One day in early January, once school was back in session, was when the kids at school started talking about Steve and Jessica. Some of their classmates made remarks such as 'finally' or 'what took you so long?' Those people were happy that they'd gotten over themselves and were now together.
There were some who were just plain uninterested. Those were Jessica's favorite because it really had nothing to do with anyone but her and Steve what was going on between her and Steve.
But then there were the jerks like Tommy and Carol, and some of Steve's old jock friends, who couldn't mind their own business or keep their mouths shut. Carol said that if she was willing to sleep with Byers then it didn't surprise her at all that she was with Steve. That was all because of the Nancy thing they'd all been part of the year before. It was like they had some square-relationship thing going, which was just ridiculous because neither Steve nor Jessica had been showing affection to anyone but each other.
And they did show affection – kissing in the parking lot outside one of their cars, kissing at their lockers between classes, or holding hands in the hallways while walking. Nothing inappropriate, really, just couple things, and they had nothing to do with Jonathan or Nancy – or anyone, for that matter. But it didn't stop Carol from making up stories.
And the thing was, Steve's reputation was being used against them both. Steve had been seen with a lot of girls – certain types of girls, girls who didn't want a relationship, just fun for a few nights, or even just one night – and so any girl he got with had to be that type. Even though Jessica had no reputation when it came to guys, the fact that she was with Steve now gave her one.
It was stupid, and Steve hated that his behavior had brought her name down, even if what Carol said wasn't true. Only certain people believed it, anyway. The ones who actually knew Jessica didn't listen to a word of it. They knew she wouldn't have slept with Jonathan Byers because she'd only just started talking to him around the time of Will's disappearance. Now . . . Steve, on the other hand, everyone seemed to know she'd liked him for a while and it wouldn't have surprised them if they had slept together already because they'd known each other for years. They hadn't slept together, though. The ones who knew her didn't care, however, because it wasn't their business what she was doing with her boyfriend.
Steve was bothered by the rumors flying more than Jessica was. Even though she'd been anxious about it before, she didn't care now that she knew it was only Tommy and Carol, and people like them, that were talking trash about her and Steve. They really weren't worth her time.
It was also in January that Chief Hopper got everyone together – the kids and the teens that had been involved in the Upside Down fiasco – in the one interrogation room the police station had. No one knew what they were doing there, but Jessica had had to lie to her mom about it. Well, Hopper had, anyway. He'd been waiting for her when she'd gotten home from school. All he'd said was that she and Dustin needed to come down to the station once Dustin came home.
He just needed to talk to them, they weren't in trouble, but it was easier to do it at the station. So there they were.
At first it was just her and Dustin. Then Steve. Nancy and Mike, along with Lucas. Joyce, Jonathan, and Will.
"Hop, why are we here?" Joyce asked after they'd all settled into the interrogation room.
There wasn't much space left. The room hadn't been made for this many people.
"A doctor from the lab wants to speak with you guys about –"
"What?" and "No way" filled the air. Had they really been called here because of Hawkins Lab? Weren't these people through with them yet?
"Chill out, chill out!" Hopper said. "They want to know how you guys are, which really means they want to make sure you're not gonna break and spill about anything."
"Maybe we should," Nancy said.
She felt that way because of Barb. Aside from Will, Nancy was probably the one who'd lost the most – Barb had been her friend for years. And the thing was no one could admit she was dead, so everyone just assumed she was missing, had run away. No one else had been close to Barb, so Nancy probably felt alone in her grief.
Then there was Mike, who'd lost El. No, they hadn't been friends for years, but they'd connected on a level that was more than just friendship. According to Nancy, Mike sometimes fell asleep in the basement now. He tried communicating with El every night using the walkie-talkie.
The whole Byers' family seemed pale and withdrawn. Will was having nightmares – probably worse than the ones Jessica had – but he had a clean bill of health. The cough had gone away completely almost two weeks ago, but his skin was still paler than it used to be, and he had dark circles under his eyes. So did Joyce and Jonathan though. Jessica wondered if they were having nightmares too.
Hopper stayed with them while the doctor from the lab talked to them. The doctor was a middle-aged woman with brown hair, and she seemed nice enough and she really did have a psychology degree. She was willing to give them sessions twice a month if they felt they needed it.
"You expect us to trust you after everything?" Joyce asked.
"We don't, actually." She'd introduced herself as Dr. Lisa Lancaster. "Which is why Hopper has agreed to bring you to each session, should you decide you need him to, if you choose to accept the offer."
Jessica's initial reaction was 'absolutely not' because this was the same lab that had made it possible for a creature from another dimension to come to their world and take Will and kill Barb – and maybe a few other people they didn't even know about. Ben's death had been because he'd helped El, and Hopper had said at least two hunters had gone missing and he suspected it had something to do with the lab.
