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Can't Keep Pretending

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Steve might not be good at everything , but he is good at locking things away. 

If he doesn't think about it, if he pretends it didn't happen, he can let it go. He can make himself believe everything is fine, that he is fine. He can shut down anything that makes him feel slimy and take those bad memories and pack them away. Tape the boxes shut. Build a brick wall around them. 

Forget the wall exists

He's fine. 

And sure, it hadn't worked on the Barb situation last year, but that's because Nancy had been there, talking about it, making him remember, never letting it go

But he doesn't have her in his ear anymore. Doesn't have anyone shoving the memories in his face. So, his ability to lock it all away starts working again, or at least, he'd thought it had been working again. 

But he was wrong. 

It happens when he's at work. 

It's almost time to close, he's sorting the returned movies and putting them back on the shelves, when he sees someone in the next aisle over. His heart starts beating loudly in his chest and he can feel himself break out in a cold sweat. The hand not holding any tapes trembles and his ears start to ring. 

At first he has no fucking idea what is going on or why his body is acting like this, but then he realizes …the man in the next aisle, reading the back of an Indiana Jones case, looks kind of like the Russian General from this angle. 

He suddenly feels sick to his stomach and has an intense urge to run. But he can't just leave , so he just walks the other way, sets the movies on the counter close to Robin and goes straight to the back office. 

Once the door clicks behind him he lets his mask of calm shatter and freaks the fuck out. 

He can't breathe. His vision goes spotty and the trembling in his hand spreads. He has to sit down, back against the wall and knees to his chest, to stop himself from shaking apart. 

Shit. Shit. Shit

Why is this happening now? It's been months . He thought he locked that shit away. He was sure he had, so why is he fucking crying

"Steve?" 

He can barely hear Robin saying his name but he sees the door open. He sees her worried face as she crouches in front of him. She reaches out to touch his shoulder but he flinches so hard he knocks his head back on the wall. 

She yanks her hand away from him. "Shit. I'm sorry." 

He wants to tell her it's ok, doesn't want to make her feel bad, but he can't get his mouth to move, can't get his voice to work. It's taking all his energy to just focus on breathing 

"Please, tell me what to do." She's begging him. 

But how can he when he doesn't even understand what the fuck is happening to him? 

"Come on, Steve. Breathe."

Yeah, he's trying. 

Someone is hitting the bell next to the registers. 

"I'll be with you in a minute!" Robin yells out the door, but the ringing continues. "Can you just wait a second?!"

He finally manages to get out the word go. They can't ignore customers, even if Steve is acting like a crazy person. 

She doesn't look like she wants to leave him, but when the ringing gets aggressive she shakes her head and gets up. 

He closes his eyes and tells himself that he's ok over and over. So by the time Robin returns, his heart has slowed and his lungs don't feel like they're going to explode. He's not shaking anymore but he is exhausted and still feels sick. 

"Can you tell me what's wrong?" 

He's not really thinking of anything when he blurts out, "I should have died."

Oh

Her face softens and she sits down next to him. "Steve-"

"It was luck. That's the only reason we got out of there." He says, because it's fucking true. " What were we thinking? We had no business sneaking in there. And fuck, we put Dustin and Erica in danger. I mean it was Dustin's idea but I'm supposed to be a fucking adult. I should have shut that shit down. What would have happened if those Russian douchebags had gotten their hands on them too?"

He is really surprised by the words coming out of his mouth. He hadn't said anything, not one word about that night since it happened. The last time he even thought about it was when he had to write out a statement for the men in suits. Then he'd went home and put all those bad thoughts in his boxes with the rest of the shit he doesn't think about, and taped them up. Built those walls around them. 

But now the walls are crumbling and the tape is being ripped off and he can't stop the thoughts and feelings from spilling out, drowning him. 

"I got beaten unconscious." He continues, "And yeah, it wasn't the first time that's happened to me, but at least I was able to get a few good hits in on Billy before he knocked me out. At least I could move. But down there, I couldn't…I couldn't do anything. I was fucking handcuffed and I just had to take it because it didn't matter what I said, they didn't believe me." 

He tries to suppress the shiver he gets when he remembers how helpless he'd felt. 

"I'm not a spy. I'm not a soldier. I wasn't prepared for that shit. Deflection and humor only get you so far, and the worst part wasn't even the pain. It was the thought that they were hurting you like that too, and that if they were, it was my fault."

Robin makes a noise and he thinks she is going to protest, but in the end she doesn't say anything. She just continues to listen to him. Maybe she knows he needs to get it all out. 

"That general was a total fucking creep, made my skin crawl. And they were milliseconds away from torturing me. They would have probably tortured you too when they didn't get what they wanted. They would have definitely killed us afterwards and the only reason that didn't happen was because the kids crazy ass rescue plan worked. It shouldn't have, but for some reason it did. And like, I'm glad it worked, but it doesn't change anything that happened before that."

He feels like puking again. 

"Jesus," He runs his hand over his face, feels the remnants of sweat there, and sighs. "I've faced and fought and killed other wordly monsters, Robin. I was scared every time. I thought I was going to die every time. But down in that base? I've never been more fucking terrified in my life ...The Upside Down monsters are predictable. You pretty much know what you're up against, and if they kill you, they make it quick." 

He swallows the sudden lump in his throat. "But human monsters? They play with you first. Hurt you. Like making you suffer and you can never see what's coming next." He turns his face to look at her. " I couldn't see what was coming."

They're both quiet and the weight of the silence lays heavy between them. 

He takes a deep breath and repeats, "We should have died." 

Robin slips her hand into his. "Yeah, maybe we should have died down there, but we didn't, Steve We made it out." 

"But did we really ?" He asks, his voice just above a whisper, and she takes a shaky breath like she knows exactly what he's saying without saying it. Like she understands .

 "I'm sorry." She says, instead of answering, and he's confused. She doesn't have anything to be sorry for. 

"About what?" 

She sounds a little choked up when she responds, "Not realizing that you weren't ok." 

"Stop." He squeezes her hand. "I was ok. Until tonight I was fine . I don't…I don't know what happened." 

"Well, you looked like you'd seen a ghost or something when you walked up to the counter. It freaked me out. What were you doing before that?" 

"My job. But I got distracted by a customer." He replies slowly. "I saw this guy and I… he reminded me of the General and I just…I felt like my heart was going to burst and I couldn't breathe."

"Ok. Let's look at the facts." She let's go of his hand and looks thoughtful and serious. "You insist that you were fine before tonight, but obviously seeing someone that reminded you of that day triggered something inside of you. Made you feel how you felt back then? Scared you."

It makes sense.  

"Yeah. That's…probably what happened."

"So, maybe it won't happen again." She says, and she sounds hopeful. "Maybe this was a one time thing."

"Yeah, maybe." He'd really like to believe that. There's nothing he'd love more than to pack it all back up and get on with his life again. But he knows that's impossible. His walls are just too damaged to hold it all back now. 

 He doesn't tell Robin, but he has a twisting feeling in his gut that this won't be the last time. 

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Before he was possessed by a monster, Billy Hargrove had a shit life. He woke up every morning telling himself that he could do it, he's one more day closer to getting the fuck out, getting away from his dad. California was on the horizon. Once he reached it, his life would be better. He just had to keep going, keep moving towards that goal, and at the end, he'd find a bit of happiness. 

He felt like he deserved at least that much. 

After the possession, his life is still shit, but now in a worse and more terrifying way. His body is broken, his mind is scattered and he has no goals anymore. When he wakes up in the morning, he doesn't think about sunshine and beaches, he thinks about Heather. He thinks about the destruction he left behind him. He thinks about the fear he saw on Max's friends face. He thinks about Max. 

He wakes up and no longer aches for a better life. 

He knows he doesn't deserve one. 


Billy doesn't get angry anymore. 

There's no point. 

His world is grey and lifeless. There's no white hot rage burning him up from the inside, setting everything ablaze. His fire had been snuffed out months ago by a wave of guilt that had crashed down on him. A wave that just keeps coming. 

So now he's just numb. Now he just exists to inhale oxygen and dispel carbon dioxide. 

He feels like even that is a waste. 

Billy doesn't fight back anymore. 

There are no witty retorts, no yelling to defend himself, no defiant look on his face as his father talks down to him. He takes it silently now. He doesn't flinch or shrink away when the hits come. He lets them fall. 

He deserves worse than what Neil is giving him. Why fight it? 

Billy doesn't try anymore. 

The first thing he did when he came home from the government hospital a month ago, was cover up his mirror. He can't bear to look at himself longer than the time it takes to brush his teeth. He can't stand to see his face, the face of a murderer. 

He doesn't look at his body much either. It hurts. The one thing he had going for him has been twisted beyond repair. His scars ache when the temperature drops. The bruises his dad gives him throb more than they ever had before. 

He's soft. Body and soul. 

He wonders if that will eventually piss Neil off. After all, real men aren't weak . Real men get up and get back to work, get up and go back to normal, get up and push harder than before. 

Billy wants to ask how many real men Neil knows that were possessed by monsters, that were experimented on before and after being healed. How many real men does he know with scars that look like his. He wants to ask. 

But he doesn't. 

What good would it do?  It wouldn't change anything. 

Billy doesn't smile anymore. 

Not that he had many genuine smiles before, but at the very least he could fake them. He could use them to charm just about anyone, he could use them to hide his pain, he could use them to fight . He hasn't smiled since the day the monster took him. 

He doesn't think he'll ever smile again. There's nothing in this town worth the effort of using the muscles in his face for anything other than frowning. 

At least that's what he thought before Max physically dragged him out of the house and made him come with her to the Family Video store. 

The video store where a familiar head of hair is walking around the back aisle with a stack of tapes and smiling brightly at Max as she runs up to him. 

It's the first time he's seen Steve Harrington since that night , and even then he'd only seen a glimpse of his stupid sailor uniform. He looks good. He's wearing normal clothes and runs a hand through his hair as he talks to Max.

And shit. Billy had honestly forgotten how damn pretty he was. 

Now, standing here under the fluorescent lights, with his hands stuffed into his coat pockets and a buzzing in his ears, he's reminded. And suddenly his world doesn't look as grey. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Steve honestly knows very little about what happened to Billy Hargrove after the Starcourt fiasco. All he knows is that he barely, barely survived, and that Dr Owens had him transported to a government facility. 

