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Mother, I Can Hear You

Chapter Text

Arthur Harrington slumped into an old uncomfortable hospital chair. Julia’s water had broken a few weeks earlier than expected, and they weren’t prepared.

By the time Arthur arrived at the hospital, the doctors were already helping through her labor.

It felt like he’d been waiting an eternity before a doctor finally approached him. His nametag read said ‘Martin.’

“Mr. Harrington?” The man seemed young to Arthur. But it wasn’t the lack of wrinkles along the doctor’s face, it was the grief in his eyes.

Arthur nodded and slowly stood. “Is everything alright?”

Martin’s mouth turned into a thin line as he shook his head. “Mrs. Harrington lost consciousness during labor. We were able to stabilize her but…”

Arthur never knew how long a breath’s width could feel until Dr. Martin paused to lick his lips.

“...but we lost the baby.”

“May I see them?” Arthur stepped around the doctor, not waiting for permission. But Martin put an authoritative hand on his shoulder and held him back.

“She’s still sleeping. Mr. Harrington I need you to understand, the infant didn’t make it. His umbilical cord was tangled around its neck and cutting off air-flow. There’s nothing any of us could have done…”

Arthur leaned against the doctor’s hand for support and let out a shuddering breath. He’d heard the doctor the first time. But he had a habit of ignoring things he didn’t like. It was the job of other people that worked beneath him to handle those things and make it better.

This wasn’t one of those times though. Arthur couldn’t ignore death.

“I understand. Have someone let me know when Julia wakes up. Does… Does she know…?”

Another head shake. “She’s stable, but still hasn’t regained consciousness. I thought maybe you might like to be there to tell her-”

“-Tell her what? That we’re not going home with a son? That all our work and failed attempts to have a child were for nothing?” Arthur snapped.

He looked down on Martin with through slitted eyes, anger bubbling up in his throat. “Isn’t that your job? Christ what the hell are they paying you for if you can’t safely deliver a child and are too spineless to admit your fault to the mother?”

The words spilled out of his mouth faster than Arthur could process. They were hurtful, he knew that. But he couldn’t find it in him to feel guilty either.

Martin snapped his mouth shut and cleared his throat.

“I’m sorry for your loss sir.” It was the last thing he said before disappearing down the artificially lit hallway.

There was no one else in sight since the hospital ran on a skeleton crew in the late-night hours. Arthur was alone.

He found himself wandering the halls until he stumbled across the hospital’s infant care unit.

Arthur slowly approached the glass window and looked in at all the other newborns, sleeping in their hampers. He tried very hard not to think of the child he’d lost as his eyes focus on an empty carrier.

Arthur rested a fist against the glass. The anger was slowly coming back again. He wanted to break something, lash out, scream from the rooftops at the injustice of it all…

A heavy smash caused Arthur to whip his head around in surprise. Apparently, he wasn’t the only one occupying the infant ward.

Lonnie Byers’ hand was pressed against the front of a vending machine.

Lonnie had been a few grades below Arthur in high school, but stories still circulated about how he was a dealer to almost everyone on the football team. If you wanted something, Lonnie could get it. He was always eager to make a few bucks.

The old plastic box was still rattling from the impact of Lonnie’s fist.

It seemed as if not much had changed. He looked dirty, and his shoulders seemed pulled tight with stress.

“Lonnie?”

Tired, bloodshot eyes met Arthur’s clear blue. Recognition flashed like the strike of a match.

“Arthur Harrington, the hell are you doing here?”

Apparently Lonnie still hadn't lost the crass speech pattern that he’d sported in school.

Arthur gestured over his shoulder. “Julia went into labor.”

“Damn, must be something going around huh? Joyce’s water broke too.”

Lonnie snatched the box of cigarettes that he’d knocked loose from the machine. As an afterthought, he hesitantly offered one to Arthur. “Celebratory smoke? This place doesn’t offer cigars…”

Arthur shook his head. “Julia…” he swallowed down a choke. “The baby didn’t make it.”

Genuine sympathy washed over Lonnie’s face. “Shit. Sorry to hear that.”

Lonnie slowly walked over to Arthur and gestured with his chin. “The Doc said there were ‘complications’ during the birth. They had to put Joyce under and do a C-section. Still hasn’t woken up yet.”

Arthur nodded and cleared his throat. It seemed as if this night was full of misfortune. “And the baby?”

Lonnie scoffed and pointed through the glass. “Little squirt made it.”

A small infant, slightly smaller than the rest, was sleeping peacefully in its basket. Dark strands of hair peeking out beneath a blue cap.

“Congratulations.” Arthur murmured as he tried to push down the jealousy filling his chest. It seemed almost unfair that Joyce’s child lived when Julia’s didn’t.

An idea crossed Arthur’s mind as Lonnie stared into the hospital’s nursery.

An idea that perhaps not even Julia would agree to if she were conscious.

But she wasn’t. And Arthur was. And he would do anything to make her happy, no matter the cost.

“Lonnie,” Arthur turned to the other man. “How are you and Joyce doing?”

Lonnie scoffed and slipped a cigarette between his lips.

“Not great. As usual. We weren’t planning on having a kid for another year or so but…” He gestured towards the newborn infant behind the glass.

“Money’s still tight?” Arthur hummed in sympathy.

“When isn’t it? The truck’s on its last leg, but we’re just gonna have to make do since all the money’s going to feeding the kid now.”

Arthur licked his lips, nervous now.

“Lonnie, I think I might have a solution for both our problem…”


 

Lonnie sat in a chair next to Joyce’s bed. It’s padding long-since worn away until there was only a thin layer of material between the occupant and the chair’s frame.

He bit on his fingers, anxiously deciding how best to break the news.

Joyce murmured from where she was lying as she slowly regained consciousness. Her brow was creased before she even opened her eyes. “Lonnie?”

“I’m here honey,” Lonnie leaned forward so Joyce didn’t have to move too much.

Her dark brown eyes blinked open then squeezed shut again as her body caught up to her.

“What… what happened? The baby-” She lurched up and cried out when her abdomen flared bright with pain.

“Hey, take it easy.” Lonnie gently pressed his wife back into a lying down position.

Joyce gripped his hand, trembling and looking at her husband in fear and confusion. “What happened?”

Lonnie brushed a strand of hair off of Joyce’s sweaty brow. “Something happened while you were in labor. The doctor’s tried to do a c-section… but the baby didn’t make it.”

Joyce’s furrowed brow deepened. She shook her head. “No, no I felt him…”

Her hands traveled to the place just above her heart, where a baby’s head might have rested in slumber.

“I felt him…” she began again.

Lonnie shook his head. “Joyce,”

“He was alive Lonnie- “

“Joyce!” Lonnie shouted, wanting to snap her out of her building hysteria.

Her eyes were filled with tears, begging him to understand. As if convincing him would change what he was trying to tell her.

Joyce’s lip began to tremble. “What happened? What did I do wrong?”

Lonnie took a deep breath. “The doctor said he stopped breathing on his own. It wasn’t your fault.”

Joyce shook her head and sobbed. She rocked back and forth, hands still pressed to her heart as if cradling the child she’d lost.

Lonnie felt guilty, if only for a moment. But the money that Arthur promised him outweighed Joyce’s grief.

In a month or so he’d buy them a new car and say that someone who owed him money finally came through.

She would never have to know.

Eventually Joyce stopped rocking, but the tears didn’t stop for a long time.


 

Julia woke up an hour after Arthur finished his transaction with Lonnie. He’d had just enough time to identify and pay off any hospital staff that interacted with either family during their stay.

When Julia’s deep green eyes finally fluttered open, Arthur made sure he was the first thing she saw.

“Arthur,” she slurred and brought a hand to her eyes like a Hollywood starlet. Her dark brown hair splayed beneath her head like a halo. “What happened?”

Arthur reached out and pressed a kiss to her forehead. Joy finally began to bubble up in his chest. Yes, this is how it was meant to be.

“Everything’s fine darling. You passed out during labor, but you’re alright.”

Julia’s finely manicured fingers curled in slightly. “The baby…”

“The baby’s fine too.” Arthur assured. “It’s a boy, would you like to see him?”

“Oh,” Julia exhaled.

Before she could say anything else Arthur was already out the room and calling for a nurse.

By the time the nurse arrived, Julia already looked like her old self. Even beneath a thin layer of sweat she was stunning in Arthur’s eyes.

Her eyes flashed nervously as the nurse gently guided the sleeping baby into Julia’s arms. She held the infant clumsily at first, like he might break at any moment.

“Shouldn’t we wait till he wakes?” She asked and made to give the infant back to the nurse.

“It’s fine,” the middle-aged woman gave a dismissal shake of her hand. “It’s better for the mother and child to grow accustomed to each other as soon as possible.”

Julia hesitantly drew the child back to her chest. She ran a hand over his soft head. “He has by hair.”

“And I’m sure he’ll grow into your other looks as well.” Arthur smiled.

Julia didn’t notice the skeptical glance the nurse directed at her husband. She was much too preoccupied with the baby that began to move in her arms.

“I think he’s waking up.”

Arthur moved next to his wife so he could get a better look at their new son.

His little fist poked out of the blanket and stretched and reached out. Julia didn’t offer him a finger as an anchor.

But she did gasp when his lids opened to reveal dark brown eyes.

“They’re… They’re brown!” Julia looked up at her husband in surprise. Neither of them had brown eyes.

Arthur looked from the infant to his wife. “It must be your Italian roots kicking in. I read somewhere those genes can lay dormant for generations.”

“That’s not for- “

“Actually,” the nurse interrupted Julia’s protest, “it’s pretty common for a baby’s eye color to change during the first few months of infancy.”

Julia looked up at Arthur for confirmation then turned back to the infant in her arms.

The baby met her eyes, and brown stared into green. His large eyes darted across her face as if searching for something. When he couldn’t seem to find it, the baby began to cry and wriggle away.

“He hates me.” Julia exclaimed and held the baby out the nurse.

“He doesn’t hate you, he just doesn’t know you yet.” Arthur offered as he watched the nurse quickly return the infant to its crib.

Julie glowered at him. “I carried him for almost nine months Arthur. Most babies have developed some kind of connection by now.”

Arthur watched as the nurse settled the infant back in his basket. His small hands still reached out above him. “Just give yourself a chance. The doctor said you might feel a little strange when you first woke up.”

“Strange how?” Julia asked, her hand ghosting over her stomach, like she was reaching for something missing.

“Just strange. Apparently some mothers feel ‘wrong’ after they give birth.”

Julia hummed in response, her eyes unfocused. “Can you go find some water for me?”

Arthur’s eyes glanced at the full pitcher of water next to her bed, but decided against pointing it out. Julia clearly wanted to be alone.

“Of course dear.” Arthur pressed a farewell kiss to her head before following the nurse out of the room.

The walked in silence for a while. The only sounds that echoed off the walls were the sound of the baby’s gurgling and the cart squeaking against the tiled floor.

“She’ll come around.” The nurse said, offering the baby her finger as they walked. She smiled when he gripped her much larger hand. “He’s strong. What name did you decide on?”

Arthur blinked down at the infant on the cart. They’d decided on a few names half-way into the pregnancy. Julia had protested, but Arthur finally convinced her to name the child after him if it was a boy.

But now… it felt almost ghoulish to name this baby after the one they had lost.

Julia was never fond of that name anyway. Arthur worked desperately to think of any of the other names she’d suggested instead.

Finally, one came to mind that he’d recalled her mentioning on more than one occasion.

“Steven. We named him Steven.”

The nurse nodded in approval before smiling down at the infant in her care.

“Well then, hello Steve. Something tells me you’ve got quite the life ahead of you.”

Chapter Text

There were a lot of things Julia missed about her youth.

The thrills of midnight joy-rides with Arthur while they were still in high school. Getting drunk and sneaking off to the movies on the night of their prom. The novelty of playing house and decorating her new and modern home.

What Julia most recently missed, were her trips with Arthur while he was working. The ability to pack a bag and just disappear to a far-off state or even country and leave Hawkins behind was exhilarating. In the best way possible, it made Julia feel like she didn’t belong in this small town with its small people. Like she was above them somehow, regardless of the fact that they all went to the same high school.

But ever since she found out she was pregnant, Julia was suddenly tethered to this little town, trapped within a birdcage she herself designed.

She’d read plenty of books and spoke with the other mothers in Hawkins. The general consensus was that motherhood changed everything. It made all the things you gave up worthwhile.

So why did Julia still feel trapped?

She looked down at the baby sleeping in the crib that she’d chosen out and tried to feel something akin to motherly love. But there was nothing.

Julia only saw an unwanted anchor keeping her in Hawkins. And that made her heart twist painfully inside her chest. She should be feeling something. What kind of mother doesn’t immediately care about their own child?

Hesitantly, Julia leaned down and scooped Steven up in her arms and rested his sleeping form against her chest. She closed her eyes and listened for his heartbeat, and felt it match her own.

Did Steven feel that she didn’t know what she was doing? Could he sense that his own mother struggled to love him?

That thought only made Julia feel more guilty.

What was wrong with her?

“I’ll make you a deal Steven.” Julia whispered. She didn’t know why she didn’t use his shorter name. Perhaps it was her own stiff upbringing that made ‘Steve’ feel too casual to be spoken aloud. Or maybe it was because it sounded too familiar for this infant that still felt like a stranger in Julia’s arms.

“I’ll pretend I always wanted to have children, if you pretend I’m a good mother.”

As if he heard her, Steven shifted his little head and looked up. Brown eyes met green, and then he started crying.

“No, no no I’m sorry.” Julia rocked back and forth and wandered her large empty house. “I do love you, I promise. Just stop crying, please?”

But Steven didn’t stop crying. And for the hundredth time, Julia wished she could have gone with Arthur on his trip.

‘It’ll be good for you and Steve to spend time together. You need to hold him more Julia.’

His words rang like bells in her ears, criticizing her. Regardless of the fact that Arthur had spent even less time with their child than she had.

‘Fathers become more involved with their sons after they get a little older.’ He’d had a smarmy answer for that accusation as well.

It wasn’t fair that Julia was left behind in this boring little town while her husband traipsed around god-knows-where with god-knows-who.

Call it jealousy, paranoia, whatever you like. But Julia liked having her husband within reach.

Julia eventually found herself fastening Steven into the baby carrier and sliding into the driver’s seat of Arthur’s car. He can leave her behind in Hawkins, but she’ll be damned if she’ll be cooped up inside that house.

Steven had stopped crying briefly as Julia drove aimlessly around town. But he’d started up again once she parked outside the grocery store.

Julia looked into the rearview mirror at her son and felt nothing but exhaustion. She turned the mirror to look at her own reflection and found that her feelings also matched how she looked on the outside. Julia hadn’t noticed she’d been crying, but the dark mascara trails down the sides of her face was proof enough.

She took a shaky breath and wiped at her face, making herself look presentable before stepping out of the car. She half-considered leaving Steven in the back seat but thought better of it. She didn’t need the town to start whispering about Julia Harrington: The Mother Incapable of Love.

She didn’t need people verbalizing what she was already feeling.


 

Joyce was just slipping out for a pack of smokes.

Lonnie had said she needed to stay at home and rest, that she needed to give herself some time. But Lonnie was also the one to take her last cigarette so really this was his fault anyway.

It had been over a month since she’d returned from the hospital, and Joyce still didn’t feel quite whole. Like maybe the doctors didn’t put her back together right, and there was still a piece of her on the operating table that they forgot to return.

Any day now they were going to call and say ‘Oh Mrs. Byers we’re so sorry we didn’t realize we left your whatcha-call-it on ice. Come right over we’ll put it back where it belongs.’

But the call never came, and Joyce never voiced her feelings of wrongness because it sounded crazy, and Lonnie didn’t like it when she sounded crazy.

So instead, she smoked.

As Joyce’s hand reached for a box of cigarettes, she thought of better times that involved smoking under the bleachers with Jim.

Jim, who never called her crazy. Well, not in the mean way that Lonnie did. He’d called her crazy when they’d hotwired her old man’s car and drove to the next town over just to see a movie. He’d called her crazy when they ran from Mr. Cooper when he caught them smoking at school. And Jim had called her crazy when he kissed her.

But that was before. Before they both got married to other people and began their separate lives. Parallel to each other in the way a small town forces you to be, but never connecting.

Joyce ran her hand over where the scar would be from the C-section. Would things have turned out differently if she’d chosen Jim instead?

Joyce shook her head. She couldn’t afford to think about questions she already knew the answers to. Some things in life were just irreversible.

The sound of a baby crying interrupted Joyce’s thoughts.

Her eyes followed the noise until Joyce’s gaze landed on none other than Julia Harrington.

Lonnie had told her that he’d run into Arthur at the hospital. That Julia had gone into labor the same day.

Joyce rubbed at her other arm. An unfamiliar pang of jealousy bubbled up inside her chest as she watched Julia try to shush and calm the infant in the baby carrier atop the cart she was pushing.

She would give anything to have her own child in her arms. Even if he was difficult and crying, that was better than gone altogether.

Joyce didn’t even realize she was moving towards Julia until her hand rested against the other woman’s cart. Julia looked startled as her eyes snapped up to meet hers. She looked about as tired as Joyce felt.

“Joyce...?” Recognition slowly dawned on Julia’s face. Her brow creased in realization and sympathy as she shook her head. “Oh Joyce, Arthur told me…”

Julia looked away in embarrassment and Joyce understood. It wasn’t usually appropriate to talk about loss amidst the produce section.

“It’s okay.” Joyce nodded. Those words felt thick and wrong on her tongue as she turned her attention to the crying baby. “I wanted to congratulate you…”

Julia looked genuinely lost as Joyce spoke. As if congratulations were the last thing she was expecting to receive.

Joyce gestured to the infant. “May I?”

Julia didn’t give any sign of opposition, so Joyce gently unbuckled the baby from his carrier and cradled him in her arms. He quickly calmed down as she rocked and shushed him, occasionally making exaggerated facial expressions or cooing at him.

It felt so right, and made Joyce so heartsick for her own lost child.

“What did you name him?” It was only when Joyce looked up that she noticed Julia’s awe-struck stare.

“Steven…” Julia whispered absent-mindedly as she pointed. “How did you do that?”

Joyce was confused at first, until she noticed that Steve had fallen asleep in her arms. “Oh, I used to babysit for a few families when I was younger. I was always kind of good with kids.”

Julia looked crestfallen at her answer.

“But you know…” Joyce found herself continuing, “My mom said she had a hard time with me at first.”

Julia’s eyes snapped to attention with a focus she’d never shown in high school, and Joyce knew she was on the right track.

“She said sometimes it’s hard to find a rhythm. sometimes it seems like you’re doing something wrong, but it’ll come to you. Also, babies like to be wrapped in a blanket,”

Joyce looked down at the sleeping infant pressing his head just above her heart. “This world’s just too big and overwhelming for them right now, and being held tight reminds them of the womb.”

Julia’s hand absently rested where her pregnant belly used to be. “Where’d your mother learn all that?”

Joyce shrugged and handed her child back. She’d never admit it out loud, but she couldn’t bear to hold Steve any longer. He was too much of a reminder of how right and easy it was to hold and love a child like him. “She grew up in a big family. I guess practice makes perfect?”

Julia nodded absently and looked in astonishment as the sleeping child in her arms. She eventually looked up and smiled in relief. “Thank you, Joyce. And, I’m so sorry for....”

She still couldn’t say it.

Joyce smiled sadly and waved as Julia carted her and her son away. And if she saw Julia slip a few wine bottles into the shopping basket, who was she to say anything.

Joyce’s fingers gripped a box of cigarettes as she walked towards the register.  

They all had their escapes.


 

Julia wasn’t proud of the fact that the first thing she did when she got home was open a bottle of wine. It wasn’t even noon yet, but it had been a long day and as long as she didn’t make this a habit, she thought she deserved to relax a little.

Steven was still sound asleep in his car seat, and she was too afraid that moving him would start him crying again.

“Fuck off.” Julia murmured to herself and cheers-ed her glass at a photo of Arthur on the mantle.

It was his idea to have a child. ‘But dear, all the other families around town are expecting.’

As if that was a good enough excuse.

Julia was loathed to admit it. But it had been a good enough reason for them. Image was as important to Arthur as it was to her side of the family. If you weren’t fulfilling your spousal duties, then you clearly weren’t a good little American wife. Big house, one to two children, and casseroles for dinner. Julia scoffed.

“As if…” she mumbled and poured herself another glass.

She could play the part of the good wife when the eyes of Hawkins were on her. But Julia hated cooking. And she was apparently a terrible mother to boot, so there weren’t any more children in her future if she had anything to say about it.

No. She gave Arthur a son. She’ll maintain her gilded cage. But Julia was sure she’d never be a perfect wife.

Her foggy mind was half-considering asking Joyce to nanny for her. That way she could begin traveling with Arthur again sooner than originally planned. But that would just be admitting her own failings as a parent. And she would never do that.

By the time Julia remembered Steven, the world was a lot fuzzier, and she felt a lot less afraid as she scooped him up in her arms. Perhaps being a little tipsy was the key to being a good mother. You just needed a little liquid courage.

She hummed a tune to herself as she felt Steve squirm in her arms.

“I’ll make you another deal Steve,” Julia slurred as she laid him down in his crib and clumsily wrapped him in a blanket.

“I promise to take care of you, if you promise to pretend that we’re a good happy family.”

Steve stopped squirming and looked up at Julia. He probably wasn’t swaddled the way Joyce would have recommended, or any mother for that matter. But he stopped moving, and that was good enough for her.

His deep unfamiliar brown eyes stared at her a moment before he started gurgling and sticking his tongue out. It was almost cute.

Julia smiled and shook her head. “I’ll take that as a yes then.”

She bent down and kissed her son’s soft forehead.

“I will love you.” She promised the both of them before standing.

She ignored the way her vision spun when she righted herself. It’s been a long day, and they both were tired.

Julia gave her son one final glance before turning out the lights and returning to her glass of wine.

Arthur will be home in two days. She can relax a little until then.

Chapter Text

Steve traced the letters from the book in his lap, trying to make sense of the words that seemed determined to evade him.

‘Frog ran up the path to Toad’s house.’

His teachers mentioned that reading on his own might help improve his comprehension level in class.

‘He knocked on the front door.’

He personally thought it was their job to help him learn better, but Steve decided not to voice that opinion. They’d just remind him that he was in the 1st Grade and didn’t know as much as the grown-ups.

There was no answer.’

Steve sighed and closed the book, choosing instead to gaze out at the nearly empty parking lot. He’d picked the story because he liked the drawings of animals dressed in little suits. It looked funny and reminded him of how he felt when his parents tried to dress him up. His dad always huffed about his hair always sticking up where it didn’t belong.

There was no answer.

Steve didn’t like that part of the book though. It reminded him too much of his current position: Waiting for his mom to pick him up after school. But so far, there was no car, no mom, no answer.

The final bell rang for the day, and shortly after other kids around Steve’s age came pouring out of the school. As the parking lot continued to empty, Steve hugged his knees closer to his chest.

Sometimes, momma was late. But she always remembered him eventually.

But she’s never been this late. Steve thought nervously to himself.

Another small boy sat down a little ways away. He looked familiar, but Steve was pretty sure he was a year younger than him.

Both children took turns pretending not to stare at the other until Steve finally cleared his throat. “My name’s Steve.”

The other boy stared shyly for a moment before mumbling. “Jonathan.”

Steve blinked. None of the other boys in his class used their full names. Especially when it was so long. There were plenty of Frank-s and Sam-s and Johnny-s. But never a Jonathan. Steve thought only adults used their full names.

And even then, he was determined to just stay ‘Steve’ when he grew up.

“Is your mom late?” Steve asked, scooching closer to ‘Jonathan.’

For a moment he thought Jonathan was going to scooch away, but eventually the other boy settled again and nodded.

Steve nodded back, proud that he’d finally made a friend at school. “So’s mine. But my mom usually isn’t this late.”

“She usually picks me up after work.” Jonathan whispered.

“Your mom has a job?” Steve raised his eyebrows. “That’s so cool!”

He really didn’t know all that much about jobs. But his mom sure seemed unhappy without one, so they had to be nice.

“I like that story.” Steve looked down to where Jonathan was pointing at the book in his lap.

“Yeah, me too!” He was too embarrassed to admit that he hadn’t made it past the first page yet. Jonathan might not like him as much if he knew that.

“This is my sad time of day.” Jonathan spoke in a croaky voice.

Steve scrunched up his face at Jonathan. “You’re sad?”

Jonathan’s face turned red in embarrassment and looked away. “No, it’s… it’s one of my favorite parts of the book. Mom always reads it with funny voices.”

“Oh.” Steve nodded.

“I remember that part,” He lied again, “it just sounded different because of the voice.”

Jonathan turned back to Steve. “How does your mom read it?”

Now it was Steve’s turn to look away. It was embarrassing enough to know that Jonathan could probably read better than him. He couldn’t imagine the other boy’s reaction to finding out his mom never read stories to him.

“She’s really busy.” Steve said lamely. As if that were a real answer.

But Jonathan must have understood somehow, because he didn’t ask anything else. Steve just heard him sigh and scooch a little closer.

“I wish my dad read to me.” Jonathan said, digging his shoes into the loose asphalt. “He says he has a hard time making sense of the words sometimes, but I think he just doesn’t like reading.”

Steve faced Jonathan again and joined him in kicking up the parking lot beneath their feet. “What does he like?”

Jonathan shrugged. “Drinking and yelling I guess.”

“My dad likes to go away a lot.” Steve offered.

They continued talking until a green car pulled into the school. Jonathan smiled and jumped up to meet his mom as she got out of the car. Steve watched as she gave him a big hug and rocked him back and forth. She looked nice.

Jonathan pulled her down to ear-level and told her something with a very serious face. Eventually both he and his mom looked over at Steve still sitting on the sidewalk.

Steve wrapped his arms around himself as Jonathan’s mom slowly approached.

She had a reassuring smile on her face as she spoke. “Hi Steve. My name’s Joyce. I wanted to thank you for keeping Jonathan company while he waited for me.”

Steve nodded and rubbed at his nose. He didn’t really know how to talk to adults. But Joyce didn’t seem to mind.

“I think I know your mom. How about you come home with us and I can give her a call?”

Steve’s eyes brightened with hope, but quickly dimmed again as he shook his head slowly. “Thank you, ma’am, but she’s probably on her way, and she might be scared if I’m not here.”

Joyce nodded and seem to consider Steve’s answer. He liked her eyes.

“Tell you what Steve,” Joyce looked over her shoulder at Jonathan, “I think Jonathan might be scared to leave you here on your own. And I wouldn’t want that either. I can talk to the school and have them call me if your mom shows up. Does that work?”

Steve bit his lip and looked past Joyce at Jonathan standing by the car. He wouldn’t want to make either of them worry about him. And his mom was really late…

“Okay.” Steve eventually nodded.


 

It didn’t take Steve long to decide that he liked the Byers’ house.

It was the kind of house that you had to get to know to navigate correctly. Like which places on the floor squeak under-foot, or how hard you had to push or pull a door to lock correctly.

Steve liked it. He liked the feeling of knowing someone, anyone besides his family.

The Harrington’s house was void of any signs of life or wear. There were no dented or scuffed walls, no noisy floors, and no height measurements in the doorframe. His mom would never allow something so intentionally marring like that.

It reminded Steve of a doll house. One sweep of the hand and the house would be laid bare, revealing the true emptiness hiding beneath the decorated surface.

Joyce had disappeared somewhere to call his mom, and Jonathan had quietly shuffled after her, leaving Steve to quietly wander around the small living room on his own. He didn’t want to accidentally touch anything he wasn’t supposed to, so Steve settled down on the well-worn couch. It was a lot comfier than the one at his house.

Eventually Joyce returned with a smile on her face and Jonathan hiding somewhat behind her legs.

“Steve, your mom says it’s okay for me to drive you over to your home later. She had a few errands she forgot about and lost track of time.”

Steve frowned at that answer. His mom had just gone shopping yesterday, so what could she have been getting today?

“But while we wait...” Joyce continued, her smile brightening, “Jonathan said you might like it if I read a little from your favorite book.”

Steve was confused at first before his eyes widened in shock and looked at Jonathan. He couldn’t decide what he was feeling.

Had Jonathan told Joyce that his mom never read to him? Was she just feeling sorry for him?

That thought made Steve’s stomach twist painfully.

On the other hand, Steve felt warm inside that Jonathan cared enough to ask his mom about the story. Steve’s parents never seemed to remember anything he told them.

Without a word, Jonathan pulled a more worn-out copy of the same storybook from the Byers’ bookshelf and settled next to Steve on the couch.

Joyce gently squished between the two of them so they could both look over her shoulder as she began to read.

It wasn’t like most of the other children’s books Steve had read on his own. It was a little sad at times which surprised him. But beneath all the lost buttons, non-existent mail, and calendars months behind, there was love. Steve couldn’t quite decide what kind of love, but the frog and the toad really seemed to care about each other. They were family. And that made him happy.

Steve’s eyes slowly began to droop closed as he rested against Joyce’s side.

Jonathan had been right. She did have funny voices for all the characters. And her own soft voice seemed to put him completely at ease. So when Steve felt a warm arm pull him a little closer, he didn’t think anything of it. He just leaned closer into Joyce’s embrace and smiled contently.

This was better than home.

The sound of the front door being slammed open startled the three from their relaxed state.

Steve shot up and away from Joyce and Jonathan like he’d done something wrong and stared at the tall man that stumbled into the house.

From how loud he was, Steve figured he had to be Jonathan’s dad.

Mr. Byers grumbled to himself as he struggled to untie his own shoes. When he eventually succeeded, he turned and immediately halted in his steps, staring at the trio.

Judging from the way Mrs. Byers stiffened, she and Jonathan didn’t seem to like him very much. So Steve decided he didn’t either.

“I didn’t realize we had company.” Mr. Byers slurred and stared at Steve.

Joyce reached out and took Steve’s hand. “This is Steve, Julia and Arthur’s son. He and Jonathan met at school.”

Mr. Byers stumbled again and gave Steve another scrutinizing look. “So what’s he doin’ here?”

“Lonnie!” Joyce whispered harshly. “He was waiting with Jonathan when I got there so I offered to drive him home.”

“You get lost on the way and decide to come back here?”

Steve shrank back into the couch, wishing it would swallow him up. He didn’t like it when adults talked about him. They never seemed to have anything nice to say.

Joyce gave his hand a reassuring squeeze, as if she could sense his discomfort. “Julia asked if we watch him until six.”

Lonnie checked his watch and shrugged. “It’s almost six now. I’ll drop him off.”

“I actually told Steve I would drive him.” Joyce asserted, giving her husband a level stare.

Silence filled the house for a good while, and suddenly Steve understood why Jonathan was so quiet.

Eventually Lonnie broke eye contact with Joyce and took a long intake a breath. “Well by the smells of it you haven’t started dinner yet. So how about I drive Steve home while you start cooking for your family.”

He didn’t phrase it like a question, and instead leaned down and scooped up Steve’s backpack that he’d left discarded at the door.

Joyce stood and quickly crossed the room. She and Lonnie spoke in hushed tones that neither Steve or Jonathan could hear. Eventually though, Joyce’s shoulders fell.

She returned to the couch and kneeled in front of Steve so they were at eye-level. “Steve, is it okay if Lonnie takes you home?”

Steve looked over Joyce’s shoulder as Mr. Byers continued to zip up his school bag. He wanted to say ‘no.’ That he didn’t like the man and wanted to stay here. But he also didn’t want to cause any trouble. Especially when Joyce and Jonathan had been so nice to him.

Steve nodded.


 

The ride back home was filled with an uncomfortable silence. Occasionally Lonnie would stare at Steve almost suspiciously, but never said a word.

The trip seemed to take twice as long today, and it was almost a relief when his parents’ big house came into view.

Steve quickly reached for the door handle once they parked.

“Listen kid,” Mr. Byers finally spoke and grabbed the handle to Steve’s door, effectively keeping him from leaving the car and pressing the small boy into his seat with his extended appendage.

“Joyce is a nice lady, and because of that she doesn’t always say what she really means because she’s afraid of hurting people’s feelings.”

Steve scrunched up his face in confusion and discomfort. The arm across his chest was making it hard to breath, but he didn’t want to interrupt and tell him that. Instead he tried to sit up straighter and waited for Mr. Byers to finish.

“But as her husband it’s my job to look out for her. So I’m going to say what she can’t. Joyce doesn’t want to take care of you.”

Steve froze in his seat and stared in shock as Mr. Byers continued.

“She’s been working a lot and is really stressed, and she doesn’t need another useless kid to take up more of her time. You don’t want Joyce to be sad and tired, do you Steve?”

He tried to shake his head, but all it did was cause tears to well up in his eyes from the pressure on his throat.

“Good.” Mr. Byers slowly nodded. “I don’t want you to take rides home with her anymore. Even if she offers. Even if she says it’s okay, got it?”

Steve quickly nodded, blinking away the tears that pricked at the corners of his eyes. Mr. Byers seemed satisfied with that and released the door.

Steve didn’t waste any time jumping out of the Byers’ car and running towards his family’s house.

The key his mother had left in the flower pot was shaking in his hand as he desperately tried to shove it into the lock. He didn’t breathe until he was inside and had his back pressed against the closed front door. But when he did, Steve’s breathing came out in shaky sobs.

He pressed his hands to his mouth, trying to stifle the noise. But it just made everything feel like it was burning and erupting in his chest.

Mrs. Byers didn’t want to see Steve. She didn’t care about him. She thought he was a burden.

Steve’s eyes stung as tears spilled down his face.

He thought…

But Steve was stupid for thinking that maybe someone loved him like that. That maybe he wasn’t a bad or difficult child like his father had said.

“Steve?” A muffled call came from somewhere upstairs. “Are you home?”

Steve furiously wiped away the tears from his face and tried to steady his breathing.

“Yes momma!” He called back.

“Oh, make sure you lock the front door behind you.” His mom’s voice sounded distant and slurred, like she was tired.

Part of Steve was relieved him mom hadn’t come downstairs to greet him. He didn’t know how she’d react to his crying.

Another part of him, the part that made it so hard to breath sometimes, wished that she had. That his mom would wrap him up in her arms, kiss away the tears, and make Steve feel loved.

But she didn’t. And he was alone, curled up against the front door with his arms wrapped around his torso, trying to trick himself into believing he was wanted.


 

It wasn’t even a week later when Steve found himself waiting at school alone again. He nervously scanned the road for his mother’s car, but it had already been an hour since he’d gotten out of class.

She couldn’t have forgotten about him again, not this soon after the last time. She probably got distracted by something...

Steve’s heart leapt in his chest when a car came into view, and then fell into his stomach when he realized it was Mrs. Byers. Jonathan would be getting out of class soon, and she came to wait for him.

Steve quickly gathered his backpack into his arms and ran out of view of the parking lot. He didn’t want Mrs. Byers to see him, didn’t want her to feel like she had to take care of him.

He didn’t stop running until he reached the playground. Steve was gasping for breath as he threw his bag down and surveyed the abandoned yard.

Well, almost abandoned.

On a second glance, Steve noticed there was another boy sitting crossed-legged in the gravel beneath the swing set.

Steve cautiously approached him. The first things he noticed was his unruly dark hair, and the magnifying glass in the other boy’s hand.

“H...hi.” Steve’s voice was almost lost in the empty yard.

The other boy looked up in surprise. The second thing Steve noticed was how deep brown the boy’s eyes were. It was almost like looking in a mirror, except Steve’s face was wasn’t smattered with an abundance of freckles.

The other boy smiled a toothy grin. “Hi! My name’s Tommy!”

“I’m Steve.” He smiled back. “What are you doing?”

Tommy leaned out of the way so Steve could see the pile of dried leaves in front of him. “Have you ever made fire before?”

“Uh-uh.” Steve shook his head and knelt down next to Tommy.

The other boy readjusted his hold on the magnifying glass so the sun reflected in its lens. “I learned how to do it with sticks at camp, but this is more fun.”

Steve watched in awe as smoke began to rise from the leaves and disappear in the wind. It also seemed as if he and Tommy were as equally surprised when said leaves burst into flame.

Both boys yelped in surprise as Tommy quickly covered the fire with gravel. Steve followed his lead until there was a well-sized mound of small pebbles between them, hiding their apparent crime.

Tommy looked up at Steve, his dark eyes the size of saucers. “Don’t tell the teachers.”

“I won’t.” Steve promised like he was making a vow. He didn’t want Tommy to get in trouble.

There was something about him that Steve liked. Maybe it was because Tommy could have easily been mistaken for his brother, and Steve was desperate for family.

Tommy stood and brushed himself off. “Where’s your mom?”

“She forgot about me.” Steve frowned. It was the first time he’d admitted that kind of thing out loud. In the past his answer had always been that, she was just late.

“Oh,” Tommy tilted his head and looked at him. It reminded Steve of how he must have looked when he found that squirrel last year. Like Tommy was wondering what he was supposed to do with him.

Finally, Tommy smiled. “My mom doesn’t get off work until five. Wanna play until then?”

“Sure!” Steve leapt to his feet only for Tommy to shove him back down.

Steve fell into the pile of pebbles they’d made, the rocks hurt as they dug into his hands and slid between his fingers. He looked up at Tommy in confusion.

“Tag! You’re it!” Tommy shouted and bolted across the playground.

Steve winced, but smiled as he crawled to his feet.

He spared a final glance over his shoulder towards the parking lot, where Mrs. Byers was waiting for Jonathan. He half-wondered if she’d look for him, or be worried about him. But Steve shook that thought from his mind.

She only had time to love Jonathan. It wasn’t fair to expect her to care about someone other than her own child. And maybe Steve resented Jonathan for that, maybe he was jealous that his mom didn’t love him that much. But there was nothing Steve could do about that.

Steve turned away from the parking lot, from Mrs. Byers and her big heart that was only big enough for her own family, and Steve ran after Tommy.

Chapter Text

Steve realized pretty early on that he wasn’t the smartest kid in school. And he was okay with that.

But it wasn’t until recently that he began to harbor the suspicion that the teachers specifically had it out for him.

“Steve! We were looking for you man!” Tommy jogged toward him with Carol in tow. She had joined their little friendship shortly after Steve and Tommy met.

In the years previous, the two boys had just been ‘Steve and Tommy,’ ‘Tommy and Steve,’ ‘Frog and Toad.’ And when Carol’s family had moved into town Steve had been worried. Tommy was smitten with her almost immediately, and Steve wasn’t sure if he was willing to share his only friend.

Fortunately, Carol was better at sharing than either boy, and fit seamlessly into their now-trio.

“What are you doing on the ground?” Carol looked around, as if some outside force was responsible for Steve lying in the middle of the school’s grassy field.

It was a fair assumption. Steve was hit hard by a growth-spurt at the beginning of the year that left him tall, lanky, and not much else. A strong gust of wind could probably topple him.

They’d all begun to stumble gracelessly into puberty in their own ways.

Carol’s figure filled out a little earlier than the other girls in her grade, and her hips permanently sported stretch marks that looked like faint white tiger stripes. Tommy’s face and back was now decorated with pimples that both Steve and Carol reassured him were barely noticeable amongst his freckles. Steve just continued to get taller. He looked like a young colt with gangly limbs that he never seemed to know what to do with.

Instead of answering Carol’s question, Steve whined like a dying animal and rolled onto his stomach. “The whole world hates me.”

Tommy toed his side with a scuffed sneaker. “Come on man, you’re being dramatic.”

Steve rolled away from Tommy’s foot and onto his back again. “Mr. Durdlin definitely hates me.”

“From Biology? He hates everyone.”

Groaning, Steve sat up and dug around in his school bag. “No, he definitely has it out for me.”

Steve pulled out a few sheets of paper and offered them to Tommy. “He gave me a D on our last test.”

Carol looked over Tommy’s shoulder as he flipped through the quiz. “He marked you off for the genetics portion?”

“He said I clearly didn’t study—which I did— and said if I was paying attention in class those questions would have been easy.”

Tommy read through Durdlin’s notes marked in red. “You got the eye-color chart wrong?”

“That’s the thing!” Steve huffed to his feet and brushed the remaining grass off his jeans.  “The question was about the genetic outcome of people with different eye-colors and stuff.” 

Steve fumbled through his explanation as best he could. “Like, someone with blue eyes is more likely to have a kid with blue eyes too. But if they have a kid with someone with brown eyes, their kid might not have blue eyes…”

Steve was rambling, and he knew it. But he was getting to his point.

“The thing is, Durdlin failed me because I answered that a couple with blue and green eyes could have a kid with brown.”

Steve watched Tommy and Carol look up from his test and at each other. Years of friendship had made Steve fluent in their “couple-language.” He knew what they were thinking. And it was the same thought that had led to his previous position in the grass.

Either something was wrong with the textbook, or something was wrong with Steve. More specifically, something was wrong with his parents.

“Well…” Tommy began. “Maybe the textbook’s outdated. Or— “

“So, who do you think your real dad is?” Carol interrupted, ever the blunt one. Tommy elbowed her in the side but didn’t disagree with her either.

Steve groaned again and sprawled back down on the ground, pressing the palms of his hands against his eyes. That was a question he didn’t want to ask right now. Because if he even began to consider that his mom was lying to him, then it all became far too real.

He eventually sighed. “I don’t know.”

“Maybe you’re adopted?” Carol offered.

Steve barked out a laugh. “Have you met my parents?”

If the thought of his perfect sophisticated mother having an affair seemed impossible, then the idea of his parents making the effort to actually adopt a child was downright hysterical.

Besides, if Steve was adopted he figured his parents would show a little more love and support for their son. When his parents weren’t away on business trips, his dad was standoffish and critical of all of Steve’s shortcomings, and his mom was cold and distant at best.

“Maybe you’re my brother!” Tommy grinned as he lowered himself down and stretched across Steve’s stomach. It had been an old inside joke between them that they were related. They looked enough alike.

Steve lifted his hands from his eyes and stared at Tommy for a moment before shaking his head. “No that can’t be it.”

“Why not?” Carol sat down and leaned against the two boys.

Steve scoffed. He reached a hand out and cupped Tommy’s jaw. “What mom in her right mind would give me away and keep that ugly mug?”

Tommy squawked and punched Steve in the gut, but there was no real force behind it. Steve rolled Tommy over and wrestled on the grass, which lead to both boys found themselves laughing and covered in grass stains.

Eventually they calmed down and returned to ruminating over this new discovery. Steve watched the clouds change shape as they drifted across the sky. He wished his own life wasn’t as equally in flux.

“Are you going to tell your folks?” Carol finally whispered.

Steve shook his head. “They’d just think I was making excuses for the shitty grade.”

It was a true enough statement. His father liked results as opposed to excuses, and his mom would always claim Steve’s voice gave her a headache when he was trying to explain something.

Besides, even if it was true and Steve wasn’t entirely a Harrington, he still didn’t know who his real parents were.

But as luck would have it, that answer came to Steve a few short months later. On his birthday no less.


