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I Like to See You in the Morning Light

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Eddie didn’t expect to wake up.

He’d made a choice. A terrified, adrenaline-filled choice, sure, but a choice all the same. To stop running away. To meet his destiny head-on, because there was nothing left for him to live for anyway. If he survived all the insane Upside Down bullshit , the only thing waiting for him in the aftermath was three counts of murder and the death penalty anyway. So better to go out doing something, right?


Except he did wake up. It took him a few minutes to truly understand what was happening. He felt high as a kite, which was saying something. It was bright as hell, and everything smelled antiseptic. There was an incessant beeping noise that he felt in the back of his skull. A hospital. Somehow, someone had gotten him to a hospital. 

He registered the needle in his hand next, connected to an IV. And then, finally, the silver handcuffs latched tightly around each wrist, attaching him to the metal frame of his bed.  A moment of panic, pure and unbridled, shot through him, and he let out a small whimper as he fought to free himself.  The cuffs were harsh against his skin, grinding painfully into his bones as he fought against them.

The heart monitor started shrieking, and a moment later the door flew open and a woman in pink scrubs rushed in. She was talking, even shouting, but he couldn’t understand her. He felt like a rabbit in a trap, his heart beating loud in his ears, his breaths coming in panicked gulps.

“--okay!” she said, and he shook his head.

“--Get those damn things off him!”

“You know I can’t--”

The nurse injected something into his IV, and he barely had the chance to understand he was being sedated before it hit him hard. Weight settled over him quickly, a cold rush through his veins that grabbed him by the brain stem and yanked him downward.  He let out a shaking breath, his body relaxed, and darkness took him.

The next time Eddie woke up, former Police Chief Hopper was sitting at his bedside.  He looked gruff and exhausted and thin, and Eddie giggled a little. Fuck, he was still really high.

“You’re supposed to be dead,” he said.

“Yeah, well,” Hopper said. “They said the same thing about you. I think the words ‘certified miracle’ were used.”

“Fuck,” Eddie said, with feeling. “I am supposed to be dead. That was the plan! My plans never work.”

He tried to raise his hands to rub his face, and they stopped short where the handcuffs pulled.  He let out a shaking breath and tried to blink back the hot tears building in his eyes.

“Fuck,” he repeated softly.

“Listen,” Hopper said, leaning in close to him. “It’s all going to be alright, okay? We’re working on clearing your name as we speak.”

“We are?” Eddie asked. His voice cracked pathetically, but he couldn’t bring himself to care. He was already at rock bottom. Below rock bottom. He was currently plunged directly into the magma core of the Earth.

“Yes,” Hopper said, his voice pitched so low Eddie could hardly hear it. “You have an alibi. You were nowhere near Chrissy Cunningham when she died. She sought you out at home but you weren’t there. You were with Steve Harrington all night.”

“I…” Eddie knew there was something he was missing here. His brain felt slower and stupider than usual.

“You remember, don’t you?” Hopper said, meeting his eyes.

“Um,” Eddie said. “Yeah. I mean…I was…with Steve. All night.”

“You didn’t come forward before because you were afraid. Worried about what people would say if they knew where you’d been.”

“With Steve?” Eddie repeated, confused. “The guy is a bit of a douche, but he’s not so bad now--”

“Eddie,” Hopper said sternly. “I need you to understand what I’m telling you. This has to be airtight. Do you understand?”

Eddie nodded dumbly. 

“Right after school, you met up with Chrissy Cunningham in the woods. She was under the misconception that you deal drugs, and you told her otherwise and left. You then went directly back to the school, where you hosted your dnd game until 8 pm. Then, you went to Steve Harrington’s house, where he can confirm you arrived at 8:15. You’ve been seeing each other for several weeks--”

“Wait,” Eddie said, his drug-addled brain catching up suddenly. “Wait! My alibi is that I was having sex with Steve Harrington?

Hopper shushed him. “It’s the only thing that makes sense,” he said sternly. 

“How does that make sense?” Ed demanded, on the edge of hysteria.

“Because the kids aren’t a good alibi for Chrissy's death. They were home with their parents at the time the coroner projected. There’s no reason that you wouldn’t have immediately come forward with your alibi if you were with Nancy or Robin. But Steve…”

“No one will wonder why I’d take a murder accusation over getting caught with a guy,” Eddie said, pressing his eyes closed as he started to understand. This was so fucked.

“Exactly,” Hopper said. “I…I can’t promise you that those details won’t find their way to the public. But Steve has agreed to take that risk.”

“It’s not like I haven’t been called a fag my whole life,” Eddie muttered, looking at Hopper’s apologetic face. “Now they’ll just have confirmation.”

Hopper cleared his throat, clearly uncomfortable. “Right. Well, you met up with Steve at 8:15. You ate chicken and rice for dinner, watched Highlander together, and spent the rest of the evening in bed.”

“Right,” Eddie said, feeling a little insane. “Of course we did.”

“Repeat that back to me,” Hopper said. “They’ve already taken Steve’s statement. They’ll want yours, and if they can’t find any chinks in the armor they’ll have no choice but to drop the charges. And without the murder charges, pressing on with the charges for resisting arrest won’t be worth their time.”

“I get it,” Eddie said. “I’ll kiss Harrington on the mouth in front of the whole town if I have to.”

“Better get used to calling him Steve,” Hopper advised, and Eddie sighed.

“Right. Okay. I met up with Chrissy after school in the woods. She thought I was a drug dealer, which I definitely am not. I set her right and went directly to DND. After, I went to Steve’s house. We watched a movie and then boned gently all night.”

“What did you watch?” Hopper asked.

Eddie hesitated for a second. “ Highlander .”

“And what time did you get to Steve’s?”

“Around 8:15.”

“Good,” Hopper said. “Good. Now, I’m going to go back out into the waiting room. Remember, you know nothing about the murders. You know nothing about the Upside Down or anything related to it. Someone was trying to frame you, and you don’t know why. You’re just a scared, unlucky kid. Got it?”

Eddie let out an almost hysterical laugh. That last part, at least, felt crushingly real. “Yeah. Yep. I’ve definitely got it.”

“Good,” Hopper said. “Once they drop the charges, they’ll uncuff you. Your uncle is waiting to be allowed to see you. And Steve. You’ll have to put on a good show, at least for a few weeks.”

“On the mouth,” Eddie repeated. “The whole town.”

Hopper cracked a smile and patted his shoulder.

“That’s the spirit, Munson.”

As Hopper left, a nurse came in. She took his vitals, asked him a bunch of questions, and was generally just kind of annoying when all he wanted to do was go back to sleep. But she did show him the button to push if he wanted more drugs, so she wasn’t all bad.  In fact, when she left and the cops came in, he kind of wished she’d come back.

“Mr. Munson,” Chief Powell said. “You’re a hard guy to track down.”

“Yeah, well,” Eddie scoffed. “When you’ve got a lynch mob after you there’s not much you can do but lie low.”

“Even when the police are looking for you?”

Eddie shrugged and looked down at his lap “There’s worse things than getting in trouble for running from the cops. And there’s things you can’t protect me from.”

He’d been mocked for being in drama club in middle school, but who was laughing now? He was going to act his ass off.

“Things like…?”

“Public ridicule?” Eddie snorted. “Daily games of literal Smear the Queer?”

Powell sighed and pulled up the chair Hopper had abandoned.  He took out a little notebook.

“Why don’t you tell me what happened?” he said.

“Chrissy Cunningham asked me to meet in the woods after school,” he started. “We hadn’t really talked before, and I thought maybe she wanted to ask me out or something? And I thought it would be better to let her do it somewhere discreet, so she wouldn’t be embarrassed considering everything. But she thought I was selling drugs…”

“And why would she think that?” Powell asked.

“I don’t know,” Eddie snorted. “Because I’m the trailer trash freak, I guess? People say all kinds of things about me. I’m sure I’ve only heard half of them.”

Powell made a note, and Eddie tried not to bristle. His anti-authority attitude wasn’t gonna do shit for him right now.  Instead, he took a breath and continued telling his story, exactly how Hopper had fed it to him. Powell asked occasional questions, made a few notes here and there, and then sighed.

“Well, your stories match up,” he said. “I am going to drop your charges, Mr. Munson, due to lack of compelling evidence to place you at the scene of the murders of Chrissy Cunningham, Fred Benson, or Patrick McKinney.”

Eddie breathed out a sigh of relief and pressed his eyes closed. Apparently Jason wasn’t a good enough witness to put Eddie at Lover’s Lake.

“I realize why you would be hesitant to come forward, considering your…situation,” Powell said, unlocking the nearest cuff. “But in the future, god forbid, I would suggest you come to us immediately. We could have cleared your name easily if you had been in police custody.”

Eddie nodded, even though he didn’t really believe it. Why work to clear his name when it was easier to throw the book at him and make the community feel like something effective had been done?

“Mr. Harrington really stepped up to the plate for you,” Powell continued. “He’s putting his own reputation at risk to try and save yours. I hope you understand how special it is, to have someone that loves you so much.”

“I…I do,” Eddie said, feeling a little numb. “I…is he here?” 

Powell moved around to his other side and released his other hand. Eddie immediately rubbed at his wrists, just for the relief of feeling his own freedom. 

“Mr. Harrington and your uncle have both been haunting the waiting room since you were admitted,” Powell said. “They’ll be allowed in to see you once I leave. For now, I’m going to leave the guard posted on your door, for your own safety. You are no longer being detained. I apologize for any grief we may have caused you in the past week.”

“Right,” Eddie said, because he didn’t know what else to say. “I’d like to see my uncle. And…Steve.”

“I’ll send them in,” Powell promised. “I hope you feel better soon.”

Eddie nodded, curling his arms up against his chest in a kind of pathetic self hug. He didn’t understand anything that was going on. How he was still alive, how he got there, why a group of virtual strangers was going to bat for him. None of it made any sense.

The door opened again, and this time his uncle was there, framed in the doorway like the patron saint of denim and pall mall cigarettes. His face crumpled when he looked at Eddie, his eyes wet, and Eddie immediately started crying in response.

He didn’t think he’d ever seen Wayne cry, not once in his entire life. Not when Eddie and his mom moved in with nowhere else to go. Not even when she died and left the two of them with just each other. Wayne had always taken care of him, had always given him everything he ever needed, and had done his best to give him things that he wanted. But he’d never been particularly emotional, and to see that facade crumble…it hurt. It made everything seem that much more terrifying and real.

“They’re dropping the charges,” he offered, because he didn’t know what else to say.

Wayne crossed the room in three big strides and leaned down to hug him. Eddie suspected if he wasn’t drugged to the gills that his rough grab would have hurt quite a bit, but he didn’t really care. It felt so good to see him. Even though he knew, logically, that the world was much bigger and scarier than he’d ever known, something in him felt relief at the presence of a parent. Wayne was a real adult, and he would know how to take care of things.

“Don’t you ever do that to me again,” Wayne said fiercely. “You hear me? Never. I thought--”

“I’m sorry,” Eddie said quietly, tears spilling over once more. “I’m really sorry, Uncle Wayne, I don’t know how things got so messed up.”

His uncle squeezed him again and then settled him back on his pillows.

“I’m just glad you’re alright,” he said finally. “I don’t know what I’d do, if I lost you.”

Eddie sniffled and wiped at his tears, looking for anything else to stare at besides his uncle. His eyes found Steve Harrington, still framed in the doorway.  He looked a little better than he had the last time Eddie had seen him. He was dressed simply in gray sweatpants and a plain white t-shirt, but they were clean at least. He had scratches along his jaw and a vivid bruise on his left cheek.  The line of bruises around his throat from the demo-bat had faded from black and blue to a healing greenish color.

“Hey there, lover boy,” Eddie cracked with a hesitant smile. 

Steve huffed a breath and rolled his eyes, but then crossed the room nearly as quickly as Wayne had. Eddie tried not to look shocked as he leaned in and kissed his cheek, so close to the edge of his mouth that the casual observer might have mistook it for a kiss on the lips. 

Like hell he was going to be outacted by Steve Harrington of all people.  He grabbed the back of Steve’s neck and pulled him closer as he started to stand, pressing their foreheads together.  Steve ran a gentle hand over Eddie’s hair, which actually felt really nice, and they released each other. He pulled a seat up on the opposite side of the bed from Wayne and then took Eddie’s hand and held it, which Eddie begrudgingly had to admit was a clever move. 

“I’ve had some time to talk to your boy while we’ve been waiting for you to wake up,” Wayne said, clearing his throat. “He’s…a nice kid. I’m happy for you.”

Eddie blushed and shifted his eyes to stare up at the ceiling.

“Uh. Thanks, Uncle Wayne.”

Thank god they’d already had the gay conversation years ago. Eddie couldn’t imagine the horror of this interaction being even more awkward than it already was. His uncle cleared his throat and said no more.

“What…happened?” Eddie dared to ask. It was pretty clear no one had let Wayne in on the secrets, and he definitely wasn’t gonna be the one to do it.

“There was an earthquake,” Steve said, squeezing his hand pointedly. “Do you remember? You protected Dustin from all that falling debris?”

“No,” Eddie said, because it would be easier to fake not remembering at all then it would to fake an entire made-up scenario. “Is he okay?”

“His ankle’s twisted,” Steve said. “But nothing’s broken. He’s fine.”

“And…is it over?” Eddie asked.

“It’s over,” Steve assured him. 

“There were a couple aftershocks in the days following,” Wayne spoke up. “But it’s all settled now.”

Eddie met Steve’s eyes, and Steve nodded. He’d get the real story later.

“And everyone is alright? Max?”

“She’s…she was hurt really bad,” Steve said. “Broke half the bones in her body. And she, uh…she can’t see. But she’s awake and recovering. Everyone else is good. Negligible injuries.”

“Oh,” Eddie said. “That’s good. Mostly good.”

“Mostly good,” Steve agreed.

Eddie nodded, his mind racing. Max had almost died. Almost died just like Chrissy, her bones snapping and her eyes…god her eyes…

“Hey,” Steve said gently, moving Eddie’s hand to rest over his own chest. “It’s okay, Eddie. You’re safe here. Breathe with me, okay?”

He felt like he couldn’t breathe at all, like someone had wrapped their giant fist around his lungs and squeezed them tight. But something about the rise and fall of Steve’s chest under his fingers helped him remember how it went. How it felt to expand and contract, to take in air and let it out again.

“Awesome,” Steve said after what could have been a minute or a hundred years. “You did great. You should rest, okay?”

Eddie nodded a little absently. He was tired.  He clenched his fingers tight around Steve’s for a moment, grateful to have a grounding presence when everything else felt so very fucked up.

“Will you stay?” he asked, unsure if he was talking to Steve or Wayne.

“Yeah,” Steve said. “I’ll stay. Get some rest.”

He squeezed once more and let the darkness grab him and pull him under.

It was easier than anticipated to get discharged from the hospital, but Eddie figured he probably owed that to the “earthquake”. There were a lot of injured people, and not enough beds. But two days, about a million removed stitches, a confirmation of no brain damage, and a bottle of painkillers later, he was allowed to leave.

“Good thing, too,” Wayne said as they headed out to the car. “You’ve been in for a week. Much longer than that and you’re like to fuse to your bed.”

“A week?” Eddie repeated. He knew it had been a few days, but a whole week? “How the hell are we supposed to afford that?”

“That’s not your concern, that’s mine,” Wayne said gruffly. “Insurance check will help.”

“Insurance?” Eddie asked.

“Yeah,” Wayne said. “Earthquake hit the trailer park hard. Our…everything’s gone. It all just collapsed in.”

“Everything?” Eddie asked forlornly. All his clothes and books and years worth of hand-painted minis. Wayne’s stupid collection of a million mugs and the picture of his mom pinned to the refrigerator. His guitar.

“Everything,” Wayne said. “But we’re both okay. That’s what’s important.”

“Right,” Eddie said, a little hollow in his chest. “Of course, yeah. Where are we gonna live?”

Wayne unlocked Eddie’s door first and then went around to his own. It was nice to be in the truck. It smelled like home, rather than antiseptic and death like the hospital did. He snuggled back into the bench seat, leaning his head against the back windshield.

“I’ve been staying at the emergency shelter at the high school for now,” Wayne said. “But your…Steve and I agreed that it would be better if you didn’t. So you’ll be staying at his house until I can nail down a place to stay.”

“Why would it be better…” Eddie paused and thought about it for a second. “Everyone still hates me.”

Wayne sighed and started the truck. “There was a whole to-do,” he said. “One of those bullies of yours got everyone all up in arms about you. There was an official statement released that you were proven innocent, but you know what they say: rumors are as dumb as the people who carry them.”

