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For the best

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For the best

Chapter 1: Steve

The fight was over – for now, at least. Steve wasn’t stupid enough to think it was over for good. This was not his first rodeo, after all. He knew those things would come back to haunt them one day, in one form or another. They always did and he’d resigned himself to that fact the moment this nightmare began for the second time with Dustin’s adopted demodog. Danger nowadays, Steve had learned, lurked everywhere. In the woods, on the streets – even under shopping malls. He should have known better, should have been prepared for the next disaster. He should have expected this.

But he hadn’t. He had been blindsided by it all until it was too late and they were once more in too deep in the blink of an eye. He’d paid the prize for that. Hopper had, too, and Billy, and so many more. It made Steve’s head hurt just to think about it – all that loss, all that death. So many lives irreversibly changed. It was almost overwhelming to try to comprehend the magnitude of it all and there was a tightness in Steve’s chest that made it hard to breathe when he thought about all those people.  

At least the kids were safe. They hadn’t been taken, hadn’t been seriously hurt and neither the Mindflayer nor the Russians had gotten to them. Steve closed his eyes and sighed, silently thanking whatever deity was out there for looking out for them. They had been so unbelievably lucky. He didn’t quite know what Mike, Lucas, Max and El had been up to, but he was painfully aware of the danger Dustin and Erica had been in. The elevator was what first came to mind. They could have died in that cabin and Steve could feel the panic he’d had during the free-fall even now in his very bones, hours later. He remembered realizing that they were all going to die and he’d be responsible for the death of two kids and the one friend he had somehow managed to make since all the shit went down in the Byers’ house for the first time – and that, knowing it was his fault his friends would die, had been so much worse than the idea of his own impending death.

His panic in the elevator, though, was nothing compared to the frenzied fear Steve had experienced when the Russians had hopelessly outnumbered them. Without thinking he’d thrown himself against the door to buy the others a few precious seconds of time which he knew could mean the difference between life and death. When Robin came to his aid Steve had been simultaneously dismayed and so relieved to have her by his side. He hated himself a little bit for the latter. But then Dustin hadn’t wanted to leave and for one horrible moment Steve thought it would all be in vain, they would all be captured and the kids would be hurt because of him, because he was an awful friend and couldn’t keep them safe.

He would have never forgiven himself if Dustin and Erica had been tortured like he was. It was bad enough he had ratted out Dustin to the Russians. Drug or no drug, Dustin was right: Steve should have resisted more. He should have just kept his mouth shut, no matter what they did to him. Dustin was like a little brother to him, like family, and Steve should have protected him like he was supposed to. He’d failed in that regard and that hurt more than any punch the Russians had thrown at him.

Not that those punches hadn’t hurt as well. They had. Fiercely. One of his eyes was almost swollen shut and his head hurt nearly as badly as when Billy had beaten him up during the last supernatural crisis. The paramedics had told him he’d been lucky, though: no concussion, no broken bones – no trip to the hospital for him. Steve hadn’t mentioned that he’d been tortured and drugged, or how he still felt nauseous and dizzy whenever he moved too fast. He hadn’t told them about the punches to his stomach, the kicks, the pain blooming in his chest every time he took a breath. And he hadn’t said a word about how scared he had been, so scared his hands wouldn’t stop shaking even now.

Instead he’d gone home. He’d stayed long enough to make sure the kids were taken care of and wouldn’t be alone and then he’d left as quietly as possible without making a fuss. They all had enough to worry about without him in the picture. All he needed was a glass of water, some pain meds and a couple of hours of sleep and he’d be okay. At least that was what he told himself.

His apartment was dark and eerily quiet when he came home. It wasn’t much: one room that served as both living room and bedroom, a small niche which housed an even smaller kitchen, and a bathroom that included a moldy shower, sink and toilet. He’d been living in this dump for a few months now, ever since his parents threw him out and cut him off for choosing his own path in life instead of going to college. Their final argument had been loud and earth-shattering, and the slamming of the door had been deafening in its finality. Steve still remembered how lost he’d felt that day. How alone. For the first time in his life he hadn’t known what to do, how to move forward.

The next week was a blur of hazy memories. He’d slept in his car – though sleeping was a generous term. He would park on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, right on the edge of the forest in which things and monsters lurked, and spent the night trying not to fall apart. Constantly on edge, waking up from every weird noise he wasn’t used to, his nightmares had a field day. They turned from bad to vicious, from sporadic to frequent, and left him shaking like a leaf and panting for breath every night. It didn’t help that he had begun skipping meals as well. Trying to stretch what little money he still had he’d figured one or two small meals a day were enough to get him by. After a few days of keeping this up he began to get dizzy from both lack of food and lack of sleep and started tripping over his own two feet.

After a little more than a week of that his body crashed. He’d been at the Byers’, watching the kids play that weird game he still didn’t understand no matter how often Dustin tried to explain it to him when reality caught up with him. All he’d wanted to do was get some orange juice from the fridge – not for himself but for the kids. He’d bent down to grab the bottle and the last thing he remembered were the black spots dancing in his vision before his eyes rolled back into his head and he hit the floor, hard.

When he woke up, he was lying on the couch and the worried face of Joyce Byers was staring down at him. “Steve? Hey, it’s okay. Are you all right?”

Steve didn’t know whether it was her kind face, her concerned eyes or the caring tone of her voice that made him break down. Maybe it was because she was the first person to ask him how he was since his parents threw him out, the first one to notice something was wrong, the first one to genuinely care, but in the end it didn’t matter. The words spilled out of him without warning and he told her everything: his struggles in school because the words on the pages just made no sense to him, his decision not to go to college (because who would accept someone who can’t even read properly?), the subsequent fight with his parents, and finally how he’d been living in his car for the last few days and barely managed to get by. By the end of it all his face had been red with shame and he was unable to meet Mrs. Byers eyes, afraid of judgement. Afraid of being laughed at and turned away.

He wasn’t, though. Instead of making him leave Mrs. Byers breathed out a quiet, “Oh, Steve,” and pulled him into her arms. Steve had been so surprised by this that for a moment he froze. He couldn’t even remember the last time his parents had given him a hug and with that thought tugging at his heart he melted into Mrs. Byers embrace, unable to resist this wonderful feeling of safety and love she so graciously provided.

Later, much later when his breaths didn’t come out in tiny panicky gasps anymore, she had told him he could stay for as long as he needed to. And then over the next days and weeks she’d helped him find a place to live, and a job that payed the rent and Steve had never been more grateful to anyone in his entire life than he was to Joyce Byers for her unconditional help and support when he’d hit rock bottom.

Now, staring into the emptiness of his apartment, Steve wished he had never left her little house in the woods. In the short time he had stayed there it had become more of a home to him than his parents’ house had ever been. It might have been small and not much to look at, but it was filled with so much warmth and affection despite the horrors that had happened in those four walls. He’d felt safe there, knowing someone was sleeping just a room away and willing to come to his side at the first signs of distress. He’d never had that at his parents’ house and he didn’t have that here in his apartment – no company, no help, and no one who would hold his hand when the pain and nightmares became too much.

Steve swallowed and flicked on the lonely light in the bathroom. It was harsh, blinding him for a moment. Carefully, he wrapped his shaking fingers around the hem of his work uniform and began to pull it upwards. He gritted his teeth against the pain as bruised ribs chafed against each other with every movement and his stomach muscles screamed in protest. A sideway glance in the mirror showed him a colorful array of bruises that he knew would hurt even worse tomorrow.

He quickly looked away.

It took an excruciating amount of time until he’d peeled his uniform off. For a moment Steve stood there shivering in the bright, unforgiving light. Then he gathered up what little courage he had left and stepped into the shower. He knew from experience that this would hurt. Water on open wounds wasn’t fun at all but the need to wash away the blood and grime from his skin was stronger than his fear of pain. Steeling himself, he turned on the water.

He bit his lip bloody in an attempt to keep quiet.

By the time he was finished his legs were shaking from exhaustion. Quickly, he brushed his teeth, eager to get the taste of drug and vomit out of his mouth, before he dragged himself to his bedroom. He pulled on some briefs and the loosest pair of sweatpants he owned. Not keen on aggravating the bruises littering his chest once more, he forewent a shirt and stumbled into his kitchen for some water and pain meds. He took the last two pills he had and downed them in one go.

