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Someone’s crying.

The floor under Billy is solid, cool to the touch but not cold. Everything had been cold for so long, ice in his veins and weighing down his limbs. He couldn’t remember the last warm thing he’d touched except-

The girl. With the dark eyes. She’d touched him. In that place, that dark empty place where he went whenever that thing took over. She’d taken his hand and asked him something, what was it?

”Is he...dead?”

More crying, harder now, sobs of pain and loss. Mom?

Had his mom been there?

”Oh, Oh Jesus.”

No, the girl, the girl had touched him again, had cupped his face in her warm hand and talked about that last trip to the beach, before mom left, before she had left him behind. Why was he left behind?

”He saved us. He saved all of us.”

He did? But why was someone crying?

”I’m...Max, I’m so sorry.”

Wait, Max? Was Max crying? Over him? But why?

He tried to move his eyes, to open them but it was too heavy, too hard to get them to work. He wanted to get up. He wanted to find someplace warmer than this cool, hard floor but everything was so heavy.

More noise, loud and harsh.

”This is the United States Military! Hands up! Get your hands up!”

The military? What was going on? He focused, poured everything he had into cracking open an eye.

All around him were pants and shoes. Wait, no. Legs. People were standing around him except for Max. Max and the girl with the warm touch. They were sitting and crying.

Why was Max crying? Was she hurt? He vaguely remembered her standing in a hallway, remembered her saying something that came from far away, something he couldn’t hear over the noise in his head. But why was she crying?

More noises. Booted feet on tile floor. Were they at the mall? Why the hell was he laying on the floor of the mall?

He peered around as best he could, finally able to turn his head the tiniest bit. God, everything hurt. Had he crashed his car? He thought he crashed his car. His dad was gonna kill him.

Everyone was facing away from him, hands raised, looking towards a set of bright lights, the source of the noise. Straining, he raised his head to look.

Soldiers flooded the space, soldiers with boots and lights and guns.

Max.

With a groan barely audible over the noise of what he was pretty sure were choppers, he moved his left arm, inching it across the blood streaked tile. Fuck, as soon as he got warm he was gonna sleep for a week.

But first he was gonna punch the lights out of whoever made Max cry like that. Only he got to make Max cry.

With a sudden burst of fading energy, Billy stretched out his hand and grabbed Max’s ankle.

She screamed. And then the other girl screamed and why the hell was everyone screaming?

“...shut-“ He coughed, something wet in the back of his throat. “shut up, fuck...”

“Billy?!” Hands landed on his chest and ow.

“Owwww.”

“Holy shit, Billy! Billy, are you-are you okay?!” He looked up, into Max’s tear filled eyes and tried to squeeze the ankle still wrapped in his weak grip.

“Hey...shitbird.”

She laughed, a broken tiny sound and that was good. Max had a good laugh. She was pretty when she laughed. Had he ever told her that?

“Doctor! We need a doctor!” Was that Harrington? What the hell was going on?

“We need a medic!” Sinclair. Had he made Max cry? He was dead. Just as soon as he could move his legs.

“It’s okay now.” That was the girl with the warm touch. She was touching him now, small hand resting on his forehead, brushing his hair back and warming up his still foggy brain. “It’s okay. He’s gone.”

More hands, more warmth, carefully patting him anywhere they could reach. Max and the girl and those kids who Max pal’d around with, and Byers and Wheeler and one of the band geeks and Harrington. What in God’s holy name had happened?

“Who’s gone? Who’s...he?” Max and the girl exchanged glances.

“Billy. What’s the last thing you remember?” Harrington asked softly, hesitantly. Remember? He remembered a beach, his mom in her favorite dress. He remembered the pool, the sun too hot on his face. His car, he’d crashed his car.

“...crash.” He croaked out. “I crashed. Near a...factory.” He swallowed, voice horse like he’d been screaming for days.

Everyone looked at each other, meaningful looks that Billy was too tired to get angry over not understanding. He had bigger problems.

“Cold.” He croaked out and suddenly there was fear in the air, in Max’s face and he tightened his grip on her leg instinctively. He frowned, and caught her eyes.

“It’s...fucking cold.” He shivered and a boy with a bowl haircut choked out a laugh, covering his mouth with his hand to hold it back. Why was that funny? He tried to frown but he wasn’t sure he pulled it off. He shivered again and again and then he was shaking violently, damn near thrashing and no one was laughing anymore. That cough was back, that thick wet cough and Billy turned over onto his side as best he could, heaving and puking as everyone save Max and the girl scrambled back. He shoved his arm under him, the one not holding Max, clutching her like a lifeline, but it gave out and he nearly face planted onto the floor.

Strong hands caught him by the shoulders, smell of Calvin Kline and chocolate sauce. Harrington.

“Whoa easy, easy Hargrove.”

Billy retched, rough and painful, his whole body trying to expel something. He felt something tear in his chest, something give way like a clog and he retched again.

Thick black goo poured out of his mouth, like half melted tar.

“Oh gross!”

“Fuck!”

“That’s nasty!”

“That’s it.” Harrington propped him up with an arm around his chest, one hand holding his hair back as best he could. “Just get it all out.”

Billy retched again, harder, everything in him clenching and tensing, working to get rid of whatever that shit was. A solid lump of...something came up, the size of his fist and faintly pulsing, making a weak squeal as it hit the floor.

Billy collapsed back against Harrington’s chest, all his feeble energy exhausted. The thing on the floor spasmed, and then with a final whine, it was still.

“What...the hell was that?”

Billy looked from face to face, finally settling on Harrington because he was closest. Harrington sighed, and laughed-a tired, ‘how the hell is this my life’ laugh and huh. Harrington was pretty when he laughed too.

“That’s a really, really long story.”

Billy sank back into the arms around him. Harrington was warm, really warm, and Max was holding his wrist where he was gripping her leg and the girl with the warm touch had taken his other hand, smiling at him. Billy smiled back and it felt good, felt easy.

“Not going anywhere.”

Chapter Text

Billy’s still cold.

There’s two blankets wrapped around him, tucked in tight where he lays on the gurney but he’s still cold as he watches the buzz of activity around him. He’s parked on the concrete, as opposed to in an ambulance because. Well.

They didn’t bring enough ambulances to hold all the bodies.

A part of Billy is glad. Something in him didn’t like the thought of the small cramped space. He kind of wants to ask Harrington to hold him again. Just for a minute. Just to warm him up.

“How are we feeling, tiger?”

There’s a man in a bomber jacket standing by his side, looking kindly at him. Doctor someone. Byers-the younger one, Bowlcut-had called him Doctor. Billy blinks at him.

“Tired.” He says and Christ, is that really his voice? “Tired and cold.”

The man nods. Tries for a smile. Fails.

“Well.” He rubs his hands together. “A little bit longer and you can go home, grab a nice shower.”

Shower.

The word seems to echo and Billy shudders. Cold spray on his skin. Choking gasps. The fragile working of a throat under his hands as he chokes the life out of it.

And then Doctor Someone drops a hand to land on Billy’s left elbow, the weight of it like pressure, like a swollen bite mark. Billy gasps. And the world goes sideways to hell.

Voices, chattering in his ears, screaming and pleading and begging him to stop, to let them go.

“Whoa there! Easy! Little help!”

Hands on him, fists, weak little things that try and fight. How can they fight him? He’s so much bigger. So much stronger. So much more. No, not him. He’s trapped too. Can’t they see that?

“What happened? Billy!”

Can’t they see he’s not doing it? It’s not him. It’s something else. Something dark and cold and old. Very, very old. Something that wants him to do things. Makes him do things. But what?

“I need a sedative over here!”

Billy can feel them, their bodies, weight in his arms. Can taste their terror as they join the hive. They savors it like sugar, sweet on their tongue. But no. He didn’t do that. Did he? What did he do? Oh god, what did he do?

“Billy! Look at me, Billy.” Small hands. Warm touch. The girl with the dark eyes is here, kneeling over him, gripping his face with her hands, tears on her face. Why is everyone crying? Who’s screaming? Max appears beside her, adds her hands to his face, fitting her fingers between the girl’s so there’s twenty warm spots holding Billy in place, letting him hear them, pulling him back into his body and away from the memory of anyone else.

“Shhh, Billy. Stop. Stop.” Max speaks firmly, like she’s used to being listened to. Or refuses not to be listened to. And oh. Billy is the one screaming. He doesn’t know how to stop but he tries. For Max.

He grips her arms and sucks in a breath. Sobs. Sucks in another breath. His throat works for a moment before he can make different sounds come out. But they do.

“What did I do?” His voice is gone, a whisper and nothing more so he asks again.

“What did I do?” And then he can’t stop asking it. Because if he stops asking, someone might answer him. And he’s not sure he wants to know.

“What did I do, Max? What-what did I do to them? What did I do?!?”

Her eyes fill with tears. A shadow falls over them and then there’s a pinch at his neck. Billy has just enough time to think Not again before he falls backwards into blank nothingness.

The cold follows him down.

Chapter Text

Billy wakes up slowly, like surfacing from a dream. He’s in his room, sitting on his bed, staring at the door. He thinks he’s waiting for someone.

Footsteps. The door opens. There’s a man he’s never seen, in a suit with white hair. He’s tall, in a way people haven’t been tall to Billy since he was fourteen and shot up like a weed. Is he too big? Or is Billy too small? Billy can’t tell. He can’t move. He’s frozen solid. Ice in his veins.

Behind the man is a long grey hallway. And that’s wrong. Their hallway is white. Neil won’t let Susan paint anything, says its not worth the expense. The white-haired man holds out his hand.

“Hello, Eleven. Time to go to work.”

Billy wakes up like he’s been punched, bolting straight up in an unfamiliar bed. The walls are white and the floor is a puke green. Hospital.

“Billy!” Max leaps up from the floor, a comic book falling by her feet as she rushes over but stops short of actually touching him.

“Are you...? What happened?”

Billy shivers, and notices that someone’s put him in a truly regrettable bathrobe the color of dried toothpaste. But he’s a little warmer now.

“I don’t know. I was...there was screaming. And I felt. That thing. The...” He makes a twisted claw shape with his hand to indicate the giant ball of gunk and teeth and tentacles that he’d fought. Thinks he fought. He remembers screaming at something and a searing pain all over, like a cigarette burn on steroids. “Like I was there again. Inside it.”

“Inside?” Max looks confused and scared and suddenly guilty. “Wait, Billy...were you like, connected to that thing? Like the whole time?”

“The hive.” Billy whispers and he bunches the sheets in his hands to stop them shaking. “It called it the hive. I think. I don’t-“

Billy shakes his head and raises his hands to grip the sides of his head, digs his nails into his scalp to focus on the pain and not the confusing clash of images and sounds that’s roiling like a storm surge just below his thoughts.

“I can’t remember.”

Something is trickling down his arm, he sees something dark winding down his skin and no, no, no, it’s gone, she said it was gone, the girl promised.

“Hey hey hey! Stop that! You psycho, you’re bleeding!”

Harrington. Calvin Kline and chocolate sauce. Warm hands grabbing his own and wrenching them away from his head. Billy stares down, sees black, vine-like veins wrapped around his arms before he blinks and it turns to thin trails of blood. He dug his nails in too far, cut himself. Or maybe he’s just bleeding. Maybe from now on, he’ll always be bleeding. Maybe that thing ripped his skin wide-open, ripped it off, flayed him alive like Bartholomew.

