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don't make a shadow (of yourself)

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Billy Hargrove doesn’t die.

He wakes up on a hard tile floor and he knows that he’s not dead because he doesn’t feel dead. He’s not sure, if he’s honest, what dead feels like, just that he’s not it. He’d thought that he would be dead, honestly, because of the claws in his side and then finally the one through his chest, but he isn’t dead. He knows this because he wakes up.

Billy blinks his eyes open and stares at a boarded up ceiling where he remembers glass and bright lights from when the mall had opened. He tries hard to remember everything that happened, but it comes in bits and pieces.

He remembers a little girl, remembers telling her not to be afraid, remembers her telling him that his mother was really pretty. He remembers the tight nod of his head and the feeling of that shadow in his brain retreating as he dug in against it. He remembers standing and stopping it with his palms, remembers the shock he felt at something so gooey being so solid. He doesn’t remember the first claws, the ones that tore his sides open, but he does remember that last one through the chest, how it felt like getting punched really hard.

He remembers, too, telling Max that he was sorry. He remembers that she didn’t tell him it’s okay, but he does think that she probably meant to, that she would have if he had just fucking listened for once and stayed awake like she had asked him. The problem, he thinks, lying on his back on the tile floor, is that he’s never been a good listener. He’s learned, too, that people don’t like that he’s not a good listener. Not girlfriends. Not his dad. Not his mom. It makes him, maybe, unloveable, but he thinks now that Max might love him, just based on what he remembers about her face in that moment, her stupid pigtail braids.

Billy Hargrove wakes up on the floor of Starcourt Mall, but he doesn’t really wake up, is maybe what he’s starting to think, because his memories are fractured, but he fucking knows what he remembers and - and this shit must be rigged, because the floor of the mall is clean and there are boards up on the windows and what used to be the roof. There are sounds of what must be construction work happening outside--demolition, maybe--and he’s in a white tank top and his jeans and his boots, but there isn’t a drop of blood--black or otherwise--on him.

Standing up is a process. He doesn’t feel hurt at all, which also seems strange, given the puncture wound thing that had happened right before he’d apparently not died, but he does feel slow, like his blood has been replaced by syrup, like he doesn’t remember how to use his limbs. When he’s on his feet, though, that feeling fades. Everything slots back into place, works how it should. He feels fine.

He checks his reflection in that last remaining window to be sure he looks fine, too, but even his fucking hair looks good and that’s just really fucking weird.

The weirdness of it allows him to focus on weird and not broken, which he thinks he might be after what he did. He remembers that, too, but won’t catalog it, not now and not ever, because Billy’s learned the hard fucking way that if you think about the shit that hurts it digs and digs and digs and then you’re done.

Don’t get hurt, that’s the first lesson his dad taught him, when they both realized his mom wasn’t coming back, when they were both hurting. Don’t get hurt, his dad taught him, get angry, and so Billy did.

It’s different, though, what he’s done in Hawkins. It’s different than all the fights that came before. Billy thinks of Heather dissolving. He thinks of the blankness in her face. When he used to hit people, that had felt good and felt angry, this doesn’t feel good at all and--

And now he’s fucking thinking about it. Of fucking course.

What he needs to be thinking about, he realizes, is how to get out of goddamn Starcourt Mall, because that’s looking like it might be the biggest challenge he’s up against in this moment and he’s trying to only think about the challenges that he’s up against in this moment, instead of thinking about all the rest of the moments he’s experienced over the last few--was it days? Was it really only days?

That makes him feel dizzy, so he sits down for a while and stares at the tile floor that doesn’t have a single drop of blood on it, not his and not anyone else’s.

Eventually, he gets up. He’s sort of expecting to hurt, but he doesn’t. He feels fine. It had made sense that he’d felt fine when he’d been sharing his mind and his space with that thing, but it makes less sense now. It had protected him from pain because he was useful. It was--honestly--the only time anyone had protected him from pain ever and so he’d been expecting to feel a little more fucking grateful, but he doesn’t, not at all, not with the shit that he did, the shit he’s not thinking about because if he thinks about it then he’s going to fall apart and--

And he still hasn’t figured out how to get out of the mall.

He walks toward Scoops Ahoy--where he never went because he didn’t fuck with Steve Harrington, not after Max’s whole thing with the bat--because it’s the closest to where he woke up. It also looks the least damaged. He climbs over the counter and lands hard on booted feet and that doesn’t hurt, either. He just doesn’t hurt at all. Not even a little. Not in any way, and that thing had protected him because he was useful and--

And what if it’s still there? Just. Sleeping. It had slept or something, sometimes, and Billy had some clarity, but not the wherewithal to ask for any fucking help.

What if it’s still in him?

