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a beautiful day in the neighborhood

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Steve is fourteen and still watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

Not all the time, and it isn’t like he actively sits down to watch it every day or some shit. He isn’t a baby anymore. He doesn’t need basic concepts broken down to him, sharing explained in terms of puppets with squeaky voices and Mister Rogers’ soothing monotone. If anything, he watches it to make fun of it, like Tommy.

And right now it’s sort of his only option. He’s confined to the couch because his stupid ankle won’t stop throbbing. He’s confined to the upstairs, too, because Dad doesn’t want to look at him and Mom is desperately trying to calm Dad down and there’s so much door slamming and raised voices down there that Steve has decided to just...not. He’s just going to stay up here all night, replaying the moment the ball he’d shot with confidence bounced off the rim and his foot came down on Ricky Gomez’s foot from the jump and his ankle rolled and the whistle pierced the groans from the crowd and he was dragged off the court and his Dad’s face from the crowd was all hard lines, disapproval, mouth moving while it formed a sentence Steve didn’t even need to hear.

If Ricky Gomez had minded his own fucking space, none of this would be happening. Steve’s ankle would be fine. The ball would have sunk. Dad wouldn’t be slamming a cabinet downstairs. Mom wouldn’t be yelling to stop that before the neighbors hear! Steve is going to make sure Ricky knows that he should’ve been minding his fucking space on Monday.

“--happy all the time, but Betsy and I have had a big share of happiness.” Mister McFeely says when Steve’s focus shifts abruptly from Ricky to the television.

“Well some people get married and after awhile--”

Steve shifts closer to the television, knocking the ice pack on his ankle off slightly. He can’t hear Mister Rogers’ soft murmur over the sound of more cabinets slamming. Not that he wants to hear Mister Rogers. He just needs something to focus on and he’ll take what he can get.

“--they’re so unhappy with each other--”

He hears his name yelled from downstairs. Not yelled because they want him down there. Yelled because he’s being yelled about. Steve reaches for the remote and turns it up just in time to hear Mister Rogers finish off with,

“--that they don’t want to be married anymore.”

Steve presses the ice pack to his ankle until his palm goes slightly numb and his throbbing is only getting worse instead of getting better. He stares at the screen while Mr. McFeely rushes off, his eyes following Mister Rogers’ yellow sweater while he turns back to Steve--to the camera--and keeps talking. It’s dumb, like Tommy said. It’s baby shit. It’s teaching the kids in this country to grow up thinking that life is all about their feelings, that they deserve to be coddled, which is unrealistic. No one cares about your feelings. People only care about their own feelings when you get right down to it.

Except Mister Rogers must care, somewhat. This show has been on since Steve was like, one. Why would a dude put on the same stupid sweaters every day and stick his hand in a raggedy puppet and give himself a sore throat making the puppet talk in its signature voice if he didn’t care? Steve turns up the volume again and leans forward.

“Did you ever know any grown-ups that got married, and later they got a divorce?” Mister Rogers asks Steve. “Well, it is something that people can talk about. And it’s something important.”

The entire house shakes when he front door slams this time. Steve can’t hear clearly over the sound of Mister Rogers, but he’s pretty sure the car is starting up in the driveway. Dad is going somewhere to cool down, but really he’ll only come back about two degrees cooler with just as much energy to keep slamming. Steve pictures his car wrapped around the big oak tree at the corner of the street. He looks at Mister Rogers and tries to stop picturing it.

“I know a little girl and a little boy whose mother and father got a divorce.” Mister Rogers continues calmly. “And those children cried and cried. You know why? Well, one reason was that they thought it was all their fault.”

Steve’s ankle throbs. He can shove Ricky Gomez into the locker room wall all he wants, but deep down Steve knows that Ricky was in the right spot. He’s always in the right spot. That almost makes it worse, because it means Steve has played four games already this season with Ricky in the exact same spot and he still got too close when he took his shot. Headlights illuminate the front window for a few seconds, casting onto the television screen and soaking Mister Rogers in a warm, yellow glow.

“But of course it wasn’t their fault.”

