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it’s doomsday on the other side of town

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Almost every room in Joyce Byers’ house has a gloomy face in it when Steve arrives. Hopper, frowning down at a mess of papers in the study. Jonathan, lounging in the small front parlor, an elbow bent over his eyes.  Joyce herself in the kitchen, with a wobbly smile and a burned roast, Cook hovering anxiously behind her making clucking sounds.

Heated arguing spills out of the dining room, and when Dustin spots him standing in the doorway, he jumps to his feet and yells, "Someone's rented Netherfield!"

This, Steve knows, is a tragedy.

The worn and smudged dining room table is covered with drawings of fantastic beasts and scribbles in Will's distinctive scrawl.

"It was bound to happen," Steve says, dropping down into a seat next to El.

She's frowning hard enough to bring on a thunderstorm and says, "They can't."

"Well, I think you'll find they can," Steve says, snagging a cookie off a plate underneath a picture of what looks like a cross between a dragon and a tree. "As someone actually owns it, instead of just you squatters playing knights and maidens inside by jimmying a window open in the back." He's had several conversations about the legality of it all with them, but seeing as how Hopper keeps blinders on like a carriage horse, there isn't much Steve can actually do. The renting of Netherfield is probably a blessing. He won't have to do quite so much running around to keep all these ragamuffins in line.

"But Steve," Dustin says on a whine.

"I don't see what you want me to do about it." He flicks some crumbs across the table at Dustin. "Who's come to stay?"

"Nancy says it's four whole people," Mike says. "For the entire summer." He's got a plotting face on—his mean one, which means he's going to do something stupid.

Steve arches an eyebrow at him. "You're all nearly seventeen."

Someone should be helping Hopper with this place, is what he’s implying. Other than Jonathan, who's clearly having some kind of breakdown. El and Will may be the only other official occupants of the Byers house, but the other three are here from noon till night every other day they aren't making trouble for the town.

Lucas claims he needs to stay away from his younger sister and her constant shouting about never wanting a city season, despite being only twelve. Dustin has a smothering widowed mother and too many cats. And Mike has an intense but ultimately harmless crush on El—he's alternately bold about it and in denial.

Steve himself has an empty manor now that his parents have gone off to even warmer climes for the pleasant months of the year.

The Byers house always smells like burnt food and Christmas, and when the Party goes off on a neighborhood raid, Steve sometimes helps Joyce with the gardens.

Jonathan lurches into the room with a groan and says, "I went to school with him."

"Did you?" Steve straightens up.

All of Jonathan’s hair is sticking out, like he's been tearing his fingers through it. "He's an absolute ass."

"Language!" Joyce shouts from the kitchen, just before a billow of smoke spills out along with a soft curse, and what sounds like gentle sobbing from Cook.

While Jonathan and Nancy went on to university, Steve only had the motivation to read and learn to box and apparently become some kind of glorified den mother to all these terrible urchins. They're old enough to take care of themselves now—debatably—but it's a hard habit to break.

"We'll have to get rid of him," Mike says darkly.

"Uh, no," Steve says. "Nobody's getting rid of anybody."

"We should go say hi," El says.  She looks just as dark as Mike, which is worrying. Jesus.

Lucas, only occasionally the voice of reason, says, "Give them a week. They won't want to stay there, anyway."

Yes, Steve thinks, because the Party insists that Netherfield is haunted. Not just mournful echoes of the past kind of haunted, either, but monsters that rip you from your bed and eat your soul. They have far too much time on their hands, and too much imagination.

"I'm sure they'll be at the assembly ball tomorrow evening," Joyce says, swiping her hands on her skirts as she bustles in. She stares at the table in dismay, and then digs out the plate of cookies and steals three. "We can all say hello. Maybe if you ask, they'll still let you play!"

"It's not playing, Mom," Will says, nose wrinkled.

"Of course it's not," Steve says. For the record, Steve is pretty sure it's playing. They only have one more year of schooling left, though, he doesn't think it's harming anyone.

Netherfield, on the other hand.  It's a wonder they haven't accidentally burned it down.

Hopper's voice carries through the open study door, down the hall, and causes Steve to sink lower in his seat and cover his face.

"El," Hopper says. "El, will you please tell your friends to stop harassing Dr. Brenner."

"He's not a real doctor," Mike hisses, but he's careful not to raise his voice.

"Yes, well, you amateur monster hunters are going to get caught if you’re not careful, and you're going to make Hopper cry," Steve says.

Mike narrows his eyes.

Lucas says, "You don't know what you're talking about."

Joyce says, loud enough to cover all their harsh whispering, "It's going to be lovely. El, you can wear your new dress."

*

The assembly ball is a small country affair, an excuse to gossip and wear finery and drink copious amounts of wine.  Steve's hair is perfectly coiffed despite the fact that he's on his third glass, and listing dangerously into a bookshelf.

"You should dance," Nancy says.

"I'm sure."  Steve takes another sip and glares across the room at the fine, golden-haired specimen that's bending far too low over Mrs. Wheeler's hand. His grin is slick and suspicious. He glances up, catches Steve's eye, and winks at him cheekily. Steve absolutely does not flush all the way down his throat.

Nancy follows his line of sight and smirks. "He certainly is something."

"His sister seems nice enough." Steve cocks his head to where she's dancing with a visibly elated and bewildered Lucas, who looks like he can't believe his luck.  Miss Maxine Mayfield is tall, slim, and ginger, and has a very pretty smile.

Steve turns to face Nancy fully. "And you? Why aren't you dancing with Jonathan?"

"He's indisposed," she says, fully amused. Which means Jonathan is drunk in the library, avoiding the regrettably handsome Mr. Hargrove. Ugh.

The rest of the Party has disappeared, which is suspect, but Steve doesn't have enough energy to care. They can't get up to too much trouble in the assembly hall. Probably.

When the music pauses, Lucas starts leading Miss Mayfield over toward them, only to be waylaid by her brother.

Steve straightens to his full height.

Miss Mayfield’s expression goes pinched.

Lucas's eyes widen.

Steve strides forward, barely feeling Nancy grasp his elbow and scurry after.

"Mr. Hargrove. Miss Mayfield," Steve dips his head to her. "I don't believe we've been properly introduced. Hello, Lucas."

"Steve," Lucas says after a hasty swallow.

Steve forces a grin for Mr. Hargrove. "Steve Harrington. I hear you've rented Netherfield Park. It's a lovely old manor."

Mr. Hargrove licks his lips, glances Steve up and down dismissively. "It's all right."

Steve stiffens his smile along with his posture. "I hope I'm not intruding. I wanted to borrow Lucas for a moment."

"Of course." Mr. Hargrove's grin is all teeth.

He hears Miss Mayfield give Lucas a soft, "I'm sorry," before glaring at her brother. She doesn't fight off Mr. Hargrove's grip on her arm, though, and lets herself be drawn away.

Nancy slaps at him as soon as they get swallowed up by the crowd of dancers. She says, "I can't believe you didn't introduce me," but Steve only pulls Lucas aside worriedly.

"What the devil was he saying to you?" Steve says. "You looked like you saw one of your fairytale monsters."

"Oh. Nothing." Lucas still seems shaken, but Steve isn't going to press. "Do you know where Mike and Will are?"

"No," Steve says on a sigh, "but I'm sure you can find them."

Soon after, Nancy accepts an invitation to dance from Barb, and Steve slinks over to grab another glass of wine.

He's only just settled back into a hidden corner—nice sight lines, Barb and Nancy spinning, Joyce prodding Hopper into a smile by the canapés, Robin quietly mooning over Tammy, looking equally tipsy on the opposite side of the room from him; he raises his glass to her and she makes a face—when an unfamiliar voice says, jovially, "Not too bad, for being so provincial."

Steve grits his teeth. Mr. Hargrove and his sister are standing with one of the young people they arrived with, just beyond the pillar Steve is holding up. He can see Hargrove’s hands, the edge of his shoulder and all those ridiculous golden curls.

Miss Mayfield says dryly, "Tommy, you've hardly left the dance floor all night. You should dance as well, Billy. It might improve your mood. The daring Mrs. Wheeler, perhaps?"