And that makes his heart beat fast with panic and he screams with it, because you don’t get scared either, you just get angry. He lets the anger burn him up and the heat feels good so he leans into that anger. When he finds another board over a door that he thinks might let him out, he tears it open, off the wall, and that hurts, makes his fingers ache, so that when he bursts through into the fading sunlight of an early evening in Hawkins, Indiana, he can snarl at that almost beauty and spit in its face.

He hurts. His fingers hurt. More of him than that hurts, too, but he’s not fucking thinking about that, so.

He shivers at the chill in the air, goosebumps rising on his flesh. Billy rubs at the back of his neck and looks around.

His next problem, then, once his fingers stop hurting and his breathing evens out, is that he needs to get back to actual Hawkins, not just this fucking mall, but obviously no one is still going to the mall because of the whole monster and fire and disaster thing that happened, so he has to walk for a while, until he finds a bus stop that people are still willing to look at or go near. It’s a long walk. It’s pretty far from the mall, but he can’t really blame them for that.

Still, the walk is long, so he’s tired and grumpy when he finds it and still so fucking cold. He doesn’t really think anything of it because he’s been cold for a long time, now, but he does wonder if that means he’s alone or if he’s not.

Billy doesn’t look at the two other people waiting and they don’t look at him. He’s not sure if it’s because they can smell it on him, what he did, or because he just looks that kind of angry, that kind of don’t speak to me or there’ll be trouble kind of angry his dad had mastered by the time Billy was fifteen years old.

Billy boards the bus and drops the coins he’d found in his back pocket into the slot. He grunts at the driver, who doesn’t say anything to him, and it makes Billy’s lips curl. He walks to the back of the bus and slumps down in the corner, his head leaning against the window, and it’s only when the bus starts to move that he has to close his eyes so that he doesn’t do something stupid like start crying.

And Billy, curled in a cheap plastic seat with his eyes squeezed shut wonders, could it really be this easy? Just get on a bus and fucking go home?

Billy keeps his eyes closed the whole way, his fingertips pushing into his thighs as he breathes in the smell of gasoline and people’s lunches. You shouldn’t fucking eat a tuna sandwich on a bus, he wants to scream, but he doesn’t scream that, because the smell of tuna sandwiches reminds him that he isn’t dead, and that’s really fucking nice to not be after all of that shit, so he smells the tuna and grips his own legs, and waits for his stop to get called.

When he gets off the bus, Billy does what any kid would do, what he’s kind of wanted to do since he woke up on the floor of the mall, however fucked up this want is: he goes home.

He gets off as close as he can to the house and then trudges the rest of the way there. The town is so quiet that it’s almost eerie, but as he watches the house numbers tick up from the three hundreds to the four hundreds and then sees his squat little house with its crumbling steps, Billy thinks that maybe a town should be quiet after half of it fucking dies because of a monster.

And maybe, also, because of him, but thinking about that is on the nope list, and so he shoves it off to the side as he walks up the steps, pulls his keys out of his pocket, and goes inside.

“Hello?” he calls, “Anyone home?” but he doesn’t get an answer, just his voice echoing off the walls. Billy shrugs and walks down the hall, into his room, which is quiet and untouched--fucking Max hasn’t been snooping or stealing any of his shit at least--and flops down on his bed in his jeans and his boots and his tank top. Finally, exhausted, tired, and maybe a little bit afraid, Billy falls the fuck asleep.

~

When he wakes up, there are sounds in the house. Billy blinks a little bit and stretches, his spine popping. He rolls onto his side and tucks his arm under his head, staring at the door to his room. He wonders if anyone will come in to check if he’s here. He wonders if anyone even noticed he’s gone, but they must have. For the mall to be boarded up, they must have noticed he’s gone. It has to have been a few days, at least, and he thinks it’s some real shitty police that fucking--just left him there.

Or cleaned him up and left him there? Billy’s still kind of trying to put the pieces together.

Assuming they’ve noticed he’s gone--even if it’s only to be like, wow, thank fuck, one less mouth to feed--he should probably be delicate coming back in so he doesn’t scare anyone, but fuck that, because Billy’s pissed that he got left in a mall for however many days, and he’s pissed about the last eighteen years of his life, and he’s a little pissed that Max didn’t try to tell him it’s okay when he said I’m sorry on that floor, even if he thinks she might have meant it.

So Billy stands up, rips the door to his bedroom open, and storms down the hall. He figures you only get to do something like this once, and so he leans into it, a little. His dad’ll probably be too busy being shocked to be really mad, and even if it is, it’s probably fucking worth it.

He swans into the kitchen, leans against the wall and says, “What’s up, motherfuckers? I hope Susan didn’t make that goddamn disgusting creamed chicken again,” and waits for them to react.

