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Long Live The Kings

Chapter Text

“The best thing we can do for them now is to go back to the surface and get help,” Dustin said firmly.

Erica pouted, clearly not thrilled with the idea of doing the ‘safe’ option. Dustin wasn’t exactly thrilled about his decision either, but realistically, he was stuck in an air vent in a secret Russian base accessible only by a terrifying elevator disguised as a storage room in the new mall with Steve and Robin MIA, presumed captured by Russian soldiers hell bent on destroying the country by opening up a gate to another dimension. And he had his friend’s ten-year-old sister for company.

Only in Hawkins.

Two years ago, he might have had Erica’s sense of invincibility. Hell, he definitely empathised with it. It had been the same feeling he’d had when he, Lucas and Mike had snuck out in the middle of the night to look for their friend in a storm. Perhaps if one of the Party was with him, he might have considered it. If it had been Hopper or Joyce with him, or even Nancy or Jonathan, he would have been doing what Erica was doing, demanding to go help his friends. But it was Erica fucking Sinclair. And all those familiar qualities that he recognised all too well as his own, when being repeatedly shoved in his face by this ten year old – a ten year old who hadn’t hesitated to believe him when he told her stories about Demogorgons and other dimensions and a superpowered friend that would have had any rational person who hadn’t seen them for themselves scoffing, laughing or quite possibly institutionalising him – only set him more on edge about her naivety and youth.

Truth be told, her company only made him feel more alone than he’d ever been in his life.

And she was talking, by god she was talking. Words drifted through his thoughts… they’d do the same for you… what do you think will happen to them without us… how will they get out without help… what if the grown ups decide it’s too dangerous… It got on his nerves. He forced himself to think about Steve and Robin, how less than a year ago Steve had tried to talk the Party out of helping Will and Eleven by setting fire to the tunnels because it was a stupid risk to all their lives. How terrified he had been when a pack of Demodogs rushed towards them all. How Steve had rushed to get everyone out of the tunnels as fast as possible without giving a thought to himself. How he’d pulled Dustin close as the Demodogs rushed past them, more by luck than anything, because Steve had promised Nancy that he would keep her brother and his friends safe.

Dustin looked at Erica, as though seeing her for the first time. The similarities between her and Lucas suddenly became much more pronounced. He’d never noticed how her nose was exactly the same shape as her brother’s. He thought about what Lucas would do if anything happened to Erica. He thought about what Lucas would do to him if anything happened to Erica because of his choice. He tried to think about what something happening to Erica would do to Lucas, but found that he couldn’t even contemplate that.

He thought about what Steve had done all those months ago, and what he would say if he was here.

His mind was made up. And it would not be changed.

Chapter Text

Something in those drugs was making his vision swim.

Ok, there was a possibility it wasn’t the drugs, and was instead the repeated punches to the stomach, the concussion from one too many blows to the head, and the massive adrenaline rush that had come from nearly having one of his fingernails pulled out. But honestly the drugs weren’t exactly helping.

Steve barely heard Robin babbling about them picking up the message, barely heard her taunting them about how they were a couple of kids who cracked their secret code, about how they scooped ice cream for a living… A part of him wanted to join in as those words vaguely penetrated his awareness but the wave of nausea that was threatening to make him empty his stomach clamped his mouth shut.

He involuntarily shivered as the nausea passed, leaving only a blinding awareness of just how cold it was in that room. Evidently the Russians missed the freezing cold winters and arctic winds, and so were overcompensating by keeping this secret lair nice and cool. Well, it was either that or else just another side effect to the aforementioned drugs, stomach punches, concussion and adrenaline rush.

The Russians evidently decided that Robin was the more talkative of them, so directed the next question to her.

“What do you know about the Gate?”

Steve could have screamed in relief that the question wasn’t about who they worked for. But he still wasn’t thrilled by the prospect of telling a group of decidedly unfriendly Russians all about another dimension filled with Demogorgons and Mind Flayers and Shadow Monsters and god knows what else. Particularly not when they were trying to get access to this other dimension.

“Nothing,” he heard Robin say. “I don’t even know what that thing is, I’ve never seen anything like it before.”

Steve tried his best to look innocent, or at least ignorant, but his head was so fuzzy that as he looked up at the doctor, he was sure all he looked was exhausted. It took most of his energy to lift his head, and his jaw went slack. The doctor looked at something above Steve’s head – most likely the General – before suddenly the pliers were back on his fingernail.

“What do you know about the Gate?” the General repeated.

“Wait – what are you – please-” Steve started to stammer.

“I told you, I’ve never seen anything like that before in my life!” Robin’s voice rose half an octave.

“Last chance…”

“No, no – wait-”

“I don’t know anything!”

Steve barely heard his own scream as the doctor pulled. The room lurched sideways as his vision rocked, his head fell against his chest as he closed his eyes to everything. The pain in his hand was excruciating, his heart was pounding. He barely heard a thing over the pounding in his ears but he could definitely feel the scream tearing at his throat.

Slowly his senses came back to him. He felt himself breathing fast, too fast, and tried to force it to return to a normal pattern. His hearing returned slowly, enough to hear Robin’s panicked voice.

“…Steve! Steve, talk to me! Steve! Steve, are you ok? For god’s sake, Steve!

He didn’t have it in him to talk just yet as he realised he’d closed his eyes. He slowly opened them. The room was still spinning and everything was blurry. He blinked to try and put his vision in focus, and then blinked a few more times when it didn’t immediately work. Finally his vision eased into its usual clarity, and the nausea suddenly hit him again in full force at the sight that greeted him.

His left hand was curved around the arm of the chair, slack. Almost in a dream he twitched his middle finger, dimly aware of the throbbing pain at the end of it, a shadow of what had come a second ago. He had to swallow his nausea as he saw that where his other fingers ended in relatively neat fingernails, his middle finger ended in a bloody mess, the constant bleeding swallowing up the sight of whatever wound it was. He vaguely saw the doctor drop something onto an aluminium tray, a light tap as it hit the metal. He baulked as he focused on it, and realised it was his missing fingernail, torn at one end, covered in blood – was it really that long, or did it go that deep into his finger?

The doctor handed the tray to the General, and he held it out for Robin to see. Robin finally fell silent, and Steve felt the chairs jolt as she recoiled. A shiver ran down his spine at the General’s next words.

“Your friend has nine more fingernails and ten more toenails. I would suggest that you are honest with me from now on.”

Steve’s breathing started coming shallow and fast. Any control he had regained over his breathing was gone as the doctor lined up the pliers on the fingernail on his ring finger.

“Tell me,” the General said. “What do you know about the Gate?”

“Please…” Robin begged. She sounded close to hysterical. “Please, I don’t know anything about any gate… Please believe me… we scoop ice cream! I’m just trying to earn some money for a road trip to Nashville in the fall… I don’t know anything about any gates!”

“She doesn’t know anything,” Steve finally said, surprising himself with how hoarse his voice sounded. “I don’t really know much either.”

The General walked back round to come face to face with Steve. The doctor remained where he was, pliers still clamped around his fingernail, but unmoving.

“Tell me what you do know,” the General said coldly.

Steve’s breath hitched in his chest before he started babbling. “I – I don’t know when it opened for the first time – or how – but it was about two years ago. This – this thing, this… this creature – came through it – I don’t even know what it was – and it killed my girlfriend’s best friend. Well, I say girlfriend – she’s not my girlfriend anymore – she broke up with me-”

There was a crack and Steve gasped as the General backhanded him across the face. “I did not ask about your girlfriend. Tell me about this creature.”

“I… I don’t really know what it was, I – I only saw it once, we tried to fight it – my… my girlfriend and I, and – and her friend – well, now her boyfriend – it took his brother, I – I don’t really know how he survived but he did-”

“Steve!” Robin shouted.

“But – but anyway, we – we tried to trap it somehow – it didn’t really work, it escaped, but I think something else must have stopped it, because – because her friend’s brother came back-”

“Steve!” Robin’s interjection was more pronounced, and finally Steve stopped talking. His head was reeling as he tried to go over everything he’d just said. He was breathing hard. He’d… He’d…

He’d just told the Russians all about Will.

Even Robin, who’d had no idea about any of it, had known he should have stopped talking, but he hadn’t been able to help himself. The drugs, the adrenaline, the fear… He’d been terrified of losing a fingernail, so he’d put Will Byers straight in the crosshairs of a group of evil Russians.

Russians who had no qualms about torturing an eighteen year old boy.

His nineteenth birthday was coming up in September. He’d been planning a big party at his house. His parents, predictably, were away on business but he had a feeling they were deliberately giving him some space this year. Certainly his dad had turned a blind eye to the slowly growing stockpile of beer in their cellar. He’d always thought his dad was an asshole while he was growing up – he’d certainly had more than a few flings with attractive young secretaries and didn’t have the best track record as a husband even when he wasn’t cheating – but since graduating, Steve had come to realise that, as a father, his dad did care about him and wanted the best for him. It was just that he and Steve had never agreed on what ‘the best for him’ was.

And now Steve was going to die in a Russian spy lair, with a girl he had no idea how to tell that he liked her, having sold out his friends. And he was going to die in a fucking sailor’s uniform.

“The brother,” the General said. “What was his name?”

“What?”

“The brother who was… ah, taken… by this creature – what was his name?”

Steve clamped his jaws together and shook his head. “No,” he said through gritted teeth.

Excuse me?

“No… no, I’m not telling you,” Steve said defiantly.

The General grabbed Steve’s face in one hand and yanked it up so he was looking directly into his eyes. “Do you need a reminder of the pain?”

Steve just stared back, trying to glare as best he could.

“We will find out one way or another. We can find your old girlfriend, we can find her current boyfriend, and we can find his brother. It would not take long. The only difference is how much pain you go through.”

Steve kept his teeth gritted as he let out a growl.

Go to hell.”

The General nodded at the doctor, who finally pulled. The doctor was pulling it out more slowly than he’s pulled the last one, so Steve could feel it ripping away from the nailbed much more clearly than he remembered the previous nail. He closed his eyes and pushed his head back, biting back the scream with his gritted teeth, letting a pained groan. He didn’t quite succeed as the nail came free and his jaw unclenched involuntarily, and he cried out in agony. His head swam again as he gasped for breath, still not quite sure which way was upright. He heard the soft tap of the nail in the tray again but he kept his eyes closed this time.

As his head continued to swim, he felt something pull it up by his hair, and felt a hand tapping his face gently.

“Come on,” the General’s voice was saying. “Come on Butterscotch, open your eyes.”

Steve found it inherently odd hearing himself called Butterscotch, even more so hearing himself called Butterscotch in a thick Russian accent, but he indulged himself in another moment of keeping his eyes closed, a moment of petty defiance.

A moment too long, evidently. He was jolted into opening his eyes as the gentle tapping to his cheek changed abruptly to a sharp slap. He winced and opened his eyes.

“I will ask again,” the General said, nodding at the doctor, who once again lined up the pliers onto Steve’s little fingernail. “The name. Please.”

“Will Byers!”

Steve started at the shout. He’d almost forgotten Robin behind him.

“It was Will Byers, wasn’t it, Steve?”

Steve closed his eyes and let out a breath he hadn’t known he’d been holding. He opened his eyes to see the General and the doctor looking at him expectantly. “Yeah,” he breathed. “Will Byers.”

His whole body collapsed in defeat against the restraints holding him to the chair. The General stood upright and folded his arms across his chest.

“So this… Will Byers… comes back, and that is the end of it? The Gate closes?”

Steve doesn’t quite understand this assessment. Evidently something shows on his face, because the General cocks his head curiously.

“Or is it the end?”

Steve nods, hoping against hope but knowing deep down that it will do nothing. “Yeah, that was the end of it,” Steve said breathlessly. “Gate closed until you guys decided to open it up again.”

Steve looks up at the General in what he wished was a winning, rather than desperate, smile.

“What happened next, Butterscotch-”

The General broke off as a whooshing sound suddenly echoed in the corridor. A second later, a soldier not much older than Steve came bursting into the room and said something very fast in Russian. The General looked alarmed for the first time since the interrogation had started.

“Skazhi Grigori nayti Will Byers,” the General said to the doctor. The doctor nodded smartly and left the room. The General then looked down at the two teenagers.

“We will find Will Byers,” he said threateningly. “And we will find that curly haired friend of yours.”

For the first time since Steve had found himself losing fingernails, Steve managed a genuine cocky smile. “You sure about that?”

The General spared him one final look of utter distain, before walking out after the young soldier. But Steve at last felt a little bit of hope.

The sound that had caused so much alarm had been the sound of the elevator.

-:-

“So what’s the plan now?” Erica said belligerently.

“We sneak back into the mall,” Dustin said, leading the way down the corridor. “It’ll be too suspicious if we’re seen around the loading bay, and we don’t know how many other Russians there are. So we get back into the mall and walk out the front door like we’re just a couple of kids going shopping.”

“And then what?”

“Then we find Hopper and we tell him what’s going on.”

“Great.”

“Do you have a better idea?”

“Yeah.”

“Does the idea involving you using that cattle prod?”

Erica swung the electric cattle prod that she’d picked up from the cart they’d found in the Russian base in a satisfied way. “Yep. Go back down and take out Commies using this thing.”

Dustin shook his head at the relish in her voice as she said that. “Yeah, well, my way doesn’t get us all killed.”

“No, it just gets your friends and the Chief killed.”

That was a sore spot. “It won’t do that,” Dustin snapped vehemently.

“I’m just saying,” Erica said coolly. “You’re putting an awful lot of faith in an alcoholic with a gun.”

“He’s not an alcoholic,” Dustin bit back. “And I’ve seen him in action, he’s the best chance Steve and Robin have. And also…” Dustin stopped and rounded on her. “Even if he was an alcoholic, how is using that to insult him helpful to anything?”

Erica recoiled away from Dustin defensively. “Okay, sorry, Jesus…”

Dustin shook his head again and started back down the corridor towards the door. They opened it – thank God Steve had forgotten to lock it – and found themselves in the back room of Scoops Ahoy. The store was still completely locked up at the front, but beyond the grill they could still hear the chatter and noise of people still out shopping.

“Okay,” Dustin said, sitting down at the table and pulling out the radio. “I’m going to try and get hold of Mike or Lucas or Will or someone, see if they know where Hopper is, and then we get out of here.”

“Great,” Erica said in that dry tone of hers, before wandering towards the door to the main shop. “I’m going to go enjoy some free samples.”

“Wait – wait – wait-” Dustin called after the swinging door. “Erica!”

Erica ignored him, and Dustin made the call that life was too short.

He started to tune the radio, and settled on a channel.

“Anybody, do you copy? Mike, Lucas, Will, Max, anybody, do you copy?”

Static. He retuned it to another channel.

“Mike, do you copy? It’s Dustin. Does anybody copy?”

Zilch. Next channel.

“Hello, anybody? Does anybody copy? The Red Army has invaded Hawkins. Does anybody copy?”

Static. He reached out to tune the radio to the next-

“Dustin?”

“Lucas?” Dustin’s voice rose.

“Dustin!”

“Lucas! Oh thank god! I’m sorry – I’ve been MIA, it wasn’t because I was mad – well it kind of was at first – but then we got trapped in a secret elevator – and then there was this base-”

“Whoah, whoah, slow down! What are you talking about?”

Dustin hadn’t realised he was becoming breathless. “Sorry, sorry, long story short, the Russians have invaded Hawkins. Do you know where Hopper is?”

“Sorry, what?”

“Mike?”

“Yeah, Dustin, hi. What did you just say about Russians in Hawkins?”

“They built a secret base under the mall! I think the whole mall was a cover! They’re trying to open the Gate and they’ve got Steve and Robin hostage!”

“They’re trying to open the Gate!?” Mike’s voice jumped up in panic.

“Yeah, and they’ve captured Steve and Robin! I’m at the mall with Erica and I really need Hopper! Do you know where he is?”

“Er… Hopper… we think he’s in Illinois.”

Dustin’s heart sank. “Illinois? Fucking Illinois?”

“Yeah, we… we think so… El looked for him and heard him saying something about Illinois.”

Dustin let out a growl of frustration. “What the fuck is he doing in Illinois?”

“I don’t know, Dustin, why don’t you ask him when he gets back?”

“Mike, I really don’t have time for you to be-”

Dustin broke off at the sound of a clattering at the front of the shop. He leapt towards the door to try and grab Erica, but she was one step ahead of him, bursting through into the back room.

“Okay, we’ve got to go,” she hissed. “Pretty sure the Russians have found us!”

“You sure they’re Russians?”

“Well they weren’t speaking English!”

“Dustin? Dustin, do you copy? Dustin!”

Dustin grabbed the radio from the table and shut it off, cutting off Mike’s yelling. He and Erica slipped out the back door and into the corridors behind as the grill at the front of the shop came up, and Dustin prayed to whatever god there was that the Russians hadn’t heard the door shut behind them.

Chapter Text

Steve was relishing in the break as he and Robin were left alone. He was doing everything he could to avoid looking at his left hand. He was desperately trying to get his breathing under control again, but the room just wasn’t staying still.

“Steve?”

Steve didn’t have it in him just then to answer Robin just then. He closed his eyes against a fresh wave of nausea as the room started to spin.

“Steve? You still alive?”

Steve braced himself and tightened his grip with his right hand on the arm of the chair as the movement slowly subsided.

“Steve?”

“Yeah…” Steve breathed. “Yeah, I’m still alive…”

He heard Robin breathe a shaky sigh of relief. “You ok?” she asked.

If he’d had the strength, Steve would have laughed at the question. Instead, he let out a shuddery breath that might have in another life been a sign of amusement. “Yeah, Robin, I’m great,” he said dryly.

Robin clearly sensed she’d touched a nerve. “Sorry…”

Steve sighed. “Don’t be sorry,” he said softly. “I’m sorry for dragging you into this mess.”

Robin gave a soft chuckle. “Don’t flatter yourself with delusions of your own importance in my decision-making process. I wanted to come along to check out those boxes because it sounded a hell of a lot more fun than slinging ice cream all day. You had very little to do with it.”

Steve actually managed a small laugh at that – or at least something more recognisable as a laugh. “Well, if it wasn’t for you, we probably would still be upstairs trying to crack that code.”

Robin started laughing properly. “You wouldn’t even have been able to translate that code if it wasn’t for me.”

“So really all this is on you.”

“All this is on your strange little friend.”

“Ah yeah, he’s the real reason…”

They both stopped laughing at the thought of Dustin and Erica.

“Do you think they made it out?” Robin asked.

“Hope so,” Steve said softly. “Hope that’s the cause of all this chaos.”

They fell into an uneasy silence for a few moments, before Steve suddenly remembered something.

“Nashville…” he said, not relishing how hoarse his voice was. “What’s in Nashville?”

“Huh?”

“You told the Russians that you were saving up to go to Nashville, why? What’s in Nashville?”

If Steve had been able to see Robin’s face, he might have backed off at the panic that crossed her face. But he’d never been particularly perceptive, and didn’t notice the slight hitch in her breath.

“Seriously, are you, like, do you want to be a singer or something?”

Robin finally let out an audible sigh. “I don’t.”

“Then why-”

I don’t. She does.”

That had Steve totally lost. “Who?”

“Tammy Thompson.”

“I don’t get it.”

Robin sighed again. Steve couldn’t help feeling slightly insulted, as though Robin was making a joke and he was the only person who wouldn’t have got it.

“You know all those things I told you? About Clickity-Clack’s class? And how you’d come in late dropping bagel crumbs all over the floor?”

“Yeah…?” Steve still wasn’t following.

“I didn’t notice those things because I was looking at you. I noticed them because she was looking at you, and I had no idea why. I didn’t know what she saw in you, you barely even noticed she existed. But every single time she saw you, she would stare at you, looking at you like you were the best thing in the world, even though you’d drop bagel crumbs on the floor, even though you’d be late and make stupid jokes and laugh with your stupid friends, and you were an idiot!

“Thanks,” Steve said, even more confused than before.

“God, I don’t even know why I’m telling you this,” Robin laughed bitterly. “I haven’t even told my parents, but I guess if we’re going to die down here it doesn’t matter if you think I’m a freak or whatever.”

“I don’t think you’re a freak,” Steve said. “I think you’re confusing as hell, and you haven’t gotten to the point yet, or else I’m missing something big here because I never saw you say two words to Tammy Thompson while we were at school-”

“You never saw me while we were at school, period,” Robin chuckled. “You were too busy making stupid jokes with your stupid friends.”

“The jokes weren’t… well, yeah the jokes were kind of stupid,” Steve conceded. “The friends were, too.”

“And then you chucked them to go off fighting monsters with a group of middle schoolers.”

Steve sighed. “Yeah. Does wonders to a six-year friendship with Tommy H.”

Robin turned her head as far as it would go to try and catch a glimpse of part of the side of Steve’s head. “I get why you had that cool guy womaniser front, but Steve ‘The Hair’ Harrington was a total douchebag. When we started working together, I was surprised when I realised that I actually liked hanging out with you. There’s a lot more to you than meets the eye.”

“Same with you, Band Geek,” Steve said. “So go on. You going to tell me why you were so pissed that Steve ‘The Hair’ Harrington caught the eye of Tammy Thompson?”

Another sigh from Robin. “I wanted to be the one to catch her eye. I wanted her to look at me the way she looked at you.”

Something started to click into place in Steve’s brain. “But Tammy Thompson’s a girl…”

“Steve.”

The penny dropped. “Oh.”

“Yeah. Oh.”

A sinking feeling of disappointment settled in his stomach. But it was mitigated by the realisation that this particular rejection had nothing to do with him. “So Tammy Thompson… she’s going to Nashville?

“Yeah.”

“And you’re going with her?”

“I’m going to visit her.”

“And Tammy Thompson… does she know you’re planning this?”

“N-no…”

Steve couldn’t help laughing at that. “So she’s going to Nashville, and you’re going to just show up there, and – and what? Declare your love for her?”

“Maybe not quite like that, but it’s romantic.”

“Err – no, it’s stalking. Also, she’s going to get eaten alive in Nashville, she sounds like a muppet.”

“She doesn’t sound like a muppet!”

“She really does! Look, all I’m saying is you can do better than Tammy fricking Thompson!

Robin started to laugh too. “So you’ve never fallen for the girl you’d least expect? What about Nancy Wheeler?”

“Hey, that’s different!”

“What’s so different? She was a perfect little straight-A princess who had absolutely no idea how to have fun and you fell for her hard!

“Hey, in my defence, she’s great at fighting monsters.”

Any response Robin might have had was drowned out by a loud bang as the door burst open. The two teenagers swung their heads sideways to look at the General and the doctor. Something had shifted in the dynamic – where previously the General had been calm and entirely in control, something had changed him. He was angry, unsettled, volatile…

And a lot more dangerous.

The laughter that wasn’t dying quickly enough on Steve’s face was evidently enough to set off the General, because a second later his head cracked sideways and he felt the aftermath of a fist colliding with an already painful head.

“Tell me,” the General growled. “What is the name of your curly haired friend?”

Something in the latest blow to the head had evidently addled his senses because he immediately regretted his next words.

“Elvis Presley.”

A blow to the stomach – he could almost feel the internal bleeding – and another one to his nose as a hand messed into his hair and closing into a fist near his scalp, yanking his head higher. Bright lights danced across his vision as he heard a crunch of cartilage as pain exploded from his nose.

“You think you are funny, Butterscotch?” the General hissed. “Mikhail!”

Steve’s vision eased into seeing the doctor – Mikhail, evidently – approach.

“Mister U.S.S. Butterscotch thinks he is a comedian now. It is clear he no longer fears losing fingernails. Perhaps it is time for him to lose his fingers instead.”

Steve felt the panic rising in his chest as the General let his hair go. “Wait – what?”

Mikhail wheeled a small metal tray table over to where Steve was sitting and started to undo the restraints on Steve’s left hand. The doctor slammed Steve’s hand down on the tray table, holding it in place by the wrist with one hand while picking up a handheld power drill with another. Mikhail placed the bit – a small Brad Point bit that couldn’t have been more than a couple of millimetres wide – against the top of Steve’s little finger, right against the first knuckle from the tip.

Steve realised what was about to happen and felt the panic in his chest rising up his throat.

Wait.

Not panic.

His stomach violently heaved and he retched its contents into his lap. Oh, god, he was wearing shorts. He felt it splash down his legs and into a puddle on the floor. The General had taken a step back to avoid the mess but once his body had stopped convulsing he felt the hand in his hair again.

“Tell me the name of your little friend and spare yourself this.”

“For god’s sake, Steve, just tell them!

Steve still didn’t open his mouth for fear of being sick again. The doctor lifted the drill slightly and gave it an experimental whirr. His stomach was settling slightly, but he could feel sweat beading on his forehead. Well, more sweat. His mouth parted slightly in panic, and he felt relief that more of yesterday’s lunch wasn’t coming out of it. He finally found his voice.

“I don’t want to sell out my friend,” he said, barely more than a whisper.

It sounded so totally pathetic, from sentiment to delivery. What little was voiced was a whimper higher than he would admit his voice was capable of making. A ball of a sob was wedged in his throat. He knew his rationale was stupid, but he’d already told the Russians about Will Byers, and he didn’t want to put another of the shitheads on their radar. God, everyone was right about him. He really was an idiot.

The General nodded at the doctor, and Mikhail lined up the bit again on the top of Steve’s knuckle. Steve barely had time to brace himself for what was about to happen before the drill bit shredded his skin on his knuckles. He dimly heard Robin indignantly scream his name – or was it worry? – as the drill drove deeper into his finger. Steve closed his eyes as his mouth opened in a silent scream – god, his voice really had gone – and then the drill hit his knuckle – nope, there was his voice – whatever bone or cartilage was there cracked within seconds – was it now between the joint? - tears were running thick and fast down his face – his scream kept filling the room – he could barely hear Robin’s own screams – how deep into his finger was it now? – Oh GOD!

A shot of pain lanced up his finger towards his nail and he knew, somehow he knew that one of the bones in his finger was broken. His scream intensified into a shout as his eyes flew open at this new pain. His screams were coming broken after that – he could finally hear what Robin was shouting.

“…Stop it! Please! Stop hurting him! I’m begging you – PLEASE!

The drill was almost completely through his finger –

“The name!” roared the General –

“HIS NAME’S DUSTIN HENDERSON!”

Suddenly everything stopped. The drill went silent, Robin stopped screaming, Steve’s own screams died down into broken, panicked sobs and desperate, shallow gasps. Slowly his brain caught up with what had just happened – he hadn’t screamed the name – he hadn’t been present enough in his head to make any coherent words – did that mean…

“Robin…” he gasped.

“I’m sorry, Steve, I couldn’t listen to them do that to you…”

Steve could hear a barely restrained sob in her voice. If he’d had anything left in him, he might have comforted her, might have told her it was okay, because it wasn’t her fault, not really…

“I know you wanted to protect him…” her voice was getting higher. “But I couldn’t let them do that, I’m so sorry…”

Her voice shook before she dissolved into tears. Steve didn’t think telling her not to cry was going to do much to help given that he was still gasping through his own sobs. His vision really wasn’t focusing at all. Everything was blurry, darkness was hovering on the edge of his vision. And god, did his hand hurt. Unbidden, he found his eyes swinging towards his left hand, and his stomach started doing somersaults again…

The drill was still sticking out of his finger, which was sitting at a very odd angle. There was less blood than he expected, a small pool at the point where the drill went in and a couple of small trickles that were running his finger. But it was still bleeding, blood kept steadily oozing out of the grooves in the drill bit.

“Who is he?” the General asked.

Steve started shaking as the doctor held the drill bit steady as he detached the motor. Every jolt sent a shock of pain through his fingers. His breath was coming faster and shallower. “He – he’s just a middle schooler, I – I don’t know what to tell you, man – He’s just a really eager middle schooler who – he doesn’t work for anyone or anything like that – he’s not like some government spy or something – Jesus!

The doctor yanked the drill bit from his finger sharply. The blood suddenly started coming thick and fast, rushing up out of his finger and over the rest of his hands. The movement pulled at the shattered joint and bone and he felt it settle at an angle that felt just so wrong.

The General gave Steve a second to recover his breathing. “What else?”

“I – I don’t know what you want me to say – he’s kind of into tech and radios and crap – Oh! Wait – He, uh – he built that radio – the radio that picked up your signal!”

“He created the radio?” The General questioned dryly.

“Yeah…” Steve said breathlessly. “Your super-secret spy signal… was picked up by a radio… made by a middle schooler.” A smile broke out over his face. “At camp.”

The General looked displeased by this information. Or quite possibly by Steve’s grin. It wasn’t an unusual reaction. “Where is he now?”

Steve didn’t let the smile drop just then. What the hell was wrong with him? “I don’t know.”

“Guess.”

“Probably looking for Hopper.”

“What?”

Jim Hopper,” Steve said slowly. “Police chief. He’s probably already on his way down here… to kick all of your asses back to Russia and close the Gate again.”

“Steve!” Robin hissed, a second too late.

Again?

There was silence as Steve clocked his mistake.

“What do you mean, ‘again’? This ‘Hopper’ closed the Gate before?”

Steve didn’t say a word. Not that he needed to. The General crouched down to look Steve right in the eye. Steve slumped his head forward to try and avoid the General, but it didn’t work as the General just grabbed a fistful of his hair near the scalp and yanked his head up again.

“How did Hopper close the Gate?”

Steve had made a lot of mistakes that day. Between him and Robin, they’d told the Russians about Dustin and Will Byers. Steve didn’t think he’d ever be able to look either of them in the eye again. But there was no way – no way in hell – that he was going to rat out El.

“I don’t know.”

The General threw Steve’s head back and grabbed the reassembled drill from the doctor. He slammed Steve’s hand down against the tray table and pressed the bit against the back of Steve’s hand, right against the bone that linked his little finger to his wrist. Steve felt oddly calm in the split second before the drill started up – evidently the drugs and the pain were making him light-headed – but a second later he was screaming. Again.

