This month was one for the books.
The entire country was riding out one of the coldest Decembers ever recorded, and Hawkins was no exception. After their mild November, this month had come back with a vengeance, and left everyone in town doing their best to limit exposure to the elements. Nobody was spending much time outside right now, and that went double for today. Because not only did the freezing wind attack anyone in its path and leave them feeling raw, it was the 24th, and most people had something important keeping them home.
At the Sinclair house, there was a delicious dinner being prepared, a fire in the fireplace, and that warm feeling of being with a loving family during the holidays.
But, all Henry felt was the cold biting at his cheeks.
He shuffled a little in spot as he glanced down at his watch—like that small bit of movement would somehow manage to keep his toes from feeling like they were freezing off—and he sighed down at the display before crossing his arms again. His breath lingered long enough that it almost looked like smoke was curling in the air, but he didn't have a cigarette; it was just the frigid temperature making his breath turn to condensation.
That didn't mean he wasn't thinking about reaching for the box, though.
He wanted to be home right now. He wanted to be sitting with his dad in the living room as the TV softly played a special, or helping out his mom in the kitchen, or playing some complicated make-believe game he didn't fully understand with Erica. But, here he was; outside on Christmas Eve, one the coldest on record according to the weatherman, with a frown on his face as he waited at a place that he hated.
Henry glanced over at the building he was parked in front of—light spilling out of the windows and practically beckoning him into the warmth that he knew was inside—before looking down at his shoes. It seemed really silly to just stand out here waiting for god knows how long, when he could just go inside and have this all over within a few minutes. But, he didn't move, and instead he stayed leaned against his car. No amount of logic could get him into that building.
No matter how badly he should get going.
It was going to start snowing soon, the weatherman on the radio had said so, and he'd really like to get home before that became too much of an issue. He didn't like dealing with everyone else on the road when it snowed, and his car wasn't the most reliable thing in the world, so leaving before the weather really got bad just made sense.
He still didn't make a move to go inside.
No matter how the cold sunk into his bones, or how the frown creased his brow, his boots stayed where they were; no chance of them bringing him into that building, even if that was what it would take to find what he was waiting on. Even if he never got what he came here for.
But, he didn't have to worry about that.
The sound of the front door swinging open cut through the silence, and Henry felt a flood of relief when he looked up and laid eyes on who was heading out of the station—exactly the man he'd wanted to see.
Henry figured that it wasn't often that someone caught the Chief off guard, and that was why he looked so surprised when his name was called. He frowned a little more when his gaze finally found Henry though, like seeing him hadn't alleviated his confusion and had actually just put him off more. Henry didn't take it personally; he knew that his appearance in the police station parking lot probably didn't bode well in Hopper's mind.
"Henry," he said, shoving one hand into his coat pocket as he hopped down the steps and hurried over, like this was urgent, "What're you doing here?"
Henry smiled, albeit a little awkward. Having someone worried like that when there wasn't actually anything wrong was always uncomfortable. Because that was the thing, he wasn't here for any of the reasons Hopper was thinking. He wasn't here for anything bad. Hopper had nothing to worry about.
Henry on the other hand, couldn't quite relax; this wasn't exactly the easiest thing in the world for him.
At least when he smiled—even though it wasn't as open as it should've been—the tension in Hopper's frame dissipated. Doing this was difficult enough, doing it with an edgy Chief of Police would've only made it that much harder.
"Uh, delivery," Henry managed, pulling the back passenger door open and reaching into his car. Hopper continued to frown, but he didn't say a word. Instead, he just watched as Henry reemerged with his hands full; only reacting when he held it out towards him.
Henry didn't know exactly what Hopper was expecting when he saw him standing in the parking lot, but he could tell from his expression that he never in a million years would've guessed it was because of a pie.
Hopper looked down at the foil wrapped tin in his hands with a befuddled expression, like he'd never seen a pie before in his life. Henry really couldn't blame him, he'd be pretty confused too if he was in his place, but there was still something sour in his throat. Something that made his heart start to sink.
It didn't matter if Hopper smiled a little, Henry could tell by the look in his eyes that he didn't understand.
He took the pie tin after a moment of hesitation—one that wasn't particularly familiar coming from the Chief—and looked down at it for a few seconds longer than normal before returning his gaze to Henry.
His expression had softened some, but there was still something there. Something that didn't relax, no matter how Henry smiled, and remained just as taut as it had been when he'd first caught sight of him in the parking lot.
"Is this why you're here?" Hopper asked, his eyes flickering over his face, like he was searching for a tell, "Just the pie?"
It was Henry's turn to frown a little, even though he knew exactly why he was asking.
It had been over a month.
Over a month since everything.
Over a month since he'd last spoken to Hopper.
He might've seen him in passing once or twice (this was a tragically small town), but there'd never been anything more than eye contact and a nod. Neither one had ever made a move to talk to one another. But, then again, why should they? Everything that needed to be said had already been said. So, why would Henry show up at the police station looking for Hopper unless something was wrong?
And yet, here he was: no monster, no missing person, and no Quarry.
Henry suspected that Hopper's mind had gone to the Quarry.
"Just the pie," he confirmed, shoving his hands into his pockets and feeling his shoulders go up unconsciously—like his body was preparing for whatever Hopper might hurl at him.
"Well…" Hopper murmured, his voice trailing off for a moment, "Thanks."
There was a beat of silence, a little longer than it should've been, as Henry's brain stalled.