Max, Susan, and his dad are all sitting around the kitchen table. They’d been quiet when he walked in. They are, in fact, having the disgusting creamed chicken. Susan thinks it’s amazing and they eat it about two times a week, three if they’re really unlucky. He walks into the room and does his thing, but they keep sitting around the table. Nobody looks up.

“Uh,” Billy says. “Fucking hello?” and usually he doesn’t swear in front of his dad once, let alone twice, but this feels like a special occasion. “Earth to the fucking Hargroves,” he tries next, and then he walks over to the table and starts waving in their faces.

“How was the arcade today, honey?” Susan says, and Billy is sure as shit that she’s not talking to him.

“It was fine,” Max says, but she’s staring at her plate. “We rented a movie, can we watch it after?”

“What movie?” his dad asks and his dad never asks follow up questions about Billy’s stories unless he’s waiting for Billy to dig his hole a little deeper.

“Uh, something Steve recommended,” Max says. “He’s trying to make better recommendations now that he’s been working there for a while.”

“Well, after three months, I hope the recommendations have gotten better,” Neil says.

Three--three months?

Billy turns away from the family who is totally fucking ignoring him and looks at the calendar on the wall. October it says. October 15th, 1985.

Billy’s stomach drops. “Hello,” he says. “Hello! Max, Susan, come on. Come on. Dad,” Billy turns to Neil and jumps up and down, “Dad, come on, dad, please,” and he doesn’t know what to do, because they can’t fucking see him, “Dad,” Billy begs, “Dad, please, come on, I’m right here, dad--” and he’s angry all of the sudden, because how dare they fucking leave him there for three months, how dare they not see him, how fucking dare his dad treat him like that his whole fucking life and just--

Billy reaches out and smacks his father’s beer off the table, “Fucking look at me,” Billy snarls, and it’s angry, but his voice cracks too, “I’m your son! I’m right here, fucking look at me you piece of shit!”

But his dad just looks at his beer on the floor. “I thought I fixed the wobble on this table,” he says, and then he stands up and gets a paper towel. He cleans up the mess that he made himself.

After that, Billy does what any kid would do, upset and angry and alone, he goes into his bedroom and shuts the door. Right after, he thinks he hears from the kitchen, “Did you hear something?” in Max’s voice.

But Susan says, “It was just the wind, honey. Now, what do you think of the chicken? I added a little less salt,” and so Billy lies down on his bed facing the wall and tries to figure out what the fuck he’s supposed to do now.

See, Billy Hargrove doesn’t die.

He just doesn’t really live, either.

~

His mother had always told him that things look better in the morning, but Billy is very sure that she’s wrong, because when he wakes up the next morning, things absolutely do not look any fucking better.

The house is empty when he wakes up, but he’s not hungry and he doesn’t feel like he needs coffee, so he doesn’t bother with the kitchen. He does want out of these clothes that he wore to walk so many fucking people to their deaths, so he roots around in his drawers for fresh jeans and a good top.

He fixes his hair in the mirror, but doesn’t know why he bothers. They can’t see him.

He wonders if no one can see him. He hopes that’s not fucking true. Maybe it’s just his family. Maybe it’s just because they’re all such pieces of shit that they were glad he’s gone. It’s been three months and they haven’t even packed up his fucking room.

Billy swallows around the taste of salt in his throat and finishes buttoning up his shirt. At least he’s still got his necklace. His fingers curl around it and he thinks about his mom and he thinks about waking up on the floor of the mall, of that girl saying she was pretty, of that feeling like a punch to his chest.

He snarls at his reflection and slams his hand into his mirror. The glass shatters and the impact hurts, but when he looks at his hand he isn’t bleeding.

“Well,” Billy says, “Fuck this,” and then he turns around and walks out of his empty fucking house.

He walks back into town and even though he’s not hungry, he goes to the diner. He waves at people in the windows, but no one reacts, not even when he knocks on them or shouts fuck you motherfucker in their faces on the street. He flips off older women and swears in front of babies, and not one fucking person responds to him. There was, he thinks, a time in his life when he would have fucking loved this.

He could have wreaked havoc and fucked with his dad, gotten him back for all the bullshit. He could have tormented Max and her weird little friends and really gotten her back for the bat thing. He could have done so many other things, bad things, unspeakable things, but--

He’s done those types of things, now, and in his wildest, angriest, darkest fucking daydreams, he’d never imagined it would make him feel this fucking bad.

He doesn’t know what he’s supposed to do, so he goes to the library.

He’s been here before. He’s been here a lot, actually. Barbara, who he calls Babs to watch her bluster about it, sometimes stays late, keeping the building open so Billy can sit in the far back corner, the chairs that no one except him seems to know about, and read until he was sleepy enough that he could just drive the Camaro home and go to sleep and not antagonize his dad or pick fights with strangers to let out some of that dark and coiled anger that was always laced between his ribs.

