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Behind it All

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5:58pm, Saturday 13th April, 1985.

Everything had been going smoothly since Jane closed the gate: no monsters, no nosy scientists, no imminent threat of death. Hell, things actually looked like they were getting better for once.

It was April in the small town of Hawkins, Indiana, and the worst of the weather had already been and past, leaving behind clear skies and warm sun just in time for the Easter holidays. It was the perfect time for running around outside, riding bikes, exploring the outskirts of town, and really just getting some good, fresh air...So naturally the entire party had agreed upon spending the entire first day of freedom inside the arcade, screaming at screens whilst simultaneously pushing a button as fast as humanly possible.

"Son of a bitch. Sonofabitch. SON OF A BITCH!" Dustin watched in frustration as his health bar depleted completely, despite all his rapid tapping, and his character was sent crashing into the ground, defeated.

"I win," Max said smugly, leaning against the machine like she owned the damn thing. "Again."

"No way - I call for a rematch!"

Everyone else groaned dramatically in response.

"You've already lost five times!" exclaimed Lucas. "Come on dude, just face it. You're not gonna beat her!"

"Yes I am, I just haven't warmed up yet."

"Bullshit," said Mike.

"It's not bullshit."

"Yes it is. You haven't even come remotely close to beating her!"

"Accept it Dustin, I'm just better at this game than you! Besides," Max said, "you don't have enough money for another game."

She was right, Dustin had completely run out of change. He turned to the others hopefully.

"Will, you'll back me up, won't you? I'm totally gonna beat her this time and I swear I'll pay you back!"

Will looked at him apologetically and turned out his pockets. "Sorry, Dustin, but I'm all out too."

"Lucas? Mike? Come on, someone!"

"No can do: you're not the only one that spent all their money trying to beat Max," Lucas said.

"And Pac-Man ate my money like thirty minutes ago," explained Mike.

Dustin turned to Max.

"Dude, Will lent me money for the last game," she said.

Typical. Just typical. He couldn't wait until next week for a rematch: he was ready now! This totally wasn't fair. All he needed was one more game. Just one! Mike was wrong – he was close – he would totally beat her if they went again right here, right now! Maybe someone else could lend them money? That was a possibility, right?

Dustin scanned the crowd trying to find someone that might save the situation. There were a few kids from school he recognised, but he seriously doubted they'd want to give up their cash. Come on, come on, he thought. Surely there was someone here that could spare some change. It was a matter of life and death: this game needed to happen and it needed to happen now!

...And then a gift sent from whatever angel must have been looking down at Dustin during that moment came waltzing straight through the arcade door.

"STEVE!" Dustin yelled, already rushing over to Hawkins' number one rich kid and practically bowling into him, almost knocking him straight on his ass.

"Jesus, Dustin, calm down! Are you trying to send me flying back through the door or what?"

"Steve, dude, you're just in time!"

Harrington drew his eyebrows together in confusion. "Well, yeah...You said six o'clock, right?"

Dustin didn't respond (there were more crucial issues at hand) as he grabbed the sleeve of Steve's jacket and pulled him through the crowd towards the machine and his mortal enemy, where everyone else was standing by, waiting. This was fate – Dustin could feel it – he was meant to beat Max at this exact moment; everything had led up to this. Today was the day he became Arcade Champion. It had to be. It would be.

"Alright, what's going on here?" Steve asked, glancing between a hyper-excited Dustin, Max's subtly smug exterior and the outright weary looks on the other boys' faces.

"Dustin, can't accept the fact that Max is just better than him," Lucas started.

"Hey, the tables are about to turn, alright? They're in motion. I just need one more try," Dustin insisted, raising a finger in the air to emphasise his point.

"Dude, just give up already. You can't beat me."

"Yes I can."

"No. You can't."

"Um, yes, I can."

"No, you-"

"Alright, alright, that's enough of that!" Steve said pointing between Max and Dustin, causing Max to roll her eyes dramatically. "So, let me get this straight: you guys are arguing over who's better at some game and Dustin thinks playing one more round will settle the matter?"

"Max is better at the game," Mike corrected. "Dustin has lost five times and thinks a sixth will suddenly change that."

"Ok, sure. Wait, no, why am I being dragged into this?"

Steve glanced at them questionably only to be met with awkward silence and guilty looks being shared between them.

After a moment or two, Will was the one to answer him. "We, er...don't really have any money left..."

Of course, Steve thought. Honestly, sometimes he could swear he was just a piggybank to these kids, not to mention their personal chauffeur. Though, then again, Steve had to admit he secretly enjoyed spoiling them a little. Besides, it wasn't like he was going to run out anytime soon: his parents always left him with a stupidly large sum of money whenever they went away on some business trip, and at least this way someone was actually getting something out of it. Something that wasn't food or basic hygiene requirements, and other appearance essentials.

Steve left them waiting in suspense for a moment before reaching into his pocket and rolling his eyes.

"Jesus, fine. Just one game though, alright? Not two. One," he emphasised, like he totally wouldn't let them play a hundred more games if they wanted to.

Dustin practically lit up like a Christmas tree as Steve handed him some cash and Max begrudgingly got into place at the machine while Dustin inserted the right amount. It didn't take long for the game to launch, and soon the numbers on the screen were counting down in declaration of the battle's beginning. This was it. There was no denying it: Dustin could practically feel his victory right on the tip of his tongue; the definitive glory he would have in a mere minute, crowning him champion whilst everyone else bore witness to his win in awe and disbelief. He would show them - show them all - that if anyone was the King of the Arcade…it was him.

* * * * *

Dustin lost in the end.

After his final defeat they exited the arcade, giving Dustin their condolences on the loss as they stepped outside the doors.

"Don't worry about it," Will said. "You were a lot closer in comparison to last week. Maybe you'll beat her next time."

Dustin thought about this for a moment. "You're right...I will beat her next time. Hey, Max!" He whipped around to face her. "I'll beat you next time! Your winning streak is toast!"

She scoffed as she turned to him, but the massive smile on her face made it seem more like a laugh. "We'll see," she said, then her smile suddenly turned into a scowl as she caught sight of Billy stalking towards them from where he'd been leaning on the hood of his Camaro, smoking a cigarette as he watched them exit. God the guy was such an asshole. At least he wasn't threatening Lucas anymore. Actually, he'd become a lot less aggressive over the last couple of months – hell, she couldn’t think of the last time he’d actually shouted at her...But he was still a jerk; and though him and Steve wouldn't fight they'd still have little pissing contests between them where they'd just square off and exchange insults – maybe shove each other a little but it never escalated above that. Billy was always the one to initiate it. Just like he was about to now.

"Harrington!" Billy called, smile shark-like and growing larger as he approached.

Steve gave the kids a reassuring "I'll handle this," before turning around and meeting Billy half way.

"You alright, pretty boy? Looking a little tired there. Have a rough night?"

"What do you want, Hargrove?" Steve asked, arms crossed defensively as he watched Billy's tongue slide across his front teeth.

"What?" he said. "Can't a guy just say 'hello' anymore?"

"I don't think accusing someone of having a ‘rough night’ counts as a pleasant greeting. And that doesn't answer my question."

"Just wanted to see how you're doing. Being a single mum and all, must be difficult."

"Not as difficult as it must be living with a brain the size of a peanut."

"You calling me dumb, Harrington?"

"I'm just saying I don't see a lot of activity going on up there."

"Yeah, well, you aren't exactly the sharpest tool in the shed yourself, princess."

"Jesus Christ, could you be more immature?"

"Says the guy who hangs around with a bunch of thirteen-year-olds."

"Yep. And despite that they still have a lot more interesting things to say than you."

All the friendly banter seemed to disappear within a second as Billy suddenly took another step forward towards Steve, invading his space and leaving the two practically sharing the same air. The party was stood at a reasonably safe distance away, watching on in silence. It was only when Billy raised a hand to give Steve two tame claps on the shoulder that they all visibly tensed; all apart from Dustin who simply rolled his eyes at the harmless gesture.

Billy smiled, gripping Steve's shoulder a little longer than necessary before finally retracting his hand. "Have a nice night, Harrington."

"Yeah, you too," responded Steve.

And with that Hargrove started walking backwards towards his car, smile evolving into a toothy grin as he licked his lips in manner that could only be described as obscene. "Oh, I will," he said, before turning around and calling for Max to follow him.

She was quick to do so after sharing a few concerned looks with the rest of the party, running across the parking lot and getting in the passenger seat as Billy started the engine. The rest of them watched as the Camaro sped away with a loud screech of tyres before Lucas turned to Dustin accusingly, catching him mid-facepalm as though he'd just witnessed the most blatantly unbearable scene on earth.

"What the hell was that?"

"What was what?" Dustin asked innocently, hastily putting the hand back by his side.

"The eye roll. And the dramatic look you had on your face right now!"

Dustin seemed to struggle for words for a moment and an intensely guilty look crossed his face, only feeding into Lucas' suspicion further. "I, er, don't know what look you're referring to..."

"What do you mean you don't - dude, I just saw it!"

"Hey, what are you guys talking about?" Mike asked, their conversation attracting the attention him and Will.

There was a brief moment of silence where Lucas turned to look expectantly at Dustin, who in response floundered on the spot a little, opening and closing his mouth as though going to speak and then stopping himself, and in the end simply shrugging exaggeratedly.

Lucas was about to question him further when Steve shouted at them from his car. "Hey, shitheads! Get in before your mums kill me for being late!”

The topic was quickly dropped as they started scrambling over to the car, having a heated debate about who got to sit shotgun. By the time they'd pulled out the parking lot, Will was sat happily in the front seat whilst the rest of them had begrudgingly settled into the back. It didn't take long to drive to Lucas' from the arcade, or Mike's after that and then Dustin's. Soon, only Will remained in the car as Steve drove down the winding, woodland road – Mirkwood – that led to the Byer's residence.

"So, you excited for tomorrow?" Steve asked, driving a little slower then he probably had to, just in case a deer sprang out into the road. Well, a deer or...something else.

"Yeah! Everyone's bringing round a tonne of games to show El. You're still dropping Mike, Dustin and Lucas off right?"

"Yeah, yeah, I'll get them there on time. I'll also probably be carrying in the truckload of games they'll undoubtedly dump on me as soon as they get in the car."

Will laughed, smiling brightly as he stared out the window, before he turned to look back at Steve. "You know...you can join us if you want. I'm sure the others wouldn't mind. Plus El says she really likes spending time with you."

Steve glanced at him in surprise. "She said that?"

"Yeah. And she thinks you’re really funny."

Steve huffed in amusement, lips tugging up gently into a smile. He was relieved the kid liked him. When he'd first met her it had been a little awkward to say the least, especially with everyone else clearly being a lot more familiar with her than him. Hence why he'd been so surprised when Jim Hopper had called him up at seven one night, asking if he could come over and keep her company for a little while whilst he attended some police business that had come up. Apparently the Chief had heard all about his babysitting skills and decided to put them to the test; that and he hadn't really wanted to disturb Joyce on her day off.

Steve was both honoured and terrified by the request but had come all the same (he knew what it was like to spend a lot of time home alone. Company – any company at all – was practically a gift.) As he'd expected, the first few minutes with her had probably been the most tense, silent moments in his life, but thankfully the atmosphere had quickly shifted when he'd asked her what she wanted to do and a pack of cards had floated down from a shelf and dropped into the space between them.

She hadn't spoken to him much that first night, but the second time Hopper called him she talked a little more. And the time after that they actually had a conversation that lasted for more than five minutes. The more Steve visited, the more open she became, and Steve liked to think that he had the kid's full trust at this point, and that she enjoyed his company. The fact that Will had just confirmed that for him...well...it was awesome. Steve couldn't really think of another word to describe it, but felt like it pretty much summed up the warm, happy feeling that had suddenly washed over him at hearing the compliment.

"Thanks," he said, and Will's eyebrows furrowed in confusion.

"For what?"

"For telling me. It means a lot," he paused before remembering Will's previous offer. "Oh, and, er, I guess I could play a game or two if you guys don’t mind getting your asses whooped by a pro."

Will’s eyebrows shot up in amused disbelief. "I don't know,” he said, “Lucas is pretty competitive when it comes to board games."

"Well, Lucas has never met the reigning champion of Monopoly."

Steve pulled into the Byer's drive as Will unbuckled his seat belt, still laughing at Steve’s remark. Joyce was already waiting for them on the porch and stood up to greet them as soon as the car came into sight.

"Thanks, Steve," Will said, exiting the car and hugging his mum before giving him a final wave of goodbye and disappearing inside the house.

Steve waved back, smiling, before rolling down his window as Joyce came to thank him for dropping Will off.

"Would you like to come inside for a bit?" she offered, and Steve could practically feel the motherly love just radiating off of her. "I'm just about to serve dinner if you're hungry."

"That's very kind, Mrs Byers, but I'm afraid I'll have to decline."

"You sure? And how many times have I told you to call me Joyce."

"Ah, right. Sorry, Joyce. I'd love to, honestly, but I'm afraid I've got plans. Besides, if I started saying yes to you, I think Mrs Henderson would get jealous."

Joyce chuckled at that. "Well then, have a nice night, sweetie. And thanks again."

She waved him off as he reversed out the drive and onto the road, watching his headlights disappear off into the distance before going back inside and shutting the door behind her.

10:02pm, Saturday 13th April, 1985.

Hopper hadn't had a case like this in months. Murders in Hawkins were rare: hell, they never happened unless some shady government organisation was involved, which only worked to make this case more disturbing. Because Hopper knew the lab. Knew how they liked to hide their presence. Seeing Benny two years ago was enough to tell Hopper what he was looking into now had nothing to do with them. And honestly? He couldn't tell whether he was relieved or not yet. Something about this not being the lab's doing only seemed to unsettle him further.

He'd received the call around seven thirty, just as he and Jane had been sitting down for dinner. Typical. Someone had called in about finding a body on the outskirts of Hawkins: some guy murdered in his own home, beaten to death and bloody all over. What a mess. Hopper had known as soon as he'd received the call he wouldn't be finishing dinner anytime soon, so he'd called Steve to come over and watch Jane for the night. It wasn't that she wasn't perfectly capable of being left on her own – by all means, if an intruder came in they'd be flying right back out – but she'd had to put up with a lot of that last year, and Hopper knew the kid hated it. He always felt guilty leaving her there with nothing but the TV for company. So, he called Steve...except Steve clearly wasn't home, because he didn't answer. So, he called Joyce. Then after helping Jane pack a few things in preparation for a sleepover at the Byer's he'd headed to the crime scene.

By the time he got there, the place was already being searched for potential evidence. He asked a question or two upon arriving before joining the fray with the rest of them, practically turning the house inside out with their efforts.

Disturbingly, there was very little to be found: the only useful information coming from the neighbours that had found the guy. With what they had, they managed to estimate the time of death to somewhere between five and six, meaning that whoever did this was probably long gone by now if they were smart. After a final sweep, Hopper left the scene to return to the station.

And here he was now, an hour later, sat sifting through paperwork with an empty stomach and his fifth cup of coffee going cold on his desk, and by the looks of things they were going to have to do a lot more digging. The victim, now identified as Carter Rogers, had only moved to Hawkins five years ago, and as far as Hopper could tell the guy had kept mostly to himself during that time. He'd found two reports on the guy's record - both drunk and disorderly charges - but other than that hadn't managed to pull out anything else of interest. The guy seemed pretty clean. Only problem was that clean people didn't tend to end up beaten to death.

Hopper needed more info on this guy – stuff that went beyond the last five years. There had to be something there, he was sure of it. No one got offed like that for nothing. This guy had something to hide. And he was going to find it...tomorrow.

There wasn't a lot more Hopper could do right now other than fill out paperwork and maybe, finally get a bite to eat. He was picking up his coat, ready to drive out to an all-night diner when Flo came knocking on his door.

"Come in," he grumbled, gulping down his coffee and grimacing on the discovery it was cold.

Flo peeked her head round the door, glasses balanced on the bridge of her nose as she squinted at him. "Gotta call for you, Chief. Some guy. Won't tell me his name but he sounds upset. Asked for you specifically."

Jesus Christ, what now? Hopper thought mournfully, as he followed Flo out the office and picked up the phone she motioned towards, letting out a deep sigh before putting the receiver against his ear. "Chief Hopper speaking."

"Yes – hi, um...I...I need to report a-a break-in." Hopper knew that voice...he recognised it instantly but he couldn't think for the life of him where he'd heard it before. There was something off about it: something in the way it stuttered and broke over the line that made it hard to trace. "You know Steve Harrington, right?"

Hopper straightened a little at the name, a sudden feeling of dread pooling in his stomach. He didn't like where this was going. Didn't like it one bit. Something was wrong. Something was very, very wrong.

He cleared his throat, keeping his voice indifferent. "I'm familiar," he said, and waited tensely for the person to continue, listening to them breathing heavily on the other end of the phone like they were trying fight off a complete meltdown.

"Well, it's – I can't find him."

"What do you mean you can't find him?" Hopper asked, trying to be patient, to be calm, to give this guy time to speak.

"I just – I can't find him! I'm at his house, and his car's still here, and he's just…just not! Here's not here, and – and there's glass everywhere, and the back door's broken, and it looks like there was some kind of struggle, and I've looked – I've looked everywhere and I can't find him, and I think...I think..." The guy’s voice broke off and Hopper could hear him practically choking back tears. "Just...please, you need to get over here."

"Alright, calm down. Don’t worry, we're on our way. You're at the Harrington residence, right? Can you give me your name? I need you to just stay right there, and we'll be there as soon as we can."

"I...just find him...please."

There was only silence on the line after that, and it took Hopper a moment to realise the guy had hung up. He put the phone down slowly, taking a moment for everything to just catch up to him for a second as he pinched the bridge of his nose and tried to calm the complete apocalypse state his mind was in at that moment.

Everyone else in the station watched him expectantly.

"What did he say, Chief?" questioned Powell, him and Callahan sat back in their seats, most likely trying to find any excuse that would send them far away from the paperwork littering their desks.

Hopper straightened up, features hardening as he started taking action and strode purposefully towards the door. "We're going to the Harrington residence."

Callahan and Powell shared a glance. "What, now?"

"Now!" Hopper yelled as he walked out, hearing the sound of the other officers scrambling to get their coats behind him. He made a direct beeline for his truck, practically ripping the door open as got in and started the engine, already taking off down the road before the others had even unlocked their cars. They caught up to him soon enough though, and it wasn't long before they found themselves parking up outside Steve's house.

Hopper had to take a moment to steel himself for the worst, before getting out the car and walking up the drive, giving the door three loud knocks. Inside, he could see there were lights on in some of the rooms, and Steve's car was parked out front in what he assumed was its usual spot.

No one answered.

Rather than breaking through the front door, Hopper decided to walk round to the back, bypassing the pool as he headed for the sliding glass doors and pausing as soon as he got close.

"Well, there's definitely been a break-in, alright," Callahan stated.

The sliding doors were smashed and shards of glass were scattered across the lounge floor, reflecting the light of the room as they lay dormant and broken. Hopper tried his best to avoid standing in any of it as he made his way inside, taking in the scene before him. The caller was right: it did look like there had been a struggle; some ornaments had been knocked from their resting places, like someone had stuck out their hand and pushed them all off in one go, whilst some of the larger furniture appeared to have been moved roughly, as though something had been shoved forcefully against it.

Or someone, Hopper thought as he made his way through the room and into the hallway, taking note of the phone on the side table. Whoever their caller was, they hadn't stayed like he told them to. They did a full search of the house, discovering the damage was only limited to the lounge and that everything else seemed to be in place and untouched, though Hopper suspected there were a few missing items of value that had been taken during the break-in. Items he imagined Steve would be able to identify, if he was there.

But he wasn't. The house was completely empty. And Steve Harrington...

Steve Harrington was gone.

Chapter Text

Hopper went straight to the Byer's as soon as they'd gotten Harrington's house sealed off as a crime scene. Dear God, he hoped the kid was alright…but he'd be lying to himself if he thought Steve was safe. A murder and now this, all in one day. Hopper didn't want to admit it but he knew that type of coincidence was bullshit: there was no way the two weren't related. As for what that meant for Steve...well, he preferred not to think about that right now.

Despite the late hour, Jim suspected Joyce would still be awake when he got there at half eleven, parking up quickly as close to the porch as he could. He discovered he was right when his knock was shortly responded to with some fumbling from inside before the door opened.

"Jim!" Joyce smiled, stepping aside and closing the door behind him once he'd entered. "They finally let you off?"

She looked tired, Hopper thought, but there was something content there too. A calm that had taken weeks, months, to finally wash over her. He never knew how Joyce quite managed it: managed to pull a smile that bright out of nowhere; just pluck it from thin air effortlessly, making everything about her seem so warm. Hopper had always loved that about Joyce…Which was why it pained him to have to take that away again – throw salt into a healing wound.

For a second he couldn't bring himself to do it: just standing there in silence staring at that smile.

"Oh, you must be starving! Come on, I'll fix you up something to eat."

She placed a hand upon his shoulder, intending to steer him into the kitchen, but he simply placed his own palm on top of it instead, holding it there. Joyce paused, smile stuttering before being replaced with a small frown, worry crossing her face.

"Jim?" She asked. And it was so gentle – so quiet – Hopper almost broke down on the spot.

"Where's Jane?" he asked, tone just as soft.

Joyce's frown deepened, eyebrows drawing together marginally at the question. "She's asleep in Will's room. I–” She cut off mid-sentence, gaze focused on something behind Hopper. "Well, she was asleep."

Hopper turned to find Jane walking towards him, feet bare and footsteps eerily silent as she came to stand beside them, cocking her head slightly when she looked up at him. Her hair was messy from sleep, a little longer now and just a short way off from reaching her shoulders.

There was something sharp in her gaze – something like concern – and Hopper wondered if perhaps she already knew; had read it straight from his mind like he were some open book, with its contents displayed for all to see. He almost wanted that to be true. Hoped it was – couldn't bear to ask the question – just wanted her to know what he needed her to do and do it.

But she didn't move.

Just stared up at him.

And he knew he had to ask.

"Hey kid," he started, ruffling her hair with his hand before letting it come to rest on her shoulder. He was stalling. He knew that. But he couldn't help it – couldn't fight the dread of what she might see if she looked. The kid had faced enough horrific sights already: he didn't want to add to that; didn't want to carry that burden of knowing he'd been the one who'd placed the image there…But in the end he had to take the risk. He had to let her look because he needed to know where – if…He just...he needed to know.

Sighing shakily, he crouched down until he was level with Jane, meeting her gaze directly before finding the words to say. "Kid, I...I need you to do something for me."

Curiosity sparked in El's eyes but the concern was still there, steadily growing stronger with every second. "Find someone?" she asked.

"Yeah," Hopper said. "Someone we know, actually." He paused for a second, the name freezing in his mouth and refusing to move past his lips. In that moment, all he could think of was the worst, and having worked for so many years as a cop it was far too easy to picture some familiar corpse, slowly growing cold out in some ditch in the woods. But he could be alive, a part a him reasoned. He could be fine. And this was exactly why he needed Jane to check. "I need you to find Steve."

As soon as the name was spoken, a quiet tension filled the room as the reality of his words set in and El's eyes widened fractionally.

"Steve?" Joyce asked, and Hopper could hear the panic in her voice; felt the same dread that was knotting itself in her gut. "What's happened? Is he missing – what's wrong?"

Jim glanced at her briefly before looking down at the floor. "We got a call. Said his house was a wreck and he wasn't home. We went to check it out and...well, they were right. He wasn't there. We don't know where he is."

Joyce began to pace back and forth, chewing her lower lip. "You don't think it has anything to do with the –?"

"No," Hopper cut off quickly. "No, it's not that."

She seemed a little less stressed upon hearing that, but it was hardly enough to stop her from worrying.

"Bad men?" Jane asked, brown eyes locked onto Hopper's.

"Yes, but not the kind of bad men you're thinking of."

El paused to consider this for a moment before speaking again, a subtle hatred mixed into her tone that made it a little harsher and deeper than her normal voice. "Bad men are bad men."

He huffed a laugh at that, but it was weak and half-hearted. "You're not wrong there kid...so d'you think you can find him?"

She held his gaze a little longer before glancing towards the TV in the living room. Joyce had stopped pacing to watch the interaction, arms crossed as they waited for a response. After a few seconds, Jane looked back at Hopper and nodded, setting off towards the TV, flicking it on and sitting herself down on the floor in front of the blaring static screen.

"I'll get a...scarf or something," Joyce said, hurrying down the corridor to her bedroom to find something suitable to use as a blindfold.

Hopper perched on the edge of the couch near to Jane, wanting to be close but not so much as to distract her. It wasn't long before Joyce was back, a red cotton scarf in hand which she passed over to her before settling down next to Jim and threading her fingers between his own. He gave her hand a brief squeeze, letting the action soothe his nerves a little as El got ready.

"Remember, kid," he said, "we're right here, okay? You see something you don't like and you come straight back out, alright?"

Jane nodded once in understanding before tying the scarf over her eyes and letting her powers take over, focusing on a particular memory as she felt herself drifting into the void – letting go of everything else but this single image of Steve from two months ago. She remembered the moment clearly: Hopper leaving around five and coming back find to Steve and El sat at the kitchen table, hair ridiculous with small plaits and pigtails and the small box of makeup Hopper had brought her before the Snowball sat open in front of them. They had a picture of that moment framed on a wall back at home…But soon the image faded along with everything else, and she found herself surrounded by empty and endless black.

Just at that moment, Will entered the room, rubbing his eyes sleepily as he took in the scene before him. "What's going on?"

A few seconds passed before he really made sense of what he was seeing, and the pure panic that washed across his face had Joyce by his side in a heartbeat, holding his shoulders reassuringly. "What's wrong? Has something happened?" he asked.

"Sweetie, it's alright, nothing's happened...well, nothing of that sort anyway." She brought him over to the couch and got him to sit between her and Hopper. Fortunately, his entrance hadn't seemed to distract El from her task.

"Oh...what's going on then?" He looked between them and Jane, trying to figure out who they had her searching for.

Hopper shifted in his seat a little, glancing at Joyce and waiting for her nod of approval before speaking. "Steve may be...missing."

"Missing?" Will echoed. He could tell Hopper was trying soften the blow for him a little, but the fact still sent Will's mind reeling with shock and confusion. Steve was missing? But..."But we just saw him a few hours ago..."

"You did?" Hopper probed, figuring any information would be helpful at this point.

"Yes," Joyce answered, hands still firmly clasped around Will’s shoulders. "He dropped off Will from the arcade. I offered him to stay for dinner for a little while but he said he had plans."

"What kind of plans?"

"I'm not sure. He didn't say."

Hopper took a second to consider the information. "What time was this?"

"About half six-ish, I think." She glanced at Will for confirmation and he nodded in response.

So, Steve drops Will off at half six...Hopper began to try and map out what he could have done after that. Did he go home straight away? That would place him at his house maybe a little before seven, around a half hour before Hopper had tried calling him to look after Jane. That would mean he'd been taken somewhere between those times. Either that, or he hadn't gone home immediately. What were those plans he was talking about? Had he gone out to meet someone? Hopper knew Harrington had to return to his house sometime before ten – surely the car wouldn't have been there if he hadn't – but whatever he had done before that time was a complete mystery. Then there was the case of the anonymous caller. Why hell was someone visiting Steve at ten o'clock at night? Hopper really hoped Harrington hadn't gotten himself involved in something he shouldn't be. And if he had then...well, Hopper would have hoped he'd have been informed of it before now; before he'd disappeared, leaving behind a wrecked house. He could have helped him: he was Chief for God’s sake, that was his job! If Steve had been involved with the wrong people then why didn't he just –

"I don't think Steve expected this to happen," Will suddenly said, snapping Hopper out of his thoughts.

"What?" the Chief asked, trying to drag himself out of whatever rabbit hole he'd started digging.

"He said he'd come tomorrow. I invited him when he dropped me back," Will explained. "Whatever his plans were...I-I don't think they were to do with...well...this."

Hopper nodded in acknowledgement and scratched the stubble of his beard as he thought it over. What Will said made sense: Harrington did have a soft spot for the kids and it would be uncharacteristic of him to break a promise like that. But still, years of seeing cases like this when he'd been working in the city forbade him from completely abandoning the idea. They couldn't afford to overlook anything, no matter how unlikely.

They sat in silence after that, waiting for Jane to find something. It usually didn't take her this long. Whether that was a good or bad sign, Hopper couldn't tell, but with every extra second that passed he only grew more and more unsettled. He was considering asking Jane to stop – didn't want the kid overexerting herself – when suddenly something shifted in her demeanour and her whole body became tense and rigid for a moment.

"Steve?" she whispered.

Hopper shifted closer to her, panicking about what she may have found.

"Remember, you don't have to see anything you don't want to, alright?" he said, taking the faint nod of her head as confirmation that she'd heard him.

A few more seconds passed before she spoke again.

"Bound."

Hopper straightened in his seat, trying to clear his head of worry so he could focus on what she was saying. "What, like tied up?"

She nodded, leaning forward slightly. "There's a bag over his head."

In the corner of his eye, he saw Joyce grasping Will's hand in her own as she held her son close. They knew what question he had to ask next.

"Is he alive?"

Jane paused and tilted her head to the side.

"Yes," she said after a while, and Jim let himself relax a little, breathing out a sigh of relief as he raked a hand through his hair. "He’s sleeping." El learned forward further, tilting her head a little more as though trying to figure something out. "Bad sleep," she concluded. "Forced sleep."

"So he's been knocked out..." Hopper trailed off, filing the information away for late use. "Do you know where he is?"

A steady silence passed, and he could see the concentration plainly on Jane's face as blood began to trickle from her nose and down her chin. Something was clearly bothering her, and she seemed almost frustrated when she spoke again. "Not sure. Moving fast – too fast."

Hopper watched her frown deepen as the blood dripped steadily onto her clothes. He wanted to tell her to stop – that she'd done enough already – but she seemed intent on carrying out the task, refusing to give in. Suddenly, she seemed to freeze and panic, and her breathing became rapid with fear.

“El? El, what do you see? What’s wrong?” he questioned, ready to pull her out of the void at any second.

"Dark," she stuttered. "Dark and small and warm and –" She gasped, inhaling air like her life depended on it. "Breathe! Can't breathe! Can't –!"

Hopper rushed to her side, quickly wrapping his arms around her and shutting off the TV before removing her blindfold. She curled into him immediately, hiding her face in his shirt, breathing raggedly but slowly calming down as he held her securely and rubbed circles into her back. Joyce joined them on the floor whilst Will rushed off into the kitchen, pulling a glass out of the cupboard and filling it with water before handing it over to her. They waited until El had her breathing back under control before getting her to drink it, watching as she took small sips and wiped the blood from her nose.

After a few more minutes had passed, Joyce spoke to her softly, keeping her voice calm and reassuring. "What happened, sweetie? You don't have to say if you don't want to. We can talk later if that would make you feel better."

Jane shook her head. "Wanted to find him. Wanted to find Steve."

"We know, it's alright. You did great kid," Hopper said, taking the water from her and placing it down on the floor when she didn't seem to want it anymore.

After a while she spoke again. "I don’t know where but…a car. Steve’s in a car."

"A car?" Hopper asked, and she nodded before looking down at the floor. What she had been saying made sense now...moving too fast; dark, small, warm...Steve was locked in someone's car boot. No wonder El had freaked out when she realised – she was mildly claustrophobic: couldn't stand being in a dark, enclosed space. "Did you see what it looked like?"

She shook her head again, gaze still facing downward. "No," she said. "Only saw the inside..."

"Hey," Joyce said, running a hand through Jane's hair and pushing small strands away from her face. "You did great, alright?"

El sniffled slightly, wiping her nose against her sleeve. "I couldn't find him –"

"And that's fine," Hopper insisted. A pinpointed location would have been nice but the kid clearly hadn't been able to do it, and Hopper was perfectly okay with that. She'd done more than enough – a whole lot more than she probably thought she had. They knew Steve was alive now, and they knew he'd been taken. That meant they were one step closer to getting him back. "What you've given me is useful beyond belief. Hell, I almost feel like I'm cheating the case: I came here with practically nothing and you handed me half the missing pieces. We will find him. I have confidence in that now. You gave me that confidence."

El looked up at him, eyes a little watery. "Really?" she whispered.

"Really," he said back, internally celebrating the faint smile he got in return for it. "Now, I suggest we all get some sleep: it's late and I imagine tomorrow will be..." he pondered on what word to use before eventually settling on "difficult."

"Wait," Will said, speaking up from where he was sat cross-legged on the floor. "Steve was meant to pick up Mike, Dustin and Lucas tomorrow...should we tell them now or...?"

Hopper shook his head. "We'll wait until morning to break the news."

With that Joyce started hustling the kids back to the bedroom – though not after Jane had given Hopper one final goodnight hug. She made sure they were comfortable and settled before returning to him in the lounge.

"You can take my bed. Jonathan's out tonight so I'm sure he won't mind me sleeping in his," Joyce said, nodding towards her bedroom door.

"You sure? I can always take the couch –"

"Oh, don't be ridiculous!" she countered. "You'll need a better night's sleep than a couch can provide. Now, come help me fix you a bite to eat before you pass out from starvation."

"Yes, ma'am," he said, following her into the kitchen and leaning against the counter whilst she rifled through the fridge. He watched her silently for a few minutes, observing the determined look in her eyes and the slight tension in her jaw. "Joyce?"

She turned to look at him, hands gripping a bowl of leftover pasta. "Yeah?"

"Thank you," he said. A gentle smile softened her features as soon as the words left his mouth, and in that moment – despite everything – Hopper could have sworn she glowed, just a little. "And don't worry. We'll get him back soon."

Joyce closed the fridge door and placed the bowl down on the counter before closing the distance between them and wrapping her arms around him, tucking her head beneath his chin. Soon he was returning the hug, pulling her close and just holding her there – neither of them speaking; both simply enjoying the closeness and the comfort provided by the action.

Jim liked these moments. Perhaps liked them a little more than he could bring himself to admit. But he didn't want to think about that right now – didn't want to think about anything; just wanted to stay in this moment a little while longer, before he had to return to all the anxiety and stress of tomorrow. Surely he was allowed that, right? One little moment where he could forget it all. Because he needed that right now; and something told him that she did too.

So they stood, and they held each other...for as long as they could.

Chapter Text

Hopper got up at half five the next morning. Sleep hadn't come easy to him that night, but he'd managed to get at least an hour or two in, which, considering the circumstances, wasn't half bad. His mind had been hyperactive all night, busy sifting through all the information he had – questioning and contemplating as it went – trying to link things together, and slot the puzzle pieces into an image he could roughly decipher the nature of. He'd also planned what he intended to do when he got back to the station: what files he'd look for, who he'd call. Hopefully, a more thorough search of the Harrington residence had turned up something useful but he didn't expect much if they were dealing with the same guys responsible for the murder. He was certain the two cases were linked at this point. The only question was how.

But before all that there was one extremely important task that came above all others: make some goddamn coffee.

He was half way through his first cup when Joyce joined him, then on his second and midway through breakfast when El and Will appeared, joining them at the small table and helping themselves. Hopper didn't miss the way Jane kept stealing glances at the TV every so often while she ate, though decided not to comment on it as he went in for seconds. If Hopper had learnt anything from his job it was eat as much as you can when you can. It probably wasn't the healthiest lifestyle but it had kept him going on more than one occasion; and something told him he might not be getting lunch today.

When they'd all finished, he helped Joyce clear the plates away and was drying off the final dish when Will spoke up from where he was still sat at the table. "Should I tell the rest of the party now?"

Hopper glanced at Will before studying the clock to find it was a little after seven. "Yeah. Best to get it over and done with I guess."

"What should I tell them?" Will asked. The kid looked a little nervous, but determined all the same.

Hopper checked the time again, contemplating. "Tell them Steve's missing. And tell them I want everyone to meet up at the police station for half eight: I'll be needing statements from all of you. You too, Joyce."

She nodded in response, turning away from the sink to lean against the counter. "I can do that," she said, before looking to Will. "And if anyone needs a lift then I can do that too."

Will smiled in understanding, starting to rise from his seat at the table when a thought crossed his mind. "What about Jonathan? And Nancy? They might know something, right?"

Hopper scratched his beard. "Yeah, get them to come as well. Anyone that interacted or could have interacted with Steve yesterday: I want to see them."

Something mildly panicked crossed Will's face then, his eyes growing marginally wider. "A-Anyone?" he parroted.

"Yeah," Hopper confirmed, brow furrowing. "There a problem with that?"

Will opened his mouth to say something then seemed to flounder on the spot for a second before quickly shutting it again and beginning to edge towards the corridor. "No. No problem. I'll just..." he pointed towards his bedroom before scampering off out of sight, leaving the rest of them perplexed.

"What was that about?" asked Joyce, her expression pinched with motherly concern.

"I'm not sure," Hopper said. "But if it's of any significance I'm sure we'll find out soon enough."

With that, he grabbed his coat from where it was draped across the one chair and slung it over his shoulder, fetching his car keys out the left pocket. He planned on making a quick detour to his house to change into some fresh clothes before heading back to the station – maybe even brush his teeth a little; either that or just grab a mint.

El was still sat at the table, practically glaring at the TV at this point. Sighing, he came to sit beside her, drawing her attention away from it.

"Hey," he started, trying to ensure he had her full focus. "I'm heading off to the station now, so the chances are that I won't be back for a while. Will and Joyce will also be joining me for a little bit so you'll be here alone for about an hour or so, alright?"

She nodded her head at him in understanding.

"Ok," he said. "Now, I know you're not happy with how things went yesterday but I don't want you looking for Steve again."

Jane's expression tensed and she looked like she was about to argue back when Hopper spoke again, cutting off whatever she was going to say. "Not alone, anyway. If you're set on looking for Steve, that's fine, but I want you to wait until everyone else is back here, ok? And I don't want you overexerting yourself over it either: if you can't find him, then you can't find him – and that's fine. So just...don't force yourself, alright?"

A short silence fell between them as Jane considered his words. Hopper could tell she didn't want to wait – didn't want to just sit and do nothing for an hour – but the kid had to understand that doing this kind of thing alone wasn't safe for her. Especially after what had happened last night. Jane probably wouldn’t admit it but he could tell she was still a little shaken up about it, and the last thing any of them wanted was her rushing back into panic attack.

It took a little while but eventually she gave him a weak nod...and Hopper was not convinced by that at all.

"I'm going to need a verbal confirmation on this, kid," he pushed.

El glared at him a little but finally gave in, mouth still set in a frown as she spoke. "Don't find Steve. Wait."

"Alright, good." He stood up, ruffling her hair a little as he did so. "See you later, kid."

And with that he headed for the door, giving Joyce his thanks as he left and waving her goodbye as he reversed off the drive, disappearing down the road with a single thought occupying his mind: this is going to be a long day.

* * * * *

Mike didn't sign up for this. It was one thing to tell his sister that her ex-boyfriend was missing on a Sunday morning at seven fifteen; it was another thing entirely to knock on her bedroom door at this time when he knew that her current boyfriend was also in said bedroom doing God knows what with her. Today was meant to be fun: they were meant to go round to Will's, eat a shit tonne of junk food and show El some new games. That had been the plan – easy, simple – but no. That wasn't happening anymore. Why? Because all of a sudden Steve had been fucking kidnapped and was apparently in some car boot probably half way across America by now and Mike was having to interrupt Nancy and Jonathan when they were...canoodling or whatever to tell them that they needed to drive down to the police station for eight thirty for questioning, because not even El knew where he was yet, let alone who had taken him.

Just knock on the door, he thought, trying to will his limbs into action. He'd been stood out here for at least a minute now and honestly it was getting ridiculous. What was he so scared of? They were probably just sleeping! So what Nancy had invited Jonathan round when their parents had been out for the night and weren't coming back until this afternoon? It didn't mean anything had happened...Apart from the fact that it totally meant something had happened and Mike was grossed out at the thought that Nancy would do something like that when he was in the room directly beside hers. Like, seriously?

He hesitated a moment longer before eventually accepting his fate and giving the door three short knocks.

A moment passed.

And then another.

"Nancy!" he called, knocking on the door another three times with more confidence.

Fuck it, he thought, when she failed to answer him again, and proceeded to pound on the door in rapid succession until it finally swung open with a force that could have torn it off its hinges.

"WHAT THE HELL, MIKE?" Nancy yelled, and Mike had to stop himself from bolting back to his room because holy shit she looked terrifying right now.

For a second he was too stunned to say anything, his mind blanking completely as he stood rooted to the spot gaping at her. In the end, the first words out his mouth were, "Is Jonathan in there?"

As if on cue, Byers leaned into view from where he was sat on Nancy's bed, hair flopping to one side as he waved awkwardly.

"Good, er...yeah, that's..." Mike trailed off, glancing between them both as they stared at him expectantly; and in that single, uncomfortable moment, he really wished he'd spent less time worrying about knocking on the door and more time worrying about what he'd say when it opened.

"...We need to talk."

* * * * *

When Max first awoke to the chaos that was breaking loose on the walkie-talkie, she honestly thought Dustin had lost his C3PO again. What she hadn't thought was that Chief Hopper wanted them all to come in and make a statement; with 'all' being anyone that had interacted with Steve yesterday. Anyone.

Would Billy even be alive at this time in the morning? She thought she remembered hearing him shuffling about in his room late last night at some time around twelve, doing God knows what. They hadn't really spoken too much since the incident at the Byers' house. The only time they really talked was when she needed a lift, which he, surprisingly, mostly obliged to without complaint. The guy must be really fond of his crown jewels because Max couldn't think of a single instance where he'd threatened her since then. Hell, sometimes he even let her pick the music in his car – something he hadn't done since all the way back in Cali. She mostly accounted all these sudden niceties to that night, however sometimes she couldn't help but feel like there was something else going on behind it all…like Billy was hiding something.

Her suspicions had started when she heard him sneaking out one night around half nine and then on another occasion when she awoke to what sounded like him stumbling back in through his window at one o'clock in the morning. Maybe that's what she heard last night...His little secret outings had been getting more frequent in the last month. Where the hell did he even go to?

Maybe he’s visiting Mrs Wheeler. She snickered at the thought as she made her way quietly out of her room. It was an ongoing joke in the party now, ever since the first time Billy had picked her up from Mike’s and the entire party had witnessed Mrs Wheeler practically throwing herself at him – basically offering him the entire contents of her fridge whenever he arrived – and that wasn’t even the best part! The best part was the look on Mike’s face whenever she did it: he always looked like he wanted to heave up a lung or something.

Treading carefully, she came to stand before Billy’s door: raising her hand and knocking quietly so as not to wake her mum and Neil. She hadn’t been expecting a response at first and was preparing to knock again when she heard movement from inside the room. There was a bit of shuffling about, then something – or possibly several somethings – dropped onto the floor with a thud, and she thought she could make out a faint curse followed by approaching footsteps before the door opened fractionally.

Billy squinted down at her, eyes looking red and sore as he rubbed at them tiredly before staring at her again like he couldn't quite make out what he was seeing. The guy looked like shit: his hair was in complete disarray and his cheeks were rosy and flushed as though he'd just stuck his face in front of an open oven; not to mention the fact that he smelt like he'd drenched himself in a liquor store. Wait, was he drunk?

"The fuck you want?" he asked, apparently recognising her now after a whole minute of staring and opening the door a little more. His voice was rough and scratchy, and the words slurred together a little when he spoke, making them almost incomprehensible and – oh my God, he was drunk.

"Errr." Max struggled for words, panicking slightly at the realisation. Having to break this news to a sober Billy was awkward enough to begin with so how the hell was she meant to communicate with a drunk Billy? Would he even be able to drive her down to station in this state? They still had a little under an hour before they had to leave, so maybe if he drank a gallon of water and had some food he'd sober up enough to drive? Was that even how alcohol worked? "Are...are you drunk?"

"No," he said stubbornly, trying to stand a little straighter but ultimately just hanging off the door frame like his life depended on it. "S'not...time yet, right?"

"What?"

He waved his hand around in the air dramatically, before letting it fall down to his side again. "Drive you to...fuckingfreakhouse...it's too early." His voice dipped to a mumble halfway through the sentence, but Max managed to catch on to what he was saying.

"Oh, right, um, about that – there's been a change of plans..."

"Of course," he drawled, slowly dragging a hand down his face and inhaling deeply, with his eyes closed. He stayed like that for a moment before looking back at Max expectantly.

Well, it's now or never, she thought. But she still hesitated briefly, trying to choose her words carefully before starting to speak. "Something happened last night... Steve... Steve's missing." She looked up, trying to read his reaction and found...nothing. There was no change: his face remained expressionless and stoic. Maybe his one eye twitched a little but other than that there was just...nothing. Nothing at all.

"So?" he said, and it sounded like the coldest word that had ever come out of his mouth, and Max...Max had no idea what to say to that.

"So?" she echoed. "So? Steve could be in danger – do you honestly just not care at all?"

His jaw worked and tensed like he was clenching his teeth together. "Why should I?"

Max had no response for that. She just looked down at her feet, upset, and mumbled, "You're fucking heartless...you know that, right?"

Silence passed between them. Max couldn't tell if he'd heard her or not, but honestly couldn't care less at this point. When she eventually spoke again, she refused to look up at him. "Hopper wants anyone that interacted with Steve yesterday to come in and make a statement. He said to be at the station by eight thirty."

With that she walked back to her room and shut the door behind her, preparing to goddamn skateboard down to the station if she had to. But after a few minutes she heard Billy leaving his room to use the shower, and guessed he must be taking her after all. By the time they sat down for breakfast, Max had to admit that he looked a lot more sober than before, but she was still weary of his state when they eventually took off down the road, music blaring out the car's speakers.

He stopped the car directly outside the station killing the engine as she got out. A few seconds passed where he didn't move and Max turned around to look at him through the open passenger-side window. "Billy, you're coming in, right?"

He didn't respond to her, just continued to stare directly ahead, fingers idly tapping on the wheel.

"Right?" she repeated, but he made no move to get out the car. "Billy, you have to–"

"I'll come back later," he said, and with that started the engine up again, wheels screeching a little a he suddenly tore out of the parking lot, narrowly avoiding a car that was just coming in.

"BILLY! BILLY YOU CAN'T – ASSHOLE!" she screamed, watching in disbelief as the Camaro steered out of sight down the road.

The car Billy had almost collided with parked into a space nearby, and it was only when Lucas, Will and Dustin came running out of it that Max realised it was Joyce’s.

“Was that Billy?” Lucas asked, coming to stand beside Max as she watched the place where the Camaro had just disappeared from view.

“Yep,” she said simply, turning away and starting to walk into the station.

The rest of them scrambled after her as she pushed through the doors, with Joyce not too far behind them.

“Wait, isn’t he coming in?” Dustin asked.

Max scoffed. “Yes, actually, he is coming in: ‘later’,” she responded sarcastically.

"Man, what a jerk," Lucas commented.

"Who's a jerk?" Mike shot over to them from where he'd been sitting outside Hopper's office with Nancy and Jonathan. They'd arrived a little earlier than the given time but already Nancy's pacing was starting to gradually drive him insane as she walked back and forth outside the office door like a goddamn pendulum.

"Billy Hargrove," Lucas supplied.

"Hey, you never know" Dustin said, "he might still show up."

"What, he's not coming in?" asked Mike.

Will looked uncertainly towards Max. "Well, it sounds like he said he might come later–"

"Which basically means he's not coming at all," inserted Max.

"But, isn't he like bound by law or something?" said Mike.

Whilst the kids launched into a full debate on whether Hargrove would show or not, Joyce took one of the unoccupied seats next to Jonathan and asked him how long they'd been waiting.

"Only a few minutes or so, but he said he'd call us in when he's ready."

"I don't get why we have to wait," said Nancy, her impatience showing plainly as she refused to stand still for even a second. "Surely he could have just started interviewing us as soon as we arrived."

"It's ok, Nance," he reached out to grab hold of her hand, bringing her movements to a halt as she stared down at him. "Steve's fine, alright? We'll find him."

Her features seemed to soften as soon as the words washed over her and it wasn't long before she was finally settling down in seat next to him and resting her head against his shoulder. "I know," she said. "I just...I can't bear to lose anyone else, Jonathan."

"And you won't," Joyce said, tone soft but confident.

Nancy smiled at her gratefully, before shifting closer to Jonathan and letting her eyes fall closed as he rested his head upon her own, with their fingers still intertwined. They stayed like that for a few minutes longer until finally the office door opened and Hopper stepped out.

The kids stopped bickering instantly as his gaze passed over all of them, maybe doing some kind of mental head count, before he stepped aside and motioned his head in the direction of the office.

"Sorry for the wait," he said. "Hopefully this won't take too long."

They filed in one by one, surprised to find Hopper had squeezed a few extra chairs into the room: not enough for everyone but Joyce, Nancy and Jonathan were content to stand at the back whilst the kids occupied the front. As soon as Hopper closed the door behind him the whole room broke into a chaos of noise and questions before he'd even had the chance to sit down.

"Alright, alright! Everyone just calm down! One at a time, please!" he yelled, crossing the room briskly and finally managing to seat himself behind his desk. He knew this would happen, hence why he’d brought them all in together: he didn’t want to waste time answering the same damn questions over and over again.

The room quietened down a little, offering a few seconds of silence before the first person spoke up.

"Do we know if Steve's ok? Is there any new information on who took him or – or why they took him, just...what do we know?" Nancy asked.

Hopper ran a hand through his hair as they all watched him expectantly. "Look, last time we checked he was alright – just knocked unconscious. As far as who's responsible... honestly we don't know yet, but we’re trying to look into some leads that we think might be connected. Now, in terms of why, I personally think this is a ransom case. We haven't uncovered any sort of note yet, but given Harrington's family wealth and the fact we believe certain items were stolen from his home, I suspect the main focus of whoever's responsible is money. If this is the case, he should be fairly safe."

A brief silence passed while everyone processed what had been said, but it didn't last long as another question was put forth.

"And if it's not the case?" Mike said, and Hopper really wished the kid had asked him something else.

He pinched the bridge of his nose, trying to choose his wording carefully. "If it's not the case...Steve may be in for a rougher time of it. But, like I said, chances are he'll be alright. If these people wanted to harm him, they'd probably have done so already. But, just to be sure, we aren't overlooking anything that could be significant. Which is why, if you're all done asking questions, I'd like to ask you some myself."

When no one questioned him further he took that as permission to continue.

"Alright," he said, bringing out a notepad and pen whilst he spoke. "So from what I can gather, Steve came to collect some of you from the arcade last night around six, did he also drop any of you off before that time?"

The kids looked amongst themselves nodding and whispering a little before Will was nominated to speak up. "He dropped me, Mike, Dustin and Lucas down at the arcade for about eleven-ish."

Hopper scribbled down a note. "And did any of you see him again between those times?"

A brief silence passed which Hopper took to mean no.

"Ok, then," he looked up at Nancy and Jonathan. "When was the last time you saw Steve?"

They glanced at each other, Wheeler biting her bottom lip in thought. "Probably when he dropped off Mike," she said.

Hopper nodded, tapping his pen against the desk. "So no one here saw him at any other time besides when he was dropping off and picking up?"

They nodded, and Hopper sighed because he really wished he’d be getting more out of them than this. Still he pushed on, hopeful that something of use – even the tiniest little detail – might reveal itself. "Did any of you think something seemed...off about him? Did he say something that was maybe a little out of character? Any stuff like that?"

Again, the answer was no: nothing had seemed off about Harrington that day.

"Ok. Did any of you see him interacting with someone else that is not in this room?"

That seemed hit something as the kids started glancing at each other anxiously, doing their whole little kafuffle on choosing a speaker. Max seemed to save them the effort though, as she spoke up with a roll of her eyes. "He talked to Billy for a little bit. They had one of their stupid little mocking games."

"Billy...What the Hargrove kid? Your step-brother?" Hopper asked, jotting down the name in his notes as Max nodded. "What's a...a 'mocking game'?"

"They basically just stand there pretending to play nice whilst throwing insults back at one another. It's pretty stupid," Lucas summarised with a shrug.

"And they do this often?"

Dustin snorted. "More like every time they so much as glimpse each other."

"I told him he had to come in today," Max said, irritation plain on her face. "Jerk just drove off though..."

"So he refused to come in?"

"Well, he said he'd 'come back later' but I seriously doubt it," she said.

Hopper made a personal note to himself to track down this kid, before moving on. "Alright, thank you. Now Joyce, you mentioned something about Harrington saying he had plans when he dropped Will back; the first we heard about Steve's disappearance was from an anonymous caller that was at his house at ten last night. We think the two are probably connected but, again, we can't be entirely certain. Does anyone here know anything about these plans or the possible identity of the anonymous caller?"

"What did they sound like?" Nancy asked.

Hopper scratched the back of his head. "Male. I thought I recognised the voice but...I couldn't be sure. One thing I do know is that they were upset. Really upset. Whoever this was, they were close to Steve."

Nancy and Jonathan shared a look of confusion, clearly trying to pin down who it could be but struggling immensely. "Sorry, Hop," Jonathan said, "but...we honestly don't know. I mean, as far as school's concerned Steve only really hangs around with me and Nancy now. And, we're pretty sure he hasn't been hanging out with anyone like Tommy since their big fallout."

Hopper nodded in understanding, about to make a note of it on his pad when something caught his eye and he paused, pen only just scraping against the page.

"Henderson, you got something you wanna say?" he asked pointedly, and the kid looked up in shock, practically jumping half a mile in his seat like a deer in headlights. Hopper hadn't been sure before whether the kid would know anything – just thought it was a bit strange how he seemed to be so fixated on the ground all of a sudden – but after seeing that reaction there was no denying he was hiding something. Hell, Hopper had never seen someone look so damn guilty in his whole life.

"I, er..." Dustin was visibly at a loss for words, face looking panicked as all eyes in the room zeroed in on him and his mouth stuttering open and closed as he seemed to have some kind of internal conflict.

It took a few seconds of awkward silence and intense stares before he finally broke, practically sinking into his chair as he did so.

"Alright, fine! Yes, I know who the caller is!" he said, taking a deep breath before continuing. "But...I can't say it with everyone else in the room."

"WHAT?" Lucas shrieked in disbelief, and the whole office fell into chaos again.

Hopper closed his eyes, trying to block out the noise as he fought off a headache and actually tried to think for a second. If Henderson wanted everyone else out, then it must be serious: these kids told each other practically everything, and yet here he was hiding something from all of them – something about Steve too, so it was safe to assume Harrington didn't want anyone to know either.

"ALRIGHT! HEY! EVERYONE JUST SETTLE DOWN!" He waited until they were quiet again before speaking. "If Henderson wants everyone out...then everyone has to get out."

The room went into uproar again but it was useless as Hopper practically herded them out of the office with the help of some motherly persuasion from Joyce, telling them they could go fill out their statement forms while they waited. It wasn't long until only Dustin remained in the room, with Hopper closing the door firmly after the final person left and returning to his seat across from the kid. After a few seconds of silence, he went to speak but was quickly cut off.

"Look," said Dustin hurriedly, "before I tell you anything, you have to swear to me that what I'm about to tell you does not leave this room, alright? This is SOCIALLY SENSITIVE INFORMATION and if anyone else finds out about this then–"

"Jesus, kid, calm down. I get it: this is just between you and me," Hopper reassured.

Dustin didn't seem entirely satisfied with that response but appeared to accept it as he nodded his head with a mumbled "good," before inhaling deeply like he was about to reveal some massive, earth-shattering knowledge with universal consequences.

"Ok," he said after a while, steeling himself further in preparation before finally coming out with the truth.

"It's Billy. Billy Hargrove is the anonymous caller."

Chapter Text

00:05am, Sunday 17th March, 1985.

Dustin had a bad habit of losing things. It didn't matter what size it was – what shape or colour – stuff simply seemed to just vanish around him.

Well, obviously it didn't actually just vanish because that was physically impossible, but it did however manage to end up in the most random, obscure places known to man. How it got there, Dustin could only guess. All he knew was that one second he’d place something down on a table, and the next it would be halfway across the room, hidden beneath a pile of socks alongside some old birthday money that he’d completely forgotten he even had. Like, seriously, how did that shit even get there? Not to mention how the hell he’d managed to forget that his Aunt had practically funded his cinema trips for the following year.

It was even worse when he went round to another person’s house. Dustin could check his bag a million times and still, as soon as he got home – literally right at he was stepping through his front door – he’d realise that he’d forgotten something. At this point he was starting to wonder if you could genetically inherit forgetfulness because his mum was exactly the same.

Either way, Dustin was destined to lose stuff…And that’s exactly what led to him standing outside Steve Harrington’s house at midnight, digging through a massive plant pot in an attempt to find the spare key.

Okay, maybe he was being completely irrational right now but honestly he didn’t care. Sure, he could have just come back tomorrow in daylight, like a normal person, and told Steve that he’d forgotten his d20 but he’d hit a sudden high of hyperactivity when he’d gone to bed, so clearly sleeping was entirely out of the picture. In the end, Steve had actually brought this minor break-in upon himself when he’d let them binge-eat all that candy earlier, so Dustin really couldn’t be blamed for anything. Plus, it technically didn’t count as an actual break-in because Steve had said before that he could visit anytime he pleased. He probably hadn’t imagined Dustin would swing by at this time of night but that was simply his fault again for not articulating more suitable time boundaries.

It took another five minutes of rooting around in what was essentially a small barrel full of dirt before Dustin realised that there was another plant pot exactly identical to it on the other side of the doorway, and that he’d been uprooting one of Mrs Harrington’s pink oleanders for nothing. What made it even worse was that he could actually see the key in the other pot because only half of it was actually buried in the dirt. Dustin made a mental note to himself never to let anyone know of this – ever – before finally putting the key to use.

With great stealth, he managed to unlock the front door and close it quietly behind him again without causing any disturbance. Seeing that all the lights were off, he guessed it was probably safe to assume Steve was asleep upstairs before fetching a torch from his backpack and making his way into the lounge to start a thorough search for the missing dice. They’d set up the campaign in here earlier, on top of the coffee table at the room’s centre, so the first place he looked was underneath there. When that quickly showed to be a bust, he moved on to looking under the couches and then proceeded to start moving the cushions around.

He was half-way though searching the second sofa, clutching two cushions in either hand, when the lights suddenly sprang on, causing him to practically jump out of his skin as he spun around – and no he most certainly did not scream, thank you very much – only to find someone who looked to have been equally terrified by the abrupt encounter.

“Dustin?” Steve questioned, voice quiet and a little rough – probably because he’d just woken up. He squinted at him, eyebrows drawn together in confusion before relaxing suddenly and slumping against the wall in the lounge entrance. “Oh, thank God,” he said, breathing a sigh of relief as he lowered the nailed bat he’d been grasping in his right hand. “The hell are you doing here, buddy?”

“You said I could visit anytime I pleased,” Dustin replied, watching as Steve rubbed his eyes tiredly. Something looked off about him…Dustin couldn’t tell what it was, but something definitely seemed…different. “Also, I may have forgotten my d20.”

“D20? What, like, the main dice thing you use in your game?”

“Yeah.” Suddenly a wave of guilt came across Dustin and he began rushing out an apology for waking Steve up in the middle of the night, words blurring together as he waffled on, speaking so fast that everything he was saying was nearly indecipherable.

“Woah, woah, woah! Calm down,” Steve said quietly, resting his bat against a bookcase before crossing the room to stand beside to Dustin. “Don’t worry about it, I don’t mind, just keep your voice down a little. We’ll find your dice and then I’ll drive you back to yours, alright?”

“Why do I have to keep my voice down? Steve you live in a detached mansion, I seriously doubt we have to worry about waking up the neighbours.”

“Yeah, well, er…I have a headache, so just keep it on a sort of whisper-level, alright?”

“Oh, sorry,” Dustin said, lowering his voice.

“That’s alright,” Steve said before properly taking Dustin’s appearance in and wrinkling his nose up in response. “Why are your hands dirty?”

Dustin looked down at his hands in betrayal and shock, trying to think of some kind lie to cover up the whole spare key incident but Steve cut him off before he got the chance.

“You looked in the wrong pot didn’t you?”

“What? No,” Dustin replied stubbornly, attempting to hide his hands by stuffing them into the pockets of his jeans. “I just um…fell into a, er, flower patch on the way over here.” Wait, shit, that wasn’t any less embarrassing than the truth at all!

“Uh huh,” Steve said, clearly not believing a word of it as he smiled and started ushering Dustin towards the kitchen. “Go clean your hands then we can start looking, alright?”

“Yeah, ok,” Dustin said, scampering off to the kitchen to quickly wash his hands before joining Steve back in the lounge.

They started searching the room then: removing cushions and shifting furniture about; pretty much turning the room upside down in their efforts to find this single dice that was apparently determined to remain unfound. It was only when Steve started rummaging around the bookshelf that Dustin realised what looked so off about him.

“Since when do you listen to AC/DC?”

“What?” Steve turned to him in surprise before glancing down at the black, oversized vest he was wearing. “Oh – no – I don’t. I, er…it’s a, um, hand-me-down from a distant cousin.”

“Urgh, hand-me-downs are the worst,” groaned Dustin. Being the youngest in a family with a lot of relatives was a sure way to be bombarded by clothes. “They’re never the right size – sometimes my Nan brings me things that I know won’t fit for like another two years or something, and then she brings me more stuff that would have actually fit me, like, three years ago! And everything’s just this weird orange or green colour, so it’s not even like I want to wear it anyway!”

Steve snorted. “Yeah, I know exactly what you mean.” He moved away from the bookcase to give the couches a second try whilst Dustin went to investigate the piano in the far right corner of the room.

Neither of them heard the faint approach of footsteps trailing down the stairs and coming to a stop at the entrance of the lounge.

Babe, what are you doing?” sounded a terrifyingly familiar voice, and Dustin whirled around to see none other than Billy fucking Hargrove, leaning against the wall of the lounge entrance as he rubbed his eyes tiredly. "I thought I told you to wake me if you had a nightmare. Come back to bed. We can talk about it..." His voice trailed off as he finally seemed to take in the state of the room, eyes trailing from Steve to the dismantled cushions before eventually landing on Dustin as he stood completely frozen in place next to the piano.

No one moved.

A heavy silence filled the room as everyone remained rooted in place, momentarily too shocked to speak, and Dustin's mind was racing – thoughts scrambling to understand what the hell was going on here as his eyes remained locked with Hargrove's because it was Billy. Billy was in Steve's house. Oh, shit he was dead - he was so fucking dead - oh fuck, this was it: this was how he was going to die: Hargrove was going to kill him and...and...wait, what did he just say? Did...did he just call Steve babe? Holy shit, he did. He did: he called Steve babe – Billy called Steve babe and...'come back to bed?' Why would...? Oooooohhh shit. Everything clicked and suddenly Dustin was overly aware of the way Billy was looking at him right now, because it wasn't with anger or hate – no, it...it was fear. Pure, horrified fear, like Dustin was the dangerous one, not him.

"Oh my God," he said, gaze switching between Steve and Billy as the realisation snapped into place. "Oh my GOD!" He started saying the phrase like a mantra, pacing back and forth aimlessly in place.

"Dustin, it's alright just–"

"BILLY HARGROVE?" Dustin yelled, cutting Steve off. "You're – BILLY HARGROVE?"

Billy took a step back, holding his hands out in front of him to show Dustin he meant no harm. "Hey, kid, just calm down, alright?" and for Dustin the words sounded so foreign to him, because Billy Hargrove didn't speak like that: he didn't speak softly – he didn't try to soothe people.

"Dustin, look, I know this is a lot to take in, ok? And I know it may take some time for you to wrap your head around the fact that I'm...well–”

"Steve, I don't care that you're gay!" Dustin said.

"...You don't?" Steve shared a glance with Billy, both of them looking tense and ready to bolt at any second.

"What? No, of course not: my Uncle Jared's gay."

"Oh," Steve said, lips pursed as he considered that for a moment.

"What I do care about," Dustin continued, trying to get back to his main point, "is that, out of all the men in Hawkins, you choose Billy Hargrove? Seriously? He attacked Lucas, Steve! And he almost killed you!"

A brief silence passed before Billy spoke, voice barely above a whisper. "Maybe I should just, um..." he motioned towards the stairs and started to slowly edge out the room, eyes fixed on the floor like...like he was ashamed, and his whole posture was curling into itself and suddenly he just looked so small; all that confidence and anger that had made him so intimidating before was gone, and the sudden change of character was giving Dustin mental whiplash.