The eventual crack as the drill broke the bone apart proved too much for Steve. The darkness that had been hovering on his peripheral vision finally engulfed him as the world tilted and unconsciousness pulled him down into its depths.

-:-

“Dustin?” Mike said again into the radio, only to be met with static. “Son of a bitch!

“What happened?” Nancy asked, pushing herself away from the counter. “Did he say something about Steve being captured by Russians?

Mike didn’t answer, just looking down at the radio angrily.

He, El, Max, Lucas, Will, Jonathan and Nancy were in Hopper’s cabin. They’d spent the better part of the day trying to work out where the Mind Flayer and his army or his weapon, or creature or whatever – was going to strike next when Dustin’s voice had burst through the radio.

“Well, we’ve got to go, we’ve got to help them,” Lucas said. “We’ve got to go to the mall!”

“On our own?” Jonathan asked incredulously. “We can’t just storm a secret Russian base!

“Yeah, but we can help Dustin and Erica get out of the mall!”

“And then we can find Hopper and work out how to get Steve out of there,” Max interjected.

“Look, man, she’s my sister! I don’t care if she’s an annoying little-”

“Guys?” The radio blared up.

“Dustin!” Lucas shouted, grabbing the radio off Mike. “You ok?”

“Yeah, yeah… Look, the Russians are looking for us, we really need a ride out of here! We’re going to lie low in a movie and try and get out when the crowd leaves, can you be there in a couple of hours to pick us up?”

Jonathan took the radio. “Yeah, Dustin, we’ll be there. Two hours. We’ll meet you in the parking lot.”

“Great, thanks!” The relief in Dustin’s voice was palpable. “You’re a lifesaver! Over and out!”

White noise filled the room as Dustin finished talking and the radio stopped connecting. Jonathan switched it off and it down on the table, and a tense silence fell.

“So what do we do now?” Lucas broke the tension.

“Well…” Jonathan said softly. “I suppose we could try to find Hopper in the meantime.”

“Yeah, but how the fuck are we going to do that? He’s in Illinois!”

“Illinois!” Nancy said, something finally clicking. “He’s in Illinois!”

She was met with six extremely confused faces staring at her.

“Jonathan, what do we know in Illinois?” she continued. “Who do we know in Illinois?”

“Er…” Jonathan suddenly caught on. “Murray Bauman – wait, you think they’ve gone to see Murray Bauman?”

“Who’s Murray Bauman?” Mike asked, getting more annoyed by the second.

“A conspiracy theorist,” Jonathan answered. “We went to see him last year.”

“He helped break the story about Barb,” Nancy added.

“Oh.”

“Well, can we check?” Max asked. “El, do you think you can check?”

“I don’t… know…” El said hesitantly. “I don’t know… Murray Bauman…”

“Hang on,” Jonathan rushed towards the rug and flung it back. He quickly pulled open the trapdoor and rushed down into it. Thank god Hopper kept everything on all the secret government conspiracies he was involved in.

Jonathan pulled out a box labelled ‘Hawkins Lab’ and started desperately searching through it until he found –

“Yes!” he cried, brandishing the newspaper. It was the newspaper from December 3rd, 1984 – the day the story had broken about the lab covering up Barb’s death. He slammed it down and there, on the front page, was a small headshot of Murray Bauman, with a small caption about how he’d been the one to give the tapes to the Post. “That’s him!”

El looked pensively down at the newspaper.

“Do you think you can find him from that picture? Do you think you can see if Hopper is with him?”

“No – no – no – that’s enough!” Mike screamed. “El’s not some… some satellite you can tune to spy on whoever the hell you want on demand-”

“I can do it,” El said, quiet but determined. Evidently Mike’s vehement denial of her abilities emboldened her. She looked straight at Mike and gave him a look of reassuring fondness, but there was an edge of defiance in her eyes. “I can do it.”

Mike found himself edged backwards to the periphery of the group as everyone gathered round in a circle by the television. Not that he moved at all. He just stayed where he was, watching El settle herself down in front of the white screen, that bloody flag wrapped up and tied over her eyes. He watched as she fell silent, every eye in the room on her, a constant feeling of unease twisting his stomach. The blood started to trickle down from her nose, he didn’t like it when that happened, he felt that it was wrong to make her bleed…

“There…” she finally said. “Together.”

“Hopper and Murray?” Nancy asked eagerly. “They’re together?”

“Yes… with Will’s mom… and… a man…”

“What man?” Will asked.

She was silent for a minute, before she finally had an answer for them. “Smirnoff…”

Smirnoff? ” Will repeated incredulously. “Isn’t that a vodka?”

“Yeah…” Nancy answered. She’d had some once at a party with Steve last summer, back when they’d been dating. It had tasted significantly worse than the bottle that Murray had given her and Jonathan, tasting closer to paint thinner than an actual drink.

“Quiet!” El snapped, but she didn’t take off her blindfold. Then –

“Alexei…” she finally said. “The Gate…”

“Wait,” Mike finally joined in, moving into the circle at last. “What about the Gate?”

“They know…” El continued. “Car… Todfather?… Hawkins…”

“They’re on their way back to Hawkins?”

“Yes.”

El finally pulled the blindfold off. Nancy looked over at Jonathan.

“Jonathan, if they’re coming back from Illinois, they’re probably taking the same road as we did,” she said excitedly.

“We could meet them at the city limits!” he replied, matching her enthusiasm.

“Could we get there before we needed to go get Dustin and Erica?” Lucas asked.

“We probably could, I don’t know if they’d be there.”

“We could drop somebody off to meet them?” Will suggested. “I could wait for them if they’re not there by the time you need to go get Dustin.”

“Yeah, like hell I’m leaving you alone on the side of the road after dark,” Jonathan scoffed.

“I could wait with him,” Nancy suggested. “Leave us there with a radio and if they don’t show we’ll ask you to pick us up?”

Jonathan wasn’t thrilled by the suggestion. “I love you, Nance, but leaving a pretty teenage girl by the side of the road is hardly better than leaving my little brother there.”

“A pretty teenage girl who’s pretty fucking great at fighting monsters,” she pointed out.

Jonathan sighed, before reluctantly nodding. “Fine, let’s do this.”

Chapter Text

“How will we know if they pass?” Will asked softly.

Nancy looked down at him. The sky above them had faded through a gorgeous sunset into a deep blue, the moon was starting to shine a light and the stars were making their first appearances. Jonathan and the others had left to go and get Dustin and Erica about twenty minutes ago, leaving the pair alone by a sign on a completely deserted stretch of road.

“Well, they’ll be in the Chief’s car,” Nancy said. “We’ll probably see them coming, and if we don’t, they’ll probably see us.”

“Okay.”

Will was slightly reassured by the fact Nancy had an answer to his question at all, but he wasn’t overly confident in her answer. For example:

“What if they’re in another car?”

“What?”

“What if they took my mom’s car or something?”

“Then we’ll recognise her car.”

“What if it’s too dark?”

“Look, this thing was your idea,” Nancy said incredulously. “What’s your problem?”

“I just realised it’s a terrible idea.”

Nancy snorted. “Yeah, well it’s better than any idea Mike’s ever had.”

Will gave a shy laugh. “He’s had some pretty good ideas.”

“Yeah, but I’m his sister, I’m not allowed to admit that.”

That had Will properly laughing. “So that’s where he gets it from.”

Nancy laughed, slightly confused. “What?”

“Mike has some good ideas, sure, but he thinks he’s the only person who has good ideas,” Will elaborated. “If someone else has a good idea, he’s always really resistant to the whole thing. Even if the rest of the Party goes along with it, he’s always really difficult about it.”

Nancy laughed. “Sounds like Mike. Always got to be in charge.”

“You should have seen him at Halloween when Lucas showed up wearing a Venkman outfit.”

“Oh, I bet he loved that.”

“Yeah, he was all like ‘there can’t just be two Venkmans!’ He was really mature about it.”

“Course he was.”

“And now he’s being, like, super protective over El.”

“Hey, come on, that’s actually kind of sweet.”

“Yeah, but he needs to chill,” Will said. “He’s basically smothering her. Mom and Jonathan did the same to me for months after they got me back from the Upside Down. It’s like… I was ready to try standing on my own two feet, but they wouldn’t let me.”

Nancy looked at him. “Maybe you were ready, but they weren’t.”

“Yeah, but they didn’t need to be ready,” Will said. “I needed to try. I needed to try living. It was like I was suffocating.”

“I don’t know, Will,” Nancy said. “I was there for Jonathan when you went missing. It messed him up pretty bad. And your mom… God, I’ve never seen anybody like that…”

Will looked uncomfortable. “I guess… still, I missed out on a lot of things because they weren’t ready. And I can’t live my life for anyone else. It took them a while to actually let me live my life for me… to make my own choices.”

Nancy stayed quiet. She really didn’t know what to say.

“And Mike needs to let El make her own choices too.”

Nancy nodded at Will’s conclusion. “Yeah…” she breathed. “Yeah, I guess he does.”

An awkward silence fell between them.

“Sorry,” Will said quietly. “I didn’t mean to unload on you like that.”

“It’s fine,” Nancy said. “I’m always here if you ever need someone to talk to.”

Will smiled. “Thanks.”

“Not a problem.”

“Hey, and for what it’s worth… I’m really glad Jonathan found you,” Will said. “I can see how happy you make him.”

Nancy looked surprised by the admission. “Aw, that’s… that’s sweet.”

“Oh, and – full disclosure – Mom and I know you spend the night sometimes.”

“What?” If Nancy had looked surprised before it was nothing to how she looked now. She decided to play dumb. “No I don’t.”

Will actually started laughing again. “Yeah, we know you stay the night and sneak out of Jonathan’s window. I think it annoyed Mom the first time, but I think now she just wishes you’d come out and have breakfast with us, and have a proper shower and, you know, just use the front door.”

Nancy’s nervous look was the most obviously guilty thing Will had ever seen. He couldn’t quite smother the smirk that crept onto his face.

“Pretty sure Mom’s, like, a step away from just deliberately bursting in on you climbing out the window to put an end to it.”

Nancy held that horrified look for a second longer before a guilty smile spread across her face. “Well, I suppose it’d be better for my dresses.”

They both started laughing, and once they started, they couldn’t stop. Eventually, once their sides were hurting too much for them to stand upright, they started to settle down again.

“Do you reckon they’re alright?” Will asked.

“Your mom and Hopper?” Nancy asked. “Yeah, they’ll be fine. It’s just a couple of hours back from Illinois. They should be here soon.”

“I was talking about the others.”

Nancy fell into an uneasy silence. “Yeah,” she said, more confidently than she felt. “They’ll look out for each other. Besides, El’s with them. They’ll get Dustin and Erica out. Those Russians don’t stand a chance.”

“And Steve and Robin?”

Ah. That was a little more difficult. “That’s why we’re waiting for Hopper.”

Nancy put a reassuring hand on Will’s shoulder, before something occurred to her.

“So who’s this Robin everyone keeps talking about?” she asked.

The tension in Will’s shoulder eased slightly. “She works with Steve. She’s fun.”

“Oh,” Nancy said. “Is there something going on there?”

“What, like, romantically?” Will asked. “Don’t think so. Steve keeps trying to pick up girls that come into the shop. Robin keeps track of how many times he strikes out.”

“That doesn’t mean there isn’t anything,” Nancy pointed out. “If she’s doing that, she’s definitely paying attention to his existence. Doesn’t necessarily mean she likes him like that, but Steve’s not exactly going to hold back if he notices that.”

“Would it bother you if they started going out?” Will asked. “I know you guys were together for a long time.”

“No,” Nancy said quickly, but was slightly surprised to realise she meant it. “I mean… I like him, and I care about him, but… Steve was… safe. He was the safe option. And we had fun together. He’d push me to go out and go to parties, and I’d have fun with him. And yeah, maybe there was a time when I thought I loved him, but now… Whatever I felt for Steve, it’s just a shadow for what I feel for Jonathan now. And yeah, things were a bit awkward with Steve after we broke up, and I don’t see him much at all now that he’s graduated, but honestly, he was actually pretty grown up about the whole breakup, and if he finds someone who makes – hang on, what’s that?”

A light had appeared at the end of the road. Nancy and Will started towards the roadside, leaning forward to squint at the light. Wait. Lights. Two lights. Headlights.

The car was getting closer. Nancy realised it was yellow – not Hopper’s car, not Mrs Byers’. She took a couple of steps away from the road.

“It’s not them,” she said.

Will didn’t immediately respond, still looking at the car. He took an uneasy step back as it drew closer. He squinted at the license plate.

TODFTHR

“Todfather,” Will breathed.

Without warning, he sprinted out into the road, waving his hands around to try and get the car’s attention. The driver slammed on the brakes, and the car skidded. Nancy ran forward and grabbed Will’s arm, pulling him back to the roadside as the car screeched, steering sideways to avoid Will.

Finally, everything came to a halt, and the driver’s door opened.

What the hell, kid!?” screamed the driver as he got out. “You got a death wish or something?”

Nancy beamed as the driver walked into the light.

Hopper.

-:-

“Dustin? We’re in the parking lot waiting for you. Over.”

Mike had been repeating the same mantra into the radio at thirty second intervals for the last twenty minutes. Though to everyone else in the car, it felt like a hell of a lot longer.

Jonathan had suggested putting on some music, and so had put on a mixtape he’d made for Nancy that she’d left in the car, but after Max started taking the piss out of the music that was on there, things had gotten heated and Max had eventually turned it off in a huff after Jonathan had called her favourite band as bad as “nails on a chalkboard.” Jonathan had then started laughing at her incredibly mature response, Lucas had gotten involved to defend her, Max had rounded on him about fighting her battles for her, and things were just about to get out of hand when Mike had finally screamed at everyone to shut up because he needed to hear if Dustin was going to answer. This had only led to Jonathan, Max and Lucas snickering at the overreaction, while El just looked very lost by the whole interaction.

Suddenly, the doors to the mall opened, and people began streaming out.

“Reckon that’s the movie crowd?” Max asked.

“Dustin? Come in! We’re in the parking lot! Over!”

 Nothing.

“Can’t see them,” Jonathan said. “I’m going to go try get a better look. You guys stay here.”

Jonathan got out of the car and started to walk towards the mall. As he approached, he saw a few men in black uniforms talking to everyone leaving the mall. Instantly set on edge, he picked up the pace and bowed his head and tried to walk through the doors unobtrusively.

A hand on his chest stopped him. Evidently he’d been given away by going against the flow. He looked up into a man’s face – Caucasian, with long dark hair pulled back into a ponytail.

“I’m sorry, sir, the mall is closed,” the man said in a truly dreadful attempt at an American accent that did very little to hide the Slavic undertones.

Jonathan decided to play dumb. “Oh, uh – sorry, I was just looking for my little brother. I’m meant to be picking him up.”

“Maybe you could wait here, I’m sure he’ll come out eventually.”

“Oh, uh, okay…”

Jonathan looked back through the doors to see Dustin walking down the hall. As Dustin saw him – and the man in black – he slowed. Jonathan locked eyes with him and gave him the tiniest shake of the head.

Dustin grabbed Erica’s hand and started to walk back through the crowd towards the movie theatre. Jonathan felt tension rising as the man next to him kept looking through the crowd, peering through –

“Hey!” the man shouted, finally noticing Dustin’s retreating back. Dustin threw a quick glance over his shoulder before breaking into a run. The man made a move to start chasing after him, but Jonathan sprang into action. He grabbed the man’s shoulder and threw him backwards. Two of the other men in black started to chase after Dustin, while the last one came to help tackle Jonathan. Jonathan careened sideways as the new man ran into him. The man on top of him tried to pin his hands down, but Jonathan brought his knee up and pushed him off. Jonathan used the Russian’s temporary loss of balance as a chance to scramble to his feet and take off after Dustin and Erica.

-:-

Dustin ran faster than he thought he’d ever run before in his life. He felt like he was dragging Erica along the floor after him. In a blind panic, he burst through a door, and another one, and suddenly he was in a movie theatre. The underpaid teenager sweeping popcorn up evidently wasn’t being paid enough to spare them more than a passing glance as they tore through the room and straight out the second door. Down the hall, out a door labelled ‘staff only’ and into a white corridor. Dustin hared down and grabbed the handle of the first door he could see –

Locked.

He swore loudly. He tried another. Also locked –

“Here!” Erica called.

She’d found the door to the Chinese place – the same place that those boxes of green goo had come from. Without time to overthink it, they ran in and closed the door behind them.

Dustin crouched down so he wouldn’t be seen from the food court. Staying low, he beckoned Erica over to a corner under the counter. There was a pile of cardboard boxes by the door and as quietly as he could, he pulled them closer into the corner to help hide them, and ducked down just as he heard the Russians in the hall outside.

Voices spoke words that Dustin couldn’t have possibly hoped to understand. There were footsteps – lots of footsteps – before –

BOOM!

The Russians had clearly tried one of the doors Dustin had tried just a few seconds earlier. Voices started talking in that incomprehensible language, footsteps started again –

BOOM!

Another door tried. More footsteps. More talking.

BOOM!

This time they were successful. The door to Imperial Panda burst open and bounced back off the wall from the force of the kick. Three Russians came in, guns held out in front of them, and scanned the room.

One of them gave a signal, telling the others to sweep the front of the shop while he checked the back. Dustin covered his mouth as he saw boots crossing through the open kitchen, the occasional glimpses of silhouettes holding automatic military-grade assault weapons.

Please, god, someone, send help…

Dustin felt a knot tense up in his stomach as the footsteps stopped. More quietly than before, the boots started stealthily creeping over towards the back of the shop –

They were converging on the corner.

Dustin pressed himself back into the wall as best he could, doing his best to put himself between the Russians and Erica. Suddenly, Erica tapped his shoulder. She gestured to something at her side – something he couldn’t see – before he remembered.

She still had that cattle prod.

His heart almost stopped when the pile of boxes hiding them mostly from view moved very suddenly. He started, turning to face one of the Russians leering down at him.

“What do we have-”

Erica lunged. The cattle prod jammed into the man’s chest. The man flew back, blasted off his feet. He was flung far –

Too far.

Out-of-the-shop far.

Out-of-the-shop-and-across-the-food-court-before-smashing-into-a-wall-causing-the-plaster-to-break-into-a-crater far.

Everyone froze, staring at the taser in Erica’s hand. Russians, Dustin and Erica eyed it for a beat.

A second Russian suddenly flew back with no discernible force driving him. He flew out to crash into the floor.

The third had a split second of looking terrified before he followed the second into the ground. Dustin and Erica scrambled out from under the counter to see –

El.

The Party were here with El.

Dustin vaulted the countertop to come out into the open. “Oh my god, I’ve never been so happy to see you guys!”

He pulled El into a hug, babbling something about them saving their asses. He only realised he was shaking when he let her go and saw his hand not staying even remotely steady. Over El’s shoulder, he saw Lucas running towards Erica, completely incredulous to her presence here.

“Where’s Jonathan?” asked Mike suddenly.

“Wait, he’s not with you?”

“No, we saw him get into a fight with one of those guards before he ran off after you guys.”

“So he’s-”

Almost as if on cue, one of the doors on the mezzanine above the food court burst open, and Jonathan came sprinting out. A split second later, the last Russian guard emerged, gun raised.

El raised her hand –

A gunshot rang out throughout the mall. Everyone jumped, El’s hand stayed raised but bent back slightly, brought a fraction closer to her body. As if in slow motion, the final Russian staggered backwards –

Three more gunshots rang out across the hall, and the last Russian staggered backwards towards the fence on the edge of the balcony before falling backwards over the edge and crashing to the floor below. Jonathan finally staggered upright to see Hopper, Joyce, Nancy, Will, Murray and a man he’d never seen before walking towards them.

Finally, they were back together.

It was time to take these Russian bastards down.

-:-

Robin could have sworn she had a heart attack as Steve slumped forwards in his chair.

“Steve?” she called out, desperate for a better look. “Steve?

Suddenly, she had hands on both her shoulders, pressing her into that chair as they began to cut the black tape holding her to the chair – to her friend. They adjusted the position of her chair so she could see as they carried Steve’s unconscious frame off the office chair and finally onto what she could only describe as a terrifying dentist’s chair. Her eyes widened, her stomach threatening to empty itself all over her in the same way Steve’s had done.

They started to strap him down to the dentist’s chair using that same black tape. Robin still had those hands on her shoulders, flanked on either side by Russian guards. She watched as they strapped down Steve’s arms, and then his legs, and then around his stomach.

Satisfied that they were done, they passed over the roll of tape to the guards beside her. She felt the pressure on her right shoulder ease as the guard leant forward to take it –

She swung her whole body left.

Her shoulder smacked into the groin of the guard on her left. He doubled over in pain, his hand releasing its hold on her.

She jumped to her feet, sidestepping the guard on her right as he tried to redouble his grip. She pushed the doctor away from her as he tried to grab her, her hands still taped together in front of her.

A second later she was by Steve, looking down into his bruised, swollen face.

“Come on Steve,” she whispered, putting her hands on his chest and trying to shake him awake. “Steve!”

She abandoned trying to shake him awake. Her hands travelled down to the tape across his chest –

BANG!

Blinding pain erupted in the back of her shoulder, throwing her forward over Steve. She’d never felt such pain before. The noise, the force of something hitting her in the shoulder had her ears ringing and spots dancing across her vision for a second.

She dimly registered someone grabbing her by the arms before the room went flying – no, hold on, that was her –

She hit the cold floor on her side – thankfully not the side that had just exploded with pain. She looked up to see the General standing above her, gun held aloft. A second later her brain caught up… the thing that had hit her had been a bullet… the sound had been a gunshot…

The General had just shot her in the shoulder to stop her from untying Steve.

She was suddenly aware of the tears in her eyes – aware that there were broken gasps of pain coming out of her mouth.

The General knelt down to face her.

“Your ‘Hopper’ had better come soon,” he growled menacingly. “You and your friend are running out of time.”

Chapter Text

It felt good to put his foot down.

Scratch that. It felt good to put his foot down and be listened to. After days of Joyce second guessing everything he’d ever said and done, of Smirnoff throwing tantrums over the wrong flavour of sugary ice, of Murray being so far up his own ass he was astonished that the man wasn’t tied up in some weird Mobius strip coming out of his mouth back the wrong way up his digestive system, it felt good for Hopper to only have to tell the kids two or three times that they weren’t coming with them into a dangerous Russian lab.

“Look, kid, I know you want to help your friends,” he told the one with the curly hair – beyond Will he’d have happily called them all Shitheads 1, 2, 3, and now 4 with that redhead joining them, but El had forced him to put a name to Mike. He was still struggling on the other three, but the girl might have been called Max? – “I know you want to go down there and help, but I’ve already got two teenagers stuck down there, I’m not having any more of you at risk.”

“But I know the way!” the kid snapped back.

“Yeah, I’m sure you do, but you know who else knows the way?” Hopper said. “Smirnoff. He helped build the entire base. He probably knows the way better than you do.”

“But I left them-”

“Kid, drop it!” Hopper said in a tone that he hoped conveyed finality. “You’re not coming down. None of you are coming down, Jonathan is going to take you someplace safe.”

Dustin opened his mouth to argue one more time, before Hopper put a reassuring hand on his shoulder.

“I’ll bring them back,” he said to Dustin. “I promise I’ll bring them back.”

Dustin gave Hopper one last desperate glare before retreating back to the rest of the Party.

“You ok?” Lucas asked.

Dustin shook his head. “It’s my fault they’re down there.”

“No, it’s not,” Lucas said.

“It is,” Dustin protested. “I made the call to come back up. Your sister was busy telling me how we needed to save them, but I thought it was too dangerous.”

“You were probably right,” Lucas said. “I’m glad you came back up, I don’t want my little sister in that mess.”

Thankfully, Erica wasn’t listening, too busy telling Murray something that, judging by the look on his face, he would have rather ripped out his own eyeballs than listen to. Still, Dustin was not reassured.

“It’s still my fault they went down there in the first place,” he snapped. “I went to Steve with the code after you all ditched me at Weathertop and I asked for his help. Robin got involved and we found out the Russians were doing something with the mall, so we investigated. Found the elevator, and a second later we’d dropped halfway to hell and ended up in that place.”

“Dustin,” Will said softly. “Robin and Steve are old enough to make their own decisions. You can’t put it all on yourself.”

Dustin didn’t answer, he just looked at the floor, overhearing fragments of a heated conversation between Joyce and Hopper.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Hopper rounded on Joyce.

“I’m coming with you.”

“Like hell you are!”

“I can help!” Joyce protested.

“How, exactly, can you help?”

Joyce’s face was the epitome of outrage. “Excuse me? Without me you’d still be running around chasing after a car instead of a motorbike looking for that Russian thug!”

Hopper had had enough. “Joyce! You’re not going, and that’s final!

He turned on his heel, signalling for Alexei and Murray to follow. Joyce stood there steaming for all of one second before following after him.

Hopper wheeled around at the sound of her footsteps. “What part of final did you not get?”

Joyce opened her mouth to answer, before Murray cut her off. “Look, Jim, just give it up. She’s coming whether you let her or not.”

Hopper glared at him, and then back at Joyce, who was smiling that fucking smug smile she only ever got when she knew she’d one. “Fine,” he growled through gritted teeth. “But if you die down there, I’m not taking care of your kids.”

Joyce smiled as sweetly as she could after him as she followed him to the door. Almost as an afterthought, Hopper finally turned around to talk to the kids.

“Right,” he said. “Look after yourselves. Look after each other. And please…” he took a deep breath. “While we’re gone, try not to do anything stupid.”

And with that, they walked out of the mall and towards the elevator.

-:-

“So where are we going again?” Erica asked belligerently.

“A place in Illinois,” Jonathan explained as he sorted through the keys Murray had given him. “We’re going to stay there and lay low until they close the Gate and kill the Mind Flayer.”

“Why do we have to go to Illinois to lay low?”

“Because it’s somewhere Billy doesn’t know,” Nancy said. Erica’s insistent questioning of everything they were doing was grating on all of their nerves and she was continually surprised at how Lucas had lived with her for ten years without developing a nervous tick every time someone asked any question at all.

“And what happens to Billy?”

This question hadn’t come from Erica. It had come from a small nervous voice of Max. It was possibly the most vulnerable most of them had ever heard her. Nobody wanted to answer her.

“What happens to Billy after they close the Gate?”

Everyone fell into a tense silence. They all knew, Max knew too, of course she did, but nobody wanted to say it.

“What’s going to happen to Billy?”

Nancy swallowed. “The Flayed will probably all die,” she said softly. “Like last time.”

Max closed her eyes and pressed her lips together, clearly fighting back tears. Lucas reached out and gently put a hand on her arm.

“I know it’s stupid…” she said, her voice shaking. “I know we’ve got to close the Gate… and I know you all hate him… but…” she took a deep, shuddering breath. “He’s my brother.”

“Hey, it’s not stupid,” Lucas said, pulling her into a hug. Even he’d never seen her like this before.

“I don’t want him to die,” her voice was barely more than a squeak into Lucas’ shoulder.

Nobody knew what to say. Jonathan remembered his own terror less than a year ago at the thought of Will dying when the Gate closed. He remembered the relief he’d felt when the Mind Flayer had left Will, how he’d felt when he’d finally told Hopper that it was out of him and that they could close the Gate.

“Is there anything we can do?” he asked softly.

“We could try getting it out of him?” Will suggested. “Like you did with me last year?”

“We don’t know where he is,” Mike pointed out. “Last year we had you sedated, and we took you somewhere safe. This time, he’s got an army behind him. We’d have to find him, stop him, and get it out of him without the rest of the Flayed finding us before Hopper closes the Gate. And besides, there’s no guarantee it’ll work this time. The Mind Flayer will be expecting it.”

“We could put him back through the Gate?” Nancy suggested.

“Hopper has the only key card,” Dustin said. “You can’t operate the elevator without it. Unless you, like, hacked the lock or something. And I’m pretty sure you need, like, military grade technology to do that.”

“So there’s nothing we can do?” Lucas said, putting a hand on Max’s head.

He was met by a heavy silence. Everyone was looking at Max apologetically, wishing there was something they could say or do –

“Wait,” El said. “I could open a Gate.”

Seven pairs of eyes snapped towards El.

“No,” Mike said firmly.

“What do you mean, you could open a Gate?” Nancy asked.

“She opened the other Gate,” Dustin supplied. “The one at Hawkins Lab.”

“I could open the Gate,” El repeated. “I could send Billy through the Gate. I can close the Gate.”

“No,” Mike snapped. “No! El, are you crazy? You can’t open the Gate again!”

“Billy only lives in the Upside Down,” she said softly.

“El, think about what else could come through that Gate! What if it goes wrong? What if you can’t close it again? Will was taken into the Upside Down when you opened the Gate!”

“I can do it!” El said firmly. She looked over at Max. “I have to try.”

Everyone looked at El. Max peeled away from Lucas’ hold to walk over to her, a glimmer of desperate hope shining in her eyes.

“Do you really think you can control it?” she asked.

El nodded, smiling at Max. “I can do it.”

The decision was made.

“So how do we find Billy?” Jonathan asked.

“El could look for him in her void?” Will suggested.

“That might take too long,” Dustin said.

“Also the Mind Flayer might sense her,” Mike snapped, still very clearly not on board.

“Unless we let him sense her,” Nancy suggested. “We could set a trap. Bring Billy somewhere where we know he’d come. And then we could trap him while El opens the Gate and sends him through.”

“If Billy knows where we are, the rest of the Flayed will too,” Mike pointed out.

“But we can hold them off,” Nancy said. “We can hold them off long enough for El to get Billy through the Gate. And we don’t need to hold them off for long, just until Hopper closes the Gate.”

“This is insane,” Mike said incredulously.

“How are we going to hold them off?” Jonathan asked.

Lucas gasped. “Fireworks!

“What?”

“The Mind Flayer doesn’t like fire, right?” Lucas said excitedly. “Well, we use fire to hold them off! Fireworks are basically like little sticks of gunpowder!”