Steve squeezes the remote so tight that his nails imprint on his palm, leaving half-moons in his skin.

“Things like weddings, and having babies, and buying houses and cars, and getting divorces,” Mister Rogers continues while the headlights pull away and the glow fades, “are all grown-up things.”

Steve presses the off button with so much force that his nail turns white. He’s fourteen. He is a grown-up. He scrubs at his eyes and stands up, ignoring both the sharp pain in his ankle and the surge of energy in his arm that aches to throw the ice pack across the room as hard as he can, shattering the television and making it so Mister Rogers never appears there again to speak softly and calmly, to treat Steve like a stupid kid who doesn’t even know what divorce is. It’s not something Steve even cares about. His parents aren’t divorced. They can’t be. Mom doesn’t work. Dad would just get custody anyways, and then it would really be hell on Earth without Mom to at least sneak him ice packs. They aren’t ever getting divorced.

Because the Harringtons live in the real world. They don’t live in a fake neighborhood with talking lions and trolleys and castles. They deal with their problems and handle it. They put weight on their ankle and walk into their room and slam the door behind them. They call Tommy and tell him that Monday morning, Ricky Gomez is fucking dead.

 

Steve picks up the phone and puts it down again.

He takes a deep breath. There’s a streak of shine on the receiver now, where sweat from his palm coats the plastic. Steve rubs at it with his sleeve of his sweater but doesn’t try picking the phone up again. He stares at it.

He has to tell his parents. Best case scenario, the voice on the other end is Dad’s secretary and he can just leave the message with her. She’ll tell Dad in her cheery, not-my-problem voice and then politely leave his hotel room so he can throw a wine glass or slam the mini fridge door. Steve won’t have to deal with it until he calms down enough to call, and by then maybe he won’t get the worst of the yelling. Maybe it’ll have tapered off by that time.

Steve has to tell him. The letter is unfolded on the kitchen table beside him, crinkled slightly in the middle because his initial reaction had been to make the stupid thing as small as possible and toss it out the window. Luckily, he hadn’t done that. He’ll probably need to read from it verbatim because Dad will want to be sure Steve didn’t just fuck up and misread it. And he didn’t.

He’s read it thirty-four times now, approximately.

Steve picks up the phone and grips it with both hands. He holds it to his ear, listening to the whine of the dial tone while he tries to even out his breathing and prepare his hands to punch in the number.

It rings. Steve drops it.

“Fuck.” He grabs it, this time with his sleeve pulled over his hand so the sweat will stop complicating things. Instinct to answer kicks in and he automatically takes the call, not even stopping to prepare himself for the inevitable conversation he’s about to have. It’s never the secretary calling. It’s going to be either Mom or Dad and he’ll have to tell them.

He prepares himself to push it all out into one swift sentence. Hey Mom/Dad, the house is good, just letting you know that I’m officially the worst and no college wants me, you know, unsurprisingly. How’s Denmark?

“Harrington?” It’s Hopper. Steve’s entire body sags in relief, his fingers loosening their death grip just slightly. He must be breathing hard, because Hopper sounds dubious and alarmed when he asks, “Kid, are you okay?”

“I’m fine!” Steve assures him, taking a gulp of air that probably doesn’t help his case. “Sorry, I’m just--I just got back from a run. What’s up?”

“I need a favor, if you’re up for it.”

Steve glances back at the letter. “Definitely up for it.”

It usually takes about fifteen minutes to get to Hopper’s cabin, including the short hike through the woods which extends today’s trip to around seventeen minutes because the snow is thicker than he’d thought it would be and his old gym sneakers don’t have the best traction anymore. Steve uses the secret knock, which makes him feel like a daring spy working on a top secret special assignment, and he’s greeted by an unimpressed look from the Chief.

“No scarf? Gloves?” He asks, wrangling Steve inside with his hand on his shoulder. No matter how long they lapse without seeing each other, Hopper will always feel welcome to unnecessarily manhandle him or otherwise boss him around.

“That’s a little dramatic, don’t you think?” Steve scoffs, brushing snow from his shoulders and shaking it from his hair. “I’ve lived in Indiana since I was four. My body has adapted. Plus, this is like, my best jacket.”

