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that don't mean anything, at all.

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Sometimes it creeps up quietly, a sneaking predator waiting underneath the dinner table. He can barely see it coming - springing on him out of the grass. 

 

Other days it’s loud, seething, red rage. Maybe it’s unprovoked, or a hesitance that Neil can hear in his voice. But it always ends like this.

 

Well - not necessarily. This time might be worse.

 

The bruises on his torso, just below where his rib cage sits, have turned an ugly purple. Nothing's broken, thank God, but it hurts like a motherfucker nonetheless. 

 

Billy sits in the shower, body so overwhelmed with suffocating exhaustion that it hurts to stand and feel the hot water spray. He has to be cautious in the way he moves - small motions prove to be enough to light up his torso with agony.  

 

Christ. He could do with a cigarette right now. Sitting outside somewhere, probably on the hood of his Camaro. Instead he’s plastered up against the cool tiled wall, waiting for his breathing to even out. The way his lungs inhale and exhale feels clumsy but he can’t seem to stop way his heart hammers. It’s unfair; that’s what it is. How even after all this time his own body betrays him - years of trying to be numb, remain unaffected, its never made a difference. Neil’s right, you know. Billy Hargrove is a fucking pussy. 

 

Eventually he pulls himself up, throws a towel around himself and decides to get his shit together. Hair clings to his face, fair coloured curls plastered to the skin. Tonight his face remains untouched. Neil is a real asshole, no questioning that, but he's not dumb. A clean face means less judgemental looks coming his way, and less chance of suspicion. The tenderness of his ribs ripples through the rest of his body, though. He wonders if it’s worse sneaking out or spending the night holed up in his bedroom. 

 

No progress is made in deciding - his own face staring back in the mirror, bitterness filling his mouth. A sizzling electricity that invades every cell accompanies it like an off key harmony. The bathroom is still hazy with steam, just clear enough to keep eye contact with his reflection. One hand sits on the cool countertop while the other pushes down on his torso. He hisses; doesn’t let himself wince. 

 

Susan shuffles around downstairs. He can hear her muffled murmuring, words landing soft against Neil’s voice. It’s hard not to hear; even against the sound of blood rushing in his ears.

 

Billy holds his hands against his face and pulls slightly at the skin. The yellow hued light makes him look sickly. By the time he’s redressed, hair towel-dried and skin red raw from the hot water, he’s made his mind up.

 

——

 

At this time of night Hawkins has that special type of small-town emptiness. The roads are quiet, the houses pull their blinds shut and turn the lights out.

 

It’s nothing like California. 

 

The Camaro's running, radio echoing from the car and into the edge of the forest. He inhales slow and deep, clinging onto the sweet nicotine like a lifebuoy. It’s fairly cool for spring and the night air invades his lungs whenever he takes a drag. It would be easy, here. No one around; no one to see his car spin out of control. He considers the phantom feeling of glass shattering, almost a yearning for a violent collision. Car wrapped around a tree, head injured bad enough that there’d be no way to come back from it. 

 

What a tragedy. Neil would engrave his cold stone grave with one simple inscription, a cursive scrawl of ‘fuck-up’ to forever remember him by. Billy knows it's sick that the idea makes him smirk more than a little. 'Respect and responsibility’ would be second choice.

 

Instead of running himself off a cliff, or something, Billy sits still on the hood of his car and smokes. He likes the way he can see the grey smoke rising and falling in the air, the simple rhythm alongside the radio’s hum enough to keep him off the edge. If he was feeling in a better mood, his fingers would tap against the cool metal hood, feeling the melody right in his core. Tonight isn’t on of those nights, just sitting motionless and gazing into the forest. 

 

There’s still a stirring on the inside of his body. Like a gas fire, hot and blue as it flickers. His fingers twitch ever slightly and the burn of his throat and eyes sears with heat. ‘’Fuck.’’ the word sounds hoarse on his lips. Billy Hargrove does not cry - not ever, even when he pushes the end of his cigarette into his skin just to feel that burning spark. So rather than bathing in that burning feeling and following it through, he slams his hand down onto the hood. Tension explodes in his palm. It’s late, and Neil will begin to wonder if he’s still in his room soon, so Billy pulls himself back into the driver seat and starts the car. The engine hums in the emptiness of the night.

 

The climb to his bedroom window - admittedly a stupid fucking way to sneak in, but the least likeliest to be found - is quick this time. He strips down as soon as he slides through the open window. The last thing he feels before sleep overcomes him is the insistent push of his own hand against the black and purple mottling of his torso. 

 

——

 

Saturday mornings provide an excuse to curl up into the bed sheets a little longer. Sometimes Billy feels like there’s an oil spill in his body, some kind of emotional leakage which makes him go all soft. This, is mostly shoved down into the corners of his mind, but there are days where he bathes in it. It’s the same reason he pushes for more pain, presses down a little too hard on his bruises - he deserves it. At the end of the day, Billy knows what piece of shit he is. 

