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there's a thorn in my side

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After the incident at Starcourt Mall – and it is incident, said carefully and with a glance over the shoulder – Steve allows the paramedics to take him to the hospital. Robin goes too, and Jonathan, and that makes it easier. He doesn’t want to go alone, to be prodded and asked questions he can’t answer. The biggest of them all would be “what happened?” and he remembers having to sign a lot of official government documents that stated he could never talk about anything that happened to anyone. None of them said anything about being tortured for information by Russian soldiers, but it’s heavily implied, nonetheless.

He listens to what the doctors say, and to the beeping of machines, because all of that is easier than listening to his own thoughts. His stay is short, only a few days, but in that time his parents come home, cutting their continuous business trip short to see how their son is doing. They don’t yell, when they visit him in the hospital. They don’t yell when he’s released, either. His mom drinks, lips pressed thin around the rim of her glass, and his father paces in his office.

Steve wishes they would yell.

They leave as quickly as they arrive. His father tells him that it isn’t good for him to join him at the business when summer ends like he was supposed to, not when he’s still recovering. Steve hears the words he doesn’t say, words like how he doesn’t want Steve there when Steve is unstable. When Steve might bring his reputation down. And perhaps his father thinks of it as a punishment, because Steve can’t finally be something, something different than a high school graduate with shitty grades and barely any experiences to his name, but to Steve it’s a blessing. He feels relief, even as he just nods stiffly and says, “whatever you think is best, dad”, and doesn’t allow himself to smile.

It’s a stretch of long, empty days after they’re gone until he can finally bring himself to find something to do. He visits Dustin, takes him out to Weathertop so he can talk to Suzie and firmly doesn’t listen to their conversations. Instead Steve looks out over town and tries to separate his current view from the one on July 4th. He drives the kids around and picks up Max, too, because now there’s no one else to take her anywhere anymore. She always smiles, quick and small, but not at all like the ones she had before.

He meets with Robin to catch up and hang out and try to find a new job now that Scoops is nothing but rubble. They settle for Family Video, even if Steve’s experiences with movies consists of the current ones and not at all the old classics Robin or Dustin are always going on about. Robin gets the job. Steve doesn’t. It’s probably better that way, because Steve isn’t sure he can take staying behind a counter for long, endless hours with Keith breathing down his neck, hunting for the smallest mistakes.

He has to justify it to himself somehow, when Robin is complaining about Keith after they leave the store.

“It’s fine, Robin,” he says, and she looks ready to argue so he continues quickly, “I mean, can you imagine me trying to recommend anyone a movie? It would be stupid.”

And he grins. She looks at him with something pitying in her eyes that makes his skin crawl, has his grin fading.

“Steve, it’s not stupid,” she says. “I mean, I didn’t know shit about ice cream but still worked at Scoops. You could learn.”

“Nah,” he says, and he keeps his tone light. “I’ll find something different. Wouldn’t want to give you competition with the girls.”

He winks and she rolls her eyes.

“Because that went so well before,” she begins, as she always does whenever they talk about his lack of luck trying to bring in girls at Scoops. It pulls her away from whatever passionate speech she was going to make about his habit of putting himself down, and it’s a relief. He’s heard that spiel from her before, and it’s no more fun now than it was the first time.

 

 

Days and weeks bleed together, and all of a sudden the Byers are moving and Nancy is back for her last year in high school while the kids start their first, and Steve’s days are suddenly a lot emptier than before. He accepts when Dustin asks him for rides, but it isn’t the same. Their lives are a lot busier than they were, and Steve feels stuck in comparison. He can only bother Robin at work so many times before Keith threatens to ban him for life, and so he has to stop doing that, too.

It’s weird to watch as everything around him moves on while he remains where he is. It feels like everyone has forgotten or at least moved on from the events of the summer, and yet he can’t. He still wakes up from nightmares about Russian generals beating him bloody and then stroking his cheek as though that one gentle movement will make everything better, or nightmares about the Flayer killing all his friends. Sometimes, though rarely, he dreams about the Flayer killing him, tentacle-arms piercing his chest clean through. It’s as if his brain thinks it worse to leave him alive while those around him die.

