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I Hate Children

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            It was mushy and disgusting, watching Joyce Byers hug her sons and the Chief’s kid. However, he wasn’t going to comment on it. The Chief’s kid had just lost her father. That Doctor Owens guy was scoping the area, and Murray had to remember that he would need to move locations soon. But that still wasn’t important right now. So, Murray let his gaze sweep the rest of their group. The little brat and the curly-haired kid weren’t back yet, but they were getting picked up from wherever WeatherTop was. The other kids were being checked over, and there were some new injuries on some of those kids. A crowd was also forming from the many people of the fair that wanted to identify the smoke.

            Maybe it was because he saw Alexei die. Maybe it was because he wasn’t there when Chief Hopper died. But Murray watched it as he scooped the area.

            He was the only one to watch the Steve Harrington kid collapse.

            “Hey!” Murray screamed, already racing to the limp form on the ground. “Medic! Medic!”

            A few minutes later and Steve Harrington was being ushered into the back of an ambulance as the brat and curly-haired kid returned. Before anyone could really react to Steve being whisked away, parents and family were being let through so that they could get to their children. It was pure chaos after that, and Murray hardly had time to breathe as he answered questions and argued with government soldiers. Once he’d signed the NDA’s and finished with questions, Murray went back to his home and began packing up, using connections to find a new place of residence.

            Once things had settled, his stuff was all out and at the new place, and he’d made sure Joyce knew he was leaving and how to contact him, it had been about three weeks.

            Which meant he had one thing more to deal with.

            “Ah, hello,” Murray stepped up to the woman at the reception desk. “I’m here to see Steve Harrington.”

            “Relation to the patient,” she asked, sounding bored.

            Murray blinked. “Is that important?”

            “Family only,” the nurse waved at him. “Not that anyone else has come to visit the kid. Not even his parents would pick up.”

            That struck Murray quite suddenly. He knew from both Nancy and Jonathan’s accounts that they could get past the hospital security easily. But had no one really come to see the kid? He’d heard Steve’s tale. Heard how he took a beating from the Russians. How he fought a Russian and won. How he was basically tortured.

            And he’d been left alone in a hospital.

            “I’m his uncle,” Murray stated. “Murray Bauman on his mother’s side.”

            “Mm-hm,” she muttered. “Room 206.”

            Murray nodded and walked up the stairs, not feeling the elevator after the stories he heard from the kids. As he walked up the stairs, he tried to remember what the curly-haired kid, the brat, and the sailor girl had said about Steve.

            There was, there was a lot he was starting to remember about what the three said. And they had left Steve alone in a hospital?

            “Darn it,” Murray hissed under his breath as he walked into the room. “Ah, kid.”

            Steve was strapped to the bed, his expression blank as he stared at the ceiling. He was wrapped up in bandages practically everywhere, peeking out from under his hospital gown. An IV drip was attached, and a heart monitor repeated a steady pace.

            “I’m not hungry,” Steve said, and my meds were already replaced.

            “Good thing I’m not a nurse,” Murray scoffed and watched as Steve’s head whipped towards him. “How are you, kid?”

            Steve blinked. “You’re that guy that was with Chief Hopper and Mrs. Byers.”

            “That I was,” Murray offered a smile. “But that isn’t what I asked.”

            The kid’s torso was clearly wrapped up. A few cuts were clearly bandaged on his legs and arms, visible by the fact he was on top of his covers. And then there was the clear marks that he had clearly been in a neck brace at some point, and a part of his neck was bandaged. A bandage was covering his right eye, and his head was wrapped too. Even a bandage was placed on the right side of his jaw. Kid looked awful.

            “Fine,” Steve said, sounding as blank as his stare as it turned back towards the ceiling. “Why are you here?”

            “Figured I’d check up on you,” he shrugged. “You look terrible. And what’s with the restraints?”

            “Attacking a doctor is frowned upon,” Steve muttered.

            “They-they knocked him unconscious,” the sailor girl had said. “They said-said they would bring a doctor. And he-he was going to-going to torture Steve. I-I had to talk.”

            Murray couldn’t blame Steve for lashing out at the doctor after everything that had happened to him.

            “And they’re not letting you go home?” Murray pressed, still rather confused by the situation.

            Steve shook his head. “No, I need someone to sign me out and promise to keep an eye on me. And, well, my parents don’t really care enough. So…”

            Steve gave a shrug and Murray’s blood ran cold. There were fourteen people who all managed to work together to defeat the monster. But not one of them had gone out of their way to check on Steve in the hospital.

            How many times had this kid gone through this experience? How many times had he been cast aside?

            “Don’t worry,” Steve made an awkward shrug through his restraints. “I’ll be fine. Always am.”

            Murray Bauman hated kids. Hated them with a passion. But, this kid…

            “Well, how do you feel about traveling?” Murray asked after a moment. “I could use a traveling companion.”

            Steve looked at Murray as if the man had grown another head.

            “I’m sorry, what?”

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            Murray Bauman hated children. That was a fact that he made very obvious the night of the fourth of July. However, he’d been alone too. It didn’t even seem right to talk about the experience in the past-tense either. So, when he saw Steve Harrington strapped to that hospital bed, he saw himself.

