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Don't Tell Me There's No Hope At All/ Together We Stand, Divided We Fall

Chapter Text

Neil’s car is missing when Billy pulls up with Max at ten-fifteen on a Friday night, which is odd, considering Billy’s father has never been one for going out in the evenings. Well, whatever, he thinks as he follows Max up the narrow path to the front door.

 

The door is unlocked, but the house is dark, which is unusual. Even if Neil isn’t here, Susan should be home, and she’s usually pretty careful about things like this.

 

“Mom?” Max calls as Billy flicks on the lights and closes the door behind him. “We’re home!”

 

The living room and kitchen are empty, which again, weird, but Billy shrugs it off and decides he needs to go take a piss. Ambling down the hallway, he flicks on the bathroom light and freezes.

 

There’s blood on the wall. Actually, there’s blood everywhere, sticky-dry where it’s pooled on the bathroom floor and seeped into the bath rug.

 

“Oh, fuck,” he whispers as his eyes land on Susan, bloody and staring at him with glassy green eyes. “Oh, fuck, oh fuck, oh, fuck!” His knees buckle, and he crawls towards Susan, because this looks bad, and she’s lost a lot of blood, and she’s going to need a hospital—

 

His hand finds her knee and the skin is cold. He swallows the urge to vomit and reaches for her neck for a pulse he can’t find.

 

“Billy?”

 

Max’s voice sounds from behind him, and he whirls, eyes wild and frightened.

 

“Don’t look, Max,” he says, pushing himself to his feet to block her mother from view. “Max, don’t look—”

 

“Mom?” she squeaks. “Mom, are you okay? Mom—”

 

She rushes forward, hands reaching out towards Susan, but Billy catches her, holding her tightly to his chest as she tries to force her way out of his grip.

 

“Don’t look, Max, don’t look!” He’s squeezing too tightly, pushing her back out of the bathroom and into the hall. “Max—”

 

“Let me— Mom! Mom!” she screams, desperate.

 

“She can’t hear you, Max!” Billy shouts. “She’s dead!”

 

“She’s not, she’s not—”

 

Her face is wet where its pressed against his shirt, her tears seeping into the thin fabric as he bodily lifts her up and out of the way, heedless of the way she flails and claws at his shoulders. He needs to get out of the house. He needs to get her out of the house.

 

He doesn’t bother to shut the door behind him as he runs— runs— out of the house, Max in his arms as she cries and fights. He manages to open the passenger door to the Camaro, kicking it wide open as he practically throws her into the seat and slams it shut. She freezes up once he isn’t holding her, thank God, long enough for him to circle the car and collapse into the driver’s seat, turning his key and hitting the gas at record speeds.

 

Motley Crue blares out of his radio, and he slams the button so damn hard he might have broken it in an effort to turn it off. He doesn’t care, though. His heart’s pounding and his head’s foggy and his hands are white under the blood with how hard he grips the steering wheel. He can’t think, can’t do anything but remember how cold Susan felt under his hands.

 

Max is crying quietly beside him, breath hitching and head bowed so he can’t see her face. He needs to find a phone, call the cops, do something, but he, he— he doesn’t know where to go. He can’t make a call like that from the diner, can he?

 

“Where do we go?” he whispers. “Fuck, fuck!”

 

“The Byers,” Max croaks suddenly, wiping angrily at her eyes. “We— the Byers. Mrs. Byers is friends with the Chief, she can— she can—” Max goes quiet, swallowing hard.

 

Billy leaves it, making a u-turn to drive back towards the Byers. He’s never met Mrs. Byers, never cared too, but he can’t think of anything better and fuck, at least it’s a plan. At the very least, he can leave Max there— all her little nerd friends do sleep overs all the time, right? He can’t imagine anyone would tell her no, not— not now.

 

The Byers house comes into view, and Billy swings the Camaro into the driveway too quickly, slamming on the brakes when he catches sight of Jonathan Byers’ car sitting in the driveway. Fuck, he doesn’t want to— he should have expected the guy to be around, it’s his fucking house, after all.

 

Swallowing his own discomfort, he pushes himself out of the car, circling around and pulling open Max’s door for her. She doesn’t move, and after a second, Billy stoops down, gathering her into his arms like she’s much younger than she is and shutting the door behind him.

 

He knocks on the door with his foot, kicking three times before straightening. A moment later, the door opens and Will Byers is staring up at him like he’s never seen him before.

 

“Max?”

 

“Where’s your mom?” Billy asks, stepping inside.

 

“She’s at work,” Will says, shutting the door behind them. “What happened? Is Max okay?”

 

“Billy? What are you doing here?”

 

Jonathan stands in the doorway of the hallways dressed in his pajamas, one hand against the doorframe as he stares at Billy. Good question.

 

“I need to borrow your phone,” Billy says, moving to put Max down and wincing when her grip tightens. “I— I need to call the cops. Chief Hopper.”

 

Jonathan’s eyes widen slightly.

 

“What happened?” he asks. “Your dad…?”

 

Billy flinches. Max has got a big mouth, it seems. Well, he’s not wrong, technically.

 

“Gone,” Billy says. Max lets out a loud sob, muffled only slightly by his shoulder. He rubs her back reflexively, trying to soothe her like it’s a bad dream instead of fucking reality. “I need to report— I. We need cops, back at my place.”

 

Jonathan stares a moment longer, than nods.

 

“I’ll call the chief,” he says, already moving towards the kitchen. “Sit down, okay? Everything’s fine.”

 

Everything is decidedly not fine, but Billy ignores that for now, making a beeline for the squat couch in the corner of the living room and collapsing onto it, Max’s added weight doing nothing for his grace.

 

Max won’t stop crying, won’t stop clinging to him like he’s the only thing keeping her from drowning. A part of him recoils from it, the part that his father made such a point of creating, but he swallows it down, squeezing her tightly and petting her long red hair instead.

 

Will watches them uncertainly, eyes wide and worried and somehow older than the rest of him. Billy ignores him, turning his face into Max’s hair.

 

He doesn’t try to talk, doesn’t say that she’s okay and that everything’s fine, because he’d be lying, and Billy can’t stand lying. So he just holds her, rocking her as best he can as he listens to Jonathan talk quietly into the phone in the other room.

 

“I don’t know what happened, Chief, but it’s bad,” Jonathan says softly. “Something at their house, I don’t know. I don’t know, Chief. Max won’t let go of her brother, and Billy’s— Billy’s letting her.”

 

The incredulousness in his voice would make Billy laugh any other time, but right now all he feels is tired. Tired, and scared, and all kinds of messed up. Maybe if he’d been home, it wouldn’t have happened. Maybe if he’d been home, it would have been him instead of Susan, and Max would still have her mom. Maybe it would have been both of them, and Max just wouldn’t have gotten picked up from the Wheelers tonight and seen her mother’s body on the floor in the bathroom.

 

Fuck.

 

Jonathan wanders back into the living room, looking uncomfortable and awkward.

 

“Chief Hopper’s going to your house now,” he says. “He says for you guys to stay here until he comes.”

 

Billy swallows, giving him a jerky nod.

 

“My mom’s gonna be home soon,” Jonathan adds. “Do you— can you tell me what happened? Or do you, I don’t know, do you want to wait for her and Chief?”

 

Billy pauses, looking down at Max. She’s still crying, but it isn’t as forceful, now, just the exhausted, sniffling tears of a kid who’s tired and scared.

 

He looks back to Jonathan.

 

“My dad killed her mom.”

Chapter Text

Jonathan makes coffee, to give himself something to do while they wait for his mother and Chief Hopper. When he comes back into the living room with two steaming mugs, Max has been moved from Billy’s lap and onto the couch, brow furrowed as she sleeps fitfully against his shoulder. Wordlessly, he offers Billy one of the mugs.

 

“‘S black,” he says. “If you want sugar—”

 

“It’s fine,” Billy says shortly. “Thanks.” Careful not to jostle Max, he brings the cup to his lips to drink. Jonathan winces at what’s sure to be a scalded tongue, but Billy doesn’t seem to care, swallowing down half the mug’s contents in one gulp.

 

There’s an uncomfortable pause.

 

“Um…” Jonathan shifts from foot to foot. “Do you want me to… I’ve got extra blankets, and stuff. If she needs any.”

 

Billy bites his lip, glancing at Max before nodding quietly.

 

“Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, that’d be good.”

 

Jonathan nods and gives him an awkward smile before slipping down the hall to the linen closet. He pulls down a couple of blankets from the high shelf and tosses them over his shoulder, shutting the door and heading further down the hall to Will’s room.

 

His little brother’s curled up on his side on the bed and staring at the door when he peers in, looking small and far too worried when he meets Jonathan’s eyes.

 

“Will?”

 

“What’s gonna happen to Max?” he asks. “If her mom’s really…”

 

Jonathan swallows.

 

“I don’t know, buddy,” he says. “All I know is that she’s here now, okay?”

 

Will nods but doesn’t answer, and after a minute, Jonathan leaves him, heading back into the living room.

 

Billy stands when he sees him, carefully extricating himself out from under Max and resettling her on the couch so she can lay down properly, tugging off her shoes before taking the blankets Jonathan offers him and tossing them over her shoulders like he’s done it a hundred times before.

 

“‘M gonna go have a smoke,” he mutters, turning towards the front door.

 

“You don’t have to go out,” Jonathan says. “My mom smokes inside, it’s fine.”

 

Billy blinks at him, then looks at Max.

 

“I’m gonna go outside for a bit,” he says. “I need some air.”

 

And just like that, he slips outside, door clicking shut behind him as he goes.

 

Jonathan sighs and looks over at Max, crossing his arms unhappily.

 

The whole situation is just fucked. He’d like to call Nancy, ask her to come over, but he doesn’t think Billy’d appreciate that, not with everything that may or may not be going on. Jonathan’s not quite sure he believes him, honestly— because, murder? That’s not a thing that happens in Hawkins. Alternate dimensions and demogorgons, fine, but… murder? People killing people? That’s not a thing. Not in a town like theirs.

 

God, this is gonna suck.



*.*



Joyce pulls up in front of her house to find a strange car parked in her driveway and the sheriff’s truck just behind it. Her stomach drops at the sight, and she scrambles out of her car before she can even think, her breath frozen in her lungs as she launches herself onto the porch.

 

The door swings open with the force of her panic, startling the assembled guests as she stands in the doorway, breathing heavily and eyeing them, wild-eyed and frightened.

 

“What happened?” she demands. “Will—”

 

“Is fine,” Jim tells her, pushing himself to his feet. “For once, this has got nothing to do with him.”

 

Joyce glances behind him to see Max curled up on her couch under a mountain of blankets and— her brother? Her brother seated on the floor by her feet, looking red-eyed and defensive. Her boys, she realizes, are noticeably absent.

 

She looks back to Jim.

 

“What happened?” she asks, frowning. “Jim, is everything alright?”

 

Jim sighs, glancing over at Billy before turning back to her.

 

“Outside,” he says, nudging her gently back towards the door.

 

“Don’t bother, Chief,” Billy says wetly, mouth pinched at the corners as he looks up at them both from under golden curls. “‘S not like I don’t know what’s going on.”

 

Jim sighs.

 

“You sure?” he asks. Billy shrugs and doesn’t answer.

 

“Jim,” Joyce says again. “What happened?”

 

“A domestic,” Jim says, hooking his thumbs into his belt loops and bowing his head slightly. “Between Mr. and Mrs. Hargrove. Max’s mother didn’t survive the altercation.”

 

Joyce covers her mouth with a hand.

 

“What?” she whispers. “Oh, God—”

 

“Billy brought Max home from the kids’ game night and found her in the bathroom,” Jim continues, shifting uncomfortably. “He brought her here on her recommendation and had Jonathan call me. His father’s MIA, for now, but I’ve already called it in. They’re looking out for him.”

 

He gives her a look, and Joyce knows what he wants to ask her before he can begin to form the question. As if she would say no to a friend of Will’s.

 

“You two can stay with me as long as you need,” she says, stepping around Jim to talk to Billy. “As long as you need, you understand me?”

 

Billy twitches, then looks up, confusion clear in his eyes.

 

“You— I can get out of your hair,” he says. “I just thought Max—”

 

“The both of you,” Joyce says pointedly, because she knows his type, has dated his type in a fuzzy, mostly-forgotten past, and knows he’s got it in his head that he can take care of himself. “I can’t say accommodations will be the most comfortable thing in the universe, but I’ve got a spare sleeping bag for tonight and we can clear out the guest room tomorrow and put you both in there, okay?”

 

Billy swallows and looks away.

 

“Thank you, ma’am,” he says thickly.

 

“Joyce,” she corrects. “You can call me Joyce, sweetie.”

 

The boy runs a hand through his hair awkwardly.

 

“Billy,” he says. “I’m Billy.”

 

Joyce knows that, of course, knows all the stories of what an asshole the kid is to his little sister and the rest of her friends, but all that swagger and peacocking has disappeared in the wake of death and destruction, and all she sees in front of her is a scared kid who has no idea what’s going to happen next.

 

She smiles.

 

“It’s nice to meet you, Billy,” she says. “Let’s get you set up for the night, huh?”

Chapter Text

Billy wakes up to the sound of quiet snuffling and hiccupping breaths— Max. Max is awake, awake enough to have reality come crashing down on her in the darkness of the living room.

 

He rolls over onto his side to face the couch, eyes finding the the fate outline of a trembling lump under the blankets.

 

“Max,” he whispers.

 

The lump shifts, and two shining eyes appear out of the mess of flannel.

 

“Sorry, Billy,” she says softly, sniffling. “I’ll be quieter.”

 

And maybe he should have expected an answer like that, after so much time spent on telling her to sit down and shut up, but in this context it just makes his stomach twist itself into uncomfortable knots.

 

He holds open an arm.

 

“Come here,” he says holding open his arms. There’s a pause, and then her legs kick out from under the blankets and she slides off the couch to lie down on the floor next to his sleeping bag.

 

“How you doin’, twerp?” he asks as she makes herself as comfortable as she can manage on the thin carpet.

 

“How do you think?” she asks his chest. He can see the wrinkles in her brow even from this angle.

 

“Yeah,” he agrees. “Stupid question. I remember what it was like when my Mom died.”

 

Max twitches. Billy’s never talked about his mother in her presence, and Neil’s never made mention of her outside of the occasional comment of ‘just like her, you faggot’ he tossed in Billy’s direction. She probably didn’t even know the woman was dead.

 

“You feel numb,” he continues. “On the outside. Like your skin can’t feel anything at all. But inside, you’re burning up, but you’re cold, too. Icy. You don’t know what to do with yourself. You want— you want everyone to leave you alone, but can’t stand the thought of it, either. You’re scared, and all you want is to go home and find out it’s all been a bad dream.”

 

She’s quiet long enough for Billy to know he’s hit the nail on the head, long enough for him to wonder if she’s fallen asleep on him.

 

“How’d your mom die?”

 

Billy swallows, blinking away the memories that surface against his will.

 

“Brain aneurysm,” he says shortly. “No one saw it coming. I found her in her bed when I woke up late for school one morning and needed a ride.”

 

He’d been a pretty self-sufficient kid, even at eleven— he had to be, considering the nature of his mother’s work and his own need for independence. Most days, he would have just skipped school and gone to the park for the day, except he’d known, somehow, that something was different.

 

“After she died social services took me to my dad- once they found him, anyway,” he continues. “That’s where I’ve been ever since.”

 

Until now, anyway. Now, he’s here, on the floor of the Byers house, feeling just as lost as he did when he was eleven and found his mother dead under her covers.

 

“What was she like?”

 

Billy thinks about it, mindful of the fact that Max is probably asking him more for distraction than anything else.

 

“She looked like me,” he says after a moment. “Blonde, you know, and blue-eyed. She always had a smile, even when work was shitty or some guy beat her up, and she used to sing all the old songs she learned from her mom in Scotland.”

 

“You’re Mom was Scottish?” There’s real surprise there, enough to make Billy smile, just a little bit.

 

“Yeah,” he says, nodding slightly. “She had a really thick accent, like Scotty, off Star Trek? Kids at school used to laugh at her, but I always thought it sounded pretty. I used to try and talk like her, whenever I could.”

 

There’s a pause, and Max wriggles closer to him, until her nose is pressed into his chest.

 

“My mom can’t— couldn’t sing,” she tells him softly. “It must have been nice.”

 

“I still remember some of the songs she used to sing,” Billy says. “Want to hear one?”

 

Max nods into his chest, throwing one arm over his middle, and Billy sighs, pulling at memories he’s made a point to ignore for so long.

 

Dh'fhàg mi 'n so 'na shìneadh e, 'Na shìneadh e, 'na shìneadh e; Gu'n d'fhàg mi 'n so 'na shìneadh e…” He starts. The Gaelic feels odd on his unpracticed tongue, but Max doesn’t seem to notice, slowly relaxing into his grip as he sings. He keeps going, repeating old verses until she’s fallen asleep again, snoring lightly against his chest.

 

It’s been a rough night, and Billy has the feeling it’s only going to get rougher. He hopes he can make it a little easier for her, at least for now. For all that she’s kind of a spoiled brat, no kid fucking deserves what she saw today, and it was Billy’s mistake that led her to see it. If he hadn’t freaked out, she might not have come to investigate, and then she might not have seen—

 

Chief Hopper said it had looked like had been stabbed with one of the steak knives from the kitchen. He said she probably died quickly, that she probably passed out before bleeding out onto the bathroom floor. He said that she probably didn’t die in pain.


Billy thinks he’s a fucking liar.

Chapter Text

Billy wakes up alone on the floor to the sound of something heavy hitting the floor and cursing. Frowning, he sits up, wincing at the twinge in his back as he does so.

 

Joyce’s head appear from around the corner of the hall.

 

“Oh, God, sorry, Billy,” she says apologetically. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”

 

Billy shakes his head, running a hand through his rumpled hair.

 

“It’s alright, Miss— Joyce,” he corrects, pushing himself to his feet. “What time is it?”

 

“Quarter after eleven,” she says. “You can keep sleeping, if you want— I’m just sorting out the guest room for you guys.”

 

“Oh.” Billy pushes himself to his feet. “Wait, I’ll help you with that.”

 

“No, no, I’m fine— just clumsy, is all.” She smiles at him. “Max is with Will in his room. Do you wanna take a shower? I’ve got some of Jonathan’s stuff, if you want to change.”

 

Billy looks down and winces. There’s dried blood on his jeans and shirt, which is just… gross.

 

“I’ve got stuff in my car,” he says, looking back up.

 

“Oh.” Joyce blinks. “Well, that’s good. Is it clean?”

 

Billy nods. He always keeps a few days’ worth of clothes in the trunk of the Camaro, just in case he needs to spend the night outside the house, along with a bag of other basic necessities. Always be prepared, that’s his motto.

 

“In that case, go grab your stuff,” she says. “There’s an extra towel in the bathroom for you.”

 

Billy nods again and heads outside, dragging his keys out of his back pocket and popping the trunk, pulling out a fresh pair of jeans and, after a moment’s thought, two shirts— one from a Quiet Riot concert he went to last year and another AC/DC shirt for Max. He also finds a pink cardigan that’s definitely not his, but he figures will fit Max just fine. She’ll just have to deal with wearing the same jeans again today until he can sort out either a trip to the mall in the next town over or access to the house. Probably the mall. That doesn’t make his stomach turn as much as the other option.

 

Shouldering his backpack (complete with a comb, hairspray, deodorant, and all other necessities), he heads back into the house.

 

“I’ve got stuff for Max,” he tells Joyce as he shuts the door behind him. “Where…?”

 

“Last door on the left,” Joyce says, pointing. “Bathroom’s next door.”

 

Billy nods and ambles past her, careful not to brush her as she carries out a box of what appears to be fine china.

 

Max and Will are seated on the bed when he peers inside, frowning down at a chess set.

 

“Max, I have clothes,” he says, tossing her the AC/DC shirt and cardigan. “If you wanna change.”

 

She looks at him, then stares down at the precious band t-shirt in her hands.

 

“I— thanks, Billy.”

 

He shrugs off her gratitude and goes to the bathroom, locking the door behind him. Billy is going to take the most thorough shower he’s ever taken, and pretend for ten fucking minutes that his life hasn’t just gone to hell.

 

Yeah. That’s a good idea.



*.*



“You’re shitting me.”

 

Jonathan shakes his head and Steve curses, sitting back in his armchair.

 

“How’s Max?” he asks, because of course he asks after her, she’s one of his kids, now.

 

“Not great,” Jonathan says honestly. “She stuck pretty close to Billy all night, didn’t say a word.”

 

“Poor thing,” Nancy says, eyes wide and sad. “I can’t even imagine… and Billy was the one who found her mom?”

 

Jonathan nods.

 

“He’s the one that dragged her out of the house,” he says. “He told Hopper she saw but… it sounds like he tried to keep her away from it all.” Not that he succeeded, Billy had made sure to tell Hopper that, too. Max saw her mother’s body, even if it was only for a few seconds. A few seconds too many, in Billy’s— and frankly, Jonathan’s— opinion.

 

“Well,” Steve says after a moment. “Guess he isn’t as big of a dickhead as we thought he was.”

 

Jonathan hums his agreement.

 

“Mom’s letting them stay with us for now,” he continues. “Until they figure out what’s gonna happen next.”

 

“What does happen next?” Nancy asks, brow furrowing with worry. “I mean, Billy’s legal, but Max…”

 

“A foster home, probably,” Steve says bleakly. “It was just her and her mom. There’s no other family that could take her in.”

 

Jonathan winces at the thought. That’s… bad. Really bad. And she’d just gotten used to Hawkins, too.

 

“Couldn’t Billy take her?” Nancy asks. “I mean, if he wanted to.”

 

“There’s a lot of stuff you have to prove if you want custody,” Jonathan says, remembering his parents' short-live custody battle. “Minimum, he needs a house and a job, and I can’t picture Billy bagging groceries at the supermarket, can you?”

 

The look on Nancy’s face makes it clear that she can’t. Steve huffs an unhappy sigh.

 

“Well, shit,” he says. “This fucking sucks.”

 

Yeah, Jonathan’s come to a similar conclusion.

 

“I don’t think Max is going to school Monday,” he says after a moment. “I don’t think Mom’ll let her. Or Billy, though I don’t know how that’s going to work.”

 

Nancy winces.

 

“He’s such a prick,” she says. “How is your mom— he’s going to rip her apart.”

 

Jonathan shrugs.

 

“Actually, he was pretty polite when she walked in,” he admits. “Called her ‘ma’am’ and everything.” Jonathan had listened to the entire exchange through his bedroom door, had heard the tears in Billy’s voice when Jonathan’s mother insisted he stay.

 

“No shit,” Steve says. “Maybe he was just in shock.”

 

“Probably,” Jonathan agrees. He doesn’t want to talk about how scared Billy looked when he’d walked into the house with Max in his arms, how quiet and pale and weirdly vulnerable he seemed when he sat on the couch with Max pressed into his shoulder. Jonathan has seen what the guy’s handiwork looks like when he’s pissed, and he has no interest in setting that kind of rage off by telling his friends things he’s sure Billy would prefer to keep quiet.

 

“Think Max or Will are gonna clue in the rest of the kids?” Steve asks after a moment.

 

Jonathan thinks about it.

 

“Probably,” he says after a moment. “But Will won’t say anything unless Max asks him to. He’s good like that.”

 

“Yeah,” Steve agrees. “Shit, poor Max. All she’s got now is Billy.”

 

Out of everything, Jonathan thinks. That’s probably the worst part. No matter how nice he’d been to her yesterday, he can’t imagine that behavior sticking around for long. He’s too cool for the kind of shit Max is gonna need, after all, too busy getting invited to parties and kicking nerd ass.

 

Christ.

Chapter Text

Billy manages to wrestle the duty of lugging boxes into the basement from Joyce within about twenty minutes after he gets out of the shower, if only by dint of moving faster than her between the guest room and the basement. There’s only one bed— and she’d apologized profusely for that— but Billy’s had worse and anyway, he gets the feeling Max won’t mind sharing. Judging by the way she keeps wandering out into the hall every twenty minutes or so, she doesn’t like the idea of him being out of reach anymore than he does.

 

Since he takes over, Joyce decides to start on lunch for them all, humming quietly to herself as she clatters around the kitchen. It’s weird, how much noise one little woman can make, or maybe it isn’t. Billy’s mother rarely cooked, and Susan was always quiet, even before she ended up on the receiving end of Neil’s rage.

 

It hadn’t taken long, honestly. Maybe a month after the wedding? Two? Susan had gone out with a few friends, and come home late. Neil hadn’t been happy, and she woke up the next morning with bruises on her back— or at least, Billy assumes she did. He’d seen it all from the the doorway of his room.

 

Max, though, Max never got hit. Neil loved having a daughter as smart as Max, even if she was a little too tough to be a daddy’s girl. She was going places, Neil had always told her, because she had brains and she didn’t take any shit from the kids who picked on her, she just did better. She never came home crying, she came home with a note from her teacher. When Neil sat her down to talk about it, he never would ask why she hit that boy or why she tore that girl’s dress, he’d ask her if she won.

 

He liked her fire.

 

Now, though, Billy thinks as he watches her step into the hall again out of the corner of his eye, now he thinks that fire’s dimmed a little bit. He wonders if she’ll get better. He wonders if she’ll get worse.

 

Finishing up with the last of the boxes, he goes and sits down on the stripped mattress of the queen-sized bed, ignoring the way it sinks a little too much under his weight.

 

“What am I gonna do?” he whispers, burying his hands in his damp hair. “What the fuck am I gonna do?”

 

Max has no other family, that much he knows, no uncles or aunts or grandparents. He knows she’ll want to go to her dad, probably, but fuck if Billy’s going to let that happen. He met the man once, when he’d come to pick her up for a day trip before they left California, and he could tell the moment he laid eyes on that skinny motherfucker that he was blitzed out of his mind. And he was driving, driving, with Max in the car. Max, who’s barely fourteen and so in love with her Daddy who buys her presents and takes her out for ice cream that she doesn’t notice how bad his hands are shaking.

 

No, that’s not happening. So what’s left? A group home? Billy can’t let that happen, either. He’s been in those places, he knows what they’re like, and as tough as Max can be, she won’t survive that. Hell, Billy barely survived, and he’d known far more about the frailty of human kindness in the face of four hundred bucks a month per kid. Plus, you know, she’s a girl, and a pretty enough one, at that. Billy had just been a shrill, skinny brat with buck teeth and a lisp, not much in the way of a temptation when he was sharing a house with a handful of girls who were blossoming, as Mr. Hearst used to say.

 

He has to figure a way out of this, for both of them, and he needs to figure it out fast. It won’t be long before people start sticking their noses in, before people start asking questions, and for good reason, too— after all, who’s going to take care of her, Billy? A fuck up teenaged metalhead with no job and no future unless it involves jail time or wrapping his Camaro around a pole?

 

Yeah, right.



*.*



Billy is a quiet, polite, and helpful boy, and Joyce hates it.

 

She hates it because Mrs. Wheeler’s mentioned how charming he was that first time he knocked on her door, all compliments and smiles and half-buttoned shirts. She hates it because Steve told her why his face was three different colors after everything went to hell and El closed the gate. She knows because the furrow in Max’s brow always deepened whenever Joyce asked after her brother, who was always her ride to and from the kids’ game night but never around for Joyce to properly meet him. She knows because Hopper’s complained about the kid’s smart mouth and tendency to pass out on strangers’ lawns more than once since the Hargroves moved to Hawkins.

 

The picture Joyce had in her head of Billy Hargrove was a swaggering storm of fury and teenaged animal magnetism, the sort of boy she would have done anything to get a date with in high school, and based on his clothes, his haircut, and the odd razor-sharpness to his too-blue eyes, she wasn’t wrong.

 

Of course, it’s not surprising that he’s acting differently. But whatever Joyce logically knows, there’s something about the defeated slump in the kid’s shoulders that sets her teeth on edge.

 

Still, she lets him help her empty out the guest room. She lets him nudge her away from the sink full of dishes after they’ve had a lunch of fried hot dogs and peas. She lets him think she isn’t watching from her place on the couch in front of the television when he moves from the dishes to the counter and from the counter to the floor as he proceeds to scrub her entire kitchen down with cleaning supplies she forgot she had from the cupboard under the sink. Why? Because he needs a distraction, and from what Joyce has heard, he hasn’t got much in the way of friends like Max does, and whoever he does hang out with— Tommy Hanson, a typical high school bully and his girlfriend, Carol— isn’t likely to be equipped with the special kind of freak out that Billy seems to be having.

 

Eventually, when the floor is scrubbed and the dishes are washed and the counters gleam in a way Joyce doesn’t remember them ever doing before, he steps into the living room, looking uncomfortable and nothing like the sort of boy she would have liked to date in high school.

 

She smiles at him.

 

“They’re playing Dukes of Hazzard reruns,” she tells him. “Wanna watch with me?”

 

Billy dawdles for a moment, clearly surprised and definitely uncertain, before squaring his shoulders and moving to sit down as far away from her as he can manage.

 

“Lunch was good, ma’am,” he says, eyes fixed on the television.

 

God, Joyce just wants to give this kid a hug.

 

“Thanks, Billy,” she says instead, because she thinks Billy might actually bolt if she tries to touch him. “And thanks for cleaning the kitchen. I never have the time to give it as good a scrubbing as I should.”

 

Something in his posture relaxes slightly, and he nods, just the barest dip of his chin.

 

“No problem.”

 

He doesn’t seem inclined to say anything else, so Joyce finally lets herself pay attention to the television, just for a little while.

 

When she looks over again, Billy’s head is tilted back and he’s asleep, mouth slightly open and limbs spread out like rag doll.

 

Good. He needs his rest.

Chapter Text



Hopper comes home to find El curled around her radio, face twisted into an unhappy frown. She looks up when he shuts the door behind himself.

 

“Max.”

 

El isn’t the most verbose person that Hopper’s ever spoken to, but he figures she doesn’t need to be, because one word is more than enough to make his stomach go cold.

 

“She talked to you?” he asks, because he may know what she’s referring to, but he doesn’t know what she wants to ask, just yet.

 

“Yes.” El sits up. “Talked to all of us. Scared.”

 

Hopper sighs.

 

“Yeah, I bet she is,” he agrees. “She’s staying with Will and his family for now.”

 

El nods.

 

“Visit?” she asks.

 

“I’m not sure that’s a good idea at the moment,” he says. “Like you said, she’s scared. She needs some time to settle herself.”

 

“She needs friends,” El says, shaking her head. “I’m her friend.”

 

And… that’s probably true, too. Hopper’s made a point of bringing El around more often nowadays, and she and Max have hit it off even better than he’d hoped they would. Still…

 

“I’ll call Joyce tomorrow and ask her what she thinks,” he says. “Okay?”

 

El thinks about it for a moment, then nods.

 

“Okay.”



*.*



“El wants to come see Max.”

 

“Oh. When?”

 

“I thought Monday would be alright, after school?”

 

“Max isn’t going to school,” Joyce says. “Billy’s going to stay home with her Monday.”

 

Hopper chews his lip, glancing over at El.

 

“Max’s brother is going to be there,” he says. “Is that okay?”

 

El nods without looking away from the television, taking a bite of her waffle and swallowing without really chewing.

 

“Same,” she says, and this time, Hopper doesn’t quite know what she means.

 

“She doesn’t care,” he says into the receiver.

 

“Alright. You can bring her over while the rest are at school,” Joyce says. “I know everybody’s going to want to visit if El’s stopping by but… I think that might be too much for Billy and Max. Jonathan can drive her home afterward, if you want.”

 

Hopper smiles slightly.

 

“No need for that, but thanks for the offer, Joyce.”

 

“No problem, Hop.”



*.*



“I can go, I’m fine—”

 

“I know you’re fine,” Joyce says patiently. “But Max isn’t, and I don’t want her to be alone in the house.”

 

That makes Billy pause, which is good, because that means that Joyce is well on her way to winning.

 

“Besides,” she says, putting her hands on her hips. “Hop’s dropping off his daughter to spend some time with Max. She heard about what happened and well… I thought it would do Max some good to have some girl time.”

 

“Max has a chick friend?” There’s another pause. “The Chief has a daughter?”

 

Joyce smiles slightly.

 

“It’s a recent thing,” she says. “She hasn’t started school yet, still needs some time to settle, but yeah. El.”

 

Billy shifts, rubbing his palms together thoughtfully.

 

“The Chief adopted a kid.”

 

Strange, how that’s what he focuses on.

 

“He did.” Joyce crosses her arms. “Be nice to her, please. She’s… she’s had it rough, too.”

 

Something flashes in his eyes, something dark and unhappy, and he gives her a sharp nod.

 

“Yes, ma’am,” he says. “I’ll do my very best not to be an ass.”

 

And he gives her a little smile, like it’s supposed to be a joke, but the slant of his lips isn’t quite right and the humor doesn’t touch his eyes.

 

Well, Joyce’ll take it.

 

“They’ll come by on Hop’s way to work,” she says. “About eight-thirty?”

 

“We’ll be awake,” he promises. “What did you say her name was? El?”

 

“El. Or Jane. She’ll answer to either.” Joyce smiles at him. “If you’re worried about what to feed ‘em, El likes Eggos. I stocked up today, so you should be fine.”

 

Billy wrinkles his nose, but doesn’t say anything about El’s choice in waffle brands.

 

“Okay,” he says. “Do you think…?” He trails off.

 

“What?”

 

“Never mind.” Billy turns away. “I’m gonna go have a smoke.”

 

Joyce lets him leave, because it’s clear he needs the space, and decides to get started on dinner. Jonathan’s going to be home tonight, after all, and they haven’t had a family meal in a long time.

 

She’s thinking chicken, tonight.



*.*



El is cute as a button and dressed in a long battered coat that probably belonged to Hopper at some point when Billy opens the door at eight-forty-three in the morning. She peers up at him from under a mop of glossy brown curls curiously, mouth slightly open as she takes in his freshly showered appearance with something like awe.

 

“Blond,” is the first thing she says, which, okay.

 

“Um, yeah,” he agrees, glancing up at Hopper. The man shrugs and he looks back down at El. “Max is in the kitchen.”

 

El nods and he steps aside to let her in. She makes a beeline for the kitchen and suddenly, Billy finds himself alone with a cop, which is never a good thing.

 

“I’ll pick her up around four,” he says, because he’s a no-nonsense ex-army man who’s about as uncomfortable as Billy is. “You can handle it?”

 

Billy shrugs.

 

“They’re girls, right?” he says. “Girls aren’t so bad.”

 

Hop snorts.

 

“Yeah. Sure, kid,” he says. “Just make sure El eats something other than Eggos, okay?”

 

“Yes, sir.” Billy pauses, glancing over his shoulder quickly before stepping out onto the porch. “Chief, can I talk to you for a second?”

 

Hopper blinks at him.

 

“Yeah, of course. What’s wrong?”

 

Billy shifts from foot to foot, looking at something just over Hopper’s shoulder before taking a deep breath and meeting his eyes.

 

“When— when is Susan’s body going to be released?”

 

“Oh.” Hopper grimaces slightly. “Soon. We’ve been trying to track down a family member who can—”

 

“There is no family,” Billy says. “Just Max and her. I can take care of it.”

 

Hopper stares for a moment, then frowns.

 

“Kid, that’s nice of you, but unless you’ve got four grand socked away somewhere—”

 

“I do,” Billy says, even as he winces at the price tag. “I just— I need to go, first. To Indianapolis.”

 

“Indianapolis? What for?”

 

Billy runs a hand through his wet hair.

 

“Lockbox,” he says shortly. “I’ve got one there. Should have enough money.”

 

“... Do I want to know how you got that kind of money?”

 

“Probably not,” Billy says with a humorless smile. “But— the point is, I can handle it. And I will. So, when can I, you know. Do that?”

 

Hopper is quiet for a long moment, long enough for Billy to feel his courage start to fail. Then, he speaks.

 

“Thursday, at the latest,” he says. “Probably Wednesday. Are you going to take Max with you to Indianapolis?”

 

Billy shakes his head.

 

“Don’t think that’s a good idea, if I’m honest, Chief,” he says. “I figure I’ll just cut out of school early and make the drive on my own.”

 

Hopper sighs.

 

“Don’t make a habit of it,” he says. “I’ll call the school for you so it doesn’t get added to your records.”

 

“I—” Billy looks down again. “Thank you, sir.”

 

“What are you thanking me for? If El comes home in one piece after today, I’m looking at another babysitter.” Hopper claps him on the shoulder gently. “See you at four, Billy.”

 

Billy shrugs off his hand and gives him a half-assed salute, a shadow of a smirk on his thin face.

 

“You got it, Chief.”

Chapter Text

“Okay?”

 

Max’s mouth pinches.

 

“Not really,” she admits softly. “I… my mom’s gone, El, and I— I don’t know what to do.”

 

El is quiet for a long moment.

 

“I met Mama,” she says slowly. “My Mama. She was… hurt. By the men who hurt me.”

 

“She’s still alive?”

 

El shrugs.

 

“Not like she should be,” she says. “Sits in a rocking chair all day. They fried her brains.”

 

Max winces.

 

“I’m sorry,” she says.

 

“Don’t be sorry. Still glad I met her.” El shifts closer. “Your brother.”

 

Max shrugs.

 

“He’s been… really nice,” she says. “He’s really freaked out, I guess.”

 

El nods.

 

“His Papa hurt him, too,” she says. “Like my Papa hurt me and my sister.”

 

“You have a sister?”

 

“Yes.” El smiles slightly. “She’s amazing, but hurting. She doesn’t have a Hopper to make the pain less.”

 

Max nods quietly to herself.

 

“Is she… like you?”

 

“No. She can make people see things.” El smiles slightly. “Butterflies and spiders.”

 

“Oh. That’s kind of cool.”

 

“Bitchin’.”

 

Max lets out a little laugh.

 

“Bitchin’,” she agrees. “What’s she like, your sister?”

 

El hums thoughtfully, glancing over at Billy, who for some reason or another has decided to fiddle with the decorative piano in the corner of the living room.

 

“Like your brother,” she says finally. “Angry. Scared. But good, inside.”

 

Max doesn’t answer, eyes finding Billy where he’s half buried in the Byers’ piano, twisting some jury-rigged tool this way and that as he makes a valiant effort to tune the instrument. She didn’t know he knew how to do that. Actually, she isn’t sure he actually knows what he’s doing.

 

“He carried me out of the house, when we found my mom,” Max says softly. “He kept telling me not to look, but— I had to. I had to see.” Her face crumples and she looks down. “There was so much blood, El.”

 

El reaches out, plastering herself to Max’s side as she starts to cry.

 

“Crying helps,” she says, rocking Max slightly as she speaks. “Hop says so. Says it helps get rid of the bad things.”

 

Max is pretty sure that’s not how it works, but damn if she doesn’t want to believe it for a moment.



*.*



“So Billy isn’t at school today.”

 

Jonathan nods, fiddling with the strap of his backpack.

 

“He’s at home with El and Max,” he tells Steve. “Mom asked him to babysit.”

 

Steve’s eyes widen.

 

“Hop was okay with Billy being around El?” he says, surprised. “Really?”

 

Jonathan shrugs.

 

“He called Mom to ask if she was okay with El coming over,” he says as Nancy wanders up to them.

 

“No Billy today?” she asks.

 

“Apparently he’s home babysitting El and Max,” Steve says before Nancy can get a word in. “Which is weird.”

 

Nancy hums thoughtfully.

 

“I guess Hop figured he wouldn’t be stupid enough to hurt the daughter of the Chief of Police,” she says. “And no matter how big a prick he is, Billy’s not dumb.”