“You wear that when you went running this morning?” Hopper gives him a look which means he knows the running thing was a lie, and yeah maybe Steve’s brain should’ve taken into account the falling snow outside and done a better job of lying, but ultimately he decides not to press further. He just points in the direction of the living room where Steve can already hear voices from the television, erratic as El likely changes the channel every twenty seconds. “Normally I’d let her stay home alone, but she’s not in the best mood. I don’t want her using any creative therapy tactics like, you know, breaking shit with her mind.”

“Huh.” Steve can’t really imagine El in a bad mood. “Did something happen?”

“I’m pretty sure something with the other kids but she’s not exactly keen on talking about it. We’ve been working on, uh, feelings,” Hopper says the word feelings like it physically pains him to get it out, “and being open and stuff. But whatever this is, she’s not budging.”

Poor kid. She’s probably just experiencing average, run of the mill growing pains that she’d prefer to keep private from her dad. Being a superpowered lab child who fights monsters every few months probably means that every time she sighs or loses her appetite, Hopper assumes it’s got something to do with trauma rather than just...boy troubles. And if it is boy trouble, Hopper will probably overreact to that too.

Steve waves a hand in dismissal, trying his best to take a position of credibility. “It’s probably just teen drama stuff. We’ll make a burn book and she’ll be good as new.”

Hopper clearly doesn’t know what a burn book is because he just nods encouragingly and reaches for his keys. “Call if you need something.”

Steve gives El five minutes of solitude, during which he prepares a grilled cheese with no crust and a cup of Coke with no ice. He makes sure this offering is the first thing she sees, which automatically melts her icy expression just slightly. She peers into the cup when he hands it over and warms up another few degrees when she acknowledges that he’s broken the no soda before dinner rule.

“Thanks.” She doesn’t turn to face him, but she inches over just slightly on the couch. Steve takes this as permission to sit.

“Let’s hope Hop doesn’t remember how much soda he left in the bottle.” Steve settles against the arm of the couch, turned entirely to face her. She’s still insistent on avoiding eye contact, choosing instead to focus her attention on the television. The weather forecast is warning them that the snow won’t be slowing down at least until the weekend, and he starts to warn them about ice on the roads but is tragically silenced by a jerk of El’s head. The channel goes to a soap opera, where a woman decked out in a shimmering gown and lace gloves has a hand draped delicately over her face while she bemoans the affairs of the heart. She flips one more time and suddenly there’s a familiar, chiming music flooding the room that Steve hasn’t heard in years.

“Woah, it’s Mister Rogers.” He murmurs, pausing El’s flipping. She scrutinizes the television, apparently seeing this particular program for the first time. On screen, Mister Rogers is narrating his feeding of the fish. El doesn’t look particularly interested, but she keeps it on apparently just because he mentioned it. “I used to watch this when I was younger. Jeez, he looks kinda old now.”

“What is it?” El asks.

“It’s like a kid’s show. This dude, Mister Rogers, he lives in this little neighborhood with talking animals and like, a king for some reason, and he teaches kids about their emotions and stuff.”

There’s a silence, and when Steve glances over at El he can see that her jaw has tensed. Mister Rogers’ soothing voice is clearly doing nothing to quell the bad mood. It’s even kind of...making it worse? Her posture is suddenly so tense that she looks like her bones might just snap.

“Why does everyone else get to be normal?” El demands suddenly, effectively making him sit upright, alarmed. She looks at him for the first time, eyes narrowed, waiting for an answer. Steve suddenly feels personally responsible for whatever is upsetting her. She’s extremely good at glaring.

“Uh,” Steve scrambles for the best route to take, “normal how?”

She drops her sandwich back on its plate and, with more force than necessary, shoves the sleeve of her flannel up to her elbow. She points one short fingernail right on her wrist, where the little 011 is inked into her skin.

This is not a conversation Steve is prepared to have. That doesn’t stop El from waiting for his answer, pressing her fingernail harder to her skin the longer it takes him. He starts by prying her hand away, wincing at the indent she’s left.

