Actions

Work Header

Long Live The Kings

Chapter Text

“The best thing we can do for them now is to go back to the surface and get help,” Dustin said firmly.

Erica pouted, clearly not thrilled with the idea of doing the ‘safe’ option. Dustin wasn’t exactly thrilled about his decision either, but realistically, he was stuck in an air vent in a secret Russian base accessible only by a terrifying elevator disguised as a storage room in the new mall with Steve and Robin MIA, presumed captured by Russian soldiers hell bent on destroying the country by opening up a gate to another dimension. And he had his friend’s ten-year-old sister for company.

Only in Hawkins.

Two years ago, he might have had Erica’s sense of invincibility. Hell, he definitely empathised with it. It had been the same feeling he’d had when he, Lucas and Mike had snuck out in the middle of the night to look for their friend in a storm. Perhaps if one of the Party was with him, he might have considered it. If it had been Hopper or Joyce with him, or even Nancy or Jonathan, he would have been doing what Erica was doing, demanding to go help his friends. But it was Erica fucking Sinclair. And all those familiar qualities that he recognised all too well as his own, when being repeatedly shoved in his face by this ten year old – a ten year old who hadn’t hesitated to believe him when he told her stories about Demogorgons and other dimensions and a superpowered friend that would have had any rational person who hadn’t seen them for themselves scoffing, laughing or quite possibly institutionalising him – only set him more on edge about her naivety and youth.

Truth be told, her company only made him feel more alone than he’d ever been in his life.

And she was talking, by god she was talking. Words drifted through his thoughts… they’d do the same for you… what do you think will happen to them without us… how will they get out without help… what if the grown ups decide it’s too dangerous… It got on his nerves. He forced himself to think about Steve and Robin, how less than a year ago Steve had tried to talk the Party out of helping Will and Eleven by setting fire to the tunnels because it was a stupid risk to all their lives. How terrified he had been when a pack of Demodogs rushed towards them all. How Steve had rushed to get everyone out of the tunnels as fast as possible without giving a thought to himself. How he’d pulled Dustin close as the Demodogs rushed past them, more by luck than anything, because Steve had promised Nancy that he would keep her brother and his friends safe.

Dustin looked at Erica, as though seeing her for the first time. The similarities between her and Lucas suddenly became much more pronounced. He’d never noticed how her nose was exactly the same shape as her brother’s. He thought about what Lucas would do if anything happened to Erica. He thought about what Lucas would do to him if anything happened to Erica because of his choice. He tried to think about what something happening to Erica would do to Lucas, but found that he couldn’t even contemplate that.

He thought about what Steve had done all those months ago, and what he would say if he was here.

His mind was made up. And it would not be changed.

Chapter Text

Something in those drugs was making his vision swim.

Ok, there was a possibility it wasn’t the drugs, and was instead the repeated punches to the stomach, the concussion from one too many blows to the head, and the massive adrenaline rush that had come from nearly having one of his fingernails pulled out. But honestly the drugs weren’t exactly helping.

Steve barely heard Robin babbling about them picking up the message, barely heard her taunting them about how they were a couple of kids who cracked their secret code, about how they scooped ice cream for a living… A part of him wanted to join in as those words vaguely penetrated his awareness but the wave of nausea that was threatening to make him empty his stomach clamped his mouth shut.

He involuntarily shivered as the nausea passed, leaving only a blinding awareness of just how cold it was in that room. Evidently the Russians missed the freezing cold winters and arctic winds, and so were overcompensating by keeping this secret lair nice and cool. Well, it was either that or else just another side effect to the aforementioned drugs, stomach punches, concussion and adrenaline rush.

The Russians evidently decided that Robin was the more talkative of them, so directed the next question to her.

“What do you know about the Gate?”

Steve could have screamed in relief that the question wasn’t about who they worked for. But he still wasn’t thrilled by the prospect of telling a group of decidedly unfriendly Russians all about another dimension filled with Demogorgons and Mind Flayers and Shadow Monsters and god knows what else. Particularly not when they were trying to get access to this other dimension.

“Nothing,” he heard Robin say. “I don’t even know what that thing is, I’ve never seen anything like it before.”

Steve tried his best to look innocent, or at least ignorant, but his head was so fuzzy that as he looked up at the doctor, he was sure all he looked was exhausted. It took most of his energy to lift his head, and his jaw went slack. The doctor looked at something above Steve’s head – most likely the General – before suddenly the pliers were back on his fingernail.

“What do you know about the Gate?” the General repeated.

“Wait – what are you – please-” Steve started to stammer.

“I told you, I’ve never seen anything like that before in my life!” Robin’s voice rose half an octave.

“Last chance…”

“No, no – wait-”

“I don’t know anything!”

Steve barely heard his own scream as the doctor pulled. The room lurched sideways as his vision rocked, his head fell against his chest as he closed his eyes to everything. The pain in his hand was excruciating, his heart was pounding. He barely heard a thing over the pounding in his ears but he could definitely feel the scream tearing at his throat.

Slowly his senses came back to him. He felt himself breathing fast, too fast, and tried to force it to return to a normal pattern. His hearing returned slowly, enough to hear Robin’s panicked voice.

“…Steve! Steve, talk to me! Steve! Steve, are you ok? For god’s sake, Steve!

He didn’t have it in him to talk just yet as he realised he’d closed his eyes. He slowly opened them. The room was still spinning and everything was blurry. He blinked to try and put his vision in focus, and then blinked a few more times when it didn’t immediately work. Finally his vision eased into its usual clarity, and the nausea suddenly hit him again in full force at the sight that greeted him.

His left hand was curved around the arm of the chair, slack. Almost in a dream he twitched his middle finger, dimly aware of the throbbing pain at the end of it, a shadow of what had come a second ago. He had to swallow his nausea as he saw that where his other fingers ended in relatively neat fingernails, his middle finger ended in a bloody mess, the constant bleeding swallowing up the sight of whatever wound it was. He vaguely saw the doctor drop something onto an aluminium tray, a light tap as it hit the metal. He baulked as he focused on it, and realised it was his missing fingernail, torn at one end, covered in blood – was it really that long, or did it go that deep into his finger?

The doctor handed the tray to the General, and he held it out for Robin to see. Robin finally fell silent, and Steve felt the chairs jolt as she recoiled. A shiver ran down his spine at the General’s next words.

“Your friend has nine more fingernails and ten more toenails. I would suggest that you are honest with me from now on.”

Steve’s breathing started coming shallow and fast. Any control he had regained over his breathing was gone as the doctor lined up the pliers on the fingernail on his ring finger.

“Tell me,” the General said. “What do you know about the Gate?”

“Please…” Robin begged. She sounded close to hysterical. “Please, I don’t know anything about any gate… Please believe me… we scoop ice cream! I’m just trying to earn some money for a road trip to Nashville in the fall… I don’t know anything about any gates!”

“She doesn’t know anything,” Steve finally said, surprising himself with how hoarse his voice sounded. “I don’t really know much either.”

The General walked back round to come face to face with Steve. The doctor remained where he was, pliers still clamped around his fingernail, but unmoving.

“Tell me what you do know,” the General said coldly.

Steve’s breath hitched in his chest before he started babbling. “I – I don’t know when it opened for the first time – or how – but it was about two years ago. This – this thing, this… this creature – came through it – I don’t even know what it was – and it killed my girlfriend’s best friend. Well, I say girlfriend – she’s not my girlfriend anymore – she broke up with me-”

There was a crack and Steve gasped as the General backhanded him across the face. “I did not ask about your girlfriend. Tell me about this creature.”

“I… I don’t really know what it was, I – I only saw it once, we tried to fight it – my… my girlfriend and I, and – and her friend – well, now her boyfriend – it took his brother, I – I don’t really know how he survived but he did-”

“Steve!” Robin shouted.

“But – but anyway, we – we tried to trap it somehow – it didn’t really work, it escaped, but I think something else must have stopped it, because – because her friend’s brother came back-”

“Steve!” Robin’s interjection was more pronounced, and finally Steve stopped talking. His head was reeling as he tried to go over everything he’d just said. He was breathing hard. He’d… He’d…

He’d just told the Russians all about Will.

Even Robin, who’d had no idea about any of it, had known he should have stopped talking, but he hadn’t been able to help himself. The drugs, the adrenaline, the fear… He’d been terrified of losing a fingernail, so he’d put Will Byers straight in the crosshairs of a group of evil Russians.

Russians who had no qualms about torturing an eighteen year old boy.

His nineteenth birthday was coming up in September. He’d been planning a big party at his house. His parents, predictably, were away on business but he had a feeling they were deliberately giving him some space this year. Certainly his dad had turned a blind eye to the slowly growing stockpile of beer in their cellar. He’d always thought his dad was an asshole while he was growing up – he’d certainly had more than a few flings with attractive young secretaries and didn’t have the best track record as a husband even when he wasn’t cheating – but since graduating, Steve had come to realise that, as a father, his dad did care about him and wanted the best for him. It was just that he and Steve had never agreed on what ‘the best for him’ was.

And now Steve was going to die in a Russian spy lair, with a girl he had no idea how to tell that he liked her, having sold out his friends. And he was going to die in a fucking sailor’s uniform.

“The brother,” the General said. “What was his name?”

“What?”

“The brother who was… ah, taken… by this creature – what was his name?”

Steve clamped his jaws together and shook his head. “No,” he said through gritted teeth.

Excuse me?

“No… no, I’m not telling you,” Steve said defiantly.

The General grabbed Steve’s face in one hand and yanked it up so he was looking directly into his eyes. “Do you need a reminder of the pain?”

Steve just stared back, trying to glare as best he could.

“We will find out one way or another. We can find your old girlfriend, we can find her current boyfriend, and we can find his brother. It would not take long. The only difference is how much pain you go through.”

Steve kept his teeth gritted as he let out a growl.

Go to hell.”

The General nodded at the doctor, who finally pulled. The doctor was pulling it out more slowly than he’s pulled the last one, so Steve could feel it ripping away from the nailbed much more clearly than he remembered the previous nail. He closed his eyes and pushed his head back, biting back the scream with his gritted teeth, letting a pained groan. He didn’t quite succeed as the nail came free and his jaw unclenched involuntarily, and he cried out in agony. His head swam again as he gasped for breath, still not quite sure which way was upright. He heard the soft tap of the nail in the tray again but he kept his eyes closed this time.

As his head continued to swim, he felt something pull it up by his hair, and felt a hand tapping his face gently.

“Come on,” the General’s voice was saying. “Come on Butterscotch, open your eyes.”

Steve found it inherently odd hearing himself called Butterscotch, even more so hearing himself called Butterscotch in a thick Russian accent, but he indulged himself in another moment of keeping his eyes closed, a moment of petty defiance.

A moment too long, evidently. He was jolted into opening his eyes as the gentle tapping to his cheek changed abruptly to a sharp slap. He winced and opened his eyes.

“I will ask again,” the General said, nodding at the doctor, who once again lined up the pliers onto Steve’s little fingernail. “The name. Please.”

“Will Byers!”

Steve started at the shout. He’d almost forgotten Robin behind him.

“It was Will Byers, wasn’t it, Steve?”

Steve closed his eyes and let out a breath he hadn’t known he’d been holding. He opened his eyes to see the General and the doctor looking at him expectantly. “Yeah,” he breathed. “Will Byers.”

His whole body collapsed in defeat against the restraints holding him to the chair. The General stood upright and folded his arms across his chest.

“So this… Will Byers… comes back, and that is the end of it? The Gate closes?”

Steve doesn’t quite understand this assessment. Evidently something shows on his face, because the General cocks his head curiously.

“Or is it the end?”

Steve nods, hoping against hope but knowing deep down that it will do nothing. “Yeah, that was the end of it,” Steve said breathlessly. “Gate closed until you guys decided to open it up again.”

Steve looks up at the General in what he wished was a winning, rather than desperate, smile.

“What happened next, Butterscotch-”

The General broke off as a whooshing sound suddenly echoed in the corridor. A second later, a soldier not much older than Steve came bursting into the room and said something very fast in Russian. The General looked alarmed for the first time since the interrogation had started.

“Skazhi Grigori nayti Will Byers,” the General said to the doctor. The doctor nodded smartly and left the room. The General then looked down at the two teenagers.

“We will find Will Byers,” he said threateningly. “And we will find that curly haired friend of yours.”

For the first time since Steve had found himself losing fingernails, Steve managed a genuine cocky smile. “You sure about that?”

The General spared him one final look of utter distain, before walking out after the young soldier. But Steve at last felt a little bit of hope.

The sound that had caused so much alarm had been the sound of the elevator.

-:-

“So what’s the plan now?” Erica said belligerently.

“We sneak back into the mall,” Dustin said, leading the way down the corridor. “It’ll be too suspicious if we’re seen around the loading bay, and we don’t know how many other Russians there are. So we get back into the mall and walk out the front door like we’re just a couple of kids going shopping.”

“And then what?”

“Then we find Hopper and we tell him what’s going on.”

“Great.”

“Do you have a better idea?”

“Yeah.”

“Does the idea involving you using that cattle prod?”

Erica swung the electric cattle prod that she’d picked up from the cart they’d found in the Russian base in a satisfied way. “Yep. Go back down and take out Commies using this thing.”

Dustin shook his head at the relish in her voice as she said that. “Yeah, well, my way doesn’t get us all killed.”

“No, it just gets your friends and the Chief killed.”

That was a sore spot. “It won’t do that,” Dustin snapped vehemently.

“I’m just saying,” Erica said coolly. “You’re putting an awful lot of faith in an alcoholic with a gun.”

“He’s not an alcoholic,” Dustin bit back. “And I’ve seen him in action, he’s the best chance Steve and Robin have. And also…” Dustin stopped and rounded on her. “Even if he was an alcoholic, how is using that to insult him helpful to anything?”

Erica recoiled away from Dustin defensively. “Okay, sorry, Jesus…”

Dustin shook his head again and started back down the corridor towards the door. They opened it – thank God Steve had forgotten to lock it – and found themselves in the back room of Scoops Ahoy. The store was still completely locked up at the front, but beyond the grill they could still hear the chatter and noise of people still out shopping.

“Okay,” Dustin said, sitting down at the table and pulling out the radio. “I’m going to try and get hold of Mike or Lucas or Will or someone, see if they know where Hopper is, and then we get out of here.”

“Great,” Erica said in that dry tone of hers, before wandering towards the door to the main shop. “I’m going to go enjoy some free samples.”

“Wait – wait – wait-” Dustin called after the swinging door. “Erica!”

Erica ignored him, and Dustin made the call that life was too short.

He started to tune the radio, and settled on a channel.

“Anybody, do you copy? Mike, Lucas, Will, Max, anybody, do you copy?”

Static. He retuned it to another channel.

“Mike, do you copy? It’s Dustin. Does anybody copy?”

Zilch. Next channel.

“Hello, anybody? Does anybody copy? The Red Army has invaded Hawkins. Does anybody copy?”

Static. He reached out to tune the radio to the next-

“Dustin?”

“Lucas?” Dustin’s voice rose.

“Dustin!”

“Lucas! Oh thank god! I’m sorry – I’ve been MIA, it wasn’t because I was mad – well it kind of was at first – but then we got trapped in a secret elevator – and then there was this base-”

“Whoah, whoah, slow down! What are you talking about?”

Dustin hadn’t realised he was becoming breathless. “Sorry, sorry, long story short, the Russians have invaded Hawkins. Do you know where Hopper is?”

“Sorry, what?”

“Mike?”

“Yeah, Dustin, hi. What did you just say about Russians in Hawkins?”

“They built a secret base under the mall! I think the whole mall was a cover! They’re trying to open the Gate and they’ve got Steve and Robin hostage!”

“They’re trying to open the Gate!?” Mike’s voice jumped up in panic.

“Yeah, and they’ve captured Steve and Robin! I’m at the mall with Erica and I really need Hopper! Do you know where he is?”

“Er… Hopper… we think he’s in Illinois.”

Dustin’s heart sank. “Illinois? Fucking Illinois?”

“Yeah, we… we think so… El looked for him and heard him saying something about Illinois.”

Dustin let out a growl of frustration. “What the fuck is he doing in Illinois?”

“I don’t know, Dustin, why don’t you ask him when he gets back?”

“Mike, I really don’t have time for you to be-”

Dustin broke off at the sound of a clattering at the front of the shop. He leapt towards the door to try and grab Erica, but she was one step ahead of him, bursting through into the back room.

“Okay, we’ve got to go,” she hissed. “Pretty sure the Russians have found us!”

“You sure they’re Russians?”

“Well they weren’t speaking English!”

“Dustin? Dustin, do you copy? Dustin!”

Dustin grabbed the radio from the table and shut it off, cutting off Mike’s yelling. He and Erica slipped out the back door and into the corridors behind as the grill at the front of the shop came up, and Dustin prayed to whatever god there was that the Russians hadn’t heard the door shut behind them.

Chapter Text

Steve was relishing in the break as he and Robin were left alone. He was doing everything he could to avoid looking at his left hand. He was desperately trying to get his breathing under control again, but the room just wasn’t staying still.

“Steve?”

Steve didn’t have it in him just then to answer Robin just then. He closed his eyes against a fresh wave of nausea as the room started to spin.

“Steve? You still alive?”

Steve braced himself and tightened his grip with his right hand on the arm of the chair as the movement slowly subsided.

“Steve?”

“Yeah…” Steve breathed. “Yeah, I’m still alive…”

He heard Robin breathe a shaky sigh of relief. “You ok?” she asked.

If he’d had the strength, Steve would have laughed at the question. Instead, he let out a shuddery breath that might have in another life been a sign of amusement. “Yeah, Robin, I’m great,” he said dryly.

Robin clearly sensed she’d touched a nerve. “Sorry…”

Steve sighed. “Don’t be sorry,” he said softly. “I’m sorry for dragging you into this mess.”

Robin gave a soft chuckle. “Don’t flatter yourself with delusions of your own importance in my decision-making process. I wanted to come along to check out those boxes because it sounded a hell of a lot more fun than slinging ice cream all day. You had very little to do with it.”

Steve actually managed a small laugh at that – or at least something more recognisable as a laugh. “Well, if it wasn’t for you, we probably would still be upstairs trying to crack that code.”

Robin started laughing properly. “You wouldn’t even have been able to translate that code if it wasn’t for me.”

“So really all this is on you.”

“All this is on your strange little friend.”

“Ah yeah, he’s the real reason…”

They both stopped laughing at the thought of Dustin and Erica.

“Do you think they made it out?” Robin asked.

“Hope so,” Steve said softly. “Hope that’s the cause of all this chaos.”

They fell into an uneasy silence for a few moments, before Steve suddenly remembered something.

“Nashville…” he said, not relishing how hoarse his voice was. “What’s in Nashville?”

“Huh?”

“You told the Russians that you were saving up to go to Nashville, why? What’s in Nashville?”

If Steve had been able to see Robin’s face, he might have backed off at the panic that crossed her face. But he’d never been particularly perceptive, and didn’t notice the slight hitch in her breath.

“Seriously, are you, like, do you want to be a singer or something?”

Robin finally let out an audible sigh. “I don’t.”

“Then why-”

I don’t. She does.”

That had Steve totally lost. “Who?”

“Tammy Thompson.”

“I don’t get it.”

Robin sighed again. Steve couldn’t help feeling slightly insulted, as though Robin was making a joke and he was the only person who wouldn’t have got it.

“You know all those things I told you? About Clickity-Clack’s class? And how you’d come in late dropping bagel crumbs all over the floor?”

“Yeah…?” Steve still wasn’t following.

“I didn’t notice those things because I was looking at you. I noticed them because she was looking at you, and I had no idea why. I didn’t know what she saw in you, you barely even noticed she existed. But every single time she saw you, she would stare at you, looking at you like you were the best thing in the world, even though you’d drop bagel crumbs on the floor, even though you’d be late and make stupid jokes and laugh with your stupid friends, and you were an idiot!

“Thanks,” Steve said, even more confused than before.

“God, I don’t even know why I’m telling you this,” Robin laughed bitterly. “I haven’t even told my parents, but I guess if we’re going to die down here it doesn’t matter if you think I’m a freak or whatever.”

“I don’t think you’re a freak,” Steve said. “I think you’re confusing as hell, and you haven’t gotten to the point yet, or else I’m missing something big here because I never saw you say two words to Tammy Thompson while we were at school-”

“You never saw me while we were at school, period,” Robin chuckled. “You were too busy making stupid jokes with your stupid friends.”

“The jokes weren’t… well, yeah the jokes were kind of stupid,” Steve conceded. “The friends were, too.”

“And then you chucked them to go off fighting monsters with a group of middle schoolers.”

Steve sighed. “Yeah. Does wonders to a six-year friendship with Tommy H.”

Robin turned her head as far as it would go to try and catch a glimpse of part of the side of Steve’s head. “I get why you had that cool guy womaniser front, but Steve ‘The Hair’ Harrington was a total douchebag. When we started working together, I was surprised when I realised that I actually liked hanging out with you. There’s a lot more to you than meets the eye.”

“Same with you, Band Geek,” Steve said. “So go on. You going to tell me why you were so pissed that Steve ‘The Hair’ Harrington caught the eye of Tammy Thompson?”

Another sigh from Robin. “I wanted to be the one to catch her eye. I wanted her to look at me the way she looked at you.”

Something started to click into place in Steve’s brain. “But Tammy Thompson’s a girl…”

“Steve.”

The penny dropped. “Oh.”

“Yeah. Oh.”

A sinking feeling of disappointment settled in his stomach. But it was mitigated by the realisation that this particular rejection had nothing to do with him. “So Tammy Thompson… she’s going to Nashville?

“Yeah.”

“And you’re going with her?”

“I’m going to visit her.”

“And Tammy Thompson… does she know you’re planning this?”

“N-no…”

Steve couldn’t help laughing at that. “So she’s going to Nashville, and you’re going to just show up there, and – and what? Declare your love for her?”

“Maybe not quite like that, but it’s romantic.”

“Err – no, it’s stalking. Also, she’s going to get eaten alive in Nashville, she sounds like a muppet.”

“She doesn’t sound like a muppet!”

“She really does! Look, all I’m saying is you can do better than Tammy fricking Thompson!

Robin started to laugh too. “So you’ve never fallen for the girl you’d least expect? What about Nancy Wheeler?”

“Hey, that’s different!”

“What’s so different? She was a perfect little straight-A princess who had absolutely no idea how to have fun and you fell for her hard!

“Hey, in my defence, she’s great at fighting monsters.”

Any response Robin might have had was drowned out by a loud bang as the door burst open. The two teenagers swung their heads sideways to look at the General and the doctor. Something had shifted in the dynamic – where previously the General had been calm and entirely in control, something had changed him. He was angry, unsettled, volatile…

And a lot more dangerous.

The laughter that wasn’t dying quickly enough on Steve’s face was evidently enough to set off the General, because a second later his head cracked sideways and he felt the aftermath of a fist colliding with an already painful head.

“Tell me,” the General growled. “What is the name of your curly haired friend?”

Something in the latest blow to the head had evidently addled his senses because he immediately regretted his next words.

“Elvis Presley.”

A blow to the stomach – he could almost feel the internal bleeding – and another one to his nose as a hand messed into his hair and closing into a fist near his scalp, yanking his head higher. Bright lights danced across his vision as he heard a crunch of cartilage as pain exploded from his nose.

“You think you are funny, Butterscotch?” the General hissed. “Mikhail!”

Steve’s vision eased into seeing the doctor – Mikhail, evidently – approach.

“Mister U.S.S. Butterscotch thinks he is a comedian now. It is clear he no longer fears losing fingernails. Perhaps it is time for him to lose his fingers instead.”

Steve felt the panic rising in his chest as the General let his hair go. “Wait – what?”

Mikhail wheeled a small metal tray table over to where Steve was sitting and started to undo the restraints on Steve’s left hand. The doctor slammed Steve’s hand down on the tray table, holding it in place by the wrist with one hand while picking up a handheld power drill with another. Mikhail placed the bit – a small Brad Point bit that couldn’t have been more than a couple of millimetres wide – against the top of Steve’s little finger, right against the first knuckle from the tip.

Steve realised what was about to happen and felt the panic in his chest rising up his throat.

Wait.

Not panic.

His stomach violently heaved and he retched its contents into his lap. Oh, god, he was wearing shorts. He felt it splash down his legs and into a puddle on the floor. The General had taken a step back to avoid the mess but once his body had stopped convulsing he felt the hand in his hair again.

“Tell me the name of your little friend and spare yourself this.”

“For god’s sake, Steve, just tell them!

Steve still didn’t open his mouth for fear of being sick again. The doctor lifted the drill slightly and gave it an experimental whirr. His stomach was settling slightly, but he could feel sweat beading on his forehead. Well, more sweat. His mouth parted slightly in panic, and he felt relief that more of yesterday’s lunch wasn’t coming out of it. He finally found his voice.

“I don’t want to sell out my friend,” he said, barely more than a whisper.

It sounded so totally pathetic, from sentiment to delivery. What little was voiced was a whimper higher than he would admit his voice was capable of making. A ball of a sob was wedged in his throat. He knew his rationale was stupid, but he’d already told the Russians about Will Byers, and he didn’t want to put another of the shitheads on their radar. God, everyone was right about him. He really was an idiot.

The General nodded at the doctor, and Mikhail lined up the bit again on the top of Steve’s knuckle. Steve barely had time to brace himself for what was about to happen before the drill bit shredded his skin on his knuckles. He dimly heard Robin indignantly scream his name – or was it worry? – as the drill drove deeper into his finger. Steve closed his eyes as his mouth opened in a silent scream – god, his voice really had gone – and then the drill hit his knuckle – nope, there was his voice – whatever bone or cartilage was there cracked within seconds – was it now between the joint? - tears were running thick and fast down his face – his scream kept filling the room – he could barely hear Robin’s own screams – how deep into his finger was it now? – Oh GOD!

A shot of pain lanced up his finger towards his nail and he knew, somehow he knew that one of the bones in his finger was broken. His scream intensified into a shout as his eyes flew open at this new pain. His screams were coming broken after that – he could finally hear what Robin was shouting.

“…Stop it! Please! Stop hurting him! I’m begging you – PLEASE!

The drill was almost completely through his finger –

“The name!” roared the General –

“HIS NAME’S DUSTIN HENDERSON!”

Suddenly everything stopped. The drill went silent, Robin stopped screaming, Steve’s own screams died down into broken, panicked sobs and desperate, shallow gasps. Slowly his brain caught up with what had just happened – he hadn’t screamed the name – he hadn’t been present enough in his head to make any coherent words – did that mean…

“Robin…” he gasped.

“I’m sorry, Steve, I couldn’t listen to them do that to you…”

Steve could hear a barely restrained sob in her voice. If he’d had anything left in him, he might have comforted her, might have told her it was okay, because it wasn’t her fault, not really…

“I know you wanted to protect him…” her voice was getting higher. “But I couldn’t let them do that, I’m so sorry…”

Her voice shook before she dissolved into tears. Steve didn’t think telling her not to cry was going to do much to help given that he was still gasping through his own sobs. His vision really wasn’t focusing at all. Everything was blurry, darkness was hovering on the edge of his vision. And god, did his hand hurt. Unbidden, he found his eyes swinging towards his left hand, and his stomach started doing somersaults again…

The drill was still sticking out of his finger, which was sitting at a very odd angle. There was less blood than he expected, a small pool at the point where the drill went in and a couple of small trickles that were running his finger. But it was still bleeding, blood kept steadily oozing out of the grooves in the drill bit.

“Who is he?” the General asked.

Steve started shaking as the doctor held the drill bit steady as he detached the motor. Every jolt sent a shock of pain through his fingers. His breath was coming faster and shallower. “He – he’s just a middle schooler, I – I don’t know what to tell you, man – He’s just a really eager middle schooler who – he doesn’t work for anyone or anything like that – he’s not like some government spy or something – Jesus!

The doctor yanked the drill bit from his finger sharply. The blood suddenly started coming thick and fast, rushing up out of his finger and over the rest of his hands. The movement pulled at the shattered joint and bone and he felt it settle at an angle that felt just so wrong.

The General gave Steve a second to recover his breathing. “What else?”

“I – I don’t know what you want me to say – he’s kind of into tech and radios and crap – Oh! Wait – He, uh – he built that radio – the radio that picked up your signal!”

“He created the radio?” The General questioned dryly.

“Yeah…” Steve said breathlessly. “Your super-secret spy signal… was picked up by a radio… made by a middle schooler.” A smile broke out over his face. “At camp.”

The General looked displeased by this information. Or quite possibly by Steve’s grin. It wasn’t an unusual reaction. “Where is he now?”

Steve didn’t let the smile drop just then. What the hell was wrong with him? “I don’t know.”

“Guess.”

“Probably looking for Hopper.”

“What?”

Jim Hopper,” Steve said slowly. “Police chief. He’s probably already on his way down here… to kick all of your asses back to Russia and close the Gate again.”

“Steve!” Robin hissed, a second too late.

Again?

There was silence as Steve clocked his mistake.

“What do you mean, ‘again’? This ‘Hopper’ closed the Gate before?”

Steve didn’t say a word. Not that he needed to. The General crouched down to look Steve right in the eye. Steve slumped his head forward to try and avoid the General, but it didn’t work as the General just grabbed a fistful of his hair near the scalp and yanked his head up again.

“How did Hopper close the Gate?”

Steve had made a lot of mistakes that day. Between him and Robin, they’d told the Russians about Dustin and Will Byers. Steve didn’t think he’d ever be able to look either of them in the eye again. But there was no way – no way in hell – that he was going to rat out El.

“I don’t know.”

The General threw Steve’s head back and grabbed the reassembled drill from the doctor. He slammed Steve’s hand down against the tray table and pressed the bit against the back of Steve’s hand, right against the bone that linked his little finger to his wrist. Steve felt oddly calm in the split second before the drill started up – evidently the drugs and the pain were making him light-headed – but a second later he was screaming. Again.

The eventual crack as the drill broke the bone apart proved too much for Steve. The darkness that had been hovering on his peripheral vision finally engulfed him as the world tilted and unconsciousness pulled him down into its depths.

-:-

“Dustin?” Mike said again into the radio, only to be met with static. “Son of a bitch!

“What happened?” Nancy asked, pushing herself away from the counter. “Did he say something about Steve being captured by Russians?

Mike didn’t answer, just looking down at the radio angrily.

He, El, Max, Lucas, Will, Jonathan and Nancy were in Hopper’s cabin. They’d spent the better part of the day trying to work out where the Mind Flayer and his army or his weapon, or creature or whatever – was going to strike next when Dustin’s voice had burst through the radio.

“Well, we’ve got to go, we’ve got to help them,” Lucas said. “We’ve got to go to the mall!”

“On our own?” Jonathan asked incredulously. “We can’t just storm a secret Russian base!

“Yeah, but we can help Dustin and Erica get out of the mall!”

“And then we can find Hopper and work out how to get Steve out of there,” Max interjected.

“Look, man, she’s my sister! I don’t care if she’s an annoying little-”

“Guys?” The radio blared up.

“Dustin!” Lucas shouted, grabbing the radio off Mike. “You ok?”

“Yeah, yeah… Look, the Russians are looking for us, we really need a ride out of here! We’re going to lie low in a movie and try and get out when the crowd leaves, can you be there in a couple of hours to pick us up?”

Jonathan took the radio. “Yeah, Dustin, we’ll be there. Two hours. We’ll meet you in the parking lot.”

“Great, thanks!” The relief in Dustin’s voice was palpable. “You’re a lifesaver! Over and out!”

White noise filled the room as Dustin finished talking and the radio stopped connecting. Jonathan switched it off and it down on the table, and a tense silence fell.

“So what do we do now?” Lucas broke the tension.

“Well…” Jonathan said softly. “I suppose we could try to find Hopper in the meantime.”

“Yeah, but how the fuck are we going to do that? He’s in Illinois!”

“Illinois!” Nancy said, something finally clicking. “He’s in Illinois!”

She was met with six extremely confused faces staring at her.

“Jonathan, what do we know in Illinois?” she continued. “Who do we know in Illinois?”

“Er…” Jonathan suddenly caught on. “Murray Bauman – wait, you think they’ve gone to see Murray Bauman?”

“Who’s Murray Bauman?” Mike asked, getting more annoyed by the second.

“A conspiracy theorist,” Jonathan answered. “We went to see him last year.”

“He helped break the story about Barb,” Nancy added.

“Oh.”

“Well, can we check?” Max asked. “El, do you think you can check?”

“I don’t… know…” El said hesitantly. “I don’t know… Murray Bauman…”

“Hang on,” Jonathan rushed towards the rug and flung it back. He quickly pulled open the trapdoor and rushed down into it. Thank god Hopper kept everything on all the secret government conspiracies he was involved in.

Jonathan pulled out a box labelled ‘Hawkins Lab’ and started desperately searching through it until he found –

“Yes!” he cried, brandishing the newspaper. It was the newspaper from December 3rd, 1984 – the day the story had broken about the lab covering up Barb’s death. He slammed it down and there, on the front page, was a small headshot of Murray Bauman, with a small caption about how he’d been the one to give the tapes to the Post. “That’s him!”

El looked pensively down at the newspaper.

“Do you think you can find him from that picture? Do you think you can see if Hopper is with him?”

“No – no – no – that’s enough!” Mike screamed. “El’s not some… some satellite you can tune to spy on whoever the hell you want on demand-”

“I can do it,” El said, quiet but determined. Evidently Mike’s vehement denial of her abilities emboldened her. She looked straight at Mike and gave him a look of reassuring fondness, but there was an edge of defiance in her eyes. “I can do it.”

Mike found himself edged backwards to the periphery of the group as everyone gathered round in a circle by the television. Not that he moved at all. He just stayed where he was, watching El settle herself down in front of the white screen, that bloody flag wrapped up and tied over her eyes. He watched as she fell silent, every eye in the room on her, a constant feeling of unease twisting his stomach. The blood started to trickle down from her nose, he didn’t like it when that happened, he felt that it was wrong to make her bleed…

“There…” she finally said. “Together.”

“Hopper and Murray?” Nancy asked eagerly. “They’re together?”

“Yes… with Will’s mom… and… a man…”

“What man?” Will asked.

She was silent for a minute, before she finally had an answer for them. “Smirnoff…”

Smirnoff? ” Will repeated incredulously. “Isn’t that a vodka?”

“Yeah…” Nancy answered. She’d had some once at a party with Steve last summer, back when they’d been dating. It had tasted significantly worse than the bottle that Murray had given her and Jonathan, tasting closer to paint thinner than an actual drink.

“Quiet!” El snapped, but she didn’t take off her blindfold. Then –

“Alexei…” she finally said. “The Gate…”

“Wait,” Mike finally joined in, moving into the circle at last. “What about the Gate?”

“They know…” El continued. “Car… Todfather?… Hawkins…”

“They’re on their way back to Hawkins?”

“Yes.”

El finally pulled the blindfold off. Nancy looked over at Jonathan.

“Jonathan, if they’re coming back from Illinois, they’re probably taking the same road as we did,” she said excitedly.

“We could meet them at the city limits!” he replied, matching her enthusiasm.

“Could we get there before we needed to go get Dustin and Erica?” Lucas asked.

“We probably could, I don’t know if they’d be there.”

“We could drop somebody off to meet them?” Will suggested. “I could wait for them if they’re not there by the time you need to go get Dustin.”

“Yeah, like hell I’m leaving you alone on the side of the road after dark,” Jonathan scoffed.

“I could wait with him,” Nancy suggested. “Leave us there with a radio and if they don’t show we’ll ask you to pick us up?”

Jonathan wasn’t thrilled by the suggestion. “I love you, Nance, but leaving a pretty teenage girl by the side of the road is hardly better than leaving my little brother there.”

“A pretty teenage girl who’s pretty fucking great at fighting monsters,” she pointed out.

Jonathan sighed, before reluctantly nodding. “Fine, let’s do this.”

Chapter Text

“How will we know if they pass?” Will asked softly.

Nancy looked down at him. The sky above them had faded through a gorgeous sunset into a deep blue, the moon was starting to shine a light and the stars were making their first appearances. Jonathan and the others had left to go and get Dustin and Erica about twenty minutes ago, leaving the pair alone by a sign on a completely deserted stretch of road.

“Well, they’ll be in the Chief’s car,” Nancy said. “We’ll probably see them coming, and if we don’t, they’ll probably see us.”

“Okay.”

Will was slightly reassured by the fact Nancy had an answer to his question at all, but he wasn’t overly confident in her answer. For example:

“What if they’re in another car?”

“What?”

“What if they took my mom’s car or something?”

“Then we’ll recognise her car.”

“What if it’s too dark?”

“Look, this thing was your idea,” Nancy said incredulously. “What’s your problem?”

“I just realised it’s a terrible idea.”

Nancy snorted. “Yeah, well it’s better than any idea Mike’s ever had.”

Will gave a shy laugh. “He’s had some pretty good ideas.”

“Yeah, but I’m his sister, I’m not allowed to admit that.”

That had Will properly laughing. “So that’s where he gets it from.”

Nancy laughed, slightly confused. “What?”

“Mike has some good ideas, sure, but he thinks he’s the only person who has good ideas,” Will elaborated. “If someone else has a good idea, he’s always really resistant to the whole thing. Even if the rest of the Party goes along with it, he’s always really difficult about it.”

Nancy laughed. “Sounds like Mike. Always got to be in charge.”

“You should have seen him at Halloween when Lucas showed up wearing a Venkman outfit.”

“Oh, I bet he loved that.”

“Yeah, he was all like ‘there can’t just be two Venkmans!’ He was really mature about it.”

“Course he was.”

“And now he’s being, like, super protective over El.”

“Hey, come on, that’s actually kind of sweet.”

“Yeah, but he needs to chill,” Will said. “He’s basically smothering her. Mom and Jonathan did the same to me for months after they got me back from the Upside Down. It’s like… I was ready to try standing on my own two feet, but they wouldn’t let me.”

Nancy looked at him. “Maybe you were ready, but they weren’t.”

“Yeah, but they didn’t need to be ready,” Will said. “I needed to try. I needed to try living. It was like I was suffocating.”

“I don’t know, Will,” Nancy said. “I was there for Jonathan when you went missing. It messed him up pretty bad. And your mom… God, I’ve never seen anybody like that…”

Will looked uncomfortable. “I guess… still, I missed out on a lot of things because they weren’t ready. And I can’t live my life for anyone else. It took them a while to actually let me live my life for me… to make my own choices.”

Nancy stayed quiet. She really didn’t know what to say.

“And Mike needs to let El make her own choices too.”

Nancy nodded at Will’s conclusion. “Yeah…” she breathed. “Yeah, I guess he does.”

An awkward silence fell between them.

“Sorry,” Will said quietly. “I didn’t mean to unload on you like that.”

“It’s fine,” Nancy said. “I’m always here if you ever need someone to talk to.”

Will smiled. “Thanks.”

“Not a problem.”

“Hey, and for what it’s worth… I’m really glad Jonathan found you,” Will said. “I can see how happy you make him.”

Nancy looked surprised by the admission. “Aw, that’s… that’s sweet.”

“Oh, and – full disclosure – Mom and I know you spend the night sometimes.”

“What?” If Nancy had looked surprised before it was nothing to how she looked now. She decided to play dumb. “No I don’t.”

Will actually started laughing again. “Yeah, we know you stay the night and sneak out of Jonathan’s window. I think it annoyed Mom the first time, but I think now she just wishes you’d come out and have breakfast with us, and have a proper shower and, you know, just use the front door.”

Nancy’s nervous look was the most obviously guilty thing Will had ever seen. He couldn’t quite smother the smirk that crept onto his face.

“Pretty sure Mom’s, like, a step away from just deliberately bursting in on you climbing out the window to put an end to it.”

Nancy held that horrified look for a second longer before a guilty smile spread across her face. “Well, I suppose it’d be better for my dresses.”

They both started laughing, and once they started, they couldn’t stop. Eventually, once their sides were hurting too much for them to stand upright, they started to settle down again.

“Do you reckon they’re alright?” Will asked.

“Your mom and Hopper?” Nancy asked. “Yeah, they’ll be fine. It’s just a couple of hours back from Illinois. They should be here soon.”

“I was talking about the others.”

Nancy fell into an uneasy silence. “Yeah,” she said, more confidently than she felt. “They’ll look out for each other. Besides, El’s with them. They’ll get Dustin and Erica out. Those Russians don’t stand a chance.”

“And Steve and Robin?”

Ah. That was a little more difficult. “That’s why we’re waiting for Hopper.”

Nancy put a reassuring hand on Will’s shoulder, before something occurred to her.

“So who’s this Robin everyone keeps talking about?” she asked.

The tension in Will’s shoulder eased slightly. “She works with Steve. She’s fun.”

“Oh,” Nancy said. “Is there something going on there?”

“What, like, romantically?” Will asked. “Don’t think so. Steve keeps trying to pick up girls that come into the shop. Robin keeps track of how many times he strikes out.”

“That doesn’t mean there isn’t anything,” Nancy pointed out. “If she’s doing that, she’s definitely paying attention to his existence. Doesn’t necessarily mean she likes him like that, but Steve’s not exactly going to hold back if he notices that.”

“Would it bother you if they started going out?” Will asked. “I know you guys were together for a long time.”

“No,” Nancy said quickly, but was slightly surprised to realise she meant it. “I mean… I like him, and I care about him, but… Steve was… safe. He was the safe option. And we had fun together. He’d push me to go out and go to parties, and I’d have fun with him. And yeah, maybe there was a time when I thought I loved him, but now… Whatever I felt for Steve, it’s just a shadow for what I feel for Jonathan now. And yeah, things were a bit awkward with Steve after we broke up, and I don’t see him much at all now that he’s graduated, but honestly, he was actually pretty grown up about the whole breakup, and if he finds someone who makes – hang on, what’s that?”

A light had appeared at the end of the road. Nancy and Will started towards the roadside, leaning forward to squint at the light. Wait. Lights. Two lights. Headlights.

The car was getting closer. Nancy realised it was yellow – not Hopper’s car, not Mrs Byers’. She took a couple of steps away from the road.

“It’s not them,” she said.

Will didn’t immediately respond, still looking at the car. He took an uneasy step back as it drew closer. He squinted at the license plate.

TODFTHR

“Todfather,” Will breathed.

Without warning, he sprinted out into the road, waving his hands around to try and get the car’s attention. The driver slammed on the brakes, and the car skidded. Nancy ran forward and grabbed Will’s arm, pulling him back to the roadside as the car screeched, steering sideways to avoid Will.

Finally, everything came to a halt, and the driver’s door opened.

What the hell, kid!?” screamed the driver as he got out. “You got a death wish or something?”

Nancy beamed as the driver walked into the light.

Hopper.

-:-

“Dustin? We’re in the parking lot waiting for you. Over.”

Mike had been repeating the same mantra into the radio at thirty second intervals for the last twenty minutes. Though to everyone else in the car, it felt like a hell of a lot longer.

Jonathan had suggested putting on some music, and so had put on a mixtape he’d made for Nancy that she’d left in the car, but after Max started taking the piss out of the music that was on there, things had gotten heated and Max had eventually turned it off in a huff after Jonathan had called her favourite band as bad as “nails on a chalkboard.” Jonathan had then started laughing at her incredibly mature response, Lucas had gotten involved to defend her, Max had rounded on him about fighting her battles for her, and things were just about to get out of hand when Mike had finally screamed at everyone to shut up because he needed to hear if Dustin was going to answer. This had only led to Jonathan, Max and Lucas snickering at the overreaction, while El just looked very lost by the whole interaction.

Suddenly, the doors to the mall opened, and people began streaming out.

“Reckon that’s the movie crowd?” Max asked.

“Dustin? Come in! We’re in the parking lot! Over!”

 Nothing.

“Can’t see them,” Jonathan said. “I’m going to go try get a better look. You guys stay here.”

Jonathan got out of the car and started to walk towards the mall. As he approached, he saw a few men in black uniforms talking to everyone leaving the mall. Instantly set on edge, he picked up the pace and bowed his head and tried to walk through the doors unobtrusively.

A hand on his chest stopped him. Evidently he’d been given away by going against the flow. He looked up into a man’s face – Caucasian, with long dark hair pulled back into a ponytail.

“I’m sorry, sir, the mall is closed,” the man said in a truly dreadful attempt at an American accent that did very little to hide the Slavic undertones.

Jonathan decided to play dumb. “Oh, uh – sorry, I was just looking for my little brother. I’m meant to be picking him up.”

“Maybe you could wait here, I’m sure he’ll come out eventually.”

“Oh, uh, okay…”

Jonathan looked back through the doors to see Dustin walking down the hall. As Dustin saw him – and the man in black – he slowed. Jonathan locked eyes with him and gave him the tiniest shake of the head.

Dustin grabbed Erica’s hand and started to walk back through the crowd towards the movie theatre. Jonathan felt tension rising as the man next to him kept looking through the crowd, peering through –

“Hey!” the man shouted, finally noticing Dustin’s retreating back. Dustin threw a quick glance over his shoulder before breaking into a run. The man made a move to start chasing after him, but Jonathan sprang into action. He grabbed the man’s shoulder and threw him backwards. Two of the other men in black started to chase after Dustin, while the last one came to help tackle Jonathan. Jonathan careened sideways as the new man ran into him. The man on top of him tried to pin his hands down, but Jonathan brought his knee up and pushed him off. Jonathan used the Russian’s temporary loss of balance as a chance to scramble to his feet and take off after Dustin and Erica.

-:-

Dustin ran faster than he thought he’d ever run before in his life. He felt like he was dragging Erica along the floor after him. In a blind panic, he burst through a door, and another one, and suddenly he was in a movie theatre. The underpaid teenager sweeping popcorn up evidently wasn’t being paid enough to spare them more than a passing glance as they tore through the room and straight out the second door. Down the hall, out a door labelled ‘staff only’ and into a white corridor. Dustin hared down and grabbed the handle of the first door he could see –

Locked.

He swore loudly. He tried another. Also locked –

“Here!” Erica called.

She’d found the door to the Chinese place – the same place that those boxes of green goo had come from. Without time to overthink it, they ran in and closed the door behind them.

Dustin crouched down so he wouldn’t be seen from the food court. Staying low, he beckoned Erica over to a corner under the counter. There was a pile of cardboard boxes by the door and as quietly as he could, he pulled them closer into the corner to help hide them, and ducked down just as he heard the Russians in the hall outside.

Voices spoke words that Dustin couldn’t have possibly hoped to understand. There were footsteps – lots of footsteps – before –

BOOM!

The Russians had clearly tried one of the doors Dustin had tried just a few seconds earlier. Voices started talking in that incomprehensible language, footsteps started again –

BOOM!

Another door tried. More footsteps. More talking.

BOOM!

This time they were successful. The door to Imperial Panda burst open and bounced back off the wall from the force of the kick. Three Russians came in, guns held out in front of them, and scanned the room.

One of them gave a signal, telling the others to sweep the front of the shop while he checked the back. Dustin covered his mouth as he saw boots crossing through the open kitchen, the occasional glimpses of silhouettes holding automatic military-grade assault weapons.

Please, god, someone, send help…

Dustin felt a knot tense up in his stomach as the footsteps stopped. More quietly than before, the boots started stealthily creeping over towards the back of the shop –

They were converging on the corner.

Dustin pressed himself back into the wall as best he could, doing his best to put himself between the Russians and Erica. Suddenly, Erica tapped his shoulder. She gestured to something at her side – something he couldn’t see – before he remembered.

She still had that cattle prod.

His heart almost stopped when the pile of boxes hiding them mostly from view moved very suddenly. He started, turning to face one of the Russians leering down at him.

“What do we have-”

Erica lunged. The cattle prod jammed into the man’s chest. The man flew back, blasted off his feet. He was flung far –

Too far.

Out-of-the-shop far.

Out-of-the-shop-and-across-the-food-court-before-smashing-into-a-wall-causing-the-plaster-to-break-into-a-crater far.

Everyone froze, staring at the taser in Erica’s hand. Russians, Dustin and Erica eyed it for a beat.

A second Russian suddenly flew back with no discernible force driving him. He flew out to crash into the floor.

The third had a split second of looking terrified before he followed the second into the ground. Dustin and Erica scrambled out from under the counter to see –

El.

The Party were here with El.

Dustin vaulted the countertop to come out into the open. “Oh my god, I’ve never been so happy to see you guys!”

He pulled El into a hug, babbling something about them saving their asses. He only realised he was shaking when he let her go and saw his hand not staying even remotely steady. Over El’s shoulder, he saw Lucas running towards Erica, completely incredulous to her presence here.

“Where’s Jonathan?” asked Mike suddenly.

“Wait, he’s not with you?”

“No, we saw him get into a fight with one of those guards before he ran off after you guys.”

“So he’s-”

Almost as if on cue, one of the doors on the mezzanine above the food court burst open, and Jonathan came sprinting out. A split second later, the last Russian guard emerged, gun raised.

El raised her hand –

A gunshot rang out throughout the mall. Everyone jumped, El’s hand stayed raised but bent back slightly, brought a fraction closer to her body. As if in slow motion, the final Russian staggered backwards –

Three more gunshots rang out across the hall, and the last Russian staggered backwards towards the fence on the edge of the balcony before falling backwards over the edge and crashing to the floor below. Jonathan finally staggered upright to see Hopper, Joyce, Nancy, Will, Murray and a man he’d never seen before walking towards them.

Finally, they were back together.

It was time to take these Russian bastards down.

-:-

Robin could have sworn she had a heart attack as Steve slumped forwards in his chair.

“Steve?” she called out, desperate for a better look. “Steve?

Suddenly, she had hands on both her shoulders, pressing her into that chair as they began to cut the black tape holding her to the chair – to her friend. They adjusted the position of her chair so she could see as they carried Steve’s unconscious frame off the office chair and finally onto what she could only describe as a terrifying dentist’s chair. Her eyes widened, her stomach threatening to empty itself all over her in the same way Steve’s had done.

They started to strap him down to the dentist’s chair using that same black tape. Robin still had those hands on her shoulders, flanked on either side by Russian guards. She watched as they strapped down Steve’s arms, and then his legs, and then around his stomach.

Satisfied that they were done, they passed over the roll of tape to the guards beside her. She felt the pressure on her right shoulder ease as the guard leant forward to take it –

She swung her whole body left.

Her shoulder smacked into the groin of the guard on her left. He doubled over in pain, his hand releasing its hold on her.

She jumped to her feet, sidestepping the guard on her right as he tried to redouble his grip. She pushed the doctor away from her as he tried to grab her, her hands still taped together in front of her.

A second later she was by Steve, looking down into his bruised, swollen face.

“Come on Steve,” she whispered, putting her hands on his chest and trying to shake him awake. “Steve!”

She abandoned trying to shake him awake. Her hands travelled down to the tape across his chest –

BANG!

Blinding pain erupted in the back of her shoulder, throwing her forward over Steve. She’d never felt such pain before. The noise, the force of something hitting her in the shoulder had her ears ringing and spots dancing across her vision for a second.

She dimly registered someone grabbing her by the arms before the room went flying – no, hold on, that was her –

She hit the cold floor on her side – thankfully not the side that had just exploded with pain. She looked up to see the General standing above her, gun held aloft. A second later her brain caught up… the thing that had hit her had been a bullet… the sound had been a gunshot…

The General had just shot her in the shoulder to stop her from untying Steve.

She was suddenly aware of the tears in her eyes – aware that there were broken gasps of pain coming out of her mouth.

The General knelt down to face her.

“Your ‘Hopper’ had better come soon,” he growled menacingly. “You and your friend are running out of time.”

Chapter Text

It felt good to put his foot down.

Scratch that. It felt good to put his foot down and be listened to. After days of Joyce second guessing everything he’d ever said and done, of Smirnoff throwing tantrums over the wrong flavour of sugary ice, of Murray being so far up his own ass he was astonished that the man wasn’t tied up in some weird Mobius strip coming out of his mouth back the wrong way up his digestive system, it felt good for Hopper to only have to tell the kids two or three times that they weren’t coming with them into a dangerous Russian lab.

“Look, kid, I know you want to help your friends,” he told the one with the curly hair – beyond Will he’d have happily called them all Shitheads 1, 2, 3, and now 4 with that redhead joining them, but El had forced him to put a name to Mike. He was still struggling on the other three, but the girl might have been called Max? – “I know you want to go down there and help, but I’ve already got two teenagers stuck down there, I’m not having any more of you at risk.”

“But I know the way!” the kid snapped back.

“Yeah, I’m sure you do, but you know who else knows the way?” Hopper said. “Smirnoff. He helped build the entire base. He probably knows the way better than you do.”

“But I left them-”

“Kid, drop it!” Hopper said in a tone that he hoped conveyed finality. “You’re not coming down. None of you are coming down, Jonathan is going to take you someplace safe.”

Dustin opened his mouth to argue one more time, before Hopper put a reassuring hand on his shoulder.

“I’ll bring them back,” he said to Dustin. “I promise I’ll bring them back.”

Dustin gave Hopper one last desperate glare before retreating back to the rest of the Party.

“You ok?” Lucas asked.

Dustin shook his head. “It’s my fault they’re down there.”

“No, it’s not,” Lucas said.

“It is,” Dustin protested. “I made the call to come back up. Your sister was busy telling me how we needed to save them, but I thought it was too dangerous.”

“You were probably right,” Lucas said. “I’m glad you came back up, I don’t want my little sister in that mess.”

Thankfully, Erica wasn’t listening, too busy telling Murray something that, judging by the look on his face, he would have rather ripped out his own eyeballs than listen to. Still, Dustin was not reassured.

“It’s still my fault they went down there in the first place,” he snapped. “I went to Steve with the code after you all ditched me at Weathertop and I asked for his help. Robin got involved and we found out the Russians were doing something with the mall, so we investigated. Found the elevator, and a second later we’d dropped halfway to hell and ended up in that place.”

“Dustin,” Will said softly. “Robin and Steve are old enough to make their own decisions. You can’t put it all on yourself.”

Dustin didn’t answer, he just looked at the floor, overhearing fragments of a heated conversation between Joyce and Hopper.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Hopper rounded on Joyce.

“I’m coming with you.”

“Like hell you are!”

“I can help!” Joyce protested.

“How, exactly, can you help?”

Joyce’s face was the epitome of outrage. “Excuse me? Without me you’d still be running around chasing after a car instead of a motorbike looking for that Russian thug!”

Hopper had had enough. “Joyce! You’re not going, and that’s final!

He turned on his heel, signalling for Alexei and Murray to follow. Joyce stood there steaming for all of one second before following after him.

Hopper wheeled around at the sound of her footsteps. “What part of final did you not get?”

Joyce opened her mouth to answer, before Murray cut her off. “Look, Jim, just give it up. She’s coming whether you let her or not.”

Hopper glared at him, and then back at Joyce, who was smiling that fucking smug smile she only ever got when she knew she’d one. “Fine,” he growled through gritted teeth. “But if you die down there, I’m not taking care of your kids.”

Joyce smiled as sweetly as she could after him as she followed him to the door. Almost as an afterthought, Hopper finally turned around to talk to the kids.

“Right,” he said. “Look after yourselves. Look after each other. And please…” he took a deep breath. “While we’re gone, try not to do anything stupid.”

And with that, they walked out of the mall and towards the elevator.

-:-

“So where are we going again?” Erica asked belligerently.

“A place in Illinois,” Jonathan explained as he sorted through the keys Murray had given him. “We’re going to stay there and lay low until they close the Gate and kill the Mind Flayer.”

“Why do we have to go to Illinois to lay low?”

“Because it’s somewhere Billy doesn’t know,” Nancy said. Erica’s insistent questioning of everything they were doing was grating on all of their nerves and she was continually surprised at how Lucas had lived with her for ten years without developing a nervous tick every time someone asked any question at all.

“And what happens to Billy?”

This question hadn’t come from Erica. It had come from a small nervous voice of Max. It was possibly the most vulnerable most of them had ever heard her. Nobody wanted to answer her.

“What happens to Billy after they close the Gate?”

Everyone fell into a tense silence. They all knew, Max knew too, of course she did, but nobody wanted to say it.

“What’s going to happen to Billy?”

Nancy swallowed. “The Flayed will probably all die,” she said softly. “Like last time.”

Max closed her eyes and pressed her lips together, clearly fighting back tears. Lucas reached out and gently put a hand on her arm.

“I know it’s stupid…” she said, her voice shaking. “I know we’ve got to close the Gate… and I know you all hate him… but…” she took a deep, shuddering breath. “He’s my brother.”

“Hey, it’s not stupid,” Lucas said, pulling her into a hug. Even he’d never seen her like this before.

“I don’t want him to die,” her voice was barely more than a squeak into Lucas’ shoulder.

Nobody knew what to say. Jonathan remembered his own terror less than a year ago at the thought of Will dying when the Gate closed. He remembered the relief he’d felt when the Mind Flayer had left Will, how he’d felt when he’d finally told Hopper that it was out of him and that they could close the Gate.

“Is there anything we can do?” he asked softly.

“We could try getting it out of him?” Will suggested. “Like you did with me last year?”

“We don’t know where he is,” Mike pointed out. “Last year we had you sedated, and we took you somewhere safe. This time, he’s got an army behind him. We’d have to find him, stop him, and get it out of him without the rest of the Flayed finding us before Hopper closes the Gate. And besides, there’s no guarantee it’ll work this time. The Mind Flayer will be expecting it.”

“We could put him back through the Gate?” Nancy suggested.

“Hopper has the only key card,” Dustin said. “You can’t operate the elevator without it. Unless you, like, hacked the lock or something. And I’m pretty sure you need, like, military grade technology to do that.”

“So there’s nothing we can do?” Lucas said, putting a hand on Max’s head.

He was met by a heavy silence. Everyone was looking at Max apologetically, wishing there was something they could say or do –

“Wait,” El said. “I could open a Gate.”

Seven pairs of eyes snapped towards El.

“No,” Mike said firmly.

“What do you mean, you could open a Gate?” Nancy asked.

“She opened the other Gate,” Dustin supplied. “The one at Hawkins Lab.”

“I could open the Gate,” El repeated. “I could send Billy through the Gate. I can close the Gate.”

“No,” Mike snapped. “No! El, are you crazy? You can’t open the Gate again!”

“Billy only lives in the Upside Down,” she said softly.

“El, think about what else could come through that Gate! What if it goes wrong? What if you can’t close it again? Will was taken into the Upside Down when you opened the Gate!”

“I can do it!” El said firmly. She looked over at Max. “I have to try.”

Everyone looked at El. Max peeled away from Lucas’ hold to walk over to her, a glimmer of desperate hope shining in her eyes.

“Do you really think you can control it?” she asked.

El nodded, smiling at Max. “I can do it.”

The decision was made.

“So how do we find Billy?” Jonathan asked.

“El could look for him in her void?” Will suggested.

“That might take too long,” Dustin said.

“Also the Mind Flayer might sense her,” Mike snapped, still very clearly not on board.

“Unless we let him sense her,” Nancy suggested. “We could set a trap. Bring Billy somewhere where we know he’d come. And then we could trap him while El opens the Gate and sends him through.”

“If Billy knows where we are, the rest of the Flayed will too,” Mike pointed out.

“But we can hold them off,” Nancy said. “We can hold them off long enough for El to get Billy through the Gate. And we don’t need to hold them off for long, just until Hopper closes the Gate.”

“This is insane,” Mike said incredulously.

“How are we going to hold them off?” Jonathan asked.

Lucas gasped. “Fireworks!

“What?”

“The Mind Flayer doesn’t like fire, right?” Lucas said excitedly. “Well, we use fire to hold them off! Fireworks are basically like little sticks of gunpowder!”

“That’s…” Will said slowly, “…not the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard, actually.”

“Where do we get fireworks?” Mike said snidely.

“Er, hello?” Lucas said, gesturing around him. “We’re in a mall on the fourth of July! There’s going to be some fireworks somewhere in here.”

“Alright, but if we’re going to do this, we’ve got to do it now,” Nancy said firmly. “Hopper and the others are already on their way to the Gate, we’ve got to get this new Gate open before they close it. Mike, you stay here with El, look after her. Everyone else, split up and look for fireworks. Don’t bother looking in clothes stores, look in general stores, the supermarket, and so on. If we haven’t found anything in ten minutes, we regroup, we come up with a new strategy. Got it?”

“Hang on,” Erica snapped. “Remember what the Chief said? About not doing anything stupid? I’d say this feels pretty stupid to me?”

“Erica,” Nancy said.

“Yeah?”

“Shut up.”

Everyone dispersed (with more than a little grumbling from Erica). Mike sat down beside El as she took that scarf and tied it around her eyes again. Max and Lucas paired off, heading towards the escalator. Before they got very far though, Lucas grabbed Max’s arm and stopped her.

“Are you sure about this?” Lucas asked softly. “If this works, Billy’s still going to be flayed. He won’t be able to come back, he’s going to be trapped in the Upside Down. He’s still going to be gone.”

“But he’ll be alive,” Max said. “That’s enough for now.”

-:-

The darkness was absolute all around her. Every step she took gave a soft splash as though she was walking through water.

She walked with purpose, her eyes on the outline of Billy, his face seemingly illuminated by an unseen lamp. He was just… sitting there…

She walked up to him.

“Billy?” she called softly as she approached. Every step she took towards him was more hesitant than the last.

“Billy?” she called again. She was getting closer…

She reached out her hand…

His arm snapped up and caught hers. He was staring at her, eyes wild. She tensed, but didn’t try to pull her arm away. Not yet.

“Billy,” she said. “We want to help you.”

No answer. Not even a blink.

“Max wants to help you.”

Billy’s grip tightened. He stood up.

“So you have finally come,” Billy said. His voice was deeper than where it naturally sat, but ultimately still his own.

She started to try to pull back her arm, but Billy’s grip was too tight.

“We’ve been waiting,” Billy said. “Waiting for you to see…”

“See what?” she gasped.

“That all this… has been for you,” Billy continued. “We’ve been building this… for you. We will find you, and we will kill your friends. And then… we will kill you.”

She swallowed. She had to be brave. She thought of Max, she thought of Hopper, she thought of Lucas and Dustin and Will, the thought of Nancy and Jonathan, she thought of Joyce, and Steve, and Erica… but above all, she thought of Mike. A fierce fire ignited inside of her. She would protect them all. No matter what the cost.

“Starcourt Mall,” she breathed. “We’re waiting for you.”

-:-

Consciousness returned slowly to Steve.

He became aware that he was awake… he didn’t remember falling asleep… His eyes were closed… He wasn’t quite ready to open them…

With a jolt, he became aware of the agony in his left hand. What had happened? Unwittingly, he let out a groan of pain, and he suddenly remembered what had happened.

The General. The doctor. The drill.

“Steve?”

The call pulled at the edge of his hearing. Robin. She was down in this hellhole too.

He slowly struggled to pull his eyes open. Everything was still blurry. He blinked the fog out of his vision, it wasn’t going quickly enough…

Finally, he could make out the slightly blurry outline of Robin. She was sat on a chair across the room from him, taped up to it.

Where the hell was he if he wasn’t in a chair?

He took stock of his surroundings, suddenly realising he was lying down in a… was this a recliner? A dentist chair?

“Steve!”

Relief was evident in Robin’s voice, but there was also a brittleness to it he didn’t ever remember hearing before. He looked over at her again, finally taking in her appearance properly…

There was blood coming from her shoulder… a lot of blood… too much blood. Deep lines etched into her features told him that she was in a lot of pain, her muscles pulled tight and her jaw tense to try and brace herself against it.

“W-Wait, what happened?” he gasped. Damn, his throat was still hoarse. “What did they do to you?”

Robin managed a small smile. “I tried to escape. When I tried to wake you, that Russian General or whatever shot me in the shoulder. Clearly taking you with me wasn’t one of my better ideas.”

Steve was shocked. “Oh my god, are you okay?

“Yeah,” Robin said softly. “Hurts like hell and I’m feeling a little lightheaded, but I’m okay. I think it just went straight through or something-”

She was cut off by the door opening, and the General and the doctor walked back in. The General looked at Steve and broke into a smile when he saw that he was awake. The smile sent shivers up Steve’s spine.

“Ah, Butterscotch,” the General said. “Glad you have joined us once more.”

Steve did his best to glare at the General as he walked towards him. Behind the General’s back, the doctor was pulling out that godforsaken power drill once again. This time however, he was fitting a far bigger drill bit.

“So, Butterscotch,” the General said softly. “Are you ready to talk yet?”

-:-

The blue Camaro pulled up next to the entrance. There was something almost comical about how those glass doors opened for him to let him in with a small ding, as though he was just another shopper. As though it wasn’t several hours after the official closing time, as though this was a normal day, as though he was just a normal person. He was now so very far from normal.

And so was she.

She stood there, in the centre of the food court, that graphic yellow and black shirt making her stand out boldly. Most strikingly, she stood there alone.

He walked towards the escalator, undoing the rope and walking down the stationary steps. “Where are all your friends?” he asked. A passing mockery of this body’s ego.

She didn’t answer. He continued to saunter towards her.

“It doesn’t matter you didn’t bring your little friends to this,” he continued. “All my friends are on their way. There’s too many for you to play with.”

It was enough. With a cry, she raised her hand, and flung this body to the side.

-:-

The doctor cut the front of Steve’s shirt open towards the top and pressed the drill against one of his ribs. Steve could feel the point pressing into his skin.

“Last chance, Butterscotch,” the General growled. “How did this ‘Hopper’ close the Gate?”

Steve swallowed, his heart pounding in his chest. He couldn’t do it, he couldn’t tell them. He couldn’t do that to El.

“I don’t know,” Steve said, an edge of defiance the only thing strong in his weak voice.

A barked command from the General, and the doctor started.

It was different this time – it broke through his skin, but there was more between skin and bone here – he gasped as it moved through muscle – the drill was pulling and tearing it rather than slicing through it like a knife – for whatever absurd reason, he tried not to scream – like he had any pride left at all – his breathing became sharper – faster – it was making it worse –

A second later, the drill hit bone. It wasn’t like trying to drill through a joint in his finger – it was so much more intense than it had been in his hand – the bone was bigger – stronger – it was taking more to break it – god, it was so painful – his mouth opened – so much for not screaming – the drill was moving deeper into his bone – there was so much more to it – was that Robin screaming as well? – tears were falling down his face – there had to be a limit – JESUS!

There was a cracking sound, and Steve knew, like he had before, that the bone had broken. His cry came out broken, and he felt himself going limp. The noise of the drill stopped, and he felt something pulling at his chest. A split second later, the drill bit was yanked out, and he let out an agonised scream that jolted his freshly broken rib.

The doctor wiped the drill bit down with a white cloth – Steve tried not to look – before fitting it back into the drill and pressing it against Steve’s chest again, holding it against the rib below the broken one.

“Once again, Butterscotch,” the General growled. “How did he close the Gate?”

Steve eyed the drill, before looking, terrified, between the General and the doctor. He looked past them both to lock eyes with Robin. She looked as terrified as he felt, tears running down her face, her eyes begging him not to do this.

But he had to protect El.

“I don’t know.”

-:-

El screamed at the strain it took to fling Billy to one side. Something in him was strong, was fighting her at every opportunity. She threw him against a pillar, the same one she’d smashed those soldiers against. He fought, but she didn’t need to hold him for long, just long enough for –

Nancy and Jonathan jumped out from behind the pillar, armed with a spool of wire they’d found in a hardware store. They wrapped it round him, pinning his body to the pillar. They ran the wire round him once, twice, three times, four times, and pulled it tight, staying behind the pillar.

El stepped back as Billy struggled, pulling out the blindfold. She walked over to the radio and turned it on. Static blared through it and she wrapped the blindfold around her eyes. Billy was screaming, it grated at her nerves, but she had to tune him out…

-:-

Steve screamed as another rib shattered.

“How did Hopper close the Gate?” the General bellowed.

“Steve, please, if you know, just tell them!” Robin begged.

Steve couldn’t answer. He could barely speak through broken sobs. “Please,” he managed to gasp. “Please, just stop, I don’t know anything, please…”

“How did he close the Gate?” the General repeated.

“I don’t know… I don’t know…”

The doctor lined up the drill once more.

“Oh god…”

-:-

The silence startled her after the noise and yelling just a second ago. She needed to look fast for something, anything, from the Upside Down. Something she could feel, something she could touch…

She was searching. Last time she had done this, she had known where the monster was. She didn’t want to touch a Demogorgon, but something else, a vine or something, something she could control…

-:-

Billy was struggling against the wires. It was taking all of Nancy and Jonathan’s combined efforts to restrain him, but it wasn’t enough. They were getting tired, Jonathan’s muscles in his arms were tightening, Nancy’s grip was slipping…

Mike, Lucas, Max, Dustin, Will and Erica rushed forwards to help them, grabbing it and pulling. But even with the extra help, Billy was winning. The wire pulled at their hands, tearing the skin away…

-:-

Suddenly, against the darkness, she saw the looming outline of the Shadow Monster. She felt terror rise up in her chest at the sight of it… Had this been what Will had seen last year?

She knew what she had to do, but she was afraid, so very afraid…

She swallowed her fear.

For her friends.

-:-

“Please,” Steve begged as yet another of his ribs splintered and cracked under the doctor’s drill. He knew he didn’t have much left in him to hold out against them. “Please stop, I’m begging you, please, I don’t know how he closed it, I don’t know anything…”

The doctor lined up the drill once again.

-:-

The cable snapped.

Billy had finally gotten an arm free. With supernatural strength only possessed by one of the Flayed, he twisted the cable around his hand, releasing his other arm, and pulled it apart.

Nancy, Jonathan, Mike, Will, Dustin, Lucas, Erica and Max fell backwards as Billy detangled himself from the cable. Jonathan was the first to recover, scrambling to his feet and chasing after Billy. He jumped and tried to tackle him, but Billy didn’t fall. He barely stopped. Nancy rushed forward to help, leading the others as they got to their feet.

They had all the effect of a fly stopping a runaway train as they tried to pull him away from where El was sat. Billy ignored them pulling him, he batted away Jonathan as he tried to pull him backwards. He threw Nancy to one side as she tugged on his arm. The children wouldn’t have had any effect even when Billy was human, let alone now –

But suddenly the redheaded girl was between him and El. He knew her, from another life he knew her…

-:-

“How did Hopper close the gate?” the General roared, out of patience. He was tired of these teenagers wailing at him to stop, if he didn’t get an answer soon, he’d put a bullet in both of their foreheads just to shut them up.

-:-

El was close enough now.

She reached out her hand…

-:-

The sound of cracking stone was deafening. The food court rocked as a huge chasm opened up in the floor, spreading up the wall like lightning.

Everyone fell to the floor as the ground shook except for Billy, who stayed standing only by some supernatural balance gifted to him by the Mind Flayer. He stared at the crack as it opened, a terrifyingly beautiful fiery red light shining from the depths.

El pulled off her blindfold. She jumped to her feet and stretched out her arm. With a cry, she lifted Billy up into the air. He struggled against her, twisting and writhing in the air as he fought the force holding him.

She raised her other arm. She screamed as she threw him backwards towards the Gate. Billy fought against it as best he could, stretching out his arm and grasping desperately at the broken stone.

He found a grip.

He started clawing his way desperately at the breach, fighting against El’s power tooth and nail. His other hand found a grip on the other side of the crack, and for a second, he clung on, his fingers breaking their own holds into the stone.

El gave a final scream, blood pouring out of her nose and down her face. She pushed out her hands one last time, throwing Billy back. The rock Billy was clinging to broke away, and he fell through the Gate and out of sight.

-:-

Whatever the doctor was going to do was stopped by the deafening sound of stone cracking above their heads. Alarms started wailing around them. Dust drifted down from the ceiling.

A moment later, a scientist – or so he suspected by that white coat – burst in, yelling something in Russian. His eyes wide, he was babbling away at a speed Steve wasn’t convinced a native Russian speaker was able to understand, let alone him.

The General barked something at the doctor before following the scientist out of the room. The alarms were still wailing, and the doctor was evidently nervous.

“What’s going on?” Robin tried.

The doctor, rather predictably, ignored her. He was looking around the room skittishly, like a nervous animal sensing a predator nearby. His eyes flitted between the corners of the room, alternating occasionally between them and the light fittings where the dust had fallen down from. Steve, oddly, found himself sympathising with the doctor’s fear. It was like an earthquake had just struck, only Hawkins wasn’t exactly a hotbed for geological activity.

At least, not the normal kind.

Suddenly, without warning, the door burst open again. Steve barely had a chance to register the silhouette in the door before a burst of rapid-fire gunshots sent him and Robin recoiling into their respective chairs, eyes tight shut.

The gunshots stopped. They heard footsteps walk into this room. Steve opened his eyes and couldn’t stop the broad smile that spread across his face.

Hopper.

Chapter Text

The deafening crack would have sounded like thunder on any other night, but on this night, this gaudy American celebration of independence, it was far enough away from the town, with its inhabitants piled into that carnival hosted by that pathetic politician, that it simply blended into the rest of the fireworks.

He was not so far away. He was drawing close on his bike to hear it for what it was. An attack on everything his comrades had spent so long building.

He did not bother checking inside the mall. The fat police chief was too close. He had that traitor scientist. He would know about the elevator.

It was time to make the American pay.

-:-

Jim hadn’t expected it was going to be the Four Seasons for those kids, but he hadn’t been expecting this.

The Harrington kid was strapped down to a table, his face swollen and bloody, with his shirt cut open near the neckline to reveal his chest with blood flowing freely out of three or four deep holes. A power drill covered with blood lay on a tray table beside him. His left hand was an absolute mess, he didn’t even want to think about the missing fingernails, let alone the mess that was his little finger. Behind him, a girl he didn’t know was tied to a chair, swaying slightly. Blood was coming out of a dark patch in her shoulder, shiny and still visibly bleeding.

God, what had these Russian bastards done to them?

Harrington’s face broke into a broad grin at the sight of him, even if he was in a Russian uniform.

Hopper!” he cried out, and the desperate relief in his voice twisted Jim’s gut. “I’ve never been more glad to see you!”

Jim got out a pocketknife and started cutting through the restraints tying him down. Joyce slipped into the room behind him and found a pair of scissors on the metal counter by the wall and started doing the same thing with the tape wrapped around the girl. Murray and Alexei stood in the door – Murray trying to hide his shock, Alexei simply looked floored by the scene.

Harrington staggered sideways off the – dentist chair? – and looked over at the girl. He tried to stand upright, but clearly wasn’t quite up to it, because he lurched sideways alarmingly into Hopper. Jim caught him and put an arm around him to steady him.

“Easy, kid, easy!” he said. “Just slow down, alright?”

The girl wasn’t much better. Once Joyce had helped her to her feet, he could see that the wound in her shoulder was a gunshot wound.

“Hang on, sit down for a second,” Hopper stopped her, putting a hand out to stop her trying to walk while gently propping Harrington up against the dentist chair. “Let me look at that.”

The girl looked blearily at him for a moment before letting Joyce ease her into the chair again. Hopper crouched down and started to look at it closely for a moment, looking around the back of her shoulder. Sighing, he took off his belt and wrapped it round her shoulder. Memories of doing something very similar to Sam Owens’ leg came flooding back as he did so.

“Give me that scarf thingy you’re wearing,” Jim said.

She looked confused. Hopper gestured to the scarf she had tied under her collar. She started trying to undo it with one hand, before Joyce finally stepped in to help. She handed it to Hopper, who tied it round the girl’s neck and under her arm in a makeshift sling.

“I know it’s not much, but it’ll slow the bleeding until you get back up to the surface,” Jim said softly. He turned to Harrington. “Sorry, kid, I don’t know if there’s anything I can do for you.”

Steve nodded, a lump forming in his throat. Of course, of course Joyce Byers was here, helping rescue them after he’d sold out her son. He swallowed down a wave of nausea as he tried to figure out if he could stand.

“Dustin make it back up okay?” he finally managed to say.

Hopper looked over at him. “Yeah,” he replied. “Yeah, he and the Sinclair girl got back fine. He was real worried about you two.”

“I told them his name,” Robin said quietly. Tears were forming in her eyes. “I told them his name to try and stop them hurting Steve.”

“Wasn’t your fault,” Steve muttered. “I wasn’t much better.”

He looked up at Joyce, any trace of his default bravado gone, stripped away to reveal just how sorry he was.

“I told them about Will,” he confessed. “Mrs Byers, I’m sorry, I’m so, so sorry.”

Joyce’s expression softened into one of sadness, but before she could say anything, Hopper cut them off.

“We’ll deal with that later,” he said. “Right now, we need to go and close the Gate and end this thing. Take that doctor’s key card, go back up to the surface and call yourselves a goddamn ambulance.”

“Wait, no,” Steve protested, a little more energy spreading into his voice. “We’re not leaving you guys!”

“Kid, I don’t have time to have this argument with you,” Hopper snapped. “We need to go quickly, and you two need a hospital.”

“And if we meet any Russians on the way, what are we supposed to do?” Steve pointed out, lifting up his broken hand. As if to emphasise the point, Robin tried to get to her feet and ended up stumbling into Joyce, who wrapped an arm around her.

Hopper looked between the two of them, a ghost of defiance on Steve’s face at the knowledge that he knew he’d win.

“Fine,” he said. “But hurry up.”

-:-

For a moment, they all stood there, staring at the gaping crack in the wall. Lucas, Nancy, Dustin and Erica were in awe. Jonathan and Will looked fearful. Mike was thunderstruck. Max stared into the red light, as though almost entranced.

And El – well, she was stunned.

“Close it,” Mike said, panic raising his voice to an unnecessary volume.

El looked at Mike, before looking at Max. Tears were in her eyes.

“El, close it!” Mike screamed.

El kept her eyes on Max, who was still staring at the Gate like she was about to go through it herself.

“Max?” El breathed softly.

The sound of her name seemed to wake her from a trance. She visibly gathered herself together, swallowing, before taking a step back. She blinked rapidly several times, before she finally fell into a step backwards.

“Close it,” Max said with a steely determination.

El raised her hand once again. Slowly, the Gate started to mend itself, threads weaving together at the bottom of the gate, where the light met the ground.

The others stood there, watching in awe as it came together. The threads would illuminate, until they started to pull themselves together when they dimmed, healing together and sealing, a fading fault line the only sign a crack had ever been there.

The Gate had closed halfway when Will, transfixed by the sight before him, almost missed the soft tapping on the glass above their heads.

He felt that tingle on the back of his neck.

“Guys,” he said nervously. He looked upwards to see something – what was that? – above their heads. A looming outline of an enormous, many legged creature…

“RUN!” he screamed.

They had just scattered into the shops when the skylight gave way, and an enormous, monstrous thing came crashing down into the mall with a screech.

-:-

Somehow, though later Hopper would not be able to remember for the life of him how, they managed to make it to the vault with minimal disruption. The blaring alarms that echoed around them were definitely causing mayhem, because on the rare occasion that they ran into a soldier, they were barely spared a second glance. Something about Alexei’s presence, Murray’s charisma when communicating in Russian and their Russian uniforms meant that they weren’t given much thought as they walked through the halls. They were just three guards escorting two prisoners and the chief scientist. Given the wailing alarms, there were evidently stranger things going on.

Alexei led the way into the vault. It was a cold room with a huge door at one end that Hopper privately thought was unnecessarily large for what was only two keys, lit only by a single fluorescent tube and a flashing red light. Of course, there would be a siren blasting over their heads.

Alexei walked up to the keypad on the door. He started putting in the code.

The door buzzed and a red light flashed up.

Alexei tried the code again. A buzz and a red light.

“What’s wrong?” Hopper asked.

Alexei didn’t need to speak English to guess what Hopper had said. He started babbling away in Russian.

“He says the code doesn’t work,” Murray translated. “He thinks they might have changed it.”

“They’ve changed the code?” Hopper repeated.

Murray translated, and Alexei responded, sounding increasingly agitated.

“He says after you found him, they might have changed it as a security measure,” Murray translated.

“Well, is he sure? Is he putting it in right?”

Murray translated for Alexei, who replied in a tone that would have been obvious anger in any language.

“He says yes, you-” Murray paused as Alexei let out a slew of angry sounding Russian slurs. “Yes, you idiot,” Murray finished.

“Oh, real nice, Smirnoff,” Hopper snapped.

“Do you want me to tell you what he actually said?” Murray offered.

Before Murray could translate what would no doubt have been a very colourful description of Hopper, Alexei started talking again, his voice getting more worried than angry now.

“He says he’s put in Planck’s Constant five or six times now,” Murray translated. “Six – zero – two – six – zero – seven – zero – one – five-”

“Planck’s Constant?” Robin repeated, saying the first words she’d said since leaving that godforsaken room. “That’s not Planck’s Constant.”

“What?”

“I don’t know it all by heart,” Robin said, “but I know it begins six point six two six, not six point zero two six.”

Murray said something in Russian to Alexei, who looked around at her, before putting in the new sequence of numbers into the keypad.

The door beeped and the light turned green.

Alexei stood back and smiled, before turning back to look at Robin.

“Spasiba,” Alexei said to her, a broad grin on his face.

“He says thanks-”

“Yeah, I – I got it…”

“Alright Robin!” Steve said, patting her gently on her good shoulder.

Hopper walked past Alexei to retrieve a steel briefcase from inside the vault.

“Right,” he said. “Let’s go blow up that Gate.”

-:-

Mike held his breath as he chanced a glance round the corner of the counter. That… thing – whatever it was – was standing over the Gate. It was facing the other direction, bearing down on the prize car that stood behind those velvet display ropes.

A second later, there was a crash as one of its enormous legs stamped down on the car. The alarm started blaring, and the creature roared. It slammed its leg down again on the bonnet, before finally wrapping its broken, distorted claws around it and throwing it across the room. Mike’s gaze followed the car as it flew through the air he and saw it land less than three feet from where Nancy and Jonathan were hiding behind the information desk.

Mike turned towards El, Max and Lucas, who were hiding with him, and he squeezed El’s hand.

“El,” he breathed. “Whatever happens, you have to close the Gate.”

They’d made a plan in case the Mind Flayer’s army had showed up – get up to the mezzanine where they’d stockpiled all the fireworks they’d managed to find. Mike had absolutely no idea whether it would work with this monster, but it was the only plan they had. They didn’t have much of a choice.

“We need to distract it,” he breathed. “El, do you think you can do something?”

El nodded silently. She closed her eyes, and thought back to the day Dustin had come back from camp. She could do something similar here. There were things in this mall that she could turn on. She kept her eyes closed, and imagined the escalators moving. She pressed them to work, willed them to turn on…

There was a crunching noise, and the escalators whirred into life. The monster turned sideways with a start. El snapped open her eyes, just in time for Mike to spring to his feet.

Go!” he mouthed insistently, trying to keep as quiet as he could.

The other three sprang up and bolted through the maintenance door. Mike was the last one through, just in time to see a long tentacle stretch out, its claws at the end of it outstretched, as he slammed the door behind them.

Mike, El, Max and Lucas leaving gave the others enough time to move themselves. Dustin, Erica and Will made it to the door first, causing the monster to snap its monstrous head round to face them. Will froze, eyes wide, as the creature’s tentacle lashed round, launching itself towards him –

Dustin yanked his arm and practically threw him through the door just as Jonathan sprinted out from behind his own counter.

“HEY!” Jonathan shouted.

The monster spun around to face him, but that was as far as Jonathan’s plan extended. He began to run backwards –

“Jonathan!” Nancy screamed.

She’d found a door out of the food court – it was a fire door leading into the maintenance corridors less than five feet from him. He made a beeline for it –

The tentacle whipped round and closed its claws around his arm. Nancy ran forward to grab him, catching his hand as he was dragged into the air, but there was only one of her, she couldn’t hold him –

A bright light exploded above her head off the back of the monster. Jonathan crashed down to the floor on top of Nancy as Lucas lit another firework.

“Flay this, you piece of shit!” he yelled as he threw it.

Mike made it to the mezzanine just in time to see Nancy and Jonathan sprint towards the fire door. He grabbed El’s arm.

“El, we’ll hold it off,” he said urgently. “Just close that Gate.”

-:-

It turned out open firing an automatic rifle into the air was an excellent way to disperse a roomful of terrified Russian scientists.

The room emptied within a matter of seconds. It didn’t matter anymore that it was blatantly apparent that none of them were Russian soldiers. They had the keys.

“They’re going to call for backup,” Steve pointed out.

“Doesn’t matter,” Murray said. “This… is going to blow up the machine. Anything down there is going to get vaporised.”

“Oh,” Steve said, raising his eyebrows at the revelation. “That’s convenient.”

“You complaining, Harrington?” Hopper asked.

Steve shook his head as he shrugged. “Forget I said anything.”

Alexei started looking at the readings on the various dashboards, before babbling at them in Russian again.

“He says the Gate’s unstable,” Murray translated. “That’s what all these alarms are for.”

“Will it still work?” Joyce asked.

Alexei continued to babble away.

“He says that this will blow up the machine,” Murray offered. “And it will cut the power to the Gate, but…”

“But what?” Hopper asked. He really hated the word ‘but’.

“But there’s a chance the Gate is self-sustaining now,” Murray continued. “He says if we want to close it, we have to turn off the machine now. He says it may already be too late.”

Hopper looked alarmed. “Then we do this now,” he said decisively.

He opened the briefcase and found two keys. He handed one to Joyce and they walked up to the two podiums just beyond the row of computers. They put the keys into the slots.

“On three,” Hopper said. “One-”

A gunshot behind them cut them off. Hopper and Joyce wheeled around to see the biker that had been tailing them standing in the doorway behind them, gun held up, pointing it at Alexei, who collapsed over the computers.

That Russian bastard…

Steve grabbed Robin and pulled her down under a table. Murray jumped to his feet and ran towards him, grabbing the gun, but the Russian swung his fist and sent Murray sprawling sideways, smacking his head against the side of the table Steve and Robin were crouched under. The pair saw him hit the floor unconscious, blood coming out of a shallow wound on the side of his head.

Hopper lifted his own gun up and pointed it at the Russian. The Russian grabbed the barrel and swung it sideways into Hopper’s face, sending him staggering. Joyce tried to make a grab for the Russian’s pistol, but he grabbed her and threw her away from him.

Hopper felt a fire rise up in his chest at the sight of Joyce hitting the floor. Without a second thought, he grabbed the Russian and threw him out of the room and down the steps towards the Gate.

-:-

She was almost there.

It had taken more out of El than anything had ever done before – even closing the Gate last time – but she would do this. She had to do this. She’d told Mike, and Max, and everyone that she could do this.

She would do it for them.

The fireworks were exploding below her. Everyone was on that mezzanine level, sending explosions of brightly coloured sparks down onto that monster. The monster was twisting and flailing, always trying to get to her, but she couldn’t deal with it now.

She had to concentrate on closing the Gate.

She was so close now.

The last few strands were joining… the fire for her friends burnt brighter than the sparks that burst into life on the monster’s back. They were drawing together…

There!

The Gate finally sealed. The red light illuminating the room from it faded away.

She’d done it.

She stood there, exhilaration filling her whole body. Her breathing became deeper, slower –

BANG!

She’d stood there a moment too long. A tentacle swung out and slammed into her side. She flew through the air like a ragdoll, landing at the top of the escalator, before she went crashing down it.

El!” she heard Mike scream.

She hit the bottom of the escalator. Everything was hurting so much…

She rolled over and staggered to her feet, only to come face to face with that monstrosity.

-:-

The alarms all stopped wailing.

Steve scrambled out from under the table as soon as Hopper and the Russian soldier had crashed out of the room. He ran over to Joyce, helping her to her feet.

“Are you okay?” he asked frantically.

She nodded, not quite meeting his eyes. She hadn’t looked at him properly since the revelation about Will.

Steve tried not to think about that.

He went over to Murray, first checking to see if he had a pulse. When he found one, he tried shaking him awake but to no avail. Joyce, meanwhile, went to check on Alexei, who had none of Murray’s luck. The bullet had gone straight through his back and out of the middle of his chest. It was a kill shot with military marksmanship.

As Robin got out from under the table, all three of them turned towards the Gate, where Hopper and the Russian were fighting. The guns had gone, lost to the gaps between the walkway and onto the floor below. It had devolved into a fist fight.

A fist fight Hopper was losing.

Steve looked nervously over at Joyce, who was staring, horrified but transfixed, by the sight before them. Tears were forming in her eyes. Every time the Russian landed a blow, she gave a small gasp. In that second, Steve saw how much she cared for him.

He had to make up for how badly he’d let her family down. How badly he’d let her down.

He had to do something.

“Stay here,” Steve said to Robin and Joyce. “If something goes wrong, don’t wait for us. Just end this.”

-:-

El thought she was staring at her death.

She raised her hand with a scream and held them up, desperately trying to hold that monster back.

A tentacle lashed out to try and grab her. She lifted her other hand to meet it. It stopped, pushing against her power.

She didn’t know how much she had left in her.

She could hear Mike screaming. She gave a cry and ripped her hand down, breaking off the claws from the tentacle.

The last of the fireworks exploded above her. The monster launched a fresh assault. She raised her hands to meet it, but it was so strong…

And she was so, so tired…

Her knees buckled under the pressure. She let out a desperate scream.

She didn’t know if she could hold out against this.

-:-

Hopper felt the punch land across his face. The Russian bastard grabbed his shoulders and shoved him against the railing. He was pushing his head closer and closer to the machine… Hopper could feel the heat from here, burning against his scalp even though he was still yet to touch it…

Everything changed.

Something ploughed into the side of the Russian. Hopper recovered his footing to see the Harrington kid charging into the Russian, sending them both sprawling towards the Gate.

But the blow had carried Steve too far. He rolled further down the causeway, landing on his front looking at the Gate. He rolled over onto his back to see the Russian standing over him, startled by his sudden appearance and all the more deadly for it.

But charging at the man had taken more out of Steve than he could afford. His broken ribs hurt, god did they hurt, and his left hand was in such agony he couldn’t hold a pencil, let alone hold back a punch.

Suddenly, Hopper appeared over the Russian’s shoulder, grabbing him from behind and throwing him sideways towards the machine.

“See you in hell,” the police chief growled, and he slammed the Russian’s head into the machine.

There was an almighty crash, and bolts of lightning erupted where the Russian had hit the machine. It was like a wall of light stemming at the point of impact.

A wall of light between Steve and Hopper.

Steve scrambled to his feet, looking around, trying to find a way out. Hopper was doing the same, eyes flitting around the room. Steve’s eyes suddenly found Robin’s, looking at him through the glass of the observation deck, and in that moment of staring at her terrified wide eyes, he knew.

There was no way out.

“It’s okay,” Steve said loudly to be heard over the noise.

Hopper looked at him. Saw the resignation in his eyes.

“It’s okay,” Steve repeated.

“Kid-”

“Look after the others,” Steve cut him off. Tears were pouring down his cheeks, but his voice was oddly steady. “Especially Dustin. It wasn’t his fault.”

“Hang on-”

“And tell my mom and dad…” Steve continued, his voice starting to shake. “Tell them… I love them… And I think I get it now.”

Hopper froze, stunned into silence.

“It’s okay,” Steve repeated, taking a shuddering breath. “Go. Finish this.”

Hopper gave him one last look, before turning around. He ran back along the causeway and up the stairs. Robin ran towards him.

“What are you doing?” she demanded. “What are you – what about Steve?”

Hopper didn’t answer her. She pushed past him, but he grabbed her round the waist.

“We can’t just leave him!” she screamed.

“There’s nothing-” Hopper threw her back into the room with a shout. “There’s nothing we can do!”

“Hop!” Joyce protested.

“Joyce,” Hopper’s voice softened in a hope of revealing just how hard this decision was for him. “There’s nothing we can do.”

