He was the last one to enter their group. Having not met any of them until the fourth grade, he knew that they shared a deeper bond than one he could ever hope to have with them all.
That didn't make it hurt any less when they excluded him from things.
Which was why when he left Hawkins the summer after everything went down, he was glad. Glad to get away and experience something for himself. Camp Nowhere was something that he experienced on his own. It was a place where almost everyone was meeting for the first time.
There were no secrets between any of them.
Here, Dustin didn't have to watch as Mike and Eleven pushed the world away. Focusing only on themselves. Here, he didn't have to see the way Will lied any time he said he was fine. He didn't have to stay off to the side as Lucus and Max hung out alone. He didn't have to see how they were all distancing themselves from one another or how they all grew annoyed when he showed up to hang out.
Here at camp, he was free to be himself.
He enjoyed being a friend they could all count on. All his life he'd been one for observing those around him. Which is why he noticed how everyone seemed to be growing bags under their eyes. How much paler they've grown. How there seemed to be a rising tension between them all. Not just between those in the party, Dustin's noticed the same with Hopper, Jonathan, Nancy, Steve, and even Will's mom; Joyce.
He kept track of what each of them was doing before that faraway look in their eyes appeared.
He marked down in his notebook what seemed to trigger them all. He's looked up ways to keep their minds focused on the present.
He memorized plenty of ways he could help any of them should the need arise. It was slightly disturbing how many times he's managed to pull Steve out of a panic attack the past few years. Roughly thirteen times now he's had to distract Jonathan and Nancy whenever lights began to flicker. For Will he stays nearby, always carrying an extra jacket or a hat to lend him, to keep him warm. Anytime Mike snaps out of a daydream, panicking, Dustin was there, with an outrageous story to tell. Whenever the world around them grew to be too much at once, Dustin would find someplace void of others to take Eleven to.
Lucus and Max were easy enough to look out for. He just had to find a way to get them together, they always managed to calm one another down. When that failed all he had to do was joke around, or sit by them quietly until they snapped out of the funk they fell into.
The adults were a bit trickier.
Hopper and Joyce outright refused his help the first time he came across them reliving their memories of the Upside-Down. It took quite a bit of meticulous planning, but he found a way to be there for them.
He just had to talk about how the others were doing and where they were.
Accounting for where and reiterating what everyone was currently doing, and that they were all safe seemed to be more than enough to calm both of them down. Anytime that didn't work all he had to do was put them near each other. Much like Lucas and Max, they were able to keep each other calm before the panic took over.
He's had two years of practice. Perfecting how to help them all. He's thought up plenty of other ways to distract them from their thoughts.
Only… not once has any of them ever noticed him.
He still gets nightmares of everything that's happened. He still freaks out anytime he's outside alone and hears odd noises. He can't stand the sight of roadkill, the image it presents far too similar to the leftovers of Mews… Being around Tews leaves him with a heavy feeling in his gut, threatening to drag him down to the point where he’d never want to get up again.
Then again, burying the mangled remains of your pet which you've had for years was bound to leave some mental scars.
Scars which might include feeling uneasy around other cats that triggered his memories more often than not.
Occasionally he'd dream about D'art. How much pain he must've been in when they practically blew up the tunnel. Most often his dreams are occupied by the Demogorgon or the Mind Flayer. Each nightmare always involved one of the others, if not all of them dying. Painfully and slowly with nothing, Dustin did being capable of saving them.
He could never save them.
All those nights with no sleep, the near-constant paranoia threatening to consume him. It was all becoming too much for him. Dustin was finding it harder with every waking morning to go about his day as though nothing was wrong. Steve started to catch on that there was something wrong, Dustin tried to deny it but he couldn't bring himself to lie to Steve.
Not when he was the only one to be there for him last year. Not when Steve was actively becoming a better person. Not when, somehow, Steve grew to be his best friend.
He told Steve about having nightmares but he never went into detail.
