Steve Harrington woke up on the floor of the Byers’ house, spine digging into the side of the couch and legs sprawled awkwardly akimbo. There was a tiny angel with flaming red hair kneeling in front of him, and another, with a camo-print bandana across his forehead, who was saying something. Steve couldn’t understand them. He couldn’t understand much, really. His head was ringing and his eyes were unfocused, catching on the little spirals and dots that burst across his vision.
A mop of curls — or maybe that was a bowl of noodles — swam across Steve’s vision. There was a sudden burning sensation against his skin, like hundreds of needlepoints digging into his cheeks and against his shattered nose, and then the noodles disappeared.
“What the fuck are those bandaids supposed to do?” asked someone, their tone hysterical.
“We have to get him to the tunnels,” said someone else. “The bandaids are the best we can do. Shit, it’s like Billy wanted him dead.“
Billy. The name rang a bell. It sent a hot burst of panic through Steve’s chest that threatened to catapult him upright, but the pounding of his head kept him in place. The world went dark and for a moment, Steve wondered who’d turned the lights out. Then, he realised he'd shut his eyes.
“Get him to the car,” that same voice said.
The world swam in and out.
“— heavy, like a bag of bricks—“
“—watch his head; he’s got enough brain dam—“
When Steve came to for the second time, he was draped across the laps of a bunch of children. Wedged between Nancy — no, that wasn’t right; this was Mike, his face sloping and nose sharp — and Dustin. Steve’s throat felt constricted, chin bouncing against his chest. His knee dug into something sharp, there was an elbow planted firmly in his ribs, and a ringing in his ears that threatened to never disperse. He had no clue where he was.
“Steve,” Dustin said. “Hey, shh, bud. Calm down. You’re okay.”
Steve was making noises. Little, muttery things, paired with the occasional grunt and whine of confusion. His head was a murky swamp, thoughts trapped in treacherous depths hidden beneath the rolling fog that encased his mind. He felt both hot and cold and like he could sleep a million years and never again, all at once. He was wired like a bad trip, sluggish, but drifting back to his body.
Then, he spotted Max in the driver’s seat. Then, he realised he was in a car — Billy’s fucking Camero. Then, he felt the onslaught of panic, bright and burning, inferno hot in his chest and spilling from his lips like lava.
“Stop! Pull over — slow, slow down!”
No one listened to him. He wasn’t expecting them to, but it would have been nice for once if someone did. Max spun the wheel sharply to the left and the gut in Steve’s elbow migrated to his stomach, forcing a punched-out whine that he couldn’t bring himself to feel embarrassed about. Dustin’s clammy hands brushed his hair. He smacked gently at Steve’s shoulder.
“Come on, man,” he chanted. “Keep those peepers open, Harrington!”
Steve drifted. Keep your feet planted, said the monstrous, twisting vision of Billy in his head. Keep those peepers open, said Dustin, eyes wild and mouth pinched. Keep your mouth shut and your head down, Steven, his mother hissed, fingers tight around Steve’s wrist, glare poisonous, fury potent. He couldn’t see his father — didn’t know whether that was better or worse.
A car door slammed. Distantly, Steve realised he was being tugged from the car. He managed to stay upright, flagging against the Camaro as the brats tossed a shit tonne of supplies on the ground. Fuel canisters, bandanas, goggles, fucking swim caps and masks, tape, rope, Lucas’s wrist rocket, Steve’s nail bat — which, where the hell had they gotten all this from? Panic sank heavy in Steve’s guts. Just how long had he been out for?
“Come on, come on, come on,” Lucas chanted, scrambling towards the hole.
Steve tried one final time to stop them, dizzy and distant, but he knew he had lost. So, into the hole they went.
Mike tried to lead. Of course he did; his best friend was miles away, dying, possessed by a fucking shadow demon or the Mind Slayer or whatever they were labelling it now. Steve felt possessed himself, trudging through the tunnels in a haze. He felt like a shepherd, a flock of children like sheep at his heels. He could only hope he wasn’t leading them to the slaughterhouse.
The thing about the kids was that, while they were loyal and brave and ridiculously clever, they were still kids, and sometimes they could be dumber than a sack of bricks. Case in point — Dustin. Dustin, who leant down, head angled towards something fat and pulsing. Not a care in the world, he tugged his mask below his mouth, curiosity sparking in the depths of his eyes.
“Henderson!” Steve barked.
Steve saw it happen before Dustin did. The bulborous plant matter swelled, petals unfurling as it glowed a vibrant gold and washed-out blue. Steve lunged, slung an arm around Dustin’s waist, and pivoted. Something in his knee threatened to tear. Dustin flew sideways as Steve collapsed, side burning and ribs aching. His bandana slipped from his lips and he opened his mouth to cry out.
The flower exploded.
Dust. Thousands of shards of glass. The gritty taste of something rotten.
Steve didn’t feel his knees hit the tunnel floor. There was a pain in his head that crescendoed, an ache in his gut that threatened to become permanent, and a burning that spread wide across his veins, like lava pooling in the chasm between skin and muscle and bone. It was as if someone was forcing dry ice against his mouth, past his lips, and down the shredded column of his throat. He shuddered. Without thinking, he swallowed.
“Steve? Steve? Holy fuck, we killed our babysitter!”
“He’s not dead! He hasn’t fallen over, yet!”
“He hasn’t moved. He’s dead. Holy shit, he’s dead! Fuck, do you think I can take his bat? You know, in loving memory?”
“I’m not dead,” Steve rasped. “Also, no, you cannot have the fucking bat. She’s mine.”
“She? Jesus, he’s not our babysitter — he’s our barbarian.”
Steve pressed shaky fingers against his eyes and focused on breathing rather than the ongoing argument behind him. He took stock of himself. He still had all his fingers, his vision was clearing — finally — and he felt … okay. Tired, stressed, but okay. The clouds in his head dispersed. As much as he wanted to sit and get his bearings, the longer he sat, the harder it would be to get up.
“Come on,” Steve grunted. He got to his feet and braced himself momentarily against the wall. “Give me my bat. We’ve gotta keep moving.”
Later, after the tunnels burst into flames and the wails of the dying demodogs faded out and Eleven stumbled, exhausted, blood-streaked, into Joyce’s arms —
Later, after Steve watched the Byers reunite, and Mike threw himself into Nancy’s arms, and Dustin clutched Lucas’s and Max’s hands so tightly his knuckles popped —
Later, after he pushed open the door to an oppressive, empty house and stumbled into his bathroom, and stood beneath too-hot shower water and pressed his hand firmly against his chest and did his best not to shatter, and failed —
Later, months later, Steve made a discovery.
Three days after Billy Hargrove smashed a plate into Steve’s head, leaving him with a grade three concussion and a consistent ringing in his left ear, Steve woke up to the remnants of a blue-gold glow in his room.
He jerked free from a nightmare, the taste of Upside Down tunnel air phantom but heavy on his tongue. His eyes were bleary and his heart pounded in his chest so hard it threatened to snap his ribs. His scalp prickled. He dug his fingers in and tugged, desperate to ground himself. He hummed quietly, unable to work his tongue yet. The vibration in his chest would hopefully root him to the Rightside Up.
Steve was wearing his largest, loosest sweater to bed. It almost swamped him, his hands only just hanging out of the sleeves. It was long enough and thick enough that the little blue-gold haze sinking below his skin to curl around his ribs wasn’t visible. Steve didn’t see the same little glow curl around his ankles and wind up his knees and slip up the delicate skin of his back. He was too busy trying to convince himself the clothes stacked on the chair were just that, and not the tall, intimidating frame of his father.
“Pull it together, Harrington,” Steve murmured, face sweaty and hands clammy. “You’re okay.”
You’re okay, he thought. Repeated it, even, in an endless babble that only cut out when he drifted off into uneasy sleep.
Maybe if he repeated it enough he could convince himself it was true.
Two weeks after the tunnels, Steve was dicing tomatoes in the kitchen. He hated cooking but had, thankfully, become proficient enough at it that he could drift as he did so. He stared down at the chopping board with glazed eyes, his head in the clouds, and wondered where he was going with his life now. Things could never go back to normal, having seen what he had, and knowing what he did. The curtains in the living room were permanently shut where they faced the pool. Barbara, body sunk below the surface, taunted him.
Sometimes, he spoke to her, in the early hours of the morning. Sometimes, when he woke from the violent clutches of a nightmare or when he spiralled so badly he was left heaving bile and spit into the toilet, he pushed open the sliding door and slipped out onto the decking. Sometimes, he sat right on the ledge, always too scared to dangle his feet in the water, and he told her that he was sorry, and that he wished it was him, and that he pretended, selfishly, that she did run away.
Steve diced the tomatoes and thought about his future, or lack thereof. The thing was, tomatoes packed a lot of juice, and on one downstroke, his fingers slipped on the knife. He jerked it sideways. Blood welled across his pinky, smearing over the chopping board and contaminating his food. The white hot pain ripped through his finger. It burned. He shoved his pinky under the tap and tilted his head to the ceiling. He was growing accustomed to seeing blood — God, wasn’t that just another fucked up thing to admit? — but he still wasn’t comfortable with it. Especially when it was his.
The radio atop the microwave played quietly, some irritating little tune he recognised as Georgie Girl. It was an awful song but the whistle was distracting. He latched onto it, humming along as he rotated his finger beneath the water. Eventually, he felt brave enough to check.
“What the fuck?”
The cut was tiny. It was so small it was barely visible. When Steve tugged his finger free of the water, it didn't continue bleeding. Huh, he thought, glancing back at the chopping board. The tomatoes were a mess of juice and blood, so he hadn’t hallucinated the accident. The cut on his skin looked a week old. Steve shook his head and dug his fingers into his temples.
“You’re imagining things,” he told himself. “Clean up the tomatoes. The Henderson’s are expecting you.”
The tips of his hair sparked gold-blue in the reflection of the window. It was a shame Steve’s head was bowed. He missed it.
Longer still after the tunnels, Steve stood in the cramped bathroom of the Hendersons. Dustin chewed at his bottom lip, so rigid it made Steve restless. Dustin was high-energy, no matter his mood. It was strange to see him so statuesque, eyes big and flat on his pinched, nervous face.
“Dude,” Steve said, settling his hands against Dustin’s shoulders. “You cool?”
He stood behind Dustin who sat on a wooden kitchen stool. They both faced the mirror, Steve towering over Dustin, dressed in a sweater and acid-washed jeans. Dustin was in his Snow Ball suit already, crisp and handsome and so stressed Steve was worried he’d puke. They met each other’s eyes in the mirror. Steve watched as a myriad of emotions stormed Dustin’s face, too quick to parse. Eventually, Dustin’s shoulders slumped and he began to fiddle with the tie around his neck.
“You promise I won’t look stupid?” Dustin asked, as Steve picked up the curler.
“No, man. I promise. I’m just going to train your hair to curl backwards, okay? Then it’s mousse and gel to hold it and—”
“Four puffs of Farrah Fawcett,” Dustin sighed, managing a weak smile. “I remember. Okay. Just, don’t let me look like a poodle, okay?”
“Poodle-free zone,” Steve promised. “I know you’ve got a dog allergy.”