"I'm bored," Hargrove says. "Nothing here to really tempt me."

"Mr. Harrington seemed just your type, brother dear." Miss Mayfield sounds like she's digging in a jab.

Steve feels alternately humiliated and enraged.

"He's passing, I suppose," Hargrove says, with heavy implication that passing is not nearly acceptable, "but, really, what do all these people do for fun? This can't be it."

“I’d like to remind you, Billy, that you’re the reason we’re even here,” Miss Mayfield says, hitting him lightly on the arm.

“Ah, yes,” Jovial Tommy says, rocking back on his heels. “Nothing like hiding in the countryside to escape scandal.”

Hargrove growls. It’s a terrible sound. Truly.

“Well, we can all thank my father for that, can’t we? Now…” his voice gets softer as he turns to Miss Mayfield, “there is one young lady I wouldn’t mind stepping all over my toes.”

Steve misses the rest, shifting instead to a breathless El, bounding up with more enthusiasm than grace, and he lets her pull him onto the dance floor.

*

“There’s a message from Netherfield Park,” Joyce says lightly, settling down across from Steve in the parlor.

 Jonathan is slouched in an armchair, pouting, with a cup of hot tea resting on his stomach. He says, “What is it?” sourly.

“Oh,” she waves a hand, “just that they have the children.”

“It’s pouring out,” Steve says. Rain is sheeting down just outside the large windows. It’s teaming. They must have been trespassing again.

“That’s why they’re going to keep them,” Joyce says, completely unconcerned.

“But they can’t keep them,” Steve says with growing concern. He heaves himself to his feet, thinking about how trudging all way to Netherfield in this mess is going to be both necessary and horrible. He can’t take his horse, he wouldn’t want Peony to drown in mud, and Hopper took the carriage out over an hour ago.

Somebody, though, has to make sure the Hargroves don’t murder the Party and serve them for dinner.

“Jonathan?” Steve says hopefully. “Up for a damp stroll?”

“You can’t be serious,” he says, arching an eyebrow up at him.

It was worth a try.

*

It’s raining even harder than Steve accounted for, and he falls not once, not twice, but three times in the soggy, worn path in between the Byers house and Netherfield. He’s actively sneezing by the time he drags himself up the great stone steps and knocks on the door.

He would care, but Dustin is loud, and he can hear screaming.

The apparent butler, when he opens the door, looks properly horrified at the state of Steve’s clothes.

Steve says, “Why are they screaming?” before pushing past him, the butler so stunned he just stumbles aside.

“What the devil—Harrington.” Hargrove is indecent, shirt open, cravat unraveled, mouth softening from irritation to a smirk when he spots Steve.

Steve doesn’t want to think about what he’s been doing in the parlor, nor what his arm is hiding when he leans against the frame on one side, gripping the other with a strong hand.

“Where are they?” Steve says. He flicks sopping wet hair off his forehead and tries not to think about how tight his pants are.

“Steve! Steven,” Dustin’s voice echoes down the curved balustrade and around the front hall. “Hargrove’s letting us search the library, I think I saw an apparition!  Why are you so wet? What happened, does Mom want me home?”

“I think, perhaps,” Hargrove murmurs, stepping up behind Steve, “they have a little too much imagination, hmm?” His body is warm and distracting.

Or perhaps Steve is just finally feeling the cold. The Party all look fine, Miss Mayfield among them. Dusty but alive, staring down from the top of the steps at him with wide, curious eyes.

Steve sneezes again, and closes his own in absolute horror.

“My goodness.” Jovial Tommy—the estimable Lord H, according to gossip—has a lady on his arm, smiling meanly behind gloved fingers. He says, “You look like you’ve been dragged backward through several damp bushes, my friend.”

The lady says, mockingly sweet, “He’s gotten sick already. Why, I thought you all had such strong country constitutions!”

Netherfield Park is too big for four people, and polished only in the usable portions. It’s mainly hulking, dreary and drafty, and doing nothing for the terrible chill Steve has. He clenches his teeth and tries not to shiver.

Hargrove plucks idly at his sleeve. “You should get out of these wet things,” he says. “Now that you’re here, I suppose you’ll have to wait out the storm with the rest of the children.”

Steve has just enough energy left to bristle at the implication. And then he sneezes again. Jesus.

*

Sometime in the hours between tea and supper, even dressed warmly in what is surely something of Hargrove’s, shoulders tailored just a slight too wide for his frame, Steve manages to develop a fever. Of course he does.

Hargrove looks worried, for a small moment, and his hand on Steve’s arm feels too light.  “Don’t faint on me, princess,” he says, and Steve, far too addled for niceties, elbows him in the gut.

Hargrove’s oof sounds both exaggerated and amused.

“I’m not going to faint,” Steve says. His head feels heavy and his eyes hurt, but all he needs to do is lie down for a little while and he’ll be fine.

The Lady H says, “You might as well put him up for the night. It’s likely not going to stop raining until morning, at least. We don’t want him to die.” She says it, Steve suspects, as if she wouldn’t care one way or the other, but would rather not see it unfold directly in front of her.

“Come on,” Hargrove says, like he’s deeply inconvenienced.  “Before you get sick on the floor.”

If Steve had the energy for it, he’d give him a rude gesture. His mother would be appalled. It seems Hargrove, who has yet to fasten any of the buttons on his lawn shirt, brings out the worst in him.

Embarrassingly, Steve stumbles as he moves from the room, and his palm flattens on the warm skin of Hargrove’s chest.

“Um.”

“Easy, princess,” Hargrove says, and he slips an arm around him.

This is hardly appropriate. Steve’s head feels muzzy, and he moves to draw his hand away only for Hargrove to cover it with his own.

And then Dustin and Will come bounding up covered head-to-toe with filth, grinning so wide they look completely out of their heads.

“There’s an attic, Steve,” Dustin says. “Mike found a map! El is sure she saw a hag! Max says there’s pixies living in the greenhouse—”

“Do you think,” Steve says, and his voice is thick, throat already sore, “you should perhaps slow down? You have all of summer to explore. Are you covered in tar? You’re going to get sick!”

“You’re sick,” Hargrove says. “And it’s time all the brats went home.”

Dustin wrinkles his nose at him. “You can’t have Steve stay without a chaperone.” He puffs his chest up. “I’ll—”

“Send for Robin,” Steve says. Robin has her father’s covered carriage, and the Party can use it to drive home once she gets here. It’s probably the only thing that will stop them from sleeping in the attic and scaring themselves into multiple panic attacks in the middle of the night.

Hargrove sighs heavily. He says, “We’re going to get you settled upstairs first.”

He’s strangely solicitous, and Steve is weirdly pliant and at some point he’s absolutely sure Hargrove helps him off with his pants. He should be thinking about how that could ruin him; the warm grip on his ankle, the covers neatly tucked on either side of his hips, the large hand smoothing hair back from his forehead.

“You’re going to be so much trouble, Harrington,” Hargrove murmurs, but Steve just closes his eyes and hums under his breath.

*

Steve wakes to Robin curled under the covers with him, feeling marginally better.

She tuts quietly, a cool hand to his forehead, and says, “Tell me, Steve. You didn’t do this on purpose, did you?”

Steve groans, turns to press his face into the pillows while she laughs softly.

“Do you think he’ll despoil you if you ask?”

Robin is the devil.

“I hate you,” Steve says. At one point they were the best of friends, but clearly that is no longer the case.

“I brought you your clothes, though,” Robin says, needling him, “so we can both go down for breakfast. You can bite your lips and bat your big pretty eyes.”

“I want to die,” Steve says, popping his head up to glare at her. He can feel his hair doing ridiculous things, and tries to shake it out of his eyes.  He sniffs and swipes at his runny nose with a goddamn monogrammed handkerchief Hargrove left for him. At least his head has stopped pounding.  “And I want nothing to do with Hargrove.  He called us provincial!”

Robin shrugs. “I suppose we are. Or we’d seem to be.”

“He called me passing,” Steve hisses, cheeks flushed with more embarrassment than anger.

“Oh, Steven.” Robin bites her lip around a small smile. She cups a hand under his chin. “You know you’re lovely.”