He hadn't asked the questions he'd been expecting.
"Uh, you're welcome," Henry offered, forcing a small smile to try to cover his sudden discomfort. But, he couldn't find it in himself to say anything else, even though he left it stilted. That didn't seem to matter to Hopper though, because the confused expression from before disappeared now, in favor of a wry look.
"You know," he said, "You could've just come inside."
Henry glanced over his shoulder, back towards the police station, and even though it looked warm and the sounds of a Christmas party were just managing to reach his ears, he felt his nose scrunch as he looked at it. It wasn't purposeful, but he knew his expression was screwed up when he turned back around; Hopper's chuckle was a dead giveaway.
"Alright, alright," he said, straightening his jacket a little, "I won't ask again."
It was quiet for a few moments, with neither man saying a word—neither one knowing what to say—before Henry's eyes drifted down to his watch and he sighed a little. Although, he wasn't sure if it was disappointment or relief.
"I, um, I need to go get my brother," he said, and that was enough for Hopper.
"Yeah, okay," he said, looking down at the pie in his hand for a second before looking back up, "Thanks again, Kid."
"No problem," Henry replied, feeling awkward as he pushed the back car door shut and reached for the driver's; the conversation didn't feel finished, but he had no idea where it was supposed to go.
"See you around," Hopper offered.
"Yep," was the best Henry had in response.
Henry ducked into his car, not waiting to see Hopper get into his truck, and took a moment before he started it—having to force his racing thoughts to stop just long enough for him to pull out of the spot and get back onto the streets. Only once he was headed down the road did he let his mind wander.
That hadn't gone exactly as he'd hoped.
Henry didn't know what he'd wanted from that exchange exactly, but that wasn't it. Something that told him that showing up at the police station on Christmas Eve wasn't completely for nothing maybe?
Okay, it wasn't for nothing; Hopper still got his Christmas gift, and his mom hadn't had to go out in the cold and deliver it herself. He'd actually done exactly what he'd set out to do, it was just…
It wasn't just that.
It wasn't just delivering a Christmas present, it wasn't just doing a favor for his mom, it wasn't just a pie, it was…
It was an olive branch.
After everything that had happened, after everything that had been said… Let's just say that the two men that had seen each other at the middle school that first day after Will had gone missing were not the two men that had parted ways outside the hospital on the last day. Things were different, Henry was different, and the way he felt about Hopper was different.
He didn't hate him anymore, he didn't know if he ever really did, and he knew that there was nothing to be scared of. Hopper couldn't hurt him, and even if he could, he wouldn't.
So, yeah, things were different.
But, it certainly didn't seem that way if you were on the outside looking in. Hell, his mom had definitely thought he'd lost it when he'd told her that he'd deliver the pie this year. And, sure, outward perception didn't matter, but… it wasn't exactly wrong.
It was almost like nothing had happened at all, even though so much had. So much had changed, and sure, most of it was bad, he'd lost… Well, he'd lost a whole lot. But, at the very least, what had weighed between him and Hopper had been lifted. What had lingered unspoken between them was now right in the open, and their relationship to one another should've changed because of it. But, it hadn't, and maybe—
Maybe that was because things hadn't changed for Hopper.
Maybe Hopper didn't see him differently than he had before.
He didn't see Hopper as a friend, but certainly not as a stranger.
But, after that whole interaction? Henry figured that what he'd felt had been way off base. Because, either he did understand what he was trying to say, but didn't care, or…
Or, he just didn't understand Henry at all.
Somehow that hurt worse than rejection.
The fear Henry felt slither through him as he considered the possibility—a sort of sick feeling settling in his stomach as it sank—had been around a lot longer than this problem. It wasn't about Hopper. Not really.
It was the fear that being understood had died with—
The realization that he was in front of the Wheelers' was a welcome interruption.
Henry shut off his car and got out, wincing at the cold sting of the air. But, he was quickly distracted by the sight of a familiar beater pulling beside the curb in front of his car.
"Hey," Jonathan said as he hopped out and slammed the door shut behind him, shooting Henry one of his smiles that he handed out a little more readily now (although, that might just be for him).
"Hey," Henry replied, waiting so they could head up to the door together, "How's your mom?"
"Good," Jonathan said, and Henry knew that was the truth, "She was actually wondering if you're still good for this week."
"I said I was, didn't I?" Henry replied, smiling even though Jonathan sighed a little; he was used to this.
"Yeah, she just—she's worried you feel like you can't say no or something," Jonathan explained, shrugging and dropping his eyes down to his shoes, "She doesn't want to take advantage."
"You're not," Henry replied without hesitation, looking over at his friend with a genuine expression that couldn't be ignored, "I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't want to, okay? I like doing it."
It took a moment, but Jonathan smiled, and Henry figured that would be the end of this particular session. No doubt that by the next time Henry saw Joyce (it was Joyce now, she insisted), she'd be worrying about their family being a burden or something, and he'd have to convince her again that, no, he wasn't doing this because he felt like he had to. But, for right now, it was over. Jonathan was always easier to persuade. He knew that Henry wanted to far more than he felt obligated, even if he didn't fully understand why.
The door swung open only a few seconds after Henry knocked, and all the thoughts about the Byers were pushed away in favor of the family that was right in front of him.
"Hey, you two!" Mrs. Wheeler said, smiling warmly as she let them into the house, "The boys are in the basement."