“That’s…” Will said slowly, “…not the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard, actually.”

“Where do we get fireworks?” Mike said snidely.

“Er, hello?” Lucas said, gesturing around him. “We’re in a mall on the fourth of July! There’s going to be some fireworks somewhere in here.”

“Alright, but if we’re going to do this, we’ve got to do it now,” Nancy said firmly. “Hopper and the others are already on their way to the Gate, we’ve got to get this new Gate open before they close it. Mike, you stay here with El, look after her. Everyone else, split up and look for fireworks. Don’t bother looking in clothes stores, look in general stores, the supermarket, and so on. If we haven’t found anything in ten minutes, we regroup, we come up with a new strategy. Got it?”

“Hang on,” Erica snapped. “Remember what the Chief said? About not doing anything stupid? I’d say this feels pretty stupid to me?”

“Erica,” Nancy said.

“Yeah?”

“Shut up.”

Everyone dispersed (with more than a little grumbling from Erica). Mike sat down beside El as she took that scarf and tied it around her eyes again. Max and Lucas paired off, heading towards the escalator. Before they got very far though, Lucas grabbed Max’s arm and stopped her.

“Are you sure about this?” Lucas asked softly. “If this works, Billy’s still going to be flayed. He won’t be able to come back, he’s going to be trapped in the Upside Down. He’s still going to be gone.”

“But he’ll be alive,” Max said. “That’s enough for now.”

-:-

The darkness was absolute all around her. Every step she took gave a soft splash as though she was walking through water.

She walked with purpose, her eyes on the outline of Billy, his face seemingly illuminated by an unseen lamp. He was just… sitting there…

She walked up to him.

“Billy?” she called softly as she approached. Every step she took towards him was more hesitant than the last.

“Billy?” she called again. She was getting closer…

She reached out her hand…

His arm snapped up and caught hers. He was staring at her, eyes wild. She tensed, but didn’t try to pull her arm away. Not yet.

“Billy,” she said. “We want to help you.”

No answer. Not even a blink.

“Max wants to help you.”

Billy’s grip tightened. He stood up.

“So you have finally come,” Billy said. His voice was deeper than where it naturally sat, but ultimately still his own.

She started to try to pull back her arm, but Billy’s grip was too tight.

“We’ve been waiting,” Billy said. “Waiting for you to see…”

“See what?” she gasped.

“That all this… has been for you,” Billy continued. “We’ve been building this… for you. We will find you, and we will kill your friends. And then… we will kill you.”

She swallowed. She had to be brave. She thought of Max, she thought of Hopper, she thought of Lucas and Dustin and Will, the thought of Nancy and Jonathan, she thought of Joyce, and Steve, and Erica… but above all, she thought of Mike. A fierce fire ignited inside of her. She would protect them all. No matter what the cost.

“Starcourt Mall,” she breathed. “We’re waiting for you.”

-:-

Consciousness returned slowly to Steve.

He became aware that he was awake… he didn’t remember falling asleep… His eyes were closed… He wasn’t quite ready to open them…

With a jolt, he became aware of the agony in his left hand. What had happened? Unwittingly, he let out a groan of pain, and he suddenly remembered what had happened.

The General. The doctor. The drill.

“Steve?”

The call pulled at the edge of his hearing. Robin. She was down in this hellhole too.

He slowly struggled to pull his eyes open. Everything was still blurry. He blinked the fog out of his vision, it wasn’t going quickly enough…

Finally, he could make out the slightly blurry outline of Robin. She was sat on a chair across the room from him, taped up to it.

Where the hell was he if he wasn’t in a chair?

He took stock of his surroundings, suddenly realising he was lying down in a… was this a recliner? A dentist chair?

“Steve!”

Relief was evident in Robin’s voice, but there was also a brittleness to it he didn’t ever remember hearing before. He looked over at her again, finally taking in her appearance properly…

There was blood coming from her shoulder… a lot of blood… too much blood. Deep lines etched into her features told him that she was in a lot of pain, her muscles pulled tight and her jaw tense to try and brace herself against it.

“W-Wait, what happened?” he gasped. Damn, his throat was still hoarse. “What did they do to you?”

Robin managed a small smile. “I tried to escape. When I tried to wake you, that Russian General or whatever shot me in the shoulder. Clearly taking you with me wasn’t one of my better ideas.”

Steve was shocked. “Oh my god, are you okay?

“Yeah,” Robin said softly. “Hurts like hell and I’m feeling a little lightheaded, but I’m okay. I think it just went straight through or something-”

She was cut off by the door opening, and the General and the doctor walked back in. The General looked at Steve and broke into a smile when he saw that he was awake. The smile sent shivers up Steve’s spine.

“Ah, Butterscotch,” the General said. “Glad you have joined us once more.”

Steve did his best to glare at the General as he walked towards him. Behind the General’s back, the doctor was pulling out that godforsaken power drill once again. This time however, he was fitting a far bigger drill bit.

“So, Butterscotch,” the General said softly. “Are you ready to talk yet?”

-:-

The blue Camaro pulled up next to the entrance. There was something almost comical about how those glass doors opened for him to let him in with a small ding, as though he was just another shopper. As though it wasn’t several hours after the official closing time, as though this was a normal day, as though he was just a normal person. He was now so very far from normal.

And so was she.

She stood there, in the centre of the food court, that graphic yellow and black shirt making her stand out boldly. Most strikingly, she stood there alone.

He walked towards the escalator, undoing the rope and walking down the stationary steps. “Where are all your friends?” he asked. A passing mockery of this body’s ego.

She didn’t answer. He continued to saunter towards her.

“It doesn’t matter you didn’t bring your little friends to this,” he continued. “All my friends are on their way. There’s too many for you to play with.”

It was enough. With a cry, she raised her hand, and flung this body to the side.

-:-

The doctor cut the front of Steve’s shirt open towards the top and pressed the drill against one of his ribs. Steve could feel the point pressing into his skin.

“Last chance, Butterscotch,” the General growled. “How did this ‘Hopper’ close the Gate?”

Steve swallowed, his heart pounding in his chest. He couldn’t do it, he couldn’t tell them. He couldn’t do that to El.

“I don’t know,” Steve said, an edge of defiance the only thing strong in his weak voice.

A barked command from the General, and the doctor started.

It was different this time – it broke through his skin, but there was more between skin and bone here – he gasped as it moved through muscle – the drill was pulling and tearing it rather than slicing through it like a knife – for whatever absurd reason, he tried not to scream – like he had any pride left at all – his breathing became sharper – faster – it was making it worse –

A second later, the drill hit bone. It wasn’t like trying to drill through a joint in his finger – it was so much more intense than it had been in his hand – the bone was bigger – stronger – it was taking more to break it – god, it was so painful – his mouth opened – so much for not screaming – the drill was moving deeper into his bone – there was so much more to it – was that Robin screaming as well? – tears were falling down his face – there had to be a limit – JESUS!

There was a cracking sound, and Steve knew, like he had before, that the bone had broken. His cry came out broken, and he felt himself going limp. The noise of the drill stopped, and he felt something pulling at his chest. A split second later, the drill bit was yanked out, and he let out an agonised scream that jolted his freshly broken rib.

The doctor wiped the drill bit down with a white cloth – Steve tried not to look – before fitting it back into the drill and pressing it against Steve’s chest again, holding it against the rib below the broken one.

“Once again, Butterscotch,” the General growled. “How did he close the Gate?”

Steve eyed the drill, before looking, terrified, between the General and the doctor. He looked past them both to lock eyes with Robin. She looked as terrified as he felt, tears running down her face, her eyes begging him not to do this.

But he had to protect El.

“I don’t know.”

-:-

El screamed at the strain it took to fling Billy to one side. Something in him was strong, was fighting her at every opportunity. She threw him against a pillar, the same one she’d smashed those soldiers against. He fought, but she didn’t need to hold him for long, just long enough for –

Nancy and Jonathan jumped out from behind the pillar, armed with a spool of wire they’d found in a hardware store. They wrapped it round him, pinning his body to the pillar. They ran the wire round him once, twice, three times, four times, and pulled it tight, staying behind the pillar.

El stepped back as Billy struggled, pulling out the blindfold. She walked over to the radio and turned it on. Static blared through it and she wrapped the blindfold around her eyes. Billy was screaming, it grated at her nerves, but she had to tune him out…

-:-

Steve screamed as another rib shattered.

“How did Hopper close the Gate?” the General bellowed.

“Steve, please, if you know, just tell them!” Robin begged.

Steve couldn’t answer. He could barely speak through broken sobs. “Please,” he managed to gasp. “Please, just stop, I don’t know anything, please…”

“How did he close the Gate?” the General repeated.

“I don’t know… I don’t know…”

The doctor lined up the drill once more.

“Oh god…”

-:-

The silence startled her after the noise and yelling just a second ago. She needed to look fast for something, anything, from the Upside Down. Something she could feel, something she could touch…

She was searching. Last time she had done this, she had known where the monster was. She didn’t want to touch a Demogorgon, but something else, a vine or something, something she could control…

-:-

Billy was struggling against the wires. It was taking all of Nancy and Jonathan’s combined efforts to restrain him, but it wasn’t enough. They were getting tired, Jonathan’s muscles in his arms were tightening, Nancy’s grip was slipping…

Mike, Lucas, Max, Dustin, Will and Erica rushed forwards to help them, grabbing it and pulling. But even with the extra help, Billy was winning. The wire pulled at their hands, tearing the skin away…

-:-

Suddenly, against the darkness, she saw the looming outline of the Shadow Monster. She felt terror rise up in her chest at the sight of it… Had this been what Will had seen last year?

She knew what she had to do, but she was afraid, so very afraid…

She swallowed her fear.

For her friends.

-:-

“Please,” Steve begged as yet another of his ribs splintered and cracked under the doctor’s drill. He knew he didn’t have much left in him to hold out against them. “Please stop, I’m begging you, please, I don’t know how he closed it, I don’t know anything…”

The doctor lined up the drill once again.

-:-

The cable snapped.

Billy had finally gotten an arm free. With supernatural strength only possessed by one of the Flayed, he twisted the cable around his hand, releasing his other arm, and pulled it apart.

Nancy, Jonathan, Mike, Will, Dustin, Lucas, Erica and Max fell backwards as Billy detangled himself from the cable. Jonathan was the first to recover, scrambling to his feet and chasing after Billy. He jumped and tried to tackle him, but Billy didn’t fall. He barely stopped. Nancy rushed forward to help, leading the others as they got to their feet.

They had all the effect of a fly stopping a runaway train as they tried to pull him away from where El was sat. Billy ignored them pulling him, he batted away Jonathan as he tried to pull him backwards. He threw Nancy to one side as she tugged on his arm. The children wouldn’t have had any effect even when Billy was human, let alone now –

But suddenly the redheaded girl was between him and El. He knew her, from another life he knew her…

-:-

“How did Hopper close the gate?” the General roared, out of patience. He was tired of these teenagers wailing at him to stop, if he didn’t get an answer soon, he’d put a bullet in both of their foreheads just to shut them up.

-:-

El was close enough now.

She reached out her hand…

-:-

The sound of cracking stone was deafening. The food court rocked as a huge chasm opened up in the floor, spreading up the wall like lightning.

Everyone fell to the floor as the ground shook except for Billy, who stayed standing only by some supernatural balance gifted to him by the Mind Flayer. He stared at the crack as it opened, a terrifyingly beautiful fiery red light shining from the depths.

El pulled off her blindfold. She jumped to her feet and stretched out her arm. With a cry, she lifted Billy up into the air. He struggled against her, twisting and writhing in the air as he fought the force holding him.

She raised her other arm. She screamed as she threw him backwards towards the Gate. Billy fought against it as best he could, stretching out his arm and grasping desperately at the broken stone.

He found a grip.

He started clawing his way desperately at the breach, fighting against El’s power tooth and nail. His other hand found a grip on the other side of the crack, and for a second, he clung on, his fingers breaking their own holds into the stone.

El gave a final scream, blood pouring out of her nose and down her face. She pushed out her hands one last time, throwing Billy back. The rock Billy was clinging to broke away, and he fell through the Gate and out of sight.

-:-

Whatever the doctor was going to do was stopped by the deafening sound of stone cracking above their heads. Alarms started wailing around them. Dust drifted down from the ceiling.

A moment later, a scientist – or so he suspected by that white coat – burst in, yelling something in Russian. His eyes wide, he was babbling away at a speed Steve wasn’t convinced a native Russian speaker was able to understand, let alone him.

The General barked something at the doctor before following the scientist out of the room. The alarms were still wailing, and the doctor was evidently nervous.

“What’s going on?” Robin tried.

The doctor, rather predictably, ignored her. He was looking around the room skittishly, like a nervous animal sensing a predator nearby. His eyes flitted between the corners of the room, alternating occasionally between them and the light fittings where the dust had fallen down from. Steve, oddly, found himself sympathising with the doctor’s fear. It was like an earthquake had just struck, only Hawkins wasn’t exactly a hotbed for geological activity.

At least, not the normal kind.

Suddenly, without warning, the door burst open again. Steve barely had a chance to register the silhouette in the door before a burst of rapid-fire gunshots sent him and Robin recoiling into their respective chairs, eyes tight shut.

The gunshots stopped. They heard footsteps walk into this room. Steve opened his eyes and couldn’t stop the broad smile that spread across his face.

Hopper.

Chapter Text

The deafening crack would have sounded like thunder on any other night, but on this night, this gaudy American celebration of independence, it was far enough away from the town, with its inhabitants piled into that carnival hosted by that pathetic politician, that it simply blended into the rest of the fireworks.

He was not so far away. He was drawing close on his bike to hear it for what it was. An attack on everything his comrades had spent so long building.

He did not bother checking inside the mall. The fat police chief was too close. He had that traitor scientist. He would know about the elevator.

It was time to make the American pay.

-:-

Jim hadn’t expected it was going to be the Four Seasons for those kids, but he hadn’t been expecting this.

The Harrington kid was strapped down to a table, his face swollen and bloody, with his shirt cut open near the neckline to reveal his chest with blood flowing freely out of three or four deep holes. A power drill covered with blood lay on a tray table beside him. His left hand was an absolute mess, he didn’t even want to think about the missing fingernails, let alone the mess that was his little finger. Behind him, a girl he didn’t know was tied to a chair, swaying slightly. Blood was coming out of a dark patch in her shoulder, shiny and still visibly bleeding.

God, what had these Russian bastards done to them?

Harrington’s face broke into a broad grin at the sight of him, even if he was in a Russian uniform.

Hopper!” he cried out, and the desperate relief in his voice twisted Jim’s gut. “I’ve never been more glad to see you!”

Jim got out a pocketknife and started cutting through the restraints tying him down. Joyce slipped into the room behind him and found a pair of scissors on the metal counter by the wall and started doing the same thing with the tape wrapped around the girl. Murray and Alexei stood in the door – Murray trying to hide his shock, Alexei simply looked floored by the scene.

Harrington staggered sideways off the – dentist chair? – and looked over at the girl. He tried to stand upright, but clearly wasn’t quite up to it, because he lurched sideways alarmingly into Hopper. Jim caught him and put an arm around him to steady him.

“Easy, kid, easy!” he said. “Just slow down, alright?”

The girl wasn’t much better. Once Joyce had helped her to her feet, he could see that the wound in her shoulder was a gunshot wound.

“Hang on, sit down for a second,” Hopper stopped her, putting a hand out to stop her trying to walk while gently propping Harrington up against the dentist chair. “Let me look at that.”

The girl looked blearily at him for a moment before letting Joyce ease her into the chair again. Hopper crouched down and started to look at it closely for a moment, looking around the back of her shoulder. Sighing, he took off his belt and wrapped it round her shoulder. Memories of doing something very similar to Sam Owens’ leg came flooding back as he did so.

“Give me that scarf thingy you’re wearing,” Jim said.

She looked confused. Hopper gestured to the scarf she had tied under her collar. She started trying to undo it with one hand, before Joyce finally stepped in to help. She handed it to Hopper, who tied it round the girl’s neck and under her arm in a makeshift sling.

“I know it’s not much, but it’ll slow the bleeding until you get back up to the surface,” Jim said softly. He turned to Harrington. “Sorry, kid, I don’t know if there’s anything I can do for you.”

Steve nodded, a lump forming in his throat. Of course, of course Joyce Byers was here, helping rescue them after he’d sold out her son. He swallowed down a wave of nausea as he tried to figure out if he could stand.

“Dustin make it back up okay?” he finally managed to say.

Hopper looked over at him. “Yeah,” he replied. “Yeah, he and the Sinclair girl got back fine. He was real worried about you two.”

“I told them his name,” Robin said quietly. Tears were forming in her eyes. “I told them his name to try and stop them hurting Steve.”

“Wasn’t your fault,” Steve muttered. “I wasn’t much better.”

He looked up at Joyce, any trace of his default bravado gone, stripped away to reveal just how sorry he was.

“I told them about Will,” he confessed. “Mrs Byers, I’m sorry, I’m so, so sorry.”

Joyce’s expression softened into one of sadness, but before she could say anything, Hopper cut them off.

“We’ll deal with that later,” he said. “Right now, we need to go and close the Gate and end this thing. Take that doctor’s key card, go back up to the surface and call yourselves a goddamn ambulance.”

“Wait, no,” Steve protested, a little more energy spreading into his voice. “We’re not leaving you guys!”

“Kid, I don’t have time to have this argument with you,” Hopper snapped. “We need to go quickly, and you two need a hospital.”

“And if we meet any Russians on the way, what are we supposed to do?” Steve pointed out, lifting up his broken hand. As if to emphasise the point, Robin tried to get to her feet and ended up stumbling into Joyce, who wrapped an arm around her.

Hopper looked between the two of them, a ghost of defiance on Steve’s face at the knowledge that he knew he’d win.

“Fine,” he said. “But hurry up.”

-:-

For a moment, they all stood there, staring at the gaping crack in the wall. Lucas, Nancy, Dustin and Erica were in awe. Jonathan and Will looked fearful. Mike was thunderstruck. Max stared into the red light, as though almost entranced.

And El – well, she was stunned.

“Close it,” Mike said, panic raising his voice to an unnecessary volume.

El looked at Mike, before looking at Max. Tears were in her eyes.

“El, close it!” Mike screamed.

El kept her eyes on Max, who was still staring at the Gate like she was about to go through it herself.

“Max?” El breathed softly.

The sound of her name seemed to wake her from a trance. She visibly gathered herself together, swallowing, before taking a step back. She blinked rapidly several times, before she finally fell into a step backwards.

“Close it,” Max said with a steely determination.

El raised her hand once again. Slowly, the Gate started to mend itself, threads weaving together at the bottom of the gate, where the light met the ground.

The others stood there, watching in awe as it came together. The threads would illuminate, until they started to pull themselves together when they dimmed, healing together and sealing, a fading fault line the only sign a crack had ever been there.

The Gate had closed halfway when Will, transfixed by the sight before him, almost missed the soft tapping on the glass above their heads.

He felt that tingle on the back of his neck.

“Guys,” he said nervously. He looked upwards to see something – what was that? – above their heads. A looming outline of an enormous, many legged creature…

“RUN!” he screamed.

They had just scattered into the shops when the skylight gave way, and an enormous, monstrous thing came crashing down into the mall with a screech.

-:-

Somehow, though later Hopper would not be able to remember for the life of him how, they managed to make it to the vault with minimal disruption. The blaring alarms that echoed around them were definitely causing mayhem, because on the rare occasion that they ran into a soldier, they were barely spared a second glance. Something about Alexei’s presence, Murray’s charisma when communicating in Russian and their Russian uniforms meant that they weren’t given much thought as they walked through the halls. They were just three guards escorting two prisoners and the chief scientist. Given the wailing alarms, there were evidently stranger things going on.

Alexei led the way into the vault. It was a cold room with a huge door at one end that Hopper privately thought was unnecessarily large for what was only two keys, lit only by a single fluorescent tube and a flashing red light. Of course, there would be a siren blasting over their heads.

Alexei walked up to the keypad on the door. He started putting in the code.

The door buzzed and a red light flashed up.

Alexei tried the code again. A buzz and a red light.

“What’s wrong?” Hopper asked.

Alexei didn’t need to speak English to guess what Hopper had said. He started babbling away in Russian.

“He says the code doesn’t work,” Murray translated. “He thinks they might have changed it.”

“They’ve changed the code?” Hopper repeated.

Murray translated, and Alexei responded, sounding increasingly agitated.

“He says after you found him, they might have changed it as a security measure,” Murray translated.

“Well, is he sure? Is he putting it in right?”

Murray translated for Alexei, who replied in a tone that would have been obvious anger in any language.

“He says yes, you-” Murray paused as Alexei let out a slew of angry sounding Russian slurs. “Yes, you idiot,” Murray finished.

“Oh, real nice, Smirnoff,” Hopper snapped.

“Do you want me to tell you what he actually said?” Murray offered.

Before Murray could translate what would no doubt have been a very colourful description of Hopper, Alexei started talking again, his voice getting more worried than angry now.

“He says he’s put in Planck’s Constant five or six times now,” Murray translated. “Six – zero – two – six – zero – seven – zero – one – five-”

“Planck’s Constant?” Robin repeated, saying the first words she’d said since leaving that godforsaken room. “That’s not Planck’s Constant.”

“What?”

“I don’t know it all by heart,” Robin said, “but I know it begins six point six two six, not six point zero two six.”

Murray said something in Russian to Alexei, who looked around at her, before putting in the new sequence of numbers into the keypad.

The door beeped and the light turned green.

Alexei stood back and smiled, before turning back to look at Robin.

“Spasiba,” Alexei said to her, a broad grin on his face.

“He says thanks-”

“Yeah, I – I got it…”

“Alright Robin!” Steve said, patting her gently on her good shoulder.

Hopper walked past Alexei to retrieve a steel briefcase from inside the vault.

“Right,” he said. “Let’s go blow up that Gate.”

-:-

Mike held his breath as he chanced a glance round the corner of the counter. That… thing – whatever it was – was standing over the Gate. It was facing the other direction, bearing down on the prize car that stood behind those velvet display ropes.

A second later, there was a crash as one of its enormous legs stamped down on the car. The alarm started blaring, and the creature roared. It slammed its leg down again on the bonnet, before finally wrapping its broken, distorted claws around it and throwing it across the room. Mike’s gaze followed the car as it flew through the air he and saw it land less than three feet from where Nancy and Jonathan were hiding behind the information desk.

Mike turned towards El, Max and Lucas, who were hiding with him, and he squeezed El’s hand.

“El,” he breathed. “Whatever happens, you have to close the Gate.”

They’d made a plan in case the Mind Flayer’s army had showed up – get up to the mezzanine where they’d stockpiled all the fireworks they’d managed to find. Mike had absolutely no idea whether it would work with this monster, but it was the only plan they had. They didn’t have much of a choice.

“We need to distract it,” he breathed. “El, do you think you can do something?”

El nodded silently. She closed her eyes, and thought back to the day Dustin had come back from camp. She could do something similar here. There were things in this mall that she could turn on. She kept her eyes closed, and imagined the escalators moving. She pressed them to work, willed them to turn on…

There was a crunching noise, and the escalators whirred into life. The monster turned sideways with a start. El snapped open her eyes, just in time for Mike to spring to his feet.

Go!” he mouthed insistently, trying to keep as quiet as he could.

The other three sprang up and bolted through the maintenance door. Mike was the last one through, just in time to see a long tentacle stretch out, its claws at the end of it outstretched, as he slammed the door behind them.

Mike, El, Max and Lucas leaving gave the others enough time to move themselves. Dustin, Erica and Will made it to the door first, causing the monster to snap its monstrous head round to face them. Will froze, eyes wide, as the creature’s tentacle lashed round, launching itself towards him –

Dustin yanked his arm and practically threw him through the door just as Jonathan sprinted out from behind his own counter.

“HEY!” Jonathan shouted.

The monster spun around to face him, but that was as far as Jonathan’s plan extended. He began to run backwards –

“Jonathan!” Nancy screamed.

She’d found a door out of the food court – it was a fire door leading into the maintenance corridors less than five feet from him. He made a beeline for it –

The tentacle whipped round and closed its claws around his arm. Nancy ran forward to grab him, catching his hand as he was dragged into the air, but there was only one of her, she couldn’t hold him –

A bright light exploded above her head off the back of the monster. Jonathan crashed down to the floor on top of Nancy as Lucas lit another firework.

“Flay this, you piece of shit!” he yelled as he threw it.

Mike made it to the mezzanine just in time to see Nancy and Jonathan sprint towards the fire door. He grabbed El’s arm.

“El, we’ll hold it off,” he said urgently. “Just close that Gate.”

-:-

It turned out open firing an automatic rifle into the air was an excellent way to disperse a roomful of terrified Russian scientists.

The room emptied within a matter of seconds. It didn’t matter anymore that it was blatantly apparent that none of them were Russian soldiers. They had the keys.

“They’re going to call for backup,” Steve pointed out.

“Doesn’t matter,” Murray said. “This… is going to blow up the machine. Anything down there is going to get vaporised.”

“Oh,” Steve said, raising his eyebrows at the revelation. “That’s convenient.”

“You complaining, Harrington?” Hopper asked.

Steve shook his head as he shrugged. “Forget I said anything.”

Alexei started looking at the readings on the various dashboards, before babbling at them in Russian again.

“He says the Gate’s unstable,” Murray translated. “That’s what all these alarms are for.”

“Will it still work?” Joyce asked.

Alexei continued to babble away.

“He says that this will blow up the machine,” Murray offered. “And it will cut the power to the Gate, but…”

“But what?” Hopper asked. He really hated the word ‘but’.

“But there’s a chance the Gate is self-sustaining now,” Murray continued. “He says if we want to close it, we have to turn off the machine now. He says it may already be too late.”

Hopper looked alarmed. “Then we do this now,” he said decisively.

He opened the briefcase and found two keys. He handed one to Joyce and they walked up to the two podiums just beyond the row of computers. They put the keys into the slots.

“On three,” Hopper said. “One-”

A gunshot behind them cut them off. Hopper and Joyce wheeled around to see the biker that had been tailing them standing in the doorway behind them, gun held up, pointing it at Alexei, who collapsed over the computers.

That Russian bastard…

Steve grabbed Robin and pulled her down under a table. Murray jumped to his feet and ran towards him, grabbing the gun, but the Russian swung his fist and sent Murray sprawling sideways, smacking his head against the side of the table Steve and Robin were crouched under. The pair saw him hit the floor unconscious, blood coming out of a shallow wound on the side of his head.

Hopper lifted his own gun up and pointed it at the Russian. The Russian grabbed the barrel and swung it sideways into Hopper’s face, sending him staggering. Joyce tried to make a grab for the Russian’s pistol, but he grabbed her and threw her away from him.

Hopper felt a fire rise up in his chest at the sight of Joyce hitting the floor. Without a second thought, he grabbed the Russian and threw him out of the room and down the steps towards the Gate.

-:-

She was almost there.

It had taken more out of El than anything had ever done before – even closing the Gate last time – but she would do this. She had to do this. She’d told Mike, and Max, and everyone that she could do this.

She would do it for them.

The fireworks were exploding below her. Everyone was on that mezzanine level, sending explosions of brightly coloured sparks down onto that monster. The monster was twisting and flailing, always trying to get to her, but she couldn’t deal with it now.

She had to concentrate on closing the Gate.

She was so close now.

The last few strands were joining… the fire for her friends burnt brighter than the sparks that burst into life on the monster’s back. They were drawing together…

There!

The Gate finally sealed. The red light illuminating the room from it faded away.

She’d done it.

She stood there, exhilaration filling her whole body. Her breathing became deeper, slower –

BANG!

She’d stood there a moment too long. A tentacle swung out and slammed into her side. She flew through the air like a ragdoll, landing at the top of the escalator, before she went crashing down it.

El!” she heard Mike scream.

She hit the bottom of the escalator. Everything was hurting so much…

She rolled over and staggered to her feet, only to come face to face with that monstrosity.

-:-

The alarms all stopped wailing.

Steve scrambled out from under the table as soon as Hopper and the Russian soldier had crashed out of the room. He ran over to Joyce, helping her to her feet.

“Are you okay?” he asked frantically.

She nodded, not quite meeting his eyes. She hadn’t looked at him properly since the revelation about Will.

Steve tried not to think about that.

He went over to Murray, first checking to see if he had a pulse. When he found one, he tried shaking him awake but to no avail. Joyce, meanwhile, went to check on Alexei, who had none of Murray’s luck. The bullet had gone straight through his back and out of the middle of his chest. It was a kill shot with military marksmanship.

As Robin got out from under the table, all three of them turned towards the Gate, where Hopper and the Russian were fighting. The guns had gone, lost to the gaps between the walkway and onto the floor below. It had devolved into a fist fight.

A fist fight Hopper was losing.

Steve looked nervously over at Joyce, who was staring, horrified but transfixed, by the sight before them. Tears were forming in her eyes. Every time the Russian landed a blow, she gave a small gasp. In that second, Steve saw how much she cared for him.

He had to make up for how badly he’d let her family down. How badly he’d let her down.

He had to do something.

“Stay here,” Steve said to Robin and Joyce. “If something goes wrong, don’t wait for us. Just end this.”

-:-

El thought she was staring at her death.

She raised her hand with a scream and held them up, desperately trying to hold that monster back.

A tentacle lashed out to try and grab her. She lifted her other hand to meet it. It stopped, pushing against her power.

She didn’t know how much she had left in her.

She could hear Mike screaming. She gave a cry and ripped her hand down, breaking off the claws from the tentacle.

The last of the fireworks exploded above her. The monster launched a fresh assault. She raised her hands to meet it, but it was so strong…

And she was so, so tired…

Her knees buckled under the pressure. She let out a desperate scream.

She didn’t know if she could hold out against this.

