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Sometimes, when the sun sets on Hawkins, and Nancy is busy with Jonathan, and his parents are home, cluttering the house with sounds and conversation, Steve gets into his car and drives. He drives to one of the farms that pepper Hawkins, drives out to the edges of it, knows he won’t get caught by the farmer--doesn’t care if he does. He drives out to the edges, to where farmland turns to trees, thick and dark and looming. He turns off his car, leaves the bat in the backseat, and goes and sits in the darkness.

Those are the kind of dark, lonesome nights that let him seem normal when he’s in the hallways at school. Where he does his homework, and checks Nancy’s math, and takes notes in English like he’s going to understand the book. He does this, and he’s fine the rest of the time, thanks, no worries. He can pick Dustin up, or drive him somewhere, or get burgers with him and talk about girls and not feel, at all, like his skin is going to crack open and spill whatever’s inside him in a slow leak onto the sidewalk. He feels stretched thin and dried out, and then he goes out into the woods and feels--alive.

It makes him feel like he did that night outside the bus, muttering come on as monsters circled. Come ON, every inch of him screams as he stares at the trees. He’s tempting fate, maybe, but it feels like taking control. He sits in the darkness, woods around him, and listens to the sounds that a forest makes at night. Something skitters in the leaves, something walks by just at the edges of what’s audible. There are insects all around, and sometimes one of them makes a noise just strange enough that it sounds wrong, like something that shouldn’t be out in the woods at night. Steve feels his heart beat faster then, curls his fingers into fists, tips his head back, throat bared, and fucking waits for it.

Nothing ever comes, though. He backs his car out, drives home, accepts the kiss his mother presses to his cheek and a plate kept warm from dinner. Goes to bed. Goes to school. Makes it through another week. He can’t keep doing this forever, but he can keep doing this for now. So he drives out to the edge of the world again and again, bares his throat to the dark forest, and waits.

~

In school on a Tuesday, Billy comes up to him, shoulders hunched, tense, angry. Steve can see the anger rolling off him, almost like he’s vibrating with it. Today, Steve thinks, frantic and calm all at once, standing at his locker. Today Billy Hargrove is going to finish the job he started. He’s going to be wrong--so wrong--but he doesn’t know that yet.

Steve’s face is almost entirely healed, just a little fading bruising, nearly invisible, around his temples remains. Nancy says she can only see it if she really looks for it. In the weeks he has healed, slowly, day by day, the strange looks from his teachers and his basketball coach have faded, too. His classmates stare less in the hallway--they still stare because Steve’s always drawn attention, but it’s more normal. Dustin has stopped acting like he’s afraid to touch him.

No one can see it but Steve, right after he gets out of the shower, if he parts his wet hair just right, but there’s going to be a scar on his scalp from the plate Billy smashed over his head and he can’t decide whether or not he thinks that’s cool. It’s not like he can show it to anyone.

Billy is standing at Steve’s locker, just not saying anything, looking somewhere to the right of Steve’s head. That’s maybe the most unnerving part of it all. When Billy talks to him--in class, at practice, that night at the Byers’s house--Steve always has his full attention, laser focused, blue eyes bright enough and sharp enough to cut glass. Now, Billy isn’t looking Steve in the eye. Steve can’t catch his gaze. He thinks that this is how he dies, in a hallway at school, once he’d finally started feeling safe.

“Sorry,” Billy grinds out through clenched teeth, still not looking at him.

“What,” says Steve, blankly, processing. He’d been bracing for a hit--planting his feet, as it were, but Billy’s just said sorry, and Steve’s brain is trying to catch up.

“I’m not fucking saying it again, Harrington,” Billy says, still not looking at Steve. “Take it or fucking leave it.”

Billy’s close enough to him that Steve can smell the cigarette smoke clinging to his t-shirt, it’s too cold for a t-shirt, Steve’s brain reminds him. Billy’s close enough to him that Steve can see the way some shorter strands of hair curl close to his face, at the edges of his jawline. Billy’s close enough to him that Steve can smell his shampoo, that his brain can register that Billy’s not wearing cologne today, which Steve knows because one time at the Byers’s house, Billy had smashed his face in, gotten real close and personal. Which he’s apologizing for. Now.

Oh.

