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the love you build your house around

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The knock at Steve’s door was not surprising. Dustin had called an hour earlier and had said, you never see me anymore, this is a tragedy. This is horrible, Steve. And Steve had seen him literally on Monday, and it was only Friday, so. Dustin was being real fucking dramatic. But Steve suspected it maybe had to do with his mama giving him an Atari 5200 as a sorry for leaving you for a month to visit your aunt Cynthia who literally lives in Indainapolis, two hours away gift.

Whatever. Point being, Steve had been expecting a knock. What he hadn’t been expecting was how fucking frantic it was.

“Will you stop that?” His mama called from the living room, like interrupting her soap operas was an actual, punishable crime.

So, when Steve opened the front door, something sarcastic on his tongue, he was definitely not expecting Dustin’s wide-blown eyes.

“This is a baby,” Dustin said, hoisting the car seat in the air.

Steve gaped. “Who the fuck trusted you with a baby?”

“They didn’t, Steven. Who the fuck would trust me with a baby? It was just here!”

“Jesus Christ,” Steve said, snatching the seat from Dustin’s grubby fingers. “Don’t fucking shake it, you’ll hurt it.”

The baby wailed.

“It’s not an it, Steve. It’s a baby. A human baby. On your doorstep. A boy human baby, if the blanket means anything. He’s a he. A baby he.”

Jesus fucking Christ.

“I got it, I got it. But why?”

Dustin rolled his eyes like maybe Steve was the stupidest person he ever met, which Dustin probably did think, but. Steve was real tempted to shove Dustin out of his doorway, baby and all.

“It’s obviously a wishbaby,” Dustin said. Which was, in fact, not obvious.

“Dude, literally no one has wishbabies. They’re like, a joke they tell in health class.”

“Okay, well, that joke, which is actually a real, scientific phenomenon, that like, actual scientists and historians have studied over many, many decades, is on your fucking doorstep.”

“That’s not possible.” Steve squinted at the baby, tried not to panic as the kid screamed, goopy tears and snot covering his face as he wiggled his arms. “I don’t want a baby. I have never wanted a baby. I don’t even want to knock anyone up. I’m in high school, fuck.”

“What is that noise?” Steve’s mama asked, pushing her way to the door. She frowned at the carrier in Steve’s hand, looked between the baby and Dustin. “Do his parents know you’ve brought him here? I would lose my mind if I knew my babysitter was doing that.”

“You think someone would trust him to babysit?” Steve said, at the same time Dustin said, “It was just on the porch!”

“Gosh,” Mama said, prying the kid from the carrier and cradling him in her arms. “You could at least keep him from crying. One at a time.” She pointed a finger at Dustin, held it up in the air to silence him until the baby’s cries subsided. It didn’t take long, the loud wails dying down to snuffling whines as she rocked him, slow, like she’d had lots of practice rocking her colicky son.

“He was just here,” Dustin gestured at the cement step.

Mama frowned more, eyes now going between the empty car seat and her son. “He’s yours,” She said, not like a question.

“He’s not,” Steve insisted. “What would I want with a baby? He must be yours. Or dad’s. Someone’s.”

“Steven, if we wanted another child, we would have had him sixteen years ago. My tubes are tied, and your father’s had a vasectomy.”

That was not what Steve wanted to know about his parents genitals. Dustin nearly looked green at the very idea, parent sex still not something he wanted to think about at fourteen. Parents didn’t do that. They were old.

“Are you sure you haven’t been having thoughts? Come here, hold him. He’ll settle better with his father.”

And Steve was definitely not the father, was almost positive of it as the baby was deposited in his arms. He was pretty sure he was holding it wrong. Was its head supposed to tilt like that? His. His head.

“There, is that better?” His mother asked. “Parents of wishbabies feel a natural bond to their child after touch. I’m sure yours is just forming slowly.”

“How would you know?” Dustin asked.

Mama sighed. “My book club reads too many books about them. I think Karen thinks they’re romantic. Or erotic.”

Again, Dustin looked like he was going to be sick.

“Okay, but. There’s no way this is mine.”

“He’s a boy, Steve,” Dustin said.