His hands were still shaking.

Steve balled them into fists and walked back to his bed. Gingerly, he lowered himself onto the mattress and just sat there for a moment, breathing against the pain, before he slowly lay down. He pulled the blanket up to his chin, feeling cold even though it was July. The shivering didn’t stop and in some distant part of his mind he realized that might be because he was going into shock. The adrenaline was wearing off, the drug was out of his system and the physical and mental horrors of the past few hours were finally catching up with him.

Steve let out a stuttering breath. Shadows danced across his wall, looking too much like multi-legged creatures for his comfort. He turned away from them and curled up beneath his blanket, making himself as small as possible. His heart was beating in a frantic rhythm even though there was no danger anymore, skipping a beat or two every now and then. Steve wanted to crawl out of his skin. Instead he squeezed his eyes shut tightly and dug his fingernails into his arms to ground himself somehow. It helped, a little.

But it wasn’t enough.

A noise from outside made him flinch and sent his heart back on its marathon race just when it had started to calm down. Steve whimpered and curled up tighter, pressing his hands against his ears. He wanted this all to stop. He wanted things to go back to normal – not the old normal when he was still a jerk with asshole friends. No, he wanted to go back to the new normal: this semi-peaceful existence between disasters when his biggest problem was figuring out how to sneak the kids into the cinema without losing his job in the process. He wanted to be able to sleep again and not look over his shoulder every five seconds, thinking something was following him.

Steve knew, though, that there was no going back – just as much as he knew that going forward this time would be even more difficult than it had been after the demodogs. It wasn’t just monsters he had to be afraid of now. How was he supposed to ever trust someone, a stranger, anyone again? How could he possibly protect Dustin and the others when danger lurked literally everywhere and in any form?

Steve swallowed hard against the bile in his throat. Maybe it would be better if he made himself scarce from now on. He clearly wasn’t fit to look after children, much less protect them. The kids often joked about his inability to win a fight but in the end, he knew they spoke the truth. He was practically useless in a fight, unable to hold his own. That didn’t stop him from trying, though. He’d do anything to help these kids. As long as they were safe nothing else mattered.

Only this time, it was his fault they weren’t safe in the first place. He’d allowed Dustin and Erica to do something dangerous and it had almost ended with them both captured and tortured. Who knew what the Russians would have done to them if the two of them hadn’t escaped? Steve couldn’t let that happen again. He was a danger to these kids, too young to make responsible decisions. They’d trusted him and he’d screwed up. He was a bad influence and today had more than proven they would be safer and better off without him there, no matter how much it pained him to admit it. He’d grown fond of them all, especially Dustin. He was like the little brother Steve never had and he’d miss him fiercely. But there was no other way. He had to leave. Dustin didn’t really need him, not as much as Steve needed Dustin, anyway. Dustin would be fine and move on, eventually. He had other friends.

Steve had … well, Steve had Robin. Maybe. He wouldn’t blame her if she never wanted to have anything to do with him again after he dragged her into this whole mess. She deserved so much better than him and one day, inevitably, she would realize that. People always did. And then they left.

This time Steve would spare them all the trouble and stay away. There were shitty places like Hawkins all over the country where a loser like him could find a job no one else wanted to do. He would leave as soon as possible, when every little movement no longer hurt and he could breathe again without feeling like someone was stabbing him with a knife in the chest. It would take a few days but then he’d be out of everyone’s hair and they would all be a little bit safer.

His eyes burned at the thought of being all alone again but his mind was made up. He had been selfish for way too long already. It was time to put the others first. The kids could no longer depend on him to keep them safe. They never should have in the first place and Steve would be damned if he put them in any more danger than they were already in just because he was lonely and craved their company.

No, he thought and his heart beat painfully against his ribcage as if to protest. I’ll go and they’ll be safe. It’s for the best.

Exhaustion finally caught up with him and he fell into an uneasy sleep where evil Russian doctors lurked in a vast black void and Dustin’s screams for help echoed in the nothingness.

Chapter Text

Chapter 2: Joyce

The first time Joyce thought about Steve after the shopping mall disaster was two days later. The kids were all at her house, drawn together by their shared experiences, trauma and the need to make sure the others were all right. Joyce didn’t mind. Her home, as long as it still was hers, would always be open for them; a safe haven despite everything that had happened in and around it in the last few years.

It was Dustin who mentioned Steve at the end of a long conversation which brought everyone up to date. “Robin called me this morning. Her parents won’t let her out of their sight at the moment but she’s fine.” He paused, looking worried. “Has anyone heard from Steve?”

The others all shook their heads.

“They probably sent him to the hospital,” Max said in a quiet voice. “His face looked awful.”

Joyce, standing in the kitchen preparing dinner, frowned. She thought back to the mall, to Steve’s bloody, swollen eye and the cut on his lip. Had that been the extent of his injuries or had his uniform hidden more beneath all that white and blue cloth? Had he even allowed the paramedics to check him over and send him to the hospital? Had he been safe?

With a jolt she realized she didn’t know. She had been so preoccupied with Will, with Hopper’s death (a lump formed in her throat every time her thoughts strayed to those last precious moments underground) and later with El’s fragile state of mind and Jonathan’s bruise-mottled back that she hadn’t checked if the other kids had been all right. And high school graduate or not – for Joyce, that meant Steve as well.

Guilt pooled in her stomach. She had simply taken her own children (and El, poor El who had already lost so much in her young life and didn’t seem to be able to catch a break) and gone home that night, spending the next day between sleeping and crying and muttering reassurances that were meaningless because Hopper was dead and no force on Heaven or Earth or in the Upside Down could bring him back to them. There just hadn’t been any room for worrying about anything else, or anyone else, during those first few hours of grief and pain. Joyce knew she was only human and could only do so much but it still made her feel ashamed that she hadn’t made sure the other kids were as well as they could possibly be after what they went through (again, she reminded herself).

She wiped her hands on a dishtowel and stepped into the living room. The kids were sitting in a circle on the floor, huddled closer together than they normally would, and her gaze moved over the young faces. There were a few minor scrapes and bruises on them but nothing major. Joyce sighed in relief. Everyone looked tired and drawn but mostly unharmed. At least physically.

Six heads swiveled around to face her. “Is dinner ready, Mom?”

Joyce smiled. “In a moment. I just wanted to make sure you were all right in here.”

Will smiled back at her. It made her heart swell with love. “We are. Promise.”

The timer went off before Joyce could ask about Steve. With a barely concealed swear she hurried back into the kitchen, and between the potatoes in her oven beginning to look more black than golden, the vegetables in the pan following their example and a bunch of hungry kids talking all over each other in their excitement, all thoughts of Steve fled her mind for the rest of the evening.

It was Dustin, again, who reminded her that Steve was still unaccounted for a day later. In the late afternoon he knocked on her front door, looking worried and out of breath. His bike was thrown carelessly onto her lawn.

“Will and El are over at Mike’s,” Joyce told him, wondering why he was here and not with them.

“I know,” Dustin said. “They don’t believe something’s wrong but I do and … and I didn’t know where else to go. It’s about Steve.”

The words something’s wrong sent all the alarm bells in Joyce’s head ringing and she felt dread settle like a heavy stone in her stomach when she realized she’d never asked the kids about Steve the night before and what had happened to him at the mall. She could kick herself for becoming distracted but there was nothing she could do about it now, so she ushered Dustin inside and got him a glass of orange juice while he caught his breath. “What’s wrong with Steve?”

“That’s just it! I don’t know!” Dustin exclaimed, clearly upset. “I haven’t seen him since the mall and I thought he was at the hospital but when I went there earlier to visit him, they told me he wasn’t there.”

Joyce frowned. “Maybe he already left?”

Dustin shook his head. “He was never admitted. So I thought he went home but his dad told me he’s not there either. He … he said some … things about Steve. Called him names.” Dustin’s frightened eyes met hers. “I think something’s wrong, Mrs. Byers. I think something happened to Steve and no one knows where he is.”

“Breathe, Dustin. I’m sure he’s fine,” Joyce tried to reassure him even though her gut feeling told her something else.

