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Keep the Car Running

Chapter Text

 

“Whoa, is that Billy Hargrove?”

Steve whipped his head up from restocking candy. He caught the tail end of a jean jacket and a mop of curly hair walking by the video store. “Yeah…”

Robin came over to rest her elbows on the counter. “He looks… okay.”

“I think he got out last week.” He knew because he’d driven Max — and sometimes El — to visit him in the facility. It was already August, which meant Billy had been in there almost a month.

“Wasn’t he in, like, really bad shape?”

“Yeah, but they really had to keep him longer because his tests were off the chart, or weird, or something. Is what Max said,” he tacked on. He’d actually heard it from Billy himself after Max had randomly asked if he had any cigarettes on him — which he didn’t, because he hadn’t smoked in a year, but then after thinking about it he stopped and got some on the way. They hadn’t been letting Billy smoke in there. I’m fine now, he’d said, holding the contraband with his half-bandaged hands and setting his jaw. I don’t even feel weird. But his hands had been shaking when he finally got to lighting it. Steve would never look at him the same no matter how he felt.

There was a small ‘huh’ from beside him. Maybe Robin didn’t want to think about weird black monster blood dripping out of the guy, either.

 

He saw Billy sitting at the bus stop on the way to his car. It made him think of ramming the Camaro, and something shot down to his stomach; guilt, maybe. He realized for the first time that it was probably totaled.

“Hey,” flew out of his mouth.

Billy glanced up over his shoulder, his eyebrow quirked. It was still weird to see him normal. Not only after seeing him as a possessed murderous monster, but the year before, when he was… kind of similar, but all human.

“Uh. Hi,” Billy said. Maybe Steve was nuts, but he sounded awkward.

“You take the bus?”

His brain was apparently still stupid.

“Someone killed my car,” Billy said without much spite. He was still only half turned to look at Steve from the bench, but his focus shifted to some people behind him and his face became unreadable. When Steve looked around, it was an old couple still craning their heads to stare at the two of them while they walked by.

Steve didn’t want to talk about the car, anyway. “Where’s Max?”

“I don’t know. I’m—” he cut himself off and sucked in his lower lip. Then he didn’t even finish, just stared in the direction those old people went. Like he kind of forgot Steve was there.

“Do you, um, want a ride?” Steve offered, wanting to punch himself in the face.

Billy’s eyebrow agreed: what the hell is wrong with you? And then he clarified: “What’s your deal?” But it didn’t sound mean, only tired and a touch suspicious. He was really deflated from the guy Steve remembered from school, so it just kind of bounced off him.

“What?” He feigned impatience, no big deal. “I’m going home, alright, I can drop you or whatever.”

“Don’t think I live anywhere near your ass.”

“Do you want a ride or not?” He crossed his arms before he remembered how allegedly mom-ish it made him look.

Billy huffed and looked down the street where there was no sign of a bus. Steve could tell a guy like him would just hate taking the damn bus. It wasn’t that he felt bad for him, but he felt bad for… well, he’d feel bad for anyone in Billy’s position, even if it happened to be Billy. Especially when, technically, Steve was the reason he had to take the bus at all. Even if he only destroyed his car to save people while Billy was trying to kill everyone — it was like Steve still did something wrong to him. That’s the level of stupid his brain was operating on.

A second later, Billy got up and said, “Fine,” as if Steve was begging him or something.

But while they went around the corner to his car, he really did feel like people were staring at them. And they kind of were — like those old folks watching Billy, they were turning heads. He didn’t look back to see Billy’s face but he pictured a scowl. It must have been that news got out about his involvement in the ‘mall fire’ cover-up, or maybe everyone knew he’d been possessed and, in a way, behind a bunch of the disappearances. And the deaths.

“That’s your piece of shit?” he said tightly when Steve stopped to unlock his car.

“It’s a car, man.” It was ugly, sure. It wasn’t the Beemer his dad had given him and then taken away from him. It was untouchably hot inside and out and was absolutely miserable to drive in, and it rattled a lot, sometimes—

Billy just shrugged and went around to the passenger’s and waited for it to unlock, looking down at the handle.

After they got in, Steve rolled down his window and nodded for Billy to do the same on his side. “No AC. Sorry.”

“Whatever.”

Billy lit a cigarette before Steve even got the car in reverse. That set the tone for the rest of the ride, his mouth and his hands occupied. Steve glanced twice at them when he lifted one to his mouth. They had scars — a lot of them faded, the type that would probably disappear after a while, but there were big ones too that were still almost fresh looking and deeper, gouged around his hand or down his fingers. A couple up his wrists, too. The image of Billy shoving his hands into the monster’s mouth popped into his mind, and it’d been so vivid and clear despite the pandemonium. Loud and not like this moment at all.

“So, um, when did you get out of the— the hospital?” Steve asked.

Billy looked out the front window, stopping his gaze before it turned all the way to him. “Two weeks ago.”

“Shit, they kept you in there for a long time.”

He exhaled smoke, watching the road. Steve kept on wondering and biting his tongue.

“I guess they ran out of things to ask me,” Billy said finally. “Tests to do.”

“What kind of tests?”

“Brain scans, blood tests, uh — weird ones that didn’t make sense. Looking at videos and shit, sitting in the cold. Or the heat. Interviews.” His voice seemed kind of flat and so did his expression, when Steve looked. “Just kept telling them the same stuff from the beginning, but I guess it took ’em awhile to catch on.”

Steve thought back to his one night being interviewed by the Feds, stuck in that same facility as Billy, as harrowing as that was for only twenty-four hours. Still sweaty and bloody and in a stupid sailor outfit, almost as much of an interrogation as he’d suffered from the Russians — not sure if the government was finally going to dump his body somewhere and add him to the list of casualties.

He didn’t have anything to contribute and had no idea why he even brought this up, but for the life of him he couldn’t think of anything else they had in common.

“You and that Robin chick dating now?”

“What? No,” Steve said, almost swerving. “Why? What makes you say that?”

“You’re always hanging out. I mean, that’s what Max keeps saying.” Billy shrugged and looked out his window again, turning away.

“Man, she’s nosy.” He couldn’t actually imagine Max having that level of interest in his love life, or his life at all, despite all the chauffeuring he’s done. “We’re just friends.”

“You tried to get in her pants and she wasn’t into it.”

This time he did swerve. “Jesus Christ! No.”

Billy barked out a quick laugh but didn’t keep ribbing like he might have used to. “Yeah, yeah.”

“We went through…” he started to rethink the sentence halfway through, “a lot together.”

“Mm. Russians?” Billy took a long drag on the cigarette then blew it out the window.

He sighed. “I know it sounds like a bad movie.”

“Yeah, the whole thing does.”

Steve had to laugh a little.

 

It turned out that Billy had started working at the grocery store down Main Street, not far from Family Video. The town center was in the middle of a little revival since the mall’s demise, with some of those closed-down storefronts reopening and extra foot traffic buoying the shops that had still been hanging on.

It also turned out that Billy smoked like ten chimneys since he got out of the government facility, and used every break he had to suck nicotine down like his life depended on it.

Another coincidence was that the alley behind the video store connected, distantly, to the alley behind the grocery store, so Steve could see the guy lighting up outside on most days, rain or shine. He may not have smoked much anymore, but that gave him the itch again.

 

“Glacier chunk.”

It was pouring down rain outside, a dark late-summer storm sweeping across Hawkins. Steve eyed the street, but no one had walked by in ten minutes and there had barely been anyone in the store all day. Even Keith had stopped in and then gone home early. At least the tornado sirens weren’t sounding, but they had the radio on low just in case.

“Four letters.”

He’d given Billy a few rides over the past few weeks when he happened to run into him at the bus stop. By now he knew that they worked at the same time on Wednesdays and that he would pass Billy sitting on the bench that day when he clocked out. Except the rain was pelting hard enough to hurt, so maybe not. Didn’t he ever get a ride, from his parents maybe?

“Steve.” Robin tapped his arm with her pencil.

“Huh.”

“Glacier chunk?”

“Uhh.” He considered for a minute, but just thought of the Titanic, choppy freezing waves at night and a bunch of people drowning. Old rich ghosts. Maybe those stupid idiots deserved it.

A tiny pang of guilt. After a minute, Robin hummed, moving onto the next hint in her puzzle.

He worked up to saying, “You know, Billy’s really different.”

She perked up beside him — he could tell without looking. “How so?”

“Like, not as annoying. Less of an asshole.”

“Makes sense, I guess. And, I mean, you used to be a major asshole,” she pointed out.

“Yeah,” was all he could say. He tried not to shy away from that fact but it still made him cringe, how stupid he’d been. And, even up until this last time with the monsters and the near-death experiences, how much dumb shit he’d still cared about. He wasn’t sure why he felt he had to defend Billy, either. “It’s just weird.”

She turned quieter. “What I find weird is how this town gets back to normal.” They had talked a lot like this under cover of night or rainstorms or solitude, and Steve had told her the whole story against the orders of the government because she’d seen a monster once and still been braver than him. He’d seen that shit three times. She deserved to know the whole thing. Now, in their well-lit fishbowl in the storm, she dove right back in. “Even if they managed to cover the whole thing up, thirty people went missing or died. ‘Died in the fire.’ And I remember Barbara Holland, too, when that happened.” Steve swallowed, thinking of his pool illuminated blue at night. “At the time I thought that kind of thing would never happen to me. But she disappeared without a trace. And Will Byers going missing, too, and dying, and then coming back.”

“Yeah — and all of it bullshit.”

“Crazy,” she muttered, looking out at the rain now too. “People just forget. I feel like I’m never gonna get back to normal again, even if I moved across the country.”

“You will.” It might not have been entirely true, but who could say?

“I don’t know, Steve,” Robin said, sounding rare and sincere. “But at least I’m not the only one.”

 

He waited at the video store for an hour past his shift’s end. Finally, Robin called Keith up — he was way more likely to listen to her than he was to Steve. She convinced him to let them close the store up early because nobody has come in all day, Keith, so we’ll take the hit. Losing a couple hours of pay was more of a hit to her, anyway. But the radio was already advising people to stay off the roads.

“Thanks,” she said after they did their closing routine as quickly as they could. “I owe you one.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“Oh, wait.” She booked it toward one of the back rows and entered the foreign films section. It only took her a few seconds to locate something.

“I’m too tired, Rob,” Steve started to complain.

“No, you’ll like this one.” She came back with a Clint Eastwood movie in hand. “I was gonna get the Kurosawa film that this was based on, but I don’t think you’ll appreciate it as much, because, you know.” He didn’t. “This one’s like a Western. Kind of. See?”

“Yeah,” he said uncertainly. The guy on the front was definitely a cowboy. Or an outlaw, whatever. At least Clint Eastwood was cool. “Is it in color?”

She nodded earnestly. “Come on. Hang out with me.”

So he gave her a ride home and stayed there a while.

 

Robin’s house was kind of like the Byers’: one level and not kept up all that well. Not that they were poor (she said), but her dad was at work or the bar more often than he was home, and her mom was too busy taking care of her grandma, who was a ghost-like TV-watching presence they always had to walk past. Steve felt guilty for being unsettled by the sound of the old lady’s oxygen tank and deep coughing fits; it made him think about depressing shit like getting old and dying alone, but Robin was used to the whole scene.

“Hey,” she greeted her mother, who looked up from writing a list out at the kitchen table.

“Oh, Steve, hi.” She looked suddenly interested, nearly even excited when she caught sight of him.

“Hi, Mrs. Buckley.”

“We closed early,” Robin told her, “Bad weather. Steve gave me a ride.”

“Oh, that’s really nice. Do you want to stay for dinner?”

“Yeah,” Robin answered for him, taking his hand and leading him down to her room.

Steve shrugged his work vest off once they got there. Her bedroom was a warm, eclectic disaster with a real cocoon-like quality. She had a pink lampshade that made him feel like he was in a lava lamp, and he couldn’t move without stepping on some random artifact from her childhood or her most recent interest.

“She thinks we’re dating, doesn’t she?”

“Yeah. Well. I haven’t corrected her,” Robin said, avoiding his eyes and dropping her stuff wherever she happened to be standing.

“Oh. I mean...”

She shrugged. “Yeah.” They both kind of looked around until she went to clear stuff from in front of her little TV. “It’s just easier. Do you mind?”

“Nah. I’m sure my mom thinks the same thing.”

“Oh yeah? How does she think I measure up to your past girlfriends?”

“They just keep getting better and better,” he said. She glanced over her shoulder in front of the VCR, giving him an awkward smile. That whole thing was fine — really, it was. He still kind of loved her, sure, but he didn’t love her like he’d loved Nancy. And he could really hang out with her in a way he never could with Nancy, so maybe that was better. Half the time he just felt fucking confused about the whole thing and wondered if she did too.

“Well, I think my mom is probably relieved. I don’t know, I just walk out of the room whenever she brings it up.”

He laughed a little. She smiled just a bit, one of those sad ones. She probably wasn’t kidding.

“So this is Italian, technically, even though it’s got Clint Eastwood,” she said, putting the tape in and starting it. “You know, they dub all their dialogue over after they film. But don’t worry, it’s in English.”

They settled on her bed with their backs against the wall to watch. He wondered whether her mom thought he was slipping it to her in here and if she was happy her daughter finally found a guy. She didn’t come knocking about dinner at any point during the movie, so he figured that was the case.

Throughout the gratuitous scenery shots and gritty close-ups of Eastwood’s face, Robin made half as many comments as she usually did. She slid down the wall a bit to rest her head on his shoulder, and after a minute of deliberation he tipped his head onto hers. What was weird was that it didn’t feel weird at all. He’d never just been good friends with a girl without feelings screwing it up one way or another. Now that they couldn’t, he could just feel however he felt about her and know that nothing would happen anyway. It was kind of freeing.

“Are you bored?” she mumbled at some point.

“Little bit.”

Her chuckle vibrated against his left temple. “I’m helping you keep your job.”

“Just don’t get mad if I fall asleep right here.”

“Don’t tell me what to do.” He laughed this time. “Besides, you think my mom wouldn’t love it if you slept over?”

“I never had it so easy. Y’know I used to have to climb in windows.”

“So that’s why you were so athletic.”

“You bet. Your mom’s a weird lady.”

Robin sighed, then after a minute she sniffed. It sounded suspicious. Steve craned his neck to get a look. “Are you crying?”

“No. I’m just on my period.” Her eyes were glassy looking but she kept them on the movie.

He put his head back down on hers uncertainly. “Uh, thanks for the info.”

“This is a really good score,” she said quietly.

“What score?”

“The music, dingus.”

He smiled. After another minute, she said, “I’m not mad that my mom thinks we’re dating. Or, sad, or whatever. It’s just… you know.” She gestured vaguely and dropped her arm. “I’m never gonna get to… really date someone that I want to.” He didn’t know what to say for several seconds, until she added, “Sorry to be a downer.”

“Nah.” He nudged her. “That really sucks. You could sneak around, you know?”

“With who?”

“I don’t know. We’ll find you some hot lady.”

She snorted. “No thanks.”

“Or maybe not hot, based on your tastes.”

She nudged him harder in the ribs. “Shut up and watch the freaking movie.”

They settled back down, but the weight of the whole thing stayed on them. Steve was so bad at keeping it a secret when he liked someone, and that’s what she’d always had to do. Maybe would always have to do. He couldn’t have handled that; it made him feel like even more of an idiot for blurting out how he felt to her. It’d seemed like such a big deal at the time — but it was so much more complicated for her if she ever wanted to do the same thing.

“Hey, have you ever kissed anyone?”

She moved her head away and sat back from him, squinting. “Why?”

“I don’t know. I’m just — wondering?”

“No,” she said after a few seconds. “And I’m not about to practice on you.”

“But I’m good at it,” he teased. She slumped back against the wall with her arms crossed. “Didn’t you say you went out with Caleb Delaney last year?”

“For, like, a week.” She feigned gagging. “I was just using him for a date to the dance. I broke that off before he could get anywhere near my face.”

“Yeah, I don’t blame you. Those teeth.” He thought for a minute. “Although. If you had a chance with any girl in school, who would you go for?”

“If you had to go for any guy, who would you go for?” she shot back.

He tried not to flinch away from the question, but he did a little bit. “Uh, none of them.”

“Come on.”

“No, really.” He didn’t want to seem uncomfortable at the question, for her sake, but he was. He thought of the time Tommy said, Getting an eyeful for later, Harrington? when he zoned out in the showers and his eyes drifted downward.

She rolled her eyes. “That’s typical. You can’t even think about it hypothetically, just like every guy on the planet.”

“Hey, that means we’re in the same boat. I’m into girls, you’re into girls.”

“No, it doesn’t.” She didn’t seem mad at him, but they finished watching the movie with a foot of space between them. It was like he was in the doghouse again.

After, they wandered out to heat up some kind of rice bake her mom had left out; she’d gone into her bedroom, and Robin’s grandma was still stationed in the living room. He could hear the ticking of their grandfather clock even over the TV. Now that it was nighttime, there were only little pockets of light in the house — the one over the kitchen table, which they sat under, and the hallway light, and the TV.

“The rain let up,” Robin said.

“Oh, yeah.” He looked out the window to where it was finally only drizzling.

“You better go before my dad comes home. He’d be a little less excited than Mom.”

“You wanna come over to mine?”

“Nah, I’m good.” She smiled at him. It wouldn’t have been the first time she went home with him just to get out of her own house. “You want to take the rest of this?” She nodded her head to the half-eaten casserole. “My mom will understand.”

“Nah. I’ll manage.” It wouldn’t have been the first time for that, either.

“See you tomorrow, then, dingus. Hope I didn’t waste my time trying to educate you.”

His parents were in bed by the time he got home. Only the stairwell light was on, and everything else shone faintly blue from the pool outside. The house wasn’t empty, but it felt like it.

 

Then: a sunny day.

Billy was jiggling his leg, scratching absentmindedly at the interior fabric on the door. He must have been caught between packs. He sighed, flopping an arm out the window, but only stayed in that position for a minute before he sat back up and leaned the other way. It was getting on Steve’s nerves.

When he popped open the glove compartment, a bag with a few blunts all but fell out.

“Oh, shit, Harrington.” Billy lifted the baggie to inspect it, all bright now.

“Oh, my God.” Steve smacked his hand down below the window. They were still driving on Main Street and it was the middle of the afternoon. He liked to think he was on the ins with Hopper, given their loosely shared history, but he’d never really tested that theory.

Billy opened the bag up without asking.

“Excuse me,” Steve said. If he could remember correctly — big if — that wasn’t even his weed, but Robin’s. Sadly, he wouldn’t even know who to buy from these days.

“Come on. You got somewhere to be?”

It took him a second, but yes, it did sound like Billy was asking him to hang out.

So they ended up a little ways down a dirt road, pulled off onto a grassy clearing bordered almost neatly by a ring of woods. Tranquil as hell, and decently hidden, so naturally littered with empty bottles and cigarette butts from the Hawkins High students of old. He and Robin might have contributed a little bit. The other day she had carved Hair into a tree, starting his last name but getting lazy real fast and altering it as she saw fit.

“Nice,” Billy commented as they stepped out of the car.

“You never came here?”

“Nope. You goddamn hillbillies.” But the gist of a smile was hanging onto his face.

“Yeah, well, you’re very welcome.” Steve lit the blunt and got it started, watching Billy wander the periphery for a minute, peer into the trees, and kick at the burned-out pile of rocks that made a hazardous fire pit. He looked pretty chill. Maybe it was being out here away from all the people. Even though Steve made a point to avoid the woods as a general rule, this area felt safe even if only because he and Robin had come here so many times to get un-sober. And always during the day, if they could manage it.

“Gimme that.” Billy had appeared near him. When he grabbed the joint and took a drag, his eyes slipped shut.

“I came here all the time sophomore and junior year when my parents weren’t out of town,” Steve said just for something to say. “With the guys, I mean.” Carol included.

“Not last year, with Wheeler?” Billy’s eyebrows lifted suggestively.

He had to smile a little, a twinge at the old wound. “You know, she wasn’t the type to come smoke in the woods.”

“Yeah, no shit.” Billy shook his head. “How you even put up with a chick like that, I’ll never know.”

“Hey.” But even that didn’t sting much anymore.

Billy looked like he was contemplating something, looking up into the leaves. The sun was at a perfect angle and intensity to halo him in gold, a coincidental side effect of his hair. The high must have been kicking in early, because Steve’s eyes caught on that and wouldn’t let go until Billy shook his head and looked back down.

“What?” Steve asked.

“Nah.”

“Nah, what?”

“Just, she was a mean shot. Almost.” He started a leisurely pace around the clearing.

“Yeah, she — she is,” Steve fumbled. “She’s, like, really capable.”

Billy laughed a bit, just a quick heh. He sure was hogging the joint. “That’s kinda hot, I guess.”

Steve was at a loss. Billy wasn’t facing him now, anyway, but he got the sense they were teetering on the edge and the moment could go either way. It sometimes felt like Billy maybe wanted to talk about it — it in this case being Nancy almost shooting him in the face, and that whole thing — or that even if he didn’t want to, he didn’t avoid it. Like he was baiting Steve.

But ultimately, it was a sunny, pretty day. Billy said, “I knew a lady back in Cali who used to go shooting plates out in the desert.”

Steve relaxed. “Yeah?”

“Yeah, she had rifles hanging up on her wall. Don’t really know if they were real or BB guns. She said she’d take me sometime.” He paced back and handed the goods over. “But the desert sucks.”

Steve could picture him driving the Camaro out there, though, if only to kick up a ton of dust. “Was she your aunt or something?”

“Fuck, no.” Billy belted a genuine laugh, and Steve joined in even though he didn’t get what was so funny. “I just cleaned her pool sometimes. She paid me pretty well and, you know, invited me in for some ‘lemonade.’”

“Uh—”

“Yeah, that.” Billy’s laughter kept bubbling up like he couldn’t stop it, and it was infectious even though Steve was pretty sure they were talking about him sleeping with some middle-aged lady.

Or maybe he was making it up. “You’re kidding, right?”

“Aw, come on.” Billy elbowed him. “I got a way with housewives, man.”

Housewives?”

Once again — when Steve needed answers the most, no less — Billy’s laughter faded and he kind of zoned out, looking up, his smile slackening until it was an afterthought on his face. Lost in thought. Hopefully he wasn’t thinking about getting BJs from forty-year-old women on a deck chair by a pool. Or whatever. Steve shook his arm, sort of desperate.

Billy’s attention snapped back. He took one look at Steve’s face, whatever it looked like, and his face twisted in suppressed laughter. “Tommy,” he managed.

“Tommy?”

“I can’t remember his last fucking name. Mrs., uh—”

“Tommy’s mom?”

Billy sat down in the grass suddenly like the hilarity had knocked him off his feet.

Steve realized he was still laughing too, but he was sort of horrified. “You’re full of shit.”

“No,” Billy said, wiping his eye with the heel of his hand. Steve had never seen him laugh this hard, or probably laugh for real at all. “Yeah, and before you ask, she’s covered in freckles, head to fucking toe.”

Now Steve fell on his ass.

 

They ended up lighting another joint and sinking to lie on their backs in the grass. The sun laid down too and threw orange light over them. Billy was smiling lazily. His eyes looked like they wanted to shut but they drifted from cloud to cloud, or something up there where the sky was pinkish. Steve thought he was so interesting to look at. He couldn’t stop, just, considering him: this guy he couldn’t stand, who’d beaten the shit out of him, who was still kind of an asshole but kind of okay, who’d recently tried to murder them all.

They hadn’t said anything in a little while. Five minutes or fifteen minutes. Steve felt pretty good — even better than when he got high with Robin, either because they typically only smoked one joint between them or because they were so used to talking about troubling stuff. He was actually kind of proud of how good he felt right then.

“What are you thinking about?” Which sounded stupid but in a distant way, like he was watching a movie about a couple of idiots.

“California.”

“Not the housewife.”

“Nah.” Billy’s dreamy look stayed. His voice was rough from smoking. “Sky’s the same. If I don’t look at the leaves.”

Steve looked at the sky, trying to picture it over a beach with palm trees swaying and beach waves lapping and whatnot. But he found the distinctly Hawkins noises the most comforting: summer leaves rustling, birds chirping, cicadas buzzing louder over all of it.

He turned his head to Billy again, feeling a little floaty. “What does it sound like?”

The smile widened. His eyes, too obviously red, searched the sky. But he didn’t answer.

“Toucans?” Steve guessed.

Billy laughed. “What the fuck?”

“No, wait.” Jesus Christ. “No, seagulls.”

He settled back to his little smile. “Sure.”

“Water— waves. I dunno… coconuts falling on heads.”

Billy snickered. “It ain’t Gilligan’s Island. You ever been to a beach?”

“Florida. Bermuda. With my parents, so it sucked.” He was pretty sure a coconut did fall on a guy’s head at the resort, resulting in a lawsuit that his dad just wouldn’t shut up about for the rest of the trip.

“Stupid,” Billy muttered. “Toucans.”

Steve laughed, then sighed. He pushed himself up to sitting in a Herculean effort. “I’m starving.”

“Me, too. I can’t go home like this.” Billy still seemed to be in his West Coast trance. He glanced over at Steve and grinned. “Neither can you, Harrington.”

“Well, then, shit.”

“What about your girlfriend’s place?”

“Not my girlfriend. She’ll kill me for smoking those without her.”

“Tell her the dog ate them.”

“I don’t have a dog,” he muttered. Billy was unconcerned, closing his eyes in the perfect picture of relaxation. “Dude, don’t go to sleep.” Aside from being totally ravenous, he wanted to get out of the woods before the sun went down, and it was getting on past the horizon already. He resorted to punching Billy’s arm with steadily increasing force.