Jonathan's eyes slid towards the room to their right, and suddenly that familiar smile that he'd had for Henry disappeared. He muttered out a quick "I'll go get them." and hurried away before Henry could figure out why his expression had closed off. He didn't even have time to fully comprehend what Jonathan had said before he was gone, and he was well out of sight when Henry looked over into the Wheelers' living room.
Nancy and Steve.
They had been together on the couch, and even though Henry didn't get the full force of it since they were both already standing up with their eyes firmly fixed on him, he knew why Jonathan had rushed away.
"Henry!" Nancy said with a smile, hurrying up to him with Steve on her heels, "Here for Lucas?"
"Yeah, didn't want to make him walk home in this weather," he replied, gesturing in the direction of the basement stairs, "Jonathan's getting him and Will."
"Jonathan's here?" Nancy asked, her surprise making Henry wonder exactly how wrapped up the couple had been in one another when Jonathan had noticed them. But, there was a note of something else there—something that wasn't completely unaffected—that gave him pause.
"Uh, yeah," Henry offered, shrugging a little; unsure of what to say.
"Nance, you should grab the, uh." Steve jerked his head towards the stairs and Nancy nodded, although Henry had a distinct feeling that she hadn't been thinking of whatever Steve was talking about.
"I'll be right back," she told Henry before she disappeared up the stairs and left the two boys alone in the Wheelers' foyer.
It wasn't weird.
Really, it wasn't.
Henry had spent a lot of time with Steve recently; he and Nancy stuck together at school now, and that meant hanging out with Steve too. That was fine, fun actually. He never felt too much like a third wheel, and even when he did, he could usually get away without too much trouble and go hang out with Jonathan (if Nancy and Steve were acting too couple-y for Henry, then Jonathan was long gone). But, that was rare. Henry liked Steve, and he liked Nancy, and they clearly liked him, it all worked out. He actually spent a pretty significant amount of time with the two of them, between all the lunches and walks to class.
Which was why there weren't any underlying weird feelings in Henry's stomach when he was around Steve. There couldn't be, because they spent more than enough time together for that to have gone away. He was just his good friend's boyfriend, albeit one that he liked quite a bit, and nothing much more than that. They could be friendly without Henry feeling a little funny or sad about it. Everything was fine.
"Nice sweater," Henry chose to say, a lot more casually than he felt, and Steve looked down at what he was wearing before laughing a little.
"Yeah, um, thought it would be good for Christmas Eve with Nancy's parents," he replied, meeting Henry's gaze again with a sparkle in his eye.
"It is," Henry said, a small smile starting to develop on his face, "I'm completely unthreatened by you."
"I don't look like I'm going to corrupt their daughter?" Steve asked, getting a chuckle in response.
"You look like you might cry if Mr. Wheeler speaks a little loudly in your general direction," Henry replied, unable to stop the way his smile grew when Steve laughed. Thankfully, Steve didn't have a chance to notice how his expression had brightened, because the moment was cut short by a familiar voice.
Henry knew who it was without even looking, and this time he didn't mind the grin that found its way to his face. Before he turned away, he saw that Steve's expression morphed into something different—something with wide eyes and slight parting of lips—but he didn't really register it; his mind had already gone to the kid who'd called his name.
"Hey, Will," Henry said, ruffling his hair affectionately, "What's going on, man?"
"Jonathan says you're going to come hang out this week," Will said, peeking out from behind his messy bangs with an expression that made it seem almost as if he didn't believe what his brother had told him.
"Sure am," Henry replied, engrossed in the conversation, but starting to feel Steve's eyes weighing on him the longer it went on, "27th to the 30th, right?"
"Only if you're okay with it," Jonathan murmured, quiet from his spot behind his brother.
"Of course I am," Henry said simply, and Will's smile nearly lit up the whole room; reminding Henry exactly why he was happy to keep an eye on the kid in the first place.
"Hey," Lucas said, rounding into the Wheelers' foyer and greeting his brother far more casually than Will.
"Hey," Henry replied, straightening up and matching his energy, "Ready to head out?"
"Can you beat up Dustin?" he asked nonchalantly, Henry raising an eyebrow.
"Well, seeing how I've probably got a foot on him, I'm going to go with no on that one," he replied, Lucas sighing like he'd suspected that answer.
"Alright, then I'm ready to go," he said before turning to Will and smiling, "Dude, it was so cool when you cast that fireball."
"I really liked when you hit all those troglodytes with your arrows," Will replied, his enthusiasm contagious, and the pair of boys headed out the door without waiting for the others, still chatting about their campaign. Henry snorted softly and shared a commiserating look with Jonathan; they might be very different kids, but there was no denying that they were younger brothers. Jonathan gestured towards the door and opened his mouth.
The two boys standing in the foyer with him spoke at the same time, but before Henry could have the chance to focus on one over the other and hear what he had to say (he liked to pretend that they had an equal shot of getting his attention, even though he knew on the inside who would've gotten it), all three of them were quickly distracted.
"Oh, good, you haven't left yet."
Henry wasn't sure who that was directed at, but he smiled just the same as Nancy bounced down the stairs towards them. He was happy to see her one last time before he left—they probably wouldn't see each other again until school started—but as the moment stretched on, and silence descended on them, that warm feeling began to dissipate.