Dustin wasn’t having it. “Then why isn’t he home? He was hurt, Mrs. Byers! Like, really badly hurt. He should be at home, resting.”

Joyce bit her lip. Last year when Steve had collapsed in her kitchen and told her about the fight with his parents she had promised him she wouldn’t tell the kids.

“They have enough on their plates already,” he had mumbled. “They don’t need to worry about my shit on top of everything else.”

So Joyce hadn’t said a word. When the kids asked why Steve was staying with her she told them that the pipes in his house had broken and he couldn’t stay there until the repairs were finished. They accepted the lie easily. She had felt bad for using their trust in her against them but Steve had been adamant that they don’t find out.

And they never did. Things went back to normal and when Steve found an apartment Joyce was the only one there to help him move. Not that he had a lot of things. All his belongings fit into one pitiful suitcase that made Joyce’s heart ache. Steve had smiled at her reassuringly, though, after she had helped him settle in and was about to leave.

“Don’t worry, I’ll be all right,” he’d told her. And then, “Thank you, Mrs. Byers. For everything. I … I don’t know what I would’ve done without you, to be honest.”

He’d looked so embarrassed in that moment that Joyce had reached out and pulled him close. When he buried his head in her shoulder she’d felt like crying. He wasn’t her son but he might as well have been. She would miss him terribly and wanted nothing more than to take him back home with her. But he wanted to leave, no matter how often she had told him he could stay, and Joyce knew he was old enough to make his own decisions. It still hurt to let him go, though.

“Remember,” she’d said when she pulled back, “my door is always open, all right?”

Steve had nodded but now Joyce wondered if he had truly heard and understood her that day. From the time they spent living together she knew that Steve was always trying to help others but had a hard time accepting help and comfort for himself. She didn’t know if his father taught him that (Lonnie would always tell the boys to toughen up and that crying was for girls, and Steve’s father didn’t seem much better than Lonnie) or if he was so used to being alone that he didn’t know how to deal with problems other than on his own, but in the short few weeks he had stayed with her Joyce had tried her best to tell him that it was okay not to be strong all the time.

She should have never let him go.

Taking a deep breath, Joyce turned to Dustin, and broke her promise to Steve. “Remember last year, when Steve was staying here?”

Dustin furrowed his brow. “When the piping in his house was broken?”

Joyce grimaced. “Yeah. Look, the piping wasn’t really broken,” she admitted. “Steve’s parents had kicked him out. That’s why he was living here for a while.”

Dustin’s eyes widened. “His parents … why? Why would they do that?”

“Because Steve didn’t get into any colleges, and apparently that’s enough for the Harringtons to disown their son. He wasn’t living up to their standards,” she almost spat in disgust. “They threw him out with nothing but the clothes on his back and what little money he had in his pockets. He slept in his car for days, living on power bars of all things.”

“Is … is that why he fainted in the kitchen that one time?” Dustin asked in a quiet, subdued voice.

Joyce nodded. “Yeah. He wasn’t doing too good back then.” She sighed. “I’m sorry we lied to you but Steve … he didn’t want you to worry.”

“Well, Steve’s an idiot so you shouldn’t listen to him,” Dustin declared in such a matter-of-fact voice that Joyce couldn’t help but smile.

“I’m beginning to see that,” she said.

Dustin smiled faintly in return before his face turned serious once more. “I do, though, you know? Worry about him, I mean. Doesn’t matter whether he wants me to or not. I’ll worry anyway.”

“Because you’re a good friend,” Joyce said.

The look on Dustin’s face was heartbreaking. “Am I? It’s been three days since the mall and … and I think he’s been all alone all this time and he shouldn’t be, Mrs. Byers. Not after what they did to him.”

A thousand scenarios went though Joyce’s head at Dustin’s words and not one of them was good. She felt her chest constrict with apprehension, as if someone’s hand was squeezing her ribs so tightly it hurt. She almost didn’t want to know what Dustin meant. Almost. “Who exactly did what to him?”

“The Russians!” Dustin said at once. “They captured him and Robin – and Robin, she said they didn’t do much to her but she told me they took Steve away and he was gone a long time and all beaten up and unconscious when they brought him back. She thinks they tortured him and … and I don’t know what that means exactly but it’s obviously not good and they were both drugged afterwards and he’s … he’s not okay, Mrs. Byers. No matter what he says, he can’t be okay and he shouldn’t be alone.”

Tortured.

Drugged.

The words echoed in Joyce’s mind and made her skin crawl. Steve Harrington was just a teenager. He shouldn’t have to go through something like that. Hell, she thought, none of them should. And she had been too busy with everything else to even spare him a thought, telling herself he would come to her if he needed help. But would he? He hadn’t gone to anyone after the fight with his parents, after all, and he would probably still be sleeping in his car if he hadn’t fainted in her kitchen that day. That thought made her want to cry. Did he even have anyone he could confide in? She knew he hadn’t talked to her or Hopper. She also knew he didn’t want to worry the kids, so they were out of the question, too. That only left Jonathan and Nancy and considering their complicated history Joyce was pretty sure Steve would rather die than talk to them.

Shit, Joyce thought. She’d really screwed up this time.

Making a decision, she stood up and reached for her car keys. “Come on, let’s go.”

“You know where he lives?” Dustin asked, his eyes lighting up in hope as he scrambled off the couch.

Joyce nodded. “Who do you think helped him find an apartment?”

The drive wasn’t actually that long but it felt like hours until they pulled up in front of Steve’s apartment building. Dustin wrinkled his nose when he saw the rundown structure. “That’s a far cry from where he used to live,” he observed quietly.

“It’s the best he could afford with his salary,” Joyce said, heart heavy as they walked up the stairs. “He could have stayed with us but …”

“He didn’t want to be a bother,” Dustin finished for her. “Yeah, I know. It’s what he always tells my mom when she invites him to stay for dinner.”

They reached Steve’s door and Joyce knocked once, twice. “Steve? Are you there?”  When there was no answer, Joyce tried again. “Steve? It’s Joyce and Dustin. We just want to make sure you’re all right.”

A faint, “No,” was the answer they got.

Joyce shared a worried look with Dustin before Dustin turned back to the door and rapped his knuckles against it in quick succession. “Steve!” he shouted. “If you don’t open this door right now we’re coming in. We’ll break it down if we must. You know me, Steve. I’ll do it.” A little quieter he said to Joyce. “Please tell me you have a key.”

Despite the situation Joyce chuckled. She fished Steve’s spare key out of her pocket and held it up triumphantly. “I do.”

From within the apartment they heard a broken and hoarse, “Stay away! Please!”

Joyce took that as their cue to go in.

The apartment was dark and the air seemed to stand still. Cautiously, Joyce moved towards Steve’s living space. What she saw when she turned on the light broke her heart.

Steve was sitting on the ground beneath the window with his hands buried in his hair. He was barefoot and his head was bowed, almost completely hidden by his arms. But that wasn’t what made Joyce stop in her tracks. It was the wild array of bruises littering Steve’s chest and curling around his ribs towards his back in vicious lines of blue and purple, standing out harshly against his pale skin.

“Steve?” Dustin asked, his voice cracking with shock.

Steve lifted his head and an expression of pure terror crossed his face. “No, you can’t be here! You need to leave! Please!”

The dark bruise around his eye stood in stark contrast to the pallor of the rest of his face. He looked like he hadn’t slept a wink since the mall. Nightmares, Joyce thought. Her eyes fell on the empty bottle of pills. And pain.

She took a tentative step closer. “It’s all right, Steve. We’re here to help.”

“No!” Steve shook his head vehemently. “No, you need to leave! They’ll come, I know they will, and they’ll find you and hurt you and – “

“No one will hurt us, Steve,” Dustin said, voice gentle and quiet and more grown up than any child should sound. “It’s over. I promise you, it’s over.”

Steve laughed harshly, a terrible sound. “It’s never over. Don’t you see? I told them my name, where I live – where you live! They know where I work. Scoops Ahoy. I told them. Again and again. Scoops Ahoy. Scoops Ahoy. They know. They will come. The doctor will come.”

He shuddered violently and Joyce realized why he hadn’t gone to the hospital. Something had happened to him down there, something to do with a doctor and possibly the drugs he’d been forcibly injected with, and now he was scared. He was scared and terrified and he’d been alone for three days.