“Fuck off.” Billy finally rolled over and sat up, shaking himself out like he’d just woken up from a nap. The back of his jacket had the vaguest hint of grass stains, and there was a curled leaf stuck in his hair. Steve reached for it automatically. Billy’s eyes tracked his hand as if in slow-mo, wondering and then wary. As Steve grabbed the leaf he suddenly caught onto a weird energy between them.

Billy inched back, then pushed to his feet, rocking on his heels a bit. No more smile. “I gotta go, actually.” He rubbed at his eyes, getting them to focus.

“What?” That would really derail their food plans — Steve was hoping for a big-ass burger. Maybe some fried chicken.

“Yeah.” He seemed to falter, jamming his hands in his pockets and looking down at him. He still looked really obviously high. Even Steve wouldn’t have gone right home like that, and his parents were clueless. “Thanks,” Billy said after a moment.

“Uh, sure.”

Then he walked off past the car.

“Don’t you want a ride?” Steve said after him. He hadn’t even gotten up off the ground yet. Billy just waved a hand behind him in a yeah, yeah gesture before returning it to his pocket. He didn’t even look back.

Chapter Text

He didn’t think he’d see Billy again for a while, but of course the guy walked into the video store the very next day.

Steve was trying to help old Mrs. Meyer find a specific classic. Her son had just gotten her a VCR, apparently. She couldn’t remember the name of the particular movie and he didn’t know shit about this era of film, so she’d resorted to squinting at each cover until she found it. If it wasn’t among the first few shelves, he could be standing there for an hour.

He didn’t immediately recognize the voice in the background; he craned his head to look above the rows of videos and spotted Billy leaning against the front counter, deep in conversation with Robin. Giving her all of his attention, it looked like. He felt funny about it, part jealous and a little like her brother, and even though he was getting along with Billy now, he didn’t really want any girl he cared about talking to him.

He had to remember that, in this case, she wasn’t in any real danger. Probably.

“Honey, can you read this name?” Mrs. Meyer asked, holding a video case up to him.

Steve tore his eyes away from the front counter to read Jack Lemmon in the small print, and before she could start discussing the guy, he said, “Excuse me for a minute.”

“Oh, I like him,” he heard her say to herself as he darted away.

Billy nodded once to him when he got to the front. “Harrington.” Robin turned toward him and she was actually smiling. Steve had expected her to be irritated, at least.

“What, is it movie night at your house?” he asked.

“Nah.” Billy turned that grin back to Robin again. “Just stopping by.”

“So you made it home last night.”

He only raised his eyebrows in response, looking bored. “Uh, yeah.”

Robin glanced between them, then she gestured between herself and Steve. “We have movie nights sometimes. So I can teach him to contribute more in the workplace.”

He blew out a breath. “And you two aren’t a thing?”

“Nope.” She clicked her tongue. “I’m out of his league.”

Billy looked delighted. “Yeah you are, sweetheart.” Steve gagged a little, making sure they both heard him.

They went on like that for, good God, five minutes or something. Steve saw Mrs. Meyer’s head peek out of the aisle and search for him, so he had to go back over until she eventually just settled on that one Jack Lemmon movie. He wanted to dash back to the front every time Robin burst into a cackle. He couldn’t believe Billy was charming her. She should have been immune.

He went and rang the old lady up; Robin wasn’t even working, just leaning her elbow on the edge of the counter while Billy mirrored her on the other side. They lowered the volume of their banter, although they didn’t need to because Mrs. Meyer was pretty deaf anyway. He stopped himself from thrusting change at her.

“You two gonna go on a date now?” he said irritably as the door bell dinged on her exit.

“Hmm,” Robin tapped a finger on her chin thoughtfully.

“You out of my league too, Buckley?” Billy asked.

“I dunno, wouldn’t you say so?”

“Oh, my God,” Steve grumbled. Some more people came in the door, kids who made straight for the new releases. “Don’t you have somewhere to be?”

“Don’t get all jealous, man,” Billy gave his shoulder a good-natured slap. It was too reminiscent of the hallways and locker room during that last school year where he was nobody. Maybe that was why it was irking him. “Get your act together and you might stand a chance.”

After he left — with a short wave to Robin and only Robin — Steve turned his dead eyes on her.

“What?” she asked, innocently messing with her messy updo. “He’s funny.”

“Oh, God. It’s like you really do want to date him.”

“Come on, no I don’t. He has some redeeming qualities, anyway,” she mused. “You look at his eyes and you’re like, wow, pretty — even if he is a dude.”

“Uh, okay.”

“You’re the one who said he wasn’t an asshole anymore.” She jabbed at him.

He jumped away. “I didn’t mean it. And he smoked your weed.”

What?

 

The storms were back.

Max kept kicking the back of the passenger seat. In the rearview mirror, Steve could see her tight, furious expression and crossed arms. The slumped posture was reminding him a lot of her brother. Next to her, Lucas was watching her foot nervously, probably wise enough to realize he didn't know precisely how to handle this.

"What's up?" Steve tried.

"My step-dad is a major asshole," she answered immediately.

"Oh, man."

"It's like, we can't talk about anything in the house."

"Like what?"

The kids exchanged a glance in the backseat. For as much as Steve had gone through with them — for them — he was usually out of the loop. Which he figured was probably for the best, since he was five years older than they were, but he still cared about all of them a whole lot.

"They can't mention, like, any of the stuff that happened last month," Lucas supplied.

"It’s like he's trying to pretend none of it even happened. I can’t stand it. And my mom, just going along with it." Max looked out the window, pointedly away from Lucas, and Steve could tell by the tightness of her mouth that she was holding back tears. He put his eyes back on the road, letting the atmosphere settle for a minute and wondering how a guy whose son was locked in a government facility for a month could pretend he wasn’t.

“My parents are like the opposite,” Lucas said to Steve, a clear move to steer the conversation away from Max’s family. “They’re sending my sister to a shrink every week, even though she’s totally fine. I think she handled the whole thing better than they did.” Max snorted and Lucas smiled, side eyeing her. “Now she acts like some big American hero.”

“Oh, she is.” Steve wasn’t even being that sarcastic. “That kid’s A-Team material.”

“Oh, God, don’t let her hear that,” he groaned.

“Are they sending you to one, too?” Max asked him suddenly.

Lucas paused, thrown off. “What?”

“To a shrink.”

There was a silence, and Steve glanced at the mirror to catch Lucas scratching the side of his face awkwardly. He looked self-conscious. “I had to go a couple of times.”

“But we’re not allowed to tell people about it. We all had to sign those things. Your parents did too, right?”

“Yeah, but — see, it’s like a government psychologist.”

“A government one?” Her tone said she thought it was both crazy and stupid, but maybe just a teeny bit of a revelation. “They never said they had one of those. In that government place? Where Billy was?”

“Uh, yeah. Well, they told my parents about it. And Will’s mom and I think Mike’s, too. What’s the big deal?”

“Nothing.” She slouched around to look out the window again.

Lucas had a face like whiplash. “It wasn’t that bad. Not like those FBI agents at first. And, I mean — I didn’t have much to say, anyway. Like, we’d done that crap before, right?”

“Whatever,” Max said, as clear a shut up already as Steve had ever heard from a girl. And Lucas did shut it, looking out the other window with the slightest roll of his eyes, already fed up with her moods for the day. Steve knew they’d be good again by the time they got to the Wheelers’ house. And the posturing from Lucas, the I’m tough and I don’t need no help swagger, he got that too, even if it seemed silly after everything they’d seen.

“Going back to that place must not be that great, though, huh?” Steve commented.

“Yeah, it blows,” Lucas said, blank and moody.

Max snapped, “Like you have any idea.”

Steve had rolled to stop at an intersection and kept his foot on the brake for a moment. “Max,” he said, but it came out really soft.

She only raised her voice in response. Suddenly there were tears in her eyes again. “What? Neither do you. Nobody wants to — to talk about how bad it was. And, I don’t know, that just makes it worse.” She breathed in, wobbly, and then snapped her mouth shut, one last stab at stopping herself. The car was heavy and electric with the force of her screwed-up feelings. Steve could practically feel it on his skin.

“Hey, come on,” Lucas said, the attitude shocked off of him. That just made her mad, too. She scrubbed at her eyes with a fist and that reminded Steve of Billy a lot — the image of him laughing in the woods, rubbing at his eyes, and at the same time the shaking of his hands when he lit that cigarette in the hospital. It was amazing the two Hargrove kids weren’t really related.

“It’s so fucked up,” Max said. Steve still hadn’t taken his foot off the brake. Her voice was unsteady but strong, and brave, and her eyes were staring holes through his window into the park across the street, because she clearly didn’t want to say this to their faces but she had to get it out. “It’s the big monster and the Upside-Down. That happened.” She stressed it like they didn’t know that. “That was real. And Billy — he almost killed us. He killed… a lot of people.”

Steve went cold. He might have cut her off, but he had to say it: “That wasn’t him, Max.”

“Yeah, it’s like Will last year,” Lucas jumped in. Steve was distantly surprised to hear him defending Billy at all. “The Mind Flayer was using him, but he didn’t want to betray us. Billy’s — well, an asshole, but he didn’t want to kill us.”

Max was shivering, like she was freezing or too tense to be still. Her jaw was clenched. It was kind of freaking Steve out. “I know,” she said, and her breath hitched. “It’s just. I know, but he — in my house, it’s like he really did it. It’s like it was his fault.”

Steve almost turned around in his seat as his stomach dropped. “Who’s saying that?”

She had to think. Her eyes were wide. “Nobody. But it’s like, that’s how it feels anyway.”

Somebody honked their horn behind them and Steve jumped. He rolled forward, forgetting where they were even headed and just going straight. He kept wanting to check on Max, who looked tense as a stretched rubber band. Maybe he should have pulled over.

“It’s like even Billy thinks that. But he won’t talk about it either. Sometimes it’s, it’s so obvious that everyone’s thinking about it I feel like I’m…” She searched for the words, but just ended up kicking the passenger’s seat one last time before her face crumpled. She wasn’t crying, just staring out the window with a glassy look.

Sometimes, when he was smart, Steve felt stupid enough to go mute. If he said something to Max now he’d probably just make her cry, and then she’d be pissed at him. It was just like when he never knew what to say to Nancy; he couldn’t make her feel better so he tried just being there with her, eating those awful Holland family dinners that both of them found excruciating. Obviously, that didn’t cut it. Even with Robin, sometimes, when she was wondering just what the fuck the world was all about, which she did a lot these days — she’d say something, throw him a line, wait for the right answer to reel back in, and he’d just miss it. He could tell by the quirk of her mouth and her downcast eyes that he hadn’t said the right thing.

So it was quiet after that. Steve came back down to Earth and looped around toward Nancy’s — well, Mike’s — neighborhood. When he glanced in the backseat again, Lucas’ hand was resting on Max’s arm, by her wrist, but she still wasn’t looking at him. Then another minute later they were holding hands tightly. By the time they reached the Wheeler residence, she had wiped her eyes and plastered on a grin that must have convinced exactly zero of her friends — because they were the real kind of friends and not the kind you could avoid your feelings around, no matter how bad you wanted to.

 

He saw Billy leaned against the wall out behind the grocery store. Steve had his own pack in his car, but he made his way up the alley and pretended he didn’t.

“Can I get one?” he asked when Billy finally acknowledged him and looked up.

It earned him a quick exasperated look. “Fend for yourself, Harrington.” But he fished the pack out of his pocket and tossed it over, followed by his lighter.

Steve dug out a cigarette and lit up. When he handed the pack back, he spotted a purpling bruise on Billy’s jaw that crept up toward the corner of his mouth. Billy met his eyes pointedly for a second as he inhaled. His eyes were clear communicators which right then said, This is the only conversation we’re having about it. So Steve didn’t ask, but it was easy to guess what happened.

He didn’t know what he planned to say, really. Maybe he was going to ask after Max, who’d been on his mind since the ride yesterday. Or even ask how he was doing, which would sound completely stupid no matter how he phrased it. Maybe if Billy had been in a decent mood it would have been easier, but he was giving off a strong brick wall vibe.

After a minute of silent smoking, Billy asked, “Wanna go somewhere?”

“What?”

He shrugged. His eyes looked heavy. “I gotta get out of here.”

“Uh, well, where?”

“An hour away, at least.” Steve laughed uncertainly, but Billy was serious. “Indianapolis, or something. Chicago. Which is closer?”

“Indianapolis, I guess? It’s kind of a dump, man.”

“Hey, it’s a city. Got more going on than this place.”

“What are we gonna do there?”

“We’ll find some fun.” He gave Steve a sly look. “What, you lost your touch that much? Can’t even get yourself into a party anymore?”

Honestly, he wasn’t even sure if he could get invited anywhere in Hawkins, let alone an actual city. He’d been to Indianapolis only during the day and almost never by choice. Not that he wanted to give any of that away — but still, he said, “I don’t know.”

“Well, whatever,” Billy muttered, leaning back against the concrete. It was only because of Max that he noticed now, but Billy was sort of all over the place: restless and twitchy one day, tired and barely looking twice at him the next. He didn’t look like he wanted to go into the city to party right then. Steve didn’t really want to, either — but maybe it would snap him out of this sleepy mood he’d been in for days. Weeks. And Robin was heading back to school really soon.

And with that thought, he said, “Yeah, sure. Let’s go.”

 

He should have known that he’d get stuck driving. Who else was going to do it?

Not only that — Billy had taken over his radio, scanning until he found music jarring enough that he felt the need to turn it up really, really loud. One of Steve’s speakers sounded tinny and crackled, but somehow that just made this kind of music better in a worse way.

Once they got out of Hawkins and music had been blaring for ten minutes, Billy loosened up all the way, rolling down the window so his hair whipped around and sinking down so he could prop a foot against the dashboard. Steve had to stop himself from badgering him about safety or straight-up smacking his foot down like he’d do with the kids.

They hardly talked on the whole drive. Maybe Billy made it that way on purpose. Steve didn’t want to brood, but the sky was a white ceiling and it was getting dark already. He was sick of the weather trying to control his moods, or mirror them — either way, was it so hard to be sunny for two consecutive days?

Fields became neighborhoods and neighborhoods became shittier neighborhoods. The city was close. They spotted the taller buildings as the sun went down and Steve already felt like he didn’t want to be there. Jesus.

Billy, on the other hand, was lighting up.

“Where are we going exactly?” Steve asked.

“I don’t know. Just get in there and park somewhere.”

“Hey, you know, I talked to Max the other day.” It was one of those things that tumbled from the back of his brain right out of his mouth. Billy looked over at him like he was crazy. “When I was driving. Her and Lucas. And she was, like, really upset about—”

“Dude, why are you telling me? She’s always in a mood.”

You’re the same, he wanted to say. And also, weirdly, She’s my kid so I care about her. He needed some distance from those children. Nervous for some reason, he tried: “It just seems, I don’t know, kind of shitty at your house. Just wondering if you wanted to... talk about it.”

Billy actually curled his lip like Steve had spit up or something. “Uh, no. I’m good, Harrington.”

“Okay. Fine.”

They both looked ahead out of the windshield. Steve moved his hands to ten and two, like he could blend into the seat and disappear if he drove generically enough. He felt two parts embarrassed and one part fed up.

“I don’t have to go crying about my asshole dad and dumbass step-mom,” Billy said.

“Yeah, alright.”

He sighed heavily as if Steve were arguing with him. “Can’t we just fucking get some drinks and some chicks and forget about that goddamn backwoods piece of shit town for five minutes?”

Steve rolled his eyes. His bullshit-o-meter was spiking. They drove, and they entered Indianapolis in silence. Billy’s arms were crossed and his one foot was still on the dash, but he was no longer loose in any sense of the word. Steve was gripping the steering wheel too tight, and when he pulled into a parking spot on the street he swung the car over too hard.

Billy kicked open the passenger door and got out to stretch his legs. Steve just took a long breath. He’d be back home soon, but this was going to totally blow.

 

Two hours later he was sitting on someone’s huge sectional in someone’s huge open-concept high-vaulted brick-accent-walled apartment. The people criss-crossing to the different social pockets of the room looked at least a few years older than him. Maybe they were even college grads. Their chatter was layered over a steady stream of popular music coming from somewhere he couldn’t identify.

He had no idea where Billy had gone off to. Frankly, he barely knew how he’d gotten them invited here or whose apartment this actually was; the place looked like it belonged to a lawyer or a rich yuppie, not any of the people he saw.

He was working his way through some rum and a splash of Coke as a group of girls piled together on one end of the couch. If they were anything like the Hawkins girls he was used to, Steve could have charmed his way into the middle of them. He wasn’t bad looking, and his hair looked good tonight, and maybe if he slouched less they wouldn’t be able to spot all the sad details of his life. He should have gotten up to at least try and make friends with someone.

In the end, he sat with his stupid plastic cup looking into the weird fireplace in front of him. He’d never seen one like it. First off, it was a column in the center of the living room — obnoxious. There was a TV-shaped hole in the middle where wispy blue flames waved around, barely taller than a gas stove’s burner. If it was even real fire, it didn’t look hot. He almost got up and put his hand over the flames to see — but then his eyes refocused on the person through the fire, a girl sitting on a sofa directly opposite him. They made awkward eye contact before she turned her head to survey the room, playing with one of her big hoop earrings.

Fifteen minutes later — after he went to take a piss, wandered down the back hallway, drive-by grabbed a bunch of crackers from the kitchen, and went to refill his drink — he ran into the fireplace girl again.

“Hey,” she said. Her tone reminded him of Robin — like she didn’t care about talking to him, but they just happened to be standing next to each other.

Still. Maybe it was because her eyes were kind of big for her face, or that he was bored and fed up with being there, but she looked, maybe, friendly.

“Hi,” he said. “Cool hair.”

“Thanks.” She smiled briefly at that and started to fiddle with her earring again. She had a bob cut and dark lipstick, a style sort of like she was from two decades ago, but her sweater was pretty plain. Her efforts seemed to stop from the neck down. “Are you friends with Regina or Harry?”

“Uh, nope.” He dumped a generous amount of Bacardi into his cup. “I’m Steve.”

“Oh, okay,” she laughed. “I doubt half of these people know them. But now you know what to tell people if they ask. I’m Georgia, by the way.”

It turned out Georgia was pretty cool. The name made her seem like she grew up on a farm, but she’d clearly lived in cities her whole life. They joked together so easily that they ended up next to each other back on the couch. Steve’s thoughts were along the lines of, I still got it — not that he was gonna get up her skirt, necessarily, but she was cool and clearly a few years older than him and she was laughing with him, not at him. That had to count for something. Hell, Robin probably would have loved her.

And it turned out that — well, Steve found out after she’d mentioned some guy named ‘Devin’ at least three times, and he’d asked kind of apprehensively who Devin was, and she said, “My, um, ex-boyfriend,” like the ‘ex’ was still fresh. Then her eyes kept darting around the room like she was searching for the guy. She still laughed at Steve’s stupid jokes, but in a preoccupied way. She took long gulps of her drink that reminded him way too much of Nancy.

“Do you have a girlfriend?” By her tone, you’d think she was asking if he had anyone with cancer in his family.

Steve shook his head.

“What? You’re so funny!” She hit his shoulder with a little too much force.

“Yeah, I guess not everyone thinks so.”

“Dev said I didn’t get him. He said that all the time, but especially at the end.”

“Did he — did he die?” Steve asked, suddenly horrified he’d misread the situation.

“No. He dumped me.” She made it sound worse than death and her eyes got misty. Unlike everyone he’d dealt with lately, she didn’t hide her feelings from her face. “I really thought we were gonna get married someday and everything. And I still don’t even know what I did.”

“Sorry.” He felt helpless. “When my girlfriend broke up with me, I didn’t really get it either.”

“What’d she say?” Georgia asked, obviously looking for any kind of clarity.

“Not much, actually.” He wanted to defend Nancy even to this stranger who would never meet her. The same thought dawned on him again: “I think I’m just stupid.”

“Am I stupid?” she wondered out loud. “Like, maybe he’s right. I got so mad when he used to say that. But maybe I should have just ‘gotten’ it.”

At this point, he thought it might just be impossible to 'get' another person. That's why the both of them had fucked it up. He'd tried with Nancy — although not hard enough, or not in the right way. He didn't even see her drifting away from him. Either way, there was something Jon just got about her that he didn't, or else she saw something in Jon that she'd been looking for in Steve.

Georgia sniffed. “My parents didn’t like him and I don’t wanna tell them, ’cause I don’t want them to be right.”

Steve smiled. “Screw ’em. What do they know?”

“Nothing. They didn’t know him, like, at all.” She laughed and wiped an eye, somehow not smearing her makeup. “I just feel so dumb. I don’t know.”

“Jesus Christ, Harrington, what are you doin’ to this girl?”

Billy flopped down on the couch beside him, spreading his arms along the back and kicking a foot up onto the coffee table.

“Oh, hi,” Georgia said, wiping her tears away more vigorously. Steve had actually forgotten about Billy, and he wasn’t too happy to see him now — he looked wasted and... ruffled.

“Where were you?” he said.

“Mmm. Gettin’ some.” Billy glanced around the room lazily and then nodded to a blonde girl who had just cut out of the hallway and into the kitchen. She didn’t look even close to the same state as him, but her cheeks were red.

“Ugh.” Not that Steve wanted to keep crying about someone else’s ex, but he was irritated at the interruption anyway.

Georgia sniffled again, her eyes wandering over Billy more out of drunkenness than interest. “What happened to your hands?”

“Huh?” He gave her a funny look. Steve got nervous.

“They’re all, like, scratched up.” She looked at his hand closest to her on the back of the couch. “It’s crazy looking. I mean — I’m sorry.”

“It was an accident,” Billy said smoothly enough, but took his hands back and sat up a little.

“Sorry, that was so dumb to say,” she rambled on. “I had a bunch of drinks and I can’t, like, shut up when I do.”

“It’s cool.” He grinned at her and started looking for his cigarettes, which were apparently not in their usual pocket. He was being nice about it, not even pissed off — Steve was pretty sure he would have gotten chewed out for bringing up the same thing. He wondered if Georgia could tell how fake his attitude was. His eyes looked a lot meaner than the rest of his face.

“Regina doesn’t like people smoking in here,” she muttered, glancing around surreptitiously.

“Who’s Regina.” He lit up without a second look at her.

Georgia pointed to the blonde girl Billy had slept with. He glanced over and laughed. That was around when Georgia excused herself to the bathroom, looking totally bashful, throwing an apologetic glance back at Steve.

He sagged into the couch and looked into his plastic cup. There was only backwash left. His vision was making little waves in it.

“Let’s get outta here,” Billy said suddenly.

“I can’t drive right now.”

“I’ll drive. Gimme.” Billy looked totally unfocused, too.

“No,” Steve decided.

God. I’m starving. Let’s just go.”

Maybe he wanted to stay and talk to Georgia more. Maybe he didn’t. He couldn’t just let himself get dragged around, though. “No.”

 

Half an hour later, they were just sitting down at a diner. It was after two in the morning. Steve had stopped to check that his car was still there on the way, but of course no one had touched the Pacer. The 24-hour diner was the only place with light coming out the windows in a three-block radius.

“Some city this is,” Billy muttered as they sat down.

“I told you that.” They only had one sticky menu and Billy snatched it up. Steve wasn’t even hungry. He briefly worried whether the waitress could tell they were drunk, but she didn’t look like she gave a shit about anything. Couldn’t blame her. “I’m crashing.”

“Wake up.” Billy squinted like the words kept sliding out of focus.

“I’ll get a coffee,” Steve said, sinking down in the booth.

“Get a burger with me, at least.”

“Why do I have to?”

“It’s stupid if you just get coffee. How come you didn’t sleep with that chick?”

“She just got out of a relationship. Didn’t seem right,” he muttered, feeling like the kind of stupid idiot who would only get a coffee when he was wasted. The truth was he didn’t want to sleep with her anyway.

“Uh, you never heard of a rebound?”

Steve scoffed. “I’m over that stuff.”

Billy fell silent, surveying the menu, and Steve was content to look blearily out the window at the blinking yellow traffic light until the waitress showed up by their table again.

“Bacon cheeseburger,” Billy said to her.

“Coffee,” Steve said. “And a cheeseburger.”

“You want bacon on that,” the waitress asked with as little interest as a human being could convey.

“Sure.” She left and he looked up to see Billy smiling. It made him laugh. “So, what? Did you go to college parties back in California?”

“Nah. Maybe once or twice. More than enough parties with people my age.” Then he sighed, his eyes drifting down to the table. He pushed his glass of water around to make little roads of condensation. “Miss my car.”

“Huh.” Steve started folding his straw wrapper. “Yeah.”

“That car was like…” he shook his head. Stuff he couldn’t put into words — maybe stupidly, like Steve. But Billy didn’t seem that interested in connecting with him, generally.

“Loud,” Steve offered.

“Uh-huh.”

“A real asshole’s car.”

Billy’s mouth twisted back into a smile. When their eyes met it felt like they snapped together magnetically. “Yeah,” Billy said, moving too slow to look away, “that was the point.”

Steve had never thought about what his BMW said about him, but he’d been a douchebag for most of the time he drove it. So that was pretty accurate. And now, he just didn’t care. That was probably obvious too.

“My dad scrapped it by the time I got out,” Billy said. Steve forgot who had looked away first. “I guess it was a goner, but, I don’t know — stick it in the garage or something. Fucking asshole.” He smeared the water on the table with his hand. “I was so pissed off.”

“My dad got rid of my car after I didn’t get into college.” It sounded pathetic in comparison but it was the first time he’d ever told someone besides Robin that he had actually tried — and failed — to get in anywhere. That he didn’t choose these dead-end jobs. It didn’t matter that everyone could probably see it, especially Nancy and Jon; he still hated to admit it. Even being intoxicated didn’t stop the cringe.

Billy leaned back with a smirk. “Serves your ass right.”

