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we’ll get nostalgic for disaster

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It should be the first thing Steve notices. But, between struggling to carry the unconscious and heavily bleeding Eddie into the trailer and frantically looking around to check for any surviving demobats inside, it’s really not.

His heart feels like it’s beating a hundred miles an hour. Eddie groans from the sofa Steve has decanted him on. Nancy and Robin are both trying to bandage him up as best they can, Dustin fluttering anxiously nearby. Nancy’s practiced hands are skilful, looping lengths of ripped t-shirt around Eddie’s torso and legs and fastening them tight. Blood blooms through the cotton in deep red rosettes.

It’s not until Steve actively looks up - at the non-pulsing, non-squelching, perfectly gate-free ceiling - that it hits home.

The gate is closed.

“Guys - the gate,” Steve manages.

“We know, Steve, we have to stop the bleeding fi—“ Nancy snaps.

Steve cuts her off: “No, the gate is gone.”

As one, Nancy, Robin and Dustin look up, like marionettes with their strings pulled skywards.

“Holy shit,” Dustin breathes.

“What the fuck do we do?” Robin whispers, wide-eyed.

“El must have closed it early. We have to get out of here,” Nancy says grimly, going back to her work on Eddie’s prostrate form. “Steve, check if there are any medical supplies in here. Robin, Dustin - we’re going to need something to carry Eddie in.”

Buoyed with purpose, Steve nods. He has no clue where 1986 Eddie and Wayne Munson keep their medical supplies, much less the 1983 alternate plane of existence versions, but he beelines for the bathroom to dig through the cabinets, relieved when his searching unearths a compact first aid kit and a stash of painkillers. He gathers them up and jams them into a backpack he finds in Eddie’s room, slinging it over his shoulder. Moments later, he doubles back to grab a couple of pairs of Eddie’s sweatpants and t-shirts: he’s pretty sure the guy’s gonna need a change of clothes as soon as possible. He feels a little weird about digging through Eddie’s drawers for briefs, but he grabs those too.

Next: the kitchen. They’re gonna need food, he reasons, for whatever journey they’re about to make, so he fills the rest of the backpack with tins and packets he finds in the kitchen cupboards and bottles of water. Whether any of it will be edible or drinkable is another problem - he’s not sure how food works in the Upside Down and he’d never really planned to stay long enough that he needed to find out. Then again, they don’t have time to crack open the spaghetti hoops and give them a try, so he may as well stock up.

He’s trying really hard not to think about Max. About Lucas and Erica. He’s hoping against hope they at least wounded Vecna in time to save them.

When he stumbles back into the living room with supplies in tow, Robin and Dustin have dragged in a shopping cart and are in the process of padding it out with blankets and cushions pilfered from around the trailer. Nancy’s still working on bandaging Eddie up.

Steve drops to his haunches next to her, placing a supportive hand on her shoulder, “you okay?”

Nancy nods, lips pursing in concentration, “I’ve got this.” And of course she does. He’s never once doubted that.

He looks at Eddie, pale and clammy under the slick red of the blood he’s all but covered in. As if on cue, Eddie’s eyes flutter open, and he lets out a pained groan. Yeah, Steve feels that. He takes the other man’s hand and squeezes. “Hey, bud, hang in there. We’ve got you, alright?”

“What’s going on?” Eddie croaks, “I feel like death warmed up, fuck.”

“You did die, you asshole!” Dustin cuts in, steamrolling over from the cart setup, “You were dead for like a full fucking minute and Steve had to do CPR on you. ‘We are no heroes’ my ass. You had to go play hero and get yourself killed.” Dustin, now blinking extremely watery eyes, jabs a finger at Eddie’s chest, incensed.

Eddie looks miserable at that, or even more miserable than he already was, given the circumstances. Steve bats Dustin away from the extremely wounded guy because someone has to be the responsible adult, apparently, and gives him a look. “Dude, I know you’re pissed, but right now we need to get out of this trailer before Vecna or some other worse shit comes knocking.”

“I would really like to not think about the fact that there could be something worse than an evil, murderous wizard trapped down here with us.” Robin says from the other side of the room.

“Trapped?” Eddie blinks.

Steve points up. “Gate’s gone.”

“Righty ho,” Eddie says, and passes out.

“Well…that’s probably for the best,” Nancy says after a beat, straightening up. “Let’s get him in the cart.”

It takes all four of them and tilting the cart kind of sideways to get Eddie in there, settling his limp body on the bundle of blankets carefully arranged within. Steve loops his arms under the other man’s armpits and lifts him so he’s mostly upright against the back of it, padding cushions and pillows behind his back and head and arranging his legs so they can stretch out a little. It still doesn’t look comfortable, but it’s also the best he can do given the circumstances.

Eddie opens his eyes and gives him a weak little grin. Despite only having known the guy a few days, Steve knows things are bad when he doesn’t even try to crack a joke before slipping back into unconsciousness.

“Okay, where to?” Dustin asks, leaning against the cart’s handle.

Steve looks at Nancy, then Robin. He’d kind of hoped somebody else would have figured out this part.

Robin rolls her eyes and shuffles into the kitchen. “Hold on.”

He can hear her checking in drawers and slamming cupboards. She emerges a couple of minutes later with a crumpled map of Hawkins, spreading it out carefully on the living room carpet and smoothing the creases.

“Okay. So. We’re here,” she points, “hospital’s a couple miles west.”

