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lovers in a dangerous time

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Funny, Steve thinks, how the adrenaline hasn’t faded yet.

This isn’t his first time facing down monsters—hell, isn’t his second, isn’t even his third if you count last November as two separate incidents. But he doesn’t remember being so jittery then. He’d gone home both times and collapsed instantly into a deep, dreamless sleep, somehow too exhausted for fear or pain or nightmares or any thought at all, really, that could possibly keep him awake.

Now, though, he’s so restless that he’s shrugged off the blanket someone had draped over his shoulders and stood up from the back of the ambulance he was sitting in. The idea of sitting still is laughable, even though the rational part of him knows that he should be exhausted after everything that just happened. He needs to be doing something, he thinks—running or fighting or at the very least taking care of someone. But there isn’t anything left to do. It’s over. It’s all over, and all the kids are okay, and so are Robin and Nancy and Jonathan.

He looks around the parking lot, cataloging everyone in it again even though none of them have moved since he last checked that they were all still there. Dustin and Erica are on their way back, some military guy having gone to pick them up. And there’s Robin sitting on a stretcher next to Max, Lucas holding Max’s hand; Mike with his arm around El’s shoulders in an ambulance; Will perched on the edge of another. Nancy and Jonathan are in that one, too, Nancy’s head resting on Jonathan’s shoulder while he rubs a hand up and down her arms as if to keep her warm. Then, as Steve watches, Jonathan turns his head and sees him. He smiles a little—a tired smile, closer to a grimace really, but a smile nonetheless. Nancy, sensing his movement, lifts her head. When she sees Steve, she smiles at him too. 

He starts toward them. He isn’t sure what he wants to say, exactly—thank you? I’m sorry? He doesn’t know what he’d be thanking them for, or why he’s sorry, but the urge to say something to them is inexplicably strong. They were the people who’d first dragged him into this whole monster-fighting mess, after all. 

But before he can get to them, Will launches himself off the back of the ambulance and starts running—towards his mother, Steve realizes as he turns to watch him go. He can’t help but smile at the sight of Mrs. Byers and Will colliding, gripping each other so tightly that it must be painful. Thank God no one had to lose a parent today. Thank God they’ve all made it through. 

“Wait,” he hears behind him. He looks back at Nancy. She’s sitting up now, staring at Mrs. Byers and then past her, her eyes widening. “Where’s—”

Shit,” Jonathan mumbles. “Oh, no, oh…oh, shit.”

“What—” Steve starts to say, and then he sees El, stopped in her tracks halfway between the ambulance and Mrs. Byers, and he realizes. All his elation at everyone having survived is gone suddenly, replaced by a leaden weight in his stomach. His lungs feel tight, like they’re shriveling up in his chest. “Oh my god,” he whispers. He feels off-balance, unsteady. He hadn’t known Hopper, not really; he’d never been close to him the way Mrs. Byers and some of the kids seemed to be, but the idea of him being dead is unthinkable. He was always so solid, so steady, so there

Jonathan has gotten out of the ambulance, he realizes, and started towards his family. Steve watches numbly as El sinks to her knees and Mrs. Byers goes to her, puts her arms around her while Jonathan pulls Will close to him.

“She’s lost so much.”

Steve jumps a little, not having noticed Nancy standing up and moving so close to him. She speaks so softly, sounds so genuinely grieved, and he can’t help the lump that springs to his throat. After everything they’ve all been through, after everything El has been through… “Yeah.” He doesn’t know what else to say.

They both go quiet, watching the scene that’s unfolding around El—Mike has run to her now and is hugging her from behind so that she’s crushed between him and Mrs. Byers. Steve can hear her sobs from where he stands.

“I should go,” says Nancy eventually. He glances back over at her to see her gazing across the parking lot in the other direction. “My parents are here. I should probably go talk to them.” She sounds resigned, exhausted, and Steve knows that she’s already running over the story in her mind, trying to sort out which details she can tell her parents and which she can’t. Then she looks up at him. “Hey—thanks.”

That catches him off guard. “For what?”

“For, you know, protecting the kids. Again.”

“Mike was with you the whole time,” he reminds her, “not me.”

“Yeah, well.” She looks down at her feet, scuffing one toe awkwardly on the pavement, then back up at him. “Thanks for…the thing with the car. That was…that was really cool.”

For a moment, he just stares at her, unsure what she’s talking about. Then he remembers—he’d been willing to die in a fiery car wreck for Nancy tonight, hadn’t he? He doesn’t even remember the moment when he’d decided to do that. When he’d seen Billy speeding toward her, it had just been instinct to do anything to stop him. Second nature. So much so that, until she brought it up again just now, he’d quite literally forgotten about it.

He isn’t sure what that says about him, that he was so ready to die for his ex-girlfriend.

“Anyway—”

“Yeah, yeah—yeah, go find your parents. Take care, Nancy.”

She gives him a small, sad smile. “Yeah,” she says. “Yeah, you too, Steve.”

He watches as she goes to her parents, watches Mrs. Wheeler wrap her in a hug. Looking around the parking lot, he sees everyone else in more or less the same positions, either with their parents or each other—there’s Robin and a woman who must be her mother; there’s Lucas’s parents, both holding him tightly; even El, though he certainly doesn’t envy her in the least, has two people wrapped protectively around her.

Steve wishes, suddenly, pathetically, that he had someone to do that for him. Not his parents; they never made anything better, not really, with their detached expressions and sophisticated voices and stiff, unhuggable frames. And not any of the kids; they’re too young to be the ones comforting him instead of the other way around. But someone. 

Nancy would have done that for him, he thinks. Not now, of course. Not anymore. But once upon a time, not even a full year ago, Nancy would have wrapped her arms around him from behind and pressed chaste, comforting kisses to the base of his neck. Nancy, who had shown up at just the right moment today, just when Steve and Robin and Dustin and Erica were all about to get killed. Nancy, who had been battered and bruised already from whatever had happened earlier, and yet hadn’t hesitated when the time came to fight again. Nancy, who had still looked beautiful while doing it.

He’d meant it, earlier, when he told Robin that he wasn’t still in love with her. Because he isn’t in love with her, hasn’t been for months now. He hardy even sees her anymore. But all the same, seeing her tonight had flooded him with a familiar warmth, with that feeling of safety and security and rightness even in the middle of all the violence and terror. And right now, he craves her embrace so badly that it feels like a physical ache.

It occurs to him that it’s absolutely ridiculous that this is what his mind is stuck on right now, even as he’s still standing in this smoldering parking lot. He almost died, for fuck’s sake, in a secret Russian base where no one would ever have found him or known what had happened to him. Robin almost died, and the kids and Jonathan and Nancy herself, and Hopper did die, and here he is fantasizing about a hug from his ex-girlfriend. 

He sighs heavily to himself, exhausted. He can’t remember ever wanting to sleep so badly, all of the restlessness suddenly gone. Maybe, he thinks as he lets himself lean back against one of the ambulances, maybe this whole Nancy thing is just his head messing with him, a product of stress and fear and not having slept in literally days. Maybe it’s just because he’s tired and traumatized and wants to be coddled a little bit. Or maybe he’s just falling back into old habits, because he’s used to being in love with Nancy when all the monster shit is going down. Yes, he rationalizes, that must be it. He isn’t in love with her. He loves her, sure, but there’s no way he’s actually in love with her.

After all, he thinks, glancing again at Jonathan, who is still holding onto his little brother—after all, seeing her with Jonathan today, he hadn’t felt anything but warmth towards both of them.

 

 

Robin and Dustin are at his door the next day.

Both of them are looking at him expectantly, and a little impatiently, maybe, and he looks between them in confusion. “Hi?” he says. “What are you doing here?”

“Checking on you,” says Dustin, the obviously unspoken but unmistakeable. “You just, like, ran off last night, man. How did you even get home?”

Steve is pretty sure Dustin already knows the answer to that question, and he’s pretty sure it’s the reason Dustin seems so annoyed, but he also knows that Dustin isn’t going to stop glaring at him until he responds. “I, uh. Walked.”

Dustin levels a stern finger at him, as if he’s his mother and not a fourteen-year-old kid. “You should have at least let someone drive you home, asshole,” he says. “What if you’d just, I don’t know, died from slow-acting Russian poison or something somewhere in the middle of the woods?”

Instinctively, Steve opens his mouth to protest, but then shuts it again, because the little shit does have a point. Walking home last night was stupid. Now, after a few hours of sleep, with the adrenaline having finally drained out of him and every part of his body throbbing, that seems obvious. But last night, not having his car keys and most of the kids already having gone home, it had seemed easier to just slip away unnoticed than to bug a fourteen-year-old kid’s parents fora ride home. It’s possible, he realizes, that he was a bit more in shock last night than he had thought, a bit less clearheaded. So he just says, “Sorry, man. You’re right.”

Dustin blinks at him, clearly taken aback by Steve’s lack of argument. The kid probably had a whole lecture planned out, Steve thinks with amusement, and he wonders if he maybe should have been a little less compliant so that he’d have a chance to deliver it. But then his head gives a vicious throb and he tries to lean against the doorframe in a way that makes him look casual and not at all like he’s in pain.

He redirects his attention to Robin. “And how are you doing, newest member of the monster-fighting club?”

Robin shudders a little, looking like she isn’t quite ready to joke about it, which Steve supposes is fair. He’s had almost two years to get used to this new world where monsters exist, and she’s had less than twenty-four hours. “I’m fine,” she says unconvincingly. When Steve narrows his eyes at her, she repeats it more snappily: “I’m fine.

She isn’t, obviously, but before Steve has a chance to call her on it, Dustin speaks again.

“So…” he says, peering around Steve into the house. “Can we come in or what? You’re not being a very good host.”

“Didn’t we just spend, like, ten hours trapped in a Russian elevator together?” Steve asks, but there’s no real irritation in it, and even as he says it he’s moving back to let Dustin and Robin through. Truth be told, he’s glad to see them, glad not to be knocking around in this big empty house alone. He shuts the door behind them. “What more do you want from me?”

“We want you to watch a movie with us.”

It’s such an ordinary thing, so weirdly mundane after yesterday, and the conviction with which Dustin says it startles a laugh out of Steve. “A movie?”

“Yeah,” says Dustin. He looks a little shy, suddenly, almost embarrassed. It isn’t a look Steve has seen on him very often. “I just wanted to, to do something, you know…”

“Something normal,” Robin supplies when he trails off. Steve meets her gaze over the top of Dustin’s head. She’s looking at him with that unnervingly direct expression of hers, but there’s something new in it, something a little bit haunted and a little bit hardened and a little bit vulnerable, too.

And fuck if he would ever deny them anything, this kid who he’s risked his life to protect multiple times now and his weird annoying brilliant coworker, especially after all the fresh trauma of the past few days. So he flashes Robin an easy smile and then turns the same expression to Dustin, and says, “Yeah, we can watch a movie. Anything particular in mind?”

“Star Wars,” Dustin says immediately.

“I don’t have Star Wars,” Steve says. He feels guilty about that, but only a little bit, because he isn’t a nerd. The kids haven’t ruined him that badly yet.

Dustin rolls his eyes. “Obviously, because you don’t have any taste, but lucky for you, I have it and I just happen to have brought it with me.” He plops down on Steve’s couch, then unzips his backpack to pull out a VHS tape with a tattered cover. “Here you go,” he says, presenting it to Steve as if it’s some kind of sacred and impressive object. “Return of the Jedi.”

“Dude, that’s, like, objectively the worst one,” says Robin, but she’s laughing. Steve is laughing, too. Of course the little shit had come already armed with the movie he wanted to watch.

“Erica too cool for us now that we’ve escaped captivity?” Steve asks as Dustin shoves the tape into the VCR. 

Dustin scoffs. “I’m sure she thinks so. But really, you think her parents were going to let her out of their sight today? To go hang out with the same teenagers who just got her kidnapped by Russians?”

“They don’t know about the Russians,” Steve points out, but still, Dustin has a point. Really, he’s not sure how Dustin himself managed to escape from his own mother this morning.

Dustin settles back onto the couch between Steve and Robin, making himself comfortable. It’s obvious he’s seen this movie about a thousand times before because he won’t stop talking, narrating everything the characters are doing as if Steve is both blind and deaf and has no ability of his own to figure out what’s going on. Robin interjects occasionally with commentary of her own and Steve ends up ignoring the movie entirely, content to just let their voices, so animated and alive, wash over him like a palpable sense of relief. Eventually their chatting tapers off, and about an hour into the movie, Steve realizes that Dustin has dozed off, his head drooping onto Steve’s shoulder. This should be weird, he thinks, having a kid asleep on him while Return of the Jedi plays in the background. But it isn’t weird at all. Instead, Steve just finds himself feeling disgustingly fond.