“What about you?” Steve shot back. “I thought you would have jumped to get out of here.”

“Eh. My grades were shit.” He drummed his fingers on the Formica tabletop. “I barely kept my car, too. Now I think I’d just take a Greyhound and go anywhere.”

Steve had thought about that, but only in that passing way you sometimes think you’d be better off dead. He couldn’t picture leaving, really. Ditching Robin and the kids, and his mom, and even Nancy. The saddest part was that it wouldn’t even be to escape how supernaturally off-the-charts Hawkins was, but how hopeless his life had started to seem.

“You ever…” Billy swallowed. “Ever just think, like — this can’t be real?”

For once, Steve knew exactly what he was talking about. “Yeah. If other people didn’t back me up, I think I’d just check myself into the loony bin already.”

Billy’s shoulders sagged. “What if we all belong there anyway?”

“I don’t think so. But sometimes I wonder about everyone else. I mean, Robin said her parents are pretending it never happened.” He might have made that up. She’d forgive him.

“Yeah? Same here,” Billy muttered. Steve’s coffee, which he’d forgotten about, arrived then. They were both suspiciously quiet for a minute while the waitress walked off. He looked into his drink while he waited for Billy to say something else. “It’s Max that… gets in trouble over it. That’s why she was all in a mood yesterday.”

“What happened?” Steve asked. When he finally dared to look up, Billy just looked tired and bored, which he was starting to think was a comfortable mask.

“Well, you know her — not good at keeping her mouth shut.” He was watching the window like he couldn’t say this while looking at Steve; one of those things they wouldn’t acknowledge, same as Max. “I get it, but like… it irritates me, too. Doesn’t she have enough fucking friends to talk to?”

“Not the same, I guess,” Steve said in her defense.

“Yeah? I don’t see the point of talking to Neil and Susan about shit. It’s not gonna happen. Not the way she wants.”

“No, it sucks,” he argued. Billy looked kind of hilariously affronted. “My mom does the same thing. She sweeps stuff under the rug and goes on, like, lighting scented candles about it. It pisses me off.”

“It’s different, Harrington.”

“If she wants to talk about it so bad, why don’t you talk to her?”

“And say what? God, you people are ridiculous.”

“What are you talking about, ‘you people?’”

He was aware they were a spectacle. It was a quiet diner in the middle of the night, but luckily the few people there were too far off into their own world to pay attention.

“There’s no point,” Billy insisted. “There’s no point in bringing it up over and over again. The quicker we all forget about it, the better.”

Steve floundered. He knew that was wrong and he’d learned the hard way with Nancy — but he and Robin talked about stuff all the time, and it never made him feel any better. So who was he to argue?

Two burgers landed in front of them and Billy said, “Thank God.” He picked his up and took a huge bite. Grease dripped onto his fries. Steve’s stomach felt suddenly hollow and he started shoveling his own fries into his mouth to break the tension — then the burger, and thank God he got bacon too. It might have been the best burger he’d ever had in the middle of the night.

Their argument evaporated and they were left with greasy fingers and not enough napkins. Steve drained his coffee, anyway, which by now was just warm.

Billy sat back with his head tilted against the back of the booth, looking at him with half-lidded eyes. “It’s not my fault if you didn’t have fun, y’know.”

Steve laughed tiredly. The coffee helped, but he could have gone to sleep sitting up. “Yeah, yeah. Did you have fun?”

Billy looked up at the ceiling and then watched their waitress bus someone else’s table. He seemed to actually be considering the question. It was a weird moment in a night full of them. “Seriously? I don’t know.”

“Uh, you don’t know? What else do you want to do?”

He shrugged. “Nothing.”

Regina wasn’t fun?” Steve teased without much feeling behind it. It was annoying that Billy had ditched him for half the night, but maybe he would care more tomorrow when he wasn’t so sleepy.

Billy ran a hand down his face and suddenly looked even more worn out than Steve did. He never answered, just leaned forward to grab his wallet out of his back pocket. “You good to drive?”

“Huh? Yeah, I guess. Let me get it,” Steve said out of habit.

Billy waved him off and counted out enough money to cover the check and a decent tip. The sad truth was that they probably made around the same amount of money now that Steve didn’t have his dad’s funds to spend. Not that it stopped his spending, but it should have.

“Come on, man, it’s three in the morning.” Billy slid out of the booth.

He could have complained: it was your idea to come all the way out here, and all I did was sit around crying with some girl. But Billy wasn’t fighting anymore, just saying the time. It was gonna take Steve a while not to always be on the defense around him.

The drive back felt twice as long and three times as quiet. They listened to the same station half as loud with a nighttime DJ playing deep cuts he’d never heard before.

He stopped for gas around four o’clock. It felt kind of illicit to be at a gas station at this time of night, but once he entered the brightly-lit and totally empty little store attached, it was all the same. He filled the tank, fantasizing about sleeping on everything he saw: the car hood, the road, the little diesel-stained crevice between pumps. When he got back in the car, Billy started a bit like he’d just been dozing.

“We’re half an hour away,” Steve said. It sounded like a croak. Shit, he was thirsty.

“Want me to drive?”

“Nah.” He started the car again. “Do you want to just crash at my house?” When Billy looked at him, he said, “Less driving.”

“I just offered to drive.”

“I mean—” He stumbled over his words. “We got guest rooms and everything, and I’ll bring you back in the morning.”

Billy made a face, looked like he wanted to call Steve a fucking weirdo. But he said, “Just drop me at home.”

He sighed and resigned to driving the extra twenty minutes. Billy toyed with the radio a bit, but it was so close to dawn now that there wasn’t much to land on. Steve knew where he lived because of Max, and because he’d lived in this town his entire life, but he’d only been there to pick her up from her house a couple times. It seemed like she wanted to keep her friendships a secret from her family — whereas he was comfortable just walking right into the Henderson household, or the Wheelers’, or the Byers’, at this point.

They pulled onto Old Cherry Road, and Billy did the same thing: “Stop over here,” he said, a few houses down from his. It was a ridiculous hour, though. None of the houses down the street had any lights on.

“Alright, see you.” Billy made to open the door once they pulled to the side of the road, but he paused. “Thanks for driving.”

Steve smiled. “Are you being nice?”

“Fuck you.”

“No, you can’t take it back.”

“Eat shit, dickwad,” Billy said, looking like he just ate something sour. He looked away and shook his head, muttered, “Christ,” before he got out of the car and shut the door without saying goodbye. Steve caught the flash of a smile when he turned away. He watched him — Billy’s dark figure on the dark street — go past a few houses and then walk around the back of his.

Weird night. On the way home he tried to figure out whether it was good or bad.

 

He woke up well past noon the next day — Sunday, thank God, and the video store was closed — and stumbled through his morning routine and then down the stairs for some toast.

“Steve?” It was his mom.

He tried to tame his hair really quickly and followed her voice, where she was standing in the middle of the living room holding a half full glass of sangria. She was staring hard at the chaise lounge in the corner. “Can you move the coffee table for me?” she asked.

He sighed and dragged it — “Steve, don’t scratch the floor!” — picked it up and lugged it away from the couch to the corner where she directed him. Then he stood beside it while she looked at it a little more.

“I don’t know. What do you think? Or should the side table go there?”

He grunted, and she came over to fix his hair absently with one hand. “Cut it out,” he said, trying to swat her away. She was still fretting over the table, though, so he went to make his toast.

She was either bored or worked up over something — most likely the latter, judging by how she was trying to rearrange the furniture again. She always said there was something wrong with her nerves, which didn’t seem to cover the half of it.

Right as his toast popped out, she called him again: “Steve, I need you to move the table back.”

With the toast hanging out of his mouth, he moved the coffee table back in front of the couch. She helped this time. After, she had him move another table over to the corner with the chaise. “Your father won’t like it,” she commented, sipping the sangria. Steve was one hundred percent sure his father wouldn’t even notice.

Then she said, “Where were you all night?” They eyed each other. She didn’t seem mad. “I heard you come in. Were you at that girl’s house?”

“No, mom.”

“So then where?”

“Just…” going to Indianapolis and then driving back at four in the morning. He took a breath. “Just hanging out with a friend.”

“Oh, yeah?” She looked smug, turning back to the chaise. “I don’t know why you’re sneaking around. I told you I liked her.”

Jesus Christ. Moms.

Steve knew she didn’t like her as much as she liked Nancy, though — his mom was more about status than real compatibility, no matter what she said. It really showed in his parents’ marriage.

“Fine. Yeah. And she’s pregnant,” he said.

She hit his shoulder. “Don’t even joke around.” He grinned around his toast while he finally ate it, and they stood there looking at the corner of the living room. Their family wasn’t much for talking, but this time he chalked it up to being tired, and in her case, preoccupied and maybe a little buzzed. “How’s the job going?” she asked.

“It’s fine.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, really.” She seemed to think he was moving too fast after the beaten-and-drugged-by-Russians and fought-a-giant-human-goo-monster stuff, respectively. “It’s better than laying around the house all day, trust me.”

She looked him over. “You don’t have to do it anymore. Not right now. You know that, right?”

“Why shouldn’t I? Robin’s there too. And she’s going back to school in a couple weeks,” he added. Then before he could think it through: “Even Billy got a job at the grocery store.”

“Hargrove?” his mom asked, her tone sharpening with surprise. It made him feel a little spike of panic. No doubt she knew what happened to Billy in July, but her tone was loaded.

“Yeah. Why?”

“It just makes me think of the poor Holloways. How Heather just happened to work with him,” she said, lowering her voice like they weren’t alone in the house. And, bingo — she knew Heather’s parents. The Holloways weren’t the only ones to leave a totally empty house in Hawkins. Heather wasn’t the youngest victim, and her parents weren’t the oldest, but they were the most prolific, picture-perfect family in the entire set.

“Yeah, it sucks.” She looked at him disapprovingly while she finished the sangria. He knew it was only because he was directly involved and made it out alive that she didn’t say, It didn’t suck, Steve, it was a tragedy. “I’ve been talking to Billy. Sometimes.”

“Oh?” She didn’t know what to make of that. Neither did he, really.

“Yeah, he’s—” not doing well, per se. “I mean, we usually—” get wasted or get high together. “Uh, we weren’t friends in school, but now, I guess, because…”

“Well, just be careful.” She furrowed her eyebrows and tugged a tuft of his hair down into place. With a sigh and a glance into her empty glass, she made her way back to the kitchen.

Chapter Text

Billy was already late to his shift when he left the video store again. “See you around, Buckley.”

Robin’s eyes flicked to Steve, meaning she had something to discuss. She had that same look after he’d told her about the party last week in Indianapolis, but she hadn’t shared whatever she was thinking. Now she waited until the store was empty of customers before she turned on Steve.

“Okay. Hear me out,” she said, holding up her finger like a schoolteacher. She pursed her lips and glanced at the ceiling for some help while Steve waited, arms crossed. Truth be told, he was a little nervous about what was building up here. “So, remember me and Tammy?”

“Uh, yeah?”

“Right, well. We were only ever just friends. I never told her about how I felt or anything, because — obvious reasons. I would just try to, like, hang around with all her friends and like the stuff she liked. And yeah, before you say anything, I know it’s sad.” She cringed. “I was on crew for Bye Bye Birdie just so I could see her sing a bit part.”

“Gross.” He couldn’t help it, even though he’d given her enough shit about Tammy for a lifetime. But in the same way, he was studying in the library with Nancy more often than not during his senior year.

Robin waved away her embarrassment. “You see where I’m going with this?”

“You’re bumming me out a little, but no.”

“Billy’s doing the same thing,” she said slowly, watching him with anticipation.

He reared his head back in disbelief. “What? So you’re saying he likes you?”

“No,” she groaned. “He keeps coming here to see you, dingus.”

Steve just laughed. Robin liked to challenge him — who would you make out with, rate that guy one to ten, do you think she swings both ways — and sometimes he played along because he wasn’t trying to be a douchebag. He hadn’t even brought up the way Robin had started to stare after one girl who came into the store. That was coming, because it was Amy Birch who’d been a year ahead of him in school, but he was decent enough to wait.

“He just talks to you every time,” he said. “I like my theory better.”

“Yeah, he’s talking to me, but pay attention for once.” Ouch. “I’m telling you, he’s here for you. And he, like, talks about you a bunch.” Did he? “And he keeps asking if we’re going out? Trust me, he’s jealous.”

“You’re nuts.” Steve ran a hand through his hair. “This is Billy we’re talking about. Have you seen the guy?” She nodded patiently, like he was the one not getting it. “I think he’s hooked up with half the female population of Hawkins. He slept with some girl at that party last week.”

“And?”

And? You gotta be kidding me. He’s the most, like, macho asshole I’ve ever met.” He felt a little bad calling Billy an asshole now, even though he still was one, but really.

“Okay, forgive me, because I thought you wouldn’t be so, so—” she strangled the air, “obtuse about it. You wouldn’t know a guy like Billy felt anything but competition and pent-up rage toward other guys because that is the point.”

Oh, it clicked for a moment. “Like his car.” Loud, a real asshole’s car.

“Yes, exactly.”

Still, that didn’t necessarily mean anything. He crossed his arms again. “You’re out of your mind.”

“And him coming in here to flirt with me? Total show,” she went on, only encouraged. “I think he knows I’m not actually interested. So entertain the possibility for one second: how do you think someone like him would act if he did feel that way toward guys?”

Steve did entertain it for exactly one second. He flopped a shrug. “I hate to bring it up, but you have heard he beat the tar out of me last year, right? And before that he hated my guts.”

She just leaned back against the counter looking droll, still all self-assured. “That’s not what I’m seeing now.”

“So you’re just choosing to ignore the history.”

“No — you said it yourself, ‘he’s different.’ But okay, fine. I’ll bite.” She crossed her arms, mirroring him. “Maybe he was pulling your braids.”

“My what.”

She reached over and tugged on a piece of his hair. “Pulling on your braids. Like stupid boys do when they have a crush. On a girl with braids, presumably, but you get the idea.”

“Uh, no. I didn’t do stuff like that.” He made a face.

She shrugged. “Well, maybe Billy did. Does. My theory still stands.”

“Ugh, will you stop?” He could feel his face heating up and he didn’t want her to see. It was laughable, anyway, so he shouldn’t have been getting embarrassed. “Like my life needs to be any weirder.”

“It’s not weird,” she shot back.

“Oh, it is. Just don’t bring your ‘theory’ up around him, alright?”

“Geez, of course not.” She sniffed. “I’m not stupid. If you tell the test subject he’s under observation, the behavior won’t be genuine.”

Stop.”

The front door jingled and he turned, trying to untwist his face, just in time to see all the Hargroves except Billy walk into the store. His heart dropped out of his ass.

Max gave him a look as she walked out ahead of her mom and step-dad to pick through the action movies. Steve caught himself staring at them for a moment because he’d never seen her parents up close, but they looked pretty typical. Her mom seemed nice. He could see Neil Hargrove being a dick — maybe it was the mustache, or the guy’s stance — but he just looked like a regular guy, too.

Robin shut up and had the decency to look bashful when she saw Max come in. She busied herself with returning tapes to the shelves and Steve pretended not to watch the Hargroves from the corner of his eye while they browsed around and commented quietly to each other. Max’s mom even laughed at something while reading the back cover of a movie. He didn’t know what he expected, exactly, but it wasn’t anything so normal from the way their children talked about them.

Max startled him a little by dropping a stack of videos on the counter by his elbow.

“Hey, Max,” Steve said.

“Hey,” she said back.

They stood in silence for a minute. Max picked at the warped plastic along the edge of one of the cases. Last time he saw her was when she had a mini meltdown in his car. Plus, he’d just been discussing whether her older brother could possibly be into guys — he almost flinched at the thought. He couldn’t really get that out of the way to make small talk.

“So,” he forced out, and she looked up. “How are you doing?”

“Fine.”

“Oh, okay. Good.” She did that thing with her eyebrows that made him feel like an idiot. “You having a movie marathon, or what?” he asked as he looked through her stack of videos.

“Well, I don’t really know which ones to get. So.”

Max’s mom came over to see them and asked her, “What did you pick?” Her step-dad followed, giving Steve a quick once-over and some unreadable but decidedly negative expression before he took them out of his wife’s hands to sort through.

“This one’s too violent,” Neil said, plucking one of the videos from the stack. “Put it back, Maxine.”

“But—” she started.

“That one isn’t as bad as it looks, actually,” Steve supplied. “I think there are car crashes and probably some swearing, but that’s it.”

Neil looked over at him deliberately. Everyone fell quiet so suddenly that he scrambled to figure out if he’d just said something insane, but he was pretty sure he didn’t. Max was just holding onto the video her step-dad handed her, frozen like she was waiting for ice to crack beneath her.

“Help me understand something,” Neil said, his eyes running down to Steve’s nametag and then back up, “Steve. How is it that you know my daughter?”

“Uh, I.” He was struck dumb. The clear implication was: why are you, an older teenage boy, on a first name basis with my fourteen-year-old daughter? And he couldn’t think of a great answer to that. He couldn’t think of anything that didn’t sound really bad, actually. Something about the guy’s tone or the way he was just waiting for an answer made him feel like he was under a spotlight — and something about the way Max wouldn’t look at him made him feel like he was in more trouble than he should be.

Even her mom went from looking concerned about causing a scene to concerned that he hadn’t answered yet.

“He was dating my friend Mike’s older sister,” Max jumped in. “So we saw him over at his house sometimes.”

“I asked Steve a question,” Neil said without looking away from him.

“Yeah,” Steve blurted, trying not to blink too much. “I met her through Mike — uh, Nancy — my girlfriend,” he stumbled, “so I was just saying hi. Is all.”

He might have been sweating.

Neil placed the rest of the videos back down on the counter. He finally broke eye contact and Steve felt like a rope loosened around him. “I don’t appreciate,” he said, “you telling me what you think is appropriate for my family to watch.”

“Sorry. I was just…” he shrugged, probably shrinking a couple inches.

“So put it back, Maxine,” he said to her, but for some reason leveled another look at Steve, whose gaze shot down from some deep-rooted instinct not to make eye contact with a dog that was too mean-looking. Max moved like a zombie, her eyebrows shooting up the moment she turned away from her parents, back over to the shelves where she took her time returning the video to its place. Steve could feel every second drag by, but nobody said anything else. He rang up their movies and didn’t look back up until they were out the door.

“Holy shit,” Robin’s voice came from the back.

“Yeah.” Steve shook the tension out of his shoulders.

“Was it just me or was that, like, needlessly intense?” She came up to the front to stand next to him, where they watched Neil’s truck pull away and drive down the street. “Men.”

 

Like always, he should have picked up on the signs. But, to be fair, Robin didn’t see it coming either.

“It was a marketing ploy, the whole thing,” he was arguing, just parroting some shit he’d heard his dad say, but he was high enough that he didn’t hate himself for it. “New Coke, Old Coke—”

“Classic,” Robin interrupted.

“Coke one, two, three, four—”

“You’re being so stupid,” she insisted, fighting him for the blunt. They were doing this again, second time this week, maybe too many times for one month already; they barely went two days without smoking or drinking a little bit now, but they’d been through a lot, right? As long as his parents didn’t catch on, it was all good. He looked around for backup, but Billy wasn’t paying attention to them, just sipping whiskey and looking off at the woods.

“Jesus, alright, alright.” Steve gave in and handed it off to her. “I’m just saying, Rob, it’s a big scam. It’s not even the same formula as it was before, but what’s everybody buying now like they’re gonna change it up again any second?”

“It is the same. You know I love a conspiracy as much as the next American citizen, Harrington,” which she called him whenever they were around Billy now, “but come back to the real world. It’s soda.”

It’s soda? There’s no real world. Any— anything could be a conspiracy. You should know that.”

“All hail the new Russian Coke,” she said in her best communist accent, smoke drifting from her mouth, and they both leaned into each other laughing. He felt like the conversation was evaporating in his mind as they spoke it. The blunt they were sharing had a little pink smear of lipstick on the end from her, and for some reason Steve couldn’t get enough of it.

“Billy, want some more?” he asked.

Billy glanced over like he was just checking back in. Steve had given him the benefit of the doubt all day — he looked like he got no sleep, like he wasn’t really paying attention to anything even when he was talking. He thought maybe this whole thing would cheer him up, and Billy was usually on point around Robin at least. Now he was drunk, but when he looked at them, he seemed really focused.

“You guys,” he mumbled.

They were all sitting up against his car, back in their little woodland getaway. Robin leaned forward. “What?”

“How can you stand it? Being around me.” He sounded strange and wondering, like he wasn’t talking to them even though he was looking directly at them.

“You’re not that bad,” Robin said. “If I can stand Steve, I can stand anyone, right?”

Steve laughed it off. She talked shit, but they were sitting close enough for their shoulders to touch, so it was warm and rolled right off him.

Billy wasn’t smiling. “After all the shit I did.” His eyes went down to the whiskey, which he tipped around in a little semicircle, pressing a crescent moon into the grass. “I mean, all the shit I let him do. And nobody… seems to get it, that it could happen again.”

“What?” Steve said uncertainly. Hadn’t they all just been laughing? Maybe not. Maybe he’d been too stoned to notice.

“I don’t know,” Billy mumbled, taking another drink, this one more of a gulp. He grimaced. “I’m trying to fuckin’ hold it together but nothing I did mattered before, so he’d just take over again. Kill more people.”

“No, it’s… gone.” Steve wanted to grab the bottle now that it finally settled on him that everything was not okay, but he was still holding the blunt. So stupid. “And we closed the gate.”

“Yeah, that thing is dead, right?” Robin asked.

Billy shook his head. He looked troubled, like he was trying not to say something, and avoided their eyes. Then he let out a shaking breath and nearly whispered, “I can still feel it.”

Steve sat up as all the body heat left him. “What?”

With startling, jerky movements, Billy got to his feet. He took the bottle along with him and chugged the last of it — how full was that before? When it was gone he swayed a little, then whipped his arm back and threw it into the woods. It crashed distantly. “Shit. It’s like a. Like poison,” he said with a full body shudder he clearly couldn’t suppress, “like something burning up the back of my neck and into my brain. I can feel it.”

Right now?

“Yeah, right now.” Billy started pacing. He had his elbows up around his head, fingers pressing into the back of the neck like he really was feeling fire there.

It made Steve nervous, still, but Robin’s hand on his arm brought him back to reality. She shook her head tightly when he looked over, like she had a better read on the situation than he did. But she didn’t understand — not really. What got him was the way these things just dropped into the middle of his normal life; seeing a monster in the hallway of a house, falling into a secret Russian base under the place he’d been working for weeks. And it just kept coming back. It was starting to feel like a curse. So why couldn’t the curse come back right now? Why wouldn’t it?

The adrenaline seeped out his fingers. “We would know,” he said. “We’d notice if you were, uh — if it came back.”

Billy stopped and laughed and they both twitched at how sharp the sound was.

“We would,” Robin insisted.

“No you wouldn’t. He fucking hides.” His voice was messed up, both harsh and slurred around the edges, up and down. He started his pace again, breath coming in faster.

“Take it easy.” Steve struggled to stand by the car and Robin scrambled up behind him. She started walking towards Billy, who flinched away and stumbled backwards, scaring the shit out of both of them.

“No, just wait — over there.” He backed over by the tree line, sounding terrified, almost like a kid, as if he could see something behind them that they couldn’t. It was really tripping Steve out. Robin had stopped, holding her hands up halfway and not knowing what to do with them.

“Fuck,” Billy breathed, and then put his hands back over his head and kept saying the word over and over under his breath, fuckfuckfuckfuck.

“Stop it,” Steve said. He couldn’t help it.

Billy bit his lip.

Shit. “I promise you, that thing is not coming back.”

Big fucking promises coming from someone who had absolutely no handle on the situation, but he had to try and say something right.

“Okay,” Billy breathed, one part of him trying to convince the other part.

“You’re just freaking out.”

“I’m not fucking crazy,” he snapped between rapid breaths.

“Yeah, I know. You just— you just drank too much.” Steve held his hands up, feeling useless. He was not cut out for this, especially right now.

When Billy spoke again he sounded like a lot of things: desperate, disappointed, defeated. “You don’t get it.” He sank down and squeezed his eyes shut as if he were suddenly dizzy. Steve was watching him and wanted to go closer, half expecting some sign of possession to show up, but it was just Billy on the ground, breaking out in a sweat.

“I think he’s having a panic attack,” Robin whispered by his ear.

“But he could be—”

“What don’t we get?” she said to Billy, ignoring him.

“Go away,” Billy said, barely audible, pitched over the grass on his hands and knees. God, what a scene. Steve grabbed Robin’s hand to keep her there, just in case she got the idea to go closer again. Guilt burned in his stomach, but he couldn’t take the risk.

“We’re not going anywhere,” she said, shaking Steve off of her and plopping down to sit in the grass. Billy looked up sharply, saw her, and glanced at Steve — who was standing there probably looking like he was about to bolt. He tried not to seem actually afraid, like a jackass, and lowered himself down beside her.

For long minutes, it was still as an old Western standoff. They sat yards away while Billy panted through whatever was happening to him, less likely possession as time trickled by. He was ignoring any of their attempts to talk to him — or worse, he couldn’t even hear them — so they just fell quiet. Robin watched him intently, which he surely would have hated if he would look up at them.

Steve felt horribly sober now. Listening to Billy make noises like something was tearing him apart from the inside just made Steve think about how something recently had been tearing him apart from the inside. And if this wasn’t repossession then it was memory-pain — which, probably, had no limitations. It’d been a sudden turn, but maybe just for him and Robin.

Billy’s breathing gradually slowing down was the only indication they got that he was coming back to the real world. He was still shaking and covered in sweat from what Steve could see.

“Are you okay?” he tried. Robin lifted her chin from where it’d been propped on her knees.