 

That much they all know. When the guy bothers to show up for class, all his work is perfect, which is irritating because, hey, how the fuck did he know they were Pride and Prejudice, anyway? Does that mean he’s read Pride and Prejudice?

 

Jonathan can’t picture that.

 

“I guess you’ve got a point there,” Steve says, rubbing absently at the scar on his chin that he’d gotten from Billy all those months ago. “Hey, what are you guys doing after school? Besides picking up the nerds, I mean.”

 

“Studying,” Nancy says, sighing. “I’ve got a Trig test tomorrow and I’ve been really behind the last couple of days.”

 

“Work,” Jonathan says. “Derek got fired, finally.”

 

“Fantastic,” Steve grumbles. “I’ve got nothin’ to do today.”

 

Jonathan pauses.

 

“You could go see Max,” he offers after a moment. “My Mom’s gonna be at work ‘til six.”

 

Steve grimaces.

 

“And see Billy? Last time we were in your house together, he beat my face in. No, thanks.”

 

“I don’t think he’s gonna try that again,” Jonathan says. “He’s been kinda quiet since he showed up.”

 

“And my pretty face is exactly the sort of thing that’ll set him off,” Steve says. “No, I think I’ll just go home. Safer that way.”



*.*



The piano is clean and newly tuned, and Billy is feeling pretty good about that when he sits down on the rickety bench. He runs his hand over the keys experimentally, playing a handful of scales before sitting back.

 

“Play?”

 

Billy startles and twists to find El standing behind him, peering at his hands on the keys with innocent curiosity.

 

“Uh,” he says. “Yes. I can.”

 

She smiles at him.

 

“Play, please,” she says, and really, there must be something wrong with her, because nobody talks like that.

 

“I’m really rusty,” he tells her, eyeing Max uncertainly as she watches the interaction from her spot on the couch. “It won’t sound very good.”

 

El smiles at him. Fuck, she’s adorable, sort of like a chipmunk. Billy has never thought of anyone as adorable, before.

 

“That’s okay,” she tells him, touching his shoulder with gentle fingers. “I don’t mind.”

 

Billy grunts and turns back to the piano and thinks for a moment. Jesus, it’s been so long, does he even remember any songs? He taps out a few chords, uncertain, before hitting on something familiar. As if his fingers never left, they move to the next note on the keys.

 

The words follow suit.

 

“When marimba rhythms start to play, dance with me, make me sway…”

 

He hears El’s little pleased gasp behind him and smirks to himself, turning his head slightly to catch her bright, happy eyes.

 

He hasn’t played for anyone since he was eleven, save for maybe his old band teacher, but usually he waited until he was gone to sneak into the band room and practice. It’s been… two years since he played, until now, and he’s pretty pleased with himself when he gets through the whole song with only two real flubs.

 

El claps excitedly.

 

“Again!” she says. “That was beautiful.”

 

“I didn’t know you could play,” Max says, and oh, he didn’t notice she’d gotten up to stand behind his other shoulder. “Do you know anything else?”

 

“... A few things,” he admits.

 

Max bites her lip.

 

“Can we hear?” she asks.

 

Billy hesitates. He doesn’t really like playing in front of people, but— aw, hell, why not? It’s not like anyone’s going to see, nobody who’s gonna tease him, anyway.

 

“Yeah, okay.” He turns back to the piano. “I’ve got some Queen memorized, if you want.”

 

“Queen?” El asks from behind him, and Billy shakes his head.

 

What kind of kid doesn’t know Queen?

Chapter Text

Before Billy knows it, his day has devolved from technically babysitting by dint of being in the same house as two girls that are younger than him to piano lessons.

 

“So, see this? When the symbol at the beginning of the staff is a treble clef and the notes are on the lines, it’s Every Good Boy Does Fine, get it? E, G, B, D, F, from the bottom to the top.” Billy draws out his point on an empty sheet of paper Max pilfered from Will’s room. “And when the notes are in the spaces on a treble staff, they spell ‘face’. F, A, C, E. On a bass clef, though, then it’s a little different. From bottom to top, the notes on the lines go G, B, D, F, A— Good Boys Don’t Fight Anyone— and the spaces go A, C, E, G— All Cows Eat Grass.”

 

Max seems fascinated by the fact that he knows basic music theory, which Billy just chalks up to the fact that she doesn’t know much about anything about him, but El, El looks like he just hung the moon and stars.

 

He’s never had anyone look at him like that.

 

By the time four o’clock rolls around, he even has El playing scales, squeezed between the two girls on the little bench as he directs her fingers across the keys. Billy can see when her wrists curve a certain way that there’s a little black mark there, a tattoo of some kind. He suddenly thinks of Joyce’s warning, about how El had it rough before the Chief took her in, and his stomach drops.

 

What the fuck happened to this little girl?

 

The knock on the door startles him when it comes, pulling his focus from El’s hands and the tattoo on her wrist to the door.

 

“I’ll get it,” Max says, already getting up and heading towards the door.

 

The Chief steps in like he’s maybe expecting property damage, eyebrows disappearing under the brim of his hat when he catches sight of El and Billy sitting at the piano.

 

“Jim,” El says brightly, waving.

 

“El,” he greets with a nod. “What’cha doing?”

 

“Playing,” she says. “Billy’s teaching me.”

 

Billy feels his cheeks go hot.

 

“Uhh…”

 

“Billy played for us all day,” El continues, apparently unaware of his slowly reddening face. “He’s rad.”

 

Hopper looks between them for a moment, then snorts. Yeah, Billy’s never going to live down that particular slip-up.

 

“Sounds like you had fun today,” he says. “Thanks for watching her, Billy.”

 

Billy shrugs awkwardly.

 

“She wasn’t any trouble,” he says, looking away. “Max was happy to see her.”

 

“Always,” Max says sincerely. “El’s the best.”

 

El tucks her chin against her chest, smiling bashfully at Max.

 

“Thanks,” she says.

 

Hopper smiles fondly.

 

“Well, I’m sorry to say, it’s time to go home, El,” he says. “Say goodbye to Max and Billy.”

 

Billy watches El hop off the bench to give Max a hug.

 

“See you soon,” she promises. “Okay?”

 

Max nods.

 

“Okay. Thanks for…” she trails off, mouth quirking. “Yeah.”

 

“Yeah,” El nods, then turns to Billy.

 

“... Nice to meet you— oh!” Billy flails, because suddenly there is a small teenaged girl hugging him, skinny arms wrapped tight around his shoulders.

 

“Nice,” El says, squeezing slightly before letting go. “Bye, Billy.”

 

Billy stares at Hopper for a moment, who just shrugs. El, apparently not needing a verbal response, goes to Hopper, a little skip in her step.

 

“See you two soon,” he says, a hand finding El’s shoulder to lead her out of the house.

 

Just like that, the two of them are alone again.

 

“El likes you,” Max says after a moment. “Like, a lot.”

 

Billy makes a face.

 

“She’ll get over it,” he promises. “Don’t worry.”

 

“Not like that,” she says, frowning at him. “She thinks you’re cool.”

 

“I am cool.”

 

“No, you’re an asshole, most of the time.” Max sidles closer, sitting back down on the bench. “She likes you because you were nice to her.”

 

Billy sighs, looking down at his hands.

 

“What’s that tattoo on El’s wrist?” he asks, watching Max out of the corner of his eye.

 

Max stiffens.

 

“Her number. Eleven.” She runs a nervous hand through her hair. “The people that had her when she was little were… not good people. They had a bunch of kids, and they did stuff to them.”

 

Sex trafficking, probably, judging by Max’s discomfort about the subject. Billy’s stomach turns uncomfortably.

 

“Her real name’s Jane,” Max adds. “They took her away from her mom when she was really little, but she has a name. She’ll answer to either.”

 

Billy nods to himself.

 

“Jane’s alright,” he says. Jane’s probably better, if he’s honest, because the idea of— Eleven? A number, for a little girl as sweet as that? That’s fucking inhuman.

 

If Billy sees her again, he sure as fuck isn’t calling her El.



*.*



Billy takes Max to school on Tuesday and leans against the car to wait for Harrington to show up with his curly-haired nerd. He’d driven Will, too, citing that he may as well, since there’s no point in Jonathan driving him when Billy’s already going that way, right?

 

Hopper had been nice enough to bring along Max’s bag from the house, along with a few days worth of clothes to tide her over until Billy can go back into the house himself to collect their things, so when she gives him a last hug (that draws more than a few stares) before following Will into the building, she’s wearing a clean outfit and has what she needs for school— though she’s wearing his AC/DC shirt again, God knows why.

 

Whatever, she can keep it.

 

He’s barely there five minutes before Harrington’s BMW pulls up beside him, and his allocated nerd— Dustin, Billy’s pretty sure— hops out and takes off for the building, tossing a little wave over his shoulder as he goes.

 

Sighing, Billy stubs his cigarette and walks over to knock on Harrington’s window.

 

“Whattaya want, Hargrove?”

 

Billy feels anger swell in his throat. He swallows it down.

 

“Nothin’ much,” he says, trying for relaxed and probably missing it by a mile. “I just was gonna ask if you could take Max to the Byers today. I’m not gonna be able to pick her up.”

 

Harrington blinks at him.

 

“Why not?” he asks suspiciously, frowning up at him.

 

“Goin’ outta town,” Billy says. “I’ll be back tonight, but there’s a few things that need to be taken care of, and I’m not getting back ‘til late. I know you’re already picking up the Little Byers, so I figure if you’re going that way anyway…”

 

Harrington stares at him a moment longer, than sighs.

 

“Yeah, fine,” he says. “You’re not going to do anything stupid, are you?”

 

“Now, what makes you say that?”

 

“Lots of things,” Harrington says flatly. “But right now, I don’t think you or Max could afford you coming home covered in your own puke.”

 

Billy feels his face twist, and it takes more than a little effort on his part to smooth it out again.

 

“Not my style,” he says. “I can actually handle my liquor.” Straightening, he smacks his palm against the roof of the car twice. “Thanks, Harrington. See you around.”

 

“Uh, bye,” Harrington calls after him as he slips back into his car. Billy scoffs.

 

What a fucking moron.

Chapter Text

Everything Billy has that’s important is stored away in Indianapolis, in a big ass lockbox in one of the lower vaults. Well, not everything— he still has a box in Chicago, too, and another one in Los Angeles, but the one in Indianapolis is the closest, and has certain necessities that the others don’t, like his birth certificate, his social security card, and even a few crumpled photos.

 

He clears the box out completely, taking the fifteen grand and the manilla folder of documents with him before driving back to Hawkins. He’d played with maybe making a little bit extra before he left the biggest city within a six hour drive, but decides against it. His kind of work starts when the sun goes down, and he doesn’t like the idea of just leaving fifteen thousand dollars in small bills to rot in his car while he stands on a street corner.

 

So no. He just drives back, two duffel bags tucked securely in the trunk of his Camaro as he zips down the highway like the goddamn Bandit, just because he can.

 

He pulls up to the Byers’ house at about eight and groans. Harrington’s there, probably along with Dustin and the whole little gang, and that’s just fan-fucking-tastic. He debates for a moment whether or not to leave his shit in the car, but decides against it. This town might be a little white bread for his tastes, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t someone dumb enough to try and break into his car.

 

Sighing to himself, Billy pops the trunk, collects his bags, and heads for the door.

 

“Billy!” Joyce greets when he walks in. “How was the trip? Got everything you needed?”

 

“Uh, yeah.” Billy realizes belatedly that he had forgotten to tell Joyce where he’d be today. Well, he supposes Hopper handled that for him.

 

“Well, that’s good,” she says. “There’s leftover chicken pot pie in the kitchen, if you want some. Steve apparently took it upon himself to cook today.”

 

She sounds a little miffed about that, so Billy gives her a little smile.

 

“I ate on the way,” he lies. “How was Max?”

 

“Oh, fine.” Joyce pauses, glancing down the hall towards Will’s room. “She seems pretty happy that Steve decided to visit. I know you boys don’t get along, but—”

 

“Yeah, I think I’m just going to take this to the room and go to bed,” he says, gesturing at his bags. “If that’s okay with you, ma’am.”

 

“I told you, call me Joyce,” she says, rolling her eyes. “And of course you can. After all that driving, you must be tired— just go see Max first, okay?”

 

Billy nods because he can’t sigh. Harrington’s hanging out with his little sister, and in order to see Max, he has to look at that bastard’s smug face and not break it. This sucks.

 

He dumps the bags in the room he and Max are sharing along with the file and pauses in front of the mirror hanging on the closet door. He looks tired, bags under his eyes and hair free of its usual hairspray and teasing. He didn’t bother with his usual open button-down, either, preferring an old Mötley Crüe t-shirt that’s seen too many washes.

 

God, he looks like shit, but hell, Harrington already saw him today, so you know what? Fuck it.

 

The door’s open when Billy goes to Will’s room, but he knocks on the doorframe anyway.

 

“Billy!” Max shoots up from her spot on the floor and launches herself at him, a blur of red hair and pink that hits his chest full force.

 

“Holy shit!” Billy stumbles backward, on arm instinctively wrapping around her as the other reaches for the doorframe to keep them from falling.

 

Max pulls back, looking up at him accusingly.

 

“You didn’t tell me you were going to Indianapolis,” she says, frowning. “Why did you go?”

 

“Bank,” he says shortly, carefully pushing her off. “Had to get some stuff.”

 

“What kinda stuff?”

 

“Stuff that isn’t your business.” Billy cuffs her over the head gently, a shadow of what he might have done a week ago, before her mom was dead. “Now that you’re all caught up, I’m going to bed. For the love of God, don’t wake me up.”

 

Max squints up at him, frown deepening further, then looks back to where Harrington and Will are still sitting on the floor, watching. Will, Billy finds, looks equally confused, but when Max looks back at him, there’s realization on her face.

 

“Yeah, okay,” she says, stepping back. “Good night, Billy.”

 

Billy sighs.

 

“‘Night, twerp.” He nods to Will over her shoulder, ignores Harrington completely, and turns on his heel.

 

Fuck, he hates that guy.

 

He collapses onto the bed fully-clothed, the same way he’s done the last few days. Tomorrow after school, he’s going to count out everything he’s got, and then he’s going to take Max to the mall and get them clothes. Sleeping in jeans is okay once in a while, but four, soon to be five nights in a row is starting to get annoying.

 

He falls asleep between one breath and the next.



*.*



The problem with small towns is that one person’s business becomes everybody’s business, and when Billy walks into school that morning, he walks into a sea of whispers and stares, because, of course, everybody knows that his dad stabbed his sister’s mom.

 

Nice.

 

Billy ignores it, because he can, and for the most part, nobody bothers him, apparently too frightened by whatever rumors that have formed over the last few days to approach him. He gets through the morning without having to talk to anybody, because not even the teachers are willing to call on him in class, and it’s pretty great. However, that being said, he’s unwilling to brave the cafeteria when lunch rolls around, so he takes his packed lunch (thanks, Joyce, he feels about ten years old again) and heads out to the Camaro for some peace and quiet.

 

Except, somebody’s waiting for him.

 

“Byers,” he says flatly when he gets to the car. “What are you doing here?”

 

Jonathan shrugs.

 

“People are asking me about you,” he says quietly. “Everybody knows you’re staying with me, so they think I’ll tell them about, y’know. Figured it’d be quieter here.”

 

Ah, shit. Billy hadn’t even thought about that. He appreciates that Byers knows to keep his mouth shut, at least.

 

“Why aren’t you hanging around your car, then?”

 

“Well, I noticed nobody’s bothered you yet.” Jonathan offers him a small, uncertain smile. “I guessed you wouldn’t exactly wanna hang around with the basketball team today, so your car was a pretty safe bet. Nobody’s gonna try to ask me about you if I stick close enough.”

 

Which, okay. Good thinking. Billy might allow him this transgression, if only because it makes him snort.

 

“You’re an observant guy, Byers,” Billy says, moving to lean against the car beside Jonathan.

 

Jonathan hums.

 

“People think it’s creepy,” he says. “I see too much, stuff people don’t like. Plus, you know, I like to take pictures, which makes it even worse.”

 

“Yeah,” Billy says, arching an eyebrow. “I can see how that might happen.”

 

He looks down, digging into his backpack in search of the brown paper bag Joyce had shoved in his hand before she left for work this morning. Awesome, a ham and cheese sandwich. Thanks, Joyce.

 

Jonathan watches as he crams half the sandwich into his mouth, chewing loudly before swallowing.

 

“What?”

 

Jonathan shakes his head.

 

“Nothing,” he says. “Just— you haven’t been eating much.”

 

Billy looks down at the sandwich in his hand.

 

“Haven’t been hungry,” he says. “But y’know, man’s gotta eat.” He takes another bite, a smaller one this time, and reaches for the water bottle Joyce had so thoughtfully packed alongside the sandwich.

 

“Yeah.”

 

The next few minutes go by in silence as Billy finishes his sandwich, chugging the rest of the water bottle before crumpling up the bag and tossing it over his shoulder, ignoring the face Jonathan makes at him.

 

“Smoke?” he offers, reaching for the crumpled pack he’d stuffed in his back pocket this morning.

 

“Ah, no. Don’t smoke.”

 

Billy arches an eyebrow.

 

“Really?” he asks. “That’s weird.”

 

“Why would that be weird?”

 

Billy shrugs, lighting his cigarette before stowing away his zippo.

 

“Well, I mean, it goes with your whole…” he gestures at Jonathan. “Y’know.”

 

Jonathan arches an eyebrow.

 

“I really don’t,” he says.

 

“Oh, for fuck’s— the whole edgy, misunderstood artist thing you’ve got going on.”

 

“I don’t— what the hell’s that supposed to mean?”

 

Billy chuckles.

 

“Don’t front, man— I’ve seen those Hunter S. Thompson books floating around the house.” He smiles slightly. “You don’t talk to anybody except your kid brother, his friends, your girlfriend, and her ex-boyfriend, which, another thing? That’s also weird.”

 

“Steve’s a good guy, once you get past the Polo shirts.” Jonathan pauses. “You’ve read Hunter S. Thompson?”

 

Billy shrugs.

 

“A dude who writes about doing crazy amounts of drugs and hanging out in Vegas? Hell yeah, I’ve read his stuff.” He pauses. “If you wanna up your game a little bit, I suggest going in for the Russian shit. The Brothers Karamazov fucked me up.”

 

Jonathan just stares, like he’s never seen Billy before, which is especially weird considering they bumped into each other on the way to the bathroom like, four times this morning.

 

“You like to read?”

 

“I’m not all hot bod and golden locks, Byers.” Billy smirks. “I’m not just graduating ‘cause I fucked Mrs. Grant, you know. I know my shit.”

 

“You—” Jonathan shakes his head. “You know what? I don’t want to know if you had sex with our sixty-three year old English teacher.”

 

Billy’s smirk widens into a full grin, and Jonathan shudders.

 

“You’re messed up, Billy.”

 

“Tell me about it, man.”

Chapter Text

“Where the hell’d you get all this?”

 

Billy barely looks up at Max, counting out another hundred in ones before adding it to the pile.

 

“Working,” he says, not looking up. “You don’t think my Dad let me live with him for free, did you?”

 

“I don’t remember you having a job in LA,” Max says. “And I know you don’t have anything here.”

 

Billy doesn’t move, just keeps counting.

 

“Night work,” he says. “Did odd jobs around town.”

 

“Even—” Max shifts, closing the door behind her. “Even if you were, how can there be this much? This has to be… a couple thousand, at least. Right?”

 

Billy hums, setting aside another pile.

 

“Fifteen thousand, three hundred and sixty-six dollars,” he says. “That’ll be enough to tide us over for a little while, at least. Until we sell the house.”

 

“We’re going to sell the house?”

 

Billy looks up.

 

“Well, yeah,” he says. “I mean, the two of us don’t need that much space, and anyway— you don’t want to go back, do you?”

 

Max looks down.

 

“No,” she says quietly, and, well, fuck.

 

“C’mere.” He pats the space on the carpet next to him, and after a moment, Max steps over the piles he’s made and plonks herself down beside him.

 

“What I figure,” he says, returning to his count. “Is that we’ll stay in Hawkins ‘til you finish high school. Then, I don’t know. You’ll probably go off to some fancy college, and I’ll go back to LA.”

 

That’s what he’s planning for, anyway. He might not be parenting material, but fuck, he’s not gonna do to her what happened to him and pull her out of a school she seems happy in.

 

“I… I figured I’d go to my dad’s,” she says after a moment.

 

“Nope. Not happening.” Not on Billy’s watch, anyway.

 

“What?”

 

Billy sighs and sets down his cash.

 

“Max, there’s a reason your mom didn’t want him hanging around,” he says carefully. “And believe me, it wasn’t because he was a good man.”

 

“Why, then?” Max mouth has pinched stubbornly, her lower jaw jutting out in a way that Billy’s pretty sure she stole from him.

 

He sighs.

 

“If I tell you the truth, you’re gonna get pissed off,” he says. “And I don’t wanna deal with that bullshit today.”

 

“I don’t care,” Max says, and there it is, that fury he always felt reflecting in her light blue eyes. “Tell me.”

 

Billy runs a hand through his hair irritatedly. Well, fuck it, then, if she’s already pissed off…

 

“‘Cause you’re dad’s a fucking cokehead, Max,” he says, and maybe he could have been less sharp about it. “He’s a drug addict, and the one time I ever saw him he was blitzed the fuck out and he still put you in his car and drove you to wherever the fuck you guys went.”

 

Billy would never drive if he was as fucked up as that guy looked when he’d come to pick up Max. And to put a fucking kid in his car…

 

“You’re lying.”

 

Billy throws up his hands in exasperation.

 

“Why the fuck would I lie about that?” he demands, voice rising against his will. “Why the fuck would I lie about the fact that your dad is a goddamn fuck up, and that you’re only fucking options are me or a goddamn group home? Why would I put the responsibility of some brat that isn’t even related to me on my shoulders if there was a better fucking option?”

 

He’s shouting, he knows he’s shouting, but he’s so fucking pissed off right now. How dare she? How fucking dare she?

 

There’s a pause, and Billy can see the look on her face morph from anger to hurt to pure fucking rage.

 

She pulls back her arm and fucking punches him, right in the face.

 

“I hate you!” she screeches, pushing herself to her feet. “I hate you!”

 

“Join the fucking club!” he shouts after her as she storms out of the room, slamming the door behind her.

 

Huffing, he runs a hand over his stinging cheek. The kid throws a mean punch. It might actually bruise.

 

“Fuck,” he hisses, burying his face in his hands. He’d gotten angry, he shouldn’t have gotten angry, Max—

 

The door creaks open.

 

“Billy?”

 

He doesn’t look up at Joyce’s questioning tone, doesn’t move from his place on the floor.

 

“Billy,” she says again, and he hears the door groan as she opens it wider. “Are you okay?”

 

He can hear the drag of her feet on the carpet as she creeps in, and he can picture her expression exactly, that hateful pity that’s probably shining in her too-big eyes.

 

He takes a breath and smiles down at the floor.

 

“Just fine, ma’am,” he says tightly. “Just. Fucking. Fine.”

 

He swipes at one of the piles, and money goes everywhere. Fuck, he’s going to have to go through that again.

 

“Fuck!”

 

“Billy—”

 

Billy is up on his feet in a moment, mouth open to tear into Joyce because goddammit, can’t a guy be left alone for once? She’s tiny, too— he towers over her, and something in him twists with a malicious sort of pleasure about that, except—

 

Except she looks frightened. Pale and stiff, like she’s expecting him to hit her. Sort of like Susan, in a way, except Susan always looked surprised Neil’s hand actually made contact, while Joyce— Joyce just looks resigned.

 

Billy deflates, anger evaporating into thin air, and he pushes himself back, putting as much space as he can between them before his back hits the wall.

 

“Shit,” he mumbles. He can’t breathe. His chest’s heaving but he can’t— he can’t—

 

His knees buckle and he slides down onto the floor, trying desperately to catch his breath. The room is spinning, going fuzzy and dark around the edges, and suddenly, Billy’s so, so scared.

 

“Billy? Billy!”

 

Joyce’s hands are small and cold against his skin where she touches him, turning his face so he can look her in the eye.

 

“Breathe, Billy,” she orders. “Slow breaths, with me. In, out. In…”

 

He does his best to obey, but he can’t quite focus on her face, eyes rolling in every direction as panic takes him like never before. In, out. In, out. Breathe, Billy, you fucking dumbass. Breathe.

 

Slowly, the panic subsides, and the odd constriction in his chest relaxes enough that he feels like he isn’t drowning. His gasps are ragged and deep, and he might be crying.

 

“Sorry,” he gets out. “Sorry, I—”

 

“It’s okay, Billy, it’s fine.” Joyce reaches out, pulls him into— into a hug. “You’re okay. Everything’s fine.”

 

She keeps saying that, but it’s not true, it’s not. Everything is fucked up, and it’s probably at least partially Billy’s fault, no matter which part of the last week you want to focus on, whether it’s the argument with Max five minutes ago or shit, probably Neil stabbing Susan in the stomach God knows how many times a week ago.

 

“I can’t deal with this,” he says into Joyce’s shoulder, and yup, he’s definitely crying. His throat feels so tight that it fucking hurts and thank God he can hide his face in her shoulder. “I can’t— I can’t—”

 

“I know, kid, I know,” she says, squeezing him tighter. “It sucks.”

 

Billy doesn’t know how long he sits like that, Joyce wrapped around him like the world’s fuzziest octopus thanks to the oversized brown sweater she tends to wear around the house, but when he finally pulls away, the light coming in through the window is orange with the setting sun, glaringly bright against the off-white walls.

 

He sniffs, rubbing at his red eyes frustratedly as Joyce pulls back, settling onto the floor in front of him.

 

“You wanna tell me what all that was about?” she asks, her voice kind but demanding in a way that is singularly motherly.

 

Billy laughs humorlessly, pinning his gaze on a crack in the wall to his left.

 

“I slipped up,” he says, cursing the way his voice cracks. “Mentioned that I— that I was planning on getting a place for us, when the time came. Max thought she’d go to her dad’s, and I… I kinda lost it.”

 

“Why?”

 

“‘Cause she called me a liar, that’s why.” Billy grimaces. “I may be a piece of shit, but fuck, I don’t lie. Not about important stuff.”

 

Joyce stares at him for a long moment.

 

“Why did she call you a liar, Billy?” she asks carefully. “What was it you said?”

 

He rakes a hand through his hair angrily.

 

“Told her the truth, didn’t I?” He grunts. “Told her I wouldn’t let her go live with that junkie, not for fucking anything.”

 

Joyce winces.

 

“Did you say it like that?”

 

Billy grits his teeth.

 

“Not exactly.” Not that the way he put it was much better, but… God, he feels like an asshole, now.

 

Joyce is quiet for a long moment.

 

“If you want, Max can stay in Will’s room tonight,” she says. “To give you both some space.”

 

Billy shakes his head.

 

“She can stay here,” he says. “I’ll clean up and— I’ve got some errands to run.”

 

Joyce stares at him for a long moment.

 

“You planning on coming back tonight?” she asks quietly, and damn, Jonathan’s not the only Byers that’s too perceptive by half.

 

He gives her a humorless smile.

 

“Probably not.”

Chapter Text

Joyce had let him go, but not before pressing a copy of the house key in his hand, just in case. He gets the feeling she might have been a fuck up kid too, once, and somehow, that makes him feel a little bit better.

 

He doesn’t remember much of the rest of the night, not once he hits up the liquor store. He just… he drank, and he screamed, and he must have punched something, because his right hand is bloody and sore when he wakes up the next morning in the backseat of his car, knuckles crusted with blood and throbbing.

 

Today’s Wednesday. Today’s the day Hopper said that Susan’s body is going to be released.

 

Fuck. Billy’s too hungover for this.

 

It’s ten o’clock in the morning, so he writes school off as a lost cause and goes straight to the police station, doing his best not to vomit until he’s pulled into the lot safely.

 

“Looks like you had a rough night,” Hopper says from over his shoulder as he pukes his guts out in a nearby bush. “Need a Tylenol?”

 

“Fuck—” Billy gasps. “You.”

 

Hopper snorts.

 

“Yeah, okay, kid,” he says. “You done?”

 

Billy straightens, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.

 

“Yeah,” he says, grimacing at the taste still lingering in his mouth. “I’m done.”

 

Hopper stares at him a moment, then sighs.

 

“Alright, then,” he says. “Let’s get this over with.”



*.*



Susan is pale and just as dead-looking as Billy had imagined she’d be, gray under the harsh lights of the morgue.

 

“Krakowski’s Funeral Home,” he says shortly once he manages to pull his eyes away He’d looked them up in the phone book he’d found in the Byers house. “Can you send her there? I’ll be over in a minute, just gotta go home and grab the cash.”

 

“You sure you’ve got enough?”

 

“More than,” Billy says grimly. “Thanks, Chief.”

 

There’s a pause.

 

“You planning on going back to the Byers’ tonight?” Hopper asks, and Billy shrugs.

 

“Dunno.”

 

Hopper sighs.

 

“Jesus Christ, kid,” he says, shaking his head. “If you don’t wanna go back to Joyce’s, you can come to mine, alright? There’s a couch you can borrow until you get your head on straight.”

 

Something in Billy recoils at the thought of going to a cop’s house, even one as weirdly forgiving as Hopper, but most of him is just glad at the idea of a second option.

 

“Where do you live?”



*.*



The funeral home sucks, but he gets almost everything done in one shot, which is nice. All he has to do is find something for Susan to be buried in, which lines up weirdly perfectly with his foiled plans to stop by the mall yesterday.

 

When Susan first started dating Neil, she always looked sharp and pressed in colorful little suit skirts and white blouses, so that’s what he figures she liked to wear before Neil made one too many comments about… something. Billy never really paid much attention. Anyway, he finds something for her, a pale green ensemble that would match her eyes if she were still alive, and while he probably looks weird as fuck walking out of Lord and Taylor holding a bag of women’s clothes, he honestly can’t find it in himself to care.

 

He goes shopping for himself, too, and for Max, mostly guessing her sizes as he looks through teen girl stores and doing his best not to look like some kind of creep as he takes packs of little girl underwear up to the counter.

 

The worst thing to buy, out of all of it, was a suit. A suit and a black dress that won’t suit Max at all.

 

It’s right about three by the time he’s finished all of that, so he goes back to the Byers’ house, throws Max’s bags in the room, and grabs himself another two hundred bucks to last the rest of the week. He drops off Susan’s clothes at the funeral home and then, with nothing else to do, he drives to the address that Hopper gave him.

 

Jane opens the door before he can even knock.

 

“Billy,” she says, and her big eyes are wide and sad as she steps aside to let him in.

 

“Hey, Jane,” he says quietly. “Sorry to just show up like this.”

 

“Jim said you’d come,” she says, closing the door behind him. “Said you were sad.”

 

Hopper apparently talks too much. Billy shouldn’t have come.

 

Little fingers tug his busted hand out of his pocket and he looks up from where he’d been studying his shoes into Jane’s round face.

 

“Eggos,” she says decisively. “Want some?”

 

Billy huffs a little laugh.

 

“Are you asking because I’m here so you want to make Eggos for me or are you asking because you’re going to make Eggos either way?”

 

“Second,” she says. “Definitely.”



*.*



“So, how long have you been with the Chief?”

 

Jane nibbles at her Eggo thoughtfully.

 

“Three hundred and forty-two days,” she says. “But I knew him before that.”

 

Billy nods quietly.

 

“How?”

 

“Helped me,” she says, shrugging. “Helped distract the doctors so I could escape. Lived in the woods awhile, then Jim brought me here.”

 

Doctors? What?

 

“Who are the doctors?”

 

Jane shifts.

 

“Papa,” she says. “His people. They kept me in the labs.”

 

What. The actual. Fuck.

 

“Hawkins Lab, you mean?” Billy asks. “They were… what, studying you?”

 

She nods, looking uncomfortable.

 

“Special,” she says. “Not like other kids.”

 

Billy frowns.

 

“Special how?”

 

Jane stares at him a moment, then glances down at her plate. It starts to tremble, then levitate. Billy stares at it, then after a moment, the plate drops into her waiting hands.

 

“Holy shit,” he whispers.

 

Jane nods.

 

“Want me back,” she says. “But I don’t want to go. Wanna stay with my friends and Jim.”

 

She… Jane is a fucking experiment? A human lab rat?

 

Billy feels anger bubble under his skin.

 

“That’s fucked up,” he says flatly. “You didn’t deserve that shit, got it, Jane?”

 

Jane smiles at him.

 

“I know,” she says. “Thank you.”

 

“You’re welcome.” Billy pauses. “Hey, do your friends know? Max, and the rest of the nerds.”

 

Jane nods.

 

“Everyone knows,” she says. “Now you too, because you’re my friend.”

 

Billy looks down at his plate, swallowing hard.

 

“Thanks, Jane,” he says quietly. “But fair’s fair. You told me a secret about you, so I’ll tell you something about me.”

 

“You don’t have to,” she says.

 

No, he doesn’t have to, but Billy’s had a shitty couple of days, and Jane has proven to be probably one of the best people he’s ever met, even if she is fourteen. She’s guileless and sweet and apparently magic, and she seems to be willing to ignore all of Billy’s bullshit and just let him live.

 

He leans forward slightly.

 

“My name’s not actually Billy Hargrove.”

Chapter Text

When Hopper comes home that night, he finds a blue Camaro parked in the driveway and a blond teenager passed out on his couch, one hand thrown lazily over El’s shoulder where she’s seated on the floor in front of the television.

 

“So he showed up,” Jim says, taking off his hat and setting it on the radiator. He hadn’t actually expected that.

 

“Yes,” El says. “He’s tired.”

 

“Yeah, he is,” Hopper agrees. “Did you eat?”

 

“We had Eggos.”

 

Of course they did.

 

“Billy knows, now,” El continues as Hopper strips off his jacket. “About me.”

 

Jim freezes.

 

“What do you mean, he knows about you?”

 

“Powers,” El says simply. “Billy’s my friend now, and my friends know.”

 

Hopper takes a deep breath, counting backwards from ten.

 

“I don’t think that was a good idea, El,” he says carefully. “Billy’s not like the others.”

 

“No,” she agrees. “But he is my friend, so he has one of my secrets, and I have one of his.”

 

“What do you mean by that, exactly?”

 

“Can’t tell you,” El says simply. “Billy’s secret.”

 

Jim sighs.

 

“I hope you know what you’re doing, El,” he says, shaking his head. “Come on. It’s late, and you ought to go to bed.”

 

“Can Billy teach me piano?” she asks as she carefully extracts herself from Billy’s grip. “Billy said he would, if I wanted.”

 

Jesus Christ, really? Jim’s gotta buy a piano, now?

 

“We’ll talk about it in the morning,” he promises. “For right now, bedtime. Okay?”

 

El sighs, apparently the put-upon person in this conversation.

 

“Okay.”



*.*



Hopper wakes Billy up for school, which he should have expected. A cop’s house isn’t exactly fertile ground for truancy.

 

Still, it isn’t so bad, even if his back hurts from a night on the couch, because El smiles at him over a plate of waffles and pushes her extra eggs on his plate when the Chief isn’t looking which, again, adorable. In thanks he gives her the rest of his Eggos, because fair’s fair.

 

If Hopper caught that, then he didn’t say anything.

 

School goes much the same way it did on Tuesday, in that nobody talks to him for as long as he’s there, which isn’t very long, because by third period, he’s getting called to the office. Why? Well, apparently, Max needs to be picked up from school. Because she punched someone.

 

Great.

 

He runs into Nancy on the way to the car.

 

“Hey, Billy,” she says, almost like they’re friends, or something. “Cutting out early?”

 

“Sort of,” he says, and then, because apparently Jane broke his ability to keep his mouth shut, he adds, “Max got into a fight and I have to go pick her up.”

 

“Oh.” Nancy’s brow furrows. “Weird. I just got a call to go pick up Mike for the same thing…” She trails off, eyes widening in realization. “Crap.”

 

Yeah, crap. Mike’s one of Max’s nerd friends, and she’s not like Billy. She doesn’t hit people she likes.

 

They both hurry to their cars— Billy to his, and Nancy to Jonathan’s because oh right, she doesn’t actually own her own car— and peel out of the parking lot in tandem.

 

Shit has officially hit the fan.



*.*



Mike is sitting in the office looking pinched and unhappy when Billy walks in, two steps behind Nancy. He’s sporting the beginnings of one hell of a black eye, and refuses to meet Billy’s eye when he passes him to talk to the secretary.

 

“It was my fault, honest,” he says when Nancy tilts his chin up to have a look for herself. “I said some stuff—”

 

“Whatever you said, it looks like you paid for it,” she says critically, letting go of his face to look over at Billy. “Don’t you think?”

 

“Yeah,” he agrees, turning away to give the secretary his best smile. “Hello, ma’am, I’m here to pick up my sister? Max?”

 

The secretary gives him a look that’s a mixture of pity, disapproval, and appreciation.

 

“She’s in the office,” she says, indicating the door to the principal’s office with a long-nailed finger. “Just knock. He wants to talk to you, too.”

 

Billy suppresses his grimace and nods.

 

“Thank you, ma’am.”



*.*



The principal is a stout little man with wire-rimmed glasses balanced on the very tip of his nose, and when Billy takes the seat beside Max that he’s sure is normally reserved for parents he feels the strangest sense of deja vu. How many times has it been him sitting in Max’s spot, waiting for the verdict as his father sits frozen with tightly controlled fury beside him? Does she feel as afraid as he did, when he was her age? Or is she just angry?

 

He chances a glance over. She refuses to look at anyone, face red and half-hidden behind her hair.

 

“Mr. Hargrove,” the principal says. “Nice to finally meet you. I’m Principal Waters.”

 

Billy nods, but doesn’t answer, lacing his fingers together as he sits back in his chair and tries to pretend he isn’t flipping the fuck out on the inside. He shouldn’t be sitting here. It should be Susan. Susan should be the one dealing with this shit.

 

“I’ll speak plainly,” Principal Waters says. “We’ve been expecting an outburst of some kind from your sister. It isn’t unusual, after the loss of someone close to you—” he ignores Billy’s wince. “— and we’re prepared to take into account her special circumstances. That being said, she attacked another student.”

 

“Yes sir,” Billy says quietly, nodding. “So, what exactly is going to happen next?”

 

“Whatever you think might help the most.” Waters holds out his hands. “Normally, protocol would tell us to suspend her for the rest of the week, but Mr. Wheeler is adamant that he was the one to start the fight, if only verbally.”

 

“Uh…” Nobody’s ever asked his opinion about stuff like this before, about punishments. “Well…”

 

He looks over at Max again. She looks… tired. Just, so fucking tired.

 

“I’d like to take her home for today, if that’s alright with you,” Billy says, looking back at Waters. “Like you said, she’s been having a rough time of it, and… yeah. I figured school would be… normal.”

 

“You’re not the first to think normality is the way to go,” Waters says kindly. “Would you like to take the rest of the week, as well? Not as a suspension— we can always put it down to bereavement, if it comes to that.”

 

“I’d like to,” Billy says, looking over at Max. “But I don’t exactly have anyone to stay home with her. We’re staying with Joyce Byers’ family, for now, and I can’t ask her to take off work, and I can’t take off much more from school…”

 

“Yes, you’re graduating this year, aren’t you?”

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

“Any plans for college?”

 

“No sir. Straight into the workforce, for me.” Or something like that.

 

The principal hums.

 

“Alright,” he says. “We’ll let this one go, for now. But Max?”

 

Max doesn’t look up.

 

“Yes, sir?”

 

God, she’s taking her cues from Billy.

 

“I don’t want any repeats of this kind of behavior, is that understood?” Principal Waters leans forward in his seat. “Once can be excused. Anymore and we might have a problem.”

