“You’re bullshit, it’s all bullshit, Steve,” Nancy says. She sways, drunk enough to be not quite in control of her balance, and Steve lifts his hands to steady her but she bats them away. Then she stares at the exposed skin of his wrist, intensely focused in that way only inebriated people can be, and mutters, “We don’t even have flowers for each other.”
Steve flinches against his will. It’s something he’s always been sensitive about–that no matter how much he wills them into being, soul flowers stubbornly refuse to appear on his body for Nancy Wheeler. She has a few–pink carnations for her mom, curled around the back of her neck, a geranium for Barb on the inside of her wrist, matching bursts of myrtle for Mike and Holly on the inside of her forearm. But Steve remains a blank canvas, and no flowers have ever bloomed on her skin for him.
A ring of damask roses, pink and vibrant, circles the back and palm of one of her hands, like a hanging bracelet. She’s never told him, but he knows they belong to Jonathan Byers.
Soul flowers aren’t a ticket to true love, he knows that well enough, but they do mean importance, significance, permanence. And so far no one has ever loved Steve significantly or permanently enough to leave some. Maybe that means he’s broken. Maybe that’s why he can’t leave any for her.
So Steve lets Jonathan take Nancy home that night, and tries not to feel too bitter about the matching bracelet of roses on Jonathan’s hand.
Dustin is the first one to leave a mark. Steve doesn’t notice at first, registers the strange burn of the hand on his shoulder but doesn’t know what it means, and he’s too preoccupied with the coming demodog to pay it much attention anyway. But later, much later, when he peels himself out of his disgusting clothes to take a much needed post-Upside Down shower, he sees it. A cluster of pink lilacs high on his shoulder blade, right where Dustin touched him for the first time. He doesn’t see the second one until later, after his face has healed from Billy’s ass kicking–a curl of unfamiliar red flowers over his temple and reaching out towards his eyebrow, towards the corner of his eye, where Dustin had pressed the ice pack to his face. He has to dig out one of his mom’s books on soul flowers to find what it is: lavanga, or clove flowers. Symbols of growth, protection, and lasting friendship.
He finds more from that night, that horrible night that had apparently forged bonds he didn’t know he needed: white mulberry leaves from Lucas near his elbow, a magnolia from Max on his bicep, even a lone four leaf clover from Mike, stamped on his ankle where Mike must have held on, Steve’s legs sprawled across him in the backseat of Billy’s Camaro.
Importance. Significance. Permanence. He already knew he was willing to die for these kids, and this just seals the deal. That they mean something. That he’ll be around for a while.
After the nightmares and the stress and the horror, everything that the November of 1984 has to offer that will haunt his dreams for a lifetime, Steve cherishes the blooms he received in exchange.
The other kids tell him eventually but Dustin is the first to tell him about the bloom of clove flowers wrapped around his collar and over his shoulder, like a hand clapped there in pride. Steve is willing to admit he nearly bursts into tears. So it wasn’t his fault after all–he and Nancy just weren’t meant for permanence.
Then the summer of 1985 arrives and everything falls apart again. He hates that this is what their lives are now–fighting to survive, fighting an evil they thought was defeated. He babbles like crazy in front of the Russians, because he knows enough about Robin by then to know that she’ll start chattering, and it’ll get annoying, and then maybe the Russians will decide that the two of them aren’t so amusing after all. So he makes himself the target, makes himself too loud and too annoying. What’s one more concussion, really?
Sitting on the floor of the Starcourt movie theater bathroom, coming down from the worst trip of his life and still loopy with truth serum, acid burning the back of his throat, Robin squints at him and says, “Steve you have something–“ and gestures to her own neck.
Steve reaches up to touch it, tilting his head to the side and exposing whatever it is to Robin, and she says, softly, “Oh.”
“What?” Steve asks, suddenly worried that the Russians had done something he hadn’t noticed. Something worse.
“It’s a,” Robin swallows reflexively, her throat clicking, “I, uh, know this one actually. That’s funny. It’s a daisy.”
Steve stares at her, uncomprehending.
“You know,” she continues, her hands moving restlessly, “Little white ones, yellow centers, kind of,” she imitates a spray with one hand, or maybe an explosion, “You can make chains with them.”
“I know what a daisy is, Robin,” Steve says, a little dazed, “You mean, you left a–“
Robin nods, still a little frantic, “Yup! Yes! Apparently! I– when you got back from them,” she hesitates, takes a deep breath, “Torturing you, I checked your pulse, you know, to see if you were still alive, and apparently it left a. A soul flower. A few of them, actually.”