“I know!” Steve’s been hailed a Hawkin’s beauty ever since he grew into his limbs.

Hargrove can stuff it.

A throat clears. Robin straightens up a little, and Steve turns over to see Hargrove in the doorway, a hand on his hip, shirt only buttoned halfway up, tails loose over his breeches. He’s frowning at them.

“How do you feel?” he asks. A narrow gaze slides from Steve to Robin and back again.

Robin’s hand slips from Steve’s face, and she sighs.

Steve feels dry-eyed, tired and snotty, his throat slightly raw, but he can certainly walk well enough to go home. “Fine,” he says stiffly. “Thank you.”

Hargrove shifts his weight into his hips, frown tilting up into a smirk.

Steve blurts, “Can’t you—” and snaps his mouth shut when he thinks better of it.

One of Hargrove’s eyebrows shoots up. “Yes?”

Steve flaps a hand and thinks put some clothes on, you ass, but doesn’t actually say it, so the fact that Hargrove smirks harder and says, “Oh, am I offending your delicate sensibilities, princess?” is as alarming as it is infuriating.

Robin covers her face with her hands. It’s hard to tell if she’s laughing at him, embarrassed for him, or both. Probably both. She eases off the edge of the bed and says, “I’m going down for breakfast,” without looking at him, a strain in her voice. Definitely both.

She pauses in front of Hargrove, at a stalemate when he refuses to move out of the doorway.

Then shouting and pounding of feet in the hallway make Steve struggle all the way upright in bed, alarmed, clasping at his open shirt with one hand, covers pulled up to his waist with the other.

He ignores Hargrove’s playful leer and says, “Tell me you sent the Party home last evening when you arrived.”

Robin says, “I believe they slept in the library,” without any remorse and a hint of an amused smile. She always thinks the Party’s antics are fun.

Truly, Steve is the only one who cares anything about the hearts and minds of their young friends. They’re all going to be the death of him.

“Steve!” Dustin shouts, ignoring Hargrove’s startled growl as he pushes past him and into Steve’s temporary chambers. “Max found tunnels under the house, and Lucas fell through a hole in the floor!”

“No,” Steve says.

“But—”

“No! Are you kidding me?” Steve points a finger at him. “We’re all going home, Henderson, and there will be absolutely no exploring of tunnels that could cave in on your heads.

*

“For the record, I think this is a momumentally stupid idea,” Steve says, clutching a lantern and thinking about how weirdly cold it is. He sniffs and blinks his eyes and definitely wants to be back in bed, warm and dry and not walking to his doom.

He’s almost entirely certain this tunnel will just spill them onto the cliffs by the sea. But not before someone gets brained with crumbling rock or attacked by a bear.

The walls are roughly hewn stone and there are puddles and it’s a wonder the whole of Netherfield hasn’t sunken into it yet.

Hargrove says, “This is exactly how I wanted to spend my Tuesday,” but he doesn’t actually sound upset about it. He seems… entertained. Like he’s looking forward to a bear attack.

If anybody dies here, Steve is blaming him.

“Oh,” Miss Mayfield says, up ahead of them. “Well.”

“Well, what?” Dustin says. “Did you find a skeleton? Or a troll?”

Steve lifts his lantern higher and hurries to catch up. The tunnel in front of them has collapsed in on itself, thankfully long before they got there. “Good,” he says. “Now we can all go home.”

“El can fix it,” Miss Mayfield says. “Can’t you?”

And Steve wants to know when Miss Mayfield earned the right to that information, as well as what she thinks she’s doing, saying it in front of her brother. Also: “No.”

El lifts her hands and Steve has to jump forward and bat her away.

“But I—”

“Oh no.  Do you want it to collapse more?  Should we all run under and then get trapped on the other side?” At the eager, glowing faces that clearly say yes, Steve throws a hand up. “If you really want to explore more, go find a likely cave on the cliffs along the shoreline and come at it from the other direction.” It’s only marginally less dangerous, but at least it gets all of them out of there right now. He can yell more about that later.

“Do you think it’s a bootleggers tunnel?” Will says, rubbing his hands together. He’s gotten far too tall in the past year, but as yet hasn’t gained any more mass. It makes him look like a spider.

Miss Mayfield seems gleeful. “I bet it is.”

But the Party grudgingly turn around and head back the way they came in, and Steve watches them move past him with a hand on his hip.

Robin beams at him and waggles her eyebrows.

Hargrove leans into his side and says, “I did wonder at how my perfectly solid floor had gotten an enormous hole in it.”

Steve wrinkles his nose but refuses to confirm anything. 

“Oh, holes,” Robin says loudly. “Popping up all over here. Hawkins is very… holey.” She makes a face at Steve, shoulders shifting minutely.

“How do you actually think Mr. Sinclair managed to fall in?” Hargrove says, crossing his arms over his not at all impressive chest and ignoring her.

“He’s, uh. Clumsy. At times.” Which is true of all of them, really, but this was probably, definitely a case of jumping in so everyone else could follow. The Party never truly asks for permission for doing dumb things. Steve is sure they get that from Nancy. You wouldn’t think she’d be a bad influence, but she has unexpected depths.

Hargrove frowns. “Right.”

Steve slips down the tunnel and says brightly, “Let’s concentrate on figuring out how to get out of here,” and tries to ignore the way his heart is crawling up his throat.

*

“On the list of things I never want to do again, at the very top,” Steve says, strolling next to Robin in the center of Hawkins proper, “is being trapped in a tunnel with Mr. Hargrove.”

“Yes, of course,” Robin says somewhat absently as she looks into the front display of the bookshop. “This is why you keep bringing it up, even three days after.”

Nancy and Jonathan are a respectable ten feet ahead of them, and Steve ignores the impropriety of their hands brushing as they walk along.

It would be indecent for Robin and Steve to be arm and arm themselves if Robin wasn’t staunchly enamoured of females, of which Steve is decidedly not one. This is the only reason they make such wonderful chaperones, for each other as well. It certainly isn’t their maturity level. They tend to get into just as much trouble as their charges, but for entirely different reasons.

Sometimes Steve thinks his life would be so much easier if they could just marry and be done with it, but even then he fears he’d never be free of babysitting.

“All right, all right,” Steve says, adjusting his hair in the reflective window.

Robin nudges his ribs with her elbow and says, “Stop preening, you already look stunning,” in a way that suggests Steve will never manage to look stunning in his life.

She softens her words with a smile, though, and promises to buy him a sweet if they accidentally lose track of Nancy and Jonathan for the next twenty minutes.

The sweet shop, when they step inside, has Lucas and Miss Mayfield, and Erica Sinclair giving a sour look to Mr. Hargrove, who’s smiling at her with all his teeth—sharp-edged politeness framing his words.

He says, “Be careful,” and Steve is not entirely sure, but he thinks Miss Sinclair is telling Hargrove to take a step back. She’s nearly poking him in the chest with her finger, and Lucas has half his face covered, and Miss Mayfield actually looks worried.

“Well,” Steve says, overly loud. “What a ni—pleas—uh… surprise to see you all here.”

Robin snorts an unladylike laugh into her glove and Steve shoots her a dirty look.

Hargrove doesn’t seem like he’s in the mood for pleasantries. “Of course,” he says snidely.

Miss Sinclair says, “I wish I was anywhere else but right here, with all of you,” with a scowl, but her look is mostly directed at Hargrove.

“Erica,” Lucas says, and Steve has no idea what’s happening, but he figures the best recourse is to somehow get Hargrove to leave.

Steve says, “Yes, okay, Mr. Hargrove, would you, uh… care to… walk with me a moment?”

Robin curls her knuckles into the middle of his back and Steve grits his teeth.

Hargrove arches an eyebrow, somewhat more amused than before, and Steve really should have thought this through better, because with everyone chaperoning everyone else, the only way Steve can be with Hargrove is if Robin comes as well, and the only way Hargrove will be able to leave is if he’s also accompanied by his sister, who is apparently on a small outing with Lucas, and Steve honestly wants to kill himself.

“Isn’t this grand,” Robin whispers gleefully into his ear as they leave the shop, full entourage in tow.  “Isn’t this delightful?”