“We could stay there for the medical supplies.” Nancy nods.

“However, we don’t know where Vecna is,” Robin continues, “and if I were a severely burned evil wizard I’d probably be heading that way right about now.”

“We know one place where he’s not,” Dustin chips in, tilting his head in thought.

“No way,” Steve shakes his head emphatically, “you cannot be serious.”

“What? It’s not like he’s gonna be there, you just told me you flamed the shit out of him and he literally fell out of a window. He’s more likely to be anywhere else. “ Dustin argues.

“Plus we know the veil is thin there, maybe we can communicate with the guys.” Robin adds.

“Creel house it is.” Nancy says, with an air of finality.

Steve sighs.

It’s a slow, arduous journey to the Creel house under slate grey skies split by huge flashes of angry red lightning. The huge rifts that split the town are gone again, smoke and ash drifting as a reminder that they’d existed at all.

Dustin hobbles painfully on his ankle and turns down offers of a piggyback ride from Robin. Steve leans on the cart handle and contemplates whether grabbing a bunch of Tylenol from the backpack he’s carrying is worth the effort of stopping, and decides against it. His wounds are still a stabbing ache in his abdomen, but he’ll manage.

“Hey, Nance?” he starts, looking up to check that Robin and Dustin are far enough ahead they just might not hear. “I’m sorry for laying the whole…six little nuggets spiel on you. That wasn’t fair of me.”

Nancy looks at him sideways, gives him a small smile. “Yeah, it wasn’t,” she agrees.

“Thing is, you’re the first girl I ever loved - the only girl I ever loved. And I still love you. But not in the same way. I guess the whole, kind of, end of the world shit had me crossing those wires. And. Maybe I was a little afraid I’d die unloved, too.” Steve confesses, looking down at his hands, his bloodied knuckles wrapped around the cart handle.

He knows it’s stupid, that fear of dying alone and unloved. But he’s emotionally aware enough to know his issues. He’s a child of absentee parents so used to rattling around a big, lonely house, and it often feels like the little found family he’s built around himself is balanced like a house of cards that’s about to be toppled and stolen away from him at any moment.

Something he can so easily lose, when the kids are older and don’t need him to drive them around any more. When Eddie finally fully replaces him in Dustin’s eyes because he’s exhilarating and witty and funny and he has things in common with the kid that aren’t based solely on fighting monsters and surviving hell together. On the worst times of their lives. When Robin bags her dream girl and doesn’t need solace in their shared romantic misadventures.

What then? It’ll just be Steve and his house full of ghosts again.

“Oh, Steve.” Abruptly, he’s being pulled into a hug and crushed against Nancy. He folds his arms around her, rests his chin on the top of her head. She smells like smoke and gunmetal and the vague hint of her sandalwood perfume. He’s so fucking proud of her: the person she is now and the person she always was. “I love you too, okay? We all love you. You’d never die unloved. Just because we weren’t right for each other doesn’t mean I don’t care about you.”

“Thanks,” he croaks, pretending his eyes aren’t swimming with tears.

Nancy pulls back, her eyes trained on his face. “I’m sorry I called us bullshit, too.”

“You were right, though, for what it’s worth. I was a dick. You deserved better and I’m glad you found it. Water under the bridge, Wheeler.” Steve quirks her a smile, leaning in to kiss the top of her head.

He did love Nancy; he’s learning he loves her now in a different way. And that’s okay.

They choose the drawing room, the room with the fewest creepy vines and floating spores in the Creel house, to claim as their camp. Steve wins the thrilling task of carrying Eddie through the house. By the time he sets him down on the bundle of blankets, he’s bleeding through his own bandages again. Robin helps him unwind the tattered cloth, holds his hand in her left as she dabs antiseptic wipes over his wounds with her right, fixes him back up with new bandages and presses a kiss to his forehead with a “sorry” when she’s done.

When the adrenaline abandons him, Steve sinks to the floor like a puppet with its strings cut. He’s so tired. He curls in on himself and cradles the dull throb of pain in his abdomen, lies in the hazy blackness of the drawing room watching the spores and dust motes dance in the low light. He can hear Robin, Dustin and Nancy talking quietly not far away, trying to signal SOS through the bright dancing pollen around the light in the kitchen, and dozes off on the pile of blankets.

It feels like moments later that Steve wakes up, unsure exactly what it was that woke him. Then he hears a choking wheeze to his left, and pushes himself upright to grab the rucksack.

“Here, man,” he says, offering Eddie a bottle of water.

“Thanks. Ugh, Jesus,” Eddie wheezes, struggling to sit up.

Steve takes pity and helps him sit upright so he can lean back against an armchair. He sprawls against it, a bloodied parody of the confident slouch Steve’s seen him do when he’s playing Dungeon Master instead of half-dead hero and Steve’s a little early to pick the kids up from Hellfire, not trying to save his life.

“I really thought I was a goner, y’know?” Eddie croaks into the darkness. “And then I woke up in my shitty trailer feeling like ass and Dustin was screaming in my face and I thought, nah, can’t be dead, hell would be way worse than this.”

“Worse? Worse than being trapped half-dead in an alternate dimension with no way out? And Dustin yelling at you?” Steve asks, amused.

“Oh yeah, if it was real hell I’d be being tortured and flayed and continually eaten by demobats, probably. All the real biblical stuff, demobats excluded.” Eddie laughs. “I was raised Christian, you know. I went to church and everything.”