Henry didn't know quite what to say, but at least it seemed like the others were in the same boat; all of them were quiet, glancing between each other and the floor. It wasn't like they hadn't all interacted with one another at school, but this was happening more and more when they were all together. The silence would creep in, this strange heavy feeling would descend on them, and the thread connecting them to each other would start to feel just a little too tenuous.
But, it wasn't just that, Henry could tell. There was more to this. There was something strange in the air, something awkward, something…
Something he was starting to realize he wasn't a part of.
Henry's eyes landed on the small package in Nancy's hands, and it clicked, even though he didn't really recognize what it was.
"I'd better get going," Henry heard himself say, even and friendly despite everything inside of him conflicting with that, "Lucas is probably already mad at me for leaving him outside for so long."
"Oh, yeah, okay," Nancy said, smiling a little but playing it cool enough that Henry couldn't overtly tell on her features that she was pleased he was clearing out and giving her the space she wanted with… Well, with whoever, "I'll talk to you later. Merry Christmas!"
"Merry Christmas," Henry replied, smiling for his friends before turning away and heading out the front door.
He dropped the act the moment he was outside.
Henry sighed and rubbed his eyes—Lucas and Will far too wrapped up in the conversation they were having near the cars to even notice that he'd joined them out here, let alone how his upbeat visage had so quickly disappeared—before shoving his hands back into his coat pockets. His thoughts were almost enough to distract from the temperature (almost) but it was fitting in a way; the biting cold matched the bitter feeling turning in his stomach.
He loved his friends, he really did, and he loved having friends, but he wished he'd managed to get friends that weren't… like that. Usually it was okay, but sometimes Jonathan would get mopey, or Nancy would get defensive, or Steve would get clingy, and Henry… Henry would just have to watch and pretend like he wasn't an outsider with the only people who might understand him.
Maybe it would hurt less if there was someone to talk to about it. Someone who wasn't a part of this weird little mess that Jonathan, Nancy, and Steve had gotten themselves into, someone who'd think it was just as ridiculous as he did, someone who'd…
Someone who'd understand.
Henry took a deep breath as that familiar ache sank into his chest—as the pain that he now always carried made itself known.
"Is something wrong?"
A voice from behind caught him by surprise, and Henry jerked around to find that he hadn't been the only one to step outside. Steve stood on the front stoop with his arms crossed (probably trying to stave off the cold that was seeping into his ridiculous sweater) and a frown on his face. Gone was the easy smile he'd worn when the pair had been joking around in the foyer; he seemed a lot more serious now, maybe even a little worried, and his eyes were stuck on Henry like… like there was nothing else worth paying attention to.
"What? Oh. Nothing," Henry stumbled over his lie, shaking his head a little to try to clear it, before his brow furrowed, "Why're you…?"
"Oh," Steve said after a moment, like he didn't fully understand what he was asking him right away, "Um, Nancy's giving Jonathan a Christmas present and it's-I-it's not really a present, it's more like-it's a—"
Henry's smooth and strong voice cut through Steve's awkward babble with a confidence that he didn't even realize he had (at least, not in this area). He hadn't second-guessed what he was saying even for a second; it was a truth of the universe, and he'd stated it just like he would if he was saying that the Earth circled the Sun. Even that was a poor comparison, though—he'd been taught that fact when he was very young, whereas he'd known what Nancy was gifting Jonathan intrinsically, just like he knew how to breathe and blink.
Odd, considering that in reality he had no idea what was in that box.
No one had told him, he hadn't seen it; there was absolutely no way for him to be completely certain. And, sure, now that he was thinking about it, it was dreadfully obvious, especially given the way Steve was acting. But, the assurance—
"Nancy told you," Steve's voice cut through his inner monologue, speaking like that obvious answer had just occurred to him, and Henry nodded because he had no better explanation, "Yeah, well, just felt like it was the right thing to do, you know?"
"Big of you," Henry replied, pushing away his thoughts and focusing on how Steve rubbed the back of his neck.
"I mean, I broke it."
"Yeah, but you had a good reason," Henry said, noting Steve's slight fluster before continuing, "Besides, I was talking about not taking the credit for it."
Steve dropped his eyes to his shoes, but Henry could just manage to see how a smile pulled at his lips, almost like it was there against his will. Something warm blossomed in his chest at the sight, but before he could really think about it, Steve was speaking again—although that smile lingered.
"Anyway, I-I just didn't want you to feel bad that we got a present for Jonathan but not for you, because—"
"Oh, no, no." Henry shook his head, unable to stop himself from smiling a little when he realized what he'd been trying to do, "I honestly hadn't even thought about that."
"Oh, okay, good," Steve said, nodding a little before his brow furrowed, "Then what were you thinking about?"
"What?" Henry asked, frowning in confusion.
"When I came out here, you looked kind of sad," Steve explained, the frown on Henry's face slipping away, although he felt far from better. Steve's gaze was suddenly heavy, and an anxious feeling had begun twisting in Henry's stomach the moment he realized what he was talking about, "What's wrong?"
"Oh, um, nothing," Henry offered, shrugging and dropping his eyes to his boots, "Just a little tired, I guess."
It wasn't a lie, not really. Henry had been a little tired recently, having had lots of strange and uncomfortable dreams that left him feeling more sleepy than before, and that was a good excuse to give. It wasn't like he could really get into what was bothering him; half of it was about Steve (and Nancy and Jonathan), and the rest, well… Steve was his friend, he really was, but they weren't friends enough for Henry to feel like talking about Hopper with him. And, even if they were that close, he didn't think he'd be good to talk to about this. Steve would probably think it was stupid, he was stupid, for being so desperate for someone's understanding.