"No, stay," Steve said, making Billy pause in his movements and Dustin watched the interaction carefully. Watched the way Steve caught Billy’s hand within his own, the soft look in their eyes as they stared at one another and how Billy then placed his other hand on top of Steve’s, stroking the skin on the back of it with his thumb, and Dustin realised then that he was wrong. That everything he thought he knew about Billy Hargrove clearly couldn’t be any farther from the truth because the man standing in front him right now, holding Steve’s hand…he didn’t know him. He didn’t know him at all.

Steve turned back to Dustin. "Look, there's...a lot that you don't know, and this," he motioned between him and Billy, "this is a pretty long story but–"

"I've got time," Dustin said decidedly, and with that he promptly sat down on the couch, looking at them expectantly. Because he wanted to know – wanted to understand how this had all come about. Besides, it wasn’t like he was going to just leave here having all his questions unanswered: curiosity was in his nature!

Steve let out a huff of amusement as he came to sit by Dustin’s side, motioning for Billy to join them. It took a second or two of hesitation, but eventually Hargrove relented and moved into the lounge, though he chose to sit on the opposite couch, keeping a fair distance between them which, honestly, Dustin was thankful for. The next half hour passed quickly, with Steve talking and Dustin asking a motherlode of questions that Steve tried to answer as fully as he could without putting too many personal details into the response. Billy would add a comment here and there but mostly remained silent as they spoke.

It took a while, but eventually Dustin was content with what he'd heard. There was a lot that he still needed to wrap his head around, but overall he felt like he knew enough to appease his curiosity for now. With that, Steve suggested it was probably time that he drove him back and rushed upstairs to whip on some more suitable clothes whilst Dustin waited by the front door with Billy casually leaning against the wall by the stairs, staring at nothing in particular.

Suddenly he broke the silence between them, startling Dustin and effectively interrupting the loop of new information that had been whirling around his head.

"What were you even doing here in the first place?"

"Huh?" Dustin's mind blanked for a moment before the question finally sunk in. "Oh, um, I forgot one of my dice."

Billy's eyebrows narrowed a little in thought as chewed on the inside of his cheek. "A d20?" he questioned, and Dustin's eyebrows shot up in surprise.

In the end, all he could manage was a quick nod before he watched Billy disappear off into the kitchen, shortly coming back out again and holding out his hand to reveal the missing dice.

"Son of a bitch," Dustin murmured, hesitantly reaching out to collect it from Billy's open palm. Had he just completely walked past it without noticing when he went to wash his hands earlier? "Thanks," he said, and Billy simply nodded in acknowledgement before returning to his spot by the stairs just as Steve was jogging down them.

"You got everything?" he asked, slipping on a pair of sneakers before grabbing his keys. "Sorry we couldn't find the dice. I'll have another look tomorrow and–"

"Oh, no, it's alright! Billy found it," Dustin explained, holding up the dice for Steve to see. "It was in the kitchen."

Steve turned to glance at Billy in surprise, receiving a shrug in response. "Huh. How the hell did it manage to end up in the...you know what, never mind, let's go," he said, opening the door and waiting for Dustin go through before following him out and closing it behind him. But Dustin didn’t miss the way Steve smiled at Billy before shutting the door, nor the way Billy returned the gesture wholeheartedly. And Dustin knew that he’d never look at Billy Hargrove in the same way ever again.

8:44am, Sunday 14th April, 1985.

"And that's how I found out about Billy and Steve," Dustin finished, waiting for Hopper’s response as the Chief of Police rubbed at his eyes tiredly from where he sat, slouched back into his office chair.

"So let me get this straight," he said, trying to piece together what Dustin had just very long-windedly told him. "Steve is in a...relationship with Billy Hargrove?"

"Yep."

Hopper scratched the stubble of his beard. "But I thought he liked girls? I mean, he dated Nancy, right?"

Dustin stared at him pointedly. "It's called bisexuality, Jim."

"Don't call me Jim."

"It's called bisexuality, Mr Hopper, sir," Dustin quickly corrected, shuffling awkwardly in his seat. "Basically he likes...both"

A few seconds of silence passed, with neither really knowing what more to say. Hopper went to take a sip from his coffee, only to find it completely drained. Sighing heavily, he placed the cup back down on the desk and sat back again, trying to think how best to use this information; because the kid was right: this was socially sensitive. Sure times were starting to take a turn and homosexuality had been decriminalised in several states, but that didn’t mean homophobes had simply ceased to exist. And in a small town like Hawkins, those kids stood no chance if this kind of information got out.

So, Hopper needed to keep this to himself, but he also needed to have an honest conversation with Billy Hargrove in case he knew anything important. It would be difficult to say the least, but certainly manageable.

"Can you be certain that the caller was Hargrove?" Hopper asked after a while.

Dustin looked up at him. "You said you got the call around ten, right?"

Hopper nodded.

"Well that's when Billy was planning to see Steve yesterday," Dustin said, sighing in frustration when Hopper gave him a look that suggested he needed to explain himself further. "Look, they have this system. It's a sort of secret code thing between them so they can communicate without anyone getting too suspicious. You know how Max mentioned their argument earlier? That wasn't actually an argument. I mean sure they talk shit to each other but it's all pretend–"

"Language," Hopper warned.

"Right, sorry," Dustin apologised before continuing. "Anyway, yesterday Billy patted Steve on the shoulder, twice – that means ten o'clock. One pat would have meant sometime later than that. If he'd pushed Steve away, it would have meant he wasn't coming over that night. If Steve had pushed him away, it would have meant Billy couldn't come over that night."

"Did Steve tell you all this?" Hopper asked, intrigued. Because no one else knew this. Steve had managed to keep this from all of them without them even blinking an eye. Here, Hopper came in today thinking the person that knew Steve best in this room was Nancy, only to find out that he couldn't be more wrong. The fact he'd hidden it so well, it just...it got Hopper thinking; thinking what else he could have hidden.

"Yep. Steve tells me a lot, actually, but that's probably because I'm the only person that, like, knows so..." Dustin trailed off as the telephone on Hopper's desk started ringing and Hopper shot him an apologetic glance.

"Hold that thought," he said, sitting up straight and picking up the phone. "Hello. Chief Hopper speaking."

Dustin was about to go back to awkwardly staring around the room when the look on Hopper's face caught his eye, and he froze in place.

"You what? I thought I told you to – never mind. Where is he? What's the address?" Hopper started scrambling around on his desk for his notepad and pen that had been misplaced during Dustin's story time, scribbling something down as soon as he found them. "Alright, I got it...Ok, but – just be careful, ok? I'm going to send Joyce back round, alright? Good...Great work, kid...Ok, don't push yourself though...yeah, yeah I'll see you soon..."

Hopper put down the phone, staring at the address in front him in minor shock, trying to pull his thoughts together on what to do.

"Was that...?" Dustin began, not bothering to finish the sentence because he was pretty sure he already knew the answer.

Hopper met his gaze from across the table, momentarily speechless. "That was El," he said, pausing briefly before he spoke again like he couldn't quite believe the words he was saying himself. "She’s found Steve...We know where he is."

Chapter Text

There was a brief silence where Hopper and Dustin were too stunned to speak, but when the realisation hit, it hit.

"Oh fuck, WE KNOW WHERE HE IS!" Hopper exclaimed, suddenly bursting into action as he pushed his seat back and started rifling through the drawers on his desk, pushing vast quantities of paperwork aside without a care in the world as he conducted a sudden, frantic search. Where the hell is that goddamn book?

For a second he forgot Dustin was in the room until the kid spoke up from where he was still sat across from him, watching on in bewilderment as Hopper practically took his desk apart.

"Where is he? Is he alright? What...what are you doing?"

Hopper had gotten out of his seat and started checking the shelves on the wall, shifting some ornaments aside and grabbing every book on there, throwing it out of the way when he realised it wasn't what he was looking for.

He paused in his actions for a second when he chucked away the last book on the shelves, turning to Dustin and scratching the stubble of his beard in thought before speaking. "I need you to go out there and tell Joyce that she needs to get back to Jane, alright? Now, I know everyone else will want to go with her but they can't – it'll look too suspicious if you all suddenly just up and leave,” he said before sighing and adding as an afterthought: “Though, for Wheeler's sake, I'll let her bring him and maybe one other person along. You got that?"

"Yes, sir," Dustin replied hastily without question and proceeded to dash out of the room. Hopper watched as the others immediately crowded him as soon as he came out, but Dustin got the message through quickly enough and it wasn't long before Joyce was hurrying out of the station doors with Will and Mike in tow.

Satisfied that one thing had been taken care of, he turned back around to give his office another scrutinizing scan. He was still in a mild state of shock: his mind reeling at the sudden disclosure of information; he'd never had El help him on a case before and it was just so...surreal. If he'd felt like he was cheating the case last night, he sure as hell felt like he was cheating it now. But in that single moment he honestly couldn't give less of a damn because they knew where Steve was. They could get him back… Well, they could if Hopper could find this stupid, goddamn book anytime soon.

After a final sweep of his office, he came to the conclusion that it wasn't in there and walked out the door, bypassing the rest of the party and making a direct beeline for Powell and Callahan. They looked up from their desks, startled as he suddenly came to a halt in front of them.

"Where's the contact book?" he said.

They looked between each other uncertainly. "The what-book now?" Callahan asked.

"The contact book. Big. Filled with different numbers for different stations in different states. Where is it?"

"I'm not sure, but I think I saw it somewhere over there," Powell motioned over towards a filing cabinet in the corner of the room. "Why do you ask?"

"I got an anonymous tip off, detailing the possible location of Steve Harrington," Hopper lied, crossing the room and scanning the top of the cabinet before picking a tray up off the top of it in order to get to the book lying beneath. Finally, he thought. When all this was over the first thing on Hopper’s to-do list was an entire reorganisation of the office because that search had been beyond ideal.

“Wait, what?” sputtered Callahan in disbelief. “What, we – we know where he is?”

“Possibly,” Hopper said, keeping up the façade as he started to head back to his office, Powell and Callahan following him with interest.

“Where’d they say he’s at?” Powell asked, closing the door behind them once they’d entered the room.

Hopper sat down behind his desk, flipping the book open and scanning the lines of numbers and contact details, turning the page when he couldn’t find the one he was looking for. “Some motel in Jasper, Missouri.”

Damn,” said Callahan, eyebrows shooting up. “These people really mean business then.”

“Well, hopefully their business is about to be cut short if this address is right. You calling the station over there, Chief?” Powell said.

“Trying to,” Hopper grumbled in response, making a slight triumphant grunt as he finally found the number.

"Anything you need us to do?"

"Not much we can do from here," Hopper said. Because it was true: they couldn't. After he made the call he'd have to sit and wait until further notice. It was frustrating, but nothing more could be done about it; and the most they could was maybe try and dig a little deeper into the murder case. "Keep working on finding information on Carter Roger's in the meantime. Update me if you find anything of interest," Hopper said as he dismissed them.

"Will do, Boss," responded Callahan, and with that the two of them left, leaving Hopper alone with his task.

The Chief studied the number carefully as he dialed it into the telephone, getting his notepad with the address Jane had supplied ready in front of him as he waited. Thankfully, it wasn't too long before the call was answered and a voice was travelling over the line.

"Charles Coulton speaking."

Hopper straightened in his seat, glancing at the number in the book. "Hi, am I speaking to the Head of Police in Jasper, Missouri?"

"Yes. Who is this?"

"This is Jim Hopper, Head of Police in Hawkins, Indiana. I need you to check out a lead for me." Hopper spoke briefly, explaining the situation without wasting too much time – just wanting the guy to get some men down there now – and handing over the given address alongside the number to contact him by to keep him posted.

"Alright," said Coulton when he'd finished, pausing for a few seconds before speaking again with finality. "I'll go down with few men and search the place, see if I can find anything. I'll call you when I'm done."

"Thanks," Hopper said, before ending the call and sitting back in his chair with a sigh, allowing himself to relax a little. It was out of his hands now. With luck this would all be over today and Steve would be home before dinnertime – Hopper was certain the kid wouldn't refuse Joyce’s offer for supper again after all of this. Perhaps they could have a little 'welcome home' feast; invite everyone over and get some takeaway. Something simple.

That would be nice. That would be really nice.

It would also mean Hopper wouldn't have to follow up on that whole Billy Hargrove thing, which would honestly be a relief because he hated poking around in people's personal lives like that. Steve had been hiding the relationship for a damn good reason and Hopper really couldn't blame him for that. Though, of course, he knew now. So, either way, he was going to end up confronting one of the two eventually.

But all that could wait for now. Because that was the only thing he was required to do in that moment: wait; and hope to God that this would all be over soon.

* * * * *

Charles Coulton was a fairly simple man. Perhaps not the smartest nor the most physically fit, but when it came to his job he liked to think he was pretty darn good. Well, at least he sure as hell hoped he was after at least a good thirty years of working cases and performing arrests. You got to sense a sort of pattern to certain things after a while. The younger officers liked to joke that he had some sort of ‘sixth sense’ when it came to solving crime, but as far as Coulton was concerned whatever they were dealing with was never too far from something he’d already seen before. All he was really doing was applying his experience. He found it especially common now in his late fifties to get a slight feeling of boredom when it came to cases. For him it was all ‘been there, done that’. Repeat after repeat of the same crimes. Honestly, he was starting to get a little sick of it.

So, naturally, when a police chief all the way over in Hawkins, Indiana, called him up, wanting him to check out a lead on a kidnapping, it was the most exciting thing that had come up in the past year – not to mention Coulton had been itching to get out of his office all week and this was a prime opportunity to do just that.

He wrangled together a few men and they set out to the motel – a fairly shabby place around a five minute drive from the station; definitely one of the more sketchy establishments in terms of an overnight stay. It wasn’t the first time it had shown up on his radar, and it most certainly wouldn’t be the last.

Coulton decided against riding down there with their sirens blaring: if the tip-off had any truth to it, he wanted to catch the bastards by surprise; and if in the end it turned out to be false then they hadn’t kicked up too much of a fuss over nothing. He set one of his men to remain parked outside, on watch for anyone trying to make a speedy escape, before heading into the reception and flashing his badge at the woman behind the counter.

She looked nonplussed – irritable with age – pulling out the cigarette from between her lips as she stared up at him, nails tapping idly on the wooden surface. “Officer,” she greeted, eyeing the rest of his men waiting outside the door. “What can I do for you today?”

“How many guests do you have staying here currently?” he questioned.

She took another drag of her cigarette before flicking through some of the paper before her, pulling out a sheet and bringing her glasses down from where they’d been perched on top of her head, sat amongst blonde, dry curls that had probably seen far better days. The woman studied the sheet briefly before responding. “I got a couple in room three, one guy in five, another couple in six and two guys in nine.”

“Thank you, ma’am. I’m afraid we’re going to have to conduct a search of the place, if that’s alright. We’ve been lead to believe there may be potential suspects in a crime staying here.”

The woman waved her hand dismissively. “Whatever the guests might have to hide, ain’t got nothing to do with me. Please yourself.”

With that he returned outside, assigning each officer a room number and setting them to work, leaving himself to investigate nine. Rooms six to ten were on the ground floor whilst one to five were a floor above, meaning room nine was accessed from the car park. Coulton walked down to the door, taking note of the drawn blinds and black car parked directly outside before knocking and waiting patiently.

A few seconds passed before a man opened the door, clad in a worn leather jacket, with short blonde hair, looking to be in his early forties. His expression was harsh, emphasised by the way every line on his face seemed sharp especially when combined with the rough stubble lining his jaw. Just the sight of this guy had something twisting in Coulton’s stomach.

"Can I help you?" he asked, leaning against the doorframe, seemingly non-too-pleased about the disturbance.

Coulton flashed his badge. "Sorry about the sudden interruption. I need to search your room."

The man narrowed his eyes at him. "Why's that? We under arrest or something?"

"Not unless I find something incriminating," Coulton said. "Now if you'll please step aside."

It took a second or two but eventually the man relented, grumbling under his breath as he moved aside. The room was simple: two single beds with a lamp and bedside table between them along with a chest of drawers and a chair in the one corner, with some old, ragged-looking beige carpet lining the floor. The second bed, furthest from the window, was occupied by the room’s other guest: another man but slightly younger than the first – late thirties maybe – dressed in similar attire with black hair and piercing blue eyes. He looked equally displeased at the intrusion but seemed a lot more calm about it than the blonde man, slouching back against the head of the bed with his arms crossed in front of him.

Coulton walked straight past them to check the bathroom first, giving the small, tiled room a sharp scan before coming back out and facing the men again. "You mind if I ask you gentlemen a question or two?" he said, opening up the chest of drawers and finding each one completely empty.

"Would it matter if we did?" said the first man, moving over to sit on the edge of the other unoccupied bed.

Coulton huffed a laugh, considering them for a moment. "No, I guess it really wouldn’t. How about we start with your names?"

The men shared an irritable glance before responding. "Tom Shelby," said the blonde.

A few seconds passed, in which Coulton turned to the other man expectantly.

"John Cutler."

Coulton leaned back against the draws, scrutinizing the room for a moment as he thought of what to ask next, directing his view to underneath the beds and spotting black duffle bags beneath each. "Can I have look at those?"

Cutler moved to retrieve his bag without fuss, dropping it down on the edge of the bed whilst Shelby sat glaring for moment longer – jaw clenched like he was gritting his teeth – before eventually doing the same, placing the second bag next to the other. Coulton moved over, unzipping Shelby's bag first as he started searching through the items of clothing within it.

"So, what brings you two here? You travelling?" he asked casually, pulling out a wallet from the bag and looking at its harmless contents before putting it back.

"Yeah. We just rode in from Colorado," answered Cutler, watching tensely as Coulton moved on to the second bag.

"Where you heading?"

"South Carolina. Visiting a friend."

"Oh, yeah?" Coulton said, keeping the conversation fairly light like they were strangers chatting at a bar. "How come?"

"His wife gave birth last week. We've been invited down to meet the new family addition."

"Well ain't that sweet." Coulton zipped up the bags, stepping back and giving the room another critical sweep with his eyes. If they were hiding someone in this room they were doing a damn good job of it: the room was small – Coulton could maybe walk about seven, possibly eight, strides before reaching the other end of it; surely he'd have found them by now if they were here. Plus the men didn't seem to be carrying anything sketchy – no guns or weapons of any sort – and the names given matched the ones on their driver's licenses which he'd fished out of their wallets. In short, as far as the evidence went these men seemed clean...but Coulton didn't trust them. Not one bit.

He was missing something. He could sense it: this off-ness surrounding the men; a slight unease at how little he'd found when searching their bags – just a few spare changes of clothes and their wallets. Sure, maybe they weren't hiding a captive, but Coulton felt these men had definitely done wrong before and could easily do wrong again.

But there was no evidence here. Nothing.

"Well, sorry for the intrusion. Thank you for your time." With that he turned to leave, beginning to walk out the room when he suddenly stopped midway through the door, a thought popping into his mind at the last minute as he turned back around and motioned to the vehicle directly outside. "That car yours?"

Shelby looked about ready to burst as he grit out a response. "What of it?"

"Mind if I check the boot?"

No one spoke for a moment. Coulton thought Shelby might actually lash out at him in then – the man seemingly on the verge of snapping – but the tension was quickly split when Cutler's voice broke the silence. "Sure. Suit yourself."

Shelby glanced back at his friend, clearly wanting to dispute the matter, only to be met with a look of expectation as Cutler motioned towards the car. The blonde let out a frustrated breath as he stood, acting like some kind of disgruntled bull as he reluctantly retrieved the keys from his pocket and walked out the door. Coulton followed him closely, standing by patiently as the boot was unlocked and opened to reveal the contents inside...a grande array of nothing. The boot was empty.

Coulton was a little disappointed to say the least: part of him had really thought he'd had them then – caught them out on whatever secrets they were keeping – but clearly they were prepared. Maybe a little too prepared...It was weird how there was nothing in the boot at all – the space was completely empty: no rubbish, no food, no drink. Cutler claimed they were travelling but who the hell traveled with an empty boot and just two bags of luggage? The lack of anything incriminating just seemed too perfect – too forced – to surely be true. Coulton wanted to bring the men in: question them further; find the cause behind the unrest in the back of his mind that told him they had something to hide, persistent like an itch he just couldn't scratch. But there was no evidence. And no evidence provided very little reason for pursuing this search any further than he already had. So, reluctantly, he withdrew.

Shelby slammed the boot shut as soon as Coulton gave a satisfied nod, re-locking it before glaring at him straight on. "Will that be all, officer?" he sneered. And maybe there was something almost smug there behind that anger – something pleased at the search’s shortcomings.

"That'll do," Coulton said and allowed the man to return to the room, watching as he closed the door behind him harshly with no further words said.

A few seconds passed where the Head of Police simply stood there a while longer, chewing the inside of his cheek in thought, before rounding up his men and doing a quick sweep of the vacant rooms, pulling up some information on the guests that had left before they arrived as well, and eventually abandoning the search when nothing of interest was found. As far as they could tell, there was nothing here to validate the claims the tip-off had made. Pity. Would of been pretty damn good if they'd have been able to find that kid.

He sent his men back to the station, seeing no further use for them here and not wanting to waste their time on a dead end, waving them off as they rode out. He, however, ended up staying. Rather than leaving and returning to his office he drove out the parking lot, looped round the block and parked opposite the motel, shutting down the engine and sitting there, waiting for...something. He had this bad feeling that he just couldn't shake off – the fact he'd found absolutely nothing was bugging him beyond belief. Maybe his men were right...maybe he did have a sixth sense. Or maybe he was completely wrong and just making a whole lot of fuss over nothing like an idiot. These guys could be telling the truth. Sure, he didn't believe that for one second but for all he knew he might just be paranoid.

Only one way to find out, he thought. So, he waited. And he waited some more. Half an hour came and passed, and he ended up with the windows down, trying to get some fresh air into his car with the sun bearing down it, heating the metal and making him start to sweat in his seat. Another ten minutes went by and he was almost considering giving up this nonsense when he suddenly spotted Cutler exiting the motel and walking down the pavement, disappearing out of sight round the corner.

Heading out to the shops, maybe? Where the hell else would he be going? The longer Coulton sat the more he began to question himself and grow unsure. Maybe he had been overreacting: this guy was probably just popping out to get some water and a few snacks for the road. There was no proof to suggest the men were lying – and if there had been proof then, what, that meant they weren't guilty? Coulton really need to pull himself together. Lack of evidence wasn't usually the basis for a strong, logical accusation. So what he hadn't liked them as soon as he laid eyes on them? Disliking a person didn't mean they were hiding someone in their trunk. He should just leave: abandon this wild goose chase while he still had some sense in him.

He was about to start up the car when he caught sight of Shelby exiting the room, loading the two duffle bags into the back seat, then popping open the boot and leaving it open as he looked round the car park sketchily before heading back inside. Coulton watched on in interest, that feeling of suspicion refusing to leave him just yet.

And by God did that feeling pay off.

Coulton watched on, hardly believing his eyes as he witnessed Shelby return outside, carrying someone seemingly unconscious in his arms and depositing them in the boot, closing it firmly and locking it back up without hesitation, disappearing back inside to retrieve a third duffle bag which he loaded into the back seat with the others.

Coulton was going to call it in – mere seconds away from grabbing the radio, ready to chase that car down the street if he had to –

But he never got the chance…

A bullet shot in from his open window and went straight through the back of his head before he'd so much as lifted a finger.

A few minutes later and the car was departing the motel, back on route just as planned; and Coulton was lying dead in the front seat, bleeding out onto the headboard.

Chapter Text

El never knew why she lost people sometimes. Never knew what made them vanish beneath her grasp like they were made of smoke or dust – one second whole and bright in the blackness of the void and the next gone, leaving the space empty and dark once more. She had no control over it. As far as she could tell whatever broke the connection came from their side and not her own.

She’d found Steve easily. Her search for him had started tentative at first, mindful of her last attempt, but her power had surged forward quickly and without hesitation as soon as she realised he was awake and no longer bound: no boot, no car: no problem. She’d called Jim when she pinpointed the location, returning to Steve immediately after and staying with him from that moment onwards, not wanting to leave his side for too long and risk losing him again. A few minutes passed before she felt the presence of others joining her quietly where she was sat on the floor and a soft smile tugged at her lips when she felt a hand gently interlink itself with her own: Mike.

After that she lost all track of time. The moment was almost peaceful: the safety and comfort of knowing she wasn’t alone in the room combined with the satisfaction of finally being able to find Steve – of being able to see and watch over him – had her feeling almost content at that moment in time. Gradually, she allowed herself to relax a little. There had been a tension hanging over her since last night; a frustration that had kept her unable to truly rest that was mixed with a slight guilt: disappointment in her failure to find Steve in that first instance despite how much Hopper had told her it was fine – that she’d done more than enough. But that feeling was starting to dissipate now, and she could sense a faint pride bubbling up inside her the longer she remained there with Steve, keeping him company even if he wasn’t really aware of it.

Then something changed.

Since the others had joined her Steve hadn't moved from where he was – sat leaning against the headboard of a bed with his knees pulled up near his chest and arms looped around his legs to keep them in place. It was a defensive position. One full of caution and mildly rigid with uncertainty. El had ended up sitting across from him, cross legged, and simply watching him patiently. She'd tried speaking to him at one point but he hadn't seemed to be able to hear her. So she just sat and she watched. Not much changed. Sometimes he'd reach over to the side to retrieve a water bottle from which he'd take small sips, but otherwise he moved very little apart from when his eyes would seem to catch and follow something – someone – in the room.

It took El by surprise then when Steve's head suddenly shot up and looked to the right of him, clearly aware of something that she wasn't. Slowly his arms started to move to his sides instead and he sat up a little straighter against the head board, eyes darting back and forth between two points in the room.

"Steve?"

But he still couldn't hear her. She watched on tensely and a few seconds passed where he remained in place before he was suddenly trying to bolt off the bed before something caught him and held him back down against it as he struggled.

"STEVE!" she screamed, but he wasn't there anymore: he was gone – turned to smoke along with everything else and suddenly El found herself falling downwards, splashing into the void's shallow, inky waters as she fumbled around trying to find purchase on something – anything.

"STEVE?"

"STEVE!"

8:17am, Sunday 14th April, 1985.

He didn't want to wake up at first. Everything around seemed blurred and numb and his limbs felt more akin to bricks than something capable of movement. He was mildly nauseous too. Or was he? Honestly, he couldn't tell but something felt wrong and for a second he didn't know whether he was too hot or too cold, but either way he thought maybe he was shaking slightly. So no, at first Steve didn't want to wake up.

But then the thirst came. Suddenly all he could focus on was the dryness in his throat and that's when he started to try and move, opening his eyes fractionally and squinting at his surroundings, trying to figure out what was going on. Because something wasn't right here but in that moment he couldn't quite grasp onto what it was. He closed his eyes and opened them again, thinking he could make out something moving slightly in front of him – a black silhouette swimming amongst white light. He went rub his eyes to try and dispel some of the sleepiness that had overcome his body but found the movement oddly impossible. He tried again but he just couldn't seem to get his arms to move properly and it was like something was sticking his wrists together because when he moved one hand the other seemed to follow and suddenly he was beginning to realise he was having a similar problem with his legs, his ankles refusing to budge from each other.

"Hey, look who's finally decided to join us."

Steve didn't know that voice. Couldn't entirely tell where it was coming from either because he was so disorientated and for all he knew the room might as well be spinning since that's what it sure as hell felt like right now. A shot of panic ripped through him as the silhouette began to move, growing larger and a little more defined, taking on the shape of something human as the rest of the surroundings started to come into focus more along with it, and it didn't take Steve long to realise that he didn't know where he was. This wasn't his house, this wasn't his room – where the hell was he? He started struggling a little without even realising it, feeling slowing bleeding back into his muscles as they began to tense and work at trying to pry his wrists and ankles apart, the reality of the situation still evading him and skirting around the edges of his mind until suddenly there was a second figure in front of him, far closer than the first, and a hand was gripping his shoulder firmly trying to stabilise him and keep him still and – then everything clicked into clarity.

Going from feeling disorientated to grounded in a split second sent Steve's mind reeling in a state of shock and his actions showed it as he quickly tried to scramble backwards on the bed as far as he could with his wrists and ankles tied, making a startled yelp that was quickly muffled by the fabric around his mouth. It all started to come back to him then: everything from dropping the kids back to returning home and getting jumped by two men in his lounge, trying to fight them off and struggling against them as best he could until something sharp was being driven into his neck and all the energy just seemed to drain out of his body. And now he was here, in some shabby, unfamiliar room, being held captive for God knows what reason, and the hand was still there grasping onto his shoulder no matter how much he tried to get away from it.

"Hey, calm down."

Steve did the exact opposite. He kicked up more of a fuss until the hand finally retracted back, and the man it belonged to was holding it out in front of him along with the other in some kind of gesture of surrender as he stepped back slightly, blue eyes never leaving Steve's as he retreated.

The other man sat up from where he was slouched lazily on the opposite bed, one leg hanging off the side as he took a drag from the cigarette in his hand, smoke trailing from his mouth as he let out a breathy laugh. "Don't take it personally Cutler, but I think that ugly mug of yours scared him."

"Shut up," Cutler snapped, ignoring the uproar of laughter it provoked in return and trying to focus back on Steve.

What the other man had said wasn't true though: if anything the blonde was far more fearful in his appearance. There was just something about his features that seemed to come across as mean – all those hard lines on his face intimidating in their own way, especially the ones that weren't just creases of skin but scars where cuts had run deep and hadn't quite healed the same. The black haired man – Cutler – was different. His features weren't nearly as menacing, but there was a hardness there, showing itself in the sharp edge of his jaw and the faint crease in his brows; a sort of seriousness that masked his expression and showed in the tense line of his shoulder and the sharp focus of his eyes.

Steve had stilled in his movements as soon as the hand had left his shoulder. He was just sat there now, frozen in place, watching the two men carefully. But when Cutler started edging forward he began moving back again, pressing himself up against the headboard and causing the man to stop in his approach and reluctantly surrender the space he'd just gained again.

"Look," Cutler said, "I'm not going to hurt you, alright?"

Oh yeah, because that was definitely the impression Steve got when this guy rammed him into his own couch. Steve's distrust must have shown clearly on face as Cutler sighed in mild frustration, hands still raised up in front of him.

"Kid, I'm trying to help you a bit here. You don't want me near you – I get that – but right now you must be dehydrated as hell. All I want to do is untie you and give you some water, then you can have all the space you like, alright? But I can't do that if you’re going to keep fighting me." Cutler stared at him expectantly once he'd finished talking, waiting for Steve's response.

A few seconds passed where Steve still eyed him with suspicion, gaze switching between him and the other man and then catching on the sight of a water bottle perched on the bedside table between them. Steve didn't want to give to the man – didn't trust him one damn bit...but God he was so thirsty. He hesitated a moment more before edging forward just a little bit. Cutler took that as an agreement and moved forward too, slowly coming to stand at the edge of the bed and leaning over a bit, hand reaching out to remove the gag when he paused briefly.

"If I take this out," he said, sharp eyes locking with Steve's, "there'll be no screaming or shouting for help, alright? It'll just be worse for you if you do."

Steve nodded jerkily in understanding before the cloth was finally taken out of his mouth and Cutler coaxed him to leaned forward slightly so he could get to the binds on his wrists, making quick work of them and moving on to free his ankles. As soon as Steve was free he let himself stretch out a little, rubbing his wrists tentatively as he watched Cutler throw the ropes into a duffle bag on the other side of the room before picking up the bottle and holding it out for him. Steve practically lunged at the thing – desperate to clear the dryness of his mouth – but Cutler suddenly held it out of reach, looking at him pointedly.

"Slowly," he advised, before holding it out again and this time letting Steve take it, moving over to the other side if the room once he had and seating himself on the chair there.

Steve wanted to drink the thing whole – drain it instantly of every drop it had to offer – but he complied to Cutler's words, unscrewing the lid and about to take a sip when he stopped suddenly. A thought had crossed his mind just before the bottle had touched his lips and now he was looking at it suspiciously, twisting it round in his hands like it was some strange chemical substance.

"It's not poison, if that's what you’re thinking." Steve turned to face the blonde man who was watching him with amusement from the other bed, fiddling with the cigarette between his fingers. "From what I hear, you're worth far more alive than dead."

Steve didn't know what that last part meant. Honestly, didn't really want to know in that moment. He took one final scrutinizing glance at the bottle before sipping at its contents and relishing in the feeling of water running over his tongue, removing some of the dry scratchiness in his throat as he swallowed it, quickly taking another sip and then another. Soon half the bottle was gone and he put the rest down for a second, not wanting to drink it all in one go, trying to savour it while he had it. He sat there then, back pressed against the head board just pulling his thoughts together for a moment and waiting for the real panic to set it. He knew it was coming – could feel it bubbling up in the back of his mind. But it hadn’t taken over yet. And there was a strange courage racing through his blood right now that made him feel a little less willing to sit their passively and a little more anxious to try and do something about his situation. Though, of course, fighting his way out was well beyond a smart move to make – he hadn’t beat them the first time, chances were he wouldn’t when it came to round two – but asking a question or two probably couldn’t hurt so bad.

“Who are you?” he asked. It came out a little hoarser than he’d hoped but his mouth was still a little dry so it couldn’t really be helped. He took another sip from the bottle as he waited for a response, glancing between the two men curiously.

Cutler didn’t seem to take notice, apparently too preoccupied with whatever was within the duffle bag he currently had resting on his lap to answer. The blonde guy, however, perked up immediately, puffing out a breath of smoke as he turned to face Steve again, a mocking grin crossing his face. “Apologies. You see, me and him, we’re not quite the type to remember our manners, you know?” he said, before gesturing between himself and then Cutler in turn. “I’m Shelby. And that there is Cutler. We’re the bastards that kidnapped you.”

He took another drag of his cigarette, watching Steve expectantly like this was some great game – like he wanted Steve to ask another question.

“Why?”

“Why d’you think?” came the sharp response, and if this was a game then Steve got the horrible feeling that Shelby was winning. “Word is that your father makes quite a bit of cash.”

Steve thought about that for a second, connecting some of the dots in his head. So, what, this was a ransom situation? These people were taking him hostage in the hopes of getting money off his dad? But his dad wasn’t even that rich! Well, sure, the Harringtons were probably the richest people in Hawkins and Steve could pretty much want for nothing. But still, surely there were far richer men for these people to leech off. Why the hell make the effort of driving all the way out to Hawkins, Indi-middle-of-fucking-nowhere-ana? Steve just couldn’t quite wrap his head round it. “Why me?” he asked, because he felt like there had to be something else there – some ulterior motive.

Shelby scoffed, taking another drag. “Fuck if I know,” he said. “We’re just the delivery boys. Choosing the assignments ain’t up to us.”

Wait, so these guys were working for someone else? Steve didn’t like that. Didn’t like that at all. Because that definitely made this feel like something bigger than what these men were telling him; because it meant that someone had chosen him specifically to be taken by these two men. But who? Why? And sure, maybe it was just poor fortune on his side and this really was just a ransom case and nothing else, but Steve had a bad feeling about this. Really bad.

"So...you guys just want my dad's money?" Steve tried to set his mind onto that possibility. It was what the men were telling him, so it was what he was going to focus on at the moment. And if they were lying? Well, he'd face that situation when he had to.

"Pretty much," Shelby said, but he was facing away from Steve now, lying back on the bed seemingly having lost interest in the conversation.

"And if you get it? Then what?"

"Then you go home," input Cutler from across the room, zipping up the duffle and placing it down to the side. "Simple as that."

Steve would like to believe that. Would love to believe that. But if this really was the plan then there was one thing these guys clearly hadn't accounted for: Steve's father. The guy was an asshole – always kept his nose buried in his work, spending most of the year in some fancy hotel room as he darted from one meeting to the next. The only time he seemed to ever really be interested in Steve was when his grades dropped. That and when he was in some kind of trouble, either with police or with school. It was far too easy to assume his dad just didn't care at this point. Though, in some fleeting moments, Steve liked to think that maybe he did. Like the time when he came home with a bloody face after Jonathan had almost punched his lights out, and then again a year later when Billy actually did. His dad had seemed to take some interest in him then. So, maybe he did care, just a little at least. The only problem was that he also cared about something else a whole lot more: money.

"What if he doesn't pay?"

A tense silence filled the room. Everything just seemed to suddenly still in that moment, and the room somehow felt colder for it, despite the sunny weather outside trying to battle its way through the blinds. Shelby didn't move, cigarette halfway to his lips as he stared up at the ceiling, brows drawn together. On the other side of the room, something in Cutler's expression had changed. Steve couldn't tell what it was but there was definitely a difference there; perhaps something like concern had washed over his face, but it was subtle – very subtle – and maybe there was a slight anger there too mingling with it as he looked up at Steve from where he was sat, elbows resting against his knees as he leant forward.

"Why do you say that?" Cutler asked, eyes refusing to break contact.

"I just..." Steve tried to shrug it off a little, glancing off to the side in an attempt to break that intense stare. "If he doesn't pay then–"

"He'll pay," Shelby inserted gruffly, breaking his frozen state and bringing the cigarette down to take a drag, before blowing it out a little forcefully and speaking again with finality: "they always do."

Steve took that to indicate the end if the conversation, bringing the water bottle to his lips as a way of distracting himself from his situation and almost missing the next words out of Shelby's mouth completely.

"If not...you go to the highest bidder."

The words sent something spiraling in his brain and just like that his courage seemed to snap, and he could feel the panic starting to wash its way through him as he set the bottle back down on the bedside table, hands trembling a little as he did so despite his best efforts to keep himself calm and in control – but he wasn't. Not anymore. His control was slipping, fast, and he could sense it depleting steadily as his breathing started to grow a little shaky.

"Can I, er, use the bathroom?" he asked, directing the question at no one in particular as he stared down at the bed he was on, trying to focus his attention onto anything else that wasn't this situation.

"Yeah, sure. Go ahead," said Cutler, motioning towards the door just around the corner of the wall to Steve's left.

It took a second or two for Steve make his way up from the bed, legs feeling slightly numb as he finally stood up and made his way towards the door, opening it and slipping inside quickly before shutting it again behind him. He went to lock it on instinct, hands reaching for the golden latch only to realise that it was broken. And really he shouldn't have been so surprised because these men weren't stupid: they knew what they were doing and by the sounds of it they'd been doing it for quite some time. Still, he fumbled with the lock for a second despite this, some part of his mind not quite accepting it yet – not quite accepting anything.

Eventually he let it go and turned around to face the tiled room, embracing the slight coolness of it in contrast to that of the stuffy bedroom outside that smelled of smoke and something else that was tangy and mildly revolting. He paced around the tiled floor for a second, not going very far since the room was tiny, before settling down in front of the sink and placing his hands on either side of the basin as he took in one deep breath after another.

And then he finally broke.

The panic was crashing down on him, running ramped through his bloodstream, and he started to shake, gripping onto the basin for dear life because he'd probably fall over if he wasn't clinging onto something; his breathing went irregular: short and gasping and then long and forcibly steady as he tried to control it a little better, and his heart was hammering in his ears and he could feel wet, hot, tears streaming down his cheeks, making his skin red and sore as he hastily wiped them away. Oh fuck, oh fuck, oh FUCK. He was terrified. He was fucking scared out his mind because he knew – he just knew – that his dad wouldn't pay for him. Not if he felt the price was too high. Oh God, Steve wished someone else was here with him right now. Wished he wasn't alone with those two men in the room next door, crying pathetically in some crappy, mould-infected bathroom. Wished someone was there to just...hold him. To make him feel safe and secure. Just press him against their chest whilst he sobbed into their shoulder, keeping him close and loved and...Steve just...Steve wanted Billy. Needed Billy.

He remembered then that Billy had been planning to come over last night. Realised that he would have probably walked in to find an empty house and couldn’t bear to imagine what that must have been like for him – to suddenly find Steve gone when he should have been there, waiting for him like he always was. Though maybe that was a good thing. Well it wasn’t a good thing but…it gave Steve a chance, right? Because Billy would have told someone. He must have – he would have called the police right away which meant…Hopper would know. Hopper would know Steve was missing, and the kids, and Nance and Jon and Joyce and…El. El could find him, right? She could – would – find him, surely, if there was no other option and everything else went to shit, she would find him. Hell, she might even be here with him right now!

Steve shut his eyes as he lent over the sink, keeping that thought in mind while he started to regain control of his breathing, just focusing on every inhale and exhale until he felt like he wasn’t being starved for oxygen anymore. His body stopped trembling and all his tears dried up as the panic ebbed away slowly but surely. He stayed like that for a while, just letting himself breathe for a second and allowing that hope to resonate throughout his mind until he was in control again. Gradually he started to realise that there was no more need to worry about getting out of this by himself because they would come for him; they would bring him home. He just needed to be patient. That’s all. And they’d come – they’d get him back – no matter what. Steve had no trust in his father whatsoever to get him out of this situation, but when it came to the people he’d fought against literal monsters with…hell yeah he trusted them. Because they would fight. And they would win.

For a second, Steve thought he could have felt someone watching him right there, in that very moment. It was probably just wishful thinking but oddly nice all the same, like he had some kind of guardian angel. He remained in the bathroom for a few more minutes after that before eventually returning to the room and sitting back down on the bed. Cutler hadn’t seemed to have moved, still seated in the chair when Steve came out, though he had a map out now and was studying it carefully, a pen grasped in one hand, whilst on the other side of the room Shelby had shifted closer to the window and was currently staring out of it with a new cigarette perched between his lips. He looked a little on edge as he peered out, eyes squinting at whatever it was he was watching. He turned around once Steve had settled back down, eyes narrowing at Cutler.

“We should leave here soon,” he said, glancing briefly at Steve before continuing. “We’ve been here too long.”

“Give it a few more minutes,” Cutler replied, not bothering to look up from the map as he spoke.

“Why should we? The sooner we get moving again, the better.”

“Because,” Cutler said, finally meeting Shelby’s gaze, “how’d you like it if you had to spend eight hours locked in the trunk of a car?”

Shelby huffed irritably, going back to glaring out the window without another word. Steve went back to taking sips from the water bottle since he didn’t seem to have anything better to do, turning down Cutler’s offer of some food because he was certain he’d just throw it back up again. A few minutes passed like that, none of them talking – all of them just waiting for one thing or another. Occasionally, Cutler or Shelby would get up, either to go to the bathroom or just pace around the room a bit, though mostly they just stayed where they were. Steve felt like he should probably get up too – stretch out a bit while he still had the chance – but he didn’t bother in the end, quite content to just sit there on the bed with his arms wrapped around his legs. It was almost kind of peaceful for a moment if he ignored the fact that a part of him was still scared out of his mind. Or at least it was until Shelby spotted something outside that had him sitting up abruptly and freezing in place, shoulders going tense as he kept his eyes on whatever was out there.

Shit,” he cursed, shutting the blinds fully before he turned to face Cutler. “Cops.”

No one moved. As soon as the word had been said Steve knew the same thought had crossed the mind of everyone in that room as the two men turned to look at him, muscles tense – waiting for the inevitable. Steve knew what he had to do. Knew if he was quick enough he could get away from these men and escape this situation entirely. But he had to be fast. Really fucking fast.

Another second of stillness passed before the room was suddenly filled with motion, and Steve was trying to bolt up from where he was sat and make a dive for the door but Shelby and Cutler were on him before he could even properly scramble off the bed, and for a second he thought he’d heard someone yelling his name before the men were pinning him down easily as he struggled them, trying to scream as loudly as he could past the hand that was covering his mouth. Then Cutler was rushing across the room, leaving Shelby to wrestle with him until he came back, syringe in hand, trying to hold Steve still as injected its contents into his neck. The cold sting of the metal needle had Steve only fighting harder, desperate to escape from their iron grip on him that kept him trapped against the mattress. But soon the drug started to take effect and all the strength began to drain out of his limbs as his voice left him completely. After that all he could do was watch. Watch as the two men clambered off of him and started moving back some of the carpet between the beds, revealing a hatch cut which cut into wooden floorboards underneath. By the time they picked Steve up everything was starting to blur in and out of focus and the next thing he knew he was surrounded by black, laying on cold concrete as that feeling of sleep and numbness started taking over his body once more, and he drifted off back into a forced, dreamless, sleep…

11:36am, Sunday 14th April, 1985.

Hopper had received the call about Coulton at around ten, after waiting all that time in suspense to hear from the guy only to be told someone had shot him in the head. He’d had to step outside after that. Had to take a good long drive, smoke a few cigarettes, and walk around Harrington’s house for a bit. He didn’t look for any new evidence – just stared at stuff: his lounge, his kitchen, his room. It was weird seeing all his clothes still folded up in the drawers with a few scattered haphazardly around the floor; it was even weirder to look at his car, still perched in his drive exactly where he’d left it last night…

The rest of the party had left the station before he got the call, so no one else except himself and a few other officers knew about the current situation. Well, maybe Jane did if she’d seen anything, but seeing as he hadn’t received another call from her he guessed she was just as unaware as the others.

He was returning to the station now though, ready to face up to what was happening and fucking do something about it before things got any more out of hand. Hopper was prepared to crack this case wide open, do whatever the hell he had to in order to get Steve back because as far as he was concerned there was no other alternative to how this was going to end: he would get Steve back, one way or another, no matter what. Whether that meant taking El on a road trip and following him half way across America or tracking down Billy Hargrove and seeing if he had any useful insights into this case that could save Hopper some gas money in the long run. Hopper didn’t care. Just as long as he got Steve home safe – because in the end, that was all that really mattered right now.

Hopper parked up outside the station, eyes catching on a blue Camaro a few spaces down as he got out before walking briskly into the station, wasting no time as he made a straight beeline for his office. Because he knew that car – knew it all too fucking well – and low and behold, there he was: just the guy he wanted to see. It looked like Hopper wouldn’t be having to track Hargrove after all since the kid was sat outside his office, head bent down as he filled out a statement form, seemingly too focused on writing to have noticed the Chief’s arrival.

And if that wasn’t what you called perfect timing, Hopper didn’t know what was.

Chapter Text

Hopper stopped a few steps away from Billy, studying him for a second before announcing his presence.

"Hargrove," he said, and the kid practically jumped out of his skin, apparently too completely lost in his thoughts and what he was writing to have remotely acknowledged Hopper's presence at all.

He seemed to recover quickly though, closing the lid on the pen as he casually lent back in the seat like nothing had happened. "Chief," he greeted, lips tugging up into a smirk as he looked up at him. "I'm not in trouble am I? The officers said you wanted a word with me, personally."

"I do," Hopper said simply, walking past him and unlocking his office door before walking through and motioning for Hargrove to follow. He could tell the kid was putting up an act – hell, he always put up an act – but it came on a little more forced than he was probably going for today. Or maybe it was just the fact that Hopper knew which made it easier to see past; made him pay more attention to it because he knew how Hargrove really felt – could still remember the broken voice that had called him last night: torn apart; grieved.

Billy followed him in, hands tucked into the pockets of his denim jacket as he glanced around the office whilst Hopper shut the door behind him. "This about Harrington?"

"Yep." Hopper made his way over to his desk and sat down as Billy remained standing, still looking about the room in faked interest, clearly hating just having to be there.

"Well, I think your barking up the wrong tree then, because as far as I'm concerned if Harrington wants to run off somewhere that's –"

"Cut the bullshit," Hopper said, watching Hargrove's performance stumble for a second as he was caught off guard.

But the act was quickly back in place, and Billy was huffing out a laugh like Hopper had just said something hilarious that he hadn't quite heard right. "What?"

"Cut. The bullshit," Hopper repeated, bringing out a pen and pad from within his desk. "And sit down. If you start pacing about it's going to drive me insane."

"Chief, I don't know what you're trying to –"

"Jesus Christ, Hargrove, just sit down! I know, alright? Henderson told me. So sit down and stop pretending that you don't care, because I know damn well that you do, so just quit the act...and try to help me out here."

Billy didn’t respond for a few seconds: just stood there staring at Hopper in disbelief, his calm exterior gone tense, and if anything the kid looked a little shell-shocked. Hopper thought he’d finally gotten through to him then – finally was about to get some honesty out of him – but Billy Hargrove was stubborn. Really, fucking stubborn.

“Look. I don’t know what Henderson told you but it’s not what you –”

Oh my GOD! JUST SIT DOWN!” Hopper yelled, exasperated, and he’d never seen anyone move so damn fast in his life: he was surprised Hargrove didn’t topple the chair over with the amount of force he propelled himself into it with. Finally, Hopper thought, pinching the bridge of his nose and sighing when he realised just how jittery Billy looked right now, with his shoulders hunched and his head hanging down, eyes staring pointedly at the floor. Hopper took a deep breath to steady himself before trying again. “Look, I don’t want to yell at you, alright? But you’re being real difficult here kid, and all this would go by a lot faster and a lot easier if you just put a little trust in me, yeah?”

Billy gave a faint nod, gaze still directed downwards as he spoke. “What, um…what did Henderson tell you exactly?”

“Not much,” Hopper said. “Just how he found out about you two. Nothing too personal.”

“Does anyone else know?” Billy asked, and Hopper could tell now that that was his largest concern: the fear that this information could have spread beyond his control without him even knowing.

“No. Just me,” Hopper reassured. “And that’s how it’s going to stay. You won’t have to write down any of this on your statement: whatever information you give me here will remain in this room and this room only. I’m not here to criticise your relationships kid, all I want is to get Steve back home. And if that call I received last night is anything to go by, you want that just as much as me. That was you, right? The anonymous caller?”

Billy looked up at him then, nodding in affirmation. He was still tense but he seemed more secure now – more comfortable with the knowledge that this was just between the two of them.

“Ok, good. That’s good,” said Hopper, trying to ease into the interview slowly and build up some trust between them. “What time did you get to Harrington’s house last night?”

“About ten. That’s the time we agreed upon so…”

Hopper already knew this information but it was always good to double check just in case. “And what did you do when you first got there?” he asked.

Hargrove sat a bit further back in the chair, finally seeming to loosen up a bit as he thought of a response. “I, um…I think I just went around looking for Steve. I usually enter through the back so the, er, broken glass door was the first thing I saw and…I mean, I thought Steve could have been attacked or something so I just wanted to find him in case he was hurt but – of course, obviously I didn’t so then I just…well, you know.”

He trailed off, wiping at his eyes a little and Hopper took that as a sign to move on. “Did you change anything while you were there? Move any ornaments, or…?”

“No. No I don’t think so.”

“Ok,” Hopper said, scribbling down a note or two just for the sake of having something to do. Because this was weird. Just seeing Billy being so...he didn't even know how to describe it. Compliant? Nervous? Either way, it was a total shift from the smug asshole that he was used to dealing with: that confident jerk who was more concerned about his looks than the speeding limits. And maybe the two were one and the same, but jerk or no Hopper still couldn't quite wrap his head around the fact that Steve was dating this guy. Just a few months ago Hargrove had practically beat Steve within an inch of his life and now suddenly the two of them were sharing a bed? How did something like that even come about?

"So, I know you interacted with Harrington at the arcade around six. Did you see him any time before or after that?"

"No," Billy said, shaking his head. "Unless you count one in the morning."

Hopper looked up at him in interest. “You went to his the night before?”

“Yeah. I’m at his most nights,” Billy explained, relaxing back into his seat a little more.

“But what about his parents? Surely they’d notice something like that?” Hopper asked.

Billy shrugged, looking away suddenly as he absentmindedly fiddled with one of the bands around his wrist. “Steve’s parents aren’t really home too often. I don’t tend to visit when they’re back.”

There was something in that. Hopper could tell the kid was being careful now – purposefully trying to keep his words vague to hide something: make it seem like less than it was. Hopper wanted to question him further but maybe that was crossing the line a bit. He knew that Mr and Mrs Harrington sometimes went away on business trips, although admittedly he wasn’t exactly aware of how frequent or how long these trips really were, but he'd always assumed it was only for a day or two once a month. Billy made it sound longer than that though. A lot longer. Actually, on the topic of Steve’s parents, that reminded him…

“Hey, do you know of any way that I could contact Steve’s parents that isn’t through Mr Harrington’s secretary?” He’d tried to reach them that morning but had only achieved a very long, withering and repetitive conversation with some woman called Jennifer that would put him on hold every five minutes.

Much to Hopper’s surprise, Billy actually huffed a laugh at that. It was a brief, half-hearted burst of sound that didn’t actually seem to have any humour behind it – the noise came across as cold and mocking, and Hopper was really starting to get the impression that Billy wasn’t so keen on Steve’s parents at all.

“Yeah, no sorry. Good luck with that though,” he said, and there was a slight anger in his eyes now that cut into his words, making his voice seem a little sharper than before.

“You don’t think I’ll reach them?” Hopper questioned.

Billy waved a hand dismissively. He wasn’t that tense anymore and seemed to be growing more confident in Hopper’s presence by the second, clearly no longer seeing the Chief as a possible threat. “I’m sure you’ll reach them eventually. I just don’t think you’ll gain anything from it,” he said simply. Then something shifted in his expression slightly as a thought crossed his mind, and suddenly he appeared mildly nervous again, but for a completely different reason. “You don’t, um, think this is a, er…ransom case, do you?” Billy asked.

Hopper’s brow lowered at the sudden change in topic. “Possibly,” he said. “We haven’t found any kind of note at the crime scene, but that’s one of the reasons why I want to talk to his parents: see if they’ve been contacted by anyone. Why d’you ask?”

“It’s nothing. Just…” Billy trailed off, glancing off to the side for a second before turning back to Hopper. “Look, Steve’s parents aren’t exactly…if Mr Harrington were to get a call, I…I don’t know if he’d act on it – hell, I don’t know if he’d even tell anyone.”

A brief second of silence passed where Hopper just studied Hargrove; took in his serious expression, the way he seemed anxious just thinking about the possibility that this was a ransom case, considered the faint traces of resentment he’d showed earlier when talking about Steve’s parents: Billy wasn’t joking; he really believed this. And Hopper…well Hopper didn’t quite know what to make of that.

“Are you saying that, if Steve is being held for ransom, his dad won’t pay for him?” This was a serious accusation the kid was making: surely it couldn’t be true. What parent in their right mind would refuse to pay money to get their own child back? Who the hell would even think for a second about putting their kid at risk like that?

“I don’t know, but – I just…I wouldn’t count on it,” Billy said, redirecting his gaze back to the floor as Hopper stared at him in disbelief. After a few seconds he spoke up again, clearing his throat awkwardly to fill the silence that had fallen between them. “Is that all?” he asked.

Hopper sighed, looking down at his notepad as he ran a hand through his hair. “I guess,” he said. “Unless there’s anything else you want to tell me that you think could be relevant to the case.”

Billy shook his head silently and Hopper expected him to leave then but he didn’t. He just sat there in the chair for a few seconds longer, probably still adjusting to the whole situation. Hopper couldn’t imagine what the kid was going through right now – didn’t know him well enough to get the barest of ideas about what could be passing through his mind. Billy Hargrove had also been a hard one to read: he was impulsive – prone to sudden outbursts – and Hopper had thought before that he could just about make out what the kid might be thinking. But now? After seeing this new side of Hargrove the Chief was at a complete loss. And there was still that curiosity in the back of his head: the part that wanted to know how this relationship had even begun – wanted to find out what string of events could have possibly led to this outcome. He knew he shouldn’t ask. Knew he shouldn’t push it beyond the questions he’d already put forth, but he couldn’t help himself – curious as to whether or not Billy would even give him an answer.

“Can I ask you a question?” Hopper said, watching as Hargrove moved his head to look back up at him. “Not a police question: just a general one. You don’t have to answer if you don’t to, I’m just curious: how did this all come around? You and Harrington, I mean. How did…?”

“How did we get together?” Billy asked, quirking a brow.

“Yeah, that. It’s just, until this morning as far as I was concerned you two were still going at each other’s throats whenever you could so…what happened?”

Billy laughed a little at that and this time his smile was genuine. It was still only small, though, and perhaps just the faintest bit sad. “I mean, we still are at each other’s throats I guess, just not quite in the same way.” His smile suddenly slipped then as he realised what he’d said. “I’m sorry, that was, um, inappropriate. I shouldn’t have –”

“No, no, it’s fine. Really. It’s not – well, it shouldn’t be, you know…” Hopper stumbled to try and get the kid’s confidence back, trying to reassure him – and maybe himself a little – that it really was alright. Because as far as Hopper could tell, besides Steve and maybe Dustin, Billy didn’t have anyone else to speak to about this kind of stuff. And that had to be hard, having to keep all that emotion reigned in and try to hide his true feelings from others for fear of what they may think of him. Sure, Hopper still needed to adjust to the idea a bit, but what better way was there to do so than to just talk to the kid? Make the effort to know him better, try and understand where he was coming from, and maybe give Billy someone that wasn’t kidnapped or fourteen years old that he could trust, because chances were that’s exactly what he needed. Especially at this moment in time. “So, as you were saying: how did it all begin?”

“Well,” Billy started, smile returning slowly but surely, and Hopper thought it was the most genuine thing he’d ever seen from the kid. “I guess it all started back in December…when Steve saved my life.”

Chapter Text

10:52pm, Saturday 22nd December, 1984.

Billy had needed to cool down after a fight with Neil. He hadn't wanted to be in that house for another second: snatched his car keys as soon as the opportunity presented itself and set off on a nice long drive around Hawkins. Except it wasn't nice. Nor was it actually that long, because twenty minutes in his car broke down in the middle of fucking nowhere and now he was stuck on the side of some dark, winding road surrounded by trees with a fresh flurry of snow settling in. He hadn't been paying particular attention to where he'd been going when the car was still working, and since he could see shit all around him to give him a hint as to exactly where he was, Billy had to come to the conclusion that he was lost. Lost in a stupid, tiny town that was so small you could probably drive across it and back in thirty minutes if there were no traffic lights to get in the way. Seriously how the fuck had he managed this?

He tried to wrap his leather jacket more tightly around himself as he got out the car, because of course he hadn't thought to bring a fucking coat with him when he'd left. The snow wasn't too deep thankfully, only coming about half way up his boots, but the cold still stung like a bitch and he spent a few seconds just warming his hands before opening the lid of his car. Fortunately, if Billy knew anything, it was how to fix a car. Spending most his time back in Cali hanging round a scrap yard full of them had definitely had its perks. God he missed that place. Missed messing around with his friends – people that actually knew and understood him – and just doing stupid shit like trying to eat the entirety of Pops' fridge or seeing if they could steal Nana P's glasses without her catching them. Things had been a hell of a lot better back then. But now here he was, freezing his balls off and close to bursting into tears because he couldn’t see what the fuck was wrong with his fucking car and it was making him feel like an idiot: a stupid, mindless, good-for-nothing fool that couldn’t even remember how to fix a goddamn car.

Billy took a step back for a second, wiping at his eyes furiously and irritating the fresh cut across his left cheek, causing the wound to throb and sting which only worked to make him twice as pissed off. He took a deep breath. Then another. And then he thought, to hell with it, and started kicking up snow in a wild fit of rage as he indulged in his frustration, yelling and cursing and stomping about on the side of the road until he’d calmed down enough to think straight for a second without breaking something. He shut the hood of his car, looking up and down the road before decidedly locking the Camaro and heading off in the direction he’d initially been travelling in. Hawkins was small – tiny ¬ he’d probably find his way back to the town centre in no time.

About five minutes into his journey, Billy realised he’d fucked up. He was freezing, snow was descending from the sky rapidly in great waves of icy, white flakes and as far as he could tell he wasn’t any closer to civilisation than he’d been when he broke down. At this point, he thought he might have to just head back to the car and settle down in the backseat for a while until the snow calmed down because being stuck in a broken down vehicle had to be better than running the risk of getting frostbite.

He walked on for a minute longer – just in case he was closer than he thought – before stopping and starting to turn around and walk back the way he came, shivering uncontrollably. Seriously, fuck this town. Why the hell did it have to be so damn cold? His skin might as well be ice right now with how chilled to the bone he felt. He tried to walk faster to warm up but the heat seemed to be draining from his body faster than before and the snowfall only seemed to be getting worse until it reached the point where Billy couldn’t actually see what was in front of him.

Oh, fuck, he thought, coming to a complete standstill as he began to wonder whether he was still heading in the right direction at all. He was still on the road, right? He had to be – he’d know if he’d started wondering off into the forest. He just needed to find his car. It was nearby somewhere: he just couldn’t see it in this weather; he was certain he should have reached it by now so where the hell was it? He walked a few steps further trying to glimpse anything through the haze of white that was crowding the air, growing more panicked with every second that passed as he began to realise just how screwed he’d be if he didn’t find his car soon. Oh shit, he’d fucked up. He’d really, truly fucked up. Jesus, he was so cold and he was concerned that he couldn’t really feel his feet anymore and he felt like he was moving slower and slower with every second that passed and –

Lights.

He could see lights – headlights – coming towards him down the road and watched in relief as they came to a halt just in front of him, the noise of a car door opening and closing as someone got out alongside the faint rumbling of the car’s engine was like music to his ears at that point in time.

Oh, thank fuck, he thought.

And then Billy’s saviour came into view and he recognised them from their stupid hair alone before they even spoke up to call out to him. “Hargrove?”

Oh, fuck no, he thought. God, this was embarrassing. Of course the person to save his ass would be Harrington – it was just fucking typical of his luck. Jesus, he was never going to live this one down: rescued by the guy he’d almost beaten into a coma. His reputation would be so screwed if this got out.

“Hargrove, what the hell are you doing out here?” Steve asked, wrapped up warmly in a thick, black waterproof that looked comfy as hell.

Billy knew he needed Steve’s help. Knew that he needed to get out of this goddamn snow flurry before he froze to death. And yet the first words he found coming out of his mouth were: “Fuck you.”

“What?” Steve said.

“Fuck. You. I don’t need your help, Harrington,” Billy said, turning around and stubbornly starting to walk in the opposite direction until Steve caught him by the shoulder and spun him round.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” he yelled. “Jesus Christ, Hargrove, you look blue. Are you seriously trying to fight me right now?”

“I can take care of myself, princess, so go run back off to your castle, alright?”

“What? No! And just leave you out here to die? You’re an asshole and I hate you, but I’m not heartless. So stop being a goddamn idiot and just get in the car.”

Billy huffed out a breath in irritation. “Fine,” he said, “but only because you’re going all protective mum on me. I wouldn’t want you to get your panties in a bunch.”

Steve honestly looked like he was on the verge of hitting him then. But he didn’t. Instead he just started heading back towards his car with Billy in tow, mumbling something or other under his breath as he opened the passenger door and waited for Billy to get in before slamming it and returning to the driver’s seat. Then they were heading off down the road in silence, with neither of them speaking nor even glancing at each other at first. Billy honestly couldn’t care less in that moment though because the inside of Steve’s car was warm and he could slowly feel the icy numbness that had started to dig into his bones receding as sensation began to bleed back into his limbs and some colour returned to his skin. A few minutes passed like that, with Billy just enjoying the heat and warmth of the car, before Steve spoke up, eyes still focused on the road.

“I saw a car that had broken down just a minute or two’s walk from where I found you. Was that yours?” he asked.

Billy turned to him, expression agitated and unamused. “What do you think? Of course it’s mine: who the fuck else’s would it be!”

“Why the fuck did I even bother?” Steve muttered, and the car fell silent once more as they entered the town. It was only when Steve took a left turn that the tense quiet was broken again.

“Where are we going?” Billy asked, eyes narrowing when the car then turned right.

“The hospital,” Steve said. “Frostbite can be nasty: better safe than sorry. Plus that cut on your cheek looks like it could use some washing out. Did you get into a fight or something before you –?”

“No hospital,” Billy said, cutting Steve off.

“What? Look, I don’t know how long you were out there, but you should really –”

“No. Hospital,” Billy repeated seriously, and then watched in faint amusement as Steve hit the brakes on the car and spun round to face him, hands flying up into the air in exasperation.

“Fine. Well, where the fuck do you want me to take you then? Back to your house?”

Billy turned away then, directing his attention out the window: “No.” He didn’t want to go back there – couldn’t bring himself to see Neil again just yet, especially since he’d be walking in with his Camaro nowhere in sight which was bound to only set him off again.