It took him a minute, but eventually Billy said, “Yeah,” at the ground.

So Steve got up, tired of being useless and afraid. Billy watched him, face heavy with exhaustion now. He was as pale as Steve had ever seen him and the circles under his eyes stood out even darker. He looked sick.

Steve crouched a few feet away. Just in case. He heard Robin get up and follow him, and saw Billy’s eyes track her until she stopped a little ways back.

“I feel like… fucking roadkill,” Billy mumbled.

“You look like it,” Steve jabbed automatically. Billy didn’t laugh or smile, but something on his face loosened. Maybe. “Are you good to ride in the car?”

Billy rubbed his hand over his face, unsteady on just one arm, then said, “I’m not going home.”

“Yeah, we’ll just — go to my place.”

He dropped his hand. “Okay, I guess.” But he was still pretty wasted — Steve had to catch him twice when he stumbled on his way over to the car. He and Robin got him into the back, where he immediately curled up across the seats.

“You okay?” Robin asked, turning around once she got in the front. Billy only grunted. She glanced at Steve, uneasy, then seemed to get lost in thought looking out the window as he pulled out onto the road. He found himself doing the same thing — it was just so bizarre. He never really knew Billy, but he had this impression of him, and that just kept getting smashed to pieces. Maybe he really was totally different now after the big blowup in July — maybe they all were — but Steve kind of cared about him. Whoever he was now.

“Shit. Pull over,” came from the back seat.

“What?”

Robin turned to look at him. “I think he said pull over.” Steve tried not to brake too hard when he swerved to the side of the road, and Billy sat up and pushed the door open. He stumbled out of the car, a few feet over to the grass, and dropped to his knees to throw up.

“Oh. Shit,” Steve said, almost forgetting to put the car in park before he bolted out. Robin was already next to Billy with a hand on his back, which struck him as awfully nice of her, though he shouldn’t have been surprised. She only really warmed up to Steve after seeing him be a total disaster, too.

“Okay?” Robin asked hesitantly when it seemed like he was done.

“Ugh.”

“Better out than in, I always say.”

Steve groaned. “Robin.”

“What?”

A car drove by them on the other side of the road and slowed a bit. Steve saw a man and woman and their two children in the backseat staring out while they passed.

Billy got to his feet, not looking too much better than he did before. “Where are we going?” he asked Steve blearily.

“My house.”

“Oh, yeah.”

“Uh, you gonna make it?”

Billy looked at the car, which had three doors hanging open in a panic, and back at the grass, which he’d just puked in. He shrugged and climbed into the backseat again. Steve and Robin shared a look before they got back in too.

“I’m gonna drive slow,” Steve said as he pulled back onto the road. “Try not to throw up all over my car.”

“Just get there,” Billy said between careful, slow breaths.

“I had a stomach flu last year and I thought my body was going to explode,” Robin started to say, turning in her seat again to talk to him. “I threw up six times in one day. Six. I couldn’t even drink water without spewing. Isn’t that crazy?” Billy made a noise like he probably wanted to die.

“Oh my God, Rob,” Steve hissed.

“I’m sorry!” she whispered like Billy couldn’t hear her from three feet away. Then, turning back, she said cheerily, “You just need to sleep it off, though. You’ll be okay once we get to Steve’s and drink some water. You drank kind of a lot of whiskey. I mean I only got one sip.”

Despite her nervous chatter, Billy didn’t move from his position in the backseat as far as Steve could tell. He didn’t have to pull over again, at least. When they finally got to his neighborhood he thanked the Lord or whoever that his parents were gone for the weekend — he almost forgot, even though they’d asked if he wanted to come along to Colorado with them. No, thanks. He’d much rather be doing… this.

Relief and exhaustion hit him after he finally pulled into the driveway. When they got out of the car, though, Billy leaned on him automatically. He wasn’t lifting his feet enough to make it to the front door on his own. “Come on, man,” Steve said, hooking an arm around him. They were way past dignity now, anyway.

He got the front door unlocked and they stumbled into the foyer together. Robin came in behind them and shut the door, casting them in mostly-darkness. “Couch?” Steve said, redirecting them to the living room.

Billy stopped and said, “Fuck,” under his breath with some agitation. Steve thought maybe he was going to throw up again. In his house. On him. He looked around frantically for a trashcan or a vase or anything while still keeping Billy standing upright, but then he heard a quick and shaky inhale from next to his ear.

“Is he crying?” Robin said loudly behind him, still goddamn stoned.

He stood there like an idiot for a second while Billy — yup — cried next to him, practically on his shoulder. He got them to the couch and sat him down, and Billy hunched forward to cover his face with his hands.

Robin was standing there in the middle of the living room, under dull light filtering through the curtains, looking bewildered. And Steve stared back at her, feeling just the same, but he waved at her to leave the room when Billy sobbed, because it sounded distinctly like he was trying not to. Something told him if he was going to have a total breakdown he wouldn’t want anyone seeing, but if he had to pick (and he did), it would be Steve.

Robin wandered out in the direction of the kitchen, confusion written all over her face.

“Leave me alone,” Billy gasped, his voice wavering totally out of his control. Steve swallowed. Part of him wanted to, desperately — he knew what to do when, say, Nancy cried, or Robin, or even Dustin, which had happened once or twice and which he’d sworn never to bring up. But he was totally wandering in the dark now. He didn’t know what was the worst between the panic, puking, and crying. To Billy, it was probably this. At least he knew that leaving him alone wasn’t the best idea.

So he didn’t say anything, but he stayed. And Billy didn’t tell him to get lost again. Maybe he couldn’t have, because every time he tried to suppress the sobs they broke out anyway. Steve had tears in his eyes — he only realized when the pattern on the carpet blurred — the same way you get sick when you see someone else get sick. Or that’s just how he was. And he didn’t know what to do about it except swallow it back and grip Billy’s shoulder. He just didn’t know how to connect otherwise, and maybe even that wasn’t right.

Billy tensed — or was already tense — and went shit under his breath, but he didn’t push Steve away or hit him or scream at him. And he didn’t stop crying, either. It was exhausted, late-stage crying, more struggling to breath right than real tears, drowning him in waves. Not that Steve knew from experience or anything.

Some time after Billy finally stopped, he wiped at his face with his sleeve and Steve’s hand fell away from his shoulder.

“Are you okay?” he asked, again, his voice sounding kind of broken too. He cleared his throat. Billy looked a little off to the side of his face, eyes cast down. They were red and looked glassy and unfocused, giving him a not-all-there look. “Billy?”

“I don’t know,” he mumbled, the words running all together. “I don’t know what to do.” He closed his eyes and scrubbed a hand over his face again, sluggish.

“Maybe you should just get some sleep here, man.” And Billy didn’t argue at all, seemed to fall right asleep as soon as he tipped over onto the couch. He had his jacket and even his shoes on, still. He’d half-curled like he had in the backseat of the car, his arms wrapped around his middle and his eyebrows pulled down.

Steve didn’t realize he was just sitting there staring at nothing until Robin came back in, holding a glass of water. She saw Billy passed out and just stood there with it. She’d probably been able to hear him crying no matter where she was in the house.

“You should probably take those off,” she whispered, gesturing to Billy’s shoes.

It took Steve a minute to even answer her. “I’m so tired,” he said. He didn’t whisper like she did, but Billy was out like a light.

She looked sympathetic and sad — a familiar expression on her. Instead of answering, she came over and handed him the glass of water. Then she flopped on the sofa adjacent to the couch and sank into it.

Steve downed the water almost in one gulp. He put it down on the table — not on a coaster, Mom, but screw it — and undid the laces on Billy’s shoes, careful not to jostle him. They were the Chucks he wore sometimes, which was funny only because they reminded him of Jonathan. He dropped them on the floor then slowly shifted away, although he probably could have moved the couch around without waking Billy up at this point.

He went to the chaise, recently relocated to the corner, and let himself sink into it. Robin had already kicked her own shoes off and curled up under a throw blanket on the sofa, so there was nothing to it but to fall asleep there, keeping a bleary eye on the two of them until it wouldn’t stay open any longer.

 

Something shuffled by in the pitch black. He squinted in the darkness and could just barely make out the shape of Robin under the white blanket on the sofa and the empty couch across from him. Billy, he remembered. A door closed somewhere.

He laid there for a minute and listened for anything else. Normally when he was woken up in the middle of the night by a noise or his own racing heart, it freaked him out — but he watched the blanket moving steadily up and down over Robin’s slow breathing, and it reassured him.

Eventually, he got up and walked the familiar hall to the first floor bathroom. The light was on and seeping onto the carpet under the closed door. Steve couldn’t hear anything, so he hesitated there for a bit before he gently knocked. “Billy?”

No response for one, two, three seconds. Then, “Yeah,” his voice clearer than it had been all day.

Steve felt some relief despite himself. “You okay?”

“Uh, yeah,” Billy said.

“Okay.”

He stood there staring at the little crack of light on the floor like it might say something else. And it actually did. “I’m…” Billy trailed off. He heard a sigh through the door. “Did I throw up in your car?”

“No, you made it outside,” Steve said. Billy said something too low for him to hear, and he ended up with his ear against the door. He could have just asked if he could open it, but…

“It felt real,” Steve just barely heard him say.

“Robin said you were having a panic attack,” he told the door.

“I don’t know. But it’s like… I can’t wake up from a bad dream. I haven’t slept in — I don’t know,” he said again. “Days.”

“You haven’t?”

“When I do,” Billy started, then stopped.

Steve waited for a few seconds before prompting, “Yeah?” He knew how hard it was to be vulnerable. He’d just had a lot of practice.

“I’m having nightmares every night, man,” came the muffled voice. “Even if I fall asleep I wake up an hour, two hours later, and I’m— I can’t fucking stand it anymore,” he said, voice dropping sharply at the end.

Steve swallowed and sank to sit on the carpet in front of the door. He wondered if Billy was sitting on the other side, and wondered if the door was locked, and what that could mean if it was. He didn’t want to try it and find out because he was a coward. “Every night?” he asked.

“Yeah.”

“Jesus.” He ran a hand through his hair, searching for anything he could say to make that any better. “If I’m alone, I do. Not all the time but, you know. When you wake up and there’s nobody in the house, it’s just worse.”

Billy made a noise of affirmation. “Max told me about last year, when you fought those dogs, or whatever. I can’t believe she was involved in all that.” Steve didn’t say anything, remembering what happened shortly after that part. “Didn’t know she could keep a secret like that.”

“Did she tell your parents about last year, too?”

“Nah,” he chuckled. “The less they know the better.”

“This isn’t like sneaking cigarettes. It’s not kid stuff. It’s a lot more… life-or-death than that,” Steve said, even though it sounded corny.

“Yeah.” Billy paused. “What’s your point? None of us talked to each other much before this happened, and now it’s like we’re all just strangers living in the same house.”

“Doesn’t that bother you?” he asked, even if his house felt the same way at times.

“It doesn’t seem that important anymore.”

He really didn’t get it, and he never seemed to get a straight answer. He was edging on frustrated. “Did you lock the door?”

“No,” he said.

It was close enough to an invitation. He got to his feet and opened the door slowly, like someone was sleeping on the other side. Billy was sitting on a ruffled bath mat with his back against the tub, across from the toilet. There were some pill bottles on the counter — when Steve’s eyes swept over them, Billy said, “Whose Valium?”

“Jesus,” Steve said, twisting the cap experimentally as if Billy was a child who couldn’t open a bottle. “My mom’s. You didn’t—”

“No, calm down.” He shifted his position on the floor but made no move to get up. “Kind of wanted to, though.”

Steve busied himself putting the pill bottles away — the only opened one was the aspirin, which he considered before shaking a couple out for himself. As far as he could tell from his periphery, Billy was watching him sip some water from the sink to swallow them. It gave him the feeling that someone was tracing fingers up his neck.

“Your parents aren’t here,” Billy said, hovering between statement and question.

“Nope. In Colorado.”

“What, you got a second house there?”

“It’s a timeshare,” he said.

Billy made a face. “The fuck is a timeshare?”

Steve sighed and sat down on the closed toilet seat’s fluffy mint-colored covering. “It’s like they part-time own it.” Billy scoffed, shifted his feet a bit to avoid Steve’s. Maybe he’d gotten into Billy’s space on purpose. If they could only really talk to each other through a door then it was going to bother the shit out of him. He wasn’t built for that. “You can always come over here, you know. If you wanna get out of your house.”

Billy looked down, the the only indication he’d even heard. Steve finally got a good look at him: he seemed tired but otherwise not nearly as bad as he did in the woods. Just about every panicked noise he’d made was stuck on replay in Steve’s mind, and he wondered how much of that Billy remembered.

“Me and Max,” he said finally, then bit his tongue. “We never got along. Still don’t. But I didn’t want to hurt her.”

Steve leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. “Yeah, I know. And she knows.”

“It’s different when you actually did it.” He said it with some kind of certainty, and Steve could only nod. He couldn’t imagine hurting any of the kids — anyone he cared about — accidentally or on purpose.

“You know the same thing happened to Will, right?”

“Byers?” Billy looked up, his eyes narrowing in the slightest. “What are you talking about?”

“Max didn’t tell you? Last year, he was possessed by the Mind Flayer — what the kids call it, I know,” he said as Billy rolled his eyes. “Not the same way, because… it was only Will. And before that, he was trapped in the Upside-Down.”

“Upside-Down?” Billy mumbled, but then he seemed to connect the dots. “That place, yeah.”

“You should ask him about it,” Steve suggested, although he couldn’t help but wonder if Will would survive being directly addressed by Billy. The kid was nice and all, but he just couldn’t picture it.

Billy shrugged, non-committal.

“Or me,” Steve prodded. “I saw it.”

“You too?” Steve couldn’t blame him for his disbelief at this point.

He ended up filling in the gaps for him, starting with Barbara Holland and his pool. They spent a good part of the night there, sitting in the bathroom until Robin stumbled in to pee.

 

Every so often, Joyce Byers had an unofficial “family dinner” that involved a lot more people than her family. Steve hadn’t gone last time, even though he’d been invited by both Dustin and Nancy; instead, he’d taken a late shift to work with Robin. It was their first week at the video store.

This time he went. He passed Hopper having a cigarette out front and said hey, to which Hopper only nodded. Inside, Joyce was forgetting things in the oven, the microwave, and the fridge, frantically handing dishes off to Jonathan while Nancy watched them with a smile. The kids were yelling over each other — or at least Dustin and Lucas were going at it, until they all spotted him walk in and Dustin shouted, “Steve!” across the house, causing everyone to stop and look at him.

It was only a moment before chaos erupted again. Joyce came over to give him a quick hug, not allowing Jonathan the chance to break away from kitchen duty, and then she was gone again. Nancy waved, but before he could respond to her he was intercepted by Dustin and forced to weigh in on some stupid theoretically scientific debate he didn’t even understand. He did his best.

It went on until Joyce shouted, “Okay!” to signal that dinner was as thrown together as it’d ever be, if not done. She knocked on the window to beckon Hopper inside.

There were too many people to fit at the table, so they spread from that to the couch to the floor in front of the coffee table. Jonathan was standing and eating by the counter. It was the kind of scene that would never happen in his home, too many people and not enough place settings. Crammed to the side and eating carefully over a couch arm as he was, he loved it.

“Max.” She looked up with a forkful of spaghetti from her spot on the floor next to El. “You should bring Billy next time.”

An interrogation began regarding his friendship with Billy — were they friends, since when, have they gotten in any fights lately — but Max had only looked surprised for a second, and El had smiled, so he figured it wasn’t that crazy.

 

He couldn’t help how his mom got on his case about his clothes smelling like smoke. She still did his laundry. But he couldn’t stand there doing nothing with his hands when he spent his breaks with Billy. They were laying off booze for a while — he knew Billy was nervous to touch it again without needing a hint — but lately he waited for Steve to lean against the wall beside him before lighting up. And Steve could usually get at least one smile out of him, even if he really had to dig in with something morbid or self-deprecating. And he was starting to sort of live for that.

Chapter Text

There was one particular tree on Steve’s street that turned and dropped its leaves early every year. That tree was bare by the first week of September and the breeze that kicked its leftovers down the road in the morning was brisk. Fall had decided to come early.

It was the first year he could remember in his life that he wasn’t going to school, and that depressed the hell out of him. It shouldn’t have — he was older, he was free, he didn’t have to waste away in classrooms all day. Instead he wasted away behind a counter. He made money, but money had never really mattered to him before.

That, on top of seeing a lot less of Robin in and out of work, made loneliness creep up on him almost every day. So he really didn’t mind being used as a taxi service for everyone he knew, and he was surprised but kind of happy to get a call from Nancy one morning.

“So, there’s something wrong with Jon’s car. He’s out there trying to fix it, but—” she huffed a sigh, meaning he was being stubborn about it and they’d end up late to school, probably. “Do you think you could maybe give us a ride?”

“Yeah, Nance,” he said. “No problem.”

 

When he pulled up to the Byers’ house, Jonathan was standing in front of his car’s open hood and looking totally perplexed. He snapped out of it when he heard tires on gravel and turned like he was caught doing something.

Steve got out and stood beside him. Both of them surveyed the engine with their hands on their hips. “Any idea?” he asked.

“No,” Jon admitted, scratching his neck. “Not the battery, I don’t think, but…”

“You should have Billy take a look at it.”

“Really?” he asked uncertainly.

“Yeah, he told me he worked on his car all the time.”

He still didn’t look convinced, and maybe it wasn’t about Billy’s automotive repair skills. Before they could get into it, Nancy came out of his front door; she must have noticed his arrival from the house. She was in the light jacket he remembered her wearing all the time a year ago, her backpack slung over one shoulder. He wondered how often she stayed the night here.

Will came out after her and gave Steve a friendly little wave.

“Thanks, Steve.” Nancy smiled up at him. Then she turned to Jon and it faded from her face. “Do you think you can jump it?”

He shook his head. “Not the battery.”

“Maybe you should try anyway,” she said, her voice deliberately patient.

Jon shook his head again, but Will piped up, “We’re already gonna be late, you guys.” So they all piled into Steve’s car, Nancy sitting up front and the Byers brothers stuffed in the back.

“Do you work today?” she asked him after they got on the road.

“Yeah, but later. I’m closing.” He was practically full-time now that Robin had to cut her shifts back.

“I hope I didn’t wake you up,” she said. He just shook his head; he used to sleep like a rock, but not so much anymore. Then, predictably, she asked, “Is Robin closing with you?”

She was less obvious about it than his mom, but the frequency with which she mentioned Robin told him that she thought they were dating, too. And it always sounded just a little hopeful, like she’d finally be let off the hook if Steve wasn’t alone anymore. He shouldn’t be annoyed about it — but she was his ex, so he was a little bit anyway.

“She only works a couple days a week now. It’s just me and Keith.”

She looked put off.

“At least I’m free tomorrow night.” And then, because he was already feeling as alone as he could stand and Keith didn’t count as company, he said, “What are you guys doing after school?”

“We’re working on our applications,” she said, glancing back at Jon. And that shut Steve up. He could feel her eyes searching the side of his face while he drove. “We can do that over the weekend, though, if you—”

“No, you guys should— you should work on that,” he said stupidly. God, it made him think of the constant little grimace on her face when she read his essays. How he ended up submitting some bullshit to the schools he applied to and how quick those rejection letters seemed to come in the mail. “How’s it coming?”

“Well, we don’t have to send anything in for a few months, but.” She smiled and looked down, pulling on her sleeves. Nervous but happy. Fuck. “We’re both applying to places in New York, so,” his stomach dropped, “we’re trying to get everything done early so we can ask Mr. Ross for some advice, and Jon has to get his portfolio together, too.”

“New York?” Steve asked, mouth dry.

“NYU,” Jon said from the back. “And maybe Cornell.”

Cornell?”

“Well, it’s a long shot,” she said back to Jonathan. “But some places around here, too, obviously. Purdue, Indiana U...” She knew he didn’t even get into Indiana U, and he could see the moment it crossed her mind. She didn’t say it was her safety school, but it was. Their safety school.

“You guys are applying to all the same places?”

“Probably not,” Nancy said. He couldn’t tell if she was lying. “But we’ve been looking at a lot of the same schools since it’s early on.”

“Well, that’s great.” No doubt Robin would be able to get into all those schools, too. She was a bona fide genius. If she didn’t have the money, they’d give it to her in scholarships. The thought made him feel sick, and the sickness made him feel guilty. It wasn’t like they all didn’t deserve it.

He pulled to a stop in front of the middle school. Nobody moved.

“I’m a freshman,” Will said.

“Oh, geez, I forgot.” He pulled forward to the old stomping grounds, trying to picture Will Byers in the halls there. It was hard to picture any of the kids in high school, especially at the same time as Nancy and Jon and Robin — but they were fourteen, fifteen years old now. A lot of them were even getting tall — not Will, really, but if the kid got a decent haircut he might look like an actual teenager already.

He let the three of them out by the parking lot. Looking at it... it felt like the majority of his life took place here — yet there was already so much distance between him and those days. The sight didn’t really make him happy.

He and Nancy got out first to let the Byers out of the back seat. Before he could get back in, though, she turned and hugged him, fitting her arms around his middle tightly and resting her head right against his chest, where it’d always perfectly landed. He barely had a chance to hug her back before she stepped away, shrugging her backpack into place. “Thanks again. We’ll see you later.”

“Yeah, sure. See ya.”

He waved, and then stood there by the car for a minute. The three of them walked off toward the building. Jon said something to Nancy that made her veer and bump his shoulder affectionately. He wanted to follow them in.

 

It took a surprisingly small amount of convincing to get Billy over to the Byers’ house to fix Jonathan’s car. And conversation came surprisingly easy between the two of them. Really, if you got past the bravado and the social awkwardness, respectively, the two of them had more in common than either of them had with Steve. Jon had been so far below Billy’s radar in school that he’d never really had to face his wrath until the Mind Flayer had tried to run him over with Billy as a puppet.

He sat on the porch steps and watched while Billy bent over the car’s engine, dressed in a tank top despite the chill coming on. He didn’t seem to mind it. Jon stood near him, not really helping but available to. For a few minutes Joyce stood out on the porch and had a smoke, making small talk with him and watching the boys around the car before she headed back inside.

Billy had brought a few of his own tools over from his garage and was steadily twisting something free from under the hood with a monkey wrench. “I had this exact same problem with mine, trust me.”

“Do you need to replace it?” Jon asked, craning to look over Billy’s shoulder.

“Probably about time, anyway. It’s not supposed to be this rusty.” He finally got a part free from the guts of the car and held it up. It was a metal contraption the size of a cantaloupe. “After, like, eighty thousand miles it’s gotta be shot, and who knows if this thing’s ever been replaced.” He knocked on the side of the car as if to emphasize its age. “I can get the part for you and pop it in.”

“Thanks, man,” Jon said, taking the chunk of his car and turning it over in his hands. He was resourceful and good with machines, Steve knew that, but even he looked clueless. “I’ll pay you back. It’s gonna be a lot cheaper than taking it to the shop.”

Billy nodded and wiped his hands off on his jeans. “Hey, Harrington. Wanna give us a ride?”

 

“I don’t get you.”

Steve took a sip of beer. Through the fence, Billy was feigning bat swings in front of home base. “Well, I’m really mysterious. The ladies like that.”

Billy dropped his arms. “Really? Byers stole your girl.”

And, well, that was worse than a gut punch. He tried not to sound strangled and said, “That’s not what happened.”

“Bull. Fucking look at yourself.” He gestured up and down at Steve like he was wearing a costume. “You’ve been, I don’t know, moping all day.”

It set off a burst of anger inside him and, “You don’t fucking know what happened, Hargrove,” flew out of his mouth. But he felt like an idiot, because Billy was right; he was moping and he had been for days. It was something about being with Nancy, about the fact that she was applying to colleges already or about her resting her head right over his heart — it was still haunting him. His loneliness and hopelessness were becoming so tangible they might as well be his imaginary friends. It hurt. Something hurt.

Billy tilted his head. He didn’t look combative. “Didn’t know if you could even get angry or not.”

Of course I can get angry.” He looked down at the can in his hands, wanting to throw it but not enough to actually do so.

Billy started a slow walk along the baseline, dragging his foot to smear the chalk into the dirt. “Then how can you stand it?”

“He didn’t steal her,” Steve said tiredly. “She…”

“Dumped you for him?” Billy guessed.

He grunted. Was that what happened? He figured it was, even if he was a little fuzzy on when exactly he got dumped and when Nancy got together with Jon. He hadn’t let himself dwell on it for a long time, but now he was feeling kind of raw.

“God, fuck her,” Billy snapped. Steve jerked his head up. “What a stuck up little bitch. All she did was whip you, and who needs that shit?” He kicked some dirt up.

“Jesus, give it a rest,” Steve said, but part of him felt vindicated. “It’s old news.”

“I shoulda fucked his car up more.” Billy gave up on the field and came through the gap in the fence, smacking his hand on the chainlink to jostle it, and joined him in the dugout. It was familiar, the whole smell and chilly feel of sitting inside it. Not to Billy, maybe, but to him. Back when they were just kids, he and Tommy played here for a couple years on the same team.

“I said give it a rest.” He offered one of the beers. Billy took it, cracked it open, and chugged half of it in one go. The street lights were distant and barely lit even half of his face. To one side of the baseball field there were some porch lights lining the street, but on the other side only the faint glow of lightning bugs interrupted the blackness. Steve felt like he was testing himself by being out here past dark on the edge of town.

Billy sat next to him, finally giving it a rest. “I guess you can’t escape anyone in this place.”

“You ever play baseball?” Steve asked, trying his best to veer the conversation anywhere else.

“Yeah, it sucks.” He spit off to the other side. “I whacked some kid with a bat one time and got kicked off the team.”

Steve scoffed. “Why am I not surprised?”