Steve seemed to understand there was more then Dustin felt comfortable saying because ever since he found out, for the last two weeks before he left for camp, Steve would always call Dustin before his mom would send him to bed. He always made him promise to call if he wakes up from a nightmare. Three out of five times, Dustin would call. Steve did help a lot, but there were some things his presence couldn't help with.
Which was why he decided to go camping in the first place.
He figured some time out of Hawkins would be good for him. He was worried, terrified really, about leaving for the summer. How could he keep an eye on everyone if he wasn't there? He'd been just about ready to cancel going but Steve made him swear that he would go.
He never breaks a promise.
Camp… camp would be his time to heal… it was okay. He could do this.
So he left shortly after summer break started.
Camp Nowhere was everything he had dreamed of, and more. Not only was he learning all sorts of new things but there were even a few kids there that had a passion for the supernatural. Most of the stories they shared sounded fake but a decent amount stuck with him even when the time came for him to return home. He was a man of science, he had a love for technology but there was just something about the supernatural aspect of the world that he loved.
Even before everything that went down with El, Will and the Upside-Down.
Without a doubt, the best part about camp… was Suzie. Dustin would miss her, that was for certain but he knew that they would keep in touch. Grinning widely, Dustin glanced down at the silver and gold wristband he wore. He tried to give it back to her, knowing that the bracelet had been the last present Sadie’s dad had given her, but she was adamant on him keeping it. At least until the next time they saw one another, it wasn’t much but Dustin figured since she’d given him something of her dad’s, he could give her the one thing he ever owned that he knew belonged to his dad.
Gently tightening the bracelet to make sure it stayed on, Dustin glanced around his cabin. The other boys had already packed all of their bags yesterday and left early this morning. Sadie’s mom picked her up a few hours ago. He was one of the last ones left in the camp.
He would’ve left at the same time as all of the others only… his mom couldn’t drive out here to pick him up.
If he knew Steve wasn’t busy going for his job interview then he would’ve asked him to come and get him, but he didn’t want to risk making Steve lose his chance. That was why Dustin got permission from the camp counselors to stay an extra day while his mom figured out a way for him to get home. She offered to start driving tonight to get here by tomorrow, but he knew she wasn’t comfortable with driving long distances.
Not since the accident all those years ago.
Maybe he could call Mike or one of the others and see if their parents could come to get him? Only… they haven’t exactly kept in touch all that much. They were all busy enjoying their summer, and Dustin found himself busier than he thought he would be with camp activities and hanging out with Sadie.
Dustin startled, watching with wide eyes as Austin walked into the room.
Austin was a volunteer counselor at the camp, he was a science major at Stanford University and the hours he spent volunteering were going towards his resume to teach. At first, Austin treated him like every other kid at the camp, but then he realized how similar their names were and how Dustin was a science fanatic as well.
Dustin grinned, dropping the shirt he was in the middle of folding on top of his suitcase, “Austin! Weren’t you supposed to head back to California today?”
“I was,” Austin sat down on the edge of Dustin’s bed, “But I could always leave whenever I want. I’m still on break remember?”
“So you just decided you’ll hang around here? Dude, the camp’s over.”
Austin chuckled, “I know, I know. I was thinking… is it alright with you if I drove you home? You live in Hawkins right? It’s not that far from the route I need to take back home.”
“You.. want to give me a ride home?” Dustin repeated slowly, “...You do realize how creepy that sounds right? We don’t even know each other.”
“Sure we do. We’re Dustin and Austin, the only two at this camp that gives a damn about science as much as we do.”
Hesitating, Dustin looked down at his suitcase, staring at it as he thought Austin’s offer over. Technically speaking, Austin wasn’t as much of a stranger as the other counselors were. From when he could remember of their interactions this past summer, Austin was a nice guy.
“Uh, yeah. If you don’t mind then yeah, could you give me a ride?”