But Joyce asked, "Can you help him? He has nightmares even when he's awake."
Poor Will, Jessica thought. At least she had nightmares only at night when she was sleeping.
"He's having flashbacks. It's a form and symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder. There's been a lot of research dealing with soldiers coming back from war. They can get triggered by loud noises or flashes of light, maybe even by getting grabbed suddenly."
"Will?" Jonathan asked. "You have any of that stuff?"
Will shook his head.
"I don't like sleeping in the dark anymore," Jessica admitted, and Will did nod at that.
"Same," he said. "Or I like to turn a light on as soon as I open my eyes."
"Oh, why didn't you say anything?" Joyce asked. She didn't sound mad at anyone but herself. Her son was frightened and there was nothing she could do. As a parent, that was probably one of the hardest things to go through.
"Dustin?" Jessica prompted.
"I'm completely fine. I wondered why you were keeping the light on, though. I thought maybe Steve was just sneaking in your window or something."
The thing was, the first time she'd had the nightmare about the Upside Down and getting stuck there she'd screamed herself awake. Nothing super loud – her mom hadn't even heard it – but Dustin's room was right next to hers and he'd rushed in. She didn't know what he'd been planning to do if she'd been in trouble because he hadn't had a weapon, but the point was that he'd come for her when he'd heard her in distress. He was a good brother. But he hadn't been having nightmares and she didn't understand why.
Lucas said he was fine as well. Nancy didn't want to talk because there was nothing anyone could do for her problem. Jonathan was not a share-your-pain kind of person. Mike's pain couldn't really be helped either. Joyce, however, reserved the right to accept later if Will didn't get better.
Jessica didn't trust the woman, no matter how nice she seemed, and Steve claimed to be fine, though she knew he wasn't, but she also reserved the right to change her mind if she decided to.
After they got out of the police station, Jessica, Dustin, and Steve went to a small BBQ place nearby – mostly just for the fries and drinks – and ate together. They sat in a booth, Dustin and Jessica on one side, Steve on the other. There was an arcade across the street, and Dustin went there with a handful of quarters after he was done eating.
"So, why didn't you tell me you were having nightmares?" Steve asked.
"For the same reason you keep telling everyone you're fine. Are you having nightmares?"
"No," he said. "But I'm not getting much sleep either. It's . . . Whatever. Ya know? Don't worry about it."
"But I do." She nudged his leg with her foot. "You know I do."
If Steve kept losing sleep, it was going to affect him in some way. Through his grades, maybe, which were only good enough to keep him on the basketball team, or through him maybe getting hurt while playing basketball, which would wreck his chances of getting into a decent college, because his dad had already said if Steve didn't follow into the real estate business that he wouldn't pay for him to go to college. Steve would have to either do what his dad wanted or work extra hard in school for the rest of the year and into the next so he could up his chances of getting a scholarship – and he couldn't rely only on basketball.
"Yeah, I know you do," he admitted. "I get a couple hours of sleep every night. I doze off and on during the day when I'm not doing anything else."
"I go to sleep," Jessica said, "without a problem. But then I have a nightmare whether the light is on or not, and it takes a while to get back to sleep. I keep . . . thinking about that place."
"The Upside Down?"
"Yeah. I –" She took a deep breath. "I was over there for a little bit. With Nancy. The first night we went out looking for that monster. We found an opening, and Nancy decided it would be a good idea to go in. She wanted to find Barb."
"You never said anything."
Jessica shrugged. "We were only over there for about fifteen minutes, but that thing chased us. We heard Jonathan calling for us, but we couldn't – we couldn't find him because the place we'd gone in had already closed."
Jessica could picture everything as if she were there – the dark, ashy atmosphere that made it hard to breathe, the complete silence that surrounded them until the thing had growled at them, the nasty, slimy web-cocoon stuff they had crawled through – and her heart began to race. Not in the good way that Steve caused either. No, this was the way she felt when she woke up from a nightmare, heart thudding so hard it almost made her want to vomit.
"Hey," Steve said, bringing her out of it. He'd moved from the booth across from her and slid onto the one she was sitting on. "Hey, it's okay."
But it wasn't really because whatever had just happened had caused her to start shaking, and her breath to come in gasps – she couldn't get enough air.
"Steve!" She grabbed his arms and squeezed. "I can't – I can't breathe!"
"What? What do I do?"
She didn't know. It had never been this bad before, but she'd never talked about it either.
She buried her head against his chest and he wrapped his arms around her, gently at first and then more tightly when she began to cling to him.
"I'm here," he said softly. "You're here. We're together and you are not in that place. Okay?"