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

“Good.” He claps his hands together. “Now, with that out of a way, would you mind if I speak to your brother alone for a moment?”

 

Max doesn’t answer, just pushes herself up out of her seat and trudges out of the office to wait for him outside, shutting the door quietly behind her.

 

“Sir?” Billy asks, uncertain.

 

“How is Max coping?” Waters asks Billy. “This incident aside, of course.”

 

Billy sighs, running a hand through his hair.

 

“As good as she can, I guess,” he says. “It’s been a rough couple of days.”

 

“I can imagine. And you?”

 

Billy stiffens, looking away.

 

“Just fine, sir.”

 

“Don’t lie to me, son. You’re not very good at it.”

 

“... I’m keeping myself busy,” he says. “Y’know, funeral to plan, kid to take care of…” Not that he’s doing that great of a job, but he’s trying, goddammit.

 

“Have you considered counseling?” Waters asks. “For both of you, I mean.”

 

“Um, no.” Billy hadn’t even thought of that. “I’ve been caught up in… everything else.”

 

“Understandable,” Principal Waters says. “But when everything slows down, I highly suggest you look into it. It could help prevent more outbursts like this on Max’s part, at least.”

 

“Yes, sir. I’ll think about it.”

 

“Please do.” Principal Waters gets to his feet and circles the desk, holding out a hand for Billy to shake. “You know, I’ve heard a lot about you, and I must say that you certainly aren’t what I expected.”

 

“And what were you expecting, sir?”

 

“A no-good punk,” Waters says plainly. “But it seems that you are, in fact, a respectful and relatively well-spoken young man. Are you sure about your decision about college?”

 

“For now, sir, I am,” Billy says, ignoring the way his stomach curdles at the man’s words. “Thank you, sir. For being so understanding.”

 

“I’ve spent thirty years handling children, Mr. Hargrove,” Waters says. “And while I can’t say I’ve dealt with a situation exactly like yours, this isn’t the first time I’ve dealt with a grieving child. A word of advice? This will take time. Try and be patient with her.”

 

“Yes, sir.”

Chapter Text

Billy takes her to the diner, because he’s hungry and he figures she doesn’t want to go back to the Byers’ just yet. They sit in silence for the first few minutes, until the waitress comes and takes their orders.

 

“So, why’d you punch the little Wheeler?” he asks, leaning back in the booth and lighting a cigarette. “What did he say?”

 

Max’s mouth trembles.

 

“Where were you?” she asks, voice small. “Last night? And the night before that?”

 

Ah, shit.

 

“I…” Billy shifts. “I was at the Chief’s last night.”

 

“And before?”

 

“... Quarry. Slept in my car.”

 

“Why?”

 

Billy taps his cigarette against the lip of the ashtray.

 

“Figured you didn’t wanna see me,” he says. “I pissed you off pretty bad.” Plus, you know, he was drunk and pissed off. Never a good combo around little kids.

 

Max goes quiet, hiding her face behind her hair.

 

Billy sighs.

 

“Why’d you punch Wheeler in the face?” he asks again. “I thought you guys were friends.”

 

He can see Max’s jaw working, but she doesn’t answer right away, just stares at the table and… Billy doesn’t know. Try to irritate him? Maybe.

 

“He said— he said you weren’t coming back,” she says, and her voice cracks. “He said you were probably leaving for good, because that’s the kind of guy you are.”

 

Well, Billy thinks as he swallows down the bitter response that’s on the tip of his tongue. He’s not exactly wrong, is he? Billy doesn’t know why he hasn’t done a runner on all this bullshit yet.

 

“Yeah, well, I didn’t,” he says. “Okay? I’m here.”

 

“But I didn’t know you would be!” Max’s mouth clamps shut, but she doesn’t look away when he meets her eyes. She takes a deep, steadying breath.

 

“You left,” she says slowly, carefully, like she’s trying very hard not to cry. “You left, and you didn’t tell me where you went, and then you were gone. For two whole days.”

 

Billy winces. Yeah, he can see why that might have fucked with her head, just a little bit.

 

“Joyce said you’d be back, that you were just gonna go cool off, but…” Max’s eyes are too bright with tears. “But then you didn’t come back. And when I told Mike—”

 

He’d said what Max had been thinking, what Max didn’t want to believe.

 

She’s crying now, tears rolling down her stress-red cheeks silently.

 

“You’re all I’ve got, Billy,” she says, the final nail in the coffin. “I wanna— I can’t—”

 

“Hey, hey,” Billy says, circling around the table to slide into her booth and wrap an arm around her shoulders. “Don’t cry, Max, don’t cry. I’m here, alright? I’m not going anywhere anytime soon.”

 

“I was so mad at you,” she sniffles. “Because you said that stuff about my dad. But, you wouldn’t say something like that for no reason, would you? You weren’t trying to be mean.”

 

Billy sighs.

 

“I could’ve said it better,” he admits. “I could have been nicer about it.”

 

“Since when are you nice?” Max mutters, but she lets her head slot itself into the bend of his arm as she says it.

 

“Listen,” he says, patting her side gently. “Next time I fuck off, I’ll leave a note or something, alright? I’ll let you know. Because it’s going to happen again— it’s gotta, or I’ll hurt somebody.” He’d almost taken a swing at Joyce, after their fight. It wasn’t just Max he was protecting when he left. “I promise, Max, I’m not going to just leave you, because guess what? You’re all I’ve got, too.”

 

Max sniffs.

 

“I don’t wanna leave Hawkins,” she says softly. “I don’t wanna go to my dad’s, not really. I just thought I would.”

 

“Well,” Billy says. “We’re gonna see if I can do something about that, okay?”

 

“... Promise?”

 

“Promise.”



*.*



They go home full of cheesy noodles and chocolate ice cream, and when they walk through the door, Nancy’s there, along with her little brother.

 

“Max!” Mike cries, launching himself at the redhead. “I’m sorry, okay? I’m really sorry, I didn’t mean it—”

 

Max looks up at Billy a little desperately, but this isn’ Billy’s rodeo, so he just looks at Nancy and jerks his head back towards the porch.

 

“They’ll figure it out,” he says, shutting the door behind her. “I’ve reached my quota of feelings for the day.”

 

“Not surprised,” Nancy says as he digs out his cigarettes and offers her the pack. “Mike told me what happened.”

 

“Did he now?”

 

Nancy hums and plucks out a cigarette, putting a finger to her lips when he arches a surprised eyebrow at her.

 

“It’s a once-in-a-while thing, I keep it under wraps,” she says. “And yeah, he did. He’s sorry, by the way.”

 

Billy flaps a hand at her, tucking his own cigarette in his mouths and digging for his zippo to hold out for Nancy.

 

“Nothin’ to be sorry about,” he says around his cigarette as she leans in with hers to catch the flame. “I know I’m a piece of shit.”

 

Nancy straightens, blowing out a cloud of acrid gray smoke.

 

“But you’re not, though,” she says. “Or at least, you’ve been working on it, haven’t you? Trying to step up.”

 

Billy shrugs.

 

“Respect and Responsibility,” he says, and the words taste slimy on his tongue. “That’s what the old man always said. Well, Max is my responsibility now.” Not that he’s been acting like it, these past few days.

 

Nancy wrinkles her nose.

 

“There are rumors floating around, you know,” she says, watching him warily. “That he used to… hit you.”

 

Billy stares at her for a long moment, then takes a steadying drag from his cigarette. She’s a good girl, he knows, but there’s something in his eyes that makes him think that she won’t go spreading around his business if he tells her anything personal.

 

“Not a rumor,” he says, stretching out his hands. “See?”

 

Nancy gasps when she looks at his fingers, and he guesses it’s a little crazy, how every one of them is so damned crooked.

 

“He did that to you?”

 

“Yeah. But he’s gone now, so I guess it doesn’t matter much anymore.” He shrugs again. “He’s fucked up so bad he’ll never get another chance.”

 

Nancy catches him by the hand before he can manage to hide them again, tugging until he looks her in the eye.

 

“It does matter,” she says seriously. “He was hurting you, Billy.”

 

Billy doesn’t know what to do in the face of that kind of earnestness, so he doesn’t do anything, pulling his hand away and tucking it back into his pocket.

 

People in small towns seem to care an awful lot about shit that doesn’t affect them. It’s weird.

Chapter Text

Jonathan has learned a lot of weird things about Billy Hargrove since his mother offered him and his kid sister their guest room. For instance, the guy stress cleans— like, hardcore, hitting-the-bathroom-with-a-toothbrush cleaning. He also knows his way around a piano, and can play pretty much anything from the Beatles to Beethoven provided he has a couple of hours to work it out, and likes to read whenever Jonathan’s mom feels the need to drag him out of the spare room to hang out with her (and Jonathan and Will and Max, but mostly her) in front of the television. He also happens to have a lot of money, all of it in cash, stowed away in a few shoeboxes under the bed.

 

All of that should make Jonathan pretty much immune to the quirks and oddities of Billy Hargrove, and yet when Steve pulls up to the Byers’ house (Nancy had taken his car to pick up Mike, apparently he’d gotten into a fight) with him and Will in tow, Jonathan finds himself staring, slack-jawed, at the blond asshole that currently resides in the Byers’ spare room.

 

Nothing, nothing in the last week prepared him for the sight of Billy and Nancy sitting side by side on his porch swing, Nancy trying (and failing) to smother her giggles at something he said as she ashes a cigarette over the railing.

 

“I didn’t know Nancy smoked,” Steve remarks, eyeing the pair uncertainly as he throws his car into park.

 

“Neither did I,” Jonathan says. “I guess she came to drop the car off…?”

 

“Let’s go find out,” Steve says, already getting out of the car. Plural, because Steve’s got a sense of bro code, and that means not leaving Jonathan to fend off a potential girlfriend-thief on his own.

 

“And she just… went with it?” Nancy’s asking as they approach. “The cop let you go?”

 

“Yeah. Crazy, right? I thought I was going to juvie for sure,” Billy answers, and he’s smiling— not his typical hot douchebag smile, either, a proper, friendly smile. “But instead she just drove me home and told me not to do anything stupid for a while— oh, Hey, Byers, Will. Harrington.”

 

“Jonathan!” Nancy greets, finally noticing them. “Steve! How was the rest of school?”

 

Jonathan chances a smile and leans forward to give her a peck on the cheek.

 

“Boring,” he says, straightening again. “Just here to drop off the car?”

 

“Kind of. Mike’s inside with Max, making up,” she says. “Max punched his lights out, today.”

 

Jonathan arches and eyebrow and looks at Will, who shrugs.

 

“I didn’t think it was important,” he says. “He kinda deserved it.”

 

Billy snorts.

 

“I bet they straightened it out by now,” he tells Will. “If you wanna go crash the party.”

 

Will smiles at him and slips inside, leaving the older kids alone on the porch.

 

“What happened?” Steve asks, looking between Nancy and Billy with a frown.

 

Nancy makes a face, but Billy just shrugs.

 

“Max has been spending too much time around me,” he says easily. “I’ve been told I’m not the best role model, when it comes to anger management.”

 

“Yes, well, Mike wasn’t being nice, either,” Nancy says primly. “Will’s right, he did deserve it, which is why I brought him here to apologize.”

 

“Yeah, she was waiting inside when we pulled up.” Max pauses, frowning at Nancy. “How’d you get in, anyway?”

 

“Spare key under the flower pot,” she says, apparently careless of the potential breaking and entering charge. “When nobody answered the door Mike got… worried.”

 

Billy’s mouth tightens slightly, but he doesn’t say anything.

 

“So yeah,” he says, turning back to Jonathan and Steve. “I took Max to the diner, figured some shit out. Hopefully she won’t be giving a repeat performance anytime soon.”

 

“That’s… good,” Jonathan says. “Um…”

 

“Can I bum one?” Steve asks suddenly, nodding to the crumpled cigarette pack on the railing.

 

“Go for it, Harrington,” Billy says, waving a hand at the pack. “Same goes for you, Johnny.”

 

Jonathan blinks, because hey, Billy’s never called him that before, but takes the new nickname at face value and shakes his head at the pack when Steve holds it out to him.

 

“... I figure you guys oughta know, since Max’s friends with your siblings and… whatever it is Henderson is to you,” Billy says, arching an eyebrow at Steve. “But… the funeral’s on Tuesday.”

 

Jonathan feels more than sees Steve stiffen beside him, and he sighs.

 

“Me ‘n’ Will’ll be there,” he says. “Mom can’t take off, though.”

 

“Mike and me, too,” Nancy says. “I’m sure Mom’ll let us go.”

 

“Yeah, I’ll tell Mrs. Henderson,” Steve says quietly. “And I guess I can drive Lucas, too, if his parents let him go.”

 

Billy nods and looks out towards the yard, mouth pinched unhappily. Nancy sighs beside him.

 

“It’s all messed up, isn’t it?” she says, nudging Billy in a familiar way she probably wouldn’t have done even this morning.

 

“Pretty much, yeah,” he says, lip curling. “But that’s life, isn’t it? One fuckin’ thing after another.”

 

None of them argue, because, well, he’s right.


*.*


Billy wakes up early on Saturday morning. Joyce and Jonathan have work, so he’s alone with Will and Max until three, when the nerds are supposed to all meet up at the arcade.

 

Max is still asleep, so he carefully extracts himself from her grip before padding out to the bathroom, shirtless and still half-asleep. More than half-asleep, honestly, because he doesn’t notice Will until he literally walks into him in the hallway.

 

“Oh, shit, sorry—” Will jumps back from him, eyes wide and far too nervous for seven o’clock in the morning.

 

“You’re fine,” Billy says, patting the kid on the shoulder absently. “I wasn’t paying attention.”

 

Will stares up at him, cheeks flushed, eyes flicking between Billy’s bare chest and his face, and— oh. Billy’s seen that look before. Poor kid.

 

Billy leaves him in the hall, because he really does have to go to the bathroom, but when he comes back, Will’s still there, head bowed and fiddling furiously with the hem of his shirt.

 

“C’mon, kid,” he says, tapping Will on the shoulder and ignoring the way he startles. “How do pancakes sound?”

 

Will trails after him cautiously, cheeks still pink, but Billy doesn’t mind the quiet, because he needs a second. After all, it’s better to nip something like this in the bud, rather than let it get out of hand, and if the kid’s as aware of himself as Billy thinks, then the most important thing for this kid to have is knowledge, first and foremost.

 

Joyce has a box of Bisquick in the pantry, and there’s enough eggs and milk to make a small mountain of pancakes, so Billy gets cracking as Will takes a seat at the table to watch, small and awkward and still rather unused to Billy’s near-constant presence in the house.

 

“You’ve got a crush on me,” Billy says without turning around, deciding to play it straight.

 

Will says nothing.

 

“It’s okay,” Billy continues, doing his best to sound nonchalant and probably landing somewhere closer to really fucking awkward. “I’m not angry, or anything, though I gotta say, man, you’ve got shit taste. I’m the worst possible person to crush on.”

 

“... You’re really not mad?”

 

Billy shakes his head, fascinated by the way the lumps of powdered batter disappear as he mixes in the milk.

 

“Nah,” he says. “It happens, sometimes. Am I a first crush, or what?”

 

“There was a… another boy, before. In my class.”

 

Billy hums.

 

“People like you have it hard,” he says. “There’s a lot of people who are gonna fuck with you for that. Do you like girls, too, or only boys?” He chances a glance over at Will, who looks… ashamed, maybe?

 

“Only boys,” Will whispers. “I know it’s not… I know.”

 

Billy sighs.

 

“Listen, kid,” he says, setting down the bowl and turning to lean against the counter. “You can’t help that kinda stuff, alright? You like what you like. And maybe you aren’t like me, you can’t hide the boy crushes in with the girls, but that doesn’t mean you deserve to get any shit for it, okay? You’re not the first person I’ve met who’s a homo, and I doubt you’re gonna be the last. But I’ll give you a word of advice— develop a better taste than me, alright? I’m a dick, and I’m way too old for you. Got it?”

 

Will looks up at him, and there’s gratitude on his round, childish face, gratitude and disappointment and surprise because, shit, Billy just admitted to liking boys, didn’t he? Oh, well.

 

“Okay, Billy,” he says softly. “I understand.”

 

“Good.” Billy gives him a sharp nod. “Now, we got any chocolate chips around here? I want chocolate chips in my pancakes.”

 

They don’t have chocolate chips, but they have blueberries, which Billy’s willing to settle for, and by the time Max wakes up, the house smells like hot sugar and syrup and Will’s playing one of his brother’s mixtapes on the battered little stereo Joyce keeps in the kitchen, cheerfully humming along to the Talking Heads as Billy flips pancakes higher and higher in the air, catching them in the battered skillet before adding them to the stacks.

 

All in all, it turns out to be an okay morning.

Chapter Text

Billy was right. Black makes Max look like shit, pale and washed out and small in a way she shouldn’t be. He lets her take her time getting dressed, borrowing a few old hairclips from Joyce so he can pull up his hair into something that sort of makes it look like he’s cut his hair into something socially acceptable. He looks weird in a suit, he actually sort of hates it, but today isn’t the day to care about that sort of thing, so instead he goes and handles Max.

 

It takes a little while to brush out her hair, mostly because he’s taking care to be gentle, carefully tugging out each tangle before running his comb through her hair again. He braids it back, because it’s about all he knows how to do for a little girl, and when he looks her in the face he regrets it, because now she’s got nothing to hide behind.

 

Today is going to suck. He can feel it in his bones.



*.*



The funeral is small and simple, because that’s what Billy thought was best. It’s not like Susan had many friends here in Hawkins, and there’s no family to worry about, so mostly, it’s just Max’s friends and their siblings (and Harrington), all dressed in little suits and looking slightly uncomfortable as they each go to give Max a tight hug.

 

Billy gets hugs, too, from Will and Nancy, which is weird. Jonathan and Harrington thankfully only shake his hand, which is the proper way to handle ‘guy who lives in your house’ and ‘guy that beat your face in’, respectively.

 

The real surprise, though, is when Hopper shows up, dressed in uniform and with Jane in tow. Jane, being the only girl, isn’t wearing a suit, but a dark gray dress that stops just below her knees and a big black jacket on top. Her curls have been tamed with some kind of product and are held in place by a plain black headband.

 

She also gives Billy a hug.

 

“Sorry,” she says softly, pulling away to look at him with big, wet eyes.

 

Billy pats her shoulder awkwardly.

 

“‘S not your fault,” he mutters because really, what do you say to a kid that emotes that hard for you?

 

She moves on to hug Max, and Hopper approaches next.

 

“Nice job, kid,” he says when he shakes Billy’s hand. “Susan’d be proud.”

 

Something about that three word sentence makes Billy’s eyes burn hot and he looks down.

 

“Thanks for comin’, Chief,” he says, because there’s nothing else really to say. Luckily, Hopper seems to understand his awkwardness, because he moves along too, leaving Billy to fold his hands together and stare at the coffin until everybody’s moved back into a loose cluster of mourners.

 

The priest is Catholic, because Susan was Catholic, and the ceremony is short and simple. Max clings to his elbow the whole time, biting her lip so hard it bleeds in an effort to keep the tears from spilling. She fails, but it’s okay, because Billy thought ahead and brought a spare handkerchief, though the sleeve of his blazer isn’t exactly saved from the waterworks.

 

When it’s over, Harrington approaches him.

 

“Listen,” he says. “My parents aren’t home, and I have enough food to feed a small army. Wanna do lunch at my place? With everybody, I mean.”

 

Billy stares at him for a moment, then looks over at the group of kids mostly huddled around Max. Right, normally there’s a… dinner, or whatever, after these things. Billy hadn’t planned for that, mostly because, well, he hadn’t expected anyone to come.

 

“... You don’t have to,” he says. “I figured I’d just take Max home to… you know. Deal.”

 

“I want to, though,” Harrington says, because of course he does, he’s a good, caring person. “C’mon. I’ve got my mom’s lasagna in the freezer and like, other stuff. We can feed ‘em all and let Max sit in a cuddle puddle for awhile.”

 

Billy sighs.

 

“Alright,” he says. “We can do that.”

 

“Great,” Harrington says. “Do you know where I live?”



*.*



Harrington’s house is big, nice, and very, very cold. Not literally, but in the way big houses with no people inside tend to be. Everything is perfect and weird and clean and modern, and seems to be mostly unlived in.

 

Nobody else seems bothered by this, though, so Billy doesn’t say anything, just hangs his blazer on the back of one of the dining room chairs and goes to help in the kitchen along with Jonathan, and Nancy.

 

Steve has lasagna and chicken parmesan and frozen veggies all in neat little containers in his freezer, which he pulls out and sets on the counter with a half-shrug in Billy’s direction.

 

“My mom comes home, cooks like crazy, and leaves,” he says. “I’ve also got some kind of fish, but I figure chicken’s a safer bet.”

 

Billy doesn’t say anything, just helps Nancy prep the trays while Jonathan fiddles with the dials on the oven. Within an hour, the table’s all laid out, and the kids have all settled down to eat, a rumble of quiet conversation forming around the cluster of almost-freshmen at the far end of the table. Max, he notices with some level of mostly-unwarranted annoyance, has gotten sandwiched between Lucas and Jane, and appears to be holding Lucas’ hand under the table while she listens to the conversation around her.

 

Yeah, he supposes he needs to put that particular instinct behind him, now that Neil’s not a looming threat over both himself and Max. The man might not have laid a hand on her before, but Billy’s not sure that would have remained the case if he’d found out she was hanging out with a black kid every Friday night.

 

Still, something about Max having a… not a boyfriend, they’re too young for that, but something rather like a boyfriend, it makes his skin itch. He wants to give shovel talk, except Billy suspects he’d lose control over his shovel talk and the whole thing would play out rather like that night at the Byers’ did, except this time, he’d actually get a nail through his balls. So he sits quiet, focuses on his plate, and takes a bite of chicken parmesan.

 

It’s the best chicken parm he’s ever fucking had.

 

“Christ, Harrington, your mom can cook,” he says, swallowing.

 

Harrington looks at him a moment, then snorts.

 

“Mom spent like, two years as a chef in some Parisian restaurant,” he says. “So yeah, I should hope so.”

 

“Wait, seriously?” Nancy says, looking at Steve. “Like, in Paris?”

 

“Yeah.” Harrington shrugs like it’s no big deal. “That was before she met my dad, though.”

 

“Wait, I thought your mom was an artist,” Jonathan says, brow furrowing.

 

“Yeah,” Harrington says, nodding. “But like, art didn’t pay the bills when she was sixteen, so she had to do other stuff. She was really strict about not flaunting the whole ‘heiress to an oil empire’ thing.”

 

Oil? That’s where the Harringtons make their money? Shit, Billy oughta have tried harder to be friends with this guy.

 

“So… if you’re mom’s an heiress, or an artist, or whatever,” Billy says carelessly. “What’s your dad do?”

 

Steve shrugs.

 

“He’s an environmentalist, I think?” he says. “I don’t know. Mostly he goes to save the whale protests and chains himself to trees and shit.”

 

So, he doesn’t work. Billy probably wouldn’t either, if he married an heiress. Something about the way Harrington says it though, it sort of grates on Billy’s nerves. It’s clear that his dad’s whatever-it-is bothers him, and the way he explains it makes Billy think the guy isn’t around much. A very large part of Billy wants to pick that apart, just to see what happens. An even larger part of him points out that he’s very much outnumbered here, and forces him to settle down.

 

“Cool,” he grunts instead. “I like whales. Saw a pair of ‘em in San Francisco, once.”

 

Clearly, nobody expected him to say that, judging by the stares he gets from the grownup half of the table.

 

“Are you… are you talking about… George and Gracie?” Nancy says after a moment. “The… the whales that disappeared off the coast like, four hours after they were released?”

“Yeah, them,” Billy says. “I forgot that made the news.”

 

“Billy,” Jane says suddenly, leaning forward to peer at him from around Max. “Piano.”

 

She points and, yeah, there is a piano, tucked into the corner of the dining room like some kind of bullshit conversation piece.

 

“Will you play for me?” she asks, eyes big.

 

“Um, I don’t think—”

 

“You can, if you want to,” Steve interrupts. “It’s tuned, I think.”

 

Billy glares at him, then looks back over at Jane, and by default, Max, who— oh. The look on her face makes him think that maybe Jane’s asking because that’s what Max wants.

 

He sighs, setting down his fork.

 

“Sure, Janey,” he says, pushing himself to his feet. “Okay.”

 

All eyes find him, and he feels a wave of panic crash against his thoughts. He doesn’t— Max and Jane are different, Max is his sister, and Jane is woodland creature in human form. He doesn’t want to play for a bunch of asshole kids and their weird siblings and cop friend!

 

Except, Max wants him to, even if she isn’t saying anything, and today is sort of Max’s day, so Billy’s gotta suck it up.

 

The piano’s gorgeous, Billy realizes when he settles down onto the bench in an effort to ignore the whispers starting up just behind his head. A custom job, probably, with inverted keys and a gleaming black finish. He’d never played one so nice in his life.

 

The whispers from the younger kids are starting to annoy him, and something about a piano this nice that isn’t even played (probably) just sitting in Harrington’s house pisses him off something fierce, and when Billy’s fingers hit the keys, he doesn’t tap out something the kids might recognize and sing along to, no. He starts with Vivaldi’s Summer, just because he wants to make a point.

 

The whispers die pretty quickly behind him.

 

Billy doesn’t play the entire thing, obviously, because that would take forever and also because this is the only bit he knows, the interesting, climactic ending that’s fast and climbing with solid bass sprinkled throughout for a little flavor.

 

Vivaldi, he likes, better than Chopin or Mozart or Bach, because Vivaldi was crazy and Vivaldi was a priest and Vivaldi wrote songs that make the colors behind Billy’s eyes pop and bubble the same way Quiet Riot does. It’s excellent, and part of the reason Billy started playing in the first place— though, he would have rather played violin, but violins are a little harder to come by, and much easier to break.

 

“... That was freaking awesome,” Dustin says into the stunned silence after Billy finishes. “Why aren’t you in marching band?”

 

“Because, Henderson, I’m not a nerd,” Billy says, arching an eyebrow at the boy.

 

“Nerdy enough for classical music,” Mike points out, and seriously? Max should’ve hit him harder.

 

“Amazing,” Jane says from her spot. “More?”

 

Billy opens his mouth to say no, but then Hopper speaks up.

 

“You heard the lady, Hargrove,” he says. “What else can you do?”

 

Well, now that the cop’s put his two cents in, he’s got no damn choice, does he?

Chapter Text

Jonathan’s driving Max home today, and then to Dungeons and Dragons because wow, it’s Friday already, and Billy has decided it’s time to clean the house. The Hargrove house. The one with the bloody bathroom.

 

Fuck.

 

The house is exactly as he left it, save for the fact that someone (probably Hopper) had locked the door and closed the windows. It’s musty and dark, and Billy wishes to be anywhere but here.

 

Too bad he’s got shit to do.

 

He starts with the bedrooms, boxing up his and Max’s stuff and throwing it into the car before going to Neil and Susan’s room to get her stuff ready for good will. He works methodically, scrubbing and vacuuming and bleaching and boxing up every room as he moves through the house, carefully avoiding the bathroom until he absolutely has to.

 

He’s so caught up in his task that when the phone rings, he jumps.

 

Who the fuck would call the house?

 

Frowning, he goes to answer the phone, because maybe it’s Max, who was informed in no uncertain terms where he’d be and why she wouldn’t be seeing him until late tonight.

 

“Hello?”

 

“Billy.”

 

It’s not Max.

 

Billy freezes, phone pressed to his ear.

 

“Dad?”

 

“Finally come back to the house,” Neil grunts into the phone. “Taking advantage of what I left behind, I see.”

 

Billy can’t talk. Billy can’t move. Billy can’t do anything but listen.

 

“You’re more than welcome than to keep that shithole,” Neil continues. “But first, you have to do something for me.”

 

Billy swallows.

 

“I’m not doing anything for you,” he says, and he meant to make it sound stronger, to sound final, but he’s pleased enough when his voice doesn’t shake.

 

“What did you just say to me?”

 

“I’m not doing anything for you,” Billy repeats, and this time, it’s a little stronger. “Do you realize what you’ve done? What you’ve done to Max?”

 

There’s a long pause.

 

“I am sorry about that,” Neil admits, the fucker. “But it had to be done, Billy. It really is that simple, sometimes.”

 

“Susan didn’t deserve that shit,” Billy hisses. “And even if she did, do you understand what’s going to happen to Max, now? Where she’s going to go if I can’t get my shit together?” He’s shouting, now, but he doesn’t care. If one person deserves to be shouted at, it’s his fucking father.

 

“Now, Billy, I don’t care for that tone at all,” Neil says, and there’s a hint of danger, there, something that would make Billy shake if they were in the same room. “Seems my only lesson still hasn’t been learned.”

 

Billy bares his teeth when he laughs.

 

“Respect and responsibility,” he says. “The way I see it, you killed a woman who couldn’t defend herself. You left her daughter an orphan. The way I see it, you’ve taken no responsibility, and you deserve no respect. So you know what? You can go, crawl back into whatever hole you came from, and fucking die.”

 

The phone shatters when Billy slams it back onto the receiver, a shard of plastic slicing his palm open with the force of contact, but Billy doesn’t care. He’s too busy trying to rapidly untangle the fear and fury and sudden urge to cry that is bubbling up his throat.

 

He didn’t ask for this. He didn’t fucking ask for this.

 

He tries to distract himself, but the only room left is the bathroom, so that’s where he goes, grabbing bleach and a scrub brush and an extra bucket. He forgets his gloves, but right now, he can’t find it in himself to give a shit.

 

The cut stings in the face of hot water and soap and pressure as he scrubs at the dried pools of blood with vicious urgency, but he pays it no attention. The bath mats are too damaged to do anything but throw away, so they’re tossed over his shoulder into the hall as he goes. He gets a good amount of the blood off without bleach, actually, and by the time he actually does break out the bleach, the cut’s stopped bleeding.

 

That doesn’t mean it doesn’t burn when he makes the mistake of touching the bleach-soaked rag with his damaged hand, badly enough that he actually gets up and sticks his hand under the tap, ignoring his knees’ groaning protest.

 

He makes the mistake of looking in the mirror, of catching his own, tired eyes.

 

He looks like shit, like he hasn’t slept in days, like he’s been on a four day bender with nothing but speed and sex to keep him going. There’s blood smeared on his cheek where he must have wiped away an errant tear, and the faded aftermath of Max’s punch, still there nearly a week later. His head is pounding and his stomach is turning itself inside out and fuck. Fuck.

 

That’s what breaks him, in the end, what makes his knees buckle and his face crumple as his shoulders begin to shake with the power of each sob. He’s eighteen, and yeah, he’s not a good person, but shit, he shouldn’t be doing this, shouldn’t be mopping up blood in a shitty little bathroom while his dad runs around a free man. This can’t be his life.

 

He doesn’t know how long he stays like that, curled up on the bathroom floor amid cleaning supplies and old blood, but that’s where he stays, even when he hears the doorbell ring and the door creak open.

 

“Billy?”

 

Billy doesn’t look up at Nancy’s voice, half-certain he’s just made it up in his head. Nancy seems like the sort of person who would care he’s having a meltdown, doesn’t she? It makes sense he would pick her to imagine.

 

“Billy, you’re not okay.”

 

Not a question. Apparently, the Nancy he’d conjured up was smart enough not to ask stupid questions.

 

“Billy, look at me.”

 

He does, and— oh. She’s actually there, dressed like she’s on her way out somewhere and looking worried as she stares down at him.

 

He looks away.

 

“Had to clean,” he mutters, like it’s some kind of excuse for his sitting on the floor in a puddle of bleach and blood. “Figured I’d get it done today.”

 

Nancy makes a noise.

 

“I think you need to go home,” she says, and her hand’s on his shoulder. “I’ll finish up, Billy. You need to go home.”

 

“I am home.”

 

“Back to the Byers,” Nancy says without missing a beat. “Billy, I don’t think you can be here anymore. The bleach isn’t good for you— what happened to your hand?”

 

He doesn’t move, but he doesn’t fight her either when she kneels beside him and reaches for his hand, turning it palm up so she can look at the cut.

 

“Jesus, Billy, you need stitches,” she says, making a face.

 

Billy turns, feeling a little-lightheaded.

 

“Your jeans are gonna get ruined,” he says dumbly, staring at her knees. “There’s bleach on the floor.”

 

“That’s alright,” she says. “Billy, can you get up?”

 

“I—” He shifts, pushing himself forward onto his knees. Nancy catches him by the shoulder, pulling him up with a strength he didn’t know she had.

 

“I don’t think you can drive,” she says worriedly. “Come on, Billy, let’s get you out of here, okay? Let’s go to the living room.”

 

He lets her lead him out, half-leaning against her smaller form as his head starts to spin. Fuck, maybe the bleach wasn’t such a good idea.

 

She drops him into the armchair— Neil’s armchair— and goes to the phone, except, right, Billy broke the phone.

 

“I need to call Steve,” she says. “Do you have another phone?”

 

“Bedroom,” he grunts, letting his head fall back. “At the end of the hall.”

 

Neil always kept a phone in his bedroom, so he could keep an eye on who was calling who.

 

Nancy nods, pointedly doesn’t ask about the destroyed phone in the kitchen, and goes to find the spare.

 

Billy sits, and sits, and sits.

 

Then, he falls asleep.



*.*



He wakes up with Nancy’s hand on his shoulder and her pretty face hovering over him.

 

“Billy?”

 

“Hmm?” He blinks up at her, foggy and unfocused.

 

“Steve’s here to drive you to the Byers’,” she says. “Are you feeling okay?”

 

No, not really, no, but Billy doesn’t really have to say it, because Nancy just makes a face like she knows and straightens.

 

“His car’s full of boxes,” she says. “You’ll have to take him in the Beemer.”

 

“Yeah, fine. What about you?” Steve sounds a little annoyed, which is blessedly normal, in Billy’s opinion. He’d give his left arm for some normal.

 

“I’m staying and cleaning,” Nancy says. “Tell Jonathan I’m sorry, will you? We were supposed to go out tonight.”

 

“Sure thing. How’d you know to come here?”

 

“I saw his car.” Billy opens his eyes just in time to see her shrug. “Had a feeling. Take him home, alright? Or maybe the hospital might be better.”

 

Billy grunts. His arms feel like lead when he tries to move them.

 

“No hospital,” he says, struggling out of the chair. “I’ll be fine, I’ll come back tomorrow and finish up, Nancy, it’s fine—”

 

“No, I’ll finish up,” Nancy says sharply. “No hospital? Fine. But you’re going to go to bed and spend tomorrow in the house. Do you understand?”

 

Billy sighs and falls back against the chair.

 

“I understand,” he mutters. What’s with girls asking him that, anyway?

 

Steve makes a face when he gets close, wary and slightly disgusted, but Billy doesn’t fight him when he snakes an arm under his shoulders and pulls him to his feet, holding him up when his knees buckle after three steps.

 

“What the fuck did you take, man?” Steve grunts, holding him up by sheer force of will alone. Billy doesn’t have the energy to say something witty, but he feels it in his heart.

 

Steve shoves him into the passenger seat of the Beemer and buckles him in, which would be annoying if it weren’t so damn funny.

 

“Max said you were a mom,” he says as Steve settles himself into the driver’s seat. “I believe her, now.”

 

“The safety of children I’m in charge of is important to me,” Steve says, glancing over at him as he starts the car. “And apparently, that now includes you.”

 

“I’m not a kid, though,” Billy says, fumbling for his cigarettes. “I’m a… whatever the fuck I am, now. Son of a murderer, I guess.”

 

Steve stiffens when he says that, but doesn’t respond.

 

They drive back to the Byers’ in silence.

Chapter Text

Jonathan’s home when Steve helps Billy inside, curled up on the couch and looking a bit like a disappointed puppy until he sees them both.

 

“Billy? Steve? What’s happening?”

 

“I don’t know,” Steve says. “Nancy saw Billy’s car outside of his house, and found him all fucked up, I guess. She called me to bring him home.”

 

“Shit,” Jonathan mutters. “Billy, you take anything?”

 

“Nah… Just the bleach, I think.” And the phone call, and the meltdown. “I just wanna sleep.”

 

“His and Max’s room are right down the hall,” Jonathan says to Steve. “I’m gonna call Nancy, to see if she’s okay.”

 

“She’s still at the Hargroves’,” Steve says. “Finishing cleaning.”

 

“Didn’t have to do that,” Billy murmurs.

 

“Yes, well, that’s Nancy,” Steve says. “She’s a helpful person. C’mon. Bedtime for the biggest kid.”

 

Billy bares his teeth but doesn’t answer, just lets Steve help him to his room.

 

“Where does Max sleep?” he asks when he drops Billy onto the bed.

 

Billy sighs.

 

“Here,” he says, patting the space next to him. “It works for now.”

 

“Oh.” Steve looks around. “Homie.”

 

Billy snorts.

 

“We’re guests,” he says. “Don’t think Joyce’d appreciate it if I started pinning up bikini babes on her walls.”

 

“Or Max.”

 

“Max wouldn’t mind,” Billy says, closing his eyes. “She leans that way sometimes too, I think.”

 

“Then what’s she doing with Lucas?”

 

“I said sometimes, didn’t I, Stevie?” Billy sighs, closing his eyes. “What time is it?”

 

“Nine-thirty.” Steve says, glancing at his watch. “I’m supposed to pick the kids up at ten— whose birth certificate is this?”

 

Billy cracks open one eye to Steve standing with his file open in his hands.

 

“Who said you were allowed to go through my shit, Harrington?” He says, not moving. He’s too tired for this shit.

 

“It’s not your shit,” Steve points out. “What, are you dealing in phony IDs, or something?”

 

“I probably could. Make some money, that way.”

 

Steve rolls his eyes.

 

“Who the hell is—” He pauses. “Youey-liam McCloud?”

 

Billy sighs.

 

“Ulliam— Ool-yum,” he repeats, sounding out the word like Steve’s five. “Is me. That’s my legal name.”

 

“Wait, what?”

 

“I’m a bastard, Stevie. Got my mother’s surname.” Billy closes his eyes again. “When my dad was given custody over me, he didn’t like that I had her name, so he started giving me his name. Didn’t change it too much, I guess— William’s the Anglicized version of my real name, so… Billy.”

 

Steve’s quiet, long enough for Billy to think he left, except he’s never that lucky, is he?

 

“That’s fucked up, man,” he says. “Why would he do that?”

 

Billy shrugs.

 

“My mom was a hooker,” he says. “He was a regular of hers, and when he stopped coming he thought he could keep that crap quiet, but then I turned up. He didn’t like that much.” That’s what Neil had told him, that first night Billy had been in his house. “Figured I’d grow up just like her, and he was sorta right, I guess.”

 

“Where’s your mom?”

 

“... Dead.”

 

“That’s fucked up.” Steve sets the file back on the nightstand. “What kind of person looks at a kid that’s lost everything and takes their name, too?”

 

“The same kind of person that calls their house after murdering their wife in hopes that their son’ll do something for them, I guess.”

 

“What?”

 

Billy winces.

 

“Jesus fuck, be quiet, Harrington,” he hisses, pressing his palms to his temples.

 

“He called? And you didn’t call Hop?”

 

Oh, right. He probably should have done that.

 

“I— wasn’t thinking clearly,” he says. “I mean, fuck— he called, and he fucking asked me to do something for him? With the shit he’s putting Max through? I lost my shit, man.”

 

Steve huffs exasperatedly.

 

“What did he want?” he asks.

 

“I don’t know,” Billy says. “I didn’t actually let him get around to what he wanted. Too busy, you know, screaming.”

 

“Guess he wasn’t close enough to punch.”