Someone needed to shove an icepick in Steve’s head.

“There’s no other explanation,” Steve’s mother said. “You must have been thinking about it, subconsciously. Don’t worry. I’ll hold off my trip to Prague until you finish school. I’ll show you what to do and babysit him during the day.”

And Steve knew he should have protested that the baby didn’t even look like him, with shocking blonde hair and murky gray eyes, but he knew sometimes babies just looked like that, that they grew into their features. He’d been born with brown hair, but his cousin Louisa had been born blonde, had dark curls by the time she was six.

The baby also looked a little too much like his own squished, pudgy baby face for him to really complain. But maybe all babies kind of looked like that.

“That’s only three weeks,” Steve said.

“And your father will only be there for a month and a half. We’ll both be back before you know.”

And Steve didn’t know that, not for sure. But it didn’t really look like he was getting a choice.

“Dad is going to hate this.”

His mama pursed her lips, nodded once before patting his cheek. She said, “I’ll talk to your father. It’s going to work out, sweetheart.”

He stared at the baby fussing in his arms and closed his eyes, took a deep breath. He didn’t feel anything for the kid, not a single spark of belonging. But the baby was here, so.

“I think he looks like an Andrew,” his mother said, taking the baby from him. “I’d always liked the idea of a grandson named Andrew. Andrew Harrington just sounds so regal, doesn’t it? It would look very cute embroidered on his things.”

“I guess?” Steve said.

“Not that I’m naming him for you. He’s your son.”

Steve looked between Dustin and his mama, wanted to rub his face. “No, Andrew works.”

“So,” Dustin cleared his throat, “Can I still use the Atari?”

 

Growing up, Steve had always longed for a brother. It got lonely, playing in his big house, even with his mother chasing him around. He wished he had someone his own age to poke at, someone to show the ropes. Running in the backyard with Tommy and Carol, giggling over the bad words that they knew, wasn’t the same as teaching a younger kid to swear.

It also sucked that he got blamed for literally everything. It was always his fault, but it would have been nice to have a scapegoat.

As Steve sat on the couch, Andy propped in his lap and suckling on a bottle of formula, he knew this wasn’t the answer to his prayers. He hadn’t thought about siblings since he was thirteen, and the kid bundled on his lap wasn’t meant to be his lackey. Steve was meant to raise him, keep him safe.

It was kind of bullshit.

The day Andy showed up, Steve’s mama had given him a long list of things he would need and one of her credit cards. Steve had felt completely helpless as he pushed a cart around the store, was fucking lucky when Joyce Byers spotted him and waved him down.

“A baby?” she asked, looking over the few things he’d struggled to find. “Is your mom going to a baby shower?”

Steve had winced, said, “Not quite. Uh. Wishbaby.”

He hadn’t known how to explain his situation, still didn’t, but Joyce had only pursed her lips and said, “Can’t any of you avoid trouble for one minute?” Like it was Steve’s fault that Hawkins had been torn up by monsters two years in a row, and a magical baby popping up was just another anomaly in the string of bizarre in his life.

It wasn’t magic, Steve had reminded himself, the grating voice in his head a little too close to Dustin’s. It was science. It was all fucking science.

“What’s the baby’s name?” Joyce had asked, taking the cart from him.

“Andrew. Andy.”

She nodded. “That’s a good name. Bet he’s a cute baby, if he’s got your genes.”

“He’s alright?”

She had tutted, grabbed diapers off the wall and put them in the cart. “He’ll grow on you. Let me know if you ever need a babysitter. I’m busy with work, but I wouldn’t mind on my nights off, in a pinch.”

People kept saying that. That Andy would grow on him. That somehow fatherhood would just creep into his blood if he reminded himself that he was meant to like the kid enough times.

Joyce had filled his cart with onesies and blankets, dinosaurs and rocket ships, and itty bitty corduroy pants. Steve picked out the least obvious diaper bag he could find, feeling a little nauseous as his pile grew. Every item made things more real. His mother was hiring painters to turn the second guest room into a nursery.

So, as he sat in the living room with Andy feeding in his lap, The Price is Right clapping and cheering on TV, Steve couldn’t help how his head spun a little, the world fuzzy and full of static.