Steve snorts a laugh, imagining a tiny version of Eddie in a little suit and tie, an Eddie with no tattoos and certainly no shaggy, loose curls or that wicked smile. “You were not.”

“I was!” Eddie insists, sipping from the water.

“So how’d you end up—“ Steve gestures vaguely at him.

“Gay?” Eddie interjects archly.

Steve blinks in the darkness. If he squirrels this new information away to reflect on when he’s alone, that’s for him to know. “I was gonna say into heavy metal, accused of murder and Satanism, but sure.”

“Oh,” Eddie visibly deflates back against the armchair. “I thought you’d…figured me out.”

Steve wonders if he was spoiling for a fight, expected Steve to react in a shittier way. It wouldn’t be his smartest choice, given the state he’s in, but who’s Steve to judge? It’s not like he picks his battles, he chooses all of them and runs in swinging.

“It’s okay, man. I’m not weirded out or anything.” Steve tells him, rolling his shoulders to push away the prickle of fear that always comes with telling people, even the ones he’s closest to and those he categorically knows won’t reject him because they were braver and told him first - Robin being the obvious first choice: “I’m bi, anyway.”

Eddie gazes at him with those huge, dark eyes. Steve can’t read his expression in the shadows: the set of his jaw or the arch of his brows. “Thank you for telling me,” he says eventually.

“You told me first,” Steve shrugs, shoulders creeping up by his ears.

“Yeah, well, it’s different for me. It’s just another string to my weirdo-bow, like D&D and the way I dress and the music I like and the whole being wanted for murder thing, there’s not much lower I can go in peoples’ esteem, right?” Steve sees Eddie grin sharply, a wolfish flash of teeth. “Who cares if I’m gay as well as a freak? They call me a fairy anyway. But you - you’re Steve Harrington. You were the king of Hawkins High, you’ve got it all. It matters for you.”

And, God. Eddie’s so much.

“I don’t think you’re a freak, for the record.” Steve says. “I think being who you are and being proud of every bit of it is brave. I’m sorry if I ever made you feel any other way. I think you’re brave as fuck.” Something in his stomach curdles a little with shame even as he says it: the knowledge of who and what he was in high school.

He can see Eddie’s face a little better when he tilts his head, considering, those dark eyes boring a hole straight through him. “You are not at all what I expected you to be, Steve Harrington.”

“I contain multitudes.” Steve replies.

Eddie laughs, eyes blazing in the dark.

A moment of silent understanding passes between them. Steve shuffles his right hand closer so their pinky fingers brush gently. Eddie winds their fingers together, a safe anchor in the sea of darkness.

The next time Steve wakes, Robin is sitting cross-legged next to him, digging pineapple chunks out of a can with her fingers. Noticing he’s awake, she tilts the can towards him in silent offering.

“Did you know you forgot to pack cutlery?” She asks around a mouthful of fruit.

“Yeah, well, I wouldn’t be me without forgetting something glaringly obvious,” Steve replies, yawning. He fishes out a pineapple slice and slurps it down, juice dribbling down his chin.

Next to him, Eddie makes a strangled sound. Steve didn’t even know he was awake.

“Pineapple?” Robin asks by way of greeting, tilting the can at him.

“I’m good,” Eddie says, eyes strangely bright in the early morning gloom. “But if you’ve got any Oxy in that bag of tricks, count me in.”

Steve nods, winces. “Yeah, I think we’re gonna have to stitch you up, too.”

Eddie sets his jaw firmly and nods. “Drugs first, then you can stab me.”

“Deal.” Steve agrees, tossing him the pill bottle he’s just dug out from the bag. Eddie raises a hand to catch it and groans in pain at the movement. Steve cringes: “Sorry.”

Eddie just nods again, throwing the pills back and tilting his head against the armchair he’s still resting against. “Give me like, ten minutes, for these bad boys to kick in?”

Steve hums agreement: he and Robin set up the supplies and dig out surgical gloves. By the time they’re done, Eddie’s decided he’s ready to face the music.

In any other scenario, in any other universe, Steve would probably have had to stop and stare at Eddie when he peels his shirt off. Eddie is gorgeous, even wrecked and in disarray. He’s lean and muscular and lovely, so much smooth skin and fine hair. Maybe other-universe-Steve would have the luxury of time: he’d be able to map him like a cartographer discovering previously-unknown geographies. He’d unearth all his little mysteries, discover the secrets hidden in the valleys between his ribs and the sharp lines of his hips. He’d run his fingers over the softly-defined muscles of Eddie’s abs and skate them across the litany of tattoos, with abundant time to ask what they all mean and consider the answers. This one, though, in-actual-hell-Steve, just gets a nudge from Robin after a moment of hesitation and has to study him to figure out where to start.

So he undoes Nancy’s handiwork and starts by wiping away the worst of the blood caking Eddie’s body with antiseptic wipes. The damage from the demobats is brutal. Eddie’s whole body is mapped with bruises. They burst like stars across his torso, inky black and ocean blue and muddy yellow-green and riddled with deep, bloodier bites. His legs and jaw haven’t fared much better. But the worst is his lower abdomen, where there’s a loose flap of skin hanging over raw, torn flesh. The rest of his wounds Steve reckons will heal and scar on their own as long as they keep them clean, but this one - this is the one that needs stitched up.