“Oh,” Steve says, slow, and Billy’s still standing there coiled like he’s ready to launch himself into space or shatter, Steve isn’t sure which. “Uh,” and Billy’s not looking at him, close enough to smell. “I--that’s ok, man. Thanks?”

Billy walks past him then, slams a freshman’s open locker shut in the kid’s face with enough force to silence the entire hallway. It’s probably bent. They’re not supposed to slam the lockers like that because then they stop closing right. Steve’s thinking all that, but mostly he’s thinking that usually when Billy walks past him he checks Steve with his shoulder. He didn’t, this time.

Steve’s--not totally sure what to do with that information, actually. So he shuts his locker and he reads the notes Nancy gives him about the novel he can’t wrap his head around, and he checks her math homework, because Steve’s not great at school, but he’s ok at math, and Nancy likes to make sure her work is perfect.

It’s a Tuesday and it’s fine.

~

Except then it’s like, you know, Billy is just fucking everywhere Steve is. His car is outside the Byers’s house when Steve swings by to pick up Dustin and Lucas--who aren’t allowed to sleep over on account of some sort of family event. Steve’s still trying to work out if it’s the same family event or if it’s two separate family events planned on the same day. Lucas and Dustin haven’t been particularly clear on that front, so mostly Steve is picking them up and hoping he doesn’t get invited to dinner. He has an especially hard time saying no to either of their mothers.

Billy’s car is there, and Max appears in the doorway when he honks. Billy looks over at Steve, and Steve tries to catch his eye through their separate windows, to wave, but Billy’s looking to the side of his head again, and when Steve waves Billy’s jaw gets tight and then--nothing. He honks again, Max dives into the car, blocking Billy from Steve’s view, and then they drive off.

Steve gets invited to dinner. He stays because he’s a fucking sucker and Dustin’s mom is so nice. It’s separate family dinners, just in case anyone was fucking wondering.

~

When he leaves Dustin’s house, the sun is long since set, cold air bites at whatever exposed skin it can find. Steve’s cheeks will be red from it. He thinks of Billy in his t-shirt, thinks that he’s supposed to go straight home to his mother and her bright, full house. Picks a road instead, drives down it, a straight line until he’s turning into a farm. He turns his headlights off when he drives past the house, keeps the music down. When he looks in the windows, the family inside isn’t worrying about anything outside. Lucky them.

He drives out to the edge of their property, where civilization meets the forest, and the lab is somewhere out there, looming empty in the dark. He checks his bat out of habit, fingering the nails at the end of it before leaving it in his passenger’s seat. He shuts the door to the beamer quietly, gently, nothing like Billy had shut the locker. He walks out into the forest, close enough to where his car is that he’ll know if it’s found, far enough he’d have to work to get to it, have to work to get away.

He settles down on the stump of a tree, shuts his eyes, listens. Waits.

For a long time there is silence, the sound of insects, just this side of wrong.

Then:

The roar of an engine, headlights that make Steve’s eyes sting, even though they’re still closed. The sound of a car door slamming. Steve opens his eyes and can’t really see for the glare. “Is that you, Harrington?” calls a voice that Steve thinks he might recognize anywhere. Yeah it’s me, his brain echoes, Don’t cream your pants. Steve’s been coming out here searching for a monster in the woods. He’s finally found one.

“What do you want, Hargrove?”

“What are you doing?” Billy’s voice is soft over the sound of his engine.

“Turn your fucking car off,” Steve says, still trying to see Billy in the glare of the headlights. He’s the outline of a person, standing there next to his still running car. Billy could jump in, could get away, but Steve is sure, suddenly, that he won’t. Billy turns his car off, walks farther out into the trees.

“What’s wrong with you?” Billy asks, looking at him.

It’s the first time since that Tuesday, too many days ago now, that Billy has held Steve’s gaze. Steve’s breath leaves his chest in a rush, out here in the near pitch black, just the light of the moon, Billy’s eyes seem to glow bright bright blue. It’s almost unnerving. It’s almost the kind of wrong Steve’s looking for out here.

What is wrong with him? Steve doesn’t know. Monsters are real, he guesses. He didn’t know that before.

“Monsters are real,” Steve says, locked in under Billy’s eyes, unable to move, more honest than he wants to be.

Billy laughs, “Yeah?” he asks, “Tell me about it. Get in my car, Harrington, it’s freezing out here.”