No!” Robin screamed. She started to run towards the door. Hopper caught her round the waist again, and kept a hold of her, dragging her towards the podium as she fought against him. She was screaming, when words failed her, they devolved into wordless shrieks and screams, tears pouring down her face. Joyce reluctantly fell into step behind him, hesitantly approaching her own podium.

They both put their hands on the keys, neither having the stomach to look at the lone figure in blue down below.

They looked at each other instead.

Wordlessly, together, they turned the keys.

Chapter Text

A blinding white light and a force like a wave blew them backwards.

They barely heard the crashing sound, the screech as gears crunched together in ways that they never should have met, shredding themselves. The glass in the windows between them and the machine cracked into a million pieces, but it did not fall out of the frame.

Suddenly, the light faded. Robin dared to open her eyes. She was lying on her front on the floor over Hopper’s outstretched arm. He and Joyce were lying on their backs, blinking blearily.

Without a second’s hesitation, Robin jumped to her feet, ignoring the pain in her shoulder. She couldn’t see Steve through the glass, it was too badly broken. She sprinted out the door of the observation deck and down onto the causeway.

“Steve?” she called out.

There was no sign of him. Nothing.

Steve?” she cried, her voice rising in panic.

Her voice echoed off the concrete walls, giving her only her desperate plea as a response. She looked around the room, taking in the fading glow of the fault line in the wall, the smouldering remains of the machine…

The complete absence of her friend.

Steve!” she screamed into the darkness.

“He’s gone,” a voice came from behind her.

She turned around to face Joyce.

“No,” Robin denied. “No, he can’t be gone, he can’t be…”

“I’m sorry, sweetie…” Joyce said softly. “I’m really sorry, but he is.”

“No,” Robin repeated, her voice so small it was almost inaudible. “No… please…”

Joyce took a step towards her, putting her arms around her and pulling her into a tight hug. Robin buried her face in her shoulder, all sense of control lost, and finally broke down into uncontrollable tears as the world fell away.

-:-

Everything suddenly stopped.

The monster gave an almighty screech and collapsed against the floor. In that second, they knew Hopper had closed the Gate.

The room stilled to utter silence as they all stared at the unmoving corpse of the monster. And, just visible underneath one of those enormous legs, was the unmoving figure of Eleven.

El!” Mike screamed, sprinting towards the escalators. “EL!

He ran down the escalator and practically collapsed on the floor beside her. With a grunt, he pushed that enormous leg away from her and pulled her out by her shoulders.

“El,” he breathed desperately. “El, come on, please be okay…”

She stirred as his fingers lightly touched her cheek.

Mike almost cried with relief. “El!”

“Mike…” she gasped. She was so tired, she’d never felt so exhausted before in her life. She could barely lift her arms as Mike pulled her into a hug, instead resting her head on his shoulder, eyes closed.

“I did it,” she breathed into his ear. “I said I could do it.”

“I know,” Mike replied. She heard his voice shaking and she realised he was crying. “I know.”

She leant into his embrace and slowly opened her eyes. Her gaze travelled round the mezzanine, alighting on each of her friends. Straight across from her were Dustin, Erica and Will. They were all looking at her. Erica looked stunned, but Will and Dustin had identical broad grins on their faces. She managed a small smile before looking to her left.

She spotted Jonathan and Nancy standing on the other side of a pillar holding the crack that had, up until a few minutes ago, been the Gate. Jonathan was looking at her worriedly, while Nancy spared her a grateful glance before fussing over his arm.

Lastly, El looked right, spotting a lone figure with red hair walking slowly round to stand opposite that fateful fault line. She was staring at it, utterly transfixed, oblivious to the tears pouring down her face.

Max couldn’t quite comprehend it. Objectively, she knew Billy was gone beyond her reach. And they were beyond his. But something in her heart couldn’t accept it. As she stared at that crack, she felt an overwhelming sense of grief wash over her.

He was gone.

“Hey,” a voice said to her side. Lucas. She didn’t look at him, she couldn’t tear her eyes away from that crack in the wall.

She felt an arm slide around her shoulder, felt him pulling her into a hug against his chest.

“He’s alive,” Lucas said, echoing her words from earlier. “That’s got to count for something, right?”

Max didn’t give any sign that she’d heard him.

“It’s okay,” Lucas said softly. “Whatever you’re feeling, it’s okay to feel it.”

Max pressed her lips together, her face starting to crumple as the last vestiges of her wall of control started to crack. As they crumbled to the ground, she fell into Lucas’ arms, and finally let herself cry.

-:-

Sam Owens was blown away by the sight that greeted him as the parking lot became a temporary helipad.

Plenty of choppers were still circling, men in black tactical gear jumping out of them on ropes before moving into the mall. Sam could hear reports blaring over the radio in his hand about finding kids inside the food court… about a large… “thing… some kind of monster…”

That was above their paygrade. In fact, it was his paygrade.

“One of the kids is talking about Russians,” his radio blared. “Says they’re here in Hawkins.”

Ah, yes, the inevitable. He had suspected this was possible from the second he had taken over Hawkins Laboratory. The possibility of the Soviets discovering the Gate and using it to launch an attack on American soil was largely how he’d sold this level of prepared immediate response to the government, it was what had allowed him to invest hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars into having hundreds of soldiers on constant standby. And when they’d received Hopper’s coded message, it was all teams go.

Not that these soldiers knew what they were truly up against. That was still top secret.

A few minutes later, the kids were being led out of the mall. But of course, it was these very same kids. Sam recognised a few of them – Will Byers, obviously, and his brother Jonathan and that Nancy Wheeler girl, then there was that dark-haired kid, Mike, he thought, and then Jane Hopper, known as Eleven. God, she really shouldn’t be out in public, but then everything anyone ever saw at this mall tonight was going to be confined to the vaults of the Official Secrets Act.

Two of the kids he didn’t recognise, however, were frantically speaking to the soldiers escorting them out. Sam could hear the voices carrying from here.

“…It’s that room in the Loading Docks, it turns into an elevator,” the kid with the curly hair was explaining. “But you need a key card to use it-”

“Not a problem, kid, we’ve hacked key cards before,” the soldier replied, clearly quite amused that this fourteen-year-old in a hat and an orange graphic tee was giving him intelligence that was clearly meant for higher ranks. “Go talk to the doctor, he’s running this show.”

At the mention of the doctor, everyone looked over towards him. Sam could see recognition in Will’s eyes first, then saw Jonathan and Nancy realise, and lastly Mike and that Eleven girl.

“Of course you lot would be at the centre of this,” Sam said as he approached them. “You’ve not been having any more episodes, have you, Will?”

Will shook his head, but couldn’t get beyond that before the youngest person present piped up.

“Are you going to go and take out those Commies downstairs already?”

Erica!” hissed the other boy he didn’t recognise.

“Hopper’s already down there,” Jonathan said to Sam, ignoring Lucas and Erica’s spat. “We think he managed to close the Gate.”

Sam nodded, before looking at the curly haired kid. “Where did you say the entrance was?”

“There’s an elevator – one of the rooms in the loading docks turns into an elevator – it’s the one that needs a key card-”

“Alright, we’ve got it from here,” Sam gestured over at two of the soldiers that were stood by the helicopter he’d gotten out of. “Look after these kids,” he ordered. “Get medics to look over them, and don’t let them out of your sight.”

With that, he started to jog over to the loading docks, a small army in tow.

It took them less than a minute to hack the lock. Sure enough, as he and what felt like twenty soldiers piled into the room, the second the door closed there was a clunking sound and suddenly the room dropped faster than any of them found comfortable.

A minute later and it stopped.

“Doctor, stand back,” one of the soldiers ordered – clearly the commander of this team. Another barked order and the team moved into formation, guns at the ready, pointing at the door.

The door opened, revealing a deserted corridor. With stealth only brought on by years of training, the team silently fanned out into formation and began to move down the corridor. The elevator gave another clunk as the door closed, before a whirring sound indicated it had moved back to the surface.

They moved efficiently, shining a light into every shadow they passed, one or two occasionally pausing to open a door to a cupboard. Sam walked behind them, knowing that they would lay down their lives to protect him in an instant. He wasn’t about to jeopardize their potential sacrifice by insisting he go first. This was what they were trained for. He was there for the Gate.

They approached a corner in the corridor. The soldiers froze at a hand signal from the commander. Sam stopped too, and realised there was a sound coming from round the corner. A soft sound of wheels as they squeaked against the floor. The gentle hum of an engine – not a big engine, but one that would power a golf cart or something similar.

At another hand signal, the soldiers all pressed against the wall. Sam was ordered back further along the wall away from the corner with a signal that he didn’t need military training to recognise as the universal sign for ‘shoo’. Sam glanced over at the commander as he raised three fingers.

The engine was getting closer.

Three – Two – One – GO!

The team moved in unison, fanning out over the corridor, guns raised, shouts bellowing.

“Get out of the vehicle!”

“On the ground!”

“Drop your weapons!”

“Hands in the air!”

“Americans!” Sam heard a familiar voice bellow. “We’re Americans!”

Sam threw caution to the wind as he heard that voice. “Hold on!” he yelled. “Hold your fire!”

He ran out to the opening of the corridor, moving between the soldiers and coming out to see –

Jim Hopper and Joyce Byers were knelt on the floor beside a red cart.

“Jim!” he exclaimed.

“Hey, Doc,” Jim replied. “You got my message, then?”

A nod from Sam was all it took to get the soldiers to lower their guns.

“Is it just you two?” Sam asked as Jim and Joyce got to their feet.

“No, we, uh…” Jim gestured towards the cart. “We’ve got a guy out cold and a kid in shock in the back. Both American.”

There was something off about how Jim explained it. He seemed… oddly brittle.

“You’re not far from the elevator,” Sam said as Joyce went to open up the back of the cart. Two of the soldiers offered to help with – was that Murray Bauman? – as Joyce helped a teenage girl in a sailor’s outfit out of the cart. The girl seemed like a strong breeze would knock her over.

“These guys will escort you back up,” Sam said, before dropping his voice as everyone moved out of earshot. “What happened? You guys closed the Gate, right? Why do you all look like you just lost a fight?”

“We closed the Gate, yeah,” Jim explained. “But…”

“But?”

Hopper took a deep breath. “We lost someone,” he explained heavily. “A kid. Couldn’t have been older than nineteen. He helped out the other kids last time.”

Sam’s eyes widened, shocked. “But… I’ve seen you lose people before, I’ve never seen you like this-”

“That’s because this time is different,” Jim explained, giving Sam a dark look. “This time… I made the call to leave him.”

-:-

Nancy had a theory, because of course she did.

“When we were in the hospital,” she explained animatedly to an audience with an average age four years younger than her, “we saw Tom Holloway’s body break down and merge with Bruce’s. They came together to form that monster that attacked us in the hospital. It looked like a smaller version of that thing that attacked us tonight in the mall, didn’t it, Jonathan?”

“Er… Kind of, I guess…”

“I think the Flayed all merged to create that thing,” Nancy elaborated. “I think they came together to create that monster. Billy said that he was bringing friends, and then that thing shows up? I think that was all the Flayed.”

“But why didn’t Billy merge with it?” Lucas asked.

Nancy didn’t have a chance to answer before Will suddenly gave a shout.

Mom!

All theories forgotten, the group started heading towards the loading dock, where Hopper and Joyce were approaching. Joyce saw Will and started to run towards him, wrapping him in a tight hug as soon as she reached him. Hopper, however, gave El a small wave, and the group could see that he was caught up in the mayhem by the elevator.

Murray was being wheeled away on a stretcher, Hopper supervising, giving instructions to the paramedics. Dustin peered through all the people in black, looking for any sign of anyone in a sailor’s outfit. It really couldn’t be that hard to spot –

He finally caught sight of Robin, sat on the kerbside while a paramedic was crouched down, looking over her. He watched as the paramedic untied a scarf that was wrapped around her arm and tied at her neck.

He ran over to her.

Robin!” Dustin called out. “Are you ok – wait, what happened to you?”

She looked up at him and met his eyes with a stare that seemed to span a million miles before reaching him.

It was only then that he realised she was alone.

Dustin wheeled around, half expecting his friend to be on the ground behind him. “Robin, where’s Steve?”

No answer. Dustin continued to look around.

“Steve?” he called.

Nothing.

“Robin,” he said, his brain finally understanding what it had refused to grasp. “Where’s Steve?

He locked eyes with Robin, her eyes sparkling with tears. He saw the truth in her eyes, but he didn’t want to believe it…

“No,” Dustin said softly, as though the simple act of saying it would somehow make it untrue. “No, he can’t be…”

“I’m sorry, kid,” Hopper’s voice came from behind him. “He’s gone.”

At Hopper’s words, Dustin felt the world fall away, as though he was untethered, floating. This wasn’t supposed to happen – Steve was here – he had to be – because if he wasn’t – if it was true – then Dustin had left him down there… He had left his friend down there, and now his friend was –

“No…” Dustin said, louder this time. “No – he’s not… You said you’d bring him back…” his voice was rising as he felt tears well up in his eyes. “You told me you’d bring him back, you promised!

Hopper took a step towards Dustin.

“You promised me you’d bring him back!” Dustin screamed, any trace of composure gone. “Bring him back, bring him back!

Dustin pushed against Hopper’s chest, sending the police chief back a step. He glared at the man who didn’t immediately act on his demand, feeling tears run down his face.

“Bring him back!” he demanded, shoving Hopper’s chest again, knowing it was impossible but demanding it anyway, because they’d made the impossible happen before. They lived in the impossible. And if the impossible didn’t happen, then that meant that Steve – his mentor, his friend, his brother – was gone.

And it was all his fault.

Dustin leant forward to shove Hopper again as he let out an unintelligible cry. This time, Hopper was ready, wrapping his arms around the kid as he fell against his chest with his whole body, collapsing into desperate sobs. Over the kid’s shoulder, Hopper could see the others, the rest of the kids who had realised what had happened. He didn’t think he could bear to look at any of them as realisation gave way to shock, horror, anger…

Grief.

Dustin’s knees gave way with a fresh wave of sobs as he started screaming into Hopper’s shoulder. He didn’t care that everyone was watching, it didn’t matter how the Chief lowered him to the ground. He barely registered Robin reach out her hand to put it on his shoulder. He barely felt the rest of the Party approach and kneel down beside him, putting reassuring arms around him. He didn’t hear any of Hopper’s empty placations muttered low into his ear, because none of it mattered anymore.

Because Steve was gone.

-:-

His eyes fluttered open.

He was lying face down on an uneven floor. His chest hurt, every breath felt like knives were stabbing into his front.

Memories of what had happened came flooding back to him… Hopper making it to the observation deck… Seeing Robin struggle against Hopper… Turning away from them all to look at the Gate… The terrifying realisation that the Gate was his only hope of surviving… It was too far though… Too far to jump…

Deciding to try anyway.

Running towards the beam of light… Launching himself in the air… Realising the Gate was too far away… He wasn’t going to make it…

A force hitting his back… Carrying him forwards those extra few feet… And then…

Nothing.

He tried to push himself to his feet, before – SHIT – he remembered his left hand was completely broken.

He rolled onto his back and tried sitting up. He managed more successfully to get to his feet slowly, his head still spinning from all the recent blows to it. Jesus, he needed to stop making a habit of that…

He was facing the wall – the same wall the Gate had been blasted into. He walked up to it, the only remnant of the Gate being a hairline fracture in the concrete. He ran his fingers over the small crack before leaning his head against the wall.

An unstoppable wave of sadness and longing crashed over him. Tears started to form in his eyes as he realised just what this meant.

He was probably never going to see his friends again.

He was jolted out of his reverie by the sound of an unnatural howl far away. He turned around to face the reality of the situation, the place he had ended up.

He was stood in the Russian base, only it wasn’t. Thick black vines clung to the wall. Huge holes – tunnels – were dug into the wall, ten at least, so terrifyingly familiar from last year when he had ventured inside one, all converging on this one point. White flakes drifted through the air like snow, or else ash in a fire. Whether it was his shattered ribs or something else, he was finding the air feeling thicker than normal in his lungs. Stood with his back against the wall, Steve was facing this strange new world.

The Upside Down.

Chapter Text

It was freezing.

His body was taking everything in slowly. First, he accepted the sight before him. The overwhelming reality that he was in the Upside Down, he spent too long pressing himself into the wall, just trying to look around and take stock of his surroundings.

The next thing that hit him was just how cold it was. He remembered Joyce saying about how Will – or more accurately, the Mind Flayer – liked it cold, and if this was where it came from, Steve didn’t have to think much about why. The cold bit against his bare arms and legs, at his exposed neck and chest, and sent shivers through his body. He didn’t exactly welcome the shivers as they jolted against his broken ribs and shook his shattered finger.

As he tried to take a deep breath in, he was struck by how damp the air smelt. It was heavy and humid, and breathing it in felt like trying to breathe in treacle. It wasn’t just damp, though, it smelt like an odd combination of chemicals. It reminded him of the smell of the science labs at school, only much, much stronger.

The final thing he noticed was just how quiet it was. The howl in the distance had faded, giving way only to the kind of silence that pressed down on his ears. It was quiet enough that he could hear a soft ringing in his ears, the air dancing on the very hairs inside his ears that detected sound. He’d never heard such silence before.

Taking it in, Steve realised he had to move. He had to go somewhere and find water, or whatever was closest to water here, find a way to survive. It was either that or stay here, and either starve or die of thirst or whatever, or else wait for something to find him, whichever happened first. And he’d met the things that were likely to find him here.

He looked around at those tunnels. They seemed like the most obvious route out of the basement. Picking one, he started to climb.

-:-

He’d never thought he’d ever say this, but thank god for Doctor Sam Owens.

The official cover story was a fire. Any deaths were attributed to the catastrophic fire caused by a gas explosion or some other bullshit that wasn’t important to Hopper. The sudden extinction of certain families such as the Holloways in the explosion at a time when the mall should have been closed and completely empty was attributed to the slightly unbelievable excuse that the Hawkins Post was doing a feature on how the introduction of Starcourt had changed the landscape of the town, and on that evening they were interviewing people of all ages in the mall itself when the explosion had happened.

A terrible tragedy, but an accident nonetheless.

There was, of course, the complication that most of the people hurt in said explosion had injuries that told a very different story. For example, the gunshot in Robin Buckley’s shoulder.

Sam Owens had an answer for that. He had asked for the federal government to build a military hospital not far from Hawkins Lab – not on the site, god no, he wasn’t going near there ever again if he could help it – but nearby, just in case. It proved that this new military hospital was actually much closer to the mall than Hawkins General, so Doctor Owens conveniently suggested to the paramedics that he could radio ahead and send anyone with serious hospital-requiring injuries there. The doctors there were all consigned not only to doctor-patient confidentiality but also to the Official Secrets Act. They knew not to ask questions.

Once at the hospital, Doctor Owens handed out the now-usual round of Non-Disclosure Agreements. Robin had now suffered a broken shoulder courtesy of a bit of falling rock, the claw marks on Jonathan’s arm were now burns hidden under a dressing, and Murray had been knocked out cold in the initial blast.

Robin was required to stay for twenty-four hours, and Murray would need to stay for at least that long once he finally woke up, but otherwise, they were free to go in fairly good time. It was definitely an improvement not having to sit through the general triage. Hopper had called the kids’ parents as soon as they’d got to the hospital to let them know where they were – at least, he’d called about the ones that had made it out.

Joyce drove Mike and Nancy home in addition to Will and Jonathan. Following the revelation that Steve had told the Russians about Will, Hopper had offered to let her, Jonathan and Will stay for a couple of nights, just until they could be sure that all the Russians had either been captured or else had otherwise left Hawkins. The situation with Dustin was a little more complicated – Claudia Henderson had sounded absolutely hysterical over the phone and Hopper had no idea of how to get her to agree to go into hiding for a couple of days without reading her in, which Sam Owens was strongly against. The message was clear: the less obvious disruption, the better.

So they’d settled on a couple of soldiers unobtrusively watching the house and hoped they did incognito well enough to avoid Claudia recognising them.

El, Dustin, Lucas, Max and Erica were sat in the Land Rover Sam had lent him before he could request that the Mayor fund a new police-issued cruiser for him – assuming that Mayor Kline remained in office for long enough for Hopper to put in that request. By the sounds of things, following the revelation that Kline had taken a certain amount of money from the Russian government, the plan was to make him the scapegoat for the ‘gas explosion’ after the news broke that he had taken bribes from ‘unlicensed contractors’ in order to have the mall built in Hawkins which had ultimately resulted in the ‘tragic loss of life’ that had occurred that night. This would result in him being taken into custody for accepting bribes and ‘reckless endangerment’ before he would be quietly removed from his white-collar prison to face charges for treason away from the public eye.

Sam’s explanation really was very tidy. He must have been very proud of it.

Max, Lucas and Erica were sat across the back seat of the Land Rover. Lucas was in the middle, Erica leaning on one of his arms, finally asleep, while Lucas had an arm around Max. The redhead was staring out the window, tears silently rolling down her face. She wasn’t the only one. Dustin had ignored the front seat next to Hopper, opting instead to ride in the back. He didn’t want to see anyone’s pitying glances, or have Hopper of all people try and cheer him up. He didn’t want sympathy right then. He just wanted to be alone, and the back was the closest he would be able to get to that in this car.

The sun had just crested the horizon, painting the sky beautiful pinks and oranges, as Hopper pulled up into the Hendersons’ driveway. Claudia had evidently been waiting for Dustin since Hopper’s phone call because as the car crunched on gravel, she came running out of the house, wrapped up in a warm flannel dressing gown.

“Dusty!” she called as he got out of the car. “Honey bun, are you okay?

Dustin didn’t answer her. He really didn’t know how to explain it. He let his mom pull him into a tight hug.

“Let’s get you inside,” she said. “We’ll get you some breakfast and then you can go to sleep. I know it’s been a long night but I’m sure you’ll feel better after that.”

Hopper winced at Claudia Henderson’s misplaced optimism, but Dustin didn’t bother correcting her. Instead, he turned his back on the others and allowed his mother to usher him inside. When they reached the door, Claudia turned around and called back to Hopper.

“Thank you,” she said awkwardly, “for looking after him. For bringing him home.”

The door fell shut behind her, and Hopper was back in the car.

Next stop was the Sinclairs’ house. Mr and Mrs Sinclair had also evidently been waiting for the return of their precious children, and at the sight of Lucas and Erica both getting out of the car unharmed, they launched into the entirely predictable lectures.

Phrases like thank goodness you’re both alright… what were you both doing there in the first place… why didn’t you let us know where you were… both of you are grounded for a week… overlapped each other as they ushered Erica inside. Lucas was much more resistant, walking up to the open back door of the car as soon as he had freed himself from his parents’ clutches.

“Max…” he started hesitantly, rewarded by her looking at him for the first time since they’d left the hospital. “I know this is hard, I get it. I get that… that I can’t really get it. But I’ll try. I’ll try and listen if you need me to. Or I can help be something else, something that isn’t sitting at home thinking about it, or whatever – basically, whatever you need, I’m… I’m here, I – I want to help. Just… don’t shut me out. Don’t go through this on your own.”

Max looked at him with that same haunted look in her eyes, like she wasn’t really seeing him. Lucas understood the dismissal, and stepped back to close the car door –

“Lucas!”

He froze at the sound and watched Max scoot across the back seat, before she pulled him into a hug. How long they stayed there escaped them both, but eventually, she slipped back into the car, and gave him a sad smile. He closed the door behind him and followed his parents into the house.

The next stop was the one Hopper was dreading. Susan Mayfield had answered the phone, and hadn’t asked about Billy when Hopper had told her that he was with Max after an incident at the mall and that he would bring her home. When the kids had finally filled him in on what they had done – on what had happened to Billy – Sam Owens had instructed Hopper to declare him dead. Hopper wasn’t thrilled about what they’d done, in fact he was downright furious – had he not told them not to do anything stupid? – but that lecture could wait until another day.

He pulled the car onto the kerb outside the house and got out, leaving El in the front seat with the radio on. He noticed Max hesitate, hand frozen on the door handle, as Neil Hargrove came storming out of the front door.

“Where the hell have you been?” he snarled through the window at Max. “We get a call at god knows what time in the morning saying you’ve been involved in some incident? At the mall? And then you get brought home by the Chief of Police? What were you even doing there? Where the hell was your brother in all of this?”

Hopper stood in front of Neil as Max opened the door, forming a barrier between the girl and her apoplectic stepfather.

“Hey,” Hopper said softly in his low tone that he used to de-escalate rising conflicts while indicating that he wasn’t someone to be messed with. “Hey, Max has had a long night, and there are some things I need to talk to you both about, so why don’t we go inside and we can talk calmly, okay?”

Max slipped past Neil and over to her mom, who put an arm around her shoulder and led her inside. Neil glared furiously at Hopper for another second before following them in. Hopper didn’t bother waiting for an invitation to join them.

Susan got her daughter a glass of water and offered one to Hopper, who declined with a wave of his hand. Max made herself scarce as soon as she could, slipping quietly into her room and pressing her hands over her ears, trying not to hear the conversation that was unfolding in the living room.

“Mr Hargrove, please have a seat,” Hopper indicated to the sofa taking a seat in one of the armchairs.

Neil sat down, not taking his eyes off Hopper. Not exactly easing up on the glare, either. Susan looked worried, particularly by the sudden vanishing of her daughter behind a closed door, and joined Neil on the sofa beside him.

“So what the hell happened to Maxine?” Neil asked accusatorily.

Hopper sighed. “There was an incident at the mall last night-”

“Yes, you said that on the phone.”

Hopper paused for a second at the interruption. “It was a gas explosion,” he continued. “The Hawkins Post was doing some kind of feature there on the mall, and had asked to interview some people of different age groups there when the explosion happened. Max managed to get out okay, but…”

He tailed off, running a hand over his face.

“But what?” Neil pressed angrily.

Hopper sighed and met Neil Hargrove’s glare. “Unfortunately, your son Billy wasn’t so lucky.”

Neil froze, his eyes widening slightly, almost imperceptibly, with shock. “Excuse me? What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

Hopper kept his eyes on Neil’s as he took a deep breath. “I’m sorry, Mr Hargrove. Your son was killed in the explosion.”

Susan gave a soft gasp, putting a hand on Neil’s arm. He shook her off. Understanding the wordless dismissal, she hesitantly got up and went to go and check on her daughter.

“Explain,” Neil demanded.

And so Hopper did. He explained Sam Owens’ neat cover story as best he could, even if the premise was slightly dubious. He explained how Billy was not the only casualty, how the emergency services were working round the clock to recover any and all bodies but how that would take a while, how there was no guarantee with a tragedy this scale that all the bodies would be recovered. He explained that there were support systems offered by organisations with grief counselling, he explained how Max had gone through a traumatic event, and how she was going to need all the support she could get, even if that meant they organised therapy for her. As Hopper explained, Neil Hargrove sat silent, drinking in every word Hopper said and, judging by the deepening scowl, not finding them at all to his taste.

Once Hopper had run out of words to fill the pressing silence, he faded into a few words of condolences.

“Once again, I’m sorry for your loss,” Hopper said, standing up.

Neil finally looked away, staring at an empty beer bottle Hopper hadn’t noticed before now. Now that he took in the surroundings at last, Hopper actually noticed several empty beer bottles on the coffee table. Shit. Neil was drunk.

“Mr Hargrove?”

“Get out.”

The growl came low and menacing, but so quiet that Hopper barely heard.

“I’m sorry?”

“You heard me,” Neil got to his feet, his voice rising. “I said get out!

“Mr Hargrove-”

“I said get the fuck out of my house!” Neil kicked the coffee table to one side sending the bottles wobbling, squaring off against Hopper. “You come in here, telling me my son is dead, and telling me how I should be caring for my stepdaughter, how I should be taking her to therapy, how I should be looking for goddamn fucking grief counselling? Like you fucking know me? Like you know how I fucking feel?

“Mr Hargrove, I know this is difficult-”

“AND I SAID GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY GODDAMN HOUSE!”

Neil kicked the coffee table again, this time succeeding in knocking it over. The bottles crashed onto the floor, a few breaking on impact as the coffee table landed on top of them, sending shards of glass embedding themselves in the carpet. Hopper finally decided enough was enough. He nodded in acquiescence.

“I’m very sorry for your loss,” he muttered, before walking out the front door and back to the car.

It was another half an hour of driving in silence with El, albeit a much more companionable silence than before, before they made it back to the cabin. Jonathan’s car was parked outside, Hopper noted with some relief, meaning Joyce, Will and Jonathan were already there.

“Hop!” Joyce called from the kitchen as he and El walked in. “Come sit down, I made breakfast.”

The astonishing domestic normality of it caught Hopper off guard, as he privately found himself imagining Joyce doing this for him after a long day, when he came home late at night, to find whatever spread Joyce had managed to put together. The only problem was that this time, the thought of eating anything made him feel slightly sick.

Breakfast, it turned out, was Eggos. Somehow, Joyce had managed to upgrade it not just with piles of syrup, but also by digging out some fruit that she’d cut up into small pieces and set in a bowl with a spoon in the middle of the old table. Hopper wasn’t aware that he’d even had fruit in the house – perhaps Joyce had stopped by a shop.

While the others found places to sit on armchairs and the sofa and tucked into the meal – none more enthusiastically than El – Hopper poked the fruit around his plate at the table with Joyce. He managed a mouthful of fruit, but that was about it. He was thinking… thinking about the rest of the things he had to do today.

“Something wrong, Hop?” Joyce eventually asked.

“What?” Hopper jolted out of his reverie. “Oh – uh, yeah, I’m just… I’m not very hungry…”

Joyce gave him a sad but understanding smile. There was too much knowing in that look.

“Uh… I’ve got to go…” Hopper finally stuttered out. “There’s… there’s something else I’ve got to do.”

El looked up, slightly indignant.

“I won’t be long,” he reassured her, putting a hand on her shoulder as he passed her. Jonathan and Will were looking at him questioningly, but Joyce, with her goddamn mind-reading abilities, was still giving him that knowing look. Sometimes he wondered if she didn’t have superpowers like El.

Hopper picked up the car keys and walked out and got back in that car.

He drove slowly. He knew he had to do this soon, putting it off was only going to increase that knotting feeling of guilt in his stomach, and if he didn’t do it, someone else would, and if he did it, he could control how it was done, but he still didn’t have a clue how to do it.

Hawkins was still almost silent as the sun climbed over the sky. The town wouldn’t be awake for another few hours at least – almost everyone would be sleeping in after spending the entire night at the Fourth of July Fair the Mayor’s office put on every year. The news broadcasters may have picked up the story by now, but Hawkins itself wouldn’t hear about the Starcourt ‘gas explosion’ for a little while longer.

A couple of not-at-all-deliberate wrong turns down one way streets helped put off the inevitable, getting him lost in Hawkins Suburbia a couple of times, but there was only so much he could do, and eventually he arrived at his destination.

The home of the Harringtons.

Hopper was surprised to see a shiny black Mercedes in the driveway. From everything Steve had told him over the years, his parents weren’t home most of the time. He was also sure the kid had told him that his parents were away on business at that moment.

This wasn’t altogether surprising. Harrington Spencer was possibly the biggest law firm in Indianapolis, and following the retirement of ‘Spencer’ six years earlier, Paul Harrington was the sole managing partner. Hopper knew that his wife, Linda, had some role in the company as a figurehead managing finances or operations or personnel or some other big department, which had been Paul Harrington’s way of smoothing over things in his personal life following the discovery of a string of short-lived affairs and one night stands with young, beautiful secretaries and paralegals. As far as gossip was concerned, this hadn’t stopped the affairs, but had certainly reduced them significantly, as Linda Harrington now had a certain amount of pull with the board of directors that allowed her to go on business trips with her husband. And as the leading corporate law firm in Indiana, there were a lot of trips to New York.

Hopper pulled up into the driveway behind the black Mercedes and went to knock on the door.

After a moment long enough to make Hopper wonder if he’d been mistaken about anyone being home, Linda Harrington opened the door. She was wearing an elegant mid-length A-line dress – thank  you Joyce for teaching him what those were – and her perfectly dyed blonde hair was done up in a neat bun. Much like just about everyone else, she’d clearly been out all night, because nobody in their right mind would look that well-groomed at 6:45am.

“Chief Hopper,” she said with a slightly surprised smile. “Come in, please.”

He followed her inside, and saw three large suitcases stacked up by the stairs.

“You’re lucky you caught us,” she explained as she led him through to the enormous living room. “We just got home about half an hour ago. We had business in New York – we were meant to get back last night, but when we realised that the office there had such excellent views of the fireworks, we decided to change our flight to an overnight one so we could watch them.”

She gestured to one of the armchairs casually as she drifted past them, before calling out for her husband. A second later, Paul Harrington emerged from a door in the far corner of the living room.

“Chief Hopper,” Paul said with that same tone of surprise that his wife had had when he saw him. “I’m surprised to see you here, what can we do for you?”

Paul had clearly just caught sight of the pile of pizza boxes on the coffee table in front of Hopper as he walked over.

“Sorry about the mess,” he said. “We’ve been away for a week and our son, Steven, evidently hasn’t heard of a trashcan.”

Hopper closed his eyes for a fraction longer than a standard blink at the mention his name. “Actually… it’s about Steve that I’m here-”

“Oh, god, he hasn’t been arrested, has he?” Paul interrupted. He turned to Linda. “I swear to god, I told him, one more disaster and I’m cutting him off. I told him he had to learn some responsibility-”

“Mr Harrington, your son hasn’t been arrested,” Hopper cut off Paul’s tirade. “Why don’t you have a seat?”

Paul and Linda sank into the Chesterfield sofa across from the armchairs, and Hopper felt a sense of déjà vu. At Hopper’s words, Linda looked worried. Paul was trying to keep that mask of professionalism that by now surely must have been a default, but it didn’t quite hide a glint of trepidation in his eyes.

“Mr and Mrs Harrington,” Hopper began to explain. “There was an incident tonight at Starcourt Mall. While Steve and certain others were working late to host a feature for the Hawkins Post, there was a gas explosion that compromised the structural integrity of the building and started a fire. Unfortunately, your son was among those who were killed in the explosion.”

Linda froze at those words. Her posture seemed to crack, held together only by habit that would not last as eventually it would crumble under gravity. Hopper looked at her as she stared at him, completely motionless, and he could swear that behind those eyes, Hopper could see her brain completely shutting down.

Paul, on the other hand, slumped back in the chair. He passed a hand over his face, clearly trying to process what had just been said. When that didn’t work, he leant forwards, elbows resting on his knees with his forehead in his hands, before he finally looked up at Hopper, still rubbing a hand over his face, a disbelieving frown on his face.

“W…What?” he finally managed to gasp out.

“I’m sorry,” Hopper said softly as he finally looked away from the two people in front of him and down at his hands. The sense of formality he adopted felt strange, foreign. He only ever became like this on the rare occasions he gave news of a death to a family.

“No…” Paul said softly. A warning, the first embers of rage crept into his voice. “No… I don’t believe it, I can’t believe it, I-”

He broke off, running his hand through his hair in a gesture that reminded Hopper so very much of how that kid would casually fix his hair. Hopper remembered finding the gesture annoying, the vanity of it grating against his nerves, but now…

Now the reminder just hurt.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” Hopper repeated. The same empty words he’d used on Neil Hargrove, on Marsha Holland and her husband, the same words he’d use again so many times before he could finally put this to bed. It felt so scripted in his mouth, like it wasn’t enough.

Especially not this time.

“H-How did he die?” Paul finally managed to stutter out.

“There was an explo-”

“Yeah, I got that part,” Paul snapped. “I meant how exactly did my son die?”

Ah, yes, the million-dollar question. The reason Hopper had been so determined to deliver the news himself. The official story didn’t cover individual causes of death at this stage – no, that was something that would come later. But Hopper had thought about it on the drive over here. The kid had been responsible for saving his life. He knew he had a window to make that known before Sam Owens just turned him into another statistic. And, damn it, it was the least Hopper could do to make sure he was remembered for what he was.

Steve Harrington was a goddamn hero.

“After the explosion, the structural integrity of the building was compromised,” Hopper lied. It was the same line Sam Owens had given him about what the public would be told once the building was condemned. “Your son took it upon himself to ensure that as many people got out through the maintenance corridors as possible, but unfortunately he didn’t manage to get out in time.”

It was the most plausible story he could come up with – deliberately vague on the details, mostly in line with the official story, even if a few details were fabricated here and there. He’d thought about it and ultimately decided that if Sam had a problem with him saying that, he could take it up with Hopper who would deal with whatever consequences the authorities could throw at him.

“Steve saved a lot of lives tonight,” Hopper concluded. “Including mine.”

This had Paul Harrington’s demeanour change in a heartbeat. No longer in shock or confusion, something shifted into horror. Those embers of rage sparked up.

“Hold on, you were there?” Paul asked incredulously. “You were there when this happened?”

Hopper hesitated for a second before nodding. “Mr Harrington, your son was a hero-”

“Yeah, well, it wasn’t his job to be a hero, was it?” Paul muttered menacingly, not looking directly at Hopper. The danger in his voice was unmissable. He wasn’t shouting like Neil Hargrove, this was calculated. Measured. “No, it was his job to scoop ice cream for spoiled brats. No, being a hero? …Well that’s your job now, isn’t it?”

Hopper didn’t answer, closing his eyes again.

Isn’t it?” Paul hissed.

Hopper opened his eyes, but didn’t meet Paul’s accusing glare. Truthfully, he’d never felt more ashamed in his life than he had about making the call to leave Steve on that causeway. He would take every single word, accusation or insult the man now sat across him flung in his direction. It felt like only a fraction of what he deserved, because honestly, Hopper felt they deserved the truth, even though he knew they couldn’t have it. Hopper wished he could give them more than just a scapegoat, even in the form of himself. Honestly, he wished he could give that kid more than a false memory for his parents to cherish.

“Tell me, Chief Hopper,” Paul spat out his title. “While my son was off ‘saving lives’ or ‘being a hero’ or whatever bullshit ultimately cost him his life, what exactly were you doing?”

Hopper honestly didn’t know if there was an answer to that question that he could give.

“What exactly were you doing while my son died?”

Hopper fell silent, his mind gone woefully blank. He looked down at his hands, clasped in and around each other.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” he finally managed to repeat.

“I didn’t think so,” sneered Paul as he stood up, no joy in that tiny victory he’d managed to win. “I suggest you leave, Chief, find some neighbourhood watch meeting to mediate or whatever other bullshit you’re suited to-”

“Did he say anything?” came the small, broken voice of Linda Harrington.

Immediately, Paul’s demeanour changed again. Dropping into the seat beside his wife, he slipped an arm around her shoulder, pulling her into his chest. Linda hadn’t said a word throughout the entire exchange, she’d not given any indication she’d even heard a word since Hopper had said that Steve had been killed. Tears slowly carved tracks down her increasingly pale cheeks as her body slowly collapsed into her seat, but now she was looking up at Hopper, a desperate, earnest look on her face that broke Jim’s heart more than any of her husband’s accusations.

“Did he say anything? Before he died?” she repeated.

Hopper nodded. “He told me…” Hopper was startled as his voice caught in his throat for what felt like the first time since Sarah had died. “He told me to tell you… that he loves you.”

At Hopper’s words, Linda’s face crumpled. She held it together for another second before her whole body crumbled into her husband’s chest, finally breaking down completely into tears.

Hopper decided to show himself out.

Chapter Text

Steve almost gave up at the sight of the sharp incline.

He felt like he’d been walking for hours. He was certainly thirsty enough. The tunnel had been going at a steep but ultimately manageable incline upwards since he’d first started, but now it veered alarmingly upwards, like a wall cropping up in his face out of nowhere. As he reached it, he looked up to see some kind of light glinting above him. The tunnel wasn’t quite straight up, there was still some sort of slope, but it was definitely more ‘up’ than ‘along’.

He glanced back over his shoulder. The prospect of walking as long as he had walked again only to end up back where he started, to start again at another tunnel which, if he was honest with himself, would probably only end the same way, was not one that immediately enticed him. That said, climbing up that tunnel with his hand in the state that it was did not fill him with a feeling of excitement.

He needed to find something to drink – if Erica was to be believed, he only had a few days before he’d die of thirst. If he was right, if he had been walking for hours, he needed to get out of this godforsaken tunnel and up to the surface where he could only hope there was some water somewhere in some state. It was either that or start trying to drink the goo that was clinging to the vines around the tunnel. And frankly, the last strange miscellaneous goo he’d encountered put him off that idea.

Steve looked up the tunnel. One of the few things that years of basketball had given him was a decent ability to judge distances. The light that glinted up above him was maybe thirty feet up. It wasn’t going to be a fun climb, but it was manageable.

There was nothing else for it.

Using mostly his right hand, he started to climb. When he needed to use his left hand, he did his best to put most of the strain on his thumb and index finger. He nearly slipped when instinctively he tried to grip with his little finger, the jolt of pain that shot through his hand sent him letting go, and he would have slipped down if he hadn’t managed to get his feet underneath him.

He didn’t know how long it took, but eventually, the climb gradually evened out and Steve could finally crawl into a flatter part of the tunnel. He realised as he did so that he wasn’t at the top, but he could see much more clearly now – it was higher, closer to the surface, and the shaft of dim light that he’d seen from the bottom was maybe ten feet above him. But the tunnel negotiated back upwards in a curve away from the ledge he’d found – a fork as two of these tunnels met. In order to get to the slope so he wasn’t climbing up the overhang, he would need to jump the width of the tunnel.

He didn’t know if he had it in him to make the jump, and he decided not to risk missing the jump altogether and ending up back on the floor. Instead, he chose the other option, which was to turn around and walk down the tunnel he’d crawled into.

This tunnel was flatter than the one he’d just climbed out of – a fact for which his legs were eternally grateful. The ground was still rough and uneven under his trainers, but at least he didn’t have to climb. His legs were aching, particularly after scrambling up that tunnel. His arms were in agony. What little of his left hand hadn’t been broken by a Russian with a drill was now cramping up, the strain of his good fingers trying to take away the worst of the effort from his bad fingers.

In all, he was pleased to be choosing the less physically exerting option.

It wasn’t long, however, before he started to feel a strange sense of déjà vu. Granted, he’d been feeling that sense since he’d decided to set foot in the tunnels, but this particular tunnel felt more familiar to him. Maybe it was because it was closer to the surface. After all, it wasn’t like he’d been paying particular attention to the tunnel those little shitheads had dragged him literally kicking and screaming into.

Or maybe it was because it had just led him to a Hub very much like the one he’d set on fire the year before.

Most of the details of that night after Billy Hargrove had punched a concussion into his head were incredibly fuzzy, but the one thing he did remember with terrifying clarity was that Hub. He remembered all the tunnels converging on that one point, he remembered those spore clusters built into the roof, he remembered that unnatural blueish light, he remembered that weird point in the middle where the vines seemed to cluster around a rock. This Hub was very similar. It was almost identical –

It was the same Hub.

Or at least, this was the Upside Down’s version of the Hub. The realisation hit Steve like a ton of bricks. He’d been here, less than a year ago, and he’d burnt it to the ground. Or at least, so he’d thought. But being here meant that he knew where he was. If he could just find the same tunnel he’d used, he could follow it back and try and find that hole Hopper had created and get out. Then he’d be at Merrill’s Farm, and he could find his way back to somewhere he knew. Even if it was the Upside Down’s version.

He glanced around. The tunnel he had just come out of had taken so many twists and turns he had no idea what direction he’d approached from. He felt lost, confused, and felt a feeling of panic rise in his chest.

No. He could do this.

There were two tunnels side by side to each other, with a bit of space between them before the next grouping of tunnels. Did that help orient him?

Not in the slightest.

He thought back to that day in November. The tunnel they had taken that day… he didn’t think it was part of a group of tunnels. It was set on its own, a little way apart from some of the others.

Looking around, there were about three tunnels that matched that description. He walked up to one and peered down it. A little way down, the tunnel veered right.

Steve stepped back, trying to remember which way the tunnel he’d taken last time had gone. He remembered it had turned, but which way­?

He decided to look at the next one, to see if it looked any more familiar. This one also veered right. Slightly more helpful if the tunnel he wanted turned left, but it looked no more familiar than the last one –

Something by his foot caught that strange blue light.

It glinted silver, polished, shinier than any of the vines around him. He looked down, and saw it catch the light again. It was hiding under one of the vines…

He knelt down on the ground, but experience – or quite possibly a Darwinian instinct to not die – stopped him from just sticking his hand underneath one of these vines. He needed something rigid, something he could use to move the vine off it.

The only thing to hand was that damn acrylic name badge he had from Scoops Ahoy. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to nudge the vine away. He almost jumped out of his skin when it came to life, but it slowly slithered sideways, revealing that silver object underneath.

Steve’s jaw dropped when he saw what it was. It was his old lighter – the one he’d thrown to set fire to the Hub last year. But that had been in his world, hadn’t it? So how did his lighter get here?

Hopper had said that the vines were spreading from the Upside Down as the Gate grew, but what if it wasn’t the vines doing the spreading, but the actual Upside Down itself? Maybe the tunnels were the Upside Down spreading into his world in a physical way. Maybe if the Gate had stayed open long enough, the Upside Down itself would have spread like a hostile organism, leeching into his world and turning everything into the Upside Down.

Or maybe everything in his world just had an Upside Down equivalent.

It was still slightly blackened by smoke from the fire he’d lit. He was still so woefully clueless, but as he wiped away the soot that had clung to his lighter, he wondered how the soot would have got there if it hadn’t been in the fire. But he wasn’t smart like Nancy, or knowledgeable about fantasy worlds and creatures like Dustin. He wasn’t a scientist, he didn’t have El’s superpowers. Truth be told, he felt completely clueless about the entire Upside Down. He had no idea what made him qualified to come up with theories about what was going on.

Other than the fact that he was here, and they were not.

He quickly tested the lighter, and felt a certain amount of reassurance as an orange flame flickered in front of him. It wasn’t much, but he was no longer totally reliant on what the Upside Down could give him in order to survive. He could set a fire and light it now, and he’d have warmth and a way to cook food and a way to defend himself against whatever this world would throw at him.

He put the flame out and pocketed the lighter. He didn’t exactly have refills of lighter fluid. Deciding he would come up with theories about how it got here at some point later in time, he made up his mind that the tunnel he was stood in front of was the tunnel he’d used back in November.

He felt an extraordinary sense of relief when his hunch paid off – even to such an end that not only did he find what he now called ‘Hopper’s hole’ but also that the rope was still hanging there. It was still a climb, but there was still a rope, which made the entire prospect much more palatable.

Instead of doing a hand-over-hand climb, Steve decided to make life a bit easier for himself and knot the rope at a few key points so he could give himself a foothold. Not really having the energy to do more than three or four knots, he knotted one at about knee height, one at about waist height, one at head height and one (where he had to jump to actually make the knot) at the highest point his hands could reach.

He didn’t often have good ideas, but this was one of those rare occasions. The knots made it easier to actually climb, using what little of his left hand that was actually operational to steady himself while his right hand could actually do most of the heavy lifting – quite literally. With every step he awkwardly made, trying to get a foot onto the next knot up, he cursed that Russian General and that doctor for what they’d done to his hand and chest. He knew that a lot of the breathlessness he was feeling – that he’d been feeling for the last however many hours – was entirely down to those broken ribs. And he didn’t think there was anything he could even do about it.

He reached the top and found himself scrambling on his stomach onto smoother dirt. The vines were still spreading out of the hole, but they actually proved to be a blessing as they helped reinforce the hole so Steve didn’t feel like the entire structure was going to cave in under his weight. Eventually, he managed to get his feet out of the hole, which allowed him enough of a chance to get up. As he finally got to his feet, he took in his surroundings, and felt a renewed sense of horror.

The open world around him was shrouded in thick, blue-grey clouds that gave occasional ominous flashes of lightning. The dirt under his feet felt dry and barren, though the same thick black vines that had been reinforcing the tunnel still crept along the floor. In the distance, he saw the trees and the forest, but despite the fact that he knew, objectively, that it was the height of summer, the trees were bare, no leaves clinging to them. Even the tall firs didn’t have a single pine needle on them. In the distance, he could see the outskirts of Hawkins, so familiar and yet so completely alien in this strange new world.

Still, he had his bearings now, and he knew he needed to find water.

Perhaps if Steve had been paying attention, he would have realised where his feet were carrying him much sooner than he did. He wandered into the forest, still that jarring combination of so foreign and yet so familiar. He found the tracks through the forest that he’d used to wander when he couldn’t have been older than seven or eight, playing games with long-distant friends of his childhood. He remembered running out here with Heather Holloway at one of his parents’ interminable garden parties when they were eleven – or had he been twelve? – before after an extremely stupid game of hide and seek he’d ended up sharing what he would call his first kiss up in a tree. Of course, Tommy had found out and spent months starting chants in the playground of “Steve and Heather sitting in a tree…” God, he’d been an idiot back then.

That said, if he remembered right…

Something clicked in his brain, and he took off at a run. His feet carried him over familiar paths, jumping over tree roots and vines alike. His ears picked up the sound before he could see it, and his heart started pounding in his chest –

He broke over a crest and saw, at the bottom of a gentle slope, a small stream that ran through the forest. In his world, the stream was a freshwater stream that ran over rocks. It was perhaps not the cleanest water in the world, but it was perfectly drinkable. There was even a rock in the middle that acted as a convenient stepping stone.

In this world, however, the water quality was anyone’s guess. He noted that the vines that crept along the ground stopped some way short of actually entering the stream. He walked up to the waterside, and thought that, if nothing else, it’d be good enough to wash away as much of the grime that coated just about every inch of his body as he could.

Kneeling down, he slipped his right hand into the water. He was surprised by just how clear it was. It certainly wasn’t as clear as it had been in his world, and even in the dim light, he noticed it had a slightly brown tint, but it seemed clean enough to rub away some of the blood and dirt that coated his hand. Once the worst of it was gone, he cautiously lifted his hand out of the water and pressed his wet fingers against his lips.

The water tasted oddly peaty, and he was sure there was more iron in the water than was normal. But there was nothing else there, it didn’t seem like there was any dirt or other poisonous material in it – at least, nothing more toxic than what was in the atmosphere. He decided that, if he was going to be poisoned by anything, it was going to happen with or without him drinking potentially contaminated water, and frankly, he was too thirsty to care. He cupped his hand into the water and brought what he could to his mouth.

The feeling of cold water slipping down his throat felt like the breath of life to Steve. Not caring how stupid he looked – it wasn’t like there was anyone around to watch – he knelt down on all fours, keeping as much weight on the heel of his left hand as possible, and frantically tried to drink as much as he could. The relief that washed over him felt almost as good as the water running down his throat. Now that he knew this was here, he wasn’t completely doomed to a slow, painful death gasping for water. No, any slow and painful death that he would undoubtedly suffer would be from the poisonous air, or quite possibly starvation. But that was a problem for another time.

Steve fell back onto his haunches once he had finished drinking, taking long, deep breaths as he relished the feeling of renewed life. His eyes closed in temporary happiness, an odd feeling of bliss washing over him. As his eyes started to drift open, he finally took in the sight beyond the stream, and felt his stomach clench uncomfortably.

A little way beyond the ridge on the other side of the stream stood a very familiar sight. He stepped over the river and walked up the ridge, as if in a trance. He’d forgotten how close it was to the stream…

He found himself walking through the gap in the fence and into his garden. Those vines stretched into the empty pool, crawling round the diving board. He noticed, with a sickening realisation as he passed the ladder, that there were still old blood spots on the side of the pool, completely dried out and absorbed into the stone.

This must have been where Barb died.

He remembered that old photo of Barb, sat alone on his diving board. He’d only seen it once, and he hadn’t really given it much thought at the time, because he’d been far more angry at the time about the photo of Nancy in only her bra, visible from his window. But it made sense – that photo was the last anyone had seen of her. She must have been taken into the Upside Down here, and fought with the Demogorgon in his pool.

A fight she’d ended up losing.

With what felt like more physical effort than any of the climbs he’d made that day, he tore himself away from that spot. He walked away and, without even realising, he wandered into his house.

The empty living room felt almost haunted. His eyes strayed around the room, and for a second, he felt five years old again, terrified of the shadows in the corner of the big, empty space. The vines had made it in here too – some of the windowpanes were cracked, leaving enough space for the black tendrils to force their way inside.

He didn’t stay in the room for long.

He found himself wandering upstairs. He pushed open his own door and found himself staring at the empty room. It was tidier than he had ever seen it – evidently, what his mother called the ‘floordrobe’ and unmade bed didn’t have their parallels here. The lock on the window had been broken here, and the vines had forced it wide open. Black tendrils covered every inch of the floor and crept up onto the bed, closing tightly around his pillow and duvet.

He backed out of his own room and wandered across the corridor, before opening the door to his mom’s room.

Somehow, the worst of the vines hadn’t made it here. The room was oddly bare, the vines creeping up to the door and stopping. The tendrils hadn’t broken through any locks or windowpanes yet, they crept a short way across the floor under the door but they stopped before they reached the bed. The fireplace looked monstrous, with vines creeping out and towards the mirror that hung over the mantle, but, as with the door, they hadn’t made it far into the room.

Steve walked over to the bed and ran his hands along the pristine, empty sheets. His eyes felt oddly wet as he walked around it, feeling a thick layer of dust gathering. He didn’t know why this room was so empty, and he found that he didn’t much care. This was his mom’s room – the place he’d always gone when he was a small child to escape from the monsters in his closet.

For some reason, this room brought the enormity of his situation back home to him. He’d found water, he’d found a lighter, he’d found a way to survive, but for what? Was it too much to hope that the Gate would open again and he could find a way to go home? Was it wrong of him to hope that? To expose his friends and family to those very threats that he’d been prepared to die to stop?

He settled down on the far side of the bed, tears slipping down his face. He had no way of knowing that, back in his world, his mother was lying on the other side of the bed, staring blankly at the empty space beside her.

What was he going to do?

-:-

It only took sixteen or seventeen phone calls from Paul Harrington to Hopper’s office over the course of the next thirty-six hours for Sam Owens to come up with an official ‘body’.

By this point, news about the fire had spread throughout Hawkins, and it was all anyone could talk about. Paul had received at least six oven-baked lasagnes in various ceramics. He’d also heard about the Holloways and felt another blow of grief. The Holloways had been old family friends – to lose them all in one night wasn’t fair, it wasn’t right.

The Department of Energy had launched an official enquiry into the fire. They agreed with the authorities that the cause had been a gas explosion but declined to comment any further than that. Not that the statement had stopped the rumours – the blame lay with everyone from the Mayor to the Department of Energy to a secret invasion by Russians, depending on who Paul was speaking to at any given time. He’d even heard someone blaming it on an alien invasion. Paul didn’t believe any of them. Honestly, one tragedy had the whole town going crazy.

Linda had barely moved since she’d heard the news. After she’d completely broken down after Chief Hopper had broken the news, Paul had carried her upstairs and put her down on the bed. He hadn’t managed to sleep himself. He was pretty sure Linda hadn’t, either. She just lay there, facing away from the door, her eyes glassy as she stared into space. Paul had tried to make her eat dinner – one of the oven-baked lasagnes had come in handy – but when he’d taken it up to her, she didn’t even move. He’d left her to it and came back to it a few hours later to find it stone cold and completely untouched.

Now, however, Chief Hopper had called to say they’d finally identified Steven’s remains. He suggested they come to the morgue in the morning – it was just after six in the evening, and the coroner would be heading home. Paul, however, had insisted that they stay open, even going so far as to offer to pay the coroner or whoever would be there for their time. He wanted to see this tonight.

He went up and knocked on the bedroom door. Linda gave no answer, which didn’t surprise him in the slightest. He pushed open the door and walked in.

“Chief Hopper called,” Paul said.

No response.

“They’ve identified Steven,” he continued.

Nothing.

“I’m going to go and see him,” Paul said, trying to ignore the way his stomach twisted at the way he spoke about it, like his son had just moved out rather than lost his life. “I’ll probably be an hour, do you want to come?”

Silence.

“Okay then,” Paul muttered quietly. “I’ll see you when I get home.”

Paul started to close the door behind him –

“Wait,” came the soft murmur, so quiet he almost missed it.

Paul turned around. Linda turned her head around. She was still in that dress she’d been wearing since she’d gotten on the plane – hell, now that he thought about it, she’d been wearing it to the drinks they’d hosted to watch the fireworks, she’d been wearing it to meetings for the full business day beforehand.

Linda rolled over and sat up wordlessly. She had none of her usual grace and poise that only seemed to matter to the extremely wealthy. Her hair was coming out of her usual bun, flyaway strands clinging to her face. She bent down to get her shoes and slip them onto her feet, before standing up and silently following her husband. Paul slipped an arm around her shoulders and she gratefully leant into his steadying hold.

The drive to the morgue was silent. Somehow, that made it seem even more endless. Eventually, though later he wouldn’t be able to remember how for the life of him, he pulled up outside the morgue, to be greeted by Chief Hopper.

“I offered to stay,” Hopper explained. “The coroner couldn’t stay, he had something at home, but Doctor Owens, who’s with the Department of Energy, is here.”

Hopper led the two of them inside, where they met a short man with curly grey hair. He gave them a warm smile as he held out his hand to shake. Paul took his hand, but couldn’t bring himself to return the smile with anything more than a stony stare.

“Sam Owens,” the man introduced himself. “I’m handling the Department of Energy’s inquiry into the incident that occurred at the mall.”

Paul managed a curt nod. Linda just looked vacant, completely elsewhere.

“I’m so sorry for your loss,” Dr Owens said. “I wish I could offer you something more, but I’m afraid what I have to say may make this harder.”

Paul tilted his head a fraction, his stare only getting darker. Dr Owens offered them a seat on a stiff leather couch in the reception area.

“We’ve positively identified your son’s remains,” Dr Owens said. “But I must warn you, due to the nature of this tragedy, your son’s remains, like many others, can only be identified through dental records.”

“W-what the hell does that mean?” Paul asked, frowning.

Dr Owens sighed, looking down into his lap before answering. “It means your son’s remains are unrecognisable.”

Linda, who hadn’t given any indication that she’d been listening, finally stared directly at Dr Owens. Her eyes were wide, shocked.

Paul put a hand on her arm, before finally asking Dr Owens to give them what they came for.

“Let me see my son.”

Dr Owens nodded curtly, before standing up and leading them into the morgue itself. There were four tables in the room, each occupied by what Paul could only assume were bodies under white sheets. Dr Owens led them to the table furthest from the door.

“I warn you,” Dr Owens said gently. “This is going to come as a shock.”

Linda stayed silent, staring down at the white sheet, clearly trying to hold back tears. Paul felt a heavy sense of trepidation in his stomach as he looked down at the sheet that was covering his son. He gave a small nod, and Dr Owens lifted and folded back the top of the sheet.

Linda let out a trembling gasp of shock at the sight. Paul closed his eyes, but couldn’t erase the image that was burnt into his retinas – an image that would haunt his nightmares until his dying day.

What he was told were Steven’s remains was in fact a charred skeleton. Eyeless sockets stared up at them, teeth leering at them in a terrifying grin. What might have been burnt flesh still clung to the skull and neck, but it was all blackened by fire and charred beyond recognition.

This could not be their son.

“No…” Linda finally gasped. “No, no, no, it can’t be, no…”

“I’m sorry,” Dr Owens said softly.

Her hand gently reached out towards what was once his face. She wanted to touch it, to feel it for herself, but she couldn’t bring herself to do so. She pulled her hand back to her chest and folded herself into her husband’s arms. Burying her head in his shoulder, she let herself sob. When that wasn’t enough, she screamed. She didn’t care that Dr Owens was there, she didn’t care about Chief Hopper standing awkwardly in the corner. She didn’t care about Paul’s hand gently stroking her hair, rendered speechless by the horrific sight before them. She didn’t even care when he rested his own head on her hair, the slight damp feeling against her scalp the only indication she’d ever get of his tears.

-:-

“So was it actually him?” Hopper asked.

He and Sam were sat in a booth in the bar, small measures of bourbon in front of both of them. The Harringtons had eventually left, Paul practically dragging his wife out of the morgue and back into the car. After that, Sam had locked up the morgue and found somewhere that would serve them the strongest drink they could find.

“What?” Sam asked.

“The kid. Was that actually him?”

“Oh – er, no,” Sam replied. “We looked, but there weren’t any bodies in the main lab. That was actually a Russian soldier or something we found in the corridor outside.”

“Why did you show them that, then? Why not just tell them that in all the chaos his body was unrecoverable? In an accident like this, it’s understandable.”

Sam gave a mirthless chuckle. “Jim, the Harringtons aren’t rational like us. They have money. They’re not used to being told ‘no’. You go to them and tell them that their kid’s dead but his body can’t be recovered, they’re going to launch a full scale inquiry of their own before we can have dinner. You saw what happened with the Hollands, they mortgaged their house and hired Murray Bauman who basically destroyed our entire operation. Now imagine a family with the Harringtons’ resources. They don’t just have the money in this town, they are the money. They’ll get all those fancy lawyers down here and they’ll subpoena just about every bit of paperwork that’s ever existed in this town. This whole thing gets busted wide open, and everyone – including those kids – will end up in the spotlight. And that includes your El. So you give them a body to bury. You tell them it’s their kid, you let them grieve, you let them move on.”

Hopper sipped at his drink. “I told them their kid was a hero.”

Sam nodded understandingly. He’d been surprisingly mellow when Hopper had told him what he’d told the Harringtons. It was surprisingly easy to work into the official story.

“I don’t like lying to them,” Hopper said. “If their kid’s still out there-”

“Their kid’s not out there,” Sam said softly, using that same understanding tone he’d used with Paul and Linda Harrington. “Even though we know we can’t get a body, there’s no way he could have survived that explosion. That kid’s dead. The Harringtons need to accept that. And so, by the sounds of it, do you.”

Chapter Text

The next week seemed to be dominated by funerals.

Steve’s was first. The Harringtons insisted on having it in a church – something that had completely enraged Nancy.

“Steve wasn’t Christian,” she snapped, smoothing down the black dress she’d worn exactly twice before. It was scary how in the last two years, she’d come to own a ‘funeral dress’ that was getting more use out of it than some of her other dresses. And the only times she’d worn it were for her generation. That wasn’t normal.

But then none of this was.

Her mother was, predictably, fussing over her, playing with the loose strands of her hair as she tried to tame it into a bun, while Nancy had given up hope of this funeral being an even remotely fitting tribute to her friend.

“His parents were never around while he was alive, and suddenly Steve’s gone, and they’re pretending like they even knew the first thing about him? If they knew anything about Steve, they’d know he never believed in God or the Bible or any of that crap.”

Nancy!” Karen scolded.

“It’s true,” Mike chipped in from the corridor. “Even I know Steve thought it was all bullshit.”

Karen turned around and fixed her son with a glare so furious it made him shrink ever so slightly back into himself.

“You can’t say any of that today,” Karen said sternly to her two oldest children. “Steve may not have believed, or what you see today might not fit your own ideas of who Steve was, but Paul and Linda are his parents. They’re doing what they think is best for him.”

Nancy tutted. “Shame they weren’t around enough to do that while he was alive,” she muttered under her breath.

Nancy, I’m being serious!

“Alright,” Nancy said defensively. “Jesus…

Karen sighed. “Look, I know this is hard for you,” she softened her tone. “But just remember, you’re not the only people this is hard for. Today’s not the day to go attacking the Harringtons for not being good enough parents.”

“I know,” Nancy said, matching her mother’s tone. “It’s just… It feels wrong.”

Speaking of people who this was also going to be hard for…

“Mike, have you heard from Dustin recently?” Nancy asked.

Mike looked up at Nancy in the mirror as their mom put the finishing touches to her hair before walking down the corridor to get Holly.

“No,” he answered sadly. “I’ve been trying to reach him, but he’s not been answering.”

Nancy nodded sagely. “What about Max?”

I haven’t heard anything, but apparently she talked to Lucas a couple of days ago. Apparently Neil’s been sat around getting drunk on the couch while yelling at Susan for organising Billy’s funeral.”

“Oh?” Nancy asked. “What’s his problem with that?”

“Who knows,” Mike shrugged. “Neil’s a piece of shit.”

Language!” Karen shouted.

-:-

Claudia Henderson felt distinctly out of place as she walked into the church. She’d known Steve, she’d met him when he’d come by the house to pick Dustin up for school, or to take him to evenings at the Wheelers’, or the Byers’, or wherever the kids were hanging out, but he’d never known the family at all. However, Dustin had absolutely insisted on coming, and given that it was the first time he’d actually left of his room in days, Claudia was not about to argue.

It turned out she wasn’t alone in her predicament. Walking into the church, Dustin was immediately called over by Lucas, and Claudia saw the Sinclairs standing with Susan Mayfield, looking just as uncomfortable as she felt.

“Dustin!” Lucas called, breaking into a smile as soon as he saw his friend.

Dustin looked over at Lucas and saw Erica and Max standing behind him.

“Hi guys,” he said awkwardly. He hadn’t seen any of them since Starcourt, and flashes of his breakdown in front of the elevator were all too fresh in his mind. The Party had all got it, but Max had her own stuff to deal with – what with her brother being trapped in the Upside Down.

“How’re you doing?” he mumbled in Max’s general direction.

Max shrugged. Stupid question. “What about you?” she asked.

“About the same.”

The three fell into an awkward silence for a moment before they were interrupted by the arrival of the Wheelers. Mike was pulling at the tie around his neck – he was sure his mom had done it too tight.

“Hey guys,” he said, giving the three of them an awkward smile. “How are you guys doing?”

This was much more directed at Max and Dustin than at Lucas and Erica, and they all knew it. Max gave a shrug, Dustin tilted his head in a noncommittal way. It was a question they’d get asked far, far too much over the course of the next few days, and they were both dreading it.

“I, uh – Lucas mentioned your stepdad wasn’t doing great,” Mike said to Max awkwardly. None of them knew what to say. What did you say at funerals?

“Neil’s being difficult,” Max said dismissively. “Won’t organise anything for Billy but yells at my mom for doing it because she’s not Billy’s family or some shit like that. Spends most of his time drunk. So I spend most of my time in my room.”

Mike tried to look sympathetic. He knew how Neil could be – apparently for most of the last year there’d been a conspiracy in the Hargrove-Mayfield house to keep him from finding about Lucas. Not that it had stopped Neil from hearing rumours that Max was dating a black kid.

Nancy stood a bit away from both adults and the Party, keeping an eye on the door for either Jonathan or that Robin girl Steve had worked with. She knew that the Byers’ were expecting to make an appearance, along with Hopper and possibly El. Sam had suggested another couple of months of El staying out of public sight for a little while longer, but had said they could cover for her presence at Steve’s funeral as being someone who had escaped through the maintenance corridors thanks to him. Sam was probably planning some cover story to explain how she’d end up in Hawkins high school in freshman year despite not having been to either Hawkins Elementary or Hawkins Middle School. It would probably somehow tie into the Starcourt tragedy – Sam seemed determined for just about all his cover stories to have something to do with it.

Nancy had no idea if Robin would make an appearance though. She’d never had much to do with Robin – before Will mentioned her, Nancy hadn’t even known she’d existed. When Nancy had seen her briefly at the mall while getting patched up, she’d looked shell-shocked. Nancy wanted to reach out to her, to let her know she wasn’t alone, that she could talk to her and Jonathan, but she hadn’t seen Robin since the mall.

“Nancy?” came a voice from behind her.

She turned around to come face to face with, of all people, Carol and Tommy H.

“Oh,” she murmured. “Hi.”

There was an awkward silence that seemed to stretch. There were so many things that had gone unsaid between them, things that became so unimportant as Nancy, Jonathan and Steve had gotten so caught up in the Upside Down.

“Look,” Tommy said. “I know we had our differences, but I just wanted to say… I’m sorry for what happened to Steve. It’s… I mean, it’s completely fucked up, to be honest.”

“Oh,” Nancy replied awkwardly.

“You were there, right?” Tommy asked. “What actually happened? I heard Steve got a load of people out-”

“What do you want, Tommy?” Nancy cut him off shortly. “You want some juicy gossip or something? Neither of you have said a word to me since you ditched Steve for wanting to get back together-”

“We didn’t ditch Steve, princess,” Carol said snidely. “He ditched us. He ditched his friends for you, and then you go and ditch him to run off with that Byers creep.”

“And for the record,” Tommy pointed out, “I still cared about Steve. We started talking again after graduation. He reached out to me after his dad all but cut him off. Or did he not mention that to you?”

Nancy would later pride herself on her poker face that she used at that revelation. She hadn’t known Steve had been in contact with Tommy.

“Look, I came here to offer an olive branch,” Tommy said curtly. “But I can see you just want people to hate, and I’m not prepared to be hated for what went down between me and Steve. Especially not by you. Or your boyfriend.”

Jonathan had just appeared by Nancy’s side, looking wary about joining what he could see was a very charged conversation.

“I’ll see you around, Nancy,” Tommy said. “Or not. I don’t really care.”

With a final scathing glance, Tommy and Carol walked off over to where Steve’s parents were stood towards the front of the church. Nancy looked around at Jonathan and was pleasantly surprised to see El standing with Will, Joyce and Hopper.

“What was that about?” Jonathan asked.

Nancy looked at Tommy and Carol talking with Paul Harrington on the other side of the church. Linda was stood next to them, clearly trying to make an effort, but all too often her eyes seemed to drift off into the distance.

“Apparently Steve had started talking to Tommy again,” Nancy explained.

Jonathan looked surprised. “But… he hated them. I’m pretty sure he called them grade A assholes at least twice a week while he was at school.”

“Apparently he reached out after his dad nearly threw him out,” she explained. “I mean, we weren’t exactly around then, it was just after we started at the Hawkins Post, maybe he needed someone to talk to?”

Jonathan shrugged, but got anything else that he might have said was cut off by Nancy catching sight of someone over his shoulder.

Robin was one of the last people to arrive, clearly hoping to slip in, for the most part, unnoticed. Three or four days in possibly the hottest rumour factory Hawkins had ever produced had turned the fact that she’d worked with Steve in Scoops Ahoy into, depending on who she spoke to, the ideas that she’d been dating him, or that she’d secretly been his lover for most of their senior year, or that they’d eloped and were secretly married, or, in one case, that she’d been pregnant with his child. Robin was incredibly annoyed by constantly having to refute these rumours – she particularly wanted to bury the pregnancy idea – but a small part of her was relieved that they hadn’t glanced upon what she’d confessed to Steve.

That said, just about everyone seemed to know that she’d seen Steve die.

She looked around nervously, her arm set in a white sling that was far too visible in the sea of black. Her eyes eventually lighted on Nancy Wheeler and Jonathan Byers, who beckoned her over with a warm smile.

“Hey,” Nancy said in that warm, delicate tone that everyone was using with her now, as though she might break at anything other than the gentlest of touches. “How are you?”

“You really want to go there?” Robin replied with a raised eyebrow.

“Anything you want to talk about?” Jonathan asked in that same utterly hateful tone Nancy had been using.

Robin simply shot him a look that told him more clearly than words ever could to stop trying. “Shall we sit down?”

The slightly out-of-place group sat down near the back of the church as the crowd of people in black started to move as one towards their seats. A strange hush fell, with most people looking towards the front of the church.

A priest stood up and started talking into the lectern, reading words that most of them agreed Steve had never heard in his life, let alone believed.

“…And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes, and there shall be no more death…”

“This is such bullshit,” Nancy muttered quietly enough that it was only audible to Jonathan.

Scripture washed over the room, and Dustin found himself wondering if he’d ever sat through a situation that was less reminiscent of his friend. He thought about Suzie in Utah – her parents had faith, a very strong unshakeable faith, but Suzie, while open to the idea of religion, was not entirely sold on her parents’ beliefs. Dustin didn’t have an ounce of faith – if he’d ever considered the existence of God, it was quickly dispelled by his discovery of the Upside Down and everything that was in it. It was too much to believe that there were monsters in another dimension in the same world or universe where there was also an all-powerful being in the sky that took you to paradise afterwards if you were good enough and sent you to Hell if you were bad. Dustin knew that Lucas and his family believed, and that Lucas’ own faith had been strengthened by the impossibility of the Upside Down – if there was such a place as there, such a Hell as the Upside Down, then there was a possibility that there was a heaven, but Dustin didn’t agree. There was no rhyme or reason to who ended up in that Hell.

So lost in his thoughts he was that he didn’t notice that the priest had stopped speaking. It was only when a shadow darkened the doorway that he felt a jolt in his heart.

A highly polished oak casket was being carried down the aisle. Dustin didn’t recognise any of the pallbearers – he knew that in some cases, the pallbearers would be important figures from the person’s life, but evidently Steve’s parents had opted for professionals from the funeral parlour.

Perhaps Dustin noticed this because he just couldn’t look at the casket itself. But as they set it down at the front of the church, his eyes were drawn to it like a magnet. It was all he could see, the rest of the world fell away, the sound of the priest reading some generic scripture that he’d probably end up reading several times that week was drowned out by a ringing in Dustin’s ears. The room suddenly became too hot – his breath was catching in his throat – he could hear his heart pounding against his chest – the colours were too bright – too bright –

He almost jumped when a hand lightly touched his arm. “Dusty?” he heard his mom say. “Are you alright?”

He didn’t realise he was shaking until he felt his mom’s arm around his shoulder. His imagination was going haywire – flashes of images of Steve lying inside that coffin – of a slowly decaying corpse of his friend – of the flesh half-rotted off his face to expose a hollow skull underneath –

“Dusty, do you want to go home?”

His mom’s voice was disembodied, but it helped ground him. He hadn’t realised he’d closed his eyes until he opened them.

He was leant against his mom’s side. In his periphery he could see Mike, Lucas and Max looking at him. He was sure that on the row behind them, just about everyone else was doing the same.

“I can’t do this,” he whispered into his mom’s shoulder, closing his eyes again. “I can’t do this, I can’t do this…”

He felt his mom nod against the top of his head. He heard her murmuring something about seeing them tomorrow… Billy’s funeral… and then he felt her strong hand guiding him as discreetly as possible out the door and back towards their car. He didn’t get in straight away, leaning heavily against the window.

Now that he was out of that church, he found it easier to bring himself under control. He could concentrate on his breathing. He closed his eyes again, and slowly tried to open them, focusing on the wind that ruffled his hair.

He hadn’t remembered feeling like this at Will’s funeral – or not, as it had turned out. In fact, he remembered almost enjoying it, seeing all those people who cared about Will. But that had been because he hadn’t thought Will was dead –

Dustin!” a voice called.

He looked up to see Robin running down the path through the cemetery.

“I… I couldn’t stay either,” she explained, catching her breath as she saw the car. “It was…” she wanted to say it had been too much for her, but that wasn’t right. Actually, the whole ceremony wasn’t right, it wasn’t even close to how she remembered Steve – how she wanted to remember Steve. It… wasn’t enough.

Fortunately, Dustin understood. “I know,” he said softly.

He caught sight of his mom looking at him from by the driver’s door, her eyes flicking towards Robin, subtly indicating that she wanted an introduction.

“Oh!” Dustin finally got the message. “Robin, this is my mom. Mom, this is Robin. She worked with Steve.”

Claudia gave Robin a smile over the top of the car.

“Hey, Robin,” Dustin said awkwardly. “I’m probably going to go home, I don’t think I can face the rest of that…”

“Yeah…” Robin said, looking over her shoulder at the church. “I didn’t know him for that long, but I’m pretty sure what’s going on in there isn’t what he would have wanted. Not sure he would have wanted me to sit in my room feeling sad, but then again…”

“Awesome girl like you crying over him?” Dustin gave a small laugh. “Are you kidding? Steve would have loved that.”

Robin smiled with what might have been something that could have been a laugh in another life.

“Hey, Robin,” Dustin said hesitantly. “If you’re just going to be sitting in a room feeling sad, do you want to come over and we can be sad together? Pretty sure we’ve got cookies somewhere.”

“Er…” Robin looked at him, slightly bemused. “I mean… I guess, if that’s alright with you, Mrs Henderson?”

She looked up at the woman who’d been patiently stood through their exchange. Claudia looked pleasantly surprised by this new development – she’d been hoping Dustin would reach out so someone.

“Sure,” Claudia smiled warmly. “Hop on in.”

-:-

“I always thought Steve exaggerated what his dad was like, but after what we sat through, it’s like they weren’t even living in the same house,” Robin said, helping herself to another cookie.

“Well, they weren’t really,” Dustin pointed out. “Apparently he spends most of his time in Indianapolis. Got an apartment there and everything.”

They were sat on Dustin’s bed. Claudia had given them a plate of cookies and left them to it, trying to give her own son a bit of space.

“I mean, god, when the priest started reciting scripture, I almost burst out laughing,” Robin said. “I mean, really? Scripture? For Steve?

“God, I almost lost it when I found out it was in a church,” Dustin laughed. “Steve was about as religious as Darwin.”

“Hell of a lot less smart, though,” Robin pointed out.

“Yeah…” Dustin acknowledged. Something occurred to him. “Did he ever work it out?”

“Work what out?” Robin asked.

“That you were the perfect girl for him?”

The atmosphere shifted. Where previously there had been an element of levity about just how wrong the funeral was, this was more serious.

“He never told me if he did,” Robin said.

“What an idiot.”

“No he wasn’t,” Robin said defensively. “Not about that, anyway.”

Dustin clocked that there was more to this story and looked at her enquiringly. Robin closed her eyes. She thought back to that conversation in that room when she’d been tied to a chair with Steve. She remembered how she’d felt, how relieved, how light, how happy she’d felt when she’d told Steve, and when Steve hadn’t told her how wrong it was, or how freakish or how anything it was, but accepted that that was who she was, even if her tactics were a bit off.

“He didn’t tell me… because of what I told him,” Robin explained.

“What did you tell him?” Dustin asked.

“I told him how wrong I was for him.”

“What’s so wrong with you?” Dustin asked. “You’re literally perfect for him. You’re smart, you’re funny, you can crack top secret Russian codes-”

“Dustin, can you keep a secret?”

“Uh – yeah, Steve told me the secret to the Hair. Haven’t told anyone that, not even Suzie.”

That piqued Robin’s interest. “What’s the secret to the hair?”

“Can’t tell you,” Dustin grinned at her. “It’s a secret.”

She glared at him. “Ha hah, very funny,” she shot back sarcastically.

“I know,” Dustin said, still with that smug grin. “So go on, what’s the big secret? What’s so wrong with you?”

Robin took a deep breath. “I told him I was planning on following someone to Nashville.”

Dustin’s eyebrows raised. “I didn’t know you had a boyfriend.”

“I don’t,” Robin said.

“So what? You’d follow some guy to Nashville on the off chance you’d make it work? That’s insane.”

“That’s what Steve said,” she told him. “But the person I’d be following to Nashville isn’t some guy.

Dustin looked confused. “Who is it? Do I know them?”

Robin sighed. “Tammy Thompson.”

Comprehension dawned on Dustin’s face. “Oh,” he said, his eyes widening. He looked vacantly around the room. Pieces of the puzzle slotted into place.

“Yeah,” Robin said.

Dustin suddenly grinned. “So that’s how you didn’t fall for the hair?”

Robin burst out laughing, no small part out of relief. “Yeah,” she laughed. “That’s how I didn’t fall for the hair.”

She tossed her head slightly to one side, making her bob bounce around her face.

“What did Steve say when you told him?” Dustin asked.

“He told me my strategy was way off base,” she laughed. “I think he used the word ‘stalking’.”

“He wasn’t wrong,” Dustin pointed out.

The pair fell about laughing, but thinking about that day in that room jarred at something in Robin. It was like something twisting in her chest, as she found memories of that day physically painful. God, it had been less than a week ago.

Tears sprang up into her eyes, something that Dustin was quick to notice as she closed her eyes tightly.

“Robin?” Dustin asked, sitting up and putting a hand on her good arm.

“I thought I was going to die,” she gasped. “We both thought we were going to die. That’s why I told him.”

“Hey, hey,” Dustin tried to comfort her in a way so reminiscent of how Steve had spoken to her that day when their chairs had fallen over before he realised that she was laughing. She brought her hand up to cover her face as Dustin got off the bed and crouched in front of her, his eyes so concerned. For a second, she looked up at him tearfully and actually saw Steve before she blinked, and suddenly it was back to Dustin, those curls bouncing around his face.

“They…” she took a deep, shuddering breath, blinking back more tears. “They… tortured him… This Russian General – or something – and this doctor – they… they ripped out his fingernails – and when that didn’t work, they broke his finger… and when that didn’t work, they started breaking his ribs…”

Dustin fell back against his bed in shock. He hadn’t known what had happened there – Hopper and Joyce hadn’t told any of them about the state they’d found Robin and Steve in, and Murray had disappeared back to Illinois.

“They made me watch that last part,” Robin said, looking up at the ceiling. She was shaking. “They tied him down to this… this dentist chair… There was a moment – when they were doing that – when I tried to escape – and that was when…”

She gestured at her shoulder. Dustin hadn’t realised his mouth was open slightly.

“And somehow,” she continued, “even after all that, he still managed to save my life.”

“How?” Dustin breathed.

Finally, Robin managed to look at him, tears streaming down her face. “This Russian soldier started shooting at us when Chief Hopper was going to close the Gate,” she explained. “Steve pulled me under a table. And then… when Chief Hopper got the fight away from us… When he got the Russian out of the room and towards the machine… Steve went to help… And he never came back.”

Dustin closed his eyes, feeling tears threatening to come out again. This had been far too common an occurrence since Starcourt.

“I’m sorry,” he finally managed to breathe shakily. “Robin, I’m so sorry, I – I should have gone back for you, I should have tried to get you guys out of there – instead of going back to the mall and waiting for Hopper – I should have tried to help you-”

He broke off, a sob welling up in his chest.

“God, it’s all my fault,” he continued, looking up at the ceiling again. “I should have tried to go back, I should have listened to Erica, I should have tried to get you home…

“Dustin…” Robin started.

“I’m so sorry, Robin,” Dustin said, looking her straight in the eyes. “I’m so sorry… You never should have been a part of this… Steve never should have been a part of this… I’m so sorry I dragged you both into this… I’m so sorry I left you down there… You never should have had to go through that…”

Robin reached out and pulled him into a hug.

“It’s all my fault,” Dustin sobbed. “It’s all my fault that he went through all that – it’s all my fault he was down there in the first place – it’s all my fault that he died.”

“It wasn’t your fault-”

Dustin pulled back away from Robin. “Yeah, it was,” Dustin protested. “I got him involved – I asked for his help – it was my idea to get into that room – it was my fault he was down there… I killed him… I killed him… I killed my friend…”

Dustin dissolved into unintelligible sobs, curled in on himself against the bed. Robin got onto her knees, and pulled one of his hands into hers.

“Hey – Hey!” she repeated a little more earnestly when he didn’t immediately look up. “I’m going to tell you what I told Steve when he started talking like this back in that place. He started coming out with all kinds of crazy apologies just like you are now. You know what I said to him?”

Tears were running freely down her face but she managed to keep her voice steady. She even managed a small smile.

“Don’t overestimate your importance in our decisions,” she said. “Steve was a big boy. He made up his own mind to help you. He made up his own mind to try and get into that room. He made up his own mind about holding that door to give you guys a chance to get out. And I’ll tell you now, one of the only good things we had going for us in that place was knowing that you weren’t there. You made the right call to get Erica out. And… sometimes, shit happens. Shit happens, but we can’t blame ourselves for every decision we’ve ever made. Sometimes, shit’s going to happen, no matter what. All you can do… is make the right call for you. And honestly, by going up to the surface, you made the right call for everyone. We honestly thought we were going to die in that room. But, because you went and got Chief Hopper, that didn’t happen.”

Dustin managed to look up at her. He couldn’t stop the tears from coming any more than she could. But there was something – some comfort they found in each other’s company. Each seemed to the other like the only person they could talk to about what had happened without feeling embarrassed – the only person who understood. And as they eventually fell back into a comforting hug on Dustin’s floor, that was all they could ask for.

-:-

Dustin managed to make it to the wake of Billy’s funeral.

It had been distinctly more uncomfortable in that room. In another scenario, it might have been uncomfortable because they knew that Billy wasn’t dead, but rather trapped in the Upside Down. It could have been uncomfortable because while they came to support Max, all of them had loathed Billy. It could have been uncomfortable because Hopper and El hadn’t come for the sake of keeping El safe, or because Robin hadn’t made it to this particular funeral. But it wasn’t any of these reasons. No, the reason it was so uncomfortable had everything to do with the most volatile element present – Neil.

Max had stayed awkwardly by her stepfather’s side, greeting them all with a very wooden line about thanking them for coming. She had given Lucas and her parents a forced cold greeting that, while they understood, set them on edge. The Sinclairs knew about Neil. He was the reason they’d made Erica stay with a friend.

At the wake at the Hargrove-Mayfield house, Max managed to slip away from her mom and her stepdad. She came over to where the rest of the Party stood with Nancy and Jonathan. Their parents were mingling to one side over glasses of wine, feeling just as out of place then as they had done at Steve’s funeral the day before.

“Hey,” she managed quietly.

There were some awkward nods of greeting.

“Hey, Dustin, are you alright?” she asked. “When you left yesterday, you looked awful.”

Dustin gave a non-committal shrug. “Yeah, I just… the whole thing got to me… Robin left not long after, so we went back to mine, and we talked. It was… actually really helpful.”

She twisted her mouth into an awkward but sympathetic smile.

“If it helps,” Mike said, “Nancy and Jonathan bailed on the eulogy. Nancy got really upset by some stuff Steve’s dad was saying.”

“It was such bullshit,” Nancy snapped. “He started talking about how Steve was ‘the perfect son’ and all that crap – after spending years telling Steve how much of a disappointment he was.”

“Nance, it’s fine, it’s okay, we don’t need to do this again,” Jonathan murmured.

“How are you?” Dustin asked Max before Nancy could start again. Same stupid questions as the day before.

Today, though, Max shook her head, shooting a glare over her shoulder in Neil’s general direction. “I… I can’t take much more of this,” she muttered. “He’s been drunk all day, and now he’s downing wine like it’s a fucking keg stand or something. And he’s being completely unbearable. I’m sorry about earlier, by the way,” she turned to Lucas. “Tell your family I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Lucas said quickly. “We get it, we understand, we can put up with it-”

“Yeah, but you shouldn’t have to put up with it,” Max all but snarled. “You shouldn’t have to tiptoe around Neil being a-”

Exactly what Neil was being was something nobody ever found out, because at that point, a hush started to fall over the room at a commotion going on involving the very man they’d just been discussing.

Neil was swearing quite audibly while continuously filling and draining his glass using the bottles of wine stood on the white covered table. Susan was flitting around him, trying to get the bottle that was in his hand away from him.

“…Get your fucking hands off me, Susan…” he slurred, turning his back to her and pouring himself another glass of wine.

“Neil, come on, you’re making a scene-”

“Oh, I’m making a scene, am I?” he snarled. “Let’s talk about you, shall we? This whole thing… this whole ‘party for Billy’ or whatever… Isn’t that all about making a scene?”

“Neil, please give me-”

“And you know what?” he raged. “You don’t have… any right… to do any of it.”

“Neil-”

“You and Maxine go around… pretending he was your family… What a load of shit… He wasn’t.”

Susan froze, looking at Neil, hurt visible in her eyes.

He wasn’t your son… And you go round, organising all this shit for him? All these flowers?”

Susan visibly flinched as Neil swung his hand and sent a vase of lilies crashing into the sink.

“You organise this food, too?” Neil asked, gesturing at the table where plates of canapés sat. “You organise this food for Billy?

Susan stood rooted to the spot, giving a meek nod. She looked on the verge of tears.

“You think he would have liked all this? You think he would have liked all these fancy sandwiches… and little bits of cheese on crackers… and all this other crap? Well, you know what?”

Neil swept his arm across the table, trying to displace as much as he could onto the floor with a crash. When that wasn’t enough, he pulled the tablecloth out and shook it, sending glasses and plates onto the floor.

This sparked Susan back into action. She reached forward and managed to succeed in getting the wine glass out of Neil’s hand, cradling it against her chest with both hands.

“Neil, please, you’re ruining it!” Susan begged, sounding close to tears.

“Oh, I’m ruining it?” Neil snarled. “What gives you the right to decide what ruins it? What gives you the right to decide how this gets done – what gives you the right, what gives you – I’ll tell you what, NOTHING!

He screamed the last word into Susan’s face, backing her into a corner. Everyone else gathered there stood frozen to the spot, unable to think of anything to do that would defuse the situation.

Nothing gives you the right to decide any – Nothing gives you the right, because you know what? He wasn’t your son, he was mine!

Something in Max suddenly snapped.

“Yeah,” she growled quietly, pushing her way through the crowd towards Neil. “Yeah, he was your son, wasn’t he? And you know what? Billy was a fucking asshole!

Neil rounded on Max. “Excuse me?” he spat venomously.

“Max, stay out of this,” Susan begged quietly.

“Yeah, you heard me,” Max snarled. “He was a complete fucking asshole, and everything about him that made him that way came from you!

“Maxine, please…” Susan implored.

“His hate, his anger, his violence, all of that was because of you!” Max continued.

“I’m warning you now-” Neil started, his tone low and threatening.

“And do you know the really sad part?” Max ploughed on. “The really sad part is that if he’d had a chance to get away from you, he might have had a chance of becoming a decent person! He might have had a chance at being happy! Because you know what, Neil? You’re a goddamn poison in everybody’s life!”

Neil drew himself up to his full height. “You little bitch!

Max didn’t flinch, instead she closed her eyes as he raised back his arm –

She suddenly found herself being pulled back a few steps away from Neil. She whipped her head around to see Lucas holding onto her hand. Her gaze shot back to Neil, for the first time betraying a small hint of fear in her eyes.

Neil’s hand froze in mid-air as he looked with dawning comprehension and disgust as he finally realised who Lucas was.

“So this… is your little boyfriend?” Neil said, sounding surprised. “Your little n-”

Hey!” Max snarled. “Don’t you dare call him that!”

“I’ll call him what I like,” Neil snarled. “While he’s under my roof.”

No!” Max screamed. “I won’t let you treat people like this anymore-”

Let me?” roared Neil. “You think you let me do anything?

Neil raised his hand again, but this time, Lucas didn’t settle for just pulling her back. He pushed her behind him, and looked up at Neil defiantly.

“Lucas!” he heard his mom call.

“Don’t hit her,” Lucas said quietly.

“Lucas,” Will said softly. “Lucas, come back over.”

Lucas gave him a burning look before turning his back and taking a few steps with Max back towards his friends. “Let’s go,” he muttered quietly.

“Yeah, Maxine, go!” Neil handed down his ultimatum. “Go and don’t come back. Spend your time living with those fucking w-”

What, exactly?” Lucas wheeled around to stare down Neil. “Go on,” he dared. “Those fucking what?

“Lucas!” he heard his mom beg, sounding upset. But it was what he heard next that truly scared him.

“Lucas,” his dad said in a tone of forced calm that didn’t quite hide a note of real fear in his voice. “Come away now,” he said softly.

It was the hint of fear in his dad’s voice that sent him backing down and going towards his parents again. He didn’t look at Neil again, determinedly ignoring that look of triumph in the other man’s eyes as Lucas felt his dad grip his shoulder firmly.

This was over.

“We’re going now,” his dad said politely, offering Neil a smile. “Without Max – Maxine,” he corrected himself. “Thank you, both of you, for hosting us.”

It was an incredibly tense silence as Lucas was almost frogmarched out of the house and onto the street. He could feel his dad stay tense as they got to the end of the street. As they turned onto the street where their car was parked, his dad let out a shaking breath.

“Lucas, never do that again,” he said, his tone more serious than Lucas had ever heard it. “I mean it – promise me you’ll never do that again.”

Lucas turned around to see his mom fighting back tears and his dad looking at him with a look that seemed to go right through Lucas and into his very soul.

