Last delivery of the night, a raggedy blanket and an old quilt he scrounged up from the basement. Steve couldn’t guess at when his mother ever bought a quilt.
He handed both off to Hopper—living, breathing, shaved-head Hopper—who stood rigid in the doorframe of his parents’ bedroom, right where Steve had left him. “You sure this is okay, kid?” he asked, as he ran his thumb along a quilted patch of faded blue wildflowers. “I don’t want you getting into any kind of trouble with your folks.”
It was strange, hearing Hopper call him “kid” after a week pretending to be one of the only adults in the room. Technically, Steve was an adult, nineteen going on twenty, but after carrying the weight of four actual kids’ safety on his shoulders, seeing Hopper, Joyce, and Murray speeding back into town flooded him with the relief equivalent of an adrenaline high. Now, he waited on the inevitable crash.
“It’s fine,” Steve assured him, eyes drifting past Hopper to his parents’ California king where Joyce had her arms locked around Will on the right side of the bed. Will’s hands held El’s in the center, the left side wide open for Hopper to join them.
“Thanks again, kid,” he said with a squeeze to his shoulder. No longer trusting himself to speak, Steve nodded and took a step back. Hopper wouldn’t go until he did.
Only after the door clicked shut did Steve exhale the shuddered breath that had been caged in his throat.
Final head count, and then—
He’d do the final head count and figure out what came next when he got there.
The door of the first guest bedroom was closed, but when he pressed his ear to crack, he heard the muffled voices of Nancy and Jonathan in the midst of a quiet reunion. His heartbeat stuttered but picked up again a moment later. He hadn’t wanted Nancy back, not really, but no one sold a guide book for how to get over the girl you thought you might marry nor what happened when you kept having to save the world alongside her. Evidently the path came with a few hidden bear traps.
He let them be and carried on to the second guest bedroom, where the rest of the kids had landed. The unspoken rule went Max got one side of the queen, which by default meant Lucas got the other. Complaints from Mike and Erica and a request for rock, paper, scissors by Dustin had been shut down with one searing glare from Nancy. The three had settled in various spots on the floor, cocooned in blankets and with enough pillows to construct a small fort.
Their gentle snores followed Steve down the hall to his own bedroom, the door half-open and the lights off, but he found Robin alone, fast asleep on his bed. Two piles of blankets sat folded and untouched at the foot of his bed.
A pit opened in Steve’s stomach and he took the stairs two at a time to the front door, flinging it open and ready to wake the neighborhood calling after Eddie to stop running. But the street sat still and empty, no silhouettes to chase down and tow back into the house. Steve shut the door and tried to ignore how hard his hands shook around the latch.
In the living room, Murray and the Russian prison guard Steve refused to ask too many questions about were passed out on the couches, all the lights turned to their brightest settings. When he checked the den, he found only Jonathan’s friend drooling with a pillow hugged against his chest, the room hazy with smoke.
If Eddie had wound up anywhere else, it would have been there. “Goddamnit, Eddie.”
He stumbled back into the living room, debating if this qualified as an emergency worthy of waking Hopper, when his eyes fell on the sliding glass door, to outside where a lone person sat at the edge of the pool blowing smoke at the moon.
Where that pit in his stomach had formed, laughter began bubbling over. He had wised up enough after three straight years of trauma to know the laughter was of the hysterical kind, but recognition of a thing didn’t mean he had any power to stop it.
What a day, what a week, what a year, what a fucking life.
He clapped a hand over his mouth to contain the sound and laughed helplessly until he swore a stitch ripped. Murray Bauman was as good an emergency surgeon as he was a conspiracy theorist, which actually meant he was pretty damn good. He wouldn’t disturb him over one torn stitch, though, so once Steve finally reined in his laughter, he headed for the sliding door instead of the couches.
The night air hit him first, then the sickening smell of chlorine. He despised this house, despised it so much he might be the one running before the morning dawned, but he swallowed his bitterness as Eddie glanced over his shoulder and noticed him hovering.
“Hey, man,” Steve said, complete with a weak, idiotic wave.
Even under the light of a pale crescent moon, Steve saw Eddie raising his eyebrows in a wordless that all you got? Eddie had a pair of Steve’s borrowed sweatpants rolled up to the knees, so he could swing his bare legs in the water, and Steve had the urge to grab him by the wrist and haul him far away from the pool. But he didn’t have the energy to explain himself or even the energy to do the dragging. So sue him, an unoriginal greeting and stupid little wave was really all he had.
A loaded silence fell over the patio, both waiting for the other to break first and say the next dumb thing. Or maybe Eddie just wanted Steve to leave. The thought had Steve digging his heels in, determined to outlast Eddie’s cigarette and probable existential crisis they all had after discovering the monsters under their beds were very real.
Steve counted it as a win when Eddie admitted his defeat with a labored sigh and asked, “What were you laughing about?” He waved with his cigarette toward the sliding door, its wash of yellow light. There was a memory here, one Steve never stopped reliving. “Just now, when you came out.”
Seemed like a good place to make a half-hearted joke about Eddie spying, but Steve felt oddly touched Eddie had been paying attention to him. For some reason, though, it felt better to lie than say, I almost went on a rampage through my blissfully unaware neighborhood because you weren’t where I needed you to be.
“Nothing, just thinking how a couple of years ago my parents would’ve disowned me if the chief of police was at the house because of me.” In this spectacular now, Hopper had become just another Hawkins myth risen from the dead and Steve’s parents would be lucky to hear about it as a minor national news item in whatever faroff city they had business in these last two weeks.
Steve never understood why his parents hadn’t quit Hawkins after the botched cover-up of Barb’s death came to light, but then again, not like they ever sought or needed his understanding. Maybe Hawkins was just as cheap a place as any to leave a kid behind.
Eddie’s voice cut through the kick-off to his sad pity party of one. “But the wanted serial murderer Satanist freak would be fine?”
“Exonerated serial murderer Satanist freak,” Steve clarified, even if it was far from official. He took another step further from the house, another step closer to the pool, and tried to shake the feeling the woods had its dark eyes on him.
Instead, he focused on Eddie snorting into the sleeve of another borrowed piece of clothing. Navy suited him and Steve realized he had thought so even when he so absently tossed the crewneck at his chest earlier in the night.
“Exonerated,” Eddie said with a touch of his usual dramatics. The taste of something normal calmed some of Steve’s crackling nerves, like a drag of Eddie’s cigarette would. “That’s a twenty dollar word right there, Harrington.”
“Whatever.” Steve could do dramatic, too, making the most of a long and exaggerated eye roll. If he was closer, he could punch Eddie in the shoulder like he wanted, so why couldn’t he cross the last five feet?
The pool stared at him, unblinking, just as the trees beyond it did. While the water appeared placid and quiet, Steve wasn’t so sure. A fog of steam hung above it from the pool heater meeting the frigid midnight air, not that the weather ever stopped his parents from opening the cover when March rolled around. A pool they rarely used, another show piece in their show lives, and Steve’s stomach never stopped rolling at the sight of it.
Christ, he should be on something—they all should be. Their next adventure might have to be raiding a pharmacy a few towns over, to build up a stash of those little white pills his mom used to pop before business dinners and corporate Christmas parties, the ones she said ironed out her creases. She’d come home singing Sinatra and wandering the house room by room, turning on all the lights. Steve already slept with all the lights on, but he’d like to sing and he’d like to fall asleep not expecting to dream of his ex-girlfriend’s best friend dead in his backyard.
