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            The Battle of Starcourt Mall was what the kids were calling the events that took place on the 4th of July. Steve had his own names for the event, but he never said them, not even to Robin. The thing was, Robin was there. Dustin and Erica were there. But no one was there. No one was there when the Russians decided to drag him painfully across the floor, rug burns from metal were not fun. No one was there when the Russians interrogated him, and he gave the truth. No one was there when they decided to get physical. No one was there when they threatened to hurt Robin too. No one was there when they threatened to find the kids and hurt them. No one was there when he was forced unconscious. He woke up to Robin, but she hadn’t been there before, and she had laughed and made him regret his high school life. He liked her, yes, but she didn’t understand.

            No one did.

            Steve Harrington was rather zoned out as he numbly rewidened the videos that had been returned. Keith had determined that was the best place for Steve, and Steve didn’t really feel like arguing. He could let his guard down in the back, and pretend he was somewhere else. Daydreaming helped because it distracted him from the nightmares that haunted him. And it was just so hard to keep up the mask of everything being alright. He refused to say goodbye to the Byers because of it. Because he knew he would end up dropping his carefully placed mask. The only problem with daydreaming, Steve was coming to realize, was that it shut out the rest of the world.

            “Harrington!”

            Steve jolted, rather violently, and jumped away from the voice. His heart was beating too quickly, and it felt like he couldn’t breathe. But it was just Keith, staring at him as if he grew a second head.

            “I’ve got more returns,” Keith set the stack down. “Are these done?”

            Steve looked to were Keith was pointing to the stack of finished videos. He couldn’t speak, it was like his throat wouldn’t work, so he nodded his head dumbly. Keith eyed him a bit, but carefully took the videos and fled the room. When the door was once again shut, Steve shoved his fist in his mouth and let out a pained sob. He wasn’t sure how long it took him to regain his bearings, but he quickly went back to rewinding videos.

            He needed to stay distracted.

            The sound of the VCR carefully lulled Steve back into a daydream of better places, better times, and a world without monsters. It was easier that way, to pretend that nothing happened. That things were different. That he was different. He knew what people saw when they looked at him, the popular jock from high school. The idiot who couldn’t get into college. The freak who hung out with little children all the time. He knew. He knew what they saw and what they said about him, and he liked to pretend none of that was true sometimes, just like he pretended he wasn’t tortured by Russians.

            Sometimes fantasy was just better than the reality. The kids had been right about that.

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            “You look awful.”

            Steve just gives a shrug as he takes out one video and replaces it with another. Robin had to go back to school, so she doesn’t work as often, but Steve was insistent about working nine to five. He needed to be occupied, and he often refused breaks whenever he could. Keith, however, was watching him.

            “What, losing weight impress the ladies or something?” Keith offered, chuckling at his own joke.

            Steve gave another half-hearted shrug. He hadn’t really thought about dating or girls in a while. Not unless he was talking to Robin or Dustin. It just, wasn’t his thing. Instead, he hit the rewind button and watched the machine. He didn’t eat anymore, barely slept. The Byers had left in October, and now it was December now, almost Christmas. It had been so long since Steve had felt whole. He was skinnier, unable to keep food down. Dark bags decorated his eyes, and his eyes themselves often looked haunted most of the time. And he was pale, like a vampire out of a horror movie.

            Steve took one video out, placed another in, and hit the button.

            “Harrington?” Keith sounded worried now, like, actually worried. He neve sounded worried. “Are you alright?”

            Steve debated giving a half-hearted shrug, but his brain wasn’t working right anymore. Then again, his brain hadn’t really been working in a long time. Probably never had if the rumors people spoke of were anything to go by. He was an idiot after all.

            “There are monsters in Hawkins.”

            Keith didn’t say anything. Steve too one video out, placed another in, and hit the button. Sometimes, Steve honestly believed that this machine was the only thing keeping him grounded. The only sound that could keep the nightmares at bay.

            “You’re messed up, Harrington,” Keith finally said.

            And Steve threw his head back and laughed, laughed so hysterically he honestly thought he would drop dead.

            “You’ve no idea how right you are.”