“Why did you stop me?” Lucas asked quietly. He’d never felt so small.

His dad put a hand on his shoulder. “I stopped you because when we stand up to people like that…” he explained, “people like that use it as an excuse to destroy us completely.”

-:-

Max watched her boyfriend leave with his parents. The rest of the Party looked shocked. She could see the faces of Ted and Karen Wheeler, Joyce Byers and Claudia Henderson look on edge but angry.

“Screw you,” Max growled at Neil, tears in her eyes. “You ruin Billy’s funeral, you go after my boyfriend because he’s-”

“So he is your boyfriend?” Neil cut across her.

She froze at his tone. It was all the confirmation he needed.

“You filthy little slut!” Neil growled at her. He took a step forward –

“Hey,” Ted Wheeler suddenly stepped up to the plate, surprising nobody more than his wife. “Hey, let’s just take a second to cool down, okay?”

It was all Max needed.

She pushed past everyone, running through the house and towards the back door. She tore through the garden and out into the trees behind. She didn’t hear Neil’s shouts or Ted Wheeler’s attempts to calm him. She was already gone.

She didn’t know how long she ran for. She didn’t know when she ran out of breath and stopped running. She didn’t know how long she ended up walking for, as she found her way to the main road, and then to the path through what the Party called ‘Mirkwood.’ She didn’t know how long it took her to get to her destination, as she finally found that dirt track, only noticeable from the road if you knew it was there. She didn’t know how long she’d been walking in those ridiculous dress shoes when she finally caught sight of Hopper’s cabin as the sky started to darken.

She knocked on the door, and was greeted by the surprised and confused face of Hopper.

“Can I talk to El?” she said without preamble.

Hopper wasn’t sure what to make of Max showing up at his door in a black dress on the day of her stepbrother’s funeral, clearly having been crying, and, by the looks of things, walking the whole way. But he let her in, and knocked on El’s door.

“El, you’ve got a visitor,” Hopper announced.

“Mike?” they heard a voice from inside the room.

“No, it’s… it’s Max,” Max said softly.

There was a click and the door swung open of its own accord, revealing El, sat on her bed, a Wonder Woman comic spread out in front of her. She had the same confused expression that Hopper had had at the sight of her.

“I’ll give you girls a minute,” Hopper said, closing the door behind Max.

“Something’s wrong,” El said quietly.

Max nodded, her eyes closing, and suddenly the floodgates opened. She found herself explaining everything that had happened that day between Neil and her mom, between Neil and Lucas, she explained how her relationship with Billy had become better over the last few months before he’d been attacked by the Mind Flayer, she explained how she was starting to see the beginnings of a different side to him.

El sat quietly and listened. She didn’t understand a lot of it, particularly why Neil had such an aversion to Lucas, but she listened.

“Can I help?” El finally asked when Max was finished, breathing hard as though the explanation had been a marathon.

Max looked up at her.

“Yeah, that’s… that’s actually why I’m here,” she said. “I need your help.”

El nodded, looking at her questioningly.

“When we were in Starcourt,” Max explained. “You found a way to open up a Gate.”

El nodded.

“You did that… on demand.”

“On demand?” El asked, confused.

Oh – like… whenever you wanted to,” Max explained. “You wanted to open a Gate then and there, so you opened it, and when we put Billy back through, you closed it up again.”

El nodded.

“Look, I know this is a really big thing,” Max explained. “And I don’t want you to say yes unless you feel like you can really do it – really control it.”

El looked at her, confused.

“I want to try and open up a Gate,” Max said. “I want to find a way to get Billy out from under the Mind Flayer’s control, and then open up a Gate and bring him home.”

El’s eyes widened at the suggestion. Max looked so tentative when she stared imploringly at her friend, desperation colouring her voice.

“Will you help me?”

Chapter Text

Steve settled into something of a routine.

It wasn’t exactly clear cut when day and night was – the sky was in a perpetual state of black. Clouds would pass overhead but through the gaps in the clouds, the sky was a deep, inky black. Steve hadn’t seen stars, or sunlight, or the moon, or anything that gave him any indication of the passage of time.

So he resorted to his own internal body clock. He would sleep as much as he could in his mom’s bed, and when he woke up, he’d go and find some water. He’d bring as much back as he could using a saucepan he’d found. He’d then boil it as best he could, burning whatever he could find and piling it on top of the stove. The water would cool after a while, when he’d drink it, and then he’d set out to search for something edible.

So far, he hadn’t managed to find anything he’d felt sufficiently confident enough that it was not poisonous for him to eat. He suspected it had only been a few days, but his stomach was constantly hurting. He needed to find something to eat soon.

Steve used his search for food as a chance to explore the Upside Down. The town itself he knew, and after a cursory wander through downtown, he hadn’t spent much time there. What he’d normally do would be to go there first and have a look in one of the shops to see if there was anything useful. So far there had been nothing that he’d found that he thought would be particularly useful in terms of potentially fighting Demogorgons and Demodogs and whatever else the Upside Down would throw at him.

That said, the one thing that had struck him was the complete absence so far of any Demogorgons or Demodogs. He hadn’t actually seen anything in Hawkins. So far, he’d been completely alone.

Not that Steve was complaining.

Steve was hardly in any shape to fight anything. Whatever was in the air was keeping him constantly light-headed. The hunger was getting to him, his left hand was aching – his fingertips were healing but the broken bones seemed to have settled in a state of misalignment, which Steve was concerned about, because while it was hurting less, he was worried that his finger might heal into a state of stiffness that would make it completely unusable.

But that was nothing to how concerned he was about his chest. Every breath he took felt like something was pressing against him, which left him breathless. He was also worried he was starting to get a cough, but that could quite easily be attributed to him running around a place that felt like an Arctic winter in a polyester sailor’s outfit.

So Steve explored. He looked for what he could find, if anything, in the shops. Whatever he could find had so far been mostly trapped under those same thick black vines, but he had managed to extract a pen from Melvald’s which was quite useful when it came to moving smaller vines away from things, and he’s picked up a couple of stones from the stream, which he was hoping, once dry, would possibly be useful in terms of lighting a spark. He was worried about how much he was using his lighter after he’d found a refill for the lighter fluid that, despite looking new, was completely empty.

Steve was far more interested in what the tunnel system under Hawkins held. Since it had been where he had found his lighter, he wondered what else there could be. Where most things in Hawkins had been changed or destroyed in some way, the fact that his lighter had been fully operational gave him a little bit of hope that there was something else that was useful down there. He remembered Hopper mentioning a graveyard somewhere around the Hub. He was hoping to find it and see if it had anything there.

He also remembered that a team of soldiers had been killed in that graveyard.

He tried not to think too hard about that. The soldiers had been lured there in a trap and hunted by a pack of Demodogs. Steve knew what he was going into. He also hadn’t seen hide nor hair of a Demodog. He knew to run if he saw them. He knew how to get out. It would have to be enough.

Steve was becoming more and more familiar with the layout of the tunnels, building up a mental map in his head. He could identify by sight which tunnel he needed to take to get back to the rope. He’d explored roughly where two more of the tunnels went in addition to working out which one would lead him to Starcourt Mall.

He was pretty sure he’d worked out which tunnel would lead him to Hawkins Lab. That said, he’d been pretty sure the last two times, and he’d been going off a vague memory of a map scribbled by his ex-girlfriend’s little brother. The tunnels twisted and turned so much it was hard to tell if he was right, but he’d worked out the vague direction of Hawkins Lab, and there were two more tunnels that he hadn’t tried that led in that general direction, and one seemed far more likely than the other.

He knew within a matter of minutes that he’d found the right tunnel. It didn’t slope like any of the others, curving side to side gently but overall balancing out to go broadly in one straight direction. He knew the Hub wasn’t far from Hawkins Lab.

It took him maybe fifteen minutes to get there. He’d managed to pick up the pace in his excitement, but hadn’t broken into a full run. Generally, while feeling like he was feeling, he wasn’t enthralled by the idea of overexerting himself. However, as he got closer to his destination, he slowed at the sights that started to crop up.

Bones. Fragments of bones stripped clean of flesh. A skull strewn carelessly across the path.

The soldiers had made a stand. He’d thought they’d made a stand in the Hub, but evidently their bodies had ended up closer to the Lab. Whether they had tried to escape, to retreat back to safety, or whether their corpses had been dragged back by ravenous Demodogs was a mystery.

The tunnel was coming to its end. Very cautiously, he stepped out into the opening that he knew had once been the Gate.

It became apparent immediately that the soldiers had made it back to the Gate alive – with at least one exception. The skeletons lay scattered around, their flesh either eaten or rotted from their bones. What little remained of their protective biohazard suits was torn to pieces, scattered in small fragments around the place looking like those strange flakes that hung in the sky.

A dark shape by the closest skeleton caught his eye. It was black – almost camouflaged against the vines that covered the ground – but he knew this wasn’t a vine. It was thin, but too angular. He couldn’t quite tell if his suspicions were right. It was dark – too dark to see properly from where he was – but it looked like…

He crouched down and, using the pen he’d taken from Melvald’s, gently pushed away the black vine that had curled on top of it. His hand reached out and carefully felt along what it was. As his hand brushed against metal, he knew he’d been right. Gently, he pulled out the gun that the soldier had used to make his last stand.

It was heavier than he thought it would be. He felt it in his hand – he had no idea how to use it, and wasn’t about to try now – but he knew he had to take it back with him. If there was one, however, surely there had to be more – there had been at least four soldiers.

He slung the weapon over his back and started to look around the other skeletons. It was almost impossible to see properly in the dark, to pick out the shapes of guns and discern them from the black vines. However, he’d gotten a few steps towards the next skeleton when his eyes caught sight of something silver – something at least as large as the gun –

His eyes lit up like a Christmas tree and he broke into his first proper smile in days as he recognised the flamethrower.

-:-

Hopper heard a car pull up outside. He went out onto the porch to see Joyce, Will and Jonathan getting out, looking shaken.

“Hey,” he said, running out to meet them. “What the hell happened? Max Mayfield showed up at the door about ten minutes ago wanting to talk to El.”

“Max is here?” Will asked.

Hopper nodded, noticing the sigh of relief that came from Jonathan.

“Thank god,” Will said. “I should… I should let the others know…”

He went inside, not looking back at his mom. Hopper watched him go in before turning back to Joyce and Jonathan.

“What the hell happened?” Hopper asked. “What’s going on?”

Jonathan looked at him darkly. “Neil Hargrove happened,” he growled, before following Will inside.

Hopper watched Jonathan pass him before turning to Joyce who was leaning against the car, fumbling to get a cigarette out of her pocket.

“I’d gathered that much,” Hopper said to her. “What actually happened?”

“Neil got drunk,” Joyce deadpanned. “Started shouting at Susan and breaking some stuff. Max, she… something got to her, so she tried to stand up to him. I swear to god, Neil was going to hit her, but Lucas got involved. Neil, he…”

She took a shuddering breath, trying to steady herself as she tried to light the cigarette she’d extracted. Her hands were shaking so much that Hopper got his own lighter out and lit it for her, a crease forming between his eyebrows as he watched her gather herself together.

“He started on Lucas,” Joyce eventually continued. “Started saying these… these really awful things to him. Lucas wanted to stand up for himself, but his parents took him away before anything started. Max ran out after that, we drove around looking for her in town, but I guess she came here.”

She finished, taking a long drag on her cigarette which seemed to help steady her. Hopper knew what was playing on her mind – Lonnie.

“Are you okay?” he asked her.

“Me?” she looked up, shocked, from her cigarette. “I’m fine. There are plenty of other people to worry about tonight.”

She took another drag, before watching the smoke drift away from her.

“The way the Sinclairs were, though,” she ranted. “I’ve known them for years, and I’ve never seen them like that. They were scared, Hop. You should have seen them, bending over backwards to be nice to Neil, to try and keep him happy, even though he was saying such awful, awful things about them. Is that what it’s like for them? Always take the high ground? Always walk away? Always, always, always? It’s not right, Hop! He shouldn’t get to treat people like that! Good people like the Sinclairs! He doesn’t belong in this town – people like him don’t belong in this town!

“Joyce,” Hopper said in his determinedly measured voice. “Joyce, I get it. I agree with you. But right now, I need you to get it together. We need to find a way to deal with this so Max can feel safe. And honestly, I need you to be there when I talk to her. You know what I’m like with talks.”

Memories of his disastrous attempt at talking to Mike flashed up in his mind, forgetting he’d not actually told Joyce exactly how that conversation had gone. Fortunately, she agreed with him anyway about it, letting out a long exhale and watching the stream of smoke dissipate. She handed the last of the cigarette to Hopper and walked inside without another word to him.

Hopper followed her, ignoring Jonathan’s scandalised look as he brought the cigarette in and put it out on the ashtray on the counter. The door to El’s room was open, and he could see Will and El sat beside Max on her bed. Jonathan was still pacing around the kitchen, trying without much success to put together something halfway edible for them. It occurred to Hopper that he’d never actually seen Jonathan like this. He was always calm, measured, the voice of reason and logic. He never lost control – even if he was annoyed or angry or upset, there would be a short outburst, a period of quiet distance, and eventual forgiveness. This, however, these on-edge actions as he opened the cupboards a touch faster than necessary, closed them a fraction harder than necessary, this was completely new to Hopper. It was sharper. A hard, cutting edge to him as he struggled to find pots or pans or ingredients or whatever he was looking for.

Evidently Joyce wasn’t the only person who’d reacted badly to Neil Hargrove.

Joyce led the way into El’s room.

“Will, honey, would you mind if we talked to Max in private for a sec?” she said using that eternally wonderful parent tone that Hopper could only dream of having.

He looked at her and gave her a small smile as he nodded. He smiled warmly at Max, muttering something about just being outside as he left. El, fortunately, got the uptake and put her hand on Max’s, giving it a small squeeze before following Will.

“Oh,” Will stopped just before Hopper and Joyce went in, remembering something. “The others are all at Lucas’. The Wheelers and Dustin and his mom. Apparently they’re a bit shook up but they’re alright. They’re… they’re glad to know Max is safe.”

Hopper managed a small smile at him. “Thanks, kid,” he said, before closing the door behind him.

He settled down on the chair across from the bed. Joyce sat on the far side away from the door up by the pillow, while Max was sat in the middle of the bed looking nervous.

“So Joyce told me what happened,” Hopper said.

“Look, I know what you’re going to say,” Max cut across him shortly. “I don’t want the police to get involved. I didn’t come here because you’re the Chief of Police, or because you’re an adult I trust or any of that crap. I came here because I wanted to talk to El. That’s it. Period.”

Hopper ran a hand across his face. “I get that,” he said, keeping his voice as calm as possible. “But it’s my job to keep the people of this town safe. That includes you, and that also includes the Sinclairs.”

The mention of Lucas’ family wrong-footed her. She flinched back slightly, almost imperceptibly. Hopper knew he’d won that particular round.

“Max,” he asked in that same professional tone he’d used so much over the last few days. “Has Neil ever been violent to you before?”

Max looked down at her hands. “No,” she said.

Hopper wasn’t sure whether to believe her, but decided to give her the benefit of the doubt. “What about your mom? Has he ever been violent or threatening towards your mom?”

“Not that I know of,” she said in that same monotone. “I’ve never seen it.”

“And what about Billy? Do you know if he was ever violent towards Billy?”

Max’s eyes widened the smallest amount. If Hopper hadn’t been taught how to recognise it, he would have missed it, but as it was, it told him everything he needed to know.

“No,” Max said. Hopper knew it was a lie.

“Are you sure?”

“I don’t know if he was,” she snapped, looking Hopper straight in the eye. It was all the confirmation Hopper needed of what was going on, but none of the leeway to do anything about it.

“Alright,” he muttered, backing off. “Well, based on what happened today, I’m going to have to open an investigation into the incident-”

“What?” Max looked alarmed. “No! You can’t!”

“I’m sorry, but I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t. Too many people saw him threaten you and Lucas. This won’t go away, we can’t bury it. I’ve got to look into this as a cop to make sure nothing happens.”

“No, looking into this is going to make it worse!” Max pointed out. “Opening an investigation is just going to put him more on edge. He’ll be more likely to do something with you on his back all the time!”

“Kid, I get that, I really do,” Hopper said, still keeping that professional tone of voice. “But my hands are tied here.”

“Honey,” Joyce came in with that wonderful ‘mom’ voice of hers. “Think about what would happen if he did start getting violent towards your mom – towards you or Lucas. What if he put one of you in the hospital? We’ve got a chance to stop him now, and if we don’t take it and one of you gets hurt, that’s on us now. We can’t let that happen.”

Max still didn’t look like she agreed, but she settled on a filthy look rather than answering back.

“In the short term,” Hopper explained, “I don’t feel comfortable sending you back to that house tonight. We can call your mom, ask if you can stay with a friend. Here’s a bit full, but we could see if the Wheelers would be okay with you staying or something. Given the circumstances, I don’t think staying with the Sinclairs is a good idea, but-”

“No,” Max objected. “I have to go home, I need to see my mom.”

Hopper closed his eyes before opening his mouth, but Max cut across him before he could get a word out.

“No, Hopper, everything you’ve been saying about investigations and me staying somewhere else – that’s only going to make things worse. Apparently I can’t stop you from launching an investigation or something but if you take me somewhere that isn’t my house, I’ll just go home.”

“Max, honey-” Joyce cut in before Max rounded on her.

“You guys say I shouldn’t stay with Lucas?” Max pointed out. “Well, wherever you take me, he’s going to think I’m with Lucas even if I’m not. Nothing’s going to convince him anymore, not you, not Hopper, not anything. The only way he’ll believe that I’m not with Lucas is if I’m at home with him.”

“Honey,” Joyce said, shooting a look at Hopper telling him to stay out of this. “I know you think this is your only option. You feel like you’ve got to go back, I get it-”

“How?” Max shot back.

Joyce’s eyes suddenly saddened. Her lips pursed slightly before she finally tried for a smile. “Because I’ve been where you are with my ex-husband.”

For the second time in that conversation, Max was visibly wrong-footed. She didn’t know – Will and Jonathan hadn’t told her.

“I know how it feels,” she explained. “I know it feels like at some point, you’ve got to go home. You’ve got to go back to that situation. But it’s not your only option. You’ve got your dad somewhere-”

Max snorted. “Yeah, he’s not an option.”

Joyce and Hopper looked confused.

Divorce?” Max explained, looking between them like they were idiots. “Mom won full custody. That’s why we moved here.”

“I think, given the circumstances, your dad might be able to appeal-” Hopper started to say.

“Yeah, well, when the courts get back to him on the other three or four appeals he filed, then we can talk.”

Hopper fell silent, looking over at Joyce.

“Look,” Max said. “You think you know me, just because your ex-husband was a piece of shit or whatever. Well, you don’t. You don’t know anything about my life. It’s not the same. Even if I’m not there, my mom is. And she’s not going to leave Neil. So let’s say we do it your way. I go stay with – with fucking Mike of all people – and you go do your little investigation. It doesn’t turn up anything, because there’s nothing to turn up. What happens then? I go home. Only, it’s worse now. Neil’s pissed because there’s been an investigation, everyone’s gossiping about it, I’ve been hidden away from Neil and so he’s even more pissed at me for causing all this shit. He spends all his time getting angry about stupid little things and taking it out on my mom. Yeah, thanks, I’ll pass on that.”

Hopper knew he’d lost the argument. He looked down at his hands.

“Alright,” he said softly. “When you’re ready, I’ll take you home.”

“I can-”

“This is not up for negotiation,” Hopper said firmly. “I’m not letting you go back to that house on your own.”

A small pout settled on Max’s lips, but she bit back any argument she may have had.

“Fine,” she muttered. “But we should go soon. Mom’s probably worried.”

She got up and walked out, leaving Hopper and Joyce alone.

“She’s seen Neil get violent before, hasn’t she?” Joyce said, quietly enough that it was only audible to Hopper.

“Oh yeah,” he replied. “But we’ll keep trying.”

Joyce nodded, looking as though she might cry. “It’ll take time,” her voice was brittle. “But we’ll get through to her.”

Max crossed the living room to head over to where El, Will and Jonathan were all sat at the table. Jonathan had managed to put together some pasta and tomato sauce for them all – he suspected that anything more elaborate would have ultimately defeated him and probably the kitchen in the state he was in.

“I’m… I’m going to go in a sec,” Max announced at their expectant faces. “Thanks for… for everything, El.”

“Wait, you’re going back?” Jonathan asked, astonished.

“Yeah,” Max said. “I know what you’re going to say, but I just had the same talk from your mom, so leave it, alright?”

Jonathan looked over at Joyce and Hopper standing in El’s doorway. The looks they gave him was enough to make him back down.

“Alright,” Jonathan said. “Just know we’re here if you need us, okay?”

Max managed a forced smile. “Thanks,” she said.

Will got up to give her a hug. “I don’t know what to say, other than if you need to talk…”

The smile Max gave him was genuine this time. El got up and gave her a hug, but she didn’t need to say a word to her.

“Thank you,” Max said warmly. “I mean it. Thank you so much.”

El smiled back at her, knowing exactly what she meant. As Max walked out of the house and climbed into the car Hopper was borrowing from Sam, she thought back on the rest of the conversation she’d had with El.

“Will you help me?”

El thought about it. She thought about how tired she’d been after her fight with that thing in Starcourt. She still felt at times like she was still recovering. But Billy was still in there somewhere. And he was stuck in the Upside Down. Billy was gone, but not lost forever. And she could help. She could help her friend.

There was no question.

“I can do it,” she said tentatively. “But… we can practise.”

Max’s eyes lit up. “Yeah,” she said breathlessly. “Yeah, of course we can. We could find somewhere quiet… somewhere safe… and we could try just getting a feel for it or something…”

“Tomorrow?” El asked.

Max’s face split into a stunned grin that she couldn’t quite contain. “Yeah…” she breathed. “Tomorrow.”

“In the woods,” El suggested.

Max’s eyes filled with tears for what felt like the thousandth time that night, but for the first time, she were happy.

“Yeah,” she all but gasped. “In the woods. Tomorrow.”

-:-

“So how do you open a Gate?” Max asked.

She and El had found a small clearing in the forest, far enough away from Hopper’s cabin that they wouldn’t be spotted or disturbed but close enough that it wouldn’t take them too long to get back if they were missed.

Max had shown up at the door before breakfast had even been contemplated at the cabin. Hopper had dropped her off late the previous night, where they were met on the doorstep by a hushed but frantic Susan, who explained that Neil had passed out on the couch after everyone had left. Max had promptly been rushed into her bedroom with a quick goodnight kiss from her mother and instructions not to disturb the man sleeping on the couch. That morning, Max had been careful to get up after very little sleep at the crack of dawn to leave the house. However, as she’d been scribbling a note for them explaining that she was going to spend the day going shopping downtown with a girlfriend, she’d heard a grunt that set her on edge.

“So you came back,” Neil grunted, still groggy.

Max froze. “Yeah,” she answered, her back still to him.

“Where’re you going?” Neil slurred.

“A friend – a girlfriend – and I are going shopping today,” Max explained tensely. Of course, the next question would be ‘why so early?’ or something –

“A girlfriend?” Neil gave a soft laugh. “Since when do you have girlfriends?”

“She’s – uh – new in town,” Max scrambled. “Her name’s El.”

Neil adjusted his position on the couch. “Leave a note for your mother, will you?” he slurred, evidently still drunk. “Don’t want to listen to her worry all day…”

It took another minute for his breathing to even out again, and another minute more for the first snore to erupt from him. Max let out a long exhale of relief before slipping out of the house.

From there, she had skated out towards the woods. It had taken her the better part of an hour, by which time the sun had split the sky into a hundred colours before it all evened out into a crisp, clear blue. When she finally reached the cabin, she’d been greeted by Jonathan, who had evidently only woken up from her knock.

El, however, had been awake. Max had come up with an excuse about wanting some one-on-one girl time with El, that they’d talked about it last night, and could they please just spend the day having a picnic in the woods or something, just on their own. Once Hopper had finally found a cup of coffee pressed into his hands by Jonathan, and grumpily grunted out a few questions like ‘why didn’t you mention this last night?’ and ‘why is this happening at eight in the morning on my first day off in over a week?’ he’d finally conceded, even making some mention to El about trying to get Max to open up about Neil. Joyce was far more positive about the whole thing, seeing the advantage of having Max nearby and not in that house, and even going so far as to make them sandwiches using the expanding pantry that she’d been building in that cabin.

And so they’d found themselves in that clearing. Nobody was around for miles. Even Hopper wouldn’t disturb them.

“I find something,” El explained to Max. “In the Upside Down. And then I have to touch it. It brings it here.”

Max paused, thinking for a moment. “Okay,” she said slowly. “What did you find at Starcourt?”

El paused. Memories of that huge shape lurking in the darkness filled her mind.

“The Shadow,” she said softly.

Max’s eyes widened. “Okay…” she said. “Maybe not the Shadow. What else is there?”

“Demogorgons,” El suggested. Memories of Papa telling her not to be scared, not to run away, but to make contact…

Fortunately, Max was not Papa. “Okay, so not those either. Is there anything in the Upside Down that’s not dangerous?”

El looked at Max with those big wide eyes that she gave Mike every time he was explaining something about relationships, and although she couldn’t quite understand or follow what Mike was saying because he was rambling through his point so much, she could tell that he was being incredibly stupid.

“Alright, anything that’s less dangerous?” Max corrected.

El paused, thinking hard. She thought about that moment she’d ended up in the classroom in the Upside Down after finally killing the Demogorgon to save Mike. She’d only been there for a few minutes, but what had she seen?

“Vines,” she finally said.

Max’s face lit up as a huge smile spread across her face. “Okay,” Max said excitedly. “Do you think you could find a vine or something here?”

El smiled, and pulled out that same blindfold she’d had with her at Starcourt.

Max watched as El sat down on the floor, blindfold in place, and searched. There was utter stillness. Even the birds seemed to have stopped singing in the trees while waiting on tenterhooks for something to happen.

Finally, El pulled the blindfold off, looking disappointed. She wiped away at the blood coming from her nose with the edge of her sleeve. She looked up at Max and shook her head.

Max did her best to hide her disappointment, putting on a smile that was only slightly forced.

“It’s okay,” she said softly. “It’s okay, you tried.”

“I can try again,” El said in that soft, determined voice.

“Only if you’re sure,” Max said.

El nodded and put the blindfold back on. The world went dark.

Her void was what it always was. She gently padded through the black, the only sound was her own breath.

This time, however, she knew something was different. Better. There was something different in the darkness.

The mirror-still surface of the water that she walked across was broken up ahead of her by what looked like cracks from her vantage point. The black lines created intricate patterns in the water, but they themselves were thick, rough and messy.

Vines.

She started to walk towards them. When walking didn’t feel fast enough, she broke into a run. She was almost there. She stretched out her hand –

A cracking sound like thunder broke through her void. She and Max leapt back as the ground beneath their feet started to split.

-:-

Steve jolted awake at a sound like thunder. Straight away, he knew something had changed.

He ran to his mom’s window. He’d made it back with the gun and the flamethrower in one (albeit slow) trip, before collapsing onto his mom’s bed. He’d evidently passed out not long after, because sleep was still forcing his eyes to squint as he stared out into the forest.

A bright red light was emanating from some way into the woods. He couldn’t see the source in amongst the trees, but the light was brighter than anything else he’d seen in the Upside Down.

He didn’t bother taking the gun or the flamethrower – they were too heavy, and he still hadn’t had a chance to work out how to operate them. Instead, he sprinted out the back door and into the trees, not stopping for anything.

He tore over the ground as fast as he could, ignoring the way various parts of his body screamed out in pain. He was gasping for breath – his broken ribs evidently didn’t agree with the exercise – but he didn’t stop. He knew he had to get there.

-:-

“Something’s coming,” El said.

-:-

Steve hadn’t realised how much he had slowed until he could see the first glimpses of the light through the trees. It was almost as bright as the sun in the sky, but Steve didn’t dare look away. He picked up the pace again and pushed his body back into a sprint.

-:-

“Something bad,” El’s voice took on a tone of trepidation.

-:-

Steve suddenly caught a glimpse of something out of the corner of his eye – another thing tearing through the forest. Steve pushed himself one more time, but whatever reserves of energy he had were long spent. This other thing was going to get there first…

-:-

“Close it!” Max said urgently.

El didn’t need any encouragement. She stretched out her hand.

-:-

Steve pushed himself to his final limits. He had to run – he had to get there first –

As suddenly as it had come, the light vanished. Steve slowed to a stop in a matter of steps, his eyes wide with shock. He didn’t understand what had just happened. And apparently, neither did this shadow.

Steve ducked down as an animalistic roar tore through the silence. But this wasn’t the same scream that the Demogorgons would give, this was –

“SHIT!” Steve heard the shout shatter the silence. “Fuck! Shit! God fucking damn it!

Steve froze. This shadow was a human. A human with incredibly colourful vocabulary at that. More to the point, he knew that voice.

Carefully, he approached the clearing where this person was now standing. The figure was kicking at the ground. Steve took in the silhouette – the messy curls that fell around his face, the dirty tank top that left those toned arms uncovered…

Steve finally stepped out into the clearing when he was finally sure.

Billy Hargrove?

Chapter Text

Steve Harrington?

Billy sounded as shocked as Steve felt. What in the name of all things Upside Down was Billy Hargrove doing here?

“Steve fucking Harrington?” Billy repeated. “What the fuck are you doing here?”

“I saw a light,” Steve said guardedly.

“Yeah, no shit,” Billy rolled his eyes. “I meant here. In this place.”

Steve looked over Billy appraisingly, taking in the state of his jeans, his top, his hair. Even in the low light, Steve could see they were covered in all kinds of dirt and grime. His hair wasn’t set in its usual style, instead hanging loosely around his face in matted tangles. All in all, he looked terrible. But then, Steve knew he wasn’t about to win any pageants himself.

“Jumped in,” Steve said in that same guarded tone.

He remembered the last time he’d had a conversation this long with Billy Hargrove – it had been right before Billy had smashed a plate over his head and punched him unconscious. Since then, the pair of them had kept out of each other’s way. Steve had kept his head down, trying his best to pass high school with a thoroughly mediocre grade, while Billy had strutted around with Tommy H and Carol lapping up every word he said. The most interaction they’d had in months would be during basketball practice, where Billy would make the occasional joke about getting with Nancy’s mom – or as he put it in the locker room, the better Wheeler bitch. Steve had done his best not to rise to the jokes. So what if he’d accidentally pushed past Billy on the way to his car? So what if he’d let Billy see a glimpse of what was in his trunk? Of that nail bat Max had nearly used to mince her stepbrother’s genitals? Billy never said anything to him directly anymore.

Of all the people in Hawkins to be stuck in the Upside Down with, Billy Hargrove was not Steve’s first choice.

Billy snorted. “What the fuck did you do that for?”

“Wasn’t exactly in love with the other options at the time.”

Billy snorted again. “Must have been some pretty shitty options then.”

Steve shot him an exasperated look. “How did you end up here then, Hargrove?”

“Car crashed,” Billy explained with a shrug. “Woke up here. Was probably a few days ago.”

That confused Steve. “Is that it?

“Is what it?”

“Your car crashed, and you just… woke up here? In my experience there’s usually a little more to it than that.”

“You have experience with this shit?”

Steve shrugged. “Yeah, a bit.”

“No shit,” Billy said, his tone changing. He was smiling at Steve, that same triumphant smile he always had when he left Steve in the dust on the basketball court.

“Impressed, Hargrove?”

“Not exactly,” Billy said, his smile broadening. “Just realising you might be my best chance of getting out of here.”

Steve scowled. “Well, sorry to disappoint you, but you’re not exactly mine, so I’m going to go.”

Steve started to turn away before he found Billy’s hand on his arm. Billy’s hand was almost as cold as Steve’s. Almost.

“Wait!” Billy called, his eyes wide. “Look, you don’t like me, I get it. But we’re stuck here together. You can try going it alone, but we’ll have a much better chance of staying alive here if we stick together.”

Steve gave a bitter laugh. “You see, that’s where you’ve misunderstood,” he said. “I don’t not want you around because I don’t like you, I don’t want you around because you’re a fucking psycho. You nearly punched me into a coma because you didn’t like your sister’s friend-”

“She’s not my sister.”

I don’t give a shit!” Steve threw his arms up. “My point is that I honestly think that having you around might one day kill me!

Billy fell silent. Steve was slightly more successful in walking away this time – he managed to take four whole steps before Billy called him back.

“You managed to find any food yet?”

That stopped Steve in his tracks.

“No,” he said softly, not looking back.

“You try the shops?” Billy suggested, his voice with that triumphant edge.

Steve turned around and glared at him. “Yeah, I tried the shops. Nothing. Whatever food was there was rotten.”

Billy’s grin had a slight menacing quality. “That’s because I got there first.”

-:-

El fell back as soon as the Gate closed. In the dim red light, she’d seen the slightest hint of a shadow. It was a figure – a man without a face…

She scrambled away from the line in the dirt, shrinking into a tree. She was breathing hard – she couldn’t get enough air into her chest – what little breath was coming came in short, sharp gasps –

“El?”

She jolted as Max suddenly appeared at her side. It was all El could do to focus on her face, take in those wide eyes that stared at her in such concern. It helped ground her. She wasn’t alone. The monster hadn’t come through the Gate.

“It’s okay,” Max was saying. “It’s okay. We don’t have to try again.”

El immediately warmed to Max, shrinking into her as Max pulled her into a hug.

“Why don’t we just go somewhere else?” Max suggested. “We can go somewhere and eat those sandwiches Will’s mom made us.”

El nodded, finally standing up without taking her eyes off the crack in the dirt.

“Sandwiches,” she breathed.

-:-

“So what exactly is this place?” Billy asked, carefully picking a path for Steve to follow.

Steve eyed Billy’s back. He may have been forced into a situation with him, but that didn’t mean Steve trusted Billy as far as he could throw him. And past experience taught him that he couldn’t throw him very far.

“We call it the Upside Down,” Steve said. “It’s like… this other dimension, like a mirror of Hawkins. It’s like… how fleas can walk on the side of a tightrope or something.”

Billy looked back over at Steve like he was a five-year-old trying to tell a story. “What?”

“I don’t really know, some kids told me about it,” Steve hit back.

“Max’s friends?” Billy asked.

“Yeah.”

“She’s involved too.” It was a statement, not a question.

Steve didn’t take his eyes off the back of Billy’s head. “Yeah.”

“And that was what you were doing together at that house,” Billy said, fitting the pieces together.

“Yeah,” Steve acknowledged.

“So how’d you get involved?” Billy asked. “Bunch of middle-schoolers running around, didn’t seem like your scene.”

Steve felt his gut twist in that far too familiar way at the thought of how he’d gotten involved. “Nancy’s best friend was killed by something from here,” Steve explained.

“Ah,” Billy said, and Steve could hear the smirk in his voice. “So the princess got involved and dragged you with her.”

“Not exactly.”

Billy turned around to look at him, a slightly incredulous smirk settled on his lips. “You going to start giving me longer answers or am I going to have to start guessing the rest?”

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Steve bit back quietly.

Billy rolled his eyes before turning back to pick his way through the trees. “Suit yourself.”

Finally, they burst through the trees into a clearing. A tent had been haphazardly erected, and inside it seemed to be Hawkins’ entire supply of tins.

“You’ve been living here?” Steve asked incredulously.

“Yeah,” Billy said. “So what? Not up to the standards of King Stevie’s palace?

“Well, I mean, if you want to live in a tent in the middle of nowhere,” Steve said with a shrug.

“Alright,” Billy shrugged. “Where are you staying?”

Steve looked at him incredulously. “You’re not coming with me-”

Jesus, will you take that stick out your ass?” Billy said exasperatedly. “I’m not planning some big scheme to take you down.”

Steve glared at Billy. Flashes of everything he’d ever known about Billy were fresh in his memory. Billy shoving him over in basketball with a word about planting his feet… Billy and Tommy laughing about his breakup with Nancy… Billy throwing Lucas up against the wall… The plate breaking over his head…

“Look,” Billy said. “You’re not the person I’d choose to be stuck here with. But you’re the only person I’ve seen in days. I’ve got no fucking idea about this place. You seem to know a bit more than I do, but be honest, do you really know that much about it? You can’t tell me you want to be here alone; you’ll go crazy. Like, full on ‘Shining’ shit.”

“Yeah?” Steve shot back. “Well, you don’t know anything about me. If you did, you’d know I’m really fucking good at being alone.”

“Sure,” Billy snorted derisively. “What’re you going to do? Hang around moping all day? Wait for this place to tear you apart? Hate to say it, but you’re not looking so hot, Stevie. So you can go be miserable and wait for the inevitable day when you finally kick the bucket, or I can come back with you and we can stick together.”

‘Stick together’?” It was Steve’s turn to be derisive. “What, like a pack or something?”

Billy shrugged. “Sure, why not? We’re nothing more than animals out here anyway.”

Steve thought about it. Billy raised a lot of good points – Steve was otherwise completely on his own out here, and with Billy around, there was a chance he could let his guard down for a second against the Upside Down. Not to mention, Billy had managed to acquire basically everything in Hawkins’ Upside Down that was fit for human consumption. With anyone else, this would have been a complete no-brainer. But the fact remained that it wasn’t anyone else. It was Billy fucking Hargrove.

“Come on,” Billy finally broke the silence. “Let’s move on from high school. It’s either us together, or it’s us against each other.”

Steve resigned himself to his fate.

“Fine,” he conceded. “But you’re carrying the food.”

-:-

It turned into the nicest day Max and El had had since Starcourt.

El was relishing being out in the fresh air. Max was enjoying being away from the atmosphere of grief, the constant questions about ‘how was she doing’ and the endless concerned looks. The reality of what they both had to go back to was still lurking, but it was nice to escape it for a little while.

Unfortunately, reality didn’t like being ignored.

It was late afternoon when Max and El came back into the cabin to be met by a grim-faced Hopper, while Jonathan and Will sat on the couch.

“Your mom called,” he announced as soon as Max walked through the door. “Says you left this morning with a note saying you’d be with a friend. Didn’t say which friend. Apparently, she called the Wheelers, the Sinclairs and the Hendersons before calling the station. Only called the station because I brought you home last night.”

That caught Max off-guard.

“She wants you to come home,” he continued. “She was very upset.”

The dread that welled up in Max’s stomach twisted painfully. She gave Hopper a small nod.

“You don’t have to go home,” Jonathan said from the couch. “You can-”

“Yes, I do,” Max whispered. She really should have known this conversation wasn’t over.

“Max-” Will started.

“God, just leave it alone, will you?” she snapped in the general direction of the couch.

Silence rang throughout the room. Jonathan looked guarded, Will apologetic. El looked surprised. Hopper frowned at her.

“Sorry,” she breathed. “I didn’t mean to snap. I know you’re just trying to help, but… it’s my life. I know what’s going on. I know Neil. Can you just… just take me home?”

-:-

“I’m sorry, I’ve got to ask,” Billy said. “What the hell is up with that outfit?”

Steve rolled his eyes. Honestly, he was surprised it had taken this long to come up, but that didn’t mean he was happy about answering it.

“It’s a uniform,” Steve said.

“A uniform?” Billy echoed incredulously.

“Yeah,” Steve snapped. “People sometimes wear them to work-”

“Yeah, I know what a uniform is,” Billy laughed. “I’m kind of surprised you know, though. Wasn’t the life plan following Daddy into business or some shit?”

Steve hesitated for a fraction of a second. “Yeah, well, that’s not really an option anymore.”

“Oh yeah?” Billy asked. “Why’s that?”

Daddy nearly cut me off after I didn’t get into Tech,” Steve said coldly.

Billy burst out laughing. “You didn’t even get into Tech?” he laughed. “Fucking hell, I thought everyone got into Tech. Fucking Carol got into Tech, and she’s even dumber than you are.”

“Thanks,” Steve’s voice was like ice.

He’d finally found the stream. Steve slowly began picking his way down to the rock he used to cross it. He heard Billy follow him, the clanking of tins in the deconstructed tent that Billy was using as a brightly coloured sack being the only sound. Steve finally crested the ridge and pushed his way into his garden.

“Shit,” Billy finally said, impressed. “This is where you live?

Steve shot him a dark look, followed by a sarcastic smile that didn’t touch his eyes.

“King Stevie’s Castle,” Billy murmured with a smirk on his face.

“Go to hell, Hargrove.”

“Aren’t I there already?”

Steve shot him a look that told him clearly that he didn’t share his sense of humour, before walking off into the house.

“Hey!” Billy called, following him into the doorway. “Hey, it was just a joke!”

“What the hell is wrong with you, Hargrove?” Steve rounded on him. “Making jokes – asking about my life – it’s not you!

Billy smirked, but any trace of humour was gone from his face. “You don’t fucking know me,” he pointed out. “Nobody in this two-bit town has ever known me, not Tommy H or Carol, not Max, not Susan, not even my fucking dad. And certainly not you.”

“I know what you are-”

“Really?” Billy asked. “You got me pegged? You know my type? Typical douchebag, come from a big city after a divorce and pissed as shit about it? That what you’ve got so far?”

Steve fell silent, his glare hiding the fact that he’d been caught off-guard.

“I do what’s expected of a guy like me,” Billy said. “Makes it easy. I’ll be honest, I thought you’d know a bit about it. Typical rich kid with parents who are never around, trying to be popular because that’s all that fucking matters, isn’t it? Playing up to it. Pretending. That’s why I was so interested in you when I heard all about you. Thought we were similar. Problem is, you’ve been pretending so long, that’s all you know at this point. Pretending is all there is to you.”

-:-

The drive back was quiet. Hopper tried a couple of times to start some form of conversation, but when he was met with grunts, he was vividly reminded of just why he’d hated teenagers.

He pulled the car into the driveway for the second time in as many days, only this time, it wasn’t Susan Mayfield who came running out. Neil Hargrove was stood on the doorstep, his face like thunder.

“Maxine,” he said as Max got out of the car, his tone heavy with threat. “Inside. Now.

Hopper got out of the car after her.

“Mr Hargrove!” he called at Neil’s retreating back.

Neil turned around and glared at Hopper. “Yes?”

Hopper closed the gap between them as Susan appeared at the doorway to usher Max inside. “Mr Hargrove, Max has obviously taken her stepbrother’s death pretty hard. She went to see Will Byers. Maybe it’s worth talking to her. You know, heart to heart.”

The echo of Joyce’s words to him a matter of days ago – God, had it really only been days? – didn’t have quite the same effect on Neil as they’d had on Hopper.

“Yeah, well, she’s not the only one who’s suffered,” Neil growled. “And she needs to learn not to be so selfish.”

“I’m just saying-”

“It’s not your business how I teach my family to respect each other, Chief Hopper,” Neil growled.

Hopper felt something ignite in him. Screw being nice. He'd tried. A bit. Maybe.

“Well, Neil – is it alright if I call you Neil? – you should know, after hearing reports of your behaviour towards Max and Lucas Sinclair from witnesses, I’ve been forced to open up an investigation into what happened.”

Neil’s eyes widened and his scowl deepened. “Excuse me?

Hopper took some grim satisfaction in Neil’s surprise. “You know… attempted assault on a minor… Indiana law is very clear on this.”

‘Attempted assault’?” Neil echoed. “What the fuck is this?”

Hopper kept his voice low and level, doing his best to hide his enjoyment of Neil’s obvious discomfort.

“I’ve heard eyewitnesses claim that you threatened to assault your stepdaughter yesterday,” Hopper said. “By law, I have to take those claims seriously.”

“Has Maxine said anything about this?” Neil growled.

Hopper kept silent, meeting Neil’s glare with a look that he hoped was neutral.

“I see,” Neil said, his tone finally matching Hopper’s. “Well, you should know that what goes on in my house with my family is none of your damn business!

Hopper shrugged. “Well, when you threaten the Sinclairs like you did yesterday-”

“I didn’t threaten anyone!” Neil snarled. “I tried to instil some fucking respect into my stepdaughter after she starts shooting her mouth off at my own son’s funeral. That little shit comes in, undermining me, and tries to fucking take her with him. All I did was make it very clear to everyone what that meant.”

Hopper shrugged casually. “Well, Neil, let’s make one thing clear right here and now,” he said casually. “You hurt the Sinclairs, you go near them – hell, you say their names in a way I don’t like, and I’ll come for you. Are we clear?”

Neil smirked at Hopper, but there was no laughter in his eyes. “Now look who’s threatening.

Hopper matched him with a humourless smile. “Glad we’re understood.”

Neil watched Hopper get back into the car and pull away slowly before going back inside. He walked into the door to see Maxine sat on the couch, hunched over, her long red hair forming curtains around her face.

“An investigation?” Neil snarled. “What the fuck have you been telling him?”

“Nothing,” came Maxine’s reply, almost inaudible.

“Sorry?” Neil snapped, his temper rising. “Didn’t quite catch that.”

“Nothing!” Max replied defensively. “I haven’t said anything!

So much for Hopper’s discreet investigation.

“Well you’ve obviously said something to someone!” Neil’s voice was rising. “Is that where you were today? Going and talking to your new police buddy?”

“I haven’t-”

“You had your mother really worried,” Neil snapped, walking over to the countertop and snatching up the note Max had left that morning. “You leave a note saying you’re going shopping with a friend. No mention of where, no mention of who, no mention of when you’ll be back.”

Max took a deep breath and closed her eyes for a fraction longer than a standard blink – something Neil noticed.

“Do you not think that after everything that’s happened – after losing my son – that maybe, just maybe, that might be information your mother and I might want?” Neil crossed the room and slammed the note down on the coffee table with such force that it made Max jump. “And then I find out you’ve not been shopping at all, you’ve been off talking to some jumped-up small town police chief, full of his own self-importance because he somehow made it to the top of the world’s smallest ladder, and got it into his head that I’ve been assaulting you?

“I didn’t-”

“Look at me,” Neil growled, his tone more dangerous than Max had ever heard him.

Max pursed her lips together, desperately trying to force back the tears welling up in her eyes.

Maxine,” Neil’s voice softened. “Look at me.”

Max was determined to blink back those tears before looking up –

LOOK AT ME!” Neil roared.

The sudden change in tone jolted Max upright, staring Neil straight in the eyes with a mixture of tears, horror, fear, and burning defiance.

“Maxine,” Neil said softly, towering over her. “You’re a little liar. You’ve been lying to that police chief, and now you’re lying to me. You’re running off, scaring your mother out of her mind, and after ruining my son’s funeral, you and that boyfriend of yours are going spreading little rumours around town about me. Well, you know what? I’m not having it anymore. It’s time you learnt some respect.”

“Maxine, go to your room.”

Susan’s words came out of nowhere. Max and Neil had all but forgotten she was there. There was a firmness to her voice that couldn’t hide the slight shake in her tone. There was fear – that much was obvious – but there was also the slightest hint of defiance.

“Maxine, go to your room and don’t come out tonight,” Susan repeated. “Not for dinner, not for anything.”

There was a silence as Neil and Max stared at Susan. She kept her eyes on Max, not daring to look at her husband. Whatever fear Max had heard in her voice was amplified a thousand times by the look in her eyes.

Now, Maxine,” Susan said.

Max picked herself up off the couch and headed towards her room. Every step she took away from Neil felt heavier, her fear and guilt mounting. She closed the door, but it was a poor barrier between her and what was happening in the living room. She sat down on her bed and released a breath she hadn’t realised she’d been holding. Tears started to run down her face uncontrollably. She desperately tried to stifle a sob as voices carried through the door.

“…The fuck, Susan?” Neil was saying. “You think you can just undermine me like that?”

Silence followed. Max eventually heard a small mumble.

“Maxine is a goddamn piece of work! She goes running off with no regard for me, or you, or anyone but herself! And now she’s out there spreading nasty little stories about me? That can’t be left alone!”

“She’s been punished,” came the soft voice of her mother.

“What, with a fucking timeout? Sending her to her room? Banning her from having dinner? Susan, she knows as well as I do that she got off easy! Her goddamn mommy got in the way, went soft on her! Well, newsflash, she’s under my roof now! That means she needs to learn to respect me!”

“No!” Susan sounded terrified.

“Excuse me?” came Neil’s voice, in that same terrifyingly calm tone that always preluded the oncoming storm. “Perhaps you need your own lesson in respect?”

Max was torn between clamping her hands against her ears to drown it out and running out of her room to interfere. Paralysed by indecision, she sat there, frozen, listening to her mother use that desperately placating tone to try and calm him down.

“Neil, please, she’s had a rough time,” she was almost whispering. “It’s come as a terrible shock, she just needs time to calm down.”

“Yeah?” Neil growled. “Well, it’s not like she’s got a fucking monopoly on grief! Billy was my goddamn kid! Not hers, not yours, mine! And here she is, using it as an excuse to act like a spoilt brat! She’s running off, terrifying the living shit out of you and all you can fucking say is to beg me to go easy on her? Well, she’s had it pretty fucking easy so far, it’s about time she learnt to respect me!”

“She’s not-”

“Not what, Susan? Not had it easy? She goes around saying bullshit to that police chief, who then comes here and starts fucking threatening me with a fucking investigation! And that’s not even starting on what happened to Billy!”

Her mom sounded confused. “What?” she asked tentatively.

“Why the fuck do you think my son was at that mall in the first place?” Neil pointed out. “Why was he there with her and all her little friends? He was there for her! He was looking out for her! And how the fuck does she repay him? By running out and leaving him to burn to death in that fucking fire!

Clarity came for Max like a gunshot. The fact that Neil blamed her for Billy’s death terrified her, but also made sense of Neil’s attitude. Of course he was so angry now. Of course there was a rift between him and Susan and Max. It had split them apart. They weren’t family anymore. They were the Mayfields and the Hargroves. Well, Hargrove.

My son. My kid. Not hers. Not yours. Mine. He wasn’t your son, he was mine. What gives you the right? He was my son. My son. My son. Mine.

She clamped her hands over her ears but it wasn’t enough to drown out the rest of the conversation.

“What happened was a terrible accident-”

“Susan, it wasn’t a fucking accident!” Neil snarled. “She chose to get out. She chose to leave him.”

“You don’t know that-”

Yes, I do!” Neil roared. “She’s here. He’s not.”

“You can’t blame her for Billy’s death-”

“Watch me.”

Max heard footsteps crossing the hall – heavy, purposeful strides – Neil was coming.

“It’s about time your daughter learnt some respect!” Neil said, his voice rising.

“Neil, no-”

CRACK!

The sound echoed throughout the house, but it couldn’t hold a candle to the ringing silence that followed. Max’s hands flew away from her ears and she sat bolt upright, hardly daring to move. She heard a low voice – Neil’s – out in the living room, but couldn’t hear what was being said. As quietly as she dared, she opened her door a fraction and peered out of the gap.

Neil’s back was to her – thank god – as her mother was bent face-down over the countertop. From where she was stood, Max could see that Neil had her mother’s arm twisted up behind her back and was bent low over her, his other hand flat on the countertop by her mother’s head. Susan’s face was turned outwards, towards Max’s door, and for a flash, she made eye contact with her daughter. Those blue eyes pleaded with Max.

Don’t interfere. Don’t get involved. Don’t come out.

“Stop protecting Maxine,” Neil was muttering into Susan’s ear. “She can’t always have someone to save her from the consequences of her actions.”

“Please…” Susan whimpered, so quietly Max could barely hear her. “Please don’t hurt my little girl…”

“Your little girl?” Neil echoed, stepping back from Susan and letting her go. “She’s not so little anymore, is she? And let me remind you, I’m the only reason her father isn’t in the picture. If it wasn’t for me, you’d still be in California, fighting appeal after appeal after appeal from that piece of shit. I’m the only reason you could come here. And the thanks I get? My son gets killed trying to protect your little girl.

“I’m sorry,” Susan whispered, sliding to the floor and leaning against the counter as tears began to run down her face. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

This, at last, seemed to placate Neil, because the next words out of his mouth sounded oddly tender.

“I know,” Neil said. “I know. I don’t like doing that. Not to you. I love you, Susan. I’m the only one who loves you. You know that, right?”

Susan nodded.

“Good,” Neil said. “Good.”

What followed was a scene that repulsed Max more than anything else she’d seen that night. Neil went and settled himself on the couch wordlessly while Susan went into the kitchen and got a beer bottle from the refrigerator. She handed it to Neil as Neil turned on the television, before she sat down nervously next to him. He put an arm round her shoulder as they found some talk show on the television, the studio audience’s laughter occasionally joined by a small chuckle from Neil. It was so domestic, telling nothing of the violence that had come mere minutes before.

They stayed like that for almost an hour, the only movement being Susan getting up every so often to get another beer for Neil. Once the talk show finished, she felt that Neil had calmed down enough for her to suggest that she go to bed. Susan handed him another beer before going to the bedroom.

Neil, however, stayed on the couch. Max suspected he’d end up falling asleep there, but she didn’t dare let her guard down. She stayed awake, lying on her bed with the lights out, as the talk show turned into a rerun of an episode of the Twilight Zone. She stayed awake as the Twilight Zone turned into a show about some conspiracy involving the water supply of a town in Michigan. Eventually, as the conspiracy show was coming to a close, Neil turned off the television, but Max still didn’t dare sleep. She didn’t hear his breath even out into snores that would tell her he was safely asleep.

Max sat up as quietly as she could. Peering through the small gap in the door, she could see Neil sat there in total darkness. He was just sitting there.

Hours passed. Max lay down on her bed with her back to the door, waiting for Neil to move – either to get up to go to bed or else just to lie down on the couch. Still nothing. No change.

The red display on her digital clock read 04:21 when Neil finally moved. He stood up and walked through the house. He was making an unusual attempt to be quiet as he walked through the house.

He first stopped by Max’s door and pushed it open. She’d been lying in the same position for hours, but she froze as she felt his eyes on her. He was watching her, unable to see her wide-open eyes as she stared at her clock, not really seeing it, listening… waiting…

Finally, he pulled the door closed before walking towards her mom’s room. Max listened as he did the same, watching her mom sleeping.

Eventually, though, he moved on from there too. Without a word, he walked back through the house. Max heard him fumble with the coat rack, before going to a drawer in the kitchen and pulling out what sounded like a set of keys. Max heard the front door open and shut – she heard the car door open and shut outside – she heard the engine start, the hum of a car engine moving away, and then…

Nothing.

As quietly as she could, Max stood up. She walked towards the door and peered out into an empty hallway. She padded through into the living room, looking around, noticing the absent coat that normally hung on the coat rack.

She walked over towards a window and peered out into the driveway. There was nothing there, no car, no Neil. She opened the front door and quietly stood in the doorway, facing the empty night.

Neil was gone.

Chapter Text

Billy Hargrove was sitting in his kitchen.

The charred remains of whatever still sat on top of his stove, and Billy was sat on the counter, laughing at it.

“Wow, you would have been screwed without me,” Billy said. “This was how you were boiling water?”

Steve shot him a look of utter impatience. “Yeah.”

Billy raised his eyebrows, grinning patronisingly. “I’m surprised you got it hot enough, what were you even burning?”

Steve shrugged. “Whatever I could find,” he answered. “Think I got some newspapers from Melvald’s, pencils, found a couple of twigs by the river…”

That had Billy doubled over, his face buried in his hands as he howled with laughter.

“You were never a boy scout, were you?” Billy cackled. “King Stevie, too comfortable in his castle to learn some basic survival tricks.”

Steve only glared in response. Finally, Billy composed himself enough to push himself off the counter, but the laughter was still very much alive in his eyes.

“Well, your majesty, you’ve clearly been watching too many films about starting fires with rocks, let’s see what you’ve got.”

Billy tossed one of the stones Steve had set aside from the river over to him. Steve had barely caught it, taken off guard, when Billy threw the other one. It bounced off Steve’s chest and landed on the floor.

Unfortunately, the stone caught a part of Steve’s chest just under his broken ribs, which sent a jolt of pain through him. Suddenly unable to get enough air in his lungs for a split second, he gasped, jarring his broken ribs, which sent him doubling over, a horrible, wet, hacking sound filling the room.

Jesus,” Billy said, more accusatory than concerned. “That doesn’t sound healthy.”

Steve would have loved to have hit back with a sarcastic comment about how this was actually perfectly normal, or how everyone started coughing like this at the slightest gasp, or even just a sassy ‘no shit’, but the coughing fit prevented any words from forming.

Eventually, the coughing abated, and Steve was left doubled over, trying to snatch some deep, steadying breaths.

“What the hell happened to you?” Billy asked in that same accusing tone.

“Would you believe me,” Steve rasped, straightening up, “if I told you that some evil Russian soldiers tried to torture me in their secret base under the mall?”

Billy’s eyebrows raised in an unimpressed look. “It’s not exactly the craziest thing you’ve told me.”

Steve managed a small smirk at that. “So you believe me when I say that we’re in an another dimension and that a load of Commie bastards tried to torture me, but you don’t believe me when I tell you that your sister isn’t in the Byers’ house back in November?”

“Oh, no, don’t get me wrong, if I hadn’t been here for days already, I’d be trying to commit you into a psych ward,” Billy shrugged. “But that night, I could see her in the fucking window, and you were stood there lying to my face. Also, she’s not my sister.”

Steve conceded with a shrug.

“Anyway,” Billy said brusquely. “Go ahead. Fire.”

Steve gave Billy a sarcastic smile, looked down at the stone on the floor, and raised an eyebrow at Billy before pulling out his lighter. He took a certain amount of grim satisfaction at the look on Billy’s face as he clicked it to make the small flame dance between them for a moment before flicking it out. He was done taking Billy’s shit, so the look of extreme annoyance on Billy’s face gave Steve a slightly shameful amount of enjoyment.

“Where the hell did you get that?” Billy asked.

“Found it,” Steve said with a shrug.

“None of the lighters here have fluid,” Billy pointed out.

“Yeah, well, this one did,” Steve smirked.

“Where did you find it?”

Steve’s smile grew. “There’s a network of tunnels under Hawkins,” he explained. “Something from this place built them in our dimension. I’m guessing that the tunnels themselves were like some kind of extension of this place into our world or something, and when we closed the Gate last year that… that connection was cut off or whatever, I don’t really know.”

By the look on his face, neither did Billy.

“The point is,” Steve continued, “last year, I went into the tunnels and set them on fire. This is my lighter from back then.”

Billy’s expression darkened. Clearly, knowing less than Steve didn’t suit him.

“You find anything else in these tunnels?” Billy asked.

Steve smiled as patronisingly as he could. He led the way up the stairs to his mother’s bedroom, and gestured to where the gun and the flamethrower were lying on the floor. Billy’s face looked like thunder for the briefest moment as he took in the sight of the weapons on the floor.

“What’s the problem?” Steve asked smugly.

“Sorry,” Billy said incredulously. “You had these here, and you were worried about me being a threat?”

-:-

The lack of any way to gauge the passage of time was starting to annoy Steve.

After Billy had discovered the gun and the flamethrower, they’d finally got around to setting a fire and heating one of Billy’s tins. The food was such a shock to Steve’s system after what felt like days of hunger that he’d almost thrown up. If it had been any more solid, he might well have done, but the fact that at least ninety percent of those tins were soup in some shape or form did have its upsides, and his system had eventually processed it. After that, Steve had suggested that they try and get some sleep. Billy had, of course, had more than a few words to say about sharing a bed with Steve, with a couple of jokes about how ridiculous it was, endless questions about why they couldn’t use another bed in the ‘thirty-seven bedroom palace’ Steve lived in, and, of course, repeated insistences that Steve not cross into his side of the bed. Steve was proud of himself for not biting back with a retort about the only reason he’d cross into Billy’s side would be to strangle him in his sleep.

That said, despite everything, Steve was surprised to wake up alone.

It was not inconceivable that Billy had gotten up to go to the bathroom – or, at least, the bushes, as Steve had discovered that plumbing in the Upside Down was entirely decorative. Or else Steve could have been asleep for a while and Billy could have gotten up to sort out breakfast.

But neither of those options sat quite right with him. Steve didn’t get the feeling he’d been asleep for very long. And, honestly, in the Upside Down, he wasn’t about to take chances.

He picked up the black gun and threaded the strap over his shoulder. Holding it aloft as best he could with his left hand still in the state that it was, he walked out of the bedroom, finger ready on the trigger.

The hallway was silent. There was no sign of Billy. The darkened hallway outside his mom’s room was completely empty. As quietly as he could, he slipped down the stairs towards the living room.

“Billy?” he called out tentatively into the darkness.

He was met with silence and stillness. Nothing seemed overly out of place – at least, no more out of place than everything else in the Upside Down felt. He passed through the living room and peered into the kitchen. The tins were still jumbled up in the tent on the kitchen floor, the embers of the fire from the previous night were utterly extinguished, and there was still no sign of Billy.

Steve turned around quietly to go back into the living room and walk towards the doors that led out to the pool. He quietly stepped around the couch and –

His foot kicked the leg of the coffee table.

Steve jumped. His finger tightened around the trigger –

A burst of gunfire echoed from the barrel. Steve found himself blown backwards with a few steps, struggling to keep a hold on the automatic weapon. The barrel swung around the room at random with the force of the recoil from the gun. Bullets sprayed everywhere. Steve had to stop –

With more effort than he would have ever thought necessary, Steve managed to get his finger off the trigger, leaving him breathless. His heart rate was at least twice what it normally was. Adrenaline coursed through his body. The silence seemed more intense, echoes of the gunfire ringing in his ears. What few fingers could clasp around gripped the gun in a vice like grip, his knuckles white –

“Steve, what the hell?

Steve wheeled around to see Billy standing in the doorway to the stairs, looking more than a little alarmed. When Steve swung round to face him, Billy flinched, ducking down behind the door.

“Steve, put that down before you kill us both!” Billy demanded.

Steve’s hands flew off it and he quickly tried to pull the strap off –

“No, don’t drop it!” Billy all but screamed. “Put it down – gently!”

Steve slowly held it and started to lower it to the ground.

“Hands away from the trigger,” Billy coaxed. “Easy, easy…”

Steve put the gun on the floor and took a step back.

There we go,” Billy said, finally daring to come into the room.

He crossed the room to where Steve was standing and crouched down between Steve and the gun. He looked at the weapon on the floor for all of six seconds before turning back to Steve.

“Did you know the safety was off?” Billy asked accusingly.

“…Safety?” Steve echoed.

Billy’s eyebrows shot up, his eyes wide. “Alright,” Billy said. “You need some basic lessons in how you use this before you kill us both with your stupidity. Come down.”

He motioned for Steve to crouch down beside him. Steve looked down at Billy for a second, still feeling slightly shell-shocked, before following suit.

“Right, so you see this little switch thing?” Billy explained, pointing to the relevant part on the gun. “That’s the safety. Stops you from firing all over the place by accident like you just did there. You’re really fucking lucky you didn’t hurt yourself. Or, you know, me.

“Wouldn’t have hurt you if you hadn’t gone wandering off,” Steve hit back.

Billy chose to ignore that comment. “So we’re going to put the safety on, like… so!”

Billy flipped the little black switch with a click. Steve let out a breath he hadn’t known he’d been holding.

“Wow, Steve, you would have been dead in a heartbeat if I hadn’t come along,” Billy chuckled, but there was none of the bite that those comments had had the previous evening – Evening? Morning? Who even knew anymore?

Right,” Billy said, jumping up and motioning Steve to follow him. “Let’s work on your stance.”

Steve stood up slowly, his brain still not quite catching up to what was going on.

“You know how I’ve always told you to plant your feet?” Billy said. “Well, plant your fucking feet.”

Billy started to demonstrate, one foot slightly in front of the other, bouncing on his knees. Steve hesitated before mirroring Billy’s pose.

“Move your left foot back a bit,” Billy corrected. “There – Loosen up your knees – No, not that much – Jesus, what part of ‘plant your feet’ is so difficult? – That’s it, really ground yourself…”

Steve frantically tried to follow instructions as Billy doled them out, his brain still trying to work out how he’d ended up taking a firearms lesson from Billy Hargrove when less than twenty minutes ago he’d been asleep. Billy was quick in his instructions and precise in what he was asking, but not exactly the most patient teacher. Any time he picked up on a mistake, he used it to patronise Steve. Steve was certainly more patient than he had been a year ago – herding Dustin would make anyone patient – but somehow Billy seemed to be pressing all of Steve’s buttons.

“–You’re not putting your weight on your-”

You fucking do it then!” Steve snapped.

Billy had the decency to look taken aback for a second. Exactly one second. Then, it was as though he’d been waiting for a chance to do this for his entire life. Wordlessly, with either anger or smugness, (Steve wasn’t entirely sure which,) Billy set about adjusting his posture. He wasn’t gentle about it, kicking at Steve’s feet until he was sure they were in the right position. He then walked behind Steve, pulling his shoulders back until he was stood up straight. Steve made a small noise of protest which he would deny to his dying day was a whimper.

“Hands,” Billy demanded, moving to stand to Steve’s side.

Steve gave Billy a filthy look as he stretched out his hands. Billy took Steve’s wrists, raising an eyebrow at the state of Steve’s left fingers, before adjusting the left arm out while folding the right one slightly behind. Billy then picked up the gun and all but pushed it into Steve’s hands. He then adjusted Steve’s grip, pulling the whole gun back so the butt settled into Steve’s shoulder.

“There,” Billy said coldly, any unexpected warmth he’d had that morning vanishing into the ether.

“You couldn’t have been any more gentle about that if you’d tried, could you?” Steve muttered sarcastically.

“You asked me to do it for you,” Billy hit back. “Now, find a target.”

“You’re not an option?” Steve asked with a grin.

Billy raised an unimpressed eyebrow. “No,” he said. “And don’t even joke about that. Gun safety one-oh-one: never point a real gun at anyone.”

Steve found the decency to look contrite. He’d always tried to take the high road after screwing up. Even with Billy Hargrove.

“Right, so find your mark,” Billy said. “Try… that painting over there.”

He gestured towards a large abstract artwork that hung on the far wall. Steve had always hated it. His parents assured him that it was a genuine Joan Miró, but Steve had little taste for art, particularly the abstract variety. This particular artwork had nothing but a blue dot painted off-centre, which had apparently taken Miró months to create. Steve honestly thought the Upside Down vines covering it were a significant improvement.

“So aim for the dot,” Billy said softly. “Line up your sight-”

“What the fuck is my sight?” Steve asked.

“You see those little squares sticking out from the top of the barrel? They’ve got little notches in them.”

Steve took in the appearance of the gun properly for the first time. He couldn’t for the life of him pick out very much else in the low light, but finally, he thought he’d found one.

“I think I’ve got it,” Steve said softly, matching Billy’s tone.

“There should be two of them,” Billy said.

It took another few seconds to find the second one, but now that Steve actually had an idea of what he was looking for, it proved much easier to find.

“Got it,” Steve announced, feeling slightly relieved.

“Right,” Billy said. “So line up those little notches, and find your target and line that up with the gaps.”

“Any particular target?”

“Try the blue dot,” Billy suggested dryly. “Make sure you’ve got it lined up with both the little gaps. When you think you’ve got it, pull the trigger.”

Steve did his best to line up the targets. The gun was heavy in his hands, and it was getting heavier by the second. Billy stepped back so he was about a foot behind Steve, while Steve was trying to hold the gun steady. He held it up – adjusted it – found the line of sight where the two little notches were finally in line – tried to point it at the blue dot –

There!

The most generous thing to be said about his second attempt at shooting a gun is that it wasn’t as bad as his first. The pressure on the trigger, the force of the recoil as a burst of bullets exploded out of the barrel, the constant vibrations sent Steve fighting to keep the gun pointed in the general direction of the wall. Any aspirations Steve had of making the target went out the window along with most of the bullets.

Steve pulled his finger off the trigger with slightly more ease this time round after only a second. Billy ducked out from behind Steve, surveying the damage.

“So… were you aiming for the window, or are you seriously just that bad?”

“Shut up, Hargrove,” Steve hissed, pulling the strap off from around his neck.

“Steve, safety,” Billy pointed out.

With no small amount of frustration, he started fiddling with the side, trying to remember where exactly that bloody switch was.

“…Other side,” Billy muttered.

Steve gave a small huff, switching over to the other side of the gun, finally finding the safety. He flicked the switch before slamming it down on the coffee table and started storming towards the kitchen.

Steve!” Billy called out after him, sounding exasperated.

“I didn’t drop it, did I?” Steve wheeled around to face Billy, a murderous expression on his face.

“Steve,” Billy was using a tone of forced calm that didn’t quite mask his amusement at Steve’s tantrum. “Do you want some breakfast?”

Steve glared at Billy.

“Come on,” Billy said, breezing past Steve casually. “You’ll feel better.”

Steve doubted that very much. Knowing Billy, there would be many opportunities he’d find to rub his superiority in Steve’s face.

Sure enough, another was waiting just by the embers of the fire.

“Get the fire going,” Billy all but ordered. “Don’t use the lighter, your lighter fluid isn’t going to last forever.”

“What do you want me to use?” Steve hissed.

“Well, you’ve got some stones from somewhere,” Billy suggested, bending down to search among the tins. “Why don’t you try using those?”

Steve glared at the back of Billy’s head, before bending down to retrieve the stone that had fallen on the floor the previous day – Night? Evening? – and then grabbed the other stone off the counter. Hesitantly, he looked down at them in his hand before he started banging them together.

“Steve,” Billy said, looking up at the noise. “What the fuck are you doing?”

Steve stopped, scowling at Billy. “Trying to get a spark.”

He started bashing the stones together again. Billy started sniggering at his efforts, and the longer he kept going, the more Billy was laughing.

“Oh my god,” Billy howled, tears in his eyes from laughing so much. “Steve, thank you. That is the funniest thing I’ve seen since I got here. That is the most entertainment I’ve had in days, thank you so much, Stevie.”

Steve slammed the stones down on the counter. “You know what, Hargrove? I’m done. I’m sick of you being a superior fucking douchebag! You go on about how you’re only ever pretending to everyone, and give me a hard time for ‘pretending too much’ or whatever, like there’s something more to you, but then you turn around and give me all the same shit you gave me in high school. So you know what? I’m done!”

“You done?” Billy asked with a single raised eyebrow.

“Yeah, I’m fucking done with your bullshit!

Billy sat there with that same smug, superior smirk on his face that infuriated Steve. “Do you want me to show you how to actually do it?”

“Like you fucking know?”

Billy shrugged with a smirk, picking up one of the stones. “Well, I know that your first of many mistakes is using two stones. You’ll actually get a spark with a knife.”

“We don’t have a knife, douchebag.”

“No, you don’t have a knife,” Billy pointed out. “I’ve got mine… right here.”

Billy fished a red swiss army knife out of his jeans, flipping out the small blade.

“One of dad’s few words of wisdom was to keep a knife on you,” Billy pointed out. “I never needed it in California, but when we moved out here to fucking Nowheresville, I figured it might come in handy in case my car ever broke down or something, given that mechanics here are about as on it as the high school basketball team. Turns out, I was right.”

Steve did his best to ignore Billy’s comment about the basketball team. So what if his scowl got a little deeper? Billy was so absorbed in his own smugness that he wasn’t likely to notice.

“Your second mistake is the stones you’re using,” Billy explained. “You need a rock with a sharp edge. Something that’s going to scrape away at the steel. It’s about exposing the iron to the air or some shit. So why don’t you and I go on a hunt for some actual flint, now that I know what I’m looking for, and while we’re out, you can show me these magical tunnels that seem to house lighters and fully operational guns and flamethrowers and other crap like that.”

“So hold on…” Steve started, piecing something together. “Yesterday… or whenever… when you asked me to start a fire with those fucking rocks… you knew it wasn’t going to work.”

Billy gave a small shrug. “Yeah, but it was funny to watch you try.”

-:-

Susan hadn’t said a word all morning.

Max would have been worried. If she’d had any energy to be worried about her mom, she would have been. But she was drained. She’d spent so much of herself stressing about Billy’s situation, trying to grieve with her family, and tiptoeing around the ever-volatile Neil who apparently blamed her for what happened to Billy. Which, if Max was honest with herself, he was right to do. He just didn’t realise quite what he was blaming her for.

So she would have been worried about her mother. If she hadn’t been trying not to let herself feel so relieved.

Wherever Neil had driven off to, he hadn’t come back yet. Max wasn’t quite letting herself drop the ‘yet’ at this point, but judging by her mother’s reaction at the empty driveway, they had both drawn the same conclusion. Neil had vanished into the night.

They weren’t quite at the point where they were calling Hopper about a missing person. Max was determined not to let that happen. She wasn’t going to tell her mom she’d seen Neil leave, but she was definitely not about to let Hopper – and undoubtedly the rest of the Party – get involved. While missing persons were definitely being taken more seriously in Hawkins after Will’s disappearance, Neil hadn’t been abducted, or taken by some otherworldly creature. He’d simply walked out and was yet to come back.

And, if Max was being completely honest, so what if he showed up with a snapped neck in a car wrapped around a tree?

Her mom, however, didn’t necessarily agree with her assessment. She looked lost, wandering the house with a slightly vacant expression on her face. At regular intervals, her eyes would glance involuntarily towards the door, or to the clock, or to the driveway, or to the street outside. Watching… waiting…

Waiting for her husband to come home.

Max knew just as well as her mother that such an eventuality would get less certain as the days went on. But it was only the first day. It was still possible Neil had simply left on a soul-searching road trip. It was possible he’d gone to Indianapolis to find a present for Susan to make up for his behaviour the previous evening.

It was possible, but Susan and Max both knew deep down that wasn’t what had happened.

Wordlessly, Susan put down a plate of pancakes on the counter. The same counter Neil had pressed her against less than twelve hours before.

“Are these for me?” Max asked.

A nod. More than what Max was expecting.

Max picked the plate up and took it over to the table.

“These are really good, mom, thanks.”

No reaction. Max decided on a slightly more direct question.

“Mom, where’s Neil?”

There was a sound from the sink of a glass slipping over. Max chanced a glance at her mom. Susan was standing there, tense, her back to Max.

“He’s gone, hasn’t he?” Max asked.

“I’m sure he’ll be back soon,” Susan said quietly.

“Do you want him to come back?”

It was blunt, direct. Perhaps even a little harsh. But necessary. Max needed to hear her mom’s honest opinion while Neil was gone.

“He hurt you, mom,” Max continued. “You know I saw him hurt you. You know I heard every word last night. I’m not an idiot.”

“Maxine, I’m not talking about this now,” Susan said strictly.

“Aren’t you relieved, mom?” Max pressed. “Aren’t you happy he’s gone?”

“Maxine, that’s enough!” Susan shut her down. “Your stepfather has just gone out for a little while. He’ll be back soon.”

“Sure,” Max muttered under her breath. “If he doesn’t find the next you.

-:-

Of course they were having a fucking argument.

If Steve and Billy were in the same room for longer than a few seconds, then of course they would find anything to argue about. Even if it about something as utterly mundane and unimportant, they’d take two different stances. Steve was pretty sure he’d found himself arguing in favour of Mondale during the election after discovering that Billy supported Reagan.

Today’s argument involved a route home.

Steve was shocked that Billy had allowed him to lead the way to the tunnels. There were, of course, plenty of criticisms over the route he was taking, which side of the road to walk on, whether they should care about walking on the side of the road at all after discovering that Steve could not have cared less about it if he’d tried, and so on.

Once they’d made it to the tunnels, Steve had taken Billy as far as the Hub before insisting that they go back. Billy had wanted to stay longer, to go as far as Hawkins Lab, but Steve had put his foot down and had, at last, won an argument against Billy Hargrove without it getting physical.

Now, however, he was being argued with about the most efficient route home, and it didn’t look like Steve was likely to win this round.

“It’s my house, Hargrove, I know the fucking way.”

“You know the way in a car, sure, but we can cut that distance in half if we cut through the houses.”

“We can’t do that!” Steve was scandalised.

“Why the hell not?”

“Because…” Steve hesitated. “It’s people’s houses!”

“Steve,” Billy started, looking at Steve like he was an idiot. “We’re the only people here. Property laws aren’t exactly enforced. We can cut through the houses.”

“Hargrove!”

“Do whatever you want, Steve, but I’ll see you at home. Whenever you finally get there.”

Billy marched off through someone’s front garden, not caring for a second as he trod in the flowerbeds. Steve hesitated for another moment before following, jogging to catch up.

“Are you sure you know the way?” Steve asked dubiously as they crossed into a treeline.

Billy gestured ahead. “Your house is on the south west side of Hawkins. We’re on the south east side. We can follow the roads back towards the centre of town, or we can take the much more direct route past the church and through the forest.”

Steve frowned at him. “How do you know so much about all this?”

“About all what?”

“You know, surviving,” Steve said, getting slightly breathless from trying to match Billy’s pace. He was always slightly nervous when he got breathless.

Surviving?” Billy echoed.

“Yeah,” Steve continued. “Like, in the wilderness. Navigating. Starting fires with a knife and a rock. Shooting a gun.”

Billy sighed, easing up his pace slightly. “My dad used to take me on hunting trips. We’d go away during the holidays to places like this where he’d teach me to hunt. Thought it’d make a man out of me. Straighten me out.

“Sounds fun.”

“I hated it.”

“Oh,” Steve thought for a moment. “Do you not get on with your dad?”

Billy gave a bitter laugh.

“I’ll take that as a ‘no’…” Steve said.

“My dad’s a fucking piece of shit,” Billy said. “Hates almost everything about me. Pretty sure he’d throw me out if I wasn’t at least good at sports.”

“Sounds a bit like mine, really,” Steve echoed. “My dad’s a grade A asshole.”

Billy gave that same bitter laugh. “Stevie, I’m pretty sure your dad’s not even in the same league as mine.”

“Oh yeah?” Steve asked. “Try me.”

Billy snorted. “Alright, my dad thinks that just because he put a fucking roof over my head that gives him a license to treat just about anyone under his roof however he wants. When he’s around, what he says has to go.”

“At least your dad is around,” Steve hit back. “My dad shows up for about an hour a month and tries to do all the parenting he needs to get done in that one hour. Usually to the tune of threats of cutting me off and throwing me out of the house.”

“I would kill for my dad to just throw me out,” Billy said. “Fucking get it over with. Takes away most of his power, too. It’s always a fucking power play with him. He’s got to be in charge. I think that’s why he’s never chucked me out. Knows that once I stand on my own two feet, I’ll be able to hit back.”

“Yeah, well, my dad knows he’s my only shot at a future,” Steve said. “Now that you’ve screwed that up for me.”

“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”

Steve gritted his teeth. It had been a throwaway comment, but of course Billy was going to latch onto it. And it was better to have it out in the open.

“You know how I didn’t get into Tech?”

“Yeah.”

“You got in, right?”

“Er… yeah.”

“On a basketball scholarship?”

“Er… yeah, how did you know?”

Steve took a deep breath. “Scouts came to our games. They saw you playing, and they saw me playing. By that point, you’d turned the whole fucking team against me for your own stupid little power play. Nobody fucking passed to me. Coach was one step away from fucking benching me. I might as well have not played at all.”

Billy fell silent at that.

“After that, what did they have to gain by offering me anything? They didn’t see me as a good team player, even if I was occasionally decent at the game. My grades were worse than useless. Of course they didn’t offer me anything.”

“I…” Billy trailed off.

“You want to know why I don’t trust you?” Steve said bitterly. “You took away everything from me. You took away my friends, you took away my team, you took away my fucking ‘keg king’ title and all the rest of that bullshit that went along with it, my popularity, whatever. But you know what? I can get over that. All that high school shit… it’s stupid. What I can’t get over is this. You took away my future, Billy.”

Billy exhaled heavily. “I didn’t know.”

“I know,” Steve said. “Why the hell would you? I didn’t tell you. I wasn’t exactly falling over myself to reveal just what a fucking mess my life was. My girlfriend dumping me, my grades slipping because I wasn’t fucking sleeping… If I could have just pretended not to be bothered by it, I wouldn’t have to fucking deal with it all. But my life spiralled after you beat me up that day. And you were a big part of the reason why.”

“Shit, Steve…” Billy muttered. “If I’d known-”

“If you’d known, you’d have kept on doing exactly what you were doing because that’s what you do. My future wasn’t your problem then, and it sure as hell isn’t your problem now.”

“It is my problem now, actually,” Billy said. “If you die out here, I’m stuck here alone. Who the fuck am I going to laugh at all day?”

“Oh, nice,” Steve said dryly. “Good to know you care.”

They’d made it to the church. They stepped out of the trees and across the gravel parking lot and started walking up the path.

“If we cut through the cemetery, we’ll end up on the other side and just keep going straight through the woods,” Billy explained.

“I fucking hate cemeteries,” Steve grumbled.

“Yeah, well, get over it,” Billy shrugged. “There are worse things in the world than corpses.”

They began to pick their way through the various headstones. Steve did his best to avoid stepping on any of the actual graves. He wasn’t superstitious, but there was always something that hadn’t sat comfortably with Steve about treading on the final resting places of people. He’d been to visit a cathedral in Europe once and had spent most of the time watching his feet to avoid treading on any of the plaques marking people he’d only vaguely heard about in history class. This was, if anything, worse, because just about everywhere he put his feet he was invariably treading on something.

Billy appeared to have no such qualms, seemingly viewing the headstones as obstacles rather than markers for actual people, in the same way that the vines were obstacles to be walked over. Speaking of the vines, Steve hadn’t thought it was possible for a graveyard to be any creepier than normal, but somehow, the vines were really adding to the atmosphere –

He stopped dead in his tracks. He wouldn’t have noticed them if he hadn’t been thinking about the vines.

There were three new headstones – he could only tell that they were new because they stood out, stark white marble as yet unmarked by the Upside Down’s vines. It wasn’t the fact that they were new that had made him stop in his tracks, though – it was the names on them.

Thomas Holloway

Janet Holloway

Heather Holloway

The date of death on all three gravestones was the same: July 4th, 1985. Steve felt a twist in his gut at the sight.

“Steve?”

Billy had noticed that Steve wasn’t following. He turned around to see Steve crouching by the headstones, reading and re-reading the names. His brain simply didn’t want to process that information.

Billy walked up to him and glanced down at the names. Steve didn’t see his eyes blink for a fraction longer than normal.

“Were they friends of yours?” Billy asked.

It took Steve a second to realise Billy had spoken, and another second to realise that he’d asked something that required an answer.

“Yeah,” Steve breathed. “Well, old family friends. I’ve known them my whole life…”

Billy stood there awkwardly. “I’m sorry,” he said softly.

Steve let out a shaky breath. “Fuck,” he finally breathed, his voice shaking. “I… Jesus – Heather was my first kiss, I – They…”

Billy reached out a hand and placed it awkwardly on Steve’s shoulder.

All of them…” Steve gasped. “They’re all gone… July 4th… That must have been the day we closed the Gate… Fuck…”

There were words carved below on Tom and Janet’s graves – identical epitaphs, words ripped straight from a Hallmark card about being together forever in lives beyond. Heather’s grave didn’t have an epitaph – she was eighteen, of course she’d never thought about what she wanted on her gravestone. Instead there were just some words about what a wonderful daughter she was.

“I can’t believe it…” Steve said, his voice cracking.

Billy took his hand away from Steve’s shoulder. “We should go,” he said softly.

Steve started to nod absentmindedly. He finally found his feet. He started walking away from the graves, but even then, he couldn’t take his eyes away from them. He was looking back over his shoulder, lost in his own thoughts…

If he was right – if July 4th had been the day that they’d closed the Gate – then he’d had something to do with this. Since Will Byers’ disappearance and Barb’s death, the Mind Flayer and the Demogorgons and the Demodogs had only attacked people who’d been involved. People like him, like Nancy, like Hopper and Joyce, like everyone at Hawkins Lab who had, in their own ways, chosen to get involved. He could have walked away when Dustin came to him and insisted that he help on the Demodog hunt for Dart. There was that feeling that this group, this core of people, had chosen to become a first line of defence who’d known what they were up against – who were there to stop the monsters from attacking their town – who could let the innocent people of Hawkins go about their daily lives being none the wiser that the monsters under their beds were very, very real.

Seeing the graves of the Holloways had absolutely shattered that illusion. He’d been a naïve idiot to think that the monsters would leave the town alone – to leave those people who were so innocent to their very existence alone.

Steve was so lost in his thoughts that he didn’t notice how far ahead Billy had gotten until he heard him call.

“Steve…”

The use of his name jolted Steve out of his reverie. It took him a second to realise that there was something strange in Billy’s voice. He looked up to see Billy looking at him, his expression unrecognisable. Billy was stood by another grave – Steve could see it was new as well, the dark marble as yet untouched by vines. The name wasn’t visible. Steve guessed, by the way Billy’s eyes met with his before looking down at the grave, that the name was on the other side.

Steve walked up to Billy, a heavy sense of trepidation mounting with every step. He came up to stand beside Billy before looking down at the name –

His jaw dropped. His legs felt shaky. He dropped to his knees and reached out a trembling hand to touch the name on the gravestone…

Steven Harrington
September 5th 1966 – July 4th 1985
Loving son and friend

He didn’t know what he was expecting, but it wasn’t this. He tried to take deep breaths, but air wasn’t going into his lungs. He wasn’t aware of the tears pricking at his eyes. His mind went blank – the only thing he could see was his own name, carved into the dark marble.

“I’m not dead,” was all he managed to say. His voice was high, brittle.

His fingers touched the marble. He traced over the cold indentations in the stone. Surprise was the wrong word for what he was feeling… On some level, he knew that this was likely to happen. He himself had thought he was going to die on that causeway. What he’d said to Hopper… he’d thought at the time that those would be his last words. But he hadn’t appreciated fully that his friends would have truly believed he was dead… That they would have grieved… That they would have laid him to rest.

And seeing his own grave…

His mom and dad must have sorted this. He’d thought about them a lot since getting into the Upside Down, he was sleeping in his mom’s bed, but he’d never considered how they must be taking his disappearance. He’d never considered what they’d done about it.

He’d never considered that he was dead.

-:-

He didn’t remember the rest of the walk home. Billy must have guided him. He didn’t remember breaking down. He didn’t remember frantically digging at the dirt with his hands to try and see what was buried there. He didn’t remember Billy having to drag him away from the grave. He didn’t remember begging to go back. He didn’t remember begging for his family to believe that he wasn’t dead. He didn’t remember Billy half carrying him home. He didn’t remember being walked upstairs and being sat on the bed by Billy. He didn’t remember Billy leaving him alone.

He didn’t remember, but he assumed that these things must have happened. Each left their own mark. He must have been walked home, because that was where he now was. He must have dug into the grave, because there was now dirt on his hands and underneath his fingernails. He must have screamed himself hoarse, because his throat was now scratchy to the point where it was almost unusable. He must have been screaming the same words – “I’m not dead” – because that was what his muscles remembered, even if he didn’t. He must have been carried back, because he couldn’t even stand up straight, let alone walk. He must have been taken upstairs, because he was now on his mom’s bed. Billy must have left, because he was now so very alone.

A soft knock on the door preceded it being pushed open, and Billy sticking his head around the door.

“Hey,” Billy said, more gently than Steve had ever heard him.

Steve managed a small upturn of his lips for a second, before looking down at his hands again.

“I brought soup,” Billy announced, offering a tin to Steve. “Careful, it’s hot.”

“Thanks,” Steve managed. It was all he could do, his voice breaking.

“You okay?” Billy asked, sitting down next to him and handing him the tin. Apparently today’s soup offering was tomato, according to the label.

Steve didn’t so much shrug as tilt his head slightly. “I… I have no fucking idea,” Steve finally managed to get out.

Billy somehow – somehow – had enough tact to put a reassuring hand on his shoulder while Steve took a gulp of soup.

“I never thought about what they would do,” Steve continued. “I never thought that they’d… that they’d fucking declare me dead or whatever. I never thought they’d… bury me.”

Billy let out a long breath. “It sucks,” he finally said.

“I guess I shouldn’t be surprised,” Steve continued. “I fell into the Upside Down after an explosion that should have killed me. The Gate closed. I was gone, you know? But… I never faced the reality that we’re stuck here. Nobody’s coming for me. Nobody can come for me. They don’t know I’m still alive.”

“Nobody’s coming for me either,” Billy managed with a small smile. “At least you’re not completely alone.”

Steve gave a weak laugh. “Stuck here with Billy Hargrove.”

“Stuck here with Steve Harrington,” Billy joined in.

Steven Harrington,” Steve joked. “That’s what’s on my tombstone, after all.”

“Alright, Steven,” Billy laughed.

“Did you… Did you see what else they put on that fucking thing?” Steve said, frowning as fresh tears formed in his eyes. “‘Loving son’. The last time my dad told me he loved me was probably at my eighth birthday party or something. And I mean, seriously? A fucking church? I don’t want to be buried in a church.

“Where would you want to be buried?” Billy asked.

“I don’t know,” Steve said. “I don’t think about these things, I’m way too young. At least… I thought I was way too young.”

Billy leant back, falling back into the bed and folding his hands underneath his head. “I think I’d want to be sent out to sea somehow,” Billy mused. “Like maybe on a boat, or cremated or something, and have someone scatter my ashes into the ocean.”

“Cremated sounds good,” Steve mused, lying back next to Billy with his arms across his chest. “Maybe not the sea part, though. Maybe the woods, though.”

“Well that settles it,” Billy said. “If you die here and I outlive you, I’ll scatter your ashes in the woods. If I die here first, you go to California and scatter my ashes in the ocean.”

Steve snorted with laughter. “I’m not going all the way to California,” he said. “If you’re lucky I’ll find you a stream, though.”

“You’ll go to a fucking ocean.”

“How will you know? You’ll be dead.”

“You might not know that.”

Steve laughed. “Yes, I will.”

“How?”

“Because the chances are, if I end up outliving you, it’ll be because I killed you.”

“Very funny, Steve.”

Steve snorted with laughter before looking over at Billy. “I’ve just noticed, you’ve been doing that all day.”

“Doing what?”

“Calling me ‘Steve’,” he explained. “You’ve literally never called me ‘Steve’ before today.”

“Haven’t I?” Billy asked. “Would you prefer ‘Pretty Boy’?”

“No, no, ‘Steve’ is good,” Steve laughed.

Billy smiled at him. They fell into a silence, but for the first time, it was actually comfortable.

“You know, this has really hammered it home for me,” Steve finally said. “I don’t want to die here. I want to go home. I want to find a way out of here and find a way home, and I want to survive for long enough to do that.”

Billy looked over at him curiously.

“Billy,” Steve said. “I want you to teach me how to survive so we can go home.”

Chapter Text

The middle of July crept up on Hawkins.

Normality had started to try and force its ways upon the town. Will, Joyce and Jonathan were cleared to move back into their house after Sam finally ascertained that everyone important from the Russian base had been accounted for. There were still some suspects missing, but Sam was happy to account for their deaths in the explosion, and those unaccounted for seemed to be low-level soldiers and scientists who weren’t the biggest threat to national security.

The biggest threat was a man called Colonel Ozerov, who had been apprehended inside the mall. Sam had taken a headshot to Hopper, who in turn had shown it to Robin, asking her to confirm that this was the man who had questioned her and Steve. She had all but burst into tears with relief at the sight of his photograph and the news that he was in custody.

The security measures lifted around her, Dustin and Will – though with the exception of a stay in a very cramped cabin, such security measures had mostly involved men sitting in cars outside the houses. They’d had very little impact on the day-to-day lives of Dustin and Robin, both of whom hadn’t gone out very much since Starcourt.

And Neil Hargrove still hadn’t returned.

Susan spent her days trying to follow some semblance of her normal routine, but she was distracted. She would find herself staring absently out the window at the empty driveway. She would end up lingering by the doorway, pursued by ghosts of Neil and Billy. When she went in her closet, her fingers would linger on Neil’s jackets as she searched for what she would wear for the rest of the day.

She wanted her husband back.