“I didn’t wanna play, anyway. Waste of time,” Billy said. He leaned back against the graffitied wall. “But my old man was coaching, so.”

It almost made Steve laugh. God, his dad wouldn’t have come within a mile of coaching Little League. He’d barely made it to three of the games, but at least his mom was always there. She had to drive him but she always stayed to watch — not so much as he got older.

It made him realize that Billy had never mentioned his mother even in passing. So he couldn’t help himself: “What about your mom?”

Billy looked at him, face slack from being caught off guard. “What?”

“I mean, did she— well, you never— does she live in California?” He forced down another sip of beer to shut his stupid mouth. There was always the chance it was too delicate to bring up.

Billy’s eyes had drifted down. At least he wasn’t pissed off. “No, Oregon.”

“But you lived in San Diego,” he ventured.

“Yeah, you got it right. She split when I was ten.” Billy’s eyes flicked up to him and it was Steve’s turn to look away.

It was undoubtedly a loaded question, but he was hungry to know more. “How come you didn’t live with her?”

“You’re real fucking nosy, aren’t you?” Billy said, voice tight.

“It’s what you get for saying Jonathan stole my girl,” he shot back.

Billy snorted and looked out toward the field. “Fine, you want to know the story? She left. Without telling me. Then when I was eleven or twelve I found out where she was and took a bus up there to try and live with her, but she was staying on couches and couldn’t afford me, so she sent me back. Now she’s married and got some other kid, so. Fuck her,” he finished without much feeling.

All Steve could come up with was, “Oh.”

“Yeah, boo-hoo.”

Billy was touchy about it. He’d get pissed if it was pointed out, but Steve could tell. And he got that, because he didn’t like to be needled about Nancy or his dad or his future or any of that. He should have backed off, but.

But there was something off about Billy’s family, and you could call Steve stupid, but Billy was his friend and he knew what was going on with his friends. He wanted to know. The problem was, Billy was like a solid wall most of the time; if any information made it out, it was through a crack in the cement and totally unintentional. And he understood that when they were enemies in school, and then when they were just acquaintances, but not now.

So. “Did she leave ’cause of your dad?”

Billy’s shoulders visibly tensed. “What is this, a fucking counseling session?”

“Fine, be that way. I’ll just assume she did then.”

Billy whipped the can at the wall and Steve saw an arc of frothy beer splash against the dirt like blood, then a hand fisted in the front of his shirt. He was tugged forward — Billy’s mouth was a line and his jaw was set, and his eyes were bright and angry, just like they used to be. When he spoke, his voice was taut. “I’ll just assume you’re about to fuck off about it, Harrington.”

“Come on, man.” Steve was pretty sure his heart rate didn’t even pick up. He was just tired. He put both his hands around Billy’s fist — it twitched, but his knuckles didn’t loosen. “If you’re gonna punch me, do it.”

Billy’s eyes were stuck on their hands. For a second he didn’t look mad, but his face scrunched up like he was confused. Then he jerked his hand away and it settled in a fist on his lap. “What’s your deal?”

“I’m tired of that crap,” Steve said.

“No, I’m talking about— it’s like you don’t give a shit. About what happens to you.” Steve sat back and looked at him. Billy was meeting his eyes now, trying to figure him out. “If someone walks all over you, you fucking hit them.”

“That what you do?”

“Yeah, it is,” he said.

Steve scoffed. “You don’t let your dad walk all over you?”

If Billy were going to punch him, he would have done it then. But he didn’t move to do that or tense up this time. He said quietly, “So what if I do? You don’t? ‘Daddy took my car away,’ ‘Daddy made me get a job?’”

“That’s not what I’m talking about.” Humiliation burned in his gut. He should have known complaining about that would come back to bite him.

“Well then what are you talking about, Harrington?”

“Your dad doesn’t hit you?” he asked, steeling himself. “Beat you?”

“Fuck you, he doesn’t beat me,” Billy snarled, shooting up off the bench. Steve readied himself for— something, but Billy just stood there, keyed up, with his fists at his sides. Like he was about to either spring forward or backward, fight him or run away. “You think I can’t fucking defend myself from him?”

“Do you?” Steve stared to let him know he wasn’t going to back off. “You know, my dad’s a dick, but he doesn’t hit me.”

“Is that why you’re such a pussy?” Billy spat.

Steve let that hang in the air between them. It was just crickets. He realized that it hurt now because it was Billy — mocking him about his dad, calling him a pussy. Whether it was a defense mechanism or whatever, the truth was, “Yeah, I guess so.”

Billy just made a frustrated sound, running his hands through his hair and gripping it. “Are you this hopeless? Get up and fucking hit me.”

“What the hell? No.”

“Come on.” Billy planted his feet. “‘Yeah, I guess so?’ I just called you a pussy. Show me you’re not.”

Steve didn’t move. He wasn’t going to get up and play into whatever was going on now. He could barely even follow it, and the last thing he wanted to do was physically fight Billy when he was just trying to talk to him. “No. Goddamnit, just sit down.”

Billy dropped all the tension in his arms and looked fed up. “Don’t act like you’re above it all just because you know you can’t win a fight.”

“I don’t want to fight you.” His hands were jittery. He turned and picked up another beer just for something to do with them.

“And yeah, I get into fights with my dad,” Billy said, as though Steve hadn’t responded. It was a weirdly belated admission. He sat back down on the farthest possible end of the bench and was staring pointedly out at the field, away from him. “He’s a hardass, and I’m not very fucking good at behaving.”

Fights.’ He knew that there was no way Neil could take on Billy in a physical fight — he didn’t look frail or anything, but his son kept in shape and Steve had been on the wrong end of that rage before. It was very clearly never a fair fight. Billy was lying, just trying to save face, whatever. But now he looked like he wanted nothing to do with him at the other end of the dugout, so maybe Steve had pushed too hard.

“Sorry for pissing you off.”

“Not like you can help it,” he snapped, and Steve laughed the tension away.

“I was just trying to talk to you.”

“Yeah, well learn to take a hint.”

“I’m working on it, I swear.” He thought he could see Billy rolling his eyes.

“I’m s—” He huffed a sigh, staring into the corner. “Fuck. Sorry. I’m a fucking asshole when…”

“When anything? When, all the time?” Steve poked. He scooted closer to Billy on the bench. It really was kind of his fault this time. “You’re right, though, okay? I am a pussy.”

Billy turned to say something, but Steve stopped him.

“Listen, because I thought… or, I wanted to think, really badly, that Nancy loved me. I mean maybe she did, but it should have been obvious she didn’t feel the same way I felt about her. I mean — I really loved her. I just really didn’t wanna see it. That she...” Billy hadn’t asked, and this was embarrassing to admit either way, and he was looking down at the smooth worn wood of the bench instead of at Billy’s face, but, “She didn’t love me. I didn’t see it coming, though. I don’t even know how. So I’m either stupid, or I’m a pussy. Which is worse?”

“What the fuck are you talking about?” Billy muttered. He sounded really close. When Steve lifted his head he was close, straddling the bench to face him and leaning forward, and it put them right up in each other’s personal space.

“I’m talking about Nancy,” he said, puzzled.

“Well, stop.” Billy’s eyes cut down to his mouth and then, oh, the whole scene slid into focus. Billy’s face was close to his. Billy was looking down at his lips. The thick shadow of his eyelashes swept across his cheek and all that. His breath smelled like beer and Steve’s probably did too. Steve had been in this position a dozen times and what came next was obvious even to an idiot like him.

He had his chance. He didn’t move back. What would Robin have to say about that?

Billy lunged forward but when he pressed his lips to Steve’s, it was sort of hesitant, not what he would have expected from someone like him. Steve closed his eyes automatically. He just let himself see how it was, and he felt strangely calm about it. It was different and it wasn’t: the press of stubble against his skin was new, the instinct to open his mouth into it was not. It just didn’t last long enough for that.

Billy pulled back and for a moment their breath mingled between them. The feeling Steve got was that anything could have happened. Billy could have bowled him over into the bench or gone in for a longer kiss — Steve already knew he wouldn’t pull back — but what actually happened was that after a few seconds, Billy’s face dropped and his expression hardened and he moved back, then swung his leg over the bench and got up.

“Billy, wait— what?” he laughed, because everything was so sudden.

“Don’t make a whole fucking thing about this,” Billy said, his voice sharp and shaking a little. He glanced around senselessly like he was missing something, which to Steve looked like panic — then he stomped out of the dugout.

Steve scrambled. It was hard to keep up with him. “Billy, don’t—”

“What?” He whirled around. “Now you want me to suck you off? Just to see what it’s like?” Steve flinched. What—? “Not a fucking chance.” Billy turned and stalked off across the field.

“No— where are you going?” he asked, because he couldn’t stand when people ran away from him and it was Billy’s favorite move. Steve grabbed his hand on its backswing to stop him.

Billy turned and shoved his whole arm back at him. Steve tripped over his own feet and fell back on his ass in the dirt. He gaped up in surprise and Billy stared back down with the same look, then said, “Just leave me alone, okay?” He took some steps back then turned and walked off toward the street with his hands shoved into his jacket and shoulders hunched forward.

“Yeah, well, screw you,” Steve called after him. He was more confused than anything. His fucking tailbone hurt. A porch light turned on across the street and he jumped up to his feet and booked it the other way toward where he’d parked, finding himself shaky for no reason.

 

“Did you piss Billy off?” Robin asked.

“Why? Why do you say it like that?”

She looked apologetic, at least, when she shrugged. “Call it a wild guess.”

He ignored her. He’d decided to ignore everything. Billy, first and foremost, and the way he still stung with anger when he thought about Billy walking away from him, and the way he kept assessing the kiss, gauging whether he liked it or not, or more realistically, how much he liked it once he got over the initial shock of it. And there he was lying to himself — he wasn’t shocked at all.

“Whatever it is, can you guys get over it soon? Or my weekends are going to be really boring.”

“Thanks, Rob.”

 

Except he didn’t see Billy again, on purpose, for almost two weeks. It was obvious by then that Billy was avoiding him, too. Which only made Steve feel more justified in his avoidance because, seriously, what did he do wrong? Was he supposed to be the one to apologize?

But then Billy was walking down the street towards him and they both saw each other at the same time, and it was the end of September and tomorrow happened to be his birthday, and Billy looked right back down at his shoes and kept walking, but he looked like shit, sort of like he did before he got drunk and had that meltdown with him and Robin. So, goddamnit.

“Hey,” Steve said, slowing to a stop. Billy stopped too and glanced up at him. “Tomorrow’s my birthday.” He just got a blank look, which was fair enough. “Me and Rob are gonna drive to this amusement park they opened a few months ago. I heard it sucks, but we’re going to see.”

“See what?”

“If it sucks.” Steve grimaced. “Do you want to come?”

Billy looked across the street. He was even avoiding his eyes. “No. I can’t.”

“Come on, Billy. Can we just skip the— the weird part and at least talk to each other again?”

He looked over sharply. Steve hadn’t said it loudly, and even if he did, it wasn’t anything incriminating. “I said I can’t, okay? Happy fucking birthday, but I have to go back and get tested tomorrow by a bunch of government scientists. So have fun.”

“What? You have to go back there again?” It made him nervous and he must have looked it. Billy waved an exhausted hand in front of his face to stop his train of thought.

“They said I have to come back every month. Or, who knows, they’ll probably come find me if I don’t.” He rubbed at one of his eyes. Jesus, Steve had even missed his voice, familiar and hoarse from smoking too much.

“You have to go tomorrow? Let me drive you.”

He raised an eyebrow. “You just said you were going to an amusement park.”

“Yeah. We’ll put it off.” Robin was going to be pissed.

“Whatever,” Billy muttered. “It’s your birthday, man.”

 

It was one of the last warm days of the season and most of the trees had just started to turn. This time of year he’d usually find a watering hole — something better, more natural than his temperature-controlled pool — and come home “smelling like a pond,” as his mom put it. Last year he’d almost convinced Nancy to go skinny dipping. But when he parked in front of the government building, none of that mattered. Billy looked like it was the dead of winter.

He’d looked sick the whole ride. That alone made Steve glad he was doing this instead of going to some rinky-dink park, birthday or not.

He shut the car off and waited. Billy looked at his watch and lit a cigarette to slow time down. “I really hate this shit,” he said, closing his eyes.

“Can I come in with you?” Steve blurted.

He opened his eyes again. “What? You’re not allowed.”

“Why not? We were able to visit you before.”

“Just go.” But he was still sitting in the car. So Steve took it upon himself to get out first. He shut the door and breathed in, heard Billy say, “What are you doing?” muffled from inside the car, and began to walk towards the building.

Billy got out and followed him. “They’re not gonna let you in,” he griped, flicking his cigarette away. But nobody said anything to him after Billy checked in, and Steve got into the elevator with him, and thought about holding his hand when Billy started shivering with his breath coming in all quick, but he’d shaken it off by the time they stepped out into a hallway.

Then somebody in a lab coat sized him up but didn’t kick him out, either. Instead, they were sent to wait in a room that looked like a pretty standard doctor’s office.

Neither of them said anything, even as the clock on the wall ticked off fifteen minutes.

When a nurse finally walked in, both of them jumped. She stopped to ask Steve, “Who are you?”

“His friend,” he replied, ready to defend his presence there, but that was it. She got on with business.

If he forgot where he was for a second, Steve could have pretended this was a regular clinic. The nurse asked Billy a list of questions to which he only had to nod or shake his head, then she took his blood pressure, drew his blood (Steve winced, and Billy smirked in his direction), listened to his heartbeat, and lifted his shirt to inspect the scars on his torso.

It was the first Steve had seen of them. Sometimes he forgot what happened to his body beyond the possession. There were two scars on Billy’s right side; the one up near his ribs was a firework of scar tissue, like the monster had tried to rip a chunk off him. The lower one above his hip was more like a line, clearly deeper but stitched up at some point after the damage was done. When he stopped staring, he caught Billy watching him and they both looked away.

“Okay, this way.” The nurse walked out at the same time she was noting things down on her clipboard. She left the door open behind her. Billy slid off the table and they made their way after her, still bewildered, past a team of white-coated scientists who barely glanced at them. The next room looked more like a proper hospital room with a bed, chairs, its own little bathroom, and even a TV. There were just a lot more… machines and beepy-looking things.

“The doctor will be down for your EEG shortly,” she said on her way out.

“What is that?” Billy asked after her.

“Electroencephalogram,” she said, utterly unhelpful. And then she was gone.

Billy sat down on the bed. He looked spooked. “It’s probably just…” Steve said, searching for something to reassure him, but the electro part of it sounded bad. “They didn’t do that thing when you were here the first time?”

“I don’t remember. They did a lot of stuff,” he muttered, sliding his arms around his middle. He took a deep, deliberate breath that sounded like trouble. “I think I’m gonna be sick.”

“Well, this is the place to do it.”

“Fuck you,” he said between breaths, squeezing his eyes shut. Steve cursed the habits he was picking up from Robin, but before he could try again, what must have been ‘the doctor’ strolled in. Billy sat up suddenly and Steve could practically feel him bristle.

“Hey, Billy,” the man said, taking Steve in stride. “And…?”

“Steve. Uh, a friend,” he said again, and the doctor shook his hand, and then Billy’s, which ended up looking jerky and awkward from how tightly wound he was.

It turned out that an EEG meant they were going to stick a bunch of things to Billy’s head and monitor his brain. For twenty-four hours.

“Twenty-four hours?” Billy protested. “Nobody told me I had to stay overnight.”

“It’s really for the best,” the doctor explained, because they didn’t want to miss anything, and it hadn’t been that long since the ‘possession,’ as he called it, so this was a precaution, and hopefully nothing odd would show up, but yes, he had to stay overnight. He said it all in a perfectly civil voice that left no room for argument.

While they waited around, Billy said, “You might as well go now.”

Steve sat in a chair off to the side, pointedly not leaving, both to annoy and distract Billy, who looked ready to jump out of his skin at the approach of another nurse. She taped sensors around his forehead then at various places on his head, moving his hair wherever she needed to, until he looked manhandled in the worst way. The wires trailed from the sensors to a portable machine by the bed that he guessed was reading Billy’s brainwaves. Whatever it was doing, the doctor was pressing buttons and turning dials and taking notes.

“Get comfortable,” he told Billy, who laughed bitterly and kicked his shoes off.

Steve did the same.

“Harrington, really.”

“What?” He searched the room in his socks until he found the TV remote on a table, took a seat by the bed and started flipping through channels. Billy sat there with a bunch of things stuck to his head, looking like he was trying to formulate some kind of threat to get him to leave.

“Give me a cigarette,” is what he came up with. He lit it and blew the first lungful up at the smoke detector on the ceiling. “Let’s see if we can get kicked out.”

The smoke detector didn’t go off and no one came in to chastise them, even when Steve leaned out the doorway with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. He got the feeling they could do whatever the hell they wanted as long as they stayed in that room. Despite the nurses and benign scientists, the well-lit hallway and the front lobby, he knew it wasn’t really a hospital. Somewhere in the building, probably even on this floor, there were guards with big guns.

Billy was sitting back against a stack of pillows, resigned to flipping through channels. It wasn’t that he couldn’t move around, but he was sort of stuck in place, at least in this room.

“Hey, tell me something,” Steve said, heart up in his throat all of a sudden. Now or never, or so it felt. Billy glanced over with his hand pausing over the remote. Do you think about that night as much as I do? Steve wanted to ask. Well, he didn’t need to know that in particular. It was more like, Are you going to pretend it never happened? What came out of his mouth was, “Did you mean it? When you kissed me?”

Billy sat up, startled. “Would you shut up?” he hissed.

“There’s nobody out there, I just—” He pulled the door shut for good measure, stalling to gather some courage. “I just don’t want it to be like I’m always wondering. If you want to just never talk about it again, then fine.”

“Okay, let’s never talk about it again,” Billy muttered, hiding behind one of his hands.

“...No. Look,” he said when Billy threw his hands out in dismay. “Okay, nevermind, I don’t want to never talk about it again. Sorry. At least just tell me.” But he looked stone cold, staring down at the bed. “I never kissed a guy, but I— I mean, that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t want to. That I don’t want to. I mean, like, I could.” Billy’s eyes drifted back up to him, mainly in confusion, so he kept talking. “I was just surprised ’cause it’s you, you know? I was surprised, but it didn’t freak me out, I promise. Just don’t lie to me, okay?”

He stood there breathlessly. He didn’t know what he wanted; he just knew that he didn’t want to be caught in between again. In between was just waiting to see what would happen to him, and for once he wanted to know, not wait. Even if it had been a fluke, then he would deal with that. If it wasn’t, then that was a lot to think about even with a two week head start.

“How could I not mean it?” Billy asked, like it didn’t make sense. Like he’d really never kissed anyone without meaning it.

It was somehow the last thing Steve expected to hear. “I don’t know,” he breathed out.

Chapter Text

“How was your birthday?” Robin asked, sounding stung. She hadn’t been mad when he skipped out on their amusement park plans, given the reason, but she was a little upset. Now it was Monday and he was picking her up from school, and—

“I kissed Billy.” He still felt like he was free-falling. He never fell gently.

Her mouth dropped open. “What?”

“Well, he kissed me.”

She actually gasped like they were in a movie. “What?

“I shouldn’t tell you this,” he said, eyes stuck on the road. But what the hell else was he going to do? “I barely slept Saturday because I was in the hospital and Billy had a bunch of crap stuck to his head so he wasn’t sleeping either, until like four in the morning.”

“He kissed you at the hospital?”

“Oh, no. It was weeks ago.”

She gasped again, then shouted into his ear. “You can’t keep this stuff from me, Steve!”

He flinched, which was not safe while driving. “Okay, Rob! Jesus.”

“Oh my God,” she gasped again, probably on the verge of hyperventilating. “This is why you were avoiding each other. Oh my God, he kissed you and you avoided him for weeks.”

“No,” Steve tried to say, “he was avoiding me, and I thought he was pissed at me, so—”

“Oh, no, don’t even try that on me, idiot. And don’t keep any more secrets, holy— wait, so what happened at the hospital?”

“What? Nothing happened,” Steve said, already feeling like he was lying. He wasn’t; nothing she wanted to hear about had happened.

Maybe they’d slept in the same bed, jammed on opposite sides and not even touching, drifting off with the late-night TV on mute. Maybe he’d been woken up not even two hours later to the sound of Billy sucking in breaths through his teeth and trying to pull the sticky sensors off his head, needing to get free of it, losing his mind in the dim early-morning light. And when Steve tried to stop him, he’d knocked his arm away and got half of them off before he calmed down enough to stop.

The doctor said what they had already was good enough before he let them go.

Robin was staring at the side of his face. “You guys didn’t talk about it?”

“No.” Not really. He chewed at his lip. “Come on, you know how he is.”

“Aw, now you’re all shy about your feelings for once.” When he glanced over he realized how pleased she looked. “So I was right?”

“No. Yes. I don’t know, okay?” He was lacking even his false confidence. “No idea what I’m doing, Rob. Or, uh, what we’re doing. Look, don’t— don’t tell him you know.”

“But he should know. That it’s okay, right?” she asked, biting her thumbnail. She looked earnest because, as she’d told him before, Steve knowing meant a lot to her. She never had a friend who knew that she liked girls. He remembered what she’d said, trying to get him to realize without having to say it — and how she’d been afraid he wouldn’t even like her anymore. In the same way, Steve couldn’t imagine telling anyone but her about this.

That wouldn’t fly with Billy, he knew. “I think he’ll kill me if he finds out I told anyone.”

She went on chewing the black paint off her thumb.

“Okay?” he asked, just to be sure.

“Yeah, Steve, I know.”

 

Billy flicked through his parents’ record collection, crouched in front of the cabinet. Intermittently he scoffed or paused and stared at a cover like he was trying to decide how to judge it. Steve smiled at his back.

Both of them were off work today. Robin was coming later after she got out of school. Billy came over early “because I was bored, Harrington, but you should have told me there was no good music and I would have brought something.”

Steve lounged on the couch with a drink. A bit of his dad’s bourbon, not enough that he’d notice it was gone. “Just pick something already, will you?”

Billy kept flipping through covers, then suddenly stopped and said, “Holy shit. My mom had this one.”

From what Steve could see, it was a blank white cover with a banana on it. “What is it?”

“Velvet Underground.” He pulled it out and flipped it over to take a look. “Your parents are into this?”

“I dunno, they probably never even listened to it.” He took a sip. It was smooth as hell. “I bet it was my mom. She buys those weird or expensive ones just for something to talk about at parties.”

Billy was already removing the record from its sleeve and standing to put it on. Steve watched him, reveling in the little excitement that rolled his stomach. It was the first time they were alone together since the hospital, and they hadn’t really been alone there. He hadn’t felt like this in — years, must have been.

The music started in some soft tinkling noises like the high end of a piano, a music box tune. It was soft. Billy sat back on the rug and scooted until he was sitting against the couch by Steve’s legs, grinning like he couldn’t help it. His eyes slipped shut.

Steve listened and wondered what Billy’s mom was like. She must have been a bombshell. There was just no other explanation for her son.

Billy’s hand flopped back on the couch, palm up, his fingers searching. Steve placed the glass of bourbon in it and Billy twisted around to take a sip with his eyes still closed. He sighed after he swallowed and when he opened them halfway, they looked a little glassy. “Good shit.”

“There’s half a bottle,” Steve said, suddenly not caring if he got in trouble later. Billy hummed but didn’t move. The first song faded out and the next one started. “What’s with the banana?” he asked.

Billy laughed a little. “I don’t know. It’s Andy Warhol, I guess.”

“Robin probably knows. She likes old stuff.”

“My mom was into this weird sixties shit,” he said before sipping the bourbon again. Steve watched his throat work it down. Sitting above him like this, with Billy facing the record player, he could watch all he wanted. “It’s a trip to hear it again.”

“So where did your taste come from?”

Billy looked smug. “That’s all me.” He glanced up when Steve reached down for the glass. Their eyes held for a couple seconds. Steve didn’t lean back again but rested his elbows on his knees and finished off the rest of the liquor in one smooth tilt.

When his hand came back down, Billy took it and pulled it towards him, spun the glass around in Steve’s palm. He licked the rim.

Totally unnecessary, Steve thought. One hundred percent just to drive him nuts. It was hard to pay attention to the music with the way his heart kicked up.

They weren’t in the right position for it and maybe it was too sudden, but this time, Steve wanted to kiss him. This time, he scooted off the couch and slid onto the floor next to Billy, his heart actually hammering now, nervous even worse than the first time he’d ever kissed a girl, and he forgot to breathe, but it was written all over Billy’s face — he wanted Steve to lean in. He put the glass down mindlessly. It probably tipped over. Billy was staring at his mouth again. On the record someone was smacking a guitar kind of gratingly. He licked his lips and went for it, and Billy went too a fraction of a second later, and their mouths met in the middle.

He almost gasped with how fast, how good it twisted his gut. How different it was. How hot. Because — he’d learned the rules with girls before he could even articulate them. When to kiss them, when to corner them, when to take the lead, where to put your hands and what every little noise could mean. There were lines to approach and cross. He saw the lines, he toed the lines, he stepped around them carefully.

There was nothing but hilly sand when it came to this, no footprints; uncharted territory. If there was a line, he just toppled over it. He was never so excited to get someone’s tongue in his mouth.

This time, Billy wasn’t shy and he didn’t hesitate. This time, his hand curled around the back of Steve’s neck to pull him closer and keep him there, and Billy gave him exactly what he wanted, taking control of the kiss and making it messy. Steve was pretty sure every part of him wobbled and turned to liquid.

Never, never in his stupid short life had someone screwed him up that bad after five seconds of kissing. He’d be embarrassed if he wasn’t so totally focused on Billy’s lips, tongue, and teeth — on what a fucking guy he was in smell and feel and too-hard grip — on how it was hitting him and lighting him on fire at once — on how all his blood ran south and he was getting hard from it already.

