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Hopper sometimes forgets that all these children have parents.

It should be obvious. He has exactly one kid, Joyce has exactly two, and the rest are off having their own parents whose obliviousness to the existence of monsters makes them feel pretty insignificant. That isn’t their fault, though. How is Karen Wheeler supposed to know that when her two children leave the house at separate times of day in separate vehicles, they’re actually converging at the same exact place? How is Claudia Henderson supposed to know that the library books being rented out on her card are all about alternate dimensions and government conspiracies? If Hopper hadn’t been pulled into this situation by the determined hands of Joyce Byers, he’d remain blissfully unaware as well.

But here he is. He’s standing in the forest with a shotgun in his hands, beams of light criss-crossing in his vision because these kids can’t keep their flashlights focused on anything for a single second before darting in another direction, regretting not buying nine leashes for his own peace of mind. He’s aware that after tonight each of these kids will go home and lie to their respective parents about where they’ve been and why they have leaves stuck in their hair. But right now, in this moment, while they all stand frozen and try to determine which direction the sudden growling in the darkness is coming from, the other parents don’t exist. These are Hopper’s kids. Joyce’s kids. By default, because Hopper is the adult with the shotgun and he doesn’t see Ted Wheeler out here with a fucking shotgun.

They might all be his temporary kids, but El is his permanent kid. So of course the demon dog hybrid thing shoots out of the trees and heads straight for El, because the Universe hates Hopper and pushes him another few inches towards cardiac arrest every chance it gets.

Hopper shoots a few times and flashlight beams blur and there’s so much screaming and cursing and all he can think is not El, please God or Satan or whoever the fuck wants to help right now please not El before finally his years of being a cop and hunting pay off and the creature shrieks in pain as one of his bullets finds its target. All of the flashlight beams converge on El and Hopper’s heart is still hammering in his chest but it sends out a wave of relief through his entire body because she’s alright. She’s fine. She’s okay. She’s been picked up by Steve Harrington and held out of reach of the creature, which is quickly being turned into a pile of mush by Jonathan and the axe in his hands. El’s eyes have been squeezed close but they slowly open now, cautiously hopeful at the sudden stillness, and her gaze immediately meets Hopper’s from ten feet away.

She’s okay. She proves it by extending a hand and halting Jonathan’s work with one satisfying crack.

He closes the ten feet in seconds and presses a hand to her face. He needs to hold her at this very second to get his heart to finish calming down, but Steve still has her a few inches off the ground with an arm around her middle as he stares blankly down at the blood and guts at their feet.

“Kid, I got her.” Hopper says, bringing a hand down on Steve’s shoulders in a temporary thank you which will be made official later, maybe with a coupon for no lecture the next time Hopper finds him and Robin Buckley in the park after curfew with liquor bottles. At the sound of Hopper’s voice, Steve manages to tear his eyes from the ground and snap out of his trance somewhat. He nods and eases El back down, clumsily sweeping a heavy hand against her hair while he’s at it.

The embrace is too short, but Hopper is satisfied in knowing he’ll get more later. He feels El press her face against his shoulder and tries not to think about how close they were to not having this. If the bullet had missed, if Jonathan hadn’t had his axe at the ready, if Steve hadn’t yanked her out of the way fast enough--but all those things happened and she’s okay.

Even on nights like this, when Hopper has eight extra kids, El is his child. He gives himself another few seconds of stroking her hair and rubbing her back before he forces himself to check on everyone else.

Most of the other kids are patiently (or impatiently, in the case of Max and Mike) waiting to hug El and ensure for themselves that she’s unharmed. Nancy is still alert with her own shotgun cradled against her chest, apparently not trusting the woods to not contain more monsters. It’s pretty smart, the way she never stays calm, but it’s also upsetting because she’s seventeen. Jonathan is holding Will to his chest and murmuring over and over that he’s alright, probably because he was too close to the thing for the kid’s comfort. And Steve--

Steve has two claw marks running from mid-thigh down to his knee, visible through the torn away denim of his jeans and gushing dark red. Hopper doesn’t know why it’s only just now occurring to him that if Steve snatched El up off the ground and held her out of reach of the creature, then it probably ended up sinking its claws into whatever it could reach. Which, apparently, was Steve’s leg. Steve glances down at it and seems to agree with Hopper’s sentiment that the wound is horrific, because his knees immediately buckle and he hits the ground only inches away from the remains of the creature.