"It's because of the weather, right?"
Henry was pulled out of his thoughts by a sentence he didn't fully comprehend, and his head jerked up like he thought that seeing Steve's face would explain what had just come out of his mouth. But, he found no such answer, only a calm expression, as if what he'd said was something basic, like a comment on the weather itself. And, maybe it was, because Steve had said it with such confidence that Henry wondered if maybe he was the only one missing out on the meaning.
"What?" He managed to reply, tipping his head a little.
"Because you don't like the cold," Steve said, as if it was a fact of life, "Or the snow. Winter stuff."
Henry's brow furrowed as his words bounced around in his brain. He'd never thought of himself as someone who disliked winter, but the more he considered what Steve had said, the more he realized that he was right. He didn't like the cold, or the snow, or anything else that went with it, but he'd never really put together that the reason he was always a little less happy during this time of year was because of the season.
"I don't," Henry answered honestly, even though it was a truth he'd only just discovered, "How did you…?"
"Oh, you always get kind of down when it snows," Steve said casually, "And, whenever you look out the window and remember it's cold you get all pouty. I don't know why though—do you just not like the feeling?"
"I, um, I guess it just makes me sad," Henry offered, shrugging a little and choosing to disregard the use of the word "pouty" in favor of thinking about exactly why he didn't like the winter, "It's dark and uncomfortable, and even when I'm inside having a nice time, I always end up thinking about all the homeless people who are out here."
Henry's frown deepened as he thought about it more. There was something so utterly depressing about the weather during this season that he had a tough time freely enjoying anything that came with it. There was a lingering sadness to winter, the cold particularly, that he'd never been able to shake. Maybe it was because of his own experiences with freezing water, but he hated to think about all the people who had to endure it with nothing between them and the elements. It made him feel awful. And, it was always there; a guilty edge to everything he did during these months.
Steve was giggling.
Henry looked up—depressive thoughts forgotten in favor of incredulous confusion—and Steve just shook his head a little; not any less amused after being caught.
"The reason you get sad during the winter is because of possible homeless people?" He asked, grinning like he couldn't quite believe it.
"Yeah?" Henry replied, a tiny bit harsh, not sure what Steve thought was so funny about human suffering, "What?"
"Nothing, I just…" Steve trailed off, looking at Henry for a moment, before his smile grew a little bit wider, "I should've known."
And, under different circumstances, Henry might've taken that poorly. Might've cut this conversation short so he could go home and fume over it for a couple hours. Might've even told his family so they'd all get outraged on his behalf and make fun of Steve around the dinner table for a while.
But, he didn't.
He didn't because he couldn't.
There was no way that those words could've been taken the wrong way, not with the way they were said. Not with the way Steve was… Even if someone didn't know these two boys and were dropped into this situation without context, they would know those words held nothing malicious. They would see what Henry saw. They would see… They would see the look that left Henry breathless.
Pure, warmhearted familiarity.
The sound of the door opening broke the moment, something Henry was more than happy about; he wasn't sure he'd be able to come up with a response. Jonathan offered an awkward smile as he stepped out of the house —avoiding Steve's eyes more than anything—and Henry couldn't help but notice how he brought the box behind his back as he walked by.
"Bye," he said quickly, more to Henry than Steve, before looking forward and hurrying towards his car, "Hey, Will, Buddy, Ready?"
Henry smiled a little as he watched his friend go. He wished he could let him know that he had nothing to worry about, but he figured that this was something that would be best for him to stay out of. Besides, Steve probably had it right to not tell Jonathan that his gift was from him too; Henry didn't know how he'd react, but he couldn't imagine he'd really like it all that much.
"Bye, Henry!" Will called, Henry turning in time to wave before he ducked into Jonathan's passenger seat.
But, before he could look back to Steve, his own brother caught his eye and gave him a significant look—one that Henry couldn't ignore, even though he wanted to. Lucas was right; they'd already been here too long.
"I should…" Henry's voice trailed off as he turned back to Steve—Steve, whose expression was so warm and open, "I should probably…"
"Oh, yeah, yeah," Steve said after a moment, shaking his head like he was trying to get rid of something that lingered in it, "I should probably, yeah."
"Okay," Henry replied, even though that last sentence didn't really make much sense.
Neither one made a move to leave.
They might've agreed that now was the time to part ways, but it seemed like neither boy was willing to break apart. They stayed across from one another, in the horrible biting cold, even though warmth was just a few steps away, and the silence lasted a little longer than what was normal.
"Well, I'll see you later," Henry offered finally, and even though Steve nodded, he had a look on his face that made Henry wonder if he'd somehow managed to forget that they were saying goodbye.
"Yeah, okay," he said, not sounding all that convincing as his eyes darted around, "Probably before school starts up again, right? I mean, you know, Nancy's going to want to see before then."
"Uh, yeah, I guess," Henry said, shrugging; it would be lying to say he didn't feel a little lost in this conversation, but he wasn't sure why. Maybe it was the way Steve was acting all fidgety, like what he was saying wasn't what he was thinking. Still, he tried to go along with it, despite his misgivings, "If she wants to hang out."
"Of course she will," Steve replied, not taking a single moment to think about it.
"Well…" Henry said, smiling a little despite how odd this was, "I guess I'll see you then."
