucas finds himself filling that void with Dustin. Dustin was the one closest to Steve after all, and Lucas wasn’t willing to let him wallow alone.

They’d do it together. 

—-

Mike is…

Mike is confusion.

At first he’s only confused as to why Eleven is having a sleepover at Will’s when he comes over in the morning, but then he’s confused about so much more.

He never liked Steve all that much. He seemed to be just another arrogant rich boy - only thinking of himself and only caring for money. Maybe he had been at some point, Mike doesn’t know. What Mike knows for sure now, is that even if Steve still isn’t a perfect person, he cares. 

So, he’s confused about a lot.

He knows why the hospital took a bribe, and why Steve’s injured again, and all of that.

What he can’t wrap his head around is why Steve’s parents are absolutely garbage.

He’s used to having slightly absent parents - his mother and father weren’t always there, but he knew that they loved him. So, it confused and angered him to no end to know that people’s parents could be so cruel to them.

Sure, he knew the basics - they were rich assholes who didn’t care about their son.

But why?

—-

Max is violence. 

She bikes to Dustin’s house early in the morning, before her dad can get up and rethink letting her go, before Billy can glare at her, before her mom can shoot her worried glances. Her feet pump the wheels ever forward with the strength of a thousand men, treading through snow and already melting ice till she slides to a stop at the Henderson’s house.

Lucas is already within, talking in hushed and angry whispers with Dustin, the two of them in the bed and speaking into their crackling radios ever so often. 

When they tell her what had happened with Steve, her first reaction is to cry.

She doesn’t of course, but she comes close. Out of anyone in their party, she knows that her parents aren’t the best. She knows that Niel is an abusive dirtbag who can’t keep his hands off of Billy, and who had ruined her relationship with her brother. 

The occasional hidden bruise on her own skin is a testament to how damned-to-hell a family she’s got. 

So hearing that Steve has a family not unsimilar to hers - despite their wild differences, it doesn’t sit well.

“Oh, fuck that!” She shouts, loud and proud about it even as Mrs. Henderson surely listens in. “Have they been arrested?”

They don’t answer her. 

“Hey idiots! Have they been arrested yet?” 

“I- I don’t know,” stammers Lucas. “Max, I don’t know, Hopper just told Dustin Steve was under watch to keep his parents out.” She turns to Dustin and the boy nods to confirm.

Fists clenching and unclenching, she paces back and forth, feeling the phantom grip of Neil and Steve’s parents necks in her grasp. So many things fall apart because of families like hers - and Neil still hadn’t given her the brunt of his “affection” yet. Billy had been gifted that, and now sat with bruises and broken bones that went untreated and mental scars that piled till instead of listening to music with her in miserable silence he slammed his door and screamed till he slept. 

Steve’s parents were apparently similar. Maybe they hadn’t purposefully given him injuries - or maybe they had, one day years ago. All she knows is that his parents hurt him - and even if Steve was a prep boy whose fights didn’t seem to live up to their reputation, he didn’t deserve to have a family like hers. No one did.

The imaginary bite of splinters in her fingers accompanied with the sickening crack of baseball meeting flesh is a joyful sensation, and she begins to sink into it, pacing faster and faster until-

Lucas grabs her arm and she whips around. “ What?” She snarls, ripping her arm away hard enough to make the boy tumble to the floor again. Immediately she sees what she’s done - and she shrinks away, grabbing her arm to her chest and sucking in a pained breath. 

She’s turning into Billy.

“Max?” The words from Dustin suck through vortex of pessimism and panic. They plummet at the bottom of her brain and she barely catches them as the ashy flames shred them, red as her hair and red as blood dripping down her cheeks and Billy’s cheeks and Steve’s cheeks and- 

“Max, breathe, you’re fine.”

She shakes her head, unable to speak.

Lucas stands and she nearly flinches back farther into the wall, till he opens his arms, tugging her to his chest and hugging her tightly. They sway in place as he runs a hand through her hair, a gentle and reassuring anchor cast in iron that she grips to for dear life. 

They sit like that, in the soft embrace for a moment, the both of them trembling with unfamiliar feelings, and Dustin soon joins. They slide to the floor like that, a lumpy tangle of limbs that thump as they collapse against the rug with ghosts of monsters living within the ground and their hearts. 

Chapter Text

Steve’s awareness isn’t quite awareness. He knows what being awake is like, and this toes the line. His body is perfectly numb, his eyes shut and shrouded in blackness. Words flit through his head - but he can tell that where he is isn’t quite consciousness. He’s on a bed of something and nothing, he’d filled with absence and everything. 

“Hey asshole, slow it down,” comes a voice muffled through something out of the way. It’s a familiar tone - one that accompanies memories of taunting and broken plates and baseball bats. 

The voices grow louder and less muffled. “No! They said I had to have an adult with me, so you’re taking me, and if you do anything stupid I’ll scoop your intestines out your ass,” snaps Max, and Steve’s muddled brain realizes that he’s probably in the hospital again. His eyes flirt with blackness and he waits, trying to raise his eyelids. 

“Ok, Maxine,” replies someone who Steve now recognizes as Billy. “I’ll wait outside!”

There’s an odd grunting noise and a sharp noise like fist-on-skin. “No, you’re going to apologize. Maybe he’ll hear it.”

“What! I’m not apologizing to princess, he can wake up and grovel at my feet for an apology like a faggot.” 

“Shut up! And don’t use that word, I saw you in California w-“

“Max,” says Billy, in a warning voice, suddenly gone of all bantering tone and slight-warmth. Her hiss of pain accompanies the sound of a hand yanking her forwards. “Max, you’d better not finish that sentence.”

“Fine.”

“You’re doing a shit job at convincing me to say anything to him.”

A light slapping noise accompanies a gruff snort of annoyance. “Yeah, that’s not doing anything, bitch.”

Max must’ve done something in the quiet, because a moment later there’s a heavy sigh from Billy and a pause laden with stiff annoyance. “Fine! I’ll say something - but only since we’re the only ones here. If you tell anyone about this, Max, then your body will rot in a ditch-“

“Yeah yeah, I know. I’ll be rotting in a ditch while you smoke cig’s and fuck bitches.”

“Don’t sass me,” Billy says sharply. There’s a few tapping footsteps. “Ok, Harrington.” His voice seems to originate from a few feet in front of him - presumably at the foot of his hospital bed. 

“I beat you up, it can’t even be called a fight, because I landed you in the hospital.” He snorts and his hand lands noisily on the bed frame. “King Steve is a bit dated, let’s be real. When was the last time you hooked up with a slut?”

“Billy.”

“Calm it Max!” A rough chuckle, then silence. “Princess Steve. Heh.”

“Anyways. I know my limit, and I know when I’ve gone too far, so I guess this is where I say my bad. You’re a dumbass, too mouthy and too high on your high ass horse, pretty boy. But sure. My bad.”

It seems Billy’s about to walk off by the shuffle of his feet - then there’s a squeak of shoes against tiling and he’s talking again. “Actually, you’re the one who got yourself into the hospital. I win. You’re garbage at this whole “ruler of Hawkins” thing.”

“Fuck off, Billy.” 

”Ok, fine. I’m sorry your parents aren’t perfect rich people, and I’m sorry I beat your face in,” He says, in a tone that is suspiciously close to sincerity.

It fades to silence.

—-

“It’s been a week and a half,” is the first, angry sentence he hears when that half-awakeness returns to him. “Why isn’t he up yet!”

“Cause comas are a delicate thing that sometimes last a while, Mike,” explains Dustin rationally. 

Oh, so that’s officially where he is. A coma. He didn’t realize that people could actually hear through comas - and he’s not quite sure yet whether he’s happy or angry about that. Probably just bitter.

“I don’t care, Dustin,” seethes Mike. “You all keep wallowing while he sleeps, and he needs to wake up! I want a normal life again! I want Steve to-“

The void beckons, and he unwillingly must follow.

—-

Soft crying flows into the room. 

“It’s been three weeks, Jonathan,” sobs Nancy. “Three weeks! We- we aren’t dating anymore, but- but he’s still my friend. What if he’s going to die?”

“I- I can’t promise he won’t die, Nancy,” whispers Jonathan. “I cant promise you that, but the doctors are optimistic, so…”

Nancy sniffles and a chair scoots out. “So what. Doctors are- are bullshit. I mean, who's to say they aren’t all lying for money. They- they took a bribe the first time, and now they’re steadily draining more and more money!” The sound of hands against fabric rings out, and he assumes she threw her hands up. “I’m sick of this.”

Jonathan sighs heavily. “I know, Nance. It’s all stupid.”

His eyes open. Not really by his own accord, but they open - and he looks to see Nancy’s eyes widening and Jonathan looking at her from the side. The lights above him blaze like fire and he groans.

He falls asleep. 

—-

It’s silent for a few hours in half-consciousness before he manages to hear anything else. The room must be empty, but eventually he hears the quick tap tap of urgent footsteps then the swinging of a door. Idle conversation from Lucas and Dustin fills his ears, and he’s listening intently. 

“He’s dead.”

Those words snare his attention even harder than their words of D&D or school, yanking him towards them hard enough they might as well add whiplash to his injuries. Under his eyelids his eyes shift towards their voices, waiting for their opportunity to open and see them.

“He’s dead,” repeats Dustin. “I know comas can be long but still Lucas, this shit has been two weeks now! What if they just pull the plug?”

“Dustin man, they’re not gonna yank it just for shits and giggles,” Lucas reasons.

“Yeah, well this is Hawnkins. A few weeks back I was scrubbing blood stains out of my carpet cause my pet monster ate my cat!”

“Dude hush! What if someone hears?”

The grating noise of a chair shoving itself backwards is accompanied with it clattering to the floor, as who he assumes is Dustin stands? Falls over? Slides down? He settles on stands and continues to listen. 

“Fuck that!”

“Monsters have invaded Hawkins!” Shouts Dustin. “They killed Barb! They killed the others missing! They killed my cat!”

A grunt and a thump and a scuffing of shoes against tiles, and Steve knows no more. 

—-

Radios are a curious thing.

You’ve got to fiddle with knobs for ages to find whichever channel you’re interested in - and Inbetween, you find nothing but uncooperative static to rush into your ears. 

Maybe you’ve sat in an empty room before, just you and a radio, your fingers twisting and turning at knobs and trying to find your station, frustration growing. 

Imagine that room as the blank canvas of the mind, and the locked door being a pile of unwanted injuries that keep you confined within. The radio sits in front of you, your fingers chained to it, twisting them against your will till you’re yanked half-through the door, listening and waiting just enough that you can call it some form of awareness.

This is where Steve sits now, hands drifting left and right as they pull at the knobs of a radio filtering straight static as he waits. Every once and a while the world allows him a look through the door - his eyes open, his ears alert, but it’s only a small reprieve before he’s wrenched from the outside.

Now, the door stands shut and bolted, Steve’s mind idle. 

Until-

-The door is thrown wide, and Steve finds his passage away from the static. 

Chapter Text

Hopper’s only been back to the hospital a few times since Steve wound up back there.

Once, when he practically smuggled Eleven inside to visit Steve. 

Once, to fend off Steve’s parents when they came looking for him. 

Now, he’s visiting once again to check in on him. Last time he’d seen the boy his face was a mottled pattern of white and red - a product of the superficial frostbite. The cut in his forehead had been steadily healing, but he was still deathly pale and covered in bruises. He’d been too skinny, too small, too hurt, and Hopper didn’t have an obligation to be there, so he left. 

Now, Steve’s face is a typical too-pale white of a coma patient, and the bruises dotting his face have begun to fade. The slice on his brow is still an ugly scab, but without stitches anymore. He looks too thin to be healthy, his cheekbones and jawline jutting out against his skin unnaturally. 

He doesn’t look like someone who takes nail studded bats to the rotting flesh of a demogorgon. He looks like Sarah, and that terrifies Hopper. This isn’t his kid, not even close to the same situation, yet the familiarities seem to follow him everywhere he goes. 

He hates hospitals. Out of anywhere he could choose to be, hospitals is right about where Hawkins Lab is on his list. But still - he feels some sort of obligation to visit the teen. It’s been two and a half weeks since Hopper found him in that driveway dying, and he’s only seen him a few times. 

The entire situation is all so ridiculous. 

He sits down in a chair propped against the wall, staring out the window for a moment then looking back to Steve. No change - his eyes are still resolutely shut, his hands lying stiff at his sides like the limbs of a corpse. Shaking his head, he ends that trailing thought. Better not to compare a coma patient to a corpse - just in case that manages to come true. 

The room smells like antiseptic and freezer burn, and he sighs as the familiar hospital chill rolls down his back despite the thick coat sitting up against him on the back of his chair. 

Hopper doesn’t know what he expected - hospitals don’t change. They’ll always be cold and unfamiliar, the feeling that surrounds them the feeling of finding something rotting in the back of your freezer and leaving it there. 

The monotonous beeping of machinery leads him to glazed and unfocused eyes staring at the patient, till a quiet groan erupts from the lips of the one surrounded by the noise. 

“Harrington?” He says with held breath, barely daring to believe he’s awake. “That you?”

“Ngh.”

He stands. That was definitely Steve. 

Walking over to him quickly, he sighs, watching as Steve’s eyes open and dart around, his arms pulling him up onto his elbows. “I’m back ‘ere again,” he says with a resigned sigh, falling back against the pillow as his thinning muscles grow tired. “Why.”

“Yeah, your parents can be thanked for that.” 

Steve winces backwards and Hopper silently curses himself. “They’re um. They’re about to lose full custody of you,” he replies, trying and failing to lighten the conversation. “It was tough since you’re legally an adult, but if you want, then they won’t be your parents anymore.”

Steve’s eyes are exhausted, marred with purpling bags, bruises and pain, but something inside them seems to light up as he nods enthusiastically. “How? ‘Mancipation?”

“Something like that… I don’t know the technicalities kid.”

He frowns. “‘M not a kid.”

“Yes you are.” The call button next to the bed catches Hopper’s eyes and he thumbs it. “And you’re also in the hospital, where you’re definitely not leaving.”

Steve groans, and a moment later a nurse walks in, a cheshire grin fixed to his face when he sees that Steve’s awake. Before he can hear the flow of information, Hopper leaves, a small smile on his lips. 

—-

Apparently, Steve fell back asleep before the nurse could actually do anything. That’s supposed to be normal - that’s what he told him anyways. Coma’s aren’t like in the movies where they launch up ready to go, they’re slow. Steve would be much less sluggish eventually, but it would take time. 

He’d just nodded along with the nurse and pretended he understood, waiting till they stopped so he could leave the cursed place. His car is ten times warmer than the unforgiving skyscraper of pain he’d just left and he sighs, rubbing at his forehead before tugging his jacket closer and starting the car.

The drive to Joyce’s house is an easy one, seeing as almost all the snow has melted. November is nearly over, December not following far behind, and it has yet to snow a much since that fateful day two and a half weeks ago. Only flurries have covered their town since. 

When he pulls into the driveway he’s greeted with the sigh of Eleven launching snow at his car, Mike and will laughing at her from the doorway. Jonathan runs out and becomes her next target - before he runs to the back with a grin stretched across his cheeks.

“Hey!” He shouts, getting out of the car to be greeted with a puff of wet snow hitting his gut. “Lay off!”

Eleven laughs and runs to grab her jacket from Mike, throwing it into the house to try and stall Hopper from making her leave. 

“Do I leave?” She asks, turning back to Hopper with puppy dog eyes that suggest that either way, she won’t be going anywhere. 

“Yeah.” The kids move out of the way as he storms inside, brushing snow off his jacket and grumbling. “Yeah, we’re leaving.”

“Come on, can’t she stay for a few more hours?” Pleads Mike, following after him as he looks for Joyce.

He ignores him, passing through the doorway to the kitchen and stopping in his tracks.

There’s Joyce, her head haloed by the afternoon light, lips pursed into a smile, hair drifting down and across her cheeks as she glances at Hopper and the snow still spotting his outfit. She must’ve said something - her lips are moving, but all Hopper can think is “oh no.”

“Hop? Earth to Hop?” She chuckles and sets her mug down, taking her now empty hand and waving it in front of his face. “You must be tired.”

“Oh, uh, yeah. Lots of uhm - calls at the station,” he says hurriedly, knowing that he looks entirely too suspicious before managing to school his expression. “But I’ve got news. Harrington is up.”

Joyce’s eyes widen, but before she can slip in her response-

“Harrington is what?” Shouts Dustin from the other room, his feet already pounding towards them. He slides to a stop with his shoes letting out an unholy screech, stopping in the doorway. “He’s up?”

“Henderson, calm down.”

“He’s up.”

—-

(That Night, Hopper does let Eleven stay for a few more hours. They go and see Steve - who’s awake for a few minutes while they’re there. She stays the night at Joyce’s, and he mopes in his cabin.) 

Chapter Text

Recovery is a road boobytrapped with spikes and land mines, with animals hungry to drag Steve back at every minute. He’s lucky he didn’t have any brain damage, or recovery would’ve been much much harder. From here, Steve needs to find some way to quickly get away from his weakened and unused muscles, and his shrunken stomach. 

It seems every step he takes - including his first steps without a wheelchair - are followed quickly by a step down, or twenty. He can’t help but feel a little hopeless when he can barely manage to function like a human being.

Thankfully, not everything is bad. The kids are a constant sight at the hospital - they come bearing comic books, sketch pads, and on one strange occasion, a D&D set brought in for him to try a mock campaign Will had begrudgingly created. Hopper and Joyce visit occasionally, usually being yanked through the hospital halls by their kids. 

Strangely enough - Billy visits with Max. The first time it happens Steve nearly punches him, till he realizes that all that Billy really does is sit in the corner of the room and watching while Max and the others shoot him distrustful looks. Steve vaguely remembers Billy’s apology, but that doesn’t mean all is forgiven. 

Nancy and Jonathan come a couple of times, usually following their siblings, and while the interactions remain awkward and memory-soaked, a truce has seemed to form between them. 

Dustin visits the most, asking him for information on girls, for other “wisdom,” or what his favorite types of food were. One day there was candy, slightly stale, a little hard, handed to him in a plastic shopping bag one might get at a Chinese takeout place. Dustin had given it to him then promptly almost started crying, leading to a very confused Steve nearly force feeding him candy in an effort to make him stop. 

On bad days, Steve would throw up most of his food, and his legs would feel like water. Everything would seem out of reach, and his ribs would pulse with his heart, his head thudding painfully. 

On good days, the kids would be there, and he’d eat whatever he could, walking as far as possible. His ribs would still feel like thunder and his head like drums, but it would be a bit more bearable.

(Not because he really liked them that much, of course. Steve “The Hair” Harrington wasn’t friends with a bunch of middle schoolers - he was an unpaid babysitter really. They were just distracting.)

(Really.)

They finally let him go home on December 13th. A Friday, and since his car had been at his house Joyce was kind enough to drive him home. Something about her screamed “I am your mom,” and though he would hate to admit it, he really did like her. She was kind, soft, and maybe a bit overprotective, but she has a right to be in his own opinion. It was plain for anyone who looked at her to see that she cared about her kids an extraordinary amount. 

Getting into the car is an easy feat. He’s no longer in the wheelchair - and he barely limps now that his injuries have subsided. The cracked ribs still burn on his side, but they’re much less prevalent now. 

His concussion is what’s he’s most glad to be free of - no more of people waking him up in the dead of night to ask him who the current president was or what state he was in. It also meant that he could be left alone at his house, something he was simultaneously thankful for and worried about.

His house means silence, drafty corridors and empty beds, angry glares and broken bottles, blood and friends dragged under, monsters lurking right out of sight, human and otherworldly alike. 

But that’s a problem to be contemplated in the last two minutes of his drive there. For now, him and Joyce y’all quietly and laughing when Will tiredly interjects during what they thought was him sleeping. 

The kid has been out of the hospital for a while now - but has yet to regain all of his previous energy. The doctors said that made sense, and he’d likely be slightly lethargic for a while. Having a shadow beast that doesn’t technically exist to this world sucked out of you isn’t exactly a safe or healthy experience. 

“Thanks for driving me Ms. Byers,” He says, yanking the door open and grabbing the bag of painkillers from the floor. “I’ll see you later Will, try not to break into my house again.”

“Hey, we left something there while cleaning,” Will Says with an angry glare. 

“You weren’t supposed to tell him!” hisses Joyce. “And Steve, it’s Joyce, please.”

He nods. “I’ll- I’ll uh, probably forget that, but cool. Cool.” 

Swallowing, he walks off, taking the key from his pocket - his jeans pocket, thankfully not the prickly hospital gown he’d been wearing for a long time. He unlocks the door with hands that barely shake. Joyce’s car runs on idle in the driveway, her head turned to face him until he walks inside.

He’s greeted with a lamp on already, a tiny note pinned to it that says: “welcome back!” With a tiny drawing of his character from the miniature session of D&D he’d played with the kids. He smiles and picks it up, setting it on the coffee table in the living room.

The end table of the hall - and everything else is surprisingly not dusty, and the house is less cluttered than he could’ve expected with his parents having just been within. 

Sighing, he walks up the stairs, ignoring the rest of his surrounding to trudge along, already tired once again.  His bedroom is exactly the same as he’d left it other than a bag of candy identical to the stale one Dustin had brought him resting in his bed. A fond smile rests on his lips, and he sets it on the dresser, flicking the lights off and falling onto the bed, clothes and shoes still on.

For the first time in a long time, Steve’s sleep is wrapped in familiar, stale scents of his own home. 

Morning comes quietly and with light from between clouds, drifting into his room just enough to scale his face. He groans, as is customary with anyone whose being awoken without wanting to be. Thankfully, school is out for winter break - and it’s a saturday. 

Only one year left of high school - one that he is very much bombing spectacularly. Straight C’s, D’s and only one B, and that’s not even counting the times to come.

It’s not his fault words swim on the paper and his attention is grabbed by things much more interesting than school - but deemed much less important. He knows he’s not the brightest, but his teachers only giving them a day to read hundreds of pages isn’t helping. At least math and sciences aren’t too hard. 

He slides out of bed with a glance to the clock, reading 9:59. Usually he wouldn’t be up this early, but something about resting after having been in a coma seems wrong to him, so here he is. 

Looking down to his clothes from yesterday - he realizes they’re probably starting to grow mold or mini demogorgons by now, so he inspects his closet and pulls out a basic red T-shirt and jeans. Next he finds himself setting his clothes on the toilet in the bathroom, pulling the dirty ones off of himself and tossing them to the floor carelessly as water starts to drop from the shower head. 

Scalding hot water runs in massive rivers down his back, between his shoulder blades, down his legs, soaking his hair till it sits even more flat and limp on his head. It burns him till he’s pink and red, but it’s better than the bitter cold that awaits him when the knobs turn. 

Ten minutes later he steps out, smoothing his hair back with his fingers and pulling on his clothes, then grabbing a comb and sliding it through his hair. 

“Good enough,” he whispers to himself after a moment of staring at it, flicking one of his cow licks. It’s grown some, just another unfamiliarity after his extended trip in sleep. His Farrah Fawcett spray is sitting on his sink, presumably picked up by someone visiting the home from where he’d throw it while he’d been away. 

The silence of the home is a familiar sound that rings and buzzes in his ears - and he continues on, only half listening to the void that collapses against him as he walks to his room. He has no appetite - he hasn’t for a long time, really. He’s just bored, but he’d promised that he’d make contact with someone in the little group he’d connected so they knew he was ok.

His hand is poised to ring Dustin - about to hit the first button so he can thank the boy for his candy, when the doorbell rings. He sighs and the phone is left abandoned on his dresser. The light from the windows continues it’s pouring within and he shuts the blinds as he slides from his bed, groaning and kicking his door open. 

He’s out in the hallway before his mouth decides to finally react - along with the person outside reacting as well. The doorbell rings and a moment later he finds the air to say: “Who the shit?”

At least it’s broken the ever-present silence - the immortal static rarely tended and snaps, and when it does, all that Steve feels is relief. 

That’s not entirely accurate - he’d been about to shut the quiet out by himself and now - someone had interrupted him for now reason.

The doorbell rings a second time, then a third, then a fourth as he quickens his steps down the stairs, calling to them to just wait, useless through soundproof walls. 

The universe decides to annoy them some more as they refuse to answer his request, and the grating noise of the bell echoes around the house two more times before he finally opens the door to greet or to shout at whoever it is. 

He’s met with the stone cold faces of his father and mother. 

Chapter Text

The breath floods from his lungs as his eyes meet his father’s. Something squeezes itself around his heart and he flatlines, cold hospital walls surrounding him as he falls backwards, life drained from him and blood leaking from the open wounds ripping him apart. 

“Oh, hi dad,” he says as his death reverses to blow him back to reality. It’s all he can manage to say under the circumstances, the storm in the sky matching expertly with his father’s piercing gaze. “Isn’t this my house?”

“No, it’s our house,” says his mother, taking the opportunity to push him aside. The brush of her hands against his side have him flinching back and wishing that his flesh could slough off so that her hand had only brushed open air. Thankfully, he manages to put a hand out to block her way, but the trembling of his body might not be doing much to make her intimidated. She is his mother, after all.

“Actually, it’s been listed as my property for several years now, when you stopped visiting.” She glowers at his arm, fire and brimstone peeling through his skin. It remains stationary against the wall as his skin bubbles and melts against her gaze. “And - And I’d uh - I’d like you to leave.”

God steve, he thinks, cursing himself every moment the silence drags on longer. Where’d all the bravado go?

Any courage he’d had left leaves the moment his father steps forward. His rings flashing in the lamplight enough to shine with crusted over blood turning the metal rusty brown, left as some sort of twisted scare tactic from the last time flesh had hung from it and blood had trickled down its sides and Steve’s cheeks. “We bought this property for you, and so we officially own it, Steven.”

“I’m not- I’m not your kid anymore,” He stammers out, pointing at them with a shrug he wishes could exude King Steve. “It’s official, you have no claim over me.” 

“Let us in,” demands his father, his quick to grow temper rearing it’s hideous neck. “We will not allow you to slack off without a job or a penny of your own earnings and then turn around and try and take our property!”

“Y- you have plenty of other places to stay, just, Erm.” He rubs at his arm and averts his gaze. “Why can’t you just stay there?”

“That’s unimportant. It’s the principle of it, Steven.” His mom pushes at his arm again, but the shaking limb stays up, even if he wavers. “Get out of the way. Get a job.”

He swallows, shuts his eyes, and takes a deep breath.

“No.”

“No?” His father raises an eyebrow. “No? No to what, Steve? No, you won’t get a job? No, you won’t let us enter the house? No, no no no you won’t stop being an insufferable and relentlessly selfish brat?”

The ring against his flesh shines bright and menacing, the single weapon visible now, yet still one that makes Steve think of nights where he sat in bed, wheezing for breath and wiping away blood as it fell to bedsheets torn away because they came from his father and how could he touch something that monster gave him-

“Steve,” says his mother sharply. “Answer your father when he speaks to you!” 

Steeling himself again, he turns his gaze back to the two with eyes opened. “Get out of my house,” he whispers, voice trembling under the strain of anger and fear. “This is my house.”

His father raises his hand high, pulling his arm back, and Steve shuts his eyes, accepting his fate. The view is one oh-so familiar for him - it’s still terrifying, but he’s used to it. When his parents first left him he’d almost yearned for the crack of his father’s fist or palm or boot against his skin - it was better than the abandonment and all encompassing loneliness of them leaving him to rot like a corpse in that big empty house.

He can picture the blood that will likely come from this - the anger - the powerless feeling, then the real rage, all coming from him. It’s a simple routine, one handed to him for many years with shades of honeyed gold masking it from the outside like the windows of a cathedral.

The slap never comes. When Steve opens his eyes, he sees his parents back turned to him, dragging themselves out the door. 

—-

Steve can’t breath.

Or - or maybe he doesn’t want too, but all he knows is that the door is slammed shut in front of him - and his feet have slid out beneath him, leading him to slide ungracefully to the floor. His hands have found themselves twisted forward to thread into his hair, tugging hard as breath refuses to lift through his lung, through his neck and into his mouth. The pain sucks him into reality and a terrified laugh bubbles up and gets caught behind his teeth. 

He feels like screaming, so he does. It erupts from his lips like vomit, spewing throughout the home and echoing within the cracks in his sanity. He screams till tears turn to acid and dig gouges through his skin, caressing his skull and kissing his brain, razor sharp and hot as lava. 

His life ends with a gasp of breath and a kiss of emptiness, so his scream drifts from his cracked lips and drops short somewhere off the edge of the world. The fingers digging into his hair come unwound and he digs them into the legs of the end table to his left, bringing himself to shaky feet. A semblance of living flows back into what must be his corpse. 

The door is unlocked, and he escapes his coffin.

—-

The forest is crowded and empty all at once. It’s teeming with life, yet not a single soul - not even a squirrel or a mouse - interrupt him. He runs through the thick of it with panting breaths, rubbing at his arms and regretting both his choice to wear a t-shirt and to run off. 

His parents car had still been in the driveway when he’d ran off, but he’d locked the door behind him, so hopefully that would keep them away for now.

At the moment he continues diving through bushes and trees, over rocks and around frozen creeks. The sky is dark with clouds but he only runs faster, the phantom sound of footsteps crunching behind him all he can think of.

Right when he thinks his lungs are surely about to collapse to decaying tissue he finds a small cabin, tucked inside a clearing. The lights flow through the windows with a heavenly yellow, beacons of light within the close-knit plants. He stumbles towards it with his entire body feeling like it’s tugging apart at the seams - and he’s lucky he manages to knock at the door before his arm slide off. 

No one comes to the door, but the soft music he could barely hear as he waited outside scratches off. He knocks again.

The door swings open.

—-

Hopper is having a perfectly nice day. He took a day off to be with Eleven after lots of arguing with Flo - and when she’d woken up early, he’d already been up. After too-many egos and a lot of horrible belting to old songs they’d just left the music to play on it’s own, background noise against some Christmas movie he’s only half watching. She’d curled up into his side somewhere around the half-hour mark, and a smile had permanently affixed itself to his face. All is peaceful, and he finds himself drifting off.

A knock against the door interrupts the peace, making Hoppers eyes shoot open and Eleven’s form tense. “Just wait here,” he whispers to her, pulling the gun off the little coffee table he’d pulled into the room from a junk sale once they’d fixed the place. She nods and he nods back, starting to walk to the door with the gun raised up in a defensive position.

He clicks the safety off just as another knock comes and he flinches, frowning deep as he swings the door open. 

—-

Steve can’t help his stumble backwards - there is a gun pointed right at his face, so that’s justified. He thumps to the ground rather painfully, heart hammering within his bruised chest as he stares up into the confused and angry face of one Jim “Chief” Hopper.

“Steve?” He frowns and turns the safety off, chucking the gun on something inside. “What’re you doing out here?”

He shakes the silence from his mouth. “I- I- I-“ his teeth chatter inbetween stuttering words and he rubs at his arms, trying to gain more warmth. “M- my parents- th- they-“

“Ok kid, come inside, you’re - you’re not even wearing a coat?!” Hopper has a look of incredulous anger on his face as he leans over, extending a hand that has Steve flinching backwards. “Shit,” he says roughly, face softening. “Come on, Harrington.”

Steve nods and takes his hand, mostly relying on Hopper to tug him up. The door shuts behind him as he walks inside, entering a small room lit by yellowing lamps.

A couch sits a few feet away, a Christmas movie playing silently on a tv across from it. Eleven pops up from the couch with a half-frown-half-smile. “Steve?” She chirps, confused. “Why are you here?”

“Yeah Harrington,” chimes Hopper, his hands resting on his hips. “Why are you out in the beginning of winter with a T-shirt on, one day after being released from the hospital from a coma?”

Steve’s breath catches and words end where they start - leading to a choked off almost-laugh of hysteria crawling out of his gut. Instead of his breath leveling out, it comes faster and faster and he leans against the wall, as dizziness smacks into him, covering his eyes. “Th- they’re coming for me again.”

The look Hopper gives him has him sliding down to the ground in embarrassment and a quick spark of fear in his gut. “Who?”

“I-“ 

The world is creeping out of view, replaced with black around the corners.

 “I-“ 

He’s choking, his lungs denying him of air as the cozy cottage is replaced with his own home, his parents threats and beatings that would leave him lying on the floor and in so much pain flooding back from somewhere he’d kept hem hidden. Someone’s shouting at him and it morphs to his own cries of pain blending with the disappointed screaming of his father. He’s going to die - he can’t breath, and no matter what he says, his father won’t stop his hits.

—-

Hopper has had panic attacks before. Something even more terrifying were flashbacks mingling with panic attacks - and Steve’s memories practically float in plain view. 

Panic attacks are not pretty - in fact, they’d often forced him to take days off of work. People act as if they’re nothing, or that they simply don’t exist. Something that his brain created and dragged too far - an excuse to slack off or whatnot. They’re only for soldiers with PTSD or shellshock or whatever anyone prefers to call it - not for random teenagers 

But Steve is living proof that that’s a garbage notion.

He’s sitting on the floor, arms wrapped around his face, sobs wracking his skinny frame and choking off when air is stolen from him. He keeps chanting at someone to stop, get off, leave him alone. Worst of all - he keeps apologizing.

Hopper gets down on his knees and grabs Steve’s hand, only slightly regretting it when Steve lets out a terrified noise of pain. “Steve,” He says, soft as he is with Eleven. “It’s not real. What you’re seeing - you’re ok. You can get through this.” 

He continues to run a thumb over the trembling teenager’s hand and Steve seems to melt, finally letting go of some of the tension and squeezing Hopper’s hand back.

After around five minutes of hushed reassuring and questions, Steve’s breathing starts to even out and he moves his arms, the keening sobs that had been falling from his lips now reduced to an eerie silence that showed a practiced restraint. 

