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Fortunate Son

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Seven runs.

As he runs, he is reminded of a story he was told once a long time ago, back when he was much smaller than he is now.

Back when he was still a child in the Nursery... in the room with the rainbow on the door.

He thinks Papa told him this story. It is Papa’s voice he hears in his head as thoughts weave themselves together into a coherent narrative – short on details but perfectly clear and solid at its core.

It is the story about a forest, a place full of wolves waiting to gobble you up.

Eat you, eat you, tear you to shreds and swallow you down… and then you’re gone.

Gone. That’s what death is. Blood-red blood and then blackness.

Then nothing.

Of course, Brenner hadn’t used any such florid descriptions when telling this tale. Not his style.

After hearing the bare framework Seven had dreamed up the visuals later, all on his own. He’d never needed any help coming up with pictures in his head. It’s a blessing and a curse.

This particular story was about wolves and death and a naughty little boy who told lies.

Seven doesn’t tell lies.

He doesn’t tell lies… but he used to talk about the pictures in his head, and when that happened Brenner told him the story of the boy and the wolves.

Brenner always thought Seven told lies. Lies are stories that are wrong, that aren’t real, aren’t true. True is real. True is what you can prove, what can be seen by everyone, and Seven couldn’t prove that the pictures in his head were… well, anything really.

Brenner was always punishing him for telling others about the dreams, the things he saw, the things he knew were true even though he couldn’t prove they were to anyone who mattered.

They were lies, and they unsettled the other Numbers, and the Techs, too, sometimes...the men in suits and white coats who kept Seven and his fellow experiments in line.

Nobody cares about your dreams, Seven.

Brenner had gagged Seven for a while. For days. Seven remembers that.

He learned to keep quiet after that horrific punishment. He pushed his visions into the background of his waking thoughts and taught himself to separate the things he knew from the things people would accept. To be just sweet and pliant enough to be invisible.

And he rarely ever spoke to the tall men in suits who enjoyed punishing him for the slightest infraction, just because they could. Because they had all the power and he had none.

But he never… really, he never…

He never told lies.

Maybe it will be alright, he thinks. Brenner always thought he was a liar, but he isn’t, he knows this, they’re just pictures in his head, not lies. Maybe the wolves will stay away, then, even though he is in a forest and all alone.

Maybe the wolves only eat liars.

He runs.

It’s raining. It wasn’t raining the last time he made it out of the Lab, but it is now.

Seven knows, in an abstract sort of way, about rain, about what it is. He’s seen it in his dreams and learned about it when he was still in the Nursery.

It is still a shock to the system to feel the gentle violence of so many individual droplets of water striking him, soaking him. His thick brown hair flattens and clings to his pale, mole-dotted skin and he brushes it out of his face as he tries not to run into any low-hanging branches or slip in the mud beneath his feet. His stolen clothes are sodden and heavy against his shaking body.

He tilts his head back, and his mouth opens, and he gasps as he inhales water and air. In the rain he can taste the trees and the earth and the bittersweet resonance of living things.

He lets out a sound that is something between a laugh and a sob.

He’s had some challenging, frightening experiences with water recently… but this is different. Very different.

There is something cleansing about the rain. It heals as it hurts.

The pitter-pat of water against the green leaves of the trees around him seems to reverberate and echo until the forest around him pulses, a vibrating, sentient thing. He peers into the woods ahead, but the falling twilight obscures the details of his surroundings.

He runs.

It hurts.

He can’t move fast because of what he’s done to his foot, but he tries to push through the pain all the same and keep going, keep going.

His left ankle is in tatters, a mess of blood and flesh. If he looked down right now, he’d see gore and red and a bit of bone sticking out.

He’s not looking down right now, though.

He’s running.

Outrunning it.

He hurt himself, damaged himself… but he had to do it.

He chose to do it.

He brought that heavy, jagged rock down hard on his ankle… on the thin metal band that encircled it. Its red indicator light blinked up at him like an evil eye. The rock slipped on impact and he screamed, shrieked in pain…but he didn’t let it slide fully out of his grasp. It was his only hope, this crude tool found in the dirt in the woods… he couldn’t let it go. He tightened his grip on the thick stone and brought it down again.

Again. Again. Until the band broke and the light stopped blinking and the tracker was disabled.

Yes, he chose to do it.

What a novelty… having choices.

It hurts. So much.

It hurts but he keeps going. He tears through the forest like there are monsters at his back, chasing him… and there are. He can’t see them, but he knows they’re there.

Monsters with mouths that open to reveal row after row of sharp teeth. They were in the dark place, and just on the other side of the wall, the gateway.

He saw them.

There are other monsters, too.

Men in suits carrying electric prods meant to cripple. Men carrying guns meant to kill.

Papa is behind him. Papa is coming.

Monsters, one and all.

And…

And also the only one he is really afraid of… the one who is not a monster, not really. It would be easier if he was. Truth is, he’s the furthest thing from a monster you could be.

Seven’s other self.

But he’s not like Seven at all… not really. He’s powerful, so powerful. He is the only person who can really hurt Seven, and, worst of all, he is the only person Seven can really hurt back.

He loves Seven, wants him, needs him, is coming for him…

Is coming…

Seven runs.

He runs through the forest. It’s beautiful, so beautiful… he’s seen it before, in person and in his dreams, but it still takes his breath away to be there, to feel all the growing things so close and so green.

The Lab is sterile and cold and cut off from everything. It is death and stagnation and suffocation.

But the forest... the forest is alive.

It’s so alive and he can feel it. In his fingers, in his skin, in his mouth, in his pain, in his breath… he can feel it.

It’s beautiful and terrible.

He doesn’t hear shouts or movement or the sounds of his pursuers over the sound of the rain, but the relative quiet doesn’t soothe him. He can’t go much further like this on his own. He needs help, he needs to find people.

The right people… friends. He needs to find friends.

The faces of the children flash in his head – Dustin and Mike and Lucas and Will and Max. He met them before, on his last escape attempt. They fed him and gave him clothes and hid him in a warm, dusty basement.

They gave him his name, his secret name, his special name. He holds that name close inside of himself, keeps it safe. He is ready to use it when the time comes.

The knowledge that he can’t go back to his friends, to the children, to the ones he’d hoped would help him strikes him like a lightning bolt and nearly cuts him down at the knees. He realizes he was running to them this whole time… of course he was.

But he can’t go there. It’s the first place they’d look for him. The bad men.

His next thought it that it doesn’t matter.

He’s lost anyway.

Lost in the woods. Just like one of the stories they used to read in the Nursery. Just like one of Brenner’s ugly tales about the Outside. Just like in his strange dreams, the vivid ones that left him panting and scared when he woke again.

Lost. Alone and lost.

He stumbles. He can no longer tell if the wetness on his cheeks is from raindrops or tears.

Then, just like that, a light. Something bright in the falling darkness, something just up ahead, like someone flicked a switch the way they do in the cold darkness of the Lab in the mornings. Nothing, darkness, then just as suddenly you can see. The light waits, warm and welcoming.

Seven pants and stares. His brown eyes are wide and unblinking, wild with fear.

There is no shouting. The light doesn’t move. Not a flashlight.

Not them.

He runs towards it.

He sees a wooden structure materialize in the gray dusk. The windows are lit up with an electric glow. There is a single, worn-looking truck parked a little ways away.

He runs towards the shelter, towards the light.

He doesn’t see the wire stretched out between two trees, hovering a few inches off the ground.

Thin. Taut. Invisible. Inescapable.

It catches on his bad ankle.

He trips and falls and a deafening bang shatters the quiet of the night.

 

 

Brenner takes a moment to dab his handkerchief against his forehead and observe the little that remains of Central Laboratory One. The cloth comes away soiled by a thin streak of blood from a small cut on his forehead and slightly dampened by a layer of perspiration.

He figures that he is allowed this brief moment of almost-weakness, this passing acknowledgement of his fatigue. It has, after all, been a trying day, and many of his people are in much worse shape. His primary lab space is virtually demolished and one of his experiments has gone missing.

The sensory deprivation tank, formerly so tall and commanding, is in pieces over the whole of the laboratory floor. A half-inch of standing water covers the ground and is playing havoc with the loose electrical wires. Various technicians scuttle around, scraping up the wounded and trying to organize a clean-up.

When Seven experienced his unexpected episode in the tank, all while attempting to contact that tantalizing alternate dimension Brenner desperately craves access to, the resulting psychokinetic surge shattered the structure completely and brought down a significant portion of the machinery attached to it.

This fact is both intriguing and disappointing.

The tank was colloquially referred to as the Bathtub. Brenner doesn’t remember who came up with the name, which behavioral scientist or smart-mouthed guard thought it amusing. It hardly matters.

It’s a fanciful name for it, really, but Brenner has never been above appropriating fancy and fantasy to suit his own ends.

Creative metaphors are especially useful for interactions with Seven. Seven… his young dreamer, his imaginative child. Seven was always fascinated by stories when he was little, always in awe of the unseen world.

He always wanted to draw. He was always the most prone to nightmares.

Brenner has a talent for telling stories. You would never think that to look at him – solemn and fastidious, with a cold gaze that cuts right through most people yet reveals nothing of what he is actually thinking.

You wouldn’t think he’d have much of an imagination.

You’d be wrong, though.

Brenner is very good at shaping a narrative, at making the world appear to be whatever he wants it to be. He is very good at making a person think that they are small and weak, and that the world is an utterly terrifying place.

He is especially good at making himself seem like the only person in the room with any real power in his hands.

His taciturn nature only adds to his appeal as a storyteller. He never uses an ill-considered word. It lends weight to everything he says.

Seven, when he was small, would look up at Brenner with wide eyes and listen to everything he told him.

Brenner wondered idly when that changed, when he lost the boy’s innocent trust.

Maybe it happened when Seven’s powers failed to manifest. Repeatedly. He hadn’t been able to hide his disappointment in the child and hadn’t bothered to curb his displeasure… or the punishments that followed.

Maybe it was when Seven started looking at people and saying fanciful things about them that he had no possible way of knowing…

Maybe it was when Brenner decided to use Seven’s gentle heart against him.

Seven. His little dreamer. His painfully ordinary boy.

Or perhaps not as ordinary as he’d thought…

Martin Brenner is not a man who experiences regret the way most people do, so these musing don’t really go anywhere useful. They are promptly interrupted, in fact, by Agent Williams, looking uncharacteristically rumbled and agitated.

“Sir.”

Brenner nods.

“All Experiments accounted for and in lockdown except for Seven. We’ve activated his tracker but it’s offline.”

Interesting. Quite an accomplishment for Seven, a child who never displayed an aptitude for any of Brenner’s myriad lateral-thinking tests.

“He’s learned from last time,” he comments. Last time Seven made it all the way to the nearby town of Hawkins and Brenner had been forced to use a rather more creative extraction technique than usual.

“It shouldn’t matter,” Williams’ brow furrows. “Those things are designed to withstand significant damage.”

“We may have underestimated the lengths he’ll go to in order to escape. If he’s managed to remove the ankle band, he himself might also be damaged. Make a note of it. I doubt he’d go to a hospital on his own, but someone might find him and seek medical treatment for him.”

“Yes, sir. We figure he must have escaped through one of the central air ducts… the east duct is the most likely bet… and is currently in or cutting through Hawkins Woods.”

Brenner nods. “Very well. I have a plan for recovering Seven. With this new, as yet unquantified manifestation of power, I want something more advanced than the standard extraction team. What about the other situation?”

Williams hesitates. It is perfectly understandable, and Brenner allows it for brief moment before his eyes narrow and chin tilts dangerously.

“The…” Williams swallows. “The gateway is stable. Nothing is coming through. The technicians are monitoring the issue and collating the data from the surge. They… um, wanted you to know that they can’t guarantee that the incident didn’t cause more… disruptions. Elsewhere. In the woods, maybe… or in town.”

Brenner absorbs this information silently.

“Sir?”

After a long moment, Brenner gives Williams another slight nod.

“Monitor the situation. There might be some collateral damage because of this. We’ll need to contain it until the situation can be remedied.”

“How will we remedy it, Sir?”

Brenner gives the underling a look that is almost indulgent.

“We retrieve the one who caused it, Williams. And if his tracker is disabled, there is really only one way to do that.”

 

 

Seven is gone.

Six knows this for several reasons.

The first reason is that the Lab is on lockdown and no one has come yet to return Seven to their shared room. That is standard procedure for lockdowns. Numbers are returned to their sleeping quarters when a lockdown occurs.

For safety.

Safety.

The word rolls over in Six’s head, twists and morphs into a hollow thing devoid of meaning. He sits on the bed in that small, poorly lit living space in silent stillness, but inside he is a roiling whirlpool of emotions.

Seven is safe when he is in this room with Six – then and only then. Six knows Seven is safe when he is here, when Six can wrap his fingers around thick locks of hair and stroke pale skin and press his mouth against that lean, pliant body.

That’s when Seven is safe. He’s safe in Six’s arms.

When he’s not here, when they’re not together, uncertainty abounds. If Seven’s not here, he’s out there in the Lab… in glass rooms and testing rooms and in the big room with the Bathtub.

Seven has learned to fear the Bathtub over these last few days, and so, in turn, has Six.

At first, Six had been pleased that Seven finally started manifesting abilities after years of nothing. The fact that a highly troubling (terrible, traumatic) incident had triggered them was something that Six ignored, just as he determinedly chose to ignore every other memory of that horrible day roughly two weeks ago.

Focus only on the useful, on the good. If Seven had some special skill that Papa could exploit beyond his primary role as a toy to keep Six calm, then his position within the Lab would be more secure. 

After all, what use is a useless Experiment?

(What happens to the ones who disappear?)

Six could keep Seven with him (safe) if Seven was useful. More useful, that is. This was supposed to be a good thing.

Six’s satisfaction hadn’t lasted long.

Seven told Six about the Bathtub and the water and how he feared dying in that small, dark tube, cut off from everything, panic hampering his ability to breathe freely.

He’d told Six about the strange place he’d visited while deprived of his ability to see and hear, the place where pictures of other times and other people flashed across his blinded eyes.

He said he’d seen a crack in the world. A crack where monsters could get through.

Six had told him to hush, that there wasn’t any such thing. Brenner would be cross if he heard Seven crying and carrying on. The punishment for telling lies is solitary confinement and maybe the gag again if Seven kept insisting.

Six can’t protect Seven if Seven is in solitary confinement. He can’t cage him in his arms and feed him and make him sleep. He can’t monitor the emotions flickering across his lover’s face and respond accordingly – kiss, smile, frown, lick, speak, grip, nudge.

He can’t act or react, can’t control anything if Seven isn’t with him.

He can’t touch and be touched by him. He can’t hold on to Seven if Seven isn’t here.

Seven had replied that Brenner knew about the monsters and sent him into the Bathtub anyway. He’d said that Brenner hadn’t seemed to think Seven’s stories were lies anymore.

The alarms wail on and on and still Seven does not return.

The second reason why Six knows that Seven is gone is that when someone does appear, sliding open the room’s door and standing there in the entrance, it is not Seven. It is Brenner, Papa… and he is flanked by two Techs wearing suits and holding weapons.

Brenner’s lips are a tight, thin line and there is something unmistakably disturbed in his face. It is not his most common look, but it is familiar enough all the same. It is a look that means that something has gone wrong.

Even Six, who is no secret mind-reader like Seven, can see this.

“Where is he?” Six growls.

The words come out harsh, over-loud, from some place deep down inside Six. They almost sound like they are coming from someone else.

Brenner’s mouth curls down and his lips go even thinner than before. One of the Techs steps forward and Six can see the long, thin rod of metal in his hand, the end crackling with electricity.

Six is up and off his small bed and in a heartbeat the Tech’s sleeve is on fire. The Tech shrieks, flailing and falling backwards, frantically trying to put out the flames scorching his arm.

Six’s fury and panic is wild, uncontrollable. He isn’t thinking… if he was thinking, he’d never turn towards Papa with the intention of setting the older man alight with his horrible powers…

Brenner's hand moves, then, and Six feels the familiar crippling sensation… starting on his ankle before engulfing him completely. Just like that, the fire he can call to his fingertips and send wherever he wishes is gone, dampened by the inescapable metal band on his leg and the currents it sends through Six’s body.

Six is still physically big, though, and still enraged. He throws himself forward out of sheer desperation.

The other Tech moves in front of Brenner and Six is zapped with the electric prod. Between the two sources of agony he can’t help it… he falls to the ground with a furious scream. Every muscle in his body goes horribly rigid and he feels the paralysis take over. The Tech with the prod relents after a moment but Brenner and the ankle band do not.

It’s too much to struggle against, and the inner horror Six feels at the knowledge that Seven is gone is numbed, reshaped into something else.

Six goes as pliant as he can under the earth-shattering power of the electricity, the loss of his abilities and the punishing pain that Papa bestows on him.

He stretches out on the ground, panting and submissive. A weak, strained whimper escapes him.

The crushing weight of helplessness sinks in, worse than any other agony.

And there is only one person who can make the pain stop.

After a moment that feels like an eternity, Six sees Papa’s polished shoes step forward into his line of sight and come to a stop directly in front of his face. His slate-blue eyes blur with unshed tears as Brenner kneels next to him and idly brushes a golden curl off Six’s face.

Six looks up at Papa and struggles to keep the desperate hatred out of his eyes.

“Are you finished?” Brenner asks, voice mild.

Six can’t really say anything. He can’t force words out when his body is a rigid tableau of suffering. He can only blink up at Brenner and hope that his willingness to comply translates somehow.

Because he is willing to comply… he is willing to do many things, almost anything if it makes the pain stop. He’ll do anything if he gets what he wants. What he needs.

Brenner must read this capitulation in his eyes because he nods and uses the small remote in his hand to switch off the rippling pulse of agony triggered by the ankle band. Six slumps against the unforgiving solidity of the floor and tries to collect his scattered self again.

“There has been an incident,” Brenner says after a long beat. “Part of the Lab has been damaged and Seven has escaped.”

Six wants to ask what kind of incident could have caused this.

Six wants to ask if Seven was damaged during the incident or in the process of escaping.

Those questions will get him nowhere, though… not with Brenner. He is Brenner’s special project, a favorite child, but even that will not help him in this instance.

Such information can only be characterized as secondary. Irrelevant.

His suspicion is confirmed when Brenner continues talking. He gives Six his assignment. His orders. His task to complete.

Six stays submissive and complaint and listens. He sees the rules of the game, the parameters and goals.

He sees how doing what Brenner says will get him what he wants.

He has always been good at understanding these things.

The rest of it doesn’t mean anything… the pain and humiliation are mere details.

The mission is what matters.

Getting Seven back is what matters.

 

 

Seven stays on the ground. He feels the agonizing pain in his leg. He smells wet earth and verdant plant life. He tries not to move.

He knows what that 'bang' sound means. He may not know everything – or anything – but he knows what that means. He’s heard it before.

A gun, a gun.

Pain and death.

He doesn’t think he’s been hit, but he stays on the ground anyway. When you hear gun shots, you stay on the ground until they come and take you away.

Lewis, the nice man in the big truck... all was well, Seven ran, he got away, Lewis helped him, it was warm in the truck... and then all of a sudden Lewis's head was a mass of broken bone and brains and flesh and a thousand shades of red all over the window and the wheel and Seven and then they came and took Seven back and they left Lewis behind, dead, he was dead, it was Seven's fault and he was...

If you stand up, you get mowed down by their bullets and their hate.

Better to stay on the ground.

The rain continues to fall.

Seven shivers violently, freezing and frightened.

The door to the building opens. Seven stays down, only allows himself a brief glance up. The lights are off inside but he can still see the silhouette of a figure standing in the doorway. Even from here Seven can see that it is a man, big and tall and wide.

He probably has the gun.

He probably has all sorts of things that hurt.

Seven has made a horrible mistake.

He can’t help it. A low whimper escapes him, a miserable sound that rounds itself out into a weak cry of terror. He squeezes his eyes shut for a moment, tries to take in a calming breath.

When he opens his eyes again the big man has moved forward, and something smaller, quicker, is trying to dart around him towards Seven. There is a discussion happening on the front porch, harsh whispers that Seven can’t quite make out.

The two figures fall silent, and then both of them step off the porch, walk down the worn, warped front step, and make their way towards Seven.

Seven pants and stays down. He shuts his eyes, afraid, and then opens them again.

The man and the child – a girl with wavy brown hair – stand in the rain and look down at him.

He doesn’t know them, but he recognizes them from his dreams. He’s seen their faces in the visions that are lies but also the truth… and he knows the man and child are important, but he doesn’t know if they will hurt him now.

There is a gun, but it's in a holster on the man’s belt. The man is even more intimidating up close.

The girl is unarmed, but the sight of her sends a vibrant electric feeling down Seven’s spine and he knows… he knows she’s the dangerous one. Something about her is different…familiar-strange. Seven struggles to place her.

“Who are you?” the big man asks.

Who are you? Isn’t that the one question Seven doesn’t know the answer to?

The secret in his chest burns and, stumbling, comes out.

The secret name.

“Se… Steven. Seven. Steven. Se…” Seven chokes on the words.

He doesn’t know the answer.

Is he the number Brenner assigned him or is he the name the children gave him? Is he Brenner’s project, the sum total of his special gifts? Or is he the boy that Dustin, the curly-haired child who found him shivering and alone in the woods, grinned up at as he came up with a secret identity for him?

What is he? And which him is the right one?

“Please,” he murmurs, and the word comes out as a wet, miserable sigh. He tugs at his wounded leg, still tangled in the wire, and a wave of pain washes over him. His arm jerks out, an unbidden muscle spasm, and the little girl’s eyes latch onto it.

Something in that gaze lights up in the falling darkness and the girl is kneeling down beside him in an instant. The older man lets out a huff, but she ignores him and tugs at Seven’s hand until his arm is outstretched, uncovered and free of the now-shredded shirt he’d hastily pulled on after crawling out of the wreckage of the Bathtub. The dim light from the cabin illuminates what she is looking at.

Seven can see it now…the thing that fascinates the little girl.

The mark. His mark.

007 in black lettering on his forearm.

Something about those numbers now feels like a particular insult, a cruel attack that hits him right in his chest.

He fled the Lab and smashed his ankle and tried to run… but he’ll never get away. The mark remains.

He’s trapped and he can’t see a way out. All his dreams and insights and plans and there is still no way out.

He lets out another weak, keening moan and tries to pull his arm away, tries to tuck it against his chest, tries to hide. The child releases him and Seven thinks that’s the end of it, but she only lets him go because she needs both hands for what she does next.

The little girl pulls her own sleeve up.

Finally, Seven sees.

Chapter Text

Then

 Why ‘Billy’, then? If it’s William on the license?”

“It’s a nickname.”

“Nickname?”

Six hums, threads the fingers of one hand through Seven’s lovely hair as Seven curls around him. Six's hooded eyes are gazing up at the ceiling of their shared room, but he can still picture the look of interest dancing across the other boy's face.

“It means it’s a shorter version of the real name,” Six says.

Seven considers this. He idly strokes Six’s chest, running his hand over smooth flesh, down dips and dimples, over curves. Skin to skin.

They are in their narrow bed, naked and wrapped up at the waist in a thin blanket. It’s night and the only light in the room comes from the small, glowing bar above the door… that light never goes off, not even at night. It casts a pale glow over the room and makes both boys look pale, almost blue-green. It reminds Seven of some of his stranger dreams.

Seven rests his head against Six’s chest and rises and falls in time with his lover’s steady breathing. Their arms are wrapped around each other. Seven feels boneless, breathless, and is being soothed in his post-coital state by the reassuring solidity of his lover’s body.

Soothed physically, that is. Mentally, he’s doing handstands trying to wrap his head around the concept of nicknames, specifically as they relate to Six’s newly obtained fake driver’s license, given to him by Papa for use on his missions.

Clothes, shoes, a wallet with ten dollars and a driver’s license in it. A passport Outside… away from the Lab, with its blank walls and its fluorescent lights and its chilliness and its tortures. That’s what Six got from Brenner, to be used when he is out in the world serving Brenner’s insatiable will.

Six tells Seven all about it, and Seven sees, just under the surface, the darker implications of these gifts.

Brenner likes to collect things. Six is both a prized possession and, now, one of his best collectors.

Seven can read that clearly in Brenner’s mind, can follow the twisted, gnarled thread of the older man's thoughts all the way to the dark, yawning pit of his ambition. 

If Seven had those things, clothes and shoes and money and a license, he wouldn’t use them to please Brenner. He’d use them for himself… there’s no telling how far away he could go with tools like those at his disposal.

Which is, of course, exactly why he is not allowed to have such things.

“There is no Billy in William, though,” Seven says after a moment. “Wouldn’t it be… Wi…Will… Willie?”

“Don’t know. Brenner says…”

“Brenner says,” Seven parrots sarcastically under his breath, irritated as he always is by Papa’s name and the deferential way Six says it.

“…Says it’s a version of William,” Six finishes, tugging the other boy's hair gently, chiding him for the interruption. 

Unfortunately, Seven doesn’t know enough about names and the world outside to argue that point effectively. He satisfies himself by swiping a thumb over Six’s right nipple and relishing the soft grunt the other boy makes.

He is very fond of these moments, of these touches that do not necessarily go anywhere. They both like them, both him and Six, but Seven in particular values gestures that aren’t utilitarian in the slightest.

He values them like he values hummed snatches of songs, and colorful patterns on neckties, and the rare moments when he is given materials to draw with… all those small things that are frequently denied to him. Those things that men like Papa consider useless.

It feels like a small kind of rebellion in this place to do anything just for the sheer pleasure of doing it.

“Nickname,” he murmurs, rolling the word over again in his mouth. “Nick – name.”

“He said it’s for your family and friends to use,” Six continues. “If you want to be affectionate. Nobody just uses one name, usually. Especially if it’s long. Sounds more normal this way. I’m Billy in person and William on the license.”

“Seems greedy to have two names.” Seven doesn’t even consider himself as having a real name at all. “I can’t shorten Six into anything.”

“I could call you ‘Sev’.”

Seven snorts, but does consider the option for a moment.

"Doesn’t sound right," he decides. "Something is missing.”

Six hums again and pulls Seven closer to him. Six realizes his mistake too late - Seven shifts and Six can see, suddenly, the dark cloud descending on the brunette. Six can see it happen, can see the shadows falling across his lover’s face, and he feels his heart drop to his stomach, heavy with dread.

“None of it sounds right,” Seven murmurs, chest starting to heave as he works himself up to a tantrum. Six knows immediately that they are not talking about names any longer.

"It is right," Six replies. "It's the way it is. It's how it works. Brenner said..."

He isn’t right,"  Seven continues, growling, insistent in the face of Six's tacit denial. He almost unconsciously balls his hands into fists and pushes them down against his lover, a childish form of useless physical resistance to a larger existential threat. 

If he thinks he can move Six, he's very much mistaken.

“No,” Six answers, his voice suddenly sharp and hard. “No, Seven.”

Six knows where this is going. Seven will start talking about Brenner now, about how he hurts and humiliates them, about how his rules don’t make sense and how his ideologies are hollow and cruel.

Seven has a sense of truth completely at odds with the pure facts of their reality, and the disparity between what Seven insists is ‘right’ and what they do and must live with is irreconcilable.

They’re not talking about this now. Six wouldn’t have mentioned the new name and the driver’s license he’d been given at all if he’d thought it would end in this old, familiar fight.

Except, that’s not entirely true… he’s always had trouble keeping secrets from Seven. Seven has a way of prying them out, of sensing when Six is hiding things from him. He can read Six as clearly and quickly as Six can read numbers on a clock and tell the time.

And also… things don’t feel real or right for Six until he shares them with Seven.

Seven is the only thing he has that is completely his. He is the most precious, perfect part of his life. His friend, his lover… his husband, insofar as he understands the word. Seven knows Six inside and out.