She had decided it was time to file a missing person’s report with Hopper. He was due at their house any moment to ask some questions about his disappearance, but the additional disappearance of the car had given Hopper the impression that Neil had left of his own volition.

She wasn’t sure whether she wanted that or not.

Max had finally started sorting through Billy’s things. She was adamant that they go in storage. Susan wasn’t about to argue – quite apart from anything else, she didn’t have the energy. But there was also the fact that Susan felt uncomfortable about making any permanent decisions about Billy’s possessions. Neil had made it very clear that he felt ownership over Billy, and by extension, all of the things he’d owned, and so getting rid of them without talking to Neil first felt wrong. Then there was the fact that Max finally had something productive to do with herself – a good way to expend her energy in a way that wasn’t lashing out at Susan’s husband.

That was how they were when Hopper knocked on the door.

Susan smoothed down her dress as she let Hopper in.

“Chief Hopper – Ah – Thanks – Thank you for coming,” she stammered, not quite meeting his eyes.

Hopper took off his hat as he walked into the house. Susan showed him towards the couch as she walked through the room absently. She stopped by the armchair opposite as Hopper settled, as though she wanted to sit down but couldn’t quite remember why she wasn’t. A second later, she remembered, making her way towards the kitchen area.

“Would you like some coffee?” Susan offered. “I’ve just made a fresh pot.”

“If you’ve got a fresh pot, that sounds great, but don’t put yourself out,” Hopper replied, trying his best to be polite. It was one of the things Joyce had tried to channel into him over the last few days she’d stayed with him, but he had no idea if it was going to stick.

Susan distractedly poured the coffee into two mugs, before offering one to Hopper. At the last second, she hesitated, realising something.

“Sorry, do you want cream?” she asked in that same apologetic tone. “Neil and I both like it black but I think we’ve got some in the refrigerator.”

“No, no, black is fine…”

“Sorry,” Susan gave a nervous laugh, a hysterical sound that sounded less happy than any laugh Hopper had ever heard. “I’m a bit all over the place today. I’ve been a bit distracted since…”

Since my husband vanished into the night.

“It’s fine…” Hopper muttered. “Have you heard anything from Neil since he left?”

“No,” Susan muttered, shaking her head quickly as she settled into the armchair opposite. Hopper noted that the living room was much tidier than it had been the previous time he’d sat in this room. “There was no note, no… no word about where he was going… He was always insistent on us leaving notes.”

“Was there anything in particular that would have led to him leaving? Like… did you have an argument that he stormed out of?”

“No,” Susan said defensively. “I mean… we had a fight earlier that evening, but he calmed down. We made up. We spent the evening watching TV and then I went to bed. He wouldn’t… he wouldn’t have just left after that.”

“Do you mind me asking what this fight was about?”

Susan paused. “He didn’t like the punishment I gave Max.”

“What punishment?” Hopper asked.

“Maxine had been out all day,” Susan explained. “We were both very worried. So… when you brought her back, I sent her to her room without dinner. Neil didn’t think it was enough.”

Hopper suspected that the only thing that would have been enough was violence.

“Okay,” he said. “Now, earlier, you said he calmed down. Was he particularly angry during this fight?”

Susan levelled a defensive look at Hopper. “Neil… he gets upset very easily. He also calms down very quickly. He sees red, he gets angry, then he calms down. That’s what happened.”

“And this wasn’t unusual?”

“No,” Susan said quickly. “I mean, he’s been more upset than usual since… since Billy, but that’s understandable.”

“Right,” Hopper said. “I’m sorry, but I’ve got to ask this. Why did you wait so long to report him missing?”

Susan looked at him looking slightly scandalised. “I thought he’d just gone to clear his head,” she said, sounding more noticeably upset than she had done all morning. “I wanted to give him a chance to come home.”

“Okay,” Hopper placated. “I get it. Really, I do. It’s just that… In my experience, in these situations, after something like this, when a partner ups and leaves with no explanation after a fight, it’s usually because they don’t want to be found. Now, I can put out feelers – ask around other towns in the area, reach out to some contacts in the Indianapolis PD just to see if anyone’s seen him, but from everything you’ve said, your husband has just left. We can look for him, find a way to contact him, but we can’t make him come home. We can’t even bring you back into contact with him if he doesn’t want us to.”

“W-What happens then?” Susan asked, sounding close to tears.

“Well, then you try a period of separation,” Hopper explained. “If, after a time, one of you wants to make the separation permanent, you file for divorce. Unfortunately, you can’t file for divorce based on desertion, you need to file it on the grounds of the breakdown of the marriage, but the good news is I don’t think you need to prove it to a court in Indiana, but check with a lawyer.”

Hopper knew far, far too much about divorce laws after Diane.

“I’ve just got one last question for you,” Hopper said.

“Go on,” Susan said, sounding guarded.

“Did you see him leave?”

Susan looked down at her hands. “No,” she said quietly.

The sound of a door opening in the hall caught Hopper’s attention. He looked up to see Max coming out of one of the rooms, peering at them both from behind a curtain of red hair. She looked like she was hesitating to say something, before thinking better of it and crossing the hall to go into another room.

“Okay,” Hopper said quietly. “Well, I’ll look into it. I’ll ask around the other local police departments in the area. If I hear anything, I’ll be in touch. But if I were you, I wouldn’t worry about your husband’s wellbeing. He’s probably absolutely fine.”

He just doesn’t want to come back.

-:-

It was Paul Harrington’s first day back at work.

He was not looking forward to it. His board of directors had, for the most part, kept everything running in his absence, but apparently the shares of the firm had taken a nosedive after news had broken that the managing partner’s son had been killed in what had become known as the Starcourt Tragedy. While board members had given him space until the funeral, his phone had practically been ringing off the hook ever since. Paul knew that the only thing that would appease the freefall that the company must evidently be in, judging by the incessant demands of everyone from his secretaries to the Chief Financial Officer to the manager of the mail room, would be his return to work.

That didn’t mean he was happy about it.

His fears for everything the day could hold were confirmed by the sight of the large flower arrangement that was waiting on his desk. Lilies that reached his chin spread upwards from the vase on the table. A white envelope was sticking out of a plastic clip in the centre. Reluctantly, he opened it to find the most generic card he’d ever seen – a white bird with the word ‘Condolences’ embossed in silver on the front. He resisted the urge to roll his eyes at the hateful thing as he flipped it open.

Dear Paul –

That was a joke. Nobody ever called him ‘Paul’ at the office.

Sorry for your loss. We’re all thinking of you at this difficult time.

There were signatures scrawled all over both sides of the card. The board of directors, his secretaries, names he didn’t even recognise. Harrington Spencer was a big law firm employing hundreds of people both from Indianapolis and towns further afield like Hawkins. It was entirely possible he hadn’t even met three quarters of the people who had signed his card.

It was worse than the lasagnes.

A knock on the door had him dropping the offending card on the table and looking up to see his personal assistant, Annie, at the door. Annie was a twenty-four-year-old graduate from Brown who had started working at Harrington Spencer eighteen months ago. Her family was originally from Hawkins, but had moved away before Annie was old enough to talk. Despite never having met her family, the Hawkins link had been enough to pique Paul’s interest in her application. She’d applied to be the assistant to one of the partners to get some experience in a law firm before applying to law school, but Paul had been intrigued enough to hire her. It had taken three months before she’d ended up working for him instead.

“Hey,” she said with a small smile. “I heard you were back today.”

“Yeah,” Paul replied, with a dismissive gesture towards the flowers. “It’s not even nine and I already have a garden on my desk.”

Annie gave a small laugh, a refreshing sound that Paul had missed over the last couple of weeks. It brought into focus that now, out of that big, empty house, against the backdrop of the cityscape that his floor-to-ceiling office window looked out over, he felt less stifled than he had done since the morning he’d received the news. He could be surrounded by people who were happy – hear things that weren’t the sound of Linda crying. He could deal with normal things – cases, meetings, things that weren’t his only son’s death.

“I tried to talk them out of it,” Annie explained sheepishly. “They insisted. I did manage to stop them getting you a cake, though.”

Paul gave her a small smile, the muscles feeling stiff at the motion, as though he’d forgotten how to do it.

“Thanks,” he said. “I really don’t need any more food in our refrigerator.”

“Are a lot of neighbours giving you oven bakes? They did that when my grandad died.”

Paul laughed – laughed! – “I swear, I’ve eaten nothing but lasagnes for about a week.”

“I should warn you though, Jason’s wife made you cookies.”

“Of course she did,” Paul rolled his eyes. “Thanks for the heads up.”

“You’re welcome,” Annie smiled. “If you like, I can move those flowers for you for today to keep up appearances and then accidentally knock them on the floor after you’ve gone home from work today?”

He gave her an appreciative smile. This was why Paul liked Annie. They were on the same wavelength. She knew enough about people to know what the people around her wanted, and enough about interpersonal politics to know the best way to make it happen.

“Listen…” Annie said hesitantly. “I know you’ve probably already heard this a million times already, but… I’m really sorry about what happened to Steve. If there’s anything I can do…”

“If you could keep condolences to a minimum, that would be great.”

“Oh – sorry, I-”

“I meant from everyone else at the office, actually,” Paul clarified with a smile.

“Oh – right,” Annie gave a nervous laugh.

She moved the flowers off Paul’s desk and put them on the small coffee table in front of the couch in his office while Paul settled himself at his desk.

“How’s your wife doing?” Annie blurted out nervously. “With… With it all…”

Paul looked up at her with a neutral expression. “You don’t want to know how Linda’s doing.”

It wasn’t a rhetorical denial that said more about his wife than words ever could. It wasn’t an accusation, thrown out into the room. It wasn’t angry. It was an entirely neutral statement of fact.

“No,” Annie replied in an equally neutral tone, her eyes meeting Paul’s as she stood up straight. “I don’t.”

-:-

El wasn’t an idiot. She could tell Hopper was missing Joyce.

In the day and a half since Joyce had moved back into her own home with Jonathan and Will, the house had suddenly become much quieter. It wasn’t just that there were three less people living in a cabin that was barely comfortable for two people, let alone five, it was also the quietness that came with Hopper’s newfound morose attitude. Morose. That was her word of the day.

It had been strange living with Joyce, Will and Jonathan, but nice. Joyce could actually cook, for starters. One night she’d made a dish from scratch that Hopper had never managed to get for her in any form, microwaveable or not. Lasagne – with its stupid spelling – was it spelled with an E or an A at the end? Why was there a G in the middle? – had been a whole new experience for her. There was plenty left – it was evident to El that lasagnes could only be enormous. This was good. She liked having lots of food in the fridge.

Will and Jonathan, too, were a whole new experience. So far, the only person her age El had found who would look out for her to quite that extent had been Mike. Will and Jonathan were different – where Mike was always around, determined to be the most important person to her, Will and Jonathan gave her space to be herself. Unlike Mike, who was determined to weave his life intricately and inextricably with hers, Jonathan and Will had their own lives, separate, but close. They would be around, and there was no doubt that they were friends, but unless she asked, they would leave her be.

Hopper and Joyce, however… El could see that Hopper wanted Joyce’s life to be connected with his own in the same way that Mike wanted El’s life to be connected with his. He wanted to be the most important person to Joyce. Joyce, however, seemed less interested in the idea. She wanted to spend time with Hopper, to hang out, as Mike always put it, but not to get as connected with him as he wanted to with her.

Which was why El had been so encouraging of the idea that Hopper take Joyce out to Enzo’s. Round two. Just the two of them. No kids.

At least, it had been most of the reason.

El had also been thinking, however, about Max. She had heard through snatches of what Hopper had said that Neil had gone – where? – and that Max’s momma had been upset and worried. Max hadn’t been in contact with anyone since Neil had left. El hadn’t tried to reach out to her since that day, because she’d been completely rattled by opening and closing the Gate again.

But she remembered how upset Max had been by Billy’s disappearance. She remembered how broken Billy had sounded in the sauna… how desperate he had been for an escape…

Nobody deserved that.

Wednesday was the date of the big dinner. That was two days away. It had originally been scheduled for Friday, but something had come up involving a Dungeons and Dragons game that Joyce needed to drop Will off at. Will was apparently really excited.

So they’d rescheduled to Wednesday.

El was glad that Hopper had finally decided to find some time to spend with Joyce. She remembered how excited he’d been in the lead-up to their first attempt at a date, even if she had been distracted by Mike’s disappearing act and constant lying. But more to the point, it gave her and Max another window, another chance to try again.

She picked up the radio Mike had given her and switched over to the channel she’d set up with El. Their secret channel.

“Max?” she said hesitantly.

Nothing.

“Max?” she asked again. “…Come in…”

She’d never felt entirely comfortable using the terminology that Mike always insisted on. It felt forced, unnatural. Nobody ever spoke like that anywhere else.

“Max, come in,” El tried again. “…Please?”

Hopper had been trying to teach her manners. Perhaps they were appropriate now –

“El?”

“Max?”

“El, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s… wrong,” she said. “I… I think we can try again.”

“Try what again?”

El paused. “The Gate,” she finally explained.

There was a pause.

“Are you sure that’s a good idea?”

“Don’t you want to try?”

“I do – I do… It’s just… last time, it went…”

“Bad?”

“Yeah…” Max finished. “Bad.”

“I want to try again,” El said. “We have to try again.”

“Are you sure?”

The hesitant hope in her voice, like she barely dared to let herself feel it, might have broken El’s heart. But it also spurred her on. What she was doing was right.

“I can do it,” she said confidently.

For Billy.

-:-

It had taken days since the funeral for Linda to find the energy to start tidying.

She’d started downstairs with the pizza boxes. She was yet to find it in her to face Steven’s bedroom. God, every time she walked past that closed door she felt a stab of grief. Paul wanted to do something about it soon, he’d kept telling her that it would help her move on, take it off her list, turn it into just another room in the house. She didn’t think it would ever be just another room in the house.

So she started downstairs. Tidying. Washing up. Putting things away. Restoring something vaguely akin to order in her home.

Steven had never left the place in quite such a mess. He always made some effort to tidy up before his parents came home from one of their trips. She’d naively thought that Steven wasn’t this messy, that yes, his room was always a mess, but it had stopped there. That he’d understood that the communal spaces were not just for him, and that they were to be kept ordered. Evidently, that changed when she and Paul were away, because that left the entire place as his.

They had been away a lot. Too much. Too much time spent away from him when they’d had the chance.

And now he was gone.

It was Paul’s first day back at work. In some ways, she was glad he wasn’t here for this. She’d deliberately left it so he wouldn’t see her break down over empty pizza boxes and dirty dishes. But now that it came to it, she wanted someone with her, someone who understood. Someone she could speak to about how bad she felt. Paul was in the same boat. She could sob and wail and scream her lamentations about what had happened, what she’d done – what she hadn’t done – as a mother. Paul would understand. He would hold her, rock her through the nightmares that plagued her every night. Images of Steven burning in the horrific fires her imagination would create to turn into that charred, blackened skeleton had her screaming in the small hours while Paul desperately tried to comfort her. Sometimes, it wouldn’t be enough, and she would go to Steven’s room, open his door and see his empty bed. Then the blow of his loss would hit her again, fresh, new, a knife in her heart.

Because the nightmares were real.

As the sun sank lower in the sky, Linda found herself drawn upstairs to Steven’s room. She’d walked past the door several times during the day, but had never found the courage to open it and look inside except when she was in a blind panic following a particularly stressful nightmare. She hadn’t seen it in the cold light of day – only when the empty sheets, rolled up towards one end of the bed, were illuminated by the moonlight. Now, though, she felt a chill run up her back as her hand froze on the door handle.

The room had been the monster of her nightmares for too long.

The door swung open, and once again, the first thing that hit her was that empty bed. She took in the sight – the comforter piled and twisted at one end of the bed, the cushions still imprinted with a dent in the shape of his head. A brilliant golden light filled the room, only caused by the sun starting its descent into the horizon.

She took in the rest of the room. The floor was a complete mess. Dirty clothes were cast all over the place, just about everywhere except for in the hamper that she’d bought several years prior in a vain hope that Steven might actually organise his laundry. She could even see a blue uniform on the floor – one of his spares that she’d made him invest in when he’d announced that he was going to have to go to work dressed as a sailor. As parents, she and Paul had tried to be supportive – Paul, of course, having a few words to say about responsibility – but even she couldn’t deny that the uniform had been one of the funniest things she’d ever seen on her son. Even if it had been so completely adorable in that way that any mother views a ridiculous outfit on her child.

She could remember the exact scowl that Steven had given her when she’d told him as much.

She wandered through the room, taking in every detail, committing it to memory. The ridiculous posters on the wall… the records on the shelf… the half empty glass of water on his bedside table next to a framed photo…

It was as though he would come back at any moment.

She picked up the photo, looking at it. She recognised the place, even if she hadn’t been there when this picture was taken. It was what had become their holiday home upstate, set in the heart of a forest. Every year during Spring Break, Steven would go with a few friends to spend it there on their own. That particular photo had been taken during the Spring Break of his junior year, when he had gone with Nancy Wheeler, Jonathan Byers, Heather Holloway and whoever her boyfriend had been at the time, as well as one or two people he’d played basketball with. Jonathan Byers had taken this particular photo – Steve was sat at the table, his head turned slightly to look at something out of frame. He was laughing, his eyes sparkling and carefree.

Linda was surprised that Steven had kept the photo. Even Paul had picked up on the fact that he was heartbroken after Nancy had ended it. The fact that he had kept a reminder of what had undoubtedly been a very intimate holiday probably hadn’t been the healthiest thing. The friendship with Jonathan Byers had also taken just about everyone by surprise. Steven had gotten to know him through Nancy Wheeler after the disappearance of his brother Will –

Will Byers.

The name hit her like a ton of bricks.

Will Byers had been dead. Everyone had said so. Even from the first day they’d learnt he’d gone missing, she and Paul had suspected as much. They’d talked about cancelling their business trip – it had been to New York – but when Steven had assured them that he’d be fine, that he was perfectly capable of driving himself to school and back, that he wasn’t going to be cutting through the woods on a bike, they had ultimately decided to go.

In hindsight, it had perhaps not been the best idea, given that Barbara Holland had gone missing from their garden the night that they had left.

Paul had been apoplectic with rage when he’d found out about the party Steven had thrown. It had been reckless and stupid, drinking beer and having friends over to a place that wasn’t familiar while all the chaos around Will Byers was going on. Steven had been completely unremorseful about the beer, but afterwards, Steven had confided in Linda that nothing his father had said to him was going to be worse than how he’d felt about the Holland girl.

But then Will Byers had come back. Even after a body had been found, even after his family had put him in the ground, Joyce Byers and Chief Hopper had managed to find him. He’d come home, safe and sound, and now seemed to be carrying on his life.

Was it so impossible for a miracle to happen again?

-:-

The next forty-eight hours passed in a haze for Hawkins. Paul, back at work, was tackling the monumental pile of catching up that had accumulated in his absence. While he was out during the day, Linda found new life in desperate research into the Will Byers case. She kept it from Paul for the time being – she wanted something more concrete than a messy living room – but she would tell him soon.

And Hopper was getting ready for his second attempt at an evening at Enzo’s with Joyce.

El had assured him that he should go straight from work. There was too much going on in the aftermath of Starcourt for him to leave early enough to come back to the cabin and change. So El had encouraged him to take a nice shirt – one that didn’t have a ridiculous pattern on it – to work and change there before going on to Enzo’s. She would be fine on her own.

She just wouldn’t be at home.

It was around midday when Max finally made it to the cabin. They’d settled on a different spot this time – if something was waiting for the Gate in the Upside Down, hopefully a new spot would give them enough time to close it before it found them.

The spot they settled on was about an hour’s walk in the opposite direction to their first location. It was close to the junkyard, a clearing set deep enough in the woods that nobody in their right mind would be around to disturb them.

“Are you sure about this?” Max asked.

El nodded. This was just practice. Open the Gate, close the Gate. Just to practice. To build up her strength. It hadn’t been too hard the last time she’d tried with Max. It had just unnerved her, that feeling of something rushing towards her. She could hold her nerve this time. She knew it was coming.

All she had to do now was to find a vine.

-:-

“Keep it steady,” Billy said softly. “Find your target.”

They were in the woods behind Steve’s house. Billy was giving Steve another lesson in how to use the automatic weapon he’d found in the tunnels. What felt like days of training with an automatic gun were starting to yield some improvements in Steve.

At least, he could now vaguely keep the gun pointing in one general direction.

He was yet to master any kind of control when hitting a target, but at least when he aimed at a target he was only hitting everything in the two metre radius around target as opposed to everything in the ten metre radius of wherever he was standing. Casualties from this learning curve included, but were not limited to, the Miró painting, the couch, the coffee table, the windows, more than a few vines, almost all of the doors in the living room, and at least one of the cupboard doors in the kitchen.

It proved enough of an improvement that Billy would now stand beside him and correct his form as opposed to duck behind him whenever his hand was near the trigger.

Steve was also astonished to discover that there were aspects of Billy Hargrove that were actually tolerable. He had seen a new side – a human side – to Billy that he would have sworn blind a matter of weeks ago could not possibly have existed. Billy had suddenly become more patient in his teaching, less condescending, and generally much more pleasant to be around. Which could not possibly have anything to do with his own newfound desire to learn how to survive. It couldn’t have been his attitude that was part of the problem. Definitely not.

Since Steve had discovered his own grave, he’d found within himself a determination to get home, to prove that he was alive, to see his friends, to see his family. He was no stranger to wandering around his empty house, that had basically been his high school experience, but there was a finality now that he felt to this situation. He didn’t know how to get home – he didn’t know if he could get home – but he wasn’t prepared to lie down and accept his fate. Seeing the grave had hammered home to him that there was a very real chance that this was forever. That this was the rest of his life.

A fact driven deeper by the growing awareness that his health was getting worse.

Breathing was getting more difficult with every passing day – or at least, every passing cycle of sleeping and waking. His chest felt like it was on fire. He didn’t know whether an infection was setting in, or whether the Upside Down was finally having an effect on him, but he was feeling feverish, hot flushes and moments of freezing cold. He’d managed to keep the worst of the coughing fits from Billy – he wasn’t sure why, but he didn’t want Billy to know the fullest extent of it. He was sure Billy was seeing some symptoms – the way his hands shook slightly unless he was gripping something really tightly, the way a thin sheen of sweat seemed to cling to his forehead permanently – but Billy had never said anything. So Steve had started to recognise the signs of an impending coughing fit. If he could make his excuses fast enough, he’d go somewhere private, shut himself away and let it pass. It would invariably leave him shaking on the floor, struggling to find the strength to stand until a few minutes after it had stopped, but if Billy wasn’t around, he could take that time. He would take that time. He would often take a bit longer and not rush himself. If Billy was around, he found himself pushing to get up sooner, to not fall down in the first place, to pretend that everything wasn’t as bad as it seemed.

The only answer he had as to why he was so determined not to let Billy see this was that he didn’t fully trust him yet.

Which was why he had pushed ahead with the lessons. Which was why they were stood in the woods.

A burst of gunfire as Steve squeezed the trigger sent the barrel of the gun upwards, but he managed to keep it still pointing generally in front of him. Billy stepped closer to Steve as he pulled his finger off the trigger.

“You’re not planting your feet,” was the first thing out of Billy’s mouth. Those words that Steve had heard iterations of so many times now held none of the menace they had once held on the basketball court, on the Byers’ driveway. Now, they only held instruction. And Steve was listening.

“I’m trying,” Steve said, adjusting his footing slightly. “Weight on the balls, heavy, just like you said.”

“It’s not about where the weight is,” Billy explained. “It’s about that grounding holding every part of your body in place. You holding your body in place, planting your feet on the ground as an anchor.”

Steve looked at him dubiously.

“Look, it’s like one of those trees,” Billy explained. “Your core is like a tree trunk. It doesn’t move. It has give, but any give is in its roots, its branches. The roots take the brunt of any impact that might move the trunk. The stronger the tree, the deeper the roots. Sure, the branches wave, but the trunk doesn’t. When it does, it’s negligible.”

Steve’s dubious look intensified.

“Your feet are like your roots. The recoil of the gun is like a really strong gust of wind. Your feet have to stay planted like nothing else in order to actually withstand it. You’ve got to use that strength of the ground and stay as strong as possible. Understand?”

Steve raised his eyebrows, his lips parting slightly. A soft noise escaped his throat expressing his complete lack of understanding of Billy’s simile.

Billy rolled his eyes. “Let me show you.”

He came up and stood behind Steve. He wrapped his arms around Steve, his arms following the same lines as Steve’s. His hands closed around Steve’s hands around the gun, his right index finger resting on Steve’s own. Billy’s chest was pressing against Steve’s back, his legs coming behind Steve’s own, in the exact same position, and entirely too close. Steve could feel every muscle in Billy’s body taut, the solid grounding of Billy’s body trapping his own, every beat of his heart in his chest reverberating as Steve felt it against his back –

He was taken by such surprise as Billy’s finger tightened around the trigger.

Steve would have ended up on his ass under normal circumstances. It had happened in one of their first lessons. But Billy’s whole body caught him – Steve could feel how firm his posture was as the recoil pushed him back into the trap. His arms would have gone up, taking the gun with them, but Billy’s arms absorbed the shock. He held it steady, every single one of his muscles absorbing the repeated jolts.

As suddenly as it started, it stopped. Billy’s arms vanished as he stepped back, leaving Steve holding the gun slack in front of him, the barrel pointing into the dirt. Steve was staring straight ahead of him at a small cluster of bullet holes in the bark. Close together. Deliberate. No scattered lines of bullet holes that invariably occurred when Steve lost control.

“There,” Billy said in that satisfied way of his. “That’s the kind of strength and support you need. Did you feel it?”

Steve was stunned. Yes, of course he’d felt it. It was impossible not to feel it.

“You need to engage just about every muscle in your body,” Billy explained. “It’s not enough to just hold your arms steady, it’s got to be your feet, your legs, your core, your shoulders, everything. If you’re not engaging something, you’ll lose control of the gun and it’ll fly upwards, or sideways, or backwards sending you onto your ass. You’ve got to have every part of your body grounded. And it starts with planting your goddamn feet.

On another day, Steve might have acted on the flash of annoyance that made itself known at that utterly hated, hateful phrase. But as quickly as it came, it vanished, like lightning in a storm, as his eyes focused on the cluster of bullet holes in the tree’s bark. He’d felt how much more Billy had been doing than he had. He couldn’t deny the results.

Steve lined himself up. He pressed his feet into the dirt – far more than he had ever done before. He steadied himself, grip tightening, actively engaging every single muscle in his arms. He wasn’t just pointing the gun now, he was holding it there. He tensed his stomach muscles, engaging his diaphragm, his abs, his shoulders –

He pulled the trigger.

It took more strength than he had thought possible, but the gun didn’t fly upwards. Steve managed to keep it trained in one direction. The force of it was ripping and tearing through his body as he finally appreciated what it took to keep a military-grade assault weapon in check – his broken ribs were in agony –

He pulled his finger off the trigger and finally let it stop. His arms hurt as he lowered the gun. He flipped on the safety, took the strap off from around his neck and shoulder and put the gun on the ground, doubling over as he tried to regain control over his breathing.

Please don’t start coughing. Please.

“There you go,” Billy was saying proudly. “You actually planted your feet that time. Look at that!”

Steve looked up. A new cluster of bullet holes had made its way into the tree. While not quite as closely packed as Billy’s attempt, there was no wild veering off to one side. It was the closest he’d come to actually aiming at a target. Steve finally felt recovered enough to stand up, taking a tentative step towards the tree.

“You’re a natural, Stevie,” Billy said proudly, clapping a hand on Steve’s shoulder. “A bit more practice and you’re going to be giving the Terminator a run for his money.”

Steve was still trying to process the sight in front of him, his brain slowly catching up. He had done it. He had actually managed to keep control over the gun. Slowly, surely, it started to sink in…

“I hate to say it, Hargrove, but you were right,” Steve finally managed to say. “Planting my feet really-”

A resounding crack echoing through the air cut him off. The ground shook beneath their feet like an earthquake. Steve staggered to one side, stumbling to catch his balance.

As suddenly as it started, the ground stopped moving. Steve and Billy looked around wildly, trying to see what had caused it.

It took them all of three seconds to notice the way the horizon had lit up, bright red, behind the house.

“It’s the light,” Billy said. “Come on!

Billy took off at a sprint up the small ridge and back through the trees towards the house. Steve stopped for all of a second to grab the gun before running after him.

They broke out into the garden, seeing the light in a different direction towards the east. It was clearer now as to where it was coming from, much clearer, the way the red light lit up the horizon, but it was also much closer than the first light had been.

Billy barely broke his stride as he took in the new direction. Any loss in speed was made up by the sudden acceleration as he sprinted, desperate adrenaline driving every step. Steve felt that same adrenaline, but his body was protesting too much at every step.

Not that he was about to stop.

He had his suspicions as to what that light was. He’d seen the Gate in the Russian base. He couldn’t be certain that it was the same, but he was damned if he wasn’t going to make it this time to find out. If he could see for certain, if he could get there in time, he could go home. He could go to a hospital and get his ribs checked out – he could see his mom and dad again – he could tell them that he was alive…

Thoughts of home spurred him on to push through the agony in his chest, further aggravated by his earlier attempt at shooting. It wasn’t that far – he had to keep up his pace, he had to keep going –

He couldn’t.

His chest finally gave out, a coughing fit sending him staggering – doubling over – crouched on all fours as he desperately tried to regain control of his breathing. He had to get back up – come on, get up! GET UP!

Billy was ahead of him – he evidently hadn’t noticed Steve fall. He was too focused on the red light ahead, he was close, maybe he would make it –

And that was when Steve saw what Billy had missed.

They weren’t the only ones descending on the light.

A huge shadowy spectre loomed above the forest. An enormous, many legged creature was barely visible through the trees – a creature Steve had only ever seen a child’s drawing of.

This was Will’s Shadow Monster. The Mind Flayer.

This, at last, brought Steve to his feet again. No longer running to the Gate, he ran to Billy. A spurt of desperate energy had him chasing Billy down, giving him just enough speed to finally catch up to him just as he was about to burst into the clearing with the red light –

His hand closed around Billy’s arm. Billy wheeled around, a look of surprise on his face. No, not just surprise – outrage as well.

“Billy!” Steve hissed desperately, trying to keep quiet, pulling Billy behind a tree. “Look!”

Billy followed Steve’s gaze upwards into the sky. He saw the looming shadow, his face looked confused.

“What-”

Steve pressed a hand over Billy’s mouth. They had to stay quiet. If the Mind Flayer saw them – if it knew they were here – they would both be as good as dead. They couldn’t outrun it forever. They couldn’t fight it. Will Byers had tried, and it had set off a chain of events that killed an entire laboratory full of soldiers and scientists.

As well as Bob Newby.

The Mind Flayer loomed over the Gate, the red light unable to penetrate the monster’s shadow. Where it had lit up the sky, it now stopped, not even reflecting off the underbelly of the beast. Steve remembered Dustin prattling on and on to him about black holes one day in the car – not exactly an unusual occurrence, Dustin was always going on about some science shit or another – but the little that had penetrated Steve’s brain was about how black holes absorbed everything, even light. Steve hadn’t quite understood that at the time.

He definitely understood now.

What he didn’t understand was what the Mind Flayer was doing. The Gate was right there. It was definitely a Gate, Steve could see that very clearly now. The Mind Flayer could just go through. They could follow it once it went through – everything he had ever discovered about the Mind Flayer indicated that going through to Steve’s home and generally destroying everything was essentially the Mind Flayer’s mission in life.

So why wasn’t it going through?

“Steve,” Billy whispered in his ear. “We need to go through that crack.”

There was too much truth in Billy’s words to ignore. With the Mind Flayer around, the Upside Down had suddenly become every bit the nightmare Steve had feared when he’d first arrived. He was sick – he knew he needed a hospital – they had to go through that Gate, Mind Flayer or not.

If they ran into their world, there was a chance they could outrun it on their turf. If they ran, the Mind Flayer might not catch them.

“We run on the count of three,” Steve whispered back. “Run and don’t look back.”

Billy nodded.

“One… two-”

Wait!” Billy suddenly hissed, grabbing Steve’s arm.

Steve didn’t need to ask Billy what the problem was. He could see for himself what was wrong – the light in the Gate was dimming, flickering… fine threads were stretching together, knitting together, sealing the crack…

The Gate was closing.

“We have to get out of here,” Steve breathed. “Back to the house. Quietly. Don’t let that thing see you.”

They slipped back through the trees. They were moving slowly, much more slowly than their mad dash just a few minutes before. When they were finally far enough away from the Mind Flayer that they couldn’t see its head any more through the trees, they broke back into a run, not stopping until they made it to the house.

“What was that thing?” Billy gasped.

Steve struggled to catch his breath. “We call it the Mind Flayer.”

“Catchy.”

I didn’t name it,” Steve hit back indignantly. “I think the shitheads took it from that game they always play.”

“Dungeons and Dragons?”

Steve frowned at Billy curiously.

“Max talks about it a lot.

Steve acknowledged that with a head tilt. “Look, with that thing around, we’ve got to be careful,” he said firmly, his tone brokering no room for argument.

“Why?” Billy asked, ignoring Steve’s attempt at taking charge. “What’s so dangerous about it?”

Steve gave Billy a look like he’d grown an extra head. “Didn’t you see that thing?”

“Yeah, but what will it do?” Billy asked. “Like – eat us or something?”

“No, it’s-” Steve struggled to find the right words. “It – like – controls people’s minds. Makes people do completely insane stuff. It wants to take over the world or something.”

Billy raised his eyebrows dubiously.

“It’s what happened to Will Byers,” Steve explained. “He got caught by it last year. He ended up basically summoning an army of these monsters to Hawkins Lab which killed a load of people.”

“What?” Billy sounded confused and more than a little frustrated.

“It’s… hard to explain…”

“Try me.”

Steve wanted for a brief second to try and argue, but at the look on Billy’s face, decided against it. So he started to explain. He explained all about Will Byers going missing back in his junior year. He explained about the party he’d had where Barb went missing, he explained how Nancy became obsessed with finding her – how she and Jonathan Byers had gotten close. He explained how he’d become jealous, how he’d fought with Jonathan, how he’d gone to apologise, only to find Nancy and Jonathan getting ready to fight a monster. How he’d ended up helping them. How that had led to Nancy taking him back. How Nancy had found out that Barb was dead, how she’d never dealt with it properly. How he, Steve, had refused to help – how Nancy had finally confessed that she’d never loved him. How she’d gone to Jonathan instead. How Steve had ended up helping Dustin. How they’d finally, finally closed the Gate once and for all.

Only for the Russians to open the Gate up again.

“So that crack in the ground,” Billy said. “You think it’s a Gate?”

Steve nodded, his voice hoarse.

“So we go through one of those, and we’re home?”

“Yeah,” Steve breathed.

“Why are these Gates opening up again?” Billy asked. “That one couldn’t have been open for more than ten, fifteen minutes, tops. What’s going on?”

Steve shrugged. He didn’t have any answers to this now. “I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe… maybe the Russians did something when they opened the Gate this time round. Maybe… I don’t know, the fabric of reality or whatever has been damaged.”

“The ‘fabric of reality’?” Billy echoed scornfully.

“I don’t fucking know, Hargrove,” Steve hissed. “I don’t know what’s going on.”

“Maybe someone’s opening it up again?” Billy suggested.

Steve shook his head. “They’re opening it up in Hawkins,” he explained. “The people in Hawkins who know about the Gate – who would stand an outside chance of knowing how to open one – wouldn’t do it. They know the risks. They wouldn’t open the Gate.”

“Maybe… they’re doing it for us?” Billy suggested. “They might be trying to bring us home.”

“No, they wouldn’t be.”

“Why not?”

“Because they don’t know we’re even here!” Steve snapped.

Billy looked slightly taken aback. “How do you know that?”

“Because,” Steve explained, any flash of energy that had come with anger vanishing into the night. “If they knew we were here, they wouldn’t have buried me.”

-:-

Paul pulled his car into the driveway, but didn’t immediately get out. A light was on in the hallway. Three days of being back at work, throwing himself into whatever he could distract himself with, surrounding himself with people who had other things on their minds, had made him realise how little he wanted to come home.

Spending his days with Annie had made him realise how little time he wanted to spend with Linda.

Eventually, though, he dragged himself out of the car. He walked into the hall, taking longer than strictly necessary to hang up his jacket. He could hear Linda doing something upstairs. He didn’t care to find out what.

The last few days had brought about an enormous change in her. Something had catalysed her into activity. She wasn’t spending her days lying on the bed, or sitting on the couch for hours on end, or wandering the hallways like a ghost. She’d tidied the living room. It had given Paul hope for her. For them.

He walked into the tidy living room – now returned to its default state of spotless order. He threw himself onto the couch and thought about turning on the television. It was just time for the seven o’clock news. The question was whether he could brave watching yet another feature on Starcourt.

He’d just made up his mind to watch the headlines when Linda appeared in the door, clutching a manila file of papers and newspaper cuttings.

“Paul,” she said in a passable, if not slightly forced attempt at her usual brisk, business-like tone. “There’s been something I’ve been meaning to talk to you about.”

Paul raised his eyebrows. “Should I be worried?”

“No, no…” Linda said, settling down on the couch next to him, putting the file on the coffee table. “Quite the opposite, actually.”

Paul leant forward in his seat as Linda opened up the files to reveal pages after pages of newspaper cuttings and documents.

“What’s all this?” Paul asked, curious. Cautious. He picked up the top newspaper cutting – it was the front page of the paper from July 5th, announcing the tragedy of Starcourt.

“Well…” Linda began, sounding as cautious as Paul felt. “I know how this is going to sound, but…”

Paul scanned the front page, reading through the article while only half listening to Linda. It was clearly written from the earliest stages of the news breaking, with little to no concrete information, only speculation.

“…I don’t think Steven is dead.”

Paul’s hand tensed, clenching tightly around the newspaper. He managed to avoid saying anything, simply looking at his wife as she began to flick through page after page of newspaper cuttings.

“I know it sounds crazy, but look,” she explained in earnest. “Will Byers went missing in the woods a couple of years ago. A body was found days later, and someone conducted the autopsy – only I checked, and it wasn’t the usual coroner.”

She handed Paul a scan of a newspaper article from the day Will Byers was found.

“Will Byers was then found a few days later, after Joyce Byers swore up and down that the body they buried wasn’t his. And she was right. He came home.”

Paul closed his eyes, holding the paper scan of the article in front of his face so Linda wouldn’t see it.

“What if it wasn’t just Will Byers?” Linda continued, oblivious to her husband’s reaction. “Steven never tidied up the house – he always tidies up the house for us when he knows we’re coming home from a trip. Which means he either forgot, which he never forgets, or he didn’t have a chance. Something else happened – something they’re not telling us-”

“I’m having an affair,” Paul said quietly.

He didn’t mean to say it. He wasn’t planning on telling Linda anything, he never did, but it slipped out in barely more than a whisper.

But Linda barely missed a beat. “ – But they’re not telling us something,” she continued, like nothing had happened. “We were shown that thing and were just told to believe that it was him-”

“Didn’t you hear me?” Paul asked incredulously. “I said I’m having an affair.”

“Paul,” Linda cut across him coolly. “If I started breaking things every time you got hung up on a secretary, we wouldn’t have anything in the house. I’ve long since made my peace with the fact that you can do what you like, so long as you come home afterwards. Now, as I was saying-”

“That’s just it, I don’t want to come home anymore!” Paul snapped, standing up. The fact that she wasn’t taking this seriously – was barely even having a reaction – was hurting him more than he thought possible.

Finally, Linda looked up at him. “What are you saying?” she asked, a quiet dignity to the venom that was simmering below the surface of her words.

“I… I can’t do this anymore,” Paul explained. “I’ve been trying to take care of you… I know it’s been hard on you, losing… losing him, but… I can’t do it. These last few days… Where she’s been taking care of me… That’s been such a relief, Linda, I can’t tell you, because it hasn’t just been hard on you.”

“I’m sorry I’ve been upset,” Linda’s voice was like ice. “But I think I’ve had a license to be sad. I just lost our son-”

And so did I!” Paul burst out. “I’ve been trying, Linda, I really have. I’ve been trying to hold it all together. I put together a funeral, I’ve been trying to make sure you eat, to look after you because you were too much of a fucking mess to do it yourself! And I…”

Paul ran his hands over his face as Linda stood up at last.

“I was so glad…” Paul continued, “…When you finally picked yourself up, when you finally started taking care of yourself, but now I find out that the only reason you’ve even been close to some sense of togetherness was because you think that Steven isn’t dead? Do you even hear yourself?”

“I know it sounds crazy, but-”

“We just buried him, Linda!” Paul snapped, throwing the piece of paper back down on the file. “Last week. Now is the time to start healing, start to move on! Not drag yourself down in a load of fucking conspiracy bullshit!

“If you expect me to believe that skeleton was Steven-”

“That is exactly what I expect you to believe!” Paul snarled. “We buried him. Days ago! He’s gone! None of this,” Paul gestured at the file, “is going to bring him back!”

“Will Byers came back,” Linda said defensively. “There’s something that these people aren’t telling us. I can’t accept that he’s gone, Paul, I can’t do it!”

Paul closed his eyes, his face screwed up in frustration. All energy gone from his fight, his shoulders sagged as he turned away.

“And I can’t do this,” Paul breathed. “I can’t look after you anymore. I can’t watch you get your hopes up and pick up the pieces again when you finally have to face the fact that he’s gone. I can’t stand by listening to you deny the fact when I need someone to help me through this. I can’t do this alone. But doing this with you… That’s what this means.”

Linda stepped back as though she’d been slapped. “So what?” she asked tentatively.

“I’m sorry, Linda,” Paul said softly. “I need to go.”

He started to head towards the door. It took Linda a second or two for her brain to catch up.

“Paul,” she said softly. There was a broken fragility to her voice, a shattered glass ornament.

Paul’s step faltered for the slightest moment, but he carried on towards the door. He had to.

“Paul!” she called again, a little more loudly.

Paul couldn’t look back at her as he walked into the hall.

“Paul!” Linda began to follow him as he got his jacket and pulled it on. “Paul, wait!”

She sounded close to tears, so completely and absolutely desperate.

“Paul, please don’t go,” she begged as he opened the door. She desperately tried to catch the door, to hold it shut, but it took him all of a second to get it open, swatting her hand away.

“I’m sorry, Linda,” he muttered under his breath, still not looking at her.

“Paul, please don’t go,” she begged frantically. “Please don’t leave me, Paul, please, I can’t do this on my own, please, Paul-”

Paul was out the door and walking towards his car. He pulled open the door as Linda ran out, grabbing the car door and holding it open.

“Please, Paul, please don’t leave me here alone, Paul, please!

Paul pulled the car door shut, watching as her hand slipped away from the door like it was greased. He started it up as sheer habit of safety had her taking several steps back. It was only as he started to pull the car out of the driveway and back into the road that he looked back at her in the rearview mirror, standing there, alone, in the now-empty driveway, tears pouring down her face as she sank into the ground.

But Paul rounded a corner and focused on the road. He couldn’t afford to look at her anymore.

Chapter Text

Steve had always thought of himself as someone who very definitely did not pace. Which was why it came as a surprise when he caught himself pacing back and forth around the room, running a hand over his face.

“Steve, will you sit down?” Billy insisted. “You’re making me dizzy just watching you.”

Steve ignored him. He didn’t really care about Billy’s feelings of anxiety or dizziness – his own panic was going through the roof. But he had to keep a level head for long enough to just think.

“We’re screwed,” he muttered under his breath, his voice higher than he would ever admit. “We’re completely screwed.”

“Steve, come on,” Billy said, rolling his eyes. “It didn’t see us. It really can’t be that bad.”

This, at last, stopped Steve in his tracks as he looked at Billy incredulously. Inexplicably, he began to laugh. Well, at least, he started involuntarily making repeated high hysterical noises in rapid succession. To call it laughter may have been generous.

“Billy, that thing will kill us!” Steve finally spluttered. “Actually, scratch that. It won’t kill us. It’ll take over our fucking minds and turn us into fucking monsters! If we ever do get home, we’ll probably end up trying to kill everyone!”

“Steve-”

“You can forget about seeing Max again!” Steve ranted hysterically. “God help her if you ever do – that thing made Will Byers kill a load of people! Billy, if that thing finds out we’re here… We’re never going to be able to outrun it. We’ve got to get back through a Gate!”

“Steve…” Billy stood up, holding out a hand –

“We’ve got to be careful…” Steve continued his pacing. “Like – so much more careful than we’ve been. Target practice – oh shit, that was a total waste of bullets. And even just getting water from that stream, we can’t let it see us! And – SHIT!

“Steve-”

“If the Mind Flayer is here, that means its army must be here too,” Steve thought aloud. “Fuck, I knew it was too good to be true… Demogorgons, Demodogs, and I don’t know what else… Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, FUCK!

Steve!

Billy put his hands on Steve’s shoulders, finally holding him still. Steve was breathing hard, running his good hand through his hair.

“Steve,” Billy said softly. “It’s okay. We’ll sort something. We can go back to those tunnels. You said there were more guns there – we can get them all and bring them back here. This Mind Slayer-”

“Flayer,” Steve corrected.

“Whatever – This Mind Flayer hasn’t caught us yet. We’ll be careful. We’re not dead yet.”

“We can’t just go to the tunnels anymore, Billy!” Steve hissed. “Didn’t you hear what I told you about the tunnels being a part of the Mind Flayer? It’ll know we’re there!”

“Did it know you were there when you went to set it on fire the first time?”

“Uh – yeah, that was the point of setting it on fire!

“Did it know before you set it on fire?”

“No, but-”

“No buts,” Billy said firmly. “We can go. We can be careful. We’ll go in and out, get the weapons, and be back in no time. Easy.”

Steve was shaking his head dubiously. “This is insane…”

“Steve,” Billy said. “It’s our best chance.”

Steve paused. He looked at Billy in what he was sure was the same expression he’d given Dustin last year when Dustin had handed him his bat and told him to protect them before going into those very same fucking tunnels. He was, if possible, less happy about it this time round.

“Fine,” Steve conceded. “But – we plan this. We do it on my terms. If I decide to pull the plug on this shit, you come back with me, no arguments. And I’m in charge.”

Billy smiled at him with a glint of that mischievous look he’d always had at school, only this time, it was softer. Affectionate rather than menacing.

“Fine,” Billy grinned. “You’re in charge. Deal.”

-:-

“…And let me tell you now,” Hopper told Joyce, “that kid did not want to turn on the siren.”

Joyce’s face lit up as she laughed at a story Hopper had told her about his failed attempt at running the outreach programme at Hawkins Elementary, which had involved Hopper trying to be enthusiastic but ultimately ending up traumatising a room full of small children. Ever since then, his deputy had run it.

It was their second attempt at a date, and by all accounts it was going well. The conversation was flowing as easily as the wine, which Hopper had delegated to Joyce to choose after his embarrassing attempt at pronouncing ‘Chianti’ the last time he’d been at Enzo’s. Joyce herself was relaxed for the first time in… she didn’t even know how long. What staggered her was how much she was enjoying herself, how happy she felt with Hopper, now that they were both on the same page that wasn’t called ‘denial’.

She hadn’t felt this happy since Bob.

With Bob, though, things had been different. There had been this thing that she couldn’t tell him about, a thing she had to keep him from. He couldn’t know about the Upside Down. With Hopper, though, everything was out in the open. Hopper knew. Hopper was part of it. They were in it together.

It was comfortable.

Another glass of wine accompanied their dessert. Joyce had been looking wistfully at the tiramisu, and upon her proclamation that she was full, Hopper had suggested getting one to share. Joyce rolled her eyes at that jokily, saying that sharing dessert with her wasn’t romantic like in the movies, it was a battle for whoever got the most. So when the waiter arrived with two forks and one plate, Hopper smiled as he held it aloft like a sword.

“Shall we?” he smirked at her.

She smiled back as menacingly as she could manage. “Prepare to die.”

It turned into every bit the battle that Joyce had promised. The dessert just managed to hold its structural integrity as Joyce plunged the fork into the centre, blocking Hopper’s own. Eventually he found a way to stab it somewhere else in the middle, and it eventually split apart into two pieces, both of which fell over on the plate. It was immediately apparent that Hopper had the bigger half, so Joyce playfully swiped some of the cream from the top with a cheeky grin.

“Oh, is that how it is?”

Joyce smirked at him as she put the fork in her mouth, before immediately blocking Hopper’s attempt at stealing some of hers.

“Told you,” she said triumphantly. “Sharing dessert with me is dangerous.”

“I should arrest you for theft.”

“Try it,” Joyce grinned. “See where those handcuffs end up.”

Hopper’s eyebrows shot up as he leant back in his chair, his mouth open slightly in surprise. “You’re a dark horse, aren’t you, Byers?”

She didn’t answer, she just continued to give him that triumphant grin.

“Speaking of arresting people,” Hopper said, his tone changing as he leant forward conspiratorially. “We’re closing in on Kline. DA says we should have enough evidence to arrest him in a couple of days, we’re just waiting on one more document to come through.”

It was Joyce’s turn to raise her eyebrows in surprise. “Does the DA normally get involved in these things?”

“Not normally at this stage, no,” Hopper said. “It’s different this time, though. He’s a politician, and quite a senior one at that. And this isn’t just corruption, it’s treason. We can’t tell the public about it, but we’re probably going to arrest him on corruption charges before quietly handing him over to the Feds. That’s why we need the DA involved. Just to make sure he can’t get out on bail before the Feds make him face justice.”

“Oh,” Joyce said, following vaguely.

“Some better news, though,” Hopper’s tone changed abruptly as he realised the table next to them was looking at them curiously. “I spoke to the powers that be, and they’ve found you a job at the Hawkins PD.”

If Joyce had been surprised before, it was nothing to how she felt now. “What?”

Detective Byers,” Hopper elaborated. “I mean, you won’t be a detective because you haven’t been to the academy or anything, but there’s an opening as a secretary. It’ll mean you’re in the loop.”

“Hopper, I…” Joyce struggled to find words. “We were just joking around, I’ve… I’ve got my job at Melvald’s, I’ve got the kids to think about…”

“You won’t be on the front line,” Hopper said. “It’s a desk job. You’ll be answering calls and stuff. And the pay is better than Melvald’s. I know you’ve been there a long time, but this would be better for you. You might find it more fulfilling.”

“Are you saying that I shouldn’t find working at Melvald’s fulfilling?” Joyce asked guardedly.

“No, no, that’s not what I’m saying,” Hopper fumbled over his words. “I just… I just think you’re a very smart woman who took the first job she found after a messy divorce that left her raising two kids on her own, and now she’s staying at a job that maybe doesn’t use her many talents to their fullest extent.”

Joyce smirked as he tripped over himself desperately trying to find the right words. “Flattery will get you everywhere, Hop.”

Hopper froze, giving her a relieved smile. “Is that a yes?”

Joyce took another sip of her wine. “Hop, I’m not going to give you an answer right now,” she explained. “It’s a big decision. I want to talk it over with the kids. But – I will think about it.”

-:-

Linda felt hesitant knocking on the door.

It had almost been a logistical nightmare getting here after Paul had taken off with the car. She had almost called ahead to cancel. These people had moved out of state after last year, and she had only gotten the number for them through Nancy Wheeler, which had not been a conversation she’d enjoyed. However, she’d called them on Wednesday before trying to tell Paul what she was doing, and they’d arranged to have lunch at their new home. When Paul had taken off with the car, she hadn’t been able to do anything, hadn’t even been able to think beyond the white noise that was filling her mind. It was only when some paper-pushing office clerk had called her at nine o’clock that morning that it had even occurred to her that she no longer had a car to drive out of state. Which proved to be far less of a problem than she’d thought at the office clerk’s call.

They had wanted to arrange a time to tow Steven’s car back.

Linda had jumped at the opportunity, asking how soon they could get it back to the house. Paul had made Steven keep a spare key to the car in a locked antique cabinet purely because he hadn’t trusted Steven not to lose his keys, or lock them in the car, or leave them somewhere, or any one of a million other things. So when they’d dropped the burgundy car back outside the driveway an hour later and had Linda sign more documents than she’d done when starting at Harrington Spencer, she’d left it all of about five minutes before getting the spare keys and started the long drive to a small town in Illinois.

A little over two hours later saw her turn into a cul-de-sac and into a driveway of a tidy little place in a town called St Joseph. The single storey house was small, with a beautifully manicured lawn with flowerbeds under the windows. She paused at the blue door, hand frozen on the knocker, feeling suddenly very nervous. A second later, though, and she found it in herself to knock three times.

The door opened to reveal a portly man – though he had definitely lost weight since leaving Hawkins – who smiled genially at her.

“Mrs Harrington,” he said, waving her inside. “Lovely to meet you!”

“You must be Mr Holland,” Linda greeted, holding out a hand for him to shake.

Mr Holland took her hand in both of his own, shaking it enthusiastically. “Please,” he corrected with a broad grin. “Call me Tim.”

Linda gave him a small smile as Marsha Holland suddenly appeared from a room off to the side, a spotty apron wrapped around a red dress.

“Linda!” she exclaimed, greeting her with a hug. Their phone conversation two days ago had cut through a certain amount of the awkwardness, but for someone who had spent a certain amount of her life making dinner parties into a profession, Linda felt oddly uncomfortable.

“Please,” Tim said with a smile. “Come in, have a seat.”

Linda followed Tim into a living room, feeling completely out of place. The living room was about as far from Linda’s own ordered haven. Two large couches with floral patterns sat in front of the walls at right angles. A large bay window took up another wall, while the far wall opposite the door was dominated by a fireplace. The cabinets and bookcases were cluttered, absolutely covered in photographs of Barbara Holland.

Linda felt her gut clench at the realisation that she didn’t think she had that many photos of Steven.

Marsha had vanished inside the kitchen again, but emerged a second later clutching a tray with a jug of lemonade and three glasses.

“It’s homemade,” she explained. “I always find when the weather is like this it’s just perfect.”

Tim gave a genial laugh as Marsha poured out three glasses. “Nothing is better than Marsha’s lemonade on a day like today,” he told Linda.

Linda felt a twist of pain in her chest – she and Paul had never been this open, this supportive of each other at any point in their marriage. She was pretty sure the last time Paul had looked at her like Tim was looking at Marsha right now had been when he’d held Steven for the first time, about ten minutes after giving birth.

And Tim was looking at her like that over lemonade.

“I must say,” Marsha was saying as she handed a glass to Linda. “I was surprised to get your call the other day, Linda.”

A flicker of surprise crossed her face for a second as she registered the possibility that there were, in fact, places where the Starcourt Tragedy was not in fact the only topic of conversation.

“Oh,” she muttered. “Well, you probably haven’t seen-”

“Oh – no, we know why you called,” Tim clarified. “This is only Illinois, not the outer reaches of Siberia. We… we get the news.”

“I’m so sorry, Linda,” Marsha said softly. “I know how hard it is. When our Barb vanished… I don’t think I’ve ever felt so lost.”

“Thank you,” Linda murmured.

“We met Steve, didn’t we?” Tim asked, looking over at his wife. “Last year, he came to dinner with Nancy a few times, didn’t he?”

“Oh, yes!” Marsha said. “He was lovely – always offered to help with the washing up.”

Linda gave a small, slightly surprised smile. She’d had no idea that Steve had ever met the Hollands, let alone gone to dinner with them and – and – and washed up afterwards?

“I… I never knew you knew him,” Linda said softly. “He never mentioned it.”

Marsha looked surprised by this revelation. Nancy had started organising dinner with them every few weeks at some point over the previous summer, and had started bringing Steve along somewhere around mid-August. The dinners had continued until Marsha and Tim moved out in late December, though Steve had stopped being a feature after their dinner when they’d announced that they’d hired Murray Bauman. Nancy had explained that she and Steve had broken up at a party at Halloween.

“Now that I think about it,” Tim mused, “he never really mentioned his home life to us. He’d usually talk about applying to college when we asked him about himself.”

Linda looked at her lap as she remembered that argument. She remembered how disappointed she’d been in Steven, how angry Paul had been at him for messing up something so important. She’d been upset too, with no idea what to do about his future.

It had turned out that his future didn’t matter. His life had come to a sudden halt at a period – a period called Starcourt.

“We… we weren’t that close,” Linda murmured. “Paul, my…”

She suddenly found the word husband catching in her throat.

“We were away a lot for work,” Linda finally managed. “Steven stayed home for school. He managed.”

Marsha and Tim looked sympathetic, with that pitying, slightly pained expression Linda had seen on far too many people.

“How is your husband handling it?” Marsha asked softly.

Linda let out a deep shaking breath, running a hand over her face. “He left me last night,” she said.

She hadn’t meant to say it – it had just burst out involuntarily. She didn’t know why she was opening up to a couple of total strangers in a way that she’d never even opened up to her own parents before – distance ran in the family. However, once it was out in the open, it suddenly felt less… taut. The fact seemed to be pressing a fraction less on her mind, slightly easing up.

“Shit,” Tim breathed.

“Was it because of…?” Marsha asked tentatively, trailing off.

“Steven?” Linda finished. “Yes. There was also an affair involved – there’s always an affair with Paul – and – and-”

Linda swallowed the lump that formed in her throat.

“And the fact that I’m not sure he’s dead,” Linda concluded.

The atmosphere in the room changed suddenly. It wasn’t the sad but sympathetic atmosphere – it shifted to one that was suddenly uncomfortable, very similar to the atmosphere Linda had felt when Chief Hopper had arrived to break the news about Starcourt.

“You think I’m crazy,” Linda said bluntly. “Paul did too.”

“No,” Tim said. “No, I don’t think you’re crazy. I just think you’re…”

“Grieving,” Marsha finished for him.

Linda looked up at them, confused for a moment.

“Has anyone explained the five stages of grief to you?” Tim asked.

Linda looked at him blankly.

“Well, Marsha and I went to couple’s counselling after Barb vanished,” Tim said. “Best idea Marsha has ever had. It brought us closer, helped us deal with it together. And one of the things our therapist told us about was the five stages of grief. There’s denial, anger, bargaining, sadness, and acceptance. It sounds like you’re in denial.”

“But what if it’s not?” Linda asked in earnest. This, this was why she’d come all the way to Illinois. “I think there’s something wrong with what they’ve told us, something more at play. I don’t know if Starcourt had anything to do with what happened to your daughter, but there’s definitely something that we’re not being told-”

“Linda,” Marsha said gently but firmly. “Let me give you some advice. Don’t go down that road. They gave you a body. You had a funeral for him. That’s more than we had for Barb for a really long time. We let ourselves live in denial for so long that when they finally gave us an answer, do you know what I felt above all else?”

Linda looked at her, eyes wide.

Relief,” Marsha said. “I didn’t feel sad, I’d had my sadness come and swallow me whole and spit me back out again. It was like I could finally let my girl go.”

Linda shook her head, tears springing into her eyes.

“Linda,” Marsha reached out and placed an arm gently on her shoulder. It was strange, the physical contact from a total stranger. “I know it’s hard. I know how hard it is. But please, do yourself that favour. Let him go.”

Linda was fighting back tears – tears she felt like she ought to be ashamed of, but the Hollands seemed to be so understanding. She swallowed the lump in her throat as she struggled to form the next sentence, before she finally lost her battle with her own sadness. She slumped forwards into Marsha’s arm, who caught her and pulled her into a hug. Linda had never felt anything like this before – she hadn’t met Marsha until less than ten minutes ago, and here she was, sobbing into this woman’s shoulder. She had no idea what to do. Eventually she gasped out what she’d been trying to say.

“I don’t know how.”

-:-

The day of the big Dungeons and Dragons game arrived.

It was the first time the Party had seen each other all together since Billy’s funeral. There had been occasional conversations – El and Will had been living together for a couple of weeks, and Lucas and Mike had been in touch, but there was definitely a distance between them all that hadn’t been there before.

Dustin had practically been MIA. He’d spent his time either with Robin or on his own. He wasn’t sure why, but he just didn’t want to spend his time with the Party right now. By the sounds of things, neither had Max.

Lucas and Mike had been in conversation with each other over their radios about Max and El. Neither of them had quite known where they stood just at the moment. El had been distant from Mike since Starcourt, and Mike just assumed it was because she was tired and recovering. Max, on the other hand… well, that was more complicated. Although by now it seemed to be a widely accepted rumour that Neil had walked out on them, Lucas still wasn’t about to call up the house to find out, and Max hadn’t reached out to Lucas herself.

She’s grieving, his mom had said. She just needed time. She’s lost a lot in a short space of time. Let her come to you. She’ll come back to you in her own time.

Lucas had desperately tried to ignore the slightly too forced optimism in her voice as she had said it.

Still. They’d all confirmed they were coming. The Party was going to be back together again for the first time in far, far too long. Things were going to be different, certainly, but they were all still friends. They were all still going to have fun.

This was a certain amount of the reason why Lucas had practically leapt out of his seat at just about every knock on the door of the Wheelers’ house after Will had arrived with Jonathan.

Max was last to arrive, skateboard tucked under her arm. She gave a slightly forced smile at Lucas as he grinned at her, enthusiasm about seeing her barely contained inside him as he waited for her to make the first move.

“Hey,” he said slightly breathlessly. Memories of the last time they’d seen each other, of his parents ushering him out of the house under incredibly tense circumstances while Max’s continued tirade at Neil had drifted through the window, Neil’s unspoken slurs still ringing in his ears.

“Hey,” Max replied awkwardly. Lucas’ smile dropped a fraction, staying hitched up out of habit rather than genuine emotion at the way Max seemed to be avoiding his eyes.

“I missed you,” he blurted out. “You’ve not been on your radio.”

“Yeah, I…” Max shrugged uncomfortably. “The batteries ran out… I’ve been so busy, I haven’t had a chance to get any new ones.”

“I’ve probably got some spares,” Mike chipped in, demonstrating about as much respect for privacy as anyone who’d known him for five minutes would come to expect. “I’ll ask my mom, hang on, MOM!

Karen Wheeler did not immediately reply, prompting Mike to shout again.

“Mike, it’s not a big deal-”

MOM, DO WE HAVE ANY SPARE BATTERIES?

Karen Wheeler’s voice drifted down the stairs with some protest about being in the bath. The shouted conversation continued as Max and Lucas looked at each other with identical dubious expressions on their faces. Lucas rolled his eyes at Max behind Mike’s back, prompting a small laugh from Max.

He felt more at ease at the sound of her laugh. The small victory was enough to make him feel more comfortable. He hadn’t lost his connection with her completely.

Mike finally got an answer about a kitchen drawer, and he went and extracted a new pack of AA batteries and handed them to Max.

“There you go,” Mike said. “Just in case there’s another code red.”

“Is that likely?” Lucas asked sceptically.

Mike shrugged. “You never know. Now the Russians are involved, who knows what could happen?”

Lucas shrugged, casting a cheeky glance at Max, but his face fell when he saw that she’d retreated back into herself, avoiding his eye in exactly the same way as she’d done beforehand.

“Everyone’s downstairs,” Mike said, oblivious to the change in Max’s demeanour. “We’re all set up, we’ve just been waiting for you. Come on.”

Mike led the way, leaving only Lucas to notice how Max hesitated before following.

“Shall we?” Lucas prompted.

Max forced a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes before following Mike downstairs. Lucas tried to return the smile, feeling an unpleasant pit welling up at the bottom of his stomach. He followed her down towards the basement, before stopping on the stairs as Max reached the bottom.

El had stood up immediately as soon as she saw Max. The pair fell into an easy hug, the awkwardness of everything unsaid vanishing from the air. Max looked happy with her, a genuine smile settling on her face as El asked how she was. The interaction was easy, effortless. Max was comfortable. And it clicked.

Max had been reaching out to El.

Lucas wasn’t upset by this. He’d meant what he’d said to her in the drive back from Starcourt that morning – as long as she was reaching out, that was a good thing. As long as she wasn’t trying to do this alone, he didn’t mind that he wasn’t the one she was talking to.

But was it so much to ask for her to still be comfortable around him?

-:-

Paul fell back against the leather couch in his flat in Indianapolis, a glass of red wine in one hand and an arm around Annie’s shoulder. She curled up into his side, tucking her bare feet up onto the cushion. He flicked the television on and let the sound of the news broadcast wash over them.

There was something astonishingly peaceful about it.

“This is nice,” he murmured as Annie rested her head on his shoulder.

She gave a small hum of agreement.

“I don’t remember the last time I had an evening like this,” he elaborated. “Just sat in front of the news after a long day with a beautiful woman. And…” he broke off, something catching in his throat, only a little tickle compared to the throat-closing feeling he’d experienced even a few days before as he swallowed. “After everything that’s happened, it’s just… nice. To – to be with someone who’s… who’s happy.

“I understand,” Annie said, looking up at him. “I had this boyfriend in college, all he ever did was complain about everything. I tried to be supportive, but it was just… it was everything. So I ended things. Had a fresh start. I did what was right for me, just like you did.”

Paul smiled, raising his wine glass. “I’ll drink to that.”

Annie gently tapped her own glass against his, a soft ting echoing around the room before slowly being replaced by the newscast that washed over them.

“…Earlier today, Lawrence Kline, mayor of Hawkins, Indiana, was arrested by police authorities in connection to what has become known as the Starcourt Tragedy.”

Paul’s attention snapped away from Annie and straight onto the television. He almost spilled the wine all over himself as he desperately extracted his arm from around Annie to turn up the volume. Larry Kline was an old friend of his – why had he been arrested?

“An investigation with the District Attorney has turned up evidence that he accepted bribes to cover up dangerous failures to meet safety regulations that ultimately led to the gas explosion earlier this month.”

“Paul, what’s going on-” Annie began to ask, before being frantically shushed by Paul.

“Starcourt Industries paid Kline a total sum amounting to over a hundred and fifty thousand dollars to allow their new mall in Hawkins to pass safety inspections, despite oversights in the piping and electrical wiring. These dangerous elements, combined with a cheap, flammable cladding and a lack of suitable fire safety precautions, caused a gas explosion that followed led to one of the worst tragedies the town has ever seen, killing almost thirty people at an after-hours event at the mall.”

Paul was shaking. He had no idea he’d ever felt like this before. The newscast faded into white noise in his mind as it continued to elaborate on the tragedy, playing footage of the smouldering remains of the fire at the mall after emergency services had arrived to tackle the blaze.

Paul could barely think straight – Larry had been a friend – a close friend. And not just to him. Tom Holloway, too – he’d been close. The three families – the Harringtons, the Holloways and the Klines – had formed a trifecta of wealth, influence and power in Hawkins. Three close friends who practically ran the town. Paul had made generous donations to the Kline mayoral campaign, Tom Holloway hadn’t let any anti-Kline articles get run through the Hawkins Post, either during the campaign trail or since his election.

The fact that Larry would take bribes that would ultimately result in the deaths of Paul’s son and the entire Holloway family made him sick.

“Paul?” Annie asked, gently putting a hand on his arm.

He jumped at her touch. He suddenly realised she’d been saying his name for the past minute as his brain caught up with the time. He also suddenly realised that the news made him feel physically sick.

He bolted to the bathroom, just making it in time to retch up most of his dinner. Annie looked completely bewildered as she followed him.

“Paul, are you okay?

Paul knelt in front of the toilet, his head resting on his arm that leant on the toilet seat. His eyes were closed – he was breathing hard – his brain still trying to process –

“He was my friend,” he eventually breathed. He had no idea if Annie could hear – he discovered that he didn’t care. “He was my friend, and he… he killed them,” his voice was rising. “All those people, he killed them. He took bribes that killed them. Tom – Janet – Steven – Oh god, Steven-”

He broke off as sobs caught in his chest. It took so much more effort to swallow this down.

“He killed my son, Annie,” he choked out, trying not to let his tears show.

Annie looked lost for a second. Eventually, she rested a hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry,” she said softly. “I get it, I really do-”

“No, Annie, you don’t!

He stood up quickly, pushing her hand away like a brand. She flinched from his newfound ire.

“You don’t have a hope in hell of getting it!” he stormed. “You’ve never had a kid, you’ve never been a parent! And Larry – he was my friend! I put him where he is now! I gave him the chance to be mayor, and he… and he fucking does this? He took my son from me! And I…”

Paul fell back against the wall, his hands running into his hair and gripping against the roots, all energy from that flash of rage gone.

“I let him,” he gasped out, his voice a desperate, broken sound. “I told Steven to get a job there. I let Larry take the money and kill my son.”

Tears were rolling down his face – he couldn’t do anything to stop them. Annie took a tentative step towards him.

“Paul, sweetheart-”

“Don’t call me that,” Paul hissed almost inaudibly, his voice low and dangerous. “I’m not your sweetheart. Fuck.

Annie didn’t dare say anything. She had no idea how to deal with Paul like this.

“Shit,” Paul breathed. “I shouldn’t have left – I shouldn’t have come here – Fuck – Linda – Shit, she was onto something.”

“What?” Annie breathed.

“She said there was something else going on,” Paul elaborated, more for himself than Annie. “I mean, she was saying some other completely crazy stuff, but she was onto something. Fuck – I thought that was the problem, but it was – Larry – he was – Shit!

“What are you saying?”

“I should never have left,” Paul breathed, pushing himself away from the wall. “I – shit, I need to go back. I need to go back – Fuck! He was the problem, not Linda. He took my son from me; I won’t let him take my marriage too.”

“But…” Annie stammered. “What about us?”

Her voice was tiny, and she felt even smaller at the look Paul gave her.

“Annie, surely you knew I didn’t love you?” he explained. “I didn’t leave my wife for you, I left to get away from her because I needed to get away from her. I thought… I thought you knew that.”

The look on her face said it all.

“I’m sorry if I gave you the wrong impression,” he muttered. “But right now, I need to go.”

He breezed past her, his hands still shaking, the glass of wine still unfinished on the coffee table.

“Paul, wait!” Annie begged, in a frighteningly close manner to how Linda had begged two nights before.

Paul paused with one hand on the door handle.

“Close the door on your way out.”

-:-

Steve’s plan was simple: go to the tunnels, go to Hawkins Lab, get as many weapons as they could find or carry, whichever was the limiting factor, and come back as quickly as possible. And in the process, ideally not alert anything to the fact that he and Billy were living, trapped, in the Upside Down. He had spent the last two days planning the optimal route to Merrill’s farm.

Billy had been keeping a discreet eye on the Mind Flayer’s movements. The huge, hulking shadow was visible from most places, so Billy had been going out under strict instructions to stay hidden. He’d been watching what it had been doing – it seemed to be hovering over the same stretch of forest that both temporary Gates had appeared. They hadn’t been too far apart from each other. Steve’s current theory was that whatever instability was causing the interdimensional breaches was spreading, cracking the walls between realities.

And the Mind Flayer was waiting for one such opportunity to arise.

As such, they had a pretty good grasp on the Mind Flayer’s movements. If they were right, which Steve could only pray that they were, the Shadow was not likely to be a problem. What he was far more worried about was the Mind Flayer’s army.

Steve couldn’t be sure that there was such an army. He still hadn’t seen anything, and, as Billy kept pointing out, the presence of the Mind Flayer did not necessarily mean that a huge pack of otherworldly monsters was nearby. However, that went against just about everything Steve had ever known about the Upside Down. The Mind Flayer had its army to do its dirty work. There was a reason a pack of Demodogs had unleashed itself upon Hawkins Lab. The Demodogs protected the Mind Flayer. It stood to reason that they’d be around.

That said, Steve hadn’t actually seen any monsters. And neither, it seemed, had Billy.

One of the few things that Steve and Billy had agreed upon had been a strict no-talking policy outside of the house. It had actually been the first thing that the pair had immediately agreed upon with no arguments – something that surprised them both. However, Demogorgons hunted using sound as much as anything else. They had to stay quiet.

In fact, the only argument they were still yet to resolve was what to prioritise bringing back.

Billy was adamant that taking the guns would be best. They were more versatile, longer range, and generally much more effective weapons. Steve agreed with all these points, except for the fact that he’d seen how effective fire was on creatures from the Upside Down. There was a reason why the Mind Flayer had been so keen to stop the scientists from Hawkins Lab from burning the tunnels.

“I’m telling you,” Steve said. “The flamethrowers will be about ten times more effective on anything we find.”

“Steve, they’re guns. These demo-hounds or whatever can’t be immune to bullets. Not if they’re flesh and blood.”

“You’ve not seen these things, Hargrove,” Steve hit back. “I’ve seen how effective fire is on them. I’ve seen how effective bullets are on them. Trust me – fire is the way to go.”

“You don’t even know how to use one of those things.”

“I’ve been practicing.”

Confusion flared up in Billy’s eyes. “When?”

“Last few days,” Steve said. “And I tested it a bit beforehand.”

“And you didn’t tell me?” Billy said, visibly annoyed. “Steve, you know how badly your first attempt with a gun went – what if you’d set fire to the house? What if you’d hurt yourself?”

Jesus, Billy, I didn’t know you cared.”

“You should have told me,” Billy snapped. “We’re supposed to be a team.”

“Billy,” Steve said defensively. “That’s probably our best chance of surviving-”

“And if that thing had seen you, then it would know we were here,” Billy snapped with a sense of finality. “That’s what you were worried about. You were the one who was freaking out. You take one of those things, you’re going to draw everything that’s out there towards us like moths to a candle. We’ll be screwed.”

Steve’s eyes darkened at Billy’s attitude, but he did feel a slight twist of guilt. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you,” he conceded. “But I’m serious. There’s a reason they were burning the tunnels last year. And that was because fire is the best thing we have to hurt these monsters.”

“And how did that work out for the soldiers again?” Billy pointed out.

Steve opened his mouth, but no retort came out. No witty remark, no clever pointing out of something, no air of superiority as he realised he’d lost the argument.

“Alright,” Steve conceded, trying for a compromise. “I won’t take the flamethrower. You’re right about them being really fucking obvious out here. But please, Billy, if we can bring one of those things back, please don’t fight me on this. I don’t have the time to make you see my side.”

Billy’s eyes darkened. “Those things are dangerous, Steve. Everything is going to find us if we use it.”

“I know,” Steve said. “But if those things do find us anyway, they might be our best chance at surviving.”

Billy looked at him with that same black anger in his eyes, before turning and picking up the gun. “We need to go, Steve.”

Steve hesitated, pausing only to look at the back of Billy’s retreating head as he made his way downstairs. Silently, he reached into his pocket and felt the cold metal of his lighter. He still didn’t know quite where they’d landed on the issue, but he could only pray that Billy wouldn’t kick up too much of a fuss if the occasion arose.

They couldn’t afford to argue once they were outside.

Billy looked over at Steve as they stood by the front door.

“Ready?” Billy whispered.

Steve swallowed as he nodded.

Billy held up three fingers.

Three, two, one – GO!

Steve turned the door handle and swung it open to allow Billy out first. Billy held the gun aloft – after that lesson, Steve had conceded that if anyone was going to hold the gun, it absolutely should be Billy. Steve slipped out behind Billy, closing the door as quietly as possible.

They walked out into the dark street, the eerie silence feeling so much more pressing than usual. Steve was tense at every slightest movement – he wheeled his head around at the sight of something moving in his periphery, but it was just a flake of that ash drifting through the air. He peered into the darkness, trying to discern whether there was anything more to it than that.

Billy looked at him curiously at his sudden movement. Steve eventually made eye contact and shook his head, before pointing down the street, indicating that he thought they should continue.

Still, though, Steve couldn’t quite shake the feeling that they were being watched.

They slipped through the streets of Hawkins like ghosts. Every now and then, Steve would stop at something, staring out into the darkness. The most he would see at any point would be the distant outline of an enormous, many-legged spidery creature looming over the forest, but it had its back to them. It wasn’t watching. Every time he saw that creature was a reminder that they needed to be fast about this.

Steve picked up the pace, quietly forcing Billy to move faster as they slipped through downtown Hawkins. They slipped past Melvald’s, past the movie theatre, and out down one of the longer, winding streets that led into the more rural areas, and down into Merrill’s farm.

If Steve had been tense before, it was nothing to how he felt now. The trees that lined the route felt dangerous, as he couldn’t see anything beyond a few feet past the treeline. The forest could be hiding anything – an enormous Demogorgon, a ravenous pack of Demodogs, his imagination was going haywire. More worryingly, Merrill’s farm was close to the sites of the last two Gates. They had gone the long, urban way round to try and minimise the chances of being seen by the Mind Flayer, but now, they were approaching it. They wouldn’t come into its shadow, but they’d be far closer to it than Steve was even remotely comfortable with.

The most terrifying moment was when they broke out of the treeline to cross the open field to get to Hopper’s hole.

It was a mad dash, stealth being sacrificed for speed as they sprinted towards the opening. Steve’s imagination went into overdrive as the flakes of ash blurred into pale lines in his vision – any one of those lines could be a Demodog – or worse –

Billy reached the hole first, but waited for a second to usher Steve in. Steve slipped down into the tunnel, looking up at the opening to see a shadow of Billy crouching, gun held aloft for a split second, before he jumped down into the tunnel beside him.

Steve gave him a quick smile before leading the way down the tunnel.

If he had hoped that his fears would ease up once they’d made it into the tunnel, he was sorely disappointed. Images – memories – of vines springing to life and wrapping themselves around Mike Wheeler’s leg sprung into his imagination. He couldn’t stop thinking about the stories Hopper had told about those vines coming to life and trying to drag him into a black abyss. In his mind’s eye, every single vine twitched before he’d start, look at the individual vine properly, and force himself to see it sitting there, still, inanimate.

For now.

They finally came to the Hub. Steve counted the tunnels round the outside walls, before finally settling on one that he was fairly certain was the correct one for Hawkins Lab. He was proven right a second later as he started to remember familiar twists and turns. He’d only been there once, but he remembered.

They were in the right place.

Steve was still extremely tense about the vines. He found himself taking lighter, quicker steps. His feet stayed in one place for the shortest amount of time possible. He didn’t understand how Billy was still taking such heavy footfalls.

He almost gasped in relief as the tunnel opened up into the enormous cavern that had, once upon a time, been the area beneath Hawkins Lab. His face broke into a broad grin at the sight of their destination.

The grin spread even wider as Billy emerged, looking around, before pointing to the rigid straight outline that could only be a gun.

Steve bent down to gently extract it. Billy was doing the same on the other side of the room, combing the ground for anything that could be a weapon. Steve mimicked him, scanning the dark shapes that littered the floor.

His heart leapt as he saw something a fraction larger than the gun slung around his shoulder, a slightly different shape, a silver metal canister attached to the side.

He bent down to pick it up – the vines hadn’t tangled themselves quite as thoroughly around this flamethrower as they had done around everything else.

“Steve, what are you doing?

Steve looked around at Billy’s low, venomous hiss.

“Billy, please, just-”

“Steve, I told you, we can’t afford to prioritise those – not while there are still guns around!”

“And I told you, these are a hell of a lot more useful than those guns!”

Steve stood up, still clutching the flamethrower as he crossed the distance between himself and Billy.

“Steve, we can’t carry it back with us!”

“Billy, we shouldn’t argue about this right now-”

“And we shouldn’t be having this argument at all!” Billy hissed, his voice rising. “You know how dangerous those things are!”

“Billy, shut up!

“You have no idea how reckless you’re being with both our lives!”

“And you have no idea what we’re-”

Steve suddenly broke off and froze. Every muscle in his body that had been screaming with fear and paranoia for the last few days was suddenly paralysed with fear. Billy had frozen too, his own body practically quivering with tension at the sound that had cut Steve off. A sound that was far, far too close.

Behind Steve’s back, another low, dangerous growl sounded.

Chapter Text

Steve turned slowly to face the noise.

No sudden movements…

His heart was pounding in his chest as he found himself staring down at a creature, crouched on all fours, each of those legs ending in terrifyingly sharp claws that Steve knew could rip through flesh and bone like it was nothing. The oh-so-familiar face was closed, each of those five flaps that he knew housed rows upon rows of sharp teeth rippling slightly at the tips, a growl humming from that grotesque mouth. A horrifying feat of evolution that could only have occurred in this nightmarish reality, every inch of it designed to harm, kill, devour large prey.

Prey like Steve and Billy.

The creature started advancing on the pair. Steve started backing away slowly. Every bit of that monster was poised to strike – Steve was getting ready to run – he was not prepared to become dinner.

Billy had evidently had similar thoughts. His eyes were wide as he raised the gun in his arms to point it at the Demodog.

“Billy!” Steve hissed as a warning.

“We kill that thing before it kills us!” Billy spat back.

“They don’t hunt alone! We shoot it, all its friends will know where we are-”

“I’m not prepared to wait that long!”

Billy-

Too late.

A burst of gunfire shattered the tense silence as the creature let out several whines of pain. Steve froze, staring, horrified, at the creature. Silence reigned once again as Billy pulled his finger off the trigger, a blazing anger in his eyes as he looked at the monster in front of him. The Demodog had stopped advancing, head bowed, coiled into itself as it staggered back a step. Billy’s mouth spread into a menacing grin at the retreat –

A low growl from the Demodog caused that grin to fall from his face faster than the bullets had flown through the air to be replaced by a look of horror and confusion.

The creature raised its head.

“Run,” Steve said.

The face opened up as an otherworldly scream ripped through the air. Billy and Steve didn’t wait another second as they turned on their heels and sprinted down the tunnel.

Steve shot a glance over his shoulder at the sound of a growl as the creature jumped through the air after them. He dodged sideways as the creature landed where he would have been a second before. Those vines that he had been so terrified of on his way to the lab now seemed to conspire to trip him up – he stumbled through the tunnel, hardly giving a thought to Billy.

Not that this mattered. Billy was sprinting along in Steve’s periphery, managing the treacherous terrain about as well as Steve – if anything, he was managing slightly better. He held the gun across his body, his hands near the trigger in case it was needed.

It wasn’t long before the singular scream of a Demodog turned into a cacophony. Echoes of screeches sounded throughout the tunnel and Steve knew that this was what he’d been dreading – a pack of Demodogs hunting them down in that tunnel. They couldn’t outrun this – these things were fast – they couldn’t outrun those monsters.

But they had to.

Steve thanked whatever deity or devil that watched over him for the familiarity he now had in the tunnels. He burst into the Hub, crossing it in seconds before habit carried his feet to the tunnel that led to Hopper’s hole. His heart almost gave out as he caught glimpses of things spewing out of some of the other tunnels, but he had to keep going – he had to run – he had to make it to that hole – even if he knew what was happening.

They were being herded.

A hive mind, that was what Dustin had called it. All of these things shared a consciousness – their thoughts were one. If they could make it to the hole, that was their one chance to escape. If these things trapped them before he made it to that rope, they were dead. There was no other hope. They had to make it.

He was so focused on his goal that it took him a second to notice Billy wasn’t beside him anymore –

STEVE!

Steve staggered to a halt at Billy’s scream. Billy had tripped at the entrance to the tunnel. Steve’s heart almost gave out at the sight of the Demodogs descending on him. One grabbed Billy’s leg in its enormous maw. Billy let out an agonised scream.

“Steve, help me!

Billy didn’t take his eyes off of Steve. His arms flailed, grabbing at the vines. But the vines were just as dangerous, wrapping themselves around Billy’s arms, holding him still while the Demodog tried to drag him back.

STEVE!

Steve suddenly remembered the weapon in his hands.

The flamethrower was an identical model to the one he had taken before meeting Billy. The one he’d practiced on. He thanked god he’d worked out how to turn the fucking thing on before now.

It operated simply – a flammable gas and a spark started a pilot light, and then the flames were unleashed by a spray of fuel. He had to look down to find the dial that started up the gas flow, but he knew where it was. He didn’t bother trying to find the little button that sent a spark – it was too dark. He simply reached into his pocket and found his lighter.

“Steve, DO SOMETHING!” Billy screamed, the monstrosity still dragging him back.

He flicked the lighter near the barrel of the weapon. His hands were shaking. He clicked it once, twice, three times, four –

There.

Steve’s hands moved back and found the trigger that would send the flames across the tunnel. He put one foot behind the other, aimed, and –

A jet of flame sailed across the space between them. The tunnel lit up with bright orange light as fire sailed over Billy’s head, catching the Demodog right on the arch of its neck.

The Demodog screamed. Its maw released Billy’s ankle as it staggered back with an agonised screech. Steve took a few steps forward, squinting against the sudden light, but even though he could hardly see a thing, he could hear that it wasn’t just that Demodog screaming.

It was all of them.

Steve could see just enough to point the flame squarely at the Demodog’s head. It screamed as it staggered back further and further –

But Billy was screaming too. Steve couldn’t see properly, but in his overenthusiasm, he must have caught Billy with the flamethrower too – the fuel burnt hot – even Steve could feel that –

The vines had also uncoiled themselves from Billy’s arms, but Billy was screaming in too much pain to notice. Steve released the trigger, holding the flamethrower to the side with his good hand, pilot light still on, while using his left arm to help haul Billy to his feet. Billy was still screaming as he leant heavily on Steve’s side, barely able to put any weight onto his leg as Steve half-dragged him back along the tunnel.

“Billy, come on, we’ve got to move!”

Billy, thankfully, seemed to have enough presence of mind to try to stagger onwards. Leaning heavily on Steve, they managed to pick up the pace.

They rounded a corner – the hole was in sight –

Steve’s heart almost gave out at the sight of four Demodogs tearing down the tunnel towards them.

Steve managed to practically throw Billy in the general direction of the rope. The blonde staggered and collapsed onto his knees, his hands catching around the rope, landing on the lowest knot Steve had formed that first day he’d climbed out of the tunnels.

Steve ran forward to just past the rope and unleashed a second blast of fire down the tunnel. With Billy behind him now, he could finally test the flamethrower to its fullest range. Unlike the guns, the trigger on this was variable He pulled the trigger back to its furthest range.

The fire must have shot forward ten feet, catching all four oncoming Demodogs. They fell to the floor, screeching in agony, writhing in the fire –

A pained whimper behind him caused him to stop, tearing his attention to the man behind him. Billy was still on the ground, eyes closed back, mouth open in a broken, silent scream.

“Billy, for fuck’s sake, get out of here!” Steve screamed.

Billy shook his head against the rope, eyes still closed. “I can’t,” he whimpered.

Steve took a step back, putting a hand under his arm. “Yes, you can!

Steve hauled Billy to his feet, doing his best to ignore the cry of agony as Billy struggled to stand.

“Hand over hand,” Steve instructed. “I’ll push you the rest of the way.”

A screech from towards the Hub pulled Steve’s attention back towards the oncoming threat. Shadows danced at the bend. He turned and glanced back at the Demodogs he’d just fired upon – they were still screaming, the last of the fire burning out, but they were starting to recover. One was getting close to finding its feet again…

GO!” Steve screamed.

He didn’t look properly to see if Billy followed his instructions. He stepped away from the rope to send another blast of fire back down towards the Demodogs that were just recovering. An otherworldly scream tore his attention back behind him and Steve spun around to see an oncoming pack – as many as he’d seen the first time he’d been in these tunnels – more, even…

He sent a jet of flame down towards them. Firing indiscriminately, he waved it across the ground, doing his level best to create a wall of fire.

He stepped back towards the rope, relieved to find Billy most of the way out. He put a hand under Billy’s good foot and gave him a final boost out of the tunnels. Billy managed to finally pull himself out, leaving the rope clear for Steve.

Steve grabbed the rope and hauled himself up. It took him a few seconds – again, the familiarity of having done several excursions proved extremely useful, as he could hear the Demodogs finally recovering.

He hauled himself out of the hole, lying flat on his stomach as he crawled out to come up beside Billy.

“Make for the trees,” Steve ordered. “If we can get into the forest, we might make it.”

Billy didn’t manage a verbal response – he only nodded silently, breathing hard, bracing himself as he hauled himself to his feet. Steve heard him let out a cry of pain as he put weight onto it, but a glance in Billy’s direction showed him that Billy was still upright.

Just.

It had to be enough.

A huge, clawed paw emerged from the hole as Billy took his first few steps. Steve staggered to his feet and towards the outside of the hole just as a second paw followed and a head emerged. The head looked in his general direction before opening out like a terrifying, fanged flower. Steve caught a glimpse of red shining on its many teeth – this was the thing that had taken down Billy.

Steve pulled the trigger.

The full force of a military-grade flamethrower was unleashed upon the hole, catching everything in the general vicinity. A cacophony of pained screams from inside the hole grated against Steve’s ears as the roar of the fire echoed around the field. He could see the fire catching against the grass around as he took a few steps away, waving the barrel of the flamethrower around and catching as much of the grass as possible, praying that the fire would take –

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a sight that made his stomach clench.

He saw Billy fall to the ground, landing heavily on his knees about ten feet from the treeline. Steve released the trigger, praying that what he’d done was enough, before sprinting over to where Billy was crouched.

Steve pulled Billy upright and started to half carry, half drag him towards the trees. He cast a glance back over his shoulder to look at the hole. He could see a small amount of fire still burning around the hole – it wouldn’t keep the Demodogs at bay for long, but if they were lucky, it would give them just enough time to get away.

They made it just under the trees before Billy gave a groan and collapsed against Steve.

“Billy!” Steve cried, doing his best to catch him.

Steve crouched down beside Billy and pulled him against his shoulder. Billy was gasping into his neck, breathing hard.

“Billy, we’re going to go back home,” Steve whispered into his ear. “It’ll be okay, we’ll get back home, and we’ll sort something out. We’ll be safe there. We’ll go the short way. It won’t be long. Do you think you can hold on for that long? Then you can rest, I promise. Can you do that for me?”

Billy didn’t answer immediately, before finally nodding into Steve’s shoulder. Steve let out a sigh of relief, before pulling one of Billy’s arms around his shoulder and tucking one of his own under Billy’s other shoulder.

“Come on,” Steve said as he started to practically carry Billy upright. “Let’s go home.”

-:-

It was early evening when Linda found herself walking up the dirt driveway.

She’d never been here before – it was secluded in an area of Hawkins she didn’t tend to go to very much. It was mostly residential, and she didn’t know many people here. The few people she did know tended to be more acquaintances rather than actual friends.

These people, however, were strangers to her. She’d never met them in her life. She’d seen them, briefly, at Steven’s funeral, but they hadn’t made it to the wake, and she hadn’t spoken to them at the service.

Still, by all accounts, Steven had known them. Steven had even been close to them. Hopefully that would be enough that they wouldn’t turn her away.

She knocked softly on the door, and a few seconds later, Joyce Byers opened it, looking surprised at her presence.

“Hi,” Joyce said, eyeing Linda, clearly very confused.

“Mrs Byers,” Linda said in a strangely formal tone. “I’m Linda Harrington, I’m-”

“Steve’s mom, yes,” Joyce said, finally catching on. “Hi – uh – please, come in.”

Joyce gestured inside towards the couch.

“I’m sorry, it’s a bit of a mess, I wasn’t expecting company,” Joyce said. “My kids are out tonight, there’s a game night or something at the Wheelers’ house, and Jonathan took Will over. I think I’m expected to pick Will up after the game.”

Joyce gave a small laugh. Linda smiled awkwardly, not quite sure what to make of it. She stood in the centre of the living room, clutching her bag tight.

“What can I do for you, Mrs Harrington?” Joyce asked.

“I…” Linda trailed off, taking in the room around her. It was so unlike her room at home, messy, cluttered…

Homely.

“I actually wanted to talk to you about something,” Linda finally found some confidence. “I wanted to talk to you about when your son went missing.”

Joyce closed her eyes for a second longer than a standard blink. “I’m really sorry, Mrs Harrington, it’s quite a difficult subject-”

“I understand that,” Linda pressed. “Normally I wouldn’t ask, but… you’re the only person I can really talk to about this. Everyone else thinks I’m crazy, or grieving, or in denial or something.”

That had Joyce confused. “What do you mean?”

“I assume you know my son was killed in the Starcourt Tragedy,” Linda explained. “I think I actually saw you at his funeral.”