“Don’t do that. It’s--uh--” Steve is probably going to be fired from ever babysitting again. Not like Hopper could do any better, though. Clearly Hopper either hasn’t handled this question well in the past, or just straight up never approached it at all. It seems odd that El would only be angry about this now. She’s been away from her old environment for nearly two years now, exposed to “normal” people long enough for her to have noticed some differences. It seems late. And he’s wildly unqualified, considering El’s entire existence was hastily explained to him two months ago by Dustin and Lucas, who were talking over each other the entire time. Steve decides to tread lightly. “Did something happen? Specifically?”

“Mike.”

“Mike?” Steve is going to kill that kid if he’s directly responsible for El having a full identity crisis. “Did you guys have a fight?”

“Not a fight, but,” She sighs sharply, “sometimes I just don’t--understand. I try but there are things I still haven’t learned.”

Ah. Steve has actually wondered about this, privately to himself when his brain tries to comprehend every little intricacy of their situation. He’s pretty certain El is never going to be able to attend school, considering she’s still learning to read and write and speak fluent sentences with Hopper’s guidance. He has tried to picture El’s future, and every time it’s just drawn a giant question mark. She’s a fast learner, he knows that for a fact, but she has everything to learn.

Steve is behind in a lot of subjects in school. It’s always moved too fast for him, so he ends up flunking tests and then being pushed along into the next one without even knowing what went wrong last time. He’s always felt like he’s sprinting while everyone else manages to keep up with mere strolling. He can only imagine how El feels.

“Well Mike understands that, doesn’t he?”

“He tries. He never says it, but I can tell that he wishes I could know more. It’s like...everyone else has…”

“An advantage.” Steve finishes, thinking about the rejection letter that’s still unfolded on his kitchen table. She must know that word already, because she nods eagerly. Steve sighs, throws his arm around her shoulders. It’s probably a good sign that she leans into him instead of pulling away. “Sometimes I feel like that too, kiddo.”

“What?”

Shit, it probably sounds horrible. Her circumstances involve being locked away for the first twelve years of her life and his are just...being a dumbass.

“Nevermind, that was stupid.” Steve says hastily. “It’s not the same, like, at all.”

“Tell me.” Her eyes are wide and sincere when she pulls away to face him again. Steve isn’t sure how to describe it.

“It’s not exactly the same as you, but sometimes I also sorta feel like everyone else knows things that I don’t. In school, mostly, but also just all the time. And even when I have someone explain it to me, or I sit down to read and learn, I just can’t really focus. The information doesn’t stay in my brain.” Talking about it makes Steve’s chest tighten a little bit, a reminder that he has another history test on Tuesday and every time he attempts to study for it he just ends up staring at the page blankly, unable to take anything in. Sometimes he’ll read the same paragraph over and over forever, stuck on a loop of moving eyes that don’t actually read the words on the page.

The history test doesn’t really matter anymore, though. All he has to do is not fail. Good grades aren’t exactly the priority anymore, now that Tech has rejected him. The new goal is to just graduate. After that, just like El, his future is question mark shaped.

“It’s not fair.” El declares quietly, apparently not offended that he’s related his own stupidity to her genuinely fucked up childhood. “But it’s not...your fault.”

Steve scoffs. “It pretty much is.”

“No.” El says, sounding more insistent this time. “You said you try. That’s all you can do. It isn’t your fault if your brain won’t listen.”

Steve chuckles. “It’s my brain’s fault, huh?”

“Yes.”

“Well, if it’s not my fault then it really isn’t your fault. Mike and the others aren’t blaming you for not understanding everything all the time, El. Actually, I think they sort of like teaching you things. Dustin does for sure. It makes him feel smart.”

“Dustin is smart.”

“Yeah.” Steve remembers the kid trying to explain the best format for a college admissions essay, something he never learned and yet somehow the thirteen-year-old already knows by heart. “You’re smart too, okay? Seriously.”