 

School almost felt like a blessing on Monday morning. It had only been two days since Andy had shown up on his doorstep, but every second he spent with the baby felt too long, too surreal, stretched thin as Andy slept in his crib while Steve did homework at his desk.

Mama was helping with everything she could, always cooing and kissing Andy’s cheeks, but she wanted him to do most of the work while he was home, something about getting to know his son, and something else about having to know have to look after him, during all the time she wouldn’t be around. Even a grandchild couldn’t pin Steve’s parents in place for long, although he was grateful for the time she was offering, and all her future trips she promised she’d cut short.

With her at home, watching Andy, Steve could finally feel fucking normal again. Or as normal as he could, knowing what he did about the monsters lurking in the universe, possibly waiting to rip the rug out from under Hawkins again. He hoped it was unlikely. But his luck was never that good.

He met Nancy at her locker, leaned against it like he always did, like he was still a Casanova, even without his lady. He was cool, alright? Classic.

“Morning,” Nancy said, exchanging her books. “Did you have a good weekend?”

“Yeah, you know, it was chill. Got all that work done for Mrs. Brigg’s class.”

“Really?” Nancy squinted at him, but it was smiling. “What have you done with Steve Harrington?”

“Hey,” he put up his hands. “I can be a good student. I haven’t failed yet.”

“Just a lot of close calls?” Jonathan asked, coming up behind Nancy.

“Why are you my friends?”

“Would it be mean if I said you were running low on options?”

“Oh, fuck you.”

Nancy grinned and bit her lip, still laughed. Steve still couldn’t say no to her smile, thought maybe he’d never be able to, might spend his whole life tricking himself into thinking he wouldn’t always love her. He didn’t want her like that anymore, but all the things that made him weak for her were still there, itching around his heart.

“Oh, how’s Andy?” Jonathan asked.

Steve stiffened, tried to play it casual as he cleared his throat. “Uh, he’s really good? I’m guessing your mom told you?”

“She thought you’d already told me. She’s awful at keeping secrets.”

“It’s—he’s—I wouldn’t say a secret, exactly?”

“Who is Andy?” Nancy asked, frowning as she clutched her books.

Jonathan rubbed his jaw, which was completely unfair, because that was Steve’s nervous gesture, and he really didn’t appreciate his trademarks being stolen along with his dignity.

“A baby,” Steve said, then realized that wasn’t enough of an answer. He looked at the ceiling. “A wishbaby? Dustin, uh. Found it on my doorstep. So.”

“What?” Nancy asked, eyes going wide. “Steve. What? With who—”

“I don’t know, Nance. I didn’t want him, alright? I didn’t do this? Mama says sometimes the baby goes to the other person, if it’s wished hard enough by someone in a relationship, but—”

“Dry spell?” Jonathan asked. It wasn’t actually a dick move. Steve maybe complained about things Nancy didn’t want to hear about far too often.

“Yeah, I mean. I don’t even really like anyone? Like, I’ve been thinking about asking Tammy Thompson to prom, but mostly because I think she wants to go with me, so it would be easy—”

The look Nancy gave him told him all he needed to know about how she felt about that answer. Well. He didn’t actually ask her, so.

“I don’t know. Andy was just there. And Mama is sure he’s not hers, so by process of elimination—” he waved his hand in his general direction, hated that he was even having the conversation. “Mrs. Byers helped me find the stuff Mama told me to get. I don’t know. I’m not fucking thrilled with it.”

Nancy seemed to mull that over a minute, before asking, “Can we meet him? You could have told us. We could have had a baby shower or something.”

“This wasn’t exactly planned, Nance. And Mama paid for all his stuff. I think she’s excited to have him around? I don’t know.”

“Well.” Nancy pursed her lips. “I still want to meet him.”

“I’ll ask Mama if you can come by for dinner? I’ve got to call her at lunch to check in on them, anyway.”

“Yeah, let us know,” Nancy grinned. “Is he cute? Some babies are just. Very unfortunate looking.”

Steve scrunched his nose. “I don’t fucking know. They’re all wrinkly and gross.”