Steve leaves his hand where it is, against the permanence Robin has left on his skin. It’s a bit of a stunning revelation, after she so succinctly and immediately shut down his awkward little confession. Robin Buckley likes girls, and she left daisies on his skin, right against his pulse.
“Do you know what they mean?” He asks, because Robin is smart, she seems like the kind of girl who would memorize things like flower meanings.
“I do,” Robin says, quietly, staring at him with something complicated and fond behind her eyes, “They’re a spring flower, and often symbolize renewal and rebirth. New beginnings. They’re used in lots of medicine, a helpful little wildflower for things like chamomile or moisturizers.” Steve makes a face and Robin laughs, slumping against the wall.
“They’ve also been used to represent loyalty and trust,” Robin continues, smiling softly. She bumps his shoulder with the toe of her shoe where it’s propped against the bathroom stall, “And secrets kept between friends.”
“Loyalty, huh?” Steve says, smiling back.
Later, after Billy, after the Mind Flayer, Robin shows him the chain of daisies wrapped around her upper arm, and teases him for how they must have shown up when he bumped into her or something.
It’s a funny thing, to live with the proof of someone’s love swirled across your skin. Despite the pain, and the terror, and everything, Steve finds himself incalculably grateful for the reminder. That no matter how he feels or where he is, he can find the mark that someone who loves him, who matters to him, has left on his skin, and know that somewhere they carry a bloom of his own love.
It feels like a tether to the ground sometimes. Robin’s loyalty, Dustin’s brotherhood, Max’s brightness, Lucas’s thoughtfulness, Mike’s determination. All of them finding a place on him for him to carry.
All things considered, he doesn’t expect the next one. Steve feels like he can be forgiven for not noticing the burn, what with the jagged glass being pressed to his throat and all, but when he’s released to go catch his breath, Eddie being given a crash course in the Upside Down by Dustin, Steve sits down on a crate and presses a hand to the burn on his throat. He puts it down to adrenaline and maybe a scrape from the bottle. That is until he stands to add color commentary to Dustin’s explanation, and Eddie’s eyes lock onto his throat and stay there.
“You good, man?” Steve asks, genuinely concerned now, “You’re kind of spacing out.”
“What? No. I mean, yeah, I’m good,” Eddie clears his throat, looking down at his hands and flexing his left palm, “Super good for a guy who just saw someone die. Hold on, did you say this has happened before?”
It isn’t until they’re going to leave, promising Eddie to be back soon and bring rations with them, that Eddie pulls Steve aside. He looks awkward and anxious for some reason, but he eventually gestures of Steve’s throat and says, “I just thought you should know, you have some new, uh,” he glances away and then back to Steve’s face, “Ink, I guess.”
Steve claps a hand to his own throat, suddenly recontextualizing the burn from before.
“What the fuck,” Steve hisses, more bewildered than angry, “From that? You were going to kill me!”
Eddie shrugs, relaxing now that Steve has proven that he’s not going to–what? Freak out because Eddie left a soul flower on him? It’s not something anyone can control.
“I don’t know, man,” he drawls, “You usually fall in love with people who hold sharp objects to your throat?”
Steve chokes, swallowing the memory of how Nancy with a weapon had really done it for him, for the short lived year he was able to enjoy it, and instead splutters, “That’s not what– you know that’s not what they mean.”
Eddie laughs, and Steve bats at him, like they’re friends, like they’re people who can touch each other. Eddie freezes, pressing a hand to the spot, right below his collarbone, and Steve freezes too.
This fast? He wonders, We mean something to each other this fast?
With a considering look on his face, Eddie pulls down the collar of his shirt, exposing tattoos Steve didn’t know he had, and a handful of long green stalks with trumpets of white flowers weaving between them.
“Huh,” Eddie says, looking at them, “Not usually my speed, but I don’t hate your style, Harrington.”
Steve smiles tentatively, unsure where this moment is going, and then Dustin hisses, “Steve, we have to go.”
Eddie raises an eyebrow, says, “The tiny tyrant awaits,” and waves him away.
He drops Max and then Dustin off first, and Robin doesn’t say anything until it’s just the two of them, but he knows that she’s noticed from the way she looks at him while they drive.
“Steve,” she says, once Dustin’s front door is closed and the porch light turned off, Steve pulling out of the driveway, “You know you have,” she mimes something encircling her throat.
Steve clears his throat, tapping his fingers nervously on the steering wheel, and nods, “Yeah, I know. Do you know what it is?”
Robin leans a little closer, squinting in the dark, and finally says, “Oh!”
“What?” Steve glances away from the road and to her, “What are they?”
