The world was a storm of garish lights and distorted voices, of desperate hands grasping and pulling Billy to their will. He wanted to move - to struggle. To make all of it stop.
Yet, trying to move was like wading through thick mud - his legs and arms as heavy as lead. Too heavy: too heavy for him to bear.
For a moment, he didn't care that he was going to slip away. To sink deeper. It almost felt right. Why hold on?
He was jerked upright suddenly and hoisted flat. He let out a sharp, cry of panic.
"Billy." A hand touched his face and cupped his cheek. The lid of his right eye lifted and a light blanched his vision pure-white.
"Can you hear me, son?" The voice said.
Her hand was warm. Her voice soft. He wanted to reach for it. He needed to be reminded that someone was there, that he wasn't going to sink any further.
That she wouldn't leave him.
"We've got you." The voice answered.
Circles of white flew over his head, faster and faster in a row of headlights. Too fast.
Shadows ate at the corners of his vision, like the rolling paper of a lit cigarette. They spread further and further over his vision. Until, even the brightest lights became small and dim.
Billy woke in a small, unfamiliar room. He came to slowly, then all at once. Like breaking the surface of the water after diving too deep into the depths, he took in a sharp intake of breath. Exhale.
The bulk of his torso was swollen and tender. It hurt to move, to breathe, even.
A stale taste of old blood coated his tongue, like he had sucked on an old, rusty penny.
The air was bitter - chemical. It brought him somewhere. Reminded him of something terrible. He choked on it, coughing suddenly. Pushing the thought from his mind before it could take root.
There was a small fan by his bedside but it was still painfully humid. He felt grimy with sweat, trapped beneath the cocoon of bed-sheets.
Outside, there was the hum of traffic. Day-light pierced through the gaps in the blinds and a small, merciful breeze blew through the open window and the blinds swayed. Heat pooled on his right side: he was bleeding again. He peered down at his own body, tucked beneath fabrics of powder-blue and garish white.
His eyes lingered on his hand, where the IV protruded from his skin. He lifted it, palm facing up. Flexed and curled all five of his fingers and spanned them out wide. A thought took hold of him with a sudden vengeance as he looked at his fingers. No, not a thought.
A girl thrashed in his grip as his solid grip closed around her throat.
Nausea lurched through him.
No. No more. He couldn't throw up anymore. The muscles of his stomach was sore, like he had been kicked repeatedly. He dry-heaved and groaned.
Bringing his misty eyes to the bed-side table, he focused on the small photograph there. It was his employee photograph. Glue onto the front of a small folded white card, covered in scrawled, chicken-scratch signatures.
A red-inked heading read Get Well Soon! - from the guys at Hawkins Pool.
It felt like months then, since Freddie had stopped him at the pool-side and taken it - not a little under three weeks. Three of them had all started the same week at the community-pool.
"This seat taken?" He'd asked, when he’d stopped by Heather's table. At first, she'd glared up at him for the disturbance, her mouth pursed and lids low. Then, slowly, her features relaxed, eyes going wide as she sat a little more upright in place.
"No, go ahead," She'd said.
He'd caught the flutter of her lashes, when she'd looked up at him from her application, pinching the fleshy lobe of her ear. When he'd caught her out, she'd lowered her head and wet her lips with her tongue, nervous.
Billy had chewed on the tip of the pen to stop himself from laughing. In her ears, she had two white, pearl earrings. Probably some expensive birthday gift from Mommy and Daddy, he'd thought. Or, were they silver hoops?
When Billy tried to recall that day, or any day before, it felt steeped with heaviness. The more he thought of her, the more the vision of her face started to change. Morph. The whites of her eyes dripped down her cheeks and her skin bubbled into red froth and sank like candle-wax.
"Don't you look away." the melted girl said. "Look at me."
"I'm sorry," he wanted to tell her, over and over.
"So what." She spat, words bubbling like she was drowning in boiling water.
"You did this to me."
The heart monitor picked up as Billy thrashed. He tried to will away the thoughts. What does it matter what I say now? She's gone. It's done.
And, here he was - alive and breathing. My fault. A sharp hot sting pricked his eyes. Pressure weighed heavy on his chest, curled tight in his throat like a fist. What good would crying do? Fucking useless.
He pressed the heels of his palms hard into his eyes, breath tight and heaving. There was a small click from the other side of the room. The door edged open and a red-head peered through the gap. He felt the weight on his chest ease.
"Billy?" Max said, her eyes going wide. She didn't move past the door-frame. For a few beats, she kept her blue eyes on him, still wary.
"Max." The sound of his own voice startled him. It was alone - belonged to him again. Him, only.
Max slid through the door and brought it to a close behind her, her back flat against it.