Joyce nodded, feeling the hairs on the back of her neck rise.

“Well,” Linda said. “I don’t think he’s really gone.”

Joyce felt herself stand up a little straighter in surprise. “Mrs Harrington, that’s-”

“Insane, I know,” Linda waved a hand dismissively. “You wouldn’t be the first to say it. But when your son went missing, you didn’t believe it, either. Even though you had a body, even though you buried him, you still didn’t believe it. And you were right.”

“That’s different-” Joyce began.

“How?”

“I…” Joyce trailed off. “It wasn’t the same. My son was missing, not dead.”

“He was dead. You identified the body. His brother identified the body. He was unrecognisable, just like Steven was.”

Joyce pressed her lips together, a crease appearing between her eyebrows.

“Do you know what they showed us?” Linda explained. “They showed my husband and me a skeleton. That was it. Everything about him was burnt off. The man there, someone from the Department of Energy, he said that the only way to identify him was through dental records. They weren’t even trying to pretend it was possible for us to identify him. So why, if your son came back, is it so impossible for mine to do the same?”

Joyce breathed out heavily. “Because…” she began. “Nobody actually saw what happened to Will. Everyone just assumed. People saw what happened to Steve.”

“Really?” Linda asked incredulously. “Like who, exactly?”

Joyce closed her eyes, trying to resist the oncoming tears. “Like me,” she confessed.

Everything about Linda’s demeanour changed in a heartbeat. Where previously she’d been eager, almost hostile, she was now shocked, speechless, stunned into silence.

“W-what?” she finally managed. “You were there?

Joyce nodded. “Steve helped a lot of people,” she said. It wasn’t a lie, not completely. She just needed to adapt the truth to suit the official story. She’d gotten good at that. “He didn’t make it out, though, before everything… collapsed. I… I saw it all happen.”

Linda found herself falling back into the couch, eyes wide. She couldn’t quite process what was being said.

“Is there any chance…” Linda asked, her voice hollow, “that you were mistaken?”

Joyce came and sat down beside Linda on the couch, putting a reassuring hand on her shoulder. She looked into those big brown eyes that stared at her, wide open, pleading for her not to extinguish that little spark of hope. Joyce swallowed as she shook her head.

The fire that had been so alive moments ago suddenly guttered in the back of her eyes and Joyce watched as Linda’s hope finally died. Linda, however, didn’t lose it like she had done at the Hollands. She closed her eyes, finally finding that self-control once more, that discipline that she was so used to employing from decades of playing the lawyer. A moment later, she opened them, and it was like a wall had gone up in the blacks of her pupils. Cold. Hardened.

“Thank you for your time,” Linda managed to say, her voice raspy. She stood up and walked across the room, before opening the door and staring out into the evening light.

“Mrs Harrington,” Joyce called. “If you ever need to talk… please. You know where I am.”

Linda paused as she looked out the door, refusing to look back at Joyce. Her head twisted slightly, an involuntary movement, but she didn’t look back. She couldn’t look back at her.

“Thank you,” she said.

And she walked out, closing the door with a small click behind her.

-:-

Ah – Careful!”

“Sorry.”

“You’ve done that about four times!”

“Well, if you didn’t keep moving…

Steve had managed to drag Billy to the Byers’ place. It wasn’t exactly far from his own house, but Steve had found two main reasons for not going straight back to his place. Firstly, Billy had been bleeding all over the place, and, given that he knew Demodogs hunted the scent of blood, he wasn’t exactly about to create a trail leading all the way back to where he would ideally like to stay indefinitely.

The second reason was that he flatly refused to carry Billy any further.

The adrenaline that had seen him through the tunnels had worn off, and pains that he probably should have found himself feeling while he’d been running around and climbing up ropes and dragging the not-insignificant weight of a muscular man were starting to make themselves known once again. The burning in his chest had returned, his hand was feeling stiff, and his entire side was now aching. So when he’d seen the dim outline of a house, he hadn’t really cared whose house it was, he just tried to duck inside the back door.

Billy now sat on the couch with his leg propped up on the coffee table. Steve was trying to bandage it as best he could. He was currently using his shirt to try and stop the bleeding – it wasn’t ideal, but if he could stop the blood and wrap it up in something for now, then he could get Billy home without leaving a trail too obvious for the Demodogs to follow, where he could clean it properly using the large tub of clean water they’d prepared that morning.

Steve released some of the pressure on Billy’s ankle and lifted the bright blue cloth to check on the wound. He was relieved when blood didn’t immediately start gushing out at the removal of the pressure.

“The good news is,” Steve said, pulling away the rest of the cloth, “I think the worst of the bleeding’s stopped. I’ll wrap it up until we get home and then I’ll clean it properly.”

Billy gave a grunt to show he’d understood. Steve peered down at the wound, trying to see the best place to lift his ankle.

“Huh,” he said softly. “I thought I caught you with the flamethrower.”

Billy looked at him, confused. “Did you not?

“Don’t think so,” Steve said, looking around his ankle. “There don’t seem to be any burns.”

“Oh,” Billy said dismissively. “Maybe it was just the heat of it, then. That shit burns hot, I could feel it all down my back, and you were aiming it right by my ankle.”

Steve nodded his concession – he’d felt the handle of the weapon grow hot in his hands. “Maybe it’s just been covered in blood or something, I’ll have a proper look when we get it cleaned up.”

Billy shrugged. “Whatever makes you happy, Stevie.”

Steve raised an eyebrow as a smirk spread across his face. “From the way you were screaming, you’d have thought I’d incinerated your leg.”

“Yeah, well,” Billy hit back grumpily. “Maybe it’s not that bad. I was always told that first degree burns were the most painful, even though they haven’t caused the most damage.”

Steve looked at him curiously.

“I had to take a first aid course for the lifeguard job at the pool,” Billy explained. “It’s a formality. I did was a lifeguard at a beach last summer in California too, they always make you take their special training course.”

“Fun.”

“No, it really isn’t,” Billy said. “It’s so stupid, I’ve been doing first aid courses for as long as I’ve been surfing. I come to this back end of nowhere and I’m getting taught a load of shit by some moron who’s never even seen someone struggle in the water, and I’m sat there correcting half the shit he’s telling us because what he’s saying is all complete bullshit. Some of it was actually really fucking dangerous.

“Bet your instructor loved that.”

“I mean it,” Billy said. “He was saying that if someone’s struggling, jump in after them and help them out. You don’t ever do that in the water. If someone’s struggling in the water, chances are they’re panicking. You ever tried to get a flailing kid out of a pool?”

“I’ve tried to get one out of a hole before,” Steve muttered under his breath.

“Well if they’re panicking, and you come along in the water and try to help them, they could start grabbing you, pushing you under, and if you hit your head or something, you’re screwed, and they’re screwed. So when this idiot came along and starts telling us to jump into the pool to help a kid, I just turned around and told him where to shove it.”

“Of course you did,” Steve sighed. “Hold still.”

“What-”

Steve finally lifted up Billy’s leg as the man let out a groan of agony at the sudden movement. Steve slipped his shirt underneath his ankle and did his best to lay it back down on the table as gently as he could.

Which was evidently not gently enough for Billy.

Ah – you motherfucking-

“Think about something else,” Steve said over the sounds of Billy’s continued cursing.

Shit – Fuck you, you son of a-

“Were there any good parts about being a lifeguard?” Steve asked distractedly as he started to wrap the cloth around Billy’s ankle.

Billy evidently had just enough in him to hear the logic Steve was offering. “Sure,” he grunted. “The uniform was pretty good – JESUS, WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING?

Steve tied the shirt up as tightly as he could, ignoring Billy’s continued swearing.

Steve, be a bit more fucking heavy handed, could you? You fucking-

“So the uniform,” Steve continued. “Let me guess – Speedos?”

“Not exactly,” Billy growled. “Shorts. No top. Like you right now, only less pale.”

Steve gave Billy a glare with no real heat behind it. If he hadn’t been feeling self-conscious a second before about wandering around the Upside Down with no top on with Billy Hargrove, he was now.

“Bet the girls loved that.”

“You bet,” Billy managed a smirk – a shadow of the cocky grin Steve was so used to seeing on him. “Girls, some of the older ladies – had a group of moms who’d always come for the show. Hell, even some of the men were interested.”

Steve raised an eyebrow. “That didn’t freak you out or anything?”

“Not really,” Billy shrugged. “It’s mostly just interesting. There were a few guys out in California, but in a town like this, nobody who’s like that is admitting it. So it’s fun to see who’s interested.”

Steve managed a smile. “Anyone I know?”

Billy shrugged. “Probably. There are a few guys from school who are definitely gay. Not sure if you’d have come across them though, they tend to be more drama freaks and stuff.”

“Or band geeks,” Steve added.

“Oh, hell yeah,” Billy said. “But they’re not the fun ones to find. Nah, it’s the really straight laced ones who are fun to watch staring.”

Steve smiled as he looked down at Billy’s ankle, admiring his handiwork. It wasn’t exactly about to put a doctor out of business, and even he thought he’d be able to do better, once he was home –

“If I’m honest, I kind of thought you were gay for a while,” Billy said.

Wait.

Hold on.

…What?

Steve looked at Billy, shock etched all over his face.

“Yeah,” Billy shrugged, like it was the most casual thing in the world. “All that really fucking obvious painful overcompensation for everything, desperately trying to pretend to be someone you obviously weren’t happy with, not to mention your obsession with your hair, I thought I had you pegged as a gay.”

Steve suddenly felt extremely defensive.

“But no, you weren’t gay, you were just whipped,” Billy said, casually throwing away the remark. “Whipped… Boring… Just your average confused jock who’s not quite sure who they want to be when they grow up, pretending to be the cool kid, trying to convince yourself that that’s who you are.”

Steve felt astonishingly uncomfortable about where this conversation was going. He didn’t look Billy in the eyes – it was like he didn’t want Billy to do a -

“But this…” Billy continued, his voice taking on a much more intrigued tone. “That guy who got us out tonight… That’s the real you, isn’t it? That’s who King Steve really is.”

Steve finally looked Billy in the eyes to see those bright blue depths sparkling at him, staring at him, absolutely fascinated.

“I was wondering how a guy like you managed to survive for so long. Hell, how a guy like you managed to deal with all this shit, even back home. I didn’t think you had it in you. But what I saw there… the guy in the tunnels… that was something else.”

Steve managed an uncomfortable smile.

“I’ll admit,” a triumphant smile broke across Billy’s face as he held out his hands in a conceding gesture. “I underestimated you, Steve. We wouldn’t have made it out of that tunnel if it hadn’t been for you. I won’t make that same mistake again.”

Steve gave a small, tense shrug. “Yeah, well… you’re welcome, I guess.”

He looked down at Billy’s leg.

“That’s probably the best I’m going to get it here,” Steve announced, desperate to change the subject. “It’s not exactly perfect, but it’ll get you home. We probably shouldn’t hang around here too long, so we should probably go.”

Billy shrugged, that smile still staying put. Steve offered out a hand, refusing to meet Billy’s eyes as Billy took it, using it to haul himself to his feet. He hovered, putting his weight on his good foot, before gingerly touching his injured foot onto the ground. He gently tested the weight on it, using Steve for balance.

“Yeah, it’ll probably do,” Billy said. “It’s not that far. Then you can actually listen to me.”

“Sure,” Steve said, not really listening to Billy. He was thinking over the conversation in his mind.

So Billy had thought he was gay. That made some of Billy’s interactions at their earlier meetings make sense – and also so much more confusing. That crap he’d been saying about Steve just pretending was almost spot on – it was exactly how he’d found himself thinking back on his early high school years – hell, it was what had pushed Nancy away. The only way he’d coped with anything in his life was to shove it down, pretend that everything was normal. That had been how he’d tried to help Nancy, and it had backfired. It wasn’t what she’d needed.

It hadn’t been what he’d needed, either.

Billy had evidently picked up on that. He had said something very similar to Steve in one of their first conversations that they’d had in the Upside Down. He found himself thinking on that conversation, replaying it in his mind, words of his most recent conversation swirling around in his head, fusing together.

“I’ll be honest, I thought you’d know a bit about it. Typical rich kid with parents who are never around, trying to be popular because that’s all that fucking matters, isn’t it? Playing up to it. Pretending.”

“All that really fucking obvious painful overcompensation for everything, desperately trying to pretend to be someone you obviously weren’t happy with…”

“That’s why I was so interested in you when I heard all about you.”

“Thought we were similar-”

Shit.

No way.

Holy fucking shit.

Steve stopped in his tracks.

“Billy…” Steve said, the revelation making him see the man in a whole new light. But he had no idea what to say next.

Billy looked at Steve curiously, as though Steve wasn’t staring at him like he’d grown another set of arms and legs. Steve’s mouth moved slightly, but the words weren’t quite there yet as he struggled to figure out how to ask it.

“You’re not… you’re not, are you? … Are you…?

“There we go,” Billy said, letting out a resigned sigh.

“You’re gay?

Billy gave him a small smile. “Wasn’t exactly hiding it from you anymore, Steve.”

Steve’s jaw dropped even further. “No way…” he finally managed. “No fucking way, you’ve been with more girls than I have…”

“Yeah, well…” Billy shrugged. “You know what I was saying about overcompensating?”

Steve found himself taking a step back from him. “Shit,” Steve said, absolutely floored by the revelation. “Holy shit.

Billy gave him a shrug. “You got a problem with me being gay?”

Steve found himself shaking his head. “No, no… there’s no problem… It’s just…”

“A shock?”

“Yeah,” Steve breathed. “And… you know… I’m… I’m not.”

“I know,” Billy said simply.

“Yeah, well… great…”

Billy gave a small, incredulous chuckle. “Steve, I’m not about to try and sleep with you just because I’m gay,” he said. “I have this thing called self-control.

“No, I…” Steve stammered, taken aback. “I… I didn’t think you were, I just… I can’t believe it.”

“I got that,” Billy said, rolling his eyes. “But if you could put your shock on hold for the next half hour, you weren’t wrong when you said we needed to go.”

“Oh – right – yeah – sorry…”

Steve slid his arm under Billy’s arm, letting him put an arm around his shoulder. They managed to make it to the door, Billy hobbling out, before Steve’s curiosity finally got the better of him.

“One question, though.”

Billy gave an exasperated huff. “Yeah?”

“Why are you telling me this now?”

“Well, Steve,” Billy said in that same slightly exasperated tone. “In case you hadn’t noticed, you’re kind of the last man on Earth.”

-:-

Linda had been walking for hours.

The sky had darkened to an inky black, the cloudless sky showing off its canopy of stars as best they could above the bright streetlights. A gentle breeze was wafting through Hawkins, taking the edge off the heatwave.

It was a nice night. Just like the previous evening, and the evening before, and the evening before that, and all the other evenings that had happened since the fourth of July. She would have loved to spend a night like this wandering around the town under normal circumstances.

There wasn’t normal anymore.

Joyce Byers had seen it happen. She’d been there, with Linda’s son, while she and Paul had been enjoying fireworks in another state. While Linda and Paul had been enjoying the lavish display from their comfortable office, Joyce Byers and Jim Hopper and who knew how many others had been escaping from a fire of their own, courtesy of the sacrifice of Linda’s only son.

A sacrifice that had taken Steven away from them all.

He was gone, she believed that now. Joyce Byers had no reason to lie, and, from the albeit little that Linda knew about her, she wouldn’t lie about things like this. Linda believed her – if anyone would have encouraged her to hold onto hope, it would have been Joyce Byers, the woman who’d had her own dead son returned to her alive. Linda believed her in a way she hadn’t believed Chief Hopper, or Paul, or the Hollands, or any one of the hundreds of other people who’d been telling her that he was gone.

She’d been surprised to discover that the final acceptance had given her some of her strength back.

She’d never been a particularly emotional person – she was extraordinarily good at compartmentalising. Her life was one of walls being put up, keeping everything in nice, tidy, ordered boxes to be dealt with at convenient times. There had been a few notable exceptions, times when the walls came crumbling down as her world was rocked.

Straight after Steven had been born, she’d found herself struggling to come to terms with her new life, trying to give everything the tiny child in her care needed, but found herself getting upset, even angry, when she couldn’t, when the child was demanding everything from her. It demanded all of her, and she felt guilty when she discovered that there were things she didn’t want to give. She’d kept that to herself, not telling Paul, not telling anyone, when there were days, after Paul had gone back to work, where she’d hear that baby crying, and just left it, like a phone she didn’t want to answer. She’d eventually worked out on her own a balance that worked for her, what she could give, what she could hold back for herself. She’d never confided in Paul about this – she didn’t want to hear his judgement, his condemnation that she was sure was coming. So she worked it out on her own. She hadn’t known any other parents who felt like that. Nobody ever talked about the days when they’d wished they weren’t a mother.

The second earthquake that had knocked down those carefully curated compartments of emotion had been the discovery of Paul’s affair. Well, affairs. It had been a throwaway remark by a couple of partners at an office party nearly ten years before in a conversation that had evidently been intended to go over her head. It probably would have done, if she hadn’t met the paralegal in question earlier that evening, and had been wondering why the girl who was half her age was looking so uncomfortable around her. The night could have been the end of their marriage – she’d thought that divorce was how these things went. It was expected. She’d taken some time to herself after everything clicked into place, shutting herself in a supply cupboard away from the party for almost an hour, thinking… and realising that she was terrified of divorce. She didn’t want to leave Paul. Steven had been nine at the time, at home with a babysitter, thank god, and Linda realised that she needed to find a way to make it work. That knowledge that she wasn’t going to leave Paul immediately had given her a feeling of power – there needed to be repentance, certainly, and the affair needed to end – but she could ask for her own autonomy. When she ultimately confronted Paul after they got home, her emotions were once again sorted into those neat little boxes. Paul was caught on the back foot when she confronted him. Predictably, he was bending over backwards trying to appease her. She demanded the affair end, and he offered her a position at the law firm. It was entirely a formality, but it gave Linda her own source of income, her own financial autonomy, a role that didn’t rely on Paul’s wealth to support her if she ever did decide to leave.

Neither of those incidents, however, could hold a candle to how her world had come crashing down at the death of Steven.

For too long, her emotions had been out of check. For weeks now, she’d been drifting, clinging desperately to one fantasy or another, allowing her dreams to rule her days and her nightmares to rule her nights. The horror of it all was something she’d never even considered trying to comprehend before, and her imagination struggled to cope with these new demands upon her reality. She’d dared to dream that Steven was still alive, she’d tortured herself with the potential horrors of his demise… but now, Joyce Byers had given her something she’d never considered wanting before.

Reality had finally been brought in check.

Her feet found themselves taking her to Melvald’s. They were open late – they often were on a Friday – and Linda found herself looking at a display of flowers by the entrance. She passed over the lilies, she’d never liked them anyway, but looked at the gerberas. They were a bunch of yellow, orange and pink flowers, bright against the otherwise cold fluorescent light.

She lifted them out of the display and walked towards the door. A kid who couldn’t have been older than sixteen was at the till as she put down a twenty on the counter. He looked slightly confused at the wordless interaction, vaguely processing the transaction as he watched her breeze out of the shop purposefully. He mentioned something about her change, but it didn’t matter to Linda.

She was on her way to the church.

She hadn’t been back since the funeral. It all felt too heavy, too… unreal. She’d never liked graveyards, particularly at night, wandering through the rows and rows of headstones, each a heavy reminder of the dead beneath her feet.

Tonight, however, she felt more like she was the ghost.

She finally found the cold marble headstone that marked the grave of her son. She felt strange, lying the flowers down in front of the words spelling out his name. There wasn’t a pot or a vase or anything, so she just ended up leaning them upright against the stone.

Now that she was here, though, she didn’t know what to say.

“Hey, Steven,” she eventually began. It didn’t feel right, it didn’t feel natural to be talking to a lump of marble as though it was her boy. Memories started to flash through her mind – Steven’s first attempt at riding a bike in their garden – dropping him off at his first day of school – his face lighting up when he made the middle school basketball team – his pride after winning his first game that Linda had come to…

Those moments had become fewer and fewer over the years, as both Linda and Paul had become more and more busy with work, and more reliant on Steven to look after himself. She still remembered, though, the pride shining in his face when he’d told them he’d been made captain of the high school basketball team – one of the youngest captains in the history of the school.

Now that he was gone, Linda wished she’d been around for more moments like that.

“I’m… I’m sorry I haven’t visited you before now,” she began. “I… I didn’t want you to be gone. I was so busy trying to prove that you weren’t… So I didn’t come and see you. I couldn’t come and see you.”

She sighed.

“But what’s new there?” she laughed bitterly. “There were… there were so many things I missed out on with you that I was just too busy to do… So many things where I was trying to do what I thought was best for you, or for us, or maybe it was just for me, I don’t know…”

She reached out and found her fingertips brushing the carved name. The only indication she had of the tears on her face was how the wind bit at the damp skin on her face.

“I didn’t know a lot of things,” Linda breathed. “I didn’t know what I was missing out on with you for a long time. I didn’t know you were gone. I didn’t know how to deal with you being gone. I still don’t. Everyone keeps telling me to talk to someone – Marsha Holland recommended a therapist, but… I don’t want to talk to a stranger about this. There’s nobody I want to talk to about this anymore except you. There was… there’s so much I wish I could tell you, Steven. So much I wish I’d found the chance to say.”

She looked around the empty graveyard, feeling extremely grateful that there was nobody around to see her.

“Your father left, you know,” she told the headstone. “He didn’t want to listen to me go crazy. It’s funny… I was going round, telling everyone I thought you were still alive, asking anyone who would listen if they thought I wasn’t being crazy, and everyone said I was going mad. But it made so much sense to me… I even spoke to Joyce Byers – I don’t know if you were still close to Jonathan, you still kept that picture he took, so maybe – but even she said I was wrong. But here I am, sitting in this fucking graveyard in the middle of the night, talking to a fucking rock like it’s the most normal thing in the world, and… it feels crazier to be talking to your grave like it’s really you here than it ever felt to believe that you were still here-”

“Linda?”

The voice took her completely by surprise. She broke off suddenly, turning her head quickly to find herself looking at the last person she wanted to see.

“Paul?” she asked. “What are you doing here?”

Paul looked at her, looked at the flowers, before holding up a bunch of lilies that she hadn’t noticed in his hand.

“Much the same thing as you, I think,” he explained. “Visiting Steven.”

Linda straightened up, her posture guarded. “I thought you’d left,” she said, trying to keep the accusatory note out of her voice.

Judging by the way that Paul’s posture changed slightly, shifting ever so slightly onto his back foot, she didn’t quite manage it.

“I know,” he said. “I – uh… I came back.”

He tried for a smile which Linda didn’t return.

“Why?” she asked, not bothering to keep emotion out of her voice.

“I saw the news,” Paul explained.

A flash of a curious frown creased her eyebrows for a second before she managed to straighten out her expression. “What news?” she asked coldly.

Paul’s eyes widened in shock. “Didn’t you see? Larry was arrested.”

That wasn’t what she was expecting.

The coldness vanished from her demeanour as shock took over. “Larry? As in Larry Kline?

“Yes,” Paul said. “Apparently he took bribes to cover up safety violations in Starcourt.”

What?

“I know.”

Linda opened her mouth, trying to form words as she took a step back, holding the top of Steven’s headstone for balance. Paul took a couple of steps towards her, putting a hand on her arm before she shook it away.

“Linda,” he said softly, as he tried again to touch her arm. This time, however, she didn’t flinch. “Believe me. I know.

“I can’t believe it…” Linda gasped. “Larry… He… But – Steven… And Tom and Janet… They were all…”

Her voice trailed off as Paul placed a second hand on her other shoulder gently. “I know,” he said softly. “Linda, I’m so sorry I left, I… I was upset… I couldn’t take it… I thought if I could just run away, it’d all be okay, but… Linda, I’m so, so sorry. I want to make this right. I want to make this right for you. For them. For Steven.

“How?” Linda asked. She knew that tone of voice – she could tell that Paul had a plan.

“Well,” he explained. “I called up the DA’s office, but they won’t let us take the case because we’re a private firm. But then I started thinking… There’s been so much wrong with this town recently. The Starcourt Tragedy was the most significant thing, but you were right, there’s definitely something else going on. That Holland girl, the Radio Shack employee, Benny who ran the diner… Hell, even that Byers kid who got lost in the woods. Starcourt wasn’t new – this town wasn’t safe beforehand, and Larry knew it. But he didn’t do anything, because he was just after the money. But Kline is gone now. And this town needs someone who’s prepared to do whatever it takes to keep something like this from ever happening again.”

“Paul…” Linda looked at him, half shocked, half horrified.

“Linda,” he said earnestly. “I want to run for Mayor.”

Chapter Text

Billy was gay.

The revelation was pinging around his head like a pinball machine. Everything made so much more sense… But the fundamental shift from the womanizing star basketball player he’d always seen Billy as to the closet homosexual man Steve was now stuck in Hell with was taking a certain amount of effort to wrap his head around.

Actually, that wasn’t quite Steve’s problem. This Billy he had no trouble believing was gay. It was reconciling the Billy that Steve had come to know and accept with the Billy that Steve had been so wary of for months before – the Billy that had taken his future from him – and realising that Billy hadn’t changed that much. This was always who Billy had been. There had just been this front, this mask. It wasn’t that Billy had always been gay that was the problem.

The problem was that Billy had always been human.

They made it back to Steve’s house far more quickly than they’d made it as far as the Byers’ place. Billy, now moderately confident in the art of hobbling, had made his own way straight for the couch where he promptly collapsed and eased up his leg onto the coffee table.

“Steve, do you want your shirt back?” he asked, gesturing at his leg, still wrapped in the blue fabric.

Steve looked at him, confused for a second, before remembering what Billy was talking about.

“Uh – maybe later,” Steve shrugged. “You probably need it more right now.”

“You sure about that?” Billy gave him a strange look. “I felt you shivering all the way home.”

“Yeah – well – it’s cold,” Steve pointed out. “And honestly, a polyester t-shirt isn’t going to make me feel a whole lot warmer.”

“Suit yourself,” Billy shrugged. “Though it does show off your chest in possibly its worst state.”

The mention of his broken ribs sent a reminder to his brain of the throbbing in his chest. For the most part, he’d gotten used to the burning, spiking sensation that was now constantly sitting there, provided he didn’t breathe too sharply, or force himself into any overexerting physical activities, or – god forbid – knock it, but it was getting more insistent, and far, far harder to ignore.

He hadn’t actually looked at himself in the mirror for a while. He suspected he would be shocked by the sight. The closest thing to a gauge he had for what he might look like was Billy. Billy, with his normally well-styled hair matted down and tangled, with dirt and grime from weeks without a shower or a bath forming at least one dreadlock at the back. Steve had found himself being trained out of his habit of running a hand through his own hair at the increasingly greasy feeling he’d encountered in his first few days in the Upside Down.

It wasn’t just Billy’s hair that was showing signs. His face was thinner, too – lack of food was evidently having that effect. Steve imagined that he would probably have similar hollows in his own cheeks. He’d gotten used to the constant pang in his stomach – he and Billy had collectively decided to ration out their cans to one can between them per day on the understanding that they didn’t know how long they’d need to make it last.

Billy, however, was compensating for the thin look of his face with the beard that was starting to grow. Where previously, he’d had a carefully curated smattering of facial hair, it had now grown into the beginnings of a full beard. Steve had never managed to grow a beard himself – he usually got a few thin wisps of hair above his lip and a couple of sparse patches where two or three hairs would grow out of the bottom of his chin and on the far left side of his jawline, but he’d never kept them around long enough to grow properly.

What he had no gauge of telling from Billy, however, was the state of his chest.

It had been a surprise when Steve had taken off his shirt to catch a glimpse of his ribcage to see huge bruises blossoming near the top. Now, at the relative safety of his house, he finally gave himself a chance to look.

The lower ribs, untouched by psychotic Russians with drills, were more prominent against his torso than Steve ever remembered seeing them. The way his stomach caved in below the bottom of his ribcage was… alarming, to say the least. But that was nothing compared to the mess that was the top of his chest.

The Russians had broken the top two ribs on each side of his chest. Large purple bruises had blossomed outwards from the four holes below his collarbone. There were still old bloodstains that he hadn’t washed off from when he’d been tortured in that basement. Beneath the blood and the bruises, Steve could see swelling underneath his skin. He had no idea what his bones looked like underneath.

No wonder breathing was getting harder.

“Well,” Steve tried to shrug it off. “It’s not like there’s a hospital here or anything.”

Billy raised a single eyebrow at Steve’s comment, but thankfully had enough in him not to say anything as Steve went into the kitchen. He got a little pot out of one of the cupboards and decanted some of their clean water into it. He went back over to Billy and settled himself down beside Billy’s injured leg before gently unwrapping the shirt from around it before dunking it into the cold water with only minimal complaining from Billy.

“So how long have you known?” Steve asked.

“Known what?” Billy asked through gritted teeth at the sudden release of pressure around his leg.

“That you were gay?”

Steve gently pressed the wet cloth against Billy’s injury, brushing it down gently over his ankle. Billy let out a hiss of pain, but managed to resist the urge to curse Steve to oblivion that Steve was sure was reflexive at this point.

“A few years,” Billy grunted out. “There was this guy in high school when I was a freshman. He was a junior. Went to a house party. By that point I’d kissed a few girls, but never felt any spark. Hadn’t really been with anyone. Got drunk, tried marijuana for the first time, decisions were made and I woke up the next morning in his bed.”

“You slept with him?” Steve asked, incredulous.

“No – God, no, it wasn’t that fast. I just ended up kissing him until we fell asleep together. But…”

A smile drifted across his face, wistful, a light appearing in his eyes at a memory, making his face almost glow in the darkness in a way Steve had never seen before.

“The way he touched me, Steve…” Billy murmured. “The way his hands felt, when he just held me… when he touched my hair, or my cheek… I still remember it, Steve. I’ve never felt like that with a chick. It was… I can’t describe it, Steve. Not unless you’ve felt it too.”

Steve didn’t meet his eyes as he gently wiped away the dried blood before putting the shirt back in the water. He was pretty sure he had felt it. He remembered his first time with Nancy – the way his heart had raced at the sight of her saying his name, trusting him to turn around. He remembered how completely inarticulate he’d become, barely managing to breathe out the word ‘wow’. Even though there had been so much that had gone wrong that night, from Jonathan to Barb to Tommy and Carol, he still cradled that memory of his first time with her as something golden. Untouched by the chaos that had occurred outside his room. It had been that night, when everything had felt so right to him in those moments, that he’d realised that Nancy was a girl that one day, if the stars aligned, he could finally, finally love.

At least, until she’d realised that she couldn’t love him back.

“I think I know what you mean,” Steve murmured. “So what happened?”

The glow on Billy’s face was extinguished. “My dad found out.”

Steve looked up at Billy, pausing his attempts to rinse out his top.

“Yeah,” Billy let out a breath. “Went down really well, that did. Lots of yelling. Lots of fighting. Lots of ‘I didn’t think you were actually a fucking faggot’ and threats of straightening me out.

Billy passed a hand over his face, his eyes closed. It occurred to Steve that he’d never seen Billy so raw, so exposed. Steve felt uncomfortable, as though he was intruding on something very private, like someone who was always so guarded with his emotions was now standing there naked.

“It was the night my mom left.”

Steve couldn’t help himself, he was staring at Billy. The top lay forgotten in the pot of water, floating around the liquid that had been stained a murky red.

“She tried to get involved,” Billy explained. “She tried to stop him. My dad – he’d threatened to hit me before, but that night, he – he was actually getting violent. Smacked me across the face. It was the first time he’d done that as well.”

Billy laughed bitterly, a sarcastic sound. Steve was frozen in shock, his mind in overdrive. He’d had no idea that Billy’s dad was violent. Max had never mentioned it – did Max know?

“So when my mom got involved, my dad smacked her across the face, too. Started going at her hard – as hard as I went on you, Stevie. But she didn’t lie there and take it. She grabbed a fucking… a fucking ashtray or something. Hit him round the head with it. Didn’t knock him out, just made him mad. But…”

He shrugged. Steve didn’t even realise he was holding his breath.

“It was enough,” Billy continued bitterly. “She ran out of the house. Made it to the car. Drove off. Didn’t leave a forwarding address or anything. I tried to find her. Took me ages. She quit her job, had a whole new start in a whole new city. Eventually her old job gave me a new work address for her, and so one weekend I drove down to Los Angeles. She had…”

Billy gave a soft noise that might have been the beginnings of another bitter laugh or a very real sob.

“She had a whole new family, Steve,” he confessed. “Ready-made. Two kids. Some widower whose wife had had cancer. It was her new picture-perfect family. And she sure as hell didn’t want to have anything to do with her old one. Said it was too hard. She couldn’t fucking protect me now – now that…”

“Now that your dad knew,” Steve finished.

Billy nodded, clearly biting back some expression of emotion. “Anyway, after that night, my dad told me that it was all my fault my mom left. If I wasn’t such a fucking queer, none of this would have happened. He wouldn’t need to straighten me out. So the hunting trips started. I started pretending to like girls. I knew what my dad expected of me, so I tried to be that person. I learnt how to have chicks wrapped around my little finger. I learnt how to be popular. I was already decent at basketball, but I started to push myself there, see just how good I could become. I was surprised to find that I actually enjoyed basketball. It was about the only part of the new and improved, straightened-out Billy Hargrove I enjoyed.

“But then Dad met Susan, and they got together, and Susan won her custody battle and got Max, and the pair decided that California was just a bit too full of the past, and so we left California after appeal number four hundred and thirty seven from Max’s dad failed, and we came to this shithole. Dad’s choice. Small town in the Heartland. No fucking faggots out to tempt Daddy’s little queer.”

The missing pieces of the puzzle that was Billy Hargrove had slotted together. Everything about him now – from his jarring attitude to his occasional bursts of incredible charm to the way he’d smashed a plate over Steve’s own head all those months ago – suddenly made complete sense. This was everything he’d been missing.

Steve let out a long, slow breath, finally remembering that oxygen was, in fact, a thing. “Shit, Hargrove, that’s…”

“Fucked up?” Billy laughed sarcastically. “Yeah, there’s a reason I don’t tell that story. Goes down like a lead balloon at parties. But yeah, that’s me. That’s Billy Hargrove. That’s-”

“Heart-breaking,” Steve breathed. “Does your dad still…”

“Slap me around?” Billy finished the sentence that Steve had no idea how to form. “Fuck yeah. Now that mom’s out the picture, it’s just me. He doesn’t do it to Susan, but she knows it goes on. She’s seen it a couple of times. It’s obvious she doesn’t like seeing it, but she doesn’t get involved. Not like mom. Dad always tells her it’s between me and him. So she stays out of it. Gives me those pitying looks like she’s not at all fucking complicit. Like doing nothing isn’t just as bad. It’s pathetic.”

Steve looked down at Billy’s leg, trying to swallow down the massive lump in his throat.

“I’m sorry,” he choked out. “I – I didn’t know…”

Billy barked out a laugh – grating, vicious. “It’s like you said, Steve, why the fuck would you? I don’t exactly pour my bleeding heart out to everyone, and my dad sure as hell doesn’t tell people. It’s his worst fucking fear for the world to find out that his son is a faggot.”

“Stop it,” Steve murmured quietly. “Stop calling yourself that.”

Billy’s laughter took on a more incredulous edge. “Steve, I’ve been called every goddamn name under the sun. Fag, queer, bugger, you name it. I’m used to being called that shit, I have to be used to being called that-”

“But not by you,” Steve cut across Billy’s tirade.

This, at last, silenced Billy. He looked down at that glimmer of defiance in Steve’s eyes as Steve finally leant back.

“We’re not at home, Billy,” he continued. “We’re here. It doesn’t have to be that way. You don’t have to call yourself all those fucking names. We’re the only ones here. We’re free, Billy. Free to be whoever we want to be. You don’t have to be Billy Hargrove, new King of Hawkins High, macho basketball player and womaniser. I don’t have to keep trying to be… whoever the fuck I was trying to be. Liking guys doesn’t need to be wrong here like it is at home. Billy, we get to write our own rules here. It’s just us… and a whole load of monsters. There’s no point in fucking… fucking shitting all over whoever you are. I’m sure as hell not going to do it. So if you want to be told that you’re wrong, or that you’re a fucking fag or whatever, go right ahead, but you’re going to have to do it yourself. See how happy you are in the end. Or… you could finally just… fucking accept that this is what you want, and say a big ‘fuck you’ to everyone back home who would hate you, because what the fuck are they going to do about it, anyway?”

Billy looked stunned into silence. Steve also felt more than a little stunned, himself. He’d had no idea where that outburst had come from, but he realised that he’d meant every word.

“Anyway,” Steve changed tack, looking slightly flustered. “Your leg should be okay in the long term. I’ll wrap it up but you should probably rest it or something, I don’t know. You’re the one with the first aid course.”

Billy was startled into action by the sudden change of subject, sitting up slightly more as Steve began to wrap the shirt around his ankle once again. Steve wordlessly tied the damp blue fabric up into something that vaguely resembled a bandage before going and offering Billy his arm to help him stand up.

They made it as far as the bottom of the stairs before Billy found his voice.

“Thanks,” he whispered.

Steve gave a slightly dismissive twitch of the head. “Don’t worry about it.”

“I meant about what you said,” Billy clarified. “Nobody’s ever said anything like that to me before.”

Steve looked at him with a small smile that was more sincere than he realised. “Yeah, well, we’re all just trying to figure out ourselves. I sure as hell am, anyway. Why make things more difficult than they need to be?”

-:-

“After you.”

“Ladies first.”

“Go… just – knock on the door.”

You knock on the door.”

“Dustin, this was your idea!”

“Yeah, but you’re the responsible adult in the room.”

Robin rolled her eyes with a sigh before walking up to the door and knocking three times. The highly polished grand wooden door was something completely unfamiliar to her – an attempt at elegance from a house that seemed to primarily think that size was synonymous with grandeur. Robin was pretty sure the only way they’d managed to avoid having the neighbourhood watch coming down on them for not fitting in with the tidy aesthetic of this part of town was by hiding just about all of it from the street behind a tidy row of trees.

“They probably aren’t even home,” Robin rolled her eyes. “It’s the middle of the day.”

“Yeah, but it’s summer,” Dustin said like it explained everything. “Normal routines don’t apply during the holidays.”

“Er – earth to dingus, adults don’t get summer holidays like we do,” Robin pointed out. “Why do you think I ended up spending my time at a shitty ice cream shop with-”

She broke off as the door opened, causing her to jump back with a start. A woman who Robin had never actually seen before, let alone met, was standing in the doorway, looking more than a little annoyed by the interruption to her day by two strange kids. Robin took in her appearance, from her dyed blonde hair to those achingly familiar brown eyes.

This was Steve’s mom.

“Can I help you?” Linda Harrington asked with a hint of annoyance evident beneath the polite tone.

“Uh – Mrs Harrington?” Dustin asked, putting on his usual charming smile that he used to win over just about everyone. “I’m – I’m Dustin Henderson – and this is…”

“Robin Buckley,” Robin offered out a hand for her to shake. “I… I worked with Steve at Scoops Ahoy.”

Comprehension dawned upon Linda Harrington’s face, smoothing out the fine crinkles of confusion. “Right,” Linda nodded before turning to Dustin. “And you are…?”

“Oh – uh – Steve used to babysit me and my friends sometimes,” Dustin explained. “We… we got close.”

The confusion was back on her face. “Steven would babysit?

“Yeah,” Dustin tried for a laugh that fell flat at the first breath. “He was actually pretty good at it – he’d give me advice and stuff…”

Dustin trailed off at the surprised look on Linda’s face.

“I never knew he did that,” she said quietly.

“We – uh – we were wondering,” Robin changed the subject. “With everything that’s happened, if you’d like a hand sorting through some of Steve’s old stuff?”

Linda looked taken aback at the suggestion. “What?”

“Yeah,” Dustin said. “I know – well, my friend, Max – her brother, Billy, was also – um – you know – at the mall – she’s been really busy clearing out his room – and we thought – we knew Steve-”

“We thought you might need a hand,” Robin cut off Dustin’s babbling.

“Oh,” Linda still looked taken aback at the offer but generally looked to be more on the same page as the two teenagers stood on her doorstep. “Well, that’s a very kind offer. It’s true we haven’t got round to it, everything’s been so busy, but… you don’t need to-”

“We want to help,” Dustin said. “Steve was a really good friend. He was… He was sort of like the big brother I’d never had…”

Dustin cringed inwardly at the way the words left his mouth, but evidently they had piqued Linda’s curiosity. She gave Dustin a strange look, almost looking through him.

“He never mentioned this…” Linda breathed. “I…”

She trailed off with a frown upon her face, still staring at Dustin.

“I suppose you’d better come in.”

-:-

Paul felt the distinct weight of each of his steps as he walked down the Indianapolis street. He’d excused himself from most of his day’s meetings to arrange this, but hopefully it wouldn’t take too long. Hopefully, the ball would be rolling by the end of the day. He knocked on the green door of the house in one of the nicer suburbs of the city.

The door opened to reveal a man Paul hadn’t seen in over a year. Dressed in comfortable chinos and a red shirt, with his hair slowly growing out of the tidily groomed hairstyle that Paul had once been so used to seeing him wear, retirement was clearly suiting James Spencer.

“Paul,” he said genially with a broad smile on his face. “It’s been far too long.”

Paul found himself breaking into the first genuine smile he’d worn in days. He followed him inside with a greeting, allowing himself to be led into the study.

“Drink?” James offered, walking over to a cabinet that held some very fine Scottish whiskey.

“It’s ten thirty in the morning,” Paul pointed out.

“Not if you’re on European time,” James gave a booming laugh.

Everything about James had always been larger than life. Where Paul had been quite reserved, James had charm and charisma that drew people towards him like a magnet. They’d become extremely good friends at law school, being two of the only people from Indiana in their year to get into Harvard Law, and after spending some time as associates at a law firm in New York, they’d ended up going back to their roots to found Harrington Spencer in Indianapolis. Their contacts in the corporate world, combined with their reputation as a formidable team, had sent clients with industrial centres in the heartland flocking to them as a firm that they trusted – not a big city faceless corporation, but playing on their Indiana heritage to create a local, familial image that helped them carve out a niche in the market which they would spend nearly the next twenty five years coming to dominate. People trusted them. People thought that they knew them.

This had been a part of the reason why the uncertainty surrounding Paul’s leave of absence after Starcourt had made everyone extremely nervous.

“So,” James said, pouring himself a glass of eighteen-year-old Glenfiddich. “Is there a reason you’ve abandoned our firm on a Monday morning to come and see me, or is it purely for my sparkling conversation?”

Paul smiled. “I wish it was just for your sparkling conversation, but there is a reason.”

“Is it the reason I think it is?”

Paul gave him a curious look, which sent James into another booming laugh.

“Paul, I’m not an idiot,” he chuckled. “I’ve been paying attention to the news. I know what happened to that boy of yours, and a few weeks later you’re playing hooky to come see me, despite having never played hooky in your life. I can put two and two together.”

Paul sighed. James was many things, but tactful wasn’t one of them. He was straight to the point, with little regard for the social graces that people normally employed when trying to get there.

“I tried to call after I heard,” James’ voice took on a more serious, sombre tone. “Phone was left ringing off the hook. Clarice talked about sending a card, but I imagined you’d be getting more than enough of that kind of thing, and you’ve never exactly been one for that kind of sentimentality.”

Paul managed an uncomfortable smile. “Thanks.”

“So am I right in thinking that you want me to come back and help out for a bit?” James asked. “Lighten the load, take some of the pressure off, smooth things over with the partners and so on? Clarice may try to kill you, but just ramp up the kicked puppy thing and she might let it slide.”

Paul looked at him, confused.

“Come on,” James gave him a derisive look. “Your kid dies, of course you want to spend more time with the wife, but the partners need a little bit more stability than you clocking off at two thirty every afternoon to drive back to Hawkins. So I come back, we split the management between us, take some of it off your plate, give you a bit more freedom to get back to the house at a reasonable hour in time to make her dinner a few times a week. It’s not exactly rocket science.”

Paul gave a tense smile down at his lap, not quite meeting James’ eyes.

“Actually, I had something a little more extreme in mind,” Paul said. “I want to leave Harrington Spencer.”

James’ eyebrows shot up as he leant back into his chair. “You’re thinking of retiring? I know things have been rough, I can’t imagine what you must be going through, but you’re way too young for that.”

“I’m about three months younger than you,” Paul pointed out with a laugh.

“Yes, but I have my health to think of,” James snorted. “Unlike you, the stress of the job sent me into a coronary. Retirement was the only option, or else Clarice would have divorced me. You’ve got several years left in you before you need to retire.”

“If it helps, I wouldn’t be ‘retiring’ retiring like you did,” Paul explained. “I’d just be retiring from the law.”

James looked at him curiously.

“I’ve decided to run for Mayor in Hawkins,” Paul said.

James leant back in his chair, the glass of whiskey held out to one side as he burst into laughter. Paul sat there, a slightly guilty grin on his face as James kept laughing at the declaration.

“Paul, you’re not a politician,” James laughed. “You’re many things, but you’re not-”

“That’s not such a bad thing, actually,” Paul pointed out. “The Mayor – Larry Kline – I’m sure you’ve met him at one of our dinner parties – he’s just been arrested for taking bribes that led to Starcourt blowing up. People are angry – hell, I’m angry. When he ran for office, I donated about a quarter of my salary to his campaign. With him in charge, look what’s happened. The last disappearances and murders were in the twenties and thirties before he got in charge, and then with him in power, we had kids disappearing, the guy who ran the local diner was murdered, that lab was running all sorts of experiments that killed a girl in high school… Starcourt is the latest in a long line of tragedies, James. Nobody else seems to be stepping up to the plate to say that enough is enough. But I am. I have a responsibility to do it. I can bring that town in check and make sure that nobody else dies needlessly.”

James looked at him pensively. “I get where you’re coming from, but do you really think you’ve got what it takes to run a town?

“I built a law firm from the ground up, and it’s now one of the biggest in the country,” Paul said. “I have to try – I owe it to Tom Holloway, and I owe it to Steven. The town needs fixing, it needs bringing back into line. If I can, I have a responsibility to try.”

James leant back again, taking another sip of whiskey. “Your mind’s made up, isn’t it? What does Linda say about all this?”

“She called me crazy at first-”

“She always was the smart one.”

Paul shot him an unimpressed look. “But she’s coming round to the idea,” he finished. “She says that if I need to do this, she’ll support me through it.”

James looked long and hard at Paul. “It’s good that you’ve got her onside,” he said thoughtfully. “You’ll need it. And… I can’t deny I owe you a favour. You picked up the slack when I needed some time after Clarice’s miscarriage. And you were supportive when I decided to retire for my health. I can’t overlook that.”

Paul smiled as James drained his glass, setting it down before leaning forward.

“I’ll tell you what,” James said. “I’ll come back to the firm while you run for Mayor or do whatever you need to do to get through this. I’ll smooth things over with the partners. But… there are conditions.”

Paul nodded in acceptance. He knew anything James offered would come with a caveat or ten. It always did.

“If you lose, you come back to the firm. No questions. You run it until you find a successor who isn’t going to make the partners piss their pants. I’m not letting you throw away our firm, and I’m not letting you throw away your career for a project to keep you busy instead of grieving properly. You didn’t let me do that after they told us that Clarice was never going to have kids, so there’s no way in Hell I’m going to let you do the same. And if you win… I’m not running the firm while you’re in office. I can’t do that to Clarice – not again. Anything I do is short-term. You win, I find someone to take the firm over. I walk away. And that means that if you become Mayor, you give up the firm too.”

Paul swallowed at the cold hard truth of his decision laid out before him. He’d been expecting that much.

“Are we understood?” James asked.

-:-

Neither Robin or Dustin had been expecting Steve to have kept his bedroom even remotely tidy, and neither was disappointed.

“I mostly made a start on tidying up,” Linda explained. “I got as far as putting all the dirty clothes into the hamper, but everything in the cupboards needs sorting.”

Dustin felt an all-too-familiar twist in his chest at the sight of Steve’s room. The carpet of dirty clothes may have been gone, but there was other clutter on the surfaces and the floor. There were a few vinyl records scattered around the place, a couple of comics that Dustin had tried to lend him in the hopes of inducting him into nerd culture piled on a desk in the corner, sports magazines littered the floor by his bed, and there was even the occasional book off the shelf. Dustin noted with particular amusement a copy of Slaughterhouse-Five that sat on the desk by the comic books, face down, folded open on one of the earliest pages. Evidently Dustin wasn’t the only person who’d been trying to extend Steve’s culture intake beyond the latest issue of Sports Illustrated.

Dustin hadn’t exactly expected to walk into this room and feel nothing, but it surprised him at just how strange it felt to be here. There were so many little mysteries, so many questions that Steve would never be able to answer. Jonathan, obviously, was responsible for Slaughterhouse-Five, but how long ago must that have been? Had this book been sitting there for months, with Steve never having made it past the first few pages? If so, why had he taken the effort to save his place? Why hadn’t he ever returned it? Had he just forgotten? Or had Steve just started trying to read it again, with no chance to finish it? The comics, he knew when he’d lent them to Steve, it had been back in January, but Steve had never mentioned them, and whenever Dustin asked about the comics, he’d kept saying he needed to finish them. Had he ever finished them? Had he even picked them up?

Robin seemed to be having a similar reaction to Steve’s room, but she rallied more quickly than Dustin did, finding her voice with a slightly choked quality.

“What… What needs going where?”

Linda hadn’t made it much further beyond the door. She was evidently taking in the sight before her. Neither Dustin nor Robin knew that this was the first time she’d braved being back in that room since speaking to Joyce Byers – neither of them knew the conversation had even taken place. Neither of them knew what Linda had so desperately, determinedly believed until just a few days ago. Neither of them knew that she’d been putting off sorting this room in the vain hope that maybe, just maybe, there was a chance that Steven might use it again.

But that was the past. She’d now accepted that he wasn’t coming back here. Sentimentality was just a knife waiting to be twisted at this point.

“Clothes, books, records are all going to Goodwill,” she said firmly. “There are some boxes in the basement, we can take them there later. Anything else… throw it out.”

The two children she’d met less than an hour ago looked at her, slightly confused.

“Oh – except for photos,” Linda suddenly turned. Maybe a little sentimentality was okay. “Keep the photos.”

Robin volunteered to go down and find the boxes and a few trash bags, while Dustin set to work salvaging the Vonnegut book and the comics. Linda gave him a curious look as he took off his backpack to put them in.

“Oh – uh, my – my friend’s brother lent him this,” Dustin tried his most charming smile as he held up the book. “I lent him the comics. Don’t know if he ever read them, but…”

Dustin gave a small shrug as he faded into an increasingly awkward silence. Linda gave him an unreadable look as she started to fold up a t-shirt, before looking down.

“As long as it’s out of the house, I don’t mind where it ends up,” she said dismissively. She finished folding the top and placed it neatly on the bed before extracting another one from the drawer before something occurred to her.

“So you know Jonathan Byers, then?”

Dustin looked up at the question. There was an edge to her voice, curious, guarded. She was clearly intrigued by the two strangers in her house who were now helping sort through her son’s possessions. Unmentioned, novel, a complete mystery that she could now demand answers from about a boy she should have known better than anyone.

“Uh… yeah,” Dustin said. “His brother, Will, is one of my best friends.”

Linda nodded, placing the second shirt on top of the first. “So were you there?

Dustin almost dropped the bag. “What?”

“At Starcourt – were you there?” Impatient. Accusatory. Attacking.

“Uh… Yeah – yeah, I was.”

A small smile – triumphant, understanding – spread across her face as she got another top out of the drawer and refolded it into less of a crumpled heap. “I see.”

Dustin looked at Mrs Harrington with confusion. That same triumphant smile was still there as she put the top onto the pile she was creating before looking up at Dustin.

“You’re one of the people he got out,” she said.

That smile was so victorious Dustin almost felt it was predatory. There was no warmth, just realisation. Dustin’s silence confirmed her suspicions.

“I thought there was something more to you two,” she said. “Robin, I assumed, was probably there, but I wasn’t sure why a kid would offer to sort out his room unless there was something else going on.”

This was not a conversation Dustin wanted to have – Mrs Harrington seemed to know more than he thought she knew. He didn’t know who had told her what, and was determined not to say something that was going to contradict the official story. He felt that same panic well up in his chest that he’d felt at the funeral – the colours were starting to get too bright – he grabbed hold of the back of the chair –

“Mrs Harrington, I’m… I’m so sorry…” he stammered.

“Don’t be,” Linda said, and as soon as she turned away that feeling of a spotlight left him. “Steven made his own decisions. He got people out – I’m told he saved a lot of lives – I suppose I should be happy about that, it’s just… it wasn’t his responsibility to do that. And now I’m left with little fragments of who he was, none of which agrees with who I thought he was.”

She looked up at Dustin to see him struggling to regain control of his breathing, clutching the back of the chair with white knuckles like his life depended on it.

“Are you alright?” she asked, concerned.

“Yeah, I just-”

He lowered himself into the chair, balling his hands into fists to try and hide the fact that they were shaking.

“I’m sorry,” Linda said. “I didn’t mean to torture you; I sometimes forget it must have been a deeply upsetting experience for everyone there. I’m just… trying to work out what happened to my son.”

Dustin nodded as things finally started to move back to normal. His breathing deepened as it came back under his control, and the colours returned to their normal state.

“I’m sorry,” he said, finally finding his voice as his hands unfurled. They weren’t shaking as much, but there was still a mild involuntary tremor to them as he rested them on the table. “I should have tried to help him – I should have tried to save him-”

“I don’t think there’s anything anyone could have done,” Linda said, sitting on the bed. “It certainly wasn’t your responsibility to try.”

Dustin closed his eyes at her words. She didn’t know. She couldn’t know.

She could never know how Steve had held the door to give him time to get out. She could never know that Steve had been taken prisoner by Russians. She could never know that they tortured him for information about the Gate, information that he’d fought not to give them. She could never know that Steve hadn’t died in some tragic accident, but instead in a moment of heroism, saving the world from the threat of an interdimensional portal and otherworldly monster hell-bent on destroying them. And she could never know that Dustin had had a chance to save him, but hadn’t taken it.

The door opened again and Robin emerged with several boxes. She was too busy negotiating them into the room to notice the lack of activity or the fact that its two occupants were now sitting down in what was clearly an emotional moment. Linda got up and started to help her, while Dustin settled for another moment in the chair, before getting up to help.

“We should probably start with the closet,” Robin suggested. “Also, I’m absolutely not dealing with what’s under the bed.”

Dustin looked confused for a second, which had Robin laughing. Just like that, the uncomfortable atmosphere of Linda Harrington’s interrogation was gone.

“Oh, my strange little child friend, you’re so innocent, it’s cute,” Robin laughed. “If you want to have your childhood brought to a very sudden stop, then please, by all means-”

Dustin had understood at the word ‘cute’, so promptly held up a hand to stop her. “Thanks – thanks Robin, I got it.”

Still laughing, she opened the closet door and started pulling down some of Steve’s old shirts and jackets down before she started folding them up. She lay them across the bed while Linda put her carefully folded t shirts into one of the boxes. Dustin walked over to help, taking a blue jacket off the hanger and handing it to Robin. He turned back, making a move to take the next jacket down, before he froze.

His hands were touching a grey jacket that Dustin remembered all too well. Vivid memories of Steve flooded his brain. Steve walking up to the Wheelers’ house with flowers in hand… Steve driving him back to his house to face Dart… Steve walking with him with a bucket of mincemeat while giving him advice about Max and haircare… Steve walking out into the junkyard with his bat to take on a pack of Demodogs by himself… Steve stood in the Byers’ living room, ready to protect them from Demogorgons and Billy alike… Steve helping them set fire to the tunnels…

“Dude, you okay?” Robin broke him out of his reverie.

Dustin still stood there, hand frozen on the grey jacket. He closed his eyes for a second and nodded.

“First time I properly met him, he was wearing this,” Dustin explained.

“If you want it, it’s yours,” Linda said casually. “All this is just going to Goodwill anyway, so if you want to keep it, feel free.”

Dustin took it slowly off its hanger, feeling the material underneath his fingers. It felt wrong, somehow, holding the jacket in his hands, knowing that he was never going to see Steve in it again.

“Go on, try it on,” Linda suggested.

Almost as though he was in a dream, Dustin slipped it round his shoulders. It hung off his arms, the cuffs stopping just at his fingers, the bottom sitting a little bit below the waistband of his shorts.

“Looks good on you,” Robin said.

“It’s a bit big,” Dustin commented, looking at himself in the mirror.

“Steven got that jacket when he was about your age,” Linda said. “It never quite fitted him at the time, either. Then he had his growth spurt and suddenly it was almost too small for him. Not that either state ever stopped him from wearing it.”

Dustin pulled the jacket around him and looked at Robin.

“You’ll grow into it,” Robin said encouragingly. “Just like he did.”

Dustin wished he could believe her.

-:-

“Lucas? Lucas, do you copy?”

Lucas looked up from his comic with more than a little annoyance as he found his radio on the floor – annoyance he was not shy about showing in his exasperated tone of voice.

“Yes, Mike, I copy, what’s up?”

“Dude, you’re supposed to say ‘over’ when you’re done-”

“Nobody cares, Mike. What’s wrong?”

The absolute last thing Lucas needed or wanted to deal with was another fucking Mike tantrum. He had his own problems, mostly revolving around his girlfriend and her newfound discomfort around him following the abrupt departure of her extremely racist stepfather.

“Your girlfriend has kidnapped mine again.”

This was not news.

“So?”

“So El’s never bailed on me. More importantly, she won’t fucking tell me why she’s bailed on me. She just gave me some bullshit about going shopping – like Hopper’s ever going to let that happen – and then switched off her radio. It’s such bullshit – I bail on her once and she goes all ‘I dump your ass’ on me, and then a few weeks later she’s doing the exact same thing. It’s such a double-standard.”

None of this explained why Lucas was still having this conversation with Mike when he could be reading his comic.

“Mike, just-”

“They’re up to something, Lucas. Maybe they’re spying on us again. They’ve been hanging out all the time since the mall.”

“I thought you said El had never bailed on you before?”

“Yeah, she’d never outright ‘bailed’ bailed, but I spent weeks trying to find some alone time with her. When she’s not busy having nights in with Hopper, she’s out with Max. I’ve seen her three times since Starcourt. And one of those was our D and D game. This was going to be our fourth, but then she calls me up and says Max needs her and they’re going shopping. I’m telling you, they’re up to something.”

Conspiracy theories aside, that was weird. El and Mike were practically joined at the hip.

“They’re plotting something, I bet you. Like… something to do with us, I bet. Like… they’re spying on us, making sure we’re still loyal, or else, like, testing how much we love them or something.”

Lucas wished there was a way he could convey his massive eyeroll over the radio.

Or El is being there for Max, who’s struggling because her piece of shit stepdad walked out on her and her mom after Max trapped his son in the Upside Down and told the world he was dead,” Lucas pointed out. “She’s got a lot going on, so stop being a dick to my girlfriend.”

“Has she talked to you about any of that shit?”

Lucas really didn’t want to answer that. Unfortunately, his silence was answer enough for Mike.

“There you go,” Mike’s triumphant voice came through the radio. “If it was any of that Starcourt shit or Neil shit or anything, she’d talk to you as well.”

“Thank you for pointing that out,” Lucas didn’t bother hiding the bite in his voice.

“Well, why else wouldn’t she come to you? You just said she’s your girlfriend.”

Lucas swallowed, as something he’d been struggling with finally came to the forefront of his mind, an answer he hadn’t wanted to consider, but now, at the question he’d been thinking on for so long was finally posed to him from someone outside his own head, it was the first answer that came into his mind. The answer that made the most sense. The only answer that made enough sense.

He wanted to delude himself with conspiracy theories like Mike was. He wanted to be able to tell himself that there was another explanation for Max suddenly becoming so closed off to him, to him and only to him, why she was talking to El but not to him. He wanted to be able to tell himself that his girlfriend was plotting whatever fourteen-year-old girls plot to torture their boyfriends or test them, or else spending time doing things that could only be done with another girl, whatever that may be. But he wasn’t Mike. He wasn’t so ready to believe the crazy chaotic theories that Mike could come up with. He’d always been grounded in realism – it had been why he’d been so sceptical of El in the first place – and the reality here was as clear as day.

“Mike, seriously, just… back off Max, okay?” Lucas said. “She’ll talk to me when she’s ready.”

Assuming Neil hadn’t poisoned her completely against him.

-:-

It felt strange for Linda to walk out of that room with Steven’s life packed up into tidy cardboard boxes.

Robin had borrowed her mom’s car for the day and volunteered to drive some of the boxes down to Goodwill when she left, but Linda offered them a drink after they’d finished loading up her car. It became immediately apparent that the ‘drink’ was much more of an excuse for Linda to interrogate Dustin and Robin about the Steve that they knew.

Almost an hour later, just after they had opened a bottle of wine for Robin and Linda to share, having collectively decided without his input that Dustin was too young to drink, a car pulled up in the driveway. The conversation about Steve’s job at Scoops Ahoy was cut off as the front door opened and a man neither Robin nor Dustin had ever seen out of pictures walked into the living room. His face had a very similar bone structure to Steve, but with his greying hair, neatly trimmed and styled, so in contrast to his son’s, and a smart suit that cost more than the average car perfectly tailored to his figure, it was hard to imagine someone less like Steve.

Paul Harrington stopped in the doorway, frowning at the two teenagers who were sat on his couch.

“Hello,” he said in that same wary voice that his wife had used when first confronted with them. “I’m sorry, who are you?”

Linda, fortunately, came to their rescue. “Paul, this is Dustin and Robin. Steven would occasionally babysit Dustin and Robin worked with him at the ice cream shop.”

Dustin and Robin waved as the awkwardness mounted. Paul nodded dismissively.

“Pleasure,” he said as he put down his briefcase and started to walk towards the kitchen before stopping dead.

“Hold on,” Paul said, turning back towards Dustin. “Did you say Steven was your babysitter?

If Dustin had felt on the spot before with Linda, it was nothing to how he felt now. “Uh… yeah. He was actually really good at it-”

“Are you sure you weren’t thinking of somebody else?”

Linda, once again, came to Dustin’s rescue. “Apparently not,” she cut through, glaring at her husband. “Darling, get yourself a glass and join us for a drink.”

The ice in her tone broached no room for any argument – at least, any argument Paul was prepared to have. He vanished into the kitchen and emerged a second later with a crystal wine glass.

“I’m sorry about my husband,” Linda said to Dustin and Robin, the last remnants of ice not quite being thawed by the warmth she was clearly trying to inject into her tone. “He sometimes forgets his manners after a long day at work.”

She took another sip of wine, glaring at her husband as he picked up the bottle and poured himself a healthy measure. He stood up and leant against a side table, surveying Dustin and Robin. Robin tried to make herself feel more at ease by taking another sip, but she felt that cold grey stare fixed on her.

“Dustin and Robin have been helping me sort through Steven’s room,” Linda explained.

Paul’s eyebrows shot up. “That’s brave of you.”

“It’s no trouble,” Robin said. “Steve was a good friend.”

Paul nodded dismissively again. “Well, how much do we owe you?”

“We – we don’t want money, Mr Harrington…”

Eyebrows raised again. A frown followed, before he looked warily again at them.

Linda decided to change the subject. “So what did James say?”

Paul’s expression eased at the change of subject, and Dustin and Robin thanked whatever God there was that Linda had evidently had years of dealing with Paul. It was now extremely obvious to Dustin and Robin why Steve had never had a good relationship with his father. In the three minutes that they’d known him, they’d already felt like they were under an intense spotlight – like there was no guarantee that any answer, no matter how truthful, would ever be good enough for him.

“He said yes,” Paul explained. “He’ll take it over in the short term, but if it works out, in the longer term, he’ll find someone else to run the firm.”

It took a second for Dustin to understand what exactly had just been said.

“Hold on, you’re leaving your job?”

Paul’s head snapped back towards Dustin in that same scrutinising glare. “Yes.”

“Because of what happened?

Paul’s eyebrows raised again. “In a manner of speaking.”

Robin looked at Dustin, before turning back to Paul. “W-why?”

“Are you retiring or something?” Dustin asked.

Robin winced at the complete lack of tact demonstrated by Dustin, but fortunately Paul laughed. It was a hard, edged sound, bitter with only the slightest hint of humour.

“No, I’m not retiring,” Paul said. “I’m making a lateral move into local politics.”

Dustin and Robin looked confused for a second, before turning back to the man stood in front of them, confusion etched on both their faces.

“Paul’s thinking about running for Mayor,” Linda supplied, taking another sip of her wine.

That… wasn’t what either of them expected.

“You’re what?” Dustin finally found his voice.

Paul stood up straight, walking towards the side cabinet. Linda had relocated the photo she’d found in Steven’s room to the top of the cabinet, and Paul’s fingertips lingered on the frame.

“This town has gotten out of control,” he said. “It’s not safe anymore. The previous people in charge of Hawkins have let things get out of control for their own gain and people have died because of it. Hawkins was meant to be a safe place to raise your family. It’s why we live here. It’s why we sent Steven to school here. And look how that worked out.

“Something needs to be done. Now that Kline is gone, it’s the perfect time for a change. Nobody else seems to be doing it. So why not? I know what’s going on in this town. The flaws are there, clear as crystal. We’ve got an underused police department run by a drunk, the hospital and fire department are underfunded while an ineffective council lines its pockets with bonuses that could be going-”

“Paul, that’s enough, they’re kids, not voters,” Linda cut him off.

Robin and Dustin looked at each other warily. Robin took another sip of her wine, before setting it down on the table with a certain finality.

“Well, it was lovely to meet you both,” she said. “But we’d probably better get going if we’re going to make it to Goodwill before it closes.”

“Great to meet you,” Dustin echoed, before something occurred to him. “Oh – there was something else – Mrs Harrington, I didn’t see any sports equipment in Steve’s room, but we played baseball a couple of times. I know he had a bat somewhere – do you want me to take that too?”

Paul frowned at him. “You don’t look like the baseball type.”

“I’m not,” Dustin tried for a winning smile. “I think Steve wanted to try and get me into it, but it didn’t really work out.”

Paul frowned at him for another second before evidently deciding that life was too short. Linda pursed her lips, thinking.

“Well, if it wasn’t in his room, it might be in the trunk of his car,” she said. She got up and went to her handbag before handing him a set of keys. “Feel free to go and have a look, but don’t worry if you can’t find it, it’s not that important.”

Dustin smiled at her, his heart beating fast. Robin followed him out of the house to the driveway, relieved that she’d chosen to park on the street just outside. Out of the microscope that Paul Harrington seemed to be holding over them, Robin found herself breathing slightly more easily, but was surprised when Dustin was, if anything, more agitated.

“Whatever happens, don’t let the Harringtons see,” he instructed as he popped the trunk open.

There was nothing immediately apparent in the trunk. There was a layer of detritus that was to be entirely expected, but Dustin evidently knew something Robin didn’t, because without a second thought, he lifted a flap that exposed a compartment where there was usually a spare tyre, and Robin felt her jaw drop.

Whoah.

A baseball bat sat there, nails hammered into the head of it.

This is why I wanted to do this,” Dustin explained. “Can you imagine if the Harringtons found this? It would raise so many questions.”

Robin admired it as Dustin took it out of the trunk before relocking the car.

“Put this in your trunk,” he instructed, handing the bat to Robin. “I’ll go give back the keys. And be careful – that’s Steve’s Demogorgon bat.”

Dustin went back inside and returned the keys to Linda, who gushed over him with profuse thanks. He almost felt his heart racing as she saw him on his way with a wave to Robin, who was standing by the car, smiling in a passable imitation of someone with nothing to hide. They finally got into the seats and together let out an exhale of relief.

Well,” Robin said, finally processing all the revelations.

“I think we’d better return Vonnegut to Jonathan,” Dustin said. “Like, right now.

-:-

The arrival of Sam Owens at his desk never boded well for Hopper.

Particularly not a Sam Owens who was looking at him with that slightly sad smile that meant that there was absolutely another shoe waiting to be dropped.

“Hey there, Jim,” he said genially in a tone that would not have fooled him even if Sam Owens was a complete stranger. “Any chance we could talk?”

“Any chance you just want to catch up over coffee?”

Sam smiled sadly at him, that look in his eyes just telling Hopper that Sam was about to ruin his day.

“What is it, Doc?” Hopper was not having his bullshit today.

“I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news.”

Hopper looked up with an unimpressed look. “Yeah, no shit. You look like someone kicked your puppy.”

“I just got a call,” Sam said, letting out a low breath. “Someone from the FBI or something.”

Oh, for God’s sake, just get on with it. “And?”

“The powers that be are going to release Colonel Ozerov back to the Russians.”

Well, Sam did promise bad news.

“You’re kidding, right?” Hopper asked, his eyes widening. “Please tell me you’re kidding.”

Sam helped himself to a seat. “I wish I was,” he said heavily. “But apparently there are six American soldiers that the Russians have agreed to release back to us in exchange for him. It was a no-brainer for the President.”

“And what about the world-ending threats?” Hopper felt his anger rising. “We still don’t know what the Russians were up to in Starcourt. And what about the kids? Are they going to be safe?”

“There are conditions to his release,” Sam explained. “If he ever comes back into the States, that’s grounds enough for us – or any American – to shoot him on sight. He’s a dead man if he comes back here.”

“And what about what he knows?” Hopper snapped. “He knows way too much. What if he sends people to try and open the Gate again?”

“I know,” Sam said sadly. “That’s why I’m telling you. We need to keep watch. The Russians can only open the Gate from here. They’d need to come back into Hawkins in order to be a threat.”

Hopper scowled at Sam. “You sure about that, Doc?”

Chapter Text

“You ready?” Max asked.

El nodded. She was getting used to this. It was getting easier. Almost habitual. Like the Coke can. She pulled on the blindfold, and the world went black.

-:-

Holy shit!

Billy sat bolt upright, startling Steve. A few days – or days equivalent, as he put it in his head – of ‘taking it easy’ had mostly revolved around Billy lying flat on the bed, staring grumpily at the ceiling, with his leg elevated on salvaged cushions while Steve occasionally went downstairs and heated up a can of whatever he found first.

Now, however, he did not have to look far to understand what had so surprised Billy. He’d heard it too, a crack like lightning as the ground split.

Steve rushed towards the window, peering out into the darkness. “It’s nearby.”

Billy eased himself upright and hobbled over to the door. Steve noted with some surprise that he was actually capable of walking – for this, at least.

“Billy, we can’t afford to miss this Gate,” Steve said. “We’ve got to go. Now.

-:-

El held the Gate steady. She was pushing herself – testing herself. She could find her limits. She knew what too much felt like. She could hold it longer. She wasn’t afraid of the Gate anymore.

-:-

Steve was running – running – faster than he thought he ever could. Billy was behind him. Like him, Billy was pushing through the pain. The pain in Billy’s leg, the pain in Steve’s chest, they had to be secondary. Only adrenaline could push them further.

The Mind Flayer could not get there first this time.

Only one of them needed to make it at first. If one of them got there, then they could tell the Party that the other was alive. Somehow, they would find a way to get home. They just needed to get to this Gate.

At least, this was what Steve was telling himself as Billy started to fall behind.

He threw a glance over his shoulder as he noticed Billy’s silhouette fall out of his periphery. He slowed his stride a fraction, until Billy just yelled at him. The blood pounding in his ears almost drowned out the words, but he didn’t need to be able to read lips to be able to decipher the single worded command being tossed his way.

Go!

It was all Steve needed.

He pushed himself – he had to push himself. The Mind Flayer had to be on its way – it would be there soon – he had to get there first. Free from being tied to Billy’s pace, he only had his own limitations to contend with.

His chest was burning – the feeling that had been intensifying since his arrival in the Upside Down was being aggravated by the sprint Steve was now forcing himself into, but it wouldn’t matter. He could make it home – he had to make it home – both his and Billy’s lives depended on it.

He could see the Gate – the forest wasn’t especially dense where he was – it was still a little way away at the top of a ridge – but it was close. No sign so far of the Shadow, he just needed to get there –

Something caught his foot.

He smacked facedown against the mud, hitting the floor hard. Any hope he’d had of adrenaline suppressing the oncoming coughing fit until he was through the Gate vanished on impact. The air was knocked out of his lungs – Steve gasped, trying to snatch as much air back inside them as possible, but it was like there was something blocking his airway, choking him –

He tried to force a violent cough to expel whatever it was, but nothing seemed to be coming up. If anything, it was just making it worse. He couldn’t afford to have this happen now, he had to get to the Gate, but when he tried to press his good hand into the dirt to push himself upright, his body gave another violent heave as he tried to get more air into his lungs. His vision danced in front of him. He couldn’t even stand, but he had to, he had to. He had to get to the Gate.

-:-

El could feel it – something was rushing towards the Gate. Something powerful – something she had only tested herself against once.

This was her limit.

-:-

Whatever dim light was coming from the sky was obscured by the huge, terrifying shadow that passed overhead. Steve’s heart sank, and his body collapsed further into the dirt. He was too late.

Suddenly, he felt hands on his shoulders. Strong hands, but gentle, surprisingly gentle.

“Steve,” Billy’s voice said above him. “Steve, can you hear me?”

Steve kept his eyes on the top of the hill, where the dim red light reflecting off the trees was vanishing into the obscuring shadow that hovered above it. He could feel himself shaking, trembling, he was still struggling to breathe…

Billy’s hands rolled him over onto his side. He tried to protest, giving a soft groan, trying to reach out his arm towards the hill. There was still time, wasn’t there?

“The Gate…” he gasped.

“Hey – hey – hey!” Billy murmured. “It’s too late. The Mind Slayer – Flayer – thing – is there. We’ll get it next time, okay?”

Steve kept his eyes on the ridge, where the red light flickered before going out.

“Let’s get you home,” Billy said quietly. “Looks like you need some bed rest just as much as I do.”

-:-

Dustin thanked… maybe not God, but the powers behind late shifts – that his mother was working late. It gave him and Robin a chance to sneak the bat into his bedroom without being asked why he now had a bat with nails sticking out of it. He zipped it up inside the duffel bag that had previously housed the disassembled Cerebro and hoped that if his mom was hanging stuff up in his closet, she wouldn’t go looking inside a sports bag that was last used for its intended purpose when he was about four.

Speaking of Cerebro, that reminded him – he needed to call Suzie. Assuming she didn’t completely hate his guts after he’d vanished into a pit of grief. She’d understand once he explained, though. Probably.

“Hey, Robin, grab that radio,” Dustin said, pointing to a radio on his bed. “It should be on frequency one four point one five eight. Call the others, tell them there’s a code red and to meet us at Hopper’s. Actually, wait – not a code red, it’s not that strong. Tell them it’s a code… what’s a weaker version of red?”

Robin’s brow furrowed in an extremely confused and slightly worried look, before going and picking up the radio. She didn’t bother checking the exact frequency – she didn’t know how to, for one. She turned it on, and tentatively started to speak into it.

“Hey guys,” she said, feeling strangely nervous. “This is Robin here with Dustin, we’ve got a code pink, we need to meet at… did you say Hopper’s place?”

Static blared for a second, before –

“What the hell is a code pink?”

Robin was not familiar enough with the members of the party to know exactly who had just insulted her knowledge of colours, but she was familiar enough not to take that kind of shit from a boy who was still struggling through puberty.

“A weaker version of a code red, dingus,” she snapped back before she could catch herself.

“Do you mean a code orange?”

Robin glared at Dustin, blaming him entirely for having her communicate with a child she’d only met when he’d been looking to score free cinema trips off Steve. The snarky little shit…

Fortunately, Dustin also seemed to be equally annoyed and took the radio off of Robin, having carefully stowed away the bat.

“Whatever, Mike, code pink, code orange, code rainbow, it doesn’t matter! Just… meet us at Hopper’s as soon as you can, okay? And bring Nancy and Jonathan, and Mrs Byers, everyone!

“Fine, but what’s the point of having color codes if nobody’s going to use them-”

Dustin shut off the radio, cutting Mike’s grumbling short.

“Do you know the way to Hopper’s?”

Robin looked at him, confused and extremely annoyed. “As in Police Chief Hopper’s place? No, Dustin, I’ve never been there before.”

“Right, I’ll navigate. Let’s go.”

Robin waited as Dustin led the way to her car, looking at his back incredulously. Apparently, being friends with Dustin meant becoming his personal chauffeur.

No wonder Steve had always said that these shitheads were the worst.

-:-

Hopper was almost glad Eleven was out spending the day with Max. Almost.

It meant that when he crashed through the door and poured himself an (un)healthy measure of bourbon neat into a glass and downed it in one, he didn’t get a reproachful look from the door when he poured himself a second measure.

The government was going to let that Russian scumbag go. He didn’t know what to tell the kids – or even whether to tell them anything. He remembered the conversation he’d had with that Buckley girl when she’d identified him.

He walked into the house to be greeted by a woman he could only assume was Mrs Buckley, who’d explained that Robin was in her room. The door was closed, and even the soft knock from her mother had sent something crashing with a thud before the door was opened a crack. This kid was scared. Really scared.

It was sad that she had such a good reason to be.

A book was lying facedown on the bedside table – something about the rise of jazz in the twenties and thirties. It looked like it was hardly a page turner, but, Hopper supposed, if someone was interested… El, after all, had spent two weeks excitedly telling Hopper about the Dungeons and Dragons manual as she read it cover to cover.

He noticed, with a sense of dread, that there were other books underneath the book about jazz – books on Russia, from the Russian Revolution and the rise of Stalin to the space race and – he noticed with some alarm – The Hunt for Red October.

The girl seemed to follow his gaze as she let him in and closed the door. Her mother was evidently giving them a moment of peace.

“I’ve been doing research,” she explained.

Hopper frowned, pointing at the Tom Clancy book. “You know that’s not real, right?”

She shrugged. “Well, apparently we live in a world with monsters, and Russians built a mall to cover up a portal to another dimension, so ‘real’ is evidently subjective.”

Hopper… couldn’t argue with that.

“Do you want something?” she asked. “Assuming you didn’t come here to interrogate me about my reading habits.”

Hopper nodded. “We’ve arrested a large number of Russian soldiers and identified several more who were killed. If you feel up to it, I need you to identify if any of them were the ones who interrogated you and Steve Harrington.”

The mention of the Harrington kid’s name sent a jolt of pain, still far too fresh, through her eyes, but she extinguished it. “Sure,” she said flatly. She sat down on her bed, making a big deal of swinging her legs onto it before flopping back against the pillows. Hopper ended up sitting down on the edge of the bed, which seemed to be the only place to sit anyway.

He laid out a series of photographs, each with a name underneath. Some were scans taken from intelligence files, others were mugshots, and there were a couple of Polaroids. He held one particular photo back – she didn’t need to see the corpse of the doctor Hopper had shot just yet.

The girl reluctantly sat upright, scanning over the photos with a carefully guarded detachedness. Her eyes eventually settled on one of the mugshots – a man with greying hair and a dark scowl.

“Him,” she said softly. “He was the one who was asking the questions. He was giving the orders.”

Hopper had been careful not to give away any physical cues that would lead her to choose it – in the same way as a line-up, she needed to identify him completely on her own. He was the most senior ranking officer they’d found, a Colonel, and by all accounts, he had been the one in charge. All major decisions seemed to go through him.

“Colonel Ozerov,” she breathed, playing with the name on her tongue. “I thought he was a General or something. What… what happened to him?”

The mask of apathy and indifference was gone, her fear palpable. Hopefully, what he had to say was going to put her at ease. “He’s been arrested. He’s currently in custody, awaiting trial. At this point, it’s just a formality, he’ll be spending the rest of his life in an American prison.”

He gave her a small smile, hoping that it was enough to reassure her. She looked up, such desperate hope in her eyes. She brought her free hand up to her mouth, muffling a strange noise. He watched as she started to laugh, high, hysterical, tears being brought to her eyes. She squeezed her eyes shut, as laughs turned into sobs and then back into laughs again, and she fell back against the pillows.

“Does that mean it’s over?”

Hopper almost missed the question. He looked at her as she stared at the ceiling, her eyes bright. He gave her a small nod.

“It never really felt over,” she gasped – Hopper still couldn’t decide if she was laughing or crying. “I didn’t know if he was still out there. The guy in the car outside – he never bothered me, but just seeing him there reminded me – every time I left the house – I wasn’t safe. He could still come back. I see him doing that shit to Steve every fucking night, knowing he could come back and do the same thing to me, or Dustin, or Will Byers, or whoever in the day. But he’s gone. It’s over now. He can’t hurt me anymore.”

Hopper smiled at her sadly. Her fear of the knock on the door was entirely understandable. He just needed to ask her one more question.

“I just need you to identify one more photograph,” he said. “If you feel up to it. It’s a formality, I just need to check off that one box.”

She sat up, tears still shining in her eyes. She nodded, the defensive mask of indifference gone in the face of sheer relief.

“I’ve got a photo of the man I shot down there,” Hopper explained. “It’s from after… after we got out of there. You only mentioned two interrogators – a soldier and a doctor. We just need to confirm that the man I shot was the doctor.”

“It was,” Robin said. “I don’t need to see a photograph – I don’t want to see a photograph. I know it was him.”

Hopper nodded sagely. “Was there anyone else in the room who may have heard what you and Harrington told Ozerov?”

Robin frowned slightly, looking at the photographs spread out before her. “Yeah, there might have been a couple of soldiers, I think, but I wouldn’t be able to tell you what they looked like. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Hopper said. “You did good, kid. Thanks.”

He got up to leave –

“Chief Hopper…”

He turned to look at the girl in what he hoped was an inviting way.

“I… I never asked…” she was clearly steeling herself for something. “Did… Did Steve say anything? Before…”

Fresh tears were shining in her eyes as she looked at him. Her lips were pressed together. He could tell she was biting the inside of her cheek in anticipation of the answer. Hopper gave a small nod.

“He – uh… He told me to look after you all,” he said. “Like I was planning on doing anything else.”

“Shit…” Hopper muttered into his glass. The memory of that conversation wasn’t exactly a welcome reminder. He was going to have to tell her. The kids would find out sooner or later, anyway. He’d long given up his dreams of those kids just staying the fuck out of this.

He went and poured himself another measure of bourbon. The conversation could wait until tomorrow. He needed to wrap his head around the concept before forcing himself to explain it to the kids. And what better tool to help wrap his head around something than –

Knock knock knock.

Well, that answered the question of where El had gotten to. She needed to get better about remembering her keys. With a huff and a half-prepared lecture about being late waiting on the tip of his tongue, he got up and unlocked the lock –

That wasn’t El.

Mike, Nancy and Lucas were stood at his door, looking for all the world like they would have rather been anywhere else.

“Uh… El and Max aren’t here…” Hopper said, extremely confused and slightly put out by the three teenagers stood on his doorstep looking expectant.

“Yeah, we know,” Mike said snidely. God, he really was a little shit. “We’ve got a code pink at this house.”

Hopper found himself brushed to one side as Mike, Lucas and Nancy filed into his place without any kind of invitation. His brain was still busy processing Ozerov, and he didn’t have a lot of headspace to be dealing with the sudden arrival of several teenagers.

“What the… What the hell is a code pink?

“Why don’t you ask Dustin or his new best friend Robin?” Mike hit back. What the hell did El see in this kid? “They’re the ones who called it.”

No,” Hopper said, as though simply saying it loudly would somehow undo things were not under his control. “No, no, no, Joyce’s house is the hub of all your stupid codes, why are you all here?

“Like he said, ask Dustin,” Nancy answered. “Jonathan’s driving his mom and Will here. Apparently, they want everyone.”

Well, it was a relief that he wasn’t going to be the only adult in the room.

“Where are El and Max?” Lucas asked, toning down the average level of snarky comments in the room. He, at least, seemed to acknowledge that Hopper had not asked for this, or in any way consented to this, and was more in the dark than any of them, given that he didn’t have access to a radio.

“Uh… I think they went shopping,” Hopper said. “Dr Owens says it should be safe enough for her to start high school in the fall, and it should be okay for her to be seen around town.”

Lucas nodded quietly. Hopper decided he needed another drink.

Suddenly, the front door opened, and in came two girls, who stopped dead, looking at the sudden assembly of people in front of them.

“What the hell are you all doing here?” Max finally asked.

“Dustin called a code pink,” Mike said.

“A code-”

“Less extreme than a code red,” Lucas supplied.

“Which you’d know about if either of you had your radios on,” Mike said.

Max’s face split into an outraged expression that Lucas recognised as the flash of lightning right before the storm hit. “Excuse me? We wanted to have a girls’ day, is that such a crime?

“Yeah, is that a crime?” El jumped in.

Mike’s mouth opened in outrage mimicking Max’s. “I can’t believe this!” he said. “You give me such shit for lying to you, just because he went all psycho on me about spending way too much time with you-”

“Hey!” Hopper cut in, not impressed with how his name was being dragged into the argument.

“-And now you’re doing the exact same thing! And of course, whatever happens, I get shit for it!”

“We were shopping!” Max snapped.

Bullshit!

“Mike!” Nancy admonished.

“What did you buy?” Mike ignored his sister.

Max opened her mouth for a split second before answering. “We didn’t buy anything; we didn’t take any money!”

“So you spent all day shopping, and you didn’t buy anything?

“The fun isn’t about buying stuff, it’s about spending the day together looking!

“Mike, seriously, calm down,” Nancy hissed.

Mike rounded on Nancy. “They’re lying!

“Friends don’t lie!” El snapped. She looked upset. She glared at Mike, who at last seemed to realise that he’d crossed a line. He had the decency to look a bit abashed as he turned away. Lucas was finally able to get a word in edgeways.

“Did you have fun?” he asked. Nice and light. Friendly.

“Yes,” Max snapped. She didn’t seem to realise that the inquisition was over.

Jonathan arrived with Will and Joyce a few minutes later. They walked into a slightly unnecessarily tense atmosphere. Mike, Lucas and Nancy were sat on the couch, Hopper was stood in the kitchen with his glass of bourbon being constantly topped up, Max and El were sat in El’s room with the door open a crack, and no sign of Dustin or Robin.

“What’s going-”

Joyce broke off at the sight of Hopper frantically shaking his head in the kitchen. She felt as though she could cut the tension with a knife. They joined the awkward silence, looking incredibly uncomfortable.

Eventually, Will broke the silence, getting increasingly bored with Mike and Lucas’ girl trouble.

“Do we know what this is about?”

“Nope,” Mike said coldly.

Will tilted his head slightly, slumping against the radiator. It was off – the heatwave didn’t exactly call for it.

Joyce went and joined Hopper in the kitchen area. She got herself a glass and took the bottle of bourbon off Hopper, pouring herself a measure about half the size of Hopper’s. “What’s going on?” she asked quietly.

“I don’t know,” Hopper said. “Teenagers having arguments.”

“I meant about this… code whatever. What’s that about?”

“Joyce, I didn’t know this was happening until Mike showed up at my door.”

Fortunately, they were spared any further speculation by the sound of a car drawing up outside. There was a sound of Dustin swearing at the sight of the other cars before the door opened, revealing him rushing in, Robin following at a more sedate pace. Hopper noticed that her arm wasn’t in a sling anymore.

“Dustin, what the hell?” was Mike’s greeting.

“Kid, why has my house been descended on?” Hopper asked.

“Uh,” Dustin chose to ignore Mike and focus on the far more physically imposing threat that was an irate Hopper having had his quiet evening interrupted. “I… We need to talk to all of you, and… it was more likely that Joyce would come here rather than you go anywhere else.”

The kid wasn’t wrong, but that didn’t make the invasion of privacy any better.

“Dustin, seriously,” Mike was never one to be ignored. “What the hell, man? You’ve been MIA for weeks, you’re barely there at the D and D game, and now you and Robin are calling a code… pink? I know you’ve been upset about Steve-”

“Funny you should mention Steve, actually,” Dustin cut across him. “We – uh – we were-”

“We were helping clear out Steve’s stuff,” Robin took over, taking pity on Dustin. “Looking for a bat. While we were there, we met his parents.”

Nancy perked up, joining the conversation properly. “Are they okay?” she asked. “I got a call from his mom the other day asking about Barb’s parents. It was… weird.”

“Well,” Robin said. “His dad has apparently quit his job.”

“Wait, what?

“Yeah,” Dustin said. “And here’s the kicker.”

Nancy raised her eyebrows.

“Apparently, he’s running for Mayor.”

A stunned silence greeted these words. Nancy was rendered completely speechless. Hopper stared at the kid standing in his living room, struggling to find his voice.

“He’s running for Mayor?” he finally stammered out.

“Yeah,” Dustin said breathlessly. “He says he wants to make Hawkins safe again, he was talking about people letting things get out of control for money or something.”

“Well, is he wrong?” Jonathan asked incredulously. “Why is this such a bad thing?”

“Because he was talking about what he would fix,” Dustin said. “He was pointing out loads of flaws – he called Hopper a drunk – he’s on the warpath, Jonathan. He’s looking for scapegoats for what happened to Steve, and that’s exactly what we are if he finds out. If he starts looking into Hawkins Lab, particularly if he’s the Mayor, then we’re all exposed. And he’s angry, Jonathan. Really fucking angry. If he finds out about us – about El – and starts trying to use us as scapegoats for Steve’s death, who knows what he’ll do.”

“Dustin’s right,” Nancy said quietly. “If he’s quit his job, we’ve got to take this seriously. This won’t go away. He runs a corporate law firm called Harrington Spencer. His… his Christmas bonus is more than the Mayor’s annual salary. He wouldn’t walk away from that on a whim. And he’s not exactly the kind of person who leaves something alone. If… if he does start looking into all this… it could break the whole thing wide open.”

Hopper poured himself another bourbon. His day was not getting any better. He drained his glass in one and tried to pour himself another only to finish off the bottle. He wondered if there was any truth in Harrington’s assessment of him as a drunk. He thought back to the conversation he’d had with Sam Owens the day after breaking the news to all the many parents and family members.

The Harringtons aren’t rational like us… They’re not used to being told ‘no’…You saw what happened with the Hollands, they mortgaged their house and hired Murray Bauman who basically destroyed our entire operation. Now imagine a family with the Harringtons’ resources. They don’t just have the money in this town, they are the money. They’ll get all those fancy lawyers down here and they’ll subpoena just about every bit of paperwork that’s ever existed in this town. This whole thing gets busted wide open, and everyone – including those kids – will end up in the spotlight… So you let them grieve, you let them move on.”

Well, Paul Harrington wasn’t exactly moving on.

Hopper understood Harrington’s motives. There were days after Sarah had died when he’d wanted nothing more than to shout and scream and rage at someone. At the doctors for not doing enough. At Diane for not spotting the signs sooner. At the world of modern medicine for not having a cure for his little girl, who didn’t deserve to die so young. At cancer for taking his daughter away. At himself for not having the answers, for not being able to make each and every one of those things happen, for not being able to keep his promises to keep her safe, for not being able to make the hurt go away, for not being able to see her fulfil those dreams.

But each one of those was undeserved. He knew that. Which was why he’d walked away from the doctors, from Diane, and tried to drink himself away from himself. He’d found his answers in the bottom of a bottle.

Paul Harrington had simply found his answers in vengeance.

Hopper couldn’t fault his motives. As far as Paul Harrington was concerned, his kid had died in a tragic fire. It had been painfully apparent from that first conversation on the matter that Harrington blamed Hopper for not managing to save his kid. If Harrington became Mayor, it would make Harrington the closest thing Hopper would have to a boss, which, given the circumstances, was not an inviting prospect. Life would probably become very difficult.

“Shit,” he finally breathed out involuntarily.

“Well, just because he’s running for Mayor doesn’t mean he’s going to become Mayor,” Max pointed out. “Who else would run against him?”