“Steve?” Whispers Eleven, standing behind Hopper. “It is ok. There are no bad men with you. You’re in Dad's house.”

Steve’s head bobs as he takes in a shaking breath, and Hopper lets out a breath of his own he barely realized he’d been holding. “Kid.” He moves to put a hand on Steve’s shoulder, and when he doesn’t flinch away, he lets his hand fall. “Can- I’m gonna need you to explain that.” 

Steve looks ready to bolt, so he puts up his free hand and shakes his head. “Not yet, I’m not an idiot. Let me get you some water. You wanna sit on the couch?”

The unsure look on Steve’s face - as if he expects the question to be followed by a slap at the “wrong answer” - it almost physically pains Hopper. 

“Just sit wherever you’re comfortable. I don’t give a damn, Harrington. It’s your decision. I mean that.”

“Yeah,” Steve replies in a raspy whisper. “Ok. I’ll sit on the couch.” 

He stands, and Hopper thinks he’s about to collapse on his shaky legs, but by some miracle he holds on till he flops onto the couch. His eyes stare vacantly up to the sky and Hopper walks to the kitchen, grabbing a cup and filling it with water.

“Here.” He holds it out to Steve, who takes it gratefully. “Drink it all.” 

He immediately starts to chug it. 

“No, no! Come on, Harrington, you’re gonna kill yourself! Sip it, damnit!”

All he gets in response is a glare and a slightly slower rate of drinking. 

Chapter Text

Once the cup has finally been drained for a second time, Hopper tells Eleven to go to her room. She glares at him but obliges, the door creaking shut with a flick of her wrist. Inside the living room it’s quiet for a moment, Steve and Hopper fidgeting with their respective glasses. 

“So,” says Steve, gaze twisted to his bare feet, fingers flirting around his cup and tapping the sides. 

“So,” says Hopper, chewing on the butt end of his un-lit cigarette. “You gonna tell me what all that was about?”

He sighs, knee bouncing up and down as he finally looks over at Hopper sitting next to him. “Do I really have a choice?” 

Hopper shakes his head. “No, you’re gonna tell me.” His voice is firm, but not unkind. “You just got out of the hospital. We probably shouldn’t have let you go off on your own.”

“Hey, I’m not a child, Chief. I’m a legal adult, and I’m not gonna sit around and be babysitted.”

“No- that’s-“ Hopper groans. “That’s not what I’m saying! Calm down.” His voice grates against Steve’s ears like a patronizing wail, and he frowns. 

“If we’re gonna talk, you’re gonna treat me like my age,” he says, a mix of a demand and a request, his voice still not quite reaching hostility as he negotiates. “I’m not saying anything if this is a police interrogation.”

“I’m off duty right now,” reasons Hopper. “C'mon, let's hear it.”

The music in the background is still off, giving Steve the impression that if he shut his eyes right now, he would be utterly alone. Silence is rhythmic as a heartbeat and he sighs, leg bobbing up and down harder and harder as he thinks. How does one go about explaining this?

Finally he starts. “I woke up like….” He pauses as he realizes that he has no idea what time it is anymore. “What time is it?”

Hopper looks down at his watch. “10:40. Am. Ish.”

“Ok, well I woke up like an hour ago, 9:50 something. It was normal, I took a shower and dicked around, but then someone knocks on the door.” A look of realization starts to grow on Hopper’s face, contrasting the half lidded eyes and sloping lips of Steve’s nervous expression. He nods at Steve to go on. “I go downstairs, it’s my parents. We talk. I run out after they’re gone.”

Hopper continues to motion for him to continue but Steve shrugs helplessly, looking away and down to the couch cushions. “That’s it.”

“No, come on. That’s not it. What did they want?”

This is exactly what Steve didn’t want to have to talk about. It’s too personal, it dives too deep into the embarrassing freak-out at his house and at Hopper’s cabin. “The house back, I guess. I said no, since it’s legally mine. They left, I ran off cause I don’t know why, ok? Back off.” 

Hopper throws his arms up in a gesture of surrender. “I’m not gonna push you, Harrington, it’s fine.” A bit of the tension trapped under his skin runs out. “I’m just asking, because I need to know whether your house is safe enough to return to,” he says, letting his voice fall softer. “Why’d you run out to the forest?”

At the more gentle tone, Steve softens further. “I don’t know,” he says firmly. “I wasn’t lying about that. I guess I just wanted to get away.”

“Yeah, I get that, but why the woods?”

Steve shrugs helplessly. 

“Ok. Ok, that’s fine .” Hopper nods to himself, then looks over at Steve with an expression that has him wishing he could run away. “Now, can I ask something as a cop?” 

That is a loaded and dangerous gun - and one that Steve has been trying to avoid. Out of anything Hopper can ask - Steve wanted to stay away from any questions that could lead to a larger investigation of his situation. Still, for some reason he finds himself trusting the man sitting next to him with his concerned glances and unnerving stillness. So, Steve says: “Sure.”

“Before all of this, was there any… physical abuse?” Panic floods him like ice water and snow, and his flight or fight starts to rise its haunches. “I mean - when you were a child,” he explains hastily, while Steve groans internally cross from him. Out of all questions, he’d asked just the type of thing Steve hadn’t wanted to answer. Seeming to notice Steve’s expression, Hopper frowns. “Harrington, if you tell me we might be able to-“

“Yeah,” he admits, sucking in a breath and rubbing at his face. His eyes stay affixed on the inside of his palms, and a headache that was steadily building seems to rise quicker and quicker. He’s never said anything like this to anyone, ever. Not to Tommy or Carol, not even to Nancy. His home life had always been a private secret, wrapped up in duct tape and thrown in a safe, locked with iron and thrown 6 feet under.

“There was.”

“Ok.” Hopper shifts in his spot to look away from Steve. “What… what kind?”

“Look, I don’t really want to talk about this right now,” he snaps, drawing his arms away from his face to rake them through his hair as he looks at Hopper. “I- I don’t see what old bullshit has to do with the future.” His hands slap down into his lap. 

“It has everything to do with it, Harrington,” he replies, voice annoyingly calm. “Maybe we can get them put away.” Hopper eyes him, but all that the chief of police gets from him is a look of exasperated and confused anger. “Come on, work with me here.”

“No! No, I don’t want to work with you over- over something that doesn’t involve you in the slightest!” Steve stands and throws out his arms, eyes careening around the room then back to Hopper’s face, mouth opened in an indignant scoff. “I don’t see why you care anyways!”

Hopper had a house and a steady job, and a kid of his own. He’d escaped death by otherworldly monsters. Nothing about him really screamed that he’d care about some random barely-adult whose parents were a little rough with him. Hopper was a nice enough guy to most people - but he was rough around the edges, sandpaper that might end up digging into Steve’s problems even more. 

“Steve!”

Hopper calls his name and his head snaps over. The look on the chief's face makes him wonder distantly how many times he’d had to say his name, but he feels foggy and underwater, so that thought quickly becomes less important. “Breathe. You need to breathe,” Hopper insists.

“Y- yeah,” he replies with a much more  raw voice than he’d expected, wiping away tears that had only just begun to form. 

“We don’t need to talk about it right now Steve. It’s fine, but we’ve got to have a discussion eventually,” he states simply. Steve nods, accepting that he isn’t getting out of it. Something inside him does want someone to get his parents throw into jail - but the more logical part of his mind knows they won’t get much more than a fine and a slap on the wrist.

He sinks back down to the couch as Hopper pierces him, a studious state now peeling away his flesh to stare at his head. It leaves him vulnerable, nervous and twitchy.

“What?” 

Hopper shakes his head. “Nothing. Just wondering where you’re gonna stay.” He sighs, looking away and shaking his head.

“What?” Steve looks at him with wide eyes. “Oh, no, no no no. I’m staying at my house, not with you.” His hair slaps against his face as he shakes his head, glaring.”

“Steve, I’m not just gonna leave you alone in that house, not anym-“

“Yes you are,” demands Steve. “I’m not mooching off of you.”

Hopper rolls his eyes. “Look, Harrington, I get that you’re a big kid now, but really. Accept some help.”

“Absolutely not-

“Then we go to your house.”

The origin of the voice is Eleven - standing in the doorway of her bedroom with arms crossed and a sweater already pulled on as if she’s ready to leave. 

“Have you been eavesdropping this entire time?” Asks Hopper incredulously. “Have that be your new word of the day - eavesdropping, listening in.”

“No, I have not been listening long, only enough. We will go to your house, Steve, if you will not stay at ours.”

Steve looks over at Hopper, whose face is currently still pointed at Elevwn, a hard glare scrawled across it. 

Their cabin is small, uncomfortably cramped, and Steve wasn’t going to steal their already limited space. But, his own house might work.

“I’m down for it,” he says, right as Hopper starts to shoot the idea down. “You guys have cramped quarters and I mean, I’ve got enough empty space in there.”

A pregnant silence spreads after he speaks, and for a moment Steve is left wondering whether he’d just been part of an elaborately planned prank. 

Hopper stares at Steve for an uncomfortable amount of time, looking all too tired for someone lounging on their couch on a Saturday morning. Eleven let’s a smile creep up into her face, still standing in her doorway and waiting for the next words to be said. Steve waits, squirming under Hopper’s look.

A decision is made.

“Steve, are you sure?” Asks Hopper, and Eleven breathes a sigh of relief. “You can stay out here, I’m offering.”

Steve nods. “Yeah, I hate that mansion.” Then, as if an afterthought: “it’s always so damn quiet.”

“Yeah,” says Hopper with a low chuckle. “I bet it would be. Give us a minute and we’ll be ready.” He stands, then points at Steve with a playfully angry look. “And you - you’re going to wear my damn shoes!”

Steve groans and looks around to the door. “What shoes do you have that’ll fit me?”

“You’d better not be insulting me Harrington! I’ve got some old docs in a bucket near the door, should fit you ok.” He yanks his coat off the back of his chair, then disappears, reappearing in the living room a minute later with some socks, which Steve takes gratefully. “Do you know the direction back from here?”

“No,” Steve replies, sitting on the couch and pulling the boots on. They’re old and worn, and a little snug, but overall comfortable. The black leather shines through years of wear and tear, and even if he didn’t really wear this type of stuff - Doc Martens were always for the punk kids and anarchists - he finds himself enjoying them. 

“Good.” Hopper goes around grabbing some random things and Steve waits by the door in confusion. “Eleven, you ready?”

“I am.” 

The bag in her hands is pitifully small, and Steve mentally starts planning to get her some new clothes. Hopper doesn’t have bad taste for children’s clothing apparently, evidenced by Eleven’s soft sweater tugged over a turtleneck and overalls with tights. He likely didn’t have much clothing for her because of his daughter having been kept in the hospital for so long, not that that was Hopper’s fault. 

“Are we leaving?” He asks, finishing his tying of the boots, the laces longer than anything he’s used to wearing. 

“Yup,” says Hopper, popping the p as he tucks a pack of cigarettes into his pocket. Eleven glares at him, and the same pack - along with two more, go abandoned against the table. “You ready Harrington?”

He nods, already bracing himself for the cold he knows waits to bite at him outside.

“Wait.” Hopper grabs a second jacket - a dark green coat that doesn’t seem like something Hopper would wear - and throws it at him. “Put it on.”

He does, and his skinny arms are dwarfed within the sleeves, but he rolls them up and stands. “You should wear less mouth breather clothing,” says Eleven with a shiteating grin. “You look… cool. Bitchin.” 

He doesn’t have time to respond to her insult or her compliment or her cursing, because Hopper crosses to the door and opens it, flicking off the lights as he goes. “I’ll come back and get some more essentials later. Let’s go.”

Steve nods and marches out, Elevens words forgotten as he speed walks to the car, Hopper and Eleven following behind. The door shuts and locks with a wave of Eleven’s hand, and Hopper nods to her as he crunches through dead leaves to unlock it. 

“Shot-gun!” Eleven says cheerily, leaping into the seat next to her father then glancing at Steve outside guiltily. “Sorry Steve.”

He laughs. “It’s fine, Eleven. Or - do you want to be called Jane?”

“Eleven is ok,” she replies with a shrug. “Or Jane, or El. I’m ok with any of those.”

Something about the girl letting him call her by her nickname makes Steve’s smile widen tenfold, and he slides back into the backseat happily with a final nod of understanding. 

“Buckle, Harrington,” warns Hopper gruffly, fingers tapping against the steering wheel as he starts the car. “I don’t know if you forgot, but I’m still a cop.”

Rolling his eyes, he tugs the buckle over himself, staring out the side window as Hopper starts down the bumpy road. Each slam of the wheels into uneven ground makes Steve’s gut churn, and he shuts his eyes to avoid it all, listening to the low sounds of the radio burping out music.

By the time they’ve made it to his house, the road has evened enough that Steve’s eyes digit to stay open. He’d slept a lot more than he normally would’ve last night, but it seems that his sleep schedule is only just starting to catch up with him.

“Come on, sleepyhead,” says Hopper with a chuckle, a hand behind Eleven’s seat as he backs into the driveway. “We’re here.”

“I’m not asleep.” He yawns and his body blows out a thousand expletives, all aimed at him for nearly falling asleep in a car of all places. His neck would’ve been aching for days. 

When he finally unbuckles and leaves the car, Steve is surprised to find that Hopper’s boots crunch into freshly fallen snow. It drifts into his hair and paints freckles across his face so he shivers, hurrying to slam his door shut and walk to the front of the ugly grey nearly-mansion he calls home. He digs in his pocket for his key and unlocks it, opening the door to reveal the completely-the-same house, sighing as warmth leeches into the frigid outside. 

It feels as if something should be different. Less than an hour ago Steve had stood up to his parents and escaped, terrified as they’d made their attempt to yank the house and him back into their iron clutches. But no - everything is the exactly same. Not an object out of place, or a change of lighting, or anything. It all stays unnervingly blank to the changing of time. 

Eleven looks around with wide eyes when she steps in behind him. “Big,” she says, then continues on in awed silence as she walks into the living room, with its sprawling couches and huge bookcases. The almost-a-chandelier in the middle of the room flicks on with a press of a switch and she grins happily, the light sparkling in her big brown Bambi eyes. 

Suddenly the smile slides off, and she frowns, turning to him. “Too big. You shouldn’t be alone here.”

He shrugs. “Not much I can do about it. It’s fine - I’ve been here on my own since I was twelve.”

It’s Hopper’s turn to stare at him, eyes wide and mouth slack. “What the hell , Harrington! Your parents left you alone in here when you were twelve?”

“Well, not technically,” he explains quickly. “I had a private tutor till high school. And this one guy brought groceries over for me.”

It’s not like he’d been truly alone. He’d talked to people - he’d even snuck around town, to the park or the pool, and occasionally - the library. He’d even managed to make a few friends. Him and Nancy had talked a few times when he’d run into her at assorted places, and Tommy and Carol had been nice too - before popularity got to their heads and they started to aid in twisting him into “King Steve.” He knew he had no right to pin all of the blame on that persona in them - and he didn’t. 

“No, Steve.” Eleven goes back to inspecting the room, but her smile doesn’t come back. “They left you,” she calls, back turned to him as she inspects the kitchen. “They’re bad people, like my papa.”

“Well, not quite,” he continues hastily. “Your papa was garbage, my parents were just a little weird-“

“God, kid, what did they do ?” There’s some sort of desperation in Hopper’s voice, as if he’s desperate to make Steve understand. “Your parents weren’t just weird, they’re not good people, Steve.” Hopper walks past him and then turns, looking his right in the eyes, yet Steve can’t find the means to turn away. Then, he walks away, a labored sigh seeming to drag itself from him. “I’m going to call Joyce about this. You can keep the jacket. And the boots. You’ll probably look better with them than in your prep kid getup.”

With that, he leaves Steve to splutter, walking to the front hall and the phone. Eleven walks up to Steve. 

“So… should I take the couch?” 

Now this is something Steve can fix.

“What - hell no,” he hisses back. “I’ve got this whole house, we’ve got like, five bedrooms, El. Come on kiddo, I’ll show you your room.” 

She smiles and nods, walking next to him as he scales the stairs to the second floor. Her feet are silent as a cat as she walks, and he wonders whether that’s because she’s small, or a twisted tactic she’d learned to utilize while in the lab. They round the corner as the stairs end, and the hallway presents itself.

“Ok,” he says, clapping his hands together. “You can go… wherever you want I guess.” He points to the open door of his own bedroom. “Just not there.”

“Your parents room?”

He shakes his head as she starts walking forward. “They don’t have one, since they live in New York. That one’s mine. They make money from some guy making money off another guy, so they’re filthy rich enough to live somewhere else.” The first door opens with a flick of her hand and she smiles.

It’s small, with a twin sized bed with old, dusty pillows sitting lost to time. The headboard is simple dark wood, but soft enough that it doesn’t feel imposing or too “modern”. Moth-eaten blankets sit on the mattress and the bed table lamp looks like something out of the 20’s, but her eyes spark with a childlike enjoyment. “This one,” she says firmly, tugging at the blankets and feeling their softness. 

“Are you sure?” He asks. “We’ve got more, kinda more clean rooms elsewhere. Less, dust and old shit, you know.” 

She snorts. “No, I like this one. Please.”

Hopper appears behind them just as Steve starts pulling the sheets off to go wash. “Let me do it kid. It’s the least I can do while we’re living in your house.”

He raises an eyebrow as if to ask are you sure, arms full of white and light blue fabric. Hopper nods and lifts it from his arms, leaving Steve empty handed. “Where the washing machine?”

“Basement. The doors open near the front, you can’t miss it.”

Hopper nods. “I’ll take the bedroom across from here.” He walks off. 

—-

That night, Steve falls asleep on the couch with Eleven next to him, Hopper in the chair to the left and asleep as well. They’d been watching another Christmas movie, a plate of sugar cookies he’d baked sitting on the coffee table - little snowflakes and Santa’s painted on some. After they’d fallen asleep, Hopper had thrown a blanket over the two, smiling more than he felt he had in a long time. 

Chapter Text

All Steve can hear is a shrill, angry noise when he awakens. It’s a scream, anguished and broken. His eyes are yanked open to meet a light piercing at them from above and he tumbles from what he’s lying against, disoriented and frightened. The afterglow of a demogorgon transferred from his dreams lies flat against the ground, and he blinks the image and the sound of Dustin’s screams from his eyes. 

When he sees a kettle pumping steam on the stove he sighs, letting his arms fall on either side of him, the blanket that was previously wrapped around him and Eleven’s shoulders now wrapped around his waist and yanked off the confused girls body. His paranoia is at an all time high, but he lets some of it slough away when he looks up to Eleven and her smile, a bit worried. 

“What happened?” She whispers concernedly, sliding off the couch to perch at his feet on her haunches like a bird. He shakes his head.

“Nothing. Kettle just surprised me.” He rolls backwards out of the blanket and stands, wincing at the pinching stitch in his side from his running last night. His cracked ribs still weren’t quite healed - that was a horrible idea.

Hopper looks up at him. “She asked for tea,” is his gruff answer to Steve’s questioning look at the kettle. He hadn’t used the old silver hunk of metal for years now. 

He nods, half-limping to the kitchen and discreetly towing his bag of painkillers with him, setting them on the counter. His side aches even more as he grabs a cup, hissing in a breath as it strains painfully. 

“Harrington, what was that?” Says Hopper, making Steve curse his inability to be quiet. “You got some kinda new injury?”

Waving him off, Steve walks to the sink, filling his cup with water and then going to the counter to pick up the annoyingly noisy white bag holding the equally loud pills he needs to take. “I’ll be back,” he responds, voice as rough with sleep as Hopper’s normal tone.

“Hey, wait.” Hopper puts his hands up. “I’m not trying to be… nosy, but are those painkiller?”

Steve had been planning to go upstairs with them and take a few, but apparently that plan - along with his plan to re-wrap his tender ribs - has been scratched. “Yeah.” He takes a drink of his water and keeps watching Hopper with wide eyes. “What about it?”

“Kid, you’re allowed to take them around us. You’re supposed to take them.” He scrunches up his nose and takes the kettle off the stove. “Too damn loud,” he mutters, pouring some out into a plain black mug resting on the edge of the sink then turning back to Steve.

“I don’t even really need them,” he says briskly, drinking some more water, attempting to avoid more conversation. It doesn’t work, and the teabag sinks into Eleven’s tea as Hopper watches him. “They just said I’ll screw my ribs up or whatever if I’m not care-“

“Oh shit,” interrupts Hopper, the eyes stuck on Steve starting to narrow into worried slits. “And you went out running. Harrington, you are an idiot.” He grabs the bag of pills from his hands and leaves Steve standing there with one hand empty, startled. “Let me see.” He gestures at Steve’s chest. “Got any sort of… of bruising or something?”

Steve glares at him. “No,” he says sharply, trying and failing to grab the bag back. “I’m fine! I’ll be fine, I’m just- just sore, Chief, leave it alone!”

“I saw you flinching around earlier Steve, come on.”

“It doesn’t even matter-“

“You keep saying that,” hisses Hopper. “Why do you think that I don’t care?”

“Why should I think you do?” He manages to grab the bag back and opens the bottle, downing a pill with a gulp of water. It slides down his throat and scrapes the sides, making him grimace. “There. I did it. Are you pleased?”

Hopper looks at him with that weird look of his again - that mix of anger, and some sort of subtle knowing hidden behind his bubbling temper. Steve can’t help but feel nervous under it, but the anger he knows is coming is something he can deal with. 

“Yeah,” Hopper replies, scoffing and shaking his head after he ends his silent pause. He turns back to the tea and fishes the teabag out with a spoon, dumping it in the trash. “Yeah- you know what,” he says, turning back around to face Steve again. “I guess I am.” 

At that, Steve sets the bag on the counter, snatching the cup of tea and walking out of Eleven. 

“Hey!” Shouts Hopper angrily, and Steve waves him off before he can start to follow him. 

“I’m giving it to her,” he explains without turning back. She meets him halfway and smiles, blowing on it for a moment then taking a sip. 

Her eyes sparkle with happiness as her smile expands. “Good. Thank you.”

“Of course kiddo,” he replies, shrugging and not really trying to disguise the smile digging into his lips. “I don’t know what sorta teabag he used but hey - if you say it’s good I’ll take your word for it.” 

She continues to drink it then jumps as the doorbell rings, flinching back slightly at the same time as Steve. “Shit,” he says, realizing who it is. “Shit!” He goes running to the door. 

“You expecting someone?” Asks Hopper from the kitchen, voice itself a peace offering after their mini argument, leaning on the counter and sipping coffee. “Cause if it’s your parents I’ll arrest em’ if I need to.”

“No, no it’s just me being a babysitter and forgetting about it- hey! Henderson!” His voice raises to a pleasant tone as he puts on his mask of not-quite King Steve, but still the perfect prep kid babysitter. The boy comes striding through the door with a wide grin and gives him a fist bump, his other arm occupied with a few books. 

“Why’s Hopper here?” Asks Mike in confusion and badly concealed annoyance, following quickly behind Dustin with Lucas trailing behind him and looking around the house with a mischievous grin. “Did you like, I don’t know, steal some shit?”

“Language!” Shouts Hopper from the kitchen. Mike scowls and continues walking in, instantly brightening when he notices Eleven. 

“El!” He drops his books on the coffee table and hugs her. “I missed you!”

“You just saw her,” says Will, a pointed purple hat tucked under the crook of his arm. “Like, two days ago.”

“Yeah Mike, obsessed much,” says Max, voice dripping with a sort of new overprotectiveness the girl had begun to grow for Eleven. Despite their rough start, they’d latched hold of each other and hadn’t yet let go. 

She doesn’t have anything to hold with her - not a book or a costume - not yet, so her hand is clasped in Lucas’s. “It’s a little weird,” she finishes, wandering into the living room. 

“Hey,” says Eleven defensively. “I missed Mike too.”

Hopper groans in the kitchen and Steve smiles, mentally preparing himself for what they’re about to do. He’d foolishly started a D&D campaign with the kids while he was still in the hospital, and after enough of their pestering and whittling down his defenses he’d finally snapped and agreed to continue. It was fun enough the first time, but sitting still like that for so long wasn’t really Steve’s forte.

“So, where are we playing?” Asks Lucas, drawing up beside Steve after detaching from Max and grabbing a cookie from the plate still sitting out from the night before. “These are really good.”

“Thanks.” He grabs the plate and sets it on the kitchen counter. “You can’t have any more.”

Lucas gapes at him. “What, why not!” 

“Yeah Harrington, we want some cookies,” demand Dustin. 

As bickering erupts, Steve finds himself growing steadily more annoyed, till:

“Ok, shitheads, calm down!” He roars over the chaos, getting all of them to freeze in their spots. Crossing over to the couch he climbs onto it, standing above them with arms splayed wide. “Here’s what’s happening! Hopper and El are staying at my house now.”

Mike grimaces. “Why at your h-“

“Hush!” He turns to Mike and shakes his head. “No questions!” He spins back around. “Now.” He points at Lucas. “No cookies because I don’t know if you punks have had breakfast. We’re playing out here.” He points at Max, then back at Lucas. “No making out, and keep the door open if you’re ever alone.” Before they can start their protests, he points at Mike and Eleven, leaving the other two sneering at him. “Same goes for you too! Especially with the Chief around, cause he’ll probably scalp you or some shit.”

“Language!” Growls Hopper again, coming into the living room and sipping from some coffee. “You’d all better watch your mouths or I’ll call your parents!” He nods at Steve. “I’ll make breakfast. Got any-“

“Oh, no no no you won’t!” Steve marches into the kitchen and opens the fridge, grabbing a carton of eggs. “I don’t trust you messing with my kitchen! Is everyone cool with eggs?” He frowns as it occurs to him that he doesn’t have anything else. “Actually, I don’t care.” He grabs a pan from the cupboards. “They’re good for you.”

“I already had breakfast,” says Dustin, grabbing a cookie from the plate and hiding it behind his back when Steve looks over. 

“So have I,” chimes Mike. “Hey, is this you?” He laughs from the living room. “You were a weird baby!”

“Stop looking at my baby photos or I’ll be the one to scalp you.” Steve grabs some butter and assorted seasoning and turns the stove on. “Someone grab me the cheese.” 

Eleven walks to the fridge and looks around. “Cheddar or… or moo-en-stoo-er?”

He pauses and looks over with a confused expression. “Moo…. oh, Muenster.” The butter bubbles on the plate as he thinks. “Na, get the cheddar.”

She nods and pulls it out, setting it on the counter next to him, then pointing at the start of his concoction. “What is it?”

“An omelet.”

“Ooo, omelets!” Max comes waltzing in and grabs a chunk of shredded cheese before Steve can slap her hand away. He does it when she moves back, just because he can. “Steve, can you even cook?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“He’s being modest,” grumbles Hopper. “Cooked some basic spaghetti for dinner last night, and it was probably the best I’ve had in a long time.”

“When’d you learn to cook?” Dustin asks doubtfully. “Your mom teach you?”

“I’m self taught,” he replies quickly, avoiding a whole  spreading butter in the pan. “Who likes veggies with theirs?”

“That shit’s gross,” says Lucas, shaking his head and walking into the kitchen. 

“Only for people with no taste!” Max walks around him to the living room and stares at his basket of records. “You like Queen?”

“Queen?” Will brightens and walks over. “Who knew Steve had taste!”

“Hey now, those were gifts,” he says sullenly, but his voice is lost under the beginnings of “Another One Bites The Dust” start to flow around the room. 

The crooning Of Freddie’s voice is like melted gold, and Steve can’t help but sway just the slightest bit in time with the intoxicating sounds. He hasn’t listened to those records for a very long time, and memories come leeching back - of silence breached by Elton and Freddie, or sometimes the Beatles. He wasn’t a flower child and his capitalism and war driven parents certainly weren’t - but their music wasn’t half bad.

He’d even ventured to some of what his parents would probably call “satanic bullshit,” and he enjoyed it all because of the rebellion, and also because it generally sounded good.

Soon enough the omelets are finished and played, and they all move to the dining room, the music switched off and the records placed gently back in their cases. Breakfast is nice, and the compliments thrown at him over his food are an added bonus. Something about the day is a domestic cliche he could barf at - they all bicker with each other in a friendly way that makes it look like they’ve known each other for life. 

“So, Will what's with the hat?” Asks Hopper from the head of the table. 

The boy blushes lightly and turns back to his omelet, avoiding Hopper’s question by shoving food into his mouth.

“It’s Erm-“ he swallows the massive bite of egg and cheese in his mouth. “It’s for Dungeons and Dragons. It’s part of my character.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah.”

“Huh.” Hopper nods and Will seems to settle in the approving look shot his way. “What’s your… your character name?”

“Will the wise.” He grabs another bite of food.

“He’s our cleric,” chimes Dustin, then laughs. “And like - the best artist of our party too. You’ve only seen the pictures of the tunnels he had to draw, but really-“

“Yeah, he’s great,” interrupts Steve, stopping the conversation as soon as he sees Will’s paling face. “You’ll uh-  Will, he uh- you should show us later.”

Will nods gratefully at him subtly, then turns back to Hopper. “Sure, next time I’ll bring my sketchbook.” 

There’s another knock at the door and Hopper stiffens. Everyone’s heads go up and looking and Steve freezes in his seat, hands poised to cut into his omelet. “How many kids do you have, Harrington?”

Hopper’s words break through his anxiety and he looks over to him. “These shitheads are the only ones,” he grumbles, setting his fork down against the plate and standing, cracking his back then walking off. “I’m not expecting anyone else.”

Suddenly, he feels a hand against his arm, and he turns to see Hopper looking at him. An entire conversation takes place with a single look and Steve feels his nerves burn away and spark, like cut wires and the ends of a fire. Anxiety hasn’t always been a familiar sensation, but quite often he’s felt himself getting more and more paranoid. “Let me get it,” Hopper says, nonchalantly and after too long and too obvious a pause. “Keep eating, you need it Harrington.”

Steve laughs shakily and pulls his arm away, rubbing at the spot nervously. It hadn’t hurt, but it’s become a nervous tendency for him to subconsciously recognize most touch as hostile. “Shut up,” is all he can say in response as he walks back to the table, Eleven staring at him with her big brown eyes, nodding in a knowing way. The kids are all focusing their attention at him and he shakes his head, taking another bite. “Ok, nothing to see turds, eat your food,” he says through a mouthful. 

They do, and Hopper discreetly grabs his gun from the front table, flicking the safety off. The click echoes around Steve’s head, and he fights against the urge to get up and stop the man, but it’s overpowered by the nervous look on Elevens face. 

He knows something awful happened to her - he doesn’t know the full details, but experiments and tortures aren’t something someone discusses freely. 

The person knocking on the door could be his parents and their wrath, or it could be an assassin with their gun. At least in both situations, Hopper has a weapon. 

Chapter Text

Five minutes later, Tommy H. Is standing by the table, grabbing a piece of omelet off of Hopper’s abandoned plate as the man makes himself more coffee. He grins widely at Steve, but there’s a shaken look behind his eyes and he keeps eyeing the gun sitting on the front table. 

“Why’re you here?” Asks Steve bluntly, standing at his seat to face him. He hadn’t talked to Tommy as a friend since that fateful night when he’d gotten into the thick of the demogorgon situation, and he hadn’t tried to rekindle whatever rotting bits of their friendship trailed behind him. 

“To bring you your schoolwork, man, I said that,” he replies languidly, plopping a folder of papers and a book down onto the table. “I visited at the hospital but you were still knocked out. Billy got you good, didn’t he?” He grins. “King Of Harrington, de-throned.”

“No,” says Dustin coldly, knife clattering down to his plate to give himself the attention he wants. It works, and Tommy looks over. “Billy didn’t do shit Tommy.”

“Oh? I was just messing around.” He chuckles and turns to Steve, rolling his eyes as if to say: get a load of this kid? Needless to say, Steve fixes him with a stony glare and ignores it.. “I see you’re still ditching me.” He eats another piece of omelet, but stops when Steve jams a butter knife into the eggs right next to his former friend’s slimy fingers. “This time it’s kids, but I didn’t take you as the type to be into that, aye St-“

Red clouds his vision and he rushes forward out of his chair, thankfully only pushing it back a little as he grabs Tommy by his collar. “Shut your mouth, Tommy,” he hisses, pressing the boy to the neighboring wall and ignoring the kids being strangely defensive towards him at the table. “I’m out of the hospital now, and I’ll beat your little sniveling ass.” He drops him, and the boy’s hands going up in surrender. 

“Alrighty, Stevey! It was a joke!” He waves his hands around then turns around. “But really?” He raises an eyebrow and twists his arm back around to gesture lazily at Will, grinning toothily. “Zombie boy?”

Anger roils in his gut at the nickname, and Steve finds himself surging forward. 

Zombie boy was a sickening name - one that was a constant reminder of what Will had done and what he had gone through. It had started somewhere within the middle school and quickly spread to the whole town - and before he’d met the kids he only felt a little twinge of uncomfortable at the cruel name. Now, it led to white hot anger pulling the last bit of his common sense out of his - leading him to slamming his fist into Tommy’s gut.

He chokes on his words and doubles over, grabbing Steve arm and shoving him away as he stumbles backwards. back hitting the wall. “What is your problem, you cocksucker!” His face is a disgusted and angry sneer - one that promises Steve might end up with a few punches of his own, but it doesn’t phase him. “You’ve gotten worse than I thought!”

“Get out of my house, Tommy,” he says with a quiet voice, rising up into his space and glaring, fisting a hand into his collar again then shoving him towards the door. “Get the fuck out.”

“Woah, woah what the hell are you two doing ?” Steve can hear Hopper’s footsteps behind him, and he can practically feel the exhasperattion dripping from him as he watches the two fight.. “You two, outside, now.”

Steve looks over. “No,” he replies bitterly, but that anger is mostly aimed at Tommy, who throws his hands up. “This isn’t your house, Chief. I have the right to kick him out.”