Steve leans forward, dabbing at the worst of the damage to Eddie’s torn jawline. For his part, Eddie doesn’t cringe away despite the stinging pain it must be causing. He just lies there, gazing at Steve with those huge brown eyes. “Thanks. You’re a good little nurse, Harrington,” he mumbles. “Do you have one of those uniforms in your closet? Tucked up next to that cute little Scoops Ahoy number?”

Steve snorts. “When did you even see me working at Scoops?”

“Just because I didn’t come in doesn’t mean I didn’t see.” Eddie cackles.

“Creeper.” Steve says, dropping the bloodied wipe in the growing pile. He unbuckles his belt, pulling it free of his jeans and offering it to Eddie. “Here.”

“Buy a guy a drink first,” Eddie deadpans. But he takes it anyway, doubles it over and stuffs it between his teeth. He bares them at Steve, a disturbing rictus grin, and nods grimly.

Robin grabs Eddie’s shoulders and pushes down hard. Steve starts on the stitches.

Steve first learned how to stitch himself up when he was nine and playing in the quarry. He’d cut himself up bad when he stumbled on scree and slipped hard, blood pouring from a deep, ugly gash on the arm he threw out to steady himself, glass shards glinting in the summer sun amid a sea of gravel and rock.

(“I don’t have time take you to the hospital. You’ll be fine.”)

He cried while he did it. He was nine, so he knew he was too old to cry, but the bite of the needle and the pull of each stitch as he tightened it hurt like nothing he’d ever felt before. The pain screamed through him like his whole arm was on fire. He muffled a sob into his t-shirt at each slice through his skin.

Anyway, he forgot to keep them clean and ended up in hospital with an infection. He didn’t say anything, just wiggled his fingers and stared at his hands when the doctors looked askance at his clumsy handiwork. He’s still got the scar.

He’s more skilful now. Faster, too. Eddie doesn’t sob, but he does groan and clench the belt between his teeth like a snarling dog, and he thrashes despite making a valiant effort not to. Robin, still pushing his shoulders down, frees one of her hands to hold his. Steve’s stomach roils uneasily, and he quietly hopes Eddie will at least pass out. It’ll be easier that way.

No such luck, though: Eddie’s pale and panting when Steve ties off the last stitch, but very much awake. He’s awake when Steve digs out actual bandages from the first aid kit and unrolls them around the newly-clean wounds, tying them off one by one and counting down in his head until the last one - twelve-eleven-ten-nineeightseven— first his torso, then his legs. He’s awake but not-quite-lucid when Steve and Robin help him out of his ruined clothes and into the softest cotton t-shirt, hoodie and clean sweats they can find in the bag Steve packed. He settles back with a throaty whine that Steve has to try extremely hard not to commit to memory.

“Sorry, man,” Steve says again, pushing Eddie’s bangs away from his face. He slumps down next to him, leaning against the armchair the other man’s lying in front of, so Eddie can sleep the experience off.

Now that the immediate concern (that being Eddie’s continued survival) is at least partly resolved, they’re all very aware of the ongoing issues:

1. They’re trapped in the Upside Down
2. Vecna is still alive, somewhere
3. They have no idea how to get out
4. They are absolutely living on borrowed time down here.

Along with Nancy and Dustin’s smarts and Robin’s logic and, Steve guesses, his own willingness to be the heavy or the bait or the guy who carries the bags, they have another strength: Eddie’s sharp tactical mind. Steve can see the concentration on his face as he works to connect the dots when he’s lucid enough to join in the discussions.

It’s not like Steve is surprised - Dustin’s been regaling him with tales of Eddie’s genius since the day he started high school and the guy swooped in and took him under his wing.

So when they recount the events of the last three years for the uninitiated, the ideas just come pouring out like maybe he thinks if he stops talking they’ll shrug him off. He’s all: “maybe it’s just that gate that’s shut and we should try the others,” and “so is there a gate under the-place-that’s-not-yet-Starcourt?” and “so, why don’t we try the pool/Hawkins Lab/Steve’s house/Lover’s Lake?” and Steve has to admit he’s got a point.

The problem is, Eddie still can’t do much by way of moving, so they get to work seeking out alternative, non-shopping cart modes of transport. Dustin, Nancy and Steve check the houses nearby while Robin stays with Eddie, arguing that it seems a little harsh to leave him alone since he can’t even stand up and would just get eaten by any nefarious being that might make its way into the Creel house. Eddie shrugs at that, because she’s kind of right.

Luckily for them, the universe isn’t completely cruel and ruthless. Yes, they’re trapped in a hellish alternative reality, but on the plus side, they don’t have to look too hard to find a new way of transporting Eddie. Dustin’s crow of victory comes only an hour into their search - he emerges from a nearby house with a full-on wheelchair and the biggest shit-eating grin plastered all over his face.

“Nice.” Steve nods appreciatively.

“Hell yeah, look at ‘er,” Eddie croons when they get back to the Creel house. “Oh, the new Eddiemobile is a beaut.”

“What’s that?” Steve asks suddenly, eyeing the backpack next to Eddie’s thigh. There’s something moving in it, and the spike of fear has him grabbing for a weapon he doesn’t have - but Nancy does, and she’s already got the sawn-off shotgun aimed at it.

“Hey, chill, woah woah woah,” Eddie throws his hands out, placating. “It’s okay, guys.”

He reaches into the bag, brings it back out cradling a tiny, black ball of fluff in his palm. Bright green eyes and pointy ears and a little triangle tail. He’s cradling a kitten. Its back right leg is splayed out at an odd angle, but otherwise it’s the most alive thing Steve’s seen in the Upside Down that isn’t them.

