Looking back afterwards, Steve couldn't really remember how it started. It wasn't one thing and it wasn't one person. It was something they all kind of did, on their own, in their own way, and eventually they started doing it together.
When he couldn't sleep, which was often, Steve would take the bat with the nails and slip out of his house into the night. He mostly wandered through that stretch of woods behind the pool, where a year ago, something unnatural had walked out of the forest, out of another dimension, and taken Barb from a party he'd invited her to.
(We killed Barb)
Sometimes he just did a short loop with the bat and flashlight, looking for ... he wasn't even sure what. Anything out of the ordinary. Anything that might hurt someone else. And sometimes he just walked, walked and walked, the bat dangling from his hand, down lonely country roads -- walked until dawn.
Steve wasn't the only one. The little kids had their own version of it, riding their bikes all over town: getting out and getting exercise, from an adult perspective ("It's so wonderful you're not staying cooped up in your room all the time, Dusty!" Steve heard Dustin's mom enthuse, one of the times he was picking the kid up to drop him off at the arcade), while actually scouting the town for anything weird and dangerous. He knew that Jonathan and Nancy occasionally did the same thing in the woods in back of the Byers house, working as a team, Nancy with a gun, Jonathan with a camera to document problems for the Chief to take care of.
As for the Chief, well, it was sort of comforting, the number of times Steve saw Hopper's police cruiseer pass while he was wandering around after dark ... and also sort of not, because he wondered when the guy slept.
It was a kind of paranoia Steve had dealt with last year on his own (though he suspected, now, that everyone else had been struggling with the same thing -- and wondered if maybe it would've changed things, if he had talked to Nancy about it). And he thought it probably would have faded slowly, like it had before, until he could sleep through the night again and didn't check the door and window locks fifty times before bed ... except, the thing about it was, they did kind of need the patrols.
Last year, things hadn't just gone back to normal. If someone had spotted the immature demodogs before a whole pack of them started running around in the woods, maybe Bob Newby would still be alive. And it was the same this year. Eleven might have closed the gate, but there were still patches of lingering weirdness. He heard from Dustin that Nancy and Jonathan had killed a very young demodog, barely past its larval phase, in the woods along the road the kids called Mirkwood. (Dustin seemed sad about this, although more than that, he was intensely put out that they'd burned the body rather than saving it.) More than once, Steve had stumbled upon patches of rot in the woods, looking oddly fresh considering that the pumpkins had rotted in the field months ago. He asked the Chief about it; Chief said to burn them whenever he found them, and said the kids had found a few, too.
By March or so, the patrols were getting pretty well organized. There was an actual, honest-to-God signup sheet, stuck to Mrs. Byers' fridge with a smiley rainbow magnet and decorated with stickers by the kids. There were walkie-talkies for each and every one of them, carried whenever they went out of the house at night.
There were rules, most of them made by the Chief and/or Mrs. Byers. Nobody went on patrol alone. (Except the Chief, who broke this rule all the time, but it wasn't like anyone could tell him not to since he was an adult and also the Chief.) The middle schoolers didn't patrol at night or in the woods (Steve happened to have inside knowledge that this rule was broken regularly, and let the little shits get away with it on the condition that they knew he knew and also knew that he was telling the Chief and Mrs. Byers the absolute instant any of them got so much as a scratch), were supposed to tell an adult instead of trying to take care of anything weird on their own (ditto), and had to obey all parental instructions regarding homework and curfews. The "don't patrol alone" rule also applied to the teenagers, which Steve thought was completely unfair because he was technically an adult, so he ignored that one.
But it still threw him into close and frequent contact with the rest of them: the kids, Jonathan and Nancy, Hopper and Mrs. Byers. By spring it was starting to feel like the social divisions in Steve's world had shifted in a fundamental and radical way. It used to be that the lines were drawn in predictable ways. The teenagers didn't hang out with the middle schoolers, the geeks didn't hang out with the jocks, and none of them would ever dream of inviting adults into their confidence or vice versa.
But now ...