“Then where?” Steve asked, and all he got in return was a shrug. He lent back against his seat, letting out a tired sigh as he considered his options. Billy didn’t want to go to hospital and he didn’t want to go back home, so maybe Steve could just drop him off here and let him make his own way to wherever the fuck he decided he wanted to go. He’d probably agree to that plan as well, being quite happy just to get away from Steve without saying a single thank you and Steve would probably be fine with that…Except he wouldn’t. Not really. He’d been concerned ever since he picked Hargrove up from the side of the road, looking minutes away from turning into a human popsicle, and part of him couldn’t bear to just let the guy take off again without Steve knowing he was truly okay, because he’d feel responsible if Hargrove actually did have some serious damage that was in need of treatment. Steve knew he only really had one option in this situation. He didn’t like it, but it was pretty much all he had left given Billy’s resistance to being a sensible human being.

“Look,” Steve said, “I don’t want to just chuck you out onto the street when you could potentially be hurt. My parents are out tonight so you can come back to mine for a bit and maybe take a shower or something and dry off your clothes. You can sleep on the couch and then in the morning we can try and call someone to see if we can get your car fixed. How does that sound?”

“You inviting me back to your castle, princess?” Billy asked, smile sharp as his tongue swiped over his teeth and Steve had to physically stop himself from just throwing the guy out right then and there.

“Not if you’re going to be a dick about it,” Steve said.

Billy considered it for a moment, looking Steve up and down like he couldn’t tell whether he was being serious or not, before eventually nodding his head and looking back out the window. “Fine. Your couch better be fucking comfortable, Harrington. I might have to throw you out your own bed if it’s not.”

Steve rolled his eyes and scoffed as he started up the car, not bothering to respond as he started driving back towards his own house. Neither of them spoke to each other for the rest of the journey, and after they finally reached their destination the only words shared were those concerning where certain things were and a slight threat from Steve when he’d caught Billy eyeing up his parents’ alcohol collection. Then Billy showered and borrowed some supplies from the medkit Steve had offered him to help with cleaning out the cut, and if he used more stuff than was surely needed for a single cut then Steve didn’t question it: he simply fetched Billy a blanket before retiring to his room and leaving Hargrove to his own devices. In the morning, Steve drove him back to his car after Billy had insisted that he could fix the thing himself and then waited awhile until the Camaro was up and running again before giving Hargrove a quick nod and parting ways with him. Steve got no thanks in return for any of this. But he hadn’t really expected any gratitude to begin with, so he wasn’t all that fussed when all he got in the end was a single nod and the sight of a blue Camaro speeding off in his review mirror.

11:14pm, Monday 31st December, 1984.

It was New Year’s Eve: a time to get drunk, go wild and find someone to kiss at midnight in preparation for another year of pure, insufferable hell. Steve would have been all over that kind of thing a year ago. But now he just...let's just say a few particular events had put him off parties for the time being. So when Nancy and Jonathan had asked if he was going to Tina's that night he'd told them his parents had made plans to invite a tonne of people round so, unfortunately, he couldn't come. And of course that was a complete lie. Because his parents weren't here, and there was most certainly no one else here either. What was keeping him company that night however was a bigass, expensive bottle of champagne that his parents had brought home one time from a business trip a few months back now, and Steve had to say that his father's colleagues had great taste because this shit was actually pretty damn good. Steve was usually more of a beer fan but it was New Year’s Eve after all: he had to celebrate somehow.

His expectations for that night had been pretty standard, with his celebratory plans beginning with him popping open the bottle and ending with him finishing the bottle and probably passing out on the couch. What he hadn't accounted for in these expectations, however, was Billy Hargrove knocking on his back door, looking beaten and bloody, and almost causing Steve to choke to death on champagne because the sudden appearance had almost given him a fucking heart attack.

Steve put the bottle of champagne down on the coffee table before approaching the sliding glass door and giving Billy a wary look as he opened it. Hargrove looked like shit: he had a black eye and a nasty looking gash on the top of his head which was bleeding down his face and staining his blonde curls red and...was that glass in his hair?

"Jesus Christ, Hargrove, what the hell are you doing here? What happened to you?"

Billy looked up at him, eyes seemingly struggling to focus a little as they darted around Steve's form and eventually ended up squinting when they looked at his face. "Got into a fight," he said, pushing past Steve and into the lounge. "Didn't want to go to the hospital."

Then his eyes settled on the bottle of champagne and he plucked it off the table without hesitation, taking a large swig straight from the bottle before Steve managed to wrestle it off him, placing it back down where he'd left it before. "Hey! You can't just barge in here and drink my alcohol like you own this damn place!"

"Where's your stuff?" Billy asked, wondering away from Steve to pick up one of the ornaments – a small, glass elephant – from the top of the side cabinet, bringing it up to his face to study it with an almost childish interest.

"Put that down!" Steve said, snatching it from Billy's hands and returning it to its rightful place before turning around again only to find Hargrove mere inches away from him, crowding him against the cabinet and practically sharing the same air. And that's when Steve smelt the alcohol on his breath. It was strong, almost unbearably so, and Steve realised that the reason why Billy was behaving this way was because he was drunk: Billy had drunkenly come to his house after fighting someone. Oh, great, he thought, slowly pushing his hands against Billy's chest to try and put some space between them. "Do you mind standing back a bit there? You're...kind of close." Steve said awkwardly.

A second or two passed and then Billy was stepping backwards, finally allowing Steve some personal space. "Where's your stuff?" he asked again.

"Stuff? What stuff?"

"You know...bandages and things. Survival shit."

"What? Oh, you...you mean my medkit?" Steve asked.

Billy clicked his fingers and pointed at Steve nodding as looked round the room. "Yeah, that. That..."

"Alright," Steve said with a sigh, glancing over Billy's injuries before guiding him over to the couch and getting him to sit down for a second. "You just stay here, okay? Don't move and don't – don't touch anything. I'll be right back."

With that Steve ran off to the upstairs bathroom, retrieving the red box along with a small towel and some warm water and coming back downstairs to find Billy drinking out the champagne bottle again.

"Hey! What did I say? Don't touch anything." He removed the bottle from Billy again before sitting on the table so he could face him directly and popping open the medkit.

"If you didn't want me to drink it, you shouldn't have left it there. Not my fault," Billy said, watching Steve attentively as he got out what he needed, setting up everything on the table before turning back to him. "That's some fancy shit, though. Fanciest shit I've ever tasted at least."

"Yeah, well, it is expensive as hell so...you get what you pay for I guess," Steve commented, wetting the towel and ringing it out a little before trying to bring it up to clean the blood off Billy's face.

"What are you doing?" Billy said, flinching backwards and away from him, making Steve pause.

"I'm trying to sort out your shit," he said. "Just, hold still, alright?"

Billy batted his hand away when he tried to reach forward again. "I'm not a kid, Harrington. I can do it myself, you know."

"Hargrove, you're drunk. So just shut up and sit still because I'm doing this, okay?" Steve said sternly.

The two stared each other down until eventually Billy relented, shuffling forward a bit and facing Steve head on. This time he didn't flinch away when Steve brought the towel up to carefully wipe some of the blood from his cheek; didn't resist at all when he brought the other hand up to cup Billy's chin and tilt his head to the side slightly. Steve worked slowly and carefully, being particularly gentle when cleaning up the blood around the black eye. Then once he'd finished, he moved onto removing the small shards of glass from Billy's hair, depositing them on the table, before cleaning out the head wound, pausing sometimes when Billy grimaced from the pain. In the end, Steve thought he'd done a pretty good job overall: fortunately the gash hadn't looked deep enough to need stitches so he'd simply bandaged it up after trying to remove as much of the blood from Billy's hair as possible.

Steve sat back, surveying his work carefully before scanning over Billy for anymore injuries. "Is there anything else I should be concerned about?"

Billy thought about it for a second, looking down at himself sceptically but eventually just shaking his head. After that Steve had gone about clearing everything away including the bottle of champagne that was still half full, his plans long forgotten by now. When he returned Billy was asleep on the couch, sprawled out over it like a lazy cat with one arm hanging off over the side. He looked so much softer in that moment – so much more fragile and at peace with all the tension drained out of him by sleep and replaced with something calm that smoothed over his features and took away all those sharp jagged edges Steve was so accustomed to seeing. And for a second Steve couldn't bring himself to believe that this was the guy that had almost killed him two months ago. It was weird but the guy laying in front of him right now didn't look like he could ever hurt anyone. Didn't look like he could cause any harm at all.

And that's how Steve found himself entering 1985: throwing a blanket over Billy Hargrove before retiring to his own room and collapsing onto his bed.

10:33pm, Friday 4th January, 1985.

When Billy arrived at Steve’s backdoor for a second time four days later, Steve honestly thought he’d have to play doctor again – was even prepared to do so: had gone out to get more supplies just in case and had filled the medkit to the brim; he usually kept it pretty well stocked as is but since Billy Hargrove decided his house was a designated emergency room Steve wanted to take some extra precaution. So, it was kind of a nice surprise when he opened the door to find a sober Billy with no new wounds in sight, just those Steve had patched up last time, and a pack of cheap beer in one hand whilst he lent casually against the wall with the other. Oh God, what now? Steve thought, looking Hargrove up and down suspiciously, not quite sure what was going on.

“Can I help you?” Steve asked, arms crossed as he stood in the doorway.

Billy took in his defensive posture before looking down at the beers in his hand, shuffling on the spot a little awkwardly – almost like he was…nervous? “I, er,” he paused, momentarily struggling to find the right words to say. “Look, it was a pretty shitty of me to just turn up like that last time. And you did a pretty decent job of patching me up so…I just thought you might like these,” he finished, holding up the pack of beers like they were some great prize.

Steve just blinked at him. He glanced back and forth between the beers and Billy, eyebrows drawing downwards in confusion. Was this an apology? Was this a thank you? Was this an apology and a thank you? “Um…” Steve hesitated for a second before reaching out and taking the beers from Billy, watching the slight relief that crossed his face when he did so. “Thanks? I guess…”

The conversation lapsed into an awkward silence then, with neither of them knowing what else to say, both just standing there staring at each other and occasionally glancing off to the side when the eye contact dragged on a little too long. After a while Steve spoke up, shivering a little as he stood in the open doorway dressed in only a t-shirt and jeans with no other layers to shield him from the night’s cold air.

“Would you like to come in for a bit?” he asked, and Billy looked up at him in surprise, glancing between the woods behind him and the warm appeal of Steve’s lounge.

He shrugged. “Sure,” he said, entering when Steve stepped aside and then waiting around as he closed the door behind him, not really knowing what to do with himself.

Steve didn’t really know what to do either – had no idea why the hell he’d invited Billy in to start with let alone what they would do now they were both inside. In the end, they simply watched a movie together, sharing the beer and sat on separate couches. It was weird. Really weird. Billy Hargrove was in Steve’s house; Steve had let Billy Hargrove come in his house willingly. And now they were, what? Hanging out? Whatever, Steve couldn’t really bring himself to care: this was just a one time thing, after this they’d probably just go back to either ignoring or fighting each other, so Steve decided to just enjoy the civil moment between them while he could because he knew it wouldn’t last. It wouldn’t last at all.

Steve wasn’t entirely right in that last belief…however he also wasn’t entirely wrong either. Because Billy continued to come round to his house after that, showing up randomly and without warning, always banging on the back door as opposed to ringing the bell on the front one like a normal person. And every time he came round Steve let him in; they drank some beers and they watched a movie. But, when it came to school, Billy was still very much set on riling him up. Maybe even more so than before. He would taunt and push and mock Steve all day long – basketball practice was hell and Steve would want wring the guy’s neck and shake him by the time the final bell rang, but he’d still let Billy in later if he came round, even if it got his blood boiling a bit when he acted like he hadn’t completely shoved Steve into a wall earlier that day. At a certain point it started to drive him insane: Steve felt like he was getting whiplash between fighting Billy and being civil with him; going to school and coming out wanting to punch the guy only to share a beer with him later – and it got to the point where Steve just thought to hell with it. Where Steve started fighting back.

It was oddly satisfying the first time he did it, watching the surprise on Billy’s face when he shoved the guy into a locker whilst walking through the corridor, carrying on to class like nothing had even happened. After that everything went to hell: their rivalry moved onto a whole other level and soon the entire school was in a constant state of buzz because of it, everyone trying to get the latest gossip on what shit the one had pulled on the other that day, and more people would show up to watch their basketball practice because half the time the coach would have to split them up. They never actually fought properly – didn’t start throwing any punches – but they got just about as close as they could get without someone breaking something. And in some weird, twisted way Steve actually started to find it almost exhilarating. He’d walk into school with one thing on his mind and one thing only: Billy Hargrove. Then at the end of the day he’d come back home to a house that didn’t feel so empty anymore, and there was a new sort of contentedness to his life now that he’d been lacking before. Because in the end it was actually quite nice having Billy there at night. Quite nice having this feeling of closeness without really getting too close at all. They grew to have a sort of understanding between themselves where Steve didn’t ask where Billy got his bruises from, and Billy didn’t ask why Steve’s parents were practically never home. And that sort of acceptance and agreement was just…it was something Steve hadn’t known he’d needed until then. But he liked it. He liked it a lot.

00:01am, Saturday 9th February, 1985.

Billy didn’t know why he went to Steve’s house that night. It was stupid – he knew it was stupid: had overheard Max and that little pack of nerds talking rather loudly about their plans for Steve’s birthday that day and how irritated they were that they could only go through with it until a certain time because Steve’s parents were holding their own party for him at home, which they really shouldn’t have been so damn surprised about since Stevie was turning eighteen, and a little rich boy like him would probably spend half the day being spoiled by said parents because they had the money for it. The thing was, after Neil had decided to come home drunk and give Billy one of his ‘talks’, all of that information had been forgotten in favour of carrying out what Billy usually did when he couldn’t stand to be at home: go to Steve’s. It had become a habit now, just wandering over to Harrington’s whenever he felt like it, especially at times when he was pissed off with his dad.

So there he was, driving round to Harrington’s having completely forgotten what day it was – doing his usual swoop past the house to check his parents weren’t home and thinking nothing of it when the only car he saw was Steve’s, just continuing on to park a little ways up and then making the usual walk through the woods that led him straight to the house’s backdoor. He only remembered when he was standing just on the treeline, steps halting immediately as he took in the sight before him.

There wasn’t some big party happening. Actually as far as he could tell there was no one there at all except for Steve, sat on the edge of the pool with his jeans rolled up to his knees, feet dangling into the water as he drank from a bottle of wine, shoulders shaking a little as he sat there and it took Billy a moment to realise that it was because he was crying. For a second Billy just stood there, stunned, not knowing what to do because as far as he was concerned there should have been people here: dancing and laughing and drinking – but there wasn’t any of that. Just Steve: alone and in tears.

Billy edged out from the cover of the trees slowly, trying to be as cautious and as tentative as possible as he approached the pool. “Steve?” he said.

Harrington jumped a mile and for a second Billy thought he was going to end up taking a late night swim, but he managed to catch himself at the last second, bringing up a hand to hurriedly wipe at his eyes before he turned to face him fully.

“Billy,” he said, and it sounded a bit more like an exclamation of surprise than a greeting but he seemed to get a hold of himself quickly before speaking again. Well, at least he attempted to. “I, er…it’s not a, um…how are you?”

Billy raised his eyebrows at the question, giving Steve a disbelieving look. Seriously? How was he? Steve was sat crying in his back yard, downing an entire bottle of wine and he wanted to know how Billy was?

“I’m good,” he said, walking closer until he was stood directly beside Steve, with Harrington looking up at him, big brown eyes watery and red and blinking rapidly to try and hide it. “How are you?” Billy asked, and he saw the way Steve seemed to just crumple in front of him, face turning away as broke down again, unable to hold it back any longer.

“I’m fine,” he sobbed, and Billy knew Steve could be an awful liar sometimes but this really took the cake.

Gradually, he moved to loop an arm around him, removing the bottle from his grasp and placing it off to the side before getting his other arm beneath Steve’s legs and lifting him up, gaining a slight amusement from Harrington’s startled yelp and the way he quickly threw his hands around Billy’s shoulders, holding on for dear life.

“W-what are you doing?” Steve said, a sudden rush of heat filling his cheeks that he couldn’t quite explain but inevitably held the wine responsible for as he was carried inside.

“Preventing you from taking a midnight swim,” Billy replied simply, depositing Steve on the one couch before disappearing off and coming back with a glass of water and a towel. He put the glass down on the table, handing him the towel first to dry off his feet and sitting down beside him as he did so, waiting until the item was discarded as Steve threw it aimlessly across the room.

They sat in silence for a second then, Steve sat on one side of the couch with his knees pressed to his chest and Billy perched on the edge of the other side watching him carefully and trying to give him some space. He didn’t want to push Steve’s boundaries: they had a comfortable understanding between them that was built on not asking questions and Billy didn’t want to ruin that but…there was something terrible going on here. And he wanted to know what.

“Where are your parents?” Billy asked, almost flinching back at the harsh bark of a laugh he got in return for it, watching as Steve motioned dramatically to the empty room around them.

“They’re right here!” he said sarcastically, and his words were so cold and detached that for a second it didn’t even really sound like Steve was the one saying them at all. “Can’t you see them? Can’t you see this amazing party they’ve thrown for me? They really pulled out all the stops this year!”

“Steve…” Billy tried, voice soft as he attempted to coax the truth out of him.

“No!” Steve yelled. “No, fuck you! We don’t ask questions! You don’t ask where my parents are and I don’t ask where those bruises come from. That’s our thing: we don’t go there.”

“Well maybe it’s time we did,” Billy said.

Steve glared at him for a second, looking him up and down. “Fine,” he said eventually, shifting around on the couch to face Billy directly. “But you go first.”

A long silence passed between them, with Steve staring at him expectantly and Billy stuck for words, the truth getting stuck in his throat and staying there seemingly fixed in place. He should have known Steve would ask this of him – should have expected it – but he hadn’t, and now the moment to share it all was slipping away between his fingers like water and with every second that passed another droplet was lost until there was barely any left.

“See?” Steve said miserably. “You can’t do it. Neither of us can. That’s why we –”

“My dad,” Billy cut in suddenly, watching the way Steve froze in surprise, mouth gaping open as he stared at him. Billy himself was stunned that he’d actually said it – couldn’t quite believe he’d manage to force those two words out at all and had to take a second just to process that fact before continuing. “He, er…he says I need to learn. Respect and responsibility. It’s what he always says.”

Steve looked like he might start crying again as Billy spoke, but he was quick to wipe at his eyes to try and hide that fact, sitting up a little straighter as he realised it was his turn to share. For a second he didn’t say anything, and Billy was beginning to worry that he’d come out with all that only to get nothing in return when Steve started talking.

“They’re out on a business trip. My dad he’s…he’s all about money and work, and my mum…well my mum pretty much lives at the bottom of a bottle of wine,” he said, wiping at his eyes again before continuing. “They, um…they don’t spend a lot of time here. I mean, why would they when they could be in some five star hotel? I don’t mind so much really – I’ve gotten used to it by now – it’s just…sometimes they forget things. Important things that I – I’d like to think that they’d remember but…they don’t.”

The room fell quiet then as they both just sat there taking in the information, and Billy thought Steve’s emotions must have been rubbing off on him or something because now he felt like he might start crying too. Jesus, why did parents have to be so shit? In that moment all he wanted to do was reach over to Steve – close the distance between them and just hold him – let him know that someone cared even if his parents didn’t. But he couldn’t bring himself to do it, and instead just settled on making some shitty, half-hearted attempt at humour to clear the air a bit.

“So, child neglect and child abuse: we really are quite a pair aren’t we?”

It wasn’t really funny. Wasn’t really funny at all. But Steve still laughed, resting his head against the back of the couch as he looked at Billy and smiled. It was still a little watery but definitely an improvement from earlier. “Would you like some cake?” he asked.

The sudden change in topic startled Billy at first, but when the question actually registered in his head he turned to look at Steve suspiciously, thinking it over. “If you’re talking about the monstrosity I saw Max pull out the oven yesterday –”

“It’s not that bad!”

“It looked like one side was burnt and the other was undercooked!”

“You haven’t seen the end product though!” Steve argued. “The icing was actually pretty good. And the taste was surprisingly zesty, but in a nice sort of way.”

“Yeah, thanks but no thanks: I’ve already got food in my stomach and I’d prefer it if that’s where it stayed,” Billy said, watching in amusement as Steve scoffed and reached for the glass of water in front of him, taking a sip and then another and then coughing as it went down the wrong way. “Jesus Harrington, you’re meant to drink it not inhale it.”

“Fuck. You,” Steve choked out, groaning at the weird feeling in the back of his throat before turning to look at Billy again, head cocked to one side. “What are we?” he asked.

Billy quirked an eyebrow at him. “What do you mean?” he said.

“I mean, like, to each other, you know? Are we friends?”

Billy considered the question for a moment, looking away briefly before turning back to Steve. “I guess…What else would we be?”

“I don’t know,” Steve said, settling in further to the sofa and hugging one of the cushions to his chest as he got comfortable. “Sometimes I just…feel like there’s more to it. I just don’t know what.”

As soon as the words were spoken, Billy suddenly felt flushed and anxious and hoped that his cheeks weren’t nearly as red as he felt they were. Had Steve really just said that? Had he – what did that even mean? Did Steve even realise what he was saying right now? He was probably still pretty drunk off the wine so Billy guessed he couldn’t be, but the words were in his head now – stuck in a constant loop – and he couldn’t ignore the sudden excitement he felt coursing through him as he considered what Steve could have meant by them. Because the thing was that Billy liked Steve. Had pretty much liked him right from the start as soon as he’d spotted him across the room at that Halloween party and had picked on him ever since because of it. He hadn’t been able to help himself, just wanting an excuse to get as close to Steve as possible without attracting the attention of prying eyes.

Billy stumbled for a response, trying to think of something to say with his mind blanking out every few seconds to fixate on the words. For a moment he couldn’t decide whether he wanted to come out to Steve then, part of him overly eager to find out if perhaps he felt the same way, but a different more logical part of him knew better than that: as far as he could tell Steve wasn’t into guys; he still seemed pretty hung up on that Wheeler chick as well despite her having dumped him around the same time Billy had beat his face in. So, chances were Steve was straight.

And yet a part of him just couldn’t shake off the possibility that he wasn’t, because him and Steve had been spending a lot of time together recently – literally just shared their most personal secrets with one another. Not to mention the fact that Steve had started getting competitive with Billy at school. Billy had hardly believed it at first when Harrington had suddenly shoved past him in the corridor, sending him hurtling into the lockers – one second listening to Tommy drawling on about some boring shit and the next finding himself with a face full of steel and moving back just in time to see Steve Harrington disappearing down the corridor – but once the realisation struck he had no problem with upping their game a little, and was twice as delighted when he found Steve didn’t seem to have a problem with that either. So, maybe. Maybe there was something there.

Fuck it, Billy was just going to tell him. If Steve wasn’t into him then that was fine – he was drunk; he probably wouldn’t remember it in the morning. But, if Steve was interested…well, Billy would be pretty damn chuffed about it. Pretty damn chuffed indeed.

“Steve, I –” Billy began as he turned to Steve, but the words quickly died on his tongue when he realised that Steve wasn’t listening to him anymore: he’d fallen asleep, huddled up against the couch. And fuck if that wasn’t the cutest sight Billy had ever seen. Huffing a quiet laugh, Billy stood up and walked out the room, shortly returning with a blanket in hand that he draped over Steve carefully, pulling a stray strand of hair away from his face just because he could.

“Happy birthday, Steve,” he said, smiling softly. Then he left, making the trek back through the forest in silence, filled with a strange sense of hope that he hadn’t felt in a long time.

10:40pm, Friday 15th February, 1985.

Hopper had had to head out because of some bar fight, so he’d called Steve to watch over Jane for a bit. Which was fine since Steve loved spending time with El: loved playing games with her, making her laugh, cooking her a meal that wasn’t simply microwaved and then served – something equally appreciated by Hopper too whenever he got back. However, Steve found out very quickly that El didn’t want to play games that night. Nope, no games: El wanted to play makeup. And you couldn’t exactly say no to a girl with telekinetic powers when she locked you in the room with her. So, now Steve looked ‘pretty’ as he was parking up in the driveway of his house. Jane had insisted that he keep the makeup on when he left so that was that; though he had to admit that it had been fun – like really fucking hilarious – because Steve was just about as good as applying makeup as El was so she looked just about as equally ‘pretty’ as he did. The worst part, however, had to be when Hopper got back and took out the camera. And Steve just knew that picture would haunt him for the rest of his life.

Oh well, at least no one else had seen him like this. He opened his front door, stepping inside and halting immediately as he registered piano music coming from the lounge. Was…was someone playing his piano? Who the hell? Closing the door quietly behind him, he walked down the hallway a bit and peered into lounge to find – Billy. He was sat in the far corner of the room, hands moving with ease over the keys, not hitting a single wrong note once like he’d done this a million times before, and Steve just stood there entranced watching him play because he hadn’t known Billy could play. The music drew him into the room, footsteps quiet as he brought himself closer, not wanting to disturb him and make him stop.

Steve paused a few feet away, thinking if he got any closer Billy would be sure to notice. So he just stood, and he listened. The song was beautiful – sweet and melodic and maybe a little sad – and Steve couldn’t shake the feeling that he knew what it was, like it was stuck right on the tip of his tongue. He gave up trying to figure it out quickly though, just content to listen and enjoy it while the moment lasted. And eventually the music became softer and slower as Billy came to the end, just sitting there in silence once he’d finished, a proud smile tugging his lips upward gently.

“I didn’t know you could play,” Steve said, before immediately wishing he hadn’t spoken at all as Billy visibly jumped, putting a hand over his chest when he realised it was just Steve.

Jesus, Harrington! Are you trying to give me a heart attack?” he said, spinning around to face him and looking like he was about to say more when he suddenly shut his mouth, seemingly trying to hold back a laugh as he stared at Steve’s face and hair, taking it all in.

“What?” Steve said, oblivious as ever and having completely forgotten everything beyond walking through the front door.

“Oh, nothing. Nothing at all,” Billy responded, trying to keep his voice as neutral as possible. “Just really digging the new look, princess. The red really brings out your eyes.”

You’ve got to be kidding me, Steve thought, memory rushing back to him as he recalled exactly what Billy was looking at right now and had never felt so goddamn embarrassed in his life. “Fuck you!” he said, trying to hide his face with his hands as Billy’s laughter filled the room, turning around and starting to head out the lounge. “Just stay there! I’m taking it off.”

“What? No!” Suddenly Steve was brought to a stop as Billy caught up to him, catching his sleeve and pulling his hand down and away from his face until he turned to look at him again.

“You really want to be looking at this all night?” Steve asked, eyebrows raised as he pointed to his face with his free hand.

“It’s actually not that bad,” Billy said, but he was obviously still laughing over it in his head. “Who’s the artist?”

“The Chief’s daughter. I was put on babysitting duty tonight,” Steve explained, not even bothering to fight back now with Billy’s hand wrapped around his wrist, preventing him from pulling away.

Billy huffed a laugh. “I didn’t know he had a daughter.”

The conversation lapsed into a comfortable silence then, with them both just staring at each other for a moment, smiling like idiots, and Steve watched as Billy’s eyes trailed down to his lips, locking onto them like he was considering something. And then it was Steve’s turn to burst out laughing, and Billy was quick to follow his lead because the situation was just so ridiculous – it was impossible not to. But eventually they calmed down again and Steve’s gaze fell down to look at the way Billy was still holding onto him, his grip gentle and yet firm at the same time and something about it had Steve blushing a little and he quickly redirected his gaze away, looking towards the stairs.

“Alright. I really better take this off now before it stains or something.” He went to leave again, but Billy’s hand remained in place pulling him back.

“Wait, no, I –” and now Billy was the one that looked embarrassed, glancing away for a second before looking back at Steve, cheeks gone a little red. “I, um, want to tell you something and…well, this is going to sound stupid but, you looking like this somehow makes it easier because it’s just so…”

“Ridiculous?” Steve provided, and Billy laughed nodding his head.

“Yeah, that,” he said, letting his gaze fall down to the floor as he shuffled his feet a little awkwardly.

“What do you want to tell me?” Steve asked, trying to get Billy to meet his gaze again, which he did eventually, face somehow looking even redder than before.

He opened his mouth to speak, closed it and then opened it to try again. “Do you know how they say that, with kids, when a boy pulls a girl’s pigtails it’s because he likes her?”

Steve blinked at him. Then blinked again. And he honestly had no idea what Billy was trying to say to him right now. “Um…sure.”

Billy looked at him expectantly, clearly waiting for something to click but it just wasn’t happening. He struggled for words then, trying to think of something else he could say to make Steve understand but ultimately coming up empty, sighing in frustration when he realised words wouldn’t be enough. “Fuck it,” he said.

Steve thought Billy had given up then – was about to tell him to continue; to get whatever it was off his mind rather than leaving Steve in suspense without a clue in the world – and so was rather taken off guard when Billy suddenly pulled him forward, wrapped a hand around his waist and kissed him. For a second Steve had no clue what to do – let alone have any idea about what was going on – but the kiss just felt so good, and soon he found himself kissing back, closing his eyes and getting lost in the feeling of Billy’s lips moving against his, so warm and hot and right…But then Billy was pulling back, and Steve finally clicked onto what he was trying to say.

“Oh,” he said, eyes wide and face flushed as the realisation suddenly hit him. “Oh.”

“Is that a good ‘oh’ or a bad ‘oh’?” Billy asked, watching Steve carefully, looking anxious and ready to bolt at any second.

“I, er, I don’t know,” said Steve, trying to pull his thoughts together into something coherent. “I mean I’ve never…you know. Girls have always been – and I just…But that, that was, um…I don’t know.”

And he really didn’t: Steve had no clue what was going on in his mind right now because as far as he’d been concerned he didn’t like boys like that – had never given them a second glance once in his life – but now…now he wasn’t so sure. Because that kiss might just have been the best one he’d ever had. And he couldn’t get the thought of it out of his head, the memory of it alone leaving his lips tingling, and he could feel it now – this electricity between them – and he came to realise that he’d been feeling it all along, he just hadn’t been able to identify it at the time. But it was as clear and plain as day now, and he wasn’t sure what to do about it.

“Maybe if I just, um…” Steve glanced down at Billy’s lips, considering for a moment before suddenly initiating a second kiss, moving a hand to hold the back of Billy’s head as he guided their lips together again, revelling in the feeling of it – the taste of cigarettes and something sweet intoxicating and leaving him craving more, so he deepened the kiss as Billy’s arms wrapped around his waist pulling him closer and holding him against his chest as they explored each other’s mouths. But eventually they had to stop to catch their breath, panting a little once they’d parted, still so close that they were practically sharing the same air. And Steve looked at Billy then – really, properly looked at him: took in his blonde curls and blue eyes, tanned skin and soft full lips that were slightly smudged with red from the lipstick – and Steve knew then that he was gone. Probably had been for a long time without even truly realising it.

“Pretty boy,” Billy said, smile brighter than anything Steve had ever seen as he spoke, “if you tell me no after that kiss, then you’re the biggest, most horrific liar on this earth.”

Steve smiled back, bubbly and happy and feeling a little drunk off the kiss; mind buzzing and lips tingling in delight as Billy held him close, making him feel warm and flushed from head to toe and – wait was he gay now?

Apparently he’d said that last bit out loud because Billy started laughing, resting his head against Steve’s shoulder for a moment before eventually looking back up at him, eyes bright and amused and expression so soft and relaxed. “You know you can like both, right?” he said.

Steve thought about that for a second, feeling a little dumb now but still insanely happy nonetheless. “Oh, yeah…that would make sense.”

They stayed holding each other for a moment then, both smiling like idiots as they simply just stared into one another’s eyes, neither wanting to let go or loosen their hold for even a second – just enjoying the closeness they’d both been craving for so long and refusing to let it go just yet.

“What do we do now?” Steve asked after a while, brown eyes still glued to Billy’s blue as he spoke, voice soft as it filled the silence between them.

“Anything you want,” Billy said.

And so Steve kissed him again. And again. And again and again and again, because he could. Because he wanted to. And because he knew he’d never grow tired of doing so, no matter how many times he did it.

11:49am, Sunday 14th April, 1985.

“You’re lucky he found you that night,” Hopper said, hands crossed in front of him as he leaned forward on his desk. “Winters in Hawkins can be a real bitch, I’m surprised you didn’t turn into an icicle in the first five minutes. What happened next then? You two just grew closer because he saved your life?”

Billy smiled, huffing a laugh as so many memories flooded his head, each one unique and significant in their own way. “Yeah, something like that,” he said simply, watching the Chief nod his head in thought.

“Why didn’t you come in earlier?” he asked suddenly, and the guilty expression on Billy’s face just seemed to say it all before the kid had even responded.

“I may have been a, um…a little drunk,” Billy said, gaze locked down on the floor.

“But didn’t you drive Max here?” He sighed when he didn’t get a response, rubbing his eyes tiredly before speaking again. “Ok, look. I’m going to let that little fact go this one time, just because of the situation and the fact that no one got hurt. But, Jesus, just don’t do it again.”

“I won’t,” Billy said hurriedly, knowing full well that Hopper had already given him two warnings in the past and a third could mean getting his license removed.

“Alright,” the Chief said after a while, sitting up straight again and closing his pad, eyeing the clock on his desk. “I think we’re just about done here, so I should probably let you go now. Thanks for your time – really, it means a lot.”

Billy nodded in understanding as he stood up, making his way towards the door but pausing just before he went to open it and turning back around. “Chief?”

Hopper looked up at him, gesturing for him to continue.

“Could you, er, keep me posted?” he asked, expression serious and determined now – not wanting to miss anything that could be relevant to the case. Relevant to Steve.

Hopper stared at him for a moment, considering – the news of Coulton’s death momentarily flashing through his mind before he pushed it aside. “Sure thing,” he said eventually, holding Billy’s gaze steadily from across the room. “How will I contact you if something comes up?”

Billy looked at him dead on, one hand gripping the door handle as he spoke. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “I’ll come to you.” And with that he left, act right back in place as he walked down the corridor like it had never been shed to start with, though there was a slight sternness to it now that wasn’t there before; and if Billy drove a little slower after he came out then it was simply because he wasn’t in any kind of rush to get anywhere. No other reason. No other reason at all.

Chapter Text

1:33pm, Sunday 14th April, 1985.

Waking up the first time had been awful enough. Waking up the second time was somehow worse, and Steve couldn't decide whether it was the fact that he was starving or that he was trapped inside the boot of car that gave it the extra disorientating edge. Hell, maybe it was both; or maybe it was simply the fact that his body didn't like being fucking drugged and forced into the most unsatisfying sleep he'd ever experienced in his entire life! Fuck these guys that had kidnapped him: he'd been scared before but he was just pissed off now. He'd come so close. So fucking close to escaping – the police had literally been right outside the door – but then they'd shoved him into some hole under the floor and now they were back on the road again, travelling even farther away from his home. Away from everyone and everything that he cared about – the distance growing inevitably with every second that passed and it was almost like Steve could feel his chances of rescue dwindling away with it, getting eaten up mile after mile after mile – and seriously fuck these people! Fuck them! Fuck them! Fuck them!

He kicked out with his bound legs, hitting the inside of the car and making a loud thudding sound, then repeating the action again and again, creating a racket. He wasn't going to be passive anymore: wasn't going to just sit there and play nice for them and roll over like damn dog whilst they blackmailed his dad for money. What would Billy do? he thought, and then kept that question in mind as he continued to kick relentlessly and with more force, legs growing tired from the action but soldiering on despite it. He was hungry and thirsty, with the inside of the car boot being almost unbearably hot and the air smelling stale and sweaty, and if these guys didn't give him food or drink then at least he wanted some fresh fucking air goddamnit.

He continued kicking until the car suddenly came to a stop, pausing in his actions when he heard the approach of footsteps and then the boot clicking unlocked. Finally, he thought, relieved when he felt the boot being pulled open – clean air rushing in – and the bag was removed from his head, causing him to blink rapidly as he adjusted to the sudden brightness, eyes eventually settling on Cutler's face as the guy lent over him, staring at him in agitation before removing the gag around his mouth as well, pulling the fabric down to hang round his neck.

"What is it?" he said, looking down at Steve expectantly and then grunting in surprise as he was headbutted straight in the nose. He stepped back in shock, hands flying up to his face as the pain suddenly hit and blood started pouring from his nostrils uncontrollably, forcing him to tilt his head back in an attempt to lessen the flow.

"Fuck. You." Steve said, trying to sit up in the boot with his hands tied behind his back, angling himself awkwardly but eventually finding a position where he felt like he could access the knots on his wrists better, and starting to pick at them in an attempt to get free. And yes, he thought, this would probably exactly what Billy would do. Well, maybe not exactly but it was certainly close enough.

"What the fuck is going on back there?" Shelby yelled, leaning out the driver's seat window to try and get a look and outright cackling when he caught sight of Cutler, head tipped back and holding his nose. "You need some help back there, mate? Give me a minute and I'll sort him out in no time, just you wait and see."

"No," Cutler said, holding out a hand in Shelby's direction, instructing him to stay back. "No. Don't touch him."

Shelby withdrew from the window with a disappointed huff, clearly displeased with the response he'd gotten. "You're no fun," he muttered, sitting back again and drumming his fingers against the steering wheel whilst he waited.

Unfortunately, Steve wasn't having much luck with the knots, and soon Cutler was back, leaning over him again in the same position as before like Steve had never headbutted him to begin with – though, of course, now there was blood smeared on his face and he looked even more disgruntled than he had been the first time round.

"What is it?" he repeated, apparently patient as ever, and Steve was tempted to hit the guy in the nose again – see if he could break it this time. Something must have showed on his face though that gave him away as Cutler tensed slightly, fixing him with a hard stare as he tried to make him back down. "Don't," he said, voice low and expression serious. "Just don't."

"Why not?" Steve countered, still tugging at his knots uselessly, looking up at Cutler defiantly as he refused to simply give in.

"Because, believe it or not, I'm the only thing standing in the way of you leaving this situation a hell of a lot more bloodied than you came into it. And trust me when I say that Shelby's just waiting for me to back down, so stop trying to fight me off because without me you'll find this trip even more unpleasant than it already is. So just don't. Now stop trying to untie your binds and tell me what you need."

A second or two passed with Steve simply studying Cutler for a moment, trying to get a read on him before eventually letting the ropes go and slumping back, showing Cutler he was willing to play along. This wasn't giving up though. Far from it in fact, because Steve was smarter than he let on: anything that involved writing an essay or solving an equation he was shit at, sure, but when it came to practical stuff – physical based things like sports or fighting off a fucking monster from an alternate dimension – Steve was actually pretty good. Quite tactful in fact. "Water. Some food," he said simply.

Cutler looked him over for a moment before walking away and rifling around in the backseat of the car, eventually returning with a bottle of water and a straw. "No food I'm afraid. But we'll be stopping soon after this so I'll get you something then."

Steve sat up a bit, preparing for Cutler to untie him like he'd done last time and finding himself confused when the man made no move to do so, instead simply holding out the bottle for him with the straw sticking out the top. Steve froze, looking at the item in bewilderment because this wasn't part of his plan – didn't play into it at all. "Aren't you, er...going to untie me?" he asked hopefully.

"With that look in your eye?" Cutler said, huffing a faint laugh as he did so. "I'm afraid not."

And shit, Steve was tactful but he'd forgotten that he was also obvious as fuck sometimes. Well, so much for that great plan. Deciding that drinking some water was better than rebelling and drinking none, Steve only hesitated for a second longer, resentment still clear on his face, as he lent forward and caught the straw in his mouth, drinking half the bottle before retreating back again.

"Done?" Cutler asked, and Steve nodded his head, watching the man throw the straw to the side and close the bottle, returning it to one of the duffles in the back seat before coming back round to face him again. They both knew what had to happen now; and they both knew it wouldn't happen easily. "You going to fight me?" Cutler asked.

"What do you think?" Steve said, narrowing his eyes at Cutler, daring him to step closer.

"You know you can't win, right?"

"Yep."

"Then you must also know you're just making it harder on yourself."

"What's your point?"

"My point is don't be stupid," Cutler said, trying to level with the kid – make him see some sense. "I get it: your angry and you feel like you have no control; but fighting isn't going to help you get it back – if anything it'll just take away what little of it you have left."

"So what, you're saying I'm just meant to sit here and do nothing while the two of you just take me wherever the hell you want and not fight back at all?" questioned Steve.

"No," responded Cutler, stepping closer and lowering his voice so only Steve could hear. "What I'm saying is learn how to pick your moments." Then with that he pulled away again, picking up the black, fabric bag he'd discarded off to the side and turning to Steve again. "Now I'm going to ask one more time: are you going to fight me?"

Cutler returned to the passenger seat of the car a few seconds later, with the kid secured back in the boot having taken his advice and put up little fuss about being sealed in again. Cutler had told him to try and sleep through it if he could – said time would pass faster that way. Which it would if the kid actually managed it, but Cutler knew he wouldn't: he'd probably be awake for the remainder of the journey, restless and just about as comfortable as you could get when bound and crammed into a boot.

Shelby started the engine as soon as he got in, speeding off down the road again: an empty route cutting through what looked like the middle of nowhere. There was silence for a few seconds before Cutler glanced at Shelby out of the corner of his eye, redirecting his gaze back to the road as he spoke. “What do you think of it?” he said.

“Think of what?” Shelby asked, eyes narrowed as continued to look onwards.

“This errand,” Cutler clarified.

Shelby shrugged dismissively. “Not much to think about if you ask me. Why?”

“I’m not sure,” Cutler said, staring out the window and watching the landscape slide by endlessly. “Something just seems a bit off…I looked up the father: guy’s rich, sure, but nowhere near to paying a sum like the one we’re asking for with ease.”

“Probably just hiding it away somewhere,” commented Shelby. “If intel says he’s got it, then he’s got it.”

“Maybe, but still…why this kid? Surely we could have snagged someone else worth far more – someone closer to home that we didn’t have to drag halfway across the bloody states. Why even bother bringing him all the way back to base just to drive him back again? I mean it’s either that or the father comes to us: just doesn’t seem practical,” Cutler argued.

“Well you heard the kid: thinks his dad might not pay. This is probably just a scare tactic. Take the kid away for a few extra days – give the man some time to think.”

“But why even take that risk to begin with? It doesn’t make sense.”

Shelby scoffed, glancing at Cutler briefly before turning away again. “You know what your real problem is?” he asked.

“What?” Cutler said.

“You’ve gone soft,” Shelby mocked, continuing to speak as Cutler opened his mouth to argue. “Don’t even try and deny it. Anyone else and your fine – you had no hesitation in painting Rogers red – but when it comes to kids your like a fucking wet blanket. Seriously, mate, it’s been years now: it’s time to move on. Either that, or everyone else will simply move on without you.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” growled Cutler, jaw clenched and eyes narrowed as he kept his gaze focused ahead, refusing to look at Shelby as the man turned to face him.

“It means you either do the job…or you don’t do anything at all,” he concluded. The journey went on in silence after that, with neither man speaking to the other for the rest of the drive until they came to the next stop.

Chapter Text

1:25pm, Sunday 14th April, 1985.

At first, when everyone had arrived back at Will’s the main focus of attention had been on Eleven. By the time they got there she’d already lost Steve again, but it hardly mattered as they all joined her on the floor anyway, waiting patiently to see if she could find him again. Then, when she couldn’t, their focus had turned to worrying about Steve. Hopper didn’t call and El couldn’t get a read on him – constantly checking every few minutes or so, to see if anything had changed – and that was…unnerving. They had no clue what was going on at that moment: if Steve was hurt, where he was, if Hopper had managed to save him – they just didn’t know. It seemed like an eternity passed before El managed to find him again, informing everyone that he was asleep in the boot of some car like the first time she’d looked for him. The news was both relieving and not: knowing that Steve was alive and seemingly unharmed was great but it also meant that Hopper had failed, which…well, it sucked. What also sucked was the fact that El couldn’t properly pinpoint Steve’s location when the car was moving, so they were forced to wait again. And that’s how the everyone’s attention finally and inevitably landed on Dustin.

“Do we know them?” Nancy questioned, pacing up and down the room relentlessly, pony tail swishing to and fro as she did so. “Are they in our year? Do they go to our school?”

“For the millionth time, I cannot answer any question concerning the identity of the anonymous caller,” Dustin repeated, arms crossed in front of his chest as he sat at the centre of the Byer’s couch, growing mildly weary from deflecting so many questions – half of them ones that he’d already refused to answer before. Like, seriously, this was just getting ridiculous now. Why couldn’t these people understand that when Dustin said he wasn’t answering any questions, he meant he wasn’t answering any questions.

“Come on, dude, just tell us already!” Lucas said. And no, Dustin would not ‘just tell them already’, because Steve was his friend and he had entrusted this secret to him and him alone – although Dustin probably wouldn’t know if he hadn’t have gone round to Steve’s that one night and uncovered it for himself, but that didn’t matter because he’d made a promise and he was going to keep it. No matter how hard they grilled him. He wouldn’t betray Steve, and he wouldn’t betray Billy either.

“I don’t get it,” said Mike. “How come Steve would tell you and not us?”

“Exactly! Surely we’re just as trustworthy as you,” argued Max.

“Look, it’s not my secret to share, it’s Steve’s,” Dustin insisted. “He said he didn’t want me to tell anyone, so that’s what I’m doing.”

“But you told Hopper,” Jonathan pointed out.

“That’s not the same.” Dustin felt like he was under attack right now – Jesus, why did everyone have to be so persistent? “I can’t lie to the police! That’s, like, breaking the law!”

“You weren’t supposed to find out, were you?” Nancy suddenly said, looking at Dustin directly, eyes sharp and knowing and – shit why did she have to be so smart?

“What?” Dustin said, playing dumb but failing miserably as she continued her accusation.

“You found out by accident. Mike’s right: it doesn’t make sense that Steve would tell you and not us – so, you weren’t meant to find out. No one was.”

Oh God, Nancy was starting to get a little too close to the truth for comfort and Dustin started stumbling because of it, unsure how to respond. “I, er –”

“Dustin, could you be a dear and come help me in the kitchen for a second?” said Joyce from the other side of the room, standing next to the sink as she smiled at him brightly, beckoning him come join her. And God, that woman was a saint.

“Er, yes,” said Dustin, quickly catching on to what she was offering him. “Yes – yes I can.”

With that, he hastily stood up and made his way over to her. Everyone else seemed ready to argue the point but were quickly dissuaded when Joyce gave them a stern look, causing them to finally give up on their interrogation. Dustin felt relief washing over him as soon as he came to stand beside her, watching as she set down a chopping board and a block of cheese in front of him, along with a fairly blunt knife.

“Would you mind cutting me some slices of cheese to put in the sandwiches?” she asked as she put the items down in front of him.

“No problem,” said Dustin, turning to give her a grateful smile before he got to work. “Thanks Mrs Byers.”

“Anytime, sweetie,” she said. The two of them worked in silence for a little while then, not paying particular attention to the others in the lounge until they heard some sort of kafuffle occurring and turned around to find El had started looking again. And she’d found something.

“Stopped,” she said, expression set in concentration as blood trickled steadily from her nose.

“Stopped? You mean, the car’s stopped?” Mike asked.

El nodded, remaining quiet for a few more seconds before speaking up again. “Map.”

Will hurried over with a book, opening it onto a page with a map of America and placing it down in front of her, handing her a pen as well. Her fingers brushed across the page for a moment, gliding across cities and states until finally coming to a halt as she pushed the pen down at a certain point, drawing a circle there before removing the blindfold and staring down at it intensely, with everyone else surrounding her trying to get a good look at it as well. “There,” she said, pointing to the mark. “Steve.”

“Where is that?” Nancy asked, watching as Jonathon flipped through the book trying to match the position to a map with more detail.

“I think…I think it’s on a road. But not a main one – it’s not really near any cities or towns,” said Jonathan, carefully comparing the two maps and trying to be as accurate as possible.

“Why stop there then?” questioned Mike, trying to drag the book a little closer to himself and get a better look.

“Hungry,” said El, eyes fixed on the map. “Thirsty…Fighting.”

No one spoke for a second as a mild concern filled the room, all of them continuing to simply stare at the dot El had drawn as her words sunk in. Then, eventually, Nancy spoke up, taking the book from in front of them as she rose to her feet. “I’ll tell Hopper,” she said, and then walked over to the phone, balancing the book in one hand as she dialled in the number and waited for a response.

They didn’t manage to reach the Chief the first time round, and so sat and ate lunch before trying again, finding themselves successful the second time. El went to look for Steve again as Nancy rattled off the information, but found the car in motion once more – untraceable. At this point people were running out of ideas for things to do, leaving them just sat in the lounge awkwardly, with no one in the mood for playing games or doing anything else that they had originally planned for that day beforehand. So they just waited. They watched El every time she went to check on Steve and did little else except get up to retrieve a drink occasionally.

Already the inactivity was starting to drive Dustin insane. And it wasn’t for the same reason as everyone else – wasn’t because he couldn’t do anything but because he actually could. Unlike the rest of the party, excluding El, Dustin could actually go and do something right now, and the thing that he had in mind had been bugging him since he first set foot inside the station and he hadn’t been able to brush it off since. No, he needed to do it, and now seemed as good a time for it as ever. The only problem was that he couldn’t tell anyone else about it. So Dustin had to lie, and he had to lie well.

“Hey, Will, could I borrow your bike for a bit?” Dustin asked, watching as the other boy turned to look at him curiously from where he was sat on the floor.

“Sure, but why?” he asked.

“Oh, I just have a tonne of candy stashed away at home and I figured El could use the energy,” he said, trying to play it off as casual as possible so as not to attract suspicion. “I’ll just ride straight to my house and come back, it shouldn’t take too long. Plus my mum’s out today so I should probably go and let Tews out for a little bit.”

“Wait, you want to leave?” questioned Lucas, eyebrows drawing downwards as he stared at Dustin in distrust. “To get some candy?”

“Um, yeah,” said Dustin, meeting Lucas’ gaze and hoping to God he was being convincing right now. “Why? Is there a reason why I shouldn’t go or…?”

Lucas squinted at him, as if he could tell whether or not Dustin was lying just by focusing on him really hard. But obviously he couldn’t, so he simply shrugged after a while, expression still clearly suspicious but willing to let it slide for now. “Whatever,” he said. “But I’m expecting a lot of candy when you get back.”

“Loads. Tonnes,” Dustin confirmed hurriedly. “I’ve got, like, a mountain of candy – candy for days. I’m a hoarder.”

So with that he grabbed his bag and left on Will’s bike, heading out the drive and off onto the road as the others watched him from the house’s window. He waited until he was out of sight before pedalling faster down the road, knowing that the longer he took the more suspicious people would be when he got back. So, he had to be fast. He also needed to have some goddamn luck on his side.

"Please be there. Please be there. Please be there." Dustin chanted the words like a mantra as he made his way to the quarry, hoping that he would be right the first time in his prediction: if he was wrong, he might be forced to make a house call, and he really didn't want to do that. And then if he was no closer with the house call, he might have to just bike all over Hawkins and hope for the best – but he seriously doubted he'd have time for that if it came to it. If he couldn't find him, then he couldn’t find him. And Dustin would simply have to try again another time. He rode a little slower as he approached the trail, coming to a stop as soon as he reached the bottom of it and sighing with both exhaustion and relief when he looked up at what was in front of him.

Oh, thank God, he thought as he spotted the blue Camaro parked up by the water, with its owner sat on the hood of the car, smoking a cigarette as he stared outwards. Dustin hopped off the bike and left it on the ground as he approached the car, stopping a reasonable distance away before speaking up. “Billy?”

Hargrove turned around to face him, eyebrows shooting up in surprise as recognition crossed his face. “That you, curly?”

“Who the hell else is it gonna be?” Dustin said, wandering a little closer. He’d been cautious at first, remembering how Max had described Billy that morning – how drunk she said he’d been. But he seemed sober now as far as Dustin could tell, and he didn’t look to be on the verge of breaking apart so he guessed it was safe to approach him. It wasn’t that he was afraid of drunk Billy – well, maybe he was a little after the whole incident at the Byers, but he knew that Hargrove was just as haunted by that night as the rest of them, maybe even more so in fact. No, the only thing he was really concerned about at that moment was trying to judge whether or not the guy needed space.

“Fair point,” Billy said, taking a drag from his cigarette and letting the smoke spill from his mouth into the open air. “What brings you here?”

This was the difficult bit now. Dustin knew he had to tell Billy about Hopper: how he’d told the Chief about his and Steve’s relationship; how Billy had to go in to the station – that it was important; that he could trust Hopper and should try to help him in any way that he can because Billy might know something the rest of them don’t. Dustin was certain he’d done the right thing – felt confident in his choice at the station – however now, when Billy was right in front of him, he started to doubt that a little. He’d made a promise and he’d broken it, and a part of him just felt guilty about betraying their trust like that because he knew how insecure the both of them felt about people knowing – Billy especially. Hell, Dustin had witnessed first-hand the panic that had showed on their faces when he’d caught them that night, and the way they’d looked at him like he was the biggest threat they’d ever come across. So, yes, Dustin was panicking a bit now but it was too late to take back what he’d said: all he could do was inform Billy and apologise. And that was what he was going to do. What he had to do.

“Look, dude, I need to tell you something,” started Dustin, hands gesturing frantically as he spoke. “I, er…I may or may not have broken the promise to keep yours and Steve’s relationship a secret – HOWEVER, now before you say anything I just want to make it clear that, in the circumstances of the situation, there was a lot of pressure put on me, and I couldn’t, like, not say anything because that’s against the law, and there was no way that I was going to jail for withholding information from the police. But don’t worry, ok – just don’t, you know, because it’s fine: everything is fine because I only told Hopper, andthat’sgoodbecausehe’sareallyniceguyandIreallythinkyoucantrusthimand –”

“Jesus Christ, kid, stop. I know,” Billy said, putting a hand up to try and prevent the kid from busting a lung or something.

“You…You know?” Dustin repeated, hesitantly.

“Yeah, I went down to the station this morning,” Billy explained. “A heads up beforehand would have been nice but, better late than never I guess.”

Dustin stood there gaping like a fish for a second, the information slowly starting to sink in little by little. “So…you’re not mad at me?”

“What? No,” Billy said, eyes narrowed as he looked Dustin over before glancing away again and turning his gaze back to the lake. “No, you…you did the right thing.”

“I did?” Dustin asked, then the realisation of what Billy just said hit him and he let out a huge sigh of relief, all the nervous energy that he’d built up over the last few minutes flooding out of him. “Oh, thank God. I mean, I knew I did the right thing to start with – well, I thought I did – but, you know, when I saw you I just…I’m starting to ramble again aren’t I?”

Billy had fixed Dustin with a look as soon as his words had started blurring together again – a look that quite simply said ‘stop’. But he didn’t seem annoyed or anything, just simply amused as he huffed a laugh. “A little.”

“Sorry,” Dustin said, looking to the ground as he stood off to the side awkwardly, not really knowing what to do with himself now.

“Jesus, what are you? A hoverfly?” Billy said, shuffling over a bit and patting the space on the hood next to him. “If you’re gonna stay then at least sit down or something.”

Dustin looked up at him startled for a second, staring between the offered space and Billy. But Hargrove wasn’t looking at him anymore, instead simply staring out over the quarry as he took another drag.

“Oh, thanks,” he said, walking over and lifting himself up onto the hood, feet dangling above the ground once he’d sat down. A moment of silence passed between them, before Dustin spoke up again, curious about what Billy and Hopper had talked about. “So…How does Hopper seem to be taking all this? I mean, he seemed alright when I told him but, you know…”

Billy nodded vaguely, flicking what was left of his cigarette off to the side. “I think he’s still wrapping his head around it but, otherwise, yeah: I’d say he took it pretty well.”

“What did he ask you? Do you know anything about this like who, or why, or…?”

“If I did, I wouldn’t be sat here doing shit all right now,” Billy said, eyes cast downwards as he fiddled with the bands around his wrist.

“Son of a bitch, man,” Dustin cursed, a feeling of disappointment building up inside him at the response. “Out of everyone I thought at least you would know something.”

“Hey, watch your language,” Billy scolded lightly.

“Oh please, like you’re such a puritan.”

“I’m an adult: I’m allowed to swear.”

“No you’re not, your seventeen.”

Billy glanced at him before looking out at the lake again, taking out another cigarette from the pack in his pocket. “Fuck you,” he said.

They sat in silence for a little bit after that, neither really knowing what else to say. They’d never really had a conversation between just the two of them before: they usually didn’t speak to each other at all, but whenever they did they were never alone because Steve would be there too. It was weird not having him there now – not having someone to fill the awkward lapses in conversation with some stupid remark or other. Dustin thought that he should probably leave now, start heading back to the others and see if they’d found something new, but another part of him thought he should stay. Thought that Steve would want him to stay. Because while Dustin had the entirety of the party – Mike, Lucas, Will, Max, El – Billy had no one. No one that he could really talk to about anything. And Dustin felt kind of bad for him because of that. So, he stayed for a little longer, and tried to pick up the conversation again.

“How are you coping with all this?” Dustin asked after a while. “Max said you were pretty drunk this morning. That and you almost totalled Mrs Byers car when leaving the parking lot.”

Billy paused for a moment, looking down at Dustin for a second in consideration before turning his gaze away again. “Better than this morning,” he said simply, and Dustin thought he was going to leave it at that when Billy seemed to think better of it and elaborate a little. “I was kind of a mess to start with. But now…now I just want to punch the bastards responsible. What about you?” he asked, turning the question back on Dustin.

“I don’t know,” said Dustin eventually after he’d though about it for a second. “I feel like it hasn’t quite hit me yet, you know? Like, I’m worried but…not as much as I should be. I guess a part of me is sort used to bad things happening by now, so…”

“Oh, the whole Byers’ kid thing, right?” Billy asked. “What even happened with that? I mean, I’ve heard stuff but it all sounds like a tonne of nonsense.”

“It’s a long story,” Dustin said simply.

“I’ll bet,” Billy said, clocking onto Dustin’s sudden unwillingness to talk and changing topics. “How’d you know I’d be here?” he asked instead, curious to how the kid had managed to find him in the first place.

“Oh, well, er…” Dustin seemed to perk up again at the question, turning to face Billy again. “You know that argument you and Steve had a little over a week ago?”

Billy nodded hesitantly, recalling the night plainly. “Did he tell you what the argument was about?”

“No,” Dustin said. “But I know he was pretty upset when he picked me up to go to the cinema the next day.”

They’d been arguing about Neil. Billy had come round with his chest littered with bruises and Steve had snapped – said he couldn’t just sit back and do nothing while Billy’s father painted him black and blue. He’d wanted to tell Hopper: had tried convincing Billy to go with him and find a way to get him away from his dad, but Billy had refused and snapped at Steve instead. After that there was a whole lot of yelling and Billy had left, spending most of the night smoking by the quarry after he’d told Steve he needed some space. It had been messy, and Billy knew that both of them still regretted some of the things they’d said that night but they’d moved passed it now. Steve had eventually agreed not to go to the Chief after Billy’s insistence, but only on the promise that Billy would do something about it if things got too bad. Like if Neil started hitting Max or Susan. Billy hoped it wouldn’t ever get to that point – wanted to believe that the next few months could go by without further incidents – but these days Neil was getting harder to predict, and his ‘lessons’ were starting to become more and more frequent as the months passed.

“What did he tell you?” Billy asked, trying to push the memories aside and focus back on Dustin.

“That you’re stupid and an idiot,” Dustin replied. “Also, that you come to the quarry when you want to be alone. That’s why I came here: figured if there was one place you’d be, it was here.”

“Huh,” Billy said, letting that piece of information sink in. “Well, he was right. In all aspects of what he said.”

“Yeah, you don’t have to tell me. Sometimes I really do think you have a brain the size of a peanut,” Dustin said, chuckling a little when Billy gave him a playful shove before his gaze settled on what Billy was wearing. “Oh, that’s cute,” he said.

“What?” Billy questioned, following Dustin’s gaze and looking down at his AC/DC vest top.

“That’s Steve’s, right?” Dustin said. “Did he lend it to you?”

“You think this is Steve’s?” Billy said, tugging at the top a little as he stared at Dustin in amusement.

“Well, yeah,” Dustin said. “Actually he was wearing it the night I found out. Just before you walked in the room he was telling me about how it was a hand-me-down from a cousin or something – which was kind of obvious because it was too big for him – though I guess that’s why he gave it to you since it seems to fit you much better and…” Dustin seemed to finally click then, realisation slowly dawning on his face along with embarrassment because, seriously, how had he only just come to this conclusion now? “It’s not a hand-me-down is it?” he said, defeatedly.

“Nope,” Billy said, smile wide as he took a drag from his cigarette.

“Son of a bitch, you couldn’t have just told me that from the start could you?”

Billy shook his head, huffing out a laugh. “You know for a kid so smart, you can be really oblivious sometimes?”

“Shut up,” Dustin said, glancing at the watch on his wrist and then cursing when he saw the time. “Ah, shit. I’ve got to go. I told Lucas and the others that I was going off to get a tonne of candy and let my cat out.”

He got down from the car and started heading back over to the bike, picking it up off the ground and then stopping as another realisation hit him. Damnit he really needed to put more thought into his lies before he said them. “Crap,” he said, turning back to Billy. “Do you have any money?”

Billy quirked an eyebrow at him from where he was still sat on the hood of his car, blowing out a puff of smoke as he stared at him accusingly. “You don’t have a tonne of candy at home, do you?”

“Yeah, not so much,” Dustin admitted, and was surprised when Billy actually got up and walked over to him, pulling his wallet out of his back pocket and handing him some money.

“This better being going towards a good cause, Henderson,” he said, and with that he turned away, waving Dustin off as he walked back towards the Camaro.

“Uh, yeah! Definitely. Thanks,” Dustin said, and then he was back on Will’s bike again, pedalling down to the shops at the speed of light and grabbing as much candy as the money could buy before making his way back to the Byers, ready to collapse onto the couch as soon as he got there and never so much as look at a bike again.

7:18pm, Sunday 14th April, 1985.

Hopper was just stepping out of the station, about to head out to go and grab a bite to eat while he mulled things over when he stepped round to the driver’s side of his truck and saw someone leaning against it.

Jesus,” he said, instinctively stopping in his tracks as soon as he caught sight of the figure and then relaxing again when he realised it was just Billy. And God, did the kid look pretty damn smug that he managed to scare him, which Hopper probably should have seen coming after he’d almost given the kid a heart attack that very morning.

“Have you got anything new?” Billy asked, hands stuffed into his pockets as he stood up straight, fixing Hopper with a serious look. So this was what he meant when he said he’d come to him…

“Not really,” Hopper said, which was mostly true because he hadn’t. The only real progress he’d got was an update from Jane about Steve’s location but otherwise he still had very little to work on. They were sharing information with the other station in Jasper though, and he was waiting on a call from them about the possible identification of Steve’s kidnappers, hopefully along with a license plate for the car they were driving. “But I did finally manage contact Mr Harrington.”

“What’d he say?”

Hopper thought about it for a second: the brief five minute conversation he’d had; how calm and unsurprised the guy’s voice had been, with something about it just coming off as cold. It wasn’t like anything he’d ever dealt with before. When a kid went missing the parents didn’t usually just sit there asking polite questions – they demanded answers; they yelled and they cursed and they cried and they asked what they could do, but James Harrington didn’t do any of that. And when he asked him if he’d received any sort of call from anyone about Steve the answer had been a cool, blunt ‘no’ to which Hopper hadn’t known how to respond to. Because he thought he was lying. Felt this wrongness in his stomach throughout the whole conversation and hadn’t believed a single word spoken to him, but couldn’t exactly prove that fact based on the guy’s voice alone. “He said no one had contacted him. That he hadn’t heard anything.”

“And did you believe him?” Billy asked, eyes sharp as he waited for the Chief’s response.

“I don’t know,” Hopper replied, meeting Billy’s gaze. “But if he is lying there’s not a lot I can do about it.” It was true: James Harrington was over in Chicago and Hopper had his hands pretty full just dealing with stuff down here. Maybe he could send one of his men to investigate but he doubted they’d be able to find anything concerning the matter. At the end of the day, Hopper could do shit all about it.