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            Keith had convinced Steve to lock up that night, not that Steve ever really needed any convincing to lock up. He did it most nights anyways. What was different tonight was the fact that, as Steve was pocketing his copy of the store key and fishing for his car keys, a cloth was shoved over Steve’s mouth, cutting off his air supplies. Then there was a needle in his neck and Steve felt his body slowly shut down. A bag was shoved over his head next before everything went dark.

            His last thought, however, was that he hoped that Russians hadn’t gotten Dustin and Robin too.

            The next day, as Robin clocked into work after school, she was surprised to find Steve not there.

            “Where’s Steve?” Robin turned to Keith. “I thought he was working today.”

            Steve worked every day, without fail. Always on time and usually early. He never slept in, never turned down a task, no matter how stupid or bizarre. It just didn’t make sense that Steve wasn’t there.

            “He called in sick,” Keith reached into his bag of Cheetos. “I told him he wasn’t allowed to throw up in the store.”

            Robin nodded, but she was confused as to why Steve hadn’t told her. She’d ask Dustin later, because Steve told him everything.

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            When Steve awoke, he was in a bed, with a pair of soft pajama pants on that weren’t his. The room had clearly been made into a make-shift hospital room. An IV drip was injected into his arm, and his chest had several small sucker things attached to a heart-monitor. The machine instantly picked up speed as Steve realized he was strapped to the bed by his wrists and ankles.

            “Woah! Woah! Woah!” a voice scolded as Steve tried to struggle and sit up. The speaker carefully tried to press him back onto the bed, voice going for soft and soothing “Calm down, there, Mr. Harrington. You’re alright. We just had to make sure you weren’t going to hurt yourself. Or run away.”

            Steve’s vision cleared a bit as he turned to the speaker. He was, quite honestly, very confused.

            “Mr. Clarke?”

            His words were met by a harsh cough racking his body. His throat felt like it was on fire, and he craved the water that Mr. Clarke was putting to his lips. But it was being regulated. He could only get sips.

            “That would be the sedatives,” Mr. Clarke explained. “I tried to tell the others that it was a bad idea to use them, but they weren’t sure if you would come otherwise. So, here we are. But you really do need to stay lying down. Your heart beat already isn’t healthy, and working yourself up like this won’t help.”

            “Where am I?” Steve coughed out as Mr. Clarke pulled the cup away again.

            “Right now, my house,” Mr. Clarke smiled. “Though, we’ll probably be moving you again soon. Don’t worry, though. You’re safe right now.”

            “What?” Steve slurred this time, still confused. “What’s goin’ on?”

            Mr. Clarke sighed a bit, pressing the cup back to Steve’s lips. “I think it best to wait till we can discuss this with the others. For now, just try to relax.”

            Steve wasn’t sure what to say to that, but Mr. Clarke had already set the glass of water aside and left the room. Steve didn’t have the strength or energy to scream for help. And he still wasn’t sure what was going on. So he lay there, reluctantly forced into a terror filled sleep.

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            “His car is here,” Mike mused as they eyed the house.

            Dustin, as it turned out, had not heard anything about Steve being sick. In fact, Erica pointed out that Steve, whether throwing up or not, would have gone to work anyways. Which had triggered a panic among the Party. And this was why they were all in the Wheeler car, Nancy behind the wheel, and all of them staring up at Steve’s house.

            “Yeah, but Steve would have said something if he was sick,” Dustin grouched. “He’s told me when he got sick since the time I walked into his house while he was laying in a pool of his own vomit.”

            “Ew,” Max scrunched her nose. “What the heck?”

            “He had a concussion,” Dustin explained quickly, still eyeing the house. “You know, from the plate thing. And he didn’t go to the Doctor.”

            There was clearly more that needed to be said, but it was kept quiet, and Robin had an idea why it was kept quiet. No one really talked about Billy or Hopper anymore. As she was mulling over this thought, Dustin jumped out of the car and marched to the house. He was ringing the doorbell a few times as the others appeared before him. Then he was wiggling a brick out of the wall, just below the doorbell, and retrieving a key.

            “Steve!” Dustin called into the house as he threw open the door. “Steve! You better not be dead in here!”

            No answer.

            “Maybe he’s just sleeping,” Lucas offered.

            “Have you seen, Steve?” Erica rounded on her brother. “That man hasn’t slept since the 4th of July. Or eaten. He’s like a zombie now. There is no way Dustin shouted didn’t wake him up, even if he was sleeping.”