“Sure, sure!” Shouts Tommy, scoffing. He drags his arms out and they smack against the wall before he walks forward, suddenly chest to chest with Steve. “We used to be friends, asshole! You used to be cool.” He punches Steve’s shoulder in a way that might’ve been friendly once. “Have fun with your kids .” He glowers at him for another moment, then walks out of the hall, opens the door, strides out and slams it shut. 

Steve walks to the table and sits back down, leaving Hopper in the hallway. “Everyone ignore that. It-“ He points at them all and stares at them for at least a second each with a serious glare. “It didn’t happen.”

“Yes it did,” says Will, smiling as if Steve had just actually beat Tommy up. “Dude, you’re awesome.”

“I thought Tommy was like, your best friend or something?” Mike wrinkles his nose and gags. “Glad to hear not everyone you hang with is garbage.”

Steve nods. “Yeah, well I’ve got good enough taste to know that washed up jerk isn’t a friend. Not anymore, he’s changed.”

“You used to be friends with Tommy?” Asks Max with her mouth full of omelet. “But he’s like, Billy’s mini minion.”

“Yeah, that shithead was his best friend,” says Dustin. “He was-“ he eats a bite of his omelet. “This is really good man,” he muses, barely understandable through his massive mouthful. Steve thanks him and Dustin continues. “-A real douche.”

“All of you, stop cursing before I call your parents,” grumbles Hopper as he sits down at the head of the table with another glass of coffee. “And Steve, instead of assaulting someone, get me to deal with it, please.”

“This is Tommy H we’re dealing with Hop.” Lucas’s wide eyes center on Hopper. “You’re a cop, but Tommy’s a rich boy paying everyone off like, all the time. He’ll kill you! With cash!”

“No he’s not, he’s all talk,” scoffs out Steve. “Plus I’ve got more money, I’ll screw him over.” He waves a hand dismissively and sips his drink. 

“Screw him… over?” Eleven frowns. “What’s that?”

“Nobody will be screwing anyone over.” Hopper slurps loudly from his cup to get them to be quiet, and miraculously, it works. “Tommy will go home and leave us alone.”

“Mouthbreather,” whispers Eleven grumpily, staring out the door where Tommy has just left. “Steve is good at this.”

“Thanks El.” Steve grabs Dustin’s empty plate and stacks it on top of his own, careful of the silverware. 

“Since when have you called her El?” Asks Mike, voice hostile as ever as he watches Steve walk around the table. 

“I said he could,” she replies pleasantly. “I moved into his home, so I like him.”

“But why!” Mike stacks his plate on top of Dustin’s. “Steve, no offense, but you’re kind of a jerk.”

“Yeah, none taken,” he grumbles to no one in particular. Mike ignores him.

Eleven thinks for a second “No he isn’t. Steve… made a mistake.”

“Steve made a bunch of mistakes!”

“Lay off, Mike!” Dustin grabs his napkin and rubs at his mouth. “Steve’s different now.”

“Why’d you even come if you hate him so much?” Asks Will. 

Mike shrugs. “Cause I like D&D.”

“Cause I like D&D!” Mocks Lucas shrilly. “You only came cause you’re obsessed with El!”

“I didn’t even know she would be here,” defends Mike. He throws his hands out. “And you’re not one to talk! You and Max never stop talking!”

“Don’t drag me into this, asshole,” says Max, pointing at him and glaring. “You-“

“Calm down!” Steve calls sharply. “and please, stop insulting me, I just made you food.” He grabs the rest of the plates and walks to the kitchen. 

“You’ve gotta make more food to get forgiveness.” Mike stands and walks up behind him. “Can I have a cookie?” 

Steve glares at him. “You ate breakfast and then a second breakfast.”

“So what!” 

“I’m not getting yelled at by Mrs. Wheeler for giving you to much sugar. She’ll kill me.”

“Are you afraid of my mom?” Mike laughs. 

He starts scrubbing at the plates. “Yeah, well. She’s a mom. Plus, you’re scared of her too.”

—-

Later, and after a few hours of D&D, Steve decides that Mike really isn’t all that bad.

He’s got a bark and a bite, but most of his attacking is dedicated to people  hurting his friends. He’d also been slightly more receptive towards Steve after a game, and also after he’d given him another cookie, which he’d split with Eleven. She’d just smiled at him and bat her eyelashes in a doll like way, making him cackle with laughter at the lack of authenticity to it all. 

After a surprisingly entertaining game, the kids had started trickling out of the house. First went Dustin, after five minutes of him uselessly nagging at his mom to let him stay. Then Mike, who’d biked home, then Will and Lucas, who’d been driven home by Jonathan after an awkward three minute conversation between Steve and him. 

Max and El were currently dancing to Bohemian Rhapsody, belting the lyrics with Steve as he dragged buckets of Christmas decorations up the stairs. They’re covered in dust and in some cases - mold, but Eleven immediately starts pulling them out and passing them around to everyone. Hopper is graced with little glass ornaments, which his hands swamp as he sets them on tables and bookcases with a bizarre amount of effort and care. Tiny paper and wire houses go against the mantel on top of cotton and string lights, and miniature Christmas trees go dotting the windowsill.

He hadn’t celebrated Christmas with anyone at his home for a long time, and he hadn’t decorated for even longer. Memories come back as the boxes do, but he leaves them behind in favor of creating new ones with new people. 

As Beelzebub makes his mention within the song, Steve’s voice cracks on “Devil” and Max laughs, nearly dropping the snow globe she’s holding. “Hey, careful with that!” He snaps, but his grin is barely holding back a laugh. “It’s vintage!”

“You- you sounded like a goat,” she wheezes between gasping laughs, doubling over till she nearly hits the ground where Eleven sits, laughing loudly to herself. Hopper himself is chuckling as well, humming to the music and stringing lights on an ancient bookcase. “How do you even make that noise?”

“Hey, it's perfectly normal,” he defends as he snatches the snow globe from her hands and sets it on the mantel. “Now get back to work! Christmas and Freddie both don’t wait for anyone!”

Someone knocks on the door and the room freezes, but Steve’s mood is so high that he just waltzes to a large wooden cabinet on the wall with a smile on his face, unphased. “I’ll get it,” he says,volunteering readily. “I know people are after El, but I’ve got…” he digs through the cabinet for a moment. “One second.” A second later, he pulls out the bat, the blister and splinter giving grip familiar against his fingers. He swings it experimentally to a chorus of shocked noises from the others.

“You kept that?” Asks Hopper nervously. “Harrington, that’s uh…”

Awesome,” breathes Max, eyes sparkling as she looks at it. “So damn awesome, Harrington!” 

Eleven nods, then says in a completely serious tone: “Hella.”

“Don’t get your panties in a twist Chief, I’ll keep it on the wall so no one sees it.” He waves it around and Hopper jumps back. “I’ve got better aim than that,” he adds at the man’s slightly horrified look. He grins and swings it again. “I won't hit you.”

“Jesus, ok! Just go answer the damn door!” Hopper finishes with the lights and walks away from Steve quickly to get some more, thankful to be away from the bat.

He obeys and strides confidently to the door, schooling his exhilarated expression and leaning the bat against the wall, handle side up. The doorbell rings another eight times in the time it takes for him to unlock the door and he groans, swinging it open. 

“What do you- Billy?”

Outside stands Billy Hargrove, hair tousled and thrown about against his face, a bruise purpling, flower shaped and tender with a cut that oozes nectar ruby red. He grabs the door as if expecting Steve to shut it, and grins, though it’s more of a pained grimace as he reveals a split lip that sets his lips with blood.

“What the hell are you here for?” Says Steve, unimpressed and wondering coolly whether he should’ve had the bat in his hands. He only half remembered Billy’s apology during his coma, and he wasn’t sure whether trusting him was the right decision yet. “And who screwed you up?”

“Not you,” replies the boy quickly, and Steve notes with a roll of his eyes that Billy’s sardonic wit hadn’t faded with the head injury or whatever’s he got. “I’m here for Maxine, who do you think, asshole? Where’s my sister?”

“She’s inside. Let me get her.”

“No, im coming in,” he growls. “You’d better not have done anything weird.”

“We’re hanging Christmas shit, Hargrove. Cool it.” He raises his hands up and inches to the side, covering the bat with his legs as Billy pushes the door to the side and strides in. Quickly following behind the boy, he notices a slight limp to his step, and quickly begins to really wonder who beat Billy, king of Hawkins high, off his throne.

“Max!” Billy runs into the living room and growls out her name. Immediately Hopper goes into a defensive looking position, sliding closer to the girls. “You were supposed to be home hours ago!”

She freezes, turning to look at him then paling when she sees his face. “Wow, you look awful- shit.”

“Yeah, fuck off funsized .” He grabs Max’s wrist, then stops, turning slow and with a violent anger painted across his face when he realizes someone else has caught his sleeve. 

El stands behind him and glares, yanking at his wrist. “You’re an asshole ,” she grits out, and Hopper appears behind her, glaring thunderously at Billy till his face drops to something less murderous.

“Guys, it’s fine, really,” Max shakily explains, putting her free arm up and plucking Eleven’s hand from Billy’s wrist. “Billy’s fine, I’m fine, but we need to go.”

“Now,” says Billy, voice holding a shake to it that makes Steve frown even deeper. As he walks out with her, he bends over slightly, whispering something, and Steve barely manages to make it out from his position a few feet away.

I covered for you,” Billy says angrily. “She’s at the motel, we sleep there till Niel chills his shit. Understand?” He drops and waits for an answer, starting to walk again when Max nods. 

He walks out with her and she follows behind him, yanking her wrist away and glaring at his back, but Steve can see the subtle tremor in her shoulders.

He knows those words, he knows those wounds and those tremors - for those are his own. Something in the two Hargrove’s life mirrors his parents in his own, and he intends to give them something he didn’t have. 

He grabs Billy by the shoulder and whirls him around - but before the boy can punch him, he leans in closely. “My house is safe,” he whispers, locking wide and what he hopes are understanding eyes with the boy, who’s face contorts again to anger, but Steve takes the lack of a plate over his head as a good thing. “ I mean it.” 

“We don’t need your charity, princess,” he says haughtily, shoving Steve into the wall and storming off. Max nods at Steve as she trails away behind him, and all Steve can do is hope they’ll listen. 

Chapter Text

The 25th.

It shouldn't have any significance to him - that tiny date. Every other year it’s only been a reminder that he doesn’t have a family, and a day to get drunk and wallow in his own misery then hand a gift off to whoever he might’ve been dating - or once upon a time, Tommy and Carol.

But now, things have changed.

His house is strung with Christmas lights and tinsel strings, cotton cushioning paper houses and little people sitting on the fireplace mantel and random tables. A nutcracker sits on the table, an m&m sitting perfectly nestled in its jaw after Dustin had slipped it within. A small tree sits in the living room corner - one that Hopper has dragged in and sloppily decorated while Steve had hung out with Eleven, Mike and Will at Will’s house. 

He’d felt something nostalgic stir within him for the few christmases he’d spent with others when he’d stepped into his home again to see the lights strung up around it, tiny ornaments taken from dusty boxes in Hopper’s cabin hung randomly around it. Eleven had gasped in surprise at her first Christmas tree - slamming Hopper into a hug that was just as sincere as Steve beaming smile. 

Christmas movies play all night, and Eleven’s habit of curling into Steve’s side and drifting asleep on the couch had led to soothed away nightmares and less empty nights. 

When Eleven woke screaming for her Papa to stop, visions of blood pouring from unknown places and death wandering the halls of the lab, Steve would pull her into his arms and make sure she knew just how good she was, bringing her hot chocolate and candy so she couldn’t think she was still in the lab. 

When Hopper came downstairs after nightmares of Eleven stolen away and Sarah rotting off, of them all dead, and from people torn limb from limb, he’d stare at them in their close embrace then smile, joining them in the armchair nearby till morning. 

When Steve woke up with gasps and strangled off whispers of names, crying out that he was sorry, so sorry to kids massacred, torn apart by unseen monsters, or begging his parents to stop, to just leave him alone, please, Eleven would hug him tightly and let him cry in the eerily silent way he would, turning on movies and braiding his hair. 

(If the bat lies permanently next to wherever he sleep, neither Hopper nor Eleven comment.) 

He’s been exercising and eating more, regaining his muscles by being fattened up by his own sweets and clearing snow from the neighbors drives for money. He doesn’t need the extra money yet, but someday his pockets will begin to run dry - so he’s begun job searching. 

Today, he’s scrambling around the house and throwing things around in an attempt to make it perfect. Eleven watches him with an amused smile from the kitchen, wearing her dress from the snowball with a brand new white belt Steve had bought her, a bow peeking out of the back. Her black-flat clad feet tap along to the beat of the music and she sways, running her fingers through the hair she’d pinned up with a little help from Steve. 

“You could help,” he grumbles as he picks up the nail bat from where it had been lying against the fridge. “Yknow, it'd be awful helpful .” He shoves it into the cupboard in the living room and locks the door, setting the key on the top of the dresser. Next goes the music, Elton’s happy tune screeching to a stop as he hurried to shove the record back into its case. 

“No,” she replies airily as she raises her glass of sparkling cider and takes a spiteful drink as she watches him run around. “It’s clean, and you took the music.”

“Steve, go get dressed.” 

Hopper walks downstairs, a tanned suit jacket draped over a weirdly patterned pastel blue and pink shirt Steve is sure he’s only wearing to impress Joyce. His pants are cuffed at the edges and reveal perfectly polished shoes that Steve and Eleven both had begun to her were also for Joyce. “It’s fine, Harrington.”

“No it’s not, there’s still food I’m working on, and you’re both-“ he turns to them and points at them, frenzied. “You are both- both ridiculous, and- and lazy, and-“

“Steve.” Hopper shoots him a look, and he groans.

“Fine, Chief. Give me a minute.” He grabs the sand which from Eleven’s hand and eats it. “No more food!”

She glares at him but he turns around, racing upstairs and skipping two steps at a time till he reaches his bedroom. He slams the door shut behind him and sighs, fisting his hands into his hair and breathing out slowly, letting the panic drop down his sides till it dissipates just a little. 

Walking to his closet, he continues to breath, sighing in and out as he grabs the outfit he’s planning to wear. 

Normal black pants drop across his legs and he cuffs them at the edges, rising up to thread a dark red belt through his belt loops. The same almost burgundy color covers his eyes as he yanks his shirt on, a button down that matches his belt. Finally is a casual suit jacket, which if all goes right - it’ll be casual enough he can take it off. 

His socks are a mismatch of colors, one a red baseball style and the other an almost knee high white one, but they’re hidden under the boots Hopper had given him, and only the edges show under the bottom of his cuffed pants. 

He races into the bathroom and grimaces when he’s greeted with the still-healing cut on his temple in his reflection. Despite the stitches being removed, it’s still a scabbed over mess, and he sneers at it. A scar will be sure to form, ripping through his eyebrow and cutting through the hairs forever.

He tears his gaze from the gash and grabs the hairspray, teasing his hair up enough to make Farrah proud. When he’s finally satisfied, he takes only last fleeting glance to the mess on his forehead and runs out of the room.

Only to trip over his shoelaces and fall to the ground, frowning as he nearly faceplants into the carpet. He ties them quickly, looping the laces around the shoe then tying them when they reach the front. 

“Heyo!”

The voice makes him startle and he topples to the side, hitting the wall and looking up to see Dustin, toothy grin wide and spectacular. His hair is high enough to hide a bird and Steve nearly sheds a tear of pride. He’s wearing a white dress shirt tucked into pants held high by perfect blue suspenders, which he loops his fingers into as he leans backwards. 

“Henderson!” He says excitedly, still not at all phased by the fact that most of his friends are middle schoolers. They fistbump, laughing as it ends. “When’d you get in? I didn’t hear you!”

“Like, two seconds ago man. My mom’s downstairs.”

He nods. “Oh, so she came?”

Dustin nods back. 

Steve had decided to throw a Christmas party. Each of the kids and all of there parents had been invited - minus Max’s. They didn’t celebrate Christmas as a family, so they’d allowed her to go without a fuss. Billy had even been invited, but Steve doubted the boy would even make an effort to show up. 

“Yeah, she hated to part with her new baby, but she made it.” Dustin shrugs, then punches his shoulder abruptly. “Cmon, Steve, I want food and Eleven said we had to wait for you!” 

“Chill,” he whines. Too many people trying to steal his food . “You shitheads are always hungry- wait, us?” He pauses and counts. “Last I heard you don’t have any siblings. Who’s us?”

“Will’s here too. So is Ms. Byers, and Jonathan is coming in a few minutes. He had to do a last minute shop run. But come on!” 

As if on cue, a new voice joins in. “Hey Steve,” says Will brightly, his purple sweater hanging down across his too-skinny hips, his pants tucked into brand new boots that match Steve’s, shiny and new, not yet broken in. Probably a Christmas gift, he muses, before slapping the boy’s hand in a quick high five. 

“Will the wise, what’s up?” 

“Your hair,” Will teases back, and Steve puts an affronted hand to his chest, wilting down to his knees like a flower. 

“You’re so cruel, man!” Will laughs at him and he laughs back, running a hand through the hair in question, steadying himself on the wall as he stands back up. “Ok, let’s go downstairs before you two start eating my drywall.”

Will turns around and races downstairs next to Dustin, the two sprinting towards the food with Eleven hot on their heels. She can run fast for someone wearing flats, he thinks absently, then realizes she’d slipped them off. 

“Hey, Steve!” Joyce walks in front of him when he finishes his crawl downstairs and opens her arms, wearing a pair of black jeans and a blue sweater that sits gently along the top of the fabric, casual as ever. 

She only manages to reach his neck as she pats his back, but he doesn’t mind. He melts in her hug, unable to pull away as the warmth sweeps into his chest. He’d forgotten what hugs like this felt like - ones that slept within your soul long after they left. All too soon, she pulls away, but he doesn’t mourn it as much as he would as she looks happily up at him. “You look good!”

“So do you, Ms. Byers,” he replies respectfully. Compliments had never been his strong suit. 

She laughs, catching the nervousness in his voice and chipping at it with her smile lines and lips pressed into a smile. “It’s Joyce, but, well, thank you. I'd prefer to be back in my jackets, but you know.” She spots his shoes and grins. “The Chief gave you those!”

“Yup, the day he moved in.” He tilts his foot to let her look, and then sets the shoe back down before he can lose his balance and topple over. 

“Yeah, they’re from highschool,” she replies. Something in her eyes glaze over a little as thinks of her memories. But she quickly shakes her head and refocuses out of the past. “Ah, speaking of Hopper, I should go say hi.”

He nods. “Alrighty - um, I’ll be, in the house.”

Alone again, he wanders to the living room, crouching down to the balls of his feet and fingering through his records, snorting when he realizes he doesn’t have a single seasonal record. Still, he looks around, but fails to find anything fitting. 

“Mike’s coming later,” says Hopper from behind him. “Kid’s off with his family all day, but Henderson says he should be here soon. Lucas as well.”

Steve turns around and nods, standing up again. “Yeah, sure. Want a beer?”

He’s at the odd end of a scrutinizing look for more than an awkward amount of time, before Hopper nods. “Alright. But if you’re gonna drink, the kids can not be allowed to get any. Understand?”

He nods at the barely concealed death threat, standing and pushing past Hopper to grab a bottle from the fridge. 

“Hey Steve,” says Eleven, holding a plate towering in almost exclusively miniature sausages. “You’re a good cook!” 

“Eh. He waves her off, careful to keep the beer away from the counter as he does. “It was easy. Just add some spices and shit. I can teach you, if you want?”

She nods enthusiastically. “Will says you should teach his mom.”

“I did not!” Yells Will indignantly from behind them, significantly muffled by three blocks of cheese in his mouth. Steve raises an eyebrow at him and he chews, then swallows, and repeats. “I did not!”

“Yeah he did,” agrees Dustin as Will eats more cheese, stuffing his cheeks like a chipmunk. “You should teach her.” He shrugs at Will’s glare, looking more like a wounded animals pout with his massive cheeks. 

“You’re supposed to be on my side,” he hisses when he’s finally through with his food and Dustin doesn’t respond. “Not Eleven’s!”

“Friends don’t lie,” Eleven responds, smugly poking sticking her tongue out then waltzing around the room to grab more food. 

“Oh, Stevie!” The voice comes from behind him and he whirls around, meeting Mrs. Henderson’s massive Santa-claus smile. “This is wonderful!”

He hugs her and chuckles into her hair while her orange scarf scrapes at his neck, pulling away when she grabs his shoulders and looks him up and down. “And you look great! You’re feeling better, right?”

“Yes, Ms. Henderson, of course,” he replies dutifully, making sure to grin at Dustin’s embarrassed face while she isn’t looking. Her white floral shirt billows out like clouds as she twirls around to grab a cup off the counter. “I love the scarf, is it new?”

She blushes. “No, it’s an old one, but thank you. You’re too kind, thank you so much for inviting us.”

He bows low, and behind him all of the kids groan at his shiteating grin he shoots them, face purpling as it remains upside down. “What can I say, I try my best.”

When he comes back up, Hopper is standing next to Ms. Henderson. He hands him the beer with a quick nod, then curses when the doorbell rings. “I’ll get it!” He shouts above the hubbub of voices, abandoning his discussions to chase behind the stampede of other people trying to open it. “It’s my house!” 

He opens the door to reveal Jonathan standing awkwardly in the wind, holding a cassette tape and a bottle of wine. “Hey,” he says awkwardly, shivering with snow covering his ankles.

“Hey,” Steve replies, gesturing for him to come inside. Jonathan nods gratefully and does, glancing around before smiling at Steve and handing him the cassette tape, a red bow sitting atop it and crinkling in his hands. 

“Will said you had taste,” he says jokingly, and Steve snorts. “Yeah, I know, so I made a cassette tape. It’s not like, as cool as a camera or anything-“ He gestures to the familiar machine hanging from his neck from a leather strap. “-but I thought-“

“Jonathan. Man. It’s fine. The camera wasn’t even a gift anyways…” he trails off and rubs at the back of his neck. “More like me paying you back. Listen, I was a real dick.” He thinks for a moment. “Kind of still am. And- and I’m sorry.”

Jonathan shrugs at him non-expressively, his light brown jacket pulling his T-shirt up from his pants. He tucks it back in hurriedly, shivering as the snow dots his skin. “Take the tape. That’s a start.”

He nods and accepts it, tucking it into his pocket then pointing at the wine bottle. “Good choice, but d- do you want some beer?”

Jonathan nods, a smile gracing his lips. “Yknow, I do.”

—-

Half an hour later a mix of Christmas songs are playing on his radio, courtesy of Joyce after she’d ran to her car and come back with another cassette tape. Jonathan and Nancy are arm and arm, but it doesn’t phase Steve as he chats amicably with them, all of them nursing wine glasses of beer as the kids flit in and out of the discussion. 

Mr. and Mrs. Wheeler are waltzing around in the living room, giggling together after one too many glasses of champagne, Holly is cradled in her mother’s arms, head in the crook of her neck as she sings the tinkling music with her. 

Explaining who El was to them had been interesting to say the very least, and it was a pipe dream to assume that they wouldn't be wary, but Steve was impressed with the amount of care they handled it. Mrs. Wheeler had even gone as far as to give the girl a hug, asking if she’d want one beforehand and respecting the backstory of the abused and hidden child only recently adopted by Hopper.

The only two missing are Max and Lucas, and the furry girl arrives first. He’d already been outside, trying to convince Hopper not to smoke right before he went back inside, leaving Steve to watch the snow for a quiet moment. 

“Hey, Mad Max,” He says as he spots her walking out of Billy’s car. “Badass outfit!” 

It’s a black leather jacket over a striped T-shirt that falls just below her waist, and her pants tucked into too-big boots that sink into the snow. “Hell yeah it is,” she replies with a grin. “The douchebag helped me out on it,” she shouts, just so that it’s within Billy’s earshot, who comes up behind her with a not as cheerful look.

“Hargrove,” he says pleasantly.

“Harrington,” Billy replies gruffly. “G’bye.”

Max turns around, and before her brother can walk off, she punches his arm.

“Hey dumbass, don’t touch me,” he hisses with a warning look. 

“You’re supposed to be becoming less of a bigoted cumrag,” she hisses right back. “Steve invited you!”

“Oh yeah.” He rolls his eyes and leans over. “Well, Maxine, Have you ever considered I don’t give a damn about you and your little pathetic friends? Especially the spoiled rich brat high schooler and… and the-“

“Lucas?” Steve asks, unimpressed. Billy nods, and Steve let’s a glare rest on his face. “Hargrove, what is your problem with him? It’s just… just different skin!”

“Different skin? That’s it?” Billy scoffs. “Princess, welcome into the real world. They aren’t exactly going to get far. People don’t give a damn whether it’s just skin.” He leans back up from Max and looks Steve in the eyes. “Why would I let my sister hang around someone whose only gonna let her sink? Huh?”

“True, people are racist shitbags, but you’re not exactly helping,” he responds, not letting Billy’s anger get to him. He folds his arms. “Lucas has just as much a chance at being successful as any white person. People like you are people who make it harder. People like you-“

“God, get off your high horse ,” Billy grumbles back, throwing his arms out then letting out a high laugh. 

“Admit it, I’ve got a point!” He shouts back. “Who’s the one teaching you this shit anyways - Niel?”

The moment he says it he knows he’s crossed a line, and he instantly regrets it as Billy grabs his collar, thankfully not doing anything more than pushing him back to the wall. “You don’t know shit about my father, Harrington.”

“Oh,” he whispers back. “But I do. Your dads a real dirtbag, right? Fucks you up when you mouth off? Hey, he ever threaten Max?” He grabs Billy’s arms and tosses them off of him, scoffing. “Why do you think I extended my offer, Billy. Cause I know shit about your father. You really wanna believe Niel on who gets ahead in life?”

He expects the punch to his gut he’s sure to get - he can already feel the impact between his ribs and what’s sure to become a smattering of bruises. 

But it doesn’t come.

All that comes is Billy’s stricken looking face - not the face of the terrifying monster that rules Hawkins High and beat Steve’s face in with a plate, but the pale mask of a kid who’s life is fucked and who can’t handle it.

“Fuck you,” he spits, but he covers his facade of nervousness with a faltering angry grin. “And have a very, happy new year.” 

He walks off, spitting into the snowy driveway and flipping Steve the bird as he climbs into his car. 

He turns back to Max, who stares up at him with an incomprehensible look. “Sorry about that,” he says sheepishly, but she shakes her head.

“Na. Don’t be. You actually managed to get through to him without him smashing a plate into your head.” She pats his back and walks inside. “That’s pretty cool.”

—-

Finally, everyone has arrived. It’s nearing five o’clock, but the Sinclair’s are walking around the house with everyone else. Erica had sized him up like a fighter, the poofy yellow dress she wore somehow aiding in the menacing and insulting remarks she kept spouting. 

Mr. and Mrs. Sinclair both were wonderful people - whom he’d had dinner with several times as the only payment he would accept for babysitting Lucas. 

The house was filled with people and music, sight and sounds and smells and tastes and a flurry of everything.

The moment the clock hits 6 he passed presents to each of the kids. Everyone else had opened their presents earlier in the day - and so the only people left were the people Steve were giving to.

For Will, he’s gotten a pack of pencils. Not just ordinary pencils - but colored pencils that he’d found specifically for professional artists after twenty minutes of searching at his local craft store. In return, Will had given him the biggest smile he’d ever seen, and a beautifully crafted drawing of Steve’s D&D character that he immediately set aside to have framed.

Mike was tricky. Their relationship had grown significantly, but he still didn’t know exactly what the kid liked. But, he did know what colors he liked, and he knew that out of all the kids he liked to be the most punctual. So, he’d given him a watch. 

To his surprise, Mike had been ridiculously grateful, stammering out something about being sorry he didn’t bring him a gift, which Steve had immediately told him was fine.

Max was almost the easiest to shop for. After a couple of visits from his local skate shop, he’d gotten her a pair of knee pads, black and unassuming ones that would compliment the group’s Zoomer perfectly. She’d probably echoed the word thank you at least five times, before slipping them on under her now rolled up pants and trying them on with a grin and a few tears she’d hastily wiped away. 

Lucas had once complained that most of his supplies had been smashed demogorgon hunting, so Steve had gotten him a simple and lightweight hikers backpack, with a compass tucked inside one of the back pockets. Lucas put it on after thanking Steve too many times, flaunting it and the bright orange straps that contrasted brightly against the black suit jacket he wore that matched almost completely with Steve’s semi-formal one. 

Dustin was one of the kids closest to him, and his gift was an easy one to decide on. Steve got him a complex radio building kit, and Dustin was absolutely wild for it. He started rambling on about what he would do with it for somewhere around five minutes, before his mom had bumped his shoulder and he’d paused, thanking Steve with eyes as bright as a galaxy and flecked with stars. 

Eleven was the hardest to decide. He’d lived with her for a while now - and he’d managed to become close with her. She was quiet, reserved, but had moments where she spoke out on whatever she liked. She had a bluntness that came from years without true, normal human interaction - which Hopper had explained to him - but it didn’t effect him. Everything about her screamed “innocent, lovely girl, whose parents adore her.” 

But, Eleven has Hopper as her adopted dad, a mother left in a vegetative state, and a papa who had imprisoned and tortured her with experiments for years.

She enjoyed being pretty, but Steve wasn’t an idiot. Her interests went far past just sprinkling makeup on and being beautiful. She was also headstrong, a powerful and resilient girl who didn’t back down from a challenge. She was the bone you couldn’t break, the final wall between a fallen empire. 

So, Steve had browsed store upon store for days, searching for something perfect. Many store owners had been pestered and annoyed, and several catalogs had been read front from back before he found the perfect gift. 

He’d given her a skateboard. A nice, beautifully polished skateboard with wheels unscuffed and shining. It was of excellent quality, made specially at the skate shop he’d found Max’s gift at. 

At the sight of it, her eyes had widened mouth falling open to a happy grin before she’d thrown her arms around him in a massive hug. Not quite sure what to do, he’d folded his arms over her and hugged her back. 

“Thank you,” she whispers to him as Max takes the skateboard and starts admiring it. “I love it.” 

She turns back to Max and grins maniacally once she releases Steve from her hug. “We can skate together.”

Max’s returning grin promises that their friendship will be a firecracker, and Steve starts to wonder if Mike has some competition. 

As friendly arguments, gift giving and food devouring continued, Steve felt like the empty house that he’d dwelled in for so long was finally becoming a home.

—-

(Later that night, when everyone had left and Steve, Hopper and Eleven sat on the couch, Eleven had walked up to him and handed him something. 

It was a friendship bracelet - blue and green and purple swirled together in a complicated pattern he couldn’t ever replicate. She’d tied it to his wrist and he promised he’d never remove it as tears gathered in his eyes.

That wasn’t a promise he ever intended to break.)

Chapter Text

The day after the party had Steve waking up with a slight hangover in his bed with Eleven curled up next to him, both of them still in their party clothes, Hopper in the room next to them with an amused smile on his face when he hears Steve groaning with a headache. 

His house was still graffitied with Christmas decorations, but his guests had at least had the courtesy to pick up their cups and plates and load them into the dishwasher. 

All of them had started to undress the home, leaving the tree in the forest border, packing things in boxes and putting them in the basement, leaving only the string-lights to be taken down later. 

Two days later finds Steve back at the cabin.

Hopper had asked him to get a box of old clothes from the dingy house - and he’d obliged, crunching through snow and trees to get to the cabin. Hopper trusted him with the directions now, and it wasn’t too far a walk. 

The door opens with a click of a key pressed into his palm by Hopper earlier with the express order to give it right back the moment he gets home, and he steps inside, glancing around at the dust covered boxes lying abandoned in the front room.

It’s as eerily silent as the dead within the room, but the ghosts of Hopper and Eleven still lie within - glasses left untouched on countertops and chairs pulled out from the dining room table. Normally it would unnerve him all, but knowing that the house isn’t truly emptied of all its life is a reassuring through. He peels up the floorboards and searches box after box - finding boxes of old records and torn shoes, memorabilia from when the house held Hopper’s wife and blood-daughter as well. 

He locates the box he’s looking for after a few minutes of searching - children’s clothes, colorful and perfect for winter weather. His hands skitter across them and he pulls a skirt out, snorting at the baby-like size.

“What do you know…” he pulls a pair of overalls out that look identical to the one Eleven wears like a second skin. Underneath it lies some larger clothes, more Elevens size, like the overalls. He smiles fondly. “So they were Sarah’s.”

“Kid?”

He turns around to see Hopper in the doorway to the house, surprised that he didn’t hear the door open. It’s not closed behind him, and he smiles brightly, until he notices the gun clutched in the man’s hand.

“H- Hop? What the hell,” he blurts, standing abruptly and walking towards him. “Put- put the gun-“

“What the fuck are you doing in my house?” Hopper asks venomously, walking closer and kicking the box of Sarah’s clothes out of the way. When he doesn’t get an answer, he sneers and walks even closer, safety clicking off and the noise resounding around the room. “Let me repeat, what the fuck-“

“Hopper, you- you just sent me!” His heart thrums rapidly in his chest and he starts to walk to him, hands behind his head. Hopper’s eyes are filled with a vicious hatred, and the gun is steady in his hands. He doesn’t have an inch of warmth in his gaze and not a falter in his fingers - and Steve wonders if he’d finally snapped and decided that Steve was better off dead. “I was getting Sarah’s clothes for El!”

Something within his expression shifts and falters, but that something remains unfamiliar and unlike Hopper. “Eleven. Yeah, sure.” 

Steve nods and breathes deeply, pulling his shaking hands away from his neck and head to put them up in surrender, a useless white flag as he creeps forward, one foot slowly in front of the other. “Y- yeah, exactly. Hop, it’s m e. It’s Steve.”