 

By gym class, last period, Steve’s new fatherhood had spread through the school like wildfire, Daniel Peters overhearing Dustin telling Mike, who had in turn told his brother, Ben Peters, who had in turn told fucking Tommy H., because the world was just a cruel fucking joke. On top of it, Carol had heard Steve telling Nancy, so she had confirmed everything, and then had told at least fifteen people.

Andy wasn’t a secret. It was pretty fucking hard to hide a baby that they’d all see him pushing around at the supermarket. But that didn’t mean he hadn’t wanted to keep it under wraps until he’d figured out what the fuck was going on.

Nearly every person had their own theory on who Steve’s baby mama was. Some people insisted he’d gotten some girl pregnant last year, and she’d caved under the stress of it. The main candidate was a girl from out of town that he’d met at a party before he started dating Nancy. The next option was Amy Tipin, who had moved away in September. Maybe she left because she was pregnant. She had bragged about fucking Steve.

Steve didn’t have the energy to share that the doctors guessed that Andy was only a few days old. May 27th was his birthday, they guessed, the day he showed up, which made sense, but. There was no way a girl had had a baby and dropped it on his porch. The only chick he’d slept with during that time period was Nancy, and she definitely hadn’t been concealing a baby bump in her 105lb frame.

So. Wishbaby. Which was what most people had heard and believed. So, whose was it? A lot of people guessed Nancy, which had her rolling her eyes. A number of girls had decided it was them, simply to fluff their own egos. Steve didn’t know if he should be flattered or extremely annoyed.

As he changed for gym, he was leaning towards the latter.

“Hey, baby daddy,” Tommy crooned. “How goes the brat? It true, that you don’t know who the mom is? What a filthy mind you’ve got there, Harrington.”

“Yeah, like you’re one to talk. Has Carol seen that gang bang shit you keep under your mattress, yet? I’m sure she’d be real interested in that.”

Tommy’s lip curled, mean, unimpressed. “At least I’ve got her to fuck. Here we were thinking someone got your balls back from Wheeler, after she cut them off.”

Steve pulled his shirt over his head, tried to remind himself that punching Tommy was a bad fucking idea, with how many lost fights he had under his belt. He could only imagine the shit his mama would give him, coming home battered. She’d probably say he was scaring the baby. Christ.

“You know what, Tommy?” Steve asked, licking his lips. “No one actually fucking asked for your opinion? What I do with my dick is my own business?”

Behind Tommy, Steve could see Billy’s eyes following the exchange, shirt held in his hands as he watched Tommy sneer. Hairs raised on the back of Steve’s neck, stomach growing nauseous when he met Billy’s eyes. “Can I help you?” Steve asked.

“Yeah, shut the fuck up,” Billy said. “Are we gonna go run laps, or just bitch about how you’ve got a pussy now?”

Steve slammed his locker shut. He hadn’t been expecting anything better, but it would have been nice to get a simple no for once. Hawkins was full of motormouths.

“That’s a good one,” Tommy said, clapping Billy on the shoulder.

Billy didn’t smile back. He shrugged Tommy off so he could pull his shirt on, before moving to check his hair in the mirror. Like they weren’t about to play dodgeball or some shit.

“So, what’s the baby’s name?” Tommy asked. “Stephanie, like his mama?”

“Dude, would you lay off? It’s none of your fucking business, alright? If you wanted to be godfather, you should have asked about that before you became a giant douche.”

“Godfather?” Tommy laughed. “Who the fuck would want to look after your kid if you died? It’s probably fucking ugly, if it came from you. And stupid.”

Tommy’s head thudded into the lockers with a hollow thwump, wind knocked out of him as he groaned. Billy held Tommy’s shirt tight, his fist to tommy’s his chest, knuckles pushing him into the metal hard enough to bruise. “I said the conversation was over, Hagan. Are we gonna go to class, or do you need to jerk yourself off a little longer?”

“Fuck,” Tommy said, grabbing Billy’s fist with both hands. “I was just joking, man. Why’s everyone around here got to take everything so seriously?”