Steve--does.

It’s when Billy opens the door that he sees it, the bruise blooming on Billy’s cheek, like the flower face of a many-toothed monster, purple and red and wrong. His eye is black, too, and if Steve squints, he can just make out bruises on Billy’s neck that look an awful lot like fingerprints. Billy offers him a cigarette.

“What’s wrong with you?” Steve asks.

Billy laughs, hollow and mean, “Monsters are real,” he mimics.

Steve, in his best low-voiced, dark-edged Billy impersonation says, “Yeah? Tell me about it.”

It is, he realizes, the first time he’s ever seen Billy laugh, really laugh like he means it. Steve feels warm all over from it, wants a repeat performance.

“I’m fucked up,” he says to Billy, because he’s said it to no one else. “I think I’m going to be cracked open and spill all my guts out, like fucking humpty-dumpty or whatever.”

“I’m fucked up. I could’ve killed you,” Billy answers. Maybe you should’ve, Steve doesn’t say, feeling small and dark and angry in Billy’s car on the edge of the world.

“My parents leave all the time and then they come back,” Steve says, “I wish there wasn’t a back and forth about it. I wish they could fucking pick one. I can’t get a handle on it.”

“My dad beats me,” Billy answers, and Steve feels cold all over, like someone’s pushed him into a snowbank, sees Billy’s bruises even though the light from the car is gone with both doors closed. There’s no second half to Billy’s sentence.

“Billy--”

“Don’t,” Billy says, quick and mean. “I’ll break your nose if you say it.”

I’m sorry, Steve’s brain screams, even though he did nothing wrong. He doesn’t say anything for a while. There’s the sound of the insects, and Billy breathing. “I do this a lot,” Steve says.

“What?”

“The forest. I do this a lot.”

“You’re going to get eaten by a wolf or a bear or something.”

“Maybe. You could come, though, again, if you wanted.”

“I could come?” Billy’s tone is laced with something that makes Steve blush. He’s glad Billy can’t see it.

“Maybe,” he says, feeling reckless and like he’s going to crack.

Billy laughs, loud and long. “Get out of my fucking car,” he says.

Steve drives home. He pretends he doesn’t see Billy follow him. It reminds him a little bit of what Nancy does, whenever she drives someone around. How she makes sure they get in their front door safe and sound before she drives off. It drives Steve crazy when she does it, all the waiting around, but when he turns around after he’s closed the door, through the windows he watches the Camaro speed off. Steve’s surprised how good it feels to know someone was making sure he got in safe.

~

At practice three days later, Nick J--different from Nick T and Nicholas--checks Steve so hard he crashes to the ground. He doesn’t offer Steve a hand up. Steve takes the hit, loves it, thinks that maybe he should plant his feet, but maybe he shouldn’t. Pictures a bruise that might bloom on his shoulder and smiles.

After, in the locker room, after they’ve all showered and coach has disappeared from his office, Billy rounds on Nick J. “What the fuck was that?” he asks, low and dangerous.

“What?” says Nick J. Steve watches, straddling a bench, still toweling his hair, shirtless and in dry sweatpants.

“Harrington. You threw him on the ground and didn’t help him up. What the fuck was that?”

“You do it all the time, Billy. Whatever,” Nick J flips Billy the bird and turns to leave.

The sound Nick J’s torso makes when Billy slams him into the locker echoes throughout the room. “You don’t do it,” Billy says, still low and dangerous. “Ever a-fucking-gain.”

“Shit,” Nick J says, and Steve sees him wince. “Whatever, ok, I won’t do it.”

Billy presses him harder, his arm across Nick’s shoulders, digging an elbow in. “Apologize,” he hisses, breath ruffling Nick J’s hair.

“Sorry, Harrington,” Nick J says. Billy lets him go and Nick J scrambles away. The door slams when he leaves. Suddenly it’s just Billy and Steve in the locker room. They’re both shirtless. Steve feels cold.

“What,” he says, blankly, processing.

“Don’t worry about it, Harrington,” Billy says, tugging a t-shirt on over nasty bruises up and down his left side. Steve sees them, catalogs them, knows their cause even though he isn’t sure that he wants to know it.

“Bye,” Steve says dumbly when Billy walks out, still straddling the bench, toweling his stupid hair.