“My mom has some of these,” Robin explains, settling back in her seat, “I asked her what they meant, once. They’re witch hazel, little yellow flowers, kind of spindly.”
“Yeah?” Steve reaches up one hand, rubbing absently at his throat, “Witch, huh? Seems appropriate.”
Robin snorts in amusement, “They’re used as a medicinal remedy for like soothing coughs or sore throats and stuff. And they’re also said to be used to ward off evil and,” she looks at him sidelong, “Mend broken hearts.”
Steve chokes on a laugh, “Ward off evil? He had a broken bottle to my throat!”
Robin laughs too, but she keeps watching him, like she’s searching for something, “Yeah, but now he might help us fight Vecna or whatever. Can’t think of something more evil than that to ward off.”
That night, in the mirror, Steve examines the loop of yellow flowers around his neck, stretched from the dip of his throat and around to the nape, where Eddie’s hand had held him. He thinks of the way Eddie had pressed a hand to his own chest, how he’d looked scared of how Steve would react, how he’d sounded when he said You usually fall in love with people who hold sharp objects to your throat?
Mend broken hearts, Robin had said.
Steve clears his throat, watching the flowers move, and pushes that thought way down.
Dustin and Max make faces at him the next morning–it’s a little hard to hide bright yellow flowers on the side of his neck–but Steve continues like everything is normal, and in the end all that happens is Max looks at him and says, quietly, “Eddie?”
Steve nods, “Yeah.”
Max stares at him for a moment before unzipping her jacket, pulling it off one arm, and rolling up her sleeve, exposing a point high on her bicep where a stalk of bright pink, bell shaped flowers sits.
“El shoulder checked me the first time we met,” Max says, smiling ruefully, “Sometimes the first impression isn’t always…nice.”
Steve thinks of the magnolia he has in a similar place, from where Max had socked him in the shoulder, worried and angry and scared, as they drove away from the abandoned car lot.
“Yeah,” he smiles back, “I know what you mean.”
After the school, and the revelation, and one of the most terrifying moments of Steve’s life, watching Max hang above them and being helpless to stop it. After the Creel house and its dusty horrors. After he climbs into a boat and leaves the kids on the shore, hoping against hope that at least this way they’ll be safe.
After all that, it’s still mundanely mortifying when he takes off his sweater, throwing it at Eddie for safekeeping, and hears Nancy say, softly, “Oh!”
Steve turns to look at her, confused, and finds her taking in his flowers. He realizes suddenly that he hasn’t been shirtless around her since they were dating, back when she broke his heart and he was still convinced that he was the kind of person people didn’t want to leave lasting marks on.
They don’t have time for that, though, so Steve ignores it and dives into the lake.
On the other side, though, when Nancy is patching him up, she says, “I didn’t know you had– that people had–“
She meets his eyes, and there’s something glittery in them, something that could be tears, “I’m really happy for you, Steve.”
Steve feels his own throat go tight and mutters, “Yeah, me too.”
He lets her go ahead as they trudge towards the Wheeler house, let’s her and Robin talk so he won’t have to think too deeply about how, less than four years ago, he didn’t have anyone in his life that viewed him with significance.
“So,” Eddie says, breaking his train of thought and swaying dangerously into his space, “Wheeler was checking you out on the boat, huh?”
“What?” Steve looks at him, startled, “No, that wasn’t–“
“Steve,” Eddie raises his eyebrows, “She was fully staring. No subtlety at all.”
“Yeah, but she was looking at,” Steve takes a deep breath, “My soul flowers.”
“What, she didn’t see them when you were dating?” Now Eddie’s eyebrows are waggling up and down suggestively, and Steve finds himself laughing, struck by the absurdity of this conversation in this place.
“No,” he shakes his head, “I didn’t have any when we were dating.”
Eddie’s teasing stops abruptly, and he gives Steve an assessing look. Most people get their first flowers from their parents, Steve knows. It’s weird to make it past sixteen with none.
“My first flowers were from Wayne,” Eddie confides, and he holds up his right hand to reveal a burst of blue hydrangeas up his wrist and palm, “He held my hand the day my mom dropped me off on his doorstep.”
Steve stares at him, startled by this unexpected offer of vulnerability, of kinship. “My first flowers were from Dustin,” Steve says, “They’re on my shoulder.”
Eddie glances at his shoulder as if to confirm, looking to where the flowers are covered by Eddie’s own vest, and laughs, “Little shrimp got me too!” He taps the inside of his upper forearm, “First day we met. Gave me some color I didn’t know I wanted around a tattoo. Comforted me that at least I was important to him even when he wouldn’t shut up about how badass you were.”