 

“My parents are probably going to buy a cake.” Steve half-protested as Carol piled more ingredients into the basket he was carrying.

“Maybe,” She obliged, “but there’s a difference between store-bought and homemade cake.”

Steve wouldn’t know. His parents had always offered minimal effort when it came to his birthday. Store-bought cake. Pizza. A rented movie. Nothing too personal.

At this point Steve wouldn’t know what to answer if his parents cared to ask what he wanted. He’d just… existed within that house. Like another piece of furniture.

“Besides,” Tommy leaned over Carol’s shoulder and plucked one of the two cans of sprinkles from her hands, “this can be part of our birthday present to you.”

“A cake that I bought the ingredients for?” Steve raised an eyebrow and smiled as Tommy tossed the sprinkles in their basket.

“You’re not making it though.” Carol pointed out. “Plus, our other gift is still kind of up in the air.”

Steve shook his head and gently bumped and guided Tommy and Carol over to the register. “Well then it better be one hell of a cake.”

They didn’t even notice there was another customer in line until they heard her voice.

“—But you had Camels in yesterday! Are you saying they were all sold?”

Joyce Byers’ voice was more desperate than shrill. She pressed her palms against the counter, trying to make her small frame seem more imposing.

Mr. Melvin shrugged helplessly. “I guess so Joyce, I’m sorry.”

Joyce groaned and turned to leave the store. It was only then that she noticed the young teens standing behind her.

Her shoulders fell even further. But for a moment her brown eyes met Steve’s, and she managed a brief smile before disappearing out onto the street.

“Don’t mind her kids.” Melvin explained as the teens began to cautiously place their items on the now-vacant counter. “She always gets a little sad around this time of year.”

“She’s been that way as long as I can remember.” Carol grinned and looked at Tommy as Steve paid for their stuff.

Melvin nodded as he counted out Steve’s cash. “I suppose it takes time to get over that kind of loss.”

“Loss?” Steve was only half-listening, but it was clear Melvin wanted to gossip with someone.

The older man nodded. “Joyce lost a baby in childbirth. Sixteen years today.”

Steve froze half-way through stuffing his change back in his pocket. He turned to look back at Tommy and Carol. They were clearly thinking the same thing.

“You kids need anything else?” Melvin looked curiously at the trio.

“No, thanks,” Steve started and began to pass his friends bags of their groceries. “We should probably get going.”

They were already out the door by the time Melvin had begun his ‘Take care now’ farewell.

None of them spoke till they were in Steve’s car.

Carol leaned over the backseat, so she was head-level with the two boys. “So… Joyce Byers.”

“Joyce Byers.” Tommy repeated, watching Steve adjust and readjust his grip on the steering wheel as they drove.

“It could just be a coincidence.” Steve said lamely.

“Or,” Tommy countered, pushing Carol’s face out of the way so he could look directly at Steve, “It could be the next puzzle piece in the ‘Mystery Parent’ conspiracy.”

Carol shoved her way back towards the front, practically falling in Tommy’s lap. “Besides, it makes way more sense that your dad would be messing around instead of your mom.”

“Yeah, but with Joyce Byers?” Steve shook his head.

Tommy offered. “Stranger things have happened.”

“Even if…” Steve found he couldn’t say it. If somehow, he was Joyce’s son. “It doesn't explain everything. It could just be a coincidence.”

“It’s a pretty big coincidence that she lost a kid the same night you were born. And we know you’re not related to at least one of your folks.” Carol leaned back in her seat.

Steve didn’t disagree with her. He couldn’t.

He just had to think of Joyce’s dark hair and deep brown eyes, and he could feel himself believing it.

But it didn’t explain how or why.

“This isn’t some stupid soap opera.” Steve finally shook his head. “Literally everyone including the hospital would had to have been involved.”

“So ask ‘em.” Tommy shrugged before tugging on a strand of Carol's hair and kissing her when she turned to yell at him.

The couple quickly descended into their own discussion about what other parents might be hooking up behind closed doors. Steve stopped listening when Carol suggested Joyce and Jim Hopper. His mind was elsewhere.


 

After dropping his friends off at Carol's house, Steve found himself sitting in one of the many waiting rooms at the hospital. He was being ridiculous, he knew that. But the idea that Joyce could be his mom had latched onto Steve's mind and refused to let go.

“Doctor Martin will see you now.” A middle-aged woman in scrubs gestured for Steve to follow her.

The majority of Dr. Martin's office was dominated by a wall of old file cabinets behind his desk. They seemed to have become an integral part of the room's infrastructure, and Steve wouldn't be surprised if they were responsible for holding up part of the building too.

Dr. Martin walked in a few minutes after Steve sat down. “Good afternoon Steve. Gloria said you wanted to see your birth records?”

“My parents did, yeah.” Steve's eyes followed their family physician around the room until he settled behind his desk.

“Any particular reason?” Dr. Martin leaned back and cocked his head to the side.

Steve had prepared for that question.

“Something about getting a passport.” He shrugged in what he considered perfect teenage indifference. The kind that adults love to complain about.

Dr. Martin sighed, believing he wouldn’t find any further clarity from Steve. “Alright, one minute.”

The older man turned in his chair and began running his fingers along the file cabinets until his digits landed on the H.

The drawer slid out with minimal difficulty, to Steve's surprise. He'd imagined the whole wall toppling down as Dr. Martin disturbed it's seemingly old and fragile ecosystem.

“Harrington, Steven…” The physician said to himself as he flipped through individual files. “Ah! Here we are.”

He pulled out a thin manila folder and opened it.

As Dr. Martin distractedly patted his coat down for his glasses, a notecard fell from the pages and under the desk.

Instinctively, Steve wanted to point out the fallen item to Martin. But instead, thinking better of it, he snapped his mouth shut.

Steve watched as the doctor's eyes read a few lines of one of the pages before nodding and looking up with a polite smile. “Let me go have a copy of this made for you.”

The older man's body creaked and groaned in protest as he stood from his chair and exited the office space.

Steve could barely wait until the door was closed before he was scrambling under the desk. The notecard felt old, he thought to himself, like the ones librarians used.

He remained on his knees under the desk, like when he'd hide under the dining room table and pretend his mom was playing hide and seek with him. Except this time his shortness of breath wasn't from excitement, but from shock.

Steve couldn't believe his eyes. He never thought it could be true.

But there is was, in permanent typeface: “Byers relinquished the rights and responsibility of their infant into the care of the Harrington residence. Genetic and/or biological references from Mr. And Mrs. Arthur Harrington should be ignored.”

Steve read it, then read it again. Almost refusing to process the information at hand. He wasn't a Harrington. Not even by half. He was a Byers. Joyce Byers’ son.

And she had given him away.

Steve flipped the card over a few times, desperately looking for more text. Some kind of explanation as to ‘why.’

Why didn't she want him?

The sound of approaching footsteps caused Steve to bang his head on the underside of Dr. Martin's desk in his haste to crawl back to his seat.

He left the notecard on the ground, exactly where he found it.

Steve was still rubbing the back of his head when Martin reentered.

“Here we go.” He said, holding out a copy of Steve's birth records.

The paper still felt warm, but all Steve could think about was how it was all a lie.

“Thanks.” Steve mumbled as he got up to leave.

The doctor gestured to Steve's hand that was massaging his skull. “Still getting headaches?”

“Only when I'm reading.” Steve let his hand fall to his side and tried to smile, but his heart wasn't really in it right now. Headaches were the absolute least of his problems.

As he turned again to leave, Steve saw Dr. Martin lean down and retrieve the notecard off the floor. Steve’s movements quickened ever-so-slightly, hoping to get out before he was asked anymore questions.

He was halfway out the door before Martin spoke. “Steve?”

Steve cautiously turned around. The notecard was nowhere to be seen, but there was something different about Martin's smile.

“While you're here, would you mind updating your family's emergency contact information?”

Steve clenched his jaw but moved toward the desk anyway. His chest was burning with anger now.

Steve thought not knowing the truth was bad, but he'd been wrong. Knowing, and realizing that just about every adult he'd trusted knew too, was so much worse. He didn't know how Dr. Martin could stand there and act like everything was fine. As if lying to a kid about their real birth-parents was a common medical practice.

Steve looked down at the names under his emergency contacts. The number they had for his dad was from his old office and no longer worked. His mom's number was their house phone. Both were equally as unlikely to reach a parent who cared.

Sighing, Steve picked up a pen and wrote Tommy and Carol's numbers down beneath his parents. At this point they had more of a right to belong on that list than Steve’s actual parents.

He smiled wryly at Dr. Martin and left the hospital without looking back.


 

As he ate dinner that night, Steve wanted to convince himself that his parents could sense the tension in the room. That they cared enough to notice their son was upset.

But they didn't. Dinner proceeded as usual: utterly silent. His parents had yet to even acknowledge that it was his birthday.

“I saw Joyce Byers at the store today.” Steve finally said. He looked between his parents carefully, watching for any kind of reaction.

“What were you doing at the store?” His father asked.

Steve shrugged and moved the vegetables across his plate. He wasn't that hungry, and his mother seemed to only know how to cook a couple meals anyway. “Hanging out with Tommy and Carol.”

“I wish you'd find other people to socialize with.” His mom sipped from the wine glass that had yet to leave her hand.

“Like who?” Steve stabbed at a piece of chicken. He and his mom had had this argument so many times he practically knew it by heart.

But it seemed like his mom would never get tired of this discussion until he finally found new friends. “Well, there's Daniel down the street, Noel, Connie's son Jason, and Karen Wheeler's girl-”

“-or Jonathan Byers.” Steve offered. His mind traveled back to that one day, so long ago…

“We're changing the subject.” Arthur Harrington set his utensils down with more force than necessary.

Julia swirled the wine around in her glass, her head tilted to the side. “Well what do you want to talk about, dear?”

My birthday? Steve wanted to reply. But his mother hadn’t asked him, and he knew they’d just call him childish if he brought it up. Or they wouldn't care at all.

Steve slumped down in his seat. He'd heard his parents have this argument plenty of times too.

But instead of starting one of their usual fights, Steve's dad did something else entirely.

He wiped his mouth with a cloth napkin and rose from the table. “I’m going to get our bags. We can talk on the plane.”

“Plane...?” Steve watched his dad walk upstairs in confusion. “Wait… Who’s ‘We?’”

Julia rose from the table and began to follow her husband. “Steve please use complete sentences, you know how that kind of talk gives me headaches.”

Steve sat at the table for a moment with his mouth agape. It wasn’t until his parents reappeared with suitcases in tow that he scrambled out of his chair.

Steve ran between his mom and the door, as if it might keep her from leaving.

His dad set down their luggage and grabbed the car keys before turning to Julia. “I’ll warm up the car.”

He didn’t even stop to say goodbye.

Steve reached out and gripped him mom’s hand. It was cold and stiff, and she didn’t reciprocate the gesture. He looked into her eyes but all he saw was mild annoyance.

Steve hesitantly let go and turned his gaze to the two offending suitcases by her side. “You’re going too?”

His mom busied herself by walking over to a mirror and checking her makeup. “Why wouldn’t I? Your father and I always traveled together before you came along.”

Steve remained rooted in place. He wanted to scream. To tell them they had forgotten his birthday. That they were leaving their only son alone for an undisclosed amount of time without even considering his feelings. That they had forgotten him.

Instead Steve just watch as his father returned only to carry the suitcases out to the car. He wondered when his parents decided that he was less important than luggage.

His mom had the decency to kiss him on the cheek before she left, but it was more rooted in her sophisticated upbringing as opposed to actually caring.

“Remember to bring in the mail every day.” She said as she turned for the door. “And no parties while we’re away.”

And just like that, with the slam of the front door, Steve’s parents were gone.

Steve numbly walked over and unlocked the front door. Tommy and Carol will be coming over soon, and it’ll be easier for them to just let themselves in.

His parents’ plates were still on the table, but Steve ignored them and instead walked outside and stared down at the pool.

His hands balled into fists. He wanted to scream, but it felt like all the noise was trapped in his chest, along with everything he wished he had the guts to say to his parents.

I know about Mr. and Mrs. Byers.

I know I’m not your son.

I know you don’t want me.

What was so wrong with him that his parents couldn’t stand to be near him? What about him was so inexplicably unlovable that even Joyce Byers knew she didn’t want him the minute she gave birth to him?

The first few tears that fell were soon followed by a torrential downpour of pent up frustration and loneliness.

Steve hated his parents. He hated Mrs. Byers. And he was beginning to hate himself.

And why not? If the rest of the world agreed that Steve was bullshit, then who was he to argue otherwise?

Suddenly, strong arms gripped Steve’s waist and pushed him into the pool. The water was warm, but Steve’s chest still lurched in shock.

When he sputtered back to the surface, Steve was greeted by Carol and Tommy’s laughter.

“You should have seen your face!” Tommy pointed as Steve dragged himself back out of the pool. His drenched clothes weighed him down, and Steve ended up just rolling onto his side once he was out of the water.

“Jesus Tommy…” Steve gasped, rubbing the water from his face.

He was lucky Tommy liked pushing him around so much because at least now they couldn’t tell he’d been crying.

Except Carol could. She could always tell.

“Hey,” She spoke softly and knelt down next to Steve. “what’s wrong?”

Steve opened his mouth, intending to dismiss or reassure her that everything was fine. But the words were stuck in his throat.

Instead of words, Steve found himself making a noise like a wounded animal. The tears began to fall again, and he pressed his hands furiously against his eyes to shield himself from his friends. Years-worth of buried emotions came spilling out and it scared Steve that there was nothing he could do to stop it.

What’s wrong?

He didn’t know where to even begin.

Eventually, Steve felt someone drape a large towel over his body. Hesitantly, he opened his eyes to see Tommy now kneeling next to Carol. They hadn’t left him.

“Come on,” Tommy awkwardly rested a hand on his shoulder. “let’s go inside.”


 

Carol stayed downstairs as Tommy followed Steve up to his room to put on some dry clothes. It felt a little weird dressing in front of Tommy, even though they’d done it countless times in the locker room at school. But Steve really didn’t want to be alone right now.

The minute he came back downstairs, Carol wrapped her arms around Steve in a fierce hug. “What happened?”

Steve took a long shuddering breath, and then told them everything. About Dr. Martin, The Byers, his parents, everything. All of the ugly truths.

And somehow, Steve felt lighter afterwards.

Even though nothing had changed besides the trio relocating to the couch.

Even though all Tommy could say was, “Shit Steve, that’s fucked up.”

Because he was right. It was fucked up. And there was no better way to phrase it at this point.

“Do you think you’ll ever tell them you know?” Carol finally asked, leaning against Steve. “Either your parents or the Byers?”

Eventually Steve shook his head. “It wouldn’t change anything. Besides, I doubt it would suddenly make them care about me.”

“Yeah well, who needs ‘em. You got us.” Tommy offered and slapped Steve’s back with a grin.

Carol leapt from the couch and turned to the two boys.

“Oh! That reminds me!” She said, as she grabbed Tommy and hauled him to the kitchen. “We’ll be right back!”

Steve sat in confused silence until Tommy reemerged and dimmed the lights. He began to stand up. “Tommy wh-?”

“Shh!” Tommy hissed and gently pushed Steve back onto the couch.

Moments later, Carol appeared. Her soft featured were illuminated by small candles stuck on top of a homemade cake. “Happy birthday Steve.”

“We’re not going to sing the song because it sucks.” Tommy informed him as he handed Steve a long rectangular wrapped box.

“Open it!” Carol said, as she set the cake down and Tommy turned back on the lights.

Steve fumbled with the wrapping. He was still so surprised, and so moved, that Tommy and Carol had done this for him. He almost didn’t register the boxes of cigarettes as they fell from the wrappings.

Steve stared in shock for a moment before looking back up at his friends. “How...?”

“Tommy’s brother mailed us a few packs form college.” Carol smiled. “We sent him money but weren’t sure if he’d actually pull through or not.”

“Which is why you wanted to bake the cake.” Steve finished, clutching a box to his chest.

Carol flipped her hair over her shoulder. “Nah, I was planning to do that anyway.”

“Come on Steve, light one up!” Tommy nudged him in the shoulder.

They had smoked before, usually sneaking cigarettes from the seniors at school, but Steve had never owned his own pack before.

Smiling, Steve slid three free from one of the boxes and held them out to Tommy and Carol. They all leaned in and lit their cigarettes off of the candles from Steve’s cake, careful not to ruin any of the designs that Carol had added with frosting.

They spent the rest of the night smoking through an entire pack together, laughing at stupid shit and pretending if only for the moment that their biggest problems were asshole teachers and frosting stains on the carpet.

Maybe Steve didn’t have parents that loved him, but he had friends.

And sure, this year sucked. But he had the rest of his life ahead of him, and something told Steve it was only going to get better.

Chapter Text

Steve decided to stop thinking about the Byers. Or at least, he was trying to stop thinking about them. If Joyce didn’t care enough about Steve to tell him the truth, then why should he waste any more time waiting for that to change?

And sure, Steve’s parents were giving increasingly fewer fucks about their son. But that meant Steve could do whatever he wanted and there was no one around to stop him.

He should almost be grateful for that.

The problem was it was a small town, and even though Jonathan was an incredibly quiet person, he still noticed way more than anyone gave him credit for.

The photographs being passed around the school parking lot like a dirty magazine were proof enough of that.

“I was just looking for my brother.” Jonathan tried to explain, and Steve could almost pretend that word still didn’t make his stomach twist into knots.

He used to wonder if Jonathan had figured it out too. He was smart. A lot smarter than Steve, that was for sure. And all it took Steve was a failed Biology test to send him stumbling into the truth. Hell, maybe Jonathan knew all along.

Then again, if Steve was some shameful secret that Mr. and Mrs. Byers were trying to forget, it’d make sense that they’d lie to their kids about it too.

But then Steve would catch Jonathan staring at him, like he could see right through him. Like he knew the same secret that kept Steve up at night.

But then again, Jonathan looked at everyone like that, and Steve had long since given up believing he was special.

“No,” He twisted up a photo in his hands, “this is called stalking.”

He had tried really hard to avoid Jonathan. First as kids when he didn’t want Mrs. Byers to worry about him, and then when they got older because Steve didn’t want to remember what it felt like being a part of that family. Even just as Jonathan’s friend.

He thought Jonathan accepted Steve’s apathy and moved on with his own little antisocial life. But Steve had been very wrong about that.

Taking photographs through bedroom windows didn’t feel like Steve and Jonathan comfortably living their separate little lives. It felt invasive.

“What’s going on here?” Nancy asked, joining the group with her arms crossed and brow furrowed.

“This creep was spying on us last night.” Carol gestured at Jonathan as she passed Nancy one of the pictures. “He was probably going to save this one for later.”

Jonathan couldn’t look any of them in the eye as Nancy flipped through the photographs. He looked like he wanted a pit to open beneath him and swallow him whole. Like a rabbit desperate to bolt. Steve almost felt sorry for him.

Almost.

In fact he probably wouldn’t have cared if it hadn’t involved Nancy. If it hadn’t involved a Byers.

But it did. And Steve was tired of that family messing with his life.

“See that’s the thing about perverts, it’s hardwired into them. They just can’t help themselves.”

Steve tore up the photographs in his hands. It felt nice to ruin something. To make someone else feel worthless for a change.

Steve turned back to Jonathan’s backpack. “So we just have to take away his toy.”

“No, please not the camera--” Jonathan tried to reach his backpack, but Tommy got in his way, blocking him like a trained guard-dog. Which to be fair was a pretty good analogy for their friendship. Sure, Carol could be protective and cruel in her own way, but Tommy was the one in their trio who tended to turn things physical.

“Wait, wait Tommy,” Steve held up a hand, “it’s okay.”

Everyone involved stopped to watch what Steve would do.

Nicole leaned up against the car, entertained but not personally invested.

Tommy and Carol were out for blood. The couple seemed to thrive off of chaos.

Nancy just looked miserable. Something was bothering her, and Steve was sure seeing those pictures were the last thing she needed right now.

Jonathan looked like a man staring down the barrel of a loaded gun.

Except there was no gun, just a camera that felt heavy in Steve’s outstretched hand. Jonathan hesitated before reaching out. For a moment, he met Steve’s eyes.

It was the first time they’d really looked at each other since they were little kids. Since they’d bonded over absent and imperfect fathers and books about friendships and sadness.

Steve saw all those memories in Jonathan’s eyes, and for a moment he let himself think about what it would have been like if they’d still been friends. What might be different today if all those bad yesterdays hadn’t happened.

Jonathan’s sharp eyes flickered, as if he could sense that aching feeling deep in Steve’s chest. Jonathan’s lips parted, as if he were about to speak.

And suddenly Steve realized he was too afraid to hear what he had to say.

Steve dropped the camera.

Everyone’s eyes followed as it flipped and shattered into a million tiny pieces. Steve knew the feeling.

“Come on guys, the game’s about to start.” He said to no one in particular as he walked away. He had no reason to stay.


 

“Aw, did Romeo get shoved off Juliet’s balcony?” Tommy grinned as Steve stormed back to the car.

A grin that quickly disappeared when Steve didn’t respond.

He couldn’t breathe. It felt like his chest was in a vice-grip and his heart was twisting into an unrecognizable mass.  

Steve could feel both Tommy and Carol’s eyes on him as he slammed his car door way too loud and pulled away from the curb faster than necessary.

“Steve?” Tommy cautioned.

But Steve barely heard him. The only thing he could seem to focus on was the roaring sound of blood beating through his head.

Finally Carol reached up from the backseat and gripped Steve’s shoulder. “Steve!”

He removed his foot from the gas and let the car’s momentum carry them until it eventually rolled to a stop. Steve didn’t even know what part of town they were in. That’s how little he’d been paying attention to anything other than his breaking heart.

Carol’s hand was still gripping his shoulder. “What happened?”

They were on one of the backroads that lead to the rock quarry, Steve noticed as he focused on anything other than the people asking questions he didn’t want to answer.

“Hey, Steve?” Tommy reached out and rested a hand on Steve’s leg, halting its nervous bouncing that Steve didn’t even realize he was doing.

And suddenly Steve couldn’t keep it together anymore. He dropped his head against the steering wheel and screwed his eyes shut in a futile attempt to block out everything and everyone that had hurt him.

His body was shaking with sobs that he was desperately trying to get under control because he was way too old to be having a meltdown like this. No wonder his parents couldn’t stand to be around him. Who would want to be with someone that was a total emotional wreck?

Steve started hyperventilating.

Not Joyce.

And not Nancy, apparently.

“It… It was…” Steve tried to speak between tremors. “Jonathan… Byers… he-was...”

“Wait, Nancy was with Jonathan?” Tommy looked between Carol and Steve in shock.

Steve nodded, glad that he didn’t have to expel anymore energy trying to speak.

“What. A. Bitch.” Carol enunciated, leaning back in her seat.

Steve let out a long-ragged exhale, and for the life of him he didn’t have the energy to take in another breath.

What was so special about Jonathan Byers anyway? He was, by all accounts, a weirdo. The last time Steve had talked to him was back in First Grade, and he had a sneaking suspicion that was the most Jonathan had spoken to anyone his entire academic career.

So why the hell would Nancy cheat on him with someone like Jonathan Byers?

What did he have that Steve didn’t?

A mother that loved and wanted him, for one thing.

Steve shook his head as if all those painful thoughts would fall from his head like cobwebs.

“What are you gonna do?” Carol asked.

Steve shrugged weakly. He was tired of people asking him that question. He was tired of dealing with problems that he didn't ask for.

“We could slash Byers’ tires.” Tommy suggested as easy as if he were suggesting they stop by the record store after school.

After a moment though he sat up straight in his seat, realization just barely discernible under the dim car light. “Gross,” Tommy began, “this means you and your brother shared a chick.”

The steering wheel dug into Steve’s skull as he shook his head back and forth. “Shut up shut up shut up…”

“Hey.” Carol grabbed at Steve’s shoulder again, forcing him to still. “It’s going to be okay.”

“No it’s not.” Steve lifted his head and looked between his friends. “She… She chose him. She wanted him.”

Steve’s head was foggy from not breathing right. He felt dizzy, and not quite positive about what or even who he was talking about anymore. He could feel himself start to hyperventilate again.

Tommy’s hand was back on his thigh. “You’re right.”

Steve’s vision began to clear as he focused on the sound of Tommy’s voice. “It’s not okay. And it’s not fair. It fucking sucks.”

Steve nodded along, taking deep shaky breaths. “Can we go do something? Drink, smoke… fuck I don’t know just something.”

Something to distract him from the shitty tv drama that was his life.

Tommy and Carol shared a glance before nodding.

For the rest of the night, they drank and smoked more than Steve had the entire year.

He felt like he was racing to drink himself into a coma before the sun began to break across the tree line. Steve didn’t want to see the daylight. He didn’t want to feel anything. Because at this point it seemed as if there was nothing good left to feel.

Distantly Steve recognized the sound of Tommy and Carol laughing and talking between themselves. He recognized their conspiratory tones, but for the life of him Steve couldn’t find it in himself to care.

It’s not like it really mattered if their scheming was directed at him. What more could possible happen to make him feel worse?

The rest of the night was a blur. Actually it was more like an empty void that swallowed Steve’s memories of whatever happened after that eighth shot of whatever they were drinking.

The next thing he knew, a telephone was ringing and Steve was back in his own bed.

There was a single blanket haphazardly covering him, and one of Steve's shoes were still on.

The phone's shrill ring dragged Steve from his bed. His head was pounding, and he was navigating around his room on memory alone because his vision was spinning.

“Hello?” Steve groaned into the receiver.

“Good, you're alive.” Steve knew Tommy's voice was at its normal volume. But he still couldn't help but pull the phone away from his ear, wincing at how sound seemed to make everything hurt more.

“God.” Steve whispered, pressing his other hand to the bridge of his nose, hoping to relieve some pressure.

“Like he'd be calling you. Carol and I are walking over. We've got a plan.”

“Now?”

“No in five hours. Yes now!”

The dial tone hummed in Steve's ear as he squinted his eyes to look across the room.

9:12.

It usually takes Tommy and Carol just under an hour to get here. Which meant he had time to shower.

Steve wasn't proud of how long it took to crawl out of bed or stumble to the bathroom. He'd never been this hungover before.

Alternating between hot and cold water didn't seem to fix anything either, although Steve's headache changed from a pounding hurricane to a dull roar.

His hair was still somewhat damp as he tripped down the stairs and reached for his car keys.

“Steve?” A soft voice called from the kitchen.

Steve back-stepped until he was looking at his mother. Julia stared back, wineglass half-empty and eyes distant. It felt like they were two strangers living in someone else's house.

“Where are you going?” She asked with a vacant tone.

“Tommy and Carol want to go someplace.” A detached answer for a detached question.

“Oh,” Julia breathed, as if it hadn't occurred to her that her son had friends. It had been a while since his parents even acknowledged or mentioned anyone or anything in Steve's life unless it was school related.

“Well, your father and I are leaving for San Antonio tonight.” She let that statement hang in the air between the two of them.

They'd only just gotten back from the last one. Right after Barb was declared missing. After his father found out Steve had invited people to the house without permission.

After they buried Will Byers.

Steve tried not to think too much about that. How the little brother he never had is now gone forever.

“Okay.” Steve nodded stiffly and walked out the door. His mother didn't say anything word.

No goodbye. No ‘Be careful’ or ‘Be home before dark.’ No ‘I love you.’

But at least there were no lies either.

“Where are we going anyway?” Steve asked, unlocking the car so Tommy and Carol could climb in.

Tommy held up a plastic bag. “The movie theater.”


 

Seeing the words “Nancy the Slut Wheeler” sprayed along the marquee nurtured something ugly in Steve’s chest that he wasn't sure he liked the feel of. But he was also too tired and too numb to care.

It wasn't until Nancy was there screaming in his face and Jonathan, Jonathan was guiding her away that Steve snapped.

Shoves and sharp words that he regretted the moment he spoke them came spilling out of his mouth. But Steve didn't stop. He kept pushing. He was tired of being ignored.

Jonathan didn’t respond. He didn’t even turn to look at him. The heat in Steve's chest churned into a fire.

It wasn't really about Jonathan anymore. It was about how neither of his families seemed to want or acknowledge him.

Steve wasn't even paying attention to what he was saying, but something must have struck a nerve because suddenly Jonathan was turning and swinging at him.

The first hit caught Steve in the mouth and sent his falling backwards. One hand braced himself against a car, the other wiped blood from his newly split lip.

The alley had fallen completely silent, like the calm before the storm, or how you can smell and feel electricity in the air right before lightning strikes.

Steve dove for Jonathan, wrapping his arms around the other boy’s torso and shoving him to the ground. Blunt nails scratched and bruises were gifted as both boys fought.

Nancy was yelling, begging for them to stop like a mother with misbehaving children.

And in truth that's what they were. Children. Brothers (whether both realized it or not). Each frustrated and overwhelmed with their own problems and more than happy to take it out on each other.

Jonathan rolled them both so he was now on top. He threw a punch and Steve felt his head snap against the broken asphalt.

The sound of sirens felt like a bucket of ice water, dousing both boys in cold harsh reality.

Suddenly Jonathan wasn't hitting him anymore. Steve was too dazed to recognize how much time had passed, and he became very aware of the fact that he couldn't stand on his own without help from Tommy.

Everything seemed to speed and skip every time Steve blinked.

First, he was being hauled to his feet by his friend.

Then he was in the backseat of his own car.

And in what felt like a matter of seconds, Steve found himself on the side of the road vomiting his guts out.

Carol was rubbing his back and saying something about a concussion. The first of many that Steve would have in his incredibly complicated life.

Steve felt sick, and in more ways than one. His knees were shaking, and he couldn't tell if it was from the vomiting or from the adrenaline still coursing through his body.

But Steve's chest was also aching again. And it wasn't from the biting Hawkins air.

He felt sick. Sick about what he did to Nancy. About the things he said to Jonathan. Trying to make other people feel miserable didn't make him feel any better, and pretending he still wasn't hurt wasn't helping either.

Steve didn't want to feel unwanted. He wanted a family that loved him and acknowledged him and people that he could be more than miserable with.

Because that's what he was. Miserable.

And nothing was going to change unless he did something about it.

Steve blinked again and he was sitting on the trunk of his car outside a convenience store. Tommy and Carol were standing beside him, but he couldn’t focus on what they were saying.

He was thinking about Nancy. And Jonathan. And Joyce for that matter. The people that he’d lived his whole life both with and without at the same time.

Those people cared so much about others, and he found himself imagining what it would feel like to be cared for in the same way.

Tommy and Carol were making fun of Jonathan, trying to distract Steve like they always did. But now everything they said sounded hollow and everything they did felt like a screechy violin against his temple.

And in that moment Steve realized didn’t want to spend the rest of his life mocking other people to make himself feel better.

“Carol for once in your life shut your damn mouth!” He snapped, pressing a soda can against his aching head.

The couple stared at him, their smiles turning into looks of confusion.

“What?” Carol looked at Steve like she had to have heard him wrong.

“Hey what’s your problem man?” Tommy stepped closer to his girlfriend, glaring at Steve like he was some misbehaving animal.

Steve’s hand fell from his head as he stared at Tommy and Carol. He suddenly remembered when Mr. Durdlin was describing dandelions in biology class. As a child they’re fun flowers that you play with and blow on to make a wish. It’s only once you’re older that you realize you’re only spreading weeds.

It’s funny what a few hits to the heads drags up from memory.

“You’re both assholes. That’s my problem.” Steve jumped down from his car and tried to walk away, but Tommy stepped in his path.

“Are you serious?”

“Yes I’m serious, you shouldn’t have done that.”

“What the hell Steve?” Carol’s accusatory voice had an exasperated tinge to it. “One minute you’re crying over that slut breaking your heart and now you’re growing a conscience?”

Steve stepped towards Carol. “I told you to watch your mouth!”

“Hey!” Tommy pushed him. Like he always pushed Steve. Except now his good-natured brash attitude had a bite to it. A warning.

“Listen, I don’t know what’s gotten into you man, but you don’t talk to her that way.”

Steve pushed at Tommy. He didn’t want to fight with them like this. He just needed to get away. “Get out my face…”

“Or what?” Tommy seethed, grabbing Steve and shoving him hard enough Steve’s back was sure to bruise.

“Are you going to fight me now too?” Tommy’s fists bunched around Steve’s jacket, keeping him pressed against his car. “Because you couldn’t take Jonathan Byers. So I wouldn’t recommend that.”

Tommy’s voice became a threatening whisper at the end. Steve looked at his friend through the eye that wasn’t damaged and swollen. He saw childhood memories of playing tag and burning leaves under magnifying glasses, except now Steve felt like he was under the lens.

When he didn’t fight back, Tommy let go.

The three of them stood there in silence. Carol, ever the peacemaker, tried to step forward. But before she could open her mouth Steve was fumbling with his car door and jamming the key into the ignition.

Tommy was shouting again, hitting the car as it began to pull out of the parking lot. “That’s right, run away Stevie boy! Run away! Just like you always do!”

The rest of his taunts were drowned out by the screech of Steve’s tires as he peeled down the road, with only a half-baked plan ruminating in his mind.

He wanted to talk to Jonathan. To apologize. And maybe to be honest with him for the first time in seventeen years.

He drove around Hawkins aimlessly, trying to calm his breathing down on his own because Tommy and Carol weren’t there to help anymore.

But the more he calmed down, the more he thought about his friends, and the more twisted his stomach seemed to feel. He had been an asshole to them. Granted they were too, but Tommy and Carol were his friends. His only friends. They’d been there for him when no one else had.

Steve silently promised to apologize to both of them after he talked to Jonathan. He needed to take care of that first.

His split lip kept silently practicing the words ‘I'm your brother’ over and over again until it almost felt like he could say them to him.

Telling Jonathan the truth was Steve's original plan. But then Nancy was waving a gun in his face and a monster crawled out of the Byers’ roof. Before Steve knew it, he was swinging a nail-bat right into the face of danger and tumbling headfirst into a world of other dimensions and government conspiracy.

There was really no organic moment to drop his own bombshell on Jonathan's life.

He told himself he was just waiting until things settled down. At least until after Will got out of the hospital.

But as Steve sat in the waiting room with the people Will considered family, he began to have doubts. And when he saw the peaceful but exhausted smile that Jonathan wore when he said Will was awake, he knew that the truth would only make things worse.

So instead, Steve buried his secret. Just like he seemed to bury everything else.


 

Steve numbly tore Will’s tunnel drawings off the wall, trying to distract and make himself useful at the same time. It was probably the only thing keeping him from bolting out the front door and driving away.

That, and Hopper had taken his keys. Something about concussions and safety risks.

But even so, Steve was still half-considering just leaving on foot. He could probably walk home alright. It's not like his parents were home to ask why he looked like shit.

And even if they were, they wouldn't notice or care.

“You don't have to do that sweetie.” Joyce's soft voice spoke as she came up from behind him and began tugging at random pages herself.

Steve was frozen for a moment before continuing to pull sheets from the wall. “I know. I just…”

“Need something to do. I get it. I'm the same way.” Joyce fiddled with a drawing, tearing at the corner absently. “Steve?”

His lungs burned from holding his breath. “Yeah?”

Joyce turned with a sad smile on her face. “Thank you for taking care of the kids. For protecting them. I don't know what I would do if any of them…”

Steve exhaled, wincing at the way it made his ribs ache.

He'd hoped…

He thought…

Steve nodded at Joyce. “It’s hard not to want to take care of them.” The words felt clumsy in his mouth. Again, probably because of the concussion. But it seemed to put Joyce at ease, because her smile turned into something warmer, more calm as she went back to her task.

They worked in silence for a while until Steve found it too hard to stand. He couldn't decide if it was the physical or emotional fatigue that finally did him in, but Steve found himself stumbling away from Joyce and into the living room.

He was exhausted.

Steve collapsed onto the Byers’ couch. Its familiar comfortableness made him sit up again and look around the room, desperately trying to distract himself from the memories that were flooding back. Memories of the last time he’d been on this couch, when Joyce read to him and Jonathan in those funny voices and Steve felt like he was part of a family.

The kids were beginning to crash after the adrenaline rush of saving the world and almost dying in the process, and it wasn't long before it seemed as if every available semi-comfortable surface was occupied by a sleeping child.

His eye-lids were growing increasingly heavy, and Steve barely registered the feeling of Dustin flopping down next to him before he leaned against the arm of the couch, letting sleep claim him.

He was woken up throughout the night by Hopper, wanting to make sure he didn't sleep for too long with the concussion. But during the short bursts when he was able to shut his eyes, Steve dreamed of monsters in empty houses.

Steve woke the next morning to the sound of voices talking quietly, the smell of toaster waffles, and the feeling of Dustin's weight pressed against his side.

He slowly blinked open his eyes and took in the still trashed house. Joyce and Hopper were somewhere in the kitchen and most of the kids were still sleeping wherever they happened to pass out the night before.

In fact, it looked like the only ones that were awake were Mike and the girl the other kids called Eleven. They were crouching in front of a bookshelf where it looked like Mike was pointing out and explaining some of the titles to her intense gaze.

Their hushed whispers created a calm ambiance as Steve’s vision drifted in and out of focus. He knew he should get up and help with breakfast, but his limbs still felt so sore and heavy from the previous night. He also knew he probably looked like shit after the beating Hargrove gave him, but Steve didn’t have the guts to look in a mirror and see the damage.

“I remember this one!” Mike’s excited voice rose in volume slightly as he tugged a familiar children’s book from a shelf. “It was one of Will’s favorites.”

Steve was suddenly very awake as he watched Mike flip through a few pages of the Byers’ copy of “Frog and Toad.” It looked even more tattered since the last time he’d laid eyes on it.

As Mike read from some of the pages, Steve found himself scanning the room until his eyes landed on Jonathan.

Steve thought the older Byers was still passed out on one of the armchairs across the room but was surprised to see Jonathan’s intense gaze fixated on him. He didn’t have to say anything for Steve to know that they were both thinking about the same day that happened so long ago.

Jonathan’s lips mouthed the words silently as Mike read the line ‘This is my sad time of day’ in a croaky voice, and Steve smiled softly before his stomach twisted in knots and he forced himself to look away.

What was the point in reminiscing when things would inevitably go back to the way they had always been? Even if Steve told Jonathan the truth, it wouldn’t mean he was suddenly part of the family. It would probably just make things more complicated for the Byers, and god knows they could use a break.

Besides, if Joyce wanted Steve to be a part of their lives, she would have said something by now.

Maybe she thought he didn’t know. Or maybe she didn’t want to bring up old shameful history.

No, Steve thought. This will be just like last time they saved the world. Steve and Jonathan will go their separate ways, living parallel to each other but never actually interacting.

Except this time Jonathan would have Nancy.

Nancy . Steve tried to ignore the tightness in his chest as he thought about her.

He thought she loved him. Wanted him in her life.

But no. Nancy loved Jonathan, not Steve. And in the end, she left him. Just like his real parents.

When they first started dating, Steve considered telling Nancy the truth about his family. That he was really Joyce and Lonnie's son.

Now, he was glad he hadn't. Nancy would have made it her personal crusade to figure out what happened, unearthing a past that should probably stay buried.

Or worse, she'd tell Jonathan. Because in her mind it would be the right thing to do. The emotional fallout be damned.

Steve would lose the everything. Because if Joyce found out he knew, she'd probably distance herself. Which would lead to her kids doing the same, and then all of Will’s friends would follow.

And Steve would be alone again.

Joyce quietly stepped out of the kitchen and smiled at everyone who was awake. “There's breakfast on the table if any of you are hungry.”

Dustin and Mike were quick to jump up, dragging Eleven toward the promise of a hot meal while talking excitedly in hushed tones.

Jonathan sighed and shook his head before rising and greeting his mom with a kiss on the cheek. Joyce laughed and wrapped an arm around him, squeezing him tight.

Steve watched the exchange from where he was still curled up on the couch, trying to remember the last time he'd shared a similar moment with his own mother and coming up short.

“Steve,” Joyce's voice broke through that sad revelation. “do you want to join us?”

Steve glanced up into Joyce's warm honeyed eyes and pretended, just for a moment, that she saw him as more than just a babysitter or friend of Jonathan's. “Yeah, I'd love to.”

He waited until Joyce nodded and turned back to the kitchen before letting his smile falter.

No. It was better that no one knew the truth.

Maybe he was being selfish, but Steve wanted to cling to whatever semblance of a relationship with the Byers he had left. Even if it meant he would always be on the outside looking in at their small and happy family.

He would be grateful for that.

Chapter Text

Steve was jolted awake by a ringing noise. At first, he blindly fumbled with his alarm, trying to get rid of the jarring sound before he remembered it was his day off and he'd switched it off the night before with the intended purpose of sleeping in.

The ringing persisted, and as Steve became more awake, he realized it was the phone.

Groaning, Steve crawled out of bed, absently noting that he'd forgotten to change out of his Scoops uniform as he picked up the receiver.

“Hello?”

“Steve?”

Steve stood up a little straighter at the familiar voice. “Joyce? Is something wrong?”

While his secret remained good and buried, Steve had worked hard to remain a part of the Byers’ life. If he couldn't be family, at the very least he could be a friend.

“Everything's fine. Well, everything's normal.” Ever since the Upside Down, they'd all learned the importance of specifying the difference between when something was wrong, and when something was wrong. “I'm just feeling a little sick and was hoping you could drive Will to school?”

Joyce rarely asked Steve for anything, possibly because she felt guilty. He was usually the one offering to help out and drive the kids places.

Joyce's voice cut in again. “I know you're busy with work, I would have called Hopper but he's already--”

“No, it's fine.” Steve looked down at his uniform. He'd probably throw it in with the rest of his laundry later today. “I'm actually not working today.”

“Oh, I'm so sorry did I wake you up?”

Steve rubbed sleep from his eyes and tried to stifle a yawn. “No, I was up already. I can drive Will. Be there in ten?”

He could hear Joyce visibly relax on the other end of the call. “Thank you Steve. I'll see you soon.”


 

“Hi Steve!” Will called as Joyce opened the front door.

“Thank you again for driving him.” Joyce reached out and squeezed Steve's arm.

She looked tired in the dim lighting, lacking that usually glow that seemed to surround her like a halo, and she had bags under her eyes that rivaled Steve's own.

Steve shrugged off her words. “It's fine. Glad I could help.”

“Will's just grabbing his things.” She said as if to fill the silence.

It was almost weird standing inside the Byers house. It seemed as if every time he was there the world was ending.

“Are you okay?” The words left Steve's mouth before he could stop himself.

Joyce tensed up as if caught in a lie. Steve never knew where that invisible line was that he wasn't supposed to cross. Never knew what question might lead to him being pushed away.

She sighed, and as the air left her lungs Joyce somehow seemed even smaller. Like the weight of all she had endured was slowly shrinking her already slight frame.

“I haven't been sleeping that well lately.” She tried to shrug. “And I've been a little achy but…”

Joyce pulled a bottle of Tylenol from her pocket. “I've been managing.”

