Wednesday was Steve’s favourite day of the week. It had once been Saturdays, back when the weekends meant filling the empty Harrington house with noise and alcohol and company; back when Steve’s only concern was keeping the crown from slipping and getting Nancy Wheeler to give him a chance. After December of ‘83, Saturdays warped into hollow eyes, every light in the house on, a nail-ridden baseball bat by his bed — and his car and the bathroom — and apprehension as his only companion.
Now, at the tail end of '86, Saturdays were reserved for long-haul shifts at Family Video, sleepovers with Robin, and for driving rapidly-maturing brats around the town at their beck and call. Steve dreaded the day the first of them turned sixteen. His Beemer had been through enough shit; he wasn’t ready for it to suffer through teaching the kids to drive.
So, Saturdays were a good day, but they weren’t his favourite.
On Wednesdays, Steve spent the morning rummaging through cookbooks, apron tied shoddily around his waist. He had vague memories of family dinners and of his mother, wrist-deep in dough or batter, or her hands swiftly slicing onion. Steve hadn’t been allowed to help, not until the nannies had become a more common presence than his own parents. He didn’t like cooking — it wasn’t calming or peaceful; it was a necessity, because there was only so much cash he could blow on artery-clogging burgers before he wanted something like a toasted sandwich or mac and cheese.
But Wednesdays meant dinner with the Hendersons, and dinner with the Hendersons by extension, now meant dinner with the Munsons. What had originally started as wanting to impress only Ma Henderson had now extended to the rest of their hodge-podge family group. Steve was a glutton for praise, which was unsurprising given his childhood, and having Ma and Wayne dish it out in spades was worth a few hours in the kitchen.
Steve shoved a lid over the Tupperware container of mini key-lime tarts and rummaged through each of his pockets for his keys. He juggled himself and his baked goods out the door, hopping on one foot, and nearly brained himself on the steps. Winter had come early to Hawkins, and the front lawn glistened with ice. The air was heavy with the threat of snow. He tipped his head back and stuck his tongue out fruitlessly.
The Beemer was freezing when Steve slid in. The heater had been repaired the other week, thank God, by a sweaty, oil-streaked Eddie Munson. Steve bit down the dreamy sigh that threatened to tumble from his lips. Mooning after a greasy Eddie was pathetic enough as it was; he didn’t need to start salivating too. No matter that Eddie’s bandana had pushed his hair back, leaving his face open and winter-pink. No matter his sleeves had been rucked up his arms, showing the lean lines of muscle. No matter he’d swiped oil across Steve’s cheek, eyes teasing and lips parting around sweetheart.
Steve smacked at his cheeks. “Stop it,” he told himself firmly, meeting his eyes in the reverse mirror. “You’re being ridiculous. This is a new low, Harrington.”
He rubbed his cold nose and started the car. Hawkins was peaceful in winter, and the late afternoon traffic was minimal. It wasn’t long before he was turning into Piney Wood Drive. Wayne was smoking a cigarette on the porch when Steve pulled up. His eyes were warm despite the tired lines of his face, jacket tight around his shoulders. He breathed out a mix of smoke and winter chill, breath fogging as he swiped at his red nose. Steve opened the glove box and pulled out a spare set of mittens. So far, he hadn’t been able to get Wayne to accept them, but Steve was nothing if not persistent.
He stepped out of his car with a wave, key-lime tarts tucked carefully beneath his arm, and trampled through the thin layer of snow.
“I thought you and Ma agreed you’re quitting smokes,” Steve greeted, once he clambered up the slippery steps. “Don’t ask me to lie for you, man. She can smell the guilt on me when I do.”
Wayne snorted. He tugged Steve’s yellow beanie over his eyes with a gruff, “Mind ya business. ‘Sides, ya not supposed to quit cold turkey.”
Steve shoved the beanie away with his free hand. His lashes felt frozen to his cheeks as he blinked. “If you’re gonna quit, can I pinch your Marlboros?” He aimed his best, innocent, doe-eyed look at Wayne, all charming yes, sir smile and lax, open stance. “Please?”
Wayne puffed a cloud of smoke into his face. Steve was reminded very quickly, as he spluttered, that Eddie and Wayne were related. Wayne’s smug, self-satisfied smile was painfully familiar. Steve aimed a kick for Wayne’s calf, gentle, and pretended like his chest wasn’t bursting with happiness when Wayne smacked at him. It had taken a while for Wayne to warm up to him. It seemed Eddie wasn’t the only Munson who’d suffered through school with an arrogant, tyrannical Harrington.
“Get inside, kid, ‘fore your hairspray reacts all negative to the winter air. One tap and it’ll shatter like glass.”
Steve rolled his eyes. “Don’t die out here. Would be a shame if I had to scrape frozen Wayne off the porch.” Then, his smile curling all saccharine, he cooed, “I can think of someone who might wanna warm you up.” He was quick to slip inside before Wayne could throw something at him, like a dead pot plant or his own shoe.
“Can you please stop bullying my Uncle?”
Unsurprisingly, Eddie was the first to greet him. He rose from where he was folded around a checkerboard with Dustin, discarding the game to tug the Tupperware from Steve. He deposited it on the wooden hallway table and threw his arms around Steve. He was wearing a navy blue sweater with the world’s ugliest fucking rendition of a deer embrodiered upon it. It proclaimed HAPPY BIRTHDAY JESUS. Steve wanted to tear it off for multiple reasons, namely because it was an eyesore, and maybe a little bit because he wanted to see if Eddie’s chest was flushed just as pink as his face was.
“Hi,” Steve murmured, pressing his nose to the warm little junction of shoulder and neck. Eddie smelled good, like sandalwood and smoke. It was a heady, rich scent that flooded his lungs, addictive and familiar. “Whatcha playing?”
Eddie squeezed Steve’s waist, hands having slid beneath Steve’s layers to the bare skin beneath. Eddie’s fingers were freezing, but Steve’s skin felt blisteringly hot where Eddie touched him. He swallowed around a fat tongue and resisted the urge to drag his lips across Eddie’s throat as he pulled back.
“We’re playing Go Checkers,” Eddie explained. Steve hung his winter coat by the front door and watched Eddie settle back down across from Dustin. He scooped up a hand of cards. “Henderson, you got any eights?”
“Go fish,” Dustin grinned. “Hey, Steve. Want me to deal you in?”
Steve didn’t bother pointing out that checkers was a two player game. He didn’t need to sit through another incensed rant about creativity — it was bad enough when he’d insulted Uno-poly back in September. He’d dreamt of Dustin’s threatening whispered do not pass Go for weeks.
“Nah, I’m gonna go see if Ma needs any help.”
He carded his fingers through Dustin’s hair, heart happy when Dustin didn’t shove him away. Dustin never shied from Steve’s affection; he only ever gave back love in spades, albeit with a teasing word or two.
“Suck up,” Dustin muttered. “She’s still gonna love you if you skip out on one night of carrot julietting or whatever.”
“Julienning,” Steve corrected smugly, because it wasn’t often he knew something Dustin didn’t.
Eddie snickered behind his hand of cards. “Henderson, hurry up and move your piece. Leave Stevie alone. He’s got a beautiful woman to entertain.”
“Yuck,” Dustin yelped, pegging one of the white game pieces at Eddie’s head. “That’s my fucking mum,” he hissed, “you creepy, decrepit—”
Steve left before they became violent, scooping the dessert up as he went. In the kitchen, Ma was ladelling gravy into a pouring bowl, humming along to the quiet radio. It wasn’t a song Steve recognised — older, something romantic — but it was pleasant all the same. Steve marvelled at the homeliness of the house for the thousandth time. Though, that feeling maybe had something to do with how Ma lit up upon seeing him, almost dropping the food in her haste to throw her arms around his shoulders.
“Steven!” she cheered, cupping his cheeks between her warm hands. “You’ve grown!”
“I’m the same height I was last week, Ma,” Steve laughed, cheeks pink beneath her attention. “I bought key-lime tarts.” He dropped the Tupperware on the bench carefully. “Allergy free. A little lopsided, but I did my best.”
Ma pinched his cheek. “You’re a darling,” she said. “Will you pull the lamb from the oven? It’s almost time to serve.”
Steve did as he was asked and the two of them worked together in relative silence. Ma ducked and weaved around him as Steve held and handed and cut and wiped and did whatever was required of him. Before long, Steve had his arms full of plates and cutlery. He made his way into the living room, unsurprised to see Dustin and Eddie’s game had been deserted. Wayne was now inside, regaling one of Eddie’s embarrassing childhood stories. Steve let his gaze linger on Eddie’s forlorn pout.
“Dinner,” he called, after a far too indulgent moment.
Eddie clambered to his feet. “Thanks, househusband,” he cooed, pulling out the chair at the end of the table — Steve’s. He dropped heavy into the one closest to it, tugging at Steve’s hair. “I’ll make you a little apron for Christmas,” he grinned, “so you and Claudia can match.”
Steve rolled his eyes. “Don’t act like you don’t want to shove me in a dress,” he snorted, too preoccupied with handing out cutlery to catch Eddie’s sharp inhale. “‘Sides, rather be a stay-at-home dad than a bread winner. I hate capitalism.”
Dustin gagged. “Enough,” he said. “I want to eat, not puke.” Then, “Also, you’re rich Steve. You don’t have to work.”
Steve shook his head. “Go help your mother bring out the food, dipshit,” he said, settling in beside Eddie. He didn’t bother telling Dustin his dad had cut him off; he was sure Dustin already knew. Any secret he had was poorly kept when it came to the party.
Eddie pressed his palm against his mouth, smothering his smile.
Steve tilted in towards him, like a sunflower chasing light. “What?” he asked, voice fond and soft the way it always was with Eddie.
“Nothing,” Eddie murmured, “only you’re really not helping the stay-at-home dad allegations.”
Steve shoved Eddie's shoulder and tried to ignore the flip of his heart when Eddie laughed, breathy and quiet. His cheeks dimpled, wind-chapped bottom lip sinking into his mouth as he futilely tried to hide his mirth. Steve couldn’t help but bump their shoulders together, chasing after what little touch he could steal from Eddie. When he looked up, Wayne was watching them. Steve felt caught, trapped beneath that steady gaze, but Wayne only nodded, lips ticking up in the corner, before he cast his own lovesick gaze onto Ma. Steve moved his chair back into place, reluctantly carving some distance between him and Eddie.
“Not subtle,” Eddie whispered, pointing between Ma and Wayne.
Neither am I, Steve thought. “It’s cute,” he offered, because it was, and he had to laugh when Eddie levelled him with an unimpressed look.
“We’re going to die of prolonged exposure to lovesick fools, Stevie,” he warned.
Dustin, dropping into the seat beside Eddie and furthest from Steve, snorted. “Yeah,” he said, staring so deep into Steve’s eyes that his soul felt exposed. “It’ll be their pining that does it.”
Ma settled into the seat beside Wayne. Their elbows brushed. It was unfortunate Wayne was balding, Steve thought, because it meant his bright red ears were on display whenever Ma glanced at him from beneath her lashes.
“Who’s in love?” Ma asked, reaching for the bread rolls.
Eddie pillowed his chin on his palm, elbow on the table, and reached across Steve’s plate to take Ma’s hand.
“Our secret’s out,” he sighed, sadly. “Go on, I’ll let you break the news.”
Ma’s cheeks burned carmine as she burst into mortified laughter. “Edward,” she hissed, smacking at him. “Gracious, boy, you’ll give me grey hair!” She buried her flaming face in her hands.
“Dude,” Dustin retched. It was only out of fear of Ma’s punishment that he didn’t tackle Eddie to floor. “That’s my fucking mum!”
Steve leaned back in his chair and laughed until his stomach hurt. Wayne fanned Ma’s face, exasperated as Eddie howled and howled and howled, face vermillion from lack of air, his hands smacking at the table. Steve folded at the waist, fingers caught in Eddie’s tight grip, heart bursting. Regardless if Wayne or Ma never made a move, Steve hoped they could stay like this. A happy, albeit unconventional, family.
Of course, the world couldn’t cut Steve Harrington any slack.
On Tuesday, Steve stood in the horror section of Family Video and stared morosely at a metric shit-tonne of bubblegum plastered to the side of each display box. Fuck Vecna; the real horror he thought, viciously scraping away at the mess, was letting delinquent kids run amuck through the store. He was only midway through his task when the doorbell chimed. Steve plonked Carrie on the shelf and ducked out of the section.
Dustin appeared out of nowhere with a whoop. “Steve!” He crashed into Steve so hard that Steve stumbled backwards, elbow slamming into the Family Video counter. “Oh shit, my bad.”
“Fuck," Steve hissed, shaking his arm like he could forcibly toss off the violent onslaught of pins and needles. “Okay, great to see you too. Was there a reason for you beating the shit out of me?”
“It’s a bumped elbow, Steve,” Dustin said, but he looked apologetic.
He rocked back on his heels, face flushed pink from the temperature change. He had snow tangled in his hair. He looked deliriously happy. His excitement was contagious, and Steve found a smile tickling his lips.
“Listen, Steve,” Dustin started. He didn’t say anything else. Steve guessed his brain had short-circuited trying to figure out how or where to start.
Steve leant against the counter and folded his arms across his chest, rubbing absently at where his elbow smarted. “I’m listening,” he said, pointedly.
Dustin beamed, all teeth and gums, and started to jump up and down on the spot. It was endearing. Steve’s smile broadened, excitement building in his own gut. Whatever had Dustin in such a euphoric mood was likely to bleed a little bit of happiness into Steve’s day too.
"Steve.” Dustin clenched his fists and made a hop-skip motion. “Steve!”
Dustin burst into a laugh, eyes gleaming. “Steve, Wayne asked mum on a date. A date! She said yes, and so me and Eddie spied on them, and they kissed! ”
Steve blanched. He shoved off from the counter and gripped Dustin’s shoulders. “Holy fuck, what?” Then, more pressingly, he said, “Wait. Why wasn’t I invited to spy?”