Six doesn’t hide things from him. He can’t hide things from him.

That doesn’t mean he wants to have this argument again.

The yawning chasm of Seven’s discontent opens up beneath them.

It is up to Six to see that it doesn't swallow them both whole.

“It’s not right…” Steve mutters again, more insistent, twisting against Six slightly, pulling away. 

He’s gearing up for a fight…

But before Seven can get any traction Six pushes the brunette off his chest and onto his back, hovering over him and caging him with his arms.

He can do this because he is stronger than Seven physically, because Brenner has encouraged Six to develop athletically. He hasn’t bothered to do the same with Seven.

The disparity makes it very easy for Six to hold Seven down.

He drops his head down and latches onto the vulnerable juncture at the other boy’s throat and shoulder with his teeth. He bites down hard.

Seven groans and Six sucks fiercely at the skin, determined to make a bruise there. The sensation slips over the razor’s edge into true pain and Seven cries out weakly, unhappy.

Six can’t bring himself to regret it or stop. If it makes Seven be quiet and if it leaves a brutal purple mark on Seven’s throat, a display of Six’s power and ownership, then he refuses to regret it.

He isn’t Brenner. He doesn’t have the kind of power Brenner has. He’s not God.

He can still punish, however.

He punishes Seven.

He does not want to argue about their place here, about the possibility of escaping it.

Seven knows this. He knows this and he brings it up anyway. He’s bad, he deserves to be punished.

He needs to be taught.

Six bites and sucks and then moves a scant half-inch over and attacks Seven’s pale skin again. His teeth are sharp, and his mouth is cruel and unforgiving.

He’ll leave a collar of purple around Seven’s neckline, will press against it with his fingers and worry it with his teeth for days until the bruises heal.

He doesn’t care if it hurts or humiliates Seven, if he is sore afterwards, if the workers in the Lab see it and laugh at him.

Everyone, all the Techs will see the bruises and know that Six did that to Seven.

And, most important of all, Seven will know.

Seven will know that Six doesn’t want to talk about these bad things…about things like wrongness and unfairness and disobedience and escape.

These ideas always unsettle Seven horribly, and when Seven is unsettled he does unpredictable things like talk back and act out and try to run away. He goes silent and sad or bitterly angry, he doesn't eat or sleep, he makes stupid mistakes and it always ends in Seven being punished and taken away from Six.

Six always suffers when Seven gets ideas. 

They are bad ideas. They disrupt routine and order. They go against Brenner, against Papa. These ideas trouble Six deeply and make his head and his chest hurt whenever Seven brings them up.

He doesn’t want to talk about things he can’t change. He just wants to exercise his limited power over those things he can control.

Things like Seven.

Seven will learn how to behave. Seven will learn to obey the one he belongs to.

One way or another Seven needs to learn.

For his own good, he needs to learn.

Seven whines and twists his hips around under Six, tears leaking from his eyes and his member hardening against his will as it brushes up against Six’s naked thigh.

“Nooo…” he groans, breath hitching sharply. “Stop! Hurts… hurts... don’t… Six, please…!”

His hands scrabble for purchase against Six’s solid body, but Six captures them easily and pushes them down on the bed.

He mentally urges Seven not to fight him.

If Seven submits to this Six will consider soothing him afterwards, pleasuring him. He’ll plant soft kisses, almost grotesque in their gentleness, against Seven’s wounded throat, and he will reach down with his hand and stroke the boy’s half-hard cock until he comes. He may even hold him afterwards as he cries.

But you only get rewards when you are good.

 

 

Now

Agent Williams oversees the initial surveillance efforts, the first forays into finding the runaway Seven.

He is dimly aware that, elsewhere in the Lab, others are cleaning up the damage, are corralling the remaining Experiments and preparing them for transportation, are building a containment structure around the new crack in reality that Seven had accidentally created in a broken concrete wall.

They scurry around like so many rats, here and there... the pieces of a puzzle that is constantly unmaking and remaking itself.

Shimmering, pulsing, glowing, the crack in the wall offers myriad possibilities. It is a tantalizing glimpse into a world that terrified Seven so badly that he broke all known laws of the physical universe, destroyed an entire lab, and fled into the night rather than face it again.

Accommodating the fantastic – in this case, a gateway to another dimension – is a surprisingly easy thing to do when you get right down to it. In this case a lack of imagination, an trait required in government officials, is an unexpected asset.

This lack of imagination prevents any unnecessary fears of the unknown from rearing their ugly heads. 

Williams is very aware of this lack, this absence in himself. He is also sensitive to the fact that those skills he does possess must now be applied to finding the cause of it all, Experiment Seven, who has transformed from useless lab rat to weaponized power source to wanted fugitive in the space of only a few hours.

The existential whys and wherefores are immaterial when you are an agent like Williams.

Williams is aware of these other things happening, the clean-up and containment, but they are not his primary focus. His focus is on Seven and, tangentially, Six. He has always been responsible for the Experiments – the Numbers, as they are known colloquially (and everyone else, all the scientists, agents, and staff are all Techs... and it is Numbers versus Techs, always... the special little freaks versus everyone else) – and it seems only fitting that they should be his central priority now, when everything else seems to be going to shit.

Agent Johnson - young and skinny and perfectly competent in an uninspiring sort of way - sits at a workstation next to Williams and reads the files aloud, recites the information Williams already knows by heart.

“'Experiment Six. Age seventeen. Obtained independently with permission of parents. Ability… pyrokinesis, including the ability to produce fire organically and direct it physically, altering its momentum and intensity. Can produce fire in areas beyond of his line of vision within a limited range but demonstrates significantly more control and accuracy at close quarters. Other powers include heightened physical strength, accelerated healing.'”

“Abilities, Johnson,” Williams corrects. “Not ‘powers’. This isn’t a comic book, and these things aren’t superheroes.”

John coughs nervously and continues reading. “'Prone to violent outbursts and berserker rage. Triggers for outbursts vary and are often unknown. Specialized socialization recommended as a behavioral modifier.'”

“You know what that means, Johnson? ‘Specialized socialization’?” Williams asks.

Johnson shakes his head.

“It means if he doesn’t get his teddy bear to cuddle with at night, the little firebug goes crazy.” Williams taps the second folder on the edge of Johnson’s desk. “This is the teddy bear.”

Johnson obligingly picks up the folder and reads.

“'Experiment Seven. Age seventeen. Obtained via Project MKUltra. Abilities…'” Johnson pauses. “'Accelerated healing.' Is that it?”

“It’s out of date,” Williams feels a rush of weariness. “It’s been twelve days since the first incident; someone should have updated it.”

Johnson waits, eyes darting between the thin file and his fellow agent.

“Telekinesis,” Williams says after a beat. “Very erratic telekinesis that manifests as an uncontrollable burst of force when Seven is in a state of heightened stress. Enough to destroy heavy equipment and throw grown men through the air.”

“Like today.”

“Yes.” Like today and like the day almost two weeks ago when it happened the first time.

The day everything changed.

Heightened stress. Sheer terror, actually. Williams knows this all too well, but he still repeats Brenner’s phrase.

Stress.

“And… telepathy?” Johnson ventures. “That’s why Brenner wanted him in the Bathtub?”

“Seven’s telepathic abilities were in the process of being tested when today’s incident occurred. We still don’t know their full extent, but there was some evidence that he could read people's thoughts and that in the right circumstances he could communicate with the parallel universe currently trying to bust through that wall back there. And there was also the suggestion that he might have… precognition.”

Johnson blinks.

“He has these dreams, but they’re inconsistent and…" Williams huffs irritably. "Nobody thought… after repeated punishments he stopped telling other people about them, and about potential instances of telepathy. He learned early on to hide this, apparently. It was an oversight... a severe one. But he had other uses, so…”

Williams leaves off his explanation with a shrug.

“Behavioral modification,” Johnson obligingly fills in the blanks. “A teddy bear for Six.”

“Yes.”

So those are the pieces of the game. This game, this mission, this quest. And Seven and Six are at the center of everything.

The preliminaries of the search are simple and completed quickly. They establish that Experiment Seven escaped Hawkins Lab by climbing through the east ventilation shaft and emerging from a waste tunnel that opens outside of the perimeter fence.

Once out, Seven immediately disabled the tracker on his ankle using a nearby stone. A moment of improvisation, and extreme desperation.

Suggestive, according to Brenner.

The stone, still covered with traces of blood, and parts of the tracker are recovered by Team One and returned promptly to the base. Attempts to trace Seven through the woods using conventional tracking methods are severely hampered by a delay in the initial pursuit caused by the chaos occurring at the Lab and by rain washing away physical evidence. The team is quickly recalled, and return empty-handed.

Williams makes a note that Seven is wounded and that his escape options are limited if he is proceeding on foot. However, he has managed to hitch rides before, so Williams also sets up a perimeter check on nearby roads and highways.

He prepares to deploy the primary surveillance team to monitor the town of Hawkins, with a specialist extraction team in reserve.

These tactics are all straightforward enough. They are things any agent would do. But still, even with the sheer scope of such an undertaking, Williams is aware that this is just one part of a multi-pronged attack.

If this was surgery, this casting of the wide, comprehensive net with which to catch Seven would be the equivalent of taking a bone saw the patient’s chest.

Williams’ eyes flick over to a monitor screen showing him the interior of a room where the scalpel, delicate and precise, is being prepared.

Six’s face is a blank mask from what Williams can see on the screen. He makes few unnecessary movements and minimal eye-contact as he strips out of his scrubs and dresses himself in his civilian disguise under the sharp gazes of Brenner and two guards.

Brenner is talking non-stop throughout. Williams can see his mouth moving, and though he cannot hear the words through the monitor he is sure they are clear and explicit orders.

Six keeps his eyes fixed on the far wall, on nothing, yet there is no doubt that he is absorbing everything being said. Williams can read the micro-expressions on the little firebug’s face. He watches as Six ties his shoes and puts a wallet with some petty cash and a fake driver's license in the pocket of his jeans.

“We’re sending an erratic sociopath with the ability to create and direct huge fireballs out to find and collect his sex toy, a boy whose powers are, as of this moment, unquantifiable and uncontrolled,” Williams says to Johnson.

And yet, this strategy will likely be the most fruitful.

Six has an obsessive interest in competing his mission, and his abilities will sufficiently contain Seven, who, while powerful, lacks Six’s brute strength and willingness to use it.

Williams has only seen Seven’s powers manifest in a physically harmful way twice, and both instances were noteworthy for their brevity and for Seven’s apparent inability to control his powers in a focused way.

Six, on the other hand, has perfect control.

Six will go after those who shelter Seven, who consider themselves his friends, who might even believe they care about him.

Six will find them, and when he finds them, he will find Seven.

He will find Seven and bring him home.

And then, thinks Williams, we will all carry on with our wretched, tortured little lives.

In another room, in the part of the Lab that Williams can’t see, the gateway between worlds pulses and glows.

 

 

“So,” says Hopper, folding his arms over his thick chest and plastering his best glare on his face. “You’re double-O Seven. Like James Bond.”

The boy blinks up owlishly at him. They've moved this conversation - and Hopper has no doubt that it's going to be a long and complicated one - into the cabin and out of the rain, but the kid hardly looks less pathetic now than when he was lying prone in the mud outside. He’s sitting on Hopper’s overstuffed couch, swimming one of Hopper’s old sweaters and an over-sized pair of sweatpants, wrapped in a blanket and shivering.

His ankle is a mashed-up mess of blood and bone, but miraculously it doesn’t look like anything is broken.

A bright yellow towel is wrapped around the wound for now in an attempt to stem the bleeding. Hopper will consider applying more advanced medical care once he’s figured out who the boy is and determined that he’s not a threat.

And, also, once the boy is willing to let Hopper get closer. When the cop approached him earlier with the towel, the brunette had thrown out his arms and flinched back violently.

The look of fear on the kid’s face is not one Hopper particularly wants to see again.

The rain pounds on the thin roof as night falls outside.

“I’m Steven,” Seven says after a beat, quietly correcting Hopper.

Seven’s ankle hurts quite badly, and the pain and exhaustion are loosening his tongue in a way that is decidedly dangerous. He sucks in a small breath and his gaze drops, darting furtively, fearfully over to where Eleven is perched in the coffee table a few feet away.

Danger.

Behave. You need to learn to behave, Seven.

You need to learn.

“I mean…” he stutters out, trying to get a grip on his situation. “I… I met some… some people. They gave me that name. I guess I can be… Bond? James Bond? If you want… I can. I can. If you want.”

Hopper lets out a rush of air that is half-sigh, half-groan, and runs his hand through his thinning hair. Several years as surrogate father to Eleven had taught the older man a few things. However, dealing with kids is still tremendously difficult and confusing work and dealing with child science experiments is even worse.

He realizes, belatedly, that he is looming over the doe-eyed, still-damp boy.

Eleven was just talking to him about this. Looming. He ‘looms’, apparently. It’s ‘intimidating’… apparently. Eleven had thrown out a choice word or two on the subject.

He has no desire to further frighten the boy, who seems not just harmless but downright bedraggled, so he huffs and plops down backwards into his recliner, the tell-tale hints of a headache creeping on the edges of his brain. 

“Whatever you want, kid,” Hopper sighs. “You want to be Steven, that’s fine.”

Seven or Steven is startled by this declaration for some reason, like he expected Hopper to object and assign him a completely arbitrary name just for the hell of it. The police chief decides to ignore this for the moment and plow on.

“The point is, you’ve got the same kind of number tattooed on your arm as this one here,” he nods to Eleven.

“Eleven,” says Eleven, by way of an unnecessary introduction.

She smiles at him and reaches a small hand out, which the boy touches with just the tips of his fingers as if he is afraid too much aggression might cause her to crumble away.

In the soft light of the cabin, the air grows still.

Seven looks at the little girl and feels something warm and fragile fluttering in his chest.

“Like me?” he asks, quietly.

Eleven nods and her gaze flicks over to a half-empty coffee mug sitting next to her. Seven can feel a tug, a pull in his chest, something he’s only ever felt in the quiet of his own imaginings.

Without moving physically, without lifting a finger, the girl raises the mug into the air. It floats up to just about eye level and then twirls and dances without her touching it, sloshing the liquid within. The tug in Seven’s chest morphs into something like recognition but deeper.

Like a feeling of kinship, maybe.

A small dribble of red bubbles out of Eleven’s left nostril.

Seven watches. He only realizes that he’s grinning widely, almost giddy with happiness, when the cup gently lands on the table again and the girl looks back at him.

Under her scrutiny, the smile fades and his gaze drops.

“I can’t do that,” he says. He feels that old, familiar sense of inadequacy creeping up inside. “I can’t do much, but…”

He glances over at Hopper, who is watching this interaction with an unreadable expression. He meets the older man's gaze and, taking a deep, steadying breath, tips over the edge, out of the physical space he occupies in the outside world and into murky depths of the cop's expansive, multi-colored soul.

He focuses and, as always happens when he is free from the oppressive power of the ankle band and the harsh judgment of Brenner and his own crippling fears, the knowledge comes to him.

It looks, in his mind’s eye, like a kind of thread, a glowing lifeline clearly visible within the tangled, pulsing web that represents everyone in the world, all their private lives, all their choices, all connected together in ways both visible and invisible. 

“You’re wondering where that box with your old pants is, and if they’ll fit me,” he tells Hopper, the thread he sees going purple and then red and then blue as he follows it. “You think maybe you can talk… Joyce… into sewing them to fit if you tell her you lost weight. Also, you want Joyce to know you’ve lost weight.”

Hopper opens his mouth to speak but Seven is already gone, already following the bright thread that intersects and intertwines with Hopper's, the thread that in his mind’s eye means ‘Joyce’.

Other threads link to her… pathways to children and lovers and friends, but he stays with ‘Joyce’ for now. He likes her light, her warm colors… they make him feel safe.

“She knows you haven’t lost any weight, but she’ll pretend anyway and sew the pants because you asked her, and she likes being able to do things for you, and she believes you have your reasons. And also, she likes when you visit her at Melvald’s and mess up her displays, and when you bring her lunch. Ham and cheese sandwiches and potato chips. And the apples Flo gives you.”

Seven sucks in a breath and blinks, leaving his vision behind and returning to the now. Hopper is looking at him with an expression that is less than happy, so he chooses to ask his follow-up question to Eleven instead.

“What’s a Melvald?”

“You can read minds?” Hopper asks sharply.

Seven flinches away from the tone and from the question that has always brought him so much heartache in the past.

Everybody hated him so much when he used to do that, when he told them about the things he saw. He never really understood why. The visions, the colorful threads always seemed like the truth… but when he spoke about them to the Techs and to Brenner they always hit him or hurt him or called him a liar. 

“I’m sorry,” he fumbles out. “I’m sorry. I'm not... I can't pick out everything, every detail... it's more feelings, really, not thoughts, and... and it’s only sometimes, if I really try… or sometimes it happens by accident. I won’t… it’s bad. I know it’s bad. I’m sorry.”

He really is sorry.

His nose is bleeding. He wipes it roughly with his hand, careful not to get any blood on the sweater the big man gave him… gave him right before Seven did the thing, the one thing always guaranteed to get him in to trouble because it unsettles people Seven and you really ought to know better… telling your nasty little lies

You need to learn.  You never learn.

He’s getting his blood, his lies, his filth all over this man’s nice, normal life and he’s wrong, he’s ugly and dirty, he's bad...

And yet, also, very deep down, he's happy. He's been cut off from this power, as natural to him as breathing, by Brenner and the ankle band for so long. He'd only see dim snatches of color, only hear accidental thoughts... never like this, rich and full and clear. He thought he'd never get it back, and now...

“I have dreams, too.” The words come out soft and almost jumbled from his stupid, stupid mouth, and he knows, he knows they aren’t helping his cause. But, well… for as long as he could remember he has always been driven by some imp of perversity, a self-destructive sense of truth.

This desperate need to tell the truth is why he could never learn how to behave. It is why Papa never loved him.

“I have dreams. I know they’re lies, but they aren’t… sometimes the dreams are real. I dream something and it happens later… days or months or weeks later. And I don’t know… I don’t know if I dream these things because they happen or if they happen because I dream them…”

To his shock, the next sound out of his mouth is a wet sob, and he sees now that the figures in front of him are blurry because he’s crying.

“He wanted me to go into the Bathtub. He wanted me to go into the Bathtub because I see things in the Bathtub, like dreams but not… I’m in the dreams, not watching…I’m part of the dreams then. But I didn’t want to go in because… because…”

He hiccups, feels large hands on his shoulders and flinches away from the touch, unable to decipher the intentions behind it, unable to distinguish between ‘comfort’ and ‘punishment’.

“I was bad,” he stammers brokenly, crying. “I’m bad... I'm bad. I'm sorry. I did a bad thing. I didn’t want to go into the Bathtub, but I did and… I got scared, I was so scared… I’m bad… and I ran…”

“Shhh, kid…”

“The Bathtub?” asks Eleven, her voice wavering dangerously. Both men look at her - Seven from his seat on the couch, Hopper from where he is crouched next to him, trying desperately to stop the poor boy’s tears.

“Yes,” Seven hiccups out unhappily.

“With the water. In the big room?”

Seven nods.

Eleven’s eyes narrow and she clenches her fists in her lap.

“Papa?” she asks.

Seven sucks in a strangled breath and nods again.

“You’re the one who got away?” he stutters out finally when she doesn't speak again, although it’s not a question, not really. There’s only one person alive she could be… a legend, really, for the Numbers who remained.

“I remember,” Seven continues when Eleven meets his gaze. “I remember the lockdown the night you escaped. Alarms going for hours and hours. And after… just a few days after, we all got the ankle bands. They can limit our powers and they can cause pain if Papa wants. And later they put trackers in so they could find us no matter what. No one could run away after that. But you did. We all knew, we all talked about it. You got away.”

There is no recrimination in Seven’s voice, just something like awe. It may even be relief, or happiness, or longing. He looks at Eleven, then Hopper, then Eleven again, almost overwhelmed with excitement. 

Eleven feels the accusation implicit in Seven's words anyway. He doesn't mean it like that - in fact, she's been one of the only sources of hope for the Numbers for so long - but it doesn't matter. She blames herself more than anyone else ever could…

She left them behind. She ran, but others remained. And all her attempts to help them afterwards failed.

"How long?" Seven asks, almost breathless. "How long ago?"

Hopper answers after a moment, when it becomes clear that Eleven can't.

"Two years. I found her in the woods a little over two years ago."

"Two years," Seven echoes.

It is clear when he says it that he doesn't quite know what that means, but he repeats the phrase anyway, the awe still in his voice, like the words are a magic spell or talisman that gives his experiences a new meaning.

Perhaps they are. So little truly belongs to this boy. He has so few things to hold on to.

Even this - this understanding of a set period of time passing - is important. 

This sense that the world is expanding, gaining texture and color...that it is not what he thought it was... that it is perhaps what he hoped beyond hope it could be...

That’s... well, it's everything.

Everything.

Eleven very much wants to cry, but she doesn’t.

Instead, she gives Seven a gift. A bit of trust. She feels that perhaps she owes him that... and also, she wants him to understand and not cry. To smile again.

“Papa built the Bathtub for me," she says, finally. "To… to dream in. Like you.”

“Like me?” Seven’s voice is so soft and fragile, as is the thread of hope woven within the question.

“Yes. But I… I saw a gate…”

“The gate!” Seven nods frantically. “It wasn’t a lie! You saw it, and I saw it, too! And the monster…”

“He wanted to open the gate. To get through. I hated... I didn't want to go back in, so I ran away...”

Seven sucks in a breath and is suddenly filled with a terrible shame. He is not always quick and logical, but as he listens to Eleven the fractured pieces of what he saw today as he escaped and the implications of what the little girl is saying stitch together and form a new picture.

It is a picture which condemns him and his unwitting mistake.

“It’s…” he glances up at Hopper, fearful again, and overwhelmed with guilt. “It’s open. The gate... I wanted to get out of the Bathtub and I was scared and I screamed and the wall cracked and... I’m sorry. I was so… scared. It’s open now. I think… I think it might be my fault. I’m sorry…I’m sorry…”

Eleven’s fingers find Seven’s again, and this time he wraps his own around her, her hand a steady anchor.

"It's okay..."

"None of this was your fault, kid," Hopper interrupts. The cop doesn't understand at all, doesn’t understand a single word being said, but he knows this one thing at least is true. 

"It was!" Seven shouts, cutting him off. The noise is loud and startling, though the volume doesn't hide how broken and distraught Seven sounds. It is so loud that it frightens Seven, who hunches over and drops his head down, breathing ragged.

A framed picture on the wall wobbles dangerously before dropping to the floor and bouncing harmlessly on the ground. Nobody notices.

"It was," Seven repeats, volume lower. "I'm sorry. I didn’t mean to...”

“No...” Eleven nods. “You didn’t mean to. It’s okay... it’s okay.”

Seven takes in a ragged breath and lets it out as a sob. He sits quietly for a moment and the other two let him cry.

His tears seem like an extension of the rain outside. For a while it feels like they’ll never stop, like they may keep coming and coming until they drown the boy... but that’s not how people or tears work in real life.

Slowly, slowly, Seven quiets down.

When his tears subside, Eleven reaches out again. She stands and goes to the couch and wraps her arms around the boy’s shoulders. 

“Like me,” she murmurs softly, her voice rich with understanding, with an empathy that breaks Seven’s heart. “The same. Not alone. It’s okay.”

Seven blinks up at her, eyes wide and wet and desperately hopeful.

“Brother,” Eleven says after a moment, meeting his gaze, a gentle smile on her lips.

It takes Seven a minute, a long stretch of time working his way back through his limited understanding of family, before he finds the right word. When he finally finds it, however, it feels so right.

“Sister,” he says softly. “Sister.”

There is a long pause, during which Seven collects himself as best he can. Hopper straightens up, takes a step back from the couch and his young charges, his breathing harsh.

The cop’s eyes flick over to the many deadbolts on the front door of the cabin, and then they methodically re-catalog every spot in that small space where he has stashed a gun. There are many such spots, but he decides he’s going to find more as soon as possible.

And he’ll need to set up more booby traps in the woods tomorrow when the rain stops. Right after he finds that box of clothes for Seven and drops them off with Joyce to be hemmed.

“Sorry,” Seven whispers, glancing up to where Hopper is hovering next to him. It’s pretty clear that he knows what the cop is thinking… the boy is not quite able to meet his gaze, still weighed down as he is by guilt and self-loathing. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t go rummaging around in my head, kid,” Hopper says with surprising mildness. “And don’t be sorry.”

Hopper is looming again, but something in his voice or face or mind must comfort Seven a little because this time when Hopper lets his hand hang loosely at his side, the boy feels safe enough to reach up and touch it. Hopper wraps a meaty fist around Seven’s long, still-chilled fingers and allows him a small smile.

“Can…” the boy hesitates. “Can I still be Steven?”

“Sure,” says Hopper. He nods to the little girl curled up next to Seven. “This one’s named Jane on the fake papers I’m getting made for her. She also goes by El.”

“Short for Eleven,” Eleven says. “It’s…”

“A nickname.” Steven smiles widely, much wider than Hopper thinks is technically warranted for something as pedestrian as a nickname.

Still, it’s a nice smile. Seven - Steven - has a bright, warm grin, and it’s much better than the crying and a thousand times better than the look of naked fear, so Hopper plays along.

“Yeah, kid,” he says. “Good to have a nickname. You can even be Steve, if you wanted.”

“Steve…”

Again, the cop can’t quite understand the awestruck, happy look on Steve’s face, but he decides not to question it.

And Steve smiles and closes his eyes and rolls the word around in his head, because for the first time in his life he has a name that sounds right.

 

Chapter Text

Now

This is the most logical step, Six thinks.

Brenner talks at him, and then Williams talks at him, and their words wash over him like water. They dress him in civilian clothes, in jeans and a t-shirt and a denim jacket and shoes. They give him a wallet and the license with his face and fake name on it. They give him a shot in his arm with a long needle and they check the ankle band to make sure the tracker light is still blinking. They pile him into the back of a van and drive away from the Lab.

They are modelling their strategy after something Brenner calls 'guerrilla warfare' and 'full immersion'. Brenner says it was a popular tactic in the last war the country fought. Six seems to remember someone saying that they lost that war, but he doesn't think it'd be smart to point this out.

They let him out of the van and say – go. Come back when you’ve found him. Rendezvous points here, here, and here.

Six knows the plan.

It's a logical plan because of course, of course Seven would go to the children.

Seven was always good with the little ones, even when he was a little one himself. The smaller Numbers would run to him when they were still in the Nursery. They were rarely allowed to interact extensively with each other, the Numbers, but when they did, when Seven could be with them, the youngest experiments would climb up his long limbs and cling to him and whisper all their secrets in his ears.

And out here, in the big, wide world? He’ll always find them. Children. They’d come to Seven, see the gentleness in his face, sense his uncanny ability to understand them.

Adults had never done anything for Seven. Only hurt him. He would never go to them if he had any sort of choice in the matter.

When he’d been tasked with recapturing his lover the last time Seven managed to escape, Six had been unsurprised by the reconnaissance information Brenner gave him. Left alone to stalk his prey, he’d tracked down him down easily.

He’d watched the Wheeler’s house for only a day or two and then he’d gone straight to the school. Sure enough, Seven had been there, alone and vulnerable. No witnesses, no complications.

Sitting under a tree in the nearby woods, waiting for his new friends, the sunlight on his pale face. Eyes dreamy-thoughtful, as always. The sight had triggered a pool of warmth in Six’s lower belly. He’d wanted to have Seven then, to press the doe-eyed brunette down onto the soft ground and kiss him, rut against him, push inside and claim him out in the open air for all the world to see.

Instead, they’d fought. Or, rather, Six had used his heightened strength and the threat of further violence to subdue Seven and forcibly take him back to the prearranged rendezvous point, where the Techs were waiting in a van to drive them back to the Lab.  