 

“If he were close enough to punch, he’d be dead, and then Max wouldn’t have anybody, because I’d be in jail.”

 

Steve makes a small noise of understanding.

 

“So you do give a shit about her,” he says.

 

“... Yeah. Kinda comes with the territory.”

 

“What’s going on with that, by the way?” Steve asks. “Do you have custody, or…”

 

“Nope. Nothing.” Billy takes a deep breath. “Right now, I guess we’re in the wind. Social services hasn’t showed up yet, which is a good thing. Gives me time.”

 

“Time to do what?”

 

“Get an apartment, sell the house, get a job.” Billy shrugs. “Gotta get that stuff done, if I want a snowball’s chance in hell of keeping her.”

 

“You know, you were a serious asshole to her, when you first moved here. And after,” Steve says. “I saw some of the bruises you left on her arms.”

 

From all the times he’d grabbed her.

 

“She was too wild,” Billy says hollowly. “Eventually, my dad would’ve gotten tired of it. Would have seen it as defiance. I was letting her know how shit worked.”

 

“Great. Cool. So hurting a little kid was obviously the way to go on that.”

 

Billy growls.

 

“Listen, Harrington, there’s a method to my bullshit, got it?” he says, sitting up despite his protesting everything. “You know what would have happened if my father found out Max was hanging out with Sinclair? There’d be a black kid hanging from a tree and a little girl in the hospital. And me probably, too, because I didn’t stop her.”

 

His head is fucking throbbing, which is likely the only reason he’s not yelling right now, the only reason he’s not in Harrington’s face.

 

“Max knew what my father was,” Billy says, eyes wild. “She saw him throw me against a wall more than enough times to know there was a line she had to toe, and yet she still seemed to think it didn’t apply to her. I was trying to keep her safe, before he went after her the same way he went after me. After her mom.”

 

Steve’s eyes are wide, and he’s maybe taken a few steps back, which makes Billy feel a little bit better.

 

There’s a knock on the doorframe, and they both turn to see Jonathan standing in the doorway, looking uncomfortable.

 

“Look,” he says. “I know you guys are having a thing right now and all, but Will and Max and the rest of the kids need picking up, and while I could go do that, I don’t think I’m particularly comfortable leaving you two alone in my house, considering what happened last time.”

 

There’s a pause, and then Steve shifts.

 

“I’ll go,” he says, throwing Billy a final, unreadable look. “Yeah. Sorry, Jonathan. I’ll head out right now.”

 

“Can you go check up on Nancy when you’re done the rounds?” Jonathan asks, stepping aside to let Steve passed. “I’d feel better.”

 

“No problem, man.”

 

Billy lays back down, letting his anger leech out of his bones into the mattress underneath him. He’s tired, he’s so tired, and—

 

And Jonathan’s still standing in the doorway.

 

“Are you okay?” he asks softly. “I heard… everything.”

 

Billy sighs.

 

“I’m fine,” he says. “I just wanna sleep.”

 

“I don’t think that’s going to be an option for a little while,” Jonathan says apologetically. “See, while you and Steve were doing… whatever it is you two were doing, I called Hopper. Your dad seriously had the balls to call you?”

 

Billy groans softly.

 

“Guess he figured I was enough of a piece of shit to help him,” he says. “Fuck, seriously? You called the Chief?”

 

“Yeah. He’ll be here in like, ten minutes.”

 

Today just isn’t Billy’s day.

Chapter Text

Hopper’s still in the house when Max and Will walk in, which opens up a whole new can of bullshit for Billy because now Max is worried. About him. What?

 

Clearly, she isn’t thinking straight. Neil killed her mom, not Billy’s, and anyway, shouldn’t she be pissed at him for not doing anything? For not calling the cops immediately, or keeping Neil on the phone like Hopper suggested he do if he called again?

 

She follows him to the bedroom when Hopper finally leaves, curling up beside him when he finally, finally, lays down for bed.

 

“I’m fine, Max,” he says when she scoots closer.

 

“You’re not fine,” Max says. “You look like shit, and your shitty dad called you. Why would you be fine?”

 

And yeah, she has a point.

 

“I’m just tired,” he says for what feels like the millionth time today. “I’ve got a lot on my mind.”

 

“My mom used to say that,” Max says quietly. “When we were short on rent or grocery money, or the car was going to get repo’d. ‘I’ve got a lot on my mind’, she’d say, and then she’d got to bed early and cry.”

 

“I’m not gonna cry,” Billy says.

 

“That’s ‘cause you did already,” Max says. “I know what you look like after, you know. I could always tell.” She settles her head on his shoulder. “I… I’m sorry you’re caught up in all this. I’m sorry it had to be your dad.”

 

“Why are you apologizing?” Billy asks. “Your mom’s dead. My dad just let the world know exactly how much of a piece of shit he is.”

 

“That’s not what I mean,” Max says. “I… I don’t know how to say what I mean, but I’m sorry. I’m sorry you feel like you’ve gotta… stick around, I guess. For me.”

 

Billy shifts, turning onto his side so he can look her in the eye.

 

“Listen to me,” he says softly. “Never apologize for that again. You’re my sister, okay? You’re more than an obligation, even if I’ve done a shit job of showing it. You’re a kid, not a burden. I want you safe, and I wish more than anything else I could take all this shit back— all the shit Neil did to you, and all the shit I did to you.”

 

Max is quiet for a long moment. Then she nods.

 

“I know,” she says. “I know you didn’t want this to happen, and I know you… you were trying to help, I guess. But I also know I didn’t make it easy for you. I know Neil hit you when I… when I did something you were supposed to stop me from doing.”

 

“That’s not your fault either,” Billy says. “I made that shit my responsibility for a reason.”

 

“You were protecting me,” Max whispers. “And I didn’t care. I just… I was so angry…”

 

“That just means you’re really my sister,” Billy says. “You’re not family until you nearly permanently maim somebody, in my house.”

 

“Doesn’t make it right,” she says. “So I’m going to try and do better, okay?”

 

Billy doesn’t know what to do with this, with these… feelings. He’s not good at this heart-to-heart shit.

 

“I… yeah, okay,” he says, because he’s a fucking idiot. “I— I’ll try to do better too, I guess.”

 

Max nods, closing her eyes and pushing forward until her face is in his chest and she can comfortably loop and arm around his back.

 

“Good,” she says. “‘Night, Billy.”

 

He presses his face into her hair.

 

“‘Night, Max.”



*.*



Nancy comes over the next morning with Mike in tow and a plastic bag of dirty clothes.

 

“Your house is clean,” she says. “And I’m going to burn these in the backyard. Figured you’d wanna get rid of your stuff, too.”

 

She holds up the bag, and Billy figures, why the fuck not?

 

That’s how he finds himself standing in the backyard in front of a bonfire with Nancy Wheeler.

 

“Steve told me about what happened last night,” she says as they share a cigarette. “About how you guys… talked.”

 

“Did he, now?”

 

“I’ve come to the conclusion that you’re both assholes,” she says. “But your reasons for assholishness require more immediate attention. Did your dad seriously change your name?”

 

Billy closes his eyes. Seriously? Fuck Steve Harrington.

 

“Not legally,” he says. “But all my school records say Hargrove on them, so I guess it’s practically the same.”

 

Nancy hums.

 

“You should got to school and fix that,” she says. “You know, for when you get your diploma, so you have the right name on it.”

 

Billy never thought about that.

 

“Probably should, yeah,” he agrees. “Who else did Harrington tell?”

 

“Just me,” Nancy says. “I guess Jonathan knows too, considering he heard you guys argue, but yeah. Just us.”

 

Billy blows out a cloud of smoke.

 

“Guess I have to give Jane a new secret,” he says.

 

“What?”

 

Billy sighs.

 

“Jane told me a secret,” he says. “About her. So I told her a secret— my name. Because friends tell each other secrets, and apparently, Jane is my friend.”

 

Nancy smiles slightly.

 

“Hard to fault that kind of logic,” she says. “If it makes you feel any better, I consider you a friend.”

 

“Well, that’s awful nice of you, Nancy,” he says. “But your boyfriend and your ex probably don’t, so I still need to find a new secret. One that won’t scar her for life.”

 

“I don’t think you really understand how it works, with El,” Nancy says. “Once you’re her friend, you’re friends with all of us. So it doesn’t really matter what they think of you, because it’s already happened. You’re friends with them, McCloud. Deal with it.”

 

Billy feels something warm bloom in his belly at the sound of his name, but he ignores it for the sake of conversation.

 

“So if you’re Jane’s friend, you know about the whole…” He makes an odd, meaningless gesture with his hand. “You know. The superpowers.”

 

“Oh yeah,” Nancy says. “That’s a thing.”

 

“... It’s insane.”

 

“Yup.” Nancy pops her lips. “That’s Hawkins.”

Chapter Text

On Monday, Billy walks into the office with his birth certificate and social security card and tells the school to change his name in their records, which they happily do. Apparently, they’re also uncomfortable with the idea of a murderer’s son walking across the auditorium stage.

 

Whatever. Billy’s feeling good, and everything’s fine.

 

And then, Carol and Tommy show up.

 

“So,” Tommy says, giving him his best, sleaziest smile. “Now that you’ve got the house to yourself, whattaya say about a party?”

 

Carol, at least, looks uncomfortable, but Tommy… Tommy just keeps grinning at him, apparently immune to blank stare Billy levels at him.

 

“... No.”

 

Tommy’s face falls.

 

“Come on man, it’s perfect!” He protests. “I don’t think the cops’d even bother you, what with your stepmom getting murdered—”

 

Billy has never felt so calm as he is the moment his hand finds the back of Tommy’s head and Tommy’s head finds the locker.

 

“Oh, shit!” Carol jumps back as Billy lets go, letting Tommy slide to the floor without much thought. He slammed the guy’s head against the lockers pretty hard— he’d knocked him out cold.

 

Frowning, he glances up as the warning bell rings. He has an English test today, and he can’t afford to be late, so he steps over Tommy, ignores Carol, and heads down the hall.

 

Not his problem, man.



*.*



Steve is the one Billy finds leaning against his Camaro at lunch, this time.

 

“Harrington,” he drawls.

 

“McCloud,” Steve shoots back, smirking slightly. “Heard you beat the shit out of Tommy Hanson this morning.”

 

Billy stares and doesn’t answer.

 

“Funny thing,” Steve says. “I hung out with Tommy until about a year ago. We were pretty tight, actually, until he proved to be too much of a prick to handle. I ended up cutting him loose, but his mom still loves to hear about how I’m doing— I’m pretty sure the only reason she has me babysitting his kid sister is because she wants to talk to me.

 

“So, when the word starts going around school that you fucked Tommy Hanson up in school, I think to myself, ‘well, shit, Steve, somebody’s going to have something to say about this, and Mrs. Hanson isn’t very forgiving when it comes to her precious baby boy, and Billy? Well, Billy’s eighteen now. Knocking Tommy out’s technically an assault charge, if Mrs. Hanson plays dirty.’”

 

Billy winces. That… that could fuck up a lot of stuff for him.

 

“Lucky for you, Mrs. Hanson trusts the fuck out of her babysitter,” Steve says. “So when I called her and told her that her son was trying to convince the grieving stepson of Susan Hargrove to throw a party in his now-empty home and he reacted poorly, she took initiative, called the school, and asked them to give her son the harshest punishment they could offer, and for them to leave you alone. So now, Tommy’s getting suspended and won’t get to walk for graduation, and you’re in the clear.” Steve crosses his arms “You’re welcome, prick.”

 

Billy stares.

 

“... Thanks, Stevie,” he says slowly. “You… didn’t have to do that, I guess.”

 

“Sure I did,” Steve says, shrugging. “You hungry?”

 

“Not really.” Billy had been planning on calling the local realtor’s office today, which had pretty much killed his appetite.

 

“Tough,” Steve says. “I know this pretty awesome Chinese place that just opened up the next town over, and I was gonna ask if you wanted to come.”

 

Billy blinks.

 

“Uh…”

 

Steve smiles at him slightly.

 

“I’m not feeling school today,” he admits. “And I know you’ve only got Home Ec in the afternoons, which, why?”

 

Billy shrugs.

 

“Chicks dig a guy that can cook.”

 

“... Right.” Steve rolls his eyes. “Anyhoo, yeah. Chinese. You in?”

 

Billy doesn’t know what to do with this… this peace offering? This offer of armistice? Something like that. Billy’s not very good at this kind of thing.

 

“Yeah,” he says. “Okay.”

 

“Awesome.” Steve sounds surprised he agreed. “I’ll drive.”



*.*



The food isn’t fantastic, but Billy hasn’t had Chinese since he was in California, so it may as well be made of gold.

 

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you eat that fast,” Steve remarks, eyeing the plate that Billy has methodically emptied in a matter of minutes. “You’re gonna throw up.”

 

“Am not,” Billy says around a mouthful of sweet and sour chicken. He’s had practice, eating like this, when he knew he needed to spend an evening or three out of the house.

 

Steve doesn’t know that though, so he scoffs.

 

“Yeah, Okay, man.” Steve runs a hand through his hair. He’s let it get a little long, these past few months, long enough that it curls just slightly at the ends where it touches his shoulders. It suits him, Billy thinks absently. In a hippie sort of way.

 

“You don’t look much like a prep anymore,” he finds himself saying, because goddammit, his filter’s broken. “I mean, except for the polos, and you don’t even wear them much anymore.”

 

“Hmm?” Steve plucks at his t-shirt as if he’d only just realized he’d been wearing one. “Yeah, I guess. Not really out to impress anymore, you know?”

 

Billy’s noticed. Now that Harrington’s well and truly sequestered himself with Jonathan and Nancy, he hardly ever sees the guy at school, especially now that the basketball season is over. If it weren’t for the kids hanging out, and his more recent bullshit, Billy doesn’t think he’d ever actually cross paths with the dude at all.

 

“Guess it doesn’t really matter anymore, does it?” Billy says, leaning back in his chair. “Everybody’s gonna be graduating and heading off to fancy colleges, right?”

 

Steve snorts.

 

“Not me,” he says, and maybe he didn’t mean to sound as bitter as he did. “I’ve got a place in my dad’s company waiting for me.”

 

“So your pops does work?”

 

Steve makes a face.

 

“Technically,” he says. “But it’s more of a nonprofit, pet project thing— a bunch of lawyers sitting around in a room trying to bust ecoterrorists out of jail and stuff.”

 

“And what the hell does he think you’re going to be doing in a place like that?”

 

“He thinks I’ll find a cause, I guess.” Steve shrugs. “Something to be passionate about. I mean, for him, it’s the environment— stopping pollution, saving endangered species, that sort of thing. He thinks if he shoves enough of that crap in my direction I’ll… I don’t know. Get into it.”

 

Billy hums, watching him thoughtfully.

 

“I think you’d die in a place like that,” Billy says. “I don’t think you could handle the stress of knowing exactly how the world’s falling to shit.”

 

Steve snorts.

 

“You say that like I don’t already know,” he says, and there’s something dark in his eyes, something a hundred years older than Steve himself.

 

Billy knows that look. He’s been seeing it in Max’s faces more and more recently, as time passes.

 

“I think,” he says, steering the conversation away from the darker edge of this particular subject. “That you oughta join a band, or something.”

 

“What? Why?”

 

Billy shrugs.

 

“Seem like the artistic type, I guess,” he says. “Girls like you because you’re sensitive and broody without coming off as a creep like Johnny does, and you already said your mom’s an artist. That shit’s hereditary, I swear it is.”

 

“My mother is a painter,” Steve says. “And I can barely write my name legibly.”

 

“So? Go into sculpting, then.”

 

“Everything I’ve ever made with clay looks like dicks,” Steve informs him. “And before you ask, no, I don’t have any of them. They were all destroyed.”

 

“That’s a shame,” Billy says. “There’s a market for phallic sculpture.”

 

“What— how would you even know that?”

 

“Dated a really freaky older chick once.” Worked with, technically. She was a client. “Her whole apartment was full of like, hyperrealistic sculptures. It was kind of… off-putting.”

 

Steve stares at him. Then, he starts to laugh.

 

“You’re bullshitting,” he says, hiding his mouth behind a stupidly large hand. Seriously, this guy’s built like a labrador puppy. “That is not fucking true.”

 

“I swear, man, it’s God’s honest truth,” Billy says, holding up a hand. “Janet was one weird bitch, but hey, she was rich—” Billy stops, mouth snapping shut.

 

Steve blinks.

 

“What?”

 

“Nothin’.”

 

Steve watches him for a moment, brow furrowed with concentration, but then he shakes his head.

 

“Fine,” he says. “Keep your secrets, if you want. But I think we’ve gotta go. Kids get out at four.”

 

“You make us sound like we’re their parents,” Billy mutters, but he’s already checking his watch and, wow, it’s three-thirty, they’ve been hanging out that long?

“Dude, we practically are,” Steve says, reaching for his coat. “And with any luck, it’ll be legal for you soon, right?”

 

Billy sighs. He doesn’t want to think about that now.

 

“... Let’s just get the brats,” he mutters. “Okay?”

 

Steve claps him on the back.

 

“Don’t worry, McCloud,” he says cheerfully. “No matter what happens, I’m sure you’ll always have a flock of pretty older women hovering around you, Mrs. Wheeler among them.”

 

Billy winces. Yeah, she’d never really gotten over that first meeting of theirs.

 

“Shut up, Harrington.”

Chapter Text

 

June comes in on a warm breeze, and Billy finds himself standing in front of a bonfire for the second time in two weeks, except this time, he’s burning wood, not clothes.

 

The Byers are hosting an ‘it’s finally summer!’ party, and everybody’s invited.

 

Jonathan’s handling the grill, chatting cheerfully with Steve as he flips burgers. Nancy is guarding the marshmallows, shooting Dustin amusingly unimpressed glances whenever he wanders over to attempt to steal them from their place under her chair. The rest of the boys and are playing football, tackling each other into the dirt and cursing like one of their mothers isn’t standing not ten feet away, watching it all with a sort of relaxed pleasure as they play and scream and act like kids.

 

Billy finds he rather likes the normality of it all.

 

Jane is sitting beside him on the back steps, content to lean against his elbow as he smokes cigarette after cigarette and sips his beer. She’s a quiet one, a bit like Will, except she’s calmer than he is, less prone to the sort of anxiety that Will wears like a second skin.

 

Everything is fine, everything is near perfect, and then—

 

Hopper shows up. With a stranger.

 

The woman is unfamiliar, which is probably what makes everyone pause in their activities, dark hair pinned back into a sterile bun as she looks over the scene with stern eyes. Hopper looks unhappy, and when he meets Billy’s gaze, Billy feels his stomach drop.

 

No. Not now.

 

Billy stubs his cigarette and quells the urge to shout for Max to run, pushing himself to his feet and dusting off the back of his jeans. He doesn’t look his best, he knows, not for a meeting like this— his jeans are more fray than actual material, and his tank top has seen better days. Fuck. Fuck.

 

Well, it’s too late now, the woman’s had a good look at him, so Billy puts on his best smile and saunters over to Hopper, reaching out to shake his hand like it’s something he does all the time.

 

“Hey Chief,” he says. “Janey didn’t say you were bringing a friend over.”

 

Hopper grimaces at him, which, again, fuck.

 

“Billy, this is Mrs. Grant,” he says. “Mrs. Grant is from Social Services. She’s looking over Max’s case.”

 

“I understand you’re staying here with your stepsister, Mr. Hargrove,” Mrs. Grant says, and wow, she sounds exactly the way Billy expected her to sound. “Ms. Byers is a… friend of the family’s?”

 

Billy straightens.

 

“Her younger son is in Max’s class,” Billy says. “And I’m in class with his older brother. Joyce has been letting us stay with her while I look for an apartment.”

 

Mrs. Grant makes a small noise.

 

“That’s very kind of her,” she says. “The houses in this suburb— they typically have four bedrooms, is that correct?”

 

“Yes, ma’am,” Joyce says from over Billy’s shoulder. “Why do you ask?”

 

“Simply because it means you only have space for one houseguest.” Mrs. Grant sniffs. “It’s improper for boys and girls to share rooms, you know.”

 

Billy makes a face.

 

“One, Max is my sister, so that’s pretty gross of you to think something like that,” he says. “And two, I’ve been staying on the couch, for now.” A lie, but Billy knows how this goes.

 

Mrs. Grant arches an eyebrow, like she doesn’t believe he actually called her out on that. Maybe he shouldn’t have. Fuck.

 

“That may be the case, but regardless, Ms. Byers, you are not a certified foster parent in our system,” Mrs. Grant says, turning her attention away from Billy. “It is unacceptable that Maxine has stayed with you as long as she already has.”

 

Joyce gives her an uncertain smile.

 

“Well, Max and Billy are no trouble,” she says. “And I already have children of my own, so—”

 

“Be that as it may, it shouldn’t have happened,” Mrs. Grant interrupts. “Maxine Mayfield is a ward of the state, and protocol requires that I remove her from your home and place her in the care of someone the state has cleared.”

 

Billy goes cold.

 

“You can’t,” he says before he can stop himself. “You can’t take her, she’s only got a month left of school—”

 

“That is something we had hoped to avoid, but unfortunately, there is no home within the district that can take her,” Mrs. Grant says. “Facts are facts, Mr. Hargrove. Max will have to come with me.”

 

“Billy?” He feels Max’s hand find his elbow, fingers digging into his skin. “Billy, what’s going on?”

 

“You can’t take her,” he repeats. “Not now. You can’t—”

 

“I can and I must, Mr. Hargrove.” Mrs. Grant interrupts him again. “Maxine, come with me.”

 

She holds out a hand, looking expectantly at Max. Max steps back.

 

“Where do you want to take me?” she asks, eyeing the woman suspiciously.

 

“Where you are meant to be.” Mrs. Grant takes a step forward. Max takes another step back. “Maxine, don’t be difficult.”

 

Billy shifts his weight just enough to be in Mrs. Grant’s way.

 

“She doesn’t want to go,” he says. “She’s happy here. She’s safe here.”

 

“I’m sorry you feel that way,” Mrs. Grant says. “But I’m afraid it’s protocol. Maxine, come here.”

 

“Listen to her, kid.” Hopper looks like he hates every word coming out of his mouth, but Billy could give less of a shit about the guy’s feelings right now, because seriously?

 

“Hop—” Joyce starts.

 

“No, Joyce,” Hopper says, looking pained. “She has to go, at least for now.”

 

“You can apply for temporary custody at the office in Shermerville,” Mrs. Grant says, turning to look at Joyce. “But until your application is approved, Maxine must come with me. Maxine.”

 

Mrs. Grant looks back at Max, and Jesus, Billy wants to tell her to run, but he doesn’t want to make it any worse, doesn’t want—

 

“Billy?” Max is looking at him, he can feel her eyes burning a hole in the back of his head. She wants his answer, wants his permission to dart into the forest and play wild girl until this woman leaves and never returns, but he can’t do that. He can’t fucking do that, even though that’s all he wants to do.

 

“I’m going to get you back,” he says, and he refuses to turn, refuses to meet her eyes. “I swear to God, Max, I’m going to get you back.”

 

“Billy, you can’t— you can’t let this bitch take me—”

 

“Max!” He says sharply, because he sees the woman go white with anger under all that makeup, and he knows firsthand it’s a bad idea to piss off the caseworkers in social services. “Max, I promise, I’ll get you back, but right now—” God, it hurts to get the words out, it fucking hurts, and there’s nothing he can do about it. “Right now, you have to go.”

 

“Listen to your stepbrother, Maxine,” Mrs. Grant orders. “Come with me, and behave, or we’ll have trouble.”

 

It takes every ounce of strength Billy has not to attack this woman for that comment, to not strangle her with her own garish ascot. The feeling intensifies when Max steps forward, eyes full of betrayal when she looks at Billy. He can’t look her in the eye, can’t do anything but stand and watch as Mrs. Grant catches her by the shoulder and leads her around the house.

 

The backyard is quiet enough for them to hear the car doors open and shut, and for the engine to rev. Billy stares at the ground, and he thinks he might be shaking.

 

“How long did you know, Chief?” he asks quietly, eyes focused on the weeds poking out from between his shoes.

 

“Kid—”

 

“Cut the bullshit,” Billy says flatly, looking up. “I know how this shit works, I’ve lived it. How long did you know she was coming?”

 

Hopper looks like he wants to lie, but thankfully decides against it.

 

“A couple of days,” he admits quietly. “Billy, I—”

 

Billy moves before his brain can register it, fist making contact with the Chief of Police’s face.

 

“You bastard,” he snarls as Hopper stumbles back with the force of the blow, arm already pulling back for another punch. “You didn’t fucking think to warn us? They took her, they just took her—”

 

A pair of hands catch his arm, too big to be Joyce’s, and when Billy tries to pull away another pair catch him by the other arm, holding him back.

 

“Let go of me!” He screams, and he must look insane right now, pulling desperately as he tries to free himself from Steve and Jonathan’s hold. “Let go of me, you bastards, he fucking deserves it, he fucking deserves it! They took Max, they took Max—”

 

“Beating the shit out of Hop’s not going to change that!” That’s Steve, screaming just as loud except right in his ear. “Billy, you’ve gotta calm down, if you get into shit now you’re never gonna get her back—”

 

“And whose fault is it that she’s gone in the first place?” He demands. “Let me go, you fuckers—”

 

His knees buckle, and suddenly Billy can’t breathe, with how angry he is, how much he wants to cry. His screams die as he curls in on himself, gasping wetly as the world goes fuzzy and dark around him.

 

“Let him go,” Joyce orders. “Jonathan, Steve, let him go.”

 

The hands release him, and Billy feels all the fight go out of him. He’s crying, now, properly crying as he wraps his arms around himself in the dirt of the Byers’ backyard.

 

“Fuck,” he hisses. “Fuck, fuck, fuck!”

 

“You’re okay, Billy,” Joyce says, and she’s right there beside him, rubbing his back like he’s five and had a bad dream. “Max is going to be okay, we’re gonna get her back, okay? We’ll get her back, and she’ll be fine, she’ll be fine—”

 

“She’s all I’ve got,” Billy says. “She’s all I’ve got, and she just took her, like it didn’t even matter—”

 

“Matters,” Jane says, and there’s another person wrapped around him, now, a little girl that’s too thin and too soft to be Max. “Find her. I’ll find her.”

 

“El—” Hopper starts, sounding tired.

 

“No,” Jane says, and there’s iron in her voice, because apparently she can get pissed off, too. “Hurt my friends. Lied. Friends don’t lie.”

 

Hopper’s quiet a moment.

 

“Let Joyce try and get her the legal way,” he says finally. “If she can’t… then you can look for her. Okay, El?”

 

Jane’s grip on Billy tightens, and her weight against him shifts to peer at Joyce over his head.

 

“I’ll get her back here,” Joyce promises quietly, more to Billy than Jane. “I’ll get her back, I promise.”

 

Billy knows she means it, because that’s Joyce, genuine to a fault, but he doesn’t trust promises, even from someone like her. He learned that a long time ago.

 

Swallowing, he pushes himself to his feet, shaking off Joyce and Jane carelessly and brushing the dirt off his knees.

 

“I need to go,” he says abruptly, refusing to look at anyone.

 

“Where are you going?” Steve asks, because of course it’s fucking Steve.

 

Billy touches his back pocket. The keys to the Camaro are there, thank God. He doesn’t have to go back into the house.

 

“Work,” Billy says shortly, and then he’s gone, following the trail left behind by Max and Mrs. Grant.

 

He needs to distract himself, and he needs more money, because Joyce doesn’t have the cash to throw in the caseworker’s face to get Max back. Work’ll handle both those things.

 

Nobody calls after him, which is good.

 

He doesn’t know what he’d do if they called.

Chapter Text

Billy is sore and Billy is high and Billy is lying in the mostly-dry, soiled sheets of a motel bed. It’s been three days since he drove to Indianapolis, and he’s about ten grand richer and… nothing. Empty-feeling. Sort of sick to his stomach. This shit was a lot easier when his plan was live fast and die young, rather than make sure Max is okay. Taking care of himself is a lot easier than taking care of another person.

 

He’s lucky he’s pretty, honestly, that he can charge so much for little shit, and charge even more for the bigger shit. Others wouldn’t make half as much as he had if they worked for a month, though if that’s because they have more self-respect or less, Billy can’t say.

 

Billy wants to go home, except he has no home, not really. Where would he go, anyway? His dad’s house is a crime scene, for all that Billy (and Nancy) cleaned up the place. The Byers’ house? He doesn’t belong there, not without Max, and Max is gone, probably forever— or at least until he snaps and goes to find her, adding a kidnapping charge to his laundry list of crimes committed (and caught doing).

 

Billy has no home, he just has himself. And Max, if he ever sees her again. So he may as well just stay here.

 

The room stinks of pot and sex and cigarette smoke, but Billy can’t bring himself to care. He’s tired and he wants to go to bed. He had a little drink about an hour ago, and it’s gone straight to his head…

 

“Show me the way, to go home,” he whispers, voice cracking. He saw Jaws in theaters with his mom, when it first came out. She’d taken him on a Sunday morning, and covered his eyes for all the scary parts.

 

Hooper was his favorite. Smart, but kinda dumb at the same time. Once, Billy had thought he might like to grow up a bit like him, a scientist with a cool job and enough money to go kill sharks in his free time. He got over that idea pretty quickly, though.

 

There’s a sudden, sharp knock on the door, and Billy startles, brow furrowing with anger.

 

“Fuck off!” he grunts. “I’ve got this shithole for another night!”

 

There’s a pause, and then the knock comes again, more insistent this time.

 

“Fuck off!”

 

He rolls over, back to the door, and buries his face into spare (clean) pillow he pilfered from housekeeping’s cart. He’s not getting up, not until it’s dark again.

 

“Billy, you asshole, open up, it’s me!”

 

He knows that voice, knows that irritated lilt like he knows it like he knows the sound of an electric guitar.

 

What the fuck is Harrington doing here?

 

Billy doesn’t move, because he’s half-convinced that he’s just hearing shit. The weed’s pretty good, after all, considering where he got it from. Maybe it was laced with something…

 

He hears the door unlock and creak open, and, what? He rolls over, just enough to peer over his shoulder, and sure enough, there’s Steve, face scrunched up with disgust as he surveys the room, Jane standing beside him looking pained.

 

“Jesus, McCloud, what did you do?”

 

“How’d you find me?”

 

“Me,” Jane says, and then, she’s beside him, one hand laid gently on his shoulder as she peers worriedly down at him.

 

Billy is suddenly very acutely aware of the fact that he’s not wearing anything except for a pair of faded black briefs, and that’s just awkward.

 

“I can find people,” she says by way of explanation. “Just need a picture.” She reaches into her coat, the same black coat she’d worn to the funeral, and pulls out a crumpled photo that Billy is quite sure had been in his file the last time he checked. She offers the photo to him, and he takes it, smoothing out the corners with shaky fingers.

 

It’s from a recital he’d had, back when his mother was alive and he’d still done extracurriculars. He can’t be older than nine, dressed to the nines in a green kilt and a blousey white shirt. His hair is a mop of blond curls that cover most of his face, poking out from under his hat in twisting locks as he grins up at the camera, at his mother.

 

“That’s a hell of a superpower, Jane,” he says. “Coulda done with a warning, though.”

 

Jane shrugs.

 

“Not enough time,” she says. “You disappeared, and we had to find you. Worried.”

 

Something in Billy’s chest tightens.

 

“No need to worry about me, Janey,” he promises. “I can take care of himself.”

 

“Clearly not,” Steve says, and oh right, he’s here, too. “This is how you decide to deal with everything? Seriously? It smells like a fucking college party.”

 

Billy’s mouth twists and he sits up.

 

“Fuck you, Harrington,” he says. “I was working.”

 

“How the fuck is sex and drugs working?” Steve demands. “You’re high as a kite.”

 

Billy arches an eyebrow.

 

“Well, now, Harrington, I didn’t realize I had to spell it out for you,” he drawls. “After all, it’s a family business.”

 

Steve freezes, eyes going wide, and— yeah, Billy maybe shouldn’t have said that in front of Jane, now that he thinks about it.

 

Jane touches his shoulder again, and he forces himself to look at her.

 

“Saw you with a man,” she tells him, and shame burns deep in his stomach. “He was hurting you, Billy.”

 

She saw? She saw? Fuck, he just traumatized a kid for life, didn’t he? Fuck, Billy is the worst person ever.

 

“Ah…” Billy’s shoulders curl forward. “You shouldn’t have seen that, Janey. That’s grown-up stuff.” He pauses, then adds, “and I wasn’t really hurt. He was just…” Paying him. They all pay him to do weird shit, to hit him or bite him or just all around be a little rougher than they can be with their wives.

 

“El, I think you ought to go wait in the car,” Steve says tightly, and yeah, maybe she shouldn’t be present for this, standing in a shitty motel room amid cum-covered sheets and Billy at an all-time low.

 

“Steve—”

 

“El, seriously,” Steve says, and he sounds like every tired mother in the universe. “Go wait in the car.”


Jane stares at him a moment, then turns to Billy. Why the hell are there kids looking to him for permission, nowadays?

 

“Go,” he says. “You won’t be waiting long.” A warning, more than anything, directed at Steve. He won’t sit quietly if this guy’s looking to start a shouting match.

 

Jane sighs but obeys, the door shutting behind her without a touch.

 

There’s a moment of silence.

 

“So,” Steve says, taking a deep, calming breath. “You’re a... “

 

“Hooker, yeah,” Billy says. “What’s your point?”

 

Steve rubs his shoulders uncomfortably, mouth twisting as he tries to align his thoughts.

 

“Since when?” he asks. “How long have…”

 

Billy’s mouth feels dry. He wants to lie, probably should lie, except something about the look on Steve’s face, the odd, vulnerable slump to his shoulders makes him think that maybe…

 

“Fifteen,” he says, not meeting his eyes. “I was fifteen when my dad said I needed to start paying rent.”

 

Steve flinches.

 

“That’s… that’s not right,” he says. “And you… did he know?”

 

Billy shrugs, eyes fixed on the wall.

 

“I think he guessed,” he admits. “But hey, what else did he expect? Like mother, like son.”

 

His father had always sneered at him whenever he handed over the money for the month, like he’d seen the stiffness in Billy’s gait and was… amused by it. Pleased to have confirmation that his son is, in fact, the lowest of the low.

 

Steve inhales sharply.

 

“C’mon,” he says, reaching down to pick up Billy’s jeans off the floor. “We’re going home.”

 

“What?”

 

“We’re going home,” Steve repeats. “Back to Hawkins. What you’re doing is bullshit, Billy, and you know it. It’s not going to help get Max back. This is running away.”

 

Anger flares in Billy’s chest.

 

“Fuck you, Harrington,” he says flatly. “I’m not going anywhere with you.”

 

“Yes, you are,” Steve says. “Because Jane is scared and Joyce is freaking out and Jesus, Nancy almost came with me. Can you even imagine what she’d do if she saw you like this?”

 

Billy frowns. He doesn’t really know Nancy, not really, so why...?

 

“Nancy gives a shit about people,” Steve says, like he can read minds or some shit. “And guess what, Billy? She now gives a shit about you. Congratulations, there’s a girl that likes you for more than your stupid hair.”

 

That makes Billy snort. Harrington, talking about stupid hair?

 

Steve cracks a smile.

 

“Yeah, yeah, laugh it up,” he says. “Just get dressed, will you? I get enough of an eyeful in gym.”

 

Billy rolls his eyes but gets up, wincing at the stiffness in his muscles as he straightens. Fuck, he can’t even imagine what he looks like.

 

Steve doesn’t say a word about it, mouth pinched tight as he hands over Billy’s jeans, then finds his shirt.

 

“I can’t drive,” Billy says as he fumbles with his shirt. “I’m too fucked up.”

 

“That’s fine,” Steve says shortly. “Jonathan’s waiting for us. He can drive the Camaro back.”

 

Billy wants to argue wants to say that nobody drives his baby, but he feels heavy, and all he really wants to do is curl up into a ball and sleep.

 

“Fine,” he says. “Whatever.”

 

Steve gives him an odd, searching look, before shaking his head.

 

“Grab the rest of your shit,” he says. “Let’s go.”

Chapter Text

The ride back is quiet, mostly because Billy passes out for the first hour and change and wakes up to find that Jane has wrapped herself around him while he was unable to fight her— not that he would. With her in the car, Steve is reluctant to say much, having spent too much of the last school year around eighth graders to be willing to start any meaningful conversation. That suits Billy just fine, honestly, and he takes advantage of the quiet while he can.

 

They pull up to the Byers’ house just as it’s getting dark, and all Billy can see is the cherry of a cigarette glowing in the darkness of the front porch. Joyce. Joyce is waiting for them.

 

Billy shoulders the backpack where he’d stashed his cash and pauses uncertainly in the driveway, Steve at his shoulder. He shouldn’t be so relieved to be back, shouldn’t be so happy there’s someone waiting.

 

“C’mon,” Jonathan says, nudging his elbow. “Go hug my mom and tell her you’re alright.”

 

Billy’s not alright, not by a longshot, but he moves anyway, watching as the cherry shifts and dies as Joyce hurriedly stubs her cigarette and pushes herself to her feet.

 

“Billy!” she says, and oh, he’s being hugged. It hurts— he’s bruised beyond belief, thanks to a john of arguably sadistic tastes— but he doesn’t pull away, doesn’t do anything at all as she pulls back and cradles his face in her hands.

 

“You scared the shit out of me,” she says. “Don’t you ever do anything like that ever again, mister, you hear me? I was worried sick.”

 

Billy believes her. Even in the halflight of the streetlamps overhead, he can see the circles under her eyes have gotten deeper, like she maybe hasn’t been sleeping.

 

God, he feels like a heel.

 

“Sorry, Joyce,” he murmurs, refusing to meet her eyes. “Won’t happen again, ma’am.”

 

Joyce sighs, then steps away, hands slipping off his cheeks.

 

“Go to bed,” she says. “You look like shit.”

 

Billy nods and glances at Jane.

 

“Thanks for finding me,” he says. “I’m sorry you saw… whatever you saw.”

 

Jane gives him a small, sad smile.

 

“I help my friends,” she says. “No trouble.”

 

It isn’t the first time Billy’s been called Jane’s friend, but it’s the first time he maybe thinks he understands what it means. It makes him feel weird, sort of hot and cold at the same time.

 

Joyce is right. He should go to bed.



*.*



“I’ve applied for temporary custody over Max,” Joyce tells him when finally shuffles out of the bedroom around noon. “It’ll take a few days before they get back to me, but the paperwork’s in.”

 

Billy freezes.

 

“You… you did?”

 

“Of course I did,” Joyce says, like it’s that easy.  “I want her back by your graduation, at least.”

 

Billy swallows and looks down. He’d forgotten about graduation, honestly. He’d forgotten about everything except the immediacy of… yeah.

 

“Thanks, Joyce,” he says, putting his hands in the pockets of his pajama pants. “You didn’t—”

 

“Yes, Billy, I did.” Joyce smiles at him and pats the spot on the couch beside her. “C’mere, kid.”

 

He obeys, because it’s easy to follow directions, and is surprisingly unsurprised when she wraps him up in a big hug that smells like cigarettes and cheap shampoo.

 

“I know it’s hard,” she says, petting his hair like it’s the most natural thing in the world. “But we’re gonna get Max back, okay? And we’re going to make sure she stays.”

 

The tears come unbidden, and seriously, when did Billy turn into such a pussy? He never cried this easily before. His hands find Joyce’s arm and grip her tight, probably too tight, but she doesn’t seem to mind, just lets him lean into her and cry.

 

“You were stupid to run off like that,” she says, resting her chin on his head. “But I understand why you did it. Are you okay?”