            “What are you talking about?” Nancy turned to Erica.

            “You haven’t noticed?” Erica placed her hands on her hips as she looked at each of Steve’s supposed friends. “He doesn’t eat. He clearly doesn’t sleep, and all this started on the 4th of July. He’s been faking smiles since then too. What, you guys thought he was okay after being beaten and tortured by Russians? Some friends you are.”

            “But Steve said he was okay,” Mike insisted.

            “Yeah, he was ‘okay’, because anyone can say they are ‘okay’,” Erica quipped at them, moving further into the house. “Rule one of ‘okay’. If someone says they are ‘okay’ or ‘fine’, then they are not okay. And Steve is not okay.”

            The Party looked sheepish as Erica began to climb the stairs. It was unnerving to put in place by a ten year old, but it was worse because that same ten year old had seen through what they had not. With that thought in mind, the group began to search the house. And Robin began to beat herself up, thinking of every time she had made fun of their time with the Russians.

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            When Steve woke up again, it was to his own screaming. His arms tugged against the restraints as he screamed and screamed and screamed. Begging them not to hurt the kids. Begging them to leave Nancy, Jonathan, and Robin. Begging them to leave Joyce alone, to give her peace. Begging them to take him instead of Hopper. He wasn’t sure who he was begging. Maybe the monsters, maybe the American Government, maybe the Russians. It didn’t really matter because Steve was screaming, and straining, and sobbing.

            “Steve, sweetheart, breathe,” a voice broke through his screams. “Breathe with me. Come on. You’re alright. Just breathe. Breathe.”

            Steve felt like he knew that voice, and he also felt himself listening. He still hadn’t calmed down completely, but his screams had become broken sobs now as he tried desperately to follow the voices instructions.

            “There we go,” the voice kept pressing. “There we go. Just focus on breathing. It’s alright, Steve. Everything is alright.”

            Steve did, slowly calm down. He calmed down just enough to recognize the person currently leaning over him. He knew her, from the police station, but her name was escaping him.

            “I’m Florence,” she said, as if reading his mind. “But you can call me Flo. I used to work with Hopper. I’m the stations secretary.”

            Steve let his head fall back on the pillow as he stopped tugging on the restraints. His wrists and ankles burned from where they had cut into his skin, but his throat was too raw for him to complain.

            “Where am I?” his voice sounded hoarse, even to him.

            “Safe,” Flo spoke softly. “You are safe here. We promise you that.”

            Steve couldn’t bring himself to believe her. He hadn’t been safe in years, not since he signed those NDA’s in 1983. So he turned his head away from Flo. She sighed but said nothing. Instead, she stood up and headed for the door, whispering something as she opened it. Steve still wouldn’t look, still wouldn’t see what was going on. But he was well aware when someone else took Flo’s seat by his bed.

            “Hey, Harrington.”

            And Steve knew that voice, knew that voice so well that he whipped his own head around to make sure he hadn’t truly gone crazy. He hadn’t. Or, at least, he was pretty sure he hadn’t. Because sitting in the chair were the two people Steve had cut all ties with.

            “Carol?” Steve croaked in shock. “Tommy?”

            His two former best friends gave him sad-pained smiles.

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            “Then where could he be?” Nancy was pressing as the group argued. “He wouldn’t have just vanished!”

            “Do you think it was the Russians?” Max asked, her eyes wildly searching the house.

            “We need help!” Mike was pressing. “Like, right now! We need to do something! Call someone!”

            “Cerebro! Dustin, we need to get to Cerebro!” Lucas was pressing. “We can’t use the phones!”

            “EVERYBODY SHUT UP!” Erica screamed, making Robin very grateful when they listened and obeyed. “Okay, now, Robin, what is your plan?”

            Robin took a breath, glad that Erica was secretly a people reader.

            “The first thing we need to do is use Cerebro to call the Byers and make sure they are okay,” Robin began, eyeing the frantic looks of the four people in front of her. “We make sure they are okay and then tell them what’s wrong. I’m going to go interrogate Keith, see what I can find on that phone call. Erica can go with me. Mike and Dustin should go to Cerebro and make the call. Nancy, Lucas, and Max can go to the police station, file a missing person’s report or something. Whatever. But we have to stay calm and organized.”