~

Billy is just--he’s everywhere. Steve can’t seem to get away from him. He’s outside the AV club in the frigid, frozen air that threatens snow. This year the cold seems like it’ll never break, like spring is a myth that comes from the coasts far away from Hawkins, Indiana. Steve feels like the edges of the town are walls. A world outside of Hawkins, with the sky this grey, the threat of snow this heavy, seems impossible.

Billy’s outside AV club, he’s obviously in basketball practice, he’s near Steve’s locker when Steve gets there in the morning, near Steve’s locker when Steve stays at school as late as he can, dreading in a way he cannot name a warm house filled with his parents, a cold house empty of them.

“Harrington,” Billy says, a few days after the thing with Nick J, standing at Steve’s locker, looking somewhere to the left of Steve’s head, never meeting his gaze.

“Yeah?” Steve says, and he’s almost surprised by the genuine curiosity he can feel blooming in his chest. He can see Nancy off behind Billy, hovering, unsure. He doesn’t call her over.

“You going to the edge of the world tonight?” Billy asks.

“Maybe,” Steve says. “Who wants to know?”

“Me,” says Billy, and then he meets Steve’s eyes, and Steve can’t breathe for the focus of all that blue.

“Yeah,” Steve says, embarrassed to realize he’s breathless. “I’ll pick you up. 9.”

There’s the ghost of a flinch in Billy’s shoulders, but he nods. “You know where--”

“I’ve driven Max home,” Steve says, and Billy walks away without saying anything else. Steve feels like the air does before a storm, heavy, ready to shatter. Loves it.

~

Just before Steve pulls up outside of the Hargrove house, he turns his headlights off. He doesn’t know why he chooses to do it, just that he knows he should. He never does with when he picks up Max, but picking up Billy seems--different.

He waits.

Billy comes out of the house, does something with his hand that Steve understands in a deep down part of himself. He drives around the corner, parks his car in front of a neighbor’s house, gets out and waits again. Billy pulls up in the Camaro.

“Get in,” Billy says.

Steve doesn’t say he was supposed to pick Billy up. That’s not, he thinks, how this works. He opens the door, feeling ready and then--falters, feels himself gasp, wishes he’d stopped it.

Billy’s face is--bad.

Billy doesn’t look at him, he wipes at his nose--it’s still bleeding--and stares straight ahead. Steve hesitates for a second before he climbs in the car. There’s a feeling like anger and helplessness building in the pit of this stomach. This time he doesn’t want to say he’s sorry.

They’re nearly to the farm before he realizes Billy’s crying.

It seems involuntary, like Billy’s not even really aware of it. At first, Steve had thought he’d been swiping at his bloody nose--and he is, sometimes, but his hand every now and again is too high, and Steve’s staring, realizing Billy’s swiping at tears on his cheeks. Steve doesn’t know how to handle that, doesn’t know if there’s a way to handle it.

“Monsters are real,” Steve says into the silence in the car.

“Yeah,” says Billy, doesn’t add tell me about it, doesn’t need to. Steve swallows hard into the ensuing silence.

When they get to the farm, Steve climbs out before Billy’s even turned the car off. He regrets telling Billy he could come out here with him. Steve does this to be alone, to feel alive. Billy’s--Billy is a witness, is a weight, is something Steve has trouble understanding. He doesn’t know what they’re doing out here together. Steve walks out into the darkness, leaves Billy in the car behind him, finds a spot to stand and closes his eyes.

Around him, the forest is silent. Behind him, the sound of the Camaro’s engine dies away suddenly.

Steve keeps his eyes closed, hears footsteps, knows Billy stops right behind him, just shy of touching him. Steve can feel him, can feel the heat off of him, can smell his shampoo, and cigarettes, and faintly, a little bit of cologne.

Steve feels like he’s going to shatter. He pictures the bruises on Billy’s face, wonders what must be underneath the shirt.

“Billy,” he says.

Billy’s voice, when he speaks, sound wrecked and broken. Out here in all this nothing, Steve knows, the two of them could shatter. He wonders if anyone would notice Billy’s gone. “Just--” Billy says, raw and breathless, “Talk to me, Harrington.”