His worst fear has always been to be left alone, after all.

Objectively, of course, he knows that it isn’t true. Just because people don’t talk about something it doesn’t mean they don’t think about it. People died. It’s impossible not to think about that.

The funerals had happened over the course of several weeks after July 4th. All of them closed casket, all of them empty caskets, simply because there had been no bodies to bury. None except Billy’s, but Steve knows exactly how Billy had looked when he died, and he knows the casket is closed for a good reason. It’s the only funeral Steve goes to, though he sticks to the back of the small crowd and says nothing during the entire, short, event.

He wants to comfort Max somehow, after, but he doesn’t know what to say that won’t make it all worse. She seems to understand, though, smiles all wobbly and hugs him briefly before following her mom, and Steve’s own mouth trembles and his eyes burn. He goes home and drinks himself stupid instead, sitting on his couch and trying to figure out why he’s sad.

He knows why, in the deep, dark parts of his mind, but contemplating it gives him a headache to rival his hangover the next morning, so he doesn’t.

 

 

September comes and Robin bugs him into finding something to do. It’s annoying, but also not because she’s right when she says that doing something with his days will make him happier. Right now, they consist of a lot of sleeping and staring at the television without seeing anything, and Robin insists it’s all detrimental to his health.

She talks big and Steve doesn’t know where it’s all coming from, but he still listens. He tries to find a job he thinks will work for him, applies to a diner by the main road out of Hawkins, then the community center when he doesn’t hear back, and when they tell him they don’t think he’ll fit, he contemplates lobbing the name plate on the desk at their heads.

Robin, though, she’s endlessly optimistic. So is Dustin, when he hears about Steve’s efforts, and it’s kind of nice to have them cheering him up. It would be a lot worse to be rejected if they weren’t there.

In the end he winds up in the place he last expected. The woman at the library smiles kindly at him over her glasses and says they can probably fit him in somewhere. Steve blinks at her for a long minute, trying to understand that yes, they’re hiring him. She explains that it might be slow, sometimes, and can get boring, but he’s allowed to read books if he wants and doesn’t have to interact that much with other people, probably.

And Steve has never been that into reading, and he does want to be around other people to stop his thoughts from devouring him whole, so it sounds like the worst idea to say yes. Still, he thanks her and almost stumbles getting to his feet to shake her hand. Maybe she’s just pitying him, but he’s still elated when he tells Robin and Dustin about it. They both congratulate him and look like they mean it, so Steve can’t quite quell the excitement about having a job.

Even if telling his father will probably wind up the same as when Steve had to get a summer job and ended up at Scoops.

It’s fine. He’s been told he’s a disappointment so often, it kind of feels like discussing the weather, at this point.

 

 

By November, he’s well settled into a routine. He works Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and it’s probably menial labor but he finds some enjoyment out of it. He sorts books and helps people check books in and out of the library and points people to whichever sections they need to go to when they ask. He pointedly tells Dustin he has five books overdue whenever he comes by, but still helps him check out another handful because he’s always been terrible at saying no to that face Dustin always makes when he wants something. And it doesn’t get him in trouble, surprisingly, despite the fact that he knows his boss is aware of what they’re doing.

Still, he feels helpful rather than useless for once, and he’s not exhausted in the evenings like he could be at Scoops after hours of standing and slinging ice cream and interacting with people, so that’s a win. He doesn’t say the same lines over and over with put on enthusiasm that doesn’t convince anyone. Robin says he looks happier, when he sees her for the first time in a couple of days – “it’s been over a week,” she remarks at some point, and he hasn’t really noticed all that time passing, but. It’s good. It means he’s busy, and not losing time getting caught in old memories like he sometimes does.