            “She’s right,” Dustin nodded, going for Steve’s keys on the counter. “This will be faster if we split up. Watch our backs and find Steve.”

            Plan in place, the group split up. Nancy, Lucas, and Max to their car. Robin and Erica biked over to the video store, a knife in Erica’s backpack. Mike and Dustin retrieved Steve’s bat and biked over to WeatherTop.

            “Keith,” Robin walked back into the store. “I need to ask you about that phone call Steve made.”

            “What about it?” Keith sounded bored.

            Robin frowned at him. She knew Keith hated Steve, but he seemed unconcerned.

            “Are you sure Steve was the one who made the call?” Robin pressed. Keith shrugged, shoving another Cheeto in his mouth. “Steve wasn’t home.”

            “What, you telling me he ditched,” Keith scoffed. “I could just fire him, you know.”

            Robin wanted to strangle him. “He’s missing,” Robin hissed at Keith. “As in vanished, missing. We’ve been looking all over for him with no sign. Now. Are you sure he called?”

            “If it wasn’t him, then someone did a good impression of him,” Keith shrugged again. “He’s probably just playing hooky or something. Remind me to fire him.”

            “Listen here you freak,” Erica rounded the counter, glaring at Keith and throwing videos across the floor for emphasis. “My babysitter is missing, and if you think you can just not answer the question, you have another thing coming. Now, Steve may not be sick with a flew, but he is definitely sick and should not have been coming into work. But let’s be honest here, Keith, was it? Steve Harrington may have been a rich jerk in high school, but the guy has a stupid complex that means he would die before he let someone down. Now, I don’t care if you care. The point is, I care. And if my babysitter is hurt, and you had something to do with it, I will shank you.”

            For even more emphasis, Erica slammed the knife into Keith’s bag of Cheetos. Keith, for his part, looked absolutely horrified.

            “Let me make myself even clearer,” Erica was looking far from just angry now. “Steve has been through a lot, and to be honest, we all know the government covered up what happened at the Mall. Steve didn’t just get those bruises from nowhere. Now, someone could very well be trying to kill Steve, and if you don’t tell me what you know, I will hurt you.”

            Meanwhile, Nancy, Lucas, and Max weren’t having much luck with Flo, the secretary.

            “But why not?” Nancy protested. “He’s missing!”

            “Maybe,” Flo nodded, not at all swayed. “But I do recall Mr. Harrington having a record on him.”

            “But Keith said he called in sick,” Lucas pointed out. “And that he sounded sick too.”

            “Has it occurred to any of you that Mr. Harrington might be in the hospital,” Flo sighed, making the three kids squirm uncomfortably. “Look, if it makes you three feel any better, I’ll call Nicole. She’s the receptionist down there. Maybe she’ll shed some light.”

            Nancy, Lucas, and Max all exchanged looks before storming out of the station.

            “He’d have called,” Max insisted.

            “I know,” Nancy nodded back.

            “So what now?” Lucas asked.

            Nancy’s grip on the steering wheel tightened.

            Dustin and Mike were quickly racing to the top of the mountain, both out of breath as they reached the top. But despite how winded they felt, Mike dove for the radio itself as Dustin began to fiddle with the dial that was currently set to Suzie’s channel.

            “El! Will! Come in!” Mike began to shout as Dustin gave a thumbs up. “It’s Mike! We’ve got a code red! We need to know if you’re okay!”

            “Mike?” Will’s voice came over the radio. “What’s wrong?”

            “Are you guys safe?” Mike pressed. “All of you? You, El, Jonathan, and your mom?”

            “Yeah,” Will’s voice was a little confused. “Yeah, we were doing homework and stuff. Why? What’s wrong?”

            Mike and Dustin exchanged glances.

            “Steve’s gone,” Mike’s voice broke over the radio. “We can’t find him and we think something happened?”

            It was silent for a moment. Then Joyce spoke up; Mike, sweetie, it’s me. Tell me what’s going on?”

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            It was late, and Steve was still so confused as Tommy and Carol drove Steve through Hawkins to some place outside of town. Steve realized he should probably be afraid, especially since he was forced to lay in the back of the car between the seats with a blanket over him. His wrists were tied together too, and Tommy had said it was just a precaution. But Steve was just too tired to fight anymore.