Because like, he'd been possessed by a creature from the Upside Down and, according to Dustin, his body chemistry was all fucked up. Not like they could just drop him off at the local hospital, say here you go, and call it a day. 

Max said he'd been gone for three months, so it was kind of an out of sight, out of mind kind of thing for Steve. He'd had his own shit to work through, so Billy just hadn't been on his radar. Hell, the last time he'd seen the guy he'd been bleeding out, and Steve had been pulling the kids away from him. 

So, he wasn't exactly prepared to see him again, following a foot behind Max when she stopped by the video store. Steve hadn't even paid him attention at first, because he hadn't recognized him. 

It wasn't because he looked different really. His face still looked the same, maybe a bit paler and thinner, but it was everything else that threw him off. 

Before , there had been a certain kind of aura around him, the kind that demanded your attention. There had been confidence in his walk, in his posture, in his words, in his smile. And sure, there was an underlying current of anger, of danger at times, but even then people couldn't stay away. They were like moths to a flame and he ate that shit up. Enjoyed the eyes on him. He never stopped talking, never stopped being a smart ass. It had been nearly impossible to ignore the guy. That's how bright and annoying he was. 

But now? Steve is hit with a sudden and somewhat ugly realization.

That Billy Hargrove, the one that was all swagger, the one that goaded Tommy H into a car race , the one that broke a plate over Steve's head , doesn't exist anymore

The boy standing here in front of him is a stranger. 

If he hadn't been wearing such a dark, bulky coat, he wouldn't have even noticed his presence. He was unassuming, hunched into himself with his shoulders up and hands shoved into his pockets. There is a hood covering his head and everything about him screams don't look at me. He doesn't even make a smart ass comment about Steve's hair. 

Steve doesn't know what to do with this Billy. 

It wasn't like he thought he'd be the same , all of them had been affected and changed by the shit the Upside Down put them through, but he didn't expect such a dramatic one eighty. It kind of makes him uncomfortable. 

Max seems to be used to this new behavior, though. She doesn't act like it's a big deal that her step brother is hanging back, silent and tired, a shell of his old self. Or maybe that's why she is doing it, talking to Steve and throwing out a few comments to Billy that he doesn't really respond to. 

Act like everything is ok, and everything will be ok, right? 

That used to be Steve's fucking mantra , but look at how that turned out. He pretended too long, locked too many things away, never dealt with them, and now he's a total spaz

A spaz that has panic induced break down s at work because a customer reminds him of the General , and who sweats and screams through nightmares half the week then checks locks for two hours afterward. 

Steve knows what pretending leads to. And it's not pretty. 

But he can't just blurt that out here in the middle of the store, so he'll just have to wait.

Wait until Max comes alone. 

If she ever comes alone. 




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For all the ranting and raving her step father used to do about them all needing to be more like a family , Max feels like she's the only one trying. 

And sure, maybe it took Billy getting possessed for her to actually want to, but she is now. She's trying . At least when it comes to him. 

They've had a complicated relationship from the beginning, and for awhile she blamed him. It was easier, safer to blame him. But in reality, it was Neil's fault. From the moment he married her mom he started the bullshit. She's not blind anymore. She knows he used her to make Billy miserable. 

So of course he didn't like her. 

When she first moved in, she was constantly praised by his dad, given a lot of attention, and seemed to get him in trouble. And knowing what she knows now about their fucked up relationship, she can totally see why that pissed him off. 

But back then she was naive and had no idea that his life in their house was vastly different than hers. So she hadn't known why he was giving her the cold shoulder. To be honest, it had hurt her feelings, so she had purposely been a brat. 

She'd pester him, so they'd fight. She'd fuck with his stuff, so he'd break hers. If they were alone in the house they'd end up yelling at each other. And yeah, that's typical sibling stuff, but there was an added edge to it. She's sure brothers and sisters get mad at each other, but she always had this feeling the last few months they lived in Cali, that Billy had started hating her. 

He'd either ignore her existence entirely, or bully her even when she hadn't done anything. He was so angry . All the time . But she didn't really understand why until she did . Then she wished she didn't know. 

And god , she'd always known that Neil was an asshole. He treated Billy like complete shit, but she hadn't expected that. And it was all just driven home when he was more angry than concerned that his son was in a rehabilitation center recovering from his trauma. 

Like, shouldn't he be worried ? Or Upset? His kid almost died , actually he did die for a couple minutes  so shouldn't he feel something other than inconvenience? He'd seemed more concerned with how Max was because she had watched it happen

Which was such bullshit

She wasn't the one impaled trying to save everyone. She wasn't the one suffering through surgery after surgery to get pieced back together. She wasn't the one that died and came back . What the hell is wrong with this family? 

She had to practically beg her mom to find out what was going on, and when she half assed it, Max went to Hopper to ask him to talk to Dr Owens for her. He was also the one who drove her to the facility to pick Billy up because their parents were too busy, too bothered , to do it themselves. 

And the worst part about all of that , was that Billy hadn't been suprised. He hadn't  cared. When she started making excuses for them, he just stared out the window and quietly told her to stop fussing. He had never expected them to give a shit, and he was surprised that she had. 

That upset her more than she'd like to admit. He had known his dad wouldn't come. He probably knew that he never even asked about him or ever worried for his safety. He was so used to Neil not giving a shit that he just…accepted it. 

She hated that. 

And she hated how lonely that must have made him, hated how withdrawn he was now, and how damn thin . Had he been eating? Surely the doctors wouldn't just let him starve himself? Right? 

She still made Hopper stop at a McDonalds on the way back just so she could make sure he ate something. He'd given her a strange look but didn't say another word until they pulled up in front of their house. 

He'd nodded to Hopper, thanked him for the ride, and then stood on the sidewalk beside her. He just blankly stared up at the house, and she could tell he didn't want to go inside. After everything that had happened to him there, she didn't really blame him. 

But they couldn't just stand out there all day, so she hesitantly reached out and touched his hand. He'd flinched but didn't pull away. "You didn't have to come for me, Max." He said softly. 

Her heart hurt at how dejected he'd sounded. She hated it. He needed to know that despite how their parents acted, she wasn't going to be indifferent anymore.

"I wanted to." 

He didn't reply to that, but he did give her a slight nod before following her into the house. 

 

Chapter Text

Max has to get Billy out of the house, by whatever means necessary. It's not because he hasn't stepped outside in weeks, though that is part of it, it's because she's scared. 

Neil doesn't hide it anymore , what he does to Billy. She's pretty damn sure it's worse now, actually. Because now he doesn't fight back, he doesn't run to safety the minute he can, he just…takes it. Then waits for the next round. 

She thinks Neil is doing it to get a response out of him, to get some kind of reaction other than dead eyed indifference. He also refuses to talk to his dad besides giving him little two word replies. Yes sir, no sir. 

Apparently that pisses him off. 

Which pisses her off, because he's always wanted Billy to be quiet, to be less aggressive, to be respectful. And now he is all of those things, and Neil still isn't happy. He still hurts him. Even though he knows Billy hasn't fully recovered from what happened at Starcourt Mall, he does it anyway. 

She just doesn't understand what the fuck he actually wants.

It's like nothing Billy does is good enough. 

So if it's not about him being obedient, about him listening and not causing trouble , then what the hell is it about? It's almost like Neil wishes he hadn't come home. Like he wishes he hadn't survived

And that is what scares Max. 

She got a second chance with Billy, she's not about to let his dad kill him because he won't fight back. 

So this morning, when Neil looked like he was in a shitty mood, she decided she was going to get ahead of the storm. She just barges into Billy's room, practically forces a coat on him and tells him he is coming with her to get a movie whether he likes it or not. He looks a little suprised but he doesn't protest, just lets her manhandle him out the door, and it kind of makes her sad. 

She never thought she'd miss his snarky bad attitude, but she does. She misses a lot of things. Like him yelling at her about shutting of that damn walkie thing, Maxine, I'm trying to sleep. Or calling her shitbird. Or him kicking her under the dinner table when she's not paying attention. She even misses his gross flirty smile. 

It's…painful, seeing him like this. 

She knows he must be dealing with so much hurt, so much guilt . Everyone just sort of assumed Billy was an asshole in all aspects of his life, but she knew he wasn't. He was an asshole, don't get her wrong, but he put on a really big show. He wore a lot of masks and hid behind a lot of lies. He would never have done any of the things the Mind Flayer made him do, and she's pretty sure it broke him. 

She wants to talk to him about it. She wants to ask him about the three months he was gone. But she doesn't. She doesn't think he is in a good place to answer questions, and just because Max is the only one he actually talks to, it doesn't mean he trusts her. But she's ok with that.

She will just keep doing what she's doing. She will talk about mundane things, like how much high school sucks, and how she dumped Lucas again and that Hopper asked Joyce out and she said yes. He doesn't reply, but sometimes he makes a noise that confirms he's listening. 

She will make sure he leaves his room for dinner and glare at him until he eats at least something off his plate. She will take care of him, because no one else is going to. 

And sure, she doesn't get a thank you or a even a smile, but that's not why she's doing it. And honestly, she doesn't think Billy is capable of smiling anymore. 

Or she had thought that. 

Until she saw his lip twitch when Steve went to the back to get the movie he had put aside for her. She hadn't known how it would go, bringing him to Steve's work, they weren't exactly corrigible before everything went down, but she needed him to leave the house, so she had no choice. 

She guesses it turned out ok, though, because Steve didn't seem to mind that he was there. And when they left the store and she asked what they should do next, he actually told her he was hungry . She had looked back at him in surprise, because seriously? She's been bending over backwards trying to get him to eat, and now he's hungry?

She was about to say just that, like what the heck changed in the last thirty minutes that he's trying to be human again, but she'd paused. She couldn't bring herself to say anything, because when she looked at his face she noticed, that for the first time since he'd been home, Billy's eyes didn't look so dead. 



Chapter Text

Billy doesn't understand why Max cares. He'd been a dick to her pretty much the whole time they'd known each other, and he's not stupid enough to believe his end of life apology absolved him of anything. It didn't make things right between them, and it shouldn't. She shouldn't forgive him. 