"Is it really you?" She questioned. Her mouth scrunched up, in an attempt to keep it from drooping at the corners. She did that often, just before she was about to cry: he'd known it well.
"Are you back?" It wasn't a question that he knew the answer to. How would he ever know? He wasn't sure of anything anymore: not in a world where shit like that could exist. That shadow.
And, yet…There was pain.
That overwhelming cold. The shadow that had hung over him and draped its sharp, heavy head over his shoulder. Clung to him, seeped through him. Filled his veins with an ice that turned his skin cold and taut like dead flesh.
All of it was gone. In its place, was just the pain and the ache.
His body was broken but it was his own. Warm and sticky in the July humid heat. Human.
"It's gone." He said finally. "I can't feel it anymore." As soon as he said the words, Max pushed herself off the door. She pulled out the white chair from the corner of the room and brought it closer to sit by his bed-side.
Billy didn't move. She was still afraid of him: he saw that. He stayed still. In the quiet room, his breath came out all too loudly. In small, short slivers of air. It was a weak, frail sound: he hated that he couldn't help it.
Max braced her balled hands on her knees, shoulders to her ears and head low. The length of her red hair curtained the side of her face. He saw the light catch in her eyes as they pooled with tears.
"I'm sorry, Max."
She squeezed her eyes closed tight, breathed in carefully as she listened. Billy's eyes lowered to the grey bruise on her cheekbone. The sight of it filled him with dread.
"I'm sorry for everything."
"Stop it." She cut him off. She brought a hand to her freckled cheek and wiped away the runaway tear like it was a pest, like she was mad at it for letting it spill.
"Just, get better first." She lifted her head firmly, defiantly. He took a small, quiet comfort in the constant. Of her. Not everything had changed. The world still held some comforting familiarity.
Don't call me that. It's Max or nothing. The same as the little girl he had met years ago. Mad Max.
"Just. Get better first. Then, we'll talk, okay?"
He held her gaze, like they were stupid little kids again, making a vow. "Alright." He said, resisting a strange urge to laugh. She accepted it with a nod, before her eyes pulled away, their focus and intensity lost – their pact sealed.
For a while, Max chewed on the inside of her cheek, a small wrinkle deepening between her brows.
"What is it?" He asked, knowing.
"I called them." She grasped at one side of her wispy hair, pulling the curls straight. "They're...on their way home. It'll be a day or two."
Susan had bugged Neil for a vacation. For just a single month away. It had taken a lot of convincing, on her part. Ever since School finished, Neil was on them constantly. If it wasn't him - which it mostly was - then it was occasionally Max.
Susan made sure they wouldn’t spend all Summer stuck under one roof: seemed she wasn't as stupid as she looked.
"El was here too."
He tensed at the name. The sound of it flooding him with an instant panic.
Find her, find her, find her. The shadow loomed over a memory of a small, blood-streaked face, behind a veil of shimmering red. And, it hated. Billy winced as a sharp pain shot through his torso, radiating off him with the heavy throb of his heart.
The medication was starting to wear off, bringing on a burgeoning constant ache. The other side of his body still itched like Hell. He grit his teeth together hard and bunched up the bed-sheets in his fists, resisting the urge to just go to fucking town and start scratching his skin raw.
"Billy-?" Max said. At the sound of her voice, his grip relaxed on the covers.
The tips of her fingers found his other hand. She lightly settled her palm over his bruised knuckles. Her touch was warm, soft. "I'm...glad you're okay."
It was so quiet that he almost missed it - she was trying not to cry.
She didn't look at him as she touched him, and Billy was okay with that. It would only make it harder for them both.
He swallowed the lump in his throat and curled his fingers around hers, returning the gesture with a careful squeeze.
For the next two days, Max stopped by. It was a good distraction. Being that it had saved him for hours of being trapped in bed, watching shitty, day-time T.V.
They had talked as they ate whatever shit the hospital churned out for him. Lunch was the best meal of the day - placed on the middle of the scale between God-fucking-awful to just about edible.
Today was decent enough. An old wrinkled baked potato with a single square of unsalted butter, a cup of warm orange jello and a brown-spotted banana.
They split the banana. Billy ate the fluffy, buttered part of the potato and Max got to finishing the rest, leaving the skin like always.
"How'd you get here?" Billy asked through a large mouthful, scooping at the side of the jello-pot.
"I got a ride from Steve."
Billy almost choked. Harrington? He coughed and beat once at his chest, eyes watering a little.
"He didn't stay for long." Max continued with a shrug.
Why, Steve, of all people? What did he care? He wouldn't be surprised if he'd wished him dead at some point. Probably hoping that he would just slip away quietly. He knew he hated him.
Max must've forced him, cajoled him into it somehow.
Max prodded at the mushy innards of the potato and let out a sudden, private laugh.