“There’s the people on the town council,” Hopper said. “One of them is acting as Mayor at the moment, they’ll probably end up running-”

“Yeah, but that’s exactly the kind of people Steve’s dad wants to take down,” Dustin pointed out. “You didn’t hear him, it was like he holds anyone who’s in charge responsible.”

“He’s not the only one,” Joyce said. “A few people who have come into the shop have said that Kline’s arrest has made them furious. I… I think Mr Harrington will be very popular with them.”

“Right, so what do we do?” Dustin asked.

Hopper walked out of the kitchen area and leant heavily against a wall, his chair having been stolen.

“Nothing,” Hopper said. “I’m not about to have you guys interfering with local politics. There’s not a lot we can do about this. And frankly, we’ve got bigger problems.”

He found himself looking at Robin, and wished she wasn’t looking right back at him.

‘Bigger problems’ – what bigger problems?”

Hopper looked away from Robin, wishing he hadn’t drunk his bourbon so fast. He looked at the dregs in his glass before speaking.

“The government’s going to release Colonel Ozerov.”

This was almost universally met with blank stares, with one very notable expression. Robin’s face paled, she sat up straighter, her eyes wide.

Who?” Mike asked, reminding Hopper once again that he hated that kid. Not that he was biased because he was dating his daughter. Never.

“The guy who ran the Russian base.”

The answer came from Robin, her voice slightly breathless. Hopper could only feel sympathy for her as comprehension dawned on everyone else’s faces.

“He can’t be released,” she said firmly. “He can’t be, he can’t!

“I understand, but-”

“No, you don’t!” she snarled vehemently. “He tortured Steve, he shot me – why the hell is he being released?”

“The government’s doing some deal with the Soviets,” Hopper explained. “Apparently, if we return him, we get six soldiers back. The deal is he can’t come back to the States, and if he ever does, we can shoot him on sight.”

“But what if they try and open the Gate again?” Mike asked.

“We don’t know that they can,” Joyce said. “Alexei said that they came to Hawkins to open the Gate because they couldn’t open it in Russia. Here was the only place where it was possible.”

“So you think they might try again?” Dustin asked.

“I don’t know,” Hopper snapped. “I’m telling you this so you can keep an eye out. Nothing’s happened yet, but if something does start to kick off, no independent investigating, no little group projects. You see something that doesn’t look right, you come talk to me. If something happens again, we do this together. From the very beginning. No investigating strange rats on your own, no sauna tests, no breaking into secret Russian bases without talking to me first. We’re a team now. And it’s my job to keep you safe.”

He was met with several stony-faced glares from teenagers, but he discovered he didn’t care very much. He wasn’t having anyone else on his conscience.

“Now, all of you, go home. It’s late, and I wanted an early night before Henderson decided that my cabin was a base for all your codes.”

With less snap-to-it efficiency than Hopper would have liked, the kids started dragging themselves out of chairs and towards their cars. There was some argument about whether Lucas could go with Robin and Dustin rather than Nancy until Robin pointed out that her car was full of boxes that she’d drop off at Goodwill the following morning, which prompted Dustin to stop, calling after Jonathan as he took off his backpack.

Dustin fished something out of his backpack, before running to catch up to Jonathan. He pressed the copy of Slaughterhouse-Five into Jonathan’s hands, ignoring the confused look that he was given as he went and sat in the passenger seat of Robin’s car.

“Figured you might want your book back,” Dustin called.

-:-

Billy was doing breathing exercises with Steve as he half-carried Steve back into the living room.

“In… two… three… hold… out… two… three. And…”

Steve was doing his best to mimic the rhythmic breathing pattern Billy was illustrating, but his chest was burning. It was like there was something pressing against his lungs, or his throat, or his windpipe, or something, Steve wasn’t entirely sure what.

He wasn’t entirely sure of a lot of things at that moment.

Billy’s face swam before his as he realised he was sitting down. He vaguely took in his surroundings, but found he couldn’t really focus on them very much. His head swam alarmingly and the world tilted –

Suddenly, Billy’s strong hands were on his shoulders, holding him upright.

“Hey,” Billy said softly, but the urgency in his voice was enough for Steve to force his brain to focus. “You’re home. You’re in your living room. Let’s just focus on breathing, and then we’ll go upstairs.”

Steve didn’t dare nod, but lightly tapped his hand against his knee to show he was listening.

“That’s it,” Billy said. “Let’s go again. And in… two… three…”

Billy started to repeat the exercise, and Steve honestly didn’t know if he was following it. He just held onto that low, rumbling sound of his voice, talking in tones more gentle than Steve would have ever believed possible a few weeks ago. God, he needed to get a handle on the passage of time.

Steve didn’t realise his head was leaning on Billy’s chest until he found himself being gently shaken to the sound of his name.

“Steve,” Billy said softly. “Steve, come on, you can’t sleep here.”

Steve gave a weak nod – big mistake – and found himself being hauled to his feet. The whole world swam, but he clung to Billy like an anchor. Billy guided him towards the stairs, before soft instructions detailed to him that he was going to need to start climbing.

“Lift your feet,” Billy said, keeping that low, rumbling sound going. “That’s it, there we go. And another step… there…”

Steve would not have been able to tell anyone how he made it to the top of the stairs. The fall had evidently taken more out of him than he’d thought, finally tipping the pain in his chest to unmanageable heights. Billy was keeping that soft rumbling encouragement going. When he wasn’t guiding him with instructions, he was repeating that same breathing exercise, a soft mantra.

Steve found himself being lowered onto the bed, sinking into the pillows as best he could. They weren’t soft like Steve remembered them from home, but he was used to it now. Billy pulled the blanket over him.

“Please don’t go,” Steve found himself gasping.

Billy gave him a warm smile before settling down on the bed next to him.

“I wasn’t going anywhere, Stevie,” Billy said, resting a hand on Steve’s shoulder. “I think it’s time you had some rest. Proper rest.”

Steve felt himself shaking under Billy’s hand. Had he been shaking all this time?

“Your… Your hands are cold,” Steve gasped.

“No, you’re just burning up,” Billy said.

Steve pulled the blankets around him tighter.

“Try and get some sleep, Steve,” Billy said softly, looking down at him as he settled against the headrest. “God knows you need it.”

Chapter Text

Bed rest… was not going well.

Steve’s eyes cracked open to find Billy sat on the bed beside him with some water. He blinked blearily at him, before feeling a shiver wrack through his body. Just about every part of him ached. He felt like there was something stuck in his throat.

“Hey,” Billy said softly, looking down at him. “How are you feeling?”

Steve gave him a look as an answer. “How long have I been out?”

“A while,” Billy said. “You should probably eat something.”

Steve nodded, seeing the point. His stomach was aching just as much as everywhere else, and he’d become used to the dull ache that came with weeks of not quite getting enough to eat, but there was sense in Billy’s suggestion as it shone a spotlight on that particular protest his body was making.

It turned out it wasn’t just water that Billy had brought to the bedroom. There was also a can of mushroom soup on the bedside table. It was cold – Steve wasn’t expecting Billy to magically keep it warm for however long he’d been asleep – but it was still edible.

He sat up with far more effort than such a simple action should have any right to take, and took a small sip of soup, managing a mouthful, before realising how dry his throat was. Billy saw where he was looking and handed him the cup of water. The first feeling of that cold liquid hitting the back of his throat was like the breath of life, and Steve was instantly reminded of how he’d felt when he’d first found that stream. The sip turned to gulps, desperate, uncontrolled –

“Hey,” Billy said softly. “Hey, easy on that. Little sips, okay? You’re going to make yourself choke.”

Steve closed his eyes as he gave a small nod. He eased up and had a few more sips until his throat felt less like sandpaper.

“There we go,” Billy gave him a warm smile. “Try some more soup.”

Steve managed another mouthful before whatever felt like it was stuck in his throat started to make itself known. He pushed the soup can away from him into Billy’s hands before giving a violent cough. He was left there, coughing and spluttering, but whatever it was refused to shift, and his ribs were hurting – God, they were hurting…

When the coughing fit finally subsided, he realised that Billy had a comforting hand on his back, rubbing small circles. It was doing the equivalent of the band-aids Dustin had stuck on his face after his fight with Billy back in November, but Steve appreciated it nonetheless. It was comforting. It made him feel less alone.

Billy pressed the cup of water back into Steve’s hands, and this time, Steve managed not to gulp half of it down in one, taking little sips to ease his aching throat. Once the cup was empty, Billy eased him back down against the pillows.

Steve didn’t try to stop the wash of sleep pass over him.

-:-

The next time Steve woke, Billy was there on the bed beside him. The cup of water had been refilled, the soup was still there, waiting. He still ached all over. His throat felt dry, and this time, Billy didn’t wait to hand him the water.

Steve took smaller sips than he had beforehand, rolling onto his side rather than bothering to sit up fully. Something about the movement, though, aggravated his already protesting lungs. Whatever had been stuck in his throat was still stuck there. He started coughing again, violently trying to expel… whatever it was from his lungs, but again, it wasn’t shifting. He ended up leaning over the edge of the bed, his whole body heaving, feeling like he was going to be sick – God, he really didn’t want to puke feeling like this…

Fortunately, it passed, and he realised Billy had a hand on his shoulder to stop him falling completely out of bed.

“I think I’m going to be sick,” Steve just managed to gasp out.

Billy nodded, before gently easing Steve back into the bed. Steve really didn’t want to empty his stomach over the bed, he really didn’t want to feel what throwing up was going to feel like with his chest in the state that it was –

The nausea passed. Steve closed his eyes as his head sank into the pillow and allowed himself to drift off.

-:-

When Steve woke next, Billy had taken precautions. A bucket sat by the bed. The water was refilled. The soup can was still there. Most interestingly, his shirt was folded up, clean. Billy must have washed it while he was asleep.

Steve was feeling hot – too hot. He could feel sweat clinging to his face, the sheets clung to him – he pushed the blanket away.

“Hey,” Billy said softly, still keeping vigil in his spot on the bed.

The sudden temperature change made him shiver, and he found himself pulling the blanket back around him, trying to find a happy medium between the two, but if it existed, it wasn’t with the blanket and it certainly wasn’t without it.

Billy’s answer to Steve’s struggles with his body temperature was to hand him that cup of water. Steve momentarily abandoned his quest for the optimal situation, putting up with the shivering as he took a couple of small sips. It helped – at least, enough for Steve to gasp out a few words.

“How long?”

“A while,” Billy said, just as ambiguously as the last time he’d asked that question. Steve expressed his lack of satisfaction at the answer with a glare that he hoped looked annoyed as opposed to just pitiful, though Billy’s face suggested the latter was what he’d actually achieved.

“That was your longest yet,” Billy said. “You should try and eat something.”

Steve didn’t bother to argue as the cup was taken from him and the soup can was pressed into his hand. Billy helped him sit up to try to drink some. His chest protested even the simple action of swallowing, but Billy coaxed him to try another mouthful.

The second mouthful had Steve pressing the can back into Billy’s hands, trying to repress the oncoming inevitable coughing fit. It felt like there wasn’t enough air getting into his lungs, whatever it was that was blocking his airway was still there, he couldn’t –

He doubled over, curled up into himself as he rested his head on his knees, still tangled up in the blanket. He was coughing, but nothing in his chest was shifting – he couldn’t breathe

Wait.

Steve barely had time to gesture, but Billy seemed to be intuitive enough to realise what was about to happen, and held the bucket in front of him as the sparse contents of his stomach suddenly expelled themselves. Steve found himself wrapping his arms around the bucket, cradling it close to his chest as he continued to cough up whatever else was still in his stomach. The violent heaving of his body was, if anything, worse than what he’d feared, the movement pressing against his chest and broken ribs. He couldn’t stop the dry retches from wracking his whole body with tremors.

Billy, once again, had a hand on his shoulder and was using his other hand to rub soothing circles into his back as tears sprang into Steve’s eyes.

“It’s okay,” Billy was muttering. “It’s okay. Let’s just try those breathing exercises again. Reckon you can do that for me?”

The honest answer was no, but Steve could see the point in trying.

“In… two… three… hold… out… two… three…”

Steve listened to the mantra being repeated softly, trying to cling onto the sound of Billy’s voice, calming, grounding… He still had his head bent over the bucket, his hair creating a curtain between him and the rest of this hellish nightmare of a world, but slowly his body stopped heaving up whatever it could. Billy kept his mantra going as he pulled the bucket away. He then reached over and picked up the blue top that he’d evidently washed – Steve wasn’t exactly thinking straight, but he definitely remembered more blood on it.

Billy started trying to pull it over his head, and Steve didn’t have the strength, energy or inclination to protest. His pride felt slightly burnt that he couldn’t even be relied upon to dress himself, but he wasn’t in any position to argue as Billy gently coaxed his arms through the short sleeves.

Steve didn’t remember falling back against the cushions and drifting off that time.

-:-

The next time Steve woke up and saw Billy, he was assured that it was not, in fact, the next time he’d woken up and seen Billy.

Apparently, he’d woken up twice without remembering. Billy assured him that he hadn’t exactly been lucid in either of those instances, but Billy had tried to coax him into drinking more soup and water, but on both instances had promptly regurgitated them into the bucket.

Not that such instances were an excuse for not trying again.

Water. Soup. Cough. Pray that the soup stays down. Bow to the inevitable. Sleep. Repeat.

-:-

It was the start of August when Paul Harrington announced his candidacy for Mayor.

Not that it was news to anyone by that point. The wealthiest man in Hawkins had quit his job at a law firm that he had founded, so of course people talked. Rumours started to spread, rumours became facts, and by the time he called a press conference, everyone already knew. Which, granted, had the added bonus of thirty or forty people showing up to listen to his speech.

Linda’s earlier scepticism about Paul’s candidacy had been dispelled by several conversations she’d ended up having with various people in the street. There were plenty of people who were angry with Kline and everything he represented, particularly following his arrest. Paul, while not quite a removal from the elitist system that Kline had so blatantly abused for his own gain, had suddenly gained a sympathetic image; someone who had lost just as much as anyone in Starcourt.

The campaign manager Paul had hired encouraged him to use this newly discovered image. It was his greatest asset.

Paul was hesitant as he walked up to the podium, feeling strangely nervous. He didn’t remember being quite so nervous about anything in years. A hush fell over the assembled reporters and spectators. He looked down at his speech, at the opening few words. He had to do this.

For Steven.

“Last month,” Paul said into the microphone, trying not to flinch as the words reverberated around the space and came straight back at him, “this town suffered a terrible tragedy. On the day that we were meant to be gathered to celebrate our Founding Fathers and the birth of this proud nation, several members of our community were trapped in Starcourt Mall as it burned to the ground. Thirty people died that day. Friends, colleagues, families, children. Including my own son.

“Since that day, information has come to light about why such a tragedy was allowed to occur. The people who run this town allowed the mall to be built to standards that were far lower than what any reasonable regulator would approve, with blood money lining the pockets of those who approved it. Starcourt was a tragedy waiting to happen.

“But Starcourt is only the latest tragedy to occur. In the last three years, we have seen our first missing persons case in sixty years. Our first suicide in twenty-two years. Two people have tragically lost their lives due to the Hawkins Laboratory, and still the people responsible are yet to face justice. Our town isn’t safe anymore, our children are not safe anymore. Starcourt is the latest in a long line of problems, and proof that under the current establishment, things are only getting worse.

“Which is why I am announcing today that I am running for Mayor. I will divert funding to our emergency services, expand our police force, and increase oversight into these departments to ensure that nothing like this tragedy ever happens again. Together, we will make Hawkins safe once again.”

The cameras flashed, as to be expected. The conclusion of the speech was drowned out in a babble of questions from the reporters, and, perhaps most notably, the gathered spectators began to applaud.

-:-

Steve awoke to Billy’s vacant stare out the window.

“How long?” Steve asked. A question to indicate that he was vaguely close to lucid.

“A while,” Billy said vacantly. “There’s been another Gate.”

Steve blinked, before trying to push himself up. If there was a Gate

Whoah, hold on,” Billy said, pressing a hand against his shoulder. “What are you doing?”

“You said there’s a Gate,” Steve gasped, his voice hoarse. “We should go-”

“Steve, it’s closed,” Billy said. “And you can’t go chasing Gates down, not like this.”

“Well, how the hell else am I supposed to get better?” Steve rasped. He tried to push himself up again, but Billy’s hand remained firm on his shoulder.

“Steve, look at yourself,” Billy breathed. “You can barely get out of bed. I don’t want to watch you kill yourself doing something stupid, pushing yourself beyond what you can handle.”

There… was an annoying amount of truth in that. Far too much truth in it to ignore. Steve finally gave up his fight against Billy’s hand – though calling it a ‘fight’ was putting it generously – and sagged back into the cushions. Tears were pricking at his eyes. He tried turning away from Billy so he wouldn’t see, but Billy was evidently so unconvinced by it that he put an arm around him and pulled Steve closer against him. Steve turned his head and rested it against Billy’s leg, burying his face into the filthy, ruined denim.

“I want to go home,” Steve gasped.

“I know,” Billy rubbed a hand on Steve’s shoulder. “I know.”

Billy adjusted himself so he was closer to reclining on the bed, still propped up on cushions, but slightly closer to Steve. Steve found himself resting his head on Billy’s abdomen, listening to the slow, calming breaths, feeling the rise and fall of Billy’s chest.

“If there’s another Gate,” Steve muttered. “Wake me up. Please, Billy, I don’t care. I don’t want to die here.”

“You’re not going to die,” Billy said reassuringly. “I won’t let that happen.”

Steve couldn’t help the soft noise of amusement that, if he had been feeling stronger, might have been a laugh. “Don’t know if either of us have much of a say in that.”

“Steve,” Billy looked down at him, his blue eyes meeting with Steve’s brown gaze, a seriousness in both his voice and his eyes. “I promise you; I’ll do whatever it takes to keep you alive. But you can’t give up.”

Steve wished he could believe him, but he settled his head back against Billy’s chest. He didn’t remember drifting off.

-:-

Joyce gave a soft knock on the office door. It was earlier than she usually stopped by, but things were relatively quiet. The most exciting thing going on in Hawkins was the Mayoral race, but there were no events, speeches, or debates scheduled for that day.

Hopper looked up at her knock, his face splitting into a wide smile.

“Joyce,” he said happily. He walked up to the door and closed it, leaning back against the wall as he drew the blind down. He closed the space between them, but Joyce took a fraction of a step back.

“Hop,” she gave a soft laugh.

“Well, why are you surprising me at work, then?” Hopper said, but there was a glint of humour in his eyes as he inched back.

Joyce leant back and perched on Hopper’s desk. “You might be very interested in the conversation I had with the boys last night,” she said, smirking at him.

“Oh?” Hopper’s eyebrows shot up, and he injected a bit of humour into his tone. “It wasn’t about me, was it?”

“Actually, it was about you.”

“Oh yeah? Were you gossiping about me?”

Joyce nodded, a smirk settling on her face. “Oh, yes. We were up all night talking about how ugly your clothes were, how you got with Sandy Stone in seventh grade, how-”

“Okay, okay, that’s enough,” Hopper held up a hand. “What did you actually talk about?”

Joyce’s smile morphed into a more genuine one. “Well, I told them that you and I had been on a couple of dates.”

Hopper looked surprised at that. Joyce had been clear from the start that she would date Hopper on the strict understanding that the dates would not lead into late nights, or either of them staying over, until she had told Jonathan and Will. She had also been very clear that she was not going to tell Jonathan and Will unless she thought there was something real there.

“That’s… a big step,” Hopper said. “How did they take it?”

Joyce shrugged. “Will took it pretty well, actually. He likes you, and more importantly, he trusts you. He’s happy for me – genuinely happy. He normally puts on a polite smile, but I know when he’s really happy, and this is one of those times.”

Hopper couldn’t help but smile at that. “And Jonathan?”

“Jonathan’s… well… He’s Jonathan,” Joyce’s tone changed a fraction. “He’s always really protective, he doesn’t like anyone I date, for no other reason than because I’m dating them. He’s a bit like an overprotective father, only I’m the adult. I’m not looking forward to the day Will gets a girlfriend, I might need to put Jonathan on a leash. But, if it’s any consolation, he was less unimpressed with you than he was with Bob when they first met.”

Hopper… didn’t really know what to do with that information.

“Anyway, that’s not all we talked about,” Joyce said, suddenly business-like. “You know you mentioned that assistant job?”

“Uh – yeah – Flo’s retiring,” Hopper said, caught slightly off-guard.

“Well,” Joyce said slowly, a smile spreading across her face. “Is it still available?”

-:-

Paul’s busy week was interrupted by an invitation.

There was going to be a memorial at Hawkins High School for the three students – former students – who had lost their lives at Starcourt. Students and their families were invited, and a special invitation had been extended to the families of those lost. Of course, Billy Hargrove’s family now seemed to consist of his stepmother and stepsister, and Heather Holloway’s family had all been killed in the accident, so by far the most meaningful invitation had been extended to Paul and Linda.

Paul was supposed to be canvassing that day, but his campaign manager had instructed him to go, given that it was free publicity, and, frankly, played very nicely into the image of the grieving parent. That said, Paul was less than convinced that he needed another memorial to his late son. A battle of wills ensued, which ultimately resulted in where Paul was currently sat – on the front row of an assembly, wearing a black tie and a suitably sombre expression while the principal was saying words about “loss” and “coming together as a community”.

It sounded like one of his pre-written campaign speeches.

There was a surprisingly good turnout to the memorial, given that it was the middle of the summer holidays. Most of the recently graduated senior year were present, as well as a healthy proportion of the junior year, and a smattering of sophomores and even the odd freshman. The basketball team were present – with Steven having been the captain and Billy Hargrove the star player, it wasn’t altogether surprising – but it was still nice to see. Not too far away from them was another group of people who Heather must have been involved with. Paul cast his mind back to the last time he’d had a proper conversation with Tom about Heather, but it must have been years ago. Maybe she had been a cheerleader?

The principal finally stopped speaking – thank God – and handed over to the school’s basketball coach. Paul started trying to pay attention again – he supposed he could be forgiven for drifting off during the generic condolences the principal had spouted, but the coach was a different entity altogether. The coach had worked closely with Steven over his four years in high school. There was a chance that whatever he might have to say might mean something.

Paul was, however, disappointed. The coach started talking about how Billy and Steven were wonderful athletes… assets to the team… pillars of the community… which was why the school was retiring their numbers.

That was unexpected.

The school had mentioned to him that there would be an opportunity for him to say a few words if he so desired, but he’d had no idea that this was what was going to happen.

They invited a representative of Billy Hargrove’s family onstage. A redheaded girl went up and accepted a folded blue t-shirt. Paul had to assume that the girl was Billy Hargrove’s stepsister. The principal bent down to ask her something, but she shook her head and walked off the stage as quickly as possible. Paul tried not to be too obvious as he watched her – just about every eye in the room was on her as she tried to slip back into anonymity. She went back to a woman who Paul could only assume was her mother, who was sat with a few other children about the girl’s age. He saw a few familiar faces near them, too – Nancy Wheeler was there, sat with Jonathan Byers, and there was also that girl who had come to help Linda clear out Steven’s room. Somehow, they knew each other, they were all close, which was odd, given that Billy Hargrove had definitely not been a friend to Steven –

He was distracted by his own invitation to the stage. Much like the girl must have experienced, he could practically feel every eye in the room on him as he walked up. He didn’t remember making it onto the stage, he was only dimly aware of the blue fabric being handed to him. He looked down, and finally, the number came into focus. He read the name Harrington neatly spread across the back above the number 12. Paul felt a twist in his gut as he looks up at the principal, who softly asked him if he’d like to say a few words.

A small nod was all he could manage. He walked up to the microphone.

“Thank you,” he said quietly to the principal, but the words were picked up by the microphone. He turned towards the assembled audience. “Thank you all for coming today. I know that Steven would have appreciated it, as I’m sure Billy and Heather would have.

“The truth is,” Paul continued. “There’s nothing else to say about my son that hasn’t already been said. I’m sure you all knew him, in your own ways, either as the captain of the basketball team, or as a friend, or as a classmate, or even just someone you passed in the corridor. I’m sure all of you knew him as Steve rather than Steven.”

A slightly awkward echo of a laugh sounded in the room. He wasn’t quite so ignorant to his son’s choice of nickname, but old habits died hard, especially when Paul was hardly around to correct them.

“The truth is that this shouldn’t have happened,” Paul continued. “Neither Steven, nor Billy, nor Heather, nor any of the twenty-seven others should have been caught up in that tragedy. But the people responsible, the people with blood on their hands will face justice. And I will do everything I can to make this town safe again, and it will be for them-”

Paul’s voice cracked slightly. Not enough to be noticed on its own, but enough for Paul to catch himself and swallow.

“It will be for him.

Paul hadn’t quite intended for the speech to turn political, but perhaps it wasn’t such a bad thing. Almost all of the seniors would be old enough to vote in the Mayoral election. As he walked off the stage, though, he caught a glimpse of Nancy Wheeler glaring at him. He looked away, but out of the corner of his eye, he saw her slip out of the room.

-:-

Nancy heard footsteps behind her as she stormed down the hall. She ignored them though, if anything speeding up because the last thing she needed was Jonathan trying to calm her down.

She didn’t want to be calm. Everyone wanted her to be calm. But if she was calm, she was pretending. Pretending that she wasn’t angry – or upset – or pretending that she could sit quietly and respectfully listen to all that fucking bullshit.

Pretending never worked. She’d learnt that the hard way with Barb.

“Running away again, Princess?”

The nickname stopped her in her tracks just as much as the voice. She wheeled around to find Tommy fucking Hagan glaring at her.

“I saw you run out of Steve’s funeral,” Tommy said snidely. “Didn’t think you’d have it in you to do it again.

“What the fuck do you want, Tommy?”

“Just drop the fucking act,” Tommy snapped. “Get off your self-righteous high horse and actually accept the truth for once.”

Nancy gave him a derisive glare before turning back around.

“You know, I warned Steve about you,” Tommy said at her back. “I warned him that you were just a self-serving bitch and a slut to boot. But he didn’t see it. And look where it got him. You got him to ditch his friends before you ditched him for that fucking creep, and now you’re walking out on his funeral, and going along to any fucking memorial just to walk out on that too. Some fucking girlfriend you were.”

Nancy spun around again, giving him the filthiest look she could muster. “You want to talk about acts?” she hissed. “What about you? You didn’t give a shit about him. The second Billy showed up, you were there, laying into him like he was shit on your goddamn shoe! You call that friendship? You didn’t give a shit about Steve, or Billy, or anyone but yourself, you were just trying to shit on everyone else around you!”

“You think I didn’t care?” Tommy snarled. “Where the fuck were you when his dad nearly cut him off? Oh – that’s right – off playing reporter with your creep boyfriend. And let’s not forget who else was in that tragedy… was it your boss’ entire family, or was it another reporter?”

“What the fuck are you saying, Tommy?”

“I’m saying you’ve got blood on your hands, just as much as anyone,” Tommy said. “You left them all to die.”

That’s not – You have no idea what it was like, Tommy, you weren’t there!

“No, you’re right, I wasn’t,” Tommy said. “But you were. And so was Steve, and Billy, and Heather. And now they’re not. Two of the people I counted my best friend at one point or another are gone. So don’t you fucking dare tell me that ‘I don’t care!’

Nancy fell silent at this glaring at Tommy.

“I’m going back inside,” Tommy said. “Stop pretending you’re so fucking perfect. And learn some fucking respect.

-:-

Linda and Paul stood in the dining room, the front page of a newspaper spread across the mahogany table. Paul’s campaign manager, a man called David Hartness from Indianapolis, was talking at them as they looked down at the headline, giving them a brief rundown of the week’s events in the six days since Paul’s candidacy was announced.

“As you can see, you’re very lucky,” David was saying. “You’ve managed to get the Hawkins Post on your side. Not exactly surprising, given that they lost their editor-in-chief, his entire family and a journalist in the Starcourt Tragedy, but it’s still a good thing. It’s the most respected local paper. The local radio stations are picking up on you, too. People like you, Paul. They relate to you. Not exactly a small feat given that you’re sitting in a tax bracket all of your own here in Hawkins. Just keep playing up the whole fixing-the-town-after-the-death-of-your-son angle and you’ll win by a landslide.”

Which epitomised exactly why Linda despised David.

David was one of the best campaign managers in the state. He’d been present on the current Mayor of Indianapolis’ campaign trail since his election in ’76, taking the lead on last year’s election which had seen him redefine the term ‘landslide.’ He’d even consulted on two senate runs, and Paul was paying a small fortune to have him on the team.

However, that didn’t mean that Linda had to like the man.

Evidently, Paul felt the same way, as the temperature seemed to drop ten degrees as Paul refused to look at David with a cold word.

“It’s not an angle,” Paul said in an icy monotone. “My son did die. This town does need fixing.”

Even more annoyingly, these words seemed to please David.

“I know,” he said, sounding infuriatingly satisfied. “And that’s what’s so great about you, Paul. You believe it. It’s all true. You’ve got integrity. You’re tapping into those homegrown family values that play so well in a town like this. It only goes so far in a big city like Indianapolis, but here… You can’t fake that, Paul. It’s gold dust. And it shows – hold on…”

Linda was doing everything in her power not to roll her eyes extremely pointedly and obviously at David’s words, and had to repress a small laugh at Paul’s almost imperceptible shake of the head as David went and foraged in his briefcase before finding a sheet of paper. He put the paper down on the table, smoothing it out.

“We’re taking daily approval ratings,” David said. “Your main rival is Harry Beaumont. He was basically Kline’s second-in-command; he was on the town council for almost as long as Kline. He’s a career politician in a small town, and is the current acting Mayor. His greatest asset is his experience, but the flipside of that is that he represents everything that went wrong with Starcourt. He’s a politician with a capital P, and that’s how people see him. Until your speech at the high school yesterday, his approval rating was just on this side of a majority, but after that, it dropped below yours, which is incredibly unusual this early in a campaign with a completely new candidate who’s never been in politics before. You’ve got the debate coming up after the weekend, so use that to your advantage. Use how he represents everything you want to get the town away from. That’s what people are responding to.”

Linda didn’t succeed in suppressing an eyeroll quite as successfully this time round. She was tired of listening to scheming – strategizing, she corrected mentally. She decided to leave Paul and David to it, walking back into the living room. She switched on the television and started listening to the news.

The headline was the latest events in a plane crash in Dallas-Fort Worth. No new information, it was simply the case that the reporters hadn’t yet got bored of talking in circles about it. Linda was happy for it to be background noise as she poured herself a glass of wine. It had been a long day.

“In local news in Indiana, former Mayor of Hawkins Lawrence Kline has pleaded guilty to six counts of corruption following the gas explosion at Starcourt Mall-”

Linda’s head snapped up. She gave the television her full attention.

“-which killed thirty people. Today in court, Kline pleaded guilty to all counts of corruption, admitting that he knew that Starcourt Industries was building the mall to standards far below state regulations, and that he was paid money to allow the work to go ahead-”

Linda rushed back towards the door she’d just exited, interrupting David mid-sentence. Which, of course, was such a shame.

“Paul,” she said urgently. “You need to see this.”

-:-

Steve wasn’t sure if he’d actually been asleep when he was next aware of Billy.

Billy was ready with the water when he realised that Steve was looking at him. It was routine. But it couldn’t change the fact that Steve was getting worse.

The one good thing bed rest seemed to have done was heal up his hand – for the most part. His nails were still gone, leaving Steve to wonder if they’d ever grow back, and his little finger was probably never going to be straight again, but it wasn’t hurting anymore. His finger was still stiff to move, but it didn’t send fresh jolts of pain lancing through his hand at the slightest movement. Of course, that might have had something to do with the lack of his own ability to move it.

Unfortunately, the rest of Steve was deteriorating. His head felt heavier than it had any right to be. Billy had now simply taken to feeding Steve the water, holding his head and tilting it upwards when Steve was aware of himself enough to swallow. Sweat clung to Steve’s face, but he didn’t have the energy to do anything anymore. His breathing sounded closer to a death rattle than anything else.

-:-

Paul waited patiently with a smirk on his face for Harry Beaumont to finish answering yet another question about Kline’s recent guilty plea. It was a stock answer, one he’d been giving variants on since the start of the debate. Judging by the atmosphere in the room every time Beaumont opened his mouth, it was not a stock answer that was playing well.

The reporter who had asked the latest question was relentless. Paul was certain that he recognised the reporter from the Hawkins Post, which explained why this particular set of questions were going in his favour.

“Mr Beaumont, could you please explain to me your involvement in former Mayor Kline’s decision to award Starcourt Industries the contract?”

“As I said before, I agreed with the initial proposal to build the mall. Starcourt Industries’ proposal was incredibly coherent, and there was nothing in their suggested budget that would normally indicate substandard safety measures.”

“But did you look over the plans?”

“Not personally, no.”

Paul couldn’t contain his grin at that. The entire ‘debate’ had been far less a debate and far more an inquisition of Harry Beaumont. Paul wasn’t averse to this, either from a political or a personal standpoint. The reporters were taking down Beaumont, and all he had to do was stand back and throw the occasional scathing comment into the mix.

“You see, I find that interesting,” Paul said into his microphone. “I don’t believe for a second that former Mayor Kline would have made this decision on his own, and even if he did, he absolutely should not have been. Which makes the rest of the council one of three things: ignorant, incompetent, or involved. Which one are you, Mr Beaumont?”

-:-

Steve realised he could hardly breathe. This wasn’t exactly a new sensation, he’d been feeling something build up in his lungs, and he vaguely tried to gesture towards Billy that he needed to cough.

Billy, who seemed to have learnt how to read every single one of Steve’s micromovements, started to ease Steve upright. He grabbed the bucket – on the rare occasions that Steve did sit up to cough, it was always more useful to have a safety measure.

Steve was leaning heavily on Billy’s side as he was being held upright, as he started to cough into the bucket.

-:-

“The fact remains, Mr Beaumont, that this tragedy could have been avoided if any member of the council had looked over the plans properly,” Paul said, his voice rising. “The blueprints are a matter of public record. Anyone with even the slightest knowledge of the building regulations in this state would have been able to notice that there were faults in the building from the start. Anyone with even the slightest ounce of integrity would, upon noticing those faults, have forbidden it from going ahead.”

-:-

Steve’s body was in agony as he forced himself to cough. Every single inch of his chest protested the violent movement, but he couldn’t avoid it, he couldn’t breathe –

-:-

“You have blood on your hands, Mr Beaumont. Blood of thirty innocent people of this town. Including the blood of my son.”

-:-

Something shifted in Steve’s chest. Another cough finally brought whatever it was to his lips. The coughs started to subside, and Steve felt exhausted, hunched over the bucket, a metallic taste lining his mouth.

-:-

Winnie Kline didn’t immediately get out of the car as she pulled into her driveway. The moon was high in the sky. She’d started doing most of her shopping one town over since it had been made painfully apparent that she was now a pariah in Hawkins. All because Larry had taken a bribe.

She wasn’t sure whether she was prepared to stand by him as he went to jail. His lawyers had encouraged him to plead guilty after he’d been denied bail in a hope of reducing his sentence. Apparently, the evidence the DA had against him was overwhelming. Winnie wasn’t sure if she was prepared to wait that long for a man who had ruined so many lives.

She’d never questioned where the money came from. She never knew the exact salary the Mayor of a town like Hawkins earned. If there was an extra influx of cash, she wouldn’t have any way to know.

She finally got out of her car, slowly getting her shopping out of her trunk. It might have had something to do with the fact that everyone in the town clearly hated her, but the silence all around her was eerie.

She closed the trunk and started walking towards the house. The porch light was still on, chasing away the shadows from her front door. Again, it could well have had something to do with the general hatred towards her, but her unease at being in Hawkins was making her feel like she was being watched.

She reached into her bag and tried to find her keys. She could have sworn that they had a mind of their own, hiding in her bag –

Something rustled in the bushes.

She turned around, her sense of unease heightened to a full state of fear. Her heart was racing.

“Hello?” she called out.

Nothing.

It was just the wind, she told herself. It was just the wind

She turned back to her bag, finally spotting the keys. She pulled them out of her bag, turning towards the door –

Something moved in her peripheral vision. She turned towards it just in time to see a monstrous face, before a wave of red clouded her vision. The feeling of something cold splashed over her as she closed her eyes with a scream.

Her eyes cracked open to see a silhouette of a figure running down the street. Her heart was racing. Red was dripping from her hair. She looked down at her hands to see them covered in blood, and started to scream.

-:-

Colonel Ozerov was not impressed as he got off the helicopter.

The place was falling apart in his absence. It had been waiting for his return, for him to come back and confirm the success of his mission. By all accounts, it had failed. The base had been compromised – by a couple of teenagers, no less – and the American Gate had been destroyed. However, there was more at play than simply opening the Gate.

He was met by a young soldier as he approached the door.

“Is everything set?” Ozerov asked.

“Yes sir. We followed your instructions exactly. We are ready if you think it is enough.”

“Let us hope that it is.”

He followed the soldier into a room so very similar to the one he had tried so hard to build in America. The one he had succeeded in building. The one they had failed to replicate here.

But that was all about to change. His soldiers had made efforts. If a key could only open a Gate at a certain hole, then they simply needed to drill another hole. It was far easier to create a tunnel from both sides.

Of course, things had gone wrong in America. Two teenagers in ice cream uniforms had preluded the arrival of the traitor and his new friends. Fortunately, the traitor was dead. He could only hope that his soldiers had done enough on the other side.

Two scientists finally emerged onto the observation deck. They looked down at the enormous machine that stood before them. A machine that they had spent months rebuilding and improving. The scientists lined up beside two podiums, identical keys in hand.

“Go,” Ozerov said.

The scientists turned the keys.

The machine started to whir into life. The room was filled with a bright light as a white beam shot towards the wall. A crack started to appear in the rock.

The light started to take on a red tint as the crack grew and widened. Almost everyone on the observation deck flinched, but Ozerov stared, naked excitement on his face.

Suddenly, there was a huge sound like thunder as another bright white beam blasted back through the Gate. The others did not know, but Ozerov did – he had built another key, another drill beyond the Gate, slightly weaker, in the place that they wanted a Gate to be. If this worked…

There was a sound like lightning striking the ground, and Ozerov knew.

He knew that sound, it was the same sound the Gate in America had made. No sirens blared. They were through.

The Russians had a way back to America.

Chapter Text

Steve may or may not have been awake already, but the noise jolted him back into lucidity.

He was dreaming, he had to be. It was too quiet, too impossible… He was dreaming, or he’d imagined it, or he was hallucinating.

That said, if he was hallucinating, his mind was really committed to the bit because Billy was looking around like he’d heard it too.

“Steven…”

There it was again. A voice – completely disembodied – broken up, weak, clouded, like it was coming through a radio that was just out of range.

“Mom?” Steve finally gasped out, looking around.

Billy’s head snapped towards Steve, noticing he was awake. Not just awake. Moving. Talking.

Steve wasn’t sure how long it had been since he had been able to manage actual words as opposed to indistinct noises of protest, but judging by the look on Billy’s face, it had been a while. Still, he was sure that was his mom’s voice. He tried to push himself up – he didn’t feel like he had the strength, but he had to get up, that was his mom.

“Hey, hey, hey!” Billy said, putting a hand on Steve’s shoulder. “What the hell are you doing?”

“That’s my mom,” Steve rasped. God, his voice sounded dreadful.

“Steve, come on, you’re sick,” Billy stressed. “You’re really sick-”

“I don’t care,” Steve rasped. “I want to see her.”

“Steve, come on, she’s not here,” Billy said.

“Then why-” Steve broke off to take a breath, “-can I hear her?”

Billy didn’t have an immediate answer to that. He walked over to the window and looked out.

“There’s another Gate,” Billy breathed.

Steve glanced at the window. Nothing was quite staying still, but Steve didn’t need it to stay still to be able to see a complete absence of any red light in the sky that would indicate a Gate.

“No there isn’t,” he gasped.

“Not here,” Billy said. “Somewhere else.”

“How do you-”

Billy turned around and looked at Steve. “Do you remember what you told me?” he asked urgently. “You told me that the Russians opened up a Gate in Hawkins. They built Starcourt Mall to cover it up. What if they’ve opened a Gate in Russia?”

Steve’s eyes widened. “Can they do that?”

“Maybe,” Billy said. “If the Gate is far enough away that we can’t see it, it’s possible it’s in Russia.”

Steve looked at Billy blearily. “Okay,” he murmured. “How do we find it?”

“What?”

“The Gate’s in Russia, how do we find it?”

“Steve, we can’t go to Russia,” Billy pointed out.

“Billy,” Steve looked at him imploringly. Tears started to form in his eyes. Something about hearing his mom’s voice had driven home to him something he’d desperately been trying to avoid. “Look at me. I’ve not… I’ve not got long left. I know we can’t go to Russia. But if there’s a Gate out there somewhere, I want to try. I told you, I don’t want to die here. Even if it’s impossible, even if it fails, even if I don’t even make it down the goddamn stairs, I want to try.”

Something in Billy’s eyes looked broken. The calm, collected mask that Steve had come to rely upon so much cracked, revealing a flash of how completely devastated Billy was.

Please, Billy,” Steve said. “Please.”

Billy continued to look at him with that same devastated look. He pressed his lips together as the muscles around his eyes tightened. Billy closed his eyes for a fraction longer than a standard blink. With his eyes still closed, he finally spoke.

“Starcourt,” Billy said, as though every single word he said hurt as it was torn from his lips. “The Russians built the mall. If we’re right, there might be a clue there about where the Russians would open a Gate.”

Steve gave him a small smile. “Let’s go.”

Billy helped Steve sit up on the edge of the bed. Steve was under no delusion that he was going to be able to walk properly – Billy was probably going to end up carrying him most of the way there, but it was enough that he was even going to be able to try and come along. Billy walked over to where the guns were leaning against the wall and made to pick one up.

“No,” Steve rasped in protest as he saw him go for the gun.

Billy looked back at him. “What?”

“Flamethrower,” Steve looked pointedly at the weapon next to the gun Billy was trying to pick up.

Billy looked at him incredulously, like he couldn’t quite believe that this was what Steve was worried about right now. Steve gave him a small shrug.

“Worked better last time,” Steve managed.

Billy shook his head before grabbing the strap of the flamethrower and slinging it over his shoulder. He then silently walked over to Steve and slipped an arm around him.

“Ready?” Billy asked.

Steve managed a small nod. It was taking most of his energy to continue to sit upright, and if he was honest with himself, he was slightly dreading the prospect of moving, but he’d meant what he’d said – he didn’t want to die here, and if he was going to die, he would much rather die whilst trying to find out whatever was happening with the Gate.

Billy nodded. “On three. One… two… three!

Steve let out an agonised, broken cry as Billy finally hauled him to his feet.

-:-

Hopper almost made it to Joyce’s after supervising the debate. Almost.

It was supposed to be a romantic night. El was having a sleepover at Max’s, while Will and Jonathan had gone to have their own sleepovers at the Wheelers’ place. Their own completely separate sleepovers.

Which, of course, had left the opportunity for Joyce and Hopper to have a sleepover of their own.

He had just pulled up to the driveway when his radio burst into life.

“Chief? Come in, Chief.”

Hopper felt a certain resignation as he picked up the radio. He didn’t immediately answer. He looked imploringly at the door, the warm light illuminating the porch.

“Yeah, Cal, what is it?” Hopper finally answered.

“Chief, we’ve got reports of an incident at the Kline residence.”

Oh, screw that.

…Wait. No. This was his job.

“Oh yeah?” Hopper said, hoping his tone indicated that he was prepared to come for nothing less than a home invasion.

“Yeah, some punk attacked Winnie Kline on her doorstep. Threw a bucket of animal blood all over her or something.”

That… was a new one.

Hopper probably shouldn’t have been surprised. The Mayoral race was stirring up a lot of anger that would probably have been better left un-stirred, and Paul Harrington was definitely using it to his advantage. Kline was definitely the primary target, but there was a certain amount of incitement towards Harry Beaumont, for obvious reasons, as well as a few others. Hopper was pretty sure he himself would have been in the crosshairs if it hadn’t been for a tactical manoeuvre on Harrington’s part. Over the weekend, Harrington had stopped by for a conversation with him which was not at all to Hopper’s taste.

Paul Harrington walked into his office while Hopper was busy reading over some papers. It was an itinerary for the debate after the weekend which had been dropped on his desk by Flo that morning. She was due to retire in the next few weeks – all that was left for her to do was to dot the ‘I’s and cross the ‘T’s on Joyce’s new appointment. In the meantime, Hopper was left reading and rereading this schedule, and he could swear that he could feel the words just walking out of his brain. Fortunately, Harrington provided a suitable distraction.

“Chief Hopper,” he said. “I was wondering if I might have a word.”

His words were perfectly cordial, but there was no geniality, no warmth to his tone. Hopper felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise.

Still, it meant not familiarising himself with that bloody itinerary for five minutes.

Hopper nodded, gesturing at the seat in front of him. “What can I do for you, Mr Harrington?”

Harrington took a seat. Even on weekends, Harrington still wore a suit that cost more than what some families spent on their car. Though, granted, that may have had something to do with the campaign trail.

“Chief Hopper, I wanted to talk about my mayoral candidacy. I’m not sure if you’re aware, but a key point in my manifesto is an increase in funding towards the local police service. That promise would carry a lot more credibility if you were to publicly endorse my campaign.”

Hopper looked at Harrington, scrutinising every inch of him. Those grey eyes were measuring him up just as much, a look that carried a searching quality while giving nothing away. Hopper couldn’t help but appreciate that Harrington must have been an excellent lawyer – and one hell of a poker player.

“Mr Harrington, do you need to agree with a campaign in order to endorse it?”

This drew the tiniest hint of emotion from Harrington, a flash of anger that was quickly stifled. “What do you mean?”

“I mean I’m not sure I agree with your policies.”

A cold, hard smile settled on Harrington’s face. “What is there not to agree with?” he asked, his voice like ice. “Your police department gets upgraded equipment, more staff, increased hours for those that want them, not to mention better pay.”

“And what about the bit about increased oversight?” Hopper asked.

Harrington’s glare, if possible, hardened. “Oversight is necessary, Chief Hopper, I apologize if you can’t see that. The people who have run this town have been, at best, incompetent, turning a blind eye to further incompetency that has reached an unacceptable level. Not a single member of the council can answer the question of what exactly your department was doing following the deaths of Benny Hammond and Barbara Holland. Even your successes, like finding Will Byers in the woods two years ago, are woefully unaccounted for. I’m not saying that you didn’t do all you could in any of these cases, but with greater oversight, the people in charge can help you. We can give you what you need if something is simply beyond your ability, but we need to know. We need to know where you struggle, so that if there is something else we can do, from providing updated radios to bringing in the National Guard, we can do that to keep this town safe.

Hopper matched Harrington’s cold look. “That’s a very elegant argument, Mr Harrington, but in my experience, when politicians get involved in police business, what usually happens is that more people end up getting hurt.”

The flash of anger was back in Harrington’s eyes, but this time, it didn’t go away so quickly. “Then tell me, Chief Hopper, why exactly did my son die?”

Hopper was taken aback by the sudden removal of the veil between their words in this conversation. And Hopper couldn’t pretend that he had a legitimate answer to that question.

“You told me that my son saved your life. You now have a chance to start making amends for that.”

“Look, Mr Harrington, spare me the bullshit,” Hopper said. “You’ve got everyone else in this town fooled with your bullshit about how you’re doing this for Steve, but stop using him as a political talking point. I knew the kid, I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t want that. I know you guys had a difficult relationship. I know you weren’t close.”

Harrington’s eyebrows shot up at Hopper’s audacity. The flash of anger in his eyes was burning bright, but everything about his demeanour was icy. Hopper could almost imagine a cold breeze wafting through the room.

“You’re right, Chief Hopper,” Harrington said coldly. “My son and I didn’t have the best of relationships. I wanted the best for him, and he didn’t see that. But you’re wrong about one thing. Everything I’m doing now is for him.”

Hopper pulled up outside the Kline residence – though mansion was probably a more appropriate word for it. A single police car was parked outside. Hopper walked up the path towards the door, but slowed to a halt at the sight that greeted him on the doorstep.

A huge splash of blood was soaked into the stone. It had splattered onto the door, which was now ajar. Hopper slipped on a pair of gloves and tried his best to dodge around the bloodstain, careful not to touch any of the blood on the door as he pushed it open.

He was greeted by Powell giving him a small nod as he stood over a distraught-looking Winnie Kline. She’d clearly not had a chance to shower properly as red was still soaked into her hair, but there were signs that she’d tried to get as much blood off her hands and face as possible. She looked up at him as he entered, before practically screaming at him.

Finally,” she snapped, sounding hysterical. “Where have you been? I’ve been waiting for you for forty minutes!

“Mrs Kline, I’m sure you’ve been in very good hands with Officer Powell-”

“I was attacked on my doorstep!” she all but screamed. “I had blood thrown over me! I’ve been-”

She broke off, choking up on a sob. Hopper turned towards Powell, looking slightly bewildered by the reception. Powell walked over to him as Winnie flopped down onto a chair and buried her face in her hands.

“…What happened?” Hopper asked Powell quietly.

“She says someone in a monster mask was hiding in the bushes when she got home and jumped out and threw blood all over her,” Powell said. “If you ask me, it’s probably a reprisal for Starcourt.”

Hopper agreed, until one tiny detail filtered through his already saturated brain –

“Wait, you said a monster mask, what kind of mask?”

Given everything Hopper had experienced, he was not about to take the mention of monsters lightly.

“I don’t know, Chief, it was some kind of Halloween mask,” Powell said. “Like I said, it was probably some punk kid upset about Starcourt. That Harrington guy has everyone whipped up into a frenzy, I’m surprised there hasn’t been an angry mob come down here.”

“Not funny, Cal.”

Hopper ignored Powell’s exaggerated eye roll and walked over to Winnie as she sat on an armchair. He put on his gentlest tone as he crouched down beside her.

“Hey,” Hopper said. “You said someone in a mask did this to you… what kind of mask?”

Winnie finally peeled her face away from her hands, relieved that at least one person was taking this as seriously as she felt it deserved. “I don’t know,” she hiccoughed. “It was dark, and I didn’t get a good look.”

“That’s okay,” Hopper said softly. “We’ll work with what we’ve got.”

“Well… it was one of those rubber masks,” Winnie said. “Like the ones you get at Halloween. It might have been a werewolf mask or something.”

“So it had a face?” Hopper asked.

Winnie looked at him incredulously. “What? – Yes, it had a face!” she snapped.

“Like… eyes, nose, mouth?”

“That’s generally what a face is!”

Hopper felt himself relax, his heart rate slowly returning to normal. Not the Upside Down. Just a prank.

“Okay,” Hopper said softly. “Can you remember what the person was wearing?”

“I don’t – I don’t know!” Winnie said hysterically. “It was dark, I only saw them for a second. They might have been wearing dark clothes, I don’t know!”

Hopper decided to ease up on the questions. Winnie evidently wasn’t able to handle much more stress.

“Okay,” he said softly. “Do you have a home security system?”

She looked at him, confused. “Yeah, we have an alarm system, but it only works if someone tries to get into the house.”

“What about cameras? You got any cameras?”

Winnie now just looked annoyed. “It’s Hawkins, Chief Hopper,” she snapped. “Nobody has cameras.”

Hopper nodded, conceding the point. “Okay,” he said, trying to keep his voice as calm as possible. “Well, we’ll look into it. But I’ll be honest with you, the chances of catching whoever did this are small – not unless he strikes again.”

Winnie looked up at him, clearly upset by this. “Well, what are you going to do about this?”

Hopper tried to give her his most reassuring look. “We can set up a patrol to come by the area regularly.”

That’s not good enough!” Winnie all but screamed. “I don’t feel safe anymore. In my own home!

Hopper let out a long exhale before saying words that were feeling far too rehearsed on his mouth – a placation that meant less than nothing.

“I’m sorry,” Hopper said. “But that’s all we can do.”

Maybe Harrington was right. Maybe they did need more oversight.

-:-

Lucas picked up the phone and dialled a number he knew by heart from Mike’s phone.

It had been Mike’s idea to invite the girls over. They were apparently having a sleepover at Max’s house, and while a full sleepover would absolutely be out of the question for Max’s mom and Hopper, Lucas had to admit that a late-night game with everyone would be fun.

Still, even if they wanted their girly sleepover, it was nice to have the original Party together. Will and Dustin were there, too, currently helping Mike set up a game of D and D. It was a short, self-contained campaign that Mike assured them would only run until midnight.

Which, of course, meant that they’d still be playing it at four in the morning.

The phone rang four times before someone finally picked up.

“Hello?”

Lucas caught himself. “Mrs Mayfield,” he said, trying his most polite tone of voice. “Sorry – uh – sorry to call so late. It’s – it’s Lucas. Lucas Sinclair…”

He tried not to flinch at the memory of the last time she’d had any contact with him, which had been at Billy’s funeral. Still, Susan Mayfield was not Neil Hargrove, and by the sounds of it, Neil Hargrove was not in the picture anymore.

“Oh, Lucas, hi.”

Her voice had a forced tone of cheeriness that indicated that she also remembered the last time she’d seen him.

“What can I do for you?”

Lucas was slightly at a loss to explain to Susan why he was calling at eight thirty at night to invite her daughter to a games night and have it sound even remotely innocent. Even if it was.

“Uh – well, Mike is having a games night at his place, and we were wondering – we were wondering if Max and El wanted to come over and join in. There’s going to be a few people here, and they’ll be able to make it back to yours at a sensible time, and still get to do all the girly sleepover stuff I’m sure they’ve got planned-”

He was cut off by Susan before he could babble any further.

“Oh, that sounds lovely, but I think there’s been a misunderstanding. They’re having a sleepover at El’s, not here.”

That… wasn’t what Mike had said.

“Oh, right,” Lucas said, confused. “I’ll… I’ll try there then.”

“Hope you have fun.”

“Thanks, Mrs Mayfield… Uh – bye.”

He hung up with a click. He paused for a second, before dialling the number for Hopper’s cabin. Hopper had made absolutely sure that all the kids knew his number by heart, drilling it repeatedly into them. Lucas had been annoyed about it at the time, but was secretly quite grateful for the knowledge as he dialled it and listened to the phone ring.

At least until it rang out.

That was weird.

Maybe Mike had been mistaken. He went down to the basement.

“Hey, Mike, are you sure the girls were having a sleepover at Max’s? It’s just… Max’s mom answered the phone and said it was at El’s.”

Mike looked up at him, confused. “Wait, what? El definitely said it was at Max’s.”

“Well, it’s not. It’s got to be at El’s.”

“But it can’t be at El’s,” Will jumped in, looking equally confused.

“Why not?” Lucas asked.

“Because Hopper is spending the evening with my mom.

The room fell silent.

“Whoah, seriously?” Dustin asked, incredulous. “Your mom and the Chief?

Will cringed at Dustin’s words. “I know, it’s gross,” he said with a small shudder. “But it’s also not important. If they’re having a sleepover at El’s, then they lied to Hopper and Max’s mom just as much as to us.”

“I knew it,” Mike said triumphantly. “They’re up to something.”

Lucas had to admit that this was suspicious.

“So what are we going to do about it?” he asked. “Do we try and catch them out?”

Mike thought about it for a second. “Call El,” he said.

“I already did. She’s not answering.”

Mike’s eyes snapped back to him. “What?

“Try the radio,” Dustin suggested.

Mike scrambled to get the radio from the table.

“El? El, do you copy?”

Static.

“El? Come in, El. Over.”

Nothing.

“They’re not there,” Lucas said.

“Which means that whatever they’re up to, they’re doing it right now,” Mike explained.

Or there’s some other explanation,” Lucas said.

“Like what, Lucas?” Mike rounded on him. “I’ve been telling you for weeks that they’re up to something. Keeping secrets. Are you seriously this naïve?”

Lucas fell silent, staring, shocked and not just a little bit angry, at Mike.

“What if they’re doing stupid stuff with El’s powers again?” Mike ploughed on, undeterred by the look on Lucas’ face. “What if they’re in trouble? I’m not letting my girlfriend get hurt just because they’re shutting us out.”

“Mike, come on, man,” Lucas said. “Let them have their space.”

Mike gave a huff and stormed up the stairs. “Do whatever the hell you want, Lucas, but I’m going to find them.”

“And then what?”

“And then I’m going to talk to them. Find out what the hell is going on.”

Lucas stared incredulously after Mike’s retreating back as he reached the top of the stairs. Lucas couldn’t quite believe Mike’s lack of tact – sure, he had his moments, but never anything quite so stupid as gate-crashing his girlfriend’s sleepover. However, he sure as hell wasn’t about to let Mike mess up his relationship again.

Will and Dustin watched Lucas go upstairs with more than a little annoyance. However, they weren’t about to stay behind in the Wheelers’ basement. Even watching their friends take a sledgehammer to their relationships was better. At least there was some comedy value in that.

-:-

Steve managed to make it down the stairs.

He even managed to make it to Starcourt.

He didn’t remember most of the journey, but he was pretty sure he hadn’t actually passed out at any point. That said, just about every inch of his body felt like it was on fire while simultaneously being repeatedly stabbed with knives. Maybe it hadn’t been such a good idea to have insisted on going.

The looming sight of what was left of the mall stood before them, and Steve had to admit that the total devastation of the site took him by surprise. The large glass dome was completely gone. There were huge cracks in the brickwork that were visible from the outside. There were, of course, vines spreading over the building, but even by Upside Down standards, there was something eerie about the ruined, abandoned building.

Steve didn’t have any energy left to ponder it as his legs completely gave out. He felt a wave of dizziness hit before suddenly Billy caught him.

“Hey,” Billy said, softly. “You’re not about to die on me, are you?”

Steve honestly didn’t know the answer to that one, but tried for a smile.

“Not yet,” he breathed out. “Got at least another thirty seconds in me.”

Billy was clearly unimpressed by Steve’s attempt at macabre humour. “Let’s just get you sat down, okay? There’s a stone over there, you can lean up against it.”

Steve didn’t remember any stone, but allowed himself to be carried towards a polished granite block that stood at the entrance to the parking lot. Not that he had much say in the matter.

Billy started to set Steve down as gently as he could against the granite block. Steve leant back and felt the cool stone pressed against his back through his shirt. There was something grounding about the slightly uncomfortable temperature that helped him stay lucid.

God, he felt like shit.

Billy took off the flamethrower from around his shoulders and rested it up against the stone next to Steve.

“You’re welcome, by the way, for me carrying you this whole way,” Billy said, clearly trying for his own brand of humour.

Steve’s eyes drifted shut as he allowed a small smile to spread across his face. “Thanks,” he breathed.

Steve didn’t know how long his eyes stayed closed for. He felt like he must have drifted off, because he thought he’d come to, but evidently if he had drifted, it hadn’t been for that long, because when he opened his eyes, Billy was standing looking at the stone. It felt like it had only been a few seconds.

Billy evidently caught Steve watching him. “It’s a memorial,” Billy said quietly. “Everyone who died at Starcourt.”

“Am I on it?” Steve breathed.

Billy gave a small smile. “I’m just trying to find you. Ah – there you-”

Billy broke off, his face changing to one of pure shock. Steve blinked a few times to try and bring Billy into focus as Billy took a step away from the stone, staring at it in horror.

“Billy?” Steve breathed. His heart started pounding, and Steve could feel fear rising up the back of his neck. “What’s wrong?”

“I’m on it,” was all Billy said.

Steve’s heart sank. He’d suspected as much from when he’d first discovered his own grave. He knew that feeling, that complete blankness of the mind.

“Billy, I’m sorry,” Steve said softly. “I know how you must be feeling-”

“No,” Billy cut him off. “No, no, you don’t.

“Billy, I’m dead as well back home-”

“No, that’s not it,” Billy all but snarled. He was getting angry, Steve could practically feel the rage rolling off him in rage. “No – if I’m dead back home, that means that little bitch told everyone I’m dead.”

Steve didn’t follow.

“And she knows I’m not dead – she knows I’m here – Max knows I’m here and she fucking left me here-”

“What?”

“She’s left me here to die, and she’s the one who PUT ME HERE!

Steve’s eyes widened as Billy’s shout sent him jolting up against the wall. He hadn’t seen Billy lose his temper like this in the entire time they’d been in the Upside Down. And more than that, what he was saying didn’t make sense.

“I thought you said you were in a car accident,” Steve said guardedly.

For the first time since seeing his name on the stone, Billy looked at Steve. His eyes were wild, staring at him, unhinged. The cold blue depths suddenly felt much darker, and Steve understood.

“You’re Flayed,” Steve said softly. “You’ve been Flayed this whole time.”

“Steve…” Billy said coldly.

Everything you told me was a lie,” Steve gasped. “You’ve been manipulating me this whole time-”

Billy took a step towards him.

“Get away from me!”

Steve scrambled backwards, but Billy grabbed his arm and smashed his head against the memorial. Steve fell sideways, seeing stars, but nothing more or less than pure adrenaline stopped him from blacking out completely. The dizziness subsided as Steve realised he was being lifted up.

Billy laid him down on the top of the granite block. Steve flung out a hand at Billy, hoping for even something as small as a hit, sheer desperation driving him, but Billy intercepted his hand, pressing it down into Steve’s broken chest until Steve was curling in on himself, gasping for air. Billy bent down over him, his lips so close to Steve’s ear.

“I’m sorry, Steve,” Billy said softly. “It wasn’t all a lie. We were waiting for you to get better before we did this, but now it’s your only chance of survival. I told you, I’d do whatever it took to keep you alive.”

Steve’s eyes widened with panic as he turned away from Billy to look towards the mall. A huge shape emerged from the darkness, a monstrous, many legged shadow looming over the ruined building.

"Please, Billy," Steve gasped, what little breath in his lungs coming short and sharp. "Please, not like this, not like this..."

One of the legs curved out towards him. Steve’s heart was pounding – he struggled against Billy’s grip, but the hands stayed vice-like around his wrists –

“Don’t be afraid,” Billy breathed.

The shadow was coming closer.

“It’ll all be over soon.”

Steve struggled helplessly against Billy’s grip. The shadow was almost upon him –

Billy finally released Steve’s hands and stepped back. Steve twisted his body, trying to get away –

It was too late.

The world disappeared into a swirling vortex of darkness as Steve finally let out an agonized scream.

Chapter Text

The darkness was absolute. Steve twisted his body against the stone, trying to get away from the long tendrils that were stretching out, but it was no use. There was no way out – he could hardly move…

The pain was so intense, so unique. He felt it in every inch of his body, every cell coming alive. He had never been so acutely aware that there were so many different components of his body, each one alive, connected to him, but each part capable of coming alive and dying separately. It was like he was feeling every single cell in his body dying at once, screaming at him, determined that in their final moments they would let him know just what it meant to be alive.

His mind, too, was having its say. Memories of his entire life flashed across his mind in a second – his first clear memory, getting a lollipop from his dad after he’d come back from a business trip when he was three… his first day of school, being left at the gates with absolutely no idea what he was expected to do… meeting Tommy in middle school, making some stupid joke about the teacher… his first kiss with Heather Holloway… Tommy telling him about Carol… seeing Nancy for the first time… asking Nancy out… breaking Jonathan’s camera… going to Jonathan’s house to apologise only to discover that monsters existed… making things right with Nancy… a million and one memories that told the story of them falling in love, until… Nancy standing in that bathroom, telling him that their love was all bullshit… Dustin dragging him along to take on a Demogorgon called D’Artagnan… getting punched repeatedly in the face by Billy… getting rejection letters from all his college applications… his father telling him to get a job on his own or get cut off after his high school graduation… starting at Scoops Ahoy and meeting Robin… discovering that secret Russian base… watching Hopper turn away from him at the Gate… finding Billy in the Upside Down… finding his own grave in the churchyard… Billy bringing him soup afterwards… realising Billy was gay… Billy telling him about his mom… looking up at Billy and realising that he was Flayed…

He didn’t want his memories to become property of the Mind Flayer. He didn’t want to lose them – to lose himself. He didn’t want his body, his mind, his memories to be used against all these people, to be used to destroy Robin and Dustin and Nancy and Jonathan. He didn’t want to become another puppet, used to manipulate the people he loved like Billy had manipulated him. He didn’t want the Mind Flayer to know what he knew about El and Will Byers. He didn’t want the Mind Flayer to get close to them. He didn’t want the Mind Flayer to use him to get close to them. Anything was better than that.

Tears poured down Steve’s cheeks as he finally realised that, for the first time in his life, he wanted to die.

-:-

Max and El walked into the woods. It was later than they’d ever done it before, but that was the way things had fallen. Max’s mom had wanted some mother-daughter bonding time during the day, and with Hopper eager to spend a night at Joyce’s, Mike’s game night provided the perfect opportunity for another attempt.

“Here?” Max said as they walked into a clearing.

El nodded. “Here,” she said quietly.

-:-

Steve twisted and turned on the memorial, desperate for anything to come along and save him. He desperately tried to get his mouth to form Billy’s name, to beg him for help, but it refused to cooperate. He fought to turn his head – every inch of his body was screaming in protest – it required every ounce of his strength – he twisted his neck, feeling every single muscle that such a simple action required – he turned his head towards where Billy was supposed to be standing –

Only to see an impenetrable wall of black.

He finally got his mouth to move, but now his lungs weren’t working. He found himself vaguely forming the word ‘Billy’ over and over again with his lips, but sound wasn’t coming out. Or at least, if it was, he couldn’t hear it. He couldn’t hear much over the roaring in his ears.

Desperately, he found himself stretching out a hand towards where he knew Billy must be standing. He didn’t know if Billy – the real Billy – was still in there – but Billy had told him so much about his life, things far more personal, things that made far more sense than anything he’d seen the Mind Flayer construct – but what if it had all been a lie?

Steve had to believe Billy was still in there.

His hand finally found the edge of the memorial, the edge of the highly polished slab of granite. With more effort than Steve thought he’d ever needed for anything in his life, he twisted his other arm across his body, turning onto his side to grab the edge with two hands –

Steve’s hand brushed against something metal.

Confusion flashed across his mind. He turned his head down to see a long, black tube, leaning up against the side of the stone…

The flamethrower.

His fingers closed around the barrel, and he hauled it up onto the granite. His fingers searched desperately for that lighter – it had to still be in his pocket – he thought he’d remembered to check – please, God, let it be there…

His fingers brushed against the cold metal square as he frantically pulled it out. He pulled the flamethrower across his body, pulling down on the trigger to try and get the pilot light on – his hands slipped over the lighter, desperately trying to get a spark –

He could have cried with relief when the little blue flame appeared at the end. He twisted the flamethrower upwards, aiming it at the sky –

Only to be confronted by the enormity of the monster.

This wasn’t some Demogorgon, this wasn’t a pack of Demodogs, Steve didn’t even know if this thing could feel anything, it didn’t even look solid. His shoulders sagged into the stone, despair pressing him down into the memorial. The irony was not lost on him – losing himself on top of something memorialising his death when he wished he could meet his end in such a simple way as just dying

Just dying…

Whatever happened, his life was over. Whether he became Flayed like Billy, or whether, by some miracle, he got out of this for long enough for his lungs to simply give out like they’d been threatening to do for so long, he, Steve Harrington, was gone. He might as well end it on his own terms. At least then, he could be sure his friends were safe.

The Mind Flayer hated heat. How had they put it again back in November?

Make the host uninhabitable.

Steve lowered the flamethrower from the sky and aimed it down his body.

Uninhabitable. Got it.

He pulled the trigger.

-:-

El placed the blindfold over her eyes while Max set up the radio. Static suddenly sounded in the clearing, and El tuned into it, concentrating on it, until finally, the sounds of static and wind in the trees fell away to reveal complete silence, in a world entirely her own.

-:-

The pain was excruciating. The heat was so intense that Steve could have sworn that his skin was melting off his flesh. The flames seemed to be concentrated on his leg – huge blisters bubbled up – Steve’s breaths started to come fast, desperate, what little air in his lungs escaping in desperate gasps – but gasps didn’t tear at his throat like that

Suddenly, several blisters popped open – if Steve had been screaming before, he definitely was screaming now – tears poured down his face – he couldn’t see much of his leg – but it looked like it was going black – the blisters were still bursting open – the dead skin was turning black –

It was too much.

The darkness still surrounded him. He had to keep going. No matter how much it hurt.

He tightened his finger around the trigger, pulling it tighter. It was too much – his hand that was aiming the barrel slipped from the weapon – the flamethrower slipped onto his stomach – but Steve had to keep going – even if it killed him – the world was slipping away –

The darkness around him suddenly fell away. The roaring in his ears stopped. Steve’s hand released the trigger and the fire stopped. He lay there, gasping for air. His broken, damaged chest was suddenly brought back to his awareness with sickening clarity – his leg was still in agony –

He glanced down at his leg and immediately wished he hadn’t. The skin had almost entirely fallen away, huge holes in the skin revealing burning, weeping sores. The only skin left on his lower leg was blackened at the edges, thin strips that separated the sores but did little more than that, absurdly reminding Steve of bubble wrap, only with none of the uniformity and all the bubbles popped.

“You idiot!

Steve suddenly remembered Billy. He was stood to one side, exactly where Steve remembered him standing, looking breathless. Steve practically flung himself off the granite, rolling off and stumbling to catch himself –

He let out a broken cry as his burnt leg took his weight. He lost his balance and fell sideways, hitting the floor hard. The fall jostled his chest, but for the first time in a long time, that wasn’t the most painful part of his body. Even the smallest breeze sent waves of agony through Steve’s leg, and landing on rough asphalt and scraping along the floor had his vision swimming.

Adrenaline, however, forced Steve to do his best to suppress both pains. He aimed the flamethrower at Billy. If he’d been thinking more clearly, he would have been surprised the pilot light hadn’t caught on anything in the fall.

“Don’t-” Steve gasped. “Don’t come any closer.”

Billy looked down at Steve lying on the ground, unimpressed. Steve was sure he cut a pitiful figure, completely incapable of standing, but he didn’t care.

“Steve,” Billy said imploringly. “Don’t you see? We’re trying to help you. We want to help you.”

“That’s not you,” Steve rasped. “That’s not you.”

“We don’t want you to die,” Billy said, taking a step forward.

Get away from me!” Steve all but screamed, using his good leg to push himself back. He winced as his burnt leg dragged across the asphalt.

“I thought you wanted to go home, Steve,” Billy’s voice was warm, completely at odds with the ice in his eyes. “I thought you wanted to see your family again.”

“Billy,” Steve rasped, breathing hard. “This isn’t you.”

“We can make that happen,” Billy implored. “You can live. You can see your mom, and your dad, and Robin, Dustin, everyone. Just let us – let me – help you.”

Tears started falling down Steve’s face. His heart clenched at the thought of his old life.

“You don’t want to die, Steve,” Billy said softly.

What little air that escaped from his lungs got caught in his throat. He could see Dustin’s face in his mind’s eye. He could practically hear Robin calling him ‘dingus’ in his ear. He closed his eyes, his face screwed up tight as he thought of his life left behind. His eyes opened, and he saw Billy step around the memorial.

He was already dead.

“Go to hell!” Steve gasped.

His fingers closed around the trigger again and fire blasted in Billy’s general direction. He didn’t look to see how accurate he’d been. He pushed himself to his feet and started to run – or, more accurately, hobble – away from Billy. He was practically dragging his burnt leg across the parking lot, barely looking at where he was going, sparing Billy only the occasional backward glance, determined to put as much distance between himself and Billy as possible, moving on nothing but adrenaline.

Billy recovered from the initial blast, dodging the jet of fire as the burning fuel sprayed onto the asphalt. He walked around the flames, barely needing more than a powerful stride to close the gap between him and Steve. Steve’s heart sank as he glanced over his shoulder to see Billy less than five feet from him. He turned around, sending another blast of fire his way.

Steve turned around, trying to pick up the pace –

A huge, monstrous leg slammed itself down in his path. Steve changed direction, doing his best to haul himself away from it, only for the leg to move into his new path. He was surprised the shadow wasn’t trying to move towards him – he suspected it was waiting for Billy to take the flamethrower off him again.

Steve tried a new direction, blindly, desperately reaching out for any way out. The mall was dimly visible – his vision was swimming – he could barely tell which way was up…

If he could make it to the mall, there was a chance he could find somewhere to hide. He knew he wouldn’t be able to hide for long, but maybe just long enough.

He stumbled forwards. His chest felt tight, there was hardly any air in his lungs, his leg was in agony. Blood was pounding in his ears. He didn’t think he could go much further –

His good leg finally gave out and he crashed to his knees. He let out a broken cry that forced out what little stolen air he’d managed to claim in his lungs.

The door was so close…

He used the last of his strength to crawl towards the threshold. His knees felt a certain amount of thanks as he finally made it onto the smooth tiles –

Rough hands suddenly seized his shoulders from behind. Steve found himself being turned onto his back to look up at Billy’s deranged face. Billy closed his hands around the flamethrower, trying to pull it off him. Steve frantically grabbed it, twisting his arms around the strap –

A blow to the head sent stars across his vision. For a split second, he was back on the Byers’ floor, looking up as Billy slammed his fists repeatedly into his face until the world went dark. Steve wasn’t about to let that happen again –

He closed his fingers around the trigger – he didn’t care where it was pointing – flames shot out between them off to one side towards the door for a split second. It was completely ineffective, but it was enough to make Billy jump, jolting back away from him as he twisted his arms further around the strap, redoubling what little grip he had.

“Steve,” Billy growled –

A crack like thunder echoed out around them. Both Steve and Billy’s heads snapped towards the door, looking out towards the treeline. The sky was lit up from below, stained a murky red.

A Gate.

Billy looked down at Steve, visibly torn. Steve knew that whatever resistance he put up at this point wouldn’t be enough, he didn’t have anything left in him. He could only pray that the time sensitivity of the Gate would be enough for Billy to leave him, just for a little bit longer.

Billy locked eyes with Steve, and Steve could practically see the conclusion come to him in those deranged blue eyes.

Steve wasn’t going anywhere.

Billy spared Steve one last look before turning towards the door and running out, the Shadow on his tail.

-:-

Mike, Lucas, Will and Dustin had just made it to Hopper’s cabin on their bikes when a sound like thunder echoed throughout the forest.

“The hell…?” Dustin said, looking around. It was a completely clear night, just like it had been the night before, and the night before that.

“It came from over there,” Will said, pointing out into the woods. He suddenly felt very uneasy.

Lucas had been the only one with enough sense to think about bringing a torch. Truth be told, he now seemed to permanently have an ‘adventure backpack’ slung over his shoulders, complete with large water bottle, torch, slingshot, radio, and even a couple of candy bars. He fished it out and switched it on and led the way.

Will’s unease increased with each step. Something was wrong – something was very wrong. He thought back to what Hopper had said the last time he’d visited, what Hopper had said about not doing things on their own.

“I think we should call Hopper,” he said softly.

“There’s no time,” Mike snapped. “If you want, try reaching him over the radio.”

“We don’t have the frequency for his police radio,” Dustin pointed out. “And, let’s be honest, has he ever used the one we gave him?”

Will really didn’t like that.

“Guys,” Lucas interrupted. “There’s light up ahead!”

Four heads turned to peer through the trees at where a dim red glow was emanating. Lucas switched off the torch and started creeping through the trees. Will suddenly felt a strange sensation on the back of his neck. He reached up a hand to touch it, unseen by the three boys in front of him, fear rising in his chest.

Finally, Lucas made it to the outskirts of the clearing, and his jaw dropped.

A Gate was open in the dirt. Max and El stood in front of it, their backs to the boys, just… looking… They didn’t seem surprised, or worried, or scared… It didn’t make any sense at all, unless –

El opened the Gate.

Lucas felt the other three come up behind him, and practically felt their shock.

“What the…” Dustin breathed, only audible to Lucas because it was right in his ear.

El was holding the Gate open. Her hand stayed outstretched. It was almost like she was waiting for something, or testing herself…

Something moved in the red light within the Gate. A shadow, a silhouette of a head and shoulders was peering through it, like a reflection in a lake.

“Wait!” Max said, looking at El.

“Max…” El said softly, her tone carrying the slightest hint of warning.

Max gave no indication that she’d heard El. She walked towards the Gate. She crouched down at the edge, beside the silhouette.

The silhouette stretched out a hand towards the Gate. Max could see the five fingered hand reaching towards her. As if in a trance, Max stretched out her own hand, inching it closer and closer to the Gate…

“Billy?” she breathed.

She was almost touching the Gate –

Max, no!” El screamed.

Max was flung away from the Gate – not far, but enough that she landed on her back. The silhouette’s hand was touching the Gate, almost pushing through –

El let out a scream, stretching out her other hand to fling the silhouette away. Max looked at El, dumbstruck, before El turned to her, eyes wide.

“Max…” she said determinedly. “He’s bad.”

Max looked back towards the Gate. Her eyes were wide, searching for the silhouette, not sure if she wanted to find it or not…

The shadow did not return.

Max looked over at El. “Close it,” she said softly.

El gave her a nod before stretching out her hand. The boys stared at them, still hidden in the shadows, watching as the Gate started knitting itself together.

The whole process took less than a minute.

The clearing was plunged into darkness, the only light coming from the moon. They watched as the silhouette of Max went over to a bag, extracting a torch and turning it on. She then pulled out some tissues, handing them to El, who promptly sat down and wiped her nose. Max looked upset, stunned, but sat down next to El and pulled her into a tight hug.

Mike wasn’t staying still any longer.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he yelled as he stormed out of the trees. Lucas followed him, fumbling with the torch as Max and El both jumped to their feet, turning towards them both, a torchlight shining in Mike’s face.

“What the hell are you doing here?” Max snarled. “Are you – are you spying on us?”

“Yeah, like you can talk!” Mike scoffed. “And don’t try and turn this on us – was that a Gate?

El and Max looked at each other, uncomfortable. Lucas would normally be trying to rein Mike in, but this wasn’t a normal set of circumstances. He wanted answers, too.

“Yes,” Max finally said.

Dustin let out a breath. “Jesus,” he said softly, shaking his head.

“Why?” Will asked. He sounded absolutely shell-shocked.

El looked at Mike, meeting his eyes. “We were trying to get Billy back,” she said quietly.

What?” Mike said.

“Billy’s still in the Upside Down,” she explained. “We want to bring him back… back home.

Lucas felt his rising anger soften slightly. “Why didn’t you tell us?” he said.

“Because we weren’t ready to bring him back yet,” Max cut in. “We needed to work out how to… un-Flay him. This was just…”

“Practice,” El finished.

Practice?” Dustin echoed, “You mean – oh, Jesus, you’ve done this before, haven’t you?”

The silence that met Dustin’s words confirmed his fears.

“How long has this been going on?” Will asked.

Again, silence.

Well?” Mike asked, his eyebrows raised.

Max couldn’t bring herself to look any of them in the eyes. “Since Billy’s funeral,” she said quietly.

Will felt his heart sink. Lucas closed his eyes, unable to look at Max. Mike threw up his hands and turned away. Dustin let out an exhale that quickly evolved into muttering.

Anger was not an especially familiar emotion to Dustin. He was pretty sure he could count the times he could remember being angry – truly angry – on one hand. Annoyance he knew very well – nobody couldn’t deal with the stubborn pig-headedness of Mike Wheeler and Lucas Sinclair without it – but true, deep anger… that was something altogether different.

Well, this may have stretched that number across two hands.

“Shit,” Dustin muttered. “Holy fucking shit… I can’t believe this, I actually can’t believe this…”

“Dustin-” Max tried to say, but Dustin cut her off with a hand.

“No,” he said quietly, his voice low. “No, don’t even…

Max stopped, looking at Dustin warily, almost scared.

“Do you have any idea what you were doing?” Dustin finally said, his voice still quiet but carrying such intensity as he didn’t even look at Max. “I can’t believe you – we’re all sat here, freaking out about the Russians coming back, trying to prepare ourselves for another fucking invasion in case they decide that they want to open the Gate again, but here you two are, fucking – fucking opening Gates in the woods like it’s nothing!

“Dustin, I’m sorry-”

“No – no, you don’t get to be sorry, Max!” Dustin finally looked at her. “Do you have any idea how dangerous this is? The danger you put us in? Every time a Gate has been opened, people have died! Our friends have died! That’s why we’re all in this mess – to stop shit like this happening again! People died to stop this – Steve died to stop this! And you’re undoing everything he died for!”

Max stood there, looking shocked. She’d never seen Dustin like this.

“Dustin, I’m sorry,” she said, and for the first time, her voice shook slightly. “I… I really am sorry about Steve, but he’s gone. But there’s a chance that Billy can come back. And if… if there’s even the slightest chance I can bring him home, then I will do whatever it takes to make that happen.”

Dustin looked at her, absolutely disgusted. He looked between her and El, shaking his head.

“Go to hell, Max,” he said quietly, turning on his heel and walking out of the clearing.

Max stared after Dustin, trying to fight back tears. The complete condemnation in his eyes was enough to deter her from trying to reconcile with him. She’d never seen him look at anyone like that.

“Dustin’s right,” Mike said. “It was stupid of you to do this. What the hell were you thinking? Don’t you remember what about Will? And what about Bob? You put everyone at risk!”

“What was I supposed to do, Mike?” Max asked, her voice high. “Billy’s trapped in the Upside Down, and nobody was doing anything about it! It tore my family apart! My mom can barely get out of bed in the morning because Neil bailed on us after everything! Hell, they made us have a funeral for him! They may as well have just spelled out that ‘yeah, Billy’s stuck in another dimension, but we’re just going to leave him there for dead,’ and at least they would have been being fucking honest about it! You’re always the one saying that nobody should be left behind, that we should drop everything to help our friends, or does that not apply when it’s Billy?

“Well, if it’s so noble, why didn’t you tell us?” Mike snapped back.

Max fell silent, her eyes wide. She looked between Mike, Lucas and Will, tears shining in her eyes.

“I was scared you would have said no,” she muttered quietly.

Mike looked at her incredulously. “Yeah,” he huffed out. “We probably would’ve. Because this is insane!”

“It was for Billy,” El said timidly, cutting through Mike’s ranting. “Mike… please understand…”

Mike’s expression softened at the sight of El’s terrified face, but he couldn’t get past this. This wasn’t some stupid little white lie; this had been systematic deception for weeks. It had been reckless, and wrong, and they had both known it was wrong, and they had still done it anyway.

“I don’t,” he said, his voice cracking. “I’m sorry El, I don’t. Friends don’t lie.”

El’s face crumpled. The tears that were shining in her eyes started to fall freely down her cheeks.

“Come on,” Mike said to Lucas and Will, turning on his heel to lead the way out of the clearing.

Max rushed forwards to grab Lucas’ arm. “Lucas, wait!

He turned around to look at her. He took in her face, shining with tears, her eyes, begging him to understand, to stay…

“Lucas, please,” she said desperately. “I did it to get Billy back, I didn’t want anyone to get hurt-”

“I know,” he said softly. “I get it, I really do. But you need to trust me, Max. I would have helped you. Maybe not with this, but we could have found another way to get him back. But instead, you shut me out. And if you can’t trust me with something as big as this… I don’t know if I can trust you.”

“Lucas-”

“Do you know what I thought was going on?” Lucas asked. “When you shut me out of your life, when you’d hardly ever call, when you’d barely even look at me, do you know what I thought?”

Max looked at him, terrified and confused.

“I thought your stepdad had got to you somehow,” he explained. “I thought he’d somehow changed your mind about me – said something about me that had made you so uncomfortable around me, something that you’d finally believed.

“Lucas, how could you think-”

“That’s just it, Max, I didn’t know what to think!” Lucas exclaimed. “You were going through all this shit on your own, and I wanted to help, but every time you saw me, you were so uncomfortable around me, so on edge, I started to wonder. And if I can’t trust that you don’t think these things about me, and if you can’t trust me enough to tell me that you were opening Gates in the woods to get Billy back, then where do we go from here?”

Max looked at him, thunderstruck. “W-what are you saying?”

“I’m saying I think it’s over,” Lucas said. “For real. I’m sorry.”

Max’s eyes widened with shock. “Lucas…” she stammered. “Lucas, please, can we talk about this?”

“What else is there to say, Max?” Lucas asked softly. “We don’t trust each other. This isn’t me doing something stupid, or insensitive, or whatever, this is… This is real, Max.”

Max’s breath was coming in shuddering sobs. “Lucas, please…

Lucas was surprised to find his own eyes stinging as he looked at her. “Goodbye, Mad Max,” he said softly, before turning around and following Mike and Will out of the clearing, leaving her standing in the dark.

-:-

Dustin didn’t know how long he’d been walking. He finally made it to the top of the hill, his eyes resting on the tower he’d assembled all those weeks ago. He’d not been back here since that evening, he’d been so caught up in everything that had happened, and he’d discovered that the last thing he wanted to do was to talk about it again with yet another person who couldn’t ever know the full story. But right now, this was what he needed. Suzie was what he needed.

That did, of course, presume that she’d forgive him for not calling her in over a month.

He sat down on the grass and turned on the radio. He adjusted the frequency, and took a deep breath.

“Suzie?” he said softly. “Suzie, do you copy?”

Nothing.

“Suzie, it’s Dustin, do you copy?”

Static –

“This is Suzie, I copy.”

As happy as Dustin was to hear her voice, he couldn’t ignore the icy cold anger there.

“Suzie? It’s Dustin, it’s so good to hear your voice-”

“Dustin, what the hell? Camp finished over a month ago. You haven’t called me for ages and then suddenly you call me in the middle of the night?”

“Yeah, I know, I’m so sorry, Suzie-poo,” he said, hoping his pet nickname for her would somehow ease her anger. “I know it’s been a long time, but I’ve been busy-”

“What could possibly have had you so busy that you couldn’t call me for weeks?”

Well, he did like that she was smart. So – honesty. He’d watched Lucas get in enough trouble with Max for lying to know not to make that mistake.

“I… My friend died,” he said.

There was silence on the other line for a second. “Oh…” she said. “Oh my god, Dusty, I’m sorry, are you okay?”

“Yeah… it was a little while ago now, it was back in July, but it’s… It took a lot out of me. It’s not an excuse, I know, but it’s the truth.”

Suzie was quiet on the other end of the line for a moment. “Do you want to talk about it?”

Well now, there was a question. “I don’t know,” Dustin said. “It’s like… everyone in town is talking about it, it was this huge fire, loads of people died. It’s like… I’ve got loads of people to talk to about it, who kind of understand, and I’ve been trying, but it’s like I’m talking round in circles. It’s not helping, people don’t really get it, people don’t get why I’m upset, and it’s like… it’s everywhere. People keep telling me that talking helps, but it isn’t helping, and I’m just… I’m just so tired.

Saying all this to Suzie finally clarified something in his brain, and evidently in hers, too, because she understood something there that Dustin may not have understood.

“What do you mean when you say you’re ‘tired’?”

Dustin paused, thinking. “It’s like… I just don’t have it in me to do anything. It’s not like it’s all the time, there are some days when I feel like I can do things. It… It helps if I’ve committed to do something. But – like – little things… Things that I don’t technically have to do right now, that’s when I just find myself… putting it off. Things like getting up, doing laundry-”

“Calling me,” Suzie said quietly.

Dustin squeezed his eyes together, finally feeling tears welling up in his eyes. “Yeah,” he breathed. “Even calling you. God… Suzie, I’m so sorry…”

His voice choked up. He tried to force himself to take a deep breath, but when he released it, it came out shuddering.

“It’s okay,” Suzie said, and by the sound of her voice, she sounded like she was choking up as well. “I get it. In a way, if you’re going to be MIA for a month, I’m glad it’s for this rather than just… you not liking me, or that outside camp we’d lost that connection, which is what I thought had happened. Obviously, I’d rather you not feel like this at all, but we can work through this. You can work through this.”

Dustin felt his heart swell up at Suzie’s words, a wave of relief washing over him, tears falling down his cheeks. His breaths were shaking, his voice cracking. “God, Suzie, it’s not even just doing things. It’s like… I’m so tired of feeling like this. It’s like I’ve been feeling so saturated in feeling sad that I’m just tired of feeling like this that I just can’t be anymore. It’s like I’ve become so desensitized to it that there’s just… nothing. And I don’t want to feel nothing. He was… He was really important to me. And it’s like there are days when I can feel that he’s gone, and it hurts, it hurts so much and I freak out and I can’t do anything, and I don’t want to feel that anymore, but then there are days when I feel that he’s gone and it’s like it doesn’t even matter anymore – even to me – and that scares me so much, Suzie.”

Dustin had largely switched off from talking to people about Steve, even to Robin, because he hadn’t wanted to admit any of this to Robin, and he had no idea if any of the Party would understand. They barely understood his friendship with Steve as it was – they knew he had been closer to Steve than any of them had been, but Dustin had found himself gravitating towards Steve more and more, particularly as Mike and Lucas had gotten closer to El and Max and Will had been trying to become more independent following November.

“Okay,” Suzie said, speaking slowly. It was exactly the same way she would talk when she was talking herself through a math problem that she just needed to wrap her head around to work out. “First of all, it sounds like there’s a lot going on there, and we’re not going to be able to fix this tonight. So when we finish speaking, go home, go to bed, and we’ll take it from where we are when it’s less… late. Second – it sounds like you’re feeling guilty about not feeling sad enough sometimes. But it sounds like you’ve been feeling really upset about this for a really long time, and you just need a bit of a break. So go and do something fun tomorrow, and don’t feel guilty about it. Call a friend and play Dungeons and Dragons, or… go to the arcade and get a load of ice cream or candy afterwards. It doesn’t matter what it is, it just needs to be fun, and don’t feel guilty about it. I didn’t know your friend, but I don’t think he’d want you sitting in your room all day every day feeling miserable. Sometimes you just need to have a good, fun day where you don’t think about all the bad things, and you only talk about nice, uncomplicated things. My mom always does that with me when I’m hung up on something.”

Dustin gave a watery laugh. “Thanks, Suzie.”

“Also,” Suzie said. “You mentioned that scheduling things helps you do stuff. So we’re going to schedule our next call. Do you think you can call me again on Thursday at around four o’clock?”

Dustin closed his eyes and smiled towards the microphone. “Yeah,” he said softly. “Yeah, I can do that.”

“Great, let’s do that then. You call me at sixteen hundred hours on Thursday. If you don’t call me, I will call your house. You gave me your number in case of emergencies. So… if you don’t call, I will use the telephone, and my parents may possibly find out about us and forbid me from calling you, so you’d better call me.”

Dustin gave another watery laugh. “I will, Suzie. Don’t worry.”

-:-

Paul was, if anything, slightly confused by the knock on his door at eleven thirty at night.

He was still up, but Linda had gone to bed. Also, quite frankly, anyone who was disturbing him at his house at this hour needed to have the best reason possible.

Which was why he was slightly surprised to see Harry Beaumont standing on his doorstep.

“Hello,” Paul said warily.

Beaumont looked… haggard, to say the least. Paul knew the debate hadn’t gone well for him, and took a certain amount of satisfaction in knowing the reason why, but he hadn’t quite expected this. His hair was a mess, like he’d been repeatedly running his hand through it, the shadows under his eyes that Paul hadn’t cared enough to notice at the debate were now more pronounced, and the dim light gave him an almost skull-like appearance.

“Hi,” Beaumont said breathlessly. His voice was higher than Paul remembered it, shaking slightly. He looked jittery, his hands not staying still, twisting in and out of themselves. “Uh – I wanted to come by – to tell you something – I thought you should be the first to know – uh…”

Paul found himself feeling oddly sympathetic for the man on his doorstep despite everything. “Do you – ah – want to come in?” he offered. “You look like you could use a strong drink.”

“Uh – no, no need, this – this won’t take long, I’ve… I’ve got to drive back, anyway…” Beaumont’s hands still twisted in and out of themselves. “I just came by to tell you – you’ve won. I’m – I’m pulling out of the race.”

