Steve’s vocabulary was the worst out of the three when he came to live with Hopper.
He knew he was called Three, and he could point out Eleven, and once Billy was in the picture, he could excitedly ask for Seven. He knew Papa and gone, and hurt. He knew bad and pretty. He responded when El called him brother. His eyes got all wide when he saw a toddler in a midday television commercial, and he spent the rest of the evening pointing at the blank screen and asking baby?
It took Hopper and Joyce breaking back into the derelict lab to find files on Hop’s two new charges to figure out why Steve only had a handful of words when Billy and El could stumble through basic sentences right out of captivity.
And Joyce brought a shaking hand to cover her mouth when they read through the file marked Number 003 and found that he had been brought to the program fresh from the delivery room.
Both parents labeled deceased.
Billy, like Kali, had been taken a little bit later. In his file, there was a newspaper clipping from the Indianapolis Star, a picture of a young boy with chubby cheeks and round eyes on the front page. Three-year-old William Hargrove Still Missing.
Underneath the image were words from his mother, a woman named Beth who was offering money for any information on the whereabouts of her baby boy.
Beth Hargrove was labeled deceased in the file marked Number 007.
So there it was. Billy had been given three years of a normal childhood. Where baby babble was encouraged and he was rewarded for every clunky sentence he could make. El had spent the most one-on-one time with Brenner in the lab, his own perfect pride and joy, and she understood more words than she had ever tried to say.
Steve’s powers were volatile. He could short out any electrical charge, including the ones in a human brain, and if his large file was anything to go by, he spent a significant amount of time locked by himself.
He didn’t realize that numbers are for counting, and got confused easily while learning them. He didn’t know the names of common objects and got so frustrated when he couldn’t describe his complex emotions, he settled for blowing out all the lightbulbs in the cabin.
El and Billy gave him his name, deciding he looked almost like Tom Cruise’s character in The Outsiders, and my name is Steve was the first grammatically perfect sentence Steve had ever said.
Hopper had made them all triple-decker Eggo extravaganzas for that one.
But for how far behind the other two he was, he was clearly the oldest.
Only a year was written in his file next to date of birth. 1966. Which put him close to two older than Billy, and five older than El.
Hopper had a nightmare when he tried to explain his age to him.
I meant, nineteen years old. You’re nineteen.
But, I am Three.
Numbers aren’t names, remember. And you were Three. Now, you’re Steve.
That’s right, you’re Steve and you’re nineteen.
Well, not anymore.
Name is nineteen.
He then had to use his and Steve’s fingers to count up to nineteen, only for Steve to leave the conversation more confused than he had been before, and tell the others that he was now called nineteen.
But through all that, it was Billy who became obsessed with age, and everything to do with it.
He would ask everyone he met how many are you? And Hopper thinks maybe it’s his own way of reconciling the number thing. Because everyone has a number. They all have an age. But their number is different from their name and you can have both and it all makes up who you are.
Billy was constantly fascinated by identity.
He liked any kind of counterculture he saw. People that were different from everyone else. He followed Jonathan like a lost duckling, and the first time he saw a real-life metalhead, complete with ass-length hair, denim vest covered in patches, and big leather boots, Billy acted like he had found fuckin’ Jesus Christ himself.
He started growing out his hair, and listening to loud music. Hop had to get headphones for him because the wailing guitars gave him a headache and made Steve nervous.
And last time Steve had gotten nervous while Billy blasted Metallica, he had made the speakers in Billy’s old boombox short out so much, Hopper’s surprised the damn thing didn’t explode.
It did catch fire, though.
Not the finest evening in the cabin.
And once he discovered what in the fuck a birthday was, he couldn’t be stopped.
It was Joyce that first clued him in.
Hop had brought his three kids over to Melvald’s to “help” him run errands.
El liked getting to see Joyce and the rest of the world outside of the cabin, Billy liked getting to flick through the magazines, and Steve liked the quiet hum of the fluorescent lights.
She was telling Hop about Will’s birthday coming up in a few months, and how she had already ordered a whole set of paints from the sale advertised in the Sears catalog when Billy’s ears seemed to perk up.
Joyce had grinned at him.
“Every year, we celebrate the day the people we love were born. We have a party for them, and get them gifts.”
And Billy’s eyes had lit up, and Hopper could feel the excitement rolling off him in waves as his temperature skyrocketed.
“Hey, cool it,” Hopper warned as the magazine in Billy’s hand smoked dangerously.
He put it down next to the rack and made a show of doing his calming breaths.
“Everyone has a birthday?”
“Yeah! It’s every year on the day you were born,” Joyce filled in.