“Stop pouting,” Dustin said, which was unfair. He patted Steve’s hand. “You’re at work, dipshit,” he said, kindly. “I’m here to let you know, aren’t I?”
Steve squeezed Dustin’s shoulders tighter, ignoring Dustin's wince. He felt his smile threaten to rip the corners of his mouth. A bizarre rush of adrenaline and giddiness danced through him, like it was him who’d entered a new relationship, not Ma and Wayne. He only just held back from jumping around himself. About fucking time, he thought.
“Wait, this just happened?”
Dustin snorted. “Yes!” He started laughing again. He grabbed Steve’s hands and shook them about, expelling excited energy.
Steve craned his neck about the store. “Where’s Eddie then?”
He refused to feel embarrassed when Dustin groaned. His affection for Eddie was old news and Dustin had to come to terms with it at some stage. Plus, it was sort of funny watching him torn between support and hatred over the whole ordeal. On more than one occasion he’d threatened Steve over Eddie’s happiness. Steve had to admit, Dustin was creative, and his encouragement was sweet, even if Steve knew there was no hope. Eddie was gay, sure, but he wasn’t going to look twice at Steve; his type was nerdy and rockstar. Steve was a meathead and a pastel preppie.
“Steve — can you stop thinking about Eddie for one second, please? My mum and Wayne are official! Do you know what this means?”
Steve blinked back into himself with a tremendous clap of Dustin’s hands. Dustin regarded him like he would gum under his shoe, nose crinkled and mouth twisted into an unimpressed line. Again, Steve refused to be embarrassed, though he turned his attention back to the Henderson-Munson debacle. Even he could admit that Eddie was not the point right now, no matter how much Steve’s heart teased that Eddie was always the point.
Steve grinned. “I can bully the shit outta Wayne cause I totally called it?” He leaned against the counter top.
“Steve, we all called it,” Dustin said, flatly. “You’re not special. But no, listen, this is good, because— because Eddie was already my brother, you know, like— you know family doesn’t have to be related to you.” Steve knew this, because his own family was a cobbled together web of individuals he’d gathered over the years. “Eddie was already my brother but now it’s like, it’s official, you know,” Dustin said, beginning to pace as he spoke. “And I know, I know, okay. Wayne and mum only just started dating, so don’t count the chickens before they hatch or whatever, but I’ve got a really good feeling about this.”
Steve reached out and gently punched Dustin’s shoulder. “Dustin,” he laughed, “breathe, man. You’re gonna have an asthma attack.”
“That’s not how that works,” Dustin said, but he did suck in a few demonstrative breaths. “Listen, Steve, here’s the important thing.” He paused for a long time, really drawing out the tension. Finally, when Steve was about to die from anticipation, Dustin continued. “Eddie’s gonna be my brother, Steve! A real one!”
Ice exploded through Steve’s chest. All happiness fled in a tidal wave, leaving him hollow. A real brother. Real . He felt removed from himself suddenly, floating several feet above the conversation, or slammed deep through dirt to the treacherous pulsing Upside Down below. Real brother real brother real brother — surround-sound stereo, pounding through his head, staking straight through his heart.
“A … a real one?”
“This is so cool,” Dustin continued, unaware he had thrown Steve’s entire fucking world off its axis, plunging it deep into a cosmos of endless black. Suddenly, Dustin stopped bouncing up and down. A deep, somewhat crazed grin slunk over his lips. Steve’s stomach sank further.
“Steve,” he said, “If Eddie’s gonna be my brother, then you absolutely can’t be.” He stressed his words with his whole body, frame racking with disgusting. “That would be so weird, you know, given the two of you.”
Steve swallowed past a sudden golf-ball lump in his throat. His mouth was savannah-dry. He felt like he hadn’t blinked or sucked in a breath in aeons, heart so still in his chest he was worried he was about to flatline. His hand drifted up his chest to press firm over his breastbone. Dustin was saying something but Steve couldn’t hear it; his ears were full of rushing blood, louder and more aggressive than ocean waves.
“Steve,” Dustin said, oblivious to Steve’s too-quick breaths and clenched fingers. “How cool is this? Steve! Eddie and I — this is crazy!”
Yeah, Steve thought, head spinning. That was one word for it.
“We’re gonna be brothers!”
Dustin was so happy, clearly expecting Steve to share his excitement. To be fair, Steve was trying to. He just hadn’t expected Dustin’s proclaimed real brother. Steve realised, with sudden and wretched clarity, that Dustin had never labelled Steve a brother. Yes, they’d fallen into a dynamic Steve had — apparently stupidly — figured was much the same, but neither of them had ever once put a name to it. At least, not to each other. Steve felt horribly small, eyes prickling. He was glad to be working alone. He was also relieved Eddie wasn't present — the fewer people to witness his tiny breakdown, the better.
“Cool,” Steve said. He wet his lips and shoved his hands into his pockets. “A real brother,” he repeated, numb. “That’s, I’m happy for you, man.”
A little wrinkle sprung up between Dustin’s thick eyebrows, partially buried beneath his mop of curls. “Wait,” he said, eyes starting to widen. “Steve—”
Steve couldn’t handle Dustin seeing him heartbroken. He sewed together every little rip in his facade in seconds flat, King Steve clambering out from the deep cavern of his chest with a slow, easy grin. His eyes went dead, despite the heat burning behind them with such an intensity he wondered if they’d melt.
“Hey, listen, this is great. This is really good news.” He made his way back towards the horror section as he spoke, Dustin trailing after him. “Super stoked for you.” His hands trembled as he scooped up the remaining gum-coated tapes.
Steve smacked a tape against Dustin’s chest, forcing down every feeling he’d ever fucking had, and said, “Hey, this is still technically my job. Thanks for letting me know, but I do need to get back to work.” He started to mosey towards the backroom with careful, even steps, shoulders lax enough that he looked calm. “C’mon, I have to get rid of this fucking gum.”
Dustin ignored him and got straight to the point. “Steve, I didn’t mean it that way,” he said, voice just shy of pleading.
“Huh?” Steve tilted his head, grip on the VHS dangerously tight. “Oh, the thing about — yeah, I know. You’re rinsing me as usual.” He rounded the counter and with his back to Dustin, let his face fall for just a second.
“Henderson,” Steve snarked. He sighed tiredly. “Come on, dude. I’m serious; it’s fine. Go — I have shit to do.” He pushed open the back door and glanced over his shoulder. “I’ll see you tomorrow. Say hi to Eddie for me.”
Dustin was almost convinced, bottom lip sucked into his mouth as he contemplated Steve. Steve bit back the torrent of self-pity and scraped together a smile. Dustin’s shoulders slumped. Just like that, Steve had him hook, line, and sinker. Dustin slunk out the door with some of his earlier cheer restored, and Steve managed all of five seconds in the breakroom before he collapsed on the couch like a broken marionette, head in his hands.
“Pull it together,” he told himself, staring blankly down at some gum which had landed on his thigh, and would undoubtedly become a permanent stain on his uniform pants.
Lava didn’t rise from the floor; meteors didn’t crash through the paper-thin membrane of Family Video; there was no tsunami to flood the room and drown him. On all accounts, it wasn’t the end of the world. So why did it feel like it was? Steve shoved his face into his hands with a tired sigh. Then, determined to forget the conversation had ever happened, he stooped down and started scrubbing at the VHS cover.
For the first time, Wednesday morning brought with it a sense of dread. Steve moved through the day in a haze. He’d spent the night in a patchy kind of slumber, rampant with Vecna dreams and visions of the Mind Flayer tearing El limb from limb. When he’d finally awoken, more exhausted than he’d fallen asleep, Steve had laid in bed for hours, swamped in the sheets. He wondered how long it would take someone to notice if he simply expired in them. The thought was morbid. He pictured his parents coming home from Colombia — or wherever the fuck they were — and finding him. It was kind of funny. His mother would probably only complain he’d stunk up the room.
Eventually, he grew bored of morose daydreams and staring at the pock ceiling. He dragged himself through a shower, through a meagre meal, and only just remembered to make dessert when the clock struck three.
This week was chocolate cake, perfectly iced. If Steve hadn’t felt so sorry for himself, he’d have tried little whip cream peaks. As it was, he’d barely managed to find the energy to make the dessert in the first place. However, he knew if he rocked up without anything that he’d be caught out, and he couldn’t risk their opinions of him over a silly tantrum. He didn’t need to be a reformed bully and a needy, self-absorbed drama queen.
At the Hendersons, Eddie opened the door. As usual, he swooped Steve into a hug that had Steve melting, ache in his chest settling. The thing was, maybe he couldn’t have the Hendersons as a real family, but both them and the Munsons would always matter to Steve. And yes, he didn’t want Eddie as a brother — the thought made him gag — but that didn’t change that he was a part of Steve’s secret, desired family anyway.
“Ahoy, Stevie,” Eddie grinned, tussling Steve’s hair.
The previous week, before the Henderson-Munson spectacle had unfolded, Ma had mentioned that Steve should wear more blue, citing his Scoops uniform as proof. Eddie had latched onto Sailor Steve with rampant delight, and had decided that greeting Steve with various sailor-related terms was the epitome of comedy. Steve was only glad that Eddie had never seen the outfit for real; he’d have never lived it down. Though he wondered if Eddie would’ve taken note of how short the pants were. Most girls had.
Eddie pulled back. “You good? Your hair’s droopier than usual. Hey, you coming down with something?” He pressed the back of his palm to Steve’s forehead with a frown and then began chastising Steve. “This is why I keep telling you to invest in earmuffs — I don’t care how flat they make your hair.”
Despite everything, Steve had to grin. The kids always joked Steve was like a nagging mother, but they’d clearly never seen Eddie in full swing. It made Steve’s cheeks glow pink to know Eddie cared enough about him to drop his apathy for rambling concern.
“Dude,” he said, lightly pushing Eddie aside, “can I come in the door before you jump down my throat?”
Eddie let him pass. “Ha ha, Harrington,” he sniped. “Sorry that I don’t want to catch a cold. I’ve got a gig outta town next week and D&D Friday night. I cannot afford to get the sweats.”
Steve rolled his eyes. “Unless you’re planning on shoving your tongue down my throat, I think you’ll be fine.” He slid into the dining room, so caught up in the wondrous fantasy of sucking face with Eddie that he failed to notice how Eddie’s face burst cherry red.
Dustin looked up from where he was setting the table with a forlorn expression. He beamed when he saw Steve, dropping the cutlery to weave around the table.
“Steve!” He threw his arms around Steve’s waist. “Now that you’re here, you can convince Eddie to help.” He took stock of the cake Steve was carefully holding, partially concealed in Tupperware, and grinned. “Is that cake? Please say yes. I’ll fucking die if it’s not.”
Steve rolled his eyes. “Yes, dipshit,” he sighed. “And before you ask, yes, it’s egg-free. They always are.”
Eddie slunk into the living room and draped himself over Steve’s shoulder. “I think,” he said, “we should give that little shit an allergic reaction. I’m a guest in this house, Henderson. Guests don’t set tables.”
“You’re not a fucking guest,” Dustin snorted. Then, trying to appear bored, though his own twitching lips betrayed him, he added, “You’ll be a Henderson soon. Might be time to start pulling your weight.”
“What makes you so sure you’re not going to be a Munson?”
Steve felt an odd mix of amused and depressed, which was frankly humiliating. He was happy for the two of them but also wretchedly pissed off. When was it his turn to have something good? Why couldn’t he be a fucking Henderson (or a Munson, if it were possible)? Great, now he was spiralling again, his spine growing rigid beneath Eddie’s touch. He centred his focus on the chocolate cake in his arms and gently ducked out from beneath Eddie’s touch before Eddie’s insightful gaze could pry Steve apart.
“I’m gonna dump this in the fridge. Try to keep the slap fights to a minimum?”
“I wouldn’t land a hand on a baby,” Eddie gasped, hand over heart.
“I would,” Dustin threatened. He threw himself at Eddie.
Steve dipped into the kitchen before he got caught in the crossfire, thrown back briefly to Hell Week, and Dustin and Eddie in the field. Steve had watched them tussle from a distance, trusting Eddie to comfort Dustin where he couldn’t. He supposed the signs had always been there, that Eddie was Dustin’s brother just as much as Steve was. Rather, just as much as Steve had conned his piteous self into believing.
In the kitchen, things were worse. Ma had discarded dinner preparation, eyes locked with Wayne. Wayne’s expression was soft, the harsh lines of his weathered face smoother than Steve had ever seen. He looked ten years younger. Neither of them had spotted Steve. He very carefully deposited the cake on the counter and lingered in the doorway, unable to look away from such a blatant display of love.
“Wayne,” Ma giggled. Her face burned a delightful pink, expression melting as Wayne tucked her hair behind her ear. His touch was so careful. Reverent, almost.
Steve’s heart caught high in his throat, leaving his breath halted and pained. Wayne was gentle with Ma, caring in a way that Steve hadn’t seen in a long time. His own father was firm, all sharp lines and clean-pressed suits and a face so severe he looked like he’d never been happy a day in his life. Steve couldn’t remember the last time he’d touched Steve, positive or otherwise. He could barely remember the last time they’d seen each other, most days. At least he would always remember what his father looked like; his own face was morphing carbon-copy close with every passing year.
Steve remembered more of his mother. She was materialistic in a way that Steve was still unlearning, greedy and possessive — though Steve supposed his father’s cheating was the fuel in that particular fire. She wasn’t a tactile person. She was good with her words, quick-witted and slicing, able to cut Steve deep to his core. She didn’t usually spit her anger at him, but sometimes Steve wished she had. It would have meant she paid attention to him; it would have meant he was worth something, even if it was only her ire.
Ma pressed her cheek into Wayne’s touch. Her hand settled on Wayne’s chest, above his heart, and Steve felt his own race in response. He felt sick, suddenly. Dizzy with want. He wanted that. He wanted someone to love him like they loved each other, to touch him like he was worth it, like he was wanted. Needed.
“Wayne and Claudia sitting in a tree,” Eddie hollered, careening into the kitchen with a laugh.