            “Almost there, Stevie,” Carol’s voice was soft as she reached back to rub his arms through the blanket. “It’ll all make sense soon.”

            Steve was still so tired, but he couldn’t bring himself to sleep. Eventually, the car stopped and Tommy ended up lifting Steve out of the car, blanket still covering his body so it looked like Tommy was just carrying some sort of bundle.

            “He’s too skinny,” he heard Tommy whisper to Carol. “I’ve been able to lift him before, but never like this. It’s like lifting you if you were a child.”

            “We’ll help him,” Carol insisted. “We can help him. He just needs to know the truth.”

            Tommy’s grip on Steve tightened as Steve felt himself moved to be slung across Tommy’s shoulder. They clearly went down a flight of stairs, and there was several hushed whispers that Steve couldn’t make out. But soon, he was deposited in a chair and strapped down to it.

            “Mr. Harrington,” a voice spoke. There were a lot of familiar voices recently. “How good of you to join us.”

            “Mr. Melvald?” Steve questioned as he finally got to look at the man’s face. His gaze then shifted to the several familiar faces in the area, wherever they were, but it smelled like fertilizer. It made Steve’s stomach churn. Were these people flayed? “What? No, please tell me you weren’t flayed. Please. No, no, no. Oh no.”

            “Steve,” Tommy was putting a hand on Steve’s shoulder. “Calm down, man. Let us explain.”

            “No one here wants to hurt you,” the familiar face of Claudia Henderson appeared next to Mr. Melvald. “We just want to help you understand.”

            “Understand?” Steve laughed hysterically. “I think I understand perfectly.”

            “I’m afraid you don’t,” Mr. Melvald sighed. “Steve, we are a group of people who formed after discovering a terrifying secret after the disappearance of Will Byers.”

            Steve frowned, studying the many faces in the room. “Could you-could you be more specific? Hawkins currently has a lot of secrets right now.”

            “The monsters,” Principal Coleman of Hawkins Middle spoke up. “You’ve seen the monsters.”

            Steve gaped at them, completely horrified.

            “Steve, over the last three years we have formed a group of people who have seen these terrifying creatures,” Mr. Melvald pressed gently. “The monsters have gotten worse over the years, including that of last year. Many people lost family, and-”

            Steve couldn’t help it. He really couldn’t. He burst out into laughter as Mr. Melvald kept speaking, and he had to catch his breath as the people in the room eyed him warily.

            “You know!” he wheezed, unable to stop laughing. “All those stupid NDA’s and threats we got, and literally have the town knows! Wait till the government hears about this! And half of your kids!” Steve burst into a breath-stealing laughter. “Half your kids think you don’t know! This is great!”

            “Steve?” Mrs. Sinclair stepped forward. “What do you mean ‘our children’?”

            Steve sucked in a breath, trying to quell his laughter. “You’re going to want to sit down. This is going to be a long night.”

            And then Steve told them. Everything.

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            The next morning, Dustin was biking to his house, still upset at their failed attempt at finding Steve. Keith had been a dud. The police station didn’t care. And Mrs. Byers couldn’t really do much. He was beyond upset as he pulled his bike to a stop and moved to go inside.

            “Dusty!” his mother scolded, voice a whisper-scream as Dustin slammed the door shut. “Don’t be so loud. I finally got our guest to sleep.”

            “Guest?”

            Dustin was suddenly struck as he turned into the living room. There, laying on a couch with Tews curled into his back, was Steve.

            “He stumbled in last night,” Claudia explained. “He just looked so exhausted, but he said he wouldn’t sleep. I got some tea in him. And some soup. He isn’t sick, but he doesn’t look quite well either. Has Steve been alright recently?”

            “No,” Dustin found himself saying. “No, I don’t think he’s been okay. Uh, excuse me mom, I need to make a call.”

            “He showed up last night?” Robin hissed into the phone. “Are you sure?”

            “Yeah, that’s what mom said,” Dustin whispered furiously. “Robin, he has burns on his wrists. Like, from restraints or somethings. Mom got them bandaged, but I think he’s got marks on his ankles too. And there’s a needle imprint on his arm too. It looks bad, Rob.”