Steve smiled too, but there didn't seem to be any reservations to his expression; none of the thoughts that plagued Henry touched him. Instead, his smile was wide and open, without concern, before he answered.
"See you then."
With one last look that may have lingered just a little too long, Henry turned and headed towards his car; hearing the door shut behind Steve after a few moments. He tried to not let that bother him, even though he couldn't fathom why it did.
"Took you long enough!"
Lucas's voice brought him out of his reverie, and Henry momentarily put aside all the thoughts that knocked around his skull uncomfortably. Although, he failed to shake the weird feelings that always seemed to stick to him after he talked to Steve.
"Maybe you should've waited inside instead of coming out here without me," Henry replied as he unlocked the doors.
"We would've been in there forever," Lucas said, pulling the passenger door open and throwing his backpack into the backseat before he climbed in, "You can't control yourself with them."
"You're one to talk," Henry retorted, holding his right hand up to the air vent and using his left to buckle his seatbelt.
"Yeah, but we do fun things," Lucas replied, and Henry couldn't help but snort; sometimes he forgot that his brother was quite a bit younger than him.
"How was your campaign, by the way?" He asked as he put the car in drive, and that was all he needed to set Lucas off.
He hadn't brought it up intending to tune his brother out, but Henry couldn't quite keep his attention on the story of forlorn knights and foolish kings. The day he'd had weighed on his mind no matter what he did, and he couldn't help but rack his brain for answers to the questions that troubled him. He wasn't getting anywhere, though; his brain had decided that the only thing worth thinking about was how rejection stung, no matter where it came from, and that being pushed out unknowingly was almost worse than it being intentional.
He wished he could talk to someone about this, find someone who'd listen to him go on about all the things that were bothering him, but he supposed that was the problem. Once again, he found himself without a person to turn to who'd understand, really understand, everything he was going through.
Unless, of course, he could always talk to…
No, no, no, that wouldn't work. Just because Steve had realized one little thing about him didn't mean he'd understand all of this. This was a lot, and even the people closest to him probably wouldn't get it, let alone a guy he was only friends with because of circumstance. Besides, this was really personal, and Henry didn't want to share this with someone he really didn't know that well and who he had a c—
He didn't want to share it with Steve.
He wanted someone who understood because they were in the same place as him; someone who there wasn't any weirdness surrounding; someone who he could be himself with completely. He wanted someone who knew him. He wanted—
Well, if he could have that, he wouldn't be feeling quite so lonely right now, would he?
"Are you going to blow past our house?"
Lucas's incredulous voice woke Henry from his thoughts, and he turned just in time to pull into their driveway.
"Hm?" He responded, pretending like he hadn't been very far away moments before, and Lucas rolled his eyes. But, there was a funny look on his face, like he wasn't annoyed or amused so much as something else.
"You're being weird," Lucas said, and even though it was flippant, there was definitely something underneath; something that wasn't just teasing.
There was an opening there, one Henry was tempted to take, but he held back; his need to be understood didn't outweigh his desire to keep as much weight off of his brother's shoulders as possible. He'd already carried far more than a kid ever should, he didn't need this too. Besides, the things he was dealing with… maybe a bit too emotionally complex for a 12 year old.
"I thought I was always weird," Henry replied casually, trying to sidestep the unspoken question in Lucas's voice.
"Erica said that, not me," he replied, and although both boys chuckled, Henry could feel his brother's gaze steady on him, "Seriously, are you—?"
"Speaking of which," Henry interrupted, as if he hadn't heard Lucas speaking at all, "I think Erica was in your room when I left."
Henry chuckled as his brother's eyes widened and he hurriedly reached into the back to grab his bag. He'd suspected that would get a reaction out of his brother, that the mere thought of their younger sister messing with his stuff would fill him with such horror that he'd forget everything else; it's why he'd said it. His plan backfired a little though, because Lucas was so consumed with the idea of Erica playing with He-Man or whatever, that he pulled his backpack forward so aggressively that it hit the rearview mirror and set it off-kilter.
"Dude, seriously?" Henry complained.
"Sorry!" Lucas offered in response, although it wasn't all that sincere seeing how he didn't even glance back as he rushed out of the car and ran inside.
Henry sighed, but figured it wasn't something to really pick a fight over; just because he was already a little agitated from earlier didn't mean he should take it out on his brother. Fixing it would only take a few moments, anyway.
Henry reached up towards the mirror, but stopped halfway when his eyes caught on the reflection.
There was something in his backseat.
After a second to process what he was seeing, Henry turned around and confirmed, yes, there was definitely something unfamiliar resting on the seat behind him. He reached back and grabbed it, but his frown only deepened when he was finally turning it over in his hands. He'd thought that getting a closer look at it would jog his memory, but even now he didn't remember this thing sloppily wrapped up in newspaper and tied together with twine. After a moment of fruitlessly racking his brain, Henry gave up and slid the string off; the paper falling away to reveal a small wood box.
He still didn't recognize it. In fact, he was certain he'd never seen this box before in his life. It didn't belong to him or anyone in his family as far as he knew, and despite etiquette telling him to leave something that wasn't his undisturbed, Henry gave in to his curiosity.
Besides, he was starting to think that maybe he was meant to open it.
Henry flipped open the top, not entirely certain what he thought he might find inside, and all expectations were thrown out the window when he laid eyes on the box's contents.
A piece of paper.
