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Better With You

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As usual, when Steve found himself in situations involving the kids, he wasn’t sure how he let himself get talked into this. It had been four months since the battle at Starcourt. Four months since he watched Billy Hargrove get shish-kabobed by a giant monster made out of recycled human beings. Four months, and El and Max had refused to stop looking for Billy, convinced that he was still alive somehow. 

 

It’s not like Steve wanted to believe that Billy was dead either. They weren’t exactly friends but there was a sense of cordiality and mutual understanding between the two of them in the six or so months that followed the night El closed the gate. Before all hell broke loose in July. Back when they saw each other in passing when Billy dropped off Max or Steve brought the kids to the pool. 

 

Not to mention what happened between them the night of Tommy’s graduation party. Something they’d both decided to never talk about ever again. Something he wasn’t even sure Billy remembered since they’d both been drunk. Something Steve had thought about every damn day since it happened because even if Billy didn’t remember, he sure as hell did. 

 

So, yeah, Steve wasn’t eager to wish Billy dead or anything. But he’d been trying to move on. To quietly mourn on his own and try to get on with his life. 

 

But the girls weren’t having any of it. 

 

“He’s alive, Steve. He’s alive and El found him,” Max said, pacing back and forth in Steve’s living room. 

 

El nodded from where she was perched on the arm of the loveseat. 

 

“It’s true. He’s been...in the dark for a long time. But he’s moving. Or being moved,” she explained.

Steve shook his head, pinching the bridge of his nose. 

 

“Look, I know it’s hard to accept that Billy is gone but--

 

“He’s not gone,” Max snapped, glaring at Steve. “El found him. He’s being moved, Steve. This might be our only chance to get to him, so please, please. We have to try.”

 

Steve stared at the girl in front of him. Her eyes were glassy and her chin trembled. She looked young and suddenly Steve was reminded that although the kids had grown up fast with all the shit from the Upside Down happening, they were just that; kids. Max was a kid who wanted her brother back and Steve knew that if he didn’t help, she and El would just go after him themselves. 

 

He sighed, running a hand through his hair. 

 

“Okay, fine. Where is he?”

 

So now Steve was sitting in his car, parked on the side of the road in fucking Maine, with Max and Eleven in the backseat. Hopper of course wasn’t going to let them go alone and was parked about half a mile behind them, waiting for the signal from El. 

 

Billy was apparently being moved to a “secure location” via an “inconspicuous” vehicle so as not to draw suspicion. Steve was a little hazy on the details. It was all happening so fast and El wasn’t always great at explaining everything that was going on. He figured they’d all have to sit down and have a real talk about it later. But it was clear the plan was save Billy first, answer questions later. 

 

“They’re coming,” El said, wiping a small trail of blood from beneath her nose. “ Two minutes. Blue car. Out of state plates.” 

 

Steve nodded snagging the walkie to alert Hopper. 

 

“Hop, El says they’re coming. Blue car, out of state plates. They’re two minutes out. Over.” 

 

Hopper sent back an affirmative and Steve started his engine, turning to look at the girls in the backseat. 

 

“Remember. You only get out of the car if things go south. Hopper’s gonna try to handle it first,” he reminded them. 

 

The girls nodded and a second later they heard Hopper’s siren go off as his jeep went flying past them, chasing after a blue car, just like El had said. Steve pulled onto the road, following after Hopper, making sure to keep his distance. He watched as Hopper climbed out of his car, knew he was feeding the driver some bullshit about speeding, asking for his license and registration. 

 

“Guns,” El said suddenly. 

 

“What?” Steve asked. 

 

“They have guns!”

 

Steve stepped on it, closing the rest of the distance between his car and Hoppers, almost driving off the road in his haste to park. El was out of the car almost before Steve had stopped. 

 

“Shit!” Steve cursed, throwing his door open. “Stay in the car!” he called over his shoulder to Max, chasing after the girl. 

 

It was all kind of a blur after that. Like it always was when El used her powers. The men were thrown from the car, Hopper knocked one of them out while El took car of the other. Steve threw open the doors of the backseat. Empty. 

 

“Trunk,” El said and yeah, that made a hell of a lot more sense than the backseat. 