“What’s so funny?” Billy pushed.
"I think you traumatized him." Max smirked. "You full-on projectiled, like the Exorcist girl. It was pretty gross."
Billy dropped the remainder of the jello onto his tray. Well, chunky, orange jello was a lost cause now. "Thanks for that."
The last time he’d seen Steve was just before the start of Summer. At the Arcade on a rainy day in May, he had caught a brief glimpse through a window through the mist of the glass. He’d been laughing, leaning up against the basket-game as the curly-kid made a shitty shot for the basket.
How long had he sat there, with him looking like this? In an ass-less gown, incoherent and spilling his guts every hour. Billy cringed at the thought.
"Don't act like you finished that movie." He reminded her.
Max's eyes wide like he’d spat in her face. "Neither did you." The two of them had stopped long before the end. At the weird and literal exorcism scene with the two old Priests.
"Only cos you started fuckin' crying," He snorted.
"That is so untrue." It was. "You almost puked." Partially true. Though, she would have to pry the confession from his cold, dead hands.
A lot of girls had dragged Billy to horror movies as some half-baked excuse to initiate touch without fear of judgement - not that he cared enough to judge. Why would he? He was there to get laid, anyways.
Max, on the other hand, actually liked them. She’d seen all of the Living Dead movies, the late 70s slashers and teen murder sprees.
Once, it intrigued and pissed him off. Who was this puny little shit to act so tough and unbothered?
A needle to his neck and a swinging rusty nail-bat landing inches from his balls had made him re-evaluate that stance.
"Max-?" A small voice made them both turn.
There, in the doorway, stood El.
She had slipped in like a ghost: none of them had even heard the door.
"El?" Max got onto her feet. "I didn't think you'd come back." She took hold of the other girl's hands. "You don't have to be here."
"No." The strange girl told her with a smile. "I do." She caught eyes with Billy.
"I want to talk to him for a second." She said the words strangely, like she were testing the sound of them on her tongue. "Is that...okay?"
Talk? What did she want to talk about? It should've been fucking ridiculous: for him to be afraid. Pathetic. She was a little girl. Just some kid.
Yet, he knew better now. Even that shadow had feared her. A residual flash of survival-panic clutched him for a moment and his eyes lowered to her hands, watched them carefully.
"Then, I guess...I’ll leave you guys to talk." She nervously turned, but not before she shot Billy a warning, wide-eyed look - as if making sure he wouldn't start something.
Stupid. With this girl? He would've had to be out of his mind.
El took the seat by his bed-side before Billy could say a word. They sat in silence for a few moments: the only sound the flutter of the fan's blades as they spun in circles.
"I saw you." She said. Without having to ask, he knew what she meant.
"I know." He said quietly, in surrender.
To be known and seen so completely: there was a shame in it. It was weakness.
People could smell weakness like blood in the water. They'd use it against you, without hesitation. Pain would always follow. A sharp clip around the ear or the lash of a belt on his shoulders.
He'd learned to brace for the reaction. Even if it never came, he tensed up on instinct. He could never let his guard down, not for a second.
And, yet. He couldn't hide - not from her.
With shame also came a strange sense of relief. Of stillness.
"I'd never done that before. Not like that." She whispered, bewildered. "I've never been able to see like that."
She brought her eyes to the wound on his right side is: the worst of the two. It hurt like a bitch when the meds wore off. As she lingered on it, her face hardened.
"Why did you do that?" She asked, voice barely above a whisper.
On the fourth of July, Billy had - for the first time in his life - spent the whole day in his room. Dormant and caged.
Rattling the bars of the cage. He was unable to even end it all like he'd wanted. To hang himself in his bedroom closet or slit his wrists in the bathtub. Just, to take back some measure of control - to spite the fucking thing.
Billy. Can you hear me? There had been a voice. In that cold, dark he had felt the touch of her small hand and warmth had flooded back to his fingers. I want to see what happened, she’d said.
"I needed-" He stopped to search for the right words. "I needed a reminder."
t was what she had given him. In startling clarity, he had felt it. The feeling of home. The hush of the waves and the cheer of a voice.
He saw and heard her again. A twirling figure in white, like a feather in the breeze. It had anchored him, given him what he needed to push back. To fight.
"You brought me back." He said.
It was the truth. As he considered his choices and thought back to that day.
To that moment. Staring up at the creature made of flesh and bone. He knew he would do it again.
El lowered her eyes and wrung her hands, still troubled. "It said, it built everything...for me."
The words drifted over him slowly like a dark cloud, his mouth twitched at the sound of the words and formed them on his lips. He remembered them.
"Everything that's happened, all the pain and-"
"It's not your fault." He was quick to stop the thought. When she lifted her head back up, he made sure to hold her gaze, like she had held his. "It's not your fault, alright?" He said sharply.