Steve jumped at the sudden noise, but his surprise was lost amidst Ma’s embarrassed laughter.
“K-I-S-S-I-N-G!” Dustin shouted, hot on Eddie’s heels. He bumped Steve as he ran past but didn’t seem to notice. Dustin’s nose wrinkled as he pulled up short. “Wait, ew. That’s my mum! I don’t wanna see you guys kissing! Keep it PG, old man!”
Eddie grinned and flung an arm around Wayne’s shoulder. He was a little shorter than his uncle, which Steve typically found endearing. Tonight, it left a sour taste in his mouth: jealousy — another thing he’d picked up from his mother. Jealousy at how easily Eddie fit into his Uncle’s side; jealousy at how Wayne held him there not out of obligation, but out of love; jealousy at how now Dustin would get to have that too. The self-hatred that suddenly bubbled in his stomach was all his own.
Eddie leaned into his Uncle’s side, beaming when Wayne ruffled his hair. He was all boyish energy and he looked between Wayne and Ma like their relationship was the best thing to happen to him. It probably was, Steve thought, stomach churning. This was what parents were supposed to look like. Happy, for starters. He shifted uncomfortably in the doorway, careful not to draw attention to himself.
He glanced over his shoulder at the table, five plates laid out, waiting to be piled with food. Two on either side and one at the head of the table. Steve sat at the head. Sometimes it put him with Dustin on his left and Eddie on his right. He wondered tonight if things would change; if Ma would now permanently sit beside Wayne, and if Dustin and Eddie would rotate to each other’s side. Steve wondered if he would still sit at the head, separate, the additional piece to the already completed puzzle.
He smoothed his clammy hands against his shorts. He felt, suddenly, an awful lot like he was attending a funeral, rather than a family dinner. He slid out of the kitchen without notice and wandered down the corridor to the bathroom. With the door locked behind him, he settled atop the lid of the toilet and slumped forward, hands cradling his head as he stared down at the bronze tiles.
“Pull it together, Harrington,” he murmured, wetting his lips.
His mouth felt dry. He twisted his fingers through his hair in a desperate attempt to ground himself, lips pinching tight across his face. His stomach churned, threatening to expel its contents across the floor. Sweat beaded on his brow. He sprang up from the toilet and slammed his hands against the skin, gripping tight to the cold porcelain.
“What is wrong with you?” he hissed, meeting his own gaze. He couldn’t hold it for long, feeling small and pathetic. His mind was playing tricks on him, because the face in the mirror looked more like his father than it did Steve. “You’re being fucking stupid. You’re tearing yourself up over a good thing. You should be happy. Why do you always make everything about you?”
He turned the sink on, cupping his shaky hands beneath the liquid and drank, greedily. He was careful not to dampen his sweater, but he did splash the water against his face. It felt good to press his freezing fingertips to the bags beneath his eyes. Steve rested his wet hands against the sink for a second time and took in a few, steady breaths.
“You have a place here,” he told himself, firmly. “It doesn’t matter that you can’t be a… a real brother. Dustin and Eddie deserve this, and Ma loves you, and Wayne cares at least a little, else he wouldn’t tell you off for not eating enough.”
He wasn’t sure who he was trying to convince, because it certainly wasn’t himself.
Still, when he emerged from the bathroom a little while later, he felt better. His throat remained uncomfortably tight and there were sweat patches beneath his armpits, but the sweater was a dark red so it was mostly unnoticeable. Steve looked tired but the sour panic-resignation-fear-sorrow cocktail had settled low in his gut. He was able to smile and sit in his chair, all lax and loose-limbed. He didn’t want to think about how he was sitting at the head.
“Where’d you disappear to?”
Eddie’s breath was a hot puff against Steve’s cheek. He’d dragged his chair closer to Steve’s and his eyes were questioning. Steve made sure he met them. Eddie was perceptive, and once he smelled gloom he would chase it relentlessly, like a demodog catching blood on the wind.
“The bathroom,” Steve said, pillowing his chin on his palm. “Why? Wanted to come with?”
“Yeah, I was rostered for lifeguard duty.”
Despite himself, Steve smiled. “What the fuck are you on about?” he murmured. He swayed into Eddie’s gravity, well-aware that he was probably projecting as many little hearts above his head as Ma and Wayne had in the kitchen. He wanted what they had and he wanted it, with a desperation that often frightened him, with Eddie.
“In case you fell in the toilet, Stevie.” Eddie reached out beneath the table and grazed his fingers over Steve’s hidden hand. “I’m trained in CPR you know.”
“Stop flirting and pass me the corn,” Dustin bitched, leaning across Steve’s plate to grapple for the bowl.
“I feel bad for Suziepoo if you think that’s flirting,” Eddie snorted, but he passed the corn and didn’t mention Steve’s disappearance again.
Steve scooped some potato mash into his mouth and tried to pretend like it didn’t bother him. Just another unreasonable hurt to stack on the pile of Steve’s patheticism.
Despite Steve’s waning energy and morose mood, dinner passed in a wave of levity. Dustin had laughed so hard at one point that he choked on his gravy, and Eddie had pounded his back so forcefully that Steve could have sworn Dustin would spit a rib.
“Use your CPR training,” Steve had offered when Eddie pleaded for his help. He cut up his steak with a knife and fork, completely unbothered. “Or let Henderson die for his transgressions.”
“Big word,” Dustin hacked around a strangled breath.
“What transgressions?” Eddie laughed. “Pray tell, highness, what sin hast mine brother in arms committed?”
“The gravy is lovely,” Steve told Ma, completely ignoring Eddie. He gave Wayne a pleasant smile. “Good job julienning the carrot.”
“There isn’t even any carrot!” Eddie chortled, now attempting to spoon feed Dustin. “Until you learn how to chew properly, I’ll be handling your food. Now open up; here comes the choo-choo train, kid.”
Eventually, after Steve had served the dessert — and now he was really kicking himself for not attempting the cream whip swirls, appalling self-worth spiral be damned — it was late and time to head home. Steve helped clean the table with a yawn, pressing his palms against the heaviness of his eyes. He was wiped.
“Princess needs his beauty sleep,” Eddie cooed, breath warm against the shell of Steve’s ear. “C’mon, Wayne. Let’s get this show on the road.” He pressed his hand lightly to Steve’s lower back as though planning to escort Steve to the door.
Wayne hesitated. It was an odd sight. “Actually, Ed,” he started, clearing his throat. “I was going to stay the night.”
Steve had to hand it to Wayne, he refused to look embarrassed. He had a hand low on Ma’s back and eyes that observed Eddie keenly. Steve was struck with the sudden realisation that Eddie’s opinion mattered to Wayne. Of course it did. Eddie was Wayne’s nephew in name alone, his son in everything that mattered.
Eddie grinned. “Good woman,” he said, turning to Ma, “you’d have this scoundrel share a bed with you?” He didn’t let her get a word in before he powered on. “Fine, I’ll let you stay the night on one condition: be smart! Protection is important! Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do!”
He danced deftly away from Wayne’s lunging snatch, laughter bursting from him in waves. Steve’s breath caught for an entirely different and all too familiar reason. Eddie laughed with his whole body, cheeks bunching and shaping his eyes into half moons. He had a dimple on his right cheek, deep and charming. His teeth were a little crooked and he liked to bite down on the tip of his tongue as he grinned. Steve wanted to know how the peach pink muscle would feel against the soft palate of his mouth. Steve wanted to know what noises Eddie would make if he bit down lightly on it himself.
“Brat,” Wayne snapped. He wasn’t really mad; he pressed a kiss to Ma’s temple and ignored Dustin’s over-exaggerated retch. “It’s not like that.”
“Regardless, I’m hearing I get the trailer to myself.” Eddie let out a long, low whistle. “Could have a party, invite some babes over.”
Wayne snorted. “Sure. Thankfully no pregnancy scares there, so as long as you—“
Eddie’s mirth fled the room. “Uncle Wayne,” he said, voice reedy and tight. “There will be no pregnancy issues because I’m super safe with a condom.”
Again, Dustin dryretched. Steve tried not to think about the boys Eddie might lay out beneath him. He wasn’t very good at it. Instead of imagining some nameless male, the hair on the pillow morphed brown, their skin mole-ridden, sides scarred, nose crooked from countless lost fights. Great, now Steve was wondering how Eddie’s tongue might feel elsewhere.
After a second, he realised what was happening. Dread seeped down his spine, liquid pooling in his gut. Eddie was very much so gay, and Ma very much so didn’t know. Steve’s fingers curled into themselves, the comfortable way he leant against the door was the only thing keeping him upright. Eddie was gay and Steve was … Steve was something. Bisexual, maybe. Queer, at the very least. He was suddenly both desperate and terrified to hear what Ma would say.
Wayne frowned and then his spine went rigid. “Ah, kid,” he said. “Claudia guessed after you sang that Bueller movie boy’s praises the other week. I just confirmed. Didn’t even think. I’m sorry.”
Here was another thing Steve found himself jealous of. In the time he’d known the Munsons, they’d never once hesitated in apologising to each other. Wayne was always sincere, his entire frame remorseful. He always went out of his way to then buy Eddie the strawberry ice cream he loved so much, or a figurine for his game — not to buy Eddie’s forgiveness, but to emphasise his own sincerity.
Eddie didn’t smile. He looked at Ma, suddenly very quiet. He was still in the way that betrayed he was terrified. Steve reached out and ghosted his fingers across Eddie’s wrist, meaning to comfort him the way he always did, but Eddie jerked violently. Spooked, he drew into himself. Steve did the same.
“Edward,” Ma said. She didn’t step forward but her eyes were kind and her expression was equal parts soft and sad. “I’m sorry. I meant to speak with you about this earlier but with Wayne and I … I forgot. But you’re safe here. Nothing changes, except I’ll be bothering you about a special … you know.” She cut a glance at Dustin and Steve, unsure if they knew what everyone was dancing around.
They did. Dustin said as much.
“Eddie, I told you my mum was super chill with the gay stuff. You’re fine, man.”
Eddie wilted with a washed-out face. He made a relieved, punched-out noise. “Fucking hell,” he said. Then, “Sorry, shit. Didn’t mean to swear — just, you know, just recovering from the brink of a heart attack.”
Steve sagged against the door, knuckles pressed to his mouth. He avoided Dustin’s eyes and tried to act like he wasn’t over the moon with relief. Eddie’s fingers bumped against his briefly. He glanced up and caught Eddie’s eyes and the silent apology in them. Steve managed a quick smile and shoved his sweaty hands in his pockets.
Eddie turned back to his uncle. “Cameron Frye is a grounded, responsible guy. He’s funny and clever and doesn’t bullshit. Everybody’s fawning over Bueller, but they’re forgetting that Cameron’s the real heart of the trio.”
Steve had to disagree. Ferris was funny and sharp, with a charming smile and lackadaisical nature. He was intelligent and wheedling and arrogant and kind in equal parts. Cameron was boring. He was a neurotic loser who didn’t like having fun.
Dustin stared at Eddie. “Yeah,” he said, mouth twitching like Eddie was hilarious. “I bet you’re definitely still talking about Cameron. Say, reckon you have a type, Eddie?”
Eddie’s hand came up and over Dustin’s mouth in seconds, a faux-pleasant grin pulled tight across his lips. “If you know what’s good for you, shortstack, you’ll keep your mouth shut when I let go.” His hair was still up in the ponytail from dinner, which gave Steve the delightful view of his steadily reddening ears.
Dustin rolled his eyes. He folded his arms and proceeded to make a series of eyebrow movements that had Eddie looking scandalised and abashed in equal parts.
“Shut up,” Eddie muttered, pulling his hand back. He smeared his palm down his pants. Dustin must have licked him. Eddie peeked at Ma. “Um,” he said. “You already know… but I’m gay. No grandkids from me.”
The bitter part of Steve reared its head again. He was getting sick of the emotional whiplash and loop-de-loops his body was putting him through. He wondered if he’d missed the memo — were Ma and Wayne getting married? How were Eddie and Dustin so certain this was a sure thing, enough to joke about a future involving it, without that itchy sense of awaiting the other shoe to drop? Steve wasn’t used to good things. Maybe that explained it.
Ma slid from Wayne’s hold and opened her arms. “You don’t have to accept,” she told Eddie, “but I would love to give you a hug, Edward.”
Eddie looked like he’d been hit by a truck. His eyes were like two pools of chocolate ganache on his face, swirling with complicated emotion. He reached a hand up to tug at his hair, realised it had been swept away, and hunched in on himself from embarrassment.
Then, voice cracking, he said, “Ok.”
Ma swept him up in her arms. From experience, Steve knew that she would smell homely, like linen and lemon zest. Her arms would be firm and grounding, her skin warm and touch nurturing. She was nothing like Steve knew a mother to be. She was everything like the one Steve wanted.
Eddie deflated in her arms like a sad balloon. “Thanks,” he said, and his voice was somewhat thick. “Man, you give really good hugs, Claudia.”
“You can call me Ma, if you want.”
Steve had to look away. His hands made fists in his pockets. Ma. Steve’s name for her. Except, well, it wasn’t. It was what Robin called her too, when she was teasing Steve over his nagging tendencies, wondering who could have taught him the perfect pitch to have Dustin scowling. It was what Dustin called her, when he was dragging out his displeasure, voice grating on a whine. It was Lucas’s name too, tentative and abashed, like he wasn’t sure he was allowed to say it despite how Ma’s face softened every time she heard it. It wasn’t Steve’s name in the same way she wasn’t Steve’s Ma.
“Uh, sure. Um. Ma.” Eddie sounded cautious, but Steve knew him well enough to hear the happiness, too.
Dustin said something about how Ma would technically be Eddie’s aunt, except Wayne was basically his dad, but no offence, Dustin wouldn’t be calling him that anytime soon — which Wayne assured was fine, which caused Eddie to laugh and then Steve’s head was swimming and his heart aching too much for their words to continuing making sense.
It was time he left, he thought. Though, maybe they’d let him linger?