But for some reason, that's totally beyond him, she's the one that showed up for him when he was released. She's the one that keeps showing up. That refuses to leave him alone. 

He didn't ask her to, didn't really want her to, but he also didn't have the energy to stop her. If she wanted to harass him into eating, if she wanted to physically pull him out of bed when he hadn't left it in awhile and then talk his ear off while doing dishes, that's her prerogative. 

But he thinks she does it because she's worried. 

It's no secret that his dad hates him. He may hate him even more now. Which is fine with Billy, because if no one else is going to punish him for what he's done, at least he can count on Neil to do it. Even if he has no clue what he's punishing him for , he still gets the job done. 

There's just one problem. Max is getting herself involved now. After the hits and yelling stop, she comes into his room uninvited with first aid kits and a whole lot of attitude. Sometimes she doesn't even wait for his dad to leave. She just…pushes past him and helps Billy up. 

He tells her to stop doing that. To stop helping him, because she's going to put herself in the line of fire and he doesn't want that. She should leave. She should get up and walk out and never come back. But she doesn't. She just tells him to shut the fuck up, Billy. I'm not leaving.  

And that's that. 

He has no energy to fight her. 

Maybe he doesn't want to anymore. 

He doesn't deserve her kindness. He doesn't deserve her loyalty. He doesn't deserve her period . But sometimes it feels good knowing he has her, for whatever fucking reason. When she's fussing over him, he doesn't feel so incredibly alone. 

And yeah, he knows that he should be alone, that he still needs to pay his dues, and it would be better for everyone if he stayed in his room and withered away, but she obviously doesn't agree. 

She won't let him hide anymore and she's been making him leave the house. 

Which he thought was annoying at first, but now he automatically puts on his coat when she tells him they're leaving, because leaving usually means seeing Harrington

And shit. He thinks she knows he has a thing for him. Ever since their first outing to the video store, she has been giving him sly smiles and throwing out random information about Steve and what he is doing. 

He's told her he doesn't fucking care what Harrington is doing, because he doesn't think he can handle hearing her spitting out the same nasty names that his dad does. But...she doesn't care. It doesn't bother her. She just rolls her eyes like sure you don't, and then drags him to the video store anyway. 

It's like he's an open fucking book to her now, and maybe he is. Maybe it's easier because all his defenses have been washed away. Maybe anyone could crack him open and read his blood splattered pages. 

She's just the only one that wants to. 

Maybe that's the real reason he doesn't fight her when she tries to mother him. It's not because he doesn't care anymore, it's because he does. It's because she gives a shit about him, even though she really really shouldn't .

Max gives a shit. 

And it's been a long time since anyone else has.

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The first time Max sees more than a glimpse of Billy's scars, she nearly cries. 

She sees them when he's coming out of the bathroom, and it's like she's right back at the mall, watching helplessly as the monster stabs through him like he's a piece of paper and not a human being. 

She just stops, right there in the hallway, and tries to get the images out of her head. But she's stuck, plagued with them until she hears him calling her name. 

She snaps out of it and finds that he's staring at her, hand hovering near her shoulder and a look close to worry on his face. 

He asks if she is ok, and she doesn't want him to know that her reaction was from seeing him shirtless, so she lies . Says she's not feeling well. Says she's going to lay down. He doesn't look like he really believes her, but he doesn't stop her either, so she counts it as a win. 

 

The second time she sees them, she still wants to cry, but for an entirely different reason. 

Up close, she can see how pink they still are, how far away from completely healed he is, and it makes her angry seeing the bruises blooming around them. 

It makes her want to cry and yell and hide him somewhere far away. Somewhere his dad can't find him. Somewhere he'll be safe. 

And it's like he can read her thoughts because he sighs and shakes his head at her, You can't save me, Max. 

Screw that, she thinks, I can fucking try. 

 

The third time she sees them, she calls Steve. 

Well, she attempts to call him. She calls his house, then the store, and when Robin says he's with Dustin, she uses the walkie. Because she's desperate now. She doesn't give a single shit if they both know her family's dirty secret. Billy might have something negative to say about it, but he can suck it the hell up. 

He needs help and she can't do this by herself this time. She needs someone with a car

And if he says one freaking word to her about it, she will loudly remind him that this all could have been avoided if he'd told her how bad it was days ago when she'd gotten home from El's. But he hadn't. He'd kept his mouth shut and acted like everything was fine. Like he didn't have a broken rib or a probable infection in his side, where something had obviously broken the skin, but he didn't even try to fix it. 

So, yeah. He brought this on himself. 

She finally reaches them but doesn't tell them what exactly is going on, just that she needs them to get to her house. Not that it matters really. Steve is a freaking mother hen when any of them ask for help, so he's already agreeing before she can even say over. 

He's there within ten minutes. 

 

The first time Steve sees Billy's scars, he curses. 

Granted, there's an added layer of horror because of all the bruises, but Max thinks it's a pretty appropriate response. 

Billy tells him he should have seen me after my second surgery, pretty boy. You would have really cursed up a storm then. This is nothing. 

Both Dustin and Steve look skeptical, as they should , but Billy insists that he's fine. He's had worse. He doesn't need to go to the hospital. 

Max can feel angry heat rise to her cheeks and is about to call him out on his bullshit, because he's definitely in pain right now, but Steve beats her to it. 

He frowns and throws his coat at him. I don't give a fuck if you've had worse. You're going.  

They argue back and forth for awhile but eventually they get him outside. And then when they are almost to the Beamer, Billy makes one last attempt to convince them that this is stupid. That he'll be ok after he gets some sleep. That they are wasting their time. 

And Max can see the moment Steve is one hundred percent done, anger and annoyance crossing his face as he hisses Get your ass in the fucking car, Hargrove, before I throw you in myself. 

Billy doesn't argue after that.

Chapter Text

Steve feels like a fucking idiot. 

And yeah, that's kinda par for the course these days, but he really really feels like he dropped the ball this time. He missed something huge. Something obvious. Something he shouldn't have

When Max called them, he'd been surprised, because out of all the kids, she is the most self sufficient. She never asks for help. She's usually the one solving problems. So of course he dragged Dustin with him to her house because he was worried that she was hurt. 

He hadn't expected it to be Billy. 

And Steve tried not to curse, because it's rude as fuck, but he couldn't help it. It wasn't the scars that did it, though those were pretty damn awful, it was the patchwork of old and new bruises scattered across his torso. It was the ugly truth of how he'd gotten them. 

He didn't touch him to confirm, but he could tell his ribs were probably broken. Steve had a similar black bruise after…well, he'd had a similar bruise, and he hadn't been healing when they'd broken them. 

It's fucked up, and he knows he's going to ask Max about this later, but for now, they need to get her brother to the hospital. And Billy makes a big show of not caring , but none of them are buying it. He looks miserable .

And then he says it's ok, because he's had worse which just…it pisses Steve off . Does Billy honestly think that this is fine because he's had worse? And Jesus Christ, he doesn't think he wants to know how much worse it's been in the past. All he knows is that it doesn't fucking matter. Billy is hurt now, and he's going to the hospital whether he likes it or not. 

So Steve doesn't let him argue. Just makes him put on his coat and get in the car. 

Well, ok, he may have argued with him a bit, and maybe threatened to toss him in the car if he didn't get in himself, but apparently that's what you have to do to get Billy Hargrove to listen. 

The ride there is pretty silent, even Dustin doesn't have anything to say for once. Steve assumes that he is processing the information that had just been dropped into their laps. 

That the reason Billy had been such a complete and utter asshole in the past, was probably because of this secret he'd been harboring. All the bruises he'd sported at school, his need for attention and all the unhinged violence made so much fucking sense now. 

How had none of them realized? Was it because they wanted to just write him off as a bully? A villain? Because trying to understand him, looking closer was just too much work? 

He's guilty of it. He had wondered about Billy a few times in the past. Wanted to know what his goddamn problem was, but he never followed through. He was too worried about his break up with Nancy, and then trying to graduate and then getting a job and then get trapped in a Russian elevator that lead to hell, and yeah. His mind had been pretty occupied. 

But he still should have seen the signs. 

He drops them off at the entrance and he and Dustin find a parking spot.

When they find them again, they are standing at the ER desk, and he hears Billy tell Max that this is going to bite him in the ass later. But she crosses her arms and insists that she'll take the blame, which isn't what Billy wants if the sound of his groan is anything to go by. 

And Steve? He feels sick to his stomach at the exchange. Like, his dad is a total dick, and Steve can't do anything right in his eyes, but he isn't afraid of him. He wonders if he loves him, but he has never had to worry about being hit. 

One of the nurses quickly takes him back to be seen, and Max comes to sit down next to Steve in the waiting room while Dustin is searching for a vending machine. 

They are quiet for a minute but then Steve asks, "How long has this been going on?"

"I don't know. Probably since before me and mom came into the picture." 

Jesus. "Has his dad ever hit you ?"

She shakes her head. "Neil's never laid a hand on me. I think Billy is worried that he might, though, if I don't stop helping him." She lets out a frustrated sigh. "But I'm not going to stop helping him. He'll let his dad kill him if I do." 

"Should we maybe tell Hopper?"

"He said that Cops weren't much help in the past. He doesn't want to make a fuss."

"Well, he fucking should ." He grumbles. He's never met someone as stubborn as Hargrove.

She gives him a look that he can't quite read. "Maybe you could talk him into it then."

"Yeah," He says, "maybe I will."

Chapter Text

Billy doesn't know when exactly Harrington decided they were friends. 

Maybe it was the day Max called him to drag Billy's ass to the hospital. Maybe it was the day after that when he brought over a pizza and a movie because their parents were out and I have nothing else to do tonight. 

Maybe it was when Billy finally worked up the nerve and shoved down what little pride he had left to thank Harrington for everything he'd been doing for Max, for him. He'd just shrugged, that's what friends do, man. Help each other. You don't want to know how many times I've had to help Henderson. 

That was the first he'd heard him group Billy in with the rest of his friends. It had shocked him so much that he'd repeated the conversation over and over in his head when he got home that night to make sure he hadn't misheard him. 

And sure, it kind of sucks that Harrington knows the truth about his dad. The old him, the one before would have been fucking pissed and super embarrassed, but the him now? He doesn't have it in him to be angry. Max and Harrington were just worried . He can't fault them for that, even if he doesn't really deserve their concern. 