            It wasn’t very hard to talk the kid into a road-trip across the U.S.

            “So our base will be in Maryland,” Murray was telling Steve as the kid fiddled with the blanket wrapped around him. “We’ll spend a few weeks there, and then we’ll officially hit the road once you’re well enough.”

            Steve gave a nod. Technically, Steve wasn’t supposed to be zipping around in a car just yet. Especially not for a drive such as this one. But Murray had shoved a blindfold over Steve’s face once the sun had gotten high enough, and he wrapped the kid in blankets so tightly that the kid could only barely move.

            “The plan is to hit every known location that is related to StarCourt Mall,” Murray continued when he realized he would get no verbal response. “Create enough noise and get attention of necessary. You get the picture?”

            “Yeah,” Steve muttered back.

            It had been easy to check Steve out of the hospital. It had been easy to be his fake Uncle. What hadn’t been easy?

            Murray Bauman hated kids, but he wasn’t just going to leave this one to suffer alone thinking no one cared about him. Murray only knew a little of Steve Harrington from when Barbara Holland died, and he got asked to look into it. Nancy and Jonathan had kept him updated on Steve’s role in everything. Kid was a suicidal idiot, but that didn’t mean he needed to be alone. He wasn’t a hero. Just an idiot. A self-sacrificing idiot who needed care, attention, and to be told he was special.

            “Try to get some sleep, kid,” Murray nudged Steve gently. “I’ll wake you when we stop for food.”

            Steve, bless his heart as the southerners say, instantly went limp, letting the car rock him to sleep in his cocoon of blankets. If they didn’t get pulled over, Murray was going to really reconsider the brains of the government. Not that he hadn’t already. Now he just had to make it to his new place in Maryland, and figure out what possessed him to adopt an almost-adult-but still-a-kid from the hospital.

            Probably whatever had possessed him to adopt a Mad Russian Scientist who loved cherry Slurpees and Looney Toons. Yeah, sounded about right.

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            Robin Buckley was absolutely panicking in the Byers’ family living room. Everyone who knew was there, all watching as Joyce tried to get her to breathe. She’d shown up at the house in tears, blubbering something uncoherent, but it was clearly an emergency.

            “Come on sweetie,” Joyce was whispering, soothing the distressed child before her. “It’s alright. Everything is alright. It’s over.”

            “No!” Robin wailed. “It’s not! It’s not over! They took Steve! They took Steve!”

            Everyone’s blood suddenly ran cold as they looked around the room, searching for Steve Harrington. The missing member of their group who always arrived late, but always in the nick of time.

            “Robin?” Dustin stumbled forward, bottom lip trembling as he tried to make sense of what was being implied. “Robin? What do you mean? Where is Steve?”

            “I don’t know,” robin sobbed. “I-I went to the hospital, because my parents basically grounded me, you know. So, I finally got to go see him. But-but he wasn’t there. They-they said his uncle had checked him out.”

            “Steve doesn’t have an uncle,” Dustin frowned in confusion.

            The realization hit Dustin like a ton of bricks.

            “No. No no no no no nonononononono.”

            “What?” Mike demanded as he gripped Dustin’s shoulders. Shaking him to keep him from panicking. Not that it had the intended purpose. “What’s going on? Dustin!”

            “The Russians,” Dustin breathed out. “They-they know Steve’s name. And-and we left him alone in the hospital. His parents wouldn’t care about him. They-they must have taken Steve. The Russians took Steve!”

            Robin’s sobs came harder as her fears were voiced by someone else. Steve was gone, and they had all been too stupid to do anything about it. And without El’s powers, they had no hope of finding Steve. That, they knew for a fact.

            “I’ll-I’ll call Doctor Owens,” Joyce offered.

            But even she knew it would be a lost cause. Still, Joyce slipped the number out that had been from Hopper and made the phone call through her tears. Begging the man to tell Owens to find Steve Harrington.

            That night, the group spent their time together, huddled in the living room, scarcely eating and creating a little pile for themselves on the floor. That night, El begged her powers to come back. She’d just lost her father. Max had just lost her brother. They couldn’t bare to lose someone else.

            Her powers remained dormant, untouchable inside of her.

            And Steve Harrington remained lost.

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            “If I hear one more song by Madonna,” Murray grumbled, gripping the wheel tighter as Steve flipped through the channels. “I am going to wreck the car.”

            Steve’s expression was one of amusement at that. It didn’t take him long to find another song by Madonna.

            “That’s it!” Murray barked, instantly fishing for an old tape. “You have lost your radio privileges young man.”

            Steve chuckled this time.

            Steve Harrington didn’t really talk much anymore. Not since Murray had visited him in the hospital. The kid’s concussion was slowly fading away, and he could be moved now, but whatever Steve had been through was bad. Upon arriving in Maryland, it had taken a month and two weeks to get Steve ready to go anywhere. And now they were on the road, ready to tackle some Russians and evil government conspiracies.

            The chuckle quickly died as Steve made a face at Murray’s music choice.

            “It helps me think,” Murray defended as the soothing opera music washed over them. “Don’t give me that look. If you didn’t want to listen to my music, then you shouldn’t have made such horrible choices with the radio.”