Steve's brow furrowed. They were still all dealing with the emotional trauma of the Upside Down in their own way. And the adults had a tendency of underplaying the extent of their own issues. At this point though it was hard to tell what was trauma and what was the normal aches and pains of life. Those had become so tightly interwoven together.

“Which reminds me!” Joyce quickly stepped into the kitchen and returned with a thermos that she offered to Steve. “I made some chicken soup this morning. There was some extra and since you were coming…”

Steve took the thermos. The warmth from its metallic surface spread from his fingers all the way to his chest. “Thank you.”

The smile that bloomed across Joyce's face made his heart ache. It felt like such a motherly thing to do.

“By mom!” Will gave her a kiss on the cheek and happily subjected himself to receiving the same before darting out the front door, leaving Steve to follow.

“Thank you again!” Joyce called from the porch.

Steve waved back, again noticing her tired movement and the almost waxy discolored look of her skin.

“Take care!” He called back, meaning it more seriously than the sentiment usually entailed.


 

They'd been driving for a few minutes in silence when Will spoke.

“Dustin says you're like Switzerland.”

“Switzerland?” Steve glanced at Will in confusion. The younger Byers only shrugged.

“Yeah like, you don't have any connections to anyone so you're like a neutral zone or something.”

“Is that my official role in the group?” Steve kept his eyes focused on the road, pretending traversing the clear roads was more interesting than Will's unintentional admission. That Steve didn't have anyone.

Again, Will just shrugged and continued fiddling with his bag. “Nah, sometimes Dustin calls you our other mom.”

Steve snorted and shook his head.

“But Dustin said that, because you're Switzerland, you can be trusted with things.”

A tense silence settled over the car.

“What kind of things?” A world of possibilities flashed through Steve's mind. Did something bad happen? Had Joyce said something? Was the Upside Down back?

“Dustin said that you're really good at keeping secrets for other people.”

You have no idea. Steve thought to himself as panic began to rise and seize his throat.

Steve began to slow down the car. “Will is something wrong? Like, Upside Down wrong? Do we need to-”

“No, it's not that.” Will stiffly shook his head as Steve relaxed. “There's… I think I like someone.”

“Oh. Hey!” Steve elbowed Will's arm. The relief that nothing was wrong overwhelmed any thought that Will still seemed anxious. “That's a good thing! Is it someone you met at school?”

“No. Kinda. It's someone I've known for a while actually.”

“Huh.” Steve thought through the girls Will knew, and the list was not long. In fact, there were only two who fit those parameters. Max and Jane. Both of whom were already dating someone else.

“Oh… I get it.” Steve began. “And things and complicated because they're already with someone, right?”

Will was staring wide-eyed at Steve, nodding slowly.

“So telling them how you feel could possibly hurt multiple people…”

Again, Will nodded.

Steve sighed. “Well shit.”

“Yeah.” Will agreed and stared out the passenger window.

“So, who is it?” Steve debated which couple would be worse.

Jane and Mike were inseparable. But she and Will shared a bond over their shared trauma surrounding the Upside Down.

Will having a crush on Max would be pretty unexpected, but then again stranger things have happened…

“Mike.”

Another weighted silence fell over the car again.

Oh.” Steve kept his eyes on the road.

He knew he should say something to alleviate the tension, but his mind was racing to process the new information.

Will must have taken Steve's silence for disgust or disapproval. He squirmed in his seat and began talking as fast as humanly possible.

“Listen just don't tell anyone, please? Forget I said anything I was just-”

“Whoa whoa whoa,” Steve held out a hand and looked at Will for as long as he could until he had to look back at the road. “Will, it's okay.”

“It is?”

Steve swallowed, trying to choose his words as carefully and quickly as possible. “Yeah it's okay. It might be different, but that's not bad, just complicated. I mean, shit, crushes are complicated enough already… Are you ever going to tell Mike?”

A jerky shrug was all Will could muster.

Steve nodded in understanding. He knew what it felt like to have a huge secret weighing heavily across your shoulders. “Well, I'm glad you felt like you could tell me, and if you ever need to talk or anything just let me know.”

Finally, Will looked Steve in the eye again and gave a relieved smile. “Thank you.”

Poor kid. He'd been dealing with this issue all on his own, just bundling it all up inside instead of talking to someone about it.

It had been difficult for Will when Jonathan first left for college. He'd never been without his brother, and probably missed having an older confidant to talk to. To share secrets with.

“You know,” Steve began, “when I was younger, I had this guy friend. When we were in our teens we'd... practice kissing with each other. More often than probably necessary now that I think about it...”

Will's mouth slowly parted in surprise. “You and Tommy?”

Steve choked. “I didn't say it was Tommy.”

“Yeah, but Jonathan said Tommy and Carol were your only friends growing up so…”

“I didn't realize you two talked about me.” Steve teased as he tried to distract from that new revelation.

Sure, they probably talked about everyone else too, because they're all friends and that's what friends do, but Steve's imagination began to run wild with possibility regarding what Jonathan and Will might have to say about him.

“Not all the time.” Will said, arranging his backpack over his shoulder as they pulled up to the school. “Thanks for driving me!”

“Anytime.” Steve said as Will began to climb out of the car. “And hey, if you ever need anything, I'll be here!”

Will smiled gratefully before jogging across the school lawn, meeting up with his friends along the way. Steve watched as they fell in-step with one another, Will squished between Dustin and Mike. He hoped Will wouldn't have to carry that secret for too long.

The thermos Joyce had given him sat in Steve's cupholder. He picked it up and felt the heat trapped inside the metal casing.

The image of Joyce's tired eyes and sickly pallor came to mind and something tugged at Steve's gut, telling him that he needed to go back to that house.

Then again, Steve always felt that kind of pull when he thought of the Byers. Like a magnet trying to guide him home.

Thoughts of his warm comfy bed and a day off from work were left by the wayside as Steve began to drive.


 

The plan was to ask if Joyce needed anything, food, medicine, tea, whatever, Steve told himself as he knocked on the front door.

No response.

Joyce's car was still in the driveway, so she couldn't have gone anywhere…

Steve knocked again, this time with a little more force. The front door shook slightly with each impact. “Joyce?”

She might be sleeping.

Steve told himself there was no reason to assume something bad might have happened as he stepped off the porch and circled round to the back of the house.

She's probably just getting some rest, like she should be doing.

Any thoughts meant to quell the rising panic in Steve's chest were stomped out the minute he spotted Joyce through the kitchen window.

“Joyce!” She was curled in on herself on the kitchen floor. And Steve couldn't tell if she was breathing.

The backdoor gave way under the force of his shoulder as he broke into the kitchen and ran to Joyce's still form.

Steve cradled her head, relieved to see her chest rise and fall from uneven breathing. “Joyce can you hear me?”

She didn't answer. Didn't even move. She was so unnaturally still, and her skin now had an unhealthy yellow tinge to it.

Steve stretched and grasped for the phone cord, his fingers coiled around the cable and pulled until the phone fell off its receiver where he could drag it within reach. He didn't want to let go of Joyce, too afraid that she might slip away the minute he turned away.

“911 what is your emergency?”

Steve opened his mouth and only a desperate sob came out.

“Sir is everything alright?”

“No something happened, my mom collapsed and she's not responding. She's breathing but she's not waking up I need you to-”

“We'll send an ambulance right away. What is your location?”

Steve listed off the Byers' address before hanging up and calling the next number as fast as his trembling fingers could punch in the numbers.

“Hop? I need you to get Will.”


 

Hopper found Steve pacing back and forth in the waiting room when he and Will came bursting through the hospital doors.

“What happened?”

Steve jumped when he heard Hopper’s voice. Practically tripping over himself as he met them half-way. “I don’t know, this morning she seemed a little off but-”

“-What did the doctors say?”

“I don’t know they wouldn’t let me stay because they said I wasn’t fam-”

Hopper gripped Steve’s shoulders, trying to both steady himself and quell the rising panic in Steve’s voice. “But she’s alive?”

Steve stilled under Hopper’s grip. His frame seemingly slumping with exhaustion. “Yes.”

The knot that had formed in the pit of Hopper's stomach loosened slightly. He squeezed Steve’s shoulders again. “She'll pull through. Whatever it is, she'll be fine.”

He had to believe that.

Steve nodded, but Hopper could tell he wasn't quite convinced. Fortunately he kept that to himself as Steve directed his attention toward Will, pulling the younger teen into a hug.

“Hey buddy.”

Will had been quiet on the drive to the hospital. The kind of muted silence a cornered rabbit might exude when faced with a predator. But now, stillness turned into trembling shoulders and gasping sobs as Will pressed his face into Steve's chest and wrapped his arms around him like Steve was a life preserver in a storm.

Steve held on just as tightly, staring over Will's shoulder with eyes glazed over in tears.

Hopper held his hat in his hands, playing with the brim while Will found solace in the party’s self-appointed babysitter. He'd called Jonathan after hanging up with Steve, but it was going to take the kid at least a day to fly in from New York. Until then though, Hopper appreciated Steve being there for Will. Having a support system is important during moments like this.

After what felt like a lifetime of sitting in those uncomfortable hospital chairs, a doctor in light blue scrubs entered the waiting room.  “Family of Joyce Byers?”

All three of them leapt to their feet.

“That's us.” Hopper nodded as they quickly approached the man. “What's going on doc?”

The doctor, whose metal name tag read Lewis, glanced at the clipboard he was holding. “Are you Lonnie Byers?”

Both Will and Steve seemed to flinch at the name as Hopper shook his head. “He's not in the picture right now.”

“Hmm,” Lewis reread something on his clipboard before looking at Will and Steve. “Jonathan and Will Byers?”

“I’m Will,” Will glanced at Steve. “Steve’s a family friend.”

“Oh…” The doctor glanced between Steve and Will before shrugging and writing something down. “Well you’re next of kin so I can fill you in.”

Hopper held his breath as the young physician readjusted his scrubs.

“Mrs. Byers is suffering from acute liver failure.”

Silence coiled around the trio, suffocating them.

Dr. Lewis looked among the three men. “Do you understand what that is?”

Will shook his head.

“Acute liver failure is when there’s a rapid decline in the patient’s hepatic function. This can be caused by extreme alcohol abuse-”

“Mom doesn't drink.” Will quickly shook his head. “Not that much.”

The doctor nodded and continued to speak. “Sometimes it can be caused by other factors like extreme stress or some other substance abuse. Has Mrs. Byers been taking any medication that you know of?”

Silence again fell over the group.

“She… She was taking some Tylenol.” Steve said quietly. “But I don’t know how much or for how long.”

“And overdose in Tylenol has been known to trigger this kind of illness.” Lewis jotted something down in his notes before clearing his throat.

“The fact of the matter is, liver failure on its own is a life-threatening condition. But acute liver failure…”

Hopper took in a shaky breath. “How much time doc?”

“Unless we find a donor soon, it could be a soon as forty-eight hours.”

It seemed as if all the air had left the room.

“What? What are you saying?” Will looked back and forth between Hopper and the doctor.

Dr. Lewis looked to the Chief of Police, hoping he could help soften the blow. But Hopper was still trying to process the news himself.

Two days. Joyce could be dead in two days.

Will was shaking his head now; his whole body was trembling and his voice sounded frantic. “No. No she’s not dying she was fine this morning! Steve saw her! She was fine, right Steve?”

Steve’s eyes were wide and distant. His mouth was set in a firm line.

“Mr. Byers,” Dr. Lewis began again. “We’re going to do everything we can to save your mother. We already have her on the waitlist and are searching for a suitable donor, but that can take some time.”

“We don’t have time!” Will screamed.

Steve snapped back to reality, instinctively wrapping an arm around Will’s shoulders as he stared at the doctor. “Could one of us donate? What would be the process for one of us to-?”

Lewis shook his head. “The donor can’t have any pre-existing health issues. No previous history with alcoholism or smoking. And even then, the liver needs to be a positive match for the recipient. A blood relative would be ideal, but we require the donor to be at least eighteen years of age.”

“So, none of us.” Hopper glared at the floor. A storm of what-ifs pouring down on his mind.

What if he hadn’t smoked or drank so much?

What if he’d noticed something was wrong sooner?

What if…

What if Joyce dies?

“What about Jonathan?” Will looked desperately at Hopper. “He doesn't smoke much. He’s flying right now he’ll be here soon!”

Hopper could only look to Dr. Lewis.

The physician glanced between the three hopeful faces and sighed. “Depending on how soon your brother can get here that might work. But Joyce’s health is declining quickly. Right now, she just needs your love and support.”

That was a very softened way of saying Jonathan wouldn’t be able to help. Hopper swallowed hard, blinking away tears threatening to prick at the corners of his eyes. There was nothing He could do to save her. They were at the mercy of a goddamn waitlist.

“I can take you and a guest to see her now.” Dr. Lewis addressed Will. “Which of your friends would you like to come with you?”

Hopper watched as Will’s eyes widened as he looked between him and Steve, not wanting to have to choose.

“Hop should go.” Steve spoke up. His eyes were glued to the ground. “Joyce will want to see him.”

For a moment Hopper felt like he could take a deep breath, thankful that Steve once again came to Will’s aid.

Dr. Lewis gave a curt nod before gesturing for Will and Hopper to follow.

Steve gave Will one final hug before releasing the younger kid. “It's going to be okay.” He whispered to into the younger Byers’ ear. And this time, Steve sounded like he believed it.

Will hesitantly untangled himself from Steve’s protective hold before falling in step with Hopper.

After a few strides Hopper looked back, planning on telling Steve… something. He just didn’t know what. Maybe to just say thanks for everything. But when he glanced back at the waiting room, Steve was nowhere to be found.


 

Worn out Nikes pounded against old linoleum as Steve raced down the familiar walls of the hospital's administrative wing.

Everything looked exactly the same since the last time he'd been here. The only signs of change was from the general wear and tear that came with the passing years.

Even the wall of decrepit filing cabinets looked the same as Steve marched into Dr. Martin's office. The doctor in question was just finishing up his breakfast, taken completely by surprise by the young man standing over his desk.

“We,” Steve began, his shoulders rising and falling from exertion, “need to talk.”

Chapter Text

Joyce kept hoping eventually she'd open her eyes and discover that this was all just a terrible dream. That she wasn't dying.

The IV drip they had her on kept her numb and drowsy. What felt like seconds turned out to be hours, and yet somehow it felt as if the clock on the wall remained frozen.

The first time Joyce had woken up, Jim and Will were there.

Will was crying. Her son was crying and holding onto her like she might disappear.

Why did that feel familiar?

Joyce closed her eyes for what felt like a second, but when she opened them again there was somebody else in the room. A doctor in blue scrubs talking quietly to Jim. Will was sleeping half-sitting in a chair, half lying across her hospital bed. His small delicate fingers curled around her own.

Dr. Lewis had explained her diagnosis during one of her more lucid moments.

Acute Liver Failure. It still didn't feel real. Didn't feel like it was happening to her.

But Joyce had been in this place of denial before. And she had the scar to prove that no amount of denial could keep something from being true.

She blinked again and the clock informed her a few hours had passed. Will was awake again, this time trying to listen and understand the quiet conversation happening between Jim and Dr. Lewis. She was feeling a little better now, but that probably had more to do with the drugs than anything else.

Joyce cleared her throat and Jim was immediately back by her side, his hand hovering as if he was afraid of causing anymore pain.

“So, what’s going to happen?” Joyce addressed Dr. Lewis as she reached for Hopper's hand, finding comfort in how his fingers wrapped around hers and help her tight. I've got you, they seemed to say.

Dr. Lewis scratched the back of his neck. He was young, clearly not old enough to be comfortable with giving bad news. Or too inexperienced to hide it. “We hope that something turns up on the wait-list. I've been calling our representative every hour for an update but so far--”

A nurse burst into the room, her bright blue eyes were wide with excitement as she held a medical folder in an outstretched hand. “We've got a donor!”

“What?” Joyce and Hopper's voice joined Dr. Lewis's as he reached for the folder.

The nurse was panting as she shook her head. “Some anonymous donor, I don't know how or why, Dr. Martin just said Mrs. Byers is getting a liver.”

Doctor Martin. Why did that name sound so familiar…?

Joyce's thoughts were interrupted by the feeling of Jim and Will wrapping their arms around her, enveloping her in the waves of love and relief none of them were expecting.

“Christ, I thought…” Hopper couldn't finish his sentence.

Joyce sniffed, unable to stop the tears that began to fall. She hadn't cried until this moment. Didn't feel like she needed to until now. Denial and disbelief had kept her from responding to the situation at all.

But now? Now, she could cry.

Hopper squeezed her tighter to his chest before turning to Dr. Lewis. “Now what?”

“We prep Joyce for surgery.” He began, furiously writing down notes on his clipboard as he continued. “The prep will take a little over an hour but that'll give us time to update the rest of the staff and have our live donor coordinator go over the necessities with you. Normally we do these surgeries in the morning but considering out circumstances…”

He finally looked up from his writing and smiled. “Everything will be alright.”

Joyce would believe that after the surgery. She'd made it this far before, she reminded herself, absently rubbing her fingers over where her surgical scar was hiding beneath her hospital gown.

Will rubbed some remaining tears from eyes. “Can I call Mike and the rest of the party.”

“You go do that sweetie.” Joyce smiled and rubbed Will's cheek. “Hopper and I are just going to talk to Mr. Lewis for a minute.”

Hopper fished some loose change out of his pocket and offered then to Will. “Feels a little weird not being the one in the hospital bed, huh?”

That earned him a tired smile as Will shuffled out of the room, looking both ways before disappearing out of sight in search of a payphone.

“That's a nice boy you got there.” Dr. Lewis offered as he approached the hospital bed.

Hopper nodded and returned to Joyce's side. “Yeah, been through a lot.”

“We all have.” Joyce added, reaching for Hopper's hand and giving it a reassuring squeeze.

“Well then hopefully we can make sure you guys don't have to go through much more.” Dr. Lewis slid a pen into his breast pocket.

Joyce tugged at the hem of her hospital gown with her free hand. “How long will the surgery take?”

“A few hours. By tomorrow we'll have you in recovery and under observation to make sure you're healthy and stable enough to leave. You'll be back home in a little over a week.”

“A week?” Joyce sat forward. The movement triggered her motion sickness sending herself falling forward.

“Whoa!” Hopper grabbed at Joyce and pulled her back to an upright position. “You okay?”

She tried to nod but it felt nearly impossible to breathe and move at the same time. Joyce screwed her eyes shut.

She couldn't afford to stay in the hospital that long. She could barely afford one day. How was she going to pay for all this?

“Joyce?” Hopper leaned in and pressed a kiss against her hair.

Joyce slowly shook her head. What was wrong with her? A few minutes ago she was dying from acute liver failure, and instead of appreciating the fact that someone was miraculously saving her life, she was already worrying about something else.

“I'm fine.” She tried to smile. “Just got a little dizzy.”

Joyce held onto Jim's arm and looked up at Dr. Lewis. “Will we be able to talk to the donor? To say thank you?”

He shook his head noncommittally. “It all depends on the donor. Some people like to remain anonymous if they don't personally know the recipient.”

Joyce could feel Hopper's brow scrunch up in confusion. “So, some random person we don't know just decided to give up a liver?”

Dr. Lewis shrugged as he walked over to a supply drawer.

“It could be someone that matched with Joyce from our database. I don't really know.” He pulled out a new hospital gown. “What I do know is that we should get you prepped for surgery as soon as possible. I'm going to step out to and update the staff while you dress.”

The sound of the door closing behind Dr. Lewis left Joyce and Hopper in silence.

Joyce fiddled with the new hospital gown in her hands.

“I can help if you want.” Hopper waited by her side.

Initially Joyce was going to say no, that she was an adult who could dress herself. But then the room began to tilt and spin again. God she hated the drugs they were giving her.

With a quick nod and grateful smile, Jim was given the go ahead to begin unlacing her gown. His large hands undid the ties keeping the garment together with a surprising deftness.

He hesitated when the time came to remove the gown entirely.

“It might be easier if I was standing.” Joyce offered, trying to slide off the bed.

Hopper supported her weight under an elbow. “Are you sure?”

“It's fine.” She began to tug the soft material from her shoulders. “Not exactly how I pictured this moment but...”

Hopper snorted despite himself, folding open the new gown as Joyce slid out of her current one. He knew she was trying to lighten the mood and was more than willing to play along. “I don't know. I kind of dig the hospital look on you. We might need to keep on of these for later.”

“Stop.” Joyce swatted playfully at him and lost her balance in the process.

“Careful.” Jim's voice was laced with concern as he caught her again and leaned her against the bed. “Let me…”

The hospital room felt cold against Joyce's skin as she sat completely vulnerable atop white sheets. Trying to think of anything else as Jim tried to maneuver her new gown on without disturbing the IV drip. “Do you think Jonathan will be here before the surgery?”

Hopper sighed as he began to lace her up again. “I don't know. I hope so.”

“Tell him I love him if…”

Jim paused to grab a hold of her hand. “Nothing is going to happen Joyce.”

She shook her head, feeling tears begin to well up again. “You don't know that though.”

Joyce's other hand slid to her still somewhat exposed abdomen. Hovering above the old scar that was revisited every time she had a baby. “What if something happens and I don't get to say goodbye? I can't do that ag--”

“Joyce.”

Hopper's voice grounded her as he reached for her other hand, brushing against the scar. “That's not going to happen.”

A deep shuddering breath shook her frame. Joyce knew that he was right. These were completely different circumstances. Her baby stopped breathing after the C-section. There was nothing that could have been done.

“I never got to say hello.” Joyce finally said after Hopper returned to tying up her gown.

He paused in his work again. “What?”

“The baby. I had to say goodbye to him before I could even say hello. I know it was a long time ago but…”

“Some things never really leave you. Especially when it comes to your kids.” Jim nodded as he finished tying the top knot of Joyce's hospital gown. They'd both already lost more than any parent should have to endure.

Joyce let Jim guide her back down until she was lying on the bed. “How is Jane? Do you need to go be with her?”

“She'll be alright. By now Will’s probably told her what's going on. I can ask Steve or Nancy to pick her up later.”

“You could go get her now. I'll be fine if you-”

“I'm not leaving Joyce.”

Will reentered the room clutching a pair of light blue hospital socks. “One of the nurses gave me these. They're supposed to be really comfy.”

“That was nice of them.” Joyce accepted the socks with a smile. “How are your friends?”

Will frowned for a moment before shrugging. “Mike's alright. He's going to call Jane and let her know what's going on. Max, Dustin, and Lucas are biking over now.”

“Any word about Jonathan?” Hopper took the socks from Joyce and helped her pull them on. They were made from a soft thick material and had rubber designs on the soles for added traction.

Will shook his head. “He won't be able to call until his plane lands.”

“He'll be here soon.” Hopper said as confidently as possible.

“Joyce Byers?” A masculine voice inquired as an older doctor entered the room with a wheelchair.

Joyce reached for Hopper's hand. “That's me.”

“You certainly are.” The man studied her for a moment, an almost remorseful smile seemed to tug at the corner of his mouth. “I'm Doctor Martin, head practitioner here. It's about time we start prepping you for your surgery.”

“Already?” Joyce looked between Jim and the new doctor. It felt as if things were moving so fast.

“‘Fraid so. Our live donor coordinator will talk you through everything as we go along but,” he patted the seat of the wheelchair. “First thing first. We've got to move you to the operating floor.”

She could feel Jim’s grip on her hand tighten. “Could my family come with me?”

Doctor Martin glanced at Hopper and Will. “They can come along, but they'll have to stay in the surgical waiting room once we begin. You won't have to worry though, your family's going to be there with you through it all. I can promise you that.”

It felt like an odd thing to promise, Joyce thought, but it certainly helped quell the anxiety churning in her stomach.

Jim and Dr. Martin helped her into the wheelchair, and Will dutifully followed alongside with her IV drip, his other hand held tight in her own.

The hospital felt cold and frightening as they rolled down the hallway toward the elevator. But through all of it, Joyce never felt alone. She had Jim and Will by her side, their love and support felt like a shield that protected her from anything that could go wrong.

As long as she had them, everything was going to be alright.


 

Earlier that day…

Steve couldn't quite tie the top knot of his hospital gown. It was in that infuriating place just between the shoulder blades and no amount of spinning in circles or looking over his shoulder could quite manage to help him reach.

“Damn it.” He dropped his hands to his sides in resignation.

The hospital gown came just above his knees and did nothing to shield him from the chilled building.

“Mr. Harrington?” Dr. Martin peered in. “How are you holding up?”

It felt wrong bring called that. He hadn't felt like a Harrington for a long time. He was just ‘Steve.’

“I'm alright.”

“Good, good. I figured I'd walk you to the operating floor before I stopped in with Joyce.”

Steve tugged at a loose thread on his gown. “How is she?”

“Staying strong from what I hear. Has Greg stopped by with you yet?”

Steve shook his head. He hadn't really spoken to anyone besides Dr. Martin since this morning.

“Greg's our live donor coordinator. He's probably waiting for us. Come on.”

The cold linoleum floor froze Steve's feet as he followed Dr. Martin into the hall. No one else seemed to notice them or care as the doctor continued to talk.

“Greg will talk you through the operating process and have you sign a few things. You'll be sedated and given an IV drip, a ventilating tube, and a catheter during the surgery. But the recovery process is what I wanted to talk about.”

The elevator button was dimly illuminated as Dr. Martin pressed the down arrow.

Steve folded his arms across his chest in a futile effort to maintain any amount of body heat. “How long will the recovery take.”

“A couple weeks.”

Steve froze as Dr. Martin entered the elevator. “A couple weeks?

The doctor held the door open. “Think of it this way: your body's going to have to practically grow a whole new liver after the surgery. That'll take some time. Months actually. We just want to make sure you're stable enough to manage it on your own. A lot of things can go wrong. You might have an adverse reaction to the drugs. You could get an infection. It's my job to make sure you're taken care of.”

Dr. Martin must have sensed the fear and apprehension radiating off of Steve. That or he felt the unspoken accusation lingering between them.

Were you doing your job when you I became a Harrington? Were you doing your job when you lied to me as a child?

“Listen Steve, if you’re having second thoughts that's okay. No one's going to force you to do this. I can call Doctor Lewis and tell him--”

“No.” Steve stepped into the elevator, the doors closing after him. “It doesn't matter that Joyce... She's already been through too much. I want to help.”

Steve knew he wasn't explaining himself well, but what else was knew. It didn't matter what he said right now. All that mattered was that he helped Joyce.

“Steve, Mrs. Byers doesn’t...” Dr. Martin began, then trailed off. His mouth was set in a firm line as if keeping the rest of his statement from slipping out.

“She doesn’t have to know it’s me, right?” Steve leaned against the cold metal walls of the elevator. “I don’t want to make her feel awkward about this. I don’t want her to...”

...to feel like she owes me anything?

...to push me away because she might feel weird about the son she gave away helping her like this?

Steve could feel his legs shake beneath him and he couldn't decide if it was the air conditioning or anxiety that had him trembling like a leaf. Babysitting and driving Will around was one thing. But donating an organ, something family usually did, might be crossing that line that Steve was so afraid of.

Joyce doesn’t have to know.

After a moment Dr. Martin reached out and squeezed his shoulder. “You’re a good kid Steve.”

The doors dinged open revealing a hallway that seemed even colder than the one before. There was a strong disinfectant smell in the air as Steve followed Dr. Martin through some swinging doors, down a corridor, and into a small room with a narrow hospital bed in it.

“Wait here, I'll go find Greg.”

Steve watched Dr. Martin disappear into the hall before appraising the rest of the room. Besides the bed, which Steve noticed was on wheels, there was only a sink, chair, and wastebasket furnishing the space.

He should have asked for a blanket, Steve thought glumly as he hoisted himself up on the bed. His feet were freezing, and Steve was seriously fighting the urge to tuck his legs under the hospital gown like he did with oversized shirts when he was little. But that didn’t feel like a very adult thing to do right now.

Dr. Martin reentered followed by a tired looking middle-aged man in a wrinkled suit. “Steve Harrington?” The suit said.

Steve gave a tired wave.

Without actually acknowledging him, the man walked up to the bed and rested a worn leather suitcase next to Steve. “I’m Gregory Patterson, the live donor coordinator. Is there anyone who you would like to be kept updated during your surgery?”

“Um...” For the briefest of moments Steve considered Dustin but thought better of it. “No.”

Greg seemed pleasantly surprised at that answer. “Ah!” He separated half of the stack of paper he had pulled from his briefcase. “We won’t be needing those then.”

Steve stared at the discarded pile, imagining what it would be like to have that many people worrying about him. Sure he had Dustin and the rest of the kids, but it wasn’t fair or right to weigh them down with his adult problems. They already had enough to stress over.

“Mr. Harrington? Steve?”

“Hmm?” Steve blinked back to reality, staring at Greg. A nurse had entered the room at some point. She was positioning a hanging IV next to the bed and fiddling with the attached tube. She must have also brought in that weird looking oxygen tank. Steve distantly wondered if she was the anesthesiologist.

Greg repeated himself. “I just need you to sign this form confirming your consent to this procedure and the responsibility of any medical side effects that may occur afterwards.”

Steve stared at the outstretched pen for a moment before taking it, feeling its weight in his hand. “Could… Will you let me know how Joyce’s surgery goes, once this is over?”

Greg looked up from where he was organizing the unused paper.

“Well,” He glanced over his shoulder at Dr. Martin who nodded in response, “I suppose we could do that. Would you like me to keep Mrs. Byers and her family informed about your recovery?”

Steve watched the nurse attach a needle to the IV drip. He unconsciously rubbed at his inner arm, imagining the impending sting against his skin.

A cough pulled Steve back again. Dr. Martin tilted his head behind Greg.

Steve blinked again and tried to shake his thoughts from his head. “No.” He leaned over and signed the remaining documents. “No, I don’t want them to even know I’m here.”

Greg paused before taking his pen back, glancing over his shoulder again at Dr. Martin as he slipped it in his shirt pocket. Steve could pinpoint the exact moment Greg decided whatever was going on was not his problem.

“Okay. Well, I’ll go file these while you finish up here. ...Good luck.” Greg gave Steve a half-hearted pat on the back before collecting the rest of his paperwork and disappearing out the door.

The nurse leaned into Steve’s field of vision. “Do you have any allergies or pre-existing conditions we should be aware?”

She had soft green eyes and freckles that were barely visible amidst her dark skin. Something about the look in her eye and the tilt in her head comforted Steve. For a moment he felt like someone cared.

Steve glanced at her name-tag as he shook his head. Heather.

Heather nodded and tapped at the IV drip with her knuckle to disturb any potential bubbles. “Are you afraid of needles?”

A strangled laugh escaped Steve’s throat. “Does it matter?”

“Well usually if the patient is scared, I tell them this won’t hurt a bit.”

Steve glanced up at Heather. “And?”

Heather smiled. “This won’t hurt a bit.”

He did laugh then. Turning away quickly when Heather approached with the needle.

Dr. Martin cleared his throat. “Well, I’m going to start getting Joyce ready. See you on the other side kid.”

The sound of retreating footsteps was the only sign that he had left. Steve wanted to turn and say goodbye, and maybe thank you, but he also really didn’t want to watch Heather insert the needle into his arm. The pinching, stinging feeling was bad enough.

Steve winced, the blanket fabric bunched beneath his fingers as he pretended he was holding someone’s hand.

“You can look now.”

Steve slowly turned back and stared at the IV now attached to his arm. He couldn’t decide if it was that sight or the fluid from the IV that sparked the sudden surge of nausea. Maybe a little bit of both.

“Just breath honey.” Heather said as she helped Steve lean back against the bed. “I’m going to prepare the anesthesia now. Are you ready?”

Steve could only nod. A few minutes later Heather was placing a breathing mask over his face. It had a long tube that extended and attached to the tank of something next to his bed.

Heather brushed a strand of hair out of Steve’s face. “Can you count back from ten for me?”

“Ten…”

Steve shivered against the feeling of the cool liquid seeping into his bloodstream.

“...Nine…”

He remembered that he had work tomorrow and forgot to call in.

“...Eight…”

His eyelids felt heavier with every blink.

“...Seven...”

Darkness enveloped him.

As Steve slipped into unconsciousness, he could almost convince himself it was Joyce stroking his hair.

Chapter Text

The hospital doors slammed open and Jonathan burst into the waiting room. That level of urgency must have been a regular occurrence for the attendant, because she barely flinched as he ran to the desk and practically shouted “Family of Joyce Byers!”

“Name?” She tapped away at her boxy computer.

“Jonathan Byers.” His fingers vibrated against the faux-wood of the information desk.

“Mmhmm, she's still in surgery but you can wait with the rest of her visitors.”

She didn't even look up as she handed over a visitor's pass and pointed. “Through the door, to the right, and down the elevator. The waiting room will be on the left.”

Jonathan tried to listen to her directions as he clipped the pass to his jacket. It was hard to process anything after the word ‘surgery.’ Something must have changed, because last he heard Joyce was still on the donor waitlist. Hopefully they'd found someone, he thought to himself as he pressed the elevator button, because Jonathan didn't want to think about any other reason Joyce might need surgery.

The hallway was cold and smelled like bleach, but fortunately there were signs and arrows pointing Jonathan to where he needed to go.

Before he'd even finished walking into the waiting room, Will was crashing into his arms.

“You’re here.” Will’s voice was muffled through Jonathan's jacket, but the sentiment was clear.

It had been tough to leave his little brother begin when Jonathan went to NYU. Will had never been without him, and Jonathan could feel the loss in Will's voice every time he called home. The threat of losing his mom after already losing his older brother's company must have been terrifying.

“I'm here.” Jonathan said, hugging his brother tight. “I'm sorry I couldn't be here sooner.”

Will sniffed and pulled away, rubbing at his eyes. “It's okay. You're here now.”

“Glad to have you back kid.” Hopper offered from where he stood across the room, stationed by the only other door in or out. It probably led as close to the operating room as they were allowed to go.

Jonathan glanced at the closed door. “Any news?”

“They found a donor for Joyce. She went into surgery over an hour ago.”

“Who…” Jonathan began but Hopper was already shaking his head.

“We don't know. They're anonymous.”

That seemed odd. Jonathan wasn't one to look a gift horse in the mouth, and sure maybe he'd gotten too used to hearing bad news, but an anonymous donor swooping in to save the day just felt too good to be true.

He squeezed Will again before releasing his brother and approaching Hopper. “Thanks for getting Will. And for checking on mom. If you didn't…”

“It wasn't me actually.” Hopper settled into a chair, Jonathan following suit. “Steve found her.”

“Is Steve here?” Jonathan looked around the room confused. He distantly noticed the way Will seemed to frown at the name.

As if on cue, the doors that Jonathan entered through burst open and Dustin, Lucas, and Max appeared. They were all clutching small bags and boxes of snacks.

“This place has the best vending machines!” Dustin declared, raising a small cardboard box in the air. “You can even buy cigarettes!”

Hopper reached out and snatched the box from Dustin's grasp with the speed and precision that only an experienced parent could have.

Dustin didn't seem to mind or notice though. He continued to talk as the three kids crowded around Will, doing their best to distract and comfort their friend.

“Steve was in the waiting room when Will and I first got here. He must have left after that. Probably had work or something.” Hopper answered Jonathan's previous question. But there was a steeled tone to his voice like he wasn't quite convinced with his own answer.

Jonathan watched the boys talk among themselves, trading and exchanging candy and other snacks like they traded comic books when they were younger. “Where's Mike and Jane?”

Hopper reflexively pulled a cigarette from the box he confiscated from Dustin, but he didn't light it. “Nancy's picking them up after she gets off work.”

A weight seemed to fall from Jonathan's chest at the thought of Nancy's arrival. They'd been dating long distance ever since graduation. Jonathan had gone to NYU, and she had found a newspaper job in town. They tried to see each other as often as possible, and as much as money would allow, but it still didn't feel like it was enough.

Jonathan just wished their reunion could have been under better, less stressful circumstances.

He and Hopper sat in silence as the minutes ticked by. At first Jonathan felt like he should say something like ‘It's going to be okay.’ But he didn't know that for certain. Besides, he knew Hopper didn't need to hear something like that. They were both realists and had experienced far too much to need or depend on something as undependable as false-hope.

After a little over a half-hour Jonathan stood. “I'm gonna walk around.”

He didn't say it to anyone in particular. He just couldn't stand staying still and doing nothing.

The operating floor was small, and most hallways and entrances were restricted for visitors, so Jonathan found himself circling through four different hallways. He tried to shut his mind off and just walk, but it kept drifting back to him mom and all the worse-case scenarios.

If she…

He couldn't finish the thought. He'd already experienced burying Will. Jonathan couldn't do that again.

The sound of a familiar voice echoed off the halls. It was Will, and he sounded angry.

As Jonathan got closer, he could make out some of the words.

“-said you'd be there but then you just left! Mom was dying when we got here, and you just left us!”

Jonathan peeked around the corner. Will was talking into the receiver of a hospital payphone, his back to where Jonathan was standing. His voice seemed to rise in volume with each word.

“She's in surgery by the way. Not that you'd care. Jonathan's here now too so you don't have to pretend to care and stick around anymore. You might as well just stay away now, my family's got me.”

Will hung up the phone then, and gave a long angry sigh that sounded more like a groan.

“Hey.” Jonathan said, stepping next to his brother.

Will turned around and stared startled at him.

“Who were you talking to?”

A flurry of emotions darted across Will's face. Surprise, anger, hurt, and finally, guilt.

Will moved forward until he was leaning into Jonathan's chest. Reflexively, Jonathan wrapped his arms around his little brother. Although “little” didn't quite fit anymore. Will was almost as tall as he was.

“It was Steve's voicemail.”

“What?” Jonathan looked at the phone in confusion as Will began to tumble into an explanation.

“I tried to call him earlier, but he didn't answer. Tried again just before you got here too. He just left and he doesn't even care enough to see if we're alright.”

Jonathan squeezed Will a little tighter, listening as his brother tried to steady his breathing. “Do you feel better after calling him and saying those things?”

Will stilled before shaking his head, smearing tears into Jonathan’s jacket. He understood feeling scared and wanting to lash out at something. Hell, practically all of Will’s friends had done the same thing at one time or another.

Jonathan recalled the sound of Mike screaming at Hopper when they first found out that he was hiding Jane. Or even when he fought Steve when Will first went missing. Granted, he had provoked him, but Jonathan would be lying if he said that was the only reason he beat up Steve.

Taking out your frustrations on someone else always feels good at first. But that euphoria inevitably melts away until all your left with it regret and guilt.

The kind of guilt he saw in Will’s eyes after he hung up the phone.

“Steve does care.” Jonathan tried to reassure him. “He’s probably got his reasons for why he’s not here right now.”

Will sighed before pulling away and rubbing at his eyes. “You’re probably right. It’s just… He could have at least called. Or said he was sorry.” He rubbed at his arm and stared at the phone. “He probably won’t show up at all now…”

Jonathan fished some loose change out of his pocket. “We can call him back. Leave another message and say sorry. Would that make you feel better?”

Will bit his lip and nodded. But as he reached for the receiver, the sound of running and shouting distracted the pair.

“-flat-lining and we need that crash cart STAT!”

Three nurses barreled past Jonathan and Will, a cart with defibrillators and other scary looking medical equipment was being pushed between them.

Jonathan held his breath as he watched them run towards the operating room.

It didn't mean it had something to do with Joyce.

There had to be other operations happening in a hospital this big.

Just as long as they don't turn left…

Time stopped as the orderlies turned left and disappeared behind the swinging doors where Jonathan knew his mom was being operated on.

“Jonathan…” Will whispered.

The two boys broke into a sprint, the spare change falling to the floor with a metallic ringing sound.

Hopper was pacing in the waiting room, a hand anxiously rubbing at his mouth.

“Hopper?” Jonathan skidded to a stop and stared around the room, looking for a doctor or nurse who was delivering the bad news.

The kids were sitting unnervingly still in one corner, staring at him and Will.

“Kid,” Hopper grabbed Jonathan and pulled him into a hug, his other arm reaching out for Will to do the same.

Jonathan squeezed his eyes shut as he hugged Hopper back, his fingers bunching up in the chief's jacket, desperately looking for something solid to hold onto.

“She made it. The surgery was a success.”

Jonathan opened his eyes and blinked.

“Wait, what?” Will looked up at Hopper, a small spark of hope kindled in his eyes.

“The Doc just came in and told us. They're going to be moving her back to her room once they're finished.”

“Oh my god.” Jonathan sighed in relief as the rest of the party surrounded Will with hugs and support.

Mom was in recovery. She wasn't dying. She was going to be alright.

“Jonathan?”

He turned at the familiar voice. But before he could begin to respond with her beautiful name, Mike was calling “Will!” as he and Jane ran into the waiting room hand-in-hand.

Jonathan and Nancy watched the kids reunite and update Mike and Jane on Joyce's surgery. Eventually Nancy turned back to Jonathan with a nervous smile.

“Hey, how are you-”

Before she could finish speaking Jonathan was pulling her into a hug and burrowing his face in her neck. She felt like home.

He felt Nancy's arms slowly wrap around him, and Jonathan let out a shuddering breath. It felt like the first time he could breathe since Hopper first called.

“It's alright.” Nancy whispered. “It's going to be alright.”

And finally, after practically chewed his fingers to the bone on the flight over, after a frantic ride to the hospital and waiting for forever in a room that reeked of loss, Jonathan believed that was true.


 

Mom... something happened... my mom collapsed and she's not responding…

The first thing Joyce was conscious of was the rhythmic beeping of the heart monitor.

She felt a kind of numb soreness all across her midsection, but the meds she was on must have been blocking most of the pain.

“She’s awake!” There was movement to her left as Joyce’s eyes squinted open. There was dried crust at the corners of her eyes that she tried to blink away. It felt like she’d been asleep for a long time. She must have been, considering all the dreams she’d had.

There was a voice, someone calling her, but she couldn’t quite place it...

Mom…

“Mom?”

Joyce blinked again and forced herself to focus. Will was staring at her with a look of exhaustion and relief.

“Mom are you okay?”

She opened her mouth to speak, but only an awful croak came out followed by heaving coughs that wracked her body.

Joyce squeezed her eyes shut again, trying to catch her breath. She could feel people moving around her, hands on her back, and people calling for a nurse.

“It’s alright honey.” A calm feminine voice spoke as another hand was placed on her back and began patting her. “I need you to take deep breaths for me.”

There were tears of exertion in her eyes when Joyce could finally open them.

A nurse with warm-colored skin and soft green eyes was smiling at Joyce, her hand still rubbing circles along her back. “Feeling better?”

Joyce nodded.

Will and Jonathan were sharing looks of concern behind the nurse. Joyce smiled when it dawned on her that Jonathan was here. Her family was here.

Mom…

There was that voice again. Although this time it seemed to change and sound much younger. Joyce frowned in concentration, trying to recall why it felt so familiar.