“Steve?” says Robin after a long time. The movie seems like it’s nearing some kind of conclusion. “Why did you walk home alone last night?”

The question makes his heart feel a little weird. “I don’t know. It just seemed like the thing to do, you know?”

Out of the corner of his eye, he can see her turn to look up at him. “What do you mean?”

“What do you mean, what do I mean?” He’s keeping his eyes carefully fixed to the television. “The kids had each other, and their parents when they showed up, and you had your parents when they showed up, and Mrs. Byers was so busy with everything, with what happened to Hopper, and she had to take care of El, and Nancy and Jonathan—” he swallows hard, the names sticking in his throat for some reason— “Nancy and Jonathan had each other, so, you know. I didn’t want to bother anyone. And I didn’t really think anyone would notice I left, honestly.” 

Robin is silent for awhile before she answers. Then she says quietly, “I noticed.”

Steve isn’t sure what to say to that, and he also isn’t sure why it makes his heart go all soft, or why it makes him feel almost dangerously close to weeping suddenly. “Thanks, Robin,” he says, and lightly bumps his shoulder against hers.

 

 

He drives Dustin and Robin home around six, tossing both of their bikes in his trunk. Hawkins is safe now, supposedly, and it’s not that he doesn’t trust them, but he can’t help but feel a little uneasy about the idea of them biking around by themselves.

“Alright, Henderson,” he says as he pulls up in front of Dustin’s house. He cranes his neck to look at him in the rearview mirror. “I’ll see you soon, okay?”

Dustin salutes at him for some reason, and opens the door. Before he can slide out, though, Steve stops him.

“Call if you need anything,” he tells Dustin firmly. “Seriously.”

Dustin looks a little confused at that. “Yeah, I know,” he says, and of course he does. He never stops calling Steve when he needs something—usually just useless girl advice or a ride to the arcade because that’s all Steve is really good for, but still. He hasn’t stopped feeling oddly tender toward the kid all afternoon, and he doesn’t think it’s too irrational of him to be feeling a little extra protective today.

He smiles. “Yeah, I know you know.” And then, when Dustin lingers in the backseat, still looking at Steve a little funny: “Now get out of my car, shitbird, I have things to do.”

He waits while Dustin heaves his bike out of the trunk, and then lingers in the driveway, watching Dustin to make sure he gets into the house okay. Robin is watching him too, gazing out the window with an unreadable expression. She’s been quiet all afternoon, Steve’s noticed. After the first movie had ended and a heated argument started about what to watch next, she had participated, but her heart didn’t seem to be in it. It was like she was just going through the motions. And now, in the car, she’d hardly spoken a word.

Steve opens his mouth, unsure even as he does it whether he’s planning to ask if she’s alright or just ask for her address so he can take her home. Before he can say either, though, she turns back to him and says quietly, “You don’t actually have shit to do, do you? Because I don’t really want to go home. If that’s okay.”

She looks exhausted, Steve realizes, and way less composed than she did when Dustin was there. And he gets that, better than anyone probably. He understands well what it feels like to be barely holding it together but still having to be strong around the kids, because they’re so fucking young and have been through so much and the last thing they need is to see the adults fall apart on them. Robin’s young too, though. He’s young. And anyway, he’s not sure how much age is actually advantage when it comes to processing supernatural trauma.

“I don’t have shit to do,” he tells her, and she looks relieved.

“Good,” she says. Then she adds, “That is a little sad, though.” There’s a hint of a smirk on her face as she says it.

“Give me a break,” says Steve, though he’s really just happy to see her smiling. “We just saved the world last night, remember? Am I supposed to be off, like, taking some girl out to the movies tonight?”

“Well, only if the Hawk is good enough for you,” says Robin. “I heard the Starcourt theater burned down recently.”

Steve laughs. “Only if they’re playing whatever it was we saw last night. I would love to find out how that ends.”

“I would love to find out how it starts,” says Robin. “And also everything that happened in the middle. I literally don’t remember a single thing.”

“The kid was about to bang his mom, remember?” says Steve. “And then…” But now that he really thinks about it, he realizes that he can’t actually remember a single other plot point, either. He’s pretty sure he remember the screen rotating at some point, and becoming three-dimensional, but that might have been the drugs. “Well, whatever. You wanna get some food?”

“Sounds great,” says Robin.

They end up at a crappy sandwich place a ways off Main, because it’s never crowded there and because it’s cheap and both of them have recently become unemployed. It occurs to him, after they’ve ordered at the counter and gone to sit down, that this is the first time they’ve ever actually hung out outside of work. When he mentions this to her, he raises her eyebrows at him. “Well,” he amends, “I guess being held hostage together was technically outside of Scoops. But that’s not hanging out, Robin, or if that is what you consider hanging out, then I might have to rethink this friendship.”

For a moment Robin looks surprised, as if she hadn’t expected Steve to call her his friend, but then her face clears. “What would everyone think,” she asks, “if they could see King Steve here, eating shitty sandwiches with Robin Buckley?”

“That I’ve fully fucking lost it, probably,” says Steve cheerfully.

“And you don’t care about that?” asks Robin. She says it lightly, as if she isn’t really concerned, but Steve can tell that she’s genuinely a little worried. He remembers suddenly that she’s in high school, still. All this bullshit that he’s finally escaped, finally learned to stop caring about—she’s still stuck right there in the middle of it. Despite her tough, punk exterior, and despite everything they’d confided in each other last night, Steve knows how hard it is not to care about all the high school shit that seems important. 

“Not even a little bit,” he tells her firmly. And then he raises his voice and says, slightly sing-song, “Scoops Troop for life, baby!”

“Oh my god,” laughs Robin. “You are such a dingus.”

Steve grins. “Yeah, but I’m your dingus.”

 

 

Steve hasn’t touched his hair yet this morning.

That fact hadn’t seemed significant a few seconds ago. When he’d gone to answer the door, he was expecting to see Robin, or maybe Dustin, or any of the kids really, and he’s long since given up on the delusion that any of them actually think he’s cool. 

He still kind of wants Nancy to think he’s cool.

It’s a stupid thought, completely absurd, given that she’s already seen him screaming like a child and covered in his own puke and concussed to hell and back, and also given that they broke up months ago, and she’s with Jonathan now, and he’s not even jealous anymore. 

Still, for some reason, it’s the only thought in his brain when he opens his front door to find her standing there. 

“Steve, hi,” she says in that slightly breathy way she speaks when she’s a little bit uncertain but trying not to show it. Steve can see a few bruises and scrapes lining her exposed arms, and another just below her collar bone. Her hair is up in a loose ponytail and he remembers suddenly, uselessly, how annoyed she’d been after she cut her hair more than a year ago and for awhile it was too short to put up. Never again, she’d huffed, pushing the loose strands out of her face in irritation. I love this look, but it’s just not worth it.

“Hi,” he says, realizing that he’s just been staring at her for a little too long without speaking. “Hi, uh, hi. What are you—is everything okay?”

Because he and Nancy only really talk when the world is ending, these days, and there’s not much precedent for her just showing up on his doorstep. He thinks, if his stupid brain wasn’t so fixated on the messy state of his stupid hair, there would be a little bit more room for anxiety over whatever new monster crisis Nancy’s come to drop on him.

“Yeah! Yeah, everything’s fine,” she says, and he’s a little bit relieved, but also not, because the lack of monsters doesn’t solve the hair problem, and, fuck, he doesn’t for the life of him know why that suddenly matters so much. It wasn’t as if his hair had been in great shape when she last saw him two days ago, having just emerged from Russian captivity. “I just, uh, wanted to check up on you.”

Steve wonders what it is about him that makes everyone feel so compelled to check up on him. He’s fine—he’s a big boy and he knows how to take care of himself. But, with a little bit of embarrassment, he remembers how Hopper had shown up the next day after the tunnels and Billy and dragged him to a hospital, grumbling the whole time about how he was an enormous dumbass for not telling any of them that his parents weren’t home, and how he couldn’t believe he’d had to find out from Dustin Henderson that Steve was alone with a concussion, and, okay, maybe it makes sense that no one has any faith in him now.

And Nancy coming to check up on him—Dustin he could have expected, and Robin made sense. It had been sweet of them to show up yesterday, but not surprising. Nancy didn’t have any obligations to him whatsoever, beyond the tenuous connection of ex-girlfriend and co-monster fighter. That he’d even crossed her mind is making him feel oddly warm, and that she’d actually come over is almost overwhelming.

To be totally honest, he feels a little bit like his brain is short-circuiting.

“Steve?” says Nancy, and he snaps his attention back to her. 

“Yeah, sorry. Sorry, what did you say?”

She’s looking at him a little funny. “Just that I hope you’ve been feeling okay? After the drugging and everything.”

“Yeah, I’m okay,” he tells her honestly. “Just a little sore.”

“Have you…” She looks a little hesitant to ask, like she knows it’s not her place anymore, and it isn’t, but she boldly finishes her sentence anyway because she’s Nancy Wheeler and that’s what she does. “Have you just been alone here?”

He knows what she’s asking: when is the last time he saw his parents? But he doesn’t feel like having that conversation right now, with her or anyone, so he just says, “No, Dustin and Robin came over yesterday and we hung out for awhile.”

A little furrow appears between her brows. “Robin,” she repeats.

She’s such a priss, Robin had said of Nancy the other day. Steve can kind of see that now, in the skeptical tone of voice and the slightly self-important way she’s raising her eyebrows. He wonders if maybe Nancy doesn’t like Robin. That seems incomprehensible to him, even though he himself had been calling Robin hyper and annoying just a few days ago.

“Yeah, Robin,” he says, a little bit defensively. “We’re friends.”

Then the weird, tense moment passes and Nancy smiles at him. “Well, I’m glad you’re okay,” she says, sounding genuine.

“Thanks, Nance,” he says. He falls into the nickname without thinking, like an easy old habit he never quite grew out of. 

For some reason, it makes her smile falter a little bit. It doesn’t disappear, but it becomes a little bit fixed, and he thinks there’s something almost sad in her eyes. He doesn’t know what to make of that. Maybe he overstepped by calling her Nance. Do any of her friends call her that? He doesn’t know, he realizes. He’s really only ever been in her life as her boyfriend. They never really made an effort at staying friends, after everything. He thinks suddenly that maybe they should have. 

He casts around for a new subject, anything to bring her smile back into more natural territory. He says the first thing he can think of. “Where’s Jonathan?”

If anything, though, Nancy looks even sadder at that. Steve would think she almost looked guilty if he didn’t know better. “He’s at home, I think. I…” She trails off, but Steve knows what she was about to say: she didn’t want to bring Jonathan with in case it would upset Steve to see them together. Nancy Wheeler may have broken his heart, but for the most part, she’s also always been very good at keeping it safe.

“You should bring him along next time,” says Steve. He doesn’t know why he says it. It makes no sense at all; why would there be a next time, now that Nancy’s accomplished her one-time mission of checking up on him? But he does know without a doubt that he’s being honest when he continues, “I’d like to see him. Tell him I say hi, will you?”

“Sure,” says Nancy. The smile is back now, and Steve returns it easily.

 

 

 

Usually the kids make him drive them around like their own personal chauffeur, but when Dustin asks if they can all just come over to Steve’s place, he doesn’t question it. He just picks up a bunch of snacks and straightens up the living room a little bit (as if they’re actual company, Jesus Christ, when they’re really just a bunch of little gremlins who he knows are going to trash the place within four minutes of arrival anyway). 

They somehow all show up at the same time despite having biked from five separate houses. He can hear them through the open window when they’re still half a block away, hollering and screeching at each other. There’s Mike’s distinct complaining voice, followed by a loud laugh from Lucas, and the scraping of ten wheels against the pavement.

He goes outside to stand on the front porch and watch as they crest the hill and come into sight. When they get to his yard, they dump their bikes carelessly in a heap, tumbling off unsteadily in all directions. It’s been only been a few days since the mall, and yet in spite of everything they still look like such kids in this moment. It makes his heart swell with something like pride, as well as a deep, inexplicable sadness.

They’re loudly arguing with each other, probably about something stupid, and Steve doesn’t try to follow the conversation as he herds them into the house and throws a few bags of potato chips at them and warns them that they’d better not break anything or he’d be calling their parents right away, and Mike doesn’t want his mom knowing he’s responsible for a two hundred dollar vase, does he?

“Is that vase really two hundred dollars?” asks Dustin skeptically, eyeing the ugly old thing perched on a table behind the couch.

“No way that’s two hundred dollars,” Lucas dismisses. “That’s, like, thirty dollars. Maximum.”

“It could be two hundred,” says Dustin. He looks wary, almost, like the vase might jump off the table and break itself. “What do you know about vases, anyway?”

And then they’re arguing about fucking vase prices, of all things, and Steve tries to be annoyed by it, but really he’s just so relieved that they’re still acting like their normal selves that he could cry.