 

But Max will bring her wrath upon his door soon, blowing out this candle of self-hatred, and ask to be taken down to the arcade. He will agree, of course, and will add in just a little annoyance to really sell it. 

 

“Billy!’’ 

 

Right on cue.

 

He pulls at his own hair. The sheets wrap around his legs as he drags himself from bed. It’s way too fucking early. 

 

“What?’’ he yells back.

 

Max opens the door slowly. Billy pushes it the rest of the way open, and gives her a glare. “What?,’’ he repeats.

 

“Can you drop me off early today?’’

 

His breath comes out as a puff of air. “Yeah, I guess. Why?’’ 

 

Her face goes briefly expressionless. She’s about to tell him a lie, for sure. Billy feels pity for her, hopes Neil never decides to really pick on her cause she’ll struggle to hide anything. “Mike has to be home early for... uh, dinner,’’

 

“Dinner?’’

 

“Yeah. With his family, duh,’’ as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world. Her eyebrow raises.

 

“Alright.’’ 

 

She widens her eyes - she barely avoids rolling them, but Billy gets her point anyway. 

 

“Eleven. Don’t forget - please,’’ the last word comes out smaller than the rest. 

 

‘’Yeah, yeah.’’ he can taste agitation on his tongue, so he pulls the door shut before she can say anymore. 

 

He’s gotta get dressed early and everything now, and it’s a goddamn pain in the ass. Shit - he hasn’t even thought about his ribs since last night, ugly as sin across his torso. The bruising has for sure gotten worse now. Tonight calls for beer then, from the place near the edge of town that looks the other way if you pay them a little too much. Honest to God, being sober is way too overrated anyway and Billy would prefer the numbing salve of a drink in the cool evening air. 

 

——

 

By some miracle, Max gets there on time. She pours her heart out to Neil, saying just how she’ll be home early for dinner to make up for missing early Saturday ‘family time’. Family time in the Hargrove household is frankly the most bullshit idea Billy’s ever heard, and he sits next to Tommy in class - that guy’s full of bullshit. But Neil predictably falls for it, patting her on the shoulder and requesting she be home by 5. Billy wears his best expressionless face on the way out.

 

The Camaro feels like a second skin. He turns up the radio volume and doesn't look at Max once, washing out the gentle tap of her fingers in time with the song. It's some poppy song, nothing Billy would usually listen to, but Max got all excited when it came on. Not that she said anything, but the bop of her head kinda gave it away. Maybe he's just feeling particularly nice today. 

 

The Arcade isn’t especially busy for a Saturday. In his peripheral vision Billy can see the way Max perks up when the car pulls in, eyes scanning for her gaggle of kids. It forces a twist in the pit of his stomach. 

 

A subdue smile positions itself on Max’s face. She stays perfectly still.

 

“What?’’ he grunts. 

 

There’s a pause, long enough to make his skin crawl but not quite to get him riled up just yet. ‘'Max.’’ 

 

She breathes in. “...would you pick me up a little later today?’’

 

As quick as the words are processed, Billy turns to her, grabbing her before she can move from the passenger seat. “You looking to get in trouble, kid?’’

 

She huffs. “No - it’s just,’’ she takes another drawn out breath. “Everyone else is hanging back a bit later today and…’’ her voice quietens as she trails off.

 

“No.’’ 

 

“Billy,’’ 

 

“You told Neil you would be home. Do not break that promise.’’

 

Max’s eyes roll. “Just say there was an accident on the road or something. Please.’’ for someone who’s almost pleading, she keeps her voice stern. 

 

“I’ll be waiting here at four thirty.’’ he pulls his hand from her shoulder. They exchange glares, but Max eventually shakes her head in annoyance and opens the car door. 

 

As soon as she’s gone, he lights a cigarette and turns up the radio volume. 

 

Of course, just cause he’ll be waiting doesn’t mean she’ll be there. 

 

——

 

There is a pile of paper on the bedroom floor. Billy thinks anyone would laugh if they saw this; the Hargrove nose deep in a book. They’re reading Pride and Prejudice in class, and even though he wouldn’t say he enjoys it, it’s enough of a distraction to keep him from clawing as his skin. Or picking a fight.

 

Neil is out, doing God-knows-what with Susan. But Billy is angry, always fucking angry, and today’s no different. He’s already tried listening to music, opening up the window and lighting a cigarette for the hell of it, but nothing’s soothing that heady feeling. It’s like, almost being stir-crazy. An animal that’s been locked up in its cage for too long. 

 

The bedroom is quiet, and even though it’s sunny out there’s still a breeze throughout Hawkins so the window stays open. He’s got nothing better to do in this shithole, so why not do his English classwork? Maths, on the other hand, is shit, and Billy has no intention to do anything but shred his assigned work to pieces.