-:-

Hopper felt the punch land across his face. The Russian bastard grabbed his shoulders and shoved him against the railing. He was pushing his head closer and closer to the machine… Hopper could feel the heat from here, burning against his scalp even though he was still yet to touch it…

Everything changed.

Something ploughed into the side of the Russian. Hopper recovered his footing to see the Harrington kid charging into the Russian, sending them both sprawling towards the Gate.

But the blow had carried Steve too far. He rolled further down the causeway, landing on his front looking at the Gate. He rolled over onto his back to see the Russian standing over him, startled by his sudden appearance and all the more deadly for it.

But charging at the man had taken more out of Steve than he could afford. His broken ribs hurt, god did they hurt, and his left hand was in such agony he couldn’t hold a pencil, let alone hold back a punch.

Suddenly, Hopper appeared over the Russian’s shoulder, grabbing him from behind and throwing him sideways towards the machine.

“See you in hell,” the police chief growled, and he slammed the Russian’s head into the machine.

There was an almighty crash, and bolts of lightning erupted where the Russian had hit the machine. It was like a wall of light stemming at the point of impact.

A wall of light between Steve and Hopper.

Steve scrambled to his feet, looking around, trying to find a way out. Hopper was doing the same, eyes flitting around the room. Steve’s eyes suddenly found Robin’s, looking at him through the glass of the observation deck, and in that moment of staring at her terrified wide eyes, he knew.

There was no way out.

“It’s okay,” Steve said loudly to be heard over the noise.

Hopper looked at him. Saw the resignation in his eyes.

“It’s okay,” Steve repeated.

“Kid-”

“Look after the others,” Steve cut him off. Tears were pouring down his cheeks, but his voice was oddly steady. “Especially Dustin. It wasn’t his fault.”

“Hang on-”

“And tell my mom and dad…” Steve continued, his voice starting to shake. “Tell them… I love them… And I think I get it now.”

Hopper froze, stunned into silence.

“It’s okay,” Steve repeated, taking a shuddering breath. “Go. Finish this.”

Hopper gave him one last look, before turning around. He ran back along the causeway and up the stairs. Robin ran towards him.

“What are you doing?” she demanded. “What are you – what about Steve?”

Hopper didn’t answer her. She pushed past him, but he grabbed her round the waist.

“We can’t just leave him!” she screamed.

“There’s nothing-” Hopper threw her back into the room with a shout. “There’s nothing we can do!”

“Hop!” Joyce protested.

“Joyce,” Hopper’s voice softened in a hope of revealing just how hard this decision was for him. “There’s nothing we can do.”

No!” Robin screamed. She started to run towards the door. Hopper caught her round the waist again, and kept a hold of her, dragging her towards the podium as she fought against him. She was screaming, when words failed her, they devolved into wordless shrieks and screams, tears pouring down her face. Joyce reluctantly fell into step behind him, hesitantly approaching her own podium.

They both put their hands on the keys, neither having the stomach to look at the lone figure in blue down below.

They looked at each other instead.

Wordlessly, together, they turned the keys.

Chapter Text

A blinding white light and a force like a wave blew them backwards.

They barely heard the crashing sound, the screech as gears crunched together in ways that they never should have met, shredding themselves. The glass in the windows between them and the machine cracked into a million pieces, but it did not fall out of the frame.

Suddenly, the light faded. Robin dared to open her eyes. She was lying on her front on the floor over Hopper’s outstretched arm. He and Joyce were lying on their backs, blinking blearily.

Without a second’s hesitation, Robin jumped to her feet, ignoring the pain in her shoulder. She couldn’t see Steve through the glass, it was too badly broken. She sprinted out the door of the observation deck and down onto the causeway.

“Steve?” she called out.

There was no sign of him. Nothing.

Steve?” she cried, her voice rising in panic.

Her voice echoed off the concrete walls, giving her only her desperate plea as a response. She looked around the room, taking in the fading glow of the fault line in the wall, the smouldering remains of the machine…

The complete absence of her friend.

Steve!” she screamed into the darkness.

“He’s gone,” a voice came from behind her.

She turned around to face Joyce.

“No,” Robin denied. “No, he can’t be gone, he can’t be…”

“I’m sorry, sweetie…” Joyce said softly. “I’m really sorry, but he is.”

“No,” Robin repeated, her voice so small it was almost inaudible. “No… please…”

Joyce took a step towards her, putting her arms around her and pulling her into a tight hug. Robin buried her face in her shoulder, all sense of control lost, and finally broke down into uncontrollable tears as the world fell away.

-:-

Everything suddenly stopped.

The monster gave an almighty screech and collapsed against the floor. In that second, they knew Hopper had closed the Gate.

The room stilled to utter silence as they all stared at the unmoving corpse of the monster. And, just visible underneath one of those enormous legs, was the unmoving figure of Eleven.

El!” Mike screamed, sprinting towards the escalators. “EL!

He ran down the escalator and practically collapsed on the floor beside her. With a grunt, he pushed that enormous leg away from her and pulled her out by her shoulders.

“El,” he breathed desperately. “El, come on, please be okay…”

She stirred as his fingers lightly touched her cheek.

Mike almost cried with relief. “El!”

“Mike…” she gasped. She was so tired, she’d never felt so exhausted before in her life. She could barely lift her arms as Mike pulled her into a hug, instead resting her head on his shoulder, eyes closed.

“I did it,” she breathed into his ear. “I said I could do it.”

“I know,” Mike replied. She heard his voice shaking and she realised he was crying. “I know.”

She leant into his embrace and slowly opened her eyes. Her gaze travelled round the mezzanine, alighting on each of her friends. Straight across from her were Dustin, Erica and Will. They were all looking at her. Erica looked stunned, but Will and Dustin had identical broad grins on their faces. She managed a small smile before looking to her left.

She spotted Jonathan and Nancy standing on the other side of a pillar holding the crack that had, up until a few minutes ago, been the Gate. Jonathan was looking at her worriedly, while Nancy spared her a grateful glance before fussing over his arm.

Lastly, El looked right, spotting a lone figure with red hair walking slowly round to stand opposite that fateful fault line. She was staring at it, utterly transfixed, oblivious to the tears pouring down her face.

Max couldn’t quite comprehend it. Objectively, she knew Billy was gone beyond her reach. And they were beyond his. But something in her heart couldn’t accept it. As she stared at that crack, she felt an overwhelming sense of grief wash over her.

He was gone.

“Hey,” a voice said to her side. Lucas. She didn’t look at him, she couldn’t tear her eyes away from that crack in the wall.

She felt an arm slide around her shoulder, felt him pulling her into a hug against his chest.

“He’s alive,” Lucas said, echoing her words from earlier. “That’s got to count for something, right?”

Max didn’t give any sign that she’d heard him.

“It’s okay,” Lucas said softly. “Whatever you’re feeling, it’s okay to feel it.”

Max pressed her lips together, her face starting to crumple as the last vestiges of her wall of control started to crack. As they crumbled to the ground, she fell into Lucas’ arms, and finally let herself cry.

-:-

Sam Owens was blown away by the sight that greeted him as the parking lot became a temporary helipad.

Plenty of choppers were still circling, men in black tactical gear jumping out of them on ropes before moving into the mall. Sam could hear reports blaring over the radio in his hand about finding kids inside the food court… about a large… “thing… some kind of monster…”

That was above their paygrade. In fact, it was his paygrade.

“One of the kids is talking about Russians,” his radio blared. “Says they’re here in Hawkins.”

Ah, yes, the inevitable. He had suspected this was possible from the second he had taken over Hawkins Laboratory. The possibility of the Soviets discovering the Gate and using it to launch an attack on American soil was largely how he’d sold this level of prepared immediate response to the government, it was what had allowed him to invest hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars into having hundreds of soldiers on constant standby. And when they’d received Hopper’s coded message, it was all teams go.

Not that these soldiers knew what they were truly up against. That was still top secret.

A few minutes later, the kids were being led out of the mall. But of course, it was these very same kids. Sam recognised a few of them – Will Byers, obviously, and his brother Jonathan and that Nancy Wheeler girl, then there was that dark-haired kid, Mike, he thought, and then Jane Hopper, known as Eleven. God, she really shouldn’t be out in public, but then everything anyone ever saw at this mall tonight was going to be confined to the vaults of the Official Secrets Act.

Two of the kids he didn’t recognise, however, were frantically speaking to the soldiers escorting them out. Sam could hear the voices carrying from here.

“…It’s that room in the Loading Docks, it turns into an elevator,” the kid with the curly hair was explaining. “But you need a key card to use it-”

“Not a problem, kid, we’ve hacked key cards before,” the soldier replied, clearly quite amused that this fourteen-year-old in a hat and an orange graphic tee was giving him intelligence that was clearly meant for higher ranks. “Go talk to the doctor, he’s running this show.”

At the mention of the doctor, everyone looked over towards him. Sam could see recognition in Will’s eyes first, then saw Jonathan and Nancy realise, and lastly Mike and that Eleven girl.

“Of course you lot would be at the centre of this,” Sam said as he approached them. “You’ve not been having any more episodes, have you, Will?”

Will shook his head, but couldn’t get beyond that before the youngest person present piped up.

“Are you going to go and take out those Commies downstairs already?”

Erica!” hissed the other boy he didn’t recognise.

“Hopper’s already down there,” Jonathan said to Sam, ignoring Lucas and Erica’s spat. “We think he managed to close the Gate.”

Sam nodded, before looking at the curly haired kid. “Where did you say the entrance was?”

“There’s an elevator – one of the rooms in the loading docks turns into an elevator – it’s the one that needs a key card-”

“Alright, we’ve got it from here,” Sam gestured over at two of the soldiers that were stood by the helicopter he’d gotten out of. “Look after these kids,” he ordered. “Get medics to look over them, and don’t let them out of your sight.”

With that, he started to jog over to the loading docks, a small army in tow.

It took them less than a minute to hack the lock. Sure enough, as he and what felt like twenty soldiers piled into the room, the second the door closed there was a clunking sound and suddenly the room dropped faster than any of them found comfortable.

A minute later and it stopped.

“Doctor, stand back,” one of the soldiers ordered – clearly the commander of this team. Another barked order and the team moved into formation, guns at the ready, pointing at the door.

The door opened, revealing a deserted corridor. With stealth only brought on by years of training, the team silently fanned out into formation and began to move down the corridor. The elevator gave another clunk as the door closed, before a whirring sound indicated it had moved back to the surface.

They moved efficiently, shining a light into every shadow they passed, one or two occasionally pausing to open a door to a cupboard. Sam walked behind them, knowing that they would lay down their lives to protect him in an instant. He wasn’t about to jeopardize their potential sacrifice by insisting he go first. This was what they were trained for. He was there for the Gate.

They approached a corner in the corridor. The soldiers froze at a hand signal from the commander. Sam stopped too, and realised there was a sound coming from round the corner. A soft sound of wheels as they squeaked against the floor. The gentle hum of an engine – not a big engine, but one that would power a golf cart or something similar.

At another hand signal, the soldiers all pressed against the wall. Sam was ordered back further along the wall away from the corner with a signal that he didn’t need military training to recognise as the universal sign for ‘shoo’. Sam glanced over at the commander as he raised three fingers.

The engine was getting closer.

Three – Two – One – GO!

The team moved in unison, fanning out over the corridor, guns raised, shouts bellowing.

“Get out of the vehicle!”

“On the ground!”

“Drop your weapons!”

“Hands in the air!”

“Americans!” Sam heard a familiar voice bellow. “We’re Americans!”

Sam threw caution to the wind as he heard that voice. “Hold on!” he yelled. “Hold your fire!”

He ran out to the opening of the corridor, moving between the soldiers and coming out to see –

Jim Hopper and Joyce Byers were knelt on the floor beside a red cart.

“Jim!” he exclaimed.

“Hey, Doc,” Jim replied. “You got my message, then?”

A nod from Sam was all it took to get the soldiers to lower their guns.

“Is it just you two?” Sam asked as Jim and Joyce got to their feet.

“No, we, uh…” Jim gestured towards the cart. “We’ve got a guy out cold and a kid in shock in the back. Both American.”

There was something off about how Jim explained it. He seemed… oddly brittle.

“You’re not far from the elevator,” Sam said as Joyce went to open up the back of the cart. Two of the soldiers offered to help with – was that Murray Bauman? – as Joyce helped a teenage girl in a sailor’s outfit out of the cart. The girl seemed like a strong breeze would knock her over.

“These guys will escort you back up,” Sam said, before dropping his voice as everyone moved out of earshot. “What happened? You guys closed the Gate, right? Why do you all look like you just lost a fight?”

“We closed the Gate, yeah,” Jim explained. “But…”

“But?”

Hopper took a deep breath. “We lost someone,” he explained heavily. “A kid. Couldn’t have been older than nineteen. He helped out the other kids last time.”

Sam’s eyes widened, shocked. “But… I’ve seen you lose people before, I’ve never seen you like this-”

“That’s because this time is different,” Jim explained, giving Sam a dark look. “This time… I made the call to leave him.”

-:-

Nancy had a theory, because of course she did.

“When we were in the hospital,” she explained animatedly to an audience with an average age four years younger than her, “we saw Tom Holloway’s body break down and merge with Bruce’s. They came together to form that monster that attacked us in the hospital. It looked like a smaller version of that thing that attacked us tonight in the mall, didn’t it, Jonathan?”

“Er… Kind of, I guess…”

“I think the Flayed all merged to create that thing,” Nancy elaborated. “I think they came together to create that monster. Billy said that he was bringing friends, and then that thing shows up? I think that was all the Flayed.”

“But why didn’t Billy merge with it?” Lucas asked.

Nancy didn’t have a chance to answer before Will suddenly gave a shout.

Mom!

All theories forgotten, the group started heading towards the loading dock, where Hopper and Joyce were approaching. Joyce saw Will and started to run towards him, wrapping him in a tight hug as soon as she reached him. Hopper, however, gave El a small wave, and the group could see that he was caught up in the mayhem by the elevator.

Murray was being wheeled away on a stretcher, Hopper supervising, giving instructions to the paramedics. Dustin peered through all the people in black, looking for any sign of anyone in a sailor’s outfit. It really couldn’t be that hard to spot –

He finally caught sight of Robin, sat on the kerbside while a paramedic was crouched down, looking over her. He watched as the paramedic untied a scarf that was wrapped around her arm and tied at her neck.

He ran over to her.

Robin!” Dustin called out. “Are you ok – wait, what happened to you?”

She looked up at him and met his eyes with a stare that seemed to span a million miles before reaching him.

It was only then that he realised she was alone.

Dustin wheeled around, half expecting his friend to be on the ground behind him. “Robin, where’s Steve?”

No answer. Dustin continued to look around.

“Steve?” he called.

Nothing.

“Robin,” he said, his brain finally understanding what it had refused to grasp. “Where’s Steve?

He locked eyes with Robin, her eyes sparkling with tears. He saw the truth in her eyes, but he didn’t want to believe it…

“No,” Dustin said softly, as though the simple act of saying it would somehow make it untrue. “No, he can’t be…”

“I’m sorry, kid,” Hopper’s voice came from behind him. “He’s gone.”

At Hopper’s words, Dustin felt the world fall away, as though he was untethered, floating. This wasn’t supposed to happen – Steve was here – he had to be – because if he wasn’t – if it was true – then Dustin had left him down there… He had left his friend down there, and now his friend was –

“No…” Dustin said, louder this time. “No – he’s not… You said you’d bring him back…” his voice was rising as he felt tears well up in his eyes. “You told me you’d bring him back, you promised!

Hopper took a step towards Dustin.

“You promised me you’d bring him back!” Dustin screamed, any trace of composure gone. “Bring him back, bring him back!

Dustin pushed against Hopper’s chest, sending the police chief back a step. He glared at the man who didn’t immediately act on his demand, feeling tears run down his face.

“Bring him back!” he demanded, shoving Hopper’s chest again, knowing it was impossible but demanding it anyway, because they’d made the impossible happen before. They lived in the impossible. And if the impossible didn’t happen, then that meant that Steve – his mentor, his friend, his brother – was gone.

And it was all his fault.

Dustin leant forward to shove Hopper again as he let out an unintelligible cry. This time, Hopper was ready, wrapping his arms around the kid as he fell against his chest with his whole body, collapsing into desperate sobs. Over the kid’s shoulder, Hopper could see the others, the rest of the kids who had realised what had happened. He didn’t think he could bear to look at any of them as realisation gave way to shock, horror, anger…

Grief.

Dustin’s knees gave way with a fresh wave of sobs as he started screaming into Hopper’s shoulder. He didn’t care that everyone was watching, it didn’t matter how the Chief lowered him to the ground. He barely registered Robin reach out her hand to put it on his shoulder. He barely felt the rest of the Party approach and kneel down beside him, putting reassuring arms around him. He didn’t hear any of Hopper’s empty placations muttered low into his ear, because none of it mattered anymore.

Because Steve was gone.

-:-

His eyes fluttered open.

He was lying face down on an uneven floor. His chest hurt, every breath felt like knives were stabbing into his front.

Memories of what had happened came flooding back to him… Hopper making it to the observation deck… Seeing Robin struggle against Hopper… Turning away from them all to look at the Gate… The terrifying realisation that the Gate was his only hope of surviving… It was too far though… Too far to jump…

Deciding to try anyway.

Running towards the beam of light… Launching himself in the air… Realising the Gate was too far away… He wasn’t going to make it…

A force hitting his back… Carrying him forwards those extra few feet… And then…

Nothing.

He tried to push himself to his feet, before – SHIT – he remembered his left hand was completely broken.

He rolled onto his back and tried sitting up. He managed more successfully to get to his feet slowly, his head still spinning from all the recent blows to it. Jesus, he needed to stop making a habit of that…

He was facing the wall – the same wall the Gate had been blasted into. He walked up to it, the only remnant of the Gate being a hairline fracture in the concrete. He ran his fingers over the small crack before leaning his head against the wall.

An unstoppable wave of sadness and longing crashed over him. Tears started to form in his eyes as he realised just what this meant.

He was probably never going to see his friends again.

He was jolted out of his reverie by the sound of an unnatural howl far away. He turned around to face the reality of the situation, the place he had ended up.

He was stood in the Russian base, only it wasn’t. Thick black vines clung to the wall. Huge holes – tunnels – were dug into the wall, ten at least, so terrifyingly familiar from last year when he had ventured inside one, all converging on this one point. White flakes drifted through the air like snow, or else ash in a fire. Whether it was his shattered ribs or something else, he was finding the air feeling thicker than normal in his lungs. Stood with his back against the wall, Steve was facing this strange new world.

The Upside Down.

Chapter Text

It was freezing.

His body was taking everything in slowly. First, he accepted the sight before him. The overwhelming reality that he was in the Upside Down, he spent too long pressing himself into the wall, just trying to look around and take stock of his surroundings.

The next thing that hit him was just how cold it was. He remembered Joyce saying about how Will – or more accurately, the Mind Flayer – liked it cold, and if this was where it came from, Steve didn’t have to think much about why. The cold bit against his bare arms and legs, at his exposed neck and chest, and sent shivers through his body. He didn’t exactly welcome the shivers as they jolted against his broken ribs and shook his shattered finger.

As he tried to take a deep breath in, he was struck by how damp the air smelt. It was heavy and humid, and breathing it in felt like trying to breathe in treacle. It wasn’t just damp, though, it smelt like an odd combination of chemicals. It reminded him of the smell of the science labs at school, only much, much stronger.

The final thing he noticed was just how quiet it was. The howl in the distance had faded, giving way only to the kind of silence that pressed down on his ears. It was quiet enough that he could hear a soft ringing in his ears, the air dancing on the very hairs inside his ears that detected sound. He’d never heard such silence before.

Taking it in, Steve realised he had to move. He had to go somewhere and find water, or whatever was closest to water here, find a way to survive. It was either that or stay here, and either starve or die of thirst or whatever, or else wait for something to find him, whichever happened first. And he’d met the things that were likely to find him here.

He looked around at those tunnels. They seemed like the most obvious route out of the basement. Picking one, he started to climb.

-:-

He’d never thought he’d ever say this, but thank god for Doctor Sam Owens.

The official cover story was a fire. Any deaths were attributed to the catastrophic fire caused by a gas explosion or some other bullshit that wasn’t important to Hopper. The sudden extinction of certain families such as the Holloways in the explosion at a time when the mall should have been closed and completely empty was attributed to the slightly unbelievable excuse that the Hawkins Post was doing a feature on how the introduction of Starcourt had changed the landscape of the town, and on that evening they were interviewing people of all ages in the mall itself when the explosion had happened.

A terrible tragedy, but an accident nonetheless.

There was, of course, the complication that most of the people hurt in said explosion had injuries that told a very different story. For example, the gunshot in Robin Buckley’s shoulder.

Sam Owens had an answer for that. He had asked for the federal government to build a military hospital not far from Hawkins Lab – not on the site, god no, he wasn’t going near there ever again if he could help it – but nearby, just in case. It proved that this new military hospital was actually much closer to the mall than Hawkins General, so Doctor Owens conveniently suggested to the paramedics that he could radio ahead and send anyone with serious hospital-requiring injuries there. The doctors there were all consigned not only to doctor-patient confidentiality but also to the Official Secrets Act. They knew not to ask questions.

Once at the hospital, Doctor Owens handed out the now-usual round of Non-Disclosure Agreements. Robin had now suffered a broken shoulder courtesy of a bit of falling rock, the claw marks on Jonathan’s arm were now burns hidden under a dressing, and Murray had been knocked out cold in the initial blast.

Robin was required to stay for twenty-four hours, and Murray would need to stay for at least that long once he finally woke up, but otherwise, they were free to go in fairly good time. It was definitely an improvement not having to sit through the general triage. Hopper had called the kids’ parents as soon as they’d got to the hospital to let them know where they were – at least, he’d called about the ones that had made it out.

Joyce drove Mike and Nancy home in addition to Will and Jonathan. Following the revelation that Steve had told the Russians about Will, Hopper had offered to let her, Jonathan and Will stay for a couple of nights, just until they could be sure that all the Russians had either been captured or else had otherwise left Hawkins. The situation with Dustin was a little more complicated – Claudia Henderson had sounded absolutely hysterical over the phone and Hopper had no idea of how to get her to agree to go into hiding for a couple of days without reading her in, which Sam Owens was strongly against. The message was clear: the less obvious disruption, the better.

So they’d settled on a couple of soldiers unobtrusively watching the house and hoped they did incognito well enough to avoid Claudia recognising them.

El, Dustin, Lucas, Max and Erica were sat in the Land Rover Sam had lent him before he could request that the Mayor fund a new police-issued cruiser for him – assuming that Mayor Kline remained in office for long enough for Hopper to put in that request. By the sounds of things, following the revelation that Kline had taken a certain amount of money from the Russian government, the plan was to make him the scapegoat for the ‘gas explosion’ after the news broke that he had taken bribes from ‘unlicensed contractors’ in order to have the mall built in Hawkins which had ultimately resulted in the ‘tragic loss of life’ that had occurred that night. This would result in him being taken into custody for accepting bribes and ‘reckless endangerment’ before he would be quietly removed from his white-collar prison to face charges for treason away from the public eye.

Sam’s explanation really was very tidy. He must have been very proud of it.

Max, Lucas and Erica were sat across the back seat of the Land Rover. Lucas was in the middle, Erica leaning on one of his arms, finally asleep, while Lucas had an arm around Max. The redhead was staring out the window, tears silently rolling down her face. She wasn’t the only one. Dustin had ignored the front seat next to Hopper, opting instead to ride in the back. He didn’t want to see anyone’s pitying glances, or have Hopper of all people try and cheer him up. He didn’t want sympathy right then. He just wanted to be alone, and the back was the closest he would be able to get to that in this car.

The sun had just crested the horizon, painting the sky beautiful pinks and oranges, as Hopper pulled up into the Hendersons’ driveway. Claudia had evidently been waiting for Dustin since Hopper’s phone call because as the car crunched on gravel, she came running out of the house, wrapped up in a warm flannel dressing gown.

“Dusty!” she called as he got out of the car. “Honey bun, are you okay?

Dustin didn’t answer her. He really didn’t know how to explain it. He let his mom pull him into a tight hug.

“Let’s get you inside,” she said. “We’ll get you some breakfast and then you can go to sleep. I know it’s been a long night but I’m sure you’ll feel better after that.”

Hopper winced at Claudia Henderson’s misplaced optimism, but Dustin didn’t bother correcting her. Instead, he turned his back on the others and allowed his mother to usher him inside. When they reached the door, Claudia turned around and called back to Hopper.

“Thank you,” she said awkwardly, “for looking after him. For bringing him home.”

The door fell shut behind her, and Hopper was back in the car.

Next stop was the Sinclairs’ house. Mr and Mrs Sinclair had also evidently been waiting for the return of their precious children, and at the sight of Lucas and Erica both getting out of the car unharmed, they launched into the entirely predictable lectures.

Phrases like thank goodness you’re both alright… what were you both doing there in the first place… why didn’t you let us know where you were… both of you are grounded for a week… overlapped each other as they ushered Erica inside. Lucas was much more resistant, walking up to the open back door of the car as soon as he had freed himself from his parents’ clutches.

“Max…” he started hesitantly, rewarded by her looking at him for the first time since they’d left the hospital. “I know this is hard, I get it. I get that… that I can’t really get it. But I’ll try. I’ll try and listen if you need me to. Or I can help be something else, something that isn’t sitting at home thinking about it, or whatever – basically, whatever you need, I’m… I’m here, I – I want to help. Just… don’t shut me out. Don’t go through this on your own.”

Max looked at him with that same haunted look in her eyes, like she wasn’t really seeing him. Lucas understood the dismissal, and stepped back to close the car door –

“Lucas!”

He froze at the sound and watched Max scoot across the back seat, before she pulled him into a hug. How long they stayed there escaped them both, but eventually, she slipped back into the car, and gave him a sad smile. He closed the door behind him and followed his parents into the house.

The next stop was the one Hopper was dreading. Susan Mayfield had answered the phone, and hadn’t asked about Billy when Hopper had told her that he was with Max after an incident at the mall and that he would bring her home. When the kids had finally filled him in on what they had done – on what had happened to Billy – Sam Owens had instructed Hopper to declare him dead. Hopper wasn’t thrilled about what they’d done, in fact he was downright furious – had he not told them not to do anything stupid? – but that lecture could wait until another day.

He pulled the car onto the kerb outside the house and got out, leaving El in the front seat with the radio on. He noticed Max hesitate, hand frozen on the door handle, as Neil Hargrove came storming out of the front door.

“Where the hell have you been?” he snarled through the window at Max. “We get a call at god knows what time in the morning saying you’ve been involved in some incident? At the mall? And then you get brought home by the Chief of Police? What were you even doing there? Where the hell was your brother in all of this?”

Hopper stood in front of Neil as Max opened the door, forming a barrier between the girl and her apoplectic stepfather.

“Hey,” Hopper said softly in his low tone that he used to de-escalate rising conflicts while indicating that he wasn’t someone to be messed with. “Hey, Max has had a long night, and there are some things I need to talk to you both about, so why don’t we go inside and we can talk calmly, okay?”

Max slipped past Neil and over to her mom, who put an arm around her shoulder and led her inside. Neil glared furiously at Hopper for another second before following them in. Hopper didn’t bother waiting for an invitation to join them.

Susan got her daughter a glass of water and offered one to Hopper, who declined with a wave of his hand. Max made herself scarce as soon as she could, slipping quietly into her room and pressing her hands over her ears, trying not to hear the conversation that was unfolding in the living room.

“Mr Hargrove, please have a seat,” Hopper indicated to the sofa taking a seat in one of the armchairs.

Neil sat down, not taking his eyes off Hopper. Not exactly easing up on the glare, either. Susan looked worried, particularly by the sudden vanishing of her daughter behind a closed door, and joined Neil on the sofa beside him.

“So what the hell happened to Maxine?” Neil asked accusatorily.

Hopper sighed. “There was an incident at the mall last night-”

“Yes, you said that on the phone.”

Hopper paused for a second at the interruption. “It was a gas explosion,” he continued. “The Hawkins Post was doing some kind of feature there on the mall, and had asked to interview some people of different age groups there when the explosion happened. Max managed to get out okay, but…”

He tailed off, running a hand over his face.

“But what?” Neil pressed angrily.

Hopper sighed and met Neil Hargrove’s glare. “Unfortunately, your son Billy wasn’t so lucky.”

Neil froze, his eyes widening slightly, almost imperceptibly, with shock. “Excuse me? What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

Hopper kept his eyes on Neil’s as he took a deep breath. “I’m sorry, Mr Hargrove. Your son was killed in the explosion.”

Susan gave a soft gasp, putting a hand on Neil’s arm. He shook her off. Understanding the wordless dismissal, she hesitantly got up and went to go and check on her daughter.

“Explain,” Neil demanded.

And so Hopper did. He explained Sam Owens’ neat cover story as best he could, even if the premise was slightly dubious. He explained how Billy was not the only casualty, how the emergency services were working round the clock to recover any and all bodies but how that would take a while, how there was no guarantee with a tragedy this scale that all the bodies would be recovered. He explained that there were support systems offered by organisations with grief counselling, he explained how Max had gone through a traumatic event, and how she was going to need all the support she could get, even if that meant they organised therapy for her. As Hopper explained, Neil Hargrove sat silent, drinking in every word Hopper said and, judging by the deepening scowl, not finding them at all to his taste.

Once Hopper had run out of words to fill the pressing silence, he faded into a few words of condolences.

“Once again, I’m sorry for your loss,” Hopper said, standing up.

Neil finally looked away, staring at an empty beer bottle Hopper hadn’t noticed before now. Now that he took in the surroundings at last, Hopper actually noticed several empty beer bottles on the coffee table. Shit. Neil was drunk.

“Mr Hargrove?”

“Get out.”

The growl came low and menacing, but so quiet that Hopper barely heard.

“I’m sorry?”

“You heard me,” Neil got to his feet, his voice rising. “I said get out!