Oh god, she thought.

Slowly so as not to startle him Joyce crouched down in front of Steve. “Steve,” she said gently, “We’re here to take you somewhere safe. All right?”

He hid his head in his arms again. “Nowhere is safe.”

“My home is safe,” Joyce insisted. “You know it is. The … the Russians don’t know about it. I promise.”

Steve hugged his knees more tightly and shook his head again. “Can’t put you in danger. Can’t let them hurt you. Not you. Not the kids. Won’t talk again. I promise. Please, I promise. I work at Scoops Ahoy. I know nothing. I only make ice cream. I promise, it’s Scoops Ahoy. Won’t say anything else. Won’t give up my friends. Never again. Have to keep them safe.”

Joyce glanced at Dustin, not understanding why Steve kept talking about his former workplace. She frowned. Dustin looked stricken and his eyes steadily filled with tears even as he put on a brave smile. “Steve, buddy?” he asked. “It’s okay. It’s okay that you talked. I’m not mad anymore, I promise. This is Hawkins. Everyone knows everyone anyway. You didn’t do anything wrong. Please, just … let us help you. Mrs. Byers’ house is safe. Eleven’s there and … remember how she took out those Russians at the mall? She’ll kick their asses again if they dare come back.”

“El?” Steve asked, looking up in confusion. There was a feverish gleam in his eyes. “Is she all right? Her leg …”

“She’s getting better,” Joyce reassured him. “And so will you once we get you home. You can see her then.”

Steve’s breathing hitched. “I don’t have a home.”

Joyce’s heart broke. Every instinct told her to pull him into her arms, so that’s what she did. She surged forward and gathered him close. Instead of struggling like she expected him to Steve gripped her shirt with all the strength he had. His face felt feverishly hot against her neck.

“Of course you have a home,” Joyce whispered fiercely. “You could have stayed with us for as long as you wanted. Forever, if you’d like. I’m so sorry I didn’t make that clearer.”

She felt Steve take a deep, shaky breath. “I … I miss …” he began and faltered. Joyce waited patiently, all the while gently rubbing his back. “… this,” he finally said in a broken, helpless voice.

“Then come home,” Joyce urged him, fighting against tears of her own. “Please, Steve. I promise it’s safe.” But that wasn’t enough. It hadn’t been the last time, after all. Steve needed more than a safe place. He needed to believe he was welcome there – a part of them. “You’re family, Steve,” Joyce added in a whisper. “I mean it. You belong with us. You always have.”

For a moment time seemed to freeze. Steve became rigid in her arms and she heard Dustin holding his breath. Fearing she’d said too much, or maybe not enough, Joyce prepared for the worst. But then Steve shuddered and let out a choked sob that went straight to her heart, clutching at her back with a desperation that only made her hold him tighter. She could only imagine how much her words must mean to him after days of being alone with only the ghosts and monsters in his head, fearing for his life and those of everyone he loved.

“Shh,” she hushed him gently. “It’s all going to be all right, Steve. You’re safe and you’re not alone. I promise.” Looking at Dustin, she asked quietly “Could you pack his clothes?”

Dustin nodded. Eager to help, he sprang up. It didn’t take him long to find a bag and pack up what little Steve owned. When he was done Joyce finally pulled back and looked at Steve’s injured face. She took in the damp trails the tear left, the clamminess the fever was causing and the painful-looking wounds.

“Come on,” she said, keeping her voice gentle as she carefully brushed his hair back and felt his temperature. “Time to go home.”

It took both her and Dustin to get Steve up from the floor. His legs were shaky and he swayed dangerously in the harsh glow of the light bulb. His ribs cast horrible shadows all over his chest, darkening the bruises even more. Joyce didn’t have to ask if Steve had been eating these last few days. It was obvious he hadn’t. Good thing she was great at making soup.

She grabbed a comfortable looking sweatshirt and slowly helped Steve into it while Dustin got Steve’s shoes. By some miracle they managed to get Steve down the stairs and into the car without accident. The short walk seemed to have taken what little strength Steve had left out of him because he fell asleep almost as soon as Joyce started the engine, bundled up in the backseat with Dustin close by. Joyce’s eyes met Dustin’s in the rearview mirror. “You okay?”

Despite being obviously shaken Dustin nodded. “Will he be all right?”

“I hope so,” Joyce said truthfully, briefly glancing at Steve before turning her attention back to the road. “We’ll do everything we can to make sure he gets better. Both physically and mentally,” she added. “It’s gonna take some time, though.”

A lot, she mentally added. But that was a concern for another day. All that mattered now was that Steve was with them, safe and sound and surrounded by people he loved. The rest would come with time, patience and care. And love – something that had been lacking in Steve’s life for far too long. Joyce was determined to change that. She knew she could never replace his parents or undo the damage they had done, but she could be there for Steve when he needed reassurance, advice or someone to listen. She could make sure he ate properly, and wake him when the nightmares got too bad. And she could do her best to make him feel loved and cherished – a part of her family instead of an intruder.

In the rearview mirror, she watched Dustin bunch up his jacket and place it under Steve’s head so he didn’t bump against the window all the time. The gesture was so kind and gentle Joyce felt herself smile. Steve was lucky to have Dustin as a friend.

She turned the corner before hitting the gas pedal, not caring about the speed limit. They had no time to lose. Steve needed a bed, a warm blanket and something to help bring his fever down. The last thing she wanted was to have to take him to the hospital. She could only imagine his reaction to seeing a doctor.

No, she thought. She would get her boy home and she would keep him safe just like she should have in the first place. Steve would get better and she’d be damned if she ever let him go again.

Chapter Text

Chapter 3: Dustin

To say Dustin was worried would be the understatement of the year. He was sitting next to Steve in the backseat of Mrs. Byers’ car, wincing every time a bump in the road made Steve groan and curl in on himself even tighter and feeling utterly helpless. Steve was a mess. His face was swollen and showed all the colors of the rainbow and Dustin didn’t even want to think about the bruises he knew littered Steve’s chest like a careless child’s painting.

This is your fault, a vicious voice in Dustin’s head insisted. It got louder the longer he stared at Steve. You left him alone with the Russians. You left him alone afterwards. He was suffering on his own for three days because you left him.

“I’m sorry,” Dustin whispered so low he hoped Mrs. Byers wouldn’t hear and reached for Steve’s hand. His fingers brushed against scabbing skin, sensitive enough that Steve tried to pull his hand away even in sleep. Dustin felt ill because those were rope burns. He remembered pulling leather straps away from Steve’s hands, from his and Robin’s bodies, but it had all happened so fast that he hadn’t stopped to check either of them over, hadn’t stopped to think about what restraints meant. There just hadn’t been any time. Getting out of that creepy Russian facility had been his number one priority.

Now, looking down at Steve’s wrist with its angry-looking inflamed skin, Dustin wished he had just said, “Screw it,” taken the time to make sure his friends were okay, if not down in the bunker than at least once they had been safely back in the mall. They’d had time, then. But he hadn’t.

He didn’t know why the wounds on Steve’s wrists, of all things, were the ones getting to him the most right now. They were minor compared to Steve’s other injuries. But there was something about Steve’s wrists, exposed as they were, almost delicate in their narrowness and terribly fragile with that awful raw skin encircling them, that made Dustin’s breath stutter. For the first time he realized how breakable Steve really was.

It was something Dustin had spent a long time not thinking about because Steve … Steve was like a superhero. Not the invincible kind, of course. They all knew Steve wasn’t a skilled fighter. But he had heart and that, more than anything, made him a hero in Dustin’s opinion. Steve never hesitated to stand up for someone even if the fight wasn’t his and his chances of winning were slim at best. He fought bravely and even after he lost he still did what he could to help, no matter how hurt he was. Steve always bounced back.

Seeing him now like this – hurt, struggling to cope and for the first time since Dustin’s known him unable to get back on his feet – completely shattered the illusion Dustin had. Steve might be a hero but he was no different than any of them. Hurt him enough and he would stay lying on the ground, no matter how much heart and bravery he possessed. Steve was just as vulnerable as they all were – he was just better at hiding it.