            Steve scoffed this time, leaning back into his chair and curling further into the blankets. It was still summer, but it had also become clear that Steve hated the cold. Murray didn’t think that had anything to do with the torture, but it certainly had something to do with the Upside Down.

            “We should probably get more gas soon,” Murray muttered. “And snacks. Can never say no to snacks. Let’s get snacks.”

            Steve gave a half-hearted nod at that.

            Kids were supposed to be hard to handle. Murray knew that. He knew what he had signed up for once he agreed to adopt Steve Harrington. However, Murray would have preferred over-active kids than this. He just wasn’t sure what to do to get through to Steve.

            It didn’t take them long to get to a 7/11. Gas gotten and snacks chosen a few minutes later, and they were walking to the cash register, where there was a line.

            “Why don’t you go wait in the car,” Murray tossed Steve the keys. “I’ll pay for the stuff.”

            Steve gave a wordless nod and wandered off to the car.

            A bit of impatience and some fights later, and Murray had payed for their stuff and was headed to the car. To his surprise, however, Steve was not in the car. Instead, he was sitting next to the car, holding something in his arms, soaking wet, and a small crowd of people watching.

            “What happened here?” Murray demanded as he pushed through the crowd. “Steve, what-?”

            In Steve’s arms was a puppy, a very limp, very wet puppy. Steve seemed to be pressing on the poor thing that had clear stopped breathing, a woman crouched beside him, giving instructions. As Murray was processing this, the little puppy gave an almost gasp as it began to breathe again. Even Murray couldn’t help but cheer as the puppy opened its eyes and licked Steve’s nose. The woman, who was revealed to be a vet in training, began to look over the puppy, making sure there were no other problems.

            “Poor thing got tossed out a car window and into that ravine,” a man was explaining to Murray as Steve watched the puppy intently. “This young man just booked it and dove right in after it the moment he heard the puppy cry out.”

            Murray had carefully gotten a towel out for Steve, wrapping it around the kid as the guy explained. Poor thing had nearly been murdered. But what got Murray was that Steve didn’t even react once the towel was around his shoulders.

            “You want to keep it, don’t you?” Murray sighed in fake exasperation. Steve’s expression was hopeful. “You’ll be responsible for it. He’ll need food, and a name, and bathroom breaks.”

            “Bard.”

            Murray had to do a double take at that. Had Steve just-?

            “I want to name it Bard,” Steve explained.

            “A good name,” the woman smiled, handing the puppy over to Steve. “He’s a strong puppy right there. You’ve got yourself a fine German Shepard on your hands.”

            Weren’t German Shepard’s police dogs? Murray looked down at the squirming fuzz-ball in Steve’s arms. This thing was going to be huge. What had he agreed to?

            “Take good care of him,” the woman handed over a dog bowl, dog food, and a dog bead she kept in her car for ‘such emergencies’. “You have a brave young man with you.”

            The last comment was sent to Murray, and Murray couldn’t help but smile fondly at Steve as he cuddled the puppy dubbed Bard. This trip just kept getting interesting.

            “Time to go, kid,” Murray patted Steve’s toweled shoulder. “Let’s get that puppy all warmed up.”

            Steve was just so excited that Murray knew Bard was going to be staying for a long time. A few days later and Murray bought Bard a dog collar. Much to Steve’s utter delight.

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            Murray and Steve were checking out a another StarCourt mall. One a little too close to the Whitehouse and D.C. Though this one was in Virginia. Murray was enjoying a nice Ice Cream Cone while Steve walked by his side. It had been Steve’s idea to walk in the open, in front of the cameras, much to Murray’s protest.

            “I think we should call it a day,” Murray stated to Steve, watching the boy’s reaction.

            Steve nodded.

            It was only as Steve and Murray turned to leave that they realized they were being watched. And followed.

            “If you die,” Murray grumbled at Steve. “I will kill.”

            Steve shot a look at Murray, a look that Murray did not like. And then Steve was gone, vanished into the crowd.

            “I’m going to kill him,” Murray grumbled, looking around for a phone. “I’m am so going to kill him.”

            Murray placed a call to Doctor Owens. He wasn’t entirely sure what he said exactly, but he new it was only two minutes long, and that he was still looking for Steve from his terrible vantage point. Then, once he’d given his desperate call, he raced through the mall, looking for Steve. Murray was running around for what felt like hours before a hand grabbed onto his shoulder and tug. He nearly cried out until he noticed Steve dragging him to an exit.

            “You are so dead, kid,” Murray hissed at him.

            Steve just grinned back as they breeched the mall and raced into the parking lot. Then they were ducking cars, dancing around people, trying to make themselves unpredictable in their movement.

            But it still wasn’t enough.

            They were being followed, people were suddenly noticing the guns and screaming could be heard as they men chased them. However, the two were also close to their car, the comforting sound of Bard yelping and crying from inside the car. Steve had barely pulled open the door when Bard lunged out. Biting a guy in the shoulder.

            “Bard!” Steve gasped, yanking the puppy off the guy as Murray shoved Steve into the car. “Spit it out!”

            Bard complied, and Murray was just glad the puppy had enough sense not to release contents into the car, because that was just disgusting. Soon enough, they were peeling out of the parking lot with gun shots behind them.