El nods and goes back to leaning against him. Steve can tell she’s not really hearing him. Not believing him. And he knows for a fact how that feels, too. No matter how many times Nancy insisted that Steve wasn’t any worse at school than anyone else, just that he hadn’t learned the right study techniques or he hadn’t nailed down any effective memorization tactics, he still couldn’t believe it. He’s just eternally felt like something in his brain is broken. And clearly the world, or at least the college admission staff at Indiana Tech, agrees.

Steve focuses back on the screen. He reaches for the remote on the coffee table and turns it up. Watching Mister Rogers at age seventeen is allowed, technically, because he’s got a kid under his arm. A kid who could definitely benefit from it.

The sweater is purple this time, paired with a blue tie. Mister Rogers is sitting in front of his potted plant, arm propped up, regarding them with the timeless calm of Steve’s childhood.

“I trust that you’re growing in ways that will help you with whatever feelings you may have.” Mister Rogers tells them.

He remembers thinking this was stupid, when he was fourteen and convinced that human beings didn’t really care about anyone else. Now, though, with El leaning her head on his shoulder, he feels like she should really hear it. Maybe he feels like he should hear it too.

“When you’re a child,” Mister Rogers agrees with him, “or when you’re a grown-up.”

Steve can at least credit himself to that. He may not have grown academically in the past few years, but Mister Rogers doesn’t ever really talk about grades and school and college admissions. He talks about shit like feelings, which Steve can safely say he’s gotten better at. He isn’t angry all the time anymore. He doesn’t ever get blind urges to throw things or punch people or spit insults at whoever he impulsively deems deserves it. And yeah, maybe emotional maturity won’t get him into college. But if his future is a big question mark anyways, he might as well be proud of it.

“I hope you’re able to grow to respect whoever you are inside.”

Tonight Steve is going to call his parents and tell them. They’re going to yell, probably, and they’ll have to reimburse the hotel for however many wine glasses Dad breaks in his frustration. But for some reason, Steve doesn’t dread it as much as he was this morning. Maybe it’s the mental clarity brought on by being around El, who has a way of making his problems seem microscopic in the grand scheme of things. Maybe it’s Mister Rogers.

El leans forward and grabs her sandwich again.

 

Steve has perfected the art of sleeping pretty much anywhere.

His body doesn’t need much. Right now he’s in a perfect state of comfort, a hazy bubble of sleep that isn’t quite deep enough to dream yet but deep enough to feel cut off from the real world. He presses his face further into his pillow, hoping it speeds up the process and helps him fully escape.

Then the toe of Robin’s converse jabs him in the shoulder and the almost closed curtain of sleep jerks back open. Steve squints up at her, groaning when the overhead light hits his eyes.

“Manager incoming, Sleeping Beauty.”

Steve jolts upright, grabbing the balled-up jacket from beneath his head on his way up. He brushes off the shoulders of his uniform, unsure exactly how long he was on the floor or if it’s obvious from his appearance. A quick running of his hands through his hair confirms that everything there is in the right spot, which is all that matters really.

Their manager, Cynthia, is indeed stepping out of her ugly green Toyota and making her way through the parking lot. Steve nudges Robin with his shoulder.

“Thanks.”

“No problem.” She regards him carefully for a second before extending a hand and pinching one particular strand of hair, a privilege awarded to only her out of everyone on planet Earth, gently pulling a piece of lint away and flicking it over the counter. “I wish your parents could see how counterproductive this is. Y’know, they want you to work but they won’t let you sleep. Kind of doesn’t add up.”

“They think sleep deprivation makes you better at your job.” Steve informs her, shutting up abruptly when Cynthia’s entrance is announced by the jingle of the bell above the door.

Cynthia favors Robin over Steve, so he just sort of stands to the side while Cynthia asks the usual questions about customers and complaints and scheduling. He should really ask for an extra few shifts next week, but if his sleeping schedule continues to be so horribly disrupted he probably won’t be able to handle it. His body is already shutting down from just the past few nights. Driving is now considered an extreme sport.

It’s all thanks to Dad’s latest and greatest affair. This one is worse than the last, specifically because the woman is apparently friends with Mom? Was friends with Mom, anyways. He isn’t sure which friend this is (maybe Rachel, the one who always gets too wine drunk at their parties?) but Mom feels completely betrayed and disgusted. That’s what she keeps yelling. Every night. Until three in the morning. For the past three nights.