“You’ll stay the night, Edward, dear?” Ma drew back, her hands on Eddie’s shoulders. She was a tall woman, but Eddie towered over her.
“Um, sure.” He sounded as stunned as he looked, but soon enough, the shock wore off. Eddie grinned maniacally. “Dustybun and I can have a sleepover. We’ll paint each other’s nails and gossip and I might even beat the sh— snot outta him with a pillow or two.”
“Don’t break anything,” Wayne warned. He leaned back into Ma’s side.
Ma grinned. “We’ll get the second mattress out for you. You can sleep in Dustin’s room.”
What was left of Steve’s feeble hope fled. It fell off a forty-foot drop into the aching chasm of his gut and became a strawberry-jam splat of resignation. Steve watched the Henderson-Munsons interact from a distance. The space between them felt further than it was. He stopped to tug on his boots, fingers trembling against his shoelaces. He took a breath and forced himself to calm. Don’t mess up a good thing, he warned himself. This time, as he finished lacing the other shoe, his fingers behaved. The shakiness was gone.
“Well, I have work tomorrow,” Steve interrupted. He tossed his keys up and down. “So, I really have to get going. Ma, I’ll leave you to deal with the brat.” He winked.
Dustin frowned. “You’re not staying?”
Steve looked at him and thought about the spare mattress. He’d laid on it so many times he was sure it was moulded perfectly to the shape of his spine. He wondered how long it would take for it to sink into the curve of Eddie’s, instead. Yes, Steve could take the couch, but that wasn’t the point. There was no second mattress for people like Steve.
“Nah,” he said. He reached out and carded his fingers through Dustin’s hair. “It’s quicker from mine to Family Video. Plus, Robin’s expecting breakfast so I’ve gotta get that on the way.”
Dustin rolled his eyes. “Robin could ask you to jump off a bridge and you wouldn’t even question it.” Steve wasn’t upset; Dustin was right.
Ma cooed. “I think it’s sweet,” she chastised Dustin. “You should bring that delightful young lady around sometime!”
Steve tried to ignore the deeper meaning to that. He thought about bringing Robin to family dinner. It would make him half of a pair, in the way Ma and Wayne, and Dustin and Eddie were. It would make him less lonely, perhaps. He thought about Robin’s sharp gaze and the way she would unravel him in seconds. She wouldn’t understand, even if she did her best to listen. Robin had parents and sisters and Steve had met them all at school events. Steve’s parents had never even stepped foot into Hawkins High. How could Steve explain the icy realisation that no matter where you went, no matter who you met, you would always be just that little bit removed, unloved, forgotten?
“Sure. Sometime,” he said, because he wanted to, but he couldn’t commit.
Eddie cleared his throat. His voice sounded weird when he said, “You could stay anyway? I sleep pencil-straight.”
“I have no idea what that means.” Steve tugged his coat around his shoulders, the weight heavier than the crushing realisation he’d outstayed his welcome, in more ways than one. “I also don’t know what that has to do with me going home.”
Wayne snorted. He traded a look with Dustin that Steve didn’t care enough to decode. Even when the Munsons had been a tentative house guest of the Hendersons, these looks had been common. Steve hadn’t understood them then and he wasn’t about to start now.
“Well, at least take some leftovers.”
Steve expertly denied Ma with a combination of flattery and cow eyes and schoolboy charm.
“Really,” he assured, “it’s best you keep it. There’s four of you here tomorrow — what am I gonna do with half a lasagne?” He pressed a kiss to her cheek to show his gratitude, regardless.
Ma hugged him goodbye, and then Dustin ploughed him in the stomach, squeezing the life outta him. Wayne reached a hand out and firmly shook Steve’s.
“Don’t think I didn’t see ya sneaking those mittens into my bag, boy.”
Steve blinked, innocent. “Mr Munson, sir, I think you’re losing your sense of sight. What mittens?”
Eddie intervened before Wayne could shove the mittens down Steve’s throat. He slid into Steve’s space, fingers bumping Steve's wrist. His eyes were big and beautiful and this close, Steve could see the little speckles of amber through them. He wanted to lean in that little bit further and brush his lips against Eddie’s, to see if those eyes would slide shut when he was kissed, or if they’d stay open, lidded and lingering on Steve’s face.
“Lemme walk you out,” Eddie murmured.
Steve, because he was very good at denying himself things — almost as good as the universe was — was tempted to say no. But Eddie looked so hopeful and rumpled in his clothes, fingers ghosting Steve’s skin, and Steve was only human, craving some semblance of love after the emotional roller coaster of the evening. He caved.
“Sure. Bye Hendersons, Wayne.”
The door was only a few metres away, but Eddie’s palm pressed against Steve’s spine anyway, touch searing despite the layers between their skin. Steve swallowed, throat bobbing, and was desperately glad that Eddie wasn’t able to see the motion. When they neared the door, Eddie pushed it open, fingers curling slightly in Steve’s shirt like he wasn’t ready to let go. Steve stepped out onto the porch. He needed to put space between them; otherwise he’d have spun and pressed Eddie to the length of the door and slipped his tongue into that ever-smiling, ever-plump mouth.
Eddie stood by the door, socked feet shifting restlessly, with his mouth open.
Steve waited, expectant.
Eddie’s eyes fluttered and his gaze cut left. He was mulling something over. Steve let himself drink Eddie in while he waited. The flyaway strands of hair pulled loose from his ponytail framed his face, and his bottom lip was red from how hard he was sucking on it. Eddie smeared his fingers across his top lip, nose bunching.
“Just uh, just. I’ll see you later,” he eventually murmured. “Have a good day at work.” He seemed frustrated with himself but offered Steve a small, genuine smile.
Steve was too tired to probe. “Yeah,” he said. “Thanks, Eddie. Sleep well.”
Eddie nodded. He turned and wandered back into the house, long fingers catching on the door frame as he cast a considering look over his shoulder. His brow creased; Steve wanted to press the furrow away with the tip of his finger. After a minute, Eddie shook his head.
“Bye, Steve,” he said again. Then he disappeared.
The door swung shut. Steve shuffled down the stairs, porch light his only companion, and tried to ignore the muffled laughter from behind the wood. He drove home in silence to a house three times the size of the Hendersons’, with an atmosphere that left him claustrophobic and eyes that stung. Then he climbed into his bed, flicked the TV to some foreign, French film, and fell asleep pretending that the muffled, unintelligible conversation made him feel less lonely.
Steve knew he was being stupid. He knew it the same way he knew not to get his hopes up whenever his parents promised to be home for his birthday, for Christmas, for graduation; the same way he knew that he was reading into things, and that Eddie flirted with him because Eddie thought it was fun, not because he liked Steve.
It’s good to be self-aware, Steve’s government-mandated therapist had said the second time all the Upside Down bullshit had blown over. If you’re self-aware, he’d told Steve, then you’re able to work on bettering yourself, and changing those parts of you that mightn’t be beneficial. That was all well and good, but just because Steve was self-aware didn’t mean he knew what parts of him needed fixing. Some scars were physical, like the one that cut across his forehead or wrapped around his ribs or sat raised against the mole-ridden column of his throat. Others were deeper. Hidden. Personal. He suspected the abandonment issues — God, why wasn’t his parents’ apathy something he’d been gifted? He’d trade his Beemer for it any day — was the biggest, angriest scar across his heart.
Steve skipped out on family dinner the following Wednesday. He’d spent the weekend spiralling in between fielding customers around the latest releases and answering headache-inducing questions such as, ‘will this be suitable for a twelve year old? Yes, I see the half-naked woman on the cover. So, will it be?’ Robin had the week off. Typically, Steve would have spent the shifts in mourning, missing Robin like a limb. This time, it was a blessing; without Robin to psycho-analyse him, Steve was able to keep his shaky facade up, even in the wake of Dustin and Eddie’s impromptu visit.
“What are you gonna bring to dinner?” Eddie asked on Sunday, seated atop the counter because he had no respect for Family Video and Steve’s job. “Can I make a request?”
“Sure,” Steve said, trying not to feel rotten. In less than forty-eight hours he would fake a sick call to the Munsons and Hendersons both. “Nothing complicated.”
“What about exotic?”
“Depends. If you’re about to give me some D&D recipe…”
Eddie rolled his eyes. He slumped forward and dragged Steve in closer. They kept a little space between them because it was mid-morning in Hawkins and it didn’t matter that they were just friends. Eddie absently fiddled with Steve’s nametag, tapping his fingers rhythmically against the badge.
“Veriohukainen,” Eddie said after a moment.
Steve blinked at him. He handed his Ask Me a Question! badge over to Eddie and pushed himself up onto the counter beside his friend. Their knees bumped. Eddie pressed his against Steve’s a little firmer, jeans ripped at the knees despite the fact it was winter.
“I said no D&D.”
Eddie shook his head. “Stevie,” he sighed, “it really pains me how uncultured you are. Blood pancakes, sweetheart. That’s what I’m after.”
Steve, thoroughly repulsed, reared back. “Are we sure those bats didn’t change you into a fucking vampire?” he asked, trying not to think about what a blood pancake might include. “That’s not happening.”
Eddie wriggled a little closer and gently looped his fingers beneath Steve’s vest so that he could reattach the badge. Steve’s throat bobbed. Eddie was close enough that Steve could see the inky blackness spread across his lashes. He was wearing eyeliner. Steve had to close his eyes to ground himself.
“Fine, I’ll bite. How do you make veri… blood pancakes?”
“Veriohukainen,” Eddie offered. “It’s a mix of flour, eggs, whipped blood, and water. It's Scandinavian.”
“Absolutely fucking not,” Steve said, flatly. “I’m not whipping blood, animal or otherwise.”
Eddie slid off the counter like a cat, all graceful limbs. “You’re no fun,” he sighed, poking Steve’s knee. “Fine, I’ll let you surprise me. Hey, Henderson, you picked a movie yet? We’re on a time limit.”
Sure enough, by the time Tuesday evening rolled around, Steve had set his plan in motion. He waited until Eddie was busy with Hellfire to call Wayne, asking if he could be so kind as to inform Ma too. Wayne didn’t know him well enough to pry and accepted Steve’s sudden illness without question. He offered to postpone until Thursday, but Steve spun a fabulous story about gastro that left Wayne begging for him to shut up.
“Next Wednesday,” Wayne agreed. He sounded pained when he continued. “I don’t need ta hear nothin’ about your bowel movements, kid.”
“So much liquid,” Steve tacked on. “I’ll see you next week, Wayne.”
A few hours later, he was camped out behind a spare trailer, homemade pizzas in a carry bag, eyes on the Munson trailer.
At quarter to seven, Wayne and Eddie descended the stairs, chattering loudly enough that Steve could hear their voices, though he couldn’t parse what they were saying. Eddie looked unhappy, but he didn’t seem to be arguing with his uncle. Steve hoped his mood would improve upon seeing Dustin and Ma. He wondered why it was so awful in the first place.
Steve waited until Wayne’s beat up truck disappeared onto the main road before he stepped out from the bushes and crept across the dirt and gravel. Max’s trailer was quiet, but the kitchen light was on and her mother’s car was missing. Steve dithered on the porch. It wasn’t fair to bother her because he was feeling lonely, except he thought about her distant eyes in those early months of Billy’s death. He thought about what she’d admitted to him, voice hoarse from screaming and crying and begging for her life, swamped in hospital sheets, eyes milky.
“I wanted it to be me,” she’d whispered, her mouth a furious, pinched line as she’d tried to stave off tears. “Sometimes, I wanted it to be me.”
He thought about how he hadn’t been there for her. He wished he’d spent more time with her over the summer before Vecna’s rise. Maybe then she’d have felt less alone. Steve recognised the signs of a broken family in her, long before the extent of Billy’s torment and Neil’s abuse had been exposed. Her mother worked long shifts to make ends meet now, especially in the wake of Max’s hospital bills.
Steve knocked on the door. Max didn’t answer, but he knew she was in there.
“It’s Steve,” he hollered through the wood. “I’ve got a special delivery for Mad Max?”
The door swung open. Max lingered in the doorway, eyes trained on Steve’s chest. He reached out and gently bumped his fist against her outstretched hand.
“What are you doing here?” she asked, but she backed up so that Steve could come in out of the cold.
“I bought pizza,” Steve said. He held the container out, forgetting she could no longer see it. He went pink from embarrassment. “I thought we could hang out?”
Max didn’t pull her punches. “It’s Wednesday,” she said, blunt.
It was a loaded phrase and Steve remembered, suddenly, that she lived across from Eddie. They skated together. Eddie was helping her learn to skate blind, her loudest cheerleader bar Lucas. They were close; obviously Max would know the significance of Wednesday evenings for Eddie and Dustin both. Steve chewed on his cuticle.
“Whatever,” she continued, when Steve didn’t speak. “You’ve got food? Works for me. I can’t exactly use the stovetop lately, so I’ll take what I can get.”
Steve weaved past her cane and living room furniture into the small trailer kitchen. The dishes were stacked high in the sink and there were jars and cereal boxes out on the counter. Steve felt ashamed. What was he doing outside of Family Video and Wednesday dinners that meant he couldn’t dedicate more time to checking in on Max? She was independent, yes, and coming up to the eight-month mark of losing her eyesight. She was getting better at navigating her new world, but that didn’t mean that she couldn’t still use the support. Hadn’t Steve just been lamenting how badly he wanted to help?
“Hey, Red. Your mum always work Wednesdays?”
Max shrugged. “Probably easier to ask when she doesn’t work.”
Steve set about heating up the pizza, feeling rotten. He’d also been fifteen and alone once. The only difference was the size of the house, and the fact that Susan Mayfield would at least come home at some point. Regardless, Steve knew what it felt like to feel isolated. He didn’t want that for Max, not when she’d spent so long feeling that way already, self-destructive in such a similar way to Steve it ached.
“Do you …” He thought about it for a second before nodding to himself. “Do you wanna make Wednesday a regular thing?”
Max’s brow furrowed. “What happened?” She settled at the table, cane leaning against her thigh.
Steve hovered by the microwave, confused. “Uh… I don’t follow.”