It was—Steve didn’t know what it was. He could only watch, lips pressed together, as Billy sneered in Tommy’s face. Which, really, Steve should have been sneering in Tommy’s face, but he hadn’t had the fucking time, between Tommy running his mouth and Billy pushing him around. It was weird. And not exactly good weird. Kind of medium-grade weird, where Steve wasn’t sure if he should be thanking Billy, or putting up his fists, or maybe asking coach for a hall pass? So.

Steve cleared his throat. “Yeah, Tommy, just leave it. Coach is waiting.”

After a second, Billy dropped Tommy’s shirt and stepped back. He looked around the room and met Steve’s eyes again, scrunching up his nose. “What, you want to be next?”

And Steve was pretty sure he was already going to be Billy’s primary dodgeball target, so of course he had to open his mouth and say, “You’d hit a man with a baby?”

 

If Steve were a lesser man, he’d have been going home with a lot more dodgeball-burn.

 

Nancy and Jonathan showed up at six, right around when Steve’s mama was pulling a roast out of the oven, and when Andy decided that puking all down Steve’s clean sweater was a great fucking idea. The kid already had a sense of humour. Maybe he was Steve’s, after all.

His mom seemed to think so.

Which made sense, but.

After dinner, Nancy sat on the couch, Andy on her lap as she squinted between him and the pictures on the wall.

“This is fucking weird,” she said.

“Don’t swear in front of the baby,” Jonathan said.

“Uh, it’s a fucking baby?” Steve said. “He. He’s a fucking baby. He doesn’t care. He’s like three days old.”

“He looks exactly like you,” Nancy said.

And Steve’s mom had been saying it a lot, but. Andy was a baby. All babies looked like babies.

But as Nancy looked between Andy and Steve’s own pudgy babyface staring out from over the fireplace, he thought maybe there might be more to it than that.

 

“Steve,” Ms. Scellena said, patience worn thin. “I appreciate your dedication to sleeping in my class, but the bell rang five minutes ago, so if you could please leave?”

Or whatever, Steve wasn’t paying all that much attention, too busy prying his face from where his bottom lip had stuck to his notebook with drool. The thing was, he didn’t remember falling asleep, but he also didn’t remember making it to biology class, so.

“Sorry about him, ma’am,” Someone said, before a thick hand slipped under his armpit to hoist him up. “I think Stevie here hasn’t been getting his beauty sleep. I’ll make sure he gets home safe and sound.”

Steve wasn’t running all thrusters yet, but he was pretty sure that Billy Hargrove had never used the words safe or sound in conjunction with anyone else but himself in his entire fucking life.

“I’m fine,” Steve said, yanking his arm back. “I just gotta get my stuff, sorry.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, I forgot,” Ms. Scellena said. “Baby keeping you up all night?”

Hawkins was always too small, too cut off from the rest of the world, but never had it felt more like one giant high school than it did with all the adults in on the gossip too. His mother had suggested he tell the teachers, but it seemed pointless when the only graded things he’d still have to submit were final projects, followed by a few days of exams.

Everyone knew everything anyway.

Steve just wanted to sleep.

“No, I just had a big assignment due,” he said, collecting his things.

It wasn’t until Billy spoke again that Steve realized he was still there, standing way too close, the arms of his denim jacket straining as he crossed his arms over his chest. He was like, “I’ll give you a ride, you go my way.”

Which was fucking weird, and also he didn’t, and also, “I have a car? I’m fine.”

“You’re sleeping on your desk.”

“It was boring,” he said, before immediately snapping his jaw shut. “I mean—”

“It’s fine, Steve,” Ms. Scelena said. She did not sound like it was fine. “Go get some rest.”

Billy had clearly decided that it was his god given right as a douchebag to hustle Steve out of the school, because he was already grabbing the shit off Steve’s desk and walking off.

“What the fuck, man,” Steve said, following him into the hall.

Billy shrugged like that even fucking meant anything. When he stopped at Steve’s locker, he just nodded at it with his chin.

“Yeah, no, not fucking happening,” Steve said. “Give me my books and fuck off.”

“So you can go get in a car accident?”

“Why the fuck do you even care?” And Steve recognized he was whining a little, but come on.