 

Billy can’t talk around the lump in his throat, so he shakes his head.

 

“Yeah, I thought so.” Joyce sighs. “It’s been four days. I’m expecting a call by the end of the week, and if everything goes the way we want it to, Max’ll be home by Tuesday at the earliest. That’s a week from now.”

 

A week, no, more like two in some foster home. Billy wants to rip his hair out.

 

“When I was in the system,” he starts, and he’s quiet, so quiet it’s nearly a whisper. “Before they found my dad, there was a house. A couple of houses, really, but that’s the house I remember most.”

 

Joyce stays quiet, waiting.

 

“The guy was named Hearst, and he didn’t like me,” he says. “I was awkward, and ugly, and a boy. But he liked some of the others that lived there, a couple of the older girls. They were Max’s age, maybe a little younger, and he was always so nice to them, always used to give them money and drive them to the mall to buy stuff. The girls, they… he used to go to their rooms, at night, and they… I guess they were used to it. I guess it was better with him then wherever they were before.” Billy swallows. “I don’t want— I don’t want Max…”

 

Joyce is stiff beside him, arms tight around his shoulders.

 

“I’m sorry,” she says. “I’m sorry you saw those things, that you ever had to know about stuff like that. I’m sorry they took Max away. I’m sorry you have a reason to be so scared. I’m sorry you were so young. I’m sorry you are so young. Jesus, Billy, I’m sorry.”

 

Joyce has nothing to apologize for. She’s been nothing but good and kind and understanding of all the bullshit that Billy spills on other people, but she’s apologizing anyway, because, because…

 

Billy doesn’t know.

 

He doesn’t know, and right now, he doesn’t care, because nobody’s ever apologized to him for anything, no matter how fucked up or wrong. So he stays where he is, head pillowed on Joyce’s chest, and he just lets himself breathe.

 

Max will come home, and she’ll be with him again. He’ll get his shit together, maybe take a drive to collect his other safety deposit boxes, and he’ll get a job, one that he can put on paper. Then, he’ll buy an apartment, and he’ll apply for custody and fucking prove he can take care of Max.

 

And when she comes back, if Billy finds that anyone’s touched a single hair on her head, he’ll burn everything to the ground.

Chapter Text

Jonathan, Steve, and Nancy have taken to hovering around Billy at school, pressing into a tight huddle around him in the hallways and following him to his car during lunch. Billy doesn’t think that Harrington told his ex-girlfriend and her current boyfriend what the circumstances were when he found Billy, but he can’t be entirely sure. Nancy keeps giving him these doe-eyed, sorrowful looks and Jonathan’s even more sharp-eyed than usual. Neither of them, however, have anything on Steve, who has apparently gone full-out mother-mode.

 

Constant touching, constant questions, tiptoeing and tongue-biting and walking on eggshells around Billy and his apparently fragile state. It’s weird, though— if it were anyone else, Billy would think he’s being pitied, but with Steve it’s… something else.

 

The guy’s getting ready to have a talk of some kind, probably about Billy’s job, or about Billy’s future, or about something to do with the way Billy ought to treat Max when she comes back. Whatever it is, the guy’s pussy-footing, and Billy is unwilling to prod him into action.

 

He doesn’t want to have any of those possible conversations.

 

It all comes to a head when Steve drops off Will from DnD that Friday. Joyce is at work, and Jonathan’s out on a date, so it’s just him when the door opens and Will walks in, Steve trailing behind him.

 

“Hey, Will.”

 

“Hey Billy.” Will goes over to give him a hug, a new ritual of his developed since Billy came back from Indianapolis. “I’m going to go do my homework, okay?”

 

“Whatever you want, bud.”

 

Will smiles at him, cheeks a little pink, and slips away down the hall.

 

Now, it’s just him and Steve, and Steve looks like he’s about to say something stupid.

 

Billy sighs.

 

“Spit it out, Harrington,” he says. “I’m getting tired of waiting on you.”

 

Steve’s eyes widen a moment, then he shifts.

 

“Wanna go out with me?” he blurts out, and Billy blinks.

 

“What?”

 

“Not like that— shit.” Steve runs a hand through his hair, cheeks flaming, then tries again. “My mom— there’s a gallery, and they’re doing an exhibition of her stuff. Do you wanna go with me?”

 

Billy stares. That sounds… if Billy didn’t know better, he’d swear Harrington was asking him on a date.

 

“Why?”

 

Steve’s flush deepens.

 

“Figure you need to get outta the house,” he says, rubbing the back of his neck awkwardly. “And there’s gonna be booze, and chicks, and probably a shitload of weed, so… yeah.”

 

Billy’s not really feeling girls right now, but booze and weed? Sign him the fuck up.

 

“When?” he asks.

 

“Tomorrow.” Steve crosses his arms. “It’s in Chicago, though, so it’s like… a six hour drive. We’d have a place to crash, but... are you up for that?”

 

Chicago? Well, that lines up with Billy’s plans pretty well, actually.

 

“So long as I can run some errands while we’re there,” he says. “That sounds just fine.”

 

Steve makes a face.

 

“You’re not… working,” he says. “This is supposed to be fun.”

 

“Who says my job’s not fun?” Billy says, arching an eyebrow.

 

“I can’t imagine getting beat up for money isn’t fun for anybody,” Steve says, and yeah, that part's not great. He's got a point.

 

Billy sighs.

 

“I gotta stop by the bank,” he says. “I’ve got some stuff I need to pick up.” Another couple grand, but yeah. Stuff.

 

“Oh. Okay.” Steve straightens. “Well, if we’re talking about it, I’ve got an errand to run, too. Well, sort of.”

 

“What do you gotta do?”

 

“I told El I was going to Chicago,” Steve says. “She asked me if I could pick up her sister.”



*.*



Let it be known that Steve Harrington fucking loves Prince.

 

Billy’s surprised by this revelation, having dug through the other boy’s reasonably varied cassette collection as Steve drove further and further away from Hawkins. He’s got all sorts of stuff, everything from Led Zeppelin to Tears for Fears to Queen to— well, Prince. At first, Billy had put Purple Rain on as a joke, but apparently, Steve knows every fucking word, and is more than happy to sing along— loudly— to each and every track.

 

It’s probably the funniest thing Billy has witnessed in weeks, so he lets the tape play, and even does the courtesy of flipping it when they reach the end of side A.

 

Joyce was a little nervous when Billy told her about his and Steve’s plans for the weekend, even if she was happy he wasn’t going alone. She’s been a little leery about him leaving her sight ever since he got back from Indianapolis, honestly, and Billy doesn’t know how to feel about that. But she’d let him go, and now, two hundred miles away from Hawkins, Billy feels just the slightest bit better, listening to Steve scream along to Darling Nikki with the windows rolled down as they speed down the highway.

 

It feels… nice.



*.*



Steve’s mother is incredibly tall, incredibly thin, and incredibly beautiful. She stands out in the sterile-white gallery where her exhibition is taking place, dressed in a skin-tight black dress and smoking a long cigarette as she talks idly with a guest. Her long dark hair hangs loose around her shoulders, curling at the ends in an odd, serpentine sort of way.

 

When she catches sight of them, her maroon lips parts with pleasure.

 

“Steven, you managed to come up,” she says, gliding across the white floors like the ghost to press a kiss to her son’s cheek. “And you brought a boy!”

 

Billy blinks. Something about the way she says it is… off.

 

“Ah…” Steve flushes slightly. “Yeah. Mom, this is Billy, he’s a friend of mine.”

 

Something in her eyes changes, but her smile doesn’t dim.

 

“Nice to meet you, Billy,” she says, bending slightly to brush her lips against his cheek. She smells like clove cigarettes and lily of the valley perfume, and Billy doesn’t know what to do.

 

“Uh, nice to meet you too, ma’am,” Billy says, a beat too late. She doesn’t seem to mind, though, just keeps smiling at him.

 

“Oh, no, honey, I’ll have none of that,” she says. “Call me Colleen, okay? Oh! There’s Jean-Michael, I promised him I’d get him in contact with a friend of mine— make yourselves comfortable, okay? The bar’s in the corner by my portrait collection, and the cookies at the snack table are the good kind. Have fun, boys.”

 

And just like that, she floats away towards a dark-skinned man with his hair styled into four great tufts by the door, reaching out to grasp his hands in her own in greeting.

 

“And… that’s my mom,” Steve says, looking at Billy.

 

“She’s… did she imply that the cookies have weed in them?”

 

“She definitely did,” Steve says. “Wanna try them? They’re delicious.”



*.*



Billy is high and carrying around a champagne flute for some reason, but that’s okay. Everything right now is okay, because Steve is warm and giggly as he leads Billy around the gallery, pointing out pieces left and right.

 

“She did that one about a year ago… see those brown spots? She got a nose-bleed halfway through and thought it looked cool enough to leave it.” Steve, Billy is starting to realize, is very proud of his mother’s art. It’s actually sort of sweet. “And that— oh.”

 

Steve stops abruptly, staring up at a large square canvas. Billy looks up and—

 

Oh.

 

“I didn’t know she finished that one,” Steve says after a moment. “Geez, I look like shit.”

 

The painting in question is a portrait, specifically a portrait of Steve. Except it isn’t the Steve who’s clinging almost absently to Billy’s elbow, long-haired and okay, but the Steve that Billy saw the Monday after he beat him unconscious, bruised and swollen and angry, eyes focused and brow furrowed with hellfire-level fury.

 

The portrait is startlingly realistic, in its way— while the colors are a touch too bright, the shading of each purple-yellow-green-black bruise on his orange-tinged face looks painful, the split in his lip (the one that’s now a scar, one that drags down his chin and twists the shape of his mouth just slightly) is open and bleeding, the blood too red and glistening where it’s beaded on his face.

 

He looks— bad. Very bad. Billy had forgotten the twinge of guilt he’d felt when he’d actually seen the damage he’d done, but that’s okay, because now it’s back, full force.

 

“... A Beautiful Boy,” someone remarks from behind them. They both turn to see an older man with more white in his hair than blond. He smiles at them.

 

“That’s what it’s called,” he says. “... A Beautiful Boy. I’m rather taken with it, myself. You’re Colleen’s son, yes?”

 

“Uh… yeah. I am,” Steve says, and wow, maybe he’s too high for conversations with grownups.

 

The man grins.

 

“Whoever thumped you did a right job of it,” he says. “You’re lucky you healed up as well as you did.”

 

“Oh, thanks for the compliment, man,” Billy says before he can stop himself. “That was me.”

 

“Was it?” The man looks a little surprised. “Well, I suppose whatever you two were fighting over was handled, then.”

 

“Something like that,” Steve agrees faintly, glancing over at the portrait again. “I didn’t know my mom was planning on selling that.”

 

“I actually am not sure she is,” the man remarks. “Sometimes I think Colleen only puts things in her gallery to make the rest of us jealous.”

 

“That does sound like her,” Steve agrees. “Billy, didn’t you say you wanted another cookie? Let’s go see if there’s any left.”

 

Billy didn’t say anything of the sort, but he goes with it, because Steve is uncomfortable and honestly, so’s Billy, a little bit. It’s one thing to know you beat a guy up, to know you watched the bruises fade with time and the scars go pale and almost invisible, but it’s completely something else to look up into a portrait ten times the guy’s head and see each mark in vivid, neon technicolor.

 

“I think it’s time to go,” Steve says after a moment. “Is that okay with you?”

 

“Sounds just fine, Harrington.”

 

Steve still hasn’t let go of his arm, still hasn’t really addressed the portrait beyond ‘oh, fuck, that’s me’, and Billy’s not sure if he wants him to or not. Because on the one hand, Harrington seems like the communicative type, the sort of guy who talks about things that bother him. Billy’s not like that— or he wasn’t like that. He’s been running his mouth a lot recently, talking about shit he shouldn’t, so who really knows?

 

Whatever. If it comes, it comes. Billy doesn’t have the energy to fight it right now, pleasantly heavy and suddenly desperate for a pillow. Maybe a blanket. Maybe neither, he’s not picky.

 

Steve’s hand is warm through the thin fabric of his shirt as he tugs Billy into a building, then into an elevator, then into an apartment. Billy doesn’t really register any of it, distracted by the way the lights seem too yellow, then too orange. He doesn’t mind when Steve pushes him gently onto a large, soft bed and tugs off his boots before flopping down beside him. Billy is tired, and Steve seems to be more than happy to let him take a nap.

 

That’s exactly what Billy does.

Chapter Text

Steve wakes up with an arm thrown around his middle and the flash of a camera in his face. Frowning, he opens his eyes and—

 

“Mom!” he hisses, not daring to move because oh, hey, that’s definitely Billy snuggled up beside him.

 

“What?” she asks, like she doesn’t see the goddamn problem. “You two look adorable.”

 

That is exactly what Steve doesn’t want to hear, so he carefully extricates himself from Billy’s admittedly lax grip and slides off the mattress, hustling his mother out of the bedroom quietly.

 

“What’s the problem?” she asks. “I’m just trying to be supportive, you know—”

 

“He’s not my boyfriend,” Steve mutters, quietly shutting the door behind him. “He’s the guy that busted my face!”

 

“Really? I didn’t take you for the kinky type, sweetheart.” Colleen grins at the way Steve’s face twists up with embarrassment. “He really is quite pretty, you know. If he isn’t your type, I’d be happy to take a spin.”

 

This is the problem with Steve’s mother. As much as he loves her, she never really grew up, and says things he really, really doesn’t want to hear.

 

He takes a deep, calming breath.

 

“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Mom,” he says tightly. “Billy, he’s— a lot of fucked up shit’s happened to him.”

 

“Like what?”

 

Steve tells her, and watches her smile drop with something like satisfaction.

 

“Oh, that poor boy,” she says softly. “I can’t imagine what I would have done in his place. It’s good you’ve decided to take care of him.”

 

“I’m not— he’s not a kid, Mom.”

 

“No, obviously he’s not,” she says. “Nobody who lives through those sort of things can really be a kid— but still. You’re taking care of him, aren’t you?”

 

Steve shakes his head.

 

“I just brought him along so he didn’t do anything stupid while I was gone,” he says. “Jonathan’s strong, but nobody can hold Billy back if he loses it. Besides— Hawkins is a little small, for a guy like him.”

 

Colleen arches an eyebrow.

 

“For a guy like you, too,” she says. “Honey, when are you going to start travelling with me? You’d have the time of your life, and you know it. I know plenty of pretty boys and girls who’d do you good.”

 

Steve winces.

 

“You know Dad’s expecting me to—”

 

“Your father would understand,” she says. “You take after me, you know. I’ve seen those drawings in your sketchbook.”

 

“When did you have time to snoop?” he asks, frowning. He doesn’t like what she might have seen in there— demogorgons and demodogs and the endless tunnels of the Upside Down.

 

His mother shrugs.

 

“You weren’t home, and I needed to pick up a few bolts of fabric,” she says. “You know, it’s a little creepy for my taste, Steven, but I know people who’d give their left leg for some of the pencil sketches you’ve done. They’re really something.”

 

Steve sighs.

 

“I want to graduate,” he says. “I want to see the kids graduate. Then, maybe… maybe I’ll come with you.” Nothing will be holding him to Hawkins anymore, because the kids are smart and definitely won’t have any problems getting into good colleges far away from the Hellmouth that is Hawkins.

 

“That’s another four years, Steven.”

 

“Well,” he says, smiling slightly. “You were always talking about how everyone needs to know how to work. I’ll get myself a shitty job so I can draw on the impotent rage I feel about it for the rest of my life. That’s bound to spit out a few decent novels or something, right?”

 

Colleen snorts.

 

“I suppose you have a point,” she says. “You’re too loyal for your own good, Steven. It’s gonna hurt you, one day.”

 

She has no freaking clue how right she probably is.



*.*



Billy’s bank trip takes ten minutes, which is good, because it gives Steve enough time to call Jane and get something like an address (“It’s a warehouse with purple windows, as far north as you can go before you leave the city”). Billy comes out with a duffle bag full of cash and a cigarette tucked between his lips, looking pleased with himself.

 

“Alright, so we ran your errand,” Steve says, pointedly pretending that he isn’t aware of the giant bag of money that Billy shoves into the trunk of his car. “Now, we’ve gotta run mine.”

 

Billy hums, lighting his cigarette and rolling down the window like it’s an afterthought.

 

“Jane’s sister,” he says. “She was in the labs too?”

 

“That’s what El says, yeah,” he says. “She goes by Kali.”

 

“The goddess of destruction.” Billy whistles. “Nice.”

 

“What— how do you even know that?”

 

Billy shrugs.

 

“Fucked an Indian chick once,” he says. “Learned a lot, if you know what I mean.”

 

Steve cringes and pulls the car out of its parking spot.

 

“Yeah, okay, well, whatever,” he says. “El says she’s in a warehouse with purple windows, and that it’s north, somewhere. So we gotta go find it and convince her we’re not there to hurt her or her friends.”

 

“And if we do…?”

 

“She’ll make us see a bunch of shit we don’t want to see,” Steve says. “Apparently, she can make people hallucinate or some shit.”

 

“Nice. And, why are we picking her up again?”

 

“Because El says she’s in trouble, and El worries about people she cares about.”

 

“And if she doesn’t wanna go?”

 

Steve sighs.

 

“Then we leave her, I guess,” he says. “El’s probably watching, anyway, so… she’ll understand.”

 

Billy makes a noise of understanding but doesn’t say anything else, so Steve resigns himself to the task of finding Chicago’s warehouse district. Purple windows are a distinctive trait, aren’t they? It shouldn’t be that hard.



*.*



There are a lot of warehouses in Chicago, as it turns out.

 

Billy doesn’t complain, exactly, but Steve’s car is starting to smell distinctly like an ashtray, and he gets the feeling it won’t air out as easily as he’d like.

 

Aw, well.



*.*



“Hey, you said purple windows, right?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“What about that one?”

 

Billy points, and sure enough, there’s a warehouse with purple windows— at least, there’s purple paint splattered across the inside of the windows that haven’t been broken already.

 

Stomach churning, Steve pulls up next to the building and turns his car off. He hopes they can be quick enough that nobody bothers to steal it. He also hopes they aren’t horribly murdered.

 

He voices neither of these things to Billy.

Chapter Text

The warehouse is dark and cold and decidedly empty when they walk in.

 

“Shit,” Steve mutters. “Wrong one?”

 

Billy arches an eyebrow.

 

“You said this chick’s got powers like Jane, right?” he says. “She can make you see shit?”

 

“... Yeah?”

 

“So,” Billy says, lighting a cigarette. “If she’s got powers like that, why wouldn’t she be able to make us not see shit? Like, trick our brains into not seeing her.”

 

Steve’s face scrunches up unhappily.

 

“Shit,” he says. “This is gonna be way harder than I thought it was gonna be.”

 

Billy shrugs, pulling deeply from his cigarette.

 

“Maybe not,” he says. “I mean, like, it’s not like she can’t see us, right? Or hear us.”

 

“If she’s even here.”

 

“Well, guess we’ll have to take that chance, huh?” Billy flicks his cigarette and straightens his shoulders.

 

“Hey, Kali!” he shouts. “We’re friends of Jane’s, and she asked us to come check on you!”

 

The warehouse is still and silent. Billy sighs and tries again.

 

“Hey, Kali!” he tries again. “Goddess of death and destroyer of evil, right? Cool name. Did they give it to you, or—”

 

Something sharp presses against his throat, and Steve stiffens beside him. Billy’s eyes flick to the side, and he looks into the brown face of a girl who looks very scared and also is holding a knife against his skin.

 

Dark-ringed eyes bore into the side of his face, and he forces himself not to smile.

 

“Who are you?” the girl who must be Kali demands. “How do you know Jane?”

 

Billy tries to shift, to look her more fully in the face. The knife presses and cuts his skin, causing Steve to squeak and Billy to go still again.

 

“She’s friends with my sister,” he says, tilting his chin up just slightly. “I babysit her sometimes, when she comes to hang out with the kids.”

 

Kali stares at him.

 

“She is safe?” she asks.

 

God, Billy thinks to himself. She’s only a little bit younger than he is.

 

“Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, she’s fine. She lives with a cop, and— and I’m gonna teach her piano, when I get back. She’s got an ear for it.”

 

Kali looks at him like she doesn’t quite believe him, like she wants to press that knife just a little bit deeper.

 

“Who are you?” she demands.

 

Billy swallows.

 

“Uilliam McCloud,” he says. “Jane said you were in trouble, and asked us to come see you since we were in town. That’s Steve, over there. Steve Harrington. He babysits Jane too, sometimes.”

 

“Kali, I swear, we’re not here to hurt you—” Steve starts.

 

“Steve, shut the fuck up,” Billy says. He doesn’t dare look over, doesn’t dare to take his eyes off of Kali.

 

“We don’t care about how you got in trouble, we’re just doing Jane a favor,” he says. “But I swear to God I will haunt your bobblehead ass if you kill me before I see my sister again.”

 

Kali stiffens at the slur, anger flashing in her black eyes. Billy hisses as she presses the knife again, giving him another, small cut.

 

“Billy—”

 

“I don’t like you,” she says. “I don’t leave people I don’t like alive.”

 

“If that’s the case,” he says, and this time he presses forward into the blade, giving her a blank, razor-thin smile. “Let me give you some advice. The jugular’s messy, and I’ll be able to scream the whole time while I bleed out. If you’re hiding from someone— and people like us are always hiding— me screaming might draw attention. You know how echoey old, abandoned buildings can be. So, to stop me screaming, you should cut into the carotid artery— right here.” He brings his hand up, carefully poking at the correct spot. “Stab there, and then pull down— that’ll sever my vocal chords, and if you dig deep enough, stop blood from going to my brain. I’ll be dead in minutes.”

 

“What if I want you to suffer?” she asks. “I always make them suffer.”

 

Billy ignores Steve’s muttered Jesus Christ and lets his smile broaden.

 

“Wouldn’t be anything new,” he says. “You’re the one with superpowers, sweetheart. Can’t you read my mind?”

 

Kali’s head tilts, and she drops the knife, stepping back.

 

“You’re not like me,” she says. “You weren’t in the labs.”

 

“Nope,” Billy says. “And if I could, I’d nail each and every one of those fuckers that touched Jane to the floor by their balls.” He pauses, looks over her, the knife in her hand, and then, slowly, over the rest of the warehouse, which is no longer as empty as it had looked, but rather lived in, in its way, complete with a corkboard covered in pictures and string.

 

Oh, okay.

 

“... Something you’ve clearly been working on yourself,” he says, arching an eyebrow. “‘Destroyer of evil forces’, in the flesh. Nice to meet you.”

 

Kali inclines her head, looking between him and Steve like she doesn’t dare be hopeful.

 

“Jane sent you,” she says. “And she’s safe?”

 

Billy glances over at Steve, but Steve seems to be on the verge of fainting, hands clenching and unclenching in an effort to keep calm.

 

Billy looks back at Kali.

 

“She’s fine,” he says. “She went to a middle school dance, right around Christmas, and she sees her friends every week, because they play Dungeons and Dragons.”

 

“And she lives with her policeman?” Kali asks faintly.

 

“The Chief, yeah.” Billy stomps down on the rage that bubbles up his throat. “She doesn’t go to school yet, but I think he’s working something out for her for next year.” Something Jane had mentioned to him with wide, hopeful eyes. She gets lonely when she has to sit home alone all day while her friends are at school.

 

Kali swallows.

 

“He did it?” she says. “He made a deal— he actually did it?”

 

Billy has no idea what she’s talking about, but whatever.

 

“Guess so,” he says. “I don’t actually have the details, but yeah. Jane’s doing good. Right, Steve?”

 

“Y- Yeah,” Steve says, fumbling. “Really great. Awesome.”

 

Billy rolls his eyes.

 

“You’ll have to excuse him,” he tells Kali. “He’s a bit of a nervous Nelly, if you know what I mean.”

 

Kali snorts, and then frowns, like she maybe didn’t want to do that.

 

Billy does his best not to let the win get to him and flicks his cigarette in an approximation of unbothered.

 

“Anyway, we came here because Jane asked us to look in on her sister, because her sister was in trouble,” he says. “You’re her sister, so: are you in trouble? Do you need help?”

 

Kali’s shoulders slump, and suddenly, she’s a lot younger than Billy.

 

“We were caught,” she says. “My— my friends, most of them were taken. I don’t know where. I think they’re dead.”

 

Billy winces. Shit.

 

“Most?” he asks.

 

“I got Axel before they could take him,” Kali says. “But he’s hurt. I can’t take him to the hospital.”

 

“Hurt how?”

 

Kali bites her lip, looking uncertain.

 

“His ribs,” she says. “I think they’re broken. I don’t know.”

 

Billy takes a deep breath, then looks at Steve.

 

Steve throws up his hands.

 

“How should I know?” he asks, sounding annoyed and scared. “Apparently you’re running this show.”

 

Billy grimaces at him and turns back to Kali.

 

“Can I see your friend?” he asks. “I’ve got experience with broken ribs.”

 

“I know,” Kali says. “I can see.”

 

Well, Billy sure as shit doesn’t like the sound of that. “‘Course you can.”

 

Kali stares at him a moment, then nods, turning on her heel and striding towards the stairs.

 

“Follow me.”

Chapter Text

There’s a guy with a frankly hideous mohawk lying on a nest of bedsheets and pillows, doing his best not to breathe and grimacing every time he doesn’t quite manage it. His face is bruised, his nose broken, and he looks rather defeated where he’s sprawled across a Hello Kitty! comforter. He doesn’t move when Kali brings Billy and Steve to the little room, just cracks open one eye to glare at her.

 

“Who the fuck are these people?” he grits out, chest rising and following shallowly.

 

“Friends of Jane,” Kali says. “Billy says he might be able to help you, Axel.”

 

Axel takes one look at Billy, who’s already stepped forward to have a look, and snorts.

 

“You stay the fuck away from me, asshole,” he says, hissing through his teeth when he twitches too hard. “You and that mullet can go all the way back the fuck home to hillbilly land, you got that, faggot?”

 

Billy’s face hardens into a sharp, angry smile.

 

“Takes one to know one,” he says, kneeling down beside Axel. “I thought a punk was someone who took it up the ass.”

 

Rage flashes across Axel’s face, but Billy pays him no mind, pulling up the older boy’s washed out shirt and looking over the damage.

 

“How long you been like this, Axel?” Billy asks, looking over the ugly purple bruises with a wince. They’re… pretty bad-looking.

 

Axel doesn’t answer, so Kali does.

 

“Four days,” she says.

 

Billy tilts his head to look at Kali.

 

“And he hasn’t coughed up any blood?” he asks.

 

Kali shakes her head.

 

“Probably not broken, then,” he says, turning back to Axel. “But maybe cracked. Hold still, alright?”

 

Axel’s eyes dart over Billy’s shoulder to Kali, but he doesn’t move when Billy lays his hands across his skin, jaw clenched against the pain.

 

Billy touches each rib carefully, watching Axel’s face for any signs of more-than-acceptable pain. The punk goes very suddenly white when his hands move from the right side to the left.

 

“Cracked,” he says, sitting back. “Alright. You got any bandages around here?”

 

Kali shakes her head, and Steve speaks up.

 

“I’ve got a first aid kit in my car,” he says. “I’ve got ACE bandages in there.”

 

“Grab ‘em for me, will ya?” he says, then turns back to Axel. “I’m gonna wrap your ribs, and then you’re gonna sit under about ten bags of ice until you heal up. Got it?”

 

Axel just glares at him.

 

“Fuck you,” he says.

 

“Sorry, babe, you’re not my type,” Billy retorts, grinning a little bit when Axel just… stares. “Shut up and lemme do what I need, alright? You’re distracting me and Steve and Kali with you being all helpless and shit.”

 

“Distracting from what?” Kali asks over Axel’s squawk of anger. Her eyes have hardened with suspicion once more.

 

Billy sighs.

 

“Jane asked us to pick you up,” he says. “She said you were in trouble. So, we’re supposed to come and check on you, and if you want, we can take you to go hide with her until whatever shit you’ve gotten yourself into blows over.”

 

Kali goes silent, and Billy returns his attention to Axel. He immediately regrets it, because suddenly, Axel doesn’t just look pissed off and in pain, he looks… scared. Vulnerable.

 

“I’m not leaving Axel,” Kali says, and Billy’s heart constricts uncomfortably. “He’s all I have left.”

 

“He can come, too,” Steve says as he jogs back into the room, tossing the bandages at Billy. “There’s enough room for four in my car.”

 

Billy knows there’s some kind of a moment coming on— one that’s cementing Kali’s opinion of Steve and Steve’s opinion of Kali and Axel’s opinion of Billy and Steve— but he doesn’t care to add anything to the weird conversation they’re having, the one that’s touching uncomfortably close to home for Billy. So he snakes an arm under Axel’s shoulders and carefully pulls him up into a sitting position.

 

“Steve,” he says. “Hold him up for me, will you? I need to wrap him.”

 

Steve scrambles to obey, wrinkling his nose against the smell of unwashed punk but thankfully keeping his mouth shut as Billy unrolls the bandages and gets to work.

 

He wonders if Jane is watching. He also wonders if maybe she’s done something to let this all go as smoothly as it has.



*.*



It takes Kali minutes to collect her and Axel’s things from around the warehouse and throw it in the trunk of Steve’s car. They don’t have that much in the way of personal belongings, just clothes and notebooks and maybe (definitely) a gun.

 

Billy makes a note of the pistol sticking out of Kali’s backpack and knows he’ll make a point of stealing it before they make it back to Hawkins. He’s not sure he trusts these people with guns— not yet, at least.

 

Axel squirms for the first hour of the car ride back to Hawkins, shifting and groaning and hissing as he tries to find a comfortable position for both himself and the bag of ice Billy picked up for him when they stopped to tank up just outside of the city. Kali, annoyed by it all, drags his legs onto her lap and holds them there, forcing Axel to lean back against the window and hold the ice in place with the help of the Hello Kitty! comforter that he refused to leave behind.

 

He falls asleep pretty soon after that, which is… a blessing.

 

Steve takes the opportunity to tell Kali about what’s happened in Hawkins since Jane came back from Chicago.

 

“Hawkins lab was closed down before Christmas,” Steve says. “My friends managed to get evidence to some guy who leaked it to the press. Not the whole story, though— officially, they were experimenting with some kind of chemicals, leading to a few deaths and a cover-up. But it’s not active, anymore.”

 

“That’s… good,” Kali says uncertainly. “Did— I had other sisters. Were anymore found?”

 

Steve goes quiet for a moment.

 

“No,” he says.

 

“Unless they escaped, the project is still happening,” she says. “They’ve just moved it somewhere else.”

 

“Unless they killed them,” Billy says. “If they’re willing to kidnap and torture little kids, they’re probably willing to kill them, too.”

 

Kali shakes her head.

 

“We’re too valuable,” she says. “They wouldn’t kill us.”

 

Well, if that’s what lets her sleep at night, Billy’ll let it lie. He makes a small noise of understanding and reaches over to turn up the music.

 

Yeah, maybe it is Madonna, but right now, Billy is going to let Steve’s piss poor music taste go, because he doesn’t wanna think about little kids in sterile white rooms like he imagines Jane had been kept in.


Even Like a Virgin is better than that.

Chapter Text

Jane is sitting on the porch when they pull up to the Chief’s house, wearing a blue dress patterned in daisies and a pair of heavy boots that look a little bit too big on her. When she sees Steve’s car, she hops to her feet, an uncertain smile on her face.

 

“Sister,” she says as Kali pushes herself out of the car.

 

Billy decides he doesn’t want to intrude, so he goes and helps Axel out of the car.

 

“You need a fucking bath,” he mutters as he shoves his shoulder under the taller boy’s armpit. “You stink.”

 

Axel grumbles at him, but doesn’t say anything, eyes intent on Jane.

 

“Didn’t think we’d see her again,” he says, words a little distant. “Figured we’d be dead, or she’d be dead. Or both.”

 

Billy doesn’t really know what to say to that, so he doesn’t say anything, just hauls Axel up the steps of the small porch and deposits him on the couch as gently as he can manage.

 

Steve steps in just behind him, dropping Axel and Kali’s bags onto the floor by the door.

 

“I figure we can give them a minute,” he says, shrugging awkwardly.

 

Billy agrees.

 

“When do you think the Chief’s comin’ home?” he asks.

 

“Well, I mean, it’s almost five-thirty, so soon, I guess?” Steve checks his watch. “Yeah, right about now. Why?”

 

Billy crosses his arms.

 

“I’d rather not see him, if it’s all the same to you,” he says. “Considering.”

 

Steve’s eyes widen slightly with realization.

 

“Ah, yeah, right,” he says. “Um… I also don’t wanna leave El alone?”

 

Which is also a point. Billy knows what violence looks like, and it’s there in Kali’s eyes, and in Axel’s. If Jane does something to piss one of them off…

 

Billy grits his teeth and looks away. It’s too far to walk home on his own through the woods— it’d be dark before he got to Joyce’s, and he really doesn’t want to have that conversation once he gets there.

 

“If you want, you can wait in the car?” Steve offers weakly. “I mean…”

 

Billy nods once.

 

“Fine,” he says, and he strolls off, back outside.

 

“Billy.”

 

Billy stops, because that’s Jane saying his name, not anyone else. He turns to look at her.

 

“What’s up, Jane?”

 

She reaches out, so he does to, letting her take his hand.

 

“Thanks,” she says. “For helping.”

 

Billy softens.

 

“No problem, kid,” he says, squeezing her hand lightly.

 

“Don’t wanna see Jim,” Jane says, and it takes a second for him to remember that, oh yeah, that’s the Chief’s actual name. “I understand.”

 

And she does, doesn’t she, because not two feet away there’s a girl with big black eyes that are more than a little watery and Jane calls her sister.

 

“If I see him,” Billy says carefully. “I’ll hit him again. And Steve’s not strong enough on his own to hold me back. I’ll try and kill him.”

 

Jane nods.

 

“Fair,” she says. “He’s bad at helping, sometimes. Mike hit him, too, last time he tried to help.”

 

“... How did he think he was helping, exactly? Helping me, I mean.”

 

She shrugs.

 

“If you knew, you would have taken Max and run,” she says. “And then, you’d be a kidnapper, and kidnappers don’t get custody.”

 

Billy… Billy thinks she’s probably right. But that doesn’t make him any less angry, any less scared.

 

Jane, of course, notices, and consequently hugs him.

 

“I’m sorry,” she says. “Max’ll be home soon, though.”

 

“You sure about that?” he asks, and maybe he feels a little bit numb.

 

Jane nods into his chest, then lets go.

 

“Sit in the car,” she says. “Kali will hide you.”

 

Kali nods a little uncertainly from over Jane’s shoulder, and wow, Billy didn’t think about the perks of knowing a Vegas magician.

 

“Thanks,” he says, nodding to Jane, then Kali. “Tell Axel to take a fucking shower.”

 

Kali wrinkles her nose.

 

“I don’t want to fight that battle,” she says. “He’ll just worry about his hair.”

 

Billy grins because of course that asshole fucking would. Mohawks don’t just do that.

 

He settles himself into the passenger seat of Steve’s car just as the rumble of the Chief’s truck reaches their ears. Lighting a cigarette, he watches as the car pull into the driveway beside Steve’s car, listening to the engine cut off and the Chief climb out, slamming the door shut behind him.

 

“Jane,” Hopper says.

 

“Jim,” Jane says, smiling. “This is Kali. My sister.”

 

Billy can’t see Hopper’s face, but he can imagine the look he gives the girl, a cross between cautious and friendly.

 

“Hi, Kali,” he greets. “Jane’s told me a little bit about you. I’m Jim Hopper. You can call me Jim. Or Hop. Most people call me Hop.”

 

God, he’s an awkward motherfucker, isn’t he?

 

“You’re Jane’s policeman,” Kali says. “You… have worked out a deal, for her?”

 

Hopper’s shoulders stiffen with surprise.

 

“Sort of,” he says. “I have… an arrangement, I guess, with the man who took over the labs after… after the other guy.”

 

“Papa,” Jane explains, and Kali’s eyes flash with fury.

 

“I can’t find him,” Kali says, and suddenly, she looks bigger than Billy knows she is. “I’ve been trying since you left, and I still can’t find him.”

 

“... He’ll turn up,” Hopper says, and whoa, Billy’s never heard someone sound so terrifying. “Don’t you worry about that, Kali. Men like him always do.”

 

Billy thinks back to the warehouse, back to the pictures he’d seen pinned to the corkboard. He gets the feeling that Kali meant to kill whoever this ‘Papa’ is, and that the Chief is aware of this and doesn’t care.

 

What the fuck?

 

“Kali’s friend is here, too,” Jane tells him. “Axel. He’s hurt.”

 

“Hurt?” Immediately, Hopper’s face changes. “A friend? How bad?”

 

“Billy says he’ll be alright,” Jane says. “He helped him.”

 

Hopper goes quiet.

 

“Did you see him?” he asks. “Billy?”

 

Jane stares at him, and Hopper sighs.

 

“Yeah, I know,” he says. “I messed up. Again. I just know what I was like, when I was his age. I know what I would’ve done.”

 

Jane nods, but doesn’t answer. Hopper sighs again.

 

“Steve’s here, then?” he says, glancing at the BMW.

 

“Yes,” Jane says. “Inside, with Axel. Didn’t want to leave us alone.”

 

“That kid is an honest to God mother hen and I love him for it,” Hopper says. “Alright, inside. We’ll make dinner.”

 

Jane grins and takes Kali by the hand, bouncing up the steps and into the house. Hopper gives Steve’s car another look, brow furrowed uncertainly, before turning and following them inside.

 

Ten minutes later, Steve comes out.

 

“Hop’s got no idea what to do with Axel,” he says conversationally as he starts the car. “Apparently he wasn’t expecting a twenty-year-old dick with a mohawk to be crashing on his couch, even if Jane was nice enough to tell him about Kali coming.”

 

Billy snorts. Good. He deserves it.

 

“Take me home, Stevie,” he says, waving an imperious hand at the dashboard. “I’m ready for bed.”

 

“Tell me about it,” Steve says, already backing up. “After all that driving and Kali putting a knife to your throat— which reminds me.” He reaches over and smacks Billy on the shoulder.

 

“Ow!” Billy pulls away and turns to glare, but Steve meets his eyes, unafraid.

 

“Don’t you ever pull that kind of bullshit again,” he says. “She had a knife, and you decided to get smart with her? I was ready to fucking strangle you myself.”

 

Billy frowns, bewildered, as Steve turns the car around and starts heading for the Byers’ without another word, though it’s clear he’s still very, very annoyed with Billy.

 

Apparently, the Chief was right. Steve is the biggest mom he’s ever met, and he’s living with Joyce.

Chapter Text

Joyce hugs them both and invites Steve to stay for dinner when they knock on the door. Steve demurs, claiming an exciting weekend and a desire to be in his own bed, but Billy thinks he might just be uncomfortable at the idea of sitting with… you know, a mommish-mom. Especially so soon after seeing his own mother. Colleen was many things— hot, funny, maybe a little crazy— but a mother, she’s not.

 

Except for, you know, the obvious, biological way.

 

Jonathan’s not home, apparently out with Nancy, so it’s just him, Joyce, and Will around the table, chowing down on Hamburger Helper as Will talks about his final project for school and the newest book he’s currently reading.

 

Billy’s heart aches a little bit. Max should be here, too, complaining about the essays she needs to finish and demanding to know more about high school.

 

“Billy, what was Kali like? Did you find her?”

 

Billy snaps back to reality and focuses on Will.

 

“Yeah, we did,” he says. “Her and her friend are at the Chief’s, now.”

 

“Is she nice?”

 

Billy thinks about it.