“I wish you’d let us know when you’re not all right,” Dustin whispered. “I wish you didn’t think it doesn’t matter.”

He’d never realized how lonely Steve must have been all this time. He didn’t have any friends his age, not since he lost the title of King Steve (“And good riddance”, Steve had told him after the demodog disaster). The only people his age he occasionally talked to were Jonathan or Nancy but Dustin wouldn’t go so far as to call them friends. With Jonathan at least things were only awkward. Dustin knew Steve still felt guilty about the fight and broken camera even though he’d bought Jonathan a new one. And from Will he’d learned that Jonathan didn’t know how to talk to Steve because of the whole Nancy thing.

It was stupid, really, in Dustin’s opinion. He firmly believed that Steve and Jonathan could be great friends if they got their heads out of their asses and just talked. Nancy, however, was a whole different matter. Steve didn’t like talking about her and the rare times he did he kept telling everyone that he was fine with their breakup, that Nancy had been right and they would have never worked out in the longs run.  

Dustin called bullshit on that one. He wasn’t blind. There was something in Steve’s eyes whenever Nancy was mentioned, something raw and painfully vulnerable. Dustin had no doubt that Nancy had broken Steve’s heart when she broke up with him and Dustin hated her for that, because even after all this time Steve hadn’t been able to glue all the pieces back together and it showed. It showed in the way he would smile whenever Nancy was around, whenever he was sad. It showed in the way he had apparently slept in his car for days, scared and starving instead of asking for help because he didn’t think anyone would care. It showed in the way he’d insisted on finding a place of his own instead of staying with Mrs. Byers and her family because he didn’t want to inconvenience them.

And more than anything it showed in the way he’d holed himself up in his apartment for the last three days, terrified and hurt and feeling guilty for things that had been out of his control, unwilling to call and burden anyone with his injuries and fears despite how scared he must have been.

I work at Scoops Ahoy.

Dustin could only imagine the torture Steve had been forced to endure at the hands of the Russians. They’d obviously thought they were spies or some secret government agents (joke’s on them, Dustin thought, because honestly, who in their right mind would employ a bunch of kids to infiltrate a secret Russian base?) and asked Steve who he worked for. It had been a no-win scenario because the truth wasn’t what they wanted to hear, no matter how often Steve told it, even under torture.

No wonder they had resorted to drugs to make Steve and Robin talk if they thought they were lying. And Dustin, in the heat of the moment, stressed and angry, had actually blamed Steve for giving the Russians his name and address. He’d been so mad at him for something that was out of Steve’s control, not realizing until now how much his words had hit Steve that day. They’d stayed with him, cut so deep that even in his fever-induced delirium he’d promised not to talk again, not to give them up.

Dustin felt like the worst person in the world for doing that to Steve.

At least we’re getting him home now, he thought as Mrs. Byers finally pulled up in front of her house. He’d made mistakes these past few days, the way he treated Steve after their escape from the Russian base and the fact that it took him three days to find him just a few among them, and no matter how much Dustin regretted his actions he knew he couldn’t go back and change them. All he could do now was to be there for Steve and make sure that idiot, lovable and goofy as he was, knew he had people who cared about him – who wouldn’t leave.

Even before Mrs. Byers had shut off the engine the front door of the house opened, showing Jonathan and Will standing in the doorway. “Mom?”

Mrs. Byers opened her door. “Will, get the first-aid kit and tell Eleven to clear off the couch. Jonathan, help me get him inside.”

It was a testament to everything they’d been through that Will didn’t even question his mother and ran straight back into the house and to the bathroom where Dustin knew the Byers kept their medical supplies. Jonathan didn’t hesitate either but a frown marred his face when he stepped towards the car. It disappeared the moment he spotted Steve, still leaning propped up against the window with Dustin’s jacket acting as a makeshift pillow.

“What happened to him?”

It was too little too late and too much at the same time, and it made Dustin inexplicably angry. He snapped, “What always happens every time there’s trouble: he gets hurt because of us and no one cares.”

He shut the car door with more force than necessary, not knowing whether he was angry at Jonathan, at himself or at the world in general for being so unfair. Steve shot out of his seat at the sudden noise, scrambling backwards in panic while his white frantic eyes searched for the source of danger.

Dustin froze, feeling absolutely horrible as he saw the terror on Steve’s face. His eyes began to burn and, helplessly, he watched Mrs. Byers try to calm Steve down. “Hey, it’s all right, Steve. You’re safe, remember? Dustin and I brought you home.”

“Home?” Steve repeated as if the word sounded foreign to him.

Mrs. Byers smiled but she looked more sad than happy. Dustin could relate to that. “That’s right, Steve. Home. Let’s go inside, shall we?”

“Okay.”

Jonathan moved around the back of the car and, with one more look at Dustin, helped his mother get Steve out of the backseat. Dustin swallowed his guilt and went over to the trunk to get Steve’s things. He made sure to shut it as quietly as possible.

Once Steve was settled onto the couch Mrs. Byers went into full nursing mode. She cleaned Steve’s wounds and bandaged him up, all under the wide and watchful eyes of Eleven. “Hurt,” she said. She pointed at her chest – at her heart – and her face became unbelievably sad. “In here, too.”

“I know,” Mrs. Byers said, lowering Steve back against the cushions once she was done. He winced, bringing his arm up to wrap it around his ribs protectively, before he settled down and closed his eyes. “We’ll help him get better. The first thing he needs is food. He can’t have any painkillers on an empty stomach.”

The implication was clear: she believed Steve hadn’t eaten anything since the mall, or at least not much.

While Will and Eleven went to help Mrs. Byers make some soup, Dustin settled down next to Steve on the couch. Gently, he placed his hand on Steve’s ankle – one of the few places he was pretty sure didn’t hurt – and provided what little comfort he could through his touch. It wasn’t much and it didn’t feel enough but at least this way Steve knew he wasn’t alone.

The living room was quiet for a while except for Steve’s labored breathing and the faint sounds from the kitchen filtering in. Thinking Steve was asleep Dustin took a deep breath and met Jonathan’s eyes across the room. “I’m sorry,” he began. “For snapping at you earlier. That … that wasn’t fair of me. You didn’t deserve that.” He hesitated. “How’s your back?”

“Hurts and probably will for a while,” Jonathan said with a dismissive shrug. He nodded at Steve. “Just like him. His chest looks awful.” Then, a little more quietly, he added, “You were right, earlier, you know? Steve … it’s like he has a target painted on his face. It’s almost normal to see him with a shiner nowadays and that … that shouldn’t be something you get used to. I’m sorry I did.”

For a moment Dustin didn’t know what to say, not having expected Jonathan to apologize. “Why aren’t you guys friends?” he finally blurted out. “I mean, I know some shitty things went down between you two but I … I honestly think you could get along well once you really get to know each other.”

Jonathan sighed. “It’s complicated.”

“Bullshit,” Dustin said. “That’s just an excuse for not trying.”

“S’all right,” Steve mumbled and both Dustin’s and Jonathan’s heads whirled around. He seemed more coherent as before even though he was slurring his speech a little. “I was a shitty person. And - s’awkward now. Because of Nancy.”

He sounded sad but resigned to the fact and it made Dustin’s heart ache. Steve hadn’t done anything wrong. It wasn’t his fault Nancy hadn’t loved him back, had maybe never truly loved him at all. Dustin knew Steve didn’t believe that, though. He still thought he’d done something and given Nancy a reason to break up with him. And sure, he hadn’t been the best person back then but at least he’d owned up to his mistakes in the past – so why couldn’t everyone else?

To his surprise Jonathan chose that moment to do just that. He stepped closer and sat down on the floor right in front of Steve, his eyes full of regret. “You gave me a new camera,” he said, voice quiet and hushed as if he were sharing a secret. “Shitty people don’t do that. Shitty people don’t apologize.”

“Was the least I could do,” Steve mumbled.

“No,” Jonathan said. “It was a lot more than that. And I never said thank you. I should have.”

Steve shook his head slightly, screwing his eyes shut as even that small movement caused him pain. “S’all water under the bridge, man.”

Before Jonathan could say anything more Mrs. Byers, Will and Eleven came back into the living room with plates, spoons and a huge cooking pot full of soup. “Dinner’s ready.”