But Billy could. And he intended to.

“Alright,” he said, turning away and heading back to his Camaro which was parked a few cars down, but not before Hopper could catch the glint in his eyes as he did so.

“You’re not going to do something stupid, are you?” the Chief asked.

Billy looked back at him as he opened up the door of his car, shooting Hopper the purest smile he could muster. “Surely you know me by now Chief,” he said. “I would never.”

And then he got in the Camaro, slamming the door shut as he left the station and driving over Steve’s house to break into his father’s office, coming out again when he’d found what he was looking for and getting back in the car, preparing himself for a nice, little trip to Chicago, Illinois.

Chapter Text

9:56pm, Monday 15th April, 1985.

Progress. Motherfucking, beautiful, glorious, goddamn progress. They were finally getting somewhere after hours upon hours of nothing, and everything was slowly sliding into place, bit by bit, with every extra snippet of information they managed to uncover.

It had all started when they got the report back from the morgue yesterday afternoon, which had revealed some pretty interesting facts about Carter Rogers – the main kicker of them being that the guy had no fingerprints: they’d been burned off; had been for at least a good few years. And that’s when they’d really started digging, sharing information with the Jasper station and making a few calls. And the outcome was pretty damn rewarding. Turns out Carter Rogers used to live all the way over in California, where he went by the name of Michael Shiffrin and had been involved with what looked to be a rather impressive drug dealing network. And when Hopper said impressive what he actually meant was fucking huge. The network was still apparently thriving to this day, right under the state’s nose with no one really being able to do a whole lot about it because of its sheer size and influence. Whoever the people running it were, they were good: knew exactly what they were doing and did it well – always managing to keep off the radar for the most part, and seemingly having multiple connections with several other states too. From the looks of it, people were starting to turn a blind eye to it now as a result, with the police having simply given up on the whole case and only looking into it occasionally when a certain incident related to it popped up.

But the information didn’t stop there. Oh no, there was a whole other layer on top of it that really caught Hopper’s attention. There was a report or two suggesting that this network wasn’t simply concerned with drugs – in fact, one report that had really seemed to cut into the matter suggested that money brought in by the drug trade was only a partial factor in the network’s overall income, and that the majority of its wealth actually came from elsewhere: kidnapping and hit lists. Which, funnily enough, just so happened to fit in perfectly with what Hopper was looking at right now. There wasn’t as much hard evidence for these accusations as there was with the drugs, but Hopper believed them immediately – there was no way an organisation like this thrived off a single industry alone, especially with its high reputation and experience from years of remaining in the shadows of society. Hell, these people were practically professionals by now. Their execution of tasks was spectacular: neat; tidy – they were at the top of their game. No way they were only concerned with drugs.

So, by the looks of things, Carter Rogers had been involved in this network for many years before moving to Hawkins and starting from fresh. New name, new job, new life. Clearly he'd been trying to run away – find a place to hide from his past and hope it didn't catch up to him – but obviously that hadn't worked out as well as he'd planned. Hopper wondered briefly what the guy could have done that led to him fleeing: fucked up a task, refused an order, double-crossed them, tried skimming some of the money for himself. Maybe the guy had simply been sick of it. Just hadn't wanted to pursue that kind of life anymore. Either way, it hardly mattered now. What mattered was how this linked in with Steve.

There was no way the two cases weren't connected at this point: they're plan had clearly been a quick sweep in, sweep out; two birds, one stone. It was simple. Efficient. They probably took Steve as a way of getting some extra cash from the journey. The only thing Hopper couldn't quite make sense of was why they'd take him so fucking far away. Why not just find a place nearby and sit and wait for the father to pay up? Mr Harrington had said he'd had no calls, but Hopper was pretty sure the guy was lying right off the bat. Hopper hoped the reason behind it was that the callers had instructed him to do so and not anything else, but if he was being honest he really couldn't be sure anymore. Whatever, he'd figure that little detail out later.

On the more positive side of things, the Jasper station had managed to get a description of the two men that had taken Steve from the receptionist at the motel, along with the names they were currently using, and had gotten a sketch artist to make a composite drawing from them which they'd been passing around. The results had been pretty interesting. There wasn’t too much information to be pulled up on Tom Shelby other than the fact that the guy spent two years in prison in his late twenties – a time at which he was known as Freddy Garrager – before escaping and disappearing off without a trace. He’d been arrested on suspicion of murder, as well as dealing and possession of illegal drugs, most likely working for the network before his imprisonment and returning to it after. John Cutler, on the other hand, seemed to have a far more interesting story to tell. Why? Well, for starters, apparently the guy was dead. Originally named Daniel Hartner, and suspected of being involved in the network from as young as nineteen. Police had investigated and interviewed him several times but got little in return for their efforts and inevitably stopped looking into him when he was twenty five and reportedly died in a fire at his family home, the flames of which also claimed the lives of his wife and daughter – the child only being four years old. It was a tragedy. Apparently an accident that had gotten out of control. It was only about three years ago, when detectives were looking to identify a man involved in an assassination, that his death was questioned and was now being looked at as faked. Though how he’d pulled it off was still to be uncovered.

And that was pretty much it. That was all the information they were working with right now.

Hopper took a sip from his coffee mug before opening the one draw of his desk and pulling out a large map of the states, spreading it out in front of himself and glancing over the red crosses that had been marked onto it. This was the one piece of information no one else had. The information that Hopper shouldn't possibly have been able to have, but thanks to a little miracle that walked into his life over a year ago he did have it, and Jesus was it useful. Because Hopper knew exactly where Steve was right now. Had followed his journey right up until the point where he'd stopped moving at about two o’clock earlier that day, though the Chief had predicted the destination a little while before that.

Steve was in San Diego, California. Apparently he was being kept in some abandoned building there, locked in a secure room whilst the rest of the place was swarming with bad men: he’d gotten El to try and scope it out a bit – see what they were up against. Though funnily enough, El hadn’t been their only insight into the matter…Turns out Max was originally from San Diego before her move to Hawkins. After questioning Jane for a moment or two, she had told them that she believed the building of interest was meant to be a block of apartments, just within the outskirts of the city centre, and that development had been postponed for years. So, the place was pretty big and filled with armed men. This was where Hopper’s real difficulty came in.

Because he could tell them. Tell the police over there like he had with Jasper, get them to look into it and pray to God everything turned out ok. And honestly Hopper would love for it to be that simple – would like to believe that he could do that and have Steve home within two days’ time. But there were complications, and the Chief may end up risking more than he would gain: sending a tonne of policemen into the place would simply lead to a gunfight – one the police might not even win; and during the chaos of such a conflict people on both sides were bound to get injured or killed, and chances were Steve could get caught in the crossfire. Hopper didn’t want the weight of another life on his shoulders – he still felt bad for Coulton just knowing that if he’d never made the call the guy would probably still be alive. And then there was a second problem with the plan: putting El at risk. No one just got two anonymous tipoffs for the same case – even more unlikely, two very accurate tipoffs. Something like that could put him in a place of suspicion, and that was the last place Hopper wanted to be when he was already trying to peel himself off the lab’s radar after the joyful events of a few months ago. So, basically, yes: Hopper could tell them…but if he did, he’d be an idiot.

Just gonna have to find another way, Hopper thought, scratching the stubble of his beard as he stared at the map pointedly, like the red markings would magically change shape and mould themselves into a grand solution. Thing was, Hopper kept trying to go about this in a way that was in line with the law, and if he waited he felt fairly certain he would get Steve back eventually without going against anything he was meant to stand for as the Chief of Police. But Hopper wasn’t that patient. And the temptation to hang up his badge for a little bit, grab Jane and take a road trip was getting stronger by the hour. Because he could definitely do that. Easily. And chances were the only people getting hurt in that situation were the criminals with guns that had never come across a little girl with telekinetic abilities before. They could be in and out in a flash and have Steve back with little fuss. El would agree to it as well: the kid seemed pretty pissed off with the bad men for taking away her favourite babysitter; would most likely happily join Hopper in his rescue plan without even blinking an eye.

But Hopper didn’t want to use her like that – not unless he had to. Plus that could potentially put him under even more suspicion than with the other option so no: if there was another way, then Hopper would stick to that, and only – only – if things got desperate would he consider an alternative. He just needed to stop trying to jump the gun. All he had to do was wait and they’d probably have Harrington back in no time at all.

No time at all…

Hopper glanced at the clock, noting the late hour and deciding to call it a day, closing his notepad and putting it away before trying to tidy up some of the files that were littering his office so it was at least half decent when he returned to it in the morning. Jane was still at Joyce’s so he guessed he’d pop home first and grab her some fresh clothes before joining her there and helping himself to something out the fridge. He would say he’d sleep on the couch but apparently when Steve Harrington goes missing the Byers’ house becomes the designated living area for everyone, meaning he’d probably be getting comfortable on the floor of Joyce’s bedroom for the night. And knowing her she’d probably insist that he take the bed instead, but he’d be damned if he let her spend the night on the floor of her own house. They’d probably spend a good half hour bickering over the matter until one of them (Joyce) finally relented before getting some sleep, and oddly enough Hopper was looking forward to that. Really looking forward to it. Hell, it was probably going to be the highlight of his day.

He started folding away the map, smiling faintly, when a sudden knocking sounded from his office door and his train of thought was lost as he tried to put the map away quicker, mind going into a faint panic when he realised he’d folded it the wrong way.

“One second,” he called, spreading the map out and refolding it again, jolting slightly when the knocking came again, louder and more impatient than before. “One second!” he yelled, thinking for a brief moment that the person must have finally heard him that time before the knocking was back again and this time it didn’t stop: someone was pounding on his door rapidly and it was driving Hopper insane.

To hell with folding it neatly! Hopper resorted to simply scrunching up the map and shoving it back into the drawer before storming across the room, ready to tear into the bastard that didn’t know the fucking meaning of patience as he grabbed the handle of the door. “I said ONE SECOND!”

He swung the door open, flinching slightly when a scrap of paper was held up to his face before he finally managed to move his gaze to the man holding it.

“I got it,” Billy said, pushing past Hopper and into the office as the Chief stood there perplexed for a moment, trying to wrap his head around what was happening as he closed the door.

“Got it? Got what?” Hopper questioned, snatching the piece of paper from Hargrove’s hand when the kid went to shove it in his face again, and holding it a reasonable distance away so he could read its contents clearly.

“The number,” Billy said, pointing to the paper as he spoke. “Mr Harrington lied: he did get a call… And this is the number that called him.”

Chapter Text

6:47pm, Monday 15th April, 1985.

Billy hadn’t really had much of a plan when he drove off to Chicago apart from the simple aim of finding Steve’s dad and having a good long conversation with the guy. Well, at least he’d thought it was a simple aim at the time. Turns out, not so much. Because sure, Billy had found the guy easily enough – parked up outside the bastard’s fancy hotel and slept in the Camaro all night – but could he find an opportune moment to approach him? The answer was no. No he fucking couldn’t. Billy had spent hours just following the guy round because he was always with someone else and it was frustrating as hell – being so close and yet being able to do shit all.

Mr Harrington had been bouncing around the city all day, hopping from one meeting to the next, always accompanied by at least one other douchey business man even when going to freaking lunch. Just watching the asshole sat outside some café, eating a salad and sipping at his coffee like he had all the time in the damn world had got Billy’s blood burning even hotter than before, fingers just itching to punch the guy right in the face – break that stupid beak of a nose that he had. Like seriously, Steve must have gotten all his good looks from his mother because this guy seemed like a cross between a weasel and a bird: tall and scrawny with slicked-back hair and beady little eyes along with thin lips that appeared to be naturally turned downwards so he was constantly frowning.

Four hours had passed since then, and now Billy was sat across from some company building right near the city centre, downing a packet of crisps in the front seat of the Camaro whilst he waited for Mr Harrington to exit again. How long had he been in there for now? An hour? Two? Fuck if he knew: as far as Billy was concerned the guy could have been in there for fifteen minutes and it would still feel like an eternity. All this pent-up anger was making him restless and twitchy. Seriously, he was pretty sure his left eye was actually, physically twitching right now. He probably looked insane.

Billy was midway through tipping the packet up to his mouth, trying to scavenge the crushed remains left at the bottom of it, when he caught sight of his target leaving through the sliding doors and stopping outside to talk to some other guy with white hair and a crisp looking suit that just screamed asshole-businessman. Billy scrunched the packet up, tossing it to the side as he watched the pair talk for a moment, fingers strumming against the wheel idly as he waited. Come on, just fuck off, he thought, watching the interaction drag on for a few minutes more before a car pulled up to the path and the other guy got in, leaving Mr Harrington by himself as he started to walk away, probably heading back to the hotel that wasn’t too far from here and – oh fuck, this was Billy’s chance.

He scrambled out of the car, hurriedly making his way across the road as Mr Harrington disappeared round a corner, but he soon caught sight of him again and followed him steadily, keeping a safe distance until they were off the more crowded streets. Then he started to close in. He quickened his pace, making a rough plan in his head as he spotted an alleyway coming up ahead and jogging a little until he was side by side with the guy, bypassing him at first before abruptly stopping and spinning around, grabbing a fistful of freshly ironed shirt and dragging him into the alleyway, shoving him into a wall a little ways down it.

“Mr Harrington, right?” Billy asked, menacing grin plastered in place as he stepped back a bit, letting the guy catch up with what was happening. By the looks of it, Billy had really managed to ruffle his feathers as he stood there gawking, shoulders hunched as he tried to retreat further backwards, pressing himself flat against the brick like the coward he was.

“What do you want?” he said, clearly taken aback by the whole situation – probably never been directly threatened before once in his silver spoon life. “My wallet?”

“No, no, just some honesty if you wouldn’t mind,” Billy said. Taking the guys money was tempting, but it wasn’t what he was here for. “Tell me Mr Harrington, do you know where your son is right now?”

“I-I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the guy stuttered.

“Well, sure you do. Chief of Police phoned you just yesterday to tell you he was missing. Or did you just forget about that?” Billy said, leaning in a little as the man audibly gulped, looking guilty as hell.

“What? No I – How do you know about that?”

“Because unlike you Mr Harrington I actually give a damn about your son.” That seemed to get a bit of a reaction then, as the guy stood up a little straighter suddenly more defensive than before.

“How dare you –”

“No, how dare you!” Billy intercepted, jabbing a finger into the guy’s chest and watching him flinch back in response. “He spends pretty much all year round alone in an empty house without so much as a call from you. And when you come back, all you do is toss some more money at him and leave again, maybe have a little talk with him if his grades aren’t quite what you’d like – invite him up to your office just to belittle him without a single care in the world to why he’s actually failing in the first place. You don’t care about your son, Mr Harrington – what kind of father forgets their own kid’s eighteenth birthday? Eighteenth! Did you even know how old he was turning this year? Clearly you don’t remember the date of his birth so I’m going to assume you didn’t. Were you seriously about to argue your case? Were you really going to try and suggest that you actually love him? Because I know you don’t. And Steve knows it too. And that’s why you’re going to help me out here now and let me leave without making a single move against me. Because I’m sure the papers would just love to tear your precious reputation apart as soon as they got news of this story, don’t you think?”

Mr Harrington didn’t respond, simply remaining pressed back against the wall, eyes wide at the sudden outburst as he watched Billy warily, sometimes letting his gaze dart off to the side like escape was even an option for him right now.

“Alright,” Billy said, stepping back again and tilting his head to the side. “Now I’m going to ask you some questions and you’re going to answer them honestly. If you don’t, well…” he cracked his knuckles, making his message pretty damn clear about what the result would be if the guy lied. “Smart man like you, I’m sure you wouldn’t risk being that stupid. You’re not going to be stupid, are you Mr Harrington?”

The man shook his head thoroughly, eyes fixated on Billy’s knuckles as if he expected him to lash out at any moment – which, honestly, was most certainly a possibility given the situation, though Billy was trying to keep himself somewhat in control for Steve’s sake if nothing else. Sure Steve wasn’t so keen on his old man, but Billy didn’t think he’d be so fond of Billy beating the guy into the ground.

“Good,” Billy said, leaning casually against the opposite wall with his arms crossed over his chest as he began his interrogation. “Now let’s try this again: do you know where your son is?”

“No,” Mr Harrington said speedily, shaking his head again as he spoke. “No I – I don’t know where he is. Just that he’s missing.”

Billy considered him for a second before eventually accepting the answer and moving on, figuring that if the guy was lying he’d be able to tell. “Alright. Do you know why someone would want to take him? Any detail about who would be pretty handy as well, if you wouldn’t mind.”

The guy shuffled awkwardly in place, glancing off to the side again before responding. “No, I have no clue who would take him or why.”

A moment of silence passed again where Billy stepped forward, pacing in the narrow space for a second with his hand scratching absently at his chin like he was deliberating something before suddenly stopping and turning away, only to swiftly spin back around again and give the guy a quick blow to the chest, sending him almost toppling to the ground as he curled in on himself, gasping in pain. Billy hadn’t even hit him that hard. Hell, he’d been holding back a fair amount.

“I said don’t lie,” Billy spat, about to return to the position he’d been in before, leaning against the opposite wall, when the guy started blabbering mindlessly and – Jesus, the bastard was still fucking lying.

“I-I’m not – I swear. Please, I don’t know anything. Why would I lie to you? Please, just let me leave, and I won’t tell anyone, I swear I –”

Billy cut him off roughly, grabbing the guy’s shirt and shoving him back into the wall, raising his fist for a second time, aiming for the face, but pausing when the man spoke up again, cowardice finally winning over whatever motive he had for lying.

“No, please – I’m sorry – they want money! That’s why they took him, they want my money! Please, don’t –!”

Billy released him, stepping back as Mr Harrington stumbled sideways a little, breathing raggedly with one hand on his chest like he’d just run a marathon and the other gripping onto the wall for support. So, this was Steve’s dad…Honestly, Billy didn’t know what he’d been expecting but he’d imagined a little more of a fight than this. The way Steve had talked about the guy in those quiet moments of the morning, pressed up against Billy’s side as the rest of the world lay sleeping, had made him sound so terrifying. So horrible and cold. But now Billy was starting to realise that the guy’s only power came from his voice. Mr Harrington was a manipulator: he chose his words carefully, knew how to get under people’s skin and make them sweat, make them doubt themselves until they caved to his will. And that was all well and good for him when he was playing the role of a businessman – probably played into his advantage very well…but Billy wasn’t here to make a deal. Mr Harrington’s battleground was the one of debate and conversation – facts and numbers instead of fists and blood. Here, out in an alley with no security guards to come running to his aid if things got a little out of hand, the guy was completely out of his comfort zone. He had no power. And that made this situation a whole lot easier than Billy had anticipated.

“Who’s they? How do you know this?” Billy questioned, watching the man intently as he straightened back up again, evidently relieved he wasn’t about to get a black eye.

“I don’t know who,” he said, holding his hands out in fear as Billy edged forward a little, encouraging him to talk faster. “But I got a call – I got a call!”

“When?” Billy asked.

Mr Harrington gulped, sweating anxiously on the spot and hesitating a little before offering an answer. “Yesterday,” he admitted.

“Huh. That’s really funny, actually,” Billy said, taking a full step forward so the guy was plastering himself against the wall again, trying to keep as far away as possible. “Because as far as I was concerned, you told the Chief no one had contacted you. So when did you get it? Before or after the police rang up?”

The man’s eyes darted away nervously, unable to meet Billy’s gaze as he spoke. “It may have come a, er, few hours before.”

Billy wanted to punch him again. Wanted to fucking stomp the guy into the ground. But he didn’t. Instead he took a deep breath, reeling his anger in a notch and stepping back again, trying not to put the guy into a coma before he’d finished asking questions.

“Alright,” Billy said, tongue pressing against his teeth whilst his fingers twitched at his sides. “These people that called you, what did they say?”

“Not much. Just that they had Stephen, and that I-I had to pay to get him back if I ever wanted to see him again,” responded Mr Harrington.

“And what did you say?” Billy asked, repeating the question again when the guy started hesitating, edging closer once more. “What did you say when they told you to pay to get your son back?”

“It was so much money! I couldn’t possibly just pay a sum like that without –!”

“WHAT DID YOU SAY?” Billy thundered, grabbing the guy’s shirt again and readying himself to deliver another hit.

“I SAID I’D THINK ABOUT IT!” Mr Harrington cried, holding his hands up to try and shield his face as he trembled in Billy’s grip. “I – I said I’d think about it.”

Billy let that little bit of information settle in for a second, expression and tone turning cold and dark when he spoke up again, his whole body suddenly gone rigid and still. “Do you remember the number?”

Mr Harrington nodded his head frantically as Billy let him go again, hands shakily trying to smooth out the creases on his suit.

“Give it to me,” Billy said, watching as the guy hastily starting patting his pockets, fishing out a pen from the one and some folded paper from the other before quickly scribbling down a number and handing it over to Billy, flinching slightly when the paper was ripped and the unused part was thrown back at him.

“I was going to call back, you know,” Mr Harrington said faintly, still trying to better himself even when Billy could tell he was lying right through his teeth. “That’s why I remembered the number: I was going to negotiate.”

“Oh really?” Billy said. “And when were you planning on doing that?”

“Well,” Mr Harrington wavered for a second, a slight panic crossing his face at the enquiry. “I mean, there’s still a lot to take into account and all, numbers and such, so –”

Billy didn’t give him a chance to finish, slamming his fist right into the guy’s nose and hearing a satisfying crunch of breaking bones as his knuckles made contact. He slipped the piece of paper securely into his pocket as the man fell to the ground, blood gushing from his nostrils.

“Nice doing business with you, Mr Harrington,” he said, and with that walked back out the alley, ignoring the shouts and curses calling after him as he went, more like white noise in his ears than actual threats.

“You don’t know who you’re messing with! You think you’re untouchable? You think there won’t be consequences?”

The guy was all bite and no bark. He’d keep his mouth shut – Billy was pretty certain of that. Mr Harrington was a businessman: his reputation couldn’t afford to take a hit.

Eventually, Billy got back to his car, sliding into the front seat and pulling out the scrap of paper, reading the list of digits on it as he tried to think about what to do next. He needed to get this to Hopper. Preferably right now. Only problem was that Billy didn’t have any money left on him. He’d already blown half the money in his wallet on petrol upon arriving here, and had spent the rest on food and candy – the latter of which he didn’t get to enjoy personally since he’d passed the money on for the benefit of Henderson. In short, it all boiled down to the fact that he had no way of contacting the Chief. Damnit, he should of taken that bastard’s wallet when he had the chance. Billy hit the steering wheel in irritation, before starting up the car and putting the paper back in his pocket. Fuck it, he was just going to have to drive back and drive fast.

It took him a little under three hours to get back to Hawkins, driving like a maniac to the station once he’d passed the welcome sign and taking up two spaces in his urgency to park, practically falling out of the Camaro in his mad scramble to get through the doors and to Hopper’s office. He got a few speculative glances when he burst in but ignored them all as he ran down to the Chief’s door, pounding on it as soon as it was in reach and then waiting for a response.

“One second!”

One second? Billy thought, fuck one second. He pounded on the door again, frustrated when he got the same response only louder, but decided to do as the voice said: be patient and wait…for one second. Billy didn’t care what the Chief was doing right now: he needed the guy to open this door and look at what he’d brought because Billy was fucking buzzing in that moment – hot excitement coursing through his veins because surely this was it: they could get Steve back. They could get Steve back – this was it!

I said ONE SECOND!”

The door swung open and Billy didn’t even hesitate for a fraction of moment before shoving the paper in the Chief’s face, eyes fierce and blue and alight with hope, with the faintest traces of a smile on his lips.

“I got it,” he said, walking past Hopper and into the office, starting to pace up and down restlessly as the door was shut behind him.

“Got it? Got what?” the Chief said, and Billy held the paper up to his face again – eager for him to see that this was it: they fucking had them; the people who had Steve were just one fucking call away – that’s all it was: one call.

Hopper snatched the piece of paper from his hands, squinting at the digits on it in an attempt to decipher their significance.

“The number,” Billy explained, pointing to the paper as he spoke. “Mr Harrington lied: he did get a call… And this is the number that called him.”

A moment of silence passed where the Chief looked up at him in surprise before returning his gaze downwards to what he was holding, and Billy could see the shift there – the realisation of just how much that little scrap of paper was worth. Then Hopper was taking action, moving over to sit behind his desk and motioning for Billy to take the chair in front of him, getting his notepad out and copying the number down onto it, checking it carefully several times to ensure he wasn’t making any mistakes.

“So Mr Harrington did get a call? Meaning this – this is a –”

“A ransom case,” Billy confirmed, pulling his chair forward a little bit, wanting to be involved – to help. To get Steve back.

“How did you even get this?” Hopper asked.

And – ah. Billy was kind of hoping the Chief would have left that question for later. “I may have, um, paid Steve’s dad a little visit.”

“What you went to Chicago?” Hopper said, watching the way Hargrove’s focus was on the slightly red knuckles of his right hand and putting the dots together, letting out a sigh of disbelief. “Jesus Christ, kid. You can’t just do that.”

“But he was lying, Chief! I couldn’t just –”

“Lying or not, you can’t just go around beating information out of people.” Jim knew that was a pretty rich statement coming from him, but honestly he saw a lot of himself in this kid – not the gay part, obviously – and he didn’t want him running loose out there making the same mistakes he had. The kid was impulsive, angry: Hopper had been there, done that. It didn’t end well for him. Chances were, it wouldn’t end well for this kid either.

“He had it coming. Besides I didn’t even hit him that much: all the guy really walked away with was a broken nose,” Billy said, dismissively.

You broke his nose?”

“The guy’s an asshole, he deserved a lot worse than that. Do you know what he said when these people called him? When these people told him that they wanted money in return for his son and that if he didn’t pay he wouldn’t see him again?” Billy asked, pausing a moment as Hopper went silent, the question hanging in the air between them. “He said he’d think about it. His son’s life – Steve’s life – was at risk and the bastard said he’d think about it. And I saw the look on his face and I knew – I just fucking knew that he had no intention of paying for Steve. That he had no intention of doing anything about it whatsoever.”

A brief silence passed between them then, with Hopper just looking at the kid: staring at the rise and fall of his shoulders, the forced control in his breathing, the slight twitch in his left eye as he spoke. Billy was angry. Fuck angry – Billy was livid. And honestly, after hearing what the kid had just told him, Hopper could feel himself getting a little worked up too.

“So, you’re, um…sure you broke his nose?” Hopper said after a while, fingers strumming idly on the desk as he waited for a response.

Billy looked at him in slight surprise. “Well something definitely cracked.”

Hopper hummed, nodding his head in acknowledgement, and though he didn’t admit it openly, Billy could tell he was secretly pleased with him for having punched the guy in the face – would have probably done the deed himself if he’d been there. And having that feeling of approval – from the Chief of Police no less – it…it gave Billy confidence. A kind of confidence you only get when a parental figure shows their support of you: of your actions, your words; shows their trust in what you’ve said and what you’ve done. Billy, of course, had never experienced anything of the kind from Neil – hadn’t felt this strange sort of pride since all the way back in Cali when he’d fixed up his Camaro all by himself and Pops had handed him over the keys as a reward, saying something along the lines of “a young beaut like that don’t deserve to be cooped up in this shithole. Take her son, she’s all yours.” Hopper actually reminded Billy a lot of Pops now that he thought about it. He was surprised he hadn’t seen it before: both were old, both were grumpy, and both had a far bigger heart than they’d ever willingly let on.

“So what now?” Billy asked, watching Hopper study the digits once more, clearly thinking something through. Considering.

“Now,” Hopper said, “I get the other officers, set a few things up, and we call.”

“Can I, er…” Can I stay? is what Billy wants to ask. Hopper seems to understand though, glancing away for a second before looking back at him with something like pity in his eyes.

“Sorry, kid,” he said. “I’m afraid, you’ll have to leave.”

“But what if…I mean what if Steve is there – what if they put him on? Chief I just – I want to hear his voice, alright? If I could just talk to him, I –”

“Look,” Hopper said, “you’ve done good kid. I can’t even begin to thank you enough for what you’ve given me, but it’s best if you just go home now. Just leave it to me, and I can promise you I will do everything I can to get him back, alright, but you can’t be here when I do it. Just go home, get some sleep, and we can talk in the morning, yeah?”

Billy knew he was right. He didn’t like it, but he knew Hopper was telling the truth. This was a police investigation and Billy wasn’t a cop; not to mention as far as the other officers were concerned Billy Hargrove had no involvement in this case whatsoever and it was probably better that it stayed that way too. So, despite how much Billy wanted to stay – how much he wanted to grab that phone, call the bastards up and demand that they give him his boyfriend back and best hope that there’s not a single scratch upon him or else he’ll unleash every ounce of unforgiving, fiery wrath within him and hunt them down one by one until they’re all dead and burning in hell for what they’d done – Billy left, closing the door behind him quietly as he went and forcing himself not to look back.

Hopper watched the kid go, knowing full well he probably wouldn't do as he was told. Oh, he'd leave the station, sure, but he wouldn't go home. He was probably going to get comfortable in his car, roll the window down and smoke through the night, for however long it took until someone exited and he felt he could go in again. That's what Hopper would do at least. He felt bad for the kid, not to mention guilty as hell for keeping so much information from him – information that Billy would cling to with his life, gain a sense of relief from and find comfort in. But Billy didn't know about El. So Hopper couldn't tell him that Steve was okay: that he was in Cali and with the exception of being drugged into unconsciousness twice was pretty much fine; that apparently he'd had a cheese sandwich for lunch and was now wearing a slightly oversized tie-dye t-shirt after spending the majority of the day pacing about an isolated room. Hopper had wanted to tell the kid these things – wanted to tell him badly, give him some kind of reassurance – but he knew he couldn't. And it wasn't just because he was thinking of El's safety: it was because he didn't have the time to unpack all that, to drag Billy down that rabbit hole just so he could inform the kid that his boyfriend was well and unharmed. Plus that wouldn't be fair on Billy. He didn't come to Hopper to be told about monsters and evil labs and little girls with unbelievable powers: he came for Steve...And he'd get Steve. Hopper would get him back. And all he had to do was dial a number.

Hopper was up after a moment’s contemplation, debriefing some of the other officers and setting to work. It wasn't too long before they were ready to go, with Hopper sat at his desk and Callahan and Powell pacing about the room, a recorder set up next to the telephone he was putting the number into. The plan was to arrange a meeting for a trade: Steve in return for whatever sum of money they asked for. Simple, easy, doable. But Hopper was still working up a bit of a nervous sweat because of it. It’ll be fine, he told himself, and he was confident that it would be – confident that this was how they were going to get Steve back – but after seeing Billy…well, Hopper felt a little under pressure to be quite blunt.

He only hesitated for a second longer before dialling the number, listening tensely as the sound of ringing filled the room, repetitive and looping while they waited for someone to answer. The other two officers had stopped pacing, Powell leaning against the door and Callahan just standing awkwardly at the office’s centre, with both trying to remain as still and quiet as possible whilst Jim shuffled anxiously in his seat, hands clasped in front of him on the desk. The ringing seemed to go on forever, and at one point Hopper was starting to worry whether Mr Harrington had even given Billy the right number, when the noise suddenly ceased and the room fell into a thick silence, heavy with anticipation…

Someone had answered the call.

No one spoke for a moment, and Hopper let the lack of conversation drag out a little longer, unsure as to whether he should say something or give them the honour of being the first to speak. When the silence seemed to drag on for too long, he took a deep breath – praying to god that this was the right number – before breaking the ice with a short, simple “Hello?”

A few seconds passed with no response, and Hopper wondered vaguely if anyone had actually picked up the phone at all before a voice came across the line.

“Who is this?” it asked. It was a little gruff but otherwise quite calm and calculated, with a hint of indifference to it that made Hopper’s jaw clench.

“Jim Hopper,” the Chief responded, figuring that lying to these people probably wasn’t the best of ideas when trying to gain their trust enough to arrange a trade.

Another pause. “And what does Jim Hopper want?”

Callahan gave the Chief a thumbs up, missing the way Powell rolled his eyes at the gesture completely. Hopper ignored them both, trying to stay focused on his task.

“I’m calling on behalf James Harrington,” he said. “I’d like to pay the ransom for his son.”

The man on the other end of the call went quiet for a moment, and Hopper thought he could just about make out some sort of discussion going on in the background before the voice was back again, just as indifferent as before. “How did you get this number?”

“Mr Harrington gave it to me. He wasn’t willing to pay but I am,” Hopper answered, impatient for them to just accept his offer already – start talking numbers and locations so they could just get this over with and put the whole thing behind them.

“Sorry, Mr Hopper,” the voice said, “but we don’t trade with cops.”

Shit, Hopper thought, watching Callahan grimace overdramatically and Powell give him a light smack on the back of the head for it. Hopper needed to salvage this and he needed to salvage it quickly.

“Look,” he said, “Mr Harrington isn’t going to give you what you want. I, on the other hand, am more than willing to pay whatever price you have in mind to get Steve back. I’m not calling you as a cop, I’m calling you as the guy that wants his daughter’s favourite babysitter back – so don’t you dare just turn me aside because I’ve got a badge, when I’m willing to see this through and see it through fairly.”

“Do you even know the price we’re asking for the boy, Mr Hopper?” the voice asked.

“No, and I don’t care. I’ll bring whatever sum of money you wanted from Mr Harrington to whatever location you choose to make the trade – hell, I’ll come alone and unarmed if that’s what you people want – just as long as Steve is delivered to me safely the deal will go through and we can all just forget about this, alright?” Hopper wasn’t exactly lying: he would go out there to meet them himself, though if it came to that he might just be accompanied by a small, telekinetic girl rather than simply going by his lonesome…

“I’m sorry, Mr Hopper,” the voice said again, in that same uncaring tone that was really starting to grate on Hopper’s nerves. “Though your offer is quite tempting, I’m afraid it’s come a little too late.”

“Too late? What do you mean too late?” Hopper said, not quite sure what the man was suggesting right now but certain he wasn’t going to like the answer one bit when he heard it.

“We have another buyer. They called earlier today, willing to pay double the asking price we’d initially planned on getting. And I’m afraid the offer’s already been accepted.”

Hopper couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He hadn’t been expecting this – hadn’t planned for it in any way because the thought of it had never occurred to him, never crossed his mind once.

“But it’s been two days!” Hopper exclaimed in disbelief. “How can there be another offer for him already? Who would even know you have him? You only just made the call to the father yesterday, how can there possibly be another buyer in such a short amount of – Fuck it. I’ll pay triple. If it’s what gets him back, I’ll pay triple.”

“Oh, I’m sure you would,” said the voice. “But like I said: the offer has already been accepted. Our condolences to your daughter on the loss, she’ll just have to find someone else to play with. Farewell, Mr Hopper.”

“Hey, wait. Wait!” Hopper yelled, but the guy had already hung up and something told the Chief if he rang the number again he wouldn’t get a response. “Shit. Shit, shit, SHIT!” He slammed his hand down on the desk as he stood up, beginning to pace back and forth aggressively whilst simultaneously resisting the urge to break something, because all he really wanted to do right now was reach through the phone and throttle the bastard on the other end of it.

A second buyer. A second buyer. He still didn’t understand how this could have happened: how someone could have put an offer in so soon – how someone could have known about such an offer being available in the first place. Surely no one could have known – no one should have known: an offer to other buyers should have been nowhere remotely near the playing table yet. They had just called the father yesterday! It didn’t make any sense. Why call the father and put an offer out to others at the same time? That’s what must have happened right? How else would someone know unless these people had sent out the information themselves? But even that still seemed too farfetched to the Chief and he couldn’t help this feeling of dread building up in his stomach – something within him deeply unnerved and suspicious and finding everything about this entire situation just wrong, wrong, wrong.

No: two days was too short a time. There was something else going on here – something that Hopper was missing. Because he’d missed something hadn’t he? He must have. This situation wasn’t making sense and there had to be something more to it. There had to be something beyond what he was seeing right now, but he just couldn’t figure out what it was.

I need to get to Jane, he thought. The situation had gotten out of hand: he wasn’t going to solve this issue by sitting behind his desk all day; he needed to take action and he needed to take action now. He’d told Billy he’d do all he could to get Steve back…and this office and badge wasn’t going to help him fulfill that promise.

“I’m sorry, Chief,” Powell said, trying to be reassuring when everything seemed like it was going to shit. Which it was. It was going to shit. But Hopper didn’t need reassurance: he needed to get out of here.

“I’m going home,” he said, voice flat as he grabbed his keys and coat, walking out the office with Callahan and Powell at his back, sharing an uncertain glance between them.

Okay…” Callahan said, dragging the word out far more than necessary. “Should we, er –”

“I’m too emotionally compromised to work this case,” the Chief stated. “I won’t be in tomorrow. Or the next day, probably. Hold the fort until I get back.”

“Yes, sir,” Powell said to Hopper’s retreating back, him and Callahan staring on in disbelief as the Chief walked out the station doors without another word.

“You think he’s gonna be alright?” said Callahan after a while.

“If I didn’t know any better,” Powell said, “I’d think he was going off to kill someone.”

Outside, Hopper was making a beeline for his truck, keys in hand, ready to unlock the door when he spotted Hargrove jogging over to him from across the car park. Because, of course, the kid had stayed when Hopper had told him to go home. Just his fucking luck.

“Hey, how’d it go?” Billy asked, and Hopper paused for a moment, brows furrowed as he looked over the kid, trying to think of what to say.

“Billy, I need to you to go home, alright?” he said eventually, opening the car door only find have it slammed again right in front of him.

“What happened?” Billy said, determinedly, not looking away from Hopper once as he spoke, clearly catching onto the fact that something wasn’t right. “Chief, what’s going on?”

“Jesus, kid, just go home, alright? I’ll get him back – I swear – but, please, for now just go home and –”

“No! Tell me what happened! Chief, you’re scaring me.”

“Hargrove, get away from the truck.”

“Not until you –”

Hargrove…”

“I need to know – you have to tell me –”

Jesus Christ, kid, just GET AWAY FROM THE FUCKING TRUCK! Hopper yelled.

Billy flinched back, stepping away slightly and looking almost on the verge of tears, eyes wide and shocked at the sudden outburst. Hopper wanted to take it back – hated the way he’d ended up upsetting the kid – but he didn’t have time right now. He got in the truck, started the engine and rolled down the window just as he was about to drive off.

“I’ll get him back, kid,” he said, pouring every ounce of promise into it that he could. “I’ll get him back.”

“Chief, where are you – Chief! CHIEF!” Billy tried to call after him but Hopper was already steering out of the car park, and soon Hargrove’s shouts were lost as he sped down the road – speed limits be damned – making his way over to Joyce’s.

Fuck it, fuck it all: he was doing this his own way now; no more dancing around using Eleven’s powers. Steve was in danger. What kind of danger, Hopper couldn’t tell yet, but he sure as hell hoped he wouldn’t be too late to save him from it. He should have done this from the beginning. He could see that now, but there was no use mourning over that fact: what was done was done, he simply had to make up for lost time. And he would. As soon as he got back to the Byer’s he’d construct a plan and set out as soon as possible. They couldn’t afford to waste any more time, not when Steve was getting sold off to fuck knows who.

The idea of the second buyer still felt like a shock to Jim’s system. It had come out of fucking nowhere, and now they couldn’t guarantee Steve’s safety at all anymore. They didn’t know who the buyer was – what they wanted; what plans they had for Steve – and that was terrifying. And Hopper couldn’t help but feel like maybe it was his own fault: that somehow he’d allowed this to happen and now Steve was paying the price. Poor kid. Hopper just hoped he’d be alright to hold out a bit longer. I’m coming, he thought, some part of him wishing El could send telepathic messages with her mind over a great distance. I’m coming, we’re coming, just hold on a little longer. We’ll get you, I promise, we’ll save you.

Suddenly the radio in the truck started crackling, Flo’s voice drifting over the speakers and jolting Hopper out of his thoughts.

“Chief, I’ve got your daughter on the phone here. Says it’s really important.”

Jane was trying to contact him? Oh shit, that couldn’t be good news. Something was happening – something was happening with Steve – and Hopper needed to get back to Joyce’s right now, not still be stuck on this damn road that seemed to be far longer than he remembered.

He picked up the radio, willing himself not to total the truck as he sped up a little more, trying to get there as fast as he could without breaking his neck in the process. “Tell her I’m on my way. I’ll be there soon, alright?”

“Copy that, Chief,” Flo said, and then radio fell silent once more, leaving Hopper to complete the rest of the journey without further disruption, finally making it to the Byer’s house a few minutes later and parking up hastily before running up the porch, ready to knock on the door but stopping short when it opened in front of him.

El stood in the doorway, blood dripping from her nose as she looked up at him, eyes hard and determined with something sharp and fiery raging behind the brown there, waiting to be unleashed…

“He’s moved.”

Chapter Text

2:34pm, Monday 15th April, 1985.

Steve didn’t know where he was. That should probably terrify him right now, but all he really felt was bored. Bored and tired. And not the sleepy kind of tired either – not the tired where you could lay down, close your eyes and shut your mind off for a while, but the kind of tired where you’re restless and yet slow, like all your limbs are lazy and sluggish but you want to do something: you want to get up, pace about, kick the walls, just do anything, and yet you find yourself doing nothing. At least he was out of the boot. That was a positive. The room wasn’t exactly of five-star quality – being about the same size as the motel room, only with crumbling white paint on the walls and a stone floor, with no other furniture in it except for the single bed and a chair – but at least the air was somewhat fresh and he could actually stretch his legs out. That and his clothes weren’t damp with sweat anymore, despite the fact it most certainly smelt like they were. Yep, Steve felt absolutely disgusting right now. He wanted to take a shower. Actually, he guessed he technically could if he wanted to: there was a door attached to the room that led to a small bathroom, and though the shower in there was small and probably lacking warm water it still looked fairly usable. But Steve didn’t have a towel. He also didn’t want to change back into the same sweat induced clothes afterwards.

How long had he been in here? Time had seemed to be dragging ever since Cutler first took his blindfold off, undid his binds and shut the door behind him, leaving Steve to his own devices. He felt like it had been hours since then, but really it was probably only ten minutes, maybe twenty. Steve was never the watch-wearing type, but right now he wished he at least had something to indicate the time of day. Was it morning? Afternoon? There was no way of telling and Steve was starting to get a little anxious over it. How long had he even been gone? What day was it when they first took him, Saturday? Yeah, it was the start of the Easter Holidays and the little shits had wanted to go to the arcade. He felt like it had been at least two days since then, maybe three, but he couldn’t be certain. Lord knows how long he was out for when they injected that shit into his neck.

Steve just took a moment to think on what he could have missed out on during that time; what he would have done if none of this kidnapping business had ever happened in the first place. He would have met with Billy for a start: raided his parents fancy alcohol cabinet, chosen a movie, ignored the movie and ended up kissing Billy for a good twenty minutes on the couch before turning it off and inevitably trying to scale the stairs whilst simultaneously staying pressed up as close to Billy as possible in an attempt to at least take things to the bedroom rather than staying in the lounge and ruining the couch when they…Yeah, Steve probably shouldn’t continue that thought whilst being held captive in an isolated room where anyone could walk in at any given time.

He tried to remember what plans he'd had in place for this week but in the end he simply found himself thinking of mundane things – everyday tasks and chores that he wouldn't have put thought into beforehand – like cleaning the house or doing the dishes. He'd spent a little time just thinking about people and what they might be doing right now, though quickly moved onto something else because it just made him sad. Made him miss them more. So, here he was: lying on some scrawny bed in fuck knows what state growing mildly concerned that the milk in his fridge would be out of date by now. The bread too, probably...Ah, crap he hadn't taken his hay fever tablets this week. The last thing he wanted right now was to be a sneezing mess. He sniffed experimentally, suddenly suspicious he'd get a blocked nose right then and there...Nope, he seemed alright. Actually, he felt pretty good considering everything, though there was no telling how long that would last. He'd been taking those tablets for as long as he could remember – had apparently experienced really bad allergies as a kid – it would be just typical if they started playing up again now.

A clicking noise sounded from across the room before the door was opening up and Cutler was walking through carrying a plate in one hand and some clothes and a towel folded over the opposite arm. Steve sat up as he strode in, kicking the door shut with his boot and dragging the chair across the room a little so it was closer to the bed.

"Lunchtime," he said, holding the plate out as he sat down.

Oh, joy: a cheese sandwich, Steve thought, accepting the meal without complaint and taking a generous bite out of it. Sure, it wasn't the most exciting dish in the world but at least it was filling. And he knew roughly what time of day it was now.

"I also got you a spare change of clothes," he said, laying the other items down on the bed before sitting back. "I figured you'd appreciate wearing something that hadn't been cooking in the boot with you for a day."

"Tie-dye? Seriously?" Steve asked, eyeing the t-shirt with clear distaste.

"Yep, and probably a size too big, but you can't be too picky: better than nothing," Cutler said. "There's also a towel there if you want to shower. Believe it or not we have some hot water, though I wouldn't count on it lasting more than five minutes."

"Thanks," Steve said, chewing slowing down a bit as he looked about the room awkwardly, waiting for the guy to leave and growing uncertain when he didn't. "Do you need to say something else to me or...?”

“Can’t leave you in the room alone with the plate,” he explained. “You could smash it and create a potentially lethal weapon.”

Steve thought the guy was joking at first. And maybe there was an element of humour there, but as Cutler continued to give him a pointed look Steve came to the realisation that he was actually being serious right now. “What, so you’re just gonna sit here and watch me eat?” Steve asked in disbelief.

“Pretty much,” Cutler said, sliding down in the seat a little more like he was trying to get comfortable.

The next few minutes that passed were awkward to say the least. And Steve couldn’t tell whether the fact that Cutler seemed just as unnerved as he did made that awkwardness better or worse. Halfway through eating, the silence just got intolerable and Steve was beginning to lose his appetite because of it – a slight unsettlement bubbling in his stomach that made it difficult to swallow.

“You know, if you really hate the tie-dye that much I could go down to the launders and get your clothes washed,” Cutler offered, trying to lighten some of the suspense in the room so the kid felt comfortable again. “You’d still have to put up with these ones for a little while but I’d probably be back within two hours.”

Steve studied him for a moment, eyebrows scrunched together as he considered him. “Why are you doing this?” he asked.

Cutler blinked at him, a little uncertain as to what he was asking before going with a general response. “Like we told you before: we’re after your father’s mon–”

“No not ‘you’ as in whatever this…shady, kidnapping business thing that you’re involved in is,” cut off Steve. “I mean ‘you’ as in, like, just you,” he said, motioning to Cutler. “Like, why are you so…” Steve wasn’t sure what word he was looking for. He floundered for a second trying to think of what he was trying to say before eventually settling on “nice?”

Cutler didn’t respond for a moment, huffing a laugh and shrugging his shoulders dismissively when he finally spoke. “Probably because I’m the only one around here who’s had a kid.”

Out of everything, Steve hadn’t been expecting that. Honestly, he didn’t know what he’d been expecting, but the answer just seemed so honest that he’d been caught off guard. Wait, so this guy has a kid? Actually, that made sense now that Steve thought about it. He’d picked up bits and pieces of conversation on their journey – little snippets at pit stops that weren’t meant for his ears. He hadn’t deciphered much from them, only two things: one – Shelby was an asshole, and not a very bright one of that, two – Cutler had apparently ‘turned soft’. Steve had never really been able to understand what that latter point had meant until now, but there was something in the way Cutler said it just then that made Steve pause for a moment, replaying his words and fixing on one in particular: ‘had’; he ‘had a kid.’

“What happened?” Steve asked, and he knew he was pushing it – really testing his limits – but he felt like he hadn’t had a real conversation in ages, and even if he was talking with his kidnapper it was far better than talking to no one.

“I lost her,” Cutler said simply, faintly amused as he took in the look of surprise on the kid’s face like he hadn’t expected a response.

“I’m sorry,” Steve said, both out of politeness and just a general lack of knowledge as to what else he could say. The last thing he wanted to do was anger or upset the guy in some way when he seemed to be the only decent person out of those keeping him hostage. Needless to say, Steve definitely didn’t want to start receiving his meals from Shelby. He was going to leave the conversation at that then – not wanting to push any further – when he saw the look on Cutler’s face and found nothing negative in his expression at all. The guy actually looked pretty relaxed, maybe slightly relieved, and in the end it was the look on his face that made Steve continue. “What was she like?” Steve asked.

Cutler smiled. “Adventurous. She’d spend all day just running around the house – a real troublemaker. Mischievous, definitely. And she was always hungry: would have probably ate the entirety of the fridge if we weren’t looking. We used to call her our little lion. She was strong: really strong.”

“What was her name?”

“Samantha. But we always just called her Sam.”

“How did you end up here after all that?” Steve questioned, wondering what the hell had gone so wrong in the guy’s life that he’d wound up working for kidnappers – the man was jagged around the edges, sure, but there was still this unmistakable softness there that just didn’t fit into a job like this; a part of him that just didn’t seem to belong there. “I mean it sounds like you were pretty happy…I don’t get how you could go from that to, well, this.”

Cutler glanced away, fingers combing idly through his hair as something clearly played out in his mind, some ghostly memory or thought dancing before his eyes and giving them a mildly haunted look. But the moment passed, and Cutler was shrugging again, pushing away whatever fragment of the past had unearthed itself. “I was already involved with these people before I found my family. When I lost it, I returned to them.”

Jesus, how long had the guy been here? And why the hell would he return in the first place? Steve felt like there was a whole lot more to this story than the guy was telling, but he felt it’d be rude if he pressed any further, so he simply nodded and finished off what was left of his sandwich. Cutler took the plate from him once he’d swallowed the final bite, standing up from his seat and heading for the door.

“I was serious about the whole launders thing, you know,” Cutler said. “You can just leave them on the bed while you shower and I can come in and collect them in a bit if you like.”

“Yeah. Yeah I’d appreciate that,” Steve said, watching the guy leave before getting up off the bed and examining the spare clothes. Yep, just as he’d thought: the tie-dye was even worse up close…Well, it probably wasn’t as bad as he was making it out to be if he was honest, but he wasn’t exactly a fan – not to mention the top would probably suit someone like Billy far better. Hell, everything suited Billy and the guy knew it. Handsome, smug, bastard.

Begrudgingly, he made his way to the bathroom, changing out of his clothes and chucking them on the bed before shutting the door and turning on the shower, ready to try and quicken his usual routine by a factor of five. Was he paranoid about Eleven searching for him at that moment? Yes. Did he keep a towel around his waist as a result of that paranoia? Damn right he did. If El did choose this moment to look for him, he didn’t want to give her a reason to stop, nor did he wish to accidentally scar the girl for life. So, with the towel tied securely around his waist, he washed quickly – hastening his efforts when the warm water did indeed only last for five minutes – before shutting the shower off and slipping into the oversized clothes. Taking a moment to mourn the fact his hair would be a wild, untamed mess when it dried, he spent a minute or two running his fingers through it in an attempt untangle any knots that were present but quickly gave up on any further maintenance as he left the bathroom to find his clothes gone just like Cutler had promised.

Absently tugging at the tie-dye t-shirt, he made his way back over to the bed, flopping down on it once more as he found himself bored and alone once again, just waiting for…something. Maybe even someone. He hoped that somewhere out there, at the very least, there were people looking for him. Fuck hoped – he knew someone had to be. He couldn’t let himself start believing that they weren’t: couldn’t let himself think he’d been forgotten. Because he hadn’t. He hadn’t. They’d come – they would. They…they had to…

* * * * *

Cutler made his way down the narrow corridor, heading towards the east exit and carrying a plastic bag filled with Steve's clothes, intending on leaving to go to a launderettes a brief five minute drive away. He was relieved when the kid had accepted his offer, giving him an excuse to leave the building without too many questions being raised. The less suspicion the better. But he needed to be more careful: maybe reel back on the niceties. Shelby was right to nag him in the car on the journey here – if people started to think him incapable of the job he'd end up in the ground a little earlier than he'd like to be. Speaking of the Devil, looks like someone finally found their name on the rota...

"The fuck you got there," Shelby asked, standing up from where he'd been leaning against the wall to peer into the bag. "What, you're doing the kid's washing now? Jesus you really have turned bitch – you're a right mother hen. What you gonna do next? Start clucking? Lay an egg?"

"Fuck off," Cutler said, eyeing the bottle in Shelby's hand. "I thought you were meant to be on guard duty, not getting pissed."

Shelby huffed. "I'm only having the one. Besides, it ain't like Upstairs is gonna find out, let alone do anything about it if they did."

"I wouldn't be so sure," Cutler said, moving past him and opening the door.

"How come you have all the fucking time in the world?"

"I'm on West at five," Cutler responded, just about hearing Shelby's mumbled "lucky, prick" as the door shut and he began walking down the alley towards the street, continuing on and rounding a corner before finding his car. He threw the bag in the back, got in the front seat and steered off, anxiously strumming his fingers against the wheel as he drove.

His first stop was the launderettes. He was in and out within a few minutes, knowing the woman that ran it well enough to be able to simply leave the clothes with her along with some money for her efforts, confident that she’d keep the items safe until he returned. Then he was back in the car and driving away from the city centre to a more isolated part of the outskirts of San Diego, a rigid tension in his jaw the whole time he drove, finally coming to a halt outside a guarded entrance and winding his window down so the man sat in the booth controlling the gate could see his face clearly. This had become a routine for him now: complete an errand and report back to these assholes; Cutler had been doing it for a little over thirteen years, and as time had passed he’d grown less anxious about it and more pissed off than anything else. The guard studied him for a moment before nodding, pressing a button within the booth so the gate slid aside, allowing him entry. He continued on to the car park, finding a space and locking up before heading inside.

The reception always seemed to be buzzing with people walking to and fro, identity cards hung around their necks and dressed in work attire, filling the room with idle chatter like this was a normal establishment – like everything here checked the boxes of a healthy work environment. He walked up to the woman at the front desk, giving her his name and waiting for a minute while she made a call before handing him a visitors badge and relaying instructions as to where he needed to go, despite him knowing the route already. It was always the same room – always on the first floor, the second door to the left. The person waiting for him in that room would often change but you’d hardly notice since they all sounded the same: spoke with that fake-pleasant tone, the patient-endearing voice that didn’t really care at all. He made his way to the elevators, pressing the button and making his journey upwards, finding the room easily and walking inside.

It was a plain room – white all over – with no windows, and only two chairs and a desk with a robust computer sat on top of it, taking up half the space, along with a camera perched on a wall in the top right corner. A man was already sat inside, clicking away at the keyboard and looking up as Cutler entered, pushing his glasses up his nose a little as he greeted him.

“Ah, Mr Cutler, please take a seat,” he said, motioning to the opposite chair. The guy was round and balding, dressed in a white shirt with the top button undone and a blue tie with tiny dots on it. He waited until Cutler was sat before continuing. “You have your report?”

Cutler reached inside his jacket, opening a hidden pocket in the fabric there and taking out some folded paper, sliding the documents across the table and watching the guy adjust his glasses again while he read over them, making small humming sounds as he went. Eventually, he seemed content, nodding and pushing them over to the side before turning back to the computer and tapping a few keys.

“Any other information you feel should be passed on that isn’t stated in your report?”

Cutler shook his head and the guy went back to typing, chubby fingers strangely deft as they danced over the keyboard, hitting one last key with exaggerated finesse before turning back to him. “Thank you for your service Mr Cutler, you’re free to leave now,” he said dismissively, gathering the papers in his hand and straightening them against the table.

Cutler didn’t move. He waited a few seconds for the man to acknowledge this before speaking, making sure he had the guy’s full attention. “I want to see her,” he said.

The man looked very anxious all of a sudden, face paling as he shuffled awkwardly in his seat, eyes darting around nervously. “Mr Cutler, you know as well as I that –”

“I want to see her,” Cutler repeated.

“The process is very delicate,” the man tried, “any interference may –”

Cutler pounded his fist on the table, standing up from his chair, watching the man flinch and cower beneath him as he did so. “I feed you intel, and I get to see my daughter: that was the deal! Five years. It has been five years since you last let me see her! And you know what I think? I think she’s dead. I think you fucked up and haven’t bothered to tell me – and I am done with it!” he spat, slamming his fist down again and watching the man jump like the coward he was. “Either I see her…or I walk,” he finished, leaning back a little and waiting for a response.

“Mr Cutler,” came a voice from behind him, and he spun around to see a woman in a lab coat, thick, dark hair pulled back into a bun, looking to be in her mid-forties, standing in the doorway. She smiled at him kindly. “I’m afraid we haven’t been properly introduced: I’m Doctor Oh, the lead scientist of this establishment. Would you care to take a walk with me?”

Cutler eyed the two burly security men behind her, a slight twitch in his jaw as he nodded faintly, knowing that he didn’t really have much of a choice in the matter.

“Excellent,” she said. “If you’ll follow me, please.”

He exited the room, letting her guide him back down the hallway and towards the elevators, the two guards staying close on his heels the whole way there and getting in the elevator first when it opened. Cutler followed next, then Doctor Oh, and as the door slid shut she pulled a key card from her pocket and slid it into a small panel near the elevator controls, a tiny light next to it turning green as the lift started moving downwards, past the ground floor to one level below. Cutler had never gone downstairs before. And the fact that he was being led down now after his outburst made him increasingly unnerved, every muscle in him tense as his unease grew – something in his mind telling him he was about to get put down like a dog.

As soon as the doors slid open again, Doctor Oh was marching out, leading him down several corridors, taking a left and a right, before eventually stopping outside a door adorned with a plaque holding her engraved name, retrieving the key card again and using it to unlock it. She walked in briskly, holding the door open for him and the guards before shutting it behind them and moving to take a seat at the desk in the room’s centre. The space was clearly an office – her office – with some documents scattered over the wooden surface along with a few ornaments, little carved statues of birds and foxes and other woodland creatures standing in their designated places. The rest of the room was furnished with filing cabinets and shelves lined with books, a few frames nailed to the wall holding what looked like certificates behind their glass frames.

“Please sit down,” she said, moving some of the paperwork aside and filing it away into a drawer as Cutler seated himself, sliding across the floor on her wheelie chair to open up one of the filing cabinets and taking a folder from it before returning and handing it over to him.

Cutler took the file hesitantly, opening its cover to find several pages of data – tables and numbers with notes beneath them, none of which he was sure what to make of.

“Do you know what those are, Mr Cutler?” Doctor Oh asked, hands folded in front of her.

Cutler shook his head, eyes glancing over figures and percentages, their meaning completely lost on him.

“Those are results,” she explained, and faint smile tugging the corners of her lips. “Your daughter’s results, actually. The progress she has made over the last few years is amazing: you should be proud. We are learning so much from her – more than you could ever possibly imagine – and the data you’re looking at right there is incredibly valuable. I know it’s hard for you to be separated from her for so long, but you must understand that the process she is going through right now is extremely delicate and we cannot allow for any interactions that may throw her concentration.”

That last part seemed to replay itself in Cutler’s head as the words sunk in, focusing on a specific slither of it that just didn’t seem to be sitting quite right with him… She’d said interactions… Interactions… The word grated against Cutler’s mind, and his thoughts went to all the ‘visits’ with his daughter they’d allowed him over the years: there was no interacting – they didn’t let him interact – all he could do was stand and watch her through a one-way glass, his own daughter completely oblivious to his presence and him just stood there, incapable of being able to change that. She’d never known he was there. Sometimes he’d wonder if she even remembered him at all – remembered anything beyond the bleak white walls and people in lab coats that called themselves scientists and doctors; the people who said they were doing it all for the greater good.

“I just want to see her,” he pleaded. “Please, just let me see her.”

“I’m sorry, Mr Cutler, I truly am. But it simply cannot be arranged,” she said, a sorrowful look in her large brown eyes. “Not right now, at least. However, given time and continued good work on your part, we may be able to allow you to start seeing her again sometime in the future. You simply have to be patient.”

“What do you even do with it?” he asked. “I feed you intel – give you names and places – and nothing happens. You don’t act on it.”

“Think of it as simply liking to keep track of things. We like knowing where people are and what they’re up to. It’s as simple as that,” she answered, smile unfaltering as she took the file back from him and returned it to its rightful place. “Now, Mr Cutler, are we going to have any more issues or are you satisfied with what you’ve seen?”

He wasn’t satisfied. Not in the slightest. But there was no fighting these people – no arguing against their demands: he was leaving this place one way or another, and he’d much prefer to walk instead of being carried out in a body bag to be disposed of somewhere discrete. Cutler didn’t trust them, not in the slightest – still doubted his daughter was even alive – but he couldn’t do anything if he was dead. There was a choice to be made here, and he knew better than to dispute the matter further.

“I’m ready to leave now,” he said, hearing the guards behind him shifting position slightly.

“Wonderful,” Doctor Oh said, practically beaming. “These two lovely men will escort you out. Have a nice day, Mr Cutler.”

And just like that he was being led back through the corridors, and walked all the way to entrance where the men stayed and watched him get in his car, not returning inside until he was leaving back through the gate. He drove on for a few minutes, eyes fixed ahead, going nowhere in particular. Eventually, he pulled over to the side of the road, remaining motionless for a few seconds where he sat, hands on the wheel, everything just playing out in his head. Then he snapped. He slammed his hands against the steering wheel, repeated the action again and again and again, until his palms throbbed and his arms ached, and the faint sting of tears crept up in the corners of his eyes. He took a breath. Then another. And just like that it was as if the moment had never happened, and he started up the car again, heading back towards the city centre to collect the clothes from the launderettes and get ready to guard the west door at five.

Chapter Text

5:29pm, Monday 15th April, 1985.

Cutler’s shift lasted two hours: starting at five and ending at seven. He then had a second one later tonight that began at nine on the east door where Shelby had been stationed earlier. For that shift he’d be alone, but right now he was accompanied by Ericson since the west door was the main entry point of the building and two men were required to guard it at all times. Ericson was a fairly new recruit, face still a little boyish in his early twenties despite his clear attempts to grow a beard, which had simply resulted in some odd patches of stubble lining his jaw. He hadn’t been put on any errands yet – was probably still a few years away from working his way up to one – but Cutler could tell he was eager for it. Could tell he was just filled to the brim with some twisted, rebellious youth; just itching to get his hands dirty.

“You heard what’s been happening Upstairs?” Ericson said, leant on the wall opposite to Cutler and holstering his gun on his belt, apparently grown bored with playing with it like he had been for the past twenty minutes.

“No,” Cutler said. He’d only arrived back here ten minutes before his shift, quickly dropping Steve’s clothes off before heading over to his post. “Why?”

Ericson leaned forward, smiling excitedly like he was about to pass on some great secret. “Apparently someone contacted ‘em about the Harrington kid.”

“What, the father?” Cutler asked.

“No, that’s the thing.” Ericson leaned in further. “It was someone else. They knew we had him, and they put in an offer. Double from what I’m hearing.”

Cutler’s eyebrows drew downwards as he took in what the other man was saying, trying to make sense of exactly what he was being told right now. Because Steve shouldn’t have been on open market. They’d just contacted the father yesterday and were planning to hold him for another two weeks at most waiting for a response – no one should have known they had him, let alone been able to contact them and put an offer in.

“But how did they find out?” Cutler asked, something anxious stirring in the back of his mind.

“They don’t know,” Ericson said gleefully, apparently getting a kick from the mystery of it all. “Some people are saying there might be a mole. Maybe more than one. But I’ve been hearing other things too: some speculation about the errand. Apparently, Upstairs is thinking it might have been set up – that we were given the name on purpose. What do you think? You were given the errand, right?”

“I’m not sure,” Cutler said, disappointing the other when he didn’t say more but hardly noticing as his thoughts drifted off elsewhere in light of the information.

This was bad. Suddenly Cutler found himself in a rather unsafe position because he knew he was the leak: the mole hiding within the organisation. It had to be him, right? It had to be – he seriously doubted anyone else here was stupid enough to double cross the network – and only a few select people including himself had known about the errand until today. No, there was no doubting it, the information couldn’t have possibly gotten out any way without them knowing. And if he was the leak then that meant...it was Them: no one else had the money and resources to pull this off; tampering with the network wasn't something you just did – it took power and cunning and people in places where they didn't belong. People like Cutler. His visit to the company today may as well have been a great big sign saying their package had arrived, and he hadn’t even known. But why would they want the kid? That was what concerned him most right now: why. It couldn't be good. That much he was certain of. There had to be more to Steve than he was seeing – these people didn't just pick and choose at random: the kid had a secret, and whatever it was they wanted it...they wanted it bad.