“Is she alright? Do we need to call the doctor?” Joyce turned and realized that Hopper was here too, holding her hand and resting the other on her back. What drugs did they have her on?

The nurse, whose ID read ‘Heather’, shook her head. “Her throats going to feel pretty sore because of the breathing tube, but that’s normal. Just keep feeding her ice chips. And Joyce?”

Joyce focused on the nurse. It took a lot more effort than usual.

“You’ve been under sedation for a while. You’re going to feel a little weird and a little tired for a while. If you need anything, I’m going to be right down the hall. Alright?”

Joyce nodded. She could feel the drugs lulling her back to sleep. It was tempting. She wanted to hear that voice again. But she’d already been asleep for far too long.

Jonathan and Will stepped up to the bed, and Joyce couldn’t help but reach out to them and grasp as their hands.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t be here sooner.” Jonathan whispered. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here.”

Joyce hated that she couldn’t speak. She wanted to tell him he shouldn’t feel guilty. That she’s happy he’s here. That she loves the both of them so so much.

But she could only manage to squeeze Jonathan’s hand and shake her head, trying to communicate all that without words.

“The kids were all here earlier. Jim reached for a pitcher of water on the bedside table and poured Joyce a glass. ”I think they dragged Nancy away to help buy you some flowers.”

Joyce smiled and took the cup, sipping from it gingerly and reveling at how the cool water soothed her throat.

“We’ve all been here almost all day.” Will offered. “How do you feel?”

For a second Joyce considered trying to answer, but after thinking better of it, she gave a weary thumbs up.

The sound of five loud teenagers began to echo down the hall, and a moment later they appeared in the doorway.

“Mrs. Byers!” Dustin cheered as he entered the room.

Lucas, who was always the politest of Will’s friends gave a little wave. “We’re really glad to hear you’re alright.”

“We got you these.” Max said, looking down at the ground as she held out a beautiful bouquet of sunflowers and tulips.

“Jane helped pick them out!” Mike added proudly as he squeezed said girl’s hand.

“You all helped.” Nancy corrected as she entered the room last. “We are really glad to see you Mrs. Byers.” She added as she stood next to Jonathan.

Joyce smiled in gratitude as Max found an empty vase for the flowers.

She hadn’t realized how much she missed this. Having a house or a room fill with the sound of people she loved. Although with the pain killers she was on it was becoming increasingly difficult to focus on all the moving figures. For a moment she could swear someone was missing, but the more she looked around the room the less sure she was.

“Mom are you okay?”

The room stilled as Joyce tried to process Will’s question.

She stared at the multiple pairs of eyes looking back at her.

“I’m…” Her voice came out in a raspy whisper.

“She’s a little tired kids.” Hopper came to her rescue. “The docs were digging around her internal organs an hour ago, you gotta cut her some slack.”

“Gross.” Mike grimaced.

“But seriously, Nancy and I should probably take you brats home. It’s been a long day.” Hopper stated as he began to usher the kids back out the door, leaving Joyce to have some quiet time with her sons.

He came back quickly after the rest of the party was out in the hallway.

“I’m coming back tomorrow. I just need to make sure the town didn’t tear itself apart while I was busy.” He said before pressing a kiss against Joyce’s forehead.

She closed her eyes at the comforting touch, grateful that Hopper had a knack for reading her mind. As nice as it was to have all the kids around, Joyce could feel her energy fading fast, and she desperately wanted to spend time with her kids now that they knew everything would be alright.


 

Steve felt an aching pain all over before he’d even fully awoken. His throat felt raw and there was a beeping noise that hammered against his skull.

His eyes slid open and stared at the heart monitor. So that was where the sound was coming from.

Movement to his other side caused Steve to slowly roll over, which caused an unexpected stabbing pain in his abdomen. The heart monitor picked up its pace and Steve groggily wondered if someone was going to check on him.

But the second Steve’s eyes focused on the person sitting beside his hospital bed, he almost forgot about the pain.

“Tommy?”

Tommy shook his head at Steve with an unreadable expression. “You asshole.”

Chapter Text

Steve blinked. And blinked again, half expecting Tommy to disappear. But he was still there, and the pain in his abdomen was enough to convince him that this wasn't a dream.

“What are you doing here?”

“What am I doing here?” Tommy asked incredulously. “I got a call from the hospital telling me that you flat-lined during an operation. We haven't spoken in over a year and the first thing I hear is that you might be dying, and you ask me what I’m doing here?”

“Oh…” Steve exhaled. “But why did they-?”

“-Carol and I were still your emergency contact. She's worried sick by the way.”

Steve felt a headache building at the back of his skull as he tried to focus on his childhood friend. It felt like when he was in high school and he’d spend hours staring at the textbook pages without being able to make sense of the jumbled letters staring back.

But Tommy wasn’t a textbook. He was someone Steve used to play with and see every single day. He was someone who would vindictively throw a rock into the stream if Steve happened to trip on it while they walked along the Eno River. He was someone who would help plan a birthday when Steve’s own parents couldn’t be bothered.

Steve remembered Tommy. He’d memorized the other boy’s face by the time they were twelve. He just had to look a little closer and spot the changes.

It seemed as if Tommy had gotten a little taller, or maybe he was just holding himself differently now, and his face was missing some of that stubborn baby fat that had followed him into his teen years. But there were also bags under his eyes like he hadn't been getting enough sleep. And a pallor to Tommy's skin that made his freckles stand out like ink spots on paper. Almost as if he'd been badly frightened.

Steve swallowed, trying to work out the dryness in his throat. “I'm sorry.”

“I’m sorry.” Tommy parroted back at him. “What the hell are you sorry for?”

Steve shook his head groggily. The room still felt like it was spinning a little, and it was so hard to focus, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that something was his fault.

“I’m sorry for scaring you?”

Tommy seemed to deflate as the anger left his body, leaving him running a hand through his dark hair with a sigh. “Christ Steve. When they called... I didn’t know what to think.”

His throat still felt like sandpaper as Steve mustered up the energy to ask his next question. “Did the doctors say if-”

A coughing fit cut him off. Steve hunched over, gasping and gagging as the coughing only seemed to aggravate everything. Every time he coughed his abdomen screamed in pain, burning and spreading across the rest of his body until Steve felt like he wanted to pass out.

And then there was a hand on his back, rubbing up and down trying to calm the tremors wracking Steve’s body. Another hand was holding a cup of water in front of him.

Steve took it gratefully, taking tiny sips until the coughing subsided.

“You okay?”

Steve tried to sit up straight again, rubbing exhausted tears from his eyes as he nodded.

“Thank you.” He rasped out.

Tommy nodded and sat back down, awkwardly looking at his hands folded in his lap.

This was weird for both of them, and Steve knew it. They weren’t really friends anymore, and it wouldn’t be fair to either of them to act like nothing happened. But there wasn’t a shared apathy either. They’d known each other for way to long and shared too much for them to ignore that on some level they still cared about each other. And that made all of this so messy.

Even on a good day when Steve wasn’t recovering from a major surgical procedure, he didn’t know if he’d be able to handle this.

“So what happened anyway?” Tommy broke the silence.

Steve scrunched up his face in confusion, trying to ignore how it made his head pound. “They didn’t tell you?”

“I’m not family.” Tommy shrugged. A younger Steve might have argued against that statement.

“I…” Steve took another sip of water. “I was donating my liver.”

Tommy’s eyes snapped up to Steve’s. Surprise and confusion clear as day across his face. “You what? Why?”

“Because the person needed it.”

He could see the wheels turning in Tommy’s head. He could practically hear the next question before it left his lips.

“...To who?”

Steve took another sip of water, letting the cup linger long enough for Tommy to know he was trying to avoid answering that question.

Tommy leaned forward, staring imploringly and accusatory into Steve’s tired eyes.

“Not Joyce Byers...”

Steve slowly set his cup down and made an effort to look anywhere except at Tommy.

“So you told her, right? You told her you knew? Otherwise why would she accept your liver?”

Steve opened his mouth, but Tommy interjected.

“But wait why isn’t someone here with you then? Are they all with Mrs. Byers or some shi…”

The room got quiet again. And now Steve really didn’t want to look at Tommy.

“Steve.”

Tommy didn’t say anything else until Steve nervously met his gaze.

“You didn’t tell her.”

Steve wet his lips before tentatively speaking. “I convinced the doctor to keep the donation anonymous.”

“Jesus Christ Steve.” Tommy stood up and paced from the wall and back to his chair. “Why?”

Steve sighed, but the breath sounded more like a rattle. “I didn’t want her to freak out.”

“Freak out? Freak out that you’re so desperate for her to accept you that you’d give her your liver?”

“I didn’t want to lose them-” Steve started coughing again. He pressed his fists against his chest like he was trying to hold himself together.

It took him a moment to get his breathing under control enough to keep talking, even though every word sounded worse and he had to take frequent breaks to catch his breath. “They don’t see me as family but… they like me… Joyce… Joyce cares about me.”

Steve shook his head. “I didn’t want them... feeling like they owed me and… pushing me away.”

He looked up at Tommy. At least he’d stopped pacing. “I know it sounds dumb but-”

“Good, because it is.” Tommy agreed.

An exhausted laugh escaped Steve’s lips before he rubbed at his eye. “-but I don’t think I could handle that rejection.”

“You don’t know that they would.”

“But they could.” Steve leaned back in his bed. “And I don’t want to risk…”

He pressed his palms into his eyes, and suddenly he’s taken back to a different time they were in this same position. With Steve petrified and crying over a family he doesn’t have, and Tommy standing beside him. How did we end up back here?

“So what are you going to tell them after you’re released?”

Oh… Oh Tommy was going to love this.

“I hadn’t really thought that far.”

Steve still had his eyes closed, but he could feel Tommy staring up at the ceiling in exasperation.

“Of course you didn’t. Because you always lead with that big dumb heart of yours without thinking abou-”

“-She was dying Tommy.”

Before Tommy could come up with a response, a nurse walked in.

“Well I’m glad to see you’re awake. How are you feeling Steve?”

She looked vaguely familiar, and as if she could read his mind, the nurse smiled. “Do you remember me?”

Steve squinted at her for a moment, taking in her green eyes, dark skin, and subtle freckles.

“...Heather.” He tried the name out and the nurse’s smile broadened in approval.

“Knew there was a reason I liked you.”

Heather checked the machines surrounding Steve’s bed before turning back to him.

“Are you still experiencing nausea or dizziness?”

Steve took a moment to appraise his current state. Besides the throbbing pain in his abdomen and the foggy feeling in his head, he was feeling okay.

“Not nauseous. A little dizzy.” He croaked out, and Heather immediately refilled his cup with fresh water.

“The anesthetic should wear off in a little while. You’ll feel better then.” She pressed her palm against Steve’s forehead and frowned. “You’re running a slight fever. Keep drinking fluids and we’ll keep an eye on that.”

“Is that bad?” Tommy spoke up from where he was still standing against the wall.

Heather glanced at him for a moment, her smile slipping just a fraction.

“It could be if it doesn’t go away. Fevers after major surgeries are never good.” She gave Steve’s arm a sympathetic pat. “And since Steve here is missing most of his liver, his body’s more susceptible to catching something serious like pneumonia.”

“Now,” Heather looked back at Tommy. “I need to check and clean his stitches. You mind giving us some privacy?”

Steve self-consciously tugged on the hospital gown he was still wearing. He didn’t have time to think about the stitches before the surgery, or any of the other questions that were now crowding his mind.

What did the stitches look like?

Would they leave a scar?

How was he going to explain that?

“Okay.” Tommy shifted on his feet before hesitantly stepping towards the door. “I’ll grab us some food. Be back in thirty?”

“Ask the cafeteria staff for post-op friendly food for Steve.” Heather called after him. “If I catch you trying to sneak a cheeseburger in here I swear…”

Tommy had already disappeared into the hallway before she could finish.

“The manners of that boy.” She huffed to herself, and Steve couldn't help but smile.

“He grows on you.”

“Like algae in a pond.” She shook her head, but Steve caught the corner of her mouth tugging into a smile. “Now let’s have a look at those stitches.”


 

Like clockwork Tommy reappeared exactly thirty minutes later. Just in time to say goodbye to Heather as she was leaving to finish her rounds. She gave Tommy an approving nod after surveying the hospital food he’d selected: individual cups of chocolate pudding and applesauce.

“So how does it look?” Tommy gestured to Steve’s torso as he peeled away the lid on the chocolate pudding and handed it to Steve with a spoon.

Steve thought about what he’d seen after Heather had pulled back the bandages.

The stitches began under each of his ribs and moved upward to meet in a diagonal line at the bottom of his sternum. The stitches themselves reminded Steve of train tracks, but those would be removed eventually. However, Heather said they would leave a permanent scar.

But that was a lot to put on someone who Steve was pretty sure was still kind of mad at him. So instead he shrugged at Tommy's question and slid the plastic spoon into his pudding cup.

“They shaved my whole torso.”

“Really?” Tommy settled into his chair with his own snack.

“Yeah, like that cat Old Mrs. Brown showed us.”

“Where it’s belly was all pink?”

Steve nodded and experimentally took a spoonful of the pudding. It was the first thing he’d eaten since before the surgery and he was crossing his fingers he’d keep it down.

“I called Carol while I was out. She says hi.” Tommy offered, fiddling with a napkin from the cafeteria.

“Mmh,” Steve hummed around his spoon. “I miss her.”

“She’d be smothering you right now if she wasn’t in the middle of midterms.”

Steve had heard that Carol went off to vet's school in a different county. “She always did like animals more than people.”

Tommy nodded and looked down at his feet, trying to hide the smile that always bloomed on his face whenever he talked about Carol. “Present company excluded, right?”

“Eh.” Steve shrugged and continued playing with his food.

Tommy threw his wadded-up napkin at Steve’s chest. “Dick.”

“Asshole.” He chimed back with a smile.

“I was kind of an asshole, wasn’t I?”

So we're talking about that, huh? Steve thought as he set his food down.

“We all were. I’m sorry by the way. About that day I left you and Carol. I kept wanting to say sorry but…”

Tommy shook his head. “We should have reached out too.”

They were all at fault in some way or another. And pointing fingers and calling each other names hadn't worked in the past.

“None of us were ever really good at conflict resolution, huh?”

“Somebody should have taught us that.” Tommy mused back.

“Yeah,” Steve scoffed. “our parents.”

Tommy’s smile faltered ever so slightly. “Speaking of parents…”

Steve fiddled with the half-empty pudding cup. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Steve,”

“To-mmy.” Steve dragged out each syllable and stared mordantly at his childhood friend.

“No. It’s crazy that you’re okay with giving Mrs. Byers your liver and not telling her it’s you.”

Steve flopped back against his hospital bed with a wince. Heather had given him more painkillers, but it didn’t entirely erase the aching.

He could hear Tommy sigh and shake his head, obviously accepting that Steve wasn’t budging when it came to the subject of Joyce.

“I’m assuming you didn’t bring a change of clothes.”

Tommy took his silence for confirmation.

“I can grab some for you, if you want.”

“You don’t have to.” Steve shook his head.

“What? You just planning on wearing hospital gowns your whole time here?” Tommy scoffed and walked over to where Steve’s clothes had been folded in a corner and began rooting around for his keys. “Anything else you want me to get for you?”

“If it’s not too much trouble you could pick up my car from the Byers.” Steve said, not actually expecting him to take his request seriously.

“I can do that.” Tommy shrugged.

Steve watched Tommy pull his BMW’s keys from his jean pockets. He still felt like everything was lagging, like a warped cassette tape on half speed. This still didn’t feel real.

“Tommy?”

He turned around to face Steve.

“Why are you helping me?”

That seemed to take him by surprise. Tommy fiddled with Steve’s keys as he looked around, as if the right answer was hiding somewhere in the room.

“Because…” Tommy met his gaze. “Because it’s what you would do.”

They stared at each other for a moment longer before Tommy nodded and left. The only audible noise was Steve’s heart-monitor, and the jangling sound of his keys growing more and more distant.


 

Hopper grumbled to himself as he walked up the front steps of the Harrington residence. He didn’t know how he got roped into these things.

Well, actually he did. Dustin was a smart, stubborn, and resourceful kid. A triple-threat. And when he set his mind on something then the rest of the world better get out of the way. Dustin also knew that if he annoyed Hopper long enough, while also expertly peppering in a little guilt and suspicion, the chief would cave eventually.

So when Hopper found Dustin standing on the other side of his desk, with those sad desperate eyes going on and on about filing a missing person’s report for Steve Harrington of all people, he knew he’d eventually find himself here.

After the third time he knocked, he began to wonder if anyone was home. But just as Hopper was beginning to consider walking to the back of the house and seeing if the back door was unlocked, the front door opened.

It had been decades since he’d seen Julia, probably since high school graduation, but he still recognized her after all those years. It was almost unnerving actually. Aside from the telltale signs and creases of age, she hadn’t changed all that much. It reminded Hopper of those ghost stories of widows in attics and living portraits.

She stared at him with her piercing green eyes. “May I help you?”

“Julia Harrington?” Hopper removed his hat.

“Yes?”

There was a frozen and heavy aura that shrouded her. Her perfectly pinned up hair, the dark formal dress she was wearing, and the pearls around her neck made Julia look like she just walked out of a painting, and yet any sign of life seemed absent.

Hopper distantly wondered how someone like Julia could raise a kid like Steve.

“I’m Chief Jim Hopper. We went to school together.”

Julia blinked slowly before a glimmer of recognition passed over her face. “Ah yes, you set Mr. Cooper’s trash can on fire.”

It always amazed him what people seemed to remember from high school.

“And now you’re in law enforcement?” She glanced at Jim’s uniform, clearly unimpressed.

“Funny how things work out isn’t it?” He tried to lighten the mood.

Julia’s expression didn’t change. If anything her frown seemed to deepen.  “Quite. Is there something I can help you with?”

“Actually there is.” Jim returned his hat back to his head. It was time to be sheriff again. “I was wondering if you’d seen Steve recently.”

“Steve.” Julia trailed off. “He’s around, yes.”

Well that just made his job a hell of a lot easier. Hopper stepped forward, as if Steve was just inside the house, just out of sight. “Can I talk to him.”

“He’s not here now.” Julia didn’t move. “Probably at work at that silly job of his.”

Hopper stepped back again. Dustin said the party had gone to Scoops a couple times and never saw Steve working.

“Mrs. Harrington when was the last time you saw your-”

“Are you suggesting I don’t know where my own child is?”

Hopper flattened his lips into a straight line. This was getting him nowhere. “Next time you see Steve have him give me a call.”

As he walked back to his truck Julia called after him with the first trace of emotion in her voice. “Is he in trouble?”

Hopper looked over his shoulder.

“Just have him call me.”

Jim sat in his car and thought about the next steps he should take. If he actually tried to pursue this as a missing person’s case, then the Harrington’s would fight him every step of the way. But while Hopper still wasn’t convinced that Steve was missing, something was definitely wrong.

He turned his key in the ignition and began to pull out of the driveway. There was always the unlikely chance that the kids had simply missed Steve at work. And if that’s where Julia thought he was, then it was Hopper’s next stop.


 

Tommy made it back to the hospital a couple hours after he’d left.

He’d gone to the Byers first to get Steve’s car (thankfully no one was there), driven to Steve’s house, thrown a week’s worth of Steve’s most comfortable looking clothes in a bag, walked back to the Byers, and then drove back to the hospital.

His only close call came when he was driving to Steve’s house. The Chief of Police’s car was in the driveway. But all he had to do was park on a side street and sneak in through the back.

He hadn’t really been worried about slipping past Steve’s mom. By the time they were all nine they had her daily schedule memorized, which mostly involved a bottle of wine or some Ambien. And even if she did catch him, he’d just say he and Steve were hanging out and she wouldn’t even bat an eye.

You gotta love detached parents.

So by the time Tommy was walking back into Steve’s hospital room, he was exhausted.

“You could have mentioned how far the Byers were from your…”

Tommy’s complaint died in his throat once he was inside the room.

Steve was sleeping quietly in the hospital bed with the sheets kicked down to his feet and a hand curled under his chin. He looked like a little kid instead of a young man who’d just gone through an organ transplant.

As quietly as possible, Tommy pulled the bed sheets up to Steve’s shoulders.

That morning, he’d walked into the hospital fully intending to rip Steve a new one. To call him an asshole for scaring him and finally finish that argument they’d started in the parking lot all those years ago.

But then he saw Steve. Saw how weak and fragile he looked. And Tommy decided that maybe he’d just make sure that Steve woke up alright, and then he’d leave.

And then they started talking, and Steve apologized, and his heart was still so stupidly big and still stubbornly vulnerable. And Tommy told himself he’d stick around for the day and make sure Steve had everything he needed to get through this on his own.

But now, as Tommy lingered in the doorway and watched Steve’s chest rise and fall in that silly hospital gown, he didn’t know if he had it in him to walk away.

Steve needed someone. And maybe Tommy wouldn’t have been his first choice (he didn’t blame him), but he was here now. And no one else was.

With a resigned sigh, Tommy set down Steve’s bag on a table and stretched out in a nearby armchair.

He’d call Carol in the morning and tell her everything.

Right now, he needed sleep.

Chapter Text

5 Days Later…

“We can still go back to the hospital if you want.” Tommy offered as he helped unlock Steve’s front door.

Steve shook his head from where he was leaning next to the doorframe. “Nuh-uh. Almost a week was long enough. Doctor Martin said that if I can eat and walk on my own, I’m free to leave.”

As if to prove his point, Steve walked into his parents’ house and almost immediately lost his balance once he crossed the threshold. He would have fallen flat on his face if Tommy hadn’t reached out to steady him.

“I still don’t know how they thought you were ready.”

Steve looked over his shoulder with a sheepish smile. “It’s probably because they knew you’d be hovering over me like a mother hen until I’m completely healed.”

“Ha. Ha.” Tommy closed the door behind them and helped maneuver Steve over to the couch.

He didn’t want to admit how right Steve probably was, but the business card with Dr. Martin’s home and office number written on the back was probably proof enough. That, and the meds that Heather made him swear to keep Steve on to help with the pain.

Steve sighed and stretched out on the couch before looking up at Tommy.

“Listen man, you don’t have to stay with me the whole time. You probably have shit to do, and Doctor Martin said I’d be able to go back to work in a couple weeks so-”

“First, of all,” Tommy set Steve’s backpack down. “Doctor Martin said it’d be at least six weeks until you should go back to work. Second of all, that nurse would kill me if she found out that I just dumped you here and ran.”

Steve winced at the ‘six weeks’ part. “I should probably call Robin and let her know. She’s gonna be pissed.”

“Well under the circumstances I’m sure she’ll forgive you.”

“Yeah well, you don’t know Robin.” Steve smiled as he slowly stood up and began shuffling towards the phone by the entrance.

That was definitely true. In fact, there was a lot Tommy apparently didn’t know about Steve and the life he’d been living since they graduated high school. This Robin chick was one of them. The little brats Steve kept talking about were another.

“I’m going to make us some dinner,” Tommy said as he headed for the kitchen. “You should probably call that Dusty kid you wouldn’t shut up about too.”

“Dustin.” Steve corrected. “And thanks.”

Tommy made sure he had Steve in his line of sight until the other boy successfully reached the phone without passing out or tripping over himself again.

Once Steve plopped down in a nearby chair and reached for the phone Tommy relaxed and began digging around the pantries. He didn’t want to make anything too rich since the meds Steve was on made him nauseous, but he also wanted to find something that would help him gain some of the weight he lost while at the hospital. Maybe stew and some bread?

As Tommy opened the fridge to check and see if they had any fresh bread, he noticed a note stuck under a magnet.

‘Gone on trip with Arthur. Be back soon.’

Tommy shook his head. “Soon” could mean anywhere between a week or a month with Steve’s family. On the plus side they usually left cash somewhere for pizza.

“Hey Steve? Your parents are on another trip.”

“What else is new?” Steve called back from the living room. “Jesus, there’s a lot of voicemails.”

Tommy heard the beep of the answering machine as he pulled cans of soup out of the cupboard.

“Hey Steve, it’s Robin. Your shift starts in like five minutes and I wanted to make sure you didn’t sleep in again like you claimed you did last time.”

The beep sounded again.

“Steve it’s Robin again. I swear you better have a good excuse for being this late. If you’re still at home listening to this message, just know I will kick your ass next time I see you.”

As the beep echoed through the house Tommy called out. “She seems nice.”

“Tell me about it.” Steve laughed back, but Tommy could tell there wasn’t any real vehemence behind his answer. It was nice to know Steve wasn’t entirely alone after they graduated high school.

After another beep, a new voice filled the space.

“Hi Steve, uh, Hopper came out to get you, but you weren’t there, so I figured I’d call... You probably just went to get something, but I just wanted to update you. I mean, nothing’s really changed. Mom’s still not waking up and that’s kind of scary but… I just figured you’d like to know. I’ll probably see you soon anyway. This is Will by the way.”

That last part was added hurriedly before the call ended.

Before Tommy could ask if that was in fact the Will Byers, the next message started.

“Steve it’s Robin. Listen I just want to know that you’re not dead in a ditch somewhere. Just... let me know you’re alright, okay?”

The answering machine beeped again.

“Steve! I don’t know where you are- I hope you’re okay- but the doctors found a donor! We don’t know who it is, but Doctor Lewis said they should be able to help mom. I called the party and they’re on their way, but I hope you’re coming back. I’m sorry you couldn’t come with us when Doctor Lewis asked. Just… please come? We could really use you here. Please?”

Tommy wished he could see Steve from where he was searching for a cooking pot. He had a bad feeling about where this was going. “Hey Steve, how about you come help me with di-”

The answering machine’s jarring beep cut him off before he could finish.

“Steve where are you?” Will’s voice sounded rougher this time. Like he had been crying.

“When we talked in the car it felt like… like you really cared about me. It kind of felt like I had Jonathan back. Like I could talk to you like... But if that was true you’d be here right now. But you’re not. I needed you but you’re not here, and you said you'd be there but then you just left! Mom was dying when we got here, and you just left us! She's in surgery by the way. Not that you'd care. Jonathan's here now too so you don't have to pretend to care and stick around anymore. You might as well just stay away now, my family's got me.”

As the message ended, Tommy slowly walked into the living room. Steve’s back was facing him. His whole frame seemed rigid and so unbearable still it almost looked like it hurt.

“Steve?”

As if broken out of a trance, Steve started moving. His hands came up to wipe quickly at his face. “Sorry Tommy, did you need my help with something?”

He stood too fast and stumbled a little, bracing himself on the chair, and Tommy finally got a good look at his face.

There were splotches under his red-rimmed eyes and his shoulders were squared as if he was putting a lot of effort in keeping himself composed and upright.

“Steve,” Tommy started again, but the other boy interrupted.

“If you turn the oven on I can finish uncanning the soup.” Steve spoke quickly and moved even faster, speeding around the kitchen and fiddling with things as if he might collapse if he stopped moving.

“Steve listen-”

“I bought some sourdough bread last week.” Steve’s hands frantically twisted the can opener in his shaking hands. “Mom doesn’t like eating bread so it’s probably still on top of the fridge if you-”

The can opener tripped off its ridge, causing Steve’s hand to slip forward onto the shear metal edge.

“Fuck!” Steve cried out, pulling his hand to his chest.

Tommy was immediately at his side with a dish towel. “Let me see.”

He had to pull Steve’s hand away and open his palm to see the slice that cut all along where his thumb connected to his hand. Thankfully, it didn’t look like it’d need stitches.

“Fuck!” Steve screamed again as he slid to the ground, except this time there was more anguish in his voice opposed to just pain. His undamaged hand balled into a fist and struck the tiled floor beneath him.

“Fuck!” His voice broke into a sob as Steve curled in on himself, leaning over until his hair covered most of his face.

Tommy watched Steve's back heave and shake as he continued to sob. Slowly, so not to spook him, he reached a hand out to rest between Steve's shoulder blades.

The shaking simmered down to trembling, but Steve's breathing was still erratic.

“Steve, what do you need me to do?”

Steve sniffed, his shoulders shuddered under a bereft and exhausted sigh.

“It doesn't matter.”

“Obviously it does-”

Steve threw his head back, wincing as it slammed against the cabinets behind him. “Don't you get it? I tried so hard to make everyone happy! Tried to take care of them and… I just screwed it all up anyway.”

“Maybe if you talk to them-”

“And say what? ‘Hey Will, sorry I couldn't be there I was actually giving Joyce my liver. Why? Well I'm actually your long-lost brother that our mom gave up for some reason. Can I be part of the family now?’”

Steve's voice rose with every word until the last portion was almost indiscernible between choked sobs that turned into a rasping cough.

Tommy didn’t know what to say. He was never good at this part of their friendship. It was always Carol or Steve who made their trio feel better. And Carol still had a couple days until she could ditch school. Tommy was usually just the one who shoved people who tried to push any of them first.

But there was no one around to shove. Just a stupid message on an answering machine.

But Tommy was here. Any maybe that could be enough.

Tommy sat down and scooched closer to Steve so their knees knocked together. “Well I think they’re missing out.”

Steve didn’t immediately stop crying, but his breathing had begun to even out, and Tommy could tell he was listening. So he continued.

“I mean look at you. You care about those little brats more than anyone’s really cared about you.”

Steve sniffed a little, and okay maybe that wasn’t the best thing to say, but Tommy was new to this emotional support thing. He was just saying what came to mind and hoped some of it was what Steve needed to hear.

“-Which says a lot about you as a person because no one taught you how to care about people like that, but you figured it out anyway. There’s plenty of people that were raised happier and healthier that don’t have half of your big heart. And if the Byers don’t see that then maybe they don’t deserve you.”

Steve had stopped crying now and was just staring down at the floor where some of his blood had dripped onto the clean tile. Tommy still couldn’t tell if he was making him feel better or not.

Slowly, Steve leaned over until his head fell heavily against the other boy’s shoulder.

“I just wish…”

Tommy felt the weight on his side, and for a moment tried to imagine the heavy burden of feeling unwanted that Steve had carried most of his life. But that would feel so much heavier than Steve did now.

“I know. I’m sorry Steve.”

“It’s okay.” Steve sighed.

“Uh, no it’s not.”

Steve tried to laugh, but his breath caught and turned into another ugly cough.

“No,” Steve finally rasped out. “No, it’s not.”

They sat there for a moment longer, both too lost in their own thoughts to try and stand.

Eventually the sound of Steve’s stomach growling spurred Tommy into moving.

“Okay,” Tommy laughed and nudged Steve. “That nurse is definitely going to kill me if she finds out I’m not feeding you.”

“I’m fine.” Steve tried to protest.

Tommy rolled his eyes and tried to pull Steve to his feet as gently as possible. “Just go lie down. Keep the towel wrapped around your hand, I’ll warm up dinner.”

He made sure to keep an ear out for any sound of Steve stumbling or tripping as he made his way back to the couch. The last thing that asshole needed was another concussion on top of everything else.

Tommy smiled when he heard Steve sighing contently as he collapsed onto the soft cushions. He tried to speed through the uncanning and cooking process as quick and safely as possible, trying to make sure Steve ate before he fell asleep (which was a high possibility).

Tommy couldn’t control how Joyce or her kids treated his friend. But he would try his damn hardest to make sure Steve didn’t feel alone anymore.


 

The past few days have been a blur for Jonathan. Hospitals had a weird way of melting the days into one. And even after they got Joyce back home, time refused to return to its normal rhythm.

“I'm fine, really I can walk on my own.” His mom tried to assert as Hopper stubbornly half-guided half-carried her from her bedroom to the couch.

“You need to rest Joyce.” Hopper argued, draping a quilt over her lap. He'd attempted to tuck it all the way up under her chin like a child, but Joyce swatted him away.

“I rested plenty at the hospital.” Joyce responded, although she made no move to get up.

Jonathan could tell she was trying to hide just how winded traveling that short distance had made her. He’d felt so useless at the hospital, watching the nurses tend to his mom, while unable to do anything himself.

It had given him a lot of time to think. Which was usually a bad thing for him. Jonathan tended to get lost in his own head, or to hyper fixate on something until it churned up enough anxiety for him to start chewing on his cuticles again.

Something had been nagging at Jonathan ever since he first got back to Hawkins.

There was no way someone just happened to want to donate a liver the same day Joyce needed one and just happened to decide to give it to her. Plus, it had to be a comparable donor, preferably family. That's what Dr. Lewis had said.

Call him pessimistic, but those were way too many happy coincidences for Jonathan to accept them as anything other than intentional intervention.

The thing is, it couldn't have been family. His mom didn't have any siblings and Jonathan had been too far away to donate.

It also had to be someone who knew about Joyce's condition, and that list consisted mostly of kids or heavy smokers so that left Jonathan with his family's emergency contacts.

The problem was, aside from him and Hopper, there was only one other name on that list. And Jonathan refused to believe Lonnie Byers had anything to do with saving his mom's life.

“You're thinking about your dad again, aren't you?”

Jonathan started out of his thoughts and looked up at Nancy where she was minding a covered pot on the stove. He must have walked on autopilot into the kitchen without realizing it. God he needed sleep.

“You could call him.” Nancy continued, and Jonathan both loved and hated how easily she could read him. It probably didn't help that he was standing so close to the phone either.

He cleared his throat and moved towards his girlfriend. “What good would that do?”

“Well, would you feel better or worse if you knew for a fact he didn't have anything to do with your mom's recovery?”

Jonathan wrapped his arms around Nancy from behind and burrowed his nose in the crook of her neck. He'd been relieved at how easy it'd been for them to fall back in step with each other.

He made a non-committal noise but nodded against her shoulder.

Nancy sighed and rested her hands on top of his around her waist. “Then you should do it. At least then that's one question answered.”

She was right. She almost always way. Lately Jonathan's mind felt like a room with far too many open doors. If he could close just one, then maybe the questions buzzing in his ears would dim just a little.

Hesitantly, Jonathan untangled himself from Nancy's warm comforting embrace and reached for the phone.

He heard Nancy busy herself with preparing dinner, but he knew she'd be listening.

As he dialed, a part of Jonathan was annoyed that he still had the number memorized. The phone rang for so long he considered hanging up. But right when he was about to do just that, a gravelly voice picked up on the other end.

“Hello?”

Jonathan took a deep breath. “Lonnie?”

There was a shifting on the other end. “Jonathan? What are you calling for?” Lonnie's voice sounded slurred as if he'd been drinking. Perfect.

“Christ don't tell me you guys lost Will again.”

A normal parent would be genuinely concerned. But there was a tinge of annoyance, and even accusation to Lonnie's tone.

Jonathan stared into the middle distance, trying to separate himself from this conversation. “Did the hospital call you about mom?”

“Joyce? Yeah. Some nurse called about some shit going on with her liver.”

Anger blossomed in Jonathan's chest and rose up his throat, threatening to choke him. At the very least Lonnie could pretend to be concerned. “She was dying, and she needed a donor. Someone compatible.”

“So what is this? You calling to bitch about how you had to give your mom a liver because your old man couldn't step up? I couldn't have donated. Joyce and I don't have the same DNA dumbass.”

Jonathan was this close hanging up. He didn't have to take this kind of treatment anymore. Lonnie's been out of their lives for years and if he thinks he can just talk like that…

But this wasn't about him. It was about Joyce.

Jonathan closed his eyes and counted to ten. He just needed to know for sure.

Nancy had stopped moving behind him.

“I didn't donate. Someone else did. Did…” Jonathan knew the answer already. Knew that his dad didn't give a shit about Joyce, or any of them for that matter. But this was his only lead, so he had to ask. He had to close that door. “Do you know anything about the anonymous donor?”

There was silence on the other line. For a moment he thought Lonnie had hung up.

But then, Jonathan heard a scoff. Like Lonnie couldn't believe himself. “Nah kid, I had nothing to do with any of that. Why don't you ask your brother?”

The sound of the dial tone told Jonathan Lonnie had actually hung up this time. He should have felt mad. Should have been absolutely livid that Lonnie got to hang up on him when that's what Jonathan had been itching to do since the second he heard that man's voice.

Except he was far too stuck on his dad's final words to be anything other than confused.

Instead of closing a door, the phone call seemed to have blown open ten more.

“Jonathan?” Nancy was at his side. He hadn't even noticed when that happened.

Why don't you ask your brother

What did Lonnie mean by that?  

Nancy’s hand squeezed his arm. “Jonathan.”

“I’m fine.” He said, even though they both knew that wasn’t quite true. “He didn’t know anything. He said…”

Nancy waited patiently for him to continue.

“Lonnie said I should ask my brother.”

“Will?” Nancy’s face scrunched up in confusion. “Did he say why Will--?”

Jonathan shook his head as he returned the phone to the receiver. “He’s just trying to mess with me. He hasn’t been around for years, what does he know.”

He felt stupid for even calling Lonnie. Did he actually think it would end any other way besides frustration? That was kind of a staple of his parenting technique.

It just seemed like the only thing Jonathan could do right now.

“I’m sorry.” Nancy rubbed his arm thoughtfully. “You know, we can always try and do some digging at the hospital. See if anything in public records might point us anywhere?”

Jonathan smiled. Of course Nancy would offer to sleuth around to make him feel better. Any typical or legal boundaries seemed to disappear once she put her mind to something.

“Let’s save the Nancy Drew work for after dinner at least.” He joked, wrapping an arm around her waist and pulling her close.

At first Nancy seemed to pout, which Jonathan almost couldn’t resist. He knew this was how she tried to be helpful. Nancy wasn’t the type to just sit around and wait for things to get better. She needed to move, to take action. It was one of the best things about her.

Jonathan couldn’t speed up his mom’s recovery. But he could try and find the person that helped them. And if anyone was going to help him, it would be Nancy.


 

Tommy woke to the sound of whimpering. For a moment he remained motionless, curled at an awkward angle on the Harrington's sofa chair.

When had he fallen asleep?

Another weak noise sent him sluggishly sliding from the chair and stumbling across the dark room in search of Steve, sleep still clinging to his limbs.

“Steve?”

He only got another whimper in answer.

There was a good chance he was still asleep. Steve did have the tendency to talk in his sleep. Tommy used to joke that not even unconsciousness could shut him up, but now he wondered if it stemmed from the fact that no one really listened to Steve while he was awake.

Tommy finally reached the couch and sat down next to Steve's barely distinguishable outline.

“Steve?” He whispered again, hoping to coax his friend awake.

Steve didn’t respond. As Tommy's eyes continued to adjust to the dark, he began to make out more details. Steve was curled in a tight ball with the blankets kicked down to his feet.

Tommy reached out. “Are you okay?”

Warning signs began to sound in his head as Tommy felt how hot Steve's skin was.

That wasn't a good sign.

In a flurry, Tommy scrambled to his feet and fumbled with the reading lamp next to the couch. As the lamp dimly illuminated the area, Tommy's panic rose when he saw the sheen of sweat that seemed to cover Steve’s whole body.

“Mmph… Tommy?” Steve slurred out, his eyes barely opening.

His whole body shivered. How could Steve feel cold if he felt like a furnace under Tommy’s hand?

“Yeah it’s me buddy.” Tommy pushed sweat-soaked hair out of Steve’s face and grew even more concerned when his forehead felt somehow hotter than the rest of his body.

“I don’t feel so good.” Steve slurred out.

This was definitely not a good sign.

“Hang on buddy…” Tommy tripped over to the phone, frantically digging Dr. Martin's card out of his back pocket. He took a gamble and tried the work phone first.

“This is Doctor William Martin.” A tired voice answered.

Thank god. Tommy dropped the business card in relief.

“Doctor Martin it's Tommy, Steve's friend? He was sent home today after donating a liver about a week ago?” Tommy sped along as fast as possible, hoping to trigger the doctor's memory.

“Yes, yes,” the exhaustion had just about completely evaporated from the older man's voice. “Is everything alright?”

Tommy looked back to the couch. Steve's chest was rising and falling with every raspy unsteady breath. “Steve's burning up. I don't know what happened, he was fine this morning but--”

“How long has he been feverish?”

“I don't know, I woke up to check on him and found him like that. He's in pretty bad shape.”

“Is he lucid?”

“Kinda? He talked a little, but I don’t know-”

As if on cue, Tommy heard a small moan.

“...hurts.” Steve whispered from across the room.

“He just talked.” Tommy reported. “He said it hurts.”

Dr. Martin seemed to relax just a little with that news. At least he was conscious.

“Ask him what hurts.”

Tommy set the phone down and ran back to Steve.

“Buddy? The doctor wants to know where your hurting.”

Slowly, as if every movement caused him pain, Steve pointed to chest.

Tommy ran back to the phone. “His chest.”

“How's his breathing?”

“Bad doc.” Tommy didn't even need to pause and think about that one. “Sounds raspy and rattily.”

“Damn.” There was movement on the other end of the phone. “Tommy, Steve needs to come back to the hospital as soon as possible.”

Tommy looked across the room and felt the urge to rest a hand on Steve's arm, as if afraid his friend might disappear at any moment. “What’s wrong?”

There was more movement, as if Dr. Martin was writing something down.

“It sounds like Steve is exhibiting symptoms for pneumonia.”

Tommy wanted to ask what had happened. How could Steve’s health have deteriorated so quickly? What were they going to do to make him better?

But before he could verbalize any of that, Steve started coughing. It was the kind of cough that shook his whole body and sounded like it hurt. The kind that children usually cried over and only mothers could sooth.

Tommy hung up the phone and returned to Steve's side, rubbing Steve’s back and trying to keep him steady.

Steve wasn’t a child anymore, but Tommy could still see tears of pain and exertion trailing down the sides of his face. But there was no mother around to make any of this better.

Just Tommy.

And he was suddenly hit with how completely unjust it all was.

Steve didn’t deserve to cry and writhe in pain alone like this.

He deserved a family that didn’t ignore his existence.

A family that loved him and would never reject him.

And if Steve was too frightened to ask for that himself, then Tommy would.

Because that’s the kind of friend Steve needed right now.

“Hang on buddy,” Tommy continued to rub Steve's back until the coughing died down, all the while compiling a list of stuff to bring and steps to take to get to the hospital as soon as possible.

Before things got any worse.

Chapter Text

2 Days Later...

Joyce winced as she pulled up her jeans. Most of the pain from the surgery had faded to a dull ache, but occasionally it would sneak up on her.

She paused as she was pulling down her shirt and stared at her new scar. It was a curved bow of stitches swooping under her ribs, parallel to the older crescent scar from her C-section.

It was a morbidly ironic metaphor, a reminder of the cycle of things lost and given.

Not for the first time, Joyce wondered who the anonymous donor had been, and if they knew how grateful she was for them.

She could have died. She would have died.

Joyce would have missed Will graduating high school, Jonathan getting married, every important milestone in her kids’ lives, all over a stupid mistake.

She should have reached out to Hopper, asked for help from the people who proved time and time again that they had her back. But she thought she could handle it.

What was a little pain or stress in comparison to the trauma they had all experienced in the past few years?

Joyce tugged the shirt down over the rest of her stomach and finished getting ready.

