Jonathan made a noise of deep frustration, drawing Steve’s attention away from buttoning his dress shirt. Looking up, he saw Jonathan with one tail of his tie in each hand, just frowning at them in the mirror.
“Here,” Steve said, stepping close behind Jonathan and reaching around him for the tie.
Jonathan rolled his eyes, but dropped his hands away, letting Steve take over.
“Like this,” Steve said, showing him how to pull the skinny end down to the right button, and then wrap the wide end around it. When he finished the knot, Steve took Jonathan by the shoulders and turned him around.
Carefully, Steve straightened Jonathan’s tie and collar, until they looked as neat and tidy as anything that would pass Fred Harrington’s inspection. “There.”
“Thanks,” Jonathan said, putting up with it when Steve held his face and kissed him. “You should finish too. We’re leaving soon.”
“In a minute,” Steve insisted, kissing Jonathan a few more times for good measure.
Jonathan didn’t move away, but he did put a hand on Steve’s wrist. “What are you doing?”
“Today is going to suck,” Steve said. “And I’m not going to be able to do this out there.” He kissed Jonathan again. “So I’m putting a bunch in the tank for later.”
Jonathan laughed, kissing Steve back finally. “I don’t think that’s how it works.”
“How do you know? Are you the kissing police?”
Jonathan rolled his eyes, but kissed Steve one more time. “I’m going to check on my mom. Get ready.”
Steve nodded, saddened again by the thought of watching Joyce go through this. Steve had liked Hop a lot, and he was going to miss the guy, but it was nothing compared to what Joyce was going through. Or El, for that matter.
Steve finished dressing quickly, giving his hair a final once-over before leaving the room and heading for El’s space in the front dining room. He knocked on the wall next to the curtain, saying, “Hey, how are you doing in there?”
“I’m not going,” said a petulant voice from the other side.
Steve’s first thought was to leave her be. The kid was hurting. If she didn’t want to go to the funeral, she shouldn’t have to go. But then he remembered how Nancy was before and after Barb’s funeral. Something about the ritual of it had left Nancy drained, but allowed her to get slowly happier in a way she hadn’t been getting during the year between.
He guessed that meant Nancy had finally been able to put Barb’s death behind her.
Then Steve thought about living in a house with a grieving teenager who also had superpowers. Or at least one who used to have powers and might get them back at any moment. The past few days hadn’t been pretty, by any stretch of the imagination. What if it never got any better? It would suck for him, but it would suck way more for El.
He knocked on the wall again. “Hey, can I come in?”
"I guess." When Steve opened the curtain, he saw El curled up on her bed across the room.
Steve stepped inside. It was weird to see the changes El had implemented over the past three days since he and Jonathan had set this up for her. The bed, salvaged from the cabin, was the biggest change, along with the removal of the dining room chairs. The table was pushed up against the wall, and was stacked with books. There was also a suitcase with some clothes on the far end of it.
Steve thought about asking around for an old dresser. Something like that could really help make this space more livable.
Steve sat down on the far end of El’s bed. He noticed that she’d put on the dress Nancy bought for her, but hadn’t done anything else to alter her appearance. Gently, Steve asked, “What’s the problem?”
“Too many people,” El told him, sniffling. “It’s not safe.”
“I’ll stand off to the side with you,” he offered. “You can be my sister or my cousin or something.” He turned his face to show her his profile. “What do you think? Do we look enough alike?”
El gave him a half-hearted smile. “My leg hurts.”
Frowning, Steve asked, “What, more than yesterday?”
“So that’s not it. What’s the real problem?”
El shook her head.
Sighing, Steve bent forward, resting his chin in his hand, his elbow on his knee. “Nobody likes funerals. But we do it anyway because it's important."
"But why?" El asked him, sitting up. "He's not there. He’s dead.”
“It’s not for him,” Steve insisted. “I know it doesn’t make sense, and it’s not how people talk about it, but…” Steve sighed. “It’s for us. So we can… I don’t know, say goodbye or something.”
El looked past Steve, and when he turned around, he saw Joyce standing there. “Did I ever tell you guys about my grandpa?” she asked.
Steve shook his head, and when he looked over, El was shaking her head too.
Joyce came into the room and sat on the bed between Steve and El. She took a moment before she finally started speaking. “My parents weren’t very good at being … well, at being parents. My grandpa did most of the work of raising me. But eventually, he got old.”