Max is quiet, though. He doesn’t notice it until they’ve been playing for awhile, the boys arguing loudly over whose turn it is on the Atari that Mike brought over, but she’s not joining in the chaos the way she usually does. She’s sitting all the way to one side of the couch with her knees drawn up to her chest, and she doesn’t look unhappy, exactly, but Steve’s not used to any version of her that isn’t bursting with energy, fluently swearing, and triumphantly stomping the boys in whatever game they’re playing.

“Hey, Max,” he calls over to her after a particularly loud bout of screaming quiets down a bit. “Come help me grab some stuff from the kitchen, will you? I can’t carry enough snacks by myself to satisfy these shitheads.”

She smiles slightly at the barb, which Steve takes as a victory. But when she follows him into the kitchen and Steve, instead of handing her a bag of chips, just gestures at the table for her to sit down, the smile turns into a bit of a scowl. 

“That was a stupid trick,” she says, crossing her arms and remaining on her feet.

“Yeah, well, you fell for it,” Steve points out, and her scowl deepens.

He’s not quite sure how to approach her with this, if he’s being honest. She’s always been the strong one of his little band of infants, preferring to deal with things on her own rather than let him see her falter. She never calls him after nightmares like Dustin sometimes does, never fumblingly asks about panic attacks the way Lucas did once. Her only nod to their shared monster-fighting background was asking Steve to teach her how to swing a bat properly, which he did, at the school field on a chilly day last March. But she’s still just a kid, just like the rest of them, and she’s one of his kids, and Steve can tell when she isn’t okay.

He sits down himself, and, after a dramatic huff, she follows suit. “I just wanted to, you know. See how you’re holding up.”

She regards him rather skeptically. “I’m fine,” she says.

“Never said you weren’t,” says Steve. “But you know it would be, like, completely fine and normal if you weren’t fine. Right? And if you aren’t fine—not saying that’s the case, but if—then talking about it might help, you know? And I know you’ve got all your annoying little friends,” he adds hurriedly, “and of course you can talk to them to. But—”

“I don’t want to talk to them,” Max interrupts. Then she flushes, as if she hadn’t meant to blurt that out. “Because I don’t need to talk to them,” she adds hurriedly, “because I’m fine.

“Okay, yeah, you’re fine,” says Steve. “I just—shit, Max, I’m just worried about you, okay? It was a lot, what happened, and then with Billy…”

Max is trying to glare at him, he thinks, but the effect is somewhat ruined by something fragile and hesitant in her expression. “I thought you didn’t care about Billy,” she says.

“Well, I—” She’s not wrong, exactly. He’s never cared about Billy in the sense of liking him or empathizing with him or wishing him the best, but still, Billy was his classmate and his teammate and at the end of the day, even with all the shitty things he did, a young person who didn’t deserve to be possessed and then murdered by a monster from an alternate dimension. “We weren’t friends,” he says carefully, and Max huffs as if to say, yeah, you think? “But it’s still hard when someone you know dies, and he was your br—I mean, he lived with you, and this affects your family and your home life and whatever, and I just—I want to make sure you’re okay.”

For a long time Max just looks at him, as if it’s taking her some time to sort through what he’s saying and how she wants to respond. Steve sees a range of emotions flash across her face, stubborn denial and resignation and maybe, maybe grief. Then she drops her gaze. “I really, really hated him,” she says quietly to her hands. 

Steve lowers his voice to match hers. “I know.”

“And I…” She swallows hard. “I always kind of hoped, you know? That he would eventually turn into a good person. I wanted to be able to forgive him. But he was really shitty right up until the end, he died before he turned into a good person, so now I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to forgive him.” She looks up at Steve and he can see tears in her eyes. “Does that make me a bad person?”

“You’re not a bad person,” says Steve softly. He’s glad she’s opening up a little bit, but he’s totally unprepared for this, he’s realizing. He’s never seen her cry before, and it twists his heart in a way that makes him a little worried he’s going to start crying himself. “Why would that make you a bad person?”

“Because it’s selfish!” says Max. “Because he’s dead, and he was trying to save us at the very end, and I’m still angry at him, and I still can’t forgive him, but then every time I do feel sad about him I also feel so guilty, because how can I be a good person and also be sad about someone who made my mom’s life miserable and attacked Lucas and tried to kill you and—”

“Max,” Steve cuts her off. Her tears have started falling and he reaches out to wipe them away, a weirdly parental gesture that he performs without a single second thought. “It’s okay. Whatever you’re feeling, it’s okay.”

She looks up at him and nods, tries to smile a little, but the effort just makes her face crumple and then she’s fully sobbing, leaning forward to bury her face in her hands. 

Out of the corner of his eye, Steve sees Lucas appear in the kitchen doorway, looking like his heart is breaking to see Max cry. Steve wonders if this is his first time seeing it, too. But he’s pretty sure the reason Max never opens up in front of them is that she doesn’t want an audience to her vulnerability, so he shakes his head slightly at Lucas, who nods his understanding and slips silently back to the living room. 

He waits quietly while Max cries, feeling a little as if he should be doing something, or saying something, but he doesn’t know what. At least she’s not alone. None of these kids deserve to ever feel alone. 

Eventually she raises her head again. “Sorry,” she mumbles, wiping at her eyes. “I didn’t mean to…you know.”

“Hey, it’s okay.” He thinks his heart might burst with the tenderness he feels toward her. He leans forward to pull her into his arms. “C’mere.”

For a few minutes she just leans against him, and then she straightens with little nod. “Okay,” she says, with an expression like she’s steeling herself for battle. Steve supposes that’s about what it must feel like, to be the only girl in this group of guys and to be so afraid showing any weakness to them. Not that any of them would ever think less of her—Lucas and Dustin both think the sun shines out her ass, and he knows that even Mike and Will have grown to love her despite all the tension in the beginning, even if Mike would never admit it.

Steve holds out a hand to pull her to her feet. ‘We’d better get them their snacks, huh?”

“Yeah,” says Max with a tiny smile. She grabs a bag of chips from the counter and heads in the direction of the living room. Then she stops and looks back at Steve. “Thanks,” she says quietly.

“Any time,” he tells her. He means that.

The boys have given up on their game by the time Steve and Max return to the living room. The game over screen is flashing on the TV still, but none of them are paying attention to it. Instead Lucas and Will have taken over the couch, and Mike and Dustin are sitting cross-legged on the carpet, facing them.

“I don’t know what to do,” Mike is saying quietly. There’s an edge of frustration to his voice, but he mostly just sounds sad. “How am I supposed to be there for her if she won’t even let me see her?”

“It’s not just you,” Will says. His voice is equally somber. “She won’t talk to me either, or Jonathan, or even Mom most of the time. She spends most of her time just sleeping on the couch. I mean, she’s always quiet, but this—” He breaks off, looking troubled. “I’m worried about her.”

They all look up as Steve and Max come into the room. Steve knows that they can tell Max has been crying—they all obviously heard her, and he can see the way their eyes soften with concern at the sight of her slightly puffy face—but none of them say anything about it. Lucas just pats the space next to him on the couch and Max, looking incredibly grateful for the lack of interrogation, goes and sits down a little closer to him than Steve thinks she probably would normally. Lucas takes her hand. It’s such a subtly sweet gesture that Steve thinks, not for the first time, that he might just fall to pieces at how very grown up these kids can be sometimes.

But in this particular group, he’s the real grownup, which he’s reminded of by the way all five of them are looking at him rather expectantly, like they’re waiting for him to start spouting some comforting wisdom. He feels like he’s just used up whatever comforting wisdom he might have had on Max, but pseudo-adopting a bunch of children means having to be wise on demand, he supposes, so he sighs and sits down on the arm of the couch.

“El will be okay,” he says with more confidence than he feels. “Just give her time.”

Mike nods, looking miserable. 

“I never thought Hopper would die,” says Lucas softly. “He always seemed so…”

“Invincible,” Steve finishes when Lucas trails off. “I know.” He turns to Will. “How is your mom doing? She and Hopper were pretty close, right?”

He shrugs. “She acts like she’s fine,” he says. “She always does. Especially now that there’s El to take care of too.”

“And…” He’s a little nervous about asking, for some reason, but he forces himself to finish the sentence. It almost feels like he’s saying something taboo. “Jonathan?”

“He’s okay,” says Will. “He’s got Nancy.” Then he seems to realize what he’s said, and looks at Steve apologetically. 

Steve doesn’t mind, though. He’s just glad that Jonathan has someone who makes him so happy. Jonathan deserves that, he thinks. He and Nancy both do.

And there it is, suddenly, a flare of that warmth he’d felt when thinking about Nancy the other night, and then again yesterday when she was on his doorstep, that warmth that didn’t go away when he remembered she was with Jonathan now. It’s a good feeling, hot and bright, like thinking about the two of them is nourishing him somehow. He tries to remember what it used to feel like when he thought of them together, that cold, sick jealousy. He can’t imagine it at all. It’s like the warmth has always been there.

He isn’t sure what to do with that thought, so he tucks it away for later and turns his attention back to the kids.

 

 

Robin has been around pretty much constantly since the mall. It hasn’t even been a week, but this is already the third time he’s made her breakfast. He doesn’t mind. It’s nice, having her around. It occurs to him as he’s standing at the stove flipping pancakes while she sits at his kitchen table, extremely not contributing, that somewhere between the ice cream slinging and the Russian escaping and the monster fighting, she’s become his best friend. He tells her so. 

She looks up at him, a little surprised. “You getting sappy on me, dingus?” she says, but her smile gives her away. Though she doesn’t say it back, he can tell that she feels the same. 

“What’s with all the ‘dingus’?” he asks as he gracelessly shoves a plate of pancakes in front of her and sits down on the opposite side of the table. “You’d be, like, totally dead in a secret Russian basement without me.”

“Without Dustin and Erica, you mean,” says Robin. “I’m pretty sure you were unconscious for about sixty percent of the time we spent down there.”

Excuse me,” Steve says, feigning offense as Robin smugly shoves a forkful of pancake into her mouth. “Which one of us took out a giant Russian, again?”

Robin swallows. “Oh, that’s right—that brought your fistfight win record up to, what, one in four?”

He wants to lob a bit of food at her, but then he would get syrup all over his hands, so he decides against it. Instead he just reaches his foot out to kick her under the table. “Hey, be fair. One in three, at least.”

“One in three? Oh, does this mean we’re finally admitting that your fight with Jonathan did count?”

No,” says Steve, “it didn’t count, because...” But he can’t think of a reason fast enough, and Robin smirks at him, triumphant.

“Ooh, you must be real embarrassed about losing that one,” she says. “You’re blushing, Harrington.”

Is he? His face is a little warm, he realizes. He guesses he must be embarrassed, in some deep-seated, long-forgotten way. It had certainly wounded his pride that day.

“So,” says Robin, sitting back in her chair, “what’s the deal there, anyway? With the whole you-Nancy-Jonathan thing.”

The question makes his mouth run dry. Why would she ask that—can she tell, possibly, how much he’s been thinking about Nancy these past few days? How starstruck he was when Nancy showed up at his house? Does she know about the mysterious warmth in his stomach when he thinks about Jonathan? “What do you mean, the whole me-Nancy-Jonathan thing?”

“Come on, Steve. She’s your ex and he famously beat you up two years ago and now they’re dating each other and all three of you somehow ended up a part of this weird little monster-fighting club together. There’s gotta be a story there.”

“I don’t know, Robs,” says Steve, rolling his eyes, relieved beyond measure that that’s all she meant. “You pretty much just covered all of it. There’s not much more to tell.”

Steeeve,” she wheedles, and fuck, she’s amazing at the puppy-dog eyes. It’s like he’s gained yet another five-year-old to look after. Except he was kidnapped and tortured by Russians with this particular five-year-old, and she also happens to be his best friend in the world, which makes it especially hard to say no to her.

So he heaves a deep sigh that he doesn’t really mean and starts narrating, in a fragmented, circuitous sort of way as he keeps forgetting bits and looping back to them, all the places his life has intersected with Nancy’s and Jonathan’s over the past two years. She already knows the general outline—he’s been slowly filling her in these past few days, trying to make up for how out of the loop she must feel being thrown into this mess two years later than the rest of them—but he knows it’s the details she wants, so he tries to make the story as rich and entertaining as possible. 

But when he gets to the part about that night at Tina’s party, and Nancy spitting drunkenly that she didn’t love him, he falters.

Robin is looking at him with big, soft eyes. “Jesus,” she says quietly. “I’m sorry, man.”

He shrugs. “It’s…okay. It’s okay.” It’s the same thing he told Nancy all those months ago, and at the time he’d been trying so hard to convince himself that it was true. Even now he’s not so sure. He’d been sure, for awhile now, but these past few days it’s felt almost like it did last winter—he can’t stop thinking about Nancy’s warm smile, her soft hands, her terrifying, breathtaking glare.