“Everyone still thinks that…that I hurt Chrissy,” Eddie said, hugging himself closely. 

“Not everyone,” Wayne said firmly. “I’ve always known you were innocent. And Steve, and your friends. It’ll be okay, kid.”

He shook out a cigarette and then offered the pack over to Eddie.  Eddie took one gratefully, realizing suddenly that he was absolutely dying for one.  Lighting up and taking the first drag was almost a religious experience. His hands stopped shaking nearly immediately. He took another long drag and let it out with a sigh.

“Did you say I’m gonna be staying at Steve’s?” he asked suddenly. 

“Yeah,” Wayne said. “It’ll be more comfortable for you there. He talked to his parents, they’re out of town for a couple weeks and can’t get back, but they’re fine with it.”

“And uh…what about you?” Eddie asked.

“I’ll keep on at the shelter for now,” Wayne said. “I’m just fine there, and I wouldn’t be comfortable in another man’s home.”

“But I should be?”

“From what I understand, you already spent some nights there,” Wayne said, and Eddie tried not to choke on his own spit.

“Well, yeah,” he lied. “But, you know. It’s kind of different to live there.”

“Only for now,” Wayne assured him. “I can’t get a downpayment on an apartment until the insurance check comes in. Think of it as a vacation. You might even find you like it.”

“Okay,” Eddie agreed a little reluctantly. “Thanks.”

Wayne reached over and patted his shoulder a couple times, and they fell back into silence.


Steve Harrington’s house was, in a word, gigantic. The trailer could have fit in it five times over, probably. He’d known the guy was rich, of course, but he’d never seen his house before. It wasn’t as if he’d ever been invited to any parties, even to deal.  He tried not to gawk like an idiot when Wayne dropped him off, since he was supposed to have been spending the nights there, but it certainly took some work.

Wayne handed him a wad of cash and said his goodbyes without getting out of the truck. Eddie might have thought he was uncomfortable about the whole thing, if not for the fact that he was running late for work. Maybe it was both. Eddie certainly felt like he was about to get arrested for trespassing as he knocked on the wide front door.

Steve shot him a bit of an awkward smile when he opened the door, waving him inside with a wide sweep of the hand.  Eddie tried to look confident as he strode through the doorway. He was usually pretty good at that kind of thing, but Steve Harrington had been witness to at least two of his breakdowns in the last month, so. He was a bit at a disadvantage.

“I uh, had a key made for you. Didn’t want you to feel trapped while I’m at work or anything. The kitchen and dining room are off to your right, living room to the left. Feel free to use the pool, if you’re not scarred for life after the whole lake situation--”

“Are you?” Eddie asked. 

“--Bedrooms are upstairs…what?” 

Eddie looked at Steve closely, meeting his eyes and searching for…something. He wasn’t really sure what. But something to show him that he wasn’t alone in this. That he wasn’t the only one fucked up forever by everything they’d gone through.

“Are you?” Eddie repeated. “Scarred for life?”

Steve flinched, the tiniest of motions, and then shrugged. “Yeah, man. We kind of all are, aren’t we?”

“Seen some fucked up shit,” Eddie said.

“Some truly fucked up shit,” Steve agreed.

“Not the least of which is that we’re apparently now dating,” Eddie said, making a kissy face to bring the mood back up. “Didn’t know you swung that way, Harrison.”

“I don’t,” Steve snorted. “I lied. Just like you?”

The last part was most definitely a question. A question that Eddie might have punched a guy for, if only to save face, three weeks ago. Now, he just shrugged and shook his head.

“You caught me. Grade-A queer. Regretting your choices yet?”

Steve looked at him for a long moment, eyes narrow, and then he said, “No, man, of course not. You’re my friend, and more importantly, you’re innocent.”

Eddie, once again, was surprised by the depth. He knew for a fact that Steve used to be about as deep as a puddle. But now…well, he did seem like a genuinely good guy. And he kept proving it over and over again. He swam down to the watergate without fear, walked right into Vecna’s lair with nothing but some molotov cocktails and a shotgun, watched out for the girls and the kids before himself, and even put his reputation on the line to keep Eddie out of prison. And now he was just letting him live in his house? It made no damn sense. 

“Are we?” Eddie asked him. “Friends?”

Steve’s eyebrows rose for a moment, and he crossed his arms over his chest. “I thought so. You can’t go through the shit we went through together and not be, can you?”

Eddie nodded thoughtfully. “No,” he said. “I guess you can’t.”

“Cool, then,” Steve said, like a question.

“Cool,” Eddie agreed. “Well, come on then. Show me to my room. I hope you put the little mints on my pillow.”

“Damn, I knew I was forgetting something,” Steve sighed, snapping his fingers.

Eddie grinned at him, relaxing a little bit. This was definitely weird. Three weeks ago he’d hardly even known Steve Harrington. Two weeks ago they’d been killing demon bats in the fucking real life Underdark. And now they were…friends. And sometimes friends stayed with their friends. It wasn’t a charity thing.

They went up the stairs, which was kind of a wild experience on its own. Eddie had never lived in a place with stairs before. The hallway was long and a bit dim, with only sconce lighting placed at intervals along the length. 

“First door is my parents’ room,” Steve said, pointing to the door to the right of the stairs. “They’re never here, so don’t even worry about them. My room is right next to them, at the end of the hall. Right across from them is the bathroom, and finally…”

He opened the last door on the left and waved like Vanna White into a guest room. It was relatively plain, with blue wallpaper and a beige carpet. The room was almost bigger than his whole trailer, though, so he certainly wasn’t going to complain about the decor. The bed, made up with white linens, was so big it wouldn’t even fit in his bedroom at home.

There was a wooden secretary desk under the window across from the bed, and a large wooden wardrobe in one corner. There was a carriage clock on the bedside table, and a couple of knick knacks on top of the desk, but other than that it was completely devoid of personality. Somehow, that felt better than taking a room that clearly belonged to someone else.

“It’s not much,” Steve said. “But it should do just fine.”

“It’s great, man,” Eddie said. “Really. Thanks. For…all of it.”

“No problem,” Steve said, cracking a smile at him.

They looked at each other for a long moment, the ticking of the clock sounding loud in the silence, and then Eddie said,

“Ah, fuck it.”

He grabbed Steve up in a big hug, rocking him with the exuberance of it. Steve went stiff for a moment and then seemed to realize that he wasn’t being attacked and hugged him back.

“Thanks for not leaving me there,” Eddie said, so quietly that he wasn’t sure Steve actually heard him.

But then Steve patted his back a couple of times.

“You’re one of us,” he said. “We wouldn’t leave you.”

Eddie sniffled and blinked back the tears threatening to fall before he pulled away and put a big smile back on. If Steve noticed, he was nice enough not to say anything.

“Anyway, I think what I want more than anything is a shower,” Eddie announced. “And the world’s biggest blunt.”

“Might be able to scrounge up something,” Steve said. “You shower and I’ll look around.”

“Harrington, have you been seeing other dealers?” Eddie put a hand to his heart in mock offense.

“Well now that I’ve got a friend in the biz I’ll have to change my ways,” Steve snorted. “Once you’ve got a new supply, that is.”

“Oh,” Eddie said, his smile dropping. “Right. Fuck.”

He’d lost fucking everything. Including all his goods and the money he kept stashed in his mattress.  Steve winced and patted his shoulder comfortingly.

“Well, come on, Bambi. You’ll feel better after a shower.”

Eddie stopped short, staring at him incredulously.

“What the fuck did you just call me?”

Steve smirked at him and waved a hand toward his face. “You’ve got big doe eyes, man. Bambi.”

“That’s stupid,” Eddie insisted, absolutely not feeling any kind of warm fuzzies at receiving a dumb nickname. “Bambi’s not a doe.”

“Well excuse me, would you prefer I call you Bambi’s Mom? Doesn’t quite roll off the tongue as well.” Steve’s perked eyebrows and daring expression made Eddie pause for a second to think. He could press back on this, but he suspected Steve would just double down. He could be walking a line directly into even worse, much more embarrassing nicknames.

“Bambi’s fine,” he muttered sullenly. 

Steve’s smirk was infuriating and not hot at all. “Towels are in the cabinet by the sink and there’s extra toothbrushes in the drawer,” he continued, stopping to lean his shoulder against the door jamb of the bathroom. 

“You gonna come in and shower with me too?” Eddie asked, raising his eyebrows. “If you do, I expect a whole service, so be prepared.”

Steve flushed pink, which Eddie had to admit was a very cute look on him.

“Sorry,” He said, clearing his throat, “But you can’t afford a patented Harrington scrub down. Just…let me know if you need anything, Bambi.”

“You got it, Big Boy,” Eddie teased, winking. Steve’s face got pinker, and Eddie laughed as he closed the bathroom door in his face.

The water pressure in the shower was absolutely heavenly, and he spent the first five minutes just standing there and letting hot water beat on his sore shoulders.  Most of his bruises had healed from dark splotches into vaguely blue and green splotches, but the bite marks from the demo-bats were still raw and swollen and scabby. He tried not to look at them too much, but they were kind of hard to miss.

How the hell was he ever gonna get laid again, looking like this?

With a grumble, he grabbed some shampoo and started on his hair. He’d had showers at the hospital since waking up, but they were more like sponge baths with all the stitches. And damn if the unscented stuff didn’t just depress the hell out of him. The stuff that Steve used came in an orange bottle and smelled honey-sweet, which was nice.

He tried out the conditioner next, which kind of felt like a waste of time most days. But hey, he was trying to see how long the hot water tank would hold out, so why the hell not? He took his time lathering up with a plain bar of white dove soap, but after another ten minutes the water still wasn’t threatening to go cold, so he turned it off just because he was getting bored.

He poked around in all the cabinets, looking to see what he could see. There was a bottle of xanax, which he popped a couple of, as well as a comically large bottle of hairspray.  He located a packaged toothbrush and a razor to shave off the patchy growth of facial hair that had built up over the last week.

Finally, he looked at himself in the mirror and tried to find something different. He was so changed now, and he could never go back. The world wasn’t safe like he’d once thought. It was different, so fucking different. But he still looked the same. He looked until he couldn’t bear to anymore, and then he scooped his gross clothes off the floor and headed back to his room. 

Steve’s door was cracked, so he stopped and peeked his head in. It looked shockingly similar to the guest room. The wallpaper was white plaid with matching curtains, but other than that, it was the same. The same bed, the same desk, a couple of impersonal tchotchkes. It looked like no one lived here.

Steve was stretched out on the bed, tossing a baseball up toward the ceiling and catching it, over and over again. Eddie cleared his throat to announce his presence, and Steve nearly dropped the thing on his own face. He sat up with a scowl, and Eddie watched as Steve’s eyes quickly flickered up and down over him, naked but for a towel.  Interesting.

“We match,” Steve said. 

Eddie stared at him blankly.

Steve lifted up the hem of his t-shirt, showing Eddie the healing bite marks on his sides, a perfect match to Eddie’s. 

“Oh,” he said, feeling a little nauseous. Somehow it was even worse seeing it on Steve. “We should start a club.”

“A very exclusive club,” Steve agreed.

Silence fell, and they just looked at each other for a long minute.  Steve dropped the hem of his shirt, and Eddie cleared his throat.

“Hey, so I just realized I don’t actually have any clothes,” he said. “I don’t suppose you have anything that won’t make me want to hang myself?”

Steve scowled at him and Eddie grinned back.

“Nancy and Robin ran to the mall a few towns over to grab you some stuff. It’s not a lot, a few pairs of jeans and t-shirts and stuff. It’s in the wardrobe in your room.”

“Cool,” Eddie said. “Thanks.”

He lingered for a long moment, trying to get a gauge on Steve’s facial expression, and then headed in to see what the girls had procured for him. Between Robin’s quirky clash of patterns and Nancy’s working professional looks, he didn’t have high hopes, but his heart warmed when he opened the door and saw a folded raglan tee with the Iron Maiden logo right on top.

There was a note pinned to the top, in what he could only assume was Nancy’s neat writing.

“We had some trouble finding things we thought you’d like, but we hope we did okay! Took us hours to get our hands on the band tees! We hope it helps you feel a little at home while you’re healing up. N+R.”

He picked up the shirt and hugged it to his chest. Underneath was a black Motörhead tee, a package of plain black t-shirts, and a couple pairs of black jeans. They’d even gotten him new packs of underwear and socks.  He tried not to get emotional as he got dressed, but it was hard. His emotions had been running at top level for two weeks now, and now that he was safe, they refused to be pushed back anymore.

He sank down onto the floor, his back pressed against the bed behind him, and sobbed. He sobbed for Chrissy, who had remembered his band’s name. He sobbed for Max, who had seen so damn much and now wouldn’t see anything ever again. He sobbed, perhaps selfishly, for the loss of his whole life and everything he’d ever had. Mostly, he sobbed for himself and what he’d lost on the inside. The peace of mind he didn’t think he’d ever get back.  He cried until he couldn’t anymore, cradling his arms around himself in a tight hug, and then he swiped at his eyes and runny nose furiously.

It was only after he’d given himself a few minutes to calm down that he saw the small plastic bag settled at the bottom of the wardrobe next to his new clothes.  He grabbed it and looked inside, smiling when he saw his rings, necklaces, and wallet chain. As insignificant as they were in the long run, it was nice to still have them. Relics of his life from before, little pieces of the armor he’d dressed himself with every day to do battle against the conformists and normals. Pieces that made him feel powerful and in control.

There was also a cheap walkman and a Dio tape. The Last in Line . He snorted a little, aware that they must have picked the one from the back of his battle jacket as a safe bet. It was nice, though. Really nice. If he hadn’t just cried himself dry, it might have set him off again. Instead, he suited up, sliding all his jewelry back in place. It made him feel like himself again. It made him feel strong enough to go hear what he needed to hear.

Steve was still in his bedroom when Eddie poked his head in, though this time he had a Sports Illustrated magazine held in front of his face.  He glanced up when Eddie let himself in, pinning him with a smile.

“Hey, there you are. Looking like yourself again.”

“The girls did good, I’ll give them that,” Eddie said, doing a little spin like he was on a runaway.

“Just missing one thing,” Steve said. 

He stood up and went to his closet, shooting Eddie a conspiratory look over his shoulder. Eddie watched, bemused, until Steve pulled out his battle jacket and presented it with flourish.  Eddie’s hands were almost shaking as he reached out for it, the last piece of his armor. The most important piece.

“There’s a little blood on the inside still,” Steve said, making an apologetic face. “I did my best to clean it, but some of it was stubborn.  You can’t see it on the outside, though!”

“A little blood makes it that much more metal,” Eddie said, slipping it on and hugging it close around him like a security blanket. 

He dropped down to sit on the end of Steve’s bed, rubbing his fingertips over the seams near his pockets. It was a familiar, comforting sensation. It helped him feel real. Grounded. 

“So. I think it’s time you tell me what the hell really happened.” 

Steve raised a finger in a ‘wait’ motion and then dug through his bedside table until he came out with a rolled joint and a lighter.  He lit up, took a deep drag, and handed it over before he settled on the other end of the bed.

“Good idea,” Eddie admitted, taking a puff himself. He needed to go buy some cigarettes, stat.

“So,” Steve said. “The quick version is that we made it to Vecna. Did some fire damage. Nancy was a fucking queen and shot him, again and again. And then he fell out the window and by the time we got outside he was gone.”

Eddie took another, nervous drag from the joint before passing it back over. “So he’s still out there?” he asked on the exhale.

“No,” Steve said. “You missed a hell of a lot while you were unconscious. We came back, found Dustin and…you. God, I thought you were dead. You looked like you’d been torn apart, there was blood on your lips and…”

His hands shook when he took his next drag, and Eddie found himself surprised by the emotion. He supposed he shouldn’t; wasn’t he sitting in this guy’s house, who was pretending to the police that they were lovers in order to save him? But still, Eddie wasn’t used to people giving a shit about him. Not really. Maybe that was something he’d have to get used to.

“It was Nancy who was smart enough to check for a pulse,” Steve continued after a moment. “And…we didn’t think there was a chance you’d make it to a hospital, but we had to try, right? Either way, no one wanted to just…leave you there.”

Eddie thought about his body, torn and broken and left behind to rot in the Upside Down forever. He shuddered and stole the joint from between Steve’s lips.

“We got you to the hospital and somehow you were still alive. And they rushed you into surgery and someone called the cops and…it was a whole thing. Anyway, while we were in the Upside Down, the others were dealing with Jason Carver and his group of idiots. That’s why…that’s why Max is so hurt. He broke the tape player and nearly beat Lucas to death.”