“Mr Hargrove-”

“I said get the fuck out of my house!” Neil kicked the coffee table to one side sending the bottles wobbling, squaring off against Hopper. “You come in here, telling me my son is dead, and telling me how I should be caring for my stepdaughter, how I should be taking her to therapy, how I should be looking for goddamn fucking grief counselling? Like you fucking know me? Like you know how I fucking feel?

“Mr Hargrove, I know this is difficult-”

“AND I SAID GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY GODDAMN HOUSE!”

Neil kicked the coffee table again, this time succeeding in knocking it over. The bottles crashed onto the floor, a few breaking on impact as the coffee table landed on top of them, sending shards of glass embedding themselves in the carpet. Hopper finally decided enough was enough. He nodded in acquiescence.

“I’m very sorry for your loss,” he muttered, before walking out the front door and back to the car.

It was another half an hour of driving in silence with El, albeit a much more companionable silence than before, before they made it back to the cabin. Jonathan’s car was parked outside, Hopper noted with some relief, meaning Joyce, Will and Jonathan were already there.

“Hop!” Joyce called from the kitchen as he and El walked in. “Come sit down, I made breakfast.”

The astonishing domestic normality of it caught Hopper off guard, as he privately found himself imagining Joyce doing this for him after a long day, when he came home late at night, to find whatever spread Joyce had managed to put together. The only problem was that this time, the thought of eating anything made him feel slightly sick.

Breakfast, it turned out, was Eggos. Somehow, Joyce had managed to upgrade it not just with piles of syrup, but also by digging out some fruit that she’d cut up into small pieces and set in a bowl with a spoon in the middle of the old table. Hopper wasn’t aware that he’d even had fruit in the house – perhaps Joyce had stopped by a shop.

While the others found places to sit on armchairs and the sofa and tucked into the meal – none more enthusiastically than El – Hopper poked the fruit around his plate at the table with Joyce. He managed a mouthful of fruit, but that was about it. He was thinking… thinking about the rest of the things he had to do today.

“Something wrong, Hop?” Joyce eventually asked.

“What?” Hopper jolted out of his reverie. “Oh – uh, yeah, I’m just… I’m not very hungry…”

Joyce gave him a sad but understanding smile. There was too much knowing in that look.

“Uh… I’ve got to go…” Hopper finally stuttered out. “There’s… there’s something else I’ve got to do.”

El looked up, slightly indignant.

“I won’t be long,” he reassured her, putting a hand on her shoulder as he passed her. Jonathan and Will were looking at him questioningly, but Joyce, with her goddamn mind-reading abilities, was still giving him that knowing look. Sometimes he wondered if she didn’t have superpowers like El.

Hopper picked up the car keys and walked out and got back in that car.

He drove slowly. He knew he had to do this soon, putting it off was only going to increase that knotting feeling of guilt in his stomach, and if he didn’t do it, someone else would, and if he did it, he could control how it was done, but he still didn’t have a clue how to do it.

Hawkins was still almost silent as the sun climbed over the sky. The town wouldn’t be awake for another few hours at least – almost everyone would be sleeping in after spending the entire night at the Fourth of July Fair the Mayor’s office put on every year. The news broadcasters may have picked up the story by now, but Hawkins itself wouldn’t hear about the Starcourt ‘gas explosion’ for a little while longer.

A couple of not-at-all-deliberate wrong turns down one way streets helped put off the inevitable, getting him lost in Hawkins Suburbia a couple of times, but there was only so much he could do, and eventually he arrived at his destination.

The home of the Harringtons.

Hopper was surprised to see a shiny black Mercedes in the driveway. From everything Steve had told him over the years, his parents weren’t home most of the time. He was also sure the kid had told him that his parents were away on business at that moment.

This wasn’t altogether surprising. Harrington Spencer was possibly the biggest law firm in Indianapolis, and following the retirement of ‘Spencer’ six years earlier, Paul Harrington was the sole managing partner. Hopper knew that his wife, Linda, had some role in the company as a figurehead managing finances or operations or personnel or some other big department, which had been Paul Harrington’s way of smoothing over things in his personal life following the discovery of a string of short-lived affairs and one night stands with young, beautiful secretaries and paralegals. As far as gossip was concerned, this hadn’t stopped the affairs, but had certainly reduced them significantly, as Linda Harrington now had a certain amount of pull with the board of directors that allowed her to go on business trips with her husband. And as the leading corporate law firm in Indiana, there were a lot of trips to New York.

Hopper pulled up into the driveway behind the black Mercedes and went to knock on the door.

After a moment long enough to make Hopper wonder if he’d been mistaken about anyone being home, Linda Harrington opened the door. She was wearing an elegant mid-length A-line dress – thank  you Joyce for teaching him what those were – and her perfectly dyed blonde hair was done up in a neat bun. Much like just about everyone else, she’d clearly been out all night, because nobody in their right mind would look that well-groomed at 6:45am.

“Chief Hopper,” she said with a slightly surprised smile. “Come in, please.”

He followed her inside, and saw three large suitcases stacked up by the stairs.

“You’re lucky you caught us,” she explained as she led him through to the enormous living room. “We just got home about half an hour ago. We had business in New York – we were meant to get back last night, but when we realised that the office there had such excellent views of the fireworks, we decided to change our flight to an overnight one so we could watch them.”

She gestured to one of the armchairs casually as she drifted past them, before calling out for her husband. A second later, Paul Harrington emerged from a door in the far corner of the living room.

“Chief Hopper,” Paul said with that same tone of surprise that his wife had had when he saw him. “I’m surprised to see you here, what can we do for you?”

Paul had clearly just caught sight of the pile of pizza boxes on the coffee table in front of Hopper as he walked over.

“Sorry about the mess,” he said. “We’ve been away for a week and our son, Steven, evidently hasn’t heard of a trashcan.”

Hopper closed his eyes for a fraction longer than a standard blink at the mention his name. “Actually… it’s about Steve that I’m here-”

“Oh, god, he hasn’t been arrested, has he?” Paul interrupted. He turned to Linda. “I swear to god, I told him, one more disaster and I’m cutting him off. I told him he had to learn some responsibility-”

“Mr Harrington, your son hasn’t been arrested,” Hopper cut off Paul’s tirade. “Why don’t you have a seat?”

Paul and Linda sank into the Chesterfield sofa across from the armchairs, and Hopper felt a sense of déjà vu. At Hopper’s words, Linda looked worried. Paul was trying to keep that mask of professionalism that by now surely must have been a default, but it didn’t quite hide a glint of trepidation in his eyes.

“Mr and Mrs Harrington,” Hopper began to explain. “There was an incident tonight at Starcourt Mall. While Steve and certain others were working late to host a feature for the Hawkins Post, there was a gas explosion that compromised the structural integrity of the building and started a fire. Unfortunately, your son was among those who were killed in the explosion.”

Linda froze at those words. Her posture seemed to crack, held together only by habit that would not last as eventually it would crumble under gravity. Hopper looked at her as she stared at him, completely motionless, and he could swear that behind those eyes, Hopper could see her brain completely shutting down.

Paul, on the other hand, slumped back in the chair. He passed a hand over his face, clearly trying to process what had just been said. When that didn’t work, he leant forwards, elbows resting on his knees with his forehead in his hands, before he finally looked up at Hopper, still rubbing a hand over his face, a disbelieving frown on his face.

“W…What?” he finally managed to gasp out.

“I’m sorry,” Hopper said softly as he finally looked away from the two people in front of him and down at his hands. The sense of formality he adopted felt strange, foreign. He only ever became like this on the rare occasions he gave news of a death to a family.

“No…” Paul said softly. A warning, the first embers of rage crept into his voice. “No… I don’t believe it, I can’t believe it, I-”

He broke off, running his hand through his hair in a gesture that reminded Hopper so very much of how that kid would casually fix his hair. Hopper remembered finding the gesture annoying, the vanity of it grating against his nerves, but now…

Now the reminder just hurt.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” Hopper repeated. The same empty words he’d used on Neil Hargrove, on Marsha Holland and her husband, the same words he’d use again so many times before he could finally put this to bed. It felt so scripted in his mouth, like it wasn’t enough.

Especially not this time.

“H-How did he die?” Paul finally managed to stutter out.

“There was an explo-”

“Yeah, I got that part,” Paul snapped. “I meant how exactly did my son die?”

Ah, yes, the million-dollar question. The reason Hopper had been so determined to deliver the news himself. The official story didn’t cover individual causes of death at this stage – no, that was something that would come later. But Hopper had thought about it on the drive over here. The kid had been responsible for saving his life. He knew he had a window to make that known before Sam Owens just turned him into another statistic. And, damn it, it was the least Hopper could do to make sure he was remembered for what he was.

Steve Harrington was a goddamn hero.

“After the explosion, the structural integrity of the building was compromised,” Hopper lied. It was the same line Sam Owens had given him about what the public would be told once the building was condemned. “Your son took it upon himself to ensure that as many people got out through the maintenance corridors as possible, but unfortunately he didn’t manage to get out in time.”

It was the most plausible story he could come up with – deliberately vague on the details, mostly in line with the official story, even if a few details were fabricated here and there. He’d thought about it and ultimately decided that if Sam had a problem with him saying that, he could take it up with Hopper who would deal with whatever consequences the authorities could throw at him.

“Steve saved a lot of lives tonight,” Hopper concluded. “Including mine.”

This had Paul Harrington’s demeanour change in a heartbeat. No longer in shock or confusion, something shifted into horror. Those embers of rage sparked up.

“Hold on, you were there?” Paul asked incredulously. “You were there when this happened?”

Hopper hesitated for a second before nodding. “Mr Harrington, your son was a hero-”

“Yeah, well, it wasn’t his job to be a hero, was it?” Paul muttered menacingly, not looking directly at Hopper. The danger in his voice was unmissable. He wasn’t shouting like Neil Hargrove, this was calculated. Measured. “No, it was his job to scoop ice cream for spoiled brats. No, being a hero? …Well that’s your job now, isn’t it?”

Hopper didn’t answer, closing his eyes again.

Isn’t it?” Paul hissed.

Hopper opened his eyes, but didn’t meet Paul’s accusing glare. Truthfully, he’d never felt more ashamed in his life than he had about making the call to leave Steve on that causeway. He would take every single word, accusation or insult the man now sat across him flung in his direction. It felt like only a fraction of what he deserved, because honestly, Hopper felt they deserved the truth, even though he knew they couldn’t have it. Hopper wished he could give them more than just a scapegoat, even in the form of himself. Honestly, he wished he could give that kid more than a false memory for his parents to cherish.

“Tell me, Chief Hopper,” Paul spat out his title. “While my son was off ‘saving lives’ or ‘being a hero’ or whatever bullshit ultimately cost him his life, what exactly were you doing?”

Hopper honestly didn’t know if there was an answer to that question that he could give.

“What exactly were you doing while my son died?”

Hopper fell silent, his mind gone woefully blank. He looked down at his hands, clasped in and around each other.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” he finally managed to repeat.

“I didn’t think so,” sneered Paul as he stood up, no joy in that tiny victory he’d managed to win. “I suggest you leave, Chief, find some neighbourhood watch meeting to mediate or whatever other bullshit you’re suited to-”

“Did he say anything?” came the small, broken voice of Linda Harrington.

Immediately, Paul’s demeanour changed again. Dropping into the seat beside his wife, he slipped an arm around her shoulder, pulling her into his chest. Linda hadn’t said a word throughout the entire exchange, she’d not given any indication she’d even heard a word since Hopper had said that Steve had been killed. Tears slowly carved tracks down her increasingly pale cheeks as her body slowly collapsed into her seat, but now she was looking up at Hopper, a desperate, earnest look on her face that broke Jim’s heart more than any of her husband’s accusations.

“Did he say anything? Before he died?” she repeated.

Hopper nodded. “He told me…” Hopper was startled as his voice caught in his throat for what felt like the first time since Sarah had died. “He told me to tell you… that he loves you.”

At Hopper’s words, Linda’s face crumpled. She held it together for another second before her whole body crumbled into her husband’s chest, finally breaking down completely into tears.

Hopper decided to show himself out.

Chapter Text

Steve almost gave up at the sight of the sharp incline.

He felt like he’d been walking for hours. He was certainly thirsty enough. The tunnel had been going at a steep but ultimately manageable incline upwards since he’d first started, but now it veered alarmingly upwards, like a wall cropping up in his face out of nowhere. As he reached it, he looked up to see some kind of light glinting above him. The tunnel wasn’t quite straight up, there was still some sort of slope, but it was definitely more ‘up’ than ‘along’.

He glanced back over his shoulder. The prospect of walking as long as he had walked again only to end up back where he started, to start again at another tunnel which, if he was honest with himself, would probably only end the same way, was not one that immediately enticed him. That said, climbing up that tunnel with his hand in the state that it was did not fill him with a feeling of excitement.

He needed to find something to drink – if Erica was to be believed, he only had a few days before he’d die of thirst. If he was right, if he had been walking for hours, he needed to get out of this godforsaken tunnel and up to the surface where he could only hope there was some water somewhere in some state. It was either that or start trying to drink the goo that was clinging to the vines around the tunnel. And frankly, the last strange miscellaneous goo he’d encountered put him off that idea.

Steve looked up the tunnel. One of the few things that years of basketball had given him was a decent ability to judge distances. The light that glinted up above him was maybe thirty feet up. It wasn’t going to be a fun climb, but it was manageable.

There was nothing else for it.

Using mostly his right hand, he started to climb. When he needed to use his left hand, he did his best to put most of the strain on his thumb and index finger. He nearly slipped when instinctively he tried to grip with his little finger, the jolt of pain that shot through his hand sent him letting go, and he would have slipped down if he hadn’t managed to get his feet underneath him.

He didn’t know how long it took, but eventually, the climb gradually evened out and Steve could finally crawl into a flatter part of the tunnel. He realised as he did so that he wasn’t at the top, but he could see much more clearly now – it was higher, closer to the surface, and the shaft of dim light that he’d seen from the bottom was maybe ten feet above him. But the tunnel negotiated back upwards in a curve away from the ledge he’d found – a fork as two of these tunnels met. In order to get to the slope so he wasn’t climbing up the overhang, he would need to jump the width of the tunnel.

He didn’t know if he had it in him to make the jump, and he decided not to risk missing the jump altogether and ending up back on the floor. Instead, he chose the other option, which was to turn around and walk down the tunnel he’d crawled into.

This tunnel was flatter than the one he’d just climbed out of – a fact for which his legs were eternally grateful. The ground was still rough and uneven under his trainers, but at least he didn’t have to climb. His legs were aching, particularly after scrambling up that tunnel. His arms were in agony. What little of his left hand hadn’t been broken by a Russian with a drill was now cramping up, the strain of his good fingers trying to take away the worst of the effort from his bad fingers.

In all, he was pleased to be choosing the less physically exerting option.

It wasn’t long, however, before he started to feel a strange sense of déjà vu. Granted, he’d been feeling that sense since he’d decided to set foot in the tunnels, but this particular tunnel felt more familiar to him. Maybe it was because it was closer to the surface. After all, it wasn’t like he’d been paying particular attention to the tunnel those little shitheads had dragged him literally kicking and screaming into.

Or maybe it was because it had just led him to a Hub very much like the one he’d set on fire the year before.

Most of the details of that night after Billy Hargrove had punched a concussion into his head were incredibly fuzzy, but the one thing he did remember with terrifying clarity was that Hub. He remembered all the tunnels converging on that one point, he remembered those spore clusters built into the roof, he remembered that unnatural blueish light, he remembered that weird point in the middle where the vines seemed to cluster around a rock. This Hub was very similar. It was almost identical –

It was the same Hub.

Or at least, this was the Upside Down’s version of the Hub. The realisation hit Steve like a ton of bricks. He’d been here, less than a year ago, and he’d burnt it to the ground. Or at least, so he’d thought. But being here meant that he knew where he was. If he could just find the same tunnel he’d used, he could follow it back and try and find that hole Hopper had created and get out. Then he’d be at Merrill’s Farm, and he could find his way back to somewhere he knew. Even if it was the Upside Down’s version.

He glanced around. The tunnel he had just come out of had taken so many twists and turns he had no idea what direction he’d approached from. He felt lost, confused, and felt a feeling of panic rise in his chest.

No. He could do this.

There were two tunnels side by side to each other, with a bit of space between them before the next grouping of tunnels. Did that help orient him?

Not in the slightest.

He thought back to that day in November. The tunnel they had taken that day… he didn’t think it was part of a group of tunnels. It was set on its own, a little way apart from some of the others.

Looking around, there were about three tunnels that matched that description. He walked up to one and peered down it. A little way down, the tunnel veered right.

Steve stepped back, trying to remember which way the tunnel he’d taken last time had gone. He remembered it had turned, but which way­?

He decided to look at the next one, to see if it looked any more familiar. This one also veered right. Slightly more helpful if the tunnel he wanted turned left, but it looked no more familiar than the last one –

Something by his foot caught that strange blue light.

It glinted silver, polished, shinier than any of the vines around him. He looked down, and saw it catch the light again. It was hiding under one of the vines…

He knelt down on the ground, but experience – or quite possibly a Darwinian instinct to not die – stopped him from just sticking his hand underneath one of these vines. He needed something rigid, something he could use to move the vine off it.

The only thing to hand was that damn acrylic name badge he had from Scoops Ahoy. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to nudge the vine away. He almost jumped out of his skin when it came to life, but it slowly slithered sideways, revealing that silver object underneath.

Steve’s jaw dropped when he saw what it was. It was his old lighter – the one he’d thrown to set fire to the Hub last year. But that had been in his world, hadn’t it? So how did his lighter get here?

Hopper had said that the vines were spreading from the Upside Down as the Gate grew, but what if it wasn’t the vines doing the spreading, but the actual Upside Down itself? Maybe the tunnels were the Upside Down spreading into his world in a physical way. Maybe if the Gate had stayed open long enough, the Upside Down itself would have spread like a hostile organism, leeching into his world and turning everything into the Upside Down.

Or maybe everything in his world just had an Upside Down equivalent.

It was still slightly blackened by smoke from the fire he’d lit. He was still so woefully clueless, but as he wiped away the soot that had clung to his lighter, he wondered how the soot would have got there if it hadn’t been in the fire. But he wasn’t smart like Nancy, or knowledgeable about fantasy worlds and creatures like Dustin. He wasn’t a scientist, he didn’t have El’s superpowers. Truth be told, he felt completely clueless about the entire Upside Down. He had no idea what made him qualified to come up with theories about what was going on.

Other than the fact that he was here, and they were not.

He quickly tested the lighter, and felt a certain amount of reassurance as an orange flame flickered in front of him. It wasn’t much, but he was no longer totally reliant on what the Upside Down could give him in order to survive. He could set a fire and light it now, and he’d have warmth and a way to cook food and a way to defend himself against whatever this world would throw at him.

He put the flame out and pocketed the lighter. He didn’t exactly have refills of lighter fluid. Deciding he would come up with theories about how it got here at some point later in time, he made up his mind that the tunnel he was stood in front of was the tunnel he’d used back in November.

He felt an extraordinary sense of relief when his hunch paid off – even to such an end that not only did he find what he now called ‘Hopper’s hole’ but also that the rope was still hanging there. It was still a climb, but there was still a rope, which made the entire prospect much more palatable.

Instead of doing a hand-over-hand climb, Steve decided to make life a bit easier for himself and knot the rope at a few key points so he could give himself a foothold. Not really having the energy to do more than three or four knots, he knotted one at about knee height, one at about waist height, one at head height and one (where he had to jump to actually make the knot) at the highest point his hands could reach.

He didn’t often have good ideas, but this was one of those rare occasions. The knots made it easier to actually climb, using what little of his left hand that was actually operational to steady himself while his right hand could actually do most of the heavy lifting – quite literally. With every step he awkwardly made, trying to get a foot onto the next knot up, he cursed that Russian General and that doctor for what they’d done to his hand and chest. He knew that a lot of the breathlessness he was feeling – that he’d been feeling for the last however many hours – was entirely down to those broken ribs. And he didn’t think there was anything he could even do about it.

He reached the top and found himself scrambling on his stomach onto smoother dirt. The vines were still spreading out of the hole, but they actually proved to be a blessing as they helped reinforce the hole so Steve didn’t feel like the entire structure was going to cave in under his weight. Eventually, he managed to get his feet out of the hole, which allowed him enough of a chance to get up. As he finally got to his feet, he took in his surroundings, and felt a renewed sense of horror.

The open world around him was shrouded in thick, blue-grey clouds that gave occasional ominous flashes of lightning. The dirt under his feet felt dry and barren, though the same thick black vines that had been reinforcing the tunnel still crept along the floor. In the distance, he saw the trees and the forest, but despite the fact that he knew, objectively, that it was the height of summer, the trees were bare, no leaves clinging to them. Even the tall firs didn’t have a single pine needle on them. In the distance, he could see the outskirts of Hawkins, so familiar and yet so completely alien in this strange new world.

Still, he had his bearings now, and he knew he needed to find water.

Perhaps if Steve had been paying attention, he would have realised where his feet were carrying him much sooner than he did. He wandered into the forest, still that jarring combination of so foreign and yet so familiar. He found the tracks through the forest that he’d used to wander when he couldn’t have been older than seven or eight, playing games with long-distant friends of his childhood. He remembered running out here with Heather Holloway at one of his parents’ interminable garden parties when they were eleven – or had he been twelve? – before after an extremely stupid game of hide and seek he’d ended up sharing what he would call his first kiss up in a tree. Of course, Tommy had found out and spent months starting chants in the playground of “Steve and Heather sitting in a tree…” God, he’d been an idiot back then.

That said, if he remembered right…

Something clicked in his brain, and he took off at a run. His feet carried him over familiar paths, jumping over tree roots and vines alike. His ears picked up the sound before he could see it, and his heart started pounding in his chest –

He broke over a crest and saw, at the bottom of a gentle slope, a small stream that ran through the forest. In his world, the stream was a freshwater stream that ran over rocks. It was perhaps not the cleanest water in the world, but it was perfectly drinkable. There was even a rock in the middle that acted as a convenient stepping stone.

In this world, however, the water quality was anyone’s guess. He noted that the vines that crept along the ground stopped some way short of actually entering the stream. He walked up to the waterside, and thought that, if nothing else, it’d be good enough to wash away as much of the grime that coated just about every inch of his body as he could.

Kneeling down, he slipped his right hand into the water. He was surprised by just how clear it was. It certainly wasn’t as clear as it had been in his world, and even in the dim light, he noticed it had a slightly brown tint, but it seemed clean enough to rub away some of the blood and dirt that coated his hand. Once the worst of it was gone, he cautiously lifted his hand out of the water and pressed his wet fingers against his lips.

The water tasted oddly peaty, and he was sure there was more iron in the water than was normal. But there was nothing else there, it didn’t seem like there was any dirt or other poisonous material in it – at least, nothing more toxic than what was in the atmosphere. He decided that, if he was going to be poisoned by anything, it was going to happen with or without him drinking potentially contaminated water, and frankly, he was too thirsty to care. He cupped his hand into the water and brought what he could to his mouth.

The feeling of cold water slipping down his throat felt like the breath of life to Steve. Not caring how stupid he looked – it wasn’t like there was anyone around to watch – he knelt down on all fours, keeping as much weight on the heel of his left hand as possible, and frantically tried to drink as much as he could. The relief that washed over him felt almost as good as the water running down his throat. Now that he knew this was here, he wasn’t completely doomed to a slow, painful death gasping for water. No, any slow and painful death that he would undoubtedly suffer would be from the poisonous air, or quite possibly starvation. But that was a problem for another time.

Steve fell back onto his haunches once he had finished drinking, taking long, deep breaths as he relished the feeling of renewed life. His eyes closed in temporary happiness, an odd feeling of bliss washing over him. As his eyes started to drift open, he finally took in the sight beyond the stream, and felt his stomach clench uncomfortably.

A little way beyond the ridge on the other side of the stream stood a very familiar sight. He stepped over the river and walked up the ridge, as if in a trance. He’d forgotten how close it was to the stream…

He found himself walking through the gap in the fence and into his garden. Those vines stretched into the empty pool, crawling round the diving board. He noticed, with a sickening realisation as he passed the ladder, that there were still old blood spots on the side of the pool, completely dried out and absorbed into the stone.

This must have been where Barb died.

He remembered that old photo of Barb, sat alone on his diving board. He’d only seen it once, and he hadn’t really given it much thought at the time, because he’d been far more angry at the time about the photo of Nancy in only her bra, visible from his window. But it made sense – that photo was the last anyone had seen of her. She must have been taken into the Upside Down here, and fought with the Demogorgon in his pool.

A fight she’d ended up losing.

With what felt like more physical effort than any of the climbs he’d made that day, he tore himself away from that spot. He walked away and, without even realising, he wandered into his house.

The empty living room felt almost haunted. His eyes strayed around the room, and for a second, he felt five years old again, terrified of the shadows in the corner of the big, empty space. The vines had made it in here too – some of the windowpanes were cracked, leaving enough space for the black tendrils to force their way inside.

He didn’t stay in the room for long.

He found himself wandering upstairs. He pushed open his own door and found himself staring at the empty room. It was tidier than he had ever seen it – evidently, what his mother called the ‘floordrobe’ and unmade bed didn’t have their parallels here. The lock on the window had been broken here, and the vines had forced it wide open. Black tendrils covered every inch of the floor and crept up onto the bed, closing tightly around his pillow and duvet.

He backed out of his own room and wandered across the corridor, before opening the door to his mom’s room.

Somehow, the worst of the vines hadn’t made it here. The room was oddly bare, the vines creeping up to the door and stopping. The tendrils hadn’t broken through any locks or windowpanes yet, they crept a short way across the floor under the door but they stopped before they reached the bed. The fireplace looked monstrous, with vines creeping out and towards the mirror that hung over the mantle, but, as with the door, they hadn’t made it far into the room.

Steve walked over to the bed and ran his hands along the pristine, empty sheets. His eyes felt oddly wet as he walked around it, feeling a thick layer of dust gathering. He didn’t know why this room was so empty, and he found that he didn’t much care. This was his mom’s room – the place he’d always gone when he was a small child to escape from the monsters in his closet.

For some reason, this room brought the enormity of his situation back home to him. He’d found water, he’d found a lighter, he’d found a way to survive, but for what? Was it too much to hope that the Gate would open again and he could find a way to go home? Was it wrong of him to hope that? To expose his friends and family to those very threats that he’d been prepared to die to stop?

He settled down on the far side of the bed, tears slipping down his face. He had no way of knowing that, back in his world, his mother was lying on the other side of the bed, staring blankly at the empty space beside her.

What was he going to do?

-:-

It only took sixteen or seventeen phone calls from Paul Harrington to Hopper’s office over the course of the next thirty-six hours for Sam Owens to come up with an official ‘body’.

By this point, news about the fire had spread throughout Hawkins, and it was all anyone could talk about. Paul had received at least six oven-baked lasagnes in various ceramics. He’d also heard about the Holloways and felt another blow of grief. The Holloways had been old family friends – to lose them all in one night wasn’t fair, it wasn’t right.

The Department of Energy had launched an official enquiry into the fire. They agreed with the authorities that the cause had been a gas explosion but declined to comment any further than that. Not that the statement had stopped the rumours – the blame lay with everyone from the Mayor to the Department of Energy to a secret invasion by Russians, depending on who Paul was speaking to at any given time. He’d even heard someone blaming it on an alien invasion. Paul didn’t believe any of them. Honestly, one tragedy had the whole town going crazy.

Linda had barely moved since she’d heard the news. After she’d completely broken down after Chief Hopper had broken the news, Paul had carried her upstairs and put her down on the bed. He hadn’t managed to sleep himself. He was pretty sure Linda hadn’t, either. She just lay there, facing away from the door, her eyes glassy as she stared into space. Paul had tried to make her eat dinner – one of the oven-baked lasagnes had come in handy – but when he’d taken it up to her, she didn’t even move. He’d left her to it and came back to it a few hours later to find it stone cold and completely untouched.

Now, however, Chief Hopper had called to say they’d finally identified Steven’s remains. He suggested they come to the morgue in the morning – it was just after six in the evening, and the coroner would be heading home. Paul, however, had insisted that they stay open, even going so far as to offer to pay the coroner or whoever would be there for their time. He wanted to see this tonight.

He went up and knocked on the bedroom door. Linda gave no answer, which didn’t surprise him in the slightest. He pushed open the door and walked in.

“Chief Hopper called,” Paul said.

No response.

“They’ve identified Steven,” he continued.

Nothing.

“I’m going to go and see him,” Paul said, trying to ignore the way his stomach twisted at the way he spoke about it, like his son had just moved out rather than lost his life. “I’ll probably be an hour, do you want to come?”

Silence.

“Okay then,” Paul muttered quietly. “I’ll see you when I get home.”

Paul started to close the door behind him –

“Wait,” came the soft murmur, so quiet he almost missed it.

Paul turned around. Linda turned her head around. She was still in that dress she’d been wearing since she’d gotten on the plane – hell, now that he thought about it, she’d been wearing it to the drinks they’d hosted to watch the fireworks, she’d been wearing it to meetings for the full business day beforehand.

Linda rolled over and sat up wordlessly. She had none of her usual grace and poise that only seemed to matter to the extremely wealthy. Her hair was coming out of her usual bun, flyaway strands clinging to her face. She bent down to get her shoes and slip them onto her feet, before standing up and silently following her husband. Paul slipped an arm around her shoulders and she gratefully leant into his steadying hold.

The drive to the morgue was silent. Somehow, that made it seem even more endless. Eventually, though later he wouldn’t be able to remember how for the life of him, he pulled up outside the morgue, to be greeted by Chief Hopper.

“I offered to stay,” Hopper explained. “The coroner couldn’t stay, he had something at home, but Doctor Owens, who’s with the Department of Energy, is here.”

Hopper led the two of them inside, where they met a short man with curly grey hair. He gave them a warm smile as he held out his hand to shake. Paul took his hand, but couldn’t bring himself to return the smile with anything more than a stony stare.