            “Good boy,” Steve beamed at the bloody-mouthed pup.

            Murray couldn’t help but agree.

-----------------------------

            “He was with the Russians?” Dustin demanded, getting looks of horror from everyone. “Like, he was running away from them?”

            Doctor Owens had arrived at the scene after an anonymous call, only to realize that the Russians had another base in a Starcourt Mall. And that there were probably other places that had similar situations. However, after observing the situation, Doctor Owens caught sight of something that terrified them.

            Steve Harrington being chased by Russians.

            “I’m afraid so,” Doctor Owens stated as he glanced around the room. “The cameras don’t go far enough in the parking lot to tell what happened to Steve, but it is probably best to assume that Steve was re-captured. If not, then he will be on the run, and it will be hard to find him.”

            Max punched the table. “And what are we supposed to do?” Max demanded. “Sit here and wait? That is not happening!”

            “There isn’t much we can do,” Jonathan muttered, clearly just as frustrated as Max. “Unless we decide on a road trip.”

            “Then let’s do it!” Dustin shouted. “We can’t just leave Steve alone!”

            “Sweetheart,” Joyce whispered, pulling Dustin into a hug.

            Joyce didn’t need to say anymore. They all knew why that wouldn’t be possible.

            “I can’t find him,” El shook her head, tears in her eyes. “I can’t find him. My powers-my powers won’t”

            Mike pulled El into his chest, but he even he couldn’t prevent the tears as they fell from his face.

            “What if he’s being tortured,” Robin whimpered. “What if they-?”

            It was awful. The thought that Steve could be tortured. Again.

            “You bring him back!”

            The group gaped as Erica jumped onto the table and stuck a finger in Owens face.

            “You find him and bring him back!”

            Owens didn’t really have anything to say to that.

----------------------------

            Murray had to admit, Steve wasn’t street smart, not book smart. The kid new how to use an adrenaline rush to his advantage. He wasn’t that great of a fighter, but he was beyond kind. He had a way of charming people and befriending anyone he met.

            “On the house, hun,” the waitress smiled back at Steve. “And that lovely puppy in that car outside must be yours. I’ll get you something for the little thing on your way out.”

            Steve’s smile was wide as he carefully thanked her.

            “Sometimes I think you’re the puppy,” Murray sighed, earning a laugh from Steve.

            They had gone from Virginia to Tennessee, hoping to check out another Starcourt mall. But their last call in Virginia had brought the Russians into the light, and the better half of the American government was looking into the problem. Or, at least, they hoped it was the better half of the American government.

            “Speaking of which, we need a better cover story,” Bauman muttered, looking around the small fast-food place. “Like, what should we tell people our relationship is.”

            “Uncle.”

            Murray blinked. “Uh, yeah. Sure.”

            Steve was still short in his responses. The last time he had talked in full sentences was when he was in the hospital. Murray wondered if part of it was because of the torture he had at the hands of the Russians.

            “Uncle Bauman.”

            Murray made a face of distaste at that. “I hate children.”

            Again, Steve laughed as the waitress brought over their food. And before long, they were hitting the road, ready for the next stop as Bard gnawed at a rib the waitress had given them on their way out.

            “He’s getting bigger,” Murray observed.

            Steve smiled at the puppy. “Dog soon.”

            Yeah, that thing would be massive before they knew it.

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            They spent the first night in a hotel, and the day was also spent in the crummy hotel. With it’s walls covered in mold and the room smelling like smoke. It was, however, the only place that would accept a dog in the hotel, so they made do. They chose to spend the day in the hotel on Murray’s insistence. He did not want Steve pulling another stupid stunt.

            “Ready, kid?” Murray asked the teen as Bard nipped at the teen’s heels.

            Steve only nodded.

            They drove the short distance to the mall, parking a few parking lots over. The sight that met them as they looked over the mall was a bit disappointing. At least to Murray.

            “Looks like they beat us here,” Murray whistled.

            The mall was covered with armed trucks, helicopters, bright lights, and several soldiers. Thankfully, Steve and Murray were a good distance away that no one noticed them. Still, Steve had tensed at the sight, even with Bard nudging his hand with his snout.

            “Guess we should go to the hotel then,” Murray shrugged, patting Steve’s shoulder to try and relieve the tension that was present. “Come on, let’s-”

            “Wait!”

            Steve looked ready to faint at the sudden voice, and Murray couldn’t blame him. He, himself, had jumped a good ten feet into the air. But Bard was growling, and the puppy was a rather good judge of character, so they watched as Bard wagged his tail before turning to the people.

            They were slightly older than Steve, but definitely younger than Murray. One, the girl, was a red head with eyes that just seemed to know things. The other, the guy, was a brunet that seemed a little too cocky for Murray’s liking.

            “Okay,” Murray drawled the word. “The dog likes you, so we’re going to assume you’re not here to harm us. What do you want?”

            “To help,” the red head stepped forward. “My name is Francine, and this is Ricky. You have already met another like us. Steve more than you, Mr. Bauman.”

            Murray was about to lash out at these creeps, but Steve sucked in a breath.

            “El.”