Max is yelling into the hallway and then there’s a nurse and Harrington goes to step back but Billy won’t let go, just stares at him, silently begging him not to leave. Harrington nods and steps back in, tightens his own hold right back, knuckles white where he’s grasping Billy’s fingers.

“It’s okay, I’m not-“ He makes a face. “I won’t leave if you don’t want me too?”

His voice pitches up like a question and Billy shakes his head, ignores the tsking of the nurse trying to stop the bleeding of his scalp.

“No. Don’t leave. You can...”

“Can what?” Harrington leans closer, searching his face. “I can what, Billy?”

“You can stop me.” He says it low, and his face is wet and goddamnit if he could just stop crying, he’d really appreciate it. Harrington pales.

“If I-if I’m not safe. For them.” Billy cuts his eyes at Max, at the rest of the Cabbage Patch kids standing at the doorway. He looks back at Harrington. “You can stop me. Please? Please stop me?”

He’s crying openly now, and he remembers this too. Remembers begging for someone to stop him. Remembers Wheeler and a bullet two inches too far to the side, remembers begging for one of them, any of them, to just fucking stop him.

But his mouth had never moved. The words had never come out. Had been stoppered up in his chest, like there was a clog in the pipes. He can talk now. And he’s begging.

“Yeah.” Harrington swallows and nods and readjusts their hands until their fingers are intertwined. “Yeah, I’d stop you. But Billy...”

Harrington sits on the edge of the bed, squeezes Billy’s hands for emphasis.

“Billy, you stopped yourself.”

He doesn’t know what to say to that. He thinks it’s wrong. But maybe...maybe it’s right.

The nurse urges him back down, does something with the needle taped to the back of his hand and then she fetches a bottle and a syringe and no.

As much as he wants to sleep, as much he thinks the noises and broken half-memories would give him a break if he let her put him back under...he doesn’t want to go back there, not back in the dark. He tugs on Harrington’s hands to get his attention, shakes his head no, licks his cracked lips and tries for words.

“Don’t wanna go back. To the dark place. Please.”

Harrington shoots the nurse a look, hesitates.

“Can you not? Like, does he need it?”

“Dr. Owens was very specific that he be kept calm.” She frowns but there’s softness there, pity maybe. Once that would have pissed Billy off.

Harrington looks pointedly down at Billy, laying perfectly still in the bed, hands gripped tight on his belly.

“He’s perfectly calm, look at him.” She wavers and he presses his advantage. “I won’t let him do anything. Hell, he’s about to pass out again. And the doc’s coming back in like fifteen minutes? He’ll be fine for fifteen minutes. Won’t you?”

Brown eyes turn back to Billy. Eyes like melted fudge ripple ice cream. No. Like rich hot chocolate, sweet and thick and warm all the way down. Billy nods.

“I’ll be good. I promise. I’ll-I’ll be good.” His voice breaks on the last word and Harrington looks away, jaw clenched tight.

“Well...okay. But if he has another episode, I’ll have to sedate him. That scar tissue is still healing.” The nurse puts the bottle away, makes a note on the chart and heads for the door, shooing the kids back as she goes. Billy looks back at Harrington. He thinks he could sleep now. Really sleep, not that dark place. But he has to be sure...

“You’ll stay?”

Harrington shifts closer, draws his leg up to get more comfortable but never relaxes his grip on Billy’s hands.

“Yeah Billy, I’ll stay.” And Billy goes limp. Lets his eyes drift closed. Hears Max talking to Harrington about something. It’s not important right now. If there’s a problem, Harrington will take care of it.

Chapter Text

Billy wakes back up to the sounds of voices. Not the ones he’s been hearing, not scared, pleading, dead voices but Max and the Cabbage Patch and a short woman with dark hair and Harrington and Doctor Bomber Jacket. The sounds are fuzzy, like a radio not quite tuned to the station, a layer of static over everything. Billy lets it be and takes stock of himself.

He’s still cold, not as cold as before, but still cold. His hands are the warmest, loosely held in Harrington’s sweaty grip. His head hurts. His chest feels raw and heavy, his legs feel like he’s been doing sprints over and over, sore and rubbery. He carefully draws a deep breath and nearly gags, drawing the room’s attention.

“The fuck is that smell?”

“That’d be you.” Harrington smirks at him. “It’s revolting.” Billy takes another shallow inhale and promptly decides to breath through his mouth for a while.

“How’s the patient?” Doctor Bomber Jacket asks in that same cheerful tone as before and Billy eyes him, watches him slip his hands in his pockets before he answers.

“Feel like shit.” He answers honestly and the kids laugh, tired half-hysterical laughter. The doctor shakes his head.

“I bet you do, Mr. Hargrove.” Billy must make a face because he changes it. “Billy, I mean. I can call you Billy right?”

Billy uses Harrington’s grip on his hands to pull himself up to a sitting position, unable to hold back the groan as the skin on his torso pulls and flares in complaint.

“You can call me whatever you want as long as I can get out of here.” The man winces and takes a half step forward.

“Ah well, Mrs. Byers and I were just talking about that.” He exchanges a glance with the short woman-Mrs. Byers-and then takes another step, finally reaching the side of the bed. “I’m not sure that’s a great idea, Billy. You’re not in fighting shape right now and I want to keep an eye on those injuries.”

Billy frowns at him, sluggish mind working a bit faster than it had been before but still trying to put all the pieces together..

“You mean you wanna make sure I don’t go all loco and try and kill someone.” No one says anything, which Billy figures is about as much confirmation as he’s gonna get but then he connects another piece and has to back up. “Wait, what injuries? From the crash?”

More meaningful looks are exchanged by everyone but him and okay, Billy’s had a nap and now he’s starting to find those annoying. Surprisingly, it’s the dark eyed girl who answers him.

“Your chest. The mindflayer.” She gestures at him. “Scars.” Billy stares at her. She looks familiar, like maybe he’d seen her somewhere before. But he can’t remember.

“Who are you?” He asks quietly. Max sucks in a breath.

“I’m...El.” Billy squints at her, takes in her torn clothes, the cuts on her face, the crutch under one arm. Why does she look so familiar?

“What the fuck kind of name is El?”

Max chokes out a laugh, too high-pitched, and the girl giggles and then all the kids are laughing borderline hysterically, Wheeler and Byers too. He looks wide-eyed at Harrington but he looks resigned and halfway to laughing himself.

“What scars?” He asks and the laughter dies instantly. Max and the girl exchange guilty looks but it’s Harrington who answers.

“Billy, you fought off a...creature. That was attacking us. You got pretty beat up and uh,” He squeezes Billy’s hands. “You’re okay though. You’re gonna be okay but they’re still pretty raw.”

Billy swallows, feels something threatening to surface from the depths of his mind at the word ‘creature’. He focuses on Harrington’s brown eyes, on the press of his hands on Billy’s. He suddenly has to know.

“I wanna see.”

“I don’t think that’s-” The doctor tries to say but Billy cuts him off, focusing on Harrington and only Harrington, on the misery and understanding he can see in his face.

“Please.”

Harrington nods sharply.

“Robin. You have a mirror?”

The band geek steps up from the far corner of the room, pulls a scuffed up compact from her bag and holds it out. Harrington gently disentangles one hand and snags it, flips it open and holds it up. Billy takes a breath and reaches up with his free hand, pulls the robe open to reveal white bandages.

“Son.” The doctor tries again and Billy’s head snaps up, he can feel the meanness on his face, can see the split-second of tension in everyone in the room.

“Take. Them. Off.” His voice is low and rough and El flinches. The Wheeler boy steps forward, grips her shoulder. Billy ignores them. “Now.”

“Do it.” Mrs. Byers surprisingly backs him up, a strong set to her jaw. “He deserves to know.”

The doctor sighs and reaches out, carefully peels back the tape and gauze. Billy glances at Harrington, who’s still holding one of his hands, and he gives Billy the mirror, wraps his free hand around Billy’s, gaze intense and curious.

Billy tilts the tiny mirror until he can see his collarbones. Bruises litter them but that’s fine. Bruises heal. He tips it down towards his sternum and oh.

Oh shit.

White and red tissue angrily marks the space between his pecs. A swirling knot of flesh the size of his whole hand, maybe eight inches wide and ten inches long, like someone took a belt grinder to him, tried to burn his heart out. Think lines of white radiate out like lighting, disappearing off to the sides under the robe. It’s ugly, it’s horrific and Billy has the sudden urge to dig his nails into it and rip it off. Instead, he tightens his grip on the tiny mirror until it cracks.

“Easy.” Harrington again, taking the mirror away and tugging the robe back in place to cover him. Billy’s breathing heavy, nearly panting and his vision is blurring, heart pounding behind the massive scar. He grips Harington’s so hard it must hurt but Harrington doesn’t pull away.

“Breathe, Billy, breathe.” New face, gentle hands on his shoulders, a firm voice. Mrs. Byers has pushed the doctor away and taken the spot on Billy’s other side. “Can you breathe for me, honey?”

Honey. His mom called him that.

“In and out, in and out. That’s it. Just breathe.” Billy could do that. He could breathe. Been breathing all his life. Babies could do it. So why was it suddenly hard?

Billy started to shake again, tremors rattling his frame and Mrs. Byers and Harrington tightened their grip but Billy could barely feel it. He was so cold.

“Out.” He gasped.

“What?” Harrington leaned closer, got right in his space to hear Billy’s paper-thin voice.

“I want out. Outside.” Billy found his eyes. Pleaded. “The sunlight. It-it hates the sunlight.” Billy began to struggle to move his legs, trying to stand without displacing the hands on him.

“Made it sick. Made it hurt. Please. Please.” The room snapped into motion and suddenly there was a wheelchair, pushed by Max and a curly haired kid in a trucker hat. Harrington and Mrs. Byers were helping him up, helping him down and then they were flying? No. Running almost, down a busy hall, pushing Billy so fast his head swam and he thought he might puke again but oh. Oh.

The weak morning light was just cresting the tops of the trees, golden rays inching closer over the leaves. Billy leaned forward as best he could, as close as he could to the band of light moving ever closer. Harrington gripped his waist and hauled him up. Someone took his other side, Byers-the tall one. Billy let them take his weight, whole being straining towards the sunlight. They held that pose until the light broke over them. Warm glorious light that started at Billy’s bare feet and move up his filthy jeans, up the toothpaste colored robe, over the glimpse of scar tissue, and finally, finally it hit his face.

Billy closed his eyes and basked in it. In the feeling of warmth on his face, the kaleidoscope of colors moving across his lids. Harrington squeezed his hand and Billy squeezed back.

“Okay.” The doctor’s voice came from behind him but Billy didn’t look, didn’t want to lose the sun on his skin for a single second. “He can go home.”

Billy opened his eyes then and reality slammed back into him. His dad.

“I can’t.” He whispered and the sun went behind a cloud, the light disappearing as quick as it had appeared. He turned to face Harrington and his voice came out choked.

“He’ll kill me. My dad, he’ll really kill me this time.”

“What do you mean, this time?” Harrington’s eyes narrowed and his grip tightened. “Billy?”

“Bad papa.” El’s said and Billy felt something like terror move through him at the word papa. Harrington looked at her, then at the kids, then back at Billy. Emotions moved too fast across his face for Billy to track but finally it settled on something fierce and determined.