Now there’s yelling again, panic again, Hopper’s heart pounding again. When he reaches Steve, the kid looks up at him from the ground and immediately grips his sleeve with a bloody hand.

“Is it bad?” Steve asks, his voice shaking slightly and his face conveying that he already knows the answer to this question. Hopper decides to give him an honest answer anyways. He looks back at Steve’s leg, which is illuminated under at least six flashlight beams, and takes note of the gushing blood, shredded skin, and deep cuts.

“It’s bad.” Hopper confirms as he detaches Steve’s hand from his sleeve. He needs the jacket to press against the wound. “But you’re gonna be okay, alright? Keep breathing and just hang on.”

He starts to remove the jacket but Steve catches at his sleeve again, this time accompanying the grip with an urgent tug. Hopper pauses and looks down at him, really looks instead of one frenzied glance. The kid is eighteen. He’s not old enough to drink (that doesn’t stop him) and he lives with his parents and he works at a video store but right now his eyes are wide and full of a sort of calm resignation. It’s not that he isn’t panicking--he is. His body is shuddering like it’s colder than forty degrees and there are tears already slipping down the sides of his face and his chest is rising and falling so fast Hopper can’t believe he hasn’t blacked out yet. It’s just his face that’s decidedly calmer than an eighteen year old should be at a time like this.

“Is it dying bad?” Steve asks, and all the kids immediately rush to insist that he isn’t going to die, sounding angry with him for even using the words, but Steve’s eyes don’t waver from Hopper and his grip remains solid.

Hopper doesn’t want to lie to the kid. He also doesn’t want to even consider the possibility. So he says, firmly, “No. Let go of me and focus on breathing.”

There are a lot of factors complicating things right now. For instance, they can’t take Steve to the hospital because the staff there is already suspicious after Starcourt when all of these children, many of whom had been spotted roaming the hospital and claiming to be relatives of now deceased strangers, were checked in that night and later told by Sam Owens in the nicest possible way that if they ever brought up so many unanswerable questions for the government again, there would be consequences. Sam Owens and the government clearly didn’t think about the possibility of there being a kid with two deep gashes in his leg that can’t be explained away with any bullshit excuses needing immediate hospitalization, so now Hopper is pressing his jacket down and muttering apologies while Steve screams from the sudden pressure on his torn-up leg. Other complications include the terrified children who won’t give Steve space to breathe, the lack of brightness from Nancy’s flashlight beam as Hopper tries to discern if the bleeding is slowing at all because if it isn’t there’s a good chance that the femoral artery has been severed, and also they’re a five minute walk from the car.

“Jonathan.” Hopper expects a swift response and when he doesn’t get it, he looks up and repeats, “Jonathan.”

Jonathan seems to be tied up at the moment. Steve’s head is resting on his leg, and Steve is looking directly up at him and talking rapidly. Hopper has to concentrate to hear what he’s saying, hoping it’ll be some indication of the current amount of pain he’s feeling or if things are starting to fade in and out of his vision.

“--if I don’t then I need you to know, alright?” Steve is saying instead, ignoring the way Jonathan shakes his head adamantly. “Listen, I just--I need to tell you and I shouldn’t have waited so long but if this is--”

Hopper feels a sudden dampness under his palm as the blood makes its way through the jacket completely. Whatever Steve is trying to do or say or apologize for can wait.

“Jonathan, I need you right fucking now.” Hopper uses a tone he’ll have to apologize for later, but it works. Jonathan whispers something to Steve, which makes the kid immediately look miserable, and carefully transfers his head to the closest available kid’s lap. He kneels across from Hopper and bravely avoiding looking at the wound, which won’t last long. “I’m carrying him to the car, you need to keep this jacket held down tight okay?”

“Okay.”

“It’s gonna bleed a lot more once I move him so hold down, both hands, do not let up.”

“Okay.”