 

Steve held his breath, jumping when he felt a smaller hand squeeze his own. Max had gotten out of the car and was standing next to him, staring hard at the trunk. Steve squeezed her hand back, knowing that if the trunk was empty she was going to be heart broken. She wouldn’t be the only one. 

 

El cocked her head to the side, popping the lock and letting the trunk door open.

 

There, curled up in a ball and shaking, was Billy Hargrove. 

 

He had a blindfold around his eyes, and a gag across his mouth. His hands were cuffed behind his back and his ankles were tied together. 

 

Steve was the first person to snap out of it and move. He leaned into the trunk, reaching around to undo the gag over Billy’s mouth, unprepared for the full body flinch as the other boy shied away from him. 

 

“Please, don’t hurt me,” Billy begged, making himself as small as he could and pressing back into the trunk as much as the small space allowed for. “Please. Please. Don’t hurt me anymore. Please!”

 

“Whoa, whoa, Billy, it’s okay. It’s okay. It’s Steve. It’s Steve Harrington,” Steve said, struggling to get the blindfold off with the way Billy seemed intent on scrambling away from him. 

 

Billy’s eyes were wide and scared when the landed on Steve. Recognition was slow to come, but Steve watched as it dawned on Billy’s face. 

 

“Harrington,” he breathed, his eyes scanning Steve’s face before they landed on something behind him. “Max.”

 

Steve turned to see that Max had come forward, tears in her eyes as she scooched down to Billy’s level. Billy flinched when her hand touched his cheek, his eyelashes fluttering and an audible breath escaping his lips, like it was punched out of him. 

 

“I’m sorry,” Max said, voice strained. “I’m sorry it took us so long to get to you. I’m so sorry.”

 

Billy shook his head, trying to push himself forward but not making much progress what with his hands and feet still tied. Steve helped him into an upright position, frowning when he felt that Billy’s muscles were still firm and toned under his fingers. He’d been who the hell knows where for four months now. Shouldn’t he be malnourished or something?

 

Hopper came into view, key in his hand. He quickly undid the cuffs, freeing Billy’s hands while Steve took care of the ties around his ankles. 

 

“It wasn’t your fault,” Billy said, trying to stand up and immediately falling on his ass on the concrete. 

 

“Okay. Let’s get you out of here. You guys can talk later,” Steve said, helping Billy to his feet, surprised when Billy accepted his help. He was leaning heavily against him, head lolling against Steve’s shoulder as he helped him to the car. 

 

“Thanks for coming to get me,” Billy said, his voice a little slurred and then he was collapsing fully against Steve, yelping in surprise when his legs gave out. 

 

“Oh, shit! Hop, a little help!”

 

With Hopper’s help, they managed to get Billy into the backseat of Steve’s car, seated on the edge with his head between his knees. He was taking long slow breaths in and out. Steve wondered how long it had been since he’d been able to breathe fresh air. 

 

“I-is he gonna be okay?” Max asked quietly. 

 

Steve didn’t want to lie to her. The truth was he didn’t know. It was obvious that Billy had been through hell. His adrenaline was high when they found him in the trunk, but it had clearly worn off.

 

“I don’t know, kid” Hopper said, saving Steve from having to answer. “But he’s alive. We know he’s alive. That’s more than we had yesterday.”

 

“Where is he gonna stay?” Max asked. “His dad thinks he dead. He...he won’t want to see Billy. He won’t be happy that he’s alive.”

 

“My place,” Steve said without thinking. “He can stay at my place. My parents won’t care. They’re never home anyway.”

 

“I’m coming too,” Max said seriously, her eyes still trained on Billy and yeah, Steve got that. She’d only just gotten him back. She wasn’t eager to let him out of her sight. Max had spoken loud enough to get Billy’s attention. Steve watched as Billy’s eyes flickered to Max for a moment, discomfort clear on his face before he stared back down at the ground. 

 

“I think you better go home with El. Just for tonight,” Steve said, aware that Billy’s eyes were now trained on him, even with his own attention on Max. “I’m sure he’s tired. Just gonna go right to sleep. Right, Billy?” he asked. 

 

Billy stared at him for a long moment before giving a short affirmative nod. 

 

Max looked a little hesitant, like she wanted to argue, but El came up next to her and took her hand. 