 

 

He travels to Chicago for a weekend, closer to Christmas. It’s not really planned, but when asked he blames it on the need to buy gifts and he can’t do that in Hawkins since the mall is still gone and most shops in town itself are still closed. He does buy some, too, so he doesn’t return home empty handed.

He passes a tattoo shop on the way back to his car, and it’s a spur of the moment kind of thing that makes him turn on the spot and go inside. The bell above the door jingles merrily, and when he asks if they take drop-ins he’s guided to sit and wait.

The tattooist raises their eyebrows when he says what he wants, but it’s probably not the weirdest request they’ve gotten so they don’t question it. Steve leaves the shop with a lighter heart and a carefully covered tattoo on the inside of his left arm, near the crook of his elbow. It’s of a nailed bat, because part of him loves clichés and part of him wants a reminder of these last, awful years and what he’s learned from them. He doesn’t think of other people who have gone to the city and come home with a tattoo suddenly, forces himself to think about what his parents will say instead when they find out. His father really might yell, this time, and perhaps his mom drinks so much she won’t be able to look at him like he really is this family’s biggest disappointment for once.

When evening hits he drops by a club, since he already has made one life-changing decision today as it is. There, he drinks too much and kisses a boy with blond curls and blue eyes, and firmly doesn’t think about it when he pukes his guts out in a toilet ten minutes later.

He comes home the next afternoon, and he says yes when Nancy calls and invites him over for coffee. She’s home alone for the day, too, and Steve doesn’t know why she’s spending the day with him when Jonathan is due to come visit with the rest of the Byers, but. It’s nice, a little. He’s never been much of a coffee drinker, but Nancy lets him add too much cream and sugar without saying anything.

There’s something in her eyes though, that has him looking down, staring into his cup. She asks him how he’s been, and he’s mostly truthful. He’s doing fine, he’s found something to occupy his days, you know, and it keeps his dad off his back. Nancy, of course, knows all of this already, and she sighs in the way she would before she said, you’re an idiot, Steve Harrington.

“We’re a little worried,” she finally says, after the silence drags on too long.

Steve looks up, frowning. “We?” he repeats.

“Everyone,” she admits. “Robin, Dustin, Max. Jonathan, too.”

“You talk about me to Jonathan?” Steve asks. He’s confused about it. Jonathan doesn’t seem the type to want to talk to his girlfriend about her ex.

“Steve.”

Nancy says it softly, eyes imploring, and Steve stops talking. It reminds him of another time, in a shitty mall bathroom and Robin looking at him in the same way, saying his name in the same way. She uncurls her hands from around her cup and moves them closer to his. He pulls his hands back, curling them up into his sleeves. She doesn’t.

“We just think that maybe you’re…” She pauses, trying to find a way to word herself so Steve doesn’t get defensive. He already is, though. This feels like an intervention; a confrontation, even.

“That maybe you haven’t coped with everything that well.” she finishes eventually. “In the past six months… Robin calls it self-destructive. The way you’ve been behaving.”

Steve wants to say something, but all the words get caught in his throat and he can’t get anything out. He tries a few times, then stops, licking his lips out of habit, and sips his coffee. It’s way too bitter even after everything he put in it, or maybe that’s just his feelings being projected into the fucking cup.

“And we just want to help. You’re not alone, you know. All of us, it’s good for us to talk about it.”

“Like some sort of group counselling?” Steve asks to clarify. His throat suddenly works again, and he’s angry. He doesn’t know what Robin has been telling Nancy, but he doesn’t want to, either. She has no business talking about him without his knowledge like that.

“What do you even know about it, Nancy? You haven’t been here. Robin doesn’t know what she’s talking about, and the least any of you can do is come to me if you’re so worried,” He spits the words, and Nancy flinches. Steve feels hot and cold at once, skin prickling, “not talk about me behind my back and expect me to be relieved when you finally decide to confront me under the pretense that you’re being nice.”

“Steve–” Nancy begins, and she looks hurt. “That isn’t what we’re doing.”

“Then what are you doing?”