Six stands under the same tree he’d found Seven under all those many weeks ago and watches the kids. This vantage point offers a good view of the parking lot and playground outside of Hawkins Middle School, and is half in the woods and isolated enough that Six can see everything from a safe distance. There are many of them, the children, and as he looks on they break off into groups and run around, throwing things, yelling.

It all seems a rather purposeless waste of energy from Six’s position.

He hasn’t seen all of them, Seven’s kids, but he knows a few of their names and a few of their faces. They're are five in total, and Brenner said they are twelve years old. Six knows Seven had found shelter in the basement of one of their houses, the Wheeler house, the last time he got out. Six had watched and waited for a little while that time, just to make sure there wasn’t going to be any reason to call in the Clean-up Crew. 

He has a plan. It’s the same plan as last time. He’ll find and follow the kids, and they will lead him to wherever Seven is hiding.

Soon.

It needs to be soon.

Seven’s been gone for days now, for three full nights and two and a half days, and Six misses him.

But he is calm.

Truly.

He is focused.

He lifts his arm and presses a hand against the thick, unyielding solidity of a nearby tree. His eyes drift closed and he focuses on breathing in and out.

Seven taught him that… taught him how to breathe slowly.

The bark under Six’s hand crackles and smolders as the fire that lives just under his skin and that always rises to the surface when he is angry or scared or upset threatens to unleash itself fully, to blast out and away and destroy everything before turning back on Six and swallowing him whole.

Someday, if the rage ever takes over completely, Six might actually just catch fire, might go up like a tinderbox, or a phoenix. He won’t burn, though.

He’s never the one who gets burned when the fire comes out.

Seven taught him how to calm himself down. He’d run his fingers through Six’s hair and press against him and breathe slowly, a steady rhythm. Six would unconsciously match those breaths, and eventually the rage would ease and die away. The fire would retreat and the inferno would be reduced to a simmering flame flickering deep in his chest. Seven taught him how to focus and count and breathe until he was calm again.

It was a skill he’d desperately needed to learn. There are scars on Seven’s skin, burn marks. Seven heals fast and well, and always has… but the scars are there.

Testaments to the times when Six failed to learn control.

He lets the bubbling, raging heat out in a narrow, controlled burst as he presses his palm against the tree.

He breathes. He has learned.

It is still difficult. It always gets more difficult when Seven is gone from him. Six gets angry sometimes, and life in the Lab means that he is often at least a little bit scared… but no emotion quite matches the sheer, blinding panic he feels when he doesn’t know where Seven is, when he can't see or touch him.

When he feels steadier, he drops his hand from the tree.

A hand-print remains, blackened and burned into the bark, hot embers cooling.

He is calm. He needs to be calm.

He needs to focus.

The consequences of not being focused are unimaginable.

He watches the children play their games. They should be done soon, should be going home soon. Should be leading him to Seven soon.

Soon.

He’ll have to be patient, whatever happens. He is not so good at improvising and coming up with plans, but he knows he'll need to be watchful and patient and think before he acts. Wait for an opportunity. Seven will be more careful this time.

Six can’t let his runaway lover slip away.

There’s a shout, and Six’s eyes land on his target. A boy with curly hair, Dustin Henderson, is slow-jogging across the parking lot of the school. Six is a good distance away and well shielded, but he can still see everything he needs to see.

Dustin. Six knows about Dustin.

Seven was stubbornly silent about much of his brief time Outside, fearful that any information might be used against him. It turns out he was right to be afraid.

He mentioned Dustin, though. He couldn’t help himself. Dustin is funny and interesting and sweet. Dustin is Seven's friend, the one who came up with his new name that Six hates. Dustin is special to Seven.

That makes him a target.

Six watches the child run, evaluates his competition. He thinks he should perhaps be angry, resentful of Seven’s shared affections, but he finds he isn’t. Not really. He can no more resent Dustin than he could resent the clingy little Numbers in the Nursery, or Seven himself for caring for them.

Seven was made to be loved. Seven was made to love others.

It’s just the way he is, and always has been.

But now, as then, Six finds no such generosity in himself.

He is no more inclined to share Seven with Dustin Henderson than he was eager to let Seven coddle the younger Numbers, most of whom he made a point of scaring off quietly when Seven wasn’t looking.

He’d done his best to build a cocoon of safety and isolation around Seven, and has successfully maintained it for years. Six is most content when Seven showers him with all of his gentleness and care and undivided attention, and when Six is the only one able and allowed to love Seven back.

And Six’s scare tactics are very effective.

As Six watches, the boy’s head swivels around, his eyes darting to the woods like he’s looking for something. It’s strange, almost as if the boy senses a predator’s presence…but Six feels perfectly secure in his position overlooking the school…

“Having fun, stalker?”

A crisp, sarcastic voice snaps Six out of his revere.

Now, it is never a wise move to sneak up on someone who can summon and direct fire with a wave of their hands. That is just common sense. And, to be fair, it rarely if ever happens that a person interested in surprising Six also possesses the skills to manage such a feat.

The small child who somehow crept up behind Six without him realizing would likely never know how lucky she was that Six’s self-control was unparalleled.

He spins around all the same to find a girl standing about ten feet behind him, her arms crossed and her gaze hard.

“What the hell are you doing?” she asks.

He looks at her. Her pale skin is covered with freckles, and she is tall but too slight for him to consider her a physical threat. Her eyes are critical and searching, however, and Six has a sense that she is reading him and seeing past his walls with uncanny sharpness. Her hair is fire-red, and its color and the way it tumbles around her face reminds him of some familiar, long-lost thing and endears her to him against his will.

In his surprise, he forgets how to act, and his cover story flies out of his head like it was never there. He takes a step towards the girl, falling back on familiar, aggressive intimidation tactics without thinking.

She holds her ground, however, and another voice pipes up from behind a tree.

“Don’t even think about it!”

Another boy, tall and dark and gangly, steps out into view. Six can see that he is holding some kind of weapon, a length of rubber tied between two points and pulled back taunt with some projectile in place, ready to fly out and hit him. In the face of this, it is all Six an do to force himself to ignore his instinct to react violently. His fists clench and his teeth grind together as he searches for the right thing to say.

How the hell did Seven always manage to do this? To… talk… to children?

“It’s okay,” he tries, voice hoarse with surprise and fear. He raises his hands in what he’s been told is a universal sign of defenselessness and non-aggression, though of course for him this is intensely ironic. He is never defenseless, not even when his hands are up.

Especially not then.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” he clips out, trying another empty, meaningless phrase. Seriously, how did Seven get children to trust him? Too late, Six has finally discovered something that Seven is better at than he is.

“Who the hell are you, asshole?” the boy snaps, his grip on the projectile weapon tightening.

“And why are you stalking us like a freak?” the girl asks.

“It’s okay,” Six repeats. “I… uh… I’m looking for someone.”

No, no, that’s wrong, that’s not what he means. He can’t spook Seven, can’t let him know he’s looking for him, can’t tell the children, can't tell anyone…

“Guys! Did you get him?”

There is a thundering movement that startles Six horribly – more children. He recognizes these ones, the three boys coming up the hill and through the woods towards the clearing where he is pinned down and exposed to the eyes of the very people he was trying to keep his distance from. Michael Wheeler, William Byers, Dustin Henderson.

So. Not only is has he been cornered… he’s been cornered by Seven’s friends.

“Got him,” the girl says.

“Told you there was someone watching us!” says the boy with the slingshot. “It’s him! I saw him up here yesterday, too!”

“Holy shit, what the hell?” Dustin waves his hands. “Someone was actually stalking us!”

“He doesn’t look like a government guy,” Mike says, skeptically.

“A spy!”

“Who are you?”

“Answer the question, creep!”

There are too many words being thrown at him all of a sudden, to many eyes watching him.

And, crucially, this is a new experience for Six. Six has gone on many missions now, many trips into the world outside of the Lab, all in the service of Brenner’s secret agenda. This is a fact and yet... those missions were always quite different from this one.

On those missions he had handlers, and monitors, and he never needed to talk to anyone. He wasn’t really supposed to be talking to anyone right now. On those missions he could be dangerous and silent, could throw his fire at the target and then retreat to the quiet safety of the van.

And Six, unlike Seven, has never really been good at talking to people. He has certainly never been good at dreaming up stories or reacting in ways that get people to like and trust him.

Six doesn’t know the correct answers to any of the questions being lobbed at him. He feels his control slipping.

He wants to be back in the Lab, in his room, with Seven… Seven and no one else, no one else, no one except maybe Papa because Papa could tell him what to do and he wouldn’t have to think any more about what answer was the right one because Papa…

And Seven would…

Well... perhaps he can take one of the kids hostage, and then…

“What the fuck?”

“Holy shit!”

The children are lined up in a row like targets to be picked off, their eyes wide and mouths open. Their gazes are fixed on him but, Six belatedly realizes, not on his face.

He glances over and, to his surprise and horror, sees that his hands are still up in the air and are now glowing orange with the furious fire trying to escape from his fingertips.

It’s not right, the ankle band should be helping him dampen this, and even without it Six has perfect control.

Or… he had perfect control.

Seven is gone.

Breathing isn’t helping.

Like a domino effect, Six can feel everything slipping. So much has gone wrong, and so fast. He got caught, and then he forgot his cover story, and then he gave the game away, and now…

He’s losing Seven. With each moment that passes he is losing Seven

He lets out a yowling shriek, whips his hands around and lets the fire out. Wild bursts of flame ignite and are thrown up and away towards the tops of the trees, which ignite with an explosion of force.

The kids scream. The fire flies over their heads and crashes into the trees like waves crashing on a beach.

It only misses them because Six knows that if he kills any of them Seven will never, ever forgive him.

Filled with a terrible frustration, the rogue experiment roars and moves towards the children, ready to hurt, ready to take. This has always been Six’s fallback position whenever things get too confusing.

He only makes it two steps.

The rock safely nestled in Lucas’s slingshot shoots free. Lucas loosens his grip by instinct, surprised and terrified, but his aim is true.

The stone smacks Six in the center of his forehead.

Direct hit.

The older boy, stunned, hovers upright, swaying. For an long moment that is only an instant in actual fact, it seems like he might remain standing, might regroup and attack again.

In a blink, however, he is tumbling back, vision going suddenly dark.

He's lost a few minutes by the time he finally opens his eyes again. He thinks so, anyway. He instinctively feels like time has passed.

As he comes around, he is very conscious of his back pressing against the lumpy forest floor. His head is throbbing, and the kids are hovering around him, leaning over him and studying his face, chattering loudly. He feels an insistent tug on one of his jacket sleeves and grunts in annoyance and no small amount of pain.

The smallest of the five, William Byers, is tugging his sleeve up to reveal the numbers that have been tattooed on Six’s arm for as long as he can remember.

006

Again, Six only realizes an instant too late how bad this is. 

No.

Mistake.

Unacceptable.

Six has no other options now. The kids know what he is. Unacceptable. Papa said no... absolutely not. Can't let them know.

With his orders still fresh in his mind, Six starts gearing up for a fight again, ready to hurt them all and live with the consequences – because these kids are problem and he needs to fix it – but the group makes a joint noise of surprise at the sight of Six’s number, and the next words out of Mike Wheeler’s mouth stop him in his tracks.

“Oh. Oh! You’re… him. You’re like him, aren’t you? You’re like Seven?”

Seven.

Seven.

“Seven?” The word comes out desperate from Six’s mouth, and just like that all the fire is gone, all the rage.

“You know him?” Dustin asks sharply.

“Where is he?” Six asks.

"He knows Seven?" Lucas echoes.

"Seven couldn't throw fireballs," Max chimes in.

"Makes sense though..." Will adds thoughtfully. "He said they did experiments..."

"Where. Is. He?" Six growls out again, sitting up and forcing the kids back and away. The aggression in his voice is unmistakable, but the kids, having now latched on to a familiar and exciting idea and provided some context for who and what Six is, don't seem particularly concerned that the older boy is going to hurt them.

Rather, it is the question itself that sends a worried shiver through the group.

“You don’t know?” asks Mike, and Six can suddenly read vulnerability and fear in the kids’ faces. He feels those emotions mirrored in himself. “He’s not… you don’t know where he is?”

Six shakes his head.

“We don’t know where he went,” Dustin chimes in, voice sad. “He showed up a couple months ago and only stayed for a week. He just disappeared one day. He was supposed to wait for us to get out of school. When he wasn’t there, we thought he left or… or the bad men took him.”

“Bad men…?”

“Yeah, from the place you were kept. Hawkins Lab... but..." Dustin voice takes on a sharp edge of self-reproach, tapering off into little more than a murmur. "...But we couldn't find the Lab, after. He never told us where it is... so we couldn't rescue him. He's trapped and we couldn't find him...”

"We don't know..." Lucas starts comforting his friend, but Six cuts him off.

“He… he isn’t with you?” Six stutters out, picking up on the most salient point as far as he is concerned. "He isn't with you."

In a mere moment, the whole of Six's plan has unceremoniously crumbled around him. Seven isn't here with the kids... and if he's not here then where is he?

Is he alone in a ditch somewhere, cold and bleeding? Is he with a stranger who will hurt him?

Seven has never seemed more out of reach than he does at this moment, and the thought of it threatens to overwhelm and cripple Six.

Failure, however, is not an acceptable option. Six understands that better than most.

He thinks fast.

“They did find him,” Six says, surprising himself as a new cover story pops almost fully-formed into his head. “The bad men found him. They brought him back to the Lab, and he was with me. We were together, but he's not there now. We… we escaped again, a few days ago. Together. We had to hide and we got separated. In the woods. I’m looking for him. You can help me, right? I know he wants to see you again. You’ll help me find him?”

“You don’t look like he did,” Max pipes up suddenly. Her eyes narrow and Six curses her in his head for being just a little too smart.

“Yeah,” Mike adds. “You’ve got real clothes, for one. Seven only had those weird hospital clothes.”

“I…” Billy scrambles. “I took them. The clothes.”

“You stole those?” Lucas asks, skeptical. “Really? Because it’s definitely, like, a look.”

Billy doesn’t know what that means, but he knows in the abstract that stealing is not considered part of a socially acceptable economic exchange, so he attempts to plaster a parody of contrition on his face.

It must work, because Max hisses at Lucas to shut up.

“Are the bad men after you, too?” Dustin asks.

“Yeah, yeah they are,” Six swallows. “You can help me? Help me find Seven?”

The kids hesitate. Behind them, the fire from Six’s earlier outburst is still crackling slightly in the high branches of the trees. It has mostly died down, losing momentum and failing to catch on the still-green bark, but Will Byers looks back in time to see a flaming branch drop to the ground and burn out ominously.

“He talked about you,” Six says, seeing the lingering distrust and knowing, suddenly, how to fix it. He keeps his voice soft and calm, uses the same tone he has for gentling and soothing Seven.

“He talked about you all the time. About how you helped him and gave him clothes and food. He liked the cookies, and his sleeping bag in the basement. He liked playing with the toys, with the teddy bear from the movie about outer space and... and that game with the little monsters. He missed you so much. He said you were his friends.”

He takes a deep breath and opens his eyes wide and looks up at the kids with all the sincerity he can muster. He lays himself bare and allows them to see all his fear, his desperation, his need.

Seven.

The kids blink. In a moment pregnant with possibilities, they share a silent communication between themselves.

It only takes a gentle push to tip them over the edge.

“Please,” he murmurs, and he isn’t even really pretending anymore. “Help me.”

He meets their gazes and does what Brenner does – he lies by telling the truth.

Six finds he’s not so bad at improvising after all.

 

 

Steve watches quietly as Hopper measures out a length of razor-thin wire slightly longer than the space between two large trees.

They are together in the woods. It is morning, and it is cold out, so Steve is wrapped up in a warm flannel shirt layered over another shirt and is wearing a musty-smelling jacket on top of that. The top layers are borrowed from Hopper – obviously Steve has no clothes of his own – but his pants and shoes are new.

Hopper got into his truck one morning and when he came back, he brought Steve sturdy, striped sneakers and a pair of jeans. Eleven then taught Steve how to tie the shoelaces on his first-ever very own pair of shoes.

They’ll get more later, Hopper said. He left a box of things with Joyce to be hemmed.

Steve, who has only ever worn one kind of clothing in his life – tan scrubs, starchy and scratchy – finds himself weirdly fascinated by the texture and feel of these new garments. So many different kinds of soft.

He loves the way they smell. He’s never had clothes that smelled like anything before, and these clothes smell like all sorts of things, like warmth and wood and musk and detergent and dust, like forests and kitchens and bedrooms and people.

When he’s feeling anxious – and he’s felt anxious a number of times over the past three days – he closes his eyes and presses his face against the fabric. Hopper and El know to give him a little space when he does this, because it means that Steve is getting overwhelmed and that he needs them to stop telling and showing him confusing things.

He does this at night quite often when he can't sleep. He has his own small bed in his own small room. It's little more than an old army cot in a converted closet, really, but to Steve it's a novelty. He's almost never had to sleep alone before, has never had any space that was just his and no one else's.

It's daunting to stay there when the lights go off. 

He can shut the door... he can chose to be alone or with others... but while this seems like the best of gifts in the daytime, at night it is harder to accept.

He tries to soothe himself by burying his face in his pillow. It doesn't always work, and when it doesn't he is eventually forced to go and wake up El or Hopper.

There have been many times since that first night, the night Hopper brought him in out of the rain, the night El called him ‘brother’, when he has almost collapsed under the weight of it all – of all that came before, and all that might come later. Of all the bright brilliance of this brave new world.

The first time he left the cabin again and saw the limitlessness of the sky above he head, he went to completely to pieces, stunned senseless by terror and wonder. All the fear and hope that had been building for years before that moment came crashing down. Hopper had wordlessly picked him up off the ground and carried him back inside and sat in his chair and watched over Steve while Steve lay curled up on the couch, buried under every blanket he could find, his eyes tightly closed.

But he has survived it… the crushing shock of it all. He is still here.

He is still here.

He has taken to rubbing his fingers over his jeans and fiddling with the buttons of his oversized flannel shirt when he’s distracted.

Right now, though, he is not distracted – he is watching intently as Hopper replaces the trip-wire that Steve set off a few nights ago.

Steve only makes one repeated movement, a small one that belies his calm exterior. With his right thumb he absently strokes a thin burn scar on the underside of his left wrist. His fingers curl around his arm, unconsciously protective.

Hopper doesn’t think Steve even realizes he’s doing it.

Satisfied with his work, the cop motions to the boy, who crouches down next to him to see what he has done.

“We put that there, okay… and then when the wire is tripped, the trap hits the bullet and it makes a loud noise… like an explosion. BANG!” Hopper grins, making a motion with his hands to emphasize his point.

Steve flinches back at the sharp word, remembering all too well the fear it invoked when he tripped over a similar trap that first night. Hopper chuckles and then seems slightly ashamed of himself for startling him.

“It’s okay, kid. We’ll set this up and other traps around the woods. All different kinds. If anybody comes, we’ll hear them. You're safe. Nobody’s gonna find you here.”

Steve looks over at Hopper, unconvinced.

Steve likes the big man. He was scared of him at first, but he’s seen glimpses of his mind, read the threads of his emotions, and he knows now that Hopper is mostly bluster and noise and good intentions. Mostly.

And Hopper is so very… normal.

He is easily winded when he lifts and carries heavy things. He eats food that Brenner would no doubt reject as having minimal nutritional value. He grumbles at El for taking too long in the bathroom. He stretches out in his worn-out recliner and watches TV and drinks beer until he falls asleep. When he sleeps, he snores. He likes Joyce, the woman who works in the store, but he can’t bring himself to tell her.

He cannot read minds or summon fire or bend reality or throw people through the air with his mind.

Instead, he has wire and mousetraps.

“There are a lot of them,” Steve reminds the cop.

Hopper picks up his pliers and the remaining spool of wire and stands up, the joints in his knees popping so loudly that Steve can hear them from four feet away.

“They have guns,” he adds, an edge in his voice.

“So do I,” Hopper snaps. Steve doesn’t flinch, but it’s a near miss. “I was in a war, kid, and I’ve been a cop for longer than you’ve been alive. I know how this works. I’ve learned a thing or two. They’re not gonna get anywhere near you and El. They come in these woods and they’re toast.”

Steve blinks at him, confused. “Toast?”

Hopper shakes his head and eyes up a clearing a few yards away. He’s going to need to buy more wire.

“Means they’re dead, Steve. I’m gonna keep them away from you.”

“Kill them?”

Hopper side-eyes Steve. “If I have to.”

Steve doesn’t have an answer for that. He has never killed anyone that he knows of, although it was all so confused that last day, the day the Bathtub exploded under the sheer force of Steve’s panic and terror, that he can’t be completely sure he hasn’t, either.

There are certain people he wouldn’t mind seeing gone if he’s being honest with himself. His life would be exponentially better if certain Techs just didn’t exist anymore.

And Brenner… but Brenner is almost too awful for just not existing. Steve has no real understanding of Hell as a theological concept, but he is picturing something similar right now as a suitable alternative for Papa.

There are also people, though, who Steve absolutely does not want to see hurt.

Hopper makes for another line of trees. Steve follows him, thinking hard, his fingers worrying his scar again.

Steve has never really been in a world without Six in it. Sure, there were the years before they first met, but he was young then and that time is a blur in his memory. Once he first saw Six there was almost never a moment afterwards when they were not a unit, a singular thing.

It is only in the last few days that Steve has truly, seriously contemplated a Six-free existence.

He should run, he thinks.

He should be running now.

Away from here.

Away.

Steve would like to think he is wiser and more experienced than he was the last time he tried to escape. He’d like to think he’s the kind of person who can learn from his mistakes.

The last time he didn’t run far enough. Six found him in less than a week.

He is still too close, far too close, to the Lab and Brenner and Six.

It isn’t safe… not for him or anybody around him. It was only sheer dumb luck and Six's dubious sense of mercy that prevented the kids and their families from getting caught in the crossfire last time.

Steve stares hard at Hopper’s broad back.

He should run.

He should leave the cabin. He should protect Hopper and El.

Of course he knows that Papa wants him returned and contained at the Lab. He knows also that if Brenner discovers how close El is and recaptures her, it'll be a thousand times worse for her then it could ever be for him.

He knows that by now Six is most likely drowning in the swirling pit of his own unending need, and that his lover will do anything Brenner says if it means he gets Seven back in his arms.

He supposes he should be more angry with Six than he is. More frustrated, more fearful. In this moment Six is an enemy, not a friend.

Steve understands, is the thing. He knows why Six does what he does, even if he can't accept it. He can't even be truly upset with Six about it.

Six needs Seven. Six needs to love Seven.

That's just the way Six is and always has been. 

Seven - Steve - should run.

He should learn from past mistakes.

It’s just… it's just that it doesn’t feel like a mistake.

Hopper and El don’t feel like mistakes.

Staying doesn’t feel like a mistake. If it did...

Steve has always gone with his instincts, even when they brought him pain. It would be ridiculous, perhaps, to change the habits of a lifetime.

Or it would be ridiculous, perhaps, to trust that things would work out now when they never, ever have in the past.

Steve closes his eyes briefly and sighs softly. He breathes.

One day, one hour, one moment. And then the next.

For so long it was all about getting through one day, and then getting through the next. Taking the small things he’s been given and loving them and using them to keep going, to keep getting through the day.

Big-little things. Being grateful for food, for showers, for paper and pencils, for sleep, for pleasure and smiles from Six. Spotting a Tech with an unusual tie or funny hair, making a face at Papa behind his back, sharing his thoughts with his best friend, having a nice, peaceful dream. 

All things to be treasured. All things that are 'now'.

You can survive if you don’t think about the future. If you just take each moment as it comes.

Six taught him that.

It's not an easy lesson to learn, but it's the reason why he understands Six's need to keep him, even when it hurts them both.

Seven is Six's one treasured thing. The source of so many brief moments of almost-happiness. And it was the same for Seven for a long time - Six was everything, the only thing that mattered.

And then, one day, it just wasn't enough anymore. Seven wanted more... wanted to be more.

And Six...

Six.

Six.

Six, the one Seven never wants to hurt.

Six would like it here, Steve thinks.

He’d like the clothes. Six talked sometimes about the clothes he got to wear on missions, and it was obvious to Steve that he valued them highly for the sense of identity they temporarily gave him. If Six was here, he could grow his hair out and wear whatever he wanted.

He could look on the outside how he felt on the inside. That's important, Steve thinks, for someone like Six. Maybe it's important for everyone in the whole world.

He could try Eggos and ice cream.

Steve loves ice cream. Hopper buys two kinds - chocolate and vanilla with bits of cookie dough. Steve ate two cartons by himself the morning after he arrived at the cabin. He made himself sick, but it was so good. Even being sick was good, because it was something that was his.

Maybe if Six was here he could try ice cream, and wear normal clothes, and learn to drive a car for real and get a real license, and watch TV with El. The three of them could talk to each other about the new smells and new feelings and new thoughts they were experiencing out here, and Six could sit with Seven under the trees and watch the sun set.

Steve, he reminds himself. Not Seven.

But Six doesn’t know any ‘Steve’.

He only knows Seven.

(Are they different, after all?)

“There is someone like me,” Steve says, finally, fiddling with his scar, conscious that Hopper has slowed his movements and is watching him thoughtfully while he works. “Six. He has better powers. Papa likes them a lot. But Six didn’t mind that I didn’t have powers like him. They didn't think I could do anything at all for the longest time, but that didn't bother him at all. He still thought I was special. He's good. He takes care of me.”

Hopper leans against a thick tree and folds his arms, his gaze steady on Steve.

“You guys were friends?”

Steve nods. “Six says we are ‘friends’. He said we are ‘husbands’.”

Steve doesn’t need to be a mind reader to see the wave of shock flash across Hopper’s face. It's startling because Steve isn't sure what triggered the look of surprise... and it's troubling because Steve can clearly read an underlying disgust in the older man's eyes as he processes this statement.

Yes... shock. Distress. Disgust. 

Steve feels suddenly ashamed, although he doesn’t know why. He is instantly worried that he has made a horrible mistake.

He is worried that he has said or done something that will make Hopper get rid of him, throw him away.

“Where did he get that word? Husband?” Hopper asks sharply, standing at his full height and folding his arms.

Now it's Steve's turn to be surprised. 

“He said…,” he stutters out, confused. “He said it was for when people are together. When they take care of each other. Always.”

Hopper sucks in a deep breath, his eyes piercing.

"Oh yeah?"

Steve nods. "Isn't that what it means? Being together?"

“Sev… Steve," Hopper corrects himself. "Steve, did Six… touch you, ever?”

Steve looks at the cop for a brief moment and nods again.

“Yeah. Always. He was the only one who did, usually. Nice touches.”

“Okay, not… not like… did he ever…?”

Hopper stops, unfolds his arms and places his hands on his hips, tilts his head back and stares at the tree line above their heads like it might give him some crucial piece of information he is missing. The trees must not give him what he wants, though, because he lets out a deep, frustrated sigh and glares up at them in annoyance.

It takes Steve a moment, but soon enough he realizes that the cop is at a loss for the right words to say.

The thought makes him feel a bit better – he isn’t the only one who is confused.

And, now that he thinks about it, it dawns on him that...

“He touches my penis,” Steve adds, almost as an afterthought. “And I touch his penis. Nice touches. Is that what you mean?”

The alarmed look on Hopper’s face tells him that it is.

Steve smiles, bemused by the sight. Poor Hopper.

“Yes," he says. "We received basic sexual education and have had intercourse. But only together.”

The cop is blinking furiously and his mouth has dropped open. It would be really funny if it wasn't also somewhat worrying. 

“Brenner…" Hopper growls. "He didn’t do this? He didn’t… force you and Six, or anything… to… to do anything you didn’t want to do? To… be husbands?”

Steve blinks at Hopper.