Then—“Fuck Nancy,” Robin says in disgust, and Steve finds himself jumping to her defense.

“No, no, no,” he says quickly, “it’s not her fault. I was a shitty boyfriend, Robin, really. And I’m not in love with her anymore. And she and Jonathan are good for each other.”

“You’re not mad at her,” she says skeptically.

“No, I’m not.”

“Or at Jonathan?”

He looks at her in disbelief. How could he ever be mad at Jonathan? Jonathan, who is such a good brother to Will, to all the kids really, who is so brave in the midst of crisis, who makes Nancy so happy. “No,” he says, “I’m not mad at Jonathan.”

Robin looks impressed, almost. “Well. You’ve certainly come a long way since you tried to beat him up when you thought he was into Nancy.”

Steve considers this. He has come a long way, he thinks. He never would have imagined, last November, that he would reach a point where thinking about the two of them could make him genuinely happy. He supposes this must be what personal growth feels like.

Then Robin smirks and says, “Key word being tried, since I do seem to remember Jonathan absolutely trouncing you—”

This time he doesn’t hesitate to throw a bit of pancake at her face, even though it makes his fingers sticky and gross.

 

 

“Tell me about him,” says Robin on their way to Hopper’s funeral.

The question makes Steve’s heart ache. He hadn’t been close to the chief, not really, not the way some of the kids seemed to be and certainly nowhere near the way El was. Still—Lucas had been right the other day, when he said that Hopper never seemed like he could die. He was always such a solid, comforting presence, even when he was being an asshole, which was pretty much always. Steve always felt like things would turn out okay, once Hopper showed up. He knows the others felt the same.

“You saw him around Hawkins sometimes, right? Like, before?” 

Robin nods. “He always seemed pissed about something,” she says. “Like he really, really didn’t want to be doing his job. I mean—” She looks guilty suddenly. “Is that a horrible thing to say about him? I’m sure he was a really great person, just, I never really met him, and that was my impression—”

“Robin,” Steve cuts her off with a slight laugh. “It’s fine. He was pretty grumpy, like, all the time. But he was also one of those people who was…I don’t know, like, soft on the inside or whatever.”

“I can see that,” she says. 

Steve thinks of the look on Hopper’s face when he’d shown up at his house last year to take him to the hospital—all tired and gruff and annoyed but protective, too, like he genuinely cared. Steve doesn’t like to admit, even to himself, how much that day had meant to him. It had been a long time since either of his parents had really been around, and then there was Hopper, who had no obligations to Steve whatsoever, not only taking him to the hospital but staying there with him through the checkup and taking him by the pharmacy afterwards and dropping him off at home that night with strict orders to call if he needed anything. Steve hadn’t ever called, of course. But knowing that he could if he needed to had made him so grateful that, after he watched through the window as Hopper drove away, he’d begun to cry.

“He would come check on me sometimes,” Steve tells her quietly. “He didn’t actually talk to me or anything, but—I would see him drive by my house sometimes. He always slowed down a little bit like he was looking in the windows to make sure things seemed normal. He never used to do that, before everything.”

“It’s funny,” Robin muses, “to think of him hiding El for so long. I would never have guessed he had a secret kid at home.”

“Wasn’t funny at the time,” says Steve. He doesn’t think he’ll ever forget the look on Mike’s face when he’d realized Hopper had been lying to him, or the way they could all hear Mike screaming at Hopper in one of the bedrooms afterwards. 

But over the past year, it’s become natural to think of El and Hopper together. He hadn’t seen them much. There had just been a few times when Steve had driven all the little twerps out to the cabin to see El, and he never stayed long himself. But any idiot could have seen how much softer Hopper was around her, how much kinder, how deeply he obviously loved her. Robin had seen it too, at the mall, when Hopper had so gently wrapped her leg and then held her cradled to his chest with her hand clasped in his.

“He didn’t deserve to die,” says Robin softly.

“No,” says Steve. “He didn’t.”

 

 

He wants more than anything to skip the luncheon after the funeral. The service itself had been bad enough, and it’s somehow even worse in this stuffy little room in the church where everyone looks so miserable as they pick at their finger foods. El is sitting at a table on the other side of the room, staring down at the untouched plate that Mrs. Byers must have set down in front of her. He realizes suddenly that she’s wearing the dress that Nancy had worn to Will’s funeral, and it surprises him a bit that he remembers such a little detail like that. 

On the other hand, though, it doesn’t surprise him at all. Every detail about Nancy Wheeler has always been worth remembering.

He cranes his neck, trying to find Robin in the crowd. She’d disappeared from his side a few minutes back and now he’s standing alone, sweating through his suit and trying not to think too hard about the look on El’s face even as he wonders if he should go to her. He decides against it, and tells himself that he’s respecting an unspoken wish for solitude rather than just being a coward.

He spots Robin leaning against the wall on the opposite side of the room, talking quietly to Dustin and Erica. The sight makes him smile slightly to himself in spite of everything. As if she can sense that he’s watching her, Robin looks up and meets his gaze. She flashes a small, sad smile back at him.

He’s about to go cross the room to join her when he’s stopped by a warm hand on his shoulder. “Hey,” says a voice just behind him, and Steve knows without looking who it is. He would know that voice anywhere—that voice that he’s come to associate with strength and safety, somehow, even though he usually only hears it when he and everyone he loves are in very real danger of dying.

He turns to face Jonathan. “Hey,” he says back. Jonathan is wearing a black suit with a tie, and it occurs to Steve that he’s never seen him look this nice except at funerals. It also occurs to him that he and Jonathan Byers have been to far too many funerals together. 

And under the suit, Jonathan looks exhausted. There are deep bags under his eyes and his cheeks are sunken, too, as if he hasn’t been eating enough. It’s only been a week since Steve last saw him, leaning against Nancy in the back of an ambulance, and it’s not as if Jonathan had looked fantastic then, either, but now he seems as if he’s aged about ten years. Steve supposes that makes sense, given everything. He can’t imagine what it’s been like for him at home, with his mom to take care of now El, too. Not to mention his own grief. Steve wishes, suddenly, that there was something he could do to make things better for Jonathan—wishes he could just pull Jonathan into his arms, tuck Jonathan’s head against his shoulder, hold him tight until the pain passes. Jonathan deserves that, Steve thinks. He deserves someone to look after him.

Though, that’s Nancy’s job now, he supposes.

“Thanks for coming,” says Jonathan quietly.

The acknowledgement surprises Steve. Of course he came; had Jonathan really thought he wouldn’t? He says as much, trying to keep his voice light.

“No, that’s not what I meant, I just—” Jonathan swallows hard, looking nervous for some reason. “I’m glad you’re here.” 

Steve tries to smile at him, but the words make his heart feel inexplicably tight. After a moment of confused silence, he manages, “It’s the least I could do. For Hopper,” he clarifies, when Jonathan looks confused. “After, you know, everything…I feel like I’m in debt to him, now, or something.”

Jonathan blows out a long, slow breath. “Yeah, I know what you mean,” he says. Then, more quietly, “He was always good to us. To Mom and Will especially. He never missed a single one of Will’s doctor’s appointments after he came back, did you know that?”

Steve didn’t know that. He thinks of the chief, tall and gruff and downright terrifying when he wanted to be, squashed into a molded plastic chair in the corner of some doctor’s office with Mrs. Byers and Will. Two years ago, the image would have made him laugh; now, it just seems natural, like Hopper was always meant to be looking out for these kids. 

“And when Will was…when we thought Will was, you know, before we knew he was in the Upside Down. He went to the morgue with us to see him. Talked to me in the lobby while I waited for my mom to come out, told me she was strong. He…” Jonathan sighs, a heavy, weary sound that makes Steve’s heart ache. “I don’t know. He was a good man.”

“Yeah,” Steve agrees, and then before he can say anything else, Nancy approaches. She reaches for Jonathan’s hand and holds it in both of her own. 

“Hey,” she says quietly. Steve and Jonathan murmur it back. 

Then the three of them are quiet. Steve is intensely aware of the fact that both Nancy and Jonathan are looking at him, looking up at him with big, solemn eyes, and fuck, he wishes he could pull both of them into his arms. He would do anything, he thinks, to smooth away the grief on their faces. Standing here across from them, he thinks of the last funeral they attended together—Barb’s last year, the one that came a year too late. All three of them had been wearing exactly the clothes that they’re wearing now. And Steve had stood next to them, trying not to shiver in all the empty space around him while his ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend held hands a few feet away. The cold is what he remembers most, both the chill in the air and the frigid feeling in his stomach, in his chest, in his bones at the thought of the two of them together.

Now it’s like they’re casting some of their warmth over him, even though nothing has really changed since last November. And maybe, Steve thinks, he wants to be held by them as much has he wants to hold them. Just to get a little bit closer to that warmth.

And then suddenly it’s too much, standing there with them. “I’m gonna go check on Dustin,” he tells them, and leaves before their suffocating warmth can completely overwhelm him. 

 

 

Steve knows as soon as he wakes up what kind of day it’s going to be. There’s a tight feeling in his chest, crawling almost up to his throat like maybe he’s congested, but he knows that he isn’t congested. He’s just—he gets like this, sometimes; at least, he’s been getting like this ever since that day at Jonathan’s house when he found out that monsters are real. Gets this aching in his chest and a splitting headache to accompany it and a complete lack of motivation to even roll over to make himself more comfortable, much less get out of bed entirely.

The annoying thing is that he’s been fine since it happened. He’s been sore, sure, from his injuries, and sad about Hopper, and worried about the kids, and a little on edge. But he hasn’t been having nightmares the way he did the last two Novembers. He hasn’t had any panic attacks, or sudden, awful bouts of crying. And yet here he is now, totally without warning, feeling every bit as shitty as he did on the worst days last fall.

The doorbell buzzes, sending a sickening jolt of panic through him before his brain can process what the sound is. Then, heart pounding with adrenaline, he glances over at his alarm clock and groans. It’s after ten. Which means that Robin’s here, because she’s here pretty much every morning now, and normally Steve doesn’t mind that—having out with Robin is the happiest he’s been in a very long time—but right now the thought of the energy it will take to drag himself out of bed, get dressed, go downstairs, and entertain her is enough to put him on the verge of tears.

Still, if only because he knows she’ll break down his front door if he doesn’t answer, he forces himself to roll out of bed, and fumbles for a t-shirt and a pair of sweatpants to put on. When he finally makes it down the stairs, she’s started pounding continuously on the door. The noise certainly isn’t helping his headache any.

He opens the door to find Robin with her hand still raised, about to knock again. It hovers in midair for a moment before she drops it. “Did you forget I was coming over, asshole?” she says.

Her tone is light, playful, and Steve knows that she’s just messing around because that’s what they do together, how the two of them show affection. He knows this. But today, for some reason, her words cause a hot flair of annoyance. “I didn’t even invite you,” he snaps.

He regrets it the moment it leaves his mouth. His tone is much too sharp to be joking the way Robin is, and he doesn’t miss the hurt that flashes across her face before she reworks her expression into one of scorn. “No, I guess you didn’t,” she says coolly. But then as she looks at him, she draws her eyebrows together and uncrosses her arms. “You look like shit, Steve.”

He pauses for much too long before saying, tensely, “I’m fine.”

“Don’t fucking lie to me.” She sounds angry, but she mostly just looks concerned as she easily sidesteps Steve to go into the house. She looks him up and down, taking in his rumpled t-shirt, the sweatpants, the unstyled hair. “Dude, you’re shaking. What’s going on?”

Is he? He glances down at his own hands and realizes with a start that they’re trembling. He fumbles for an excuse but his mind feels slow, sluggish, and before he can think of anything Robin’s hand is on his back and she’s practically pushing him towards the living room. Too tired to protest, he lets her sit him down on the couch, and though moments ago he’d wished she would just leave, he can’t help but feel a little relieved by the warmth that radiates from her as she sits down beside him.

For a long moment, neither of them speak.

Then Robin asks quietly, “You want to talk about it?”

Talk about what? Steve wants to say, because he hasn’t even admitted to her that anything’s wrong. But when he meets her eyes, he knows that she understands without him having to tell her. She gets it, and she’s not judging him, and she’s willing to talk about it. Totally against his will, he feels tears spring to his eyes.

He wonders, suddenly, if this is how Nancy felt all those times last year. If she felt the same way Steve does now—and fuck, of course she did, of course, because she went through everything he did and more, and lost her best friend in the process. He feels so fucking stupid, suddenly. Because he hadn’t wanted to talk about it then, hadn’t wanted to admit it was real. But now that Robin is offering to listen, and now that he can feel her gentle hand rubbing up and down his arm, he realizes just how desperately he needs this. And Nancy had needed it, too—had been smart enough to admit she needed it, unlike Steve—and he had refused to give it to her.