Put your hands on your head!” Hopper shouts, stepping forward and bringing the gun closer and closer. All that Steve can do is obey, pressing his shaking hands back to his head and nodding again.

“Ok. Ok, Hop.”

“Turn. Around,” Hopper grits out quietly, voice devoid of anything and everything. “And face the wall.”

Steve does, head touching the wall and steadying him as the unreal situation becomes all too real, the cold metal of the gun nestled against the back of his head, parting his hair and freezing him in his spot.

“H- Hop. Please,” he whispers, voice breaking. Steve is so utterly terrified right now.

Hopper was his friend. 

Hopper laughed with him at stupid jokes, and Hopper drank coffee with whiskey outside by the pool on cold nights, and Hopper stayed with him long enough for Steve to know he cares. 

Or- for Steve to think he cares, for Hopper has his gun pressed against his head, and it isn’t moving an inch. 

Steve knows he’s not a good person. He has so much to make up for - so many people hurt because of his foolish actions. He’s trying his hardest to make up for it all, but maybe Hopper has finally seen how disgusting Steve really was.

Once upon a time, Steve had wanted to die. If he’s true with himself, he still does - somewhere in the back of his mind. But now, Steve wants to make up for what he’s done, even if he doesn’t attain forgiveness.

He wants to live.

Please.”

Hopper pulls the trigger, and with a white hot flash of pain, Steve crumples, blood spotting the world. 

Steve has been gone for too long. Hopper had left not long after him - for what he hadn’t told her, and she hadn’t really bothered to ask further.

It’s been about 40 minutes for what should’ve been a 15 minute job, and Eleven feels anxiety build within her. Steve was her friend, and she can’t abandon any of her friends - even ones that normally had nail bars with them. Either way, right now, that nail bat lies next to his bed, and Steve is out in the forest without a single piece of self defense weaponry other than his fists.

She opens the front door and walks out after waiting for five more minutes, the hairs on the back of her neck sticking up with nerves and the wind. Pulling her hands into her pockets, she walks off into the forest. 

Chapter Text

When Steve wakes up, he comes into awareness within the void. At first, panic courses through him as he thinks he’s in a coma again, but then he realizes it’s only a thin layer of fabric over his eyes and within his mouth. His head pounds viciously and he moans through a gag that bites into his skin, tilting back again against whatever he’s sitting on as the world within the fabric and his brain pitches sideways. 

The back of a chair digs into his flesh and he realizes he’s bound to it, hands tied to the slats of the back and ankles tied to the legs. He kicks against it for a moment, not registering what’s happening and groggily wondering what the hell he did last night. 

Then, everything comes flooding back.

Hopper and the gun, the coldness in his eyes, the shock of a bullet to his head. 

His eyes widen under the fabric covering them and he starts struggling at his bonds, the rough fabric biting into his flesh, right until someone grabs his shoulder and holds him in place. He writhes harder, until a heavy and deep voice warns him:

“I’ll put you back asleep.”

“I thought you said he’d be asleep longer!” snaps a voice somewhere to his left, disembodied other than a slight yellow glow surrounding their body through the blindfold. He can’t make anything else out as he whips his head around, other than the rest of the faintly glowing bodies surrounding him. He counts five, and whatever belief in a God he holds goes into a tiny prayer. 

He tries to spit the gag out and nearly succeeds, but ultimately fails as the same body holding his shoulder down claps another hand down onto his mouth. He coughs as his breathing stops, and forced himself to breath through his nose after a second of panicked struggling. No use in killing himself - he wanted to try and escape before his captors decided to dispose of him. 

“Can we knock him out again?” whines a second voice petulantly, belonging to a bean pole of a blob wiggling across from his blindfold. “He won’t stop moving!”

“No, we don’t want to give him brain damage.” A new voice joins, then ends their words with a chuckle. 

“Aww, that would suck!” The voice of the last person joins. “I’m sure we all want to play a little longer!” They lean over. “How’s your stamina?”

“Shut up.” The voide turns to face someone else. “Yeah, he said he knew El. Jane ,” replies the rough voice belonging to two hands grabbing at him. 

He screams under the gag and the hand, shamefully high pitched and loud enough to have the hand over his mouth press harder. It stutters out as the clasp over his mouth turns iron tight, and he nearly gags on the breath caught in his chest. “No one is going to hear you here, kiddie,” says the massive stick of a person. 

Steve thinks that’s bullshit, and says so through the gag, glaring angrily at whoever is standing in front of him with their hand against his mouth. 

“Can we take the gag off?” Asks the same irritatingly long person. “It’s always funny to hear them whine.”

“Fine, just leave the blindfold on,” says the original second voice, presumably the leader. It sounds like a girl - probably not much older than him, and Steve files the information away behind miles of panic. Someone not much older than him had kidnapped him - that’s something he’ll be thinking of for the rest of his life. 

“He gets three questions.” She walks closer to him and leans over. “Understand? Three.”

Someone yanks the gag off his face as he nods and he immediately snaps forward, trying to bite the hand. A chorus of laughter awaits his failed attempt, and he leans back when the strain on his wrists starts to grow more painful. 

“How did Hopper shoot me?” He asks, voice and aching limbs shaking. He’s wanted to know since the moment he awoke - he just couldn’t figure it out. Hopper may end up not liking him, he wouldn’t blame the man really, but he wasn’t be sort of man to shoot anyone in cold blood. 

Someone laughs, a high and cruel laugh. “We bashed your head with a baseball bat!” There’s a whooshing noise and a breeze strikes his face, alerting him to the fact that someone has just swung a bat at him. A moment too late his reflexives kick in, and someone steadies the chair behind him when he almost falls out. “When you turned around, I smacked it in!” 

He swallows. That’s one answer, but only one out of thousands more. “How’d you get Hopper on board?”

The woman from earlier barks out a vicious laugh, raising higher and higher till it cuts off abruptly and leaves the air empty. There’s a moment of shuffling footsteps before he gets a slap to the face, and he jerks back, panic blurring the edges of his already concealed vision as he feels the rough sting of a ring cutting into his flesh. 

“F- fuck you,” he stammers, but the trembling in his voice takes out any bit of King Steve that might’ve remained. “I- I don’t even k- know who you people are!”

“You were snooping around that chiefs home- Jane’s home!” Roars the woman angrily, her temper exploding in his face. “I don’t know what you’re playing at, but you’ve been bloody caught! Now fucking fess up before I do more than give you a slap!”

“I- holy shit, lady! Eleven lives with me, ok? She- she moved in with me, she suggested it!”

“You think I believe that?” She snarls out a laugh. “What’s that code for? Did you kidnap her again? Where’s Brenner, kid? Where’s Brenner ?”

“Brenner? You- fuck, you think I work for that man?” He spits the name out like lava, switching from panicked to a blinding anger, adrenaline pulsing in his veins. Just the mention of the man makes his fingers itch for the grip of his baseball bat within them, as he thinks of all the man had did to Eleven and dozens of other innocent people. “That- that’s bullshit! You’re all bullshit! Brenner’s a cocksucking shithead-“

“Ok, enough!” The woman says, sounding a bit annoyed at his rambling - but the hint of amusement isn’t lost on him. “Prove yourself.” 

“What?”

“Prove yourself,” she snaps at him.

“Ok. uh…” he pauses, trying to think. So much of Eleven’s life had been owned by Hawkins Lab, and so lots of things could be things people there would know immediately. “Uhhhhhhhhh”

“Hurry up!”

“Ok! Ok, jeez!” He thinks for a moment later, then grins at the memory of her explaining this story to him. “She’s got a sister, and she visited her but they-“ he snorts. “They tried to murder people and so she left.” He frowns. “She was actually super torn up about that… yeah. She still wears the clothes she got every once in a while.” He shakes himself out of his rambling. “Is that good enough?”

It goes silent, and he looks around. If his hands had been unbound, he would’ve thrown them up in exasperation already. These people - with their long silences and their bashing his head in - were really getting on his nerves. “What, are you gonna kill me now? I couldn’t think of anything else!”

“No,” says the woman, her voice shaky and choked off like she’d been the one kidnapped, making Steve falter. “You- how do you know all that?” she whispers. 

“She told me. Who the hell are you people, anyways?” 

The woman murmurs something to the rest of them, then he feels someone yank his blindfold off.

He finds himself in an emptied out office room, the windows overlooking the forest outside. He can almost see the entrance to Hawkins lab, and he gulps when he’s realized thats exactly where he is. He’d never been inside - but it’s aura is a dark one, running deep within cracks and mold within the disgusting building. 

In front of him stands a woman with dark purple hair, a black trench coat, and lipstick black as night. Her dark skin is illuminated in a light on above him and he rather hysterically thinks that this feels exactly like a movie, with a police interrogation and broken noses. But it isn’t - and the woman has a gun tucked into her pocket that Steve can see has the safety clicked off. 

Next to her stands a man with muscles bigger than his face, wear a T-shirt and jeans, his dark skin bulging through the outfits. Something about him feels soft, but he shakes it off, dismissing it as the mushy state of his brain. 

A girl with a large black Afro and a green jacket accompanied with a studious expression stands behind them, an arm slung around the shoulder of a blonde girl with bright pink ends to her hair whose grin feels just a bit too manic. 

Next to them stands the beanpole - and the most snakelike man Steve has ever seen, with hair as high as his expression in a huge mohawk.

“You’re… you’re them, aren’t you?” He asks, mouth suddenly dry. “That’s how… that’s how Hopper was there.”

The girl he now recognizes as Kali nods, and Steve realizes she can’t be much older than him. “Exactly. Can you tell us where she is?”

“Wait, how did you even know about Hopper’s cabin?”

“We asked the lady at the police station. She said we’d find him at his own house, some Steve Harrington’s house, or his cabin. We checked the cabin first.” She shrugs. “It wasn’t really hard.”

He looks at them all incredously. “Some Steve Harrington kid? Some- some Steve Harrington kid?”

“What,” says the mowhawk man. He points back and forth from Steve to out a broken window. “You two a thing?”

He laughs nervously. “Uh, no? I’m “some Steve Harrington kid.” He lives with me.”

Green jacket girl licks her lips. “Oh.” She withdraws her arm from pink hair girl and walks forward. “You do look young.”

“Yeah, I’m 18!” He glares at her. “And you kidnapped me!”

“Well yeah, but when you’ve been tortured for years you tend to get wary around strangers,” grumbles Kali. “We should probably introduce ourselves, right?”

“I’m Mick,” says the girl with a green jacket. She points to pink hair. “That’s-“

“I’m Dottie,” she says with a smile that turns into a bit of a snarl halfway through. 

“I’m Axel, the best of them all,” says mowhawk, giving him a thumbs up and sticking out his tongue to waggle it.

“My name is Funshine,” says muscles carefully.

“And as you know, I’m Kali. Only Kali. Not… not eight.”

“I wasn’t going to call you that,” he explains. “Eleven said you hated it.”

“Damn right I do. Speaking of Eleven, where is she?”

—-

The first thing that Eleven sees is the door, open and abandoned in the wind. She walks through it without a second thought, letting it remain open as she looks around.

Boxes are strewn about, kicked around and opened. Clothes and papers have been thrown about the room in a whirlwind of textures, and she chokes on her breath when she sees a blood stain against the floor. 

“Steve,” she whispers, rushing over in the empty room to fall to her knees at the edge of the blood. Who did this? Could it have been Brenner - him and his bad men, with guns and cattle prods and weapons that could kill Steve in an instant? 

Wood behind her creaks and she snaps her head around, already ready to end their life in an instant - only to falter as soon as she sees Hopper’s familiar face.

“Dad,” she whispers sob a stricken, frightened look on her eyes, wide and shining with fear fueled tears unshed. Standing up, she over to him and gestures around the room around. “Steve is gone.”

He looks around and the beginnings of a smile droop from his face - his feet staggering around the house in a trance, looking at the clothes and traces of his daughter trampled under dirty boots and stained with blood. The main blood stain is what catches his attention the most - it’s still wet, and a baseball bat lies next to it, stained in blood as well. Baseball bat- that means it was likely a quick head wound, and while that might mean some sort of brain injury, it also means that the amount of blood is normal. Head wounds tend to bleed excessively, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t nervous.

Eleven wanders out the door and looks around, spotting a second pair of tire tracks, large ones like the wheels of a van. “Hop,” she calls, and he follows out, looking stricken. “They had a car.”

“Yeah, I see that,” he replies as he bends over and lands on the balls of his feet, dragging a hand through the tracks. “Big wheels, too.” 

“I can find him,” she says, grabbing his shoulder.”

“Kid, I want you to stay at Joyce’s house for the night while I look for him.” He nods at her, turning around to pull her in closer for a quick hug, which she leans into, but her determined face remains as she pulls back. “My priority right now is making sure no one else gets taken.”

“No,” she replies urgently, and a little annoyedly. She taps her head, eyes wide. “I can find him.”

Chapter Text

“We’re releasing you after 24 hours,” Says Kali simply, after feeding him a single ritz cracker with her gloves fingers, laughing when he snaps at them. “And then you’re going to give Jane something, and you’ll never mention our existence again.” 

Axel swings his bat around. “Or you’ll get shablammeyed!”

“Exactly,” replies Kali, standing up and pointing at him, putting a hand on the bat and lowering it before he can hit someone. “Shablammeryed.” 

Those words don’t exactly do much to up his confidence of escaping unscathed, but he just stays quiet as the bat goes clattering to the floor. She throws a pack of cards at his feet and he shoots her a questioning look. 

He sat on the floor now, legs and arms still bound, but hands in front of his head. She sets a plate of crackers in front of him and explains the cards nonchalantly: “We’re playing go fish.”

It’s an order, not a question, so he opens the pack and deals for them all, slipping crackers into his mouth occasionally. The group seems to be well knit, like a broken family seen together with threads of adversity. They work well together, and friendly insults and loving words are exchanged, reminding Steve of a murderous version of his own family of kids and a few people his age or older. They’re all of different ages, but treat each other as equals. 

Even if he’d been kidnapped by them - he didn’t really have much of a choice but to play, so Steve finds himself starting the game, voice quiet, docile and nervous in a way that makes Axel snort with laughter and Steve grit his teeth. 

“Do we actually have to stay with him all night?” asks Dottie, gaining another pair of fives after a few minutes of playing. She licks her pointer finger and thumb and flicks the cards, not so discreetly looking over Axel’s shoulder. “Go fish,” she says to Funshine, who groans. 

“Got any eights?” requests Mick, lounging with one hand flat against the abandoned and dusty concrete. “And yeah, otherwise he’ll run off and they’ll be on our tail already. We’ve gotta wait till night.”

“Go fish,” says Steve, then snorts at the absurdity of this all. He’d been tricked into thinking he was shot by someone he trusted - then knocked out - then tied up - then completely kidnapped - then slapped - and now he was eating ritz crackers and playing go fish with the same people. “You guys are crazy. This is all crazy,” he says, waiting with held breath to see if they’d “shablammey” him for speaking out like that.

Axel cackles. “You’re not wrong, but what would you know? It’s a living.” 

“But like… why not get them - them being the shitheads who hurt you - to rot in jail? Or get them the death penalty? Just killing them now makes everyone see you as the bad guy.” He turns to Kali, mostly talking to her, both about death and morality, and the card game. This feels like a discussion his teachers at school would’ve begged him to engage in one day, but for now he’s actually serious about it. “Got any threes?”

“Well, that doesn’t matter,” says Kali, and he breathes out a sigh when he realizes they can have an actual conversation. “Whether they believe us or not doesn’t matter, because people will always demonize us.” She looks through her cards and groans loudly, Mick letting off a laugh as she sees. “Here.” She hands him four threes.

“Nice!” Steve takes them and folds them onto the ground, picking up another cracker and eating half, then turning back to her. “Your play.”

Kali turns to Mick. “Any tens?” She looks back at Steve. “We aren’t cops. We can’t brutalize anyone we like and get paid to do it.” 

She nods at him to continue. “Even if people demonize you,” he starts. “They’ll shift to your side the moment they realize you’re right. We have proof of all of your targets shit, with a bunch of records and crap from some leftover scientist guy.” He shrugs right as Mick says go fish and Kali curses in frustration. “We can help you out.”

“I like you, Steve. You seem cool, but who is we?” Kali smiles, purposefully condescending. You, a barely of age adult, or Jane, who’s gone through enough already?”

Mick turns to Funshine. “Fours?”

“How come no one ever asks me,” whines Dottie. “None of you are fair!”

“You cheat,” points out Axel, chuckling as she whips her head back from staring at his cards. “ And my point is proven.”

“Nope,” replies Funshine.

“Say go fish!” Dottie pouts at him, and the man rolls his eyes, running a hand over his face and sighing dramatically. The cards in his hands fall down for just long enough a moment for Steve to see them, and Dottie winks at him from across the circle. He finds himself smiling back. 

“Go fish,” Funshine grits out in reply. 

Steve laughs at it all, then turn back to Kali. “I don’t know whether I should be flattered or not, seeing that you kidnapped me. You’d be surprised of what I’ve done as a “barely adult.” And Jane wouldn’t have to get dragged in.” He shrugs. “We’ve got a former Hawkins scientist on our side. He was one of the decent guys.”

“Ah.” She sighs and claps her cards to the ground. “I fold, continue without me.” Dottie grabs her cards, takes his pairs she needs, then throws them back to the floor, a cloud of dust puffing up around it. “And those are rare - Steve.” She looks at him and her face holds a sincere, yet saddened smile. Everything about her holds a certain weight - she oozes sad backstory in the same way that Eleven does - but she oozes a dangerous need for revenge that tips her too far. “You’re nice. I might just take you up on your offer. But for now - I’m sticking to my side job.” 

Steve nods. “I can’t exactly respect a bunch of murder yet, but I won’t press.”

“Thank you.” 

Mick stiffens, and turns around. She sees something outside the window and stands, racing over, her face suddenly becoming illuminated by blue and red.

“Shit! It’s the pigs!” She races back over and picks up her cards, grabbing Dottie’s and Axle’s and shoving them into the box, failing as they go flying all over the floor. 

“Leave the cards,” hisses Kali, grabbing Steve’s arm and hauling him up to his feet. “Change of plan. You didn’t get a good look at your assailant-“

“Eleven deserves to know! I won’t tell anyone that I can’t trust.” She levels him with a look, and he sighs. “I don’t have any reason to betray you right now. I promise.”

“I can always shoot you if you break that promise,” she replies, and the grin on her face doesn’t do anything to tell him if she’s joking or not. “Give her what I gave you.” Funshine grabs her shoulder and she nods one last time at Steve. 

“See you, Stevie!” Says Dottie happily, waving one last time. 

“Oh - and sorry about this. You’ve got be unconscious,” says Funshine sheepishly, letting go of Kali. “Hold still?”

“Wait - woah woah what?!” He throws his bound arms up in confusion, covering his face. “Why?!”

Funshine blinks at him, reeling his fast back and half smiling apologetically. With a sharp thwack of pain he’s become all too accustomed too, it all goes dark.

—-

Hopper hears the footsteps - and he knows they don’t belong to Powell or Callahan, because they’re both standing behind him, silently watching for whoever’s walking towards them.

“Who’s there!” Hopper demands, but all he gets is the footsteps disappearing. “Shit. Check that out, Powell. Callahan, you’re coming with me.”

They both nod, Callahan following behind him as they start up the stairs.

Hopper shivers both from the cold and memories circling the corners at every second - just like demogorgons and all those that had tried - and failed, to escape them. Passing by the invisible stains of Bob Newby’s body had him shuddering harder than before, and he’d had to circle around it completely in respect.

The stairs tower above him when he finally reaches them, and he can almost hear the blazing sirens and the groans of Dr. Owens. Still, he climbs his way up, running through each floor, Callahan behind him and saying ridiculous things about Star Wars lasers with a nervous voice.

“This place always gave me the creeps,” he hisses when they reach the last floor - the top one, with its dust and rot corroding the building and the air. “Hey, you came here with Joyce’s boy, did they have any crazy alien stuff?” He gestures around with his gun, and Hopper rolls his eyes. “Pew pew?”

He shakes his head. “Na. Just radioactive monkeys and shit.” Callahan chuckles and keeps walking behind him, gun held in his hands as he whips around corners and looks into offices.

They come to a crossroads and Callahan splits off.

The office Hopper enters is massive and cavernous, three desks overturned and stained in blood, printer paper blowing in the wind out of an abandoned machine. Nothing lies inside - except for shattered glass and bad thoughts, so he leaves, expecting to meet Callahan in the hallway.

“Uh, Chief, you might want to take a look at this,” calls Callahan from the separate room, and Hopper jogs over quickly.

It’s the same as the other office - but it’s completely empty, devoid of anything other than a few piles of cards and an abandoned card box. They look to have been abandoned in a hurry - for some of them have already begun to drift their way to the window. A chair sits against the wall, and in the middle of the room is Steve Harrington - breathing slowly as if unconscious, hands and legs bound with rope.

Hopper runs forward to crouch down at his side, feeling for a pulse and sighing gratefully when he finds a perfectly healthy one for someone knocked unconscious. Some blood mats the hair on his head back but he’s otherwise unscathed, just a few bumps and scrapes customary for a kidnapping victim.

All things considered, he looked alright.

Callahan shines the light on him and his body lights up, reminding Hopper of the last time he’d found the boy unconscious - but he ignores those thoughts and shakes his shoulders. 

“Harrington,” he says, and in the seconds of deadly stillness of Steve’s body, his heart starts to wilt. This can’t be happening again - Steve can’t be-

He feels the boy begin to stir beneath him. Pure, boiling hot relief builds within him, and he shakes him harder. “Harrington, kid, wake on up.”

Steve groans and rolls onto his back, squinting into the light, raising his hands to cover it and meeting Hopper’s eyes. 

“Hop?” He groans out groggily. 

“Yeah. Steve, what the hell happened?”

He shrugs and sits up, supporting himself on his elbows and looking down at the binds across his limbs, cursing. “Can someone get me out of these?”

Hopper obliges, pulling a pocket knife out of his jeans and cutting them quickly. Steve rubs at his wrists, the skin raw and red with rope burn, and Hopper hisses sympathetically when he sees. 

“Damnit, kid. You hurt anywhere else?”

“Just a…” he frowns. “A cut on my head and my bruised ego.”

“Yeah, well,” Hopper muses with a smile. “You’ve always has a bit too much of that.”

Steve looks at him, then sighs and smiles. “Ha-ha, very funny Chief.”

“What was that, Harrington?” Asks Callahan, clicking his flashlight off and peering at him as if trying to draw out the answer with his eyes. Suffice to say, it doesn’t work, and Steve blinks up at him blankly. He sighs. “Come on, do you have any faces you could describe?”

He shakes his head. “No… it was like… three people. One of them hit me with that baseball bat…” he glares to himself and Hopper almost laughs at the irony. “ then, uh- they just chained me up here, played a game of cards then left.” He shrugs. 

“Hey Hop?” the static crackles, Powell calling back in through the radio on his shoulder. He grabs it and presses a button.

“Hey. You found anyone?”

“Nope. You found the kid?”

“Yeah. Meet us on the top floor, we’re bringing him down.” He clicks the radio off before any more discussions can follow, then turns back to Steve. “Are you sure, kid?”

His wide eyes stay fixed on Hopper, big as the moon and cutting creases into his forehead. Something within that gaze shouts “something more!” at Hopper, yet all Steve does is nod. “Yeah, What do you think! I'm absolutely sure, I want these people caught, it’s not like…” he gestures wildly. “Withholding information about people who hit me with their baseball bat!”

Hopper nods, then holds a hand out, which Steve takes gratefully. Somewhere in his brain, he’s thinking about how bad an actor Steve is, but for now it seems he’s convinced his partner. “Sounds pretty open and shut, Callahan,” he says to the man, who stands looking out the window nearby. “Right?”

“Right.” He walks back over to them again and tips his hat back, turning one last time to catch a glimpse of the midnight light.“That’s a gorgeous view. Nice place for a kidnapping.”

Steve smiles to himself, then looks calmly back at the chair - a rather smug look for a kidnapping victim looking at their restraints on his face. “Yeah…” he nods, looking up at the moon a second later, with tired eyes. “Yeah it was.”

—-

A few hours and an annoyingly long stint at the police station, Steve is finally home. From the moment he leaves the car in front of the house, wrists and ankles messily wrapped and cut on his head safe to leave, he starts his story.

“Ok, Hop.”

“Yeah?”

“It’s obvious I was lying back there, right?” He curses at Hopper’s nod. “You think the other cops believed me?”

He waves a hand. “They just wanted to get to bed - you’re fine. They believed you fine enough.” 

“Ok.” Steve nods, then grins and claps his hands, pointing at Hopper dorkily. “Alright! So, um, you remember when Eleven went missing while all the demodogs were ripping people up?”

“All too well,” he grumbles, then nods at Steve to continue. The boy leans against the hood of his car and watches the stars in the sky. 

“So, you remember what she told us? About Kali and them all, how she can manipulate what people see?” 

He stares at him for a moment in disbelief, but Steve’s eyes are still focused on the glimmering stars in the midnight blue of the sky. It’s so late at night, yet here they are. “She came here?”

“Yeah- Yeah And she basically made a…” he holds his hands up and gestures at his head. “A mind version of you come in and try to shoot me. It was… was actually terrifying.” He frowns, sadly, and Hopper adopts an incredulous look as he sees yet again how easy it is for Steve to breeze over his own trauma, as if it’s nothing. “Well, Yeah, But I turned around after you- she told me to, and got hit in the head with a baseball bat.”

“What the fuck?”

“Yeah, I know, it’s… a… a little crazy.”

“A little crazy.” Hopper scoffs, then grabs a cigarette, lighting it and taking a puff. “You are really something, Harrington.”

“Ok, whatever. Anyways, I wake up and I’m tied to a chair. They think I’m someone working for Brenner-“

“Really?” Asks Hopper. “But you’re a teenager.”

“Yeah, and Eleven was a baby.” He shrugs. “They probably hired a lot of loyal teenagers. Anyways - they find out who I am and she gives me this.” He stuffs a hand into his pocket and drags out a wrinkled piece of paper that smells like pot. “So, I talked to her about what happened out here - but get this. She already knew.”

Hopper nods. “Well, she is one of the numbers.”

“No,” he says with a snort. “She goes by Kali, and Kali only. Not eight. I bet she’d punch me again me if I called her eight. But the way she knew - there are more labs, sister labs that haven’t been shut down. She has an inside informant on one, and the information spread to her quickly.”

This gets Hopper’s attention, and his fear. “There- Holy shit, kid, there’s more labs?”

He nods vigorously, adrenaline from finally telling the story winning out the fear that would’ve stained his expression any other time at the possibility of any more labs. “There’s more numbers too - Eleven was the last Kali met, but there’s more.”

“Do we know what they do?”

Steve shakes his head. “I’m guessing it’s more mind stuff - like mixes of what Kali and El do, but I have no idea.” Hopper nods at him, then stubs his cigarette out on the hood of his car and turns to put it in the ashtray and his car.

Before he can do it - it falls out of his hands, abandoned - and Hopper’s head shoots up. He looks up at the trees, putting a finger up as if to say shush to Steve, whose mouth immediately snaps shut. Hopper grabs his flashlight and his gun, aiming them both into the tree line then flicking the light on.

There stands Billy, eyes wide and mouth dropping half to the ground. 

Chapter Text

“What the fuck?”

For a moment, they stand there in complete silence. Hopper’s gun stays trained on the second teenager, his flashlight beam wavering and hands shaking slightly in surprise. Everyone’s mouth falls open and silence continues its reign over the night, covering them all and only interrupted by the whistle of wind, til finally:

“Again,” says Billy, walking up to them finally, breaking the spell. He pokes his finger a few inches away from Steve’s chest. Steve only jerks away from it, still on edge from the past few hours. “What the fuck?”

“Hargrove, let us explain,” says Hopper, turning his flashlight off and sighing. “We-“

“He wasn’t lying,” blurts a second voice from nearby. Max stands a few feet away, waving awkwardly and holding a book and her skateboard. “Hey, Steve.”

“But out, Maxine ,” growls Billy. “Were you two off doing acid or something? Is that where Princess really went” He laughs, but his triumphant expression sloughs off his face when he sees the seriousness on their faces. He draws his hand back from Steve’s chest and drops it to his side, almost apologetically. “You…. you aren’t kidding.”

“No, uh, not quite,” says Steve, unimpressed. “What are you doing out here?”

“I forgot something at your house and Billy drove me here.” Max gestures to her brother. “And now, now he’s… uhm.”

“I think you’d better come inside,” says Hopper, voice low. He’s ordering Billy - not asking, and the boy seems to realize that. Something within him clicks to a form of obedience and he nods. “ Now.”

Billy starts to walk alongside them, Max right behind them all and locking the door behind them when they finally make it upstairs. Steve heads the train of people, pulling them into the living room and sitting on the couch, right next to Eleven, sleeping. She looks so peaceful - but he shakes her shoulder gently, smiling as she cracks her eyes open.

“Hey,” he whispers.

She launches up like a rocket and grabs onto his neck, hugging him. “Steve, you are so stupid, ” she tells him quietly, and he hugs her back.

—-

Billy turns around at the hug. It feels like an action too intimate to be spectated upon by him - they look so close, like a family, as Hopper hugs the two of them as well before lumbering off to collapse into the armchair next to them.

When they finally release each other he looks back around, pretending to have only been looking out the window. The entire situation is sickeningly domestic, and he sneers at it all, angry that his own situation is one stuffed full of bullshit. It’s unfair, but life has always been endlessly unfair - so his comments stay packed inside his mouth and he waits for an explanation of the quite-possibly-drug-fueled conversation he’d heard outside. 

The girl Steve had just hugged looks up at him with a soft, almost glare - the same girl who had threatened him with a single look that week before Christmas when he’d yanked Max away. That had been a hard night - and she only made it harder. Something within her radiates darkness, and it’s unsettling - seeing someone so pained within such a baby face. 

But then again, that doesn’t phase him much anymore. That look is his, that look is Max’s. Neither of them are stupid enough to think that Niel’s abuse is right - so anger and hatred festers and molds within their minds. 

“What’s your name?” He requests dryly. 

“Eleven.” 

He raises an eyebrow. “Oh, so you’re that Eleven girl I heard about outside. Well.” He leans over and extends a hand for her to shake.

He goes ignored. 

“Nice to meet you,” He grits out, withdrawing his hand. 

“Hargrove heard us talking about… sensitive topics outside,” explains Hopper. His voice is annoyed, as if he hadn’t been the one that was talking about it all in earshot of anyone who came near. “So, we’re explaining it.” 

He crosses his arms and waits, tapping his foot impatiently. “You gonna start?”

Harrington nods. “Ok, so, it starts at Hawkins lab.”

“I was there,” chimes Eleven. “Because of…” She pauses for a moment.

A cup of water on the table floats above it, and Billy’s head starts to feel just as light as the plastic as it draws closer and closer til it finally lands in Eleven’s open hands.

“How- How the fuck did she do that?” Asks Billy, turning to Steve with widened eyes, gesturing at the now empty table wildly.  “Some sort of magic trick?”

She shakes her head. “No.” 

That's when he sees it - a tattoo on her wrist, the numbers zero, one, one, in close together successions standing out starkly. It appears to be an old tattoo, perfectly crafted without a trace of scarring or redness.

That tattoo is on a child.

“Does it have to do with that tattoo?” He spits, narrowing his eyes at Hopper. “You an abuser?” 

Hopper stands from the armchair he’d started to rest in, and Billy’s hands reflexively clench to fists at his side. “I don’t know what you think you’re accusing me of-“

“Dad,” says Eleven tiredly, as if she’d expected this. “It’s ok.” 

“I’m going to bed,” he says after a long pause. “Steve has a nail bat if Hargrove gets out of hand.” 

With that - leaving a very confused Billy downstairs - he walks up the stairs.

—-

By the time they’ve finished their story, Billy is feeling a little nauseous, a little light headed, a little guilty, or a mixture of all three.

“So you mean to say,” he starts, swallowing down a crazed laugh then pointing at himself. Max has migrated to the armchair Hopper had taken, and her and Eleven were talking quietly now, but Billy remains standing, staring at the figure in the middle of the couch. “I-“ he finally lets out the laugh, sharp and incredulous. “I beat the shit out of you and Max drove you around and then you managed to help the kids? After I beat you? With a- with a plate?”

“Is that all you managed to hear?” Steve grumbles out. “I don’t want to explain-“

“No, no I heard enough!” He laughs a little hysterically again, and finally sits in the second armchair, massaging his forehead and chuckling to himself. “Aliens are real, and she-“ he points to Eleven. “She’s got, magic voodoo bitch powers, and Max has fought monsters?”

Steve nods casually. “That about sums it up.”

He nods back, licking his teeth as his lips quirk up into a mocking grin. “ That about sums it up- do you even hear yourself Harrington!?”

He slams a fist into the armchair and stands, pacing back and forth across the room then stopping in front of Steve. He throws his arms out wide. “You’re crazy!” 

“Yeah, well you just watched her levitate stuff, so if I’m crazy than you are too,” he points out, annoyingly rational. “Where are you going?”

Billy walks into the kitchen. “Oh? To get a plate to smash on your head and see if it fixes your brain- to get some fucking beer! What do you think? You’ve got some, right rich boy?”

“Shut up Billy!” Calls Max, as if on a routine, not even looking up from Eleven and hers discussion. 

“You want one?” Billy calls, turning his head away from the fridge to wave his own bottle at Steve. When he nods, Billy’s grin widens and he grabs another. “Alright, part of the infamous King Steve is peaking out again!” He walks back over, dropping Steve’s beer into his lap and sitting back in his armchair. “I look forward to quashing it!”

Steve pops the bottle open on the edge of the table and takes a swig. “Hey, Max, are you staying over?” is all he says, deliberately ignoring Billy. 

She looks at him, and Billy looks back at her. 