 

Books hold good memories somewhere deep in his soul. Long days that turned into evenings spent curled up into his mother’s lap, her voice narrating a story. No lullaby could ever put Billy to sleep, but a good book could.

 

And maybe that was the same now. When this type of agitation arrives, nothing can put him to rest quite like a book. This copy of Pride and Prejudice is worn, pages yellow and curling at the edges in some places. He’d picked it up from a second-hand store close to Hawkins. Billy admittedly likes its age, the idea that someone before him had worn the pages down from reading it - not that it mattered. 

 

He takes a deep breath and gets back to work. 

 

By the time 4 o’clock rolls around, Billy’s ahead of his work. He rubs at his eyes, dragging his fingers down his face and groaning. Somewhere during his work the pressure in his head must have amounted to a headache, the brief sensation of searing heat at his temple. Probably the result of his recent lack of sleep and complete inattention to drinking waterHe's starving, too. 

 

It’s not worth hanging around in his bedroom any longer, so Billy pulls himself into the Camaro and drives to the arcade.

 

Max is out the front, with a soda in hand. Billy didn’t give her any money, so he guesses one of her weirdo friends paid for it. The kids huddle together in a group. It’s no wonder they're always getting picked on, running around so obnoxiously like that. She has a smile on her face, standing next to that Sinclair kid and Jonathan Byers’ younger brother.

 

Christ, that Sinclair kid is trouble. He isn’t a bad kid or anything, not that Billy would know or care, but Neil is a real piece of shit. He knows the type of attitude he has towards friends, especially when they're like Sinclair. 

 

Back in California, before everything went down, Billy hung out with guy in his class called David. They were friends, good friends, not like any of the other dickheads he knew. He wore the ugliest reading glasses, poor guy, but could charm girls so quickly it gave Billy whiplash. They spent afternoons talking shit about some of the guys, laughing over a beer he had taken from his dad. 

 

It had been a while since Billy had laughed like that. But of fucking course Neil intervened. He just didn't like him, or some bullshit. And after a particularly bad fight with Neil, Billy just gave in. Learnt with the hard thump of a blow landing against his cheekbone that it didn’t matter what he thought, or how stubborn he was or how much he enjoyed spending time with that kid. 

 

He turns the radio volume up. The lighter in his hand flickers, lights on the third try. 

 

Truthfully, as much as he really does treat Max badly, he doesn’t want to see her hurt. Family’s family, even if it’s not blood related. The idea that Neil could one day change his mind about Max’s stubborn nature sickens him. Billy deserves what he gets, but Max? She’s all good intentions wrapped up in red hair and an eternally pissed-off face.

 

She eventually notices his car, pulled into a second row parking spot. They exchange a quick glance. Billy can tell she’s worried he’ll get angry with her, plastering a half-smile on her face. He doesn’t mind, continuing to sit and smoke.

 

In all honesty, it’s kind of a nice afternoon in Hawkins. He doesn’t mind sitting in the warm sun for a while, letting it bathe other him through the Camaro’s windows. Then, Steve fucking Harrington shows up. 

 

There’s this scowl on his face, rolling his eyes as one of the kids clambers at him for a soda. Four plastic cups, straws poked in the middle, miraculously balance in his arms.

Billy can’t believe his eyes, really. King Steve, returning again to the rightful throne of -  babysitter

 

The humour of it all wears off pretty quickly though, considering that last time Billy saw him he beat his face to a fucking pulp. He sighs, leaning his head back into the driver's seat and exhaling cigarette smoke. At least Steve hasn’t noticed his presence. 'Cause Steve Harrington is dangerous. Billy’s always had a soft spot for playing with fire. It’s the same reason he speaks back to Neil when he knows he shouldn’t, tests the limits. And Harrington is the definition of fire, so bright and tempting, takes the bait so easily. But he’s still Harrington, who understandably hates Billy’s guts and went out with prissy Wheeler. 

 

It’s way past five now, but Max appears to be making some kind of effort to leave. She pats Byers on the shoulder, smile on her face, and throws the now empty cup into the trash. Her face suggests she must have noticed Billy poking his head out of the window, and gives him a subtle nod. He nods back at her, beginning to grow impatient and slightly worried. She must understand, because she rolls her eyes and turns to Sinclair.

 

They say their goodbyes, exchanging smiles and pulling each other in for a hug. Max walks alway and heads over to Billy.

 

“Took your time.”

 

She smiles. It’s a shy look on her, but he knows she’s grateful.

 

“Yeah, yeah,”

 

The drive home is quiet, but not filled with the usual poison that silence between them holds. Just a tired layer of peace. Max looks out her window and stares at the evening sunset. 