“Fuck,” Eddie said. The weed and xanax was starting to do its work, his thoughts racing a little less, his jaw unclenching. He wasn’t sure it was potent enough to handle the mental images of the kids getting attacked.

“Max died,” Steve added. “Just for a minute, but apparently that was enough time. It opened the gate, and that’s what everyone is calling the Earthquake. Jason died. The rest of our group made it back to Hawkins and we thought things were over, but then Vecna came through with a bunch of beasties. I really thought we’d lost.”

Eddie had always had a good imagination and a flair for drama. He could practically see it in his mind: the door to hell itself gaping wide, Vecna rising up wretched and burning and out for blood.  Monsters clawing their way out, blacking out the sky. The Party, outgunned and outmanned, already exhausted. Defeated and hopeless.

“El did what she could to hold him back, but he was so powerful. The rest of us were doing what we could to fight back the monsters,” Steve said. “He was kicking her ass, really. He had her, he really did. I thought…”

He let out a shaking breath.

“Then, he just…stopped. And he started screaming . None of us knew what was happening, and then there was another girl there. And she and El just kind of looked at each other and then El…she tore Vecna apart. He didn’t even fight back, he just kept screaming…”

Steve shuddered hard and Eddie reached out for him, hoping to offer some kind of comfort. Steve took his hand and squeezed it tight, offering a tight smile. Eddie smiled in return, and it felt unnatural on his face.

“So who was the girl?” Eddie asked.

“Kali,” Steve said. “El’s sister. Number 008. Apparently she can make people hallucinate so vividly they can’t tell reality from fiction. In a way, she did to Vecna what he did to his victims.”

“What did she make him see?” Eddie asked, and Steve shrugged.

“She didn’t say. She left almost as quickly as she came. I guess someone who used to work in the Hawkins lab reached out to her and she came as quickly as she could.”

“And that’s it?” Eddie asked.

Steve nodded. “That’s it. Once Vecna was gone, the rest of the hivemind just…crumbled apart. The gate imploded on itself. They called it aftershocks, but we think…we think the Upside Down is gone.”

“For good?” Eddie asked, hardly daring to hope.

“Yeah,” Steve said. “Just…gone.”

“And now we’re just supposed to…go on like everything is normal?” Eddie asked. “Like we didn’t almost die? Like Chrissy didn’t--”

Steve squeezed his hand tightly.

“As much as we can, I guess,” he said. “But the memories…the nightmares…all that shit sticks around. It gets easier, eventually. But it never really goes away.”

“Oh,” Eddie said dully. “Great. Can’t wait.”

“That’s the cost of surviving, I guess,” Steve said softly. “Having to live with it, after.”

“I wasn’t supposed to survive,” Eddie admitted quietly. “I knew…I knew I was running right into my death. And it was fucking terrifying but also…part of me kind of wanted it.”

He expected judgment. Disgust. Hell, even shock. But Steve just nodded.

“I don’t want to die,” Eddie continued. “Not really. But I thought…what did I have to live for?”

“And now?” Steve asked. Eddie met his eyes.

“I don’t know,” he admitted. “Not a murderer to the law anymore, but to the town…”

He shrugged.  Steve nodded and made a face like he wasn’t quite sure what to say.

“I wish I could tell you it would blow over, but…”

“It might not,” Eddie said. “It probably won’t. I haven’t done myself any favors in the past by being an asshole.”

“What I can tell you is that we’re all here for you. Even the ones you haven’t met yet. We’re a family, all of us, and that includes you too. Whether you want it to or not.”

Eddie snorted and managed a small smile. “Harrington, you’re gonna make me blush.”

“I’m very good at that,” Steve said. 

They finished the joint between them, until it was nothing but bitterness and a nub of paper.  Eddie itched for a cigarette, but he chewed on his nails instead. It was better than nothing.

“Can I ask you something?” Steve asked after several long minutes of quiet.

Eddie shot him a look and bit his lip on the obvious, sarcastic answer. “Fire away.”

“Dustin said…he said that you going after the demo-bats was because you’d stopped running. But you know you’d stopped before that, right?”

He looked so damn earnest that Eddie couldn’t help but dismiss him right out of hand.

“What do you mean?” Eddie snorted. “I ran from Chrissy and I ran from Jason and I hid away like a coward…”

“Fight or flight, man,” Steve said. “You only had one choice. You couldn’t fight Vecna to save Chrissy. You couldn’t have fought off the whole Hawkins High basketball team. There’s no shame in living to fight another day.”

“I guess,” Eddie mumbled. He could see the logic in it, but deep in his gut he couldn’t quite believe it.

“But when I was pulled under the lake? You came after me. You didn’t have to follow the girls, but you did. And then you went back into the Upside Down again, because we needed you. That wasn’t running, Eddie. That was fighting. Standing your ground. You don’t give yourself enough credit.”

Eddie chewed on the skin around his thumbnail, wincing a bit as he tasted the metallic tang of blood.

“I wasn’t being brave or anything,” he protested. “I was fucking terrified.”

“We were all terrified,” Steve said. “If you weren’t scared, then I’d be worried. But you stood up for us. For yourself. You purposefully drew a swarm of man-eating bats right toward yourself to get us a chance at Vecna. That’s brave, man. That’s hero shit.”

“Fuck off,” Eddie said weakly, embarrassed and pleased all in one.

Steve laughed and nudged their knees together. “Just remember that next time, alright? You don’t have anything to prove to us.”

Eddie ducked his head and sniffled a little. What a fucking concept.

Things happened in a kind of whirlwind over the next couple of days, in an amalgamation of mundanity and Earth-shaking bullshit. Eddie used the cash Wayne had given him to buy a new (to him, at least) jacket, a carton of cigarettes, and several new versions of his favorite tapes.  The Hawkins PD released another statement that Eddie wasn’t a killer, and new information that witness testimony in fact pointed to Jason Carver as the killer of his girlfriend, best friend, and another student. The release didn’t use their names, but somehow word spread through the entire town that Lucas had stopped Jason from sacrificing Max.  Hopper had pulled Eddie aside and warned him that he’d be keeping an eye on him, without explicitly telling him he’d definitely arrest him for possession and intent to sell. The message had been clear enough.

Eddie found out on the same day that Max got out of the hospital that classes would be resuming at the high school on Monday. That information spurred Joyce into getting her brood back to California so they could finish out their year, but not before there was a big “thank god none of us died” party at Steve’s house.

It had been less like the kind of parties Eddie was used to; drugs, loud music, questionable dancing, and more like a group of people congregating together and trying to act normal while Robin played the world’s weirdest party playlist.  For as weird as it had been, though, it had also been kind of nice. No one had questioned Eddie’s presence there. Even the ones he’d met for the first time had accepted him as part of the group without a second thought.

Steve and Dustin had stuck to him like glue: Steve mother henning in a way that made Eddie’s stomach warm, which he wasn’t going to think too hard about, and Dustin trying to show him off to his friend Will from California. That made him feel warm in a very different, more pathetic way, like an older brother who desperately wanted the kids to think he was cool. 

He spent his nights in Steve’s guest room, trying to sleep. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw Chrissy’s bones snapping, Steve gasping for breath with a tail wrapped around his throat, Dustin’s eyes filled with tears…

He managed two or three hours a night, when he was too fucking exhausted to do anything else but pass out. It was enough to keep him upright and functioning, but that was about it.

On the first Monday morning back to school, Eddie stayed in bed until Steve poked his head in the room.  He was dressed in jeans and a polo with his stupid Family Video vest over it all.  He looked so fucking normal. As if they hadn’t all nearly died in the past couple of weeks. As if the world hadn’t literally been torn apart by a monster.

“What if I just dropped out?” Eddie asked him, eyes scratchy from lack of sleep. He pulled the blanket higher over his shoulders and nuzzled his face into the pillow. “I’m already a fucking loser anyway.”

“You could do that,” Steve said, leaning his shoulder against the door frame. “But you’ve already put so much time and effort into it. God knows if I failed my senior year I wouldn’t have been brave enough to go back again. Let alone twice. You’ve only got a few weeks left. May as well see it through.”

“That almost sounded like a compliment,” Eddie grumbled. 

Steve shrugged. “It kind of was. It takes a tough son of a bitch to ignore all the snide comments and keep going.”

“How dare you, my mother was a saint,” Eddie said, and then snorted. Steve grinned at him encouragingly, and he managed to pull himself upright.

“I don’t know man. Before, it was like…yeah, everyone thought I was stupid. Maybe they’re right, I don’t know. But now they all think I’m a killer. A bunch of them were literally hunting me for sport a month ago. The only reason the school is even letting me back in is because Uncle Wayne threatened to sue them if they didn’t.”

“You’re not stupid,” Steve said. “I saw all the books in your room, man, stupid people don’t read like that. Plus, I know your nerd game is like, all math, so…”

Eddie managed a small smile at that, even though he knew it was different. Fantasy books and DND were fun. Ethan Frome and finding the slope intercept? Bullshit. And focusing on things that weren’t any fun was nearly impossible.

“As for the killer thing…I don’t know, Bambi. That is really tough and I can’t say I’ve ever had to deal with it. But…the important people know the truth. And you’ll have everyone there with you. Robin and Nancy and the kids…they’ve got your back.”

And in spite of everything, that was a comfort. A bunch of fourteen year olds, a band geek, and the head of the school newspaper would be there for him if he needed them. It was enough to at least give it a try. 

“Yeah, alright,” he sighed. “But if I get assaulted I’m gonna tell the nurse I puked and make her call you at work to pick me up. I’ll tell her you’re my mom and everything.”

“Come on, man, you’re not one of my kids. You’re helping me co-parent Dustin.”

Eddie outright laughed at that and finally managed to get out of bed. 

“I guess I better get going, then. He’s a handful.”

“I’m making eggs and toast for breakfast. We’ve gotta be out the door in twenty minutes, though, or we’ll both be late.”

Eddie saluted him lazily and started getting ready. He didn’t have enough time to wash his hair, so he just tied it up while he showered. He had exactly six outfits with the combinations of jeans and shirts available to him, so getting dressed wasn’t exactly tough.  He’d lost his backpack and everything in it along with the rest of his stuff, so all he had was a five subject notebook and a pen he’d found in the desk drawer in the guest room. 

When he got down to the kitchen, Steve was sitting at the island, wearing a pink apron over his clothes, and shoveling eggs down his gullet.  There was a plate waiting for Eddie, too, which made him feel kind of good for a reason he couldn’t really explain.  Instead, he chose to focus on the apron.

“No wonder the kids say you’re the group mom,” he said. “What a sexy little number this is.”

He plucked the neckband of the apron teasingly and crammed half a piece of toast in his mouth.  Steve blushed pink, nearly the same color as the apron, and Eddie had to glance away before Steve noticed him staring. There was really no room for any of that here. At all. 

“Well, maybe I’ll wear it on my next date,” Steve said after a moment.

“The ladies will go wild,” Eddie agreed.

Steve snorted and finished his last bite of eggs. “You’re a freak, Munson.”

“Excuse you, I am the freak,” Eddie corrected him. “Respect it.”

Steve rolled his eyes and mussed his hair before standing.

“Hurry up and eat, we’ve gotta be out the door in a couple minutes. Dustin’s unbearable when I’m late to pick him up.”


Robin didn’t seem at all surprised to see Eddie when they picked her up before school.  She just gave them both a chipper, “morning!’ and climbed in behind Steve. When they pulled up to Dustin’s house there was a bit of a scuffle when Dustin tried to chase Eddie out of the front seat.  Eddie slapped at his grabby hands, stubbornly staying seated.

“Dude, backseat,” he said. “I’m taller, and older, and also I have boyfriend privileges.”

That brought them all up short, for a minute.

“You have what?” he demanded.

Steve rolled his eyes and shot Eddie a look, and then leaned forward to grip at Dustin through the window.

“Get in the damn backseat or I’ll leave you here.”

Apparently stunned into obedience, Dustin climbed in the back seat.  He put on his seatbelt, settled his backpack on the seat next to him, and then lurched forward to hang off the back of Eddie’s seat with enough force to rock him forward.

“You have what? ” he said again.

“Relax,” Eddie said. “Steve has declared that he’s madly in love with me, and I’m just such a giver--”

“You’re a damn liar, Steve’s not gay!”

“You don’t know that,” Steve pointed out, a tiny smirk crossing his face as he merged back into traffic.

“Yeah, Dustin, you can’t tell people are gay just by looking at them,” Robin added, catching Eddie’s eyes in the rearview mirror and smirking at him. He winked back.  Dustin gaped at them all like a dying fish and then shoved Steve’s seat forward too.

“Hey, watch it, I’m driving--”

“Not a funny joke, man!” Dustin hollered. “Everyone knows you’re into girls, that's like half your personality.”

“You can be both,” Eddie offered helpfully. 

Steve shot him a look at that, his amused smirk fading into something a little more serious for a moment. Eddie made a note of it.

“But Steve…Steve you would have told me by now!” Dustin insisted, sounding wounded. “Certainly before you started dating my--Eddie.”

Steve heaved a sigh and turned onto the main road toward the school.

“Relax man,” he said. “It’s part of Eddie’s alibi, alright? He needed someone to cover the time of Chrissy’s death, and he needed something that would be convincingly embarrassing enough that he wouldn’t want to admit to it. So I volunteered.”

“So you’re…his fake boyfriend?” Dustin asked. 

“Only so far as the cops are concerned,” Steve said. “So if anyone official comes asking, don’t go giving them your nice speech about how there’s no way I could ever be interested in guys.”

“But that means you can’t even date anymore,” Dustin pointed out. 

“And thank god for that,” Robin said. “I’m tired of covering shifts.”

Eddie looked at Steve in surprise, because he hadn’t even considered that. Forget risking his reputation, no dating had to be ever harder.

“Yep,” Steve said, drumming his fingers against the steering wheel. “At least until Hop thinks it’s convincing enough for us to ‘break up’.”

“Oh, baby, I’ll never break up with you,” Eddie crooned, just to see Steve blush again.

“But…dating! It’s what you do!” Dustin continued, ignoring Eddie entirely. Brat. 

“Yeah, well, maybe that’s my problem,” Steve grumbled. “Maybe I need to focus on something other than girls for a while.”

“Focus on…like gay focus?” Dustin demanded. Eddie cackled.

“No, dumbass. On things like…I don’t know. What the fuck I’m gonna do with my life or something. Robin and Nancy are gonna get their college acceptance letters any day now and then what? I’m that loser with one friend his own age who works at Family Video forever?”

“You’re not a loser!” Dustin said, though he didn’t sound that confident about it.

“And you know I’ll be calling you all the time,” Robin added, sitting up a bit in her seat.

“Hey, man, I’ll still be around,” Eddie said. “Hawkins lifers, right?”

Steve shot him a long-suffering look and Eddie grinned unrepentantly at him. It was kind of nice to know he’d have a friend who wouldn’t rush out of Hawkins at the first opportunity. It was tough having to adopt a freshman every year to have someone to talk to.

“For both our sakes, I hope not,” Steve sighed. 

He pulled to a stop in front of the high school.  Dustin and Robin clambered out of the backseat without hesitation, but Eddie took a deep breath, his body thrumming so hard with nerves that he thought for a minute he might puke. It wasn’t too late to back out. He could just stay in the car, no one had even seen him yet.

“Come on, Eddie!” Dustin, the little loudmouth, called. “First bell’s about to ring!’

He saw several heads swivel to look at him, in the front seat of Steve Harrington’s car, trying to sink into oblivion.  Steve put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed tightly.

“Hey,” he said, his voice low. “You’ve got this. Robin and Dustin are right here.”

“Fuck,” Eddie said. “Guess I better just…”

He took a deep breath and then threw the car door open and got out. Like jumping into a swimming pool. Or a fucking lake with a gate into a deadly alternate universe. What was high school, compared to that?  Every eye in the courtyard turned to stare at him, and he swallowed nervously.

Right. High school was full of high schoolers.

Robin came over to link their arms together, fixing him with a sunny smile. He smiled back a little hesitantly and tried to find that piece of himself that relished under the attention of others. The piece that flashed devil horns and walked on tables all for the rush of eyes on him, whether they were kind or not.  It seemed to be hidden pretty deep at the moment.

“Eddie, hey!” a voice called. 

He glanced over to see Lucas coming toward him, wearing his green basketball jacket. His face was still pretty messed up from his fight with Jason, but the swelling was gone, leaving just bruises and healing cuts behind. Whispers broke out like a hiss of snakes across the courtyard, but Lucas didn’t acknowledge it.