 

“She’s… she could be, I guess,” he says. “But she’s scared right now, so she needs some time to get comfortable. Her friend, though— he’s a dick. Stay away from him.”

 

“Oh, Billy, I’m sure he’s not that bad,” Joyce says.

 

Billy makes a face.

 

“He’s a punk,” he says. “Punks haven’t been anything but junkies since like, seventy-nine.”

 

Joyce rolls her eyes but doesn’t answer, just clears off the table and presses a kiss to Billy’s forehead as she passes.

 

“I’m happy you’re home safe,” she says. “And I’m happy you had fun at Steve’s mother’s house. I remember her from high school, so I’m pretty certain what kind of a good time you had.”

 

Billy shrugs, smiling a little bit.

 

“I can’t believe she’s Steve’s mom,” he admits. “She’s like…”

 

“Not everyone’s suited to taking care of kids the way they maybe ought to,” Joyce says. “Colleen’s a good woman, but she wasn’t around much when Steve was little. Before everything with El, he was… a major prick, according to Jonathan.”

 

Billy snorts and after a moment, she laughs, too.

 

“Whatever he was before, he’s certainly shaped up since then,” she says. “He’s very protective, you know. Of the kids, and his friends.”

 

“... Yeah. He is.”

 

“You’re one of his friends now, too,” Joyce tells him. “I don’t think Steve ever invited anyone to meet his mother before— at least, not Jonathan or Nancy. So I guess you must be something special.”

 

Billy’s cheeks feel a little warm, and he doesn’t really know why, so he keeps quiet and doesn’t meet her eyes.

 

Joyce sighs and ruffles his hair.

 

“I’m happy for both of you,” she says. “You’re both too lonely for your own good.”

 

And then, apparently done with the conversation, Joyce turns around and sets about doing the dishes, leaving Billy wondering one thing:

 

What, exactly, was their conversation about?



*.*



Billy gets home from school on Wednesday and Max is just… there. Sitting on the Byers’ couch and looking like she’s trying very hard to make herself seem smaller than she is.

 

And then she sees Billy.

 

And Billy sees her face.

 

His stomach drops.

 

She doesn’t move from her spot on the couch, but that doesn’t matter, because there he is, already kneeling beside and tilting her face up so he can better see the damage.

 

“What happened?” he asks, words barely above a whisper.

 

Max doesn’t meet his eyes.

 

“It was my fault,” she says. “I threw a fit. I tried to run off. They caught me.”

 

Her eye is black and swollen, a pattern of scabs on her cheekbone that imply a big, bulky ring made contact at some point. It isn’t actually that bad— if anything, she’s pretty lucky, it only looks like she got hit the once— but the rage that bubbles under Billy’s skin is… well, it transcends just about anything he’s ever felt before.

 

“It wasn’t your fault,” Billy promises her. “Nothing— nothing like this is ever your fault, or ever will be. You understand?”

 

Max looks at him then, clear blue eyes blue eyes finally meeting his.

 

“I wanna cut my hair,” she says. “Can I, Billy? Please?”

 

Billy looks at her. He thinks that maybe that’s how they caught her, by her long red hair, and that maybe that’s how they held her when that hand shot out to mark her face.

 

Joyce is standing in the doorway of the kitchen, arms crossed and mouth pinched and unhappy. When Billy looks at her for silent permission, she nods, one quick jerk of her sharp chin.

 

“Okay,” Billy says, looking back at Max. “Okay, let’s do this. How short do you want it?”

 

His hand finds hers, the other finding the side of her neck. He feels like he’s on fire, but he can’t act like it, not until Max is safe and comfortable and looks a little less like she’s going to shatter under his hands.

 

Max squeezes his hand tightly.

 

“I’ll tell you when to stop.”



*.*



Max doesn’t tell him to stop until most of her hair is in the bathroom sink, the two or three inches left behind spiky and uneven. It actually doesn’t look that bad— or it wouldn’t, if she were one of the boys in California she always used to trail after in the skatepark.

 

Well, whatever. Max seems happier with it, so Billy doesn’t really care, even if it does make him grit his teeth that she can’t hide behind her hair anymore, can’t hide the angry bend of her mouth behind a curtain of soft red.

 

She meets his eyes with defiance when he looks into the mirror, with an angry desperation he’s never seen before. With a sigh, he runs his fingers through her short hair, spiking it up.

 

“You look like a punk,” he says. “Guess I gotta go shopping again, get you stuff that fits.”

 

“... Jonathan knows punk,” she says. “He said he’s going to let me borrow some of his tapes.”

 

Billy nods.

 

“That’s cool,” he says. “If— if you want, we can play ‘em in the car, when I drive you to school tomorrow.”

 

Max’s eyes widen at the suggestion, and why shouldn’t she be surprised? Billy never lets her touch his radio.

 

“I— yeah. I’d like that,” she says thickly. “Thanks, Billy.”

 

Billy snakes an arm around her middle and squeezes, pressing his lips to the back of her head like his mother used to do to him.

 

“I missed you too, kid,” he says quietly. “Do you wanna go somewhere? See anybody?”

 

There’s a pause.

 

“Can I go to Lucas’ house?” she asks hesitantly. “Just for a little bit?”

 

Billy swallows down his annoyance.

 

“I— yeah, of course,” he says. “I bet Joyce has his number— I’ll call.”

 

Max deflates, her shoulders slumping and her lip trembling.

 

“Thanks, Billy,” she says softly.

 

Billy closes his eyes and leans his chin against her hair.

 

“No problem, kid,” he says. “Wanna clean this up? I’ll go get the number off Joyce.”

 

Max nods, and Billy lets her go, slipping out of the bathroom and making his way back to the kitchen.

 

“How is she?” Joyce asks. She’s got a cigarette between her fingers and a look on her face that Billy’s never seen before.

 

“Her hair’s gone,” he says. “And she wants to see Sinclair. Do you have his number?”

 

Joyce does, and five minutes later, Billy is listening to the phone ring. Once, twice…

 

“Sinclair residence, how may I help you?” asks a sweet little voice.

 

“Uh, hi,” Billy says, brain kicking into gear. “Could I speak to Lucas, please?”

 

There’s a pause, and then,

 

“May I ask who’s calling?”

 

“... Billy Har— Billy McCloud. I’m calling about Max.”

 

There’s a pause and the sound of a little girl on the other end of the line shouting.

 

“Lukey, someone’s on the phone for you!”

 

Billy blinks. That is not the voice he was greeted with.

 

“He’s coming,” the girl tells him.

 

There’s the sound of the phone being handed off, and then, a voice that Billy knows.

 

“This is Lucas.”

 

Billy takes a deep breath.

 

“Lucas, it’s Billy,” he says. “Max is back.”

 

There’s a pause, then a quiet, “Really?”

 

“Yeah.” Billy runs a hand through his hair. “She wants to come and see you, if that’s alright. She’s… yeah. She wants to see you. Can she come over for a while?”

 

“Yeah,” Lucas blurts out. “Yeah, of course— my mom won’t mind. Definitely.”

 

“Great. Cool. Um…” Billy glances around the kitchen, but it’s only Joyce. He turns back to the phone. “Listen… Max didn’t have it great, where she was. She… don’t freak out when you see her, alright?”

 

“What happened?” Lucas asks sharply.

 

“... They fucked up her face,” Billy says, a little helpless. “And we cut her hair just now.”

 

“They— they hit her?”

 

Billy holds onto whatever his first reaction is. His first response is never the best.

 

“Yeah,” he says. “So, like I said, don’t freak out. This is your warning.”

 

Silence.

 

“Yeah, okay. I get it,” Lucas says quietly. “I’ll go tell my mom.”

 

Billy sighs.

 

“Thanks,” he says. “We’ll be over in half an hour.”

Chapter Text

 

Billy has never met Mr. and Mrs. Sinclair, and never really expected to. So when Mrs. Sinclair opens the door, Billy is reasonably taken aback. After so long seeing Lucas in the back of Steve’s car, he had maybe started to think the kid’s parents didn’t… exist? He’d never really thought about it.

 

“Max,” the woman greets warmly, smile a little fixed. “We’re glad to see you’re back! This is your brother, right?”

 

The woman looks up, and Billy jerks, holding out a hand for her to shake.

 

“Hello, ma’am,” he says politely. “I’m Billy.”

 

“Nice to meet you, Billy,” she says. “Come inside— Lucas is just helping set the table.”

 

Max obeys in an instant, but Billy dawdles.

 

“Oh, that’s alright,” Billy says awkwardly. “I just wanted to drop her off—”

 

Mrs. Sinclair levels a look at him that is equal parts unimpressed and firm.

 

“Nonsense,” she says briskly. “Come on inside, Billy— I made a roast, and it’s more than enough to feed a couple of extra guests.”

 

She steps back, and Billy— Billy follows her, because… well, she’s a mom, a mom of one of Max’s friends, and he can’t exactly be rude, can he?

 

Their kitchen is the height of seventies fashion, yellow and rounded in a way that Billy doesn’t think is particularly practical, but somehow pleasing in a nostalgic sort of way. Lucas has paused in setting out the cutlery, arms wrapped around Max in a tight hug.

 

“He missed her,” Mrs. Sinclair says quietly, fondness and a little sadness coloring her tone. “When he came home and said social services took her… I couldn’t even imagine what I’d do. Is it true you punched the Chief?”

 

Billy stiffens.

 

“Uh… guilty as charged,” he says. He’s not sure how he feels about a stranger knowing that.

 

Her lips pinch into a small, pleased smile as she nods.

 

“You’re a better person than I am, I think,” she says. “I would’ve killed that man if he pulled that kind of fast one on me.”

 

Billy can see it. Mrs. Sinclair holds herself with a kind of authority he could never dream of achieving.

 

He snorts.

 

“I tried,” he says. “Steve and Jonathan held me back.”

 

“They’re good boys,” Mrs. Sinclair says. “And it’s probably for the best you didn’t turn the Chief into a smear on the ground. Still.”

 

Billy nods slightly.

 

“Still,” he agrees.

 

“Mom, where’s my—” a little girl skids into the hallway, braids bouncing as she she screeches to a halt in front of Billy and her mother. “Who’s he?”

 

“Erica,” Mrs. Sinclair scolds. “That’s not how we talk to guests.”

 

The girl’s mouth pinches.

 

“Sorry,” she says, then turns to Billy. “Who’re you?”

 

“I’m Billy,” he says, smiling a little at Mrs. Sinclair’s exasperated sigh. “Max’s brother.”

 

“Oh.” The girl stares up at him, eyes wide. “I’m Erica. Lucas is my big brother.”

 

“I figured,” he says. “Nice to meet you, Erica.”

 

“Billy’s staying for dinner,” Mrs. Sinclair says. “So why don’t you finish up for Lucas and set an extra plate out, will you, honey?”

 

Erica doesn’t tear her eyes away from Billy, mouth slightly open as she stares and— oh. There’s that look. Little girl has a crush. Cute.

 

“Yes, mom,” she says a beat too late, finally looking at her mother. She gives her a bright, buck-toothed smile. “Billy can sit next to me!”

 

Mrs. Sinclair rolls her eyes as Erica darts away, picking up the forks and knives her brother left on the table and grinning like a tiny, tiny lunatic.

 

“Sorry about that,” she says. “Erica’s a little precocious.”

 

Billy gives her a small smile.

 

“It’s alright,” he says. “I don’t mind.”



*.*



Lucas looks a little wild-eyed when he realizes Billy is sticking around, but it fades quickly into the din of clattering forks and passed dishes. Lucas’ father, as it turns out, has a cheerful sense of humor, and isn’t afraid to poke fun at Max’s new haircut.

 

“The girls around town are gonna see the California girl’s new haircut and think it’s a west coast fashion,” is what he has to say about it. “You mark my words, by the start of next year, half the class is gonna be cuttin’ their hair like yours.”

 

Max ducks her head, but she’s smiling, face flushed with relief. Billy feels it, too— Lucas must have warned his parents, because they don’t ask questions about the hair or the bruises, just take it in stride like it’s the most normal thing in the world.

 

It’s not, but Billy appreciates it anyway.

 

Eventually, dinner’s over. Billy moves to help clean up, but Mrs. Sinclair shoots him a look that has him lowering himself back into his chair before he actually realizes it.

 

Mr. Sinclair snickers at him from behind his beer before turning to Erica.

 

“Go play with your brother and Max,” he says.

 

Erica shoots Billy a forlorn look— clearly she’d rather stay here, beside him— but the look her father gives her broaches no argument, so she goes.

 

Billy wants to learn how to do that, one day. It would save so many fights with Max, it really would.

 

Mr. Sinclair looks over at him.

 

“The beauty of younger siblings,” he says slowly. “Is that you don’t need chaperones.”

 

Billy doesn’t know what face he makes at that, but it makes Mr. Sinclair laugh.

 

“Good response,” he says. “That’s parenting instinct, right there.”

 

Now Billy really doesn’t know what to say.

 

“Thanks?”

 

Mr. Sinclair gives him a long look, then settles back in his chair.

 

“Kids are hard,” he says. “But you’ll get the hang of it. You don’t seem like too much of a moron, considering you’re what, twenty?”

 

“Eighteen,” Billy says. “I graduated this year.”

 

Mr. Sinclair’s eyes widen slightly.

 

“You’ve got a tough road ahead of you, son,” he says. “If you need any help, Martha and I are usually around. We’re old homebodies, nowadays.”

 

“Who are you calling old?” Mrs. Sinclair demands over her shoulder. “Baby, I’m in my prime.”

 

“Yes you are, honey,” Mr. Sinclair agrees, giving her a little smile.

 

He loves her, Billy realizes a little distantly. He’s never really seen married people interact like that before.

 

Mrs. Sinclair finishes up with the dishes a few minutes later, and comes back to the table with a mixed drink and a beer, which she sets down in front of Billy.

 

“How have you been handling it all, Billy?” she asks, gentle concern painted across her face. “You been doing okay?”

 

Billy clears his throat and very suddenly wants to leave, except he can’t, so instead he just picks up the beer and takes a sip.

 

“It’s been okay,” he says. “Joyce has been helping me out, and I’m— I’m looking for an apartment.”

 

Mrs. Sinclair smiles at him encouragingly.

 

“That’s good,” she says. “And Max?”

 

“Gonna try and get custody,” Billy admits. “I don’t really know how to start… start getting that ball rolling.”

 

“You’re gonna need a steady income with a paper trail,” Mr. Sinclair says. “And a permanent residence. So it’s good you’ve started working on that.”

 

“Bob’s a lawyer,” Mrs. Sinclair says before Billy can ask. “He’s worked cases like yours before.”

 

“Oh.”

 

“Once you’ve got that, you’re going to need to get a written statement that Max’s father agrees to give up any custodial rights he has to her,” Mr. Sinclair adds. “Lucas tells me he’s still in California?”

 

“Yeah, he is.” Billy pauses. “He’s not exactly… he’s a mess.”

 

“If he let her move here, he’ll probably let her stay,” Mr. Sinclair says. “Can’t think much of a father who’s willing to let his daughter move halfway across the country without him.”

 

“Bob!” Mrs. Sinclair says sharply.

 

“No, no, it’s fine.” Billy shakes his head. “I know. I don’t think much of him either, but then— I guess I’m not in a position to judge.” He gives them a humorless smile and takes another sip of his beer. It’s a better brand than he usually buys, but he can’t really taste it.

 

“Honey, you know what your father did isn’t your fault, right?” Mrs. Sinclair says. “We all knew that man was a little off.”

 

“... Did you?”

 

Mrs. Sinclair pauses a moment, hesitant.

 

“Billy,” she says slowly. “I’m not sure about anyone else, but… to us, it was pretty obvious there wasn’t something right in that man’s house. Susan was always so jumpy, and you… well, that anger you showed my boy had to come from somewhere.”

 

Billy goes still, eyes darting between both their concerned faces.

 

“I’d— I’d rather not talk about that,” he says. “But… I’m sorry. About Lucas. I shouldn’t have gone after him.”

 

“Of course,” Mrs. Sinclair agrees with a nod. “The fact of the matter is, you’re doing what needs to be done, and that’s what matters.”

 

“We’ve met men like your father before,” Mr. Sinclair says, and there’s a dark, distant look in his eye. “And from the looks of it, you’re already a better man than him. Just keep doing what you’re doing, and you’ll get where you need to be, for Max and for yourself.”

 

If Neil knew where Billy was right now, if things were a little different and Susan and Neil were still in the little house on Cherry Street, Billy wouldn’t be breathing come morning.  If he knew Max had been here, playing with Lucas and his other friends right under Neil’s nose…

 

“Yeah,” Billy says, the clears his throat. “That’s what I’m trying to do.”

 

Mr. Sinclair nods, and Mrs. Sinclair smiles.

 

“On that note,” she says. “I’ve got some leftover pie from last night. Care for a slice?”



*.*



Billy goes upstairs to collect Max at nine. Normally, he’d let her hang a little longer— Mr. Sinclair has a fantastic record collection— but it’s a school night, and he doesn’t think Mrs. Sinclair would appreciate them keeping her kids from going to bed on time.

 

When he comes upstairs, Max and Lucas are talking quietly, sitting what Billy would call too close together as they fiddle with small figurines that Billy assumes are from their Dungeons and Dragons game.

 

“Hey! Leave room for Jesus,” he says, rapping sharply on the doorframe and making both kids jump. “Max, we gotta go. You got school tomorrow.”

 

“Right, yeah.” Max pushes herself to her feet. “Thanks, Lucas.”

 

Lucas gives her a little smile.

 

“Yeah,” he says. “No problem.”

 

Billy fiddles with a button awkwardly for a moment, hesitant.

 

“Hey, Lucas?” he says after a moment. “Can I get a minute?”

 

Lucas looks at Max, who gives him a little nod.

 

“Yeah, okay,” he says. Max ducks around Billy with one, long look, and disappears down the hall.

 

“Listen…” Billy starts slowly, running a hand through his hair. “What I did… that night, when I went after you… I shouldn’t have done it.”

 

“Yeah,” Lucas agrees cautiously. “You shouldn’t have.”

 

“I was trying to protect Max,” Billy continues. “And myself. Mostly myself. But… yeah, I’m trying to apologize. Sorry. For going after you like that. It wasn’t cool.”

 

Lucas stares at him for a moment.

 

“... Max told us about your dad, a little bit,” he says finally. “About how he didn’t like black people, and how he used to hit you.”

 

Billy flinches.

 

“She shouldn’t have told you that.”

 

Lucas shifts.

 

“She did, though,” he says. “And… I get it. Sort of. I guess it makes sense when you’re all messed up like that, but…” He straightens, eyes meeting Billy’s. “Now that he’s gone, are you gonna keep being a dick to me like you were?”

 

Billy’s mouth pinches into a humorless smile.

 

“No,” he says. “Not like I was. I can’t help being a dick, though. It’s gonna come up.”

 

Lucas sighs.

 

“I guess I can deal with that,” he says.

 

Billy crosses his arms.

 

“So, are we cool?”

 

Lucas shrugs.

 

“Yeah, I guess,” he says. “Max says you’ve been better, so yeah. I’ll give you a chance.”

 

Billy doesn’t know why, but suddenly, he feels just a little bit lighter.

 

“Good,” he says. “Thanks.”

 

Max is waiting by the door when he comes down, chatting quietly with Mrs. Sinclair.

 

“A little bit of ice’ll help bring the swelling down,” Mrs. Sinclair is saying, touching her face with gentle hands. “And maybe a little Neosporin on the cuts. You don’t know where that man’s hands have been, and you don’t want it to get infected.”

 

“Yes, Mrs. Sinclair,” Max agrees quietly, spotting Billy. “Everything alright?”

 

“Yeah, I think so,” Billy says. He flashes Mrs. Sinclair a polite smile. “Thanks for having us over, ma’am.”

 

“Stop by anytime, Billy,” Mrs. Sinclair says, patting him on the shoulder. “Lucas’ friends are always welcome.”

Chapter Text

The morning after Max comes back is oddly normal. Their routine in the Byers’ house goes exactly as it always has, save for the fact that Jonathan doesn’t do what he usually does and offer to take Max to school.

 

She’s wearing his AC/DC shirt again, along with a denim vest of his that should have been dumped in the garbage months ago. Her jaw is squared the entire ride to school, her gaze trained to the window.

 

“You’re graduating soon,” she says. “What happens after?”

 

Billy shrugs.

 

“Get a job, I guess,” he says. “The gas station is hiring mechanics.”

 

Max nods.

 

“And then?”

 

“Get an apartment,” Billy says. “Take our furniture from the house and put it up for sale. Move into the apartment. Get your summer homework done. DnD on Fridays. Arcade whenever. You know. Normal.”

 

“Okay,” she says. “What are we doing for your graduation?”

 

“Well,” Billy says after a moment. “I’ve been invited to a few parties.”

 

He sees Max’s shoulders slump, so he continues.

 

“But I know for a fact that Steve is planning to host a little something at his place, and you’re all invited,” he says. “As am I.”

 

Immediately, she brightens again.

 

“Oh,” she says. “Rad.”

 

“Yeah,” he agrees. “So I think we’re going there.”

 

Max flashes him a little smile, and suddenly, Billy feels a little better. The knot he’s been carrying in his chest the past few days loosens, just slightly.

 

“Is El invited?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Are you teaching her piano yet?”

 

“No, not yet.”

 

“You should get around to doing that,” Max says. “You said you would.”

 

“I’ll try and get a piano for when we get an apartment,” Billy promises. “Then she can come visit and practice there.”

 

Max brightens even more.

 

“You know,” she says after a moment. “I’ve never had a chick friend before. I don’t know how anyone else is going to stack up against her.”

 

Billy snorts, a wry smile twisting at his lips.

 

“Superpowers are a must?”

 

“Oh, definitely, now.”



*.*



Max is at the arcade with the boys, so Billy finds himself heading back to the Byers’. Somehow, he’s not surprised when he spots Steve’s car parked out front, nor is he surprised to see him sitting on the front porch along with Steve and Nancy. He is, however, surprised to see the company they’re keeping.

 

Kali and Axel have apparently decided to leave the Chief’s house.

 

“Well, Johnny, I’m very disappointed in you,” Billy calls as he shuts the car door. “You’re having a party and you didn’t invite me?”

 

Jonathan looks up, and geez, does he look uncomfortable.

 

“Hey, Billy,” he says. “You didn’t mention Hop had guests.”

 

Billy snorts and makes his way up the driveway, backpack slung over his shoulder.

 

“Yeah, slipped my mind,” he says, giving the guy a shit-eating grin just because he can. “Hey, Kali. Axel. How are the ribs?”

 

Axel sneers, but Kali gives him a little, uncertain smile.

 

“He’s feeling better,” Kali says. “Where were you?”

 

“Dropping the kids off at the Arcade,” he says. “What’s up?”

 

“Hopper got tired of Axel’s whining,” she says. “We’ve been told to… ‘go play outside. Jane told us to come here.”

 

“Yeah, she didn’t think she needed to tell us how fucking far of a walk it was,” Axel grumbles. “I fucking hate trees.”

 

Billy winces. It’s three miles to get to Hopper’s from here, and cracked ribs are unpleasant when you’re standing still.

 

“I’ll drive you back,” he says, patting the punk on the shoulder. “I gotta talk to Jane, anyway.”

 

Axel frowns but doesn’t answer, like maybe he’d be grateful for the ride but doesn’t want to admit it.

 

“Got a cigarette?” he asks, and Billy does, so he, Axel, and after a moment, Kali and Steve, light up.

 

“Steve was introducing us to your friends,” Kali tells him. “Interesting company you keep. Not what I expected.”

 

Billy shrugs.

 

“Life’s funny like that,” he says, because he can’t exactly explain how he doesn’t really call them friends, not yet. “How are you liking it at the Chief’s?”

 

Kali looks down.

 

“He’s not what I expected, either,” she admits. “It’s different from what I know.”

 

The labs, and then the streets.

 

“Tell me about it,” he says. “Hey, Jonathan, I’ve been meaning to ask— can i borrow your Clash tape? Max seems to like them, and she’s still kinda shaky.”

 

Jonathan blinks, bewildered, but Billy’s words aren’t really for him, they’re for Axel, and they have the desired effect. The punk zeroes in on Jonathan.

 

“You like the Clash?” he asks.

 

Jonathan shifts.

 

“Yeah, I mean, they’re pretty great,” he says. “And they’re Will’s favorite band, so… yeah.”

 

“Will?”

 

“His kid brother,” Billy supplies. “He’s in my sister’s class— they’re whole group is Jane’s age.”

 

“How about the Ramones?” Axel asks. “You got any of them? I lost my tape the last time we moved.”

 

Jonathan nods.

 

“Yeah, I’ve got a few of their tapes,” he says. “I like the Sex Pistols better, though.”

 

“You’ve got the Sex Pistols?”

 

And they’re off, Jonathan relaxing into the conversation slowly as he and Axel begin to argue the merits of Wayne County— or is it Jayne County? Billy isn’t really paying attention.

 

“Anyway,” he says, turning to the rest of them. “Who’s excited to be getting out of high school?”

 

“So excited,” Nancy says, rolling her eyes. “Did I tell you Mr. Gross assigned a final paper on Friday? It’s due the day before freaking graduation!”

 

“Yeah I know. I’m not doing it,” Billy says. “My grade can take the hit.”

 

“Mine can’t,” Steve says, sighing. “I hate English.”

 

“Really? It’s my best subject,” Billy says, smirking. “I’m graduating with a three-point-four, motherfucker.”

 

“Fuck you,” Steve says. “How?”

 

Billy shrugs.

 

“It’s easy for me,” he says. “Plus, y’know, my dad would’ve freaked if I flunked out.”

 

Steve flinches, but Billy ignores him.

 

“You never did high school, did you?” he says, turning to Kali.

 

She shakes her head.

 

“No time, between running and hiding,” she says a little dryly. “I don’t think Axel finished, either.”

 

“Yeah, well, I figured that,” he says, smirking. “Wait— how old are you, anyway?”

 

Kali shrugs.

 

“Sixteen, I think,” she says. “Jane has been going through he files Hopper has, for me. It’s a process.”

 

“That’s pretty cool of her.”

 

“She’s a good sister,” Kali says. “I’m lucky to have her.”

 

Billy nods in agreement, and for a moment, there’s silence.

 

“You’re very good with people, aren’t you?” Kali asks suddenly, eyes on Billy. “When you want to be.”

 

She glances over pointedly at Axel and Jonathan, then back to Billy.

 

He shrugs.

 

“I guess,” he says.

 

Nancy snorts.

 

“You should’ve seen him when he first moved here,” she tells Kali. “He showed up and messed up Steve’s face like, immediately.”

 

“I thought we promised each other never to speak of that again,” Steve whines. Nancy sticks out her tongue.

 

“I lied,” she says, smiling. “I thought you got hit by a truck when I saw you Monday, I swear.”

 

“Oh, gosh, Nance, that’s awful sweet of you to say,” Billy says, mock bashfulness coloring his face as he puts a hand to his chest. “An artist always likes to hear his work is appreciated.”

 

Kali grins.

 

“And you like to fight,” she says warmly. “I was wondering if I’d find a decent sparring partner.”

 

“Oh, no. I don’t hit girls,” Billy says. “Even if they’ve got superpowers.”

 

“How noble of you,” Kali says. “But I’m sure I could hold my own against you.” She tilts her head, and suddenly, Billy can’t see her anymore.

 

“Neat trick,” he says. “The answer’s still no. Fight Nancy. I bet Nancy can fight.”

 

“Not really,” Nancy says. “I can shoot, though.”

 

Billy arches an eyebrow as Kali reappears beside him.

 

“Why the hell does a goody-two-shoes like you know how to shoot?” he asks.

 

Nancy shrugs.

 

“There was some stuff,” she says, looking away. “I probably should learn how to throw a punch, though. Might come in handy next time a douchebag with a mullet rolls into town.”

 

“If that’s the case, maybe Steve oughta learn, too,” Billy says. “He got in a sucker punch and barely made my nose bleed.”

 

“Hey, now that’s not fair,” Steve says. “That was a good punch.”

 

“It was barely passable,” Billy says. “And it was the only punch you landed.”

 

Steve makes a face.

 

“Well,” he says. “I’m a lover, not a fighter. Just look at my mom, for Christ’s sake.”

 

“Good point.”

 

“I’ll teach you to fight, if you like,” Kali offers. “I’m a decent enough scrapper.”

 

Steve blinks.

 

“Ah, no, that’s okay—”

 

“Or have Billy teach you,” Kali says. “And I can teach Nancy.”

 

Steve glances at Billy, who shrugs.

 

“Sure,” he says. “Can’t be friends with a pussy, after all.”

 

“I’d love to,” Nancy says, smiling at Kali. “Except— I don’t have superpowers.”

 

“I’ll be nice,” Kali promises. “Just a few minor illusions here and there…”

 

Billy glances at Steve as the girls start talking about practicalities, grinning to himself at Steve’s slack-jawed expression. Apparently he wasn’t prepared for his ex-girlfriend-turned-best-friend to be interested in fighting.

 

Good. The surprise is good for him.

Chapter Text


Joyce won’t stop taking pictures, which maybe explains Jonathan, just a little bit.

 

It’s sort of cute, the way she shuffles him this way and that, demanding that he, Nancy, and Jonathan all pose with the relevant siblings and/or Dustin as needed. He even helps her take a photo with Jonathan when Nancy slips away to do the same routine with her mother, who is even more excited and twice as demanding.

 

Steve’s parents aren’t there. He doesn’t seem very surprised, even if he does look a little disappointed.

 

Billy drove them all to graduation— them all being Joyce, Max, Will, and Jonathan— and when it’s time to move their little cluster of people from the high school football field to Steve’s, that’s who piles back into his Camaro, Joyce in the front passenger seat and the rest piled in the back.

 

Weird little fun fact he learned that morning: Joyce likes Motorhead, enough to let him blast it out of the speakers as he speeds down the little roads of Hawkins like he’s the goddamn Bandit.

 

He’s free, he’s fucking free, and he’s going to a party where he doesn’t hate even half of the people who are going to show up. Is this what happy is like? Billy’s not sure.

 

He pulls up to the house seconds after Steve himself, grinning to himself as Dustin practically falls out of the passenger seat of the BMW in his excitement. The more Billy hangs around these kids, the more he realizes they’re mostly a bunch of labrador puppies. Big and sorta dumb and clumsy as all hell.

 

Tugging his robes over his head he tosses them into the backseat along with Jonathan’s, ignoring Max’s complaint when he sort of misses the space over her shoulder and hits her full in the face instead. She doesn’t really seem irritated, though, if the way she forces herself under his arm is any indication.

 

Steve’s house smells like food when they walk inside, which is weird, because— oh, never mind. There’s a strange man who looks an awful lot like Steve in the kitchen, a braid of dark brown hair to his ass swinging as he darts around the kitchen, stirring pots of tomato gravy and fiddling with the dials on the oven as he goes.

 

“Dad!” Steve says brightly. “I didn’t know you were gonna be home.”

 

The man turns around and gives Steve a wide, buck-toothed grin.

 

“Why wouldn’t I be? You’ve graduated!” he says, and… he has an accent. Some kind of English accent. He drops the wooden spoon he’s holding back into one of the pots and wraps his arms around Steve’s middle, lifting him from the floor and spinning. “Congratulations, the worst years of your life are over!”

 

Steve is laughing when he’s put back down, like he’s eight instead of eighteen.

 

“Well, shit, if you’re here, that means Mom’s here too?” he half-asks.

 

His father nods.

 

“Out back,” he says. “I’ve been delegated to ‘don’t burn anything while I get the grill ready’ duty.” Then, as if he’s only just noticed, his eyes find Billy, and Jonathan, and the rest of them.

 

“Holy shit,” he says. “Holy shit, are these your friends?”

 

Steve nods.

 

“Dad, this is Billy and Jonathan,” Steve says, gesturing to the boys. “They graduated with me. Max is Billy’s little sister, Will is Jonathan’s, and Joyce is Jonathan’s mom. Also Dustin.”

 

“Hi,” Dustin says brightly. “I’m his favorite.”

 

“Pleasure to meet you,” his father says, reaching out to energetically shake each of their hands. “I’m Ernie.”

 

“Finally have a face to put to the name,” Joyce says, smiling. “Colleen’s out back?”

 

“She is,” Ernie says. “You can all head out there, if you like. I’m pretty sure she’s finished decorating.”

 

Steve jerks his chin in the direction of the back door and they all file out into the backyard, which looks like someone projectile vomited red and white.

 

“Steven!” Colleen squeaks, and damn, Billy has never seen anybody look that good in jeans and a white t-shirt. “Baby!”

 

Steve lets her squeeze him, lets her press red lipstick kisses to both his cheeks while Jonathan tries to hide his snicker behind a fist. Billy doesn’t laugh, though, because he knows what’s coming.

 

“And Billy, too!”

 

Yup, he was right. Red kisses abound.

 

“Hey, Colleen,” Joyce greets, accepting a hug. “How are you?”

 

“Fantastic— Jesus Christ, you haven’t changed a bit, you know that? You’re gorgeous.” Colleen steps back and looks over at Jonathan. “This is your older son, isn’t it? Jonathan?”

 

“Uh, hi,” Jonathan says. “Nice to meet you.”

 

“You look so much like your mother it’s scary,” Colleen informs him. “She was punk before there was punk, you know that? She was the coolest girl in our class— when she bothered to show up, anyway.”

 

Joyce goes a little pink as Jonathan’s eyes widen with surprise, and now, Billy can laugh.

 

He fucking knew it.

 

It devolves pretty quickly from there. The kids scamper to do whatever it is kids do, and the boys— and Nancy, when she shows up, little brother and parents in tow— go find their own spot by the edge of the pool with a few beers and smokes.

 

Nancy and Jonathan talk about school— Nancy’s going to New York, and Jonathan is too, no surprise there. Billy and Steve listen, knees pressed together on their shared beach chair.

 

Yeah. This is pretty good. Billy could get used to this.


*.*


Hopper shows up about an hour into it all, Jane, Kali, and an irritated-looking Axel in tow. The moment he walks in, Billy finds Max glued to his side, watchful eyes following the Chief’s every move.

 

Kali and Axel are dragged to their group by Jane about ten minutes after their arrival, with firm instructions to ‘be friends’, which is cute in and of itself but only made more adorable by the fact that Axel gives her a little nod of agreement and slouches into the spot on Jonathan’s other side.

 

“So,” Kali says after a moment. “Congratulations are in order.”

 

“Thanks,” Nancy says, giving her an easy smile. “Want a beer?”

 

Kali nods, giving her an uncertain smile as Nancy pushes herself to her feet.

 

“What about you, Axel?” she asks.

 

The punk brightens.

 

“Yeah, okay.”

 

Nancy heads over to the cooler, and Kali turns to Billy.

 

“Jane says you play piano beautifully,” she says. “I’ve never heard anyone play, before.”

 

Billy shrugs.

 

“I mess around,” he says. “Nothing special.”

 

“Bullshit,” Jonathan says with a snort. “You can play anything.”

 

Billy scowls.

 

“Shut up, Johnny.”

 

“Seriously, though,” Steve says, the prick. “He plays it all by ear. It’s fucking crazy.”

 

“And how do you know?” Billy demands, flushing slightly. “You’ve only heard me play like, once.”

 

“Will told me,” Steve says, shrugging. “He says you come home and play for hours.”

 

Damn it. Billy can’t pummel Will for spreading his business around.

 

“I would like to hear, if I may,” Kali says, tilting her head in Billy’s direction. “Music is a skill I’ve never been able to grasp.”

 

“Music? What music?”

 

Ah, shit, Billy thinks resignedly as they all turn to look at Colleen. Now he’s in for it.

 

“Billy can play piano and is being a douche about it,” Steve says immediately, because again, prick. “Kali wants to hear him play.”

 

Colleen’s eyes brighten.

 

“You do?” she says. “Oh, Billy, you must play something for us! There’s nothing like live music to get a party going.”

 

“Oh, come on—”

 

“Yes, exactly,” Colleen says. “Come on inside, and play me a song, you’re the piano man.”

 

The worst part is, Billy can play Billy Joel.

Chapter Text

“Alright,” he says, cracking his knuckles mostly to distract from the small crowd gathered in the living room. “Any requests?”

 

“Free Bird!” Jonathan calls immediately. Fuck you, Jonathan.

 

Wait.

 

Y’know what? Fine. Free Bird it is.

 

Billy gives him a sly smile and turns to the piano, fanning out his fingers over the keys before hitting the first few notes.

 

He sees Jonathan’s jaw drop out of the corner of his eye, and hears a few gasps of delight. However, it doesn’t really get interesting until he gets to the beginning of the first verse, because— see? Billy doesn’t sing. Not in front of people, Max aside. He doesn’t sing because he knows he’s mediocre at best, and can’t really stand it. He has the personality of a frontman, for God’s sake. Not some sessions guy.

 

However— and Billy didn’t know this— Dustin can sing. Dustin can sing, and he knows the words to Free Bird, because if you live in a town that smells like cow shit you just have to.

 

“If I leave here tomorrow, will you still remember me…”

 

Dustin’s got the voice of a goddamn angel hidden under that mop of curls, God damn. Billy wasn’t expecting that.

 

The song ends, as songs do, and there’s a sudden burst of sound as the group behind Billy bursts into applause.

 

“Handsome and gifted,” he hears Mrs. Wheeler say, which, awkward. Billy’s going to ignore that.

 

“More,” Jane says from where she’s leaning against the piano. “Please?”

 

Billy glances at Dustin, who shrugs.

 

“I know a lot of Nina Simone,” he offers. “My mom loves her.”

 

Nina? Billy can work with Nina. Billy loves Nina, though he’s never going to tell anyone that.

 

“Well,” he says, smiling slightly. “How about this one?”

 

He beats out the opening to Sinnerman, and Dustin grins.

 

“Alright,” he says, head already bobbing. “You’ve got taste, for a metalhead.”

 

Billy doesn’t bother answering him, because at that moment, Lucas starts tapping out a rhythm on his chest.

 

Dustin’s grin widens further, and he opens his mouth again to sing.

 

Yeah, maybe these nerds aren’t so bad.



*.*



Billy plays until dinner’s ready, taking requests from each of them— Axel demands he play ‘My Way’, while Kali rather bashfully asks for Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time After Time’— and somehow, he finds himself in the middle of a heated conversation between the boys as they talk out the logistics of starting a band.

 

“Think about it,” Mike is saying excitedly. “El can play piano, Dustin can sing— if Lucas gets a drum kit and me and Will get guitars—”

 

“I can play bass,” Max offers. “I can play already, a little bit.”

 

“Instruments are expensive,” Billy points out between mouthfuls of something delicious that he can’t pronounce. “It would mean no arcade for a while.”

 

“It would mean jobs,” Lucas corrects, arching an eyebrow at Mike. “Think you could work for a living?”

 

“Dude, we’ve got all summer, I could scrape enough together—”

 

“Without raiding my piggy bank,” Nancy interjects sharply, which makes Billy think her poor pig's been robbed on more than one occasion.

 

“You’d also need somewhere to practice,” Steve adds. “Which means someone’s garage or actually renting a place, which also costs money.”

 

“You could always use the spare room in my studio downtown,” Colleen offers from her place between Joyce and her husband. She’d been watching it all with a cheerful humor between small talk with Nancy’s mother. “I’m always happy to be a patron of the arts.”

 

“Really?” Jane asks, turning her doe-eyed stare on Steve’s mother.

 

“Of course!” Colleen says, cheeks dimpling. “Of course, you’d need someone to watch you— there are a few tools I keep there that aren’t suitable for all ages. Which reminds me.” She looks over at Billy.