“I hate you,” Steve hisses back and then… then he remembers Jonathan and Nancy.

If they get through a complete stroll through the center of town without anyone brawling, it’ll be a miracle.

*

Hargrove walks with his hands behind his back, and without Robin to lean on—she’s taken it upon herself to cheer Miss Sinclair, and fallen behind them—Steve has no idea what to do with his arms. He crosses them and then uncrosses them and then stuffs them into his pockets, even though it makes him feel unbalanced, like he’s about to fall on his face.

Steve says, “So,” and watches Hargrove’s chin tip up.  All the words dry up in his mouth.

After a long moment, Hargrove flicks a look at him. “So?”

All Steve hears is the echo of disdain in Hargrove’s voice as he called him passing, as he dismissed Hawkins as boring, and it doesn't make him angry now—it makes him feel small.

Still. He shores himself up under pure bravado and says, “I hope this day finds you well.”

Hargrove’s eyes narrow imperceptibly, like he wasn’t expecting those words from him. “Very well,” he says, and then adds, just a tad curt, “now.”

What does that mean? Steve is sure he doesn’t know, and ignores the flutter of butterfly wings in his belly.

*

It’s a testament to how much the summer has already exhausted Steve that he doesn’t notice the lack of children around until three whole days have passed.

He pushes his hair back and looks from where Nancy is cross legged in the grass, reading, to Robin, lounging in a matching chair to his own that they’d dragged out to the garden earlier that morning.

“Does it seem too… quiet to you?” he asks.

The day has gotten progressively more overcast, a strata of white clouds turning gray at the edges ahead of darker ones in the distance. Mid-afternoon finds the sky threatening a thunderstorm, the air already mustering up a cooler, stronger breeze.

Steve isn’t worried, exactly, but even though El is very capable of heroics, not a single one of the Party actually has a lick of sense.

Robin has her eyes closed. She says, “I was hoping you wouldn’t notice,” and grins when Steve slaps her lightly on the arm.

“I’m serious,” he says. “What if something’s wrong?”

“Oh, something’s definitely wrong with them,” she says, and then Nancy calls over, “Does it seem quiet to you, Steve?” and Steve makes  a see? face at Robin when she slits her eyes open and wrinkles her nose.

A silent flash of lightning illuminates the dark skies. Steve doesn’t have a very good sense of direction, but he’s fairly sure that’s rolling quickly inward from the ocean and towards the shore.

It would be very like the Party to have taken Steve’s advice of exploring cliffside caves on a day like this. He has a terrible feeling in the pit of his stomach.

“Christ,” he mutters under his breath, climbing to his feet.

Nancy is looking off into the distance as well. She says, “It isn’t quite high tide, is it?”

“That won’t matter with a storm lashing the rocks. Does no one check the weather?” He presses a hand over his brows. The rumble of thunder is far off and muffled, but the high wind promises to roll the storm in quicker than they’d have time to travel to the length of beaches. Not that they aren’t going to try.

None of them are wearing proper riding costumes, but they run for the stables anyway. Steve’s parents keep a matched pair of bay geldings for the carriage, an aged pony from Steve’s youth, and two semi-suitable riding mounts—Steve’s own mare, Peony, and an ornery stallion, Kingston, that has no business being in their stables, but his mother thought was pretty.

Kingston is the fastest, even if he doesn’t like Steve in the least, and has thrown him twice in the past year. He leaves Nancy and Robin to fight over Peony, and helps the stable boy tack up Kingston, poking the beast in the stomach when he tries to fight the tightening of the girth.

The rain starts as a patter, and Steve is sheltered for a while through the woods that stretches between Harrington manor and Netherfield. When the road forks, leading down across the bluffs to the sea, Steve spots a figure ahead of him on a pale horse, and spurs Kingston faster.

He keeps apace of Hargrove until they reach the sharp drop down to the beaches, sliding off Kingston and stumbling to the edge in a single motion.

Hargrove catches his arm, and Steve looks over to see his fine curls plastered to his forehead and neck, a narrow, angry look on his face.

Steve’s afraid, for a half second, that Hargrove will dash him down among the rocks, but the shake he gives him is controlled, and his voice is couched in worry when he says, “I heard a scream from the house. So loud I thought it was the sky splitting open.”

El, Steve thinks, and fear makes his throat numb. “Down,” he says, barely a whisper. “We must go down, and quickly.”

The pounding of hooves is drowned by the thunder of the storm, the crashing of the waves, and the rain sheeting down, and Nancy’s shout of, “Steve!” catches him off guard.

He yanks his arm out of Hargrove’s grip and watches Robin and Nancy trip over their leaden skirts in their rush to reach them. Robin’s already reaching for the catch at the small of her back, shoving them down her legs, hiking her thin underskirt up and tying it at an angle across her hips. Nancy pauses only a moment before doing the same.

And then another scream renders the air, and Steve shares a glance with Hargrove before they both start for the edge.

*

There is nothing stupider, Steve thinks, than trying to scale a cliff in the pouring rain. There’s a narrow, rocky path leading down the shore, and even that is a slippery mess, but no… no, that isn’t where the children would go. Of course not.

“If anything happens to Maxine,” Hargrove says threateningly, voice a harsh pant in Steve’s ear as they fight for foot and finger holds amid the jagged rock.

“I’m sure this isn’t my fault,” Steve says through clenched teeth.

“Oh no?” Hargrove growls. “It wasn’t you who suggested the cliff caves? I didn’t hear you tell them to try another entrance when we were down in the tunnel? Was I hallucinating?”

Steve would be more worried about Hargrove’s ire if he wasn’t a single wrong step from falling to his death.

It’s almost a relief to find the children huddled in a shallow outcove a measly twenty feet down the sheer side. Almost, because there’s barely enough room for all of them, and the cave is angled in such a way as the top is jutting out above the bottom, making it impossible for them to climb out. They could climb down, of course, but the sea is foaming madly among sharp rocks and eddies, and the beach lies at least forty feet in the opposite direction.

The most Steve and Hargrove have done is get themselves stuck there too.

“Steve!” Robin cries from their left—she’s motioning downward, and Steve drops his gaze to see a narrow ledge five feet below them that eventually angles down to sand. It’s a long, uneven crumble of rock, but it’s probably their only chance.

He nudges Hargrove, points, and says, “I’ll climb over, and you can hand them down. I’ll keep them steady. “ He looks over the wet and miserable faces of the Party and says, “Did any one of you think to bring rope?”

*

It’s a small enough piece, shoved at the bottom of Dustin’s satchel, that they only have slack to wrap around two of the Party at a time, anchored by Steve as he leads them down to meet Nancy on the shoreline. He brings down Miss Mayfield and Eleven first, and then notes the bloody nose El is trying to hide with a wry, weary smile.

The weather turns, if possible, even worse as he slowly climbs back up for the others. He flexes his aching fingers as he leaned against the cave wall, and Hargrove moves around him with thirty percent less his usual swagger, heaving himself over the edge with an impressive flex of muscles. Steve’s almost too tired to appreciate the way his shirt clings to his chest, but he hardly blinks as Hargrove disappears.

With a heavy sigh, he helps tie the rope around Dustin and Lucas, then grasps their arms with both hands, kneeling to get them low enough to where Hargrove is waiting.

Dustin hisses, “He’s going to drop us. He hates Lucas!”

Steve tiredly rolls his eyes. “He’s not going to drop you.” He’s fairly sure Hargrove isn’t a murderer, just overprotective of his sister. “Besides, El is watching out for you. Everyone is going to be fine.”

Steve’s words prove true as Lucas and Dustin reach the sand, and Hargrove climbs back up, fast as a monkey. He wordlessly gestures for Will and Mike to come next, without switching places with Steve, and honestly Steve is relieved, hands shaky and stiff with cold as he ties knots around their waists.

He folds his legs up, butterflies his knees, and watches the waves storm higher, frothing into curls before slamming against the jetty. The wind whips at his hair, wet strands stinging his cheeks, and he breathes deep in the cool air as he listens for the boys’ whoops as they reach land.