"Have Upstairs accepted the offer?" Cutler asked after a while. He was pretty certain he knew the answer already – could feel the weight of it already hanging off his shoulders because he knew it would be his fault. His fault.

Ericson perked up again, eyes turning back to Cutler as he shrugged. "No one knows for sure yet," he said. "But why stick with one when you can get double, right?"

The network wouldn't trust the deal but that didn't mean they wouldn't take it. Ericson was right: if double the sum was on the table it would be stupid for them to ignore it. Steve wasn't going back home. He never had been.

Shit. Cutler had to do something. He didn't know why they wanted the kid but there was no way in hell he was going to let them just take him, because he knew from experience that once the kid was gone that was it: when these people got ahold of something they didn't let go, not even for a second. If Steve walked into that building he wouldn't be coming back out… at least not to anyone's knowledge, that is. And there was no way the offer wouldn't go through – no way the network would turn them down – and as soon as they got the green light they'd move in on their plan. These weren't patient people. If they truly wanted Steve they'd probably have him within a few hours of the deal going through unless someone intervened. And right now Cutler was the only who could do that.

But he'd risk everything if he did it. He'd compromise his position in the network as well as break his deal off with the people holding his daughter: both would have no use for him anymore; he'd be a dead man walking. On the other hand, if he let things pass – kept his head down and hoped to avoid any and all suspicion – he could maintain it all. Nothing would change. And maybe, maybe, he'd get to see his daughter again. Get to take a glance for the first time in years and see how much she'd grown, find out which of her parents she resembled more or if she'd simply be a perfect mixture of them both… But there was no guarantee of that. For all Cutler knew his daughter was long gone from this world and those bastards had continued to lead him on for all this time without telling him. But Steve was alive. The kid still had his whole life ahead of him – friends and family that he'd be ripped away from forever if Cutler just let this pass. Just let it slip right through his fingers and made no move to hold on.

And in the end that's why he couldn't do it. Because he'd been on that side of things – seen his family torn apart right before his eyes – and he couldn't do that to another person. He couldn't. So what if he'd be hunted down by the network for the rest of his life? So what if those assholes working for the government told him he could never see his daughter again – because he was already at that stage: he hadn't seen her once in years and probably wouldn't be allowed to see for more years to come. And he hadn't wanted to believe that he'd truly lost her but a part of him seemed to have accepted it a long time ago without his knowledge: his daughter was dead, and even if she were alive she probably wouldn't even recognise him. He was nothing more than a ghost to her now. It was too late for her: Cutler couldn't save her...but he could save Steve. Possibly. It would be tricky but he could do it, and he would be damned if he wasn't going to at least try.

It was decided then. Cutler would try to get the kid out of here and get him safe – get him as far away as possible. He spent the rest of the shift devising a plan, putting his extensive knowledge of the building's security to use and roughly calculating the time at which his best chances of success would be. Then, once he was let off, he started putting things into motion, quickly popping out to move his car closer the east exit and walking the route they'd take from the holding room to that exit a few times, paying particular attention to the moments when he encountered people on hall patrol duty. After that, there was nothing more he could do, and hence came the hardest part: waiting... Waiting and hoping to God that he hadn't fucked up somewhere.

10:00pm, Monday 15th April, 1985.

Steve had been trying to sleep. It just seemed like the easiest way to pass the time in this place if he wasn't eating or changing back into his old clothes and spending a solid thirty minutes just chucking the tie-dye t-shirt around the room. When Cutler had dropped his dinner off earlier – a carton of Chinese takeaway which was actually pretty decent – Steve had expected him to stay and talk again like he did at lunch, but the man came and went in a flash without so much of a second glance as he shut the door behind him. Not that Steve was disappointed about it or anything: he totally hadn't been looking forward to talking to an actual human being again after being sat in a room alone for hours. Solitude was great – lots of fun. Who needed to interact with other people when you could just lie around on a bed all day, right?

Steve tried to push the thought that maybe he'd upset the guy earlier from his mind. He'd probably just been busy, that was all, and working for kidnappers was hardly a job that was going to provide decent hours. The guy simply had other, more important things to do than having idle conversation with his hostage. And that was fine, just fine – absolutely, totally fine...Well, it probably wasn't fine: for all Steve knew the guy could have been tasked with killing someone. And if he had been, Steve really hoped it wasn't whoever had made the takeaway because the noodles had been superb.

Just stop thinking, and go to sleep, Steve thought, trying to will himself to close his eyes and think of relaxing stuff. That was meant to help you sleep, right? Steve turned over on the bed and yawned, like he could fool himself into thinking he was even remotely tired, before shutting his eyes and trying to summon calming thoughts and images in his mind. The first thought that came to him was the beach. Steve had never actually been to a beach before but he'd seen photos, and Billy went on about them all the time: about the waves and cool water, the warm sand beneath your feet with the sun basking everything in a hot, golden glow; building sand castles and collecting shells, swimming and surfing out at sea – a single dot amongst a canvas of blue. If he thought hard enough he could hear all the sounds of it: the laughter, the seagulls, people stuffing sand into plastic buckets, the soft crashing of the waves in the distance, someone getting punched in the face outside his door... Wait a second.

Steve jolted upright just as the door slammed open to reveal Cutler, eyes a little frantic as they scanned the room before eventually settling on Steve. "Come on," he said, holding the door open and looking at Steve expectantly like he had a single clue as to what was happening right now.

"W-What?" Steve said, mind gone blank with confusion and watching in a surprised daze as Cutler crossed the room and pulled him to his feet, grabbing his arm and leading him from the room down a corridor, passing a guy that was knocked out cold.

"I'm getting you out of here," Cutler explained, taking a right turn, then a left, steps hurried but confident as he led the way. "We're escaping and taking you home."

"Oh, um..." Steve didn't know what to say – hell, part of him was convinced he'd managed to get to sleep after all and this was just some crazy dream he was having because everything was happening so fast and it wasn't like the guy had thought to actually give him some kind of a warning beforehand. Not to mention Steve didn't exactly trust Cutler, so whether this really was a rescue mission or not he wasn't sure yet, but either way this didn't seem like something the other should be doing so Steve chose to follow him anyway, figuring his chances were better with him compared to if he just stayed in that room. "Thanks," he said after a while, though it came out a little more uncertain than he'd intended it.

"You're welcome," Cutler responded bluntly. "Just stay close and stay quiet, alright?"

Steve nodded in understanding, following Cutler's lead as he took them down another hallway, pausing halfway down it and pulling Steve into an alcove before waiting a few seconds, gaze focused on his watch. Steve didn't understand what the big deal was until a man passed by, gun in hand as he patrolled the corridor, eventually disappearing off round a corner. Then Cutler was moving again and Steve was scrambling to keep up with his rapid pace, not wanting to get lost in the maze of corridors he'd have no chance of navigating on his own. Eventually, they bypassed a set of elevators and Cutler was opening a door leading into a stairway when the click of a gun sounded from behind them and they spun around to be met with Shelby, armed weapon in hand and pointed directly at Cutler.

"And where the fuck do you think you’re going?" he sneered, eyes glancing between the two of them as he approached from the end of the corridor, a shit-eating grin plastered on his face. "Oh, you really have lost it, haven't you? I thought you'd pull something like this: knew you'd snap eventually."

Of course it would be Shelby that screwed him over in the end. Cutler had known as soon as he'd seen the name on the patrol rota that he'd need some luck on his side to reach the stairs but clearly he hadn't got it. It was easy to predict the other patrol routes – where they'd be and when – but Shelby was never one to carry out a simple task properly: he got bored too easily, bunked off at every opportunity he could before coming back and acting like he'd never left. Shelby had been the only uncertainty in Cutler's plan, and now he was going to have to improvise because of it.

Taking a careful step forward, Cutler put himself between Shelby and Steve, reaching a hand towards his holstered gun as he did so, trying to be discreet about it, but Shelby caught the movement immediately.

"Try it and I'll blow your brains out," Shelby said, directing his gun at Cutler's head and making him pause. "Come on. Put it down."

Cutler clenched his jaw, trying to figure out a way around the situation as he retrieved his gun, slowly crouching down to lay it on the floor.

“That’s it, easy does it…now slide it over.”

Standing back up Cutler kicked the gun over, watching the weapon glide away beyond his reach, stopping when Shelby caught it with the tip of his boot, holding it in place.

The plan had gone to shit. Cutler had wanted to be out of the building by now, but that didn’t mean he was about to give up. No, the situation wasn’t ideal, but perhaps he could salvage it. Because while Shelby was their greatest threat right now, he was also probably the least of their concerns. If any of the other guards had found them down here the alarms would be ringing by now and every man in the building would be making a dash for them. But this was Shelby. And Shelby was an idiot. Well, maybe he had some wits about him, but he was cocky as hell and liked to gloat, which – if Cutler played his cards right – could potentially work in their favour.

“See? That wasn’t so hard now, was it?” Shelby said.

“You know, out of everyone, I didn’t expect to get caught by you,” Cutler commented, glancing behind him and making a note of where Steve was – brown eyes wide, completely frozen in place right by the door – before turning his attention back to Shelby, watching carefully as the guy took a step forward.

“And why’s that?” Shelby asked.

“No reason,” said Cutler, feigning indifference. “Just thought you’d be bunking off somewhere. You always were one for slacking on the job.”

Shelby was a lot closer now: the barrel of the gun just mere centimetres from Cutler’s face, but he didn’t flinch – not even once – just continued to stare at Shelby intently; waiting, calculating.

“Do a better job than you,” Shelby spat. “You and all your worries about keeping your hands clean and –”

Cutler moved quickly, whacking Shelby’s arm upwards and hearing a loud bang as the gun fired and a bullet imbedded itself within the ceiling. Behind him Steve yelped in surprise, but that was hardly of any concern to Cutler as he delivered a quick punch to Shelby’s stomach, twisting his arm until he let go of the weapon and sent it skittering away across the floor. That’s when they started grappling with one another – both equally matched in strength and fighting ability, caught in a stalemate. Cutler couldn’t be sure who would win, and the longer they stood here fighting the more time it gave the other guards to come to Shelby’s aid. The kid needed to get out of here, and get out of here now.

“Take the stairs,” Cutler said, him and Shelby momentarily separated, simply staring at one another, trying to find a weak spot.

“What?” Steve said, still frozen by the door, unsure of what to do.

“Take the stairs, and go one floor down, then exit again and take a right. Go to the end of the corridor then take a left and then go left again and then head right and there should be an unlocked green door. Go through it and you’re out.”

“But I –”

“Just, go!” Cutler yelled, feeling some relief as the kid hesitantly opened the door and slid through it, disappearing from sight.

“He won’t make it,” Shelby mocked, a bruise blossoming on his jaw where Cutler had managed to catch the edge of it on his fist.

“He’s got a shot,” Cutler said. “Better than nothing.”

Then Shelby was lunging towards him, fists flying, and the fight was commencing again, with Cutler dodging back and forth and punching when he saw an opening. But Shelby was relentless in his attack, and eventually he caught Cutler square in the face, jolting his head backwards and smacking it against the wall, sending him sprawling to the floor. Next thing he knew, Shelby was looming over him, smile sharp like a wolf about to go in for the kill with a wicked glint in his eyes and blood seeping down from his split lip. Then there was a metallic thud, and suddenly Shelby was crumpling to the ground, unconscious, with Steve stood behind him, wielding a metal chair like it was a sword. Cutler stood up, staring between Steve and Shelby in a faint disbelief, a dull throbbing pain making itself known in the back of his head.

“I thought I told you to go,” Cutler said.

“Yeah…I’m not good with directions,” responded Steve, dropping the chair before snapping his head to the right as the sound of approaching footsteps sounded down the hall.

“Come on,” Cutler said, grabbing his arm and leading him down the staircase, then continuing to hold on as he led Steve the rest of the way out, bolting down corridors that all looked exactly the same until the east exit came into view and only once they were out, running down the alleyway, did Cutler let go, reaching a hand into his pocket to retrieve the keys to his car as they reached the street. “My car’s this way. I’ll drive you as far as I can, but I can’t promise I’ll take you all the way.”

“That’s fine,” Steve panted, walking briskly to keep up with Cutler as they rounded a corner and instantly recognizing the vehicle as they approached it. “I’m not riding in the boot again am I?”

Cutler laughed – actually, properly laughed – and in the short time Steve had known the guy for this was the first moment where he’d seen him look happy. Seen him look genuinely pleased and cheerful about something. “Nah, you’re alright, kid,” Cutler said, sliding the key into the door. “You can sit shotgun.”

They’d been so close in that moment. So close it was almost cruel: freedom had seemed to be just a few seconds away when really it was much farther down the road, out of sight from the present. One second Cutler was unlocking the car and the next he was face-down on the pavement, knocked out cold from a blow to the back of the head, and people were emerging from two vans – one parked in front, one behind – cutting off all escape routes and closing in steadily.

Steve only panicked for a brief second before letting his instincts take over and dashing forward to attack the guy that had floored Cutler, arms flailing as he screamed in anger, knocking the guy back a bit when he hit him in the head, knuckles clipping the guy’s skull. But that was the only real hit he managed to get in before he was being ambushed – people grabbing him from all sides as he fought, kicking and struggling in their grip to little avail as they dragged him backwards, cursing whenever he’d get them in the eye with his elbow or land a blow to their stomach with the heel of his foot, but there was no stopping them. Steve was outnumbered. Completely and utterly overpowered. And it wasn’t long until he was being loaded into one of the vans, two men holding him down and cuffing his hands behind his back as the vehicle drove off down the road, beginning its journey towards the outskirts of the city.

They’d been so close… Or, at least, they thought they had been…

Chapter Text

10:12pm, Monday 15th April, 1985.

"Alright, let me get this straight," said Hopper, pinching the bridge of his nose as he tried to make sense of the rush of information he'd just been pummelled with. "So what you're telling me... is that the guys who took Steve in the first place suddenly decided to try and rescue him, and managed to get him out of the building only for him to end up being captured by someone else?"

"Pretty much," said Mike. "But it was just the one guy that tried to save him, not both of them."

"Yeah, apparently Steve knocked the other one out with a chair, which is pretty fucking awesome," added Dustin.

"Bitchin'," agreed Eleven.

They were all gathered in the Byers' lounge: the kids were spread out on the floor, sat on blankets and pillows that had served as their beds last night, whilst Jonathan, Joyce and Nancy occupied the couch, leaving Hopper to pace about the remaining space, still riled up from the phone call. In the middle of the room a map of San Diego – kindly provided by Max – was spread out across the floor along with some pens and scraps of paper, holding little notes on what El had seen that had been scribbled down in neat handwriting. By the looks of it they'd been pushing Jane's powers a little – trying to get her to map out the place as much as she could. Not that it was much use to them now though.

"Right, yeah, great," grumbled Hopper, "but in short someone else has Steve and we've got no idea who they are, or where they're taking him, or why they even want him in the first place."

"But I don't understand," said Nancy. "How did this second buyer even know Steve was there? And you said they contacted Steve's dad yesterday, right? It doesn't make sense that they'd just sell him off the next day to someone else without waiting for Mr Harrington's response."

"Welcome to my world," Hopper said, itching for a smoke and five minutes of peace where something wasn't completely falling to shit.

"What if they knew Steve was going to be taken beforehand?" said Jonathan, eyes narrowed as he ran the information over in his head. "You said this network is huge, right? So, it must accept offers from people on the outside, and if someone wanted Steve –"

"They could arrange a deal to have him taken," finished Nancy.

Lucas frowned, disagreement written clearly on his face. "But if it was arranged from the start then why call the father? It still doesn't add up," he argued.

"Alright, well what if it's like in the movies and stuff?" suggested Dustin. "You know, when the villains have, like, a hit list or something. All they have to do is get the name on the list, right?"

Hopper frowned in mild confusion, trying to keep up with everything that was being said. "What, so the network isn't aware that it's doing a job someone wants them to do?"

"Exactly," said Dustin.

"Which would explain why they called the father," added Mike. "The network, they'd think it's just a normal ransom case when it's not. But they don't realise it until the second buyer calls up, and by then it's too late to do anything about it: Steve's dad isn't paying and another person is offering double. They have to take the deal."

"Okay, okay, but if that is the case: doesn't that seem like a tonne of effort to you?" inserted Max, waving a hand around in the air for emphasis. "Why not just go with the straightforward approach and just have a deal in place with these guys beforehand? Why the hell go through the effort of secretly putting a name on a list and just waiting for them to get around to it?"

A brief moment passed where everyone simply sat in silence, trying to figure out an answer, when Jonathan spoke up, realisation lighting up his eyes as an idea crossed his mind.

"Because of this," he said, motioning to everyone around the room. "Because it doesn't make sense – it's confusing. They wanted people to believe this was a ransom case to divert attention away from what was really going on. They didn't want themselves directly connected to it. It's a red herring – the call to the father, it's there to mislead us."

"Alright, so they wanted to draw the attention away from themselves," accepted Hopper, "but that still doesn't tell us who they are or why they want Steve."

"Maybe it's like some sort of revenge plot," said Will. "Maybe Steve's dad got on someone's bad side and taking Steve is their way of getting back at him."

"Son of bitch, Will’s right. Mr Harrington's a businessman – I think Steve mentioned that he worked in insurance or something once – he's probably pissed off, like, a lot of people over the years," agreed Dustin.

"Okay, yes Steve's dad works in insurance, and yes he probably has pissed off a good few people, but I seriously doubt he's managed to piss someone off that much," argued Nancy. "I hardly think Mr Harrington could have done something so bad that there's someone out there enacting some evil, revenge plot on him because of it. Actually, I don't think it has anything to do with the dad at all: I think it's just Steve. Maybe he had some big secret and that's why these people are going after him."

"But what kind of giant secret could Steve possibly be hiding?" said Mike. "No offense, but he can’t lie for shit. Surely if he was hiding something that huge, we'd know by now."

If Dustin looked away at that moment, bringing his arm up to his mouth to smother a laugh and try and disguise it as a cough, no one noticed as Joyce spoke up.

"But we do know," she said, brown eyes sharp as she looked around the room. "The answer is obvious – we're just not thinking of it right now because we're all keeping the same secret that he is: everything we've been through over the past few years – the lab, the Upside-Down, El – it's massive, gigantic; information like that could be priceless to certain people."

A second of stunned silence passed. Up until that point everyone had been looking at things from a fairly normal perspective: searching for explanations that were somewhat logical and within reason, that didn’t involve monsters and superpowers and government conspiracies, but looking at it now – after what Joyce had said – maybe they’d been wrong to do so. Maybe this whole time they’d been pushing the real answer aside and playing by the rules of one game when being situated on another board entirely.

“But how would they know Steve knows?” Lucas said. “The only people that know about that stuff is us and the lab, right? Are we suggesting that there’s a third party out there that’s also in the know?”

“There doesn’t have to be,” Mike said, eyes wide as a theory started to form itself in his mind. “I mean, when Steve first went missing we all thought it was something to do with either the lab or the Upside-Down, right? But the idea was quickly dismissed because it didn’t fit in with what we’d seen before. Like Jonathan said, it was a red herring: it was there to throw us off. But why bother putting all that effort in unless they knew we’d get it if they didn’t? We know the lab, we’ve dealt with them before, and they know us just as well – they probably have profiles on us and everything, especially after they made us sign all that paperwork. If they were to go about doing something their way, we’d have been onto them from the start.”

“Wait, so…you think the lab is behind all of this?” Nancy said. “But what the hell would the lab want with Steve?”

“Oh my God, Will was right: it is a revenge plot,” said Dustin, turning to Jonathan and Nancy. “I mean think about it, you guys totally screwed them over and we’ve been hiding El away.”

“Dustin has a point,” agreed Jonathan with a nod of his head. “We haven’t been cooperating with these people at all after last year’s events. We could potentially know some things about the Upside-Down that they don’t. And if they suspect we know the whereabouts of Eleven –”

“They’d do whatever it takes to get her back,” finished Hopper. If he’d been angry before he was beyond furious by now. He knew all this talk was still speculation – that they couldn’t be certain of anything – but honestly if the root of all this shit was those government bastards he wouldn’t be surprised. Probably wouldn’t even blink. And the worst part of it was that if this was the lab then Hopper had stuffed himself over from the start – could recall the exact moment he dismissed their involvement in it entirely like a goddamn idiot. How did it always come down to this? Was it so impossible for them to just have a year – one single fucking year – where everything didn’t completely go to shit? Because that would be nice. Hell, that would be lovely.

“My fault?” said El quietly from where she was knelt down on the floor. She looked so unbearably sad in that moment – features softening a little as regret crossed her face and her eyes began looking a little watery in the warm, yellow light of the room.

“Oh, sweetie, no: it’s not your fault,” said Joyce immediately, tone soft and gentle as she reached forward to place a reassuring hand on Jane’s shoulder.

“Yeah,” said Mike, threading his fingers between El’s. “Even if it is the lab, you can’t blame yourself – it’s not like you saw it coming: none of us did.”

El nodded, a small smile forming on her lips as she gave Mike’s hand a faint squeeze, and Hopper watched her carefully, wondering whether he should add some words of reassurance himself when the Byer’s dog walked out of Will’s room, yawning and stretching its legs before going over to the back door and scratching at it. For a second he simply ignored it, but then the dog started barking and he was left with no other choice but to cross the short distance and open the door, shutting it again quickly and returning to the lounge to find the debate in full swing again.

“Okay but why Steve specifically?” asked Lucas. “I mean if they wanted information on El then they could have taken any of us right?”

“No, they couldn’t have,” said Nancy, shaking her head in disagreement before motioning to the kids. “If the lab were to take one of you, the whole town would be all over it. It’d cause too much of a commotion, not to mention the fact that if they are looking for information they’d probably want it from someone older.” She turned to Hopper. “An ideal source would probably be you, especially with your past dealings with them. But you’re the Chief of Police, and taking you would likely amount to more questions being raised than they’d like. That leaves just me, Joyce, Jon and Steve. Joyce is a mother of two and works full time – she hardly misses a shift. Her disappearing could potentially cause just as much of a commotion as one of the kids going missing. As for me and Jon, we’re too close to each other, and we were the ones who got the Hawkins lab shut down. If one of us went missing the other would have some suspicions about it right off the bat, and if they took both of us it would be too obvious. Steve, on the other hand, is a prime target: his parents often go out on business trips leaving him alone in the house, the only contact with the lab he’s had is when they got him to sign the papers, and his family’s wealth creates an easy motive for why someone would want to take him. He’s their easiest shot. Out of everyone, he was the most vulnerable,” she finished. And, well…no one was going to argue with that.

Outside the dog had started barking at God knows what, but everyone ignored it for the time being, simply letting all the ideas that they’d thrown around settle into their minds, trying to decipher everything that was going on with the information they already had. After a little while, Will checked his watch, studying the time for a moment before turning to El.

“It’s been a little over ten minutes now. Do you think you’re ready to search for him again?” he asked.

She nodded steadily, shifting to move herself back over to the TV and grabbing the scarf from on top of it, tying it around her eyes as static suddenly shot across the screen. Everyone leaned in a little closer as she made herself comfortable, crossing her legs and resting her hands upon her knees, going still as she concentrated. A minute of silence passed with nothing happening, and the only noise filling the room being the scratchy static from the television and the dog barking outside. A few more seconds passed before El gave an irritated huff, pulling down the blindfold as she turned to look at them.

“Dog,” she said.

It took them a little while to catch on but once they did, Joyce was starting to get up from her seat when Hopper motioned for her to stay where she was.

“No, no, you stay. I got it,” he said. “I think I need some fresh air anyway.”

With that, he hurried down the hall, opening the back door and stepping out into the cool night air, narrowing his eyes at his surroundings as he pulled a pack of cigarettes from his pocket, searching for the damn dog. It didn’t take him long to spot it though. And it certainly didn’t take a genius to figure out what it was kicking up a fuss over.

“Shhhh! Nice dog…good boy, just – shit!”

Jesus Christ, thought Hopper, tucking the cigarettes back into his pocket with a defeated sigh as he watched Hargrove backing up across the lawn, trying and failing to calm the dog down whilst it continued to bark at him relentlessly, bouncing around on the grass and jumping up at him in its excitement. Hopper let it go on for a few seconds longer – purely for his own amusement if nothing else – before heading over and whistling sharply, gaining both the attention of Hargrove and the dog. The latter quickly turned tail and sprinted back inside, leaving Billy alone with Hopper, eyes wide and shocked, looking like a child that had been caught raiding the cookie jar.

“Hey, Chief!” Billy greeted, plastering a fake smile on his face as he tried to act natural, awkwardly bringing his hands up to rest on his hips in a pose that would usually come across as confident in any other circumstances but right now just made him look even more guilty. “Fancy seeing you around here.”

Hopper wasn’t in the mood for playing nice. It was obvious what the kid was doing out here and he didn’t like it one bit. God, why couldn’t he have just gone home like Hopper had said?

“You follow me here?” Hopper asked, expression serious as he came to a halt a few steps in front of Hargrove, watching the kid shuffle his feet a little in uncertainty.

“Look, Chief I –” Billy began but Hopper didn’t let him finish, taking his hesitation as answer enough.

“How much did you hear?”

“I was just –”

How much did you hear?” Hopper repeated.

Billy swallowed, glancing to the side a bit under the heat of Hopper’s glare. “Enough...” he said. “But, Chief, you need to understand that –”

“Kid, I’m gonna give you one last chance to turn around and go home,” Hopper said sternly. “You have no idea what you’re getting yourself into here.”

“But that’s the thing! I –”

“For God’s sake, for once in your life, just listen to what I am saying and –”

NO!” Billy yelled, startling Hopper as he strode forward, pointing a finger towards the Chief. “You listen! You say I don’t know what I’m getting into but I do! I know all about the shit that you’re talking about in there – the labs, the evil government conspiracies: everything!”

“What?” Hopper said, brows drawing together as his anger was replaced with confusion and his mind went into a complete state of bafflement, trying to catch up with what Billy was saying.

“You’ve got someone in there, right?” Billy continued. “Someone with powers – abilities that you can’t explain, that shouldn’t even be real. That’s how you know where Steve is, isn’t it? They can see him somehow – track him – and that’s how you know Steve’s in San Diego. San Diego, Chief! I come from there – it’s my home: I know it like the back of my own damn hand! I can help you with this! I can be useful because I clearly know stuff that you don’t, like the fact that San Diego is home to one of your so-called labs.”

Hopper knew he must have looked stupid in that moment – gaping like a goddamn fish as Billy rattled on – but he couldn’t help it: he hadn’t been prepared for this; hadn’t expected that Billy Hargrove could possibly know about any of this stuff, and yet here he was: openly admitting that there were people with powers out there without even blinking an eye, like he’d come to terms with the fact years ago.

“How do you know all this?” Hopper asked, watching the kid intently as he studied him in a whole new light.

“Because I know someone too,” Billy answered. “Someone special…I heard you guys mention a number earlier – but it’s not just a number it’s a person, isn’t it? Because they’ve been in one of those places and had it tattooed into their skin – on the left wrist, right? You know Eleven… I know Nine.”

Chapter Text

“You…you know Nine?” Hopper said, mind still reeling – working on overdrive to try and catch up with the current situation and figure out what to do with it.

“Yeah,” Billy said. “And she’s told me about that place – everything she went through there – and if those people have Steve then we can’t just waste another two days with you sitting around in your office, alright? We need to go and get him because they will tear him apart to get whatever it is that they want and I am not going to let that happen – I’ll drive all the way down there by myself if I have to, but I can tell you that there is no way in hell that I’m going home when I know that Steve could be trapped in that place: I won’t do it, Chief. I won’t.”

“I believe you,” Hopper said, the pieces of information finally falling into place in his head as he realised what he had to do. “And I meant what I said earlier – you won’t be going alone. Whether the lab has Steve or not, I’m done sitting around and I’m sure everyone else is too. Come on, get in,” he finished, walking towards the door and opening it again, waiting for Billy to follow him but pausing when the kid refused to move.

“Chief, I…I don’t know if that’s such a great idea,” Billy said.

But Hopper was ready for it, closing the door as soon as the words came out of Hargrove’s mouth and turning to look the kid in the eye, trying to put every ounce of sincerity he had within him into that single stare. Because he needed Billy to trust him right now: what Hopper was asking of him was lot – he knew that – but Hargrove had to understand that it was necessary; that it was the right thing to do.

“I need you in there kid,” Hopper started. “You’re right: you’re useful – you’ve probably got a better insight into the situation than anyone else in there. But you’re no good to me standing out here on this lawn. And I know it’s going to be hard walking into that room, and I know that you probably don’t feel like you’re ready for it, but I can promise you that I’ll be right there when you do it. You don’t have to tell them anything you don’t want to – if you want to say you and Steve are just friends that’s fine – but I can assure you that, though it may be a bit of a shock at first, no one in there is gonna give you grief over it. No one. They’re great people – nice people – and yes, maybe you’re not exactly their favourite person in the world right now but you’re not going to change that by staying out here. You’ve got to give them a chance…But it’s your choice. I won’t force you to do anything. You’re at the crossroads now, kid – you’re either in or you’re out. So which is it gonna be?”

Billy didn’t say anything for a moment. He looked away from Hopper – turning his gaze downwards and twisting one of the rings on his fingers, visibly anxious and unsure. Because he wanted to help – had wanted to do whatever he could from the start; still had this restless feeling in this chest that wouldn’t be satisfied unless he did something. But, fuck, he was terrified right now. He knew exactly who was in that room, and he knew that most of them were practically scared to death of him: they thought he was a monster and he hadn’t given them a single reason not to think that. And even though he wanted to – wanted to show those kids that they didn’t have to flinch every time he was around; that he wasn’t some rabid dog that lost its leash – making the first move to proving that was almost giving him a heart attack. But he needed to do it – needed to prove to them that he didn’t bite, not really…Well, unless your name was Steve Harrington and Billy was hungry for something restaurants couldn’t legally serve…No, but seriously though, if Billy didn’t do something now he probably never would. And he wouldn’t just be doing it for himself but for Steve: Steve who was always so kind and understanding, who listened to Billy whenever he felt like talking and always seemed to know exactly what to say in those quiet moments; Steve who always encouraged Billy to try and apologise to those kids, who never missed a beat in assuring him that, once they saw Billy for who he really was, they’d be getting him to chauffeur them around in no time and Steve could actually take a break from their hectic arcade schedule. Don’t get Billy wrong, he was glad Hopper would be in there with him, but he didn’t entirely trust him yet…But Billy trusted Steve. It wouldn’t be easy – not at all – but staying out here wasn’t an option anymore. He was going to get his boyfriend back and when he did, Steve would be the proudest boyfriend in the world because Billy was about to become babysitter extraordinaire. He could do this! He could do this, he could do this, he could do this!

“I’m in,” he said, looking Hopper in the eye and letting the Chief’s nod of approval give him an extra boost of confidence.

“Good,” Hopper said, reopening the door and motioning for Billy to go through with a wave of his hand. “Let’s get him back.”

Billy didn’t need any more prompting than that: he strode right through that door – anxiety be damned – and strolled down the corridor and into the lounge, following the hubbub of noise right to its source until… there was no noise. The room had gone completely silent as soon as he’d entered and everyone in it was now openly gaping at him and oh fuck… He couldn’t do this, he couldn’t do this, he couldn’t do this, he couldn’t–

“What. The hell?” said Lucas. And crap, the kid’s eyes were so wide Billy was surprised they hadn’t completely popped out of his head.

Billy?” Max exclaimed, but she was quickly cut off from saying anything else as Nancy intercepted, fixing Hargrove with a very pointed look as she spoke.

“What is he doing here?” she said.

Billy hadn’t realised his body had completely frozen until Hopper walked up behind him, giving him a firm pat on the shoulder that broke his panic-induced daze, but did little to quell the anxiety pooling in his gut, making him think that he might actually vomit if he didn’t calm down a bit.

“Everyone, this is Billy; Billy, this is everyone,” Hopper introduced simply, like this was a classroom and Hargrove was the new kid. “He’s been helping me with the case,” he explained.

Should Billy say something right now? He probably should, right? It didn't look like anyone else was going to say something at that moment – all of them seemingly too shocked for words, except for Dustin who was smiling at him from the back of the room and using the opportunity of everyone's diverted attention to convey some kind of secret message to Billy through hand motions. Which would be great if Billy knew what the hell the kid was saying. The only part of it he vaguely understood was the last bit where Henderson pointed to Billy and then himself before giving him a thumbs up which Billy was pretty sure meant that Dustin had his back, but honestly he really couldn't be all that certain. The room was silent. Too silent. Really goddamn fucking silent. Billy needed to say something and he needed to say it now!

"Hey," he said. That was it. That was the single word his mind could come up with in that moment. Smooth, Hargrove, he thought. Real fucking smooth.

But it seemed to work on some level as the whole room fell into a chaos of sound and suddenly Billy found himself being hit with question after question after question – half of them overlapping one another and all of them inevitably just merging together to form one loud, grating sound that made him want to claw his ears off just to get it to stop. Hell, it was even worse than the silence. Everything was just a blur of noises and confusion and apparently he wasn't the only one that felt that way: there was a girl he didn't recognise sat on the floor in front of a map looking thoroughly bewildered by the whole situation as she stared at Billy, not shouting like the rest but just looking, and Jesus Christ it was kind of creepy because he could have sworn it was more like she was looking through him than at him, and suddenly he felt extremely vulnerable just standing there in front of her gaze whilst the rest of the ruckus around them seemed to be growing more and more distant with every second that passed… And in that moment he knew it was her. Knew she was Eleven.

"ALRIGHT, NOW EVERYONE JUST CALM DOWN!" Hopper yelled, somehow managing to return the room to silence. "Look, I get it, you guys haven't exactly started out on the right foot but–"

"'Didn't start out on the right foot' doesn't even come close!" Mike intercepted. "This guy is insane."

"Mike's right," Nancy said. "Why the hell is he even here? He doesn't care about Steve!"

"That's not true!" Billy argued. Wheeler was a bitch. What the hell did she know? Nothing – that's what. And yet she was looking at him right now like she somehow knew himself better than he did and it was already starting to rub him the wrong way. But he couldn’t let it get to him – not now. He'd known it'd be hard to try and make nice with Nancy Wheeler, but he had to try. He couldn't afford to lose his temper. Not again. Not here. Whatever he felt towards her he had to reel it back in and keep it sealed up for good.

"You tried to kill him!" said Lucas. "And me!"

Billy couldn't really argue with that. It was a mistake he couldn't escape and that he spent every day loathing, but he wasn't ready to stand here and tell them his side of that story right now so he tried to ignore it and move on. "Things are different now," he tried. "Steve and I are friends."

"Since when?" asked Max, face scrunched up in disbelief as she stared at him from across the room.

"Just...for the past few months," Billy said vaguely, even though he knew exactly how long it had been since Steve first started trusting him. Since he'd first gotten comfortable enough around him to fall asleep on Billy's shoulder whilst watching Star Wars.

"But didn't you guys literally just have an argument this Saturday?" Jonathan said.

"Look that's not–" Billy had hardly started speaking before Wheeler was cutting him off, fixing him with a cold, accusatory stare that made him want to punch a wall.

"We're not idiots," she said. "What are getting out of this? You must be getting something because we know for a fact that you're not friends with Steve and –"

"How would you know?" Billy cut in. He was walking a thin line here – he knew that – but he couldn't help himself from giving into his anger a little: wasn't about to just stand there while Wheeler pushed him about.

"Excuse me?" she said indignantly.

Billy should have turned away. Should have just left it. But, of course, he didn't. And he continued on with what he'd started without even blinking an eye.

"How. Would you know?" he repeated. "Because as far as I can tell, you don't know shit about Steve."

Nancy's face went so red so fast you'd think someone had stuffed her in an oven or something. "What the hell is that supposed to mean?" she spat.

"It means that you think you know Steve, but really you don't. You don't know him at all," Billy answered.

"Alright, maybe we should just –" Hopper went to intervene but Nancy was already standing up from her seat and stomping over to Billy, looking just about ready to gut someone.

"How dare you suggest that I don't –!"

"What's his favourite colour?" Billy said, watching with glee as she faltered for a moment, taken back by the question.

"What?"

"You heard me. What's his favourite colour?"

She scoffed, glancing off to the side before meeting his gaze again – blue versus blue: both as sharp and cold as ice. "Green," she said, confidently. "His favourite colour is green."

"Wrong."

"What?"

"Wrong," he said. "Steve's favourite colour is yellow. He constantly complains that it doesn't suit him even when I tell him it looks fine on him.”

“I’m sorry, this is ridiculous!” Nancy said. “I think I know the favourite colour of the guy I dated for a year.”

“But you’re not dating him anymore, are you?”

“What, and you are?”

“As a matter of fact, yes: I am,” Billy said, not even realising the weight of the secret he’d just let slip as he pressed onwards, glad this Wheeler chick was finally getting taken down a notch. “I’ve got news for you sweetheart: Stevie boy doesn’t just like girls, actually he recently found out that he might even prefer kissing a guy over kissing a girl. But you wouldn’t know that, would you? Because as much as you say you care about Steve the truth is that you haven’t so much as glanced at the guy since you started sucking face with Byers behind his back.”

“YOU DON’T KNOW SHIT ABOUT THAT!” Nancy shrieked.

“I KNOW EVERYTHING ABOUT THAT!” Billy yelled right back, and they were both practically on the verge of committing murder, neither backing off, both getting up in each other’s faces which only riled them up more. “WHO DO YOU THINK PICKED UP THE PIECES, HUH? WHO DO YOU THINK CLEANED UP YOUR MESS?”

Jonathan was between them then, staring Billy down with his hands clenched into fists, ready to throw a punch if he had to. “That’s enough,” he said, clearly trying to avoid a fight but more than ready to join one if needs be.

“Get out of my face, Byers,” Billy warned. “My problem isn’t with you.”

It looked like Jonathan was about to respond, but to both boys’ surprise he was quickly being pushed aside by Nancy, who clearly wasn’t fond of his interference.

“I don’t need your help, Jonathan. I can handle myself,” she snapped. And shit, Billy would have felt bad for the guy if Wheeler wasn’t redirecting her attention back to him, expression more livid than ever. “Yes,” she said. “I cheated on Steve. But at least I didn’t try to kill the guy! I SAW WHAT YOU DID TO HIM THAT NIGHT – HE ALMOST DIED.”

“YOU THINK I DON’T KNOW THAT?” Billy yelled. “YOU THINK THAT DOESN’T HAUNT ME EVERY SINGLE DAY? AT LEAST I REGRET IT. I KNOW IT WAS WRONG AND I KNOW I’LL NEVER BE ABLE TO REDEEM MYSELF – NOT FULLY – BUT AT LEAST I’M TRYING…But you see that’s the difference between you and me. Because you don’t regret what you did: you don’t wake up and wish you’d done things differently – you don’t care. Bruises heal. What you did...will scar him for life.”

The slap was sharp and quick and Billy had seen it coming from a mile away but that didn’t make it sting any less. The sound of it seemed to resonate throughout the room as everyone was stunned into silence and Nancy was on the verge of tears as she stood in front of him, practically trembling from the anger coursing through her veins, but Billy was right there with her – eyes red and watery and left cheek going crimson from where she’d hit him. He didn’t notice it for a moment but after a while he began to realise that Hopper was there pressing his hands against their chests and holding them back, having clearly intervened at some point but apparently not quick enough to save Billy from taking a slap to the face. But there was something else going on here because the rest of them seemed to be staring at something in horror – bug-eyed and gaping, gaze fixed on something next to Billy – and it was only then that he noticed Dustin – no longer on the other side of the room but standing right next to him – holding his hand. It took Billy a while to process it, part of him not entirely there as he looked at Henderson in bewilderment whilst the kid stared up at him, giving him that same encouraging smile from earlier like he hadn’t just initiated a screaming match with Wheeler.

“Hey buddy,” Dustin said. And it only took those two words before Billy’s anger was flooding out of him in waves and he was finally coming back to himself, gaining more and more control with every second that passed.

Buddy?” said Lucas incredulously from across the room, but Billy hardly heard him – didn’t pay any attention to Max giving him a harsh nudge in the side either – as his focused remained on Dustin, watching the kid intently as he glanced between him and Nancy, releasing his hold on Billy’s hand now that he had his attention.

“This isn’t you, alright?” Dustin continued. “I miss Steve too, man… but he wouldn’t want this.”

Billy wanted to cry. Fuck, he was going to cry if he didn’t get out of this room and fast.

“You’re the anonymous caller…” Nancy said softly, her words more like a thought than something she was meant to say out loud as realisation dawned on her face. But Billy didn’t want to hear anymore – was too overwhelmed by everything and everyone and he just needed some goddamn space: needed room to fucking breathe because this house felt like it was suffocating him right now and he didn’t want to break down in front of a tonne of people that he didn’t know. That didn’t know him.

“I need some air,” he said, pulling away and leaving out the front door, hearing it close with a faint click behind him before practically crumpling onto the porch, wiping frustratedly at his eyes as he sat there miserably, hugging his knees to his chest and cursing his stupid short temper – fuck it! Fuck it all! It had been a bad idea to go in there, he’d known that. What else had he been expecting?

Behind him the door opened again as someone else stepped out. He didn’t bother looking at first – guessed it was probably Hopper or Dustin – but when he finally turned around… it wasn’t who he’d thought it would be.

It wasn’t who he’d thought it would be at all.

Chapter Text

“Angry,” El said, the door swinging shut behind her softly as she stood on the porch, eyes focused intently on Billy from where he was sat. It wasn’t a question but Billy answered like it was anyway.

“Yeah,” he said, turning back around to stare at nothing in particular as she came to sit down beside him. “Sorry about that,” he added after a while.

Jane simply nodded, looking him over before redirecting her gaze outwards as well. “I got angry too,” she said, “when I was with Papa.”

Well, fuck, Billy thought. How did she even know? Was it her powers, or was she just really good at seeing people for what they really were? Had she simply looked at him and just been able to tell? Either way, it had caught Billy completely by surprise, and he hadn’t even realised he’d frozen in panic until she placed her hand on his arm – so small and pale compared his tan skin – and finally got him to look at her.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “I won’t tell.”

“Thanks,” Billy said, and he meant it. The less people knew the better. “You’re Eleven, right?” he asked after a few seconds of silence, watching her eyes widen in slight surprise as she looked up at him. “It’s alright – I mean, I know about all that stuff. It’s why I was in there in the first place… not that I really got a chance to say that though. Do you have another name? They don’t just call you Eleven do they?”

She smiled. It was a small, shy thing but it seemed to light up her whole face nonetheless and she edged a little closer to him from where she’d been sat on the opposite side of the steps. “Jane,” she said.

“Pretty. I like it,” he commented, watching her smile grow wider. “I’ve got a friend back in Cali like you. She’s a total badass, I’m sure you’d love her.”

“Like me?” El asked, perking up a little more as she rolled up her one sleeve, showing him the tattoo on her wrist. “Special?”

“Yeah,” Billy said. “Hers says Nine, but we call her Scarlet.”

“Scarlet,” El mumbled, testing the word out on her tongue.

“You know, she can lift an entire truck with just one hand? She’s also pretty much invincible: like you could fire a gun at her and the bullet wouldn’t even pierce the skin. And, though she doesn’t think of it as a superpower – an opinion I strongly disagree with – she can eat an entire buffet’s worth of food and still be hungry. I’m not even kidding: I’ve literally witnessed her eat five burgers and two large pizzas – extra spicy ones too – and then go on to eat dessert and devour, like, ten sundaes and half a cheesecake. And the only reason she didn’t eat the other half is because she split it with the rest of us.”

“…Bitchin’” El said, seemingly mesmerised by every word Billy was saying – brown eyes wide with wonder and amazement as he spoke, taking in every last detail he had to share.

“So what can you do?” Billy asked. “You can find people, right? Like you found Steve? Can you do anything else?”

Jane didn’t respond. Instead she looked away from him and turned her gaze towards Will’s bike which was laying on the ground where Dustin had left it yesterday when he’d come bolting back inside with what appeared to be half the candy store. Nothing happened at first, but as El narrowed her eyes it began to shift and rise until it was standing upright all by itself. Then it started moving towards them, the pedals spinning as it slowly cycled over, coming to a stop in front of them before dropping to the floor again, lifeless once more. El wiped the blood from her nose before turning to Billy, grinning a little smugly as she did so – clearly pleased with her powers.

Billy didn’t know what to say at first. He wasn’t gaping – definitely wasn’t gaping – but he was pretty damn impressed to say the least. Because that? That was awesome. How did she even – did she move it with her mind? Billy wasn’t a nerd – had totally read every superhero comic he could get his hands on but that didn’t mean shit – however when it came to superpowers he couldn’t help but get excited. He felt like a child again – recalled feeling the same excitement when him and his friends had first met Scarlet and learnt what she could do. Needless to say, many a great game were invented. And, of course, they were also all kind of dangerous and Pops almost had a heart attack every time he’d caught them playing one of them, which really only worked to make them even more fun. Jane’s gift was incredible. And it wasn’t like Billy had never seen anything like it before but… it had been a while. Being away from Cali had sort of made him forget about some of the crazy shit that was actually possible in this world. But he remembered it now. Remembered it clearly. And he would never forget it again.

“Not bad, Janey,” he said, smile wide as he huffed a laugh and watched her practically beaming under the praise. “Not bad at all.”

Billy was about to ask some other questions since things seemed to be going surprisingly well – especially when considering his little outburst a few minutes ago – but suddenly the front door was crashing open and someone was walking out, making quite the entrance as they joined the two of them on the porch, both a little stunned by the sudden intrusion.

“Ok, I get that you guys were like having a moment or something but I honestly can’t hold back the mountain of questions I have right now, so I honestly don’t care,” started Dustin, words rushed and only just about discernible as he plonked himself down between Billy and El, turning to the former with a look of great determination. “First off: dude, how the hell could you not tell me you knew about the lab? Did Steve know? When did you find out? You knew when you came to Hawkins, right? Also, how much can this friend of yours lift? You said she could lift a truck with just one arm: that’s insanetotally fucking awesome – she sounds like the Hulk if he didn’t have to hulk out to get the Hulk’s powers. Do you think she could lift an entire building? Actually, probably not but I bet she could definitely break through a brick wall if she wanted to. Her strength isn’t just in her arms is it? It’s in her whole body, right? If she used her super strength to launch herself off the ground how high would she go? Ibetshecouldreachthetopofa –”

“Were you eavesdropping on us?” Billy accused.

Dustin paused and stared at him pointedly. “Uh, yeah,” he said, clearly unashamed. “We all were. I was the only one brave enough to step outside. The rest of them are probably still watching from the window.”

The three of them turned around simultaneously and, sure enough, there they were: the rest of the party staring out at them from inside, expressions suddenly turning shocked at being ratted out as they all quickly ducked down out of sight. Wow, Billy thought sarcastically. Stealthy.

"I seriously still can't believe you know though," said Dustin, quickly beginning to pick up where he left off as they turned back around. "Like this entire time? Seriously? Oh my God, if we'd have known from the start things would have been so much easier – we could have really used your help last November. Shit got crazy. Too bad we couldn't have joined forces earlier: I mean an extra fighter would have been totally awesome when we were facing off all those demodogs. Sure, we managed, but the extra back up would have been nice –"

"Dema-what now?" Billy said, scrunching his face up in confusion.

"Demodogs. Like baby demogorgons. You know, from the Upside-Down?" Dustin said. Then realisation dawned on his face when Billy failed to be showing any sort of recognition. "Oooh, sorry you probably have a different name for it, don't you? You know, the other world that's like ours but not, with all the interdimensional alien, monster things and stuff? Big flower heads, lots of teeth?"

Billy stared at him blankly. "...Aliens are real?"

"Well yeah, they..." Dustin trailed off awkwardly as the reality of what was going on here finally struck him. "You just know about the lab, don't you?" Dustin said.

"Uh huh," Billy responded, looking a little haunted as he stared off into the distance.

"Ah, shit. Sorry man," Dustin said, trying to make the best of a bad situation. Had he broken Billy? The guy looked like he was having a midlife crisis right now and honestly Dustin couldn't blame him. "Look on the bright side though: at least you know now. Better knowing than not, right?"

"Yeah. Yeah, totally," Billy said, but he didn't sound very convincing. "No, it's...yeah. I mean it explains a lot, like, the nailed bat and all... Are they...? They're not still around are they?"

"Oh, no! We're good – El closed the gate, they're gone now," Dustin hurried to reassure.

"Oh thank God," Billy said, visibly slumping in relief. "Jesus, don't do that to me dude. You really scared me there for a second," he admitted, ruffling Dustin's hair playfully and smirking when the kid made a noise of displeasure. "I mean, not that the idea of it all isn't horrifying, but as long as I don't have to worry about one, like, slamming into my car I think I can deal with it...Wait, that night when I came round here, you weren't –?"

"Fighting them off? Yeah. We had the corpse of one stashed away in the fridge."

Billy made a face of disgust. "Why?"

"We couldn't just bury it like a dog!" Dustin argued. "It's an interdimensional species: who knows what we could learn from its biology?"

"Jesus, what did you do with it?"

Dustin looked at him mournfully. "Buried it like a dog. Will's mum didn't have the greatest reaction when trying to retrieve the milk," he explained.

"Billy?" came a voice from behind. They turned to find the rest of the kids standing in the doorway, with Max taking the lead and positioning herself further forward than the others, arms crossed in front of her as she stared down at him, clearly uncertain about whatever it was she was doing but determined nonetheless. "So," she said. "You're dating Steve?"

"Yep," Billy said, being honest with his sister for the first time in ages and letting her see through to someone she hadn't seen for years.

"And you're gay?"

"Yep."

"And you know about the lab?"

"Yes." He wasn't sure exactly where this was going but he could take a pretty good guess, and he was going to need all the courage he could muster if he was going to see it through.

Max worried her lower lip between her teeth, anxious about what she had to say next. "Look. We can see that you’re clearly not exactly the person we thought you were, and that you can't be half bad if Steve is dating you and Dustin is brave enough to hold your hand. But...if you're going to be working with us then there's one thing we all need to know: are you...well...?"

"Are you a racist?" Lucas finished, staring at him dead on but still looking a little scared even though he was clearly trying to hide it.

Billy sighed. He hated that he'd caused this – that he'd even been capable of doing it. But he couldn't run away from that fact anymore, and it was well over time he faced up to it. "No," he said. "No, I'm not. And, I'm sorry that you ever thought that."

"But you attacked me," Lucas said, eyeing him with distrust. "You went straight for me. Why?"

Billy rubbed a hand over his face, still a little torn over coming out with the truth. It had been hard enough telling Steve, and even harder telling Dustin, but at least he'd only had a single audience then. Having to tell all these kids at once was daunting to say the least. But it needed to be done. And Billy would see it through.

"You may want to sit down for this," Billy said, watching the group glance at each other uncertainly before complying and joining them on the steps. He waited until everyone was settled before continuing. "I didn't attack you out of hatred," he started. "Well, there was some hate there but it didn't have anything to do with you being black – though, that's not to say that you being black didn't factor into it, but it's not for the reasons you think. Truth is...I was jealous."

They all frowned at him in confusion as soon as the word came out, eyebrows scrunching up in clear bewilderment.

"You were jealous...of Lucas?" Mike questioned, dubiously.

"No. I, er – I was jealous of Max," Billy explained.

That seemed to only lead to more puzzlement as Max fixed him with her signature look of incredulity. "Um, why?" she said.

Billy took a breath before soldiering on, trying to put his hesitations aside as he finally cut to the chase. "Do you know why we left Cali?" he asked, watching her expression turn a little darker as memories from that night must have flicked through her mind at the mere mention of it.

"You got in a fight," Max said carefully, like she wasn't entirely certain of the answer. "A bad one."

"Yeah, that's right," Billy said. "But there was more to it than that. A lot more. You remember how I asked you to cover for me that night? It was because I was heading out to a night club, and I didn't want Neil to know: he'd heard about me hanging around the place and given me a few choice words about it, but I didn't listen. Whilst I was there I… I met someone. His name was Anthony. We talked, drank and ended up together in the back of my Camaro...kissing. That's when Neil found us. He, er...he wasn't all that pleased."

It still horrified Billy to think of it now: the way Neil had ripped open the car door and dragged Anthony out and just started laying punch after punch into him; how Billy had tried to stop him, to pull him off, but had simply received a beating of his own in return. He'd never felt so helpless in his life. There hadn't been anything he could do but watch as Neil almost killed the guy – the person he'd been kissing just moments before; the one he’d thought quite handsome who was now bloody and bruised, lying limply on the pavement with Neil delivering hit after hit after hit. Billy could still hear the yelling in his head like it had been just yesterday – the sound of Anthony's cries mixed with Neil's hateful words, forever engraved into Billy's mind, vivid and horrible in their lucidity.

"There are a certain type of people in this world you stay away from, Billy. And that boy is one of them," Neil spat, one fist clenched in Billy's hair as he dragged him down the street, ignoring every cry of protest he received along the way. "If I catch you with someone like that again then you're dead to me, boy. Dead."

Neil had decided it was best to move away after that. The move had been fast – Neil had made sure of that, choosing a place in the middle of nowhere with a ‘less toxic environment that wouldn't nurture such indecent behaviour.’ Billy hadn't even said goodbye to any of his friends. He'd been distant in those last few weeks, especially with Neil keeping a close eye on him, and in the end simply hadn’t bothered trying to make contact – something he regretted deeply now. Billy had wanted to reach out ever since then but every time he tried he just couldn’t bring himself to do it – which was wrong because he knew that they must have been worried sick when he’d vanished out of Cali. But as more time passed the easier it was to assume that they had probably moved on. And Billy didn’t want to bother them if they had. So he’d kept his distance. No matter how much he missed them.

“It was all my fault,” Max said, eyes narrowed at the ground, looking not only sad but angry – angry at herself.

“No, it wasn’t,” Billy said. “And I was wrong to ever tell you that it was.”

“But I – I ratted you out. If I hadn’t of told Neil then –”

“I treated you like shit that week, Max…I kind of had it coming.”

“I mean, you had something coming but not – not that,” Max said. And she looked absolutely miserable now: clearly blaming herself for everything that had happened – and Billy wanted to comfort her somehow, maybe hug her or something, but the two of them just weren’t that close. So, he just sat there and let the others reassure her a bit until she’d calmed down a little.

“Anthony was black, wasn’t he?” Lucas said as he looked at Billy, and for the first time in months Billy didn’t see any fear in the kid’s eyes anymore – he didn’t look terrified or scared but instead more…sympathetic. Accepting.

“Yeah,” Billy answered. “At first, when I attempted to separate the two of you, I tried to convince myself it was because I was being protective. Because I didn’t want to see anyone else get hurt. But really it all came down to the fact that you could have something I couldn’t. And it wasn’t just that: it was how we’d only been in this town for a few days and Max had already found all of you guys – had seemingly settled in here without much of a fuss whilst I was there feeling like I’d lost everything; everyone I’d ever cared for was back in Cali and I couldn’t stand the thought that I wouldn’t see them again. And now, because of what I did, I don’t think I can even look them in the eye anymore because I feel like I’ve betrayed them: one of my closest friends is black – I’ve known him for years – which only makes the fact that I could even be capable of doing something like that even worse. That whole week I was angrier than I’d ever been in my entire life. And I’m…I’m not great with control. But that’s no excuse for what I did, and I…I’m sorry that it came down to that. You didn’t deserve it. None of you did.”

There was silence for a moment. But it wasn’t awkward like before, it was contemplative – a silence brought on by a need to process everything and think it through; try and gage what to do with it and what the best response would be. Letting the truth out hadn’t been easy, but honestly Billy was just glad to get it out there – finally own up to some of the mess he’d made and face it rather than hiding away. These kids had a right to know, and now they did hopefully it meant that they could move past it all. Billy didn’t expect them to forgive him or accept him into their little ring of trust, but he did hope that, at the very least, they wouldn’t be so damn scared of him now.

“Look,” Lucas said after a while, “I get why you did it now. And I’m glad that you told me. But I can’t fully forgive you for what you did. That shit was terrifying man, and you clearly have some serious anger issues that need sorting out. So, no: I can’t fully accept your apology right now…but I think we can come to some sort of agreement.”

“I’m listening,” Billy said with interest. The kid had guts, and in some ways Billy was glad he wasn’t completely off the hook because that wouldn’t be right. He needed to make up for it, in whatever way this kid felt suitable.

“First off,” Lucas started, “you help us get Steve back. Even if it means risking your life.”

“Kind of already planned on doing that but whatever. What else?”

“Lifts. For a whole month. You have to take me, Max and any other member of the party wherever they please no matter what. Steve’s car is nice and all, but your Camaro is pretty sweet. And Lucas likes to ride in style.”

“Did you just refer to yourself in the third person?” Will asked.

“I’m bargaining, dude!” Lucas said. “Don’t question my skills of persuasion.”

Billy rolled his eyes. “Yes, fine, done.”

“I also want you to give us full control of the music in your car for that month,” Lucas said. “We get to choose what artist you listen to and when, and you’re not allowed to change it even if we’re not there. You can’t turn it off either, because that would be cheating.”

Jesus Christ, Billy could already tell that promise was going to give him hell from a mile away. But he wasn’t exactly in the position to refuse right now, so – though it pained him deeply – he accepted his fate. “Alright, fair enough. That all?”

“No!” Mike said hurriedly, pausing awkwardly when everyone stared at him before continuing with his demand. “Ice cream,” he said. “There’s a diner near here that serves really large sundaes. We all get one each, your treat.”

“And spare change for the arcade,” Max said, before adding, “I mean…if you have it.”

This deal was starting to get a little expensive, but whatever – Billy could afford it as long as he saved up a little, and if this was what it took then he’d do it. Gladly. “Fine,” he said. “Steve, lifts, music, ice cream and arcade money. We done?”

The kids glanced at each other in agreement before Lucas stuck his hand out, offering it to Billy. “Deal,” he said. And with that they shook hands, and Billy had never felt so relieved in his life. Steve was right: he should have done this ages ago. Oh well, better late than never, he thought to himself: this was a start, and he was confident things would only get better from here on out. He’d make up for what he did, even if they made him listen to ABBA in his car for a month…

Oh God, what if they made him listen to ABBA in his car for a month?

“Hey,” greeted Hopper from behind them, and they turned around to see him stood in the doorway, eyes fixed on Billy. “Someone wants to talk to you,” he said, and then he stepped aside to reveal Nancy, cheeks looking a little red and sore like she’d been crying. She stepped forward, arms wrapped around her chest as she studied them all, biting her lower lip anxiously.

“Could I speak to you alone?” she requested. Billy nodded his head and with that the kids were scrambling to their feet, Hopper seeing them through the door before finally closing it, giving them some privacy. Nancy hesitated for a moment before joining him on the steps, sitting down where El had been and fixing her gaze towards her lap where her hands were folded neatly across her knees. “Look, I er –”

“I’m sorry,” Billy said, cutting her off. As far as he was concerned he’d been the one to initiate that fight, and therefore he should be the first to apologise. “I should never have said what I did. It was petty and wrong and you didn’t deserve it.”

“No I – I did,” she said, looking up at him. “I judged you right off the bat because I thought I knew better when I didn’t. I wasn’t willing to even listen to anything you had to say and that…it wasn’t fair for me to do that. So, I’m sorry too. Besides, Steve never gave me any shit for cheating on him because he’s just too nice, and I’ve had it coming for a long time now so I guess I’m just glad somebody finally said it: it needed to be said.”

“But the way I did it was just cruel,” he argued. “Suggesting you didn’t even care or know Steve was way out of line and –”

“Yes,” she admitted. “Saying that I didn’t care about Steve was wrong on so many levels. Because I do care about him: we’ve been through a lot together and nothing can erase that. Saying that I didn’t know him, however – though rather hurtfully phrased – was right. Because I don’t know Steve. Or, at least, I don’t know him anymore. I mean, I had no idea about all of…this.” She motioned to Billy. “But I want to. I want to know about this and anything else there is to know, and I want to be there for Steve whenever he needs me because I know he’d do the same for me. So tell me: when did this all start?”

Billy was a little taken aback by her forwardness at first, but he obliged her after only a few seconds hesitation. “It was a few months ago,” he began, and then he told her everything – from that first night back in December and all the other nights after that: how they gradually grew closer the more time they spent with one another, the whole ruse of the rivalry between them, odd moments that made Nancy laugh and others that simply made her smile. He avoided anything centred around Neil or Steve’s parents but wasn’t shy about explaining to her some of the stupid arguments they had – some of the insecurities they felt, the frustration of having to keep it all a secret. And in return Nancy told him some of her stories: mainly silly little things like the time Steve had managed to get himself locked in his bathroom for three hours or when he’d climbed up a tree to rescue a cat, only for the cat to climb down by itself and leave him stuck up there. And Billy hadn’t realised until then how much he’d been missing out on stuff like this – being able to talk about his relationship openly with someone that could relate to him on some level and tell him things even he hadn’t known about Steve. It was nice, being able to share everything with someone and have them share back. And at the end of it Billy came to conclude that, despite his previous feelings, Wheeler wasn’t half bad. Wasn’t half bad at all.

“We should probably go back in now,” she said after a while, standing up and brushing herself down a bit as she moved towards the door. “Steve isn’t going to save himself. Plus we need to get you caught up on everything that’s going on.”

Billy followed her lead, getting up and standing behind her as she went to open the door but furrowing his brow in faint confusion when she paused, turning back around to face him.

“Oh, and one more thing,” she said, suddenly crossing her arms and puffing her chest out a bit, taking a stance that could be clearly read as intimidating. “Because, although I’m sure Dustin has already offered up a similar threat, I think it’s necessary to tell you that if you ever hurt Steve…I will stuff you in the boot of your shiny Camaro and send it rolling off into the quarry with you still locked inside.”

Then, with a bright smile and a smooth flick of her ponytail, she disappeared back into the house, leaving Billy standing alone on the porch, mostly shocked but also admittedly a little terrified. He was quick to follow her in a few seconds after though, huffing a laugh as he stepped back into the lounge, feeling more confident than ever.

Whoever took Steve had no idea what they were going up against... But they sure as hell were about to find out.

Chapter Text

"That's it," Billy said, pointing to the freshly marked dot on the map as he scowled, not overly pleased with what it meant.

"You're sure?" Hopper asked, leaning over his shoulder to get a better look.

"Trust me," Billy said. "I'm sure."

Hopper nodded, stepping back so he could return to pacing about the room, scratching the stubble of his beard in thought.

"Ok, so the lab has Steve," Mike started, with a shrug of his shoulders. "All we have to do is storm the place: break in, grab Steve, break out. Easy, right?"

"Yeah, not so much," Billy said, taking a separate piece of paper and drawing two squares, one inside the other. "The place is built like a fortress. My gang used to call it The Cage because it's almost impossible to escape."

Max scoffed. "Your gang?"

"Yes, my gang. Shut up, Max," Billy scolded lightly, adding four small circles to his drawing. "These are the only ways in and out," he explained pointing to each one individually. "This outer square is a wired fence: it surrounds the entire building and the only way through it – if you don’t have some wire clippers or superpowers that is – is the gate out front. This gate is controlled by a booth and is under constant supervision by at least one guard. Then we have the building itself. The main entrance is through the reception but its heavily guarded and constantly busy: no way you get through there without being noticed. So that leaves the other two entry points, both of which can only be unlocked from the inside and are meant for use in case of emergencies. So if you want to get in unnoticed your best bet is probably those two doors. Oh, and of course that’s if you even make it past the fence. The place is under constant camera surveillance with guard patrols happening by the hour, not to mention that the place was built to hold the strongest person I know, and she only just managed to scrape herself out of there. We can’t just storm the place. We need a plan – a real plan – or else anyone that sets foot in there is as good as dead,” he concluded, clipping the lid back on the pen as the room fell into silence, taking in the abundance of information.

“Let me see that,” Nancy said after a while, taking the paper when Billy offered it to her and staring at it intently. “What do you think would count as an emergency for this place?” she asked.

“I’m not sure, but I don’t think a simple fire alarm would cut it,” he replied.