It wasn't about what you think you can handle. What mattered was you didn't have to handle it alone.

Hadn't she told Jonathan that exact same thing when Will first went missing?

Joyce exited her room, tugging on a jacket and startling Hopper in the process.

“Were you waiting out here for me?”

Hopper fumbled trying to recover his casual exterior. “Just wanted to be here in case you needed something.”

Joyce sighed, but she couldn't be mad. “I'm fine. I've tied my shoes plenty of times in my life without help thank you very much.”

She smiled before resting a hand on his arm. “Really Hop, you have to stop worrying about me.”

He relaxed under her hand, and that familiar spark reappeared in his eyes. “I would, but I don't know what I'd do with all that free time on my hands.”

“Your job maybe?” Joyce bounced back, letting him lead her into the living room to grab her bag. “Honestly, how much time have you taken off work to be here?”

Hopper shrugged, glancing upwards as if calculating the minutes. “Mmm, enough for Callahan to complain but not enough for Flo to start scolding, so I think I'm good. Looks like you're stuck with me.”

“No one is ever stuck with you.” Joyce chided.

He had been her rock ever since Will had first gone missing. Remaining at her side, trusting and believing her when the rest of the town, her own husband, thought she was crazy.

Now she didn't know what she'd do without him. And that was a little scary. Because you can love someone will all your heart and still run the chance of losing them.

Joyce had lost a lot. And sometimes she wished life would give just a little back.

“Come on,” Hopper helped guide her to the front door. “We’re gonna be late for your checkup.”

“It’s noon Hop. My appointment isn’t for another hour.” Joyce complained, but followed him to his car, albeit at a much slower pace. The doctors hadn’t mentioned how annoying it would be to walk during recovery when your top speed was a lazy shuffle.

“Exactly. I figure with the pace you’re going we should only be about fifteen minutes late.”

Joyce rolled her eyes. She was still on the first step of the front porch.  “This would go a little faster if you carried me.”

She then had to quickly wave Hopper away when he tried to swoop in and do just that. “Stop it, I can handle walking myself to a car.”

Jim relented, but kept one hand under Joyce’s elbow in case she needed something to lean on.

“Jonathan and Nancy offered to pick you up from the hospital. I figure I can stay with you until they get there.”

Joyce looked up incredulously at the Chief of Police. “Are you planning on staying during the whole checkup? Doctor Martin said it’d take almost all day.”

Again, Jim shrugged. “Just want to be there for you in case you need anything.”

She almost melted into his side at that. This whole ordeal scared Hopper more than he was letting on, and she knew he’d do anything for her. But Joyce wasn’t made of glass, and they had to get back to living their normal lives again.

“I wouldn’t want you to do that Jim. But if you do want to help, could you pick Will up from school?”

Hopper looked like he’d want nothing more than to stay at her side, but he nodded. “Sure, I have some things to check up on anyway. The kids are still hounding me about Steve.”

Joyce frowned in concern as Hopper helped her into the car. “Has he still not shown up?”

She’s been admittedly out of the loop ever since the surgery, but from what Hopper and the kids had said in passing, Dustin was about ready to tear Hawkins apart looking for their friend.

Hopper nodded as he climbed into his own seat and turned the key in the ignition. “Dustin wants to file a missing person’s report, but that’s kind of hard to do when Steve’s parents keep shutting me down. I was going to go over there today and try again.”

The last time Joyce remembered seeing the Harringtons together was at Hawkins Middle School’s open house. The parents were expected to meet the teachers and see their children’s academic progress.

It was during one of the periods where she and Lonnie were still living together, but things were tense, so Joyce had gone alone. She remembered spotting them at the art wall where Steve was excitedly showing them some of the paintings he’d made in class. Sunsets and rivers, tigers and elephants, and brightly colored sunflowers. His parents seemed to look right through them, and Joyce couldn’t tell if Steve didn’t notice or if he was just trying to put on a brave face in front of his teachers.

She’d always regretted not going over and saying hello, maybe telling Steve how pretty his drawings were, but Joyce had a feeling that his parents wouldn’t appreciate the intrusion. They always seemed so closed off. Which was odd because Joyce remembered Julia being a lot of fun in high school. All laughs and big plans for the future.

Joyce was pulled from her thoughts when Hopper turned up the radio and began driving into town.

“Whatcha thinking about?” Jim’s deep voice spoke softly.

“Nothing,” Joyce shook her head. “It’s just funny how things work out.”


 

Hopper walked Joyce to Dr. Martin’s office before she shooed him away.

He’d waited in the parking lot for almost an hour, reluctant to leave, just in case something happened. He wanted to be there. He had to be there.

It had never occurred to Hopper that he might lose Joyce the same way he’d lost Sarah. But now that that possibility struck him, it had been a lot harder to sleep at night.

But he knew Joyce would chew him out for thinking like that, the same way she’d scold him if she found him waiting in his car right now.

He shifted gears into Drive and rolled out of the hospital parking lot.

One of the benefits of a small town was that nothing was too far away. In a little under twenty minutes he was back at the Harrington residence.

He tried knocking twice before walking around the back.

Warning bells began to sound in Hopper’s head when he found the back door slightly ajar.

“Anyone home?”

No answer.

He slid the door the rest of the way open and cautiously stepped into the house.

There were dishes in the sink that looked new, and upon further investigation Hopper noticed a note from Julia saying she and Arthur were away.

“Steve? Are you here?” Hopper called again, but still got no response.

A few lights were on, and as Hopper entered the living room he noticed the couch had been made into a bed.

Someone had been here recently.

Movement from upstairs caught Hopper’s attention. His hand instinctively went for his gun until he saw it was just a young woman descending the stairs.

She was probably around Steve’s age, wearing a denim jacket with a plaid shirt tied around her high waisted jeans. She had bulky headphones covering her ears and a book tucked under one arm.

The minute her eyes landed on Hopper, she froze.

“Who are you?” She slid her headphones to around her neck, staring at Hopper like he was the home invader here.

“I was going to ask you the same question. What are doing here?”

“I had a key.” She held up the backdoor key as evidence. “Did someone report a break-in?”

“No, I-”

“So what are you doing here?”

Hopper was usually a good judge of character. He could tell that, on a scale of ‘thank you for your service officer’ to ‘I don’t have to tell you anything,’ this girl was more closely aligned to ‘fuck the police.’

So, he changed tactics.

“I’m a friend of Steve.”

For a moment, her demeanor softened. Then the walls went back up.

“How do you know Steve?”

Hopper tried to assume a non-threatening stance. “He babysits my kid and some of her friends.”

The girl squinted at Hopper’s face and took a tentative step down the stairs.

“You’re Jane’s dad.”

Hopper opened his mouth then shut it again. Well that was a surprise. “Yeah, how did you-”

“She’s looks like you when she’s grumpy. She and her friends visit Steve at work all the time.”

The tension uncoiled in Hopper’s stomach just a little. He always got more than a little suspicious when people he didn’t know talked about Jane. He couldn’t help it.

“I don't remember seeing you when I stopped by Scoops.” Hopper had gone looking for Steve at work after talking to Julia the first time. The only kid behind the counter was a long-haired young man who looked like he wanted to do anything besides serve ice cream.

“Scoops does have more than two employees you know.” She looked at Hopper like there was a good chance that thought hadn't crossed his mind.

“So, you are…” Hopper cursed himself for not paying more attention when Steve or the kids mentioned his coworkers.

“Robin.” The girl stepped into the living room and stared up at Hopper, scrutinizing him. “You looking for Steve too?”

Hopper looked around the space. “Has he not been coming into work?”

“Nope. It’s been a while too. At first I thought he was sick or something but when I came over, he wasn’t here.”

Hopper turned back to Robin and gestured to the book she was holding. “What’s that?”

Robin followed his gaze and at first tried to hide it from view, but after a moment she rolled her eyes and held out one of Steve's old yearbooks. “I was just taking it for later.”

Hopper took the yearbook from her hand and raised an eyebrow in confusion. “Why?”

The young woman gave an exasperated sigh and looked around the room. Hopper distractedly wondered if this is what he had in store when Jane reached her teen years.

“Last month Steve started a promotion at Scoops where he promised customers a ten percent discount if they sang a Wham! song to the hostess.” She pointed at herself.

Hopper blinked. “What’s wrong with that?”

“Have you ever listened to Wham?” Robin cocked an eyebrow.

Hopper had absolutely no idea what kids these days were listening to, but he got the sense that Wham! was probably not this girl’s scene.

When he didn’t answer, Robin rolled her eyes again and continued.

“After about the fifties crappy rendition of that Before You Go-Go song, I swore I’d get him back.” She took back the yearbook and flipped to a bookmarked page. “I figured what better way than to hang an ‘Employee of the Month’ photo in the shop.”

Hopper looked at the image of a prepubescent Steve. It was like looking at a caricature of the young man he’d grown familiar with. Without a grain of exaggeration, Hopper was pretty sure the kid was 75% unruly hair. And the other 25% was comically large brown eyes. It was the kind of dopey photo that teenagers would sooner burn or bury in the backyard than display publicly.

Hopper looked back at Robin. “What’d stop him from just taking the photo down?”

“Super gluing the frame to the wall.” She shrugged as if it were obvious.

Hopper looked away with a smile. He had to admit, it was a pretty good plan. Mildly embarrassing instead of utterly humiliating. Something that you could easily laugh off.

A flash of white on the floor caught Hopper’s eye. Crouching down, he picked up a discarded business card with Dr. Martin’s contact information printed on one side and his home phone written on the other.

That was weird.

“Are you sure Steve didn’t call in sick?” Hopper looked over his shoulder back at Robin.

She shook her head, her cool demeanor fractured with concern. “You don’t think something… bad happened to him, do you?”

He wanted to say that she had nothing to worry about. That Steve was fine and had a perfectly good reason for going AWOL on them.

The problem was, that wasn’t like Steve at all. And the line ‘he’s probably just blowing off steam’ that Hopper kept feeding himself got staler with every passing day.

He almost didn’t notice the sound of a grandfather clock ringing in a distant hallway until the third and final chime.

“Shit,” Hopper looked at his watch. How was it already three o’clock? Will was getting out of school. “I need to go.”

As he turned to leave, a soft nervous voice called him. “Chief?”

Hopper turned back to Robin. She was looking down, picking at a frayed corner of Steve’s yearbook. “Steve’s okay, right?”

Hopper swallowed hard, Dr. Martin’s business card and a slew of unanswered questions resting heavy on his mind.

“Yeah Robin. He’s going to be fine.”


 

“You’re still showing up huh?” Steve smiled as Tommy walked into his hospital room.

Ever since he had been readmitted, Tommy had visited every day. When he didn't work, Tommy was there promptly when visiting hours began and would try and stay past 6pm when Heather typically shooed him out. When he did work, like today, Tommy would come over directly after the end of his shift smelling like fresh cut wood.

it had to be exhausting, and Steve was sure eventually the visits would stop. But so far he'd been proven wrong.

“Yeah well,” Tommy shrugged as he settled into the chair they both considered ‘his’ now. “you look kind of pathetic sitting all on your own like this so…”

Steve wanted to say something sarcastic in response, but he was too exhausted to really try.

Instead, he lazily flicked his heart monitor off his finger, sending it sailing and bouncing painlessly off Tommy's forehead.

“Ouch.” Tommy said, but only out of reflex as he handed the small device back to Steve.

The machines surrounding him beeped and screamed until the small piece of plastic was back around his finger. But not fast enough before Heather arrived, staring accusingly at Steve.

“What did we say about false alarms?” Her voice was stern, but there wasn't more annoyance than actual anger to her tone.

“They stop being funny after the second time.” Steve responded automatically.

Heather nodded. “That's right. Doctor Martin will be coming by in a few minutes to check up on you. Behave for him, please.”

“Yes ma'am.”

The two boys remained silent and repentant until Heather disappeared around the doorframe with a final suspicious stare.

After she was out of sight, Steve turned back to Tommy with a smile. “How was work?”

“Eh,” Tommy leaned back in his chair, “you see one two-by-four to seen em all.”

He had mentioned he got a job at the hardware store in town. Steve thought it suited him. Tommy always liked to use his hands, and shop was his favorite class in school.

“I saw Billy today. He asked about you.”

“Hargrove?” Steve scrunched up his nose in annoyance.

Tommy nodded, a teasing smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. “If I didn't know any better, I'd say he liked you.”

Steve scoffed, the action caused his to cough and wince.

“Yeah well,” He stretched out on the hospital bed, letting his shirt ride up to expose his midriff and gestured vaguely to himself, “who wouldn't want a piece of all this?”

Tommy snorted. Steve knew he looked terrible. He still hadn’t been able to shake his high fever and despite the hospital's best efforts, he'd lost a lot of weight since the surgery. After over a week in recovery, Steve felt like he was more sharp edges than human. But it was nice to make Tommy laugh again.

“Well,” Tommy raised the volume of his voice. “I can think of someone who'd want to see you…”

Before Steve had the chance to ask Tommy what he was doing, a blur of a lavender sweater and ginger blonde hair darted into the room.

“Steve you idiot!” Carol cried and wrapped her arms around him before he could even process what was happening.

His arms instinctively wrapped around her smaller build. “Carol?”

“Of course you doofus. Did you really think I wouldn't come?”

Steve winced as his body began to catch up to him again. Carol was squeezing his chest really tight.

“Tommy said you had class.” He offered before groaning. “Ow…”

Carol leapt back, eyes wide. “Sorry! I forgot you were…” she gestured to all of him.

Steve exhaled and squeezed his eyes shut before offering a shaky laugh. “It's okay. I'm really glad you're here.”

“Me too.” Carol relaxed into Tommy's lap. “I missed all of us being together.”

Steve fiddled with the hem of his t-shirt, distantly thankful Tommy had thought to bring him actual clothes. “About that,” his chest felt like it was rattling with every inhale. “I’m really sorry Carol. I’m sorry for yelling and running away, and I’m sorry for not calling either of you.”

Carol leaned her head against Tommy’s. “It’s okay. I’m sorry too. Tommy and I should have fought to keep you in our lives instead of just turning our backs.  How are you doing?”

As if on cue, Dr. Martin entered wearing his signature white lab coat. “Afternoon Steve, how are you feeling today?”

“I’m good.” Steve responded automatically.

He tried to sit up a little straighter as the doctor checked the various machines surrounding him. But the pneumonia seemed to drain the life right out of him and the best he could muster was slumping forward. He’d been nauseous ever since getting back to the hospital, and whatever they were feeding into his IV drip was making him feel tired all the time.

A quick survey of the room let Steve know that no one believed his answer. Not even Carol, and she just got here.

“How’re the chest pains?” Dr. Martin tried being more specific, probably hoping for a more honest answer.

Steve shrugged. “About the same. Maybe a little worse.”

Dr. Martin pulled out a stethoscope from his pocket and affixed it to his ears. As gently as possible, He pulled down Steve’s shirt, pressed the chest-piece to his skin, and listened.

Steve hissed as the cool metal touched his skin, but he didn’t flinch or move away. He was way too tired for that. Sometimes he could swear he didn’t feel the stethoscopes or IV needles at all anymore. During the nights there were even points he swore he was floating outside of himself, but Steve was pretty sure that was just a mix of fever dreams and the meds they were giving him. They were nice dreams though.

“Take a deep breath for me?”

Steve tried to inhale but immediately fell into a coughing fit. It felt like his lungs were trapped in his throat, and each hacking cough made his chest burn and jolt with pain.

Dr. Martin had a deep frown on his face as he retrieved a cup of water for Steve. His hand rested on Steve’s shoulder and gave it a thoughtful squeeze. “Have you been eating?”

Steve had mostly gotten his breathing under control again, but a cough would still occasionally escape.

“Trying to.” He wheezed.

The doctor’s frown deepened and pulled out his notepad. “Are you having a hard time keeping things down?”

Steve nodded and leaned back against the hospital bed.

“How often do you find yourself throwing up?”

“At least once a day.” Steve chanced a glance at Tommy and Carol.

Carol’s face was painted with concern. He could see years of veterinary school swirling behind her eyes, trying to apply the medical practices she’d learned to help explain why he wasn’t getting better.

Tommy looked worried too, but there was frustration laced along his tense jawline. While Carol was still getting used to seeing her friend like this, Tommy had already become a seasoned veteran.

“I'll see about making some changes to your meal plan. Hopefully we'll find you something you can keep down.” As Dr. Martin wrote something down on his notepad, his digital watch began to beep. He shut it off with a frown. “Darn, I’ve got another patient in a few minutes. I’ll have Heather play around with the antibiotics and you med dosage. I should be back in a few hours.”

A moment after Dr. Martin’s departure, Carol slid from Tommy’s lap to stand next to his bed.

“Steve…” She sounded so sad and worried. Like she was trying to soothe a hurt animal.

After a moment’s hesitation, she carefully slid onto the bed beside Steve, careful not to disturb his IV or accidentally cause him anymore pain. Instead, she leaned into his side, gently wrapped an arm around his waist, and held him.

“It’s going to be okay.” She said.

Steve had stiffened at first when Carol moved to sit next to him. But the minute she wrapped her arm around him, he found himself melting into her embrace. It had been so long since he felt like this.

Safe.

Probably since before he and Nancy broke up, and even then, he’d been plagued with nightmares of walls being torn open and Christmas lights flashing.

Safety was Tommy and Carol. His two constants that he thought he’d lost forever.

Steve rested his head atop Carol’s and closed his eyes, feeling sleep begin to tug at the corners of his consciousness.

“I’ll be right back.” Tommy whispered distractedly before disappearing down the hall. But Steve barely heard him.


 

“Doctor Martin? Hey doc!” Tommy called after the medical professional until the older man stopped his brisk pace.

“Yes Tommy, what can I help you with?”

Tommy stopped and rested his hands on his hip, a habit he’d picked up at the hardware store from watching more seasoned employees’ hands hang from their work belts.

“How is Steve doing? For real?”

The tired sigh he got in response wasn’t at all comforting.

“Honestly son? We’re doing all we can to make him better, but part of it is up to him.”

Tommy frowned. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Another sigh. “Listen, I’ve been practicing medicine for a long time. Longer than you’ve been alive. And one of the things I’ve come to learn is that if someone doesn’t have a reason to get better, sometimes they just won’t.”

At Tommy’s confused expression, Dr. Martin pinched the bridge of his nose. “You work at the hardware store, right? You got a gardening department? Sell any potted plants?”

“Yeah?”

The older man held out a hand in explanation. “Think of Steve like one of those plants. You water them, give them plenty of sunlight, maybe even some special soil to help them grow. But inevitably, a few of them don’t make it right?”

Tommy nodded slowly.

“Steve is at a very delicate phase in his recovery. One that neither you nor I can control. We’ve done all we can, taken care of him to the best of both our abilities, but in the end if Steve doesn’t have a reason to bloom, he’s just going to wither away. Nothing we can do about it.”

Tommy didn’t want to believe that. He couldn’t believe that. Steve was doing fine. He’d made it all the way back home and was trying so hard to get better. He wanted to get better. There had to be a mistake.

But then he remembered the voicemails. And how hopeless Steve sounded...

No, Tommy shook his head. You couldn’t actually die from a broken heart. That was just in fairytales. But maybe Dr. Martin was right that Steve was missing something he needed.

Like a family.

Dr. Martin reached out and patted Tommy’s shoulder with a sad smile.

“Now if you’ll excuse me, Mrs. Byers is waiting on me.”

At first the words barely registered. Tommy was too wrapped up in the thought of Steve just fading away like neglected flora. But then when Dr. Martin’s words finally settled, a white-hot rage pooled in the pit of his stomach.

Tommy turned and stared after the retreating doctor.

“Christ you’re a piece of work.”

Dr. Martin stopped in his tracks and turned; eyes wide in shock. “Excuse me?”

Tommy could feel his voice rise with every step he took after the physician. “You can really just tell me that Steve might not get better, and then you walk off to go take care of his mom? The one person that might actually be able to help here. And you’re cool with still keeping all this under wraps?”

Dr. Martin looked surprised at first, but then he glanced angrily around the empty hallway before trying to grab at Tommy’s elbow. “Keep your voice down-”

“No!” Tommy pulled his arm away, but he found himself lowering his volume to a threatening hiss. “What the hell happened to that Hippocratic Oath you assholes are always talking about on tv?”

“There are things you don’t understand.”

Tommy took a step back, shaking his head. He had to. Because he knew that if he stayed within reach of this doctor, he’d probably start shoving the older man around. And the last thing he needed was for Carol to bail him out of jail when they were supposed to be taking care of Steve.

“I understand that you, Mrs. Byers, and practically every other adult in this town thinks it’s okay to lie to Steve. To act like you care about him when it doesn’t even matter to you if he lives or dies.”

Dr. Martin held out an appeasing hand. “Tommy...”

Tommy didn’t care what the man had to say. He turned on his heal and stomped back down the hall to Steve’s room, trying to get his breathing under control so he didn’t upset his friend.

But when he got back, he found that he didn’t have to worry about that.

Steve was fast asleep, curled around Carol with an almost peaceful smile playing on his lips.

“You were kind of loud.” Carol whispered, her eyes steadily watching Tommy.

He lowered his head, embarrassed. “You heard?”

“Bits and pieces. Enough to understand why you were yelling.”

One of Carol’s hands absently wrapped around Steve’s boney hand, interlacing their fingers. The sleeping boy hummed contently in his sleep.

“What are we going to do?” She whispered into the quiet room.

Tommy looked at the two people he cared most about in this world. With a sigh he walked over to the bed, found a space on the mattress that wasn’t already taken, and stretched out on the other side of Steve. Careful not to disturb his friend, Tommy reached his hand around his sleeping form so he could hold both Carol’s and Steve’s hand.

For a moment, Tommy let himself believe that if the two of them held on tight enough, Steve couldn’t disappear.

He didn’t know what they were going to do.

But he did know that they weren’t losing Steve without a fight.


 

“Whatcha working on kid?”

Hopper watched Will look up from his homework.

The youngest Byers blinked a few times, his eyes taking a moment to focus and come back from what he was reading. “Biology. Mrs. Datton wants us to do a family tree.”

“That sounds fun.” He lied. It had been a while since Hopper had been in high school, but he remembered science not being one of his favorite classes. The only exception being that one week where their teacher took the entire class to stargaze at night. Hopper had always loved the stars.

Will shrugged. “It’s okay. I was just looking for pictures to use that mom won't mind me cutting up.

The table was covered with photo albums going back to before Jonathan was even born. And every single one of them was painstakingly organized and preserved out of love.

Joyce wouldn't want to lose a single picture.

“Hm, well if you want, you can always pick a few and we can make copies of them at the station.”

Will looked up with excited and hopeful eyes. “Really?”

“Yeah, why not.” Hopper smiled as Will began digging through pictures, looking for the best ones for his project.

An old worn spine caught Hopper's eye. Joyce's yearbook.

“You looked through this one yet?”

Will glanced up from his work and shook his head. “Uh-uh.”

Hopper gently lifted the book and let it open on its own, wanting to see which pages Joyce visited most.

A warm giddy feeling filled Hopper's chest when he found it was his senior photo. He'd completely forgotten he had a ponytail back then. Or more accurately, he’d blocked out that memory. There were some doodles around the image that only high a school girl could make. Little hearts and song lyrics.

Hopper had kept his yearbook in perfect condition. Not because he didn't care, but because he couldn't stand the thought of damaging Joyce's photo.

He turned at the feeling of someone standing close to him. Will had been looking over his arm at the picture. Now, he was looking up at Hopper with a smile that looked like it was fighting hard not to turn into an outright laugh.

Hopper flipped the page. “Laugh it up kid. We'll see who's laughing when that bowl cut goes out of style.”

Will turned his attention back to the pages, but his smile didn't falter.

“You want something to gawk at,” Hopper flipped through a few pages until he got to the group photos. “Check this out.”

Will's glanced over the page until he spotted Joyce. His eyes widened. “Whoa! Mom’s hair!”

“Yeah,” Hopper smiled proudly at the page, “her home-ec teacher made a comment about how only respectable girls had long hair. Joyce took kitchen scissors right then and there and just…”

He mimed cutting with scissors. “Her mom nearly blew a gasket, but that's just how Joyce was.”

For months afterward, she had cropped hair that was shorter than most of the boys in school. Hopper liked to tease her that he had enough hair for the both of them combined.

“How long did she keep it like that?” Will was still staring at the photo.

“Not long.” Hopper shrugged and began flipping through the pages again. “She'd cut it all off at the start of the school year, and it slowly grew back. There should be a photo at the end of the year…”

Hopper turned to the back of the book where most of the candids were. He knew there was a great picture of her. It had been one of his favorites because Joyce had been wearing a leather jacket at the time. He remembered the day she wore it to school, a black-clad ethereal thing amidst a sea of pink sweaters and long skirts.

“She kind of looked like a boy when her hair was short.” Will said, and Hopper hoped to god Joyce wouldn’t be too mad that her sophomore haircut would be forever immortalized in Will’s biology homework.

“That’s what some of the other kids said back then. I think she looked…”

Hopper could feel Will waiting for him to finish, but whatever he was going to say felt like a distant memory completely erased by the photo in front of him.

It was just like he’d remembered it. Joyce, in that leather jacket, looking at something out of frame with a cocked eyebrow and a toothy half-smile. Her hair came just below her ears and framed her face like a thick dark halo.

That was what had stopped Hopper short. He’d seen that wild hair before. He’d poked fun at its inability to follow the laws of gravity on more than one occasion.

Hopper stared at the photo of Joyce and couldn’t help but see Steve.

“Hopper?” Will nudged him.

But Hopper was too busy scrutinizing the photo now, searching for other similarities. Trying to convince himself that this wasn’t just a crazy coincidence.

They had the same eyebrows, same mouth, same bright eyes…

The longer Hopper looked the surer he became.

Steve looked so much like Joyce he could easily be mistaken for her son.

Then it hit him.

Nobody had seen Steve since Joyce first got sick. He was there when the doctor said they needed a donor with a biological connection to Joyce. It would take weeks for someone to recover from an organ donation, which would explain Steve’s disappearance.

But there had to be something else. If Steve was Joyce’s kid, why was he raised by the Harrington’s? Why hadn’t she mentioned him before?

And if Steve was the anonymous donor then where was he right now?

Dr. Martin’s business card sat heavy in his pocket, a piece to the puzzle that seemed to offer more questions than answers. And none of them good.

“Come on.” Hopper snapped the yearbook closed and headed for the front door.

He could hear Will’s surprised shuffle trying to keep up with him. “Where are we going?”

“The hospital.”


 

“Oh…” Nancy breathed as she and Jonathan entered the public records room.

They’d gotten to the hospital early to do some digging. But Jonathan didn’t think either of them anticipated how difficult that task might be.

The room was filled with wall to wall filing cabinets, the organizing labels on each drawer had faded years ago, with a single collapsible table in the center of the space. Jonathan was struck with the notion that this whole filing system was based entirely on the memory of the ancient looking woman who’d directed them here.

“The system is alphabetical,” Gladys, the old woman began. “And then continues by year.”

“Where does it begin?” Jonathan asked, trying to find a natural starting point in the large darkly lit room.

Gladys sighed, and Jonathan was genuinely worried the effort would topple her over.

“Counter clockwise.” She croaked and pointed to a filing cabinet on the right side of the room. “Give it time and you’ll get the hang of it.”

With that, Gladys shuffled out of the room with another huffed sigh.

“How old do you think she is?” Jonathan whispered, watching to make sure the older woman didn’t trip as she disappeared out of sight.

“I don’t know,” Nancy pulled open a drawer in the first cabinet. “But if I live that long I think I want to be just like her.”

Jonathan smiled, and moved to stand next to Nancy. “You looking forward to knitting, playing bridge, and poor eyesight?”

Nancy didn’t look up. “No, I’m just looking forward to a time when my biggest problem is nosy kids wanting to look at some old dusty files.”

He couldn’t argue with that. Ever since Will disappeared it seemed like Hawkins had been plagued by mystery, corruption, and monsters.

The second he’d begin to think they could finally relax, some other travesty would befall their group.

“I think I see what Gladys meant.” Nancy muses, running her fingers along the tabbed files.

“It’s alphabetical so all the family files are together, but then it follows their birth years so you can track family trees. It’s actually kind of brilliant.”

“So how does that help us?” Jonathan’s brow furrowed.

“Well,” Nancy tilted her head to the side. “We know the donor has to be at least eighteen. So we can ignore the files that started before then.”

“And?” Jonathan looked up expectantly.

Nancy began leafing through the tabs, pulling out each individual file to check the birth years. “And that’s all we have to go with. Only family members can see the full patient files so we’re just going to have to check blood types and which people opted to be an organ donor and seen if any of them have a connection to your mom.”

Jonathan looked at all the filing cabinets with rising horror. They could be here all day.

“We should have brought music or something.” He muttered to himself.

“We can bring my cassette player when we come back tomorrow. Oh! Here’s one.” Nancy handed Jonathan an old file envelope.

After a couple hours they’d only made it through three filing cabinets out of the seemingly never-ending metallic forest that inhabited the records room.

They took turns between searching for the right files and looking through the piles they’d already collected.

“What about Mr. Clark?” Nancy looked up, her head resting in her hand as she stared over an open file.

Jonathan paused browsing through a cabinet drawer. “Will’s teacher?”

Nancy nodded and yawned. “He qualifies.”

There was a surprisingly large about of people who could possibly have donated. But none of them felt right to Jonathan. He kept expecting some kind of gut reaction, like he’d know who their donor was if they just came across the right file.

“I don’t think so.” Jonathan sighed, closing the drawer and checking his watch. “We should probably start cleaning up. Mom’s going to be ready in a half hour.”

Nancy nodded and rubbed at her eyes, trying to stifle another yawn. “How about I put everything away and you go get us some food. The cafeteria is still open after visiting hours right?”

“I don’t know.” Jonathan shrugged his jacket back on. “Are you sure? I can help...”

Nancy brushed away the offer with a shooing gesture as she stood. “This won’t take long. Besides, I’m starving.”

“Okay.” Jonathan stuffed his hands in his pockets and turned to leave.

“Jonathan.”

He turned back to his girlfriend.

“We’re going to find them. However long it takes.”

He smiled gratefully, knowing she meant it with every fiber of her being. “Thank you Nancy.”

It took him awhile to find the cafeteria. Jonathan was a little too scared of Gladys to ask her, so he had to wait until he came across another help desk to ask for directions.

The cafeteria was closing in a few minutes at the end of visiting hours, so he tried to order some food as quick as possible.

Jonathan slumped down at a table as he waited for their food to be prepared. He absently chewed on one of his cuticles, lost in thought.

Should he and Nancy even keep searching the records room? It could take them weeks to go through all the files. He had to get back to NYU soon. Did he really want to waste time searching when he could be spending it with his family?

Nancy would probably keep trying to look on her own just because she knew it meant something to him. But she shouldn’t have to.

Jonathan had his family. He had Nancy. He didn’t need anything more.

The sound of approaching footsteps drew Jonathan’s eyes up to the entrance.

Out of all the people he expected to see walking into the hospital cafeteria, Tommy Hill wasn’t one of them.

Jonathan stood as Tommy froze in his steps. The two stared at each other in surprise.

After a moment Tommy sighed and shook his head before walking over to the cashier to place an order, completely ignoring Jonathan.

If they were still in high school, Jonathan would have been relieved. But they weren’t, and this wasn’t like running into an old classmate at the grocery store. You don’t just happen to show up at the hospital.

Jonathan approached, his first few steps hesitant and shaky until he was almost within arm’s reach. “Tommy?”

The other boy lazily turned and stared at Jonathan, his eyes slightly hooded in annoyance. “What is it Byers?”

Jonathan hadn’t really thought about what he was going to say.

“Is Carol sick?” He knew that was a dumb question the minute it passed his lips.

Tommy scoffed and looked away. “Nah Byers, I’m just here for the five-star cuisine.”

Jonathan was usually pretty good at reading people. He saw what others missed or tried to hide away.

And right now, beneath all that biting sarcasm, Tommy was scared.

He could see it in the day-old clothes and bags under Tommy’s eyes, and the way he kept looking at the menu board just so he had something to do.

Someone close to Tommy was in trouble and there was nothing he could do about it.

Jonathan knew the feeling.

The thing was, Tommy didn’t seem to have a lot of friends in high school. In fact, the only people he regularly hung out with was Steve and Carol, but he stopped hanging out with Steve after Nancy entered the picture.

…Right?

Admittedly, Jonathan hadn’t kept very close tabs on Steve. He dropped of the kids and occasionally drove Will places, but he seemed to be trying to give Jonathan and Nancy space. And Jonathan didn’t fight against it.

He and Steve hadn’t really been close. If they saw each other it was either in group settings or when the world was ending.

In fact, the only time Jonathan thought he’d ever been alone with Steve was when they were little, and Joyce had read them stories until they’d almost fallen asleep.

It’d felt so natural, so right, to have Steve there. Even at that young age, Jonathan felt a kind of kindred connection. He thought he’d found a friend. Maybe even something like a brother. That is until Lonnie had shown up and driven him away.

After that, it felt like Steve was avoiding him. And even now when they spoke, there was a halting awkwardness that seemed to permeate all their interactions. It always felt like Steve wanted to say so much but it was just stuck in his throat.

And then there it was. That gut feeling.

Steve, who hadn’t been seen since before the surgery. He was old enough. He knew Joyce needed a liver. Why hadn’t Jonathan even considered Steve?

But the doctors had said it was best if a family member could donate.

Why don’t you ask your brother.

Lonnie’s words rang in Jonathan’s ears as he stared at Tommy. The idea was almost too crazy, but he had to ask.

“What are you doing here?” Jonathan spoke in a small voice, almost anticipating the answer.


 

Tommy stared long and hard at Jonathan Byers and… Fuck it. Just fuck it. Steve was always the considerate and kind one in their trio, and Tommy wasn’t about to start playing that role now.

“Carol and I are Steve’s emergency contacts.”

Tommy almost reveled in the surge of emotions that played across Jonathan’s face.

Shock. Something was wrong with Steve.

Confusion. Why were Tommy and Carol his contacts instead of his family, or one of the party?

Realization. Steve was in the hospital because of something to do with Joyce.

Took him long enough.

“Oh, does that hurt?” Tommy cocked his head. “Does it hurt that some asshole knew more about your ‘friend’ than you did?”

Jonathan took a step back, and Tommy followed him.

“Guess what? You don’t get to be upset if you didn’t know Steve was hurt to begin with. Do you wanna know what happened?”

The other boy opened his mouth as if to answer but Tommy didn’t give him a chance.

“I got called to the hospital last week because Steve flatlined on an operating table while donating his liver. And you’re never gonna guess who he was giving it to…”

Jonathan’s eyes widened. He kept walking backwards until the back of his legs bumped into a table chair. Tommy wanted so badly to push him into the seat, but he knew that’s not what Steve would want, and someone had to look out for his wishes.

“Do you have any idea how scared he’s been? How desperate he is for you assholes to treat him like family? Because he knows, Byers. He knows you’re his family and he’d rather donate a fucking liver than risk asking you or your mom for anything.”

Jonathan fell back into the seat on his own. “Steve’s…?”

“Steve’s holding on by a thread right now. He’s sick and he’s not getting better. Meanwhile you and your family get to go on living your happy little lives without even acknowledging what he’s done for you!”

“Why didn’t…?” Jonathan looked up at Tommy, eyes wide and glassy. “I need to see him.”

He stood and started to head for the exit before Tommy reached out and stopped him.

“Not so fast Byers.”

“Get off me!” Jonathan yanked his arm free. “He’s my brother I need… I want to talk to him.”

“Wow.” Tommy tilted his head back. “Suddenly he’s your brother.”

“I didn’t know that until now!” Jonathan snapped back.

Tommy scrutinized the other man.

Byers looked unsettled. Reeling and trying to recover. Like how Steve would look when a teacher would spring a pop quiz on the class.

Jonathan genuinely didn’t know. Steve had never been sure of Joyce told them about him. Looks like he finally had his answer.

“Well,” Tommy gestured over Byers’ shoulder. “I hate to break it to you, but visiting hours are over.”

Jonathan turned and stared at the clock in dismay before he turned back and glared at Tommy. “I’ll come back tomorrow. You can’t stop me.”

“You’re right.” Tommy nodded. “But before you do, I want you to think long and hard about what you’re gonna say to him. He’s already been through enough heartache. He won’t survive anymore.”

Tommy hesitated for a moment before turning and walking away, leaving Byers with his thoughts. He knew he’d just spilled Steve’s biggest secret. The one he’d work so hard to keep hidden.

But Tommy was tired of waiting for that family to do the right thing. Sometimes you just had to give them a little push.


 

Jonathan watched Tommy’s departing frame in shock.

He slowly fell back into his chair and stared at the tiled floor.

Steve was his brother. And not only that, he’d saved their mom’s life. And none of them knew.

But… His mom must have known. She had to know Steve was her son. Why hadn’t she said anything?

“Jonathan?”

Jonathan looked up to where Tommy was standing in the doorframe. He was looking down at his shoes, worrying his lip between his teeth.

“If Joyce doesn’t want to talk to Steve, if she doesn’t want to treat him like her son… Don’t visit him. Steve won’t be able to handle that rejection. Not right now.”

Without another word, Tommy was gone.

Jonathan turned his gaze back to the ground. He distantly heard the cashier call that his order was ready. But he couldn’t move.

He had so many unanswered questions and he didn’t know where to start.

His mom didn’t have a cruel bone in her body. How could Tommy think she’d reject Steve?

Then again, she’d never told them about Steve.

The only answer Jonathan could come up with that even remotely made sense was that his mom couldn’t have known.

But how could she not have known? And then how did Steve know?

Why was he raised by the Harrington’s?

As questions continued to cloud Jonathan’s mind, the sound of fast approaching footsteps met his ears.

“Hey!” Nancy walked quickly to Jonathan’s side. “You are not going to believe who I saw in the lobby.”

Jonathan kept his gaze fixed on the floor. “Tommy Hill.”

He could feel Nancy pause in confusion. “How did you-- Did you see him too? Did he say why he was here?”

Jonathan shook his head. He was too dizzy from trying to make sense of the bomb Tommy just dropped on him to try and coherently explain it to Nancy.

“Hey, are you okay?” She rested a hand on his shoulder. “Do you want to wait here while I go get your mom?”

Mom.

“No.” Jonathan quickly stood, trying to recover. “No, I’m coming. I need to ask her something.”

“Okay…” Nancy looked at him with suspicious concern, but walked alongside him as they exited the cafeteria.

Jonathan didn’t know what he was going to say or ask. He didn’t even know where to begin. He just knew he needed answers.

It wasn’t until they were standing in the lobby and waiting for Joyce to show up that Jonathan realized he never grabbed their dinner.

The thought made him feel dizzy. In less than the amount of time it took for the cafeteria to make his food, Tommy had turned his whole world upside down.

Jonathan sighed in exhaustion and held Nancy’s hand. How could so much change in such a short amount of time?

He just hoped his mom could help turn it right side up again.


 

Joyce fiddled with the cuffs of her jacket as she waited in Dr. Martin's office.

They’d done a couple tests just to make sure she’s was recovering properly, and she was a little nervous about the results.

She was probably fine. She already felt much better. But even knowing that, she couldn’t quite quell the anxiety that came with waiting for doctors to give any kind of news.

She hated hospitals. Nothing good ever seemed to happen to her in one.

Dr. Martin entered his office, looking more tired than he had earlier.

“Hello Joyce.” He said, an old manila folder tucked under his arm. “Sorry to keep you waiting.”

“It’s fine.” Joyce smiled and rubbed her arm.

She wanted to ask him about her results, but she didn't want to rush it. If the news was bad, she wanted to delay it for as long as possible.

That nervous trepidation only increased when Dr. Martin sat beside her, and not on the other side of his desk like she'd expected.

“Joyce, I owe you an apology.”

“An apology? Did something happen? Did something go wrong on one of the tests?” She tried to keep her voice steady.

Dr. Martin looked confused for a moment before realization dawned on him. “Oh! No, your tests came back clear. You're fine.”

Joyce exhaled, feeling a weight fall from his shoulders.

But… if she was fine, then what is he apologizing for?

As if sensing her answer, Dr. Martin took a deep breath before speaking.

“I took an oath, when I became a doctor, to do no harm. To tend to the sick and heal the broken.”

He nodded to himself. “I thought I'd done a pretty good job, but there's someone broken in my hospital, and I can't fix him. But I think you can.”

“Me?” Joyce stilled, searching the doctor's face for any clue as to what he meant.

Dr. Martin gave a remorseful smile.

“I'm sorry to say, I broke that vow to ‘do no harm’ a long time ago. And I want to make it right. But I can't do it on my own.”

He placed the old folder in front of Joyce on the desk. “I was payed a great deal of money to keep this secret. But I think it's time the truth set us all free.”

Dr. Martin stood and readjusted his white coat. “I'll be waiting just outside. Take all the time you need.”

Joyce watched him leave and close the door behind him before turning back to the file.

For a moment she just stared at it, wondering what truths it had been guarding all these years.

Hesitantly, Joyce reached for the folder. It felt heavy in her hands and sat like a weight in her lap.

She steadied herself, preparing for whatever secrets it held. Then Joyce opened the file.

The first thing that caught her eye was a photo of an infant with deep brown eyes, and the notecard stapled to it that began with the words,

‘Byers relinquished the rights and responsibility of their infant into the care of the Harrington residence…’


 

Joyce stood in the elevator, the folder clutched against her chest and Dr. Martin by her side.

She didn't look at him. She couldn't.

Yes, he'd told her the truth, but he was responsible for all those lies even existing.

She never miscarried. Her baby had been born healthy and safe, and had been stolen away from her. She'd mourned and cried because she was convinced that somehow it was her fault.

But it never was. It was Dr. Martin, and Lonnie, and Arthur Harrington's fault.

They'd all been lying to her for years.

Her head was spinning. But she needed to see Steve. She needed to see her son.

As the elevator doors dinged open, Dr. Martin spoke.

“Joyce…”

“Don't.” She shook her head. “I can't do this right now. If you want to help, please just find Jonathan and tell him where I am.”

The doctor stepped back into the elevator. “Steve's in room 303.”

Joyce nodded, but didn't say thank you. She knew he didn't expect it.

The hallway was quiet. Visiting hours had just ended and most of the patients were probably trying to get some rest.

Joyce shivered and made her way down the hall until she found the room she was looking for.

Just as she reached the doorway, a young girl exited. She had wavy reddish-blonde hair and was wearing a light purple sweater.

“Oh!” The girl gasped. She looked just as surprised as Joyce.

“Oh…” she said again, seeming to recognize her. She appeared to contemplate something for a moment before leaning in and whispering. “He’s tired, but he’s still awake. Please… Don’t let him apologize for anything. He’s going to try and take all the blame but-”

Joyce shook her head. “I won’t.”

A reassuring smile graced the young girl’s lips before she quickly swooped in and gave Joyce a hug.