He wedged the handle of a comb in between his teeth and started to card his fingers through Dustin’s hair, getting a feel for how it sat and its overall texture. Dustin had a head of gorgeous curls that Steve was, quite frankly, a little jealous of. His own hair was thick and a nice enough colour, but it took hours to train into the sloping curl he wore so often. Naturally, his hair was a little looser, wavy and prone to frizzing in humidity.
Dustin rolled his eyes but said nothing. He waited patiently, for once, gnawing at his bottom lip. Steve picked up the curler and began the process, knowing they were short on time.
“You excited for tonight?” he asked, slurred around the comb in his mouth.
Dustin’s head jerked. “Uh huh!” he said, and that gummy little grin Steve was coming to adore began to take shape across Dustin’s mouth. “I’m gonna ask Lisa to dance, and maybe Stacey, even— Oh, I’m definitely gonna ask Stacey.”
“Oh yeah, Casanova?”
As Dustin wriggled in place, smacking his hands against his thighs, he shifted on the seat. The stool wobbled and Steve, whose foot sat balanced on the back of its support beam, panicked. He fumbled to make sure Dustin didn’t fall and, in his haste not to burn the side of Dustin’s head, wrapped his hand around the curler. Pain richotted across his skin. Steve tugged back with a yelp not unlike that of a wounded animal.
“Shit!” he hissed, dropping the curler on the floor, away from both of their feet. His fingers curled in, protecting the soft flesh of his palm. “Oh fuck, that really hurts. Jesus Christ.” In an effort to stop swearing, he hummed out a warbling little grunt.
Dustin slid from the chair, jumping on the spot. “Steve,” he panicked, eyes beseeching. “I’m sorry. Shit, dude. God, okay, here—” He gestured to the tap. “Run it under the water, man. Should I get my mum?”
“Maybe,” Steve admitted, closing his eyes against the sudden burst of pain that swarmed the flesh of his palm.
With a swiftness that impressed Steve, Dustin ducked out the door.
Steve kept his eyes squeezed shut as he fumbled to turn the tap on. He sucked in a few breaths and tried to think positively — silver linings and all that. The burn was on his non-dominant hand, so it wasn’t like he was going to be useless and unable to complete his finals after winter break. It also wasn’t the hand he used to— uh, anyway. There were positives, is what he was saying. To distract himself, he hummed again, some showtune Ma Henderson was obssessed with.
At some point, blue-gold burst across his eyelids. Steve peeked his eyes open, two slivers of chestnut. He expected to see headlights cutting through the tiny window of the bathroom. Nothing. The blinds were shut. His brow twisted.
The door swung in. Ma Henderson, her entire face softened with worry, reached out and cupped Steve’s cheek.
“Steven,” she chastised, gently. “What have you done, silly boy?”
Steve bowed his head. Ma was always kind to him. She treated him as though he were as young as Dustin, just a wayward kid in desperate need of mothering. It should’ve annoyed him, maybe come off patronising. Were it anyone else, it might have, but Ma Henderson was a good woman. She was a little coddling and overbearing and forced him to eat seconds when he really didn't want to, but she was a good woman. Kind. Loving. She touched Steve’s cheek like he was delicate and worth treating gently. She was nothing like his own mother.
“Let me see, Steven,” she murmured.
Slowly, Steve unfolded his fingers. He waited for blistered skin and pulsing bubbles of liquid and raw, red flesh. Nothing. His palm was pink, at most. Dustin stared down at Steve’s hand, as confused as Steve was.
“What the sh— heck? There’s no way that didn’t leave at least a tiny burn.”
Steve prodded the skin. It wasn’t exactly comfortable, but it didn’t sting. It felt like pins and needles, actually, as if he’d rested on the palm for too long and now the blood was trying to circulate back into his limb.
“Mustn’t have been as hot as I thought,” Steve muttered. He eyed the curler on the tile. “Sorry, Dustin, Ma,” he continued, flicking the appliance off at the wall and leaving it where it was to cool. “I guess it just … surprised me, rather than hurt.”
Once Ma left the bathroom, Steve ran his fingers through Dustin’s hair, admiring the way the curls sat. Not so bad, Harrington, he told himself, preening a little. He spread mousse across his hands and added the finishing touches to Dustin’s hair. Then, Ma was yelling that they were going to be late and she wanted to take pictures before they headed out. Dustin slid from the seat with a shouted swear and groan and wandered back into the main room.
Steve knew Ma would expect him to be in the pictures. It was why he was wearing one of his nicer outfits, clean-pressed and stinking of laundry detergent. He cleaned up the bathroom while Dustin had his solo photos taken. When it came to scooping the curler, Steve paused. His hand hovered over the handle.
Steve glanced from the curler to his hand and back again. He flexed his fingers, digging his nails into his palm, and felt nothing but an expected sting. He took a breath. The curler had been off long enough that no matter what setting it was on, it wouldn’t be hot any longer. He didn’t need to worry, so he wrapped his fingers around the curler and lifted, meaning to check the heat level.
“Steve!” Dustin hollered, verging on hysterical. “Hurry up! Mum’s asking if she can drive us— you know that wasn’t the deal, ma!”
Steve grimaced. He loved Ma, really, but she and Dustin sometimes worked each other up into an emotional whirlwind. Steve did not want to be caught in the middle of it. He discarded the curler on the counter and fled to the main room to rescue Dustin.
In the freshly-empty bathroom, the curler, weighed down by the awkward twist of its cord, rolled to the side. The heat setting read ‘maximum’.
Things started to get weird after Steve graduated.
To begin with, his parents actually came back to Hawkins to watch. They sat in the stands, straight-laced and rigid, eyes hollow and distant, and their smiles plastic. Steve didn’t spot them until after he walked. He was sweating through his robes, hair flattened under his graduation cap. His diploma was tucked under his arm in its little tube, and his feet ached from the stupid boat shoes he was wearing, but he’d never been happier.
The kids swarmed him after the ceremony. Dustin slammed his face into Steve’s shoulder and squeezed him like a proud father, giggles bubbling over his lips.
“Way to go, Steve!”
Max offered him a fist bump, eyes bright and warm. Somewhere amongst the crowd, Billy Hargrove stood. Steve didn’t look for him. Neither did Max. Steve dropped his graduation cap onto her head and pulled it over her eyes. He hoped it conveyed that he cared for her as much as she did for him. Older brother of six wasn’t where he’d seen himself this time last year. Hell, it wasn’t even where he’d seen himself six months ago. The kids had grown on him like a fungus, Wheeler included.
“Looking fresh, Mike.” Steve grinned, earnestly. “New kicks?”
To the untrained eye, Mike looked bored. Steve had some practice reading the Wheelers, however, and he recognised the soft droop of Mike’s mouth and the scrunch of his nose. He was pleased. He was having a good day. He was, perhaps, happy for Steve. Okay, that might have been a step too far, but he and Mike got on better these days, now that Nancy and Jonathan were public and Steve was the ex- rather than the current boyfriend.
Mike didn’t respond, but it didn’t matter. Lucas and Will were in Steve’s face moments later, subtly trying to persuade him to take them all to the diner across town.
“Celebratory pancakes,” Will said, “which is what you deserve.”
“And we should come with you,” Lucas tacked on. “You know, because you need people to celebrate with.”
“Yeah, and I bet you need someone to pay for it, too,” Steve drawled. They all knew he would cave. They just liked to pretend otherwise, so that he felt he still had some semblance of control.
A firm grip clasped his shoulder at roughly the same time as the kids fell silent. Steve’s gaze jerked left. He spotted his mother’s emerald wedding ring and perfectly manicured nails, and then he felt those nails as they dug into his shoulder, sharp despite the layers he had on.
“Mum,” he muttered, turning to face the music.
When Steve was twelve, Nanny Glenda had moved into the Harrington house. She’d been his favourite of the nannies. She gave him bedtime stories even though he was too old to need them; she baked cookies for him and let him eat half the batter; she spent three hours washing and brushing his hair to remove the gum Carol had smeared in it.
Nanny Glenda couldn’t have kids. She’d told Steve as much the evening he’d woken from a nightmare so bad he threw up across his chest and bed. She tucked Steve into her side and held him as he cried into her nightgown. She loved him like he was her own. Before Steve’s mother had accused Nanny Glenda of being a whore, spreading her legs for Steve’s father, Nanny Glenda had told Steve that for every one bad person, there were five who were good.
“Don’t let the bad people make you jaded, Steve.”
“Weary. Tired. Deadened.” Nanny Glenda ran her fingers through Steve’s hair. “You let people make you jaded and your face will twist, Steve. You will become sour and mean and when the wind blows, it will keep your face that way.”
Steve wondered when his father had become jaded. Whatever wind had blown to cement Christopher Harrington’s face as sour, detached, and venomous as it was, it must have been one hell of a gale. Steve wilted beneath that stare now, stomach trickling into his stupid, fancy shoes. He felt like a kid playing dress-up beneath the clean lines of his father’s suit and the wrinkle-free, precise cut of his mother’s dress. The kids glanced back and forth between the Harrington standoff. Steve wasn’t sure they’d ever seen his parents before; he wished they weren't seeing them now.
“Thank you for coming,” Steve said, because the silence unnerved him.
“Congratulations,” his mother said. Her gaze was poisonous. “We were pleasantly surprised to see you were graduating.”
She didn’t sneer. Lucretia Harrington didn’t do anything other than simper and smile. She removed her hand from Steve’s shoulder and moved aside so that Steve’s father could come closer. He didn’t. He eyed Steve distastefully, darting from the graduation cap, to the little bit of scruff Steve hadn’t shaved on his top lip, to the striped shirt he loved so much because it was ugly , to the scuffed, grey shoes he’d worn through the tunnels, to the hesitant smile Steve managed to dig up.
“Let’s celebrate at home,” Steve’s father said. “Just the three of us.”
Steve didn’t want to go home. He wanted to sit in the diner downtown with a bunch of kids who weren’t even in high school yet. He wanted to listen to them talk about D&D or their nerdy little aviation club or Max’s future skateboarding career. He wanted, for once, to have something for himself.
“Now, Steven,” his mother murmured. Her smile was sharp.
Steve swallowed past the golf ball in his throat and dredged up whatever remained of King Steve, the calm and unaffected youth, favoured by all. His parents didn't love him, but King Steve was tolerable — he reminded them of pre-disappointment Steve. He spun back to the kids with a clap of his hands.
“Okay, listen. I’ll walkie you tomorrow. The diner will be packed tonight anyway. We can go for lunch instead; it won’t be as busy. Okay?”
The kids nodded. Max didn’t. She stared at him. Her blue eyes, so bright and so intelligent, grazed over his shoulder. She met his father’s stare, unflinching. Since Billy, she’d grown bolder, stronger. She'd been fiery before, but Max was a certified whirlwind now. Steve’s heart swelled in his chest. He wasn’t meant to pick favourites, but she and Dustin — there was something in them that he recognised.
“Don’t forget,” she said, pointedly. “You promised mum you would take me to the library early tomorrow.”
Steve had done no such thing. He wasn’t even sure Max knew where Hawkins library was. He didn’t argue. He just nodded his head and smiled, all pleasant and lax and easy.
“Sure, Max. I’ll come by around nine.”
Max nodded. She finally tore her eyes from Steve’s parents and took a deliberate step forward to slug him gently in the arm.
“Proud of you,” she said, tipping her head up. Her throat bobbed as she swallowed, clearly nervous to have been so open and honest, but she didn’t back down. “See you later, Steve.”