“Rumor is, I’m kind of a hero,” Lucas told him, voice low. He clapped Eddie’s shoulder hard and flanked his other side. “Everyone’s impressed with me. We’ve got your back, man.”

Dustin beamed at all of them, and Eddie felt his shoulders relax a little in relief.

“Alright,” he said, his voice cracking just slightly. He cleared his throat harshly. ”Let’s go.”

He was aware of everyone’s eyes on him as they made their way to the front doors, but it felt a little less hostile with his honor guard of friends around him.  Maybe even doable.

If Eddie thought school was hard before, it was even harder trying to focus on two to three hours of sleep every night.  In just two weeks, he couldn’t count the number of times he’d woken with a start after nodding off in the back of his class. He’d nearly slammed his forehead into his desk more than once.  Even band, which was inarguably his favorite class, found him drifting when he wasn’t actively drumming.

Outside of class, things weren’t that much different. People still whispered about him when he passed and scowled at him in the cafeteria, but now he always had a friend at his side in the hall between classes. It had taken him a few hours to catch on, the first day, but it had become very clear that the rest of the Party had very carefully arranged their schedules around his so he always had someone walking with him.

Part of him bristled at the idea that he needed to be babysat. That he couldn’t handle his own shit. That he hadn’t been doing it his whole life.  But most of him was just grateful. Touched even, that they gave enough of a shit about him that they were doing their best to protect him. He wasn’t even sure if it was needed: no one had tried to actually step up to him since school had come back. Still, if someone did decide to go for it, he’d be glad not to be on his own. He just pretended he didn’t know what they were doing, and they pretended they weren’t doing it. 

The most surprising development of all, perhaps, was that Nancy Wheeler had made it her personal mission to make sure he passed all his classes. She’d gone to all his teachers behind his back and appealed the fact that he’d lost all of his stuff during the earthquake, and they’d given her copies of their lesson notes from the whole year for him to study off of. Every day at lunch, she waited for him to finish eating and then pulled out the books, quizzing him on all kinds of things. It was kind of the worst, actually, especially with the lack of sleep, but he appreciated that she cared.

And he still really wanted to graduate this year. He didn’t think he could do it again a fourth time, if the school would even let him.  He didn’t know why it mattered to him so much, really. No one expected him to go anywhere in life. He certainly wasn’t going to get into college. The best he could hope for was dealing weed to high schoolers for the rest of his life, except he couldn’t even do that anymore. But Uncle Wayne had been so proud of him, when he’d decided to try again. He’d liked how good that had made him feel. 

Maybe it was stupid, and pointless, but he wanted it anyway. And if spending his lunches reviewing flashcards with Nancy Wheeler was what it took, then that's what he was gonna do, damn it. He didn’t hang around after school at all anymore, since he wasn’t dealing and they’d put the Hellfire Club on hold for a while. It seemed like extra bad PR, after everything. Instead, he hitched a ride with Steve, or on the days when Steve was still working, he walked back to his house and tried to do his homework.

It felt downright normal, which was kind of fucked up since his nights were plagued by nightmares that had him gasping awake, drenched in sweat, and unable to fall asleep again. He dreamed of all kinds of things, but the most common one was just him, surrounded by utter blackness, completely alone but for the shrieks of bats and the feeling of fangs ripping him apart. Sometimes when he woke up, his sides still ached with phantom pain, and it felt impossible to draw air into his lungs, like he was being strangled with a tail all over again.

Those nights, he sat on the floor of the bathtub and turned the shower on full blast with cold water, letting it rain down over him until he shivered and remembered that he was still alive and the world around him was real. He wasn’t stuck in the Upside Down. Against all odds and expectations, he’d made it out. 

It was one such night, a week or so into April, when Steve found him. Eddie had been so out of it he hadn’t even shut the bathroom door behind him. He’d just stripped out of his sweaty pajamas and crawled into the tub, clenching his knees to his chest as the water rained down on him. He wasn’t sure how he’d been sitting there when the light flipped on and Steve came over to sit next to the tub.

“Shit, Bambi,” Steve said. “Your lips are turning blue.”

That made Eddie realize he was cold. It hit him suddenly, painfully, and he started shivering hard, his teeth chattering.  Steve reached over and turned off the water and then got up to grab a towel. He wrapped it around Eddie’s shoulders and ran his hands up and down roughly a few times, trying to generate heat.  He grabbed another towel and started squeezing the cold water out of Eddie’s hair next, as if it wasn’t fucking weird that he had to take care of a grown man in the middle of the night.  

“What happened?” he asked quietly. “Are you hurt?”

“No,” Eddie said, his voice coming out in a cold stutter. “Just…fuck man. Had a nightmare. Cold water usually helps.”

“Usually?” Steve asked, concerned. “How often are you doing this?” 

“Few times a week,” Eddie admitted, not meeting his eyes.

Steve made a dismayed sound and Eddie flinched automatically, though he was ashamed of it nearly immediately. He didn’t need Steve’s approval. He didn’t even want it. He was just fine as he was.

“I’m sorry I didn’t notice,” Steve said, taking him by surprise. “My first time, I used to go swimming when I couldn’t sleep. Something about the cold water shocked my system. And the exercise tired me out.” 

He tossed the sodden towel in the corner and grabbed another one, wrapping it around Eddie’s shoulders like a blanket.

“You don’t anymore?” Eddie asked. 

“Nah,” Steve said quietly. “The nightmares got better after a while. And now being in water makes me nervous. Since the lake.”

Eddie nodded dumbly. He knew that Steve was saying something important here, but his brain still felt kind of distant, like he wasn’t entirely in his body anymore. He could understand, but responding in any kind of meaningful way was beyond him.

“Let’s get you up,” Steve said instead. “Dried off and under the blankets.”

“No point,” Eddie said miserably. “Can’t sleep. I can’t fucking sleep. I’m so tired.”

“I know,” Steve said quietly. “You know what else helped me, in the beginning? When Nancy would spend the night. Just…having a warm body next to me made me feel less alone. When I woke up it was easier to fall back to sleep.”

Eddie managed a laugh, shrill and manic. “Are you offering to cuddle with me, Stevie?”

“If that’s what you need,” Steve said seriously. “Boyfriend privilege, right?”

Eddie giggled again and got his legs under himself as Steve started to lift him.  He was starting to come back to himself a little more, and he was suddenly aware that he was naked except for a towel that wasn’t quite covering his junk. Steve was nice and respectful about it, though, keeping his eyes on Eddie’s face and pretending like it was all normal.

“Right,” he said. “I…I’m willing to try anything to get some sleep, man.”

“Alright,” Steve said. “Then let's get you dried off and dressed and we can try to go back to bed. How do you feel about being little spoon?”

It might have been a joke, except that Steve said it utterly seriously. Eddie flushed a little, adjusting the towel down to cover himself so that he didn’t have to look at Steve Harrington’s perfect, sincere face while he offered to spoon him.

“Pretty good,” he admitted quietly. 

“Feels safe, right?” Steve said with a small grin, like he was sharing a secret. Eddie huffed a laugh and nodded. 

“Do you need help?” Steve continued. “Getting dressed?”

“Nah, man,” Eddie said, because he couldn’t think of anything more humiliating. “I’ve got it. I’ll…see you in there?”

Steve nodded, getting the hint.

“Yell if you need me.”

He left Eddie then, and he immediately felt bereft and alone. He clutched the towel close and went back to his bedroom, pulling on a pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt because now he was shivering in earnest. His toes and fingertips burned as the blood started rushing back into them and he felt kind of stupid for not noticing it earlier. 

He felt strangely shy as he made his way over to Steve’s bedroom. Steve was busy spreading an extra blanket out, but he straightened up when Eddie sidled into the room. He snatched a blue sweater off the back of his desk chair and held it out to Eddie with a wordless command. Eddie wasn’t a guy who liked following orders, but he was still shaking like a chihuahua from the cold, so he pulled it over his head. It smelled really nice, like remnants of cologne and Steve’s hair product.  He resisted the urge to press the sleeve to his nose, but only barely. 

Steve folded the blankets back and waved awkwardly at the bed. Eddie decided to just go for broke. This couldn’t possibly be any weirder than it already was, could it? If he just acted like it was normal, it would be easier. With that in mind, he crawled into the bed and settled on his right side, back to Steve.  It was warm and smelled even nicer than the sweater, and he felt himself relax a little bit. 

He was determined to stay just as relaxed when Steve climbed in behind him and wound an arm around his waist.  He pressed his chest up against Eddie’s back, though he was careful to keep their hips tilted away from each other. It was a cuddle, there was no denying that, but it was respectful as could be. And damn, did it feel good. 

Eddie had always been a toucher, he didn’t think anyone who’d talked to him for more than ten minutes wasn’t aware of that. But he didn’t get a lot of opportunities to just…hold someone, or be held.  He’d cuddled with his mom a lot as a kid, but she’d been dead for years, and Wayne wasn’t much of a hugger.  Here with Steve, though…it felt nice. There wasn’t any expectation happening. It was just touching for the comfort of it. If he wasn’t careful, he could get addicted to it.

“Alright?” Steve asked in a whisper. Eddie tried not to shiver at the sensation of his breath on his neck.

“Yeah,” he said, pressing his eyes closed stubbornly. He was so tired. He wanted this to work. He wanted to sleep. “‘S nice, actually. Haven’t cuddled with anyone since my mom.”

It wasn’t usually the kind of thing he’d bring up. He didn’t like talking about her, most of the time. But he was just so fucking tired, and against all odds Steve Harrington felt like a safe person.

“I don’t remember my mom ever even hugging me,” Steve admitted into the back of his neck. His arm tightened around Eddie’s waist, not to pull him closer, but as if he were nervous to be admitting that. “That’s crazy, right?”

“Kinda, yeah,” Eddie muttered. Under the blankets, wrapped in Steve’s hoodie and his arms, the shivers were nearly gone. He made no move to try and inch away. “My mom…she wasn’t like a great mom by regular standards, I guess? She was high most of the time and in a ton of debt because of it. But she always made me feel really loved.”

“You never mention her,” Steve said quietly. “You talk about your dad sometimes, but…”

Eddie sighed quietly and turned over onto his other side so that he and Steve were lying face to face. Their knees bumped and pressed until they fit comfortably together. His eyes had adjusted just enough that he could see the shadows of Steve’s face in the darkness, and the glint of his eyes in the low light let in by the window.

“It’s hard to, sometimes. Even to think about her. She broke her leg when she was pregnant with me. She was only sixteen so she was on her own, and she had no insurance, so she just kind of wrapped it up and hoped for the best. The drugs helped with the pain, but she was on them all the time, so it got pretty bad.”

“She was only sixteen?” Steve asked, nearly blown over by that piece of information. God, he’d been so fucking stupid at sixteen. He couldn’t imagine having a kid to take care of.

“I know,” Eddie said. “My dad was twenty-four, so…if you had any doubts about the kind of guy he was.”

Steven made a face, like he wasn’t sure what the polite thing to say was. Eddie took pity on him and kept talking. 

“When I think about her, I usually think about dumb things. Like how much she loved the Jackson 5. She told me she was convinced she was going to marry Jermaine Jackson when she was fourteen.”

“Could have been a good dad,” Steve teased. “But I think you’d be more motown than metal.”

“God forbid,” Eddie responded, and then, “She liked butter on crackers. She’d put a slice of butter between two crackers like a little sandwich. I only realized how weird that was when I got into middle school, you know? It just seemed like a normal snack.”

“But you liked it, right?” Steve asked, and Eddie laughed.

“Yeah, man. It’s fucking delicious.”

“I don’t know what food my parents like. Or music,” Steve said thoughtfully. “That’s kind of sad, probably, but it just feels normal to me. I spent most of my childhood with a babysitter, and then when I was old enough to be on my own they pretty much came home every few weekends.”

“Nice to have the house to yourself, though, right?” Eddie asked.

Steve sighed. “Yeah, I guess. Sometimes I wonder if they'd have been around more if I would have done better in school or something.”

“It must have been pretty lonely,” Eddie said thoughtfully. “God knows sometimes I wish Wayne and I couldn’t hear every sound through our cardboard thin walls, but I think it would have sucked if he was never there.”

“Yeah,” Steve said quietly. “I guess it was. I used to have people over all the time to try and fill the place with noise. But after everything, I just didn’t want to have people in my space. It made me feel responsible for them. So now the only people who come here are the ones I’m willing to take care of.”

The realization hit him like a truck, and was immediately followed up by the acceptance that Eddie was an entire idiot. Steve was letting Eddie live in his house, playing at being in love with him, holding him close in his bed in the middle of the night. Of course Steve was willing to take care of him. He’d already been doing it for weeks.

“I’m not much of an improvised weapons kind of guy,” Eddie said. “And my only skills are guitar and being exceptionally irritating, but I’m willing, too. To take care of you. This isn’t a one-way street.”

“I know.”

Steve’s eyes met his in the darkness, and for a second Eddie felt something pass between them. The next moment, Steve averted his eyes quickly, ducking his chin, and Eddie understood that. Whatever was passing between them, now wasn’t the time. 

But he did have to contend with the fact that he wanted there to be a time.

“Good night, Steve,” he said, rolling back over.

“Night, Bambi,” Steve said quietly

And then, against all odds, Eddie fell asleep.

“I have to get a job,” Eddie groaned one Tuesday evening in the middle of April. He draped himself dramatically over the counter of Family Video and pouted when Robin poked him in the forehead.

“What happened to your side job?” she asked, slotting a tape into the rewinder and pressing the button.

“Hopper,” Eddie said darkly. “Good as promised he’d throw the book at me.”

“Well, he did go to a lot of trouble to keep you out of prison,” Robin said thoughtfully. 

“Yeah, well, now I haven’t got two quarters to rub together and I’m running out of cigarettes, so…”

She wrinkled her nose at him. “You should quit that, anyway. It’s gross and really bad for you.”

“Buckley, I’ve got very little joy in my life,” Eddie said flatly. “If I’m forced to quit smoking I may as well go for a second round with the demobats.”

“Not funny,” she said, a little too sharply, her shoulders hunching.

A stab of guilt went through him, even though his second thought was that he shouldn’t have to feel guilt about making light of his own near-death experience. But it was hard to upset Robin and not feel bad about it. She was like a small, adorable animal. The Thumper to his Bambi, maybe.

“Sorry,” he grumbled, tapping his knuckles against the counter.  “It was just a joke.”

“You didn’t have to see yourself, though,” Robin said. “All…covered in blood and so still and…”

“Hey,” Eddie said again. “You’re right. I’m sorry, I didn’t think that maybe it was kind of traumatic for other people too.”

“I’m just glad Steve wasn’t here to hear it,” she said. “His nightmares about you have been bad enough. He called me at two am once, when you were still in the hospital. Needed me to remind him that we got you out.”

“Really?” Eddie asked, his voice a little small. 

He couldn’t imagine mattering so much to Steve Harrington, of all people, that he’d have nightmares about it. Not back then at least. Now…maybe he could imagine it now. They shared a bed every night, you couldn’t get out of something like that without feeling close. 

“What, you didn’t know?” Robin asked.

He shrugged and didn’t meet her gaze.

“Oh Eddie,” she said, almost pityingly. “You know you’re like…his best friend right? Besides me?”

“That can’t be true,” Eddie protested. “He hardly knows me.”

“You’ve been living together for weeks,” Robin pointed out. “You spend every day together when you’re not at school and he’s not working, you share weed and cigarettes with startling consistency, you make each other breakfast and practically finish each other’s sentences. Steve told me you’ve been reading him The Lord of the Rings ! Out loud like a cute little story time! If you’re not best friends then you’re dating.”

Eddie blushed and looked down at the counter and Robin startled so violently that she nearly upended an entire stack of returned tapes. 

“Oh my god,” she said, and he blushed harder. “Eddie!”

“What?” he said snappishly. 

“Do you have a crush on Steve?”

He looked at her warily. She was gay, he knew that. They’d had a bit of a heart to heart about their respective homosexuality one night when they were incredibly drunk and Steve had passed out across their laps on the couch. It wasn’t that he was afraid of her rejection, but he was certainly afraid of her judgment. 

“I mean…” Eddie shrugged helplessly. “He’s very hot, Robin! And he’s very, very nice! I never had a chance!”

Any denial he’d held on to had rapidly dissolved once they’d started sharing a bed. There was only so many times a guy could wake up wrapped around his crush before he had to admit to himself that it was real. 

“Hot, I’ll give you,” Robin said. “I’ve heard all about how hot he is from half the student body, so it must be true. But I wouldn’t have thought you’d be into nice guys.”

“Why not?” Eddie asked, almost a pout. “What, the freak can’t want to be treated well?”