“Thank you for coming.” Her voice seemed thicker now. More tired. But overwhelmingly relieved.

Before Joyce could reciprocate the hug or ask anything more, the girl had detached herself and began walking down to the elevator.

And then it was just Joyce, alone in an empty hallway, facing a door whose threshold couldn’t be uncrossed. She was still in shock. Nothing feeling quite real except the linoleum beneath her feet.

But the promise of truth and closure was resting on the other side of that door, and Joyce couldn’t stand being without it any longer.

The hospital room was dimly lit. Silence only disturbed by the sound of the electric beeping of a heart monitor.

It took a moment for her eyes to adjust, but as soon as they did Joyce’s vision settled on Steve’s small frame resting on the hospital bed.

 He was lying on his side with his eyes closed. He looked so small, so vulnerable all alone in this cold room. And Steve looked sick. He was clearly underweight, with heavy bags under his eyes that betrayed exhaustion that he must feel down to his bones.

Without thinking, Joyce’s hand moved to her mouth, trying to stifle an involuntary gasp.

Steve stirred and shivered from where he was resting. “D’you forget something Carol?”

When he got no response, his eyes squinted open and glanced over his shoulder.

From the moment their eyes met, it felt like time had halted completely. Not even the heart-monitor seemed to reach Joyce as Steve’s dark brown eyes widened in recognition.

“M… Mrs. Byers?”

Joyce couldn’t answer. She couldn’t think of anything to say that would fit this moment and communicate how she was feeling right now.

Instead, Joyce set the folder down on a chair and slowly made her way to Steve.

He seemed frozen in place, like a frightened rabbit. But as Joyce got closer, she could see so much desperate hope in his eyes. Like a candle amidst a storm, perilously close to being extinguished forever.

Joyce stopped next to his bed, feeling that same hope swelling in her own chest. Gently, she reached out and cupped either side of Steve’s face.

For a moment they just stared at each other, neither willing to break the spell.

Then Joyce spoke.

“Hello.” She smiled, her voice choking up. “Hello.”

She said it again, wanted to say it over and over until it erased all the times Joyce wasn't able to say hello to her baby. Her heart ached wondering if anyone welcomed Steve into the world or if anyone told him he was loved and wanted since the moment he was born.

“Hello.” She sobbed again.

Steve stared back, eyes wide and filled with tears, matching Joyce's own. He had her eyes. Why hadn't she noticed before?

His nimble fingers reached up and rested against Joyce's own hands as they cupped his face. Grounding himself. Convincing him that she was here right now.

“Hello.” Steve whispered back.

Joyce laughed and sobbed at the same time. Her hands lowered to Steve’s shoulders, pulling his into a tight hug. She didn’t know if she could ever let go again.

She could feel Steve’s own tears soaking her shirt, his head tucked into her shoulder.

“I didn’t think…” Steve started and stopped. It broke Joyce’s heart. She had never thought a heart could feel so full and yet so battered at the same time.

“I’m here.” She reassured him, one hand rubbing up and down his back.

“I’m here, and I’m not going anywhere.”

For what felt like an eternity, and yet still wasn’t long enough, Joyce held her son in her arms.

She had so much to explain. But neither of them had the energy to begin flipping through the file Dr. Martin had shown her.

There would be plenty of time for that later.

Right now, Joyce just held Steve in her arms, running a soothing hand from the nape of his neck down to the middle of his back and up again. It’s what she’d done for Jonathan and Will when they needed comfort. It’s what she would have done for Steve if he hadn’t been taken from her.

At that thought Joyce held Steve a little tighter, thinking of all the things they’d missed being apart from each other.

But she wasn’t going to miss anything else.

Joyce was never losing her son again.

Chapter Text

 “Maybe Joyce's appointment went longer than she expected?”

Jonathan looked up from where he was sitting.

Nancy had been standing close by, her eyes scanning the waiting room for any sign of Joyce.

He felt like he was in a trance. Everything was moving at a much slower pace, gliding around him like background ambience to the thoughts tumbling through his head.

Steve was his brother. And not only that, he’d saved their mom’s life and tried to recover all on his own. As if none of them would wonder what had happened to him.

Jonathan swallowed hard, feeling like a rock had just settled in his stomach.

Because none of them had wondered about Steve.

Sure, the kids had asked questions, but that’s what kids did. None of the adults took it seriously. Not him, not Nancy, and not even Hopper.

They just figured Steve would show up eventually. He tended to materialize right when you needed him.

But it just occurred to Jonathan that no one had ever been there for Steve when he needed someone.

Except Tommy apparently.

Nancy glanced as the chair behind her before sitting down next to Jonathan. “Are you okay? You've barely said a word since the cafeteria.”

Jonathan met Nancy's eyes. He wanted to tell her. He had to tell her.

But he was still making sense of all this, and Nancy would certainly ask questions he didn't have the answers to.

No, it was better if he waited. At least then he and Nancy would hear the story together.

With a sigh, Jonathan took Nancy's hand.

“I'm--”

Before he could finish, Hopper burst into the waiting room with Will trailing after him.

“Is Joyce here?” His eyes searched the room.

The young couple stared up at him in confusion, but it was Nancy who answered. “Not yet. What's going on?”

“A hunch. a crazy one.” Hopper said before he walked over to the receptionist and began asking about Joyce's appointment.

Nancy huffed in her seat and turned back to Jonathan. “Was there a memo I missed about no one answering any questions today?”

Jonathan knew he should probably respond. Nancy hated not being in the loop. But his eyes were stuck on Hopper.

The chief’s hands were drumming impatiently on the counter, as if trying to speed up the tempo that the rest of the world followed. Did Hopper know?

“Hey.” Will approached, smiling nervously at the both of them. He had a book tucked under his arm.

“Hey.” Jonathan replied, slowly coming back to himself. He couldn't just shut down. Not now. Will deserved better than that. They all did.

“How are you doing?”

Will shrugged. “Okay. Weirded out a little. Hopper didn't really say anything since we left home.”

“What set him off?” Nancy inquired, leaning forward so she could make eye contact.

Again, Will gave a noncommittal shrug. “He was helping me with my homework when he saw this photo of mom.”

Jonathan took the offered yearbook and stared down at the image before him. It was of their mom with shorter hair, wearing a leather jacket and smiling lopsidedly.

“Why would a picture make him want to go the hospital?”

Nancy didn't see, because she didn't know what to look for. But Jonathan did now.

He saw Steve's wild swooping hair, his smile, and his warm bright eyes.

Jonathan's gut churned as he reached for Will, seeking comfort as much as hoping to give it. “Because he thinks he figured out where Steve is.”

“What?” Will took the yearbook back and stared at it in confusion. Jonathan knew it had been weighing heavily on Will that he hadn't been able to apologize to Steve. He’d tried calling again, but the answering machine had been full.

Will didn't vocalize it, but Jonathan had a feeling he blamed himself for Steve apparently staying away from the party.

“Did you know?”

Jonathan looked up to see Hopper approaching him. Hands on his hips, and odd combination of paternal and police-like interrogation.

“Did you know?” Hopper asked again, accusation and betrayal making his voice shake.

And Jonathan had to admit, this looked bad. Because if he did know, if he’d known this entire time, then that means he’d left Steve out in the cold when he could have been a part of the family.

He shook his head.

As Hopper began to relax in relief, Nancy interjected. “Did he know what?”

“Did he know that Steve Harrington was in fact Joyce’s biological son.”

Everyone turned in varying stages of surprise to where Doctor Martin was standing, a medical clipboard in hand.

“He's what?” Nancy whispered, slowly standing.

Jonathan stood with her, reaching for her wrist. “Nance…”

“You better start explaining some shit doc, because right now things aren’t looking good for you.” Hopper stated, approaching Doctor Martin with a threatening gait.

Will was looking down at the open yearbook in his lap, finally seeing exactly what Jonathan had recognized only moment before. Reflections of the brother they didn't know they had. Of Steve.

“There's a lot to explain,” Dr. Martin began, rubbing at his eyes in exhaustion. And maybe guilt.

Jonathan interlaced his fingers with Nancy, holding on for dear life because she was the only sane and constant thing in his life right now.

“On the same night Joyce had gone into labor, almost twenty years ago now, it just so happened that the Harrington's were expecting their first child as well. Unfortunately, there were complications with Arthur and Julia’s child. It died during the labor, but Joyce's survived.”

Nancy’s grip on his hand tightened. They all saw where this was going. They just couldn’t believe it.

“So, what? You swapped them?” Hopper stared incredulously at the doctor. “Figured one baby was just as good as the other?”

Dr. Martin quickly shook his head. “No, no. Not exactly… I wasn't sneaking behind the families’ backs or anything.”

“Bullshit.” Hopper cut him off. “There's no way Joyce would have gone along with this.”

He was right, Jonathan thought. He couldn’t even imagine his mom giving her baby away.

Besides, she always said…

Jonathan looked up at Dr. Martin. He wanted to throw up. “Mom always said the baby stopped breathing on its own. That he didn’t make it…”

The doctor stared morosely back at him. He hesitated as he began to speak again. “Well, that’s what she was told.”

As he spoke, Will stood up from his seat and joined Jonathan in standing amongst the others. His eyes were fixed on Dr. Martin.

“You see… only the fathers knew.”

Jonathan could feel an icy chill prickle across his skin. He wanted everything to stop. He didn’t want this horror story to keep going when it only seemed to keep getting worse.

“It was Arthur Harrington's idea. He'd offered Mr. Byers some money and paid off everyone who was on staff that night.”

“So you're saying you let mom believe she'd lost her baby just because someone paid you?” Jonathan couldn't believe what he was hearing.

Dr. Martin nervously ran a hand over his head and began to look at his notes. “Well yes but--”

Will slapped the clipboard out of his hands.

Everyone froze in shock and stared at the youngest Byers as the wooden slate clattered to the floor.

Will shoulders were rising and falling in quick succession, matching his rapid breathing.

“We could have been his family. This whole time!” He shouted.

Martin reached out, trying to appease the teen. “I know you're upset…”

“He's been right here in front of us all along and you kept him from us!”

“I didn’t--”

“Yes you did.” Nancy shook her head, interrupting Dr. Martin. “You could have told someone. You could have told Steve!”

Before Jonathan could cut in, they heard a soft feminine voice behind them.

“He knew.”

Jonathan recognized the speaker before he even turned around.

Carol was standing alone by the waiting room entrance. She must have come with Tommy.

“Steve figured it out on his own when he was sixteen.”

“And…” Nancy stood with her lips slightly parted. “And he didn’t say anything?”

Jonathan knew this had to be hard for her. She and Steve had dated, and he never told her.

Carol looked down at the floor and crossed her arms.

“He figured, if the Byers didn’t want him then, why would they want him now.”

“But we didn’t…”

“No,” Carol nodded and looked up at Jonathan. “but Steve didn’t know that. And he’s not one to stay where he’s not wanted.”

Her eyes drifted to Nancy at that last part.

“Where’s Joyce now?” Hopper turned back to Martin. “Does she kn--”

“She knows, she knows.” The doctor waved an appeasing hand. “She’s upstairs.”

“Steve’s health took a turn for the worse recently.” He gestured toward Carol. “And despite his friends’ best efforts, he wasn’t getting better. I figured, they should all know the truth in case…”

“Steve was sick?” Will’s voice was soft now. Filled with worry and guilt. “When did he…”

Realization slowly dawned on his face. “The anonymous donor…”

Dr. Martin nodded. “He’d contracted pneumonia after the surgery.”

“Is he better now?”

Jonathan’s chest ached at the concern that weighed down Will’s question. Judging from Carol and Tommy’s presence, he already knew the answer to Will’s question.

The doctor shook his head. “We’re hoping he’ll start to get better, now that--”

“Now that he has his family with him? The family he should have had all along?” Hopper shook his head. “Like that makes up for everything…”

“You’re right. It doesn’t.” Dr. Martin nodded. “But it’s a start. I’d like to help make things better, if the Byers family will allow it.”

Jonathan didn’t know what to say. He couldn't speak for all of them, so there was no point trying to give Dr. Martin an answer. He wasn’t sure the doctor even expected one just yet.

So much had changed since he and Nancy had arrived at the hospital this morning. He’d thought it was all over then. That Joyce was better, and things could finally begin to go back to normal. But now Jonathan was beginning to wonder if they ever could go back to a normal life.

He wanted to be happy. He wanted to be excited that he had another brother. An older brother. But all Jonathan could feel was unsteady.

Steve was his brother by blood, but Jonathan wasn’t sure if he would ever feel like one.

Sure, they’d dealt with the Upside Down alongside everyone else, but in Jonathan’s mind Steve had always been on the most-outer orbit of The Party. He was only ever there because of someone else. At first it was Nancy, and then Dustin. But it never seemed as if Steve was there for any other reason than to help whoever dragged him there in the first place.

And now he was family. Had been family the entire time. They just never knew.

It painted things in a different light now, and Jonathan was left to revisit memories and wonder where Steve actually fit into any of it.

“I want to see him.” Will said, interrupting Jonathan’s thoughts.

Dr. Martin shook his head. “I’m sorry but visiting hours are over.”

“Please!” Will begged, stepping directly in from of the doctor. “Please I need to see him!”

“You let Joyce upstairs.” Nancy pointed out, standing behind Will to literally and physically have his back. “You said Steve needed his family. So give him his family.”

Jonathan watched as Dr. Martin looked from Will’s sad pleading face to Nancy’s stern, subtly threatening one. He knew what it was like to be on the receiving end of both those looks. The man didn’t stand a chance.

“Alright.” Dr. Martin looked down, conceding. “But I’ll only be able to take one of--”

“You’re taking both of them upstairs.” Nancy stated. Not blinking. Not moving an inch.

The older man stared at her for a moment before he caved. “I can take them both.”

“You’re not coming with us?” Jonathan stared imploringly at Nancy, but she shook her head.

“Steve needs his family. If I know him, he'll try and put on a brave face the more people are around. He doesn't need that right now.”

He knew she was right, but Jonathan was also petrified at the idea of facing Steve. He still didn’t know what he was going to say. He was barely capable of holding a conversation with him when Steve wasn’t his brother.

As if sensing his unease, Nancy gave Jonathan’s hand a comforting squeeze. “It’ll be fine. I promise.”

“But what about you?”

Nancy smiled. “Hopper can take me home, right Hop?”

At first, Hopper looked like he wanted to argue. He probably wanted to stay as close to Joyce as possible, just in case she needed him. Jonathan liked that about him. But eventually Hopper signed and nodded.

“Jane is playing with Mike and the other kids at your house, so I needed to stop by there anyway.”

“There, see?” Nancy turned back to Jonathan. “You've got nothing to worry about. Now go. Your family needs you.”

Hesitantly, Jonathan turned to where Will was impatiently waiting with Dr. Martin.

He knew Nancy was putting on a brave face for him. She probably had just as many questions as he did when it came to Steve. Like, why didn't he tell Nancy about his real family while they were dating?

But there would eventually be time to answer all those questions.

Apparently they had all the time in the world.


 

As Jonathan and Will followed Dr. Martin into the deeper recesses of the hospital, Nancy's face fell.

She wanted so badly to follow them, to see Steve.

But she knew her presence would only make things worse.

Steve already avoided Nancy ever since their breakup, and she knew the last thing he would want would be for her to be there when he was finally reunited and recognized by his family.

“Hey,” Hopper spoke. “you ready to go?”

Nancy cleared her throat. “Yeah, just give me a second.”

The women’s bathroom smelled just like the rest of the hospital. A mild chemical odor seemed to coat everything she touched, and the smell of bleach that they used to clean the multiple stalls made Nancy’s eyes sting.

At least, she wanted to believe it was because of the bleach.

Nancy stood in front of the sink and stared into the mirror, willing herself to keep it together for just a little longer. At least until she got back home. Then she could fall apart.

How did she not know?

She and Steve had dated for a year and she didn’t suspect a thing. She didn’t notice how much he was dealing with all on his own. How much Steve must have been hurting.

He never said anything. But Nancy never asked either.

She was way too engrossed in dealing with Barb and trying to ignore her feelings for Jonathan to pause for even a second and wonder what was going on in Steve’s life.

He just always seemed so happy. So unaffected by everything that had happened to them.

At least now she knew why he was perfectly fine with keeping the Upside Down and government conspiracies a secret. He’d had a lifetime of practice.

What was one more lie?

Nancy lowered her head. Tears fell and made a hollow tapping sound as they struck the porcelain sink.

Steve had it all backwards. He’d been a good boyfriend. He’d tried to help Nancy deal with her problems the only way he knew how: to pretend they didn’t exist. She didn’t even consider what problems he might have been ignoring himself.

She was a shitty girlfriend. And a shitty friend.

Steve had disappeared for a week and she didn’t even notice. She didn’t fight for their friendship and just let him fade into the background of her life with Jonathan. Even when he dropped off the kids at her house, it hadn’t even occurred to her to say hello.

Steve had been all alone. And it was partially her fault.

Nancy rubbed at her eyes, torn between wanting to make things right and not knowing how she could. Or if Steve would even want that now.

She’d already done enough.

The sound of the bathroom door opening startled Nancy. She quickly tried to wipe away the tears and pull herself together as she looked in the mirror to see who walked in.

Nancy froze when she realized it was Carol.

“Hey.” Carol spoke, leaning against the door as if she was trying to put as much distance between them as possible. “Are you okay?”

“What?”

Nancy blinked and slowly turned so she was looking at Carol instead of just her reflection.

“I know today’s probably been a lot and, well… I can say from experience that crying alone in the bathroom sucks so…”

“I wasn’t--” Nancy was about to argue, but realized it was useless.

She looked down again, resting a hand against the sink counter and trying to casually trace her fingers along the cool surface. “From experience...?”

Nancy could almost hear Carol roll her eyes. “Come on, don’t act like you don’t remember.”

A memory surfaced of Carol when they were back in grade school together. She'd hit puberty earlier than any of the other girls, and someone had started some awful rumors about her and the boys from the football team.

The whole school had stared at her the way Nancy worried people would look at her the day after she’d slept with Steve.

Except then, it wasn’t just her imagination. Everywhere Carol went, judgmental stares and conspiratorial whispers seemed to follow like a storm cloud.

Nancy had believed the rumors. She didn't start them, or help spread them, but she listened to the things her mom had said about girls like that and didn't do anything to defend Carol.

She didn't want to be like her. A whore, or any of the other ugly words the other girls and even some of the teachers had thrown around.

Carol acted like it didn’t bother her, but Barb told Nancy she heard her crying in the bathroom during lunch period a couple times.

Nancy regretted not defending her now. She knew rumors were often just ugly things spread by unhappy people.

But at least Carol hadn't been alone.

Steve and Tommy had stood by her side, ready to defend her from anyone who was dumb enough to say anything to her face.

Nancy remembered there were a few days where the two were sent to detention for starting fights with other boys. Well, technically Tommy started the fights and Steve backed him up. The school didn’t care that they were only defending Carol against things the other boys said. The same way Carol’s classmates didn’t care when the rumors were eventually disproved. They all still treated her like something dirty.

That might have been the first time Nancy really noticed Steve. All gangly and sporting a black eye because he couldn’t win a fight to save his life, but beaming with pride because at least he got it while defending a friend.

Now that Nancy thought about it, Steve, Tommy, and Carol were always getting into fights for each other.

Standing up for and taking care of one another in ways that maybe they couldn’t themselves.

Tommy and Carol both had each other’s backs no matter what. And they took care of Steve when no one else thought he needed to be taken care of.

Maybe she and Carol weren't as different as Nancy had liked to believe. They both loved who they loved and would fight anyone who treated them poorly.

Nancy opened her mouth to answer, but nothing came out.

She wanted to explain. To find some kind of excuse. But she was coming up short.

Nancy finally met the other girl’s eyes.

“I’m sorry.”

Carol sighed. “Me too.”

“Were you--” There were so many questions Nancy desperately wanted answers for. “Did you know about the surgery before it happened?”

Carol gave an exhausted laugh and shook her head.

“We found out after. Steve had me and Tommy as his emergency contacts. Apparently there were some complications during the operation so the hospital called Tommy.”

Nancy tried not to dwell on what ‘complications’ might mean.

“And you just dropped everything and came here? I thought… Steve made it sound like you three weren’t talking anymore.”

“We weren’t.” Carol pushed off the door and casually walked over to lean against the sink next to Nancy. “But when someone you care about is in trouble, you’re there for them. Even if you’ve had a falling out. No one deserves to be alone.”

Nancy looked down at her feet again. “But what if you’ve hurt them. Really bad. And you never tried to make things better?”

There was a long silence before Carol answered.

“Look, if it were up to me, I’d probably tell you to get lost. You broke his heart. Twice.”

Nancy began to try and explain that the first time was just a huge misunderstanding, but Carol held up a hand.

“But this is Steve we’re talking about. He cares way too much for his own good, and if you apologized he’d accept it. But you’d better mean it and work at making things better because Nancy...”

She made sure Nancy was looking her in the eye before she finished.

“Tommy and I don’t like it when people hurt our friend.  So you better ask yourself, are you doing this to make yourself feel better? Or are you going to apologize because it’s what Steve deserves?”

She didn’t have an answer. And fortunately, it seemed like Carol wasn’t expecting one right away.

Instead, Nancy just nodded.

“Thank you. For taking care of him.”

“Someone’s gotta.” Carol shrugged, but there was a fond smile across her face that dwindled for a moment. “So, are you going to be okay?”

Nancy sniffed and rubbed at her eyes, hoping Hopper wouldn’t be able to tell she had been crying. She didn’t have a good answer for that either. But she nodded anyway.

“Yeah, I’ll be fine.”

Carol lingered a little while longer, and for a moment Nancy thought she was going to offer a hug, but eventually she nodded and gestured over her shoulder. “I should probably go. Tommy’ll be waiting.”

Nancy nodded and watched shorter girl disappear out into the waiting room.

Then she turned back to the sink and gave a heavy sigh before pulling herself back together enough the leave the safety of the bleach-soaked bathroom.

Nancy knew Carol was right. She couldn't let her own guilty feelings overshadow what Steve needed.

She swiped under her eyes and took a deep breath before going back to Hopper.

If Nancy couldn't be there for Steve, then she'd do whatever she could to surround him with people that would give him the love and support he needed.

And Nancy knew just the kids for the job.


 

Jonathan watched Will's body shake with anxiety and anticipation as they walked down the dimly-lit hospital hallway.

It was the kind of shaking that you only got right before a something terrible or something wonderful happened, and Jonathan still didn't know which one it was.

“What room did Doctor Martin say it was?” Will looked over at him.

Jonathan cleared his throat. “Three-o-three.”

Will nodded and began scanning the plaques along the hall that designated room numbers. They were going in the right direction.

“How are you doing with all this?” Jonathan busied himself with also scanning the hall, just to give himself something to do.

“I don't know.” He began. “I just want to see him. To--”

Will and Jonathan both froze at the door marked 303. Suddenly things felt unbearably still, as if both boys were waiting for the other to take the first leap.

Jonathan cleared his throat. “Well…”

Reaching out, he gently pushed open the door and stepped forward with Will attached at the hip. The two stopped again a few steps into the room.

Steve and their mom were resting on the hospital bed together, with Steve sleeping and tucked into her shoulder while Joyce ran gentle fingers through his hair. Her eyes were closed in a tranquility Jonathan hadn’t seen for a while.

Trapped between not wanting to disturb them, but not wanting to leave, Jonathan hesitantly cleared his throat.

Joyce responded first. Her eyes opened and she turned towards the noise. They could tell she’d been crying.

Confusion turned to recognition, and somehow she seemed even more at peace that when they first saw her.

“Do you know…?” She whispered.

Jonathan nodded, noticing that Will hadn’t moved since they entered. His focus seemed to be entirely on Steve.

Joyce followed her youngest son’s gaze and smiled, resuming her previous brushing. “He’s a little tired. The nurse said he hadn’t been resting much.”

As if sensing people talking about him, Steve stirred. At first, he shifted his position on the bed. Then his eyes blinked opened, unfocussed, like it was taking a while for him to remember where he was or what was happening.

Jonathan didn’t know the details of Steve’s hospital stay, but from what Tommy said, he hadn’t been doing well.

Slowly, like dawn breaking, Steve seemed to come back to himself. He looked up at Joyce with a slow smile, like he wasn’t expecting her to be there.

But then his gaze turned to where Jonathan and Will were standing.

It was like watching a deer freeze in the middle of a forest. Jonathan and Steve stared as each other for an unblinking moment until Steve turned to Will. Then tears welled up in his big doe eyes.

Will’s sniffle surprised Jonathan. He had been so focused on Steve he didn’t even notice his little brother had started crying.

“I’m sorry.” Will said.

Steve shook his head. “No, I’m sor--”

“I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry!” Will kept saying over and over again as he quickly made his way across the room and into Steve’s open arms.

For a while, the only sound to be heard was a cacophony of sobs and apologies coming from Steve and Will as they held each other tight.

Joyce reached out for Jonathan. “Did the doctor find you?”

He nodded as he approached the bed. “He brought us up here after…”

There was no easy or succinct way to finish that sentence, and they both knew it.

Joyce smiled and took his hand, covering it with her own. He could only stare and try to process everything happening around him. How things had changed, and continued to evolve before his own eyes.

“Why?” Will finally croaked. “Why didn’t you tell us?”

Steve gave and ugly sob and looked at the three people surrounding him. The look in his eye reminded Jonathan of the dizzy feeling right after a roller coaster, where you’re mind and body and readjusting to a much slower speed after going so fast for so long.

“I wanted to.” Steve started. “God there were so many times…But I knew-- I thought you didn’t want me in the family.” He looked down, his thick hair falling heavily in his eyes.

Joyce let out a sad noise and reached for Steve with one of her hands. And Jonathan felt its absence.

“Why would you ever think that sweetie?”

At first Steve didn’t respond. As if he wasn’t used to be called something like that and he didn’t know what to do.

But his hand wrapped around hers, holding onto Joyce like a lifeline.

“When…” His eyes glanced upwards at Jonathan. “Do you remember when I was first at your house, when you offered for me to come home with you after school?”

Jonathan remembered it like it was yesterday. But it was clear that his mom hadn’t thought about that day for a while.

“You were so little then.” Joyce whispered, her eyes clearly drifting into memory. “I remembered thinking… that you looked so lonely. And that I wanted to somehow make it better.”

Steve leaned into her side; his free arm still wrapped around Will.

“You did. I felt wanted. Like I was part of something.” He sniffed. “But when Lonnie drove me home…”

Everyone in the room stiffened at that name. Even Will pulled away and sat beside Steve so he could pay attention to whatever he had to say about Lonnie.

Steve swallowed a lump in his throat. “He said that I should stay away. That you didn't want to take care of me and didn’t need some other kid to look out for.”

Pieces were beginning to fall together for Jonathan. The way Steve seemed to avoid him after that day, the way he never saw him waiting on the school curb ever again…

Steve leaned forward, his body swaying from expelling energy he didn’t have. “And I did. I worked really hard to stay away, but then Will went missing and all the Upside Down stuff happened… and you still seemed so nice. And I told myself that, as long as I wasn't asking for anything, as long as you didn’t have to take care of me, then maybe… Maybe I could still be a part of your lives.”

Steve was crying. So was Will and their mom. Jonathan blinked away his own tears that were threatening to spill out.

He couldn’t imagine living with the knowledge that your own family didn’t want you. And from the stray comments that Nancy would occasionally mention, he got the feeling that Mr. and Mrs. Harrington weren’t doing anything to make Steve feel any better.

“Sweetie, that wasn’t true.” Joyce tried to reassure through her own tears. “If we’d known…”

“I just didn’t want to be a burden. Especially after the Upside Down, you guys have been through so much and I didn’t want to make things worse.”

“You never made things worse for me.” Will said. “You were there for Dustin and the rest of my friends when they needed someone.”

Steve gave a tired smile. “I just wanted to help.”

And that’s truly what it all boils down to. Beneath all the secrets and lies and miscommunications, Steve always did just want to help.

Sure, he was protecting himself through some of it, but he was also protecting them. He always had been.

Steve would anonymously give Joyce his own liver if it meant keeping the family protected and intact. If Tommy or Dr. Martin hadn’t done something, he might have taken that secret to the grave.

Jonathan took a tentative step closer to the bed. Closer to Steve and his family.

A stillness had grown, and once again Jonathan was reminded of a deer in the woods, deciding if it needed to sprint away from danger.

He didn’t blame Steve. None of this was his fault, and it wouldn’t be fair for Jonathan to take out his confusion and frustration on him.

But there was also a small part of Jonathan that still found it hard to imagine calling Steve his brother. Not that he didn’t believe it or feel the ‘rightness’ in how that thought felt. It was just that they’d both been through too much together to just forget it all and start over.

Then Jonathan thought about that steadily approaching day when he’d have to go back to NYU, and he found he didn’t mind the idea of Steve watching out for Joyce and Will while he was away.

Jonathan could feel multiple pairs of eyes on him. “You took care of us without any of us even knowing it. Now it’s our turn to help take care of you.”

He wasn’t sure if it was just his own paranoia, but Jonathan was almost certain he saw the same exhausting conflicting feelings swirling behind Steve’s eyes. Or maybe Jonathan was just seeing what he wanted to see.

Steve was probably too doped up on whatever the hospital had given him to think of anything beyond what was happening right now.

But then again, despite popular belief, Steve wasn’t stupid. Everything overwhelming Jonathan right now was a reality that Steve lived with for most of his life. If anyone was going to understand where Jonathan was at right now, it was Steve.

“We want you Steve.” Joyce stressed. “I’m sorry you didn’t think so. You’re a part of this family now. You always have been.”

Jonathan watched as Steve quietly mouth ‘thank you’ and seemed to bloom under those simple supportive words. He absently wondered how long it had been since someone told Steve something like that.

That was another question to save until after Steve got better.

An old file folder like the ones he and Nancy had been looking though caught Jonathan’s eye.

He picked it up from where his mom or Dr. Martin must have discarded it and opened to the first page.

A photograph of a small infant was the first thing that caught his eye, followed by some notes from Dr. Martin carefully detailing the steps taken that lead to this whole mess.

As Jonathan continued to read on, with the sound of Joyce and Will quietly talking with Steve for ambience, it began to dawn on him just how insidious this act truly was.

Both fathers had lied to their wives, risking emotional and biological trauma, and displaced and permanently altered the life of a newborn infant.

All for money.

Jonathan snapped the file closed again and tucked under his arm.

He couldn’t keep looking at it. Not right now. Not when he should be spending time with his family.

But he would later. He had to know everything.

And Jonathan was sure Hopper would be eager to hear all about it.

Chapter Text

When Steve woke up, the first thing he saw was Joyce.

She was sleeping on the hospital bed, facing him with one hand bunched up in the hem of his cotton t-shirt. Like he might disappear if she didn’t hold onto him.

For a while, Steve just stared at her. Half-expecting to blink and realize it was all just a dream. A wonderful, confusing, overwhelming dream.

But it wasn't. Steve was already feeling more awake and alert than he had since the surgery. That had to be a good sign, right?

Steve felt a cough coming on. Rolling over on his other side so he didn’t disturb Joyce, Steve tried to cough into his elbow as quietly as possible.

Before, coughing made him feel like his lungs were trying to claw their way up his throat. Now, it just made him a little dizzy.

Gentle fingers began rubbing against his back, coaxing the coughing fit into little more than slight tremors.

“Do you want me to get the nurse?” Joyce asked.

Steve shook his head and shakily rolled over to face her again. “Heather’ll be coming by soon anyway to check on me.”

“How are you feeling?”

He sighed, trying to give a good-natured smile. “Better, I think.”

Without speaking, as if it was the most natural thing to do, Joyce pressed the back of her hand against Steve's temple and paused.

“I think your fever broke.”

“Hmm?” Steve was only half-listening. Too distracted by the comforting maternal feeling of Joyce brushing stray strands of hair out of his face.

He knew he looks terrible. He felt terrible. Hospitals are more motivated to keep you alive as opposed to looking nice.

And yet Joyce still looked at like he was something precious.

Before he'd gone to sleep Joyce had told him everything. About how she never knew he was hers, and how Lonnie and his dad has set it up and kept them all in the dark.

It made sense now. Lonnie's threat, disguised as concern for his wife. Joyce's welcoming and grateful nature after the Mindflayer incident, completely oblivious to the turmoil Steve was going through. Even his own parents disconnected attitude, although apparently his mom was also kept in the dark.

And there was that too.

He was so used to calling Arthur and Julia Harrington his mom and dad, that it almost felt wrong to stop. More so with his mom. Arthur just wasn't around long enough to even qualify as a parent. And when he was around, he was usually a scolding, cruel, and dispassionate presence.

Which also meant Steve felt as if he never really had a father, but that was something to unpack for another time.

Right now Steve just wanted to get better.

After Heather stopped by to check his vitals and confirm that his fever had in fact broken, Joyce began making arrangements to get Steve discharged.

They both wanted to be done with hospitals as soon as possible.

At some point Joyce must have taken the time to call Jonathan, because by the time they were ready to go, he and Will were waiting for them outside.

Will was quick to run and greet him and his mom, eager to be as close to Steve as possible, as if proximity would help make up for lost time.

“Dustin and everyone wanted to visit, but the hospital said only family was allowed because of your fever.” He offered, joining Joyce in guiding Steve to their car with a supportive hand against Steve's back.

It felt…

Steve didn't know how to feel about it. He'd been so used to taking care of himself, he almost felt guilty having someone looking after him. Like he didn’t need it or deserve it or something.

Which in itself was a weird thought, because wasn’t this what he had been yearning for all this time?

A family that actually gave a shit about him?

He also felt somewhat babied, like they didn't think he could make it to the car on his own. Which to be fair was an understandable concern, especially since recent events.

But Steve wasn't made of glass.

“Do they all know now?” He asked as they approached the car.

The whole concept of people knowing felt so foreign. It felt like a massive secret had finally got out and Steve could only watch as it spread beyond his control.

He knew he should feel relieved, but Steve had worked and stressed about this for so long that the thought of the truth being known was almost more anxiety-inducing than bearing it on his own. Because now there were people to appease and reassure. People to disappoint.

Will nodded, oblivious to Steve's internal conflict. “They do, but no one else. I thought It might be easier for you if you didn't have to explain everything to everyone while you're still recovering.”

And Steve had to admit, Will had a point. Just knowing that his friends knew was emotionally exhausting. He couldn't imagine having to answer the same questions over and over again. Living through it was hard enough.

“I’m surprised they didn’t try and come with you guys to pick us up.” Steve only half-joked.

Jonathan opened the car door for him. “Oh they wanted to. But they couldn’t have all fit in the car.”

Steve’s laugh seemed to startle them both. He knew they had been on shaky ground before, and adding on the complicated layer of familial ties probably didn’t do either of them any favors.

But if they were going to start over, there would never be a better time for it.

Steve smiled as he slid into the backseat of Jonathan’s Ford. “Thanks.”

The older Byers seemed to shy away at the word. This was going to take some time.

The drive to the hospital was quiet in an oddly comforting way.

Will spoke from the passenger’s seat, telling Joyce how he and Nancy made plenty of refrigerated meals so she didn’t have to worry about it, and how Jonathan turned the couch into a bed so Steve would be comfortable.

“You really don’t have to worry about me.” Steve tried to say as they pulled in front of the Byers’ house.

“Don’t be ridiculous.” Joyce reached for his hand. “You took care of me without any of us knowing. It’s our turn to help you.”

Steve chewed on his bottom lip, feeling Will and Joyce’s eyes fixed on him. Even Jonathan was watching him from the rearview mirror. He didn’t know what else he was supposed to do or say.

“I’d probably be fine at home though. That way I’m not under anyone’s feet or whatever.”

“No way!” Will shook his head. “We’re not going to leave you alone again.”

Steve wanted to remind them that he hadn’t been completely alone. He had Tommy and Carol, who he hadn’t seen since Joyce and everyone found out, and that was making him nervous too. He didn’t want them to think he was ditching them again now that he had a “real” family.

“Something tells me he’s not going to be alone for quite awhile.” Jonathan mused, gesturing to the house with his chin.

Steve winced as he sat forward, looking past the front seat just in time to see Will’s friends spilling out the front door and towards the car with Dustin in the lead.

The first thing Steve heard as Dustin practically tore the door open was Mike’s incredulous “What the hell Steve!” before the kids somehow managed to gently pull him from the car and half-guide half-carry him inside the house.


 

True to Jonathan’s predictions, from the moment Steve crossed the Byers’ threshold he was never alone. The entire first day was spent resting on the couch with all the kids clambering to sit with him, practically fighting to get him something if he was hungry or thirsty. Even when he said he was fine Steve would soon find himself holding a ham and cheese sandwich that Lucas claimed he’d toiled over until it was perfect.

Steve didn’t even need pillows to rest on. Because no matter where he leaned, a kid was somewhere close by who was more than happy to snuggle into their favorite babysitter. Steve had felt freezing most nights at the hospital, but now it felt like he was surrounded by a bunch of soft little furnaces.

Dustin hadn’t let Steve go for the first couple hours they’d been reunited. And even after that, he would find some excuse to grab Steve’s hand, pat his head, or lean into his side. He’d taken charge almost immediately, apparently having borrowed some library books on post-surgery home care.

Steve had no idea those kinds of books even existed. But despite what he lacked in book smarts, he made up for when it came to understanding the people closest to him.

Steve could always tell when Tommy needed to drive to the quarry and throw rocks across the water. He knew when Carol just needed to sit in the backseat of a car and drive around town at 2am. And Steve knew when Dustin was worrying about something.

It was in the way he kept averting his eyes when Steve would look at him, like he was trying to figure something out but didn’t want to concern anyone until he found a solution.

Steve knew the feeling.

It wasn’t until late into the second night back that Steve was able to talk to Dustin about it.

“Hey.” Steve whispered, gently poking Dustin’s side as the rest of the party was curled up and sleeping around them. “What’s up?”

They’d been watching Star Wars again, because the kids loved it and Steve loved that they loved it. Even if he didn’t get all of it, he knew it was important to them.

“Huh?” Dustin had been purposefully glued to the screen, as if trying to keep himself from staring at Steve or doing anything stupid.

“You’ve been acting funny. You okay?”

“Oh,” Dustin distracted himself by reaching for a bowl of stale popcorn. “Yeah, I’m good.”

Steve considered grabbing a handful of popcorn and throwing it at Dustin because come on. But he didn’t want to make a mess in Joyce’s living room. Besides, Steve had a good idea of what was upsetting him.

“I’m sorry I disappeared on you guys.” Steve said, deciding to try and change tactics. Plus, he was really sorry. “I missed hanging out with my little bro.”

That did the trick. Suddenly Dustin was staring at Steve with his earnest brown eyes and his mouth started moving like a toy that had been too tightly wound and was finally able to spring free.

“But things have changed now!” He whispered as loud as possible without waking up the rest of his friends.

“Now you've got a real little brother and you're probably going to want to spend time with him and help him style his hair and help him talk to girls and--”

Steve grabbed at one of Dustin's flailing hands.

“First of all, I can guarantee that's not going to happen.”

Dustin opened his mouth to argue but Steve continued on. “Second of all, yeah I'm going to want to spend time with Will, but he's not into the same things you are, so you and I will still have our own cool things to do and talk about on our own. None of this is a bad thing. Having more friends, and more people looking out for us makes us stronger. Besides…”

Steve nudged Dustin with a smile, causing Lucas to stir and grumble next to him in his sleep.

“I can have more than one little brother you know.”

Dustin conceded. “I guess you're right.”

“I know I'm right. And that doesn't happen very often.” Steve said, gesturing to the TV, “We're Han and Chewie buddy. Nothing'll change that.”

“Wait, which one am I?”

“... Chewie?”

Dustin nodded in approval.

Steve watches the tension slowly melt from Dustin's shoulders as the younger boy relaxed further into the couch.

“I guess I'd be okay with sharing.” He sighed.

Steve smiled and rested his head against the back of the couch. “‘Preciate it.”

Dustin snorted and resituated himself so he was leaning against Steve. The two boys drifted to sleep together, amidst a tangled pile of their friends’ limbs and strewn blankets that formed a nest around them. And Steve thought to himself that he wouldn't mind staying here forever.


 

“How are you feeling?” Joyce asked from where she was standing next to the couch.

“Better.” Steve smiled. The kids were sitting on the ground planning out their next D&D campaign. It was nice to be in a home where you weren't constantly surrounded by silence.

Joyce smiled back and gestured over her shoulder. “Hop and a few other people are coming over so I'd better get started on lunch.”

Steve looked at Joyce, taking in her tired visage and the way her jacket hung over her shoulders. She'd been through so much recently, physically and mentally, the last thing she needed to do was work.

He held out a hand, and Joyce happily took it, probably thinking he just wanted a little physical contact before she left.

Instead, Steve slowly but insistently tugged her onto the couch until she was sitting next to him.

“Hey Dustin?” Steve called, not releasing Joyce's hand.

Dustin looked up from the huddle his friends we in. “Huh? Yeah?”

“How about you make all of us some of that world-famous grilled cheese you keep bragging about?”

He looked like he was about to protest, probably claiming they were in a pivotal part of the campaign planning process. But then Dustin's noticed Joyce, and how exhausted she looked.

“Uh, totally! Come on guys, we can keep talking in the kitchen.”

Despite Mike's protests that ‘they'd just set everything up,’ the rest of Dustin's friends quickly followed him into the kitchen.

“They don't have to--” Joyce's protests were quickly hushed away by Steve.

“You need to rest too. They've got this.”

With a sigh, Joyce relaxed into the couch. She was still clutching Steve's hand, and he didn't see either of them letting go anytime soon.

The past few days had been a whirlwind of emotional revelations and recovery. But now that their lives were beginning to slow down again, Steve was starting to wonder about what happened next.

He was finally recognized and embraced by his family, with the exception of maybe Jonathan. But what was the plan after this?

They couldn't just act like everything was fine now. There was so much they didn't know about each other, so much lost time. And pretending they had all that shared history and experiences would inevitably lead to everything crumbling to pieces again.

They had to start over, while also not going back.

Steve wondered if Joyce thought about the complicated road they'd have to navigate to finally heal, but judging for the nervous thoughtful air about her, he already knew the answer.

They both wanted to proceed. They just didn't know how.

“Can I ask you a question?” Steve ventured.

Joyce seemed almost startled at the thought he'd have to ask. “Of course?”

Steve licked his lips, thinking of the multitude of questions he could, and wanted to ask. Each representing a daunting mountain they'd have to traverse together. And instead decided to begin this journey with something a little easier to trek.

“What's your favorite color?”

Joyce laughed, and Steve could already feel some of the awkward tension dissipate from the room.

“Green.” Joyce finally answered, her eyes shining with laughter. Steve liked that he recognized himself in those eyes. “What about you?”

Steve thought about it. He used to say his favorite color was blue. Like the water in his family's pool or the sky above Hawkins.