 

“I’ve been meaning to ask— would you be willing to help me with something, Billy?” she asks. “For a little spending cash.”

 

Billy blinks.

 

“Yeah, sure. What is it?”

 

“I need someone to go to the studio I keep in town once or twice a week,” she says. “You know, to clean up here and there, to make sure everything’s in its place. I’ve been meaning to hire someone for months, but it really can’t be put off any longer, and Steven can’t be trusted with my paint brushes.”

 

“One time, it was one time—”

 

“Would you be interested?” Colleen interrupts her son without a glance.

 

Job. She’s offering Billy a job.

 

“Yeah, sure,” he says, looking a little uncertain. “I can do that.”

 

“Great! We’ll talk specifics after dinner.” Colleen smiles brightly at him. “At the very least, that solves your supervision problem, children. You can work out a schedule with Billy.”

 

The chatter resumes immediately, this time with bonus puppy dog eyes as they all turn to plead with Billy Just like that, he finds himself being roped into babysitting. Damn, Hawkins parents are slicker than he gives them credit for.



*.*



Five hundred dollars a week, to sweep the floors and dust. Five hundred dollars a week, and Colleen says it like she thinks it isn’t very much at all. Billy would be a moron not to take it, and he’s not quite a good enough person to try and point out how insanely extravagant that is.

 

Colleen has solved like, eight of Billy’s problems in one conversation, and all he has to do is promise to watch the kids when they get their shit together and start a band— which they probably will, by the end of summer. They seem like those kinds of kids. She even offers to have the piano in the house moved to the studio, so he can start teaching Jane.

 

Apparently, Steve’s mother is insane.

 

Dazed by his sudden fortune, Billy almost doesn’t notice Hopper’s approach until the Chief is standing directly in front of him, looking uncomfortable.

 

“Hey, kid,” he says, and wow, good mood shattered. “Can I talk to you?”

 

Billy stares at him. The anger is still there, right behind his eyes, but there’s something else there, too, a sort of defeated understanding that he’d really prefer not to have. Anger is easy. This bullshit is complicating an otherwise pure urge to punch the Chief in the face.

 

“What?”

 

Hopper sighs.

 

“It was shitty of me not to warn you,” he says. “About Mrs. Grant’s visit.”

 

“Yeah,” Billy agrees. “It was.”

 

“You would have run if I told you.”

 

“... Probably, yeah.”

 

Hopper runs a hand over his face and beard. The guy looks tired. Maybe Jane’s been making an effort to keep him awake.

 

“You understand why I couldn’t let you do that, right?” he says, sounding exasperated and maybe a little desperate. “You understand that if you got caught, you’d go to jail and Max would be screwed, right?”

 

“I get that, yeah,” Billy says. “That doesn’t mean I’m fucking happy about the fact that Max’s face got busted.”

 

Hopper’s eyes flash, and Billy knows that look. He steps back quickly, out of range of the bigger man’s swing, jaw clenched mulishly, half-expectant and half-defiant as he meets Hopper’s eyes.

 

The man freezes, and the look disappears.

 

“I’m not—” Hopper stops, raising his hands. “Jesus, Billy, I’m not gonna hit you.”

 

Better safe than sorry, Billy doesn’t say, but the Chief seems to understand anyway.

 

Hopper sighs.

 

“I’m angry,” he admits. “I’m angry that the system doesn’t work the way it should. I’m angry Max was taken, and I’m fucking furious that someone dared touch her. But Billy, I promise. I’m not angry at you.”

 

“I punched you.” Billy’s mouth moves before his brain gave it permission. It needs to stop doing that.

 

Hopper gives him a wry smile.

 

“El assures me that I deserved it,” he says. “You did what I would’ve done, if they tried to take El again. I shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was.”

 

Again. Again, he says. People tried to take Jane?

 

Billy’s list of people to kill just keeps getting fucking longer.

 

“Anyway, the point is, I’m sorry,” Hopper says, drawing Billy’s attention away from the new and pulsing fury in his chest. “I messed up.”

 

“... Yeah.” Billy crosses his arms. “That’s not happening again.”

 

“No, probably not,” the Chief agrees. “Because you now have an illusionist for a friend to go with your telekinetic baby pianist.”

 

“Jane isn’t mine,” Billy says, frowning. “And Kali has only met me like, twice. Three times, including today.”

 

“El has decided you’re her favorite big kid,” Hopper informs him. “She told me so. And Kali has been following you around like a puppy since we got here. I think she may have a crush.”

 

“Not on your life,” Billy says. “I know a dyke when I see one.”

 

Hopper squints at him.

 

“You think?”

 

“I know,” Billy says. “I have an eye for this kind of stuff, trust me.”

 

Hopper gives him a long look, then shakes his head.

 

“Right. Well, whatever,” he says. “The point is, it’s not going to happen again, because if they try, you have a small powerhouse of magic children who love you and don’t care very much about the government standing behind you. Max isn’t going anywhere, believe me.”

 

That’s an oddly comforting thought. Almost enough to calm Billy down. Except…

 

“Next time that bitch shows up, or anybody else from the system, you tell me,” Billy orders. “Because next time, I will fucking cut your head off.”

 

“I’d point out you’re threatening a cop, but then, I feel like Kali knows how to hide a body.” Hopper sighs. “Fine. But if they show up, don’t run, okay? Don’t fuck yourself and Max over and do something stupid.”

 

Billy sighs, pursing his lips.

 

“It’s a deal,” he says. “Now, I’m gonna go back to what’s left of the party and get trashed, because I don’t have anything to do in the morning.”

 

“Just don’t drive.”

 

“It’s good— Joyce already has my keys.” She’d asked for them somewhere after his third beer, when he was still mostly sober. She’s a smart lady.

 

Hopper makes a face and opens his mouth to say something else, but before he can form any words, Axel distracts them, arms full of something wriggly.

 

“I found dogs,” he announces, and wow, he’s a lot drunker than Billy thought he was. “They’re small, so I brought them here.”

 

“Dogs?” Jane asks, jogging up to Axel curiously. “How many?”

 

“Shit,” Hopper whispers. “I hate dogs.”

 

Which means he has recognized that if Jane likes them, the dogs will be in his house now. All men fall in the face of Jane’s pleading eyes.

 

Billy loves that girl.

Chapter Text

Billy wakes up on the couch in the Harrington’s living room with no recollection of how he got their and a small black and brown ball of fur sleeping on his chest. Frowning, he shifts, one hand reaching out to poke the little mound.

 

A head appears out of the ball, and a small muzzle splits into a wide, pink yawn.

 

“What the fuck?” he mutters. It’s one of the puppies Axel had found— which, why the fuck are there puppies in the woods, anyway? Are they feral? They’re probably all feral.

 

The puppy turns, blinking, then starts wriggling towards his face, tongue stretched out to lick at his chin.

 

Billy sits up, and the puppy falls into his lap with a surprised yelp.

 

“Why the— oh.” He remembers now, sort of. After the kids had gone, safely driven home by Hopper and Joyce, Colleen had broken out her special cookies with a wink, and soon enough one of Axel’s puppies had found its way onto Billy’s lap. Billy had fallen in love with the little thing almost instantly, and had refused to let anyone— Axel or otherwise— take it away.

 

Colleen even took pictures, fuck.

 

Sighing to himself, he runs his fingers through the dog’s odd, stringy fur. It could be part German Shepherd, based on the coloring, but the fur…

 

The puppy licks enthusiastically at his fingers, chewing at the tips. It’s probably hungry— Billy knows he is.

 

That’s when he notices the smell of bacon coming from the kitchen. Smirking to himself, Billy scoops the puppy into his arms and pushes himself to his feet, padding into the kitchen with a goal.

 

The table is packed, Nancy, Jonathan, Steve, Kali, and Axel all looking distinctly hungover as they poke at their eggs. Colleen is at the stove, whistling cheerfully around the cigarette tucked between her lips as she flips bacon with a long-handled fork.

 

“Why the fuck are you so chipper?” Axel demands quietly. His mohawk is crooked, likely flattened by sleep, and his eyeliner is smeared down his cheeks. “You outdrank Colleen for fuck’s sake.”

 

Billy gives him a sunny smile.

 

“I don’t get hangovers,” he says. “Scottish genes.”

 

“Screw this illusion shit,” Kali mutters from her place beside Nancy. “I want that superpower.”

 

Nancy giggles then whines, reaching up to press her fingers to her temple.

 

“Ow,” she groans. “It hurts to laugh.”

 

“Or breathe. Or swallow. Or see.” Jonathan has apparently given up on his food, as is instead slumped back in his chair, arms crossed and chin pressed to his chest. “I wanna die.”

 

“I’m never drinking again,” Steve agrees quietly, eyes screwed shut against the light of the sun filtering in through the windows.

 

“Aw, don’t be like that, Stevie,” Billy says, reaching out to slap him on the back hard enough to make the other boy squeak. “Practice makes perfect, after all.” He snags Jonathan’s mostly untouched plate and has a seat beside Axel, setting the puppy on his lap. The puppy immediately tries for the plate, catching a piece of bacon much too big for its mouth but not seeming to mind at all. Billy snorts and picks up a fork, spearing a mouthful of eggs for himself.

 

“How’s SPG?” Steve asks. It takes Billy a minute to realize it’s him that Steve’s talking to.

 

“Who?”

 

Steve nods at the puppy in his lap, and— oh. Right. Billy named the thing. After a hamster from a fucking comedy show.

 

“Uh…”

 

“She’s yours now,” Axel informs him. “You named her, she’s yours.”

 

“Uh, are you sure it’s a girl?”

 

Axel nods.

 

“Pretty sure,” he says. “But you didn’t seem to care much, said ‘Special Patrol Group’ was an okay name for a girl, too.”

 

“Oh, Billy, you were so cute when you fell asleep with her,” Colleen coos over his shoulder, sliding more bacon and eggs onto his plate. “She cuddled right up to you.”

 

“I don’t think Joyce is going to be okay with a dog,” Billy says after a moment, looking down at SPG.

 

“She will,” Jonathan says, unmoving. “Will took one home, too.”

 

“You also called Max and told her you’d get her a rat when you guys got a place to live,” Nancy feels the need to add. “Since it was only fair that if you had a pet, she had one too.”

 

“I did?” Billy can’t picture it. He fucking hates rats, they skeeve him the fuck out. “Shit.”

 

“Yep.” Nancy rolls her neck carefully. “And you’re gonna do it, too, because Max seemed really excited.”

 

… Fuck, yeah. He probably is. God, he’s an idiot when he’s fucked up.

 

“I hate rats,” he mutters. “They’ve got weird eyes.”

 

Steve snorts, eyes still closed.

 

“Maybe I’m not the only one who should stop drinking,” he says. “I may be hungover, but I didn’t adopt a fucking dog.”

 

Billy frowns, scratching behind SPG’s ears.

 

“Look at her, though,” he says. “She’s adorable.”

 

“Like Jane, yes, you told us,” Kali agrees, smiling slightly. “She’s got you wrapped around her little finger, doesn’t she? Her and Max.”

 

Billy goes pink.

 

“I think it’s sweet,” Nancy says. “It’s nice to know you’re not all asshole inside, Billy.”

 

Billy scoffs.

 

“You haven’t seen anything yet, sweetheart,” he says. “I haven’t even tried being mean to you, yet.”

 

Nancy shrugs, apparently unbothered.

 

“You won’t,” she says. “You like me.”

 

And goddammit, Billy doesn’t have anything to say to that because, well, he does.

 

Goddammit.



*.*



Steve ends up having to drive everybody home, which is interesting because that’s six people in a five person car, two dogs in a box, and a third dog in Billy’s lap. The ride is cramped, to say the least, but it isn’t unpleasant, because there’s music and chatter and Jonathan handing out the most interesting polaroids out of the pile Colleen had shoved in his hands before they left.

 

The ones with Billy in them always seem to catch him laughing if he’s not making faces, pressed up against Kali’s side or with an arm thrown over Steve’s shoulder.

 

“Oh, this one’s fantastic,” Jonathan says suddenly, reaching over the front seat to hand Billy a photo.

 

It’s Billy, mouth slightly open in sleep with his head on Steve’s shoulder, one arm wrapped around Kali’s waist as she leans into his chest. Axel’s mohawk is crushed against Billy’s thigh, the punk’s head pillowed in Kali’s lap with his legs thrown over the armrest of the couch. SPG is curled up in the curve of Billy’s neck and shoulder, one paw hanging over the edge.

 

“Oh, you’re so cute,” Nancy says, and the only reason Billy doesn’t snap at her for reaching out to ruffle his hair is because he knows it already looks like shit. “Like a little angel.”

 

Angel. His mother used to call him that, twisting his curls fondly as she cut his hair in their little bathroom off Sunset Boulevard. She’d had curls like his, he remembers, long, golden curls that she never had to spray because they always stuck up just the way she wanted.

 

“I’m the one that gets called pretty boy and he gets all the compliments,” Steve grumbles, watching Billy warily thanks to whatever expression he must be making. “What the hell kind of a world do I live in?”

 

“Oh, stop complaining, Stevie,” Nancy says, but she’s smiling, distracted from Billy and the sudden stiffness in the way he’s sitting.

 

She’s their first stop, then Hopper’s, because Steve is still a little scared to be alone with Kali and Axel even though they literally watched the two of them coo at puppies all night. Then, when the car is mostly-empty and quiet again, they pull up to the Byers’.

 

Jonathan’s out in a moment, no doubt making a beeline for his bed, but Billy takes his time, shaking the stiffness out of his muscles as he gathers up SPG and the box of leftover cookies that Colleen had made them that Will and Max are not allowed to touch.

 

“Hey, are you okay?” Steve asks, fingers cold where they meet Billy’s elbow. “You kinda went a little weird back there.”

 

Billy tries a smile, but it feels false enough that he knows it doesn’t work without meeting Steve’s eyes.

 

“Just fine, Stevie,” he says. “Had a thought, that’s all. Happens, sometimes.”

 

Steve gives him a searching look, then sighs.

 

“Yeah, okay, fine,” he says. “Tell Joyce I say hi, okay?”

 

“Will do.”

 

“And don’t eat all those fucking cookies yourself— I’m coming over tomorrow.”

 

Billy wants to ask why, but he doesn’t. He just gives Steve a little salute and gets out of the car just as Will comes running around the side of the house.

 

“Billy, look!” Will shouts, and sure enough, there’s a puppy trailing after him at full speed. “Phoenix won’t run away!”

 

Billy lets out a little laugh as Will tears past him, grinning as he runs like the devil’s after him. Billy has to hand it to the puppy— it’s doing pretty well, considering.

 

Steve waits until Billy gets to the door, which speaks to a lot of time spent watching little kids, and gives him a little wave when he looks back before pulling away from the curb.

 

Steve’s kind of a weird guy, but Billy finds himself liking him anyway.

Chapter Text

“I only use the first floor,” Colleen is saying as she shows him around the art studio. It’s a little dusty, but there are signs of use— disturbed canvases, dried paint, a half-finished picture of lovers embracing. “Technically I own the whole building, though. You’re welcome to make use of the two upper floors, if you can— they’re fitted as two separate apartments, though I don’t think anybody’s lived in them since the sixties.”

 

Billy pauses.

 

“Apartments?” he asks.

 

Colleen hums.

 

“Yeah. Steve said you’re looking for an apartment, aren’t you?” Colleen asks, tilting her head. She’s wearing a sundress today, patterned like a bowling alley’s carpet in neon planets and bowling pins. “I can’t say much for the quality, but if you can get one of them up to code you’re more than welcome to take advantage. It seems a shame to let them go to waste, you know.”

 

“What’s wrong with them?” Billy asks.

 

“Besides the fact that you have to cut through the studio to get to them? Well, there’s probably a few electrical issues, maybe something with the plumbing— you know, because they’ve been out of use so long. But besides that? Just the decor. It’s outdated.” Colleen shrugs. “I’m not going to use them, so you may as well.”

 

“Ma’am,” Billy says slowly. “Are you offering me an apartment… for free?”

 

“Well, not for free, exactly,” she says. “I mean, you’re cleaning my studio, and you’re going to be on call for babysitting the rugrats Steven adopted if they actually start a band— which reminds me, let me show you the backroom, that’s where they can practice, when it comes to it— plus, you know, you’d have to pay for any work that needs to be done, but otherwise… yeah. You can live here.”

 

Billy’s heart must have stopped. He must be having a stroke. He must be making the stupidest fucking face, seriously, because she didn’t just casually offer him a place to live that doesn’t involve a couch and spare blankets, did she?

 

Holy shit, she just did.

 

“Billy, are you okay?”

 

“Colleen,” he says, reaching out to take her hand and hold it to his chest. “You are the most wonderful woman in the world, and don’t let anyone tell you different.”

 

Colleen bats her eyes at him, like she’s one of the chicks in Billy’s graduating class.

 

“Oh honey, don’t worry— I know.” She smiles, and her cheeks dimple just like Steve’s. “But before you go saying that, you should maybe go upstairs and have a look first, hmm?”

 

Billy lets go of her hand and steps to the side, giving her a little flourish. He’s grinning so hard is face might be in danger of splitting in two.

 

“Lead on, madame,” he says in his best ‘serious’ voice.

 

And Colleen, bless her, she giggles.

 

“Oh, stop it,” she says, swatting at Billy’s shoulder. “Come on. The stairs are this way.”



*.*



She’s right, the apartments are both going to need a lot of work, but Billy figures he only needs one. One big ass apartment, with two bedrooms and a living room and and a bathroom and a motherfucking balcony.

 

Oil money, man.

 

And it’s prime real estate, too, or it is to Billy. Max can skate to the arcade and walk to the movies and there’s a little restaurant around the corner that Colleen says makes the best Italian food. All Billy has to do is put in a new floor, fix a few leaks and rewire a few sockets, and he’s golden.

 

Of course, he can’t do it alone. He’s going to have to pull Max into this, too— after all, this is where she’s going to be living, the next four years. She should have a say about how her room’s painted, and which couch is the most comfortable… Billy’s already thinking color schemes, though, and can’t help but wonder if he could maybe pry that ugly hourglass wallpaper off. Orange and brown does not age well, not in any universe.

 

Billy has never been so interested in decorating before. He’s getting soft.

 

That might not be a bad thing.



*.*



“Seriously?” Max asks, peering around the apartment curiously. “She’s just gonna let us stay here, for free?”

 

“I love rich people,” Billy says. He hasn’t stopped smiling since Saturday, when Colleen had showed him around and given him the keys. “Don’t you?”

 

“She’s crazy,” Max says flatly, but there’s wonder in her light eyes as she wanders down the hall to peer into the bedrooms. “She— she’s crazy.”

 

“Crazy people are okay with me, too,” Billy says, shrugging. “So, whattaya think?”

 

Max is quiet for a long moment, expression thoughtful.

 

“I think we should do tile,” she says finally. “I hate vacuuming.”

 

“Deal.”



*.*



“Your mother is amazing.”

 

“I know, Billy, you’ve told me a thousand times.”

 

“I’m not done talking about it, though. She’s literally amazing.” Billy pauses. “And Joyce. Joyce is amazing, too.”

 

Steve and Billy are a little drunk, the pair of them, having decided to throw themselves something like a not-going-to-college party. They’re squashed together on the comfortable armchair in Steve’s living room, the aftermath of a minor wrestling match over who, exactly, was allowed to sit there— Billy, the guest, or Steve, the host and standing head of the household while his father was away. Nobody won, and thus, they’re both sitting in it, pressed together from knee to hip. Steve’s shoulder is jammed into Billy’s chest, and Billy’s arm is thrown a little awkwardly around Steve’s neck. It should be uncomfortable, but it isn’t, so Billy’s content to stay right where he is, even if SPG has decided to hop up onto their laps to join in the sort-of-definitely-a cuddle puddle

 

That may be the bourbon talking, or maybe the frankly epic brownies Colleen had left for Steve, but whatever.

 

This isn’t something they’ve really done before, this talking and drinking. They’re not even talking about anything important, either— funny stories, old conquests, favorite movies. But the conversation flows easy, easier than it ever has before, in Billy’s memory. He doesn’t remember talking like this with anybody, like he doesn’t have to worry about what the asshole will say about him once Billy’s out of the room.

 

“Joyce is pretty amazing,” Steve agrees. Billy had forgotten they were talking, hadn’t remembered until Steve’s lips moved and jerked him out of— oh, he was staring. Definitely staring.

 

It’s hard to stare, though. Steve has a big mouth, kinda weird-shaped, but it manages to suit his face anyway. All of his features are exaggerated, really, from his mouth to his nose to his big, stupid hair.

 

“Have I got something on my face?” Steve asks, reaching up to rub a big hand over his weird mouth. He does, a little speck of chocolate caught in the corner of his lip, and Billy helpfully rubs it away.

 

“Your face is weird,” he informs Steve seriously. “But in like, a weird way.”

 

Oh, yup, that’s definitely the brownie. It’s hitting Billy harder than usual.

 

Steve arches an eyebrow.

 

“Weird, but in a weird way?” he asks. “I’m thinking you’re fucked up, Billy.”

 

“I mean like, in a pretty way, though,” Billy says, brow wrinkling in annoyance. “Yeah, you’re right. I’m fucked up. I’m not saying it right.”

 

“Aw, you think I’m pretty, Billy?” Steve asks, giving him a smile that’s too sweet to be completely joking. “I’m flattered.”

 

Billy rolls his eyes.

 

“Everybody thinks you’re pretty, pretty boy,” he says, patting Steve’s chest with the arm currently wrapped around the back of Steve’s neck. “It’s practically Hawkins legend.”

 

“Well,” Steve says after a moment, good-natured laughter leaking through his words. “If it’s any consolation, Billy, I think you’re pretty, too.”

 

Billy grins at him.

 

“Thanks, buddy.” He pats Steve on the shoulder again. “Now, lemme up. I gotta take a leak.”

Chapter Text

Max, as promised, picks out a black-and-white checkered tile for the apartment, which reminds Billy a little bit of a diner, but whatever. He’ll find some rugs to throw down to break it up.

 

Billy picks cherry red for the living room walls, with a black accent wall, just because he can, and then spends three days with Jonathan, Steve, and Nancy steaming off the wallpaper, which is, in a word, disgusting, and in two words, oddly satisfying.

 

Jonathan alternates between taking pictures and filming the whole thing, which makes him a little less useful than Billy was hoping, but at the same time, he’s glad somebody managed to capture on video the exact moment that an entire chunk of slightly rotten, wet paper collapsed on Steve, burying him in a mound of mold and sixties nostalgia.

 

Nancy started to complain about fungal infections or some shit at that point, but still. Worth it.

 

Only Steve shows up to actually paint the walls, having dropped the Party off at the arcade, but Hopper stops by to help him put up new drywall in the kitchen when it becomes a clear necessity and Joyce stops by on the way home from work with pizza and a critical eye that same evening.

 

“The kitchen will have to be light,” she says after a few minutes of watching her maybe-boyfriend and Billy gorge themselves on a meatlovers’. “The window’s too small to let in a lot of natural light.”

 

Billy tells Max to pick out a few colors— it’s only fair, since he picked the living room— and she chooses a bright, sunny yellow for the cabinets and a dove gray for the walls. The countertops are white vinyl, but they’ll do for now, provided Billy cleans them up a little bit.

 

He finds himself lusting after the concept of granite countertops. Jesus Christ, he’s turning into a suburban mother.

 

Nancy shows up to help him disinfect the kitchen and bathroom, meaning she handles the bathroom and joins him in scrubbing the fridge once she finishes, but by the end of it all, the countertops gleam and the rounded chrome edges of the refrigerator shine, so who cares if she’s sort of treating him like glass about a bathroom?

 

He takes her to the little restaurant around the corner afterwards. She tells him about what classes she’s going to be taking over mushroom ravioli and fettucini alfredo. He tells her about the black leather couch that Max has been eyeing up in one of the home decor magazines he brought home, along with a full-length mirror that Billy thinks might do well for her room, once they get the leak fixed.

 

Steve comes to help hold shit while Billy puts three years of technical school to good use and fixes the broken sockets in the bedrooms. Jonathan shows up to help carry in the leather couch that Billy ends up buying and sticks around to talk about coffee tables, legs stretched out in front of him as he sits in a fold-out chair and shares a cigarette or ten with Billy on the balcony. The Party bursts into the apartment on the day Billy plans to paint Max’s room (she picked a soft green, one that matches her eyes in the right light), and practically ruins the carpet that Billy had been planning on ripping out anyway in their efforts to help. Jonathan drove them, and takes pictures of that, too. He also buys dinner, because Billy might be able to hold a grudge but he sure as hell can’t say no to pizza, and maybe Jonathan knows him a little bit too well, nowadays.

 

By July, the house is ready to move into, save for most of the furniture, but Billy is proud to say they have a kitchen table now, and that their beds are in their respective rooms, complete with new sheets. Also, a television, for the couch to have something to pointed at. An old as fuck television, one that’s held up by milk crates and plywood until Billy can find a proper stand that he and Max can agree on, but it’s a television, and Billy is very excited.

 

They have a place, him and Max, a place that’s unequivocally theirs. A place where the air doesn’t taste like Susan’s blood and sounds like Billy’s head hitting the edge of the sink to the theme song of Carol Burnett Show reruns blaring in the background. A place where Billy can set up a shelf full of records and cassette tapes in the living room to go with the new sound system he’s purchased and Max can pin some of Billy’s old bikini girl posters on her walls to go with her new poster of a musician Billy’s never heard of but apparently Max finds attractive despite his whole face situation. Apparently he’s all the rage in Australian punk rock circles, or some shit.

 

(Billy doesn’t actually mind this Nick Cave guy too much, but it’s fun to tease Max, especially now that she doesn’t get that angry wrinkle in between her eyebrows whenever he does it.)

 

There’s a lot going on, most of it good, and Billy?

 

Billy thinks it’s a nice change.



*.*



Max can’t move in right away, of course, and even thought Billy’s technically moved most of his crap there, he still spends most of his nights in Joyce’s house, curled up beside Max on the couch or in their bed, now with a bonus puppy that seems to enjoy fitting itself in what little space is left between them. She has nightmares, Joyce has told him in the early mornings when Billy can’t sleep and Joyce has made coffee. Max has nightmares when he’s not around.

 

Joyce is another person that’s quickly become a fixture in this strange new world that’s Billy’s life. When she asks about the money, about how he’s been able to pay for all those repairs in that little apartment with only two months’ pay under his belt, he tells her the truth. He tells her the truth, and he doesn’t posture, doesn’t sneer, doesn’t do anything but look her in the eye and say it, because he’s not ashamed, he’s not— he’s just not particularly proud of it, either.

 

She doesn’t… Joyce is very good at people, Billy has noticed. Or, she’s good with him. He doesn’t think he could have taken pity on her face, doesn’t think he could have handled demands to stop (not that he hasn’t already) or questions as to how and why. So it’s good she doesn’t do any of those things.

 

Instead, she just takes a long drag from her cigarette and crosses her arms, and it’s only worry Billy reads in her eyes when he meets her gaze.

 

“You need to go to the clinic,” she says frankly. “Get yourself tested.”

 

And then she gives him a hug, because that’s what she does. She hugs him, and she lets him cry, and she makes him sit through episodes of Dukes of Hazzard and The A-Team with her, because Jonathan just won’t anymore.

 

“Yeah, okay,” Billy mutters into her shoulder. “I’ll make an appointment.”

Chapter Text

Out of all of the people that now apparently matter in Billy’s day to day life, it’s Axel that ends up crashing on Billy’s couch first, citing nosy policemen as the reason for showing up on his doorstep, the proudly named Stiv tugging at the end of his little rope leash in a desperate attempt to greet his brother. SPG, apparently above that sort of nonsense, barely spares Stiv a glance before pissing across Billy’s new floors.

 

Fucker.

 

“So, this is gonna be the place, huh?” Axel says as he steps inside, peering around curiously. “Looks like a bondage freak vomited in here.”

 

Billy catches the tip of his tongue between his teeth and winks, pushing out his chest.

 

“Oh, baby, how’d you know I like it rough?” he asks, leaning forward to give the taller man his best fuck me eyes.

 

Axel makes a face and stomps over to the couch, unhooking Stiv’s leash before collapsing into the leather with a soft groan.

 

“Got any beer?”

 

Billy does, and once he wipes up SPG’s little present, he goes and grabs two bottles from the fridge, taking a seat behind Axel and handing him the spare.

 

“So,” he starts. “What’s up?”

 

Axel grunts, knocking back half his beer before replying.

 

“Kali likes it here,” he says. “Likes the quiet and the… domesticity of the Chief’s place. Likes being with her sister.”

 

“... And?”

 

Axel looks away.

 

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but small towns aren’t really my scene,” he says. “Parents and cops and curfews aren’t really my scene, either.”

 

“Tell me about it.”

 

Axel snorts humorlessly.

 

“Yeah. And I wouldn’t mind if this shit was just a stop, but…” he trails off, fiddling with the frayed edge of his shirt. “I think Kali wants to stick around for longer. I think— she’s been talking to the Chief about… going to school.”

 

Billy hums but doesn’t say anything, which is good, because Axel’s not done talking.

 

“The Chief, he kinda likes her, I think,” he says. “And Shirley wants her to stick around, so it’s not like he’ll say no if she decides to stay. But she’s Jane’s sister, and the Chief’s big on family. I’m… I’m not anything, really. Just a guy that helps Kali kill people.”

 

“Well, that’s bullshit,” Billy says, leaning back into the couch. “I mean, shit, the first thing she asked us was if we could take you too, when we met you guys in Chicago.”

 

“Yeah, I know.” Axel sighs. “I was the first person to start working with Kali, you know? I was the person who came up with the whole idea.”

 

Billy blinks.

 

“Really?”

 

Axel nods, arms crossed and lips pinched.

 

“I met her when I was sixteen,” he says. “She was… ten, I think. Maybe eleven, and she’d only been on the streets a few months, so she didn’t really know how to survive. I started of taking care of her, sort of. Took her back to my squat where me and my friends were living. When she started talking— she didn’t talk, not for the first couple of months she stayed with us— she told me all about the labs and what they were doing to her and her sisters. I…” Axel flushes. “Well, y’know, she’d been with me a while, and we all loved her to death, me and my friends. And, y’know, I was always an angry kid…” He trails off, shaking his head. “I was always so fucking angry, and when she told me what happened, I… I gave her the idea. And she ran with it. I think she liked having a purpose, I guess.” He looks down at his hands. “Now, though, she’s got someone else, someone better, and I… I don’t really have anyone, anymore. All my friends are dead, or in jail, or… she’s moving on.”

 

Billy doesn’t really know what to do with this information dump. Guys don’t tell guys when they’re having a hard time, after all, and nobody ever told Billy about their problems before. Max is one thing, maybe, but Axel’s a dude, and an adult, and… possibly a little red-eyed, under all that eyeliner.

 

Fuck. When did it become Billy’s job to handle this shit?

 

“She’s not leaving you behind, man,” he says awkwardly, running a hand through his loose hair. “She’s just… y’know. Changing. Growing up. That doesn’t mean she doesn’t love you anymore, or that she’s replacing you.”

 

There’s a pause.

 

“Why the fuck does it feel like it, then?”

 

Billy sighs.

 

“Alright,” he says. “I’m going to do something that you’re probably not going to like, but typically has pretty good results. I’m going to do it, you’re going to deal with it, and then, we’re never going to speak of it again. Got it?”

 

“What are you going to do?”

 

Billy sighs, plucks Axel’s beer out of his hands and sets both their bottles on the floor. Then, he leans over and hugs him.

 

Axel stiffens.

 

“Fucker, what—”

 

“Shut up and accept it,” Billy says. “It works.”

 

Axel stays stiff for a few minutes longer, but doesn’t speak. Then, slowly, he starts to relax, long arms carefully reaching up so he can knot his fingers in the fabric of Billy’s shirt as he tucks his face into Billy’s shoulder.

 

“Fuck, what am I gonna do with myself?” the punk asks, more to himself than to Billy. “Fuck.”

 

Billy is uncomfortable, but accepts his fate when the older man starts to cry in earnest, silent even as his shoulders sake.

 

“You’re gonna be fine,” he promises. “Kali’s not going to leave you behind, you get that? These lab kids, they’re obsessed with family, and as far as I can tell, you count. So stop being such a pussy, will you?”

 

That gets a little laugh, but Axel doesn’t let go. He doesn’t let go for a long, long time.

 

Billy doesn’t know how he’s found himself in this position.



*.*



Axel’s passed out on the couch, snoring quietly under a handful of blankets Billy dug out of one of the boxes stacked in his room and the bodies of two idiot puppies. Safe in that knowledge, Billy creeps downstairs into the studio to make a phone call.

 

“Hop.”

 

“Chief, it’s Billy,” Billy says into the receiver. “Is Kali there?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Can I talk to her? Axel’s at my place.”

 

There’s a pause, then the sound of the phone being passed over, and suddenly, there’s Kali’s voice.

 

“Billy? Is Axel alright?”

 

“He’s… fine,” Billy says. “Um, when you’ve got a minute, can you come over? He’s kind of… he’s freaking out, a little bit.”

 

“What? Why?”

 

“I don’t know,” Billy says. “But he’s thinking you’re gonna forget him or some shit in because of Jane and the Chief, and I think you need to tell him that’s not gonna happen.”

 

There’s a pause.

 

“Axel’s… worried?” Kali asks carefully. “About… about me leaving him?”

 

“Something like that, yeah,” Billy says. “The guy broke down in my living room, which was awkward. He’s sleeping now, but like, can you please come and fix this shit? I’ve only got two bedrooms, man.”

 

“I— of course,” Kali says. “I’ll ask Hop to drive me over.”

 

“Rad. See you in twenty?”

 

“Yes. Thank you, Billy.”

 

Kali hangs up, and after a moment, so does Billy. He sighs.

 

Why is he the one caught up in all this? Yeah, Axel might not know a lot of people, but he knows Steve, now, and Joyce and the rest of the Byers. Why did he come here to get all emotional? Why Billy? What was it that Billy did that telegraphed to the guy that Billy’s the best choice to pour his heart out to? Because Billy’s not that kind of guy, really. Or he wasn’t. That seems more Steve’s corner than his, anyway.

 

Kali’s coming, and Axel’s sleeping on his couch upstairs. Maybe Billy ought to go hide anything throwable or breakable.

 

Yeah. That seems like a good idea.

Chapter Text

“So… when can I move in?”

 

Steve stiffens— Billy feels it in the way the pleather cushion of the booth shifts between their thighs. Clearly, Steve thinks this is a conversation best left to when they’re alone— or, at least, when Steve’s not there.

 

Billy agrees with him. At the same time, he doesn’t think he has the courage or the patience to get through this talk alone.

 

He takes his time to answer, sipping his Coke for something to do as he measures each word. He doesn’t want to fuck this up again. He doesn’t want to say the wrong thing, doesn’t want to piss her off or hurt her, not like he did last time the subject of custody came up between them.

 

He clicks his tongue.

 

“Mr. Sinclair says that the reason you haven’t been taken from Joyce’s yet is because… they can’t find your dad,” he says after a moment. “Otherwise, you probably would have been shipped off weeks ago.”

 

He feels himself flinch as her face goes white under her freckles. Fuck, he hates this, fuck.

 

“Where— where is he?” she asks.

 

Billy shrugs, eyes focusing on his half-empty plate of steak and eggs.

 

“I’ve got a few ideas,” he says. “But… I was hoping I could get Jane to help me track him down.”

 

Max pales further.

 

“Why?”

 

“Because,” Billy says. “I want to find him so he can sign over his parental rights to me. That way, they can’t argue that he has a better right than I do.”

 

“I don’t wanna go back without you,” Max says. “I don’t— Billy, you’re not gonna let me go, are you?”

 

“Why the fuck do you think I’m fixing up the spare bedroom? For the dog?”

 

Steve hisses from his place beside Billy, and Billy grimaces.

 

“That’s not— sorry. I don’t mean it like that.” Billy sighs and reaches for the half-empty pack of cigarettes on the table. He takes a moment to light it, breathe in, and breathe out before speaking.

 

“I don’t want you to go,” he says. “And so long as you want to stay, I’ll keep you. So the plan is, sometime next week I’m going to get in the car and drive back to LA. I’m going to have Jane find your dad, and I’m going to go talk to him. I’m going to get him to sign the paperwork Mr. Sinclair gave me, and I’m going to come home. Then Mr. Sinclair is going to file the paperwork, along with my bid for custody, and if it all works out, you’ll be staying in the apartment with me and SPG by the end of August.”

 

There’s a long pause after he finishes, long enough for Billy to finish one cigarette and reach for another. When he does, Steve’s fingers snake around his wrist.

 

“I’ll go with you,” he says. “Driving’s easier with two.”

 

“You don’t have to,” Billy says. “Kali’s already agreed to come with.”

 

That had been an uncomfortable conversation, especially considering the fact that it was only like, two days after Axel’s minor breakdown. Axel had been pretty okay with it, though, considering. At least, he didn’t lose his shit again. He also promised to watch SPG, without any prompting from Billy at all.

 

“Still,” Steve says. “If it’s alright with you, I’d like to come.”

 

There’s a strange look in Steve’s eyes when Billy looks at him. He still hasn’t let go of Billy’s wrist, which is weird, but not like… uncomfortable weird? Billy doesn’t know, so, to shake of the weird feeling, he does what he always does, and gives Steve a sly smile as he tugs his hand free.

 

“You just want an excuse to dodge your dad’s evil plan to turn you into a working man,” Billy says, reaching for his cigarettes again. He doesn’t mean it, of course— well, not really. It’s probably a little bit true, though.

 

Steve doesn’t reach for his hand again, and seems to get what Billy’s saying/not saying (which Billy has to admit even he isn’t sure of), because he gives him a wry, knowing smile and elbows him lightly in the ribs.

 

“Something like that,” he says. “So, can I come?”

 

Billy rolls his eyes.

 

“Yeah, sure,” he says, patting Steve on the thigh. “Can’t have you getting bored without me, right?”

 

“Can I come?” Max asks, and suddenly, the mood drops again.

 

“... I’d rather you didn’t, Max,” Billy says. “I… I think there’s a reason they can’t find your dad.”

 

“He’s not dead,” she says flatly.

 

“No, no, I don’t think— no.” Billy shakes his head. “No, I don’t think he’s dead. But I know— listen, I know LA. I know where a guy like him might hang for a few days, or weeks, or months. And— and I would really rather you didn’t see him like that, if I’m right.”

 

“I’m not a little kid, Billy,” Max says, brow furrowing with an anger that Billy has since learned is just a preface to teary, emotional outbursts. “I can take it.”

 

Billy swallows and shakes his head.

 

“That’s not it, Max,” he says quietly. “That’s… that’s really not it.”

 

“What is it, then?” she demands. “What if I want to see my dad?”

 

Yeah, Billy, what if she wants to see her dad? Are you gonna say no? Are you gonna start that fight?

 

Something from that thought must have crept onto his face, because Steve’s touching him again, fingers wrapped loosely around his elbow in what’s meant to be a calming manner. It sort of helps, actually.

 

Billy blows out a slow, steadying breath.

 

“I know what your dad looked like the last time you saw him,” he says slowly. “I know what he might look like now. I know how he might act, what he might do, and if there’s even the slightest chance I’m right— I don’t want you to see that.”

 

Max’s glare lasts for a few seconds, then her shoulders slump and she looks away.

 

“Besides,” Steve adds hesitantly. “It might screw shit up if you’re in Joyce’s custody and you just disappear with your brother to God knows where for like, a week.”

 

“Longer, probably,” Bily says. “I mean, even with Jane’s help, it’s gonna take a little while to find him. We’re not bringing her along, either.”

 

“We,” Max says. “So, Steve’s definitely coming?”