“You don’t have to,” says Robin, her voice still more gentle than Steve has ever heard it. “But, you know, I was there too. I get it, Steve. I mean, I don’t have as much, like, accumulated trauma as you do, but—the stuff with the mall, I understand what you’re going through. You know?”

“Yeah.” His voice comes out choked, gravelly, and he swipes at a few escaped tears with the heel of his palm. “Fuck, sorry, I didn’t mean to—”

Robin interrupts him by scooting closer and wrapping both of her arms around one of his, leaning her head on his shoulder. “Yesterday,” she says after a little while, “I was in the car with my mom and she was speeding a little bit and I, like, freaked the fuck out. Yelled at her to slow down. It felt too much like that fucking golf cart. And she laughed at me and drove faster, because she wasn’t even speeding that much at all, and I was being ridiculous. And it’s not her fault, because she obviously has no idea. But it took me all day to calm down after that.”

Steve takes a deep breath. “You know about the whole thing with the Christmas lights, right?” He feels her nod against his shoulder. “The last two Christmases I was just constantly freaked out because of the blinking lights up everywhere.”

“God, we’re so fucked up,” says Robin calmly, bluntly, and it startles a slightly teary laugh out of him. He wants to put his arm around her but she’s got it trapped, so instead he leans his head down to rest his cheek against her hair.

“Yeah,” he agrees a little shakily. “We really are.”

Then the doorbell rings, and both of them startle so badly that they spring apart.

Jesus,” hisses Robin. Then she runs her eyes over Steve, who supposes he looks even more of a mess now that his eyes are red and puffy and he’s got tear tracks on his face. “Let’s just ignore it.”

Steve wants to agree, but the doorbell rings again, and then half a dozen more times in quick succession. He groans. “It’s probably the kids.”

“Oh.” They both know that the kids aren’t going to leave without an explanation, especially since they’ve definitely noticed Steve’s car in the driveway and Robin’s bike by the porch. “I can just…tell them you’re not feeling up for it? Or that you’re, like, busy or something?”

He sighs and heaves himself up from the couch. “No, it’s fine. The little shits are a good distraction, at least.”

“Are you sure?” 

“Yeah, I’m—” The doorbell buzzes again, and he shouts toward the front door, “Jesus fuck, I’m coming!”

He wipes his eyes one last time before opening the door, but even so, Dustin immediately frowns. “Are you okay?”

“Fine,” says Steve airily, and though he knows he doesn’t look it, he finds that he does mean it—he feels lighter now, and strangely calm. “What do you shitheads want?”

The shitheads, it turns out, want a ride to the pool, not the perfectly good one within easy biking distance but the one in the next town over, which Steve is pretty sure is basically identical. When he tries to tell them this, he’s shouted down by a loud chorus of explanations that he doesn’t bother paying attention to.

“Jesus Christ, fine, I’ll take you to the pool,” he says, making a show of reluctance even though he knows they know he was always going to cave no matter what. They cheer, and Robin rolls her eyes, looking amused and a little fond, and Steve has to make an effort not to smile.

Only five of the kids are there, though. A few minutes later, as they’re heading out to Steve’s car, he speaks quietly to Will.

“How is El doing? I haven’t seen her since the funeral.”

Will shrugs. “You know.”

It’s not really an answer, but Steve does know. He imagines El curled up on the Byers’ couch, maybe dully picking at a plate of food, maybe watching TV with a glazed-over expression. She’s always been by far the quietest of the bunch but no less full of life, and his heart twists to think of her like that.

He thinks of how much of a relief it had been this morning when Robin showed up unexpectedly and helped him through his trauma, or his depression, or whatever the fuck it was. He was never a good enough boyfriend to do that for Nancy. Maybe, he thinks, he should be a good enough babysitter to try to do it for El.

 

 

It’s funny, going to the Byers’ house in the summertime. He’s been there in warm weather before, of course—he hasn’t had a choice, seeing as he’s basically just a glorified valet to all the little goblins—but even so, he always expects to find it the way it looked last November and the November before: dead leaves, harsh wind, crackling grey grass. He wonders if that’s a trauma thing. Maybe he should ask Robin about it; it seems like something she’d know. Most things seem like something she’d know, honestly. 

Jonathan’s car is parked in front, which makes his heart do a funny little flip in his chest—it almost feels like surprise, even though he’d fully expected Jonathan to be home. Jonathan’s as unemployed as he himself is, these days, and he knows even without having asked that Jonathan is reluctant to leave his mom or his brother alone right now. Or his sister, Steve supposes. According to the kids, El’s stay is looking pretty permanent. 

Mrs. Byers looks surprised to see him, though not unhappy. “Steve!” she says when she opens the door to see him there. “I didn’t know Will was—Will!” she calls, turning her head to shout back into the house. “Steve’s here!” Then she turns back to Steve. “Are none of the others with you?”

“Oh—” Steve peers around her to where Will has come into sight, looking confused. He gives the kid a smile. “I’m not here to pick up Will, actually.” He wonders if he should find it annoying, or maybe a little insulting, that Mrs. Byers has assumed the only reason he would be at her house is to ferry around a bunch of ten-year-olds. Instead, his heart just swells a bit with something like pride at the knowledge that he’s become such a fixture in the kids’ lives. “I was hoping to see El, actually. Just to see how she’s doing. I haven’t really seen her since…you know.”

“Oh,” Mrs. Byers’ smile falters a bit. “Oh, honey, I don’t know if…well, I’ll go see if she’s feeling up for any visitors right now. It would be good for her to see you.” She steps back, beckoning Steve into the house. “I’ll be right back.”

Steve watches Mrs. Byers disappear down the hallway and knock on what he knows to be Will’s door. Then she goes into the room, shutting the door behind her, and Steve waits for several long seconds but she doesn’t emerge again.

“Don’t take it personally if she doesn’t want to see you,” says Will from behind him. “She barely talks to any of us either, and she still won’t see Mike.”

“Damn,” says Steve quietly. He’d already known that, but the way Will says it—all sad and resigned—makes his heart hurt even more. 

A door opens and he turns, expecting to see Mrs. Byers, hopefully with El in tow. Instead it’s Jonathan, emerging from his own bedroom, and though Steve had known he would be home, seeing him so suddenly sends a jolt through him. It feels almost as if he’s stuck is finger in an outlet—or rather, someone else jammed his finger into an outlet when he wasn’t paying attention. This is absurd, he thinks to himself a little angrily. Because why the fuck, after everything they’ve been through together, should he still feel nervous around Jonathan Byers? Why would anyone ever feel nervous around Jonathan Byers? It isn’t as if he has to worry about Jonathan stealing his girlfriend anymore. The worst has already happened.

Jonathan doesn’t seem to notice him at first. He looks a little absent, wandering down the hall towards the kitchen. Watching him, Steve feels his mouth run dry. The last time he’d seen Jonathan, he was wearing a suit that, objectively, looked nice on him. Now Jonathan’s wearing thin, ratty-looking pajama pants and a t-shirt that hangs loosely off his shoulders and his feet are bare, which for some reason Steve is fixating on. He doesn’t think he’s ever seen Jonathan barefoot before. He knows, actually, that he’s never seen Jonathan barefoot before, because he’s only seen Jonathan at school or at funerals or at the end of the world. This isn’t any of those things. This is just Jonathan in his own monster-free house on a regular Thursday morning, going to the kitchen to make himself a bowl of cereal or something, probably. 

Steve,” says Will in a rather pointed way, and Steve realizes at that moment that he’s just standing there gaping at Jonathan like a complete idiot, but before he has time to do anything about it Jonathan turns, startled by his brother’s voice, and then sees Steve and goes bright red in a way that would, under different circumstances, make Steve burst out laughing. 

But these aren’t different circumstances. These are these circumstances, so instead of laughing, Steve just watches with an inexplicable combination of dread and excitement as Jonathan fumbles to form words. “Steve—what—is everything—” Then he shakes himself and says almost defensively, “What’s up, man?” In the few seconds since he noticed Steve, Jonathan’s demeanor has gone from loose and relaxed to tense, wary, and a little aggressive, almost as if Steve is a threat he needs to fight off. It’s so drastically different than the way he’d acted around Steve at the funeral, and he can’t help but feel a little hurt—more than a little—and wonder what in the world he could have done wrong.

Will is looking incredulously back and forth between the two of them. “Yeah,” he echoes, fixing Steve with a very clear you’d-better-explain-this-later look, “what’s up, man?

“I was just—” Humiliatingly, his voice comes out gravelly and strangled-sounding, and he clears his throat. “I just came by to see El. Just to make sure she’s okay.”

Jonathan opens his mouth to respond, but at that moment Mrs. Byers comes back into the kitchen. “She’s napping right now,” she tells Steve in one of the most transparent lies he’s ever seen. Even ignoring the fact that it’s only ten in the morning, it wouldn’t make any sense for Mrs. Byers to have spent so long in El’s room if she was actually asleep. 

Steve takes it at face value, though. He’s not going to push the poor kid. “Well, tell her I said hi, okay?”

Mrs. Byers gives him a sad smile. “I will. She’ll be glad to know you stopped by.” Then she turns to Jonathan. “Could you stop by the cabin again today to pick up the rest of her clothes? She can’t keep wearing those same two shirts forever. I’d do it, but…” A look of pain clouds her eyes and Steve remembers, suddenly, that she was close to Hopper too. Was probably in love with him, according to Dustin. He keeps forgetting that, somehow. “Well, I have to get to work pretty soon.”

Then the rest of what she’s said catches up to him. “Wait,” he says to Jonathan, “you’ve been back to the cabin?”

Jonathan looks caught off-guard by the question, and a little wary, as if it might be a trick somehow. “Yes? El needed some stuff.”

Steve imagines Jonathan looking through El’s things, picking out shirts for her and packing them carefully into a box to take back with him. He imagines Jonathan hesitating over each one, running through everything he knows about El and trying to decide what she’d most want him to bring her. Looking at some of Hopper’s things, and wondering if he should bring those back too, and then deciding against it because he knows it’s too soon for El and his mom to be confronted with that, because he just knows those things, has always been so intuitive about other people’s emotions. The way he was with Nancy, when he knew exactly what it was she needed—exactly what it was that Steve couldn’t give her.

“It’s a real mess over there,” Jonathan is saying quietly, and Steve forces himself back to the present moment. Will has wandered off and Joyce has her back turned, rummaging in a cabinet, and Steve realizes that Jonathan is speaking to him specifically. “I guess you didn’t see it that night—there’s holes in the ceiling and everything. I’ve been meaning to try and fix it up, so all the stuff in there doesn’t get ruined, you know, in case El wants any of it eventually, but with everything…” He sighs. “There just hasn’t been time.”

“I’ll help you,” Steve offers. He says it completely without thinking, but as soon as his brain catches up, he knows that he means it—he would be more than happy to help Jonathan nail plywood over some holes, or something. Anything he can do to help El out. Anything he can do to help Jonathan out, too, because Jonathan always has too much on his plate and if Steve could just take some of that burden away, he thinks it would be about the most satisfying thing he’s ever done.

Jonathan looks surprised. “Really?”

“Yeah, of course I’ll help. Just let me know when. It’s not like I have a job to be at or anything.”

That makes Jonathan smile a little bit. It’s the first smile Steve has seen from him all morning—actually, he realizes, it’s the first smile he’s seen in he doesn’t know how many months. For some reason, it feels suddenly very significant that he can’t place the last time he saw Jonathan smile.

However long it’s been—this one looks nice on him.

“Of course I’ll help,” he says again.

 

 

Robin is lying on her back on on the floor of Steve’s bedroom, her feet propped up against his bed. She’s got a book held up above her face—“Summer reading,” she’d told Steve, and he’d laughed incredulously at the realization that her life still included things like homework—but he can tell she’s not really reading it. She hasn’t turned a page in ages. He wonders why she doesn’t just give up the act and put the book down; her arms must be killing her, holding it up like that for so long.

Steve isn’t doing anything in particular, just lounging on his bed and occasionally poking one of Robin’s feet to prompt an indignant squawk and a snappy knock it off, dingus, can’t you see I’m working? He knows he should be doing something—scouring the papers for job openings, trying to think of a birthday present for Lucas, anything—but every time he tries to start a task his mind immediately shuts down and latches back onto what has been his sole object of attention for the past several days. This must be what wallowing is, he thinks. The thing is, he’s not even sad. He doesn’t know what he is, and he’s pretty sure that’s a big part of the problem.

“Alright, dingus,” sighs Robin, tossing her book dramatically to the side, “spit it out.”

The sudden break in the silence startles him. “Spit what out?”

She pulls her feet off the bed and sits up just in time for him to catch her eye roll. “Whatever it is that’s making you gaze out the window and sigh like a Victorian girl pining after her unrequited love.”