She nodded once, seemingly accepting the words. Yet, tears still gathered in her eyes.
The tips of her finger and thumb found a small, blue woven bracelet on her wrist and she curled her fingers around it like a life-line. A small comfort: a reminder.
Billy had never taken his off either. He felt the weight of it against his chest, soft against his skin.
"I'm...sorry about your...dad." Billy told her in a quiet voice. As soon as he said it, her face crumpled. A sudden sob broke free from her, like she'd been holding in a large breath. She started to cry loudly.
Shit. Why the fuck did I say that?
It was loud enough that Max, or anyone passing, would misunderstand. He could already picture her face, marching in from the hall. A picture of outrage.
Billy twisted to turn himself and reached for the bed-side table. He grasped at the box of tissues and tried to pull one out.
Another one clung on, and another and another until he ripped the last one free with a desperate tug. In the end, he held a messy clump of five.
When he turned, he noticed that she had stopped crying. Only a small sniffle escaped her as he handed her the sheets.
"Here." He said hurriedly.
She merely blinked at him, face blotchy and red.
"Just, take them," He insisted.
She reached out her hand with uncertainty, palm facing upright. She peered down as he dropped them, like he had dumped a bug or toad in her palm. El folded the mess as best as she could and blew her nose until it was Rudolph-red.
She stopped before she spoke again, eyes thoughtful and sad as she looked over his face.
"I'm sorry about yours too." She said softly, eyes searching.
Billy felt a lump swell in his throat. "You and me both, kid."
Two days passed before Neil arrived at the hospital.
Billy heard him before he saw him. Outside his room, the tone of his voice sent a sudden ice-cold panic through him. He turned his head on the pillow and fell lax, eyes closed like he's sleeping. At rest. Quiet as the dead.
The door opened and the slow, heavy footsteps stopped by his bed-side. Billy felt all too aware of his own breath as it escaped through his nose. Of the rise and fall of his chest as Neil were eyes are on him, watching and discerning.
He almost flinched - gave away that he could hear his voice. The pain made it easier to stay still. It had gone on long enough that he had ceased needless movement, to avoid further hurt.
Neil didn't touch him. But, behind his lids, Billy could his shadow. He felt its presence over him and his heart sat in his throat, like it was going to burst from his chest and out him. Reveal his cowardice.
"William." He said, low and careful." Get up, son."
There was once a time when he would have been fooled by the softness. A stupid, naive kid who had wanted to hear it - just the once. That kid was lost. Billy had put his hands around his throat, smothered his voice. He had to - that kid wasn't going to survive otherwise.
Billy felt a slight tug on his IV, pulling at the skin. It dawned on Billy slowly that the tubes were in Neil's fists. "I know you can hear me." He said, as he squeezed them.
"Sir." A voice broke into the room and relief flooded Billy like a wave. "Visiting hours are almost over."
"I'm his father."
"I'm sorry." She repeated. "He'll still be here tomorrow," No, Billy panicked. He couldn't play-dead forever.
"Don't you worry." The Nurse said, joyfully. She stood by his bed, at Neil's side. "He's a strong kid."
"When?" Was all Neil said, sharp and to the point.
"When will he be ready to leave?"
There was a long moment of silence before the woman replied. "Well, assuming he continues this way. He should be okay to move in just over a week, or so." She continued. "Then, he'll need to return for his physio-"
"I'll come by in ten days to collect him." He cut her off and turned to leave without another word.
Billy listened for the retreating footsteps of his shoes, straining his ears to hear until the door closed and the sound faded.
He didn't open his eyes for a few minutes - to be safe and certain. When he did, the older Nurse greeted him with a smile, eyes crinkling at the corners.
She leaned down, a little too close for his comfort as she asked. "How's your pain?"
"Been worse." He murmured.
The woman nodded, half-listening as she worked. She frowned as she checked him and then adjusted the tubes of his IV.
“Get some rest." She told him him. He felt a familiar heaviness bleed through him. Any panic he felt at fading slowly dispersed. The fearful voice soon grew quiet and still. Within moments, he slipped away into unconsciousness.
Steve ran a hand through his hair, still tacky with product and sweat. He was strangely nervous as he took in the sight of the hospital building through his wind-shield. "Does he even know we're coming?" Steve asked.
In the back-seat Max's eyes went wide. "I told him." She said, although it wasn't as clear an answer than he would have liked.
He'd wanted to know if he knew he was coming, not if he'd been told.
It was busier than usual as he pulled into the car-park of Hawkins Hospital. An asshole driver behind him revved as he slowed to turn. The heat made everyone crazier. Here was no exception.