“Yours is, uh, June 29th.” Hop was acting like he didn’t have the date seared into his brain since he found the kids’ files eight months ago.
“Steve?” Billy was looking so gleeful with these little bits of information he was getting.
“Well, that one, I don’t actually know.” It made Hopper feel like shit.
The little printed year on Steve’s file genuinely kept him up at night.
It made him fucking furious that any of his kids were treated like lab rats, but the fact that no one even gave a shit to write down the day the baby they stole was born? It made his skin crawl.
Billy looked confused.
“But, you know he’s nineteen.”
“I know that he was born in 1966, which was nineteen years ago. But I don’t know the day. Sorry,” he added when Billy’s face fell.
“Steve doesn’t have a birthday?”
“No, Sweetie. Everyone has a birthday.” And Joyce had that look on her face that she always gets when she’s coming to Hop’s rescue. “Maybe you could pick one for him! Like you did his name.”
The magazine at Billy’s feet burst into flames.
Hopper didn’t try to understand Billy and Steve’s relationship.
Steve had been first on the scene.
Shortly after the lab had been shut down for good last year, the Hawkins Police Department had received a phone call from Katherine Alderson about a feral-looking child going through her garbage in the middle of the night.
Hopper had gone home long enough to put El in the car before checking it out.
Steve had forced the batteries in Hopper’s flashlight to explode when they first caught sight of him, and Hopper had no doubt in his mind that he would’ve gone on the attack had El not called him by number-name.
They found Billy a month later, when Hopper was driving El home from the Snow Ball.
Hopper caught sight of a bonfire in the woods near the cabin. His plan was to go out and investigate, tell the person to clear out, that it was private property, when El came darting out from behind him and, once again, called Billy by number-name.
Hop will never forget the look on Billy’s face when he saw El, his eyes filling with tears as he stumbled towards her in the snow, desperately calling Three? Where?
Safe, El had told him, and if it hadn't been getting ready to blizzard that night, Billy probably would’ve burned down the entire forest.
He and Steve had hugged for a long time when Billy was brought to the cabin.
Hop had been mortified a few weeks later to find Billy and Steve kissing on the couch.
He was flustered, and asked if they understood what kissing was, and Billy had said El told, and Steve had said love, so really, it’s not that Hopper doesn’t understand their relationship, it’s just that he doesn’t really know how or when.
And what he doesn’t understand, is how to set boundaries when the two had always shared their room in the cabin, and if he should give them the talk when he knows nothing about how two guys get it on, and if that would even be a good thing, or if it would just give them ideas.
But, anyway, Hopper would definitely say that they’re close, and Billy tends to get completely obsessed with anything having to do with Steve, so to say that Billy took his job of picking out a birthday for Steve seriously,
Would be the biggest fucking understatement in history.
Billy had purchased not one, but twelve calendars of years gone by at the second-hand store, and had spent every day for the past two weeks at the library looking up everything that happened on the specific days he had chosen in old copies of The Hawkins Post.
He told Hopper he wanted Steve's birthday to be a good day.
No bad things happen because Steve is a good thing.
Which meant that Hop had somehow been roped into looking at arrest records and crime scene data to make sure Steve’s hypothetical birthday would happen on a day where nothing majorly criminal happened in Hawkins.
Billy wouldn’t even let Steve celebrate a day where one person had gotten a speeding ticket.
No bad things!
Which actually meant the possible birthdays narrowed down quite quickly.
There were sixteen days in the past twenty years where not one thing of record had happened in Hawkins. No speeding tickets, no parking tickets. No ambulance calls, or kitchen fires.
Not even a goddamn cat stuck in a goddamn tree.
Then it was up to Billy to look at each of the days in his outdated calendars and decide which one felt the most Steve to him.
Any of the days in May, June, July, and August were crossed out. Billy’s only explanation was Steve isn’t summer.
Spring months met the same fate.
And finally, Billy had it down to four possible days.
So he took to repeating the four days over and over under his breath.
October 2nd, February 21st, November 13th, December 10th.
Over and over again.
Until finally, finally, Billy accosted Hopper outside of the cabin as Hopper was coming home from work to let him know that their secret mission had been a success.
“Birthday is December 10th.”
“So, in three days.”
Billy nodded excitedly, holding up three fingers.
“Party. Birthday party for Steve.”
“In three days.”
Hopper sighed as Billy nodded vigorously.
And then Billy was pushing past him and getting into the passenger seat of the truck Hopper had just gotten out of, glaring daggers at Hopper and saying
“Joyce will help.”
“Kid, we can’t just show up at her house and force her-”
“Joyce. Will. Help.”
A scrubby bush by Hopper’s left foot began sparking and smoking dangerously, and really, that’s fucking unfair.