The whistling of the storm through the rocks eventually drowns out all voices, and Steve has a long moment to think Hargrove’s left him there before a strong arm snakes over the ledge and a blond head pops up, grinning at him with far too much exhilaration.

“Planning on coming down, Princess?” Hargrove says, teeth flashing.

Steve doesn’t even have enough energy to scowl.

*

To Steve’s everlasting disappointment, Netherfield is closer than Harrington manor. He ends up wrapped in blankets in front of a fire, wearing dry clothes that are, again, a shade too big in places, and praying he doesn’t sneeze.

Dustin and Will are asleep on a settee, and Mike is sitting so close to the hearth Steve fears his hair might catch fire.

Hargrove settles down too close to him on the couch and says, “Don’t think I’ve forgotten this is all your fault.” His words aren’t as mean-edged as earlier, though, and Steve chooses to ignore him.

At some point, Steve will work up to a proper rant on his behalf, and yell at the Party a lot, and maybe cry and hug them, but now he just says, “Where’s the rest of your friends?”

“Who, Tommy?” Hargrove shrugs. “They’ll be back for the ball.”

“You’re throwing a ball?” Robin asks, grinning behind a cup of tea. “Here?”

Hargrove inclines his head.

Robin nudges Steve with her foot and says, “They’re throwing a ball.”

Steve glares at her. “Yes. I heard.”

“I hope you’ll attend, Harrington,” Hargrove says, voice a lazy, grating drawl. “I don’t know what I’d do without your pleasant company.”

Robin nudges Steve again. Her eyes are wide and mocking when he glances at her, and he wants nothing more than to stick his tongue out at her.

Steve says, faux sweetly, “I wouldn’t miss it, of course,” watching Hargrove’s eyes tighten at the corners. 

And then he sneezes into his arm.

*

The ball at Netherfield is set for three weeks hence, towards the very end of July, and it’s all anyone in Hawkins can talk about.

“It’s ridiculous,” Steve says, fingers fiddling with a bit of silky ribbon. “You’d think we’ve never had a proper ball before.”

Nancy wrinkles her nose. “Well. Have we?”

He supposes assembly balls aren’t quite exciting enough. And although Harrington manor certainly boasts more than enough room, his parents had never bothered to stay in town long enough to host one.

Steve sighs heavily and doesn’t answer. He’s here expressly to help Nancy choose a color to match Jonathan’s new coat, even though he thinks red is red.  He doesn’t understand the nuances between shades, and would rather be eating cut glass right now. The dress shop is crowded, full of gossip, and he’s getting a headache.

Her voice carrying loudly from the back, Steve hears El say, “I don’t see why I have to get fitted for another dress,” and he decides he’s had quite enough.

He’s not getting involved with that, and wanders back toward the door before he can hear Hopper’s weary reply. He’s absolutely sure Hopper wants to be here even less than El, and that whatever is happening is Joyce’s fault.

The sky is cloudless and bright, and Steve has to squint once he steps outside, a hand shading his eyes. He blames this for the reason he crashes directly into a firm chest in the middle of the walk.

Fingers grip his arms to steady him, Steve’s own flat on the soft cotton of Hargrove’s shirt, one directly over his heart.

Hargrove says, “Watch yourself, Harrington,” but his eyes are dancing, and he adds, “Are you all right?”

“Fine.” Steve belatedly realizes his palms are still pressed against Hargrove’s chest, and he drops his arms, tugging at the ends of his short coat and lowering his gaze to his feet. He can’t stop his cheeks from heating.

Unfortunately, Hargrove is flanked by Lord and Lady H, the latter who titters and says, “Oh, Billy, come on. We’ll be late.”

“Of course,” Hargrove says.

Steve glances up at him again and finds him still staring. Probably because he looks like a cooked crab. “Yes, well,” Steve says, at a loss under Hargrove’s intense scrutiny.

“Yes,” Hargrove echoes faintly. And then his mouth turns up into a smirk, he licks his bottom lip obscenely, and tilts his head so their faces are far too close for propriety. He whispers, breath hot along the thin skin below Steve’s ear, “I hope you shall save me a dance.”

Steve’s left wondering if he means at the impending ball or something much worse, and it does absolutely nothing to lessen his flush.

*

“The nerve of him,” Steve says, balancing on his elbows, sprawled out in the shade of an enormous oak as the majority of the Party frolics in the lake.

Beside him, Robin hmmms absently. Steve suspects she’s not actually listening to him. But then she says, “You don’t actually have to dance with him, you know.”

Steve silently narrows his eyes at the way the afternoon sun glints off the rippling water of the lake before Dustin takes a running jump off the end of the pier. Thinks about the smug look on Hargrove’s face when his soft words made Steve gasp.

Steve isn’t a coward. They’re definitely going to dance.

“You could ignore him,” Robin goes on. “That would probably drive him crazy.”

“I could,” Steve says, but he has trouble ignoring things. It’s why he so often gets stuck following the Party on their stupid advenures instead of wiping his hands of their antics.

No. No, what he’s going to do is look his very best and dance exquisitely and leave Mr. Hargrove wanting.

*

The Netherfield ball is well turned out, which is not surprising, but Steve is still surprised. Somewhere, deep down inside, he’d been harboring a small hope that this would prove a monumental flop.

Steve dances with Robin twice, to make Tammy jealous. He dances with Dustin, suffering sore feet, and Mike, suffering clammy hands, and he dances with a sullen Jonathan, forced out onto the floor by Joyce and a slyly smiling Nancy. He dances more than he ever has at assemblies and county fairs and holidays, and ignores Hargrove’s knowing looks and obvious growing amusement.

He ignores him until Hargrove asks for a turn himself, standing in front of him at the refreshment table, overly confident. Steve stills, tingling fingers tightening around his cup of punch, blinks slow and steady at him and says, “No.”

Hargrove, if anything, seems even more amused. “No?”

Before, Steve was absolutely willing to dance with Hargrove, to surprise and delight him, but faced with the fall of his curls over his forehead, the deep navy of his coat, and the redness of his lips—he doesn’t think he can follow through without embarrassing himself. He takes a sip of the too-sweet punch and fights off a grimace. “Unfortunately, I find myself already tired out.”

“Really.” Hargrove moves forward, and Steve takes a step back without thought.

Lifting a hand, Hargrove settles it in on Steve’s waist before Steve can slip away.

A nervous glance around shows no one paying them the least bit of attention. Even through the layers of Steve’s jacket, waistcoat and shirt, Hargrove’s touch is heavy and warm.

“Um.” Steve bites his lip.

Hargrove’s grin is shark-like and toothy and he leans in to say, “Would you walk the balcony with me instead?”

Steve’s throat is dry, and he only manages a soft, fading, “I don’t think that’s wise.”

“Oh, it isn’t,” Hargrove says, and advances yet another step, keeping Steve from moving with the hand on his hip, hiding the grip, Steve sees now, by the width of his shoulders, the angle of his body blocking him from the rest of the room.

Steve, cornered in plain sight, must stay trapped or risk causing a scene. He narrows his eyes. “Very clever,” he says, ire racing the heat up his spine from Hargrove’s possessive touch. “Please remove your hand.”

“You’re flushed,” Hargrove says. “We should get you some air.”

Steve opens his mouth, determined not to stutter, when the room rocks suddenly, like it’s been hit by an earthquake.

Startled voices give way to shouts and eventual screams. Hargrove tightens his grip on Steve, fingers biting into his hip, and then he lets him go completely when the guests start streaming past them and into the main foyer, jostling each other in a bid to get to the front door.

“What on earth?” Hargrove says faintly.

A plume of dust and smoke curls through two sets of the three french doors leading into Netherfield’s ballroom from the main hall, amid groans of cracking wood, splintering like gunshot.

Hargrove leaves him standing in the corner without a second glance, but Steve doesn’t honestly blame him. He grabs Dustin’s sleeve as he tries to hustle past.

“Dustin,” Steve says slowly. “What are the chances of a monster attacking in the middle of a ball?”

Dustin cocks his curly head. “Well, slim, normally. But El might have removed that pile of rock blocking the tunnel that you told us to leave alone—”

“Of course she did.”