"He should be waiting outside." Max said. Under her breath, she grumbled. "Probably, smoking a whole packet of Reds. God knows, he wouldn't shut up about it."
"Great." Steve sighed, unenthused. He couldn't help but question his shitty luck. Especially, after being saddled with this task. Clearly, someone up there had a great sense of humor.
"Anything you need me to do. Just, let me know." A week ago, that was what he had told a distressed Joyce.
They had spent all day talking about Hopper. Talked over Chinese-takeout and a few drinks and tried to keep things positive in his memory.
Yet, of course, there were tears. Once they'd started, they hadn't stopped. Steve had watched it all, helpless.
“There's one thing.” She'd said, tired, teary eyes finding his.
Dr. Owens had returned to Hawkins with a small-team and re-stationed themselves at Hawkins Lab.
Steve didn't like the look of it - none of them did. Nancy, especially.
Normally, Hopper dealt with all of this stuff. He'd dealt with all the "paper-work" and the weird cover-ups to the Upside-Down. He'd kept their secrets in exchange of his own, to protect El. With him gone, Joyce had to step in. Yet, work, moving and the kids had kept her busy.
Dr. Owens still needed answers. He'd claimed they needed to make sure it was gone, for good. Which meant they would have to ask none than the Mindflayer's recent host and resident douche-bag: Billy Hargrove.
Apparently, that's where he came in. Steve Harrintgon: taxi-service.
"There!" Max threw her arm out beside his head to point out of the window.
Billy stood against the wall by the glass-doors, hands tucked deep inside the pockets of an oversized grey hoodie. Black sweats and white sneakers. Not his usual style.
The guy looked like a poor man's Rocky. He faced down the street, letting his head fall back against the wall so he could bask in in the sun.
Sure enough, he was smoking - like Max had predicted. In a state of unawares and stripped of the usual rough edges of his own tough-guy clothes - he almost seemed normal. Almost.
"Would you get back-" Steve sighed, as Max hung over his shoulder. "Are you even wearing your seat-belt?"
She sat back and rolled her eyes. He caught her pretend to fasten it and hold it in place, while they settled in the spot. As soon as the car stopped, she leapt forward and pressed hard on the car-horn.
"Billy!" She hollered through the crack in the window, blowing out Steve's ear-drum.
Billy lifted his head, squinting in the sunlight. He took one more lingering toke before he ground it under his sneaker.
Steve braced himself as he walked over, hands sticky with sweat on the wheel. When Billy reached them, his eyes narrowed. He stopped short of Steve's door.
"Harrington." He said, the sound trailing off a little at the end. Just as Steve had thought - Max hadn't told him who was coming to collect.
Billy's sharp eyes darted by Steve to glare at Max in the back seat.
"He's just dropping us off." She explained. "He knows where this place is."
Billy pressed his tongue against his cheek, his eyes darting to Steve to appraise him briefly then back to Max. "Don't need him to chauffeur me anywhere."
"Then, how will you get there, numb-nuts?” Steve cut in. "You gonna walk?”
Billy's eyes snapped back to his. The look hadn't changed. The look Steve learned to stay clear of. Only, what could he do to him now, looking like this?
"It's not like you can drive there yourself." Max told him.
Billy almost looked ready to argue the point. Too bad his car was a wreck. It had been picked up and sent for repairs by his Dad. Till it was fixed, the guy was car-less and stranded.
For a few beats, Billy just stared. Steve gave in on his stupid staring contest, pulling his eyes away from his glare. "Are you getting in, or what?!"
The passenger door opened and Billy got inside, ducked his head low and landed on the seat with a small heave of breath.
As they left the lot, there was not a single sound or word. That is, until Billy moved forward and turned on the radio. The tape inside burst to life.
Reach the stars, Fly a fantasy-
Steve slammed his hand on the eject button. The tape leapt out, clattered against the gear-stick and fell into the floor of the passenger seat.
Where - of course, Billy retrieved it. He read the front of the tape with evident disgust, nostrils flaring.
"That...that was Dustin's." Heat rushed to Steve’s cheeks. Billy said nothing. But, Steve could feel his judgement and and his glare, boring into the side of his head.
In the back seat, Max cleared her throat. Steve caught her eyes in the mirror as she turned to face the window, lips pressing together to hide a smile.
It had started out as a joke, when he’d picked up Dustin a few days ago. He’d pulled up to his house, blasting it through the car window. The boy had got in and chewed him out. Yet, on the drive, they’d actually started to sing the stupid thing in earnest.
It was annoyingly catchy.
After another minute of painful silence, Steve finally caved. "So. Are you feeling more like...you, again?"