Steve laughs as Eddie continues to expound on Dustin’s supposed hero worship, getting in his space, saying “Jealous as hell” right in his ear. He bumps into Steve’s side with his wrist, above the bite wounds, and Steve elbows him away, and both of them hiss at the sudden burn, slowing their walk to a stop.
Pulling the vest aside is easy enough, revealing a whole spray of little blue flowers right across Steve’s ribs. Eddie lifts his own shirt, revealing an answering burst of the same flowers down his ribs, almost brushing the exposed line of his hips.
“Any idea what those are?” Steve asks, wrenching his eyes away so he doesn’t stare at the plane of Eddie’s stomach, the dusting of dark hair there.
“No idea,” Eddie says, a little strain in his voice betraying that he might not be telling the truth. He clears his throat and says, “I’ve never been the kind of guy who memorizes flower meanings,” and that, at least, Steve can believe.
“Oh, uh, the girls are getting away from us,” Eddie says, hurrying forward, and Steve lets them leave the conversation topic behind as they jog to catch up.
He doesn’t think about it again until after they’re out, after that terrifying moment when Nancy was unmoving and somewhere else, caught in a web they only had the barest hope of saving her from.
(Nancy grabs his wrist where he’s cupping her face, and he feels the burn of her fingers on the back of his hand. He helps her up the rope and through to the other side, and when he examines his hand he finds that she’s left a single sunflower there.
On the bus, words crowd his throat, old desires mingled with this new revelation, and Nancy beats him to the punch by pulling the collar of her shirt down to expose the sunflowers on either shoulder, right where he grabbed her, trying to shake her free of Vecna’s curse.
“Platonic with a capital P,” Nancy says, raising her eyebrows.
Steve knows an olive branch when he sees one. He smiles, shows her the back of his hand, the sunflower bright and visible, and says, “Yeah, it seems so.”)
It’s not until he’s carefully unwrapping Nancy’s makeshift bandage from his abdomen, Robin standing by with antiseptic and the new bandages they’d picked up in the first aid section of the army surplus place, that he remembers that arc of blue flowers Eddie had left.
“Who are those from?” Robin asks, fidgeting nervously with the bandages as she watches Steve dab antiseptic on his wounds, hissing at the sting.
“What?” Steve gasps, distracted.
“The,” Robin gestures at his torso, “Forget-me-nots. Who are they from?”
“Is that what they are?” Steve asks, motioning for her to hand him the bandage, “They’re from Eddie. When we were in the Upside Down.”
“Oh,” Robin says, her voice going high and strangled for some reason. Steve squints at her, but he has more important things to focus on other than her freaking out about Eddie giving him soul flowers.
“Why are you being weird?” Steve asks, securing the bandage.
“I’m not being weird!” Robin protests immediately, holding her hands up in surrender, “Who’s being weird?”
Steve gives her a look of blatant disbelief, pulling on the camo shirt and frankly very cool jacket he’d grabbed from the surplus store. It’s a shame they’re probably going to be covered in blood and grime and Upside Down ooze once this is all over.
“You weren’t this weird about the witch hazel,” Steve says, although that’s a little untrue.
“Yeah, um,” Robin clears her throat, looking off in the distance to where everyone else is prepping weapons for their final battle, “It’s different this time.”
She turns back, meeting his eyes, “Hey, Steve, you know that you can tell me anything, right? Anything.”
Steve hesitates, one hand hovering, extended over a gas canister. He thinks about witch hazel and the burn of Eddie’s hand around his throat, the stalk of wide, white flowers on Eddie’s chest. The looks and the invasion of his space and the feeling that had burned straight through him when Eddie’s clever fingers had hot wired the RV, when he’d leaned in and called Steve ‘big boy’, his breath fanning across Steve’s cheek, something reckless and mischievous in his eyes, in his exhilarated grin.
“Later,” Steve says, “We’ll talk about it when this is over.”
The intended promise of it seems to reach Robin, and she gives him a shy but bright sort of smile, like she knows what Steve is going to tell her, or at least suspects. He makes a mental note to look up what forget-me-nots mean sometime when the world isn’t ending.
And, miracle of miracles, the world doesn’t end. El defeats Vecna, and Max survives with a broken arm and a twisted ankle, and Eddie weathers an attack by demobats that could have been much worse. Dustin cries, and Steve bullies Lucas into the emergency room, and by the time they find out Hopper is alive–emaciated and haggard looking and stubbornly, wonderfully alive–Steve is just about ready to collapse for a full week.