If anyone had a drug for that, wouldn’t it be one of the town’s resident dealers? All Eddie had on him at the moment was that cigarette, held out to Steve like a peace offering. Steve took a deep breath, the cold sending a chill into his chest that wrapped around the constantly frightened thing beating there, and sat beside Eddie, pulling his legs in so they wouldn’t come close to touching the water.
“Bummed it off Hopper,” Eddie said as Steve took the cigarette, because of course, Eddie’s pack had gotten waterlogged and then discarded with everything else infected by the Upside Down. “Sharing cigs with a cop and the king of Hawkins High. Big night for both the drug dealing and class freak communities.”
“You’re not a freak,” Steve said reflexively, just as he brought the cigarette to his lips.
“Bet you tell that to all the girls, Harrington,” Eddie deadpanned, and Steve choked on the inhale.
He let Eddie thump his back as he hacked up half a lung—really, what choice did he actually have—and shoved the cigarette back into his hand as soon as he took a real breath again. “Have you never done this before?” Eddie asked, the question woven through the gaps in his hiccuped laughter.
The tips of Steve’s ears burned even though he had no reason to get defensive. Not like he wanted to impress Eddie Munson with his smoking prowess. “I was never really that into it. Just thought it made me look cool,” he said. “Plus Robin told me no girls ever like kissing guys who taste like a bar bathroom.”
Eddie hummed, casting him a sidelong look that had Steve clearing his throat, raw from the bad drag.
“Not that Robin and I have ever…we’re not…”
“Oh, I know, Harrington.” Eddie punctuated that with a smile Steve had trouble deciphering, almost like he was in on a private joke Steve wasn’t.
“She gave you the platonic with a capital P spiel, too?” Steve asked, and without giving Eddie time to answer, added, “It’s true, by the way. Hundred percent. She’s like my…” Best friend, sister, something Steve couldn’t name because no title could encapsulate a person you survived alongside in a Russian torture session and waged war with in an alternate dimension. She was Robin, the other part of his two for one package deal.
Eddie had never stopped looking at him, but something in his expression shifted, as if before he had only been humoring the entire conversation but now his eyes searched Steve’s face like he was taking stock of something for the first time. A different smile tugged at Eddie’s lips, one tentative but so much more real than the showy grins he had shot Steve’s way before, and Steve at once felt he just broke the surface after too long underwater.
“Yeah, that’s how I knew,” Eddie said but without it sounding true, and Steve sensed a second conversation was happening beneath the one they were having. Finally breaking their unofficial staring contest, Eddie gazed up at the stars and shook his head, his smile deepening to one of strange disbelief. “Sorry, you’re gonna have to give me a minute. My world has to, like, reorient itself every time I find out I’m still underestimating how good a guy you are. Like, are you actually for real?”
No one could blame a guy for getting offended by that, but Steve found himself, once again, oddly touched. Of course, he’d never tell Eddie that, so he’d have to fake a little outrage. “You fought a bunch of demon bats with your guitar in a hell version of our town, but me not being a total dick is still what’s earth shattering to you?”
“Yeah, but Satan willing, I’m never gonna see those bats again,” Eddie said, crossing himself backwards, cigarette smoldering between his fingers. “You, I might be keeping around.”
His ears began burning again with little cause. Old Steve never would have been caught dead with Eddie Munson outside of a weed deal, but new Steve had approximately one friend near his own age and she’d be leaving him for school in less than six months. Eddie might be leaving, too, for all he knew, but Steve would like to count him among his friends across any distance.
So maybe Steve just didn’t want Eddie thinking too highly of him, lest he find out his penchant for bullshit.
“I’m not that good a guy,” came spoken to the water rather than Eddie. “I dunno how much you talked to Robin, or Nancy, or any of them about the times before, but…after the first time, with the crazy demogorgon thing, I just wanted to pretend it never happened. I thought if I focused on basketball and parties and getting into college, I’d eventually just forget. Total blank. It completely ruined things with Nancy, who’s the only reason a guy who has every right to hate me after high school would ever call me a good dude. Dustin’s great and I’m not calling him a liar, but I’m not, like…worship worthy.”
Eddie, who had stayed silent and surprisingly still through his embarrassing monologue, scoffed. “Bullshit, dude.”
“You don’t go from being some true neutral dickbag to a chaotic good fucking knight in shining armor because one girl bat her eyelashes at you,” Eddie said, shaking his head vehemently. “You’re good in your blood, Steve.”
“Is that why I keep losing so much of it?”
He meant the wounds in his sides, but Eddie’s gaze drifted to his neck where Steve knew the red ring still glowed angry and hot. Time suspended as Eddie reached his free hand out and ghosted his fingers gently over the ring, the barest of touches sending goosebumps up Steve’s arms.
“Did that loud nutjob not take a look at this, too?” Eddie asked.
Despite the bizarre reaction his body was having to Eddie touching him, Steve found it in him to laugh. “You, Eddie Munson, are calling him a nutjob?”
“So you were lying before when you told me I wasn’t a freak?” Eddie removed his hand, the skin where his fingertips had been buzzing as if electrified, and flattened it against his chest. “You’re breaking my heart, Steve Harrington.”
Before Steve could answer to that—and thank god, because he had nothing—Eddie stubbed out the cigarette, though it died ages ago, and stood with a gusto. He held out his hand and Steve had no reason not to take it.
“C’mon,” Eddie said as he yanked Steve to his feet. “We should get some ice on that before we break our backs sleeping on your floor because Buckley’s a bed hog.”
Steve raised an eyebrow. “What, my floor isn’t good enough for you?”
A pause, as Eddie glanced up at the house. Steve wouldn’t call the shine in his eyes marvel. “Everything in your house is too good for me.”
“That’s not—” Steve never got to finish his objection because Eddie clapped his hand over his mouth. It smelled of nicotine and Steve’s own spiced body wash.
“No more lines, your majesty, I beg of you. You’ll make a delicate lady swoon.” As fast as the hand covered his mouth, it vanished. Eddie turned on his heels and started for the house, not looking back to assure himself Steve was following. He just trusted him to.
“You’re out of your mind,” Steve grumbled, not loud enough for Eddie to hear because he probably wasn’t referring to him. Just as Eddie was continuously astounded by Steve’s capacity for decency, Steve kept getting blindsided by how many different personalities had waltzed in and added new color to his life.
Steve looked up at the stars, in a soundless call to God to start answering for some of this, only to discover the night sky wasn’t the pitch black he always thought it was. It turned out it was a deep shade of navy blue, the same as a fresh black eye or a borrowed crewneck sweatshirt.
Given the last Fourth of July celebration got overshadowed by a massive fire (which wasn’t actually a fire), Hawkins had no interest in going all out the very next year. The mayor’s office hadn’t even scheduled the annual fireworks display and anyone disappointed about it decided to travel out of town, Steve’s parents very much included.
Steve had planned to spend America’s birthday in his room blasting a record from one of the stacks Eddie demanded he make it through by summer’s end. As much as he complained about every band’s sound to Eddie’s face, Steve loved how loud the music was. The waves of thoughts constantly crashing against the shoddy levee he constructed in his brain couldn’t compete.
Dustin radioing him at eight in the goddamn morning, telling—not asking—Steve to meet at his house so they could head over to the lake together, squashed those plans pretty quick.
The same music Steve would have been listening to at home thundered from the boom box in Eddie’s van for all Lover’s Lake to hear. The gang had picked a secluded section of the lakefront, but Steve would bet anyone who had been around wouldn’t have the guts to tell Eddie to turn it down. He might have missed a triple murder rap, but small town Christians had everlasting memories when it came to charges of Satanism.