“Sam Owens,” the man introduced himself. “I’m handling the Department of Energy’s inquiry into the incident that occurred at the mall.”

Paul managed a curt nod. Linda just looked vacant, completely elsewhere.

“I’m so sorry for your loss,” Dr Owens said. “I wish I could offer you something more, but I’m afraid what I have to say may make this harder.”

Paul tilted his head a fraction, his stare only getting darker. Dr Owens offered them a seat on a stiff leather couch in the reception area.

“We’ve positively identified your son’s remains,” Dr Owens said. “But I must warn you, due to the nature of this tragedy, your son’s remains, like many others, can only be identified through dental records.”

“W-what the hell does that mean?” Paul asked, frowning.

Dr Owens sighed, looking down into his lap before answering. “It means your son’s remains are unrecognisable.”

Linda, who hadn’t given any indication that she’d been listening, finally stared directly at Dr Owens. Her eyes were wide, shocked.

Paul put a hand on her arm, before finally asking Dr Owens to give them what they came for.

“Let me see my son.”

Dr Owens nodded curtly, before standing up and leading them into the morgue itself. There were four tables in the room, each occupied by what Paul could only assume were bodies under white sheets. Dr Owens led them to the table furthest from the door.

“I warn you,” Dr Owens said gently. “This is going to come as a shock.”

Linda stayed silent, staring down at the white sheet, clearly trying to hold back tears. Paul felt a heavy sense of trepidation in his stomach as he looked down at the sheet that was covering his son. He gave a small nod, and Dr Owens lifted and folded back the top of the sheet.

Linda let out a trembling gasp of shock at the sight. Paul closed his eyes, but couldn’t erase the image that was burnt into his retinas – an image that would haunt his nightmares until his dying day.

What he was told were Steven’s remains was in fact a charred skeleton. Eyeless sockets stared up at them, teeth leering at them in a terrifying grin. What might have been burnt flesh still clung to the skull and neck, but it was all blackened by fire and charred beyond recognition.

This could not be their son.

“No…” Linda finally gasped. “No, no, no, it can’t be, no…”

“I’m sorry,” Dr Owens said softly.

Her hand gently reached out towards what was once his face. She wanted to touch it, to feel it for herself, but she couldn’t bring herself to do so. She pulled her hand back to her chest and folded herself into her husband’s arms. Burying her head in his shoulder, she let herself sob. When that wasn’t enough, she screamed. She didn’t care that Dr Owens was there, she didn’t care about Chief Hopper standing awkwardly in the corner. She didn’t care about Paul’s hand gently stroking her hair, rendered speechless by the horrific sight before them. She didn’t even care when he rested his own head on her hair, the slight damp feeling against her scalp the only indication she’d ever get of his tears.

-:-

“So was it actually him?” Hopper asked.

He and Sam were sat in a booth in the bar, small measures of bourbon in front of both of them. The Harringtons had eventually left, Paul practically dragging his wife out of the morgue and back into the car. After that, Sam had locked up the morgue and found somewhere that would serve them the strongest drink they could find.

“What?” Sam asked.

“The kid. Was that actually him?”

“Oh – er, no,” Sam replied. “We looked, but there weren’t any bodies in the main lab. That was actually a Russian soldier or something we found in the corridor outside.”

“Why did you show them that, then? Why not just tell them that in all the chaos his body was unrecoverable? In an accident like this, it’s understandable.”

Sam gave a mirthless chuckle. “Jim, the Harringtons aren’t rational like us. They have money. They’re not used to being told ‘no’. You go to them and tell them that their kid’s dead but his body can’t be recovered, they’re going to launch a full scale inquiry of their own before we can have dinner. You saw what happened with the Hollands, they mortgaged their house and hired Murray Bauman who basically destroyed our entire operation. Now imagine a family with the Harringtons’ resources. They don’t just have the money in this town, they are the money. They’ll get all those fancy lawyers down here and they’ll subpoena just about every bit of paperwork that’s ever existed in this town. This whole thing gets busted wide open, and everyone – including those kids – will end up in the spotlight. And that includes your El. So you give them a body to bury. You tell them it’s their kid, you let them grieve, you let them move on.”

Hopper sipped at his drink. “I told them their kid was a hero.”

Sam nodded understandingly. He’d been surprisingly mellow when Hopper had told him what he’d told the Harringtons. It was surprisingly easy to work into the official story.

“I don’t like lying to them,” Hopper said. “If their kid’s still out there-”

“Their kid’s not out there,” Sam said softly, using that same understanding tone he’d used with Paul and Linda Harrington. “Even though we know we can’t get a body, there’s no way he could have survived that explosion. That kid’s dead. The Harringtons need to accept that. And so, by the sounds of it, do you.”

Chapter Text

The next week seemed to be dominated by funerals.

Steve’s was first. The Harringtons insisted on having it in a church – something that had completely enraged Nancy.

“Steve wasn’t Christian,” she snapped, smoothing down the black dress she’d worn exactly twice before. It was scary how in the last two years, she’d come to own a ‘funeral dress’ that was getting more use out of it than some of her other dresses. And the only times she’d worn it were for her generation. That wasn’t normal.

But then none of this was.

Her mother was, predictably, fussing over her, playing with the loose strands of her hair as she tried to tame it into a bun, while Nancy had given up hope of this funeral being an even remotely fitting tribute to her friend.

“His parents were never around while he was alive, and suddenly Steve’s gone, and they’re pretending like they even knew the first thing about him? If they knew anything about Steve, they’d know he never believed in God or the Bible or any of that crap.”

Nancy!” Karen scolded.

“It’s true,” Mike chipped in from the corridor. “Even I know Steve thought it was all bullshit.”

Karen turned around and fixed her son with a glare so furious it made him shrink ever so slightly back into himself.

“You can’t say any of that today,” Karen said sternly to her two oldest children. “Steve may not have believed, or what you see today might not fit your own ideas of who Steve was, but Paul and Linda are his parents. They’re doing what they think is best for him.”

Nancy tutted. “Shame they weren’t around enough to do that while he was alive,” she muttered under her breath.

Nancy, I’m being serious!

“Alright,” Nancy said defensively. “Jesus…

Karen sighed. “Look, I know this is hard for you,” she softened her tone. “But just remember, you’re not the only people this is hard for. Today’s not the day to go attacking the Harringtons for not being good enough parents.”

“I know,” Nancy said, matching her mother’s tone. “It’s just… It feels wrong.”

Speaking of people who this was also going to be hard for…

“Mike, have you heard from Dustin recently?” Nancy asked.

Mike looked up at Nancy in the mirror as their mom put the finishing touches to her hair before walking down the corridor to get Holly.

“No,” he answered sadly. “I’ve been trying to reach him, but he’s not been answering.”

Nancy nodded sagely. “What about Max?”

I haven’t heard anything, but apparently she talked to Lucas a couple of days ago. Apparently Neil’s been sat around getting drunk on the couch while yelling at Susan for organising Billy’s funeral.”

“Oh?” Nancy asked. “What’s his problem with that?”

“Who knows,” Mike shrugged. “Neil’s a piece of shit.”

Language!” Karen shouted.

-:-

Claudia Henderson felt distinctly out of place as she walked into the church. She’d known Steve, she’d met him when he’d come by the house to pick Dustin up for school, or to take him to evenings at the Wheelers’, or the Byers’, or wherever the kids were hanging out, but he’d never known the family at all. However, Dustin had absolutely insisted on coming, and given that it was the first time he’d actually left of his room in days, Claudia was not about to argue.

It turned out she wasn’t alone in her predicament. Walking into the church, Dustin was immediately called over by Lucas, and Claudia saw the Sinclairs standing with Susan Mayfield, looking just as uncomfortable as she felt.

“Dustin!” Lucas called, breaking into a smile as soon as he saw his friend.

Dustin looked over at Lucas and saw Erica and Max standing behind him.

“Hi guys,” he said awkwardly. He hadn’t seen any of them since Starcourt, and flashes of his breakdown in front of the elevator were all too fresh in his mind. The Party had all got it, but Max had her own stuff to deal with – what with her brother being trapped in the Upside Down.

“How’re you doing?” he mumbled in Max’s general direction.

Max shrugged. Stupid question. “What about you?” she asked.

“About the same.”

The three fell into an awkward silence for a moment before they were interrupted by the arrival of the Wheelers. Mike was pulling at the tie around his neck – he was sure his mom had done it too tight.

“Hey guys,” he said, giving the three of them an awkward smile. “How are you guys doing?”

This was much more directed at Max and Dustin than at Lucas and Erica, and they all knew it. Max gave a shrug, Dustin tilted his head in a noncommittal way. It was a question they’d get asked far, far too much over the course of the next few days, and they were both dreading it.

“I, uh – Lucas mentioned your stepdad wasn’t doing great,” Mike said to Max awkwardly. None of them knew what to say. What did you say at funerals?

“Neil’s being difficult,” Max said dismissively. “Won’t organise anything for Billy but yells at my mom for doing it because she’s not Billy’s family or some shit like that. Spends most of his time drunk. So I spend most of my time in my room.”

Mike tried to look sympathetic. He knew how Neil could be – apparently for most of the last year there’d been a conspiracy in the Hargrove-Mayfield house to keep him from finding about Lucas. Not that it had stopped Neil from hearing rumours that Max was dating a black kid.

Nancy stood a bit away from both adults and the Party, keeping an eye on the door for either Jonathan or that Robin girl Steve had worked with. She knew that the Byers’ were expecting to make an appearance, along with Hopper and possibly El. Sam had suggested another couple of months of El staying out of public sight for a little while longer, but had said they could cover for her presence at Steve’s funeral as being someone who had escaped through the maintenance corridors thanks to him. Sam was probably planning some cover story to explain how she’d end up in Hawkins high school in freshman year despite not having been to either Hawkins Elementary or Hawkins Middle School. It would probably somehow tie into the Starcourt tragedy – Sam seemed determined for just about all his cover stories to have something to do with it.

Nancy had no idea if Robin would make an appearance though. She’d never had much to do with Robin – before Will mentioned her, Nancy hadn’t even known she’d existed. When Nancy had seen her briefly at the mall while getting patched up, she’d looked shell-shocked. Nancy wanted to reach out to her, to let her know she wasn’t alone, that she could talk to her and Jonathan, but she hadn’t seen Robin since the mall.

“Nancy?” came a voice from behind her.

She turned around to come face to face with, of all people, Carol and Tommy H.

“Oh,” she murmured. “Hi.”

There was an awkward silence that seemed to stretch. There were so many things that had gone unsaid between them, things that became so unimportant as Nancy, Jonathan and Steve had gotten so caught up in the Upside Down.

“Look,” Tommy said. “I know we had our differences, but I just wanted to say… I’m sorry for what happened to Steve. It’s… I mean, it’s completely fucked up, to be honest.”

“Oh,” Nancy replied awkwardly.

“You were there, right?” Tommy asked. “What actually happened? I heard Steve got a load of people out-”

“What do you want, Tommy?” Nancy cut him off shortly. “You want some juicy gossip or something? Neither of you have said a word to me since you ditched Steve for wanting to get back together-”

“We didn’t ditch Steve, princess,” Carol said snidely. “He ditched us. He ditched his friends for you, and then you go and ditch him to run off with that Byers creep.”

“And for the record,” Tommy pointed out, “I still cared about Steve. We started talking again after graduation. He reached out to me after his dad all but cut him off. Or did he not mention that to you?”

Nancy would later pride herself on her poker face that she used at that revelation. She hadn’t known Steve had been in contact with Tommy.

“Look, I came here to offer an olive branch,” Tommy said curtly. “But I can see you just want people to hate, and I’m not prepared to be hated for what went down between me and Steve. Especially not by you. Or your boyfriend.”

Jonathan had just appeared by Nancy’s side, looking wary about joining what he could see was a very charged conversation.

“I’ll see you around, Nancy,” Tommy said. “Or not. I don’t really care.”

With a final scathing glance, Tommy and Carol walked off over to where Steve’s parents were stood towards the front of the church. Nancy looked around at Jonathan and was pleasantly surprised to see El standing with Will, Joyce and Hopper.

“What was that about?” Jonathan asked.

Nancy looked at Tommy and Carol talking with Paul Harrington on the other side of the church. Linda was stood next to them, clearly trying to make an effort, but all too often her eyes seemed to drift off into the distance.

“Apparently Steve had started talking to Tommy again,” Nancy explained.

Jonathan looked surprised. “But… he hated them. I’m pretty sure he called them grade A assholes at least twice a week while he was at school.”

“Apparently he reached out after his dad nearly threw him out,” she explained. “I mean, we weren’t exactly around then, it was just after we started at the Hawkins Post, maybe he needed someone to talk to?”

Jonathan shrugged, but got anything else that he might have said was cut off by Nancy catching sight of someone over his shoulder.

Robin was one of the last people to arrive, clearly hoping to slip in, for the most part, unnoticed. Three or four days in possibly the hottest rumour factory Hawkins had ever produced had turned the fact that she’d worked with Steve in Scoops Ahoy into, depending on who she spoke to, the ideas that she’d been dating him, or that she’d secretly been his lover for most of their senior year, or that they’d eloped and were secretly married, or, in one case, that she’d been pregnant with his child. Robin was incredibly annoyed by constantly having to refute these rumours – she particularly wanted to bury the pregnancy idea – but a small part of her was relieved that they hadn’t glanced upon what she’d confessed to Steve.

That said, just about everyone seemed to know that she’d seen Steve die.

She looked around nervously, her arm set in a white sling that was far too visible in the sea of black. Her eyes eventually lighted on Nancy Wheeler and Jonathan Byers, who beckoned her over with a warm smile.

“Hey,” Nancy said in that warm, delicate tone that everyone was using with her now, as though she might break at anything other than the gentlest of touches. “How are you?”

“You really want to go there?” Robin replied with a raised eyebrow.

“Anything you want to talk about?” Jonathan asked in that same utterly hateful tone Nancy had been using.

Robin simply shot him a look that told him more clearly than words ever could to stop trying. “Shall we sit down?”

The slightly out-of-place group sat down near the back of the church as the crowd of people in black started to move as one towards their seats. A strange hush fell, with most people looking towards the front of the church.

A priest stood up and started talking into the lectern, reading words that most of them agreed Steve had never heard in his life, let alone believed.

“…And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes, and there shall be no more death…”

“This is such bullshit,” Nancy muttered quietly enough that it was only audible to Jonathan.

Scripture washed over the room, and Dustin found himself wondering if he’d ever sat through a situation that was less reminiscent of his friend. He thought about Suzie in Utah – her parents had faith, a very strong unshakeable faith, but Suzie, while open to the idea of religion, was not entirely sold on her parents’ beliefs. Dustin didn’t have an ounce of faith – if he’d ever considered the existence of God, it was quickly dispelled by his discovery of the Upside Down and everything that was in it. It was too much to believe that there were monsters in another dimension in the same world or universe where there was also an all-powerful being in the sky that took you to paradise afterwards if you were good enough and sent you to Hell if you were bad. Dustin knew that Lucas and his family believed, and that Lucas’ own faith had been strengthened by the impossibility of the Upside Down – if there was such a place as there, such a Hell as the Upside Down, then there was a possibility that there was a heaven, but Dustin didn’t agree. There was no rhyme or reason to who ended up in that Hell.

So lost in his thoughts he was that he didn’t notice that the priest had stopped speaking. It was only when a shadow darkened the doorway that he felt a jolt in his heart.

A highly polished oak casket was being carried down the aisle. Dustin didn’t recognise any of the pallbearers – he knew that in some cases, the pallbearers would be important figures from the person’s life, but evidently Steve’s parents had opted for professionals from the funeral parlour.

Perhaps Dustin noticed this because he just couldn’t look at the casket itself. But as they set it down at the front of the church, his eyes were drawn to it like a magnet. It was all he could see, the rest of the world fell away, the sound of the priest reading some generic scripture that he’d probably end up reading several times that week was drowned out by a ringing in Dustin’s ears. The room suddenly became too hot – his breath was catching in his throat – he could hear his heart pounding against his chest – the colours were too bright – too bright –

He almost jumped when a hand lightly touched his arm. “Dusty?” he heard his mom say. “Are you alright?”

He didn’t realise he was shaking until he felt his mom’s arm around his shoulder. His imagination was going haywire – flashes of images of Steve lying inside that coffin – of a slowly decaying corpse of his friend – of the flesh half-rotted off his face to expose a hollow skull underneath –

“Dusty, do you want to go home?”

His mom’s voice was disembodied, but it helped ground him. He hadn’t realised he’d closed his eyes until he opened them.

He was leant against his mom’s side. In his periphery he could see Mike, Lucas and Max looking at him. He was sure that on the row behind them, just about everyone else was doing the same.

“I can’t do this,” he whispered into his mom’s shoulder, closing his eyes again. “I can’t do this, I can’t do this…”

He felt his mom nod against the top of his head. He heard her murmuring something about seeing them tomorrow… Billy’s funeral… and then he felt her strong hand guiding him as discreetly as possible out the door and back towards their car. He didn’t get in straight away, leaning heavily against the window.

Now that he was out of that church, he found it easier to bring himself under control. He could concentrate on his breathing. He closed his eyes again, and slowly tried to open them, focusing on the wind that ruffled his hair.

He hadn’t remembered feeling like this at Will’s funeral – or not, as it had turned out. In fact, he remembered almost enjoying it, seeing all those people who cared about Will. But that had been because he hadn’t thought Will was dead –

Dustin!” a voice called.

He looked up to see Robin running down the path through the cemetery.

“I… I couldn’t stay either,” she explained, catching her breath as she saw the car. “It was…” she wanted to say it had been too much for her, but that wasn’t right. Actually, the whole ceremony wasn’t right, it wasn’t even close to how she remembered Steve – how she wanted to remember Steve. It… wasn’t enough.

Fortunately, Dustin understood. “I know,” he said softly.

He caught sight of his mom looking at him from by the driver’s door, her eyes flicking towards Robin, subtly indicating that she wanted an introduction.

“Oh!” Dustin finally got the message. “Robin, this is my mom. Mom, this is Robin. She worked with Steve.”

Claudia gave Robin a smile over the top of the car.

“Hey, Robin,” Dustin said awkwardly. “I’m probably going to go home, I don’t think I can face the rest of that…”

“Yeah…” Robin said, looking over her shoulder at the church. “I didn’t know him for that long, but I’m pretty sure what’s going on in there isn’t what he would have wanted. Not sure he would have wanted me to sit in my room feeling sad, but then again…”

“Awesome girl like you crying over him?” Dustin gave a small laugh. “Are you kidding? Steve would have loved that.”

Robin smiled with what might have been something that could have been a laugh in another life.

“Hey, Robin,” Dustin said hesitantly. “If you’re just going to be sitting in a room feeling sad, do you want to come over and we can be sad together? Pretty sure we’ve got cookies somewhere.”

“Er…” Robin looked at him, slightly bemused. “I mean… I guess, if that’s alright with you, Mrs Henderson?”

She looked up at the woman who’d been patiently stood through their exchange. Claudia looked pleasantly surprised by this new development – she’d been hoping Dustin would reach out so someone.

“Sure,” Claudia smiled warmly. “Hop on in.”

-:-

“I always thought Steve exaggerated what his dad was like, but after what we sat through, it’s like they weren’t even living in the same house,” Robin said, helping herself to another cookie.

“Well, they weren’t really,” Dustin pointed out. “Apparently he spends most of his time in Indianapolis. Got an apartment there and everything.”

They were sat on Dustin’s bed. Claudia had given them a plate of cookies and left them to it, trying to give her own son a bit of space.

“I mean, god, when the priest started reciting scripture, I almost burst out laughing,” Robin said. “I mean, really? Scripture? For Steve?

“God, I almost lost it when I found out it was in a church,” Dustin laughed. “Steve was about as religious as Darwin.”

“Hell of a lot less smart, though,” Robin pointed out.

“Yeah…” Dustin acknowledged. Something occurred to him. “Did he ever work it out?”

“Work what out?” Robin asked.

“That you were the perfect girl for him?”

The atmosphere shifted. Where previously there had been an element of levity about just how wrong the funeral was, this was more serious.

“He never told me if he did,” Robin said.

“What an idiot.”

“No he wasn’t,” Robin said defensively. “Not about that, anyway.”

Dustin clocked that there was more to this story and looked at her enquiringly. Robin closed her eyes. She thought back to that conversation in that room when she’d been tied to a chair with Steve. She remembered how she’d felt, how relieved, how light, how happy she’d felt when she’d told Steve, and when Steve hadn’t told her how wrong it was, or how freakish or how anything it was, but accepted that that was who she was, even if her tactics were a bit off.

“He didn’t tell me… because of what I told him,” Robin explained.

“What did you tell him?” Dustin asked.

“I told him how wrong I was for him.”

“What’s so wrong with you?” Dustin asked. “You’re literally perfect for him. You’re smart, you’re funny, you can crack top secret Russian codes-”

“Dustin, can you keep a secret?”

“Uh – yeah, Steve told me the secret to the Hair. Haven’t told anyone that, not even Suzie.”

That piqued Robin’s interest. “What’s the secret to the hair?”

“Can’t tell you,” Dustin grinned at her. “It’s a secret.”

She glared at him. “Ha hah, very funny,” she shot back sarcastically.

“I know,” Dustin said, still with that smug grin. “So go on, what’s the big secret? What’s so wrong with you?”

Robin took a deep breath. “I told him I was planning on following someone to Nashville.”

Dustin’s eyebrows raised. “I didn’t know you had a boyfriend.”

“I don’t,” Robin said.

“So what? You’d follow some guy to Nashville on the off chance you’d make it work? That’s insane.”

“That’s what Steve said,” she told him. “But the person I’d be following to Nashville isn’t some guy.

Dustin looked confused. “Who is it? Do I know them?”

Robin sighed. “Tammy Thompson.”

Comprehension dawned on Dustin’s face. “Oh,” he said, his eyes widening. He looked vacantly around the room. Pieces of the puzzle slotted into place.

“Yeah,” Robin said.

Dustin suddenly grinned. “So that’s how you didn’t fall for the hair?”

Robin burst out laughing, no small part out of relief. “Yeah,” she laughed. “That’s how I didn’t fall for the hair.”

She tossed her head slightly to one side, making her bob bounce around her face.

“What did Steve say when you told him?” Dustin asked.

“He told me my strategy was way off base,” she laughed. “I think he used the word ‘stalking’.”

“He wasn’t wrong,” Dustin pointed out.

The pair fell about laughing, but thinking about that day in that room jarred at something in Robin. It was like something twisting in her chest, as she found memories of that day physically painful. God, it had been less than a week ago.

Tears sprang up into her eyes, something that Dustin was quick to notice as she closed her eyes tightly.

“Robin?” Dustin asked, sitting up and putting a hand on her good arm.

“I thought I was going to die,” she gasped. “We both thought we were going to die. That’s why I told him.”

“Hey, hey,” Dustin tried to comfort her in a way so reminiscent of how Steve had spoken to her that day when their chairs had fallen over before he realised that she was laughing. She brought her hand up to cover her face as Dustin got off the bed and crouched in front of her, his eyes so concerned. For a second, she looked up at him tearfully and actually saw Steve before she blinked, and suddenly it was back to Dustin, those curls bouncing around his face.

“They…” she took a deep, shuddering breath, blinking back more tears. “They… tortured him… This Russian General – or something – and this doctor – they… they ripped out his fingernails – and when that didn’t work, they broke his finger… and when that didn’t work, they started breaking his ribs…”

Dustin fell back against his bed in shock. He hadn’t known what had happened there – Hopper and Joyce hadn’t told any of them about the state they’d found Robin and Steve in, and Murray had disappeared back to Illinois.

“They made me watch that last part,” Robin said, looking up at the ceiling. She was shaking. “They tied him down to this… this dentist chair… There was a moment – when they were doing that – when I tried to escape – and that was when…”

She gestured at her shoulder. Dustin hadn’t realised his mouth was open slightly.

“And somehow,” she continued, “even after all that, he still managed to save my life.”

“How?” Dustin breathed.

Finally, Robin managed to look at him, tears streaming down her face. “This Russian soldier started shooting at us when Chief Hopper was going to close the Gate,” she explained. “Steve pulled me under a table. And then… when Chief Hopper got the fight away from us… When he got the Russian out of the room and towards the machine… Steve went to help… And he never came back.”

Dustin closed his eyes, feeling tears threatening to come out again. This had been far too common an occurrence since Starcourt.

“I’m sorry,” he finally managed to breathe shakily. “Robin, I’m so sorry, I – I should have gone back for you, I should have tried to get you guys out of there – instead of going back to the mall and waiting for Hopper – I should have tried to help you-”

He broke off, a sob welling up in his chest.

“God, it’s all my fault,” he continued, looking up at the ceiling again. “I should have tried to go back, I should have listened to Erica, I should have tried to get you home…

“Dustin…” Robin started.

“I’m so sorry, Robin,” Dustin said, looking her straight in the eyes. “I’m so sorry… You never should have been a part of this… Steve never should have been a part of this… I’m so sorry I dragged you both into this… I’m so sorry I left you down there… You never should have had to go through that…”

Robin reached out and pulled him into a hug.

“It’s all my fault,” Dustin sobbed. “It’s all my fault that he went through all that – it’s all my fault he was down there in the first place – it’s all my fault that he died.”

“It wasn’t your fault-”

Dustin pulled back away from Robin. “Yeah, it was,” Dustin protested. “I got him involved – I asked for his help – it was my idea to get into that room – it was my fault he was down there… I killed him… I killed him… I killed my friend…”

Dustin dissolved into unintelligible sobs, curled in on himself against the bed. Robin got onto her knees, and pulled one of his hands into hers.

“Hey – Hey!” she repeated a little more earnestly when he didn’t immediately look up. “I’m going to tell you what I told Steve when he started talking like this back in that place. He started coming out with all kinds of crazy apologies just like you are now. You know what I said to him?”

Tears were running freely down her face but she managed to keep her voice steady. She even managed a small smile.

“Don’t overestimate your importance in our decisions,” she said. “Steve was a big boy. He made up his own mind to help you. He made up his own mind to try and get into that room. He made up his own mind about holding that door to give you guys a chance to get out. And I’ll tell you now, one of the only good things we had going for us in that place was knowing that you weren’t there. You made the right call to get Erica out. And… sometimes, shit happens. Shit happens, but we can’t blame ourselves for every decision we’ve ever made. Sometimes, shit’s going to happen, no matter what. All you can do… is make the right call for you. And honestly, by going up to the surface, you made the right call for everyone. We honestly thought we were going to die in that room. But, because you went and got Chief Hopper, that didn’t happen.”

Dustin managed to look up at her. He couldn’t stop the tears from coming any more than she could. But there was something – some comfort they found in each other’s company. Each seemed to the other like the only person they could talk to about what had happened without feeling embarrassed – the only person who understood. And as they eventually fell back into a comforting hug on Dustin’s floor, that was all they could ask for.

-:-

Dustin managed to make it to the wake of Billy’s funeral.

It had been distinctly more uncomfortable in that room. In another scenario, it might have been uncomfortable because they knew that Billy wasn’t dead, but rather trapped in the Upside Down. It could have been uncomfortable because while they came to support Max, all of them had loathed Billy. It could have been uncomfortable because Hopper and El hadn’t come for the sake of keeping El safe, or because Robin hadn’t made it to this particular funeral. But it wasn’t any of these reasons. No, the reason it was so uncomfortable had everything to do with the most volatile element present – Neil.

Max had stayed awkwardly by her stepfather’s side, greeting them all with a very wooden line about thanking them for coming. She had given Lucas and her parents a forced cold greeting that, while they understood, set them on edge. The Sinclairs knew about Neil. He was the reason they’d made Erica stay with a friend.

At the wake at the Hargrove-Mayfield house, Max managed to slip away from her mom and her stepdad. She came over to where the rest of the Party stood with Nancy and Jonathan. Their parents were mingling to one side over glasses of wine, feeling just as out of place then as they had done at Steve’s funeral the day before.

“Hey,” she managed quietly.

There were some awkward nods of greeting.

“Hey, Dustin, are you alright?” she asked. “When you left yesterday, you looked awful.”

Dustin gave a non-committal shrug. “Yeah, I just… the whole thing got to me… Robin left not long after, so we went back to mine, and we talked. It was… actually really helpful.”

She twisted her mouth into an awkward but sympathetic smile.

“If it helps,” Mike said, “Nancy and Jonathan bailed on the eulogy. Nancy got really upset by some stuff Steve’s dad was saying.”

“It was such bullshit,” Nancy snapped. “He started talking about how Steve was ‘the perfect son’ and all that crap – after spending years telling Steve how much of a disappointment he was.”

“Nance, it’s fine, it’s okay, we don’t need to do this again,” Jonathan murmured.

“How are you?” Dustin asked Max before Nancy could start again. Same stupid questions as the day before.

Today, though, Max shook her head, shooting a glare over her shoulder in Neil’s general direction. “I… I can’t take much more of this,” she muttered. “He’s been drunk all day, and now he’s downing wine like it’s a fucking keg stand or something. And he’s being completely unbearable. I’m sorry about earlier, by the way,” she turned to Lucas. “Tell your family I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Lucas said quickly. “We get it, we understand, we can put up with it-”

“Yeah, but you shouldn’t have to put up with it,” Max all but snarled. “You shouldn’t have to tiptoe around Neil being a-”

Exactly what Neil was being was something nobody ever found out, because at that point, a hush started to fall over the room at a commotion going on involving the very man they’d just been discussing.

Neil was swearing quite audibly while continuously filling and draining his glass using the bottles of wine stood on the white covered table. Susan was flitting around him, trying to get the bottle that was in his hand away from him.

“…Get your fucking hands off me, Susan…” he slurred, turning his back to her and pouring himself another glass of wine.