“I don’t,” Billy said, like it wasn’t a lie. “Can’t someone give you a break?”

“No.” Steve snatched his stuff. “The only break you’ve ever given me was my nose, if you remember? So fuck off.”

He turned to twist in his locker combo, didn’t get that far with Billy grabbing his shoulder and spinning him around. He pushed Steve into the locker with his index finger, leaned in close. “Don’t you fucking talk to me like that.”

“Why?” Steve said, knew it came off more as a snap. “Are you going to punch me again? Just. Dude, let me go home. By myself. I don’t know why everyone around here suddenly thinks I need some fucking charity, but I don’t, alright? Least of all from you.”

For a second, it seemed like that wasn’t going to be enough, Billy not moving an inch. Then he licked his lips, slow, sighed through his nose. “Fine, but when you wrap yourself around a tree, don’t fucking cry to me.”

Like, right, okay, whatever that meant? Billy gave Steve another sharp jab in the chest before walking off.

Steve didn’t need someone to drive him, and he didn’t get wrapped around a tree, but when he walked in the front door and Andy started crying, he felt like he’d been hit by a train.

 

Steve’s dad was an asshole. Which Steve already knew, but. That was before he looked at his son, who was a single father, and looked at that son’s report card, and decided that, no, he didn’t need a fucking full-time office job with possible pay increases, and stable work hours, and benefits.

God, Steve would fucking kill to have benefits. He wasn’t going to be going to college. He wasn’t eligible for his dad’s package anymore. Which meant Andy wasn’t eligible, which was just.

Steve had a lot of big fucking feelings about all of it. And his mom had been mad, but in more of a disappointed, I-see-where-your-father-is-coming-from kind of way, and Steve didn’t think she was going to listen to his completely reasonable argument that Andy was three goddamn weeks old and needed to go to a doctor like, every ten minutes.

So far, his mom had been footing all those bills. And she’d have to keep paying them, because Steve’s graduation was in literally two days, and then he was supposed to have a month off to look after his son, and instead, he was going to spend the weekend going to the mall job-fair and shoving his resume at every employer on the planet to look his way.

He would also have to start working like, literally right away, because if he ever wanted a hope in hell of getting a job that wasn’t like, A&W, he was going to have to have job experience. And literally everything about a fucking kid was expensive, so.

Graciously, as she packed her bags for Prague, his mother had said, “I’ll pay for a nanny while you work. I’ll find someone good, don’t worry.” Like that was helpful?

It kind of was, but. Steve wasn’t exactly feeling peachy-keen, so.

Three weeks had never been shorter, the usual molasses-slow last days of school flashing by as Steve learned how to hold Andy, how to change his diapers, how to stuff his adorably infuriating feet into a onesie. Steve was tired from getting up at all hours to baby cries, worn out from trying to keep up with his grades, and his peers, and his own sanity. And every day that ticked by hand been another day closer to his mom leaving.

And in three days, she would be gone. And then it would just be Steve, and Andy, and Mrs. Byers’ phone number for when his inevitable melt-down rolled around.

Not that he hadn’t already had like, thirty melt-downs.

Fatherhood wasn’t suiting him well, but it maybe didn’t help that even after nearly a month, he didn’t feel any more connected than he did the day on the porch. Like, the kid was growing on him, a bit, but. He was promised a connection.

Nothing. Zilch. Like, Andy was cute, and it was kind of hard not to like him when he was soft and warm, and liked to sleep on Steve’s chest when Steve got home from school. There was just nothing binding. Nothing about his baby that felt like his or home.

The more days that passed, the more he knew he couldn’t talk about it, either. It wasn’t right.

 

Scoops Ahoy was actual shit. The uniform was a joke. A cruel joke. Who wanted to stand in a freezer for eight hours a day in shorts? He was freezing and humiliated. And he had to wear a sailor hat.

Steve had never had a job before, so he knew his options would be slim, but he was hoping he could at least land a job at like, the Gap. Nope.

On the outside, Scoops Ahoy was kind of cute, for an ice cream shop. The company owners had put a lot of thought and time into the theme, and the ice cream flavours, and the interior design.

Then they’d decided their employees should pretend every day was a bad costume party.