“He died?” Steve asked, and Joyce nodded.
“I was just about your age, Steve. And I was so sad, and angry, and lost. I almost didn’t go to his funeral.” She looked over at El, who sniffled.
“But you went?” El asked her.
“Are you glad you did?” Steve asked her.
“Yeah,” Joyce said, patting Steve’s knee sadly. “Like you said, the funeral is less about Jim, and more about us saying goodbye to him. It’s about…” She sighed and looked up for a second before turning toward El. “It’s about being together and supporting each other while we confront our feelings about his death.”
El scrambled to put herself in Joyce’s arms, and Steve figured they needed a moment to themselves. He gave El’s arm a pat and left the room. God, he needed some air.
He stepped outside onto the porch, only to find Jonathan was already there. Before Steve could ask him how he was doing, or what he was doing out here, Jonathan pointed down the driveway. The Wheeler’s station wagon was coming down the drive, kicking up dust behind it.
Steve expected Nancy to be at the wheel, but it was Karen Wheeler instead, Nancy sitting shotgun next to her.
Shit. Steve was going to have to watch his behavior earlier today than he’d expected. He’d known that he would have to hold back at the funeral, but not here. Not at home. He turned to Jonathan and raised an eyebrow. See? I was right about storing up kisses.
Jonathan rolled his eyes.
The car stopped and its occupants got out. Mike went straight into the house, but Nancy gave Steve a quick hug and a kiss on his cheek before going to Jonathan and giving him the same tokens of affection.
Karen stopped before stepping onto the porch. She looked up at Steve and said, “I didn’t know you were coming to the funeral, Steven. Did you know Chief Hopper?”
“Yeah,” Steve said, looking over to Jonathan and Nancy. How was he supposed to explain the relationship he had with Hopper? He was Steve’s boyfriend’s mom’s boyfriend? He was Steve’s little sister’s dad? He was the only other one in the house who appreciated Indiana Jones the same way Steve did? “He was kind of like a second dad to me,” Steve found himself blurting out.
Shit, is that what he meant?
Yeah, it kind of was.
How come Steve couldn’t have recognized this before Hop died?
Karen blinked at Steve for a moment. “Oh. Well, how are you doing? I saw your mother last week, and she said she had no idea what you were up to these days.”
“Yeah…” Steve said, scratching his fingers through his hair and wondering how the hell he was supposed to respond. He looked over at the others, asking for some assistance. They both shrugged. How helpful. He sighed and decided to go with the truth. “I had a falling out with my parents. Moved out.”
“Oh, my goodness,” Karen said, looking like she regretted bringing up the topic. “You’re living on your own?”
From the doorway, Joyce said, “He lives here, Karen.” She gave Nancy’s mom a disarming smile and walked forward, giving her a hug. “Thanks for coming. You’re a good friend.”
“Of course,” Karen said, returning Joyce’s hug. “Nancy said you’ve taken in Hopper’s daughter as well? Are you sure it’s not too much?”
“We’ll be fine,” Joyce insisted with a tight smile.
“Are we ready to go?” Nancy asked, obviously changing the topic before things could get any more awkward. “We’ve got all the flowers for the service in the car.”
“Take Jonathan and Steve to help you set them up,” Joyce said, totally just volunteering them out of the blue. Not that Steve wouldn’t help. Having something useful to do sounded good. “I’ll bring Mike with me once Will and El are ready.”
“El?” Karen asked.
“Eleanor,” Joyce said, the lie easy for her in a way Steve hadn't expected. Joyce seemed like the one person in Steve's life who was truthful almost to a fault. He supposed the truth probably didn't mean as much to her as protecting El when it came down to it. “Jim’s daughter.”
Karen blinked a few times before saying, “Ah, right. Okay, then. We’ll see you there.”
The ride to the funeral parlor was tense, with Steve and Jonathan sitting in the back seat, and Nancy sitting shotgun next to her mother. This was going to suck so much. Steve sighed, shifting in his seat and wishing he could touch Jonathan, just for that little bit of comfort it would bring him. He left his hand on the seat between them, just in case Jonathan felt the same way.
A minute later, Jonathan put his hand next to Steve’s, his pinky finger overlapping Steve’s pinky. It was a small comfort, but appreciated. Steve gave Jonathan a little smile of thanks. Jonathan nodded, then turned to look out the window.