“Wednesdays,” Max emphasised, frustrated. “Why do you want to make Wednesdays regular when you already have something with Dustin and Eddie?”
Steve rubbed the back of his neck. “Oh. Yeah, they — I mean, do you want to join us?” He winced at how unsure he sounded, burying his face in his hands. “Or we could do something together on Thursdays. Or we can do both things.” He was starting to ramble like he was a Buckley, not a Harrington, so he pressed his hand over his mouth to shut himself up.
Max mightn’t be able to see him anymore, but her stare still felt probing. She looked slightly off to Steve’s left, face unimpressed. “I know you’re here for a reason, Harrington,” she said. “I’m not an idiot. You normally just drop food at the door and run.”
Steve blinked. “How do you know that?”
Max rolled her eyes. “Again,” she stressed, “not a fucking idiot. Who the fuck else in the party knows how to cook? I might be blind but I know what that appalling grandma Tupperware feels like, dipshit.”
Steve pouted. “Hey,” he huffed, “Tupperware is a useful way to—”
Max groaned long and loud, drowning out Steve’s complaints. “I repeat — what do you want?” She smacked her cane against the floor to shut him up, punctuating her snippy tone.
“What,” Steve said, without thought, “I can’t hang out with my little sister?”
He immediately wanted to slam his head through the fridge. Why couldn’t he be normal about friendships? Not every kid was in desperate need of any older sibling, let alone one that was Steve fucking Harrington. Steve sucked his bottom lip into his mouth and started pacing. He wondered if he should apologise, except he meant it, and he got the feeling that maybe it was something Max needed to hear. He hoped, anyway. Even if she didn’t feel the same, at least she would know she could rely on Steve, right?
Max was frozen. Her eyes tracked his face blankly, looking somewhere over his shoulder. Her mouth pinched sour like she’d sucked a lemon, eyebrows two furious, red lines across her forehead. Steve wanted to sink behind the counter and melt into the floor from mortification.
“Sorry,” he muttered, stilted. “Um, I meant it but …” He tugged at his hair, a little damp from melted snow.
Max cleared her throat. “You tell anyone this and you’re dead,” she promised, folding her hands together in her lap. “You … you were a better brother to me — before you even knew my fucking name — than Billy ever was.” She winced but didn’t hide her face.
“Language,” Steve said, shell-shocked. “You … mean that?”
Max buried her face in her hands with a groan. “Oh my God,” she muttered. “Christ. Why the fuck have you come to me for emotional help? I’m worse than you are, Harrington.”
“Hey! I’m good at talking about emotions! Just … not mine… and not so much others' — okay, I’m a great listener. Sometimes I give great advice!”
Max shook her head. The microwave interrupted them, signalling the pizza had warmed up. Steve loaded it onto the plates and placed one in front of Max.
“Ham and pineapple. Extra cheese on your half. BBQ sauce base.”
Max grinned. “Fuck, okay, we should definitely make Thursday a thing if you’re gonna cook for me.”
Steve shovelled some pizza into his mouth. “Sounds good,” he said, accidentally burning the roof of his mouth. “Full disclosure — I didn’t come here for advice. You’re barely fifteen — I’m the adult here. I give you advice.”
“The last bit of advice you gave me was to try pick-up lines on Lucas.” Max searched her pizza to pull off the pineapple, eating it separately to the rest of the meal. “Don’t try and tell me that was a good idea. I’ve never felt more mortified in my life.”
Steve didn’t bother hiding his laugh. “Shut up,” he snickered. “It was so worth it to see Lucas go red. But hey, I’m serious.” He dropped his pizza and reached out to take Max’s hand. She let him without complaint, folding her cold fingers around his. “You don’t need to give me advice. I just … I wanted to see you, honest.”
Max fiddled with her pizza with her free hand. She was contemplating saying something and Steve knew better than to stop her, so he kept eating his pizza and waited. Eventually, his patience was rewarded.
“Steve, we don’t have family dinners. Does that make me any less of your little sister?”
Steve shook his head. “No,” he said, floored. His heart sang to hear her refer to herself as his sister. He loved her an awful lot; he was glad she loved him too. “Red, no. Of course it doesn’t.” His brow twisted and he squeezed her hand. “Hey, I’m sorry if you thought I didn’t care or something. I’ve been … I haven’t been here as often as I should have been.”
Max dug her nails into his palm without remorse. “Shut up,” she told him. “You’re a good brother. You’d break your legs if it meant I was happy.”
Steve didn’t deny it. He clasped his other hand around Max’s, thumbing at the back of her hand. He really loved her, skinned knees, clever wit, unrepentant confidence, and all. He was so glad she’d moved to Hawkins; he couldn’t imagine the party or his life without her. Brave, funny, mad Max.
“I’m trying to make a point but we’re both severely emotionally incompetent.” They shared a laugh before she continued. “Look, clearly Dustin or Eddie said some dumb shit, or you got your head caught up in something. Eddie told me you were sick this morning, so you can imagine my surprise when you rock up. Playing hooky, obviously.” She rolled her eyes. “Whatever is going on in your head, Steve, I think could be solved if you communicated.”
Abashed, Steve hung his head. “It’s not that easy,” he said. “I don’t want to lump this on you. You shouldn’t have to be dealing with my shit.”
“You’re my brother,” Max reminded him, cheeks pink from the sentiment. “Dump away, loser.”
Steve laughed despite himself. He took her in for a moment, hair hanging messily around her head, unfocused eyes framed by blonde-red spider lashes, freckles faded beneath winter sun. She was just as much his sister as Dustin was his brother. Steve had always wanted siblings. He was glad his parents had decided one kid was a big enough mistake; it meant he got to pick his own. Max was one of the best choices he’d ever made.
“Thanks, Max. I’m not gonna, but only ‘cause I think you’re right like usual. I need to talk to Dustin.”
“Hey, if I’m always right, then will you finally tell Eddie you’re ass over head for him?”
Steve’s face exploded scarlet, mouth hanging. “What the hell?” he yelped, voice cracking like he was thirteen again. Max burst into peals of laughter. “What the fuck, Mayfield! Where’s the bro code, huh?”
Max didn’t stop laughing for a long time. Her happiness pushed away the storm cloud that had hung above Steve’s head all week. At least they had each other, Steve thought. It was nice to know someone else got it.
Max was always right. That was something Steve hadn’t been lying about. Steve knew he needed to talk to someone, and while he would have liked it to be Robin, it ultimately wouldn’t get him anywhere. She’d parrot what Max had said, probably with a lot more swearing and back-of-the-head hitting and shoulder-shaking, and reiterate the truth of the matter: Steve needed to approach the problem head-on. He needed to tackle it at the centre. He needed to talk to Dustin.
The following Wednesday, he arrived at the Henderson’s early. He’d called out of work sick for the rest of last week, using some of the holiday days he never took so he wouldn’t lose pay. It was shitty of him to avoid Dustin and Eddie, but Steve needed time to get his head on straight. He knew Eddie would understand, but as expected, Dustin slammed the door in his face the second he opened it to Steve on the porch.
“Go away,” Dustin said, voice muffled through wood. “No assholes allowed.”
“Better come outside yourself then,” Steve snorted, shoving his hands in his pockets. “Let me in, Henderson. I wanna … I need to talk to you.”
“Are you planning on grovelling?”
Steve rested his forehead against the door. He sighed, already exhausted. “Dude,” he grumbled. “I can’t fucking grovel if you won’t let me in. Can we be adults about this?”
The door swung in again. Steve stumbled forward, catching himself on the frame. Dustin’s arms were folded defensively over his chest. He looked intimidating, which was a first. Steve rubbed his nape and shifted from foot to foot as he considered how to start.
“Can we talk in your room or something?” he asked. It was freezing outside. He hoped Dustin could forgive him enough to hear him out. “Please, man. I just wanna … we need to clear the air.”
Dustin didn’t say anything. He gave Steve a long, searching look. His gaze was guarded and it felt, suddenly, like he was looking at the Dustin of three years ago, just taller and jaded, and with a full set of teeth. A stranger. Steve tried to dig up his most depressing, morose, puppy-pleading eyes. It worked when Dustin did it to him, so maybe it would go both ways?
“Ew,” Dustin said, flatly. “You trying to get me to slam the door again?”
Steve rolled his eyes. “Fuck you,” he muttered and slipped inside. “Give me ten fucking minutes, man. Come on. I wanna apologise.”
Dustin led him upstairs in silence. They slid into Dustin’s bedroom which was neater than usual, but neither of them relaxed. Steve thought about sitting on the bed but Dustin was blocking the exit, arms still folded over his chest, back to the door. Steve felt strangely vulnerable and awkward. He’d never been uncomfortable around Dustin before.
“Well?” Dustin raised a brow. He was pissed.
Steve rubbed at his nose. “Um,” he said. “Well, I guess … Sorry. I mean, I’m sorry. I … I wasn’t thinking straight?”
“Christ, Harrington. I know you’re not used to them, but apologies are normally sincere.”
Steve didn’t let himself get mad, even though the words bit. Dustin was, rightfully so, angry with him. He was allowed to be a little bit snippy. Steve was supposed to be an adult and right now, he wasn’t really doing a good job of acting his age. He hadn’t been for a while. It was hard, sometimes, when he felt like he’d never had the chance to be a kid himself. He rubbed his eyes.
“I’m sorry, Dustin. Seriously. I messed up. I got caught up in my own head and I messed up.”
“You mean you got jealous,” Dustin snorted.
Shame sliced through him, bone deep, tearing through skin and muscle. Steve’s next breath was stilted and sharp. “That’s not fair,” he said, voice tight.
“Oh, sorry, did I get it wrong?” Dustin snapped. “Only, I delivered some good news and then all of a fucking sudden you’re avoiding us and skipping family dinner ‘cause why? You couldn’t handle the idea of us being happy?”
Steve threw his hands up. “That’s not it!” he barked, voice raising. He held himself very still. “That’s not fucking it, Henderson. It’s not — it’s not because of that.”
Dustin snorted. “Oh, sure. So what was it then?”
Steve pursed his lips. “It was a mixture of things. I wasn’t fucking avoiding you because I didn’t want you guys happy.”
“Oh, so you admit you were avoiding us?”
Steve groaned. “Henderson, can we please try and be rational about this?” He could feel tension building in his head and his chest, breaths growing sharp.
“Fuck you. You’re being obtuse. O-B-T-U-S-E. It means purposefully difficult and irritatingly slow and—”
“I know what it means, Dustin!” Steve shouted, whirling on him. He slammed his arms firmly across his chest, hugging himself so tightly his skin would probably bruise. He tried to clamp down on his temper. “It’s not about that! It’s not about fucking— for fuck’s sake, it’s not about jealousy!"
“Then what is it about, Harrington? Help me understand, because all I’m turning up is that you’re hurting … you’re hurting my feelings over some petty—”
Steve’s anger burst from him in a tidal wave, sweeping across the room in a great heaving rush. “Everyone leaves!” His chest heaved. “It’s about how everyone always fucking leaves me,” he yelled, voice breaking and cracking and twisting.
He was left winded from his own confession. The back of his knees smacked against the side of Dustin’s bed, delivering an unpleasant jolt. He automatically slumped backwards and sat on the edge of the mattress. He shoved his fingers into his hair, gripping and tugging, desperate to ground himself. Steve felt like he was spinning out of control, forcefully shoved out of orbit, his own vitriol churning his stomach. His scalp ached. So did his chest. He needed to pull himself together — it wasn’t fair to lump this all on Dustin. He was meant to be apologising.
Dustin didn’t speak. He stood, face bone-white and slack in the centre of the room. Steve focused on regulating his breathing, face burning, ears flaming, throat tight with humiliation and the threat of tears. He stared at a stain on the carpet — remnants of a fizz Dustin had once spilled on a sleepover, choking on his laughter as Steve had given his best Mike impression — for so long that his eyes fogged.
“Steve,” Dustin said. His voice was very distant. His feet swam into view, white and red socks.
Steve laughed woodenly. “I’m sorry,” he said flatly, voice distant. He felt like he was watching someone else control his body, moving his mouth to spill unconvincing lies. “That wasn’t fair.” He wet his mouth, tasting salt. “I’m just tired. Mustn’t be over the … the illness I had. I should head home.”
He tried to dredge up some semblance of control over the situation. His hands shook as they straightened his jacket and he wiped their clamminess against his thighs. Dustin didn’t move. He was very close, brown eyes narrowed in confusion. He scanned Steve’s face like he was a particularly tricky puzzle, eyes swimming with pity and hesitancy. Steve had to look away, shoulders aching beneath the weight of his shame.
“I know you weren’t sick, Steve,” Dustin said, carefully. He sat on the bed next to Steve, knees drawn to his chest. He looked very young. It made Steve feel even worse for exploding the way he had. “Don’t shut me out, man. We’re meant to be brothers.”
Steve winced. Dustin, because he was as bad as Eddie, spotted it instantly.
“Steve,” he said, very slowly. His eyebrows pulled together, twisting at the centre. Realisation flooded his eyes. “This is my fault. This is because I fucked up. I knew you were upset! I didn’t — Steve, I didn’t mean it that way. You are my brother.”
“You — the Hendersons and Munsons — you’re going to be your own family,” Steve said, staring at the wall. It swam across his vision. “That’s good. That’s really fucking good, man. I’m not lying.” He closed his eyes against the promise of tears as they puddled across his lash line. “There’s not gonna be room for me, dude. Like, I know you’re not gonna stop inviting me over and hanging out, but, it’s like … it’s like I’m …”
Dustin waited. He didn’t say anything. Steve glanced at him, at the serious slope of his expression, and felt his heart ache. Dustin — all of the kids, really — were older than their ages, warped by the last few unfair years. That didn’t mean Steve wanted to push his problems on Dustin; that wasn’t fair either. It was a complicated situation, but in the end, Steve decided it was more important Dustin knew the truth. Communication, Max had said.