Maybe, it was a dumb question. It wasn’t like he’d ever been the poster-boy for the well-adjusted. The guy had always been a loose fucking canon. Sure, he calmed down a bit in the last year. But, those base qualities remained the same. Aggressive, impulsive, pig-headed and violent. Definitely had a screw-loose.
"More or less." Billy shrugged and slumped in the passenger seat. Other than the scab on his cheek and his paler coloring, Steve couldn't see much of the damage.
Especially not when he was covered head-to-toe, for the first time in his life.
Steve knew that it was pretty bad, however. That day, he'd seen it for himself from the edge of the balcony on second floor of the Mall. He had just thrown the last of their fireworks. The heat of them still tingled and singed the skin of his fingers. Then, he'd seen him.
Billy had thrown his hands out and caught the blow. Stood in the way of the creature and El. He'd been brought to his knees, pierced on either side of his body.
Helpless to do anything, Steve was sure he'd be killed right there. When the creature let out a sudden screech, squirmed and thrashed. Billy dropped to the floor, shirt soaked red. And, the creature had curled up like a dead-spider. It had been a close call after that, to get him to the ambulance.
According to Max, they had almost lost him on the way to the hospital.
Steve had followed Max and Lucas into his room, for moral support. At the time, Billy had been incoherent and in and out of consciousness. He'd ripped out his IV twice: thrashing and screaming. It was hard to watch.
Even harder for Max.
In the passenger seat of his car, Billy huffed like a child.
He moved position into a new more awkward-looking one. Pulling the sleeves of the oversized hoodie up, only to pull them back down again moments later with a wince. Steve adjusted the air-con so it circulated better.
He rubbed at the base of his neck as he muttered, "You know, I hit you." He admitted. "With the car."
"Bits and pieces." Billy's lids were heavy and eyes unfocused, weirdly unfazed.
Steve had wanted to stop the momentum. To redirect it off-course. In the moment, it was the only thing he could think to do.
It only occurred to him after that he might've killed him - he wasn't sure how to feel about something like that being on his conscience.
"I didn't know what else to do."
Billy gave a long, tired sigh. "It worked, didn't it?"
Well. That was not what he expected to hear - not after he T-boned the guy. "Still, it’s not like I-"
Billy grumbled something under his breath. He sat upright and started rooting through Steve's box of tapes, flicking them against one another with little click-clacks.
Steve thought he should say more. Ask him about what had happened with El, what had happened with the Mindflayer.
How had he gotten into all this mess in the first place? When Billy pushed one of the tapes into the radio and cranked up the volume: an old The Cars tape. It whirled back into place:
-And wasting all my time
Billy turned his head back to look out of the window. Well, if that was the case. Not talking suited him just fine.
They passed through the town center and it still felt heavy and grim. Everyone was in mourning. The streets busier than they had been in months.
With Starcourt gone, people returned to the smaller businesses. Those who had managed to stay open were hard at work again.
Although, it was a disquiet, nervous busyness.
Hawkins was changed.
Steve had known that for a year. Now, it had reached a point where everyone else realized it too. Everywhere he went, there were posters for a missing child, sister, parent. Photographs of faces were plastered on shop windows, outside schools, stores and offices.
In a heap on the streets, they scattered across the sidewalk like fallen leaves. Steve thought about their families. How they would wait for some kind of answer, resolution or for someone to blame.
It was an terrible thing to consider. No bodies would be found amidst the charred rubble of Starcourt.
"Every time I think life can't get any crazier." Steve muttered. “This place just keeps proving me wrong.”
"Always knew it was a Grade-A shit-hole." Billy mumbled.
"Well. Guess you weren't wrong. It's clearly cursed or something."
"Or something," Billy repeated.
They passed by a wreath and a large gathering of flowers and Billy's head turned to look. A girl a few years younger than Dustin leaned down by a boy's photograph, wrapped a small pink ribbon around the bouquet left on the floor before it.
Steve caught the change in Billy's profile as he turned back. The way his throat worked to swallow, his lips pressing together.
Steve pulled them away from the scene.
When they passed by the woodlands, Billy broke their very brief moment of peace.
"Your face is fucked, Harrington." He said. "Who'd you piss off this time?"
"Billy, come on." Max warned.
"I'm just asking him a question." Billy replied, tone sharp.
Steve sighed as he turned. "I was interrogated by Russians and drugged with truth serum." He stated. It was the truth. Of course, it doesn't convince him. The immediate bemusement on his face made that clear.
"You?" He snorted. "Interrogated for what?"
"Don't ask me, man. It was insane," Steve ran a hand through his hair in exasperation. "This month's been a crazy shit-show."
Crazy wasn't the half of it. In the space of a few short days, everything changed.
In one Summer.
Hell, it wasn't ever over yet. He had a mind to wonder where Billy would have been - if all of it had never happened. Steve had often found himself wondering that for himself, too. If he had not come to Johnathan's house, would he have ever known what was going on in Hawkins? Right beneath their feet?