Something in him wants to say no, absolutely not. She’s annoying - of course, a constant pain in his ass who threatened him far too freely for him to understand. But still, Neil keeps away from her, and that meant that Billy being nice to her won her a few points with him. 

It was pitifully, really, scraping at the bottom of the barrel for the man’s approval - but if he stopped beating on Billy then maybe things wouldn’t be so tiring anymore. 

“Sure,” He says after an embarrassingly long pause, voice rough as he pops his bottle open and takes a swig, hoping he’ll be able to steal a few more by the end of what's likely going to be a very long night. “That means I’ve gotta stay here tonight.”

“What the hell!” She throws her hands up and rolls her eyes at his smug look. “Why?”

“Remember, Niel said I’ve got to stay with you since Sarah’s scared you’re gonna get kidnapped like little Stevie here.” He takes another long drink after pointing at the boy, savoring the strong flavor, thankful that Steve has the money to buy good stuff. The piss and shit served up at his own house isn’t worth the trouble he gets in for stealing it. “So-“ another drink. “-I’m staying here.”

Steve groans noisily, dragging on for a few seconds before nodding at Billy with his eyes still fixed on the ceiling. “Yeah, you can stay, as long as you stay away from any of our shit.”

“Fine, fine!” He puts his hands up in surrender, a bit of the message lost as he cuts it short to bring the bottle down to get another drink.

“We’re going to my room,” Eleven says, Max following behind her and glaring at him. 

She was always glaring at him - never ending glare that only pauses when she was helping him wrap broken ribs or reset his dislocated shoulder. In the daylight they’re Maxine and Billy Hargrove, the Tyrant Of Hawkins high and his younger, adorable little firecracker of a sister. It was a pity they couldn’t stand the sight of each other - except at night, when exhaustion broke through barriers and they bonded over broken skin and broken families.

Still, because they’re in good company now - she stomps upstairs after Steve nods at them, leaving the two of them in silence.

Silence is often a terrifying noise in Billy’s head - it’s the pauses between blows, it’s the music ending when Neil yanks himself into his room to shout at him, it’s those nights long ago when he’d been locked into a closet and left to rot. It seems that Steve has similar objections to the quiet, so he decides to sacrifice his hatred for the boy - just for a moment.

“Why do you do it?” Billy finds himself asking abruptly. 

“Do what?” Is Harrington’s answering call, raising his eyebrows above his wide eyes as he drinks some more of his beer.

“Protect them.” He drifts a hand upwards to gesture somewhere upstairs, assuming the two kids are running around somewhere out there. “They’re all sniveling shitheads, why do you put up with them?”

“That’s kinda the point,” Steve answers, and Billy quirks an eyebrow upwards in confusion. “They’re shitheads, they get into all sorts of trouble, and so… so I get them out of that trouble.” He shrugs. “I like them.”

“And how does it feel to know all of your friends are middle schoolers?”

“Hey!” He sets the bottle down against the table a bit too loudly and turns back to Billy, a half smile and half frown lifting his lips. “They’re not my only friends. How’s it feel to know all your friends are brainless douchebags like you?” 

He pauses as if waiting for a punch, and Billy blames the alcohol on the lack of his fist in the boy’s face. “They- they’re all scared of you, you know,” Steve finishes pointedly, and Billy has to admit he’s right.

“I didn’t come to Hawkins for new BFF’s. I came to Hawkins because my family dragged me here, and I had no choice.” He finishes the bottle and sets it down on the table across from Steve’s. 

“Now you - Steve something Harrington. What are you doing in Hawkins?”

He shrugs. “Letting my life go down the drain, I guess.”

That was not what he expected, and so he barks out a laugh, finding himself actually enjoying the conversation. His goal in new places has always been to find the top guy and throw them from their spot - whether it’s forcefully, with a plate to their head or a fist to their dick - or peacefully, where they’re a cowardly loser who steps down the moment Billy walks into their turf. 

It was always nice to have someone to fight, and for some reason, the person he fought so violently seems halfway to pleasant.

Too bad he’d bashed his brains in and given him a concussion. Their relationship would end before it ever started - especially because Steve was stupid enough to take all his problems on as his own and get himself knocked into a coma. 

“And what will you do with your pathetic little life?” He drawls aimlessly, deciding to let the conversation continue on, and Steve grins at the bait. 

“Oh, I don't know. Keep having better hair than you, fight monsters with my nail bat.” He waves a hand. “Eh, y'know. Get around. It’s a living.” 

“Oh - oh now it’s Steve the Hair Harrington again, isn’t it?” He leans over and steals Steve’s beer, chugging the rest as the boy lets out an indignant squack. “I always knew you were hiding somewhere inside that birds nest you call hair.”

“Ok, douchebag, sure.” Steve rolls his eyes and stands up. “I’m King Steve, you’re… what even are you, like - what do- does anyone call you anything?”

He shrugs, chewing on his lip for a moment before he remembers. “I’ve heard a couple girls call my ass cute.”

“Ok, gross,” Steve replies, pulling a beer from the fridge. “You drank mine, you don’t get a second,” he adds at Billy’s eager grin. “I don’t need to hear about your ass. Do you have any, I don’t know, personas behind all that dickery that are a bit more authentic?”

“Tread lightly, pretty boy,” he warns, realizing that he’s begun to walk much too close to familiarity with the boy sitting down across from him. He has no interest in making friends in this dead town - he’d already made that quite clear. Especially not with someone like Steve. “Don’t probe too close, I’ve got more punches right from where those first ones came from.”

“Oh?” Steve sips his beer, then turns over onto his stomach on the couch, resting his knees against it and sliding half off till his arm touches the floor on the other side. He grabs something. 

A moment later, a bat studded in nails is a foot from his face, and he’s too stunned to speak. “Well, I’ve got this guy,” he says with a shrug. “I’ve heard it’s pretty good on fists.”

“Holy shit!” Billy says, breaking his speechless streak. He cackles. “Someone’s arming up! Those monsters must love that! I mean, I thought the Chief was joking!”

The bat clatters to the floor behind the couch again and Steve shrugs. “They’re a lot more resilient than you’d expect. Bullets don’t really do shit, bats only knock them away if you’re strong enough.”

“Bullets don’t do shit, eh?” He crosses one leg atop the other and bounces it restlessly. Steve nods. 

It goes silent.

“Why do you do it,” blurts out Steve in the midst of the uncomfortable lack of noise, purposefully cryptid, and Billy has the thought that he’s being made fun of. 

“Elaborate.”

“Why are you…” Steve shrugs. “Why are you so weird to Max?”

That’s not the type of question he’d expected. Maybe a nice: why are you such a dick, or why do you hate everyone so much, but never something as serious as that, so Billy does what he does whenever he’s avoiding a serious question. 

He laughs, bitter enough that Steve probably knows he crossed a boundary set only by the thin line that sets them as enemies. It’s not that he can’t answer - it’s that he knows that Steve is smart enough to know the answer. 

“Because,” he says simply, hanging onto the simple word for a moment before it drops from his tongue, and he continues on with the depressing talk. “I’m not naive. She won’t be as safe and coddled and cutesy as she is now forever - you’ve already proven that with your bullshit about monsters and…” he snorts at all of the absurdity of the night, dully wishing for another eight drinks. “Your torture labs.”

“Fair enough.” 

They both know that what he says is a lie - to some extent. They both know exactly what Max’s home is like, and they both know exactly what happens when she stops being an attractive little cover of the little girl in the family. But, Steve doesn’t probe further either way. 

Billy can’t help but wonder what perfect Steve’s childhood was like - the boy seems much too knowledgeable on the things he understands. Something in the way he carries himself has interested Billy for a while. 

He doesn’t ask, of course - he stands, grabbing himself another beer from the fridge.

 “You’re gonna run me dry,” complains Steve, but Billy ignores him and flicks the cap off on the counter, leaving it to lie there as an act of pathetic rebellion. Stick it to the man, one might say - but right now the man is just Steve Harrington, prep boy pain in the ass. 

“That sounded sexual.”

“What? No, no! Man!” Steve pinches his brow. “That’s not what I-“

“Calm down, Harrington.” He takes a swig and laughs. “I’m messing with you.”

“Ok, well, I’m going upstairs.” He finishes his beer and sets it next to the trashcan with the others. Abruptly - he whirls around and points at Billy, narrowing already exhaustion narrowed eyes at him. “Please don’t steal my shit.”

“No promises,” says Billy with a shiteating grin, which is a promise within itself. 

“And no more beer!”

Billy raises his glass high and takes a drink.

Chapter Text

The morning is a slow one - he makes pancakes, and every single one is devoured by his strange houseguests. Eleven shows off much too much in front of Billy, but the embarrassingly impressed expression on his face is worth it. If Steve had a camera on hand, he would’ve snapped some blackmail as he gasped at her display. If only he knew the true extent of her powers, Steve thinks, watching as a jug of syrup drifts over to her plate. 

Eventually the two leave. Sometime around noon, Max thanks him for the pancakes, and to Steve’s surprise Billy actually smiles authentically at him. They make their way outside, Max skateboarding alongside him. 

She grabs the board up, gesturing to El how to do so, and he notes fondly that she’s wearing the knee pads he bought her. She hauls the board onto her lap as she slides into her car and waves one last time at the two of them in the doorway.

He had to admit - it was nice, having someone his age to talk to. Billy and him weren’t close friends by a long shot - but they weren’t nearly as hostile with each other as they once had been. They might’ve continued on preaching gospels of their fights and disdain for each other to high schoolers at their feet, but something within their small interactions flipped a switch. 

Billy almost seems nice behind the menace and bite over bark - especially as he snatched pancakes from Max’s plate and grinned when she yanks a strawberry off of his. 

But finally, they’re gone, and Steve is left with a note in the pocket of his jeans, and a girl sitting across from him on the couch with an expectant look.

“Ok, so. Your sister gave this to me,” he says, and she nods. 

“Kali.” 

He replies with a nod of his own. 

“She is… harsh, but not bad.” She smiles softly to herself, reminiscing and fingering the leather of the coat she’d been given by her pseudo-sister. Tt’s of nice quality, thankfully absent of bloodstains, and Steve distantly notes that it might’ve cost quite a bit. “She shouldn’t have taken you.”

“Well, duh.” He takes the paper out and hands it to her, sitting there and waiting impatiently to hear what’s inside. He scolds himself - it might be private, he thinks, but that doesn’t stop him from wondering. “Any idea of what it might be?”

Shaking her head, she grabs the edges, unfolding it as Steve’s anticipation rises. Somewhere along the third fold he realizes she’s doing it on purpose and he turns away, feigning disinterest to the sound of her giggles. 

“Alright, Alright! Just open it, El.” His face remains transfixed in the paper when he turns back to it. “It’s not gonna explode.” 

She rolls her eyes and he rethinks that statement - his short time with Kali had taught him that it very well could be some sort of weapon. 

Her eyes crinkle with her smile as she finally opens it - then droop down with her frown when she reads what’s inside. She reads over it twice, then a second time, then a third and a fourth, her eyes tracing the words and her hand coming up to cover her mouth in horror. 

“What?” He says worriedly. “What is it?”

Her breath starts to quicken and she bends over into her lap, curling into herself and dropping the note onto the couch. Before her face disappears he manages to catch a glimpse of her expression. Pure, unedited fear is etched into her face,  her eyes wide and starting to fill with tears, her mouth wide open behind her hands. 

So, he picks the note up and reads it.

On it is a newspaper clipping - nothing interesting, just a picture of a slightly overweight man covered in blood and bruises, glaring into the camera and raising a hand to cover it - as if defending himself from a reporter. He looks through it quickly - ready to return his attention to Eleven.

The man’s face is circled in bright red ink, with three words written in bold, smudged with what Steve assumes are tears - old and dried droplets.

“He was right.”

To Steve, those words hold no significance. On their own - he wouldn’t have understood the paper at all, until he reads the text underneath it and a semblance of understanding begins to form. The clipping is a short one, torn off near the bottom of the small paper.

“Two night ago, former Hawkins researcher…” The name is scratched out, a blank hole on the paper, but the name isn’t important to Steve now. He quickens his pace, hoping that it’s just a coincidence and failing miserably to trick himself. “... savagely attacked by six unkown assailants in his home.”

Kali and her group were a circus of five - plus Eleven, it made six. That forms a piece of the puzzle before him. 

The rest of the puzzle is shattered and torn inside the girl in front of him who silently sobs into her hands - so he stretches forward and pulls her into a hug, dropping the paper to the floor without a thought.

She moves her hands away and clutches at his arm, leaning into his side and crying, tears starting to stain his shirt as he runs a hand up and down her back. “You’re safe,” he reassures quickly. 

Steve isn’t an idiot - so he keeps the panic in his heart out of his voice. Best not to add to the emotions circling the room, thick enough to slice through with a knife. He doesn’t quite know how to deal with crying children - his parents hadn’t really told him much besides slap them, and he is horrified enough by that - but he’s trying his best. 

Eleven is so distraught underneath him, shaking like a spiderweb blowing about in the wind, holding onto Steve like in the next few moments she’ll be snatched away from him.

(What Steve doesn’t know - what it’s impossible for Steve to know-

-Is that she might be.)

—-

There is a lab, once suspected to be vacant, now bustling with life that infests it as quickly as lice.

It’s set within cold and dark hillsides, sun not staining a single inch of the underground area.

Within that lab there are many rooms. - filled with people emanating pure suffering and sorrow. Some of those rooms lie empty, waiting for their new occupants. Some of those rooms and stained in blood and other body matter. Some of those rooms have all matter of horrible things - but the rooms to focus on here are those with participants in the sick games continuing within the lab.

Sobbing echoes around one particular chamber, matching the crying echoing about Steve Harrington’s home - though Eleven’s goes unnoticed among the grand scheme of things. No one within this lab knows of her terror, though one or two certainly wish for it. 

This wailing belongs to a lone figure in a freezing room clutching at their arms. 

A room across from it holds a team of scientists, all of them surrounding a single American in a perfectly tailored suit, flawless skin wrinkling around thin lips quirked up into a smile as he watches his test subject cry. 

Dr. Brenner watches and waits.

He is a patient man. 

Chapter Text

Eleven hasn’t stopped her shuddering cries - though she now lies in his arms silently, tears rolling down her face and coming from her widened eyes. Steve has yet to ask what the paper means. It doesn’t seem right, while she is so painfully terrified underneath him. He just lets her cry. 

Eventually Hopper comes downstairs, yawning and with his hair sticking up everywhere, grumbling about coffee until he sees the two lumps on the couch. That grabs his attention, and immediately - he crosses over to them, giving Steve a concerned look. Eleven doesn’t seem to notice him - and Steve stays quiet. He has no real answer to Hopper’s query, so he just gestures helplessly at the paper on the floor.

Hopper picks it up, reading it over, his expression sagging to an apathetic exhaustion. Something about it must make sense to Hopper, and he curses, dropping the paper to the floor and sliding in to sit next to Eleven. 

“He’s back,” she says shakily, the first words she’d spoken since the paper had met her hands. Steve isn’t good at this game of pronouns, yet the singular “he” and the sorrow it had brought her makes him freeze, begging the world to not be who he thinks. He doesn’t want Eleven to be scared like she’d been for so long - all she’d ever seemed to want was to be free, and if…

 “Papa. He’s back.”

Her papa is Dr. Martin Brenner, a douchebag like no other, someone who regularly flirts through Steve’s mental lists as someone to punch and or kill. Supposedly, he was dead. 

But now - supposedly, he is not.

“How?” He asks gently, quickly burying the nausea and hatred that both twist in his gut. “I mean, I’m not doubting you, but how?”

She sniffs and sits up, letting go of his arm and rubbing at her eyes. They’re glassy and cold, as if actual emotion had drained from her with the tears. 

It’s unnerving. Steve hadn’t seen her empty before - but thankfully, she smiles gratefully, and sadly, when Hopper stands and arrives back with a glass of water. “I don’t know,” she admits quietly. “That man said Papa was alive, and now Kali says he was right.” She shudders. “S- so, Papa is alive.”

Hopper nods as he settles back into the couch. Neither him nor Steve are inclined to think she’s wrong, but he can see the man grasping for straws, just as he is.  “Ok, but could you sister be wrong?”

“No.” Eleven shakes her head firmly, not leaving room for argument. “Friends don’t lie, and Kali would not lie about… that .” She sets her water down on the table and stands, stretching out like a cat before turning around and glancing at the two people still watching her on the couch. Her expression matches theirs as one of a wounded animal, but she looks far more miserable. 

Yet, behind it all, there’s a subtle look of determination that keeps Steve hopeful for her. 

“I want to live.”

“If there is Papa out there, I don’t want to be… controlled by that. I’m going to be free.”

“But… El,” Steve says softly, feeling slightly guilty for saying what he’s saying, even if he knows it would keep her safe. “What if he finds you here? What if…” 

He doesn’t want to think of the possibility of his next words, but he continues anyways, swallowing down his brain’s protests. “what if he’s already found you?”

“I don’t care!” She exclaims hotly, but he can see that his last sentence had only filed her panic. “I am strong now, and I don’t want to be… be trapped here!” The entire building becomes that “here,” as she throws her arms out wide and circles around, landing back on them with a hopeless, begging look. “I refuse to be trapped here!”

“El, we’ve got to keep you safe,” Hopper answers delicately. His temper wasn’t a long one, not even close, but he seems to have grown some sort of patience when speaking with his adopted daughter. “My priority is keeping you safe, and that means you’ve got to stay here. He can’t find you.”

“I don’t care about what your… your priority is!” 

Steve can deal with other people’s panic - not his own, but he's fairly certain he knows how to help someone in the midst of their panic. Eleven is one of those people right now, with red rimmed eyes fill with tears again as she points at Hopper. Steve recognizes that she deserves a moment to rage - to let off steam that’s been building in her for a while, and he listens to her intently. 

“He will find me someday! And- and when he finds me, I want to have done something! I want to be- I want to be a kid!”

With that, she turns around and walks off, only glancing back at them once as she stomps up the stairs and disappears around the corner. Heavy quiet, laden with… everything, falls over the two that remain - neither of them knowing exactly what to say. 

Still, someone must break the quiet, and so Steve sighs, catching Hopper’s wrist as the man starts to walk away. “Let me go.” 

Hopper looks up at him a scrutinizing look. They weren’t the closest of… well, the closest of whatever their relationship could be defined as, and Steve knew that. Hopper had all the rights to scoff in his face - to talk to his daughter alone. Sure, Steve really liked Hopper. The man felt like someone he had wanted in his life for years, but had never had.

Or - maybe he’d had the figure, a twisted and warped version, one that had nothing to compare to Hopper. Maybe, Hopper was like a f-

They both know that even though Hopper had had two daughters he wasn’t the strongest at heart to hearts without a little help, so he nods at Steve. 

Her door is shut and locked, and no noises come from within, but he knocks anyways, letting her know he’s there. “It’s Steve,” he says softly, waiting for a response that doesn’t come. He knocks again.

The door opens of its own accord, floating across the carpet to reveal Eleven. She looks like a child hiding from a monster - her knees curled to her chest and head tucked into them, tilted to face the window and the tree that lie outside. Brenner is a monster, so the comparison isn’t an inaccurate one - but Steve ignores those thoughts and focuses. 

“El?” He whispers, walking up to her, careful to let his footfalls create noise as to not surprise her. “Can I sit next to you?”

She nods, lifting her head up to look at him, a wrecked and tearful expression on her face. Steve hates seeing any of the kids like this, and he feels a pang to his heart at the sight - but right now his own feelings aren’t what matter. Eleven is his main concern. He sits down next to her and sighs, a hand hovering over her back. “Can I touch you?”

She nods again, and he smiles, setting the hand against her back. She doesn’t flinch away from the touch, so he presses his hand fully against her shirt, a gentle, grounding touch. 

“My parents used to lock me in the house.” He starts, talking as much as to fill the silence as he is to prove a point. “This isn’t about me, and that doesn’t matter yet - but - but, bear with me, cause I’ve got a point.

“Before they left for years, I didn’t leave the house or the grounds outside very often. I stayed inside all day everyday like some sort of high school edgy dropout, but I wasn’t in high school anyways. Once they- well, once they just up and left, I was terrified. I locked myself into the house by myself. I- I don’t know. Something about going - going out there?” 

He gestures out the window. “It was insane to think this, but I was scared of what I might find. But, it was really really…. I just wanted to go out.” 

“Is that why you’re so pale?” She mumbles out.

Maybe, if it had been someone else, he might’ve been offended. But now, just hearing that bit of life in her voice is nice. 

So he laughs, a little awkwardly, but a laugh either way. “Yeah, Yeah, sure. That’s why I’ve got my natural ghostliness. 

“But either way, I get what you mean by “live.” When I finally got out, all I could do was live!” He laughs again. “Probably too much, since I created my stupid persona and turned into a huge jerk, but, whatever. And - And I think you should too!”

“You do?”

He nods. “Yeah, I do. But. But- you also need to stay safe.”

“I’m tired of being safe.” She looks up at him, and there’s only exhaustion on her face now. All of her anger has bled away - she looks resigned, as if she knows exactly how this will go. He’s determined to show her that she shouldn’t need to feel like her concerns are nothing in this massive world - he wants her to feel listened too, even if she can’t get exactly what she needs. “I’m tired of being... trapped.” 

“El, what if we just compromised?”

“Comp- compromised?” She squints at the unfamiliar word, sounding out each letter. 

“It means if we…. uhm, came to an agreement about it all. Have it be your word of the day. Like, what if whenever you went out I had to be with you?” 

Someone knocks on the door. Eleven looks over and tilts her head, the door flicking open with her movement to reveal Hopper standing in the doorway holding a cup of coffee. “Come in,” she mutters. 

He steps inside, standing right behind the door when she shuts it again. “I heard some of what you guys were talking about.”

Steve waits for him to continue, holding his breath, and hoping that Hopper isn’t ridiculously blunt this one time. 

“I think it might work,” he mutters, walking over and sitting on the edge of the bed across from Steve and next to Eleven. “Obviously, I’ve got my own conditions for this, but I trust Steve and I trust your powers Eleven. To an extent.” 

That was better than Steve expected - and apparently, Eleven too, if the smile on her face means anything. 

“Steve… can you give me a moment?” Hopper asks, and Steve obliges quickly, knowing that even with his short temper, Hopper will be able to talk with her. Under all of his bark, he didn’t have much bite, and he truly cared for her. He didn’t just love her out of some sort of obligation, and Steve trusted him to take care of her.

He shuts the door behind him, ignoring the quiet conversation that begins as he walks out. Thinking it’s better not to eavesdrop, he walks away, going to take his shower.  

Chapter Text

“With the mighty sword in his hand, and his mighty shield in the other, Will the Wise strikes into the ground, triumphing against the others!” 

“Steve, I’m holding a broom and dustpan,” says Will boredly, But a chuckle sits behind his voice. He sweeps up some dust and old food from under the rim of his stove, and Steve jumps from the countertop, grinning like a loon as he grabs the vacuum from the corner and strikes a pose.

“Steve the…” he thinks for a moment, moving the vacuum back and forth while it’s still off and making a show of it. Out of the corner of his eyes, he sees Will adopt the tiniest of smiles, and that’s all Steve was looking for. “Steve the sexy holds his… gun!”

“Is that really the most creative you get?” asks Jonathan in the doorway with his camera held high, right after taking a photo of them. Steve blushes slightly - even if he’s firmly told himself that he will never blush - but continues grinning and messing with the vacuum. 

He was spending a bit of time at Will’s. Joyce had asked him to babysit, and he didn’t have anything else to do. Hopper and Eleven had refused to let him help in the cleanup of their cabin, so he took up the job after a short call to Hopper to tell him where he’d be. The man had been on edge ever since Steve’s kidnapping. 

Or, maybe for much longer than that. 

Jonathan is the last semi-adult in the house save for Steve, but the only really mature one. He chuckles at them and snaps another photo, whistling as Steve pretends to swoon like a fainting Victorian woman. 

Steve Harrington is the poster boy of masculinity.

Steve Harrington is also showing off his hips while swinging them back and forth to a mixtape a middle schooler constructed.

Will sways back and forth to the music, sweeping and laughing at Steve’s idiocy at the same time. The whole room emanates a strange cheerfulness, despite the horrible weather outside. Steve’s been avoiding any and all of the snow, but today it seems like he might end up trapped inside with Will because of it. 

Steve is more than aware of the blackmail fodder he’s feeding Jonathan as he poses like someone in a catalogue for vacuums, but in the heat of the moment - (and forever,) he can’t really muster up the feeling to care. 

“Jonathan, you can leave now, my man!” Steve says breathlessly, swinging his arms out wide just as he sets the vacuum down, sweating a bit. “Go do edgy hermit teenager things! You’re cool!”

“I’m just applying for a job,” Jonathan says, a little sullenly now. Steve almost regrets what he’d said - but then Jonathan’s patent “stick it to the man” type grin flows back into his face with a vengeance. “With a bunch of corporate assholes. You might get along with them, Harrington.”

“Oh, brutal!” He grins, turning the vacuum on and catching the last bits of detritus Will had missed as he presses a long fingered palm to his chest in mock offense. 

“But seriously, Steve. Are you looking for a job anywhere?” asks Jonathan, with a tone that is anything but serious. 

He shrugs as he unhooks the vacuum. “School… uh... School starts back up soon, and we all know it would take a miracle to make me a smart guy. I’ll probably look at the mall they’re building.”

“Oh?” Will grins. “Starcourt, right? I wonder if they’ll have any actual good shops?”

“And what sort of shops would those be, punk?” Steve raises an eyebrow, simpering as artificially as anything. “Nerd shops?” 

“Steve, if I’m a nerd…” Will pauses, regaining a familiar deadpan to his tone. “You’re practically a tv-show cliche nerd. We all know the movies you watch.”

He slaps a hand to his chest, wincing only a bit. Phantom pain from once-cracked ribs still flares once in a while, but it’s an old friend that has begun to fade. “I am not a... a common nerd! I am Steve, king of all of Hawkins, with the most wonderful hair! I get every single chick I want!” 

He pauses, then: “Even the guys probably look at me.” He slides the vacuum into the corner again, not catching Will’s suddenly frozen form. 

Jonathan rolls his eyes. “Sure they do. Don’t burn the house down.” He waves, then with that, he’s gone, his quiet, funny and strangely angry aura drifting behind him and emptying the house out save for the last two occupants. 

“Ok, what’s your plan for tonight?” Will asks, finally finished with his chores and eyes shining with enough energy to fuel a power plant. He looks much healthier than he’d been for such a long time - and Steve is happy to see that the sickeningly grey tinge in his skin has faded to what’s begun to turn into a peachy red.

He looks again, like the healthy child he deserves to be. 

Steve shrugs, dismissing the thoughts in favor of actually talking to the kid. “Nope. Just wondering whether you’d rather go somewhere or stay here.”

“If we go somewhere we’d have to call my mom and Hopper, and it’s super snowy,” Will starts, and Steve breathes a sigh of relief. He really hadn’t wanted to go out in the din the storm had created. “Also - Hopper like, counts as your dad, so I don’t wanna piss him off.” 

The words are so casual, but they hit Steve like a demogorgon or a freight train, or maybe a bat that someone was swinging that he’d managed to walk right into. 

Hopper was a close friend - but not his father. Sure, he was someone who cared about him, who helped him when he was hurt, who made meals when he slept in, who lived with him as spoke to him when silence got too loud and nights got too long-

Hopper wasn’t his dad. Steve dad was a cold, unfeeling man who saw him more as a ring sharpener and a punching bag. His father was someone who left a few weeks back, and who hadn’t contacted him since. 

“Hopper isn’t my- my dad!” He chokes out under his breath, but it goes ignored as Steve starts to regret saying it so pathetically. Will clips the dustpan to the broom and props it up in the closet, shutting the door and turning back around.

“Could we maybe just watch a movie?” Will requests, grabbing a bag of chips off the counter and opening it, pouring them both a bowl and practically making Steve’s decision for him.

“Sure,” Steve replies as his only answer, a little helplessly as he often is. There wasn’t any point to arguing, and watching something boring and loud sounded infinitely appetizing. “But you’re not going to only eat junk tonight, I’m making us a real dinner.” 

—-

They didn’t eat a real dinner. 

Pizza made from pre-cooked crust and torn up cheese slices isn’t the healthiest. Skittles for dessert as well - if it’s anything, it’s a hodge podge of garbage that Steve was slightly ashamed of. 

They were watching - or, just playing Robin Hood, and drawing things together. His colored pencils had already been nicely used, and Steve was in the process of whittling them to points again with a kitchen knife as Will sketched out a new drawing of Dustin’s character. 

“So,” Steve starts, setting the purple down on the table and starting on the blue, letting the flakes drop onto a paper towel. “How’s the pizza?”

Will shrugs. “It’s pizza.”

“Hey,” He whines, setting down the blue. Their fingers brush as Will grabs the color, and Steve quickly pulls away. It’s on reflex - he isn’t that comfortable with touch, despite being starved for it. It’s pathetic really. 

Those thoughts are shaken from his head as his pause drags on, and he goes on, grabbing the red. “Is my magnificent cooking not good enough?”

“It’s fine,” Will says a bit sharply. 

Steve frowns, looking over and setting the pencils down. Will’s usually the most docile of the kids - and yes, all of them have their moments, but Will sometimes worries him. The kid had gone through so, so much, so much it makes Steve’s heart bleed with, well. Not pity, he doesn’t quite know what his heart is feeling, but it isn’t pity. 

When Steve looks over, he sees a look of concentration - as if Will is trying hard not to shout, or cry. 

“Ok, that’s fair.” He picks the pencil back up, finishing it and grabbing the next one, acting as casual as possibly and probably failing miserably. He was never a good actor unless it was around his parents. 

“You wanna talk? You’ve been a little extra quiet tonight.”

“I’m always quiet,” Will grumbles back, but his tone has lost its momentary edge. A moment later he sighs and sets his head in his hands, dropping his pencils down and giving up on the picture he’d started. He looks back up at Steve with a troubled expression, the look of a puppy who’s trying to find out what’s in your hand. “You said something earlier,” he states, waiting for Steve to say something.

He doesn’t know what that should be, but he’s trying his hardest to help. He’s Momma Steve - the nickname he’d begrudgingly, bemusedly adopted after the kids had dubbed him it.

“What’s this about?” Steve replies quietly, grabbing the remote and turning the movie down, not tolerating the joyful dancing and music of the scene as it interrupts their discussion. “Are you alright?”

“Yeah, Yeah, I’m ok,” Will says, and Steve might’ve even believed it, but his voice cracks halfway through the sentence. And - Steve wasn’t an idiot. He knew when to recognize a hurting kid.

 “You- uh, you said something about guys going after you, and I uh-“ Will swallows and lifts his head back up, his eyes having just begun to swim with tears. “I just, isn’t- isn’t that gross? Like, faggots and- and-“

Now Steve knows what’s going on. All throughout America’s time, homophobia has run rampant. Especially in towns like Hawkins - where if you were found with someone of the same gender you would probably be hung, drawn and quartered. 

For as long as Steve could remember, the Byer’s house was a bit of a taboo topic. The failure of a husband, the crazy wife, the pervert teenage brother, the zombie-queer of the younger one. 

Maybe - Steve wasn’t one for assumptions - maybe one of those rumors had been true. 

“Hey, no,” he replies softly, sliding off the couch to sit next to Will on the floor. 

Steve slides an arm around Will’s back and the boy leans into his side, sniffling and wiping away tears furiously as soon as they fall. “Being gay, being a queer, it’s fine,” he says firmly, which is truly his opinion - he’d never felt any differently. 

“No, no it’s not,” Will blurts out, sounding absolutely miserable, a look of self hatred starting to reveal itself as tears strip the poorly constructed mask of indifference from his face. “It’s - it’s gross!”

“What’s gross about loving someone?” Steve shrugs. “I mean, I- I don’t understand why people think it’s so gross. You’re not gross, you’re not a- not a faggot, you’re just….” He waves a hand. “Gay.”

Will shoots him an indecipherable expression, but it shifts when he lets out another half sob. Tears start rolling down his cheeks, as if he’s finally let the fam crumble. 

“Y- you’re not joking?” 

Steve would never, ever lie to one of the kids over something like this, but he lets Will continue before he tells him that. 

Will pulls away and leans forward, swiveling his head in an owlish manner that matches his huge eyes. “B- but I thought… I thought you were some sort of “smear the queer” sort of guy!”

“Oh, shit! No, Byers!” he says, horrified at the prospect as he pretends to gag. “Those people are… all they care about is whether you like dick or anything else, it’s… really weird.”

His parents hadn’t really been all that invested in his or anyone else’s sexuality, but they’d made sure to put the fear of abnormality in him at an early age. And to them - homosexuality is abnormality. 

(Their lessons hadn’t ever really stuck. They’d caught him pressing a quick kiss to Samuel Hester in kindergarten. After that, they’d taken him out of school to be homeschooled. His face was too purple to be seen outside anyways. They’d never spoken of it again.) 

“Love is just… love.”

Will smiles, a watery chuckle falling from his lips like a ship out to sea. Something like hope drifts into his eyes. “So… if I…”

“If you liked guys?” Steve grins at him. “I’ll be your wingman.”

Chapter Text

Steve is tired. Exhausted, wrought out, broken down, beaten up. All are synonyms that work just nicely for his feelings at the moment - the moment when he slumps against the couch after a day that felt all too long. He hadn’t slept for ages now, he’d been busy babysitting, dodging nightmares, and cleaning up after an admittedly, small New Years celebration. 

Thankfully, Hopper and Eleven are out right now - Hopper dropping Eleven off at Joyce’s, and then going in to work. So, he lets his eyes droop shut, his grateful skin pressing shut as he lounges against the couch for a break. A low buzz rises in his muscles, and he waits for sleep, and inevitably, cryptic dreams and nightmares, to come to him.