“—and there might have been a fairly large body of water at the end of it, even though it didn’t exactly open up onto the sea,” his voice warms on his tale, “only a mighty cavern of dripping rock—”

“That sounds reasonable.” Steve pinches the bridge of his nose.

Yes,” Dustin agrees, nodding, oblivious to Steve’s sarcasm, “so there’s a certain, miniscule chance that a monster might be attacking.” He grins winningly up at Steve.

“Dustin!” Will yells with excitement from across the room, “I think it’s a kraken!” and then almost gets taken out by a seemingly three foot wide tentacle smacking down wetly through the open doorway of the library, and then another busting out of the wall just below the stairs.

*

Steve sees mostly tentacles. A dark, burnt red that looks black in places, razor sharp hooks and claws jutting out from suckers the size of a grown man’s head.

It’s surprisingly silent, dripping puddles of salt water, scent heavy with brine. It oozes through the center of the house, collapsing walls, breaking columns like twigs, and Steve stands there numbly, watching it, until Miss Mayfield shouts, “Catch!” and throws a sword at him.

Steve has no idea how to wield a sword. He has rudimentary fencing skills, a pastime abandoned when he was nine and nearly took out his own eye.

But he’s certainly not going to turn down a weapon in the face of whatever… well… it certainly looks like a kraken. Or what books are certain a kraken looks like.

Dustin comes flying by him with a meat cleaver and a warrior shout, and at the very least, Steve can’t let anything happen to Henderson. His mother would never forgive him.

The refreshment table collapses under the weight of an undulating arm, and Steve stumbles into a leap over it before finding himself back-to-back with a panting Hargrove, jacket gone and shirt ripped open to his waist like a swashbuckler. For a brief, insane moment, Steve thinks Hargrove’s reveling in the destruction, in the pure chaos as bits of actual house rain down on them, marble floors rippling up under the weight of the beast, bracken gushing out of a funnel that looks, frankly, horrifying and obscene. There’s a faint keening that Steve feels fairly sure would be ten times as loud under the water.

Miss Sinclair, from his other side, thrashing out with a thick cutlass of her own, shouts, “Cut into it or move, Harrington! Some of us here are heroes,” and Steve is utterly sure he’s surrounded by crazy people.

They should be running. How far can this thing chase them on land? The house is clearly done for, anyway, whatever they’re attempting to do is stupid.

Still. He brandishes the sword over his head and hacks at a limb that’s on its way to flattening all of them and hopes for the best.

At some point, he stumbles to his knees, exhausted, bruised, a shallow cut along the length of his thigh, steadily leaking blood. Hargrove’s hand is tight around his bicep, would be painful if he didn’t hurt everywhere else, and jolts him back and out of the way as a coiling lump of sliced tissue lands nearly on top of him.

“Christ,” Steve says, panting. “Did you say this place was boring, Hargrove?”

“Never,” Hargrove says, grinning wildly down at him, hair a mussed halo, streaks of dark ink down his chest. He pulls Steve all the way up to his feet, eyes burning and intense, and Steve feels giddy with the fight, terrified, heart thumping loudly through every limb.

And then Hopper shouts, “Goddamn it, El!” and the beast explodes.

The center of it splits open like an overripe fruit, spilling ink and guts, ocean sludge, sending a burst of sea spray, a hint of a warm day on the sand, spreading over all of them before turning rancid, like rotten fish.

Robin holds the back of her hand up to her nose, eyelashes fluttering. “Oh no,” she says. “That isn’t pleasant.”

The floor rumbles and pitches sideways, and Hargrove tightens his grip on Steve, reaches out for Robin with his other hand as she loses her footing.

Hopper’s harsh voice rises above them again with, “Everyone out! This place is going to collapse, and I’m not digging out anyone’s bodies.”

*

In the aftermath, when they’re all standing in the flickering lamplight of the drive, murky dawn on the horizon, staring at the crumbled shell of Netherfield Park, someone says, “Miss Mayfield and Mr. Hargrove can stay with me,” and it takes a long, damning moment for Steve to realize that that was himself.  He blinks rapidly, feeling the loss of blood, tasting grime in the back of his throat, and adds, “Lord and Lady H too, of course. You’re all welcome.”

Robin looks at him as if he’s grown three heads. He doesn’t know how she has the energy.

She says, words heavy, “I suppose I must stay as well, then.”

Steve shrugs. He supposes she must, but all he wants to do is fall face first into his mattress and lose consciousness.

Hopper herds them all home, passing them into carriages. Steve rests his forehead against a window and closes his eyes, feels Robin slide her hand into his and squeeze. Dustin ends up with them, along with Miss Mayfield, and when they finally pull up in front of Harrington manor, he realizes there’s no Lord and Lady H, but Hargrove is up front, sprawled in the seat next to the driver.

Steve tries not to think how much monster guts is all over them all—the smell has permeated his entire being. Its starting to smell normal, but the wrinkled nose of Benny as they tiredly move inside, the aborted movement of his hand, like he wants to clap it over his entire face, reminds Steve that it is most certainly not.

“Baths,” he says. “Baths for everyone.” It’ll take hours for the water to heat, though, so he adds, “Tepid. Cool, even, I don’t care.”

Bustling into the foyer, Mrs. Peasley brings a handkerchief up to her nose, eyebrows raised, before efficiently counting out the extra rooms needed and starts up the main staircase, muttering under her breath

It’ll be fine. He currently has three extra bedrooms, excluding his own, as his parents aren’t expected home, now, until Christmas. The ladies will have their own rooms, of course, and Steve will share with Dustin.

Except Dustin zombie walks up the stairs and into the room he considers his, away from his own house, and Steve is left with the problem of Robin being unsuitable for Miss Mayfield, and also the problem that she kicks in her sleep.

He sighs. He’ll probably be too dead asleep to even notice. Deciding to let Mrs. Peasley sort out the logistics, he drags himself up to his room and slumps into a chair.

Dozing, Steve wakes with a jolt when the door bangs open.

“I’m not your valet,” Hargrove says. He’s brimming with an energy, a run-off from the fight, that puts Steve instantly on edge. He’s also dragging a small tub, with Benny a step behind him, holding two buckets of water. Huh.

He’s stripped to the waist. Steve has no idea what to do with his hands.

“Um.”

Hargrove arches an eyebrow at him, straightens up so his hands are on his hips. “Aren’t you going to say thank you?”

Benny, Steve can see, is very carefully not smiling as he pours water into the basin. It’s too small to soak in, but Steve supposes Robin and Miss Mayfield commandeered the actual baths, so he isn’t going to complain.

“Thank you,” Steve says, curling fingers over the arms of his chair. He’s frozen to the spot, struck by the surrealness of Hargrove half naked, grinning at him in his own bed chamber. He’s not sure. This could be a fever dream.

He has a gash across his chest, though, black with dried blood and monster guts, that makes Steve’s own thigh throb, reminding him that he has his own collection of cuts and bruises.

Hargrove stares at him, head cocked and eyes bright, until Benny clears his throat at the doorway. Then he jerks, blinks rapidly, and it’s the first time since they’ve met that Steve has seen Hargrove off-kilter. His shoulders, impressive already, twitch and straighten. He nods sharply at Steve, expression briefly bemused before falling blank, and then he turns to leave.

Robin sneaks in after he’s been asleep for five minutes or twenty hours, Steve has no idea. He rolls into her side and she presses ice-cold toes onto his calves and their sleep is so leaden neither of them move until the sun falls across their faces the next morning.

*

Netherfield Park is completely destroyed. A wreck of stone and wood, rock and dust, with a huge, steaming, fetid carcass in the middle of it.

Standing at the top of the front drive, Hopper pinches the bridge of his nose and sighs.

El says, “I’m sorry,” but the twist of her mouth says she’s really not.

Miss Mayfield clasps her wrist briefly in commiseration.

Deep in the bowels of the demolished manor, the rest of the Party are shouting excitedly, as if this is the best thing that’s ever happened to them. Years of insisting Netherfield Park harbored mystical mysteries finally bearing fruit. Every hunt, every stolen night sneaking into the empty halls, vindicated.