“Neil, come on, you’re making a scene-”

“Oh, I’m making a scene, am I?” he snarled. “Let’s talk about you, shall we? This whole thing… this whole ‘party for Billy’ or whatever… Isn’t that all about making a scene?”

“Neil, please give me-”

“And you know what?” he raged. “You don’t have… any right… to do any of it.”

“Neil-”

“You and Maxine go around… pretending he was your family… What a load of shit… He wasn’t.”

Susan froze, looking at Neil, hurt visible in her eyes.

He wasn’t your son… And you go round, organising all this shit for him? All these flowers?”

Susan visibly flinched as Neil swung his hand and sent a vase of lilies crashing into the sink.

“You organise this food, too?” Neil asked, gesturing at the table where plates of canapés sat. “You organise this food for Billy?

Susan stood rooted to the spot, giving a meek nod. She looked on the verge of tears.

“You think he would have liked all this? You think he would have liked all these fancy sandwiches… and little bits of cheese on crackers… and all this other crap? Well, you know what?”

Neil swept his arm across the table, trying to displace as much as he could onto the floor with a crash. When that wasn’t enough, he pulled the tablecloth out and shook it, sending glasses and plates onto the floor.

This sparked Susan back into action. She reached forward and managed to succeed in getting the wine glass out of Neil’s hand, cradling it against her chest with both hands.

“Neil, please, you’re ruining it!” Susan begged, sounding close to tears.

“Oh, I’m ruining it?” Neil snarled. “What gives you the right to decide what ruins it? What gives you the right to decide how this gets done – what gives you the right, what gives you – I’ll tell you what, NOTHING!

He screamed the last word into Susan’s face, backing her into a corner. Everyone else gathered there stood frozen to the spot, unable to think of anything to do that would defuse the situation.

Nothing gives you the right to decide any – Nothing gives you the right, because you know what? He wasn’t your son, he was mine!

Something in Max suddenly snapped.

“Yeah,” she growled quietly, pushing her way through the crowd towards Neil. “Yeah, he was your son, wasn’t he? And you know what? Billy was a fucking asshole!

Neil rounded on Max. “Excuse me?” he spat venomously.

“Max, stay out of this,” Susan begged quietly.

“Yeah, you heard me,” Max snarled. “He was a complete fucking asshole, and everything about him that made him that way came from you!

“Maxine, please…” Susan implored.

“His hate, his anger, his violence, all of that was because of you!” Max continued.

“I’m warning you now-” Neil started, his tone low and threatening.

“And do you know the really sad part?” Max ploughed on. “The really sad part is that if he’d had a chance to get away from you, he might have had a chance of becoming a decent person! He might have had a chance at being happy! Because you know what, Neil? You’re a goddamn poison in everybody’s life!”

Neil drew himself up to his full height. “You little bitch!

Max didn’t flinch, instead she closed her eyes as he raised back his arm –

She suddenly found herself being pulled back a few steps away from Neil. She whipped her head around to see Lucas holding onto her hand. Her gaze shot back to Neil, for the first time betraying a small hint of fear in her eyes.

Neil’s hand froze in mid-air as he looked with dawning comprehension and disgust as he finally realised who Lucas was.

“So this… is your little boyfriend?” Neil said, sounding surprised. “Your little n-”

Hey!” Max snarled. “Don’t you dare call him that!”

“I’ll call him what I like,” Neil snarled. “While he’s under my roof.”

No!” Max screamed. “I won’t let you treat people like this anymore-”

Let me?” roared Neil. “You think you let me do anything?

Neil raised his hand again, but this time, Lucas didn’t settle for just pulling her back. He pushed her behind him, and looked up at Neil defiantly.

“Lucas!” he heard his mom call.

“Don’t hit her,” Lucas said quietly.

“Lucas,” Will said softly. “Lucas, come back over.”

Lucas gave him a burning look before turning his back and taking a few steps with Max back towards his friends. “Let’s go,” he muttered quietly.

“Yeah, Maxine, go!” Neil handed down his ultimatum. “Go and don’t come back. Spend your time living with those fucking w-”

What, exactly?” Lucas wheeled around to stare down Neil. “Go on,” he dared. “Those fucking what?

“Lucas!” he heard his mom beg, sounding upset. But it was what he heard next that truly scared him.

“Lucas,” his dad said in a tone of forced calm that didn’t quite hide a note of real fear in his voice. “Come away now,” he said softly.

It was the hint of fear in his dad’s voice that sent him backing down and going towards his parents again. He didn’t look at Neil again, determinedly ignoring that look of triumph in the other man’s eyes as Lucas felt his dad grip his shoulder firmly.

This was over.

“We’re going now,” his dad said politely, offering Neil a smile. “Without Max – Maxine,” he corrected himself. “Thank you, both of you, for hosting us.”

It was an incredibly tense silence as Lucas was almost frogmarched out of the house and onto the street. He could feel his dad stay tense as they got to the end of the street. As they turned onto the street where their car was parked, his dad let out a shaking breath.

“Lucas, never do that again,” he said, his tone more serious than Lucas had ever heard it. “I mean it – promise me you’ll never do that again.”

Lucas turned around to see his mom fighting back tears and his dad looking at him with a look that seemed to go right through Lucas and into his very soul.

“Why did you stop me?” Lucas asked quietly. He’d never felt so small.

His dad put a hand on his shoulder. “I stopped you because when we stand up to people like that…” he explained, “people like that use it as an excuse to destroy us completely.”

-:-

Max watched her boyfriend leave with his parents. The rest of the Party looked shocked. She could see the faces of Ted and Karen Wheeler, Joyce Byers and Claudia Henderson look on edge but angry.

“Screw you,” Max growled at Neil, tears in her eyes. “You ruin Billy’s funeral, you go after my boyfriend because he’s-”

“So he is your boyfriend?” Neil cut across her.

She froze at his tone. It was all the confirmation he needed.

“You filthy little slut!” Neil growled at her. He took a step forward –

“Hey,” Ted Wheeler suddenly stepped up to the plate, surprising nobody more than his wife. “Hey, let’s just take a second to cool down, okay?”

It was all Max needed.

She pushed past everyone, running through the house and towards the back door. She tore through the garden and out into the trees behind. She didn’t hear Neil’s shouts or Ted Wheeler’s attempts to calm him. She was already gone.

She didn’t know how long she ran for. She didn’t know when she ran out of breath and stopped running. She didn’t know how long she ended up walking for, as she found her way to the main road, and then to the path through what the Party called ‘Mirkwood.’ She didn’t know how long it took her to get to her destination, as she finally found that dirt track, only noticeable from the road if you knew it was there. She didn’t know how long she’d been walking in those ridiculous dress shoes when she finally caught sight of Hopper’s cabin as the sky started to darken.

She knocked on the door, and was greeted by the surprised and confused face of Hopper.

“Can I talk to El?” she said without preamble.

Hopper wasn’t sure what to make of Max showing up at his door in a black dress on the day of her stepbrother’s funeral, clearly having been crying, and, by the looks of things, walking the whole way. But he let her in, and knocked on El’s door.

“El, you’ve got a visitor,” Hopper announced.

“Mike?” they heard a voice from inside the room.

“No, it’s… it’s Max,” Max said softly.

There was a click and the door swung open of its own accord, revealing El, sat on her bed, a Wonder Woman comic spread out in front of her. She had the same confused expression that Hopper had had at the sight of her.

“I’ll give you girls a minute,” Hopper said, closing the door behind Max.

“Something’s wrong,” El said quietly.

Max nodded, her eyes closing, and suddenly the floodgates opened. She found herself explaining everything that had happened that day between Neil and her mom, between Neil and Lucas, she explained how her relationship with Billy had become better over the last few months before he’d been attacked by the Mind Flayer, she explained how she was starting to see the beginnings of a different side to him.

El sat quietly and listened. She didn’t understand a lot of it, particularly why Neil had such an aversion to Lucas, but she listened.

“Can I help?” El finally asked when Max was finished, breathing hard as though the explanation had been a marathon.

Max looked up at her.

“Yeah, that’s… that’s actually why I’m here,” she said. “I need your help.”

El nodded, looking at her questioningly.

“When we were in Starcourt,” Max explained. “You found a way to open up a Gate.”

El nodded.

“You did that… on demand.”

“On demand?” El asked, confused.

Oh – like… whenever you wanted to,” Max explained. “You wanted to open a Gate then and there, so you opened it, and when we put Billy back through, you closed it up again.”

El nodded.

“Look, I know this is a really big thing,” Max explained. “And I don’t want you to say yes unless you feel like you can really do it – really control it.”

El looked at her, confused.

“I want to try and open up a Gate,” Max said. “I want to find a way to get Billy out from under the Mind Flayer’s control, and then open up a Gate and bring him home.”

El’s eyes widened at the suggestion. Max looked so tentative when she stared imploringly at her friend, desperation colouring her voice.

“Will you help me?”

Chapter Text

Steve settled into something of a routine.

It wasn’t exactly clear cut when day and night was – the sky was in a perpetual state of black. Clouds would pass overhead but through the gaps in the clouds, the sky was a deep, inky black. Steve hadn’t seen stars, or sunlight, or the moon, or anything that gave him any indication of the passage of time.

So he resorted to his own internal body clock. He would sleep as much as he could in his mom’s bed, and when he woke up, he’d go and find some water. He’d bring as much back as he could using a saucepan he’d found. He’d then boil it as best he could, burning whatever he could find and piling it on top of the stove. The water would cool after a while, when he’d drink it, and then he’d set out to search for something edible.

So far, he hadn’t managed to find anything he’d felt sufficiently confident enough that it was not poisonous for him to eat. He suspected it had only been a few days, but his stomach was constantly hurting. He needed to find something to eat soon.

Steve used his search for food as a chance to explore the Upside Down. The town itself he knew, and after a cursory wander through downtown, he hadn’t spent much time there. What he’d normally do would be to go there first and have a look in one of the shops to see if there was anything useful. So far there had been nothing that he’d found that he thought would be particularly useful in terms of potentially fighting Demogorgons and Demodogs and whatever else the Upside Down would throw at him.

That said, the one thing that had struck him was the complete absence so far of any Demogorgons or Demodogs. He hadn’t actually seen anything in Hawkins. So far, he’d been completely alone.

Not that Steve was complaining.

Steve was hardly in any shape to fight anything. Whatever was in the air was keeping him constantly light-headed. The hunger was getting to him, his left hand was aching – his fingertips were healing but the broken bones seemed to have settled in a state of misalignment, which Steve was concerned about, because while it was hurting less, he was worried that his finger might heal into a state of stiffness that would make it completely unusable.

But that was nothing to how concerned he was about his chest. Every breath he took felt like something was pressing against him, which left him breathless. He was also worried he was starting to get a cough, but that could quite easily be attributed to him running around a place that felt like an Arctic winter in a polyester sailor’s outfit.

So Steve explored. He looked for what he could find, if anything, in the shops. Whatever he could find had so far been mostly trapped under those same thick black vines, but he had managed to extract a pen from Melvald’s which was quite useful when it came to moving smaller vines away from things, and he’s picked up a couple of stones from the stream, which he was hoping, once dry, would possibly be useful in terms of lighting a spark. He was worried about how much he was using his lighter after he’d found a refill for the lighter fluid that, despite looking new, was completely empty.

Steve was far more interested in what the tunnel system under Hawkins held. Since it had been where he had found his lighter, he wondered what else there could be. Where most things in Hawkins had been changed or destroyed in some way, the fact that his lighter had been fully operational gave him a little bit of hope that there was something else that was useful down there. He remembered Hopper mentioning a graveyard somewhere around the Hub. He was hoping to find it and see if it had anything there.

He also remembered that a team of soldiers had been killed in that graveyard.

He tried not to think too hard about that. The soldiers had been lured there in a trap and hunted by a pack of Demodogs. Steve knew what he was going into. He also hadn’t seen hide nor hair of a Demodog. He knew to run if he saw them. He knew how to get out. It would have to be enough.

Steve was becoming more and more familiar with the layout of the tunnels, building up a mental map in his head. He could identify by sight which tunnel he needed to take to get back to the rope. He’d explored roughly where two more of the tunnels went in addition to working out which one would lead him to Starcourt Mall.

He was pretty sure he’d worked out which tunnel would lead him to Hawkins Lab. That said, he’d been pretty sure the last two times, and he’d been going off a vague memory of a map scribbled by his ex-girlfriend’s little brother. The tunnels twisted and turned so much it was hard to tell if he was right, but he’d worked out the vague direction of Hawkins Lab, and there were two more tunnels that he hadn’t tried that led in that general direction, and one seemed far more likely than the other.

He knew within a matter of minutes that he’d found the right tunnel. It didn’t slope like any of the others, curving side to side gently but overall balancing out to go broadly in one straight direction. He knew the Hub wasn’t far from Hawkins Lab.

It took him maybe fifteen minutes to get there. He’d managed to pick up the pace in his excitement, but hadn’t broken into a full run. Generally, while feeling like he was feeling, he wasn’t enthralled by the idea of overexerting himself. However, as he got closer to his destination, he slowed at the sights that started to crop up.

Bones. Fragments of bones stripped clean of flesh. A skull strewn carelessly across the path.

The soldiers had made a stand. He’d thought they’d made a stand in the Hub, but evidently their bodies had ended up closer to the Lab. Whether they had tried to escape, to retreat back to safety, or whether their corpses had been dragged back by ravenous Demodogs was a mystery.

The tunnel was coming to its end. Very cautiously, he stepped out into the opening that he knew had once been the Gate.

It became apparent immediately that the soldiers had made it back to the Gate alive – with at least one exception. The skeletons lay scattered around, their flesh either eaten or rotted from their bones. What little remained of their protective biohazard suits was torn to pieces, scattered in small fragments around the place looking like those strange flakes that hung in the sky.

A dark shape by the closest skeleton caught his eye. It was black – almost camouflaged against the vines that covered the ground – but he knew this wasn’t a vine. It was thin, but too angular. He couldn’t quite tell if his suspicions were right. It was dark – too dark to see properly from where he was – but it looked like…

He crouched down and, using the pen he’d taken from Melvald’s, gently pushed away the black vine that had curled on top of it. His hand reached out and carefully felt along what it was. As his hand brushed against metal, he knew he’d been right. Gently, he pulled out the gun that the soldier had used to make his last stand.

It was heavier than he thought it would be. He felt it in his hand – he had no idea how to use it, and wasn’t about to try now – but he knew he had to take it back with him. If there was one, however, surely there had to be more – there had been at least four soldiers.

He slung the weapon over his back and started to look around the other skeletons. It was almost impossible to see properly in the dark, to pick out the shapes of guns and discern them from the black vines. However, he’d gotten a few steps towards the next skeleton when his eyes caught sight of something silver – something at least as large as the gun –

His eyes lit up like a Christmas tree and he broke into his first proper smile in days as he recognised the flamethrower.

-:-

Hopper heard a car pull up outside. He went out onto the porch to see Joyce, Will and Jonathan getting out, looking shaken.

“Hey,” he said, running out to meet them. “What the hell happened? Max Mayfield showed up at the door about ten minutes ago wanting to talk to El.”

“Max is here?” Will asked.

Hopper nodded, noticing the sigh of relief that came from Jonathan.

“Thank god,” Will said. “I should… I should let the others know…”

He went inside, not looking back at his mom. Hopper watched him go in before turning back to Joyce and Jonathan.

“What the hell happened?” Hopper asked. “What’s going on?”

Jonathan looked at him darkly. “Neil Hargrove happened,” he growled, before following Will inside.

Hopper watched Jonathan pass him before turning to Joyce who was leaning against the car, fumbling to get a cigarette out of her pocket.

“I’d gathered that much,” Hopper said to her. “What actually happened?”

“Neil got drunk,” Joyce deadpanned. “Started shouting at Susan and breaking some stuff. Max, she… something got to her, so she tried to stand up to him. I swear to god, Neil was going to hit her, but Lucas got involved. Neil, he…”

She took a shuddering breath, trying to steady herself as she tried to light the cigarette she’d extracted. Her hands were shaking so much that Hopper got his own lighter out and lit it for her, a crease forming between his eyebrows as he watched her gather herself together.

“He started on Lucas,” Joyce eventually continued. “Started saying these… these really awful things to him. Lucas wanted to stand up for himself, but his parents took him away before anything started. Max ran out after that, we drove around looking for her in town, but I guess she came here.”

She finished, taking a long drag on her cigarette which seemed to help steady her. Hopper knew what was playing on her mind – Lonnie.

“Are you okay?” he asked her.

“Me?” she looked up, shocked, from her cigarette. “I’m fine. There are plenty of other people to worry about tonight.”

She took another drag, before watching the smoke drift away from her.

“The way the Sinclairs were, though,” she ranted. “I’ve known them for years, and I’ve never seen them like that. They were scared, Hop. You should have seen them, bending over backwards to be nice to Neil, to try and keep him happy, even though he was saying such awful, awful things about them. Is that what it’s like for them? Always take the high ground? Always walk away? Always, always, always? It’s not right, Hop! He shouldn’t get to treat people like that! Good people like the Sinclairs! He doesn’t belong in this town – people like him don’t belong in this town!

“Joyce,” Hopper said in his determinedly measured voice. “Joyce, I get it. I agree with you. But right now, I need you to get it together. We need to find a way to deal with this so Max can feel safe. And honestly, I need you to be there when I talk to her. You know what I’m like with talks.”

Memories of his disastrous attempt at talking to Mike flashed up in his mind, forgetting he’d not actually told Joyce exactly how that conversation had gone. Fortunately, she agreed with him anyway about it, letting out a long exhale and watching the stream of smoke dissipate. She handed the last of the cigarette to Hopper and walked inside without another word to him.

Hopper followed her, ignoring Jonathan’s scandalised look as he brought the cigarette in and put it out on the ashtray on the counter. The door to El’s room was open, and he could see Will and El sat beside Max on her bed. Jonathan was still pacing around the kitchen, trying without much success to put together something halfway edible for them. It occurred to Hopper that he’d never actually seen Jonathan like this. He was always calm, measured, the voice of reason and logic. He never lost control – even if he was annoyed or angry or upset, there would be a short outburst, a period of quiet distance, and eventual forgiveness. This, however, these on-edge actions as he opened the cupboards a touch faster than necessary, closed them a fraction harder than necessary, this was completely new to Hopper. It was sharper. A hard, cutting edge to him as he struggled to find pots or pans or ingredients or whatever he was looking for.

Evidently Joyce wasn’t the only person who’d reacted badly to Neil Hargrove.

Joyce led the way into El’s room.

“Will, honey, would you mind if we talked to Max in private for a sec?” she said using that eternally wonderful parent tone that Hopper could only dream of having.

He looked at her and gave her a small smile as he nodded. He smiled warmly at Max, muttering something about just being outside as he left. El, fortunately, got the uptake and put her hand on Max’s, giving it a small squeeze before following Will.

“Oh,” Will stopped just before Hopper and Joyce went in, remembering something. “The others are all at Lucas’. The Wheelers and Dustin and his mom. Apparently they’re a bit shook up but they’re alright. They’re… they’re glad to know Max is safe.”

Hopper managed a small smile at him. “Thanks, kid,” he said, before closing the door behind him.

He settled down on the chair across from the bed. Joyce sat on the far side away from the door up by the pillow, while Max was sat in the middle of the bed looking nervous.

“So Joyce told me what happened,” Hopper said.

“Look, I know what you’re going to say,” Max cut across him shortly. “I don’t want the police to get involved. I didn’t come here because you’re the Chief of Police, or because you’re an adult I trust or any of that crap. I came here because I wanted to talk to El. That’s it. Period.”

Hopper ran a hand across his face. “I get that,” he said, keeping his voice as calm as possible. “But it’s my job to keep the people of this town safe. That includes you, and that also includes the Sinclairs.”

The mention of Lucas’ family wrong-footed her. She flinched back slightly, almost imperceptibly. Hopper knew he’d won that particular round.

“Max,” he asked in that same professional tone he’d used so much over the last few days. “Has Neil ever been violent to you before?”

Max looked down at her hands. “No,” she said.

Hopper wasn’t sure whether to believe her, but decided to give her the benefit of the doubt. “What about your mom? Has he ever been violent or threatening towards your mom?”

“Not that I know of,” she said in that same monotone. “I’ve never seen it.”

“And what about Billy? Do you know if he was ever violent towards Billy?”

Max’s eyes widened the smallest amount. If Hopper hadn’t been taught how to recognise it, he would have missed it, but as it was, it told him everything he needed to know.

“No,” Max said. Hopper knew it was a lie.

“Are you sure?”

“I don’t know if he was,” she snapped, looking Hopper straight in the eye. It was all the confirmation Hopper needed of what was going on, but none of the leeway to do anything about it.

“Alright,” he muttered, backing off. “Well, based on what happened today, I’m going to have to open an investigation into the incident-”

“What?” Max looked alarmed. “No! You can’t!”

“I’m sorry, but I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t. Too many people saw him threaten you and Lucas. This won’t go away, we can’t bury it. I’ve got to look into this as a cop to make sure nothing happens.”

“No, looking into this is going to make it worse!” Max pointed out. “Opening an investigation is just going to put him more on edge. He’ll be more likely to do something with you on his back all the time!”

“Kid, I get that, I really do,” Hopper said, still keeping that professional tone of voice. “But my hands are tied here.”

“Honey,” Joyce came in with that wonderful ‘mom’ voice of hers. “Think about what would happen if he did start getting violent towards your mom – towards you or Lucas. What if he put one of you in the hospital? We’ve got a chance to stop him now, and if we don’t take it and one of you gets hurt, that’s on us now. We can’t let that happen.”

Max still didn’t look like she agreed, but she settled on a filthy look rather than answering back.

“In the short term,” Hopper explained, “I don’t feel comfortable sending you back to that house tonight. We can call your mom, ask if you can stay with a friend. Here’s a bit full, but we could see if the Wheelers would be okay with you staying or something. Given the circumstances, I don’t think staying with the Sinclairs is a good idea, but-”

“No,” Max objected. “I have to go home, I need to see my mom.”

Hopper closed his eyes before opening his mouth, but Max cut across him before he could get a word out.

“No, Hopper, everything you’ve been saying about investigations and me staying somewhere else – that’s only going to make things worse. Apparently I can’t stop you from launching an investigation or something but if you take me somewhere that isn’t my house, I’ll just go home.”

“Max, honey-” Joyce cut in before Max rounded on her.

“You guys say I shouldn’t stay with Lucas?” Max pointed out. “Well, wherever you take me, he’s going to think I’m with Lucas even if I’m not. Nothing’s going to convince him anymore, not you, not Hopper, not anything. The only way he’ll believe that I’m not with Lucas is if I’m at home with him.”

“Honey,” Joyce said, shooting a look at Hopper telling him to stay out of this. “I know you think this is your only option. You feel like you’ve got to go back, I get it-”

“How?” Max shot back.

Joyce’s eyes suddenly saddened. Her lips pursed slightly before she finally tried for a smile. “Because I’ve been where you are with my ex-husband.”

For the second time in that conversation, Max was visibly wrong-footed. She didn’t know – Will and Jonathan hadn’t told her.

“I know how it feels,” she explained. “I know it feels like at some point, you’ve got to go home. You’ve got to go back to that situation. But it’s not your only option. You’ve got your dad somewhere-”

Max snorted. “Yeah, he’s not an option.”

Joyce and Hopper looked confused.

Divorce?” Max explained, looking between them like they were idiots. “Mom won full custody. That’s why we moved here.”

“I think, given the circumstances, your dad might be able to appeal-” Hopper started to say.

“Yeah, well, when the courts get back to him on the other three or four appeals he filed, then we can talk.”

Hopper fell silent, looking over at Joyce.

“Look,” Max said. “You think you know me, just because your ex-husband was a piece of shit or whatever. Well, you don’t. You don’t know anything about my life. It’s not the same. Even if I’m not there, my mom is. And she’s not going to leave Neil. So let’s say we do it your way. I go stay with – with fucking Mike of all people – and you go do your little investigation. It doesn’t turn up anything, because there’s nothing to turn up. What happens then? I go home. Only, it’s worse now. Neil’s pissed because there’s been an investigation, everyone’s gossiping about it, I’ve been hidden away from Neil and so he’s even more pissed at me for causing all this shit. He spends all his time getting angry about stupid little things and taking it out on my mom. Yeah, thanks, I’ll pass on that.”

Hopper knew he’d lost the argument. He looked down at his hands.

“Alright,” he said softly. “When you’re ready, I’ll take you home.”

“I can-”

“This is not up for negotiation,” Hopper said firmly. “I’m not letting you go back to that house on your own.”

A small pout settled on Max’s lips, but she bit back any argument she may have had.

“Fine,” she muttered. “But we should go soon. Mom’s probably worried.”

She got up and walked out, leaving Hopper and Joyce alone.

“She’s seen Neil get violent before, hasn’t she?” Joyce said, quietly enough that it was only audible to Hopper.

“Oh yeah,” he replied. “But we’ll keep trying.”

Joyce nodded, looking as though she might cry. “It’ll take time,” her voice was brittle. “But we’ll get through to her.”

Max crossed the living room to head over to where El, Will and Jonathan were all sat at the table. Jonathan had managed to put together some pasta and tomato sauce for them all – he suspected that anything more elaborate would have ultimately defeated him and probably the kitchen in the state he was in.

“I’m… I’m going to go in a sec,” Max announced at their expectant faces. “Thanks for… for everything, El.”

“Wait, you’re going back?” Jonathan asked, astonished.

“Yeah,” Max said. “I know what you’re going to say, but I just had the same talk from your mom, so leave it, alright?”

Jonathan looked over at Joyce and Hopper standing in El’s doorway. The looks they gave him was enough to make him back down.

“Alright,” Jonathan said. “Just know we’re here if you need us, okay?”

Max managed a forced smile. “Thanks,” she said.

Will got up to give her a hug. “I don’t know what to say, other than if you need to talk…”

The smile Max gave him was genuine this time. El got up and gave her a hug, but she didn’t need to say a word to her.

“Thank you,” Max said warmly. “I mean it. Thank you so much.”

El smiled back at her, knowing exactly what she meant. As Max walked out of the house and climbed into the car Hopper was borrowing from Sam, she thought back on the rest of the conversation she’d had with El.

“Will you help me?”

El thought about it. She thought about how tired she’d been after her fight with that thing in Starcourt. She still felt at times like she was still recovering. But Billy was still in there somewhere. And he was stuck in the Upside Down. Billy was gone, but not lost forever. And she could help. She could help her friend.

There was no question.

“I can do it,” she said tentatively. “But… we can practise.”

Max’s eyes lit up. “Yeah,” she said breathlessly. “Yeah, of course we can. We could find somewhere quiet… somewhere safe… and we could try just getting a feel for it or something…”

“Tomorrow?” El asked.

Max’s face split into a stunned grin that she couldn’t quite contain. “Yeah…” she breathed. “Tomorrow.”

“In the woods,” El suggested.

Max’s eyes filled with tears for what felt like the thousandth time that night, but for the first time, she were happy.

“Yeah,” she all but gasped. “In the woods. Tomorrow.”

-:-

“So how do you open a Gate?” Max asked.

She and El had found a small clearing in the forest, far enough away from Hopper’s cabin that they wouldn’t be spotted or disturbed but close enough that it wouldn’t take them too long to get back if they were missed.

Max had shown up at the door before breakfast had even been contemplated at the cabin. Hopper had dropped her off late the previous night, where they were met on the doorstep by a hushed but frantic Susan, who explained that Neil had passed out on the couch after everyone had left. Max had promptly been rushed into her bedroom with a quick goodnight kiss from her mother and instructions not to disturb the man sleeping on the couch. That morning, Max had been careful to get up after very little sleep at the crack of dawn to leave the house. However, as she’d been scribbling a note for them explaining that she was going to spend the day going shopping downtown with a girlfriend, she’d heard a grunt that set her on edge.

“So you came back,” Neil grunted, still groggy.

Max froze. “Yeah,” she answered, her back still to him.

“Where’re you going?” Neil slurred.

“A friend – a girlfriend – and I are going shopping today,” Max explained tensely. Of course, the next question would be ‘why so early?’ or something –

“A girlfriend?” Neil gave a soft laugh. “Since when do you have girlfriends?”

“She’s – uh – new in town,” Max scrambled. “Her name’s El.”

Neil adjusted his position on the couch. “Leave a note for your mother, will you?” he slurred, evidently still drunk. “Don’t want to listen to her worry all day…”

It took another minute for his breathing to even out again, and another minute more for the first snore to erupt from him. Max let out a long exhale of relief before slipping out of the house.

From there, she had skated out towards the woods. It had taken her the better part of an hour, by which time the sun had split the sky into a hundred colours before it all evened out into a crisp, clear blue. When she finally reached the cabin, she’d been greeted by Jonathan, who had evidently only woken up from her knock.

El, however, had been awake. Max had come up with an excuse about wanting some one-on-one girl time with El, that they’d talked about it last night, and could they please just spend the day having a picnic in the woods or something, just on their own. Once Hopper had finally found a cup of coffee pressed into his hands by Jonathan, and grumpily grunted out a few questions like ‘why didn’t you mention this last night?’ and ‘why is this happening at eight in the morning on my first day off in over a week?’ he’d finally conceded, even making some mention to El about trying to get Max to open up about Neil. Joyce was far more positive about the whole thing, seeing the advantage of having Max nearby and not in that house, and even going so far as to make them sandwiches using the expanding pantry that she’d been building in that cabin.

And so they’d found themselves in that clearing. Nobody was around for miles. Even Hopper wouldn’t disturb them.

“I find something,” El explained to Max. “In the Upside Down. And then I have to touch it. It brings it here.”

Max paused, thinking for a moment. “Okay,” she said slowly. “What did you find at Starcourt?”

El paused. Memories of that huge shape lurking in the darkness filled her mind.

“The Shadow,” she said softly.

Max’s eyes widened. “Okay…” she said. “Maybe not the Shadow. What else is there?”