He thought this was understood. All Brenner ever did was force Steve to do things he didn’t want to do.

All the same, he doesn’t see the link between the two concepts, or why this matters so much to the cop.

“I mean… did Brenner say you two were married?” Hopper tries again. “Did he say you were husbands, that you had to be husbands? Did he threaten to hurt you if you didn't have... intercourse?”

Steve shakes his head, ready to spit out a vehement 'no', but then pauses, considering.

"No," he says, finally, thoughtfully. "But he was glad when we did. He wanted me to take care of Six. I guess part of that was intercourse. Because it made Six happy and calmer when we did it."

Hopper makes a small, pained noise.

"But I don't think Papa liked it, really. He was always very..." Steve searches for the word. "Not mad... pinched? He'd make a face sometimes. I don't think he liked that I'm a boy and not a girl, and that Six wouldn't always listen to him when he was with me. I distracted him, and also Papa never really liked me because I'm not special. And sometimes when Six acted out he said it was my fault because I wasn't... wasn't doing enough. And then..."

Steve is about to talk about what happened two and a half weeks ago, the first time his telekinetic powers manifested. The words are ready in his throat, but they get lodged there, immovably stuck. Something - fear or pain, maybe - stops them. He can't force them out, and he can't summon the memory in his mind, and he finds also that he doesn't really want to try. He swallows the words down again and shakes his head as if to clear it.

Hopper looks at him quizzically, but Steve brushes it aside. He doesn't want to talk about that now, but there is one thing he does want to make clear - namely, that he would never have used the word 'husband' if it had been tainted that way by Papa.

“Six brought it to me, the word,” he says. “He said he’d overheard someone using it. Women are wives, men are husbands. When you want to be together, when you look out for each other. And you kiss each other and touch each other. When you only kiss each other and nobody else. That’s… that’s being married. Six said so.”

He looks up at the cop, who is studying him with an unreadable expression. Steve would very much like to dip into his thoughts right now, but Hopper told him not to go rummaging around in his head and he is trying very, very hard to be good for Hopper.

After a long moment the older man lets out a long sigh. He suddenly looks very tired.

“Shit. Okay. It’s… it’s okay, Steve, I’m not mad. Not mad at you. Just… shit, how old is Six? Jesus, kid, how old are you?”

Steve doesn't know. He does math in his head, pieces together the few clues he has. In the end, though, he can only guess.

“I’m more than 14 years old and less than 20. Six is the same age as me.”

Hopper stares at Steve for a long, uncomfortable minute, and then lets out a huff of laughter with absolutely no humor or happiness in it. His shoulders slump and to Steve’s eyes the older man seems strangely diminished.

“Right,” he says. He rubs his brow with a large hand. “Right.”

"How old is El?" Steve asks, suddenly curious.

"We don't know, but we think she's about twelve now," Hopper growls. "And she is way too young to be anyone's wife."

“What’s wrong?" Steve probes. "Is it a bad word? Husband?” 

“No kid, it’s not a bad word. It’s… it’s just usually people are older than you when they become husbands and wives. It’s a… it’s a commitment.”

“Com – mit – ment,” Steve sounds out.

“Yeah. Like you said… like Six said. It’s for always. Or it’s supposed to be, at least. That’s a big decision that no one else should make for you or force you into.”

It doesn’t seem like that to Steve. He blinks and then shakes his head.

“It was always only Six with me. From when we were little to now. Brenner liked it because it made Six happy, at first. Then later... later sometimes he used it to hurt us, to make Six behave. But there was never anyone else. Of course we're husbands. It’s always been me and Six.”

“Yeah, kid, but it shouldn’t have been like that,” Hopper replies, voice suddenly sharp. “You should've had a choice. If there’s never been anyone else, then you didn’t really have a choice. You understand? You picked Six because there wasn’t any other option… because there wasn’t anyone else for you to be with besides him. It's not your fault, or Six's, but Brenner... he... I'm going to... there are lots of people in the world, Steve. Brenner should have given you a choice. Maybe you’d like to be husbands with someone else, if there was someone else you liked better. Maybe Six would.”

Steve doubts very much that Six would. Six has always been very single-minded regarding Steve - Seven.

But, Steve knows, too, that Hopper is right. There was never anybody else. That is the beauty and the agony of it all.

They’d shared that room, that small room with its single bed. One day long ago, back when he was still little and shy and obedient, a Tech brought Seven into that room and said – this is where you sleep now. And Six had never not been there. Six had never not been a part of that room, and of Seven's life.

And in that room the rest of the Lab, and Brenner, and the tests, and the punishments – they had all taken on an otherworldly quality, like they belonged somewhere else, beyond and outside of that space. It was ‘there’ and ‘here’, and Six and Seven’s relationship was part of ‘here’, not ‘there’. It was separate, and it was theirs alone, even when Brenner tried to make it something else.

Six touched Seven and comforted him and made him smile sometimes. He kissed him. He was the only one who ever had.

There had never been anyone else because no one else had ever been there in that insular world they'd built for themselves.

It doesn’t change anything… not really. But, on the other hand, there are possibilities now.

Wasn’t that what Steve really wanted? Hadn’t he been running away from stagnation and towards the promise of something else?

Towards the promise of choices…?

Chocolate or vanilla with cookie dough?

“I don’t know,” Steve says, honestly.

“It’s not a… it’s not a decision you have to make right now, kid. But just know that when you want to make those choices, you can. I’m not going to let anyone take that away from you again, okay? Not you or El. If I have to close off these whole woods with a perimeter fence and gun turrets, I'll do it. ”

Steve wants to believe Hopper. He wants to very much.

He should run.

He should.

He absolutely should.

“Why toast?” he asks, watching Hopper measure out another length of wire. His fingers find their way back to the silvery-pale line of his scar. “Why would the bad men be toast? I like toast.”

“I don’t know, kid, it’s just an expression.” At Steve’s blank look, Hopper sighs and chuckles lightly. “I guess because it’s burnt bread. They’ll be burnt like toast.”

Oh.

Right.

Burnt. Burned. Burning.

Sure.

Steve knows all about that.

 

 

Then

There was something Six would say sometimes when he was trying to get Seven out of his darker moods. He'd phrase it as good advice, as a lesson to be learned.

He'd say there is no such thing as the future. He was correct, as far as it goes. There was certainly no such thing as a future for any of the Numbers... not one they had any say in, anyway. 

Yes, Seven would reply, and that's the point.

But Six would shake his head.

The point is, there is no point in being upset about it. You shouldn't think about it. You don't need to think about it.

Just be grateful for each moment that isn't awful. Just be happy enough with the things you have.

By that logic, at this moment, both Six and Seven should be happy.

It is one of the times when they are together.

It happens like this sometimes. Less often as they grow older, as Six settles into his role as Brenner’s plaything. For now, though, Papa thinks it is best to structure training sessions this way.

Seven senses that Papa is driven by a certain tenuousness in the air, an uncertainty centered around Six in particular. These days a delicate balance is struck. They – the ‘Them’ with a capital ‘T’ – are introducing Six to the outside world. To missions.

They've had trial runs. They are moving ahead. The future Brenner sees is clearly full of possibilities.

Six is skilled enough, now… and old enough.

Now they just need him to be docile enough.

You need to be very calm on missions. You can’t act out where Other People can see. If they see your powers and realize what you are, they’ll hurt you and maybe even take you away. You’ll disappoint Papa. You’ll lose everything.

You need to do exactly as you are told.

Hold the fire. Hold it still.

Release it when I say.

ONLY when I say.

In the training room Six stands and huffs and sweats and practices holding the fire that burns under his skin. He practices releasing it when Papa says so – only when Papa says so. There are wrist monitors on his arm and wires attached to his temple, tracking his progress, applying numbers and measurements to the wonders of the invisible world.

He tries. Sometimes he fails. Sometimes he doesn't. He tries again.

It is not easy, controlling the fire. It manifests only when Six feels it deep inside, and when it comes it is as ungovernable as the emotions that drive him. In many ways Six is the fire, and asking this boy, still a child really, to make such profound distinctions in his own psyche is ludicrous. 

Papa wants Six to be a weapon, but Six is not a sword or a gun.

Elemental, there is little to be done to make the fire obey.

But still, Six should be happy today.

Sometimes Six is alone in this room, practicing with no one but the Techs and Papa for company… and often they aren’t even in the room but are rather waiting and watching behind a glass wall.

Today, Six is not alone. Today, Seven is there, sitting quietly in the far corner in the training room.

When he can spare a moment, Six looks over and sees the tousled mop of brown hair and the familiar, mole-dotted skin. Sometimes when he looks the boy is bent over pieces of paper and a box of colored pencils, a look of concentration on his face as he entertains himself. Other times Seven's head is turned, his gaze fixed warily on the men behind the glass wall, watching them as one might watch a predator lurking in the distance.

Sometimes Seven looks back at Six. Sometimes those liquid-brown eyes meet Six's blue ones.

Sometimes red lips quirk up in a comforting smile.

When that happens, Six smiles back, and then summons a fireball and makes it dance briefly before directing it full force at the target painted on the far wall about fifty feet away. He shows off a bit - who can blame him?

Six is grateful that Seven is there. Seven is the best thing, the thing that makes Six most happy. Six would be perfectly content and willingly following his own advice about being happy right now if it wasn't such difficult and frustrating and exhausting work to train.

Seven, too, should be happy. He is safely tucked away where no fire from Six’s fingertips can accidentally hurt him. He has a small table and a chair, and paper and pencils and crayons to keep him occupied. Papa and the Techs are around, just on the other side of the wall, but they are not hovering over him or even really paying him that much attention. He can sit and draw undisturbed.

However, Seven is not happy. Seven is quiet and anxious.

Seven does not wear a metal band on his ankle - there has been no great escape yet, so such restraints are not yet mandatory for Numbers - but Six is wearing an experimental version of the band on his wrist. It is meant to dampen and focus but not eliminate his powers.

Purely a precaution, Papa said.

As such, while Six is struggling to tap into and control his now-limited abilities, there is nothing to keep Seven from using his own sixth sense to pick up on a horrible tension in the air. He does not know what is going to happen, but he knows in his gut that something will. And he knows, too, that it will likely be something bad.

He remains hyper-vigilant, restless and unable to settle. He draws but is only half-paying attention to what he is doing. In his head, Seven can feel a heavy pressure, and his ears are filled with a sound almost like buzzing.

It is the low rumble of a storm approaching.

He would follow Six's advice if he could, but he can't.

Instead, he worries.

He worries about a future he cannot control.

A jarring beep comes over the loudspeaker, signalling Six to stop. A break, and not a moment too soon from what Seven can see. 

Exhausted, Six steps away from the training area and slumps back to the corner where Seven is sitting. Sweat has plastered his hair to his neck and forehead and his eyes are cloudy and distant. He leans up against the wall and slides down it until he hits the floor. Legs splayed and arms loose, he hangs his head and takes deep breaths, trying to hold back a sob. 

Seven doesn’t hesitate.

He slips out of his chair and kneels on the ground next to Six. With one hand he brushes sweaty, golden curls off Six’s face, and with the other hand he gently touches his chest. Six’s breath stutters and he blinks frustrated tears away and leans towards Seven, who in turn curls around him, protective and comforting.

Papa’s voice comes over the loudspeaker, a disembodied sound, to tell them that the exercise is over. Seven registers a slight feeling of relief and then doesn’t pay anymore attention to whatever nonsense the man is saying.

Seven knows what he is expected to do – what Papa expects him to do. Papa expects things from everyone around him - things from both Six and Seven. He knows what the Techs say. He can read Papa's grim acceptance of Seven's necessary role and match it with the jibes and chuckles of the Techs.

On some level Seven bitterly resents it.

He resents always, always being seen as an extension of Six. He's not a person to them. He is only a toy, a reward, a sedative drug. The easiest way to keep a dangerous boy sated and content while they make him do difficult and impossible things.

He resents it. He hates it.

Hates Papa’s tacit approval and the Techs’ lewd, knowing smirks.

But another part of him can’t hate it, not really. All the rest of it, Brenner and the Techs and the weight of all those eyes are distant, secondary concerns now, little more than a dream. They don't understand him, and never could. Not in any way that matters.

Because it’s Six.

It’s Six, and he’s tired and upset with himself and trying not to cry because it hurts, the things they make him do… he’s exhausted and hurting and Seven can’t stand it. He can’t stand by and watch Six suffer without doing something.

It is Six he is helping, and it is Six who matters most. Not Brenner.

It's always only been Six.

“Breathe,” he whispers softly in Six’s ear as the boy struggles to contain the fire that rages, the pain that burns. Six has described it in the past as an ache but worse, a desperate hunger, his body turning against itself and its natural form. The ankle band both helps him control it and hurts him on the inside, cutting him off from himself. 

Seven's powers aren't anything like that, and he has never felt at odds with himself, never felt like his own worst enemy... but Six has always been different. He has always burned brighter, always been so much more than anyone Seven has ever seen.

It breaks Seven's heart sometimes.

He picks up Six’s hand and places it on his chest so Six can feel the steadiness of Seven’s own breathing and pace himself to match.

Seven then reaches up and pulls off the wires, the monitors, the arm bands. The Techs will need to reattach them again if they decide to make Six continue, but for now the boy needs them off.

Seven understands, knows what Six needs… he needs to feel free, to feel whole in himself, to feel like he isn't being vivisected where he stands. They all want him to be something extraordinary, but sometimes he just needs to be ordinary old Six. He needs to feel this even if it’s just temporary, just pretend.

"I liked the last fireball," Seven says.

"Yeah?" Six's voice is raspy.

"Yeah, it went really far."

"Did you like the one that went in a circle?"

Seven grins and nods.

Six smiles back, suddenly shy, and tucks his head in against Seven's neck. 

"Good," he whispers. He breathes as he is bid, slowly and deeply, and inhales Seven's familiar, calming scent as he does so.

The peace doesn't last long. A few minutes at most.

Then Agent Scott strides in.

Seven glances up and reads his intentions. Agent Scott wants to straighten up the training area and reattach the wires. He is bored and he carries that subtle arrogance that most Techs do, but on the surface his thoughts are mostly benign. 

Six, however, does a strange thing when he turns his head and sees the man walk in.

He tenses under Seven’s hands.

He has no reason to that Seven knows of. Six tends to treat Techs with a distant, blank deference, and he shouldn’t be more nervous around Agent Scott than he is with any of the others. 

If anything, he should be more comfortable with him... Agent Scott took him on his second outing, was his handler out there in the Outside world on their last trial run. He knows Scott, and they have, in Seven's mind at least, a kind of special bond because of it. 

Seven might even admit being a little jealous at the thought. Six can only tell Seven about the Outside, not share it with him. Seven isn't allowed out. Seven is peripheral to all the wonderful adventures Six gets to have now.

He can feel a division between them, small but still there. A difference in how he and Six see the world.

One day, Six might even leave Seven behind for good, become the ultimate weapon for Brenner and the rest, and forget that Seven ever mattered to him. 

And when that happens, what will become of a powerless, superfluous Number?

“Alright, Seven,” Agent Scott says, coming to a halt a few feet away from where the two boys are curled up together on the floor. “Step away now.”

Seven shakes his dark thoughts away and looks up and meets the Tech’s gaze. Scott is looking back at him with a frank bemusement, clearly assessing Seven critically and finding what he sees mildly entertaining.

It doesn't matter, only...

They usually have more time, and Six is still horribly tense. Seven hasn't really done his job, though for the life of him he can't figure out why Six is suddenly nervous. Seven looks at Six and sees that the other boy’s eyes are wide and darting between Scott and Seven, his mouth turned down at the edges.

Seven tries to see, even though his special skills don't work so well with Six - it is a strange thing, but they are always a bit limited with Six and the other Numbers because he is like them even though he isn't, even though he is truly not special and not powerful like they are - and even though he has promised himself that he will not read people’s minds without permission.

He tries with Six but he can’t see much. Just a blur of fear and shame. Difficult to sort through... and the pieces he does recognize, he doesn't like.

"Seven," Scott repeats, and Seven nods slowly. Reluctantly, his slips his hands away from Six and inches back towards his chair.

Six, for his part, hums unhappily and crawls back up to his feet. Seven watches the walls go up around his friend, watches him bury the small bit of pleasure and pride he had felt a moment ago underneath a mask of indifference.

Six doesn't argue, doesn't give voice to his mysterious discontent. He even stands still as Scott reattaches the wires.

Seven is so busy trying to piece together the confusing images he'd picked up that he almost doesn't see it.

In truth there is almost nothing to see.

Almost.

Agent Scott reattaches the wires. He touches Six's arm, reapplying the wrist band first. Six is fine. He is steady and still.

Then the Tech moves to attach the electrodes to Six's temple.

Six stiffens.

One of Agent Scott's hands, carefully placed so that no one but Seven can see, reaches up to keep Six's head steady. 

The hand touches his temple. His hair.

It’s the hands, the Tech’s hands... they make Six flinch.

Fingers dance across the boy's forehead before they wrap themselves around some errant curls.

Scott’s eyes meet Six’s and then he very deliberately gives the boy’s hair a sharp tug.

The thing is, the gesture doesn't seem to cause surprise or even pain, isn't designed to startle or cause a huge reaction... it is too subtle for that, and too meaningful.

Seven can read look in Agent Scott's eyes now, and it isn't a look of anger or derision. 

It's a knowing look. A smirk. 

The tug of the agent's fingers is a trigger. A memory.

A reminder.

A reminder of thick fingers wrapped in curls, tugging, pulling, pushing down, pushing his head down, making him open his mouth, making him obey when he doesn't want to, when he doesn't want to, I don't want to, I don't...

Seven can see the storm break a moment before it happens, but there is nothing he can do to stop it.

Agent Scott is thrown up against the wall in an instant, one of Six's hands around his throat, the other pressed against his chest. Six is younger and smaller than the agent, but his anger fuels him, gives him new strength and a beserker's rage to make up the difference. The Tech makes a noise somewhere between a whimper and a shout, and Six growls out a warning sound that sends chills up Seven's spine.

It's hard to separate the smell of ozone and flame from Six's practice session and the smell now rising from the horror occurring in front of Seven's eyes, but burning cloth and burning flesh do have their own distinct odor, and suddenly it is everywhere, and Scott is screaming.

"Six!" Seven cries, and bolts up to his feet. 

Not for Scott's sake, or for Brenner's, Seven throws himself Six, desperate to make him stop before he does something that he cannot come back from. Something that will not just result in more of the punishments that make up their everyday lives, but which will also leave a mark, gray and damaging, on the brightly colored threads of Six's soul.

He is not as strong as Six, but he knows how to throw his weight around when he needs to. Seven races up behind the raging boy, wraps his arms around Six's middle, and yanks him back until they are both tumbling to the ground.

Six yowls, thrashing blindly at an enemy he can't see.

His hand grabs at Seven's wrist where his arm is wrapped around him in a parody of a lover's embrace.

But Six still holds the fire, and his touch hurts Seven, burns his flesh.

Seven cries out and is forced to let go. He loses his grip but the shocking sound of Seven in pain is apparently enough to bring Six back to himself and make him stop struggling. 

He releases Seven’s wrist immediately, a whining cry of fear tearing out of his throat. He pulls himself free and throws himself as far away from his lover as possible to keep from hurting him further.

There is a wall, a corner, a spot of sanctuary a few feet away from all of this, from the burned Tech and the hurt, innocent Seven. Distance, beautiful distance... Six crawls there, finds a solid barrier, pushes his back up against the wall, panting and crying.

He tries to get away from everything... from the terrifying threat of 'now' and the lurking fear of 'then'...the events of the past that he thought were gone rear up, huge and terrible. In his panic his control threatens to slip again and he groans in horror, staring down at his hands as the flames crackle within his skin.

"Shhhh... breathe..."

The voice jars Six...for a moment he doesn't know where it's coming from. But it is soft and gentle and...

"Slow... shhhh... breathe..."

Seven, the sweet fool, has come back to himself, has shaken off the shock of being burned. He sees what is going on. He pushes past the pain, rolls over and crawls a few inches towards Six.

"Shhhh..." Seven murmurs, blinking back tears, his voice remarkably steady. "It's good. Breathe..."

He whispers and hums and soothes the boy who hurt him. As he does so he cradles his burned wrist to his chest, and Six knows - knows like he knows his name, like he knows the color of Seven's eyes, like he knows his own special place in this rotten world - that in spite of Seven's accelerated healing abilities the burn will leave a mark, a scar.

Six moans piteously and tries desperately to make the fire go away again. He pushes his hands against the ground, against himself, but he is hurting and nothing helps.

Seven hums a song, something made up, something tuneless and faint and meaningless, but Six latches onto the sound, tries to use it as a lifeline in the fog.

Seven...

Seven...

"He's bad. Scott’s bad. He tugged. Six, what did he do? He hurt you?"

Six sighs and closes his eyes and doesn't answer.

He can't answer.

Can't find the words. 

It hurts inside. 

He clenches his fists and fights to hold his fire in. Tears stream down his face from the effort, and he grits his teeth against the sheer force of it.

He rides the tide out. There is nothing else to be done but ride it out.

In a moment Brenner and the other Techs will storm in. They will place both boys in solitary and interrogate Six extensively on the incident. Six will find the words to tell Brenner about his outing with Agent Scott, about the fingers in his hair, about what came after.

Agent Scott, still alive despite the burns, won't be for much longer after Brenner finds out what he did to his prize experiment. Brenner has rules after all, and his rules about behavior and comportment and sexual release are the most important...

He is trying to do impossible things. He is trying to find that delicate balance. 

It is unacceptable. How can he shape Six into the ultimate weapon when there are all these petty distractions?

Brenner will fume, and Agent Scott will disappear.

Afterwards, Six and Seven will be returned to their shared room, and Seven will cradle Six in his arms while Six, strung-out and exhausted, drowns in self-recrimination.

Six will kiss the healing burn on Seven's wrist again and again, and again many times throughout the years, and always with some heady mixture of guilt and possessiveness churning in his gut.

Seven, in response, will hum thoughtfully and thread his fingers through Six's hair... and he will not tug on his curls when he does so.

All this will happen.

A future no one can control.

But for now, the two boys sit a few feet away from each other, hurting and frightened and wrapped up in their own little worlds... yet trying, always trying to reach out to each other... and for all of Six's excellent advice, they remain as far away from happiness as they could possibly be.

 

Chapter Text

The downside of aligning oneself with children is, ironically enough, exactly the same as the upside – namely, that no child could ever be mistaken for a government agent.

They chatter. They jump around. They make twenty different plans in as many seconds.

It is organized chaos.

Six is bundled up and swept away from the clearing in the woods before he fully has a chance to understand what is happening. The rolling waves of his frustration and anxiety have barely calmed, yet he is surrounded by tiny bodies and moved quickly with little to no chance to respond. Even the most hardened government official would have to acknowledge the efficiency of this impromptu kidnapping.

He is dimly aware that he should report back to his handlers in the van, but he also knows that doing so without alerting the kids to his duplicity would be impossible.

Besides, he is still wearing his tracker, carefully hidden by his sock… he is still on a leash. In these unusual circumstances improvisation is allowed.

He is quite extraordinarily aware, too, that his hold on the situation is tenuous. The kids trust him now because of his relationship with Seven, but that could all change with a single wrong word. He feels as though any moment the children might vanish like vapor, and with them his best chance of finding his lover.

The kids take a shortcut to Mike’s house, and, irony of ironies, Six soon finds himself curled up on the same couch in the same basement where Seven found refuge all those months ago.

“Three months,” Mike tells him. "Three months ago."

“Three and a half,” Dustin corrects, pacing in front of Six.

Interesting information. Six's sense of linear time, days and months and things like that, is always muddled in the timeless, endless, repetitive calendar of the Lab.

“We thought he was long gone,” says the tall boy named Lucas.

Lucas... and the red-haired girl is Maxine.

Maxine. Max. She's a bit wary of him, still. Smart.

“We need to get some new clothes for him,” Mike says. “And we should get him something to eat.”

“We need to find Seven,” Six insists, interrupting. “How? How do we find him?”

A shadow falls over the group when they are reminded that their first, best friend from the Lab, the one who initiated them into this wonderful world of superpowers and secret identities, is still missing in action. Dustin lets out a wounded noise and Will goes twitchy and sad.

Six both loves and loathes how much they care about Seven. On one hand there is a kind of kinship to be found in loving the same thing.

On the other hand...

His fingers idly pick at the worn upholstery as he watches the emotions play across their faces. There is such simple, earnest affection there, and it is fascinating to him even as it irritates him.

He is not used to having to share, but he will need to adjust. For the moment, anyway.

They consider the problem in the brief pause, and then the various plans and schemes start tumbling out again.

“We’ll look…”

“We can’t put up posters or anything.”

"Of course not, he's not a missing pet..."

“We can ask Hopper!”

“Why the hell would Hopper know anything?”

“He’s the chief of police! He’d know if there was a strange guy hanging around, or if someone like Seven…”

“Steven,” corrects Dustin. “He hated ‘Seven’. It’s Steven.”

Six feels a wave of rage and hurt rising up at Dustin’s assertion. He succeeds in repressing it, barely. It's not important, he tells himself. It's not a rejection... and even if it is, it doesn't matter. None of this will matter once he gets Seven back.

He stays quiet and considers the possibility that this ‘Hopper’ might help him find Seven. Might even help him transport the lost experiment back to the Lab if he can convince the man that it is his duty as a policeman to do so.

“…If someone like Steven got hurt and ended up in the hospital.”

“He won’t be in the hospital,” Six says.

It's true, he won't be. Six knows this because the Techs are watching the hospitals. If Seven shows up at one, Brenner's minions will pull both Six and Seven out of circulation immediately.

“You don’t know that,” Max says, her eyes soft and her voice sympathetic. She clearly thinks he’s discounting the hospital possibility because he’s worried it might actually be the case.

Six buries a flinch. It’s a good reminder to him that he isn’t supposed to know about the Techs watching the hospitals or anything like that, and he drops his gaze and shuffles uneasily to mask his mistake.

He belatedly realizes he’s copying Seven’s mannerisms… it feels slightly grotesque to do so, but it works in a way. It makes him seem like less of a threat.

It’s practical. A strategic choice. He should try to emulate Seven as much as possible while he's infiltrating this group - should be shy and stupid and kind.

It's obvious to Six that the kids love Seven very much. They love him in a way they could never love Six... not if he was himself. He is their enemy. A freak, a sociopath - that's what the Techs said. Even if he wasn't those bad things, he's not like Seven, not really. They wouldn't want to find and keep him like they do their missing friend.

Not that he wants their love.

Of course not.

Silly. Childish.

Max shakes her head.

“He can’t stay here,” she says.

“What?” Dustin flaps his arms. “It’s the best hiding place!”

“They found Seven, didn’t they? Maybe they figured out where he was staying. Maybe they were watching the house. Even if they weren’t, there’s no way they didn’t figure out where he was hidden after they got him back. They’d have made him tell.”

That idea stuns and silences the Party for a moment. Six doesn’t bother to reassure them when their worried gazes flick over towards him – it’s not like it’s not the truth. The kids don’t even know the full extent of Brenner's reach, the insidiousness of that isolated place hidden in the woods.

“They’ll come looking,” Mike says, voice tight with anxiety, eyes darting towards the stairs leading up to the rooms where his family sleeps in blissful ignorance. “They’ll come here first.”

“We need to hide him somewhere else.”

“Castle Byers,” Will pipes up. “It’s not going to be any good if it gets any colder, but he can stay there for now. During the day, maybe?”

“I’ve got an actual air raid shelter,” Dustin adds. “Which, umm, I’m not supposed to play in, but… he can definitely stay there. It’s warm and dry and there’s loads of food and board games.”

“Those places both work. If we keep moving him around, maybe we can keep ahead of them. They won’t know where he is, and they'll be stretched real thin looking for both him and Steven,” Mike nods.