“I’ll take him.” Billy stared and Steve stared back. “I’ll take care of him.”

Chapter Text

The Harrington house is huge. Billy’s pretty sure you could fit like, six copies of his house inside and still park a car in the garage.

It’s also completely empty. Steve and Jonanthan practically carry him inside and sit him on a giant sectional in what Steve calls the den which in rich people terms apparently means ‘room big enough to hold Billy’s Camaro’. But you know, with a fireplace.

Billy had expected a worried parent to appear, to inquire about the half-dead teen currently leaving dirty streaks of god knows what on the upholstery but there’s been nothing and Steve doesn’t seem to have noticed. Save for their little group, there’s not a soul around.

Only Max and El have come with them, leaving the rest to go check in with parents and soldiers and whoever else. The mall was destroyed and that had to mean there were lots of people with lots of questions. Billy had some questions too and he knew he wasn’t the only one judging by the way the girls had sat the wrong way in Wheeler’s station wagon so they could peer over the seat at Billy and Steve curled into the back, still holding hands.

Billy kind of thinks he should let go but he just...doesn’t want to. Harrington’s so warm, and he’s not pulling away either and from what Billy can gather from snippets of whispered conversations from the people around him, he’d basically died so he’s allowed to hold Steve’s fucking hand as long as he wants, thank you very much.

It’s blissfully quiet here and Billy closes his eyes for just a second, lets his head rest against the sofa, squeezes the hand wrapped around Steve’s just because.

“Billy? C’mon Billy, wake up.”

“Is he gonna be okay? Like, really okay?”

“I don’t know. But he’s alive. That’s a start.”

“Billy?”

Steve’s voice is close and there’s a light pressure on his shoulder, a barely there jostling. Billy blinks open his eyes to find Steve sitting next to him, clasped hands resting in his knee.

“What? What’s wrong?” Billy rubs at one eye, tries to push his hair away from his face and only succeeds in discovering it’s absolutely caked in some sort of dried muck, stiff and inflexible like glue.

“Nothing! I just-“ Steve points over his shoulder with his thumb. “I gotta take a leak, man.”

Billy frowns until Harrington pointedly looks at their hands.

“Oh. Oh yeah, sorry.” It takes more effort than it should but he manages to relax his grip and pull his hand away, instantly fisting it to trap the body heat inside it. Steve bolts for the hallway and Billy looks around again. Max and El are on the floor, leaning back against the wall and asleep on each other’s shoulders. The light’s changed, how long was he out?

“Here.”

There’s a hand in his field of vision and Billy flinches back. Jonathan Byers ducks and holds out his hand again, he’s got a mug of something.

“Sorry. Just...coffee? It’s instant but it’s hot.” Heat. Billy uses both hands to reach for it, pulls into himself so fast it should spill but it looks like the mug’s only halfway full anyway. He tucks the warm ceramic under his chin so the steam can curl up over his face. He kind of wants to live in it.

“Thanks.” Billy takes a tentative sip as Jonanthan perches on the coffee table.

“Yeah, of course.” He rings his hands a bit, gaze sharp and assessing. “How uh, how are you feeling?”

“Better.” Billy says cautiously. When the hell had Jonathan Byers ever given a damn about his feelings before? To be honest, Billy wasn’t sure they’d ever even spoken until just now. Jonathan looked up and something about the shadow on his face...Billy went cold, all warmth from the coffee gone, as Jonathan’s face changed into one full of terror, lit up by the burning headlights on the Camaro as he frantically tried to start the car before Billy plowed into them.

“Hargrove!”

Billy gasps, slams back into the present with a cut off scream. Steve is clutching his arms and shaking him, kneeling in front of him on the floor. Billy’s against the wall somehow and there’s shards of coffee mug clenched in his hand.

“I tried to..I tried to stop him.” He glances up at the worried faces around him, can feel himself taking huge, gulping breaths. They have to believe him right? He didn’t mean to do it. Any of it.

“He made me do it, I swear. I swear to God, I didn’t wanna do it. Please, please believe-” He breaks off and Steve is pulling him into his chest, hugging him close.

“I believe you.”

“Steve-” Max’s voice is scared, it’s so scared and Jonathan has the phone in his hand, looks like he’s going to call the cops and oh god, Billy tried to stop, he did, he swears he did. They have to believe him, he was an asshole, he knows he’s an asshole but he didn’t want to kill anyone. He just wanted to get through the summer and then get through senior year and then...and then get somewhere else.
“It’s fine.” Steve’s voice is sure, confident like only people who truly didn’t give a fuck could be. “He’s fine.”

Steve’s rocking them back and forth on the floor and Billy clutches him tighter, clings to him as best he can with weak limbs and he’s ugly crying now, great big choking sobs like he hasn’t since his mom left.

“I didn’t wanna do it, the car-I didn’t wanna hurt them, I tried to stop it, I tried so hard, I’m sorry, I’m so fucking sorry!” Steve cups the back of his head and presses Billy’s face into his shirt to muffle the sounds.

“I know. I know you did. You held him off, Billy, remember? You held him there in the car, held it back, so we could get away.”

“What do you mean?” Jonathan has come closer again, face confused. Steve glances up, dares him to say something different.

“He was just revving the engine, just sitting there. You think the mindflayer did that?” He looked back down at Billy. “ And you held back that creature, remember? You grabbed and you held it back and you beat it. You beat it, Billy, you saved us.”

“Planted…” Billy coughed, sobs finally tapering off. “Planted my feet.” Steve chuckled.

“Yeah. Yeah, you planted your feet.”

Billy sat up slowly and as soon as he left Steve’s embrace, he shivered. Steve frowned.

“You still cold?” Billy nodded.

“Yeah. Yeah, like.” He struggled to pull out only the memories he wanted, not the whole thing. He’d be damned if he cried in front of Harrington again, let alone Max. “He liked the cold. The heat...it hurt it. Poisoned the air.”

“Poisoned?” Jonathan crouched down and Max and El walked closer. Billy tried to think about how to explain.

“It doesn’t-” He rubbed his face, inadvertently smearing blood on it from a cut made by a coffee mug shard. “It’s like mountain climbing?”

“Mountain climbing.” Steve sounded skeptical.

“Yeah. No. Look. We breathe oxygen, exhale carbon dioxide. It does too. Cold air is thinner, easier for it to absorb the...things in it.” Billy waved his hand for the word he couldn’t remember. “But fire, heat, it makes the air thicker, makes it harder to breathe.” Billy shook his head, feeling like he wasn’t making any sense. But Steve and Jonathan exchanged looks.

“The Upside Down. The air. It makes you sick.” Jonathan said quietly. “People pass out at high altitudes. Cause the air’s too thin.”

“Will.” Steve added and Jonathan nodded as he continued.

“He said he felt dizzy after a few hours, that he had to hide in small spaces to feel better. The fort.”

Billy had no idea what they were talking about but another violent shiver brought their attention back to him.

“Okay.” Steve clapped his hands. “So you reek, and you’re covered in...blood, we’re gonna go with blood. And you’re cold so uh, hot shower?”

“No!” Billy jerked back, drawing his legs up and digging his nails into his jeans. “No showers. No bathtubs. He made me-no.”

Max had come closer and she rested a hand on his knee, looking miserable. They all sat there, staring at each other and watching Billy tremble before suddenly El spoke up from where she had drifted over to the sliding door.

“What about that?” She pointed to something through the glass. Billy leaned forward just enough to see what she was looking at.

A pool, faint steam rising off the top.

“Billy?” Steve looked at him hopefully, letting him make the call. A part of Billy wanted to avoid the water as long as he could but another part wanted to get the remains of whatever that thing was off of him, wanted to get back to feeling like himself, wanted to be warm.

“Okay.” He whispered and slowly relaxed his hands. “Okay but…”

“I’ll be right there.” Steve took his hand again. “I’ll stop you.”

Billy nodded his head jerkily and let them pull him up.

Chapter Text

Jonathan and Steve steadied him as he shrugged off the robe, let it fall to the cement. They guided him over to the ladder but stopped, at a loss for how to get him down there. Billy snorted and rolled his eyes.

“I’ve been swimming since I could walk, just fucking throw me in.” Steve looked like he was halfway to considering it but Jonathan frowned.

“You might black out. Here just-” He started to sit down and Steve quickly followed, leaving Billy no choice but to sit with them on the edge of the pool. “Put your legs in.”

Billy did, sighing as the warm water swirled around them.

“Okay?” He asked and Billy nodded, could feel the tears welling up again.

“Good, okay now Steve, you get in and help guide him.” Jonathan instructed and Steve did, slipping easily into the pool and turning to face them, hands outstretched. Billy reached out, let Jonathan steady him as he leaned forward and took Steve’s hands, carefully slipping into the water.

It only came up to mid-waist, just barely lapping at the bottom of his ribs. Billy let out a groan.

“What? You okay, you hurt?” Steve asked worriedly, brow furrowed in concern.

“No!” Billy took a step closer, closing his eyes. “Feels...God, it feels good. Feels warm.”

“Yeah?” Steve sounded surprised, sounded delighted. Billy nodded and opened his eyes.

“Gonna go under.” He warned and Steve nodded, tightened his grip to steady him as Billy bent his knees and began to sink down.

As soon as the water reached his chest, reached the knot of mangled flesh, Billy screamed.

“Billy!” Steve yanked him back up and into his arms.

“I’m okay!” He gasped, shaking his head. “I’m okay, just, the scar...it was like it burned.” Steve looked down at Billy’s chest and then back up, before he seemed to realize that he was basically hugging him and put some space between them.

“So what does that mean, is it still there?”

“No.” Billy shook his head. “No, I’d feel it, feel him. I think it’s just raw.” He sighed and Steve shot him a quizzical look. Billy made a face.

“My fucking hair, man, it’s gross.” He complained and Steve snorted, then chuckled, then full on laughed and Billy joined in until they were holding each other up to avoid falling over.

“Here.” Max was kneeling on the edge, smiling and holding out a plastic cup from somewhere. Steve snagged it and moved Billy’s hands to his shoulders.

“Hold on. Now tilt your head back a bit.” Billy obliged and let his gaze fall on the black eye Steve was sporting as he felt the first trickles of warm water make their way down his scalp.

“Jesus, Harrington, who broke your face?”

Steve grimaced and refilled the cup, his free hand moving to start rubbing some of the dirt and grime out of Billy’s hair.

“Russians. Big ones.” Billy raised his eyebrows as Steve continued. “There was a secret base under the mall.”

“No shit?”

“No shit. Close your eyes, this might sting.” Water ran over Billy’s face, followed by Steve’s delicate touch as he gently wiped his eyes. Billy opened them and Steve was right there, assessing Billy for more injuries or maybe just dirt.

“Huh.”

“What?” Steve said distractedly as he began using the cup to rinse off the dirt clinging to Billy’s sides.

“Nothing just…” Billy glanced up at Max, who was wearing a similarly alarmed expression before he looked back at Steve.

“My dad worked on the mall. Like, building it. He does construction.” Steve froze.

“Ohhhh shit. Billy.” Max breathed out and he looked back at her, a sinking feeling in his chest.

“How big was this base?”

“Uh,” Steve glanced at Jonathan and El before answering. “It was huge. Like, the size of the whole mall.”

“Well fuck.” Billy breathed out and Steve tightened his grip on Billy’s waist as he swayed, anger carving him out inside as white-hot rage took over for a second then subsided, leaving exhaustion in his wake. “Fucking hell.”