Now the old rules had gone out the window. Now there were the ones who knew, and the ones who didn't. And the ones who knew had to keep everyone else safe, because there was no one else to do it, and keep each other safe, because no one else was going to.
It didn't matter that 13 was, by any reasonable person's standards, much too young to be drafted into a war against the supernatural. It didn't matter that people Steve's age, Nancy and Jonathan's age, weren't supposed to be worrying about anything more serious than dating and applying to college and getting a summer job for pocket money. It didn't matter that adults weren't supposed to let kids stay up past their bedtime or turn a blind eye to the fact that one kid was carrying around a homemade flamethrower in his bike basket. ("Jesus Christ," Steve had said, when Dustin showed him how a can of hairspray and a lighter could be turned into a handheld blowtorch. "You know, that's really not what I thought you were going to be using that for.")
And it was less weird spending time around Nancy and Jonathan than he felt like it ought to be. He'd stopped feeling like his guts were being stabbed with a pitchfork whenever he saw the two of them together. Plus, he was over at the Byers house enough now that he was kinda starting to get used to seeing Jonathan around without Nancy. It wasn't like he and Jonathan hung out, exactly, but ... well, you couldn't just ignore somebody when you were in their kitchen with their mom feeding you her tuna casserole. Jonathan was actually pretty fun to talk to. Weird, but ... likable. He'd loaned Steve a couple of records and a book. As much as he didn't want to, Steve could definitely see why Nancy liked him.
And then there was that time Steve ran into him out back of the pool behind Steve's house, on an unseasonably cold night in early April.
"What the hell, Byers. I thought you were patrolling down by the elementary school tonight." Steve thought about making half a dozen stalker jokes but, for a change, managed to stop every one before it left his mouth.
"I am, but Will said the kids found a patch of those vines along the road the other day. I was looking for it and didn't meant to walk this far."
Jonathan's teeth were chattering, and Steve took a closer look at him in the flashlight beam. He was wearing a black T-shirt and denim jacket, and looked like he was one step away from hypothermia.
"For God's sake, come inside for five minutes, before I have to explain to Hopper what your frozen corpse is doing in the bushes behind our house. Just be quiet; my folks are asleep."
A few minutes later he had Jonathan Byers on his couch, wrapped in a blanket and wearing one of Steve's old sweaters, and had made them both cocoa from the instant mix packets he'd started keeping on hand since the kids had been over here so much.
"Need a ride home?"
Jonathan shook his head. "My car's parked over on West Elm."
Steve ended up dropping him off at his car anyway, on the pretext of taking the car for a sweep around the neighborhood looking for that vine patch. It probably didn't exist. The kids were always mistaking tangles of blackberry brambles or kudzu for alien monster vines, usually a telltale sign they'd been patrolling at night, exactly like they weren't supposed to.
So yeah, he'd gone from being the King of Hawkins High to being ignored by most of his former friends, and he didn't even really care all that much, because somewhere in his head, high school had almost stopped being a thing. It used to be everything. Now, somehow, he was spending most of his time outside of class hanging around with a bunch of middle schoolers and the school freak, or wandering around the town at night with a baseball bat looking for monsters. He'd skipped enough team practices that Coach was threatening to bench him.
He didn't know what he was doing with his future, any more than he knew how he somehow ended up out in a field on a chilly mid-April evening with Nancy's small, strong hands wrapped around his, teaching him how to shoot.
"No, don't hold it so tight. Steady but not clutched in a death grip. Squeeze the trigger slowly as you breathe out."
"Are you quoting the Chief?" he asked, trying to keep his voice light because God, he hadn't been this close to her since she and Jonathan happened. Her body wasn't actually touching his, not quite, but it was so close he thought he could feel her warmth. He had forgotten how short she was, the way he used to be able to pick her up without even trying. He'd forgotten how her hair smelled ...
"Maybe," she said with a quick smile that took his breath away and simultaneously punched him in the gut. She had rarely looked that happy during the year she was with him.