Steve blinked the heat away from his eyes. He couldn't remember the last time someone had been proud of him.
“Thanks, Max. Bye guys. Be safe riding home! Seriously, Lucas — I don’t wanna see another grazed knee. Your mum’s gonna kill me.”
Lucas flipped him off. Steve rolled his eyes but grinned. He let himself linger like that, back to his parents (despite how dangerous that was), and once he felt like he wouldn’t crumble upon taking a step, he spun and faced them. His parents said nothing but they parted in the middle, gesturing for Steve to fall into place between them. The Harringtons crossed the parking lot at a steady pace, the perfect dollhouse family.
Steve swallowed around his tongue and tried to remind himself he was going home, and not to a funeral.
All things considered, it wasn’t the worst argument he’d had with his parents. Yes, his cheek smarted and the door to his room was locked like he was ten, not almost twenty, but it was okay. It was. He was. His mouth was white, a thin-lipped slash across his face; his eyes two pools of brown so dark and wet they were almost black. He stared at his reflection and his father’s handprint, red and throbbing, in the mirror.
He was officially cut-off. No more trust fund and no more grocery money. He needed to learn respect and responsibility and how to grow up. It was time to stop playing the stupid child, Steven, his father’s voice echoed in his head. It was time to stop being a sissy and step up to the plate. Time to be a real man.
Steve wanted more than anything to smash his hand into the mirror, overcome with so much wrath it blinded him, but he knew the ramifications of such an action would hurt more than the glass embedded in his knuckles. So, he turned and did as he always did on the brink of a breakdown he couldn’t quite stave off. He shoved aside the shower curtain and stepped inside, clothes and all, and turned on the water. He slid down the wall, saturated knees to equally saturated chest, and bowed his head. He cried and cried and cried, and when the headache became too much to bear and the water had run cold, he turned off the shower and cried some more.
By the time morning swung around, the handprint had mostly faded. His father hadn’t hit him hard enough to bruise. It was meant to serve more as a reminder that Steve was nothing more than a puppet to his father’s wishes. Now that he wasn’t going to college —
“This is to be a gap year, Steven. Nothing more, nothing less,” his mother hissed.
— he needed the reminder more than ever, apparently. He would work for his father’s company, eventually. He would marry an investor’s daughter and he would have a son and he would would would .
Steve slammed the Beemer door shut and blasted the radio as loud as he could. His parents would fly out to fucking Miami or California or hell, Brazil for all he knew, in a matter of hours. Steve wouldn’t see them for another few months, so he didn’t particularly care about squealing out of the driveway in a blast of burnt rubber.
He walkie’d Max to let her know he was fine and that he would meet them all at the Henderson’s house at eleven. Then he drove to the quarry, windows down and eyes red-rimmed.
There was a van parked there already, the driver’s legs hanging out of the open window. Steve couldn’t see their face but he could hear their music. He turned his own down, unsure he’d ever heard so many guitars and drums and screams in his life. What the driver was listening to wasn’t something Steve would label music, but it was good at drowning out the remnants of his despair, so Steve tipped his head back and listened.
At one point, he started humming along. His scalp prickled and then his cheek burned and this time, he opened his eyes fast enough to catch the tail-end of that blue-gold glow. The rear vision mirror showed the tips of his fringe disperse gold, non-existent breeze tusseling the strands.
“What the fuck,” Steve murmured, tugging at his hair. He went cross-eyed in an attempt to see it. “What the —”
The sun, he thought. It was a trick of the light. There was no other explanation. He glanced in the rear vision mirror again but saw nothing. In fact, he couldn’t even see the fading handprint on his cheek. That was because, he realised, the handprint was no longer there. Steve poked and prodded his skin with confusion.
“What the fuck,” he hissed, with feeling.
“Are you having a psychotic break?”
Steve yelped, slamming his knee into the underside of the steering wheel. He jerked sideways, breathless, and noticed that the driver of the van was now hanging out the side of it. He had a head full of tangled, brown curls, so dark it was almost black. There was a joint hanging out of his mouth and several bracelets strung around his freckled, lanky arms. His fingers glinted too, ring-clad where they drummed against the door of the van.
“Um,” Steve said. “No.” He glanced at his reflection again. “Maybe.” He managed a weak smile. “Don’t worry about it.”
The guy regarded him for a moment. After a beat, he said, “Cool. Wouldn’t matter if you were, by the way. I’m having one of my own. Well, not a psychotic break, but a break all the same. Breakdown, if you will.”
“As in, your van broke down?”
The guy laughed. “No, Harrington,” he said, “I’m having a mental breakdown.” He gestured to his head with a lazy sweep of his hand. “It’s like a dance breakdown, ‘cause there’s music involved, except it also involves a lot of screaming and crying and wondering ‘why me?’. Also, less of a crowd is involved. Well,” he paused and gave Steve a pointed look. “Usually, anyway.”
That was a lot to unpack. Steve realised the guy had turned his music down. He fumbled for something to say.
“You know who I am?”
“Wow, you partially bare your soul to someone and they ignore it to talk about themselves. That’s sooo typical of you, Harrington.” Despite his words, the guy was grinning goodnaturedly. “I’m Eddie. Kinda bummed you don’t remember me, given how much your old posse hated me.”
Steve blinked. He squinted. “Holy shit,” he said. “Eddie Munson, right? Fuck, man. Hey! I didn’t see you at graduation yesterday.”
Eddie deflated. “Yeah,” he scoffed. “That would be because I didn’t graduate. Hence the uh,” he gestured to the van and himself and then his eyes. “Hence the breakdown.” His voice cracked and for a moment, he looked just as vulnerable as Steve felt. Then he shrugged. “Oh well. Always next year. ‘86, right?”
Steve didn’t really know how to react. “That sucks,” he settled on, knowing how close he’d been to repeating senior year himself. Belatedly, he added, “Sorry about Hagan. And, you know, everything I did.”
Eddie brushed him off with a wave of his hand. “Hey man,” he said, sucking on his joint. He blew an impressive smoke cloud. “Don’t stress about it. I think the worst you did was call me a fairy. Oh, you did smear jelly in my hair and peg a basketball at my head so hard I passed out.”
Steve blinked. His mouth gaped. He gripped his steering wheel so that he wouldn’t do something stupid like slam his head into it. Eddie said nothing, face grave, and then, like he couldn’t help himself, he giggled. He slapped a hand over his mouth and then threw his head back, bursting into breathless cackles.
“Ho- ly fuck,” he crowed. “You should see your face, dude. Fucking hell. I’m kidding.” He leaned so far out his window Steve thought he would fall. “You called me a bitch once, which was honestly sort of funny. You mostly left me alone. Can’t say the same for my younger friends, but hey, I wasn’t about to step in. Coward and a failure.” He professed it like he was proud, but Steve could taste the disappointment.
“Fuck school,” Steve said. Then, “If my ex-girlfriend wasn’t such a nice person I’d have failed too. Fuck what people think of you, man. I think it’s dope you even got through a second senior year. I’d have dropped out if I was you, so that makes me more of a coward, I’d say.”
Eddie looked like Steve had dug through the Beemer’s backseat to remove the nail bat and crack him around the back of the head with it.
“What,” he said, flatly. “You’re telling me I’m brave for repeating senior year.”
“When you put it that way, it sounds stupid. I mean it, though. Don’t um, don’t base your worth off your grades.”
It felt rich to preach, but Steve hoped his words would bring Eddie comfort. He didn’t know what else he could say or do, and he was horrendously out of his depth as it was, watching the way the morning sun illuminated Eddie’s hair and bounced off his rings. After a moment, Eddie’s disbelief faded. A radiant smile crossed his face and with it, another huffy burst of laughter.
“Steve Harrington,” Eddie murmured. “What a guy.” He shook his head and bit at his bottom lip, discarding the joint somewhere inside his van. “You’ve given me a lot to think about,” he said. “I gotta go. Bridges to burn and all that. Hey, hope your breakdown goes as well as mine did.”
Steve ducked his head to hide his smile and peeked at Eddie from beneath his lashes, strangely embarrassed.
“Fuck off,” he murmured. “See you round, man.”
Eddie grinned. “Catch ya’, Stevie.”
He left Steve in a cloud of dust. Steve waited for the desolation to settle back in now that he was alone. Weirdly enough, it didn’t. In fact, every time his mind started to slip back into its self-deprecating medium, Eddie’s laughter rang through his ears. Steve buried his head in his hands and cursed his stupid, desperate heart. He needed to get a grip. He’d spoken to Eddie for three seconds. Besides, it wasn't like he would see him again.
Steve saw him again. He saw him several times, in fact.
Scoops Ahoy was a shithole. It was an icebox of screaming children and know-it-all parents and delinquent kids who liked to play ‘pinch and lick the scooper’. Steve’s saving grace was his coworker, Robin, and she wasn’t even nice to him — she was just scary enough that Steve never had to deal with the bad customers.
“You’re bizarre,” she told him, cleaning the last of the pistachio from its container. “You plunged off the social ladder in high school only to reemerge with a cluster of small children at your feet. No girlfriend, no social life — it’s kind of sad.”
“Good morning." Steve smiled politely. “I’m so glad you let me clock in before you absolutely fucking decimated my spirits.”
Robin rolled her eyes. “Telling it like it is, Harrington,” she drawled.
She pinched a handful of sample spoons so that she could sit behind the counter and eat her fill. She was mean but she was also fun, so when she grinned up at him with her teeth full of chocolate, Steve couldn’t help but grin back.
“I hope you develop a dairy allergy overnight,” he cooed.
“I hope you get your tongue stuck on a freezer pole,” Robin simpered.
“I hope you trip down the mall escalators,” Steve murmured, batting his lashes.
“I hope you guys cut the flirting out to give me my Triple Strawberry Sundae Delight,” Eddie snorted, appearing out of thin air to smack his hands on the counter.
Robin’s mouth curled. Disgusted, she said, “I would rather drown myself in the Starcourt public toilets than ever flirt with Steve Harrington.”
Steve wasn’t offended. Okay, he was, but only a little. He didn’t have a crush on Robin, but he wasn’t that bad, and he didn’t appreciate the way she eyed him up like he was gum beneath her shoe. He pursed his lips and cocked his hip.
“Yeah, ‘cause you’d be such a delight,” he muttered, kicking at her shin. “We’re out of strawberry,” he told Eddie.
Eddie leaned over the counter. “So you are.” He shook his head. “Okay, well, dealer’s choice, I guess. Go crazy, Harrington.”
Steve pondered the options and then decided they didn’t sell enough coconut for it to taste any good. Banana was a trial flavour and neon yellow in colour, so that would pair delightfully. He finished the disaster off with a scoop of espresso, knowing full well that Eddie didn’t like coffee.
“Wow,” Eddie said, flatly. “You’ve really outdone yourself this time.”
Steve bat his lashes because he couldn’t fucking help himself and ignored the way his stomach churned when Eddie caved and grinned. It was probably stomach ulcers from the stress of the job, or indigestion from the godawful eggs he’d had for breakfast. Steve ran up Eddie’s order and then set about cleaning the table while Eddie and Robin shot the shit. They spoke at a rapid pace about things Steve didn’t particularly care for, but their chatter was better to listen to than the third repeat of the Beach Boys’ latest album.