“So what, your dad got paid off?” Jonathan was leaning so far forward Billy thought he was about to fall in.

“Yeah. Or...he was working for them.”

“Bad papa.” El spoke up and she looked sad and angry all at once, arms wrapped tight around her middle. She looked like someone who knew how bad papas could sometimes be. “Hurt her. And you.”

No one said anything for a moment until Billy shook off his lethargy. He took a few steps away from Steve, carefully moving a little deeper into the water. It was so warm against his skin, so unlike the cold he’d been feeling ever since he woke up. A part of him wanted to sink under the surface and never come up, to never have to deal with the swirling rush of memories constantly threatening to overwhelm him.

“Her?” Max asked and Billy just looked at her over his shoulder, trying to decide how to reply but El cut in before he could figure it out.

“That woman. On the beach. Mama?” She asked him and Billy gave a little nod before clearing his throat. He hadn’t talked about her in years, not to a soul. He’d spent so long pretending he didn’t have a mom, had tried to scrub the memories of her from his mind but they were back now, fresh and bleeding.

“Yeah, that was my mom.”

“She...left?” El asked hesitantly.

“Yeah.” Billy hunched his shoulders and crossed his arms over the massive scar on his chest, ignoring the twinge of pain it caused. “She got sick of getting the shit kicked out of her.”

El frowned and Billy had to look away, had to distract himself with working his fingers through his hair to untangle it. Luckily, Steve chimed in.

“You think your dad really might have been working for them? The Russians?” His eyes were wide, and the afternoon sun off the water only served to highlight the harsh bruising on his face. It made Billy wanna punch something a bit, like he’d felt when he’d woken up to Max’s crying. Billy shoved that thought away with practiced ease.

“Wouldn’t surprise me. Should we call someone? Like the police?” He asked and sadness swept faces around him. “What? What happened?”

“El’s dad is...was the chief. He didn’t uh.” Steve shook his head slightly, looking at El. Billy followed his gaze.

“Hop.” El’s face crumbled and tears began to flow. “He’s…”

“Oh.” Billy stared at her, at a loss for what to say. Please God, let him not have killed this little girl’s father. “Did I…?”

“No.” She shook her head, wiping her nose and Max went to her side. “Explosion. Machine.”

“I’m sorry, kid.” Billy didn’t know what to do. El sobbed and Max pulled her close, stroking her hair. They all grew quiet, and only the gentle sound of El’s tears and the water lapping at the edge of the pool was heard for a long time.

Chapter Text

By the time Billy shakily climbed up the pool ladder and stood shivering on the concrete, the sun was setting, golden light fading into the woods. Steve had gone inside for towels, Jonathan following with a comment about checking in with his mom, leaving Max and El to watch over him. Billy stared into the shadows under the trees until a tentative touch startled him back to the poolside. El left Max sitting with her feet in the water and had come to stand by his side, fingertips resting on his arm to get his attention.

“Better?”

“Yeah, kid.” He tried for a smile. It didn’t feel quite right but El smiled back and he took it as a win. She looked as tired as he felt, worn to the bone.

“Good idea, the pool. I’m not up for laps yet but at least it’s warm.” She made a confused face.

“What is laps?” Billy frowned and made a weak dog paddle gesture.

“You know, laps. Swimming. Backstroke? Front crawl? Butterfly?”

“Butter...fly?” She tilted her head in confusion and Billy mimicked her.

“What, you don’t know how to swim?” She slowly shook her head no and he huffed in disbelief. “Shit, were you raised in a cage or something?”

As soon as he said it, he was bombarded with mental images. Grey walls, metal doors. Men in white uniforms dragging him through the halls. The white haired man standing behind a window. A soda can crushing itself on a table.

“Billy?”

He jerked, spinning to face Steve as he walked up with an armful of towels, concern all over his face. The sight helped the visions fade but Billy was rattled, looking back at El, who still stood there in confusion.

“You were, weren’t you?” He breathed out, putting a few more pieces together. “The white haired man. He raised you like that.” El’s eyes grew almost comically wide as he reached out and took her arm, lifting and turning it until he could see the stark black tattoo on her wrist. “Eleven.”

“What’s going on?” Steve leaned into the space between them, looking back and forth from one to the other. Behind him, Max had realized something was happening and was making her way over.

“You saw?” El asked in wonder and she reached out and cupped his cheek gently, just like she had on the floor of the mall, encouraging him to fight off the monster consuming him. Billy cupped her face in his own hand, nearly covering the entire side of her head, she was so young.

“Yeah. I think...I think you opened a door.” He struggled to put it into context, to translate the rough strobe light flashes of something less than memory into words. “You wanted to see it. Him. And me.” El nodded.

“I tried to show you.” He said haltingly, leaning forward to rest his forehead against hers as if it would improve the connection between them. “But I couldn’t...I didn’t know how. It felt like I was underwater, like I could see you but I couldn’t touch you. Couldn’t hear you.”

Billy was dimly aware of Max and Steve standing right next to them, of the sound of a car pulling into the driveway, the water moving in the pool. But he was focused tight on El’s eyes, inches from his own. On her hand on his face and her wrist in his loose grip.

“I was screaming. The whole time. I was just, just screaming. And then you heard me.”

El smiled at him gently, softly. And she stepped in and wrapped her arms around him in a hug.

“I heard you.”

He hugged her back, tighter than he’s ever hugged anyone, tighter then he hugged his mom the last time he saw her. Max grabbed them both and he freed one hand to wrap around her too. Why not? If killing who knows how many people hadn’t solidified his reputation, nothing would. Might as well hug his bratty little sister and get it over with.

“What’s going on?” A new voice broke through the moment and Billy looked up to see Jonathan and Bowlcut making their way over, looking curiously at the group hug in front of them. Billy reluctantly let El and Max go and Steve draped a towel around his shoulders. It was softer than any towel he’d felt before and smelled like soap. He buried his nose in it and took a deep breath, like he could inhale the clean scent and wash out his insides, before he spoke.

“El can’t swim.”

They all blinked at him, like he was speaking a foreign language. He rolled his eyes and reached for whatever was left of the attitude that had served him so well as armor the past seven years.

“Have none of you heard of basic water safety? Jesus, the kids I taught in my toddler class could-“

He broke off, words clogging up his throat. He gripped the towel tighter, pulling the sides together until the edges dig into the sides of his neck. A feeling like a great pit had opened in his stomach.

“Guess that’s over huh?” He shook his head at himself. The pit in his stomach filled with bitterness, an echo of the rage he used to feel at pretty much everything. “Nobody’s gonna let me anywhere near them after this shitshow. God.”

He roughly scrubbed at his face with the towel, the soft fibers too plush to provide the friction he was looking for. He suddenly felt the specter of what he'd done grow large around him, like a weight on his chest, and a dark thought occurred to him that he lacked the strength to keep to himself.

“Probably never should have come back at all.”

Fuck that!” Steve’s voice was vicious and loud in the evening air. Billy turned in surprise and Steve was standing there, hands on hips, hair falling forward into his eyes which burned fiercely with an intense fire.

“Fuck. That.” He repeated. “You won. You beat that piece of shit Alien rip-off with your bare hands. You saved all of us. You saved the whole damn town and, and probably the world.”

He stalked forward to thrust his finger into Billy’s bare chest, just to the side of his Santa Maria necklace. The contact was a bright point of fire to Billy’s system, his body heat feeling more like fire where it touched the scar.

“You do that,” Steve continued, voice softer but no less indignant. “You do something like that, you deserve to live. And you’re gonna live, okay?”

“Yeah.” Billy once again wished he could ask Harrington to hold him like he had on the floor of the mall. He wanted to rest there, warm and easy, sure in the knowledge that Harrington would do anything to protect those kids including taking him out. But he settled for agreeing, even if he didn’t quite believe it.

“Teach me.” El lifted her chin in a challenge. He looked at her in confusion.

“Backstroke. Front crawl. Butterfly.” She added, complete with mimicking his doggy paddle. Billy shook his head almost before she finished.

“I don’t think that’s a great idea-“

“I need to learn things. Learn to be normal. Hop…” She started to tear up again but just lifted her chin higher in defiance. “Hop was teaching me. Now you teach. Please.”

He looked at her. This little girl who’d seen so much pain and anger already. He could still sense the echoes of those feelings somewhere, like music playing in another room. A song he knew all too well. She’d saved him. A complete stranger.

Maybe...maybe if he helped her, it might begin to make up for the terrible things he’d done. Maybe in someway, he could get back a little bit of that boy on the beach, the one so happy to spend the day with his mom.

Maybe.

Chapter Text

It was quickly and almost unanimously decided that El’s swimming lessons would begin the next day. It was equally as quickly dictated that El and Max would spend the night at the Byers and Billy would stay with Steve. Jonathan and Bowlcut-Will, apparently-had taken the girls home shortly after the scene at the pool but not before Will had handed Billy a pill bottle full of sleeping pills.

There had been an oddly haunted look in Will’s eyes as he passed them over, a solemn something that held far too much knowing. Billy had shot him a questioning look and he had wavered, finally answering with simply-

“For nightmares.”

As he jogged to the car where Jonathan and the girls were waiting, Billy had wondered what a kid his age had seen to have nightmares like Billy might. And then he opened the bottle and dry swallowed three of the pills before sitting on the couch and passing out to the sounds of Harrington moving around in the kitchen.

His last conscious thought was that as much as he hated the blackness swallowing him, at least the screams had stopped.

Billy woke up to the distinct feeling of someone staring at him. He pried open one eye and sitting cross-legged on the coffee table was the girl from the hospital, the one with the mirror. Robin, Steve had called her. The band geek. He looked at her for a moment but she just looked right back, as if daring him to scare her.

“Time is it?” Billy finally croaked out, mouth horribly dry. Robin twisted around to look at something behind her before facing him again.

“Ten-ish. How are you feeling, champ?” Her voice held no fear, just mild interest and no little trace of humor, like she had a private joke with herself that no one else got. Billy slowly sat up, hissing as his chest pulled and burned, before he glanced at her again.

“Like I got hijacked by an Asimov reject and put away wet. So you know. Like shit.” He answered honestly. Robin nodded understandingly.

“Makes sense. You look like shit.” Billy snorted despite himself and she smirked the tiniest bit. Steve chose that moment to come stumbling down the stairs, nearly tripping over the bottom step and only saving himself from face-planting by grabbing the railing at the last minute.

“Nice one-“

“-Harrington.”

“-Dingus.”

Billy and Robin spoke in almost unison, exchanging glances before Steve groaned and covered his eyes with one hand, the picture of beleaguered regret.

“God, you’re gonna be friends, aren’t you.” He said flatly. Billy said nothing but Robin grinned.

“Yep.”

And that was that.

Robin helped him stand, one hand on his shoulder, the other under his forearm, and then she casually walked next to him as he slowly staggered to the kitchen where Steve was ransacking the cabinets for food. If Billy was grateful for the implied support, he wasn’t sure how to show it. Robin didn’t seem to care. She took the seat next to him, dutifully passing over the cup of coffee Steve poured before dumping sugar in her own mug and slurping a sip.

“So.” She finally stated, right as Billy took a scorching hot swallow of his own. “Any lingering desires to murder the townsfolk and assemble a flesh-monster?”