What was the worst that could happen?
In the end, they decided to wait until the next morning to set out for Hawkins. Dustin finished packing away the rest of his things, needing to use an old bag of Austin’s to put the new items he’s acquired since the start of camp into. He borrowed the old phone in the campgrounds home office to call his mom and explain that he had a ride home.
He only felt slightly guilty when he changed the subject to how she and Tews were doing when she tried asking who was driving him home.
He didn’t want to lie to his mother, but he knew that he couldn’t just outright say that he was getting a ride home from someone that she’s never met before. Ever since Will had gone missing years ago, the same with Barbara and a few others he couldn't remember the names of, his mom's been picky with who he hung out with.
The first time she found out about Steve and him being friends she warned him to stay away.
She told him that Steve had to be someone with bad intentions and that she didn't want Dustin to go near him. It took Dustin almost a month to convince her that Steve wasn't going to kidnap or hurt him. In the end, the only reason why she grew fond of him was because of how the other's parents told her that Steve was one of the best babysitters they've seen. It worked in his favor telling his mom that Steve was friends with Nancy and Jonathan, who she knew personally.
Quickly wishing his mother goodnight, Dustin hung up and made his way back to his cabin.
Austin had warned him to go to sleep early tonight because both of them would have to leave early in the morning if they wanted to get to Hawkins by nightfall. Sleeping in a cabin with three other people was enough of an incentive for him to keep quiet during the night, or not bothering to go to sleep if he thought his dreams would grow to be too much. The first few nights here he had nightmares that left him screaming in the middle of the night. He overheard the counselors discussing whether or not to send him home because he was disturbing the other kids.
That was why he started sleeping on his stomach, that way he could rest his head with his mouth slightly open on his arm. After that, anytime he woke up from a nightmare, it was because of the pain building in his arm from biting down in an effort to keep himself from screaming.
Now that he was the only kid left in the cabin… he wasn’t sure if he wanted to risk changing how he slept or not.
His mom was a very deep sleeper, so he never had to worry about his nightmares waking her up. Wouldn’t it be for the best if he learned to condition himself to stop his screams before anyone could hear them? This way if there was ever others at his house, or if he was staying elsewhere, then he could muffle any noises and keep the others from hearing him. While sleeping on his stomach was somewhat uncomfortable, and made it a tad harder to breathe while sleeping, it did seem to be for the best.
He couldn’t risk staying up through the night.
What if because he stayed up, he fell asleep in Austin’s car? What if he had a nightmare? His screaming could result in them getting into an accident where they could get seriously injured or even killed. He couldn’t risk that, especially not if it could result in someone else getting hurt.
Slowly making his way back to the cabin, Dustin eyed his bed miserably.
Coming to Camp Nowhere has helped take his mind off of things, but knowing that he would be returning to Hawkins sometime tomorrow and that there weren’t any distractions left in the camp, he felt all his old worries returning to him. Getting ready for bed, Dustin hesitated for a few seconds before turning on all four lamps in the room.
One of the joys of going away to camp, he didn’t have to worry about an electricity bill.
Slowly, he drifted off to sleep.
It was freezing. No matter how tightly he pulled his jacket around himself, he couldn't get his body to warm up.
He was standing outside of Will's house only everyone else was gone.
He couldn't see them outside, nor could he see much of anything. He began to walk towards the house, if no one was outside then they had to be inside, right? Their cars were all in the driveway, Hopper, Joyce’s and even Steve’s. The door was unlocked, it opened on its own the moment his fingertips touched the wood.
"G-Guys? Where are you!" Dustin called out, coughing slightly as an odd scent greeted him, "Guys?"
Bar the sounds of the wind outside picking up speed, he was surrounded by silence. There was no one else here. There was dust covering almost every inch of the place, every step he took caused bits of the dust to float through the air.
He felt as though he were suffocating.