As he started wiping down the inside of the ice cream freezer, Steve failed to notice that Robin had replaced one of the containers at the wrong angle. The end result was that he skimmed his knuckles over sharp metal and was only just able to keep blood from spilling into the fresh batch of ice cream.
“Oh shit,” he hissed, gazing down at the mess. He was no longer queasy seeing his own blood, he noted. That was depressing, so he distracted himself by wrapping several cloths around his hand. “Hey Robin, I gotta clean this up. Sorry. Back in ten, I swear.”
Eddie leaned over the counter, fingers curling around Steve’s wrist. It was the first time they’d touched and Steve’s skin sung at the pleasant warmth of Eddie’s hand. He swallowed around his surprise and glanced up to meet Eddie’s eyes, only they were cast down, concerned and gentle as they took in Steve’s wound.
Steve blinked. “Um, yeah,” he managed. He shook his head and gave a wry laugh. “Don’t worry, Eddie. I didn’t get any blood on the goods. I’ll be back, yeah?”
Eddie’s frustration was palpable, but Steve couldn’t discern where it was coming from. Eddie squeezed Steve’s wrist, just once, and then pulled away. He turned back to Robin, the tips of his ears pink. The aircon was probably too cold for their sensitive curve, Steve decided, because no other explanation made sense.
He slipped into the backroom and beelined for the medicine box. As he tore open an alcohol wipe, the Beach Boys faded. Y.M.C.A wasn’t much better, but at least Steve didn’t want to brain himself whenever the chorus came on. Steve sat crossed legged on the ground with his tongue out, gently sweeping away the blood. The cuts kept welling, but Steve could tell it was because of their placement, not because of their depth.
“You can make real your dreams,” Steve sang, sotto voce and head dipped.
He bit his lip against the sting and transitioned to humming instead. For the first time, he was paying attention. For the first time, he watched the blue-gold unfold in real time. For the first time, Steve realised there was something very, very odd going on with him.
What the fuck, he thought, eyes as wide as dinner plates, mouth hanging so loose his jaw threatened to detach. When he stopped humming, the blue-gold ripples of warmth started to dissipate. The cut on his pinky knuckle had closed, but those on his ring and middle finger were still bleeding, albeit sluggishly. Steve started humming again. Sure enough, his knuckles started glowing, radiating a soft buttermilk and cobalt that left Steve speechless.
To make matters even more insane, he realised his scalp was prickling again. Steve fumbled to flip the medicine case open wider, angling the portable mirror towards his head and, well, fuck. His hair was glowing. Buttermilk-gold, cobalt-blue. Were it not for the metric fuck tonne of gel in it, Steve bet it would be floating about his head in an unnatural, nonexistent breeze.
“I’ve cracked,” he whispered. “I’ve gone round the bend. I’ve finally fucking lost it.”
When Robin came looking for him ten minutes later, vitriol on her tongue, she was met with a maniacally cackling Steve. His eyes were wide and pupils dilated, mirth puddling over his cheeks and causing his chest to ache.
“I’m magic, Buckley,” he said, wiggling his fingers.
Then he passed out.
Robin sent him home when he woke up, eyeing him like he was a rabid animal rather than her coworker. She all but threw him out the door, avoiding his gaze and keeping all her limbs close to herself. Steve couldn’t find it in himself to be humiliated; he was too busy floating through confusion and disbelief. He wondered, briefly, where Eddie was, before he shook his head. No, he needed to stop thinking about Eddie. Eddie came into the shop once a week, at most, and he was always there for Robin, even if he did spare Steve the occasional conversation. Eddie was just a kind, surprisingly funny, deeply theatrical — No. No Eddie thoughts.
Steve arrived home to an empty house. This was expected, so he kicked his shoes off at the door, uncaring that one pinwheeled into his mother’s expensive lamp, and stormed upstairs. He lost his stupid hat somewhere along the way, shucking off his shirt and socks and pants until finally, he was in the bathroom. Now nude, he stepped into the shower and scrambled for his pile of hair care products.
“Gel, hairspray — why’s that in here — gel, body wash, moisturiser, more fucking gel, hah! Finally.”
The bottle of conditioner was slick in his hands. Steve rotated it, reading Tame Conditioning Clean Rinse. He squinted down at the label and idly reached up to tug his hair.
“What have you done to me,” he murmured, staring at the list of ingredients on the back of the bottle.
He couldn’t understand a single fucking thing he was reading, but one of them was causing his hair to glow and his skin to heal itself. Maybe. Probably. Listen, there were a lot of reasons why he may have developed some form of magical healing power, and the new conditioner was just as likely as any of them. Rationally, Steve knew this was probably related to a government problem (read: Upside Down and ‘chemical leaks’), but he wasn’t in the mood to be rational. (If he didn't think about the Upside Down then it didn't exist, and if it didn't exist, then everything was okay.)
Steve showered faster than he had in his life, taking care to wash his hair with his conditioner. When he was done, he slung a towel around his waist and stared at himself in the bathroom mirror. He’d showered cold so that the glass wouldn’t fog. His skin prickled, goosebumps travelling across his flesh. Feeling moronic, Steve started to hum. Nothing happened. Steve’s brow twisted. He bit down on his lip as he tried to figure out what he'd done at Scoops that he wasn't doing now. His lips, not overly moisturised as they were, split beneath his sharp bite.
Suddenly, Steve’s hair began to glow. With the water having rinsed the gel from it, Steve’s hunch was proven correct. His hair almost rippled with colour, damp ends waving back and forth. His lip burned and then cooled in one hit, cut gone.
Steve allowed himself a ten minute spiral before he heaved himself out of the bathroom. He grabbed his phone, wandered back to the vanity, and scooped the conditioner bottle up.
“Hey, Sinclair,” Steve asked, pacing the bathroom ensuite. “You’re smart, right? Do you know what these words mean? Citric acid, dimethyl stearamine, stearalkonium, sodium chloride, sodium hydroxide, pheno—phenox—”
“I’m ten years old,” Erica said, flatly, cutting him off. “How the hell am I supposed to know?” She hung up.
“Yeah,” Steve said to the dial tone, “fair enough.”
In the end, Steve decided it was better to wait until Henderson was back. Dustin was reliable. If anyone was going to figure this out, it would be him.
Of course, Hawkins wasn’t Hawkins without one mind-numbing, brain-breaking, heart-attacking-inducing drama after the other. They couldn’t even make it all the way through summer. Henderson swung back into Hawkins on the high of a summer camp romance and some form of DIY super-walkie. Within twenty minutes of their reunion, he had Steve sequestered in the back booth of Scoops, unveiling his latest discovery.
Top secret Russian intelligence messages from beneath Hawkins, Steve thought, hysterically, as the elevator plummeted to the ground hours later. Yeah, why the fuck not? There wasn’t much else that could go wrong, honestly, in this hellmouth. As if to mock him, things shortly went so far south that they fucking looped back around to head north.
Dustin wavered above the vent that would enable his and Erica’s escape, eyes damp and mouth wobbly. Outside the door Steve and Robin were desperately holding shut, several Russians shouted and yelled and smacked against metal.
“Steve,” Dustin begged. “Come on, man!” His terrified cow eyes bounced from the door to Steve to the door again, and then to the black depths of the vent beneath him.
“Go,” Steve snapped. “Dustin, listen to me! Go! ”
Dustin went. Robin sagged against the door. Steve let go so that he could grab her hand.
“Sorry,” he gasped, eyes wild. “Hey, whatever you do, don’t let them touch you, okay? Let them put all the heat on me.”
Robin didn’t get a chance to respond. The door exploded inwards, knocking the two of them off their feet. A hand dug into his hair and roughly tugged him upwards, angered Russian spittle coating his cheeks. Robin’s terrified and hopeless grey-blue eyes met his. Something solid struck the back of Steve's head and then Steve knew no more.
He floated for a while, drifting in a hazy state of detachment. He felt like he was floating in a pool of salt, as though surrounded by a sensory deprivation tank. Everything was very black and very cold, yet distantly, he could feel himself burning. His arms ached, wrists more so, and his head throbbed. He’d been hit by something, he thought, and then he jerked awake.
Their captor yelled at them for a while in a near incomprehensible mixture of English and Russian. Steve and Robin caved easily, giving him the answers he was after —
“Who do you work for?”
“Scoops Ahoy! Starcourt Mall! Dave!”
— but nothing satisfied him. He shouted and spit and cursed but the worst was when he smiled, slow and slimy, and tapped his fist to Steve’s cheek.
In heavily accented Russian, he said, “You tell me answers and I don’t make your face ugly, yes?”
“I’m telling you,” Steve muttered. “Not my fault you’re dumb as shit and refuse to believe us.”
Thus, for the third time in as many years, Steve had his face caved in. The Russians were heavy hitters and they were purposeful with their punches. They shattered Steve’s nose, so that every breath would be marred and clogged with blood. Next was his left eye, splitting his brow. They seemed to take great joy in Steve’s whimpered gag when the first punch cracked into his stomach.
They dealt him a few more blows. Robin demanded they leave him alone but Steve could take it. He could take a hit. He had before with Byers, with Billy, and he would again, here and now with the Russians, and undoubtedly at some point in the future, with newer, fresher Upside Down monsters or those of the Rightside Up variety.
Eventually, drugged to the gills and half-beaten senseless, the Russians left. Steve’s head swam. He couldn’t keep up with what Robin was saying but that was okay. The world was starting to become vibrant and glossy, full of colour. Steve’s chest ached and he realised that he was laughing, hair brushing Robin’s as they both rocked back and forth in their seats. They’d ended up on the floor, somehow. Steve was sure they were meant to be doing something, but he couldn’t think what.
“Robin,” he giggled. “I’m magic.”
“No, you’re drugged,” Robin laughed. “ Everything is magic.”
Steve couldn’t fault that. He thought about drugs and he thought about Eddie and then he couldn’t stop laughing. He missed Eddie. He was glad Eddie wasn’t here. He wanted Eddie to walk through the doors and save them. He wanted Eddie to talk about his stupid metal music or tease Steve about his stupid sport metaphors. He wanted Eddie. That was the root of it all. Steve wanted Eddie.
“Oh no,” Steve murmured.
The doors burst open. For a moment, Steve thought it really was Eddie. Then Dustin swam into view, and with him, Erica.
“Time to go,” Dustin said. “Up, up, up!”
Up, up, up, Steve went. How they ended up in the elevator again, Steve had no idea. How they ended up in Starcourt Mall, he also didn’t know. He came back to himself as he and Robin stumbled from the cinema, headache throbbing behind his eyes. Somehow, he’d forgotten the particular ache of a busted nose and shattered cheekbone. He dipped his head into the water fountain and drank, greedily.
“I’m gonna puke,” Robin declared as he rose for air.
That was a great idea, Steve thought.
The two of them ended up on the floor of the nearest bathroom, heads in their respective toilet bowls, heaving up ice cream and popcorn and stomach acid and whatever else was in their system. Steve’s nose hurt too much to hum and he wasn’t sure if singing did anything, so for now he was stuck with his injuries. He poked at his fat, bottom lip and then at the bruises buried under his bloodsoaked Scoops uniform.
“Hey, Rob, how the fuck are we gonna explain this to tomorrow’s opener?”
Robin’s shoes stuck out beneath Steve’s door, the soles of her converse bloodstained and dirty.
“No idea,” she said. “Has the ceiling stopped spinning for you?”