Harrington never brings it up, what he'd found out, but Billy does catch him looking for bruises a couple times. He'll give him a pass, though, because he'd seen what Billy looked like on a bad day. And if he viewed Billy as somewhat of a friend, that would have probably made him feel worse. 

So, yeah. He's not sure when it started, but now he spends most of his weekends with Harrington if the guy isn't working. Or sometimes when he is. If he's working with Robin. 

Billy actually likes her. She gives off a certain vibe , and he's down with that. She's funny and a total smart ass and he enjoys listening to her harass Steve about pretty much everything.

But even better, Robin likes him

Even though he doesn't talk much, she says she can tell he's smart and has a good sense of humor. Which Harrington insists is not true, but she calls him a Dingus and says that their kind of humor just goes over Steve's head. 

Billy had actually laughed at that, and the sour face the older boy had been sporting slipped off his face and he'd smiled so brightly it kinda took his breath away. 

It's good to hear you laugh again, man. 

Billy had looked at him like a deer caught in the headlights, because he hadn't even meant to laugh, and now Harrington is looking at him with his big earnest eyes and dorky smile and Billy doesn't know what to do with that 

Yeah. Billy might be in a little bit of trouble here. 

Just a little bit. 

Chapter Text

No one had ever bothered to tell Billy what had happened to Harrington while he'd been too busy being possessed. 

All he knew was that he'd been there, at the end, throwing fireworks and trying to distract the monster with all of the others. 

So he hadn't known that there was a chance he would witness Harrington reliving some horror Billy knows nothing about. 

No one had told him.

So he's pretty much blindsided when they are at the old theatre, you can't hide out at the store forever, Hargrove. Let's go see a movie or something, and Billy has to stop because he noticed the brunet wasn't beside him anymore. 

Surprise and a bit of apprehension flood him when he turns around, because Steve has a far away look in his eyes and Billy watches as his chest rises and falls rapidly, hands trembling around the cup in his hand. 

Billy knows what this is .

"You're ok, Harrington." He says quietly, taking the drink from him and setting it on the floor. "It's December twentieth, nineteen eighty-five." It feels like the older boy is looking right through him so he continues. "You're nineteen years old and work at Family Video with Robin and that loser Keith. You're friends with Dustin Henderson and the rest of the nerds he hangs with. You helped my sister Max…" His eyes are coming back into focus but he still can't seem to catch his breath, so Billy repeats, "It's December twentieth-" 

Eventually his breath slows, and he looks at Billy with a mix of mortification and gratefulness. "Uh, sorry about…that." 

"It happens." He replies. Because it does. Like maybe it only happens to people like him, like Harrington who have seen some shit, been in some shit, but it does happen. 

"Still, sorry you had to…like see it." 

Billy wants to ask what had caused it, because he's curious. Does he have the same dreams, the same nightmares as Billy? Where everything is dark, everything is drenched in blood. Where the only sounds are that of monsters and your own heartbeat.

But he doesn't ask, because he knows how he'd respond if someone asked him. 

He does ask if he wants to leave, though. Obviously something here had triggered that kind of reaction, but he shakes his head. 

"No. No, I'm fine. I want to stay." 

So they stay. 

But he's not sure if either of them really paid attention. Harrington seemed lost in his head, and Billy? Well, he was too busy worrying about Harrington to appreciate the comedy on the screen. 


"How did you do that?" Harrington asks him when they are climbing into his car afterwards. 

Do what?" 

"Bring me out of it?" He's suddenly looking away from him. "It usually…it lasts way longer than that." 

"It's just something one of the Doctors taught me back at the facility." He admits with a shrug. "I'd get…stuck in memories sometimes, and didn't know what was real. So she'd tell me the date, the time, what my name was, how old I was, where I went to school and it would help. I can usually tell when it's going to happen now, so I start telling myself all of that before I get too deep. I just figured it would help you too." 

And shit, that has been the most he's talked at one time in months

Harrington hums before starting the car. He doesn't put it in drive though. "They just started happening." He says, looking back at Billy. "Like at the beginning of November. I…I was at work and didn't know what was going on, ya know? Like one minute I'm fine and the next, I'm flipping out and I scared the fuck out of Robin. She doesn't…she doesn't know that I still…that I still get them. I don't want her to worry, but...I don't ever know when they're going to happen ." 

Well, since he opened the door on this conversation. "What made it happen today?" 

Steve sighs and looks forward out of the windshield. "God, it's stupid, but it was a movie poster. I uh, after we got drugged by the Russians, we hid out in the theatre. I don't really remember much about it, but I remember staring at a movie poster and everything kind of spinning and it brought me back to that moment. And when I think too much about that night…well, that happens."

Wait. What

"You…you were drugged by Russians ?" He asks, because what the fuck? "There were Russians here?"

His eyes widen. "Oh shit . You don't know?" 

"I was kind of in quarantine for a month, Harrington. Nobody told me anything about fucking Russians."

"Well, they were the ones…they are the reason you got possessed by the Mind Flayer in the first place. They were opening the gate…to the Upside Down. It's how…it's how it got out." 

"What the fuck?"  Those commie bastards. 

"Yeah, it was a whole…" He waves his hand around. "it was bad."

"So, why did they drug you?"  He hesitantly asks. "You didn't have anything to do with that shit, right?"

"Uh, well, Dustin heard their code on his radio thing, and then Robin decoded it and our dumbasses decided to see what they were up to. But they caught us. And thought me and Robin were like…spies. So…some fucked up shit happened."

"Jesus Christ ." 

The whole situation was way bigger and way more fucked up that Billy had ever imagined. 

"Yeah, I can't believe no one told you anything." He replies. "I should- I should catch you up-" 

No, he's not going to put Harrington through that. He's probably talked about it too much as it is. He'll probably have fucking nightmares tonight. 

"No. If thinking about it causes those attacks then you shouldn't." 

"But you need to know-"

"Oh, don't you worry," He insists, "once I get home, Max is going to spill her guts."

Chapter Text

It's eleven o'clock on a Friday night when Billy finally says more than a few sentences at a time to Max. 

She'd probably be more excited about it if he wasn't looking at her like she killed his dog or something. 

She'd been in her room, talking to El on the phone, when he'd just walked in without knocking. Which she guesses she shouldn't be that mad about considering all the times she's barged into his room the last few months. 

It still shocks her, but not as much as the words that come out of his mouth. 

"You got a lot of fucking explaining to do, Maxine."

She frowns in confusion He hadn't called her that in ...god almost a year ? "What's wrong?"

"Were you ever going to fucking tell me that Harrington was taken by fucking Russians?" He asks, "or that there were Russians here in the first place ?"

"El, I'm going to have to call you back." She says before hanging up and facing her brother. "Billy, I honestly don't know much about what happened to Steve. Dustin told us some things, but he doesn't know what happened after he and Robin were taken. They never said." 

His face kind of softens. 

"And I thought the scientists and doctors or whatever told you about them. Like they explained what happened to you right?" 

He frowns. "Yeah. I know about… the Upside Down. But no one said shit about commies being under the goddamn mall ." 

"I'm sorry," She replies sincerely. She kind of feels bad now. "I didn't know you were that out of the loop." 

He sighs and his stance relax's, "Jesus, fine. I guess I'll give you a pass." 

"Gee, thanks." She deadpans. "But how did you find out, then? Steve doesn't talk about it." 

He shrugs. "He did tonight."

"Seriously?" Wow. That's..surprising.

"Yeah, he was… he got upset about something and then started talking about getting drugged by Russians. He didn't say much more, but…he's…it's affecting him in a bad way." 

"Did he tell you that?"

"No," He says, rubbing the back of his neck, "just, I know what it looks like." 

She doesn't like the sound of that. "What what looks like?" 

It's quiet, but he answers. "Being trapped . In and outside of your mind."

Well shit. She doesn't know what to say to that, so she doesn't say anything for a minute. Billy doesn't say anything either, just looks down at the floor. 

"Are you ok?" She asks him, because she can feel the tension shift in the air between them. 

"No," He slowly makes eye contact again. "And neither is Steve." Then he turns around and leaves as quickly as he appeared. 

Max's hand moves before her brain even tells it to. She dials Hopper's number and brings the phone to her ear. "El." She says into the receiver when she hears the girl pick up. "I know your powers still aren't one hundred percent, but do you think you can find someone? Like to just check on them?" 

"Yes. Who do I need to find?" 

She takes a breath and thinks about the way Billy looked when he talked about him. "You need to find Steve."



Chapter Text

 

It's been a long time since Billy has felt unconditional love, if that was even what it was. Is it considered unconditional if you love your kid but still leave them? He guesses probably not.

Ok, then…

It's been a long time since Billy has felt motherly love.

He definitely didn't get it from Susan. She had tried at first, to reach out, but it was short lived. He's pretty sure she is afraid to care about him, because if she loved him, even a fraction as much as she loves Max, she'd have to face what his father does. She wouldn't be able to stand there or hide in her room.

He thinks if his dad had been hitting him instead of his mom back then, she would have taken him. He doesn't think she would have just stood by and watched and done nothing. Because she was brave enough to leave, to escape Neil.

Susan isn't brave.

Not that he really blames her. He wouldn't want to face his dad's ire if he was her either. So it is what it is. At least what you see is what you get with her. It's better not to be blindsided.

He had been a cute kid. Everyone always said he looked like his mom with his soft blonde curls and blue ocean eyes peeking out from under long lashes. He'd even skipped the awkward ugly phase of adolescence and went straight to attractive.

He used to think it was a gift, an asset. Beautiful people can get what they want, right? But it ended up biting him in the ass.

Because when you're a good looking flirty fifteen year old with a fucked up home life and mommy issues, what you see isn't always what you get.

There are a lot of Mrs Wheeler's out there.

Some are just worse than others.

There are mom's that pretend to care about their sons friend whose mother abandoned him. That shower him with affection and speak softly to him, so unlike the angry voice he gets at home that he lets down his guard.

He enjoys their attention, their smiles and gentle hugs. He likes how it feels to have someone care about him. Likes to know he's always welcome, that there is always a place at the table for him. Likes the safety net, the promise of sanctuary when things get too bad at home.