“My parents are away this weekend,” Max says. “He can stay with me for a little while.”

Six listens. He doesn’t like the sound of any of this.

“What about Seven?” he asks, trying to get the kids focused on the primary objective. “Where will he go?”

There is another pause as the Party considers this.

“If he’s trying to find us," Mike says thoughtfully, "then… then he’ll come here, or go to the school. Those are two places he knows we hang out at.”

Well, that’s no good.

Six can’t risk Seven getting to the kids before he has a chance to snap him up. It’ll get messy if he has to drag Seven away in full view of the children, numerous and loud as they are... they will get in the way and it will be harder on Seven if that happens. He might struggle to forgive Six for... for hurting them. And he'll need to hurt them, if it comes to that. The Techs will be forced to intervene if there are too many civilian witnesses, or if either Number is at risk of being damaged in the process.

It''ll be better if Six takes care of it. He has more restraint than the Techs do. He has more to lose.

On the other hand, Six does have hostages now, inconvenient though they are. They are game pieces that cannot be discounted. If it helps him achieve the objective, he'll do what he needs to.

There will be tears and silence and sleepless nights when they get back to the Lab. That is to be expected.

No matter how this shakes out, there will be pain. Seven may not let Six touch him for a long, long time. 

“We’ll keep checking the places he knows, the hiding spots," Will adds, eyes trained on Six. "He knows where Castle Byers is, too… he might go there, or to Dustin’s. He’s smart and fast. He’ll stay hidden until it’s safe to come out.”

Six can’t help but throw Will a curious look when he says this, bemused by his characterization of the rogue Number.

He loves Seven more than anything else in the world, but even he wouldn’t say that the boy is ‘smart’. Certainly not if his test scores in the Lab were anything to go by.

Dustin, however, is nodding.

“Yeah,” the curly-haired boy says, sounding determined. “He’ll be fine. He knows how to stay hidden. He managed to escape the Lab, didn’t he? Twice.”

“And got caught again,” Lucas says, not unkindly, his eyes fixed worriedly on his friend. “Dustin…”

“Yeah, he got caught, but then he escaped again,” Dustin’s voice goes louder. “And he knows what to do and where to go now. He can read minds and see the future and he protected us when Troy was chasing us, and he’s a member of the Party, and he’s not going back to that creepy piece of shit Lab! We won't let that happen again... no matter what!”

Silence follows the outburst. Six can't help but flinch slightly at the raised voices, the rising tension that means potential trouble. In his experience nothing good ever comes from raised voices and arguments... not that arguments ever lasted long with Brenner.

There is no fracturing of the group, however. No one is hurt or punished. Six watches and swears he can see the dynamics of all these interwoven relationships shift - he experiences an echo of what Seven must feel looking into people's heads like he does.

Lucas sucks in a breath at the rebuke, but nods.

Something electric runs through the group, a kind of fierce determination. The have never been to the Lab, never even seen it or Brenner... they've not had anything but Seven's narrative to go on. And yet, whatever else Seven may have told them, whatever he said about his life before he met them, it is clearly enough to make these kids align themselves totally with him, utterly disregarding their own safety in the face of terrible odds.

If they could burn down the Lab and everyone in it, Six has no doubt that they would. All this, based on nothing but Seven's word... 

Six feels a strange mix of things – bewilderment, anger, shame.

It’s like they know a completely different Seven, like Seven led a completely different life in the few days he was away from Six during his last escape.

The question out of his mouth is not the one he means to ask.

“What is Troy?” he interjects quietly.

“Another kid, a big bully from school,” Lucas answers. “Sev... Steven was waiting for us to get out of school, but we all got separated going to meet him. Troy was chasing Dustin and Max and Will, and Steven knocked him off his bike and helped them hide in the woods. Even though it was dangerous and he almost got caught, he saved everyone and got them away from Troy.”

Seven did that?

That doesn't sounds like him. Seven doesn't knock people over.

Seven can't do things like that.

And yet, now that Six really thinks about it… yes. It does sound a little like Seven. 

Seven, who quietly, begrudgingly did as he was told but still stuck his tongue out at Brenner when the older man’s back was turned. Seven, who dreamed his dreams and saw his truths and whispered them to himself in the dark, no matter how many times he was told to keep quiet, no matter how many punishments and electroshock treatments he had.

Seven, who escaped three times from the Lab.

"We went to Castle Byers," Will adds, a small smile on his face. "That was the day Steven drew me my picture... the one where we're all superheroes. Just like something out of a comic book. We ate M&Ms and Steven drew."

It is Seven, and the realization makes Six almost dizzy.

It's the Seven that was always hidden, always beaten down by Brenner. A side to the boy that Six, for all that he loves Seven and spent every moment he could with him when they were together in the Lab, was never given the opportunity to see.

Until now. Now he sees Seven... sees him through the eyes of others. Different, and the same.

These kids care so much about him, and they have such faith in him.

Six has faith, but not that Seven can protect anyone from hurt and harm, and not that Seven can save himself from the machinations of people much stronger than he is. That's why he needs Six, after all... to protect and care for him, to be smarter and stronger and faster than anyone else. To be all these things so that Seven doesn't have to be anything other than what he already is.

But if Seven is something else... something that doesn't need Six to take care of him...

And, of course, Six is the one trying to take Seven back to the place he hates with ever fiber of his being, back to the place that hurt him terribly.

Back to the place where more pain is waiting for him. For the both of them.

Because...

Because he has to. There's no other way. Six has to bring Seven back. That's his mission. If he doesn't, Brenner will find them both. He'll take Seven away, snatch him out of Six's arms and hurt him. Take him away forever, maybe, to that far off land no one ever returns from.

They have to go back. Seven needs Six to take him back.

Any other possibility is irrelevant... don't even need to think about it.

He pushes his doubts down and away, but the niggling fears remain, terribly confusing and strange.

“We’ll find him, Dustin,” Mike says, voice forcibly optimistic. Six makes himself focus.

“Yeah,” Dustin replies, taking a deep breath to calm himself. “And we won’t let them get Six, either.”

“That’s right,” Will affirms.

In spite of himself, Six feels weirdly pleased to be included. He tells himself it is only because this means his position in the group is relatively secure and his cover hasn't been blown.

"We should definitely consider burning the Lab down if we find it," Lucas adds dryly, confirming Six's musings. Max punches him in the arm.

“Six’ll need a name, an alias,” she chimes in. “If we’re going to pass him off as normal.”

“Billy,” Six says, suddenly.

He's just as surprised as the kids when he speaks. The word just pops out of his mouth before he can stop it.

Billy. The shortened, affectionate version of the name on his license, the name he always dons like disguise when he’s out here in the world. His second self.

William Hargrove on his fake-official documentation, and 'Billy' whenever someone asks.

A nickname. Billy. Bill-ee.

A name for a person who doesn't exist... and yet it is somehow something that feels like more than just an alias. It rolls off the tongue before ending with that soft 'ee' sound... it's more textured and complex than 'Six', that one single sharp syllable. 

It's something that almost belongs to him.

The kids look at him quizzically and he finds himself unable to hold their gaze.

“I heard it before,” he shrugs. “The name. Billy. I like it.”

And it’s true. Technically none of that is a lie, for all that Six is pretending.

He needs to focus.

He mustn’t forget that his mission, the most important thing here, is to find Seven or Steven or whatever he is calling himself now and bring him back to the Lab so they can go on being Brenner’s Numbers, tied together in an unbreakable bond forever and ever.

The mission is what matters. Brenner's eyes burn through him, and Six's desperate need for his friend, his lover, his husband has not lessened at all in the last few hours. He is still a raging inferno of want that only the safe return of Seven will soothe.

However…

He does find himself... liking… the name. The clothes. The kids. The stories.

The world.

In spite of everything... he does like it.

“Okay then,” Dustin says, shrugging. “Billy it is.”

 

 

It’s a blur of shapes and of light, and then…

It’s Six.

Six, looming tall, fire in his hands and in his sharp blue eyes.

Rage and panic in his face, twisting his mouth... a familiar look that never brings anything but pain to those who get in his way.

Looming over a line of familiar faces…

The children…

Dustin…

Six yowls and flings a giant fireball over their heads.

Steve does not bolt awake, quick and violent and gasping and loud.

He rarely does. Even when he has nightmares, he almost never jolts or thrashes or screams. He has learned, has taught himself not to do that. Life in the Lab meant being invisible and not causing a fuss – not even when transitioning from a sleeping nightmare to a waking one.

Sometimes he can’t help it. Sometimes the dreams are too awful, too terrifying. He wakes up screaming from those, snaps awake, lashes out blindly and falls out of bed. Once he even caught Six in the eye with a waving fist and left a deep bruise there. Poor Six... he was always responsible for calming him down on those rare yet terrible mornings.

Steve does not bolt awake or cry or flail now, but it is a close thing.

Instead, his eyes snap open. The air has temporarily vacated his lungs, sapped out by fear.

He forces a shaky, deep breath in, and keeps an iron grip on himself because the alternative is to go to pieces. He can't do that. 

He can't.

The children…

The dreams have always been a part of Steve’s life. When he was small, he thought that they were the same as being awake – just a different version of reality that he got to experience. He lacked proper context for so many of the things he saw, but they were always so complex and vivid. It seemed impossible that they could be anything other than the truth.

As he grew up, he learned that it was not quite that simple. He was shocked and deeply hurt the first time Six brushed them off as imaginary. If they were dreams, they weren't truth, and if they weren't truth they were therefore inconsequential. Only Papa's truth mattered, and that changed every day, until Steve gave up trying to understand and keep up.

And always, always, there were the dreams, and always there were people telling him that they weren't real.

Not real.

What a joke.

Steve had figured out a few things about his powers the last time he escaped. Perhaps the most troubling, important lesson came when the kids showed him the TV and he saw on the moving, talking screen things he recognized from his sleeping visions.

Despite what some may think, Steve is no fool. He'd understood immediately that there were larger implications here, that this was information someone like Brenner would very much want to know. It was a something the man would want to use for his own benefit.

Steve had kept it a secret for precisely that reason, and also because, after some trial and error, he'd realized that he was still completely unable to control what and when he dreamed, that he had no more agency over his own abilities than he had had when he was still young and small.

He tells himself that it took Six years to master his fire, and even now he still struggles with it. He tells himself he'd rather have no powers at all than have something that would please Brenner in any way.

It's still annoying to not be able to control it.

Annoying and... pathetic. To have all this power and be too weak and stupid to use it.

Papa might have been right about him after all.

Still, he's learning. Figuring things out. He'd explained it to Hopper yesterday while they were watching TV, after their talk about husbands and toast.

Hopper was watching the news. Eleven was in her room, reading. Steve was sitting at the coffee table, playing with the box of brightly colored crayons Hopper gifted him the day before when Steve first expressed an interest in drawing.

Steve had been wary of the gift at first – at the Lab, such glorious items usually came with a steep price attached to them.

It isn't like that now, though. Everything has changed in the space of just a few days. Steve is just trying to keep up with it all. He is still adjusting to the idea that food, clothes, basic comforts and special treats are not always automatically part of some sort of unbalanced transaction.

At first the guilt and anxiety accompanying the gifts had been overwhelming, but Hopper and Eleven remain quite insistent that Steve have things. That he have things that belong to him and him alone, things that he doesn't have to work for and that can't be taken away.

He'd dropped and smashed a bowl the other day while getting cereal and was so sure that the accident would result in the loss of some item or privilege - his shoes, maybe, or the ice cream in the freezer. TV time, blankets, dinner, walks in the woods. Maybe he'd be locked up alone in his small sleeping space until he learned to behave.

Maybe Hopper would hit him.

None of those punishments happened. Hopper had been more concerned that Steve not hurt himself stepping on any stray shards of porcelain than he was about the damage to his property.

Afterwards Hopper gave him more cereal in a clean, unbroken bowl. Then a new pair of pants that fit him perfectly. Then a set of crayons in every color Steve could think of, and a pad of paper to draw on.

It's most peculiar.

Because, strangely, Hopper seems to get as much out joy of the gifts as Steve does.

He smiles broadly and huffs with satisfaction whenever he sees Steve using the crayons. He seems as happy as if he was using them himself, beams down like the sun as Steve fills page after page with drawings. He's even proudly hung ones Steve particularly likes up on the fridge, held up with colorful magnets for all the world to see. He grins whenever he sees them hanging there, and it makes Steve smile, too.

Bizarre. And yet it makes Steve feel happy and warm.

Hopper doesn't draw. The crayons are just for Steve, even though Hopper bought and paid for them. It would be weird enough if Hopper was merely graciously allowing Steve use them (especially since he's already taking so much - warm sweaters and hot water and every possible kind of food item he can think of, and all of it made possible by the older man's generosity), but, even crazier, the cop gets some sort of pleasure from Steve's happiness.

Brenner would never feel that way, nor any of the Techs. It's even unlike the shared satisfaction he and Six used to enjoy together in bed, when touching and fucking lead to mutual release... that was still an exchange where the needs and desires of both participants were clearly defined.

This isn't.

Steve feels like he is perpetually being wrong-footed by these curious interactions he doesn't understand, so he finally decides to consider it a strange, but not at all unpleasant kind of bargain struck between himself and the cop. It's a different kind of exchange, and if whatever Hopper gets out of it isn't obvious to Steve, it is apparently no less important.

In his quieter moments Steve meditates on acts of giving and service as potential sources of personal satisfaction and pleasure.

“Election is coming up…” Hopper murmurs half to himself, his eyes fixed on the screen while Steve scribbles on sheet after sheet of clean white paper, preternaturally focused on his current drawing of what looks like a complicated drilling machine.

“Reagan,” Steve says suddenly. Hopper looks over at him and Steve shrugs. “He wins. Lots of yelling and colored balls falling from the ceiling.”

Hopper sighs. “Well, that’s hardly a crazy prediction. That one of your visions? From when you're sleeping?"

Steve nods.

"Why would you dream that up?”

“I didn’t, exactly,” the boy replies. “I was dreaming of a family. A father and mother and an uncle and two little girls. The TV was on in the background. The man on the screen said Reagan won, and then they showed him and the red and blue and white balls.”

"I... I think you mean balloons, Steve."

"What are those?" 

"They're like... you know what, I'll buy some in town and bring them back and show you. Be better than me trying to explain."

Steve is pleased by the prospect, and both men fall into comfortable silence as the chatter of the talking heads on the TV fills the room.

“What was the family doing?” Hopper asks after a minute, curious.

Steve shrugs, smiles a little as he remembers how cozy and comfortable the family looked together in their living room. It looked like a fantasy life to someone like him, someone who had never had anything like that.

"Nothing. Talking. Talking about things I didn’t understand. Private. It was important to them, but… I don’t choose what I dream about. It’s not always things that are part of my life, or that I can change. The only time I can control my powers is when I’m reading someone’s mind, and even then I can’t see everything. I have to follow the threads, the strongest emotions. I really only see what a person is thinking at a given moment.”

“Mind reading. And you blew up the Lab with your mind,” Hopper adds. “That’s a good skill to have.”

“I wasn’t… wasn’t controlling that. That just happened.”

“Was that the first time?”

“N-no. It wasn’t. One time before that.”

The day after Six came back so furious and enraged.

The day Brenner decided to try out a new punishment on them both.

He looks over at the cop and twiddles his crayon between his fingers before continuing.

“I dreamed you and El, though. A lot.”

That draws Hopper up short. “You dreamed our futures?”

“Yeah. No. I don’t know. I don’t… I don’t have a good idea of time. I don't know if the things I dream happen before or after, or if they even happen at all. Once, I dreamed that Six was going to fall down some stairs at the Lab. I was able to stop him before it happened, so not all of that one dream came true. But then another time I dreamed about a Tech crashing his car on his way home, and then later I heard him talking about a car crash he was in like it happened a long time before I ever saw it.”

Hopper seems momentarily at a loss, as he usually is when Steve’s powers impact him personally. 

Steve also doesn't need to be a mind reader to see the quiet calculations going on in the cop's head. Hopper is wondering if there's any way they can use Steve's powers, harness them somehow, weaponize them. It speaks to a trait in Hopper that is not dissimilar to Brenner's greedy ambition.

However, Steve is not upset or offended by Hopper's thoughtfulness. If anything it is slightly reassuring.

He knows what Hopper is - a cop, a soldier, a fighter. He is the kind of man who is constantly taking stock of his assets, weighing strengths and weaknesses, identifying weapons and skills needed to prevail in a conflict.

He is not a new or unexpected thing. He kindness and generosity are revelations, but the rest is very familiar. Steve is just lucky that Hopper is on his side, more or less, and that he is using this analytical tendency to come up with ways to protect them all from Brenner.

It's too bad that Steve's powers are so unpredictable, unreliable, and in some ways utterly useless. If Steve could use them effectively he'd gladly do so... but he can't.

Hopper seems to silently agree with this assessment because he doesn't press the issue further. Instead, after a beat, the man smiles, and Steve can tell that he has laid aside his calculations for the moment in favor of teasing and comforting the boy.

“Well," the cop says. "That’s something. Did you ever dream anything good for me? Do I win the lottery?”

“What’s a lot- lottery?”

Hopper snorts. “Forget it, kid. But if you dream up any number sequences let me know.”

“I do get numbers sometimes. 618-625-8313. And 6.62607015. And…”

“Okay, okay. Well, I do know what one of those is – unfortunately – but we won’t go there. What were El and I doing in your dreams?”

“You were hurt, sometimes. Sometimes you were happy. Sometimes you were just here, living here. I don’t know. I don't know how we know what is... important? The family from before, the family in the living room... nothing they said made any difference to me. Papa wouldn't have cared. But I dreamed them anyway. Maybe it's not always who wins", Steve gestures to the TV, which is playing a clip of Reagan speaking, "that is important. Maybe it is small things, too. You were just always in the background of my head. Living, being there. I think… I think maybe I knew I needed to find you, somehow. So I dreamed you.”

Hopper had nothing reassuring to say to that. He seems pensive and more than a little troubled. Steve doesn't know about the concept of 'fate', so he is not concerned by the possibility of its existence... but Hopper does, and he is.

Fortunately, the conversation ends then, interrupted by El wandering in, plopping down on the couch, and changing the channel with her powers, much to Hopper's chagrin.

Steve hadn’t thought any more of it.

Not until this morning. 

Six.

The kids.

All his worst fears realized.

Because he is alone and free from Brenner and Six and the Techs, Steve lets himself release a huffing noise of despair that is very nearly a sob before clenching down on his feelings again. It is all he will allow himself because anything more might unleash something much more terrible and uncontrollable.

The fear is still there, the agonizing terror that is ever-present in his chest… he has always had that, can't remember a time before his whole life was governed by fear... but since meet the kids that feeling is sharper now, more real. Instead of vague possibilities of hurt and destruction, there are very real threats directed at innocent people he cannot protect.

He feels a horrible wave of self-doubt. He should never have run away from the Lab.

He has put them in danger.

He has put everyone in danger.

He is danger. Dangerous.

He crawls out of his cot, tugs on a thick, well-worn sweater with a frayed collar, and runs his fingers through his long, tangled hair. He tugs gently at the strands, forcing himself to focus on the sensation. It helps ground him somewhat. His fingers trail down his cheeks, his neck, his chest, touching flesh and fabric. 

It's good, he reminds himself. These things are yours and they are good.

Breathe.

Find happiness in the things you have now.

Hold on to them.

His breathing has almost returned to normal, though his anxiety remains a solid rock in his chest, when he final ventures out of his small room and into the cabin's shared living area.

Hopper is in the kitchen making breakfast, humming cheerfully to himself.

“Hey kid,” he says, sparing a brief glance over before returning his attention to the stove. He is already half-dressed in his sheriff's uniform, and his hair is still slightly damp from his shower. He looks so big and reassuring that it almost makes the boy want to collapse into him, fold himself in and hide away.

“How’d you sleep?”

Steve doesn’t answer right away, and when Hopper looks over at him properly he grimaces sympathetically.

“That bad, huh?”

The boy doesn’t answer directly, mostly because he isn’t sure how to put what he is feeling into words. He is hampered by old habits, the cold, comforting familiarity of silence, and the expectation that his feelings and fears will be dismissed, as they always have been in the past, as trivial and childish and inconvenient. 

A part of him wishes he was braver. Or at least brave enough to try again.

“What’s that?” he asks instead, eyeing the food in the pan.

“Pancakes. And I’m making you some eggs to go with 'em.”

“Eggs,” Steve echoes, trying to muster up his usual level of eager curiosity. He knows what those are, but not the other thing, the pancakes.

Pancakes are new. So many new and wonderful things. He could drown in these new and remarkable and beautiful and wonderful things.

Wonderful.

Six. The children...

Fire...

Danger.

“Pancakes are kind of like waffles,” Hopper explains, smiling slightly as he stirs the contents of the pan with his spatula, oblivious to Steve's rising anxiety. “You'll like 'em, trust me. But I want you to eat some eggs, too. You need the protein. You’re too skinny.”

“I’m sorry,” Steve says.

It’s an automatic response that he’s too tired to curb. They’ve talked about this, about Steve apologizing for everything, but he can’t always help it. Back in the Lab, 'sorry' sometimes made the pain and the demands and the confusion stop. Of course, sometimes it didn't, but it was also the only reliable weapon Steve had for a long time.

It is one he is trying not to use anymore.

He hates it because this ‘sorry’ has a predictable and unwanted effect – Hopper looks stricken.

“Don’t be sorry, kid,” he says, his voice the gentle growl of a father bear. He turns down the heat on the stove top and turns to give Steve his full attention - like Steve matters. “It’s not something you did wrong. You’re okay, you're fine as you are. I just want you to be healthy, yeah? Wouldn't be taking care of you right, otherwise.”

“I’m…” Steve is going to apologize again but wakes up enough to the situation to tamp down the urge before he can do so.

He shakes his head and rubs his face with his hands.

He wants to trust. He wants to so much. He wants to be brave, to put his heart in someone else's hands, to tell them about the terrible burden he carries. But it hurt... it hurt last time, when he escaped and tried to be free and failed... failed... was dragged back to the Lab by Six. Too weak to stop it. Too stupid to explain, to make Six see.

He's only been here four days. He's only known Hopper and El for four days.

He is desperate, still, from the stress of the dream, and he needs… he needs…

“Hopper, I need…” 

With a dawning sense of realization, Steve discovers, to his horror, that it is not a choice any longer. Stress and fear and pain and loss and love rise up like a wave, overwhelming him. It's bubbling over like soup on a stove, it's spilling over...

“Hey… hey, kid…”

Before he knows what’s happening Steve is wrapped up in a hug, his face pressed close to Hopper’s chest.

He’s crying a little, but he’s safe.

Safe.

Six...

Fire...

Danger...

“Talk to me, son,” the older man rumbles.

“I had a dream,” he whispers, the words coming out unbidden, pushed forward by overwhelming fear. The tears come, and they wet Hopper's clean shirt. “It was bad. Bad. I… I need… can you…?”

“What is it?” Hopper pulls away just enough to cup Steve's face and look him in the eye. “Something that happened before, at the Lab? A memory? Someone hurt you? Or is it something that you think is going to happen?”

“It’s… Six. And… and the children. From before. From the last… last time… I…ran. It's going to happen. I think it's going to... he found them, and...”

Hopper rubs Steve’s back comfortingly.

A door opens and closes and El walks out of her room. She is still wearing her pajamas, a solemn frown on her face. Hopper doesn’t let Steve pull away from the embrace, and once she takes in what is happening El wanders over and wraps her small body around Steve, too.

Oh, oh... he doesn't deserve this. He is small and weak and useless and he doesn't deserve this comfort.

Be happy with what you have now, Seven, Six's voice reminds him.

Take it what you can get. Why not? They won't believe you, anyway.

Not real. Not real.

The dreams aren't real.

You're not real.

Why would they ever believe you?

After a moment, Steve finds the courage to continue. He needs to say it, even if they reject it... him. Even if they call him a liar and fool, a dreamer and a child. Even if they look at him like Six and Papa and the Techs had, with expressions ranging from incredulous to derisive.

He needs to try.

“Can you… can you check on them? Make sure they’re okay? Warn them?”

“The kids? The kids you were with before?”

Steve nods vigorously and Hopper’s whole face softens. His eyes shine with something that Steve has rarely seen - trust. Faith. 

Hopper believes him.

He pulls Steve close again and Eleven lets out a little 'humph' noise and snuggles closer into the embrace.

“Yeah, son. ‘Course I can.”

 

 

He spends his first full night as a double agent at Max’s house.

Her parents are away for the weekend and a neighbor is supposed to be checking in and keeping an eye on her, but it is one whom she can avoid without too much fuss. It's just as well - an empty house is far superior to a shed or a bomb shelter. 

She sneaks him in through the backdoor so nobody living next door sees a suspicious-looking stranger walk in. The rest of the kids also come over and stay for a long while, talking and eating popcorn and candy (he finds that he enjoys both very much - he's only had nutrition bars rationed out by the Techs since leaving the Lab) and making plans until it is late and way past time for them to go home.

He shows them some of his powers, and they are appropriately impressed as he lights various small objects on fire, shapes the flames and makes them dance. This fills him with pride, a reluctant kind of satisfaction and pleasure. He tells himself these feelings are unimportant.

When they leave, he falls asleep on the couch. It is lumpy and smells of many things he can’t quite name but in spite of everything he sleeps like the dead. He has been going non-stop since Seven vanished, and now, on this worn couch, he sleeps and he doesn't dream at all.

He wakes up to Max nudging him, telling him she's running over to the neighbor's house to check in, and that when she returns she'll bring back food. It speaks to his exhaustion and how strangely comfortably he is in this house, and with this small girl with the flaming red hair, that he lets her go with only a small niggle of worry, turning over on the sofa before drifting easily back to sleep.

When he wakes up for real she's still gone. He wanders through the house, finds a bathroom where he performs some much-needed ablutions, and then pokes around where he can. He finds bedrooms, closets, nothing too damning at a cursory glance.

Eventually he works his way back to the living room.

Six – Billy, he’ll play at being Billy for now, since it’s easier and he’s wearing the right clothes for it and the children seem to like the name – picks up the TV remote and studies it for a brief moment before turning the machine on and sitting down in front of the screen. He knows how TVs work in theory (he’s seen Brenner use something similar in the Lab, and he’s watched Techs watch daytime television while waiting with him in dirty motel rooms on missions).

He clicks the button.

The screen goes from white noise to a commercial for some sort of drink that makes Billy thirsty.

Then it's a commercial for a giant shopping center, colorful and crowded.

Then it's a soap opera.

Billy watches as a man in a well-tailored suit paces around an ornate room filled with shiny-looking furniture. He turns, reaches out, embraces a woman with a tangled mess of curly blonde hair piled high on her head.

“Sweetheart,” the man says to the woman.

“Sweetheart.” Billy echoes the word, trying it out.

“Yes, my darling, yes,” the woman replies, clinging to the man in the suit with her perfectly manicured hands.

Billy likes how she says ‘yes’, all gentle and breathy. Soft, as if a word could feel like pillows and blankets and warm, yielding flesh. 

“My darling,” he repeats, fiddling with the remote in his hands, something strange bubbling up in his gut. “Mine. My darling.”

The two people on the screen kiss passionately. The woman gasps and then breaks away, her eyes closed. She staggers over to the shiny couch and grabs the armrest to steady herself, overcome.

The violin music in the background grows louder.

“We can’t!” she exclaims, clutching at her chest.

“Why not?” Billy asks the TV.

“Please, angel…” the man reaches out to her again.

“Humph,” Billy sticks his tongue out at the screen and changes the channel. “Angel.”

The next channel is another story, another show, and Billy pauses, curious.

The two people on the screen are certainly not in love, that much is clear.

It is two women. As Billy watches, one of them smacks the other across the face. The boy flinches in sympathy, feels the phantom pain of a remembered blow.