Eddie seemed to be having fun though, at least from Steve’s vantage point on the shoreline. He and Nancy had only gone up to their waists, chatting over a beer for him and cherry coke for her. Whatever Nancy just said had him tossing his head laughing, the ends of his hair skimming the water, and something inside Steve settled watching him laughing so freely outside where anyone could see him.
It had been a long spring of Eddie hiding out in either his new government-issued trailer, Steve’s house, or Hopper’s cabin, in the process of being slowly restored. Too many times, Steve came to pick Eddie up at the cabin to find Eddie and Hopper lazing on the porch steps, smoking and in stitches over inside jokes that made Steve’s head sore.
“He should hate you,” Steve once said as Eddie slammed the passenger door shut behind him. “He’s got the patience of an old lady with twenty expired coupons getting rung up at Kroger’s. Why doesn’t he hate you?”
“Aw, Harrington,” Eddie had answered with a great show of pity. “You’re just jealous that another person in our party likes me best.”
Steve almost wished he were jealous. That would explain why it mattered to him so damn much that everyone else cared about Eddie. Even now, he felt a slight flutter in his chest when El bobbed over to Eddie and asked something Steve was too far away to hear. With all the time Eddie spent at Hopper’s cabin, she had started liking him best, too.
It turned out El was asking Eddie to be her partner for Chicken, which also explained the put out look on Mike’s face. With Dustin acting as the sports announcer, the tournament got under way. El and Eddie lost easily and early to Mike and Will, who then got destroyed by Max and Lucas. Mike kept insisting on rematches just for poor Will to get sunk again and again. It was only when Erica nearly scratched Max’s eyes out that the reigning champs were toppled.
“That was cheating!” Max and Lucas roared in unison when they came up for air.
“Ref?” Dustin called out to Steve, the unofficial lifeguard.
“No holds barred,” Steve said, pushing his sunglasses down his nose for the theatrical effect, “That’s what you said, right, Max?”
Max’s glower might have scared him more if she didn’t look so much like a shivering, wet ginger cat. As the kids kept arguing over banned moves, Steve caught Eddie’s eye, the mile-wide grin on his face, and couldn’t believe he had been annoyed when Dustin asked if he copied that morning.
“He seems to be taking all this really well.”
Robin, materializing at his shoulder, almost had Steve leaping a foot in the air. Somehow, he had lost track of her and the realization of that made him feel itchy beneath his skin, somewhere he couldn’t scratch. He should have been paying better attention. He should have known where they all were.
“You good?” Robin asked, holding out a beer to him that Steve just quickly waved away.
“Yeah, yeah, you just gave me a freaking heart attack, but other than that…”
“Okay…” Robin said, dragging out the second syllable. “I was just saying Eddie seems to be doing okay after everything.”
His eyes again fell on Eddie, who had wrangled Dustin into a headlock, the other kids traitorously cheering him on. Steve found himself smiling, but when he caught the curious look Robin was giving him, the smile dropped. “I mean, yeah, but you took it really well, too.”
“It’s not a competition, Steve,” Robin said, starting to wander towards Nancy and a newly-arrived Jonathan who had ice cream in tow. “And I’m not sure I’d favor myself in that fight anymore!”
“What fight?” Steve called after her. She didn’t answer, obviously content to let him suffer in the dark.
At least with the kids clamoring for ice cream, he could put up his lifeguard mantle for the hour. He managed to snag the last cherry ice pop and refused to cave to Erica’s threats of what she’d do to his hair if he didn’t forfeit it to her. Except, Steve didn’t trust her not to try snipping off a piece while he wasn’t looking, so he picked a spot far away from the most vengeful Sinclair.
The shade under the trees cooled him down and he took a second to close his eyes, listening for the gentle lapping of the water against the shore. He’d probably never forgive Lover’s Lake, but he liked having some good memories to go with the bad.
“Hey, man.” Eddie’s approach was softer than Robin’s, but it still caught Steve off guard. “Sorry to interrupt your mediation, or whatever, but are you good?”
That was the second time he had that question posed to him in thirty minutes. “Yeah, I’m…” Steve saw his popsicle had started to melt and dribble cherry red tracks down his forearm. “Cherry good.”
“Ugh,” Eddie said as he collapsed beside Steve. “That was awful. Absolutely tragic. Dustin’s not gonna believe me when I tell him. Cherry good? I might die of embarrassment and I wasn’t the one who said it.”
Hopper liked this guy better than Steve, the guy who used thirty words when five would work fine. And Jesus Christ, Steve actually got why. Like the music Eddie curated for him, all his talking soothed the parts of Steve’s brain that otherwise never shut up. The parts telling him that he was the reason Dustin and Erica almost got captured and tortured by the Russians. The parts reminding him that he was once a guy who let his so-called best friends call his girlfriend a slut. The parts whispering these kids weren’t really kids anymore and soon they wouldn’t need him. And then who would?
“Do you wanna, like…” Eddie smoothed his hands down his shins. Without the frays in his jeans or his rings to fidget with, he didn’t seem to know what to do with his hands. “...talk about why you’re not swimming?”
“I mean, you were kinda there. It was hard to miss.” Steve needed something to do with his hands, too. He tossed what was left of his popsicle, now almost fully melted and sticky in his hand, and did his best to lick the gross syrup off his fingers. His hand would be dyed a fruit punch-red for the rest of the day, a real attractive look.
When he glanced back at Eddie, who hadn’t said a word, Steve found him staring, his lips slightly parted and face flushed. Hadn’t anyone reminded him to reapply sunscreen?
His voice jolted Eddie out of whatever trance he had fallen under. “I need to move,” he declared, slapping his hands against his thighs. “We all need to move. All those meathead jocks and church ladies are right: this town is cursed.”
Steve snorted, not caring how stupid it sounded. It was just Eddie. “I can’t move.”
“Why the hell not?” Eddie asked. “Wheeler and Byers are going to be in Boston next year. Robin’s going to some other boring town in Massachusetts. If they can get out, why can’t we?”
The kids had begun inching back towards the water, outlined in gold as the sun slowly sunk beneath the treeline. Even knowing they were under the watchful eyes of Nancy, Jonathan, and Robin, Steve fought against the impulse to leave the shade and start patrolling again.
Eddie didn’t know yet—how could he—but the safety they had after a supernatural disaster was finite. Somewhere in the Upside Down or the basement of a government lab, or both, another monster lay in wait. And while he had never cut his palm or spit in his hand, he had sworn an oath all the same. He’d be there as the first line of defense.
Steve sighed and tipped his head toward the group. “They need…I dunno, someone steady, some…”
The word escaped him but apparently not Eddie. “Stability?”
“Thought you failed English.”
“Three different times, baby,” Eddie said, and something beneath Steve’s ribs squirmed at the endearment. “Bit of a low blow from the guy who had to retake sophomore year history.”
Steve rolled his eyes—Mrs. Click had been one of the few teachers immune to his charms, alright—but the swerve into talk of school reminded him of something bothering him for a while now. Nudging his shoulder against Eddie’s, he took his chance. “Can I ask you something?”
“Anything his majesty deigns to know, I will answer.”
“Yeah, see, you’re actually smart, dude,” Steve said, choosing to ignore the reference to a high school hierarchy from a million years ago. Those came a dime for five dozen with Eddie. “You do all that storytelling dragon shit with the kids, you always did the math in your head when you were charging Tommy…”
Eddie let out a barking laugh, derailing Steve’s train of thought. “Oh, I totally made that shit up, dude, every time. Tommy was and remains a fucking moron.”