“Steve,” Robin mutters, just as worn out as he is, her arm warm where it’s pressed against his as they lean on the wall of Hopper’s decimated cabin, both of them too tired to really help, “We haven’t been to work in more than a week.”
“Nope,” Steve agrees, popping the ‘p’ sound extra hard.
“We’re so fired,” Robin groans, leaning more heavily on him.
“Yeah, Rob, I’d say we definitely are,” Steve says.
Hopper approaches them, his jeans dirty with dust and grime from fixing up his cabin. He gives them a quick, clinical once over and says, gruff in that distinctly Hopper way that Steve is used to from when he would come shut down rowdy high school parties, “Hey, you two. You look dead on your feet. Why don’t you go take a nap, you’re no use to anyone just standing around.”
“You got it, Chief,” Steve says, feeling a little loopy with exhaustion. He’s been in Eddie’s hospital room these last few nights, and the chairs there are not good for sleeping in. “You got a cot or something? Honestly, a bare stretch of floor and a dishrag will do.”
Hopper snorts in amusement, “I got a whole mattress. Make yourselves at home.” He eyes them critically for a moment, “Though not too at home.”
Robin muffles a snorting, cackling giggle fit in Steve’s shoulder at the implication, sending Steve stumbling forward, not steady enough for the unexpected weight. Hopper catches him around the arm, and Steve feels a now-familiar burn against his skin, high on the inside of his bicep where Hopper’s hand is. Steve lets his head fall forward until it rests against Hopper’s chest, wishing for a fleeting moment that this could be a real hug instead of just a facsimile of one.
Hopper freezes and then, as though in response to his thoughts, Steve is being pulled into a full hug. Steve startles, and then belatedly wraps his arms around Hopper’s torso, clutching at the back of his shirt. Taking a shuddering breath, Steve allows himself to bask in the moment. He can’t remember the last time his dad hugged him.
Eventually Hopper releases him, setting a comforting hand on Steve’s shoulder and using it to propel him and a trailing Robin into the small side room with its flimsy curtain and bare mattress.
They both collapse onto the bed. As tired as he is, Steve still rolls his sleeve up to examine the flower Hopper left on his arm: a dark stalk with green leaves and pale purple flowers, down the line of the inside of his arm.
“Mmm, thyme flowers,” Robin mumbles sleepily, “Those from Hop?”
“Yeah,” Steve says, already feeling sleep dragging at him, now that he’s fully horizontal, “Know anything about them?”
Robin hums a non answer, and Steve thinks she’s fallen asleep until she says, muffled by her face pressed into the mattress, “Respect. Chivalry. Loyalty.” She blows a raspberry, cracking open an eye and raising her eyebrow lazily, “Dude stuff.”
Steve laughs, quiet and sleepy, and then he’s dragged under before he can ask any more questions.
They wake what must be a few hours later, since the light is still bright as day, and Steve can hear voices and people moving around, the occasional pounding of a hammer filtering through the nonexistent sound proofing of the curtain. Steve already feels significantly better.
“Hey Robin,” Steve says, when he rolls over to find her already watching him, eyes bright and alert above the crossed pillow of her arms, “What do forget-me-nots mean?”
Robin sits up, her hair wild and fluffier than usual. She sits cross-legged, and carefully reaches out to take Steve’s hand when he mimics her position.
“They can mean a few different things. A lot of them are obvious: remembrance, faithfulness, respect,” she looks up at him, meeting his eyes, “Devotion and love. Eternal love.”
“And this isn’t,” Steve takes a deep breath, letting it out in a whoosh, “It’s not platonic love, is it?”
Robin squeezes his hand, “They’re just flowers, Steve. You decide what they mean. But,” she gives him a half smile, “Not usually platonic, no.”
“Right,” Steve says, feeling like his brain is the wheel of a car stuck in a ditch–a lot of activity, but no forward movement. “Right. So that means–“ he hesitates, “That means I’m–“
Robin lets go of Steve’s hand to grasp his face instead, tilting his head up to look at her, “You’re you, Steve, flowers or no flowers. They can be platonic flowers if you want them to be.”
“I don’t,” Steve whispers, “I don’t want them to be platonic flowers.”
A smile breaks out on Robin’s face, small and genuine and so full of joy it fills Steve too, makes him feel bright and wonderful even as the fear tries to choke him. This thing has been bouncing around in his head for so long, an unacknowledged suspicion about himself, that to let it out is a palpable weight off his chest.
“And that’s–” Steve makes a face, “I still like boobies, Robin. You’re allowed to be– to like both? That’s a thing?”
“It’s a thing,” Robin agrees immediately, “It’s definitely a thing to like both.”
