Billy stood just past the shallow end of the pool, hands out in front of him. El was perched on the top rung of the ladder, blue goggles on her face, water wings on each arm, grim look in her eye.
“It’s fine. I promise. I’ve got you.” Billy coaxed, wiggling his fingers a bit. Getting El into the pool hadn’t been hard. Getting her to understand that the point was not to just float on your back like a dead bug was proving to be more difficult than Billy had dreamed.
“C’mon, kiddo.” Billy moved a little closer, until there was only about four feet between them. “Just jump in and I’ll catch you.”
He wasn’t sure she was actually scared of the water, not like the little kids he usually did this with, but she seemed to be completely flummoxed at the idea of doing anything but floating. So Billy had decided that jumping in was the first step.
El bent her knees a little and appeared to be gearing up to jump but her hesitation was still plain to see. Billy gestured encouragingly again.
“You got this, Ellie, just jump.”
Her eyes behind the goggles flew up to him at the nickname and he shrugged. He gave people nicknames, it was a thing he’d done since he was a kid. El smiled just a bit and then, with a sudden leap, she was splashing into the water, Billy catching her under the arms before her head could go under.
He held her there as she floundered for a moment before realizing that he had her and that she could relax. She giggled up at him as she lightly kicked her feet, splashing him a bit and getting a feel for how the water moved around her.
“Whoo! Go, El!” Cheers and clapping came from the chairs on the patio where Max, Steve and Robin had set up camp with soda, snacks, and a deck of cards. El waved a hand at them and Billy tightened his grip on her as the movement almost had her slipping through his fingers.
“See? It holds you right up, no salt needed. Now reach down with your toes, that’s it. You feel the bottom?”
El’s face took on a look of concentration and she held onto his arms as she reached for the pool floor. She nodded and Billy grinned.
“All right. You wanna stand up?” She nodded again and he slowly let go, her hands sliding down to grip his as she stood up shakily. She wobbled a bit, the waves from her jump offsetting her balance but she quickly got a feel for it and was standing up straight in a matter of minutes.
“Okay. Standing is good but it’s not swimming.” He squeezed her hand. “The first thing is floating on your front and learning how to move your body through the water, okay?”
She nodded and took a deep breath, held it. He laughed softly and shook his head.
“No, no, we’re not-you’ll be able to breath fine. And the goggles will keep the water out of your eyes so just...just relax.” He carefully turned her to the side, placing one hand on her back and the other on her torso, right over the end of her ribs.
“I’m gonna be holding you up the whole time, okay? And if you feel like you need to, all you have to do is put your feet down and you can stand right up, it’s fine. Now, just lean forward.”
She glanced at him worriedly but slowly, slowly she tipped forward, one leg raising up as she lowered her chest into the water, letting him take some of her weight.
“Good! That’s it, yeah!” He praised and there was another round of cheers from dry land. Billy focused on holding her up, letting her feel his hand supporting her and keeping her on the water’s surface. “Now just pick your other foot up. I won’t let go, Ellie.” He added and he could feel her take a deep breath again before she released it and lifted her foot, finally letting him and the water take all her weight. Billy felt almost weak from relief at her trust in him and he had to take a deep breath himself.
He could remember the weight of her in his arms, could remember carrying her towards that monster. And a part of him had been afraid that she wouldn’t be able to trust him to do this, to keep her safe. But here she was, putting herself in his hands and believing him when he said it was okay, that he’d make sure she was okay. And not only her.
Max and Steve and Robin-no one had insisted on helping him, on climbing in the pool in case he lost it and El was in danger. Billy wasn’t an idiot, he’d noticed that the patio table and chairs were closer to the water then they had been when he ducked inside to change into his trunks and t-shirt but still. It felt a bit like a gift, to be entrusted with that, with someone they all protected so much.
Billy was determined not to fuck it up.
“That’s it. Let the water tell your arms and legs how to move. I’ve still got you.” He waited for her to start kicking and paddling and then he slowly moved in a circle as she weakly propelled herself forward, gaining confidence with every rotation.
“Good girl, you’re getting it.”
They made a few more rotations and then, when Billy could see she was getting a bit tired, he slowly guided her to stand back up. She beamed up at him in pride and he couldn’t help but grin right back.
“More?” She asked excitedly and Billy had to laugh, barely stopping himself from ruffling her hair.
“Break first. Food, then we have to wait a bit before we can get back in but yeah, we can do some more.”