Steve’s thigh aches, and he doesn’t feel near enough awake to deal with this.  “We could leave it,” he says. They’re far enough out that perhaps only the Byers’ house would scent the repercussions, brine and rotted flesh.

Hopper sighs again.

Dustin stumbles out from under a beam and down the crumbling front steps, brandishing a slime covered hooked claw, probably wrestled out of dessicated tentacle, and says, “Steve! Do you think I can keep this?”

“No,” Steve and Hopper both say at once.

“But—”

No,” Hopper says again.

Dustin’s face drops like a kicked hound.

“Come on,” Hopper turns to Steve, “no sense putting this off.”

Steve rolls up his sleeves and wonders how the hell Hargrove got out of dealing with this as well.

“Hope you like calamari, kid,” Hopper says, and Dustin bops on his feet and says, “That’s a certain type of squid, you know. This is clearly a previously mythological creature—”

“Henderson, just grab a shovel. We’re gonna dig out all the brush and then burn the whole damn house down.”

*

The fire, as contained as they could make it, burns hot and long, and flames can still be seen high in the sky long after Steve returns home.

On the back lawn, just beyond the garden, Hargrove stares at it with narrowed eyes. “That,” he says, “was a rental.”

Steve shrugs. “You’re probably better off arguing an accidental fire than a kraken.”

“Point.” He clasps his hands behind his back, shoulders pulling tight. He looks physically pained when he says, “Thank you.”

Steve can’t help but preen a little. “You’re—”

“But this never would have happened if you’d agreed to dance with me.”

Excuse you,” Steve says, affronted. “You honestly think a thirty ton sea monster would have been put off by us dancing?”

The air smells like cinder, even this far away. Flames have died down to tendrils of black, snaking up into the quickening twilight.

Hargrove turns to him, half his face in shadow. “Well, we’ll never know, will we?”

Steve’s breath comes out in a huff of laughter. “You’re crazy.”

Hargrove’s stance loosens considerably. A hand reaches out to rub at the black smudges on Steve’s wrists, thumb pressing into his pulse point. “You need another bath,” he murmurs, the low rasp of his voice making Steve shiver.

Taking a deep breath, Steve twists his hand out of Hargrove’s grip and steps back. “Your sister and Robin will expect us for dinner,” he says. “You’re right, I should clean myself up.”

Hargrove’s grin turns reckless, leering. “Should I gather the tub for you again?”

Steve levels him a glare, and doesn’t even bother to respond.

*

As July spills into August, Steve has no idea what’s going on.

The Party seem to have finally worn themselves out of adventures, lazing about Steve’s back lawn instead of pouring over plans at the Byers’ dining room table.

At first, Steve figured perhaps Hargrove and his sister would find alternate, more permanent lodgings, or travel back to the city when Lord and Lady H left. But no. Miss Mayfield seems perfectly content, and Hargrove eyes him with barely banked heat and an otherwise unreadable expression on his face over dinner each night. Honestly, it’s fraying every end of Steve’s nerves.

It’s not like Steve can ask them to leave. It’s not like he actually wants them to, despite everything. It’s only that Hargrove likes to lounge about half-dressed—shirt untucked and unbuttoned, feet bare, smoking in the garden or dozing on a settee in the library.

Steve has stumbled upon him any number of times in the past weeks, and he feels as though his entire body is in a perpetual state of flushed.

Hargrove doesn’t even seem to notice.

Apparently everyone else does, though, because Robin and Maxine pause mid-whisper when he enters the parlor just before dinner.

“What?” he says, smoothing down the front of his shirt at their stares.

Maxine rolls her eyes and groans and says, “Please, put my brother out of… whatever this is. Misery?”

“I don’t know,” Robin says, tapping a finger to her bottom lip, “he looks like he’s having fun.”

“Then put all of us out of our misery,” Maxine says.

Steve sucks in a breath, draws himself up, and says, “You cannot be implying—

“What are you ladies talking about?” Hargrove drapes himself over Steve’s back like a harlot. The answering burn in Steve’s cheeks is frustratingly familiar.

“Billy,” Maxine says. “Billy, you can’t be serious. Please.”

Steve shrugs him off and spins to glare at him, but Hargrove’s eyes are wide with faux innocence, and Steve is very nearly close to slapping him. His fingers itch and everything.

There’s a twitch at the corner of Hargrove’s softening mouth, though. He says, “Come with me a moment, princess,” and Steve, like an idiot, goes.

*

It’s not like it’s completely a surprise, being pushed up against the library door, a fist curled in the front of his shirt. A button pops off and goes spinning across the floor to land on the plush rug, and Steve concentrates on that instead of Hargrove’s eyes, the pounding of his heart under the curl of Hargrove’s knuckles, and the warm breath ghosting across his jaw.

He says, “What do you think you’re doing?” but doesn’t bother struggling away.

He feels more than sees Hargrove’s grin—a sharp, confident thing. “Isn’t it obvious?” he says, and presses more fully against him. His other hand snakes around to palm the small of Steve’s back, and then in one smooth tug, their hips line up together.

Steve has never been in this kind of compromising position before. He’s embarrassed and half-hard and all his limbs feel like jelly. He’s slayed a kraken, and he can’t manage to push Hargrove away.

“You’re going to ruin me,” Steve says, breathless.

“Shhh.” Hargrove dips his face down and opens his mouth along Steve’s throat. “Stay quiet, and no one will know.”

It’s stupid, because Steve will know, and nothing Steve knows stays secret for very long. He definitely blames Dustin.

“The way you look at me,” Hargrove says, a hint of malicious teasing, “I’ve been a saint to wait this long.”

Steve squirms then, bringing his hands up to clutch at Hargrove’s arms. “Ass,” he says. “You’re an ass, let me go.”

“I don’t think so,” Hargrove says, and then he kisses him.

If anything, the kiss is more shocking than the press of his mouth on his throat, his hands in overly familiar places—he licks at Steve’s lips, bites down on his bottom one when Steve refuses to open, and takes full advantage of Steve’s answering gasp.

It’s lewd, sordid and completely inappropriate, and yet Steve is even harder in his pants and shivering, the grip on Hargrove’s arms moving up to loop around his neck instead.

“That’s it.” Hargrove’s fist loosens and goes flat, then slides down Steve’s stomach, body shifting back minutely so he can palm Steve’s cock.

He swallows Steve’s keen, quiets him down with gentle shushes and soft words that echo weirdly in Steve’s head, because Hargrove is touching his dick, Jesus.

Or… Billy is. Should he be calling him Billy? Now that he’s opening the front of his pants and slipping his hand—”Oh god.”

Steve can feel Billy’s teeth, his smile at the corner of Steve’s mouth, knowing and smug.

At the moment, though, Steve doesn’t particularly care.

*

Nancy hits him in the arm and says, “You didn’t,” because Steve can’t keep his mouth shut.

He buries his face in his hands and says, “What am I going to do?”

“First,” Nancy says, “you’re going to tell them to leave.”

“That would require talking to him.” Which Steve has been avoiding since this whole thing happened two days ago. It’s been entirely too easy, and that just makes him feel worse.

At meals, Hargrove sends him looks that Steve has trouble parsing. He rather hoped Hargrove would corner him again, if only just to explain himself—explain the way they panted into each other’s mouths, spent; the way Hargrove cleaned them up with a handkerchief and adjusted Steve’s clothes and then calmly went away to join Maxine and Robin for dinner.

Leaving Steve to overthink everything. To panic about the marks on his throat, the way his lips felt swollen and the horrible disarray of his hair.

And now here he is, commiserating with Nancy, of all people, and he’s sure some small part of him hopes Nancy will threaten to challenge Hargrove to a duel over his lost virtue, and then ignore Steve soundly when he tells her no.

“Will you talk to him for me?” Steve says, peeking out through his fingers.

Nancy clucks her tongue and pats him on the shoulder and says, “Oh, Steve. No.”

Steve groans.

“He wouldn’t listen to me,” Nancy says. “You know he barely tolerates anyone in Hawkins except you.”

Steve doesn’t really want to think about what that means, or if that’s changed somehow… after.