But then Barb got killed, and the skies have felt more and more grey ever since the Upside Down changed things forever.

He wanted to say purple, but that color was forever paired with the number of ugly bruises he'd collected during all the fights he'd lost. None being happy memories.

But then Steve thought of the strong steady trees that protected him from the grey sky, and the soft green sweater Tommy had brought to him at the hospital. A color deeply rooted in safety and new beginnings.

“Green.” Steve smiled back.

The two of them spent the next hour asking and answering the basic questions that children and parents knew about each other inherently from years together. And while Steve and Joyce didn't have that advantage, they knew they would get there eventually.

By the time Hopper showed up with El in tow, Steve already felt more at ease. More grounded. The invisible thread that connected him to Joyce had strengthened into something far less fragile.

Steve felt like the sun was finally beginning to break through the clouds that had kept him separated from that clear blue sky for so long.

And then Nancy walked through the door.

Steve winced. Of course Nancy would visit. She and Jonathan were dating, and this was his house.

But all it took was one glance at her to make all the memories of their complicated past come flooding back.

And judging from the guilty look in Nancy's eyes, he wasn't the only one that was haunted.

Nobody else seemed to notice the discomfort shared between the ex-couple. The kids were too focused on greeting with El, Hopper only ever had eyes for Joyce, and Jonathan was out running errands.

So it was just them.

They haven't really spoken since last November. Since they stopped the world from ending a second time.

“Can we talk?” Nancy asked, approaching the couch with a lack of confidence that was foreign to her usual self-assure presence.

Steve looked to where Joyce was telling Hopper to stop fussing over her (nice to know he'd inherited that trait from her too), and sighed.

“Yeah.”


 

She offered to help steer him towards the swing on the front porch, but Steve turned her down. He had to maintain some semblance of dignity after all.

But because of that, Steve felt pretty winded by the time they got outside. He was still recovering from the pneumonia, while also growing a new liver.

He sat down heavily on the swing, closing his eyes to quell away the unexpected nausea the motion caused.

He hated this. Feeling fine one minute and wanting to throw up the next. He just wanted to be completely better again.

“Are you…” Nancy began but stopped when Steve held up a hand.

When he reopened his eyes, she had her arms crossed, as if keeping herself from reaching out. From doing anything he might not like.

Steve began gently pushing himself back and forth on the swing. “Hey.”

“Hey.” Nancy sighed, glancing down at her shoes before continuing. “How are you?”

So that’s how this was going to go then? Exchanging awkward niceties while tiptoeing around what she actually wanted to talk about. Steve really couldn’t blame her. It had been a long time since they had a real talk.

“I’m fi--”

“I’m sorry.”

Steve clicked his mouth shut and stared. “What?”

“I’m sorry for being so focused with finding Barb and mourning her that I didn’t think about how you were feeling. I’m sorry I stayed with you for a year letting you believe I loved you because I didn’t want to be alone. And I’m sorry that you’ve had to carry this secret all on your own. I should have been there for you, on so many different occasions, and I wasn’t.”

Steve sighed. “Nancy…”

“No.” She held up a hand. “I know what you’re going to say. That it’s ‘okay’ even though we both know it’s not.”

Steve stopped rocking and looked down at his bare feet. He should have thought of putting shoes on, or maybe grabbing a blanket before they came out here.

“It’s not your fault though.” He offered.

“But I could have helped. If I’d just paid attention. Why--?”

She cut herself off, looking so crestfallen all Steve wanted was to make things better. But it wasn’t his job to make everyone else feel comforted about the bad things that happened to him.

“Why didn’t I tell you?” Steve finished for her.

Nancy nodded.

Steve patted the seat next to him, and only continued once Nancy was sitting down. Her own nervous energy rocking them back and forth.

“I didn’t tell you in the beginning because we’d just started dating, and usually family drama is something you reserve for Thanksgiving.”

She didn’t laugh at his half-hearted joke. Nancy remained focused, desperate for the truth.

“And then everything with the Upside Down happened and we had a lot of bigger things to worry about than my family history.”

Steve turned so he could meet Nancy’s eyes. “I did want to though. I was mustering up the courage to tell you. But then the Halloween party happened and…”

Nancy looked away. “I’m sorry.”

“That would have been nice to hear at the time.” Steve half-said to himself. “Thing is though, I’m also kind of glad I didn’t tell you.”

Steve shrugged at her confused expression. “I kind of think you would have steamrolled me into telling Joyce. Or you would have told someone else.”

“I wouldn--”

“Nancy.” He spoke her same with the same soft reassurance that he used the night they closed the gate. “I know you. You do things because you believe it’s right. How it affects everyone else doesn’t always factor into the scenario.”

Steve watched as she opened her mouth to argue. Then she closed it again. He could practically see her thinking about everything she’d done up to this point, trying to prove him wrong. But Steve knew he wasn’t.

Nancy looked down at her feet again, stilling their rocking motion.

“You’re right.” She finally said. “I’m sorry.”

Steve rested a hand on her back. “It’s okay Nance.”

And this time, he meant it.

They’d both come way too far to let the past weigh them down like this.

Nancy sniffed and rubbed at her nose.

“Hey,” Steve half-cooed half-laughed as he pulls her into a hug. “Don’t get all soft on me now. You know I can’t those tears.”

Nancy sniffled into his shoulder and groaned in frustration. “I’m sorry. I should be the one helping you right now.”

Steve thought about Joyce and the little army of kids that had taken care of him the past couple days. “Yeah well, you’re gonna have to get in line at this point.”

Nancy laughed and pulled back, wiping at her eyes before letting out a sigh that seemed to help her refocus.

“I’m serious Steve. What can I do?”

Steve leaned back, trying to think of something. But as he heard Joyce calling everyone to gather for lunch, he realized he had everything he needed right here.

“I don’t know.” He shrugged.

Nancy looked down, her fingers twitching as if she wanted to reach for his hand.

“What about Jonathan?”

Steve turned his full attention to her now. “What do you mean?”

“I know you two haven’t been talking. Maybe I can help with that?”

“Do you--” Steve cleared his throat. “Is he mad at me?”

“No!” Nancy emphatically shook her head. “He’s just confused about who you are to each other now. It feels like everything could change and he doesn’t know how to handle it. He does want to talk to you though.”

“Do he?” Steve tilted his head. “Because it seems like when he’s here he keeps coming up with reasons to leave. I don’t think I’ve ever been alone in a room with him actually.”

Nancy shrugged. “He doesn’t like confrontation.”

“Then how am I supposed to talk to him?” Steve sighed and slumped back heavily into the creaky swing.

Nancy seemed to think for a moment before answering.

“He mentioned wanting to take some pictures before he went back to NYU. I think he was planning on going for a walk and photographing Hawkins at dusk.”

Steve stared incredulously. “And you want me to… what? Stalk him until he talks to me?”

“No, no.” Nancy rolled her eyes. “Although that would kind of be ironic. I was thinking you could talk to him before he goes or something.”

Steve looked out across the porch at the expanse of open land that surrounded the Byers house. “I mean, it’s worth a try.”

Nancy nodded. “I can talk to him ahead of time too. But only if you want.”

Before Steve could respond, Max and El shoved open the front door and stared at the two young adults.

“Hey doofus!” Max called. “Dustin and Joyce don’t want you freezing out here. Also lunch is ready.”

She and El disappeared again. Although Steve could swear he heard El whispering the word ‘doofus’ to herself, most likely logging it away to use later.

Nancy sighed and stood. “We’d better get going then.”

She offered her hand, and this time Steve took it, allowing her to lead him into the house.

“Nancy?” Steve said, just as they were crossing the threshold.

She turned to look at him. Her soft doe-eyes bright and sincerity. “What?”

“Thank you.”

Dustin’s world-famous grilled cheese lived up to its name, and soon everyone was spread throughout the living room in various states of post-lunch nap.

Steve rested his head against Will’s, feeling himself begin to drift off.

He’d been grateful both for Nancy’s apology, and her offer to help him connect with Jonathan.

Steve had a short list of people he wanted to talk to before he could truly move on, and he didn’t want Jonathan’s name to be left unchecked.

Leaving things unspoken had led to years of pain for Steve. And he wasn’t planning on letting silence keep him prisoner any longer.


 

Steve waited on the front porch for Jonathan to return from his photography trek.

He’d considered trying to talk to him before, or even while Jonathan was working, but he figured that would only feel intrusive and lower his chances of actually getting through to him.

It was a little past ten by the time the headlights to the familiar Ford appeared in the distance. Jonathan must have wanted to get some night shots as well.

Either that, or he was just trying to stay away from home until he was sure everyone, but especially Steve, had fallen asleep.

Maybe avoiding things that bothered them was a genetic trait. But if it was, they didn’t inherit it from Joyce.

Steve stood up from the porch steps and shivered against the cold. He’d been smart enough to wear a jacket this time. And even then, Joyce made him wear some extra layers underneath. He tried to draw the line at two pairs of socks, but she gave him that stern, pleading look that only a mother could achieve, and Steve found himself putting on a third pair for extra measure.

“I didn’t think you’d still be up.” Jonathan said as he got out of his car.

“More like you were hoping I wasn’t?” Steve’s voice was almost lost in the frigid breeze that whirled around both their bodies, reminding them that the world was cold, but perhaps they didn’t have to be.

Jonathan looked down at his feet as he approached the house, adjusting and readjusting the strap of his camera bag just to give him something to do other than meet Steve’s eyes.

“I wasn’t avoiding you.”

“I wouldn’t blame you if you were.”

Jonathan stopped at the stairs. Steve wasn’t standing in his way. He didn’t want it to seem like he was trying to stop him.

He stepped down so they were on level ground. “Can we talk?”

“About what?”

Steve sighed, his breath coming out in a cloud of annoyance. “About everything?”

Jonathan didn’t say anything, but he didn’t try to go inside either. So Steve figured this was probably as good as it was going to get.

“I know this is weird for you. It’s weird for me too. I’m not used to…”

Steve didn’t know where to begin. Not used to… what exactly?

Not used to having a family that actively cared?

Not used to having siblings?

Not used to always getting along with those siblings?

Not used to trying to fix things instead of just letting conflict starve to death with uncomfortable silence.

“...I just wanted to talk through things with you.”

Jonathan finally looked up. His grey green eyes bore into him with their typical scrutiny.  

Steve dug the toe of his shoe into the cracked asphalt, and suddenly he was six years old again and Jonathan Byers is the only kid to ever really look at him.

“I’m not mad at you.” Jonathan finally said. “I just… I guess I don’t really know what I feel.”

Steve felt his body uncoil just a little. At least this wasn’t going to turn into a fight.

“I get it. I just didn’t want you to feel like I was taking up your space or something.”

“It’s not like you meant to.”

Definitely a measured answer, Steve thought to himself.

He kicked at some loose gravel. “I know your family was whole before I got here.”

Jonathan wouldn’t meet his eye now, so Steve figured he was on the right track.

“--And now I probably feel like this weird new addition that you don’t know what to do with. You used to be the older brother, you used to be Will’s only sibling. And listen I just wanted to let you know that I’m not going to try to take your place--”

Jonathan looked up accusingly. “So you aren't going to act like his older brother?”

“God just tell me what you want from me!” Steve threw up his hands in exasperation.

“I want you to be a brother.” Jonathan scrunched up his shoulders. “Will needs someone to have his back while I’m at school.”

“You’re just not sure if you want me to be your brother.” Steve finished.

He took Jonathan’s silence for confirmation.

Steve nodded like he didn’t feel like he’d just been punched in the gut. “That’s okay. I mean, you’ve lived your whole life without one. It’d be a little weird to have one now.”

“But…“ He hesitantly looked up, willing Jonathan to meet his gaze. “If we can’t be brothers, then maybe we could try and be friends?”

Jonathan stared at him, and for a tense unreadable moment, Steve didn’t know what was going to happen.

“No.” Jonathan said.

That single word sank like a rock in Steve’s stomach. He felt tears begin to prick at the corners of his eyes.

“No.” Jonathan repeated, stepping a little closer so they were within reach of each other. “I think I’d like to try and be your brother.”

“Oh!” He gasped. “Oh, you asshole!”

Even in the dim moonlight, he could tell Jonathan was smiling. Hesitantly, awkwardly, he held open his arms.

Steve wasted no time pulling Jonathan into a tight hug, and suddenly he didn’t feel so cold anymore.

“I still don’t know about you being my older brother though…” Jonathan’s amused voice was slightly muffled through Steve’s coat.

Steve choked out a laugh. “We can share the title.”

“I can work with that.”

Steve broke off the hug, but kept his hand on Jonathan’s shoulders. “Thank you.”

His brother nodded. “And if you need anything…”

“You’re just a phone call away.” Steve grinned. “Likewise.”

Jonathan smiled back and gestured towards the house. “So, I miss anything interesting today?”

“Well...” Steve wrapped an arm around his shoulder and began walking with him up the front porch.

He told him about the kids planning another campaign, how Dustin made lunch, and how Mike sulked after Hopper and El had to go back home.

Steve told Jonathan about the things he considered important or funny, and Jonathan nodded along and smiled or laughed at the points Steve thought he might, because these stories were a part of a family and community that was theirs now.

For the first time ever, Steve no longer felt like he was living parallel to Jonathan. They were on the same path now, and it felt so much better than being alone.

Chapter Text

Steve loved his family. He loved the way Joyce actually cared how he was feeling, and how Will asked questions and got excited when Steve asked his own, and how the other kids followed his around making sure he wasn't exerting himself too much.

The thing was, Steve wasn't used to this kind of attention. And as the days passed, he found this uncomfortable anxiety coiling up in his chest. Like a pot of hot water on the brink of boiling over.

Joyce hovered over him like he might shatter at any moment. Answering question after question gave Steve a headache. And he just wanted one goddamn minute to himself.

Usually when he felt overwhelmed like this, Steve could just disappear to his room or Tommy’s. But when he tried find a quiet unoccupied place in the house, someone would inevitably find him. Usually Dustin or Joyce.

He knew it was only because they loved him, but Steve was starting to worry that he'd blow up at someone who didn't deserve it.

Which is how Steve found himself crawling out of the bathroom window in the middle of the afternoon.

He knew Joyce (and Dustin) would freak out once they realized he was gone. But he rationalized it by telling himself Jonathan and Will had probably snuck out at least once or twice under Joyce's nose. Steve would come back just like they did.

He just needed some space to breathe.

Steve had recovered enough that a walk in the brisk Hawkins air didn't make him dizzy or exhausted. If he thought he couldn't handle it then he wouldn't have even attempted it. He wasn't stupid.

Besides, it's not like he was just wandering aimlessly. Steve knew where he was going.

It was usually a thirty-minute walk to Tommy's from Steve's house. From the Byers it probably took a little longer, but that also wasn’t accounting for the fact that Steve was still sore from the surgery, so he was going slower than usual.

By the time he was knocking on Tommy's door, Steve's fingers and cheeks were a little numb.

“Steve!” Tommy threw open the door with a huge smile on his face. A smile that quickly disappeared when he took in his friend’s shivering state.

“Steve.” He said again, fueled almost entirely by exasperation. “You didn't walk here did you?”

It was framed like a question but they both knew it was rhetorical.

Steve shrugged. “The doctor said I shouldn't drive for a few weeks after the surgery so…”

Tommy tilted his head back and groaned. “Just get inside.”

As soon as he crossed the threshold, Carol had appeared and enveloped Steve in a tight hug. He began to teeter backwards from the momentum. As he tried to regain his balance, Steve felt Tommy’s solid frame appear against his back, steadying him. He already felt that tension in his chest begin to uncoil just a little as he was sandwiched in a hug between his childhood best friends.

“Steve.” Carol cooed and pressed her cheek into his chest. “I'm so glad you came!”

“I didn't want you guys to think I'd forgotten you.” Steve only half-joked.

He'd considered calling or inviting them over to visit, but didn't want to put anyone in an awkward position.

“You're freezing!” Carol noticed, rubbing at Steve's arms and cupping his face in her hands.

“It's not too bad.” He lied, even as Carol pulled him deeper into the comfortingly familiar house until they reached the living room.

Steve didn't have to turn around to know that Tommy was dutifully following them. “Is your mom working?”

“Double-shift.” He answered. It's all he ever had to say.

Tommy's mom had worked at the same diner since Steve could remember. She'd also worked mostly double-shifts ever since Tommy's dad walked out on them when he was nine.

Steve was pretty sure that was one of the reasons Tommy stayed in Hawkins.

Steve let Carol tug him down onto the couch and pull a blanket around the three of them with Tommy on his other side.

For a moment he just closed his eyes and appreciated the feeling of being so close to his friends. He loved Dustin and the kids, but there was definitely a difference between them and Tommy and Carol. He felt like he could completely relax with the couple, without having to worry about being anyone’s babysitter. He couldn’t unload his stress on the kids like the three of them could for each other.

Carol brushed a finger over where his surgery scar was. “So how are things going?”

“Good.” Steve slowly nodded his head for a while, suddenly remembering that this morning began with him crawling out a bathroom window precisely because things weren’t exactly good. “Joyce is being really nice, and I was able to talk to Jonathan before he went back to school yesterday.”

Carol ‘mmh-hmm’d’ and shared a look with Tommy, who nudged Steve in the side. “Come on, how’s it really going?”

Steve sighed and looked down at his lap. As his body continued to warm back up, he felt a frustrated flush burn at his cheeks. “It’s… It’s good, it really is. Everything I could have ever hoped for. But…”

He gave a jerky shrug, trying to find the right words before his emotions could spill out and overwhelmed everything else. He hated talking about these kinds of things. He could never find the right words.

“I’m not used to having a family that’s there all the time. Like, before when I was tired or needed some space it was no problem. But now it’s like there’s always someone around and I feel like I can’t relax because they’re all watching me, and I feel like I have to be there with them instead of just doing something chill like listening to music or just lying down.”

As his voice began to shake, he felt Tommy rest a hand on his back.

“--And I know this is what I wanted, and I should just be happy, but it’s all so new and overwhelming and I don’t want to let anyone down or make them realize that maybe I’m not what they were looking for or expected.”

“Hey.” Carol rested a hand on Steve’s knee. “That’s not going to happen. They love you.”

“I know,” Steve rubbed at the corner of his eye. “I know they do, and I love them, but we’re still trying to figure each other out and they want to know everything and just…”

“Talking about yourself was never really your strong suit.” Tommy finished.

Steve exhaled and stared at a stain on the carpet where he and Tommy had spilled their first can of beer when they were twelve.

He felt so much calmer compared to even a moment ago. All it took was Tommy’s words to turn the churning waters of his mind into still glass.

This was why he needed Tommy and Carol. They got him. They’d known each other practically their whole lives and knew where their strengths and weaknesses lied.

But not in the critical way. They shared a deeper understanding that came from years of knowing one another that allowed someone to separate weaknesses from faults.

Like how Steve understood why Tommy hated taking orders from adults. It wasn’t because he was rebellious or didn’t give a shit. It was because after his dad left, he had a hard time trusting that the authority figures in his life wouldn’t do the same. What was the point of listening to someone who might not be around tomorrow?

Or how Carol used to tell kids at school she’d slept with a couple of the teachers or upperclassmen. The nasty things people would say about her behind her back didn’t quite hurt as much when she was the one starting the rumors. At least then she felt like she had some control over what people thought of her.

And Steve…

Tommy and Carol knew that, as much as all of Hawkins High thought they knew King Steve, they only knew what didn’t matter in the first place. They knew he came from a rich family and had a big home that was the best for hosting parties. But they didn’t know that his parents were never around, and that left Steve terrified to ever ask anything of them because it meant they might go away again.

Steve remembered one night he was sleeping over at Tommy’s when he told him, drunk and crying, that he was scared that one of these days his parents just wouldn’t come back.

His parents made him feel so terrified of talking about himself that he was starting to think he was physically incapable of doing it at all anymore.

Answering questions and telling Joyce his favorite color was one thing, but Steve didn’t know how to tell her how scared he was. He didn’t know how to ask her or anyone else for anything because he still had that voice in the back of his head that told him he shouldn’t bother them or else they might decide he wasn’t worth the trouble.

“Things like this take time.” Carol whispered. “I’m sure Joyce has her own fears and worries that she’s holding back from you.”

Steve sniffed. He knew she was right. Carol almost always was when it came to stuff like that.

“I just don’t know how to get there. How to actually talk about it all.” He whispered.

“Then tell her that.” Carol pulled her hand out from under the blanket and reached for Steve’s. “If she loves you, and you know she does, she’ll help you get there.”

“Thanks Carol.” Steve whispered as he trailed his fingers along her palm and across her knuckles.

Her hands were always so much smaller compared to his and Tommy’s. But they were soft and delicate, and it made Steve happy to see the two of them holding hands together. Her small pale fingers interlaced with Tommy’s freckle-covered…

Steve’s mind froze when he touched something cool and solid wrapped around Carol’s finger.

His eyes turned downwards until they focused on the simple wooden ring on her left hand.

“Holy shit!” Steve grabbed Carol’s hand and pulled it closer, staring at the new piece of jewelry. It looked homemade, sanded and glazed smooth to the touch and stained a deep cherrywood red. It fit her perfectly.

Steve stared between Carol and Tommy’s matching smiles. “Did you two…?”

“Told you it wouldn’t take him forever to notice.” Carol grinned smugly at Tommy.

“It doesn’t count! You helped him!” Her boyfriend-now-fiancé complained.

Steve kept turning his head left and right to stare at both of them. “Are you guys--? When did that happen?”

“After you got out of the hospital.” Tommy answered.

“We didn’t want to set a day for the wedding until all three of us talked.” Carol offered as Steve kept turning her hand this way and that to get a better look at the ring.

“Huh?” Steve stopped and looked between the two again. “Why?”

“Because we want you there, asshole.” Tommy playfully shoved at him. “I’m not getting married without a best man.”

Steve fell back against the couch, completely overwhelmed. “You want me to be your best man?”

“Obviously.” Tommy grinned.

Carol leaned in. “I wanted you to be my maid of honor and told Tommy we should flip for it, but he claimed he gets seniority since he’s known you longer.”

“Plus, you’d probably look terrible in salmon pink.” Tommy added.

Steve stared at Carol’s ring.

Engaged.

His two best friends were engaged. And they wanted him to be a part of it.

“Steve?” Tommy nudged. “Come on buddy, say something.”

Steve slowly turned to both of them with a huge smile on his face. “I’m so happy for you guys!”

He wrapped his arms around them, ignoring the painful strain is caused his scar, and pulled them into a hug.

Tommy laughed and pressed their foreheads together while Carol was tucked under Steve’s chin. It was perfect. Just the three of them together again.

And yet, after all the talking and excitement, Steve found himself missing Joyce and everyone else in his new family.

“I should get going.” Steve whispered.

“What?” Carol pulled back. “But you just got here!”

“I know but I still need to swing by my parents’ house and grab some of my stuff before I head back home and--”

“We can drive you.” Tommy shrugged and got up from the couch.

Steve tried to follow as Tommy began pulling his shoes on and digging for his keys, but Carol pulled him back. “Come on man, you don’t have to do that.”

“We know.” Carol said. “But we want to.”

Tommy smiled as he found his keys. “Someone’s gotta bully you into taking care of yourself. Besides, Mrs. Byers’ll be pissed if she finds out you’ve been walking around on your own.”

Steve really couldn’t argue with that.


 

Tommy and Carol helped Steve dig around his room looking for the right clothes and items he needed.

He’d come back here eventually, so this wasn’t about taking everything and leaving. He just needed enough to make life at the Byers a little more relaxed and livable. You could only wear the same three outfits for so long before getting tired of them.

“So, what’s going to happen after you two get married?” Steve asked, pulling a hoodie from his closet.

“We haven’t quite decided.” Carol shrugged. “I need to finish school, so Tommy’ll come live with me on campus until I graduate. But we were thinking of moving back to Hawkins afterwards.”

“That might be nice.” Steve picked up an unused graph-paper notebook he thought Will would like.

“What about you?” Tommy asked. He was sitting on the bed, occasionally helping but mostly quietly teasing Carol while she tried to fit as much into Steve’s duffel bag as possible.

Steve paused. He’d been thinking about that question a lot lately.

High school was over, and he really didn’t have it in him to jump right into a four-year college like Jonathan. But Steve also didn’t want to just stand still the rest of his life. He loved Hawkins, despite everything, but he also found himself flipping through travel magazines or the college brochures his advisors had given him.

The thing was, Steve didn’t see any point in moving states until he knew what he wanted to do with his life.

He finally gave a non-committal shrug. “I’ve been thinking a lot about child services or nursing or something. I don’t know.”

“That’d be cool!” Carol replied, stuffing Steve’s softest pair of socks into a side pocket of his bag. “You know I heard the Hawkins Community College offers some classes on that. You could always take a few and see if you like it.”

Steve absent-mindedly rolled up one of his blue and grey baseball shirts. That actually didn’t sound like a bad idea. It was still close to Hawkins so he could stay here and help out Joyce, Will, and everyone else if they needed him, and he would be working towards something for his future.

He nodded. “I’ve also been thinking about my whole living situation recently.”

“Are you thinking of moving in with the Byers instead of...?” Tommy gestured to the house they were in.

Steve shook his head.

“No. Maybe? I mean, Joyce offered me Jonathan’s room since he’s away at college and he said he’s cool with it, but that feels like a step back or something. Joyce is my mom, I’m her kid, and I love her, but I don’t need the same kind of care or help as Will does. I’d rather just…” He forcefully stuffed the shirt in his bag.

“I don’t know, find an apartment and just move forward? That’s probably what I’d be doing if I’d been raised by Joyce from the start. That probably sounds dumb.” Steve shook his head.

“No,” Carol sat down close enough so Tommy could wrap his arms around her waist. “It makes sense. Have you mentioned any of that to her?”

Steve sighed and slumped down on his old bed next to the couple. “Not yet. But I know I should before she gets too attached to the idea of me staying. I just don’t want to upset her or anything.”

“You’ll stay in touch though.” Tommy offered. “Probably be over there at least a few times a month so it’s not like she’s losing you.”

Steve looked at his full duffel bag and then the rest of the room. Most of the things would stay. The car poster, most of the family photos, the sports equipment, he wouldn’t be needing those things no matter where he ended up living.

But while he was thinking about sports equipment...

“Is my car still parked around here?” Steve asked as he zipped up his bag.

Tommy blinked. “Yeah I parked in on the side street, why? You’re not thinking of driving, are you?”

“No,” Steve shouldered his bag. “I just need to get something before we go.”


 

Steve had debated how he’d explain the bat to Tommy and Carol, because obviously they were going to walk to him to his car to make sure he didn't collapse and die on the way over.

Eventually he settled on just playing it casual.

“Holy shit!” Tommy took a step back as Steve pulled the nail bat out of his trunk. “Where’d you get that?”

“Jonathan actually made it.” Steve shrugged, conveniently leaving off the other half of that answer. The part about using it to fight monsters from another dimension.

Carol still looked confused. “Okay but, why do you have it?”

“You mean you don’t have a bat full of nails in your car?” Steve tilted his head with a smile.

Sensing she wasn’t going to get a clear answer, Carol rolled her eyes. “Fine, be Mr. Mystery. Is there anything else you need before we go?”

Before Steve could answer, Hopper’s cruiser whipped around a corner, sped past them, and slammed on its brakes.

The trio watched as the sheriff's car shifts into reverse and rolls back until Hopper is glaring at them over his sunglasses.

“Where the hell have you been?”

“Huh?” Steve looks over his shoulder at Tommy and Carol, wondering what his chances are that Hopper wasn’t mad at him specifically.

But as usual, luck wasn’t on Steve’s side.

“Joyce called me over an hour ago.” Hopper said, stepping out of his cruiser and marching over to Steve. “She was hysterical saying something about you going missing and that something’s wrong.”

Oh, right.

Steve nervously shifted from one foot to the other. “I just needed some air. I was gonna come back.”

“Just needed some air.” Hopper huffed and grabbed Steve’s bat and bag from him. “The kids have been worried sick!”

Steve had seen Hopper mad before. Trying to save the world tended to bring that out in a person. He’d just never had it directed at him before.

“I’m sorry.” Steve tried to say as Hopper threw his stuff in his truck’s back.

“Just get in the car.”

Steve turned to Tommy and Carol. To say goodbye. To say thank you. To say sorry and he’d call them later.

“Now.” Hopper ordered.

He could see Tommy was just about to say something that would probably get them all in trouble.

But all it took was a stern look from Steve and Carol’s hand on his wrist for Tommy to take a breath and a step back.

“Are you going to be okay?” Carol glanced to where Hopper was already impatiently drumming his fingers on the steering-wheel.

Steve swallowed hard. “Yeah. I think so.” He whispered as he turned towards the Chevy. “Thanks guys.”

Hopper didn’t say anything as he climbed into the passenger’s seat. He barely waited for Steve to close the car door before he shifted the car into gear and drove off, leaving Tommy and Carol in the dust.

This wasn’t the same friendly silence that Steve had shared with his friends earlier. This was a heavy uncomfortable silence that Steve was all too familiar with. The kind of silence that told you to keep quiet unless you wanted to make things worse. The kind of silence that could turn into yelling if you said the wrong thing.

So, Steve kept quiet.

Eventually they stopped at a light and Hopper shifted in his seat, running a hand over his beard and turning to glare at Steve.

“Care to tell me why you snuck out?”

Steve considered not answering. But something told him that would make things worse.

“Sorry.” Steve said again, looking down so he didn’t have to look at Hopper.

He heard Hopper sigh and mumble something and suddenly there was an arm across his chest and Steve was six years old again and Lonnie Byers was threatening him and telling him to stay away and that Joyce didn’t want him and--

Steve shoved the arm away and pressed his back against the car door staring wide-eyed at a very confused Hopper.

“Kid…” Hopper started.

“I’m sorry!” Steve repeated, though he wasn’t quite sure who he was saying it to.

“I was just telling you to buckle your seat belt.” Hopper gestured to the unused belt by Steve’s door. Exactly where he had been reaching.

“Oh.” Steve whispered, slowly coming back to himself. He hesitantly slid back into his spot and obediently buckled his seat before staring resolutely out the windshield.

He didn’t want to look at Hopper. Didn’t want to see the way the Chief of Police would be staring at him.

But the car didn’t move.

There was no one behind them to honk or complain, so now Steve and Hopper were just parked in the middle of the road waiting for the other person to do something.

“What the hell was that?” Hopper finally asked, although his voice was much softer. Almost the same voice he used when he talked to El.

Steve looked down at his hands, itching to hold something. “Nothing, you startled me is all.”

“Nah.” Hopper shook his head. “No, I know started when I see it. You were terrified. Did you think I was going to hit you or something?”

Steve shrugged.

He didn’t want to tell Hopper about Lonnie. He didn’t want to tell him about the few times his dad hit him when he’d been too much of a disappointment. He didn’t want to tell him about how after a while the heavy silent waiting was sometimes worse than actually getting hit because then at least it was over.

Steve didn’t want to talk about how scared he was of Hopper when they first met because he reminded him of those men.

Hopper exhaled through his teeth, and Steve waited.

Deep down he knew Hopper wasn’t like Arthur or Lonnie. He was better than them. He cared about Joyce and watched out for El and the other kids when things got rough. Hell, even Jonathan trusted him.

But for Steve, it always felt like there was this unbridgeable divide between him and the Chief of Police. He didn’t know how to talk to him. Didn’t know how normal conversations between adult men should go where one of them wasn’t terrified of the other.

After a while Hopper began to drive again.

He didn’t say anything else to Steve, just stared straight ahead until they pulled in front of the Byers and waited until Steve got out before exiting himself.

Joyce was out the front door and down the porch steps before Steve was even a foot away from the car.

“I’m sorr--” Steve tried to say but was cut off when Joyce wrapped her arms tightly around him and gave a shuddering sigh.

“Where were you?” She whispered. “I thought something had happened, I thought you were gone.”

Steve slowly hugged her back and buried his face in her shoulder. He hoped she didn’t feel some stray tears soak into her jacket.

“I’m sorry. I just went to see Tommy and Carol. I should have told you.”

“I thought you were gone.” Joyce repeated.

At first those words confused Steve. Did she actually think he wasn’t coming back?

But then he thought about all this from her perspective.

Her son, the one she’d believed was lost forever for almost two decades, finally came back into her life. And then one day he disappears without warning.

All those fears must have come welling back up. The thought of losing one of her children again...

I thought you were gone.

Steve held Joyce a little tighter, grounding both of them in the here and now. Where husbands don’t lie, and fathers don’t threaten their children.

“I’m right here.” Steve whispered.


 

Hopper slowly trudged outside in the general direction Joyce had shoved him.

The stars and moon were the only things lighting his path as he walked towards the tree line in search of Steve.

Earlier Hopper had told Joyce about what happened between them in the truck and had asked her if anything had happened to the kid that might have caused that kind of reaction.

She told him he was an insensitive idiot for scaring Steve like that and pushed him outside to make things right. She didn’t even tell him exactly what he’d done wrong because ‘that was Steve’s story to tell.’

So here he was, trailing along the Byers’ property looking for a mopey teenager who “just needed some air.”

At first, Hopper thought it was a firefly floating through the night. But then he realized it was a cigarette butt glowing solitary along with its user. He followed the small orange light as it faded and brightened with each inhale until he found Steve sitting on one of the fence posts that marked the property lines.

“Hey kid, mind if I join you?”

“Sure.” Steve said, seemingly ignoring Hopper.

Jim leaned against his own post, purposefully keeping a safe distance so as not to disturb Steve.

“Those’ll kill you, you know.” Hopper gestured to the cigarette as he lit his own unfiltered one.

But Steve didn’t respond.

Jim followed his gaze until he was looking back at the house. It was far enough away that it almost looked like a ship out on the ocean. A beacon of light amidst a sea of darkness.

“Sure is a nice view.” Hopper half-said to himself. “Though I bet it’s a helluva lot warmer inside instead of staying out here.”

Steve pulled the cigarette from his lips and exhaled, smoke mixing with his breath and creating a cloud that surrounded him like a halo before dissipating into the night.

“Is there something you need Chief?”

Hopper took a drag from his own cigarette. Steve clearly wanted to get straight to the point.

“I owe you an apology kid.”

Taken aback, Steve finally turned to face Hopper. “What?”

“Earlier in the car. I shouldn’t have been mad at you. Shouldn’t have scared you. I was worried about Joyce and I took it out on you. I’m sorry.”

A silence fell between the two. For a moment Hopper thought Steve was ignoring him again, but then the younger man quietly said “Huh.”

It almost sounded like a heavy sigh, but Hopper caught it. “What?”

“Nothing,” Steve said as he jumped down from his perch and walked closer to Hopper. “It’s just I don’t think an adult has ever apologized to me for something before.”

“Really?” Hopper watched as Steve hoisted himself up on the fence again so they were sitting side by side.

“Mmm hmm.” Steve hummed around his cigarette as he found a comfortable position. “My dad sure as hell never apologized for anything.”

“Your dad as in… Arthur?”

“Yeah.” Steve pulled the cigarette from his lips and held it between his fingers as he rested his hands on his knees. “You know, I was thinking, he probably doesn’t even know I was in surgery. Wouldn’t care even if he did. I mean, he’ll care once the bills come in but aside from that...” He waved dismissively.  

Hopper watched Steve’s relaxed posture. He had expected this to be a little more difficult. With El it usually took at least a day’s worth of groveling and eggos in the morning to mend things.

“So just like that, we’re good?”

“You didn’t mean anything by it.” Steve shrugged.

“I’m still not even totally sure what ‘it’ was.”

He watched as Steve looked down at his cigarette, hunching in on himself. “It’s nothing.”

Hopper casually rested his hands on his legs, making sure they were in sight so he didn’t accidentally spook the kid again. “Steve.”

The kid looked up at him then, and it struck Hopper that this was the first time he’d addressed Steve by his first name.

Taking advantage of his rapt audience, Hopper continued.

“You ever listen to those little brats you babysit? They’ve got a pretty good rule about friends and lying…”

Steve cracked a skeptical smile. “So we’re friends now, huh?”

That took him by surprise. "Yeah, I'd like to think so."

Steve licked his lips and looked back to the house. The warm glow from inside just barely reached him.

“Kid,” Hopper leaned a little closer. “I’m going to have your back. No matter what. You’re a part of Joyce’s family now.”

Dark eyes turned to look at Hopper. He could recognize Joyce in those eyes. Jim felt the familiar scrutiny Steve must have inherited from his mom as those eyes studied him, searching for something that can’t be seen.

Trust.

Steve sighed and looked at his feet. And for a moment Hopper thought he’d been found wanting until the kid began to speak.

“When I was like six or something, Joyce offered to drive me home after school because my mom was super late and she didn’t want me to be alone.”

Jim waited patiently, watching the smoke rise from the abandoned cigarette between Steve’s fingers.

“She told me I could wait here while she called my place.” He gestured towards the house. “I guess mom was pretty busy because I ended up staying for a while. But it didn’t feel like a while. It… It was probably one of the nicest memories I had as a kid. She read me and Jonathan story books and made me feel at home.”

Steve took a breath.

“Then Lonnie showed up.”

Hopper felt his body tense. He knew Lonnie. He knew how Joyce and everyone else is her family felt about him. And he knew that Lonnie was partly responsible for Steve not being with Joyce from the start.

“When he walked through the door it felt like all the air was sucked from the room. Like there was this heavy weight all of a sudden.”

Steve rubbed at his chest.

“Lonnie told Joyce he’d drive me home. It was like he couldn’t get me out of there fast enough. At least now I kind of know why.”

Hopper tried to imagine Steve as a kid being driven home by a man who must not have been too happy to see him, and pieces began to fall into place.  

“Must have been a little scary riding with him.” He prompted, feeling his stomach begin to churn.

Steve let out a choked laugh.

“I didn’t move at all; I was so nervous. The entire drive felt so long and so tense I could barely breathe...”

Hopper watched as Steve absently rubbed at his neck, his eyes suddenly caught in a thousand-yard stare.

“And then, when he reached my house, he kept me in the car and pressed his arm across my chest. He told me Joyce didn’t want to take care of me. That I was a burden and I shouldn’t bother her or her family because she was already so busy.”

Hopper thought back to earlier. How Steve had flinched away and looked at him like he was about to get hit. It must have triggered those memories.

He balled up his fist, imagining how satisfying it would be to throttle Lonnie right about now.

“You were just a kid.”

Steve took a long drag from his cigarette, and Hopper didn’t miss how his hand was shaking slightly.

“I just wish I knew why he agreed to all this. Why he decided I was unwanted or whatever.”

Hopper clenched his jaw and looked across the moonlit-scape. Wondering how things could have played out differently if Lonnie wasn’t such a heartless asshole.

And from the sound of it, Steve didn’t have it any better living with his other family.

Despite what little Hopper knew about Arthur Harrington, he got the sense that Steve didn’t have much in the way of a good father figure in his life.

Maybe he could fix that.

“I’m sorry kid.” Hopper said again, except this time he wasn’t just apologizing for himself.

Steve shrugged and lazily swung his legs back and forth. “It’s okay.”

“No it’s not.”

Steve turned and smiled sadly at Hopper. “No, it’s not.”
They sat there is silence for a while, smoke tangling with their own thoughts around their heads as they sat in the kind of silence that only comes after the sun’s set.

Hopper cleared his throat. “So how are you really doing with all this?”

Steve scoffed and glanced at Hopper from the corner of his eye.

He took a long drag from his cigarette before exhaling the smoke and staring out at the Byers house.

“During junior year, Mrs. Macklin was teaching us about ecosystems and stuff in Biology. One of the things she talked about was invasive species.”

When Hopper didn't say anything, Steve continued.

“They're these things that don’t naturally exist in a specific place. Because of that they don't have anything to keep them in check or make sure they don’t cause problems in the habitat they’re not native to.”

Steve looked down and tapped a finger to his chest. “That's how I feel right now. I feel like… like I shouldn't be here and maybe I'm making things more complicated.”

“You do belong here kid. They're your family.”

“Yeah but they're not used to me being here. Hell, I'm not used to being here. It's not their fault, it's just the way it is.”

“You belong here Steve.” Hopper pressed. “They love you too much to give up on you now.”

Steve fixed Hopper with a steady gaze. He tapped his cigarette out on the fencepost.

“You belong here too you know.”

Jim scoffed, letting Steve direct the conversation away from himself. “That's different.”

“No, it's not. Joyce loves you. Jonathan and Will love you. You're family. Why not try and make it legit?”

Hopper shrugged. “I don't know if trying to change how things are would be the best idea right now.”

“You gotta stop making excuses man.”

Hopper took another drag from his cigarette and gave Steve a mildly incredulous stare. “Isn't that what you've been doing for years now?”

“Yeah, well,” Steve grinned and knocked Hopper's hanging leg with his own. “us invasive species gotta look out for each other.”

Hopper scoffed and shook his head with a smile. If someone told him even a year ago that he'd be bonding over a cigarette with Steve Harrington he'd have called them crazy.

Then again, sharing a smoke with Steve was probably the most normal thing he's done since all this shit started.

It's funny how life has a way of changing while you're not paying attention.

"How about we go back inside where it's warm first and see where we got from there?"

Steve shrugged and stubbed out his cigarette on the fence post. "It's a start."

As he watched Steve begin to walk back to the house through the tall dewy grass, hands stuffed in his pockets and his still-too-skinny frame reminding Hopper of a solitary sapling, he got the sense Steve was used to people saying they were going to do things but never end up following through.

Hopper doused his own cigarette before he began to follow Steve. His legs moved on autopilot, following Steve as the younger man seamlessly stepped around rocks and foliage that would have tripped up Hopper if he were trying to walk in the dark on his own.

His mind was busy thinking over what Steve said, picturing what he deserved, and began formulating a plan to make sure Steve never felt like he was on his own or unwanted ever again.


 

Even though Jonathan had gone back to NYU, Steve was still sleeping on the couch instead of the now-vacant bed.

It felt too final inhabiting that bedroom. Especially when Steve wasn't sure if he was staying or not.

But he was seriously beginning to reconsider that, if whoever was banging on the front door at God-knows-when-o'clock in the morning didn't stop soon.

"Coming." Steve grumbled, pulling his blanket around his shoulders and shuffling to see who had disturbed him.

He'd considered just burrowing deeper into the couch and muffling the noise with a pillow, but that'd just mean someone else would end up having to deal with their early morning guest.

Steve pulled open the door with a little more force than necessary. "Can I help y-- Hopper?"

"Hey kid." Hopper smiled and took in Steve's baggy PJs. "You're going to want to get dressed."

"Huh?" Steve rubbed at his eyes and stumbled back as Hopper entered the house. The blanket around his shoulder dragged after him as he followed him into the living room.

"Is everyone still asleep?" Hopper asked, removing his hat and fiddling with it like he was waiting for a prom date.

"Is everyone asleep at…" Steve made a show of checking his empty wrist. "Sunrise on a Saturday morning? Yeah Hop of course they're asleep. Why aren't you?"