Steve glanced up. “Holy shit,” he said. “Yes. Thank God. Think we puked everything up?”
Robin’s converse bumped his shoe. “Maybe. Hey, ask me something. Interrogate me.”
“When was the last time you peed your pants?” Steve asked. He rested the back of his aching head against the bathroom stall and let his eyes fall shut.
“Today,” Robin said. “When the Russian doctor took out the bone saw.”
Steve grinned. Some of the dried blood flaked off his face. “It’s definitely still in your system,” he laughed, leaning over the toilet to spit some bile and saliva into the bowl. “Okay, your turn. Hit me.”
“Have you … ever been in love?”
Christ, Robin didn’t slowball, did she?
“Nancy Wheeler. She found someone better suited. Why do you ask?”
Robin didn’t say anything. Then, delicately, “How much do you remember from the interrogation?”
Steve squinted at the wall separating them as though he could see her through it. He wriggled down and slid beneath the stall, settling across from a startled, fidgety Robin, who glanced away sharply so as to not meet his eyes. She looked nervous and more than a little scared.
“Um, not loads.”
“Do you have a crush on anyone right now?”
Steve blinked. “Not sure what that has to do with the interrogation,” he said, slowly. He shrugged. Brown doe eyes and dark, frizzy hair and black eyeliner and stupid band shirts swam through his mind. Steve chose to drown rather than paddle about alongside them. “No. I don’t like anyone right now.”
A great gust of air rushed from Robin’s mouth, as though she were a deflating balloon. Her entire body sagged, mouth quaking up into a relieved smile.
“Oh, thank God. See, ‘cause in the interrogation room you told me you wanted someone, only I couldn’t hear who. I was super worried, ‘cause we’ve gotten really close this summer and you’re like, surprisingly, one of my favourite people ever and I like, really love you but not — not how I was worried you might like— love— like, like , me, and I mean, that’s a bit suggestive I know, but it would really suck if you did like me because I’m not into boy—”
Robin slammed her fingers against her mouth. She stopped breathing and her face went sallow, washed-out and stark. Steve tried to parse through her torrent of babble and came out the other end strangely winded. All his life he’d been called an idiot — his parents, Nancy, even Dustin and the kids. All his life he’d believed it, but he wasn’t an idiot. Not really. Not always.
“Robin,” he said, reaching out to press his fingers into the soft skin of her knee. “I don’t care. It’s okay. Me too. I mean, obviously, but also … me too. ”
He hoped that would be enough. He’d never actually let himself admit his sexuality aloud, but with Robin, it felt safe. Even without her accidental confession, it would have felt safe. He kept his hand where it was, thumb brushing the side of her knee, and waited.
Robin’s eyes went glossy. “If you’re lying to me,” she started, voice thick.
Steve took her hand.
“I like boys,” he whispered. “Girls and boys.”
It was an admission just for her, words that not a single person had heard him say before now, not even himself, and it was a weight removed from his shoulders. His stomach did flips, gravity disappearing. His mouth was savannah-dry but he didn’t take it back. He squared his shoulders and ignored that they were half-drugged, half-beaten, and sprawled across the, quite frankly, disgusting Mall bathrooms.
“I like girls,” Robin whispered. “Tammy Thompson. She used to look at you, Steve, and I wanted her to look at me.”
Steve’s eyes darted left.
“Jonathan Byers,” he muttered. “Um, not when he beat my face in, but when he … later on. He’s just — things were awkward between us for a long time but he’s nice. I’m not, like, into him, but he’s— he’s weird. It’s kinda hot.”
“You like weird guys?”
Robin drew her knees to her chest like how Steve had. Their feet sat Steve’s, Robin’s, Steve’s, Robin’s, puzzle pieces locking together. She sucked her bottom lip into her mouth and Steve watched the cogs turn with humiliated defeat and reluctant resignation.
“Oh my God,” she hissed. Yeah, there was that realisation. “You like weird guys. You like Ed —”
“Tammy Thompson sounds like a muppet,” Steve blurted, desperate to stop the trainwreck from flying off the rails.
He burst into a nasally rendition of Turn Around, bolstered only by Robin’s startled laughter and pink cheeks. He liked when she laughed. He liked Robin an awful lot. Loved her, even.
“You’re my best friend,” he confessed, heart in his throat.
“I’m still drugged,” Robin said, distantly, ignoring his heartful declaration. “Your fucking hair is glowing. I’m dreaming. I’m gonna wake up in that fucking basement, again, aren’t I?”
Steve jolted. He glanced up but there was no glow. He poked his bottom lip. It wasn’t as puffy anymore and his ribs didn’t ache half as bad. Very quietly, Steve started singing again. Sure enough, a burning heat started to spread over his cheek and his eye, tickling the shell of his ear.
“What the fuck,” Robin murmured, fingers reaching out to twist through Steve’s hair. She jerked back with a surprised giggle. “That tickles!”
The more Steve sang, the better his ribs felt and the clearer his vision became. Then the bathroom door slammed open. Steve choked on his tongue as Dustin stormed into the room, Erica on his heels.
“I told you to stay put!” he shouted.
Steve looked at Robin. Robin looked at Steve.
“You’re my best friend too,” she said, and they burst into laughter so loud and long that Dustin threatened to beat them around the back of their heads himself.
So, once the dust had settled, months and months after the tunnels, Steve came to a long-building realisation. He made his discovery.
His hair, for whatever reason, was magic. It wasn’t because of his conditioner — although that would have been just as cool — but most likely a result of the Upside Down bullshit. If Eleven could have powers and Will could get possessed, then Steve could have magic fucking hair. He’d thought about it long and hard, a conspiracy board of ideas pinned to the depths of his mind. The tunnels, the flower dust, the way he couldn’t carry a scar anymore.
It wasn’t an emergency, but it was important enough. Thus, a few weeks after Starcourt Mall, Steve made the call.
“Hey, Henderson,” Steve said, pacing his bedroom. “Got a question for you.” He twirled the phone cord, line tangling around his arm like a boa constrictor.
Dustin hummed. “First, is this a situation which requires a code? Second, can I answer the question in five minutes? I’ve got plans.”
“You’re fourteen,” Steve snorted. “The only plans you have are the ones involving bedtime routines. Listen, code … fuck, what are the codes again?”
Dustin sighed so hard he almost expelled a lung. Steve hopped up onto his desk. He swung his feet back and forth, chewing on his thumb nail, and stared pensively down at his bare legs and their smooth, freshly-shaven, and wholly unmarked skin.
“From least to most important, we have codes pink, purple, blue, green, yellow, orange, red, black, double black, silver, triple black, and gold.”
“Why is silver between double and triple black? That makes no—”
“Code pink,” Dustin stressed, blatantly ignoring Steve, “is for events so minor they basically don’t require a code at all.”
“Again, this makes no sense. Why have a code if—”
Dustin smacked his hand against the receiver and launched a fresh volley of static down the line.
“Harrington,” he barked, all snot-nosed and bratty. It was endearing and annoying in equal measure. “You want my help, you’ll be quiet. Right, code purple. Code purple is a situation wherein the problem is minor but still requires discussion.”
Steve’s mind drifted under the torrent of Dustin’s babble. He ran his fingers over his legs, smooth like they used to be when he swam; smooth so that he could trace each and every spot where a scar or blemish was supposed to sit. There were none. There hadn’t been any for God knows how long. Since the tunnels, probably.
He wasn’t certain when the scars had begun to disappear, but the gnarly twist of tissue on his knee — remnants of an old skateboarding accident in the summer of ‘77 — was one of his favourites. It carried the memory of the last time his father had let him be a kid. It was gone now, and weirdly enough, a part of Steve felt like he’d been lost with it.
“Can we skip a few?” Steve blurted, cutting through some tangent about the different shades of green (neon through to emerald). “What’s the code for when you wake up and the only scar on your body is your belly button?”
Dustin didn’t say anything for a little bit. “I guess that’s code … yellow. Weird, but not life-threatening.”
Steve dragged his knees to his chest. “Well, full disclosure, I’m pretty sure I know how and why it’s happening. I just think someone else should know, because the whole — well, it’s probably easier just to show you, you know?”
“What are you saying?”
It was now Steve’s turn to sigh. “Dust,” he said, gravely, “I have inspected every inch of my body. My skin’s fresher than a newborn. I don’t even have bags under my eyes anymore.”
“Is this … are you having a midlife crisis? Is this like that Farrah Fawcett conversation?” Lowering his voice, Dustin whispered, “Do I need to call someone?”
Steve was miffed. “First,” he said, flatly, “I’m barely nineteen. You think I’m only gonna make it to thirty-eight? I know we keep having to fucking, save the world or whatever, but I’ve made it out every time.” He slid from the desk. “Second, I swore you to secrecy about that, Henderson. I’ll come after you with my nail bat, I swear to Christ.” He began to pace, jumping on the spot to detangle the cord that had migrated to his leg. “And third, you and Robin are both coming over, okay? Top secret business.”
Dustin wasn’t impressed but he seemed to understand the gravity of the situation. He sighed and huffed and hummed and finally agreed. Robin was easier to convince, given that she’d already seen Steve’s magic hair at work a few times, and had, in the wake of him narrating every inch of UD drama, demanded as many details as he could give.
“Did you shave your legs?”
“Nice to see you too, Henderson. Come in, make yourself at home.”
Steve gestured to the couch where Robin sat, dressed in one of Steve’s stolen swim meet shirts and a pair of baggy, black jeans. Dustin made himself at home beside her, leaning into her affectionate hair ruffle with a gummy grin. Steve stood in front of them in his old gym shorts and a ratty tank top. His feet were bare, face free of moisturiser, hair pinned back by one of his mother’s headbands he’d nicked from the forever-empty master bedroom at the end of the hall.
Steve sucked in a deep breath and said, “I think the Upside Down turned me into a really mediocre superhero.”
Silence. Seconds later, an explosion of noise; a cacophony so loud Steve wondered if the neighbours would come knocking. It was impressive seeing as it was coming from only two sets of lungs. He settled on the floor, criss-cross applesauce, and rode out the downpour of confusion and general hubbub.
“ Superhero, ” Dustin scoffed. “What are you on about?”
Steve titled his head and considered Dustin’s disbelief. “I’m a mage,” he said, flatly, because that was the easiest way to express how serious he was. Steve never used D&D terms, despite how much he (tragically, regretfully) knew.
Dustin, hand over heart, honest to God swooned. He fell onto the couch beside Robin, and stared at Steve as though he was seeing the gates of heaven.
“Okay,” Steve muttered, letting it happen. “So, Robin, remember the magic hair? Back in November of ‘84, me and the kids ended up in the tunnels. I got a mouthful of UD flower pollen ‘cause this little shit,” he pointed at Dustin, “got close enough to set one off. I hauled his ass out of the way and copped it myself. It’s the only reason I can think this is happening, ‘cause it’s definitely not my conditioner. I changed it like three times and it’s still happening.”
“Lots to unpack there,” Robin said, gleefully, “but I want to focus on how you thought your hair care products were making you magic. Also, let’s discuss how Steve ‘the hair’ Harrington, quite literally, is The Hair. ”
“Vetoing that superhero name,” Steve cut in. “Too boring. Needs more pizazz, and yes, I respect the irony of it being me who has magic hair. How about Captain Hair-merica?”