“I feel like I’m getting downgraded, sort of. I’ll be Steve, the family friend. I know we never really called each other siblings, but Dust — you’re my brother. You’re my little brother and uh, I love you, man. Like, a shit tonne.” He gave a wet laugh, rubbing at his damp cheeks. “Sorry, I know this is a lot. I’m not trying to guilt you, dude. I just … I wanted to explain myself.”
Dustin wriggled a little closer and pressed their shoulders together. “You’re my brother too. You were my first brother, you know, outside of the party.”
Steve grinned, watery, huffy laugh escaping him. “You’re my family, Dust. I don’t wanna lose that. I already —” He cut himself off with a sharp inhale.
He thought about a big house and four bedrooms and not a single person outside of him to fill the corridors. He thought about Nancy, a bathroom and bullshit, and quiet apologies two years later in the front of a stolen caravan. He thought about Robin and the promise of college on the horizon, and how Jonathan had already left and how soon it would just be Steve, forever rooted to Hawkins. He thought about losing Dustin, Max, or any of the kids.
Dustin’s head dropped against Steve’s shoulder. “I shouldn’t have said that,” he whispered, voice thick. “Steve, I love you, dude. I only meant to make a joke about you and Eddie, and you know, the massive crush you have on him.”
Steve buried a half-hysterical laugh into his hands. “God,” he muttered, careful not to dislodge Dustin. “This is so pathetic.”
He tried to think about the last time his parents had told him they loved him. He came up blank. Dustin, Max, Robin — they gave love to him in spades. Some days he was left breathless by the amount they bestowed upon him.
Dustin shook his head, hair tickling Steve’s neck. “Nah,” he said. “I knew … I mean, I didn’t know, but we all kinda … Steve, you hate that house, and you never want us over, because you always want to be out of it. I’ve known you for three years and you’ve mentioned your parents like, twice, that entire time. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a car in the driveway that wasn’t Baby.”
“For the last time,” Steve sighed, choosing to ignore the implications that the entire party knew how lonely he was, “you are not naming the Beemer Baby.”
“It’s that or Chewbeemer.”
Steve groaned and flopped backwards. He dug his palms into his eyes, ignoring the tackiness of them. “Okay, aside from the fact you’re apparently casing out my house, what’s your point? My family situation is … non-existent.”
“Which is why you were worried about losing this one, right?”
Steve sighed. “Bingo,” he laughed, but the situation wasn’t funny. “Pathetic, hey?”
Dustin flopped down next to him, bouncing a little against the mattress. “No,” he said. “It’s actually not. I don’t have a dad. You’re kinda like one, but younger and cooler. You came over and did my hair for the Snow Ball and you taught me to shave, man.”
He didn’t sound embarrassed. Steve thought it was remarkable how honest he could be without wanting to die of mortification.
“You’ve been my older brother for three years. Mum accidentally calls you a Henderson ten times a week. If she wasn’t so stressed about making you feel uncomfortable, you’d probably be in her fucking will.” Dustin tilted his head. “Actually, you might be on there anyway. Listen, point is: I fucked up. You’re my brother. No matter what happens, that’s never gonna change, man.”
Steve sniffled. “I love you,” he said. “Don’t fucking tell anyone I cried or I’ll kill you.”
“Steve,” Dustin said, very softly. “Not a single person would believe me if I said you didn’t.”
Steve had no choice but to roll over and try to beat him to death with a pillow, chest lighter than it had been in a long time. He couldn’t stop smiling, even when Dustin threatened him with a dirty sock down the gullet.
The high lasted him all the way into the late afternoon. By the time dinner rolled around, he and Dustin were halfway through the world’s most complicated game of ‘Guess Whose Jenga Trivial Pursuit Sunk the Monopoly Battleship’, waiting for the Munsons to show up.
“Are you kidding?" Steve shouted, flinging a block at Dustin’s head. “What the fuck do you mean I’m wrong? The answer is The Eye of Bra!”
Dustin looked like he was going to throw up from how hard he was laughing. The Jenga tower wobbled dangerously as he scrambled to save the Battleship board. Some of the houses he’d stacked on his Monopoly properties threatened to topple to the floor.
“It’s the Eye of Ra,” Dustin cackled, tears streaming down his cheeks. “Go to jail!”
Steve threw his hands up in the air. “You’re making that up! You just don’t want me to win. I’ve sunk most of your battleships and you haven’t even guessed who my person is yet, which means you don’t get to pass Go!”
Dustin folded at the waist. Eddie chose that moment to make his presence known, smile so big and wide that Steve could see almost all of his teeth. He crossed the floor and knelt by Steve’s side, staring down at their amalgamation of games with wide, impressed eyes.
“Stevie,” he crowed, “I thought you lacked creativity?”
Dustin smeared his tears across his cheeks. With a hiccup, he said, “St-Steve, does a B6 hit?”
“Oh, for fuck’s —”
Eddie slid an arm around Steve’s waist before Steve could lunge and make a real mess, laughing as he tugged Steve close to his side. “You’re a menace, Harrington,” he grinned, unaware of the heart attack Steve was going through. Eddie’s grip was firm. His hands were warm. “What the hell’s going on, huh? Deal me in, Henderson. Stevie needs all the help he can get.” He gave Steve a private smile. “Someone’s gotta take our kid down a notch.”
Steve felt himself smiling all gooey and affectionate. Maybe he couldn’t have Eddie as a lover, but he could have him as family, and that was all that mattered.
“Get me outta jail and I’ll make you blood pancakes,” he promised.
Eddie’s delighted laughter was worth any amount of dry-heaving the dessert would bring.
Dinner was equally chaotic. Eddie was touchier than usual, leaning across and draping himself over Steve. Dustin had taken the end seat before Steve could, whistling innocently. The effect had been ruined by the wiggling eyebrows, but Steve appreciated it all the same. He sat across from Ma, Eddie whispering in his ear periodically throughout the night. His hand sometimes rested on Steve’s thigh, careful and hesitant, and each time Steve made no comment, Eddie became braver.
Steve hadn’t brought dessert this time. He’d been too stressed about Dustin and fixing things between them to bother, but Ma had some leftover slice which was just as good, and Steve had promised to bring two things the following week.
“We’re keeping you,” Wayne said at one point, rubbing his stomach as Steve spoke about baking rocky road slice. “Eddie, don’t let this one go.”
Eddie went pink but his smile was pleased and genuine. “Nah,” he murmured, slinging an arm over Steve’s shoulder. “You’re stuck with me, sweetheart.”
Steve let himself lean into Eddie’s side. “God help me,” he sighed. “Lumped with the Munsons.” He let himself pretend they were all on the same page — that Eddie would keep him properly and forever.
Eventually, dinner wrapped up. Wayne retreated to the living room, Dustin hot on his heels, as they argued about the logistics of aliens and pyramids and faked moon landings and everything in between. Eddie turned to Steve with a grin, his dimple bunching the corner of his cheek. He didn’t say anything, but his hand twitched like he wanted to reach out again. Steve waited, patient, and hoped that he would.
“Steven? Will you help me clean up?” Ma broke their moment with a tentative call, plates stacked in her hands. A dish wobbled and Steve was quick to steady it. “Thank you.”
“No problem.” He sucked his bottom lip into his mouth and cut a quick glance at Eddie, who was staring down at his shoes with a frustrated frown. “I can help.” Then, louder, “Eddie?”
Eddie’s head jerked. His hair swung around his face, loose and fluffy. He blinked and said, “Yeah?”
“This shouldn’t take too long.” Steve thought about Eddie's hand on his thigh and his arm around Steve's shoulder. He summoned every bit of courage and said, bravely, “Wait for me, big guy?”
Eddie flushed pink. It was soft and barely visible, but Steve had spent months tracing the gentle slopes and curves of Eddie’s cheeks, cataloguing the different pinks his skin could turn — sunburnt vermillion to delightful peach to angered cherry; it was no surprise he noticed. Steve’s heart gave a giddy jump and swelled against his ribcage so firmly that Steve was worried it would fall right out of his chest, sliding across the tablecloth to land, a bloody mess, in front of Eddie.
“Yeah,” Eddie murmured. He cleared his throat and leaned back in his seat, picture-perfect composed. “Sure, Stevie.” He grinned, small and private, and pursed his lips in the direction of the kitchen. “Scram. You got one helluva lady waiting for you.”
Ma was already wrist-deep in the sink by the time Steve swanned into the room, both his steps and heart light.
“You dry, I wash?” she offered, raising a sopping plate from the water.
“Sounds good, Ma.”
She handed him the plate. He scooped the green-purple tea towel from where it hung over the oven handle and started to pat the ceramic down, mind wandering as he went through the motions. One plate, two plates, a bowl, the cups, some forks, another plate. Finally, they finished. Ma drained the sink while Steve finished with the final pot, thoughts distant.
Steve blinked back into himself. His hands stilled. Ma’s expression was sad. She looked like she had when she’d picked Dustin up from the Starcourt Mall carpark the night the place had gone ablaze; like she had when Eddie had tried to backpedal his accidental coming out. This was more than misery. She looked devastated. Steve placed the pot down, panicked, and took a step towards her.
“Ma, what’s wrong?” He cupped her elbows, feeling the rough patch of dry skin from her eczema that the creams could never quite clear. “What’s happened?” He leaned in closer, hushedly whispering, “Is it Wayne? Did you break up? Please say no, Ma. Is it Dustin? Did something happen? He hasn’t mentioned anything… but he did say that a few months ago Troy had tried to start up his whole bullying shtick again. I thought Max put an end to that?”
“Steven,” Ma murmured, her hand cupping his cheek. He froze. “Please take a breath.”
Steve shuddered beneath her touch. He couldn’t help himself; in the time that he’d known her, she’d hugged him, yes, and kissed his forehead, and squeezed his hands, but she’d never held him as carefully as she did now. She’d never looked at him like he was the centre of her world. She looked at him like she looked at Dustin. Steve faltered, breath catching, and swallowed around his confusion.
“Sometimes I think you spend so much time looking after everyone else, that you forget you need to be looked after too.”
Steve’s heart caught in his throat. He made a noise like he’d been punched, all the air sucked from his lungs. His hands jerked against her skin, mouth opening and closing, but no sound came out. Steve wasn’t even sure what he was trying to say, what he was meant to do.
He managed to unstick his tongue from the roof of his mouth. “What?” It was little more than a croak.
“It’s okay, it’s— when you say it, it’s okay.” From Ma’s mouth, Steven didn’t sound like it was moulded from poison. It didn’t sound like a synonym of failure, disappointment — unwanted, wretched boy. “You can call me Steven,” he assured her, hopelessly lost. He felt like he was treading water, but with each deepening worry line across Ma’s face, the water rose, until he was choking and spluttering for his next breath.
“Steven, I’m sorry that I never told you explicitly what you mean to me, to this family.”
Steve needed to sit. He wanted, desperately, to turn and bolt for the door, away from the oncoming conversation, from the humiliation, from Ma’s disappointment. His breath was cloying and heavy in his lungs, and his mouth dry. He backed away, bumping against the counter, and planted his hand against the slippery sink edge. Ma’s hand fell back to her side.
Ma didn’t advance. At least, not physically. “I’m sorry, Steven. I thought that you would understand based on actions alone. Dusty is so much better at speaking how he feels, but … well, we’ve both let you down. I’ve let you down.”
Steve realised what was happening then. “He told you,” he accused, faintly, voice pitchy. “Ma.” He wet his lips and said again, “Ma. It wasn’t — Dustin and I talked. I was getting up in my head. I was being … there wasn’t…” He didn’t know what to say. There was nothing he could say. Unbidden, he remembered what he’d told Wayne weeks ago: don’t make me lie to Ma; she can smell my deceit.
Ma stepped closer, tentative and careful. “That doesn’t matter,” she said, gently. “I want to apologise. I want you to be able to tell me how you feel, to feel safe doing so, and to know that I won’t ever cast judgement. I want you to be able to trust me, honey.”
Steve could have cried; he was dangerously close to his second round of waterworks for the evening, and his fourth overall this week. He tried to think about the last time an adult had cared so much about his feelings, about acknowledging his hurt, and came up blank. His mother, maybe, when he was seven and fell from the old sycamore tree by the wood’s edge. Her patience had waned quickly though, when she’d ascertained that Steve wouldn’t stop wailing.
“Ma.” His voice wavered. He knew that in a few moments the wet heat would bubble over his lashline and smear messily across his cheeks. “I trust you. I didn’t — of course I trust you.”
Ma reached out again. This time, Steve tilted his face into her touch with a choked, half-swallowed sound, eyes squeezing shut. Ma brushed her fingers through his hair, sweeping what was left of his deflated quiff from his forehead.
“Will you trust what I’m about to tell you then?”
Steve’s eyes cracked open, little slivers of brown, as he took in the serious lines of Ma’s face. Her eyes were still sad, but they carried a familiar, Dustin-determination to them. Ma had blonde hair and fairer skin and her accent was different, too, but her expressions were mirrored across Dustin’s baby-round face. Her eyes were the same warm, intelligent brown; her laugh was the same giggly, carefree bay; her persistence carried the same steely-eyed resolution.
“Yes, Ma,” Steve murmured.
He leaned into her touch, letting her fold him into the gentle curve of her body. Like Eddie, he towered over her, but the way her hands pressed firm against his back made him feel small, like he was five again, knees skinned, cheeks caked with dirt; like he was ten again, sitting alone on the bench outside English class, waiting for a mother that would never come; like he was fourteen again, alone for three months, this time, rather than a few weeks. But unlike five-ten-fourteen, there was a comfort to her touch, too; a presence. She felt like a mother. A real one. She felt like Steve’s mother, more than Lucretia Harrington ever had. Maybe he would be brave enough to tell her this time.
“I love you,” Ma said, immediately going in for the kill. Like Dustin, her love was relentless. “I’m so sorry that we made you feel excluded these past few weeks. I’m sorry that I never told you how much you meant to both myself and Dustin. You know, the first time you dropped him home, I wondered if he was paying you? His piggy bank was smashed, you see. All his savings gone.”