“Alright.” Hopper repeats his prayer from earlier and hopes that God or Satan or whoever’s listening doesn’t mind the lack of variation. “Steve, I’m lifting you in five seconds. It’s going to hurt. You can scream if you want.”

“Jonathan,” Steve says urgently, sounding a bit hysterical which might mean he’s about to pass out or do something worse than pass out. Jonathan squeezes his eyes shut like he doesn’t want to hear whatever this is, pushing a few tears down his face in the process. “I’m serious, I’m so serious--”

Jonathan presses down on his leg with both hands. Steve screams into the fabric of Dustin’s jacket. Hopper lifts him up and takes a five minute trail that he won’t remember later back to the car. He puts the siren on and goes seventy.

When someone experiences a traumatic event, the brain has a tendency to not remember every single detail. It’s like a defense mechanism, according to Joyce, who was only repeating what the doctors told her when she asked why Will had wide gaps in his memory that blotted out entire days spent in the Upside Down. Apparently brains can make an executive decision to just toss out certain info for the sake of making things a little less terrifying, which is pretty great. It means Hopper can’t remember the kind of hospital food he ate for months straight. He can’t remember how long he had to pull Joyce towards the door before she finally stopped trying to get to Bob.

And, he tells himself as he listens to Jonathan and Dustin murmuring over Steve’s stifled sobs in the backseat, he won’t remember this. He tells himself that over and over and over until he pulls into the Byers’ driveway and he tells himself one more time for good measure when he has to carry Steve again and the kid muffles another scream in the same shoulder El was leaning into twenty minutes ago.

Hopper’s brain gets the memo. It starts deleting details seconds after they’re happening and then eventually as they’re happening to the point where everything becomes a giant blur. There are kids pouring in from the other car only a minute after Hopper’s inside but he has no idea what they’re saying. Somehow Steve ends up on Jonathan’s mattress, which someone has stripped bare and left the blankets and sheets in a big bundle on the floor. Steve passes out at some point and Hopper has to feel for a pulse in his wrist and his neck just to be sure.

It’s when Steve is laying on Jonathan’s bed, passed out, that Hopper’s brain dials back in and decides to be the adult again. The second adult, because Joyce has been pulling a lot of the weight in the last ten-twenty-sixty something minutes since they arrived. Right now she’s sitting on the edge of her son’s bed, gently cleaning the gashes on Steve’s leg with steady hands. She had also been the one to send the kids out, check Steve’s pulse again, figure out what happened, and get the first aid kit. Hopper always feels sort of useless standing next to Joyce Byers.

His leg looks better now. Looking at it still makes Hopper feel nauseous that the kid isn’t in a hospital to be kept stable by an I.V. and machines, but the cuts have stopped bleeding. Steve’s jeans have been cut away so that there’s no shredded denim covering them, just the hem of the oversized tee shirt Jonathan wrestled over his head while he muttered about Steve thanking him later. They still look deep and too close to the artery for comfort, but they’re clean and Joyce is pulling the bandages tight.

“We should call his parents.” Joyce says while she snips the bandaging with scissors and starts pinning it carefully. She looks up through strands of hair that have fallen in her face from the loose ponytail that wasn’t loose when he’d charged in with Steve bleeding all over the floor. “I mean, shouldn’t we?”

“What do we tell them? Hey, here’s your kid, don’t ask why he has claw marks in his leg and also don’t take him to a hospital?”

“I guess you’re right.” Joyce’s hands hover over Steve now that the bandaging is done. She settles for just resting one on his knee and using the other to brush sweaty strands of hair back from his face. There’s a red flush starting to spread over his cheeks, replacing the stark white of before, and Hopper feels like that’s progress. “And I wouldn’t even know how to contact them. I’ve never met them.”

“You’re lucky.”

He looks around and decides on grabbing Jonathan’s desk chair. Joining Joyce on the side of the bed feels too invasive of Steve’s space, somehow. Now that he’s starting to cautiously believe no one else is going to nearly die tonight, and he has the reminder of this conversation, Hopper settles back into his role of being only El’s parent. Joyce isn’t quite back in the role of being just Will and Jonathan’s, but then again it’s Joyce’s nature to do this. There probably isn’t a child in the world who wouldn’t benefit from Joyce gently brushing their hair back in slow, continuous rhythm after narrowly avoiding being killed by a monster.