Dustin’s brain had finally come back online. He bounced off the couch and began to pace frantically, alternating between jumping up and down and spinning in circles. Eventually, once he’d exerted his energy, he collapsed on his knees in front of Steve.
“Tell. Me. Everything.”
Steve spread his legs akimbo, gesturing for Robin to join them on the floor. Once she did, he began his presentation.
“I used to have a crescent moon here,” he stated, pointing at the curve of his left knee. “And here, on my shin, I had a really nasty cut from the first time I tried shaving — for the swim team, Dustin, not that it would matter if it wasn’t — and then, if you look here, upper back, I’m meant to have a circular scar.” Steve cleared his throat and reached up to press his fingers to his lip. “This should be bisected,” he muttered. “And my forehead… Billy cracked a plate on my head. It should have left a pretty nasty scar.” He parted the natural wave of his hair. “Nothing.”
Dustin and Robin leant in, eyes bug-like and mouths twitchy. Their excitement made them appear like siblings, hands fluttering as they reached out and poked and prodded Steve’s skin. He let them do what they liked, subjecting himself to being their reluctant doll to play with. He spread his arms in front of him for the two to twist and manipulate, umming and ahhing like a pair of scientists with their newest mystery. Steve half-expected Dustin to pull out a stack of needles and Robin to start handing out scrubs.
“I’ll be honest, Steve,” Dustin eventually said, jabbing at Steve’s once-upon-a-time scarred knuckles. “Whilst this is supremely cool and I really want to see it, I have no fucking clue what we’re meant to do about this.”
“Should we experiment?” Robin looked way too excited at the prospect. “Like, papercuts or something. I saw it in action during the bathroom at Starcourt, after you rescued us from the Russians. Hey, Steve, if I give you a bruise, could you hum it healed?”
“Okay,” Steve joked, “I know you hate me, but there’s no need to start cutting me open. Jesus.”
“Hum? It works off humming?”
Steve flopped backwards onto the ornate rug. He reached up to the ceiling and splayed his fingers. Robin leaned over him with a grin.
“Or when he sings,” she confirmed, winking.
Steve’s cheeks went pink. They both knew they were thinking about more than just the singing. It had been weeks since Robin had figured out his puppy crush and it had been weeks since he’d last seen Eddie. With Starcourt burned to the ground, there was no ice cream shop for Eddie to linger in, and Steve didn’t know Eddie’s home address.
Besides, they weren’t friends; he couldn’t exactly just rock up outside Eddie’s place. What the fuck would he say? Hi, want to kiss in the back of your van for a bit? No? How about I take you on a date in this really tolerant, respectful, and forward-thinking town? No? You're not gay? That’s okay — I’m probably going to become demospider food in the next few months or so.
God, Steve hoped demospiders weren’t next on the list.
“Show me, show me, show me,” Dustin chanted.
“I need an injury,” Steve said, sitting up.
Dustin slugged him in the arm. It was hard enough that tears actually sprung to Steve’s eyes. He swayed sideways with a grunt, hand slapping over the smarting flesh, and levelled Dustin with a watery-eyed glare.
“You’ll pay for that,” he promised. “This next one goes out to a special dipshit.” He cleared his throat and tried to ignore their beady-eyed stares. “Turn around, look at what you see! ”
Amidst Robin’s warbling voice as she joined in and her occasional peals of laughter, Steve sang. A line or two in, a now-familiar prickle crept over his skin. The heat built along his shoulder, an itchiness that Steve realised was not unlike the natural healing process. It was just sped up. He had accelerated healing; it wasn’t that he was invincible. His hair illuminated blue-gold, the glow visible where his fringe hung in his eyes.
For the first time since Steve had met him, Dustin was speechless. His mouth hung open so wide Steve could see the dangly thing at the back of his throat. Steve grinned, light dispersing as the bruise healed before it could even form.
“Tadaaa,” he drawled, hands spread. “Magic.”
“Not a babysitter, not a barbarian, you’re like, a bard. Or a druid. Hey, do you think the Upside Down is your domain? Could you heal better down there?”
“I have no idea,” Steve said, “but I do not want to ever have to find out.”
As was the theme of Steve’s life, that which he didn’t want often came to fruition. Just when he thought he’d skate through a year with his only trauma coming from Keith or angry, always-right customers, Chrissy Cunningham died in Eddie Munson’s trailer.
Steve still hadn’t seen Eddie, though it wasn’t for lack of trying. Robin admitted to having seen less of him as well. Apparently Eddie was determined to graduate, and part of that meant he was spending more time studying and less time socialising. Steve respected that, but it didn’t mean he missed Eddie any less. It didn’t help that Dustin had struck up a friendship with the man. What he’d thought was a fading infatuation lay dormant in his mind, despite all the girls he flirted with.
Of course, none of that mattered when Dustin stormed Family Video, proclaiming Eddie innocent for a crime Steve knew nothing about, and demanding Steve lend him the store phone so they could find him. Steve let Dustin do what he wanted. Max gave him the rundown in the meantime, hands twitchy and eyes solemn. Steve tried to picture Eddie with a knife or sinister grin and came up short. Eddie was innocent, there was no doubt about it, but whoever had killed Chrissy was still out there.
God, on top of all the UD shit, now there was a murderer in Hawkins?
“Reefer Rick,” Robin said. “We have to find Reefer Rick.”
Less than two hours later, Eddie Munson was looming over him, eyes as dark and captivating as they’d always been. Steve tried to ignore the rapid thump of his heart and how Eddie’s arm against his chest was kind of doing it for him. He swore on Dustin’s mother none of them wanted to hurt Eddie and folded like a wet napkin when Eddie spun away, collapsing a yard or so from Steve with a weary, distressed groan.
Steve let Dustin take the reins, trying to control his jealousy that they got on so well. He’d known they were friends and maybe Dustin had got the wrong idea — that Steve was jealous Dustin was replacing him, when in reality he was worried Eddie was. Eddie would never like Steve the way Steve did, but in terms of non-romantic relationships, Dustin and Eddie were better suited. They had a lot of common interests. The only thing Eddie and Steve had in common was eye colour.
“What happened?” Dustin asked, hand on Eddie’s shoulder.
“You wouldn’t believe me,” Eddie whispered, voice thick with tears.
Steve knelt beside Dustin. “Try us,” he said, quietly. “It’s okay if you want to break down.”
Robin gave him a startled look. Dustin was certainly unimpressed, but Steve paid them no attention. His eyes were locked on Eddie’s beautiful, Bambi brown.
“Like breakdancing,” he continued, “they both have music.”
Eddie’s eyes were wet and his face grave but his lips twitched. His shoulders loosened. “Lots of screaming and crying,” he offered, smearing his wrist over his damp cheeks. “Okay, you win. I’ll tell you what happened. It’ll have a lot of, of unbelievable shit—”
“We’ve seen worse,” Max interrupted. She settled in front of Eddie, Robin at her shoulder. “You can tell us, Eddie.”
So he did.
The Upside Down, Steve thought. Always the Upside Fucking Down.
When Steve surfaced from Lovers Lake on the wrong side of Hawkins — on the darker, grittier, bluer side — he decided that, actually, things could be worse. When the bat slung its tentacle tail around his neck, razor sharp teeth digging into his side, he found that amidst the panic, he was grateful it was him being chewed on. He smacked and flailed, refusing to go down without a fight, and had just managed to wriggle his fingers beneath the tentacle around his neck when a shout came out of nowhere.
Eddie, Nancy, Robin — the three of them, smacking at bats and shouting and causing a ruckus the democreatures couldn’t ignore. Steve struggled to his feet and forced the demobat from his neck with a shout, invigorated by the presence of his friends. He crushed the thing beneath his heel, twisting and ripping and sinking his teeth into clammy, wet flesh. The demobat head tore free with little resistance, texture like rubber in his mouth. He spat the navy-black, viscous blood from his mouth. It had a tangy flavour, like rotten fruit and plant matter.
When he looked up, Eddie was staring. His face was washed out and his pupils dilated, eyes on Steve’s mouth. Steve spat again, smearing his wrist across his lips as his chest heaved. His sides were on fire, a pain so hot it felt ice cold. He swayed into Eddie and Robin’s side as they crowded him, Nancy hovering with worried eyes and a tight jaw. There was a loud screaming that came from the horizon.
“More of them,” Nancy reported, because Steve couldn’t quite bring himself to turn. “We need to head for the forest. Skull rock. We can hide there.”
They hobbled across the barren lake bed, the soles of Steve’s feet tearing as rocks dug into his tender flesh. He paid the cuts no attention, simply stacking the injuries upon the growing pile of his aches and pains. Once they made it to Skull Rock, he could sort himself out. He could even test Dustin’s theory, he thought, with a hysterical laugh that burst unbidden from his lips.
Eddie, arm slung carefully around Steve’s side, gave him a concerned glance.
“Hey,” he whispered, helping Steve over a log. “You okay, man? Hysteria isn’t a good sign, typically.”
“Dustin’s gonna be so pissed off he’s not here,” Steve said, doing his best not to trip. “You’re gonna have to do me a solid and make sure you pay attention, ‘cause he’s gonna want so many details.”
Eddie’s brow wrinkled, mouth pinching into a sour, confused line as he tried to parse through the riddles Steve was speaking in. Steve supposed it was all unintelligible babble to him; Robin was the only one who knew what he meant, and she was a few feet ahead with Nancy, desperately zigzagging over vines.
“Don’t worry about it,” Steve said, taking the opportunity to lean into Eddie’s warmth. He could blame it on his injuries. “You’re hot." That he could not, however. He struggled to explain himself. “I mean, temperature-wise. You’re — you run hot.”
Eddie’s tight expression loosened and his limbs became lax. He swayed into Steve’s face, breath puffing warm against the shell of Steve’s ear. Steve wanted to turn his face and catch that heat against his lips. He wanted to press his tongue to Eddie's mouth and trace the shape of his teeth.
“You’re not so bad yourself,” Eddie murmured. His eyes glimmered, mouth a shy, teasing smile when he added, “Temperature-wise, of course.”
Steve ducked his head. “Shut up,” he muttered, but he pressed closer still, desperate to reassure Eddie that it was okay. That whatever was building between them was good.
“Hey, dingus, come on! You wanna be Sashimi Harrington?”
“Weak joke,” Steve laughed, reaching out to squeeze Robin’s hand as she came closer.
Skull Rock had finally come into view. There was a solace there that Steve couldn’t wait to have. He needed to get off his feet, if only for a few minutes. He wondered how he was going to explain the glowing hair and then decided that they didn’t really have time, and the fallout of keeping secrets from the Party could be dealt with later. He knew Nancy wasn’t going to be impressed.
Robin helped him settle beneath their protective cover, kneeling in front of him.
“You might have rabies,” she blabbered, smoothing his greasy hair off his dirty, blood streaked forehead. “Steve, you gotta sing. Come on, Ariel.”
“Ariel? Don’t think her hair was magic, Rob.”
“She’s a mermaid, you’re a swimmer. She’s got great hair, so do you. She sings, so do you.”
Eddie leaned over Robin’s shoulder, his doe eyes swimming into view. Now that he wasn't pressed to Steve's side, Steve could see him clearer. Eddie's face was clean, the lake water having washed off the grime and sweat of the past few days. His leather jacket was sopping. Steve winced, knowing that the clothes they were all wearing would likely never be the same again. Eddie's Hellfire shirt was wrecked. At least he had a shirt. Steve felt awfully naked, torso on full display, nipples pebbled in the cold air. He resisted the urge to tuck his arms across his chest.