“My point is,” Steve said, through silent but shoulder-shaking laughter, “or, I guess, my question is why’d it take you so long to graduate?”
Eddie turned his head, his hair curtaining off his face, and Steve wanted a way to rewind time, easy as he would a video tape, so he could redo the whole conversation.
“I dunno,” Eddie said, not in any way convincing. “School always seemed so pointless to me. Not in some like ‘my life is going nowhere so why bother’ way, even though my life is going nowhere…”
Hell if Steve didn’t have that line looping in his head every time he left a shift at Family Video.
Eddie was running his hands up and down his legs again and before Steve knew what he was really doing, he put his non-syrupy hand palm-up on Eddie’s knee. The sequence of micro-events that followed went: Eddie stared at his hand—brows furrowed, like it might be radioactive—before glancing up at Steve with wide eyes, pupils blown out, so Steve had to nod to signal it was okay, even though maybe it shouldn’t be, until finally Eddie slotted his fingers loosely in the spaces between Steve’s.
All that, in the span of thirty seconds Steve spent also trying to remember how to breathe.
His spontaneous gesture worked, though, because Eddie picked up with his answer, “I just hated the eight-hours a day, five days a week grind, you know. Sit here, shut up, don’t move, memorize this. It’s fucking authoritarian. It’s also not like a lot of teachers cared about failing the freak. I think I helped them meet a quota or something, so shiny gold star for me.”
That, Steve had no experience with. From freshman year as the swim team’s rising star running up to senior year on a basketball team almost fit for a championship, he had teachers tripping over themselves to accommodate him, brushing off half-finished homework assignments with unearned Bs and meeting him halfway on every essay deadline. Not even halfway, they might as well have been meeting him on his side of the pool, in the deep end where Steve had to tread water just to keep his head above the surface.
Maybe Steve should have realized earlier being the freak meant everyone left you behind. Hadn’t he spent enough of a school day watching Tommy jeer at Jonathan only for a teacher to pass by and say nothing. Tommy always got called into the principal’s office for ditching classes, never for the things he said directly to people’s faces. Steve never got called into the principal’s office at all.
“Don’t even fucking think about it, Harrington.”
Steve must have missed something because Eddie had narrowed his eyes at him. “What?”
“You were making that face,” Eddie said, circling his free hand inches from Steve’s nose. “Your ‘Christ, I just remembered what a dick I was in high school and now I have to crawl on my knees and beg everyone’s forgiveness again’ face. We’re good, man. Save getting down on your knees for church.”
Steve huffed. “Or something else.”
Steve blinked—had he said something? He must have by the bug-eyed look on Eddie’s face. “What?”
“Steve! Eddie!” Saved by the screaming teenagers. He moved to pull his hand back only to realize Eddie had already let go.
Ignoring the ridiculous and melodramatic sting of hurt, he looked toward the rocky beach, to where his annoying children and their enablers—Robin being enabler number one, followed closely by Nancy, and Jonathan in a distant third but first where Nancy was concerned—were assembling a shoddy bonfire.
“Eddie!” Dustin yelled again, the lake’s personal echo, “Did you bring a lighter?”
“Did I bring a lighter?” Eddie scoffed, under his breath, for only himself and Steve to hear, before calling back to Dustin, “Whatdya think, you little twerp?”
Dustin shot him a thumbs up and went back to collecting dried leaves for kindling. With a new mission bestowed upon him, Eddie made to stand. He took his sweet time stretching his arms over his head, so long Steve’s eyes drifted to his chest and the tattoos littered there. Eddie had told him the meaning of a few, how every single one had been done illegally in the back room of The Hideout. Somehow, he made art done under the threat of infection look good. Desirable, even.
“You still with me, Harrington?” Eddie snapped his fingers by Steve’s ear twice before Steve smacked his hand away. The hand came right back, another offer to help him to his feet. They were eye level when Eddie said, with a toothy grin, “Thought you’d want to hold my hand again.”
Steve pushed him with enough strength to send him stumbling into a tree and of course Dustin had been looking over at that precise moment, so he shouted, “Hey, no fighting!” as if Eddie wasn’t doubled-over cackling about the whole thing.
“You know, you were kind of a dick in high school, too,” Steve said, as he and Eddie made their way toward the van. Eddie was wiping tears of laughter from his eyes and Steve had to bite back a smile. “And you’re still a dick now.”
“Always takes one to know one, huh?” Eddie winked at him and Steve didn’t need a bonfire to feel like his body temperature had jumped twenty degrees.
He’d have to talk to Robin, sometime down the line, but for now he wanted to keep redeeming the Fourth of July with his favorite collection of people.
“Let’s go somewhere dangerous.”
Steve didn’t need to be asked twice, not that Eddie ever posed it as a question.
In the late, dark days of August, Eddie had been doing that a lot—arriving at his house unannounced, twirling his keys knowing full well Steve would insist on driving, and demanding they set off on an adventure. The rules of the game were simple, so simple he picked them up in the first round: don’t let Steve think about Robin, Nancy, and Jonathan leaving.
A game with one rule, yet it was unwinnable. Steve wondered what they were all doing tonight, if Nancy was having a late night study session, if Jonathan was working a double shift or polishing up his NYU application for next year, if Robin was hanging out with her new club soccer friends and marveling at how they understood all her obscure film references. It had been a week and a half and the holes where they had carried off pieces of him with them had yet to start closing.
So, wounds from monsters healed, but wounds from friends, unintentional or otherwise, bled forever. Someone could’ve told him.
He followed Eddie’s directions without paying any real attention to where they were headed, so pulling down the service road leading to the bottom of the quarry came as a minor shock to the system. The quarry had never been his scene, even before the government pulled a fake body out of it, but the Hawkins High grapevine once named it the best spot to get high.
“You really never came here? Not even once?” Eddie asked as they walked toward the water, their flashlight beams imitating moonlight on the gravel.
“Nope. I think I might have actually been brutally uncool in high school.”
They set down at the quarry's edge, the water unmoving and black as a void. When Steve chucked a rock to disturb it, it barely rippled. As Eddie lit the first joint, Steve glanced up at the quarry walls, butting up against the sky, as immovable as the water. Did the kids at school come here to feel smaller, because that was how Steve felt. Or did they come here to slip outside of time, in a place where they thought the everyday horrors of Hawkins couldn’t reach them?
“This is where they found Will,” Steve said. Even sound didn’t carry far here. “Well, not actually Will, but…”
“Yeah, I remember,” Eddie said quietly. Sometimes Steve forgot the rest of Hawkins experienced some version of what they had, a family friendly feature with the gore and government corruption edited out but too much of the devastation remaining. Eddie would have heard the same story Steve’s parents had, the body found in the quarry was another poor kid, misidentified as missing Will Byers. A rose-tinted fuck-up, somehow—absurdly—easier to stomach than the truth.
Eddie, his fingers drumming erratically against his shins, then snapped, “Is everywhere in this fucking town a crime scene?”
Exhaling through his nose, Steve nodded. “Pretty much, yeah.”
“I’m this close to losing my shit, man.” Eddie took a distracted hit from the joint and pawned it off on Steve without looking his way. “I’ve gotta get out of this place.”
Eddie might as well have reached over and wrapped his hands around Steve’s throat.