            Francine nodded, a soft smile on her face as she carefully revealed her own tattoo, giving her the identity of 006.

            “We want to help,” Francine repeated. “There are other places, where the Russians have set camp. After tonight, Doctor Sam Owens will have shut down the places where Starcourt Malls have been placed. But there are others.”

            “And how do you know this?” Murray questioned. He didn’t care if these were people like the Chief’s kid. There was no way he was going to just trust them. “Some crazy kids show up, and we’re just supposed to go with the flow?”

            “You’ll go along with it,” Ricky chuckled, making Murray growl. “But let me show you this, first. Then you’ll understand.”

            Murray took the file Ricky offered, scowling the whole time. And then he opened the file. Murray couldn’t help how his breath hitched at the words. He couldn’t help how he paled at the detailed report. He couldn’t help how he struggled to breathe at the images.

            “If this is a lie,” Murray growled, keeping the file away from Steve. “I swear…”

            We recovered that file a few days ago,” Francine quickly soothed, shooting a look at Ricky. “But Ricky and I are needed elsewhere. We were hoping to pass everything we know onto you. You could finish what was already started.”

            “And where will you be?” Murray questioned, glancing between the two skeptically.

            “Eleven’s powers haven’t returned,” Ricky gave a nonchalant shrug. “We plan on helping her out a bit. Once we’ve got her back on her psychic feet, we’ll be back to helping you.”

            “Is she?” Steve cut himself off but said no more. He hardly said more than two words to anyone, so Murray wasn’t surprised by Steve’s reaction.

            “She’s alright,” Francine smiled at Steve, stepping forward to take one of his hands. “Frazzled, missing her father, and worried about you. But we’ll have her back on her feet. That, I promise you.”

            Steve seemed relieved. “Don’t tell.”

            Francine gave a nod, understanding on her features. “We won’t. I promise we won’t say anything to her. Or anyone.”

            Steve nodded. With that, Francine entrusted the rest of the files to Murray, and the odd couple vanished into the night. The other files were of locations, people, and information on the Russian plans. There were even some hints that the corrupt part of the American government was working with the Russians, but not enough information on those things. There were even a few files that made them turn green. Images of people, ranging from newborn babies to adults, being experimented on were shown. There were three locations currently in Tennessee, and all within a certain distance of each other.

            “Hotel first,” Murray told Steve once he closed the file. “We make a game plan tomorrow and execute it later. Alright?”

            Steve gave a nod.

            Murray showed Steve every single file. Let him ruffle through each of them before bed. However, there was one file Murray would not let Steve touch. One file that Murray felt sick at the sight of. He’d have to hunt for more information on that file as they went along. But for now, he would spare Steve the pain of what he knew now. The kid would be angry later, but he could live with that for now. For now, he would let Steve sleep, curled up with Bard the ever-growing puppy.

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            The Byers had eventually settled into their new home when Six and Three came for a visit.

            “Please, call me Francine,” the red head smiled at them. “And this is Ricky. He can be cocky, so you can just ignore him.”

            “Hey!”

            Joyce chuckled, relieved as she watched Ricky made her son and new daughter laugh. It was heart-warming to watch. To see them put the bad behind them and just laugh.        

            “My ability is to catch glimpses of the future,” Francine began again. “I can’t always control what I see, but I get an almost clear picture. And I know that Eleven needs our help because of these images. Her powers are a great part of her, and if they don’t return, it could have severe consequences.”

            Let it be known that Joyce Byers wasn’t a fool. “And how do I know you won’t just use her?”

            Francine seemed both pleased and impressed with this response. “I am glad you doubt. I’d think you crazy if you let us go ahead with this. But, in all honesty, Ricky can answer that question better than I can.”

            Ricky’s expression became morbid very quickly. “I’d rather not.”

            That was all the answer that Joyce needed to hear. But still…

            “And your power,” Joyce insisted. “Can it find people?”

            Francine nodded. “Yes, but only in the future. I cannot find anyone’s current location.”

            Joyce nodded, biting her lip.

            “If I said yes,” Joyce paused, biting her lip and crossing her legs as she leaned forward about three centimeters. “If I said yes, could you find someone for me? Even in the future would be nice.”

            Francine was all soft at the request, “of course.”

            Later that night, Francine used her powers.

            “The image I saw was of him pulling away from a hug with a kid with curl hair and a camp-baseball cap,” Francine described. “He then got punched in the shoulder by a girl with short blonde hair and light freckles. They hugged after that, both grinning. And they were in front of a Family Video store.”

            Joyce wasn’t sure when this future would be, but she found relief in the fact that Steve was, in fact, going to come back to them.

            “Would you both like to stay for the night?” Joyce offered the two, watching El and Will light up for the first time since Steve went missing. “We have a guest room. But if you prefer not to share, we can always use the couch.”

            “We’ll take the guest room,” Ricky grinned, earning a jab from Francine and a cheer from the kids. “Thank you, Mrs. Byers.”

            It was odd having people in the guest room. Most nights, when Joyce stairs at the door that always remained cracked, she would hope it was Steve occupying the space. Those nights, she wished all of them were here, just so she knew each of them were safe.