“Whore!” the woman shrieks.

Billy has heard that word before. The Techs have used it. One in particular used it on him, his voice choked with stolen pleasure and his grip tight on Six’s hair as he stuffed himself into the boy’s unwilling mouth.

And Agent McCormick said it once and Six asked what it meant, and the answer was confusing but also, in some ways, brutally, inescapable clear.

It was something he did not want to be. He wanted to be Seven’s, to belong to Seven only and not…not to others. He didn't want any others for... for that. But he couldn’t always help it. Sometimes things happened, and people with more power than him forced him to do things. He never meant to betray his lover, hadn’t wanted to… 

Hadn't wanted...

When it all came out Seven had understood, was outraged on his behalf, angry and defiant and sorrowful. Of course he was, he's Seven, always gentle and loving and perfect, always empathetic, always understanding, always forgiving.

But still…

The stain remains.

Billy changes the channel again.

This show is set on a beach. Billy understands when he sees the screen that it is meant to be a beach, even though he has never been to a beach before… he’s seen pictures, and that’s a beach, with the long stretch of something that could only be sand, and the birds, and the people… and that water next to it, churning and crashing and blue, could only be an ocean.

His eyes widen and, before he knows it, he is on his knees in front of the TV, pressing his hands against the screen.

It’s beautiful.

He is filled with the most overwhelming sense of yearning. He wants to melt into the screen and come out the other side. He wants to touch sand, touch water... feel the textures, temperatures. He wants to go there, to that place, and be enveloped by it.

A man strides out onto the beach.

He is the hero of this story, whatever the story is... Billy doesn't know, he came in too late, but he sees and he knows immediately that whatever else might be happening, this man is a hero.

Billy understands the concept of heroes. It's an abstract idea, but he knows enough. He's listened to Brenner's stories, the ones that had such an impact on the imaginative Seven.

He does not know if he is himself a hero. The data is inconclusive. The way Brenner talks you'd sometimes think Six was the only being on earth who could save it from destruction. Other times, when he describes the hardships and cruelties of the world outside the Lab, you'd be hard pressed to believe that virtue and courage and heroism were anything but made-up fantasy words. And, of course, the Techs have their own particular vocabulary for the Numbers - hero is not a frequently used term.

Sometimes...

Sometimes Seven looks at Six with awe and affection, like Six is the whole wide world wrapped up in one person, like he could do anything, be anything.

Sometimes Seven looked at him with eyes glazed with pain... pain caused by feelings of betrayal. Six's betrayal. Saving Seven by hurting him.

Based on the limited information he has, what he has been told, what he has come to understand, Six is either a hero or a monster.

Certainly one or the other of those.

The man on the TV is wearing a leather jacket, and he has long hair that sweeps almost down to his shoulders. He is tall and broad and confident. He looks out at the world and he is utterly unafraid of it. He is one with it, a part of it. On the inside rather than the outside.

Six... Billy watches as the man scoops a woman up in his arms. She has plump, red lips and thick brown hair that feathers out away from her face and catches the sunlight. She smiles widely, her teeth perfect and white.

“Baby,” the man says.

The two of them walk down the sand that looks so warm, down next to the water that looks so blue… and all of it moving and alive.

“Baby,” Billy whispers.

He is so entranced by the TV, by the beach and the ocean and the man and the woman, that he doesn’t hear Max let herself into the house and come up behind where he is still kneeling.

“That’s California,” she says, looking back and forth between him and the show he is hypnotized by. “I recognize it... I used to live there.”

Billy snatches his hands away from the screen as soon as he hears her, cradles them to his chest and shyly ducks his head. It really is disturbing how easily she sneaks up on him, and he feels as though he has somehow been caught out.

“You did?” he asks, finally, when it becomes clear that she is not going to punish or question him further, or make him feel ashamed of sitting on the floor and looking at the screen with all the quiet desperation of an animal begging for scraps.

“Yeah," she nods, sitting down on the floor next to him. "Lived there my whole life... before my mom married my stepdad. It was like that, with the beach and the sun. I used to go swimming and skateboarding down by the pier.”

“Stepdad?” That’s a new word. Billy knows 'mom' and 'dad' but not 'step-anything'.

“Yeah. Neil. He’s a dick. Stepdad means he’s not my mom's first husband, my biological dad. My real dad is still in California. He and mom got divorced and then she and Neil got married after.”

“Divorced?”

“Yeah. Means they aren’t married anymore.”

That’s a shocking revelation for Billy. He thought 'married' meant married forever. He and Seven are husbands in his head... and that's forever. He's clung to that idea ever since the first time he heard the word. He shudders at the thought of something so powerful that it could separate married people just like that.

He decides right then and there that he will not tell Seven about the concept of 'divorce', just in case.

“…And then because they were still fighting over custody and everything, mom and Neil decided it would be better for everyone if we moved out here to the sticks instead. So, now I'm here and I don’t get to see him anymore.”

“No…?” Billy pauses, searching for the words he wants. “No brothers or sisters?”

“No. Neil had a kid from his first marriage, but he died as a baby, apparently. Actually, it's kind of really super sad. He doesn't really talk about it. And then afterwards his first wife went crazy, so…”

Billy considers this. He lacks the appropriate context for most of the things Max just told him, but it still strikes him as a somewhat tragic story. He himself has known Numbers who died or disappeared, and he has long suspected that either he or Seven - or perhaps the two of them together, trapped in their tangled up, deeply codependent relationship - qualify as ‘crazy’.

He doesn't know what he'd do if Seven died.

Maybe he really would lose himself, then.

Sometimes he wonders if they aren’t both dead already, and moving through their days as ghosts out of sheer habit and force of will.

“It’s okay,” Max says, and Billy looks up at her, startled.

She’s watching his face and seems to see something there that he doesn’t particularly want her to. Sadness, perhaps, or something else. A kind of forbidden knowledge. It's a weakness, these feelings, and he should know letter than to advertise them. If Papa taught him nothing else, he taught him that.

He turns away.

“Hungry,” he says, deliberately draining all the emotion out of his voice.

“Oh, right. Okay. Um…I brought donuts, so...”

Billy winds up eating most of the donuts, loving the delightful sweetness of artificial sugar, and when he is done he then turns his attention to the kitchen and consumes all the remaining food in the cupboards. There isn’t terribly much... he finishes off a box of cereal, a box of frozen chicken nuggets, and a bag of lettuce. The noticeable lack of food in the house annoys him for a few reasons, only one of which is related to the fact that he is still hungry.

With nothing else to eat, he stands in the kitchen and paces restlessly. At the table next to him, the little girl starts going through take-out menus, her face twisted in a slight frown as she looks for alternative food sources.

“Why aren’t they here?” he asks after a moment, pausing his movements.

“Who?" Max looks up, confused. "Mike and Dustin and the others? They had to go home; they’ll be here soon.”

“No…” Billy shakes his head. “Mom. Neil. Why aren’t they here?”

“Oh. Um. Well, Neil has these friends who have a cabin an hour away in the mountains. They go out and stay there some weekends. With his friends.”

“They left you?”

The concept is very confusing to Billy. He thought children were supposed to be some sort of precious commodity, to be watched constantly and never left to fend for themselves. That is certainly how Numbers are treated in the Lab, and they're not even real people meant to be loved and cherished. They are only useful... and they are never left unsupervised.

“It’s adult friends. They like drinking and fishing or whatever. There aren’t any other kids out there for me to hang out with, and Mom and Neil can’t have as much fun when I’m there.” Max recites the words with practiced indifference and shrugs. “It’s okay. The neighbor makes sure I don’t burn the house down, and they leave me money for food and stuff. Only... I have to make the money last all weekend, and I didn't think I'd need to buy too much more stuff. I don’t know if I have enough left for pizza...”

The girl frowns down at the menu, and Billy feels a sharp, unexpected rush of guilt. There is nothing accusatory in her voice - she only seems apologetic and worried that she can't provide for him - but he feels the heavy weight of responsibility on his shoulders anyway. 

He ate all the food without realizing, and now there’s none left for him or for her. They'll be hungry. Max will be hungry because of him.

And it is perhaps because the girl does not blame him, and because she is clearly more worried about feeding and caring for him than herself, that this realization hits him in a part of his soul he wasn't aware existed outside of the strange tenderness Seven inspires in him. He feels something that he thought was unique to that singular relationship he shares with his missing husband.

She looks so peculiar sitting there at the table, a child with all the responsibilities of an adult, here alone with... with him.

Trusting. Trying. Small. Vulnerable. Clever. Kind. 

Mine?

As Max studies the paper in front of her, Billy quickly and quietly slips out of the room. In the relative privacy of the adjacent, empty hallway, he pulls the wallet Brenner gave him out of his back pocket and opens the billfold.

There are three crisp green bills with the number ten stamped on them. This is money - ten plus ten plus ten equals thirty, and if you need to purchase anything required while on a mission you may use these paper slips for anything under this amount. He glares at the bills for a moment before removing them and hiding the wallet away again.

He is, of course, well aware that he isn’t supposed to be doing this.

The most important caveat of being given a wallet with an ID and money inside is that such powerful items must be used responsibly. You cannot use them to run away, or to satisfy frivolous personal desires. The money is for emergencies only – Brenner was very clear about this. 

Very, very clear.

He takes a deep breath, steps back into the kitchen, and places the bills in front of Max.

“Good?” he asks. The word comes out a bit more tentatively than expected, and Billy is suddenly deeply concerned with how much he wants the girl to accept the gift and be happy with the money and with him.

“Holy shit!” Max’s eyes go wide. “Where did you get all this?!”

“It came with the clothes.” It’s not technically a lie. “It’s good? It can buy food?”

Max lets out a happy snort. “It can buy loads more than that! In fact…”

There’s a knock on the door signaling the arrival of the rest of the Party.

“…In fact,” Max grins, an expression that promises nothing but trouble, “I’ve got a great idea.”

 

 

He does what he can. He tells Hopper who the kids are - he doesn't know all their last names, but he knows Mike Wheeler and Dustin Henderson and Will and Lucas and Max and from his description of them Hopper is able to piece together who they are and where they can be found.

Hopper's face blanches when he realizes Will's last name.

The old cop says he'll go today and check on them. He says if they were hurt or of something happened he'd be the first to know - he's the chief of police, after all - and even if nothing has happened, he'll still check.

He doesn't say it, can't know how much it means to Steve - but he believes him. Steve can see it. It's everything.

Hopper leaves.

There's nothing more Steve can do. 

He is on edge. It occurs to Eleven as she watches him fret and pace that he probably would be on edge no matter what, given that he has now been isolated for several days in the cabin with no one but herself and Hopper for company.

She remembers what it was like when she first got out, those weeks in the cabin after the initial terror faded... the feeling that she had just traded one prison for another.

In the Lab there was a revolving door of new faces, of Techs, of changing experiments and expectations. In the cabin, one day is very much like another.

The tension grew and grew inside of her. Hopper, still struggling to find his footing as a parent, had not been as patient as he should have been. There had been fights, bouts of crying and screaming. 

She understands Steve's restlessness. She knows it is exacerbated by his separation from Six, the person who would usually, at times like these, comfort and ground him.

Even worse, Steve is plagued by memories of his nightmares. El doesn’t know what the dreams are like, but she knows how strange and disorienting her own wanderings in the in-between can be, and she understands the particular, terrifying immediacy of those moments in the void.

And, in a sense, it’s worse for Steve. At least when Eleven sees things she knows they are taking place in the present moment. Steve has no idea when his vision of Six and the children actually occurred.

They might already be too late.

"It'll be okay," she says gently, looking up at him with earnest eyes. "Hopper will find them."

"Yeah, but he's not... he doesn't have..." Steve shakes his head. "Six is strong. Powerful."

He hasn't told her much about their dangerous sibling, but the things he has said are telling. There is a lot to be gleaned from the blank spaces and unspoken pieces of his narrative.

She watches as he rubs at the burn scar on his wrist absently, almost as if he might erase it - or perhaps reopen it - with enough effort.

"Would he hurt them?" she asks. It's the most important question. 

One of them. The other questions she won't ask, because they both already know the answers to those.

Did he hurt you?

Would you run back to his waiting arms if he spread them wide for you?

Steve pales, wraps his arms around himself. Outside the cabin the birds twitter and the leaves rustle gently in the breeze, but inside the air is crackling with the boy's rampant anxiety.

"He... he might," he admits after a moment. "He would if he thought he could get to me by doing it. And sometimes he... he can't control his fire. If he's angry, he can't always control it, and it comes out without him directing it. Anyone who gets in the way..." Steve lets out a self-deprecating hum. "We're the same, I guess. Can't control it."

"It wasn't your fault," El says firmly. 

It's something they've gone over and over these past few days. Steve won't tell her everything about what happened that last day, the day the Bathtub exploded, but she knows enough to know that it wasn't Steve's fault.

She's been in the same place, done similar things. She knows.

She repeats the words to herself in the dark of night, the same words she says to him now.

"It wasn't your fault."

"I tore it open, El," the boy sighs, bouncing back and forth on his heels. "The wall. I didn't mean to, but the moment the Bathtub opened and I could see again, I saw a crack in the wall. It was glowing. I saw the monster. It wanted to come out and I... I opened the door. At the Lab, and who knows where else... and..."

Steve sighs heavily and drops down on the couch next to Eleven.

"And I still can't find him," he continues. "I can dream things and maybe they happen and maybe they don't... but the dreams don't help us. I don't..." He trails off and bows his head. "Papa was right. There's no point. No point to me. I'm... I can't..."

"Papa is a bad man," Eleven interrupts. "He's wrong. You know he's wrong." 

“Can you find him?” Steve asks, finally, ignoring her assertion. “With your powers, could you find Six and tell me what he is doing?”

Eleven considers it and then shakes her head.

“I’d need a picture. Something…”

“I don’t have a picture.” Steve feels the panic start to rise again. “I don’t have any pictures. What if they’re hurt or dead? What if he’s found them already?”

Eleven feels Steve’s fear leaking into her own consciousness. She takes a deep breath and grabs his hand.

He lets her lead him outside. It is crisp and cool and the morning sunlight streams through the trees and makes patterns of light and shadow on the ground. Eleven walks Steve around the outside of the cabin a few times until he calms down, just a repetitive loop that does manage to center the boy somewhat.

They are careful to avoid Hopper's traps and tripwires as they go.

“I have an idea,” she says after Steve's breathing has slowed and his focus has returned. She picks up a leaf from the ground and hands it to him, pleased that he takes it and runs his fingers over the surface, soothing himself by exploring the new texture with his long fingers. “What if you tried to find him?”

Steve comes to a sudden stop, staring down at her in surprise. 

“I can’t… how?” he asks.

“You said you can follow threads, right? That people’s emotions and thoughts all link together like… like a spider’s web? You followed Hopper to Joyce even though she wasn't there. You knew what she thought even though you couldn't see her... because she's in Hopper's head.”

Steve nods.

“You could follow those to Six, couldn’t you? And then... even if you couldn't see where he was, you'd at least know what he was thinking and feeling. You might be able to figure out where he is from that.”

Steve is about to say no, but then he pauses, considering the possibilities.

“I don’t know,” he admits, finally. “When I’ve followed them before, the threads, it always happens naturally. Like... Hopper was thinking about Joyce, and I could only see her thoughts through him. It's not something I control so much, and when I tried before I was never looking for someone specific. But…”

He… he could. Maybe.

He could try, anyway.

“Okay,” he says. “Okay. Just…" Steve looks around, eyes a dry spot safely tucked away in the shade of a large tree. He pulls Eleven over, sits down on the on the ground and tugs the girl down so she is sitting across from him.

"Sit here? I need to see you, and then I can see your thoughts. They'll take me to where I need to go."

Eleven nods, gives Steve a weak but encouraging smile. He pauses for a moment and then shakes his head.

"I won’t…," he stutters out, voice gentle, "I won’t poke around in you head. I won't go where you don't want me to be. Promise.”

Eleven's smile widens slightly and she nods reassuringly. She doesn't pretend it's not a concern because it is. Of course it is. The Techs did that, and Papa... flaying the Numbers alive so that no secret was ever a secret, so that no thought was ever fully hidden.

Still, she'd explained the concept of a promise to him, and he's promised her now that he won't violate her privacy.

And he's her friend. Her brother. Friends don't lie.

"I know, Steve," she says.

"Okay, just... I'll be careful. I will. Okay. Think about Hopper."

Eleven closes her eyes and does so.

Steve takes her hand in his, focuses on her face, and slips into Eleven’s mind.

It is difficult – as another Number, as someone with her own powers, El's thoughts are cloudy-fuzzy to him. Six was always the same way - all his fellow experiments were. He can see things, but it's fuzzy. It is like the unused channels on the radio Hopper and El showed him, the one they use to communicate with each other… the frequency is wrong. He has to work hard to work his way through the white noise.

Then, he sees it. Hopper. 

It’s a sharp blue color, and to Eleven it means safety and fondness and frustration. Steve grasps onto it, follows the emotions attached... there’s a mass of tangled threads from there, though...

“I can’t…” Steve murmurs, half to himself. “I don’t know which threads are which. He needs to be thinking about someone specific…”

The threads are muted. Steve pants slightly, and his head hurts from the effort of trying to stay grounded.

He can feel blood streak down his nose, cooling rapidly in the low temperatures of the forest, of the world outside of his head... but he can't be outside right now, he has to be inside... inside Hopper's head, he has to...

Suddenly, one of the threads in Hopper's tapestry of emotions lights up.

Steve follows it, chases it to…

“Flo?” he asks. “Flo is giving him an apple and telling him that he has a phone message from Mah... Murray Bauman? He's really ah... annoyed, he's...”

The bright yellow thread pulses and glows, and then fades away quickly.

“I can’t…”

“Steve!”

Steve pulls himself out of the twisted web in his head to find himself lurching forward against Eleven. He nearly knocks them both onto the ground but catches himself before that happens.

“I’m sorry…” he mutters, trying not to move to much. “I feel sick.”

He sounds like he very much means it, so for a moment the two of them simply sit there, clutching each other as they lie in the dirt. Steve pants heavily, trying to contain his nausea.

"We'll stop...," Eleven says gently after a minute or two. "You don't need to do this. Hopper will find..."

"No!" Steve interrupts.

He can't sit here and do nothing, not while the kids are potentially in grave danger. He can't go back to being shut up, trapped, with no way of know what is happening to the people he cares about.

Whether Hopper knows it or not, leaving Steve stuck in the cabin with nothing to do and no way too communicate with others is a sharp echo of what Brenner used to do when he was displeased with him. It may not be, in the strictest sense of the word, the dreaded punishment of solitary confinement, but the effect on Steve is the same.

He can't take it.

"No," he repeats, more calmly this time. "It's okay. I just... I need something that isn't so tangled. I can't follow it that deep without getting lost, I guess. I need to find someone closer to Six, someone who will be thinking about him."

"Who?"

Steve takes in a deep breath and blinks at her.

She reads the answer in his eyes. It's not a pleasant answer.

She makes a face. It would almost be funny, an amusing expression of distaste... but neither of them laugh because it is only a very mild response to the shared trauma they never really want to acknowledge.

"You want...?"

"Please. Please, Eleven."

That is enough to erase any shadow of humor or affection on Eleven's face. Her reaction is nothing less than Steve expects, and it's certainly nothing more than Brenner deserves.

"I'm sorry," he says, quietly. "Think about Papa."

She huffs and obeys. She doesn't close her eyes this time, though. She doesn't want to be alone in the dark with thoughts of the father they both share.

Steve walks into her head. He doesn't look around, doesn't try to see what memory Eleven was forced to dredge up to envision Papa. That would be a kind of violation, and anyway Steve cannot allow himself to be distracted by the pain the man inspires.

He stays there just long enough to find the thread to Brenner. It's like a steel wire, made unyielding by the tension and animosity between Eleven and the older man. He has no choice but to grab onto it...

And he is immediately confronted by a mirror image of himself. He comes up short like he has been rammed head first into a brick wall.

His lifeline to the surface is gone and he finds himself in a strange, echoing void.

It's a shock, to say the least, because it usually never works this way. He doesn't see faces, doesn't launch into new scenes and spaces, not unless the emotion is unusually intense or closely tied to a specific memory.

And this isn't just any face... it's him.

They are all in some gray place. Steve and a version of himself standing just a few feet away, looking at him over Eleven's shoulder while Eleven remains calmly sitting on the ground.

It's smirking at him, the vision, the double. It wears the familiar scrubs from the Lab, slouches and tilts its head, eyeing him with interest. It looks like him but also... not. The gaze is too sharp, too hungry.

As Steve watches, his doppelganger starts to glow. It whispers hideous, terrifying prophecies to him, power crackling at his hands like untamed electricity. 

Brenner steps out of the shadows of this nowhere space, tall and imposing. It's all Steve can do not to flinch when he sees him. Papa is everything he remembers, all that authority and soul-destroying cruelty wrapped up in one man. In his hands he holds a much dreaded item - a small remote, the one that controls the ankle band.

Six follows him, is three steps behind him, his own raw fire bound and pulsing under his skin. He looks wild, furious, his eyes glittering.

The phantom Six and Seven both wear their ankle bands. Their terrible powers churn and rage, just waiting to be unleashed. The red light on the cold strip of metal wrapped around their legs blinks in its familiar, wretched rhythm. Brenner twirls the remote in his hands.

Brenner - or this version of him, the version that Steve realizes is how Papa sees himself, imagines himself... his deepest desires painted in real life colors - places one hand on the other Steve's shoulder.

A shudder runs through the boy, and while his smirk never falters, it does change. It stretches into something twisted and pained, and Steve watches in horror as his mirror image raises his hands and directs his terrible power at the oblivious Eleven.

"Steve!"

When Steve snaps back to reality, pulls himself out of this dream state, he is crying. He's wailing, actually, sobbing like his heart is going to break. Eleven is shaking him awake with both hands, eyes wide with fear, and the look on her face just makes him more upset.

"M' sorry... sorry..." Steve chokes the words out and then makes a weird noise between a sob and a squeak.

"What did you see?" Eleven tugs at his sweater, her voice sharp with worry. "Steve! What did you see? Was it Six?"

"Six... Papa..." Steve forces the words out. They're a strained whisper, horrible even in the bright sunlight. "Mm... me... saw me, but... wrong. Wrong. Wrong."

"It's okay..."

"It's not," Steve shakes his head. His hair falls across his face but he doesn't bother brushing it away.

He wants to hide. He wants to die.

"What did you see?"

How can he explain? How could he possibly explain?

He saw himself, and Six, and Brenner - he saw them as Papa wants them to be. Saw the driving force behind all his actions, the thing he covets above all else. And worse than just seeing... he was there. The sticky sludge of Brenner's ego and desire and hatred washed over him until he was drowning, drowning... coated in it, tainted by it.

Until that horrible truth, Brenner's truth, was all that remained.

Two monsters with unlimited power, and Papa holding the leash. The three of them destroying everything that stands in the way.

Papa's own dark dream.

"It's never done that... I've never... never..." he shakes his head, tries to justify himself to Eleven, to the trees, to a God he doesn't understand. "I ne... never see... f-f-faces. He wants... he wants... I wouldn't... I wouldn't..."

Eleven never finds out what Papa wants and what Steve wouldn't do. He doesn't manage to say, just keeps insisting and repeating himself. She soothes him as best she can. They stay sitting in the forest, sheltered by an old oak tree, and she holds him as he cries.

 

Chapter Text

Then

The toy comes on a bad day. On one of the days when Seven is alone.

For once it is Six, not Seven, who has been placed in something akin to solitary confinement at Papa's behest.

Unlike Seven, too, Six is not being confined as a punishment - at least, not officially. Brenner's experiments and punishments always have a way of overlapping until it is impossible to tell one from the other, and quite often they serve both dual purposes with admirable efficiency.

After all, aren't the Numbers always being punished for the crime of living?

Is not their very existence an affront?

This latest round of experimentation apparently requires isolation, sleep-deprivation, days and nights of tests and trials to be undertaken without support or companionship. 

Seven doesn't really know the details. It's not like they tell him anything. They took Six away and they didn't say when he'd be back and Seven knows better than to ask.

He is still young, young enough for occasional visits to the Nursery for basic socialization, young enough to still have one or two baby teeth left, but old enough to know that he cannot rely on Papa or the Techs for anything.

He is old enough to know to give them nothing of himself, and to expect nothing in return.

He gets some gossip when he visits the Nursery, but it's mostly incomplete. The little ones give him their whispered secrets - someone screaming down the hall from where they sleep, passing by a room and seeing a fellow Number strapped down to a gurney, overheard phrases dropped by careless Techs.

They've taken him to the Nursery twice in the last few days just to give him something to do, and when he went he tried to learn what he could about his friend. The powers that be haven't bothered with any kind of socialization for a while, though. Too much effort, perhaps. They've just left him here in this room alone for what feels like an interminable length of time.

He's gotten his meals. He's gotten clean clothes. Same old routine. He doesn't know where Six is, and none of the Techs stick around long enough for him to try read their thoughts.

The daytime isn't so bad.

He's mostly just bored. There are no tests for him, no crayons, no Six. There's no one around, no little Numbers to play with, no strange rooms to visit. There are no distractions so it's a little bit like being in a more comfortable form of isolation. The big difference is that right now there is not even terror or pain to break up the monotony. 

Still, it's not so awful.

The nights are worse.

Seven has shared this room with Six for a while now. He doesn't know exactly how long, but it's been long enough that he is now used to sleeping next to another living, breathing body, a warm person who likes to hug and cuddle, who wakes Seven up if he has a nightmare, who tries to make him laugh when he's sad and scared.

Now the bed is cold and lonely, and when Seven wakes up to silence and darkness he is frightened by it. There is no one to hold him. It's just stupid, vulnerable Seven and the things he dreams up, and the last few nights in particular he has had nightmares... terrible nightmares.

This place, this world is so frightening. All Seven's life, he's been afraid. He clings to Six like a drowning man clings to a life raft. Six is strong and smart and brave. If anyone can keep the monsters away, he can.

But he's not here, and Seven is alone. Just him and the visions in his head. 

It is daytime now. He is sprawled on the floor, his legs propped up on the bed so they are straight and parallel to the wall. He stares at the ceiling, wiggles his feet from where they are sticking up in the air, and tries to imagine something other than last night's dream.

It was a bad one. A recurring nightmare. A monster with rows and rows of terrible teeth racing through a fog-drenched graveyard of twisted and rusted heaps of metal. 

It makes him feel so cold, that dream.

He can feel the yawning threat, the dull gray cloud of his own deep, profound misery threatening to swallow him. Six isn't here to help him, so he must do this on his own.

He tries to replace the monster dream with another image, another memory of something seen in sleep and only half-understood.

There is a girl in a room - he doesn't know the girl. He knows she is lovely. He knows this instinctively, even though he lacks the vocabulary to explain it and even though he is too young to know what to do with his feelings. He is drawn to her without knowing why.

She is pale and thin and has wavy brown hair. She is sitting with her mother and father on an overstuffed couch. There's a soft sound, a cooing cry from somewhere Seven can't see, and the girl's mother, who is working some piece of cloth and thread with her long, deft fingers, says - "Can you grab Holly, Ted?"

That's it. That's everything. Such a silly, meaningless dream, yet it has stayed with him.

He tries to use it to erase the teeth and fear. It helps a little, but it's hard work, trying to ignore flashes of pain and horror and focus your whole mind on something strange and peaceful and gentle. The good never fully blocks out the bad. At best it only covers it somewhat, like see-through gauze.

And it's only a temporary solution. He can't summon the memories of dreams he likes when he's asleep. At night, he's at the mercy of whatever happens to invade his mind.

He is so tired.

He misses Six.

Tears of frustration and exhaustion and self-pity are threatening to fall when the door to the room opens. There is no knock, of course, but the clicks of the locking mechanism alert Seven to the presence of an intruder in advance.