The worst thing that could have happened to him then was Billy stopping. Steve tried to communicate that with his hands, wandering them over Billy’s legs and up his sides, feeling whatever the hell he could reach. He ran across the bump of scars through his shirt and possibly in response, or just because, Billy broke the kiss to bite at his lower lip. Not hard but kind of like a puppy nip, a little friendly sting. Steve laughed, breathless again.

Billy stopped to look his face over. They were both panting. He had no idea what sort of expression he was making, but he hoped it was the right one. The song playing — third, fourth? — was kind of sexy, slow with this deep-voiced lady singing. Maybe anything would have been sexy to him then. He wanted to listen to this album a hundred times until he had it memorized.

And why the hell was he waiting to see what Billy thought? There weren’t any lines to shy away from. He leaned in, slower this time but not tentative. He kissed Billy kind of sweetly, running a hand into his hair. Chances were, he didn’t want to be kissed like all romantic — but he let Steve do it anyway and leaned into his hand, shutting his eyes, relaxing under it. Whatever you want, man, Steve could picture him saying, flippant and not caring and totally into it under the surface.

They kissed like that — slow and deep, until warmth spread all the way to his fingertips — for minutes. He only registered the music in the silence between songs because he could hear one of their breaths escape before it started again.

Billy leaned back, and Steve chased his mouth a few inches. He was flushed and his tongue came out to lick his bottom lip, and his eyes were still stuck on Steve’s lips, but he held the empty glass up in front of him. A sly smile spread on his face. “Some more of that good shit?”

Steve was dizzy on the way to the liquor cabinet. He was dizzy just standing there, pouring dark golden liquid into the glass that both their mouths had been on. He poured a couple fingers in, then some more. He took a drink, standing there in his dad’s office, while he listened to the album beat gently through the wall. His head swam. He couldn’t stop smiling.

When he returned, Billy was sitting back against the couch again with his head tipped onto the cushion. He had one leg propped up and the other stretched out, where his foot was tapping the air to the rhythm. Steve handed him the glass and sat next to him, still zinging with energy and want as he watched him take a long drink.

He looked satisfied as a lounging cat. He passed the glass back to Steve and listened to the music with him for a minute. His cheeks still had color to them. Steve couldn’t, wouldn’t tear his eyes away.

When Billy spoke, his voice was low, an undercurrent to the music, more intimate that way. “What’s the best head you ever got?”

“Uh.” Steve derailed to think back to blowjobs he’d gotten. It wasn’t an unwelcome thought. Billy was being patient for once, even casual. He took the bourbon back and drank some and just waited. “Geez. Laurie Branton, I guess.”

“You’re kidding,” he scoffed, predictably. “She’s like a dick sucking machine and she’s still only sub-par.”

“Fine,” Steve said, his face heating up. “What’s the best head in Hawkins?”

Billy grinned, almost laughed, and pushed the glass into his hand. He was back in his space before Steve had a chance to drink, all close on his hands and knees. Steve welcomed him right in when Billy licked into his mouth again. Thank God he didn’t answer. It wouldn’t have been a turn-off, per se — hardly anything could have turned him off now — but he was sick of talking about girls with him.

After a minute, Billy’s hand rubbed over the crotch of his jeans, where he was half hard — and as though to prove it wasn’t an accident, he stopped there and palmed his dick through his pants. Steve made a noise between surprise and excitement into his mouth, shifting his hips up against the hand and effectively just squirming under him.

His other hand was between Steve’s shoulder and neck, the edge of it over his pulse, holding him in place. He found he didn’t mind at all; it was a relief not to lead.

Steve still had the bourbon with one hand. His other rested low on Billy’s hip, hovering by the waistband of his pants. As he went to put the glass down on the floor — he wanted both hands to go wherever they could reach right then — Billy stopped him and took it.

His eyes traveled down then up him, as obvious as he could have been, while he took another sip. Steve was breathing hard under him, still dizzy, at his mercy. Man, that thought alone might have killed him.

“Get up on the couch,” he mumbled. Steve did what he said, trying not to scramble. Billy took hold of his hand and deposited the glass back in it. “You might as well finish this.”

He shifted forward on his knees. Unbuttoned Steve’s pants and pulled down the zipper. Looked him right in the eye when he tugged his boxers down enough to get a hand around his cock. Jesus fucking Christ. Steve groaned and accidentally clacked the glass against his front teeth when he went to down the rest. It burned in his stomach and that feeling stayed.

The glass went down on the couch somewhere. Billy wasn’t looking up at him anymore. Instead, his eyes were locked on Steve’s dick in a way that made him simultaneously want to curl up in self-consciousness and blow his load right then.

When Billy started stroking him he looked back up, though, and Steve had to close his eyes. The scrutiny — when Billy was normally so avoidant and defensive — was getting to him. He let out a breath and let his head fall back against the couch cushion and just felt it, better and a little faster than he was used to. He couldn’t help but wonder if this was the way Billy jerked himself off, or if it was different. Either way, the thought made him groan, “Oh, Jesus.”

Billy stopped with his hand still wrapped around him. The sudden change made Steve’s toes curl — automatically, he opened his eyes and looked. Billy was watching him like he was waiting. The song was going I guess that I don’t know and I guess that I just don’t know and then it suddenly slowed down.

He realized Billy wanted him to look. To watch as he ducked down and took most of Steve’s dick in his mouth and his tongue started working the underside and motherfucker Steve wanted to smash his head back against the cushion or the wall or anything, but Billy pulled back, licking all the way up until his mouth was open and his tongue was still out and he took a breath that Steve could feel. And those blue eyes flicked up. And Steve was really glad he was looking now.

Belatedly, he realized Billy wanted to prove that he gave the best head in Hawkins, and he almost laughed. It came out as a breathless noise he couldn’t even be embarrassed about, because Billy really was proving it.

He dug his nails into the couch, hands restless, the little scrape finding his ears through the music. His other hand sunk into Billy’s hair again, and he couldn’t help but grip the curls and buck his hips up a little.

He heard — felt — Billy grunt and was afraid he messed up for a second. But then Billy pulled off and said, panting, his lips wet and too red, “Pull it,” before going back down on him.

Never never never in his life had someone told him to pull their hair while they were sucking him off. Even Laurie Branton, the ‘dick sucking machine.’

He tugged. It was experimental but he did it kind of hard because he wasn’t delicate by any stretch of the definition, and in response Billy moaned around his dick and reached a hand down to unzip his own fly.

Steve almost died or came down his throat right there. It was a close one. He pulled sharply enough it jolted Billy’s head to the side, just needing it to stop for a second. Billy cut his eyes up at him, partly wry but mostly looking desperately, overwhelmingly turned on. “Fuck, Billy.”

Billy’s eyes shut and started jerking himself.

Maybe Steve got caught up in the moment. Maybe this was happening too fast. Maybe he shouldn’t have gripped Billy’s hair tear-jerkingly hard or shoved his head back down, borderline choking him, but in this context he was pretty okay at picking up hints. It felt brutal and rude and he would never do it to a girl but Billy was really fucking into it. He gripped Steve’s thigh bruisingly with his free hand but didn’t pull his head back. He took it as a challenge, and took him even deeper, and — Steve couldn’t believe this — went further than any girl ever had, until he was all the way down Billy’s throat. Billy’s nose was very nearly hitting his stomach. And he was still stroking himself.

That was gonna do it.

He tugged back on his hair with some urgency, not just for the fun of it, unable to get I’m about to come or any helpful words out of his mouth, but knowing he probably shouldn’t do it like this, even if he really wanted to. Billy pulled off, dragged in a breath and looked up at him, his eyes watering and his mouth still open. He let go of his thigh and wrapped that hand around Steve’s dick like he didn’t want it to get cold, and Steve was too far gone to stop it now, and still had a hand in Billy’s hair anyway, and—

“Oh fuck,” he said when the orgasm plowed him down, made his toes tingle, and he caught a glimpse of Billy looking surprised before he burst into laughter with Steve’s jizz streaked across his cheek. But he let him, he wasn’t even pissed about it, stroking him the rest of the way through it and opening his mouth, sticking his tongue out to catch the rest, looking like he came right out of a porno. That image wasn’t going to leave him for his entire life.

He sank back into the couch, his breath coming in like he’d just run up stairs. It felt like caramel sauce was melting over him. Billy licked his lips and let his tongue linger in the corner of his mouth. “I can’t believe you did that,” he said hoarsely, breaking into a snicker again.

“Sorry,” Steve mumbled, throwing an elbow over his eyes and feeling like an idiot. He peeked when he felt a tug at his shirt and saw Billy wiping the come off his face onto the front of it. “Aw, come on—”

“Shut up,” Billy said, then bit the corner of his lip. One hand was fisted in Steve’s shirt and the other one was still— God, he almost forgot for a second. He let himself slide down off the couch and ended up knocking Billy back on his ass for lack of space.

Billy caught himself on his hands, looking apprehensive for half a second before Steve crawled forward. “That was really fucking good,” he muttered before kissing him. That way, he could feel Billy’s smile.

And it really didn’t take much to get him off; he was already most of the way there just from touching himself while Steve pulled on his hair. Which had been the right move, based on his reaction to it, but damn if it didn’t feel mean after the fact, now that Steve was coming down.

Except Billy seemed to crave it.

Even now, when they kissed and Steve got his hand between them. From this position touching Billy felt a little like touching himself, which had him going fast, the way Billy had done to him. It was intoxicating to make him feel good, make him break the kiss to bite his lip and jerk his hips off the floor and let out this breathy noise that turned into a moan by the end. Billy sunk his fingers into his lower back, where he’d slipped a hand under his shirt and was holding on. The dig of his fingernails were little points of pain that hitched his breath. He got it.

Steve bit when he kissed him.

Billy groaned, an almost helpless noise. “Yeah, fucking bite me,” he whispered against Steve’s mouth, and Steve obliged, would have done anything he asked. He dipped his head and sucked on a spot on Billy’s neck before he could think better of it, and then sunk his teeth in, testing — hard enough that Billy gasped and jerked under him, almost slipped out of his hand.

He stopped for a few seconds like he sometimes did alone to let the sensation fall and rise. In the in-between it was just their panting breaths; the record had gone off. Then Steve stroked him faster than before and sucked that spot on his neck, and Billy’s breath turned erratic and, somewhere in the back of Steve’s mind, it was the same noise he made when he was terrified and shaking out of his skin, totally out of control. It twisted his stomach and almost made him stop, but it was just— Billy grabbed tight when he came, hard enough to leave a bruise on his side.

He didn’t care.

And, well. His hand was messy and so was his shirt, even moreso. Billy flopped back on the floor, his head thunking against the carpet with his hands splayed over his head. He was still coming down from it, drawing in deeper breaths. Steve had the urge to lie down on the floor next to him. He didn’t, because he really needed to clean up and change out of this shirt, but it was a close one.

He sat back, half on one of Billy’s legs.

“We can do that every day,” Billy said to the ceiling. It made him feel warm.

 

“Let’s replay it,” Steve said.

“Yeah?”

“I missed… all of it.”

Billy laughed and restarted the record.

They sat on the couch side-by-side, their thighs pressed together, and really listened this time. It was surprising — songs about drugs, songs about prostitutes, messy and discordant sounds. There was no way his mom had ever actually listened to this one and kept it.

Or maybe she did.

I’ll Be Your Mirror,” Billy said, several songs in. “She played it the most. Sung it while doing dishes. I guess it was her favorite.” And it was kind of sad and kind of sweet. Neither of Steve’s parents cared about music, not really. He’d never sat through a whole album before.

Billy had his eyes closed. He was moving — he couldn’t be still when there was music playing, apparently — but he was still as he ever was. Steve wanted to kiss him again, but he let him be.

 

Robin showed up on her bike lugging a bag of subs from downtown as promised. “I hope you losers didn’t start without me,” she greeted.

Steve felt jumpy. He’d changed his shirt, they were clean, there was nothing to clue her in on what they’d been doing a couple hours ago. Billy played it cool. He took the bag of food, said, “It took you long enough, I’m already sober again,” and, “There might be a Natty Light left somewhere for you,” to kick off their arguing.

When the anxiety wore off — everyone was being normal, and he was eating a damn good sandwich — it was replaced with this deep-seated feeling that might just have been contentment. A preoccupation with the people he was with, watching them bicker, watching half a tomato fall out of Robin’s sub after a bite. He really liked them both. He was about to burst with it. Every time he saw the couch, the floor in front of it, the record player, the white album cover with the yellow banana, his cheeks got pink. Neither of them noticed because they were all drinking.

Every time Billy glanced his way while laughing, lightning shot down his middle.

“I want to be toast,” Robin said, meaning she wanted to smoke.

“Well did you bring anything?” Billy asked with his mouth full.

“No. I already said this, why’s it gotta be me all the time?”

“Steve’s too lame to have a dealer.”

“So what does that make you?” she sniped.

Billy snorted. “Smart. Why pay when there’s free weed going around?”

Fuck, Steve might have been in love with them.

 

But you know how that goes.

When they piled on the couch (the couch) to watch a movie, Steve sat in the middle and fell back so that his leg was touching Billy’s again. Only this time, Billy shifted away to put several inches of space between them.

He’d almost forgotten that Robin wasn’t supposed to know about this.

She had no hang-ups about cuddling, though. She leaned into him and even hooked her arm with his to dig into his side more. It was so familiar and comfortable that he sank into it automatically. They were watching Caddyshack — his choice — and he was pleased every time a laugh forced its way out of her against her will.

He caught Billy staring from the corner of his eye, watching how close the two of them were. And he was a little indignant because, geez, Billy had moved away from him, but then remembered that Robin was keeping a secret, too — that Billy didn’t know it really was, and always would be, platonic between them.

He curled his legs up on the couch just so that, out of Robin’s view, he could sneak his foot out to poke at Billy’s leg.

Billy just glanced down at it with his eyebrows all annoyed. Steve gave him a look and dug his toes under Billy’s thigh until he had no choice but to shift his legs up onto the couch too, mirroring him. Their feet battled for a minute then settled down, and Billy, in defeat, begrudgingly allowed Steve to touch him.

Some more drinks in well after the sun had set, Robin had this burst of manic energy wherein she dug through the party games stacked in a closet. Sometimes his mom pulled them out when she got desperate while entertaining people. He hadn’t seen them in almost a decade, personally.

“Board games are so fucking lame,” Billy said, but that didn’t stop her.

“Oh, yes.” She pulled a worn Charades box from the stack. Steve thought she would have gone for Trivial Pursuit, but maybe she knew she would have crushed them and was being a good sport. She set up the board and all the pieces and put the box of cards right on the coffee table between them. She even started to read out the directions.

“Alright, alright, we know how it works,” he said over her shouting.

They were drunk enough, at least, that it wasn’t excruciating. And they weren’t following the rules or keeping points at all despite Robin’s best efforts. So far, she was wiping the floor with them anyway, either because he and Billy just didn’t care as much as she did or because they got distracted by each other a little too easily.

On his turn, Steve pulled a card that said Marriage proposal. Cakewalk.

Robin watched him from the couch, her gaze deadly with the intent to crack him. Billy had a different look in his eyes — a lot more bored and, in certain light, a little more affectionate.

He came around the coffee table and one insane little sliver of his mind told him to walk up to Billy. He glanced at him, but then he saw something in his face or Steve’s own shaky common sense took over and he veered toward Robin. He got on one knee in front of her. Plastering an imploring smile across his face, he feigned opening a ring box.

She played along: said, “I thought you’d never ask!” and took the pretend box from his hands, plucking the invisible ring out to slide onto her finger. She admired it — then she laughed and said, “You’re gonna make someone jealous,” and looked at Billy.

It landed all wrong. Billy’s little grin dropped.

“Oh, come on,” Robin said, driving them further into the ground, “you’ve been flirting all night, it’s— it’s obvious.”

“What are you talking about?” But Billy glanced at him, searching. Steve tried not to look guilty.

“What?” Robin said. That dangerous nervousness in her voice had enough of a drunken slur that he knew this was going to bury him. “You guys are looking at each other every five seconds. And you have this big thing—” She gestured to her neck, the same spot where Billy had a bruise from when Steve bit him earlier, and he slapped a hand over it. “It’s okay, seriously. I’m cool with it. I don’t know why you— like, I knew before Steve did, just ask him!”

Billy actually had his mouth hanging open a bit. Bad news. “Harrington, what the fuck,” he said, standing up in that abrupt way he had. Except this time he looked more prepared to jump out the window than fight him. When his eyes cut from Steve to Robin, he actually looked scared. It had Steve sinking and crashing and thinking, goddamnit, he fucked it up already.

“No, wait—” Both he and Robin stood at the same time when Billy swung around and stormed out of the living room. He went back toward the kitchen and then Steve could hear the sliding door snap open.

“Oh, shit, I’m sorry,” Robin said, her hands framing her face in a way that would have been funny if he didn’t feel sick from it. “I didn’t mean to, seriously. I was keeping my mouth shut. I was going to keep my mouth shut about it.” She started after Billy in a rush and Steve had to grab her hand to stop her.

“Wait, give me a sec,” he said. “Let me talk to him.” And when he went out towards the pool he felt like he was walking into his own funeral.

Billy wasn’t facing the house. He was several paces out from the door, clicking his lighter in repeated attempts.

Steve said his name.

“What’d you tell her, Harrington?” Billy asked with a tone like he was expecting betrayal. Like he already knew.

“Just that we kissed,” he had to admit. He cringed when the cigarette finally lit and Billy drew in a shaky breath. “I swear I wouldn’t have said anything to her if I didn’t know she’d be totally cool with it.”

“I don’t give a shit.” Billy turned around. He was more furious than Steve had ever seen him, which was saying something. The cigarette dangled loosely in two fingers by his side and it was like he’d already forgotten about it. “You can’t tell anyone. I thought that was obvious, you— fucking asshole.” He spat the last part, but he looked hurt. It hit Steve in the chest.

“I’m sorry, okay?” he nearly whispered, the wind knocked out of him. “It’s just Robin.”

Billy looked up at the sky and laughed, the sound nervous and angry. “You don’t get it, man. You’re so clueless.” That hurt too, burrowing its way under his skin. “Every person that knows is a risk and shit like this spreads around, and when it spreads around—” He jammed the cigarette into his mouth and took a long drag. “Then we’re screwed.”

“She won’t tell. I won’t tell anybody else.” He felt numb. Billy didn’t even look like he believed him. He didn’t want to tell anyone else, it was just… just a few hours ago he felt like he’d climbed up to the top of the highest building where he could see everything in the world and he wasn’t afraid of the height. And now he was toeing the ledge with his heart in his throat. Somehow he failed to think about anyone else in his life besides Robin; how they’d look at him if they knew and, God help him, what they’d say.

“Oh, Christ,” Billy muttered, looking past him.

Robin stepped out. She was chewing her nail, her other arm wrapped around her middle with her eyes on Billy. Steve could hear her swallow from several feet away.

“I’m gay,” she said.

The silence went on a beat too long.

“What?” Billy looked— not only caught off guard, but fucking floored.

“I like girls.” Her voice shook and she let out a nervous, too-loud laugh.

Billy’s mouth hung open. He looked at Steve slowly, and then, not finding any surprise on his face, lifted the cigarette up to his mouth. But he just paused there and stared back at Robin. “Shit,” he said softly.

“So I’m sorry that I know about— about you,” she said, gesturing between them. “But it’s fine, okay? So maybe calm down already.”

And he did. It seemed miraculous, but that angry glint and even the defensiveness had gone out of his eyes and left something searching. He was looking at Robin, and Steve was kind of afraid of how Billy’s face would change when he looked at him. But he said to her, “Well, damn, Buckley. You could have fooled me.”

“I did fool you.” She grinned — it was tentative, but it was there. “You just couldn’t fool me.”

“Oh, bullshit.”

They started to argue, animated but not pissed off. It was like their typical banter with an edge to it. Steve could see Billy shaking the tension off, and the dread drained out of him bit by bit.

Until Robin said, “You’re the one with the questionable taste, Hargrove,” and Steve sputtered because Tammy Thompson, though. When he joined in the argument Billy glanced his way; there was a wariness in his expression but none of the resentment Steve feared.

They made it back into the living room where it felt safer under the yellow glow. Billy and Robin’s banter tapered off quick, and after that they were a lot quieter than before. Acted-out Charades cards were spread across the coffee table, their empty glasses had been abandoned everywhere, and the record was still sitting out. Seeing it was a reassurance. Billy wasn’t going to run away from him — at least not right then.

He didn’t like hiding. He got Billy’s point, but if he could be honest with the two of them, at least, he was going to hold onto that. And if he pretended that it was just the three of them in the world, he saw how they could be happy.

Chapter Text

Billy woke up, and he couldn’t move.

He was in bed on his back and every time he breathed, his lungs got crushed down. It hurt. His head was buzzing like a motor. But most importantly, most fucking alarmingly, he couldn’t even twitch a finger, couldn’t make a noise to wake up Max or even his dad.

And when his chest sunk down almost unbearably he saw the monster above him, impossibly huge for his bedroom, moving and bleeding black out into the shadows of the ceiling before snapping back into form again. Billy’s breath stopped and he couldn’t fucking scream and he knew with total certainty that he was about to die. This time he would kill him.

And then, like a rope had snapped, he burst upright in bed, making a cut off noise not loud enough to be a scream. No monster. Crickets outside. He still couldn’t breathe. He was still about to die.

 

When it finally passed, what felt like half an hour later, he was drenched in freezing sweat. His teeth were chattering. His hands were trembling out of control, weird feelings still zipping through them — he gripped the sheets to stop them. The corners of his room were so dark that the image of the monster was there even with his eyes opened. He checked the time: 2:46am. The night was so fucking long.

 

Max rapped softly on his doorframe. Even that noise jumped him awake. A few months ago, she would have stormed right in and screamed into his ear to get him up. “What?” he snapped.

She wasn’t cowed by his tone. “Steve’s here.”

“Shit, what?” He rubbed the sleep out of his eyes. Neil and Susan left at four for some fancy dinner date, as if there was anywhere to be fancy in the whole county. The peace of a nearly-empty house on top of the meager hours of rest he’d snatched the night before had put him to sleep within minutes. “Why?”

“He’s taking me to the dinner.” It took him a second to catch up and remember the stupid gathering at the Byers they all did sometimes. “And he asked if you wanna go.”

No, he almost said by reflex. But something made him think about the stretch of dark and lonely hours in this house, versus the fact that Steve was waiting in his car outside.

“Well?” she asked.

“I don’t know. Give me a second.”

She did, wandering back out of the room without complaint. Another lingering side effect of possession: Max was less of a bitch. It should have been a dream come true, but every time Billy could picture her talking back to him and she didn’t, he wanted to kick something.

Ten minutes later, after he splashed water on his face and threw on something that hadn’t been sweat-soaked, he was in Steve’s front passenger seat, which must have been molded to his ass by now. Steve’s smile when he got in — not a regular greeting smile, but the warmest fucking happiest thing — caused a bolt of terror in him like this isn’t gonna work they’re gonna find out before that dissipated. “Hey.” He slammed the door shut.

“Hey,” Steve said, not hey baby or anything fucking insane like that, then he craned his head around to greet Max before they pulled onto the road.

It was a quiet ride. He tried to avoid looking for too long at Steve, who was talking to Max about her classes and the teachers she had. He could have butt in with comments even though he hadn’t been in Hawkins during his freshman year, but he felt spacey from a badly timed nap and a lingering headache, so he just shut up for the whole drive.

There were already a few cars parked in the gravel and the grass, including the chief of police’s truck. Of course these people met at the Byers’ house, a place too small to actually fit all of them and way out on the edge of town. Knowing the kind of shit they all encountered in that house only made it weirder, but old habits died hard. He knew that.

Max got out first, carrying a tray of something that’d been sitting in the backseat. Steve shut the car off and turned to him. “Are you okay?”

“You know, you ask me that a lot,” Billy said, snippy. It was just that some days he got tired of people acting gentle, to the point that he almost appreciated the way his dad treated him.

“You don’t always say when you’re not,” Steve said after a moment.

Part of Billy wanted to tell him to step off. Part of him wanted to say sorry. Another part wanted to kiss him to fuck up the too-sincere expression on his face. Instead, he admitted, “Long night.”

“Um, hello?” Max’s voice came distantly. She had turned back by the door to look at them impatiently.

She was watching. Steve gave him this brief nod, barely smiling except for his eyes, and said, “Glad you came,” and just got out of the car.

The thing was — his little sister knew about him.

She knew because she’d been around when he was caught with another guy in California. That guy’s dad called Neil to let him know what his son was doing and that guy threw him under the bus, and after Neil got that call — because Neil didn’t care whether it was true or not, even though it was — Billy looked like he’d been thrown under a fucking bus. So bad that he had to take a week off from school. So bad that Susan made him an awful sandwich when they were alone in the house together and he hadn’t left his bed for a full day. It had turkey and was dry as shit and he almost fucking cried while eating it.

But she never said anything about it, and neither did Max. So Billy didn’t know whether she actually believed he was a faggot or not. All in all, until this thing with Steve, he really hadn’t given a shit about that recently.

It just felt risky, going to a gathering of the guy’s entire social circle a week after they started fooling around. He followed Steve out of the car and up to the porch and he was fucking nervous.

Inside was — well, he hadn’t actually been inside the Byers house since he beat Steve’s face in a year ago. Time flies. It looked pretty normal, but it was strange to see Jim Hopper cracking beers with Mrs. Byers at the table, even though the chief had been a hazy presence the first days he was conscious in the hospital. More than his own dad, even, who felt he didn’t need much guidance beyond don’t tell anything to the government. But Hopper had actually thanked him for— for saving his daughter’s life, or whatever. As if he hadn’t endangered it in the first place.