"Because we've gotta do something." Hopper looked back at Steve. "Why aren't you getting dressed?"

"Because you haven't told me what we're supposed to be doing yet." Steve crossed his arms and stared at the Chief of Police; the blanket still hung around his shoulders like a cape.

He wasn't a morning person on a good day. But on the days when he was still recovering from major surgery, he barely qualified as any kind of person at all. Mornings were for sleeping. Period.

"We're going to go see Lonnie Byers."

The blanket slid from Steve's shoulders. "What?"

Hopper shrugged. "You said you wanted to know why he gave you away. I figured it might give you some closure. But if you're not interested…"

"No no! I want to go!" Steve quickly responded, grabbing the blanket and tossing it back on the couch. He wasn't going back to sleep anytime soon. "Just give me a minute."

He still had the clothes from the hospital that Tommy had brought. The rest of Steve's belongings were still in the back of Hopper's truck from yesterday. But he could grab those later.

Right now, Steve wanted to be out the door and on the road as soon as possible.

His mind was still trying to process the fact that Hopper had actually been listening to him last night. Not only that, but he’d decided to do something about what Steve had said!

As he dug through the bag he'd stored in Jonathan's room, he heard the door creak open.

"Steve?" Will whispered, still rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. "What are you doing?"

"Hopper and I are going somewhere."

"Where?"

Steve paused, trying to decide how much he should share. But after only a moment he realized there wasn't any point in withholding things from his family. He'd have to get used to that.

"He's taking me to see Lonnie."

"What?" Will was wide awake now, staring at Steve as he pulled a black shirt and some jeans from his bag. "Why?"

"I… I just need to ask him something." Steve stood and walked to the bathroom with Will on his heels. He probably would have followed him inside if Steve hadn't shut the door.

"You're going to ask him about why he gave you away, aren't you?" Will's voice was muffled through the door.

"Yes." Steve said simply as he changed into his new clothes.

"Can I come with you?" Will asked.

"No." Steve answered.

"Why not?"

Steve pulled open the bathroom door and walked back into Jonathan's room to put away his clothes. He shrugged on a dark flannel shirt but didn't bother buttoning it up.

Joyce must have gotten up at some point because he could hear her and Hopper arguing in the living room. Probably having the exact same conversation that he and Will were.

Steve rolled up the sleeves of his shirt until the cuffs reached above his forearms. "Because I'm the one that wants to do this. I don't want to drag you into it."

"You're not dragging me anywhere." Will argued, refusing to let Steve get too far away in case he tried to sneak out.

Steve walked into the living room where Joyce was crossing her arms next to Hopper.

"I'm going with you." She said. There was no room for argument.

"Me too!" Will added.

Steve looked to Hopper for support, but only received a 'don't look at me' face that told Steve he wasn't going to try and fight Joyce on this. Steve honestly couldn't find it in himself to be upset about that.

He sighed and turned to Joyce. "You don't have to come."

She nodded, her eyes softening for a moment before she reached out and grasped his shoulders. "You're right. I need to. I have to hear what Lonnie has to say for himself. And if he decides to not say anything, then I need to be there for you."

Steve felt his chest ache. But it wasn't the kind of ache he was used to. This one didn't hurt. It felt warm, comforting, like his body couldn't physically handle feeling so loved.

"Thank you." Steve smiled, letting Joyce pull him into a hug.

He wondered how he had lived without this kind of love his entire life.

After they pulled away, he turned back to Will. "Do you really want to come?"

His little brother nodded emphatically.

"Do you promise to stay in the car?"

Again, Will nodded, although not as enthusiastically.

Steve sighed and looked back to Hopper. "Got room in your truck for two more?”

Hopper smiled. “As long as you’re fine with your mom riding up front.”


 

The farther away from Hawkins they got, the quieter the car became. Everyone was clearly too wrapped up in their own thoughts to attempt a conversation.

In fact, Hopper was the first to break the silence by saying "We're here" almost an hour later as they pulled in front of a poorly maintained house.

The nicest thing on the property was a jet black 1972 Oldsmobile that caught the sun in its spotless surface.

For a moment, they all just stared at the house. Steve's hand was on the door handle, although right now he was clutching it like a lifeline instead of putting it to use.

He imagined the many ways this could turn out. None of those outcomes included reconciliation. Steve wasn't looking for that. He just wanted answers.

"Steve?" Joyce's tentative voice brought him back to the here and now. "Are you alright?"

"Yeah." Steve blinked and pulled on the door handle. "Yeah, let's go."

True to his word, Will stayed in the car with only mild argument.

Hopper and Joyce stayed on either side of Steve as they walked across the dead lawn towards the house.

"I'm going to hang back." Hopper nodded, remaining just a few paces away from the porch steps. Close enough that he could step in if needed, but far enough to not spook Lonnie.

Steve could feel the porch splinter beneath his shoes as they reached the door.

“Okay,” he whispered. “Here we go.”

He tried the doorbell first.

Tried it a second time when they didn’t get a response.

Then after a moment he and Joyce resorted to knocking.

In all the scenarios he’d imagined, it had never occurred to Steve that Lonnie might not be home.

For a moment, they just stood staring dejectedly at the door.

This felt so anticlimactic.

Like if Dorothy never got to go home in The Wizard of Oz.

Steve almost couldn’t imagine going back to Hawkins, driving back in that quiet car, knowing that they hadn’t accomplished anything.

It’d feel like a failure.

Steve didn’t want to turn around. He could already imagine the look of disappointment on Will’s face.

If the ground opened up and swallowed Steve up it would be a welcome reprieve from the crushing dismay overwhelming him right now.

“Steve.” Joyce reached for his arm. “We can go, we tried.”

Steve turned toward his mom, expecting the telltale signs of disappointment that seemed to constantly reside on his parents' faces.

But Joyce didn’t look disappointed. She just looked sorry. And Steve didn’t know how to respond to it. He’d never had a parent who actually cared about his feelings instead of treating them like a burden or a problem to be dealt with.

“It’s okay.” Joyce reassured him, gently guiding Steve away. “Come on, let’s go home.”

He resisted for a moment, giving the door one last hopeful glance before letting Joyce tug him off the porch.

“I’m sorry kid.” Hopper said, meeting them at the bottom of the stairs. “We tried.”

“Yeah,” Steve answered, kicking a loose pebble at his feet. “I guess.”

It didn’t feel right to leave like this. He’d made peace with Jonathan. Lonnie was supposed to be the next on his list. That wasn’t a name meant to be left unchecked.

“Tell you what,” Hopper slung an arm around Steve’s shoulders. “We’ll grab some burgers on the way home and gather up the rest of those little brats and have a game night or something. How does that sound?”

Steve smiled and rubbed at his nose. “That sounds--”

The sound of a screen door opening halted the trio in their steps.

“Damn. Ain’t this a surprise.”

Hesitantly, all three turned to see Lonnie standing on the porch with his hands on his hips.

Steve had spent a lot of time thinking about what he’d inherited from Joyce. He knew he had her eyes and her hair, and Steve would like to think he’d gotten her heart too.

But looking at Lonnie now, in his unbuttoned shirt with the sleeves rolled up, Steve felt sick as he realized he’d inherited things from Lonnie too.

He recognized himself in Lonnie’s posture. His hands on his hips and the tilt of his head. Even his frame wasn’t completely unfamiliar.

“What the hell are you doing here?”

“What are we doing here?” Joyce stepped forward. “We’re here because you lied to us!”

Lonnie looked down with a lazy smile. “Shit. I was wondering if either of you’d ever figure it out.”

“Why?” Steve said, gently stepping out from Hopper’s protection and standing beside Joyce. They were both facing down someone who had wronged them. But at least now they could do it together.

Lonnie scratched at his stubbly neck. “Why what?”

It felt like he’d just swallowed burning coals. He knew this wouldn’t be easy. He knew Lonnie didn’t care. But right now, Steve just wanted answers.

“That’s all you can say?” Steve almost shouted, taking another step forward. “After everything you did? You disrupted my entire life and you don’t think you owe either of us any kind of explanation?”

Lonnie scoffed and looked away. At first it didn’t seem like he was going to spare them another word. And that only churned the burning coals in Steve’s stomach into a fire. He was on the brink of storming up that porch and shoving him on his ass.

And then Lonnie started talking.

“You know...” he turned back to him. His cold dark eyes boring into Steve’s like he was nothing. “When I first found out Joyce was pregnant, I hoped she'd fall down a flight of stairs and lose it before I had to deal with taking care of some little snot-nosed brat.”

Steve could feel Joyce stiffen. But Lonnie wasn’t done.

“But she didn’t lose it.” He looked over at Joyce. “You always made a habit of fucking up my plans.”

Steve stepped forward, hearing Hopper do the same behind him.

Lonnie mockingly held up his hands in defense. “Whoa.” He laughed, looking between Steve and Hopper. “Looks like you got at least one man to give a shit about you. Not even ol’ Mr. Harrington really cared. He was just trying to make his wife happy.”

“We know he was the one that approached you.” Steve interjected. “What I want to know is why. Why’d you decide I wasn’t worth keeping around?”

Lonnie shrugged and looked off again.

“When Arthur told me he and Julia lost their baby, you know what I thought to myself? Christ, some people have all the luck.” He looked back to Steve.

“They were getting off scot free, meanwhile here I was saddled with some kid I didn’t even want. Some little shit that I’d have to take care of.”

Lonnie stepped down the steps, punctuating each word.

“But then Arthur came to me with this idea. And honestly it was like a dream come true. I got money. And I got rid of you.”

Steve listened as his biological father repeated over and over again in so many words how he’d wished he’d never been born. How he never wanted him. Never would have loved him regardless of anything Steve could have done.

It was everything he knew deep down already. Or at the very least had anticipated.

But somehow hearing it directly from Lonnie didn’t make Steve feel any better.

“And considering what I’ve heard,” Lonnie was right in front of Steve and Joyce now. “It sounds like I got the better end of that dea--.”

Steve hadn’t seen her move. But he heard the slap.

The next thing he knew, Lonnie was reeling back, his hand protectively held against his face where it was already beginning to redden.

Joyce shook out her hand, glaring at her ex-husband. “You gave away my son. You told me I’d miscarried. You kept that secret from me all this time and you’re not even sorry about it!”

Lonnie turned back, glowering. “Get the hell off my property.”

Steve could sense Joyce winding up for another swing. He could hear Hopper beginning to move forward to deescalate or possibly escalate the situation.

Steve looked back to the car and saw Will. He didn’t need to see his mom and his estranged father argue. He didn’t need to see people he cared about getting into a fight. Will’s already dealt with too much. He didn’t need this.

Before anyone else could make a move, Steve stepped between Joyce and Lonnie.

“We should just go.” He whispered, facing Joyce. “Mom, let’s go.”

For a moment Joyce looked like she was going to argue, and Steve hoped to God that Hopper would have the sense to help him break up the fight that was about to take place.

But then she met his eyes. Steve saw all the anger and hurt that Lonnie had caused whirling through her head. Lonnie deserved that slap. He deserved a lot more too. But it wasn't worth it. They didn't need to get into a messy fight for Steve’s sake.

"Let's go home." He whispered.

Joyce took in a long breath, exhaling it out just as slowly, and nodded.

With his arm around her shoulders and hers around his back, Steve and Joyce turned away from Lonnie and walked back to the car.

Hopper began walking with them on Joyce's other side. Even that far away, Steve could still feel the anger radiating off him.

Usually something like that would make Steve nervous. But now it made him feel oddly comforted. He wasn't the only one angry for Joyce's sake.

At the sound of a door slamming, Steve looked back. Lonnie was gone. Disappeared inside his ugly unkempt house.

This would probably be the last time they'd ever see each other.

Good riddance.

"What happened?" Will asked as the three of them climbed back into the car.

None of them spoke.

Steve could see Hopper's knuckles turn white and shake as he gripped the steering wheel. He probably felt bad for coming up with this idea. Probably wanted things to turn out a little better.

Tentatively, he leaned forward. Not enough to invade anyone's space, but just so he was in Hopper's peripheral vision.

"It's okay." Steve whispered. "Let’s just go home, get burgers, and forget about all this like you said."

After a moment, Hopper turned the key in the ignition. The car idled as everyone waiting for him to pull away from the house.

But instead, he squared his shoulders and shook his head.

“No,” Hopper reopened his car door, “No that's not good enough.”

Steve, Joyce, and Will turned to each other in confusion.

“Hop?” Steve watched as he stepped out of the car without turning off the engine. “Come on, it's okay, you don't have to--”

“--No.” Hopper walked to the back of the Chevy and began digging around. “No, I really do.”

Steve couldn’t see what he'd grabbed out of the trunk until he was walking back to Lonnie's house.

It was his bat.

“What's he gonna…” Will's mouth snapped shut when Hopper swung the bat into the front left tire of Lonnie's car, then proceeded to give the other three the same treatment.

“Oh shit.” Joyce gasped from the front seat.

It was really the only thing you could say while watching the Chief of Police vandalize another man's vehicle.

Steve's mouth was hanging open in shock as he watched Hopper puncture the final tire.

The car moaned and collapsed onto its rims.

Without a word Joyce was climbing out of the car too. As she ran to join Hopper, she picked up a loose brick off the ground and chucked it right through the car's windshield.

“What the hell are you doing?!” Lonnie screamed as he bolted back out of the house.

Joyce didn't even acknowledge Lonnie. Neither did Hopper. Instead, he made quick work of smashing in the rear window of his car.

Joyce had found a lead pipe and was railing down on the car's previously pristine hood. Steve didn’t miss the look of childlike glee that crossed Hopper’s face at the sight of her joining him in his little act of destruction. He imagined this is probably was the two of them were like in high school.

"Should we do something?" Will asked as they watched from the backseat.

Steve shook his head.

"...Can we join in?"

"No." Steve shook his head again, although he did consider it for a moment. "No, I think they've got this."

“I'll call the cops!” Lonnie screamed, keeping himself a safe distance.

“Yeah, do that.” Hopper drawled as he smashed in the passenger door and lazily made his way to the driver's side to do the same.

He knew it was an empty threat. If Lonnie called the cops, he'd have to tell them everything. And there was no way he was going to risk that.

“Do you have any idea how much that car costs?” Lonnie tried to make himself heard over the sound of breaking glass. He knew better than to approach Hopper while he was holding that bat.

“Don't worry about it.” Hopper finally said, right before joining Joyce in completely shattering the rest of the windshield. “After the story you told, it sounds like you can afford it.”

“You son of a--”

Hopper turned on Lonnie, the bat pointing threateningly at his chest. "Listen here asshole,"

Joyce stood by the demolished car, crossing her arms with a look of utter satisfaction as Hopper threatened the man who brought her so much grief.

“If you ever try to contact Joyce or any of her kids ever again, and that includes Steve, I'll break something that money can't fix.”

Hopper lowered the bat threateningly, letting his warning settle in before turning and wrapping an arm around Joyce, walking both of them back to the car.

A different kind of silence fell over the car as Hopper and Joyce got back in. One that was fueled by awe rather than defeat.

"Thanks for letting me borrow that." Hopper said, handing Steve back his bat. "I can see why you like using it so much."

"Uh, thanks." Steve stuttered, taking the bat. He was too stunned to say or do anything else. But after a moment, once the shock had worn off, Steve leaned forward in his seat.

"Thanks Hopper."

He wanted to say more than that.

Thanks for standing up for me.

Thanks for listening.

Thanks for everything.

Those two words were all he could get out right now. But judging from the smile that tugged at the corner of Hopper's mouth, he heard the rest all the same.

"No problem kid."

The rest of the drive home was spent telling Will what had happened, and then decided exactly how much they were going to share with the rest of the party.

Hopper and Joyce smashing in Lonnie's car was amazing and none of them regretted it in the slightest, but it maybe wasn't a good idea to let that story get around town.

Vehicular vandalism and bodily threats weren't usually things the Chief of Police was supposed to participate in.

There was a contagious energy surrounding them the entire drive home. Steve felt like he'd just gotten off a rollercoaster. Fueled by the kind of fun adrenaline rushing through his veins that made him feel like nothing could touch him.

And apparently Steve wasn't the only one feeling invincible.

As they pulled up in front of the Byers’ house, before the engine was completely off and anyone else had unbuckled their seatbelts, Hopper was out of the car and quickly pulling open Joyce’s passenger door.

“Joyce,” He began. “I’ve known you since we were kids. I’ve seen you kick the ass of anyone who dared cross you or the people you cared about. And I love you. Not just for that but for so many other reasons.”

Steve watched from the backseat in muted surprise and joy. He felt Will reach for his hand and squeeze it tight, like a child witnessing a miracle. And in many ways, that’s exactly what this was. They’d all been waiting for this day.

Hopper gently held Joyce’s hand in his own. “There is no one I’d rather have next to me for the rest of my life. No one else could possibly understand and push me to be a better person like you do. I’ve stood by your side and all I’ve ever felt was proud. The only way I could ever be happier would be if…”

Hopper got down on one knee. Joyce sat still in shock in the passenger’s seat of his tall truck. The height difference reminded Steve of a knight kneeling before a maiden on a horse. The kind of chivalrous imagery you’d find in the best kind of fairy tales.

“Joyce, will you marry me?”

He couldn’t see her face, but Steve knew Joyce was crying. Her free hand was covering her mouth, trying to hide the surprise they’d all felt.

“Say yes.” Will whispered only loud enough for Steve to hear.

Slowly, fractionally, Joyce began to nod. Those small movements quickly grew until her head was bobbing up and down as Joyce clasped Hopper’s hand in both of hers, a smile as warm as a sunrise spreading across her face.

“Yes.” Joyce said. “I love you. Yes!”

Hopper let out a relieved laugh as he stood and pulled Joyce into a hug, wrapping his strong broad arms around her slight frame and completely enveloping her.

“Oh my god.” He gasped, looking into the backseat as Steve and Will beamed back.

“Oh my god we’re getting married.” He said it again like he couldn’t believe it.

“Congratulations.” Steve said.

Joyce pulled away and smiled at her two sons through tear-filled eyes. “Oh, come here!”

It was awkward within the cramped confines of the car, but Steve and Will both managed to lean into Joyce and Hopper’s outstretched arms.

The four of them laughed and wiped away stray tears as they celebrated a new beginning.

For a moment, Steve closed his eyes and let the feeling of unconditional love wash over him from his new family. And somehow it didn’t feel quite as overwhelming as before.

Steve no longer felt like he was drowning, suffocating in their affection. Now instead of feeling like a piece of flotsam lost amidst the waves, Steve felt like a part of their sea of love.

He wasn’t an ‘other’ or an outsider anymore. And neither was Hopper. They were all a fundamental part of each other’s lives, irreplaceable and someone worth loving and defending until their dying days.

Regardless of all the tough and imperfect days to come, that were promised throughout everyone’s lives, they were family.

And nothing would change that.

Chapter Text

It felt odd coming back home. As much of a home as the Harrington residence had been for Steve.

It felt like he was walking into someplace from his childhood. Somewhere you moved away from years ago and no longer really belong.

The folder Joyce had gotten from Dr. Martin was tucked under one arm as he left his keys by the front door.

"Hello?" He called out, ignoring the slight echo that bounced off the walls. He knew there was only one person home right now. The person he'd come to see.

"Hello?" A feminine voice replied.

Steve followed it until he was in the kitchen, looking at the woman who he'd known as mother since he was a child.

Julia was sitting at the kitchen table, a full glass of wine in front of her and an untouched magazine at her side.

She was just staring off into the middle distance, like she did when he was little. As if she were living in the daydreams of a world much preferred over this one.

Steve waited a moment, half hoping that she'd leap to her feet and tell him she heard he was in the hospital and ask if he was alright and finally act like the mother she was supposed to be. 

Or at the very least ask how he was.

But Julia didn't do any of those things. So instead Steve cleared his throat and stepped a little closer. "How was the trip?"

"Fine." She answered in an absent tone. "Your father's coming back tomorrow."

"I know." Steve said. He'd managed to get a hold of their secretary the other day and asked about their travel plans. 

Steve looked down at his feet, feeling as if he were suddenly ten years old again. "Can we talk?"

"Hmm?" Julia turned and stared at Steve. It took a moment for her vision to focus on him.

Taking a deep breath, Steve sat down beside her, laying the folder in front of him and then gently resting a hand on Julia's arm.

"We need to talk."


 

It took well over an hour for Steve to tell her everything. Show her everything.

Dr. Martin had added a few more notes and annotations to make things easier, including a copy of the document Arthur had him sign to ensure his secrecy.

Through it all, Julia was silent.

She had gone from hazily distant to laze point focus as the story unfolded.

Not once did she touch her drink.

By the time Steve was done, the contents of the folder were spread out across the table. It reminded Steve of a crime scene. And in some ways, it was.

Julia was resting her chin in the palm of one hand, her elbow on the table in a posture she would normally have considered impolite. Her fingers veiled her mouth, making it impossible to read her expression.

Steve wasn't used to saying this much around her. She normally would have hushed him at 'Can we talk?'

"So…" Steve said, but he didn't know what else to say.

For a moment Julia didn't speak. Her hand fell from her mouth and hovered over the documents and notes until it picked up Steve's baby photo.

"He hid all of this from me?" She whispered distantly. 

Steve nodded. He knew telling Julia the truth was the right thing to do. She was a victim in all of this too. But he was nervous as to how she’d take it.

"All this time…”  She breathed, “I was never your mother."

"You could have been though." Steve interjected. The point of all this was telling Julia the truth, not letting her completely off the hook. "Plenty of parents adopt kids that aren't theirs by blood. But that doesn't matter to them.” 

Julia didn't meet his eyes. She knew he had a point.

Her mouth was set in a thin line as she stared at all the documents in front of her. Taking in all the lies and coming face to face with her own involvement in it all.

This would be a lot for anyone to handle.

“But…" Steve rested a hand atop hers. "they also knew they were adopting. You didn't. You lost a child and you didn't even know. And instead of helping you grieve, Arthur just took someone else's kid and used it to fill that void."

Steve felt tears drip and patter again his hand.

Julia looked into his eyes. Her green met his brown.

They were always a mismatched pair. They just hadn't truly known it until now.

"Was I a terrible mother?"

Steve knew the answer to that question. He also knew the answer Julia hoped he'd give, and they were not interchangeable.

"Yes." He whispered, because Julia had been lied to enough.

She dropped her head again.

"I did try. At first." She whispered.

Steve looked down too. "I know."

Most of his happy childhood memories involved Tommy. But there were a few early memories of her playing an old record and helping him stack building blocks. They were happy, Steve remembered that.

But those kinds of memories were few and far between.

Steve was brought back to the present by the sound of Julia sobbing.

He'd only ever seen her cry one other time. And that was when she'd first found out about Arthur's infidelity. Although at that time Steve didn't understand what that word meant. He just knew that momma was crying because his dad was spending too much time with one of his friends from work.

Deceit and betrayal must be in her husband's blood. And not for the first time, Steve thanked god that he didn't inherit that trait.

His first instinct was to tell her 'it's okay.' 

But it wasn't. And it wasn't his job to make her feel better about how she failed him.

"I'm sorry."

Steve froze. Almost not believing he'd heard her correctly.

"I'm so sorry I wasn't there for you. I'm sorry I didn't try harder. I'm sorry I left you all on your own for so long."

Her apologies continued to spill out, mingling with the tears tumbling down her face.

"I'm sorry I couldn't love you." Her breathing began to slow down, like she was trying to catch her breath after a marathon. "I'm sorry I stopped trying."

It was more than Steve ever expected to hear from Julia.

He'd come here to tell her the truth. To set her free in that sense. Maybe help find a little resolution for them both.

But this?

This was unexpected.

There was an empty space in Steve's heart, an old scar etched into place from years of neglect and never feeling like he was enough.

And after only just those few words, Steve felt that wound begin to heal just a little bit more.

"I forgive you." He whispered.

It surprised both of them. Steve and Julia just stared wide-eyed at each other for a long moment.

There was no part of Steve that felt regret though.

"I do. I forgive you." He said it with more confidence this time. "It doesn't make everything okay, but I want to move past what happened to me. To us. And letting the past eat us up isn't going to make things better."

"How?" Julia whispered. "How do you move on from something like this?"

Steve fiddled with a discarded paper clip, letting his fingers slide along the curved thread of metal from beginning to end.

"I think it just takes time." He said. "You just have to stop yourself from looking back, until you don't want to anymore. Until it doesn't hurt. But you have to take yourself out of all that hurt first."

Steve looked down, bending the paperclip out of shape.

"I think maybe that's what you tried to do with me. I was something you never wanted, and probably never asked for, so you tried to get away. Going on a bunch of trips and stuff, hoping distance would make you hurt less."

He glanced up, seeing how his words seemed to have pulled away the walls that Julia had erected.

"But it didn't." She finished. "It just ended up hurting you."

Julia leaned back in her seat; the untouched wine glass completely forgotten. She tilted her head to the side and looked at Steve.

“Were you always this wise? And I just never saw it?”

Steve shrugged. "I think it just kind of happened along the way."

"I can't take credit for any of that, can I?" She smiled.

Steve tilted his head back in thought. "Well, I don't know… I don't think I inherited my good taste and sense of style completely from the Byers. Come to think of it, if it wasn't for you, I'd probably have a bowl cut right now."

Julia snorted. A crass undignified laugh that caught her by surprise and made the corners of her eyes crinkle. The sight, the sound, and the way she threw her head back made her seem so much younger and lighter than she actually was.

Steve wished he could have known this Julia.

"You would have looked so awful!" She gasped, wiping at her eyes.

"I think I could have pulled it off." He protested, but only to see her smile again and shake her head in amusement.

Steve wondered if this is what Julia was like before she married Arthur. A little more fun. A little more free before her husband fed her a lifetime of dishonesty.

"I'm sorry."

His words surprised Julia. "Steve, you didn't do anything wrong."

"No." Steve shook his head. "I'm sorry this happened to you. To us. I'm sorry Arthur lied. Repeatedly. I'm sorry you lost a child, and that you never got to mourn them. It wasn't fair."

There were more tears in Julia's eyes. She reached out and took Steve's hand.

"I'm sorry he took you from Joyce. That he stole that life from you."

"It's not your job to apologize for him."

Julia bowed her head. “I know.”

The clock in the hall chimed three times, causing Steve to check his watch.

"I've gotta pick up Will and his friends from school."

"Oh, right." Julia looked away.

She probably thought he was going to stay. Probably thought that he was going to still go on living here. That they had all the time in the world to talk and fix everything.

And Steve did want some of those things, just not all.

"Listen," he began, watching as Julia's eyes turned back to his hopefully. "I don't want to stop talking to you. Maybe you weren't my mom, but you were still a part of my life, and I'd hate to lose that. I'd like it if maybe we could start from scratch?"

The words felt a little clunky in his mouth, but Julia didn't complain about it like she did in the past. She just stared at him with tears, sorrow, and wonder reflecting in her eyes.

"I would like that too." She smiled.

The thought of starting over was a little funny. If he and Julia had been strangers it would be weird for them to decide to strike up a friendship. Objectively they had nothing in common.

Except they weren't strangers. They had a shared traumatic experience that not many people could understand.

"I can call you." Steve said as he stood. "And once I get settled, I'll send you my new address and number."

Julia nodded. Her forehead scrunched together as a thought occurred. "Arthur is coming back tomorrow." A fact they both knew, but it meant something different to her now. "Do you want to say something to him?"

Steve absently tapped his knuckles on the wooden table.

He'd thought a lot about that question the past few days.

After Hopper heard a brief summary of Steve's homelife he was ready to drive over and give the entire house the same treatment he’d given Lonnie's car. And when Steve declined, he offered to go and just have a chat with Mr. Harrington.

It was nice, although totally not realistic. 

Steve wasn't used to having adults around who cared about his well-being. 

He wasn't used to having a dad.

Because as distant as Julia was, she was present far more that Arthur ever had been.

He was just a shadow over Steve's life. His presence meant Steve would hear a constant stream of demoralizing comments. Arthur only addressed Steve to remind him of how stupid and worthless he was.

A small part of Steve wanted to know why Arthur even bothered "adopting" him when he never seemed to actually want a child in the first place. But if he learned anything from his encounter with Lonnie, it was that Arthur would only use the opportunity to hurt him more. 

But there were other ways to find closure. Other ways to take away someone’s power over you.

Steve met Julia's eyes and slowly smiled.

He knew exactly what message to leave for Arthur.


 

"We're home!" Will called out, dropping his backpack by the door and running to the kitchen where his friends had already begun setting up their game.

Steve followed him inside, nudging the backpack so it was a little less of a tripping hazard.

"Hey!" Joyce patted Will on the head before pulling Steve into a hug. "Thanks for getting him. How'd it go?"

Steve wrapped his arms around Joyce and exhaled, letting the tension melt from his body. 

"It went well. Really well actually. She apologized."

"Really?" Joyce pulled back, surprised.

"I know." Steve said, digging into his pocket. "She also gave me this."

He pulled out a small envelope with Joyce's name carefully penned on the back. "She wanted to reach out. Let you know that if you ever wanted to talk about things…"

Joyce hesitantly took the envelope. 

"I'll think about it." She said.

Steve knew she still had a lot of strong feelings about Julia's neglect. He knew that Julia also knew that. But maybe after enough time passes these women could become friends. They had both been through a deep emotional trauma together, and no one else could ever really understand what they went through. Not even Steve.

“Whenever you’re ready.” Steve nodded.

“Did you talk with her all afternoon?” Joyce asked, guiding them both to the couch. “You were gone for a while.”

“No uh, I was only there for like an hour.” Steve said, settling down next to Joyce. 

She was holding his hand. It was something so small, but it made Steve’s heart feel so full. This is what he’d been starving for. And he didn’t want what he was about to say to change any of that.

“Actually,” Steve rubbed his thumb over her knuckles, trying to find the right words. “For the first half of the day, I was looking at apartments with Tommy.”

Joyce blinked and tilted her head to the side. “Wait, what?”

Steve could hear the kids pause in the kitchen, probably trying to listen in.

“I was just thinking, it might be good if I had my own place.” Steve began as Joyce shook her head.

“You don’t have to leave! We want you here. I want you here. I just got you back and now you’re--”

“Mom,” Steve clasped her hand between both of his. "I love you. I'm not leaving my family. I'll still be in Hawkins. I just…"

He looked down. "I want to keep moving forward. I want to build a relationship and grow with you. And I think that me staying here, in this house, might feel too much like us trying to latch onto the time we lost."

Steve could feel Joyce's disappointment. Her hurt. And it killed him that he caused that.

Her voice was nearly a whisper. "What's so bad about trying to take back lost time?"

"Nothing." Steve shook his head. "But if we keep looking back, we're just going to keep losing what's ahead. And I don't want to lose anymore."

Joyce sighed and shook her head.

“Hey.” Steve leaned forward. “This isn’t a bad thing. I’ll still be around when I’m not working.”

“I know.” Joyce finally nods. “I know. I just wish…”

She didn’t finish the thought. But she didn’t have to. Because Steve knew.

He knew she wished that none of this had happened. That they could have had each other all along instead of suffering on their own. She wished they had their whole lives together instead of trying to capture the time they’d lost.

Instead he just squeezed Joyce’s hand and said. “Me too.”

The kids had long since gone back to their game, and Steve could hear then laughing over whatever campaign Mike had come up with.

The sound was comforting. Familiar.

Steve looked down again, staring at some dirt under his fingernails. "Can I ask you something?"

“Anything sweetie.”

He licked his lips, intentionally not looking her in the eye.

"What were you going to name me?"

He could hear the sudden confusion in her voice. “What?”

“At the hospital, before all of this started, had you chosen a name for me?”

That was another question that had plagued Steve’s mind. He’d spent almost his whole life falsely believing he was a Harrington. It had only recently dawned on his that he was probably never meant to be a ‘Steve’ either. He’d been robbed of everything. Including his own name. And he thought maybe he'd feel a little bit better if he knew who he was originally meant to be.

Joyce tilted his chin up with a firm but gentle touch. The tears in her eyes matched Steve’s own.

"It doesn't matter. You're Steve. You're my son. And there’s nothing I would ever change about you."

Relief Steve wasn't expecting washed over him.

He wasn't used to feeling like he was enough.

Joyce smiled sadly, as if reading his mind. "Come here."

Steve let her pull him into her arms, burrowing his head into her shoulder.

"I love you." She spoke in a hushed tone while rubbing his back. And Steve believed it.

"I love you too."

They stayed like that for a moment. Gently rocking back and forth on that same worn out couch where Steve first felt like he was part of a loving family.

"Hello!" Hopper called as he walked through the front door.

Steve and Joyce turned, and he was reminded of when Lonnie walked through that same door so many years ago.

Except back then it felt like all the air was sucked out of the room. Now, the house felt warmer, fuller with Hopper coming home. And with El bolting in behind him and following the chorus of voices into the kitchen. Voices that rose a few decibels to greet her.

"Hey." Steve stood and was pulled into a bear hug by the chief of police.

"Steve was just telling me about how he was apartment hunting today." Joyce said. It was a relief to not hear a single drop of resentment in her voice.

"Oh yeah?" Hopper asked, stepping away but keeping a hand on his shoulder. "How'd it go?"

"Good." Steve smiled. "We found a couple possibilities."

"Just as long as you're not leaving because you feel like you have to." Hopper said.

He looked a little surprised when Steve chuckled. "What?"

"Nothing, I'm just not used to having parents who care."

Hopper and Joyce shared a look. One that was usually only shared between a couple who had been married for decades. 

"Yeah well," Hopper pulled Steve into another hug. "We're trying to fix that."

"Did you ask El?" Joyce said, rising from the couch and gesturing toward the kitchen.

Hopper released Steve to pull Joyce into his arms and kiss her. "We can talk over dinner." He hummed.

"Ask El what?" Steve looked between the two adults.

They shared another telepathic conversation, Hopper tilting his head to the side and Joyce nodding in return before she turned back to Steve.

"I wanted to ask El if she would be my maid of honor for the wedding."

It felt almost unreal to hear Joyce and Hopper talking about getting married. But as the date approached and plans for the ceremony became a daily discussion, the pleasant reality had begun to set in.

"It took a while to explain what that actually meant, but she said yes." Hopper said with a hint of amused pride.

Steve hadn't had as much time to get to know El as he had with the other kids, which was weird since they were about to become siblings. But he knew she devoured any tidbit of trivia or information she came across. And El loved upholding traditions and rituals. He could easily imagine how seriously she would take the role.

"That's going to be great." Steve nodded.

Hopper grunted in agreement and ran a hand down his beard. "Mmhmm. Still leaves one thing to be decided though."

"Yeah? What's that?" Steve asked, noticing the smile on Joyce's face as Hopper answered.

"Picking a best man."

"Oh." Steve's felt his heart stutter. "Didn't Jonathan say he was going to be able to make it for the wedding?"

"He is," Hopper said. "But I was hoping it could be you."

"Me?" Steve stared wide-eyed.

He hadn't been expecting that. Jonathan seemed like the natural choice. Especially since the rest of Hawkins still believed Steve was a Harrington. It would be a little odd for him to have such a large role in a wedding he seemingly had no close ties to.

“Are… Are you sure?”

“‘Course.” Hopper slung an arm around Steve and began to guide the three of them into the kitchen. “Us invasive species gotta look out for each other, remember?”

Steve couldn't help but smile at that and relax into Hopper's side.

It was crazy to think about how much had changed in such a short amount of time.

He remembered a time not too long ago when he was still just dreaming of being a part of this family. And he’d accepted that dreaming was as close as he'd ever get.

Now, he had a mother who loved him and a father who would bash in the tires of a car for him. He had siblings to tease and to care for.

And he had friends, old and new, who were just as much a part of Steve's family as any of the others. 

Most people are fortunate enough to be born into a loving family at the start. But sometimes you aren't. Sometimes you find your family along the way.

Like finding a brother burning leaves with a magnifying glass.

Or finding a mother as she reads The Adventures of Frog and Toad to you and her other son.

And stumbling upon the rest of your family amidst government conspiracy.

It doesn't matter how you meet them. All that matters is that they make you feel loved.

Granted, most people don't usually have to fight interdimensional monsters along the way, but Steve wouldn't change a thing.

Not if it meant giving up any part of the family he'd found.

"Steve!" Dustin dragged his name into a multi-syllable sound as the trio entered the kitchen. "Can you drive me and Will to the mall tomorrow? There’s a new X-Men issue coming out and it’s too far to bike!”

The rest of the kids piped up with their own pleas and requests to join the trip as Steve tilted his head.  “I don’t know… what’ll you give me?”

“The joy of my company. Duh.” Dustin rolled his eyes.

Steve made a show of considering it for a moment before smiling. “Sure, why not.”

Cheers erupted, and Steve found himself surrounded by a bunch of young teens all trying to hug their favorite babysitter.

Even a few months ago, this would have been overwhelming. Being loved and cherished by so many people always felt like a dream to Steve.

And yet here he was, being embraced by family and friends while his parents looked on. There wasn’t a fraction of doubt in his mind that they would always be there for him.

Steve pulled Dustin and Will in a little closer, kissing the tops of their heads. He caught Joyce’s gaze over Dustin’s curly head. She was tucked into Hopper’s side with a smile of complete adoration. And Steve had never felt more loved.

He was exactly where he was meant to be.

He was no longer on the outside looking in. On the outermost orbit of this small cluster of a community. There wasn't a feeling of Him outside of Them anymore.

They were family. His family.

And Steve couldn’t wait to spend the rest of his life with them.


 

As he walked through the front door of his house, Arthur Harrington looked forward to collapsing into his favorite armchair and falling asleep.

It had been a long trip, though decidedly improved after Julia left.

Normally between engagements he'd just check himself into a nice hotel until his next business meeting. However, there were no appointments on his calendar. No partnerships or trades to oversee. No reason not to come back home.

“Julia?” He half-heartedly called, expecting she was probably tucked into bed with a bottle of wine already. She was always so predictable.

“Hello Arthur.”

He slowly turned on his heel, staring into the living room. The lights were off except for the lamp beside his recliner.

There, sitting in his favorite chair, was Julia.

“Darling…” Arthur said, removing his tie. There were two untouched glasses of scotch on the table beside the lamp. He distantly recognized them as wedding gifts. “Something the matter?”

She’d never sat in his chair before. She’d never been anywhere he hadn’t expected her to be.

Julie hummed, running a finger along the rim of one of the glasses. “You could say that.”

Arthur stood there for a moment, watching his wife sit in the dark. “Are you going to make me guess what happened, or are you going to tell me?”

Silence spread throughout the room, long enough for Arthur to begin to turn and leave.

“Steve stopped by yesterday.” She said.

Arthur halted in his steps. He turned back. “Well he does live here Julia. That’s hardly remarkable. Unless he actually had something interesting to say...?”

Julia didn’t even look at him. She just continued to stare straight forward. “He did actually.”

“Really?” Arthur scoffed and walked towards his wife, plucking up one of the glasses of scotch and drawing it to his lips. “What did he say?”

“Well,” Julia finally looked up and met his gaze. “he told me a very interesting story about the night he was born.”

Arthur froze in place. He cleared his throat and lowered his glass, trying to remain calm. “Well, Steve was always one for wild stories.”

He still didn’t know for sure that she knew. This could be some kind of trick. Perhaps she heard about him sleeping with one of the hospital receptionists while she’d been pregnant and was fishing for information.

Besides, how would Steve have discovered the truth?

"Yes, he has." Julia conceded. "But this time he had all these notes from the hospital, including one from Doctor Martin. You remember him, don’t you Arthur?"

Damn.

Julia’s lips quirked in what might have been a smile as she leaned back in her chair and picked up her own glass of liquor.

“I was thinking about something. Joyce Byers has mourned the death of two of her children. Could you imagine? Processing that grief, facing the reality that you’ve lost your child, and you’re never going to see them again. Two children to grieve and long for. To wonder whether there was anything else you could have done…”

Arthur remained frozen. He considered saying something along the lines of ‘she got them back in the end though,’ but something told him Julia wouldn’t appreciate the sentiment.

“On the other hand,” Julia reached between the seat cushions and pulled out the silver cigarette case that he’d hidden there. Another secret he’d kept from his wife. Or so he thought. “I lost a child too. And I was never given a chance to mourn.” 

She lit a cigarette and took a drag, exhaling smoke as she leaned back in his chair. “All because of you, Arthur.” 

Arthur stared at the woman before him. Clad in black with her legs crossed, her ankle resting atop a knee, and smoke clouding her dark unreadable features.

He realized he no longer recognized his wife. But perhaps for the first time, he sees Julia.

“Julia, I--”

“No. You don’t get to say you’re sorry now. If you were actually sorry you would have apologized a long time ago. To all of us.”

Arthur fought against rolling his eyes. He felt like he deserved a few apologies too. Especially from Steve.

After all the money he spent to have him for a son, Steve had always been a bit of a disappointment. He was never even worth bragging about to the other fathers at gold club.  If the Byers accepted returns, Arthur would have gladly taken his money back in exchange for never having to see their pitiful, deficient offspring ever again. 

He only wished he could have said that to Steve’s face. Which reminds him...

“Did Steve happen to leave a message for me?”

Julie swirled the scotch around, the lit cigarette pressed between her finger and the glass.

“No.”

So, Steve got the final say after all. Arthur couldn’t help but chuckle. “Atta boy.”

He took a sip of the scotch before appraising his wife.

“So where does this leave us?”

He’d expected her to cry. Shout. Make a scene the same way she did when she found out about his affairs.

Perhaps she’d just gotten used to his dishonesty. She’d finally realized that screaming wasn’t going to make him change a damn thing.

She most likely just wanted something from him. And since it wasn’t an apology, she probably wanted him to grovel and buy her something nice. Maybe some earrings. Or a new string of pearls. 

Why not? Spending a few hundred dollars to make a woman appreciative was practically a hobby for him at this point.

Julia tilted her head back and gave him her own appraising stare.

"Joyce Byers has some rather expensive medical bills that have been causing her some stress. You're going to take care of them. Steve's too. It's the least you can do."

Arthur exhaled. "Of course Julia." He could handle some medical bills. If that's what his wife wanted, then that's what she'll get.

He turned to leave.

"Oh, before I forget..."

Arthur turned back to Julia. One of her hands held the cigarette, the other was lazily sloshing around her glass of scotch. Coming dangerously close to spilling it over his chair.

His cigarette. His chair. His bills he'd have to pay. All blows to the ego. But nothing completely shattering.

"The lawyers are drafting up our divorce papers. They'll be ready by tomorrow."

In one fluid motion, Julia lifted the glass to her lips and downed its entire contents.

She didn't flinch. Didn't even grimace. Just closed her eyes and smiled as the liquor burned down her throat like it was nothing. Like her words were nothing.

"And Arthur?”

She opened her eyes and smiled at him. A wide, glinting smile that told him there was no room to argue. His power was gone. 

“I'm taking everything."