Someone knocks on the door.

“Wha-“ 

He flails for a moment, getting his limbs under control annoyingly slow, then rubbing at his eyes, contemplating whether or not he should answer it or not. He’d just been about to sleep, and it feels as if his bones are lumps of melting butter. 

Eventually, and after another, softer knock, he goes to the door, eyeing the non-nail bat that sits in the front hallway corner. 

He’s blasted with snow and cold the moment the door swings open, and he looks bleerily through the dark to meet the two figures standing outside his door.

Well - only one is standing. The other figure is cradled within their arms, and the first is hunched over them protectively.

Billy Hargrove stands, half collapsed in the doorway, covered in bruises and blood. In his shaking and spotty arms he holds Max, soaked in the same injuries that mottle her brother’s skin. 

His breath catches on nails and knife and he meets Billy’s red rimmed eyes with hopeful determination. “Bring her in,” he says quietly, careful not to disturb the broken girl unconscious within her brother’s arms. 

Billy nods, stumbling and half supporting himself on the wall til Steve let’s him lean on him. It’s a testament to how ruined he is - Billy doesn’t object to Steve’s gentle help. So, he slings an arm over the boys back and half carries him as he stumbles drunkenly to the living room. 

Billy sets Max on the couch and slumps to the side, falling to his knees next to her, hands skirting over her face, mouth half open and eyes darting around in shock. It seems the situation hasn’t set in with him yet, as he mouths her name silently and waits. 

All traces of exhaustion gone, Steve races to the kitchen, wrenching the cabinets under the sink to find the first aid kit he keeps fully stocked at all times. 

“Where is she hurt?” He asks, as he walks back over, ignoring Billy for a moment to search her, taking the towel he’d yanked off the stove handle to wipe at the blood on her face. 

Oh - there is so much blood. 

“He- uh-“ Billy scoffs, wiping at the similar amounts of blood and tears on his face and laughing to himself, trying to pull his shuddering words together while he’s barely able to hold himself. “Punched her a bunch. I wasn’t home. He kicked her ribs too, I- I Uh- I think some might be broken.”

Steve nods, but his frown deepens further as he continues peering at Max’s face and a huge, but sluggishly bleeding cut leading into her hairline becomes obvious. “Did he have a knife?”

“I-“ Billy bites down on his own hand, hard, so Steve yanks his wrist away before he can hurt himself more. Without protesting, and breathing more steadily, Billy continued tiredly. “He had a letter opener.”

“Don’t hurt yourself,” Steve orders sharply, then starts to apply pressure to Max’s wound. It spans from just above her eyebrow to down to her ear, curved and long. Blood quickly stains the towel, but it starts to slow as he holds steady. “It’s going to need stitches, but it’s ok.”

Once the bleeding is stemmed enough, he runs into the kitchen and grabs a bowl of water and another, cleaner towel, dipping it into the water and cleaning away the blood from the cut. He opens a bottle of scotch he’d yanked from the cabinet, downing a quarter of it in a single swig, the alcohol in the glass mirroring the sloshing of the acid in his empty stomach. 

“What- what’re you doing?” Billy slurs out, eyes flirting with darkness just a little before he snaps them open.

“It helps,” Steve explains, setting the bottle back on the table with a heavy thud. “With the nerves.”

Billy nods, and so Steve takes the rubbing alcohol and gently cleans out the cut, heart panging as he hears a low groan come from the unconscious Max. All he can do at the moment is ignore the sound, and so he grabs the stitches and thread, opening the pre-packaged needle and starting to thread it into the slice.

With an experts hands he sews the cut shut, a spinstress of blood and flesh. He’s practiced at this - midnight rushes to clean up gashes on his own flesh had led to knowledge of first aid not many teenagers held. He sees poetry through the words splayed across her forehead, till his paragraph is ended and he’s finished his work of art. 

He leans back, dropping the needle and scissors onto the table and ignoring the blood that starts to soak down into the ridges of the wood. Wiping a blood stained hand across his forehead, he breathes, trying to catch breath that he’d begun to hold every time the needle thread through Max’s skin. 

Next are the smaller cuts on her face, which he’s quickly able to wipe the blood from and bandage with regular bandaids.

Finally, the most dangerous problem becomes apparent.

Her chest. 

As he lifts her shirt up, boot prints and fists printed against her flesh like a sickening canvas become apparent. He pulls her shirt back down and  stands, leaving to rush to the fridge, grabbing three bags of peas he’d shoved in there years ago and never used. Icing them is all he can do now, with no confirmation that they’re broken. She’s a sickening museum of pain, and the curator is her father - who Steve is fantasizing about ripping apart.  

Max stirs, coughing and letting out a little sob that makes Steve’s chest thrum with sadness. Before he can say anything, Billy is next to her, a gentle hand pressed to her cheek even as he lists to the side from pain.

“Hey, Max, y- you’re safe, it’s ok,” he says weakly, with a smile marred by pain. It feels too kind, too loving and personal for Steve to believe it’s truly Billy, but something resides in the other teenagers eyes that tell him it’s all real. 

Her eyes glaze over with pain and all she can do is nod before her head falls back, eyes shutting and brain throwing her to unconsciousness again.

“What about her legs?” asks Steve the moment Billy leans back again, mouth slightly ajar and teeth clenched as he holds back little noises of pain. “Anything there?”

Billy shakes his head and finally lets out a little gasp as he opens his mouth to speak. “No, she was- was walking around earlier. I think that’s ok.”

“Ok.” He looks back at Billy and sighs at the pained expression on his face. “On to you, I guess.”

No !” 

He grins shakily at Steve’s surprised look. 

“No. As much as I know you’d like to admire my abs, no.” Billy grabs the table and drags himself up on it, standing wobbly. “I- I’m leaving. 

Steve stays silent, standing up and waiting for-

-Billy to fall, plummeting to the ground. Steve catches him and the boy groans, but his eyes stay shut and Steve slides him onto his back. 

He goes through the same ministrations as he had with Max - cleaning his wounds out and thanking the whatever above that he doesn’t need any stitches.

Pulling his shirt up, he’s met with a similar scene to Max’s, bruises and boots imprinting themselves on his skin like an unwanted guest. Steve presses the rest of the peas to the bruises dotting him, frowning at how light Billy seems to be. 

After what feels like a thousand years he’s finished, and he picks Max up, her legs dangling from his arms and head tucked into his chest. She’s so small - and Steve can’t help but smile at the burst of protectiveness he feels for her. That’s quickly burnt away as her wounds make themselves apparent again. Blood starts to scrape its greedy hands against his chest and arms and he sighs, setting her in the bed closest to the stairs - his own. He draws a blanket over her, promising to come back in a few minutes then walking out, leaving the door open and the lights on.

Next is Billy, who he grabs a blanket and pillow for from his closet. He walks back downstairs, footsteps echoing about the house. He’s still in the exact same position as Steve left him - so he lifts him up, draping him onto the couch like a fainting victim and putting the pillow beneath his head. He has to smirk, chuckling hysterically in the face of how strange everything is. Billy is a dick, but doesn’t deserve all of that’s going on - and Max certainly doesn’t. 

He puts the blanket on top of him, then finally, Steve crashes.

Adrenaline buzzes out in the back of his head and his legs give out, ears ringing as he starts to shake violently. His hands drift, spidery as they shake, across the table next to him to find the bottle of scotch, which he starts to drain, nausea and alcohol pooling in his gut.

He wants to scream, he wants to throw a letter opener into the open air and have it sink into his target, he wants to run, he wants to fall, he wants for the silence to stop being so loud and he wants for all of this to end, to be a cruel trick of the universe on his brain.

But, his wish doesn’t come true, and tears start to slip out of his eyes as he finishes the entire bottle of scotch, coughing against the rough feeling of it slinking down his throat and into his gut like hot fire. 

Someone had hurt one of his kids. Neil Hargrove, their father, who they should’ve been able to trust, had beaten both of his children to unconsciousness with his boots, fists and a letter opener. 

Distantly, Steve recognizes that this is some sort of psychological shock.

But that’s distantly - and the front of his brain tells him to drain the alcohol and wait till his legs regain feeling. 

But, then-

Then, the front door creaks open, and Steve’s hands fly to the nail bat lying propped against the table.

He stands, shaking and swaying horribly, exhaustion, terror, grief and shock running through him and adrenaline mixing with his blood. As quickly as his legs will carry him, he runs to the wall, hiding from whoever it is that’s coming into his house and then rubbing at his legs to help them to wake up, pinching himself and growing as aware as possible. 

“I followed your car!” slurs an unfamiliar voice from the front, but Steve immediately knows who it is. “I followed your fucking car you pathetic piece of shit!”

All Steve has is the nail bat - and he really doesn’t want to risk killing someone. The regular bat is in the hallway, and there’s the tiny needles from the first aid kit. Maybe, if he rain fast eno, he could get the scotch bottle-

Before he can try, a massive gunshot goes blasting through the house, leaving Steve’s ears ringing. It’s the sound of a shotgun, and now a hole in the wall behind the stairs makes itself apparent. Several more footsteps stumble towards him and he shrinks back, hoping that if anyone dies it’s him and not Max.

When he glances out the window, he sees a strange car parked in his lawn, Billy’s parked in front of his door, and he can see Hopper’s car pulling up in the driveway. He nearly cries in relief, putting a shaking hand to the glass panes then reluctantly dragging it away, looking back to the corner. 

Even if Hopper will be inside soon - that still leaves Steve some time with a murderous shotgun wielding maniac about to kill Steve, Billy and Max. 

He has a couple choices.

Wait for Hopper, and possibly be too late - getting himself and the others shot in the process.

Rush Neil and try to disarm him with the nail bat, aiming for the gun or his hands and arms.

Surrender.

Steve makes up his mind in the heat of the moment, putting one foot in front of the other and bouncing back and forth for a single second, then running around the corner and rushing the man who has  his shotgun held up high. 

Chapter Text

He catches Neil by surprise and the gun goes flying, slapping noisily into the wall as the nail bat slams into it, scraping through the flesh of his hands and ripping at his sleeves. The man shouts out an indignant roar and goes diving for his weapon like a disgruntled toddler, slamming down to his knees, only for Steve to ditch the bat behind him and tackle him.

They wrestle on the ground like that, Steve kicking the gun away when Neil’s hand grows too close.

In retaliation, Neil punches him in the face - and even if it stings, Steve relishes in it, punching back twice as hard from on top of the man, straddling his waist and throwing fist after fist into his flesh. 

The man’s head snaps back against the wall several times until he manages to slam himself upwards into Steve, standing up as the teenager struggles to get up, his back having slammed into the front table behind him and knocked the wind out of his struggling lungs.

Neil doesn’t wait for Steve to get back up - he launches an attack as ruthless as anything, slamming a foot into Steve’s gut. Steve lets out a choked scream before Neil grabs him by the collar and lifts him up, pinning him to the wall behind them. 

Somewhere in the roar of Steve’s head, he realizes Neil has the gun in his hands again, and it’s pointed directly at his stomach, digging into the soft and bruised flesh painfully. He grabs at it, and with his other hand, grabs at Neil’s face, scratching into his eyes then lifting his knee up high and slamming it into the man’s probably undersized package.

Neil doubles over and howls in pain and violent rage, ramming his shoulder into Steve’s gut, a triple hit that has Steve tottering backwards into the front table and making the lamp careen off the side when his arm hits it. Pain radiated from him, but leans forward and slams into Neil, pushing the man to the wall and kicking at his legs. He falls, and so Steve lands another punch to the man’s face, a sickeningly loud crack accompanying a spurt of blood flowing from Neil’s now broken nose. 

Just as Steve thinks he has the upper hand, it slips out from under his feet. 

He’s back up in an instant afterwards, his rage somehow refueled like gasoline to a tank - and he runs at Steve and begins battering his body again.

Neil is a grown man - who’s fists pound into the muscles of a teenager that still hasn’t quite regained them all after a coma.

Neil is a grown man - whose anger is centered on Steve, three punches for every few Steve gets in. 

Neil is a grown man , and his hands wrap around Steve’s neck and haul him onto the wall as if he’s nothing. 

Steve’s eyes widen around pain radiating from his throat, and his lungs come to a standstill, arguing uselessly with his gaping mouth as it opens and closes uselessly. He coughs, dragging his nails over the man’s hands and kicking him, but his efforts bare no fruit as the fingers surrounding his skin tighten, his vision blackening with it.

Steve failed - that’s all he can think of. Max, Billy and him are all going to die, just because he couldn’t get the gun away from Neil and take out a heavily inebriated manchild. That same gun now presses into his skin, this time a bruising jab into the very bottom of his jaw, and he grips at it, fingers starting to slip into unconsciousness, the rest of his body sure to follow soon. 

His other fingers brush against wood and he grasps it on reflex, only to realize the slickened texture belongs to the regular baseball bat that had rested against the wall.

With a shaking impact and two more gunshots, it finds itself slammed into Neil’s head, and Steve goes falling to the ground. 

—- 

Hopper was having an absolutely awful day. He’d dropped Eleven off at Joyce’s, only to find out she’d probably be making out with Mike the entire time. Call him overprotective - it was weird, watching her grow up so quickly when he’d only barely had her as his daughter. In his short time on duty, he’d gotten called out for four completely dead-end calls, two being teenagers pranking them, one being a murder that was really a badly made and abandoned statue that was probably some poor middle schoolers art project, and another case of stolen lawn gnomes, which was ridiculously common and ridiculously a pain in Hopper’s ass. 

After his hours of working were up, he was very ready to pass out at home.

Too bad that while he’s driving up he hears a gunshot coming from inside. It makes him jump, as gunshots always will, being a cop hasn’t wiped that away from him - but even more so because the gunshot comes from Steve’s house.

As soon as his car comes to a stop he’s out, noting two foreign cars parked in the driveway, one with blood stained on the hood where someone gripped it, and one half in the lawn. It’s easily dismissible in the moment, with his hand on his gun and fear in his head. 

Nothing seems out of the ordinary near the house other than the two, foreign cars, until he sees the open door and hears the grunting coming within. The noise of something slamming into something else has him running within, adrenaline prickling at the hair on his neck and making it stand on end. 

Neil Hargrove has Steve - Steve, who Hopper inexplicably had come to care for an awful lot, whose stupid banter and cheerful smiles and too-sad eyes made Hopper so painfully scared for him right now for no good reason, he should be detached, a cop saving a life, but God,  Hopper was horrible at staying impersonal, especially now, always now, because he knew Steve - up on the wall by his neck, a shotgun digging into the terrified, bleeding and struggling teenagers neck and his empty hand curling around the trigger.

“Dont!” Is all Hopper can think to shout, and Steve doesn’t even seem to notice. He wasn’t an expert in hostage type situations like this, but it at least gets Neil to stop and look at him. Steve’s eyes are vacant, bulging out of their sockets as he gasps and his face turns significantly more purple.

“Oh?” Neil grins, saccharine, charming, and Hopper wants to bust his face in - but it seems Steve’s already succeeded in doing that. “‘S a cop!” He looks back at Steve, gesturing back to Hopper as if the kid can hear him and isn’t about to pass out. “Say hello!”

He pulls the trigger.

The wall gains a second crack, the gun sliding down from Neil’s hands just in time, as Steve’s bat finds itself planted against his temple and a bullet runs  into Neil’s head after Hopper shoots into him. 

Steve crumples, corpselike, to the ground, until he isn’t like the dead because his eyes are fluttering open and shut weakly as he gasps, for air, for words, for help. 

Hopper immediately rushes over to the kid, landing on the bottom of his heels and putting a hand to Steve’s wrist, feeling his pulse. It’s all there - fine and safe, and he curses. “Jesus fucking Christ Harrington.”

Next thing he knows, his hands are following his instincts, gripping into Steve’s jawline ever gently, and he tips Steve’s head up, inspecting his bruises before a hand comes up and slaps Hopper’s away. Steve groans, eyes widened and afraid again as he shoves himself up the wall, hands digging for purchase against smooth surfaces that can’t offer him anything. 

“They- I’ve got to-“ he pants out, voice a painful shadow of what it should be. He looks absolutely exhausted, and Hopper realizes that he’s been here tending to Max and Billy in the other room by himself. “He killed them-“

Hopper stands up, determination and a sadness that he barely recognizes in himself in his eyes as he takes Steve by the shoulders and turns him around. “They’re not dead, Steve. You saved them. He’s dead.”

(That sadness, that determination, he’d only seen and felt that when he was reassuring Eleven, or as he once had with Sarah, much as he does with Steve now. He files that in the back of his brain to be ignored, unwilling to focus on it now.)

The expression on Steve’s face is heartbreaking, and he sniffs, a bit of blood bubbling down from his nose and wetting the crusted blood already beginning to dry just underneath it. “I- holy shit - I- I thought they-“ He cuts off as his breath catches, and he coughs, shaking painfully and about to collapse.

Hopper does what he knows is all he can do. 

He pulls him into a hug, and Steve melts into it as if it’s exactly where he belongs. Slowly, Hopper cards a hand through the not-quite-adults hair, focusing on calming the shivering, terrified, exhausted, adrenaline fueled and injured mass that is Steve within his arms. Something parental and deep rooted within him surfaces, and he lets it sink into the hug. 

“You’re safe, they’re fine.”

Steve nods wordlessly, clutching at Hopper’s back like the hug is the only thing still keeping him alive. 

Chapter Text

Billy, Max and Steve had to go to the hospital.

Billy woke up quickly after he’d been loaded into Hopper’s car and had almost punched the man, until a just as awake Steve in the backseat had stopped him, a single protective hand on Max’s prone form and another on Billy’s arm. No more words were shared. 

Jonathan and Nancy has helped to drive the kids to the hospital behind them. Neil is escorted graciously from the home within an imposing black body bag. 

Susan stayed at her home, not answering any calls about her children at the hospital until Hopper had left the hospital and knocked on her door. She’d walked out and smiled at him as if nothing was wrong despite a black eye and red face, then broken down in massive sobs and admitted everything that Neil had been doing. 

Joyce had come over to watch Steve once he’d gotten back from the hospital. They’d told him he was ok, just with some bruising. Don’t talk too much, they said, and Steve’s head had started to thrum just a little bit more intensely in time with his pulse at that news. 

Still, Max and Billy stayed at the hospital, Hopper watching them until their mother could come to them. They would make a full recovery, though Max might have some scarring.

They were safe, and so Steve made his way home in the back of Nancy’s car, Jonathan right next to her in shotgun, the two of them sending him worried glances that he ignored so hard he fell asleep. 

He’d been discharged by the hospital, but Joyce and Hopper has decreed that he was absolutely not ok to be alone. Joyce had volunteered to stay with him until Hopper could make his way home, so she showed up soon after Steve arrived back at his house, dazed, and a bit angry that he wasn’t allowed to take any pain killers since he was still slightly drunk. Jonathan and Nancy left a few minutes after she arrived, making him swear to not fight anymore bastards. 

He’d just nodded along, and the moment he could - he fell asleep. 

While he was sleeping, Joyce went about and acted like she was an angel from the heavens. She’d cleaned up the bloody needle and thawing bags of peas, and scrubbed at the blood that had managed to get on the floor. Steve would’ve been around to tell her not to, but he’d slept hard.

For eighteen hours.

When he woke up, his throat felt like he’d just puked up wood chips, and he grasped at it, wordlessly and panicked till he realized again where he was. His head was pounding familiarly, and his eyesight narrowed rapidly as he stood, a testament to the massive hangover he likely had after drinking so much scotch.

Immediately, Joyce was there, handing him a glass of water that he accepted happily, drinking all of it. 

“How long was I out?” He croaks out, setting the cup on the table across from him, settling back down on the couch and hissing a bit. 

“Eighteen hours.” 

He nearly spits out the water he’s already swallowed, eyes watering and widening at the same time at the ridiculous news. “Eighteen! No- I, that’s not-“ he stands from the spot he’d only just sat in. “That’s not possible!”

Joyce stands with him, putting her hands on his shoulders and gently pushing him back to the couch. “Yes, it is, Steve. Billy and Max are safe, there mother went to them, and everyone else is safe. Hopper and El are in their rooms sleeping, and-“

“Why… why’d you stay?” He blurts out, then winces, realizing that he’d just interrupted her and quite possibly offended her. “It’s not that you can’t be, I just-“

“Because I care about you, and Will slept the night. All of the kids did. I hope you don’t mind?” She smiles at him, but something about it shows that she wasn’t really asking, and he can’t muster up the will to care. 

“Nah,” He says, waving a still tired hand at her, the other diving into the ratty and slightly bloody mass of hair atop his head. 

“The hospital said you’d be absolutely fine,” she says. “So you’re fine to… do whatever. Within reason, of course. Don’t go doing anything stupid, Steve.” 

She smiles warmly, motherly, at him, her tone a soft melody to match. She feels like a mother figure in a home that had never had one - and he welcomes it with strangely open arms, not willing or able to muster up any resistance, even if she isn’t his own mom. “And - and I’m not a great cook, ok?” She splays her hands out before her helplessly. “But I made French toast for everyone. If you go take a shower, it should be ready by then.” 

He nods sincerely, and a little sadly, though he hopes she doesn’t notice. He knows that’s a pipe dream - Joyce is far too perceptive to not notice emotions like that in anyone’s expression, even random teenagers who babysat kids occasionally and used to bully her son. “Thank you, for- for everything.” He pauses to swallow down his emotions, willing them to flow deep into the pit of his heart, and to kick at his painfully chapped lips. She’s much shorter than him, but he feels inexplicably small. “Just- Thank you.”

“Steve, don’t thank me,” she replies, blunt yet miraculously soft at the same time. “I don’t need thanks, I’m just… I’m so, so proud of you, Steve?”

He frowns. Proud of him?

Proud was a five letter word that was absent from a single person's vocabulary when they spoke of Steve. He hadn’t done anything extraordinary the day before - he’d just managed to help two people who needed it at the right time. 

His expression must’ve warped as he mused in those two facts, because she pulls him into a hug, a warm hand curling into his hair. She smells like cinnamon and baking and warmth, like the scented pinecones you could buy at the dollar stores around Christmas if the pinecones actually smelled good. Warmth drapes into his skin the longer she holds him, and he accepts it, terrified yet yearning for more all at once. It’s a confusing, almost tiringly unfamiliar blend of emotions. 

It’s over too quickly, her hands drawing away from his back, and he finds himself mourning the loss. 

“You did something amazing,” she tells him softly, and the way she says it makes up for her hug ending so quickly, as if it’s a fact that he can’t deny. Those hugs were addictive - is what’s he’s quickly finding. “You saved their lives, Steve. They’re going to be ok.” 

He can’t seem to nod behind whatever’s scratching at his throat. Maybe it’s self hatred. Maybe it’s from being choked. Maybe, it’s a mix of both, but all he knows is that whatever it is is probably something he deserved. His limbs seem to come back alive, and he stands, drifting away from her like a lonely ghost.

He can’t see the look she gives him as he walks off, but if he did, he probably would’ve started crying. She certainly looks like she might - with her eyebrows drawn close together and her lips pursed, a sweet embrace with a not so sweet expression. Concerned is all she feels, but she lets him wander his way to the shower without another word. 

Chapter Text

Billy is in the hospital.

He remembered, quite clearly, the events of the night before. It wouldn’t be something he’d forget anytime soon - walking in on Neil attacking Max, and leaving the house with injuries of his own after knocking Neil out.

He thought he was safe.

He thought - he thought that Steve’s home would be ok, and that Neil would be stuck at home with Susan calming him down until Billy came back and told him about how he’d almost killed his stepdaughter. Maybe he’d kill Neil - he’d rather like to do that. 

But no. Apparently, after Billy had passed out, Steve had beat the shit out of Neil after the man had planted two bullets into his drywall. 

Hopper had shot Neil Hargrove in the head. 

Billy was more than thankful - something within him mourned the loss of someone who might’ve once been his dad - but he buries and ignores it. 

For now, he doesn’t say a single word. He just listens to the slow and annoying hospital noises, the wailing of children, the beeping of machines, the far off screech of some delirious and ancient woman who needs to shut up, opening his eyes as pain starts to throb dully in his ribs again. 

“Morning,” says an unfamiliar voice to his left, a doctor walking inside. Billy doesn’t know what he expected - he doesn’t have anyone who’d want to be there with him at the hospital - but he can’t help the hurt he feels. It’s inevitable, to find himself alone here, but still. He straps on his big boy pants and dismisses the emotions as useless fluff. “How are we feeling?”

“When can I leave?” He asks instead of answering, propping himself up onto his elbows and groaning at the hideous hospital gown he finds himself wrapped in that he barely remembers putting on. This whole situation - his whole life, just seems to get worse and worse as his breaths keep coming and his shriveled heart continues pumping. 

The doctor sighs, and sits in the swiveling chair next to his bed. “You can leave as soon as you desire, since you’re legally an adult. Your sister is another matter, but she is awake in her room with your mother.”

“She’s not my mother,” he spits automatically, sitting up fully. He turns, feet now dangling off his bed and pressing firmly into the ground. “I’m leaving.” 

“Sir, I need you to calm down,” the man soothes, his hands landing on Billy’s arm, which he quickly yanks away. 

“No.” He stands, his head swimming, a full body throb surrounding him and cuts on his face striking rhythmically with his heartbeat. He ignores the rest of the man’s protests and walks from the room, yanking an IV line from his arm dramatically and wincing when it starts to smart. 

Then - he realizes he has no idea where Max is, so he turns back to the Doctor, who looks quite lost as he gapes at Billy. “Where is she?”

“Where - Where is your sister?”

Billy nods.

“The- I- the room right next to you,” He stammers, a frown on his lips. “I’m afraid-“

“You should be, but thanks.” Billy walks out, growling in annoyance at the stupid hospital clothes they’d forced him to change into before he fell asleep. He walks past a few people in the hallway and then finds the door next to his own, grabbing it open and wishing his other hand was occupied with a cigarette.

The room is identical to his own - and he vaguely remembers the last time he’d been in the hospital, escorting his sister to go see Steve. This time, he was escorting himself to see his sister, who’s sitting up and ignoring Susan. His stepmother sits right next to her biological child with a black eye and a worried face, and as far as Billy can gather, Max has decided that her mothers lack of intervening has finally been enough to set her off. 

“I don’t wanna hear it, mom,” she grumbles, running fingers through her hair. Looks like the ever-quick Max was preparing to leave just as much as he was, and even if they aren’t real siblings, he finds something in his head looking at the similarities between them. He blames it on some sort of delirium and walks closer. “You didn’t even try to stop him.” She turns around, and startles when she sees Billy.

He stiffens when he finally sees her face again - the purpling bruises staining her eye, the second one to match just under her cheekbone, and the huge, stitched up and bandaged cut that runs from her eyebrow to her ear. He must look awful too, because she looks quickly away to stare at her birth mother again. “You just, let him do it!”

“I- I couldn’t,” she whimpers out pitifully, sniffling and wiping at tears that Billy ignores - that Billy sneers at. 

“You didn’t help either of us,” he says to her harshly. Then, he finds himself lost in an angry laugh - it’s all he can do. The broken things within him make it high, bitter, sharp. A promise. “You could’ve stopped him, but then he took a gun and went after us after beating the fuck after us!”

“I- I-“

“No, no little “I!” It’s us!” He jams a hand into his chest and winces when the cracks between his ribs burst like fireworks. “Did you know he tried to shoot us? He tried to kill us, and he tried to kill that bastard Harrington too! But then he died. And guess who-“ he cackles again, at how ridiculous everything he’s shouting feels. None of it feels real. “Guess who helped us? Guess who, Susan! The guy whose head got bashed in by a plate because I put it there!” 

That fact doesn’t make him proud anymore - it never really had, but now, it just makes an unfamiliar guilt pool within his gut. At this point, he has no choice but to trust Steve, and the fact that Billy had attacked him made it hard for him to do that. Steve had no right to help them, not really, but… he had. 

“Max, we’re leaving,” he says heavily. “They said we’re fine to leave.”

“No, you- you can’t leave!” shouts Susan, shrill and as if she’s about to burst into tears again. He couldn’t care less if she does, but it would spare them both if she cooled down. “You’re both coming home.”

“Fuck you,” he mutters, and Max jumps off the bed, letting him speak for her. Max looks heartbroken, lips shaking as if she’s going to break into pieces, clutching at her arms and shivering in the cold. He knows she’s strong. She’ll be ok, eventually. She was never the type to wallow in her grief and sadness for long. 

He walks out of the room, hailing a nurse and asking for their clothes back. When he walks back inside, Susan has her head in her hands. He still doesn’t feel bad for her. She had once been kind - enough to quell Neil’s rage when it climbed too high. 

Those times ended quickly.

He found Neil growing angrier and more violent, all of his temper flowing to his fists and thrown right at Billy. She’d stood back and ignored it all, letting something build, a rotting, blackened wall between Billy and everyone else. Eventually - that had led to this.

“Let me give you some cash for a motel,” she says through tiny panting sobs that he rolls his eyes at, but he’s thankful she’s willing to be useful for once. She rifles through her wallet and takes out a ten, holding it out for him and not even flinching when he snatches it away from her. “Maxine, please,” she begs one last time, but the tears rolling down her daughters face is the only response gifted to her before she’s alone in the empty room. 

—- 

Twenty minutes later, Billy and Max are wearing clothes that Susan had brought for them the other night, riding to a motel six in his car, which Susan had also conveniently brought to them. Silence is their lonely ruler, except for the clicking together of pills in a bag. Painkillers. 

Max’s head rests against her seatbelt, and she begins to tap out a strange tune that he tolerates on the window aimlessly, back half turned to Billy as he continues driving. They haven’t long to go til they reach their destination, and this situation isn’t unfamiliar to him. Of course, Neil had never let him go to the hospital, even if he needed it, but every once in a while he’d be forced to go to a motel while Susan came back and forth, waiting out his father’s anger then returning to fetch them. 

Since Susan and himself signed both him and Max out, they were free to leave, but even through it all, he doesn’t feel free. Neil still grips to his ankles with grips as strong as handcuffs, and sweat trickles down his brow, even in the cold, as he feels himself start to fall downwards. His wings are smashed to bits, only beginning to fly up again, but even the thought of Neil makes Billy’s body feel ten times heavier. 

“Can I use the phone,” asks Max, voice small, bringing him back to a semblance of real awareness as he pulls into a parking lot. “I- I just want to-“

“Yeah.” He opens his door and slides out. “Call whoever, I'll get us a room.” Feeling particularly kind, or maybe guilty, he opens her door for her, letting her step out into the snowy air. It’s finally stopped storming, but the both of them shudder beneath their coats. “You ready?”

She nods, walking behind him, her arm falling down then coming back up awkwardly as if looking for a skateboard to grip. They make it inside without a hitch, and the attendant at the front desk plunks their head down on the desk and groans at the site of them. 

Billy vaguely recognizes him from school, and Billy’s look stops them from commenting on either of their appearances. “How can I help you?” They ask nasally, their acne-pockmarked face twisting to a familiar customer service smile that fails to do anything other than shift to a grimace. The scent of weed twists about the room, and Billy almost grins.

He knows these people. These are California people, people worn out and tired of life, people who smoke way too much weed and are probably nerds, and will either create the next big thing - or more likely, work at a McDonald’s til their sixties. 

A pain in his chest that isn’t quite the pain of his cracked ribs surrounds him. It feels like longing - because sometimes, pulled around by little reminders, he misses California and all that it held desperately. His mother, surfing, his friends, all of it, even the ugly girls who roamed his school and climbed up his skin like they owned him. 

“Hello?” 

Billy looks up, realizing he’s not spoken. “Uh, Yeah. We need a room.” 

He raises an eyebrow. His name tag reads Keith, and Billy ignores it. “You got the cash for that?”

“No, I’m robbing you.” He laughs, devoid of mirth, a smile and a snake-like lick of his lips ending it. “The fuck do you think? I’ve got the cash.” 

With that, a ten is slapped on the table and he has 4 dollars of change. Just enough for a single night, and they’ll be homeless unless Billy goes and gets something from the house. That would be like walking right back into the den of lions, and the very thought makes his gut churn violently. 

“Max,” He says, a bit sharper than intended. She glares at him, mumbling words down into the telephone then slamming it down and turning back to Billy, rubbing at her face. He turns back to the front desk. “Hey, you guys got an ice machine or some shit?”

“Out back.” He thumbs out the window.

Billy nods, tossing Max the keys. “Go find the room. I’m getting ice.”

—-

The room is warm. 

Blessedly, thankfully, heavenly warm. It seeps into her bones, and she slumps into an armchair, drawing her arms up to her chest and breathing out deeply just as the doctor had told her to. Everything pounds within her, her heartbeat throbbing once, twice, over and over as she breathes like she's Steve, the one who’d gotten choked while trying to protect her-

The door opens, and she leaps half out of the chair, hands going to a letter opener that had sat on the table right before it plunged down her hairline-

“Max,” says a voice, bizarrely worried as their hands land on hers. It’s Billy, she notes, a bag of ice abandoned by the open door. Tv static bustles out of her vision and leaves it clear, if not a little fuzzy. “You ok?”

She nods at him, dragging her hands down the too-stiff fabric of the armchair, willing them to stop shaking. On the other side of the room, the ice is starting to melt, and Billy stands after a moment of carefully searching her face, gripping the plastic of the bag and tossing it into the freezer. 

“You want some food?” He asks, as if nothing happened. He always was good at that, ignoring everything that happened to them. As if she wasn’t just having some terrifying flashback to her stepdad stabbing her in the head, and they both hadn’t just ran from a hospital. But outside, night starts to close in, and she decides that her life is crazy enough already. She needs a shower, and some junk food, and she wants a hug, and she wants to listen to something stupid on tv while her brother - not the stupid, violent and angry facade Billy had built - stayed with her. 

“Sure.”