“What the fuck?” Nancy asks, reasonably.

“Where did you even find that?” Steve sighs.

“How did it even get down here?!” Dustin gapes.

Eddie scritches the top of the kitten’s head with his index finger. “She was hiding out in the kitchen. Robin found her.”

“Nearly brained her with a broom,” Robin agrees.

“She’s called Ozzy.” Eddie says happily, tickling behind the kitten’s ear. It purrs louder than should be possible for such a tiny thing. “She’s a little fucked up, but all the best people are.”

“She?” Steve says faintly, still processing.

“She doesn’t subscribe to your gender norms.” Eddie says by way of explanation.

“Sure she doesn’t,” Steve nods. There’s a secret but not insignificant part of him that kind of wants to cry at the sight of Eddie holding such a delicate little life in the palm of his hand, so gently, like it’s the most precious creature in the world. It feels like his chest is constricting, like his throat’s closing up. “Are you ready?” He chokes out, blinking hard.

Eddie tucks the kitten into his Judas Priest hoodie, which Steve now notices he’s wearing backwards so Ozzy can snuggle in the hood, right against his chest. He holds his hands out and waves them at Steve, waiting to be hefted into the wheelchair. “Further into Mordor we go.”

Ozzy meows her agreement.

They decide to try the original gate at Hawkins Lab. For one thing, it’s the easiest for them to reach with Eddie’s wheelchair because they can access it by road. Even though they know El sealed it three years ago, they also know it was also the most powerful - so maybe, just maybe, there’s a chance they can force their way through. They discount Watergate since the Creel house and Munson trailer gates are both closed, and it’s basically impossible to get to with Eddie’s wheels, anyway. So Hawkins Lab it is, and to Hawkins Lab they go.

The five of them (six, if you count Ozzy, for whom Eddie has made a tiny little leg splint) make an odd troupe as they exit the Creel house. Steve, Nancy and Robin take turns pushing Eddie’s wheelchair and the shopping cart they’ve loaded up with their supplies and weapons, with Dustin occasionally sitting inside when his sprained ankle starts throbbing too much.

“It’s funny,” Eddie says, stroking Ozzy’s head and looking around at the choking air and the floating spores, the thunderous red clouds. “This place would be really cool if it wasn’t so freakin’ horrifying, huh?”

“Straight out of a D&D campaign,” Dustin agrees.

Steve thinks of grotesque flower-petal heads filled with teeth and a looming many-limbed monstrosity tearing apart a shiny neon mall. He’d watch the hell out of that movie, but he isn’t a huge fan of living it.

Dustin and Eddie lapse into a D&D discussion Steve can’t make head nor tail of, and he’s content to let his mind wander. In the distance, there’s the occasional chittering, a flash of movement in the ebb and flow of darkness, but Nancy’s got her gun and Steve has his inability to back down from a fight., and whatever Upside Down monster it’s coming from isn’t getting any closer anyway. He guesses that they’ve injured the hivemind - the demogorgons and demodogs too, with burning and shooting Vecna. Wonders how long it’ll take Vecna to recover.

The lab rises out of the gloom and Steve feels a pang of something, fear-relief-anxiety, at the prospect of getting out of here, of this all being over.

“Hey, mind if Nance pushes you for a sec?” He asks Eddie, who shrugs.

Nancy looks at him askance, but steps up to take the handles of Eddie’s chair, leaving Steve to take the cart without a word.

“Buckle up, buttercup.” He tells Dustin, who’s still sitting in it and giving him a look.

Grinning, he takes off at a run and hoists himself up on the handles, ignoring the scream of pain it causes in his midsection. The cart flies down the empty road, cutting through the thick, choking Upside Down air. Steve and Dustin both hoot delightedly, Dustin grabbing onto his cap to stop it being whipped away, and for a brief moment it’s for all the world like they’re just acting out in a supermarket on a normal day, sending the cart skidding down the aisles and narrowly avoiding toppling over displays. Ignoring disapproving looks from fellow customers and scampering away from irritated staff.

Normal, stupid teenager stuff.

Then the cart hits a bump and Steve falls flat on his face, and Robin has to jog after it to stop it crashing against the security hut with Dustin still inside. Lying on the road, Steve groans. Eddie appears next to him, wheeled up by a laughing Nancy, and they each offer a hand to haul Steve upright. “Nice work, Steve.” Eddie smirks. Steve’s heart jumps into his throat at the sight.

Eddie keeps hold of Steve’s hand.

“Thanks,” Steve says, shooting him a grin despite the stinging pain in his abdomen, his scuffed-up elbows. Worth it. Ozzy leaps out of Eddie’s hood and wends around Steve’s legs; he scoops her up and holds her close to his chest, her little purrs vibrating through him and calming his thrashing heart. Eddie gives Steve’s hand a final squeeze and lets go as they head for the doors.

Steve grabs his axe from the cart just in case, and leads the way inside. The air is even thicker and darker inside, deadened vines climbing the hallways and snaking across the floors - which is gonna be a problem for the wheelchair and cart. With a sigh, Steve smashes the axe through the closest vine blocking their path, ignoring its ear-splitting screech and the way it rears backwards, retreating rather than fighting. Huh. Nancy and her shotgun really did a number on Vecna.