As if each breath he took would turn out to be his last. There was a bandana covering his mouth but the dust still managed to come through, he could taste it as well as a startling bit of ash. He tried to speak, but each time he opened his mouth all that would come out was a hoarse rasp before he broke off into a coughing fit. It was dark inside the house, the only source of light coming from the Christmas decorations still hanging up. They continuously flickered, varying in how long they stayed lit the longer Dustin tried to focus his vision.
Warily moving forward, Dustin kept one hand pressing the bandana against his mouth while the other he held out in front of him.
"H-Hello? Guys! Where are yo-" Dustin yelped as his foot connected with something hard, throwing off his balance.
Falling on top of whatever he had tripped over, Dustin scrambled to push himself up. Sitting back on his heels just as the lights flared, Dustin was greeted with the sight of Steve's wide vacant eyes.
Screaming, Dustin threw his body back as far as he could to put distance between himself and… and Steve.
"Oh my god," Dustin bent over and heaved, his stomach cramping as whatever was left in him made an appearance all over the floor, “S-Steve? Steve?”
His entire body shook as he forced himself to glance back over at his friend, there had to be a mistake. Steve wasn’t dead, he couldn’t be… he was just… he was just sleeping with his eyes open. Sleep paralysis was a thing, wasn’t he? He’d read about it somewhere before, he was sure of it. Steve was just… sleeping with his eyes open. Hesitantly Dustin crawled over towards Steve, his fingers gently brushing against his arm.
He was cold, freezing really, and his skin felt unnaturally stiff.
“W-Wake up. Steve, you have to wake up, please,” Dustin pleaded, tears making their way down his cheeks, “Wake up. Wake up, Steve. Steve! P-please, please wake up."
Dustin jolted into awareness with an odd taste filling his mouth and a pain in his forearm as well as soreness to his gums. His entire body shuddering, Dustin lifted his head, staring blankly at the flecks of blood appearing on his skin.
He'd bitten down hard enough to break through the skin.
He was exhausted, but Dustin knew he wouldn't be able to get any more sleep. Not after that dream. Hastily pushing the covers off of himself, Dustin quickly jumped out of bed. He wasn't sure what time it was, but with his dream still fresh in his mind, he couldn't deny the urge to hear Steve's voice.
Not stopping to grab a pair of actual shoes, Dustin slipped on a pair of sandals that were left in the cabin just by the door.
He wasn't sure who they belonged too but they were much too large for his feet. He ended up having to take them off halfway to the home office. He nearly tripped with them trying to walk through the campgrounds. The ground was freezing against his bare skin, some part of him was grateful for the cold. It was working to help wake his body up. Although it was giving his body another reason to shiver.
It may have been summer still but one couldn't tell with how cold it's been the past few days.
Dustin quietly let himself into the office, usually, there would be someone sitting up front with a sign-in list. Since most of the kids and counselors left, there wasn't a need for someone to stay in the office overnight. Dustin made his way behind the counter and pulled one of the chairs from behind the desk and over to the phone on the wall.
It was now, as he held the phone in his hand that he hesitated.
According to the clock above the desk, it was a little after two in the morning. It was more than likely Steve would be asleep, especially after going through a job interview. Those were bound to be nerve-wracking. Was it worth waking Steve up just because of a nightmare? His hand began dialing Steve's number before he even realized what he was doing.
He had to make sure. He just needed to hear his voice.
The longer the phone continued to ring the more anxious he became. He couldn't tell if it was because of Steve not picking up or because he might pick up. Just as he was starting to think that Steve wouldn't pick up at all, the was a click on the other end of the call before an all too familiar voice spoke.
"It's not even morning . Who the hell is this?"
"Steve?" Dustin winced as his voice cracked halfway.
"D-Dustin," There was shuffling on the other end, "Are you okay? What's wrong?"
"Nothing, I'm fine." Dustin cleared his throat, "Sorry if I woke you up."