“Only in life or death,” Steve sighed. He tipped his head back. “Which this, regrettably, is. Anyone got any requests?”
Nancy touched his shoulder. “I understand levity is important, but this is serious, Steve. We need to stop the bleeding. You’ll die of blood loss, otherwise.”
“Can’t,” he admitted. He glanced at Eddie from beneath his lashes. “Don’t worry. I’m a druid,” he said. “The Upside Down is my domain. My forest.”
Eddie tilted his head, puppy-like. His lips, full and kissable, tugged up into a stunned little smile. He leaned closer still, fingers ghosting Steve’s bicep. He clearly believed Steve was losing the plot, but was delighted all the same to learn Steve knew basic D&D concepts.
“You know what that means?”
“Dustin,” Steve said, as an explanation. “Hey, what’s your favourite ABBA song?”
Eddie didn’t pretend to hate ABBA. That was another reason Steve was falling head over heels for him at an alarming and embarrassing pace.
“ Waterloo ,” Eddie said. “It’s batshit insane. Who the fuck is singing about Napoleon in reference to love, and better yet, why is it so addictive?”
“Hope this rendition is just as good,” Steve grinned. He shut his eyes, tried not to feel stupid, and opened his demobat-blood smeared mouth. “And how could I ever refuse? I feel like I win when I lose!”
Steve knew when his magic kicked in. Nancy’s strangled gasp and Robin’s whooping laugh was nothing compared to the reverent touch of Eddie’s hand through his hair. He peeked his eyes open, catching the admiration and awe that painted itself clear as day across Eddie’s handsome face. His heart sang in his chest and he felt like he could burst, skin vibrating. His hair was glowing so brightly it was saturating the entire world in a cobalt-blue, buttermilk-gold haze.
“Holy fuck, Steve!” Robin swooped in and reached out, hand hovering in front of his face. “Your eyes are glowing. Dustin was right — Steve, Steve. The Upside Down does impact your power!”
“Cool,” Steve slurred, humming the final chords to Waterloo . He was exhausted. He could sleep for forty million years. “I might pass out, but don’t worry, it’s just ‘cause I over … over-exerted myself.” His lids felt heavy and he slumped into a solid chest. Eddie. “Just shake me ‘wake. Nancy’s in charge.”
“As if there was any doubt,” Nancy muttered. “We’ll talk about this later, Steve. You can have a quick rest.”
Steve shut his eyes, beyond grateful, and let himself drift.
Except, he couldn’t ever get what he wanted. The earth shook, entire Upside Down shuddering like a bomb had gone off in its core. Steve’s eyes peeled open and he sighed, defeated.
“No rest for the wicked,” he murmured. “Where to, Nancy?”
“My place,” Nancy said. “Guns, first. Escape, second.”
That was as good a plan as any, so Steve got to his feet, accepted Eddie’s arm around his waist with exhausted glee, and focused on planting one foot after the other, all the way to the Wheeler house.
As expected, Dustin was pissed about missing Steve’s light show. He demanded Eddie and Robin retell the story so many times that even they grew tired of it, changing the details and exaggerating things until eventually, Steve had allegedly cast something called ‘mass healing word’ after dancing an Irish jig, rejuvenating the forest, and exploding in a supernova of gold and blue.
“Then he died,” Eddie said, flatly, laying in the back of the stolen trailer.
Steve snorted, rolling his head so that it rested against the couch. He caught Eddie’s eyes and let himself sink into the depths of their mahogany for a little bit. Eddie let him, expression serene bar for his amused mouth. Steve returned to the situation at hand before he did something stupid, like kiss Eddie.
“To answer your earlier question, Dustin, I don’t know if I can heal other people,” Steve sighed.
Lucas held his hand out. “I have a papercut,” he explained. “You could try with me?”
It was worth a shot. Steve shrugged and caught Lucas’s hand in his. He flipped it so that Lucas’s palm was face up and searched until he found the papercut, right on the tip of Lucas’s thumb. Steve, throat sore from the demobats despite the fact he’d sang it healed, settled on humming. It was a nonsensical little tune. His scalp prickled like it was thinking about igniting blue-gold, but after a moment, the feeling dispersed.
“No can do,” Steve admitted. “It might be because I’m exhausted. I was definitely gonna pass out after I healed myself.”
Absently, he skimmed his fingers over his scarred ribs. He knew that eventually they would heal and disappear, just as every other blemish and scar had. It upset him more than he thought it would. The scars weren’t pleasant; they were huge and jagged and raised, but they were proof of yet another evil he’d triumphed over, of yet another fight he’d won, of another day he’d survived. They were battlescars. Despite it all, Steve wanted to keep them.
“Don’t worry about it. You always need a long rest to regain spell slots,” Eddie reassured him. It was sweet of him, even if Steve had no fucking clue what he was on about. “Try again after you’ve slept,” Eddie added, noting the confused twist of Steve’s eyebrows.
Max cleared her throat. She lingered near the door, headphones around her neck. Nancy rested a hand on her shoulder, tucking Max into the curve of her side. Max fit there like she was born to, head resting against Nancy’s chest. Her cheeks were pink and her mouth a tight, stark white line. Her face was sallow and pained.
“We should probably rest while we can.” She rubbed her nose, avoiding everyone’s gaze. “We have a few hours before we need to be … you know, before we set the plan in motion. Probably best to do that well-rested, right?”
“Fuck yes,” Steve groaned. He couldn’t even bring himself to stand now that he’d settled on the floor. “Throw me a blanket, I’m gonna sleep right here.”
Robin grinned. “Stolen-camper-floor-slumber party,” she crowed, already ducking down the corridor to the sole bedroom.
Despite the gloom that hung above each and every head in the room, they managed to conjure a sense of levity that chased the dark away, just enough that Max could smile; enough that Erica plonked herself next to Robin, taking her hand in her own; enough that Eddie settled on the floor beside Steve, tugging Dustin down to lay between the two of them; enough that Nancy stroked Lucas’s hair and guided Max and him to the floor.
“Nancy,” Steve said, gently. “You can sleep, too.”
“Someone needs to watch,” she said, her mouth a tight, tense line.
“Yeah." Steve had never seen Robin so serious. “That someone will be me. Then, when Lucas’s watch hits three, I’ll wake you and I can sleep. Okay?”
Miraculously, Nancy agreed. It took a bit, but eventually her mouth lost its beak-like pinch, the rigid slope of her jaw becoming gentle, eyes dipping to track the grooves in the floor. Nancy’s shoulders slumped and Steve saw her, suddenly, almost three years younger, hair long and brown and glossy, hunter jacket around her shoulders, smiling against his pillows, in the Hawkins corridors, beside his pool as he shotgunned a beer. He loved her, always would, but they’d long gone their separate ways. He ached to see how much they’d all changed.
“Sleep, Nance,” he said, daring to skim his fingers down Eddie’s side.
“Okay,” Nancy whispered. She laid herself down beside Erica and Robin and pressed her face into Robin’s tentative, gentle touch. “Promise you’ll wake me?”
“Promise,” Robin murmured, equally quiet.
Steve’s eyes drifted away from the two girls and landed, as they did whenever Eddie was nearby, on Eddie’s face. His mouth, first, but then his eyes, which were shut and twitching. Eddie was already asleep, knocked out like a light. Steve spared a thought for how exhausted Eddie must have been, on the run for days straight, heartbeat jackrabbit fast in his chest and swelling in his throat, his panic a noose around his neck.
He reached out and brushed his fingers against Eddie’s cheek, aware of Dustin slumbering between the two of them. Eddie didn’t react beyond his nose twitching. His breathing was steady, little puffs that moved the top of Dustin’s curls. Steve felt his eyes grow heavy and before he knew it, he had fallen asleep, hand resting against Eddie’s delicate throat, arm over Dustin’s chest.
“Don’t try to be a hero.”
Steve said it because he knew they would try. He made them promise because he knew they weren’t going to listen. He repeated it because he was hopeful that maybe once, just once, someone would listen to him. He stood there and watched them lie to him and he let them because maybe, with Nancy and Robin by his side, maybe it wouldn’t matter that they’d lied. Maybe the three of them would be fast enough. Maybe they’d all make it out alive.
As Vecna’s flaming body plummeted from the window, Steve stooped at the waist, pressing his fingers against his throat. The vines had constricted so slowly, tightening painfully around his thighs and chest and arms and the delicate column of his throat. He brushed his fingers against one of the budding bruises and recoiled, physically jerking backwards. It wasn’t the pain so much as the memory of his slowly crushed windpipe that had him reeling. He added ‘things touching my throat’ to his list of traumas with an internal, hysterical laugh. Then he clapped his hands and faced the girls.
“We need to go."
“Rot in hell,” Nancy spat from where she stood, staring down at Vecna's burning corpse on the lawn.
Robin just about swooned beside him. “Badass,” she murmured, slinging an arm around Steve’s shoulder.
“Yeah, yeah, my ex is hot,” he whispered, rolling his eyes. Louder, he said, “Nance, seriously. We need to get back to Dustin and Eddie.”
“Yeah, yeah, Eddie is hot,” Robin mocked, just as quietly.
Steve elbowed her. He found that, despite this being the third time he’d helped save the world and despite wanting to throw up from stress, he felt lighter than he had in years. They all but waltzed down the stairs, grins twisting their lips until they looked half-rabid, eyes gleaming. Nancy led the crusade, kicking the doors open with her combat boots.
Vecna’s corpse wasn’t on the lawn. The grass around where he had fallen was scorched and there was a dragging trail that disappeared a little way down the yard. Vecna was gone, grievously injured but still kicking. The battle was over but the war hadn’t yet been won. Of course it hadn’t.
Steve gently shoved Robin off onto Nancy, stalked down the stairs and took a sharp left. He knelt and braced his hands against the ground and threw up, unable to stop himself. Nancy’s palm was cold against his forehead and Robin’s hand was warm against his back. Eventually, he was able to suck in a few sharp breaths. He smeared the tears from his cheeks. The three of them pretended they were an involuntary result of his vomiting, even when his shoulders shook once, twice, thrice, before they finally stilled.
“Dustin,” Robin reminded him.
“Eddie,” Nancy murmured, eyes lingering on his. He froze beneath her knowing look. She smiled, just a little tug of her lips and inclined her head. “Me too,” she said, like she wasn’t turning Steve’s entire fucking world on it’s head. “Come on, we really do need to go.”
They marched through the woods, dodging vines just in case, and keeping their ears peeled to any incoming demobat screech. There was nothing, just an eerie, awful silence. As they crested the hill, Steve’s gut began to sink. He couldn’t place why but something was wrong. The trailer door was wide open, Eddie’s amp toppled on the floor in front of it. A few demobats had been crushed beneath it, their wings almost as dark as the concrete of their final resting place.
And speaking of final resting places —
Steve’s heart caught in his throat. Heat exploded behind his eyes but no tears fell. Instead, there was anger. A sweeping rage that churned his stomach and set his blood alight, thick and syrupy, sluggish through his veins. Steve broke into a sprint. Dustin didn’t even look up. His arms were wrapped around Eddie’s prone figure, sobs racking his frame and pleads overflowing like a waterfall from his lips.