But he'd found out one night that everything comes with a price. Even love and affection.

So yeah, maybe he's never felt it unconditionally. Maybe he's never actually experienced it. But he thinks he knows what it looks like.

It looks like Joyce Byers.

A mother that literally went to hell and back for her son, who never stopped fighting for him. A mother that left an angry abusive husband and took her boys with her. A mother that's as fierce as she is kind.

It had taken him a few visits to actually believe that though. That her kindness was real. History just wasn't on her side. He'd been polite of course, he had and still has manners, but he stayed as far away from her as possible.

She seemed to notice Billy's avoidance of her in particular. He would catch her concerned brown eyes watching him from the kitchen but she never sought him out. And while she was physically affectionate with all the kids, with Steve, she never tried to touch Billy or hug him. She gave him his space.

Which he'd been grateful for, because his defenses are still smashed to hell, thank you Mind Flayer, and he doesn't think he'd be able to deal with her hugging him.

She does talk to him though. She always greets him, laughs when he calls her Mrs. Byers, you can call me Joyce, Mrs Byers makes me feel old, asks after him and tells him goodbye when he leaves.

It's…nice… but he still didn't trust it.

Until he really started paying attention. He'd watched her with Steve, and Wheeler, and Max. There were no ulterior motives. No sweet lies out of her mouth or secrets in her eyes. Her affection wasn't bought and paid for.

It was freely given.

And for the first time in his sad pathetic life, he got it. He understood that this is what it's supposed to be like.

He stopped hiding in corners after that. He still didn't know how to really act around her though. In the past, his automatic response after politeness would have been laying on the fake charm. He can't even muster up a smile now, let alone try to charm anyone. So he remains quiet, he just does it a little closer to the kitchen table.

She stops him at the door one night, before he follows Harrington and Max to the beamer. And he doesn't quite flinch when he feels her hand on his arm, but she definitely felt the tremble because she immediately lets go.

He just looks down at her, she really is like…tiny, and asks her if she's ok. Because he's still polite dammit.

She looks sad when she says yes, and he's confused when she sighs and looks around the room before telling him that, she doesn't know what has happened in his life, what he's been through to make him shy away from her, but she wants him to know that he will always be safe here and that she'll never do anything to make him uncomfortable.

There's sincerity there, in her words, across her worried face, and his chest tightens a bit. Besides Harrington, no one has ever put his comfort above their own. No one has ever made sure he knows that they aren't going to make him talk or make him uncomfortable or hurt him.

Even Max will demand things from him when she thinks he's been quiet for too long, and he isn't upset with her about it, he may even need that, but it feels good to know there are people that don't want a damn thing from him. That are kind without stipulations.

It kind of makes him want to cry.

But he doesn't. He just nods and tells her thank you and that he really appreciates it, that it means a lot to him.

She smiles up at him and her eyes crinkle at the sides and she looks so damn happy that he spoke to her, and Billy thinks Will and Jonathan are probably the luckiest kids in the world.

Chapter Text

Steve doesn't know why he told Billy about his episodes. He just felt like he maybe owed him an explanation or something. Billy had helped him. He'd seen Steve spazzing out and didn't run away. He stayed and he helped and didn't demand an answer afterwards.

And when he'd opened up about them, Billy didn't try to convince him that it wouldn't happen again. In fact, he'd made it seem like he knew Steve was going to have more and didn't want to trigger them by making Steve talk about that night. Even though he looked like he really wanted to know what he went through.

He'd just left it alone, changed the subject, and started talking. Steve hadn't heard him speak more than a couple of sentences at time since he started coming around. It had been one of the most upsetting things about post-Mind-Flayer-Billy. The heavy silence and soft replies.

Steve had just rolled with it though. He figured if Billy wanted to talk, if he had something to say, he'd say it. Steve knows what it's like to want to keep things to himself, so he never pushed Billy, because he wouldn't want someone to push him.

So after a month of little to no verbal communication between them, hearing him talk so much was jarring. But his voice had drained what remnants were left of his episode away. He wasn't trembling at all when they pulled onto the street, and he didn't have the urge to hide or cry.

If Robin still had that white board, Billy would have at least six tallys under you rock. He didn't have to help Steve tonight. He didn't have to get out of his comfort zone just to make sure Steve didn't have another freak out. He didn't have to do anything. But he did.

He doesn't really know what to do with that

And Steve is seriously surprised by how clueless Billy is about everything. No one had told him shit about what happened, other than him being possessed and that the Upside Down exists. Someone should have explained things to him. Brought him up to speed. He's neck deep in this shit now just like the rest of them.

But he knows he can't really get pissed at anyone else, because he hadn't thought to tell him either. He'd just assumed he'd been filled in. And that makes him feel like shit. Like the worst person ever, because he'd already missed all the warning signs when it came to his home life, he should have asked about this stuff.

Why had it taken Max dragging Billy into the video store for him to even think about him again? Why had it taken seeing his scars, seeing his bruises, to get him to really truly care?Why had it taken Billy helping him to realize there was so much more to him than any of them thought?

He knows they didn't have a great track record before. But Billy had stopped antagonizing him after their fight. He'd stopped being such an asshole. He just kind of went to parties and flirted with teachers and drove Max around. He could have spared the guy a thought at least. Especially because of what he did at Starcourt. He'd saved El, so like, he probably should have wondered what was going on with him.

But all of that is in the past, he guesses. He can't change anything. All he can do is move forward and try harder this time.

They obviously have some shit in common now. Billy had only known how to help because he'd had episodes like Steve's before. He'd had them enough that someone had taught him how to calm himself down, how to bring himself out of it.

He wonders what it's like for Billy. Is it the same? Can he breathe? Does he sometimes see things during his? Does he shake and tremble for hours after? He wonders how much he remembers about being flayed, if his demons come in the form of faces and blood. He wonders what kind of scars he has on the inside that changed him so drastically.

He wonders if he'd tell him if he asked.

He thinks if Billy asked him about the Russians again, he'd tell him. He thinks he'd understand.

Sure, Robin had been there with him, but it was different for her. She'd come out relatively unscathed. Which he's grateful for, so fucking grateful for, he'd never want her to be hurt like that, but it just wasn't the same.

And he knows that it's not the same for him and Billy either, but the things haunting Steve, the things he can't get out of his head? Billy would understand them. Not because he had fought monsters from the Upside Down, though.

No.

He'd understand what chases after Steve, because Billy has been destroyed by human monsters too.

Chapter Text

El's powers aren't as strong as they used to be. She's not sure if she used them too much, or if it was because a piece of the Mind Flayer had been inside of her too long.

There's no one she can ask, so she doesn't use them.

Because Mike is still scared. He doesn't want her to overdo it. And Jim hasn't made a rule that she can't, but she knows he is worried too. She does not want anyone to worry about her, so she is careful. Very careful.

But Max needs help. She never asks for help. She is her friend. El always helps her friends. And looking is easy. Doesn't take much energy. So she does it.

She looks for Steve.

He must be driving because she can't see him for awhile. Then he is home. He is messing up his hair. Walking in the kitchen, pouring something in a cup. He must not like it because he makes a face.

He looks ok. Sits and watches the television with the cup in his hand. She watches for a few minutes but he doesn't do anything. He just sits there.

She tells Max what she sees.

Max asks about the drink. Asks her if there is a label on the bottle, but El doesn't understand what she means. Max tells her it's ok and to forget it. If he is home and safe they can worry about him later.

She hears Jim open the front door. It's late but she always tries to greet him. She tells Max that she will talk to her tomorrow and hangs up.

She meets Jim in the kitchen and asks him about his day. He makes a sandwich and talks to her about Flo and Callahan giving him grief. Tells her about the exciting speeding ticket he gave someone. And how an old lady yelled at him.

She smiles and listens because she is happy. She has a family. It is small, but she is happy.

It is after twelve when she tells him good night. Her eyes feel heavy and her bed looks warm. She climbs under her covers and thinks of Max. Of Billy. Of Steve.

She wonders if she should check again.

Looking is easy.

But she is so tired.

She falls asleep in seconds.


El is allowed to leave the house now. She doesn't go to school, she is still learning at home, but she goes places with the others. And Jim takes her with him when he goes to town. When he runs errands.

The lady at the post office thinks she's cute. Tells Jim that El must look like her mother. Jim laughs and agrees. Says he wishes he could take credit for it though.

She wishes that too.

She likes going to the station. Everyone is nice and Flo gives her candy. When Jim asks for a piece Flo reminds him of his diet. She doesn't know what that is, but it makes Jim frown.

When they are in his office, she gives him a piece of hers. Holds a finger to her lips. Shhh. Don't tell Flo.

He smiles and messes up her hair.

She doesn't mind.

They go many places, but she likes the grocery store the most. She will put more Eggos in the cart and Jim won't say anything about it. Sometimes he sings the songs that are playing. Does a funny dance to get her to laugh. It's fun.

Usually.

Today it is not fun.

She is looking at a.. .Max calls them magazines, when she sees a man. A bad man. She feels sick. And angry. She knows himThe magazine is destroyed in her hands. She hasn't seen him in person, but she will never forget his mean face.

Jim is beside her. Asking her a question.

But she can't hear him.

There only things she can hear right now are plates breaking, ugly words, screaming, crying.

She drops the crumpled pages and moves past Jim. Her chest is heavy. Angry.

She keeps seeing it. Over and over. A little boy. Broken. Scared. Of the man. She can feel the hurt. The anger. The fear.

El hates him. Hates this Papa like she hates hers. He only knows how to hurt. He is not like Jim. He doesn't know how to love. He doesn't want to. She can feel it.

And Billy is home. Jim had told her the day he took Max to get him. He is home, where his papa is.

She won't let him get hurt anymore.

Jim grabs her arm and pulls her back. He stops her. Makes her look at him. "Hey, what are you doing, kid?"

She looks back at the man picking out noodles and points. She says one word. "Bad."

Jim frowns and looks at him too. "What do you mean?"

"I saw him," She says, and her eyes sting. "hurting Billy."

Jim stares at him harder. "When?"

She touches her head. "In his memories."

His eyes come back to hers and then he tugs her out of his sight. "What did you see?"

"He hit him." She can feel a small pull of energy in her belly. "When he was a little boy and now."