Paul’s carefully schooled expression broke slightly as his eyebrows shot up. “Are you serious?

Beaumont nodded. “Yeah, I mean… the debate today – it really brought it home…” Beaumont ran his hands through his hair. “It wasn’t even a debate, really, was it? It was – an inquest, that was what it – I mean… anyway…

“The point – the point is…” Beaumont said, refocusing his gaze on Paul’s face, a glint in his eyes that seemed to Paul like he was fighting to keep them in one place. “Hawkins – it doesn’t want me. It doesn’t want anyone who had anything to do with Starcourt – or Kline – or anything. Tonight – it just proved it. Everyone hates me. And… I don’t want to be the face of this – I don’t want to put my family through that. I mean – tonight – tonight, Winnie Kline was attacked on her doorstep, for God’s sake… I don’t want to put my family through that…”

Paul hid his surprise at that latest bit of news far more successfully than he had at the previous revelation. He didn’t know what to say.

“I’ll stay on as Mayor for a little bit,” Beaumont said. “Just for a transition period – at least until after you’ve got a mandate. Pretty sure you’re the only name on the ballot now, but… there’s still a chance someone could decide to run against you, and it’s worth getting voted in, anyway. No point in being unelected when you’re on track to win. And… I don’t know if it’ll do more harm than good, but I’m happy to endorse you if it’ll help.”

Paul was extremely confused at the turn his evening had taken. “Ah… thank you,” he said quietly.

“Oh – and… it was ‘ignorant’,” Beaumont said.

“What?”

“The answer to your earlier question,” Beaumont said. “You asked if I was ignorant, incompetent or involved. I was – I was ignorant. Or maybe incompetent. I did look over the plans for Starcourt, I always do, but I didn’t see anything that would have suggested that corners were being cut. I also had a look over the budget for the building, but there was nothing to suggest that Kline was being bribed to cover it up. It… It must have come out of Starcourt Industries’ own pockets. And… I hope – I really hope you know… I’m sorry. I know there’s nothing I can say that’ll make up for it, but… I’ve never been more sorry for anything in my life. I can’t imagine what you and all those other people must have gone through. And I’m sorry I didn’t do enough to stop it.”

-:-

Steve wasn’t sure how much time had passed.

He had hardly moved, just lying on the cold tiles, staring up at the ceiling, at the broken skylight, drifting… He was certain he’d fallen in and out of consciousness a few times. His head was still swimming… He could feel something damp in his hair… Maybe when Billy had smashed his head against the granite memorial, it had broken his skin… Nothing was quite staying focused…

Billy would be back soon. He probably should already be back. Unless… had something happened at the Gate? Something that meant he’d made it through? Something that meant the Mind Flayer had made it through? The Mind Flayer had never tried to go through the Gate on its own, but what if it tried to go through with Billy?

His head swam, his vision tilted alarmingly again, and he found himself drifting once more. Every single breath seemed to be getting stuck in his throat. His eyes drifted shut… colours danced behind his eyelids… swirling together to come to a bright light… He thought he could hear voices… but he couldn’t make out what they were saying…

He forced his eyes open to find himself still looking up at the ruined mall. His vision was still swimming, but something was different. There was a light by the door… multiple lights…

He forced his eyes to look over to the door to see a silhouette of a man… he was holding a light, but beyond that, Steve couldn’t make out much else… he couldn’t even make out a face…

There was another silhouette next to the first. And a third… And a fourth… They were all holding lights, all of them pointing straight at him. He couldn’t make out much, but he could see it wasn’t Billy. Even if he’d wanted to, he knew he couldn’t run. His vision swayed again, and Steve closed his eyes to the movement…

He felt hands on his shoulders…

He felt himself being dragged out of the mall…

He felt himself being lifted somewhere… his eyes cracked open for a second to see – was that a helicopter?

A buzzing sound filled his ears… He felt himself lying down on a hard surface… His mind drifted…

Snapshots of lucidity, each lasting for the length of time it took to crack his eyes open and let them drift shut again, were the only clues as to what was going on. The helicopter was traded with a plane… There was the roar of an engine… People were sat on the plane with him, wearing silver biohazard suits, their faces hidden with gas masks… The plane was flying…

Rough hands brought him back to awareness. He was being dragged again, dragged off the plane to a place he didn’t recognise… He was being taken into a building… Down a corridor… and towards –

A Gate.

The red light filled the room. Steve was being taken towards it… He was going home…

He winced as bright yellow light assaulted his eyes. It was more light than he must have seen in weeks, his eyes accustomed to the darkness of the Upside Down. He found himself being dropped roughly onto the floor. He was dimly aware of activity exploding around him, people rushing towards him, voices saying words that he couldn’t understand, couldn’t make out…

The voices suddenly stopped. Steve fought to open his eyes, blinking against the light, fighting his own reflexes to clench his eyes shut as tightly as possible. He felt a hand on his face, turning it upwards, and finally, finally, he managed to keep his eyes long enough to focus…

His heart sank as he found himself looking at a face he thought he would only see again in his nightmares.

“Hello, Butterscotch.”

-:-

HAWKINS POST, SEPTEMBER 6th, 1985

HARRINGTON SWORN IN AS MAYOR

Paul Harrington was sworn into office yesterday as the new Mayor of Hawkins following an election last week where he ran unopposed. He takes over from Harry Beaumont, who has been Acting Mayor of Hawkins since August, following the arrest of former Mayor Lawrence Kline on corruption charges. Kline was arrested for taking bribes to cover up dangerous design flaws in the new Starcourt Mall which ultimately led to the gas explosion in July that killed 30 people, including Harrington’s son. Harrington admitted in a speech following his oath of office that he asked to be sworn in yesterday as it would have been his son’s birthday. He has been open on the campaign trail that the Starcourt Tragedy had motivated him to run for office, arguing for greater improvements and oversight in local emergency services.

Larry Kline put down the newspaper. It was strange to see the photograph of someone he would have considered one of his best friends a matter of months ago standing in what had been his office. Paul hadn’t spoken to him since his arrest, but had made it very clear to Larry that he hated him. From the sudden rejection by Harrington Spencer to legally represent him to the open condemnation in numerous speeches on the campaign trail, even to the fact that he was on the campaign trail at all… It told Larry all he needed to know. His own name was a dirty word to Paul.

Not that Larry could entirely blame him.

Larry had had no way of knowing that Paul’s kid was mixed up in all this. He’d had no idea that the kid had worked at the mall – Paul had never mentioned, probably for reasons to do with the fact that he’d become very quiet about his underachieving son.

The outside world believed that Larry was in a white-collar prison. While that was still the case, it was a temporary situation. Larry was aware of the other charges levelled against him – the unofficial charges. The ones that the media wouldn’t hear about. They were keeping him here for a little while – just until there was nobody left to come and see him. He was pretty sure that was approaching. Winnie hadn’t come by in weeks – the last time she’d visited, she’d told him she’d been attacked on their doorstep, and that she blamed him entirely for it.

Still, Larry had one card left to play. And he was going to use it to tear the lid off this entire cover-up. Maybe, in the process, someone would forgive him.

He went over to the only phone in the building. There was usually a long queue to use it, but it was early. Six thirty in the morning was not normally a time when civilized people called each other, and most people in this prison tried to consider themselves civilized. Or, at least, tried to remember that there were such things as civilized people on the outside. Larry, however, didn’t really care if he was bothering this person at six thirty in the morning. They’d take his call. They’d appreciate his call.

The phone rang six times before someone answered.

“Hello?”

“Hi there, it’s Larry… Larry Kline,” he said. “Listen, I’ve changed my mind. I’ll tell you everything I know. But there’s one condition. And I’ll only talk to you after it’s been met.”

“What do you want?”

Larry paused for a second. “I want to meet the new Mayor.”

Chapter Text

Steve’s eyes fluttered open.

This was new.

Gone was the strange fluttering ash in the air. Gone was the darkness. There was a single exposed bulb swinging from the ceiling. Well, ceiling might be generous. Exposed pipes criss-crossed over his head in a strange geometric pattern. The walls weren’t painted, simply old, exposed, stained concrete. There was visible damp darkening it at the top, moisture coming from the stone almost like sweat.

Steve took in these surroundings before taking in anything more immediate. He was lying on a bed of some sorts. It reminded him slightly of a hospital bed, put together using a metal frame that, at some point in its life, must have been painted, but over the years the paint had chipped away, leaving the metal to rust. Perhaps it reminded him of a hospital bed because of something hanging above him – a long thin tube that ended in an IV bag. His clothes were gone, his only protection against the cold being a threadbare blanket.

Steve felt slightly like he’d stumbled into a horror movie. If this was a hospital of some sorts, it was a far cry from the finest medical care his father’s health insurance could provide which Steve was used to.

Where the hell was he?

Things started to come back to him slowly. Hearing his mom’s voice… Talking Billy into investigating… The sudden realisation that Billy was under the Mind Flayer’s control… Lying on that stone slab in a vortex of darkness… Fire, a bright orange light, a burning sensation… Dragging himself into the mall with Billy following him… Billy walking away to chase down a Gate, leaving him on the floor to die… The lights… The men… The Gate… The General –

Steve jolted at the memory of the face. He tried to force himself upright –

His hands met against resistance, and Steve realized that something was tying his wrists to the bed. That made sense. He wasn’t a patient; he was a prisoner. If he was right – and all the evidence was pointing to that rare occurrence – the General wouldn’t have left him alone unless there was no way for him to inadvertently wander off.

Steve tried to force himself to calm down. Billy had given him that counting exercise, hadn’t he? Breathe for three, hold, and then out for three? He could do that. He could do that, and then he could think…

In… two… three… hold… out… two… three…

In… two… three… hold… out… two… three…

In… two… three… hold… out… two… three…

Okay.

What did he know? He was alone in a suspected Russian prison, tied to a hospital bed. Billy wasn’t evidently around, which was a good thing, however Steve was not about to rule out the possibility that Billy had also been captured, which would explain why he hadn’t come back after going for the Gate. Steve also knew that he wasn’t dying, which was a significant improvement on the last time he’d checked in with his body. Breathing was coming much more easily, and the pain in his chest had eased. His captors had clearly gone to significant lengths to keep him alive. Which would suggest that they were not about to kill him straight away. Again, an improvement on his previous situation.

However, there was a very large range of activities that were covered by the phrase ‘not about to kill him straight away’, and based on his previous dealings with Russians, he did not think he had been kept alive for a friendly game of Dungeons and Dragons. Unless they played an extremely immersive version in Russia.

Which begged the question – what did the Russians know? They had found him in the Upside Down in Starcourt on the brink of death. They had opened a Gate in Hawkins. They had opened another Gate here, at this unknown location. They had seen Steve before after he had infiltrated their base beneath the mall. They knew he’d worked for Scoops Ahoy, and that he’d heard a code. They knew that he knew about the Gate. They knew about Will Byers and Dustin and Hopper. They possibly knew about Billy. If they hadn’t found out anything new in the time that he’d been in the Upside Down – and that was a very big if – then so far, they didn’t know about Eleven. Or at least, they didn’t know that he knew anything about Eleven. He could work with that.

He was jolted out of his analysis by the sound of a heavy door opening. A bang, and footsteps, boots with hard soles clicking on the concrete floor out of sight…

Steve’s suspicions about where he was were all but confirmed by the sight of a man he would never forget. Despite not knowing exactly where he was, the man’s presence confirmed that this was definitely a Russian facility.

“Welcome back,” said the General – if he even was a General, Steve was never entirely sure of military ranks, he’d just… assumed.

Steve looked at him warily, not saying a word.

“No ‘thank you’?” the General raised an eyebrow. “Our doctors saved your life on my command. You would be dead otherwise. In Russia, that normally deserves gratitude, but perhaps they don’t teach manners in America.”

Steve was not about to be lectured on manners by a man who had shot Robin and broken his finger and four of his ribs. So rather than expressing gratitude, he settled on a question.

“Where am I?” Steve asked, taken aback by how hoarse he was. “Starcourt?”

This had the General laughing. “Starcourt? – Oh, no, Butterscotch, you are not in Starcourt. My men found you in Starcourt, certainly, but they brought you here.”

“Which is where, exactly?” God, his dad was right, he was an idiot.

The General gave him a smile that didn’t touch the hardened ice in his eyes. “Russia,” he said coolly.

And there it was. So much for going home.

“I must say, Butterscotch, you almost had me fooled,” the General said, walking closer to the bed. “You’d convinced me that you’d found us in America through… how do you say it? ‘Dumb luck’… You’d convinced me that you were simply a stupid child who’d mistakenly been caught up in our business. But then my men found you in that place. They brought you back here. And now, I am not so sure. So tell me, Butterscotch – how did you survive there?

Steve instinctively recoiled away from the man now looming over him. He felt an extreme reluctance to share any information about Billy with this man. The Russians clearly had no problem with going into the Upside Down and bringing people back, he was living proof of that, and so informing them that there was someone else in the Upside Down would undoubtedly result in them searching for Billy and bringing him back. Which would mean that the Mind Flayer would know exactly where he was. Steve didn’t think he had it in him to try to incinerate himself a second time.

This did, of course, assume that they hadn’t already found Billy.

“Dumb luck?” Steve tried.

The General’s smile dropped to a cold glare. “Now, now, Butterscotch, I thought we were past the lies. Do not make me ask you again.”

The threat in the General’s voice was far too real for Steve to ignore. Memories of what had happened beneath Starcourt flashed through his mind, and he really didn’t want a repeat performance of being tied to a chair with a Russian drilling into his finger or chest.

“I don’t really know what you want me to tell you,” he said. “I went through the Gate, found water, found food, lived like that for God knows how long, until I started getting sick, and then I realised I wasn’t getting any better, so I went to the mall to try and find if there was a way out, and I guess at some point I must have passed out, because I woke up here, and I don’t even know what’s going on.”

The slight hardening behind the General’s eyes told Steve that he had not succeeded in convincing his captor. However, he’d evidently decided to play along with Steve’s explanation as a cold smile spread back across his face.

“Why did you decide to go through the Gate?”

Steve looked at him, slightly incredulous. “Your…” Steve swallowed, not liking the steely glint in the man’s eyes that promised him nothing good. “Your – uh – machine, the thing you used to open the Gate, it was about to blow up. I didn’t want to get blown up with it.”

“The machine was blown up by your government,” the General replied. “It was not… spontaneous, is that the word? It was controlled. If you were going to get blown up with it, that would mean that your government was prepared to blow you up, too.”

Steve’s breath caught in his throat. He hadn’t thought about that day in a long time – which had been a very conscious effort. He was good at that; ignoring difficult things, difficult truths, pretending that bad things hadn’t happened. Still, at the General’s words, his chest tightened – for once, nothing to do with his broken ribs. Memories flashed through his mind.

He was scrambling to his feet, looking around, trying to find a way out. His eyes found Robin’s, looking at him through the glass of the observation deck, and in that moment of staring at her terrified wide eyes, he knew there was no way out.

“It’s okay,” he could barely hear his own voice over the sound of the machine, let alone Hopper’s protests. “It’s okay. Look after the others. Especially Dustin. It wasn’t his fault. And tell my mom and dad… Tell them… I love them… And I think I get it now. It’s okay. Go. Finish this.”

And then Hopper was running back to the observation deck. He saw him briefly struggle with Robin, before turning back to the Gate. It was his only hope. He barely registered his own feet starting to run, practically of their own accord, launching him into the air, before some force slammed into his back and sent him blasting through the Gate and into oblivion.

The General’s voice cut through his thoughts, unwilling as they were. “You see, Butterscotch, your idiocy managed to destroy an operation that was years in the making. Many of my comrades were captured or killed by your government. I myself suffered at their hands, as did you. That alone should have been reason enough for me to let you die, if not to kill you myself. But it’s okay, Butterscotch. Because you are going to help me clean up this mess.”

Steve tried to at least control the look of complete surprise and fear that shot across his face. Clean up… Did the man seriously think he was going to turn on his friends, his family, his country? Steve may not have been the most patriotic person in the world, but this was treason. Helping the Russians – whatever that entailed – meant putting the people he cared about most straight into the crosshairs of a group of people that had been quite content to torture him and shoot Robin. Hell, even this single conversation had been made perfectly clear that the only reason he was still alive was because the Russians thought he might be useful.

“Think about it,” the General said softly. “We can help you get back to your home. You want to go home, yes? You want to see your loved ones again?”

Steve was aware that the honest answer to that question was ‘yes’. He was also painfully aware that the chances that he would make it home were slim. The chances of the Russians letting him go at the end of it were non-existent. The chances that they would let him see his friends and family again were only elevated into existence with the caveat of death following immediately afterwards.

“Very well,” the General said, standing up straight. “You must understand, Butterscotch, you will help us, whether you wish to or not. The only question is how much pain you will go through. I suggest you simply cooperate. Iosif!

Another man walked in, tall, his face hidden behind a white surgeon’s mask. He was wearing a long white coat. Steve automatically backed himself up against the pillow as best he could – Russian doctors were not people Steve had particularly fond memories of.

Tovarishch Polkovnik Ozerov,” the doctor said with a salute.

Dayte yemu lekarstvo i odezhdu. Togda skazhi Mikhayu vzyat' yego v tyur'mu.”

The doctor nodded before turning on his heel and walking out.

“I hope that you enjoy your stay here more than you did in America,” Ozerov said coldly, his voice laden with threat. “For your sake.”

The General turned on his heel and walked out, passing the doctor who was walking back in with a folded bundle of clothes in his arms. They were not the Scoops Ahoy uniform – that had evidently been disposed of, and Steve didn’t care enough to find out what had happened to it. This was, instead, a black shirt and pants, with underwear folded on top. Steve suddenly felt oddly exposed at the sight of the underwear. Although he had the thin blanket on top of him, he was suddenly acutely aware of the fact that he was wearing absolutely nothing. It brought home the fact that he was in an unknown location, surrounded by distinctly unfriendly people who had had unfettered access to him while he’d been unconscious.

He flinched as the doctor wordlessly pulled back the covers enough to expose his wrist, bound to the side of the bed by leather straps.

“What are you doing?” Steve asked, unable to keep the slight tremor of fear out of his voice.

The doctor glared at him before taking his wrist and methodically removing the drip that led into his arm. Evidently, the man didn’t speak English. Once the thin needle was removed, Steve found his hands being freed from the restraints.

For a split second, Steve considered running. However, that consideration was eclipsed almost immediately by the practical implications of it – where would he go? If he was right, if he was in Russia in some secret Russian military base – which was where all the signs were currently pointing, from the Russian military staff to the biting cold – then simply escaping the base, even on the off-chance that he made it, would still leave him stuck in a foreign country that was decidedly against American citizens. Steve was not famed for keeping up with current affairs, but even he’d caught onto that.

The doctor thrust a glass of water and two white pills into his hands. Steve looked at them blankly, completely at a loss as to what they were or what to do.

Vypey!” the doctor snapped viciously.

Though he didn’t understand the language, Steve’s brain caught up. His eyes snapped to the doctor, wide, and he didn’t hesitate to put the pills in his mouth and swallow them. If they wanted to drug him, they’d do so with or without his consent, and at least this way was less painful than a syringe in his neck or someone forcing the pills down his throat.

The water felt, once again, all too welcome to his mouth, the cold liquid trickling down his dry throat. The sip required to swallow the tablets turned into a gulp. He was aware of the doctor watching him, his chest tightening as he started to feel self-conscious, but the doctor made no move to stop him, instead huffing slightly impatiently as Steve emptied the glass.

As soon as he was finished, the glass was snatched out of his hand to be replaced by the folded set of clothes. Steve could feel straight away that they were, if anything, worse than the cheap polyester uniform of Scoops Ahoy. The fabric was thin and scratchy, loose, and clearly not meant to fit well. He looked blankly at the doctor, who gave him a glare as if to say, ‘are you really going to make me tell you what to do?’

Steve paused for another second, wondering if he dared ask for privacy. He looked back at the doctor, who raised an eyebrow at him. Whether he knew what was on Steve’s mind or not, it was enough to dissuade Steve from braving it.

Steve pulled the shirt awkwardly around his shoulders before trying to use the blanket as best as possible to keep himself covered while he got the underwear on. He had never normally been one for modesty in the locker room, but then again, the locker room wasn’t full of people who’d wanted to kill him. Humiliate him, yes. Start a fight, also yes. Kill him… not so much.

The doctor gave another huff and an extremely obvious eye roll at Steve’s attempt at keeping himself covered. Steve swung his legs off the bed to get the pants on, and recoiled at the sight of his leg.

The burns he’d inflicted upon himself had scarred. His skin was discoloured, and it looked almost withered. Blotchy red patches still remained; skin still fighting to reform over them. It wasn’t as painful as Steve vaguely remembered it being in the immediate aftermath, but it was sensitive, and Steve was dreading putting the fabric over it.

There was a bang as the door opened again, and another soldier walked in, announcing his presence with words Steve had no hope of understanding. The doctor responded, talking fast, his voice irate. Steve may not have had any understanding of the Russian language, but he was absolutely aware that he was the topic of conversation. Steve found himself casting wary glances between the two men as he pulled on the pants. He was right – they were extremely ill-fitting, the only hope of them staying up being a drawstring around the waist.

“He says you are being slow,” the new Russian soldier said in English.

Steve looked up at him. He tried desperately to inject a little bit of courage into his eyes.

“He also says you are an idiot,” the Russian soldier continued.

Steve didn’t know what to do with that information.

The soldier who spoke English smiled at his blank expression unkindly. “I am beginning to see what he means,” he said. “You’d better hurry up. Comrade Colonel Ozerov wishes to see you on the Bridge.”

Steve looked blankly at the doctor as the soldier turned and started to walk out. The doctor gave him a dismissive gesture with a shake of the head, looking at him with exactly the same expression his teachers at school used to give him when he asked an especially dumb question in class.

“Hurry up,” the soldier called, and Steve jogged to close the distance.

Steve found himself being led through a labyrinthine set of windowless corridors. Every so often, they would pass groups of soldiers dressed in those same dark khaki uniforms with red and gold ornamentation denoting their Soviet affiliation. Sometimes they would be walking somewhere with purpose, sometimes they would be standing sentinel outside a door. However, every single one they passed gave Steve a strange look that had him averting his eyes and trying to duck his face behind a curtain of hair.

The soldier noticed this. “You caused chaos when we brought you back,” the soldier said. “Nobody has ever been found beyond the… what did you call it? Gate?

“Oh,” Steve murmured. So they hadn’t found Billy. Whatever had happened to him to stop him coming back was not to do with the Russians.

The soldier looked at him, not breaking his stride. That same unkind smile spread across his face. “So you do speak,” he said. “I was wondering if you were dumb as well as stupid.”

Steve opted to keep his mouth shut at that.

“Well, American, when the Colonel gave us the order to keep you alive, we were surprised. Even more surprised when he explained that you were responsible for what happened in Hawkins. There is a lot of interest in you, American. I hope, for your sake, that you are worth it.”

Steve felt an all-too-familiar sense of fear and anxiety build in his chest. It had been painfully clear to him from the moment that he’d woken up that he was alive for as long as he was useful.

“Do you have a name, American?” the soldier asked.

Steve looked at the soldier. He was hardly about to give this man his full name, even if he was certain that at least one person in this hellhole already knew it.

“No?” the soldier said, a dubious look on his face. “Very well. Your silence will not make much difference, but, by all means, keep it to yourself for now.”

The soldier gave him a dismissive look before turning back down the corridor.

“If I may give you some advice,” the soldier said. “Learn some Russian. There are not many people here who speak English. I am one, the Colonel is another, but beyond that, there are only a few. You may find your life easier if you can communicate.”

Steve tilted his head slightly towards the ground. The soldier led him through another door and Steve couldn’t help but be stunned by the sight that greeted him.

The closest thing he’d ever seen to the room he was standing in was something from Star Wars. He was standing on a causeway at one end, staring out into an enormous room, built like an aircraft hangar, only bigger. The room was taller than Steve had any gauge for – he’d have guessed at least a hundred feet, but that number felt almost ridiculous. There was a machine, identical to the one he’d seen in Hawkins, blasting a beam of light towards one of the walls. On the floor surrounding it, there were cars, trucks, even a couple of planes… One wall was dominated by a huge overhead door that stretched from the floor to the ceiling. Steve had to acknowledge that, yes, as a feat of engineering alone, this was impressive.

Impressive, but downright terrifying.

“Comrade Colonel Ozerov,” the soldier said, and the name dragged Steve’s attention away from the sight before him. “Your prisoner.

Steve turned around to see the man he’d previously only thought of as ‘the General’ walking towards him. The monster had a name now. Colonel Ozerov. He was the one in charge.

Vy mozhete poyti,” Ozerov said to the soldier, who nodded with a salute before turning around and walking out, leaving Steve alone.

“What do you think?” Ozerov turned towards Steve, gesturing out towards the hangar with an expectant smile, as though Steve’s opinion actually mattered.

“I…”

Steve trailed off, not sure what to say. They had opened a Gate. More than that, they had opened a Gate in Russia, where they had built a facility to accommodate getting transportation through the Gate and into the Upside Down. This was big, bigger than anything he’d seen before. The Russians weren’t just experimenting with the Upside Down like the Department of Energy had been doing, trying to contain the mistake that had leeched into Hawkins like a cancer. No, this was a different mindset altogether. The Russians were using the Upside Down. To them, it was little more than a tool.

“What have you done?” Steve managed to force out.

Ozerov laughed. “This, Butterscotch, this was how we found you,” he said. “The place we found you in… it is a place parallel to our own. A world parallel to ours, a map that we can traverse and still cross the map of our own world. It obeys the laws of space and time, just like ours, but it has none of the laws, the politics, none of the people. All we need to do is to open up a Gate at the other end, and you have your path back to your home. We can help you, Butterscotch, but we need to know what you know.”

Steve’s heart was beating fast. “No…” he said softly. “No, that’s not how it works. You have no idea what you’ve done, what you’re walking into. You can’t go in there. You can’t keep that thing open.”

Ozerov gave a dismissive laugh.

“No – please, you have to listen to me,” Steve said earnestly. “You keep that thing open, you put everyone in danger. I’m not talking about politics, or America, or whatever the fuck this war is about now, this goes beyond that.”

Ozerov continued to laugh, turning away from Steve. Steve lunged forward and made to grab Ozerov’s arm, only to find himself restrained by two soldiers. However, it achieved the desired effect. Ozerov turned around, looking at this teenager who somehow had the audacity to tell him to close the Gate, to try and grab him.

The only person more surprised by Steve’s audacity was Steve himself.

Please…” Steve begged. “You have no idea how dangerous that place is – what’s waiting on the other side of that Gate. But I do. I’ve seen what that thing can do. You think you can control it or something? You can’t. The things on the other side of that Gate will come for you, they’ll destroy you and everything else in here. I’m begging you, please, close the Gate.”

Ozerov gave him an appraising look. For once, it lacked any overt hostility. A smile spread across his face, and he started to laugh.

“Ah, Butterscotch,” he said genially. “I knew there was a reason I kept you alive.”

-:-

Max took one last look in the mirror at herself.

She had never been one for spending hours fussing over what she wore. Her default criteria for her outfit choices on most days were one: whether she could skate in it, and two: whether she was going to be comfortable in it. This usually ultimately boiled down to the most extensive collection of jeans and hoodies in Hawkins, which were traded for t-shirts and shorts in the summer, but today was not most days. This was her first day at Hawkins High.

She usually didn’t give a shit about what people said about her. She had never cared about what people thought about her clothes before, and she certainly wasn’t about to lose any sleep giving a damn about what people said about her skateboarding, but there was something… different. Hawkins High had always been Billy’s territory. A place he’d ruled as the coolest kid in school after stealing that title unceremoniously from Steve Harrington after the latter was past the point of caring. A place where everyone remembered Billy. She remembered the memorial service in August, being invited onto a stage to collect a stupid fucking t-shirt with a number on it like it meant the whole goddamn world to Billy.

A t-shirt that now hung in her closet with more care than most of the rest of her clothes.

She was painfully aware that everyone was going to be looking at her today. Everyone – except for the five people who she wanted to see, the five people who had become very distant towards her after a late night the previous month.

She had tried to contact El a couple of times after that night. She’d tried the radio, only to find it suddenly changed to a different channel. She’d also tried calling the house one day to hear a timid-voiced El answer, telling her that “Hop says I’m not allowed to see you anymore.”

She’d had to hang up at that. She absolutely had not been found by her mom ten minutes later screaming into her pillow. She was Mad Max. She did not scream into pillows.

On her mom’s advice, she hadn’t tried contacting Lucas. She’d given him space, let him go and be miserable. As Lucas had said, this wasn’t some little screw-up. This was real – a very real and very serious problem in their relationship that came down to a total lack of trust between them. When she’d tried to explain what had happened to her mom as best she could, (leaving out the parts about using her superpowered best friend to open interdimensional Gates to recover her hitherto believed-to-be-dead stepbrother whose mind was under the control of a terrifying shadow monster,) her mom had come back to her with an arm around her shoulders and a soft word about how trust was the most important thing in a relationship, and how losing that trust had ultimately led to her own divorce.

Give him space. Let him be angry until he can’t be anymore. And when the time is right, start building up that trust again.

Max had ditched the hoodie for the day – the last of the summer sun was persisting enough that it wouldn’t be a problem – but she’d chosen jeans and a plain black t-shirt. Her hair was pulled back into a ponytail. It was an extremely simple look – hopefully not enough to draw too much undue attention to her, but not a style that would make her feel incredibly self-conscious at the endless eyes that she was sure to feel on her.

Her mom had offered to drive her to school that one day. It wasn’t likely to be a regular thing – Max knew her mom had work that usually had her leaving the house before seven, but she’d negotiated a late morning, just to drive her to her first day of high school.

On the drive, Max thought about what might have been different if everything over the summer had just… never happened. For one thing, Billy would probably be driving her. She’d be excited rather than terrified, she’d arrive in the parking lot with barely a goodbye to Billy, running over to Lucas, and Will and Dustin and Mike and El, excited to share her first day at school together. She’d probably arrive to see Nancy and Jonathan bringing Will and Mike, probably with Lucas in tow, and Dustin would undoubtedly be arriving with Steve who would be offering words of wisdom that Dustin would undoubtedly ignore. Depending on Billy’s mood, there might be a couple of snide comments thrown Steve’s way, which Steve would undoubtedly ignore. Robin and Steve might have grown up enough to have gone on a date or two, but Max would not have put money on it. They would all probably still be teasing Dustin about his girlfriend, and he’d probably still be talking about her like she was the greatest person on the planet.

Now, though, she had no idea what to expect.

Max was very clear on her new stance as the pariah of their group. She knew El’s cover story – that had been settled before Max had been ostracised. El’s official name was Jane Eleanor Hopper, who went by El, who had moved to Hawkins from Europe to live with her biological father, Jim Hopper, after the death of her mother. Hopper had previously had no idea that the child existed, the result of a drunken one-night stand from his years in New York. Hopefully, those particular details were not going to be relevant to El’s first day at Hawkins High, but the crucial bit of information was that El was not from America, which covered her unease with the English language as well as the gaps in her knowledge about things like American history. Anything else she struggled with could simply be put down to the language barrier and ‘doing things differently in Europe.’

Max’s mom pulled into the parking lot and saw her off with a kiss on the cheek. Max slipped out of the car, bag over one shoulder and skateboard under her arm.

Something caught her eye and she felt a horrible, unfamiliar twist in her stomach at the sight of Lucas.

He was standing with Mike, Will and Dustin. None of them had noticed her, too busy chatting amongst themselves. She found herself coming to a halt, wishing that she could stop staring, but she couldn’t tear her eyes away from them.

Lucas was clearly making some stupid joke about something or other, which had the other three laughing. Will had that slightly exhilarated look on his face, as though he was still ever so slightly surprised to be a part of the group, even after all these years, even after everything. Mike almost immediately took over talking as soon as Lucas had started laughing, desperate to be the centre of attention. Dustin laughed for as long as it took for the attention to be solely on Mike, but Max could see his face drop slightly, even from a distance, his eyes take on a more polite look, like he wasn’t really listening. She’d known, even before her ‘banishment’, that Dustin hadn’t been doing well. He’d spent long periods of time with his radio switched off – an action he would normally get the most annoyed about. It occurred to her that she’d actually barely seen him since Starcourt – there was the occasional Dungeons and Dragons game, the ‘code pink’ that he’d called at Hopper’s house, and, of course, his discovery of El and Max opening Gates in the woods. When she had seen him, he’d been more subdued than normal, talking only when he was spoken to – again, another rarity with Dustin.

She suddenly realised Will had seen her. She met his gaze, giving him an uncomfortable smile which he didn’t return. He gave her an unreadable look, before looking at the others and saying something to them, before turning and leading the way inside. They followed without a glance in her direction.

Max watched them go before reaching up and pulling the scrunchie out of her hair. The ponytail hadn’t been such a good idea after all.

-:-

Dustin didn’t have especially high hopes for his first day of high school, but this had exceeded his lowest expectations.

He had known it was going to be bad from the second they’d been ushered into the gym for assembly. The principal had opened with yet more words about Starcourt over the summer, as though there was anything left to say on the subject that hadn’t been said sixteen or seventeen times already, which was followed by a moment of silence for the victims. The school had provided a grief counsellor for the term. Dustin recognised the grief counsellor, it was the same one Hawkins Middle had provided when Will had supposedly been found dead.

The day had only gone downhill from there. They’d had a morning of introduction into high school life in their homeroom, where they’d been forced to sit alphabetically. That meant he was sat next to El. Dustin didn’t want to hate El, but he couldn’t ignore how reckless she had been with her powers.

Things had been… complicated with El since that night. The Party had all but kicked out Max – Dustin was under the impression that they would have done had it not been for the fact that Max picked up on the fact that she wasn’t wanted and hadn’t made any attempt to contact them. Dustin wasn’t the only person furious at her. Mike had spent most of the following week after that evening in the woods screaming at anyone who would listen that he’d been “right all along” and that “Max was abusing El’s powers.” Will had been much more subdued over it – Dustin hadn’t tried to talk to him properly about it, but he suspected that Will would have a much more personal stake in those actions. It could not have been easy to see two people he considered some of his best friends opening themselves and everyone else up to the risk of what must have been the worst experience of his life. There were still days when Will would go quiet, staring blankly at the treeline, completely lost in thought.

Lucas was far easier to read. He had been completely floored by breaking up with Max. It wasn’t a problem that needed fixing, or for her to try and win him back somehow. Dustin was aware he’d gone radio silent for days after the breakup. Lucas’ feelings towards El were inconsequential. Something had changed, that much was obvious, but Lucas hadn’t even considered where his feelings on El landed.

Which left Mike. On the one hand, the brunt of the anger Mike was feeling was directed at Max. However, much like Max and Lucas, Mike had discovered that this particular betrayal of trust had more implications than simply doing something stupid. This wasn’t an impulse decision that he hadn’t liked – this had been methodical, consistent, and in full knowledge of the risks that they were facing. And El had shut him out. Mike had finally seemed to realise that El was capable of making her own decisions, that she had her own autonomy over her life, only to discover her opening Gates like it was nothing. He appreciated her side of it all – she’d wanted to help her friend – but she’d chosen to keep him out. She’d chosen to do this without telling him. She’d chosen to keep this a secret, to lie to him consistently, to turn any suspicion around onto him as though he was getting upset about nothing. All the good intentions in the world couldn’t hide the fact that her actions had torn him apart.

The last Dustin had heard, Mike had told El that he needed some time to work out how he felt. As far as Dustin was aware, he still needed time, which left his relationship with El in limbo.

The introduction into high school life turned into an English class, before a History class took them into lunch. Dustin felt almost radioactive walking into the cafeteria. For the most part, the Party had avoided being stared at in the corridors, but the cafeteria was a different beast entirely. The four of them could practically feel stares boring into them as they sat down on the end of one of the tables. Dustin could have sworn he’d heard his name whispered by people as they’d passed.

He tried not to care. For the first time in his life, he was counting down the minutes until school was over.

“Hey,” a voice said behind Dustin, and they turned around to see Nancy and Jonathan standing there holding trays. “Mind if we join you?”

Mike pointedly rolled his eyes. “Nancy, we don’t need you to come and sit with us,” he groaned, though there was no real heat behind it.

“Oh, I’m sorry, am I cramping your style?” she smiled sweetly as she sat down.

“It would help if Mike actually had any style,” Lucas grinned.

“If it helps, it’s a one-time offer,” Jonathan said with a smile, trying to defuse the situation. “We won’t make you seem like freaks too much.”

“Yeah, I’ll save the embarrassing big sister routine for your first high school party,” Nancy’s smile was decidedly no longer sweet.

Mike groaned, folding his arms and burying his face in them.

“So how’s your first day of high school going?” Jonathan asked, ignoring Mike.

“It’s okay,” Will said. “Nobody’s asked about the summer yet.”

Jonathan’s expression fell. “Give it time,” he said bitterly. “We’ve had a few people ask us about the Holloways.”

“Oh, that’s nothing,” Nancy gave a small huff. “I have English with Robin, and everyone was asking her about Steve before class.”

“Really?” Mike asked, lifting his head out of his hands. “But they weren’t together, were they?”

“They weren’t,” Dustin said quietly, breaking his silence. “She wasn’t interested.”

Nancy sighed, stabbing at the food on her tray. “Yeah, but that’s the thing about high school. Give people one plus one, leave it in the rumour factory for a few days and you’ll end up with blueberry pie. I nearly lost it at Connor Morrison when he asked her how long they’d been sleeping together.”

Dustin’s eyebrows shot up. He’d noticed the whispers surrounding them all day, but if Nancy was to be believed, things weren’t likely to get better anytime soon. He glanced around the cafeteria, trying to find Robin, but she’d evidently chosen not to eat lunch there. The rest of the ‘band geeks’ were sat on a table together, quite content to ignore and be ignored by the rest of the school, but there was no sign of Robin amongst them –

He froze at the sight on the next table though. A lone figure with flaming red hair was sat picking through her lunch.

It was the first time Dustin had seen Max all day. He assumed she must have been at the assembly, and in his other classes, but he hadn’t noticed her at all.

He hadn’t spoken to Max since the day he’d found them in the woods. At first, it was all he could think about – he didn’t want to think about how angry he was at her and her selfishness, but it was all-consuming. It had dominated just about every thought he’d had in the days afterwards, a refreshing change from the empty black hole that the night at Starcourt had left. It had filled it with a fire that had burnt bright, given him energy, taken over his mind, but Dustin knew it wasn’t healthy. He’d tried to put it out, but it was like turning on a sprinkler to douse a wildfire. It had burnt until there was nothing left, no energy that Dustin had left to give it, before burning out into smouldering remains.

But seeing Max, sat alone, looking so stereotypically pitiful… Immediately, Dustin felt a wave of sympathy wash over him. And somehow, somehow, that breathed new life into that fire of anger and hate.

She made her bed. She can sleep in it.

She looked up and straight over at them. She’d been watching them – for how long, exactly? She met his eyes and gave him an unreadable look. Dustin felt his gaze harden involuntarily, and he turned away and back towards the conversation.

-:-

Newly appointed Mayor Paul Harrington was not sure how he was supposed to feel as he was led into a cold room inside Indiana State Prison. The private room for this was usually reserved for prisoners talking to lawyers, but apparently, the Department of Energy had more pull in Indiana’s penal system than he’d given them credit for.

Apparently, there was still information that the Department of Energy needed on Starcourt Industries before they were prepared to close the door on the whole affair. And, apparently, Paul’s least favourite person in the world was prepared to provide that information in exchange for a single conversation with him. Paul had decided that he was prepared to agree to this, if only for the opportunity to tell Larry Kline exactly what he thought of him.

The door opened, revealing two guards in blue shirts guiding in an incredibly dishevelled figure in an orange jumpsuit. Larry Kline’s hands were in cuffs. The former Mayor was led to a chair in front of Paul, the guards locking a small metal ring on the table between them around the handcuffs before leaving.

“We’ll just be outside if you need anything,” one of the guards said to Paul, who nodded at them before turning back to Kline with a stony expression.

Prison did not suit former Mayor Lawrence Kline. He was thinner than he’d been in years. Hair that was previously kept tidily swept back and styled away from his face now hung lank and long around his forehead. Stubble on his chin had grown into something vaguely resembling the beginnings of a patchy beard. Fine age lines had deepened, shadows under his eyes darkened, combined with a paler face giving him a slightly skull-like look.

“Hey Paul,” Kline said in a voice that sounded weary with age. “I, uh… I see you took my job.”

Paul’s scowl deepened, his cold grey eyes hardened into ice.

“It’s good to see you,” Kline made a brave attempt at a smile.

“I have nothing to say to you,” Paul said coldly, his clear voice slicing through Larry’s world-weary murmurs like a knife. His expression didn’t change, his voice was quiet, but it was enough to cut through the ‘pleasantries’.

“I know,” Kline said softly. “You hate me. You made that clear in your campaign. I ‘killed your son’ and all that, right?”

Paul’s expression, if possible, became even more disgusted.

“I was following it, you know,” Kline made another attempt at a smile. “You should dial back the sentiment for your re-election campaign, but it certainly worked wonders this time round. And, honestly, a masterstroke to blame me for everything, distancing yourself very effectively from an elitist administration that you helped prop up the second it became toxic.”

Paul let out a cold, humourless laugh. “Toxic?” he repeated incredulously. “Thirty people died thanks to your tidy little paycheck.”

“It wasn’t like that-” Kline started to groan.

Really?” Paul scoffed. “Then what was it like? Exactly how much was it that they gave you? How much was my son’s life worth to you?”

“There was no bribe,” Kline sighed.

Paul’s eyebrows shot up. Kline looked at him darkly.

“There wasn’t a bribe,” Kline repeated. “There was no fault, no safety oversight…”

“Larry, I swear to God-”

“They’re not charging me with corruption, they’re charging me with treason.” Larry explained. “Starcourt Industries… it’s not some dodgy company. Ask… Ask Harry Beaumont. He went over the plans as well. He’s good at spotting faults in building plans, he would have spotted something like that. I don’t know what the hell happened in that mall, but I don’t think it was a gas explosion.”

Paul let out an incredulous huff, shaking his head in disbelief.

Think about it, Paul,” Kline said. “There’s no paper trail of the money, Winnie didn’t know about the money, Harry looked over the plans and saw nothing wrong with it… You can’t tell me that shit adds up to you.”

Paul’s glare took on a dubious expression.

“Look, Starcourt Industries,” Kline said. “They’re an international corporation. They’re… They’re working with the Soviets or something. And the government… It knows about this. And something happened that night, and suddenly, everyone who might know anything about it ends up dead. Tom Holloway and his family… Do you honestly think they were just in the mall, covering some stupid story about the ‘changing landscape of Hawkins’? On the fourth of July? He and that other journalist… they must have been looking into it. They must have gotten too close, and so they killed them. And just to make sure that everyone who might know anything about it stays quiet… they kill Tom’s family, too. And… And your kid… he’s close to Joyce Byers’ kids, who’s close to Jim Hopper. Hopper and Byers… they know about it, they’re in on the cover-up. They came to my office, they broke my goddamn nose, and they come to my house and they take… They take these papers, these land deeds… It’s my protection against these people. They’re in on this shit. And your kid… he must have gotten too close, so they killed him too.”

Kline’s tone became more and more frenzied as he talked, while Paul’s dubious expression intensified. At these final words, Paul found himself laughing in spite of himself. It wasn’t a kind laugh, it was a high, cold sound that echoed off the plaster walls.

“I can’t believe you, Larry,” Paul said. “I mean, do you even hear yourself? Soviets, cover-ups…”

“I know it sounds crazy-”

“It sounds more than crazy,” Paul scoffed over him. “It sounds made-up. It sounds like a desperate attempt to convince me that, somehow, you’re not responsible for the deaths of my son and one of our closest friends. And do you know what, Larry? It’s sick. Linda and I are finally starting to move on. And you summon me up to fucking Michigan to tell me this ridiculous bullshit – for what? So you’ll get me to turn around and say ‘oh, don’t worry, Larry, it’s okay. I know you didn’t mean to kill all those people’? It’s pathetic. At least have the fucking balls to own up to what you’ve done.”

“Paul, please, just listen to me-”

Paul stood up and started to walk towards the door. His hand froze on the door handle, and he looked back at Kline, who had a desperate expression on his face.

“I hope you rot in here for the rest of your life, Larry,” Paul said coldly. “And then… I hope you rot in Hell.”

He turned the door handle and walked out into the corridor, ignoring Kline’s desperate pleas as they echoed down the corridor.

Chapter Text

Steve’s heart sank at the sight of the smile on Ozerov’s face.

So much for staying quiet.

His despair, however, morphed into confusion as Ozerov started laughing. It was the same laugh he’d given at Steve’s desperate rambling about the “U.S.S. Butterscotch, it’s out of this world, I’m telling you!” On this occasion, though, Steve didn’t try joining in the laughter. He knew he’d been misunderstood. And if there was any chance he could talk them into shutting the Gate, he would.

Please,” Steve gasped, slightly breathless. “You don’t understand. There’s… There’s another world on the other side of that Gate. And it’s not like our world… It’s full of monsters. I’m telling you, if you leave that Gate open, they’ll come-

“You hear that?” Ozerov said in English to the soldiers around them. “Monsters. Monstry, on govorit.

The soldiers around Steve laughed, which only left Steve feeling more desperate.

“I know it sounds crazy!” Steve was practically screaming. “I wouldn’t believe it either, but I’ve seen them. I’ve seen what they can do, they’ll kill everyone in this place! You leave that Gate open and you’re… You’re as good as dead.”

Ozerov continued to laugh, turning away from Steve.

Please, you have to believe me!” Steve said, struggling against the soldiers holding him back.

“Ah, Butterscotch, I do believe you,” Ozerov said, turning back to Steve. “I believe you because we already know.

Steve froze, his eyes widening in shock.

“We want them to come,” Ozerov explained. “What you Americans have failed to understand is that these monsters, as you call them, can be useful.

Steve felt his stomach drop in horror. “No…” he breathed.

Ozerov gave Steve a smile, the warmest smile he’d ever given him, which made Steve’s insides freeze.

“Come with me,” he said in a tone that was almost friendly. “Let me show you something.”

Steve felt the hands holding his arms let go, and Steve found himself falling forwards, barely catching himself with a stagger. Ozerov turned and walked out a door at the opposite end of the causeway. Steve felt a hand shoving his back and followed.

Further windowless corridors turned into a series of stairs that descended down far enough to pass out of Steve’s sight. The yellow fluorescent tubes evidently stopped at some point, because the lower levels were shrouded in shadow, with the limited light not sufficient to penetrate through it. Ozerov led the way down the stairs, with Steve following, his two guards behind him.

They didn’t quite descend into the darkness when Ozerov stopped and unlocked a heavy metal door.

Having no expectations did somewhat limit Steve’s surprise when he found himself standing in a large workshop. Huge components of machinery stood in the middle of the room on the concrete floor. People were working on the machines, dressed in uniforms identical to the one Steve was wearing. There were soldiers around the room, too, and they seemed to be the only ones with any protective gear. Steve was no expert on safe mechanical practices, but from the few movies he’d watched on the subject, he was fairly certain that anyone operating a blowtorch was supposed to have some form of face covering, and yet there were people using tools far more dangerous than blowtorches with little more to protect them than the thin clothes on their backs.

It took Steve all of a second to realise what exactly he was looking at. His limited knowledge of the Soviet Union and the rise of Communism in Russia brought to mind forced labour camps, where dissidents and political prisoners were sent to work for the regime until they died. Steve recognised some of the larger parts of machinery in the room – at least, he thought they looked like parts of the Key that the Russians had evidently recreated.

Steve probably shouldn’t have been surprised by this. The Russians had gone to enormous lengths to create extremely dangerous machines. Even if they weren’t overly fussed about the welfare of their citizens, it stood to reason that, given the choice, the Russians would choose to use dispensable, disposable people for the hardest, most dangerous jobs. Cutting out the manual labour costs was simply an added bonus.

It also stood to reason that Steve was not the only prisoner in this hellhole.

“You’re building another one of those machines,” Steve said quietly. It was a statement, not a question.

Ozerov smiled at him, that same, unsettlingly sinister smile. “Well done,” he said. “You’re not as stupid as you look, Butterscotch.”

Horror dawned on Steve. His chest tightened. He could practically hear Ozerov’s voice in his ear, reiterating words that Steve only now fully understood.

All we need to do is to open up a Gate at the other end, and you have your path back to your home.

“You can’t…” Steve breathed. “No… I won’t let you…”

Once again, Ozerov laughed at his protests. “This is why I like you, Butterscotch,” he laughed. “So full of fight. But this will happen. And you will help us.”

“No, I-”

Steve didn’t see the fist as it slammed into his stomach, one of the soldiers behind him gripping his shoulder tightly.

Dostatochno!” Ozerov snapped at the soldier as his elbow swung back again for a second blow.

Steve hadn’t been prepared for how much the punch would hurt. It had slammed into his stomach just below the ribcage, and Steve just managed to hold back a whimper. The air was knocked straight out of his lungs, and for a second, Steve’s mind went blank. Flashes of gasping for air on the forest floor, vines all around him, forcing barely cooperating lungs to drag air into themselves crossed his mind, before his lungs finally expanded of their own accord, and the memory was gone.

He was barely upright before he found himself being dragged towards someone else – a soldier with a single star on the epaulets on his shoulder.

Vot novyy rabotnik,” Ozerov was saying. “Ty dolzhen sokhranit' yego zhivym. On mozhet byt' polezen. Skazhi mne vse, chto on govorit.

Steve watched as the new soldier gave Ozerov a single nod, before grabbing him by the arm. Steve, still slightly winded from the punch, didn’t resist as he found himself being dragged away, but cast a single glance back at Ozerov, who looked terrifyingly satisfied by the arrangement. Steve held his gaze for another second before Ozerov turned and led the two soldiers out, closing the heavy metal door behind them.

A barked command in Russian snapped Steve’s attention back to the Russian who seemed to be in charge of the workshop. He looked over at the soldier, but the command didn’t seem to be for him. Steve found himself being pushed towards someone in a uniform identical to his own, standing in front of a large cylinder with seemingly endless wires wrapped around it.

A short conversation ensued between the Russian and the prisoner. Steve, despite not speaking a word of Russian himself, couldn’t help but notice the slightly hesitant way the prisoner seemed to respond. He sounded slightly like Robin had done on the one occasion he’d heard her try her hand at conversational Russian. There was a slightly stilted quality to his phrases.

Eventually, the Russian turned his back on the two prisoners and walked away from them, leaving Steve alone with the prisoner. Steve watched him walk away, looking at his retreating back as he was left standing with no idea what exactly he was supposed to do.

“Hey.”

The voice caught Steve’s attention, and he turned around. The prisoner he’d been left with was looking at him strangely, almost analytically.

“English?” the prisoner said questioningly. “Français? Español?

Steve looked blankly at him. “…What?” he asked, completely overwhelmed.

“English, then,” the prisoner said with a smile. “Thank God.

The prisoner spoke with an English accent. His hair was a light brown, with an overgrown quality to it. A stubble that was on its way to becoming a beard covered the lower half of his face. His eyes were green, looking dimmed beneath the purple shadows under his eyes. Fine lines were etched across his face that didn’t appear to correlate wholly with his age.

“My French isn’t great, and my Spanish is frankly offensive,” the prisoner said, his voice sounding bone-tired behind the joke. “But if you’re English, it makes sense that he put you with me.”

Steve looked at the man blankly as he bent down to look at something on the machine in front of him.

“W-What’s going on?” Steve asked.

The prisoner gave a beckoning gesture towards Steve, who crouched down beside him.

“We’re working together,” the prisoner said with a smile. “On… this.”

He gestured towards the machine in front of him, and the various other components around them. Steve looked around blankly, before turning back to the prisoner in front of him.

“I… I don’t understand…

The prisoner in front of him looked at Steve with a slightly worried expression on his face. Steve could feel that his own expression was a long way past terrified, and he could feel the panic rising in his chest.

“…How long have you been here?” the prisoner asked dubiously.

“What?” Steve asked breathlessly, frowning at him.

“In this prison,” the prisoner clarified. “How long have you been here?”

Steve looked at the prisoner, his eyes wide, the panic starting to overwhelm him. “I don’t – I don’t know,” Steve gasped out. “I don’t even know where ‘here’ is! I woke up in this… this hospital bed about an hour ago, or maybe less than that, and then this General – or Colonel – or whatever, I don’t know, I think his name is Ozerov or something, he – he comes in and starts asking me about stuff that I don’t even know the answer to, and then he shows me… he shows me this big Gate thing, and tells me I’m now working for him, and he brings me here and now I don’t even know where I am, or what’s going on, because the last time I checked, I was practically dead somewhere in America, or sort of, and suddenly I’m not, and I don’t-”

“Okay, okay, keep your voice down!” the prisoner hissed, casting a wary glance around him. “You’re panicking-”

Of course I’m fucking panicking!” Steve hissed back, matching the prisoner’s volume.

“Okay, so we’ll take a nice deep breath,” the prisoner tried for a more soothing tone. “In… and out…”

Steve tried his best to copy him, his breath coming out shaky.

“Okay, we’ll try one more. In… and out…”

This one had a slightly better effect on Steve.

“One more for luck,” the prisoner said, trying for a smile. “In… and out…”

Steve let out a long breath before opening his eyes. He didn’t remember closing them in the first place.

“Okay,” the prisoner said, still smiling tentatively at Steve. “Let’s start at the beginning. My name’s Charlie.”

He offered his hand out for Steve. Steve took it, noticing just how much his hands were trembling.

“Steve,” he said, his voice shaking almost as much as his voice.

“Nice to meet you, Steve,” Charlie said with a smile. “So you’re from America?”

“Yeah,” Steve breathed. “And… And that’s where I thought I was, at least, kind of, until I woke up here…

“Yes, well,” Charlie glanced around the room. “This isn’t America, as you’ve probably gathered. As far as I can tell, we’re in Russia.”

“Uh… okay…” Steve stammered.

“So you don’t know much about this place, right?”

Steve shook his head.

“Well, it’s a prison,” Charlie said, the first unforced smile spreading across his face, “and we’re the prisoners, to start off with.”

“Thanks, I worked that much out,” Steve said sarcastically.

Charlie gave a small laugh. “Good to see you’ve got a sense of humour,” he grinned. “Most of the people here are either traitors or defectors from the Soviets, or else are prisoners of war. We’ve all been put to work to build… this. My best guess is that this is some kind of black site, and what we’re building is some kind of weapon.”

Steve felt no small amount of relief that Charlie seemed to, for the most part, be a friendly face, but he wasn’t about to reveal to a complete stranger that he knew exactly what they were building.

“But… You don’t understand, I can’t build this!” Steve hissed.

Charlie looked at him with a desperately pitying look. “Steve, you don’t have a choice.

Steve gave him a burning look. “If I start doing this…” he stammered, trying to make him understand, feeling tears prick his eyes. “If I help them… They’ll kill my friends…”

The look Charlie was giving him had all too much understanding, and Charlie rested a hand gently on his arm.

“I get it,” Charlie said. “Really, I do. And it is admirable how you don’t want to put your friends in danger. But if you don’t do this… they’ll just kill you.”

Steve closed his eyes, trying not to let himself completely break down. The reality of his situation was sinking in. Charlie seemed to recognise that Steve needed a minute. He used a hand on Steve’s shoulder to turn him round to face the machine, holding out some wires between them so that it would look to any passing soldier like Charlie was teaching Steve.

“So how did you get mixed up in all this?” Charlie eventually broke the silence. “You barely look old enough to be at school, let alone to be a VIP.”

Steve gave Charlie a blank look, while Charlie smiled at him mischievously.

Very Important Prisoner,” Charlie elaborated. “I’ve seen that Colonel exactly twice since I got here, and one of those occasions was him bringing you in here. So go on, how does someone as young as you end up in this place? Is your dad the President or something?”

Steve’s heart clenched at the thought of his father. “No, he’s not…” Steve sighed. “But I guess he’s part of the reason I’m here. Like… I graduated high school in the summer, and I didn’t have any offers from colleges, so my dad basically told me to get a job or get out. Only place that would take me was this ice cream joint in this new mall opening up in my town. Turns out, it’s just my luck that the mall is a cover for some secret Russian base underground that was building something, and I stumble into this base with my friend, and then we get caught by Ozerov, and hey, now I’m here.”

Charlie couldn’t help a small laugh that left his lips. “Wow…” he breathed. “That’s… I have so many questions.”

Steve raised an eyebrow at Charlie. “Oh yeah?”

Charlie looked at Steve like he was seeing him in a whole new light. “How did you even… just stumble upon a top-secret Russian base?”

Steve gave a small shrug. He still wasn’t about to trust Charlie with everything, so he settled on the story that Ozerov hadn’t believed. “My delivery didn’t come. So my friend and I went looking in one of the rooms the loading docks – we hadn’t checked there before, it was always locked, but that night they must have forgotten to lock it, and so we checked in there to see if we could find it. The door closed behind us and when we were trying to open it again, we pushed a button that turned the whole room into an elevator, and we couldn’t get out or make it go back up again, so when the Russians opened the door, we ended up in this secret Russian base underground.”

Charlie looked at him with that same incredulous amusement. “That’s… That sounds insane. Like something out of a film or something.”

Steve gave a snort of laughter. “You’re not wrong.”

“Seriously, if you weren’t here right now, I would not believe a word of that.”

“I’m still not sure if I believe it,” Steve gave him a nervous grin.

Charlie chuckled. “I mean… The security must have been pretty lax for you to just… walk in like that…”

“I mean, when the elevator door opened again, we weren’t sure what was going on, so my friend and I hid on the roof. But yeah, we managed to walk through that base for quite a while before they even realised that we were there.”

“Long enough to find out it was a top-secret Russian base, huh?”

Steve shrugged. “Yeah.”

“And so they catch you and ship you out here?”

Steve looked at him for a moment. He looked into those green eyes, trying to decide just how much to tell Charlie. After everything with Billy, he certainly wasn’t inclined to go sharing everything with the first friendly face that showed itself to him. He knew that the Russians were interested in what he knew, and there was plenty he wanted to keep to himself until he knew a bit more about what was going on. On the other hand, however, if Charlie had been planted by the Russians to try and get information out of him, then there was a certain amount that they already knew – including that he’d been found on the other side of the Gate.

“Not exactly,” Steve said. “The Russians, they… they were building this Gate. It’s… It’s like this big crack in the wall, only it glows red and it’s terrifying. They built this machine to open it. I escaped through it, and woke up in… in this other world.

Charlie snorted with laughter. “Okay, now you’re messing with me.”

Steve looked at him while Charlie fiddled with the wires in his hands, twisting two of them together with a pair of pliers before he realised Steve was staring. Charlie looked at him, a completely disbelieving grin on his face like Steve had told him the funniest joke on earth.

“Really?” he said derisively. “Another world? You expect me to believe that?

Steve just held his gaze, trying to keep his expression serious. Charlie’s grin faltered, a flicker of doubt igniting behind his eyes.

“You’re being serious, aren’t you?” he said to Steve. “You really believe that.”

It was a statement, not a question.

“Yeah,” Steve sighed. “And you don’t.”

Charlie shook his head as he looked back at the wires in his hands. “I… Steve, I believe you went through something with the Russians, otherwise you wouldn’t be here. But that… Steve, that’s crazy.

Steve shook his head, looking down at his hands. “Yeah,” he breathed. “I know.”

Charlie went back to doing whatever he was doing with the wires, and Steve watched him for a minute. He watched as Charlie started twisting wires together before placing them against the metal cylinder, soldering them into place.

“What are you doing?” he asked as Charlie soldered two ends of copper wire together.

Charlie looked over at him, a strange look in his eyes.

“Not an engineer, are you, Steve?” he said in exactly the same tone of voice Steve had encountered from so many people in his life, from his teachers to his father, a tone of voice that was always barely disguising the belief that Steve was an idiot.

Steve shook his head blankly.

Charlie gave him a small smile, reaching out towards a set of papers that Steve hadn’t been in the state of mind to notice.

“We’re building this,” Charlie said, pushing the papers between them. “Still not exactly clear what it is, but we’re only likely to get one part of the machine at any one time. Something about not allowing prisoners from countries hostile towards the Soviets too much access to whatever they’re trying to do.”

Steve looked down at the papers between him and Charlie, taking everything in. They were blueprints, with what Steve could only assume was instructions.

“It’s all in Russian,” Steve observed.

Charlie looked at him with a dubious grin on his face. “Yes, Steve. We are, after all, in Russia.”

“I…” Steve swallowed. “I don’t speak Russian. I can barely read English, let alone whatever this says.”

Charlie’s eyebrows shot up, and that slightly sympathetic, piteous look was back. He grabbed a pencil from next to him and tore a strip off the edge of one of the papers.

“You’re going to need to learn, then,” Charlie said as he started writing something down on the strip of paper. “These are the only instructions you’re likely to get. If you can’t read them, you’re not going to be able to help. And Steve, I’ll tell you this much for free: With these people, you’re only alive for as long as you’re useful. So learn some Russian. Some words, once you learn to read them, are fairly easy to work out, they’re very similar to English. I’ll help you as best I can for now, but you can’t guarantee that we’re always going to be working together. So take this.

Charlie handed him the strip of torn paper. Steve looked down and saw that it had a rough translation of all the characters of the Russian alphabet on it into the equivalent English sounds.

“Learn it,” Charlie said. “Memorise it. Keep it safe. Hide it somewhere. If you can’t read those instructions, you’re as good as dead.”

“But…” Steve protested as he folded up the paper. “Charlie, like you said, I’m not an engineer. I don’t know what I’m doing, I was never into science at school or anything, I-”

“Steve,” Charlie said, trying to give him a reassuring smile. “It’s like I said before, you don’t have a choice.

“But…” Steve swallowed again. “I don’t… I can’t do this. And even if I could…

“They’ll kill your friends,” Charlie finished. “But Steve, this is happening with or without you. And you’re no use to your friends dead. And sooner or later, you’ll find out that everyone in this place breaks eventually. There’s no shame in doing what it takes to survive. Stronger men than you have broken under this place. The most you can hope for is to survive long enough for them to let you go.”

Do they let people go?” Steve mumbled.

Charlie gave him a sad smile. “Not often,” he said. “But it’s happened once before in my time here.”

Steve looked at him curiously.

“There was a group of American soldiers,” Charlie explained. “Some black op went south, and they ended up captured here. Not too long ago, they were released. The US government did some deal with the Soviets to release them.”

Steve looked at Charlie incredulously. “You’re serious?

Charlie nodded with a small smile. “It’s how we got Ozerov,” he said.

Steve looked at Charlie, shocked.

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure your government must have captured him after whatever the hell happened with you waltzing into a top-secret Russian black site. Long story short, this place was mostly plodding along a bit aimlessly, but then a few weeks ago, Ozerov showed up. I only saw him when he came into the workshop, but it was clear that he was in charge, and suddenly, everything changed. Things have been energized in a way I’ve never seen in my time here.”

Steve turned away from Charlie to look at the machine.

“So there’s a chance that someone knows I’m here?” Steve asked.

“There’s a chance, yes,” Charlie said. “I’m pretty sure your government knew about the black op going sideways, though. I’m not sure whether that trade was your government’s idea or the Soviets’, but one way or another, there was an exchange of prisoners.”

The small fire of hope that had ignited in Steve’s chest faded into embers at Charlie’s words. He tried to stave off the crushing weight of the reality. Everyone at home thought he was dead. The chances of the Russians deciding to tell the United States government that he, some teenager who knew far more than he should through a series of coincidences, was a prisoner in Russia, were next to nothing.

He was so wrapped up in his own thoughts that he almost missed the bitterness in Charlie’s voice.

“What about you?” Steve asked. “Do people know you’re here?”

Charlie gave a smile as forced as the ones Steve had become used to giving. “I guess my government doesn’t have any high-ranking officials to trade,” he said softly.

Steve didn’t press the matter.

Charlie eventually filled the silence with advice and instructions. A glance behind them at the Russian soldier in charge told them both that Steve needed to start doing something that looked more productive than breaking down on Charlie’s shoulder, so Charlie started talking Steve through what they were doing on the machine. He taught Steve how to use a soldering iron – which Steve was pleased to find was not, in fact, rocket science, even if most of the rest of what they were doing was. Steve still had no idea what exactly they were building, but was fairly certain it was a part of another Key.

Charlie mostly told Steve what to do, treating Steve more as an assistant. Steve didn’t have a problem with this, content to hold wires in place while Charlie found the appropriate tools to do whatever the blueprints were telling him to do. Every now and again, Charlie would explain what a particular word was in Russian, giving Steve the opportunity to look over the words and try and read them using the strip of paper. He would then give Steve a chance to guess what it meant, which would invariably go wrong, before telling him what it actually meant. Steve was fairly certain that most of it was going in one ear and out the other, which was what had always happened with Steve when he’d been learning languages at school. But he was extremely proud of himself when he’d worked out that the word ‘mashina’ meant ‘machine’. At least, he had been until Charlie told him that it could also mean ‘car’.

Steve had just started to feel like he had some semblance of a grip on where he was when a bell went off, and Steve couldn’t help but be reminded of the end of the school day. Clearly, the bell meant something similar in this prison, as people started putting down their tools and lining up against the wall.

“Come on,” Charlie whispered, ushering him along with the others. “Stand against the wall and do what I do.”

Steve followed him, watching as the Russian soldiers started walking around the room, inspecting the machines. Two soldiers started walking along the line of prisoners. One by one, the prisoners would take a step forwards and stretch out their arms sideways, while the soldiers patted them down.

“They’re searching for tools,” Charlie breathed. “Making sure none of us try to steal anything. Someone was caught trying to smuggle a spanner out not long after I arrived here, it… wasn’t pretty.”

“What happened?” Steve breathed back.

Charlie simply gave him a look that told Steve all he needed to know.

Charlie was beckoned forward with a command, a hand patting down his sleeves and across his chest and back. The hands then patted down around his stomach before moving down his legs. Steve watched, the scrap of paper with his alphabet feeling more and more incriminating. Steve tucked it into the waistband of his pants behind his back, hoping that it would be enough.

Charlie was sent back with no problems before Steve was beckoned forwards.

Steve did his best to copy Charlie’s pose, feeling hands against his arms. They felt along his chest, running down his stomach and behind his back in exactly the same way that they’d done to Charlie. Hands started to run down his leg, pressing uncomfortably close to his groin, before doing a final run up around his waist –

Steve felt his heartbeat rise as the soldier’s fingers felt the small scrap of paper. He found himself being spun around and the paper was pulled out, the soldier reading it.

Portnov!” the soldier barked, and the Russian in charge came walking over.

The soldier handed the man called Portnov the paper, and Portnov inspected it.

Gde ty eto vzyal?” Portnov said to Steve.

Steve didn’t know what was being said to him, looking at the soldier blankly.

Gde ty eto vzyal?” Portnov repeated, clearly irate.

Fortunately, Charlie jumped in at that moment.

Ya otdal yego yemu,” Charlie said. “On pytayetsya vyuchit' russkiy yazyk.

Steve looked over at Charlie, who was looking at Portnov, fear evident in his eyes. Portnov looked from the paper to Steve, and then over to Charlie. His scowl deepened, before he raised his hand, twirled it in a circling motion and pointed at the wall. Steve didn’t need Charlie’s muttering in order to decipher the meaning.

“Turn around and face the wall,” Charlie breathed. “Put your hands against the wall above your head.”

Steve copied Charlie’s pose, his heart thumping in his chest.

“It’s a scare tactic,” Charlie breathed. “They do it to intimidate us.”

Steve would have been more reassured if Charlie had said it with any level of conviction that might have indicated that he believed it himself.

There was the tell-tale clicking sound of a gun being cocked.

“Don’t turn around,” Charlie breathed as Steve tilted his head towards his arm, the fear in his voice palpable.

Steve’s heart felt like it was trying to break out of his newly healed chest.

“Steve,” Charlie breathed. “It’ll be okay-”

BANG!

Steve’s eyes slammed shut as the gunshot echoed around the room. The impact didn’t come, however. He heard something heavy slide down next to him. He didn’t dare to open his eyes.

He almost jumped out of his skin when a hand grabbed his shoulder, turning him round. Steve’s eyes flew open, and he wished they hadn’t. The memory of the sight that met him would be burnt in his retinas for as long as he lived.

Charlie lay on the floor, blood pooling around him. He hadn’t fallen flat, falling awkwardly against the wall. His face was tilted at an unnatural angle towards Steve. His eyes were open, glassy. The bullet had gone into the back of his head and had exited through his forehead, a messy hole the size of a golf ball in its wake. Blood ran down his face, tracing tracks over his cheeks like bright red tears.

Steve didn’t know how long he stared at the only friendly face he’d found in this prison, dead for trying to help him. Steve’s eyes were wide, his breathing ragged through his mouth, which was open in shock. He didn’t even notice that he was shaking, staring down at the man below him, oblivious to everyone else around him. Tears were running down his own cheeks, pale imitations of the blood that dripped over Charlie’s face.

Vash alfavit,” Portnov said dismissively, pressing the scrap of paper against Steve’s chest.

-:-

Steve learnt the hard way what ‘dush’ meant.

He hadn’t been given much of a chance to recover after Charlie as he’d been escorted out of the workshop. The soldiers had led them away with no word about what had happened. None of the other prisoners would meet Steve’s eye as they walked.

He’d found himself being pushed into a cell, landing awkwardly on the floor as he’d lost his balance. He hadn’t put out a hand to break his fall, too busy cradling the paper against his chest. The small piece of paper that Charlie had hoped would save Steve’s life. The small piece of paper that had cost Charlie his own.

He hadn’t slept a wink. The hours that had passed had been spent in a complete haze, with Steve staring at the scrap of paper in his hands. He read it, he re-read it, and he tried to test himself on it. Memories of being sat on Nancy Wheeler’s bed a lifetime ago, using her little flashcards to test her on chemistry to help her study had shot through his mind, interwoven with the sound of Charlie’s words to him.

“Learn it. Memorise it. Keep it safe. Hide it somewhere. If you can’t read those instructions, you’re as good as dead.”

It was like a mantra through Steve’s brain, a repeated soundtrack over the sight of Charlie’s dead body lying on the floor.

He’d learnt that a lowercase Y was an ‘uh’ sound. The square that looked like a chair was a ‘D’ sound. The backwards N was an ‘ee’ sound. The lowercase P was their equivalent of the letter R.

After what felt like hours spent looking at the scrap of paper, a key scraped in the lock of his cell. Steve managed to shove the tiny scrap of paper, the one lifeline he had into a corner that he prayed the Russians wouldn’t notice as someone came in with a bowl of – grey.

It might, in its youth several lifetimes ago, have been a bowl of porridge. Steve was fairly certain that he was supposed to eat it – the spoon to one side was a giveaway – and given that it was all Steve had been offered to eat since waking up in that hospital bed, his stomach gave a traitorous growl.

It tasted as bland as it looked, the texture feeling closer to wet cement than actual food, but he found himself swallowing it, his stomach grabbing what little it could get. Steve surprised himself by eating all of it. The guard hovered over him the entire time, watching him with beady eyes.

When the bowl was empty, the guard pointed him out of the cell. Steve followed warily, his heart pounding in his chest.

He was led with six other prisoners from the cells around him into an empty concrete room.

Dush,” one of the soldiers said.

Despite now having a vague idea of how to write the word in a way that the Russians would understand, he still didn’t have any idea what it meant, and was extremely surprised by the other prisoners frantically taking off their clothes. Following their example, he tentatively started taking off his top –

A blast of cold water hit them all from a hose. The water was icy, spraying into his hair and across his clothes. Steve felt his entire body tense from the shock of the temperature change. He hadn’t been warm before, but this was another level. The water soaked through his clothes and into his skin, leaving him shivering.

The water stopped, and the other prisoners collected their clothes and started putting them back on. Steve’s, however, were soaked through. He evidently hadn’t got them off fast enough.

In his mind, he could hear a small voice in his ear, a voice that sounded an awful lot like his French teacher from eighth grade, saying the word ‘douche’ while he and Tommy had sat at the back of the class, laughing.

Dush. Douche. Shower.

He got it now.

Steve could almost immediately tell why everyone was so quick to get undressed in the shower. The prison was cold at the best of times, and while the clothes weren’t exactly the best at keeping him warm, he was shivering as the waterlogged material clung to his skin, pressing icy cold water against every part of his body. There was no relief to be found from the cold anywhere, not even in the workshop.

He found himself working on the same machine he’d been working on the day before. He stared down at the blueprints, the strange illegible text dancing before him. The little of the alphabet he’d memorised was not translating across now he was faced with words – words his life depended on him somehow being able to read.

He couldn’t do this.

He looked up, his eyes travelling around the workshop. He saw a few prisoners watching him, turning away as his eyes raked over them. Nobody was going to help him – not after what had happened to the last person who had tried.

His eyes landed on the wall they’d lined up against yesterday. From where he was, he could still see the bloodstain that spattered across the wall. Someone had evidently moved Charlie’s body, but the blood was still there. Evidently, the Russians cared about as much about a hygienic workplace for their prisoners as they cared about appropriate safety measures.

He didn’t want to die like Charlie.

He had to do this.

He picked up the short, blunt pencil that Charlie had used, and started to write down what he could remember of the alphabet on the edge of the paper.

-:-

Steve hadn’t managed to learn every letter of the alphabet in one night. The blueprints of the machine, however, for the most part, had pictorial instructions alongside them, which had, quite literally, been a lifesaver. It had at least allowed Steve to pretend that he knew what he was doing, looking busy every time a Russian soldier glanced over at him. That wouldn’t fool them for long, but hopefully whatever protection the status of ‘Very Important Prisoner’ gave him would hold until he could understand more than a few words.

Not that the day had been a complete loss. Charlie had been right in that a few words of Russian sounded remarkably similar to English. He’d been pleasantly surprised to discover that the word ‘bolt’ existed in Russian. He was also fairly certain that he’d worked out a few words from the diagrams as well – he was fairly certain that the word ‘provod’ meant wire, for example.

Once he’d been taken back to his cell, he took off his clothes. Evidently a day in a freezing cold workshop was not suitable to dry them, and so Steve had pulled them off and rubbed his hands against his arms, trying to stimulate some response to heat his skin. He’d curled up into himself, before grabbing the scrap of paper and started trying to fill the gaps in his knowledge.

He jerked awake at the sound of the key in the lock. He didn’t remember falling asleep, but the crick in his neck told him he’d fallen asleep hunched against the wall. He just about managed to grab his clothes, which still felt cold and slightly damp to the touch, and pulled them on as fast as he could.

His bowl of grey was identical to the previous day. It seemed to be the only meal he was granted in the day, though, so his stomach overruled his tongue as he forced it down. Once again, as soon as he was finished, he was led into the bare concrete room.

Dush,” the soldier barked.

Steve succeeded that day where he’d failed the previous day, managing to pull his clothes off before the blast of cold water hit his back. He felt slightly less stupid than he’d done the previous day, pulling the clothes back on afterwards, trying his hardest not to visibly shiver.

He was, once again, led to the workshop where he sat down in front of the blueprints. He glanced around the room, before picking up the pencil and scribbling down the new characters he’d managed to learn in the night.

-:-

It was almost a whole week after Paul Harrington had formally taken office as Hawkins Mayor before Hopper received a summons to his office. Hopper was almost impressed by his restraint.

Every single aspect of the meeting felt like a power play. It was so very, very textbook it practically hurt. To start with, Harrington had proven himself perfectly capable of coming down to the station, but instead chose to request Hopper’s presence at the Town Hall, insisting on eating far more time out of Hopper’s day than his own. And calling it a ‘request’ was a very loose way of putting it.

Harrington was also late in starting. He’d asked for an eleven o’clock meeting, and Hopper was sat outside for nearly half an hour with no word from Harrington’s new secretary. Candice’s job evidently hadn’t survived the change in administration, having been replaced by a woman that Hopper had no doubt had been chosen by Harrington’s wife. Severe, ice cold, at least ten years older than Harrington, she reminded Hopper of a strict librarian. Even more so when she’d glared at him after he started humming under his breath to pass the time.

Hopper was getting increasingly impatient, certain that if he’d been even a second late, Harrington would have given him Hell to pay.

Finally, at 11:42 by the clock on the wall, Harrington’s new secretary came and found him.

“Mayor Harrington is ready for you now,” she said with a clipped smile.

Hopper almost – almost – rolled his eyes. He knew exactly what the delay was, and wasn’t expecting an apology. He followed the secretary into the office that he’d last visited when it had been occupied by a man with very different motives.

“Ah, Chief Hopper, come in,” Harrington said in a tone that was close to genial. Clearly, he was making an effort today. “Have a seat.”

Harrington gestured at one of the chairs in front of him and took in the office. A shiny plaque with a single word, ‘Mayor’, was sat on the front of the desk, but otherwise the room was very sparse. There was a plant in the corner, and a photo frame on the windowsill, but otherwise the office was almost empty. With little else to look at, Hopper eyed the photo, taking it in. It was a relatively recent photo of Harrington and his wife with Steve. It looked painfully posed, glassy smiles looking as real as the one currently gracing Harrington’s lips as he shuffled some papers into a drawer. Hopper wondered if he’d known the kid when that photo had been taken.

“Thank you for waiting,” Harrington said. “Would you like anything to-”

“Let’s cut the crap, Paul,” Hopper said dismissively. “Mind if I call you ‘Paul’? I know what’s going on here. Your little power trip, calling me down here for eleven to see me at quarter to twelve, I know what’s going on. And I’m not biting. So let’s cut through all the bullshit, skip the part where we pretend we like each other, and get onto whatever was so urgent you had me here waiting for three quarters of an hour.”

The smile dropped from Harrington’s face to be replaced by an albeit far more believable cold look.

“Alright, Jim,” Harrington said coldly. “If that’s how you’d like to do it, the reason you were waiting three quarters of an hour is because over two decades of running a law firm has taught me that punctuality is everything. Arrive early, because you certainly won’t be getting anything if you’re late. My eleven fifteen appointment understood that far better than you seemed to, so when he arrived before you did, I elected to reshuffle my schedule to allow myself to keep on top of everything. That is, after all, my prerogative as Mayor of this town and your new boss. So the lesson here, Jim, is that when I ask you to arrive for an eleven o’clock meeting, I do not expect you to waltz into Town Hall at ten fifty-nine, expecting to get through everything as though the world waits for you and nobody but you. Arrive in plenty of time. And in my world, that means be early. Sufficiently early. It is what I expected in the legal world, and it’s what I expect of you. And for the record, it is ‘Mayor Harrington’ to you.”

Hopper raised his eyebrows at that. Paul Harrington was no Larry Kline, meeting Hopper’s counter to the power play and smacking it down, making it painfully clear that he would not be defied. Hopper remembered that, unlike Kline, Harrington had come from a career where likeability was hardly the most important asset and was clearly applying that logic to his new role. Hopper was almost impressed, until he found himself agreeing with words he’d heard so many times from Harrington’s own son.

Paul Harrington really was a grade A asshole.

“Now,” Harrington continued, no trace of warmth, real or otherwise. “I want an overview of all open cases your department has. Not necessarily all the gory details, but an overview.”

Hopper had been expecting that much. “I’ll have a list of active cases for you tomorrow,” he said softly.

“I said open cases, not necessarily active,” Harrington corrected. “All open cases. Active, inactive, cold cases, major or minor, if it’s come through your department and hasn’t been solved, I want to know about it.”

Mayor Harrington,” Hopper said, trying to inject as much sarcasm into the title as he could. “You want an overview of every single unsolved case my department has ever had?”

“Did I stutter?” Harrington asked.

Hopper bit his tongue to stop the retort that had been dancing in his mouth. He wasn’t quite sure what it would have been, exactly, Hopper could feel that there would have been more than a few words that could have cost him his job.

“How far back would you like me to go?” Hopper ground out.

Harrington leant back in his chair, pressing his fingers together. “Let’s see,” he muttered. “At least all the way through Kline’s administration, maybe even further… Let’s say go back to from the start of ’75 to start off with. We’ll see where we are from there.”

Hopper felt his temper rising as Harrington gave him an infuriating grin. He wanted every single cold case for the last ten years. In most places, that wouldn’t have been a completely unreasonable request, but Hawkins residents had a tendency to report each other for the smallest of things. By normal everyday Hawkins standards, Merrill reporting his pumpkins as being poisoned the year before had been positively reasonable. Lawn ornaments getting lost would invariably be the result of jealous neighbours, or teenage gangsters, never mind that Billy Hargrove had been the closest thing to a ‘gangster’ Hawkins had ever seen. It was extremely rare that these petty ‘crimes’ would be solved, because it was extremely rare for a crime to have actually taken place, but because the lawn ornament or whatever remained lost, the case would stay open, unsolved. Harrington must have known this, even spending twenty-five days a month out of Hawkins, he’d been accused of his fair share of hedge infringements.

Going through and making Hopper summarise ten years’ worth of these cases was clearly his idea of a bad joke. Or a cruel and unusual punishment.

“So you’ll have that ready for me tomorrow, correct?” Harrington said.

“Tomorrow, maybe the day after,” Hopper growled out.

“Make it tomorrow.”

“I’ll do my best,” Hopper muttered, not looking at Harrington as he got up to leave.

“One more thing,” Harrington said just as Hopper’s hand froze on the door. “I noticed your department recently hired Joyce Byers to replace that assistant that retired.”

Yeah, no. There was no way in Hell frozen over that Hopper was going to take that shit from Paul fucking Harrington.

“Yeah,” Hopper said in a tone that he hoped indicated that he would not have this fight. “She’s smart. I think she’ll be a real asset to Hawkins PD.”

Harrington gave him an appraising look. “Far be it from me to tell you who you can and can’t sleep with, Chief, but at least try to make your nepotism less blatantly obvious. And don’t bother lying about it.”

Hopper glared at him coldly. “Rest assured, Mayor, it won’t be a problem.”

“Good,” Harrington said, pulling out some papers from the drawer and looking down at them in a gesture that Hopper clearly understood as a dismissal. He turned back to the door before his hand froze on the door handle, remembering something.

“Is there anything else?” Harrington asked, not looking up.

“I – uh… I heard Kline wanted to speak to you,” Hopper said. “Did you go and see him?”

Harrington still didn’t look up, but Hopper noticed how his eyes stopped scanning across the page.

“Not that it’s any of your business, but yes,” he said curtly.

“What did he say?”

Harrington’s eyes started moving across the page again. “Nothing I’m going to tell you.”

“It could be important-”

Nothing you need to know, Chief Hopper,” Harrington said firmly, looking up at him. “Now, if that’s all, I think we’re done here, don’t you agree?”

Hopper let out a long breath, before turning the door handle. “Yeah,” he breathed. “We’re done.”

-:-

Steve had just managed to get into a routine when it was disrupted.

It had been several days of the same. He’d be woken by a key scraping in a lock, he’d eat his edible cement, he’d get taken to a room and blasted with an icy hose, and then he’d go to the workshop, where he’d try and decipher as much of the blueprints as he could. He had an entire alphabet scribbled on the edge of the blueprints now, and he was getting to the point where he was only double-checking every other letter. He’d then try his hardest to mimic the pictographs and follow what little instruction he could read until the bell rang and he was taken back to his cell, where he’d find that scrap of paper and test himself on the alphabet until he fell asleep. The only variation was how well he slept.

His nights were filled with dreams of shadows, vines, Demodogs, corpses, blood choking him, and Billy. Always Billy.

His day started like any other. Key. Bowl. Shower. Cold. Workshop. Blueprints.

And that was when they came.

Two soldiers marched into the workshop. This would hardly have been cause for significant concern had it not been for the fact that they walked with far greater purpose than most soldiers that sidled in and out of the workshop usually had. Everyone paused for a moment as the soldiers approached Portnov, inaudible words of Russian being hissed between the three men.

Steve’s stomach dropped like a stone when Portnov pointed straight over at Steve.

Even a few days ago, Steve might have considered running, but memories of Charlie lying dead on the floor quashed that thought as his eyes lighted on the guns around both of their shoulders. He wouldn’t make it very far, he’d be gunned down before leaving the workshop. Steve felt completely powerless as they grabbed his arms, hauling him up and dragging him out of the workshop.

“What’s – what’s going on?” Steve asked the soldiers, hoping against hope that one of them spoke English.

He was disappointed.

Determined not to be dragged out of the workshop, he forced his legs into cooperating, stumbling to keep up with the soldiers’ efficient pace. He was led down a gangway when suddenly they stopped. One of them tried to find something in one of his pockets, something that looked like a large piece of black cloth.

“W-W-Wait,” Steve stammered as it was pulled out and Steve saw exactly what it was. “Wait, please, I don’t know anything, I don’t know, I don’t-”

The other soldier grabbed his arms and pulled them behind his back as the first soldier shook out the black cloth, before placing the hood over Steve’s head, plunging Steve’s world into darkness.

A hand on each arm held him in place as he was guided, staggering, through unseen halls. The hands were the only thing that stopped him falling as the floor suddenly gave way to stairs. Steve had no idea where he was going. He lost track somewhere around the fourth turn, not that he would have been able to recreate his route, even if he’d had the opportunity.

 He felt himself being thrown to the ground, his hands barely able to catch himself as he smacked against the concrete floor. He felt the hood pulled off his face, only to find Colonel Ozerov mere inches from him.

It took his eyes a second or two to adjust to the light, staring at Ozerov as he crouched down in front of him.

“Well, Butterscotch, it would seem you’ve been holding out on us,” Ozerov said. “For, you see, this young man tells me he knows you.”

Steve’s heart started pounding in his chest at Ozerov’s words. His worst fears were confirmed in seconds as Ozerov stood back, allowing Steve a full view of the room. From the shadows behind Ozerov, a silhouette of a man emerged, a halo of messy curls around his head, longer than Steve had ever seen them. The man walked across the room and stood in front of Steve, looking down at where he’d awkwardly fallen.

“Hello, Steve,” Billy Hargrove said. “How nice to see you.”

Steve’s heart pounded in his chest as he made to scramble to his feet. His efforts were cut short by a sharp backhand to his face, leaving Steve barely catching himself as he fell to the side.

Steve looked up at Billy as he lowered his arm. Billy’s eyes were burning with a dark fire, his pupils dilated, and Steve could see more clearly here that there was a blackness to him, evident in his eyes, in his actions, in his very soul.

This was not Billy Hargrove. This was the Mind Flayer, through and through.

A soft tutting came from behind Billy. Steve’s eyes flashed back to Ozerov.

“Your friend has been far more cooperative than you have been, Butterscotch,” the Colonel said softly. “And you are proving yourself to be more trouble than you may be worth. I am wondering if you may have outlived your usefulness…”

“No,” Billy breathed, cupping Steve’s chin and tilting his face up towards his own. “He is still useful. We still need him alive. We still need him to talk. After all,” Billy looked over at Ozerov, a feral smile in place, a poor imitation of its host’s trademark, “he knows where to find the girl.”

Steve’s heart was threatening to break his ribs all over again.

“Billy, please, no-” Steve gasped. If Billy was still in there, anywhere, Steve had to get through to him.

“What girl?” Ozerov asked over Steve’s protests.

“Billy, please don’t do this,” Steve begged, trying to yank his chin free from Billy’s grip.

Billy looked coldly down at Steve, staring straight into his eyes as that feral grin widened.

“The girl who can open the Gate.”

Chapter Text

Steve’s throat closed as he was practically dragged into the cold, sterile room. His heart was pounding in his chest at the sight in front of him. He was struggling against the two soldiers holding his arms, his mouth opening and closing, trying to force pleas from his lips when his voice simply refused to cooperate.

The room was empty, with a table on one wall, a couple of chairs either side of the door, and a bench in the centre, reminiscent of the room Steve had been held in when he and Robin had been captured beneath Starcourt. There was a bench in the centre of the room, angled ever so slightly downwards, leather restraints fixed into the wood.

The soldiers practically threw Steve against the bench. Steve struggled against their hands, pushing at them, fighting tooth and nail to wrest himself – any part of himself – free.

Ozerov followed them inside, with Billy in his wake. Steve rounded on Billy, finally yanking one of his arms free.

“So, what? You’re working with them now?” Steve gasped at Billy, his breathing coming ragged.

Billy looked back at him, the darkness in his eyes overshadowing any other emotion. He looked more inhuman than Steve had ever seen him.

“Working with them to get to her?” Steve continued, breathing hard as the soldiers redoubled their hold on him, pushing him down onto the bench. “I won’t let you, I won’t!

The soldiers finally succeeded in pinning Steve down onto the bench, slamming his head down against the wood as they fastened the restraints around his wrist. Steve was left seeing stars, vision swimming, his body tilting at an unnatural angle.

Steve’s vision eased up into its usual clarity, and Steve’s eyes locked onto Ozerov, who was watching Steve’s struggles with amusement.

“Please,” Steve gasped. “Please, listen to me. That – that thing there – it’s not human… I know it looks like a man, but it’s not. It’s using you – as soon as you’re not useful to it anymore, it’ll kill you. Please, you can’t trust him – you can’t trust it-

“Always so full of advice, aren’t you, Butterscotch?” Ozerov said with a sinister smile.

For God’s sake, I’m trying to help you!

“Oh, you can be so helpful,” Ozerov’s grin became, if anything, more sinister. “All you need to do is tell us about this girl.”

Steve turned his head as best he could to look at the two soldiers who were doing something slightly out of his field of vision. He heard a dim splashing of water, but there were restraints on his wrists, upper arms, and across his chest, as well as over his legs, restricting most of Steve’s movement. They moved on his periphery; Steve only able to catch glimpses of the top of their heads as they worked with their backs to him.

A second later, they turned back towards him, holding a damp cloth.

“This is your last chance to tell us freely,” Ozerov said coldly. “Believe me when I say that it will be to your benefit if you do so, and your detriment if you do not.”

Steve held Ozerov’s glare, trying desperately to remember what he’d told Billy when the Mind Flayer had first appeared at one of the Gates. He had to assume that everything he’d told Billy was compromised, but what had he told him about Eleven?

“Very well,” Ozerov said, evidently impatient. “You have chosen the hard way.”

“Wait,” Steve gasped. “W-w-wait, please-

Ozerov gave a nod to the soldiers, who placed the wet cloth over Steve’s face, pressing it against his nose and mouth. Steve twisted and turned his head as much as he could, trying to shake it off his eyes, but it obscured his vision completely.

“Let us start with a name, yes?” Ozerov said.

“Please,” Steve tried to gasp, not sure how much was likely to be audible. “I’m begging you, please-

“What is the girl’s name?” Ozerov asked.

“I don’t – I don’t know, PLEASE-

Steve felt cold water hit his face, pouring down through the cloth. No matter how much he struggled, he couldn’t prevent it from going into his mouth, the angle his head was tilting sending water into his mouth and nose. He choked, trying desperately to cough up the water – it was blocking his airway – he couldn’t breathe – HE COULDN’T BREATHE –

As suddenly as it had started, the water flow stopped. The cloth was pulled away and Steve was coughing, spluttering, trying to expel as much water from his nose and mouth. The restraints around his chest were suddenly undone and Steve sat bolt upright, coughing desperately, retching, sending water pouring from his mouth and down his chest. He gasped, feeling his chest expand and air – blissful air filled his lungs.

“The name,” Ozerov said coldly.