            “Okay, okay,” Robin sounded terrified. “Keep an eye on him. Skip school if you need too. We don’t want anyone coming. I’ll catch Nancy and the others. Alright? I’ll send the kids up to Cerebro to tell Joyce. Just don’t leave him alone.”

            “Roger,” Dustin nodded and hung up. “Mom! Mom! Can I stay with Steve today!”

            “Of course, dear,” Claudia ran a hand through her son’s hair. “I have to go to work anyways. And I’d feel better if someone were here. I’ve got someone else coming by later, some old friends of Steve. They brought him by.”

            “Okay,” Dustin nodded. “Thanks mom.”

            Claudia watched her son more closely now that she knew the truth. She watched as Dustin grinned one of Steve’s wrist close, not tight, but still in protective grip. She watched as he began to apologize to the older for not paying closer attention. For not being there when Steve was there for them. No one deserved what Steve had been through, what their children had been through. But for now, it had been a group decision to keep their mouths shut. Principal Coleman already knew not to expect Dustin, and with that, Claudia left the two alone.

            “I’m so sorry, buddy,” Dustin sniffed again. “I’m here now. You’re going to be okay. We’ve got you know. You’re safe.”

            Steve didn’t even stir, just continued to sleep on the couch as Tews curled further into his back. Dustin wasn’t sure how long he sat next to Steve’s sleeping form when there was finally a knock on the door.  Dustin raced to answer it, hoping it was Robin or his friends.

            “No.”

            Dustin slammed the door shut. Standing outside had been Tommy H. and Carol. Steve’s old friends.

            “Kid, please,” Tommy called through the door. “We-we found Steve last night. He asked us to bring him here. Please, just, let us see him. We want to know he’s okay.”

            Dustin didn’t want to open the door, but as he glanced to Steve, he could see the desperate look on Steve’s face. A face that made Dustin cave at the unspoken request.

            “Don’t hurt him,” Dustin stated, looking Tommy and Carol dead in the eyes. “Or I swear I’ll -”

            “We won’t,” Carol voiced softly. “We just want to know if he’s okay.”

            Dustin watched as Tommy and Carol instantly raced over to Steve and began to whisper to him furiously. Steve seemed to relax a bit more as Carol placed his head in her lap. It was, almost surprising to see how easily they seemed to maneuver around each other. It wasn’t yet lunch, if the clock was anything to go by, and that meant that Carol and Tommy had probably taken off work last minute to get here. Or just not shown up.

            This was the type of friend Dustin was supposed to be, and the type he had hoped to be. But he hadn’t even noticed that something was wrong till it was too late.

            “Do you remember that time Reed tripped while flirting with Vicki,” Tommy was saying, grounding Steve. “We teased him endlessly and he never did get that date.”

            “Vicki wouldn’t even give him the time of day after that,” Steve chuckled back. Then he started coughing.

            Tommy raced to the kitchen, followed closely by Dustin, muttering about water. When Dustin handed him a cup, Tommy quickly filled it up and raced back to the room. Steve’s coughs had died down, but Tommy was very insistent that Steve sip the water.

            “I’m okay,” Steve insisted as he pushed the water away.

            “Steve,” Carol scolded as Erica’s lecture from earlier rang in Dustin’s head. “Don’t do that to us. Not after last night.”

            Steve sighed and shut his eyes. Honestly, Dustin felt like he was intruding on the moment, and that he should leave. But that thought was dashed as Steve opened his eyes and looked directly at Dustin. Dustin was burying his face in Steve’s neck before Steve had fully uttered his name.

            “We were scared,” Dustin whispered to Steve. “We thought-we thought”

            “I know,” Steve hiccupped out. “I’m sorry. I’m safe now, though. We’re safe. I-I slept without nightmares.”

            Dustin hugged Steve tighter as he realized that Steve was crying. But whether from relief or just over-exhaustion, Dustin wasn’t sure. He just knew that it wasn’t sadness. Not with the way Steve spoke or sounded.

            “I’ve got you buddy,” Dustin whispered into Steve’s neck.

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            Mike, Max, and Lucas had helped Dustin take Tommy and Carol’s spots as Nancy and Robin interrogated the two former friends in Dustin’s room. Steve was calm, resting between the four kids. Erica was wrapped up in Steve’s arms, leaning against his chest, but the other four were curled around Steve protectively.