When he’s settled into the uncomfortable desk chair with mesh backing, which he bangs into the desk and bed en route to his destination, Joyce gives him a look. It’s a look that means she’s scolding him, but not wholeheartedly because she’s very obviously suppressing a grin. Still, she tilts her head toward Steve pointedly.

“The kid’s out.” Hopper insists. “And even if he heard that, you know, he’d probably agree with me.”

“So you’ve met them?”

“Definitely met James Harrington, honestly couldn’t tell you about Gloria. I’ve met women standing next to him at the big community fundraisers I attend for ten minutes but that doesn’t mean it was Steve’s mother.”

Joyce frowns and starts stroking at the other side of Steve’s face, like this will fix his father’s infidelity. Hopper’s not even sure the kid cares, honestly. He’s never mentioned his parents in Hopper’s presence unless it’s to announce that the kids can sleep over because they’re out of town, which is always. Then again, every kid cares about their parents. Or at least cares about if their parents care about them, which for the Harringtons he’s unsure.

He was called out there once. He hated being called to Loch Nora because the gates in front of houses always had some stupid code that was meant to protect the residents but really just delayed the police helping. Maybe they figured the police in Hawkins weren’t helpful anyways, and they’d technically be right about that. But he hated rich people, no matter how right they were about things.

It was a noise complaint, which he expected meant a party being thrown by the fourteen-year-old Steve Harrington was at the time. But he’d pulled into a street lined with BMWs and Mercedes, none of which had any dings or scratches indicating high school drivers. Hopper felt underdressed when the double front doors had opened, because inside the Harrington household there was some sort of black tie event taking place. Or rather it had taken place and was now winding down incredibly quickly because James and Gloria Harrington were yelling at each other in the kitchen, which wasn’t as soundproof as they must have assumed because guests were quickly scattering or staying to eavesdrop.

Steve was on the couch. He’d been younger, smaller, less sure of himself back then. And yet somehow his eyes had faced Hopper with a cold glint and not a trace of distress. He’d been emotionless. And he’d been the one to give Hopper the statement he needed to ensure no violence was taking place and in return, Hopper had given him the warning about noise levels. He’d left Steve Harrington’s parents to keep yelling in the kitchen and left shuddering at the Twilight Zone of it all. A fourteen-year-old listening to his parents scream in a house full of party guests, completely stone-faced.

And now Steve Harrington is nineteen and at least a head taller, broad around the shoulders from his growing and his sports, but now all the resigned composure is gone. Now he’s taught El to catch grapes in her mouth and he cheers with her when they beat a new record. Now he’s shared all his clothes and money and possessions with the entire gang of fourteen-year-olds. Now he grabs his kids out of the way when a monster is coming instead of sitting on the couch and waiting for the cops to come. Now he seems to be a person instead of an empty teenage boy wandering around a town that would try to kill him in a few years.

On the bed, Steve shifts a little. A shiver tears through him and his face tilts to press further into the pillow. There are goosebumps on his bare arms. Hopper grabs the balled up sheet from the floor and gets it spread over him with Joyce’s help, careful not to overheat with any extra blankets because the kid is running a low-grade fever now and that’s definitely the last thing they need.

“I don’t know how people can do that.” Joyce says after a few minutes, looking down at Steve Harrington and shaking her head solemnly. “Not care about their kids. Not want to know where they are every second. The sane ones, even.”

“You’re sane.”

“No I’m not,” Joyce shrugs, “but I have an excuse for caring too much. What’s their excuse for not caring at all?”

Hopper can’t answer because he’s wondered the same thing himself. After Sara, and now with El, and sometimes even when he’s watching the other kids laughing among themselves despite seeing the apocalypse three times over, Hopper can’t imagine doing what the Harringtons and plenty of other sorry excuses for parents do in this town.

Hopper is suddenly glad that they have a boatload of valid excuses to not call Steve’s parents. He doesn’t want them here. It’s petty and definitely not his call to make, but he and Joyce are handling things. If anyone has earned a peaceful night of rest, it’s Steve Harrington. His parents coming would only stir things up, stress him out.