“Eddie,” Dustin chanted. “Please, please hold on. Please, Eddie. I love you.”
Eddie’s eyes were very dull but his mouth still moved and his chest still drew breath. He was choking on his words, blood bubbling over his lips. Steve cupped Eddie’s cheek, perhaps a little too roughly, but he was gentle when he scooped Eddie into his lap, sharing his weight with Dustin.
“Eddie,” he chastised, voice wavering. “I told you not to be a hero. I told you.”
“Sorry, Stevie,” Eddie whispered. He wet his lips. He didn’t grimace at the metallic flavour that would have burst across his tongue. He probably couldn’t taste it, too far gone. “Didn’t wanna be a coward anymore,” he rasped. “Didn’t wanna run. Wanted …”
It didn’t matter what Eddie wanted. He never got the chance to tell Steve. He died, just like that, breath halting in his chest and eyes sliding left and up, off into the great, endless black of the Upside Down.
“No,” he wailed, folding at the waist to collapse with his forehead to Steve’s shoulder, fingers twisting in Eddie’s shredded shirt. “No. Please, no. How many people? How many people! ”
Steve stared uncomprehendingly down at a too-still Eddie. He was just sleeping, his mind whispered. Eddie was taking a long-rest, regaining all that energy he was going to need for his recovery. He was taking a moment to rest his eyes. The longer Steve looked, the less he could deny it. Eddie’s rigidity was unnatural, his skin already feeling clammy. His eyes, glossy and brown and perfect, were dulled now. Tears had pooled along their lashline and trickled down the curve of his forever-frozen cheek.
“No,” Steve said, very quietly.
He reached out and took Eddie’s hand in his and thought about Waterloo and all that stupid metal Eddie liked. He thought about how he didn’t need to know the words to heal — could hum, instead. Master of Puppets had saved the world. Now Steve could use it to save Eddie. To save Steve’s world.
Steve pressed his hands to Eddie’s stomach, palms across the two biggest wounds. His eyes fell shut as he tried to drudge up the tune he’d heard Eddie humming in the van, the same song he’d heard distantly across the woods barely an hour ago. He missed about half the notes and he couldn’t remember how the riff went but, all things considered, it was recognisable. At least, Dustin seemed to think so, because the breath he sucked in was so sharp he choked on his tears and had to splutter into his hands.
It wasn’t working. Steve’s hair was glowing, yes, but he could only feel his own bruises healing. He stared down at his hands and willed his palms to glow. Nothing. He dug deeper and started from the top, that stupid, difficult riff building in his throat and vibrating his entire chest. He pushed and pushed and pushed and thought about the prickly-heat of healing. He tried to push the feeling into Eddie’s chest. Again, nothing.
Steve’s head bowed, forehead kissing Eddie’s blood streaked, cold skin. He’d known about his healing for months. Why, why hadn’t he considered healing others? Why hadn’t he experimented, at least? His vision blurred, navy-blue and honey-gold, stronger, saturated, but wet now, too, as the first few tears bubbled over his cheeks.
“Come on,” he whispered, switching to ABBA, to Metallica, to anything and everything he could remember. Fuck, even Kate Bush. Still, nothing. “Eddie, please. Come on.”
Steve's fingers smeared across the mess of liquids pooling in Eddie’s clavicle. Blood, sweat, tears — a puddle with three sources. Steve, Dustin, and Eddie. Steve swallowed. His lips brushed Eddie’s, wet and blood-slicked. He inhaled on a sob, swallowing past the grief in his throat and dug right down to the core of himself. Every hurt he’d ever had, every scar he’d lost, every ache that his stupid fucking magic hair and the stupid fucking Upside Down and stupid fucking Vecna had caused — he dug right down to the messy depths of all of it, fingers falling and digging into the vines that sat dormant beneath them, and instead of pushing, he pulled.
He pulled and he pulled and the vines gave way.
Steve’s lungs felt brittle. His throat felt as though it were made of glass. Needles, dust, glass — he was suddenly back in the tunnels, plant pollen cascading across his face, sucked into his mouth and shooting up his nose. Something hot like burning, like lava, like the fucking sun, built in his head, right behind his eyes. His brain was melting, threatening to drip sludge-thick from his ears, but still, Steve pulled.
Something in him gave way.
Vibrant blue and gold burst from his mouth in a cloud of pollen. Steve pushed Eddie’s placid mouth open and dug his fingers into his cheeks tight enough to bruise, were there blood still pumping around to do so. He exhaled, mouth slotted over Eddie’s, and felt the blue-gold leave him, diving into the depths of Eddie’s chest. He gave a resounding, desperate hum and then slammed his hand over Eddie’s mouth and pinched the boy’s nose shut.
“God,” he rasped, vision blurry from something other than tears. “Please fucking work. Please, for once, please let us have this.”
The Upside Down was motionless and silent. Dustin shuddered as he hung over Eddie’s chest. Robin and Nancy’s hands sat, interlocked, over Steve’s back. Steve’s knees were aching, his entire body a giant bruise, but he didn’t move. He kept Eddie ensconsed in his arms, refusing to budge.
Like Atlas, Steve sat there and held his world up.
“Steve,” Nancy murmured.
Steve ignored her. “Eddie,” he demanded. “Wake up.”
“Please tell me you kissed me,” Eddie rasped.
“Survive long enough to make it outta here and I’ll do more than kiss you,” Steve promised. His tasted salt when he wet his lips. “Now hum. Sing. I don’t know how long it’ll last.”
Eddie’s eyes fluttered as though he was struggling to keep them open. Robin and Nancy tucked themselves into Dustin’s side, letting Eddie and Steve have their moment as best as they could. An-almost deathbed confession in Hell — it couldn't get more romantic than this, Steve thought, feverishly.
“How could I ever refuse?” Eddie sang, breathy and discordant and barely there. “Feel like I win when I lose.”
Steve watched the little bursts of pale gold and watery blue dance along Eddie’s wounds, sewing together the ripped and jagged edges of his torn flesh. His fingers tangled with Eddie's. Their blood was tacky between them. It wasn't romantic, but Steve's heart tripped over in his chest regardless.
“Asshole,” Steve laughed, wetly. He swiped the tears from his face and then cupped his hand firmly against Eddie’s cheek. “Fucking Waterloo, of all songs.”
“Napoleon did surrender,” Eddie hummed. “So do I, Stevie.”
He squeezed Steve's fingers and managed a few more lines of song, the tips of his hair periwinkle and daffodil and buoyant. Eventually, whatever magic the dust possessed seemed unable to cling any longer. The magic receded and Eddie lay exhausted, but alive, in Steve’s arms. Eddie's head rolled until it brushed Steve's chest.
"Either kiss me again or get me outta here, Stevie."
Steve decided he could have both. He nipped Eddie's mouth, swiped his tongue along Eddie's spit and blood-speckled lips, and took great delight in inhaling Eddie's muted gasp of pleasure. Eddie's lashes tickled his cheeks. He hadn't shut his eyes completely but neither had Steve. It was odd to kiss with his eyes open, but Steve didn't want to miss a second. Steve met the curious slide of Eddie's tongue with his own and tasted metal, which was hotter than it had any right to be. Then again, everything about Eddie was hot.
Sooner or later they would have to leave. Eddie's wounds hadn't healed completely; they weren't out of the woods yet. Vecna was still out there, rotting and nefarious, but that could wait. For once, it could fucking wait.
"Me too," Steve whispered against Eddie's mouth. "I'm surrendering too."
'86 was shaping up to be a good year.
“It’s January first,” Eddie murmured, snickering into the sweaty column of Steve’s throat. “It’s not even three hours in, Harrington.”
Steve, drunk off both love and the six Babychams he’d pinched from Robin, dragged his mouth across Eddie’s cheekbone. His fingers smoothed up Eddie’s naked back. His nails dug into Eddie’s shoulder blades as he tugged him closer, hooking a leg over Eddie’s waist to flip them. He settled low on Eddie’s hips.
“Don’t care,” he murmured, splaying his fingers against Eddie’s chest and sternum. “This is a great year. My favourite year. Upside Down finally gone, no more fighting for my life, and the hottest guy in Hawkins in my bed.”
"You're always in your bed," Eddie smirked, salaciously.
Steve flicked his thumb against Eddie’s black nipple piercing, grinning self-satisfactorily as Eddie jolted with a low hiss. His mouth followed soon after, chasing away any sting. Eddie sighed beneath him, restless hands cupping Steve’s elbows and his waist, cradling the back of his head and the curve of his ass, and finally settling on Steve’s thighs.
“We should sleep,” he told Steve, seriously.
Steve nodded. “Sure.” He ran his tongue over Eddie’s clavicle. “In a bit.”
Eddie’s laugh was quiet and breathy. His gaze was wondrous and it lingered, heady and addictive and full of desire and love. Steve’s heart flipped in his chest. He let Eddie drink his fill, left hand sliding up Steve’s waist to cup his fuzzy jaw. He sunk his thumb into Steve’s mouth, pupils dilating when Steve bit down.
“Fuck. You’re insatiable. Can we get your shirt off, at least?”
Steve grinned. “As if you’re not gagging for it,” he teased, drawing away to do as Eddie asked.
As expected, Eddie couldn’t keep his hands to himself. He scoped the length of Steve’s bare chest, expression softening as his fingers grazed the faded, wide-spread demobat scars that puddled and pooled across Steve’s waist. Steve let Eddie touch him. There wasn’t any feeling to the long-healed wounds, but he shivered all the same.
“Love that we match,” Eddie murmured. “It’s like, other people are giving each other promise rings or getting matching tattoos, but here we are with matching scars.”
Steve snorted. “I think,” he said, flopping sideways so that they could curl into each other like a set of parentheses, “you’re forgetting I also kissed you back to life.”
“Oh, baby.” Eddie wiggled his brows. He was trying to look sexy, but the pleased heat that spread across his cheeks betrayed how abashed he truly was. “Yeah,” he murmured, voice catching. “Talk about the Kiss of Life.”
“Wanted to make sure our first one was memorable,” Steve grinned.
Their foreheads brushed, noses skimming as they kissed languidly. Their bodies folded into the now-familiar shape of each other. The smell and warmth and feel of Eddie against him, pressing him into the mattress or tugging him in close, was addictive. Steve chased after it with wild abandon, besotted and dizzy with the knowledge that he could have it — that Eddie would give it freely.
Steve shifted, meaning to tug Eddie back over him, but the skin of his hip pinched. It didn’t hurt; it was just uncomfortable. Unbidden, Steve's hand dropped to his side, mouth pulling free from Eddie’s with a shlick wet pop. He traced his fingers across his scars, feeling the dull sensation of raised skin.
He’d lost the physical proof of his childhood scars and the reminders of the fights he’d survived. He’d lost the ability to soothe any future wounds — something he was wholly and undoubtedly grateful for, even if he did kind of miss being part of the supernatural club. What he hadn’t lost was more important: Robin, Nancy, the kids — and Eddie.
Eddie, whose mouth had joined Steve’s fingers. Eddie, who promised Steve that the only fights he’d get into now were the sexy kind. Eddie, who loved him and wanted him and would continue to for a very long time. Maybe even forever.
Steve’s hair wasn’t magic anymore, but what he had with Eddie was.
That was enough for Steve.