“So we just need a something big, which – if we have two super-powered individuals on our side – shouldn’t be a problem,” Nancy suggested. "If people start evacuating we could slip in through the back, plus all the guards’ attention will likely be drawn to whatever started ringing the alarm bells in the first place."

"Ok, but do you not remember what happened when the demodogs broke into the lab?" Dustin said. "The entire place went on lockdown. If the lab realises whatever is causing the emergency is superpower related they might go full on code red, which makes both getting out and getting in difficult."

"The kid has a point," Hopper agreed. "Getting into the lab normally is hard enough; getting in when it's on lockdown will be damn near impossible."

"But there's no way we're getting in through the back unseen if we don't have something to draw their attention away," Nancy pressed.

"So we create a distraction," Jonathan said. "One big enough to draw their attention away but not threatening enough to cause a lockdown – nothing that could be seen as inhumanly possible. They threw us a red herring so we throw one right back: make it look like one thing is happening to cover up for what's going on underneath."

"Alright, great, we've gotten inside, but how are we meant to navigate the place and find Steve once we're in? That place is a maze, and we can't afford to waste time going in the wrong direction," Billy pointed out. “There are three separate floors and they could be keeping Steve on any of them.”

"I can look," El said, gaze determined as she stared down at the map. "Find Steve. Navigate."

“But El, if you’re navigating and fighting at the same time you’re going to wear yourself out,” Will said.

“Then she doesn’t do both at once,” Mike inserted. “She navigates on the way in, and fights on the way out.”

“Getting out will be harder than getting in,” Billy agreed. “As long as we have Scarlet we should be able to hold our own until we reach Steve. After that, we’ll need all the firepower we’ve got.”

“And we will have Scarlet, so it should all be fine, right?” Dustin said, looking expectantly at Billy. But the look he got in return was not confident in the slightest. “Dude, right?” he reiterated.

“Well, yeah, it’s likely that we’ll have her with us,” Billy fumbled, clearing his throat awkwardly as everyone else in the room turned to him, fixing him with the same expectant stare.

Likely?” Max echoed.

“I mean it’s all down to her really, but I think she’ll probably agree.”

Think?” Will said, just as Mike voiced, “Probably?”

“Man, half the reason of you being here is that you have an awesome friend with super strength!” Lucas said. “Can we count on her or not?”

“I don’t know!” Billy answered, looking exasperated as he threw his hands out in surrender. “I don’t know…I just – it’s been a while since I’ve actually talked to her or any of my other friends from Cali, ok? When we left I was distant and I didn’t tell them I was leaving and we haven’t spoken since, and I wasn’t really thinking about that too much until we started planning everything and even though I’m pretty damn certain they’d be all for it, it’s not exactly going to be easy walking up to their doorstop for the first time in months and asking for this. So, I think the answer will be yes but…I can’t promise that it definitely will be.”

Scarlet had gone through hell in that place. What Billy was asking was the equivalent of someone telling him to break into Neil’s house five years after he’d escaped it and steal something. That place was somewhere she probably never wanted to go back to, and he honestly couldn’t blame her. If she said no, she said no. That was it. Though Billy knew she wouldn’t – not ever in a million years, even after he’d disappeared for months without so much as a goodbye. Sure, there was a part of him that feared everyone back home would turn him away the second he stepped foot back on sweet Californian ground, but really – past all the insecurities – he knew he was being stupid for even thinking that. Because those people…they were his family. His real family. Flesh and blood didn’t mean shit to him: family for him meant people that had his back no matter what. There wasn’t anything to worry about – not really – but it wasn’t bad to be prepared for that possibility. Even if it was bordering impossible.

“Well, without her or not, I can hardly see what good worrying about it will do right now,” Joyce said, shedding some motherly wisdom on the situation. “I mean it’s not like we’re about to go break into the place at this instant. California’s like a day’s drive away, probably more, and when you get there and meet with this other girl she might tell you something that changes everything. So, as far as I can see it, we should just call it a night and get some rest because tomorrow you’ll want to be setting out as early as possible. No more planning tonight,” she stated. “Bedtime. All of you.”

And with that she stood up and disappeared off down the hallway to fetch some more blankets.

“Alright, you heard her,” Hopper said, clapping his hands and sending the room into motion, everyone suddenly rushing to get ready for bed, even if sleeping was the last thing on their mind right now.

Billy was at a loss for what to do. He stood up along with the rest of them but didn’t move for a moment, not really sure whether they expected him to stay here or not. But the place was pretty crowded, especially with it not even being that big to begin with, so he decided on just spending another night in the Camaro: he’d probably be more comfortable, and – chances were – so would everyone else. He was about to leave through the door, keys in hand, when Hopper approached him from across the room, eyeing him a little suspiciously like he was trying to get a read on him.

“Where you going, kid?” he asked, burying his hands in the pockets of his uniform as he came to a halt.

“It’s kinda crowded in here,” Billy said with a shrug. “Figured I’d just sleep in my car.”

“Uh huh, and where’d you sleep last night when you went off on you little adventure to Chicago?” Hopper shot back.

“…My car,” Billy confessed, suddenly subconscious of the fact he was wearing the same clothes as yesterday and his hair had probably lost half its volume.

“Thought as much,” Hopper said, eyes still a little narrowed as he stared at him. “Do your parents know where you’ve been? You thought about going home for a bit?”

No, Billy thought sourly, expression going a little dark just at the mention of ‘home’. Billy wasn’t an idiot: he’d gone off without telling Neil and if he went back now he wouldn’t be going anywhere tomorrow. He wanted to help – was needed here – but if he so much as walked through the front door of that house he’d be in no condition to do that, so he couldn’t go back there. Not right now. And he knew the more time passed the steeper the consequence would be, but he’d just have to deal with that afterwards – when all this shit had sorted itself out. When Steve was safe.

“I called them, it was fine,” Billy lied, knowing the Chief probably wouldn’t believe a word of it but going with it all the same. “Besides, it’s late and I really wouldn’t want to disturb them at this time of night.”

Hopper could see right through him. Billy could tell – could see the dots joining in his head – and though the Chief didn't know the exact details of Billy's relationship with his dad he was certainly starting to form an image in his mind that was too close to the truth for Billy's liking. He'd had arguments with Steve over this, about people knowing and helping, because he didn't want anyone's help: it would just make things worse. The last thing Billy needed was the Chief sticking his nose in places it didn’t belong. Their priority was Steve right now, not him.

“Wait here,” Hopper instructed after a few seconds silence, before walking off down the hallway in the same direction Joyce had gone. Billy stared after him, standing awkwardly by the door, vaguely aware of the weird glances he was getting from the rest of the kids in the room as they shifted pillows and blankets about on the floor. Then Hopper was back again, clapping Billy on the shoulder as he opened the door and strode outside. “Come on, kid,” he said, snatching the Camaro keys straight from his hand as he passed him. “You won’t be needing these.”

“Hey! Chief, what –” Billy scrambled after him through the door, shutting it behind him before jogging to catch up with Hopper who was stood unlocking his truck.

“Get in,” Hopper said, climbing up into driver’s seat and starting the engine whilst he waited for Billy to clamber into the passenger’s side.

“Where are we going?” Billy asked as they turned out onto the road, more confused than anything else at the sudden change of tune.

Hopper glanced at him briefly before directing his focus back to the road and tossing Billy his keys back. “My place,” he explained. “I need to change out of this uniform anyway – figured you’d be more comfortable sleeping there than here.”

“Oh,” Billy said, surprise showing plainly on his face as he clutched his keys to his chest. “I…thanks.”

“No problem, kid. No problem.”

The rest of the drive passed by in silence, as well as the short walk through the forest to finally reach the secluded cabin which Billy thought was kind of weird but didn’t question as they made their way inside. Despite its outer looks, Billy was faintly delighted to find it was actually quite cosy with the place being furnished simply: a couch, a TV, a bookcase, a record player. The space was small but it had been used well – not too crowded and not too bare. It was nice.

A picture hung on the one wall caught Billy’s attention as he looked about the room, and it didn’t take more than a bit of squinting before he was walking over to it, smile wide as he recognised the two in it immediately.

“No way…” he said, laughing in pure amusement when he got a closer look.

“Oh, yeah. Should have known you’d go straight for that,” Hopper commented, coming to stand behind the kid as he stared at the picture of Steve and Jane, caught in their post-makeover glory.

So this is the all-famous artist, Billy thought as he stared at El, looking equally as ‘pretty’ as Steve. And then it clicked for him how much Steve had been hiding from him – how many details he must have left out whenever he talked about babysitting the Chief’s daughter, because there was no way in hell some mischief with powers hadn’t gone on whilst Hopper was away. It hurt him a little to think that Steve had been lying to him for so long but his cause for doing so had been good, so Billy really couldn’t be too mad at him: he’d been protecting El; and, in some ways, he’d been protecting Billy too.

“You know, this was the night we first kissed,” Billy said, fingers trailing over the glass of the frame.

No,” Hopper said in disbelief. “Was he still –?”

“Oh yeah,” Billy confirmed, smiling as Hopper laughed beside him.

“Well, you’re not gonna forget something like anytime soon,” Hopper stated, walking away into the kitchen and starting to rifle through some of the cupboards.

“No…no I’m not,” Billy mumbled to himself, eyes glancing over Steve’s face on last time before he turned to face Hopper, watching him now staring at the contents of the fridge critically.

“You want something to eat?” Hopper asked, eyes scanning the shelves for something edible and in date. Monday was usually the designated day for shopping but he’d had a little more on his mind than microwavable meals today.

Billy didn’t even have to answer as his stomach did it for him, letting out a loud growl at the offer, clearly displeased with being disregarded for so long.

“I’ll take that as a yes,” Hopper said, retrieving a yellow box before closing the fridge, flipping it round to show Billy what their grand meal would be tonight. “Well, I hope you like Eggos.”

It was a little strange eating waffles for dinner but Billy was hardly about to complain. Once they were done, Hopper went about making him a makeshift bed on the couch as well as finding him some old clothes that he’d grown out of years ago. After that he disappeared off to his own room, leaving Billy alone to sleep. Though sleeping was pretty much the last thing Billy felt capable of doing in that moment – he was a little tired, sure, but his thoughts were running rampant around his mind with everything he’d learned today, filling in gaps he hadn’t truly realised were even there: Steve’s nightmares, his slight paranoia, his need to turn on every light in his house when he got home, the goddamn nailed bat that he kept under his bed.

“You know, the other world that's like ours but not, with all the interdimensional alien, monster things and stuff? Big flower heads, lots of teeth?”

Billy couldn’t even begin to imagine the things Steve had seen, and honestly he didn’t want to. But he still wished he could have known sooner. That he could have understood from the beginning. Because for the past two months since they started seeing each other, Billy had been telling Steve that they were just nightmares – that they weren’t real: monsters didn’t exist…

But he’d been wrong. And he hadn’t even known.

Chapter Text

1:23am, Saturday 23rd February, 1985.

Billy tended to be a light sleeper: could doze off easily enough but would wake up at the faintest sound or shift in his environment. Honestly it was kind of a pain half the time, especially on nights when he slept with his window open or when the sun started coming up and the birds decided to have a fucking rave over it. He hadn’t had as much of a problem with them back in Cali, but here in middle-of-nowhere Indiana the winged bastards were damn near inescapable. Steve, on the other hand, was the opposite as far as Billy could tell: he struggled to settle down at first but once he was gone, he was gone – dead to the world; sometimes he’d even sleep through his alarm which was quite the feat given how blaringly loud the thing was. They had been dating for a week now and this was the third time Billy had slept in Steve’s bed – a very nice upgrade from the couch which wasn’t only comfortable as hell but also came equipped with one pretty boy – and both previous times had been the best night’s sleep Billy had ever had. Which was why Billy was taken by surprise when he woke up at nearly half one in the morning to find the space next to him unoccupied and Steve sat on the end of the bed, breathing raggedly with his knees drawn up to his chest and his arms wrapped around legs, rocking back and forth shallowly like he was trying to sooth himself.

“Steve?” Billy asked softly, blinking owlishly as his eyes adjusted to the light in the room – Steve having apparently turned his lamp up to full brightness – and rubbing some of the sleep from his eyes. Steve didn’t seem to hear him though so he shuffled forward slightly, reaching out a hand to touch the other boy’s shoulder as he edged closer. “Hey, what’s–?”

Steve flinched violently as soon as Billy’s fingers so much as brushed against him and the movement was so sudden that Billy jumped a little himself, retracting his hand immediately and sitting backwards, giving Steve some space because he was unsure of what else to do: he’d never seen Steve like this – never seen him so terrified before, brown eyes wide with panic as he stared at Billy without really seeing him. But soon enough, recognition slowly started to filter into his expression after a few seconds and he was beginning to calm down a little, looking at Billy apologetically as he came to realise what had happened.

“Shit, Billy, sorry. I didn’t – did I wake you?” Steve asked, shuffling around to face him – his body still hunched in on itself and tense as he sat there.

“Yeah, but that’s ok: I don’t mind,” Billy said, slowly moving forward again when he sensed that Steve wouldn’t flinch away anymore and stopping when he was sat directly in front of him. “You alright?”

“What? Yeah, no, I – I’m fine. Just a stupid nightmare,” Steve said, sniffling a little as he threaded his fingers through Billy’s, then sighing in relief when Billy put his other hand on top, encompassing his palm completely.

“You sure?” Billy pressed, because Steve sure as hell didn’t look fine: he seemed jumpy like he half expected something to come crashing through the window. “We can talk about it if you want.”

“No, it’s alright. Just the usual monsters and shit – I’m pretty used to it by now,” Steve said.

“Monsters, huh?” Billy felt that maybe there was a little more to it than that, and he certainly didn’t like what ‘pretty used to it by now’ implied. But it was late. And they were tired so he decided not to focus on that right now and instead try and get Steve calm enough to go back to sleep. Steve clearly didn’t want to talk about it right now and Billy wouldn’t push him to. Instead, he smirked, staring Steve in the eye as he smiled devilishly. “That’s funny,” he said, “because I’m pretty sure the only monster in this room is secured safely in my pants.”

A beat passed where Steve’s mind failed to process the words immediately but once the realisation hit, it hit hard, and Steve found himself involuntarily snorting as he cracked up – thoughts of sharp teeth and claws replaced with something entirely different that had heat rising to his cheeks and turning them red despite his best efforts to hide the effect the comment had had on him. “You’re terrible,” Steve wheezed.

“I’m a delight,” Billy countered, laughing when Steve whacked him playfully on the arm, no longer tense like he had been before. “And I can assure you that said monster is quite tame and polite when you need it to be.”

“Oh my God! Stop!” Steve whined, grabbing a pillow and planting it square in Billy’s face, determined to cover up the red flush invading his neck and cheeks. “Besides,” he added, “I’d hardly call it a monster when mine is bigger.”

Billy stopped laughing immediately, going still as he slowly retracted the pillow from his face, blonde curls in the most adorable state of disarray Steve had ever seen but he forced himself to keep a straight face as Billy stared at him indignantly. “You’re wrong,” Billy said.

“No, I’m not.”

“Yes, you are.”

“We’ve literally showered together,” Steve argued. “You know mine’s longer than yours.”

“Ok, fine. Maybe by like a millimetre,” Billy compromised, ignoring Steve’s scoff of disagreement. “But I have more girth.”

“Girth doesn’t mean shit,” Steve said.

“Oh, pretty boy,” Billy countered, leaning in closer and watching the way Steve’s eyes settled on his lips. “Girth means everything.” They were sharing the same air now, breath ghosting over each other’s lips, and Billy closed the distance for a fraction of a second, pecking a kiss on Steve’s mouth teasingly before withdrawing and marvelling at the confused expression on the other’s face as he leant back, a cocky smirk lining his expression. “And I would love to prove that point to you,” Billy continued, “but we agreed to take things slow. So, we’re going to drag our blue balls back to bed and try and get some sleep before I have to leave in two hours.”

Steve gaped at him openly, mind short circuiting for a second before finally catching up with everything. And honestly he’d never hated the decision to take things slow more in his life but Billy was right: they had agreed to take things slow. Hell, it had actually been Steve’s idea because he’d never had sex with a guy before and the thought of it kind of made him nervous, plus him and Billy had only really been dating for a week and a small part of him was scared it wouldn’t work out. So – although slow was frustrating as hell – Steve wasn’t about to break that agreement right now. He just…wasn’t ready yet. And the fact that Billy understood that and went out of his way to respect Steve’s wishes got him feeling warm inside in a whole other kind of way. One that was more innocent and obsessed with all the little details, and was completely falling hard and fast for Billy Hargrove and his stupid innuendos that made Steve feel like he was in a fucking furnace.

“I hate you,” Steve commented lightly, crawling back up the bed and settling into the covers, dimming his lamplight back down to just above the minimum as Billy huffed a laugh, returning to his side of the bed as well.

“Whatever you say, princess,” he said, smiling contently when he rested his head back against the pillow, watching Steve fuss over his sleeping position for a second before eventually curling into Billy’s side, reaching a hand across to intertwine with Billy’s as he got comfortable, hair flicking out in every possible direction.

They lay like that then, closing their eyes and trying to drift off. And it took Steve a minute or two before he realised that he wasn’t scared anymore: that Billy had taken his paranoia and fear and turned it into…well, arousal in a matter of seconds. Usually it would take Steve over an hour to calm down after a nightmare like that, and he’d spend the rest of the night being skittish and not sleeping until daylight was showing through his blinds, but Billy had somehow managed to make him forget about the incident completely and even as he remembered it all now he wasn’t scared by it anymore. Actually he felt…safe.

He may not be able to fully convince himself that the gate was closed, but maybe…just maybe he could convince himself that as long as Billy was around that stuff couldn’t touch him. Couldn’t even come near. And that thought was nice. Really nice.

4:16pm, Sunday 24th March, 1985.

"Honey, I'm home!" Billy called jokingly as he slid aside the backdoor, stepping into the lounge before closing it behind him and looking around. Usually he only visited Steve at night just for the simple sake of secrecy but he'd wanted to surprise him today – thought it would be nice to maybe actually share a meal with him at a normal time rather than eating when the rest of the town was calling it a day. He'd checked the drive out front before he came round just to make sure Steve parents weren't home but it seemed they were absent as always, meaning Steve was home alone. Well, at least Billy thought he was. "Steve?" he called out again, pausing when he heard a faint metallic clatter from somewhere in the house followed by some cursing and more fumbling about.

"Billy?" came Steve's voice, sounding most certainly surprised but not in the way Billy had hoped – more panicky and nervous like he'd been caught doing something he shouldn't.

Billy followed the sound, walking through the lounge and into the hallway. "You in the kitchen?" he asked, heading towards said door but being brought to an abrupt stop as it was slammed in his face before he could walk through. Okaaaay, he thought uneasily, listening intently to the sounds coming from within the room, hand resting on the handle but not pushing down just yet. That's when the smell hit him: something sweet and chocolaty and practically mouth-watering. Was Steve cooking?

"Just a second!" Steve called, and though he probably wasn’t meant to Billy could hear the string of profanities that quickly followed after.

“Is everything alright?” Billy asked uncertainly.

“NO! No! Yeah, everything is fine!” Steve said. “I just wasn’t expecting you!”

Fuck it, Billy was going in there. It most certainly did not sound like everything was fine and Steve was clearly panicking over something. So, without any second thoughts, he grabbed the handle and pulled, opening the door and stepping inside in one swift motion.

“WAIT, NO, DON’T!”

Holy shit…

The kitchen was a mess: something was splattered on the walls and floor and every surface was somehow in use, crammed with trays and bowls and ingredients, and Steve was stood in the middle of it all – flour smudged across his apron and face along with whatever spilled concoction he’d been trying to clean up with a damp kitchen towel before Billy had barged in. And now they were both just stood there gaping at each other, one shocked from the intrusion and the other shocked from what he’d intruded on. Speaking of which: what exactly had he intruded on?

“Are you…” Billy glanced about the room in bewilderment, gaze darting from mixing bowels to cupcake trays, “baking?”

No,” Steve said stubbornly. “I’m just…I’m spring cleaning.”

“…Spring cleaning?” Billy reiterated, crossing his arms as he tried force back a laugh, wanting to see how far Steve would take this lie before breaking.

“Well, yeah,” Steve continued. “I mean – it’s Spring so…time to clean.”

“Uh huh. What’s with the apron?”

Steve looked down at himself, momentarily stuck for words. “It’s, er, my cleaning apron. You know…because dirt and stuff – I wouldn’t want to ruin my favourite polo so –”

“But you’re not wearing your favourite polo,” Billy pointed out.

“What? I –” Steve looked down again, pulling his apron forward a little so he could see underneath, eyebrows pulling together in confusion as he stared down at the plain white t-shirt. “Oh…”

Billy was there then, cupping Steve’s face between his hands and looking up at him with a faint concern as he studied him carefully. “Hey, you ok?” he asked.

Steve flushed – he always flushed when Billy got this close – and stumbled over his words for a second before answering. “Yeah, fine,” he said. “And I wasn’t baking – I don’t bake – that’s not –” Billy raised his eyebrows at him, and it didn’t take a genius to see where Max had gotten her trademark look of incredulity from. “I…I was baking,” Steve admitted defeatedly. “I was baking and I was making brownies and cookies and I was going to make cupcakes but I heard you come in and the mixture went everywhere and – if you tell anyone that I bake I swear to god, your ass is grass Hargrove! I’m serious, you tell no one about this or I’ll – SHIT, MY COOKIES!”

Suddenly Steve was dashing past Billy and shoving on a pair of oven gloves as quickly as possible, leaving Billy to stand and watch in mild bewilderment as Steve leant down and opened the oven doors, retrieving a tray of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies which honestly smelled goddamn heavenly and placing them on the side carefully before shutting the oven again.

“So, is this something you do regularly or…?”

Steve glanced at him briefly before turning back to the counter to fuss over the baked goods. “No – I mean, I wouldn’t say regularly: it’s more of a spur of the moment thing. It’s like a stress relief hobby, it helps me calm down.”

“What are you stressed about?” Billy asked as he wandered over, wrapping his arms around Steve’s waist and peering over his shoulder to watch him work.

“It’s stupid,” Steve muttered, trying to focus on transferring the cookies onto the cooling rack without burning himself rather than the hot furnace behind him which he was suddenly leaning against. How was Billy so hot all the damn time? Sometimes Steve wondered if he’d just absorbed all that Cali heat and stored it in his body because honestly the guy might as well be a radiator with the constant warmth he was giving off.

“Not to me it isn’t,” Billy said, prompting Steve to turn around and face him. “Come on, hit me: what has the prettiest boy in town so worked up he had to go on a baking binge?”

Steve glanced away, clearly embarrassed to even admit it. “The, um…the light in my bathroom flickered this morning.”

Oh. Oh. If Steve had said that to anyone else, they’d have probably thought he was crazy, but Billy knew about Steve’s nightmares now – about flickering lights and monsters bursting through the ceiling – and he knew just how sensitive Steve could be to something so small: he had some serious paranoia issues and once something set him off he found it difficult to calm down again. But he was getting better. Slowly but surely and with some help from Billy, he was learning to control his fear and stop his thoughts from running rampant so freely. If something like this had happened a few months ago Steve would have probably run out the house and isolated himself in his car for an hour or so. It saddened Billy to think that Steve had had to deal with this by himself for so long – just soldier through all that anxiety and fear alone with no one to help him. But Billy was here now. And he’d do whatever it took to get Steve through this.

“I only really panicked for a minute or two before replacing the bulb,” Steve explained. “But afterwards I was just…kind of a mess – but not like a real mess, you know? More of a mild mess: I was restless and jumpy and I felt like I just needed to do something so…”

“Baking?” Billy supplied.

“Baking,” Steve agreed with a small nod.

Neither of them spoke for a moment. Billy could tell Steve was still on edge a little even if he was trying to hide it. And that simply wouldn’t do. Simply wouldn’t do at all.

“Well then,” Billy said, stepping back and heading over to the door to retrieve a pink apron that was hanging on the back of it. It was definitely at least two sizes too small but as far as Billy was concerned he was rocking the look. “Those cupcakes aren’t gonna make themselves.”

In the end, all Steve could do was stand and stare as Billy went about cleaning up the kitchen, picking up the damp kitchen towel Steve had tossed to the side and beginning to wipe down the surfaces, throwing any utensils that were dirty into the sink as he went. After a few minutes he turned back to Steve, an amused smile on his lips when he saw the expression on his face.

“Come on, princess,” he said. “If you think I have any idea what I’m doing here you are very much mistaken.”

“Right…” Steve said, watching on in wonder for a few seconds more before finally snapping back to his senses. “Right! Um, yeah, just put all the stuff in there and I’ll check I have enough ingredients before we –”

“Oh wait,” Billy said, swiping the towel across Steve’s cheek and outright smirking at the red blush that swept over it almost immediately. “Missed a spot.”

Steve didn’t do anything at first. Just glared a little in retaliation. Then, with a shrug, he reached over for the bag of flour, dipped his hand in and wiped it down Billy’s face smugly.

“Yes, you did,” Steve said bluntly, before swiftly turning around and walking to the other side of the kitchen to retrieve the measuring scales with one of the most stupidly pleased smiles Billy had ever seen. And in that moment something told him that the kitchen was probably going to end up a hell of a lot messier than it already was.

8:46pm, Friday 29th March, 1985.

“Alright, ready or not, here I come!”

Steve had said those words twenty minutes ago. The cabin was small – tiny – and it only had like four rooms: the kitchen, the lounge, the bathroom, El’s room and Hopper’s room. And yes that sounded like five rooms but the kitchen and lounge were joined so technically they were one big room, right? Whatever, Steve honestly couldn’t care less, all he was really concerned about right now was how the hell he’d managed to completely fail at finding El after twenty minutes of searching when there were only a very limited amount of hiding places she could be in. Seriously, was he blind? Or was he just being dumb? Honestly, probably both but still, like…how? WHERE?

When El had first suggested they played hide and seek, Steve hadn’t seen a problem with it: what could possibly go wrong? Everything. Everything could go wrong. Steve had searched each room at least ten times and he had found nothing – no one: he’d moved sofas, looked under beds, opened cabinets, flung back curtains, even dared to poke his head down into the cobweb-infested space hidden below the lounge where Hopper tended to dump random shit he didn’t need any more and – wait did that count as a room? Huh, maybe there were five rooms after all…But that wasn’t the point: the point was that Steve couldn’t find El anywhere and for all he knew, she may not even still be in the cabin at all. He’d tried calling out for her when he felt too much time had passed but had gotten no response, so she was either extremely dedicated to this game or quite simply gone, the latter of which would mean Steve was as good as dead when Hopper got home. But where would she even go? What motive could she possibly have for–?

Mike.

That sneaky little bastard. If Jane was gone because Mike had somehow convinced her – and probably the rest of the shitheads – that they should sneak out and have a meet up in the middle of the damn night and just leave Steve to cover for them because they knew he wouldn’t agree if they straight up asked him to do it but that he’d also totally do it if the situation was forced on him because damn it he had soft spot for those kids and they knew it. Oh, they were so dead. No lifts for a week! Two weeks! A month! That’d teach them.

“Remember what we agreed,” Steve said, walking around the lounge on his final sweep of the cabin, probably talking to no one but figuring he’d give it one last try anyway. “No going outside, and no powers.”

“No powers?”

Steve almost had a goddamn heart attack: he practically jumped out of his skin, letting out an embarrassingly high pitched yelp as he leaped backwards, gaze shooting upwards towards the voice.

Holy shi–” El was on the ceiling. El was on the fucking ceiling and – oh dear God, how the fuck had she even…? “Yeah,” Steve said, watching as she casually wiped her nose on the back of her sleeve, hair dangling down messily around her face. “Yeah, no powers but – Jesus – don’t stop using them now. Can you, er…can you get down?”

She stared at him for a second before closing her eyes, brow creasing in focus as she slowly lowered herself to the ground, rotating gradually until she was standing upright in front of him, a drop of blood trickling down her chin. Had she been there the entire time? Jesus, he must have looked like such an idiot wandering past her god knows how many times without even blinking an eye. But she had to be tired now. There was no way using her powers consistently for that long hadn’t had any effect on her, which was why Steve was concerned now – worried that she may have pushed herself too far just for the sake of trying to win a game.

“You alright?” he asked.

“Yes, I’m fine,” she said, before pausing for a second in thought. “But I’m hungry.”

“Well, that’s clearly unacceptable,” Steve said, walking into the kitchen with Jane skipping excitedly behind him as he opened the fridge. “Alright, it’s leftover night so what do you fancy? We’ve got –”

One of the bowls in the fridge started moving forward by itself as other items were pushed aside to make way for it. It hovered in the air in front of Steve before he took it, looking at its content with interest as he shut the fridge door.

“Oooh, spaghetti and meatballs,” he observed. “A fine choice if I do say so myself.”

He wandered over to the counter with El trailing after him, watching intently as he put the bowl down and fetched out two dishes and a spoon, letting her put out her own serving before placing a plate on top and sticking it in the microwave. Once it was reheated, he put his own dish in, watching her use her powers to move the hot meal over to the table and set it down carefully before settling into her seat and grating cheese onto it, eyes wide with delight as she watched it melt. If there was one thing in the world that kid loved more than anything else – apart from friends and Mike, of course – it was food. Which, when you considered she’d lived in a lab half her life and probably had to live off the blandest of meals ever to exist, wasn’t all that surprising.

Hopper returned home a few minutes after Steve sat down, coming in and helping himself to the remainder of the spaghetti – simply putting the whole bowl in the microwave and then grabbing a single fork and devouring it as soon as it was ready like a man possessed. Steve liked nights like these. There was just something so comfortable and welcoming about it: sitting down at a table and eating with Hopper and El gave him a sense of family and belonging that he’d never felt before – his parents were always so distant and any family meals together were just quiet and tense and Steve would want to leave before he’d even started eating, but this…this was different. The conversation was light and casual and flowed freely, and Steve didn’t feel like he was about to get grilled with a million questions about school and grades; they’d talk about anything and everything, from common, small things like the weather to some of the most bizarre sights the Chief had encountered during his career as a police officer. Sometimes Steve would even stay for a little while after dinner, simply to either watch TV or play a game. But that wasn’t the plan for tonight.

So, when they were all finished and the dishes were cleaned – and after they’d split between them what Hopper had called an Eggo Extravaganza – Steve said his goodbyes and made his way back to his house. Because, as much as he loved spending time with El and Hopper, for the first time in forever he had someone waiting back home for him. That, and he was pretty sure that if he didn’t hurry the entirety of his dad’s bourbon would be gone. He’d noticed Billy had managed to sneakily steal the key to the liquor cabinet from him when he wasn’t looking. It was a kind of game between them now: Billy would try and break into the cabinet, and Steve would try and stop him. Whenever Billy failed he had to complete a dare of Steve’s choice, and whenever Steve failed he had to complete a dare of Billy’s choice. So far, Billy had purchased and worn a crop top to school and Steve had performed a recreation of the dance scene from Risky Business in his lounge.

Thankfully, the drive back wasn’t too long and his timing was pretty much perfect because when he walked into the lounge he found Billy casually leaning against the side counter in an attempt to hide the open liquor cabinet and decanter of bourbon no doubt freshly opened but not yet poured if the empty glass by Billy’s side was anything to go by. Steve paid it no mind, pretending to be oblivious as he moved forward, giving Billy a slight peck on the lips in greeting.

“Hey,” he said, smiling slyly as he mirrored Billy’s stance. He’d caught him, and that meant the next dare was his to pick. So he was dragging it out a bit, giving himself some time to think of how he would use this power.

“Hey,” Billy said back, eyes darting from Steve’s eyes to his lips and then back again. “And how’s the best babysitter in all of Hawkins doing today? Those little tyrants not giving you any trouble are they?”

Oh, Billy was laying the sweet talk on thick. He knew he was screwed. “Actually, just the one kid today,” Steve corrected, trying to keep his smugness supressed for just a few seconds longer. “And I will have you know that she is an angel.”

“This the Chief’s daughter again?”

“Yeah. But, oh my god, you will not believe what she did during a game of hide and seek today – she almost gave me a freaking heart attack: I was looking for her for ages, and the place is small so, like, I should have found her within minutes. It got to the point I thought she might have actually left the house. Then, in the end, it turns out she –” Wait, Steve shouldn’t be saying this. Shouldn’t be saying any of this. What the hell is he doing? He can’t tell Billy that the Chief’s daughter used her special powers to float up onto the ceiling! Oh god, but what can he say instead? He’s started this now: it’ll be weird if he suddenly just stops talking halfway through. Come on, think! Think, think, think! “– managed to climb up onto the roof. Yeah, I went outside and saw her just sat to the side of her bedroom window. I was worried she was gonna, like, fall or something.”

If Billy registered Steve’s slight pause he didn’t show it, simply smiling in amusement. “Kid’s got balls. Reminds me of when the gang and I used to play around Pops’. You would not believe some of the places we crammed ourselves into – Mickey was the best: he used to be tiny, could fit himself everywhere and anywhere.”

“This the one you call ‘Megaphone’ because he’s loud as hell?”

“Damn right. Which is why it surprised us all when we couldn’t find him for like an hour straight. Mickey’s usually one to give away his position by laughing but this one time he took it real serious, mainly because we decided the winner with the best hiding spot got everyone’s candy. Anyway, it got to the point where we thought he’d just skipped off without telling us so we stopped searching. Then, lo and behold, Pops finds us in the backyard and thanks us for taking out the trash. But we hadn’t. Neither of us had touched the trash, and Nana P sure as hell hadn’t done it. So, we went and checked out the can in the kitchen...”

“Oh, he was not.”

“Oh, but he was. Mickey had thrown the trash outside and taken its place inside the bin, and had been sat there for over an hour.”

“Ew, gross. Didn’t it smell?”

“Yeah, like a trunk full of rotten eggs,” Billy snickered. “And Mickey was totally sick for the entire week after, but he still got all our candy and to this day remains reigning champion of hide and seek.”

“Your friends are insane,” Steve said, nose scrunched at the idea of hiding in a trash can for over an hour. “And honestly I can’t tell if you got it from them, or if they got it from you.”

Billy huffed a laugh. “I like to think we all chipped in a little bit each, though half the crazy I’m sure came from Nana P – that woman has a trunkful of stories, most of which have to be bullshit because there is just no way that a person fits a whole damn cow into a –” Billy paused, taking in Steve’s expression and the way he was looking at Billy with so much fondness and love in that moment, like his whole world and everything he cared for was standing right in front of him. “Why are you looking at me like that?”

“You’re cute when you talk about your friends,” Steve said, smiling dopily. “You, like, light up.”

Billy blushed, taken aback by the sudden compliment. “Oh yeah?” he said, trying to remain smooth and collected as Steve inched closer.

“Yeah. And you know what else?” Steve was practically pressed up against him now, breath ghosting over Billy’s lips, teasing.

“What?” Billy asked, mind short circuiting when Steve closed the distance, kissing him sweet and soft, momentarily pushing in closer before stepping back again, smile turned mischievous as he held up the decanter of bourbon and – ah, shit.

“I win,” Steve said, very obviously smug about his second victory.

“No fair,” Billy pouted. “I was so close! Come on, I got it out the cabinet – surely that counts for something?”

“Nope. You know the rules: you have to drink it. And this,” Steve held out the decanter for emphasis, shaking it slightly in his hand, “is untouched.”

Those were his famous last words before Billy was suddenly snatching the decanter straight from Steve’s grasp, removing the glass cork from its top and quickly taking a swig of bourbon, sending a sharp grin at Steve once he was done and revelling in the pure shock showing on the other’s face.

“You wanna run that by me again?” Billy said confidently, taking a second swallow just to rub it in a little more.

“That’s…That doesn’t count,” Steve argued, mouth agape in his state of disbelief.

“Oh, but I think it does. It’s like you said, princess: to win, I’ve gotta drink it. And I believe this qualifies as drinking it.”

“But I – I caught you. I took it before you drank it and–”

“–And then you lost it again,” Billy finished. Sure, it was a pretty dirty move but still perfectly valid in his opinion. “I win. You lose. I choose the dare. Sorry, babe, but that’s just how the game works: no need to be a sore loser about it.”

“I’m not a – you didn’t – I just…” Steve trailed off, settling on glaring at Billy as he accepted his defeat. “I hate you.”

“You love me.”

“Shut up,” Steve said, taking the decanter back from Billy before he could drink anymore and placing the cork back in it, then holding out his hand expectantly. “Key.”

Billy grinned, taking out the cabinet key from his pocket and handing it over, watching amusedly as Steve bent down to put the decanter back before locking the cabinet once more.

“When did you even take this?” Steve asked begrudgingly, placing the key carefully into his back right pocket.

“Last night,” Billy smirked. “When you were…distracted.” He flicked his tongue out, pleased and cocky and very, very proud of himself.

“I’ll get you back,” Steve stated, cheeks burning but more competitive than ever: this wasn’t the end – Billy may be one win ahead of him but he’d be damned if he lost the next round; Billy was going down, one way or another.

“I’m sure you will,” Billy said. “But in the meantime, I do believe I have a dare to check in.”

Steve sighed. “Fine. What is it?”

“Oh, Stevie,” Billy stated, smiling wickedly as leaned forward a little. “You’re going to love it.”

And in that moment Steve knew he was fucked. Completely and utterly fucked.

7:00am, Tuesday 16th April, 1985.

They’d gotten up at six, showered, grabbed a bite to eat and then headed back to the Byers’ where everyone else was pretty much ready and waiting. The kids were all stood on the porch, still in their pyjamas except for El who was dressed in jeans and a baggy flannel shirt, with a side bag slung over her shoulder, all of them watching Nancy pack something into the boot of Jonathan’s car before slamming it shut, giving Billy and Hopper a nod in greeting as they got out the truck.

“What’s the travel plan?” she asked, and they all gathered round the hood of the car as Hopper took out a map, showing them the route he’d planned last night.

They were travelling as continuously as possible: taking minimal breaks here and there when they had to and driving in shifts between the four of them, only taking two cars for the journey – Billy’s Camaro and Jonathan’s Ford – thinking it would get too crowded with the five of them squeezing into one. Hopper was more than reluctant to get in the Camaro with Billy behind the wheel and El in the backseat, but it wasn’t exactly like he had another choice. Billy was sure if the Chief was able to he would drive the whole way there and back himself, preferably in his truck as well but it wouldn’t exactly be a surprise attack if they rolled up to the Cali lab in a vehicle with ‘HAWKINS POLICE DEPT.’ written on the side.

Once they were fully packed and ready, they set off out the drive, Joyce and the kids waving them out on their way. The plan was to be in Cali by lunchtime tomorrow. It wasn’t ideal but there was no way of shortening the distance any more than they already had: Steve would just have to hold out for a bit longer.

They were coming for him. And there was no way in hell they’d be going home without him.

Chapter Text

2:18pm, Tuesday 16th April, 1985.

The journey was going by steadily with few difficulties so far apart from the stiffness that came from sitting for hours on end and the ever-growing desire for the drive to be over that stretched the seconds into minutes and made one hour feel like three. Jonathan had brought some mixtapes to pass the time, figuring some music would lighten the atmosphere a little and act as a nice background distraction but when the tracks started to loop it just turned into noise and each song seemed to blur into the next as he sat in the passenger seat, idly watching the landscape roll by in a lazy, unfocused blur of colours.

Nancy switched the music off after a while, shifting and straightening herself in the driver’s seat as she tried to shake off the tension in her shoulders. But it was a pretty pointless effort since she was sat so rigidly, hands gripping the wheel tightly as she stared pointedly ahead, her focus clear in the way her eyebrows were scrunched up as she watched the road.

“We’re not gonna get pulled over,” Jonathan said, stretching in his seat as much as he could before sitting up and turning to face Nancy who only shot him the briefest of glances before speaking.

“You don’t know that, Jonathan,” she argued. “And if we do then –”

“Why would we get pulled over?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” Nancy said, “because I’m speeding –”

“You’re not speeding.”

“– or I’m going too slow or –”

“You’re not going too slow.”

“– I don’t check my mirrors and maybe the headlights are on –”

“What?”

“– or maybe they’re just an asshole but…I don’t have my driving license, Jonathan! Not yet. And if we get pulled over and I was driving and I have no license then –”

“Nancy… Nancy,” he repeated, leaning over to put a reassuring hand on her knee as she took a breath, gaze still focused intently ahead. “We’re not gonna get pulled over, alright? Your driving is perfect, and I would have told you if it wasn’t. We’re fine. You’re fine.”

“Thanks,” she said, easing her grip on the wheel a little and flashing him a small smile. “I just…the journey’s so long already and I – I just don’t want us to have to stop because of something stupid and waste time that we should be using to get to Steve.”

“I know. The distance is a pain but we’ll be there soon.”

“Let’s just hope that ‘soon’ isn’t too late.”

Jonathan stared at her for a moment, trying to read the thoughts behind her expression and words. “You don’t think they took him because of Eleven, do you?”

At first Nancy didn’t answer him, chewing absentmindedly on her lower lip as she put together a response in her head, clearly still trying to make sense of it herself. “No,” she said. “At first I was easily convinced, but now the more I think about it the less sure I am.”

“Me too,” Jonathan agreed. “I don’t know why, it just seems too…complex? I mean, if the lab really were after El surely this isn’t the way they’d go about it – why not just spy on us all? Plant bugs in our houses and send people to follow us round, just blending in with everyone else like they did at the park?”

“Exactly. Everything about this just seems too risky for them: why go through all that effort when it was all bound to lead back to them anyway? They know what El is capable of – that she can find people – what, did they just not think we’d use her to find Steve? We were going to realise it was them one way or another, and they must have known that we would, so whatever they think they’re getting out of this…it has to be big. It has to outweigh the risk of it all.”

“But, if it’s not El, what could they possibly get that’s of so much worth from kidnapping Steve?”

“I don’t know,” Nancy said. “But we’re going to find out, and we’re going to stop them… like we always do.”

7:43pm, Tuesday 16th April, 1985.

“Alright, I spy with my little eye…something beginning with…C.”

“Car – cars. Camaro,” Hopper guessed, eyes still focused on the road as he tried to think.

“No, no, and no,” Billy said, staring at nothing in particular as he sat in the passenger seat, determined not to give the answer away.

“Cat?” El asked.

Billy turned around to shoot her a confused glance. “Where the hell do you see a cat?”

She shrugged innocently, slouched in the middle backseat with her hands still holding her bag, fiddling with the strap of it as she peered out the windows, watching the world around them pass with a mild interest. She’d never played the game before, and her language skills were still very much a working progress which made it a little more difficult for her but it was definitely good practice, and she seemed to be enjoying herself. It was easy to see when she was uncertain of a word: her gaze would fixate on a point and her eyebrows would scrunch together in concentration as she tried to figure it out. Billy and Hopper never chose any words they didn’t think she would know, keeping the game fair and light as the minutes crawled by.

“Clouds. Clothes. Colours,” Hopper rattled off, a lot more invested in the game than Billy originally thought he would be. “Oh god, it’s not like a specific colour is it? Like one of those really fancy ones like…cyan.”

“What? No – no to all of that.”

“Candy,” El said, looking at the packet of sweets stashed in the one car door that Hopper had brought along for the journey.

“Nope. That’s a good one though,” Billy commented, watching El smile proudly before continuing to look about, eyes darting back and forth as she searched.

“Ah,” Hopper said, an idea occurring to him as he spied the watch on his wrist. “Clock.”

“No.”

“Camera?”

“No.”

“C-C...Ca…Cla – climate.”

Billy snorted. “No.”

“Capitalism,” El said.

“Where did you learn that word from?” Hopper asked, sparing her a bewildered look in the rear view mirror as Billy laughed.

“Paper,” El responded, squinting at something outside the one window. “Said that you could see it everywhere.”

“Alright…” Hopper said, turning his gaze back to the road as Billy assured them that no, sadly the answer was not capitalism. A few seconds passed in silence, before Hopper sighed, mind blanking completely. “Inside or out?” he asked.

Billy smirked, clearly pleased with his choice of word. “Inside.”

Bastard’s being sneaky, Hopper thought to himself. The answer was here somewhere, probably right there in front of his face – obvious and yet something that wouldn’t come to mind immediately. What was it? He took a quick glance round the car before settling his gaze back on the road, taking one hand off the wheel momentarily to scratch at the stubble on his chin while he thought, nothing much coming to his mind until he caught Billy in the corner of his eye, looking at him briefly before quickly redirecting his gaze to above Hopper, towards the –

“Oh, I see,” Hopper said, smiling cockily as he pointed upward, staring at Billy directly as he spoke. “Ceiling.”

Billy huffed a laugh, looking away for a second and nodding his head a little as Hopper turned back to the road, already planning what word he was going to pick next when – “No.”

“I...oh, come on!” Hopper yelled in frustration as Billy laughed, overly smug with his little joke. “You’re mean, Hargrove. Real mean.”

“Yeah, well maybe if you hadn’t of been so confident I wouldn’t have been tempted to–”

“Chief,” El interrupted, pointing at Hopper thoughtfully as she looked towards Billy questioningly. “Chief?”

“Well, I’ll be damned,” Billy said. “God job, Janey, you got it.”

El practically beamed as soon as he confirmed it, brown eyes lighting up happily as she smiled before her expression turned quizzical again and she turned her head to the side slightly. “I choose now?”

“Yep,” said Hopper. “Pick a good one, kid. Can be anything and everything, just as long as you can see it.” Her attention was gone from him then, drawn to the windows where she stared out at the world as it passed by, lips pursing slightly in wonder at all the choice. Hopper turned back to the road for a little while before he noticed Billy was oddly quiet now, slumped in his seat and gazing blankly ahead, jaw clenched slightly as some thought or other played out in his mind. And if the expression he was wearing was anything to go by it wasn’t a good one. Wasn’t a good one at all. “You alright?”

“What? Yeah, I’m fine,” Billy said, snapping out of his daze and sitting up a little. “Just…it’s a long drive to Cali.”

But there was more to it than that, Hopper could tell, and he could have a pretty good guess at what it was. “He’s fine, you know.”

Billy shook his head slightly, directing his gaze back out the window. “You can’t be sure of that.”

“Maybe not, but worrying about him right now isn’t gonna help anyone,” Hopper reasoned.

“Can’t we just look?” Billy asked. “Just for a second. Just so –”

“And then what? If we see something we don’t like we’re not in a position to do anything about it so why even put ourselves through that in the first place and waste time on it.”

“I know that, but – ”

“No. There’s one thing that we can do right now and it’s drive. And I know that’s a pain, and I know that it’s slow and frustrating but as soon as it’s done I promise you we will look, alright? We will look and we will see what we can do, but until then – as far as any of us are concerned – he’s fine…He’s fine,” Hopper finished, repeating the last part not only for Billy’s sake but for his own, because if he started worrying now the journey would only be even slower for him than it was already. So they distracted themselves: they played I spy and they didn’t worry and the distance passed by. They’d get there soon. It was just a matter of being patient.

Billy knew Hopper was right. Knew that he probably would regret it if they checked in on Steve right now, but that didn’t make pushing away all that concern – all that worry and dread – any easier. He wanted to know that Steve was alright, not just force himself to believe it when he knew that chances were he wasn’t and those bastards were probably putting him through hell while the rest of them were stuck driving for hours on end – playing stupid games because they had nothing better to do. It was frustrating, and it was a pain, and Steve was fine.

Steve was fine…

Because Billy couldn’t bear to believe for a second longer that he wasn’t. So El picked her word, and he put all his concentration into figuring out what it was. And when it was his turn to drive he put on his music and turned on the volume and laughed at the disproving look on Hopper’s face. Because all they could do was drive…and Steve was fine. Steve was fine.

4:33am, Wednesday 17th April, 1985.

“Let me go! LET ME GO!”

Everything was just a blur of white as he was dragged down the corridor – mind still a little hazy with sleep but growing more alert by the second as they turned a corner and headed towards a room he was getting far too familiar with. The routine was already starting to get old, really, and Steve was certain he’d only been here what? A day? Less? More? Why he even still bothered resisting at this point was beyond him, because the two guys holding onto his arms could probably put him out like a light if they wanted to, but he found himself struggling all the same, getting the tiniest bit of satisfaction if he managed to at least piss one of them off in the process.

His efforts slowed though as they neared the door and he was pushed inside, taking a second to glare at his escorts before turning back around to greet his oh-so-delightful host and –

Wait. This was different. There was someone new in the room: a man with glasses wearing a lab coat and holding something in his hand – something slim and silver and – was that a fucking scalpel?

“Stephen,” smiled Doctor Oh from where she was stood on the other side of the metal table. “Apologies for sudden awakening, but I’m afraid we’re having to work around the clock. Please, take a seat.”

The table was different too: there were straps on it now, leather ones with metal buckles and – fuck this. “I think I’ll pass,” Steve said, taking a step back as he tried to retreat but the two men that had brought him in were still there behind him and they grabbed him again, forcing him forwards and manhandling him into the chair.

“You’re just making this harder on yourself, you know. We’re not here to hurt you, Stephen” said Doctor Oh as she looked down at him, brown eyes almost sympathetic but Steve was sure it was all just for show – no way this woman actually gave a damn about him. “We’re just trying to understand a few things.”

“Yeah, well I really wish you wouldn’t,” Steve gritted out, but Doctor Oh payed little mind to the comment as she turned to one of the men holding him down.

“The right hand. Palm up,” she instructed.

“Wait, what? Hey, don’t – hey!” Steve yelled as his right arm was suddenly grabbed and forced down onto the table, goose bumps littering the skin there as it was pressed against the cold metal surface and the sleeve of his jacket was rolled back. Then the man was lining it up with the straps and fastening it in place – one strap over the wrist and the other just below the elbow – whilst the other guard was pushing down on Steve’s shoulders, holding him in place.

“Just try to relax,” said Doctor Oh as she walked over, trailing her fingers lightly over the skin and tracing a line down its centre, stopping halfway down. “Here,” she ordered. “Just a light incision to start with.”

“A light – no…no, no, no, NO!” Steve pleaded when the man with the scalpel started to approach, leaning down quickly to inspect the area Doctor Oh had pointed to before hovering the blade above it – mere millimetres away from cutting the skin. “Don’t. Please I – no. No, no, please – PLEASE JUST – DON’T. DON’T, NO – PLEASE – DON’T!

5:17pm, Wednesday 17th April, 1985.

They arrived in San Diego a little later than planned but it couldn’t be helped with the sudden overflow of traffic they’d hit when entering the city, though once they were past the worst of it the final minutes of the journey went by smoothly as Billy led the way to Pops’ place with Nancy and Jonathan tailing him closely until they arrived at the small house. And it was just like Billy remembered it: a creaky wooden porch, white paint chipping off the walls, with a flower basket hanging off the side of it, adding a bright splash of red amongst the other worn colours that presented the place. It stood solitary, a minute or two’s walk from the rest of the houses in the neighbourhood, with the only attachment being the makeshift garage that rested to the side of it, displaying a sign for Car Recycling and Repair that had been sat there for years. You couldn’t really tell because of the trees and high bushes out front but the house led straight back into the scrapyard, though the only way to access it by car was if you drove down past it for a little bit before turning left.

They parked their cars on the dusty driveway out front before stretching and getting out, everyone else hanging back whilst Billy ascended the porch, skipping the first two steps like he always did – or at least used to – and walking up to the front door. A few months ago he wouldn’t have needed to knock. Would have just used the key Pops had given to him when he’d turned fourteen and strolled right through the doorway, probably yelling one sarcastic remark or another in greeting and getting some similar shout in return as he made his way through to the back, sometimes grabbing a soda from the fridge on his way. He still had that key. It was right there in his hand – hell, probably still worked – but he didn’t use it. Couldn’t. Because he knew that that wouldn’t be right. So instead he put it back in his pocket, taking a breath to steady himself before reaching out his hand. Then, after a few seconds hesitation, he knocked.

Chapter Text

No one answered at first. A few seconds passed and still nothing happened so he knocked again, a little louder this time. Billy waited anxiously on the porch, sparing a quick glance back at the others before his gaze shot forwards again as he heard movement from inside – some shuffling about and cursing – but it went as quickly as it came and soon there was silence again. Seriously? Billy thought. All this waiting was making him nervous and after the day and a half drive he honestly just wanted to get this over and done with already: he knew what he wanted to say and how he wanted to say it – so it was just a matter of doing it now. He knocked again impatiently, adjusting his stance as he stood there awkwardly and then startling when he heard the footsteps return and a voice call out from inside.

“Yeah, yeah – I hear ya!” The lock clicked and then the door was swinging open to reveal a man in his late fifties, hair grey and balding with a scruffy beard and oil stained clothes, around the same height as Billy but a bit bigger in size and shape and only just shorter than him by a centimetre or two. “Sorry but we’re closed–”

He stopped, eyes locking on Billy as he stood in the doorway, suddenly stuck for words. And Billy was at a similar loss as well – everything he’d planned on saying having rushed straight out of his head as soon as the door had opened, leaving his mind completely blank and useless as they continued to stare at each other, the silence dragging out steadily as the seconds passed.

After a while, Billy spoke up – mind racing to think of what to say and only coming up with two words: “Hey, Pops,” he said.

And then the door slammed in his face.

He stood there stunned for a moment before turning back around to face the others. “Yeah, I kind of had that coming,” he explained, dismissing their dubious looks when he went to face the door again. “Come on, Pops!” he called, giving three more knocks before resting his one hand against the doorframe and leaning forwards a little. “Look…I’m sorry. I went away and I didn’t tell you and that was wrong – I was wrong. I’m a moron, I know, but please just hear me out, alright? Just give me a few minutes, please, and after that if you want me out I’ll go but first just–”

Suddenly the door swung open again and Pops stepped out, wasting no time in pulling Billy forward and into his arms, resting his chin on his shoulder as he held him close. “You are a damn moron,” he said, then added more softly: “You scared the hell out of me, kid.”

Billy froze at first – taken aback by the sudden affection – but as soon as he heard Pops’ voice he practically melted, returning the hug wholeheartedly and fighting the urge to just break down and cry right then and there because how could he have possibly left this behind? How could he have even thought for one second that he could move on and never look back? Because this…this was his home. His real home. And a few months would never change that.

“I know,” Billy said for a lack of anything better to say – honestly he was just so pleased that Pops had opened the door again. “I know…”

“What, you never heard of a phone or letter?” Pops asked, pulling back a bit so he could hold Billy at arm’s length and give him a good once over. “Hell, a damn postcard would’ve been nice.” Then his gaze slid beyond Billy to where everyone else was still awkwardly stood by their cars, watching the moment in silence. “Who’re the stragglers?”

“Oh, shit. Right. There with me,” Billy said as he pulled back, turning around slightly as he gestured towards the others. “Everyone this is Pops. Pops, this is Nancy, Jonathon, Hopper and Jane. They’re my, er…” Friends? Acquaintances? People I only really started getting along with about a day ago because I was a total dick to them before, but then my boyfriend got kidnapped and I was basically propelled out of the closet by the police investigation and got dragged into their shit which – as chance would have it – is weirdly similar to my own shit? “It’s a long story,” he settled on, not really knowing how to describe the relationship he had with any of them yet.

Pops scoffed. “It always is,” he commented, eying the others warily before turning back to Billy with a sigh. “And I’ve been waiting to hear it for months, so you better get your ass in there and get your little reunion over and done with before you start spilling the beans, else you’ll be repeating yourself lord knows how many times.”

“They’re here?” Billy asked, sparing a look through the open door like he half expected to see someone walk into sight at any moment.

“Of course they’re here! Where the hell else would they be?” Pops said. “I ain’t had any alone time since the sixties…Well, go on now! You know where to find them.”

“Thanks, Pops,” Billy said, giving the man a fond pat on the shoulder before heading in, no hesitation as he disappeared off down the hallway, leaving the others still standing out front awkwardly, not really sure of what to do with themselves.

Pops gave them a once over, clearly just as uneasy about the situation as they were, but eventually gave a sigh of resignation, stepping back a bit to hold open the door for them. “I guess you folks best be coming in too,” he said, watching them carefully as they shared some glances between themselves before Hopper stepped up onto the porch, holding out his hand.

“Jim Hopper,” he introduced, holding the other’s gaze firmly as they shook hands.

“Ken Weatherman,” Pops replied. “And before you ask, no: I don’t know the damn forecast.”

Hopper huffed a laugh, thinking that he might just get on rather well with this guy as he walked in, the others soon following behind him and Pops closing the door once they were all inside, leading them through to the lounge as he offered them something to drink.

* * * * *

Billy remembered the scrapyard well: you walked out the kitchen backdoor onto flat, dry ground and were met with a small wooden table and a few makeshift chairs along with a barbeque and some potted plants that Nana P had insisted Pops put outside to give the place some life – “What we living in, the desert? If I didn’t know any better, I’d think Jesus spent forty days and forty nights out here!” – then everything else beyond that was simply lines of broken cars and heaps of scrap metal. It was a little bit of a maze if you didn’t know your way around but Billy was confident as he navigated his way through it to a clearing in the centre that Pops would sometimes use for bonfires, slowing down and smiling slightly as he picked up on two very familiar voices…

“She was all over me man! And you wouldn’t believe how damn hot this girl was – I’m talking like mega-hot: you know, she’s probably like a supermodel or some shit.”

“Oh please, you expect me to believe that out of all the guys there this ‘mega-hot, supermodel’ chick chose you?”

“Damn right she did. Obviously she knows a real man when she sees one.”

“Oh, Jesus.”

“And that’s not even the best part – you wanna know what the best part is?”

“Not particularly.”

“Alright, picture this: me and this girl we’re dancin’, we’re having fun – all close and personal, you know, just getting the fires going – and suddenly she leans in and whispers in my ear that she wants not one…not two…but three – BILLY?”

“What?” Tyler asked, eyebrows scrunching up in confusion as he readjusted his glasses, eventually following Mickey’s line of sight to the edge of the clearing and openly gaping at the figure standing there.

To say the two were surprised was an understatement. And to say that Billy wasn’t internally laughing his ass off over their dumb, gobsmacked faces was downright wrong because the expressions he was seeing right now were priceless. What made it even better though was the fact that Mickey and Tyler didn’t seem to have changed a bit: Mickey still had the same haircut that he’d been wearing for the past four years – short back and sides and a whole lot of thick, curly volume on top – and was clearly just as obsessed with coming off as a womanizer as he had been his whole life, though they all knew half his stories were pure fiction and that most of the time when they went out Mickey would just get drunk and end up in some alleyway befriending a stray cat. He was still shorter than Billy too and just as loud and lively as ever. Tyler, on the other hand, had always been taller than all of them and actually, looking at him now, Billy was questioning whether or not the guy had somehow managed to grow even more, but either way he still looked like a teenage giant and maybe it would be a little intimidating if he wore something that wasn’t layers of flannel and baggy t-shirts with cheesy comments on, alongside those massive glasses and the freckles lining his nose and cheeks. After some more speculation Billy thought his hair was a little longer too if the fact that the fringe was starting to creep over the edge of his glasses was anything to go by. All in all, they were the same Mickey and Tyler that Billy had grown up with, and he was starting to feel like an idiot for even considering that they’d be any different.

It took a few minutes of shocked silence before Mickey started moving, batting his hand against Tyler’s chest as if the other was completely oblivious to the person standing in front of them. “Am – Am I drunk?” he asked, brown eyes wide and fixed on Billy as he spoke.

“No,” Tyler said, the edges of his lips slowly quirking up as the shock faded and the reality started to sink in.

“Am I high?” asked Mickey, still batting relentlessly at Tyler’s chest.

“No.”

“Am I –”

“Dreaming about the return of this sweet face? There something you want to confess to me, Mickey?” Billy asked jokingly, laughing when Mickey full on squealed – a noise he would never in his life admit to making even though he did it an awful lot – and started sprinting towards him. And Billy was ready to greet him, lifting his arms a little in preparation for a hug when Mickey stopped abruptly in front of him, hands raised.

“Hold up,” he said, jabbing a finger at Billy’s chest. “You left.”

“Oh, who cares: he’s back – just enjoy the moment,” said Tyler, stepping up behind Billy and wrapping an arm around his shoulders in greeting before curiously touching Billy’s hair with his free hand. “Woah, where’d all the volume come from?”

“Hey!” Billy yelled, trying to dodge to the side and protect his carefully styled locks. “You know the rules, no touching!”

“Oh please, you’ve been gone for like seven months, I think I’ve earned touching rights,” Tyler said, still reaching for Billy’s hair as the other swiped his hand aside, too busy defending it from Tyler to notice Mickey reaching up behind him.

“What you using in this?” Mickey asked, standing up on his tiptoes to get a closer look as he inspected the golden curls. “Sure as hell ain’t Aqua Net.”

“How would you know? Maybe I just got better at applying it,” Billy shot back, trying to duck out of reach.

“Nah man, this shit is, like, shiny,” Mickey observed wondrously. “How you doing this? What secrets you keeping?”

“I bet he sold his soul to a demon in return for decent hair products,” said Tyler, joking and yet serious at the same time.

And actually he wasn’t too far off the mark…That is if the demon was called Steve Harrington and the hair products were Farrah Fawcett spray and Faberge Organics shampoo and conditioner. Did Billy have a spare can of Farrah Fawcett in his Camaro? Yes. Did he use it during one of the pit stops when driving up here? Yes. Was he going to tell them that? Fuck no.

“You guys are just jealous,” Billy said. “Dry ends and grease can’t even come close to beating this beauty.”

“Who the hell are you calling dry ends? This right here is what you call sheer perfection,” Mickey said, sliding his hands dramatically down the sides of his afro for emphasis. “And my volume is genetic bitch – el natural – unlike you, Mr Fake, with whatever fancy-ass product you’re using right now and…have you put on weight?” he suddenly asked, poking Billy’s belly speculatively.

“Um, yeah,” Billy said coolly. “In muscle.” He flexed then, showing off what a good few months’ worth of extra push ups had achieved.

“Aw, he’s got a little tummy,” Tyler cooed.

“I DO NOT!” Billy shrieked indignantly. And ok, maybe he had been eating a cookie or ten over the past week or so after finding out about Steve’s little baking exploits, but that didn’t mean shit. He was in perfect shape, these guys had no idea what they were talking about! And he was about to tell them that when Tyler poked him in the side, just below the ribcage, and he let out an involuntary little squeak because, fuck, that tickled, and after that all hell simply broke loose.

When Billy had originally pictured his reunion with his friends, he’d expected more of an interrogation and less of a spontaneous scrapyard brawl, but here they were. Honestly, it had been a while since Billy had harmlessly grappled with anyone. Well, he grappled with Steve all the time but that was different: this was more like three brothers looking for any opening to land the others on their ass; it was all poking and batting and pulling and overall just one dusty, laughing heap of idiots on the ground yelling at one another.

“AAAH! GET YOU’RE FREAKISHLY LONGASS LIMBS OFFA ME!” Mickey yelled from where he was face down in the dirt with Tyler lying casually on top of him, holding Billy in a headlock.

“Don’t you mean get my freakishly longass limbs off of your freakishly shortass limbs?” Tyler said, messing up Billy’s hair further as the other struggled to escape him.

“Shut up!” Mickey snapped, ignoring Tyler’s laughter as he tried to crawl away to no avail.

“You are pretty short though,” Billy snorted, huffing in surprise when Mickey managed to reach across and whack his arm.

“You’re both puny,” Tyler stated, grinning smugly, “and I am superior.”

Mickey and Billy groaned in frustration, refusing to give in just yet as they doubled their efforts, leading to more shouting and cursing and laughing until suddenly a loud metallic clang sounded from across the clearing and they all froze, heads snapping round to the direction of the noise to see what was, undoubtedly, a rather terrifying sight: Scarlet was standing at the edge of the clearing, a large hunk of metal that she’d just thrown to the ground at her side as she stared at them, blue eyes narrowed and sharp and dark brown hair cut short, with the slightly longer bits at the top gelled upwards. For a second she just stood there, studying them from a distance, but then she started moving forward…and Jesus, she looked angry.

One second the boys were on the ground and the next they were scrambling up to their feet, trying to dust themselves down a bit as she approached. Then Billy heard Mickey whisper “Oh shit” before Tyler gave him a friendly pat on the shoulder and muttered something about how they wouldn’t be able to pay for the funeral costs which was obviously exactly what Billy had wanted to hear in that moment and totally didn’t make him feel like he may be about to die. No: not at all. And neither did the fact that when he looked back, he realised that Tyler and Mickey had moved away from him, standing a few steps to the side and giving him an unconvincing thumbs up as Scarlet made a beeline for him, covering the distance quickly and coming to a halt in front of him.