“Robin!” Steve’s scandalized voice came from inside the pantry and there was a sound like something falling over. Billy ignored it.

“Uh. No?” He made a face and took another sip of coffee. Still instant. Harrington was a disaster, truly. Robin hummed in the back of her throat and drummed her nails on the counter.

“What about any urges to eat flesh or drink chemicals? Make any rodent friends lately?”

“For fuck’s sake, Robin-” Steve scrambled back out of the pantry clutching a family size can of baked beans and a bag of chips. “You can’t just ask that!”

“Look dingus.” Robin rolled her eyes up at him, voice patient. “I know you just wanna play Florence Nightingale right now but I’d like to not find out this one,” she jerked her thumb in Billy’s direction. “Ate your face off in the night or something. So I’m asking the tough questions. Hargrove’s a badass, he can take it.”

Steve opened his mouth to reply and Billy cut in.

“It’s fine.” He turned to look at her, Steve dropping into the seat on his other side with a huff. “No. No voices, no...urges. Just shitty memories and weird gaps.”

“What kind of memories?” She leaned in and despite himself, so did Steve. Billy took another drink of terrible coffee, picking at the cuticle on his thumb with his forefinger as he tried to get the words together.

“Just...flashes really. Of stuff. What I did.”

“What it did.” Steve interjected sternly and Billy nodded once, more acknowledgement than in agreement.

“And sometimes...” His voice got hazy as he thought about the white-haired man, the grey walled room, the feeling of being all alone and forgotten. “Sometimes other memories. They were-” He felt his eyes start to water and he dug his nail into his skin, focused on the bright point of pain to distract himself.

“The people it took. We were connected through it. Not like full access but. I can see bits and pieces of things sometimes. Little moments. There was an old lady...I can remember making sweaters for grandkids. Heather had a crush on some guy. And a little boy. I-He. He just found out he was gonna have another brother.”

Steve’s hand suddenly covered his own, where blood was welling up from his nails. He tore his eyes away from the red drops and up to Steve’s face. There was nothing but sorrow and pain and warmth in his eyes and Billy wanted to live there for the foreseeable future.

“Well. That’s a fucking nightmare.” Robin muttered and knocked back her coffee like was something stronger. Billy barked out a rusty laugh and they all relaxed. That pretty much summed it up after all.

After a filling if weird lunch of beans on toast, potato chips, and Kool-Aid made with too much water, the front door burst open and Max and El made a beeline for the den. They both stopped short right in front of him.

Billy, who’d been arguing Robin’s shitty music taste for the past ten minutes while Steve made sarcastic comments on both of their tastes that they solidly ignored once he mentioned WHAM!, Billy tried for a smile and carefully reached out to tug on the end of one of Max’s braids.

“Not dead, not evil.”

He’d expected a smile or maybe an eyeroll. Instead, Max threw herself into his arms and hugged him, chin digging harshly into his collarbone. After a moment of surprise, he hugged her back, cupping the back of her head and making a faint shushing sound when he realized she was crying.

“Whoa, whoa. Easy, what happened?” He asked her, looking mystified at Steve and then at El. Max pulled back just enough to sit next to him, arms still wrapped around his middle as she looked up.

“Neil left. Mom called the Byers this morning. He just took off in the middle of the night and she found all this stuff...he was working for them. The government’s looking for him but they say he’s probably halfway to Russia by now.” She sniffed and angrily wiped at her cheeks.

“Billy. She told me-” She choked up again and now Billy could see that they were angry tears, hot and furious. Billy suddenly knew what Susan had told her, had a flash of Susan standing in the hallway, eyes averted as he was thrown into a wall.

“It’s fine.” He said quickly. “It’s over. Forget it.” Max shook her head before burying it in his shoulder, voice coming out muffled.

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I-”

“It’s okay, shitbird.” He said again, squeezing her back just as hard, and he realized it was. Not what happened, not what his dad did, but Max. Max and him...they were okay. “You didn’t know. It’s okay.”

Her tears tapered off after a moment and when she sat back up, she looked lighter. They smiled at each other, half-hearted and fragile but real.

“So.” El spoke tentatively, and now Billy could see that under an oversized old flannel shirt she was wearing one of Max’s swimsuits. Her eyes were wide and hopeful as she looked at him.

“Swimming?”

Once outside, the girls and Robin stayed by the pool, Max already eyeing Robin’s combat boots with envy, while Billy poked around in the garage and Steve tried to tug the box labeled ‘Pool junk’ out of the rafters. There were far too many boxes labeled ‘Christmas’, a few labeled ‘Yard sale’. Three sets of golf clubs were hung proudly on one wall, and then, finally, a small pile of things with ‘Steve’ scrawled on them in red marker. Billy smirked and ripped one open.

“Please be baby pictures, please be baby pictures.”

“Hey!” Steve yelled and lightly punched him on the shoulder. “No snooping, dickface.”

But Billy had already opened the box and was rifling through old clothes and school binders, dumping things out on the floor. Steve threw his hands up and headed back to the poolside, carrying old waterwings and goggles and muttering about Billy’s lack of respect. Billy ignored him as he carried on snooping.

He quickly rifled through all six boxes but there were no pictures, much to his disappointment. Sure, there was a disturbing amount of Spider-Man t-shirts but Billy had been a dumb kid too and had the Batman scars to show for it. Just as he was about convinced that Harrington had already gotten rid of anything incriminating, he saw it, tucked behind a duffle bag of old baseball gear.

A bright blue case, scuffed and faded, but Billy could almost smell the embarrassment.

“Hey, Harring-ton.” He sing-songed as he carried it back out into the light. Steve glanced up from where he was trying to inflate a water wing for El, cheeks puffed out with air, and he audibly groaned when he saw what Billy was carrying. Billy grinned wider, so hard his cheeks hurt. “Looky-looky what I found!”

“Dingus.” Robin looked up from her perch and gasped, voice filled with glee. “Is that a guitar case?”

Steve stood and planted his hands on his hips, putting on his babysitter face. But Billy and Robin were already cracking open the stiff clasps and tugging out the dusty instrument.

“It is!” Robin gasped again and spun in sudden certainty to point an accusatory finger at Steve. “You! You knew that dumb carosuel song! You’re...a band geek.”

Steve visibly bristled and opened and closed his mouth a few times before words came out.

“No. I-No.”

“Stevie. Amigo.” Billy said in a fake hurt tone even as he kept grinning. “Are you lying to us? Your best friends?”

Steve glared at him and stalked over to try and grab the guitar from his hands but Billy just held on and they tugged it back and forth as Robin flipped through some papers that had been under the instrument.

“Jesus, you weren’t even a good band geek, this is all old crap.”

Steve let go of the guitar and snatched the sheet music from her. Billy abruptly stopped smiling. Harrington didn’t look embarrassed anymore he looked...he looked sad.

“It’s not crap, okay?” He carefully tucked the sheets back into the folder they had been in and put them back in the case, avoiding looking at them. “It was a thing I tried when I was a kid, I sucked, end of story.”

And that? That hurt. On some level Billy didn’t fully recognize, the defeated slump of Steve’s shoulders as he gently took the guitar from Billy’s lax hand was achingly familiar, almost as if he could feel his own body bow in the shameful curve. How many things had he abandoned under his dad’s disapproval? How many parts of himself had he cut out and tossed aside to fit the picture everyone had in their head of who he should be?

How many untouched magazines were stuffed into his bedside table?

“Okay.” Billy clapped his hands loudly and everyone jumped. He pointed at Max.

“You. No pool today, you kick too much. You.” He pointed at Steve. “Towel duty. And food duty. This is gonna be awhile. You.” He pointed at Robin. “Harrington duty. Make sure he doesn’t fall in the pool or some shit.”

“Hey!”

“You.” Billy pointed at El who looked up from inspecting a water wing with fascination. “You do what I say, how I say, when I say, and we’ll have you doing laps in no time.”

They all looked at him blankly. Billy missed his whistle.

“Well?!” He demanded and they agreed in a flurry, moving to take seats or get things out. El walked over to him and took his hand, peering past her toes to the water’s surface with a frown.

“No salt.” She proclaimed and Billy frowned back at her.

“It’s a pool not the ocean, kiddo.”

She shook her head at him and look at him sideways, like he was a little slow.

“Salt makes me float. Like the tank.”

He got a flash of memory, of being strapped into something and lowered down into a glass tube of sorts. Fear and cold and a desperate need to get it right for papa.

El’s hand in his squeezed and he jolted back to the present with a sharp intake of summer air. He squeezed back and then let go so Steve could start showing her how to put on the water wings. He watched as Steve dropped one into the pool, watched El’s look of delight as the bright orange plastic bobbed and floated. And he privately decided he’d teach this girl whatever he could.

Robin’s words from earlier came back to him as he grabbed the spare swimming trunks Steve held out and ducked inside to change.

A fucking nightmare indeed.

Chapter Text

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?

Chapter Text

When he came back out El was bouncing on her toes by the ladder, water wings off but goggles firmly on, and he ignored everyone else in her favor. She took his hand when he got near enough, tugged on it a bit with both of hers.

“Underwater now.” She declared and Billy couldn’t argue with her, doubts he ever will. She saved his fucking bacon in all the ways one could. She gets whatever she wants.

“All right. You wanna jump again or climb in?”

She chose jump, barely waiting for him to slip into the water himself before flinging her coltish limbs into the air. Billy caught her and she’s laughing even as he walked them into deeper water. He hissed out a breath as the water swirled over his chest, sending a sensation not unlike burning through his torso. He ignored it and kept moving forward until the water reached his armpits.

“Okay, you got the moving down and if all else fails, you just turn on your back and float, okay? The water will hold you up.”

El nodded and wrapped her arms around his neck, resting against his back.

“Deep breath.” He felt her lungs expand and then he dove, just for a moment, just to let her get a feel for it. They popped back up and El gasped in his ear, delighted. Billy had to smile. He loved the water, loved the way he could move through it so easily, the way it moved with him without overt force, how it made the world go away for awhile.

“Gonna go again, ready?” She adjusted her grip and then they were moving, Billy’s legs propelling them back and forth across the pool, El’s strong arms firm around his neck.

By the time they stopped, the sun was fading over the trees and Max and Robin had disappeared in the house, leaving Steve to sit and watch them. El went running inside, water dripping everywhere and hair sticking out of her ponytail, so Billy dropped into the empty seat by Steve. They sat quietly for a minute and he could faintly hear music coming from the house, something with a pop beat.

“You’re good at that, you know.” Steve’s voice caught a bit and he had to clear his throat before continuing. “Swimming lessons.”

Billy shrugged.

“It’s not that hard. At least she didn’t piss on me.”

Steve cracked up and Billy let his head fall back against the chair, waiting it out. He’d been turning something over in his mind ever since he caught Harrington watching him.

“Why are you being nice to me?” It came out rougher than Billy meant it to but not mean, not like it might have once upon a time. Billy wondered if he left all his meanness on the floor of the mall, if he would only ever be rough and tired and worn from now on.

“I guess….” Steve sighed, mirrored his pose by dropping his head back, looking up at the summer stars just starting to peek out. He didn’t ask Billy to explain what he was talking about.

“Will got possessed last year.” Billy froze at Steve’s words. The shy kid who talked about nightmares like he knew them...yeah, that made sense. Steve fumbled for a cigarette, found the pack empty, tossed the lighter down with a huff. He shifted in his seat, something about what he was saying making it impossible to sit still while Billy felt like moving would crack the world right open.