The setting up period was a flurry of activity, and then the funeral started. Just like he’d promised, Steve sat with El at the funeral. Except they didn’t bother sitting at the back. They sat with Joyce and Will and Jonathan and Mike and Nancy, right there at the front.
The funeral parlor was kind of small, at least compared to the church funerals Steve had been to before. When his grandmother died, the whole church in Fort Wayne had filled up with people wanting to remember her. There had been music and the weighty presence of God, who Steve really didn’t get but somehow still felt in that church, and dozens of people lining up to express their condolences to his mother.
This place was just a room. It was filled with the flowers he’d helped bring in from Mrs. Wheeler’s car, and there was a picture of Hop up at the front of the room. No casket to bury. Not even an urn of ashes. Just a picture to remember him by.
Steve looked around the room, spotting people he knew (the rest of the party, Robin, Dustin’s mom) and lots of people he didn’t. The room was more full than Steve had expected it would be, with all the chairs filled and a few people standing in the back. He wondered if those other people actually knew Hop, or if they had just showed up to pay their respects because he was the chief of police. He hoped it was just people who knew him.
The guy running the funeral stood behind the podium and said, “Jim Hopper’s closest friend would like to get things started today. Joyce?”
Steve looked over at Jonathan to ask him about it, but he was already teary-eyed, watching his mother take the few steps between her seat and the podium. Wiping away a few of her own tears with a tissue, Joyce put on a smile and looked out at everyone.
“I knew Jim Hopper for a very long time. He and I grew up together, right here in Hawkins. After high school, he left to go join the army. He–” Joyce paused, taking a breath and letting it out slowly before speaking again. “He fought bravely in Vietnam, working his way up to the rank of Sergeant after seven years of service. When he left the army, Jim settled in New York and trained to become a police officer, quickly making detective. He–”
Joyce had to take another deep breath, and Steve saw El start to lose it beside him. He pulled a tissue out of his blazer pocket and handed it to her, before putting his arm around her.
“Jim suffered some painful losses over the course of his life, and none were so painful as the loss of his daughter, Sarah.” Joyce sighed. “He came–” Joyce shook her head, and Steve saw Jonathan start to get up out of his seat before Joyce waved him away. “He came back to Hawkins to become our Chief of Police, and I am glad he did. If it wasn’t for Jim, when my son was lost he might not have come home. Jim spared me from the same pain he went through with his child, and I–”
Joyce looked over at the picture of Hop and bit her tongue for a second before turning back to the room at large. “I never quite figured out how to thank him for that.” She gave a kind of crooked smile, and shit. Now Steve was crying too.
“Jim and his adopted daughter, El, became a part of my family over the past year and a half. We were starting to talk about getting married.” Joyce’s sad laugh had Steve reaching for another tissue, this one for himself.
“Now we have to figure out how to move on without him. And we will,” Joyce insisted, looking over at Will, and Jonathan, at El, and Steve. “It will be difficult, but I know he would want us to try and move forward, to try and be happy. Because that’s the kind of man he was: a good man, who just wanted the people he cared about to be happy.”
El shook in Steve’s arms, and he held her closer, rubbing her back and trying not to drip on her as he cried. Mike held onto El’s hand, and Nancy kept one hand on her brother’s shoulder, and held onto Jonathan’s arm with her other. Jonathan had his other arm around Will in turn. They were one unbroken chain of a family sitting in the front row, mourning one of their members who had been taken too soon.
Joyce left the podium with one more nod, taking her seat next to Will.
A few more people spoke after Joyce – one of Hop’s officers, and an army buddy, and a cousin of his who lived across the state. El took another tissue when Steve offered it to her, then turned and cuddled against Mike for the rest of the service, though she did leave Steve her hand to hold. It was stupid, Steve thought, not to be able to get through this without holding onto someone. Though Steve figured if it had to be someone other than Jonathan or Nancy, he was glad it was El. She was new to this family, too, and he kind of felt like they had that in common.
After the service, Steve caught Will in a hug when he looked like he was about to retreat from the room, asking him, "Are you okay?"
"No," Will told him. "I–I…" He shook his head, wiping away his tears. "He saved me." Will nodded at the picture of Hopper at the front of the room. "Twice. And I couldn't…" He brought his hand to the back of his neck. "I wasn't smart enough, or brave enough or something. I should have done more. I knew it was back. I just didn't want to…" Shaking his head, Will whispered, "I didn't want to ruin everyone's summer."