The dread of Eddie possibly leaving him too had begun creeping up on him recently, often in the middle of the night when he haunted all the rooms in his house and had panic attacks in his parents' jacuzzi bathtub. If he skipped town, who would come into Family Video during Steve’s shifts and complain they refused to stock movies that didn’t exist, wasting hours of Keith’s time trying to put in bogus requests to fed-up distributors? Who would show up on Steve’s doorstep at five after two in the morning with no warning and who would never bat an eye when Steve did the same? Who’d know the exact right moment to make a serious conversation a funny one because Steve had started drowning in the rapids of his own turbulent thoughts?
Eddie had become a foundational part of Steve’s life. With Robin and Nancy off to start their shiny, happy Hawkins-free lives, Eddie was about the only person Steve had left who could take his call at a moment’s notice.
“You’re not gonna lose your shit like right now…right?” Steve asked warily. He let the question hold a double-meaning—was Eddie going to lose his shit that second at the bottom of the quarry or was Steve going to drive up to Eddie’s trailer tomorrow afternoon only to learn from old Uncle Wayne he had skipped town for good?
Despite the little light, Eddie’s eyes shone the same warm shade of brown and softened when he answered, “I’ve probably got a few months left in me.”
His high must have hit with no warning because his heart rate suddenly started sprinting and he couldn’t focus on any one part of Eddie’s face—his bangs brushing his brows to the curl of his lashes to his lips around the joint. He had so much moonlight in his hair and Steve wanted to catch it in his hands, see if Eddie’s hair felt as soft as it always looked.
He never did get around to that talk with Robin.
First, he put it off because he wanted to help get Robin the summer romance she deserved. “I can’t go to college unkissed, Steve,” she had said, and if Steve knew how to do anything, it was romance pretty girls. He coached her through maybe dates with Vickie, only to have most fizzle into awkward group hangouts with the band geeks.
“Smith’s not gonna know what hit ‘em,” he had reassured her. “All-girls school? At least half of them are gonna be babes.”
Then it became all about tagging along on shopping trips to buy bedding and other dorm essentials because like hell Robin was going to suffer through it with her mother. He vetoed blazers and button downs she wanted to squeeze into her very limited suitcase space and flipped through course catalogs with her to pick the best classes and never once did he say, hey Robin, you know how you kindly let me ditch you last night so I could get high with Eddie and watch Scarface? Well, half the movie I spent thinking Al Pacino is pretty hot and the other half I spent wondering what kissing Eddie would be like. What’s that about?
Any time he came close to prodding that box with a mental stick, a girl would wander into Family Video and Steve felt the familiar thrill down his spine when she snuck a glance his way. He couldn’t be. Not when he still wanted Veronica’s number, and thought about kissing Kim in her new BMW, and took Lydia on a movie date where he couldn’t take his eyes off an onscreen Mia Sara.
Only, he never used Veronica’s number because he got wrapped up in ferrying the kids to and from Mike Wheeler’s cesspool basement where Eddie ran a summer campaign for them and too often Steve stuck around. Lydia wanted to see him again, until Steve blew her off one too many times for a lunch date because Eddie had shown up the previous night coming down from a nightmare and they woke the dawn talking about absolutely nothing.
And Kim? She totaled her BMW the week after her parents bought it for her and for three days, Eddie got displaced as enemy number one of Hawkins. They went out for pizza to celebrate.
It wasn’t just the attraction that scared him—which did terrify him, from the tips of his ears to his Achilles heel—it was the feelings. Feelings he fed every time he made a bad joke to hear Eddie’s theatrical groan, and replayed an album Eddie gave him so he’d have something smart to say about it, and purposefully flopped his hand down in center of couch so Eddie could distractedly play with his fingers while they watched Miami Vice.
He had become Dustin, circa the fall of ‘84, nurturing a creature that might grow into a monster intent on devouring him alive. And maybe he wanted to be swallowed.
“Still with me?” Eddie tapped his knuckles against Steve’s knee, a concerned crease between his brows.
“Yeah,” Steve said, once again taking in the gargantuan walls surrounding them and the navy blue sky above, the cosmos as Dustin would call it. They were so small and the things they had done in their lives so far have mattered too much. “I’m with you.”
“They’re gonna come back you know,” Eddie said, crashing his shoulder against Steve’s and keeping it there. “So often, it’s gonna be borderline creepy. We’ll have to be the ones telling them to get a life.”
“Like Jonathan had a life to begin with,” Steve said and tried for a smile, though he wondered if the bad blood had dried enough for him to make that joke.
“I already told Byers this, but I was pretty offended he never joined Hellfire,” Eddie said. “Freaks are supposed to stick together, right? I guess sexy, brooding loner freaks are still a rung above metalhead, fantasy nerd freaks.”
In the grass behind them, there was the faint chirping of grasshoppers, but they couldn’t compete with the buzzing in Steve’s brain at Eddie calling Jonathan Byers sexy.
“This is the part where you say I’m not a freak,” Eddie prompted.
“Uh, you’re not a freak?”
“Being your friend really does wonders for the self-esteem,” Eddie said, heavy on the sarcasm. “Once more with feeling, Steve.”
“You’re not a freak,” Steve whispered, while thinking the opposite. Eddie was a freak, in the way only great people were, and there was nothing Steve didn’t like about him.
Eddie must have thought he failed in reassuring him because, with even stronger conviction, he said, “They’re gonna come back. You won’t just be stuck with me forever.”
If Steve were not so spineless when it came to saying what he really felt, he’d have the guts to tell Eddie, right then, you’re enough. Instead, he tipped his forehead to rest on Eddie’s shoulder and closed his eyes as he felt Eddie’s cheek come to rest against his crown oh his head. The little monster that was his heart just ate and ate without ever getting full.
His lock picking skills needed work.
He borrowed the equipment from Dustin—why he had lock picking gear and how he got a professional-grade kit, Steve asked and received the very unsatisfying answer of, “you don’t need to worry about it”—but he skipped out on a tutorial. Wouldn’t anyone assume the lock on a high school swimming pool would open sesame on the first jimmy?
“He is human after all,” Eddie drawled from behind him, the smirk ringing in his tone. “Okay Ferris Bueller, let the real delinquent give it a shot.”
Within ten seconds, Eddie swung the door open and gave a mock bow, applauding for himself. Not Steve’s finest hour.
Steve shut the door behind them, cutting off the stream of chilly October air and locking them in the humid heat of the Hawkins High pool. That was what he had loved best about being on the swim team, how every afternoon he experienced three hours of summer even when outside snow blanketed the ground. The speedos also didn’t hurt.
Tonight had nothing to do with reliving high school glory, though.
“You do this to impress all your girlfriends?” Eddie asked while tugging his shirt over his head.
“Uh, you pretty much saw me eat shit trying to break in here, so no, I’ve never done this before,” Steve said, and meant it in more ways than one. He already felt he needed to play catch up, peeling his shirt off in one quick motion and going for his jeans next.
The whole idea behind the nightswimming break-in was Steve pitching in with an adventure for a change. Steve leaned on Eddie too hard, for company, for weed, for a way out of his own head. He took the weed and the occasional fifth of vodka gladly, but Eddie had become his real drug of choice. If Steve could give Eddie half the relief he got just from being near him, maybe Eddie would forget about ditching Hawkins for good.
A chlorine contact high might be a start.
“You ready?” Steve asked. They hadn’t turned any lights on—too big a risk—but the dim light from the parking lot’s street lamps filtered in through the windows and glittered yellow on the water. He guessed the pool might be cold, but Eddie dragged his toe along the surface, never flinching.
Cracking a lopsided grin, Eddie flicked a few droplets of water in Steve’s direction. “Born ready, Harrington.”