“I mean…I don’t know!” Robin cried. “You have to admit you can be pretty abrasive when you want to be.”

Eddie shrugged and smirked at her, trying to take control of the conversation. “I mean, yeah. And Steve’s very snarky and bitchy when he wants to be. I like that about him. But…he cares about people. His people. And it’s nice to be one of those people, okay? It’s normal!”

Robin’s face softened and she patted his hand on the counter. 

“It is normal,” she said. “I know we make fun of him for being a mom, but it’s nice, isn’t it? To have someone care about you that much.”

“It is,” Eddie mumbled. “He gives a shit and that’s rare.”

“Well,” Robin said. “I think you’ve chosen to lay your affections in a good place. Steve’s pretty great. But I’m not sure if he’s, you know. Interested in men at all. Sometimes I think maybe, and then he says something so out of left field and straight that I think he can’t possibly be.”

“I’m well-versed in crushing on straight guys,” Eddie assured her, even as part of him wilted in disappointment. “I’ll get over it.”

“I’ll see what I can find out,” Robin promised. “I’ve never really had a reason to dig before, but for you I definitely will.”

“Find out about what?”

They both froze awkwardly for a second and turned as one to look at Steve, who was carrying an unopened pack of pall malls along with his keys. He tossed them to Eddie without a word, and Eddie made a show of kissing the side of the package in thanks.

“Uh,” Robin said. “Asking Keith about getting Eddie a job here.”

“Really?” Steve said brightly. Eddie had to resist the urge to ask the exact same question.

“Sure,” Robin said. “Why not? We know we like him and can stand to work with him. James quit two weeks ago so there’s an open position. I can vouch for him.”

“And I don’t have to live with my hair smelling like fry grease if I work in a video store,” Eddie added, enthusiasm catching on. “Besides, you guys are dead half the time. Less customer interaction is a good thing if you ask me.”

“I mean, it would be great to have you here,” Steve said. “But good luck convincing Keith. The guy hates me and I think he’s getting less sure about you every day, Robs.”

“Psh,” Robin said, waving her hand. “Keith loves me. And more importantly, he’s a little bit afraid of me. I’m sure I can hook you up. Just fill out an application.”

She dug around under the counter for a minute before coming up with a slightly crumpled application and a pen.  She shoved them over at him and he started filling it out dutifully. He hesitated for a moment on the address, and then just wrote down Steve’s. It was accurate enough, even though Wayne had promised that he’d have the apartment secured by the end of the week.

Robin and Steve chatted while he filled the application out, and he tried not to get too hopeful as he listened to them. It would be awesome to be able to work with them. Much better than some other shitty retail job with strangers who would make him crazy, at least. Even if he had to wear an ugly vest.

He had just signed his name at the bottom and handed the application over to Robin when the front door slammed open with a discordant jangle of bells.  He nearly leapt out of his skin, and for a moment his brain was categorizing places to hide, if he could grab Robin and Steve, if there was a weapon nearby before he realized that it was Dustin who had just burst in, his eyes wide with panic. He took in a shaking breath to try and slow his pounding heart.

“What happened?” Steve demanded, straightening up seriously.

“It’s bad, guys!” he said, shaking a newspaper.

“Not the Upside Down,” Eddie said, his stomach clenching with dread.

“No, no. Not that bad,” Dustin said, his eyes widening with alarm.

The three of them let out a relieved breath as one, and Eddie almost collapsed over the counter top again.

“Jesus Christ, don’t do that to me,” he said.

“Sorry,” Dustin said. “But…it’s still pretty bad, man.”

He held the newspaper out, and Steve snatched it up, his brow furrowed. The furrowed brow quickly made way for an expression of shock, and then dead.

“Oh,” he said softly.

“Shit,” Robin finished with feeling.

“What?” Eddie asked, craning his neck to try and see. 

Wordlessly, Steve passed the newspaper over.  The first thing Eddie noticed was the large picture of himself on the front page. It was clearly taken from last year’s yearbook. He remembered how proud of himself he’d been, managing to throw up devil horns and stick out his tongue right before the camera clicked. Now, it seemed less cool and funny than it had then. His eyes trailed up to the headline, and he felt numbness take over.

“Munson’s Alibi Revealed: Convorting in a Gay Tryst at Time of Grisly Murder!”

“Oh shit,” he said quietly.

He scanned the page as quickly as he could, skipping past all the tripe until he found what he was looking for.

“They named you, man,” he said, his voice cracking just slightly.

“Oh,” Steve said again. “Fuck.”

“I mean, it’s okay!” Robin said as Steve crouched down behind the counter, hanging his head between his knees. “You knew this was a possibility, yeah? And it’s better than being accused of murder!”

“Right,” Eddie said, beginning to pace back and forth. “Right, it's fine. It’s fine. We knew…I mean…we’re probably both going to get beat to death within the next week, but it's fine!”

“That’s not gonna happen,” Dustin said immediately. “We’ll buddy system you guys! Even outside of school, you’ll just never be alone…”

“It’s different from high schoolers, Henderson,” Eddie said, clutching at his hair nervously. “Grown men aren’t gonna be deterred by a fourteen year old acting like a bodyguard!”

“If I could never get the shit kicked out of me again, that would be great,” Steve added from the floor.

“Dustin’s right!” Robin said encouragingly. “People are much less likely to hurt you if there are witnesses they know would back you up. So you just have to stick together as much as possible, and when you can’t, take one of us with you!”

“Maybe Nancy with that sawed off,” Eddie joked, because otherwise he might cry.

“We knew this could happen,” Steve added, sounding like he was trying to convince himself. “It was worth the risk. It was absolutely worth the risk…”

He straightened up suddenly. “I need to go to the bank. A couple banks.”

“What? Why?” Robin asked.

“I need to withdraw as much cash as I can before my parents find out,” he said. “I’m not sure how they’re going to react, honestly. I can hope for the best and prepare for the worst at the same time.”

“Fuck, man,” Eddie said guiltily. As shitty as this was, he knew that Wayne would be on his side. The thought that Steve might be afraid of what his own parents would do to him…that made his stomach turn. “We can…I could tell them the truth. The cops…”

“No,” Steve said, standing up and pointing at him fiercely. “That’s stupid. There’s no putting this cat back in the bag. If you did that, it would all be for nothing.”

Eddie nodded quickly, feeling ill. Steve stared at him for a minute and then came around the counter to hug him tightly. Eddie melted into it immediately, pressing his face into Steve’s shoulder.

“It’s gonna be okay, Bambi,” Steve said fiercely. “We’ll figure it out.”

“Fuck,” Eddie said again. “Yeah. Yeah, we’ll figure it out.”

“I’ll cover,” Robin said after a moment. “While you go get cash.”

“I’ll go with you,” Dustin said immediately. “Buddy system!”

Steve nodded and they went out the door together.  Robin let out a breath, and Eddie laughed in agreement, high and panicked.

“It’ll be okay,” she said again. “We’ll look out for you guys.”

“You and Dustin are the only ones we told,” Eddie admitted. 

They’d have to explain to everyone what had happened. Or just…not and let them try and figure it out themselves based on what they already knew. It just seemed like so much all at once, and he just wanted to shove it under the rug and pretend it had never happened. He went around the counter and sunk down to sit so no one passing by would be able to see him. He leaned his head against her knee, and she reached down and petted his hair comfortingly.

“Well, I’m honored,” she joked. “But the others…they won’t judge you, you know. Especially because they know the truth.”

“But it is the truth,” Eddie muttered. “Not…not about me and Steve, obviously, but about me. And now that it’s out there…is it weird that that’s kind of a relief? Even though I’m fucking terrified I’m gonna get bashed, now, it’s…I don’t have to tell everyone. They’re just gonna know. And that feels kind of good.”

“It does make sense,” Robin said quietly. “The way it happened is awful and scary and I’m sorry for it. But I get why it would feel good to just have it out there, too. Just…no one asking why you don’t have a girlfriend or talking to you like you should just agree with what they think is hot by default.”

“Exactly,” Eddie said, so utterly relieved that someone got it. “But also…”

“It totally sucks that you didn’t get a choice about it,” Robin said. “Everyone finding out about me is a nightmare I have at least once a month. You want to know a secret?”

Eddie glanced up at her. “Yeah, alright,” he agreed.

“I got into San Francisco State,” she said quietly. “I applied there for a laugh, because…you know the reputation there, right?”

“Yeah,” Eddie said quietly. A certifiable gay mecca, according to people he’d talked to in bars in Indianapolis.

“Well…that’s where I’m gonna go. Maybe there, it can be okay. I can be okay.”

“That’s awesome, Rob,” he said, even as his heart ached. San Francisco was so far away, and he knew what happened when people left for college. They promised to write and call and visit, and maybe they did for a while, but it never lasted. Within months they’d be strangers.

“I know,” she said. “I’m terrified and excited and…I haven’t told Steve yet. I don’t know how to tell him.”

“Today’s probably not the day,” Eddie joked weakly, and she huffed a laugh.

“No…probably not. Sorry if it wasn’t the right time for you, either. I just…I’ve known for two weeks. I feel like I’m going to burst.”

“It’s fine,” Eddie said with a shrug. “I’m in my third senior year, remember? I’m used to hearing about college plans.”

“Right,” she said. “You’ll do it this time, Eddie. And then maybe you can get out here too.”

“Yeah,” he said, even though he knew it was impossible. “Maybe.”

Needless to say, he didn’t get the job at Family Video. Worse, Steve got fired.  Luckily, he’d managed to pull out about a thousand dollars before his parents cut his access to the account.  Steve had been nervous and twitchy all week since the news had swept through town, but none of the many phone calls that had come through before they’d unplugged it from the wall had been from his parents. 

School had been mostly the same as normal, if Eddie were being honest. He got called a fag more times than usual by far, but that word had stopped hurting a long time ago. Last year, he might have made a t-shirt with the word on the front just to get a rise out of people, but this year, he refrained. He was trying to keep his head down and his nose clean, desperate to finally, finally cross that stage. 

The kids, Robin, and Nancy held good on their promise to try and stay near him all the time, but frankly it wasn’t sustainable. They all had their own classes, and on occasion it was inevitable that Eddie would end up by himself.

It was unfortunate that he happened to take a bathroom break fifth period during math class and ran into Andy right outside.  He hadn’t seen much of Jason’s second in command since he’d been exonerated. He’d done his best to avoid any places that the basketball team frequented, including but not limited to being late to gym class every day to avoid being in the locker room with them, and eating lunch in the band room with Robin and Nancy.

But now here he was, scowling and angry, and Eddie had to surreptitiously glance around to make sure he wasn’t going to get ambushed by a whole team of angry jocks.  Luckily, it seemed like this encounter was just bad luck.

“I can’t believe they let you back in here,” Andy spat, his face mottled and red with anger. “They let you off scot free, let you pin everything on Jason! And you walk around here like you have any right to be here.”

“I do have a right,” Eddie said flatly. “Jason was a psycho, and I didn’t do anything. That news is all over town, or haven’t you read? If you can read.”

“Jason was a good guy,” Andy spat. “And you’re just some faggot with satanic influence--”

“You make me sound so much cooler than I actually am,” Eddie said with a smirk. “Imagine if I really did have satanic influence? You think I’d still be in fucking high school?”

Andy gaped at him for a minute, his mouth flapping for a minute, and then he said, “You’re a freak, Munson, and you ruin everything you touch. Chrissy and Jason and even Steve Harrington. King of the town one day and worthless fag the next--”

Eddie wasn’t quite sure what came over him. He’d never been particularly physical. He liked to baffle people with his bullshit where he could, act tough as nails so he’d never have to try and hold his own in a fight. It wasn’t like he’d had much practice in how to win a fight. But something overcame him when Andy insulted Steve, like all of the anger he’d built up in him over the past month suddenly tore its way free.  

He punched Andy in the face as hard as he could.

And it fucking hurt . Why hadn’t anyone ever told him punching someone hurt your hand just as much as their face?

It hurt even more when Andy hit him back, cracking his fist across his jaw so hard that he swore he saw stars.  He stumbled back a few steps, his back slamming into the lockers behind him, and tried to get his bearings. Andy clearly had more experience with physical violence, though, because he didn’t hesitate to grab Eddie by the collar and wrench his fist back for another hit.

Eddie was trying to decide whether he should wince in preparation or try to struggle free when a stern voice called from the end of the hallway.

“Is there a problem, boys?”

Andy pulled back, dropping his fist back to his side. They both looked down to see the vice principal standing with his arms crossed over his chest, glaring at them.

“No, sir,” Andy said finally. “Munson just tripped. I was making sure he didn’t fall over.”

It was clearly a lie. Even the vice principal looked doubtful, but his eyes slid over them, the red spots on each of their jaws, and came to rest on Eddie. Eddie met his eyes with a scowl, unable to force himself to back down from the scrutiny.

Finally, he said, “Get to class, you two. Now.”

“This isn’t over, freak,” Andy muttered quietly. “One of these days you’ll get yours. You’ll never have a day of peace in this town. Ever.”

Eddie straightened the collar of his battle jacket with a sharp tug and hurried down the hall. It was a stupid threat, but an effective one. Mostly because Eddie knew it was true.

Eddie’s final test in Mrs. O’Donnell’s class was on the last Friday of the year, of course. He spent the whole week feverishly reviewing flashcards and writing practice thesis statements and smoking like a chimney. Steve didn’t complain once, forcing him to eat dinner and go to bed at a reasonable time, reviewing flashcards with him for hours.

The day of the test, he broke three pencils and nearly vibrated his leg into orbit with nerves, but he managed to answer every question by the time limit, and he was even pretty sure that he got more than half of the answers right.  He was the last one out of the class to hand in his paper, and his hands shook when he handed it over.

Mrs. O’Donnell took it from him and glanced over the first page.

“I’m proud of you, Eddie,” she said. “I’ve seen how hard you worked, especially in this last month. You went up a whole letter grade! I know you had a really tough year, but it’s very admirable that you didn’t give up.”

He shuffled a little awkwardly and then put on his best grin. “Well, you know me, Mrs. O. Always trying to be a contender.”

She raised her eyebrow at him and then smiled in amusement. It wasn’t an expression he was used to seeing from her. Usually it was more disapproval and disappointment. She glanced toward the door and then back at him conspiratorially. 

“Do you want to wait while I grade it?” she asked him. “So you don’t have to wait for report cards?”

“Uh…” he paused for a moment and then nodded. “Yeah. That would be awesome, actually.”

He sat in the front row and tried not to watch her as she flipped through the pages, marking and smiling, or marking and frowning. He felt like he might throw up the entire time. The sound of the pages flipping and her pen scratching and the clock ticking nearly drove him to madness, until everything was so loud and overwhelming he thought he might scream.

And then she looked up at him and held out the paper. It took him a second to work up the nerves to get up and take it.  There, circled in red at the top of the page, was a fat B-.

“Holy shit,” he said in a whispered breath.

“Congratulations, Mr. Munson,” she said.

“I passed?” he asked, just to be sure. What if he’d been fooling himself and really needed an A?

“You passed,” she said. “And I do believe that means you’re going to graduate this year.”

His eyes blurred with tears and he hurried to wipe them away on the sleeve of his jacket, sniffling grossly.  He let out a wet laugh, and then a sob, and then another laugh.

“Fuck, Mrs. O’Donnell,” he said. “I mean…sorry, I mean…”

“I think a little cussing is appropriate,” she said, her eyes glinting with amusement. This was a side of her she’d never seen before. She’d been the gray-haired demon in his nightmares for years, and now…now it seemed like she was on his side. “I won’t tell if you won’t.”

He laughed again and wiped his eyes once more. 

“Thanks,” he said finally, his voice cracking on the word.

“Don’t thank me,” she said. “You did this. Now, I think you’ve probably got some celebrating to do, don’t you?”

“Yeah,” he said, wiping his eyes one more time for good measure. “Yeah. Have a nice summer.”

He hurried out of the classroom and let out a victory howl in the hallway, throwing his hands in the air, and then he took off running.  He did it. He did it . He was free!

He let out another whoop and ran all the way out of the school. He was never going in there ever again, god as his witness.  Steve was waiting in the car when he got there, a newspaper up against the steering wheel. He was circling things, probably the classifieds, but he looked up when Eddie threw himself into the front seat.

“How’d it go?” he asked, folding the paper up hastily and stashing it in the backseat.  

Eddie thrust the test paper into his hands, humming pomp and circumstance as loud as he could. Steve grabbed it, his face breaking into a wide grin, and then leaned across the center console to hug Eddie so tightly it almost hurt. He hugged back just as tightly, until Steve let out a groan and patted his back.