“I’m not sighing,” he tells her. “Or pining.

“Steve,” says Robin. 

For a long moment, he just looks at her. He’s pretty sure Robin would never judge him, not after everything they went through together and considering he already knows her biggest secret, but he doesn’t want to say it out loud. He isn’t even quite sure what he would be saying.

Steve,” Robin says again. “Come on. You’ve been acting weird for days.”

You mean, since we were almost murdered by evil Russians and supernatural flesh monsters? he wants to say, because that seems like it should definitely count as a cover for acting weird. But Robin is smart enough to know the difference between trauma and whatever the hell it is he’s feeling now, so he doesn’t bother with trying to lie to her. He takes a deep breath. “I can’t stop thinking about Nancy,” he admits. “Is that crazy?”

Robin’s face had been carefree, teasing, but now she looks sharply up at him. “A little,” she says warily.

“I just—” He looks away from her, out the window, as if that’ll somehow help him organize his thoughts. “I don’t know. It’s stupid. I just, I can’t get her out of my head, it’s like after she first broke up with me, except this is different, it’s not…I don’t know. This is so stupid.” He picks at a lose thread in his quilt. “I’m just being stupid,” he reiterates, this time with more conviction. “Ignore me, I don’t know what I’m talking about. I’m just all mixed up, I guess, with everything.”

But Robin doesn’t look like she’s going to ignore him. Instead she looks a little puzzled, a little troubled, and, if he’s not mistaken, a little sympathetic. When she speaks, her voice is soft, careful.

“Are you in love with her still?”

He isn’t sure what did it, exactly. His memories of that night range from hopelessly foggy to hauntingly clear and it’s hard to pick out the exact moment when it had dawned on him that he was still in love with Nancy Wheeler. Maybe it was when he’d watched her talking to Murray with so much confidence, or her earnest voice when she’d said yes, exactly to his questions about the flesh monster, or when she’d handed El that drink and then leaned in to press a kiss to her forehead with all the gentleness in the world. Maybe it had been that moment, that one he can’t quite remember properly, when he’d seen Billy speeding toward her and known instantly that there was nothing he could do but get her out of harm’s way. The thought of losing her had, in that moment, been an all-consuming source of panic. 

Or, maybe, it had been instantaneous, when he’d locked eyes with her over the top of the counter they were hiding behind and been flooded with such overwhelming relief it made him dizzy.

But the thing is, he also can’t stop thinking about Jonathan. Not in a jealous way, not like how he’d thought of him last fall, just…Jonathan, with tears in his eyes as he cut the thing out of El’s leg; Jonathan, and the gentle voice he’d used to prepare her before doing it; Jonathan, and the way he’d tried so hard to be strong at the funeral. He can’t stop thinking about that strange, sudden urge to pull Jonathan into his arms. It’s a desire that hasn’t really gone away.

He doesn’t say any of this out loud to Robin. Just says quietly, “I don’t know.”

 

 

“Oh.”

Steve doesn’t know why he’s surprised, really. It makes perfect sense for Nancy and Jonathan to be standing on his front porch, given that both of their little brothers are currently in Steve’s living room and it’s four minutes past the agreed-upon pickup time. He doesn’t know why he would have expected Mike and Will’s shared ride home to be with anyone but Nancy and Jonathan, given that Mrs. Byers is literally always working and Mr. Wheeler probably hasn’t left his armchair for anything not strictly necessary since 1972. 

But still.

It’s a lot like it was when Nancy came by a few weeks ago—the sudden breathlessness, the inexplicable concern over his appearance. Except it’s worse this time, because now Jonathan is here, and he isn’t feeling prepared to face either of them alone, let alone both of them together. The last time he saw them together was Hopper’s funeral, when he’d been all but overwhelmed with the baffling desire to hug them both, both Nancy and her new boyfriend who Steve had once beat up. Right now, he doesn’t want to hug either of them. Right now, he just wants to run.

“We’re here to pick up our brothers,” says Jonathan unnecessarily.

Nancy shoots him a look that Steve can’t decipher—almost exasperated, he thinks. Exasperated and something else unreadable. She turns back to Steve. “And to see you,” she says.

For a long moment Steve just stares at her, trying to figure out if she’s serious. It doesn’t sound like a joke; there’s no smile, no trace of laughter in her voice. But it’s a baffling thing for her to say, if she means it.

“Uh,” he says, and then feels himself blush a bit, because Nancy and Jonathan are standing in his doorway and all he’s said so far is uh and oh. 

Nancy’s smile falters. She and Jonathan exchange another look, and if Steve didn’t know better, he would almost think they seem nervous. He tries to imagine what they could possible be nervous about. 

Then it hits him. Of course they’re nervous around him. Because he’s being incredibly transparent about his feelings for Nancy, isn’t he? Shooting her all sorts of fond looks, freezing up when he sees her unexpectedly, fucking blushing—fuck, Jonathan probably thinks he’s trying to steal her away. Was that why Jonathan had seemed so uncomfortable when Steve was at his house to see El? Was that why Jonathan was here with her now—to make sure Steve didn’t try to make a move on her?

The thought makes him feel sick with guilt. I don’t want to take her from you! he wants to scream at Jonathan. And it’s the truth—because as much as he loves Nancy, he can’t imagine doing anything to hurt Jonathan.

They’ve all just been standing there in silence for entirely too long, Steve realizes, and to end this awful, awkward moment before it drags on for all of eternity, he turns and shouts into the house. “Hey, shitheads! Your siblings are here!”

That earns him a choked-sounding laugh from Jonathan, and when Steve turns back towards the door, he finds both of them smiling slightly. The sight fills his lungs with warmth, and he feels some of the tension drain away.

“Shitheads?” echoes Nancy, amused. 

“Well,” he amends, “not Will so much. Will is, like, the perfect child.”

That makes Jonathan’s smile grow wider. “He can be absolute monster when he wants to be, I promise.”

“Hm, no, can’t picture it.” Then he nods at Nancy and adds, “Mike, on the other hand—”

“Enormous shithead,” she says, just as Mike and Will appear behind him with their backpacks slung over their shoulders.

He scowls at her. “You’re a bigger shithead.”

“Careful,” she says, holding up her car keys with a smirk, “I’m your ride home.” 

Mike huffs and pushes past her, heading out to the car. Will follows, but once he’s behind Nancy and Jonathan, he stops turns back to look at Steve. He looks at him long and hard for a moment, and then from Steve to his brother and Nancy, and Steve feels absurdly exposed in this kid’s gaze. “Bye, Little Byers,” he says pointedly, lifting his hand in a wave.

But then Will and Mike are both in Nancy’s car, and Nancy and Jonathan are still just standing there. Looking at him, much more seriously than before. Steve feels his heart begin to beat a little harder.

“Listen—” starts Nancy.

But Steve cuts her off. He doesn’t want to hear it—he can’t hear it, can’t hear her say that she knows he loves her and that she’s sorry, she really is, but she’s with Jonathan now and she loves him and she isn’t going to leave him. And he doesn’t want to see the look on Jonathan’s face as she says it, all menacing on the surface but still a little soft, a little uncertain, because Jonathan has never really been good at intimidation. He thinks that, confronted with that face, there’s a reasonable chance he would just burst into tears right here on his front porch.

So instead of letting her speak, he says, “You two are really great together,” and he mostly just says it to assure them that he’s not trying to break them up, but he means it, too. They are great together. They’re so great together that every time sees them he forgets how to fucking breathe.

He’d thought the words would soothe away the lines of anxiety on their faces. Instead, though, Nancy’s face falls. Jonathan drops his gaze to his feet, and Steve can see him biting his lip. Steve doesn’t understand their reaction at all. He shifts his weight awkwardly from one foot to the other, feeling horribly like this whole conversation has just been a long series of missteps on his part. 

“Well,” says Nancy eventually, “thanks for having them over.”

Steve lets out a long, low breath. “Yeah, sure. Any time.”

“Well.”

“Well. See you, I guess.”

“Yeah.” Nancy glances at Steve, then Jonathan, then Steve again. “Yeah, see you.”

When they’ve gone, Steve shuts the door and leans his forehead against it, closing his eyes, willing his heart to calm itself.

 

 

 

“Alright, dingus,” calls Robin, slamming Steve’s front door behind her. He hears a loud thud, and when he emerges from the kitchen, drying his hands, he finds that she’s thrown her backpack carelessly down on the floor. “You’re coming with me.”

“You just walked into my house without knocking,” he tells her.

Robin rolls her eyes as if this is an entirely irrelevant detail. “Yes, I did. Now, come on.”

“Jesus—you can’t just—” But the look Robin is giving him is eerily similar to the one Dustin always has when Steve tells him he can’t drive him to the arcade—the it’s cute that you think I’ll ever respect your boundaries or acknowledge that you might have a life outside of hanging out with me look. It’s annoying as hell, and probably his least favorite expression, but they’re also not wrong; he’s terrible at enforcing boundaries, and he definitely doesn’t have a life. And really, if he’s being honest, he doesn’t actually find it that annoying. So he just sighs. “What do you want?”

“I know for a fact you’ve just been sitting in here moping all day while the rest of us are at school. So I’m taking you out for ice cream. For old time’s sake.” She pauses. “Well, technically, you’re taking me out for ice cream, since I don’t own a car.”

It’s Steve’s turn to roll his eyes, but he also can’t help the smile that creeps onto his face. He has been moping all day, unable to stop thinking about Nancy and Jonathan hanging out in the cafeteria together on the first day of their senior year and also how pathetic it is that all of his friends are still in school while he, having graduated, is now unemployed and sulking around his parents’ house. That Robin had thought of him makes him feel a little bit better. “Alright, loser,” he says, tossing the towel over his shoulder and hearing it land on the kitchen counter with a soggy plop. “Let me get my shoes.”

He drives—at her insistence—to a dingy diner that he’s never been to and which she swears has the best milkshakes in the county. They order at the counter, and for those blissful couple minutes, Steve is glad that Robin dragged him out. It feels nice, normal, to be out ordering junk food with his best friend. Then as he’s handing over the money, she says, quietly, “Oh, shit.”

He turns to look over his shoulder. There, sitting in a booth by the window, are Nancy and Jonathan.

“I’m sorry,” says Robin, sounding genuinely guilty. “I didn’t know she’d be here, I swear.”

It’s fine, Steve wants to say, but the words get stuck in his throat as he stares at them. 

Jonathan must have said something funny, because Nancy is laughing; though she’s too far away to hear, Steve can read it in her face, can imagine the sound of it perfectly in his mind. Jonathan is smiling at her, a little bit sheepishly, and as Steve watches he reaches out to take Nancy’s hand across the table. They weave their fingers together, holding on tightly, and the look on Nancy’s face melts into something softer. 

Steve thinks he might be sick.

It still isn’t jealousy, exactly; it feels decidedly different than it had during those first few months after Nancy left him. But it isn’t the warmth he feels when he’s with both of them. Instead, watching the two of them together without him, he just feels frozen and empty except for the sudden aching in his stomach. He can’t think of another time he’s felt like this, except maybe when confronted with supernatural monsters. 

Then suddenly, Nancy glances up at the counter, catches his eye, and freezes. 

Steve quickly turns away.

“Sorry,” he says to the cashier, who he realizes is still holding his change. He reaches out to take it. “Can we, uh, can we get that to go, actually?”

“Don’t turn around,” Robin mutters. “They’re both still looking at you.”

“Are you looking at them?” hisses Steve. “Jesus, could you make this any more obvious?”

You’re the one who made eye contact with Nancy and immediately looked like he was gonna puke,” retorts Robin. “I think that alone is pretty telling.”

“Keep your fucking voice down!”

“I’m fucking whispering, dingus, they’re not gonna—”

“One chocolate, one strawberry,” says the cashier, sounding bored. “Have a nice day.”

“Thanks,” says Robin, and then grabs Steve’s hand and all but drags him out of the diner. 

On their way out, Steve chances one more glance over at Nancy and Jonathan. They’re both still watching him, frowning now. He notices that their grip on each other’s hands seems to have tightened. They almost seem like they’re trying to comfort each other, and he tries not to let him think to hard about what in the world that means.

 

 

It hasn’t been that long since Steve was at the cabin, really, but as he gets out of his car and approaches it, he feels as if an entire lifetime has passed since he was last here. He’d been dropping off Dustin and Lucas—it was sometime in May, he thinks, or maybe early June—and when they’d gotten there, Hopper had been standing out on the porch smoking a cigarette. Steve doesn’t remember whether he and Hopper had spoken at all. It was an irrelevant detail, one that he’d had no reason at the time to hold onto. Now, as he climbs the steps onto that same porch, he wishes he’d been paying more attention then. Other than whatever words they might have exchanged in the chaos of the mall, it was probably the last time he and Hopper spoke.