Steve doesn’t understand why she doesn’t just divorce him. When people don’t love each other, they get a fucking divorce. That’s how you handle it. But Steve’s parents prefer to just stay married so they can constantly remind each other (and him) that they don’t love each other. They hate each other, actually. Steve can’t even feel sad about it anymore. He’s too tired.

“Right, Steve?” Robin’s elbow hits his ribs and he snaps to attention, clearly having missed whatever conversation just went on. Cynthia doesn’t look thrilled. “We can check the tapes?”

“Oh, yeah. No problem.”

He actually likes checking tapes. It just means they get to sit in the back room and fuck around, fast-forwarding through a movie and letting it run at random spots to ensure there’s no damage. Cynthia leaves them with a stack to check and takes over the counter, which makes Robin bounce excitedly to the back room.

“Fuck yes!” She cheers the moment the door is closed. “Thank you, Cynthia, God.”

“She still woke me up.” Steve grumbles, grabbing for the first tape on the stack. Without bothering to look at the cover, he pulls it out and pushes it into the VHS player. The television on top of the cart, identical to the kind at school, hums to life slowly when Robin presses the button.

“Have you thought any more about my offer?”

Steve groans. “Rob, seriously, it’s very dashing and heroic of you but--”

“But what? I don’t get it! You said you can’t stay with the Byers because of money, you can’t stay with Hopper because the cabin is too small, you can’t stay with the Wheelers because of the ex situation. Well guess who has enough money, rooms, and no ex girlfriend?” She smacks him in the shoulder with the stack of remaining tapes. “You have to sleep, Steve.”

“Look, they’ll stop fighting eventually. Okay? And then you’ll get my beautiful face with no shadows under my eyes back, which I know is your ulterior motive here.”

Robin doesn’t respond, just shakes her head in disbelief and focuses on the television. Steve hopes she understands that it’s nothing personal, nothing against her. In all honesty, staying with Robin until his parents calm down sounds amazing. He could sleep, but more importantly he could send a message. He could let his parents know that their son has feelings and thoughts, that screaming day and night while he sits upstairs is actually affecting him. When Steve was younger, he always sort of felt like a decoration. Getting tugged from person to person at their social gatherings, being fawned over because of stupid shit like being good at basketball. Now that he’s graduated, been rejected from college, and worked at a minimum wage job for several consecutive months, he’s like Christmas decorations in the summer.

Useless. And Steve just lets it happen, because he never speaks his mind. Maybe packing a bag and going to Robin’s for a few days would help them realize that he does feel things.

But they’re his parents. Mom is...Mom. She tied his shoelaces for him as a kid, made him food, listened when he tried to explain the jumble of confusing emotions that came up every time Tommy chose to hang out with someone else at recess. And sure, maybe she doesn’t do any of that anymore. Maybe she isn’t ever around because she’s following Dad on business trips, spending more time obsessing over keep him in line than spending time with Steve, who’s stayed in line. Maybe she feels a million miles away from who she used to be. But Steve can’t just abandon her.

Steve knows this is his own fault. Everything from the past four-ish years is his fault, because for those four-ish years he was being a complete asshole. Pushing people away. By some unbelievable luck, the Universe has forgiven Steve enough to allow him Dustin and Robin and all the little shitheads, but it holds Mom hostage because some crimes can’t be forgiven. He can’t act like a douchebag to people for years straight and expect there to be no consequences. He can’t even blame Mom for distancing herself from him, because he’d be disappointed too.

“--people besides your Mom and Dad.” The television abruptly interrupts his turmoil with a voice that instantly makes him look up, amazed to find divine intervention via Mister Rogers again.

He must gasp or something because Robin, who was just about to keep fast-forwarding, pauses and looks over at him. “What?”

“I just--” He shrugs, helpless because he can’t explain it but for some reason Mister Rogers being on the television in a dark green sweater is about to make him cry. Seriously, like, there’s a lump in his throat and he already feels his nose burning the way it does when tears are on their way. “Just leave it on for a sec.”