Or, worse. Would he have been one of those black and white faces on the posters?
"That day, at the Byers house." Billy's voice broke him from the grim thought.
"If I'd have known about all this...shit." Billy was still turned away, facing the flurry of trees outside the window. "And...what was really going on with Max."
Wait a second, Steve stopped. "You....what?"
Billy turned his head, lids heavy and eyes on a fixed-point - at the collar of Steve’s shirt. "I'm saying, I misunderstood the situation."
The understatement of the century. Steve blinked at him, his mind carefully piecing together the events of that day.
He spluttered as he tried to find the words. Any words, at all. He'd threatened Max. Tried to hurt Lucas. He could've killed him. If it weren't for Max, he might’ve.
"And?" Steve pressed. There was nothing to lose now. It was not like he could swing at him, like this. Well, he guessed he could try, but Steve would have the advantage.
"And, I over-reacted." Billy said finally.
There was another long pause as Steve waited for more, for some kind of follow up. When that didn't happen, he laughed. "Wow. You think?"
“Harrington.” It almost sounded almost like a warning, in the way he said it. In the dead, yet pointed tone in his voice.
Steve was beyond caring now. The guy was unbelievable. He could warn all he wanted. Steve was going to tell him.
"You know what? For a moment, it almost sounded like that was you were going to actually apologize." He scoffed. "Guess you're incapable of being a fucking normal person."
He doubted that Billy Hargrove had ever apologized in his life. It must be a new, startling concept, like a caveman discovering fire.
Max got between the two of their seats. "Guys, would you stop?"
"Would you put your seat-belt on?" Steve snapped back at her.
With another sigh, she threw herself back into her seat and grumbled, fixing it back with a click.
Hawkins Lab dwarfed the car in shadow and blocked out the sun. It made Steve's skin crawl. Talk about cursed. A place that housed such death and unimaginable torture would forever be tainted.
The car crawled to a slow stop and Billy was the first to get out, without another word. Steve watched him go and shook his head, letting out an incredulous breath.
Of course, the guy wouldn't say thank you.
"Steve." Max said as she gathered her ruck-sack. "So, you'll be back to pick me up, right? At fi-"
"At five, yeah." He waved her off. Steve Harrington: chauffeur, baby-sitter and glutton for punishment. Chump.
Max rested up against the back of his seat. "Steve." She murmured. At her voice, he turned, still irritable. "Thank you." She said earnestly, soft and sweet. He gave her a small nod and a reluctant smile. It was not her fault - he knew that.
It was just their shitty situation. And, all of the shit that kept happening to them. He wished they could've gone just one year without losing someone, or without feeling like the world was going to end. Was that even possible in Hawkins anymore?
Maybe it really was cursed.
There was a sudden wrap on the window.
On the other side of the glass, stood Billy. Steve's eyes were drawn to a sudden flash of gold on the other side of the glass, like the glimmer of a penny in a water fountain.
It swung from Billy's neck, catching the sunlight like a star. He rolled down the window half-way and peered over.
"Harrington." Billy spouted, like he was taking registration in homeroom.
"What?" Steve frowned. Billy rested his arm on the roof of the car and looked around, like he was expecting someone to listen in. Only, no one was around.
"...yes?" Steve pressed. He didn't have all day.
Billy huffed and ground his teeth, jaw tight. His voice got quieter when he finally spoke.
"Words don't mean much but, for the record," He sighed before he set his eyes on him firmly. "I'm sorry."
It was clearly painful for him. Excruciating, even. Steve wanted to hate him for that fact alone. Yet, it still caught him off-guard. The longer he waited, the more he realized that he was actually trying.
He waited for the ball to drop. For a loud, obnoxious "Psyche!" to follow and a high-five to his forehead. When none of that happened, he found that he wasn't as angry as he thought.
"Did you…hit your head at some point?" He asked.
Billy rolled his eyes and stood upright as Steve chased him with another question, "Did it get knocked harder than I thought?"
Billy pressed his tongue against the inside of his cheek and smiled, irritably.
"Later, Harrington." He clapped his hand hard down twice on the roof and turned to leave. Steve watched the two of them go, eyes narrowing as they walk up the parking-lot.
Max attempted to lift Billy's arm over his shoulder as he walked but - of course - he stubbornly resisted her.
He continued to walk with a slight limp, trying to match her pace. Typical. As soon as they entered the building, Steve drove away, leaving the shadow of the lab behind him.
After he dropped Max off at home, Steve drove around for an hour, lost in his thoughts. Robin had spent some time back at home, so Steve had spent a lot of his week with the kids and Joyce.