And monsters are real, so Steve turns around and holds up his hand, Billy presses his cheek into Steve’s palm. And monsters are real, so Steve is tender, endlessly so, when he leans in and presses his lips to Billy’s, feels more than sees Billy start to collapse.

“I don’t want to talk,” Steve says against Billy’s mouth. “I’m so tired of talking.”

“Me too,” Billy admits, and he’s so pliant that when Steve’s fingers trace the side of his throat, he bares it. Steve has never seen Billy like this, boneless, at someone else’s mercy.

Steve kisses over his jaw, presses open mouthed kisses down Billy’s throat, where bruises had been days before. Billy’s face is fucked up, so Steve stays away from that as much as he dares, except once, when he realizes Billy’s eyes are closed and he presses his lips to the corner of Billy’s left eye where a bruise blooms.

Billy makes a sound that makes Steve’s stomach hurt, so he does it again, shifts and ducks his head lower to press a kiss to the corner of Billy’s mouth. He’s gentle, can’t stop himself from it. He slides a hand under Billy’s t-shirt, cold fingers against warm skin. Billy’s almost hot to the touch. Steve wonders if he’s going to get burned.

“Didn’t know you swung that way,” Billy says as Steve’s fingers trail lower, pushing at the waistband of Billy’s jeans. Steve hears Billy suck a breath in. “Thought you were all about the princess.”

Steve smiles, feels wicked, bites Billy’s lower lip, “I came out here looking for monsters,” he says, instead of an answer.

“I might be one,” Billy answers, and his eyes are open and boring into Steve’s when Steve looks up. Billy’s staring at him through his eyelashes.

“It’s ok, man,” Steve says, and his voice is so soft it surprises him. “I don’t mind.”

“Ok,” Billy says.

Steve backs him up until Billy’s back hits a tree. There out here in the middle of fucking nowhere, and Steve thinks for a second that if the farmer finds them, if his family finds them, they’re probably both dead. He stares into Billy’s eyes for a second, makes Billy hold his gaze, and it’s like staring right into the sun, only somehow more dangerous. “Fuck,” Steve says, quiet. Billy pushes forward, kisses him hard.

“Come on,” Billy hisses, an echo of something Steve said once, enticing danger.

Steve’s on his knees before he really thinks it through. He looks up at Billy in the darkness, can just make him out in the moonlight. Billy’s blue eyes are huge. “I’ve never done this before,” Steve says, undoing the button on Billy’s jeans, sliding down the zipper.

“Shit,” Billy breathes, “Harrington are you--” there’s a pause, a stutter in Billy’s breathing, like it isn’t a natural question, “Are you fucking sure?”

“I want to,” Steve says, and he feels awkward about it, but not awkward enough to stop. He’s had his dick sucked before, he figures he can work out the rest. Billy shifts his hips--jeans out of the way, he’s not wearing any boxers, something hot burns low in Steve’s stomach. Steve licks his palm, and on his knees on the edge of the fucking world, he wraps a hand around Billy experimentally, just wanting to see what it feels like. Billy’s a warm weight in his palm and Steve shifts his weight, leans forward and drags his tongue along the length of Billy’s cock.

Billy makes a sound that has Steve hard in his jeans. He slides his tongue around the head, shifts forward, wraps his lips around Billy and palms himself in his jeans, shifting and needing the pressure, everything suddenly too much and not enough.

It’s what Billy’s doing, though, that really gets to Steve. When Steve peers up through his eyelashes, he’s the laser target of Billy’s focus again. Billy’s lips are parted, his eyes are blown wide. Steve can see the rise and fall of his chest when he pulls back and licks his lips. Billy shudders a little bit, reaches a hand out like he’s not sure.

Steve digs his nails into Billy’s hip, and Billy whines low in the back of his throat. Steve grabs Billy’s wrist, guides Billy’s hand to his hair. Billy’s fingers curl, and he tugs just this side of too hard now that Steve’s given permission. Steve wraps his lips back around Billy’s cock, curls his fingers back around him, twists his wrist.

Steve has spent a lot of weeks feeling out of his depth in a lot of ways. He’s spent a lot of time driving out to the edge of the woods and waiting for something to eat him alive. It’s been a sort of helplessness. When Billy comes apart, though, Steve thinks that he’s never felt more powerful. It’s his name on Billy’s lips, on Steve’s terms. Billy stands against the tree for a moment after like the tree and Steve’s hand on his hip are the only things holding him up.