Steve laughs, surprised and joyful and still scared, somewhere deep in the core of himself. With one hand he taps where he knows the daisy chain on Robin’s arm is.
“A secret kept between friends,” he says, smiling at her, “You know, Robin, I think you’re the best friend I’ll ever have.”
Robin lets go of his hand to throw her arms around his shoulders, her face pressed to the place on his neck where his own daisies sit, “You too, dingus. Platonic soulmates or something like that.”
They stick around long enough to actually help with the clean up, picking up trash and boarding up windows in the mid afternoon sun. At one point Hopper’s shirt collar moves enough for Steve to see small pale purple flowers just below his collar bone, where Steve had rested his forehead. It fills him with that same bright affection as Robin’s hands on his face, as the pink carnation Joyce had left on his back after they’d saved the world a second time, when she told him he was welcome to come over for dinner any time. Steve sweeps the floor and lifts battered furniture back into place and thinks about family, and flowers, and love.
With ten of them working, the cabin clean up gets pretty far, so Steve doesn’t feel too guilty when he announces that he’ll be heading over to the trailer park. Dr. Owens and his shady lab people had swept into town along with Hopper and Joyce and Murray, hushing everything up and clearing Eddie’s name in the process. A freak serial killer on the loose had committed the murders, and as an apology the Munson’s now have a new trailer, one that Steve had offered to help them move into.
“I’ll come with you,” El says, glancing back at Hopper and Joyce before descending the stairs to walk with Steve to his car. Steve starts to ask why, before remembering that Max is at the trailer park.
Steve pulls out of the woods and back onto the main road, his windows down to let in the remaining crispness of spring, the radio playing faintly, but not loud enough to cover the crunch of first leaves and then asphalt, the movement of the wind as he drives towards the trailer park. El looks out the window, fiddling absently with the cuff of her floral shirt.
“You doing okay, kid?” Steve asks, wincing internally as soon as the words are out of his mouth. He doesn’t know the full story, but Jonathan via Nancy filled him in on some of the details. El has saved the world for a fourth time now, but the price she paid for it was high.
El doesn’t seem to mind his awkwardness, shifting in her seat to face him. She says, quiet and solemn, “I will be.”
Steve waits, since it seems like she has more to say, and his patience is rewarded when El adds, “That’s what Hopper said: that it’s okay to not be okay, but someday I will be.”
Steve nods, anxiously tapping his fingers on the steering wheel, “Your dad’s pretty smart.”
El grins, small and proud, “He is. He’s the best.”
They lapse into comfortable silence for a moment before El breaks it by pointing at the bright yellow petals Steve’s collar does nothing to hide and saying, “Those are new.”
Steve resists the urge to slap his hand over the flowers, raw and embarrassed with the knowledge of what they mean, what the person who gave them to him means. “Uh, yes. Yeah, they are.”
“Who are they from?” El asks.
Steve cuts her a sideways look, “Hasn’t Joyce told you that it’s rude to ask that?”
El only widens her eyes innocently, projecting I grew up in a lab and know nothing about social mortification.
Sighing, Steve tugs his collar down a little so that El can see the full extent of the witch hazel, “They’re from Eddie.”
El hums, leaning forward in her seat to examine them closer, “They’re pretty.”
Steve huffs a laugh, startled and pleased, “Thanks.”
“Hopper says that soul flowers are gifts from people who love us,” El says, still staring intently at the side of Steve’s face, “I didn’t know that I had any until Hopper told me about this one,” she taps the back of her neck, where a single yellow cinquefoil sits, “It’s from Mamma.”
El squints thoughtfully at him, “You didn’t used to have very many.”
She doesn’t say it like a question, just a fact. That once El only had one flower that she couldn’t see and didn’t know about, one her unknown mother had given her. Once Steve had none. He looks at the clearly visibly sunflower on the back of his hand, yellow and vibrant just like the center of Robin’s daisies, like the petals of Eddie’s witch hazel.
“I didn’t used to have any,” Steve tells her, “Not until I met Dustin. Now I have a bunch, because I have lots of people in my life who love me.”
“Me too,” El smiles brightly, “Some people love me so much they gave me two! Here, look.”
She flexes her hands so that Steve can see a row of Austrian roses on her knuckles, bright red with a single black dot in the center, “These are from Max, from the day I broke up with Mike. And I have pink flowers from her on my shoulder. And this one’s from Mike!” She tugs her shirt down a bit so that he can see a cluster of annual asters on her collarbone, a multicolored splash of white and red and pink and purple, “And there’s one on my back from Joyce–“
“Joyce’s flower is on my back too,” Steve grins, “A pink carnation, right?”