He looked up when Billy came in and nodded. Joyce Byers smiled at him. Max set the tray down on the table and took off to be with her friends, immediately giving the Sinclair kid a kiss. It made Billy bristle because — she was his fucking sister, for better or worse, but also because Neil would have a conniption if he saw the same thing. Max dating a black kid wasn’t as bad as Billy being a cocksucker, though, so he really had no room to talk.

“Did you make these?” Joyce asked, lifting the foil on the tray.

“Oh, yeah, I mean I tried,” Steve babbled. “I followed the directions but half of them came out burned on the bottom. I tried one and they’re not bad enough to throw out, I figured.”

They looked like regular chocolate chip cookies, the kind cut from a tube. Joyce ate one maybe just to be nice.

When left to his own devices, Steve gravitated towards Nancy and Jonathan. “You didn’t bring Robin?” he heard her say, probably cutting a look over Steve’s shoulder at him. Billy loitered in the kitchen, wanting to smoke. Buckley would have been a really nice fucking distraction here. He wasn’t used to feeling awkward.

“How are you doing, Billy?” Joyce asked him. She was eating another cookie, so they couldn’t have sucked that bad. Before he had to dig up some fake answer, she added, “You’re working at the grocery store off Main Street, right?”

“Yup.”

“I’m right around the corner at Melvald’s, if you ever need anything.” Whatever that meant. But he nodded. “I owe you for fixing up Jonathan’s car.”

“He paid for the part,” Billy said.

“You good with cars?” Hopper asked. He nodded again, glancing down. There was some fear of cops seated deep in him, something that had nothing to do with Hopper. Something about their inherent power over his life. “Huh. Not surprising, I guess. I’ll have to keep that in mind.” Whatever that meant.

Billy went to harass Max a bit to avoid being interrogated by adults and because he just didn’t like the look of Wheeler and didn’t want to have to talk to her. Her little brother was really something, though.

“So you’re friends with Steve now,” the kid said, his lip permanently curled.

“Why, you got a problem?” He shoved his hands into his jacket. Some of the others were ogling them and it made him itchy.

“No, I just think it’s weird,” was the snotty response, as if Billy gave a shit what this twerp thought.

Max elbowed him, though. “Shut up, Mike. You’re such an asshole.”

I’m an asshole?”

There was clearly some beef between them and it thawed Billy’s heart just a little bit.

“It’s not weird,” El said to Wheeler even as she clung to his arm. She glanced up at Billy and looked like she meant it. When their eyes met it made him antsy, like she might just melt into his mind and see everything in there again. He wondered if now he wouldn’t even notice her doing it, and her eyes were really intense all the time, so—

“Hey, Billy, actually,” the Henderson kid said, lowering his voice conspiratorially. “Actually, I’m very glad you came around from the dark side. Steve used to be a douchebag, too, you know, but now we would die for each other.”

“Uh-huh.”

“But sometimes — look, we wanted to ask you a favor.” Both Max and her boyfriend elbowed the kid immediately, and Max hissed not now, Dustin, and Dustin hissed back, I got it okay, and then he beamed up at Billy, who was torn between walking the fuck away and staying just to see where this was going. “Billy. You’re cool now. We get it. Ignore Mike.” Off to the side, Mike rolled his eyes. “We have a favor to ask you. And it’s really not a big deal. In fact, I implore you to think and listen to reason before you say no.”

“We want you to get us beers,” Max cut in.

Damnit, Max,” Dustin nearly screeched, drawing some looks.

Billy laughed. “No.”

“I thought you would say that,” Dustin scrambled, “because listen, there’s research indicating that giving kids access to alcohol at a younger age actually lowers the risk of abuse, and the same goes for lowering the legal drinking age, so in a way—”

“No.” Billy had to give it to this kid; he almost said yes just for the effort involved.

“Okay, but what about the fact—”

“Give it up, man,” Sinclair muttered. Funny that he was the one who knew when to quit.

Will Byers was the only one who hadn’t said anything. In fact, his eyes snapped down when Billy glanced at him. But out of all these brats, he sort of wanted to talk to Byers the most. There was just no good time or place to bring up the shadow monster who’d fucked both their minds at different times, in different ways. He wondered if it felt the same for him, and how much control he’d been able to maintain.

He almost asked him something there, working up to opening his mouth, but Joyce called, “Dinner!”

 

He sat around with Steve and Jon and Nancy while they ate, tuning them out. Nancy wouldn’t shut the fuck up about college and Steve kept nodding like he gave a shit, and when Jon could fit a word in edgewise he just agreed with her. She didn’t glower at him outright, but he could practically feel her goddamn disapproving aura oozing across the table at him, and he knew it wasn’t about almost killing her while under the shadow.

The fact that she was Steve’s ex made him want to piss her off more. To shake that mood, he stood up and went out the back door for a cigarette. He imagined Steve’s eyes on his back.

It was dark as hell outside, and chilly enough that he saw his breath. He used to hate the cold; every icy inhale would remind him how far away he was from where he wanted to be. But after feeling like he was trapped in a hotbox for an extended period, shit changed. The cig made him feel less pissy already.

The door creaked behind him. Of course someone from that house full of nosy bastards followed him out here. He glanced back, hoping that it’d be Steve, at least, so he could tell him some of his thoughts on Nancy.

But it was El. “Hi,” she greeted.

“Hey.” He barely knew what to say to her, just knew that he’d die for her in a second. It was kind of fucked how sure he was about that. Maybe it was the same conviction that Henderson kid was talking about earlier. Of any stupid kids, this crew of stupid kids would know.

She sat down on the porch next to him. Without comment, she slipped her hand into his left one, the one not occupied by a cigarette. It didn’t jolt him like it had before — when she visited him in the hospital along with Max and watched him silently, and he’d been fucking afraid of her at least as much as he adored her. When she’d tried to hold his hand then it’d screwed him up for almost a whole day. Now, it was just. Comfortable. Nice.

“Mike was wrong,” she stated.

“What?”

“It’s not weird.”

It was kind of funny, kind of sweet how serious she sounded. It made him want to be nice for once in his life.

“Don’t worry about it. I really don’t care.” He took a drag off the cig, blew the smoke away from her. “That kid’s a dick, you know that?”

She actually seemed to contemplate it, looking down at her feet. Their hands were still grasped loosely together and resting between them. Billy didn’t think he’d held anyone’s hand like this since he was young enough to be led across the street. Finally, she shook her head. “No, he’s not.”

“Whatever you say,” he mumbled.

“He’s not. To me. To us.” Even though he knew she was referring to her friends, he still had some trouble believing it. But whatever. He wasn’t a saint either.

For a minute or two they just sat out in the chill together, picking up drafts of conversation from inside the house.

“Are you…” She pursed her lips, really grasping for the right word. But she just said, “okay?”

It hit him differently than when anyone else asked. He didn’t want to defend himself or make excuses or hit something or lie to get away. There was just something about her. Or maybe it was because she was fucking psychic and had torn through his memories and already ripped open the realest, deepest ones. What was the point of lying now?

“I can’t sleep,” he said. That much he’d admitted before. “My brain, uh. Tricks itself, I guess.” She peered up at him, curious but open. He looked down at their hands and squeezed hers without meaning to. “I still feel like he’s here. Sometimes. I’m afraid—” God, he hated to say it— “that he didn’t really go away.”

“Will can sense him,” she said. Squinted a bit. “But. Maybe you can, too.”

Well, he didn’t like that. It threatened to knock his breath out, and he sucked on the cigarette just to get it back in order. “You can’t?” he asked.

She shook her head.

“But you found him. Me.” He knew a memory could be sharp and fuzzy all at once. That one was. “Can you… look again?”

She seemed hesitant. “My powers are… not gone. Weak. I could try.”

Billy swallowed and stubbed out his cigarette. He didn’t know if he should do this, even if her powers were ‘weak,’ even if he was himself. Maybe because he was himself. Giving anyone access to his thoughts and memories was pretty high up on his list of personal nightmares, but. If she could tell him with any degree of certainty whether the shadow was still in him, even dormant, then he kind of had to.

“Don’t be afraid,” El said.

“I’m not,” he lied, and turned toward her on the steps.

Their hands were still clasped together. She made her grip firmer. Her eyes slipped closed. He kept his open, trained on her face, his heart thumping. He had to rein in his breathing before it spiralled out of control, because, fuck—

“Billy,” she said, almost chiding. Then it was like a levee broke.

He sat on his bed and she stood in front of him. She fell back. He stood in the warehouse over Heather’s body. His car veered off the road. His keys got taken away. His dad smacked him in the face. He punched Steve in the face. His dad knocked his mom into the door so hard it dented the wall. He scraped his knee on a rock in the surf. Dad got rid of his surfboard.

Everything settled like a snowglobe.

He was on the beach, too hot where he touched the sand, blaring red behind his eyelids. Dan was next to him. Kind of daring for the middle of the day, but he remembered this beach. There was nobody else there because they were trespassing, and the cliffs towered up behind them like a shield. Dan pressed his nose into the side of Billy’s neck. They were both sweaty so it was gross and fantastic. Danny’s eyes were blue but they were a totally different shade from his, like some kinda algae covered pond. His dad would probably want to beat Danny’s head in with a rock, make Billy watch, then do Billy next. He had that dream once. Or did that happen?

He reeled back to life. The chilly night smacked him in the face. The crickets were suddenly so loud in the absence of ocean waves. In front of him, El was gazing up at him with her mouth hanging open, a little trail of blood coming from her nose. She absently wiped it with the back of her hand, unblinking. “You liked that boy.”

Billy slapped a hand over her mouth. Only after did he think to do it gently — but he could still hear the conversation from the house. “Shut up,” he breathed.

Her eyes weren’t scared. She took his hand in both of hers and lowered it. “Who is Danny?”

“Dan was— my friend,” he said, stumbling over his words. Why the fuck did he think of him? Because for one second he thought about his dad beating the shit out of him for it, and it still stung to remember Danny blaming him to save his own ass? Because of Steve? Christ, if another person found out about him this week he was going to have to start taking out witnesses.

“What happened?” she whispered. Maybe she got a whiff of what happened from his mind.

“Nothing. He was a shitty friend. It didn’t end well.” He couldn’t care about swearing in front of her, not now. He rubbed his hands down his face and shook out his shoulders. That memory had been so vivid, like he really was back there. The feeling and everything. It was like waking up from a dream and forgetting it wasn’t your real life. “Forget about it. Okay? Don’t mention that to anyone.”

She didn’t say anything, just looked kind of sad. Which now, after all that, he didn’t want to see.

“Do you understand?” he pressed. “I mean nobody.”

“Okay,” she said simply. “Promise.”

He lit up another cigarette, because screw this night.

“Billy. I didn’t feel him,” El said.

The fact that he didn’t have anything real to be afraid of didn’t mean shit. It should have made him feel better. Maybe. He was fucked in the head, but at least not possessed.

“You will get better,” the girl next to him said, patting his arm.

Not wanting to be pathetic, he reached over and ruffled her hair until it was a bird’s nest. She made a complaining noise and tried to duck away from his hand, but she was smiling after he was done.

“What’s with your friends wanting to drink?” he asked, leaning back against the steps and kicking his legs out. Sometimes forcing himself not to dwell on things actually helped, at least for a bit. “How old are you, anyway?”

“I’m fourteen,” she said, meticulously smoothing her hair out. “But Mike and Lucas are fifteen.”

He’d been drinking and smoking and then some by that age. He wasn’t actually concerned about giving alcohol to minors; he’d given Max a cigarette before just to see her cough. But even if it was something they could barely even get a buzz from, it felt especially wrong to provide that to El. “And you want beer?” he asked.

She shrugged. “Is it normal?”

“What, drinking beer?”

She nodded.

“I mean, I— I guess so, but your dad is a cop, you know?”

“I want to try it.” She seemed to decide right then. And then, the killing strike: “Even if I don’t like it, I want to do... normal things. Because I can try.”

Goddamnit. She’d grown up in a fucking lab. Just visiting a place like that set him on edge. And if she wanted to try a crappy beer, then, “Fine,” he said, with more feeling than he intended. “One. A six-pack — there’s six of you, right? One each.” He felt like somebody’s lame mom and like he was getting duped all at once.

The mischievous edge to El’s smile didn’t help.

“You’re all real relentless,” he said.

“Relentless.” Her eyes brightened.

 

“What did El say to you?” Max asked on the way back to the car. “To change your mind.”

“About what?” Steve said.

“Nothing,” he snapped at both of them.

“He’s going to give us beers,” his sister told Steve, just to irritate him, probably. Steve’s face immediately fell into something concerned and disapproving as he looked between the two of them.

“Keep it up and I won’t,” Billy warned.

“You shouldn’t,” Steve said, unlocking his car. Hopper and El came out to say their goodbyes to everyone else on the porch, so he lowered his voice. “I already told them no.”

“What are we, their parents? Besides, they’re just beers. You didn’t drink at that age?”

Steve gave him a look over the car before he got in and unlocked the other doors. Billy expected to get lectured, bizarrely, but Steve didn’t say anything else about it. Maybe it was because Max was there.

When they got back to Old Cherry Road, he saw all the lights were on in his house and his dad’s truck was back in the driveway. Susan’s head popped in the corner of a window as Steve’s car pulled up out front.

Both he and Max sighed at about the same time, reading the situation. She was catching on.

“See you guys,” Steve said, clueless.

“Yeah.” Billy was really tempted to dump Max out of the car and just hang at the Harringtons’ — or even drive someplace dark to fool around with Steve, since his parents had been home the past few days.

He was just too good at sensing the atmosphere in his house, and right now it was in the stage leading up to critical mass before some explosion reset it. Billy dropping Max off without explanation and disappearing all night might be the last straw, this time.

So Billy led the way out of the car. He gave the top of the Pacer two pats like he was sending it off, then started up to the front door. “What are we telling them?” he muttered to Max.

“Dinner at Jane’s.”

“And I was there because…?”

“I don’t know, Billy, come up with something,” she grumbled.

The door opened before they even got to it, and Susan was standing there with her arms crossed, practically falling in on herself. “Where have you been?” Her voice was all worried and timid, not demanding at all.

“We were just at my friend Jane’s house for dinner, mom,” Max said.

Of course Neil was standing in the living room like he was waiting for a fight. “Really? And how did you get there?” he asked Billy.

“I called one of my friends to drive. So I went and hung out.” He shrugged.

His dad came up to him — probably checking to see if he appeared drunk or high or disheveled in any way, which he didn’t this time. He just smelled like chilly air and cigarettes. “The last thing we needed was to come home from our dinner to an empty house and no note,” Neil said, throwing an arm out in Susan’s direction. “You know she gets worried.”

“Sorry,” Max piped up. “We rushed and forgot.” She showed no sign that she was afraid of Neil, despite getting slapped across the face by him a few weeks ago at the dinner table. That’d been a fucking revelation for everyone, it seemed. She wasn’t even acting like she was skating on thin ice, as if pretending to be clueless about what she’d done wrong would absolve her. Yeah, he’d tried that for a while.

Susan just sighed, and it seemed to deflate the room a little. But nobody moved until Billy muttered, “Sorry,” too.

“I don’t want it happening again,” Neil said. But then he got out of Billy’s face and retreated back to whatever the hell he’d been doing in the other room.

“How was Jane?” Susan asked, and Max joined her in the kitchen to catch up. She was pretty good at playing the game. Billy went to the fridge to get a soda so he wasn’t slinking directly to his room, but he kept his head down.

 

Steve asked a lot of questions, now that he felt some kind of barrier had opened up: have you done this before? and you still like girls too, right? and did you really sleep with Tommy’s mom?

The last one he laughed at, but the answer was still yes. Tommy’s mom was on-and-off separated from her husband as far as he could tell, and she was so desperately horny or lonely or whatever that she practically had her hands down Billy’s pants without asking every time he went over. Maybe it was fucked up of him to let her. He never told Tommy about it, at least — but, you know, it wasn’t half bad to have that missile in his arsenal.

“God, she chaperoned our third grade field trips. Don’t tell me the details,” Steve said, but five minutes later he asked where it happened.

“Trying to set the scene in your porno fantasy?” Billy asked. That got him all embarrassed and he shut up about it. Which was for the best, because — Tommy thought he could get away with anything in his house, so he’d been passed out drunk in his nice finished basement, where his dad always hung out if he was ever allowed home. And Billy had been drunk upstairs, also where his dad hung out, in a way. If he didn’t laugh at it then he felt kind of shitty about the whole thing. And he didn’t think Steve would have laughed.

“Who’d you do this with before?” Steve asked, quieter. What other guys, he meant.

They were lounging in Steve’s bed together, rain was pounding on the windows, and it was peaceful except that he still felt damp from when he’d snuck in.

“Nobody in this state, that’s for fucking sure,” Billy said.

“But everybody in California, right?”

“I don’t know what kind of place you think California is—” But Steve was grinning, clearly goading him. “Alright, Jesus. There were a few. What, you want their names and phone numbers?”

“Names. Yeah.” Steve’s eyes slipped closed and he sank against the pillows.

Billy didn’t know if he was serious. “Screw you. Why don’t you give me names?”

“Okay.” He listed, “Becky, Carol, Amy, Laurie, Nancy. Billy.”

“Carol, huh,” Billy snickered. “Thought she’s been with Tommy since pre-K, or whatever.”

“They were on and off,” he muttered, opening his eyes to look sheepish. “He knows about it. Now you.”

“Fine.” He started counting on his fingers just to see Steve’s face when it went past ten. “Abby. Jean. Rebecca. Liz. Alex. Corey. Anna. Barbara. Dan.” He swallowed. “Lacy— Lucy? Lexy? Another Liz. Tracy. Laurie. Tommy’s mom. Heather. Christ, I don’t remember. Steve.

“You forgot Regina.”

“Who?” He wondered if Steve’s list was as weighed down with baggage as his was.

“At the party in Indianapolis,” Steve said. He looked a lot less amused than Billy expected. Then, softer, “Heather?”

“Yeah. Once. We didn’t fuck, we just— you know,” Billy muttered, this stormy headache growing behind his eyes. Back at the facility the doc said he was getting psychosomatic headaches, which basically meant he caused them himself by being stressed or whatever the fuck. Whenever he remembered what he did to Heather, it made him want to off himself. Thinking about hooking up with her was almost worse. He hadn’t thought of her being alive since…

“Wanna hear something funny?” Steve asked, sliding down the pillows and rolling over to face Billy.

“Yeah, what.”

“Everybody spit the beer out except for El and Max,” he said. “Dustin told me. Nobody even wanted to finish it.”

Billy snorted, shutting his eyes, listening to the rain, picturing every droplet falling on his head and soothing it. “See? Now they won’t wanna touch it til they’re twenty-one.”

Steve made this noise between amusement and agreement.

Then, out of nowhere: “I wanna try to blow you.”

Billy opened his eyes. Probably made a stupid face, because Steve laughed. “Oh, you can try, baby. It’s not as easy as I make it look.”

 

All in all, he was pretty bad. But hell, he didn’t back down.

 

It was a few weeks later when he saw his soulmate sitting by the side of the road. Billy wasn’t a romantic, didn’t believe in fate, none of that — but sometimes, you see something and you just know.

His hand shot out to Steve blindly. “Holy shit, stop the car.”

“Why?” Steve asked with his voice all high pitched. He braked hard.

Robin jolted forward in the back seat, letting a squeak escape her. “What’s going on?”

Once they were pulled over to the side of the road and mostly stopped, Billy bolted out. He had to jog back down the road a little, but there, sitting a little ways into the edge of a junkyard, one tire a cinder block, windshield cracked, door dented — was a motherfucking Pontiac Firebird. It was red. It’d been shiny once. It was busted up but it was still beautiful.

Robin came up behind him. “We stopped for this hunk of junk?”

“That looks like your old car,” Steve pointed out.

“Yeah, but it’s not. Don’t you know shit about cars?” Billy said, not meanly, but just — he stepped into the grass to circle it. God, he wanted to pop the hood.

They were outside of Hawkins, restless because it was almost Halloween, and it was almost time for Billy to go back to the lab. He may have driven by this place before but he sure never saw a Firebird sitting out here. It was a field dotted with cars in various states of disrepair — although some looked newer or at least unscathed on the outside — and a dirt road led up to a couple plain-looking buildings and a trailer. It was small enough to miss, but a sign by the road said Parsons Auto Salvage.

“Anyone got a pen?” Billy asked.

“In the car.” Steve went to fetch it.

“I like the bird,” Robin said in his brief absence. “A phoenix. Fitting.”

“Yeah? When I fix her up, maybe.”

“Hmm, not what I meant. You ever think you should get a car that’s, like, actually practical? You don’t have to be totally ridiculous.” She didn’t sound judgy, though, just amused. “Besides, this thing’s trashed.”

She was only stoking the fire. He was gonna have this glorious pile of junk. “Yeah, in case you didn’t know, I do have to be ridiculous.”

“You actually wanna buy this?” Steve asked when he returned.

Billy just took the pen and jotted down the sign’s phone number on his forearm. Looking at the Firebird, even beat-up and bent out of shape, was like looking at a dream, and he hadn’t had one of those in a while.

Chapter Text

For one day, Billy loved Indiana. And that was the day Robin threw her cello bow down on her bed and said, “Screw this, let’s go to the lake.”

Billy had been back to the lab a few days before. Steve didn’t go this time because he had to work, and when he offered to come after and stay the night with him, Billy felt like too much of a baby to let him. But God, he didn’t sleep a wink there.

The doc had sent him home with sleeping pills that knocked him out cold for twelve hours. When he woke up from that, he was in a daze that put him right back to the summer when his body felt wrong and he couldn’t control it. So he was back to barely sleeping at all.

At this point, he felt like a frayed wire.

“Which lake?” Steve sounded like he was entertaining the idea but had no intention of actually moving.

The lake, doofus. Lake Michigan.”

“It’s freezing out,” Billy said. And he had a headache. He didn’t even want to move his eyes. He was sitting in a purple beanbag chair in the corner of Robin’s bedroom, and he didn’t come here to go on some fucking adventure. He came here to listen to her practice until she got bored and they all decided to get high.

Robin creaked back in her chair. “It’s not freezing, Hollywood. There are still leaves on the trees.” Barely. “I’m not saying we have to jump in, but come on. It’d be nice. And I’ve been stuck inside doing homework for way too long.”

“Isn’t that drive almost two hours?” Steve said.

She was insistent. “It’s still early. We’ll go up there, find some cheesy shoreline diner, get some shakes, get our feet wet, and get back before it gets dark. You’ll like it,” she directed at Billy, who’d snorted at the word shoreline.

Steve made a thoughtful noise. And then Billy knew he was screwed, because it was two against one, and he wasn’t about to go spend his day off at home. So, shitty lake it was.

 

It was a long drive through the middle of nowhere. He was almost determined not to like it. Maybe he was being a bitch about it, but at least when you drove a couple hours in California, things changed. You go east, it’s the desert. You go north, you get LA. He closed his eyes and pretended for a bit.

“Hey, I think we’re getting pretty close,” Robin said after for-fucking-ever. “Let’s look for some grub.”

They found an irritatingly quaint diner two minutes off the highway. Turned out, Steve was the type to dip fries in his milkshake, and Robin called him gross for it, but she dipped her fries in mayonnaise, so Billy didn’t have to side with either of them. And he still wasn’t in the goddamn mood. At least people didn’t stare like they did in Hawkins.

And then, when Steve’s car wouldn’t start, he almost lost it.

He kicked the tire as hard as his leg allowed and barked, “Goddamnit!” out of frustration and also because it hurt his fucking foot.

Geez, chill the hell out,” Robin said.

Steve ran a hand through his hair so it stuck up. “It was fine on the way up here,” he said, at a loss.

“It’s a piece of shit.” Billy knew he sounded like an asshole, but anger boiled fast in him. He felt like a fucking cartoon with steam coming out of his ears. He paced the parking lot and lit a cigarette.

“I’ll, uh— I’ll call Jonathan. He kind of owes me one,” he heard Steve say.

“Just let me look at it,” he griped, but Steve was already going for the payphone across the lot. Fine, let him call Byers and wait two hours for a fucking ride.

By the time he finished the cigarette — not facing them or the stupid car, but staring so hard at a bush he hoped it might catch fire — the anger had dissipated. When he turned back, Steve was off the phone and leaning up against the side of the car beside Robin. They were talking quietly enough that he couldn’t hear. Steve looked up when he saw Billy turn. He looked unhappy. Good, Billy thought childishly.

“Let’s walk,” Robin called to him.

Where? Into a cornfield?” he snapped.

“The lake. We’re not that far. Less than a mile.”

So then they were walking to the fucking lake.

“Jon’s coming to pick us up and try to jump my car,” Steve said.

Great, he thought. An hour-long awkwardly quiet car ride with Byers.

“You know, I took an art class with him,” Robin said. “He was really bad at drawing.”

Steve laughed. “Really?”

“I mean, I suck too, but— we had to draw portraits of each other in that class, and he got paired with Chrissy, and I swear she wanted to cry when he showed it to her.” She hid her giggle behind both hands like she felt guilty about it.

“Did you have to do that kind of thing?” Steve asked as if he was trying to loop Billy in.

“No.” He wouldn’t have been caught dead in an art class willingly.

Steve seemed to slump imperceptibly. It almost made him feel bad. “Yeah, I never took that class either.”

Out of nowhere, Robin took his hand, then took Steve’s hand on her other side. She swung their arms a little. There were cars passing on the road but hardly anyone else around; still, it was pretty weird. “Do you think people would believe you guys are my two boyfriends?” she asked.

Steve’s ears actually went red, the dumbass. “Uh, no. Probably not.”

“Some people actually do that,” she said.