 

“We can see him tomorrow,” she told Max, giving Steve a look that he knew meant he wasn’t allowed to argue. Not that he was planning on it. Max had been waiting months for this. 

 

Max nodded, reaching out and putting a soft hand on Billy’s shoulder. Steve let out a breath with the other boy didn’t flinch. Although he still wasn’t looking at her. 

 

“I’m...I’m glad you’re back,” she said before turning to follow El when the other girl tugged her by the hand, leading her back to Hopper’s car. 

 

“I’ll get the girls home. You gonna be okay with him?” Hopper asked. 

 

Steve smiled what he hoped was a reassuring smile.

 

“Yeah. Yeah. I’ll be fine.”

 

XXXX

 

Billy had fallen asleep less than ten minutes into the drive. Steve was kind of glad honestly. What did you even talk about with someone who was held prisoner in a lab for four months? Steve still didn’t really have the whole story. All he knew was that some asshole lab dudes showed up at the mall and took Billy which is why there had been no body to bury at the funeral. Wherever they were keeping him, El couldn’t see it, but then he was being moved somewhere knew and she finally caught a glimpse. 

 

Thinking too hard about all of it made Steve’s brain hurt. Maybe he could ask Billy about it when he’d had a chance to recover. When he wasn’t so...zombie like. 

 

No, a zombie wasn’t the right thing to compare him to. It’s like he was still himself but also...not? The Billy that Steve knew was tough and strong. Shoot first and ask questions later. This Billy was different. He was quiet. Reserved. Like he didn’t want to draw attention to himself. Steve would sooner believe that hell had frozen over than that Billy had stopped wanting everyone’s attention on him. 

 

Getting Billy into his house and situated on the couch was an ordeal. Steve had managed to wake him up, but he could barely walk which meant Steve had to carry most of his weight. Considering Steve was exhausted from the long ass drive and he had stopped even caring what ungodly hour it was, he was impressed he managed it at all. 

 

“M’sorry,” Billy grunted, wincing in pain as Steve set him on the couch. 

 

“For what?” Steve asked. 

 

Billy shrugged. 

 

“Everything.”

 

Steve didn’t know what to say. He coughed once, giving Billy a curt nod before he headed to the bathroom to snag the first aid kit, belatedly wondering if he should have taken Billy to the hospital. 

 

When he came back to the living room Billy hadn’t moved. He was rubbing at his wrists, red and irritated from the cuffs. Steve reached out to take Billy’s hand so he could examine the wounds himself, but the other boy yanked his hand back. Steve remember how he had reacted when they’d first found him in the trunk. Even the simple touch of Max’s hand made him flinch. 

 

“I just want to look at your wrists, okay?” Steve said, holding his hands up to show Billy the first aid kit in one and the washcloth in the other. “I figured you don’t want to go to the hospital--

 

“No hospital,” Billy confirmed, eyes wide. 

 

“I know. I won’t take you there, I swear,” he promised. “But you’re hurt and I...I can help. Okay? I just want to help.”

 

Steve waited for Billy to nod before he reached for his wrists again. He turned them over in his hands. They were irritated, probably hurt like a bitch. Luckily, dealing with Upside Down crap meant that Steve had a very extensive, heavily stocked first aid kit. He pulled out a jar of salve and uncrewed the cap, smearing some on his fingers before rubbing it into Billy’s wrists. 

 

He wasn’t prepared for the actual moan that left Billy’s mouth. 

 

Steve blinked up at the other boy. His face was bruised and there was sweat on his brow, but even under the injuries his cheeks were bright red with shame. 

 

“Billy, it’s--

 

“It’s not, it doesn’t mean...No one’s...” Billy trailed off, avoiding Steve’s eye. 

 

Steve got it. He didn’t need Billy to explain. Four months of hell. Four months without a kind touch. Maybe longer. From what Steve understood, Billy’s dad wasn’t exactly a peach to be around. He put a hesitant hand on Billy’s knee, counting it as a victory when Billy didn’t jerk away this time. 

 

“It’s okay, man. I get it,” Steve said, offering Billy a small smile and gentle squeeze to his knee. 

 

Billy didn’t smile back, but he nodded and let Steve get back to fixing him up, so Steve figured they were okay. 