He hasn’t seen Jonathan or Nancy since the humiliating encounter in the diner, which, in the intervening couple of weeks, he’s replayed in his mind so many times that he’s no longer a hundred percent sure which parts actually happened and which parts his brain has exaggerated. The part where he met Nancy’s eye and immediately lost his mind—he’s pretty sure that’s real. The part where Jonathan was glaring by the time Robin had successfully dragged him away, maybe not.

Either way, Steve’s somewhere between elated and terrified at the prospect of seeing him again. 

Jonathan is here already—Steve had parked right behind him, and followed the trail that his footsteps had made in the damp ground. As he reaches the cabin door, he’s overcome with an overwhelming urge to just run away. Awkwardly, he knocks on the door.

It swings open to reveal Jonathan, and for a long, tense moment, they just look at each other. Then Jonathan clears his throat. “I wasn’t sure you’d still want to come,” he says.

“Of course I came,” says Steve, “why wouldn’t I?”

Jonathan looks like he’s searching Steve’s face for something, almost like he’s trying to catch him in a lie. It’s a little unnerving, and Steve feels his face heat up slightly under the intense scrutiny. “No reason,” he says eventually.

So why weren’t you sure? Steve wants to ask. He tells himself that the reason he stays silent isn’t because he’s afraid of the answer.

Jonathan turns abruptly and goes back into the cabin, and Steve, after a moment, follows him in.

The place is a mess, even worse than he could have imagined—he’d kind of thought that Jonathan and the kids were exaggerating when they described the destruction, but he thinks, if anything, they might have understated it. There are enormous gashes in the ceiling and in the walls, and the furniture is all over the place—it’s clear that they’d tried to use it to board up the doors and windows. Splintered wood litters the floor. They’re lucky that there hasn’t been any heavy rain since that night. If they’d gotten any more than the occasional light sprinkle, everything in the house would be totally ruined.

“Here.” Jonathan pushes a broom into Steve’s hands. “Help me sweep all this up, will you?”

The lighting in the cabin is strange—dim lamplight shot through with streaks of sun pouring in from the ceiling. As he carefully sweeps the debris into piles, Steve finds himself alternately squinting against the bright sunlight and straining his eyes to see into the darker corners. Then Jonathan, absorbed in his own sweeping, passes suddenly into one of the sunbeams, Steve feels his own body go still.

Jonathan’s hair looks almost blonde in this light, a clean honey-gold that practically glows. The light glints off his face in a way that makes him look younger, somehow, or at least happier—it washes out the creases of anxiety that always decorate the corners of his eyes. It throws the muscles in his arms and back into sharp relief. All of his thoughts seem wiped clean suddenly, except for one: This, he thinks to himself, must be how Nancy sees him.

Steve doesn’t know whether Jonathan can sense that he’s being watched, or if he just happens to look up at that moment. Either way, when he meets Steve’s eyes, Steve feels a swooping in his stomach. Jonathan goes still. It’s just like that moment earlier on the porch, with both of them staring at each other, not speaking, except there’s none of the awkwardness, none of the tension. Just—Jonathan’s eyes on his, and for the half-second that it lasts, it feels like nothing else in the world has ever mattered.

Then Jonathan gives the tiniest shake of his head—so subtle that Steve doubts it was even intentional—and turns away, resuming his sweeping.

They work throughout the afternoon mostly in silence, breaking it only to give each other quiet directions, here, hold this, or pass me that nail, will you? It’s a little awkward at first, but slowly it grows more comfortable, and after a couple of course, Steve feels completely at home, in sync, in rhythm, moving around Jonathan like this. It’s almost like a dance. It’s almost like—he remembers trying to help Nancy cook dinner once, and the way they’d moved around each other in the crowded kitchen, squeezing past one another and smiling when their bodies touched. It’s almost like that, except that Steve and Jonathan haven’t bumped into each other yet. Steve almost wishes that they would.

Then, as Jonathan is nailing another board over one of the many gashes in the wall, Steve hears him take a deep, sharp breath. He turns quickly, alarmed, thinking that Jonathan has just smashed the hammer on his finger or something, but when he sees Jonathan’s face he realizes it wasn’t a gasp of pain. Jonathan was steeling himself for something. As he looks at Steve, his expression suddenly tense and closed-off, Steve feels his heart begin to pound. This is it, he thinks. Jonathan knows. This is the moment where Jonathan finally confronts me over being in love with Nancy.

Instead, what Jonathan says is, “We’re leaving Hawkins.”

For a long moment, Steve’s mind is absolutely, horribly blank. Leaving Hawkins? That doesn’t make any sense at all. That’s not something that people do, especially not people like the Byers, especially not—

“My mom can’t—it’s just too much, being here. And…” He takes a deep breath, his eyes still not leaving Steve’s face. “I don’t blame her.” Then, when Steve still says nothing: “Say something?”

Jonathan sounds a little desperate, almost like he’s pleading. He looks so unhappy suddenly, and fuck, Steve would say anything if he thought it could make that unhappiness go away. “I, uh. Yeah. Yeah, that…makes sense.” The words come out sluggishly, and Steve feels oddly as if he’s not the one saying them.

“Yeah,” says Jonathan on a long exhale. 

Steve can’t quite decide whether he’s feeling a lot of things or nothing at all. The former, probably, though his brain and his whole body seem to have gone numb. Finally pulls himself together enough to ask, “When?”

Jonathan hesitates as if trying to do the math in his head, even though Steve is certain that he already knows the exact date. “Uh, beginning of October, I think.”

Beginning of October. That’s barely a month away.

There are lot of thoughts rushing through his head, suddenly. Will and El will be separated from the Party. El will be separated from Mike. And Jonathan will be separated from Nancy. For an awful, guilty second, it occurs to him that this could be the end of their relationship. Long distance is hard, no matter how in love they are. And if Jonathan and Nancy break up, and if Steve is the one who’s still around in Hawkins to be there for her afterwards—

But he doesn’t want them to break up, he realizes. He knows with absolute certainty that he’s in love with Nancy, but he also knows that he doesn’t want Jonathan to leave her, and he doesn’t think it’s just out of guilt or goodwill or empathy or whatever. He’s not a good enough person for that. But the thought of Nancy without Jonathan, even with all the possibilities it opens up, is also a strange one. A sad one.

Jonathan is still staring at him, he realizes, waiting for a response. With hands that feel inexplicably weak and shaky, Steve picks his hammer back up as casually as he can manage. “Well,” he says. “We’ll miss having you around, man.”

He goes back to work, careful not to look at Jonathan again, but he can tell that Jonathan’s gaze is lingering on his back long after he’s resumed hammering.

 

 

 

“Oh, shit,” says Robin when he tells her that the Byers are leaving town. “Seriously?” 

Steve picks at his food, trying for nonchalance, and, he’s pretty sure, failing miserably. “Yeah. Jonathan told me when we were fixing up Hopper’s old cabin. Early October, I think.”

“That’s so quick.”

He shrugs. “It’ll be weird, not having Will and El around.” 

“Yeah. They’re the only ones that aren’t completely unbearable after, like, five minutes.”

Steve manages to smile a little at the jab, which he knows she means affectionately, but there’s no humor in it. He stabs at his pasta maybe a little more aggressively than is strictly necessary. 

It’s Jonathan’s leaving that bothers him the most, Jonathan who he knows he’ll most miss. He knows this makes no sense; he doesn’t hang out with Jonathan even as fraction as often as he sees the kids. He tells himself that the illogic of it is the only reason why he can’t bring himself to tell Robin how upset he is by it.

But Robin is smart, and the best friend he’s ever had, and he knows she can tell that Will and El’s leaving alone isn’t enough to explain how down he’s feeling. She frowns at him. “Are you okay? I mean, I know you love those kids, but—I don’t know, you seem extra off.”

He is extra off. He’s not sure what he’d been imagining, exactly—that he and Jonathan would become friends, real friends who hang out all the time? That he’d start tagging along with him and Nancy on their dates? But whatever it was he’d wanted, it’ll never happen now that Jonathan is leaving Hawkins. The time has passed. He’s missed his chance.

Steve.” He startles, having forgotten somehow that she’s actually waiting for an answer. “Dude, seriously, what’s going on with you?”

“I—” It’s right there on the tip of his tongue, how much he’ll miss Jonathan. But the words finally form, it’s the other truth that spills out. “I’m in love with Nancy.”

Robin sighs, her expression softening from worry into sympathy. “I know,” she says quietly.

He can tell by the way she says it that she’s known the whole time. He supposes his evasive answer the last time she asked about it, that day in his bedroom, can’t have been terribly convincing. And he’s been nothing if not obvious about it, what with his ridiculous reaction to seeing her in the diner. Still, it’s the first time he’s admitted it out loud to anyone, and even if he’s not actually telling her anything new, it does take a little bit of the weight off his chest. There’s still the Jonathan-shaped pit in his stomach, but it’s something.

“Well,” says Robin more brightly, in an obvious effort to cheer him up. “That makes this good news, then, right?”

“What do you mean?”

She rolls her eyes at him. “If Jonathan’s leaving, you don’t have to worry about running into them together anymore. You literally never have to see his stupid face again if you don’t want to.”

He doesn’t say anything. He can’t.

She keeps going, cracking jokes at Jonathan’s expense, clearly trying to make him feel better. He appreciates the effort, because how could she possibly know how he feels about him? But it doesn’t help at all. It just makes the Jonathan-shaped pit hurt even worse.

 

 

 

They’re on their way to the video store to beg for jobs when Steve abruptly breaks the silence. “I should be there,” he says.

Robin turns her head to look at him. Steve doesn’t take his eyes off the road but he knows exactly what face Robin is making—her confused face, with her eyebrows raised and her lips slightly pursed. “Be where?” she asks.

“At the Byers’. To see them off. Since, you know, they’re leaving today and it’ll be awhile before we see any of them again, and—”

“Wait,” Robin interrupts him, the ghost of an incredulous laugh in her voice. “You want to go see off Jonathan Byers? The same Jonathan Byers that’s dating the great and star-crossed love of your life? The one who kicked your—”

Jesus, can we forget about the fight?” snaps Steve. “I just thought it might be nice, you know? To see him one last time.”

He risks a glance at Robin and winces at the look on her face. Her eyebrows are raised so high now that they’ve all but disappeared into her hairline. “To see him one last time,” she repeats dubiously.

Which, okay, that had been a dumb thing for him to say. “I mean, to see all of them one last time,” he corrects himself hastily. “Will and El, I mean.”

“You already said bye to Will and El,” Robin points out, correctly. 

Steve can’t think of anything to say to that. He feels himself starting to get a little annoyed—not with Robin, necessarily, but just annoyed in general. Maybe with himself, a bit. Because she’s right; why the fuck would he care about saying goodbye to Jonathan? They aren’t friends. They might have fought a few monsters together, and he might be having a harder and harder time keeping Jonathan out of his mind these days, and okay, maybe he can’t stop thinking about that day at the cabin, but they aren’t friends, and Jonathan’s dating his ex-girlfriend, who Steve is still in love with, so Steve should hate him, actually. He should be thrilled that the Byers are leaving Hawkins. He shouldn’t want to say goodbye. 

“Yeah, well,” he mutters. It’s a lame response, and he’s waited too long before saying it, but he hopes Robin won’t call him on it.

She doesn’t. She’s still looking at him a little weirdly, but Steve can see on her face the moment she decides to humor him by letting it go. “You got your resumé with you?"

“We’re going to apply for a fucking job, aren’t we?” he says. “Of course I have it.” But he’s smiling a little as he says it. Robin is changing the subject for him, and in that moment he is so grateful for her that he could cry.

 

 

 

Time passes normally after that, which is perhaps the strangest part. It’s jarring to realize how little Jonathan had factored into his day-to-day life, how infrequently Steve had actually seen him. Mostly, his life is the same as before—he goes to work, hangs out with Robin, spends entirely too much time ferrying the kids around and lounges about his parents’ empty house. If it weren’t for the fact that he’s two kids short, and that the remaining ones are acting a little subdued, he would hardly even notice the Byers’ absence.

And yet.

He hasn’t seen Nancy in weeks. She’s busy, he knows, what with it being the fall of her senior year, but he also can’t help but wonder if maybe she’s avoiding him. If maybe she’s afraid to see him without Jonathan there as a buffer. It hurts a little to think of Nancy not wanting to be around him, and he can’t pretend he doesn’t miss her. 

One day in early November, though, he emerges from the back room of the Family Video to find her standing at the counter.

Steve thinks he really has to stop doing this—seeing Nancy or Jonathan unexpectedly and then just staring at them while he tries to pull his thoughts together into something coherent. But how can he not stare? Nancy’s got her hair pulled loosely and a few curls have escaped around her ears, and she’s wearing a soft sweater that—he swallows hard—he can very specifically remember pulling over her head countless times. He always used to get the collar snagged on her ponytail, yanking her hair out of place, which she’d pretend to be mad about and he’d just laugh because they both knew that her hair was going to be a mess by the time they finished anyway.