Nancy takes a deep breath and sets her eyes in him, and Steve knows that she isn’t going to pull any punches. Maybe he deserves that. He wants to leave, but he can’t make himself push the chair back and get up. He’s rooted in place, like he’s waiting for punishment.

“We’re approaching you as friends who are worried for you,” she says finally. “You’ve been ignoring your own feelings about everything we’ve been through, and not just these last six months. You pretend it doesn’t bother you when I know you’ve had nightmares about it ever since that night at Jonathan’s.”

“How do you know about the nightmares?” Steve asks hollowly. She smiles, sort of sad-looking.

“We shared a bed a few times, don’t you remember?”

They had, before they broke up. Between the first and second time the Upside Down came into their lives. Steve couldn’t remember ever having nightmares when she was in bed with him, but he must have. The knowledge that she has seen him have them is unpleasant, but she couldn’t have been there on the worst nights, or else he knows she would have said something. Because some nights he wakes up and he’s still screaming his throat raw, and that is the only time he’s happy nobody’s home.

She accepts his silence and goes on.

“You always try to ask if we’re okay when you see us. Robin says you’ve talked a lot about what happened to the two of you, and even if she wouldn’t tell me the details, she says you always turn it around on her. Why can’t you accept that it’s fine to not be okay, sometimes?”

Nancy’s crossing lines, and Steve still wants to leave. This time he does mange to stand. In fact, he stands so quickly he knocks the chair over. She looks startled, jumps when it bangs against the floor.

“I’m leaving,” he says, and she stands, too.

“Steve–”

“I’m leaving, Nancy,” he says again, for a moment worried she won’t let him. Like she’ll keep him there, demand he tell her everything, and the thought of it has his breathing speed up, hands clammy. “You’re assuming– I’m leaving.”

He says it as forcefully as he can, because he has to leave, he can’t stay in this house and feel trapped. He walks to the door and grabs his coat and the pressure in his chest lessens when she doesn’t stop him. She follows him, but she stays some distance away, arms crossed uncomfortably.

“Just think about it, Steve,” she says, careful. “It doesn’t hurt to try to think about it. We’re here. Even just a phone call away.”

“Okay,” he says. Swallows, throat dry. “Thanks for the coffee, Nance. I’ll– see you around.”

She nods, but he doesn’t see, walking out of the house and shutting the door. He walked there, this morning, and he’s grateful for it now, hurrying down the sidewalk and shoving his hands into his pockets. The cold air helps. Clears his head. He focuses on his breathing, the way he can see it every time he breathes out. He does it until he reaches his house, and he lingers at the bottom of the driveway for a long time, staring up at it. And then he keeps walking, and walking, and he doesn’t know how long it’s been until he’s suddenly standing outside the Byers’ old house.

Nobody bought it when they moved, too much tragedy happening it for anyone to want to live in it. Too much history tends to keep people away, at least until it’s been so long people start wondering if it’s haunted. That’s when houses like this one get bought again.

Steve has his own phantoms connected to this house. The first time, the Demogorgon, clawing its way out of the ceiling. Even after it happened, after they cleaned up and renovated, Steve always felt like the stench of the monster burning lingered.

And the second time, there was Billy, beating the shit out of him. Steve still has the faint spidery lines of the scar Billy left on him after bashing the plate over his head. And it should make him angry, like it did in the months after it happened. It doesn’t, though. The anger faded with time, and Steve didn’t see Billy around as much, but when he did it wasn’t anger curling in his gut, but rather some unnamable emotion Steve couldn’t place until after he saw Billy die.

The same kind of emotion that makes him do stupid things, like go to clubs to kiss boys that look even remotely like him. Steve doesn’t – can’t – go down that road, not now. He’s talked a lot about girls with Robin, after she told him her best kept secret, but he can’t find it in himself to do the same in return. It feels… fake. Like he isn’t allowed to. Part of him is scared she’ll think he says it just because she told him about being into girls.