And without waiting another second, Eddie dove into the deep end. The sound of his splash bounced off the ceiling, joined by Eddie’s rumbly laughter when he surfaced. Yeah, for once Steve had the right idea.
“Come on in, my lord, the water’s just fine,” Eddie said, floating on his back, his hair fanning out around his head.
Steve went for a more gradual dip into the pool, feet first and wading to his waist before stopping. He had come up against an invisible line, cutting the pool in half. One side, the shallow side, for him and one side, the deep end, for Eddie. If either crossed the line, Steve wasn’t sure what would happen. Like in every room that found Steve and Eddie together now, the air seemed to crackle with electricity.
He might have barely scraped by in his science classes, but even he knew water and electricity made for a lethal combination.
Leave it to Eddie to tempt fate, or not care for it altogether, because he began lazily paddling his way towards Steve, stranded and aimless in the center of the pool. “Want to know what I used to do during those swimming PE units?” he asked.
From what Steve recalled of Eddie in high school—admittedly and shamefully not much—he was known for never being where he was supposed to be at any given hour in the school day.
“Skip and smoke in the equipment shed?”
Eddie ducked his head, smiling, and if Steve took just one step forward, maybe he could tell if he was blushing. “You’re starting to know me too well, Harrington. Soon I might have to kill you.”
It was embarrassing how fast Steve’s mouth went dry, and for all the wrong reasons. Not a single other soul was around to hear Eddie say that, so why was Steve wrestling with the impulse to check over his shoulder for a stray homicidal jock prowling in the shadows?
Steve’s face must have telegraphed his discomfort because Eddie scrunched his nose and asked, “Still too soon? Can the town pariah almost hung in the village square for Satanic ritual killings never make murder jokes again?”
Steve gave a stiff shrug. “Do what you want, dude, I just don’t like imagining what Jason and his band of goons might still be capable of, especially if they thought…”
“I’m starting to think I could have taken him,” Eddie said. As if to prove it, he balled his hands into fists and started shadow boxing with the water. “You saw me in the Upside Down. I’m scrappy.”
“Whatever you say, man,” Steve said, surely failing to keep the fondness off his face.
“Guess I’ll just have to hire you as my boxing coach,” Eddie said, but with such a shit-eating grin that Steve knew exactly what he was getting at.
“Henderson told you about my fight record then.”
“The play-by-play of the fight against Hargrove was thrilling,” Eddie said as he started wading backwards, drifting until his back hit the wall. “I would have blown my savings to see it on pay-per-view.”
As if pulled by a magnet, one strong enough to disrupt a compass, Steve blew right past the make-believe line and swam to meet Eddie at the wall. “You would’ve been paying to see me get my ass kicked.”
“Not the way Henderson tells it, dude.” Eddie reached over before Steve could dodge, musing his still-dry hair. “So what comes first, coach ‘o mine? How does King Harrington stay in fighting shape?”
Steve’s eyes flickered to the opposite end of the pool.
Instantly, Eddie’s laugh sang in his ears. “You’re really expecting me to race you? Mr. what was it again—swim team co-captain and lifeguard extraordinaire? Voted Hawkins’ most handsome lifeguard three years in a row by the all-female pool committee?”
“Look, if you’re too scared…”
“It’s not about being scared, Harrington, it’s simple self-preservation,” Eddie said, pushing his bangs off his forehead. Steve had been thinking of doing the same thing. “What if I start drowning and the lifeguard of the year doesn’t save me because he’s too busy showing off? What if—”
But if Eddie had a second scenario, he forfeited finishing it as he abruptly burst off the wall and started swimming the race he had been protesting.
“Seriously?” Steve yelled, like Eddie could hear him.
Instead of following immediately after him, Steve watched Eddie reach the halfway point, his arms furiously slapping the water. He was arguably the worst swimmer Steve had ever seen and Steve didn’t think he could like him more if he tried.
Taking a deep breath, Steve pushed off the wall and entered a race he had lost months ago, since sharing a cigarette at the edge of a different pool. He kept his strokes steady but slow and still managed to catch up with Eddie in the homestretch. His old coach always stressed the importance of the reach, that fingertips decided the outcome of the greatest races. As the wall approached, Steve closed his fists and saw Eddie’s palms slam against the tile seconds before him.
“Ha!” Eddie’s chest was heaving and most of his hair was plastered against his cheeks. “I am the champion, my friend.”
Steve shook his head, so helplessly endeared, and rested his arms on the deck as he caught his breath.
“And I’ll keep on winning ‘til the end,” Eddie continued singing as he rested his arms beside Steve’s.
“Fighting,” Steve corrected.
“Pretty sure it’s winning, Harrington.”
On this point, Steve had to insist. “No, it’s fighting. Listen man, no one pays more attention when Freddie Mercury sings than me. It’s fighting. You’ll keep fighting ‘til the end.”
He waited for Eddie to continue arguing with him, but nothing came. When he looked to see if something was wrong, if Eddie really had started drowning, Steve found Eddie already staring back at him, eyes wide and bottomless as an ocean. The mood in the room had shifted. Water and electricity.
“Sometimes,” Eddie said, quiet as a confession, “I don’t think I know you at all.”
“Dude, what are you talking about?” Steve asked. He had to channel all the self-control he possessed into not demanding he take it back. “You know everything about me, ‘least all the important stuff.”
“See, sometimes I think so too, but then there’s this really big important thing we never talk about hanging over both our heads and just…” Eddie plunged underwater, sending up a burst of bubbles in his wake. When he surfaced, his eyes found Steve’s again and sounded resigned as he said, “Just put me out of my misery here, Steve. You don’t even have to let me down easy.”
It could be Eddie didn’t know him after all. If he did, he’d know Steve would put his life on the line not to let anyone down, especially him.
“I can’t breathe when I think about you leaving,” Steve said. A levee inside him had broken. “Like, I was a mess when Robin and Nance left, but I wanted them to get out of here and have lives outside of Hawkins. And I want that for you, man, I really do because I can’t be the reason someone sticks around here just to be miserable, but every time I imagine you actually going, it’s like my heart’s gonna stop, or explode, or whatever happens when you have a heart attack. So, you should leave if you want to go, but if there was a way for you to stay here and be happy, that’s how I’d want it to be.”
There, everything Steve had left to put on the table. It was an uglier spread than he had imagined.
“Uh, that was…” Eddie scratched at his temple, sending a drop of water running down his cheek in the path of a tear. “...a lot.”
“Just forget I—”
Eddie didn’t let him finish. “And I kinda wish you had kissed me first so at least I could have known what that’s like before we both started really freaking out.”
“You—” Steve’s brain stalled. Eddie was chewing on his bottom lip and he couldn’t focus anywhere else. “I could still kiss you…if you want.”
Eddie, impossibly, huffed. “Pretty sure I passed just wanting three months ago. I’ve become pretty well acquainted with needing, craving, thinking I might die without—”
Talking was Eddie’s first and only defense, but Steve needed it to stop before he talked them both out of it. Of this—Steve threading a hand in the hair covering the back of Eddie’s neck and shutting him up with the kiss they both more than wanted.
For a moment, neither of them moved. Their elbows knocked awkwardly together and Steve hadn’t gotten the angle right. It wasn’t so different from any first kiss he had with a girl, unsure and unaccustomed to each other, but his mind screamed that this was Eddie.