A few days prior, he'd helped Mike and Dustin to unpack Hopper’s cabin. El had walked around, looking around at the bare walls and floor, eyes misty and lost.
She had picked up every record, his old coffee-mugs and ran her hands over the plaid shirts in a pile on the couch. Steve had no idea what to say to her.
What could he? It had been the only real home she had ever known. For a brief period of time, she had finally found one. It sucked.
In their new home, maybe she could find peace. It was the least he could hope for. In getting the Hell away from Hawkins and from all the bad memories.
Steve exhaled a deep breath, in an attempt to lighten the heavy ache that had twisted up into a tight knot. He peered up at his rear-view mirror, at the dark shadowy hollows under his eyes.
He pulled up at his house and got out, juggling his keys between his hands. When he opened the door, he was greeted with darkness. He kicked off his shoes, letting them bounce messily across the carpet.
It didn't matter. It was just him, after all.
He turned on all the main lights and went to the fridge. There, he pulled out two pieces of left-over pizza from a few nights ago. He rested his back against the door as he ate it cold.
After he had washed up, he went to the phone. There was a small note which read: Call if you need anything in cursive writing.
Steve lifted the receiver and input each of the digits with slow deliberation, his chest filling with dread. She'd had asked him for an update. Even if she hadn’t really meant it, she couldn’t go back on the words.
It wasn't like he was bugging them, if she'd asked. He finished the last digit and waited.
“Hello!?” Mom's voice was tinny as she shouted, clearly struggling to hear over music playing in the background.
“Mom. It’s Steve.”
"Oh, honey, how are you?” She said brightly. “We were worried sick." In the background, he heard more voices. Laughter. Steve chewed hard on the inside of his cheek.
"Uh-huh." He sighed as he leaned against the wall. He flicked the pool-light on, illuminating the yard in a cool blue light. Without fail, it always gave him pause: he hated the look of it in the dark.
“You asked me to call.” He reminded her.
“Oh, yes. Right.” So, she had needed the reminder. There was a long pause before she replied. It was long enough for Steve to question if she had left. "Have they discovered what caused that terrible fire yet?" She asked finally.
"Not yet." He turned in a different position and let the phone-cord wrap around his body. From her end, he heard the rustle of movement, and the melodic clink of glasses. A few excitable hushed words as she spoke to someone else. She laughed. Irritation pricked at the roots of his scalp like tiny needles.
"When will you guys be home?" He was sharper at the ‘when’ - he couldn't help himself.
"Honey, we told you when." She sighed. It was like being a child again: being spoken to like he's stupid for asking why they're not around. Why they had missed his seventh birthday. Mom, I miss you. When are you coming home?
Steve pressed his forehead against the wall-paper and tucked himself beside the phone, nestling his face against the tacky-surface. He swallowed his pride and surrendered. "It's been a pretty bad month." He sighed. "I kinda...need you guys."
"I'm right here, sweetheart." She said. "Talk to me." Steve's throat filled with a solid lump. He relaxed his grip on the phone, just a little. Indulged in the thought of dropping it and leaving her hanging. He wondered if she'd even notice, or care.
Before he could clear his throat, she spoke, "Honey," She said, letting out an affected little sigh. "I know you wanted to prove something with this little job and I'm sorry how it all ended. But maybe this is a sign-"
“You've always had options.” She added. “Your father still could find you work with the company, should you accept it. You could put some more effort into applying for college, next fall." She continued. "But, it just seems to me like you're hell-bent on making your life harder. And, I just can't understand why."
"Mom." He stopped her and ran a hand through his hair. Dad had already beaten that conversation to death and he wasn't in the mood for a re-run. "I'll call you tomorrow, okay? I'm kind of tired. And, I've gotta get up early."
"Oh, okay, honey." She said, a little too quick to accept- not that Steve had ever expected her to dwell. It was not a shock, but it still stung. He heard the smile in her voice: the fake pleasantry as she continued: "I'll talk to you soon, okay? Try and get some rest." She blew three kisses down the phone. "I love you."
"Love yo-" The call cut off. Steve waited for a few seconds, listening to the flat-line dial. Then, he uncurled himself from the wire and put down the receiver.
He cupped his face in his hands. It was still sore - especially the skin under his eye. He couldn't bring himself to look at it in the mirror right now -not with all the swelling.
He made his way to the fridge and pulled out a packet of frozen-vegetables. He spent the rest of his evening watching some of his recording of Live-Aid, with a bowl of chips and a cold compress.
The recording had come out pretty well. He left the TV on downstairs before he went to bed, some re-run of a soap-opera. Then, in his room, he put on the radio.
The gathering of voices and sound soothed him. It was much easier to sleep with when it felt like the house was full of voices, life and noise. Like, he wasn't all alone.