Steve barely heard him, tears pouring down his cheeks. He didn’t want – he didn’t know – he couldn’t give up – he couldn’t face that again –

He didn’t see Ozerov nod at the soldiers. Hands suddenly grabbed his shoulders and forced him back down. The restraint was back across his chest. His world went dark. Steve barely opened his mouth to let out some noise of protest behind the cloth before –

Water poured into his open mouth – it was filling up his mouth and nasal cavity – he couldn’t see – he couldn’t breathe – he was drowning – drowning – no air – NO AIR –

The water stopped and the cloth was pulled away, the restraint around his chest lifted again. Steve spluttered, choking on the water in his mouth. He clenched his eyes closed, trying to hold back the tears as broken sobs shook his trembling body. He couldn’t do it – he couldn’t do it…

“Please…” Steve whispered, barely capable of anything more. “Please… I can’t…”

“The name,” Ozerov said. “Now.”

“Please…” Steve gasped. “Please… no… stop…”

The hands were back on his shoulders – the restraint was back around his chest – the cloth was back over his face –

Eleven!

It took Steve a moment to realise that the word had actually left his mouth in a blind panic. He heard rather than saw the room go still, the cloth still over his face.

“Eleven?” Ozerov repeated. “What is eleven?

Steve was still breathing hard, his mouth moving faster than his mind. “Her name…” he barely heard himself gasp. “Eleven… that’s her name…”

There was a moment of complete silence in the room. Steve couldn’t see anything, his heart pounding in his chest –

Water splashed over his face again – his throat was full of it – he was choking – nothing could get it out – he was dying – he couldn’t breathe

The water stopped and the cloth and restraints over his chest were removed and Steve was hauled upright. His body convulsed and water splashed from his mouth over his chest. Tears were pouring down his face, tracks simply marking their way down his damp face. His body convulsed again, bringing up more water and bile, but his mouth wasn’t rid of it all yet –

The third convulsion brought up what meagre contents his stomach retained, a mixture of bile, puke and water dripping down his chin and onto his chest. Finally satisfied, his body settled into a coughing fit, ensuring that there was absolutely nothing left in his airway before finally letting him breathe in. Barely restrained sobs were only broken up by coughs, gasps so desperate to fill up his lungs that they couldn’t take in more than a superficial amount of air in his body’s desperate urge to breathe…

“Do not try to lie to me, Butterscotch,” Ozerov said coldly.

“I’m not-” Steve coughed violently as he tried to take another breath. “I’m not lying…”

His voice was hoarse, his protests coming out higher than normal, desperate pleas for trust rather than protests for his dignity.

“Her name is Eleven,” Steve spluttered. He didn’t know – didn’t care – what he was saying. He just wanted to make it stop. “We call her El. I don’t know what else you want, just please…

He could barely say another word as uncontrolled sobs overtook him. He couldn’t do it, he couldn’t go through that again, he didn’t want to feel water in his mouth ever again…

He finally managed to open his eyes, finding Billy’s icy blue ones, corrupted by the Mind Flayer’s black as they were.

Tell them, Billy,” he begged, uncaring about what he’d been reduced to. “Please, tell them it’s the truth…”

Ozerov and the soldiers looked at Billy, whose eyes were fixed on the bloodshot, tear-filled brown eyes that were begging him to corroborate his story. Eventually, he turned to Ozerov with a nod.

Steve’s heart surged with relief, fresh tears overtaking old ones as a smile spread across his face, hysterical laughter merging with sobs.

“Why do they call her that?”

Steve almost didn’t hear the question from Ozerov. He looked at him for a moment, a heartbeat, slightly confused, before a nod from the Russian had hands on Steve’s shoulders once more, pushing him back down towards the bench.

Wait – wait – wait-” Steve stammered, his heart racing. “I don’t – she came from a lab…”

“A lab?” Ozerov echoed incredulously.

“Yeah…” Steve gasped. “That’s why she’s called Eleven. They gave her a number, not a name…”

Ozerov pondered this new information, looking between Steve and Billy. Billy was looking straight at Steve, though, his head tilted as a curious look crossed his face.

“Eleven…” Billy said quietly. “So are there others?”

Steve’s eyebrows pinched together slightly. “…What?” he gasped.

“You said she was given a number, not a name. The number ‘Eleven’ indicates that she wasn’t the only one.”

Steve looked at him, his expression slowly crumbling. “I don’t… I don’t know…

Billy looked over at Ozerov, the corner of whose lips turned up the tiniest fraction before he nodded at the soldiers.

“No – no – please-

Hands on Steve’s shoulders once again forced him down onto the bench.

“Please, God, I don’t know-

The cloth was placed over his face and the restraint was fastened across his chest.

“Please – wait – PLEASE-

The steady stream of water poured over Steve’s face – he couldn’t do this – he couldn’t – it was like the blood in his throat all over again – he would do anything – if only he could just breathe

The cloth was removed from his face and he was allowed to sit up again. Once he’d managed to spit, cough or vomit the water from his mouth, he gasped for air, barely listening to Ozerov. If he told them what he wanted to hear, maybe it could stop…

“Are there others?” Ozerov asked.

Steve numbly found himself nodding his head. He didn’t know if it was the truth, he didn’t care… he just wanted it to stop…

“How many?”

Steve was a shaking wreck. He didn’t know, he just needed to give them something – anything – just to get them to stop.

“I don’t…” he gasped. “I don’t know – ten?

Billy’s eyebrows shot up as he looked somewhat sceptically at Ozerov.

“And where are they now?

Steve’s eyes were begging Billy for mercy, for some end to this.

“I don’t know,” he sobbed. “I don’t even know if they exist…

Billy looked at Ozerov again, who once again nodded at the soldiers. Steve didn’t have any fight left in him as he was pulled down once again to the bench, his heart pounding.

“No… please…” he gasped.

The cloth was pressed over his face, the restraint was fastened across his chest, and without any more warning, water was in his mouth again.

Steve was choking – he was drowning – the water wasn’t water anymore – he was in the Upside Down again – choking on his own blood – he was drowning – he was going to die

The water stopped with blessed relief and Steve was given another chance to sit up. The water was water again as he coughed it out of his mouth and throat.

Ozerov leant forwards, his nose inches from Steve.

“The others, are they in America?” he asked.

Tell them what they want to hear.

Steve nodded.

“Are they in Hawkins?”

Another nod.

“Are they in New York?”

Steve’s head involuntarily nodded. Ozerov cupped Steve’s chin as he held his head steady, his fingers too firm on Steve’s skin.

“Are they in Moscow?”

Steve just nodded, his eyes closed, barely even hearing the questions.

Gavno!” Ozerov snapped to nobody in particular, pushing Steve’s head to one side as he straightened up. “Otpusti yego. Vozmi yego.

The soldiers started to undo the rest of the restraints on Steve’s arms and legs. Steve barely had it in him to notice, staring at his lap.

“What are you doing?” Billy snapped.

“He’s had enough, he’s useless,” Ozerov said dismissively.

“He was telling us everything!

“He was telling us what he thought we wanted to hear,” Ozerov pointed out. “He would admit to assassinating your President Kennedy if you asked him now.”

“I want to know about the others,” Billy growled. “I need to know about the others. That was our agreement. I help you if you help me. Now, I need to know about the others.”

What others?” Ozerov asked. “He does not know. You heard him as well as I did.”

The soldiers chose that moment to haul Steve off the bench. Steve’s legs were shaking so much that they folded under him the second they hit the ground. He fell to the floor like a rag doll, his body refusing to cooperate. Billy gave a small huff in Ozerov’s general direction before crouching down beside Steve, giving the soldiers a glare that stopped them in their tracks.

“Steve,” Billy breathed, gently touching Steve’s arm. Steve flinched at the contact, his whole body violently jerking away.

“Steve,” Billy repeated, shuffling closer to him. “It’s just you and me now. You and me, just like before. You remember that, Steve?”

Tell him what he wanted to hear.

Steve gave a nod.

“Can you tell me about the others?” Billy said softly, his voice only audible to Steve.

Steve wanted to tell him something he wanted to hear. He wanted to, more than anything. He didn’t want to risk being put back on that bench.

“Can you tell me their names?”

Steve paused for a second. He thought about it.

What would their names be?

He finally found the answer. He nodded, and Billy’s smile could have lit up a room.

“That’s great, Steve,” Billy breathed encouragingly. “What are their names?”

Steve was still nodding, and he took a deep breath. Such a simple action that he’d taken for granted.

“One…” Steve said. “Two… Three… Four… Five…”

Billy’s face fell and he straightened up, taking a step away from Steve. Steve could feel his frustration coming off him in waves. He looked desperately up at Billy. He’d given him what he’d wanted…

“Just…” Billy said, turning to the soldiers with a small wave of the hand. “Just… take him.”

The soldiers bent down and grabbed Steve’s arms, dragging him out of the room. They didn’t bother taking him back to the workshop. Steve looked up at the sound of a key scraping in a lock, and he found himself being dragged into his cell. There was no fight left in him, there was nothing left in him.

The door banged shut behind him, the key scraped in the lock, and Steve curled in on himself, holding his legs to his chest. His mouth kept forming the same words over and over again, his brain barely able to comprehend anything else.

“One… Two… Three… Four… Five… Six… Seven… Eight… Nine… Ten…”

-:-

The rumours had been following Max around for the week and a half she’d been at high school.

Why did they break up? I heard Sinclair finally dumped her… I heard she was cheating on him… I heard he caught her with a girl… I heard she was too much of a dyke even for him… I had her pegged as a dyke the second she arrived, all hoodies and skateboards… who didn’t know she was a fucking lesbian? …Explains why Billy Hargrove hated her so much…

That last one stung every time she heard it. And she’d heard it all. Every word, every whisper in the cafeteria, every slightly-too-loud conversation about her in the hall. She knew what they all thought of her, and she didn’t care.

She didn’t.

She didn’t.

She was Mad Max Mayfield. She had been alone long before Lucas and his ‘Party’ came along. She was fine with that. Fine. Just fine.

She walked into Chemistry. She’d never liked it much. It had always held such promise in her eyes, only to be a complete let down of theory. Granted, under Mr Clarke, there had been some slight promise of interest – Mr Clarke’s enthusiasm for all things science had made even rote-learning the tests for different gases mildly interesting – but Mrs Kaminsky had none of Mr Clarke’s aptitude for holding a classroom’s attention.

It also didn’t help that it was the lesson she found herself sat closest to Lucas, Dustin, Mike, Will and El.

El had been a saving grace. At a complete loss in their first chemistry lesson, when Kaminsky had told them all to find a lab partner, she’d approached Max with an overwhelmed expression. She’d decided to override Hopper’s insistence that she stay away from Max, quietly saying “it’s only for Chemistry.” So far, nobody had mentioned it to Hopper.

That day, however, was not destined to be a good day, courtesy of Stacey Albright.

Kaminsky was running late. The class was not being quiet. Max could only be glad that they were in a classroom that day as opposed to one of the science labs, because an excited group of unsupervised fourteen-year-olds and a lab full of highly breakable glassware would not be a good mix. Mike, Will, Lucas and Dustin were sat together near the front of the classroom, talking about nothing in particular, when Stacey Albright leant across to them, smiling at Lucas warmly with the occasional glance sideways towards where Max and El were sat in tables behind.

“Hey, Sinclair,” Stacey said in a tone that might have been sympathetic if any of them hadn’t known Stacey better. “I heard you and Mayfield broke up over the summer.”

Max rolled her eyes, determined to tune it out. Unfortunately, amongst the freshmen, Lucas and Max’s breakup was the hot topic of conversation after Starcourt, so when Stacey Albright brought it up, people who heard started to listen.

Lucas, to his credit, had the decency to look uncomfortable. “Uh… yeah, we did…” he muttered.

“I’m sorry,” she said in a sympathetic tone of voice that fooled exactly nobody. “What happened? You guys were so close.”

Lucas shot an uncomfortable glance over at Max, who decided against pretending that she couldn’t hear every word of a conversation she was clearly meant to hear but not participate in.

“We just…” Lucas began, looking over at Max with a slightly apologetic look in his eyes. “We just grew apart, you know? That’s all.”

Stacey gave a sigh that might have been an attempt at a genuine expression of sadness if it weren’t for the fact that she was more upset about the lack of any suitable gossip than at the demise of Lucas’ relationship.

“I heard it was because you found out she was a dyke,” a boy said. Max’s head wheeled around, looking for the culprit, but it could have been anyone in a group of moronic jocks who were all trying out for the basketball team.

“She’s not a dyke!” Lucas protested.

“Just a selfish bitch,” Dustin muttered under his breath, audible to the entire classroom. His comment sent waves of laughter at Max’s expense through the crowd of boys and Stacey’s friends.

Dustin, come on,” Will snapped, glaring at him.

Mike was conspicuously silent, neither joining Dustin nor calling him out. Lucas looked incredibly uncomfortable, shooting Max an apologetic glance across the room. They may not have been on speaking terms, but Lucas clearly didn’t like being used as a pawn by the rest of the class to bully her.

“You know what?” Max snapped, glaring at Dustin. “Screw you, Dustin.”

Dustin opened his mouth to respond, but was interrupted by the arrival of Mrs Kaminsky. She swept into the room with a glare that sent most people back to their seats. Mike and Will turned around to face the front, while Lucas leaned across the aisle towards Dustin.

“Dude, what the hell is wrong with you?” he hissed.

Dustin glared back at him, matching his volume. “What’s wrong with me? She lied to all of us, she put us all in danger, and risked everything we’ve spent the last three years trying to stop, everything Steve died for-”

“Well you don’t have to be such an asshole about it-”

“And you don’t have to keep pining after her. You ended it, remember?”

“I’m not pining-

“Mr Sinclair, Mr Henderson, is there something you’d like to share with the class?”

Kaminsky’s voice cut through their whispered conversation. They both looked up to a single raised eyebrow and an unimpressed look. The rest of the class was looking at them, interested.

“Oh – uh…” Lucas stammered.

“Uh – I’m just not feeling well,” Dustin tried for a smile before ducking down to get his bag. “Actually, I should – I should probably go to the nurse…”

Lucas’ eyes snapped to Dustin as he stood up. He looked at him, confused, as Dustin started to walk towards the door. Will and Mike both turned in their seats to look at Lucas, Mike giving Lucas a questioning look while Lucas responded with an equally incredulous shrug, fortunately unnoticed by Kaminsky who was far more occupied with the swift exit of Dustin Henderson, the science nerd who never skipped classes.

At least, until now.

-:-

It took hours for Steve to start to straighten his head out.

‘Start’ being the operative word in that sentence. He managed to stop repeating the last answer over and over to himself, and started hearing a voice that sounded a lot like Billy telling him to breathe.

In… two… three… hold… out… two… three…

He started to straighten out the events of the previous – day? – in his mind. Billy was here in Russia. Whether of his own free – enslaved? – will or from the Russians bringing him here, Steve didn’t know. There must have been some voluntary desire on his part, because the Mind Flayer could have destroyed – flayed – the Russian army quite easily. Maybe it already had?

Billy had told the Russians about El’s existence. What gaps were in his knowledge had been filled by Steve. Again. He had gone from determined defiance and a strong urge to protect his friends to a sobbing wreck, begging for mercy, telling them everything they’d wanted to know, making up answers he didn’t have purely to stop them from hurting him again. And the whole process had taken less than five minutes.

He didn’t know how he was ever going to face his friends. Assuming he ever made it home.

He jumped at the sound of the key scraping in the lock, scrambling against the wall, pressing his back flush against the concrete as the door swung open. It stood to reason, it was another day, the guards had their routine. Steve didn’t take his eyes off the guard, however, as he placed the bowl on the floor.

Vykusi,” the guard said, pointing at the bowl when Steve didn’t immediately move, his eyes still fixed on the soldier. Steve didn’t need a particularly strong degree of fluency in Russian to understand that it meant ‘eat.

Steve tentatively reached out and pulled it towards him, his eyes never leaving the Russian for more than a second at a time. He was aware that he probably looked like a skittish animal – he certainly felt like one – but didn’t have the energy to worry too much about what this guard thought of him. On his list of problems, his burnt pride was somewhere down the bottom, between his lack of hair products and the loss of his Scoops Ahoy uniform.

He ate more slowly than normal, his eyes flitting back to the soldier between every bite. The soldier was getting more and more impatient, the occasional huff denoting just how unhappy with Steve he was. Steve cared just enough not to take his eyes off the guard, wary of his every move.

Finally, Steve set down the bowl. The feeling of whatever it was he’d just eaten seemed to suck all the moisture out of his mouth, but for once, Steve was grateful for it. He didn’t think he ever wanted to feel water in his mouth again. He ignored the metal cup of water that sat beside the bowl, pushing everything away from him.

The guard simply raised his eyebrows before picking up the empty bowl, before taking the cup and, with a shrug, he tipped the contents out onto the floor. Steve flinched at the splashing sound as the dry concrete seemed to absorb the water.

Steve just about suffered himself to be taken into the usual bare room. He just about heard the command. He just about got his clothes off in time –

He just about managed not to collapse when the water smacked into his back.

The water was pouring through his hair – it was dripping down onto his face – his eyes closed – he was back on that bench – unable to see – unable to scream – unable to breathe – he was choking again – choking on water or blood – he didn’t know –

He didn’t notice the water stop. He was taking sweet, blessed breaths that went into his lungs… The water hadn’t gone into his mouth this time… He was standing upright, his legs were shaking, but they were holding him up… There weren’t restraints around his arms and legs… He wasn’t on that bench…

He cracked his eyes open again. That was right, he was in the shower. He was the last person still there. Everyone else had gotten dressed and was leaving. He hurriedly bent down to pick up those thin, scratchy clothes, pulling the pants over his legs.

He could do this. One step at a time.

He pulled the shirt over his head, barely letting it settle on his shoulders before making to follow the other prisoners towards the workshop. However, when he got to the door, he felt a hand against chest, two soldiers blocking his path.

Nyet,” one of them said, shaking his head in case the meaning was lost on Steve.

Steve didn’t need to bother asking why. His eyes fell closed for a second, despair settling in the pit of his stomach.

“No…” he begged. “Please, just – let me help – I can help them – let me go back-

He tried to push past the soldiers, tried to follow the rest of the people towards the workshop, but the hand on his chest was joined by an arm around his waist, a second set of hands grabbing his shoulders. Between them, the two soldiers started to pull him towards that staircase into the black abyss, the staircase where every step down into the darkness was a step towards his suffering.

The heavy metal door swung open, and Steve’s heart started racing at the sight before him. He felt himself kicking away, violently trying to yank any part of his body free from the vice-like grip in which he was being held. He didn’t take in the rest of the room, his mind far too focused on the bench in front of him.

He lashed out, his foot catching one of the soldiers’ legs. He yanked his upper arm free, but the grip around his wrist stayed tight. He swung his free elbow around, feeling it connect with – something, tugging his wrist out of the soldier’s hand –

Something slammed into his stomach, and as suddenly as it had come, the fight left Steve’s body. He curled in on himself, doubled over on his knees, the force of the blow knocking the air out of him. He opened his eyes – not that he remembered closing them in the first place – to find himself looking at Billy, that strange grin on his face.

“Looks like you’ve got some fire in you after all,” Billy said softly.

Steve remembered the last time that voice had said those words towards him – a plate smashing over his head – crashing onto the floor – that face hovering above him as punches rained down on him – waking up in the back of a car to Mike Wheeler’s face and blood all over his favourite jacket…

William…” Ozerov’s voice said warningly.

Steve’s head snapped over to where the voice was coming from. Billy stood up and stepped away from Steve, leaving Ozerov to walk to stand in front of where Steve was kneeling.

“You will tell us the truth today, yes?” Ozerov said. “Not just what you think we want to hear.”

Steve’s arms continued to cradle his stomach as he looked up at Ozerov. His head fell against his chest as he tried to take a deep breath.

“Will you believe me if I do?” Steve whispered.

It might have been the smallest act of defiance. It might have been a pitiful plea. Whatever it was, the words were enough to bring Ozerov down to Steve’s level, crouching down before burying a hand in Steve’s hair and yanking his head back so Steve had no choice but to look at the Colonel.

“Do you know anything about any others?” Ozerov asked.

Steve didn’t know what his face was doing. He didn’t know why he hesitated. His eyes flicked up to Billy before he looked back at Ozerov and slowly shook his head as best he could.

“No,” he breathed truthfully.

Ozerov let go of Steve’s hair with a small smile. “I thought not,” he said softly. “So let’s continue to do this the easy way, shall we, Butterscotch? You don’t need to go on the board. Just tell us the truth.”

Steve’s eyes drifted shut, hating the wave of relief at Ozerov’s words. The enormous caveat of what Ozerov would ask for was enough to make the relief feel like despair. No matter how much Steve wanted to keep what he knew secret, he knew he would end up breaking eventually, just like he’d done the previous day, just like he’d done back underneath Starcourt. That realisation twisted like barbed wire around his heart.

“So, this Eleven,” Ozerov said, straightening up. “She came from a laboratory, yes?”

His head fell into a small nod. He knew he’d already told them that much.

“Was it Hawkins Laboratory?”

Steve hesitated. He could tell that they knew – or at least suspected the answer – but something in him stopped him confirming it immediately. The fear he’d held of being strapped to that bench seemed to waver slightly, the fact that he was not strapped down grounding him in a way that he had not been the day before, lost in the blind panic as he choked on water, drowning on that bench, unable to even move. The tremor that had shaken his hands since the previous day wasn’t gone, but it wasn’t quite so prevalent. The fear was still very much there, but so were the memories. The reason why he’d been prepared to put himself through that hell was back in his mind. Even the simple act of hearing the name – Eleven – brought her to the forefront of his mind. It breathed life into that small ember of defiance; an ember that would undoubtedly be extinguished in a flood of water in his throat before long, but Steve realised that if his actions were going to touch her or the others in any tangible way, he would rather know that at least he had fought. At least he had tried to resist.

A crack echoed throughout the room and Steve’s head snapped to one side of its own accord. A second later, he felt a stinging sensation in his cheek. The ember of defiance dimmed.

“Was it Hawkins Laboratory?” Ozerov repeated, lowering his arm.

Steve’s head fell against his chest again in a nod. “Yes,” he breathed through gritted teeth.

“How can she open Gates?”

The little defiance he had left clamped his mouth shut. He knew he was fighting a losing battle – he wasn’t a spy trained in the art of resisting interrogation, but something – the same reservoir of willpower that had stopped him from answering about Hawkins Lab immediately – stopped him from answering.

His head cracked sideways again. He flinched at the blow, certain that this defiance would not last long.

“How can she open Gates?” Ozerov repeated.

Steve swallowed. His eyes flitted to behind Ozerov, over to where Billy was standing. Billy was watching him with a curious expression on his face. It occurred to Steve in that second that Billy – or at least, the Mind Flayer – would probably know the answer. Perhaps not from Steve, but from the little that he’d understood of how they’d closed the Gate the previous year, the Mind Flayer had faced off with El and lost. The Mind Flayer would know. And Billy hadn’t said a word about it to the Russians.

“I don’t…” Steve breathed, throwing caution to the wind. “I don’t know…”

Ozerov looked at him, his expression hardening. “Very well, then. If you wish to do it that way…”

Ozerov nodded at the soldiers.

“Wait – no-

Without a word to each other, the soldiers grabbed Steve’s arms again and hauled him up, dragging him towards the bench. He kicked his legs out as he was bundled face first onto the angled surface. One of the soldiers grabbed his hair and slammed it down onto the wood, sending colours flashing across his vision. He felt himself being turned over, restraints fastened around his legs and arms and across his chest.

“Please – wait – I don’t know-

“I asked you to tell me the truth, Butterscotch,” he heard Ozerov say coldly.

“Please…” Steve’s head snapped towards Billy. “Billy! Please – tell them I don’t know – tell them I don’t know!

His screams were cut off by the damp rag being placed across his face again. It felt like his heart rate had tripled, the water over his face and in his eyes sending him snatching breaths in rapid gasps in terrified anticipation of what was to come.

He heard the sound of something being filled up with water – the moisture of the rag against his lips sent flashbacks of the previous day shooting through his mind – water in his mouth – burning at the back of his throat – no air to inhale – a choke sending out all the air in his lungs –

“How can she open Gates?” Ozerov asked one more time.

Steve could hear the water splashing around in whatever container the soldiers were holding. He couldn’t see, but he could hear it above his head – it was right above him –

There was a sloshing sound –

NO! Wait! She has powers!

A small pocket of water splashed over his face, a memory of what had come the previous day. He coughed, sending it splashing into the rag and back over his skin, but the air drew into his lungs as normal. The small ember of defiance inside Steve guttered as Steve heard in his memory the words he’d just screamed.

Powers?” Ozerov repeated. “What do you mean, ‘powers’?”

“Like…” Steve gasped, unable to see anything. “Like – superpowers. Like something out of the X-men or something – I don’t know, do you have comic books here in Russia?”

A more sophisticated level of pride that Steve had once upon a time possessed might have groaned at him referencing one of Dustin’s comics during an interrogation, even more so at the fact that he understood that he had referenced it correctly, but any thread of pride, sophisticated or otherwise, was gone.

“What are these ‘powers’?” Ozerov asked.

“I don’t-” Steve babbled. “I don’t really know, I just… She opened the Gate the first time.”

“What else?

The question came from Billy this time.

“I don’t…” Steve gasped. “I don’t know!

“Can she move things?” Billy asked. He sounded – angry? Earnest? Excited? “Can she move things without touching them?”

“I-”

The water sloshed dangerously in its container, the sound cutting off any ideas Steve had of lying.

“Yes,” he said, his voice cracking as tears started to run down his face.

“What else?” Billy repeated, and Steve knew the word for Billy’s voice.

Unhinged.

“I don’t know!” Steve all but screamed. “I don’t know, I don’t understand…”

“That’s enough,” Ozerov said. “We have time. Otpusti yego.

These last words saw the cloth removed from Steve’s face. The restraints were undone, and Steve took in the scene before him. Ozerov looked excited, but it was marred by the look he gave Billy.

“You knew,” Ozerov said. “You knew all this about the girl.”

Billy glared back, unadulterated hatred in his eyes. “Yeah.”

“You should not have kept this from us,” Ozerov snarled. “If we are to work together to find this girl, we cannot keep secrets.

The last sentence caused Steve’s stomach to drop. “Please…” he breathed. “Please don’t hurt her…”

Ozerov looked over at Steve, a smile spreading across his face, smoothing out the glare into a far more terrifying smirk of satisfaction. “Do not worry, Butterscotch, I have no intention of hurting her. She is far too valuable to kill.”

Steve’s eyes fell closed, trying to hold back the tears that threatened to spill over his cheeks.

“She can’t be left alive,” Billy said incredulously.

Steve’s eyes snapped open. He looked at Billy, who looked murderous.

Ozerov turned back to Billy, smirk still in place. “Why not?” he asked. “She is useful. You Americans have succeeded in creating a… superpower?

Ozerov looked over at Steve, trying to echo the words that he’d used. Steve’s heart began to thump in his chest, a feeling of fear rising in his chest that, for once, was not for himself.

“Colonel Ozerov…” Steve breathed, his eyes wide. “Don’t…”

“She’s dangerous,” Billy said. “We find her, and we kill her.”

Ozerov laughed arrogantly. “Why do we have to kill her?” he chuckled. “Yes, she is dangerous, but she is dangerous to them, also. Butterscotch will help us find her, and he will help us control her.”

“You can’t control her,” Billy growled, closing the gap between him and Ozerov. “You can’t control him, either. I tried. Now, he isn’t a threat, but her… you can’t imagine what she could do.”

Ozerov laughed.

“Ozerov, I’m telling you, don’t-” Steve started, but was cut off by one of the soldiers delivering another blow to the stomach that sent him doubling over onto his knees, watching the situation unfold before his eyes. The soldiers either side of him kept a hand on him, waiting, ever obedient, for orders.

“There is more than one way to control a man,” Ozerov said. “We can use her. She can help us take down the government that left you to die. And maybe we can work out what makes her so special. Maybe we can try to recreate it – make others of our own-”

BANG!

Steve flinched, his eyes wide as he couldn’t tear them away from the scene in front of him. Billy grabbed Ozerov by the throat and slammed him against the wall, his feet dangling, unable to touch the ground. The soldiers let go of Steve – not that he could go anywhere; Billy and Ozerov were between him and the door – and pulled out their guns, pointing them at Billy.

Ozerov was struggling against Billy, his legs trying to find some purchase against the wall. His mouth was open, gasping for air. His lips were moving, trying desperately to form something that might have been words. His eyes were bulging, turning towards the soldiers. The soldiers were shouting unintelligible commands in Russian at Billy, overlapping each other and echoing off the walls to create an incomprehensible cacophony.

Stop!

Dostatochno!

Otpusti yego!

My tebya ub'yem!

Ozerov’s lips were still moving, finally managing to choke out a single command.

Ubey yego!” Ozerov gasped.

The guns cocked – Steve tried to pull himself back out of the way –

“Sorry, Colonel,” Billy hissed, black lines creeping up the blood vessels in his neck and face –

A jet of black smoke seemed to spill out of Billy, shooting straight into Ozerov’s open mouth. The Russian was powerless to stop, his eyes widening in terror – a terror that Steve was all too familiar with. Billy’s arm started to shake, but the smoke that connected him to Ozerov seemed to be holding him up. His knees started to buckle, and Ozerov landed on his feet, standing up straight as the smoke still continued to pour out of Billy’s mouth and into Ozerov’s. As Steve watched Billy, he could see the black lines that tainted his skin start to recede from his chest upwards, slowly drawing towards his lips, leaving pale skin behind –

The smoke suddenly left Billy’s lips altogether, the last of it pouring into Ozerov. Billy collapsed to the floor like a puppet with his strings cut. Steve scrambled forwards, placing a hand on his shoulder –

Stop!

Steve looked up at Ozerov’s command. It wasn’t aimed at him though; Ozerov was looking at the soldiers, both of whom had their guns still trained on Billy.

Steve felt Billy stir under his hand and looked back down at him. His head was on the floor, face tilted towards Steve. Steve could feel him breathing, his eyes cracking open slightly.

“…Harrington?” Billy breathed.

Steve was stunned, his brain completely incapable of forming any coherent thought as Ozerov barked an order to the soldiers.

Vzyat' ikh v tyur'mu. Sobrat' ikh vmeste.

The soldiers looked dubiously at Ozerov before bending down to follow his command. One of them grabbed Steve’s arms, taking some tape Steve had previously completely overlooked and tying his wrists together.

“Wait – hold on-” Steve protested, unable to take his eyes away from Billy.

Steve didn’t know if Billy was unconscious or simply completely incapable of moving independently, but he suffered himself to be lifted up by the other soldier, his eyes closed and his head lolling against his chest.

“Billy,” Steve called out softly, hoping for a reaction – something – anything – to let him know Billy could hear him.

He was disappointed. Billy was dragged out of the room, completely unresponsive to the world. Steve found himself being pushed after him, following him into the stairwell. Steve threw a glance over his shoulder, looking at Ozerov as he stood alone in the room. The Colonel looked up and his eyes met with Steve’s for the briefest second.

Steve would never forget that look, the Russian’s eyes darkened as his blood vessels ran black.

Chapter Text

August 1985, Hawkins (Upside Down)

He ran. His heart was pounding so hard in his chest as he sprinted through the trees. The pain of his fight with that utterly confounding man, so inconsequential and yet so important, was forgotten in the feeling of his feet pounding against the trees. He pushed his body further than it had ever been pushed. He had to get to that light – that way into that world…

Freed from the shackles of his pretence, freed from the tether of the only one ever to succeed in defying him, he burst into the clearing and stopped to take in the sight before him.

The crack in the ground glowed red, the light welcome to his eyes. It was his hope, it was aim, it could be his destruction or his salvation.

He walked towards it, almost entranced. Whether it was him or his host leading, he did not know. He did not care. It did not matter. It was inconsequential. He stood over the Gate, gazing into the depths, making out the silhouette beyond.

Her.

His destruction. The one who he needed to destroy in order to live. This was beyond vengeance, this was survival. A bitter, savage game with their lives at stake. Only one would live at the end. And they both knew it.

She was not alone, though. There was another with her. One that made his heart soar. Wait. Not his heart. His host’s heart.

He knelt down at the Gate. So what if this was what his host wanted? It did not matter. He would go through the Gate soon enough anyway. He would destroy the girl. If his host wanted to see his loved one once more, he would allow it. It would not make a difference.

He stretched out his hand. He wanted to reach her – to touch her – to feel her once more. There was no rational reason for this, this was purely his host’s emotions. Powerful emotions that had been his downfall once before.

Emotions were such an inconvenience, but such a tool if used correctly. And he had used them. He had used them on that man – that child who had dared to try to die rather than accept him. That was something he had never experienced before. Everyone he had ever tried to control – one fundamental thing they had all feared above all else was death. They accepted him because they had feared death more. This man had been dying. That should have been enough. But something – some prior knowledge of him, of what was at stake – had left the man begging for death, because the man had feared him more than the end.

Emotions were tricky things indeed.

-:-

September 1985, Russia

He didn’t know where they were taking him. He didn’t have the energy to fight, to care, even to lift his head. He simply suffered himself to be dragged. He could hear footsteps behind him – he wasn’t alone – but he didn’t bother to open his eyes.

Almost in another world, through whatever fog was clouding his ears, he heard a key scrape in a lock. Whoever was carrying him didn’t bother carefully putting him down, dragging him a few extra feet and dropping him. He hit the ground with a thud.

He heard a second thud next to him, before a bang of a heavy door and a key scrape in the lock again, and at last, everything was still.

He felt the floor pressing against his cheek, the cold of the concrete biting against his skin in a way that was both uncomfortable and soothing at the same time. He’d spent so long being so very, very cold, and revelling in the ice that bit through his skin. Feeling his own body reject it was something new, something welcoming. He felt a shiver run through his body.

“Billy,” a voice said next to him.

Of course. Harrington.

A hand gently rested itself on his shoulder. He flinched at the touch, pulling himself away.

“Billy, look at me,” Harrington said softly. There was too much care, too much familiarity in that voice. After everything that had happened, Harrington was sat there, thinking that he knew him now.

“It’s gone, isn’t it?” Harrington said. “The Mind Flayer, it’s left you.”

The Mind Flayer… what a stupid fucking name. The thing that had lived inside his head, controlling his actions, influencing his thoughts, a monster from the darkest nightmares – a monster that made the darkest nightmares – and the only name anyone had for it was out of a fucking game.

“Billy, please talk to me.”

His voice was so gentle, so sympathetic. Billy hated it. He cracked his eyes open. Ste– Harrington was sat in front of him, bent over him with altogether too much caring in his eyes. Like Billy was someone worth caring about. Like he hadn’t

He didn’t want to think about it.

He turned his head, pushing himself up just enough to turn it away from Harrington.

“Fuck off,” he breathed.

It felt good telling Harrington to fuck off. He didn’t want to see his face. That face that had crumpled in pain and despair –

No. He wasn’t thinking about that.

Harrington was, irritatingly, not backing off.

“Billy, come on, don’t do this to yourself. I know you’re hurting; I can’t imagine what you must be feeling right now-”

“Then don’t fucking bother,” Billy hissed, finally scrambling away. He curled into himself in the corner of the cell, pulling his knees close to his chest.

“Billy, please,” Harrington said with far too much understanding. “I know how hard this must be, but it wasn’t your fault. It wasn’t you.

“You don’t fucking know me!” Billy spat. “What that – that thing told you, it was all lies. It wasn’t real – none of it!”

Billy felt tears pricking at his eyes. He angrily wiped them away on the back of his hand, pulling his knees tighter into himself, burying his hands in his hair – God, it was such a mess. Harrington stayed where he was, falling silent. He didn’t bother looking over at Steve – Harrington! – letting him stretch his two brain cells on his own for a little –

“Bullshit.”

The word caught Billy by surprise. He turned to him, some ember of anger flaring up as much as it could.

Excuse me?

“Everything you said being a lie,” Harrington said, pushing himself back against the opposite wall, leaning back casually, giving Billy an overly analytical look. “That’s bullshit. It made too much sense to me. Too much sense of you. And I’ve seen that thing before, I know what it’s like. It’s never made up such sophisticated shit before.”

Billy gave him a glare and turned back around into his corner.

“Do you want to know what I think?” Harrington asked.

“Do I get a choice?” Billy growled quietly.

I think…” Harrington began, giving no indication that he’d heard Billy, “that the Mind Flayer used you. Used your memories and your life to try and manipulate me. It tried to make us into friends, tried to create some bond between us that it could exploit. So it used your memories and your life to try and fake being you. Did a pretty convincing job, too. Stop me if I’m getting off track here.”

Billy didn’t bother responding. Harrington could think what he liked. They weren’t friends – they were never friends – they weren’t – they weren’t – they weren’t!

“So it finds me in the Upside Down,” Harrington was musing. “It starts trying to fool me, maybe work out who I am, what I’m doing there… But what I don’t get is why it took it so long to try and flay me. It must have had me alone for at least a month. Why didn’t it just kill me or flay me outright? I mean, I don’t know if you remember anything, I don’t know, is it like you’ve been asleep or something?”

“No,” Billy said before he could stop himself.

Harrington, thank God, shut up at that. Billy didn’t look at him, but he could feel Harrington’s eyes on him, watching, waiting…

“It wasn’t…” Billy began, surprising himself. His voice was barely above a whisper. “It wasn’t like I was asleep… Or like I was dreaming or some shit…”

Steve – Harrington, for fuck’s sake! – didn’t say a word. He just sat there, waiting patiently for Billy to talk.

“I was there for it all,” Billy said, his voice barely audible, but in the silence of the cell, the acoustics carried it back to Harrington. “I remember everything that happened. I had – I had control over some things. It – it wanted to kill you. It wanted to kill Karen. But it didn’t. Because I didn’t want to kill… her.”

“Karen?” Harrington asked. “As in Karen Wheeler?

“Yeah,” Billy breathed. “I was on my way to meet her when my car crashed. Turns out neither of us showed. She had some attack of the conscience, decided that a recently graduated high school senior wasn’t a substitute for a family. So when I showed up at the pool after… after everything… she tried to – to explain – and I – I felt this anger, thisthis hate… and I wanted to – to hurt her. But I didn’t. I stopped myself. And then… again… when I was in the – the Other Side or whatever you call it, and I saw you…”

-:-

July 1985, Hawkins (Upside Down)

Of course. Of all the people to be trapped here with, it would have to be Steve Harrington.

“Steve Harrington? Steve fucking Harrington? What the fuck are you doing here?”

“I saw a light,” Steve said. He was being cautious. Far too cautious.

“Yeah, no shit,” Billy rolled his eyes. “I meant here. In this place.”

“Jumped in,” Steve said. He really wasn’t letting his guard down.

Billy snorted. “What the fuck did you do that for?”

“Wasn’t exactly in love with the other options at the time.”

Billy snorted again. “Must have been some pretty shitty options then.”

Steve glared at him. “How did you end up here then, Hargrove?”

“Car crashed. Woke up here. Was probably a few days ago.”

“Is that it?

“Is what it?”

“Your car crashed, and you just… woke up here? In my experience there’s usually a little more to it than that.”

A surge of anger Billy couldn’t explain rose up in his chest. Something about the condescending tone – no, that wasn’t it, it was the fact that he knew anything about this place at all had Billy on edge. He didn’t know how Steve knew this, but it angered him for reasons he couldn’t explain.

“You have experience with this shit?”

Steve shrugged. “Yeah, a bit.”

“No shit.”

Steve was – he’d known about this. About the girl with the powers. He was a part of this. He was with them. The anger rose in his chest. He wanted to hurt Steve. Not like he’d wanted to hurt people before, not like he’d wanted to hurt Harrington at the Byers’ house – Steve had been an outlet then – no, this was deliberate. He felt some inexplicable urge for vengeance. He wanted to take that face and pummel it more than it had already been. He wanted to slam Steve against the tree, to break his already broken body and watch his life bleed from him on the floor, he wanted to –

“Impressed, Hargrove?”

There was no real reason for his anger. No reason for this. He didn’t want to hurt Steve. That other part of him was speaking louder now. No, Steve was useful. It didn’t make sense to hurt him, he didn’t want to hurt him, he didn’t know where that anger came from…

“Not exactly. Just realising you might be my best chance of getting out of here.”

Steve scowled. “Well, sorry to disappoint you, but you’re not exactly mine, so I’m going to go.”

“Wait!” Billy called. Steve couldn’t leave. Billy couldn’t go back to being alone. He wanted to stay with Steve. He had a handle on that anger now. “Look, you don’t like me, I get it. But we’re stuck here together. You can try going it alone, but we’ll have a much better chance of staying alive here if we stick together.”

Steve gave a bitter laugh. “You see, that’s where you’ve misunderstood,” he said. “I don’t not want you around because I don’t like you, I don’t want you around because you’re a fucking psycho. You nearly punched me into a coma because you didn’t like your sister’s friend-”

“She’s not my sister.” This was a far more familiar anger. One he’d held for years. Maxine wasn’t his sister. She sure as hell wasn’t his sister after that stunt she’d pulled at the mall.

“I don’t give a shit!” Steve threw his arms up. “My point is that I honestly think that having you around might one day kill me!”

The truth in Harrington’s words hit Billy like a sledgehammer. Steve was right. He’d hurt Heather because she’d gotten too close. Because she was convenient. He’d nearly hurt Karen too.

But that was before. They weren’t aware of what was going on. Steve at least had some awareness of this. He’d be careful around Billy –

Billy would need to be careful around him –

Billy had some control over his anger now –

He had to know where Steve was –

He had to know where Steve was.

“You managed to find any food yet?”

-:-

September 1985, Russia

“And you managed to stop it…” Harrington finished for him.

Billy swallowed, uncurling himself slightly. He didn’t look over at Steve though, his eyes stayed on his knees.

“Yeah,” he breathed.

“Any particular reason?” Harrington asked.

Billy shrugged. “Not really…” he said. Fuck, why did his voice sound so goddamn pathetic? “I guess… It didn’t need you. I didn’t want to hurt you. I don’t know – Harrington, I don’t fucking know!

“Okay,” Steve said calmly – shit, he’s Harrington! His name is Harrington! And for the love of – was Harrington trying to soothe him?

“Maybe that feeling of not wanting to hurt people was strong enough then. I’ve seen it happen before.”

“Then why wasn’t it strong enough to save Heather?” Billy growled. “All those people, if I could stop it from killing Karen, if I was strong enough to stop it from killing you, why couldn’t I save all those other people? Heather and her family, the reporter, there was an old lady, if I could stop it from hurting you, why the fuck couldn’t I stop it with them?

“None of this is your fault, Billy-”

Don’t call me that!” Billy snarled. It was too familiar.

Harrington fell silent. Billy turned his head over his shoulder – that half-glance girls would give in the street to make sure they weren’t being followed. Not that Billy went for that kind of thing.

“It was like…” Billy began – why the fuck was he opening up to Harrington of all people about this? “There were times when… I was more in control. Like it felt like I was the one doing things. Other times… it felt like I was doing things voluntarily. Like… like I was watching a film, or some video game that I wasn’t playing. I was trying to influence my own actions, trying to have some kind of control, but it – it wasn’t-”

“Listening?” Harrington supplied.

Billy snorted. “It was a bit more extreme than that.”

“Was it like you were on drugs or something?”

Billy shot an exasperated look over his shoulder, before turning back into himself.

No, you moron,” he said. “It was…”

Billy searched for the words to describe it. But the truth was there was no analogy, nothing he could use to relate to it.

“It was like this voice in my head,” Billy said. “Like… I was in control, almost, but it was like… it was telling me what to do. It was giving me advice. Telling me how to get what I wanted. Only… it wasn’t this voice. It felt like my own ideas, my own thoughts, my own feelings, but they… they weren’t. And I couldn’t get these ideas to go away. Like… a part of me knew that they were bad ideas. A part of me knew that they weren’t mine. But they seemed to make so much sense…

Billy ran his hands into his hair again, clenching them into fists near his scalp. He closed his eyes, taking deep, shuddering breaths as he thought of that idea that had taken root in his head – back when he had watched Harrington choking on his own blood –

No. He wasn’t going there.

“It doesn’t – it doesn’t like possessing people,” Billy said finally. He didn’t know what made him say it, he just wanted to think about something else – anything else – maybe explain to Harrington why he’d done what he had. “It only does it when it’s necessary. It didn’t have a use for you when I first saw you there. When it – when it takes over someone, it’s like… it’s like it’s opening up a part of itself to the vulnerabilities of its host.”

“The – what, sorry?” Harrington echoed.

“Its host,” Billy repeated exasperatedly. “Jesus, did you ever pay attention in biology?”

“Billy, you know that everything beyond the eighth grade went over my head.”

“Well,” Billy tried to make his voice sound like he was explaining something to a toddler. “When you’ve got a parasite or something, it likes to find a host body that’s durable. If it kills its host, it’s not a great parasite. If the host is dying, it’ll leave. That – that thing doesn’t like possessing people for no reason. Especially when the humans are in the state that you were in. They make it vulnerable.

Harrington fell silent. Billy got the impression he was in deep thought. Not that he checked – not that he cared –

“So what changed?”

Billy finally turned slightly and looked at Harrington for longer than a passing glance. “It realised how important you were.”

-:-

July 1985, Hawkins (Upside Down)

“What was that thing?” Billy gasped.

“We call it the Mind Flayer,” Steve said breathlessly.

“Catchy.”

If not a little insulting.

I didn’t name it,” Steve said indignantly. “I think the shitheads took it from that game they always play.”

“Dungeons and Dragons?”

Steve gave Billy a questioning look.

“Max talks about it a lot,” Billy explained.

Steve shrugged. “Look, with that thing around, we’ve got to be careful,” he said, sounding desperate and a little unhinged.

“Why?” Billy asked. “What’s so dangerous about it?”

“Didn’t you see that thing?”

“Yeah, but what will it do?” Billy played dumb. “Like – eat us or something?”

“No, it’s – it – like – controls people’s minds. Makes people do completely insane stuff. It wants to take over the world or something.”

Billy felt another stab of inexplicable offence that was not his own, but it didn’t matter. It wasn’t important.

“It’s what happened to Will Byers,” Steve explained. “He got caught by it last year. He ended up basically summoning an army of these monsters to Hawkins Lab which killed a load of people.”

“What?” How in the name of God did Steve know about that?

“It’s… hard to explain…”

“Try me.”

Steve looked up at him. “So – uh – you know how Will Byers went missing a couple of years ago?”

Billy raised an eyebrow. “It was before my time, but yeah – wait, was he taken by that thing?”

“No,” Steve shook his head. “Well, kind of, I don’t really know how to explain it…”

Billy waited while Steve found the right words.

“It’s like…” Steve began, running a hand over his face. “There was this monster, this – the kids called it a Demogorgon. It’s from here, and it got loose in Hawkins. There was another Gate. And anyway, this Demogorgon – it got loose, and it took Will Byers to here – the Upside Down. Only… Will Byers managed to escape it and hid around here. He couldn’t get home though. So Nancy’s brother and his friends and the Chief and Joyce Byers and Jonathan started looking for him, and they started to work little parts of it all out.”

“Okay…” That explained the kids and Jonathan, but not Steve. “So how did you get involved?”

He’d asked Steve this question once before to no avail, but Steve seemed to be being a little more forthcoming now.

“I had a party,” Steve said, looking away from Billy. “Here – in my house. It was as low-key as possible. Me, Tommy and Carol, and I invited Nancy. She brought along her friend Barb Holland.”

“Wait – the girl who died from the chemical leak?”

Steve gave him a dark look. “No, she – uh…” Steve didn’t meet his eyes. “She cut herself, and while she was cleaning herself up, the rest of us all jumped in the pool. She came back to find us going upstairs – she didn’t want Nancy going up to Steve Harrington’s room – you know, what with me being the biggest player Hawkins High has ever seen – had ever seen,” Steve corrected himself. “Anyway, we went upstairs and Barb waited or something out by the pool. Jonathan had a photo of her sitting on the edge of the pool.”

“Wait, Jonathan Byers was there?”

Steve gave a snort of laughter. “Not exactly, he was looking for Will in the woods, heard Carol screaming because Tommy was threatening to push her into the pool, came running, found us, and took a load of photos of us without us realising.”

Billy’s eyebrows shot up. He hadn’t known about that part of the story.

“You’re kidding? And you became friends with this guy?”

Steve snorted. “Not then, Hell no. At the time I threw his camera on the floor.”

“I’m not surprised, if it was me, it would have gone up his ass.”

“Anyway, one of the photos was Barb on the edge of the pool, and Nancy saw this and went to Jonathan to try and get his help. They started getting close, started to realise it was a monster and went hunting for it. I got the wrong impression, thought she was cheating on me, got really pissed off, Tommy started spray painting stuff all over the movie theatre about Nancy being a slut, I got into a fight with Jonathan, I actually – I actually said some pretty unforgivable things about him and his family…”

Steve ran a hand over his face.

“Anyway, after the fight, I just got so sick of Tommy and Carol bitching about Nancy. So I left them and realised I’d been a massive douchebag. So I went over to Jonathan’s to apologise.

“Turns out, I’d come at the worst possible time. He and Nancy were right in the middle of setting some monster trap. And while I was there, it came. It came bursting through the wall, and they tried to lead it to this bear trap, but it vanished, so they told me to go, and I did, I – I nearly did. Only – I realised it had come back. So I went back inside to help. It turned out they weren’t doing quite so well against it, the trap had gone wrong, so I picked up that bat that Max tried to crush your balls with, and knocked it into the bear trap.”

Billy felt a surge of anger rise in his chest. He didn’t realise he was breathing hard. Inexplicable anger at something he had no reason to feel was taking over him. So he’d been the one to hurt that Demogorgon, he had dared to fight that thing – dared to win…

No. He would be patient. He would find out what else he knew.

“Anyway,” Steve said, running his hand through his hair. “After that, Nancy and I talked. She explained what had happened, and that she and Jonathan weren’t hooking up behind my back, they’d just been trying to find out what had happened to Will and Barb. Turned out Barb was dead but Will was alive. And then the Chief and Joyce found Will, and it was over.

“Only it wasn’t. Not for Nancy, at least. She felt so guilty about what happened to Barb, she blamed herself. Everyone else around her was moving on, I was – I was trying to help her, to get her back to normal. It worked for a while, but Nance – she… she found out that the Hollands still thought she was alive, and she wanted to tell them what had happened. I told her that she couldn’t. Anyway, that kind of helped her realise that the ‘normal’ I’d tried to help create for her wasn’t what she’d needed. She’d just been playing along. Our whole… our whole fucking relationship was just a lie she’d told herself. And she finally told me she’d never loved me. It was all just… bullshit.”

“So she went running back to Jonathan?” Billy asked.

Steve shrugged. “Yeah. And around that time, Dustin found himself his little pet. Only it turned out… it wasn’t so friendly. It was a baby Demogorgon called Dart. And it got loose. And somehow, don’t ask me how, I’m still trying to work that out for myself, I got roped into helping Dustin deal with it. It had escaped, so we set a trap for it in the junkyard. Turned out Dustin’s pet had friends. So when they came…”

“Everything went wrong?” That foreign rage was burning within his chest. He wanted to hurt Steve, to punish him for what he’d done.

“Yeah,” Steve said. “I ended up defending the kids – your sister was there, you know…”

“She’s not my sister,” Billy corrected automatically.

Steve gave him an unimpressed look.

“So you killed them then?” Billy asked. There was a burning need to know. “These baby Demogorgons?”

Steve gave a soft laugh and shook his head. “No, they – uh – they got called away. They went to Hawkins Lab. Killed everyone in there – well, almost everyone. Hopper, Mrs Byers, Mike and Will got out alive, and so did this doctor… I think his name was Doctor Owens or something, but – we found out later Will Byers – well, the Mind Flayer, anyway – had basically called all these Demodogs-”

“Sorry, what?

Steve looked up at Billy. Billy was sure he had an utterly incredulous look on his face. Some inexplicable sense of pride felt attacked by the utterly ridiculous names Steve was coming out with.

“Dustin’s idea,” Steve gave him a small grin, as though he understood. But he didn’t. Billy had gone to great lengths to make sure that Steve wouldn’t understand.

“Anyway, we followed them to the Lab, and when Mrs Byers and Hopper and Mike came out with Will, we went back to the Byers’ place. They started trying to talk to Will. They started trying to get through to him using memories, tried to get him to talk to them. So he used Morse Code to talk to us. He told us to close the Gate.”

Billy suddenly remembered something that he was certain had never happened to him. Looking out from a chair in an unknown room, his fingers tapping nervously as he looked into Joyce Byers’ face as she talked about a rainbow ship. The Clash was playing. It was so vivid…

So that was what had happened.

“So we did. There was this girl, she had these powers. Like… superpowers. I don’t really know… She was from Hawkins Lab. Nancy, Jonathan and Mrs Byers went to get the monster out of Will-”

Billy suddenly remembered lying, tied to a bed that he had never seen before, thrashing against the bed, a red hot poker in his side.

“-Some of the kids and I went to the tunnels to set them on fire, to draw the Demodogs away from the Lab-” Steve continued.

Billy remembered a searing, burning sensation that had only seemed to exist in his mind. It was like a phantom pain from a missing limb.

“-And Hopper took this girl to the Gate to close it,” Steve finished.

He remembered seeing her in a place he’d never been before. Seeing her silhouette, so small, on a thin metal structure, hovering in the air, her hands outstretched. He remembered reaching for her, feeling her pushing him back.

And Steve had been a part of it.

“So that’s how you became the resident babysitter to a group of nerdy middle-schoolers,” Billy summarised, trying to keep the tremor of anger out of his voice.

Steve snorted with laughter. “Yeah. That’s how I ended up basically becoming a childminder.”

“You’re still close to them, though. Like… you’re still friends with them all?”

Steve shrugged. “Yeah…” he said. “When you go through shit like that together, you don’t really get much of a say. Somehow, they talked me into sneaking them into R-rated films in the mall. And they all asked me for free ice cream.”

“Wow,” Billy laughed. “Their parents must love your positive influence.”

“Hey, I’ll have you know I’m on first name terms with Mrs Byers, Mrs Henderson and Mrs Wheeler.”

He felt some urge to comment about Steve not being the only one on first name terms with Karen Wheeler, but resisted the urge. Instead, he fell silent, thinking…

So Steve knew the girl. Steve was close to them. He could use this – he wouldn’t give up Billy, not yet, Billy might still be useful, but Steve… Steve was here. The way he looked at Billy showed no small degree of trust. He’d been right to wait, to see how he’d ended up here, to see what he knew. He was glad he hadn’t killed him now. Steve could be useful.

He just needed to bring Steve under his control.

-:-

September 1985, Russia

 “I lost control then…” Billy said. “It happened… Like… I could see what I was doing… I knew what I was going to do, but I couldn’t… I couldn’t stop myself…”

It,” Steve corrected softly.

“Me, It – it was all the fucking same!” Billy slammed his hand against the wall in frustration. “Do you know what it’s like? Being a fucking passenger in your own body? To watch as it starts trying to hurt your friends, your – your fucking family?

Steve didn’t answer. Good. Anything he said would be insulting at this point.

“It was like this… this rage would take over… Like when you’re in a fight, and all you can do is keep hitting, because that’s all you know. It was like that… only worse – much worse. I didn’t want to do it, I didn’t want to try and hurt Max, but it was like… survival, you know?”

Billy was desperate for Steve to understand, to forgive him.

“I thought I was going to die if I didn’t… It was like… like being a fucking animal. You must know the feeling, you fought those monsters, I’ve seen you fight those monsters, you don’t give a shit about them because they want nothing more than to kill you.”

Steve – Harrington! Fuck, how long had he been doing that? – made a soft noise of affirmation.

“Well, it was like that with me,” Billy said. “Only… a part of me knew the people that were after me. I could see Max, and I felt like… she was going to kill me… And it was like she was betraying me… She couldn’t see me, she could only see it… And so I hurt her – and there was a part of me that regretted it straight away – but I couldn’t stop… My thoughts… they weren’t mine… They talk about all that ‘fight or flight’ bullshit, but this was…”

Billy trailed off. God, he even sounded like he was close to tears. He was not about to break down in front of Harrington.

Harrington seemed to realise that he wasn’t about to elaborate any further.

“So what happened next?” he asked. “You suggested that we go to the tunnels to get more weapons – why?

There was something in his voice that told Billy that Harrington knew exactly what had happened next, but he wanted confirmation.

Billy swallowed down the lump in his throat. “It decided to set a trap for you after it realised how close you were to that Eleven girl. It lured you into the tunnels and sent its little monsters after you. Only it underestimated you, Harrington. Didn’t realise you were quite so…”

“Hardcore?”

Competent.”

Harrington made a soft noise that sounded like an indignant huff. Billy took some small semblance of satisfaction.

“So what happened then?” Harrington asked. “Did it just stop trying for a little while?”

“No, it decided to try something different,” Billy explained. “Emotions had gotten the best of it before, and it had seemed to understand that you were getting close to me. You were… you were opening up. So it decided to try to use that against you. Use my emotions against you.”

“And that was when you told me about your mom and dad, and about you being…”

“A fucking faggot?” Billy finished when Harrington didn’t seem to have the right words. “Yeah.”

Harrington paused for a second. Billy could hear him breathing, and the rustle of his clothes as he changed positions.

“So it was real, then?” he finally asked Billy. “You are gay?”

Billy found his face screwing up in annoyed confusion. He turned and shot a look over at Harrington, who was sat watching him.

What – How is that the most important thing right now?” Billy snapped.

A slight raise of his eyebrows was the only betrayal of Steve’s sur– Harrington’s surprise.

“It’s not,” Harrington said with only a hint of defensiveness. “I’m just curious.”

“Well, it was real,” Billy snapped. “Do you want to make something of it?”

The threat hung in the air between them, but Harrington wasn’t biting. Instead, he shot Billy a withering look.

“I didn’t make anything of it before, and I’m not about to start now,” he said dismissively. “Like you said – it’s not the most important thing right now.”

“Well – good,” Billy huffed, turning back into himself, fully aware that he was sounding like a child. “It’s not like I wanted you to know. I didn’t want it telling you my fucking life story.”

Harrington had the decency to shut up at that. They fell into an uncomfortable silence, Billy curled in on himself. He glanced over at Harrington, but for once, he wasn’t looking over at Billy. He was looking at the door, seemingly lost in thought.

“You know, that’s interesting,” Harrington finally broke the silence. “It using emotions to try and get the better of me. Jonathan and Nancy’s brother and Mrs Byers did that last year. They got through to Will by bringing back old memories or something.”

Billy rolled his eyes, fairly certain Harrington couldn’t see him. “Yeah, I know, Harrington. You told me. I remember. I was there – sorry, sorry, It was there.”

“Wait,” Harrington sat up straight. “Wait, you remember that?”

Harrington pushed himself off the wall and scrambled over to Billy. Billy turned and faced him, confused.

“Yeah…” Billy said slowly. “Why the fuck would I not?

S– Harrington looked taken aback by this question. “Because… because it’s not your memory. It’s Will’s. It’s the Mind Flayer’s. If it’s not in you anymore, why would you be able to remember it?”

Billy looked at him, annoyed incredulity flooding through him. “I don’t know, Harrington, maybe because I knew it once upon a time, and I just haven’t forgotten it!”

He was yelling, and he knew it. He didn’t much care – Harrington’s stupid face was just sat there, expectantly looking at him for answers that he didn’t have, like he hadn’t been opening up to him for the last – however long it had been – about one of the most confusing and disturbing experiences of his life.

“I don’t know about any of this shit!” he snarled. “You’re the one with the experience, the – the expertise, so why the fuck don’t you tell me what’s going on?”

Harrington had the decency to back off.

“Sorry,” he muttered, and Billy took a small amount of satisfaction at the guilt he heard in his voice. “I’m just… trying to understand…”

“Yeah, well,” Billy snapped, but there was no real heat behind it, “I’ve been trying to understand for months, so…”

Harrington sat against the wall, this time positioning himself next to Billy.

“So it was playing me,” he said softly.

“Yeah,” Billy breathed. “Right up until you started dying.”

-:-

August 1985, Hawkins (Upside Down)

Steve’s head fell against his leg, asleep once more. Something in Billy’s heart clenched at the sight of blood on his lips. The feeling wasn’t from the… Other Guy, as Billy had taken to calling him. That emotion was entirely his own.

An overwhelming sense of despair seemed to overtake him at the realisation that Steve wasn’t going to survive. He knew it – by the look in his eyes before they’d fallen shut, Steve knew it too – and there was nothing either of them could do about it.

They just had to wait for it to happen.

Billy hoped it would be peaceful for him – well, at least, more peaceful than it already was. He hoped that Steve would slip away quietly in his sleep, that his breath would just stop coming. Involuntarily, Billy ran a hand through Steve’s hair. It wasn’t like it had ever been when he’d known Steve in Hawkins – the real Hawkins. It was sweat-slicked, greasy, dirt and slime matting it into clumps. The state of his hair – something Billy knew was his pride and joy – was a surprisingly accurate metaphor for the state of the man himself. He looked terrible – pale, with heavy bags under his eyes, his face looking skull-like as the skin pinched against him, hollowed out cheekbones just one illustration of just how thin he was…

Steve gave a shiver in his sleep. Billy pulled the blanket closer around him, tucking it further under his chin. He knew he needed to clear out the bucket, but Steve nestled his head further into Billy’s thigh. Billy rested his hand on Steve’s back, on top of the blanket, and started rubbing between his shoulder blades.

Tears pricked at Billy’s eyes, and he angrily wiped them away. He would never admit it to Steve, or anyone, for that matter, but in the Other Guy’s attempts to build a connection between them, to create some kind of emotional bond for it to exploit, he’d started to care for Steve. The idea of losing him… the only company he had here, the only person who he felt knew him – really knew him, courtesy of the Other Guy making him open up, the only person who’d accepted him for who he truly was – was more than Billy could bear. He didn’t want to watch him slip away, to watch him die…

His heart couldn’t take it.

Steve made a noise and rolled away from Billy, pushing the covers away. He was breathing hard, each intake of breath sounding like a death rattle, but eventually, Steve settled on his back. The new position didn’t seem to be doing much good for him – if anything, the death rattle became worse, so Billy got up and walked round to the other side of the bed. He gently angled Steve’s face towards im, crouching down on the floor beside the bed and positioning Steve so he was lying on his side.

Steve’s breathing seemed to ease slightly, the weight of whatever was blocking his lungs no longer pushing straight down on top of his airway. Billy pushed away a stray strand of hair that had fallen across Steve’s face, before bringing both hands over his own mouth and letting out a breath that was far too shaky for his liking.

There was a way to save him.

The thought that came into his head hit him like a stone. It was the Other Guy’s thought, he knew that much, but that didn’t mean that it wasn’t a good one. At least, it certainly wasn’t as bad as some of the other ideas it had put in his head.

He wouldn’t like it, but it would save him.

Steve had always viewed it as the worst-case scenario. But now… he was dying. Steve didn’t want to die, he’d made that much very clear. But here he was, drowning in his own blood. Nothing Billy could do would save him. Nothing except this.

He’d told Steve he would do whatever it took to keep him alive. If this was what that meant, then so be it.

-:-

September 1985, Russia

“When you collapsed in the woods,” Billy explained, “it wanted to back off. It wanted to wait until you got better.”

“Only I never did,” Harrington pointed out.

“Only you never did,” Billy echoed with a shrug. “It realised you were dying – I realised you were dying. There was nothing I could do to save you. But it could do something.”

“It could flay me,” Harrington finished.

Billy let out a long exhale. “Yeah.”

Harrington leaned back against the wall, running his hands through his hair as he looked up at the ceiling.

“So you took me to Starcourt,” he said, not looking at Billy. “You got it to try.”

Billy nodded. “But then you went and screwed everything up by changing your mind.”

-:-

August 1985, Hawkins (Upside Down)

Billy’s heart broke as he let the Other Guy take control, pushing Steve down onto the stone. Steve was fighting, a manic desperation in his eyes. Billy saw fear, panic and agony mixing together in those dark brown depths, begging Billy not to do this…

Billy didn’t have a choice, though. Not to do this was to let Steve die. He couldn’t do that. He wouldn’t.

The black vortex was descending onto Steve. Billy took a step back. He saw Steve twist his body, trying to get off the stone, to get off the memorial and away from the shadow. As though his body would let him.

Steve’s final struggles were not enough. The shadow descended onto him, obscuring him in darkness.

Suddenly, Billy could feel emotions that were not his own, not the Other Guy’s, assaulting his mind. He knew in that second that they were Steve’s. He’d experienced something similar before – he’d felt Heather’s fear when she had lain on the floor of that warehouse, but this was stronger, much stronger. Steve’s fear felt like it was tearing him in two. Unlike Heather, unlike Tom and Janet Holloway, Bruce Lowe, and all the rest of the people he’d done this to, Steve knew what was happening. He was resisting the influence, fighting with every fibre of his being to keep his mind his own.

A wave of despair crashed over Billy, so strong it almost had him collapsing to the floor, and he knew, he knew what it was.

Steve wanted to die.

Billy’s heart cracked. If ever there was a moment he would have tried to stop it, it would have been then. But something, some selfish will that Billy could not entirely attribute to the Other Guy stopped him. It left him there standing. Because he would not let Steve die. He could not lose him. Not now.

Suddenly, a bright orange light erupted in the eye of the black tempest around Steve. Billy felt a new kind of pain, a physical, burning pain in his leg. The pain did not belong to him. Billy didn’t have to wonder too long what was causing it. He realised – he’d left the flamethrower leaning against the stone. Steve, fully prepared and willing to die, was burning himself, maiming himself, doing what little he could to stop this.

It was agony. Billy felt the burning pain in his leg, in his mind. He heard Steve’s screams, almost in another world. The smell of burning flesh was acrid, slightly too sweet on the air, and just so very wrong to all his senses. Both to Billy and to the Other Guy.

What had Steve done?

It was too much. Steve was at the end of his tether. He was going to kill himself – he was going to die – he was fully prepared to do so –

Billy could not let Steve die.

At least he and the Other Guy were in agreement on that point.

-:-

September 1985, Russia

“I had…” Billy swallowed. “It had never felt that before.”

Harrington looked confused. “Felt what before?”

“Your – uh – your suicidal tendencies,” Billy said with a bitter laugh. “It wanted you to live. Everyone I’d – I’d encountered before had wanted to live. You… didn’t.”

Harrington looked away from Billy, looking at his knees. He wouldn’t meet Billy’s eyes, but Billy watched him. Ste– Harrington – was looking shellshocked, vulnerable…

Violated.

“How do you know that?” Harrington eventually asked, his voice no more than a raspy breath.

Billy didn’t look at Harrington. “I felt it,” he explained. “When that thing was trying to control you. I felt how scared you were. I felt it when you wanted to die… I… Steve, I felt you.

Steve looked up at him, his eyes shining with something Billy couldn’t put his finger on. Billy turned away, the feeling of guilt that had been gnawing away at him taking on a new, sharper edge.

It seemed Steve didn’t want to share, either. He looked down at his knees again, his eyes closed. He twisted his head slightly, his head bowed, turning his face towards the door with a shake, like a dog trying to rid its ears of water.

“What…” Steve’s eyes stayed tightly shut. “What happened next? …Did you make it to that Gate?”

Billy fell silent, glad Steve couldn’t see his face. A fresh stab of pain twisted into his chest.

“No,” Billy lied. “Do you think I’d be here if I had?

There were some things Steve didn’t need to know.

-:-

August 1985, Hawkins (Upside Down)

Billy knelt down beside the crack in the ground. The red light illuminated his face… It was bright, so very bright…

He could see her silhouette, her long hair falling round her face as she crouched down in a mirror image to him. Tears pricked at his eyes… It was her. It was really her…

She hadn’t given up on him. She knew he was here. She was trying to get to him…

His hand was inches from the crack. His fingertips ghosted over the thin membrane… He could see her hand do the same, just beyond the Gate… He could take her hand if he wanted to…

He wanted to.

It wanted to.

Suddenly, she was gone. Completely vanished into thin air. His hand flung out, pressing into the Gate, trying to get her, trying to catch her –

An unseen force sent him flying backwards, landing heavily on his back. His head smacked against the cold, hard ground. Colours flashed across his eyes. When they faded, he was left looking up at the trees in the dark sky, the white flakes drifting down over him, the red light of the Gate gone.

He knew then that it would not come again.

How long he lay there for, he didn’t know. He couldn’t find it in him – any part of him – to move. He stared up at the dark sky, the swirling black clouds passing above him. Hopelessness pulled him down, he was drowning in it. He had been so close to her…

And that girl had pulled them apart.

Fresh rage that was not his own tore through him. He had to get back to Steve. If Steve was still alive, then he had to use him. If he had Steve, then they could get close to the girl.

He finally forced himself to his feet. With more effort than he’d realised, he dragged his feet over the dirt.

It took him a long time – far longer than it had taken to get there – to get back to Starcourt. But when he got there, shock paralysed him at the sight that greeted him.

People. Actual living, breathing people.

They were wearing military uniforms. Dark khaki clothes were accentuated by red and yellow decorations. There were two helicopters in the parking lot. A third flew through the air above Billy’s head, away from the mall.

Billy shrank into the trees across the road. He wasn’t scared, but the idea of being discovered by a novel group of unknown people who had somehow come to be in the Upside Down was not an idea that appealed either to him or to the Other Guy. He watched, waiting…

Eventually, the soldiers moved into the mall, leaving only those in the helicopters outside. Billy slipped around the back of them, following the men at a distance as they moved inside.

His chest tightened at the sight of the streaks of blood that led out of the building.

Steve.

His suspicions were confirmed as he slipped into the foyer. Steve was no longer where Billy had left him, the only trace of his presence being the flamethrower left on the ground, and the streaks of blood over the tiles. They must have taken him somewhere –

It took Billy all of about five seconds to connect Steve’s new absence with the helicopter he had seen flying away from the mall. Rage – again, not his own – burnt bright in him. A desire to find those soldiers, to break them, to kill them –

No. That wasn’t him. He would be patient.

He slipped back out of the mall, around behind the helicopters, and back into the trees beyond the mall. He would watch. He would wait.

Perhaps these soldiers would be useful after all.

-:-

September 1985, Russia

Steve leant back against the wall, a hand running through his hair absently.

“So you didn’t make it to the Gate,” Steve said softly. “You came back and found I was gone. So… then what? How’d you end up here in this shithole?”

Billy shrugged. “After they took you, I went back to yours. Got what I needed. Decided the gun was pretty useful.”

Steve gave a soft hum at the back of his throat.

“Anyway, I watched the Russians for a little bit. They were doing – something – in the mall. I didn’t go in after trying to work out where you’d gotten to, but I’m pretty sure they were looking for something there.”

“Yeah, well,” Steve shrugged. “They built the mall in the first place, anyway.”

“Well, whatever they were doing, it wasn’t until a few days ago that they actually found me.”

Steve looked at him again. “What happened?”

Billy gave him a small smile, a shadow of the mischievous grin that had been his signature. “I decided to introduce myself.”

-:-

September 1985, Hawkins (Upside Down)

Billy stood his ground, hands raised as guns were pointing at him from all directions. Instructions were being shouted at him in a language he didn’t understand, before a heavily accented voice emerged over the din.

“Get on the ground and put your hands on your head!”

Billy turned his head towards the voice, obeying the command with a smile settling on his face.

“I don’t want to hurt you,” Billy said in words that were not his own. “I just want to talk to whoever’s in charge.”

His words were met with a certain amount of amused scepticism. Billy couldn’t blame them for it – as far as they were concerned, he was a slightly too thin teenager who looked like he’d been living in the woods for months on end. Which wasn’t far from the truth.

It also suited the Other Guy that they underestimated him.

“The person in charge is not here,” the English-speaking soldier said, still in that heavy accent. Judging by their clothes, voices, and just about everything he knew about the mall, Billy felt very safe in assuming that these were Russians.

“Where are they?” Billy asked.

“Far away,” the soldier said. “But do not worry. You will see him soon enough.”

A barked order in Russian had hands grabbing Billy’s own. The Other Guy suffered Billy’s wrists to be tied behind his back, even quelling Billy’s own protests. He found himself being led towards one of the helicopters before a soft prick in the side of his neck sent the world spinning.

He never passed out – the Other Guy would not allow it – but the world passed by in a haze. The helicopter was traded for a black jet at an airfield after what Billy guessed was about an hour in the air. The jet did not have the luxury of windows, so when Billy was finally allowed out what felt like hours later, he had no idea where he was.

It looked cold – sterile, even. The landing strip gave way to a barren landscape, the only feature the large concrete building that looked like it could withstand a mild to moderate nuclear blast. Perhaps that was the point.

Billy could feel it. He could feel himself drawing close to something – something powerful. His heart started beating harder as he walked inside, through the large doors and into the room…

His breath left his body at the sight before him. The huge red Gate loomed above him. The charred remnants of a machine directly in line with the wall stood there – a machine far too small to create the Gate that was carved into the wall before him.

He did not need the soldiers guiding him towards the Gate – both he and the Other Guy were in agreement about it – they wanted nothing more than to go through. He was going back…

The first step he took into the enormous room was pronounced by several shouts. The light was almost blinding – Billy took in the sight of a machine, almost identical to the one on the other side of the Gate, but bigger, much bigger, sending a jet of light straight at the wall.

The machine must have been how the Russians had opened the Gate.

Once more, guns were drawn on him, voices bellowed commands that he did not understand. Out of the darkness, a man came running down a set of metal stairs from a gallery at the other end of the room. The people all around parted on all sides to let him through.

The soldier who’d spoken English to Billy earlier explained something to the man before him. The man looked past the soldier at Billy, interest clearly piqued.

“Who are you?” the man said. Billy had no doubt that this was the man in charge.

“My name is Billy Hargrove,” he said softly. “I’m looking for a way back to Hawkins – this world’s Hawkins. I think we might be able to help each other.”

The man in charge laughed humourlessly. “And how could you possibly help me?”

Billy gave him a cocky smile. “Well, I can help you travel through that place without too much trouble,” he said. “I also know a bit about the Gate, and about the people that stopped your first attempt at infiltrating Hawkins.”

The man’s face kept a carefully schooled expression.

“Is that it?” he asked, his tone dubious.

“No,” Billy said softly, his words very much not his own. “Most importantly, I know what it is that Steve Harrington knows. And I know how to make him talk.”

-:-

September 1985, Russia

“I made a deal with them,” Billy explained. “I offered to help them. Turns out that the Russians and that thing want a lot of the same things. They want to get to Hawkins. It wants to get to Hawkins. And, honestly, I don’t know about you, but I want to get to Hawkins.”

Steve made a soft noise at the back of his throat that sounded slightly sceptical. Billy felt a sense of frustration snap in him.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake, Harrington, swallow your fucking pride,” Billy snapped with an eyeroll. “You can take your stupid noble attitude and choose to die on this hill if you really want, but they will kill you. They’ll get everything they want out of you, just like they did yesterday, just like they did earlier.”

-:-

“How can she open Gates?” Ozerov said.

Billy saw Steve look at him, fear and confusion in his eyes. Some part of Billy, some part of the Other Guy realised that he didn’t want Steve to tell the Russians the details of the girl. It was a risk to open her up to other humans. But Billy – the Other Guy – needed to know what Steve knew.

“I don’t… I don’t know…” Steve stammered breathlessly.

Billy felt a strange, overwhelming sense of relief at Steve’s denial, but it was short-lived, dying with Ozerov’s next words.

“Very well, then. If you wish to do it that way…”

-:-

Or,” Billy continued, “you could decide not to be a martyr, and help these Commie bastards long enough to get home. It would save you a lot of pain.”

Steve met Billy’s anger with his own. “Well, I’m sorry, but I don’t think I can do that,” he snapped. “My friends have gone through too much for me to just… roll over and become the Soviets’ pet. I’m not going to turn on them like that.”

“Steve, for fuck’s sake… you wouldn’t be turning on them. You’d be surviving. They already think you’re dead. They left you to go through all this shit alone. They don’t deserve your loyalty.”

-:-

“Wait – no-”

Billy’s heart clenched at Steve’s desperate protests. The Other Guy wouldn’t let him move – wouldn’t let him keep anything other than the impassive, stony expression as he stood there watching, but Billy wanted to do something. His heart felt like it was cracking as he watched Steve beg for his freedom as the two soldiers tied him down onto that bench.

-:-

“You don’t know anything about it!” Steve snapped. “I told them to leave me. I thought I was going to die. I went through that Gate as a last resort, and if they knew-

“You really believe that, don’t you?” Billy said, the heat gone from his voice. “You believe they’d come for you. You believe they’d help you.”

-:-

“Please – wait – I don’t know-”

“I asked you to tell me the truth, Butterscotch,” Ozerov said.

“Please…” Steve’s head snapped towards Billy. “Billy! Please – tell them I don’t know – tell them I don’t know!”

The Other Guy stayed silent. Billy’s heart felt like it was cracking. He’d done this. He’d put Steve in this position – no longer a prisoner, now directly in the crosshairs. There was nothing he could do – his body wouldn’t obey him. The Other Guy was too desperate for information.

He watched as the Russian soldiers filled up the cup of water – it was little more than a pint glass…

“How can she open Gates?” Ozerov asked one more time.

The water was right above Steve’s head, obscured by that cloth –

“NO! Wait! She has powers!”

-:-

Steve buried his hands in his hair, pulling close to the scalp.

“I have to,” he breathed, so quietly Billy almost missed it. “I screwed up. I can’t screw up anymore. I have to fix it.”

Billy let out a long exhale, pressing himself back against the wall, tilting his head up.

“Yeah, well, you’re not the only one,” he sighed. “But we can’t fix it if we’re dead.”

Steve sighed. He leant his head back. Billy looked at him, surprised to see him fighting back tears.

“It wasn’t your fault,” Billy said at last, hoping to keep his tone neutral. “You did what you had to do.”

Steve breathed out, not looking at Billy.

“I guess,” he said. “Shit happens and you deal with it, huh?”

Billy shrugged. “Maybe,” he muttered. “But I prefer not letting shit happen.”

-:-

Ozerov’s excitement at the discovery of a weaponizable girl was only partially marred by his anger at Billy.

“You knew,” Ozerov said, glaring at him. “You knew all this about the girl.”

Billy felt the Other Guy’s anger roar inside him. “Yeah.”

“You should not have kept this from us,” Ozerov snarled. “If we are to work together to find this girl, we cannot keep secrets.”

“Please… Please don’t hurt her…”

Steve’s pathetic begging for her life, as though the damage could be undone by such a simple request, interrupted them both, causing both Ozerov and Billy to look over at him.

“Do not worry, Butterscotch,” Ozerov said softly. “I have no intention of hurting her. She is far too valuable to kill.”

Billy’s head snapped up. This was what he’d been afraid of – why he hadn’t told the Russians himself.

“She can’t be left alive,” he said incredulously.

Ozerov turned back to Billy, with that infuriating, arrogant smirk still in place.

“Why not?” he asked. “She is useful. You Americans have succeeded in creating a… superpower?”

“Colonel Ozerov…” Steve cut in warningly. “Don’t…”

Billy ignored him. More importantly, so did Ozerov. So arrogant…

“She’s dangerous,” Billy said. “We find her, and we kill her.”

Ozerov laughed arrogantly. “Why do we have to kill her?” he chuckled. “Yes, she is dangerous, but she is dangerous to them, also. Butterscotch will help us find her, and he will help us control her.”

This man was a fool. A dangerous fool who could not be allowed to put him in danger.

“You can’t control her,” Billy growled, stepping towards Ozerov. “You can’t control him, either. I tried. Now, he isn’t a threat, but her… you can’t imagine what she could do.”

Ozerov laughed.

“Ozerov, I’m telling you, don’t-” Steve started, but was sent doubling over by one of the soldiers punching him in the stomach.

“There is more than one way to control a man,” Ozerov said, and the arrogance grated on Billy’s eardrums. This man was dangerous, reckless. He had no idea what he was messing with.

“We can use her,” Ozerov said. “She can help us take down the government that left you to die. And maybe we can work out what makes her so special. Maybe we can try to recreate it – make others of our own-”

It was too much. Billy grabbed Ozerov by the throat, pushing him against the wall, holding him in the air.

“Stop!”

“Dostatochno!”

“Otpusti yego!”

My tebya ub'yem!”

Billy glanced sideways at the soldiers. They both had their guns drawn. The bullets would kill him if they hit him – this body would only survive so much. But Ozerov… if he had control of Ozerov, then he had control of the Russian base. He could order the extermination of the girl if he wanted. Ozerov had power. Power that, in his hands, could be unstoppable.

Ozerov’s lips were still moving, finally managing to choke out a single command.

“Ubey yego!” Ozerov gasped.

The guns cocked – Steve tried to pull himself back out of the way –

“Sorry, Colonel,” he hissed.

Billy was of no use to him now.

-:-

Steve ran a hand over his face. “The Mind Flayer’s in control of Ozerov,” he summarised.

Billy tilted his head in acquiescence. “Yep,” he said. “The Mind Flayer’s in control of the Russians.”

Steve let out a defeated groan, slumping down the wall. Billy looked over at him.

“We can stop it, though,” Billy said.

Steve looked up at him curiously.

“We can pretend to be their little pets,” Billy explained. “Do what they ask. Work out what they’re doing. And then… we screw it up.”

Steve’s eyebrows shot up. “Don’t let shit happen, huh?”

“We don’t let shit happen,” Billy repeated, offering Steve his hand for him to take. “We might even be able to get home.”

Steve took his hand, pushing himself into a slightly more respectable sitting position. Billy felt a strangely warm feeling wash over him, and he smiled at Steve –

Harrington! Jesus, how long had he been doing that? –

No.

His name was Steve.

Chapter Text

By the time Steve opened his eyes, Billy had broken his thumbnail.

He hadn’t been entirely aware of drifting off, but a hiss of pain that hadn’t come from him brought him jolting back to reality. His eyes snapped open to Billy gasping, clutching his hand.

“What happened?” Steve asked, scrambling to his feet.

“I was-” Billy hissed in a sharp intake of breath, not looking at Steve. “Doesn’t matter…”

Steve raised an eyebrow, taking in Billy turning his back and holding his right hand in his left. A trickle of red was dripping down his fist.

“Is that blood?” Steve asked, incredulous.

Billy completely ignored him, turning his head up to the ceiling, his face screwed up in concentration.

“Here,” Steve said, stretching out his hand towards Billy. “Let me see.”

Billy gave him a guarded look before offering out his right hand. Steve took it, looking down at the tip of Billy’s bloody thumb. He grabbed the corner of the shirt sleeve and started to wipe away the blood.

“Sure they’re okay with you ruining that uniform?” Billy breathed in an attempt at humour.

Steve shrugged, his downturned face hiding a smile. “What are they going to do, wash it for me?”

Steve glanced up at Billy, giving him a glimpse of his smile before turning back to Billy’s thumb. His facial expression changed from one of amusement to a wince as he saw what had happened.

The thumbnail had cracked down the centre, straight through the nail and down to the bed. Blood was coming up through the crack, spilling over his thumb and down his hand. Steve couldn’t hold it against Billy for his pained gasps, his ragged breathing and the deep lines of agony etching themselves around his eyes. Steve was vividly reminded of his own experience with maimed fingernails.

Jesus, Billy, what happened?

Billy still wasn’t meeting his eyes. “Doesn’t matter,” he muttered.

“Uh – yeah, it does-

“No, Steve, it doesn’t,” Billy insisted. “It was… it was stupid.”

Steve shot Billy an unimpressed look, which was met by an equally determined defensive look. A silent battle of wills occurred in that long stare, neither one of them willing to back down.

Billy cracked first, a hiss of pain coming with a slight tremor of his hand that sent a small trickle of blood sideways, pulling ever so slightly at the nail. Steve looked away just long enough to grab the corner of his sleeve again and wrap it around Billy’s thumb, pressing tightly down on the injury. Billy let out a fresh noise of annoyance before Steve looked back up at Billy’s face with that same unimpressed expression, patiently waiting until Billy’s grimace smoothed out into a less agonized, but defeated, look.

“I was trying to scratch something into the wall,” Billy admitted quietly.

Steve’s eyebrows shot up. “With your fingernail?

No, Steve, with my asshole.”

Steve frowned at Billy, concerned. “What was so important it needed scratching into the wall?

“It really doesn’t matter,” Billy huffed, looking anywhere in the room but at Steve.

“It mattered enough to you to break your own fingernail, Billy.”

Billy glared at Steve, but was met with an equally annoyed glare. He held his gaze for a second before yielding, turning around to look at the door with a sigh.

“I was trying to…” Billy swallowed, his eyes falling to the floor, embarrassment colouring his cheeks. “I was trying to keep count of the days.”

His voice dropped, and he didn’t look at Steve. He could feel Steve watching him, staring at what little of Billy’s face he could see.

What?” Steve breathed at last.

“It’s stupid, I know,” Billy sighed, turning to look at the other side of the cell. “But… I don’t know how long we were… we were in the Other Way Up-”

“Upside Down,” Steve corrected softly.

Whatever,” Billy snapped. “The point is I don’t know how long we spent there. I don’t know how long I spent there after the Russians got you. It could have been weeks, months, years even… And we wouldn’t know. So I… I wanted to start keeping track of how long we’d spent here. Just so… So we’d have some idea.”

He chanced a glance at Steve out of the corner of his eye. Steve wasn’t looking at Billy, head still turned down at Billy’s hand clasped in both his own. He was fully prepared to have imagined the slight tightening of Steve’s grip, something that felt almost reassuring.

“I get it, Billy,” Steve finally said quietly. There was far too much understanding and sympathy in his voice for Billy’s liking. “But you don’t need to maim yourself. This isn’t the movies; shit like that hurts. Believe me, I know.”

Steve rubbed the middle and fourth finger of his left hand over Billy’s wrist, the gentle touch feeling like a brand on Billy’s skin. Billy’s eyes shot down to his fingers, seeing the strange, scarred stubs that had once been where Steve’s fingernails were. He thought he could see the beginnings of new nails finally growing; rough, torn edges barely poking out of the nail bed.

“I’m sorry,” Billy breathed.

Steve looked up at him, eyes shining with incredulous amusement. “What the hell are you apologising to me for?”

Billy shrugged. “I don’t…”

He trailed off at Steve’s unimpressed look, but there was a glint of affection in his eyes this time. Billy tried to give him an equally annoyed look but was pretty sure he’d failed when Steve’s expression started to crack into one of barely suppressed amusement. Left with little other option, Billy pulled his thumb out of Steve’s sleeve before turning around and walking towards the wall. He ran his thumb down the wall, leaving a small line of blood as a mark that absorbed itself into the concrete. The movement sent ripples of pain through his finger, which he tried to suppress behind an attempt at his trademark grin as he turned back to Steve.

“There you go,” he said. “I made a mark.”

Steve’s amused lack of awe was expressed in a grin and a dubious eyebrow rising towards his hairline.

“Feel better?” Steve asked.

Billy’s grin broke as a fresh wave of pain coursed through his thumb. He let out a small hiss as he tried to breathe through it. Steve didn’t bother asking as he took Billy’s hand in his own again and wrapped the corner of his sleeve back around it.

God, Hargrove,” he sighed exasperatedly, with a barely concealed undertone of affection. “I thought I was meant to be the idiot.”

-:-

Dustin opted to bike to school that morning.

He was painfully aware that this wasn’t going to be a good day. He’d gone back to Weathertop after skipping Chemistry, spending most of the afternoon watching the sun sinking lower in the sky while he waited for Suzie to get home from school. Unfortunately, before that happened, the radio had exploded with various calls from Mike, Lucas and Will asking where he was. He hadn’t answered any of them, turning the radio off until his watch had told him it was five o’clock.

It had been surprisingly peaceful, the early fall breeze gently wafting the long grass around him. In a different time, he would have imagined that he would have been happy sat there, watching the sun start to set over Hawkins. Instead, he’d just felt numb, relishing in not having to listen to Mike or Lucas lamenting whatever problems they thought they had that day.

Still, he knew Mike, Lucas and Will well enough to know that they weren’t going to leave it alone. And he was proven right as soon as he went to his locker that morning.

“Hey,” Lucas pushed his locker door fully open, his eyes flashing dangerously. “What the hell, man?”

Dustin buried his face further into his locker, extracting his calculus book from the back. His locker was a mess, but he didn’t care. He rolled his eyes at Lucas’ comment before finally straightening up to look at them.

“Dude, I don’t know what’s going on with you, but-”

“Sorry, you don’t?” Dustin snapped incredulously, cutting off Lucas. “Let’s see… It could have something to do with your ex-girlfriends risking everything we’ve spent the last few years trying to stop, and all I ever hear from you guys is how sad you are that it all ended.”

“Dustin, I get why you’re mad,” Will cut in. “But it’s… It’s not just been since we saw Max and El. We barely saw you over the summer. You disappeared down into that Russian base, and then you disappeared afterwards. We wanted to help you, but you weren’t talking to us. And now school’s started, and you’re angry, you’re being… really nasty about Max every chance you get, you’re skipping class… It’s not you, Dustin.”

“Yeah,” Mike said. “We’re worried about you, man.”

“We want to help you,” Lucas said. “But last night, after school… we were calling you on every channel, but you weren’t answering. We can’t help you if you don’t let us.”

“Well, there you have it,” Dustin said, tilting his head slightly. “Don’t help me.”

He turned to leave. His anger was mounting. None of them understood. None of them had made any effort to understand. He didn’t need their help, and he didn’t want them to try. He didn’t want them to try and offer empty words of reassurance to him. He didn’t want to find himself dragged back into their relationship drama just to sit and listen to them mope over two girls Dustin could no longer stand the sight of.

“Dustin!”

Will’s voice tore at the edge of his awareness. A soft hand on his arm stopped him from taking another step. He turned around to face him. Mike and Lucas were a couple of feet away, watching them, sympathy in their eyes, but for once in their lives choosing not to fill every waking second with the sound of their own voices.

“I’m not going to pretend that I knew what Steve was to you,” Will said softly. “I can guess, but… Look, I can see how hard you’re taking this. But there are people who can help – who want to help. Like… not just us. Not just your friends. There are professionals. I know it sounds like bullshit, but after everything that happened the last couple of years… I know. Me, Mom, Jonathan… we all went and saw shrinks last year. And it helped. Just… I know you can’t do this on your own. It’s not healthy. So just… try asking for help.”

Dustin forced a smile at Will.

“Thanks, Byers,” he said. “But I’ve got all the help I need.”

He turned away from Will and started to walk to class. He determinedly spent the rest of the day trying not to think about how Will’s face had fallen at his words.

-:-

“So what exactly are we supposed to be doing?” Billy asked Steve quietly.

They were in the workshop. Billy’s new dark uniform sat around his shoulders uncomfortably as he and Steve crouched over the instructions. Steve was holding up a page, squinting at it.

“Just…” Steve breathed. “Try to look busy.”

“Busy doing what?

Steve sighed, holding up the instructions in front of them before turning to Billy.

“We’re meant to be building this,” Steve explained in a whisper. “I don’t know how we’re meant to be building this, because all the instructions are in Russian, but someone was nice enough to write down the alphabet for me.”

“Who’s this someone?” Billy whispered back. “They can help us, can’t they?”

“No,” Steve breathed, looking down at the floor. “No, they were… the Russians shot him.”

Billy saw Steve’s eyes flick to something over Billy’s shoulder. He threw a quick glance behind him to catch a glimpse of a large blood stain splattered over the wall.

“It doesn’t matter,” Steve said softly in a tone that didn’t convince Billy at all. “We just need to work out what it says. There are some words that are basically the same in Russian as in English. And then there are little diagrams that are pretty helpful.”

Billy nodded slightly. “And what exactly is this thing that we’re building?”

Steve’s eyes widened as he looked down at the instructions again. “Good question,” he said softly. “I… don’t really know, but I think it’s probably some part of those machines that they’re using to open the Gate.”

“They’ve already opened the Gate, Steve.”

“Well, why don’t you go and ask the Russians what we’re doing, then?”

Billy rolled his eyes before looking back at the