“Yes!” El nods enthusiastically, “Jonathan says that flower means that she’s like my mom.”
Steve has to blink away the sting that rises in his eyes and throat at that revelation, suddenly realizing that maybe when Joyce said he was welcome any time, she really meant any time.
“That’s really cool, El,” Steve says, his voice a little wobbly. He clears his throat, “I’m really happy that you have people who love you.”
El beams at him, “I’m happy that you do too.”
When they pull up in front of the Munson’s old trailer Max waves at them from the couch on the front porch. Steve waves back and reaches for his door but El stops him by saying, “Wait, Steve.”
He looks at her, waiting for whatever it is she has to say, but instead of speaking El reaches forward and presses a hand to his forearm. Steve watches as snowdrops bloom across his skin, pale white and warm with the burn of a soul flower. He looks up and meets El’s eyes, earnest and excited.
“Thank you for asking about me,” she says, “You’re important to me too.”
Steve nods, his throat tight again, and then deliberately reaches out to touch El’s arm. She smiles and rolls the sleeve up so that he can see matching blooms on her skin, mirroring his.
“You’re important to me too, kid,” he says, as sincerely as he knows how.
Max calls out to them as they approach the trailer and El goes to her immediately, flopping down on the Munson’s couch. The door opens as Steve watches them and Eddie steps out, dressed in a short sleeved shirt, his hair up in a ponytail. Steve swallows whatever absurd reaction he’s having to that–it’s just a man’s neck, Harrington, get it together. What are you, a Victorian maiden?
“Hey, Harrington!” Eddie calls, going to deposit the box in his arms in the back of his van. Steve approaches, hands in his pockets, suddenly self conscious for no reason at all.
“Glad you could make it, man,” Eddie says when Steve leans against the open doors at the back of the van, watching Eddie arrange boxes with scrawled labels on them.
“Of course,” Steve says, “Anything I can do to help?”
Eddie nods, gesturing in the direction of the trailer before heading back in, “My room is still a bit of a disaster. I’ve always been a clutter bug but there’s nothing like having to put it all in boxes to really drive home that I have a lot of miscellaneous shit.”
They pass Lucas and Wayne in the kitchen, packing dish-ware carefully wrapped in paper towels, and then through to Eddie’s room. It’s strange to see the walls bare, most of the available surfaces cleared of their detritus, Eddie’s very familiar mattress stripped of its sheets. Steve sits on it, “Think the government can get you a new mattress while they’re handing out consolation prizes?”
Eddie laughs, crouching beside an open box with things scattered around it. When he tilts his head Steve can see a single small green carnation, high on his neck, behind his right ear. It’s something that would usually be covered by his hair, along with the row of studs up the shell of his ear, the single hoop hanging from the lobe.
“Can you tape some of those boxes together?” Eddie says, looking up and pointing at a heap of disassembled boxes. Steve doesn’t have time to look away, and Eddie locks eyes with him, his hand reaching self consciously to press against the carnation. “Ah. Uh,” he blinks at Steve a few times, flustered, and says, “A friend gave it to me. He– um. He lives in Indianapolis.”
Steve nods, equally flustered, and says, “Cool,” like a doofus before scrambling to assemble boxes like he was asked to.
They work mostly in silence for a few minutes, Steve dutifully handing boxes over when Eddie asks for them. Eddie finishes with the one he was packing, standing to carry it out to the van, leaving Steve alone in the room for a moment.
Steve blows out a harsh breath, tugging anxiously at his own hair.
“What am I doing?” Steve mutters to himself. He’s here to– what? Hang out? Confess? He doesn’t even know if Eddie swings that way, though he’s pretty sure that Eddie has been flirting with him. Steve stayed the night in the man’s hospital room, for fucks sake. He hasn’t been subtle.
When Eddie re-enters the room he closes the door behind himself and then leans back against it, staring at Steve. They watch each other, wary, and Steve feels the tension building in his spine, behind his shoulder blades.
“Listen, Steve,” Eddie starts, pursing his lips and looking unsure.
“I like you,” Steve blurts. They both freeze, and Steve feels his pulse thudding in his throat. He thinks of daisies, and Robin’s hands on his face, and witch hazel. Medicinal. A plant for soothing.
He thinks of forget-me-nots, little blue flowers painted on his ribs. Not usually platonic.
“What?” Eddie asks, wide eyed and stunned.
“I like you,” Steve repeats, determination building as he pushes down the anxious thing in his chest. He adds, in case it wasn’t clear, “Romantically.”