And maybe Hopper feels a sense of superiority over them for shallow, inconsequential bullshit. But he can’t help it. Maybe they’re richer than God and living in Loch Nora with their gate code, but he kept their kid alive. And their kid actually likes him.

“I should check on the others.” Joyce decides. “We’re thinking no visitors for awhile?”

“At least until he’s up.” Hopper agrees, but a thought occurs to him. It was buried within the haze of the last hour and only now does he revisit the memory and realize that he didn’t give it enough attention when things were about life and death. “Maybe Jonathan could come in. He and Steve are friends, right?”

Steve’s voice had been so panicked back in the woods. A constant stream of Jonathan, please, I have to tell you right now please just let me tell you Jonathan, fuck which Hopper had tuned out but wonders about now in the calmness.

“You know what, they’re getting to be pretty close.” Joyce looks proud about this. “Jonathan talks about him more and more. I think now that there’s no romance between any of them it’s much easier.”

Right, romance. Nancy Wheeler and Jonathan Byers and Steve Harrington is one big love triangle that he missed out on and doesn’t care to catch up with. He only wishes El would get to the no romance stage.

It’s not any of his business what Steve wanted to tell Jonathan, and it doesn’t matter. He’ll wake up soon and be able to relay the message without urgency and adrenaline making him trip over his words and El will still be safe in the living room and everything will be good. For now, Joyce leaves to deal with the clamoring children piled in the hallway and Hopper idly glances around. He doesn’t have high expectations for the entertainment available in a seventeen-year-old boy’s bedroom. There’s a little television stationed across from the bed atop a stack of records, the kind of television so small it looks like it was the next innovation directly after the crank-operated kind. Hopper considers it for a moment but realizes he’d feel like an asshole if the kid woke up from the noise, so he moves on.

There’s no shortage of books. Hopper gets up to inspect the two short bookshelves pushed up against one wall with paperbacks crammed in and piled on top and shoved in every available gap. On the wall above the shelves are a few tacked-up pictures of Will and Joyce, some of Jonathan and Nancy, and several glossy images of skyscrapers and the Statue of Liberty with jagged edges like they were torn directly from a magazine. There’s another scrap with torn edges, though this one isn’t a picture. It’s a thin strip with two lines of text that Hopper squints to read because Jonathan clearly removed it from a book with small print.

The words are covered in yellow highlighter and emphasized with an uneven line of pen running below: “You're not like the others. I've seen a few; I know. When I talk, you look at me. When I said something about the moon, you looked at the moon.” Directly beside the quote, Jonathan has scrawled a messy word in pen that’s been torn through when he removed the quote from its page. All Hopper makes out is S. before the jagged edge interrupts.

The bed creaks behind Hopper and he glances over his shoulder. Steve’s body seems restless yet aware that it needs to rest, which is resulting in frequent attempts to roll over or turn onto his side before his energy reserves remind his brain that it isn’t worth it. He presses his face further into his pillow and stills again. Hopper turns back to the bookshelf and grabs a paperback at random.

He should read more. El recently asked what his favorite book was and he’d realized with some shame that he hasn’t actually read a book front to back in months, possibly years, and he definitely doesn’t have a favorite. Reading required feelings, and for a good while Hopper either didn’t have those or didn’t want to acknowledge them. He decides that this copy of Fahrenheit 451 will be his starting point.

He might have to buy his own copy. Both because Jonathan might not want to lend his out and because it’s covered in underlining and annotation so thoroughly that Hopper feels like he isn’t gathering as much from the book as Jonathan apparently did. He’s trying to remember what an idiom is while Steve shifts on the bed again. But this time, alarmingly, the movement is accompanied by a quiet groan that’s mostly muffled in the pillow.

Hopper reaches over and rests a hand on Steve’s shoulder, feeling slightly out of his depth. He’s been in this exact position a depressing number of times. Sitting beside a kid who’s always too young to be in the amount of pain they’re always in is just second nature now. And at the same time, Hopper never really feels like he’s improved at all. He always feels like there’s some instruction manual for how to soothe them that he accidentally threw away with the packaging.