Steve wisely didn’t mention that money had likely been put towards gasoline and raw meat. He supposed that answered the question of where Dustin had gotten his cash from, that afternoon they’d trampled the woods together, hunting for demodog.
“But then you kept dropping him home, and you refused fuel money, and you came over two hours before the Snow Ball to style Dusty’s hair. You taught him to shave, Steven. I can’t ever express how grateful I am that Dustin has you in his life.”
Steve went pink. “He’s a brat,” he said. “But um, he was … for a while, he was sort of the only person I had.” He scrambled for something less pathetic to say. “I mean, I … I knew Nancy’s brother, Mike, and Dustin by extension, and well — he’s a good kid.” He rested his cheek against the side of her head and let his eyes shut.
“I know, but so are you. You’re both good boys, and you’re both my boys. That’s why I was so upset to see you pulling away. I made you doubt your place in this family. I … I know you don’t … your folks aren’t exactly around often.”
Steve laughed. He couldn’t help it. “Even when they lived with me I barely saw them.” He knew Ma wouldn’t find it funny, but Steve didn’t know how else to cope. “Big house, no parents,” he mused, shivering as she began smoothing her hands up and down his back.
“Dustin is my baby, and Edward — even if Wayne and I don’t last, Edward is always going to be one of mine now too. But Steve, that doesn’t mean you’re not also one of my boys. You are just as much my son as Dustin is. God knows you’re better behaved.”
Her voice wavered and Steve realised she was crying too. He drew back and laughed, lighter this time. It was like he was five-ten-fourteen, only this time a woman stooped in front of him, wiped his tears, showed him love. This time he had Ma Henderson. He would have her for a very long time, he realised.
“I love you, Ma,” he said, and then he burst into tears.
It would have been humiliating except Ma was crying too and then they were laughing and Ma was wiping at his cheeks, tutting and sniffling and smiling the whole time.
“You’re a mess,” she chided, pressing the sleeve of her dress to Steve’s skin. “God, look at us. Two sorry wrecks standing in the kitchen having a cry.”
“Tears help moisturise your face,” Steve said, laughing wetly. He had no idea if that was true, but he said it confidently enough that Ma only snorted. “We’re going to emerge from the kitchen looking ten years younger. You’ll look like a teenager, given you’re only thirty.” He avoided her swat with a laugh.
“Flatterer,” Ma snorted. She reached out and straightened his sweater and pushed his hair off his forehead. She leaned in with a smug little grin. “Speaking of leaving the kitchen, you’ve got a very unsubtle someone waiting for you in the main room.”
Steve went pink. “Um,” he said, eloquently. “Eddie is a good friend.”
Ma gave Steve an appraising look. She seemed to toss something up for all of four seconds before she asked, “Should we be adding ‘boy’ in front of that?”
Steve wilted against the fridge with his face burning hotter than anything he’d felt in his life. “Oh my God,” he muttered, “this isn’t happening.” He peeked through his fingers. “Is it that obvious?”
Ma rolled her eyes. “Steven, he calls you sweetheart. You looked like you wanted to kiss him before I called you into the kitchen. Your hugs aren’t exactly platonic either. You act like you want to crawl inside his skin half the time.”
Steve wondered if he could make it out the front door without Eddie seeing him. He wanted to sink into the floor and melt into the Earth below. He hoped to God Eddie wasn’t just around the corner; he was pretty sure they were hurtling towards something but he wasn’t sure, and he was too worried about losing a good thing to have The Conversation. Outside of Robin & Dustin, Eddie was his favourite person in the world. Steve couldn’t lose that.
Except, maybe he wouldn’t have to. Maybe Ma was right, and Steve was looking out for Eddie’s feelings — whether that be discomfort or dissent at having to let Steve down — instead of taking his own into consideration. He was allowed to go after the things he wanted. Maybe it was time he tried.
So, Steve decided to keep being brave. He met Ma’s eyes, despite how mortified he felt, and admitted, voice small, “I really like him. The same way I liked Nancy except, maybe … maybe more. Deeper. It feels … It feels better this time. Different.”
Ma smiled. “Good,” she said. “You’d better treat each other right. I’ll have to throw Dustin out on his ass if you don’t.”
Steve burst into laughter. “Threatening us with our favourite kid, huh? Cruel, Ma. Everyone says you’re a gem but I know the truth.”
He wiped the remnants of tears from his face and pushed away from the fridge, feeling like he was floating on cloud nine instead of standing in the kitchen of the Henderson house. There was a levity to his every breath now, in the wake of both Dustin and Ma’s love. He felt happier than he had in a long time, tremendous weight lifted from his shoulders. He knew that it wouldn’t all be sunshine and roses — years of neglect and subsequent self-sabotage wouldn’t dissipate overnight — but it was a start.
“Go and let your boy know you’re okay. He’s been working himself up sick thinking he’s ruined your life. Thought he was going to shatter that week you cancelled.” Then quieter, she muttered, “Talk about a drama queen. Acting like a widow with a husband lost to war.”
“He’s not my boy,” Steve hissed. “Ma, oh my God.” He scuttled out of the kitchen with a sour pout as she laughed at him and only just managed to make himself presentable before he bumped into a solid, warm chest.
“Woah.” Eddie’s hand slid around Steve’s waist. “Where’s the fire, Harrington?”
Steve knew his eyes were red-rimmed and he knew Eddie stared at him enough to notice that. Sure enough, Eddie’s tone shifted to panic, face swooping in very close.
“Stevie? Why’re you crying? Hey, sweetheart,” he said, very softly, fingers ghosting Steve’s bicep. “What’s happened?
Steve smeared his wrist over his eyes, even though they were dry, and shrugged. “Oh, you know,” he said, blasé, “just another Henderson trying to drown me in love.” He didn’t offer any further explanation, and strangely enough, Eddie didn’t ask. He just nodded, like that made sense.
“You’re okay?” he checked.
Steve cleared his throat. “Yeah, I’m okay.”
Eddie nodded again. “I waited,” he said, after a minute. “Like you asked.”
He couldn’t quite meet Steve’s gaze, hands drawing away to slide into his pockets. His posture slumped into that awful stoop that drove Steve crazy. Steve reached out and gently pushed him upright. Eddie let himself be manoeuvred, lax and trusting Steve’s touch.
Steve said, “Yeah.” He wanted to continue — maybe say something like, ‘hey, wanna hang out for a little bit, just you and I?’ — but Eddie interrupted him before he got the chance.
“Listen, can we talk?” he asked, rubbing the back of his neck.
Oh God, Steve thought, not again. He wasn’t sure how many deeply personal and intense conversations he could cover in one night, and if Wayne was next in line, he might have to decline. As it was, he was beginning to feel the warning tingle of an oncoming headache, as dehydrated as he was from crying all afternoon.
Steve wanted to say no or ask if the conversation could be had tomorrow, but Eddie’s other hand had reappeared from his pocket, fingers wrapped around Steve’s wrist. It locked Steve in place. Eddie’s eyes were hopeful, too. He was sucking his bottom lip into his mouth, which was both distracting and betrayed how nervous he was. That, more than anything, was an indicator for the serious tone their conversation was going to carry.
Steve shook his head with a wry grin. “Which room am I crying in next?”
Eddie startled. “None of them, I hope,” he said, palm suddenly against Steve’s cheek. “Hey … what you said just before … you and Dustin talked? He made you cry?”
Steve, frozen in place with Eddie’s careful touch, managed to say, “Yeah, Dustin and I talked. We’re okay.” He cleared his throat. “I’ll tell you about it later; it’s really fucking embarrassing. Where do you wanna talk?”
Eddie thumbed Steve’s cheek. Steve let himself tip his face into the touch but Eddie panicked, seeming to realise where his hand was. He jerked back, shoving the offending hand into his pocket, and avoided Steve’s gaze again.
“You pick,” he said, rocking back on his heels. “We could pinch Dustin’s room?”
Steve shook his head. “No.” He thought about privacy and how it wasn’t very easy in the Henderson house. He chewed on his lip as he thought and then snapped his fingers. “Hey, we can use your van. You drove tonight, right? I know you’ve got room in the back. That’ll get us out of the snow, too.”
Eddie blinked. “Uh, sure. Fuck it.” He shrugged and reached into his pocket to pull out his keys. “No time like the present. C’mon, Stevie.”
He reached out like maybe he wanted to tuck his hand against Steve’s lower back, like he’d done the night Wayne had stayed over the first time. He hesitated though and the hand dropped from the space between them to rest against his thigh. Steve tried not to feel disappointed. He turned towards the door and, once Eddie had stepped out onto the porch, pressed the palm of his hand to Eddie’s back instead.
“C’mon,” he said, all nonchalant ease.
Eddie let Steve guide him towards the van, snow crunching beneath their shoes. When they arrived, Eddie unlocked the doors and tugged them open with a deep bow at the waist. His hair cascaded towards the ground, tiny flecks of snow scattered through it.
“Your kingdom awaits, sire,” he declared, peeking up from beneath his lashes.
Steve clambered into the van with all the grace of a newborn foal, Eddie quick to follow. The back of the van was surprisingly neat, items shoved up against walls and tucked carefully into the storage bins Eddie had been forced to purchase in the wake of sharing Steve’s chaperoning duties. Eddie turned a dial on the camp light so that it shone brighter, casting a warm, orange-gold glow through the van.
“Fuck,” Steve murmured, wrapping his arms around himself. “I wish you could install heaters in the back of these. God, my nipples are going to fall off at this point.”
“If you wanted an excuse to cuddle, Harrington, you need only ask.” Eddie shook his head like he was unimpressed.
Steve, who refused to lose at any game, took the bait. “Aw, shucks,” he simpered, carefully tugging a relatively clean blanket from the corner. “You’re such a sweetheart, Eddie.” He plonked himself down, right by Eddie’s side, and melted into the warmth of him, the red-black blanket strewn across their laps.
Eddie went pink. Steve could tell because they were so close together he could practically feel the heat. He grinned.
“Ah sure,” Eddie muttered, off-beat. He was quick to pull himself together, reigning in his wide sweeping arms so as not to dislodge Steve from his side. He was thoughtful like that; he always knew what Steve needed from him. “So. What brings you to my humble abode?“
Steve didn’t bother hiding his laugh. “Eddie,” he said, “You brought me here. We’re talking, remember?” He bit at his cuticle. “Was there a particular topic, or did you want to gossip?”
Eddie looked unimpressed.
“No, seriously,” Steve continued. “Wanna hear what I heard Wayne say to Ma in the kitchen earlier?” He waggled his brows. “It was really raunchy stuff,” he murmured, swaying into Eddie’s space. “Involved some real handsy movements that have me scarred for life—”
Eddie quickly shoved his hand over Steve’s mouth, expression pained. “Do not fucking continue, Harrington, or I swear they’ll never find your body.”
That sent Steve into peals of laughter for a few minutes. Every time he thought he’d stop, he caught sight of Eddie’s offended, mulish pout, and it cracked him up all over again. The gaiety was a pleasant change from the evening he’d had.
Eventually, once Steve had settled down, his head against Eddie’s shoulder, Eddie pulled them back into conversation.
“Hey Steve? I don’t want to lose this.”
Well, there went the gaiety. Steve waved it goodbye as it slunk out the van doors.
He lifted his head. “Lose what?” He glanced down at where Eddie’s hands were pillowed atop the blanket. He was twisting his rings frantically, and Steve knew if his position allowed it, Eddie’s knee would have been bouncing just as quickly. “Your … rings? The van?”
Eddie laughed. It was quiet and tasted sad. “I meant this,” he explained, jerking his thumb between them. “You. I don’t want to lose … what we have. You know, you’re one of my best friends, as teen girl as that sounds.”
“I don’t see any B-F-F heart necklaces,” Steve complained. “We’re clearly not committing as hard as we could be.”
Eddie’s head tipped to rest against the back of the driver’s seat, eyes cast heavenward. “Sometimes,” he said, “I wonder if you’re giving me the same hints I’m giving you, or if yours are more pointed. Dismissive.” He reached up and pressed his palms against his eyes and this time his laugh was tight, uncomfortable.
Steve, dislodged from Eddie’s side, sat on his hands so that he wouldn’t reach out and cup Eddie’s cheek or touch that long, tantalising column of throat. He tore his eyes away to stare at a beat-up, neon purple skateboard. Max’s.
He tried to parse through what Eddie was saying, but Eddie had a maddening habit of speaking in riddles when wanting to keep things hidden from Steve. It was his way of telling the truth while keeping himself safe, erasing all vulnerability. It drove Steve crazy; he wanted Eddie to bare himself. He wanted to be someone Eddie trusted completely, with the most beautiful and most wretched parts of himself. Maybe that was unfair, given that Steve hadn’t let Eddie peel down to the rotten core of him either.
“I said the wrong thing,” Steve guessed. “I’m sorry. I just wanted to make you laugh.”
Eddie’s head rolled. He caught Steve’s gaze, brown against brown, mouth a tight line. His pinched expression took flight on the wings of his next exhale, whole body sliding so that he was half laying across Steve’s chest. Steve let Eddie take whatever comfort he could give, arm winding behind Eddie’s back to hold him firmly around the waist. His heart kicked up triple speed, and with the way Eddie’s head rested on his chest, he knew it would be noticeable.
“You drive me crazy,” Eddie admitted. “I suppose I’ll give it to you in baby terms. All that googoo gaga shit. Want me to draw some pictures for you, Stevie?”
He honest to God giggled when Steve pinched his side, and that was enough to bring Steve’s heart right up to the open and honest cavern of his mouth. Steve swallowed around an ill-advised love confession, and said, “Dick,” because he wanted that giggle to swell into laughter. It did.
“I’m never calling you sweetheart again.” It was an empty threat. They both knew it. “I’m trying to be good at communication right now, Steve. I’m supposed to be good at that, you know, given half my life is dedicated to weaving stories.”