“Gonna break my ribs, man,” he wheezed. 

“Sorry,” Eddie said, letting him go reluctantly. 

“Nah, don’t be sorry. Be happy. You did it, Bambi! We’ve gotta tell everybody! Throw you a party!”

“With what money, man? You’re drawing on limited funds, remember?”

“This is a good reason,” Steve insisted. “Come on, let’s head home and call around. If we can get everyone together tonight, that’ll be perfect. Don’t want to be hungover for moving into the apartment on Sunday, right?”

“Yeah, alright,” Eddie agreed, amused and fond. 

They stared at each other for a long moment. He had to stomp down on the urge to just grab Steve and kiss him senseless right then and there. That was way, way too risky of a move. His lack of impulse control had ruined things for him before, and he wasn’t going to let it ruin his friendship with Steve.

Steve cleared his throat and put the car in gear. He was so dedicated to the cause of celebrating Eddie’s accomplishments that he didn’t even complain when he popped in a Quiet Riot tape and turned it up so loud the speakers squealed with protest.  He even sang along a bit and did a passable head bang at a stop sign. Eddie thought he might die of happiness.

The mood dropped as they turned onto their street and saw a white Lexus in the center of the driveway.  Steve wordlessly reached out and turned the stereo volume all the way down before gripping the steering wheel with white knuckles.

“Who is it?” Eddie asked, though he was sure he knew.

“My parents,” Steve croaked.

Steve was careful not to block the Lexus in when he parked, coming to a stop almost off-kilter at the edge of the driveway, checking carefully to make sure he didn’t crush any of the sideyard’s grass under his tires.

He turned the car off and they both just sat there in silence as the engine died. Steve didn’t release the steering wheel, and when Eddie looked at him, he seemed like he wasn’t seeing anything in front of him. His eyes were distant, like his mind was a million miles away. He’d seen Steve look like that before, in the middle of the night when the Upside Down felt too close under their skin and sleep refused to find them. He didn’t think this had anything to do with that, though.

“Do you want me to wait out here?” Eddie asked. “Would that be better?”

Steve didn’t acknowledge him at first, but after a solid ten seconds his eyes drifted over, and then his head followed the motion.

“I…Probably,” he said. “But I want you to come with me anyway. If that’s okay.”

“Yeah, man,” Eddie said. “Of course. What are the chances we’re gonna get punched?”

He tried to say it like a joke, but it fell flat the moment it passed his lips. Steve flinched and hunched his shoulders, squeezing the steering wheel so hard the leather creaked. 

“I’m sure that won’t happen,” he hastened to add.

“Right,” Steve agreed. “Right. It’ll be…maybe they don’t even know.”

Eddie let out a breath, trying to beat down the guilt bubbling in his gut, and slowly reached out to take one of his hands. He almost had to pry it from the steering wheel, and it took a little coaxing to get him to relax enough to lace their fingers together.

“Hey,” he said. “I’m right here with you, alright? You’re not alone. No matter what they say.”

Steve turned suddenly to look at him, like he was seeing him for the first time. Eddie offered him a tentative smile and drummed his fingers anxiously against the back of Steve’s hand. Steve took a deep breath and squeezed back, before he squared his shoulders.

“You ready?” Eddie asked.

“I’m absolutely not,” Steve said. “But let’s go.”

He seemed reluctant to let go of Eddie’s hand even long enough to get out of the car, and he immediately took it up again as they walked to the front door. Eddie tried not to think too hard about how much he wanted to puke as Steve unlocked the door and let them into the house. Instead, he focused on calculating the chances of Hopper getting him out of assault charges if fists started flying.

The house felt colder, somehow, when they stepped inside. Over the past few weeks it had started to feel like home. It was the place they retreated to when the world felt too hard, a place where they were free to talk about the horrors they’d seen away from prying eyes. A place where they could just be themselves without having to put on any fronts.

And now it felt invaded. Tainted. Like someone had taken their safe place and opened it to the public for viewing. He was reminded, quite suddenly and harshly, that this place had never been theirs at all. It had always been on loan, waiting for the real masters of the house to return.

“Steven?” a man’s voice called. It was deep and stern, nothing like the tired affection of Wayne or the manic mischief of Eddie’s own father. It sounded like authority, and it made Eddie bristle immediately.

“Hey, Dad,” Steve called. His voice was impressively even, almost casual. “Welcome home.”

“Come in here, please, Steven.” It wasn’t a request, that was perfectly clear. Steve let out a breath, squeezed Eddie’s hand one more time, and then let go.  They still walked shoulder to shoulder, ready to face the firing squad.

Mr. Harrington was a hard-faced man with Steve’s nose and a look about him that suggested he could only reach completion if he was looking at a picture of Ronald Reagan. His mother looked much kinder with her brown hair in soft curls and a pale pink Chanel suit. They were sitting stiffly side by side, as if they were afraid to let too much of their weight settle on the couch.  Eddie watched their eyes move from their son over to him, in his second-hand leather coat, worn battle jacket, and torn jeans.

“So, it’s true,” Mr. Harrington said, disdain in every syllable. “When I heard the news, I thought surely there must be some kind of mistake. My son, a faggot?  With disreputable trailer trash, no less.  Impossible, I said.”

Steve’s shoulders stiffened and he looked down at the carpet. Eddie almost couldn’t believe this was the same guy who had ripped a demobat apart with his bare hands. He probably should have been pissed at the way this asshole was talking about him, but he found himself far too concerned with how Steve was taking it to care about his own feelings.

“I saw your bedroom,” Mrs. Harrington spoke up. For all that she looked like a soft trophy wife, her voice was hard like steel. “All his…evil, devil-worshiping things. His clothes…you’ve been sleeping with him! In my home, Steven!”

“It’s not…Eddie’s not like that,” Steve protested, his fists clenching. He raised his head to glare at his parents. “He’s…theatrical, yeah. He likes weird music and nerd shit, but he’s probably the most genuine person I’ve ever met in my life. And he’s kind . You’d know that, if you’d give him a chance instead of deciding who he is before you’ve even talked to him.”

“So, you don’t deny it,” Mr. Harrington said flatly. “You’ve been committing sodomy under my roof with that… freak !”

Eddie couldn’t help himself anymore. He crossed his eyes and stuck his tongue out, flashing some devil horns for good measure.  Mrs. Harrington gasped, pressing her hand over her heart like he’d spit in her face. He had to admit, that did bring him a little bit of pleasure, even as Steve shot him an exasperated look and smacked him gently in the stomach with the back of his hand.

“I’m not denying anything,” Steve said. “I’m asking you to remember that I’m your son, and that you’re supposed to love me unconditionally.”

Mrs. Harrington burst into big crocodile tears, wailing so theatrically that Eddie almost wanted to applaud her. It was clearly an act she’d perfected over the years, and it made Mr. Harrington’s face nearly purple with rage.

“Look at what you’ve done! The shame you’ve brought on your family! The distress to your mother. Homosexuality is a sin, Steven, and a plague has been sent to wipe them all off the face of the Earth. Don’t tell me you’re going to go down with the ship.”

Eddie bit his lip to prevent himself from cracking a joke about going down.

“Homosexuality is just what it is, Dad. It’s not inherently bad or good, it’s just…people are just people. And whether I’m in love with Eddie Munson or Nancy Wheeler, I’m still the same person I’ve always been. Don’t you get that?”

“In love?” Mrs. Harrington wailed. “He’s….cast some kind of spell on you!”

“Mom,” Steve said flatly. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

“Yeah, it’s just my pure animal magnetism,” Eddie added.

“Bambi, really?” Steve said, though Eddie could tell he was trying not to crack a smile. He postured a little proudly at that.

“Whatever this is,” Mr. Harrington interrupted harshly. “It stops now. You’re not to see this boy again, Steven.”

“There are places that can help you,” Mrs. Harrington added. “They teach you how to find your way back to God and behave normally! I have brochures!”

She reached into her purse and pulled out several glossy pamphlets. The one on top had a picture of a perfectly pressed and manicured blonde man and woman, holding hands and smiling widely under the words “Reparative Therapy.”

“Conversion camp?” Eddie blurted out, all traces of humor immediately wiped from him. He grabbed Steve’s shoulder and pulled him closer, as if the brochures might leap from her hand and attack them. “That’s really fucking sick. He’s your son!”

“How dare you--” Mr. Harrington started, puffing himself up.

“Dad, just stop,” Steve said, sounding tired. “I’m not going to any camp. I’m not going to stop seeing Eddie--”

“But Steven, this can fix you!”

“I don’t need to be fixed!” Steve shouted.

The room went quiet for several long seconds. The noise of their breathing sounded so loud in Eddie’s ears, and he held on to Steve’s shoulder because he didn’t know what else to do.

“You’re not welcome here any longer,” Mr. Harrington said with finality.

“Dad,” Steve protested, the first crack of heartbreak showing on his face. Eddie squeezed his shoulder tightly, his heart pounding.

“You’re an adult,” Mr. Harrington continued. “You can choose to live your life the way you want to. But I won’t support it, and I won’t allow it in my home. So you can cut your ties with this boy and pick a camp, or you can get your things and leave.”

“Mom,” Steve said, turning to look at her. She avoided his gaze, staring resolutely at the carpet.  Steve heaved in a small, hurt breath.

“Fine,” he said. “Then I guess I’m leaving.”

That caused Mrs. Harrington to look up, but she’d lost her chance to look her son in the face. He was already turning and tugging Eddie from the room. They didn’t talk as they went upstairs and started throwing their things into a duffel bag together.  There was no folding or order to it, it was just grabbing clothes and personal items and cramming them in the bag. 

Only when the bag was crammed full, the zipper threatening to burst, did Eddie speak.

“Should we be calling someone for a ride?” he asked. “I can pay for a cab.”

He couldn’t really. It would wipe him out of the last of the money Wayne had shoved on him. But how could he do anything else, when Steve was going through all of this for him? For a lie, to protect him from prison. Destroying his own life to save Eddie’s. 

“No, the car title is in my name,” Steve said. “He has no right to take it from me.”

Mr. Harrington stood stone-faced in the hallway when they came down, his arms crossed over his chest. He didn’t say a word to either of them, but Mrs. Harrington was weeping softly in the living room.  Eddie took Steve’s hand and kissed his knuckles, glaring at Mr. Harrington the entire time.

Steve didn’t say anything. He didn’t even look at his father. He just clutched Eddie’s hand and marched out the door and down the driveway, duffel bag thrown over his shoulder.  He didn’t even wait for Eddie to put his seatbelt on before he peeled out of the driveway and sped off down the street.  Eddie waited until they were a couple blocks away before he said anything.

“So, uh. Where are we going?”

Steve huffed out a strangled laugh. “Fuck. I have no idea. Robin’s? No, her parents won’t be happy to see us…I think Nance is still in her last final…”

“What about Dustin’s?” Eddie suggested gently. “His mom adores you. We can use the phone, I can call Wayne at work. I think he got the keys for the apartment this morning.”

“Yeah,” Steve said slowly. “I know where the spare key is. That will work. Dustin’s.”

Eddie watched him for a long moment as they continued to drive. He was holding it together pretty well, but clearly didn’t want to talk just yet, so Eddie turned the stereo up again to banish the silence and turned his head to look out the window.  They were quiet all the way to Dustin’s house. No one was home, so Steve found the key under the doormat and let them in. It was only when the door was closed and locked behind them that Steve’s shoulders slumped.

“Hey,” Eddie said immediately, taking him by the arms, but the tears were already falling.

Eddie pulled him into a tight hug, pressing Steve’s face into his neck, and rocked them both back and forth in the Hendersons’ front hallway. He blinked away his own tears and rubbed his hand soothingly up and down Steve’s back in long strokes.

“It’s gonna be okay, man,” he said, even though he wasn’t sure it would be.

Steve said something against his neck, but it was too garbled for Eddie to understand.

“What?” he asked gently.

Steve pulled away just enough to speak, resting his chin on Eddie’s shoulder.

“I guess I kind of suspected they didn’t really love me,” he said quietly. “But I hoped they did. And now I know for sure.”

“I’m sorry, man,” Eddie said, his heart breaking for him. “Shit, I’m so sorry. This is all my fault.”

“No it’s not,” Steve said, holding him even tighter. “It’s their fault. They’re…close-minded and bigoted assholes. I shouldn’t even care.”

“They’re your parents,” Eddie said softly. “Of course you care.”

Steve let out a shuddering breath and buried his face in Eddie’s neck again.  Eddie just held on and let him cry himself out. He wasn’t even sure how long they stood there, clinging to each other in the hallway, but he was determined to see every second of it through.  It was only once Steve pulled back and dried his tears that Eddie ushered him toward the couch. 

They sat facing each other, their legs crossed, knees pressed together. Eddie leaned his face against the back of the couch and regarded Steve silently for a long minute. His eyes were red and puffy from crying, but they were dry now. He looked contemplative, which was much better than the blankness from earlier.

“Hey,” he said quietly, smiling encouragingly when Steve focused on him. “You know…you could stop all this right now, if you want. This is as good a reason as any for us to ‘break up’, if anyone asks. You could go home and tell your parents I put some kind of devil spell on you. Tell them you’ve seen the light and all.”

“Shut up, Bambi,” Steve huffed, rolling his eyes.

“No, I’m serious,” Eddie insisted. “Everyone in this town already thinks I’m some kind of freaky pied piper, doing the devil’s bidding or whatever. But you…you just took a really fucked up bullet for me and you’re not even really gay. You could just go back and tell them that you realized you were wrong and I’m sure they’d welcome you back into the fold with little fuss.”

Steve looked down at his lap where his fingers were twisting together in an anxious kind of dance, like he had to do something with hands or he’d lose his shit. Eddie felt like that all the time, so he recognized the impulse.

“What if I am, though?” he said quietly.

Eddie looked at him carefully for a long moment, wishing he’d ever developed mind reading powers. “What if you are what?”

Steve shot him a disgruntled look, and then he shrugged. “Gay. I mean…not fully. I like girls. I’ve always liked girls. But lately…I don’t know, I’ve been…noticing things. Thinking things. About guys.”

“Lately?” Eddie asked, and Steve shrugged, looking bashful.

“I mean…there’s things that I guess I kind of shoved down, when I was younger? Like it’s probably not normal to randomly think about kissing your guy best friend unless you’re actually interested in kissing guys. But I just kind of…ignored it, I guess? And once I started actually thinking about it, I never really felt like I could put words. I wasn’t sure if I was just…making things up in my head.”

He looked down at his lap, and then out the window, and then toward Eddie again, his face set in that patented Steve Harrington I’m-gonna-face-this-thing-down-now look.

“Like…you know how sometimes you just kind of do the things your friends do because you want them to like you? I thought maybe I was just doing that. Fooling myself or something. Making up thoughts and feelings because I wanted to feel like I belonged with Robin. And with you. And maybe I was just bullshitting myself because I’m a coward. But the way my dad talked to me today…it made me feel so ashamed. And if I were just making things up, I don’t think I would have felt so bad about it.”

“No,” Eddie agreed. “I don’t think you would. Not personally, at least. But you know it’s okay, right? Your dad is full of shit, and you can like both guys and girls, if that’s how you feel. And it sounds like that’s how you feel.”

“I know it’s okay, for other people,” Steve said, his eyes watering again, “But for me, it still feels scary and kind of wrong. Like I’m not allowed. Is that stupid?”

“No,” Eddie said. “It’s not stupid. It is scary. Downright terrifying, sometimes. It’s different, and people don’t like it, and they want us to feel wrong about it. Because if we feel wrong, then we’ll get scared, and we’ll conform and we’ll be just as easy to control as the sheeple.”

Steve shot him an amused, doubtful look, so Eddie reeled back on the manifesto a bit. This wasn’t the time for radicalization. He could work on that later.

“What I mean is…we’re not wrong, okay? Love is like…in all the stories it's this pure force of goodness, isn’t it? Love wins battles and cures ills and resurrects princesses from sleeping spells and shit. How can that be wrong?”

Steve sniffled a little, and then smiled. “You’re such a fucking nerd.”

Eddie grinned back at him. “Maybe so. But I don’t want to be anything else.”

Their eyes met, and there was that pull again. That magnetic, world-shattering pull. All the more tempting now that there was a chance he wouldn’t be rebuffed. A chance he could actually have this. But it wasn’t the time. Things were fragile and hurt and tentative right now. 

Eddie Munson had never been good with patience, but he could wait for this.