He is instantly concerned - it's an unexpected interruption, and those rarely bring nice things in their wake. 

Seven twists around on the floor to see who has entered. It is not a Tech bringing Six back. It is not the Tech that brings him food, or the one that brings him clothes.

It is the one who usually walks him to the Nursery.

Williams.

He's a bit younger than some of the others, and he has mousy brown hair and dull gray eyes. He's not an immediate threat, and there is no reason to be as on guard with him - at least not more than usual.

Williams doesn't hit or hurt unnecessarily, or say mean things that Seven doesn't understand. He does what he does with a quiet efficiency that would be comforting if his actions were not so closely tied to Seven's continued unhappiness.

Still, Seven rolls over and sits up properly, assuming a less vulnerable position. He can't do anything to stop whatever the Tech is going to do to him, but he can at least face it head-on.

The Tech steps into the room. The door is left ajar behind him, but no one else comes in and Seven doesn't try to get out.

Where would he go, anyway? These are still the early days. He has not yet come around to the concept of escape.

Williams is holding something behind his back with one hand. Seven watches warily, sure it is going to be something unpleasant, but when the Tech is close enough he only crouches down in front of him, maintaining a non-threatening stance.

This is something new. The Techs are usually all too happy to stand above the Numbers.

Williams pulls the object he is holding out from behind him and shows Seven.

It is a toy. It looks fluffy, soft, light brown in color. It has legs and arms and a round belly, and a face with a pink nose and shiny black eyes staring back. It is familiar enough, even though Seven does not know what to call it. 

He looks up at the Tech, confused.

"For you," Williams says. "And Six. A comfort object. You remember, from the Nursery."

"We're not allowed to take anything from the Nursery," Seven replies. His fingers are itching to take the toy, to wrap himself around it and use its softness and warmth to help him sleep. It is a poor substitute for Six, but at this point Seven is so tired and upset he is willing to snatch up any source of comfort and damn the consequences.

He refrains at the last minute. He knows better. This might be another test, and if he fails pain will follow. He has learned that particular lesson well enough.

He is not allowed to want things. He is not allowed to have things.

The Tech shakes his head.

"You can have this. Keep it here."

Williams pauses, and in the silence Seven gains the courage to raise his eyes and meet the man's gaze. The Number tries dipping his toes into the man's mind... he probes gently, trying to uncover any hidden intentions. He finds a relatively blank slate - placid calm, simplicity.

He is here, as he says, to give Seven this thing.

That can't be right. That can't be all. Even with the nicer Techs there's always some ulterior motive.

Seven's face scrunches up in a flash of frustration before he forces himself to settle down. This skill of his, if you could call it that, is still too new - a recent acquisition, and not one he understands fully. He hasn't even told Six about it, and he's not going to. Why bother? It's not working, anyway. It takes too much effort to extend his burgeoning powers further, so he pulls back again and tries to read the Tech's face instead, searching for any sign of deceit.

Williams looks the way he always looks... maybe slightly anxious, like he's waiting for a reaction, but otherwise he is the same as usual. There's something in the eyes Seven can't decipher, but then again, there are often things Techs think and say and do that are utter mysteries to him.

Williams waits until Seven is looking him in the eye and then speaks, slowly and carefully, as if he is trying to say something important.

"You can keep it. For the nights. For the dreams. To help you."

Seven blinks in confusion, and then flushes.

"Dreams," he echoes weakly.

"You've been having bad ones," the Techs says.

It's not a question, although it does spark new fears in Seven. He has had bad dreams, it's true, but he hasn't caused enough of a fuss, hasn't kicked and screamed enough to send the Techs and Papa rushing in to sedate him. That has happened before, much to everyone's horror, but he's kept it under control these last few days. So how does the Tech know he's slept poorly?

Seven's eyes flick up to the walls, to the lights. He looks back at the Tech and wonders where his other eyes are - the eyes he uses to spy on Seven when Seven thinks he's safe and alone and himself.

And also... they're just dreams. In the past when he's had them he was told again and again - just dreams. Not real. Stupid Seven.

Why would this Tech, or any of the Techs, or Papa himself... why would they care about 'just dreams'? 

The boy feels slightly sick with the sudden knowledge of just how unbreakable the bars on his cage are.

"Yes," he says finally.

Yes, he's struggling with the dreams. Yes, he wants the toy, the comfort object... he wants whatever scrap and crumb he can get. Yes, he knows that he is trapped. He gets it.

He understands.

The Tech blinks at him. He looks a little confused, as though he expected more from the boy, but Seven doesn't know what else he could offer him.

"Yes," Williams repeats. "Yes, well... you can have this. You can keep it here. Make it easier when Six is gone."

Seven accepts the stuffed bear - it's a teddy bear, he learns later what teddy bears are, and even later than that he learns that most children have many such objects in their possession, soft and cuddly things that belong to them and that they get to keep. He learns that most children are not begrudged such things, that they don't have to earn them through their suffering, that they don't need to always fear losing them.

They are not locked in small rooms for days at a time and watched constantly and never allowed to see the sun and the sky.

He reaches out and grabs the bear and wraps himself around it, draws his legs up and buries his face in soft faux-fur. He closes his eyes and tries to breathe, and eventually the Tech leaves without another word to him.

Six comes back the next day, after Seven spends another sleepless night without him. Six is so exhausted and broken when he is dragged through the door and dumped unceremoniously on the ground that for a moment Seven thinks he might be dead. Seven nearly screams, nearly shrieks in anger and sorrow at the sight.

He doesn't, though.

Instead, he pulls Six up onto the bed and sticks the stuffed bear against Six's chest. He wraps his arms around the other boy and holds him while Six cries and sleeps - sleeps for ages and ages, for a full rotation of a night and a day and another night. He wakes only to eat and share whispered snatches of information, dark tales of what happened to him during Papa's tests , before falling asleep again.

The toy came on a bad day.

It sat in Six and Seven's shared room for years afterwards. It became part of the furniture. Sometimes it took on a clinical, distant air, became a utilitarian tool like a gurney or a gun.

Sometimes it brought comfort when there was no other comfort to be had.

It came when Seven was alone. Williams put it in his hands.

As such, it is technically Seven's gift. Seven's possession. 

It does not, of course, work out that way. Numbers don't own material objects, and even if they did... what belongs to Seven belongs to Six, and vice versa.

That's just the way it is.

 

 

Now

Eleven does not say 'I told you so'. She doesn't have to. She just sits on the ground with Steve as he calms down, his weeping easing off and his breathing growing even again. It is very obvious that somewhere along the line a mistake has been made without her pointing out the obvious.

What she does say is - "You can't go into Papa's head again."

"I've done it before," Steve insists, his voice thready and cracked as he pulls himself together. His mouth twists with irritation. "All the time in the early days, before I realized how boring it usually is. It was never like that. I wasn't... drowning in it. This was so... so real..."

"What changed?"

Steve shakes his head. He doesn't know. It was like his very worst fears brought to life and he has no idea how that happened.

"Maybe he's asleep?" El offers. "Like a dream?"

The boy frowns. 

"I don't know... I've never seen dreams before. Not his, not anyone's. I only ever do this when people are awake... never slept with anyone besides Six, and I didn't like to... to poke around in his mind like that." He tilts his head and looks up at the treeline, the leaves rustling in the brisk breeze. "I guess it could be? It's daytime, though. Would he be sleeping now?"

Maybe not. Still, who knows what Brenner's sleep schedule is? The man is a vampire.

(For the record, this is an analogy Steve is now qualified to make. Steve has recently learned what vampires are, and almost without thinking he associates them with Brenner. A 1970s version of 'Dracula', replete with blood and screams, was on TV the other night and he watched it when he was supposed to be in bed but couldn't sleep. He scared himself badly and woke up Hopper, though in retrospect the images on the screen weren't much worse than some of the ones he's seen in person. He's known more frightening monsters. He's lived with them most of his life.)

"You can't do it again," Eleven repeats, and, yeah, that's the point. The whys and wherefores and all the rest is guesswork and conjecture, immaterial to their situation.

"Well, I know what he wants. Got that, at least."

Steve sighs wetly and drops back against the tree, letting it take his weight as he stretches out under it. Misery weighs on him like a stone. His face and the whole front of his sweater is covered in blood from his nose, sticky and hardening in the cool air.

"I guess I always knew," he admits quietly. "But..."

Yes. But.

He knew.

He knew. He tried to tell Six.

And what he saw in Brenner's mind is just a living image of what he already understood about the darkness in Papa's soul.

He saw himself. Those eyes filled with desperation. That twisted, pained smile. The power pulsing and deadly and pulling at the leash Brenner holds in his own tight grip. Seven and Six, ready to pour out hell on everyone and everything.

What Papa wants...

"He tried to make me kill a cat once," El says dully, wrapping her arms around her knees. "With my powers. Soda cans and then cats."

"He made Six do that. And he... he killed one in front of me. That was when I tried to... that was when I decided to go. To leave. After that, I knew."

"Yes."

"He wants to use it for that. Use us for that. To hurt. To kill."

It's not a question, exactly, especially after what Steve saw, but Eleven seems to treat it as such, pondering the possibilities. After a moment she fixes him with a considering look.

"I don't know," she says. "I'm not sure it's that easy. It's easy to hurt people - anyone can do that, not just us. You can kill with bullets. He has bullets. It's more than that. Must be."

She's right, of course. Steve sighs.

"He wants more than that. He wants to chose. To... to have and keep. Keep us. He likes the... the control."

And he leaks onto everything, his touch is everywhere, and there is no escaping Papa. Not really. Not inside, where it matters most.

Six was right about that, damn him. He knew instinctively, had told Seven in his own particular way that there was no way out, that physically escaping the Lab was only half the battle... the easy half.

Seven was deluded to think he could be Steve, to daydream that Six would maybe come and join him and Eleven and Hopper, that they would be able to reach the kids safely, that they could all be a family out here in the woods, that they would ever be able to scrape Brenner out of the inside of their skulls. 

You can't remove this kind of thing. It's like a heart or a lung or a brain. You can't separate yourself from it. Not without killing yourself too. 

Seven could die, maybe.

He'd be safe if he died. No one would find him or hurt him or use him as a weapon if he was dead.

Other people, too, would be safe.

St-Seven knows how people die. He may not know what happens to a person's soul afterwards, but he knows how death happens.

He could find some way to do it. There are sharp things in the house.

If he died, Brenner would stop looking for him. Eleven and Hopper would be safe in their secret home in the woods. In time the children would forget he ever existed. He'd be erased from memory - just a single digit dropped from a long sequence of numbers, without a family, without a true name, without leaving a mark on anything in this world.

Six...

Six would move on. Right? Brenner would find someone new for him. The man has resources, he could find someone else easily. He'd have no choice if he wanted to keep Six tamed - and isn't that Seven's sole purpose in life? Hadn't he been told again and again that he was nothing more than an object for Six to play with?

But toys can be replaced. Even special ones. Six is a survivor... and Papa is nothing if not practical.

So it would really make no difference, if Seven were to just...

"I've got an idea," Eleven interrupts Steve's train of thought. He looks up, startled, to see that she is suddenly determined about something. It is almost as if she is the mind-reader of the two of them and has decided to curb Steve's suicidal musings once and for all.

"What?" he asks, confused, as she reaches down with both hands and drags him off the cold ground, shoving him towards the cabin.

"Clean sweater. Shoes." She looks down at him with a fire in her eyes reminiscent of Six's determined smolder... only this one is sparkling electric.

"Clean up," she says. "And then we're going."

"Going?"

"Going."

 

 

Max's great idea is initially met with some skepticism by the rest of the Party.

"What if someone sees him?"

"What if someone notices?"

"What if he blows the place up?"

"We can't just..."

Max quiets them all with her flawless logic.

"If Six and Seven are really on the run, then wouldn't government agents expect them to hide out somewhere? Somewhere that's hidden, like a house or a bunker? And if the people at the Lab know about us, then staying away from our houses is the best thing we could do right now. What idiot is really going to be looking there of all places, instead of at Mike's house, or Dustin's, or mine? Besides, he needs food, and other stuff, and don't you want him to have fun...?"

They're nervous. Of course they are. It's a huge risk. Besides, they only just found Six, only just reformed their bond to that fantasy world they've brushed up against in the past. He's their link to Seven, their link to adventure.

He's also vulnerable... scared and scary. They need to be careful.

But...

In the end, what's the worst that could happen?

It's only the mall.

Only the mall, but to Billy it quickly becomes an overwhelming experience. For one, it requires a journey on a bus. It is his first time on one. It is crammed with people who are just as fascinating as the view of the landscape rushing past his window. 

Even Billy, who has gone on missions and been out in the world before today, is shocked and alarmed by the number of people riding in this one stretched-out vehicle.

It's nothing compared to how awestruck he is when they reach Starcourt Mall.

The building is as wide as the Lab is tall, and is bright and loud and swarming with strangers. They rush past too quickly for Billy to properly evaluate their threat levels and identify them as friend or foe. Even the fire abandons him - he feels too small and stunned to summon up his usual weapons.

He is clutching Max’s hand without realizing it, staring at the hordes of people crowding around them, deep anxiety washing over him in waves.

“It’s okay.”

She's speaking to him. He looks down and she repeats herself, her smile wide, her eyes concerned.

"It's okay," she says.

"Yes," he snaps, immediately defensive. He doesn't like feeling afraid, and he can feel his skin heating up. He worries at first that it's the fire, but it's actually something much worse - self-consciousness. Embarrassment.

His fingers twitch in Max's grasp and he drags in a deep breath.

"It's okay," he echos.

"Where to first?" asks Will as they walk in, towing Billy behind them.

"Arcade?" Lucas suggests.

"Nah, let's eat first," says Dustin.

"I thought we were getting him clothes," says Mike. "That's the first floor. Unless it's shoes, that's..."

"Billy!"

Billy hums, distracted. He is studying the window of a store called 'Claire's', which advertises fashion jewelry and 'quick and easy' ear piercings. There is an advertisement in the window with the image of a girl with nail polish and large hoop earrings, and the boy tugs one of his earlobes with his free hand, thoughtful.

"Why are her nails like that?"  he asks suddenly. He looks down at Max's hand and sees that her nails, too, have some sort of color on them - bright orange, chipped and bitten down, while the girl in the window has blue sparkles on longer nails. He likes it, and he likes the earrings, and he's suddenly very curious about how that works.

"It's nail polish," she explains. "You can paint your nails all sorts of colors."

"Forever?"

"No, they usually last a week or two and then you can wipe it off and get a new color."

"If you're a girl," Lucas interrupts. "Girls wear make-up and nail polish and earrings. Boys don't."

"Nuh uh!" Max snaps back. "Boys can if they want to! David Bowie wears make-up and nail polish, and he's the best!"

"My dad says only men who are queers and communist agitators wear make-up," Mike chimes in. He shrugs. "He's a dickhead, though, so... I wouldn't listen to anything he says about it."

"David Bowie is pretty cool," Will adds. He looks up at Billy, considering. "You can grow your hair out now, and try nail polish if you want."

Billy does want. He wants it very much.

Too much.

"I should..." the older boy shakes his head as if to clear it, and redirects the conversation as best he can. "Clothes?"

Clothes. Better. Safer.

Yes. He's thought about this. He's put it into the proper context, reconciled it as both 'Billy' and 'Six'. Clothes are allowed. Buying clothes is probably not the worst thing he could do as part of his mission. He could tell Papa such purchases were part of his cover. He is hiding. Under cover. He needs clothes.

Right?

His insecurities are quickly swept to the side as the kids, taking his suggestion and running with it, drag him into the nearest clothing store. He is immediately assaulted by more clothes than any one person could reasonably navigate, an overwhelming array of choices and options.

His mouth drops open and his heart sinks, but he is not given an opportunity to overthink it - Max pushes him into a dressing room, yanks the curtain closed, and tells him they'll be back in a moment with some things for him to try on.

Billy is left alone with his reflection. This is something of a new experience for him. There was a mirror in the bathroom at Max's house, but he had not lingered with it. There are few reflective surfaces in the Lab, so this is perhaps the first time the Number has had nothing else to do but make a study of himself.

It is also the first time he has the chance to consider, even though he knows rationally that it is ridiculous, making actual changes to his appearance. He sees now the face he presents to the world. 

He tugs at his mop of curls, usually kept on the short side in the Lab but grown out a bit now after much strategic wheedling on his part. He touches his earlobe again and tries to envision a piercing there. Not a hoop earring, maybe. Something else, something sharper, sleeker. More him... or the 'him' he would like to be.

He turns around and looks over his shoulder at his back. Then he turns again and looks at his front.

He bares his teeth. He tries smiling. It doesn't look very nice when he sees it. There is something false about it. 

That can't be right, surely... he can't look that dangerous every time he smiles. He knows some smiles are lies, but he didn't think his were. Not all of them, anyway, and not the ones he shows to people he likes.

What does he do with Seven and the kids? What face does he make when he's actually happy?

He tries softening his features. Just the thought of Seven is enough to smooth the smile out somewhat. 

Is this what they see when they look at him?

His musings are interrupted when Max thrusts a handful of shirts at him through the curtain.

"Try these!"

What follows can only be described as one of the more surreal moments in Billy's life. He obeys Max's command and starts working his way through the clothes offered. He tries on shirt after shirt, jackets and pants, and after he puts on each item he steps out from behind the curtain.

The kids are hilariously invested in his choices.

"I like it!" Dustin says about rather loud yellow shirt featuring someone named 'Weird Al'.

"How about this one," says Mike, holding up a black shirt with the sleeves cut off.

"Pants are too tight," Will chortles. 

“Try this one, Billy!”

“Oh my god, you can’t give him that!”

“Why not?”

Billy is already putting on the bright pink crop top Max handed him. He tugs it down a little and looks at himself in the mirror. He looks good, he supposes - the shirt is a nice color and not at all uncomfortable - but he’s also a little bit confused.

“Where’s the rest of it?” he asks, bemused, running his hand across his bare stomach.

The kids hear him and explode into giggles on the other side of the curtain.

After a solid length of time and much discussion, Billy finally grows tired of the process and makes his selection. He decides not to buy the crop top or anything else besides a simple red button-up shirt. He figures that it is perfectly fine to purchase this. He needs to be able to blend in, after all, and he can do that better if he has at least one clean shirt to change into.

(If the deep red color shocks him to his core when he sees it, if the fabric is smooth and soft and lovely against his skin, if the shirt shows off his eyes and muscles to an advantage... well, those are just happy coincidences. Breaking the unwritten rules.) 

Lucas and Max lead him through the process of paying for the shirt. Even though this is a thing he has practiced before on missions and in Lab simulations, he is grateful for the comfort of their bodies next to his as he glares down the cashier and hands over the money.

It is over quickly, and then he owns a shirt, bought and paid for with his own (Papa's, a voice in his head screams. It's not yours, it's Papa's...) money. He has a possession now. It's all his.

Mission success.

They aren't entirely home free, however.

They are on their way out of the store when he sees it.

It’s love at first sight.

The leather jacket rests wrapped around a store mannequin, and Billy slips away from the chattering group of children, finds himself drawn to the display as if by a magnetic pull.

He eyes the jacket, reaching out to brush his fingers against it. The leather is sleek and buttery soft, the deep black of it studded with shiny silver buttons and zippers and almost glowing under the bright florescent lights. It's just like the one belonging to the man on the beach in the TV show he'd been so enamored with.

He knows they don’t have the money for it. Even with his limited understanding of the cost of material things, he appreciates instinctively that something this wonderful must be out of his reach. He knows that, but still.

His palms itch a little, the fire... not burning, not flaring out, exactly... but rather flickering slightly underneath, warm and wanting.

It’s not even the jacket, perhaps… or at least it’s not just that. His heart warms at the idea of the jacket, just like it did at the idea of the ocean, the beach.

In his mind’s eye he sees himself wearing the leather jacket and little else. In his vision he is strong and powerful and confident, and his strength is on display in the way his broad chest fills in the soft material. Shiny, sleek blackness against sweat-drenched skin.

Seven is there. The other boy looks at Billy and his jacket and finds him desirable, sees in him someone who can love and protect him from all the evils of the world - even from the Techs, even from Papa. The jacket makes Billy's finer qualities clear, marks him as someone special and worthy, untouchable. Seven's long hair catches the light, his bare skin warm and his smile wide with happiness as he presses himself into his lover's waiting arms.

Together, wrapped around each other, they walk down the beach, down the sand, next to the ocean...

Except, of course, none of those things actually...

No.

It's a dream. Not real.

Hurts. It hurts. The impossibility of that perfect vision hurts.

It makes him sad. And angry. 

And Billy could...

He could, perhaps, just take the jacket.

Sure. He could.

It's an interesting thought. He turns it over in his head, considering.

If you believe Brenner and all his big speeches, Six is a special, superhuman being. He's nothing at all like these insects scurrying around him with their petty morals and their insignificant ambitions (not that Six's true ambitions are particularly significant - he is just collecting all the small scraps of happiness he can - but Brenner's ambitions inevitably become his own in the perpetual reconstruction of his character). He's not defined by the same things that normal people are.

He could take the jacket.

He could stop anyone who tried to get in his way. That's the point of having power. Power means having whatever you want. Taking it, regardless of what other people feel or think.

Brenner takes. The Techs take. He could just…

“Oh wow!” Max says, standing at his elbow and looking up at the display. “It’s like the jacket from that movie…”

“The Terminator,” Will pipes up, also coming up next to Billy. The kid reaches out and touches the jacket, his fingers small next to Billy’s. “We can show you the poster, Billy, when we go past the movie theater. Arnold Schwarzenegger.”

"'Come with me if you want to live!'" Lucas says in his best imitation of the character.

"That's not even something the Terminator says!" Max laughs, punching him in the arm.

“The Terminator’s lame,” Mike says from where he is idly poking a stack of jeans, his voice picking up enthusiasm as he warms to his subject. “He’s just Wolverine but more machine-based. Someone like Magneto could take him out in a second.”

“Yeah, Billy,” Dustin adds, grinning. “There are better superheroes. We’ll get you some comics to look at. Lucas can give you his Uncanny X-Men #141...”

“Hey!” Lucas protests.

“It’s got Pyro in it. He’s like you! And Steven is like Professor X…”

“He is not like Professor X… he’s like…”

The bickering continues while Max snags the price tag on the jacket with her free hand. Her face scrunches when she sees the number, and she shakes her head.

“You could buy your own car for that. Sorry, Billy.”

The desire to take the jacket anyway flares up again, but somehow the idea is both less realistic and less appealing now that Max is standing next to him and the kids are chatting happily around him.

He knows that such an act would cause problems, in spite of Papa's words about supermen and power and the new world order. Those ideas are all nice dreams, he supposes, but they aren't here and now.

They don't matter so much - they are Brenner's dreams. Power for the sake of a grand plan. That's not his dream. He knows the difference. Sometimes he can tell the difference.

Billy... Six wants power. Of course he does. He needs it to protect himself and others, to get what he wants - who he wants - in a place where he can be with them and look after them. Power is what he used to get Seven back last time. Power is what keeps them both safe.

It's nothing like what Papa wants.

And what was he always trying to tell Seven? The present moment is what matters. It is the only thing that does.

The here and the now - him and the little ones around him. It would make the kids unhappy if he took the jacket without paying for it, if he set fire to the clerk and stole what he wanted for himself. They would be upset with him. They would get into trouble... they might even get hurt.

That… matters. It matters more than Billy getting what he wants.

His new friends look up at him with eyes bright with excitement. With happiness.

With trust.

Max can see Billy get a strange, agitated look on his face as he processes what is going on. Her hand finds its way into Billy’s again and squeezes. He squeezes back and looks down at her.

“Pizza?” he asks hoarsely.

She smiles up at him and nods.

 

 

"Are you sure?" Steve asks for the twentieth time.

"Sure," El says. "We'll stay hidden. It's easy to do that in crowds. We'll be in and out before anyone sees us."

They'd hiked here through the woods. It had taken them over an hour, but it was an hour well spent in Steve's opinion. He is very nervous about this - he understands that this is a huge risk.

It is what Hopper would call 'stupid'.

But his doubts are quickly wiped away when he sees it.

The mall.

First off, it's huge. Coming up to the building puts Steve in mind of those moments he'd been dragged back to the Lab, the intimidating space looming up out of the landscape like a living monstrosity. He quickly realizes, however, that this place is nothing at all like the dreadful place he'd escaped.

Where the Lab was one anonymous, cramped, dimly-lit room room after another, the interior of the mall is a wide open space, brightly lit and spread out. There are shops and fountains and noise, all of it designed to make a visitor feel free even when indoors.

And the people! So many of them! So bright and colorful, laughing and chattering and content. Steve sees flashing sparkles of happiness over so many different faces as they connect with family and friends, as they share treats and treasures, as they seek out items that speak to them as individuals.

Even the ones that are less than happy are utterly fascinating.

"A baby!" Steve coos loudly, jolting forward as a mother pushing a very small child in a stroller passes them. He's never seen one in person before, and the sight is just as adorable as one might imagine. 

The motion almost topples the stack of boxes hiding him and Eleven from view, and she has to pull him back quickly to avoid calling attention to themselves. They've snuck in through a service entrance and are escaping unwanted attention by staying at the outer edges of the mall's interior. She is successful - the baby gurgles at them but its mother is oblivious.

Still bubbling with excitement, Steve remembers himself enough to calm down.

They have a very specific mission, after all. 

"Okay," Eleven reaches into her pocket and pulls out a green piece of paper. "Here's what you do."

Steve listens carefully to her instructions. She says she'll wait for him, watch his back and make sure nothing bad happens. But this is something he should do alone. A new experience, something he can hold on to when the walls start closing in.

A step forward.

Steve takes a deep breath, abandons the safety of their hiding place, and marches through the crowd of people towards the store in question. It is, as most of the stores are, brightly lit and colorful. It is also, fortunately, relatively empty of people and other distractions, and it smells deliciously sweet.

Reaching his destination, he stares up at the giant board covered in choices, choices, choices.

"Welcome to Scoops Ahoy," a slouching girl behind the counter says in a voice dripping with boredom. "What can I get you?"

Steve stalls instantly. It should upset him, but instead the feeling is strangely wonderful.

He is floundering not because he is being pinned down by Techs or judged by Brenner. He can make decisions now. He can do anything he wants because he is alive and he is free.

He walked all the way through a woods and he is surrounded by strangers and he is here in this bright and colorful place and he is free.

Choices! Ice cream! People!

Steve feels slightly dizzy, and he's grinning almost maniacally. He can't help himself. He's being swept away by a mad rush of something like sheer, unbridled glee. 

“Hey, moron!”

Steve blinks, startled by the girl behind the counter. On closer inspection she looks like she might be around his age or a little younger. She has dark blonde hair and Walkman headphones around her neck and a band-aid on her elbow. She makes a face at him and gestures at the list of flavors behind her.

“You gonna order something or what?”

Steve stalls again.

“Moron?” he asks, finally, after a long and agonizing moment. He’s not familiar with the term.

“Yeah,” the girl rolls her eyes at him. “Sorry, but you’re just standing there like an idiot. Make up your mind already.”

Oh. Okay. 'Idiot'. Steve knows what that is.

“There’s…” he tries. “There’s a lot of choices.”

The girl huffs. “No kidding.”

“Sorry.” Steve drags his gaze down to the tubs of ice cream in the display in front of him. He’s not even sure what he is apologizing for, but it is moments like these when all the sheer impossibilities of his situation are very apparent.

The joy is evaporating just as quickly as it came.

He should be able to do this. It’s what he wanted, after all. Choices.

That's the point of this whole exercise. He knows that. El brought him here to show him possibilities so he wouldn't want to... to do anything drastic. It's good, a good idea, and he gets the point she's making, but...

His fingers tug at his sleeve cuff, seeking comfort in the feeling of soft flannel. He tugs it over the burn scar on his wrist and huffs, annoyed at himself.