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            Murray and Steve were hitting up places left and right for about three months. Their plans consisted of using the information they had to find bases, then they would infiltrate those bases and find more information on other places the Russians had. Once the information was obtained, they would pass on a modified version of the information they obtained to higher-ups. They’d stick around long enough to watch the place go up in smoke and then move on.

            “я хочу еды,” Steve whined out, getting a whimper from Bard too.

            And that-that was another thing Murray had done. He’d taken it upon himself to teach Steve Russian, Morse code, and a bit of French. The latter was just for fun, but Murray was regretting teaching Steve anything at this point because the kid used what he was learning to his advantage. The kid was bright in his own sense, and Murray could tell why the kid had suffered in a school setting.

            “We ate three hours ago,” Murray hissed back, rather irritated at the two. “Honestly. “We are almost to the hotel. We’ll get settled, and then we can go buy snacks.”

            Steve moped in the passenger seat, the now large form of Bard draped across him as he wrapped himself, and the dog, in thick blankets.

            Christmas had come and gone, as had New Years. It was now February and Murray and Steve had been close companions since August, nearly seven months. They’d been fighting Russians, saving lives, and protecting their country together for nearly just as long. Steve had upgraded to full sentences, but he never spoke for very long.

            “See, look, we’re here,” Murray flaunted the actual decent looking hotel.

            They actually had money now, thanks to Steve. He would pick up odd jobs while Murray would come up with their next breaking-and-entering plan of wherever they needed to go. Murray still got paid by his employers too, but now that his resume had sky-rocketed, so had the job offers.

            “One of the big ones,” Steve suddenly spoke up as Murray parked.

            Murray eyed Steve cautiously as the latter held up a file. And as Steve flipped it open, Murray’s eyes widened.

            “You can’t be serious,” Murray spluttered.

            Steve’s expression told the man that the kid was dead serious. The file Steve was holding was one of the Russian Labs where they were secretly experimenting. It was one of the labs Murray had been dying to look at but hadn’t yet been able to.

            “Are you sure?” Murray pressed. “Steve, we don’t have to do anything you don’t want to.”

            “Want to,” Steve insisted. “I want to.”

            Murray could work with that, actually. He’d been dying to get more information on the private file that Ricky had handed him. And maybe he could figure out more of what the Russians had done to make Steve want to stop talking.

            “Want to save the people,” Steve unclipped a photo.

            Murray gave a dramatic sigh, “Give me a few days and I’ll think of something.”

            Steve nodded back his gaze shifted back to the folder as he closed it and unwrapped himself, and Bard, from the many blankets.

            “Welcome to Vermont, kid,” Murray ruffled Steve’s hair, much to Steve’s protest.

------------------------

            Erica just sort of stared as her family finally took down their Christmas tree. Erica was smart, a genius in her own right, but she was still just a kid. And that year, she had asked Santa for a very special gift. Like all children, Erica finally stopped believing in Santa Claus because her gift had not come that year, but Erica’s situation was a bit different than most kids.

            “Sweetheart, could you hand me that box,” Mr. Sinclair requested, not yet looking at his daughter. “Erica?”

            Mr. Sinclair turned to see his daughter’s expression blank and far away, though she was staring directly at the Christmas tree.

            “Santa isn’t real, dad,” Erica whispered out after her father probed her.

            “What makes you say that?” Mr. Sinclair sat beside his daughter. “Was someone making fun of you at school?”

            Erica shook her head. “I didn’t get what I wanted,” she whispered. “Santa, he’s supposed to do anything, right? He’s supposed to make birthday wishes come true, no matter what? As long as there are good boys and girls?”

            “Of course,” Mr. Sinclair pressed. “What is this about, Erica? Didn’t you get everything on your list?”

            Erica shook her head. “I wrote a letter to Santa,” Erica sniffed. “And I sent it off. But Santa, he didn’t give me what I really wanted for Christmas.”

            “And what was that, sweetheart?”

            “I wanted Steve to come home,” Erica admitted. “I asked Santa to bring Steve home.”

            And then, strong, sassy, brave-hearted Erica Sinclair burst into tears. There was nothing her father could say to convince her that everything would be alright. He did, however, catch his son sliding down the wall in tears of his own.

------------------------

            Infiltration was getting way too easy, and it had both Steve and Murray on edge. But they managed. The two had agreed to split up, because they had two jobs to complete. Get more information and find the experiments. Thankfully, Bard was with Steve, easing Murray’s worry exceptionally.

            “Come on, you old piece of junk,” Murray hissed at the computer as he tried to download the data. “Come on. We don’t have time for this.”

            Murray wished the dang computer would just listen. But then he was greeted with the sound of sirens and people yelling. He was going to kill Steve if the kid got captured. What felt like hours later, Murray was taking the disk from the computer and racing to find Steve.

            Thankfully, Steve found him.

            “Get in!” Steve shouted as he pulled up beside Murray in one of those cart-car things. “I’ve got them. Distraction!”

            Murray nodded and jumped into the cart. He wasn’t sure what the distraction was, but it had people occupied. And there were gunshots coming from the opposite direction. Glancing back, Murray could see three people with Bard in the back. One adult and two children. Murray frowned.

            “Gone,” Steve stated.