“Will got possessed and we all. We busted our butts to help him.” Steve finally leaned forward, elbows on his knees, and he peered sideways at Billy through his hair. “But we didn’t do that for you. And...and I’m sorry, I guess? Or no.”

He groaned and ran his hands through that infamous hair. Billy couldn’t speak if he wanted to.

“I mean, I am sorry because that, the Mindflayer doesn’t deserve to happen to anybody and we should have tried to get you safe, should have tried to defeat it without the sacrifice play. I’m like-”

Steve stood and paced in front of Billy, hands on his hips, teeth worrying at his bottom lip as he tried to get the words out.

“I’ve done a lot of shit because it was what I thought I was supposed to. I’ve been the asshole and it’s fucking bullshit. It doesn’t-” He stopped short, facing Billy with intensity and helplessness warring in his expression. “It doesn’t matter. The shit that went down at the mall? That mattered. You fighting that thing mattered. Saving the town mattered. We could have been friends, I think. Before. Maybe not, high school crap, whatever. But we might have. And if we were, then maybe we would have caught it sooner, maybe we would have tried harder. Maybe so many people wouldn’t have had to die.”

Billy finally moved, stood, blinked twice. Stared at Steve. And then he couldn’t help it. He burst out laughing.

Steve looked at him before he let out a chuckle, then a second one, and then they were both laughing, long and loud and it felt like a release of pressure. Billy felt tears welling up in the corners of his eyes at the sheer absurdity of the situation, at the very real ‘power of friendship’ thing that Steve had just succinctly encapsulated. Because it was ridiculous and cringe-inducing and absolutely true.

“Did-did you know-that night-” Billy gasped out between giggles, nearly bent in half. Steve was no better, practically on his knees and letting out a tiny snort every so often. “I tried to-I tried to call the police.”

Steve did fall to his knees then, helpless with it and Billy was crying openly, he was laughing so hard.

“I dialed-I fucking dialed 911! Like they could-” He broke off, too out of breath to talk and too busy laughing to breathe. Steve made a hiccuping sound and nodded frantically.

“Like they could help!” He yelled and set them both off again. Billy could picture it, some frizzy-haired dispatch girl trying to find the code for ‘giant flesh demon’ and failing and he let out a snort of his own. It wasn’t funny but it was, it really was, because this whole thing...it was so impossibly serious it was funny almost as a reflex.

Eventually, Billy’s chest began to protest and he winced, one hand coming up to gingerly press against the spot where the scar lay. Steve moved in closer, walking on his knees, his own hand coming up to hover in the air as if he wanted to touch.

“What is it, are you-is it-?”

Billy shook his head, trying to draw a deep breath without pulling at the tender flesh.

“Just a twinge, like it’s sore or something. Probably overdid it in the pool.” Steve’s hand moved closer then stopped, and without thinking Billy tugged the damp cotton up until the twisted and gnarled shape was visible. It was not quite a perfect circle, a little stretched out on the right side where one of the fang-like teeth had taken a chunk out, and there was a slight tinge to it, something that didn’t perfectly match his skin though not precisely white like any other scar Billy had ever had.

Steve’s fingers traced the shape of it in the air, not touching but close, and Billy sucked in a breath, his stomach going concave as his chest expanded like it was trying to close the distance.

“I dunno. It’s kinda cool though. Like a, a war wound or something. You know?” Steve glanced up at him and then back down. “You survived it. You’ve got proof.”

“You too.” Billy couldn’t stop himself from reaching out with his free hand and thumbing the spot just below Steve’s lip, where a red line was slowly healing into a scar of his own. Steve glanced up again and their gazes locked. Everything faded away-the pain in his chest, the encroaching dark around them, the sound of the water in the pool. Billy stared at Steve like he had the first time they met only this time, Steve didn’t leave to chase Wheeler, didn’t leave Billy to bury the confusing pull of those brown eyes in beer and Vickie’s too-sweet smell. He stayed there, on his knees, and Billy’s thumb where it just touched soft lips was like an electric connection.

“Am I interrupting?” Robin’s voice was incredulous. Billy and Steve jerked back from each other like they’d been burnt. Steve scrambling to his feet as Billy yanked the shirt back down, suddenly shy. He didn’t think too hard about why he’d been okay with Steve seeing the mark, he just knew he didn’t want anyone else to look at it too closely.

“No, no, just uh. Just talking. Making sure Billy didn’t overdo it or, or anything.” Steve stammered out. Robin looked from him to Billy and back again, clearly not buying a word.

Which was ridiculous. There was nothing to interrupt, just a friendly moment between two guys comparing scars from a seriously fucked up nightmare they’d somehow managed to live through.

“Okay.” Robin said cautiously and she held up her car keys. “I was gonna take the girls home, El’s sleeping over at Max’s. You need a ride?”

The last bit was directed at him and Billy could feel himself pale. Robin frowned.

“Your dad’s gone, right? So you can go home, Billy, it’s okay.” Her voice was kind but her words sent something like terror through Billy’s core. He had a flash, a memory of sitting on his bed, frozen there, waiting for the girl-

for El, he called her El, called her Ellie and held her up, he didn’t want to hurt her, she’s a kid, a dumb kid, don’t hurt her, please

-waiting for her to look for him, to reach for him. Then he could see her, see into her, plant a piece of the self there like a seed and let it grow in her, let it choke her power, let it bring her into the fold and make her a part of them.

“Damn it!” Steve’s curse broke through the rush of memory and Billy snapped back into place, into his body. He was against the side of the house, crouched down, arms over his head and nails digging into his arms where he gripped them tight. Something was dripping on his face and he swiped at it, pulled his hand back to check.

Water. Just water. He focused on Steve and Robin as best he could. She had a cup from lunch in one hand, water dribbling out. She must have thrown it on him, to wake him up. Steve was on his knees again, right in front of Billy, face full of worry.

“Can I stay here? Steve?” Billy pleaded with him, one trembling hand reaching out and Steve took it, held it tight, and pulled him into a rough, one-armed hug.

“Yeah. You can stay as long as you like, Billy.” He turned his face into Steve’s chest, let his body heat sink into Billy’s cold limbs. Had he really been laughing about this?

“Steve, what are you gonna tell your parents?” Robin whispered and she had a point. Billy had yet to go a full day without a breakdown. That would raise some questions. He started to pull back a bit, to put some space between them but Steve refused to let him go as he answered her.

“I’m gonna tell them the town went to shit again and Billy saved it so I’m letting a friend crash here until he gets better. Or maybe that Russians beat my face in and in a concussion fog, I decided to open a very small hotel, Jesus Christ, Robin, like I fucking care!” Steve voice was harsh, a vicious edge to it, unlike him-more like Billy.

King Steve.

Billy let Steve pull him up and hustle him inside, let Steve sit him on the couch and wrap a blanket around his shoulders. Billy managed to pat Max’s shoulder when she hugged him goodbye, felt El give his hand a squeeze as it tucked something into it, heard Robin saying something quietly from a long way off and heard Steve’s voice answer back just as distant, just as quiet. But he couldn’t bring it into focus, didn’t want to try. He let it fade away as sleep rolled over him like a seven foot wave.

The bottle of sleeping pills fell from his hand, untouched.

Chapter Text

Billy woke in the darkness. Pure dark, stretching out in endless perfect nothing all around him. He took a step forward, then another, bare feet making the faintest of ripples on the ground beneath him.

There was something there, just ahead. A figure huddled on the ground. Tan legs and dark hair. Flash of red when it moved.

“Heather?”

The figure jerked, turned towards him. There was something dark around her mouth, like she’d been eating chocolate. Or dirt. Her eyes were fever bright, skin damp and sweaty. She bared her teeth in a grimacing smile and they were tinged pink and red.

Billy took a step back and she tilted her head too far to the side, like her neck was broken. He took another step and she jerked again, moving forward in uncoordinated movements, her mouth opening wider and wider as she scuttled forward, teeth growing sharp and fang-like as raw limbs extended from her sides to help move her along.

Billy turned and ran, feet slapping against the cold ground, hearing Heather coming closer and closer behind him. He ran faster, pushed himself harder, but there was nowhere to go. Just the endless dark, dark, dark, everywhere he turned. Every glance over his shoulder showed Heather gaining ground, her hands reaching for him, fingers twisted to grasping claws.

He screamed as she caught one leg, sending him tumbling to the ground. He turned over on his back, scrambling to get away, yanking fruitlessly on his leg held tight in her grip. There were more hands now, all different from each other, appearing out of the dark to grab him and drag him towards Heather’s waiting mouth.

He struggled, twisted and pulled and struck out, but they held him fast as Heather crawled over to straddle him, black blood dripping down from where the extra limbs emerged. He felt a searing pain in his chest and looked down to see the scar pulsing red, the flesh melting away like wax as a claw of his own began to form.

You are ours. You are part of us.

The voices came from everywhere, echoing in the cavernous space. Billy thrashed harder.

“I’m not, I’m not like that! You’re dead!”

The voices laughed. Heather leaned down over him, rotten breath on his face as she whispered in his ear.

Try not to move. It’ll be over soon.

Billy let out another sobbing scream as the pressure in his chest increased and he felt something crack and break inside.

Isn’t that what you promised them, Billy?” Heather’s voice shifted, grew deeper and harsher, and when she pulled back it wasn’t Heather anymore but Billy himself, leaning over him and grinning a smile with too many too sharp teeth in it. “But you lied. This will never be over.

The claw worked its way out of his chest and wrapped around Billy’s throat, choking off his screams as the other him watched. He could feel them all watching, all those people, those poor people. He’d killed them, killed all of them. He wasn’t strong enough, wasn’t good enough-

Suddenly there was a flash of pain against his leg, like something had hit him. All at once the figures vanished, the claw disappeared, and Billy was left gasping in a different sort of darkness.

It was nighttime, and Billy could just make out the shapes of furniture around him. Harrington’s den. Somewhere a light came on and Harrinton himself came running in, out of breath with his hair sticking up and a bat full of nails in his hands.

“What-where-you?” Steve scanned the room quickly before looking down at Billy and oh. He was on the floor. Well, sort of. He was mostly on the floor, like he’d rolled off the couch, except one leg was currently laying in the remains of a lamp and sported a faint scratch running down the side.

“Nightmare.” He croaked out. Steve’s shoulders dropped, regret in every line of him.

“Fuck, I forgot about the pills.” He carefully skirted around the broken ceramic shards and peered at Billy’s leg. “You think you can get up?”

Billy took quick stock of himself. He was covered in sweat, shaking, tangled up in the blanket. He felt like he’d been run over. He felt like death. He shook his head no.

“Okay. Okay, don’t move.” Steve headed into the kitchen, turning on every light he passed along the way. Billy was overwhelmingly grateful and took the moment to wipe at his face, where tears were drying in salty tracks on his cheeks. Steve came back with a broom and hastily swept the bits of lamp away from them both before extending his hands to Billy.

He grasped them tightly, tried his best to help as Steve levied him to his unsteady feet but Billy knew he contributed little if anything to the effort. Standing there, supported once again by Steve’s hands on his elbows, Billy was suddenly so very, very tired. It had been only a few days since the mall. Hell, only a week since he’d gotten possessed at all, but he felt decades older.