Carefully, they helped Steve sit up. Almost at once it became apparent that moving him to the dining table was not an option, so they all settled down on the couch and on the ground in front of it. Steve could barely hold his spoon (and Dustin really hoped the tremors in his hands were due to his exhaustion and not because of nerve damage or something equally bad) but with Dustin holding his bowl and Mrs. Byers supporting his hand they made it work.

By the time Steve’s bowl was empty he looked ready to pass out. There was a fine sheen of sweat on his brow and his eyes were so glassy Dustin was pretty sure Steve wasn’t completely with them anymore. He was glad when Mrs. Byers finally got the painkillers out and Steve swallowed them without a fuss. They helped him lie back down and Will got the fluffiest blanket the Byers owned and spread it over him.

“Thanks, little Byers,” Steve mumbled and then he was out like a light. Slowly, the tension in his body drained away and his face relaxed, free of pain for what was probably the first time in days. Dustin breathed a sigh of relief.

He wasn’t the only one. “Is Steve going to stay with us again?” Will asked.

Mrs. Byers nodded. “Hopefully for good this time.”

Dustin didn’t miss the look she shared with Jonathan. Of course Steve hadn’t wanted to stay here before – not when he and Jonathan had hardly been on speaking terms and he felt like he was making things awkward for the whole family. But, Dustin thought hopefully, maybe things will be better this time. Jonathan and Steve had talked – really talked and acknowledged the past. It wasn’t much and no matter how often Steve insisted it was all water under the bridge Dustin knew it wasn’t and wouldn’t be for a while – but it was a start.

He was happy to be proven right when Jonathan nodded to his mother and said, “It’s fine by me.”

“Where will Steve sleep?” Eleven asked, pointing out the obvious flaw in their plan. The Byers’ house wasn’t small but it wasn’t huge either. The only guest room they had, the one Steve had occupied the last time he had stayed here, now belonged to Eleven.

“That’s a good question,” Will said, looking from Eleven to his mother. “He could sleep in my room. I don’t mind.”

“Me neither,” Eleven said at once. “I like Steve. Shouldn’t be alone.”

Mrs. Byers smiled at them both and drew them into a hug. “You two are so kind but that won’t be necessary. Steve will get my bedroom for as long as he’s staying here with us.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Mom,” Jonathan said, surprising them all. “Steve and I, we can share.”

All heads turned toward him and when Mrs. Byers asked him if he was really sure Jonathan smiled. “I am. Trust me. It’ll be fine.”

Satisfied and obviously happy with that answer, Mrs. Byers went to work immediately. With the help of Will and Eleven she set up a second bed in Jonathan’s bedroom and made a little room for Steve’s clothes in Jonathan’s closet. Dustin grinned as he watched them bustling around, eager to make Steve’s makeshift bed as comfortable as possible for him.

He turned to Jonathan. “Thank you.”

Jonathan shrugged. His eyes flickered to Steve. “Least I could do,” he murmured, echoing Steve’s earlier words, before he drew his gaze away. “Want me to drive you home?”

It was only then that Dustin realized how late it already was. His mother would be frantic with worry. “Shit, yeah, that would be great.”

After a hasty goodbye to Mrs. Byers, Will and Eleven (who both apologized for not believing Dustin that something was wrong with Steve earlier this morning) and one very careful, gentle squeeze to Steve’s hand, mindful of the bandage wrapped around his wrist, Dustin reluctantly went home. His mom held him close the moment he stepped through the door, near tears, and Dustin told her how sorry he was and why he was so late. Considering how fond she was of Steve he wasn’t surprised when she said, “Oh, that poor boy. The next time he’s here he stays for dinner whether he wants to or not.”

Dustin gave her a kiss on the cheek. This was one of those moments when he thought his was mom was the best. He had no doubt she would have let Steve stay with them if Mrs. Byers hadn’t beat her to it.

The next thing Dustin did was call Robin. He knew she’d been worried about Steve as well but since her parents were keeping her in the house, she hadn’t been able to go looking for him herself. She picked up on the second ring. “Dustin? Thank god. Have you heard from Steve yet?”

Dustin told her everything, just like he’d told his mom. “It’s pretty bad but he’s with the Byers now so he should be okay. He … he stayed with them before. Last year, after his parents kicked him out.”

On the other end of the line Robin was quiet for a moment. “I didn’t know that.”

“Neither did I,” Dustin confessed. “Steve’s very … private about things like that.”

“Insecure’s the word you’re looking for,” Robin mumbled. Dustin nodded even though she couldn’t see him, knowing she was right. “You know, when we first started working together, I expected him to be King Steve – loud, obnoxious, not caring about anyone but himself. But Steve … he’s not like that anymore. Maybe he never was, I don’t know. All I know is that he’s this awkward dingus who tries so hard to be liked, and that totally blindsided me.” She let out a low, self-deprecating chuckle. “But when you need him – he’s there. You can count on him. He’s not that asshole I knew in school, Dustin. He’s anything but that. He’s loyal, and he cares so much and he … he …” There was a sob, staticky and choked, and with a jolt Dustin realized that Robin was crying. “He doesn’t deserve any of this.”

And wasn’t that the truth? He thought of Steve, lying on the Byers’ couch with blankets up to his chin that couldn’t stop the trembling. He thought about all the bruises, the barely scabbed over wounds and how hurt and lost Steve looked beneath it all. He’d seemed vulnerable in a way Dustin had never seen him before. And how could he have? Steve hadn’t let him because Steve hid and licked his wounds in private, no matter how severe they were. It was something they would have to talk about. Not now, not when he was hurt like this, but sometime in the future, because Dustin refused to let this happen again.

“Want to come and visit him with me tomorrow?” Dustin asked.

Robin sniffed. “I don’t think my parents would let me go.”

“We’ll think of something,” Dustin promised. “I think … I think Steve would be happy to see you.”

“I miss the dingus, too,” she admitted.

“I’ll be by your place at noon tomorrow, then,” Dustin decided. “Don’t worry, I’ll think of something to tell your parents. How about a support group meeting for the survivors of the “Starcourt Mall Explosion”?” he asked, using the headline for the disaster the papers had printed.

Robin laughed wetly. “It’s worth a try.” They were both quiet for a heartbeat, two, then Robin said, “Dustin? Thank you. For finding him. For making sure he’s safe. Everything.”

Dustin swallowed against the lump in throat. “Anytime, Robin. See you tomorrow?”

“See you tomorrow.”

That night as Dustin lay in bed sleep came a little easier for him now that he knew Steve wasn’t in any immediate danger. He knew Mrs. Byers would take good care of him, no matter if that meant changing a bandage, helping him eat or easing his mind after a nightmare. Steve was finally surrounded by people who cared about him, just like he deserved. All that was left to do for him was be by his side, help him in whatever way he could, and hope Steve would get better soon

He has to, Dustin thought just before he fell asleep. He’s my brother.  

Chapter Text

Chapter 4: Jonathan

The house was blanketed in muted silence that evening. Jonathan sensed it even before he stepped through the door after he’d driven Dustin home. Everything felt hushed – a little too quiet to be normal – and Steve was at the center of it.

It was obvious no one had had the heart to wake him since he fell asleep thanks to the painkillers. Jonathan could just imagine Will and El walking around the house on literal tiptoes as they got ready for bed, making sure to avoid the creaking floorboard in the hallway on their way to the bathroom and closing all the doors with so much care they barely made a sound as they clicked shut.

Quietly, Jonathan took off his shoes. The motion pulled painfully at the bruises on his back and he couldn’t help the muffled hiss when he stood up straight again. The doctor had said he’d been lucky. The bruises and cracked ribs might hurt like hell, and in the long, dark hours of the night when the pain made it almost impossible to fall asleep Jonathan felt a lot of things though lucky wasn’t one of them, but despite all the discomfort deep down he knew it was nothing short of a small miracle he hadn’t sustained any serious back injuries after the beating he’d gotten at the hospital. He still remembered how terrified he’d been when that … that thing that wore his boss’s face wouldn’t stop, wouldn’t relent and kept up its ruthless assault. He’d thought he was going to die that night – he thought Nancy was going to die – and he had been utterly helpless to do anything about it at all.