Finally, to stop his racing thoughts before they can veer into anything too explicit, he gestures at the stack of movies that she’s placed on the counter. “Didn’t think you liked sci-fi,” he says.

“I don’t,” says Nancy. “These are for Mike. I said I’d pick them up. They’re having a movie night or something.”

Steve knows that Nancy loves her brother. He also knows that there are few things she finds more annoying than having to run errands for him. He can’t really picture a scenario in which she would offer to get his movies for him. Maybe she’s here to see you, supplies a very unhelpful part of his brain, and he tries to banish the thought. Wishful thinking has never gotten him anywhere with Nancy Wheeler. So all he says is, “That’s cool of you.”

Nancy shrugs. “I was nearby anyway.”

“Cool,” says Steve again, and tries not to visibly cringe at himself. 

He completes her checkout in silence, afraid that he won’t be able to speak without saying something else incredibly stupid. It’s only when he pushes the movies back across the counter at her that she says, a little stiffly but still sincere-sounding, “How have you been?”

He gestures vaguely at his surroundings: I’m here, aren’t I? “Living the dream.”

A shadow of a smirk appears on her face. “That bad, huh?”

“I work for Keith Lawson, Nance. This must be what rock-bottom feels like.”

She laughs, and at the sound he’s overcome with emotion—love, sure, definitely, but more overwhelming is just simple affection. He likes Nancy as much as he loves her, likes her company, likes joking around with her like this. He misses spending time with her just as much as he misses kissing her. For a second, he considers suggesting that they hang out sometime—how bad could it be, really? He can live with the heartache as long as he still gets to see her. Being her friend would be better than nothing.

But then he thinks of the way Jonathan’s absence would just loom over both of them, and thinks better of it. It would feel wrong to spend time with her without him there too, like something would be missing and it would just hurt more if they tried to pretend that everything was okay.

“How’s Jonathan doing?” he asks abruptly, before he can lose his nerve.

“He’s okay,” she says. “Just, you know. Adjusting.”

“Do you know when he’ll visit?”

The look she gives him then is a little strange—a little bit questioning, and maybe, he thinks, a little bit hopeful. “He’s not sure yet,” she says slowly. Then, just as she looks like she’s about to add something else, the door crashes open and a crowd of teenagers burst into the video store.

“Oh—” says Nancy. “You’re busy. I should go.”

“No, it’s okay, I—”

“Wouldn’t want you getting in trouble with Keith,” she says, flashing him one last smile before she takes her movies and leaves.

He watches out the window as she gets into her car, and continues to stare absently at the same spot long after she’s driven away. He wonders if whatever she was going to add had been important. She doesn’t usually hesitate unless it is.

 

 

Steve remembers vividly what it feels like to punch Jonathan Byers. 

He’s thought about it a lot over the past few years—at first with a grim sort of pride and then, later, after he’d done a little bit of reflecting and a lot of growing up, something akin to shame. He remembers exactly how Jonathan’s skin had felt under his hands: the roughness of his face, the softness of his flesh. Jonathan’s warm, heavy, solid weight on time of him. And his eyes, all his attention, focused on Steve, Steve, Steve.

He’s thought a lot about what it felt like to hold Jonathan Byers in his hands.

He’s never thought about it like this.

He wakes up gasping, the same way he would from a nightmare, but this wasn’t a nightmare. He doesn’t know what this was, this vivid dream, half-memory, half-fantasy, though the line between the two is blurry at best. His breath is hitching—he’s crying, he realizes, awful, panicked sobs. Because this can’t be happening, it can’t be, it can’t be. He chants it to himself, muttering it over and over and over again, can’t be, can’t be. But, if he’s being honest with himself, he knows exactly what this was.

The dream is fading already, dissolving into only the vaguest remembered fragments of a version of Jonathan that had suddenly stopped punching and instead leaned his head down, closing the gap to press his lips firmly to Steve’s. It had been chaste, almost, as chaste as it could be with Jonathan entirely on top of him. But still, when Steve realizes that he’s doing his best to hold the dream in his mind, to keep Jonathan fixed there in his memory forever, that’s when he knows for certain.

He doesn’t miss Jonathan the way he’d miss a friend, or the way he mourns Will’s and El’s and Mrs. Byers’ departures. Missing Jonathan feels so different that missing hardly seems like the right word—he misses him in a way that phone calls could never make up for. Misses him in a way that seeing Jonathan could never make up for, because, he realizes, he misses Jonathan even when he’s standing right next to him. He misses every piece of Jonathan, with every piece of himself, all of the time. 

He misses Jonathan the same way he misses Nancy.

He can’t be in love with Jonathan Byers.

He can’t be.

But he is.

He takes one deep, shuddering breath, then another, and another.

He’s in love with Jonathan Byers.

Now that he’s thought of it, it seems like the easiest, most obvious thing in the world.

 

 

 

In that moment, in the middle of the night, the realization had been a relief. It had explained so much, and it had felt so calming to finally have a word for the way he felt about Jonathan. Now, in the daylight, it’s anything but.

He doesn’t know what this makes him—a queer, he’d say, except he’s still in love with Nancy and isn’t sure if queers can love girls too. He also has to keep reminding himself not to use that word. It’s derogatory, Robin says. Does it count as derogatory if he’s using it to describe himself? He can’t think of another word to use. He’s pretty sure the fact of Nancy rules out his being a homosexual. And besides, if he was actually a homosexual, wouldn’t he have realized it sooner? Wouldn’t there have been other boys too?

He should be going to Robin for help. Logically, he knows this. She’s the only person in the world who he knows wouldn’t judge him for this—at least, for the loving Jonathan part. Even Robin might have her reservations about wanting two people at once. And what the fuck does that part make him? A Mormon?

He can’t tell Robin, though. He isn’t sure why, but every time he sees her in the days after his realization, the words sticks in his throat. He knows she can tell that he’s keeping something from her; he’s never been good at subtlety and Robin is the most observant person he’s ever met, except for maybe Nancy. But after the first couple attempts at getting it out of him, she doesn’t press it. She just accepts his inexplicable moodiness and he doesn’t care what she thinks it is—depression or pining after Nancy or what. He’s just relieved not to have to defend himself against her, too, when he already feels somehow like the entire rest of the world has turned against him.

It’s the fourth day before Robin’s careful concern turns into annoyance. It happens abruptly. She’s lounging against Steve’s shoulder when she suddenly sits up and aims the remote at the TV to pause the movie they’re watching. “You can’t keep being all miserable about Nancy,” she says decisively, as if just by saying it she can turn off his feelings for her. “I mean, it sucks, and I’m sorry, but at some point you’re going to have to move on.”

Steve just gapes at her for a moment, unsure where this is coming from, or why she’s choosing now of all times to throw this in his face. “I’m not being all miserable about Nancy,” he says.

She rolls her eyes at him. “You’re a shit liar, Harrington, you know that?”

“I’m not lying,” he snaps at her. “Just put the fucking movie back on.”

Instead of doing that, she tosses the remote across the room. It bounces uselessly on the carpet before coming to a stop. “No. Look, I love you, and I want to be here for you, but I’d be being a shitty friend if I just let you wallow like this forever. I’m serious, Steve. You’ve been even worse than usual the last few days. You’ve got to move on.”

Steve wonders if she realizes that it’s the first time she’s ever said she loves him. He knows she does, of course, and he knows she knows that he loves her too, but hearing her say it out loud does something funny to his heart so that instead of lashing out at her in annoyance the way he probably would have done, he feels himself sag. He feels the words in his throat finally begin to unstick. “I…”

Robin softens a little. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be an asshole. I just…you can’t let her keep breaking your heart like this, Steve.”

He shakes his head. His heart is suddenly hammering in his chest so loudly that he’s amazed Robin doesn’t seem to hear it. And even as ninety-eight percent of his brain is screaming at him to stop, to backpedal, he hears himself say, “It’s not just Nancy.”

Robin hesitates. “Not…just Nancy?”

His hands are shaking, he realizes, and he crosses his arms defensively to hide it. His mouth is dry. All of his limbs are tingling. He feels a shiver run down his entire body. 

He takes a deep breath. “Remember what you told me?” he asks quietly. “In the bathroom at Starcourt?”

“No, I forgot.” Then she pauses a moment, seeming to process what he’s saying, and a crease appears between her eyebrows. “Steve,” she says slowly, quietly, wonderingly—a whisper of breath, the same way she’d said his name all those months ago when it was her telling him her biggest secret, not the other way around. 

“Robin,” he replies. He feels—not dizzy, exactly, but strangely unreal. His breaths are beginning to catch a little. You will not fucking cry right now, Harrington, he tells himself, but he knows even as he thinks it that it’s a lost cause. He can already feel the pressure building behind his eyes.

“Who is it?” she asks.

He squeezes his eyes shut. Of course she’ll be okay with it. Of course she’ll support him. All the same, he can’t bear to see her face when he says it. “I think you already know, Robs.”

There’s a long pause. Then—“Jonathan,” she realizes softly.

He can’t bring himself to speak to confirm it. He just nods.

“You—both of them?”

He nods again.

She’s silent again for a long time after that—hours, it feels like, even though it can’t be more than a few seconds. You OD over there? he wants to ask, but he’s not convinced he’ll be able to form words without bursting into tears. So he waits.

Finally she says, “Well, that explains a lot.”

He opens his eyes to look at her, finally, and is surprised to find her smiling. “It…does it?”

“Dude, it explains so much. I’m so fucking stupid. You wanted to go say goodbye to him, remember? You two aren’t friends. Why would you want to do that unless you’re in love with Nancy and him. And—” She laughs. “That day in the diner, remember? Jesus, you were way more dramatic than would make sense if you were just jealous of him. I’ve never seen anyone blush as hard as you did when you saw the two of them together.”

In spite of himself, he feels a sheepish smile begin to spread on his own face. “I don’t blush,” he insists.

“You so blush!” she shouts. She’s grinning now, triumphant. “Steve the Hair Harrington, you blush when you run into Jonathan fucking Byers!”

“Keep your fucking voice down!” he laughs, as if there’s anyone else in the house to hear them.

He feels like something in his chest is unfolding, blooming—a shimmer of warmth expanding outward through his body. He feels new, and alive, and he can almost forget about the fact that Jonathan is gone and he and Nancy will never love him anyway because Robin is here, and she’s laughing with him, and he has an explanation for everything now, and he’s told her, and somehow, impossibly, wonderfully, the world is still turning.

“I love you,” he says.

Her smile softens. “I love you, too,” she tells him, even though she was the one who said it first. 

Steve leans over to pull her into his arms. She hugs him back tightly, resting her head against his shoulder. 

He has Robin. Whatever he is, whatever happens with Nancy and Jonathan, he’s going to be okay.

 

 

For a long moment, he isn’t sure what woke him. He’s as comfortable as he’s ever been, lying in his bed with Robin, who’d ended up staying over the night before. He tries to imagine himself from just a few months ago, friendless except for a bunch of thirteen-year-olds. And now here he is, holding his sleeping best friend while early-morning sunlight streams in through the window. 

Then the doorbell rings again, and he realizes: that must be what woke him. 

He pulls slowly away from Robin, careful not to wake her. She makes a soft, sleepy noise, burrowing her face deeper into his pillow, and he thinks he might burst with fondness. Then he slips quietly from the room, heading downstairs to tell whichever kid is at his door to fuck off until at least ten o’clock.

When he opens the door, though, it’s not any of his children.

It’s Nancy.

She’s bathed in in gentle, dappled autumn sunlight, bouncing slightly from foot to foot to keep warm in the morning chill. And he can’t help it. He just gazes at her.

She’s so beautiful. 

She’s so fucking beautiful that it’s like a stake is being driven directly through his heart, but if it hurts, it’s a pain he relishes. He’d let Nancy stab him through the heart over and over and over again, he thinks. 

Nancy and Jonathan both. God—they could do anything to him. Because he loves them, both of them, and as desperately painful as it is, he never wants the feeling to go away.

Steve,” she says, exasperated, and he jolts back to real life. He realizes she must have said his name a few times. “You with me?”

“Yeah.” His voice comes out humiliatingly breathy. He clears his throat. “Yeah, sorry. Sorry. What, uh, what can I do for you?”

She seems to hesitate a moment, and Steve can see a very significant something flickering in her eyes, but he can’t identify what it is. It’s gone as quickly as it came, leaving her looking perfectly calm and ordinary. As he watches her, she straightens up slightly, the way she always does when she thinks she’s about to have to plead her case. The stake in his heart plunges just a little bit deeper.

“I need a favor,” she says.