As it turned out, Wayne did have the keys to the apartment, but he hadn’t procured any furniture for it.  When Mrs. Henderson had been unable to convince them to stay overnight, she had gone into full mom mode, making sure they had a bag full of food and a stack of blankets and pillows to make their night more comfortable. By the time she’d been satisfied with their supplies and they had driven out to collect the key from Wayne, the sun had set.

The apartment was small, with two bedrooms, a dinky kitchen, and an almost nonexistent bathroom.  The walls showed evidence of tobacco stains, the carpet was mustard yellow shag straight out of the 70s, and the lighting was dim at best. Despite all that, the moment the door shut behind them, Eddie felt something in his chest relax. For now, this was their space. Just the two of them, protected from the outside world and all its judgments and demands.

Steve immediately set to work putting the things Mrs. Henderson had sent them away. A carton of milk, a case of Cokes, and a tuna casserole went in the fridge. Boxes of cereal, a loaf of bread, and peanut butter were settled in empty cupboards. A package of plastic cutlery, a roll of paper towels, and paper plates were set on the counter. A roll of toilet paper and a hand towel found its way into the bathroom.

Eddie watched him move around, staying out of his way instead of trying to help. He followed him into the smaller bedroom and watched him arrange a pile of blankets and pillows in a plush nest in the middle of the floor.  It was only when there was nothing left to unpack that he finally stopped and took a shaky breath. Eddie stepped in then, sliding an arm over his shoulder and giving him a companionable little shake.

“All settled then, mama hen?”

Steve shot him a disgruntled look, but didn’t try to slip out from under his arm. In fact, he leaned in closer and wrapped his arm around Eddie’s waist.  It hit him, then, with a sudden startling clarity, that he’d do absolutely anything to keep Steve from feeling as shitty as his parents had made him feel today.

“We can hit the thrift stores for a bed frame tomorrow,” Eddie said, his mind already working double time to make this place somewhere Steve would feel safe and welcome. “Probably should buy a new mattress if we can hack it, since people are disgusting and all. Maybe we can even manage a cheap wardrobe. Can’t have Hawkins’ sweetheart living out of a bag, right?”

“Right,” Steve snorted. “Because my reputation is pristine in this town.”

“Compared to me, you’re a saint,” Eddie pointed out. Steve acknowledged the truth of that with a nod of his head.

“I’m working on trying not to care what they think of me anyway,” he said.

“And how’s that going?”

“Not great,” he admitted. “It’s kind of been the only thing I’ve cared about for most of my life. What people think of me. I’m not like you. I wish I could be.”

Eddie snorted and pulled Steve in by his shoulders to give him a rough noogie. Steve swatted at his hands and twisted out of his grip, carefully ruffling his hair back into place with a practiced movement. 

“Man, you think I cultivated this whole devil may care, fuck off aesthetic because I don’t care what people think of me?” Eddie asked, waving his hands over himself sardonically. “It’s all about picking your own narrative. Making them see what you want them to see. If you do it right, eventually it turns into actual confidence.”

“But if you’re putting effort into it, why not put effort into fitting in?” Steve asked with a frown.

Eddie shrugged. “Because I tried that and it didn’t work. Listen man, my whole life people have been able to tell that I’m different just by looking at me. It’s like someone posted a cosmic ‘weird’ sign to my forehead that everyone but me can see. I babble when I’m nervous and I get really twitchy when it’s too quiet and I can’t sit still and I don’t always catch on to things as easily as other people. 

“I was getting called a queer before I even knew what that meant. Way before I knew it about myself. I’ve never been able to fake being acceptable, so I had to figure out another way. If they’re gonna call me a freak, I want it to be for the reasons I give them, you know?”

Steve nodded thoughtfully. “Yeah, I guess that makes sense. I never really thought of it that way.”

“That’s because you’ve always been able to present as acceptable,” Eddie said, twisting his skull ring around on his finger.. “Things are harder my way. But I think I’m probably happier anyway.”

Steve nodded, looking thoughtful, and then met his eyes seriously. “I think maybe I’m finally ready to try being happier.”

“That’s the spirit,” Eddie crooned at him. “Come on over to the side of the freaks. Dance with the devil in the pale moonlight.”

Steve rolled his eyes and raised a hand to rest it against Eddie’s cheek. The look in his eyes was blazing and unmistakable. Eddieblinked in surprise, his mouth going very suddenly dry.

“Oh,” Eddie said softly. “I…are you ready for that? I kind of figured you’d need more time.”

“I’m ready for it,” Steve said. “If you’re ready for it.”

“I mean, yeah, I’m ready for it,” Eddie said. “But I’ve also been like…crushing on you pathetically for a month now. Are you sure you’re ready? You’ve kind of just figured things out. You’ve had a really stressful day and shit. Not that you don’t know your own feelings or anything, but--”

“Eddie,” Steve said, raising his eyebrows pointedly. “Just because I’ve finally admitted things to myself today doesn’t mean I didn’t know about it. And most of the shit I was scared of has already happened anyway, so I may as well get the good parts too.”

“Oh,” Eddie said again, his heart getting a little fuzzy in his chest. “I’m the good parts?”

“Yeah, man.” Steve snorted softly and leaned closer, so close that Eddie couldn’t really focus on his face anymore. His heart pounded in his ears, excitement and nerves all at once.

“Wait, wait,” he said quickly. Steve frowned slightly but pulled back.

“Is this…I mean, I’m not totally reading this wrong, right? I’m usually very good at this kind of thing.”

“No, no, you’re totally reading it right,” Eddie said, wishing for a moment that the Earth would just swallow him up and put him out of his awkward, nervous misery. “Just that I need to like…clarify just really fast. This isn’t a trying-things-out kind of kiss right? Like I’m obviously available and willing and everything so…obvious choice. But also if this is just like a gay test for yourself it’s gonna fuck me up real bad so I just need to know beforehand…”

“Bambi,” Steve said flatly. “We hold hands all the time. I’ve never been more emotionally vulnerable with anyone in my life. We literally cuddle with each other every night. This is not just some kind of test. This is me wanting to kiss you really, really badly.”

“Oh,” Eddie said, feeling a little dumb even as relief rushed through him. “Okay. Great. Cool. Carry on then.”

Steve snorted softly, rolled his eyes again, and then leaned in and pressed their lips together sweetly.  When Eddie had imagined it, it had always been harsh and handsy and sexy. But this…this was really nice. Nicer than he could have thought up on his own, as if he were being cherished. Like he was something so precious and adored that softness was necessary.

Steve pulled back and looked at him, perking his eyebrows in question. “Alright?” he asked.

“Yeah, man,” Eddie breathed. 

He leaned back in for another kiss, this one more confident but just as sweet. He snaked his arms around Steve’s waist and pulled him closer, until they were chest to chest. Steve smiled against his mouth, his hands sliding over Eddie’s shoulders, thumbs stroking along the curve of his neck.

He was good at this. Almost depressingly good at it, if Eddie let himself think too long about it. Luckily he wasn’t much of a thinker at the best of times, and he certainly wasn’t capable of it while Steve was nibbling at his bottom lip like that.  The thought occurred to him that he wished they could be closer. 

They were already pressed together, clinging to each other, and he was still hungry for more. He wanted to climb inside him and roost there, like some kind of fucked up tape worm. He was pretty sure that wasn’t the kind of thing most people thought about when they finally kissed the guy they’d been pining after for weeks.

“Did I lose you there?” Steve asked, pulling back to look him in the face. Eddie flushed.

“Sorry. Focusing isn’t my best skill. I was still thinking about you, if that helps.”

“It doesn’t hurt,” Steve said. 

He pressed another kiss to Eddie’s lips, and then another, and then finally rested their foreheads together. Eddie fluttered his eyes closed and leaned into it, delighted by the way their noses nudged together and their breath mingled between them.

“Steve Harrington, I think you’ve got me under your spell,” he said.

“You got me first,” Steve admitted.

“Be still my heart,” Eddie responded, strangely giddy. “If the me of a year ago could see me now, he’d never believe it. Graduating and sealing the deal with the town dream boat? Unheard of.”

“Oh shit!” Steve said, pulling back suddenly. “Bambi! You passed your test! We were gonna have a party. I totally forgot. All my shit just took over--”

Eddie laughed and kissed him again, just because he could. “I’m not worried about it, really. I’d much rather be doing this.”

“Well, we’re still going to have a party,” Steve said stubbornly. “What kind of boyfriend would I be if I let a milestone like this pass by unnoticed?”

Eddie flushed a little, unable to stop the pleased smile from spreading across his face. “Boyfriend?” 

Steve looked at him, brow furrowing. “I mean…yeah? Is that too much too soon?”

“No,” Eddie said immediately. “No, it's the perfect amount. I’ve never been someone’s boyfriend before.”

“You’re doing great so far,” Steve said. “A plus, really.”

“First time I’ve ever gotten one of those too,” Eddie said with a grin.

“Wanna go celebrate with some making out?” Steve asked.  It shouldn’t have been half as charming as it was.

“Hell yeah,” Eddie said, laughing brightly as Steve took his hand and dragged him over to the nest of blankets on the floor.

Who needed furniture anyway?

They settled into their new normal with an easy comfort that Eddie hadn’t really been expecting. If he were totally honest, he’d expected a backslide from Steve. A moment of realization followed by gay panic and denial.

But he’d forgotten that Steve Harrington was nothing if not decisive. He didn’t second guess himself much, and he threw himself into things head first. In everything from being Eddie’s alibi to searching for a gate to hell at the bottom of a lake, Steve was confident. Eddie appreciated it more than he could say.  Steve’s assuredness made it easy for him to follow suit: to go to the thrift store and pick out some furniture for their bedroom and the mattress store to flop around on the cheapest mattresses available until they found one good enough.  To argue over sheet colors at the department store and then compromise by buying some bright orange ones they both agreed were delightfully ugly.

Anyone looking at them wouldn’t be able to tell. They wouldn’t know that the two men being loud in the home good section were anything more than friends. But Eddie could see it in Steve’s smile, in the ease between them, and he could feel it deep in his gut. It felt almost euphoric, which he knew was pretty much the lamest thing in the world. But maybe lameness wasn’t so bad, if the payoff was worth it.

They made one more stop before going home; a record store on main street that Eddie had frequented since he was a kid. He hadn’t had much chance to get around there since all the bullshit with the Upside Down, and it felt almost like coming home to step into the shop that smelled faintly of mildew and strongly of incense.  He recognized the guy at the counter from school, though he couldn’t have conjured up a name for all the money in the world.

“This place practically raised me,” Eddie told Steve as they strode down the aisle. “I got my first guitar here. When my mom was on a bender I’d sneak out and spend hours just…playing records and reading back issues of Rolling Stone .”

He slipped past the corner where the ancient jukebox took up half the walking path and made his way over to the instrument wall to stare covetously. There certainly wasn’t anything he could afford at the moment, but damn did he miss playing.

“Theo used to let me take things down and play, before I bought my baby,” Eddie continued, reaching out to stroke a solid black 70s model telecaster. It didn’t have quite the same presence as his baby had, but a telecaster was a really solid guitar. Not cheap, though.

Because he hated himself, he flipped the tag to read the price and let out a wounded hissing noise.  $350, which was more than the monthly lot rental at the trailer park.  Steve made a surprised sound too, and then rested a hand on his shoulder.

“You must miss it a lot,” he said, and Eddie nodded.

“Yeah, man. Like a limb. There were years where my guitar was my only friend.”

He immediately winced at how dorky that sounded, but Steve didn’t make fun of him. He just looked at the guitar on the wall, and then at him. Then, he glanced around the store, saw that the teenager manning the counter was buried in a book, and leaned over to kiss him quickly. Eddie blinked in surprise, his heart pounding in a double feature of nerves and elation. 

“What was that for?” he asked, a bit stunned.

“Just felt like it, I guess,” Steve said, and his smile made Eddie’s heart pound. He twisted a length of hair around his finger and pulled it in front of his face to hide his pleased smile. Steve nudged their shoulders together.

“Eddie Munson?”

Eddie flinched, looking around guiltily for a moment before he remembered that he was just a guy who was allowed to be in public. He relaxed completely when he saw Theo approaching. He was a guy about Uncle Wayne’s age, with long, graying hair held back in a low ponytail. He was wearing a threadbare Woodstock t-shirt and jeans, and he smiled widely when he reached out to shake Eddie’s hand vigorously. 

“Been a while!” he said brightly. “Finished up high school yet?”

“Yeah, actually,” Eddie said proudly. “Graduation is next weekend.”

“I bet Wayne is gonna shed a tear, that old sap,” Theo grinned. “Who’s your friend?”

“Hm?” Eddie said, and then he started. “Oh! This is Steve Harrington. Steve, this is Theo. He taught me how to play.”

“Wow,” Steve said brightly. “Must be a great teacher then!”

“Flattery will get you everywhere, kid,” Theo said with a grin.

“Hey…” Eddie said suddenly, a thought occurring to him as he looked around the store. “You wouldn’t happen to be hiring, would you?”

Steve looked surprised for a moment and then stepped back, jerking his thumb toward the small wall of band merch at the back of the store. “I’ll leave you two to talk.”

Eddie watched him go fondly for a moment and then turned back to Theo. He was frowning, which wasn’t a great sign.

“Look, Eddie,” he sighed. “You know I’d love to hire you. I don’t know if there’s a person in this town who knows more about music than you do. But…the optics are bad.”

Eddie crossed his arms over his chest defensively. “I didn’t do anything, Theo. You know that, right?”

“I know,” Theo said brusquely. “Of course I do, kid. Remember when you found that mouse in the trap when you were ten? You cried for hours . I never believed for a second that you were even capable of hurting anyone.”

“Thanks,” Eddie mumbled, his throat tight, eyes burning with tears. Fuck, it was so small, but to know that Theo knew him well enough to know…it was a relief.

“Unfortunately, what I know and what the public believe are two very different things. And even though your name has been cleared, it’s still a spectacle. Either people would avoid the place entirely, or they’d come in to poke at you. See if they could get you to snap. Especially with the recent news…”

“Right,” Eddie said dully. “Yeah, sorry. I shouldn’t have asked.”

“It never hurts to ask,” Theo said, clapping him on the shoulder apologetically. Eddie tried not to flinch away from it. “I really wish I could help you.”

“No worries,” Eddie said. 

Six months ago he would have shown Theo a spectacle to end all spectacles. But six months ago, the world had made a lot more sense, and had been a lot less scary. Now he understood there were some things you just couldn’t come back from, even if you hadn’t even done those things. Now he understood that sometimes the only thing you could do was your best.

“But you’re always welcome here, Ed. I hope you know that.”

“Thanks,” Eddie mumbled, jerking his head back to where Steve was flipping through a poster rack. “I’d better…”

“Yeah, yeah, of course. Tell your uncle I said hello.”

Eddie nodded and made his escape, putting on a chipper mask as he came up behind Steve, who was looking at a Blondie poster with a picture of Debbie Harry painted in pop art style. It was kind of cool, for a Blondie poster.

“Getting some new decor?” Eddie asked, making Steve jump slightly. “Gotta say, Blondie is a soft choice but it’s better than Wham! at least.”

“Blondie is good!” Steve insisted, shooting him a scowl. “I’d think even you’d approve, Blondie is punk.”

Eddie snorted loudly. “Please, Blondie is New Wave at best.”

“Just because you have a hate on for anything remotely popular--”

“I have a very refined musical palette, you mean--”

“Well, I like Blondie,” Steve insisted. “And if I can make room in my car for Metallica tapes, you can accept that.”

Eddie elbowed him gently, apologetically. “Yeah, alright, that’s fair. You gonna get it, then?”

Steve turned to frown at him. “What, the poster? No, man, tacks put holes in the walls.”

Eddie scoffed at that. “So what? It’s all about self-expression. A few tacks are well worth making a space of your own.”

“I mean, it’s just a room, right?” Steve said with a shrug. “It doesn’t need to express anything.”

He thought back to Steve’s bedroom at his parents’ house and realized suddenly that he hadn’t had anything on the walls. No posters, no art prints, not even a racy calendar. He’d always thought it was weird how little clutter Steve had in his room, but now he wondered if it was something more than that.

“Haven’t you ever just had things in your space because they make you happy?” Eddie asked. “Like…I don’t know, some dumb toy or post card or something that just made you smile?

“Not really,” Steve said with a shrug. “My mom likes the house to be clean, my room included.”

“Having things isn’t being unclean,” Eddie scoffed. “I can’t believe you’ve never had a space designed exactly to make you feel like yourself. That’s a tragedy, and we’re getting the damn poster.”

“Eddie,” Steve said. “It’s kind of a waste of money, isn’t it? I’m gonna have to find a new place eventually and I’ll need everything I’ve got for that…”

“Don’t be stupid,” Eddie said. “I’ve already mentally marked the nest room at the new place down as our bedroom, alright?”