 

“Are you hurt anywhere else?” Steve asked. The bruising on Billy’s face looked pretty fresh, but it wasn’t too bad. Mostly concentrated on the left side of his face. Steve wasn’t sure what was going on underneath the ugly green hospital scrubs Billy was wearing. 

 

“I’m fine,” Billy said, blinking sleepily.

 

“Do you want a shower? Or food? Fuck, I should have asked earlier. Are you hungry? I can make you something. Or thirsty? Water. I’ve got, lots of water. I mean, it’s tap water but--

 

“Steve.”

 

The use of his first name made Steve snap his mouth shut immediately. 

 

“I just want to sleep,” Billy said. 

 

Steve nodded. 

 

“Right. Yeah. Sleep would be good. Um, can you make it to the guest room?” he asked. 

 

Billy chewed his bottom lip for a moment, considering his options before he stuck out his arm. 

 

“Help me?” he asked, avoiding Steve’s eye. 

 

Steve slid his arm around Billy’s back, helping the other boy to his feet, and guiding him into the guest bedroom. It was just down the hall from the living room. There were nicer ones upstairs, but Steve didn’t think Billy could make it that far. 

 

Billy was asleep the second his head hit the pillow. 

 

If Steve lingered a little longer than necessary in the doorway, well, no one needed to know. Honestly, Steve didn’t care if it was weird that he couldn’t seem to pry himself away from watching the other boy sleep. Because for the first time in a long time he felt like things might turn out okay. Because now he knew for sure. 

 

Billy Hargrove was alive. 

 

XXXX

 

Steve wasn’t proud of the sound that came out of his mouth when he went to check on Billy the next morning and found the bedroom empty. 

 

Panic set in immediately. His first thought was that he dreamed the whole thing. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d dreamt about Billy being alive. But it was so vivid. So real. There was no way it had all been in his head. 

 

The second thought to run through his head was that evil scientists had broken into his house and stolen Billy back. He was already running to grab his walkie when he heard a crashing sound come from the kitchen. Steve rounded the corner, his breath catching at the sight waiting for him. 

 

Billy was standing by the counter, the cupboard next to the sink open. He was staring at the shattered remains of a coffee mug on the floor. The floor creaked when Steve took a step forward, alerting Billy to his presence. The younger boy’s head flew up, his eyes landing on Steve, wide and scared. 

 

“Sorry. I’m sorry. I-I didn’t mean to break it. I was getting water and it just slipped out of my hand. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

 

Steve moved toward the panicking boy, mindful of the broken shards of his mother’s favorite coffee mug (blue with sunflowers on it). With a gentle hand at Billy’s elbow, he steered him away from the mess, eager to put a little distance between the sharp pieces considering they were both barefoot. 

 

“It’s okay. Don’t worry about the mug, just breathe okay? I’m gonna need you to breathe,” Steve said. He wasn’t sure if touching Billy was helping or making it worse, but as he watched Billy’s chest rising and falling steadily, he decided it wasn’t doing any harm. He didn’t let go until Billy’s breathing evened out and even then he kept a hand on his shoulder until he’d gotten him seated at the kitchen table. 

 

It was strange. Having Billy be so...pliant, under his hands. He remembered when the touch of his fingers to Billy’s chest had sent him into a rage. Four months without touch, at least touch without a harmful intent, had left Billy different. 

 

“Are you hungry?” Steve asked, eager for something to do. 

 

As if on cue, Billy’s stomach growled. He looked embarrassed, but Steve laughed, getting to his feet and pulling a box of eggos out of the freezer. 

 

“Do you like waffles?” he asked. 

 

Billy nodded, but his eyes were still on the broken mug. 

 

“I’ll clean it up later. Don’t worry about it,” Steve assured him, popping a couple of waffles in the toaster. “Are waffles enough? How hungry are you? I can make you something to go with them if you want.”

 

The look of surprise on Billy’s face broke Steve’s heart. He wasn’t used to being asked what he wanted to eat. Had probably eaten whatever was put in front of him his whole life, let alone the last four months. Even now he looked hesitant. Like he didn’t want to bother Steve. 

 

“It’s okay, really. I don’t mind. Max will kill me if she thinks I’m not feeding you, so really I’m just trying to save my own ass,” Steve said. 