"I don't think this is necessary," he protested, not for the first time, trying halfheartedly to break her grip. She was strong, though. Really damn strong. He could sense the difference in the way she stood next to him, like she could really handle herself in a fight now. The Chief had been giving Steve occasional self-defense lessons ("Figured you could use it after getting your ass kicked that many times." "Hey!") and for the first time the thought occurred to him that he probably wasn't the only one getting those lessons.
"Not everything can be taken out with a nailbat, Steve," Nancy said, rolling her eyes, and that gut-punched him again because it was so like she used to be with him, all the way back at the beginning, the half-serious, half-playful exasperation.
He must have made some sound, because she looked up at him and her face changed to a sort of wide-eyed look. Her mouth opened. (Those lips, the ones he used to kiss, so close, so soft-looking ...) She was going to say something, and it was going to hurt; she was going to flounder around, maybe apologize, maybe just -- he didn't know, but he'd known this was a mistake, he'd known that getting over her couldn't survive close exposure.
But instead she just said, "Remember, squeeze, don't pull, all right?" She kept her small, warm hands over his, guiding him, and he hit the target marks they'd painted on an old tree stump with three out of six bullets, a personal record.
"You're coming to movie night on Friday, right?" Jonathan said when Steve ran into him again behind the hardware store. Jonathan was carrying a large and lumpy bag with a net slung over his shoulder, and Steve was not going to ask, especially since he didn't want to explain his own improvised flamethrower either; goddamn alien plants.
"Yeah, I guess so." Movie night was a semi-weekly event at the Byers house now, as much of a thing as the rugrats getting together at the Wheelers' to play their nerd game. "What are we watching?"
"Ghostbusters is out on video. I can stop by and pick it up on my way home from school before all the new releases are gone for the weekend."
"Ghostbusters, huh? Sounds a little too much like our actual lives," Steve said, and Jonathan laughed, a little huff of a chuckle. He flipped his head to shake back the floppy brown forelock that kept falling in his eyes -- both his hands were full -- but it fell back again a second later, and Steve, without thinking, reached out to push it back for him, like he would have for Nancy if her hair fell in her eyes while she was studying. An instant later he froze like that with his hand on Jonathan's face and he thought: This is not a thing guys do for other guys. Or for other guys' girlfriends, for that matter.
Jonathan didn't do anything, didn't say anything, just stood there looking at him, and Steve jerked his hand back, his face burning.
"So," Steve said after an awkward minute, "Friday?" and Jonathan said, "Um, yeah, Friday," and they went their separate ways in a hurry.
It was a Ghostbusters and Indiana Jones double feature, the kids having apparently had a large hand in picking the movies this week.
The whole gang was there, so places to sit in the Byers living room were at a premium. Steve ended up on the floor, a bowl of popcorn on his knees, with Lucas and Dustin leaning down to steal handfuls while Steve playfully defended it with an arm in the way. Nancy and Jonathan were on the couch, all the way at the other end, on their best behavior since Jonathan's mom and the Chief were in the room; Jonathan just had his arm around her.
It made Steve think about when he used to watch TV with Nancy and her parents, with his arm around her just like that. It used to hurt, like a kick in the chest, when he'd think about that, but now it was more like a feeling of ... he didn't even know; it did hurt, and he missed it, but that picture of himself and Nancy had started to feel like the nostalgic memories of childhood that you couldn't ever go back to. Things like footie pajamas and his mom making pancakes on Saturday mornings when his dad was out of town, back when his mom still cooked. It wasn't that he didn't want Nancy back, it was just that the memories of her -- Nancy on the couch, Nancy in the passenger seat of his car, Nancy warm and willing under him ...
Those memories felt incomplete, somehow. He still wanted to go back to that, and yet, when he closed his eyes and thought about it --
"Earth to Steve," Dustin said, kicking his shoulder.
Steve grabbed Dustin's ankle and moved his foot aside. On the screen, the Ghostbusters credits were rolling. "Knock it off. What?"
"I said, can you get us more popcorn while we rewind?" Dustin said, which was when Steve realized that the little assholes had eaten his popcorn right down to a couple of kernels in the bottom.