That helplessness he’d felt when he realized how truly powerless he was in the face of such otherworldly ruthlessness had terrified him even more than the monsters themselves had. For a moment back there he’d thought they would lose, that it would be all over – just like that, in a sterile room in a hospital overrun by monsters from another dimension – and he would die alone on cold tiles and never see his family again.

Looking at Steve’s peaceful face now Jonathan wondered how often Steve had feared for his life like that since Demogorgons forced their way into their reality. As far as he knew Steve had never hesitated to fight – hell, the bruises that never seemed to fade away nowadays were testament to that – but that didn’t mean he hadn’t been scared. Jonathan still remembered Steve’s high-pitched voice from that first year when the Christmas lights had been flickering and he hadn’t understood what was going on. Steve had been panicking back then, and for good reason, but when he’d had the chance to run away from it all he hadn’t. Instead he’d turned around and put himself in danger to save Jonathan’s life.

Steve had been confident then, whirling the nail bat around as if he’d done nothing else for years. But fear and panic didn’t go away like that. Jonathan knew that from experience. Adrenaline was wonderful for giving you a push and helping you survive, but when it faded and fear and terror took its place they always came back with a vengeance. That first night, after the horrors were finally over and Will was safe, it had hit Jonathan in the shower out of nowhere. One moment he’d been washing interdimensional memories away and the next he found himself on the floor, shaking so badly under the hot spray he thought he was going to fall apart.

Steve, he thought, had probably gone through something similar – hell, they all had. The only difference was that Steve had had no one to seek comfort in. He didn’t have a loving mom who waited for him with a mug of hot chocolate and drew him into her arms just to give him something to hold onto in this world that didn’t make sense anymore.

That thought made Jonathan’s stomach twist uncomfortably. It had been his fault Steve had left their home the last time he’d been here, after that sorry excuse of his parents had kicked him out. He’d obviously thought Jonathan hadn’t wanted him there and if Jonathan was honest with himself he hadn’t given Steve a reason to believe otherwise. How could he if he barely talked to Steve and holed himself up in his room most of the time when he wasn’t with Nancy? Of course Steve would have thought he was not welcome and stayed only as long as he absolutely had to.

Try as he might Jonathan couldn’t deny the fact that his behavior had driven Steve away the last time. He also couldn’t deny that he’d been an asshole, no matter how much he wanted to ignore the part he played in all this. It hadn’t been Steve’s fault that Jonathan slept with Nancy while she was in a relationship and felt guilty about it afterwards. It hadn’t been Steve’s fault that Jonathan didn’t know how to apologize, how to not make things awkward, and achieved exactly what he tried to avoid in the process of ignoring Steve.

Of course Steve had assumed he was making Jonathan uncomfortable. And he had, Jonathan had to admit, just not for the reasons Steve thought. Jonathan had wanted to reach out. He just … he didn’t know how to be friends with someone who should, by all rights, hate Jonathan for stealing his girlfriend away. He had no idea how to just … talk to Steve. It felt as if Nancy’s shadow was always there with them, creating an unseen but not unfelt barrier that Jonathan was too scared to cross.

Except earlier he had. When Steve called himself a shitty person while lying beat up and feverish on their couch because he’d rather get tortured by evil Russians than let anything happen to his friends Jonathan simply couldn’t let Nancy stand between them any longer. In that moment, Nancy hadn’t mattered. What had mattered was that Jonathan finally owned up to his past mistakes, just like Steve had been doing for years.

Thanking him for the camera might have been a baby step but it was a step nonetheless and it had felt incredibly liberating – so much in fact that Jonathan felt it would be a good thing to step out of his comfort zone even more and offer his room to Steve for the foreseeable future. Although now that he’d had the drive back from Dustin to think about it doubts crept into his mind again. Was it really a good idea? Would they get along as well as Dustin seemed to believe? Or would their days and evenings be filled with awkward silences Jonathan dreaded almost as much as any mention of the Upside Down? What would Nancy say?

All those questions whirled around like a hurricane in Jonathan’s head but he refused to give them grounds to plant their roots. This was one decision he refused to regret because Steve who was always brave for other people needed someone to be brave for him, too, and Jonathan wanted to be that person if Steve let him. He wanted to start again, without school hierarchies, childish actions and Nancy between them, and see what happened.

“You’re smiling,” his mother said suddenly from the dimly lit kitchen, her voice no more than a hushed whisper .

Startled, Jonathan whirled around. “Jeez, don’t do that, Mom!” he hissed.

Her grin widened, amusement dancing in her tired eyes. “Don’t do what?” she asked innocently.

“Sneaking up on me,” Jonathan grumbled.

His mother let out a quiet chuckle. Before she could say anything, they both saw movement in the living room. Slowly, almost agonizingly, Steve pushed back the blankets he was under and sat up. There was something about his posture, a kind of tension that Jonathan could see even in the dimness, that made him take a step towards Steve.

“It’s all right, you’re not back there,” he said, taking a chance. “I’m going to turn on the lights, okay?”

When Steve nodded Jonathan flicked the switch. A warm yellow glow filled the room, highlighting the bruises on Steve’s face as well as the apprehension in his eyes. “Jonathan?” His gaze moved to Jonathan’s left. “Mrs. … Mrs. Byers?”

“It’s Joyce, Steve,” Jonathan’s mother reminded him gently.

Steve swallowed hard. “Is this … is this real?”

Three small words and Jonathan froze, feeling his heart breaking just a little. His mother, however, moved at once. She crossed the room in four long strides and was at Steve’s side in the span of a heartbeat. Jonathan knew that every cell in her body screamed at her to protect Steve, to hold him close, but to his surprise she resisted the urge and reached for Steve’s hands instead, obviously not wanting to hurt him.

“Of course this is real, Steve. You’re here. You’re home,” she whispered fiercely. “I promise.”

Steve clung to her words, to her hands, as if they were his last lifeline. Jonathan wondered how often he had dreamed of this, of being here, of not being alone, in the days since the mall when he’d been on his own and lost in the grip of fever and fear.

The way Steve’s face crumbled when he heard he was safe made Jonathan think that maybe this wasn’t just about hopes and dreams. He knew from personal experience how high fevers could take away your sense of what’s real and what’s not. Maybe Steve had already lived through moments like this, tricked by his own brain to believe he was somewhere safe and surrounded by people he loved only to have it taken away from him again and again every time the fever ebbed.

That thought alone was awful. Seeing Steve’s eyes well up with tears was even worse.

“Oh, sweetie,” Jonathan’s mother said softly, finally wrapping him in her arms, bruises be damned. “It’s all right. Just let it out.”

There was that feeling of being powerless again that Jonathan hated so much. He wanted to do something and not just stand around stupidly and watch a boy barely older than he was fall apart from all the trauma and stress of the last few days – of the last few years. He wanted to help.

An idea formed in his mind and slowly, so as not to startle Steve, he walked over to the couch and kneeled down just like he’d done earlier when Steve had woken up the first time. He placed one of his hands gently on Steve’s back, letting his warmth seep through the clothes, hoping it brought comfort. “I know you have your doubts,” he began quietly, feeling his mother’s curious eyes on him. “I know your mind’s been playing tricks on you but I promise you that all this is real. I even have proof.”

Steve’s breath hitched one last time before he turned to Jonathan. “Proof?”

Jonathan grinned even though he didn’t really feel like it, not when Steve’s face was wet with tears and he looked as if one cruel word could shatter him completely. “Come on, I’ll show you.”

He didn’t know whether Steve was intrigued, too stunned or just desperate enough to follow him, but with both their help he managed to stand up. Step by step Jonathan led him down the hallway and to his bedroom. He opened the door and allowed Steve a moment to take it all in. “I bet you never imagined we’d be roomies. Crazy idea, right?”

Steve blinked once, twice, and then let out a huff of a laugh that sounded painfully hopeful. “You’re right,” he whispered. “I never would have come up with that.”

This time, Jonathan’s grin was genuine.

“It was Jonathan’s idea,” his mother explained quietly. “The kids offered to share their rooms as well. Of course you could always have mine if you don’t want to share. I don’t mind.”