“Have two boyfriends? Like, cheating?”

“Not cheating.” She shook her head. “Like a three-way relationship.”

“Yeah, we know people have threeways,” Billy said.

“I’m not talking about a threesome,” Robin laughed. Steve was looking at his feet like he could pretend he wasn’t part of the conversation. “I mean three people in a relationship, and they all know about it, and they’re all into each other.”

“I think you’re full of shit.” Billy wasn’t embarrassed by it, he just tensed up every time a car whooshed by. He wasn’t holding Steve’s hand, for fuck’s sake, but it still felt like someone was going to yell out a window at them. “People don’t like to share. Not if it’s anything more than fucking.”

“What do you know about people?” she asked wryly.

“Lot more than you, Laura Ingalls.”

“I dunno, I could see it,” Steve piped up, all nonchalant about it. For some reason it put Billy in a worse mood. So, what, he was into sharing after getting his heart broken a year ago? Like if he could have fit somewhere in between Nancy and Jonathan he might have been able to keep his girl in some way? He couldn’t stop his eyeroll.

Little drifts of sand started to appear along the road. He barely noticed until the sidewalk was covered in it. Robin dropped their hands so she could take her shoes and socks off, abandoning their conversation, and Steve paused to do the same.

It’d been too long since Billy’s feet touched sand, even this white powdery stuff. He couldn’t get his shoes off fast enough.

“My grandma used to have a house up here.” Robin picked up the pace to practically jog ahead of them. “I mean not here, but in Gary. It’s where my dad grew up.”

Steve drifted closer without Robin between them and glanced over. Billy hated how much he could read in his face — he looked like he was trying to figure him out without asking, like he knew it was pointless to ask why he was in a shitty mood because there wasn’t a reason. And it wasn’t Steve’s fault. And he wished they were alone together for just a second, somewhere private. Or maybe Billy was projecting.

It had him distracted enough that he didn’t see the horizon become blue.

Robin ran forward into the sand — onto the beach — and turned around to throw her arms out. The chill wind off the water whipped her hair into her face. “Lake Michigan!”

Billy gaped. Once they’d wound around the grassy sandy hills, it was beach as far as he could see, water straight until the horizon. No way was this a lake.

Robin turned on her heel and dashed across the sand to the water without noticing the funny looks she got from the people dotting the edge of the beach. It was a long dash, too, the kind Billy thought must only exist in Cali. “Come on, losers,” she called back.

Steve’s hand brushed his. Billy was too off guard to move it away, but that’s all it was, the lightest touch, the intent. Steve had this little look in his eye like he knew the exact way this was hitting him. Like he knew the second Billy saw anything even resembling a beach he’d feel better.

And he was right. And Robin was right. He liked it. He hadn’t even gotten to the water yet and he loved it. He didn’t grab Steve’s hand or anything, but shit, it was a near thing.

The water was freezing when it touched his feet. Robin had already rolled her cuffs up and waded a few feet in — he did the same, pulling the legs of his jeans up haphazardly and stepping in further. Steve was close behind him. He wanted to just submerge himself, but it was cold, and he knew it wouldn’t be salty the way he wanted.

“I can’t believe this is a lake,” he said.

Robin laughed. “Didn’t you learn about the Great Lakes in school?”

“Yeah, but.” He could picture the pale blue shape of Lake Michigan on a map. Somehow it didn’t square with this water. He couldn’t even see the end of it.

“It’s not the ocean.” Steve shrugged. “But it’s pretty nice, right?”

Fuck it. Billy grabbed the sleeve of his jacket and dragged him out into the deep. They were going swimming.

 

Later, all three of them sat on a rock, soaking wet and absolutely freezing.

“That was so stupid,” Robin kept saying, curling in on herself and shuddering.

“Relax, Buckley. The sun’s still out.”

“Like that’s helping,” Steve said. He looked pleased as punch, though wet and just as cold as Robin. He had this smile hanging on his face that he didn’t even realize was there. He’d even laughed when he pulled a drenched pack of cigarettes out of his pocket like there was any chance of lighting one.

“I gotta hand it to you,” Billy said. “This…”

But he didn’t know what it was. It was a dumb little swim in a freezing cold lake and it had reminded him, for a second, why he liked being alive.

Robin hugged her knees, looking smug. “Yeah, I know.”

 

Jonathan didn’t ask why they were all wet, just gave them a look. He managed to jump Steve’s car and even followed them all the way back to Hawkins to make sure it kept running.

They laid their jackets along the dash and the back window to dry in the sun. Billy got rid of his shirt once the heater kicked in, because screw sitting in damp clothes. Steve looked over and ended up stripping his off too while Billy held onto the wheel. Robin got fed up, finally, and threw her shirt over the seats, sinking down below the windows in just her bra and pants. No looking, she chided when he turned around. But she didn’t really seem to care at all.

On the long drive, the sun cut over the land, making it pop with gold or vibrant green. Some of the same fields, neatly divided into farms, seemed to stretch for miles and miles of the same perfect plants. There was hardly a dip or a hill on the entire drive, but it made the colors rush together and his eyes tracked the power lines along the road lazily. It was boring and beautiful. When he glanced in the side mirror, he could see the same smile stuck on Robin’s face that had been on Steve’s. He hid his behind the heel of his hand.

 

The first couple times Billy called the number for Parsons Auto Salvage, he’d gotten the answering machine. He didn’t bother to leave a message because he didn’t want the guy calling back where someone else could answer.

The third time, he stopped at the payphone closest to the grocery store before his shift. He just had to give it another try. The guy that answered sounded pretty ancient and only half aware of the car that Billy was talking about, but he said, “Eh, I ain’t even thought about selling it yet,” and asked for a number to call back. Billy said he’d get back to him in a couple days. And he planned to.

It was just that everything went to shit later that night.

Neil’s truck wasn’t there when he got home. It should have been; he knew his dad’s schedule like the back of his hand. Weirder still, Susan was wringing her hands in the living room.

“He went to pick up Max,” she said. “She was over at Joyce Byers’ house.”

The way she was sitting all tensed up alone in the house set him on edge. His appetite evaporated. Neil never bothered to give Max rides without Susan along. If she was hanging out with all her friends — with Sinclair — she might just be screwed.

He ran the scenario in his head a few times, wishing that he didn’t give a shit, but it wasn’t long until he heard the truck pull in. One door slammed and the next shut almost inaudibly after it. By the time he drifted back into the living room, the front door was shoved open.

Neil stormed in, practically dragging Max behind him. Her face was red, her hair a mess in front of it. She looked at Billy desperately and he didn’t breathe. It wasn’t often that reality turned out worse than his imagination.

“Do you know who your daughter spends time with?” Neil asked Susan, half demanding and half incredulous. Billy wondered if she did know. He had no idea how it was between Max and her mom — if they shared anything where Neil couldn’t see, or if they’d been fractured apart by his presence. “Do you know who I found her getting friendly with?”

“What are you talking about?” Susan asked, mouselike.

Billy looked at Max while his dad called Lucas and the rest of her friends every shitty derogatory name in the book. He hadn’t even gotten around to tearing her apart yet. He watched her, but her eyes were trained on the floor. It made him feel like his insides were on fire.

In reality, Max was probably just sitting too close to Lucas when he came in to pick her up. But this house didn’t exist in reality. She’d been where she felt safe — for as much shit as Billy gave her for her choice of friends, he understood that by now. He tried to imagine Neil walking in while he was with Steve and Robin, but it turned his mind to static. Together they were three people that didn’t fit into his dad’s worldview.

It was almost a relief when Neil seemed to notice him lingering on the edge of the room. “Did you know about this?”

It was just instinct to say, “Yes.” Not because it was the truth, which it was — because it made him let go of Max. Billy thought she might crumple to the floor, but she stayed upright.

His dad got up in his face in that sudden way he had. He curled his fist in the front of Billy’s stupid grocery store uniform. “I knew it. I knew you were hiding something from me.” In a distant way, a really distant way, it was funny how Neil could twist anything into his fault. With the same faraway feeling he understood that when his dad felt control slipping out of his own hands, even a little bit, he lost it.

“You’re supposed to watch her,” Neil yelled in his face. Not look out for her or take care of her, but watch her. “What do you have to say for yourself?” He jostled Billy as if he wasn’t paying attention. Maybe he wasn’t. He felt a little dizzy, like his body was burning but all the smoke was rising to his brain. This was so predictable. It was sure as a season or the surf drowning the sand. Over the summer he’d been possessed by a shadow monster from another world and led thirty people to their deaths. In Indiana the leaves turned orange in the fall. And this shit still happened. A laugh bubbled out of him.

Neil gripped his jaw and shoved his head back against the wall, effectively shutting his mouth. “I won’t let your sister run around like a whore and I won’t have you laughing about it,” he threatened.

“Fuck you,” Billy’s mouth managed to say despite the hand pressing under it. It felt like corks popping off in his stomach. Before his dad could react, Billy shoved him so hard that he went sprawling to the floor.

Susan gasped, Max looked stunned. Billy only saw his own cut up hands in front of him. The scars stood out so vividly he was afraid they were fresh for a second. They weren’t, it was just — his dad gaped in disbelief but he recovered within seconds, bursting up off the floor with an energy and rage Billy hadn’t seen in years.

Neil grasped the front of his shirt with both hands this time and swung him around. He pushed, and Billy stumbled back until he hit something — not the wall, but some piece of furniture that jutted into his back. Glass shattered over him, shocking the breath out of him. This time Susan cried out, maybe for the furniture, maybe for him. It must have been the hutch with the glass doors she’d brought when she moved in. It bashed against the wall, and then when his dad pulled him forward again, probably out of shock, it toppled.

Both of them fell to the floor out of the way. Unfortunately, the hutch didn’t crush his father to death. So much shit spilled out of it — more dishes, just about all of which broke in a symphony, and a vase with fake flowers that flew across the floor, and cookbooks — even his dad was stunned.

It didn’t crush his rage, though. And now, on the floor, covered in tiny shards of glass, totally undignified, he came a little unhinged.

That seemed right. Billy felt unhinged too. Maybe it was that he broke glass with the back of his head. Maybe it was that his dad grabbed at him with one hand and punched him square in the face with the other, got him right in the nose, and it gushed blood so fast that it jolted him to life.

He punched back, and he was still good at punching. He socked Neil right in the eye. Susan yelled to stop across the room, but fuck her. She didn’t get to tell him to stop. And his dad gave back twice as good as he got, of course. When he got a hand around Billy’s throat and squeezed so hard it felt like his airway cut off, it went downhill for him, of course.

Everything in him screamed to struggle but he forced his arms to drop in submission and didn’t move — couldn’t move — because he could tell from how tight Neil’s grip was that he meant it. And he didn’t want to fucking die.

Then the pressure lifted off of him and he sucked in a breath that made him cough. Neil stumbled back — no, he was pulled back. Hopper was there.

Hopper was there?

He’d grabbed Neil and dragged him off with one hand on his gun, yelled What the fuck is wrong with you? and That’s your son. Like that wasn’t the exact reason for this.

For a second it looked like his dad might fight him, too, but Hopper was police, and Neil respected the police. It didn’t stop him from shouting, “This is my house,” and they weren’t scuffling, per se, but Neil got up in his face, and that was enough for Hopper to manhandle him out of the room, out the front door.

Billy could hear them yelling outside, distantly. Besides that it was just the sound of his ragged breathing. His nose was fucked. He tasted blood. Susan stood at the door, watching whatever was happening on the lawn with a hand over her mouth. The neighbors had to be watching, too. Only part of Billy wanted to see it. When he pushed himself to sitting, his palms pressed into bits of glass.

Max was— staring at him. Frozen. There were blue and red lights that he only now noticed being thrown onto her from the car outside. And he just felt sorry for her.

When Hopper came back in, past Susan, it was without Neil. He took stock of the room — of Billy — and then let out a long breath and came over to him. He crouched down to eye level. “You okay?”

“What are you doing here?” Billy asked when he found his voice.

“Joyce called me.” Hopper was checking him over, he could tell. It must have looked bad, worse because of the stuff all over the floor and the blood on his face. Billy wondered if his dad was about to come back in and finish the job or if he was in cuffs in the back of the car. That was a new one. Not like the police had never been called, but they never actually did anything. “Hey. How do you feel?”

“Uh.”

“Can you get up?”

He was shivering. Adrenaline. Or something about Hopper looking at him so close — about him even being here in the disaster of their living room.

“You should go to the hospital,” he said, but it was back over his shoulder at Susan.

“What about Neil?” she asked.

In response, Hopper turned back to him. “You’re eighteen, right?” Billy nodded numbly. “Right. You could press charges for assault, that’s up to you. I can hold him overnight, but that’s it.” He looked sorry. Like after all the insane bullshit they had both gone through, he didn’t even have the power to put his dad away for twenty-four hours.

“Are you kidding?” Max said, apparently feeling the same. “One night? He should be in jail.”

“Sorry, kid,” Hopper said. “We can talk about it more at the hospital — I’ll meet you there. I gotta get back to the station first. You need to take him,” he said to Susan, standing back up. Maybe that was good. Billy felt like none of them would have moved for an hour if he didn’t get them going.

He offered a hand out and looked like he wasn’t going to leave until Billy took it. So he let himself be hoisted back to standing, stumbling into him when his head swam. “Good?” Hopper muttered, steadying him.

“Yeah,” Billy made himself say. He scrubbed his sleeve over his face to wipe some of the blood off, forgetting for a moment that it was his uniform. A glance out the window showed him the police car, lights flashing. It was too dark to make out Neil in the back.

“Max, you okay?” Hop asked her. She nodded jerkily, but she did look okay as far as Billy could see. The shock had worn off and her regular fire was returning. “Okay. You?” he said to Susan.

She didn’t say anything, just looked like Hopper was leaving her stranded without a rope.

“Can you drive him?” he repeated.

“Yes,” she said, not sounding totally confident.

It was good enough for Hopper. “I’ll see you there, kid,” he said to Billy, glancing over him one more time like he was cataloguing all his hurts. It made him want to hide.

He left, taking the police lights with him. Then it was stiflingly quiet. Billy stood there, staring down at the fake lavender stems on the floor. He didn’t want to go to the fucking hospital. He wanted to just walk away down the fucking street until he hit Steve’s house, then convince him to drive to Alaska or something.

It was Max who got them moving again. She grabbed the keys to the truck — Billy seriously thought she was going to drive them for a second — and gave them to her mom. She even came over and stood on her toes to brush bits of glass out of his hair, but really it was to mutter, “Sorry, Billy.”

It made him look away from her. They didn’t do that. “Not your fault.”

She bit her lip and made a noise that sounded like disagreement, but she knew it wasn’t the time. He wondered what kind of scene Neil had made at the Byers’ to prompt Joyce to call Hopper about it, but it wasn’t the time to talk about that, either.

So he followed them out and got into the truck. He caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror when he pressed his head against the passenger side window — he had blood trailing from his nose over his mouth and chin, smeared from where he wiped his sleeve on it, and on the front of his shirt. He looked like he got dragged face-first down the road. “Jesus,” he muttered, trying to wipe more of it off his chin.

“Leave it,” Susan said unsteadily. It surprised him, but maybe she knew it was worth it to look more fucked up if… if. Then she started the car and didn’t look his way for the rest of the ride. Thank God for that. She drove slowly and braked too hard like she wasn’t used to the truck, but then again, she rarely did drive if Neil was around to do it for her.

Max sniffed from the back every so often. There was a ringing in his ears that wasn’t going away.

Susan walked close to him all the way from the car to the ER. She looked poised to say something or she was anxious. She didn’t coach them on what to say, or anything, which — she never had, he just kind of expected it. But then he remembered that the cops knew everything, anyway. His dad was in a jail cell.

He wobbled when he got to the ER and fucking everyone was already there waiting. Well, just about — Joyce Byers and the entire pack of teenagers that went along with her. She came up and put a hand on his arm, the other one hovering over her mouth when she got a look at his roadkill face. He didn’t know what to do about it, wanted to tell her it wasn’t as bad as it looked, but it kind of was. Jesus, the last thing he wanted was a fucking audience.

She knew, somehow, and went up to check in with him and Susan. The kids were here for Max, anyway. They all looked worried, but Lucas was straight-up shaken. There’d been some scene, that was for sure. His dad never slipped up like that in front of other people — you couldn’t control them. All of them seemed okay, though. Even Max. It was easy to forget they’d all handled a lot worse.

He only noticed Jonathan when he finally dropped into a chair to wait. The guy kept himself apart from everyone else just like Billy did.

He sniffed, which was a mistake, and then groaned. “What are you doing here?”

“I drove,” Jonathan said quietly. “We needed two cars.”

“You didn’t have to bring the whole fuckin’ freshman class.” His voice was getting stronger. He almost sounded normal to himself. He slid down, resting the back of his head against the chair, and winced. The fluorescents were stabbingly bright.

“Sorry,” Jon said, like he actually had anything to apologize for.

Billy had to ask. “So what happened?”

“Well.” He cleared his throat. “I wasn’t there. But I guess your dad showed up, kind of barged right in. And Max didn’t want to leave, so he started yelling. My mom got in his way, but he just pushed past her and dragged Max out to the car. He didn’t, you know, hit her or anything.” Billy took a breath. He didn’t know if Jon was referring to Max or his mom. “She got on the phone with Hopper to tell him about it, but then El, you know, saw what was going on. So.”

Billy tilted his head to look past Jon — past Joyce talking to Susan with her most serious expression on, like it was her personal duty to get involved — over to the group of teenagers sitting in a semi-circle in the chairs. At Lucas holding Max’s hand tightly, the rest totally focused on knowing each of them was okay. Except El, who seemed to look up at him right at the same time.

He swallowed. She saw right through him.

“I’ve barely seen my old man in five years, and it makes me feel lucky,” Jon said down at his hands.

Billy huffed a laugh. “Yeah, I guess you are.”

“I used to get mad about it, but.” He looked across the room at his mom. “We were good without him. Better.”

“Glad your fucking life worked out,” Billy said, rubbing a hand on his forehead.

“That’s not what— I didn’t mean, you know.” He opened his eyes to Jon looking all bashful and wrongfooted. “I mean, maybe you can stay with Steve. Or—”

“Why?” he asked, a little alarm running through him.

Jon shrugged and looked away. “He’s got a big house. And I— I guess I figured you didn’t wanna go back home.”

He hadn’t thought about not going back. He hadn’t thought about much at all, he’d just let himself be brought here because he’d been too tired to fight it.

The doctors didn’t freak him out like he thought they would. Mostly he felt hazy — apparently the result of a mild concussion. They did a brain scan and asked him things and it all felt sickeningly familiar, except for what they asked about his dad, but in the end the most they could do was to patch him up. His nose wasn’t bleeding anymore, it just felt tender as hell. It still seemed to take forever.

Hopper appeared out of nowhere again while he was waiting on the scans.

Billy looked at him. He didn’t really have much to say about anything. He wasn’t feeling much of anything. It seemed like maybe that was another thing wrong with him and he should mention it, but it was better than the alternative.

“What’s the doc say?”

“I have a concussion,” he reported.

“You thought about what you wanna do?” Hopper asked, crossing his arms.

“No,” Billy said, starting to sound petulant. “How’s Neil?”

He sighed through his nose. “I gotta let him out tomorrow morning. Late,” he added, like an extra few hours was gonna buy Billy anything. “I meant, do you have anywhere to stay besides your house?”

He thought about Steve, almost said it, but fuck. He couldn’t be that obvious. And he couldn’t stay there, either, unless Steve’s parents decided to fuck off to their timeshare for good. Besides that? He shrugged.

Hopper was shifting from foot to foot. He glanced at the door. “Look, Joyce is gonna offer for you to stay at her place. And you should take her up on it. I know you — you don’t have to be stubborn about it.”

Billy frowned. It was all he had the energy for. “You don’t know me.”

Hop chuckled tiredly. “Oh, trust me. I do. And, you know what? I got a pretty comfortable couch, too.” It was offhand but deliberate. He even seemed kind of nervous about it.

Thing was, he was right. Billy didn’t want to stay on Joyce’s couch or his. The offer alone made him nauseous. He would have rather lived out of a car. His car. That wasn’t an option, though, and his brain refused to go any further on the matter.

“I just wanna get the fuck out of here,” he said.

“Yeah, alright,” Hopper muttered. He left the room, and Billy thought he’d fucked up by saying no to him, like he was done trying to help him, but he actually came back with the doctor. After they went over Billy’s scans, he was let go with orders to take it easy for at least a week. It almost had him laughing.

 

Every single one of the goddamn kids had still been sitting in the waiting room when he was discharged. They weren’t gonna leave until Max did, and Max wouldn’t leave until it was with him. But it was already past three in the morning. And with most of the blood cleaned off of him, he could scowl at them without feeling pathetic.

Joyce had offered, just like Hop said, before he got back in the truck. Only she was a lot more direct about it. Don’t go back there, she said at first, her mouth drawn in a line and her eyes bright like she would fight him on it. Like she wanted him to come with her now. When that didn’t work, she said you can come stay anytime, we’ll make room, and he said thanks, because she wouldn’t let him leave without some kind of affirmation. And then she hugged him as tight and strong as someone her height possibly could have. It made him feel freshly concussed.

When they got home again — when he stepped back in the door and saw all the glass and books on the floor and the hutch still knocked over — that was when it became hard to breathe. Susan started sweeping the glass up. Max picked up some of the books, tired and a little lifeless. Billy took them from her, told her to go to bed, and put the hutch back upright, the effort tugging on all his bruises. And then he thought, what the fuck are we doing?

He went to the phone. He took it as far as the cord would reach, away from the living room, and dialed the line that went directly to Steve’s room. The clock was hitting 4am.

It rang until it gave up. He punched the same numbers in again, breathing a little harder. If Steve didn’t answer the phone, he was going to do something insane like walk across town and climb up to his window. Everyone kept talking like he should have had a game plan in place. If this didn’t work, he’d try one more time. And if not, then—

The line clicked. “Hello?” Steve sounded half asleep.

“Hey,” Billy said, relief pouring over him. He was speechless with it for a long moment.

“Uh, Billy?”

“Are your parents home?”

There was a pause. “Yeah, why?”

Billy pressed his forehead into his palm. He wanted to scream. Why couldn’t this one fucking thing go right? He couldn’t really stand the thought of sleeping on Joyce’s or Hopper’s couch, but fuck, he would go to sleep on Steve’s living room floor if he had the chance to.

“What’s going on?” Steve asked, voice clearer.

“Do you want to come pick me up?”

“Yeah,” he said immediately. “Where are you?”

“My house.”

“Okay,” he said uncertainly, then in lieu of more questions, like a fucking blessing, “I’m coming.”

 

Billy was smoking on the front steps when Steve showed up. He should have washed up, or changed his shirt, or at least taken off the paper bracelet from the hospital, but he’d just gone through half his pack out here. The sky hadn’t started to brighten at the edges yet. The porch light was off and it was pretty dark besides the one from inside the house. Max had gone to bed, but Susan must have been up still. Maybe she wasn’t going to sleep.

And then the headlights.

He stood up and made his way across the lawn when the car door slammed. He couldn’t get away from the house fast enough.

Steve was waiting by the car in his sweatshirt, looking like he’d just rolled out of his bed. Fuck, seeing him hurt more than anything. Billy flicked the cigarette away and didn’t stop for Steve to get a look at him. He fell into him, and their arms wrapped around each other naturally. It was dark out. Nobody was looking. He turned his face into Steve’s hair and breathed in.

“What happened?” Steve said by his ear. It was clear he got the gist of it, he just sounded like he wanted to see.

“Bunch of shit,” Billy mumbled. He didn’t want to move away, but they couldn’t really stand there until morning. “Tell you later.”

Steve moved back, putting a chill between them. Billy didn’t know what he could make out in the dark, except his eyebrows pulled down as he searched his face. He lifted a hand up to trace his thumb along Billy’s cheek — must have been bruised, or at least it felt like it. It was an effort not to shift away.

“Did he find out?” Steve whispered.

Billy laughed. Couldn’t help it. All night, he hadn’t even thought about his dad finding out or about how much worse that would have been for him. Maybe he wouldn’t even be standing. “No,” he said. He probably couldn’t stay here anymore. He didn’t want to. It felt a little like if he came back here again he might as well roll over and die. “It was— fuck, let’s just go.”

Steve looked confused. “Where?”

He went to say I was thinking Alaska but his throat tightened suddenly. Nothing could get past it. Steve’s frown deepened. Before he could do anything, Billy went past him and got in the passenger side. He scrubbed the tears out of his eyes before Steve made his way around to the driver’s side, determined not to say anything until his voice was steady enough not to give him away.

It took a while. Steve drove aimlessly, taking them around town where there was absolutely no one out, until the sky started to lighten. He was indescribably tired but he didn’t want to shut his eyes.

A little ways outside Hawkins there was a 24-hour gas station where Steve stopped to get them coffees and shitty pre-packaged muffins. While he was inside, Billy stared out at the road and thought about what the hell he was going to do. If home was defined by where you felt safest, his new options would be: Steve’s room, Steve’s couch, Steve’s car. None of those were particularly fucking viable.

 

They ended up back at the meadow in the woods. It was blanketed by orange now and the morning light made it easily through the trees. Billy had filled him in on the whole night while they drove, gulping down mouthfuls of burning hot, terrible coffee like a nervous tic.

Steve barely touched his. He fiddled with the hospital bracelet on Billy’s wrist, looking tired and troubled. Then he slipped their hands together, and Billy was distracted enough by Steve’s thumb moving against his that he stopped talking altogether, stopped thinking. That could have been either the concussion or exhaustion, or it could have been the sight of their fingers entwined, which was strangely so intimate it choked him. It seemed to him that Steve would probably stay in this clearing with him forever, if he took that long to make up his mind.