"What, I'm waiting on you hand and foot now?"
"With extra butter?" Eleven said from the couch, looking hopeful.
At least it gave him something to do other than dwell on his confusing and unsatisfying love life. He got up and took the bowl into the kitchen. There was a box of Boy Scout popcorn packets on the counter, and Steve took out two. The Byers' microwave would only fit one, so he stuck it in and leaned against the counter, waiting for it to pop.
"Oh, hi," Nancy said, appearing at the counter to dump out a handful of mostly-empty cocoa cups into the sink.
So the confusing feelings were following him around, apparently, in the form of Nancy in her fluffy sweater, with her hair pulled back in a ponytail. "Hey," Steve said, trying to sound suave but not weird, and wasn't quite sure he managed the second one, but someone he managed not to say, I petted your boyfriend's face yesterday and I keep thinking about it and I'm pretty sure I want to do it again.
The popcorn popped, Nancy washed the cups, and the sound of Indy being chased by a boulder came from the living room. "Those jerks aren't even waiting for us," Steve muttered, and yelled through the open doorway, "Hey, you guys pause it right now!"
There was some giggling and a thump and Mrs. Byers saying, "They're rewinding it now, Steve! We won't start without you!" and Dustin yelling, "I told them not to, but they didn't listen to me!"
"Like you haven't seen it before," Nancy said, and she actually bumped Steve's hip with her own, like she would have done in the old days, and then looked a little embarrassed.
"It's the principle of the thing," Steve muttered, and he turned to take the first bag of popcorn out of the microwave. When he turned back around, she'd vanished off to the living room.
He filled the bowl with popcorn and came back out to find that the room had rearranged itself while he'd been gone, and Eleven and Mike were now in his spot on the floor, the kids all congregated at one end of the room. The only remaining open spot was on Nancy and Jonathan's side of the room, where Eleven and Mike had been until recently.
Steve gave the kids the popcorn, thought about making them all shove over, then thought about the whining that would inevitably follow. Suck it up, Harrington, he told himself, and he went and sat on the floor next to the Nancy and Jonathan end of the couch.
"Can we start it now?" Max complained.
Eleven looked hopeful, the Chief made a "go ahead" gesture, and the PLAY button depressed itself.
"That's so cool," Mike said adoringly. Eleven grinned a gap-toothed grin and, once again without anyone's finger on the remote control, the tape began to fast-forward through the previews.
Steve felt something bump his shoulder. He looked up to see that Jonathan had put a half-empty bowl of popcorn, which had been shared between his and Nancy's laps, down where Steve could reach it.
Steve took a handful of popcorn and had a bad feeling he was blushing all the way to the tips of his ears. Although they'd rewound the movie just for him, he missed most of Indy's intro sequence anyway; he was too busy being hyper-aware of Nancy and Jonathan on the couch, the little rustles as they moved, the crunching of popcorn and the soft whisper of Nancy's earrings against her shoulders.
The biggest concentrations of the alien vines around Hawkins were in the woods at the quarry, because of course they were: it was unpleasant and spooky and full of loose rocks and unexpected holes in the ground. The kids were forbidden to go there at night, unsurprisingly, but they couldn't exactly burn out alien plant nests in the daytime without attracting too much attention, so guess who got to have fun doing that.
Steve still wasn't really supposed to be out there alone. On Tuesday night, he was with the Chief until one of the kids called them on the radio and apparently there was a baby demodog in the storeroom at Melvald's and they needed backup, like, yesterday.
So Steve, who was up on top of the cliff, got a radio call from the Chief. Looking down, he saw the flash of headlights as the cruiser turned around by the quarry lake. "You close enough to get back down in the next couple of minutes?" the Chief wanted to know.
"Probably not," Steve admitted, looking down at the long scary climb in the dark. He'd just gotten up, damn it.
"Sit tight, then. I'll be back in an hour. You get in trouble, the Byers and Wheeler kids are patrolling out by the highway and can be here in five minutes if you call."