And he knows Robin is better than that. But Robin has also been talking about him to Nancy of all people, right behind his back, so maybe she isn’t.

He rubs at his face with numb fingers. He knows that sometimes he gets defensive, and he knows that Robin has tried talking to him more times than he can count about how he’s feeling, but he can’t just say out loud that he isn’t fine. It seems so trivial, in the grand scheme of things. But it doesn’t give her the right to discuss his well-being with other people.

Steve looks up at the house again and makes a decision.

 

 

Christmas is dull and January even duller, all greys and half-melted snow.

Steve sits in Robin’s room, the ideal meeting place because his parents are home and he doesn’t want them to walk in while Steve is in a confrontational mood. This way, he can leave if things get too much. He doesn’t think he would quite be able to make himself tell her to leave, had they been in his room.

Robin is lounging on her bed, though she keeps shooting him weird looks because he is trying to pretend this is all a friendly visit. And she never minds those. They can sit in silence, each doing their thing, and it doesn’t get weird. She probably picks up on his mood at some point, though, but she doesn’t push him and he’s infinitely grateful for that.

“Do you–” she begins, and he doesn’t know what she’s about to ask. Could be as simple as wondering if he wants something to drink, but he breaks in.

“I talked to Nancy.” he says.

She stops. “Oh.”

“Oh.” he repeats, voice dull. “Why have you been talking to her about me?”

Robin sighs and sits up properly for once, and he knows that means it’s time for a serious talk. He sits up too, from where he’s been lounging on the floor, and instead leans against the wall next to the door just in case he needs to make a quick escape. For a moment she just plays with her hair, and then the hairbands around her wrist.

“Sometimes it’s really hard to get you to talk.” she says abruptly. “Not– in general, you talk a lot. But get personal and you’re impossible to get a coherent sentence out of.”

Steve… knows this. It doesn’t make it any easier to hear it, and he’s staring at the floor. Part of him wishes he never brought it up.

“We don’t talk about you because we want to be mean, Steve. I went to ask Nancy about you because… because I don’t know how to help you. I want you to feel safe around me so that you can share whatever’s bugging you. I ask you about how you’re doing after what we went through and you… you act like you’re untouchable. Like it’s fine, or like it never happened at all.”

She speaks so quickly, like she’s been holding it all in and can’t anymore now that he’s given her an opportunity to put it all out there.

“I just wanted to know if you’ve always been this way or if it happened after Starcourt. Because you’re not fine, Steve. It’s like you’re putting off whatever you’re feeling, like it’s not gonna come back and bite you in the ass.”

She looks unhappy when she’s done talking. Steve feels nothing but his heart trying to beat its way out of his goddamn chest.

“I don’t–”

“Tell me none of it’s true and I’ll kick you, Harrington, I swear.”

She sounds upset, and she looks upset too, scooting to the end of her bed. “Steve. I’m not trying to hurt you by saying all of this. I just– It’s tiring to see you this way.”

“Self-destructive?” he asks, because he remembers what she thinks about him. Robin doesn’t smile as she nods.

“Have you considered seeing someone?”

The question is tentative.

“I have,” she continues. “I obviously couldn’t tell them about everything, but I told them that I was there that night, and that sometimes it feels like I never left.”

Steve shifts uneasily in his spot at her admission. It sounds familiar.

“Like a therapist?” he asks, and she nods. “I don’t know, Rob, it doesn’t seem serious enough for me to see someone professional.”

She gives him a look. “So what I’m feeling isn’t serious either?” she asks him, voice hard.

“That’s not what I meant,” he says. He feels caught.

“It’s what you’re saying.”

She’s right. Of course she’s right. He’s being a hypocrite, but it’s hard to face the truth when it’s right in front of him. She’s putting it out there so easily, makes it sound so simple when it’s anything but.

“How do I go to someone I don’t know and tell them I’m scared of myself?” he finally asks, fingers clenched around the hem of his sweater. Robin smiles a little.

“Like that.” she replies.