 

The lights are on in the living room when they pull up. The Camaro stops, and Billy can feel his breathing begin to quicken. He hates the way his body anticipates it, as if it’s so expected or dare say deserved that he can feel the hits before they even come. The feeling gets squashed down, swapped for carefully reconsidering whether letting Max have her fun was really worth it. But her smile, the hand on Sinclair’s shoulder - Billy had that shit torn away from him once, and he doesn’t want that for her too.

 

She says a quiet thanks and opens the passenger side door. The wall to the front door is purposefully slow, like there’s a thrum of electricity that hangs on both of their shoulders. Billy knows Neil’s definitely pissed the moment he opens the door. 

 

He greets Billy with a scowl on his face. There’s alcohol on his breath, bottles of beer cluttered on the kitchen table. A hockey game plays from the television. The metallic sound of cutlery clashing together rings from the kitchen - Susan must be doing the dishes.

 

“What do we always have to talk about, Billy?”

 

“One of Max’s friends got left behind. Wouldn’t leave until her Dad came to pick her up.” He pauses, giving Neil a smile he hopes might work. “You know how it is. She’s a good kid.”

 

Neil steps closer, forcing them to make eye contact. “That doesn’t answer my question, does it now?”

 

Billy’s really considering bashing his own fucking head into the wall right now. 

 

Instead, he murmurs, “No sir.”

 

Anger spreads across his face. “What was that?”

 

“No sir.”

 

“That’s your sister, Billy. It’s your job to bring her home at the right time. Your responsibility,” he reverberates the word by slamming him against the wall. 

 

“She -“ he can barely utter more than a syllable before Neil swings at him. 

 

There’s no crack, but the sting hits right away.

 

‘’Please,’’ he begs. Fuck, when Neil’s this blind with rage there’s not much to do; no breathing room. There’s times where it’s a game of tug and war, and Billy bites back like a dog with a bone. Not now, though. His chest wheezes with the effort of sustaining breath, lungs rattling deep within his chest, his drumming heart shaking with the exertion. 

 

Another kick. It rebounds against the four walls of his bedroom, and Billy honest to God wonders if this is it. The devil’s coming for his forsaken soul, he thinks, with all the satisfaction of a man who’s been praying for death far too long. 

 

He wheezes again. The hit to his gut wasn’t strong enough to really make a dent, but enough to feel it. 

 

“Do you understand, Billy?”

 

He chokes on his words, brow furrowing with exertion.

 

“Do you understand, Billy?” Neil repeats, yelling louder this time.

 

“Yes,” he coughs.

 

Neil gives a half-hearted kick. “I hope so, son.'' he shakes his head in disapproval and leaves the house, taking the time to slam the front door on the way out. 

 

Billy tries to take a deep breath in, but it hurts. The sob that comes from his body is quiet enough that Max won’t be able to hear it in her bedroom. He stays slouched against the wall for a little while, waiting for the adrenaline to go down and stop making the room spin.

 

There’ll be a really pretty shiner on his face now. Maybe Billy will say he ran into a pole or some shit. It’s a terrible excuse, he thinks, but it’s kind of amusing to just throw excuses at people with no further explanation. 

 

Thank God Billy got a stash of weed from Tommy the other day. Sure, it was supposed to be for their Sunday afternoon ‘gathering’, but Tommy didn’t need to know he’d broken into it.

 

Susan peeks out of the kitchen like a scared animal. She doesn’t say a single word.

 

——

 

He takes his car out to the junkyard. It’s light enough that the sky is a violet colour, stars only just beginning to show themselves. There’s enough beer for the night in his backseat, bought from the dodgy place just at the edge of town that will turn a blind eye if the price is right. 

 

After a moment of sitting on the hood, something gives in his body. A string pulled too taut, maybe, stretched out so far it has finally snapped. Tears roll from his eyes. Ugly, ugly, crying overtakes; Billy is all swollen eyes, choked sobs and sniffing. He tries his best to stop it or at least stave off the wet hitches in his breath, but it proves to be overwhelmingly hopeless. Fingernails dig into the flesh of his palm, fists clenching with a constant harsh rhythm. 

 

He takes a swig from the beer bottle. It doesn’t help, still feels like the frustration will explode out of his body and leave him as meaty chunks on the ground. His breath shakes.

 

In a moment of particularly stupid decision making, Billy smashes the bottle against the metal of the hood.

 

“Fuck!” 

 

Blood drips from the cuts in his palms, staining his jeans. They’re one of his nice pairs, too, only one small tear at the knee. 

 

Out of instinct he rubs at his nose, spreading the blood on his face too. Jesus Christ, he thinks, how many kinds of fucked up must he look right now? 

 

Pain stings at his head, which makes him even more frustrated. This feeling is shockingly familiar, greeting him like a warm friend. 

 

The blindingly bright headlights which pull up behind the parked Camaro are not at all familiar.