"You're a dumbass," Steve said in an affectionate tone as he wrapped his arms around Will and hugged him again. "Hop saw what those Russian bastards did to my face," Steve said, pointing to his still slightly-bruised eye, "and decided to go in anyway. He knew, probably better than any of us dumbass kids, what the risks were."
Looking down, Will nodded and scuffed at the floor with his shoe. "I kind of hate him for going. I mean, he helped save El. He helped save the whole world. And I still feel like he shouldn't have gone."
"Yeah. What a fucking bastard," Steve agreed, smiling when Will looked up at him in surprise.
"Saving the world? Saving his daughter? How dare he?"
There was still a little smile on Will's face when his friends came over to them at the side of the room, crowding around Will and hugging him. After getting a long hug from Dustin, and one from Robin, and even hugs from Max and Lucas, Steve milled around the room a bit, watching the people. He noticed a lady carrying a toddler approach Joyce, and he wandered over, thinking he’d make faces at the baby to keep her occupied while her mother had a conversation.
The baby was a little bit of a hard sell, but he managed to get her smiling before Joyce was able to devote her attention to the mother.
“Hi, Joyce. I’m Diane.”
“Oh!” Joyce said, and her tone was so surprised that Steve pulled his tongue back inside his mouth so he could make sure she was alright. “I wasn’t sure you would come.”
“You gave a good speech,” Diane said. “I–”
All of a sudden, maybe because he wasn’t paying attention to her anymore, the baby lunged at Steve. He caught her, saying, “Whoa! Watch out, slugger!”
Diane laughed indulgently, taking her baby back from him and asking Joyce, “Who’s this?”
“Oh,” Joyce said, linking her arm in Steve’s. “This is my oldest son, Steve.”
Son? Joyce thought of him as one of her sons? He supposed she’d been treating him a lot like she treated Jonathan or Will. And she had been, for awhile. He also knew he’d been getting his fill of motherly affection from her almost as long. He just didn’t realize Joyce wasn’t just being nice.
Shit. Steve was gonna start crying again.
“Steve, this is Diane. Jim’s ex-wife.”
Ohhhhhhh. Well, that was kind of awkward.
Still, it wouldn’t hurt to be polite. “Nice to meet you. Cute kid you’ve got.” He made another face at the baby, getting her to smile.
“Thanks,” Diane said, giving the baby another look. “I think she likes you.”
Steve shrugged. “I’m a big hit with all the kids.”
Diane smiled. “Jim was always really good with kids, too. He always…” She sighed. “He always seemed to know the right thing to say or do. I’m glad he got to be a dad again, even if it was only for a little while.”
“Speaking of,” Joyce said, looking around. Then she put a hand on Steve’s arm. “Will you go find El? Make sure she’s okay?”
“Sure, Mom,” Steve teased, getting a little bit of a smile out of Joyce.
He did a quick search of the room, but didn’t see El anywhere. Or Mike for that matter. A quick look around the outer rooms of the funeral home didn’t yield anything either, so Steve went outside.
He didn’t get very far before noticing that Nancy, Jonathan, and Robin had all followed him out. “What’s up?” Robin asked him, shielding her eyes from the bright summer sun.
“Just looking for El,” Steve told the others, turning the corner around the building. Out in the cemetery beyond, he finally saw El. She and Mike were sitting under a tree, facing each other and holding hands. “It’s good. We’re good.”
Jonathan sighed and leaned back against the shaded side of the building. “That was rough.”
“Yeah,” Nancy agreed, reaching for Steve and pulling him into a tight hug. Steve hugged her back for a moment before reaching one hand toward Jonathan.
Jonathan took his hand and let Steve hold it.
Robin looked away from El and asked Steve, “Do you think she’ll be okay?”
Steve shrugged. “I hope so.”
“I think she will be,” Jonathan said, squeezing Steve’s hand. “She’s really tough.”
“She’s got Mike to help her through it,” Nancy pointed out, letting go of Steve, but keeping his free hand clasped in hers. “He might be a little shit, but he loves her. That has to count for something, right?”
"Yeah," Robin said, her eyes on the way Nancy was holding Steve's hand. "Yeah, I think it has to count for a lot."