Jim looks half sad half mad, but doesn't let go of her. "Ok. Ok, Jane. I can do something about this. Leave it to me."

She frowns. "Needs to pay."

"He will." It sounds like a promise, but she knows not all promises are kept. "But you gotta let me do my job, alright? You can't go all vigilante on me."

That's a new word. "Vig-vigilante?"

He nods. "You can't take matters into your own hands. You can't punish him just because you can. You let the law take care of him."

"What if it doesn't?"

He gets a kind of scary look on his face. "Then we'll talk." He lets her go. "We got a deal?"

She lets the energy fade and nods. "Deal." She will trust Jim with this.

For now.

Chapter Text

Billy hasn't driven since he'd tried to kill Nancy Wheeler in the Starcourt parking lot.

Most things about that night are fuzzy, like he's looking at it through a drunken stupor, but there are things he remembers clearly.

Like the look on Wheelers face in his headlights and the sound of gunshots and breaking glass.

He remembers planning to kill all of them, but also remembers trying not to. He knows he'd been gripping the wheel so hard his hands ached. He'd really tried to stop it. Because there were kids in that car. Max could have been in that car. He remembers the engine revving, putting his foot on the clutch.

And then the monster inside of him shifted gears.

He never really had a chance against it. He just wasn't strong enough. So he truly believed he was about to get a front row seat to their murder.

And fuck. He'd been so damn relieved when Harrington crashed into him with that car.

It didn't matter that it hurt, his body had been hurting for days, all that mattered was that the monster had lost that round and they both blacked out.

The Camaro has been impounded ever since.

The Chief has offered to get it out for him. He'd even said he'd haul it to a shop if he wanted. But Billy had declined.

He just wasn't ready to see it. To fix it. To get behind the wheel again. He doesn't trust himself anymore. Doesn't trust that he won't suddenly jerk the car to the left and end it all.

So he declines every time it's brought up.

He doesn't really know why the Chief even offers. He hadn't been a fan of Billy before the possession, so he didn't understand why he was being nice, trying to be fatherly to him now.

He'd finally asked Max when his burning need to know got too strong to ignore.

She'd told him that the burly man just wanted to help, partly because Billy needed help, and partly because of Max's friend El. El, the girl with the powers.

The. girl.

The girl he'd built an army for, who he was supposed to destroy. The girl that had ended up freeing him from the shadow inside him. The girl he tried so hard to protect at the end.

The Chief was her dad.

Well, her adopted dad. It's all the same to Billy. The Chief loves her.

So it makes a bit of sense for him to try to help Billy. He probably feels grateful or some shit. Maybe he feels like he owes Billy, but he doesn't. He doesn't owe him a goddamn thing.

Sure, he ended up sort of saving her, but that was only after he'd tried to kill her first. He'd knocked her out, carried her through the mall, laid her out like a fucking sacrificial lamb to that monster. And then when that didn't work, when it had gotten distracted by the others, Billy had tried to strangle her.

So, no. Chief Hopper doesn't owe him a fucking thing. Except maybe a punch to the face, because his daughter almost died because of him.

Yeah. He definitely doesn't want his help now. He doesn't deserve it.

When he wants to try driving again, he'll just find a way to get the car out himself.

But until then, he guesses he'll just have to keep walking.

Which is fine with him, really. Even though his scars ache with it, he likes how the crisp air feels on his face. And yeah, the monster liked the cold, so maybe he should be more worried about enjoying it now, but he's spent a lot of time reaffirming that it's gone. That he is the only one in charge of himself.

So, he'll follow after Max, breathe the chilly air into his lungs, and try not to think about the shadow that would have thrived in it.

Max doesn't like walking all the time though. They live a good distance away from the center of town, and without her skateboard, she feels like it takes too long. Especially with how slow Billy apparently is now.

Yeah, ok. Maybe he is slow. It's not like he just got stitched back together recently or anything. Jesus.

So sometimes she complains about the walk and the cold and the shit company Billy is right now, but he just lets her rant and ramble. He knows she just talks to fill the silence, so it's fine. He doesn't really mind.

Until she complains to Harrington.

Because then Harrington decides that on his days off he's going to pick them up. Which Max is one hundred percent for, but Billy is more hesitant about. It's one thing for the older boy to drop them off, drop him off, but it's a whole other thing for him to pick them up.

He wants to tell them that. Wants to point out that they might be playing with fire here, because he is terrified that his dad will take one look at Steve and just know how Billy feels about him. And it's not like he's worried about what Neil would do to him, It wouldn't be anything that hasn't happened before, but he's worried about what he might do to Harrington.

Even though he's oblivious to Billys crush and is totally straight, it might not matter to Neil. He would use him against Billy anyway. So he wants to protest and tell him to forget about it. But he knows how determined Steve is. If Billy tells him not to, he's going to do it out of spite.

So he just keeps his mouth shut and lets them have their fun. He already knows he's going to make sure they never meet.

Fuck. His head hurts thinking about it. Thinking about how he's going to keep them from seeing each other.

Maybe he should get over himself and get the Camaro fixed after all. It'd be a lot less trouble.

Chapter Text

Another Christmas came and went in Hawkins, and Billy happily waved it goodbye. Well, maybe not happily, he doesn't really do happy, but he was not sorry to see it go.

It's just that...holidays have felt so hollow to him since his mom left. There is just this big empty space inside of his chest where her smiles used to be. Where her special Christmas pancakes spoiled and his innocent spirit went to die.

At least his misery had company the first couple of years. His dad hadn't even bothered to put up a tree, and refused to attend the Christmas service she had always insisted that they go to. They'd passed the month barely acknowledging each other, and for once the bruises on his body had time to heal.

But then Neil had met Susan. Susan with her cute elf earrings and boxes of ornaments, with her bright eyed daughter who wanted a real Christmas tree, who his father absolutely adored, and Billy watched helplessly as the emptiness inside of Neil disappeared almost overnight.

And suddenly Billy was alone in his pain. Alone in his longing. Alone with a deep bitterness in his heart.

He's been alone ever since.

So yeah, he kind of despises the holidays. And while they had been nearly unbearable before, they proved to be even worse now, because he had no means to escape them.

He couldn't just leave when it got to be too much, when his chest ached and his eyes stung. He couldn't just run off and lose himself in a cloud of bad weed and easy girls. Not that he particularly wants those things now, but anything would have been preferable to the endless drone of Susan singing along to Christmas songs while she baked and found the perfect places for her ten different nativity sets.

And fuck, Susan goes way overboard with the decorations and festive attire, but he has never been able to bring hinself to give her shit over it. Because when she uses a cookie cutter to make her cookies look like Santa Hats, when she smears a bit of icing on Max's nose to hear her squawk, when she laughs loudly and joyfully without restraint…she reminds him of his mom.

Maybe that's the real reason he wants to run away.

He can't bear to see what he could have had if she'd stayed. Can't bear to think of what he could have had with Susan and Max if his father hadn't broken him.

Because he is.

Broken.

He won't ever be normal, won't ever be able to love someone without hurting them. Won't ever have an easy time showing that he cares, and it's not just because he'd been possessed.

It's because Neil has been trying to beat the emotions out of him since he was ten years old.

But all he'd really managed to accomplish was twisting how he expressed them. He still cried, still felt humiliation, still choked on fear. But the anger was all anyone could ever see.

So maybe it's better now. Maybe it's better that he feels things like they're far away, like he's walking around half numb, like the mind flayer took some of him back to the Upside Down when it left.

But even with his dulled as shit emotions, he'd still felt the stinging pain of loss when the tree lit up the whole living room and snow started falling outside.

He'd wanted so desperately to get away from it all. The tree, the snow, the music, the cookies, his family.

He'd needed to escape.

So he'd waited until his dad left the house, waited until Susan was busy wrapping gifts in her room, waited until Max stopped looking at him like she was worried, to pick up the phone. It was almost too easy to call Harrington, because he'd told Billy that his parents would only be around for Christmas Day, so if anyone knew what kind of loneliness lurked inside of Billy, it'd probably be him.

He'd sounded exhausted when he'd initially answered but he was already agreeing to come get him before Billy even finished asking.

Maybe Harrington needed an escape too?

He was proven right when he quietly watched other sad similarities pile up throughout the night. Like when the older boy told Billy that he used to love Christmas, but his heart just wasn't in it anymore. That he felt like something was missing.

And Billy understands.

And he also understands why there were mostly empty whiskey bottles on his kitchen counter and crystal glasses in the sink. Why it looked like he'd been sleeping on the couch, if he was even sleeping at all. And why he looked like he'd had more episodes since Billy had seen him last.

He'd tried to get Harrington to talk about it, but he hadn't really wanted to. So they ended up talking about Max and how big of a mother hen she was these days, about Robin and her obsession with getting Harrington laid, about how Hawkins felt so small.

Then he'd dropped Billy back off around midnight so Max wouldn't flip out when she inevitably went into his room to check on him and he wasn't there.

That had been two weeks ago, and now the tree is being packed up and the decorations are gone and the New Year is upon them and Billy just has one resolution.

Figuring out what to do about Steve Harrington.

Chapter Text

 

Sometimes, when the house is silent and the wind isn't whistling against her window, Max can hear his nightmares.

She doesn't think Billy knows. If he did, she's sure he would've at least told her to play music or something, right? Because even though he's different now, even though he's subdued and somewhat apathetic, she knows he still hates being weak, thinks it makes him a burden. A burden on her, as if she doesn't have issues stemming from the Upside Down too.

It's why he wouldn't tell her when Neil got to him when she wasn't around. It's why he bitched at her for days after Steve took them to the hospital, it's why he still tells her to stay away, because he has it in his mind that he deserves all of it. He doesn't want her to have to take care of him.

She knows she'll be fighting him on this until one of them breaks. But it won't be her this time. Maybe he was more stubborn before, maybe he patiently held out to fuck with people, fuck with her, but now she's the one planting her feet.

So he'll just have to accept the fact that she's not going to leave him alone to fight his demons alone. Because sometimes, she can hear his nightmares.

Sometimes he just cries, soft miserable sobs that squeeze her heart, make her want to cry too.

Sometimes he talks. She usually can't hear what he says, but the few instances where she'd understood had shaken her. It wasn't the crying that got to her then.