Steve was fucking tired after his first week—exhausted—and for once it wasn’t because Andy had kept him up all night.

Andy was actually being pretty good. The nanny his mom hired, this strong-jawed lady with big glasses who would only let him call her Mrs. Marshal, said that Andy was an angel during the day. She also said it was easy for a four-week-old to be angel when all he did was poop and sleep, and when he was yet to recognize faces or develop a personality, but.

Okay, Steve only mostly liked Mrs. Marshal, but his mom said her qualifications were good, and she was flexible with Steve’s chaotic work schedule, so.

During his job interview, Steve had mentioned he would need more stable hours, being upfront about his little-one at home, and his boss had kind of got it. Only kind of, because his boss was under the impression that his girlfriend would be watching their baby, and there was no amount of explaining Steve could do to convince the man that there was no mother, just him and his ever-whitening hair.

Steve’s schedule did look a little less sporadic than the other employees, but it still wasn’t great, and Mrs. Marshal let him know it when he got home each day.

Like, whatever. He was doing fine? Andy was starting to sleep through the night better, even if Andy’s night looked more like two three and a half hour bursts broken by feedings. Steve felt like he was easing into the swing of things.

“Harrington.”

Someone snapped their fingers in his face, made him blink and jump.

It was Sunday evening. Scoops had been empty all day, a vicious rainstorm scaring away all the usual teens. Starcourt was pretty out of the way without a car, which was possibly why Billy Hargrove was standing in front of him with his arms crossed over his chest, Max and El huddled behind him.

Which. Steve frowned at El. “Hey, aren’t you like, not allowed to be here?”

“What’s it matter to you?” Billy asked.

“Yeah, what’s it matter?” El echoed, and like. He wasn’t going to be the one to tell the chief that his science experiment daughter was running around in highly populated areas against his wishes. They didn’t pay Steve enough

“Can I get something for you guys?” he asked.

“Yeah, I said vanilla, like, three times,” Billy said.

He definitely didn’t, but Steve started scooping anyway.

“I want chocolate,” Max added.

El said, “Maple.”

Everyone was going to pretend she didn’t. At least, Steve was. Like, he’d give it to her, but. She had horrible taste.

“How’s Andy doing?” Max asked.

“Andy?” Billy asked.

Steve rubbed his mouth with the back of his wrist. “He’s my kid. And he’s fine. Less fussy after Mrs. Byers suggested changing his fabric softener.”

“That can be an issue?” Billy asked.

Steve was tired. “Yeah,” he said. “Apparently. I don’t know. We’re doing okay. Thanks for asking.”

Max took her cone and passed El’s to her, both girls going to a booth, but Billy didn’t budge, just leaned again the counter with his hip a little, spoon sticking straight up in his ice cream cup.

“Did I forget your sprinkles?” Steve asked.

Billy slid a ten on the counter and shrugged. “Nah, just. You really doing okay?”

There were already enough illogical things happening in Steve’s life. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, let it out slow before he said, “I don’t know what you’re playing at, but it’s none of your business, alright, man? Like, yeah, I’m fine, and the kid is fine, but. I don’t need you giving me shit right now. My shift is done in twenty minutes and I just want a pizza, and a beer, and to get home before the nanny tells me off again. So just—”

He took the money from the counter and made a vague gesture before popping open the till.

“I wasn’t going to give you shit.” Billy frowned, said, “I’m being friendly? Can I not be friendly?”

“Not really?” Steve said, ignored how often his voice was starting to pitch into whines. “No?”

“Right.” Billy took a bite of his ice cream before stabbing the spoon in a few times, mushing it around. “Keep the change. Max, weirdo, we’re going!”

“Her name is El!”

“Yeah, mouthbreather!”

Billy tugged on Max’s ponytail as he walked passed, graced her screams with a middle finger as she hustled out of her booth with El behind her, both girls slinging insults at Billy’s back.

Maybe Steve was in the Upside Down. He knew that wasn’t how it worked, but something had to explain how fucking weird Hawkins had gotten.

Plus, he wasn’t great at math, but he was pretty sure Billy had just left him holding five-fifty in change.