When Steve looks up again something in the girl’s face has softened.

“Do you have a favorite?” she asks.

“I haven’t tried them all.”

“Try this.” The girl grabs a small plastic spoon and scoops out a taster-size bit of something, hands it to Steve. The ice cream is bright pink with flakes of what Steve recognizes as chocolate.

The ice cream hits Steve’s tongue and he feels a burst of happiness.

“It’s good,” he says, grinning. “I like it a lot.”

“It’s Cherry Garcia. You want a cone?”

“A cone?”

The girl rolls her eyes so hard Steve fears for the stability of her neck.

“Oh my god…”

The girl behind the counter makes the decision for him in the end, but it is one he is quite pleased with. She hands him a cone full of Cherry Garcia and topped with whipped cream and sprinkles. The sprinkles are particularly fascinating for Steve with their rainbow of colors, and he can’t stop smiling as he eats them.

After a few delicious bites, he remembers the money in his pocket and hands the girl the bill El gave him.

“I’m Steve,” he says as he does so, still grinning.

“I didn’t ask,” the girl reminds him, handing him his change.

She probably doesn’t want to be his friend, then. It’s fine. It doesn’t dampen his mood too much. He has ice cream, after all.

He's completed his mission, achieved his goal. He understands a little bit, now, why Six always felt so satisfied when he completed Papa's tasks.

“Thank you,” he says, ignoring his new not-friend's rudeness, and turns to go and find El.

“Robin.”

Steve looks back. The girl is crawling up on the counter behind the register and putting her headphones back on, watching him out of the corner of her eye.

“I’m Robin,” she says, the slightest smile curling up one side of her mouth.

“Thank you, Robin,” Steve says.

“Whatever. Moron.”

 

 

There are only three rules. Hopper calls them the 'Don't Be Stupid' rules. They are few and short and to the point, so they should be easy to remember.

They are also easy to break. And once you break one rule it is very easy to break another. And another.

Eleven is breaking her own rule now... or at least, she is deviating from her set plan.

The stores are so tempting, though. El can see the food court from here, sees that Steve is doing fine in Scoops Ahoy. As she waits for him to return, she slips out of her hiding place and into a nearby store that says 'GAP' in big lettering on the front. It's a clothing store, and El eyes up the brightly colored offerings, fiddling with the frayed edges of her own oversized shirt while she does so.

She is examining a dress with a geometric pattern printed on it when a stranger's voice interrupts her thoughts.

"Pretty."

Startled, she turns quickly to face the speaker. He is a boy, pale and skinny, with a mop of dark hair, standing a few feet away from her. Uncertain, she decides to bluff her way out, a technique she has learned from Hopper.

She raises her eyebrow and the boy coughs nervously.

"The... the dress!" he stutters out. "It's, um... pretty. Real pretty!"

Eleven looks back at the dress. 

"Pretty," she repeats.

"Not..." The boy stumbles on and she turns to him again. "Not that you... aren't..."

"Aren't?"

"Aren't pretty?"

"I'm... not pretty?"

"No, you are! Pretty! And the dress! In the dress! Or in what you're wearing! Both! Pretty... you know... whatever."

Eleven bites back a grin and nods.

"I'm pretty."

"Yes," the boy sighs, relieved. "Yes. I'm Mike."

"Mike. Hi, Mike."

"Hi. Are you gonna buy it?"

Eleven blinks at him and then remembers the dress. As she does so she also remembers the rest of it - Steve and Hopper and the cabin and the fact that she shouldn't be out here talking to people. 

Even if those people are nice. And... pretty.

"Mike! Come on! We're getting pizza!"

That's a boy's voice. More people.

More people who, if they get a good look her or Steve, will be able to identify them if Brenner comes searching. Eleven glances over and sees that Steve has gotten his ice cream and is coming back to their now-abandoned hiding place. She needs to move.

"Yeah, I'm coming!" Mike yells back.

He is standing between Eleven and her escape route. She doesn't have time to think - she acts on instinct. With a flick of her head she sends a mannequin just behind Mike careening into a display stand, knocking it over.

Mike jumps and spins around, startled by the loud noise and the spontaneous destruction. 

"Hey!" yells the sales clerk. "What the hell, kid!"

"I didn't do anything!" Mike yells back, raising his hands in the air as if to showcase his innocence. "I didn't touch it!"

"Get out of here...!"

"Mike!"

"Wait, I..."

But when he turns around again, the strange, pretty girl is nowhere to be found.

 

 

Steve's joy lasts as he shares his ice cream with El, and then all the way back through the woods. It's cold outside - probably too cold for ice cream - but he enjoys the fresh air and the smell of trees. He doesn't think he'll ever tire of the woods and how it feels to be outside. He and El share and rehash all their experiences at the mall as they walk.

I made a friend, Steve thinks, happiness bubbling up inside of him. And even if she's not a real friend she told me her name. Robin. Robin. Cherry Garcia. Moron. Sprinkles. Robin. I bought an ice cream cone with sprinkles from Robin at Scoops Ahoy at Starcourt Mall.

It takes longer to get home then it did to get to the mall - or at least it feels like longer. It's dark by the time they reach the cabin.

They find it easily in the falling twilight, however. The lights are on. Also, Hopper is standing on the front porch, looming ominously, radiating anger.

There is a fight when they get inside.

Steve watches in horror as Eleven storms past Hopper without speaking, as the older man throws himself after her, as the yelling starts.

He knows that he is at least partially responsible for their adventure today. They left the cabin because Eleven wanted him to not be sad anymore - ergo, it is his fault. It was a risk, a stupid risk, and they both knew it, and they did it anyway. And even though Eleven has been out of the Lab for longer and is more savvy about the world than Steve is, Steve is still the bigger one of the two of them.

Latent feelings of responsibility and guilt rise up as the voices do. Fighting is bad - it is always bad. He is so desperate to placate both parties that he very nearly throws himself between them, willing take all the blame if it makes the hurt stop.

His window to do so, however, closes before he can make that decision. 

Suddenly, Eleven is screaming about being trapped here in the cabin, about never being allowed to leave, and about Hopper breaking promises. She is yelling about Hopper failing her, and Steve, and all the Numbers, about him not making it safe for them to be free.

Hopper yells back. He insists that he is doing his best, that he is trying, that she is making it difficult. He calls her and Steve stupid, and Steve can't help but flinch violently from the sidelines as the familiar insult hits home.

It quickly becomes apparent to him that taking the blame will not help. It is clear that this argument Hopper and Eleven are having has been brewing for a long time, lurking under the surface of their life here. It is an ugly monster that existed between them long before Steve arrived, and it is only rearing its ugly head now.

Hopper calls Eleven a brat.

Eleven says that Hopper is like Papa.

Steve wants to crawl into his closet and curl up under the covers of his little bed and drown out the sounds of the fighting. He is very nearly physically paralyzed. Mentally and emotionally he is collapsing under the weight of panic and terror.

For all the violence he has survived in his life, he has only rarely witnessed anything like this kind of full-pitched argument. In his experience, screaming like this always ends in torture and death.

He doesn't run away. He wants to, but he doesn't. He stays because he needs to protect Eleven and Hopper. He needs to protect them both, even if it is from each other. They are both in pain and he cannot leave them.

In the end Eleven is the one who leaves. She storms into her room and slams the door shut, knocking over a bookcase with her powers as she goes.

Hopper braces himself against the door, shouting one last invective over El's shriek of despair. 

When the older man turns back to where Steve is standing stock still in the corner of the living room, Steve flinches back. He can't help it - it's an instinctive reaction.

Hopper's facade of anger crumbles.

"Se... Steve... I..." 

The older man draws in a deep breath and shakes his head. The boy waits, expecting some sort of answer, something that will tell him what to do - something that will make all of this make sense. He wants Hopper to give him something that will fix this.

That doesn't happen.

"Go to your room," Hopper says finally. Steve can't help but feel a horrible wave of disappointment.

"Did you find the kids?" The words slip out without Steve's permission, the fears from earlier in the day coming to the forefront again. He must be stupid, not taking the escape route offered to him, but he needs to know. "Are they okay?"

Hopper's chest is still heaving and his voice is raw when he speaks.

"No, I didn't find them." He shakes his head. "Tomorrow, Steve."

"But..."

"They weren't at home today. Their parents said they're fine. I'll get them all together during school hours tomorrow."

"But, you didn't see them."

Steve is not built for conflict and confrontation, but when the moment arises he is more than willing to attack. He must be crazy, must be out of his mind to be challenging the big man this way, but suddenly he doesn't care that Hopper is so diminished, defenseless, broken by Eleven's words. He doesn't care that Eleven is crying in the other room.

"You didn't see them, Six could have them already, he could..."

"Steve," Hopper growls, patience at an end. "Go to your room. Go to bed. Now."

"You promised," Steve whispers. "Please, you promised."

"I know, kid."

"You said you believed me," he says, voice rising. "You promised."

"I do believe you. You have to trust me."

He does...he thought he did, but suddenly he isn't so sure anymore. Steve's eyes dart to Eleven's room. He thinks of the things she said. 

About them not being allowed to leave this place. About Hopper keeping them here... keeping them trapped. Like Papa. Not free to leave. Not allowed to be around other people.

Fear, then. Fear rises up and suddenly Steve wants to do exactly as he's told and slip away into his bedroom. He wants to hide from the threat in front of him.

He smells a trap, but the cage doors are already closed.

"Steve..."

The sound of his false name is what does it. His heart falls, his courage vanishes, and he darts out of the room to shut himself away in his little closet and try to get his breathing, harsh and ragged and coupled with unshed tears, back under control.

 

 

There is pizza and then there is the arcade. Billy and the kids successfully spend an entire day in the mall and put a serious dent in Billy's stolen funds. It is one of the best days the boy has ever had.

They are all playing games in the arcade when Billy sees him. He is standing just a little ways away, holding a fountain drink in a paper cup in one hand, his gaze flicking over the display in front of him, looking as casual as any other shopper. 

He and Billy make eye contact and then the man turns and walks away. There is no verbal exchange, but there doesn't need to be.

They've played this scenario out before.

He doesn't want to go, but the look in the man's eyes is perfectly easy to read, and he knows that if he doesn't walk across that wide space and meet it everything will come crashing down.

Williams is standing in front of Kaufman Shoes, waiting for him. The kids are distracted by the lights and sounds of the games, and it is easy enough for Bi... for Six to slip away. He is subtle about it, using every trick he was taught as Brenner's little foot soldier, and soon enough he is standing next to the Tech, partially obscured from anyone's direct line of sight by an oversized plant.

There is a beat as Six awaits his instructions.

"I'm curious, Six," the agent says after a long stretch of silence. His voice is perfectly calm, almost amused, but Six isn't fooled at all.

"I wonder what you're thinking," Williams glances over at him. "I wonder how you think this is all going to work."

Six knows enough to be silent. That was not a question.

Despite the words and the tone he knows he is not being asked for an explanation.

"Seven is not here," Williams says, a statement of fact. "Where is he?"

"He's not with the children," Six replies, trying to keep his voice equally empty of feeling. "I've checked all known potential spots. He's not here. He'll come, though. He thinks they're his friends. He wants to be with them and he'll come. Soon."

The other man hums thoughtfully and takes a loud sip of his soda, slurping the liquid through a straw. 

"Brenner said that it was significant that Seven smashed up his ankle to get the tracker off," Williams muses. His eyes meet Six's and the boy sees a flash of vindictive glee, and also something else he can't quite identify. "You didn't know about that? Oh, well, those things are designed to withstand a lot of force... or did you think he'd just slipped it off? Who knows the damage he's done to himself. He might be down a leg by now. Or dead in a ditch somewhere."

Six does not flinch. He doesn't. His fingers twitch, but he manages to reign the flicker of fire in just in time.

"Brenner seemed to think it was significant," Williams continues. "Thought the fact that he got rid of the tracker was a sign that Seven had evolved, that his logic and critical thinking skills had developed from his last escape attempt. I had my doubts, it's true, but the more I think about it... Seven perhaps isn't as stupid as we believed."

The man shrugs and tosses the remains of his drink into a nearby trashcan.

"At the very least, it proves that he is willing to damage himself, to make hard choices, in order to escape and stay free."

Six struggles to process the implications of this. His gaze flicks away before returning to the Tech's placid face. He tries not to give anything away but he cannot help but be disturbed by what he's hearing. 

"He won't come to the children, Six," the agent says, finally, with the air of someone explaining a basic concept to a small child. "He knows we know about his friends, and he won't risk putting them in danger. He's strangely moral like that, don't you think? Self-sacrificing. He learned that from living as your plaything. It's a weakness of his, but not one which, in this case, hurts him."

Seven isn't coming. And Six... Six had been distracted. For a moment there he had stopped looking.

There is danger here. Six can recognize it. It is his most basic, fundamental skill - recognizing danger. Only this new danger is insidious, abstract. He didn't see this one coming.

Seven isn't coming and he... he forgot to keep looking. He forgot the mission.

The agent shifts from where he is leaning and straightens his tie. He starts to walk away, leaving Six to his undercover gig, but as he goes his last words are clear and inescapable.

"Find Seven," he says, voice low, cold. "You won't like the consequences if we pull you out empty-handed."

 

 

It is late at night when Steve emerges from his room.

He knows Hopper is still awake. He can hear the TV. 

It's probably a bad idea to leave the safety of his room. He knows this, he's not stupid. He does it anyway. He comes out because he is trying to be brave.

The older man is staring glumly at the TV, his eyes unseeing as he takes in whatever is happening on the screen. Steve is moving nearly silently, but the man must hear him anyway, must sense his presence, because he speaks without looking up.

"I made a promise."

Steve startles at the sudden sound, but Hopper pays him no mind. He just keeps his eyes glued to the screen in front of him and speaks in a voice dripping with self-recrimination.

"I made a promise. A lot of promises. When Eleven first came. I found her in the woods, eating a...a squirrel, of all things. Young kid. So young. So young. Brave and terrified. And she told me who was to blame. It's not like she hid it. It's not like she didn't tell me."

The man sighs and shakes his head.

"I was going to find Brenner and kill him. I was going to expose the Lab and all the things they were doing there. If the newspapers or the government weren't interested, I was going to burn the place down myself. A one man army. Such a fool. I was so angry and I didn't think... I want you you believe me, kid. I meant it when I made those promises. I still do."

Steve steps into the room and moves towards the man. He's still wary and afraid of more fighting, but he's also listening to what the old cop has to say.

"I might be a coward," Hopper says. "I never thought of myself as one, but I might be. But I... I have... I had a daughter."

The boy can't stifle a small gasp at this new information. The cop nods at the sound but still doesn't look up and meet his eyes.

"I had a daughter. Sarah. My little girl. Beautiful little girl. She died and then her mother left and... she... I can't lose El. I can't lose her. I can't... I can't lose you."

Hopper sighs again, deep and sad, and finally looks up at Steve.

"I never want you, either of you, to be hurt. At all. So I hid you both away. I've made a... a science of hiding, these last two years. Because... because keeping Eleven safe was more important. More important than stopping what was happening. All that evil, and I didn't stop it. Couldn't think past protecting the only thing I had. I didn't care about the others. I didn't care about you until I saw you in the woods. I left you in that place for years. You suffered for years. Others have suffered. Because I'm a coward."

Steve is not a mind-reader in the strictest sense of the word. In this moment, however, he feels something important click into place, some missing piece of the puzzle. He can see the older man's frailty and shame, can see what drives him. Simple, really.

In a way, Hopper is very like Papa. He wants to control the world around him, to impose order on chaos. He wants to be the puppeteer holding the strings because that way he can decide who stays safe and who gets hurt. 

But really, the old cop could not be less like Brenner if he tried.

Steve ponders this. He walks further into the room and sits down on the couch next to Hopper. 

He sits in silence for a moment, and then speaks... slow and careful, yet at the same time with total conviction, driven on by a profound need to explain.

"There were lots of them," he says. "Lots of Techs. Grown-ups. People bigger and older and smarter than me. Bigger than Papa. Bigger than you. They worked in the Lab all the time, every day, for years and years. So many that I don't know most of their names. There was one, Williams, who was almost nice. He never hit, and he never yelled. He gave me a toy once, even though it wasn't approved. He stopped the worst Techs from going too far. He was probably the best, the one that wasn't too scary."

Steve sucks in a deep breath. He is not ready to give Hopper or anyone else the full story just yet - he's not even sure he could say it out loud even if he wanted to - but he can still give him this.

"He also took me to isolation, to punishments. He'd help strap me down before the electroshock treatments. He put me in the Bathtub. When Papa told him to hurt me and Six, he did. I begged him to help me, to stop hurting me, but he wouldn't. He did what Brenner told him, always."

Hopper makes a soft, wounded noise, but the boy barely hears it.

"Six can set things on fire," Steve continues, nearly overwhelmed by his growing sadness, his eyes skirting away from the cop as he gives voice to his shame and pain. "Eleven can move things without touching them. I can blow things up with my mind if I get mad enough. I knew others... we all had powers. We all had things we could do to hurt. To kill. The Techs had prods and guns, but we had our own weapons, too.

"We only got the ankle bands after El ran. That's not long. That's two years ago... I remember when it happened. I already hated it there, already hated the Techs before we got the band. Why didn't we run before? Why didn't we kill Brenner? Six leaves on missions all the time - goes out into the world with a wallet and a name. He never ran... he never runs. He always comes back to the Lab, to me. We're all powerless... because we choose it."

Steve blinks and drags in a shaky breath, fixing his eyes on Eleven's bedroom door.

"It's not just you. It's not even Papa. It's just that sometimes having choices and not having choices feels like the same thing. They're both scary. They both mean you're powerless... just in different ways. I stayed in the cage. For a long time I ignored my powers and I stayed."

"You chose to run." 

"Not soon enough," Steve whispers, a harsh pang in his chest. "Not far enough." 

"Far enough, kid. You ran far enough."

Steve looks up at the older man, who lifts one of his big hands and rubs between the boy's shoulder blades comfortingly. He's crying and he didn't even realize it... Hopper reaches over and gently brushes a tear away.

"I'll go tomorrow, Steve," Hopper says. "I couldn't today but I swear, I believe you when you say the kids are in danger. I wouldn't have left it for later if I didn't think they'd be okay in the meantime. I just couldn't find them today, and I was worried that if I kicked up too much fuss it'd call attention to us. I'm sure Brenner's people are out there, watching. But I'll find the kids. I'll warn them."

"Promise?" Steve can't help but ask.

"I promise. I'll keep my promise, son."

Steve nods and, after a moment, smiles. He glances back over to El's bedroom door and the smile drops slightly. Hopper follows his line of sight and sighs heavily.

"She's not wrong to be upset," he says. "I told her when she came that I would make it safe for her, but... I get why she sees this place as a prison. I owe you both... a lot. This is on me. But, kid, you can't leave the cabin again without me. Okay? It's not safe. If Brenner or anyone saw you..."

"I know," Steve says. He does. He is still wary of any traps and cages, of anything that limits his newfound freedom, but he does understand. He ducks his head and throws Hopper a worried look.

"It's my fault we went," he admits quietly. "I was sad. El was worried about me. She wanted me to be less sad, so..."

Hopper studies the boy for a minute. "And did it help? The mall?"

Steve tilts his head and then nods, awe and anxiety leaking into his voice.

"So... so many choices, Hopper. So many people! I didn't think..." he shakes his head. The sharp edge of bitterness creeps into his mind and his tone. "I can see why Papa never wanted to let me out. I can see why Six never did. He always told me the world is awful and dangerous, but it isn't. So many choices. So much happiness. It's so... so beautiful. He knew, and he lied to me about it. He kept it from me."

"Six?"

Steve nods.

"The world can be scary, it's true. He wasn't exactly wrong there."

"I want to hate him," Steve confesses, revulsion rising in his chest even as he speaks the words. "Six. He didn't tell me. He kept the world from me. He wanted me scared."

There isn't much Hopper can say to that. The boy sighs, confusing feelings swirling inside of him, and the cop tugs him into a hug, unsure of what else to do.

"It's okay, Steve," he murmurs. "You're okay."

It's okay. It's okay because Hopper said so and Steve does... he does trust Hopper. He needs to trust someone and Hopper is good. He's rough and foolish and flawed, but he is good. He looks at Hopper for a long moment, enjoying the warmth of his hand on his back.

Then, he leans over quickly and kisses the corner of the older man’s mouth.

“Whoa!” Hopper jumps in his seat. “Kid…”

Steve lifts a hand to the older man’s face and leans in again, his intentions very clear.

“No.” Steve finds himself blocked. Hopper grabs the boy’s hand and holds him away, gentle but firm. “Steve, no.”

No.

No… no kissing?

“Why?” Steve doesn’t understand.

“Jesus, kid, we’re not… it’s not like that with us.”

Not like what? Steve likes Hopper. Hopper is kind, and he touches him gently, with affection, even in moments like this when Steve has clearly gotten something wrong.

The only other person to ever touch him like that was Six. The only other person who automatically forgave his many failings was Six. And Six isn't here, Six is on the opposite side of everything Steve wants, and Hopper...

“You’re a child, Steve, just a kid.” Hopper is talking now, explaining himself, but Steve, who is irked at himself for being so slow on the uptake, doesn’t really understand how his words affect their situation.

“A vulnerable kid,” the older man continues doggedly, still holding him at arms length there on the couch. “You don’t understand, you can’t… I’m supposed to look out for you. Not… not do this. Not like this.”

Now Steve is really confused.

“Like Six,” Steve tries to clarify. “We did this. Kissing. Touching. It’s good. It feels good.”

Hopper lowers Steve’s hand to his lap, still holding it in one oversized fist, and rubs his shoulder soothingly with the other.

“Okay," he says, in a voice that very clearly telegraphs that it is not okay. "Right. But…”

“Like Six,” Seven - no, Steve, he’s Steve now, not Seven - insists. “Feels good. Happy.”

“Steve.” The older man sighs and looks up at the ceiling like he does when he’s trying to find answers. “Okay, Steve. Listen. Do you feel about me the way you did about Six?”

“I don’t want Six anymore,” Steve snaps crossly. “I choose.”

“It’s okay, kid. You’re not… just tell me. Is it the same with me? Do you feel about me the same way you felt about Six?”

That seems like an irrelevant question, but Steve gamely answers it.

“You look out for me. Feed me and help me. You keep me safe. You…” Steve lifts his hand and pats where Hopper’s big paw is resting on his shoulder. He doesn’t really have the words to explain it, but he tries anyway. “You touch me. It feels good.”

Hopper doesn’t respond except for spasmodically clenching his hand. To his credit, he doesn’t actually remove it from Steve’s shoulder in a misjudged attempt to reject him and put distance between them, but it’s clearly a near thing.

Steve sees it anyway.

A fresh wave of panic washes over the boy.

“Hopper. Please… don’t…”

He stumbles, unsure how to finish that sentence. Don’t what?

Don’t stop. Don’t start. Don’t hurt me.

Please don’t hurt me.

Please don’t…

“I’m not,” Hopper shakes his head, apparently understanding enough, if not quite everything Steve is trying to say. “Jesus, kid. I’m not. I won’t.”

He seems upset, angry, and the sight makes Steve nervous. He’s so big and displeased and that can’t be good...

Hopper must pick up on the boy’s growing distress because he makes a conscious effort to smooth out the lines in his brow and appear smaller. He hunches over a little and leans back, and somehow the sight of the big man trying so hard to make himself look less threatening is almost funny enough to ease Steve’s anxiety.

“It’s okay,” says Hopper. “It’s okay. Jesus Christ, I’m going to kill that man, Brenner. I’m going to…”

He shakes his head again as if to clear it, and sucks in a long breath.

“Look, Steve… There are lots of different kinds of touching and lots of different kinds of loving. What I think you feel for Six is different than what you feel for me.”

Steve shakes his head.

“It is,” Hopper insists. “There are lots of different ways to take care of someone, to give them what they need.”

“No.” That has not been Steve’s experience.

“There are lots of different kinds of love, son,” the cop says gently. “Think, okay? Think about how you feel about El. About me.”

Steve opens his mouth to argument and then stops… thinks.

Six is fire. Six’s touches are comfort and pleasure and fire. Seven always felt an irresistible pull, stronger than gravity. A burning inside, in his belly. 

Hopper is warm. Big and protective, and without that edge of danger that Six has. Without the all-consuming draw.

Like Brenner but not. In control but not.

Smart and warm and always trying…

Like with Eleven, there isn't the same kind of need. There is need, certainly... he loves them, he does... but it doesn't burn the same way.

Steve nods slowly.

Yes, maybe it is different. And he never needed to question it with Six, never really needed to ask. They always had anyway, always talked, always requested feedback and permission before they touched each other, but they never needed to. Asking was just part of the game, the foreplay. No one else in that horrible place ever asked them anything about what they wanted or didn’t want.

Nobody else cared.

To give and take and touch and talk about it was what made them different. And the answer to the question had always been ‘yes’.

So maybe it is different, and doesn't that make it all the more confusing? Because Steve doesn't want to want Six. It's like how it is with Brenner. Steve wants to be free, and he is free, but not inside, not where it matters. He's still in Six's orbit.

He still can't make the choice.

This line of reasoning leads to another - Steve has a horrible thought suddenly that makes his heart drop in his chest.

He hadn’t asked.

He remembers some of the Techs, the ones with dark glints in their eyes, touching him in places he didn’t like. Touching him when he didn’t want to be touched. Touching him without asking, without caring.

He remembers Brenner’s hand landing hard on his cheek with a loud cracking sound and his head snapping back from the sheer violence of the blow.

He remembers grasping hands pushing him down.

He remembers Six’s teeth breaking skin.

And now…

Steve kissed Hopper when Hopper didn’t want to be kissed.

He’s no better than…

He almost falls off the couch in his hurry to do the only thing he can - to make himself small, to get on his knees, to go pliant and hope that this placates the person he has unintentionally harmed.

Hopper, fortunately, seems to see what Steve is going to do before he does it, and because he is already half-holding him in his grip he is able to prevent the worst of the fall. Steve’s knees barely hit the floor before he is scooped up into massive arms and pressed into Hopper’s warm chest in what Eleven would call a ‘big bear hug’.

“I got you, kid,” Hopper murmurs. “It’s okay, you’re okay…”

Steve chokes out a wounded, despairing noise because he is most certainly not okay - he is very confused and he misses Six and he has ruined his relationship with Hopper, he just knows he has - and more than that, he has turned into the one thing he never wanted to be.

A person who doesn’t ask. A Tech. No better than Brenner.

A bad man.

“Sorry,” he manages to whimper into Hopper’s shoulder. “’M’ sorry…”

“Don’t, kid. Don’t be sorry…”

“I’m bad… you didn’t want me to… I did it and I didn’t ask and I’m sorry…”

“I’m…” Hopper squeezes him close. “No, Steve. I'm sorry. You're not bad. You're brave and kind.”

"No," Steve whispers, sobbing. "I'm scared. Hopper, I'm scared..."

"I know. It's why you're brave. You and Eleven… you’re like that. Brave. Like Sarah was. Like men I've know... soldiers in a war you didn't ask to fight in. You’ve both been through hell, and you still... you still don't want to hurt me." Hopper huffs, a sound drenched in despair. "Don't deserve you. Neither one of you."

Steve isn't sure who the cop is talking about. Who doesn't deserve them? The world, or Brenner, or Six, or Hopper? He doesn't get clarification because Hopper stiffens and shakes his head before he can ask.

“It doesn't matter," the man says. "They aren't getting to you again, kid.” Steve lifts his gaze and locks eyes with the older man, sees the determination there. “I’m gonna make sure. They are never getting their claws into you again.”

He wants to be comforted, but he isn't. He isn't because Six and Brenner and the Techs are all in the room with them now. He sees them as clearly as he sees Hopper sitting next to him.

He knows the truth.

They are in his head, in his soul.

They never left.