 

Billy looks over at Steve, then back at Max.

 

“That’s what I said, didn’t I?”

 

Steve gives him a smile, just the smallest quirk of his lips, all happy eyes and crinkled nose. Billy forces himself to look back to Max.

 

“I don’t want you to go,” Billy says. “But if you really want… you can.”

 

“Fine,” Max says. “But— you’re gonna tell me the truth, when you guys get home. About… about wherever he is now.”

 

Billy doesn’t like that idea at all, but secondhand is better than full technicolor, so he takes the deal.

 

“Okay.”

 

“Promise?”

 

“Yeah. I promise.”

 

Promises mean something, nowadays. Billy hasn’t put stock in promises since he was… probably since before his mom died.

 

It’s not so bad, actually.

Chapter Text

 

They meet at the Byers’ house before they actually go, bags piled into the trunk of the Camaro and a cooler of soda and sandwiches courtesy of Joyce— which, speaking of.

 

“For taking care of Max, while I’m away,” Billy says, pushing a roll of cash into her hand when he pulls out of her goodbye hug. “It’s from the studio, I promise.”

 

Joyce gives him a look, one that tells him she knows full-well that he’s been slipping extra twenties into her purse for the last few months, and sighs, giving him a sharp nod.

 

“Take care of yourself, alright?” she asks. “We’re waiting for you.”

 

Billy nods and reaches out to ruffle Jane’s hair, taking advantage of her place against Joyce’s side. She smiles up at him.

 

“Call when you get to Los Angeles,” she says. “Okay?”

 

“Sure thing, short stack.” He taps he lightly on the nose. “Don’t forget to practice while I’m gone, okay? The piano’s right there, and I’ll know if you didn’t.”

 

“Promise.” Jane gives him a bashful smile, like she still can’t quite believe that their lessons have finally started in the little room in the studio that’s slated to become the Party’s future practice space.

 

Billy steps back, and with a final hug from Max— who looks like she’s about a second away from snapping and demanding to be taken along despite their prior agreement— he turns to Steve and Kali, suppressing a smirk at their obvious discomfort before jerking his head to the door.

 

“C’mon, guys,” he says. “Road trip.”

 

He has a folder full of documents and another full of copies of documents, one tucked into his back and one tucked into Steve’s, just in case. He has cash stuffed into the lining of his jacket and his duffel, and Steve’s even bringing along a credit card, can you imagine? Now, all they need to do is find Max’s dad, which’ll be a piece of cake with Jane in their corner, even if she’s gonna be halfway across the country. After all, they managed to find Kali, last time.

 

They pile into the Camaro, Steve in the passenger seat and Kali splayed across the back with a camera that Jonathan had let her borrow for the trip, and when the engine roars to life, it’s accompanied by screaming guitars and Rob Halford’s voice.

 

“California or bust!” Billy shouts over the noise, and with a final wave to the group assembled on the front porch of the Byers’ house, he peels out of the driveway.


*.*


They stop for the night just inside the Nebraska border, when the adrenaline that coursed through Billy’s veins at the thought of leaving Hawkins (even for a little while) finally fades to something more normal. Pulling into a Motel Six parking lot, Billy parks the car and rents a room, not really thinking about it.

 

That’s where they meet their first problem for the evening.

 

See, because, there’s three of them— two guys, and one girl. And neither boy is currently tapping the sapphic glory of Kali for obvious reasons, so it’s kind of weird for either of them to share with her. At the same time, Billy’s only ever shared a bed with his mother or his sister, and he doesn’t quite like the idea of sharing a bed with Steve— at least, not with Kali in the room.

 

There’s an awkward pause when they all stumble into the room, before chivalry wins out and Billy goes to set his stuff on the bed Steve is hovering next to.

 

“I wonder if they’ve got HBO,” Kali says, flicking on the light and making a grab for the remote on the nightstand. Apparently, she hasn’t noticed the weird, silent conversation Billy and Steve are having about how exactly they’re going to do this. “Shit, they do!”

 

There’s some movie playing— The Godfather, Billy thinks— and that’s enough for him and Steve to decide, fuck it, back-to-back, then, and settle down against the more-than-a-little flat pillows to watch. Billy’s never actually watched the whole thing through, after all, and it’s supposed to be one of the best films ever made.

 

He falls asleep before Michael comes back from Italy, leaning against Steve’s shoulder.


*.*


Billy wakes up the next morning with his face pressed into Steve’s chest, one arm thrown lazily over the taller’s boy’s waist. For a moment, he doesn’t think much of it, content to listen to Steve’s quiet snores as his chest rises and falls in a steady, quiet rhythm. Then, he wakes up slightly more, and realizes the position he’s in.

 

This isn’t the first time he’s been this close to Steve. That weekend in Chicago, for one. The graduation party, for another. Their semi-regular hangout times where they’d take advantage of Steve’s empty house and his mother’s stash of booze and weed, fof course. But it’s one thing to get fucked up and end up in a weird puppy pile. It’s something completely else when you went to bed sober..

 

Carefully so as not to wake him, Billy rolls away onto his side, tucking his hands against his chest as he goes. Kali’s bed’s empty, which means she saw them. Shit.

 

It’s not that Billy particularly minds the position he found himself in. Steve’s an alright-looking— okay, a solid eight— guy, and if Billy weren’t currently doing this hip new thing called making friends, he’d have jumped him by now. Well, not jumped him. Flirted with him, maybe, to get a lay of the land. Fluttered his lashes and hit him when he was weak, drunk at a party, perhaps.

 

But he hasn’t. He won’t. Steve, as far as Billy can tell, is a normal boy in almost every sense of the word— surprising, considering his parents. But he likes girls, that much is obvious by Nancy and the handful of other chicks Billy knows have gotten a taste of what Harrington has to offer. There’s nothing that points to the idea that Steve might be into that sort of thing.

 

Plus, y’know. Steve knows about Billy. Even if he was interested, Steve seems like the sort of guy who would decide that it wasn’t right to take advantage, like Billy got fucked in the head or something from hooking. In the mouth, perhaps, yes, but not the head. Billy has a solid foundation regarding his personal wants and needs, and Steve? Billy wants Steve, just a little bit.

 

But Steve’s his friend now, so it’s not happening. Billy doesn’t mix friends and sex. It always ends messy.

 

The door creaks open, and Kali steps in in a flurry of paper bags full of fast food and coffee, loud enough to startle Steve to wakefulness beside him.

 

“Food?” he grunts, and Billy knows exactly what face he’s making that gets a giggle out of Kali.

 

“Yes, food. And coffee.” she sets the bags on the little table in the corner. “It’s six-thirty. I know you wanted to be on the road by eight.”

 

Billy grunts and pushes himself up off the pillows, scratching absently at his scalp as he yawns. His hair’s gotten long, his mullet having grown out into some Robert Plant knockoff. He doesn’t mind it, really— in fact, he thinks it looks pretty good.

 

“Six-thirty, fuck,” Steve mutters, letting himself collapse back into the mattress. “I haven’t woken up this early since high school.”

 

Billy snorts.

 

“You mean, a month ago?”

 

He doesn’t have to look to know that Steve is flipping him off, and with another chuckle gets up to pad over to the table, opening the first bag he gets his hands on with a crinkle of cheap paper.

 

“McDonald’s, yes,” he says, grinning. “You’re the best, Kali.”

 

“I aim to please,” she says, already biting into a McMuffin. “I call first for the shower.”

 

Billy grins, settling into the chair opposite her.

 

“Keep this up and I’ll let you drive the car,” he says. “Not even Steve’s allowed to do that.”

 

Kali arches an eyebrow, pressing a hand over her heart.

 

“I feel blessed, truly,” she says. “But I’ll have to turn down your offer. I never learned how to drive.”

 

“Then I’ll teach you,” Billy says. “Or— maybe Steve should teach you. I’ve been told I’m a reckless driver.”

 

Steve grumbles something, rolling over and burying his face into his pillow.

 

“Not much of a morning person, is he?” Kali remarks.

 

Billy laughs.

 

“You should see him when he’s hungover.”

Chapter Text

Steve’s head lolls against the open window, the wind ruffling his hair as he skates his palm through the air. They’re on the 405, next stop Sunset Boulevard, and the sun is setting on the horizon.

 

Billy is a little nervous, to be honest. He’d arranged a place to crash for a few days while they searched for Max’s dad last night from a payphone outside the motel they’d been staying in, but it’s one thing for him to show up on Nikki’s front step. It’s a whole other thing to show up with a guy like Steve in tow. Nikki’s gonna like Kali, probably— she’s punk and she’s hot and she doesn’t take any shit— but Steve? Nikki’s gonna be a dick to Steve, and Billy’s… not cool with that. Only he gets to be a dick to Steve, and he doesn’t even do it that often anymore.

 

Well, whatever. Steve’s not an idiot. He’s probably got some idea of what he’s walking into.

 

Still. Maybe Billy should say something to Nikki before he really gets going.



*.*



“Billy, hey!”

 

Billy is surrounded by the smell of sweat and whisky quite suddenly.

 

“Tommy, how ya been?” He says, slapping the older man on the back. “Nikki didn’t say you’d be around.”

 

“Aw, man, I’m in and out, man, in and out.” Tommy grins at him from under his hairsprayed black bangs. He’s drunk, at least, but that’s usually how he is at this hour, so Billy doesn’t think much of it. “He said you were comin’ back, though.”

 

“For a little while, yeah,” Billy agrees. “Where is Nikki, anyway?”

 

“Back room. We brought some girls over.”

 

Oh, great. Still, Billy smiles and slaps Tommy on the shoulder.

 

“Shit, and he didn’t leave any for you? Selfish bastard.” He turns, gesturing for Steve and Kali to come closer. “Tommy, these are a couple of friends from Indiana. That’s Kali, and that’s Steve.”

 

“Damn, man,” Tommy says, eyes widening as he leans a little too close. “She’s hot.”

 

“She’s not interested, either,” Kali says, arching an eyebrow as she looks down at her chipped nail polish.

 

Tommy grins.

 

“Feisty,” he says. “Well, come on inside. We got booze and all the good stuff. Have a seat, tell me what you been up to, man. You’re not sticking around?”

 

“No, man, not this time.” Billy glances over at Steve, who’s watching them both with that curious look of his, when his nose scrunches up and his eyes widen. “It’s kind of a long story.”

 

“Man, we’ve got time,” Tommy says. “C’mon. Coupla beers and a line or two’ll do you good, after a drive like that.”

 

Billy looks over at Steve, who shrugs and makes a little gesture that Billy translates to ‘do whatever, man’, and he looks back at Tommy.

 

“Sounds good.”



*.*



Tommy lets out a low whistle.

 

“Well, shit, man,” he says after a moment. “We knew your dad was a piece of shit, but damn, that’s fucked up.”

 

“Yeah,” Billy agrees, sipping his beer. “So, now I’m lookin’ for Max’s dad, to help me get custody of her.”

 

Tommy doesn’t understand, exactly, why Billy’s trying to get Max, but he gets it’s important, which is enough, for now. Still.

 

“You sure she hasn’t got any other family?” he asks. “Because, don’t get me wrong, man, you always had your head on straight when it came to serious shit, but you’re what, seventeen?”

 

“Eighteen,” Billy says. “And it won’t be so hard. I got a job, y’know? Five hundred bucks a month.” He gives him a wry smile. “Not exactly rockstar money, but it’ll do, right?”

 

Tommy snorts.

 

“I swear to God, I got so much cash now I don’t know what to do with it all.” He pauses. “I manage to spend it alright, though, y’know?”

 

“Pussy and coke, yeah, you mentioned.” Like, seven times, now. “Heard you got a new record, out.”

 

“Theater of Pain, yeah. We’re on break for another three days, then going to tour Europe.” Tommy grins. “Nikki’s got a bunch of cassettes upstairs, I’ll get one for you.”

 

“Thanks, man.”

 

“Nikki’s got what?”

 

Billy looks up and sees the man himself in the doorway, wearing unbuttoned jeans and nothing else as he grins down at Billy, eyes droopy with… something. Billy doesn’t want to think about it too much.

 

“Nikki, hey.”

 

“Tommy, you ass, you should’ve called me,” Nikki says, cracking open the beer in his hand before collapsing onto the couch next to Tommy.

 

“You were busy!”

 

“Not that busy.” Nikki reaches out across the coffee table to shake Billy’s hand. “How ya been, man?”

 

“Some crazy shit went down, Nik,” Tommy says. “His dad’s on the run!”

 

Nikki blinks.

 

“Shit, what’d he do?”

 

“Killed his stepmom,” Tommy blurts out before Billy can answer.

 

Nikki’s eyes widen slightly, and he leans back into the couch.

 

“Shit, man. Sorry to hear it.” His eyes travel from Billy to Kali and Steve, who’ve stayed mostly quiet as Billy reacquainted himself with his friends. “New friends?”

 

“Yeah, man. Steve and Kali.”

 

Nikki sniffs.

 

“Don’t much look like you’re kinda crowd,” he remarks.

 

“Slim pickings in a small town,” Steve pipes up. “He makes do with us.”

 

Nikki stares at him a moment, like he can’t quite put together why a guy in a cream sweater is doing in his house and speaking to him, of all things. Billy holds his breath, bracing himself for an explosion.

 

It never comes. Instead, Nikki’s face breaks out into a wide grin.

 

“Oh, I get it,” he says. “Right, I got it.” He turns back to Billy. “So, what’re you doing back here? Finally started a band like I told ya?”

 

Billy shakes his head.

 

“Got a little sister to take care of,” he says. “I’m trying to get custody.”

 

Nikki hums.

 

“... Maxine, right?” he says. “Always thought that was a cool name.”

 

Billy smiles slightly.

 

“I always thought so, too,” he says. “She’s a good kid, even if she is a punk.”

 

“You hated her, didn’t you?” Nikki says. “I thought you said you hated her.”

 

Billy carefully doesn’t look at Steve.

 

“Shit’s changed,” he says. “We’ve both gotten better.”

 

Nikki grunts, eyeing him thoughtfully.

 

“You’re a lot calmer, now,” he says. “Kind of a shame. I was thinkin’ we might go to the Whisky A Go Go tonight. You were always up for a good time.”

 

“Who says I’m not still?” Billy shouldn’t say it. He’s fucking tired from driving and talking and trying to lay it out straight for Tommy, who can’t remember the beginning of a sentence by the time he gets to the end, at this point.

 

Nikki just looks at him.

 

“Nah,” he says. “You’re growin’ up. Turning into a real man, now.” He grins at him. “You heard our new record, yet?”

 

Billy shakes his head.

 

“Can’t get it where I live?”

 

“Well, that’s bullshit.” Nikki pushes himself up to his feet. “C’mon. I’ll play it for you.”

 

Tommy hops up to follow him, of course, grinning all the way, and after a moment, Billy moves to follow him, flanked by Kali and Steve.

 

“When you said we were staying at your friend’s house,” Steve starts, leaning in so he can whisper in Billy’s ear. His breath makes Billy break out in goosebumps. “I didn’t realize you were talking about the guys from Motley Crue.”

 

Billy arches an eyebrow.

 

“Reading up?” he asks a little dryly, smirking when Steve goes pink.

 

“I don’t mind their stuff,” he says, straightening. “Better than some of that other shit you listen to.”

 

Billy keeps smirking, because Steve listening to Motley Crue— Steve knowing who they are, or at least the album— means more than recognizing a song or two from Billy’s cassettes. It means there was thought put into it, research. He had to find pictures of these guys.

 

Billy might be getting soft, surrounded by nerds and Steve all the time, but Steve’s changing too, just a little bit.

 

Whatever. The thought makes him happy.

Chapter Text

Billy knows the underbelly of LA. He knows where to buy drugs and what corner to stand on to find a willing client and where drug addicts go when they’ve got nothing else to sell. So when he checks the last known address of Mark Mayfield and finds it empty, he falls back on that knowledge and starts making the rounds.

 

“We could always call Jane, you know,” Steve points out after they pick their way through their third crackhouse. “I’m sure Max has a picture of her dad.”

 

“That’s plan B,” Billy says, holding out a hand for Kali to take when the rotting steps start to rock under their weight.

 

“Why? It would be easier,” Kali points out.

 

Billy makes a face.

 

“You really want Jane seeing a place like this?” He asks, gesturing to the filthy, crumbling building around them and the men and women too incoherent to notice their intruders.

 

Steve winces.

 

“Good point,” he says. “But it should be taken into consideration that she also could just be spying on us anyway.”

 

That… probably true, actually. But it’s different.

 

“I didn’t tell her to do it, so it’s not my fault.”

 

“That sounds like a loophole,” Kali remarks.

 

“I’ll yell at her when I get home, then,” Billy says. “C’mon. Next stop.”

 

He sees the prissy look on Steve’s face and the grim tightening of Kali’s jaw at the words. Both reactions, he knows, are for different reasons. Steve’s just grossed out, but Kali… Kali has a look like she knows these kinds of places. Which makes sense, considering where they found her.

 

“There aren’t many places left,” Billy promises, throwing an easy arm around Steve’s shoulders as they step back onto the humid, sunny street. “Don’t worry, Stevie— I’ve got some penicillin in the car, y’know— just in case.”

 

Steve scowls at him and pulls away, heading towards the car. Kali takes the opportunity to fall into step beside Billy instead.

 

“You are well acquainted with such places,” she says. “Were you once one of them?”

 

Billy shakes his head.

 

“No,” he says. “I used to run away from the foster homes I was placed in. Usually ended up sleeping in places like this, ‘cause no one would say anything.”

 

Kali hums.

 

“Axel was,” she admits after a moment. “Until he found me. He decided the little girl with magic powers and a healthy fear of the government was worth more than his drugs.”

 

“Axel’s a good guy.”

 

“He is,” Kali agrees. “With a will of iron, when it matters. He’s taken quite a shine to Lucas, have you noticed?”

 

Billy hadn’t, but he supposes he doesn’t pay that much attention to the group dynamics of his sisters’ friends. He just pays attention to Max. And Jane. And Will. And technically Dustin sometimes because he’s always hanging around Steve. And, well, yeah, he supposes Lucas has been hanging out at the apartment a lot when Axel was around…

 

“Maybe.” He just hadn’t quite put it together.

 

Kali hums.

 

“Axel is very good with children,” she says. “Perhaps you can help me convince him to finish school and work as a teacher, or something.”

 

Billy snorts.

 

“I’m trying to picture him in a sweater vest,” he tells her. “But everything else is the same.”

 

Kali smacks him, but she’s smiling, too.

 

“I’m serious,” she says. “One of us has to make a living, and I’m a classified government experiment without any kind of formal education at all.”

 

Billy sighs.

 

“School might be a good idea,” he admits. “But not right now. Right now, I’ve got to find Max’s dad.”

 

“We’ll talk about it later, then?”

 

Billy’s not going to get out of this.

 

“Yeah. Sure.”



*.*



It’s slow work, slow enough that they stop for lunch, and are thinking about dinner when Billy’s entire world comes crashing around his ears. Why? Well, because they just so happen to pass by his old apartment building— the one his mother used to live in.

 

It’s condemned, graffitied and rundown with broken windows and what used to be a chain and a Masterlock hanging from the knob of the busted door.

 

“Billy? Are we checking this place out?” Steve asks a little nervously. He should be nervous, honestly— the old apartment building looks even scarier than any of the crackhouses they’ve been in so far.

 

“... Yeah,” Billy says, throwing his car into park without bothering to actually pull into a spot. Nobody’s gonna drive down this little street at this time of the day— after all, the sun’s setting.

 

He pushes open the door that’s barely hanging on by its rusted hinges and doesn’t look back to see if Kali and Steve are following him. He takes the steps two at a time, barely noticing the used condoms, the leftover needles and bottle caps, the twisted remnants of fast food containers, the straight up trash that litters the hallways. He goes up one, two, three, four floors, then makes a right, all the way down the hall.

 

He stops in front of the door when he finds it. He stops, and suddenly, he’s afraid. He’s so fucking afraid.

 

“Billy?”

 

That’s Steve. Steve, whose hand has found Billy’s shoulder and is squeezing like maybe Billy’s freaking him out just a little bit right now.

 

“This is my mom’s old apartment,” Billy says faintly, gazing up at the crooked outline of the number six. “I grew up here.”

 

“... Oh.”

 

Billy keeps staring, frozen in the wake of so many memories— so many happy memories. Maybe it’s just because he was a kid, one who didn’t really understand that this was a bad part of town with a lot of problems, but when he thinks back to his time behind that ugly brown door, he can’t think of a single thing that doesn’t make him wish his mother was still here.

 

“Billy, are you okay?” Steve again. He sounds a little worried.

 

Billy clears his throat.

 

“Just fine,” he croaks, trying to pretend he’s not wiping his eyes and probably failing miserably. “Sorry. Where’s Kali?”

 

“She went looking for a phone book,” Steve says, shrugging. “Is there anywhere good to eat around—”

 

“Ulliam? Is that you?”

 

Billy startles, badly enough to scare Steve when he jerks around to find the source of the new voice. His eyes widen slightly, mouth falling open in surprise.

 

“Miss Tiffany?”

 

The woman— who looks worse for wear since the last time he saw her, if Billy’s totally honest— gives him a wide, yellowed smile, revealing that the gap between her two front teeth had now become a little bit more than that. After seven years, it seems she doesn’t have those two front teeth at all.

 

“I thought that was you, Ulliam,” she says, sweeping down the hall with all the elegance of the drag queen she is to pull him up into a warm, slightly smelly hug. “You grew up beautiful, baby.”

 

He pats her on the back, frowning at the delicate bones that slide under her light brown skin.

 

“It’s nice to see you again, Miss Tiffany,” he says. “How’ve you been?”

 

“Well, you know how it goes in this business. There’s ups and downs, just like anywhere else.” She pulls back, sighing happily as she holds him in place to get a better look. “You look just like your momma, Ooly, I swear. Oh, and is this your boyfriend? He’s cute.”

 

Steve goes pink under Tiffany’s gaze, and Billy likes him enough to save him.

 

“Nah, nothing like that,” Billy says, smirking at Steve’s obvious discomfort. “This is Steve, one of my friends from Indiana. Neil moved us there last year.”

 

Tiffany clicks her tongue.

 

“So that’s why I haven’t seen you on the circuit,” she says, frowning. “Are you okay? I mean, you got away from him, right?”

 

Billy cringes.

 

“Not exactly,” he says. “It’s a long story.”

 

“Well, I’ve got the time to hear it, if you want to talk,” Tiffany says. “It’s about time for breakfast, anyway.”

 

“It’s not worth talking about, honestly,” Billy says, shrugging. “But I’ll get you something to eat, if you want.”

 

“Baby, you know I never say no to a free meal— especially when it’s with a pair of the prettiest boys I’ve ever laid eyes on.” She gives Steve an exaggerated wink, and grins delightedly when he squirms before turning back to Billy. “I just need to get my purse— this place might be closed down, but it’s still good enough to stash a few things.”

 

Billy nods.

 

“We’ll wait for you outside,” he says. “Steve here’s not used to roughing it.”

 

Tiffany rolls her eyes.

 

“He ain’t seen nothin’ yet,” she says. “Go. I’ll be out in a minute.”

 

And with that, she spins on her heel and disappears into one of the other apartments, the same one she’d lived in when Billy was ten and still needed the occasional babysitter.

 

“That’s a man, isn’t it?” Steve mutters as Billy leads him back towards the steps.

 

“At one point, yeah,” Billy agrees. “But that was before I was born. I’ve only ever known her as Tiffany.”

 

“Oh.” Steve pauses. “Why did... she think I was your boyfriend?”

 

“Because that’s how Tiffany works.” Billy says, shrugging, because it's easier to brush off comments like that than to explain that Tiffany's known him since he was in diapers and knows a fag when she sees one. “And terrible taste runs in the McCloud family.”

 

Steve elbows him.

 

“I’ll have you know I’m a great boyfriend,” Steve says. “You’d be lucky to have me.”

 

Billy, weirdly enough, thinks he might agree.

Chapter Text

The fries are squishy and the burgers are dry, but Tiffany eats everything with relish, bright red lipstick staining the white straw poking out of her tall glass of Coke.

 

“It’s good to hear you’re doin’ alright, Ooly,” she says when their food is either eaten or left to congeal in its wax wrappers. “Especially after your daddy showed the whole world what a shitstain he really was. I’m sorry about that little girl— Max, you said her name was?”

 

“Maxine, yeah.” Billy shifts, knee bumping Steve’s thigh as he crosses his legs. “We’re doing okay, though— Steve’s mom hooked me up with a good job, and a place to live, so…” he trails off, shrugging.

 

Tiffany smiles.

 

“Well, you found good friends there, baby, I can see that much.” She winks at Steve. “And such pretty ones, too.”

 

Steve is still a little bit uncomfortable, but he manages a smile.

 

“Thanks for saying so, ma’am,” he says. “Billy’s not so bad, I guess.”

 

“Gee, thanks, Harrington.” Billy cuffs him lightly on the shoulder. “Listen, you weren’t exactly fun to deal with in the beginning, either.”

 

Kali rolls her eyes at them.

 

“Boys,” she tells Tiffany. “They’re all the same, aren’t they?”

 

“Lucky you don’t plan on ever dealing with them,” Tiffany says, grinning at her. “I wish it could be so easy for me.”

 

Kali blinks at her a moment, startled, then shrugs and reaches for her drink. She’s apparently unbothered by Tiffany’s observations.

 

Satisfied, Tiffany turns back to Billy.

 

“So if everything’s going alright, what’chu even doing back?” she asks. “Doesn’t Maxine need you?”

 

“Well,” Billy says, rubbing a tired hand over his face. “I’m here to find her dad— I need him to sign some forms, so I can get custody over her. Problem is, he’s a druggie, and I can’t find the fucker.”

 

“What kinda drugs?”

 

“Coke, at least. Maybe something more, I don’t know.” Billy sighs. “Ever heard of a guy named Mark Mayfield?”

 

“Markie? Yeah, he’s on 42nd Street.”

 

Billy freezes.

 

“What?” he asks quietly.

 

Tiffany nods.

 

“That’s where the junkies trick, nowadays,” she says, shrugging. “I’ve got a few friends around there.” She looks up at the cracked clock hanging over the register. “It’s only eight, so it’s probably still a little bit early, but you’ll probably catch him there.”

 

Abruptly, Billy stands, circling the little table and shoving Kali out of the way to press a kiss to Tiffany’s cheek.

 

“You’re the only person worth anything in this town,” he tells her, burying his face in her shoulder as he pulls her into a hug. “Don’t let anybody ever tell you different.”

 

“Oh, baby,” Tiffany says, patting Billy’s shoulder gently. “I don’t need you to tell me that.”



*.*



It is painfully easy, after that. Max’s father looks almost exactly like Billy pictured him looking by this point, thin and haggard as he stares blankly at the teenagers who pull him to the side. Billy explains what he wants, why he wants it, but he doubts Mark got much out of the whole conversation. In the end, Steve stepped in, holding out a hundred dollar bill in exchange for his signature.

 

The man signs embarrassingly quickly. Yeah, this was what Billy wanted, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a little bit angry, at least on Max’s behalf. She loves this guy, after all.

 

Well, whatever. Billy got what he wanted, and now he can relax, so he’s going to do the one thing he’s wanted pretty much since he got to LA: drink.

 

They’re pretty hammered, which is fun. Kali’s doing her damndest to charm some leggy blonde at the bar, which is equal part fun to watch and a learning experience. Billy’s taking notes on a bar napkin, or trying to, because again, he’s pretty hammered, and he’s also distinctly lacking a pen.

 

Steve is dancing with about the same amount of rhythm as a stork, caught in the middle of too many bodies on a tiny dancefloor and apparently okay with it. He’s smiling, crowing along to the lyrics of some shitty pop tune as people with long nails grab at him, at his face—

 

Billy realizes he should probably go get him, and after a little bit of shoving, he does, catching Steve by the hand and drawing him out of the crush of people.

 

“You okay?” he shouts into Steve’s ear.

 

“Yeah, fine!” Steve shouts back, grinning. “This is fun! I’ve never been in a place like this! Sorta tired, though.”

 

“Yeah, I bet,” Billy says, snorting. He snakes an arm around Steve’s shoulders. “Let’s go find a piece of wall to lean against for a little while, huh?”

 

There are no fucking chairs in places like this— that’s the only real downside to these types of clubs.

 

Steve nods, and Billy leads him towards the back, arm still around the slightly taller boy’s shoulders, settling him under a crackling emergency exit sign.

 

“Don’t lean against the door, alright?” he orders, pointing to the press-open bar bolted across the door that Steve is currently propping his elbow up with. “It’ll trigger the fire alarm.”

 

“Yeah, okay.” Steve lets his head loll back, staring at Billy through half-lidded eyes. “You’re a real nice guy, you know that?”

 

Billy smirks at him. “Yeah?”

 

Steve nods, nose crinkling as his eyes slip nearly shut with the force of his smile. He’s a dopey, happy drunk, and Billy sort of likes that about him.

 

“Yeah,” Steve agrees, eyes still closed. “You’re real sweet, when you want to be. I mean, besides all the stuff with Max. Like, you’re fantastic. Kind of insane, and your temper’s kinda insane, but…” Stever sighs, leaning forward until his forehead is pressed against Billy’s. “Yeah. You’re nice.”

 

Now, Billy has a very distinct line of separation between friends and fuckbuddies. He has good reason for it. Except… well, Steve’s so pretty, and he’s saying such sweet things, and really, this would be exactly the situation Billy would have found himself in with the guy if his life had continued like it would’ve if his dad hadn’t stabbed his wife to death for God only knows what reason.

 

“Pretty boy?”

 

Yeah, Billy?” Steve’s eyes are fixed on Billy’s mouth, slightly unfocused but still definitely staring. His mouth has fallen open, just slightly, and Billy can’t help but notice how soft it looks, how close her is. Steve smells like sweat and cigarettes, and there’s a little bit of glitter stuck on his cheek from when someone maybe cradled his face on the floor, but he’s close and warm and so utterly unafraid of what Billy could do to him even though he has every reason to be, and Billy—

 

Billy kisses him.

 

Steve doesn’t fight him when Billy pushes him more firmly against the wall, mouth slack for the first few seconds as Billy presses into him, softer than he normally would but probably harsher than any girl Steve’s had. Once his brain kicks into gear, though, he seems into it, hands coming up to clutch at Billy’s hair as his mouth works messily against Billy’s, tongue peeking out to swipe wide across Billy’s lower lip.

 

Billy’s breath hitches a little at that, and it’s reflex more than anything that pushes his hips forward, sliding the denim of his crotch sharply against Steve’s thigh. Steve jumps, one hand sliding down Billy’s back to grab at his ass and encourage him closer.

 

“C’mon,” Steve hisses, lips pink and shiny when he pulls back to look at Billy. Billy only meets his eyes for a moment, because the next thing he knows, he’s being hoisted up into the air, his back suddenly pressed against a wall and two long-fingered hands clamped under his thighs, just under the bend of his ass. Steve’s chest is pressed to his, the zipper of his jeans sliding slowly over the seam of Billy’s crotch.

 

Now, it isn’t that Billy hasn’t been in this exact position before, or that he hasn’t made said position work when he’s needed it too, but it’s not the most comfortable position, particularly when you’re trying to have impromptu wall sex in the back of a club.

 

Crossing his ankles for extra security, he fists a hand in the back of Steve’s hair, tugging him away from his mouth.

 

“Steve,” he gasps, trying his best to sound firm and ending up a cross between horny and cajoling. “Steve, baby, this isn’t gonna work, okay? We can’t do it like this.”

 

“Bet we can,” Steve mutters, pressing his face into Billy’s neck and sucking.

 

“Oh, fuck— no, you’re right, just— not now?” Billy exhales sharply as Steve stiffens, pulling away.

 

“Do you not wanna do this?” he asks, brow furrowed in a drunkard’s exaggeration of seriousness. “Because if you’re not into this, I can—”

 

“No, no, I’m definitely into this,” Billy interrupts, squeezing the junction of his neck and shoulder. “Just— this position. It’s hard.”

 

“Oh— oh!” Steve’s expression clears, and he lets his hands slide down to Billy’s knees, depositing him gently on the sticky laminate floor. “Shit, okay, what—”

 

Billy pulls him in for another hard, sloppy kiss.

 

“Like this, okay? Like this.” He turns, chest heaving, hands groping blindly to brace himself against the wall—

 

His hands find cool metal, and the drunk part of his brain goes ‘great, something to hold onto’ just before the smart part of his brain goes ‘that’s the fire exit, leave it alone’, it pushes it open.

 

The alarm starts screaming.

Chapter Text

 

That next morning is awkward. Billy doesn’t know how, exactly— as far as he can tell, Steve can’t remember much from the night’s festivities, having passed out before his head even hit the pillow in the spare bedroom Nikki lent them after they got back from the club. Billy can’t remember all that much either, if he’s perfectly honest, but then, he remembers trying to fuck against a wall, so he guesses he’s got a slightly better understanding as to why there’s a reason to be awkward.

 

There’s a reason for the awkwardness (which continues into their drive back to Hawkins, great), but it shouldn’t be there, because Steve can’t remember shit and Billy’s a damn good actor, if he does say so himself.

 

Kali notices, of course. Why shouldn’t she? She’s only spending every waking (or otherwise) hour with nothing but their company and a weird mixtape Steve’s trying to spin in the passenger seat on the drive home.

 

Prince, The Beautiful Ones. Queen, Somebody To Love. Led Zeppelin, Whole Lotta Love. The Scorpions, Rock You Like A Hurricane.

 

What in the name of fuck are these music choices? Steve’s jumped through like, four tapes, picking out whatever he can find between Billy’s collection and the three tapes he brought along for the drive, rewinding and replaying only to stop halfway through a song to pull out the tape and stick a new one on. He’s abusing Billy’s poor radio, is what he’s doing. He’s gangbanging the fucking cassette player.

 

Billy keeps his mouth shut, though. He honestly doesn’t know if he’ll like Steve’s answers if he asks about whatever the fuck he’s doing.

 

Even if Steve doesn’t actually know why, Billy fucking will. He never should have taken that fucking psych class.

 

They’re about a day’s drive outside of Hawkins when Kali decides she’s had enough.

 

“I’m going out,” she says, dropping her bags on the bed she’d claimed. “And I’m not coming back until morning. Work your nonsense out by then, or so help me, you’ll be seeing roaches in your lunches until the day you die. Am I understood?”

 

Not waiting for an answer, she turns on her heel and slams her way back out of the motel room, likely off to find herself some entertainment at the bar they’d seen around the corner. There are a few seconds of silence, the pair of them struck dumb by her orders, before Steve speaks.

 

“TV and weed?” he asks.

 

Billy stares at him a moment, then shrugs.

 

“Yeah, why not?”


*.*


There’s nothing on, so they settle on an old, black and white movie, so they settle on that and Billy goes about rolling them both a joint. The quiet isn’t quite comfortable— the weirdness that had sat so heavily in the car creeps through the air of their shitty motel room— but it isn’t bad, either. He and Steve are propped up shoulder-to-shoulder against the headboard of their bed, Billy using a pillow and the bible from the nightstand to roll while Steve watches, humming quietly to himself and altogether too close to Billy’s ear as he observes.

 

Billy thinks he’s too close, but he can’t say anything about how he sort of feels like he’s gonna claw off his own skin if he doesn’t stomp down the sudden realization that all he’d have to do to kiss Steve again is turn his head a little bit and open his mouth.

 

Yeah, no. Back into the naughty thoughts cage with that nonsense. At most, it’s a reaction to the night before, and Billy can’t exactly spring that on Steve, can he? Not when the guy doesn’t remember.

 

Does he remember?

 

No.

 

No, he would have said something earlier. Right?

 

A rock begins to form in Billy’s stomach, and he’s not sure if it’s over the possibility that Steve doesn’t remember or if it’s because he probably does remember and hasn’t said anything. Steve’s the kind of person to bring that kind of stuff up first, isn’t he? So if he does, what—

 

“Hey,” Steve says after a moment. “Sorry if I sound kind of awkward, but, just to check— how are we feeling about last night?”

 

Oh, Billy thinks a little sourly. Of course. Give him the whole day to build up a nice anxiety attack, and then—

 

“What about last night?”

 

Billy doesn’t look, but he can practically hear Steve rolling his eyes at him.

 

“The kiss,” he says. “We totally were going to try and fuck in a bar last night— which, by the way, is kind of embarrassing.” Steve shudders lightly. “I’m not into the whole exhibitionism thing.”

 

Billy focuses very hard on his roll. He’s not quite sure what to say.

 

After a moment, Steve sighs.

 

“Okay,” he says. “I’ll go first, because you’re still learning how to talk about things like a normal person. If I’m remembering it right, we made out at the bar last night and it was pretty nice. If it’s alright with you, I’d like to do it again sometime.” Steve nudges him with his elbow. “What about you?”

 

Billy’s fingers twitch and he spills half of the wrap onto the bible. He doesn’t swear.

 

“I— um?” Billy chances a look. Steve looks like he’s trying very, very hard to be patient. “I thought… it was nice? Too?”

 

Steve smiles a little, dark eyes sparkling with quiet, fond amusement.

 

“You play a good game, McCloud,” he says, tilting his head. “I definitely thought you were gonna be more suave than this.”

 

Billy feels a flush of irritation, but before he can open his mouth to retort, Steve’s already moved on.

 

“I think it’s cute,” he says. “I think you’ve got a lot of things going for you, in terms of cuteness.” Steve’s smile widens hopefully. “With that in mind, I just wanna know— would it be alright if I kissed you again?”

 

Billy finds himself nodding before he actually comes to a decision

 

“Yeah. Yes. Okay— oh!”

 

Steve is warm and smells like motel soap and cigarettes, plastered to Billy’s side as he kisses him ever so gently. After a moment, Billy reaches out, hand fluttering awkwardly before coming to rest on Steve’s shoulder.

 

“Kali’s gonna be pissed if we have sex in the room,” Billy says when Steve finally remembers they need to breathe.

 

“Kali gave us the room for the night specifically so we could have sex in it,” Steve answers. He’s breathing a little harder than usual, his gaze unusually focused when he meets Billy’s eyes. “Do you want to?”

 

Billy does, he so desperately does, but there’s a strange, nervous weight settling in the bottom of his stomach, something he usually would have soothed with a few beers at this point in the evening.

 

“I don’t know,” he says, looking down at his hands. “Maybe later?”

 

Steve hums agreeably.

 

“Yeah, okay,” he says. “Roll that joint— we’ll smoke and make out to I Love Lucy or something, how’s that sound?”

 

“... That’ll work.”


*.*


They end up sucking face for most of the night, culminating in embarrassingly quick handjobs and more making out before sleep finally takes them. Kali knows, obviously, but she doesn’t comment, just looks between them when she comes back in the morning before giving a satisfied little nod and demanding pancakes for breakfast. They find a little diner twenty minutes down the road, and while Kali goes over their route on the giant map she’s spread across their table, Steve’s hand manages to slip into Billy’s under the table. Billy feels his heart go warm and fluttery, and doesn’t shake him off.

 

Him and Steve, they’re comfortable. It’s warm and easy and familiar, and it looks like it’s going to be pretty easy to slip from friends to something a little different, because for some reason, things have just gotten easier, when it comes to Steve. Sometimes, it even feels natural.

 

Max’ll probably be excited. Billy’ll have to tell her, once he and Mr. Sinclair have filed the right paperwork. Steve, of course,  is gonna insist on telling Dustin, who in turn is going to tell everybody that is in any way connected to the weird little group of DnD nerds and their magic friends. Christ, that’s going to be a headache.

 

… Billy’s starting to think he doesn’t mind much, though.