"Yes, sir," Steve said. "Go get those little shitheads."
"It's an open channel, Steve, we can hear you." Dustin sounded out of breath.
"How about you get off the radio and try not to die in the next ten minutes?" Steve said, and from the top of the cliff he watched the cruiser's taillights recede, his last link to the outside world, leaving him alone in the dark.
... and also, he reminded himself as he turned his flashlight toward the torturous path down to the lake, a five-minute drive from the highway and not much more than a fifteen-minute walk down the power cut to the strip mall with the laundromat. This wasn't the middle of nowhere, as much as it felt like it.
He scrambled back down to the lake on the general principle that wandering off in the woods without backup was probably not a good idea. Chief, he discovered, had left him the stash of equipment in the back of the cruiser -- kicked it all out in a hurry, from the look of things, but he sorted out the tangle of rope and shovels and axes and an extra can of gasoline for the blowtorch. He might as well keep himself busy while waiting for them to come back, so he took the blowtorch and the small gas can and a headlamp-style light to leave his hands free, and started poking around the edge of the lake. Max had said she and Lucas had seen some vines right around the water's edge the other day, but he wasn't seeing anything tonight. Maybe Chief already got them. Steve poked at a burned area with his toe.
... wait a minute, was that the sound of something out in the lake? Kind of a splashing sound ...
Steve swung around, the headlamp's light skating across the water's surface. It looked placid enough, but his heart was going a million miles an hour.
"Hello?" he called, and then immediately wished he hadn't, because his voice sounded way too loud in the stillness of the night.
Now that he was concentrating on it, the lake was full of sounds, little splishes and splashes from wavelets along the shore, plopping and dripping noises, a hollow little plink that might have been a rock or something falling in ...
And ... yeah ... that was a splash. He saw ripples on the edge of his headlamp's circle of light, spreading outward as if something had surfaced and then went back under.
Okay, Steve thought, as he backed away, there were fish in the lake, right? He seemed to recall that all the lakes around town were stocked with trout. People came out here to catch fish, and most importantly, came out here to fish without being eaten by anything. There was nothing bigger than a trout living in the lake and that was --
-- a total lie, because something yanked on his foot and he went down flat on his back.
In his shock, Steve dropped the blowtorch and gas can, scrabbling wildly for purchase on the loose rocks under him. There was something suspiciously vinelike wrapped around his ankle, and it was dragging him toward the water.
"Oh, no way!" Steve yelled, clutching at rocks and clumps of grass and anything else that seemed likely to slow his inexorable slide toward watery doom. "No, no, no!" He kicked at the vine, which didn't do anything except cause another clammy and dripping vine to quest out of the lake and wrap around his other ankle. Now he was sliding twice as fast. "No way! I've seen movies like this! They didn't end well! Shiiiiiit!"
He thought of the radio then, only to discover that he'd dropped that, too, in his initial wild flail of panic. When he turned his head, he could see all his gear glinting in the headlamp's beam, well and truly out of reach.
His feet were almost to the water. There was no help coming, not unless Chief just happened to get the demodog situation under control in an improbably short time and hustled back over, or Nancy and Jonathan came by to check on him for some reason.
Right. On his own, then.
He fumbled out his Boy Scout knife and flicked the blade open. It was only about three inches long, but he sat up and slashed at the ... well, might as well just call it a tentacle and get it over with. It looked soft, but trying to cut it was like hacking at barbed wire. The knife's small blade scraped off some surface goo but barely scratched the rest of it.
Steve tried digging in the tip of his blade instead, right above where the tentacle met his ankle. It wasn't soft, like an animal; it was woody, like a tree, but he managed to work the point of the blade between its fibrous layers, digging it in.
The tentacle didn't seem to like that at all, but it also didn't let go. It tightened convulsively and painfully, and then several more of them erupted from the water and lashed around his thighs and arms.
"Oh, come on!" Steve yelped, and then yelped again as his legs slid into the water. It was very cold.
Cold. And dark. And very Steve-drownable.