He just kept talking like that until she calmed down, but even when she got her breath back she felt like she wanted to cry and kept her face hidden so he wouldn't see.
She couldn't believe she was breaking down in the middle of a restaurant. It was embarrassing, and people would probably talk. That was just one of the hazards of living in a small town.
When Jessica had started panicking – Steve didn't know what else to call it – he hadn't really known what to do. All he knew was that she didn't need to feel alone at all and she needed an anchor to ground herself, so he'd let her use him as one. If she was there in the real world holding onto him, then she wasn't in the Upside Down without him.
When she was calm enough he paid for their food and then led her to his car. They'd driven separately, so they had both cars, but until Dustin came back out or Jessica went to get him, they could just relax in the BMW with the heat running, music playing.
Jessica was still trembling. Steve felt horrible for not really being able to help, but he'd never seen Jessica do anything like that before. He'd never seen anyone do that before, though he'd felt that way himself the night he'd seen that monster. He'd never been so scared before. Any unusual shaped shadow freaked him out at night now, but he still couldn't imagine waking up thinking he was stuck in a messed up alternate dimension, and that's what Jessica seemed to be going through every night.
At least she was breathing easily now and not crying anymore, even if a few tremors passed through her every now and then.
"Are you . . . okay?" he asked hesitantly, afraid of causing another panic attack.
She gave a half-hearted shrug, ducking her head. She hadn't really made eye contact with him since they'd made it to the car.
"Does that happen often?"
Steve couldn't handle thinking about her waking up alone and not having anyone to help her through whatever that had been.
"No, that's the first time I've lost control like that. I mean, I wake up afraid, but I don't cry or –" She did look at him then, "- I'm sorry."
"No, it's –" He wanted to say it was fine, but nothing was fine. Nothing should happen in anyone's life to make them react that way. "You should be able to tell me these things. Okay? We should – we should be able to tell each other these things."
"Right. But still –"
"No. No buts. I – I never took Nancy seriously enough when she tried to talk to me about things. I don't wanna make that mistake with you."
Now Steve felt like panicking because Jessica's eyes had filled with tears again. What had he said that was bad enough to make her want to cry? Nothing had been offensive or hurtful, he didn't think, but what did he know about girls, really? And he was good at messing up without realizing it until after the fact.
"What'd I do?"
"Then why're you crying?"
"I don't know!" she exclaimed. "You just said that stuff about not wanting to make mistakes with me, and it made me feel like crying again."
Steve decided it was best to just keep his mouth shut for a while rather than risk upsetting her further.
In the end, that worked.
Jessica had calmed down by the time Dustin came out of the arcade, but her eyes were still puffy and her face was still red when he found them.
"What'd you do to my sister, you douche bag?"
"Nothing!" Steve exclaimed.
"Then why's she crying?"
"Dustin, he really didn't do anything. Okay? I'm just feeling a little messed up today. That lab lady didn't help."
Whatever righteous indignation Dustin must have felt at the thought of Steve having hurt his sister disappeared and he said, "Oh."
"Yeah. Are you ready to go home?"
Dustin nodded. "I'll go wait in the car while you kiss goodbye and stuff."
She sputtered out a laugh as he walked away and got into her car. She was sure Dustin had said that on purpose to try and lift her mood by the light teasing, and it did – a little – but still . . .
"He doesn't have nightmares," she said. "How does he not have nightmares? It's like it happened, but it hasn't really affected him negatively. He was able to –"
"He's younger. His friend came back. They do all the things they used to do. All they think is that if they keep their mouths shut they'll be safe. We . . . are not that naïve."
"Right. I do the things I used to do and I still freak out. Don't really feel safe anywhere anymore. I mean, what if the gate isn't really closed and – and there's more than one of those things?"
Steve tensed there in the driver's seat and said, "That thought had crossed my mind, but no one has mysteriously gone missing or . . . turned up dead. Nothing weird has happened since . . ."
It made her feel better to know that she wasn't the only one keeping up with current events. Neither of them would have done that before all the Upside Down/demogorgan stuff, neither of them would have cared much, but now she watched the news at least twice a week.
Aside from the residual fear and grief, no one was going through anything considered weird. If they had been, whoever it was would've said something, Jessica was sure, and no one had.
"You know, if you're so afraid, I could always come over. Dustin already thought I was sneaking in . . ." he said suggestively.
"No," she said. "You don't have to sneak in. Mom doesn't care if you stay over, but you're not staying in my room. Dustin has the room next to mine. You know that."
"Comfort!" Steve said, grinning. "I was offering comfort."
"Sure you were."
She leaned towards him, head tilted just-so, and he briefly met her lips with his. If Dustin hadn't been waiting for her, the kiss would've lasted a lot longer, but he was, so it didn't.