Eddie who he knew would taste a little like nicotine and whose hair would be as soft as it looked even soaking wet. Who laughed softly in disbelief as he pulled away a fraction and shifted until he had Steve pressed against the wall, forearms caging him in. “That’s what I’ve been waiting so long for, Harrington?” he asked but with a smile ghosting over Steve’s lips.
Steve pulled him back in for a real kiss, one where their mouths actually moved and had their chests sliding together in a way that sent a bolt through him. One of Eddie’s hands fell to his waist, thumb skimming along the ridges of Steve’s messy scars.
At Steve’s shiver, Eddie pulled back and whispered against his cheek, “That okay?”
Steve moved his hand over Eddie’s, pressing it flat against the scars, and kissed him again, hoping it would convey what he didn’t know how to say out loud without scaring him off for good. That Eddie was probably the only one he’d ever let touch him there, like this, no barriers.
One of them, Steve couldn’t even say who, groaned, but the echo of it got drowned out by the sound of tires pulling up next to the pool house. Headlights lit up the room, missing spotlighting Steve and Eddie by a mere few inches. Flashing red and blue lights followed, though no siren. Not yet.
“Shit,” Steve swore at the same time Eddie spit out, “Jesus Christ.”
Eddie scrambled out of the pool first, racing for his clothes in a hunched run, Steve at his heels. Sweatshirt, jeans, shoes with the socks shoved in them, all piled in his arms for the mad dash to the pool’s other door and a not a moment too soon as he heard Officer Callahan calling into the dark, “Hey! You kids ever heard of trespassing?”
Tripping outside, soaking wet and with no clothes on, Steve ducked behind the equipment shed and silently wished for whatever Eddie used to smoke in there during school hours. “Okay, we’ll just wait him out. Guy’s lazy as hell, we should be able to get back to the car in…”
The place beside him, where Eddie should’ve been, was empty. He hadn’t followed him.
Steve squinted into the night, but only saw an empty field on one side and the unlit school on the other. If Eddie was hiding out in the shadows of the building, he clearly didn’t want Steve to see him.
His teeth chattered and his legs were shaking, but the cold he felt coursing through his blood was different. By now, Steve always recognized fear.
That was how long it had been since he had seen Eddie. Two weeks, which was fourteen days, twenty-four hours in each and every one longer than the last. He tried calling, but he only got voicemail or Wayne telling him Eddie already left for his shift at the record store two towns over. On his day off—Mondays, just like Eddie because they arranged it that way—he swung by the trailer and knocked on the door until his fist went numb. No one ever came to the door.
It got dire when Eddie had failed to show up to their bi-weekly movie night with the kids. Dustin had refused to start Temple of Doom without him, even as Erica’s strictly enforced curfew fast approached.
“We should go by his trailer, right? What if something’s wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong,” Steve had said, too readily, because all the kids blinked at him with their creepy, curious eyes. “Let’s just give him a night off, alright? He’s probably sick of smelling your disgusting socks. Like Jesus, Henderson, keep your shoes on next time.”
Mike hadn’t looked convinced. “Did you two have a fight or something?”
“What would Munson and I even have to fight about?”
Of all the people to betray him, Max had answered with, “Maybe how he’s over here all the time and doesn’t pay rent?” His skin might as well have been transparent by the way she had looked at him. The kids had gotten too damn perceptive. Or maybe he was just too damn obvious.
It came to a head when Steve had called last night and Wayne picked up, but only to inform him that Eddie was at his second job. Apparently, Eddie had taken a gig delivering pizzas for a place in the same town as the record store. Argyle would be proud.
Steve had asked for the parlor’s name and that was why he had two extra large pizzas en route to his house with no one around to eat them. At the end of his order, he even put in a request for their most irritating delivery driver.
“Oh, do we have a guy for you,” the flat-toned girl on the other end of the line had said. Wayne had definitely provided him with the right place.
And while he waited thirty minutes or less, Steve took the phone out to the back patio and dialed the number he memorized by heart, forwards and backwards.
Steve had no time for hello’s. “I’m having a crisis.”
Robin’s eye roll somehow came through long-distance. “There are hotlines for that.”
“You’re my hotline,” Steve said as he began pacing the length of his pool. “So, Eddie—”
“Oh, this is that phone call,” Robin said, her voice brightening. “Indeed, I am your girl.”
“How did you—” They'd have to unpack Robin’s powerful sixth sense later. “—never mind. Eddie’s on the way over with pizza.”
Robin snorted. “Don’t you two do that every night, dingus?”
The old term of annoyed endearment halted Steve’s pacing for a second, allowing him to take a more stable breath. “No, he’s coming over with pizza I ordered, like from his job. Because we haven’t talked in two weeks.”
“What? And you’re both still alive?” Robin asked, incredulous. “How is that possible, you and Eddie are like telepathically linked. He’s the Elliot to your E.T. Me and Nance were talking about this the other day. We agreed it was cute in, like, a codependent, security blanket kind of way.”
“Stop talking to Nancy about me,” Steve snapped but without any heat behind it. “We haven’t talked for two weeks because I might have maybe told him I want him to stay in Hawkins with me forever, and he freaked out, so I freaked out, and then we kissed and almost got caught by Officer fucking Callahan. So basically, my life is over.”
The line went radio silent for a good fifteen seconds. Steve counted them in another fit of frustrated paces.
Finally, Robin broke the silence with, of all things, a whine. “You’ve got to be kidding me. You, Steve Harrington, have kissed a boy, but I still haven’t kissed a girl.”
“Yeah, well, it’s not all it was cracked up to be,” Steve muttered. If he had the power to snap his fingers and instantly have Robin standing right in front of him, he’d selfishly do it even for her to flick him in the forehead and demand he send her back.
“So if I’m getting this straight, you confessed your undying love to Eddie, he didn’t really say it back, you still made out, and now you’re trying to force him to talk to you by making him deliver you a pizza?” Robin clicked her tongue. “Best of luck with that.”
He took it back—he’d snap his fingers to send her even farther away from him. Siberia sounded lovely this time of year.
“What do you—best of luck?” Steve buried a hand in his hair, desperate enough to start pulling it out in tufts. “That’s what you’ve got for me? Best of luck? Worst hotline ever.”
Robin’s laughter underscored the sound of a van screeching to a halt on his front curb.
“He’s here,” Steve whispered into the speaker just before covering it to shout, “Come around back!”
“Just turn on that Steve Harrington charm and you’ll be just fine,” Robin said. “That’s what he’s been in love with since you bit into that bat.”
“Bye, bye, lover boy,” Robin sang before promptly hanging up the phone.
“Worst hotline ever,” Steve repeated to the dial tone. He was seriously contemplating chucking the phone into the pool, but for someone clearing their throat behind him.
“So apparently,” Eddie said, tossing Steve’s excuse pizzas on the nearest lounge chair, “I’m here by special request. Most annoying delivery guy at your service.”
Eddie held his arms out to present himself and without the pizza boxes in the way, Steve realized he was wearing the navy sweatshirt Steve had lent him six months ago. Never returned, though not like Steve could cast any stones. Eddie’s denim vest hung at the back of his closet upstairs and he ran his hands over it more times than he’d cop to.
“You’re wearing my sweatshirt.”
“Yeah,” Eddie said, dropping his arms. His fingers curled around the sleeves, still too long for him, and Steve never wanted the sweatshirt back. “Apparently my regular wardrobe is too off-putting for the regular clientele and it gets cold in the van, so…”
The conversation, if it had even been one, died, leaving Steve and Eddie to stare at each other across a pointless divide. Pointless to Steve, at least. Two weeks, his mind echoed, two weeks without fantasy references that flew over his head, and jabs at his ego to see if that balloon would burst, and constant company that set him at ease even as it made his heart hammer so hard sometimes he thought he’d need to be sedated.