He hadn’t realized that all the choices Steve had made today had been with the thought that only Eddie would be enjoying them full time. He wasn’t sure if that made him sad, or happy.

“But Wayne…”

“Rent’s not gonna change with two or three of us,” Eddie said. “He won’t care. I mean, you’ll probably have to go in on food and utilities with us, but…”

Steve nodded slowly, a small smile building over his face.

“And…it’s not too soon?” he asked. “I mean, considering…”

“I think any day the ground could literally open me up and swallow me whole,” Eddie said. “So I don’t really give a shit about what the proper timelines for things are. Besides, we’ve been living together for weeks.”

“Alright,” Steve said, brightening. “Alright, I’ll do it.”

“Great,” Eddie said, a thrill of joy running through him. “Grab your poster, then.”

“Okay,” Steve agreed. “But only if you get one too. It’s gonna be our space, right?”

That night when they went to bed, it was on a thin mattress made up in ugly orange sheets, with a Blondie poster on one wall and a Judas Priest one on another. They all clashed horrifically with each other, and Eddie loved everything about it.

On April 26th, 1986 Eddie Munson put on a graduation gown.

It was a horribly ugly thing, green and made of the worst fabric Eddie had ever had the displeasure to touch.  It trapped the heat like a bitch, too, which was unfortunate because he was already wearing a shirt and tie. Steve had tied it up for him, and Eddie had immediately had to loosen it up in the face of a short panic attack as the memory of demo-bats holding him down and tearing him apart crashed through his mind.

But, they’d managed it. He’d drawn the line at wearing slacks or khakis and instead had settled on a pair of black jeans without holes in the knees. The stupid cardboard hat was crammed over his hair and he was sweating himself to death under the spring sun, but he had Nancy Wheeler on one side and Robin Buckley on the other, glaring at anyone who came to close with anything less than a pleasant expression. They looked absolutely murderous in their matching bright orange robes, which were even uglier than the green for the guys.

“This is a mistake,” Eddie said, for the third time in the past half hour. He tugged at his tie to loosen it a little bit more. “They’re gonna tell me that they were wrong and I actually failed!”

“No, they’re not,” Nancy said patiently. “You passed, fair and square.”

“What if people throw things at me when I’m crossing the stage?” he continued rambling. “ Humiliating.

“No one is going to throw anything,” Robin said. “And if they do they’ll have to face the wrath of Dustin and Steve, and watching that will make you feel better.”

“That’s true, I guess,” Eddie said. “Oh my god, what if it’s a Carrie situation?”

“Well, the ceremony is outside on a football field, so if they manage to hang a bucket full of pig’s blood from thin air I guess you deserve it.”

“I’ve seen things hoisted by thin air before, that’s not as reassuring as you think it is.”

The memory of Chrissy Cunningham, catatonic and floating entered his mind, unwelcome and unwanted.  He hunched his shoulders and pressed back against the brick wall.

“Shit. She should be here. It shouldn’t be me.”

“You should both be here,” Nancy said softly, not even asking for an explanation, “And so should Barb and Partrick and Fred and hell, even Billy and Jason. The things we’ve been through…no one should have to do that. But we won. We’re here. And you’ve worked your ass off, Eddie. You deserve to cross that stage. Your uncle deserves to watch you do it.”

And god, she was right about that, at least. Wayne had been so damn proud all morning. He’d made pancakes for breakfast and everything, and he’d gotten misty eyed when Eddie had put the stupid robe on. He’d even purchased one of those new disposable cameras for the occasion.

“Right,” Eddie said. “Shit. Right okay. I can do this. I’m Eddie Munson, Eddie the Freak, and I wear it proudly!”

“Hell yeah!” Robin yelped, high-fiving him enthusiastically. “Wear that attitude like armor!”

“I always do,” Eddie said, grinning at her widely.

“Everyone line up in alphabetical order!” Mr. Draper yelled through a megaphone. “Remember who was in front of you and behind you during rehearsal! If those people are not in front of you and behind you in line, you’re in the wrong place!”

“Here we go!” Robin said. “Good luck!” 

She threw her arms around Eddie’s waist and squeezed him tightly before galloping off to find her place in line.

“See you on the other side, Munson,” Nancy said with a sweet smile.

“See ya, Wheeler.”

The graduation ceremony was long and hot and kind of boring. Nancy gave a salutatorian speech that was good in that it was relatively short and sweet. The principal made mention of the students who weren’t with them, and Eddie tried his best not to look around self-consciously, sure that every eye would be on him if he did.

Finally, mercifully, it was walking time. Robin made it across without tripping over her own feet, which she had been worried about. When she grabbed her diploma and waved to their section of friends cheering for her, Steve stood up and wolf-whistled for her.  Eddie watched the rows ahead of him get up and walk. He noticed, harshly, the gaping hole when the names skipped from Carol Culver to James Davis.

His heart started pounding when his row was called up. He was careful to look only toward the stage, or at the back of Rick Muir’s head in front of him.  He did his best to look calm, trying not to rock back and forth or fidget too much. He settled on squeezing his fists tight and releasing them, over and over again. Squeezing until his nails cut into his palm, and releasing to let the blood back in. He was so focused on it that he almost missed it when his name was called.

There was some hissing, a couple of boos, but he focused instead on his small but mighty personal group of cheerleaders. Dustin was screaming his head off like a little psychopath, his voice rising high above the others, though they were all wild in their own rights.  

“Congratulations, Mr. Munson,” Principal Higgins said as he handed over the little folio with a diploma tucked inside.

“Hope I never see you again,” Eddie said honestly, flipping the man the bird because he felt like he deserved to.

“The feeling is mutual, Mr. Munson,” he responded, rolling his eyes.

Eddie turned back toward the crowd, finding his group of friends, and flashed some devil horns at their renewed cheering. He heard another wolf-whistle tear through the field and grinned to himself as he left the stage and went back to take his seat. He glanced into the folio, just in case, just to make sure, and grinned like an idiot when he saw his name.

It was a long wait until Nancy crossed the stage to collect her own diploma, receiving a much more considerable amount of cheers than pretty much anyone else in their class. And then, finally, it was over. They were announced officially graduated, they tossed their stupid hats into the air, and the crowd crushed in to congratulate the new graduates.

Eddie unzipped his gown first thing, desperate to get some cool air past the polyester prison. Hardly seconds later, Robin slammed into his side, hugging him tightly.

“Look at this, I’m a graduate!” she told him, shoving her diploma in his face.

“Look at that, I am too!” Eddie said, waving his back at her. 

“I think that makes us successful adults!” Robin said cheerfully.

“I think it does!”


Dustin’s long shriek hardly met his ears before the boy himself was throwing his arms around his waist and rocking him back and forth violently.

“You did it, man! ‘86!”

“‘86!” Eddie howled in victory.

Before long, their whole group had been reunited in the crush of people, and pictures were being arranged.  He swore he took pictures in every combination possible, starting with the three graduates, swinging by huge group shots, and ending with him and Wayne, side by side both trying not to cry like a couple of babies.

As soon as the last of the film was gone, he loosened his tie and wrenched it over his head, looping it around Steve’s neck for safe keeping. He wrapped an arm around Steve’s shoulders because he wanted nothing more than to hold him. He wrapped the other around Dustin, for appearances and because he was close.

“Never again shall I set foot on this campus,” he intoned gravely as they got in the car.

“Yeah, that’s what I said too,” Steve sighed. “But when you have six kids in high school you end up there a lot.”

“Don’t ruin my buzz, Harrington.”

They drove to Nancy’s house for the afterparty. Her mother had gone all out, decking the whole house out in balloons and streamers and a huge banner outside the house.  There was a whole table full of munchies and drinks, and there was even a large sheet cake decked out in orange and green frosting with the words “Congratulations Nancy, Eddie, and Robin!” piped on, which made him feel things he didn’t really want to acknowledge at the moment.

The party had a lot of parental supervision, so there wasn’t really much opportunity for getting wasted and doing something stupid, but it was still fun in its own way. Just sitting around with this group of people who he’d saved the world with and celebrating something so simultaneously insignificant and all-important as a graduation. The fact that they’d all lived to reach this moment was a miracle in itself.

Eventually, the mood started to change. It went from relaxed and fun to a bit charged. Eddie had been trained by bullies to be very aware of sudden changes in mood his whole life, so he found himself tensing up as he noticed Dustin and Steve having a silent argument, and watching warily as everyone else looked at each other like they all knew something he didn’t.

“Okay,” he said finally. “Someone has to tell me what’s going on before I start freaking out. Paranoia is not a good look on me, trust me.”

“Oh, we know,” Max said, pinning him with a sardonic grin despite not being able to see him. “Boat house, remember?”

“I do cherish the memories,” Steve sighed.

Eddie scowled at them both, only stopping when he saw Dustin lift a large box wrapped in red paper from behind the couch. Someone had painstakingly drawn little skulls all over it with a Sharpie. 

“What’s this?” he demanded nervously. “Were we doing gifts? No one told me we were doing gifts.”

He shot a betrayed glance at Steve, who just rolled his eyes fondly.

“Stop being all jittery and open it,” Robin commanded. 

He glared around at all of them, but then had to give into the temptation. He was dreadfully curious.  The paper unwrapped to reveal a plain cardboard box, but once he got that open he understood.

Inside the box was, unmistakably, a guitar case.

“No fucking way,” he breathed, pulling it out of the box.

A round of pleased noises followed that proclamation.

“Oh my god, open it, you’re killing me,” Dustin wailed.

Eddie popped the latched open and lifted the lid to find the black telecaster from Theo’s.

“We don’t really know anything about guitars,” Nancy piped up. “If it’s not right, we kept the receipt and you can exchange it for something better.”

“It’s the one you looked at last week at the store,” Steve added, sounding nervous. “I thought…”

“Guys,” Eddie said, his voice coming out rough. He ran his fingers up the fretboard lovingly. “Guys, it’s perfect, but this is too much. How did you even…”

“We all pooled money,” Erica said. 

“And the guy at the record store gave us a discount when he heard it was for you,” Max added. 

“We just figured,” Lucas said. “You really saved our asses with your guitar. And you lost it, and everything else.”

Eddie sniffled a little and wiped furiously at the tears that spilled over.

“Oh my god, is he crying?” Max demanded. “Legally you have to tell me if he’s crying.”

“Shut up, Max,” he grumbled, his voice wobbly. 

Max grinned, “Oh yeah, he’s crying.”

“I don’t…you guys. This is…thank you.”

He stood up and grabbed onto the nearest person (Mike) and hugged for all that he was worth. He felt someone else at his back, and then another body pressed in on his side, until the whole group was standing in a big, dorky group hug with Eddie at the center.

It was absolutely embarrassing and not metal at all, and Eddie didn’t think he’d ever been happier.

When Eddie left his bedroom mid-morning a month after graduation, it was to find Steve and Robin seated at the tiny kitchen table with a box of donuts in between them.  He paused for a moment to make sure he was appropriately dressed for company, and then swept over to drop a kiss on Steve’s head and select a glazed donut from the box.

Steve didn’t even pause in his conversation as he wrapped a hand around Eddie’s hip and guided him down to sit on his lap. The chair protested a bit under both of their weight, but it held.

“So I’ve been on the phone with a Family Video in San Francisco,” Robin was saying, “And they’ve agreed to transfer my employment, so I don’t even have to worry about finding a new job! And I’ve been looking at apartments but everything in California is so expensive. I might have to have roommates, which is obviously the nightmare scenario because living with strangers? Yuck.”

“So I take it, you finally told him?” Eddie said, lighting up a cigarette. Robin wrinkled her nose at it but wisely said nothing.

“Finally?” Steve demanded. “You told Eddie before me? How long has he known?”

“I told him the same day as the alibi article came out,” Robin admitted. “I didn’t know how to tell you, I thought you’d be upset!”

“Come on, Rob, I’m not so much of an asshole that I’m gonna be a jerk to you about going to college. You’ve talked about it before, I knew.”

“Well yeah,” Robin said, shredding a donut with her fingers. “But now it’s real, isn’t it? I’m gonna be leaving next month.”

This had Steve straightening up in his seat in outrage.

“Next month? Classes don’t start until August!”

Robin grimaced and pushed the box of donuts toward him like a peace offering. Steve took a pink one with chocolate sprinkles, but he didn’t bite into it.  Eddie offered him his lit cigarette, which was much more well-received. 

“Well yeah,” she said. “But I want time to get acclimated, you know? Get used to living outside of my parents’ house and in a new city and…get the lay of the land. So I feel kind of comfortable before classes start and things are all new and terrifying again.”

“I mean…but in June?” Steve asked, sounding wounded.

“I think it’s a smart idea,” Eddie said, shooting Robin an encouraging smile. “Get the hell out of Hawkins while you still can, right? You don’t have to be a lifer here.”

“It does seem that the longer I stay here the more likely I am to die in a horrible monster incident,” Robin said. “And, if I’m being honest, I’m excited to start the rest of my life, you know?”

“Right,” Steve said, putting on a smile. “Of course. That makes sense. There’s nothing left in Hawkins for you, not really.”

“I mean, that’s a bit much,” Robin said. “But I think I’ll do better in San Francisco.”

“Yeah, of course,” Steve said again. “If you need any help packing or anything, just let me know. I’m not so great at the packing part, but I can carry boxes out to a car like a champ.”

“Oh, I’ll definitely take you up on that,” she said. 

“I’m kind of jealous, Buckley,” Eddie said, because it was clear that Steve was having a hard time coming up with more encouraging things to say. “The metal scene in San Francisco is supposed to be real up and coming. Metallica is based out of San Francisco.”

“That’s the kind of place where you could get a job easily, Bambi,” Steve joked. “Plenty of bands in want of a guitarist.”

“Yeah,” Eddie snorted. “And record stores that would actually hire me for rent money. It’s a good pipe dream.”

Robin sat up suddenly, her eyes flying wide. She slammed her hands down on the little table with a heavy ‘thwack!’ and leaned toward them.

“That’s genius!” she said. “You should come with me!”

Eddie stared at her for a long moment, totally taken aback by the sudden enthusiasm and also the invitation.

“What, you mean when you move?” he asked.

“Yes!” Robin said, practically vibrating in her excitement. “It’ll be perfect! You can do your metalhead thing and get a job because no one will know you there! It’ll be like a fresh start. And we can be roommates! That way I don’t have to find strangers to room with.”

“I can’t believe my best friend and my boyfriend are going to run away together,” Steve grumbled. “This is bullshit.”

“Obviously you’d come too, Dingus,” Robin said, rolling her eyes. “Two bedrooms, rent split three ways? I bet we could get a pretty decent place in Castro! It’s a whole gay neighborhood! Can you imagine what that would be like?”

Eddie genuinely couldn’t, and judging by the look on Steve’s face, he couldn’t either. But it sounded kind of nice anyway. A place far away from Hawkins, with nice weather, where no one would look at him and call him a murderer. Where he might be able to join a band and feel slightly normal again. Where he might be able to hold Steve’s hand in public and not worry about getting jumped for it.

He opened his mouth to say as much, but Steve beat him to the punch. “What the hell would I do in San Francisco?”

“Whatever you want!” Robin said. “What are you doing here in Hawkins? Maybe a change of scenery will help you figure it out.”

Steve’s hand tightened on Eddie’s hip, and he knew that he was getting into the idea.

“What about the kids?” Steve continued uncertainly. “They’ll lose all of us at once.”

“They’re going to be sophomores,” Eddie pointed out. “They’re poised to be on their own by now, right? And they’ll have each other.”

“And the Upside Down is kaput, right?” Robin added eagerly. “So any problems they have should be pretty easily solvable over the phone!”

Steve still looked torn, so Eddie wrapped his arms around him and rested his cheek on the top of his head.

“I think it’s a good idea,” he said. “A chance for me to start over. I couldn’t do it on my own, I’m too much of a coward. But if you’re both there…it could work.”

Steve made a thoughtful noise and Robin practically vibrated with excitement.

“Think about it, Steve! The three of us, together, figuring out this adulthood thing. New place. Clean slate.”

“Okay,” Steve said finally.

Eddie squeezed him tight and shot a grin at Robin.

“Okay?” she repeated, bouncing in her chair. “Yeah?”

“Yeah,” Steve said, letting out a laugh. “Yeah, let’s do it.”

Robin cheered and scrambled to her feet, throwing herself at them with an exuberance that nearly took them all down. Eddie laughed, crushed between the two of them in the world’s most uncomfortable hug. 

He’d never been happier.