He must be doing alright without the instructions right now, though, because Steve is suddenly quiet and still. Maybe too still? He’s gone rigid under Hopper’s touch and when he manages to pry his eyes open they’re glazed and afraid. What Hopper mistook for calm is actually caution, and he has no idea why because this is the safest Steve has been in the past few hours.

“Dad?” Steve rasps with his eyes back to being closed, this time squeezed shut. “I’m sorry, I’m really--”

“Woah, hey, no.” Hopper shakes his shoulder, trying to be gentle but also to jostle him around enough that hopefully he’ll snap out of it. “Kid it’s just me. It’s Hopper.”

Eyes open again, Steve lifts his head a few centimeters off the pillow. “Hopper?”

“Yeah. Your dad uh, isn’t here. We didn’t know how to reach your parents really and it’s only been about an hour so we thought we’d just let you sleep. You remember what happened?”

“My...leg?”

“Yeah, your leg. It’s not in the best shape but--”

Hopper has been waiting for the tension to leave Steve’s body, but for some reason it just tripled. Steve makes himself sit upright and grabs Hopper’s wrist in the process with a surprisingly strong grip considering how much blood he’s lost and the way his fever seems to be knocking any coherency out of him.

“El? Is she--I remember trying to get her out of the way but I can’t--”

“El’s fine.” Finally Steve relaxes, seemingly so overcome by the wave that he’s knocked over. “You did a good job, kiddo. You saved her.”

Steve doesn’t even seem to register the praise. He flops back against the mattress rather unceremoniously and runs a hand over his face. When he meets Hopper’s eyes again, his own are clear and alert. And thank God, honestly, because if the kid was going to be delirious he’d really need the instructions.

“Sorry.” Steve huffs, apparently embarrassed. “I was just...disoriented for a second.”

“Yeah, well, understandable. Long night. And you’ve got a fever right now, so if your brain feels weird that’s probably why.”

Steve shrugs. “My brain always feels weird.”

Concerning, but Hopper can live with it for now. He squeezes the kid’s shoulder before sitting back in his chair. There are a lot of things that should probably be done right now, like checking the kid’s leg or informing everyone that he isn’t dead or actually making an attempt at contacting his parents, but for a few minutes Hopper just wants to stand guard. Make sure the kid really is alright and doesn’t start suddenly seizing up or hallucinating or something. There had been something so troubling in his voice a minute ago, an undertone in the way he’d said “Dad?” as if seeing his father beside him was both genuinely surprising and also a bit frightening.

Any fear he might have felt in that instant seems to be gone, replaced by a much more manageable expression of annoyed discontent. Hopper watches the kid peel back the sheet and inspect his bandaged leg, which you’d think was just a splinter the way Steve regards it with slight irritation before moving on and looking around to inspect the room.

“Where’s Jonathan?”

Hopper sort of expected him to ask about Dustin first. Maybe Robin, even though she isn’t here. He’s willing to bet she’ll end up here in the next few hours no matter how late it gets. “You know there was no way to let Jonathan in without bringing six children with him, right? And we thought we’d let you sleep before you deal with that.”

“Five children. Mike doesn’t care.”

Hopper scoffs. “Wheeler only wants you to think that. He’s right out there in the hallway with everyone else.”

“He’s a brat.” Steve says, but it doesn’t have much bite to it. He’s looking at the closed door.

“He is.” Hopper agrees. “But he’s fourteen. You were a brat then too and you’ve made a miraculous recovery.”

Steve snaps to attention, apparently startled to be called out so directly. He looks at Hopper for a few moments without saying anything and then finally drops his gaze with a humorless laugh. “I can’t believe I mistook you for my dad.”

“You want me to call him?”

God, no. That would be so complicated. Having to come up with some excuse for my leg being fucked up and like, he’d just tell me that he knows I’m lying and I must have done it while I’m out on a massive coke-bender with those no good shitheads like Tommy H. and Carol which, yeah, he was right about them but not because of any like, accurate judge of moral character it was just a coincidence that he’d hate whoever I was friends with and I just so happened to have terrible taste in people.”

There’s a lot to focus on. Hopper chooses to focus on the most pressing. “Coke?”