"No apologizing, you didn't wake me up. I told ya, you could call whenever."
“How’s Camp know something going?”
“I-It’s Camp Knowhere Steve!” Dustin corrected laughing, “It was awesome! I learned a lot of new shit and got to do a shitton of experiments! I made a few friends too.”
“That’s great man! So how much longer are you going to be at Camp? I’m starting to miss having a mini shadow talking my ear off all the time.”
"You know what I mean."
Dustin snorted, glancing over at the window to see if it was still slightly dark out, "Camp ended already. I'll be back sometime tomorrow."
"Tomorrow as in today? Or as in actually tomorrow."
"Uhh," Dustin shrugged despite knowing Steve couldn't see him, "I dunno? It depends on how fast we drive. Anyway, you realize that not once since you picked up the phone have you told me how your job interview went."
"Oh! I got the job."
"You got the job?"
"I got the job! They moved my job interview up, officially I've been working there for two days now. The rest of you brats wasted no time in coming in during my shifts."
Grinning broadly, Dustin leaned his head back against the wall, "Yeah? Have you been giving them free ice cream? Does this mean when I get home I get to have free ice cream?"
"You guys are going to get me fired you know."
"Oh come on," Dustin teased, "At least for me? I'm your favorite, aren't I?"
"Okay dipshit, but if I get you Ice cream then you need to bring me some of your mom's casserole."
"Deal." Dustin grinned, "I should probably go get ready to go. I'll see you when I get back?"
"Yeah, I have a shift later today until closing. So stop by and visit alright?"
Giving his agreement and saying goodbye, Dustin hung up. Getting to his feet, he stretched before making his way back outside. The temperature had, thankfully, gone up while he'd been on the phone. So walking back to his cabin wasn't as bad as it had been earlier that morning. Instead of changing out of his pajamas, Dustin went to the bathroom and searched in the cabinet for a first aid kit.
He needed to clean his arm up before anyone saw it.
The indentations from his teeth had faded a bit, only small, barely noticeable cuts left in their place. The bruising left on his arm was another matter, that wouldn't be as easy to hide. Then again it wasn't as If him wearing long sleeves even during the summer was a new occurrence. Cleaning up the mess he made, Dustin hurried out to his suitcase and quickly changed into clean clothing.
The clock told him that it was a few minutes before four in the morning.
He had roughly two hours before Austin said they would have to leave. Since he knew that he wouldn't be able to get any more sleep, Dustin climbed up onto his bed and pulled out the old science textbook Austin had given him. It was much more advanced than what he was used too, but it was fun for Dustin to read through and try to figure out just what was being explained.
It was all too easy for him to get lost in the motion of reading, absorbing as much as he could with each new page he turned too.
Which was why when a hand suddenly landed clasped him on the shoulder, Dustin flung himself over the opposite side of the bed, accidentally smacking his knee into the end table there.
“Whoa! Easy there,” Austin rushed around the bed to help Dustin stand up, “You okay? I didn’t mean to startle you that badly…”
Dustin looked away, embarrassed, "I-I'm fine!"
"You sure? You went down pretty hard…"
"Y-yeah. Sorry. I didn't hear you come in, I guess I was a bit too into reading…" Dustin chuckled weakly, reaching up to scratch at the back of his head.
“...Okay,” Austin hesitantly moved away, “Well, if you’re all set did you want to head out now? We can stop for breakfast along the way, it’ll be my treat.”
Dustin nodded his head, quickly getting up and pulling his, well Austin's really, backpack on before picking up the textbook. Austin reached down and grabbed his suitcase before Dustin could even make a move towards it. Neither of them said a word as they made their way outside to the campgrounds parking lot. Dustin was a tad worried about getting into the car with Austin, but he knew that if things did end up taking a turn for the worse then he could always just jump out and hope he wouldn't break anything. Either way, he was a bit anxious but mainly excited.
It was time to head back to Hawkins.