Nothing happened for a moment. Billy stayed still where he was, anxiously waiting for Scarlet to make a move but she didn’t…she just stood there, looking up at him, and it took him a while to realise that she expected him to speak first. But he didn’t know what to say – didn’t know what he should say, let alone what she wanted him to say, and the silence was dragging on and on, and Mickey and Tyler were just stood there at the side awkwardly glancing between the two of them, and in the end the best thing he could think of to say was just: “Hey.”

A beat passed. Then another. And the more the seconds dragged on, the more Billy thought that maybe he should have said something else.

“Hey?” Scarlet echoed in disbelief, gaze narrowing even more. “Hey?”

And yeah, Billy should have definitely said something else.

“You left!” Scarlet said, jabbing a finger towards his chest and forcing him to take a step back, and honestly Billy was just glad the motion hadn’t sent him flying across the clearing.

“I-I know, and I’m sorry! I should have –”

You left!” she repeated, taking another step closer to him. “You say blood don’t mean shit!” Jab. “You say we choose our family!” Jab. “Then you leave?”

And…well shit, Billy didn’t know what the hell he could say in response to that. Because he had said those things. And he had left them. He hadn’t wanted to – nor had he really had a choice in the matter but…maybe there was one thing he’d had a choice in, and maybe he’d chosen wrong. Because he could have told them. Told them about Neil and Anthony; about the move and how he wouldn’t be seeing them almost every day like he usually did. He’d been so distant from them that week and a part of himself tried to convince him that it was just because he was being careful since Neil was breathing down his neck, but even he knew that that wasn’t really the reason. Honestly, during those last few weeks in Cali he’d just felt kind of dumb. He’d been so careless that night, too careless, and he’d paid the price for that – it was his own fault, his own stupidity: the only person he could truly blame was himself. And he guessed that he just hadn’t wanted to admit that to his friends. And maybe…maybe he also knew that if he didn’t start putting some distance between them he wouldn’t have been able to go. He’d have stayed. And that wouldn’t have been fair on Max because she didn’t know Neil like he did, and he couldn’t do that to her. Perhaps that was another reason why he’d been so angry with her that first week in Hawkins…Fuck if Billy knew. Right now all that mattered was that he’d left. And he hadn’t said goodbye.

“Scarlet I –” he started, but was quickly cut off as Scarlet suddenly sprang forward, wrapping her arms around his waist and burying her face in his chest, pulling him close.

“Never again,” she said.

And, yeah, Billy couldn’t argue with that. So, instead of speaking, he simply hugged her back and tried his best not to cry because, shit, he’d missed this. And really, all he was in that moment was relieved because these people he thought he’d left behind – thought he’d lost forever – were here now. He’d got them back. And after months of regret and longing, and now after Steve’s sudden disappearance, being back here – back home…the comfort of it was just so overwhelming. This was always a place he’d considered safe: a place where he felt nothing truly bad could ever happen. And though he’d been anxious about their plan to get Steve back safely before, now he was almost certain that everything would turn out just fine. He was back now, and he had Scarlet, and Mickey, and Tyler and – and his feet were not touching the ground anymore.

"Scarlet!" he exclaimed as she suddenly picked him up and flung him over her shoulder, starting to casually stroll about the clearing with him flailing in her arms.

"Nope, never again," she repeated. "Ours now. No more leaving for you."

"What? You can't just do that!" Billy argued.

"Yes I can: I'm doing it now."

"Oh, she's got you good man!" Mickey laughed, him and Tyler cheering Scarlet on from the side as she carried a now compliant Billy around in circles. And, though he was yelling protests and rolling his eyes, Billy was actually enjoying himself immensely right now.

"Wait, have you put on weight?" Scarlet asked sceptically after a while, and – dammit Steve. Maybe he did need to lay off the cookies...

"No," Billy said. "No I have not."

And that was the moment Tyler decided to take the chaos even further. "One: yes he has," Tyler said, "and two: you should totally spin him."

"Bro..." Mickey said, staring at Tyler in wonder before slowly turning his gaze towards Billy, a wide, mischievous grin spreading across his face as he began to chant. "Spin him. Spin him. Spin him! Spin him!"

And honestly Billy was horrified because he knew what that meant and it had been months since he'd last done it and at this point he had no idea if he still had the stomach for it. But he knew he was doomed as soon as Scarlet came to a halt where she was, and even though he couldn't see her face he could tell she was smiling as she readjusted her grip on him.

"Scarlet, no," he said, scrambling to try and find some sort purchase to hold onto that wasn't her worn down vest top and eventually just settling with gripping one hand on her shoulder and the other on her side, preparing for the worst.

"What was that Billy?" she asked. "Did you say 'Scarlet yes'?"

"No!" Billy yelled. "No I did not! Scarlet, no – wait, just, give me a second – don't – hey! Scarlet? Scarlet! WAIT, DON'T – SCARLET!"

But it was too late: Scarlet was spinning...and spinning fast. Jesus, Billy had forgotten what it was like to be tossed around like a ragdoll: fun, but also terrifying as hell. Everything was whipping around him in one disorientating blur, and all he could do was scream as he clung onto her, laughing intermittently and then starting a whole new round of screaming as Scarlet managed to go even faster, and now he didn’t know whether he was up, down, left, right or if he was even still anywhere remotely near the ground, but he did know one thing and that was that his hair was fucked.

Then Scarlet started to slow down and before he knew it Billy was standing with an arm flung around her for support and he could hear Mickey and Tyler laughing off to the side…somewhere. Was he standing? Oh, no: he was falling – wait, no he wasn’t – wait, yes he was – wait, no he – oh hey, Tyler.

“Dude, can you even walk right now?” Tyler snickered, patting Billy’s face to see if he could get the other to focus on him.

“Of course I can walk,” Billy said, “Do I look like a pussy to you?”

“No, but Whitney Houston called: she wants her hair back,” said Mickey, easily dodging Billy’s attempt to batt at his arm and laughing when it caused the other to lose balance again, beginning a nosedive towards the ground.

“Woah, steady on there, champ,” Scarlet said, catching Billy’s shoulder and bringing him back upright again.

Billy groaned at the sudden movement, mind still trying to make sense of the nauseating world around him. “Am I flying?” he asked, eyes scrunching as he looked upwards, swaying a little in Scarlet’s grasp.

“I think you broke him,” Tyler mused, watching as Billy threw him a death glare a good few centimetres to his left.

“Fuck you,” he said, fumbling about until he managed to find Scarlet’s hand on his shoulder. “Where’s the floor? I wanna lay on it until the world stops being a rotating bitch.”

The others laughed, helping him down to the ground before standing back up and looking down at him amusedly.

“Hey, welcome back, man,” Mickey said, nudging Billy in the side with his sneaker.

Billy whacked his leg in retaliation, glaring up at him from where he was lying on the floor. But then he smiled because, even though everything was still kind of blurry and some part of him felt like he may or may not be sinking through the floor, he was actually really fucking happy right now.

“So who’s next?” Scarlet asked, arms crossed as she looked between the two at her side. “Think Tank, you up for the challenge?”

“Careful, Scar, you spin him too hard that big brain of his might break free from his skull,” Mickey said.

“Mickey’s right,” Tyler agreed, nodding solemnly. “It’s too much of a risk. Hence why you should totally spin him instead.”

“Hey, what? Oh hell no – now wait a minute,” Mickey said, taking a step back as Scarlet turned towards him with interest.

“I bet if we spin him fast enough we could make our own siren,” Billy contributed from the ground, smiling wickedly.

“What? No! He is clearly delusional,” Mickey said, pointing down to Billy before turning to Scarlet. “And if you think for one second I’m even gonna let you come near me with that evil grin on your face –”

“Alright, alright, keep your hair on,” Scarlet said. “But Billy’s back now: we gotta play something to celebrate.”

“Hop or Drop?” Tyler suggested.

“Oh my God, you guys still play Hop or Drop?” Billy said.

“Dude, you left for seven months, not seven years,” Tyler said. “Of course we still play Hop or Drop.”

“Damn right!” Mickey agreed. “Oh, I am gonna whoop your asses! And you know why – you know why?” he asked, looking down at Billy. “Because your crown has been taken. That’s right: I’m the King of Hop or Drop now. Eat it, bitch!”

Billy scoffed. “Yeah right.”

“What you don’t believe me?” Mickey said. “Scarlet, get the pole! Tyler, fetch the cushions! Billy, you just lay right there sweetheart because you’re gonna need the rest seeing that in a couple of minutes you’re gonna drop so hard that –”

“We have company,” Scarlet said, staring at something across the clearing with a narrowed gaze.

The rest of them followed her line of sight, including Billy who struggled a little bit in his gradually improving state but after some squinting and tilting of his head he eventually managed to make out brown hair, baggy clothes and a side bag from where he was still laying on the ground.

“Hey, Janey,” he called, watching as she started to approach before turning to the others. “Don’t worry, she’s with me.”

El walked across to them cautiously, finally coming to stop at Billy’s side and staring down at him with a deeply scrutinising look, eyebrows scrunched up as she cocked her head to the side a little.

“Hurt?” she asked uncertainly, clearly trying to decipher his reason for being on the floor.

“What? No, I – I got spun,” Billy said.

“Spun?” El repeated.

“Yeah, you know when you spin round and round and–” If anything El just seemed to be getting more confused as Billy tried to explain so he simply decided to drop it and move onto introductions. “Um, Jane this Mickey, Tyler and Scarlet. Guys, this is Jane,” he said, motioning to them lazily, probably not even in the right direction.

El studied them each in turn, gaze finally landing on Scarlet and sticking there as she moved around Billy to stand in front of the other girl. “Scarlet,” she stated, looking up at her with interest, brown eyes meeting blue.

“Yeah,” Scarlet confirmed softly, faintly raising one eyebrow in curiosity as she returned Jane’s stare.

“Special,” El said, holding out her wrist and pulling up the sleeve of her flannel shirt to reveal the tattoo that lay hidden there, watching Scarlet’s eyes widen a little at the sight.

“Woah, hold up,” Mickey said, looking over Scarlet’s shoulder. “Is that…Is that what I think it is?”

“Do you need my glasses?” Tyler asked jokingly, stood on Scarlet’s other side.

“What? No! I ain’t blind: I can see!”

“Then why did you ask?”

“Because I – I just – I was surprised and I – shut up! You’re ruining the moment.”

“Oh, I’m ruining the moment?”

“Well, you’re the one that keeps talking so yeah, you’re ruining the…” Mickey trailed off as Scarlet turned her head to give him a pointed stare, waiting until he’d mouthed the word ‘sorry’ before turning back around, ignoring Tyler’s muffled laughter quickly followed by the sound of Mickey whacking him.

“You’re from one of the bases,” she stated, studying the number on the girl’s wrist carefully before Jane placed her other hand on top of Scarlet’s own, studying the fabric wrapped around it. Scarlet let her undo it – unwinding the material to uncover the markings underneath: three numbers written in black ink, standing out starkly against pale skin.

“Sister,” El said, a small, hopeful smile crossing her lips.

“Yeah,” said Scarlet, expression almost wondrous as she watched Jane carefully, seemingly contemplative. “I guess we are in some ways.” Then suddenly she was sweeping Jane up in her arms and onto her shoulders excitedly, smile bright and warm as she held her ankles securely. “I’ve never had a sister before,” she mused, “all I’ve ever known is stinky, disgusting brothers.”

Excuse me?” Mickey cried.

“Hey, you’re just as stinky and disgusting as we are,” Tyler said.

“And whose fault is that?” Scarlet shot back before looking up at El. “You alright up there, Janey?”

El nodded, eyes wide as she held onto Scarlet’s head, peering at the others around her. She’d never sat on someone’s shoulders before, but after the initial shock of it at first she decided it was…fun. Yes, definitely fun. She giggled as Scarlet twirled beneath her, doing a little spin, the motion catching Jane by surprise.

“Don’t let her spin you, Jane, she’s evil,” Billy said, glaring up at Scarlet from the ground.

“Oh please, you had it coming,” Scarlet responded. “That was justice, not cruelty.”

“I’m sorry, are we all just going to breeze past the ‘stinky and disgusting’ thing?” Mickey asked. “Because I will have you know that I am pristine! If you knew my morning and night routine you would –”

“I literally just caught you guys rolling around in the dirt – Billy is still rolling around in the dirt,” Scarlet pointed out.

“I’m not rolling around in the dirt,” Billy protested. “I’m just…laying in it.”

“Alright, point taken, but that don’t mean I smell!” Mickey said, before turning to Billy. “Also, shouldn’t you be fine by now? The hell you still doing down there?”

“Oh, I’m sorry, did you just have your stomach in your throat?” Billy shot back.

“Yeah, he’s fine,” Tyler observed. “Probably just doesn’t wanna reveal the full atrocity he’s got attached to his head right now.”

“It’s not that bad,” Billy said.

But it was. It was awful. Billy could already feel a nest of tangles at the back of his neck and he was not looking forward to trying to get a brush through that later.

“Oh, yeah?” Scarlet said. “Then sit up.”

They all watched him expectantly, waiting to see what he’d do. It was challenge: Scarlet had that daring look in her eye and even though Billy knew doing so would only lead to humiliation he also knew that he didn’t give a shit: a challenge was a challenge, and Billy never backed down from a challenge.

But, as soon as he sat up, Billy knew he’d made a mistake. Because now, everyone was laughing at him. He could even see El discreetly cracking up whilst sat atop Scarlet’s shoulders, and honestly he felt a little betrayed – not that he could blame her though, if he was in her position he’d totally be laughing his ass off too.

“Oh my God. Oh my God. Dude,” Mickey wheezed, barely able to breathe as he wiped a tear from his eye, clinging to Tyler’s shoulder for support. “Who dragged you through a bush?”

“Ha, ha, very funny,” Billy said sarcastically, daring to try and run his hands through the mess but figuring out very quickly that that was not happening smoothly anytime soon.

“I think he has a whole colony of birds nesting in there,” Tyler added, and Mickey was almost on the floor.

Billy stood up, deciding the best way to regain his dignity was to simply roll his eyes before shaking his hair out like a dog, which may or may not have made it even more tangled but at least it got rid of some of the dirt. He did it again and by the time he’d finished everyone had finally calmed down a little.

“Alright, putting Billy’s hair catastrophe aside let’s talk about the elephant in the scrapyard,” Tyler said, straightening his glasses. “And by elephant I mean the potentially awesome, super-powered child sitting on Scarlet’s shoulders.” Jane gave him a confused expression when he turned to look at her. “So…what do you do, you know, powers-wise?”

Jane opened her mouth to respond but suddenly Mickey was there rattling off guesses by the second.

“Oooh! Oooh! You got powers like Scarlet’s?” he asked, practically bouncing on his feet whilst Jane just watched on in bemusement. “You strong? You invincible? Or you different? Can you fly – oh, I bet she can fly! Or – wait, maybe she’s got some sort of mind powers. You super smart? You see the future? Can you read people’s thoughts? Oooh! I know! Can you hypnotize people and make them do whatever you want like some kind of brainwashing thing where – ow! The hell was that for?” Mickey asked, rubbing at his arm where Tyler had just elbowed him.

“Dude, shut up,” Billy said as Scarlet put Jane down, carefully lowering her back onto the ground.

El stepped forward, away from them a little, eyes scanning the clearing around her before landing on the hunk of metal Scarlet had dropped to the side earlier.

“What’s she doin’?” Mickey whispered to Tyler as El held her hand out, gaze focused on the target ahead of her.

That’s when it started moving towards them, slowly scraping across the floor before moving a bit faster when Jane flexed her fingers, a droplet of blood trailing from her nose as the scrap of metal finally came to rest at the centre of the clearing. El wiped the blood on her sleeve once she was done, careful not to let it smudge across her face.

“Woah…” Tyler remarked as El turned around, his gaze fixed on the piece of metal now lying dormant on the ground.

Mickey’s stare was fixed on it as well, mouth gaping open in surprise, whilst Scarlet seemed to be more focused on El: she looked impressed mostly, but there was something else there in the way her gaze flicked down for a second to the blood on El’s sleeve before coming back up to meet her eyes and give her a confident smile.

“Damn Janey,” she said, “you’re just as strong as me.” She looked contemplative then, as she studied El more. “Maybe even stronger,” she added.

El smiled, a little shyly at first but it quickly brightened when Billy shot her a grin of his own and gave her a thumbs up as Mickey started to make his way across the clearing, bending down to inspect the hunk of metal.

“Bro!” Mickey exclaimed, checking out the distance El had dragged it. “Man, I knew it – I told you she had mind powers!”

“Yeah, amongst like ten other things,” Tyler commented, coming forward to look at the metal as well.

“Shut up,” Mickey said. “I was still right.”

“She can also find people,” Billy informed Scarlet whilst the other two bickered in the background, and El nodded in confirmation when Scarlet shot her a confused glance.

And that’s when the reality of why Billy was actually here hit him, and suddenly all the joy of coming home rushed out of him in a single breath, like he’d been punched in the gut, because Steve was still in that place. Billy wasn’t here to reunite with friends, he was here to gain allies. The excitement of it all had almost made him forget at first – too swept up in the moment to really think about it, just embracing all this love and happiness he felt he’d been deprived of for so long – but now he had his family back by his side and the only thing missing was the person he’d wanted them to meet. Wanted them to approve of. And now…now all he wanted to do was get El to look for Steve. To make sure he was ok and find him so they could get him back. And then. Then Billy could really enjoy this moment.

“Find people?” Scarlet questioned, not entirely certain of what that meant, before she saw Billy’s face turn dark, and a part of her saddened at the sight of it. “This isn’t just a friendly reunion, is it?” she asked, watching as Billy shook his head.

“We should head back to Pops,” he said, turning away from her slightly to look down the path which led back to the house. “There’s some more people you need to meet.”

More people?” Mickey asked, before pointing to El. “What, like her? How many we adopting here?”

“No, just…you’ll see. I’ll explain everything once we’re there,” Billy said.

Mickey and Tyler frowned at his sudden downturn in mood, but Scarlet didn’t hesitate in swinging an arm around Billy’s shoulder in support as she motioned towards the way back.

“Well, you heard the Cap,” Scarlet said. “Rendezvous at the house.”

Billy huffed a laugh at the name. “You sure I still get to keep that title?”

“Always,” Scarlet said sincerely, then she turned to Jane with a smile. “Want a ride back to the house?”

Jane considered it for a second before nodding, and this time she laughed when Scarlet hoisted her up onto her shoulders before heading off in the right direction, Mickey and Tyler trailing beside her as Billy led the way. The walk didn’t take long, just a minute or two, and when they got there Pops was waiting for them in the kitchen doorway, cleaning a glass as he watched them approach.

“About damn time,” he said, stepping aside to let them through as Scarlet put Jane down before they entered. “They’re all waiting in the lounge. Bit of a squish but we’ll survive.”

Billy went in first and was quickly followed by the rest, though Scarlet stayed behind in the kitchen for a second – El pausing alongside her also – as he continued through to the hall and then the lounge, stepping in through the doorway to find Nancy and Jonathan sat on the one couch, holding a glass of water each, whilst Hopper was leaning against the wall, mulling over a cup of coffee as he stood there waiting solemnly. But they weren’t the only ones in the room…

“–Now my father was a stubborn man, and he would be damned if we didn’t find a way to fit that cow in the – AH! There he is!” laughed Nana P, getting up from her seat with some difficulty but seeming determined none the less as she started making her way across the room, beckoning for Billy to come closer. “What, you gonna make me do all the work? Get over here and give me some love!”

Billy smiled, walking forward to meet her halfway and letting her wrap him up in a massive hug before she started fussing over him, straightening out his clothes and tutting softly as she looked him over. Nana P was quite the character to say the least: she was old, black and proud – living comfortably in her early eighties after a life of long work hours and hard earnt money. She was round and short, with her wiry, grey hair pulled carefully back into a bun and slim glasses resting on her nose, dressed in brightly coloured clothes and a grande variety of jewellery – necklaces, bracelets, rings and earrings all adorning her figure in copious amounts, sometimes swaying and chinking lightly against each other when she walked.

“Hey, Nana P,” Billy said, watching as she looked over him, humming softly in thought.

“Billy, my boy, I prayed for you every night and day and now here you are, handsome as ever. Why, you’re practically glowing! Ha! And some people don’t believe in the power of prayer,” she said, pinching his cheeks a little before looking up at his hair and frowning. “What on earth you got nesting up in there? Squirrels?”

Billy dismissed her questions, instead giving her a compliment of his own. “And you look lovely as ever, Nana P.”

“Damn right I do: I’m in my prime – these are my golden years,” she said, before giving him another once over. “Ah, someone’s been feeding you well I see – you finally got some good meat on you unlike Mr Skin-and-Bones over there,” she commented, motioning vaguely to Mickey over her shoulder and – DAMNIT STEVE.

“Mr Skin-and-bones? I am your grandchild! Why you always gotta pick on me?” Mickey said, looking offended from where he and Tyler were stood in the doorway.

“Well, who else am I meant to pick on?” Nana P responded sassily. “Billy here is a sweetheart, and Tyler is the nicest, most polite boy I’ve ever known, and Scarlet – Scarlet is an angelic miracle sent to us by God himself. And you…well,” she shot him a judging look with one eyebrow raised before turning away again.

“What – what’s that look supposed to mean?” Mickey cried, but Nana P didn’t respond, simply chuckling quietly to herself as she started making her way back to her seat, speaking in a hushed voice to Billy as she passed.

“It’s almost too easy sometimes,” she said, smiling wide and giving him a fond pat on the shoulder before she went about getting herself comfortable again.

It took all Billy had in him not to openly laugh, but he managed it, and with a nod to Jonathan and Nancy he made his way over to stand by Hopper, who glanced briefly at his hair but didn’t comment on it, instead settling for, “You alright?”

“Yeah,” Billy said. “Just want to get the explaining over and done with. You?”

Hopper shrugged, frowning down at his half-empty mug. “Not much different. A little on the weary side from the drive but that’s what this is for,” he said, motioning to his coffee before taking another sip and watching as Pops appeared in the doorway to re-enter the room. Or, at least, try to.

“You two morons made of wood or something?” he asked, standing behind Mickey and Tyler, who turned around to look at him in confusion.

“What?” Tyler said.

“You got hinges? A handle?” Pops continued, watching their frowns deepen even further.

“No?” Mickey responded uncertainly.

“Then why the hell are you stood in the damn doorway? Get in there – go on!”

It didn’t take much more encouragement than that to convince Mickey and Tyler to scramble inside and seat themselves on the other unoccupied couch in the room, leaving the way clear for Pops to come in, shortly followed by Scarlet and El, the former of which had a plate full of what was almost half a pie, of which the slice missing was found on a smaller plate that El was carrying rather cheerfully as she made her way over to sit on the couch holding Jonathan and Nancy, whilst Scarlet took her place on the other one. Pops remained standing on the opposite side of the room to Billy and Hopper, taking everyone in before finally speaking.

“So,” he said. “Someone wanna explain what’s going on here?”

* * * * *

Billy did most of the talking. He started by briefly going over the details behind his move to Hawkins before getting onto the main situation at hand, explaining everything that had happened over the past few days along with everything they knew so far with some help from Hopper and then moved onto their hopes that the others would help them in getting Steve back. When he’d finished there was silence for a while as the room sat in contemplation before Pops spoke up, expression grave.

“I don’t like this,” he said, brow set in a hard line as he stared down at nothing in particular.

“You’re not meant to,” Hopper said gruffly, fingers tapping idly against the empty mug in his hands. “The question is whether or not you’re gonna do something about it.”

“Sorry, but I’m still a little confused as to why they’ve taken this guy in the first place,” Tyler said, looking thoughtful as he ran the details over in his head. “You think it’s all about getting to her,” he motioned to Jane, “but don’t you think it’s a little convenient that Steve is dating Billy, who in turn is also close with a super-powered individual that just so happens to come from the exact same place he’s being held at right now?”

“Yeah, but that would mean they’d have to know about Scarlet being here all along,” Mickey said. “And…and they can’t know about that, right? Right?”

“I wouldn’t put it past them, nosy bastards,” Pops commented. “We’ve been careful, sure, but maybe not careful enough.”

“These people,” Nana P said with a shake of her head. “Always making ill of God’s gifts.”

“Honestly, we don’t know for sure why they took Steve. But we know it can’t be good and that’s why we have to get him back,” Nancy inserted, trying to press for a clear answer as to whether Billy’s friends would help them or not.

“She’s right, we can’t just leave him in there,” Scarlet said, the plate she’d had earlier now empty and discarded to the side of her.

“Maybe not, but we can’t just storm the damn place either,” Pops said. “Not when, for all we know, that might just be exactly what they want us to do.”

“Well then, what would you suggest?” Hopper said, a mild frustration seeping into his tone.

“I don’t know,” Pops responded, letting some of his own irritation show as well.

“We don’t have a choice,” Billy said. “We have to go in there – there’s no other way around it.”

Pops sighed frustratedly, scratching at his beard as he started to pace the room, clearly at war with himself over the matter. “Look,” he said after a while, more torn than Billy had ever seen him before. “I want to help you – I really do – but this...risking Scarlet, risking everything we’ve built here for someone we don’t even know. I’m sorry, Billy. I’m sure this Steve guy is nice and all but at the end of the day I will always put this family first, and unless you can guarantee me their safety then I’m afraid there is nothing I can do.”

“Pops–” Scarlet started, disagreement plain in her tone of voice but he cut her off, not wanting to hear it.

“No!” he said. “I will not have you put yourself at risk!”

She stood up, shoulders tense with rage as she pointed at him. “You do not get to choose for me!”

“Like hell I don’t! I will not lose you to those monsters – I swore to protect you, and that is exactly what I intend to do!”

“But Pops, Billy needs our help, we can’t just –!” Mickey tried, but it was no use, Pops had already made up his mind.

“No – I won’t hear any more of it! None of you will go anywhere near that place, and that includes you Billy,” Pops said, looking at him sternly in an attempt to dissuade him from pursuing such a mission, though maybe there was something pleading there too – something desperate and scared; something that couldn’t afford to lose any more than it already had.

“I’m sorry, Pops, but…I can’t do that,” Billy said, and he hated to go against him like this – hated to not be on his side – but he didn’t have any other choice. “Steve means everything to me. And I will get him out of that place, with your help or without it.”

Pops shook his head. “It’s suicide. It’s stupid and reckless and I won’t stand for it. I won’t,” he turned his gaze to Hopper, looking at him sharply. “I’m sorry, but I’m afraid you folk have wasted your time in coming here.”

Kenneth,” stated Nana P, raising her finger at him accusingly as he looked towards her in agitation. “If you turn these people away–”

“Oh, don’t you start on me too–”

“Don’t you interrupt me!” she snapped, and waited until he’d reluctantly shut his mouth before continuing. “If you turn these people away…I will not so much as deign you with a glance for the rest of my life – and Lord knows I’m a fighter. Can you not see? God has sent these people to us for a reason: there is something to be done here, and it sure as hell isn’t turning away. Now, I know you ain’t all that religious but hear me when I tell you that there is more to come of this. I can sense it. Call it convenience or chance if it please you – but this here is fate. We have work to do. That poor boy needs saving, and I’m quite looking forward to meeting him once he has been. So you may stomp, and you may shout, but you will help these people. And then after, you will thank me.”

The two stared at each other for a moment, neither one backing down or breaking the contact until Pops gave a frustrated huff and looked away, still shaking his head a little as he said, “I need some fresh air,” before leaving the room, everyone watching him go in silence.

Nana P gave a dismissal sound, turning her attentions to Billy and getting him to look at her. “Don’t you worry about him, my child. He’ll come around.”

Billy nodded solemnly, not quite sure what to make of what had just happened. “You think I should go talk to him?”

He didn’t like going against Pops. And the fact that Pops had actually turned him down had been a bigger blow than he could ever imagine: he guessed in his head he’d always felt like the answer would be yes, even when the more logical part of him knew how much he was asking for; he’d been so certain Pops would stand by his side like he’d always done, because no matter what Billy always felt like Pops would do anything for him…but maybe that was it. Pops would do anything for him. Anything and more if it meant that Billy was safe. That they all were safe. The logical part of him had been right: this was asking too much. And yet, Billy had to go through with it. And he wanted to make sure Pops understood that, no matter how he felt about it.

Billy took a step forward, ready to follow after Pops, when Hopper caught him by the shoulder, bringing him to a stop before he’d even really started going anywhere.

“It’s alright, I got this,” Hopper said, clapping Billy on the shoulder before stepping forward himself. “I see where he’s coming from – hell, I’ve been there myself. If anyone can get through to him, it’s me.”

Billy wasn’t sure how to respond to that at first, dubious that Hopper could get through to Pops since he’d pretty much only just met the guy, but in the end he didn’t have to as Nana P spoke for him, nodding confidently in Hopper’s direction.

“This man is right,” she said. “He shall have much more chance than you. From one man that has found his miracle to another – Kenneth shall listen to him.”

And Billy didn’t entirely understand what that meant but he accepted it all the same, stepping back with a muttered “ok” and watching Hopper disappear off down the hall and into the kitchen, the sound of the backdoor opening and closing once again travelling back to them before the room returned to silence once more. For a few seconds no one spoke, but then Scarlet was there, holding onto Billy’s arm and staring at him intently.

“Whatever Pops says, you know we’ve got your back, right?” she said, expression clearly determined in doing whatever it took to help him, no matter what the consequences.

Billy smiled weakly, putting a hand over her own. “Thanks.”

An awkward silence filled the room then, no one really knowing what to do or say, with everyone just feeling a little bit tense from not being that familiar with some of its occupants – though Nana P seemed quite content where she was, having picked up something she’d been knitting off to the side and simply resuming work on that, a movement which apparently provided a fairly intriguing distraction for El who seemed to be absorbed in it almost completely. The lack of conversation carried on for a while as they waited, and Billy knew he was pretty much the glue binding these two separate parties together and that they should probably be doing something that wasn’t just sitting around. Something practical. Something that could be of use to them and – if possible – of use to Steve and the entire situation they were in; something that could possibly bring the two sides together and give them a better understanding of what they were really going up against here and…He had to do it. He couldn’t wait any longer and it was the perfect solution to their current situation. Hopper might be a little mad that they’d gone ahead without him, but Billy hardly thought it mattered. There was one thing on his mind now and one thing only: finding Steve.

* * * * *

“Wait, wait, wait – so…she can just, like, see people? Anywhere?” Mickey asked, watching as El got comfortable on the floor in front of the small TV, Nancy handing over a blindfold to her whilst Jonathan switched the television onto a channel of static.

“Pretty much,” Billy said, finally settling for leaning against the one wall after he’d spent the last minute or two pacing.

Tyler shifted slightly from his perch on the couch, readjusting his glasses. “Well, that’s not creepy at all,” he mused.

Scarlet didn’t say anything. In fact, hadn’t said anything since Billy first suggested the idea, seemingly engrossed in the entire set up of it all, eyes never straying too far from El – a clear look of concentration set on her face that could be seen in the way she clenched and unclenched her jaw subconsciously, a nervous tick she’d developed over the years.

It wasn’t long after that before they were ready to go, El tuning out everything to the slow, scratching, hiss of the static as the others became quiet and still around her, their presence disappearing along with everything else until there was nothing left but black. The void stretched out before her, its shallow waters eerily silent as she stepped through them, creating ripples that grew and spread beyond her sight, reaching out for something beyond the darkness. She focused a little more, Steve’s face clear in her mind as she searched, and then suddenly he was there – standing a few steps in front of her. She studied him carefully, brown eyes scanning over him steadily before stopping at a certain point, her eyebrows narrowing at the sight.

“Found him,” she said, expression set in a deep frown as she moved a little closer.

Nancy’s voice echoed through to her, strong and determined as she spoke. “Where is he? Is he still at the lab?”

El nodded, trying to peer closer still and startling a little when Steve started to pace, only going no more than three steps in one direction before he turned around again. “Hurt,” she determined after a while, eyes glaring at Steve’s one arm: the sleeve of his jacket was rolled up to the elbow, revealing white bandages and the faintest hint of red seeping through them from beneath. “Bleeding.”

What?” Billy said, voice cutting sharply through the empty space and even from the void El could practically feel the rage rolling off him in heaps – sudden and swift and hot. “What’s happening? What do you mean he’s hurt?”

“Cut,” she said, trying to discern whatever it was that lay under the bandage and thinking it not too bad. “Cut but ok,” she concluded, feeling Billy’s anger subside a little – replaced by relief – as she continued to study Steve.

He seemed frustrated. Frustrated and confused – pacing about the place in an almost frantic manner like he was desperate for something, but for what? He was holding something too: a piece of paper which looked like it had been crumpled into a ball several times already, the majority of it creased especially where Steve was gripping it – fingers on the verge of tearing through it completely. El watched him whisper a curse, coming to a halt once more and simply staring down at it, brow furrowed in concentration as his eyes roamed over the image in his hands, seemingly intent on taking in every detail, and it wasn’t until El had found her way even closer – standing directly at Steve’s side as she peered down at the picture – that she recognised exactly what he was looking at.

Who he was looking at.

“Papa?” she whispered, a sudden unease growing in her chest as she took in his face – all sharp lines and stern edges, hair white and eyes sharp.

There were distant murmurs then – a buzz of uncertainty circulating through the people around her.

“Do you mean Doctor Brenner?” Nancy asked, voice faintly laced with confusion. “Is – Is he there?”

El shook her head. “Picture,” she clarified, but didn’t bother elaborating further, drowning out the other voices around her as she turned her attention only to Steve, everything else blurring out into a low hum of sound that she barely acknowledged.

Steve brought the image even closer to his face, expression scrunched up in focus and a deep tension running throughout his whole body – muscles rigid and taught, jaw clenched, eyes narrowed and hands gripping even tighter to the paper, the faint tearing sound of his nails starting to rip through it only just audible because of the silence of the moment and the thick suspense caught in the air, almost suffocating in its intensity as Steve remained still, unmoving and focused and tense and then suddenly…he relaxed. But it wasn’t a content relaxation: more like a sudden numbness that came over him, expression going blank and distant and his shoulders suddenly sagging as though his limbs had taken on a great heaviness that was drawing them downwards towards the ground.

“I remember,” he whispered, and El barely caught the words before his whole body went limp and his eyes rolled back, swaying a little on the spot before collapsing backwards onto the floor, and beginning to shake violently as if no longer in control of himself.

Jane panicked as soon as he hit the ground, eyes widening in shock and horror as she tried to take in what was happening. “Steve?”

Then the voices were back, snapping through the silence of the void as she knelt down on the floor by Steve’s side, uncertain what she should do – if she could even do anything – as his body continued to spasm horribly.

“What’s happening? Jane? Jane what’s happening?” That was Billy, voice strained and unsure, and then she could hear Jonathan trying to reach through to her as well, sounding a little more controlled than Billy as he spoke.

“El, what is it? Are you ok – what’s going on?”

“Collapsed,” El said, voice uneven as she looked over Steve’s trembling form, no idea as to what was even wrong with him. “Shaking…wrong – very wrong.”

“What do you mean he’s shaking?” Nancy asked, but El struggled to form a reply, trying to find a way to describe the sight before her only to have the words elude her completely, rendering her speechless and useless and unable to do anything until suddenly –

He stopped.

Steve became still: eyes closed and breathing shallow, his body gone motionless as he lay there unmoving. A second passed. And another. And then suddenly Steve was gasping, bolting upright as he sucked in air like he’d been starved of it, eyes wide as they darted around before appearing to look right at her, a sudden, soft recognition forming on his face.

“El?”

A beat passed. El was too stunned for words, simply staring back at him in shock as he looked at her with equal surprise, neither off them saying anything. But the silence didn’t last long, because suddenly Steve was being pulled down beneath the water, the surface no longer shallow but deep – deeper than anything Jane had ever seen before as it appeared to swallow Steve whole, El screaming his name as the inky depths consumed him, taking him from her sight. She’d tried to reach out for him but it was like there was a layer of glass between the water separating them and she couldn’t break through it – pounding at it relentlessly and screaming and crying before eventually relenting, giving the invisible barrier one final hit as she stopped, hands and arms aching as she closed her eyes trying to centre herself again.

Then there were voices. Small fractions of conversations echoing through the void but it wasn’t the others: these voices didn’t belong to the people sat around her, they belonged to someone else.

Steve.

She stood, searching around her for something – anything – and then she caught it: a flicker of movement in the corner of her eye, there and then gone again in a second. After that first one more appeared, darting in and out of view – ghosts of another time and place, the faces of some she recognised and the faces of others that she didn’t. She could hear Steve: sometimes speaking softly and sometimes not – at one point rushing his words and another yelling and shouting and crying, and it took El a little time to realise that his voice was multiplied throughout the space, not just sounding from one direction but several, and that it was mingled with other voices too, and among them another stuck out from the rest – something mildly gravelly and stern, always measured and calm when it spoke – and she instantly recognised who it belonged to. It was a sound that still haunted her: one she could never truly seem to escape even though she knew its owner to be long gone. Because he was dead. Papa was dead. Even though whatever she was seeing now made him seem very much alive she knew they must just be memories – things from the past.

“Steve?” she called, hoping to single out one voice against the growing mass, but everything around her just seemed to be getting louder and louder, and she was starting to think that perhaps she should leave now – that she shouldn’t push it – but she needed to know what this was: needed to find Steve.

She forced herself to focus harder, the fleeting images around her becoming more prominent by the second the more she concentrated, encouraging her to press on and dig even deeper – put everything she had into the task at hand as the ghosts became brighter and clearer, voices distinct in the darkness of the void. And then she could hear it – louder than all the rest: Steve screaming somewhere in the distance and she followed the sound without a second thought, putting all her focus into that single plead for help and trying to pull it closer to her. It was like a game of tug of war – something was trying to stop her, trying to keep her out, but she kept pulling and pulling, dragging it closer and closer until suddenly it gave way and everything hit her a once: the void disappeared and in its place came white walls and bright lights and pain – so much pain.

300 volts.

She was screaming and crying as electric shocks pulsed through her, their power steadily increasing with every shock and it was just like what had happened to Mama – the shocks frying her mind one after the other whilst Papa looked down at her, expression solemn and attentive as he simply stared on not doing anything – not doing anything at all.

400 volts.

And she was screaming, and she was screaming, and there was pain – so much pain – and her thoughts were scrambled and panicked, and sometimes she could have sworn some of them weren’t even her own but someone else’s as she was struck with shock after shock after shock and it all became too much – too much pain, make it stop – someone help – PLEASE MAKE IT STOP – SO MUCH PAIN, SO MUCH PAIN – NOT AGAIN, PLEASE NOT AGAIN – SO MUCH PAIN, SO MUCH PAIN, SO MUCH PAIN, SO MUCH PAIN, SO MUCH PAIN.

500 volts.

Chapter Text

Hopper walked out the backdoor and didn’t have to look further than a step to his right to find Pops sat on a small wooden chair, having just freshly lit a cigarette and stealing the first drag from it, taking a second to savour the taste before exhaling steadily. As soon as he caught sight of Hopper he turned away grumpily, letting out a put upon sigh when the Chief picked up another chair and set it down right next to him, retrieving his own pack of smokes as he sat.

“The hell do you want?” Pops asked irritably.

Hopper didn’t respond at first, simply taking a moment to light his cigarette as he looked about the scrapyard, studying lines of broken cars all sat in their sorry states – some of which he would have killed for a good few years back but had since gone out of fashion and left to rot. He took a slow drag, just letting his thoughts settle for a moment before he spoke.

“You’ve got a nice place here,” he stated, smoke spilling out from his lips as he continued to look on, taking in the large space before him. “You know, at some point before I went down the route of being a big city cop I might have quite liked a life not too far from this. Decent house, decent income. Good place to start a family.” He paused then, taking another prolonged drag before pushing onwards. “So…who’d you lose?”

Pops was silent. He simply sat there staring ahead, remaining still as the seconds dragged on before finally moving his cigarette to his mouth once more, hand trembling slightly, only speaking after he’d let out a shaky breath. “You first,” he said, still refusing to so much as glance in the Chief’s direction.

Hopper sighed, shifting in his seat slightly in an attempt to get more comfortable. He hated telling this story – always did his best to avoid it because he didn’t want other peoples’ pity; despised it when they got that vaguely concerned look in their eyes and offered him their condolences, not really because they meant it but simply because it was the polite thing to do. And then there were the memories: moments and places he preferred to keep buried, just the mere thought of them enough to send a shot of pain straight to his chest. But he couldn’t avoid it right now. Knew that if he wanted the other to speak he had to give something in return – take that plunge and just hope that it was worth it.

“Her name was Sarah,” he started. “And she was my whole world.”

Pops continued to stare blankly ahead as Hopper spoke, never moving other than to take a drag every now and again, but Hopper could tell the guy was listening closely, intent on hearing every word he had to say. When he finished, a few seconds of silence passed between them before Pops took a breath, stubbing out what was left of his cigarette on the ground.

“Life’s a real bitch sometimes,” Pops stated bluntly, Hopper huffing a half-heated laugh at the notion before the other sighed, wiping a hand down his face as he soldiered onwards. “Her name was Lauren,” he began, voice soft and a little weary as he spoke. “And she was my wife. We were high school sweethearts from the beginning – married right after we finished and went straight into the world of work head-on. She got a job as a waitress and I continued my job as a mechanic working alongside my old man. You know, this place used to be his – learnt everything I know here… But a few years passed, and he passed along with them…Then the ownership of the house was moved onto me. Lauren and I we…all we ever wanted was a family of our own. A kid or two – maybe even a goddamn dog to go with it; the whole packaged deal. So we tried, and we tried. But in the end nothing was working. Went to see a doctor after a while and it turns out we just…weren’t capable of doing it – some medical bullshit or other that I don’t care to remember.” He waved his hand in the air dismissively, gaze now cast down to the floor as he spoke. “We were heartbroken at first: could hardly believe it – didn’t want to believe it at all, really, but it wasn’t exactly something we could escape. A few months passed, we adjusted, and that’s when we made the decision: we were gonna adopt. We’d only just started looking into the process when the real shitstorm hit.”

Pops paused then, forcing himself to take a breath, before he continued – absently scratching at his beard as he did so. “You ever hear of Huntington’s disease?” he finally said.

Jesus Christ, Hopper thought, because yeah: he had heard of that, and it sounded awful. From what he could remember it was something you inherited, and after you started showing symptoms there wasn’t a whole lot that could be done about it. Your body went, your mind went and the entire thing was just one prolonged horror show with an inevitable end. Maybe you’d get ten years. Maybe more, maybe less. Outcome was still the same either way.

Hopper didn’t say any of this vague recollection out loud though, simply nodded his head and let Pops continue speaking.

“She held on for nine years… I…I don’t like to remember her the way she was in those last few though. And I’m sure she wouldn’t want that for me either. For something that started off so wonderful, watching it all fall to shit like that just…it’s something you never really recover from. Not fully at least…” He trailed off with a sigh, eyes a little sad as the memories washed over him but forcibly shaking it off, taking one last look at the scrapyard before finally turning to face Hopper for the first time since they’d started talking, and there was something more open and accepting in his posture and tone when he addressed Hopper now, no longer hostile but compliant. “This family I have now…it’s something I thought I’d never get from life. The people back there in that room mean more to me than I can even say. And if I were ever to lose one of them I…I don’t know if I’d survive it this time round,” he said honestly.

Hopper stared at him for a while, knowing exactly where the guy was coming from and trying to think of a response. A few seconds passed before he spoke, several thoughts on what he could say whirling around in his head before one rose above the rest.

“Sometimes doing the right thing isn’t easy,” Hopper said eventually, tone careful yet sure. “But at the end of the day…you’ve just gotta do it. You can’t make the decision for these kids no matter how much you want to: either way, they’ll choose what they choose and you have no power over that. Billy won’t stay away from that place because you told him to, and – from what I could see – the others didn’t plan on taking the safe path either. I know you’re scared – trust me, I am too – but in the end you just have to let them do it. You have to find the courage to let them do it. If you don’t…well, they go and do it anyway and things get a hell of a lot more messy than they would have if you’d have just done it with them in the first place. I’m not saying let them do every bullshit idea that comes to their minds but just – in situations like these – you can’t dissuade them.

“Look, I’m sorry that you had to get dragged into all this, and I know you’re just trying to keep your family safe but…that’s exactly what I’m doing too. Because Steve – the kid in that lab we’re trying to save – he’s family to me. And, you know, it’s funny because I never really thought of him like that before fate decided to be a bitch for the third time in three years running now but…he is. And I’ll be damned if I don’t get him out of that place. So, like it or not, we’re going into that hellhole with your help or without it, and if you want to step aside then that’s your choice – I won’t stop you. But if you’re willing…well, an extra pair hands would be pretty damn appreciated.”

Pops remained silent for a moment. Then he opened his mouth before quickly shutting it again and letting a few more seconds pass as he pinched the bridge of his nose, finally letting out a sigh and seemingly finding the words he wanted as he went to speak again only to be abruptly cut off by a scream sounding from within the house, bringing both men to their feet within seconds as they spun around.

“What in the hell?” Pops exclaimed, but Hopper didn’t hear him – too busy recognising the cry of pain to focus on anything else.

“Jane…” he murmured, too stunned to move for a second. But quickly the shock faded and the worry set in and soon he was dashing back inside, calling her name louder as he moved through the kitchen and then into the corridor and finally the lounge, taking in the scene before him as he entered.

El was on the floor, screaming and convulsing, eyes shut tightly and blood streaming from her nose and ears as Nancy kneeled at her side, hands on her shoulders as she tried to shake her awake to no avail. Jonathan and Billy were by her as well, but they both seemed too afraid to touch her, utterly panicked and at a loss for what to do other than try and speak to her – try and break through whatever was holding her mind captive and bring her back to the room. Meanwhile, Billy’s friends were stood back, simply watching on in horror at what was taking place whilst Nana P was still sat in her chair, whispering a prayer under her breath as El continued to writhe around, shrieking in pain. They all looked terrified, faces pale and panicked, and Billy was the first to catch Hopper’s eye as he strode over, shifting to the side to make room for the Chief as he came to kneel at El’s head, Nancy and Jonathan backing off a bit as well when they saw him approach.

“Jane? Jane!” he yelled, one hand grasping at her shoulder whilst the other found her forehead, and he grimaced at the heat he felt there, like there was a fire burning right beneath the kid’s skin. “What’s wrong with her?” he asked, turning to the others and getting no reply in return, just wide-eyed stares. “WHAT’S WRONG WITH HER?” he repeated, watching them flinch at his sharper tone before Jonathan started stammering out a reply.

“We – we don’t know, we don’t know! She just collapsed – we don’t why, she was just looking for Steve!”

“Why was she looking for Steve?”

“It was my idea,” Billy confessed. “I – I just wanted to see if he was ok – I had no idea that–”

“WHY DIDN’T YOU WAIT FOR ME?” Hopper asked, gaze intense and filled with rage as he stared Billy down, cutting the other off before he even had a chance to reply. “YOU SHOULD HAVE WAITED FOR ME!” He turned away then, not even registering the crestfallen expression that fell over Billy’s face as his focus returned to El, shaking her as Nancy had done before. “Jane? JANE! EL? COME ON, SNAP OUT OF IT KID! I’M HERE – I’VE GOT YOU – COME ON! EL? EL!”

Nothing was working. Jane had somehow gotten herself stuck wherever she was and nothing they were doing was reaching through to her – no matter how much Hopper shook, or yelled, or begged her eyes remained closed, mind facing horrors that none of them even knew the cause of. For a moment, he really thought they’d just have to wait it out, and he hated that idea but there didn’t seem to be anything they could do – the TV was off, the blindfold was off, what more could they do?

That’s when Scarlet stepped forward a little, hands flexing at her side as she looked at Jane narrowly.

“Cover your ears,” she instructed, and the reaction from Billy and his friends was immediate: each of them turning away from her and closing their eyes, hands clasped firmly around their ears in preparation, and that was all the warning Hopper and the others needed before quickly following suit as Scarlet readied herself, arms raised a little while she waited for one beat, then another, and then SMACK.

The movement was fast – a simple clap of the hands, and yet it had sounded more like a gunshot when her palms came into contact, the noise suddenly propelling itself within the room and leaving a faint buzzing in everyone’s ears when it was done. And just like that El was gasping awake, eyes snapping open in shock, and Hopper was there for her instantly, pulling her up into his arms and holding her closely against his chest as she began to cry – at first softly in her mildly dazed state before everything seemed to catch up to her and her breathing went ragged and wet, her shoulders shaking as a sudden wave of emotion overcame her and she started openly sobbing against him, practically clinging onto him for dear life as he tried to soothe her, rubbing circles into her back steadily whilst the others simply looked on, relieved and stunned into silence by everything that had just happened. After a few seconds, Hopper caught Scarlet’s eye, mouthing his gratitude to her and receiving a simple nod of understanding in return. Then her gaze fell downwards and she shook her hands a little before letting them rest limply at her sides – the palms a bright red where they’d come into contact.

It was a moment or two before anyone moved, but as soon as El’s crying started to slow Hopper asked if someone could fetch her a glass of water. Pops was stood silently in the doorway – having watched the entire scene play out from a distance – and he was quick to oblige, disappearing off to the kitchen and coming back in almost no time at all, placing the glass down by Hopper’s side so he could easily access it when the time was right. That’s when Billy decided to move as well, retreating away from Jane and moving to sit in the corner of the farthest couch, careful not to make eye contact with the Chief – or anyone, really – as he curled in on himself a little, staring pointedly down at the floor as he wiped a hand down his face. Mickey followed right after him, sitting down by his side and giving the other a quick once over before leaning back and getting himself comfortable, and then – without saying anything – simply knocking his knee gently against Billy’s, smiling a little when the action was shortly returned.

“You alright?” Tyler asked Scarlet solemnly, staring down at her hands and frowning at how sore they looked.

“I’m fine,” she said dismissively, before moving forward to crouch down by Hopper and studying El carefully, turning to him once she was done. “She’s overexerted herself: she needs rest. My bedroom’s free if you want to use it, or I could bring down some blankets and set up the couch for her if that’s what you’d prefer.”

Hopper considered it for a second before coming to a decision. “The couch will be fine, thanks.”

He wanted to be close to El – keep an eye on her – make sure they were in easy access of anything they might need. Scarlet nodded in understanding and then she was getting up and making her way out of the room, Tyler and Pops trailing after her to help though she could have done it perfectly well by herself. By the time the makeshift bed was made El had passed out in Hopper’s arms completely, breathing calm and deep with sleep as he scooped her up and lay her on the couch, tucking her in securely before standing back and taking in everyone else in the room, voice quiet as he spoke.

“What were you doing?” he asked, gaze flicking from Billy to Jonathan and Nancy, the two of which were still seated on the floor, hands clasped together. “How did this happen?”

After a few seconds of silence, Jonathan was the first to speak, tone equally soft in the tense quiet of the room. “We were just looking for Steve…that’s all it was, we were just checking on him and then…I don’t even know…”

“It was fine at first,” Nancy clarified, brows scrunched together as she thought back over everything. “We found him. And he was still there – still in the lab and…that’s when she said he was hurt.”

“Hurt? Hurt how?”

“She said he was bleeding – that he’d been cut but that he was fine…then there was the picture.” She sat up a little straighter, frown deepening further as she continued. “El said he had a picture of Brenner.”

Hopper paused, the name unexpected to him. “Brenner?” he enquired, watching her nod in affirmation before his thoughts went wild, trying to figure out what the hell that was supposed to mean. That manipulative asshole was dead – why would Steve have a picture of him? “Then what? What happened next?”

Jonathan and Nancy shared a concerned look before the former spoke up again. “We’re not quite sure – everything happened so fast – but…from what El said, it…it sounded like Steve started having some kind of seizure,” Jonathan explained uncertainly.

“El started doing the same too, not long after that,” added Nancy. “I don’t know how but…I think her and Steve somehow became…connected – like whatever Steve was experiencing she was experiencing too.”

Hopper frowned, mind processing her words. “But that would mean–”

“Someone’s hurting Steve,” Billy said quietly, eyes downcast and stormy, and Hopper was having difficulty deciding whether the kid wanted to punch something or just breakdown and cry. “I can’t wait any longer – I don’t care if we have to simply fight our way in, we’re getting him out of that place tonight!”

“Not on my watch you ain’t,” Pops said, coming back into the room carrying a large, cardboard box. No one had even noticed him leaving, but he was back now, and whatever was inside it looked heavy.

“But we can’t just leave him in there!” Scarlet argued.

“That’s not what I’m saying,” he responded, placing the box down in the centre of the floor.

“Then what are you saying?” Billy asked frustratedly.

“I’m saying,” he said, opening the lid to reveal gas masks stashed amoungst mountains of paper, each sheet filled with sketches and notes and diagrams, all written on in great detail, “that if you wanna get into this place, you’re gonna need a damn good plan. No good just rushing in like morons, arms flailing – you’ll be gunned down in seconds.” He rummaged through some of the mess, picking out a few sheets of paper and beginning to lay them down on the floor.

Scarlet wondered closer, looking over it all with wide eyes. “Pops…what is all this?”

He glanced up at her slowly, and something in his expression softened as their eyes met. “What, you think if those bastards took you back I’d just sit here and do nothing?” he said, before continuing to sort through the box, throwing the gas masks to one side in a pile until he was suddenly forced to stop when Scarlet came to kneel down next to him, stretching her arms out and smiling fondly as she wrapped him up in a hug. It wasn’t long before he was returning the gesture, shutting his eyes for a moment as he held her close before eventually letting go, ruffling her hair a little as they separated.

Hopper walked over to inspect the sheets, eyes studying the writing on them in amazement. “You planned a way in,” he stated, picking one of the pages up and studying it more closely.

“Yep. But that hasn’t been updated for a month or so now – bastards don’t change their routine often but I’ve seen a few shifts over the years, nothing too major though mind you,” Pops said as the others drew closer as well, observing everything he was pulling out of the box with interest.

“What are the gas masks for?” Billy asked, picking one up to inspect it, face drawn into a small frown.

Scarlet shrugged dismissively, something sharp in her eyes as she studied some of the diagrams in front of her. “Needles stopped working on me – just started snapping against my skin. They had to find another way to put me down.”

“You never told us this before…” Mickey commented, expression concerned and perhaps a little sad as he regarded the other, watching her simply shrug her shoulders again.

“You didn’t need to know,” she said, not meeting either his, Billy or Tyler’s eyes as Pops finished emptying the remainder of the box, throwing it aside once he was done and then turning to glance at the others gathered around him.

“Alright, if we’re gonna do this…we’re gonna do it fucking right.”

* * * * *

The next hour was spent planning, and once they were done Nana P announced she was going to whip up some food for everyone, so while the rest of the group busied themselves with one thing or another Hopper asked Pops if he could borrow the phone and started dialling in the number as soon as he’d gotten the affirmative, leaning against the wall whilst he waited for someone to pick up. He wasn’t left waiting for long though – in fact it only took a second or two before someone was answering and the Chief was minutely startled by the abrupt ‘HELLO?’ that came flying across the line.

Hopper rubbed at his eyes tiredly before making a response. “Yeah, hey, it’s me, can you put Joyce on?” he asked, sighing quietly when all he got in return was an extended period of bickering in what was supposedly hushed voices. Seriously, why the hell did it have to be the kids that picked up? Were they all still sleeping over at Joyce’s? The other parents must be having a goddamn holiday.

“Wait let me speak–”

“No, I should speak!”

“Just ask him what’s going on!”

“If he’s calling that’s good, right?”

“But if it’s good why would he want to speak to Will’s mum and not us?”

“Oh my god, do you think someone died?"

WHAT?

“Shit! Maybe he’s calling from the hospital.”

“Jesus, no one’s dead – he’s probably just calling to tell us how things are going.”

“No way, you heard his tone – someone is dead. Like actually, fucking dead.

“Hey…Hey,” said Hopper after a while, trying to get their attention back. “Could you just listen for one–”

“Oh my god, what if they have Eleven? Oh, we are so screwed if they have Eleven!”

“If you’d just–”

“Urgh, you guys are such drama queens!”

“Maybe I should just get my mum…”

“What? No! She’ll just try and hide the truth from us!”

“–give me a second.”

“I’m telling you. Someone is D-E-A-D–”

HEY! Hopper yelled suddenly, gaining an odd look from one of Billy’s friends – the tall one with glasses – who’d just emerged from the lounge. Trying to brush off the awkward moment, he smiled a little forcedly at the other as he passed by before turning back to the phone where the other end of the line had finally, blissfully, become silent. “Look, no one is dead, alright? Now, if you could please put Joy–”

“See? I told you!”

“Hey, hey! Listen,” he interrupted. “Please put Joyce on the phone.”

“Why? What’s going on? Is Steve okay – have you got him back yet?”

“No – just…put Joyce on the phone. Please,” Hopper said, hearing the line go quiet again and resisting the urge to hit his head against the wall whilst he was left waiting again. He was considering giving yelling another try when he heard some shuffling about and then finally–

“Jim?”

“Oh, Joyce, thank God,” he said, wiping a hand down his face as her voice travelled across the line, and something inside of him just seemed to relax at the sound of it.

“You sound tired,” she stated, tone soft but a little tense and concerned around the edges. “Is everyone alright? What’s going on?”

“Yeah, no, everyone is…” He paused midway through, thinking about what he wanted to say. “Most of us are fine but El collapsed earlier and, from what she was saying beforehand, it sounds like Steve did too. We don’t know what happened – we’re still waiting for El to wake up.”

“What, she’s still passed out? Is she ok?”

“No, she – she’s fine, she’s fine. I mean, I think she’s fine but…Joyce, I’ve never seen her like that before. I walked in and she was just screaming and I – I couldn’t do anything!”

“Hop…”

“Nothing! Nothing was waking her up and for a second I – I thought I’d just have to leave her there – leave her screaming like that because I couldn’t – I just couldn’t – and… For all I know the only reason she managed to get out of wherever the hell she’d gone was because Billy’s friend has one hell of a clap, but… Billy’s friend isn’t always gonna be there though. What if we come back and she does it again? What if I can’t snap her out of it, Joyce? What if she–”

“We won’t let that happen,” Joyce said, voice firm before going softer. “I know you, Jim. Whatever happened it wasn’t your fault, and – from the sounds of it – I don’t think you could have prevented it no matter how hard you tried.”

“But I should have been there with her,” Hopper insisted. “I could have helped or… I don’t even know anymore. I just… I wish I’d have been there for her sooner.”

He heard Joyce sigh quietly over the line, and even though he couldn’t see her he could picture her perfectly: side leant against the wall and a small crease between her brows, lips forming a concerned pout as her fingers fiddled anxiously with the spirals of the cable, soft, brown hair slightly messy from her running her fingers through it all day. Just the mental image alone was enough to soothe his thoughts a little.

“I know you do,” she said. “But you shouldn’t worry over something you can’t change…Jane will be fine: she’s strong – a whole lot stronger than any of us, that’s for sure – but she also has you, and I know that you will do everything you can to keep her safe. She couldn’t be in better hands. You’re doing great, Hop. So don’t you dare go convincing yourself otherwise.”

Hopper huffed a laugh, a small smile lighting up his face. “I’ll try not to.”

“Good,” she said, before going silent for a few seconds, something in her tone shifting a little when she spoke again. “El will be fine, but Steve…Do you know how you’re getting him out yet?”

“Yeah,” Hopper replied. “We’ve got something in mind…”

* * * * *

El awoke on the sofa a few hours later, mind running a little slow as she sat up – the heavy exhaustion she’d felt earlier now more of a dull throb in the back of her mind. She rubbed her eyes before pushing the blankets down and setting her feet upon the floor, peering around the room curiously to find Nancy and Jonathan asleep on the other couch, Nancy using Jonathan’s shoulder as a pillow while he rested his head on top of her own. That’s when a sudden snore to her left caught her attention and she turned to see Hopper sat back in a wooden chair almost directly beside her, eyes shut and face slack with his head tipped back and mouth gaping open a little, chest rising and falling with each deep breath.

For a moment she just sat there, perched on the edge of the couch, eyes scanning the dimly lit room with the only light coming from a small lamp, drenching everything in a soft, yellow light. She knew she needed to speak to Jim – tell him what she saw, what she felt. But Jim was asleep. And she didn’t want to disturb him, or either of the others, when they looked so peaceful. They needed rest: El wouldn’t take that from them.

Slowly, she stood up and made her way to the door, slipping out of the room and down the hallway to the kitchen, opening up the fridge and glancing at its contents before helping herself to a plate of leftover pasta, spending a moment or two searching for a fork and then digging in, getting halfway through her meal until she smelt it: burning; something smoky wafting into the kitchen from outside. She paused curiously, placing the fork back on the plate before opening the backdoor and stepping out into the scrapyard. The smell was stronger out here, and without a second thought she followed it, navigating her way carefully through the darkness until she spotted an orange glow ahead, and found herself on the edge of the clearing from earlier, though now there was a small campfire at its centre with some blankets and pillows strewn about it. The first person she spotted was the tall one with the glasses – Tyler, she recalled after a second – passed out on the ground, with his limbs spread out like a starfish, and Billy’s other friend – Mickey – wasn’t too far from him, hugging a pillow to his chest as he snored lightly, occasionally fidgeting and mumbling a little in his sleep. Scarlet was sat across from them with her legs spread out in front of her and Billy lying across her lap, leaning on one hand whilst the other stroked calmly through Billy’s hair – his blonde curls looking damp, like he’d recently taken a shower, as he lay there with his eyes closed, looking more relaxed than El could ever remember seeing him before.

It wasn’t long before Scarlet spotted her standing awkwardly on the edge of the clearing. After a second, she carefully brought her hand up to press one of her fingers against her lips before beckoning her over. El spared another glance at the sleeping boys as she started making her way forwards quietly, finally coming to stand beside Scarlet and dropping down to sit on one of the pillows there, plate of food still in hand as she made herself comfortable. Billy shifted a little in his sleep, a tired huff of breath escaping from his lips before he went still again, mind at ease with Scarlet’s fingers combing through his hair.

“You found the food Nana P put aside for you,” Scarlet said quietly, smiling as she looked down at the plate in Jane’s hands. “That’s good. She’ll be pleased.”

El simply smiled shyly in return, taking another forkful of pasta as they sat there in silence for a moment, both simply staring at the flames.

After a while, Scarlet spoke again, voice still soft so she wouldn’t wake the others. “You alright?”

“I’m fine,” El said. And she was, for the most part. A little shaken, maybe, and a little tired, but fine. Still fine.

“Steve alright?” Scarlet asked then, shooting a quick glance down at Billy before turning her gaze back to Jane, waiting for her response as the girl paused for a moment, chewing more slowly as she processed her thoughts.

Eventually, she shook her head. “Found memories – bad memories.” It had taken her a while to figure it out but she was almost certain now: Steve knew Papa. And Papa had hurt Steve. But there was still a lot she was missing – still a lot none of them knew and probably wouldn’t know until they got Steve back. She went over it all again in her head, eyes narrowing as she contemplated what she’d seen. “He saw me…” she said after a second or two, that single moment playing out in her mind over and over again, and she could remember the shock she’d felt when he met her gaze, expression just as surprised as her own – “El?” – before he’d been dragged under, deep down into those shadowy depths. People had heard her before when she was in the void but no one had ever actually seen her. No one except Mama…

“What do you mean?” Scarlet questioned.

“Steve was there...in the void. He…he was there and then he was…there.” That version of Steve had seemed solid – incapable of breaking into dust like he had before: she felt like she could have reached forward and touched him and he’d have actually felt it.

Scarlet sat quietly in thought for a moment, taking in what Jane had said before suddenly asking, “What’s it like?”

El stared at her uncertainly, not sure what she was saying.

“The void,” Scarlet clarified. “What’s it like?”

“…Dark,” El began, taking a moments pause to think of how to describe it, “but not. It’s…empty. Black.”

“Is there water?” Scarlet asked, and Jane was a little taken aback, directing a questioning look at the other as she slowly nodded. A few seconds passed before Scarlet spoke again, casting her gaze downwards as she explained herself. “I’ve seen it,” she said, shadows dancing across her face as the firelight crackled before them. “I, um… go there sometimes in my sleep.”