It was the apologizing. Moaning out Heather Heather like he was desperately trying to pull her out of the horrorshow they'd fallen into.

It was the begging. Begging for someone to understand. He made me do it. I didn't want any of this. He made me.

It was the pleading. Wanting the pain to end. Wanting the hands to stop touching him. Wanting the needles to stop taking sample after sample. Wanting to be left alone. Wanting them to pleasejust let me die.

It's one of those nightmares that is plaguing him right now.

The doctors, the surgeries, the pain.

She lays there, listening to him suffering until she's nothing but a bundle of nervous energy, until he gets so loud she's worried their parents will hear, until she just can't take it anymore. She gets up and quietly sneaks from her room into his. He needs to wake up. She has to wake him up.

It's dark, maybe even darker than her room, but she can still see his torso jerking every few seconds as he murmurs and groans. She's never seen him during…it's unnerving.

"Billy." She whispers, inching closer, "Hey," when he doesn't respond she hesitantly touches his bare shoulder. "Come on. Wake up. You're dreaming. It's just a dream."

Her touch seems to bring him out of it and he violently springs up, arms shooting out to fight off invisible hands, almost knocking her backwards. He's panting, sweating, looking around like he has no clue where he is. Finally his eyes land on her and he mutters, "Max?"

"Hey." She replies awkwardly. She doesn't really know what to say. She didn't plan this far ahead.

He frowns and looks around again. "What are you doing in here? It's the middle of the night."

"You were having a nightmare." She tells him, suddenly feeling self conscious. "It was a long one…so I woke you up."

"Oh," He blinks at her a couple times then sighs, "Sorry."

"It's fine. Not like you can control stuff like that." She doesn't miss the slight flinch on the word control.

"Still…if it kept you up, I'm sorry."

She doesn't like how he looks, how he sounds. "You don't have to apologize to meYou're the one having them."

He looks from her face to his chest and rubs one of the scars there, doesn't say anything else, but doesn't tell her to leave, either.

"You know, maybe it would help if you tell someone about them."

He laughs. A sad broken laugh that makes her cringe. "That's a nice sentiment, Max, but no one needs to know what goes on inside my head."

"So you'll just never talk about what happened?" She doesn't know what she expected, really. She knows how he is, how he was.

He scowls at her. "What, and give them nightmares too? No. I think I'm done traumatizing people."

And maybe it's because she hates seeing him like this, or maybe she's just tired, but she scowls right back and crosses her arms in front of her chest. "Oh yeah? How you gonna traumatize someone who's already been traumatized?"

That seems to get him. He opens his mouth, looks like he wants to say something, but then just closes it again.

So she continues, "You're not the only one that had the Upside Down devour them, Billy. You're not the only one that died, or got possessed, or got people killed." He grips the blanket in his hand tightly. "You're not even the only one that has dealt with scientists poking and prodding them. So if you are hurting, if you are struggling with it all, talk to Will. Talk to Steve. Talk to the fucking chief. I don't care who it is, just talk to someone!"

She's breathing heavy, her face is hot, there are tears trying to fall, and she's trembling a little from the adrenaline of actually saying what she's wanted to say to him for months. "Just please, please stop suffering alone because you want to punish yourself."

The room goes silent and she wipes at her eyes before turning away. She can't be here anymore, can't stay and hear what he has to say about her plea, can't stay to hear only silence linger on, but when she reaches the door she stops, "Think about it." She says quietly.

And maybe it's wishful thinking, but she thinks she hears him say I will.

Chapter Text

Joyce doesn't know how, exactly, she acquired two more teenage boys to care so much about, it just kind of happened.

The Upside Down had chewed all of them up, spit them back out and left them to pick up their own pieces. And it was harder for some than it was for others.

Most of them had family, friends to lean on.

But not all of them.

There was a cloud of loneliness following after Steve Harrington. Maybe the other kids didn't see it, didn't know what it was, but she did. When she asked Jonathan about it, he'd told her Steve's parents basically lived in a condo in Chicago and only came home one weekend a month.

It was obvious from the very beginning that he longed for connection, was eager for affection, and it broke her heart.

So with Steve it had been easy.

There was no real hesitation when she offered comfort, told him he always had a place here with them. It's not good for him to be alone all the time.

He'd accepted her offer immediately, even with his history with her son. It was like none of it mattered. They'd all been through hell who cares who is dating who. He was just grateful that someone noticed his loneliness.

Steve was easy for her to approach and get through to.

But Billy Hargrove was a different story entirely.

Joyce is under no delusions when it comes to the boy. He'd done some awful things, even before getting possessed, but he's still a kid. He deserves a second chance like everyone else.

And it only took watching him interact with the others, watching him react to Hop's presence to realize what plagued him, what caused his violence before. She'd seen the slight changes in his facial features, could see him flinch or back away from any quick movements that he wasn't prepared for.

She'd seen these behaviors before. In herself, in Jonathan, and it makes her angry, so angry that she confronts Hopper about it one night after they all leave. Did he know? Was he aware of what was happening?

He was. He told her he knew exactly what was going on, that he was working on a legal way to intervene. But that's not enough, Hop.

I know.

She thinks maybe she can help in a different way, show him that not everyone will hurt him. That there are people that care. But he wouldn't let her get anywhere near him so she has to keep an eye on him from afar.

At first she thought he was afraid of her, which threw her for a loop because unless you're a threat to her kids, she's practically harmless. So she paid closer attention, looked over the wall he's struggling to rebuild. The one from before.

He wouldn't let her near him.

So she'd asked Max a few questions, but all the girl knew was that Billy's mom left when he was ten and never came back. But as horrible as that was, she had a feeling that it wasn't abandonment issues that caused him to shy away from her.

She just didn't know what it was.

Then one night Will made a comment about him being a lifeguard at the pool that summer, and Mike responded by making a face, yeah, and totally flirted with my mom.

Lucas had jumped in at that point. Dude, get over it. He flirted with everyone's mom.

Max agreed. Yeah, pretty sure Mrs Grant even slipped him her number one time.

The kids were talking about it like it was all a joke, and to them it was, but...things started making a little more sense to Joyce.

Billy's mom had left him. Left him with an abusive father. He got hit on by older women, moms, and he even flirted back with them, maybe even came onto them first. It all makes her a little queasy because he was seventeen that summer. He was a kid. Still is a kid. And these women, Karen for Christ's sake, should know better.

And she can't help but think that maybe this had happened back in California too and that maybe, maybe one of them, someone's mom, took advantage.

It would have been easy to do. He's a good looking kid and if he had gone looking to fill a void, well…she can imagine exactly what he'd found.

So now she doubts that he is afraid of her, but she's pretty damn sure that he doesn't trust her. And she doesn't blame him. He's been through a lot, more than any of them really.

He's the only one with visual physical proof of the Upside Down marked across his body.

She hurts for him.

Wants to help him.

But she knows she has to wait until he's less cagey, less flightly. Has to wait until he's not jerking away whenever she gets close or hiding behind Steve when they're all crowded in the house.

If he starts to get more comfortable, more at ease with them all, maybe then she'll be able to get through to him.

But until then, she'll wait.

Chapter Text

January 1986

Mrs Henderson is one of the nicest ladies Steve has ever met. If there was a contest for who the best mom in town was, they'd be neck and neck.

Ever since she found out that Steve's parents are gone most of the month, she's insisted that he come over once a week for dinner. At first he'd resisted, he doesn't need pity, but she kept at it every time he came to drop Dustin off. Always bombarded him with are you sure you can't stay? You've just done so much for Dusty and you really shouldn't be alone all the time, dear. Until finally he just accepted.

He's been coming over almost every Wednesday for the last five months.

He honestly likes it. It's always warm and homey in the Henderson house when he walks in the front door, so unlike the cold bare feeling he gets when he walks into his own. He feels himself relax a little, smile more easily, because it's nice here.

And sure, sometimes he gets a twinge of pain in his gut, pain that he knows is jealousy, but it's not enough to make him bitter. Just enough to keep him yearning.

He knows his mom loves him. He knows that, but she hasn't been physically affectionate since he was a young child. Seeing Claudia pinch Dustin's cheek, or nag at him about picking up his dirty clothes, makes him wish he'd had something like that with his mother.

It's useless to wish, stupid even, but he can't really help where his mind goes when he's with them. He can't control his emotions or his thoughts when he's so overwhelmed with gratitude. They didn't have to include him, didn't have to pull him into their little family, but they did.

And he feels safe there, with them. Which is ridiculous really, because Claudia would be the last person he'd drag into a fight, but he does.

He feels safe.

So maybe that's why it throws him off. He wasn't prepared for it, never thought it would happen here, but it does. One minute he's standing in their kitchen talking to Dustin and the next cold hands are pulling him up with a bruising grip, holding him still, hurting him.

He jerks hard, trying to get away and then suddenly he's back, staring at his friends worried face.

Dustin has never seen it happen, has never been around after it happens, so this is probably confusing as fuck.

And as bad as his concerned features are, what's worse is the sound of Claudia apologizing for scaring him. Didn't mean to sneak up on you like that, Steve. Maybe I should wear a bell like Tews.

He tells her it's ok, that he's not upset, and he's not, not at her anyway, and they sit down to eat the spaghetti and meatballs she'd made.

He usually enjoys eating her food, she's a good cook, but tonight, after…he shivers, remembering cold hard hands, he doesn't think he can.

But he puts on a show anyway because he doesn't want to worry Dustin. He talks when he's spoken to and laughs at something silly she said Dustin did when he was little, helps her wash the dishes and put them away, but he's not all there. Hasn't been all there since he'd been jerked six months in the past.

He had planned on just going home after cleaning up, planned on pouring himself a glass of scotch and watch TV until his brain melted.

But he keeps thinking back to Billy.

Billy just…he understands what's haunting him without Steve having to say a word. And he thinks, he thinks maybe he should talk about this. Maybe he shouldn't be alone right now.

Because he keeps feeling fingers on his skin, keeps hearing harsh unfamiliar words in his ears. Keeps holding back fear and panic.

Billy understands.

But he knows not to call Billy on the phone. So he gets Max on Dustin's walkie and eventually he hears his voice rumbling on the other end.

"I was hoping...can we meet up?" He asks, letting a bit of desperation seep between the words.