Wordlessly, Billy walks out the open door, leaving her to curl up again in the chair. She doesn’t really know what to do, so as tears start to drift down her cheeks, she doesn’t wipe them away.

—-

Two hours ago, Steve Harrington got a call from a motel six. 

Maxine Hargrove, in all of her fiery glory, had made a daring escape from the hospital with her brother, and called her after panicking through a long car drive, asking for him to please come pick them up, and saying that she was so, so sorry.

She’d hung up abruptly, so Steve had abandoned his dinner, pinned a note to the inside of the front door, and the microwave - just to be safe - and driven away from his house.

He felt much better than he had earlier in the day, his throat no longer as painfully raw and his face not feeling quiet as squashed as it had. His stomach and back are still bruised and thudding, but icing them for a while had helped. 

His long fingers drag over the wheel dutifully, pushing him into the motel parking lot without a protest other than a subtle shake that often tailed him. 

The attendant is a familiar face - Keith, from school, who had quit at the arcade recently. They’d never been on good terms - Steve had been a dick to him for far too long. Internally, he groans, but outwardly he just walks towards him and hopes that he doesn’t get another punch. 

“The hell happened to you, Harrington?” asks Keith, half disgusted and half intrigued. “You and Billy fight? I saw him and his sister fucked up a few hours back. You hitting younger kids now?”

“No,” he says, wincing at the still-raspy whisper that drags out of his throat. “Where are they?”

Keith whistles. “Looks like you’ve finally got some of your own medicine.” Steve glares, and Keith laughing grin drops back to cold annoyance. “Fine. I can’t tell you.” 

“Well well well,” intrudes a new and painfully familiar voice. The last time that voice flooded Steve’s ears, he’d been about to crash Hopper’s car to protect his sister on the way to the hospital. “What’re you doing here, Harrington?”

Steve turns, seeing Billy carrying a plate of food and glaring weirdly at him. He doesn’t look half dead anymore, but the bruises on his face still look like something right out of Steve’s own mirror, and he obviously hasn’t showered. Still, he doesn’t feel any triumph or happiness at the twisted revenge. He just feels… bad. 

“Where’s Max?” He blurts out, feet automatically moving towards Billy. “She called.”

“Oh? My little middle schooler sister called you? Why?”

“Because you ran off from the hospital, and you’ll be homeless in a day,” he replies, deadpan. Trying another tactic, he grabs one of the plates from Billy’s hands, and leaves him there, walking up the stairs to the rooms. 

It’s cold outside as he steps out into the open air, drifting through the wind as he waits for Billy. 

“Room 203,” he mutters, a low growl as he walks behind Steve, begrudgingly following without protest other than what remains in his tone. “Knock.” 

“You got a key?”

“No. Gave it to Max.”

He knocks an elbow into the door, listening to the rustling inside and smiling when the door swings open to reveal Max, who slams into him with a hug. 

“Woah!” He stumbles back a little, bumping into the railing before Max let’s go, walking back into the doorway and slumping against it, letting out a shaky breath and wiping away the tears that had started to form again in her eyes. “Kid, it’s alright.” 

“No it’s not,” she says with a voice choked with tears. “God, nothing about this is alright!” She grabs a piece of bacon from Billy’s plate as he shoves past the two of them to go inside. After she eats it, she grabs Steve’s arm, dragging him inside and slamming the door behind him. It rattles the entire room, which smells of must, mold, cigarettes and cheap soap. Somewhere, there’s some sort of bizarre new car smell, but it all smells off, blending together into a very gross smoothie. 

Billy drops down onto the bed and starts eating, ignoring the two as Max slumps back into an armchair and Steve pulls a dining table chair up to face her, handing her her plate. The burger on it is shoved into her mouth the moment her hands touch it, and she practically sucks it into her lungs. 

“Come back with me,” he suggests after a moment of smacked lips and hungry chewing. The two of them look at him, Max with a nod in her eyes and Billy with a snarl on his lips. “To my house. You guys can stay with me until you find somewhere else, Hopper and El - we- we won’t ask questions about anything, just- just it’s better than being homeless. 

Billy snorts. “We’re not your pity case, Harrington.”

“I’m not asking you to be,” he responds, with a roll of his eyes that he keeps private. “I’m asking you-“ he points at Billy. “-to come stay with me instead of forcing her-“ he points to Max, her mouth still full of burger. “And you to go homeless.” 

“I’m not going to let anyone go homeless,” Billy counters threateningly, standing up to point at Steve. The menace that might’ve been there is stifled by the bruises and his oily, unwashed hair, and Steve looks at him with a raised eyebrow and a bored expression. “So why don’t you piss off, Princess? Not everyone’s got the privilege for four star housing.”

“That’s why I’m extending my own privilege, douche.” Max snorts, dropping the remains of her burger to eat some bacon. “If you won’t stay with your mom-“

She’s not my mom,” Billy snarls instantly, moving forward and extending a finger out from his fist into Steve’s space, jamming it into his chest. “Do you know, she didn’t do shit while Neil stabbed Max with a letter opener?” The smile on his face matches his laugh - long, strained, manic. Unreal, tension rolling from it. “That woman isn’t my mother. My mother abandoned me when Neil got too nasty, so he moved on me, Stevieboy. Life isn’t all fucking - cherries and- and sunshine and pretty birches all over you - it’s a bunch of slimy bastards doing slimy bastard bullshit.”

“Ok. Wow.” He puts his hands up and pushes Billy away, gently. Billy doesn’t fight it. “I know that. Please stop talking about… bitches.”

“Is that all you’re thinking about?” Billy scoffs, but some of the tensions has rolled out of his shoulders by the time he slumps back onto the bed, gnawing thoughtfully on a french fry that droops, as oily as his hair. “What’s in it for you?”

Steve shrugs. He hadn’t really thought of the pros and cons a lot, but now, he realizes, there aren’t a whole lot of either that he cares about. “Nothing, really.” He shrugs again, finding something to do with his body, then starts jiggling his knee in case he shrugs a third time and looks more like an idiot. “Other than Max being able to see El more.” He looks over at her. “You need to teach her to skate toward before she throws someone out the window.”

“It’s so fucking weird that I know what you’re talking about,” Billy mutters.

“You're weird.”

“Shut up Max.”

The easy banter is nice. Watching the two act like they’re siblings is nice - it had been annoying to see Billy at everyone’s throats. The teenager, when Steve had first met him, had seemed utterly pathetic. A washed up douchebag and a flimsy version of what Steve might’ve become is Tommy had kept him firm on his path.

Luckily for him - Steve escaped that road fairly easily, and it seems that Billy might be driving away with two feet on the gas as well. 

“But come on, Harrington. Why the fuck would you let me into your house?”

“I-“ whatever words he was about to speak are lost within a cough, one that rattles Steve’s chest and burns his lungs. He reaches over and steals Max’s sprite, drinking some before she can swat him away. When he speaks again, his voice is even more of a pained groan, but he presses through the discomfort. “I mean, I already attacked and took out your dad, and Hopper shot him. He’s dead now, and I’ve got enough weapons around to beat you up if you try to attack any of us.”

Billy stares at him, mouth half open, before he drawls out: “damn,” turning back to his food. 

Max, finally done with her burger, looks back at her brother. “Damn, What? Damn, we’re going with Steve, or damn, I’m still a dick?”

“Or both,” adds Steve.

“Or both,” echoes Max. 

“Fuck off.”

“No. And Billy, I mean it. You might be a hateful douchebag, and I still don’t forgive you for everything-“

“Oh, gee thanks, I wanted forgiveness-“

“But- But really. You and Max can stay with me, as long as youre not a racist homophobic shitbag.”

“Man!” Billy throws his hands up. “I’m not even trying to be racist!”

Max shoots him a look as dead as her tone. “You’re kinda racist.”

“Yeah, people who get seriously accused of racism and immediately go:” Steve throws his arms up and makes a shocked, horrified expression, mocking Billy. “I am not racist!” Are usually racist.”

“Look I’m-“ Billy sets his plate down. “I’m fucking trying. Now, Steve if we go to your house you’re paying me ten bucks cause that’s how much this stupid fucking motel was.”

Max pumps a fist into the air, then drops it and grabs her ribs, waving Steve off when he rushes over. “Hell yeah,” she mutters, only losing some of her enthusiasm. “And Billy, it was only six!”

It all begins to feel just a bit too domestic, and Steve stands, plucking Max’s empty plate out of her hands and setting it on the table. Her and Billy go on bickering, so he grabs the bag of ice from the freezer, separating it into gallon sized ziplock bags the cupboards were stocked with. Finally, he wraps them all in paper towels, taking the four bags and handing two to Max, who shoves it onto her bruised face, slumping down on the seat and sighing happily.

Next, she plops the other on her ribs, and Steve hands some to Billy, who holds them to his ribs and slides down the headboard, flipping Steve off just because he can. Steve doesn’t react - well, he does, only rolling his eyes once he’s turned around. “I’ve got the plates now, Hargrove,” he mutters, grabbing the two plates and sliding them into the sink. “Are you two shitheads ready?”

Max slides a lazy eye open. “Now?” 

“Yeah, Hopper’s gonna kill me if I’m gone too long. 

Chapter Text

Hopper was not the only person who tried to kill him. The moment he’d stepped from his car, the second his first foot hit concrete, he had Eleven rushing at him. 

“Friends don’t abandon friends!” She shouts, shoving a finger into his chest, still in her pajamas. “You promised! We didn’t see the notes, and- and you promised!”

Steve crouches down and pulls her into a hug, and she folds into it, even after her angry outburst. Behind her, Hopper walks up, nodding at Billy and Max and helping them get inside with their zero belongings. He glances at Steve, a glance that promises there will be a discussion about this later. For now, Hopper stays civil with Billy.  “I’m sorry, El,” Steve says. He really is - he never intended to worry anyone - even if what he’d done was important. “I had to help them.”

“You could’ve told me.” She sniffs. “I could’ve helped you.”

“I’m sorry,” he keeps repeating, not knowing what else to say. “I’m sorry.”

After a short eternity, she pulls away. Her hug is different from Joyce’s, or Hopper’s, or anyone else’s. It’s the full bodied hug of a young child, one who hadn’t quite learnt the restraint most people kept in hugs. She clung to him tight and tried to suffocate him with her love. 

He adored it. 

“Come inside,” she orders, yanking on his sleeve, and he nods, trailing alongside her and waiting for her to run off and hug Max. They enter, and he locks the door. 

When he turns, the wall - the one that had been soaked in blood last night, flashes into his vision. He pauses.

All of the blood is gone. It was gone this morning, and it still is. It had sprayed all around the wall, oozing into the cracks, dripping onto the carpet, staining Steve’s hands and face and skin. Everything was red, and blood was everywhere. He couldn’t breathe through any of it as it flooded his sinuses and lips. He still couldn’t breath, yet a hand that drifts over his mouth comes back clean. Maybe Neil’s hand is wrapped around his thin again - his brittle bones are about to snap, and he’ll find rest. 

The wall isn’t clean. The wall flashes between normal, to last night, a corpse propped up against it and soaked with blood. In, out, in, out - his heartbeat, his breath, the visions. In, out, in, out,

“Steve?” 

Hopper, a few feet away with a concerned look, brings him back. Steve smiles over at him and ignores the tremors within his lips. 

It’s not that he mourned Neil - no, in fact, he found himself mourning the fact that he hadn’t gotten to hurt the abusive asshole more. It’s just…. it was all so loud, and painful, and then there was so, so much blood.

He had been terrified. 

“I’m fine,” he replies simply to Hopper’s gaze, a request for an answer. Steve walks towards him and claps a hand down on Hopper’s shoulder as he passes. “I’m fine.”

—-

Billy sleeps in the room at the end of the hall. Max sleeps across from him, but she almost always ends up in Eleven’s room, and Eleven almost always ends up in Steve’s room, so more often than not, they form a massive knot in the middle of the bed, the two girls curled up together next to him, hogging half of the king sized bed. 

(Billy comes in too, sometimes. Never for long. He checks on Max and leaves. But, when Steve is awake, they go downstairs. They stare out at the sky, and sometimes, when things feel too quiet, they swap hushed stories and petty insults with no bite.)

Somehow, things start to become almost normal. A new normal, a foreign, strange normal, but something normal nonetheless. 

—-

January seventh, finally 1985, and things were wildly different as they arrived back to school. 

Contrasting several years in the past, Steve was not alone in his home anymore, and his drive to school included Billy tailgating him and trying to race him as Max told him to stop from shotgun.

When they finally got to school, Steve was already regretting it all. Word spreads fast in a small town like Hawkins, and so Steve’s injuries, his second bout of injuries, and Billy’s injuries were all subject to a lot of speculation.

The official story was released to a few select people, and somehow, everyone at the station had decided everyone in Hawkins needed to know. The story was warped into Steve attacking them all, Neil attacking them all, Billy attacking them all, and even Hopper attacking them. 

The students of Hawkins were in for a surprise the second Steve’s extended family and friends road up to school with him that day

First, Billy pulled to a screeching, speeding halt in front of the school as he always had, and always will. He’d climbed out of the car with a cigarette hanging limply from his lips. Nothing about this was inherently strange, but Hawkins found itself watching anyways. The boy was addictive, a book no one could put down - or more accurately, a drug that left everyone chasing after their next high. 

He dutifully watched Max skateboard into school. She looked mostly the same - except for a stitched up cut on her forehead and a motley of faded bruises on her face to match Billy’s. Things don’t seem out of the ordinary other than that, til neither of them slam their doors or shout at each other. 

Billy Hargrove told his sister to have a good day. 

It was a little gruffly, almost taunting, but still, the high schoolers of Hawkins could hardly wrap their heads around it. Had their dynamic swapped so quickly after winter break? Was this some sort of elaborate prank?

Next thing anyone saw - was Steve Harrington, strutting confidently into school with a new, badass scar, a bit thinner than he had been, and a child’s messy friendship bracelet looped on his wrist. 

And he was walking in next to Billy

They went their separate ways to their lockers after Billy called Steve princess and Steve called him shitlips, but that was it. No fighting, no screaming, no slamming into walls and being torn apart by teachers watching them with wary eyes. 

Even those teachers start to notice changes within the two.

Their dynamic made a dizzying 180, turning them, and everyone else, on their heads. Where there had once been angry glares, bitter chuckles, bloody knuckles and broken skin, there was now friendly insults and light laughter between the two. 

Now that Steve was back, everyone began to notice something within him changed just as much as him and Billy’s relationship had. He seems lighter - his smiles more genuine. He doesn’t talk out much, he seems quieter, but one that he sits comfortably in. He already got decent marks in math and biology, but everything else was d’s and f’s. The first day him and Hargrove have an English class together, they pair up. 

Turns out, Steve was excellent at analysis, if not writing it all down, and Billy was an avid reader. Both of their grades started to climb, to their teachers surprise and delight. 

The fourth thing that aided to everyone’s bewilderment was one that no one could find an explanation for. Jonathan and Nancy were now together, yet somehow remained friends with Steve Harrington. They laughed with him at lunch and skipped class to mess around under the bleachers together, and Billy came with them. 

The very top of the many tiered cake of anomalies was Billy, Steve, Jonathan and Nancy sitting together at lunch. 

“Hey, Billy, what’re you doing over here?” asked some random douchebag on the first day, one of many assholes that plagued Hawkins. The same crooked teeth and crooked smile, a shitty mullet to wrap it all into one cologne smelling present. “I thought Steve had a little fall from stardom?” He taps his head and grins. “Swooning baby style?”

“Watch it,” says Billy roughly. He had found himself liking Steve - and as much as he despised and never would admit, he owes his and his sisters life to Steve. “Or you’ll take a little more than a swooning fall.”

There’s a pause, then the pause is unbroken by raucous laughter from all of the inhabitants of the table, as if sharing an inside joke. 

Everyone who managed to cram into the gym during basketball was the same - waiting with bated breath to witness a fight. Billy was benched due to still broken ribs. but his spirit stayed lively - he taunted and made fun of Steve every time the other teenager came close to him. 

“Hey Princess, I see you haven’t learned to plant your feet yet?” He says, leaning back with an arm resting on the bleacher behind him. Some random girl slides up next to him, but quickly moves away when Steve actually pauses in the game and moves over to Billy. 

Steve grabs the pack of cigarettes resting in Billy’s backpack, takes a single one out, and shoves it into his shirt pocket. “You’re not you when you’re not feeding your addiction,” he grumbles, turning back to the game. 

One, two three, seconds of silence pass as people get ready to yank the two away from each other. 

Billy hands the cigarette to the girl next to him and grins, saluting over at Steve and walking out.

A million gazes follow behind him, but he ignores them, and the day moves steadily along. 

—-

They parked next to each other most of the time now. Sometimes, Steve would drive the kids home - and more often than not, Billy would end up taking a random one to Steve’s house while he drove the rest away. 

(No one ever noticed the brown haired, wide eyed, curious girl who sometimes came in Steve’s car and left in Hopper’s.) 

Lucas is typically the first to be dropped off - and one day, he's the first to arrive at the car. It all seems completely normal. His sneakers twist through gravel and dirt, face pointed towards the ground. Usually he waited for the rest of the group to come out with him, but they’d gotten in trouble and told him to head out before he got caught up in it all, since he already had detention.

The only person at the car is Billy, smoking a cigarette and smiling at some girl wrapped around his waist. Lucas sneers - he still doesn’t like Billy - but at least Steve would be there soon.

“Hey, shitface!” Shouts someone from behind him, and he whirls around to meet Carlson, a billy, carbon copy of Troy and every other middle school movie bully. “Where’s your little friends?”

“They’re inside,” he grumbles, still walking, a bit quicker now. His hands tighten their grip on the straps of his bag as the footsteps following him get louder. “Leave me alone.”

“Oh, I would, but you’re just so…” Carlson sighs. “So freakish to look at. With your choco-bullshit, and your fucked up friends.” 

“Carlson.” He turns, stopping to stare at the other, significantly taller boy. He’d probably been held down on class a few too many times. “Leave me alone.”

“No can do!” 

A fist launches into Lucas’s shoulder. 

His feet stutter backwards, tripping over an untied shoelace until he finds himself scuffing his palms against the concrete. Before he can manage to scramble upwards - Carlson is leaning down and shoving him into the earth again, a cruel smile against his lips. “Stay down, shit.”

Lucas hadn’t noticed, but a shadow now looms above the two of them. A cigarette flicks onto the ground, right at Carlson’s feet. 

“Boys, boys, boys.” Billy grins. “Aren’t you late on getting home?”

“Hargrove,” Carlson says, his confident grin growing larger. “Just taking some shit out.” 

“Oh?” Lucas hears shoes slam on concrete. See’s the push of Billy’s hand against Carlson’s shoulder, who’s cocky grin jumps away. “That’s right, little boy,” Billy growls. “Run off. Run off, and stop bothering kids half your size.”

Carlson nods shakily, and Lucas can’t see the look Billy’s giving him, but he can guess. Once the boys feet finally drag him away from them - Lucas stands, turning to Billy, who has a very strange look on his face.

“What was that?” Lucas asks, plain, simple, confused. There wasn’t a lacking in evidence that Billy hated him. Lucas hated him right back - for his racism, his abuse towards Max, his assault on Steve, everything he’d done. As far as he knew, Billy hadn’t apologized to a single one of them while they were awake. 

Billy shrugs. “I owe Steve.”

He turns, chewing on a new cigarette magicked into his hand, propping himself up against his car again. Lucas stands a few feet away, glaring. They don’t talk. 

Chapter Text

Steve doesn’t quite understand how time has begun to pass so quickly - but it does. January has come and gone, leaving February to scramble to its place. He doesn’t have any intentions to treat the month as anything special. He no longer has a girlfriend. Nancy is gone - happy with Jonathan, and he’s not going to withdraw his pride and admit he’s lonely. 

It doesn’t matter either way - Valentine’s Day has finished as well as his relationship with Nancy. It’s the Saturday after, when Steve wakes up and things already feel wrong.

It’s a nagging feeling, pressing against his temples when he leaves the house that morning, planning to scope out jobs at Starcourt mall. Call it premonition, call it suspicion. He doesn’t know, but he passes it off as a simple headache and shoved himself into his car. 

Billy drives recklessly behind him. He’d promised Hopper he’d look for a job - because the man said both of them needed one or they’d end up homeless. He’d said it fondly, but seeing that both of their relationships with their parents left them with little to no money to gain anytime soon, the two of them had decided it was best to listen. The tailgating isn’t appreciated, but Steve would be lying if he said he didn’t enjoy having someone to mess around with. 

It starts pouring somewhere along the way. Rain tap tap taps against the glass and metal of the car, and the sudden change from sun to clouds makes Steve’s head ache even more. He sounds like an old woman when he says it - but the random changes are always able to put a dizzying pressure on his brain. 

He drives onwards, watching people scurry to and fro, out of the rain and into cars, stores and houses. The silence seeping into his bones like the rain is barely helped when he switches the radio on - it flicks in and out of static, and he turns it off. 

Finally, they pull into the parking lot, which has been permanently busy since the malls opening. Even with the dismal weather, people run inside like ants, rain billowing onto their umbrellas and jackets as they make their mad dashes. 

He has no umbrella, and Billy likes to act like he’s allergic to any form of protectant from the weather, so they set off running. By the time they enter, they’re dripping everywhere, gathering disdainful looks as they squeeze their soaked hair and shirts out onto the front carpet, laughing. 

Stece enjoy a bit of “healthy” competition, and now is no outsider moment. The feeling must be mutual, because the two of them race off, a rabid chase to seek out and secure job opportunities.

There’s the gap, the food court, a nerd store the kids would like, but a certain store catches his eye.

Scoops Ahoy ice cream parlor. It’s unassuming, not all that interesting, but as everyone knows - come time for summer, it will be swarming with people. Swarming with people means he can find hot chicks to talk to, and blend in when he’s having ridiculous discussions about monsters and evil and “bad men” with the kids. Eleven might even be able to come to the back room on extra busy days where no one will find her. 

He runs off in the direction of the faux parlor, panting and out of breath after jogging around. Billy stays outside, searching, faster now that his competition has reeled in the beginnings of a catch. 

A girl stands at the front, with a face that seems to be entirely comprised of freckles, a bored expression, and short auburn hair. She wears chains against her throat  and her hat slides half off her head - so Steve already knows she’ll probably despise him. She’s most likely alternative or punk - and it’s not that he has any problem with that, but it seems that his preppy appearance is off putting.

Oh well, he thinks, ringing the bell on the counter even as she stares at him. The girl, who’s name tag reads Robin , looks up at him and sighs long and hard. “Welcome to scoops ahoy, c-“

“I’m not here to buy anything,” He interjects before she can spout some corporate script. “You got any… He looks around and sees no other attendants, and a Help Wanted sign on the glass above the ice cream. “Any job openings?”

“Hm. I remember you,” she drawls, voice like a tiring afternoon after school. “You’re that Steve Harrington guy. Why are you applying for a job, I thought daddy had cash?”

That’s fair enough - he doesn’t react to the bitterness in her voice. “Daddy didn’t want to fund me anymore.”

“Ok, well, why should Scoops Ahoy hire you?”

Steve blinks. Steve sighs. Steve’s mind comes up completely blank, and Steve fails to create a coherent answer. 

“Hello in there?” Robin waves a hand across his eyes, and he snaps back to attention.

“Cause I like ice cream,” he blurts. “Yeah, Yeah, I'm a big ice cream fan, and I can work after school hours and on the weekends.”

“Oh, I thought you got kicked out of school. I haven’t seen you in any juniors classes recently.”

“Haha,” He says mockingly, before he lets out a more genuine chuckle. “They moved me back up to senior classes.”

“That’s a surprise.” She squats down behind the counter then straightens, revealing a leaf of paper in her hands. “This is the- fuck!”

The paper goes abandoned on the counter as she ducks back under the counter, eyes wide and mouth a thin, nervous line that contrasts her aura of indifference greatly. She drags her legs to her chest and he leans over to stare at her.

“Hey, Harrington, piss off! Act natural!”

“Huh? Why should I?” He asks, half teasing as he leans an arm onto the counter and makes it very obvious he’s talking to someone. That ends up backfiring - she yanks his arm down and he falls, breath knocked out of his as the counter slams into his gut and his chin. “What the fuck!”

Act. Natural!” She hisses, before she pops back up another time to look, the top of her bright blue hat making her very obvious. “Good. He’s gone.”

“Who’s gone?”

”No one.” She stands back up, and shoves the paper towards him. “Now, fill this out. Or don’t.”

“You’re weird,” he mutters, but takes it, folding it into quarters and shoving it in his pocket. When he turns around, he sees Billy. Right behind him. Holding two more papers and a grin.

“Shit!” Steve says, yanking his paper out and realizing distantly that the person Robin had been avoiding was Billy, as she tucks herself neatly under the counter again. “I didn’t loose completely!”

“Ah ah ah, Stevieboy. I got more.” Billy waves the papers in front of his face tauntingly. “Why ice cream?”

He shrugs. Somewhere during his search, that ominous sort of feeling had dissipated, and he can’t tell if it’s the girl, the hit to his gut, all the distraction, the weather or some other ridiculous and unlikely factor. Billy stares at him expectantly. “Ice cream. Why not?”

“You’re going to be a fatass,” Billy responds as he starts to walk out, waving goodbye at Steve, who quickly follows. The paper goes shoved back into his pockets and he keeps walking, quickly catching up to Billy, not content to follow at his heels.

“You got an application for a Chinese food place. You’re gonna be fat as fuck Hargrove,” he points out, punctuating his sentence with a sharp laugh when Billy groans. “So good luck.”

“I only got this to beat you.” Billy pushes into The Gap and looks for an attendant. “I’m applying at the pool.”

“So-“ He laughs. “You’re in the market for middle aged women?”

“It’s not like they avoid me. That punkass Mike - his mom was practically crawling all over me when I went looking for Max at her house.” His tongue flies out and wets his lips, forked and predatory to match his grin. All Steve does is roll his eyes. 

“That is, seriously, a horrible image. Shut up.”

Their laughs attract many strange looks, but they’d never cared before, and they weren’t in the habit of starting now. 

Chapter Text

Cold.

Cold runs throughout Hawkins all through winter. It dips down low as snow, ice and wind, then flows back up as frosty breaths and snowballs. People either love it, hate it, or are generally dismissive of it.

Steve has always hated the snow and cold. He hates how he can never seem to get warm enough - he hates how isolating it is - he hates a lot of things, but one thing he will always be thankful for - is its end. 

Finally, in the middle of February, spring starts it’s gentle arrival in the form of extra rain and slowly growing foliage. By March, Hawkins is a wet puddle with vibrant shaded plants dotted around it’s quiet streets. Spring is peace, quiet. Normally - sometimes - spring can also be violent thunder and the crack of splintering trees as lightning snaps against it. He enjoys its chaos and its silence all as one, perfect and favored package.

This exact moment finds him in the midst of a massive storm, rain shoving itself down his body as he yanks his keys out of his pocket to open the front door of his now slightly-more-filled-than-usual home. Billy, Max, Hopper, Eleven, Steve. All of them stayed there, with Lucas, Mike, Dustin, Will, and Erica making frequent visits. Sometimes it seemed like the rest of the kids lived with him too - they’d had a couple of three day sleepovers that left Steve groaning. 

Robin had even come over once, after a long shift when she didn’t want to see her parents. He’d said to her: “fuck parents.” She’d nodded in agreeance, and the two had dicked around til long after midnight, watching movies and launching old fireworks into the emptied-out pool outside. 

Today, he finds himself alone on his way into the house. All that he has to keep him company is the promise of people inside, and the pitter-patter is rain against concrete, his home, and the cars pulled into his driveway. His fingers slip on the doorknob, but he manages to get his keys in long enough to unlock it. Exhausted hands tug at the knob, tired after a long shift of work and an even longer time without sleep. He’s just about to open the door, when rain stops pouring on him and a hand lands on his shoulder. 

Now, Steve had realized a while ago that one shouldn’t flinch violently at that. Today, his brain seems to be partly on his side - he stays completely still and finishes securing the door before he turns around. 

That is when some sort of strange, delayed fight or flight kicks in, and he turns around, panic finally wrapping cold, thin, deadened fingers around his shoulders that match the ones curled around his mother's purse. There she stands, looking pale, soaked and determined in the rain. He’s never seen her so pitiful, so emotional at all. 

“Mom?” He says, voice threatening to shake. The sight of his mother is terrifying enough on its own, but when she shows up in the middle of a rainstorm and surprises him, that’s much worse. She just nods at him, oblivious or uncaring to his surprise. “Why- what’re you doing here?” 

“I’ve got something to talk to you about,” she supplies, her face indicating that she disapproves of his tone. He takes pleasure in knowing that she can’t tell him to fix it anymore, and hopes that the tremor in the voice she hates so much is gone. 

“And - And why should I listen?” He replies with a bitten off snort. “You don’t even live in Hawkins, you don’t even own this house.”

“Then let’s go somewhere else. Steven, it’s important.”

“Oh yeah?” He chuckles, looks away, into the forest and the rain, then looks back. Unsurprisingly, she hasn’t turned into something less unpleasant in the few seconds he hadn’t been watching her. 

He knows he’s getting cocky, and he knows she’s going to stab him in a few moments with harsh words and hatred, but he doesn’t care. Something within him acknowledges the lack of his father near her side, and takes that as an advantage. She doesn’t have a leg to hold her up on, or a shield to slam into his chest when he talks too loud or his snark becomes too apparent. “Well, lay it to me straight. I can handle it. Did dad get some whore pregnant? Did you cheat on him this time?”

“Steven, do not snap at me like that!”

There it is. Mr. Harrington may not be here, but the ghost of him lingers in her tone. Steve goes quiet. 

“Your father…” she sighs, her lips quivering a bit. He sees past it, sees her drama, sees her theatrics and the uncaring, money hungry glint in her eyes. It bothers him to no end, but silence seems like the best option now. There’s a pregnant pause before she continues, and he shifts from leg to leg, tired of the soap opera drama.

“Your father is dead.”

That brings a pause to his thoughts. His father is… dead. 

Steve has never felt particularly attached to him. He’s adored the concept of having a loving dad, of having someone to love in return. But, of course, Steve was naive to think that the cold, uncaring universe he lived in would ever gift him with something so gracious as that. He’d gotten a man who preferred to give out bruises like Christmas presents, and had rabbit-like sex with more women than the number of eyelashes in his wife's eyes. In fact, Steve wasn’t much attached to either of his parents.

The thought of having loving parents still followed him around anyways. So, a deep ache settles inside him, his heart dropping from a rollercoaster and landing in the sea, sand swirling all around it. Words return with the waves, and he speaks. 

“He - wh- he's dead?” His eyes widen, and suddenly he feels the urge stand up straighter. 

“Yes, Steven,” she snaps, earlier overdone sadness devoid from her voice. “That is what I said. He’s dead, and he left you a large inheritance and his company because he was a rude, belligerent sexist-“

“Mother, don’t pretend you wanted to run that company,” he says through his growing surprise. 

His father had left the company? That company was the blood of their family, with its mysterious purpose, and the weird amount of government deals it did for being a shipping company. Steve always preferred to ignore it in its entirety, but now it seems he’s being forced into taking it. “Why the hell would he give me the company? You can take it.”

Her emotion bursts out at him like broken glass, and her true colors quickly follow. “No, I can’t! I can’t take anything from you, because of his pathetic will. You’re his only male heir!” She gestures towards him in disgust, then her hands drop as she realizes she’s getting her overpriced purse even more wet. “He slept with enough sluts to have a few female ones I’m sure, but they’re all hidden, and so he gave it to you because I’m a woman!” 

An annoyed laugh falls from her mouth, an assault against the rain that had felt peaceful in his ears not more than a few minutes ago. “I’ve had it with these pathetic men,” blurts from inside her, followed by another laugh. “You’ll be exactly like them all - lazy, complacent and stupid.”

Her emotions vented and message released, she spins on her heel, soaked and chilled to the bone. Her heels tap against the wet concrete, and she fades out of view as rain swallows her in its grasp. 

—-

His entrance to the house feels subpar, not close enough to the huge news he’d just been given to be satisfactory. He locks the door after he enters the home, ending his empty and silent minutes of thinking in the rain. Water sloughs off of him in great rivulettes and meets the carpet, splattering against the wall as he throws his jacket into a pile on the fooor. His shoes follow soon after, dumped in a wicker basket with a few other pairs. He recognizes moisture dripping from Max, Billy and Eleven’s shoes, but ignores them. He doesn’t have any intention of talking to them right now.

No one is there in the front hall, or the kitchen, or the living room. Faint music drifts down to him from Max’s room, but he ignores it in favor of climbing into his own room. 

The rest of his clothes come off with a bit of effort, clutching to his skin and weeping rain as he rips the soaking fabric off. They lie in a discarded pile that is customary for any teenager, and he stares at them with a detached amusement. They feel too unoriginal, so he kicks a foot through them, scattering them til they hit the door. 

Before full nudity surrounds him, he shuts the window and the blinds. It’s a nervous habit he has yet to break out of - despite the trees that overtake his yard. Who knows what could be inside them. Jonathan has demonstrated that to him, but he doesn’t really mind. Humans aren’t there often. What had truly erased most of his feelings of “safe” was the demogorgons - though that monster could creep directly into his room if it was still around. 

(He still has suspicions that it could be, but that thought terrifies him too much to be listened to.) 

Pajamas finally on, his drifts to his bedside. All he can do is stare at the sheets for a moment, pondering his state in the universe, being much too existential and emotional for his own liking. After that moment of embarrassing thought, he shuts himself back down and goes to sleep. 

Chapter Text

“Has Steve been acting weird?”

That’s a loaded question. Not that loaded for Eleven to be asking - Mike’s girlfriend and one of his closest friends had always been good at asking those. But, to him, it’s a bit of a multi faceted query. Steve was a weird guy at heart - when he wasn’t being a prep kid, he was being a babysitter who played board games and watched Star Wars. 