“Friends are very important when children are growing up. In fact, friends are very important all through our lives.” Mister Rogers says. Dark green sweater, blue shirt underneath, brown tie. He islooking older and God, the day this guy dies is going to be the worst of Steve’s life but seeing him get older feels good because it weirdly, stupidly feels like he’s actually watched Steve grow up. And now he’s here while Steve is nineteen and working at a video store on a Wednesday afternoon, feeling like shit because of his parents just like he was at fourteen and eighteen, and Mister Rogers knows. Somehow this guy in a television station thousands of miles away knows all about Steve Harrington and his parents. He knows the whole saga. And now he’s appeared, like a prophetic vision, to give his best advice and Steve has a tear rolling down his cheek because it can’t be a coincidence. Not when fucking monsters exist.

“Are you...good?” Robin asks, now turned in her chair to face him. Steve nods and stays focused on the screen.

“No matter who you are,” Mister Rogers looks Steve in the eyes and speaks with words tailored to fit him perfectly, “you are certainly somebody that people can love.”

Steve is going to blame sleep deprivation for the instant flood of tears that are all pushing to escape at once. He hasn’t cried in a really long time. It always made him feel like shit, especially if someone else was there to witness it, but for some reason it feels incredible right now. Even with poor Robin, who seems utterly lost but is still rubbing circles on his back because she’s just that good, there to witness it. It feels amazing and Mister Rogers must be proud of him for allowing it because he’s singing in the background.

“Steve?” Robin’s voice is equal parts concerned and confused after a good three minutes of him taking deep breaths and rubbing at his eyes and assuring her every so often that he just needs a second. Mister Rogers has already left and the tape has stopped at the end. If Cynthia walks in right now he’s so dead. “Are you, uh, done? Not that you have to be done! That’s not what I meant, you can totally keep crying if you need to but it just seemed like it was slowing down so…?”

“I’m done.” He announces, head aching a little bit from emotional overload but still feeling satisfied nonetheless. “You might have changed your mind after that, but uh. Can I still come over?”

Some of the confusion on Robin’s face melts away and leaves behind a bit of understanding. Still some faint concern. “Of course you can, dingus. Are you okay?”

“I’m okay.” He sighs and looks back at the television. “I just like, needed a sign I guess. A sign to ditch all the bullshit my parents are doing because it’s their bullshit, you know, not mine. And I just--”

“You just really like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood?” Robin fills in, doubly confused now. Her hand is still resting on his back, her thumb still moving to offer less frantic, but still substantial comfort.

“Yeah.” He laughs, which makes Robin appear a bit more relieved. “This dude like, totally parented me. Better than my own parents. Have you never watched it before?”

“We didn’t have cable until like two years ago.”

“Oh fuck, Rob, you have to. We have to rent this! Literally we have to rent this and watch it tonight and I swear all of your pent up emotions and like, feelings and shit, it’s all gonna be resolved.”

She arches an eyebrow. “In one night this guy is gonna fix all my problems?”

“Well, okay, not one night. I guess I’ve been watching him on and off for several years. But you have to start somewhere, right?”

Because really, watching Mister Rogers explain divorce to five-year-olds was the start of Steve realizing that his parents make him unhappy. At age fourteen, you’re still just assuming that everything is fine with your parents because you have no reason to question it. And Steve’s parents were never divorced, so he considered himself lucky. Luckier than Jonathan Byers, whose single mother worked at the grocery store down the street. He’d thought he had no reason to be upset until he sat with an ice pack on his ankle and heard Mister Rogers break it down. And he’d thought not getting into college was because of his own fundamental inability to function as a human until Mister Rogers shut that shit down on Hopper’s couch. And now, he’s ready to stay with Robin.

Steve presses the rewind button and leans back in his chair.

“We’re seriously renting this?” Robin asks, like she’s expecting it to be a joke. Which is fair. They usually rent shitty horror movies and make fun of the fake blood. It’s a big leap from Alien to Mister Rogers.

“Yeah.” He confirms. “This dude is gonna change your life.”