They continue onwards along the winding corridors in that fashion. Steve takes the lead to smash vines that don’t immediately skitter aside out of the way. Ozzy jumps down and hobbles alongside Eddie’s chair, occasionally pausing to sniff a vine and let out a comically small hiss of warning if it dares move. Steve eventually scoops her up and carries her - his mind keeps conjuring up images of the vines grabbing her, constricting.

They reach the elevator, and down, down, down they go. He gives Ozzy back to Eddie and watches her snuggle up in the hood, blinking sleepy eyes at him. He’s never thought of himself as a pet person, never mind a cat person, but she’s fucking adorable and he loves her already. He can tell Eddie does too, the way he’s cooing to her. Realising he’s being watched, Eddie looks up and shoots Steve a little smirk. Steve bites back a grin and discretely flips him off.

“Rude.” Eddie laughs.

“God, get a room,” Robin sighs under her breath.

“Don’t be jealous,” Eddie shoots back, still laughing.

Steve doesn’t hear whatever Robin grumbles back, because Nancy’s nudging him in the side with the butt of her gun, and he realises. The elevator doors are sliding open, and ahead of them is the ugly scar of the original gate.

Steve grips his axe and steps out. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees something huge and jet black launch at him, dodges it and swings his axe with a yell at the same time as Nancy looses a bullet. The thing - a demodog, Steve realises eventually - flops to the floor on the end of his axe, a squeal dying in its throat. He pulls the axe out with a wet squelch and shoves the body aside with his boot.

“Thanks, Wheeler.”

“Don’t mention it.”

Robin lets out a shocked breath behind them. Dustin and Eddie are silent. None of them look at the body of the demodog as they go past, their eyes firmly set on the remains of the gate, the ugly scar searing up the wall in great flashes of soot-black against clinical white.

Steve strides forward and sinks the axe into the wall, wiggling it to force away the surrounding tiles. The effort of it sends shockwaves down his exhausted muscles but he keeps going until he’s hacked away several feet of tiles surrounding the gate’s scar tissue and he’s panting for breath.

Underneath the tiles is puckered pink membrane, damaged and scarred just like the rift itself. He shoves his axe into it but it doesn’t give - just sinks in, and when he pulls it back out the membrane reforms, sticky and wet and unbroken. He tries again, and again.

“Fuck!” Steve yells, battering it with his fist this time, and the last few days of fear and pain and desperation coalesce into blinding rage thrumming like a headache behind his eyelids. He’s not going to die here, he’s not going to let his friends die here, in this fucked up horrorshow of a world. They didn’t fight monsters and win just to die in obscurity in the goddamn Upside Down, choking on toxic air.

They didn’t do battle against demogorgons and the Mind Flayer and Vecna and defend their shitty little town again and again - this washed up hellhole in bumfuck Indiana he’d always dreamed of escaping - just to die here, trapped. Fuck that. There’s got to be another way out.

There has to be.

He thinks about it as they slink back to the Creel house like a dog with its tail between its legs, scared and defeated. He thinks about it as they sit on the mess of blankets on the floor in the drawing room and pass around cans of food despite having no cutlery to eat with because he’s a dumbass. He thinks about it as Eddie lets Ozzy lap water from the can of baby potatoes from his fingers and tries to feed her bits of potato, which she rightfully turns her little nose up at.

He thinks about it as Nancy, Robin, Eddie and Dustin turn in for the night, promising that they’ll try another gate in the morning, try all of them, if that’s what it takes. The familiar anger drums a beat inside him, thrumming in time with his heart. He’d been so angry when he was younger, so desperate to prove himself - to his friends, to his parents, to his peers - and the echoes of that rage feel good: he’d rather feel angry than helpless.

Maybe Vecna is the key. Maybe Steve has to kill him, just to make sure either way.

He straightens from where he’d been leaning back against the armchair, stretches and glances around. His axe is leaning against the wall in the hallway, and he picks his way over to collect it carefully, doing his best to avoid waking the others. When he looks up, he realises he’s failed in that mission - Eddie blinks at him owlishly from his wheelchair, which he’s slouched low in.

“Going somewhere?” He asks softly.

Steve bites his lip. Slowly, carefully, he makes his way back across the room, drops down in front of Eddie’s chair to rest his hands on the other man’s knees. Eddie meets his gaze, bright and determined.

“I’d say look after them,” Steve says, leaning in, “but Nancy’s got that part down. So.” He steels himself and leans in, cradles Eddie’s cheek in his free hand and steals a kiss, soft and desperate. Eddie doesn’t taste great and Steve’s pretty sure he’s no picnic, either, but he’s not willing to die without getting a taste of Eddie Munson.

Under his fingers, Eddie comes alive - his hands come up and cup the back of Steve’s neck and he makes a soft, happy noise and kisses back, sweet and eager and breathless with surprise. It’s gentle and needy and perfect. It feels like Eddie’s carving out a space in his chest with the stupid little Scoops Ahoy ice cream scooper and nestling in there himself instead, safe.

When Steve breaks the kiss, his skin feeling like it’s vibrating with a confusing mix of need and desire and warmth; rage and despair and newfound purpose, Eddie just looks at him with those big brown eyes and a dimpled smile and Steve wants to memorise every single inch of him.

Eddie hums into the space in between them, and suddenly he’s tucking something into Steve’s back pocket. Steve glances down, realising it’s the other man’s handkerchief. “A token of good luck that I’m going to want back.” he explains, smiling impishly. “Got it?”