“Yeah, uh, cocaine?”

“I know what coke is. I’m saying I’ve watched you read the ingredients on El’s cereal because you thought it might have too much sugar so I don’t really see you messing with cocaine.”

“I don’t!” Steve insists, sitting upright again and wincing when the action jostles his leg. He settles to just rest his back against the headboard and fix Hopper with an adamant glare. “I have never in my life except for maybe during one night that I don’t remember. My dad just thinks that I’m like this giant burn-out loser.”

Hopper doesn’t really know what to say. He was honestly expecting Steve to stay awake just long enough to make sure that everyone else is alive and in one piece and then promptly knock back out. He definitely wasn’t expecting this level of energy.

“You shouldn’t really be sitting up--”

“And even if he did know about all this, he wouldn’t care.” Steve adds, a strange combination of disgusted yet matter-of-fact. “Even when things aren’t my fault he holds them against me. Like when I was fifteen and Tommy shot me with a BB gun--”

“Christ, what?”

“--you know who got the fucking blame for that? I did, Hopper. I didn’t even touch the BB gun because I knew some shit was going to happen. If my father saw my leg and knew for a fact that a monster that crawled out of hell did that, he’d still be like, well why’d you let it do that? It’s such bullshit. He’s such--” Steve stops to breathe, shakes his head like he’s clearing it. His face is redder now and Hopper would bet money it’s not the fever getting worse. “Yeah. Don’t call him.”

“I won’t.”

Steve nods and settles back against the headboard. He should really be laying down, but Hopper is pretty sure nagging him right now isn’t the best move. It’s like all the stress of the night has compressed inside Steve and is now overflowing from the brim, but he’s making an effort to keep it from spilling over. Hopper doesn’t understand why it’s directed at his father, but maybe the kid just needs a punching bag for the time being.

He seems ashamed of the outburst, though. His arms are crossed over his chest and he’s avoiding eye contact, glaring down at the bare mattress sullenly. Hopper sighs. An hour ago he was watching blood gush out of Steve Harrington’s leg in rivers, so this isn’t even the worst case scenario of the night.

“Look, kid, your dad is an asshole.” When he says it, Steve looks up with wide eyes. “Maybe that’s not diplomatic of me to say, but it’s true. There’s nothing you can do about it. My advice is to ignore him, which will get a lot easier the closer you get to moving out. And until then, y’know, you’ve got people watching your back. We didn’t let you die tonight, did we?”

Steve appears too stunned to respond. It’s highly likely that no one has ever outright agreed with him about his situation, partly because James Harrington is influential in the community and badmouthing him could bite you in the ass later, but also partly because no one ever believes kids when they hate their parents. They always assume there’s a fair amount of exaggeration and teenage rebellion which skews the truth.

But Hopper remembers the kid on the couch. And if someone wakes up from a near death experience and copes by berating their father, there’s probably something to that.

Hopper waits for Steve to speak, but it’s still not happening. He’s just staring and looking vaguely like he might throw up. Hopper is about to reach for the wastebasket under Jonathan’s desk just in case that happens when Steve blurts out, all at once and with his words running into each other, “I like boys.”

“Oh, uh--”

“Not just boys, I also like girls.” Steve hastens to add, still looking like he might need the wastebasket. “I don’t know if that’s like, normal, you know? I know about gay people and I know about lesbians, trust me, but I’ve never really heard about people liking both? But I do and now having been with both it’s like I think there isn’t much of a difference. Oh my God.”

He tilts forward and puts his face in his hands. Hopper’s alarm is heightened by how caught off guard he is by all of this (now having been with both?) so he urgently lays a hand on Steve’s shoulder. “Hey, you okay?”

“I don’t know why I told you that.” Steve says into his palm. “I’ve never been parented before. I panicked.”

“It’s alright, kid. I don’t care.” And that sounds too harsh so Hopper quickly rephrases, “I mean I--yeah I care, I’m saying it doesn’t make a difference. Alright? I mean cocaine would be one thing, but this isn’t--”

Steve laughs. “That’s too bad because I would love to be high right now.”

“I’m a cop, Harrington.”

“You’re not going to arrest me. My leg is torn up and I just told you that I’m half gay.”