A pause. "What's wrong? Are you ok?"

"Yeah, yeah. I'm like physically fine…I just," He sighs because this sounds so stupid now that he's saying it. "I kinda wanted to talk…you know, about the things you get?"

The other end is silent for what seems like forever, and he's sure he fucked this all up when it crackles back to life. "Pick me up in front of Mrs Marley's place in twenty minutes."

"Ok. Thanks. I'll uh- meet you in twenty." He ruffles up his own hair in frustration, because he shouldn't need Billy's help. Billy's been through worse, but he's the only one who understands.

He hands the radio to Dustin who is looking at him like he's grown another head. "What does Billy get that I don't?"

Shit.

"It's not…" He groans because he doesn't like hurting Dustin's feelings, and it's obvious he just did. "Look, buddy, it's a good thing that you don't get it. I wouldn't want you to."

He looks thoughtful. "It's about what happened earlier in the kitchen isn't it?"

"Yeah, it is."

"I have nightmares sometimes." He says, quietly, "Of the Upside Down, of what happened in the mall. Is it like that? Nightmares? Because I get that, Steve."

Sure, nightmares are super similar to it, he's also had his fair share if them ever since he hit a fucking demogorgan with a bat, but it's not the same.

"It's similar, I guess?" He tells him, "But it's…different, and I need to talk about some things. Things that I don't want you to hear." Mostly because Dustin would blame himself for Steve's plight. "I'm not trying to hurt you, there are just some things you can't help me with."

He sniffs but he nods. "Ok. I can live with that." Then he's shifting gears, "I'll see you Friday, then? The big campaign?"

Steve musters up a smile. "Sure, see you Friday."

Chapter Text

Billy had offered to talk to Steve about things, about his attacks, after the incident at the theatre, but he never thought he'd willingly seek him out to do it.

He stares at the walkie in his hand. Harrington needs him.

"What did Steve want?" Max asks when Billy gives the radio back to her.

He doesn't answer so she follows him into the living room. "Can you cover for me?" He doesn't think she'll actually have to, their parents are on a date and if Susan has any wine they'll be too busy when they get home to give a shit what he's doing.

But… you never know.

"Sure, but where are you going?"

"I don't know," He says before putting his boots on. "Steve just needed to talk about something."

She makes a face. "Like what?"

He sighs and grabs his coat. "Just stuff, Max. Last year was a total shit show."

"Is he ok?"

He pauses, looks back at her. "As ok as the rest of us."

She frowns at that. "Which means not at all."

He nods.

"Well, just don't do anything stupid."

"I don't think we're really up for anything stupid." He replies and the heads outside, leaving her alone in the living room.

And sure he'd said twenty minutes, but he's antsy. Steve doesn't…well, none of them are really great at talking about their shit, but Harrington really isn't. At least Billy used to tell Owens shit. Harrington hasn't talked to anyone.

But tonight he wants to talk to Billy. And yeah, he knows it's just because Billy understands what he's going through, but it still makes him feel some kind of way. Makes his chest warm.

He'll have to think about that later, though, because Harrington pulls up to the curb and he slips into the passenger seat, slowly puts on his seat belt.

They don't talk on the way, just listen to whatever's on the radio. But that's fine with Billy. He knows there's a time and place to talk about things and Steve's probably not comfortable yet. He probably wants to be able to move, to not be trapped if things get to be too much.

And fuck, does Billy understand that.

When they pull into the driveway he follows the older boy into the house, but he still doesn't say anything until he's pouring them both a glass of whiskey. "Thanks for coming to talk to me."

He takes the drink from his hand. "It's not a problem, Harrington." And it's not. He might be one of the only people Billy actually wants to talk to, wants to help.

Steve doesn't look like he quite believes him, looks kinda guilty, but he sets the bottle of Jack on the coffee table and sits down. "I had another one tonight." he says quietly, ice cubes clicking against the glass as he takes a drink. "It wasn't bad, the one I had with you was definitely worse, but it still…Claudia er-Mrs Henderson came up from behind and I was in her way, so she just grabbed my arms, gently, to move me and I jerked so hard I nearly knocked Dustin over."

Billy takes a swig of his own drink as Steve continues, "It's like…it's like whenever someone touches me, especially if I don't see it coming, I react like that. What am I supposed to do, tell everyone to keep their hands to themselves? To never touch me? That would just make them worry and ask questions, and it's not like I have any answers."

He tilts his head, assessing the older boy. "But you do have the answers."

"Oh, yeah? Please enlighten me then, because I seriously don't think I do."

"You know why they happen. You just don't know when they willand you may not know all your triggers, but you do know some of them. You also know why those things leave you shaken and uncertain."

He looks away, stares at the coffee table and stays quiet. So Billy thinks maybe he went too far, maybe he said something Harrington wasn't ready to hear.

But he doesn't yell or kick Billy out so he just remains silent too, and pours himself another drink. Then he thinks that there's still a wall, a disconnect between them. Maybe Steve just isn't ready to talk, doesn't trust him enough to be that honest.

Which is fine. It's not like he deserves his trust…

But he trusts Steve, so he can be honest.

"Seat belts." Billy tells him.

Steve lulls his head to the side. "What?"

"Seat belts." He repeats, "They're one of my triggers. I'll wear them, but they feel like the straps the docs used on me. The ones they strapped me down with. Sometimes I have to try really hard to shake off the feeling of being trapped and unable to move my body."

He looks horrified. "Why the hell did they have you strapped down?"

Another drink has his tongue getting loose. "At first they didn't know if that...thing was still in me, so they took precautions or whatever. But then they were interested in samples and shit. Said my genetic make up had been altered, that I was a fascinating case because I was still human, but connected to some parallel world."

"The Upside Down," The other boy says, more to himself than to Billy.

Billy nods.

"The first doctor I saw, Dr Owens, he was an ok dude. Was always there before and after my surgeries. Always tried to explain shit, made sure my pain meds were working, talked to me. But some of the others…" Just remembering their faces makes him feel nauseous. "I don't even know if they were really doctors. They sure as hell didn't act like it. They seemed to like…take pleasure in my suffering. Didn't really care if what they were doing hurt. Got downright giddy sometimes."

"They were probably just scientists then." Steve replies, face scrunching up in disgust. "Hopper says most of them aren't like Owens. They see everything as a test subject. I mean, El was raised with people like that, in a lab."

He thinks about the girls face and tries not to shiver. "She was raised in a lab? That's fucked up."

"Yeah, it's why she has powers and why she's…not quite like everyone else."

"I like that she's not like everyone else." He says, because he's not like everyone else either.

"You ever talk to her?"

"Once or twice. Max says she always asks to talk to me but…" He sighs, tries not to think about the mall, about his hands around her throat. "Guilt is kinda heavy, Harrington. When I see her I just…"

"Want to be anywhere else?"

He nods and they settle into another silence, a comfortable one this time. But after Steve finishes another glass, he leans back on the couch and looks up at the ceiling.

"You were right." He admits softly. "What you said earlier. I do know why. It's just…I don't like thinking about it."

"About when you got drugged?" He asks.

"No, before I got drugged." He leans forward again, sets his glass down and breathes deeply. "When they interrogated me."

It's not like Billy wasn't aware that there was more to it than him being drugged, he'd said some fucked up shit happened, but thinking about him being interrogated by Russians makes him uneasy.

Steve's not like Billy. He didn't grow up being interrogated every day and getting punished if his answers were anything but what his dad wanted to hear.

He was soft and probably didn't do well under that kind of horror.

"I'm not sure how long they had me." He starts, "It had to be close to a day, but it felt so much longer. They started out slow, and the hits weren't that strong, like even Jonathan hit me harder, but the more I denied being a spy, the harder the hits got. And the thing is, I wasn't lying. Everything I told them had at least some semblance of truth. But it wasn't what they wanted to hear so… " He shrugs.

Billy understands that.

"It started as soon as they dragged me into that room and tied me up, and it never really ended. I mean, they let me rest a few times, but it was like as soon as the pain started to dull, they'd start back up again. It fucking hurt and I kept thinking how dumb we were for going down there and getting captured, how I was probably going to die down there. And I was scared but then I figured if they were busy with me, maybe, maybe Robin was ok. Maybe they hadn't hurt her yet. Maybe if I let them focus on me, she might make it out, so I gave up. Nothing I said mattered anyway so I just stopped talking."

"Which pissed them off, made them mean. And the.. the general, " He spits the name like it's disgusting. "He kept like...touching my face and petting my hair. Kept talking to the other guy in Russian while he pressed down on my busted lip and-"

He pauses, turns to Billy. "Look, I know everyone thinks I'm a total idiot, but I'm not...It's just… it's easier to cope with all the upside down shit if I don't have to think, if I just make jokes and goof off, deflect everything serious.. It's just easier. But I'm not...I'm not stupid…" He makes a frustrated sound. "I knew the fucking implications of that shit."

Yeah. Billy knows the implications of that shit too, and his grip on his glass tightens.

"And it's… it's absolutely ridiculous because they broke my ribs, beat me until I blacked out, drugged me and were literally milliseconds away from ripping my fucking fingernails out with plyers, and yet none of that made me feel as bad, as terrified as I felt just knowing what was going through his head in that moment. Knowing that I wouldn't be able to do anything to stop it if..."

He picks up his glass and takes a big swig. Doesn't say anything else, so Billy takes the opportunity to speak. "It's not ridiculous to be afraid of that."

And it's not.

Sure, it might be a little different, but Billy knows what it's like to feel helpless too. He knows what it's like to be looked at like… that and not want anything to do with it. Knows what it's like to be afraid.

"It doesn't make you weak, or stupid or any of the other things you're thinking about yourself right now." He tells him. "It just makes you human."

Steve swallows and meets his eyes. "But how do I get over it? It's been months. I should be over it."

"If you never deal with it, never face it, you won't get over it. You'll just have long periods of time where you're fine and then it will hit you again."

"What if," He licks his lips, looks distressed, "What if I'm not strong enough to deal with it?"

Billy thinks about the Flayer, about flirty dangerous smiles and confused pleasure. He thinks about scientists and hands and pain and…

His dad.

And when he stares into Steve's dark eyes he feels an ache in his chest, because he realizes…

"Then you'll be in the same boat as me."