Was this really how he was going to go? Drowned by tentacle vines at the quarry? Come on!
"Help!" he yelled at the top of his lungs, not that it was likely there was anyone near enough to hear it. Maybe he'd get lucky and there was a night fisherman or a lost hiker ... or, God, anyone, he thought, gasping as the water rose clammily to his chest. He had been riding on enough adrenaline up to this point not to be actually afraid, but now the fear hit him like a hammer blow. He didn't want to die.
"This is bullshit!" he yelled, struggling with the tentacles, and then the water, dark and cold, closed over his head.
It occurred to him as soon as it was too late that taking a deep breath before going into the water, rather than screaming, would have been a good idea. Not that it would make that much difference in the long run, probably, but he still thrashed wildly against the tentacles in a cold and weirdly silent world, hazy in the headlamp's beam as his struggles kicked up mud from the lake bottom. He did actually get one of the tentacles to slip off his wrist, giving him a brief flare of hope even as his chest burned and spots danced in front of his eyes. He grabbed a fistful of the tentacles wrapped around his leg and yanked, managing to pull them loose enough that he started to work his leg free, but then his lungs finally gave up on this entire "not breathing" thing and he sucked in an involuntary gasp. Water flooded his mouth and throat; he choked, tried to cough, but there was nothing to breathe, nothing but cold water filling his mouth and nose, and panic and terror and the sense of large shapes moving around him in the dark water and tentacles dragging him like a cold numbing weight on his limbs.
Tentacles ... dragging him ...
... dragging him out of the water, into air that seemed suddenly warm, and he fought them weakly even as pain jackknifed his entire body and he started coughing up what felt like half the lake.
"Steve -- Steve!"
He made one more attempt to shake off the tentacles until he realized that it was hands holding him now, and Nancy's voice saying his name. All he could do was shiver and cough and heave up more water. He felt absolutely wretched.
"-- jacket," Nancy was saying, and something warm from someone else's body heat was bundled around his shoulders.
"-- away from the water?" said another voice -- Jonathan's voice, Steve belatedly registered.
"Steve?" Nancy said. "Can you walk? Come on, get up."
He wobbled to his feet, clinging to both of them, and stumbled along where they took him, still coughing, his sinuses burning. Dimly he was aware of toppling onto something that wasn't rocks or grass, but it took him a little longer to figure out that he was in the backseat of a car, and Nancy had climbed in with him.
"What," Steve managed to croak at last. His lungs felt like sacks of wet cement, and it was Jonathan's jacket snugged around his shoulders, its collar bumping his chin, smelling like Jonathan. "What ... happened?"
The headlamp had slipped down over one eye, and Nancy's small, strong hands carefully pulled it over his hair and set it down somewhere. "Chief Hopper called us and told us you were here by yourself. He said we ought to come out and back you up."
"Yes ... but ..."
He went off into another coughing fit, and when he came out of it, Jonathan was crawling into the backseat with them, on Steve's other side. "I found this in the trunk," Jonathan said, and a big, slightly squashed, very musty-smelling army coat settled over Steve. Nancy pulled some of it over her too, which was about the time that Steve registered, in a vague kind of way, that Jonathan was only damp around the edges, his jeans wet to mid-thigh. Nancy, on the other hand, was completely soaked, her hair straggling damply around her face.
"Did you," he said, and started coughing again. Jonathan pressed a hand to his back. "Did you ... why am I ... tentacles."
"Trust you, Steve, to find something brand new and awful in Hawkins," Jonathan said. But his voice wasn't mocking, and his hand was still pressed to Steve's back, even though Steve wasn't coughing anymore. There wasn't much room back here; Jonathan was pressed in on one side, and Nancy (rather squishily) pressed on the other side. It was like being the filling in a Nancy and Jonathan sandwich, and it was very cozy and he didn't ever want to not be here.
"I don't think it's new," Nancy said. "I think it's the same vines we've been finding, just underwater."