And that’s true. After all this, Hopper might never have the heart to throw Steve in a jail cell for anything less than murder. Even then, there are leniencies. For the hundredth time tonight, Hopper has no idea what to say. Once again they’re sitting in awkward silence while Steve shouldn’t be sitting at all. Hopper is acutely aware that anyone else in the house right now, except for maybe Mike Wheeler, would be more qualified to proceed with this conversation.

“It isn’t a big deal.” He settles on saying. “My kid can move things with her mind. She throws things when she gets upset with me. With her mind.”

Steve chuckles and finally braves looking up. His eyes are glazed over with tears that Hopper chooses not to comment on. “That’s cool, though.”

“It’s cool until there’s a TV remote flying at your head.” It makes Steve laugh again. “Look, kid, things are fucked up. My daughter has to fight monsters every year. And my other daughter...hasn’t been here for a few years.”

It still hurts to talk about her. It’s like a bruise that won’t ever fade. It just stays dark purple and aches when he prods at it. But if it faded, it would mean forgetting Sara. Forgetting the recipe to the pancakes she loved, forgetting the exact shade of her eyes, forgetting the little silver buckles on her church shoes. He’d sooner die than forget those things, so whenever he prods the bruise he ends up feeling exactly like Steve probably feels right now, with his bandaged leg that he got from lifting El out of the way. It hurts like hell but it’s immensely better than if it never happened.

Steve wipes at his left cheek with the back of his hand and nods.

“And tonight I really thought you might be a goner, kid. I was scared out of my mind. Hear me and trust me when I tell you that whoever you want to date doesn’t at all change how glad I am that you’re still here.”

Another few tears make their way down Steve’s face, enough that he deploys both hands to deal with them. He gives a breathless laugh. “Maybe it’s good that I have a shitty dad if this is how I’m gonna react.”

Hopper claps him on the shoulder. “You have a pretty good excuse.”

The bedroom door opens before Steve can respond. Jonathan is frozen in the doorway, his eyes going from Hopper’s hand on Steve’s shoulder to the tears he’s now frantically scrubbing away, and hastily points a thumb back over his shoulder.

“I can come back.” He offers.

“Nah, c’mere.” Hopper gets up from the desk chair and only realizes once he’s standing how much damage the flimsy plastic has probably done to his back. Jonathan must be avoiding that very risk, because he chooses to sit on the side of the bed. He’s giving Steve multiple shades of a concerned expression, which Steve remedies by giving him a pretty convincing grin.

“I’m good.” Steve says quietly in response to Jonathan’s wordless question. Jonathan tilts his head and Steve translates whatever that means quickly, insisting again, “Really, I’m good. Hopper says the horrible disfigurement is gonna be pretty mild, so.”

“That’s not funny.” Jonathan scolds, but he’s smiling.

“Uh, it’s my leg so if I say it’s funny, it is.”

Hopper has overstayed his welcome. He’s sure Steve and Jonathan want privacy, maybe so Steve can tell Jonathan whatever he wanted to--

Steve, apparently worn out from all the sitting up, is leaning his forehead on Jonathan’s shoulder now. Jonathan has his eyes closed in what Hopper assumes is relief to see Steve coherent and mostly healthy. Under the sheet, there’s a bump where their hands are suspiciously close.

Now having been with both. Hopper could be wrong, but the statement is less bewildering now. Actually, it kind of makes perfect sense.

He grabs the copy of Fahrenheit 451 and messes up Steve’s hair on his way out the room. He gives the children, now scattered in the living room rather than the hallway, an update that both relaxes them and riles them up because Steve being up and talking means he could be talking to them, which Hopper quells by insisting that they give him another hour or so and offering to pay for a pizza delivery to make the time move faster.

They call Pizza Hut and Hopper waits on the couch beside Joyce, who has both arms looped around Will. He cracks the book back open and tries to remember what was happening when he left off, because no way was it more dramatic than real life has been tonight, and immediately he comes across a page that’s been rendered useless.

It has a rectangular gap where a certain passage has been torn out. And on the margin, in scrawled handwriting that’s been interrupted by Jonathan tearing it apart, is one remaining letter: H.