“Loud and clear.” Steve says, heart hammering in his chest. Reluctantly, he stands and heads for the door.

“Hey Harrington,” Eddie calls softly. “Make him pay.”

Steve gives him a salute with the bloodied axe.

The plan is that he has no plan. He doesn’t know how to find Vecna, just that he has to.

He follows the broken line of ash and blood and shattered glass until it trails into nothing in the middle of the woods. The only things of significance nearby are the little fort the kids call Castle Byers, which Will assured him was torn to shreds by the demogorgon when he was first stuck in the Upside Down, and Steve’s house a couple of miles east.

But then, Vecna’s got a dramatic streak a mile wide, doesn’t he?

Maybe Steve can play both predator and prey. He’s pretty sure Vecna won’t be able to resist the delicious irony of fucking around in Steve’s head in the alternate dimension version of his own house.

It doesn’t take him long to get there, to see the drained, empty pool in his back yard. Barbara Holland had died in the dark there, alone and afraid, and he’s never been able to go in since, barely able to look at it. He skirts around the edge of the pool on his way to the back door and decisively does not look in, at what was in there and still could be, except—

“Steve.” A voice says.

He spins to face the source, gripping the handle of the axe with both hands.

It’s Barbara. Not freshly-dead Barb, but a bloated, barely recognisable corpse version of her, tangled in the vines at the deep end. As he watches, she rises like a wraith, bones snapping out of place as she wrenches free from her resting place.

“Holy shit,” he breathes, stepping backwards and away from the pool’s edge.

“It’s your fault, Steve,” she tells him, crawling closer on her hands and knees. Her glasses are broken, hanging off her face, her eyes sharp and bright.

She pushes herself to her feet horrifically slowly, shuffles towards him. Blood, so much blood, pours from the wound on her palm. He feels bile rise in his throat, can’t help but stare as the blood travels down her wrist and splatters on the tile, deep crimson, a sea of it. She drags herself out of the pool and leaves a trail of red in her wake. He clenches the axe tighter, steps back.

“You did this to me,” she tells him: “You’re the reason Nancy is hurting. She nearly died and you didn’t save her. Max nearly died and you did nothing. You’re weak. You’re bullshit, Steve Harrington.”

He’s transported to three years ago outside the cinema, Nancy storming down the alleyway with fire in her eyes, Tommy scrawling “Jonathan Byers is a perv” in splashes of thick red with an ugly laugh in his throat. Steve in all his arrogance and his rage - calling Jonathan words he can’t take back, can’t swallow in his shame. Punching and being punched back harder, head pummelled against concrete, again and again.

“Steve.” He blinks. Barbara is gone, and a skeletal, grotesque humanoid creature covered in slick vines - Vecna, Steve’s mind supplies - is in her place, grinning cruelly. “It’s time. I had so wanted Maxine, but you will have to do.” It moves to tilt Steve’s chin up with long, sharp fingers, a caress.

“Oh, fuck off.” Steve says, and swings the axe with both hands. His unexpected resistance takes Vecna by surprise - doesn’t give the monster time to move or evade.

The axe embeds in the side of Vecna’s neck and the thing roars, an unearthly scream of pain and rage that shrieks out on two entirely different decibel levels, one high and sharp and piercing, one low and blistering, and makes Steve’s ears ring.

He doesn’t hesitate.

He can’t.

Vecna’s ugly, clawed hands reach for him again and he dodges to the side, yanks the axe out of the column of the creature’s neck and spins to attack again, smashing into its singed ribcage and then its burned abdomen, already riddled with bullets.

“No!” Vecna howls, scrabbling to grab at Steve. He dances away. Blood pours from the wound on Vecna’s neck, the semi-healed burns Steve aimed for on his torso. Vines grab for him and Steve smashes the axe into them, whirls to aim for Vecna again.

The creature howls at him, twists its hand and sends him flying backwards into the side of the house, smashing his head against the brick so hard he could swear he sees stars and tastes the copper tang of blood on his tongue. He slumps against it, all the breath and fear and rage knocked out of him.

Vecna advances, still sporting that sharp, cruel smile. Steve spits blood.

“Not this time. Not ever again.” He wrenches out, stumbling to his feet. He grabs one of the plastic pool chairs and throws it at Vecna, ducks forward and runs as Vecna, distracted, sweeps a hand to toss the chair aside telekinetically. He collides with the creature, Vecna-Henry-One, at full force, tackling him with all his remaining strength, and they fall for what seems like an eternity, toppling backwards into the empty pool in a writhing, furious tangle.

But it’s Steve who recovers first, Steve who still has the axe in his hands and a burst of fury in his heart so powerful it chokes him. This is for Max, he thinks, for Nancy and Will and Dustin and Lucas and Mike and El and Erica and Joyce, and Hopper who deserved better, for Eddie, for all of them. He smashes the axe into Vecna’s skull and screams as pain rips through his abdomen at the force, but he doesn’t, can’t stop, slams the axe down again with a crack.

He locks eyes with Vecna, still eagle-sharp and staring despite the bloody mess of his skull. Steve raises his arm to swing again. Vecna’s hand lashes out, grips his throat and squeezes hard, fresh pain over old wounds. Steve drops the axe and swings with his fists, pummels every bit of Vecna he can reach: ignores the way his vision is pulsing and whiting out at the edges.

He has to do this he has to kill Vecna he has to get back to Eddie he promised—

His heartbeat pounds in his ears.

The world goes dark.