            Oh. Murray knew what that meant. And even if the bodies had still been there, Steve would not have been able to grab them.

            Before any of them knew it, they were back in Murray’s truck, peeling away from the place and back towards the hotel.

--------------------------

            Francine knew when others had been saved. They weren’t all created under Brenner, but they were similar. She had seen them weeks ago, had seen the events that would save them.

            “It’s done,” she whispered to Ricky.

            Ricky let out a breath of relief before curling around Francine.

            “Good,” he breathed back.

---------------------------

            The adult was a man, about Francine and Ricky’s age, and he was very much a Russian. Murray held most of the conversation with him, and he spoke of monsters and needles, raving like mad. The other two, two girls, were Russian and American.

            “I was four,” the American girl said. “She was a baby. Her parents sold her, I think.”

            Steve grimaced at that.

            “Do you have names?” Murray asked them, curiously.

            “Allison,” she declared. “This is Milena.”

            Steve smiled at them both, watching as Milena played with Bard. The plan was to drop them off at a point where they could meet with government officials to answer questions. However…

            “I know that look,” Murray scoffed. “The answer is no. I don’t do kids.”

            The others were asleep by that point, and Murray and Steve were on the back deck, Basking in the darkness.

            Steve pointed to himself.

            “No, the answer is still no,” Murray shook his head, pulling a face at the teen. “I let you keep the dog.”

            The moment Bard’s head was in his lap, he knew he had lost the argument.

            Before Murray knew it, he was on the road with Ally and Milena, ready for their next adventure in taking down the Russians. Thankfully, the adult was picked up by the American government, where he handed over the information and was taken someplace safe.

            It had been a busy few months, and Murray was just ready to relax. Of course, that wasn’t possible yet. Maybe in the future.

------------------------------

            As time passed, they saved more people, shut down more organizations, and uncovered many conspiracies. Murray’s drive was always that of the file that Francine and Ricky gave them, and he still refused to give it to Steve. To show Steve. Bard had grown, and he was still an excellent judge of character. But somewhere down the line, they had also adopted another little puppy. This one was a Pomeranian that Steve named Buckley. Murray felt like there was some sort of connection there, but he wasn’t entirely sure. Ally and Milena were growing up too, happy and healthy as they followed Murray and Steve everywhere.

            It took six years for Murray to find his lead.

--------------------------------

            “What are we looking for?” Ally asked, Milena peeking from behind the older girl.

            Murray didn’t answer.

            “Uncle Bauman?”

            Murray turned to where Steve’s stared at him, worry creasing his brow. He still remembered when Steve had told him of that time, almost 36 hours, with a bunch of Russians.

            The hotel was dark, both girls asleep. Buckley was not yet a part of their group yet, but Bard was fully grown and a good two years old at the time. Murray and Steve were on the back porch, as they often preferred to do after a job well done of chasing Russians.

            “They had me for a day, maybe longer,” Steve suddenly spoke. “I’m not sure.”

            Murray knew what this was, and he knew Steve still used sharp sentences. He was determined to let the boy take his time.

            “I don’t know if they did anything to Robin,” Steve continued. “Before. But they beat me.”

            Murray couldn’t help his intake of breath, even as Steve froze. After a moment, he continued.

            “I was out, and I was drugged too,” Steve whispered. “They-Dustin got us out. But…”

            Murray was already out of his seat, pulling Steve close.

            “Never again.”

            And that was a promise.

            Murray stared into Steve’s worried gaze, taking in those features of the kid that had practically become his.

            “This is solely a rescue mission,” Murray told Steve. “Someone important is here, and they need to be saved. Alright? You’ll know them when we see them.”

            Steve’s brow pinched, but he nodded and let Murray lead the way. Murray just hoped they were right. He’d been observing the file and finding new information for as long as he could manage. And to think he was so close to figuring out if Francine and Ricky were right?

            It was too overwhelming.

            Buckley growled and the group instantly ducked into an alcove.

            Shouting in Russian as two men bickered could be heard, but they were also dragging a body of some sort. A very limp body. Murray couldn’t see the face, but he could tell the person had been in captivity for some time, if the thinness of the body itself, and the dead-greasy-long hair was anything to go by.

            “Milena, Ally,” Murray whispered to them. “Your turn.”

            Both girls gave a sharp nod before moving forward. Before anyone could blink, the two men were on the ground and the limp body was cradled between the two terrifying girls. Steve, Murray, and the two dogs were instantly by the body, turning him over.

            “Not him?” Steve asked.

            Murray shook his head, instantly lifting the body over his shoulder as the girl began to rummage through the guards’ pockets. Then the girls were duct-taping the guards to the wall as Steve and Murray dressed in their uniforms.

            “Let’s find a lift and find our real target,” Murray muttered, more to himself than the others.

            It wasn’t hard to find a lift, and it wasn’t hard to find their prison unit. As Murray suspected, most of the cells were quite empty. They had seven people in total, but none of which were who he was searching so desperately for.

            “Hopper isn’t here, then.”

            Murray froze for a second before whipping around to face the sad face of Steve. And, darn it all, he had tried to protect the kid from this position of disappointment. But of course, Steve was clever, and he had easily found the file. Murray just wondered how long he had known.