El listened curiously, edging closer to the other as she spoke.

“It’s strange…I don’t know how or why I get there but…when I do, I –” Scarlet paused, some image seemingly crossing her mind at that moment before she continued. “I see a man. I don’t know who he is but I feel like I should. Like he’s important to me, somehow. And every time I see him, he always seems to look so…cold…angry…but there’s always something else there – something in his eyes that just looks…sad.” She paused again, lowering her voice even further. “Sometimes he has blood on his hands…And I don’t know whose or why but – I think…I think he’s my father.”

A few seconds of silence passed between them before El spoke again, voice tentative as she asked, “Bad?”

Scarlet thought about it for a moment, jaw working subconsciously as she stared ahead. “No,” she finally responded. “I don’t…I don’t think he has a choice.”

El nodded a little in understanding, then returned her focus to the plate of food in her hands, finishing off what was left on it before putting it down to the side of her.

“When you find people, how do you do it?” Scarlet asked, expression curious as she turned to look over at El again.

Jane furrowed her eyebrows in thought. “Focus…I think about them. Nothing else: just them. Distractions make it…difficult.”

Scarlet shifted fractionally, paying close attention to El’s words. “How did you learn?”

“Papa taught me,” she said, trying not to let her thoughts stray too far back to when she was being held at the lab, living a life of manipulation and abuse.

“That’s Doctor Brenner, right?” Scarlet questioned.

Jane nodded, gaze narrowed. “You…knew Papa?”

“No. No, I don’t think so,” Scarlet said. “But…I think I’ve heard his name before. It sounds familiar to me.” She paused for a moment when Billy stirred in her lap, turning over a little but remaining asleep as Scarlet pulled one of the blankets over him before continuing. “Steve…He’s not like us, is he?”

Frowning, El shook her head slowly. “No number,” she stated, certain that his wrist carried no brand.

But he had seen her in the void…and she couldn’t explain that yet. As far as El knew, the power to enter that place was only held by herself and Mama, though now it appeared that Scarlet may possess it too. Did that mean everyone with powers had access to the void? But if that was true, shouldn’t Kali have mentioned it as well? Wouldn’t Kali have at least sensed her presence when she’d first gone searching for her? Perhaps she did and she just hadn’t told Jane. Or she simply didn’t take note of it as much. From what Scarlet said, it sounded like she only accessed the void when asleep: perhaps Kali merely wrote anything of the kind off as dreams. But Steve…Steve didn’t have powers – at least not any that she’d seen. And surely they’d know by now if he did – surely El would have at least sensed something about him. But she hadn’t sensed anything. Steve was just…Steve.

“No number doesn’t mean it’s not possible,” Scarlet said, thoughtfully rubbing at the mark on her wrist. “If they’d have taken me a few years later, the needle would never have been able to pierce the skin.”

El considered that for a moment, but simply shrugged it off in the end, knowing they couldn’t do much more than speculate right now. If Steve was like her – if he was special – he’d have told them. He would tell them, when they got him back. “When were you taken?” Jane asked, switching the topic – the thought of Steve having powers foreign to her mind and making her feel a little uneasy.

Scarlet looked at her in surprise before casting her gaze downwards again, one hand going back to combing through Billy’s hair. “I don’t know,” she said honestly. “Hell, I don’t even know when my own birthday is – not really. We think I was maybe four, five. All I know is that…there was a fire, and the white coats made sure my parents didn’t make it out. Or, at least, that’s what I thought. In short, I have no idea who I was before all this: as soon as I went into that place any memories I had before were just…forgotten. I couldn’t even recall my own name when I got out – just thought that, maybe, it started with ‘S’ and for all I know, that’s probably not even right. But we stuck with ‘S’, and I liked the sound of Scarlet, so…here I am. Scarlet Weatherman. My birthday is the day I met these morons, and I’m the same age as them. And, I’m fine with that. Mostly. Even if sometimes I do wish that…I knew. Really knew.”

El watched Scarlet gaze around at the others, a small, fond smile tracing her lips, though her eyes looked a little sad. “How did you meet them?” she asked.

Scarlet huffed a laugh, and suddenly the sadness was gone: replaced by an expression of joy and mirth as she turned towards Jane once more. “I was running – had been for a good while. When I got out, it was the only thing I could think of. I didn’t really have a plan, just: get away. It was chance, honestly. Nana P says it was fate but…I was just in the right place, at the right time.

“Five years ago, Pops used to have a strict ‘No playing in the scrapyard’ rule. Naturally, these idiots didn’t listen to him. Pops was out getting the shopping and Nana P was upstairs sleeping when they snuck out the backdoor. Apparently they were climbing up onto some of the cars – Pops used to pile the ones beyond repair on top of each other. Billy got into one of the high ones. He was messing around in the driver’s seat when the whole thing fell and landed upside down. I was running past the fencing when I heard Mickey screaming for help. I ripped through the gate, walked towards the sound, and found them. Billy was trapped in the car, crying because the doors wouldn’t open and he was locked inside, and Mickey and Tyler were just stood there arguing about what to do because they were worried about Pops finding out and Tyler was convinced calling the police would get them arrested for breaking the rules. They didn’t even notice me until I’d pulled off the door and carried Billy out. You know, it’s the one time I remember them all actually being quiet for once…

“Nana P found us shortly afterwards: scolded the boys and then took us all inside for some cookies and milk. By the time Pops came back, she was already convinced I was some kind of gift from God – a guardian angel sent to watch over these dumbasses. She wanted Pops to take me in. And, after a lot of debate and convincing and me lifting a car or two, he agreed. They’ve been my family ever since.” She smiled down at Billy fondly once she’d finished before turning to El, expression fading into something a little more serious. “What about you? How’d you find your family?”

El told her everything, from opening the gate to Hopper leaving her food out in the woods, and then past that to finding her mum and Kali before finally returning home again to save the people she loved. Scarlet listened intently to all of it, eyes widening a little in horror whenever she spoke about the Mind Flayer or anything to do with the Upside Down for that matter. When she was done, they sat in silence for a moment whilst Scarlet processed everything Jane had said, trying to wrap her mind around the concept of the whole monsters from another dimension thing. Finally, she nodded to herself, seemingly somewhat content with everything she’d been told.

“Have you been in contact with Kali since?” she asked after a while, humming to herself in thought when El shook her head. “Maybe when all this is over we could find her again. Together.”

“Sisters,” Jane mumbled to herself, picturing them all together and feeling a faint, warm longing at the image of it. Kali was angry, and that anger blinded her, but maybe they could save her from it. Jane didn’t want someone she’d felt such a strong connection with chasing after revenge for the rest of her life and killing as many people as she had to in order to get it. “I’d like that,” she decided, smiling at Scarlet who returned the gesture wholeheartedly, playfully ruffling Jane’s hair a little before sitting up, Billy stirring and turning in her lap from the movement.

“Come on,” Scarlet said. “It’s late, and you could do with some more rest before tomorrow.” Then she looked downwards at Billy, poking him in the side pointedly. “I know you’re awake. Come on, move it.”

He groaned, tossing a little and grumbling something incoherent but refused to show any further signs of life, and El watched on in amusement as Scarlet continued to poke him in the side until he swatted her hand away, turning over onto his back to glare up at her.

“Come on,” she repeated. “It’s your favourite time of night.”

“And what time would that be?” Billy asked, dubiously.

She smirked. “Waking the rooster.”

Something shifted in Billy’s expression then, lips curling up into a mischievous grin as he finally brought himself to stand, stretching a little as Scarlet rose as well, both sharing a look before he stalked off around the campfire, coming to a halt next to where Mickey lay, dead asleep. Slowly he crouched down, taking a second to crack his knuckles dramatically before suddenly attacking the other’s sides, fingers digging just below Mickey’s ribs and causing him jolt awake with a shriek, simultaneously rousing Tyler in the process who sat up slowly like some sort of disgruntled bird, hair sticking out in odd directions and glasses skewed on his face. Mickey batted at Billy grumpily, scrambling away as the other laughed and hugging one of the blankets around him as he scowled, eyes squinty and brows narrowed in judgement.

“Urgh, why are you so loud?” Tyler groaned, fixing his glasses tiredly before flopping back down again.

“Why am I so loud? Why – why am I so loud? More like why is he so mean!” Mickey snapped back, pointing at Billy accusingly. “You know what? Hawkins can have you and your evil ass – I don’t want you no more!”

Excuse me?” cried Billy, a hand dramatically coming up to clasp at his chest in offence. “My ass is the most innocent thing on this earth.”

Tyler snorted. “That’s a lie.”

You’re a lie,” Billy shot back.

“What does that even mean?” Mickey asked, rubbing at his temples tiredly before Scarlet threw a pillow at his face. “HEY!”

“Stop squabbling, start walking. The giant needs his sleep,” she said, motioning over to Tyler who was already drifting off again before Billy kicked him in the side and he let out an irritated grunt. Then she picked up the majority of the blankets and slung them over her arm, leaving the boys to collect the rest as she started marching back towards the house with Jane at her side.

Everything depended on what happened tomorrow: if they failed everyone was probably as good as dead, but if they succeeded…let’s just say Scarlet was prepared to drink an entire liquor store in celebration if this all worked out.

Chapter Text

11:03pm, Monday 15th April, 1985.

At least half an hour must have passed since those assholes had dragged Steve out of the van, into the building, and down the corridor before throwing him into this room and locking the door without a single word. He was surprised his arms weren't already bruising from how tight their grip had been – Steve had managed to punch the one guy fairly successfully in the face and after that he could have sworn the man's nails were going to rip through his denim jacket. Whatever, he was hardly going to complain about it. But what he was going to complain about on the other hand was the "POOR FUCKING ROOM SERVICE AROUND HERE!"

He yelled directly at the camera in the corner of the room, hoping the people on the other side could at least see his rage if they hadn't been able to hear his insult. That thing had audio, right? It must do: these nosy bastards put mics fucking everywhere, no way they didn't have every single inch of their own facility bugged. He paced around in the small amount of space he had – half the room taken up by a metal table directly at its centre with a chair on either side like it was setup for some kind of fucking interview. Or an interrogation, Steve's mind supplied, and, yeah, that was probably more accurate. Oh Jesus, Steve was in deep fucking shit. The lab had him: the motherfucking, children-thieving lab had taken him captive. Honestly, it didn't take much to figure out – a lovely view of white walls and shiny floors, disturbingly similar to the ones you'd find in a hospital, was all Steve really needed to come to that conclusion. Oh, and that one guy in the lab coat he'd passed on his way here had been pretty telling too he guessed.

Right now, he honestly had no idea why they wanted him: he'd signed their stupid contracts at the start of this whole mess over a year ago, read – well, glimpsed is probably a better word – through all that fucking paperwork. They'd had an agreement hadn't they? The party shut their mouth, and these assholes didn't bother them. Simple as that. Though Steve had to admit it wasn't like he was particularly surprised at this turn of events, really he was just irritated they couldn't have at least waited a year so he could get a goddamn break. Jesus. It had only been, what, seven months since Nancy and Jonathan had totally screwed these guys over and made them relocate? You'd think they’d have at least settled in a little more before pulling this shit and suddenly deciding that–

Oh.

Oh.

Oh yeah, these people were totally pissed weren't they? Was that what this was about? Some sort of petty revenge thing? But Steve hadn't even done anything – that was Nancy and Jon and that weird guy they'd told him about who he couldn't remember the name of...but, then again, the lab didn't know that. Well, the lab knew about the other guy because apparently the dude had waved them off as they were forced to leave the place which, you know, good for him, but they couldn't possibly know for sure that it was Nancy and Jonathan, right? All they knew was that there had been an information leak of sorts. Steve had been trying to link all this to himself but maybe it wasn't just about him. Hell, for all he knew the lab might have taken Nancy and Jonathan too. Maybe the whole damn party was here and these guys just planned to shoot them in the head. Or interrogate them. Or both.

Steve thought about it for a second before dismissing the idea completely and trying to come up with something else. It just didn't feel right to him. Hell, nothing about this felt right to him. He didn’t like to think that he’d been singled out: it made him anxious – it felt like something had started crawling beneath his skin as soon as the door had shut; a weird, terrified sensation right at the back of his mind. In the first five minutes, he’d honestly thought he was going to have a goddamn panic attack and he wasn’t even completely sure why. Something about the room just made him feel uneasy – sick to the stomach with dread – and he couldn’t place the strange feeling of déjà vu he’d been getting, growing stronger with every second he was stuck in here. It was a confusing mix of emotions, and in the end it just resulted in him being angry and frustrated, and he wanted out: he just wanted to get out.

He swallowed, pacing about the room like a man possessed. At one point he paused, considered taking a seat and even walked forward towards the table a little but then he’d turned around and gone right back to pacing – he was restless, agitated. It wasn’t long before he stopped to face the camera again.

“What, you bring me down here and don’t even say hi? You know what, you guys are cowards. Weak, pathetic, cowards! You don’t even have the guts to walk into this room and–!”

“Mr Harrington,” said a voice from the door, and Steve was embarrassed by how much he jumped at the sudden greeting – back colliding with the wall as he whipped around and took a step away from the newcomers, heart beating rapidly and, shit, maybe he was more scared than angry right now.

A woman stepped into the room, shorter than him, with brown eyes and dark, messy hair pulled back into a rough ponytail, wearing a white lab coat that flicked out behind her a little as she walked, making her way directly to the other side of the table and setting a file down on it whilst two men in black attire followed after her and shut the door. They were strong in build and more than a little intimidating to say the least, and Steve noticed that one of them had a black eye and – oh yeah, that was totally the dude he’d punched in the face earlier.

“Sorry we couldn’t get round to you sooner, but I’m sure you understand that in this establishment we do tend to be rather busy. Please, take a seat,” she said, motioning to the chair across from her and looking up at him expectantly.

Steve was frozen for a moment, mind having difficulty catching up with what she’d said, but when it did he moved forward cautiously, pulling out the metal chair and sitting right on the edge of it and – hadn’t he been angry just a few seconds ago? Where had all of that hatred gone? Why wasn’t he fighting back right now – he should be fighting back, shouldn’t he?

“I’m Doctor Oh,” she introduced, smiling kindly as she held out her hand and Steve was amazed when he found himself reaching forward to take it, her grip firm as she gave one brisk shake before withdrawing. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you, Mr Harrington. You know, we’ve actually been following you for a good few months now. I apologise if getting you here caused any inconvenience, our methods of doing so weren’t exactly preferable but necessary.”

“You’ve been…following me?” he asked, whatever shock that had sent his mind reeling was slowly starting to fade away now, and he could feel his anger beginning to gradually build itself back up again, but the uneasiness was still there alongside it, and he tried to push it back as much as possible.

“Indeed. And it hasn’t been easy, I can tell you that,” she said, turning her gaze away from him as she opened the file, starting to flick through its pages.

“Why?” Steve asked, voice a little stronger than before.

She looked up at him, expression curious as she spoke. “That, Mr Harrington, is–”

“Don’t call me that,” he suddenly said, hating the way she kept addressing him by that title. Mr Harrington was his dad – not him – and something about the way she said it just seemed to rub him the wrong way.

“Would you prefer Stephen?” she asked, apparently not at all bothered by the way he’d just cut her off.

He shook his head. “Steve,” he corrected, feeling uneasy at the way she smiled at him then, sickly sweet, like she was overly pleased with how this conversation was going.

Steve," she said. “That is exactly what we’re trying to find out.” She picked up right where she left off without missing a beat, skimming through a few more pages before finally settling on one and folding her hands in front of her neatly as she started speaking again. “Do you have any clue as to why you may be here?”

Steve stared at her for a moment, unsure of what to say. Was she being serious? Or was this one of those rhetorical things? He played her words over in his mind, eyebrows scrunched up in confusion because it sounded like even they didn’t know why they’d taken him, which was just…well…dumb. That couldn’t possibly be what she was saying, right? They wouldn’t just take him for no reason, would they?

“I’ve…got a few ideas,” he said uncertainly, and by a few ideas he meant two: the Upside Down and El. It had to be one of those, surely. What else could there be? Though he guessed it didn’t really matter either way, because he’s wasn’t going to tell these guys shit. He’d decided now: fuck this woman, fuck this whole place – they wanted him to speak? Tough. He wouldn’t betray El or any of the others. Never. No matter what.

“Would you care to share any of these ideas with me?” she asked.

Steve remained silent, jaw clenched.

Doctor Oh considered him for a moment. “Don’t worry, we’re not here to interrogate you about the whereabouts of Eleven if that’s what you’re concerned about,” she said coolly. “We’re well enough informed of her situation with Chief Hopper already. She’s progressing well. You visit her sometimes when he’s out, don’t you? I think it’s sweet. You seem to have a really special bond with those kids.”

A few seconds of silence passed between them and Steve was doing everything he could not to start panicking right there on the spot because they knew. They fucking knew – how did they know? They weren’t meant to know! Was it a trick? Were they just guessing and pretending they knew to try and get a reaction out of Steve? No, no – they knew: they actually, genuinely knew: she was too confident, too sure, too dismissive about it. All this time Hopper had been trying to keep her a secret and they’d known – they just hadn’t done anything about it.

“We’re not concerned with anything to do with the Gateway either. The only thing we want to know about right now is you, Stephen.”

Steve didn’t like being singled out. Didn’t know how he could possibly be singled out when the other two competitors were a telepathic girl and a whole other dimension filled with monsters that wanted to kill everything. It didn’t make sense! Why would they want him? Why? Why him?

“Why me?”

“Why indeed,” she said, and Steve was really starting to hate this ambiguous bullshit. “We have some ideas here and there, bits of information that we’ll be sharing with you that may come as somewhat of a surprise, but I’m afraid the real answers we’re looking for can only come from you yourself. Shall we begin?”

She didn’t even give Steve a chance to respond as she pushed the file forward, revealing the page’s contents to him. “We’ll start small. Do you know what this is?”

Steve glanced at it reluctantly, not really wanting to know what was on there but figuring he didn’t really have much of a choice. He pushed it away a little after a few seconds, seeing nothing more than what looked like some kind of bank statement: incomes, payments – it was just a page of numbers, what the hell did it have to do with anything?

She turned the page then and pushed it back, and Steve sighed, studying this new page only to find pretty much the same shit as what had been on the other one. He shrugged, pushing it away again.

“These are the bank statements of James Harrington,” Doctor Oh explained, pushing the file back once more. “Would you like to look again?”

Steve stared at her for a moment, not really sure what to do with that information. He looked back over the pages again and yeah, the numbers looked about right he guessed. Why his father’s bank details were of any interest to these people though was a complete mystery.

“It’s as you would expect?” she asked, and he nodded, not really seeing any reason why he shouldn’t oblige her. She pulled out a small piece of paper then from her pocket and wrote a number on it, sliding it over for him to see. “This is the ransom price we told the people that captured you to send to your father.”

Steve took one glance at it and – Jesus Christ, that was high. Way too fucking high. Steve looked at the number in disbelief, wondering how those assholes could have ever believed his father might actually pay this. The amount was insane – unreasonable – completely overpriced.

“Do you think your father could have paid this sum?” Oh enquired, and – seriously? – where was this conversation even going? What did this have to do with anything?

“I mean…I guess,” Steve said, looking back over the numbers again. “Not easily though it’s…it’s too high.”

“Too high?” she repeated, waiting for him to confirm before flipping over the page in the file again to reveal a new one. “And now?”

Steve looked down at the page to find more bank statements, but this time his eyes narrowed as they read over the figures, brows drawing further down the more he read, and – this had to be wrong. There was no way these number were real. He pulled the file towards him, glancing over the figures again to make sure he hadn’t made some kind of mistake but it was all there: massive payments going in and barely any of it going out. Steve’s dad could have paid for him. Paid for him easily without even so much as blinking an eye!

“This is wrong,” he said, shoving it away from himself. “The numbers are too big – he doesn’t make that much.”

“That’s not what the statements say–”

“The statements are wrong. I don’t know where you got these payments from but they’re not his, alright? He works in insurance – in some shitty, office job. He makes a fair amount but not this much. We live in Hawkins! Who the hell, with this much money, would live in Hawkins?”

“I can see this has upset you.”

“What? No! I’m – I’m not upset, I’m just – I’m saying you’ve got the numbers wrong.” She was lying, Steve wasn’t upset: he didn’t care. So what his dad didn’t pay for him? It’s not like Steve had expected him to anyway, so why would he get upset now just because he found out his father had enough money to buy a fucking mansion or some shit? He wasn’t. He wasn’t upset. He was not…he…

Why didn’t he pay? He could have paid, why didn’t he pay?

His father had left him to die. Steve knew the man was cold-hearted – had known it his whole life – but to do this, it just…Steve had suspected his dad didn’t love him for a long time. Hell, he’d said as much to Billy just a few months ago and yet some part of him had refused to believe it until now; he thought he’d convinced himself of this years ago but here he was, trying not to break down crying in front of these fucking assholes because apparently something in him had only just realised this was true and it hated it. It hated it, it hated it, IT HATED IT.

“It’s okay, please feel free to take your time. I understand information like this can be difficult to process at first–”

“I’m fine," he gritted out, gaze fixed down at the table, away from the file. “I get it: he could have paid, but he didn’t. So what?”

Oh watched him carefully for a moment before speaking again. “We chose this sum very specifically. You see, we wanted to find out whether he would risk exposure or not.”

“What do you mean exposure?”

“I mean this money is kept in a separate account. You’re right, you’re father does work in insurance Stephen, but that’s not his only job. And he’s smart, he knows there are people watching him: if he’d have paid he would have found himself in a lot of trouble. Before we move on, do you know what your mother does for a living?”

Steve wiped a hand down his face, slouching back further into his seat as he wondered what the hell this woman was going to tell him now. Did his mum not love him too? Because that was great – just great; no really: it was wonderful; fantastic. Would it be a harder blow than his dad? Yeah. Out of both of his parents did he prefer his mum? Definitely, even if she was drunk half the time he saw her. But that wasn’t always a bad thing. Hell, it was the only time he’d ever really gotten any kind of affection. Sometimes – on a few very rare occasions – she’d get clingy when drunk: a bottle or two of wine and she’d call for Steve to come down from his room and sit with her on the couch, and when he did she’d reach out a hand and pull him into an embrace, bringing him to rest his head against her shoulder so she could stroke her fingers through his hair, not saying anything – just holding him close like he could disappear from her grasp right then and there. Steve never resisted her when it happened, even though he hated the stench of alcohol that surrounded her or the way she’d accidently scratch him with her nails because she was too drunk to really realise what she was doing. But it was acknowledgement, and really that’s all Steve could ever hope for from her. The rest of the time she seemed to purposely avoid him, like she couldn’t bear just the sight of seeing him in the same room. So, he accepted those moments when he could, no matter how rare or small.

“Nothing. She doesn’t have a job,” Steve answered.

“You’re certain?”

Steve sighed. “Yes.”

“Would you like to turn that page over for me?” Oh asked, motioning to the file in front of him, and funnily enough: no, not particularly. He flicked the page over anyway though, finding another page of bank transactions with high income figures. “That private account belongs to your mother. You may notice that the numbers match those of your father. Tell me, Stephen, do you have any idea where this money may be coming from?”

No, no he didn’t and – Jesus, when had she started calling him Stephen again? Whatever, he didn’t have the heart to argue right now. All he wanted was for this to be over and done with – for this woman to just tell him the fucking truth instead of asking him all of these stupid questions which he clearly didn’t know the answers to.

“Do I look like I know?” he said, and it was meant to have some bite in it – some anger – but it ended up just coming across as tired.

“I know this may seem tedious, but you have to understand that we need to ensure we haven’t missed anything. A small detail from you could provide us with a major breakthrough.”

“I don’t. Know." Jesus, how much more did he have to spell it out for this woman before she believed him?

Doctor Oh was silent for a few seconds, seemingly contemplating something, before nodding and moving on. “We’re not entirely certain either,” she said, taking the file back from Steve and flicking through it again, finding a page closer to the front. “But we have a few ideas. Tell me, do you recognize this man?”

She passed the file back then, and Steve stared down at a man with white hair and stern features and – and that was all he really caught before he looked away again, barely even really glancing at the image before he shook his head. He wasn’t really sure why at first, but he simply put it down to the faint throbbing that had started in the back of his head, probably an oncoming headache caused by all the bullshit that was suddenly getting slammed into his face. Oh watched him carefully as he pinched the bridge of his nose, letting his eyes shut for a second in a weak attempt to will the pain away. Once he was done, he pushed the file back to her, unaware of how his eyes avoided the picture.

“Who is he?” Steve asked.

Oh tilted her head to the side a little, a sudden sharp interest in her gaze as she considered him now. “This is Doctor Martin Brenner, I’m sure with your experiences over the last two years you’ve heard of him.”

So that’s the asshole that kept El locked away for all those years, Steve thought, glad Jane was far from his reach now. Actually… “Wait, didn’t he get, like, eaten?”

Doctor Oh smiled. “That’s where things become a little tricky. You see, we believe your parents were working alongside Doctor Brenner, however–”

“Woah, wait – WHAT?” Steve cried. No. No, it couldn’t be true: this was bullshit – it was all bullshit!

“I understand this may come as somewhat of a shock to you–”

Steve scoffed. “A shock? What, you expect me to believe this crap? Bullshit. Alright? Bullshit: my parents didn’t–”

“Up until nineteen years ago, your parents were working at the Hawkins facility under the guidance of Doctor Brenner. He was the one that oversaw the end of their employment, however the circumstances under which this passed are unclear. When you were announced their son a year later, we expected this was the reason behind their leaving, but now that we look back on things we believe their contact with Brenner continued.”

For a moment, Steve didn’t know what to do – let alone what to think. All of Doctor Oh’s words just seemed to melt together in his head, none of them truly setting in because she was lying. She had to be lying. And now Steve was laughing. Because it had to be a joke – one big, fat, bullshit joke that was meant to manipulate him somehow. But he wouldn’t fall for it. Not for a second.

“You don’t believe me,” Oh accused.

“What? No, clearly I believe you. Oh, yeah: I can see it all now: my parents working for the lab – it’s great; fantastic really.” He motioned aimlessly with his hands, trying to ignore how weirdly strained his voice sounded – tone nearing hysterical. And, Jesus, maybe he was hysterical at this point. “Look, I don’t know what shit you’re trying to pull here, but I’m not falling for it, alright? I’m not! So just take your stupid file…” he smiled sweetly at her as he pushed it back across the table, “…and shove it up your ass.”

Oh said nothing. One of the guards moved forward, intent on socking Steve straight across the jaw, but she held up a hand at him, patient as ever, and he moved back again. She considered him for a moment, and there was something absolutely terrifying in how calm she looked right then – Steve’s comment might as well have been directed in the opposite direction because she wasn’t angry in the slightest, not even just a little perturbed at all, and Steve hated it because he had no idea what this woman was thinking. Eventually, she seemed to come to some conclusion in her mind, and she took the file under one hand, sliding it down to neatly rest at her side, before checking her watch.

“It’s late,” she said, looking at him with a strange sort of sympathy. “You must be tired. We’re done here for today, so please feel free to take some time to think over what has been discussed so far and we’ll pick it back up tomorrow. Sound good?”

Steve didn’t reply, just stared at her uncertainly. She continued on all the same.

“Though before you leave, I hope you won’t mind if we take a blood sample.” She nodded to one of the guards and he stepped out of the room, but Steve hardly noticed as those last two words seemed to echo in his head – the throbbing pain he’d felt earlier suddenly returning now with a little more force.

“B-blood sample?” Steve’s heartrate was skyrocketing: he could feel every single muscle in him tensing as he shrunk back into the chair, eyes wide and fearful and he didn’t know why he was so scared but he was – he was fucking terrified and no matter what he did he couldn’t keep the fear down.

“Yes. Don’t worry: we won’t take much; only a little bit just for some testing.”

The guard came back then, carrying in a small metal box that he placed down on the table. Doctor Oh reached over and opened it, standing up as she looked over the contents.

“Which hand to you write with?” she asked, casually snapping on a pair of plastic gloves.

Steve gulped. “My um…my right?”

She walked round to his left side, watching him carefully. “I’ll try and make it quick. Could you please take off your jacket for me?”

He did so without complaint. And it was weird how suddenly Steve felt so distant from himself – from everything that was happening. His heart was pounding in his chest and yet he was…calm. But not really calm more like…still. Obedient. It was like he’d started running on autopilot, and he hardly registered the way he instinctively rolled up the short sleeve of his t-shirt so it was well out of the way before sitting forward a little and resting his arm out on the table in front of him.

Oh paused for a second when she turned back to him, taking in his position with a mildly bewildered look whilst he stared ahead blankly – and that curiosity in her eye was back now, sharper than ever.

“Very good, Stephen,” she said, but it was a little slow – a little uncertain – and Steve could feel that he’d made her uneasy but in that moment wasn’t sure how, and a slight anxiety was slowly building in the back of his mind, worried that he’d done something wrong – that he’d made a mistake – and he didn’t even know why that was a main concern for him right now but he just couldn’t push the thought out of his head.

The feeling only calmed down a bit when she turned away again to fetch a tourniquet from the box, swiftly turning back to tie it around his upper arm before then bringing forward an antiseptic wipe to diligently clean the skin on the inside of his elbow. She worked efficiently, and everything seemed to pass in a weird haze, and before Steve knew it she was removing the needle from his arm and – Jesus, he could have sworn he hadn’t even felt her put it in but she must have because now there was blood in the syringe, and the tourniquet had been removed, and he was pressing a cotton wool pad against his skin, putting pressure down on it as he sat there, still staring blankly across the room and – what the fuck, what the fuck, what the fuck?

“You should be able to take that off now,” she said, carefully plucking his fingers off the pad and removing it to take a look underneath and he just let her, sitting there motionlessly as she proceeded to put a small plaster on the spot, shutting the lid of the metal box with a finalising click once she was done. “There: all finished. These men will escort you to your room now. Is there anything you’d like to ask me before you go?”

Steve shook his head slowly, whatever part of himself he’d lost gradually starting to return to him as he came to stand, one of the men putting a hand on his shoulder in order to steer him towards the door and out the room and he did so without any resistance, gaze still distant as they led him down corridor after corridor until he found himself alone, standing in the middle of a small room with a bed and a bathroom and nothing else. For a second he just stood there. He didn’t move – he didn’t dare – and it was like he was at a complete loss of what to do with himself; like he was waiting for someone to tell him what he was meant to do – what was he meant to do? – and all he could feel was the throbbing in the back of his head, whilst the rest of his body just felt numb, numb all over: even the slight sting of the needle had gone and the only sensation left seemed more akin to a week-old bruise than anything that had actually pierced the skin.

Then finally – snap: everything came back into focus and the throbbing diminished to a low thrum, and it was too much – it was all too much – and his knees buckled, hitting the floor hard and bringing him to kneel, hands clutching his head as he bent over the floor, curling in on himself as a feeling of nausea exploded in his stomach and – what the fuck, what the fuck, what the fuck?

What had just happened?

WHAT HAD JUST HAPPENED?

And he didn’t know – he didn’t know, why didn’t he know? How couldn’t he know? They’d asked about his parents, and then they’d pulled out that picture of Brenner and then she’d asked to take his blood and after that everything had just blurred. He hadn’t been himself in that moment. He didn’t recognise that person at all – that person who’d just sat there and let them do whatever the hell they’d wanted and gone out of their way to do exactly what they said. That wasn’t him – that couldn’t be him…could it?

Something was wrong about this. Something was very wrong and yet somehow it was also very familiar, and that couldn’t be right because Steve didn’t know anything about this shit – not his parents, not Brenner, nothing.

But he was scared. Jesus, he was fucking terrified. And the worst part was…he didn’t even know why.

1:12am, Tuesday 16th April, 1985.

“Took you long enough,” Oh remarked, eyes still set on the computer in front of her as Shepherd entered the room, chubby fingers pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose anxiously. “I was expecting to receive these results over an hour ago. Luckily for you, I was otherwise preoccupied for the most part.” She turned to face him then, gaze sharp as she studied him from where she was sat behind her desk. “Well, where are they? Why the delay?”

Shepherd remained stood by the door, shifting his weight from one foot to the other as he spoke. “Well, we – um…we think he’s type O.”

“You think?” Oh echoed.

“Yes. I mean – we’re not one hundred percent certain but – O would seem to be the most likely category.”

“Most likely – I’m sorry, what are you trying to tell me right now?”

“I, er,” he stepped forward, wiping his sweaty palms against the fabric of his lab coat. “What I’m trying to say is that, there were some…complications with the sample you gave us,” he explained, then quickly continued onwards to clarify when the other’s eyes narrowed at him. “Not – not a bad complication that is. Actually, I – er – I think this is exactly what we might have been looking for.”

“You're kidding me,” she said, watching as Shepherd scrambled to sit in the seat opposite from her, quickly taking out some paper from his pockets and flinching when Oh suddenly snatched them from his grasp.

“N-no I'm not - really, I swear!" he stuttered. "You see, the first time we ran the test we thought we must have made some kind of error since the results were unclear, so we ran it again, a-and then a third time after that. It was during the fourth test we came to realise that it wasn’t the results that were skewed: it was the blood. It’s not like anything I’ve seen before – it acts like O but it’s not – and I think…I think we may have just discovered a whole new blood type.” He shuffled forward a little in the chair, leaning over the desk slightly as he continued. “We took this kid because we thought we could use him to get to his parents – that he might know something about Brenner’s plans and possible return but…I don’t think we stole a clue: I think we stole the entire answer. This kid was what Brenner was hiding – he has to be!”

“Then why just give him to us?” Oh speculated, eyes still studying the pages in front of her. “If he’s so important then why just let us take him?”

“Who cares!” Shepherd exclaimed. “This kid is special. He’s what we’ve been looking for. All the answers we want are right there, in his blood!”

Oh paused for a moment, turning over the new information carefully in her head. “What about the parents?” she asked then, gaze returning upwards. “Was there a match?”

Shepherd scratched the back of his head. “Given the blood’s state, we can’t give a definite answer. But going on the assumption the blood is type O…a combination of A and AB doesn’t add up.”

A second of silence passed where Oh nodded, glancing back at the paper in front of her before pushing it back over to him. “I want you to run more tests: get us some clearer results on what exactly we’re dealing with here and give me a full run down of your findings in the morning.”

“I can start a few tests now but, if we want to fully know its capabilities I’m going to need more time and more samples.”

“Very well. I’ll retrieve more from the boy during our next interview. In the meantime, I also want a full report on his medical history – everything you can find, from birth to now. I don’t care if it’s a broken bone or a common cold: I want to know about it, understood?”

“Yes, Doctor Oh.” He stood up briskly then, giving her a quick nod before disappearing out of the room, the door clicking shut behind him.

Oh watched him leave, giving the results he’d left behind one final, cursory glance before turning back to her computer again, fingers running deftly over the keys.

7:00am, Tuesday 16th April, 1985.

Steve had barely slept. Even when they’d turned the lights out he’d remained for the most part awake, just lying there in the dark whilst his thoughts went to war, eyes teary and the faintest whisper of that headache just trailing around the corners of his mind, ready to kick up a fuss at any given second. Honestly, at this point he was more confused than anything else. At first, it had mainly been centred around his parents – his parents that used to work for the fucking lab and then left it to apparently secretly work with Doctor fucking Brenner, because of course they did! Why not? – but now…now he was more concerned with himself.

Something had happened to him yesterday. Something that had been completely out of control – he had been out of control. And he didn’t even know what had triggered it, let alone how it had even happened in the first place. It was like one second he’d been conscious and the next he’d been running on some freaky, innate auto-pilot: it was almost as if his mind had separated itself as much from his body as possible, and watching Oh pull the syringe out – watching her sinking the needle into his arm – had been more like staring at a TV screen, even though he was there – he was right fucking there…But it wouldn’t happen again. Whatever it was, he’d push it back. No way was he being compliant next time – that wasn’t him, who he was – who he is. He fights back. He doesn’t back down and roll over like some dog. Next time he’d control it.

And apparently next time was now…

They’d turned the lights on in the room half an hour ago, giving him a little time to prepare before the two guards opened the door, beckoning him to come through.

“Doctor Oh will see you now.”

“What an honour,” Steve grumbled, standing up from the bed and walking past them into the corridor, shoving the one guy’s hand away when he tried to take ahold of his arm. “I can walk just fine by myself, thanks.” That earned him a rough grunt and a shoulder check as the man moved forward to lead the way, the other guard simply giving Steve a little push to get him moving.

They walked down one corridor and then another before stopping at a white door and directing Steve inside before shutting it closed behind him. It was the same room as yesterday: same table and chairs, and Steve honestly thought they were going to make him wait again like last time but thankfully Doctor Oh was already in there when he arrived, comfortably seated with the file resting beneath her folded hands.

“Good morning, Stephen,” she said, cheerful as ever as she motioned towards the chair opposite her. “I hope you’ve had enough time to think things through over the night. Please, take a seat.”

Steve pulled out the chair and dropped himself down into it, maintaining eye contact with her as he leant back and put his feet up on the table, revelling in the faint hitch of her brow when he did so. He smiled, “You know, it’s funny: I did have a lot of time to think, and…I don’t care. Whatever bullshit you’ve got on my parents – you’ve made a mistake because I-I don’t give a damn.”

And he didn’t. Because whatever mind games these assholes were trying to play, Steve wasn’t buying it – wasn’t buying any of it. His parents used to work for the lab? Sure – fine. It just gave him more reason to leave a house and family that was already shit before he found out it was even shittier. Whatever information these guys thought they would get from him, they wouldn’t. Steve wasn’t breaking – not now, not ever.

Oh considered him for a moment, head tilted to the right a little as her eyes swept over him carefully. A few seconds passed. Then a few more. And then, finally, she pushed the file to the side and leaned forward, staring at him directly as she returned his smile. “Actually, I’d like to move the focus of our discussion away from your parents today and learn a little more about yourself, if that’s alright.”

Steve wavered for a second. It was small – practically unnoticeable – and he’d pulled himself back together as soon as it had happened but he knew she’d seen it, just knew it hadn’t escaped her gaze. But it didn’t matter. Nothing had changed: he was still determined to fight them, regardless of what angle they attacked from. So, he remained silent, and after a while she continued.

“Just while you’re here, we’d like to do a few checks on some medical facts, just to ensure that you are well-accommodated for in any circumstance. When was your date of birth?”

Was this woman being serious right now? She…she wanted to know Steve’s birthday?

“9th February 1967?” He answered more out of confusion than anything else. And it wasn’t like the information could actually do him any harm, right? Right?

Oh nodded, looking pleased. “Any serious medical conditions we should be aware of? Long-term illnesses…heart palpitations…?”

“Um…no?”

“Are you on any medication currently?”

Steve hesitated for a moment. “Er, yeah…I, um, take hay fever tablets.”

“You do? How often?”

He shrugged, wondering what the hell this information had to do with anything. “Like, once a week.”

“Once a week?” Oh repeated.

“Well…yeah.”

“Could you be more specific about the type?”

“What do you mean?”

“Official name…What they look like…”

“I don’t know…They’re…white? Round – kinda big.”

“What does the packaging look like?”

“What does the packaging–?” Steve stopped, eyes narrowed as he stared across the table at her. “Why are you so interested in my hay fever tablets?”

Oh sat up a little. “We’re uncertain as to how long you will be remaining here with us. It is in your best interests and ours that you be kept in good health during your stay. Now, what does the packaging look like?”

Steve sighed. “It’s just…white.”

“…You’re certain?”

“Er, yeah.”

“There’s no writing? Nothing?”

“No, it’s just a plain, white packet.”

Oh considered him for a second, a question behind her eyes, but eventually she seemed to dismiss it and move on. “Do you have any other allergies.”

Steve shook his head. “Not that I know of.”

“Have you ever had any serious illnesses or injuries in the past?”

“I guess…” Steve said. “I mean…I’ve gotten beaten up a few times…And I broke my leg once.”

“When was that?”

“I don’t know…I was, like, five. I fell out a tree.”

“And the breakage healed well?”

“Yeah, I guess. I mean, I don’t have any long-term problems from it.”

“How long did the recovery take?”

Jesus, all these questions were starting to grate on Steve’s nerves. He took his feet off the table and placed them down on the floor, leaning forward in his seat a little as he rubbed his eyes tiredly. “I don’t know, like, three weeks or some shit.”

Oh’s head cocked to the side, a faint crease forming between her eyebrows. “Three weeks?” she repeated. And she said it like Steve was wrong – like the idea was insane. And maybe it was – fuck if Steve knew: he’d been five, was she seriously expecting his memory of this to be perfect?

Though he could have sworn it wasn’t much more than that…it had happened towards the end of the summer holidays, and by the time school came back around the cast was off and his classmates had been none the wiser to it.

“Look, it was ages ago. I barely remember it,” he said, unnerved when Oh continued to stare at him in the same manner, gaze unyielding.

“You said you’d been beaten up? How bad?”

Again, Steve shrugged. “Not that bad, I don’t think…I mean, I got knocked out once but that was only for a few minutes or so…”

“No concussion afterwards?”

“No.”

“Where was the majority of the damage?”

“My face? My one eye was pretty swollen, and there was a cut or two…”

“No scarring afterwards though?” she asked, eyes scanning curiously across his face like she expected to find something there.

“Uh…no.”

She studied him for a moment longer, then: “How long did it take to heal?” And – Jesus, did this woman ever stop?

“A week? Maybe, like, a day or two more?”

Something wasn’t adding up here. He could see it in her face – the slight doubt his answers provoked leaking into her expression as though she wanted to argue with him, tell him he must be mistaken. But she didn’t. She kept her thoughts to herself and a few seconds of silence passed between them before she spoke again, phrasing her questions more carefully than before.

“Stephen, if you were to break a bone now, how long do you think it would take to heal?”

Was this a trick question? Steve wasn’t really sure what he made of it but he answered all the same. “I don’t know…maybe, three – four weeks?”

“What about a cut? A deep one?”

“A week?”

“And a bruise?”

“Four – five days?”

“When was the last time you were ill?”

“I–” Steve suddenly stopped, words freezing right on the tip of his tongue because…he didn’t know. When was the last time he was ill?

Oh noticed his hesitation, head cocking to the side a little more. “It doesn’t have to be a serious illness. It can be something as simple as a common cold, a cough…When was your last sick day at school?”

He couldn’t think – couldn’t think of a single day he’d taken off because he was ill. But that wasn’t right: there had to be several days he’d missed out on, and yet he couldn’t recall a single one. Just a common cold, he thought – that was something people got every year, right? Right! He’d had a cold recently. He was certain of it. He, Steve Harrington, had had a cold. At some point. Which he couldn’t think of right now.

Hadn’t the kids all been ill recently? Yeah – yeah! – it had started with Dustin and spread throughout the group like wildfire: hell, even Hopper and Joyce had gotten ill, as well as Nancy and Jon and then Billy because of Max. Steve hadn’t heard the end of it for an entire week, everyone had just been a snotty, complaining mess, constantly coughing and sneezing and…and Steve…Steve had…Steve had been fine…

Something of his realisation must have shown on his face because Oh started moving on then, shifting the focus of their conversation slightly. “We looked through your medical files last night. Do you know what we found, Stephen?”

“What?”

“Nothing,” she said, pausing a little to let that fact sink in before continuing. “No hospital visits, no doctor’s appointments – your medical history is a clean slate. And when we couldn’t find anything there we checked out your school records. Your attendance is spotless: no sick days, no skiving; the perfect student. How do you explain that?”

“I…I don’t know, I…” Steve trailed off, trying to think of something – anything – because surely that couldn’t possibly be true, before suddenly: “Your wrong,” he said, recollection coming swiftly to him now despite its strange absence before. “No, your wrong – I do have medical history, your…your just looking in the wrong place!”

Oh frowned. “How so?”

“I go to a private doctor. That – that’s why you can’t find anything, it must be.” Steve didn’t know when he’d started having to defend himself but that was exactly what was going on here now, wasn’t it? They were trying to get to him with these…these mind games, but they couldn’t trick him. He wasn’t going to play into their hands, not now, not ever!

Doctor Oh considered this new information for a second. “How often do you go?”

“Twice a year,” Steve said, confident now because – yes! Yes! He was beating her at her own game. They couldn’t fool him, he knew this: he knew it well.

“And where is it situated?”

“It’s in Hawkins, on private property a little way out from the town. Though, recently they’ve had to relocate to Chicago.”

“How come?”

Steve shrugged. “I don’t know, business shit or something.”

“And what is the name of this doctor you visit twice a year?”

“Doctor Br–” Steve didn’t know what he’d been going to say then. Whatever it was got stuck in his throat, but that was the least of his problems as the headache from earlier came back full force right at that moment – no longer dancing around the edges of his mind but now pounding against his temples relentlessly and causing him to grunt faintly in pain, a hand coming up to press against his forehead as he shut his eyes.

“Stephen?” enquired Oh, tone laced with something that was meant to be concern but Steve waved her off, turning away and to the side slightly. “Are you alright?”

“I’m fine,” he grit out, waiting a few seconds for the pain to recede before opening is eyes again and looking back at her, a slight furrow in his brow. “What were we talking about again?” he asked.

Oh didn’t answer for a moment. She opened her mouth to say something and then immediately shut it again, lips pursed as she considered something in her mind, then: “I think we should end this session here, for now. We’ll pick it up again later in the day after you’ve eaten, I’m sure you must be hungry right now. Before all that though, I’m afraid I’ll be needing another blood sample. We would have given you food earlier but wanted to make sure this sample had no other factors influencing it. May I?” She reached down to retrieve the same metal box from yesterday that had been sat under the table this entire time without Steve’s notice.

He regarded her suspiciously. “Why do you want my blood?” he questioned.

“Just for confirmation of some of the things we’ve spoken about. Allergies and such: simply for health concerns, I assure you.”

“What happened to the sample you took yesterday?”

“Skewed, I’m afraid,” Oh supplied. “Hence why we’re taking another now, when we can be certain that you haven’t eaten for ten hours. I apologise for the inconvenience, the fault was on our part.”

Steve considered her for a moment, eyes narrowed and untrusting, but in the end he conceded to her, taking off his jacket once more as she smiled at him.

“Excellent,” she said, walking around the table and snapping on the plastic gloves once more. “I’ll take it from the right arm today, if you don’t mind.”

Steve complied, rolling up his right sleeve a little and resting his arm against the table for her, and she went about the process just like she had done before: efficient, quick, no hesitation in her actions at all. The only difference was that this time Steve was there. He was present – completely conscious in that moment – mind hellbent on remaining that way to the point where he’d dig his nails into his palms whenever he felt himself starting to drift, that strange sensation that had taken him hostage before trying to gain control once more but he wouldn’t let it. Whatever the hell it was, it could fuck off. Steve needed to be in control right now – couldn’t afford to let his guard down around these people. He flinched when the needle pierced his skin but otherwise remained completely still until she was done and placing the plaster on his arm, walking over to his other side once she was finished.

“I want to just check everything is going smoothly over here,” she explained, removing the plaster from yesterday to take a look underneath and pausing briefly at what she saw. Steve turned to look at her, wondering what had made her stop. “That’s healed over well,” she stated, tracing her thumb right over the spot where she’d stuck a needle in him.

Steve followed her gaze, twisting his arm slightly to get a better look and – huh. She was right: it had healed well. There wasn’t even any bruising – just plain, smooth skin as though nothing had even touched it. But that was normal, right? It was essentially a pinprick – it was meant to heal fast. But there was something in the way she was studying the skin, a subtle sharpness to her eyes that made Steve think she was actually surprised by this; like somehow what she was seeing wasn’t quite right, and she was trying to make sense of it in her mind, the cogs twisting back and forth as she thought it all through. Then suddenly whatever faint emotion her expression had displayed in that moment was gone, and she was walking back to the other side of the table, placing the equipment carefully back into the box before snapping the lid shut.

“Thank you, Stephen,” she said. “That should be all for now. Enjoy your breakfast.”

And with that she left, the tail of her white coat flicking out behind her as she strode out of the room, leaving him on his own. That didn’t last for long though, as the two guards opened the door almost immediately afterwards, beckoning him to exit into the corridor and then shutting the door once he had. Steve followed them back to the room, noting the path on his way back and making a mental map of it in his head as they walked. Once he was securely inside and locked in, a tray of food was sent through – some eggs, bacon: honestly, a lot better than Steve had expected he’d get – and he ate it dutifully, passing the empty tray back out of the slit beneath the door once he was finished. After that, he simply laid down on the bed and waited.

He didn’t think about anything they had said – just blocked it all out. He had one goal in mind now and one goal only, and that was to get the hell out of this place. But he’d need patience for that. He’d need these people to start to let their guards down a little around him, otherwise any chance he had was completely off the table. It would be difficult, that was for sure, and it would take a good sprinkling of luck for him to actually succeed, but Steve could work with those odds. Hell, he seemed to be working with them more and more as time went by. He could do this. He knew he could. He just needed to wait. Be good. Compliant. No matter how much he wanted to fight back. They needed to think he was working with them. And then – only then – would he have his shot at freedom.

11:49am, Tuesday 16th April, 1985.

“Well?” Oh asked.

Shepherd startled briefly when she entered through the door, beady eyes peering over rows of vials and other scientific equipment. He stood upright from where he’d been leaning over the microscope, a hand coming up to reflexively adjust his glasses before he spoke. “It’s…incredible. I-I’ve never seen anything like this before: the blood, it’s like it’s…” he gestured his hands around vaguely in the air, searching for the right word, “adaptive.”

“Explain,” Oh said, moving forward to join him.

“Well, you see,” Shepherd began, retrieving numerous sheets of paper that were scattered around the place and handing them over to her, “I ran a few tests to see how it reacted to different stimuli – the first of which was different blood types.” He flipped some of the pages in her hand, before finding the one he wanted and pointing at it excitedly. “I was right in saying it was like O: you could give this blood to anyone and there would be no negative reaction, however–” he flicked through the pages again “–when looking at the results vice versa, it surpasses O’s abilities completely. People of blood type O can give to anyone but they can only accept from those that match themselves. This blood, on the other hand, is not only a universal donor but also a universal receiver. This kid can take blood from anyone – and I mean anyone. It’s…it’s brilliant.”

“I’m guessing there’s more?”

Shepherd huffed a laugh as he glanced at her. “Oh, we’re only just getting started,” he said, before shuffling the paper around again. “You told me earlier this kid couldn’t remember the last time he was ill? Well, can’t blame him: because he never has been. You mentioned he couldn’t even think of the last time he had a cold so, out of interest, I decided to see how his blood reacted to the most recent strain of the flu virus. You know what I found?”

A few seconds of silence passed before Oh realised he was waiting for her to respond. “What?”

“The stuff couldn’t even lay a finger on this blood – that virus was devoured in just less than a few minutes. So, naturally, I decided to up the game a little, see how well it defended itself against measles. And guess what?”

Oh took an impatient breath. “What?”

“That barely scratched it too. It took a little longer than the flu virus – a half hour or so, but still basically no time at all. So, I took it up a notch again, decided to see what it did when it came into contact with a few cancer cells.”

Oh paused, staring at him in disbelief. “No…”

Yeah,” he said. “We just cured cancer. In about one hour and forty minutes, this blood completely tore the threat apart, suffering little to no damage on its own part. This kid, he’s…he’s a walking vaccine. And, honestly? I don’t think there’s a single illness out there that he couldn’t cure.”

“But that’s…that’s ground-breaking. This discovery could lead to more medical advancements than we could possibly imagine, this kid shouldn’t have been so easy to take. Why would they practically just hand him over to us without so much as a complaint? They didn’t even attempt buying him back.”

“Stop worrying!” Shepard cried. “We’ve found exactly what we were looking for – more so, in fact! And if you think this is amazing enough already, just wait until the inhibitor washes out and this blood will be able to cure the same thing in half the time, maybe even a third – a quarter!”

“Inhibitor?” Oh questioned, a slight furrow forming between her eyebrows.

“Yes, inhibit– oh, right! Yes! Of course!” He hurriedly rearranged the papers in front of her again. “You said the kid takes hay fever tablets, once a week, right? Well, as we suspected, they were most certainly not hay fever tablets – no way this kid has any allergies. No, what I believe they were was a very clever composition made to slow down his healing rates to a more average pace. I actually think I may have managed to create a rough replication of it, though the blood’s reaction to it is practically immediate. Like I said, it’s highly adaptive, it starts breaking down and trying to eliminate the inhibitor as soon as it senses it: it knows it’s an anomaly. Hence why he has to take it weekly – has to constantly reinforce it every seven days – but…its effectiveness fades over time. Very gradually, every week, that blood gets faster at eliminating the inhibitor. So, at some point, he must have to change prescriptions else the composition will no longer work. To have kept his healing at a fairly standard rate for so long, I’d guess they have to change the structure of the inhibitor at least–”

“Twice a year,” Oh finished, her head nodding slightly as her thoughts started to combine and settle into place. "I want you to keep this between us," she said then, sparing the paperwork one more glance before turning to head out the room, voice instructive and strong. "None of what you've found leaves this room, understood?"

"Yes, ma'am," Shepherd responded, but she was already gone, clearly knowing his response before he'd even said it.

The situation was beginning to make sense now, and it would only become clearer over the next few days.

1:00pm, Tuesday 16th April, 1985.

The waiting was ultimately the worst part. Steve tried to sleep through as much of it as he could, and he must have managed to slip off at some point because now he was waking up to the sound of knocking before the two men entered and he was escorted down the corridor again. Same guards, same route, same room, and Oh was already there, waiting for him patiently whilst she sat on her side of the desk, file placed before her, ready to begin.

Steve was quick to take his seat as soon as the door clicked shut behind him. Oh didn’t say anything at first, took a few seconds just to watch him, probably expecting another display of rebellion like this morning but she wouldn’t find it: Steve was being good now; he’d comply with her as much as she liked. It was a moment longer before she seemed satisfied and finally began their little meeting.

“Hello, Stephen.”

Steve didn’t respond, simply nodded and looked down at his clasped hands and the way they were resting nervously in his lap. Oh took note of it as well.

“We’re going be moving back to the topic of your parents in this session,” she explained, already flipping through the document in front of her before pausing and saying: “that is, if you don’t mind.”

And Steve did mind – he really fucking did – but he couldn’t let her know that. So, he just shrugged, nodded and let her slide the file over, eyes roaming over the page presented in front of him. It didn’t take long for him to recognise the profile photo in the corner was of his father, twenty years younger, wearing a neatly-pressed lab coat as he stared directly into the camera, expression just as solemn as it had ever been, though perhaps there was a little more liveliness to it here than in whatever memory Steve pulled forward when he thought about the man. It was strange, seeing him dressed like that, and yet, Steve couldn’t help but think the look suited him. Like his father’s appearance had been missing something for all this time and it was that lab coat – that white, definitive uniform that seemed to fit his father’s frame almost perfectly.

Then, Oh turned the page and he was faced with a similar photo of his mother, and if Steve really stared at it for a while he could almost convince himself she was actually smiling here. It was slight, subtle – the faintest fraction of a curve on the lips – but it was there, right beneath the surface. And it looked genuine. So genuine, in fact, that Steve couldn’t say he really recognised the woman he was staring at right now in this photo – this woman with tidy, blond hair and unwrinkled skin. She looked happy. Or happier, at least. And honestly Steve didn’t know how to feel about that, not when considering who she’d supposedly been working for at the time – what terrible experiments she might have run and still come out of it all with a smile as pure as that. But maybe this had been taken in the beginning, before all of that. Before Brenner and kidnapping kids or whatever the hell Oh intended to tell him she did when she worked there. And it would make sense, Steve thought: make sense because she certainly didn’t look like that now – now when twenty years had passed and it looked like a great weight had stretched the skin on her face and streaked silver in her hair, taken the light form her eyes and left them dull, foggy with whatever secrets she held. No wonder she drank like she did. No wonder she hid at the bottom of that bottle instead of facing everything that she’d done.

“These are profiles taken from our records of past employees,” Oh explained. “I thought you may want to see them for yourself: you seemed reluctant to believe it the last time we spoke.”

Steve didn’t say anything, just nodded again as he passed the file back over, but it seemed that Oh wanted a more verbal response from him.

“Well, do you believe me now?” she asked.

It took him a second – a second where he almost slipped; where he almost told her that no: he didn’t believe it: he didn’t believe anything that came out of her mouth or her fancy file – before sparing her a glance and saying, “Yeah…yeah I do.”

That seemed to satisfy her greatly, and she smiled as she moved the folder to the side for a moment so there was nothing between them except the empty metal table when she next spoke. “I understand that this must all be hard to come to terms with, but I will do the best I can to ensure you have time to process everything we discuss. I don’t want you to feel uncomfortable around me, Stephen. In fact, I want you to be able to trust me, and I’m hoping that the more we meet the more you’ll come to see that you really can tell me anything. Anything at all. We want to help you, just as much as we want you to help us.”

“But I still don’t understand what you want me to tell you,” Steve said, averting his gaze down to his hands as he clutched them together on top of the table. “Even if my parents were involved in all this…I don’t know anything about it. They kept it a secret from me: how can I possibly help you?”

Oh leaned forward. “You see, that’s the funny thing about this. Because I believe what you’re telling me is true. Well…I believe that you believe that what you’re saying is the truth. But, during our short time together, I’ve come to find there are moments when you seem to become…hazy. Sort of distant from yourself. Does that make sense?”

Steve nodded his head warily and she continued.

“Well, I believe that you actually do know something. You simply don’t or can’t remember it. But I’m going to help you with that.”

“Wait, I…I don’t understand,” Steve said. “You’re suggesting that – that I already knew about this?”

“Precisely,” Oh clarified. “I believe there is something like a wall in your mind, Stephen – something holding you back. Now whether it’s trauma related or some kind of intentional psychosis given to you for this purpose is yet to be determined, but I’m sure that with time we’ll be able to help you break it down. Help you uncover what’s been hidden from you for so long.”

“How?”

Oh gestured between them. “By doing exactly what we are now. Talking. Discussing. Walking you through everything we know about your parents and seeing if it triggers anything.”

Steve paused for a moment, gaze darting from Oh to the file and back up again, hesitant on carrying on even though he knew he had to. He’d decided this right from the second he had stepped foot in this room: if he wanted out of here he had to convince them to give him some leeway: to give him some leeway he had to convince them he was being compliant: being compliant meant he had to go with everything she said – pretend he believed and accepted it, with just the right amount of resistance so as not to make his intentions too obvious. It was a fine line to walk already. Even finer when the topic was about to get very sensitive very fast, and Steve knew he’d have to reign in his emotions as much as possible if he didn’t want to run the risk of lashing out and spoiling his whole plan. But, God, if he could punch that fake-friendly smile off this woman’s face he would.

Just a few more minutes, he told himself. Just a few more minutes and you’re done.

He took a breath, steeled himself for the worst, then said: “What’s in the rest of the file?”

At that, Oh smiled and – he hated it, hated it; hated that look on her face, like she knew him so well, like he was giving her exactly what she wanted – passed the file over once more. However, in the end it wasn’t as bad as Steve had expected it to be, which was relieving as much as it was concerning. Oh walked him through the whole file: told him about all the experiments his parents had been involved in during their employment – none of which turned out to be as horrific as Steve would have originally thought – then moved on to more technical things like their shift from one lab to another before their inevitable involvement with Brenner at the end of their careers. Steve was surprised when Oh didn’t elaborate more on that last one but couldn’t really find it in him to care when that headache started coming back again – faint but apparently ever-present in the back of his mind.

When they reached the end of the file Steve just sat there in silence, pretending to think it through whilst Oh collected the paperwork up and put it back to the side out of the way. It was obvious that she wasn’t saying everything she could have. The way she darted over certain subjects just to focus on the more mundane ones made it clear that she was saving some information for a later time – probably one that best suited her own benefit: a time when she believed it would have a more manipulative impact on him. And, despite his attempts to avoid falling for it – whatever this weird plan of theirs was – Steve couldn’t help but feel curious about it all. But that was it: that was their way of luring him in and keeping him there, and he wasn’t going to fall for it – couldn’t fall for it.

After a moment, Oh spoke up again, voice calm and patient as always. “How did you find that?” she asked.

Steve shuffled a little in his seat, anxiously biting down on his lip. “I don’t know,” he said. “It’s…a lot.”

Oh looked at him sympathetically. “We’ll do it in small stages to make it easier. Think of this meeting as an overview: a brief summary of what we’ll be looking over. Certain aspects of this file are more sensitive than others, so we’ll do our best to balance it all out rather than simply piling it on you in one go. Does that sound good?”

Steve nodded.

“Wonderful,” she said, standing up from her seat. “We’ll leave it here then for now, give you some time to process, and then I’ll see you in a few hours. Enjoy your lunch.” And with that she left, and the guards came in to escort Steve out.

They picked up the same formation they always used – one man leading at the front, whilst the other followed at Steve’s back – as they started to make their way toward the room that was essentially a cell, turning down one corridor and into the next, and Steve waited patiently until they passed a certain point in it.

About halfway down, there was another corridor that branched off from this one.

Getting to the room they’d kept him in for the majority of his stay here required walking straight past it and carrying right on to the end. But Steve didn’t plan on doing that. Or, at least, he didn’t think he did. Actually, he was having trouble deciding right now. Because maybe he should wait it out a little longer, just to be on the safe side. The less they suspected it the better his chance. Besides, the longer he stayed the more he found out and – no. She was getting to him. He was falling for it – he could feel it: all these lies they were telling him had finally started to cage him in, give them what they wanted. And even if they weren’t lying – even if everything they had told him was true he was probably better off not knowing. Ignorance was bliss, right? No: if he stayed here any longer he’d lose himself – turn into whatever hollow version of himself had emerged on that first night – and he’d be damned if he let that happen so…But waiting just a little longer couldn’t hurt, right? It wasn’t like a few more hours could make him go insane, surely.

Steve looked ahead and noted the junction coming up before staring back down again. Time was running out – if he was doing this, he had to make a clear decision: he couldn’t afford any hesitation; he had to make a choice, and make it now. Either way, chances of this even working were slim, so the real question was whether he wanted to risk spending another night in here or not.

They were about to walk past the turn off now. Just another second and that was it: his chance would be gone, he’d have to wait, he’d just have to go back to that room and – fuck it. Fuck it, fuck it, fuck it! Steve reached the junction point and before his escorts knew what was happening he suddenly stopped, spun left and ran.

It took the guards by surprise – that was for sure – giving him a few seconds extra head start but he knew it wouldn’t last for long: he had no fucking clue where he was going right now; they, on the other hand, had a shit-tonne of cameras and probably a whole fucking army on their side. So, in short, Steve needed to find a way out, and he needed to find it fast. Oh Jesus, maybe he should have fucking waited…Whatever: there was no turning back now. He just had to run – run and not stop until he was free.

He raced down the corridor, barrelling past anyone that got in his way, going as far as knocking someone over completely when they exited a room to his right. But he hardly cared, all that mattered right now was finding an exit. At the end, the corridor split down two routes and he took the right, praying that he had at least some luck on his side today as he kept on running, trying to keep as much distance between him and the guards as possible. But they were gaining on him. Slowly but surely, every time he whipped his head round to look back they were even closer than before. He reached another split on the corridor, took another right turn. Jesus, how was anyone meant to know their way around this place – it was like a goddamn maze! Everything looked the same: for all he knew he could be going round in goddamn circles and – stairs? Stairs were good, right?

Fuck it, he dove left, making his way up the steps as fast as he could, the sound of the guards heavy footfalls following rapidly behind him as he ascended. In an attempt to lose them he started picking up the pace, taking the steps two at a time to try and shake them off and it was working: they were falling behind. He didn’t have any clue what floor he had been on but apparently he was at B1 now and quickly making his way up to G, which had to be the ground floor, right? Of course it was: that’s how floors worked – it was either floor zero or G: there was no alternative! This was where he’d exit. This was it: he was there: just a few more steps and–

Three guards sprang through the door he’d been heading for and he flinched back in surprise, left foot stumbling backwards to try and regain balance and landing on…

Nothing.

There was a thud and then another as his body went tumbling down, and all he could think was I should have waited as his head hit the floor. Something cracked upon impact and a sickening snap accompanied it before Steve was gone, the world fading out from white to black in a matter of seconds as his mind left everything behind.

I should have waited…

I should have waited…