“C’mon. I’ll clean this shit in the morning.” Steve sounded as tired as Billy, and the late night shadows did the bruises on his face no favors. Standing there in a pair of old pajama bottoms, Billy could see the marks extended down his torso, purple smudges on his sides and belly.

“It’s not that bad.” Steve muttered, and Billy wrenched his gaze up to his face. He let out a weak chuckle as Steve draped his arm around Billy and began walking them towards the stairs.

“We’re a fucking pair, huh?”

“Pair of what?” Steve quipped back as they reached the top step. Billy looked around curiously. An open door to the right was clearly Steve’s room, clothes and shoes and shit in a slight jumble on the floor, lamp on, but Steve was guiding them past the doorway, towards the other end of the house. The dark wood door swung open to what had to have been the master suite.

“Uh...where’s your folks?” Billy let Steve help him sit on the edge of the bed but he tried to touch as little of the blue patterned duvet as he could, very aware of his own sweat tacky skin. Steve crossed to a closet and dug around in a box on the floor for a few seconds, something he’d done recently if the discarded sweaters on the ground were any indication.

“Out of town. My dad travels a lot for business and my mom goes with him.” One pale shoulder rose and fell. “It’s cool, means I don’t have to deal with crap, you know?”

Billy did know. But he also knew what it was like to come home to a dark house and an empty fridge. Neil had always had good days and bad when it came to Billy and more than one night eating bologna sandwiches in front of the TV had made Billy question which one was really which. A little piece of Steve clicked into place in his head.

“Here, try this.” Steve held out an old Yale sweatshirt and a pair of red flannel sleep pants. Billy took them carefully. “They were my dad’s so they should fit ok, I think. I’m gonna grab some stuff.” He ducked out and Billy began the slow process of twisting the t-shirt and trunks he’d passed out in off. He felt sore all over. The dream may not have been real-and please god, let it not have been real-but the tension and thrashing had left a toll.

Right as he managed to tug the soft pants over his hips, Steve came back, an extra blanket under one arm and the nail-studded bat in hand.

“Seems like a waste to change clothes if you’re just gonna whack me.” Steve faked a laugh but one hand came up to rub at his neck.

“I uh, I can’t sleep without it right now. I will, in like, a month? But yeah. Not-not right now.” Billy nodded slowly, trying to inject as much understanding into his voice as he could.

“Fucking Russians.”

That earned him a smile and Steve threw something in his direction. The pill bottle. Steve waited till he caught it and then took a deep breath. Glanced from Billy to the head of the bed and back.

“Listen. Neither of us needs to sleep on a floor tonight and this thing is a king sized and I’m fucking exhausted so you must be-” He stopped short and Billy could tell he’d been about to say the word ‘dead’. “You must be twice as bad so…” He gestured at the bed helplessly and Billy swallowed hard.

He didn’t mean it like that, Billy knew he didn’t mean it like that. No one ever meant it like that and it was Billy whose thoughts were pulling him in forbidden directions, into hazy half-thought out wonderings from when he was younger, dumber.

“Yeah.” He cleared his throat, tried again. “Yeah, that makes sense.”

Steve visibly relaxed. Billy avoided his gaze as they both started to get into bed, pulling back the covers and drawing his legs underneath them, dry swallowing more of the pills. The sheets were fancier than any he’d ever felt, the pillow plump and soft under his head. Billy blinked up at the ceiling as Steve moved around on the far side, propping the bat up against the night table before slipping in himself.

Steve hadn’t lied, the bed was more than big enough for the two of them, a good foot and a half of space between their bodies but it was still shockingly intimate. Billy tried to remember the last time he slept in a bed with another person and couldn’t.

The girls he had over sometimes, when Neil and Susan were out, they didn’t stay after he got them off. Didn’t roll onto their stomachs like Steve was doing, didn’t kick one foot out from under the covers.

Billy didn’t fuck girls, made a point of it actually. Wasn’t getting honey trapped with some bitch’s baby he’d sneered in the locker room more than once. Because he was old enough now to know how to play the game. How to kiss their necks and ignore their perfume, how to slide his hand under their skirts and talk them along until they tipped right over the edge. And he knew how to let them pet at his jeans, how to keep his cigarette lit so they wouldn’t try and kiss him, and finally how to ease them back with whispers of next time and not here, not with his sister in the house. They’d giggle and coo and let him drive them home too fast, never bothering to realize that next time would never come.

If more guys had spent ten minutes with a copy of Cosmo, his entire reputation would have come crashing down but they didn’t and that left Billy a wide-open sea of girls just waiting for someone to give them the tiniest scrap of pleasure.

There was a part of Billy that liked making them feel good, liked giving them things they all too often had never gotten before. It was what had him making eyes at the moms at the pool, what made it so easy to lean in close and whisper dirty things to Mrs. Wheeler. They all thought they wanted it-the bad boy, the hot guy, the thrill of the illicit. But at the finish line, chips down...they’d bail. All he’d been expecting the night the monster took him was awkward flirting, maybe a kiss, and then a free motel room without Neil’s five a.m. wake up call. And then the next day, he’d bat his lashes and tell Karen he got it, talk shit about how he’d see her around, how there was no harm in looking. She’d giggle and blush and he’d move on.

When Billy dumped a girl, she loved him more than she did before. All his comments about cows made them feel special, made them want to be one of the lucky few who got even a couple hours of his time. And the rumors of his love ‘em and leave ‘em habits kept Neil’s off-hand remarks about his hair and his clothes and his tendency to take his time getting ready to just that: off-hand remarks. One more set of insults that he tossed at Billy, never dreaming how close his words were to the truth.

Because it was true.

Billy had known it from as early as he could remember. Had told his mom about the way the shy boy next to him in music class made his heart race and his palms sweat. Had asked her why, what it meant. She had cried, he remembered. She’d smiled and cried and told him it was their little secret.

And then she’d left him and the secret was his alone, so he’d buried it in drinking and smoking and punching the lights out of any boy who dared make his heart race and his palms sweat.

He’d punched Steve, too. At the time, it hadn’t been because of that but maybe...maybe part of it had.

And now that he was here, feeling decades older, laying in bed with Steve, all alone in the empty house, exhausted and hovering on the edge of a dreamless sleep, Billy let himself admit it, just to himself, just for right now.

There were far more dangerous things he wanted to do to Steve Harrington’s face.

Next to him, Steve turned his head, eyes open and searching for Billy’s in the dark. He’d left the hall light on, left the bedroom door open, so Billy could see emotions warring in him, could practically see the words he was trying to get out.

“What?”

“You wanna…” Steve tucked his hand under his cheek, making it easier to look at him with his full gaze. “You wanna talk about it?”

He didn’t have to explain what ‘it’ meant. The nightmare, the flashbacks, the entire experience. Billy did and he didn’t. It was hard to explain, even to himself.

“You ever go to church?” He asked abruptly and Steve blinked twice, thrown, before answering.

“Kinda. Mom makes us, every Christmas, but that’s about it.” He sounded confused. Billy’s hand came up to touch his pendent, metal warm from his body heat, raised design a familiar feeling under his fingers.

“My mom…” Billy paused, swallowed hard and tried again. “We went to Mass all the time. Sat in the back. Sang the hymns. Sometimes we’d stay after and she’d give me a quarter, tell me to count all the angels in the windows and if I found ‘em all, I’d get a candy bar on the way home.” Santa Maria dug into his palm where he gripped the medal.

“I’d sit there and count while she went to confession. You ever go to confession?”

He was talking softly, not whispering but barely, and if they hadn’t been in the same bed, hadn’t somehow shifted a bit closer, only a foot of expensive sheets separating them, Steve never would have heard him.

“No. That’s with a priest right?”

Billy nodded, eyes locked to the ceiling, recalling the scent of incense and the feeling of the half-empty church looming over him as he counted angels on his fingers.

“Yeah. You tell the priest all your sins and then they tell you to do Hail Marys and Our Fathers and then they absolve you of your sins. Clean slate.” Steve made an impressed noise.

“Just like that?”

“Just like that.” Billy finally dared to turn his head and Steve was even closer than he thought, head nearly resting on the same pillow. There was warmth in his eyes, slack lidded and sleepy but still alert, still taking in every word Billy said.

“I can’t remember what I did.” Billy admitted. “I can see pieces sometimes, hands and faces. I tied Heather up...I gave them to that, that thing, but what else? It was in me for days, I know it was. There’s these gaps...blank spots in my mind, each one longer and longer than the last. What else did I do? Who did I hurt?” He rolled onto his side to face Steve fully, mimicking his pose with a hand under his head, the other still clutching Saint Maria.

“How do I confess when I don’t know my own sins? How do I repent?”

Steve looked at him, lips pressed tightly together, gaze searching. The quiet stretched out until Billy nearly thought Steve had fallen asleep with his eyes open. When he finally spoke, his voice was gentle but firm, and one hand found Billy’s under the covers, tangled their fingers together around the Blessed Lady, right over his scar.

“Maybe wanting to is enough. Maybe stopping it, saving us...you sent them to rest, Billy. The Mindflayer had them trapped and you set them free. That counts for something, it has to.”

Billy closed his eyes for a long moment and when he opened them, Steve had closed the distance, was barely an inch away.

“Maybe it’s not the same thing but...I forgive you.” He squeezed their hands together. “No Hail Marys needed.”

Billy squeezed back and the quiet returned, softer than before. Oddly enough he did feel better, as if simply telling someone had taken a bit of the weight off. Maybe that’s why his mom spent all that time in confession. Maybe the weight of everything had been crushing her too. He waited for sleep to come over him but something niggled at him, a single coil of tension at the base of his spine. He wanted, Billy realized, to give that lightness back to Steve.

Steve, who held him like it wasn’t anything, like it was the simplest equation ever: Billy was cold and Steve was warm and so they would share. And there was more to it, all given as simply as body heat. A place to stay, a hand to hold, a bed to sleep in and a bat to keep the nightmares away. Steve was taking on so much of Billy’s weight, he was practically carrying him. As many things as Billy wanted to do, hadn’t dared dream that he could do with Steve...more than all that, he wanted to take some weight of his own.

“Hey.” He whispered quietly and Steve made a noise, not quite a grunt but something like it. “Tell me about the guitar.”

Steve sighed and his breath flowed down under the covers into the space between them. His lips quirked up in a self-deprecating smile.

“My mom liked all this old stuff when I was a kid. She’d play the radio and sing along, try to teach me the words. I uh.” He paused, took a breath, moved like he wanted to get even closer to Billy. “I dunno, I was like twelve and I was dumb and I thought it’d be cool to learn to play ‘em for her birthday.”

“Did you?”

“Yeah.” Steve nodded minutely. “Yeah, a few. Beatles, Everley Brothers. Old shit.” He mimicked Robin and Billy chuckled softly. Steve sobered.

“She wasn’t home that day. My dad had um. She caught him, with his secretary. So she went with him to Kansas to make sure he behaved.” There was years of bitterness in that one word, and a lifetime of pain. Steve shrugged the shoulder that was sticking out of the blankets, a pale shape moving in the dim light, and it was so familiar a movement by now that Billy thought he might know it anywhere.

“Tommy found it and gave me shit, told me I’d be a band geek if I kept it up and…” Steve let out another deep breath, forcibly lightening his tone. “...that seemed like the worst thing ever at twelve so I stopped. Forgot about it kinda, until today.”