            “I guess not,” Murray whispered to him. “I’m so sorry, kid.”

            “Вы!” an angry voice cried out, making both Steve and Murray whip around. “Взять его! Закрой его!”

            Murray could not believe their luck. “Да, да, конечно. Хорошо. Да.”

            “Да сэр.” Steve quickly said.

            Murray, who was being scowled at, gratefully took the limp form from the Russian with a strained smile. The man growled at him and sent a nod to Steve before vanishing around the corner with the two other guards that had originally been holding the limp figure. The moment the Russians were deemed far enough away, Steve was at his side, carefully lifting the limp figure with a hitch if his breath.

            “Hop,” Steve whimpered as he tugged the limp, frail body away from Murray. “Hop?”

            “Put him with Ally and Milena,” Murray told Steve. “Dry your tears. We need to get out of here.”

            Steve gave a nod as he gently laid Hopper in the back with the other escapees, the girls, and the dogs.

            “Drive,” Steve’s voice was cold as he settled into the passenger seat.

            By the time they had managed their escape, the warning siren had only just been raised.

--------------------------

            “Murray,” Hopper coughed out as the older man regulated the water he was giving the mad. “What-?”

            “Breathe, Jim,” Murray scolded as Hopper continued to cough. “You’re safe, now. We’ve got you.” 

            “We?” Hopper questioned.

            Murray could tell the moment that Hopper saw Steve, because his eyes widened. Murray could also tell that Steve seemed frozen, staring at Hopper from over Murray’s head.

            “Steve?” Hopper grunted out, still trying to form words.

            “Hop,” Steve sank onto the floor beside Hopper’s head. “I-I-”

            Then Steve was sobbing, his hair brushing against Hopper’s nose as he sobbed. Murray gave Hopper a few more sips before he backed off, letting the two have their moment.

            Murray wasn’t sure what happened, not exactly, but as they began their road-trip back to Hawkins, Steve never stopped taking care of Hopper. Ever. Whenever they ate, Steve would always make sure Hopper ate first. Whenever Murray decided Hopper needed another drink, Steve became the one to regulate sips. Whenever Hopper needed the bathroom for anything, Steve was the one to help him. Whenever Hopper was too hot or too cold, Steve would find a way to fix the temperature. Steve helped everything.

            “What happened to him?” Hopper asked one night as Steve slept, curled at Hopper’s side. “While I was gone. What happened?”

            “I hope you’re ready for a long night then, Jim,” Murray pulled up a chair. “There is a lot that needs to be talked about.”

            And so Murray told Hopper everything he knew. Everything he remembered. Hopper was not at all happy about Steve and the hospital situation, but he thanked Murray.

            “He doesn’t really have anyone else, you know?” Hopper said after a moment. “I checked up on him after Billy Hargrove beat him up. But his parents don’t care, and Steve would never press charges. Had half a mind to drag him to the cabin a few times, but I didn’t want the kid to hate me.”

            “He’d have gone,” Murray spoke up. “Maybe not at first, but he’d have gone with you. If you offered and pressed a couple of times.”

            He’d like to think he knew Steve enough by now to understand the kid.

            “He’d have liked to go with you,” Murray stated as he watched the steady rise and fall of Steve’s chest.

            Hopper eyed Steve and then tried to pull the kid close. Except, Steve wasn’t a kid anymore. It had been six years, and Steve had grown into someone else. A better person who protected those he loved and refused to speak, afraid to give the wrong answer. And that was okay, because that was who Steve was now.

            “I think he wants to go home,” Murray confessed gently. “He wants to go home, so we’ll take you both home.”

            Hopper smiled softly and let himself drift off as Murray and Bard kept watch. Buckley was curled up with the girls, but the puppy was a light sleeper, and far deadlier than Bard could ever hope to be.

----------------------------

            Owens met them first, already taking the many saved people away, and waiting for the others to arrive before he swept up Hopper. Dustin charged at Steve the moment he saw him, and Robin punched Steve in the shoulder before hugging him too. They were all grinning like idiots, and Dustin was talking a mile-a-minute to Hopper. Hopper couldn’t stop grinning.

            Mike broke down when he saw Hopper, just completely collapsed like Steve had. He promised they kept the door open three inches whenever El visited, and they tried not to be too gross, and they watched Chicago Fire every Friday, even if they weren’t in the same place, just to honor him. Lucas and Max were both messes too, and Erica had been smart enough to bring tissues, but they were laying on the ground as she clung to Steve and called him an idiot. Nancy eventually picked them up and shared them with Robin after she got a turn to hug Steve to death.

            The Byers reunion was ten-times more emotional because while El was curled around her father, Joyce was both berating Steve and mumbling how grateful she was he was back. Jonathan and Will both managed to get turns in to hug Steve and welcome him home as Joyce continued to go back and forth.

            And then he had arms full of El as Joyce went to Hopper.

            “Found you,” El sighed, clearly satisfied. “I finally found you.”

            “Yeah,” Steve chuckled. “Yeah you did.”

            Ally and Milena ended up traveling a bit more with Murray, but before Steve knew it, he was moving into the Byers-Hopper house.

            Steve had never been happier.