 

 

February consists of Steve trying to work up the courage of seeing someone to talk to, and then actually doing that. Getting to an actual therapist isn’t easy. If he goes to the hospital, and says he wants to talk to someone after the traumatic experiences of last summer, then yeah, he probably could.

But there’s a guidance counsellor at the community center and Steve thinks she might be a good start. It’s awkward, sitting down in the chair and having her give him her full attention. He hems and haws for a long while, until she puts her pen down and asks him what kind of things he likes. It catches him off guard, and it must show because she smiles at him.

“Coming to me to talk doesn’t always involve jumping right into the crutch of your problems,” she tells him. “Do you feel comfortable telling a stranger what’s on your mind?”

Steve shakes his head, and she nods.

“So tell me what you’re into instead,” she says. “What are your interests?”

He spends his first hour with her like that, dredging out a few answers about what he likes doing, and then about what he’s up to with his days. It’s easier than saying what he’s actually there for, and it feels safer, too. He can talk to her about being out of high school and having a job at the library. She asks him about his work experiences, and he mentions working at the mall. The reminder of it makes him pause for only a moment, but she seems to pick up on it nonetheless. She doesn’t ask, though, and he can continue, breathing a little easier.

At the end of it, she asks if he wants to come back, and if they should make an official appointment. He says yes, mostly because he knows he should, and he’s full of nerves the next time he’s in her little office space. She asks him about his week and he’s truthful, even if he doesn’t tell her about not sleeping one night because of nightmares, or zoning out a few hours at work without him noticing.

She still asks if he has trouble sleeping, because she probably notices the faint bruising under his eyes. When Steve eventually nods, she asks if it’s because of the mall. He nods again, hands clenched around his knees.

“Is it only because of the mall?” she asks him next, and he feels like she can see right through him. He doesn’t know how honest he has to be with her, though he knows how honest he can’t be. Eventually he shakes his head.

“My nightmares are… mostly about the mall,” he says. His hands are sweaty, and he keeps wiping them on his pants like it’s going to help any. “But it’s not why I’m… here. Talking to you.”

“That’s okay,” she says, and she looks like she means it at least. “There doesn’t have to be one specific thing that made you find someone to talk to. There can be a lot of things, big and small. And if you want to talk about them today, then you can. If not, we’ll do it when you’re ready.”

Steve nods a little and worries his lip with his teeth.

“My friends think I’m self-destructive.” he finally says, and she straightens a little in her chair.

“And why is that?” she asks him.

He takes a moment to respond. He doesn’t know how to.

“Because I pretend I’m okay when I’m not,” he settles for. “I’ve been… not okay for a while. But it’s easier to pretend than to say what the problem is. It hurts. Shutting it in hurts too, though. I don’t like it. I don’t want to bother anyone with my problems when they have bigger problems on their own.”

“Is that your decision?” she asks him, all too knowing, and it makes his skin crawl just a little bit. “Or has someone told you that?”

And his father has, so many times, but he can’t tell this woman what his parents think of him. They’re well-respected. She’ll think he’s lying.

“Sometimes,” she says after a moment, “we have to face the fact that not everything is our fault. You can’t put it all on yourself, Steve. You can’t blame yourself for things that are out of your control.”

Steve takes a breath, and another, and it keeps catching in his throat. His eyes burn.

 

 

March continues much the same. It gets easier over time to talk to the counselor, and she eventually suggests referring him to someone else who can probably help him more in-depth than she can. She tells him, though, during one of his last appointments, that she’s proud of him. It’s the first time anyone has told him that, at least that he can remember, and it does something funny to him. Leaves him struggling for words again, like it’s the first appointment all over again.

She squeezes his arm and offers him a cup of tea and asks him if anyone has ever praised his accomplishments.

“What accomplishments?” he asks her, and she shrugs for a moment.

“What do you consider an accomplishment?” she asks in return. “Graduating? Getting a job? Or is it just getting out of bed? Seeing a friend even if all you want to do is be alone with your thoughts?”