            “The Byers are coming,” Mike told Steve as he fiddled with one of the bandages on Steve’s ankle. “We, uh, we called them when you went missing.”

            “This town just isn’t the same without Chief Hopper,” Lucas grumbled tucked into Steve’s left side. “The police wouldn’t even take our case because you ‘used to play hooky’ or whatever. It was stupid.”

            “Really stupid,” Max huffed. She was sitting on the back of the couch, Steve tucked between her legs as she buried her face in his hair. “But we called them again when we found you. They know you’re alright.”

            “You had us really scared,” Erica whispered so that only Steve would hear. “Really, really scared.”

            “I’m sorry,” Steve whispered. “I’m here now. We’re safe.”

            That was the sight that the other four teens were greeted with. Five kids protectively curled around a sleeping Steve Harrington.

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            “Steve, sweetheart,” Joyce’s voice is kind, and relieved, and oh so peaceful that Steve can’t help but sink into the woman’s embrace. “Are you hurt? Do you need anything? Oh, Steve, you look terrible. Have you not been eating or sleeping?”

            This, this is why he couldn’t say goodbye to the Byers. Because they would have all seen right through him. Just like now, as Joyce holds him in the embrace a mother would hold her own child. Joyce and Hopper had always been there for Steve, helping him through his parent’s disappointment, getting him a job, looking after him when no one else would. It had hurt to see them go.

            “I’m safe now,” Steve whispered to her. “Kind of got burns from my restraints, but the most that happened was that I was drugged and dragged around. I managed to slip away, and Tommy and Carol found me while they were having a bonfire. Brought me to the Henderson house.”

            Joyce’s mouth pinches in worry. But then El and Will have decided they waited long enough because they have instantly tackled Steve into a hug. Steve curled around the kids, protecting them the best he could with his body as the snuggled closer. And Steve needed this, to know all of his kids were safe. He eventually, reluctantly, pulled away from the kids to be greeted with Jonathan giving him a hug too.

            “I’m glad you’re safe,” Jonathan whispered.

            Steve couldn’t say anything. He and Jonathan hadn’t been friends, not at first, but as Steve got over Nancy and the break-up, Steve found that Jonathan really was a cool guy. He was the type of guy who could anchor anyone he talked too, and Steve had done his best to be there for Jonathan through his own traumas.

            “I’m glad you’re here,” Steve murmured back.

            They Byers were to stay at the Harrington house for the duration of their stay, and Steve was more than glad to have them all close. Jonathan insisted on helping Steve with every meal and “educating Steve more on good music” and just basically taking up space so Steve didn’t feel alone. Joyce would often curl up with Steve’s head pillowed on her shoulder or lap, and when they couldn’t curl together, she would offer a gentle touch. Will and El were clingy, often gripping onto an arm, or a leg, or around Steve’s waist, or riding on his back. They even went as far to have “sleep overs” in Steve’s room on his bed so Steve wasn’t alone at night. The other kids liked to join when they could, but Dustin was over almost every night.

            Then there was the matter of Steve’s new and old friends. Tommy and Carol were insistent that they keep an eye on Steve (something Steve was grateful for after what he had learned) but Nancy, Jonathan, and Robin were wary of the two. But eventually something shifted, and the six of them were all laughing whenever they were over.

            But Steve waited as he prepared for the day that he would be summoned again.

-------------------------------------------

            “Steve,” the voice of friendly Mr. Clarke rings out as Tommy and Carol remove the blindfold. “Welcome back. How are you?”

            Steve shrugs because he really isn’t sure. He still has nightmares, still flinches away from things, and still zones out to cope. But after three months, he thinks he’s getting better.

            “He’s certainly not as grumpy,” Keith, eating a bag of Doritos this time, states. “He’s actually more tolerable now, and the Henderson kid has gotten him to watch movies. I’m going to let Robin train you for the desk in another week or two. Depending on your taste.”

            From what Steve understood, everyone here had some contact with the monsters in some way. They had been unaware of the two waring governments, but the monsters hadn’t exactly been very hidden. Tommy and Carol had learned about it in 1984. Keith shortly after. Mr. Clarke had thought something was wrong in 1983 and had his theories confirmed in 1984. Most people had discovered the problem in 1984 and put their heads together slowly. Steve had basically filled in the blanks.