“Demogorgons,” El suggested. Memories of Papa telling her not to be scared, not to run away, but to make contact…

Fortunately, Max was not Papa. “Okay, so not those either. Is there anything in the Upside Down that’s not dangerous?”

El looked at Max with those big wide eyes that she gave Mike every time he was explaining something about relationships, and although she couldn’t quite understand or follow what Mike was saying because he was rambling through his point so much, she could tell that he was being incredibly stupid.

“Alright, anything that’s less dangerous?” Max corrected.

El paused, thinking hard. She thought about that moment she’d ended up in the classroom in the Upside Down after finally killing the Demogorgon to save Mike. She’d only been there for a few minutes, but what had she seen?

“Vines,” she finally said.

Max’s face lit up as a huge smile spread across her face. “Okay,” Max said excitedly. “Do you think you could find a vine or something here?”

El smiled, and pulled out that same blindfold she’d had with her at Starcourt.

Max watched as El sat down on the floor, blindfold in place, and searched. There was utter stillness. Even the birds seemed to have stopped singing in the trees while waiting on tenterhooks for something to happen.

Finally, El pulled the blindfold off, looking disappointed. She wiped away at the blood coming from her nose with the edge of her sleeve. She looked up at Max and shook her head.

Max did her best to hide her disappointment, putting on a smile that was only slightly forced.

“It’s okay,” she said softly. “It’s okay, you tried.”

“I can try again,” El said in that soft, determined voice.

“Only if you’re sure,” Max said.

El nodded and put the blindfold back on. The world went dark.

Her void was what it always was. She gently padded through the black, the only sound was her own breath.

This time, however, she knew something was different. Better. There was something different in the darkness.

The mirror-still surface of the water that she walked across was broken up ahead of her by what looked like cracks from her vantage point. The black lines created intricate patterns in the water, but they themselves were thick, rough and messy.

Vines.

She started to walk towards them. When walking didn’t feel fast enough, she broke into a run. She was almost there. She stretched out her hand –

A cracking sound like thunder broke through her void. She and Max leapt back as the ground beneath their feet started to split.

-:-

Steve jolted awake at a sound like thunder. Straight away, he knew something had changed.

He ran to his mom’s window. He’d made it back with the gun and the flamethrower in one (albeit slow) trip, before collapsing onto his mom’s bed. He’d evidently passed out not long after, because sleep was still forcing his eyes to squint as he stared out into the forest.

A bright red light was emanating from some way into the woods. He couldn’t see the source in amongst the trees, but the light was brighter than anything else he’d seen in the Upside Down.

He didn’t bother taking the gun or the flamethrower – they were too heavy, and he still hadn’t had a chance to work out how to operate them. Instead, he sprinted out the back door and into the trees, not stopping for anything.

He tore over the ground as fast as he could, ignoring the way various parts of his body screamed out in pain. He was gasping for breath – his broken ribs evidently didn’t agree with the exercise – but he didn’t stop. He knew he had to get there.

-:-

“Something’s coming,” El said.

-:-

Steve hadn’t realised how much he had slowed until he could see the first glimpses of the light through the trees. It was almost as bright as the sun in the sky, but Steve didn’t dare look away. He picked up the pace again and pushed his body back into a sprint.

-:-

“Something bad,” El’s voice took on a tone of trepidation.

-:-

Steve suddenly caught a glimpse of something out of the corner of his eye – another thing tearing through the forest. Steve pushed himself one more time, but whatever reserves of energy he had were long spent. This other thing was going to get there first…

-:-

“Close it!” Max said urgently.

El didn’t need any encouragement. She stretched out her hand.

-:-

Steve pushed himself to his final limits. He had to run – he had to get there first –

As suddenly as it had come, the light vanished. Steve slowed to a stop in a matter of steps, his eyes wide with shock. He didn’t understand what had just happened. And apparently, neither did this shadow.

Steve ducked down as an animalistic roar tore through the silence. But this wasn’t the same scream that the Demogorgons would give, this was –

“SHIT!” Steve heard the shout shatter the silence. “Fuck! Shit! God fucking damn it!

Steve froze. This shadow was a human. A human with incredibly colourful vocabulary at that. More to the point, he knew that voice.

Carefully, he approached the clearing where this person was now standing. The figure was kicking at the ground. Steve took in the silhouette – the messy curls that fell around his face, the dirty tank top that left those toned arms uncovered…

Steve finally stepped out into the clearing when he was finally sure.

Billy Hargrove?

Chapter Text

Steve Harrington?

Billy sounded as shocked as Steve felt. What in the name of all things Upside Down was Billy Hargrove doing here?

“Steve fucking Harrington?” Billy repeated. “What the fuck are you doing here?”

“I saw a light,” Steve said guardedly.

“Yeah, no shit,” Billy rolled his eyes. “I meant here. In this place.”

Steve looked over Billy appraisingly, taking in the state of his jeans, his top, his hair. Even in the low light, Steve could see they were covered in all kinds of dirt and grime. His hair wasn’t set in its usual style, instead hanging loosely around his face in matted tangles. All in all, he looked terrible. But then, Steve knew he wasn’t about to win any pageants himself.

“Jumped in,” Steve said in that same guarded tone.

He remembered the last time he’d had a conversation this long with Billy Hargrove – it had been right before Billy had smashed a plate over his head and punched him unconscious. Since then, the pair of them had kept out of each other’s way. Steve had kept his head down, trying his best to pass high school with a thoroughly mediocre grade, while Billy had strutted around with Tommy H and Carol lapping up every word he said. The most interaction they’d had in months would be during basketball practice, where Billy would make the occasional joke about getting with Nancy’s mom – or as he put it in the locker room, the better Wheeler bitch. Steve had done his best not to rise to the jokes. So what if he’d accidentally pushed past Billy on the way to his car? So what if he’d let Billy see a glimpse of what was in his trunk? Of that nail bat Max had nearly used to mince her stepbrother’s genitals? Billy never said anything to him directly anymore.

Of all the people in Hawkins to be stuck in the Upside Down with, Billy Hargrove was not Steve’s first choice.

Billy snorted. “What the fuck did you do that for?”

“Wasn’t exactly in love with the other options at the time.”

Billy snorted again. “Must have been some pretty shitty options then.”

Steve shot him an exasperated look. “How did you end up here then, Hargrove?”

“Car crashed,” Billy explained with a shrug. “Woke up here. Was probably a few days ago.”

That confused Steve. “Is that it?

“Is what it?”

“Your car crashed, and you just… woke up here? In my experience there’s usually a little more to it than that.”

“You have experience with this shit?”

Steve shrugged. “Yeah, a bit.”

“No shit,” Billy said, his tone changing. He was smiling at Steve, that same triumphant smile he always had when he left Steve in the dust on the basketball court.

“Impressed, Hargrove?”

“Not exactly,” Billy said, his smile broadening. “Just realising you might be my best chance of getting out of here.”

Steve scowled. “Well, sorry to disappoint you, but you’re not exactly mine, so I’m going to go.”

Steve started to turn away before he found Billy’s hand on his arm. Billy’s hand was almost as cold as Steve’s. Almost.

“Wait!” Billy called, his eyes wide. “Look, you don’t like me, I get it. But we’re stuck here together. You can try going it alone, but we’ll have a much better chance of staying alive here if we stick together.”

Steve gave a bitter laugh. “You see, that’s where you’ve misunderstood,” he said. “I don’t not want you around because I don’t like you, I don’t want you around because you’re a fucking psycho. You nearly punched me into a coma because you didn’t like your sister’s friend-”

“She’s not my sister.”

I don’t give a shit!” Steve threw his arms up. “My point is that I honestly think that having you around might one day kill me!

Billy fell silent. Steve was slightly more successful in walking away this time – he managed to take four whole steps before Billy called him back.

“You managed to find any food yet?”

That stopped Steve in his tracks.

“No,” he said softly, not looking back.

“You try the shops?” Billy suggested, his voice with that triumphant edge.

Steve turned around and glared at him. “Yeah, I tried the shops. Nothing. Whatever food was there was rotten.”

Billy’s grin had a slight menacing quality. “That’s because I got there first.”

-:-

El fell back as soon as the Gate closed. In the dim red light, she’d seen the slightest hint of a shadow. It was a figure – a man without a face…

She scrambled away from the line in the dirt, shrinking into a tree. She was breathing hard – she couldn’t get enough air into her chest – what little breath was coming came in short, sharp gasps –

“El?”

She jolted as Max suddenly appeared at her side. It was all El could do to focus on her face, take in those wide eyes that stared at her in such concern. It helped ground her. She wasn’t alone. The monster hadn’t come through the Gate.

“It’s okay,” Max was saying. “It’s okay. We don’t have to try again.”

El immediately warmed to Max, shrinking into her as Max pulled her into a hug.

“Why don’t we just go somewhere else?” Max suggested. “We can go somewhere and eat those sandwiches Will’s mom made us.”

El nodded, finally standing up without taking her eyes off the crack in the dirt.

“Sandwiches,” she breathed.

-:-

“So what exactly is this place?” Billy asked, carefully picking a path for Steve to follow.

Steve eyed Billy’s back. He may have been forced into a situation with him, but that didn’t mean Steve trusted Billy as far as he could throw him. And past experience taught him that he couldn’t throw him very far.

“We call it the Upside Down,” Steve said. “It’s like… this other dimension, like a mirror of Hawkins. It’s like… how fleas can walk on the side of a tightrope or something.”

Billy looked back over at Steve like he was a five-year-old trying to tell a story. “What?”

“I don’t really know, some kids told me about it,” Steve hit back.

“Max’s friends?” Billy asked.

“Yeah.”

“She’s involved too.” It was a statement, not a question.

Steve didn’t take his eyes off the back of Billy’s head. “Yeah.”

“And that was what you were doing together at that house,” Billy said, fitting the pieces together.

“Yeah,” Steve acknowledged.

“So how’d you get involved?” Billy asked. “Bunch of middle-schoolers running around, didn’t seem like your scene.”

Steve felt his gut twist in that far too familiar way at the thought of how he’d gotten involved. “Nancy’s best friend was killed by something from here,” Steve explained.

“Ah,” Billy said, and Steve could hear the smirk in his voice. “So the princess got involved and dragged you with her.”

“Not exactly.”

Billy turned around to look at him, a slightly incredulous smirk settled on his lips. “You going to start giving me longer answers or am I going to have to start guessing the rest?”

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Steve bit back quietly.

Billy rolled his eyes before turning back to pick his way through the trees. “Suit yourself.”

Finally, they burst through the trees into a clearing. A tent had been haphazardly erected, and inside it seemed to be Hawkins’ entire supply of tins.

“You’ve been living here?” Steve asked incredulously.

“Yeah,” Billy said. “So what? Not up to the standards of King Stevie’s palace?

“Well, I mean, if you want to live in a tent in the middle of nowhere,” Steve said with a shrug.

“Alright,” Billy shrugged. “Where are you staying?”

Steve looked at him incredulously. “You’re not coming with me-”

Jesus, will you take that stick out your ass?” Billy said exasperatedly. “I’m not planning some big scheme to take you down.”

Steve glared at Billy. Flashes of everything he’d ever known about Billy were fresh in his memory. Billy shoving him over in basketball with a word about planting his feet… Billy and Tommy laughing about his breakup with Nancy… Billy throwing Lucas up against the wall… The plate breaking over his head…

“Look,” Billy said. “You’re not the person I’d choose to be stuck here with. But you’re the only person I’ve seen in days. I’ve got no fucking idea about this place. You seem to know a bit more than I do, but be honest, do you really know that much about it? You can’t tell me you want to be here alone; you’ll go crazy. Like, full on ‘Shining’ shit.”

“Yeah?” Steve shot back. “Well, you don’t know anything about me. If you did, you’d know I’m really fucking good at being alone.”

“Sure,” Billy snorted derisively. “What’re you going to do? Hang around moping all day? Wait for this place to tear you apart? Hate to say it, but you’re not looking so hot, Stevie. So you can go be miserable and wait for the inevitable day when you finally kick the bucket, or I can come back with you and we can stick together.”

‘Stick together’?” It was Steve’s turn to be derisive. “What, like a pack or something?”

Billy shrugged. “Sure, why not? We’re nothing more than animals out here anyway.”

Steve thought about it. Billy raised a lot of good points – Steve was otherwise completely on his own out here, and with Billy around, there was a chance he could let his guard down for a second against the Upside Down. Not to mention, Billy had managed to acquire basically everything in Hawkins’ Upside Down that was fit for human consumption. With anyone else, this would have been a complete no-brainer. But the fact remained that it wasn’t anyone else. It was Billy fucking Hargrove.

“Come on,” Billy finally broke the silence. “Let’s move on from high school. It’s either us together, or it’s us against each other.”

Steve resigned himself to his fate.

“Fine,” he conceded. “But you’re carrying the food.”

-:-

It turned into the nicest day Max and El had had since Starcourt.

El was relishing being out in the fresh air. Max was enjoying being away from the atmosphere of grief, the constant questions about ‘how was she doing’ and the endless concerned looks. The reality of what they both had to go back to was still lurking, but it was nice to escape it for a little while.

Unfortunately, reality didn’t like being ignored.

It was late afternoon when Max and El came back into the cabin to be met by a grim-faced Hopper, while Jonathan and Will sat on the couch.

“Your mom called,” he announced as soon as Max walked through the door. “Says you left this morning with a note saying you’d be with a friend. Didn’t say which friend. Apparently, she called the Wheelers, the Sinclairs and the Hendersons before calling the station. Only called the station because I brought you home last night.”

That caught Max off-guard.

“She wants you to come home,” he continued. “She was very upset.”

The dread that welled up in Max’s stomach twisted painfully. She gave Hopper a small nod.

“You don’t have to go home,” Jonathan said from the couch. “You can-”

“Yes, I do,” Max whispered. She really should have known this conversation wasn’t over.

“Max-” Will started.

“God, just leave it alone, will you?” she snapped in the general direction of the couch.

Silence rang throughout the room. Jonathan looked guarded, Will apologetic. El looked surprised. Hopper frowned at her.

“Sorry,” she breathed. “I didn’t mean to snap. I know you’re just trying to help, but… it’s my life. I know what’s going on. I know Neil. Can you just… just take me home?”

-:-

“I’m sorry, I’ve got to ask,” Billy said. “What the hell is up with that outfit?”

Steve rolled his eyes. Honestly, he was surprised it had taken this long to come up, but that didn’t mean he was happy about answering it.

“It’s a uniform,” Steve said.

“A uniform?” Billy echoed incredulously.

“Yeah,” Steve snapped. “People sometimes wear them to work-”

“Yeah, I know what a uniform is,” Billy laughed. “I’m kind of surprised you know, though. Wasn’t the life plan following Daddy into business or some shit?”

Steve hesitated for a fraction of a second. “Yeah, well, that’s not really an option anymore.”

“Oh yeah?” Billy asked. “Why’s that?”

Daddy nearly cut me off after I didn’t get into Tech,” Steve said coldly.

Billy burst out laughing. “You didn’t even get into Tech?” he laughed. “Fucking hell, I thought everyone got into Tech. Fucking Carol got into Tech, and she’s even dumber than you are.”

“Thanks,” Steve’s voice was like ice.

He’d finally found the stream. Steve slowly began picking his way down to the rock he used to cross it. He heard Billy follow him, the clanking of tins in the deconstructed tent that Billy was using as a brightly coloured sack being the only sound. Steve finally crested the ridge and pushed his way into his garden.

“Shit,” Billy finally said, impressed. “This is where you live?

Steve shot him a dark look, followed by a sarcastic smile that didn’t touch his eyes.

“King Stevie’s Castle,” Billy murmured with a smirk on his face.

“Go to hell, Hargrove.”

“Aren’t I there already?”

Steve shot him a look that told him clearly that he didn’t share his sense of humour, before walking off into the house.

“Hey!” Billy called, following him into the doorway. “Hey, it was just a joke!”

“What the hell is wrong with you, Hargrove?” Steve rounded on him. “Making jokes – asking about my life – it’s not you!

Billy smirked, but any trace of humour was gone from his face. “You don’t fucking know me,” he pointed out. “Nobody in this two-bit town has ever known me, not Tommy H or Carol, not Max, not Susan, not even my fucking dad. And certainly not you.”

“I know what you are-”

“Really?” Billy asked. “You got me pegged? You know my type? Typical douchebag, come from a big city after a divorce and pissed as shit about it? That what you’ve got so far?”

Steve fell silent, his glare hiding the fact that he’d been caught off-guard.

“I do what’s expected of a guy like me,” Billy said. “Makes it easy. I’ll be honest, I thought you’d know a bit about it. Typical rich kid with parents who are never around, trying to be popular because that’s all that fucking matters, isn’t it? Playing up to it. Pretending. That’s why I was so interested in you when I heard all about you. Thought we were similar. Problem is, you’ve been pretending so long, that’s all you know at this point. Pretending is all there is to you.”

-:-

The drive back was quiet. Hopper tried a couple of times to start some form of conversation, but when he was met with grunts, he was vividly reminded of just why he’d hated teenagers.

He pulled the car into the driveway for the second time in as many days, only this time, it wasn’t Susan Mayfield who came running out. Neil Hargrove was stood on the doorstep, his face like thunder.

“Maxine,” he said as Max got out of the car, his tone heavy with threat. “Inside. Now.

Hopper got out of the car after her.

“Mr Hargrove!” he called at Neil’s retreating back.

Neil turned around and glared at Hopper. “Yes?”

Hopper closed the gap between them as Susan appeared at the doorway to usher Max inside. “Mr Hargrove, Max has obviously taken her stepbrother’s death pretty hard. She went to see Will Byers. Maybe it’s worth talking to her. You know, heart to heart.”

The echo of Joyce’s words to him a matter of days ago – God, had it really only been days? – didn’t have quite the same effect on Neil as they’d had on Hopper.

“Yeah, well, she’s not the only one who’s suffered,” Neil growled. “And she needs to learn not to be so selfish.”

“I’m just saying-”

“It’s not your business how I teach my family to respect each other, Chief Hopper,” Neil growled.

Hopper felt something ignite in him. Screw being nice. He'd tried. A bit. Maybe.

“Well, Neil – is it alright if I call you Neil? – you should know, after hearing reports of your behaviour towards Max and Lucas Sinclair from witnesses, I’ve been forced to open up an investigation into what happened.”

Neil’s eyes widened and his scowl deepened. “Excuse me?

Hopper took some grim satisfaction in Neil’s surprise. “You know… attempted assault on a minor… Indiana law is very clear on this.”

‘Attempted assault’?” Neil echoed. “What the fuck is this?”

Hopper kept his voice low and level, doing his best to hide his enjoyment of Neil’s obvious discomfort.

“I’ve heard eyewitnesses claim that you threatened to assault your stepdaughter yesterday,” Hopper said. “By law, I have to take those claims seriously.”

“Has Maxine said anything about this?” Neil growled.

Hopper kept silent, meeting Neil’s glare with a look that he hoped was neutral.

“I see,” Neil said, his tone finally matching Hopper’s. “Well, you should know that what goes on in my house with my family is none of your damn business!

Hopper shrugged. “Well, when you threaten the Sinclairs like you did yesterday-”

“I didn’t threaten anyone!” Neil snarled. “I tried to instil some fucking respect into my stepdaughter after she starts shooting her mouth off at my own son’s funeral. That little shit comes in, undermining me, and tries to fucking take her with him. All I did was make it very clear to everyone what that meant.”

Hopper shrugged casually. “Well, Neil, let’s make one thing clear right here and now,” he said casually. “You hurt the Sinclairs, you go near them – hell, you say their names in a way I don’t like, and I’ll come for you. Are we clear?”

Neil smirked at Hopper, but there was no laughter in his eyes. “Now look who’s threatening.

Hopper matched him with a humourless smile. “Glad we’re understood.”

Neil watched Hopper get back into the car and pull away slowly before going back inside. He walked into the door to see Maxine sat on the couch, hunched over, her long red hair forming curtains around her face.

“An investigation?” Neil snarled. “What the fuck have you been telling him?”

“Nothing,” came Maxine’s reply, almost inaudible.

“Sorry?” Neil snapped, his temper rising. “Didn’t quite catch that.”

“Nothing!” Max replied defensively. “I haven’t said anything!

So much for Hopper’s discreet investigation.

“Well you’ve obviously said something to someone!” Neil’s voice was rising. “Is that where you were today? Going and talking to your new police buddy?”

“I haven’t-”

“You had your mother really worried,” Neil snapped, walking over to the countertop and snatching up the note Max had left that morning. “You leave a note saying you’re going shopping with a friend. No mention of where, no mention of who, no mention of when you’ll be back.”

Max took a deep breath and closed her eyes for a fraction longer than a standard blink – something Neil noticed.

“Do you not think that after everything that’s happened – after losing my son – that maybe, just maybe, that might be information your mother and I might want?” Neil crossed the room and slammed the note down on the coffee table with such force that it made Max jump. “And then I find out you’ve not been shopping at all, you’ve been off talking to some jumped-up small town police chief, full of his own self-importance because he somehow made it to the top of the world’s smallest ladder, and got it into his head that I’ve been assaulting you?

“I didn’t-”

“Look at me,” Neil growled, his tone more dangerous than Max had ever heard him.

Max pursed her lips together, desperately trying to force back the tears welling up in her eyes.

Maxine,” Neil’s voice softened. “Look at me.”

Max was determined to blink back those tears before looking up –

LOOK AT ME!” Neil roared.

The sudden change in tone jolted Max upright, staring Neil straight in the eyes with a mixture of tears, horror, fear, and burning defiance.

“Maxine,” Neil said softly, towering over her. “You’re a little liar. You’ve been lying to that police chief, and now you’re lying to me. You’re running off, scaring your mother out of her mind, and after ruining my son’s funeral, you and that boyfriend of yours are going spreading little rumours around town about me. Well, you know what? I’m not having it anymore. It’s time you learnt some respect.”

“Maxine, go to your room.”

Susan’s words came out of nowhere. Max and Neil had all but forgotten she was there. There was a firmness to her voice that couldn’t hide the slight shake in her tone. There was fear – that much was obvious – but there was also the slightest hint of defiance.

“Maxine, go to your room and don’t come out tonight,” Susan repeated. “Not for dinner, not for anything.”

There was a silence as Neil and Max stared at Susan. She kept her eyes on Max, not daring to look at her husband. Whatever fear Max had heard in her voice was amplified a thousand times by the look in her eyes.

Now, Maxine,” Susan said.

Max picked herself up off the couch and headed towards her room. Every step she took away from Neil felt heavier, her fear and guilt mounting. She closed the door, but it was a poor barrier between her and what was happening in the living room. She sat down on her bed and released a breath she hadn’t realised she’d been holding. Tears started to run down her face uncontrollably. She desperately tried to stifle a sob as voices carried through the door.

“…The fuck, Susan?” Neil was saying. “You think you can just undermine me like that?”

Silence followed. Max eventually heard a small mumble.

“Maxine is a goddamn piece of work! She goes running off with no regard for me, or you, or anyone but herself! And now she’s out there spreading nasty little stories about me? That can’t be left alone!”

“She’s been punished,” came the soft voice of her mother.

“What, with a fucking timeout? Sending her to her room? Banning her from having dinner? Susan, she knows as well as I do that she got off easy! Her goddamn mommy got in the way, went soft on her! Well, newsflash, she’s under my roof now! That means she needs to learn to respect me!”

“No!” Susan sounded terrified.

“Excuse me?” came Neil’s voice, in that same terrifyingly calm tone that always preluded the oncoming storm. “Perhaps you need your own lesson in respect?”

Max was torn between clamping her hands against her ears to drown it out and running out of her room to interfere. Paralysed by indecision, she sat there, frozen, listening to her mother use that desperately placating tone to try and calm him down.

“Neil, please, she’s had a rough time,” she was almost whispering. “It’s come as a terrible shock, she just needs time to calm down.”

“Yeah?” Neil growled. “Well, it’s not like she’s got a fucking monopoly on grief! Billy was my goddamn kid! Not hers, not yours, mine! And here she is, using it as an excuse to act like a spoilt brat! She’s running off, terrifying the living shit out of you and all you can fucking say is to beg me to go easy on her? Well, she’s had it pretty fucking easy so far, it’s about time she learnt to respect me!”

“She’s not-”

“Not what, Susan? Not had it easy? She goes around saying bullshit to that police chief, who then comes here and starts fucking threatening me with a fucking investigation! And that’s not even starting on what happened to Billy!”

Her mom sounded confused. “What?” she asked tentatively.

“Why the fuck do you think my son was at that mall in the first place?” Neil pointed out. “Why was he there with her and all her little friends? He was there for her! He was looking out for her! And how the fuck does she repay him? By running out and leaving him to burn to death in that fucking fire!

Clarity came for Max like a gunshot. The fact that Neil blamed her for Billy’s death terrified her, but also made sense of Neil’s attitude. Of course he was so angry now. Of course there was a rift between him and Susan and Max. It had split them apart. They weren’t family anymore. They were the Mayfields and the Hargroves. Well, Hargrove.

My son. My kid. Not hers. Not yours. Mine. He wasn’t your son, he was mine. What gives you the right? He was my son. My son. My son. Mine.

She clamped her hands over her ears but it wasn’t enough to drown out the rest of the conversation.

“What happened was a terrible accident-”

“Susan, it wasn’t a fucking accident!” Neil snarled. “She chose to get out. She chose to leave him.”

“You don’t know that-”

Yes, I do!” Neil roared. “She’s here. He’s not.”

“You can’t blame her for Billy’s death-”

“Watch me.”

Max heard footsteps crossing the hall – heavy, purposeful strides – Neil was coming.

“It’s about time your daughter learnt some respect!” Neil said, his voice rising.

“Neil, no-”

CRACK!

The sound echoed throughout the house, but it couldn’t hold a candle to the ringing silence that followed. Max’s hands flew away from her ears and she sat bolt upright, hardly daring to move. She heard a low voice – Neil’s – out in the living room, but couldn’t hear what was being said. As quietly as she dared, she opened her door a fraction and peered out of the gap.

Neil’s back was to her – thank god – as her mother was bent face-down over the countertop. From where she was stood, Max could see that Neil had her mother’s arm twisted up behind her back and was bent low over her, his other hand flat on the countertop by her mother’s head. Susan’s face was turned outwards, towards Max’s door, and for a flash, she made eye contact with her daughter. Those blue eyes pleaded with Max.

Don’t interfere. Don’t get involved. Don’t come out.

“Stop protecting Maxine,” Neil was muttering into Susan’s ear. “She can’t always have someone to save her from the consequences of her actions.”

“Please…” Susan whimpered, so quietly Max could barely hear her. “Please don’t hurt my little girl…”

“Your little girl?” Neil echoed, stepping back from Susan and letting her go. “She’s not so little anymore, is she? And let me remind you, I’m the only reason her father isn’t in the picture. If it wasn’t for me, you’d still be in California, fighting appeal after appeal after appeal from that piece of shit. I’m the only reason you could come here. And the thanks I get? My son gets killed trying to protect your little girl.

“I’m sorry,” Susan whispered, sliding to the floor and leaning against the counter as tears began to run down her face. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

This, at last, seemed to placate Neil, because the next words out of his mouth sounded oddly tender.

“I know,” Neil said. “I know. I don’t like doing that. Not to you. I love you, Susan. I’m the only one who loves you. You know that, right?”

Susan nodded.

“Good,” Neil said. “Good.”

What followed was a scene that repulsed Max more than anything else she’d seen that night. Neil went and settled himself on the couch wordlessly while Susan went into the kitchen and got a beer bottle from the refrigerator. She handed it to Neil as Neil turned on the television, before she sat down nervously next to him. He put an arm round her shoulder as they found some talk show on the television, the studio audience’s laughter occasionally joined by a small chuckle from Neil. It was so domestic, telling nothing of the violence that had come mere minutes before.

They stayed like that for almost an hour, the only movement being Susan getting up every so often to get another beer for Neil. Once the talk show finished, she felt that Neil had calmed down enough for her to suggest that she go to bed. Susan handed him another beer before going to the bedroom.

Neil, however, stayed on the couch. Max suspected he’d end up falling asleep there, but she didn’t dare let her guard down. She stayed awake, lying on her bed with the lights out, as the talk show turned into a rerun of an episode of the Twilight Zone. She stayed awake as the Twilight Zone turned into a show about some conspiracy involving the water supply of a town in Michigan. Eventually, as the conspiracy show was coming to a close, Neil turned off the television, but Max still didn’t dare sleep. She didn’t hear his breath even out into snores that would tell her he was safely asleep.

Max sat up as quietly as she could. Peering through the small gap in the door, she could see Neil sat there in total darkness. He was just sitting there.

Hours passed. Max lay down on her bed with her back to the door, waiting for Neil to move – either to get up to go to bed or else just to lie down on the couch. Still nothing. No change.

The red display on her digital clock read 04:21 when Neil finally moved. He stood up and walked through the house. He was making an unusual attempt to be quiet as he walked through the house.

He first stopped by Max’s door and pushed it open. She’d been lying in the same position for hours, but she froze as she felt his eyes on her. He was watching her, unable to see her wide-open eyes as she stared at her clock, not really seeing it, listening… waiting…

Finally, he pulled the door closed before walking towards her mom’s room. Max listened as he did the same, watching her mom sleeping.

Eventually, though, he moved on from there too. Without a word, he walked back through the house. Max heard him fumble with the coat rack, before going to a drawer in the kitchen and pulling out what sounded like a set of keys. Max heard the front door open and shut – she heard the car door open and shut outside – she heard the engine start, the hum of a car engine moving away, and then…

Nothing.

As quietly as she could, Max stood up. She walked towards the door and peered out into an empty hallway. She padded through into the living room, looking around, noticing the absent coat that normally hung on the coat rack.

She walked over towards a window and peered out into the driveway. There was nothing there, no car, no Neil. She opened the front door and quietly stood in the doorway, facing the empty night.

Neil was gone.