~

Billy never stops being everywhere. It’s especially frustrating in basketball practice, where every foul Steve draws, every thrown elbow, every potentially iffy check meets with Billy’s ire in the locker room after practice. Teammates find themselves corned, warned away from Steve, or hit just as hard by Billy at the next practice. A few weeks go by like this, with some sort of fragile connection pulling Billy back into his orbit. It’s like Billy can’t help himself. Steve thinks the way Billy goes after the rest of the team is probably just an excuse for him to stand a little closer to Steve. It’s still strange to watch all that rage directed at someone else. Steve has never felt such a mixture of protected and irritated--and turned on--in his entire goddamn life.

They’re standing outside the gym after school, after practice. The lights in the parking lot have long since come on. They’re the last ones here, have been for a while, but they’re just kind of standing there. Steve doesn’t want to leave first and it doesn’t seem like Billy wants to leave at all. So it gets darker around them, and a little colder, and mostly they’re silent.

Billy’s nursing a new bruise on his jaw, standing awkwardly to take pressure off his ribs, which in the locker room were a patchwork of the kind of bruising you get from being kicked. Steve knows this mostly because of the times he’s had his ass handed to him by people he now lets into his life. Steve isn’t sure what all this means. Isn’t sure that one blowjob in the forest on a night they were both a little out of their minds is the sort of thing you build shit around, but it’s just--he kind of wants to build something here. Maybe that’s why he doesn’t want to leave. Or maybe he just doesn’t want to leave Billy alone, huddled outside the gym with his fucked up ribs and the bruises he explains away, under the flickering lights because the city won’t give the public schools enough money for new bulbs. There’s a whole dark world out there. It’s better when there’s someone with you. Steve can’t figure out what all this means, but this feels important.

Right now, they exist in a vacuum. They’ve carved out spaces for themselves to be whatever it is they’re doing, with Billy having Steve’s back in a way Steve doesn’t really understand, but can no longer imagine going without. It’s lonely out there, beyond this space and these flickering lights. Steve’s tired of trying to figure out the forest alone. “Billy?” Steve asks, when the silence is too much.

Billy’s smoking, he licks his lips when he looks at Steve, and there’s an echo of a threat there. He’s looking Steve in the eye though, and there’s something vulnerable in that, too. Steve has the distinct sense he’s holding his own life in his hands, that if he fucks this up Billy Hargrove might kill him.

“What, Harrington?”

“Are you all right?”

Billy looks away from him then, and Steve misses the warmth of his gaze even though he didn’t really know he’d had it. “No,” Billy says finally, clenching his teeth. His jaw ticks.

“Can I do something?”

“Just talk to me, Harrington,” Billy says, still looking away.

Steve is surprised to realize he isn’t tired of talking anymore. He steps in front of Billy--there’s no one around, he checks--and grabs Billy’s jaw, mostly gently, trying not to hurt. He looks down at Billy and tugs until, reluctantly, Billy meets his eyes. They’re so fucking blue. “I can do that,” Steve says. “We can stay out here all night. Or you can come back to my place. I don’t care. Don’t go home.”

Billy tries to look away and Steve moves with him, like he’s playing basketball, keeps his eyes locked with Billy’s. “I have to go home eventually, Harrington,” Billy bites out, and he’s looking for a fight, tense again, Steve can feel it.

“I know,” Steve says, stepping closer, “But it doesn’t have to be right now, right? I have a lot to fucking say.”

Steve doesn’t let Billy look away, doesn’t let go of his jaw, and for several long, quiet moments they stand there. Steve has the distinct feeling he’s holding his own life in his hands. He has the growing feeling that he might be trying to grab onto Billy’s, too. He doesn’t want to let go.

The minutes tick by. Then, slowly, slowly, the tension drains from Billy until he steps forward, and it’s like the hand Steve’s got curled around his jaw is holding him up. He’s pliant under Steve’s fingers, pliant when Steve steps closer, loose limbed when Steve backs him against the bricks and holds him up there. This is a different sort of the edge of the world.

“Monsters are real,” Steve says, which means different things for different people. “I got you,” which isn’t what he wants to say, but is what he absolutely means.

“Yeah?” Billy asks. “Tell me about it.”

Steve does.