She gives him homework, and he stares down at the notebook that night, wondering if she’s crazy. But he’s good at doing what adults tell him to, and writing down what he considers are his day-to-day accomplishments shouldn’t be too hard.

Steve eventually asks Robin to hang out, once March is halfway done and the snow finally seems to be melting for good. He tells her, after a while of just catching up, that her telling him to see someone is probably the best thing she’s ever told him to do.

“It was just a suggestion,” she says, but she’s smiling. “You did a good thing, Steve.”

“I feel like I did too,” he confesses, and she grins and kicks at his leg with her foot. It’s gentle.

“Dingus.” she says, and he nudges her back and breathes easy.

 

 

In April, when spring hits in full bloom and lifts Steve’s heavy mind with it, he takes Robin out ostensibly for milkshakes, but his hands shake when he holds the cup and Robin gives him that look she gets when she knows something is up. She takes his hand and holds it for a moment to still the shaking. Months ago, almost a year now, he would probably have been happy, his heart would probably skip a beat, but now he just grips back.

“What is it?” she asks, and she suddenly looks worried. “Is it happening again?”

He thinks she’s talking about the Upside Down, but he can’t be sure. Still, he shakes his head. Taking a deep breath, Steve lets it out again. They’re outside on a bench, and he can’t lean back like he wants to, to try and put some space between them to fit the words he wants to say.

“It’s not that,” he says, fiddling with his straw. “Do you remember months ago? In the bathroom?”

Robin nods slowly, brows knitted together as she tries to figure him out. He doesn’t know how she hasn’t already. Nancy told him once that he wears his heart on his sleeve. But he’s kind of happy about it, because that means he can tell her, she doesn’t have to say it for him. Some things he wants to be the one to say, instead of having the words taken out of his mouth.

“I did a lot of thinking, before that. But after, especially.” Steve says. It’s easier to look at his milkshake rather than at Robin. Makes it feel more like he’s talking to himself, and he’s done that so many times already while trying to figure out if it really was true, what he’s feeling. It’s a lot harder admitting things about yourself to someone while seeing exactly what they’re thinking. “And I like girls. But I liked a boy, too, one time.”

Robin doesn’t say anything, and Steve dares a look up to find her looking at her own milkshake, expression hard to read. His heart is beating fast, and he picks at his nails out of habit as he waits for her to say something.

“Robin?” he finally asks, when the silence gets unbearable. She blinks and looks up at him.

“Sorry,” she says, apologetic. “I was just thinking.”

She purses her lips for a moment, biting the inside of her lip, and then sighs, but there’s a smile there too that makes it a lot less heavy. “It’s okay, Steve. That you did. If you do. You know that, right?”

She looks worried again, like she thinks that maybe he hates himself for feeling that way. It’s sweet, that she wants him to accept himself. To feel accepted, too. She’s always earnest in trying to make him feel like he does the right thing whenever he shares something personal about himself to her.

“I know,” he replies, and nudges his foot against hers. “I didn’t at first, but I do now. It took me some time to realize, but you helped. Thank you.”

Robin smiles but he can see the curiosity burning in her eyes. He knows she wants to know who, but he thinks maybe she can guess, if given enough time. Billy came into Scoops enough times for her to recognize the signs. She nudges her own foot against his in return, though, and Steve feels like he can breathe easy.

“Do you want to talk about it?” she asks eventually.

Steve thinks on it for a moment. Does he? He kind of does, he realizes, because he never has before. He didn’t talk about it when he liked Nancy, because nobody that wasn’t Nancy wanted to listen, and he told Robin about his feelings, but it had been all misplaced. It isn’t the same as this. Laying his heart all out there, talking about a boy he liked but can’t anymore.

“I don’t really know how,” he admits eventually. “I liked him without realizing that for a long time, anyway. It took a lot of things happening before I understood what I was feeling. I wonder what could have been, sometimes.”