“Did you want something from me, Steve?” The question could have come out sounding combative, but Eddie spoke it almost like a plea.
It was like Eddie had said in the pool, right before everything imploded: Steve had passed wanting months ago.
But he couldn’t survive another botched confession, so instead he asked, “Why’re you working two jobs?”
Eddie narrowed his eyes, so not what he had hoped to hear. “Why do ya think, Steve-O?” he asked with a trying smile, such a poor imitation of the real deal. “You can’t haul ass out of town and start your whole life over without a run away fund.”
Now, Steve wished they were indoors where he’d at least have something solid to steady him. With how dry his mouth was, he surprised himself by getting the words out: “You’re really gonna leave?”
You’re really gonna leave me.
Eddie kicked at the leaves gathering in soggy piles along the pool deck, refusing to meet Steve’s eyes. Was this how their goodbye was really going to go?
“Yeah, so, I’ve got my jar and I’ve got a jar next it to called ‘For when Steve Harrington stops being a self-sacrificial asshole and realizes his shit kids will call him no matter where he is or where they are and he’ll always make it back to them in time because that’s the kind of down-to-the-bone good dude he is’ fund,” Eddie said, all in one breath. Abandoning the mushy leaves, he looked up, chin jutting in defiance. In defiance of what, Steve didn’t know. “And that was a lot to write on a fucking jar, so you’re gonna have to start contributing to it soon.”
Steve’s pretty sure he started hallucinating sometime around “self-sacrificial asshole.” Because if he wasn’t hallucinating, that meant Eddie really was saying he had plans to take Steve with him wherever he went, whenever Steve was ready to go.
It was just up to Steve to commit.
Carefully, in an effort not to send Eddie running for the hills, Steve set the phone down on the ground and asked, “Where would we go?”
Eddie pitched his head back and bemoaned to the sky, “Jesus Christ, I didn’t drive out here to play twenty stupid questions.”
“No, you came out here to deliver me a pizza,” Steve said, taking a purposeful step forward. This part right here, he could do. “Where would we go?”
Frozen where he stood, Eddie swallowed, eyeing the disappearing space between them. “I don’t know, man, San Francisco.”
Steve shook his head, another step. “No way, too far. Gotta be less than a day’s drive to get back here.”
“It’s like fourteen hours, tops,” Eddie said, argumentative as always. He rocked back on his heels without backing away, without running. “So guess you’re taking New York and Boston off the table, too.”
“Chicago,” Steve offered, because he was all about meeting halfway. “Far enough I won’t have to deal with my parents. Close enough we can drive back on weekends to see the kids and your uncle. Big, loud, probably less monsters.”
“None of this is actually real, though,” Eddie protested. He tried chuckling, but it came out sounding too sharp. “It’s a fantasy.”
“Nah, your dragons and doom thing is a fantasy,” Steve said, taking the last big step and planting himself directly in front of Eddie. “This is real. And, if I may point out, your idea. You made a jar.”
“There’s not actually a—”
Steve cut him off—he had to—with a hand on his neck, skating his thumb over his hammering pulse point, and kissing him with all the anxiety, and desperation, and need he had pent up over two excruciating weeks. Eddie went slack with surprise and Steve used the opportunity to deepen the kiss, to really mean it this time. To show Eddie this wasn’t a cruel joke or something that would disappear on him, even if he ran away nine times out of ten. Steve would always have him back, simple as that.
Eddie fisted his hands in Steve’s shirt, pressing in closer and finally kissing him back with equal desperation. Steve nipped at Eddie’s bottom lip, the one he always bit probably to drive Steve to near insanity, and the moan he drew from him beat just about every sound he had heard in his life.
Just to hear it again, Steve broke from his lips to start kissing Eddie’s neck, only for him to pull back, releasing his vice grip on Steve’s shirt.
“No, no, sorry, can’t do it. Can’t keep pretending this is actually happening and it’s not some long, tortuous wet dream with way too much foreplay. You, Steve Harrington,” Eddie said, slowly like Steve might have forgotten his own name, and jabbing a finger at his chest, “cannot be considering running away together with me, Eddie Munson. Nope, no way this is real.”
“Will you stop saying that, dude?” Steve wrapped his hand around Eddie’s wrist, though he noticed for all the raving, he hadn’t stepped out of Steve’s space.
Eddie raised his eyebrows. “Dude? You’re gonna call me dude while some of your spit is still in my mouth?”
Steve ran his tongue along the inside of his teeth, trying to think of a comeback to that and coming up empty. “You’re unbelievable, you know that?”
“Huh, unbelievable, can I get a definition please?” After a brutal clearing of his throat, Eddie adopted the tone of a stuffy spelling bee moderator. “Something unlikely to be real.”
“Again, you failed English.”
Eddie held up his middle, ring, and pinkie fingers and mouthed, three times.
All Steve could think about was how much he wanted to kiss him again and he groaned as he said, “I don’t know why I like you so much. I think I need an exorcism.”
Eddie snorted. “According to this town, I’m the one who needs the exorcism.”
Cupping Eddie’s cheek again, Steve said softly, “I don’t care what this bullshit town thinks.”
A ringed hand grasped the collar of his polo and yanked it hard, sending Steve crashing back against Eddie and his lips. Something about Eddie initiating the kiss sealed everything, made it all—to borrow Eddie’s word for it—real.
After they’re forced to surface for air, Eddie coughed once and wiped his mouth along the back of his hand. “So, Chicago.”
Mining for a laugh, Steve said, “Yeah, I’ll get my dad’s realtor on it.”
Eddie mimed gagging. “Of course your family has a fucking realtor.” As he brushed some stray strands of hair from his face, he looked at the house and Steve was reminded of the night after battling Vecna in the Upside Down. Apparently reading his mind, Eddie said, “You know, the first night I was here, no offense but I felt really sad for you.”
Under normal circumstances, Steve would have bristled at the pity, but nothing with Eddie had ever been under normal circumstances, not since the day they met. “Why?”
“I got this feeling walking inside like I was stepping into a dungeon or a cave, how everything was just so dark and lonely.” Eddie shook his head, as if to drive the bad feelings away. “You’re not like that at all, so I didn’t know how you could stand it.”
No one else had put into words before the feeling Steve got arriving home and wondering if this would be the time the door locked behind him for good. The realtor his family did in fact have sold the house to the Harringtons as, your last.
It wouldn’t be Steve’s last anything, not if he could help it.
Steve fumbled for his wallet in his back pocket and, once he had it, drew out the only bill in it, a single one. “Here,” he said, grabbing Eddie’s hand and slapping the crumpled dollar into it. “For the jar. Let’s get the hell out of here.”
“Was this all you had to pay for two pizzas?” Eddie asked, barely considering the dollar before letting it flutter to the ground. “Well shit, I’m definitely fired now.”
The sun had nearly set, casting everything on the patio in a warm orange glow. Even the pool looked like it might hold a trace of magic. Steve tilted his head toward the water. “Wanna swim?”
One second, Eddie was shaking his head, as if he still couldn’t believe this was his lot in life, and in the next, he threw himself at Steve, smacking his lips against his cheek until he had Steve attempting to squirm away. This was both of their lots in life, take it or leave it. Well, Steve had already put down a dollar investment.
“Sure, Steve,” Eddie whispered, pressing a kiss just below his ear. “Let’s swim.”