“He left the city for a scandal,” Steve says in a hushed tone, suddenly remembering Lord H’s words from months ago, linking them to Hargrove’s lack of urgency to leave the country. “What if it’s something just like this?”

“Well, then I’ll kill him,” Nancy says, head cocked and face disturbingly determined. “I’m sure Robin would help.”

*

Three days of uncertainty later, Steve awakens in the middle of the night, unsure of what’s disturbed him. His bedroom is dusky with moonlight, too bright, and he blinks up at the ceiling, trying to keep his breath deep and even.

The bed dips and he tenses.

A hand is cupped over his mouth before he can even think of screaming, and then Hargrove’s manic, grinning face is hovering over his.

Steve tries to shout, but Hargrove just leans into him further, head dipping down toward his ear.

“Quiet, Harrington,” he says, and then slips his hand down to cover Steve’s collarbone, thumb digging into the side of Steve’s throat.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Steve says in a low hiss. He tries to leverage Hargrove away with his elbows, but Hargrove moves more of his weight onto him.

When he starts going toward Steve’s blankets, Steve jerks out with a knee, untangles his hands from the covers and pushes roughly at Hargrove’s chest.

“Calm down,” Hargrove says, seemingly amused, and then he grabs for Steve’s wrists and tugs them up and over his head, pressing the backs of Steve’s hands against the bottom of the headboard.

Steve’s breathing hard, something like panic building up in his chest, and Hargrove must see it on his face, softening his grin and grip. He doesn’t let his hands free, but he shifts his body, settles next to Steve and rubs his thumbs at his pulse points until Steve feels less panicky and more bewildered.

What,” Steve says, and Hargrove—Billy—nudges his cheek with his nose and says, “I missed kissing you.”

“Um.” Steve deflates even more. He doesn’t know what to do with that. “What.”

Billy laughs. He slips his hands off Steve’s wrists, moves them down to wriggle under the covers, tugging at Steve’s already rucked up nightshirt. His touch on his bare waist burns—this is so much worse than a quick rutting in the library.

This somehow feels more deliberate, more planned, and yet Steve doesn’t know how to stop Billy from moving down to lick at his stomach, bite at the sharpness of his hip bone, Steve’s hard cock pressing up against his throat.

When Billy takes him in his mouth, circling the base with his fist, Steve gasps soundlessly, fingers gripping the sheets. The pleased hum from Billy makes Steve arch up and whine. He’d be mortified if he could focus on anything other than Billy’s tongue, and the way he has to clench his legs against Billy’s head to stop from coming immediately.

He feels ambushed. Attacked.

Steve whines again when Billy pulls away, a low laugh on his breath; a, “Shhhh, sweetheart,” uttered into his belly with a rasp.

He smoothes thumbs up and down the inside of Steve’s thighs until he relaxes, presses kisses to the join of his hip, and then slowly moves up so their chests and groins are fit together, hands framing Steve’s face.

Slowly, Billy tucks a knee under Steve’s thigh, moving his leg higher, settling deeper against him, and Steve half thinks this must be a dream: BIlly’s thrusts, the way his cockhead catches on his perineum, Steve arching against him to get him even closer. There’s a part of him that wants Billy to spread him open further. He doesn’t even remember Billy getting undressed.

Steve groans, watches the strain in BIlly’s shoulders, the way the moonlight makes his sweat-slicked body shine. He shudders, gasps, closes his eyes and lets himself fall.

*

Steve wakes up sore, sticky and definitely not alone. He takes a moment to breathe into his pillow and freak out about the warm arm thrown over his waist. His back is sweating. There’s an ankle hooked around one of his.

The late-morning August sun makes his bedroom humid and stifling. He’s afraid to move.

And then Hargrove snorts awake, presses his face into the middle of Steve’s bare back, his arm tightening around him.

Steve holds himself as still as possible, mind racing.

“Relax,” Hargrove says, voice rough.

“I am,” Steve says, blatantly lying.

Hargove huffs. “Sure.”

How can he be so nonchalant about this? Steve isn’t used to affairs. He’s kissed Nancy before, in his misspent youth, but this is something else entirely.

“What are we doing?” Steve says, low, staring at the sun glare off his window. His body involuntarily unwinds, softens, as Hargrove breathes into the nape of his neck.

“I think that’s obvious,” he says.

“Is this,” Steve swallows hard, “is this something you do often, then?”

Hargrove stills, and Steve heaves a fortifying breath and turns over to face him.

Hargrove’s curls are a mess, his eyes are unreadable. He says, “What do you think?”

“I don’t know.” Steve sits up, threads hands through his hair. “What am I supposed to think? We don’t even talk! As far as I know, this is the reason you were,” Steve hesitates briefly, but forges onward, “you were run out of wherever you’re from!”

Hargrove sits up slowly. There’s a mean pull at the corner of his lips that hooks sharply into Steve’s heart. “Of course,” he says, low and dangerous.

“I just… I just mean,” Steve says, watching wide-eyed as Hargrove unselfconsciously rises, still naked, from the bed beside him, “I’m not sure what you’re planning on. With me.”

Hargrove’s face reddens. He should look ridiculous, entirely bare, clearly searching for something to break over Steve’s head.

Steve just wants to swallow all his words and pull him back into bed.

Instead, he watches as Hargrove kicks at a pillow that’s fallen, jerks pants up his legs, leaving them unfastened as he scrubs hands over his face and through his hair. He makes a muted roar sound and glares at Steve like he hates him.

And then he shouts, “I’m planning on marrying you! You absolute idiot!”

Feeling a little like he has been hit, Steve’s mouth opens and closes dumbly, a buzzing building in the base of his stomach. Finally, he says, “Me? I’m the idiot?” Married. To this hot-headed dick. “You haven’t even asked!”

God. The horrible thing—the terrible thing, honestly, is that his flushed face is betraying him yet again, and he can’t stop the slow bloom of a smile across his mouth.

Hargrove growls, “You want me to ask?”

“That’s generally how this goes,” Steve says gamely. “Courting, we get to know each other, we marry, and then we—” he sweeps a hand across the bed.

“Fuck?” Hargrove looks smarmy and pleased now.

Steve covers his face with his hands.

Fingers grasp his wrists, though, and the bed dips as Hargrove crawls back on top of him. He moves Steve’s hands apart, kneels in front of him and guides them into the open gape of his pants until Steve moves them on his own… boldy shimmies them down Hargrove’s hips.

“We’ve fought a monster together,” Hargrove says. “My sister likes you. I’ve seen you leaking snot and still wanted to kiss you.”

“We’ll have a long engagement,” Steve says into his throat. “Mother won’t let you stay in the house.”

Billy eases down in Steve’s lap and says, “You’ll just have to leave your window open then.”

*

They go riding. With the Party.

It’s because Maxine wants to see Lucas, and Dustin wants to make sure Billy “—deserves your affection, Steve, you know how trusting you are,” and it’s sweet and not necessarily true, but if he doesn’t let Dustin have his way, Mrs. Henderson is sure to get involved.

At the lake, they leave their horses to graze, and Steve settles next to Robin on the grass, watching Hargrove chase Maxine and El through the shallow water. He can’t tell if Hargrove’s really angry at them for something, or if he’s shouting obscenities just for fun.

Most of the boys are all on the far side, pushing each other off the pier. Lucas is hesitating on the bank, clearly unsure of whether to join them or come back for Maxine. Hargrove has softened towards Lucas, but Steve fears Maxine’s proper courting years are going to be hell. He can’t wait.

“This is a terrible idea, you know,” Robin says, but she’s smiling.

Tammy is a terrible idea,” Steve says. “This… will definitely never be boring.”

The Party have started to talk about sifting through the burned out shell of Netherfield Park, going cliff hunting again, and whether or not there’s a monster at the bottom of the lake. That’s probably what all the sudden screaming is about.

“Should we go look?” Robin says. She has her eyes closed, face tipped up to the sun.

“Do we have to?”

“Harrington!”

Steve looks up to see Hargrove in knee deep water, dripping wet, holding Maxine on his back with El fending off what seems like an honest-to-god dinosaur. Hargrove looks equal parts enraged and elated.

Steve sighs and goes off to grab his sword.