A simple piece of paper, folded in half, hiding whatever else was inside the box. But, Henry didn't even care about that—he didn't care that it was obvious there was something else in there. He was far too caught up in the familiar handwriting scrawled on top.
You probably won't need one again, but if you ever do, the last thing you're going to want is to get busted for stealing your dad's and having no license.
Henry read the note once.
But, even by the third time he hadn't fully comprehended it.
It wasn't because of the vague wording—he honestly didn't really care about whatever the hell this was about—he was just shocked that Hopper had written it at all.
Henry's mind raced through everything that had happened at the police station, trying to find any indication that Hopper had done this. He hadn't hinted towards anything, and Henry hadn't seen him put it in his car (he could only think of one moment when Hopper could've snuck it in when his back was turned), hell, he'd clearly been shocked to see him in the parking lot. Henry had been unexpected, he shouldn't have even had the box on him. It wasn't like he'd been planning—
A small smile began to pull on Henry's lips as the facts of the matter became quite apparent.
He reached down to grab the note, hardly able to believe what he was starting to realize had to be the truth, but the paper unfolded slightly when he did and something slid out onto his lap. Henry frowned as his attention shifted and he picked up the small plastic card, only studying it for a moment before he found the words that mattered the most; the ones that stated that Henry Sinclair was licensed to—
He got stuck on the end of that sentence, unable to read past it. For a moment, it was like static in his brain rather than words. But, the universe wasn't so kind to let him off the hook for what was happening right now, and the smile on his face slowly slipped away as what was in front of him refused to be misunderstood.
Henry's eyes slid off of what he was holding and down to what still rested in his lap. Now, without the note in the way, he could see what was in the box. He could see what Hopper had given him. He could see…
He could see that this gift wasn't an olive branch.
It was a gun.
Henry's throat tightened as he grabbed ahold of the handle and slowly pulled it away from its casing. It was nicer than the one he'd taken from his father's safe—a newer model that was unworn from use, and clearly chosen with care. There was thought to this gift and not a small amount of money either.
It made his stomach sink just the same.
He put the gun back into the box, along with the license, before shoving it under his passenger seat. He quickly slid out of his car and hurried inside, a part of him worried that someone would notice how long he'd been out in the garage and decide to investigate; catch him off guard and want to know why he seemed so distressed. The answer to that one, of course, was that he was distressed. Quite distressed.
He didn't want it.
He really didn't. What he wanted was to go to Hopper, thank him for thinking of him, and push it back into his hands before running away. Forget all about it and live without that thing tucked away in his peripheral. Because it would always be there, no matter what he did; a conspicuous box that his eyes would always catch on.
But, he wouldn't.
He wouldn't take it back, he knew he wouldn't. It would stay where it was indefinitely, no matter how badly he wanted to get rid of it. He wouldn't give into the sick twisting in his stomach or the anxiety that clutched at his throat.
Those feelings were nothing compared to the memory that had overtaken him.
The cool, night breeze against his skin, the smell of cigarette smoke lingering in the air, and…
"It doesn't feel over."
"Hey, Baby," his mom's words were light when he rounded into the kitchen, but when a moment passed with no response, the shift in her voice was enough to grab his attention, "Everything okay?"
Henry looked over to find her eyes were no longer focused on the green beans, but instead trained on him with a level of intensity that should've seemed out of place. Unfortunately, it wasn't, and guilt forced him to smile; hoping to assuage the fear that he knew was his fault.
"Oh, yeah," Henry replied, landing on the same lie as always, "Just… tired."
"Okay," his mom said, accepting that without a fight, even though the way her eyes flickered over him made it pretty clear that she wasn't buying it, "How was everything with the Chief?"
"Fine," Henry said, forcing a casual little shrug; suddenly concerned that his body language would somehow give away what he had in his car right now. His mom didn't mention it though, and she didn't even push the subject at hand. She knew better than most how touchy this area could be.
"You want to help set the table?" She asked instead, outwardly focused on her tasks even though Henry suspected her mind was far from it, "I want to use that set your great-aunt gave your father and I at our wedding and I don't trust your siblings to not drop any."
"Yeah, that's probably a good idea," Henry said, turning to where that particularly nice set of dishware was kept and grabbing an armful of plates, "I think Erica breaks stuff on purpose to get out of doing it."
"I wouldn't be surprised," his mom replied, the pair sharing a smile before Henry headed over to the dining table.
Neither one mentioned the tension.
It was there, of course. It always was when they danced closer to what happened last month, even when they didn't outright mention it. Even though they all acted like it was behind them.
Henry had technically cleared everything up with his mom and dad after he and Lucas had come home from the hospital. He'd fed them the lies that they'd all been told to spread, and they'd accepted them. Will had been lost in the woods, the body they'd found was of a different missing kid, and Barb—
"I thought you weren't going to stop until you found her."
A plate slipped out of Henry's hand and hit the table a little harder than it should've, but he barely even heard it; the blood rushing in his ears roared loud enough to block out everything around him. It was unbearable for a moment or two, but like always, it passed and Henry took a deep breath before getting back to setting the table.
He hadn't said a thing when his mom had asked, but he figured his expression had been enough of an answer for that question, because she never brought it up again.
Just because his parents had accepted the lies didn't mean they believed them.
But now, over a month on from everything, well after Henry and Lucas had served out their punishments for just disappearing on their parents (they were really more symbolic than anything else), they still weren't back to how they were before. Sure, they were happy, and they loved each other, and they acted more or less like they always did, but they were different on the inside. Things had happened that couldn't be undone. That couldn't be forgotten.