Maybe, if things had happened differently then he could have told Billy what he feels, and maybe Billy would accept it or maybe he wouldn’t. Still, Steve would feel better if Billy knew about it, rather than having to hide it. And it’s not worth it, thinking of the what ifs, but sometimes it’s all that eases the ache somewhere in his chest.

“He was mean and loud and liked pushing me way too much. I think he wanted to see what I would do. But he was nice, too. He could be sweet sometimes.” And Steve ignores the raised eyebrow she sends him, continuing instead. “If things turned out differently, I think maybe he could have been sitting here instead. When nobody was around, he would join me for a smoke and smile around it when he called me things and… maybe it’s stupid. But I liked it. And now… it makes my chest hurt. Does that make sense?”

“Of course it does,” Robin replies, and she’s smiling, something small. “Feelings don’t always, but when there are things that could have been, and you only realize afterwards… That hurts. But it can be a good hurt, too.”

That doesn’t make sense,” Steve tells her. She just grins and knocks her milkshake against his and doesn’t elaborate any more. Still, Steve feels happier having it out there, less weighed down by doubts and worries, and his thoughts are less on what has been and more on what will be for the first time in a long time.

 

 

In May Robin tells him about her plans after graduating and Steve thinks it sounds nice. She’s going to apply for school in Chicago, because she doesn’t want to go too far from Hawkins despite all the shit that’s gone down. Had it been him, he would probably have done the same. Going away is fine but going too far is harder. Like going too far away would be like asking for trouble to come back.

She asks him to come with, and he blinks at her stupidly.

“I would need a roommate,” she explains patiently. “It’s expensive in Chicago. And I don’t know… getting out of here would do all of us good. The Byers were smart.”

Steve knows Nancy is leaving too, to be closer to Jonathan who’s starting university in New York. After that, if Steve goes, it’ll just be the kids left. Dustin, and Lucas and Mike and Max. He doesn’t know if he could leave, just like that.

When he explains this to Robin, she gives him a patented look. “Be selfish for once, dingus,” she says. “It wouldn’t be like going to the end of the world. You can visit them every weekend, if you want.”

Steve spends a long time thinking about it. Uses his time at the library to look up what he can even do in a city like Chicago. If he brushes up on his grades, it’s possible to get into a few courses that seem interesting. There are some jobs that don’t require higher education too. The longer he spends thinking about it, the more appealing it seems, but Hawkins has its claws deep in him, too.

He asks Dustin about it in the end. Dustin looks at him like he’s grown a Mind Flayer of his own.

“Why are you even asking, Steve?” he says. “Go forth. The curiosity voyage awaits.”

Steve doesn’t know what he expected. Dustin grins at him. “I’ll miss you if you go,” he says. “But I think it’s good to experience something other than Hawkins, too.”

“Would you leave?” Steve asks.

“Nah.” Dustin replies easily.

 

 

June is spent moving. Steve’s parents aren’t happy with what he’s decided to do with his life, but he’s coming to realize that he doesn’t need their happiness to be the basis of his own.

It’s weird to pack up his life. His parents tell him he can leave some things, that he’s always welcome back. He doesn’t actually know if he will come back, at least not to live with them, so he takes everything that isn’t too big to fit in a couple of cars. It’s probably better that way.

It isn’t like everything is perfect right away. He still gets nightmares, and sometimes he shuts all his feelings away and pretends nothing bothers him. It’s just easier to get out of it, with Robin right there knowing what he’s been through, and he’s trying his best to keep up with the homework the guidance counsellor gave him, despite not seeing her anymore. She gave him a referral to a therapist in the city, so he’s just trying to find the time and courage to make the call.

Settling doesn’t feel quite like breathing, but it eases something that’s been lodged in his chest for the longest time. Nobody in this city knows him. There’s no pressure to be someone he’s not. He can just be himself and find friends who like him for that. Nobody knows him as the douchebag Steve Harrington here. It’s freeing.

 

 

July comes and goes, and Steve is happier than he imagined he would be, just a year ago.