But, Eleven is a perceptive person at heart, always had been, as long as he’d known her. Her innate ability to detect emotions went farther than anyone’s, and if he didn’t know any better he’d have thought she was an empath, like some sort of comic character who had too many origin stories to match too many powers. 

“I don’t know, he’s kind of already crazy,” Mike responds, tipping his head up from the back of Steve’s basement couch. They were currently waiting for him to get home from work - and the hours ticked by slowly with no other company. His arm slides out from around her shoulders, and he picks up his glass of water, taking a sip. “Did he do anything nasty?” His nose crinkles at the thought, and the reminder of what nasty could mean - he had walked in on Steve and Nancy enough times.

She shakes her head - pauses - then nods. “He is quiet. Steve is never quiet, I think he doesn’t like it.”

“Steve talks too much, and his soda sucks, and he’s probably a dumbass too.”

She giggles, but slaps his arm nonetheless. Once her laughs stop, she frowns again, and Mike starts to realize she might be more serious than he thought. “What do you think’s wrong, did - did he get fired, does he have a new girlfriend?”

“I-“ she’s cut off at a knock on the door, then a ring of a bell. Both of their heads snap to it - intruders in a home don’t bode well anywhere, but in this specific house it practically stands for “someone’s going to die.” Their breath comes slower and slower as they wait for the door to slam in and gunshots to be fired, but all they’re given is a light bang, and then silence. 

Without saying another word, Mike stands, walking to the window and seeing the postman’s truck, driving quickly away. A package lies on the concrete outside, and he walks over to the door, still on guard. Anything could be in that package - bombs, a demogorgon, Eleven’s papa for all he knows. That guy was a freak, and he grabs the bat next to the door with hands wrapped lazily around it just in case. 

Eleven, tracking his movements, takes the moment to speak. “Who?”

“Just the mail.” He pauses. “Probably.” 

He opens the door, still holding onto the nailbat, and hoping Steve doesn’t drive up to try and kick his ass for messing with his stuff. He’s technically not even allowed to be home alone with El - but Max had to leave to go to a family counseling thing with Billy and Susan, which the two had seemed quite miserable to be going to. 

“It’s just a package,” he calls into the house. “It’s got Steve’s name and a sending address and stuff too.” There’s a label, with words so faded he can barely make them out. The packages must’ve travelled a long way, or been in storage. After a moment of reading, he calls to Eleven: “the company,” it reads, in big letters that had once been bold and italicized. No other indication of place, time or sender is traced, so Mike does the only smart decision he can make.

He picks the box up, and with a fair amount of strength, lugs it inside. Two others follow behind it, and he glares at Eleven’s smirks while he struggles along.

“Ok, so, we’re gonna open these.”

“But isn’t that… mean?”

“Steve’s been keeping secrets, and so we’ll find it all out.” He puts his hands out, pleading with her. “Cmon, El, please?”

A pause. A breath. A sigh. “Fine. But only a little peeking.”

He nods, a silent promise accompanied by a verbal one. “A little, yeah, sure.” 

So, he goes into the kitchen and grabs a knife. Just because he wants to - that knife is a large steak knife - and because Eleven wants to, she gets one of the same type. Together the two go about opening each box, sifting through the contents to find what seems the most interesting. Binders stacked upon binders lie flat against the bottom, some with labels such as “finances,” “clients,” and one especially curious one with black, bold lettering pressed against it. “Will.”

They go to this one first - it’s the smallest and the two of them prefer not to read too much. It smells and feels much newer than the other binders, as if it had only just been bought. The first few pages are information about witnesses and lawyers and such, and as Mike turns a page, a letter drops out. 

“Dear Mr. Harrington,” it reads in short, scrawled cursive that only Mike can read. “Attached to this shipment you will find several binders of pr- prevalent information. Please read through each thoroughly, then call my number at the edge of this paper to begin setting things up for your arrival.” Mike frowns. “Arrival?”

“Prev-alent?”

“It means important,” Mike says to Eleven, and she nods at him. “As the lone male hair- heir to the company, at 21 years of age you will resume control. While you are still under that age, a faculty member of the late Mr. Harrington’s decision will take over.” The letter ends, and he flips the page, finding only empty stationary and a few tough marks where a pen had scratched against the paper too hard. 

“Late?” Eleven frowns again, but Mike finds her curiosity endearing. “Why is he “late?””

“He’s not really late,” he explains. “That’s what they call people who have…” 

Mr. Harrington has been alive not long ago. What had happened? 

“They call people who die “late.”” 

He turns the page clipped into the binder to find fancy looking script entitling the entire next packet as: “The last will and testament of Henry Joshua Harrington,” 

Beginning to read, he finds a lot of ridiculous minutiae. He ignores it, and skims the next pages, eyes darting back and forth as he reads about abominable amounts of money, a massive company, and many other things - not all gifted to Steve, but some of the biggest, most ridiculous things are his now. 

“What is it? What does it say?” Eleven asks, prompting Mike to feel guilty for his silence, however brief. 

“It says his - Steve’s dad died, and so now Steve is filthy shitting rich and gets his own company when he’s older.” Bored again, he picks up the next binder, slipping through page after page. He’s about to skip to the next binder - it’s all a large list of people they’d worked with. 

He pauses though, when Eleven reads a sentence off. 

“MKUltra….”

Her voice is soft, and something about her tone makes Mike immediately worried. 

“Is this who Steve works with?” She asks, the “something worrying” inside of her growing. She sounds choked, as if she’s been holding a long breath about to slip out. “Did he…”

“What’s MKUltra?” Mike demands, leaning back over to check for small print around it. “Did Steve - did his company hurt someone?”

She sniffs, then nods and leans into him, pulling the pages towards the table of contents and searching with her fingers to find the M, K, and Ultra she’s searching for. It doesn’t take long, and her fingers flit through the pages like hummingbirds as she turns and turns them, searching for her page. Finally, “243” is displayed in the bottom right, with a short description of their affiliation with the company written out.

Most of it is redacted, black stripes ripping through the letters and leaving a wrecked carnage of broken sentences for them to try and understand. Before all can become too confusing, Mike pulls the paper from the binder and holds it up so that it faces the light. It shines through the paper, through the sharpie, and through the words.

“Human passengers,” he reads aloud. “Government approved research… psychedelics… Hawkins L-“ 

That brings a pause yet again. The next words read something that even Mike - ever cynical about Steve - dares to hope aren’t true. Sure, this isn’t Steve’s company yet, but he must’ve known what his father did if he was the heir. This can’t be just a coincidence, or an accident. Redacted or not, that information can be read even through the thickest of sharpie, and what it reveals might reveal something far darker than expected about their babysitter.

“Government approved research into the mind and the weapon of the mind. Conducted at…..” He almost can’t say it out loud, through a sickening dent in his gut. 

“Hawkins Lab.”

“Haw- Hawkins Lab,” he repeats, and Eleven shudders, digging further into his side til he slopes an arm across her shoulders and hugs her tightly. “That asshole.”

As Eleven sniffs again, he repeats it. “That asshole! He was working for them under our noses - or his company was, and who knows whether he helped with that shit or not!” Inside, he hopes that Steve was unaware. He dismisses those hopes to let a deep rooted pessimism take root - it’s better to be surprised than disappointed. 

As if on cue, the door starts to unlock. Both of them snap up, even Eleven, who looks ready to burst out screaming. They watch as the doorknob turns, waiting silently for an enemy or a friend to reveal their face to them. 

It opens…. 

…. and in comes Steve, looking exhausted, bored, and already a little pissed off. For some reason, Mike probably wouldn’t antagonize him any other day. They’d come to a fractured truce, where Steve gave him food, and he was nice to Steve. Secretly, Mike was really starting to like the guy. Now, he realizes that Steve probably has his own secrets. 

“What the hell is this?” Mike demands, ripping the paper ungraciously from the binder and stomping over. “You work for Hawkins?” 

“What?” Steve yawns. 

“Cmon, asshole!”

“No, seriously Wheeler, I didn’t hear you.” He yawns again, this time covering it with the back of his hand and looking away. “It’s been a long day, cut me some slack.”

He finally softens when Eleven walks up - with her watery eyes and bitten lips. She looks anxious, maybe even a little scared, and Mike knows Steve has a soft spot for her, real or not. 

“What’s wrong?” He takes a step forward, moving to lean over and talk to her, but she puts out a hand and stops him, prompting him to listen. “What - I don’t - did someone come over?” 

“Steve,” she says, in a quiet voice. Every second reminds Mike that while she is always trying to be good…. she’s much more dangerous than anyone could think. Even her tone holds an angry hatred, behind a hopeful desperation - she wants to seek clarification, she wants Steve to tell her it's some sort of awful prank. 

“What is this?” She takes the paper from Mike’s hand. “Why did your company work with… them?”

As Steve reads the sheet, his eyes widen, and his face pales up so quickly he looks like a child’s ghost costume complete with sheets and holes for eyes. He grabs the paper and then marches over to the boxes splayed out in the living room, digging through the “finances” one and finding a page with more information.

His eyes dart across pages, and everyone else stands with him in silence. “Tw -“ he swallows. “Twenty years. They -“ his face changes, and he launches the binder into the box again, a satisfying bang coming from his efforts. “Twenty years, they worked with those motherfuckers!” 

He kicks the box and steps away, running a hand through his hair. Before anyone can say anything, he runs to the phone, glancing down at the paper letter he’d found, the one Mike had read, and the number written at the bottom. He dials it with shaking but ever nimble fingers, and Mike and Eleven stand behind him, on guard and wary, though more so for what Steve will say to the people on the other line than what he’ll say to them. 

Ring. Ring. Ring.

“Hello, Mr. Ha-“

“I need information about an account.” Steve’s voice has reverted to a sickeningly sweet customer service voice, with a dead and frozen smile on his curled lips to match it. “Sorry for the rush!”

“Oh- erm- but you are not scheduled to need to see any accounts until you’ve made it to 21, sir.”

“Just-“ He takes a deep, struggling breath, then returns to his voice. “Just get me the information I need, please? My mother requested I read this transcript specifically, and I’m having some trouble understanding something.”

The conversation continues for a few minutes, and Steve’s smile slips, but he keeps up his cheery facade. “Hawkins Lab” and “MKUltra” pass his lips like bile several times, tainting the air. The call takes so long that Eleven and Mike go and sit down again, making sure to shove the accursed boxes that had started this all out of the way. 

Finally, Steve slams the receiver down, cursing heavily as he marches up to them. 

They stand in silence. Steve stares out the window, tapping a foot and a finger. Mike stares at him, furrowed brow and all. Eleven - she looks into his averted eyes with too much emotion to bare. 

The silence breaks by the opening of a door. 

Chapter Text

Time resumes thirty minutes later. Nearly alone in the house - Max and Billy were upstairs, Max with homework and Billy with whatever the hell he does - but the two of them saw the look on Hopper’s face and ditched. Steve sits across from Hopper and Eleven and waits, now. What is he waiting for? He doesn’t know. Maybe, he expects one of them to speak first. Or, he’s waiting to wake up. Neither come to his aid, so he takes initiative, and he speaks for himself with unconfident words that fit like broken jigsaw pieces into the air. 

“They have - they’ve got a lot of records.” He swallows, looking away from the two gazes fixed on him, his eyes averted towards his hands wringing in his lap. At least none of the other kids were there. They would’ve been interrupting left and right - the intrusive little shitheads couldn’t go three seconds without asking something. Steve absolutely hates silence, but for this particularly important conversation, he needs a moment of peace. “I’m getting them shipped to me, they should arrive in a few weeks.”

“Why didn’t you tell us your father’s dead, Harrington?”

The words come from Hopper, and even though they don’t sound emotional, Steve feels like he should run away from them. His father had died - he didn’t tell anyone because it didn’t matter - and it had all backfired spectacularly. Now, it was only time that could tell how evil they thought he was. He hadn’t known about the shipments - he didn’t even know what the purpose of the company was til he was 16, for some unknown reason. For an heir, he’d been told very little. He used to wonder why, late at night after being forced to put away his games and shut his lights out. Why was he so in the dark? Why did his age guide his knowledge. 

But, now, he doesn’t have the leverage that innocence brings. He knows exactly what the company does, and he knows what despicable crimes they’ve committed. 

“Steve,” Hopper says, not unkindly snapping him back to attention.

“Yeah, yeah, sorry,” he responds, looking back up and regretting it. “I got lost in thought. I didn’t tell anyone he was dead because it didn’t matter-“

“Didn’t matter?” Hopper leans forward, and the nothingness on his face is an eerie contrast with their heavy conversation. “How is that something that doesn’t matter, Steve?”

“Because.” Frustrated, he throws a hand up to gesture at the two on the couch. “You all have so much going on, and the stupid company isn’t even mine yet, and I didn’t even know what it did til I was 16. I didn’t know what they were doing - you know me, if I knew, I would’ve tried to stop it ages ago, this is so fucked up-“

“Language,” Hopper grumbles. “You new to slow down, you’re gonna get an asthma attack.”

“I don’t have asthma.”

Hopper levels him with a look, so he goes quiet. “So, you didn’t know? How can we know for sure whether you were aware or not?”

That’s fair to want, even if it stings. “Can Eleven like… see if I’m lying, or something?”

“No,” she says stubbornly. “But Steve… I don’t think you knew. You’re too soft.”

Well, that’s not what he expected from her. He’s strung up so tight, and apparently his whole company has a finger up his ass. Eleven should probably be angrier. 

“You’re soft, and a little too soft sometimes, but I…” She shifts, balling her hands together, clasping them up in a tight wound prayer. “I don’t think you knew. I’m mad at your papa more than you.”

He didn’t expect any of that, and he has to look away and bite his tongue to stop the start of the flood. He nods, head pointed to the floor and hair flopping down to cover his eyes. He feels like some alternative kid, the type that wears doc martens and grows their hair out - and he’s starting to realize that shit, he actually does dress like an alternative kid. 

Steve, pay attention. That’s not the focus here.

The focus is hoping desperately that Eleven doesn’t despise him. He won’t try to change what she thinks of him if he can’t, but he can hope that she realizes he never, ever could hurt someone like that. He cares for his kids much too much, as their begrudging mom and the best babysitter they’ve hopefully ever seen. 

Now, to ruin a hopeful mood. His next words feel like acid in his mouth. “They also have…. they’ve got more shipments scheduled.”

Eleven sucks in a sharp breath, and Hopper nods, leaning back with his hands clasped. 

“I don’t know where too yet, or how, what they’re shipping, but… if we can get someone involved we might be able to shut their shit down.”

“That head guy - Owens,” he says to Hopper, hoping he hadn’t tried to shoot the Doctor yet. “Can he help?”

“I don’t trust the guy, but I might be able to get something worked out.” Hopper lets his silence run on - not intentionally, Steve doesn’t think he likes awkward silences - but it continues on, crushing on top of weight in his gut. Things feel worse by the second, and his head is angrily reprimanding him, demanding a reprieve from the pressure of nothing. 

Finally: “I- ah. Can you get me official shipment information?”

This, Steve can easily answer. No more worries and no more anxieties and no more stresses. Well, that’s overly optimistic, but Steve has always wished for things to get better. “Yeah, yeah I can. Give me about a week and I’ll have the papers.”

“Well… uh…..” quiet, quiet, quiet. As loud as a scream. 

“Don’t bother, Hop,” he says after two more nonverbal “uhhh.” He hopes to save them all from more time hoping for a better conversation to crop up. “You don’t have to talk about my dad, or anything.” A dismissive hand waves in front of his face, and he drops it when Hopper just stares at it. Eleven flashes him a look, but he doesn’t pay enough attention to recognize it as the worry it is. “I’m gonna go get some rest.”

And so he stands - because they aren’t going to want to talk to him anytime soon. Guilt slides it’s greedy hands down his sides, and tears at his skin and guts. Something born of anxiety and exhaustion takes root inside, and he falls on his bed. It’s only eight, yet he hits the pillow and immediately finds sleep. 


 

Chapter Text

His hips swing in time with soft, lilting music. Ambiguous whispers cover his ears, cotton on flesh. He twirls around his own living room, and an audience of empty faces claps from him. His dance isn’t sexual - yet remains seductive. His body is a target. 

The faces remain faceless, yet their bodies have begun to warp. Something wet drips into his hair, but he doesn’t dare look up. The lights flicker. 

Something screams.

He wakes up with a broken gasp and hot tears thrown down his cheeks. He’s curled into the fetal position, his teeth feeling broken and chipped as he pries them open again. The dream is still fresh inside his head, and he wipes at the droplets on his eyes, trying to stop the desperate panting of his breath.

He needs to get out.

He needs to get out.

Time stops, then resumes with him pressing bare feet to the pedals of his car. Rain soaked into his clothes, but he ignores it in favor of focusing on the road in front of him. Absently, he realizes that it’s his birthday.

It’s April now - a month after his discussion with Eleven and Hopper. Things have gone back to normal, and they have friendly conversations and do ridiculous things, as they’ve been doing for a while. He doesn’t even feel that out of place anymore - even with Hopper sometimes have to go off and call Dr. Owens about new shipments, or mysterious boxes showing up on his doorstep. 

Tonight was just one of those nights where his memories and his anxieties mixed, as they often did. So, he had to get out. 

The car is drenched in silence, but he doesn’t find it a good time to introduce music. He’s still ensnared with the tune from his cryptic nightmare anyways - it was painfully familiar, yet he knows he has never heard it. That’s just how dreams go, he supposes.

He hums it, absently. The streets stretch farther. 

Finally, he makes it to the quarry. He doesn’t know what compelled him to come here - other than some far off memory. He used to come here with his closest friends, which he now doesn’t have. Now, he has a few middle schoolers, and a guy who once tried to beat his brains in. Not that he minded - he happened to like his former assaulter and the middle schoolers. And Nancy and Jonathan counted too, probably, but it’s not like they lived with him, or he dropped them off to school everyday. 

Shaking thoughts of friends and enemies from his mind with a bit of effort, he opens his door. Moonlight seems to flood the car - but to avoid rain flooding it as well, he quickly shuts it. Now, he stands outside, a bit cold and getting more and more drenched by the minute. An unfortunate chill runs down his back, but he proceeds, moving to the edge of the cliff side that slumbers before him. 

He is ever thankful for rain. Even if the cold and wet of it all isn’t his favorite, he basks in the angry patter of it all. Silence can’t bother him when it doesn’t exist - the rain drowns it out, a familiar song that he welcomes just as much as he rejects the tune from his dream. 

Nothing feels empty with rain. It fills up all of the cracks, the physical ones and the ones within him. It seals up empty holes in his flesh, a glue that soaks deep, until it hugs his heart and saddles itself against his hip, a friend that holds his hand til spring has died and the unbearable heat of summer stretches itself out from sleep. 

“Hey, Steve.”

The voice, despite its abruptness, doesn’t startle him from his reverie. It’s instantly recognizable, but something, right now, tells him he doesn’t need to hear it for much longer.

 

 

(He only has a few more steps, and then he won’t hear it at all.)

 

 

“You’re standing awfully close to that ledge,” complains the voice, in a worried tone. He can’t focus on it now - he’s enameled by the ethereal and dizzying view below his feet. 

“Steve.”

He reexamines his surroundings, and finds he teeters at the edge of it all. He could easily fall right now, surround himself by lake water and rain. He could end those nightmares with their strange tunes and flickering lights. He could stop hurting people, and being complacent and shitty. 

He could- 

“Steve,” comes the second voice again. Carol’s slender hands, too much like Nancy’s, claps his shoulders. He flinches, and turns to her. “Steve, come on, please just come up with us.”

“We’ve got beer?” Offers Tommy helplessly, waggling his eyebrows, though Steve can’t see it. 

When he turns, they’re both sopping wet, draped in blankets and jackets that can’t avoid the weather. Their half finished beers clue him in to the fact that they probably weren’t expecting him, but their worried looks make him wonder if they hoped to see him. 

His feet still edge the drop off, so he shuffles forward. He could end it all right now, but he won’t.

“Alright, thanks man.” Tommy grins, then tosses him a beer. Steve grabs it out of the air, and Carol snickers when he smashes a hole into the side with a rock. He’d lost his taste for this particular brand of alcohol ever since that night by the pool, but tonight it’s a welcome bonfire to smother the frost in his rib cage. He chugs it while Carol and Tommy chant their encouragements, as if they hadn’t all been at each other's throats not long ago. 

“So, whatcha doing out here, kingy?” asks Carol, strangely affectionate. Tommy steps towards them, and they all three settle on the ground together. Water soaks into his pants, making wet stains all over his underwear and his skin. Despite the absolute uncomfortableness of mud and water all over him, he relaxes into them, holding himself up between them as they lend him a shoulder each to collapse against.  

“God is not a merciful bitch,” he mutters, finishing his beer in record time. Tommy barks out an exuberant laugh, followed by another drink of beer, then more laughing.

“Oh, Stevie! My man, didn’t you know? God’s been shoving his fingers up our asses since conception!” He starts another beer, laughing again, this time at his own joke, leaving Steve to smile at the contagious cackles falling from his mouth. 

“Don’t talk like that,” chastises Carol. “God is a she, a whore, not a guy!”

This time, they all laugh together, and the familiarness of it all makes Steve’s chest ache. He misses this happy group. This familiar group. He misses when Carol and Tommy didn’t have their hands in each others pants and heads in their own asses. They all used to be truly close - secrets were shared on hard nights, broken things came out after alcohol and tears, dead things crawled up lungs and spat themselves out as rants and screaming into the void.

“Steve?” Carol snaps him from his thoughts, and he realizes it’s gone quiet again, regardless of the rain. “Where do you keep going?”

“I’ve got a lot on my mind, Carol,” he gives up to her. “It’s hard to focus on you nutsacks all the time.”

“Hey!” She swats his shoulder, and Tommy snorts. “We brought beer on your birthday, don’t be a dick!”

“That’s his natural state, baby!”

“Lay off, Tommy,” he grumbles, remembering why their friendship was sometimes strained. No real fire is in his voice, but some things grow old quick. 

For some reason, Tommy actually listens this time. He goes silent - but it becomes so painfully awkward Steve initiates more banter. 

“So, why’d you… you shitstickers come out here anyways?”

“What, we can't say happy birthday to an old friend?”

“Tommy, last time we talked you accused me of being a pedophile, so yeah, I sort of assumed you didn’t want to celebrate birthdays anymore.”

Tommy puts his hands up, surrendering his beer and an apology. “Yeah, yeah, bad move on my part. I’m sorry.” He winces, as if replaying the unfortunate event. “I kinda deserved that punch you gave me. But look! We’re back! And - and me and Carol actually brought beer! And we’re making sure you don’t die!”

This time, Carol smacks his arm. He squacks indignantly, but Steve isn’t hurt. He’s used to intrusive thoughts, and while he wasn’t planning on acting on them tonight, it’s nice to have someone to talk to.

He rolls his eyes. “Anyways. What have you been doing lately?” 

“Oh, uh…”

“Trying to ride Hargrove’s dick again,” replies Carol for him. Tommy shouts indignantly, but she just rolls her eyes, an unmistakable grin on her face, even if she tries to hide it. “Unsuccessfully.”

“Ha!” Steve chokes down more beer, then lets his laughs grow stronger. 

“Too bad Steve’s riding his dick now,” mutters Tommy. 

Now, it’s Steve’s turn to yell at him. 

“I am not! I’m giving him housing ‘cause I know what it’s like to have shitty parents, nipplelips!”

“Yeah, I know you do! I heard the old geezer died, how’re you taking it?”

He freezes up, and Tommy seems to regret his words. 

“Err…. touchy subject?”

“Yeah,” he says, a bit bitter. “I’m not mourning him, more just wishing he was alive so I could beat his ass.”

“That’s the spirit!” Tommy smiles at him. “I always hated the dick.”

“Ok, way to be subtle,” says Carol.

Tommy ignores her. 

“Yeah, oh well. Tommy, you’ve never been subtle. And!” He points at him. “And! Don’t think I’ve forgiven you for being a huge piece of shit to my kids!” Steve is more than aware that he’s started to get a little drunk - multiple beers will do that to you. He doesn’t care, because fuck beer, and fuck drunkness, and fuck angry gods and fuck Tommy. Maybe not the last one - not as much anymore. “That was a shit move!”

“Oh, is it mommy Steve now?” Tommy teases, while miming kissing. Carol giggles. “Aww, perfect little housewife?”

There’s an awful lot of slapping going on tonight. 

“Look, Tommy, I know you’re joking but come on. They’re kids. Leave me alone before I go ham on you.”

“Ok, I guess you’ve still got a little bit of king Steve in you.” He throws his hands up when Steve glares at him. “Fine! Fine! If I need to I’ll grovel, or apologize or whatever. I was just…” he pauses, and Steve sees the shift in his expression that brings him into a more serious territory. “My parents booted me again. I was taking my anger out on you, and them, for shitty reasons.” 

Well, now it’s Steve’s time to feel like a bit of a dick. He had no idea Tommy got kicked out - but he did have a history of getting shoved out of his parents' home. They weren’t very accepting, in fact, they’d been borderline abusive, even when Steve came over. 

Tommy seems to sense his guilt, and he reassures him quickly, eager to stay out of Steve’s already overcrowded home. “You don’t need to adopt me into your little homeless shelter, I’m staying at Carol’s!”

“And he’s even started showering again!” says Carol sarcastically, Tommy’s indignant gasp filling out the end of her words. 

With another slapping noise siphoning into the rain, Steve starts to realize that maybe - just maybe - 

Tonight isn’t all that bad. 

Chapter Text

Despite the fact that he is only just coming out drunkness, freezing cold, soaked, and recovering from a nightmare - when Steve heads home, he’s grinning madly.

Ever since their fight, Tommy had felt like a broken line - a cut-off where there should’ve been a smooth ending. Steve never expects anything in his life to be smooth sailing, but he would’ve preferred to stop talking to Tommy with a bit less punching, if he needed to stop talking with him at all.

He didn’t crave an ending or beginning any longer. 

Sure, him, Tommy and Carol aren’t just “best friends forever” again immediately, but Steve is immeasurably grateful to the universe for letting them all have a second chance. The first step is always the hardest - a bunch of prideful teenagers wanting to apologize to each other with alcohol and jokes isn’t exactly rare, but it actually working out can be. 

Steve had been friends with the two since he was still homeschooled and constantly stuck in his house. They’d thought his house was abandoned in third grade, and tried to break into his backyard to get to the pool. Needless to say, it failed spectacularly. 

(Several cops had been called.)

At least it had led to something other than all their parents anger. Steve has always thought of their friendship as a win, and he’d missed it. He’d missed their real friendship, not Tommy’s people pleasing habits and Carol’s judgemental views. Things had been blessedly simple when the two didn’t have their hands in each other pants every chance they got.

Rain creates a shield around his car the moment his windshield wipers turn off. It bounces off his windows and the metal, an ethereal bubble that he is waiting to shatter. The car stops, all lights off, all noises extinguished. He sits in the driveway to his home - and contemplates. 

What does he contemplate? 

Something about breakfast food and basketball.

Not very important, a large contrast to the existential and largely terrifying speeches that had been rattling around inside him earlier. But he needs a break - one can’t think of why they should continue their sustained existence all the time without consequences. 

And while those thoughts aren’t gone, not by a long shot - Steve thinks he can survive them. He has been for years now - since he’d learned to talk, to listen, and all the best ways to avoid beatings. Even after so much of his life being consistent hit after hit, baseballs and nails embedded in his chest and blood dripping from his lungs - after a few beers, some hugs, some slapping and a lot of heavy banter, he feels a bit better about it all.

He knows that he can’t just up and die. He’d always known, it’s just hard to care. 

Now, knowing what he does about his family and this world that he lives in, the stakes are a bit higher than when he was younger. If he died, the company would fall to some random person who might continue horrible things. If he died, Eleven, Hopper, Max and Billy might be thrown from his home. Regardless of all that - he still had an obligation to drive all the shitheads to school. He couldn’t just quit on them. 

So no - Steve won’t let himself die. He doesn’t really want to, not even when shitty thoughts fill his head. It’s just hard to ignore those nagging feelings when they’re painfully persistent. He succeeds in it regardless. 

He opens the car door, bursting his bubble of isolation, and steps into the rain. It’s one of those storms that stays for a week, then two, three or four. It hasn’t let up at all for a few days, and Steve doesn’t expect it will for a few more. He trudges through the walls upon walls of drops, dragging his feet lazily through puddles and mud that stain his red carpet of concrete and leaves. 

He reaches the front door after what can only be called a lazy stroll, and reaches into his pocket. A moment of searching ensures. Then, a hopeful pause. His eyes squeeze shut. He’s searches again.

He’d forgotten his key.

Hoping to find the door unlocked, he twists at it - only to find he had had the bright idea to lock the bottom lock. 

Feeling brave after the insanity of the night, he knocks instead of just sleeping in his car. Around five minutes pass - and Steve’s courage starts to wane. Everyone’s probably asleep, and he’s just waking them up, another inconvenience-

It opens, to reveal Hopper, frowning at him and in a rumpled T-shirt stained it what’s either blood or ketchup. Knowing his life, it could be either.

“Harrington?” He squints. “What the hell are you doing outside?” 

“Look - I’m.” Pause. What the hell does he say to explain what he was out doing? “I’m uhh….” He shakes his head. “‘S my birthday. I went out and… and did shit.”

“It’s your birthday?” Hopper’s frown deepens. “I-“

“Stop. Just- stop. Stop looking so melancholic, Hop,” he grumbles. “I didn’t tell anyone because it doesn’t matter. I’m 19, big whoop, I’ll eat some cake and drink some beer and yell at someone for smoking in my house if I throw some sort of grand white boy party.” 

“Well, you look like a drowned rat.” Steve glares at him, but Hopper just chuckles. “Where’d you go, anyways?”

“Down to the quarry.” He shrugs. “Met Tommy and Carol.”

“Didn’t one of them fight you after calling you a freak?”

“Yeah, well. Billy gave me a life threatening concussion, and he lives here.”

That prompts another chuckle to come from Hopper , a bit more awake now. They nod at each other, agreeing that “wow, yes, shit in this life really does have a strange way of turning out, doesn’t it?” Their faces say “fair enough, things have always been insane,” and so Steve walks inside, cracking his back and wiping his still bare feet off on the mat. 

He sneezes.

“Aw, Steve come on you… god, stupid teenagers , you’re probably sick, aren’t you!” Hopper shuts and locks the door. “How long were you out there?”

Steve sneezes three more times, then uncurls from his protective position to answer. “What time is it now?”

“3?”

“Like, two hours.”

“Jesus, Harrington!” Hopper throws his hands up in a way that only an indignant and annoyed parent can. “If you give us all the flu I swear to god-“

“Ok, cool it Hop!” Steve laughs. “I’ll go take a shower!”

“You’d better,” the man calls, a bit louder than necessary. “No dying!”

“I promise!” He calls back, as he starts to walk up the stairs, still riding his high. A giddy grin crosses her face, and he salutes to the man below him. “Scouts honor!” 

“Ok, Steve.” Hopper starts walking up behind him, and they make it to the second floor without talking. Hopper starts going back into his room, when he turns, awkwardly looking at Steve.

Stev doesn’t say anything, and so Hopper takes the silence into his hands and chokes it. 

“Happy birthday.” 

The teenager smiles, nods, and disappears.

—-

When Steve wakes up in the morning, he wakes up to singing.

Badly pitched singing that pulls through what’s become a strummed-harp headache. 

The voice of Dustin Henderson, who launches himself onto Steve’s bed and slams his fist into his shoulder 19 times the moment he opens his eyes.

Once Dustin is finally knocked off his bed, hopefully without any broken bones, and Steve is awake and slightly more lucid, he recognizes the words of “happy birthday.” Dustin keeps singing from on the floor, voice squeaking like Steve’s had when he was his age - just a little awkward, puberty-experiencing teenager still. 

“Oh shit!” He screeches, slapping his face when he realizes Hopper had told Dustin and who knows who else. “That dick!”

“What?” Dustin stares at him, then jumps back into action. “Nevermind. I got you something, dweeb!” He reaches into his backpack, which sits next to Steve’s doorway and slumps over the moment Dustin pulls whatever-it-is out. “As a thanks for being a decent mom-“

“Hey!”

“As a thanks - Steve shut up! - as a thanks for being a good mom, we all voted that you can join our party.” Dustin gets down on one knee, and presents Steve with a rectangular present as if he’s proposing, or waiting to be knighted. Steve doesn’t know how to react, but he is a little impressed at Dustin’s commitment. 

“Wait wait wait wait wait - “ Steve sighs, then tousled his hair back with a hand yanked through the tangled mess. Hope cracks through him, and he desperately wishes for Dustin’s words to be some sort of a joke. “What do you mean, we all?”

“Surprise, dick!” 

Mike comes walking into the room, holding Eleven’s hand. Max follows behind, then Lucas, then Will, following up behind them all and shooting him a thumbs up. They’re all holding their own walkie talkies, and they turn them on, all shouting happy birthday! Into them so loudly that Steve is tempted to throw his own out the window.

“What the fuck is happening?” 

They all start to sing happy birthday again, and he gives up on trying to figure out what’s actually meant to be going on anymore. 

Throughout the chaos of it all, Mike leans over towards him and says: 

“Hopper said it was your birthday, so we all did this instead of being normal.” He gives Steve jazz hands, and Steve debates giving him a bloody nose.

He’s mostly kidding. 

“Ok, ok, you guys are all completely adorable and all - but - but -“ They blink owlishly at him, wondering why he interrupted them. He lets the silence drag for another second, taking the time to lean over and swipe a pointed finger across to gesture to all of them.  “Now get outta my room!”

They scatter, making a mad dash for the door and cackling all the way down the stairs.