Hopper heaved himself back into the truck and took them to the Byers’ place, repeatedly slapping Billy’s hand away from the switch that activates the sirens and lights every time Billy said fast.
Billy shot like a bullet out of the truck when they reached the house, and Hopper apparently needs to have another conversation about manners with the kid as he opened the front door right up without knocking and rocketed inside.
Joyce was pleased to see them, though, and looked nearly as excited as Billy when he explained that Steve’s birthday was in three days.
“So, we’re doing a surprise party, then?”
“Surprise party for a surprise birthday.” Hopper wasn’t being a crabass, despite any looks that Joyce was giving him.
“Surprise?” Billy asked, looking back at Hopper.
“Something you didn’t know about before it happened.”
Billy grinned and nodded back at Joyce.
It took an hour for Billy to decide that the party would happen at the Byers’ place. Hopper would bring his three charges under the guise of dinner over there, when everyone Steve knows, mostly the Byers and the rest of the kids, would jump out and surprise them.
They would have pizza, and Billy insisted on a cake with black spotted decorations since Steve watched 101 Dalmatians nearly once a week.
And then Joyce brought up gifts and Billy nearly had an aneurysm when he couldn’t think of what he should (make Hopper) buy for Steve.
Joyce has learned from Hopper’s example and keeps a fire extinguisher on hand so the table was only a little bit singed when Billy finally calmed down.
Billy and El were so excited the three days leading up to the party that Steve was actually beginning to get anxious.
Joyce had suggested they explain the concept of a birthday to Steve before the party so that he understood what the party was all about, and Billy, like everything with this process, had taken that job very seriously.
He had spent nearly half an hour explaining it to Steve.
Half an hour with Hop close at hand to act as a walking dictionary for the words either weren’t sure about.
I have a birthday?
Everyone has a birthday.
Billy had eagerly told him what Hop had said only a few days before.
Something you don’t know about before.
“El! Steve!” Hopper called from the doorway.
Billy was bouncing around outside waiting for the other two to come out.
Everything was set at the Byers’. All the kids were already waiting, and Billy’s gift had been meticulously wrapped with Joyce’s help and waiting to be opened.
The drive was quiet.
Steve preferred listening to the thrum of the engine and the static of the radio.
Billy took off through the Byers’ front door, slamming it closed behind him.
The doorknob was hot when Hop took it, and he gently pushed Steve in before him.
Steve was frozen as everyone called out their unison surprise! and he read the banner stretched across the wall above the couch.
Happy Birthday, Steve!
There was a jarring crack of every lightbulb in the room blowing, scattering glass everywhere. It echoed throughout the house as Steve shorted out the circuits running through the house.
And then he was crashing into Billy with a hug so tight it looked as though he was slowly squeezing all the air right out of him and all he could say was my birthday. My birthday. and Hopper’s almost certain that he was crying into the shoulder of Billy’s t-shirt and he’d be lying if he said the whole thing didn’t make his own eyes feel a bit wet.
Steve spent several moments studying each gift that was given to him after unwrapping them.
The kids had pooled together their loose change to get him a series of instructional tapes about wires, telephones, and car batteries. Joyce had found him a kit to make his own electrical circuits.
Hopper’s face got hot when Steve gave him an overlong hug after opening the stuffed tiger he had gotten for him.
It was the same as the one he had seen pictures of in Steve’s file.
The same one that Brenner had taken away and given to El as some form of punishment.
Billy was actually trembling when he gave Steve his gifts, and Hopper saw, out of the corner of his eye, Joyce’s hand tighten on the fire extinguisher.
The first was a walkman. A brand new one that Billy had made Hop shell out some serious cash for at the RadioShack downtown.
Billy put the headphones over Steve’s ears and pressed play on the tape he had made already loaded into the thing.
And Hop thinks if the lightbulbs weren’t already shot, Steve would’ve blown them again.
Because Billy had spent hours recording and compiling a tape of Steve’s favorite electric sounds. The humming fluorescents in Melvald’s, the whirring fan in the cabin, the buzzing of the power lines behind the high school.
He even left some of the tape blank for Steve to listen to the battery of the walkman, and the gears turning the blank tape.
“One more,” Billy said softly, pressing the small box into Steve’s hand.
This was a gift Hopper had to supervise the making of.
But Billy was calm and serious when he made it.
It was a small wooden pendant, and Billy had carefully burned the design of a simple flower El had found in a book onto the front. The back, he had burned the letter S.
“So that you remember. You’re Steve.”
“Pretty,” Steve whispered at it, and Billy preened like a damn peacock. That was about the highest compliment Steve could give something.
“Happy birthday, Steve.”