“Telling stories is different to telling the truth,” Steve said. He let his cheek press into the glossy, feather-soft crown of Eddie’s head, hair tickling his skin and lips. “Is this about my …” He fumbled for a way to word it that wasn’t just ‘humiliating breakdown’. “Is this about how I went off the rails and started crying myself to sleep at night because I thought I was being kicked out of the only family I have?”
Eddie went very still in Steve’s arms. “Wow,” he croaked. He cleared his throat. “Okay, this is way fucking worse than I thought.”
“That was a joke,” Steve said, feeling awkward. “I mean, okay, I did cry—”
“Steve. Why didn’t you say something?”
Steve snorted. “Yeah, I don’t know if you noticed, but I’m sort of pretty silent on the … the deep and meaningful conversation front. Okay, and full disclosure, maybe I was having those thoughts, but I talked—”
Eddie’s left hand fell to Steve’s thigh, thumbing the crease of his dark blue jeans. He was determined not to let Steve finish a sentence, apparently. “Steve,” he interrupted, “Dustin told me he messed up. I believed him at first, ‘cause he’s only a kid and fuck, he can be kinda grating when he gets worked up, and he’s not always great at reading a room as it is—”
Now it was Steve’s turn to interrupt. He said, “Dustin didn’t do anything wrong.” It was the truth.
Eddie turned his head so that his nose brushed Steve’s neck. Steve swallowed and wondered if Eddie could feel the bob of his throat. Eddie’s hand fisted in Steve’s sweater. He was trying to give Steve a hug, Steve realised, and his other arm flew up to sink into Eddie’s hair, pressing Eddie’s face properly to that sensitive little junction of Steve’s shoulder and neck.
“Hey,” he said, squeezing Eddie. “What’s wrong?”
Eddie sagged. He was a heavy weight, but comfortable. Steve wondered if one day Eddie’s weight would be familiar, too. He wanted that with a desperation he’d never lose.
“I’m meant to be comforting you,” Eddie sulked. “I’m meant to be telling you that I’m sorry and that I don’t want to ruin things between us, and that I respect you’re Dustin’s brother, not me, and how I don’t want to step on your toes, because I think losing you would finish what the demobats started, Stevie.”
That was a lot of information to throw at Steve who was already reeling from the double-whammy of both Hendersons. He tugged lightly at Eddie’s hair, carding his fingers through the mop. Eddie didn’t lie to people he loved, and once he got on a roll, vomiting a torrential landslide of verbose babble, he was hard to stop. He was similar to Dustin in that way. Dustin and Eddie shared a lot of things, really: D&D; that feeling of high school social pariahdom; the desperation to prove themselves; Tolkien.
Steve thought about what Ma had told him in the kitchen, eyes sifting through his feelings to find their foundations, rooted deep in his chest: He’s been working himself up sick thinking he’s ruined your life.
“Hey, Eddie?” He didn’t ask Eddie to look at him, because he wasn’t sure he could finish beneath that perceptive, intense brown. “It’s not a competition. We’re both Dustin’s brothers, okay? He needs you to show him that the bravest thing he can do is be himself. He needs me to show him that three vatts of hairgel is an awful fucking decision.”
“You’re more than just your haircare knowledge,” Eddie said, immediately. “Sometimes you’re funny, too.”
He was teasing but honest. They both knew Steve didn’t really believe him. That was a conversation for another day, thankfully, because Eddie fell silent again. The consistent tickle of his breath against Steve’s neck was maddening.
“I got caught up in my head. The Hendersons have been my family for a long time. The rest of those kids too, in one way or another.”
He thought about Max, making fun of him over the top of greasy pizza; Mike, trying to hide his laughter because he didn’t want to admit he found Steve funny; Lucas, approaching him nervously for help with his basketball form; Erica, demanding a triple scoop of fudge ice cream, then handing him a spoon to share; Will, wincing as he watched Steve fumble his way through a ‘simple’ painting of a dog; El, dumping an entire box of hair ties in his lap and demanding fishtail braids.
“There's Robin now, as well. She's like my other half. Dustin called us twins once.” Steve’s lips twitched. “In another life I’d like to think we are.”
“I’m convinced neither of you can operate without the other. Seriously, sometimes I visit Robin at work when you’re not there and she’s just lingering in the horror section, eyes foggy. Apparently Dave can’t carry half the conversation you can, and well … her other option is Keith, so.”
Steve rolled his eyes, stomach dizzy with love for Eddie, for Robin, for this family he’d found himself surrounded with — a family he could keep. A family that would stay.
“She could cope a helluva lot better than I could, you know, if I didn’t have her,” he said.
He shifted so that he could rest more comfortably against Eddie, whose shoulder was digging into his ribs, but Eddie read him the wrong way and pulled back.
“Sorry,” he murmured. “Didn’t mean to get all handsy. Listen, full disclosure? Dustin’s my family too, and Ma’s … well, I don’t have a good reference for mothers, given I lost mine a long time ago, but I want her as my … aunt-mother-parental … person? I recognise she and Wayne mightn’t make it — for the record, I really hope they do — but she told me I was always welcome, no matter what.”
Steve grinned. “Yeah, she’s got a thing for strays.” He felt cold now that Eddie was no longer draped over him. He tugged the blanket back into his lap. “We’re good, Eddie, I promise. I already told Dustin and Robin this,” he started. He knew he was turning pink, and the embarrassment only made him flush harder. “But um, you’re my family too. You and Wayne.”
Eddie tugged his knees up to his chest. He wouldn’t meet Steve’s eyes, whole frame shuddering as he sucked in a breath. Steve knew he’d fucked up, again. Somehow, somewhere, he’d gone wrong. Eddie gave him a tight smile, eyes dim.
“I’m your brother too, huh?”
Steve’s reaction was violent. He couldn’t help himself; the words spilled out of his mouth, ice water sharp as he declared vehemently, "God no.”
Eddie’s face was a hilarious mix of relief and offence. He straightened, one of his legs extending in front of him, dislodging the blanket, and raised a finger. He opened his mouth, thought better of what he was going to say, and jabbed Steve in the chest with a mulish huff.
“But,” Eddie started, tugging his hair across his mouth. He peered at Steve from behind his curtain of hair. “But … I am family?”
Steve catalogued the lost way Eddie was holding himself and the tentative hope and confusion that clouded his doe eyes. He wasn’t spinning his rings, but he was chewing on the ends of his hair. Steve considered reaching out and gently tugging the hair away, but he knew the action brought Eddie comfort. So, despite the split ends Eddie was giving himself, Steve let it happen. He turned to face Eddie properly, his socked feet bumping Eddie’s thigh and knee.
There was a tension to the air, a hesitance from both of them.
Steve was tired and the camplight was starting to be too bright. He knew a migraine was incoming, born of the stress of the evening, the two sobfests, and annual head trauma. He rose from the blankets, grateful to find the van was warming with the two of them in it, and crawled over Eddie to dim the light a little. Eddie frowned, displeased, and caught Steve’s fingers. When Steve looked at him, he squeezed Steve’s hands as if to say, you’re okay?
That unspoken care pushed Steve over the edge. He couldn’t take it any longer. His heart was still in his mouth, had never quite left it since he’d met Eddie, and it was begging, pleading to be let out. His fingers were itching, desperate to press against Eddie’s dimple, his throat, his stomach. His tongue was heavy in his mouth, yearning to trace Eddie’s freckles. Steve wanted Eddie’s hands, capable, calloused, digging into his scarred sides.
He thought about the two conversations he’d had that evening, about how they’d been good. Cathartic. He thought about how he’d been brave, honest, through both of them. He thought about how he rarely let himself be brave with Eddie. It was time to change that, he thought.
“The best things come in threes,” he murmured, nonsensical to Eddie’s ears.
He made to crawl back over Eddie, who dropped his other leg so Steve could have it easier. But Steve didn’t settle back into his place on the floor. He slammed a knee either side of Eddie’s thighs and sat, heavy, purposefully, in Eddie’s lap. He dropped his hands to Eddie’s chest, fingers splayed against the ugly sweater.
Steve had seen Eddie spooked before. He’d seen him lost, confused, dazed, annoyed, questioning, wondering — but he had never seen Eddie look the way he did now. It was breathlessness, a widened set of eyes and fingers that fluttered against Steve’s waist, tentative, begging. Eddie’s heart was slamming against his chest, his lips slick from where he kept wetting them, nervous. His face was rapidly filling with colour, a blush so heady and cherry-red that Steve wanted to see if he could taste it.
“Your heart’s racing,” Steve noted, quietly.
Eddie laughed. It was more of a shaky exhale, lashes fluttering as he struggled to keep his composure. “Stevie,” he whispered, fingers cradling Steve’s side like he was precious. “Yeah, no fucking shit.”
Steve caught one of Eddie’s hands in his own then, pressing it against his own breastbone, right above the rhythmic pounding of his heart. “Me too,” he murmured. He dropped his hand back to Eddie’s chest.
Eddie couldn’t seem to look away from his fingers. He widened them so they sat splayed across Steve’s chest. His eyes darted from skin to cloth to skin again, before they slid to meet Steve’s gaze. Steve could see the second Eddie decided to give Steve an out, eyes shuttering with a desperate, last-minute need to protect himself.
“Stevie,” he cooed, leaning in with a simpering sigh. “Didn’t realise you wanted to use my van for more than talking.” His brows wiggled like a drunken caterpillar. “For shame, Harrington. You just wanna get your mack on a little.”
Steve wasn’t going to let either of them run from this. Not anymore. “Wasn’t my original thought,” he said, idly, hands sliding up Eddie’s chest to cup his face and throat. “But now that you’ve brought it up…” He trailed off with a pointed look, fingers drumming against the sharp line of Eddie’s jaw.
Eddie’s pupils were so large it was a wonder Steve could see any brown left at all. “What?”
“You’re my family, too, Eddie, but come on.” He let himself fall back into a long-forgotten groove, mouth tipping up into a self-satisfied little grin. He was bolstered by Eddie's desire. He tilted Eddie’s head, thumb pressing firm to Eddie’s bottom lip. It was just as damp as the shine of it suggested. “You gotta know I feel a helluva lot differently about you than I do anyone else.”
Eddie’s pulse jumped under Steve’s touch. “Wait,” he said, hands dragging Steve forward. “I want to say it first. Fuck you, I’ve literally been flirting with you for months.”
“Fuck you !” Steve laughed, his suave, smug grin morphing into something delighted and shy. “I’ve been flirting like, just as long!”
“You’ve done a poor job of it, sweetheart,” Eddie teased. “You haven’t even used a single pet name. How’s a guy supposed to realise you’re into him, huh? I feel bad for all those girls.”
Eddie was pinker than a flamingo and looked so happy. It was a familiar giddy beam, like when Steve said something funny, or used a D&D term correctly, or spent thirty minutes talking about why King Kong was cooler than Godzilla. It was a smile reserved just for him, Steve realised, bursting at the seams with love. He loved Eddie.
“Hey Stevie? If you’re still worried about not being part of the family, I have a really good idea.”
Steve slid his arms around Eddie’s neck. “Yeah?” he murmured, playing with Eddie’s hair. His voice was all soppy, dripping with endearment.
“You could marry into it. The family.” Eddie wet his lips. “I heard they have a really gorgeous son, about your age, clever, a total rockstar—”
“Handsome,” Steve interrupted. “Prettiest doe eyes you’ve ever seen. Compassionate. Amazing storyteller. I hear he’s a total sweetheart.”
Eddie’s throat bobbed. He was very close. His breath tickled Steve’s lips; his bangs brushed Steve’s forehead. “Heard he’s a good kisser too,” he breathed.
Steve rose above Eddie, tilted Eddie’s face up and murmured, voice syrup-thick, “Yeah? Guess I better see if the rumours are true.”
Then he swooped down and took great pleasure in kissing Eddie’s delighted laughter right off his lips.
Eddie kissed like wildfire, rampant with desire, taking and taking and taking. He sucked all the oxygen from Steve’s lungs without shame or hesitance. He was full of unrestrained pleasure but his touch was never rough. He kissed Steve like he was drowning and Steve’s breath could save him.
Steve rolled his hips down, pressing as close as he could to Eddie and lost himself in the slick rhythm of their lips. His mouth was wet, aching, when Eddie finally pulled back to suck a bruise against his neck. It was winter and Steve could get away with wearing scarves for a few days, so he tilted his neck and demanded another and another, until he was a wriggling, gasping mess.
“Eddie,” he groaned, winding his fingers through Eddie’s thick hair. He panted into the space between them, dragging his mouth high over Eddie’s cheekbone. “Full disclosure,” he murmured, “I don’t just wanna mack in your van.”
Eddie scooped his arms behind Steve’s back. “Uh huh,” he mumbled, distracted, as he lowered them to the floor.
Steve’s back met the blanket firmly, head cradled gently in Eddie’s hands. He automatically wrapped his arms around Eddie’s neck, tugging him back down, and marvelled in the feeling of being manhandled to the floor when it was normally him doing the pressing. It was addicting; no wonder the girls had always arched beneath him. Eddie sucked another kiss to Steve’s neck, unable to keep his hands to himself. Steve could sympathise.
“I’m fucking crazy stupid over you,” he admitted around a gasp. Their legs bumped and pressed as they twisted together, trying to learn the shape of each other and where they could fit comfortably. “Like, half-if-not-fully in love with you.”
A shudder wracked Eddie’s frame. He dragged his lips across Steve’s jaw, nose bumping Steve’s as he brushed their lips together. His hair hung around his face, haloed in the soft camplight. It was messy and three times its usual size, puffed up from Steve’s desperate grip. Steve privately commended himself on a job well done, and then realised everyone would know exactly what they’d been getting up to. That was a problem for later, he decided.
“Full disclosure,” Eddie echoed, pressing his smile to Steve’s lips. “I love you, too.”
Steve tugged Eddie in close, foreheads kissing, and grinned. “I know, sweetheart,” he teased, smug, “you basically asked me to marry you.”
Eddie’s laughter tasted like home. Steve kissed him over and over, chasing whatever Eddie would give, taking and giving in spades. One day, the heaviness of Eddie in Steve’s lap would be familiar.
Steve couldn’t wait.