The wariness still hasn’t left Eddie’s face, and Steve can see his hands curl into fists against the door, “Steve, if this is a joke–“
“It’s not a joke,” Steve says in a rush, “I swear it’s not a joke. And you don’t have to reciprocate, obviously, because maybe,” his eyes dart down to where he knows Eddie’s forget-me-nots are, “Maybe your flowers were platonic. But I just wanted you to know,” he takes a deep breath, “That mine weren’t.”
“You’re serious,” Eddie says quietly.
“I’m serious,” Steve agrees.
Eddie pushes away from the door, crowding into Steve’s space like he has for all of spring break. Steve’s breath stutters, his pulse a pounding drumbeat against his throat, and then Eddie curls one hand around his neck, Eddie’s thumb against Steve’s jaw, and kisses him.
Steve melts into it immediately, reaching up to rest his hands on Eddie’s neck, his fingers against his nape where his hair is pulled up. He feels lit up from the inside, and he leans more firmly into Eddie’s space when Eddie’s free hand comes to curl against his hip.
Eddie pulls back to look at him, pressing their foreheads together. He says, “Steve,” and then seems to forget what else he was going to say, just staring instead, his eyes dark and blown out. Steve closes the space between them again, tilting his head to better fit their lips together. Sexuality crisis aside, Steve knows this, knows what to do here, and when Eddie groans into his mouth Steve bites gently at his lower lip. Eddie makes another noise, tugging at Steve’s hair, using the other hand looped through Steve’s belt loop to pull him closer, slotting their hips together.
There’s a soft knock on the door and then Wayne’s voice says, “Everything alright in there, boys?”
Eddie pulls away, breathing heavily, his eyes dark and intent and never once leaving Steve’s face as he swallows a few times and then calls, “Yeah, we’re almost done in here, Uncle Wayne!”
They breathe for a moment and then Eddie’s face breaks into a bright, toothy smile.
“I like you too,” he says, rubbing a maddening thumb against the bare skin of Steve’s hip where his shirt has ridden up, “In case that wasn’t clear.”
Steve laughs, still buzzing with the taste of Eddie on his mouth, the electricity between them. Then something colorful catches his attention and he feels himself go bright red, “Um. You have some,” he reaches out tentatively to run his fingers against the bright burst of vibrantly purple flowers wrapping from Eddie’s collar all the way up his neck, where Steve’s left hand had been.
Eddie chuckles, brushing his own fingers against Steve’s neck and jaw, just above the witch hazel, “Yeah, you too.”
Steve groans in delayed mortification, letting his head fall forward to rest on Eddie’s shoulder, “Your uncle.”
“Don’t worry, he’s cool,” Eddie assures him, resting his elbows on Steve’s shoulders so that his arms hang down over Steve’s back, “He’s known about me for years. And he’s– uh, he saw the forget-me-nots. In the hospital.”
“Oh yeah?” Steve asks, still muffled by the fabric of Eddie’s shirt.
Eddie laughs at the memory, “The nurse changing my bandages asked me who the lucky lady was.”
Steve snorts, pressing his forehead harder against Eddie briefly before pulling away. Eddie pecks him on the lips, quick and chaste, and then disentangles himself to go finish packing boxes, cracking the door open a little as he goes.
There’s a mirror that has yet to be packed up, hanging on the wall next to Eddie’s bed, and Steve goes to examine whatever new flowers Eddie has left on him. He looks– well, he looks wrecked: his lips red and his hair messy in the back and his eyes still deep and dark. And sure enough, an answering cluster of vibrant purple flowers twines through and above the witch hazel, the colors blending in a surprisingly beautiful way. Steve touches them cautiously, and feels a bubbly kind of hope fill him from head to toe, like he’s full of sunshine.
“Hey, pretty boy,” Eddie calls, standing in the doorway with another box in his arms. He’s grinning ear to ear, “You gonna help or just gonna admire my handwork all day?”
Steve grins back, for the first time in years feeling like he knows what he wants to do with his future.
“You gonna tell me what these mean, then?” He asks, going to pick up another box.
Eddie tilts his head to the side, exposing more of the purple flowers, his eyes glittering, “You left some too, Harrington. You tell me.”
Steve’s pretty sure he doesn’t need a flower meaning guide to tell him what they represent, but he doesn’t think he’s ready to say that out loud just yet, not when all of this is still so new. So instead he says, “I think it means you’re a pain in my ass.”
Eddie winks, “That’s the plan, yeah.”
Steve splutters in reply, his face burning, and follows Eddie’s cackle of laughter through the door and out into the world.