Steve opens his eyes and everything is too bright, too white. It sends pain shooting up the back of his skull. He groans and pushes the heels of his hands into his eye sockets.

“Guys, he’s awake!”

Steve ekes one eye open. Three eager faces have crowded into his line of sight. Is he in a hospital bed? He’s suddenly aware of several machines beeping by his side and the drip in his arm.

“What the fuck happened?” He groans. “I thought you guys were in Lenora.”

“Long story,” says Mike, who looks no more sunkissed for his adventures on the Californian coast. “El closed the gates too soon by accident and then she passed out, so we couldn’t open them again. She got her strength back just as you were battling Vecna - what were you thinking by the way-“ (Steve’s a little stung at being judged for his bad decisions by Mike Wheeler, of all people) “- so she basically. Finished the job, just after you blacked out.”

“You were super lucky,” Will informs him.

“I had him on the ropes.” Steve mutters. “Max? Lucas? Dustin?

“Max - he broke her arms, but she is okay. Recovering. Lucas is with her. The others, I re-opened the trailer gate. They are safe.” El tells him. “I also met the kitten.”

Steve blinks. Eddie. “What abou-“

“He’s still in the hospital too,” Mike tells him. “The government came up with some super shady cover up story. Pinned it all on Jason Carver. But Eddie’s a free man when he gets out of here.”

Steve sags back in the bed. He’s suddenly, achingly aware of how much his body hurts, the heavy, choking press on his lungs as though there’s still toxic Upside Down air strangling him. “Good.” He manages. “So…wanna tell me what happened to you guys?”

El climbs up to sit on the end of his bed. Mike and Will lean in on either side, explaining about roller discos and pizza vans and road trips and industrial freezers and secret government bases.

It’s late when they leave, and Steve’s so, so tired. But he forces himself upright, pulls the drip out of his arm and ignores the screech of the heart rate monitor as he removes the various equipment he’s plugged into.

He finds Dustin, Nancy and Robin in the next room along, all pale and tired but alive and safe. Dustin barrels into him with such force it nearly knocks him over, only looking a little guilty when he remembers Steve’s various injuries, and Steve can’t bring himself to be mad anyway. He just hugs the kid against him and tries really hard not to cry.

He steals Dustin’s jello cup for his next journey and slips out an hour later, taking a slow but steady pace down the ward. A nurse tries to herd him back to his room at one point, but he resolutely ignores the guy and the look he gives him must be enough anyway, because he backs off.

Eddie’s awake when Steve slips into his room, propped up on a mountain of pillows and reading a comic his uncle must have brought for him. The room is flooded with soft golden lamplight, haloing around his thick mane of hair. He’s not wearing the standard hospital-issue gown, must have refused one. Instead he’s in his sweats and hoodie again, and Ozzy is curled up in his lap. He looks up as the door opens and shoots Steve that bright, dimpled smile.

“Hi,” Steve says, suddenly feeling awkward and nervous and like his skin’s a size too small and his heart’s beating too fast. It’s not a feeling he’s over-familiar with, in the dating department. He crosses his arms over the front of his hospital gown and ducks his head.

“Hey, hero of the hour,” Eddie replies, putting his comic down on the side table. “Get up here.” He pats the mattress in invitation.

The simple action eases something in Steve’s chest. He smiles, crosses the room in three easy strides and crawls into the bed with Eddie, tucking himself up against his side. He props himself up on an elbow. “Jello?” He offers the cup.

“Maybe later,” Eddie says solemnly, his eyes searching Steve’s. “I was hoping you’d kiss me again first.”

Steve grins. “Oh, you were?“ He leans in, nudges his free hand under the edge of Eddie’s hoodie and rests his palm on the warm, soft skin of Eddie’s stomach, the muscles twitching lightly under Steve’s fingers. A disgruntled Ozzy shuffles to lie on the bed instead.

He reels Eddie in slowly, kisses him soft and deep and needy. Eddie tastes like nicotine and toothpaste and it’s an odd mix but not a bad one; he smells like jasmine and cigarettes. It’s a sensory overload in the best of ways, when Eddie kisses him back with an intensity Steve hadn’t expected, a burst of taste and touch and smell and Eddie’s tongue against his and a smile against his lips, hands in his hair.

The other man flips them and straddles Steve’s lap, looks down at him with his face framed by his mass of dark hair, smiles that too-wide smile so his dimple appears. Steve gives into the urge to press his thumb into it. Eddie captures his hand and kisses his palm.

“You have no idea how long I’ve wanted to do that,” Eddie hums, leaning in to kiss him again. It’s slow and sensual and full of promise Steve can’t wait to unlock.

“Yeah?” Steve murmurs.

“Eighth grade,” Eddie informs him, running his hands down Steve’s chest over the starchy hospital gown. “You got hit in the face with a football in your gym class. I saw you in the corridor on your way to the nurse. You were bleeding all over the place and I asked if you were okay, and you just laughed. You had blood in your teeth and everything. And I watched you go to the nurse’s office and thought, ‘I wanna kiss that fucking loser’. I never realised you were really an option, for me, but I wanted you to be so bad.”

Steve grins, wide and impossibly fond. “I remember that. I’d completely busted my face, and you asked if I was okay.”

“It was a genuine question,” Eddie huffs, folding his arms.

Steve takes a handful of his hoodie and reels him in again, cups Eddie’s cheek with his palm. “I know,” he murmurs, and kisses him.