He wonders, as he walks through the stacks, trailing his fingers over the spines of books, what happened to his car. It had been on fire, when he’d rolled out of it, after he’d caught Steve Harrington’s eyes for the first time in months. If he had been alone in his head, he might’ve asked for help, but Steve Harrington had saved Nancy again and they’d all gotten in the car and left while Billy’s head lulled against the window, his body slumped from the impact.

What happened to his car, after that? It’s probably gone. Neil probably scrapped it. Asshole.

Usually, when Billy slinks off to the library, he’s looking for some alone time and the cups of tea that Barbara brews him when he’s got the kind of bruising she can see. He reads novels that take him away from Hawkins, Indiana, but that’s not what he’s here for today.

Billy heads over to the catalogue and starts with g for ghosts, then p for paranormal, m for magic, r for resurrection, and he wanders the library to collect and compare books that look useful before he heads back to his corner and opens the first book, a pencil between his teeth as he works.

It’s quiet, in the library. Nobody bothers him. It’s mid-morning on a Wednesday, so he’s not surprised that there aren’t a lot of people here, but even if they were, he realizes that no one would bother him, because no one would know he’s even there.

It’s the most alone he’s ever felt and Billy Hargrove has felt alone for a lot of his life, so that’s fucking saying something.

When he leaves a few hours later, he mostly thinks that he’s not hungry because ghosts don’t eat, but he’s not sure why he slept last night. People seem to agree that ghosts kind of do their own thing--and that’s only the people who agree they exist, which is not a huge number by any fucking means, but then, people probably don’t think that monsters made of goo who absorb the citizens of a small town in Indiana exist either, and Billy can tell you they sure as shit fucking do, so.

It’s the late afternoon, but Hawkins is still quiet. Billy wonders if everyone has left already, after what happened. He’s kind of surprised that Neil stayed, but maybe he didn’t have a choice. He’s never been great about holding down a job, and Billy guesses that post-exodus, there’s a high need for people who will do any kind of work--and take out their feelings of inferiority on their kid--in Hawkins.

He wanders the town until it’s just before sunset and he ends up near the arcade and the video store. He’s watching through the window when he sees Max again. It’s more jarring to see her here than it had been at home, where he’d had other things on his mind, like his asshole dad ignoring him, like Susan’s creamed chicken. It’s jarring to see her laughing with her friends, but it’s even more jarring, after he’s been watching for a while, to see these moments where someone says something and her face goes a little distant and drifty and she looks outside.

There’s something almost sad about her then, but one of her friends--Lucas, usually--always grabs her shoulder or her hand and draws her back in.

Noticeably absent from these Wednesday night gatherings, though, are the younger Byers boy and the girl who had told Billy his mom was pretty.

Billy watches for a while, wondering if the two will show up, but they don’t. He can’t keep watching Max, anyway. It’s not like he can talk to her. It’s probably weird that he’s staring at this point.

Billy’s ready to go back to the house where no one sees him, to sleep and knock Neil’s beer off the table. He’s not sure how long he can milk that for joy, but he figures a while. If he has to be a ghost, he’ll haunt his dad and make him fucking miserable. That’ll--make things feel better, at least.

Billy’s on the way to walk home when he spots Steve Harrington through the window of the video store. He’s alone in there. Billy watches him for a few minutes through the window. He seems bored, but fine. Alive. Like people can see him. Billy remembers that moment right after Harrington hit the Camaro, when Billy was going to drive through Nancy, when they’d locked eyes for just a second after, when Billy hadn’t been himself.

Billy hadn’t wanted to kill a single one of those kids when he’d put his foot on the gas. He hadn’t wanted to kill Nancy Wheeler. He hadn’t been able to stop himself, but like he had that night last fall--nearly a year ago, now, given that it’s the middle of October--Harrington had stopped him from hurting them.

Billy’s not someone who’s used to feeling grateful, but he’s grateful to Harrington for that, and here’s a chance to say thank you and he won’t even have to see Harrington’s reaction to it and nobody will ever know about it, so.

Billy pushes the door to the video store open to walk inside. The bell jingles, but he knows the score by now. He’s been a ghost for twenty-four hours. Harrington will look up, will see there’s nothing there. His brow will furrow for a moment, but he’ll move on. It might take him a moment longer to explain the door away, sure, given his experience with weird shit, but Billy figures that Harrington doesn’t have the attention span to dwell. He hadn’t in basketball, anyway.

What happens, though, is different: the door jingles and then Harrington looks up and he goes absolutely white.

“Billy?” he says, real slow, soft and a little fractured.

It takes Billy a second to recalibrate to this new reality in which one person can see him and that person is Steve Harrington, but Billy’s got a finely honed instinct for being a dick, so he lets the door shut behind him, walks right up to the counter, leans against it, and smiles with all his teeth.

“What’s wrong, Harrington?” Billy asks. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”