 

Billy didn't smile, but the corner of his lips twitched. Steve was gonna go ahead and count that one as a personal victory. 

 

“Scrambled eggs,” Billy said after a long moment. “I...I like scrambled eggs.”

 

“Me too,” Steve said, smiling as he grabbed the eggs out of the fridge. 

 

They ate mostly in silence, Billy focusing his attention on his plate, managing a few quiet responses to Steve’s questions. He tried to keep the conversation light, not wanting to pry too much. Billy would talk when he was ready. Or not. Steve wasn’t going to try to force it out of him either way. 

 

“Max and El are gonna drop by in a little bit,” Steve said as he cleared the plates. “I hope that okay. I can try to keep them at bay for a while, but-

 

“It’s fine,” Billy said, getting up from the table. He looked down at his scrubs with a grimace. 

 

“You can borrow something of mine to wear,” Steve offered. “I’ve got your clothes out in the shed in boxes but--

 

“Why do you have my clothes?” Billy asked, frowning. For a moment he looked just like his old self. It threw Steve for a loop. He sighed, turning off the water and putting the plates in the strainer. 

 

“Max never believed you were dead. But there was a funeral and she...she was worried that your dad might throw all your stuff out and she wanted to keep it in case she actually found you. I-I told her she could put it in my shed,” Steve explained. When Billy didn’t say anything, he kept going. “I can go snag you something out of there if you want, but I mean, it probably smells a little dusty. You could wear something of mine for now and then we can go through it later. Or not. Whatever you want to do.” 

 

Billy kept his expression carefully neutral as he mulled it over. 

 

“Yeah. Yeah, I’ll just wear something of yours. If that’s okay,” he said, sounding unsure despite Steve being the one to offer. 

 

“Okay. Cool. Um, I don’t think my jeans will fit you. I gotta ask, dude. How are you still so--

 

Steve cut himself off, embarrassed at the question. Billy huffed something close to a laugh and shook his head. 

 

“What, you think they want a lab rat too frail to run through their tests?” he asked bitterly. “Mandatory work outs. They...they wanted me strong.”

 

Steve reached out a hand to touch Billy’s shoulder, to comfort him somehow. Billy shook his head, stepping out of Steve’s reach. 

 

“Not now. Please. Don’t...I don’t wanna be touched right now. I’m sorry.”

 

Steve held brought his hand back to his side. 

 

“Okay. It’s okay. You don’t have to apologize. You never have to apologize for that,” Steve assured him. “Come on. Let’s find you some clothes.” 

 

XXXX

 

Steve felt oddly self conscious digging through his dresser for something Billy could wear, when Billy himself was leaning against the doorframe, watching him. 

 

“Why are you being so nice to me?” Billy asked suddenly. 

 

Steve frowned, turning to face him, a pair of sweats in one hand and a t shirt in the other. 

 

“What do you mean?”

 

Billy sighed. 

 

“I mean, why are you letting me stay here? We weren’t exactly bosom buddies before all this shit happened. So, what, you feel sorry for me or something?”

 

“Yes,” Steve answered honestly. “I do feel sorry for you. Of course I do. Jesus, Billy, you got worn like a meat puppet by fucking evil personified. Then you died. And then you ended up in some fucking lab for four months. So yes, I feel sorry for you. I’m sorry you had to go through that. No one deserves that. No one,” Steve said seriously, holding out the clothes for the other boy to put on. “I have a house that’s empty most of the time. I work a shitty job. And I spend most of my downtime with a group of fourteen year olds. I know I’m not the ideal companion for you, but I want to help. So I’m going to, whether you like it or not.” 

 

Billy slowly reached out to take the clothes from Steve, looking a little like he just got whiplash from Steve’s little speech. Maybe he had said too much. But it was all true. Plus, nothing brought people together like shared trauma so, at least they were on common ground in that respect. 

 

They both jumped when the doorbell rang. 

 

“You go ahead and get changed. I’ll let them in,” Steve said, side stepping Billy to get to the door. 

 

“Hey, Harrington.”

 

Steve paused, glancing back over his shoulder at Billy to find the other boy already looking at him. 

 

“Yeah?” he asked. 

 

Billy swallowed hard. 

 

“Thanks.”