Henry was starting to suspect he would never go back to how he was before.
He'd come to realize that what he'd done—what he'd said to his mom in the kitchen before he'd left her that last time—was something that he'd always been capable of. He'd always had it in himself to be that man, that one who could be brave and do what he needed to do, no matter who told him otherwise. The difference now was that he knew it.
But, he wasn't the only one.
His mom knew. It was painfully obvious that she did—if she didn't, she wouldn't react the way she had not five minutes ago. She knew that her son could do that again; that it wasn't a throwaway moment of rebellion, but rather a constant potential that always seethed under his skin. For better or for worse.
Hopper must know too.
That's why he gave him that gift, wasn't it? Maybe part of it was extending an olive branch and showing understanding, but that wasn't what this was about, not really. It was Hopper's way of saying, if anything ever happened again—if his worst fears were true—that he knew Henry would do this all over. That he'd step back up to the plate. That he'd have a use for what was in the box in his car.
That's why Henry didn't run back to Hopper. Because, even if he didn't feel up to everything it meant, evidently Hopper thought he was. Hopper was preparing him, like that would be for the best if anything ever happened again. Like Henry being ready would mean things could go another way. Like there wouldn't be another—
Henry held on tight to the plate this time.
Well, that was the difference between them then, because even though they might know the same thing, Hopper's grim respect was a far cry from his mother's dread.
That's why she'd reacted the way she did when he came in from the garage. Henry hadn't been acting all that strange, not really, but his mom had a hair-trigger. He supposed it had all happened so fast from her perspective, and that was why she kept a close eye on him. Like she was scared he'd suddenly stop being Mama's boy and go back to whoever it was that had defied her all that time ago. Like if she wasn't careful, he'd catch her by surprise and flip the switch again.
Henry didn't want her to be scared of him, he really didn't, but considering the alternative… He supposed it was better for his parents to be concerned with what he would do next rather than for him to give up what he knew was right to make them comfortable.
He kind of hoped they'd forget what he'd done, though. Not like they'd wake up and not remember the incident at all, but that it would start to fade like any other memory. That the sharpness would dull and his mom wouldn't be so worried whenever he was a little off. He wanted his family to be as relaxed with each other as they had been before, he wanted them not to worry about things happening again, he wanted… he wanted his family…
"Are we having a guest?"
Henry's train of thought was broken by his mother's voice, and he looked up with a frown; not fully comprehending her question. It wasn't until she raised her eyebrows and sent a significant look down at the table did he realize what she'd been referring to.
He'd set a sixth place, between him and Lucas.
"O-oh," Henry said, his brow furrowing as he considered what he'd done unthinkingly, "No, I must—I just wasn't paying attention."
He handed his mom the extra setting, and she shook her head a little at him, smiling all the while.
"Try to stay on this planet, okay?" She teased, Henry forcing a small smile for her before she turned towards the living room and raised her voice, "Dinner Time!"
Henry took his seat as everyone else rushed in—his family more than ready for their Christmas Eve feast—and he sent one last frown towards the empty place between him and Lucas before he shook his head and pushed it to the back of his mind.
In fact, he pushed it all away. He pushed away thoughts of Hopper, or Nancy, or Steve, or Jonathan, or… or Barb. Instead, he allowed himself to be absorbed in what was in front of him. The delicious food on his plate, Lucas and Erica bickering, his mom hissing threats at them under her breath before going back to a warm matriarch found on a Christmas card, and his dad quietly letting it all happen as he dug into his mashed potatoes and gave his compliments to the chef.
It was familiar, more than familiar actually. It was more or less the same thing that had happened every Christmas Eve for as long as Henry could remember. But, that was okay; this wasn't something he felt desperate to change. This was comforting in its familiarity, and even if it didn't feel nostalgic to experience, he knew he'd enjoy this feeling of warm companionship shared with his family.
"It's snowing," His mom announced, smiling.
Henry looked up from the spot at the table between him and Lucas—where his eyes had unconsciously drifted—and his gaze followed hers to the window, where white fluff floated down and left a blanket of snow across the lawn that would undoubtedly soon hide the grass from sight. He could feel the corner of his lips turning down a little, and his mind went to the conversation from earlier. He really didn't care for the snow or the cold, did he? He'd never really thought about it until Steve had mentioned it, but he'd been spot-on. He wondered—
"Will threw a fireball and killed it, it was awesome!"
"Have you ever even spoken to a girl your age?"
The familiar banter of his family broke his train of thought, and Henry shook his head a little to clear it. He didn't need to do this right now, he didn't need to dwell on these things. Not while he was sitting with his family on Christmas Eve, having so much more than many people got in a lifetime. He ignored the odd feeling lingering in the pit of his stomach—the longing, without a clear focus— in favor of what was right in front of him.
With the snow floating down from the heavens just outside the window, Henry picked up his fork and began to eat dinner. His mom patted him on the arm and they shared a small smile before they were both pulled into a conversation with his father about how none of them were looking forward to having to see Uncle Bobby tomorrow at his grandmother's house. It was familiar gossip, and so far removed from anything with stakes that Henry found himself truly forgetting the thoughts that had plagued him just moments ago. He didn't mind, far from it; if he'd even been aware of it happening, he'd probably been pleased.
He could focus on his family, and forget about anything strange.
If only for now.
a/n stay tuned for the sequel!