El gripped his hand as they walked slowly towards the ladder, Max and Steve already waiting with towels. El let Max pull her up and wrap her in terrycloth, both of them giggling at some unknowable girl thing as they headed back to the table. Billy pulled himself up and had to stop on the top step as the sudden change in gravity had him wavering. Strong hands caught his elbows.
“Easy, man. You sure you’re up for this?” Harrington’s face was crumpled in concern and Billy was struck by the unspeakable oddity of all of this. If he hadn’t recently been host to an interdimensional hellbeast, it might have been the weirdest thing that had ever happened to him.
“I’m good. Just dizzy for a second.”
Steve’s face relaxed a bit but he didn’t let go, continuing to steady Billy as he took the towel and wiped at the water on his face from El’s splash.
“As cute as you two are, pizza’s here and the only plates I can find are like, super fancy china shit so…” Robin’s sarcastic drawl had Steve stepping back and flipping her off. Billy kind of felt the same urge at the feeling of Steve’s hands leaving his skin. Harrington was a god damn furnace, warmer than even the heated pool water.
“Just use them, who cares?” Steve stomped away, mumbling something that sounded like “...someone should…” as he went inside, leaving Robin and Billy to exchanging curious glances. There was something a little rotten in the state of The Harringtons, it seemed, and Billy was reminded that he had yet to see a single trace of Steve’s parents beyond the photos on the walls.
Steve came back quickly, balancing two pizza boxes and a stack of nice looking plates in one hand and carrying a bottle of soda and plastic cups in his other one. They sat around the table, Steve and Robin telling them horror stories of working in the mall that set all of them laughing, and Billy could feel a strange something in his chest. He focused on it, and was nearly shocked to realize...he was happy.
Not crazy happy, not the cheap kind he felt when he did something that earned him slaps on the back or envy or fearful respect. No, this was the kind of happy he used to feel riding the bus home from the beach with his mom, tucked into her side and sleepy, phantom waves still crashing over his legs. It was the feeling of wishing this moment could last forever.
“Billy?” Max’s voice was quiet and cautious as she looked at him. Steve and Robin were arguing over something stupid, and El was watching them like they were the best TV show she’d ever seen. No one was paying them any attention and Billy hesitantly reached out across the table and took Max’s hand.
“Thanks.” He managed and his voice was rough and choked. Max frowned but turned her hand over to hold his properly.
“For what?” She asked and Billy almost didn’t know how to explain it. He stared at her for a moment, at her eyes, the same blue-green shade as his even though there was no blood between them.
Or maybe there was now. Not shared but spilled.
“For trying to talk to me.” He finally got out and she sucked in a breath. “For trying to stop me.” He shrugged a little helplessly, at a loss to explain what he only halfway remembered. Her face through glass, teary and scared. Her voice in a hallway. Her body over his, her tears on his skin.
Max looked at him for a long moment and Billy was suddenly aware of the weight of the knowledge in her gaze before she smirked, tilting her head cockily and looking every inch the sassy little shit he’d met years ago, when he’d deemed her “Mad Max”.
“Somebody’s gotta keep track of you. I mean. You’re kind of a dumbass.”
Billy snorted and dropped her hand to lazily cuff her upside the head. She batted him away and turned back to El, who was being shown how to do cat’s cradle with one of Robin’s shoelaces. Billy felt eyes on him and he looked across the empty pizza boxes to see Steve watching him, cigarette in the corner of his mouth. Billy made a questioning face and Steve just shook his head, glancing away only to glance back. Billy looked at him for a few minutes, inexplicably feeling the back of his ears heating up the longer he sat there in the sun with Harrington’s attention flicking to and away from him, as if matching the faintest trace of pink slowly staining Steve’s cheeks.
He finally stood when he was unable to stand it any longer-the delicate weight of Steve’s attention, the way it kept coming back but never growing into something more. He said something along the lines of having to take a leak, and headed back into the house.
He felt Steve’s eyes follow him the whole way.
In the bathroom, washing his hands, he studied his face for whatever Steve was captivated by. He still had a bit of pallor, a touch of grey to his normally tan skin but the morning in the cloudy sun had brought his freckles out a bit. There was a faded yellow bruise on his cheek, and dark circles under his eyes from days of not sleeping while under control of that, that thing.
His hair, though cleaner, was still a tangled mess and he had half a mind to just chop it all off now that his dad’s no longer around to be pissed off by it. The blue tee Harrington loaned him covers the scar on his chest, so he almost looked like maybe he’d just been sick for a while instead of possessed and practically dead.
So what the hell was Steve staring at?