Billy hummed under his breath, finally tipping his face closer to Steve’s, until their foreheads just barely touched.

“Play for me sometime. Tomorrow. All the old shit.”

“I’ll suck.” Steve scoffed and Billy smiled, feeling the pills and the quiet tugging at his eyelids.

“Don’t care. Wanna hear it. You. Whatever.”

Steve scoffed again, disbelieving this time, but his voice held something like happiness when he next spoke.

“Okay. I’ll play you something.”

Billy hummed his approval and it was the most natural thing in the world to drift to sleep now, slipping gently not into blackness but the deep brown of Steve’s eyes.

Chapter Text

Had Billy thought about it the night before, he might have dared to imagine that waking up in bed with Steve Harrington would be pretty nice. They might have still been huddled together as Billy slowly opened his eyes to find Steve already staring back at him, maybe they’d have exchanged small smiles and soft words, both hesitant to move away.

In reality, Billy bolted awake to the sound of a car horn blaring outside in the driveway and one of Steve’s hands narrowly missing smacking Billy in the face as he scrambled to the window, sheets tangling around his legs as he wrenched the frame open and leaned outside.

“Knock it off, assholes!”

Laughter filtered into the room and Steve made a rude gesture down at the ground. Billy did his best to avoid staring at the way Steve’s broad shoulders tapered down to the waistband of his pajama bottoms.

“Let us in!” Someone shouted back, and Billy thought he recognized the kid with the trucker hat from the hospital. Steve made another gesture and came back inside, the window slipping shut with a faint bang. He looked at Billy awkwardly, rubbing at the marks on his face where the pillow had creased it.

“I better let them in before Dustin and Lucas try to pick the locks again.” He grabbed a robe off the closet door and shrugged into it, stopping just inside the door frame to look back at Billy on the bed. “You can grab some of my dad’s stuff or mine, my room’s just down the hall.”

Billy nodded and waved him on, waiting for his footsteps to fade before he slid out of the bed and stood. He eyed the closet and it’s box of forgotten clothes for a moment before quickly slipping down the hall and into the room he remembered from the night before

It was still a mess, clothes and shoes and random things laying around an obvious path leading from the door to the desk to the closet and then the bed. Billy stepped inside and made his way to the dresser, resolving himself to not go through any of Steve’s things anymore than he had to. He knew all too well what it felt like to have his belongings rummaged through and ransacked thanks to Neil’s frequent snooping.

The top drawer held socks and underwear, a few random ties crumbled into a ball, and a poorly hidden bag of weed. Billy smirked and pulled a thick pair of socks out before moving onto the next one. Shirts this time, mostly solid colors and Billy felt a twinge of want for his sun faded and worn out band shirts back at his house, most of them missing their sleeves. Would he ever feel comfortable wearing them again? He wasn’t sure.

He skipped the next drawer and headed for the closet but a puddle of green fabric peeking out from under the bed caught his eye instead. Billy snagged a pair of ragged sweats, a faded ‘H’ just visible on the hip and quickly swapped his pajama pants for them. They clung just right, clearly old and broken in to the perfect level of comfort, soft and warm and so very Steve.

Voices from downstairs brought him back to the present and Billy slunk down the stairs to see who all was making such a racket. Trucker Hat and Lucas were there all right, along with the rest of them. Will stood near El and Max, along with a lanky dark-haired kid that seemed to have a perpetual taste of lemon in his expression.

All of them were looking intently at Steve who-barefoot, robe hanging open and arms crossed over his chest in a way that made him suddenly look forty-five and concerned with things like mortgages and the state of the economy-was clearly putting his foot down about something. Billy made it to the bottom of the stairs without being noticed by anyone save El, who shot him a small smile.

“For the actual last time, no.” Steve sighed even as Lucas groaned and Trucker Hat clawed at his face dramatically.

“You let El swim in it yesterday! Why can’t we use it today?!”

“Yesterday there was an actual lifeguard in the water not to mention two other adults and Max who’s the strongest swimmer out of any of you.” Max preened at the praise and Billy suppressed a snort. “Today, you want to use a ladder and scrap plywood to make a water slide which is. Not. Happening. Dustin.”

So that’s Trucker Hat, Billy thought to himself. He felt eyes on him and turned. Will had finally noticed him, carefully stepping close enough to mutter under his breath. “Coffee’s in the kitchen and Max brought you some stuff.” They slipped through the den and ducked into the sun-drenched kitchen where a beat up gym bag was waiting on the table. Billy bypassed it for the coffee pot on the counter, somewhat surprised when Will held out a mug of his own for a refill.

“Careful with this stuff. It’ll stunt your growth.”

Will chuckled shyly and took a small sip as Billy doctored his with several spoonfuls of sugar.

“That’s what my mom says. But I’m taller than her now anyway so…”

They drank in silence for a minute before Billy screwed up his courage and caught Will’s eye.

“Thanks for those pills, by the way. They uh, they help.” He tried to ignore the phantom sensation of hands holding him down, of Heather’s frail body filled with unnatural strength, forcing himself to take note of the heat of the mug in his hand and the strong smell of the coffee inside it. Will nodded and looked back into Billy’s eyes.

“I know. But I don’t need them anymore.”

And that said everything that needed to be said between them.

After a few more minutes, the rest of the kids and Steve joined them, still half-heartedly bickering but it was clear a decision regarding the pool had been made, although no one seemed completely happy about it or about Billy being in the kitchen.

“Oh!” Steve jerked to a halt at the rear of the group, eyes wide as they travelled down to Billy’s sock-clad feet them back up to his face. “Hey. You uh. You’re up.”

“Yeah.” Billy held his mug up idiotically, hating himself even as he failed to stop himself. “Got some coffee.” Obviously. Jesus, he needed to get a grip.

“Why are you two being weird?” Max cut through the room to steal Billy’s mug, draining the last of it as she ducked away from his hand reaching out to cuff the back of her head. “Never mind, I don’t care. Let’s get our suits and get in the water before Steve changes his mind.”

As quickly as she entered, she shoved the empty mug at Billy, grabbed El’s arm and tugged her out again, Lucas quickly hoisting a backpack over one shoulder and following behind.

Apparently someone wasn’t quite back to full boyfriend status.

Steve and Lemonface hung back by the door but Trucker Hat-Dustin-came up to Billy next, peering intently at his face with a furrowed brow.

“You still you in there?”

“Uh.” Billy glanced at Steve for help but Dustin moved to block his view. “Yeah? But if I wasn’t, would that thing have told you I wasn’t?”

“It’s called the Mind Flayer. And maybe it would have asked exactly that to throw us off the trail. So are you or aren’t you?”

“Aren’t I what?” Billy saw Will shake his head out of the corner of his eye.

“Are you or aren’t you...you?” Dustin peered closer, eyebrows raised empathically. Billy leaned in close, head cocked in curiosity.

“What’s the plan if I’m not?”

“Burn it out.” Dustin’s voice was joined by Will, Steve, and Lemonface in perfect unison and Billy was impressed and more than a little concerned over the readiness of the answer. He regarded Dustin for a moment more before he leaned back against the counter and refilled his mug.

“I’m me.”

“Okay.” Dustin shrugged and relaxed and Lemonface made an exasperated noise.

“You’re seriously going to take his word for it? What if he’s just waiting for us to let our guard down so he can kill us all?”

At the words, Billy’s hand twitched with the memory of wrapping around Heather’s throat and hot coffee splashed over the rim, making him suck in a breath. Steve stormed over, gently taking his hand and shoving it under the faucet, turning on the cold water full blast.

“Mike. We settled this already. So knock it off already.” Lemonface, who Billy thought looked much more like a Lemonface than a Mike, scoffed and sulked out of the room. Billy turned his attention to the side of Steve’s head right in front of him, where he was leaning over the sink. His grip on Billy’s arm meant they were pressed almost together and if he had leaned forward just the smallest bit, he’d have been able to bury his face in the side of Steve’s neck. It was oddly tempting.

“Coffee wasn’t that hot, Harrington.” Billy murmured and Steve slowly released his hand and stood, turning to face him and narrowing the distance between them even more, the air around them somehow as intimate and quiet as it had been last night.

“Last one to the water is a dingus!” Max’s voice echoed through the house as she and El ran out the sliding door, Dustin scrambling to follow, Will moving a beat slower, glancing curiously over his shoulder at the two older boys as he left.

“They need a lifeguard out there?” Billy was aiming for levity but he couldn’t seem to make his voice any louder than before, equal parts confused and compelled by the way Steve seemed completely at ease standing so close in front of the kids.

“No, they’re good. I put Max in charge and Will won’t do more than put his feet in so he’ll keep an eye out for trouble.” He shifted finally, moving back just enough to glance out the window at the patio. “When he got taken by that thing, the first time, the government tried to cover it up. Put a dummy of him in the lake at the quarry, cops pulled it out. We had a funeral.”

“Jesus.” Billy rubbed at the back of his neck. He didn’t like the idea of there being a first time, didn’t want to imagine there being a next time.

“Yeah.” Steve chuckled a bit helplessly. “He’s okay with water but Joyce, uh, his mom...works her up a bit to think about.” Steve shrugged as if to say, We’ve all got something and Billy recalled how he’d mentioned getting to a point again where he could sleep without that nail-studded bat.

“So.” Billy squared his shoulders and let a faint smirk appear. “Where’d we leave that guitar?”

“I was sort of hoping you’d forget about that.” Steve groaned but he led Billy into the den, nearly side-stepping the shattered remains of the lamp from Billy’s nightmare. The battered blue case was against the wall near the patio door, and Steve dropped down to sit where he could see the kids doing cannonballs outside. Billy carefully sunk down next to him, watching as he opened the case and took the guitar out, hands sliding over it with familiarity.

“What do you wanna hear?” Steve plucked at the strings, adjusting the tuning as he went. Outside Billy could see Max and El hand-in-hand, jumping into the water and splashing the boys. Something warm had settled into his chest, behind the still-healing scar, and a part of Billy that he’d never even realized had been clenched relaxed just a fraction.

“Whatever you wanna play. Your favorite.”

Steve smiled. Played tunelessly for a minute as he thought, head down and eyes on the strings. The front door opened and Robin wandered in, nodding at them but moving towards the pool and the kids.

“We’re getting Chinese for lunch.” She tossed out as she passed, dropping her shades down to the tip of her nose, eyes taking in their casual clothes and the instrument on Steve’s lap, the thoughtless way they sat so close they were nearly touching. “I’ll mind the small people.”

She slid the door closed behind her, leaving it open just enough that their voices could be heard.

Steve’s plucking paused before he made a decisive strum, a chord filling the room even as his voice stayed soft and easy, just for this moment, just for Billy.

Here comes the sun, do-do-do-do…” Another chord, and Billy let himself tilt just enough to the side that his leg pressed up against Steve’s, let some of Steve's weight settled against him and it didn't feel like weight at all really. It felt like an anchor.

Here comes the sun, and I say…” Billy drew a breath, chest expanding with no twinge of pain, and it was like the first time he’d ever ridden a wave, like he was suddenly full of joy at the simple perfection of the moment.

Next to him, Steve raised his head. His hair had fallen into his face at some point and Billy didn’t stop to think about raising a hand and brushing it back and Steve let him, never seeming to think about how much damage Billy's hands had caused in the past, even before the Mind Flayer.

...It’s all right…