Which reminded Steve dazedly that Nancy had dived into a lake full of tentacles, or vines, or whatever, to save him. He opened his mouth to say something about that, and being him, what came out was, "What did you cut me loose with? I tried my knife but it didn't work."
"Oh," Nancy said. "This." From somewhere around her knees, she brought out a very large machete, then slipped it back down between the seats.
"Wow," was all Steve could say. His mental image of Nancy diving into the lake was now amended to Nancy diving into the lake holding an enormous machete in her teeth, like Davy Crockett with a Bowie knife ... which was probably inaccurate, but very appealing. Especially the diving to save him part. "Wow, I, um ... that was ... wow." Which seemed somehow inadequate for Nancy doing something horrendously dangerous to save his life, so he amended it to, "Thank you."
Instead of looking pleased, Nancy looked strangely distressed. "Steve, you don't have to thank me for -- I'm ..." She looked past him at Jonathan, and it seemed to Steve that they were doing that couple thing, that talking-without-words thing; he and Nancy had been able to do that, once.
"You know what?" Nancy said abruptly. "Fuck Murray, anyway."
"Uh, okay, who's Murray?" Steve asked. The train of this conversation had clearly pulled out of the station without him.
"Someone who knows a whole lot about some things and nothing at all about other things," Nancy said, and she leaned over and kissed him.
She kissed his cheek, not his lips, which Steve thought was understandable since he'd been throwing up lake water not too long ago -- but mostly he was just stuck on Nancy is kissing me. She pulled back, with a whole lot of emotion in her eyes that Steve couldn't quite understand. All he could do was stare at her.
Jonathan cleared his throat just then, which suddenly made Steve realize that Nancy had just kissed him with her boyfriend in the car, which made him think maybe he was about to get his ass kicked by Jonathan (again).
But he turned to look at Jonathan, and all Jonathan did was reach out -- and push back Steve's wet hair, where it was plastered down over his forehead, almost the same gesture Steve had done for him the other day.
And while Steve was processing that, sudden headlights raked across them as the Chief's cruiser pulled in behind them, and he didn't get a chance to find out if Jonathan would have kicked his ass, or done something else.
The Chief insisted on taking Steve to the emergency room, where they looked him over and gave him an antibiotic prescription, and then drove him home. It turned out that nearly drowning produced symptoms similar enough to a cold or flu to get some parental sympathy and a day of sprawling on the couch feeling like shit and watching daytime TV. Or at least that was what he was doing when someone knocked on the door.
Steve peeled himself off the couch, expecting a door-to-door salesman or Girl Scouts. What he didn't expect to see was Nancy and Jonathan, both of them looking happy to see him -- and making him very aware that he was wearing a bathrobe and his hair hadn't even made a passing acquaintance with hairspray lately.
"Steve!" Nancy said. "How are you feeling?"
"Uh ... okay, I guess," Steve said on autopilot, which was basically true aside from the part where his sinuses felt like they'd been scraped out with sandpaper. His brain still seemed to be running at half speed. "Aren't you two supposed to be in class right now?"
"We're skipping," Nancy said brightly.
"You. Nancy Wheeler. Are skipping class."
Nancy wrinkled her nose. "Don't be an idiot, Steve," she said, but she said it in the old way, the warm way.
He was still processing this when Jonathan said, "So, Nancy and I talked about some stuff."
"Yeah?" Steve said, somewhat warily.
"Yeah." Jonathan had turned pink. "So, apparently I have permission to do this." And he leaned forward and kissed Steve on the cheek, just beside the corner of his mouth, opposite the place where Nancy's lips had pressed the night before.
Jonathan pulled back quickly, now even pinker, and Steve just stared at him and finally said, "Is that ... all you have permission to do?"
"Steve," Nancy said with a sigh, and she bumped him with her hip, but she was smiling -- a warm smile, an inviting smile, a smile like the way she used to smile at him, back at the start of all of this. Back when things were still good. "Can we come in?"
"Yeah," Steve said, and he found himself smiling back -- grinning at both of them, actually, grinning in a way he hadn't in awhile. "Yeah. Come on in."