After catching Jonathan’s eyes, making sure that this was really all right, Steve shook his head. “No,” he said, once more looking at Jonathan’s cramped room as if it were the fanciest hotel room in the world. “This … this is perfect. Thank you. Both of you.”

The tension in his body, Jonathan noted, gradually bled away – and with it the adrenaline. His mother noticed the change as well. “Time for more medicine and bed, I think.”

Helping Steve change into comfortable sleepwear was a nightmarish process Jonathan endured with gritted teeth. He knew how difficult and painful it was to do something as simple as pull a shirt over your head with cracked and bruised ribs, and he felt every painful hiss, every choked-up gasp as if it were his own. By the time Steve was done, he was pale and out of breath.

“Come on,” Jonathan murmured. “Bathroom.”

He hovered at Steve’s side while he brushed his teeth and helped him to wash his face, mindful of the bruises there. The minutes he stepped outside so Steve could do his business were some of the longest of his life. Please don’t fall. Please don’t fall. Please don’t fall, he prayed silently.

His mother was waiting for them with a gentle smile, two painkillers and a glass of water when they returned to Jonathan’s room. By then Steve was obviously at the end of his rope. He lowered himself onto the makeshift bed with a groan he couldn’t hold back and his hand was trembling noticeably when he brought the glass to his lips and swallowed the painkillers.

“Well done,” Jonathan’s mother encouraged gently. She took the glass from him and placed her other hand against Steve’s forehead, feeling his temperature. Steve’s eyes fell close and he leaned into her touch. Jonathan knew it wasn’t really meant to be comforting but Steve still sought the contact as if he were starving for it.

For the first time in his life Jonathan started thinking about Steve’s homelife. He’d known Steve’s parents had kicked him out. His mother might have fooled the kids (though Jonathan was pretty sure Will had figured out the truth on his own while Steve had been staying with them a few months back) but Jonathan had known what was going on. What he didn’t know was how things were before that. All he knew was that Steve’s parents threw more money at him every week than Jonathan and his mom made in a month and that they were absent a lot. It was the foundation Steve had built his high school empire on.

But what was the cost of that? What worth did money have when affection, love and parental guidance was missing from your life? When you had no one to come home to, no one who bandaged up your scraped knee or held you in their arms when your heart got broken? When no one was there to see your successes or to help you when you stumbled?

Jonathan tried to imagine coming home to a huge empty house every day and found he couldn’t. He and his family might not have much but their home at least was filled with life and love. Steve didn’t have any of that, and not just since he’d been kicked out. He’d been missing out on having a family for years if Jonathan was correct in his assumptions, and suddenly Steve’s reaction to a simple, clinical touch to his forehead made a lot more sense.

Almost unwillingly, Jonathan’s thoughts went to Nancy. She’d probably been the last person Steve had been physically and emotionally close to – and the first one after a long, lonely time as well. Steve had been in love with her. Jonathan had no doubt about that. He saw it every time Steve refused to meet Nancy’s eyes when they saw each other. And Nancy … she’d thrown what she had with Steve right in his face, calling it bullshit. Jonathan couldn’t even begin to imagine how much that must have hurt. And he certainly didn’t help matters when he slept with Nancy that first time.

How the hell was Steve not hating him? Hating them both?

“I think your fever’s getting better,” his mother said finally, pulling Jonathan out of his thoughts. She stepped back and Steve’s eyes blinked open, almost as if in confusion. “Try to get some sleep and we’ll see how things are in the morning.” Her eyes moved to Jonathan. “Anything else you two need?”

Jonathan shook his head. “We’ll be fine, Mom. Goodnight.”

“Goodnight,” his mother said and with one last smile she closed the door behind her.

While Steve got comfortable Jonathan changed. It was only when he was lying down and turning to switch off the light that Steve said quietly, “Your back looks awful.”

Jonathan paused mid-motion for a second before deciding that this was a talk he’d rather have in the dark than the glaring light that put things too much into focus. He shut off the lamp and gingerly turned around to face Steve in the gloom. “Feels awful, too.”

“I bet,” Steve whispered. Then, after a moment, “What happened?”

“Possessed employer,” Jonathan said. “We were attacked in the hospital. It was … bad.”

“What isn’t nowadays, huh?” Steve said, followed by a long sigh. “You’re all right though, right?”

Strangely touched by the concern in Steve’s voice Jonathan couldn’t help but smile. “Yeah, I’m all right.”

“Good,” Steve said. “That’s … that’s good.”

There was something about the way he said that that made Jonathan pause. “Steve?”

Steve’s breath hitched slightly and Jonathan could hear him pulling at the blankets and shifting around uneasily. “It’s nothing,” he whispered.

Jonathan frowned, alarm bells going off in his mind because Steve wasn’t supposed to sound like that – hesitant and unsure. Small. “I don’t believe that.”

“It’s just … how do you do it?” Steve asked finally, voice filled with desperation. “How do you bounce back from all of this? I’ve tried. Every time this shit happened I’ve tried so hard to forget. But it haunts me. How do you make it go away?”

Oh, Jonathan thought dimly. He thinks he’s the only one.

“Steve, I …,” he began and stopped short, not knowing what to say.

“I wasn’t even involved that much,” Steve continued, filling the silence Jonathan left hanging. “Not the first time, anyway. You lost your little brother and then that thing came and … and you all just seemed fine afterwards. Things went back to normal but I … I couldn’t. And every time those things appear it gets worse and I just, I feel so stupid because nothing bad happened to me, not really but I can’t shake it. Why can’t I shake it?”

Steve’s voice broke on the last word and without thinking Jonathan reached over and searched for his hand in the darkness. “You can’t shake it,” he said, “because shit like that stays with you all your life. You can’t forget something like this. Believe me, I know. I’ve tried – and not just with the Upside Down stuff.”

He heard Steve swallow. “Your dad?”

“Yeah,” he said. He felt Steve squeeze his hand and smiled despite it all. “That never goes away. You just learn to deal with it.”

“But how?” Steve asked desperately.

Jonathan took a deep breath. “My mom,” he said. “She helped me a lot. And Will, of course. They’ve been through the same thing and we’ve just … we talk about it. A lot. It doesn’t make it go away but it helps, knowing you’re not alone.” He paused, gathering his thoughts. “I know I’m probably the last person you want to hear this from but … you’re not alone, Steve. You know that, right?”

“I don’t have family anymore,” Steve whispered and Jonathan could practically hear the lump in his throat.

He gave Steve’s hand a reassuring squeeze. “Sure you do. You’ve got Dustin, for one. And Robin, and a whole bunch of kids who think you’re the greatest babysitter and the best honorary mom in the world.” Steve let out a choked little huff at that and Jonathan smiled. “You’ve got my Mom, too, and Dustin’s Mom. And you’ve got me, Steve,” he added softly. “If you want to, you’ve got me.”

Steve let out a shaky breath. “You really mean that?” he asked quietly.

“I do,” Jonathan said without hesitation. It felt like a promise. “You’re not alone, no matter how it feels sometimes.”

“Try most of the time,” Steve admitted with a note of shame that tore at Jonathan.

“Yeah, I figured. But you’re here now and if you think we’re letting you go again you’re sorely mistaken,” he said, trying to lighten the mood a little. “You’re a Byers now.”

That, at least, got a chuckle out of Steve. “Am I, now?”

“Yep,” Jonathan confirmed, unable to keep himself from grinning. “Welcome to the family. We’re a little weird and a bit crazy and some of us have superpowers but apart from that we’re quite normal, I assure you.”

“I like the sound of that,” Steve said softly.

Jonathan smiled even though Steve couldn’t see it. “Me, too.”

They both fell quiet after that. On the threshold of sleep it occurred to Jonathan that they were still holding hands and he should probably let go, but then Steve said very quietly, “Thank you, Jon,” and Jonathan simply tightened his hold in response. Steve’s hand in his felt warm, perhaps a little too warm from the fever but that didn’t matter. When his breathing finally evened out Jonathan allowed sleep to pull him under, too, knowing that Steve was safe just an arm’s length away and he would be right by Steve’s side should a monster try to haunt his dreams tonight, no matter if it wore the face of a doctor, a Demogorgon or an absent parent who never cared.

This time, whatever happened, Steve wouldn’t have to face it alone.