            “You’ll get there,” Mr. Clarke encouraged. “Don’t worry. You’ve got us now.”

            That made Steve smile a bit as he was quickly led to the conference room. He had questions to answer after all.

            “Welcome back, Steve,” Mr. Sinclair clapped Steve on the back. “Now, let’s talk about what happened with our children.”

            Yeah, Steve knew that conversation was coming. By the time the conversation was over, it was late, and Steve was feeling rather drained.

            “Thank you,” Mrs. Sinclair was hugging Steve tight. “Thank you for protecting them. Oh, those idiots. They’ll be grounded for weeks. But thank you. I’m so glad you were there.”

            “I think they saved me more than I saved them,” Steve admitted as he was pulled into a hug by Claudia next. “Really, it was mostly them.”

            “Well, that’s part of the problem right there,” Marissa, the librarian that had basically become Steve’s therapist, grumbled out. “You keep talking yourself down. Remember what we discussed.”

            “Think positive,” Steve muttered. “I know.”

            She smiled at him and went to where some of the mom’s present had brought food and drinks.

            “When are the Byers coming back?” Principal Coleman asked. “We’d like to invite everyone to join at some point too.”

            “The week after school ends,” Steve hummed as Farmer Merrill, whose fields had been tainted by the tunnels, passed him a drink. “They’re staying at mine. We’ll just have to figure out how to get Mike and Nancy to come with, but I can probably do that.”

            The community of people, as Steve had learned, was like a counseling group. Some of them had been attacked by the monsters. Others had lost loved ones. Others were just overall traumatized. From what Steve gathered, the casualties in 1984 and 1985 would have been far higher had The Party not acted as they did.

            “Nobody should suffer alone,” Uncle Jack Sinclair stated. Steve like Uncle Jack, and he could see the guy throwing great parties. “The sooner the better.”

            Steve couldn’t help but agree. He had experience.

-----------------------------

            “It’s sort of a long story,” Steve gave an awkward shrug. “So, uh, basically, there are other people in Hawkins who know. And they have this sort of support group.”

            “Wait, hold on,” Mike cut in. “How long have you known about this?”

            “Uh,” Steve had to count. “Five months, since the day I went missing. Keith is a part of this group, apparently, and he’s been observing me for a bit. He brought me up in conversation and I basically got kidnapped and inducted.”

            The others were reeling as Steve drove the car. It was Robin, Nancy, Jonathan, Will, El, Mike, and Joyce with Steve as they drove to their destination. Steve had to admit that he was beyond nervous at the moment. They were driving to the meeting space, which Steve was now permitted to see because they learned Steve had not been joking around, and the group was still surprised.

            “Some were attacked by Demodogs in 1984,” Steve began to ramble. “Some were nearly taken by the flesh monster in 1985. Others lost loved ones. They slowly found each other and created this place. It’s a bunker, in case the monster can’t be stopped. But for now, it’s like a giant support group for those who suffered. They’ve-they’ve helped me recover from my trauma, from what happened with the Russians and everything.”

            “And, and they want to help us?” Nancy whispered in disbelief.

            Steve gave a nod, swallowing. “I can, uh, turn around if you want. But I really do think we could all use it. I-I don’t want anyone to end up like I did.”

            There was no protest, so Steve kept going. Before long, they were at the bunker, prepared to step inside. Steve, as many members of the society did, had a key to the bunker and carefully opened the doors.

            “The thought is that, if something happens, enough of us will have a key to get people to safety,” Steve told them as the descended the stairs. “Because if we told people, they’d think we were crazy.”

            “Steve!” the group watched as Dustin, Erica, Max, and Lucas raced over.

            “This place is awesome,” Dustin gushed excitedly. “I can’t believe my mom knew.”

            “Both of our parents knew too,” Erica huffed. “And apparently, you knew about this place.”

            Steve smiled as he ushered everyone to the conference room, and the group was immediately swept up by the many people. There were tears, and there were long hugs, and every took time to mourn those lost.

            And as Steve watched, sipping on a New Coke, he was glad that there were more people. Those who knew had to stick together, and now they would be.