"I really was talking about comfort," he declared, his brown eyes soft and warm. "I don't think your brother would allow much else."
"You're not wrong about that."
She was tempted, and her mom wouldn't care if Steve stayed the night – not in her room, obviously, and not in her bed, but . . .
"We should turn the guest room into an actual guest room," she said. "That way when your parents aren't home you'd have a place where you wouldn't have to be alone."
"So . . . I'll see you later tonight?" he asked hesitantly. "You kind of said no and yes within a minute."
"Yes. I'll let mom know you're coming."
Steve went home for a few hours, mostly to shower and pick up a few things that he would need for school the next day.
To be honest, he was still a little freaked out by what had happened with Jessica at the restaurant. She hadn't been breathing right at all, and he hadn't known what to do because it had almost been as if she couldn't breathe right.
It had scared him, to say the least, and when he'd offered to go over that night, he really hadn't been thinking of anything other than making her feel better. As she'd said, her brother's room was right next to hers, and that kid was into everything and would have no problem bursting into her room if he felt like it.
That day in the car was not the first time Dustin had checked up on Steve to make sure he wasn't doing anything to upset his sister. Steve wasn't sure if he was just being a good brother or if he'd heard about what had happened with Nancy, but Dustin kept an eye on both of them. It didn't seem to bother Jessica, so it didn't really bother Steve.
Before Steve could leave the house, Jessica called to ask if, since he was staying over anyway, he wanted to make a movie night out of it, and that was fine with him.
"Cool," she said. "So . . . I can take care of the movies if you take care of the snacks."
"No problem. What d'you want?"
"Well, I've got the popcorn, so maybe some kind of chocolate and, um . . . soda? I guess. Dustin likes Three Musketeers."
"Okay. See you in an hour or so."
Since Jessica now knew what they were going to be doing that night she and Dustin went to the video store.
"You can pick one movie," she told him, "but you still have to be in your bedroom at ten."
Dustin usually went to bed on time even if he didn't go to sleep until around midnight. As long as he got up and went to school on time, their mom didn't really care.
"So, are you guys sleeping together now?" Dustin asked. They were in the video store, so he wasn't being loud, but still . . . he had no filter and it didn't matter to him where they were.
"No, Dustin, we're not – we're not sleeping together. We've only been an actual couple for two weeks." she said. "Not that it's your business what Steve and I do."
"Eh, kind of is if you're going to be in the room next to mine."
"Dustin . . . I wouldn't . . . not with you around."
In fact, Steve had never mentioned sex at all, had never hinted at them doing anything other than kissing and some very light over-the-clothes petting.
"Okay," he said simply, and picked up a movie. Star Wars VI: Return of the Jedi. "I want this one."
She hated movies like that – well, she didn't hate them, but she couldn't get into them either.
Her expression must've given her away because Dustin said, "What? It'll give you and Steve time to suck face."
"We do not –" She broke off. "Do you not like Steve?"
"Does it matter?"
"Yes!" she said, louder than she probably should have. "It does, Dustin, because I would like for my boyfriend and my brother to get along. I'd like for you not to give him any crap tonight. Okay? I don't mind the teasing, but I don't like that you seem to think Steve only wants sex from me."
Dustin suddenly found the case he was holding very interesting. Jessica didn't get after him very often and she yelled at him even less than that. She usually couldn't find a problem with him, and she didn't really have a problem with him then, but with everything else that had happened that day, she couldn't deal with the comments coming from her brother.
She grabbed two more movies – Jaws and Christine – and led a silent and sullen Dustin to the counter to pay for the rentals.
Once out in the car, Jessica let them sit there for a few minutes in silence. She didn't like how she'd handled her brother's teasing.
"Dustie, I – I shouldn't have yelled at you. I'm – people have been giving me crap at school about dating Steve. I don't – I don't need it from you too, okay?"
All this she said gently in way of explanation and to make up for earlier.
Quietly, carefully, he said, "Are they calling you what they called Nancy?"
So he did know. Why had she ever thought that he wouldn't? They lived in a small town in Indiana. Of course he knew – all of the kids probably knew, and they knew Steve's part in it.
"Not exactly that, but close enough. And . . . Steve is trying, okay? That's why I just want you to cut him some slack. You don't have to be super nice to him or anything because that would be weird, but don't go out of your way to give him crap either. He . . . did some not good things before, but he realized they weren't good and he tried to make them right."
"I didn't know it was bothering you."
"It usually doesn't. Just . . . messed up today, like I said."
"Okay. I'll be nicer, but do I have to like him?"
"I hope you will one day. When you see that he doesn't want to hurt me."
And just like that, things were good between them again.