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Second Thoughts

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That night, 1984

He had insisted that he didn’t need to go to hospital, but no one had listened to him. They’d all reconvened back at the Byers’ house, all the kids and Hopper and Nancy and Joyce and Jonathan, with fucking Hargrove sprawled on one of the sofas and Eleven – who he’s heard so much about, but never actually met – passed out on the other one. Hopper had carried her in, and Mike had rushed over to her side, and now sits on a chair next to her holding her hand and glaring fiercely at anyone who suggests otherwise.

Will is exhausted. He has enormous hollows underneath his eyes, and Joyce bundles him up and takes him to bed with a quick smile at Steve. So it’s Hopper who’s the last adult, the one to take over Steve’s position as person-in-charge and tell him he needs medical attention.

“I’m fine,” Steve protests. He’s sitting at the kitchen table with Dustin, Lucas and Max, a pack of frozen carrots wrapped in a tea towel against his swollen purple face.

“Steve,” Nancy says softly from the doorway. He glances up at her, and then wishes he hadn’t; Byers is holding her hand. “You look terrible.”

Max fidgets. “Billy nearly killed him,” she says, the traitor.

“But Steve put up a great fight,” Dustin adds quickly, as though that might be in doubt. Steve sighs and switches the carrots to the other side of his face.

“Hospital,” Hopper repeats, in a no-nonsense kind of voice. “You have no idea what brain damage this sack of shit—” He cuts himself off, glaring at Hargrove’s inert form from underneath his bushy eyebrows.

“I’ll be fine,” Steve says again. “I survived the Upside Down, didn’t I—”

Hopper takes a step forward. “Yeah, kid, you did,” he says. “And we’ll be discussing just what you were thinking, going there, another time.” He glances around at the kids, who have the grace to look away guiltily. “You were jacked up on adrenaline. You need to go to hospital, and goddammit, I’m not hearing another argument about it.” For a moment, his eyes linger on Eleven, lying next to Mike on the couch. “I’m not losing anyone else,” he says softly.

“I’ll take you,” Nancy begins, but Steve flinches involuntarily, and she subsides.

I’ll take you,” Byers says, which is hardly any better, but Hopper nods.

For a while, in the car, neither of them speak. Steve leans his head back against the headrest and tries to ignore the pounding in his head and the way his eyes have swollen up so much he can barely see. Byers glances over at him a few times, tries to pretend he isn’t doing it.

Steve looks at him. Byers is biting his lip. He says, tiredly: “It’s okay, man.”

Another flickering look. “I want you to know,” Byers says, “I mean, me and Nancy… Nothing happened, you know, until after you guys…”

“Yeah,” Steve says. He turns away, looks out the window. “I get it.”

There’s a silence, which feel spectacularly loud. Byers says, quietly: “I’m sorry.”

Steve looks back at him. There’s a tiny hard part of him that wants to hold onto the anger, hold onto Nancy, but honestly? He doesn’t have the energy for it. He thinks about Hargrove, still passed out on the Byers’ couch. Maybe the old him, King Steve, would be ready for a fight over this. Ready to make his second attempt at beating Jonathan’s face in, and probably ready to fail again.

He’s not that guy anymore.

“It’s okay,” he says again. He sighs. “Look, I get it. Nancy’s…” He swallows. “Special. And I’ve always known you guys were close.” He looks straight ahead, watches the road disappear under the wheels of the car. “If it’s not going to be me, I’m glad it’s you.”

“I get that,” Byers says softly. He gives an odd, gentle laugh. “That’s kind of how I felt, before.”

“Yeah, so,” Steve says, leaning back. “We’re cool.”

They tell him, at the hospital, that he’s concussed. It’s not really a surprise; Steve’s really starting to feel the effects of the beating Hargrove dealt out now. He stumbled, rather than walked, into the ER. They clean up his face and give him some painkillers, and then he’s sent home, with strict instructions to Jonathan to wake him up every hour.

“You don’t have to stay with me,” Steve says half-heartedly, when Byers pulls up outside his house.

Jonathan looks at him. “Are your parents home?”

Of course they aren’t. “No,” he says sullenly.

Byers laughs. “Then I’m staying,” he says simply.

Steve’s head is pounding, so he takes the painkillers they gave him at the hospital and flops onto the couch with an exhausted sigh. Byers sits on the armchair, glances over at the TV and then doesn’t turn it on. Steve is too tired to ask why. He lets his eyes close with grateful relief.

“Do you think Billy will make things difficult for Max?” Byers asks thoughtfully.

Steve cracks open one eyelid. “Hargrove?” he says. He can feel his teeth grinding together at even the mention of the name. “He’s a coward.”

“True,” Byers acknowledges. “Still.”

“Hopper will take care of him,” Steve says sleepily, letting his eyes close again. “He’s going to talk to Max’s parents. Get them to keep him in line.”

Byers makes an odd, shuddery sound. “I don’t envy him,” he says. “Neil Hargrove creeps me out.”

“Never met him,” Steve says.

“He’s come into the store before, when mom was working,” Byers tells him. “Kind of lost it at one of the cashiers. Not mom, one of the guys. I was there. It was weird.”

Steve settles himself further into the couch cushions. “Well, good,” he says. “Maybe he’ll lose it at Billy.” He touches his face gingerly, winces. “Kid deserves it.”

“He sure got you good,” Byers agrees. “Go to sleep, Steve. I’ll wake you up to check you’re still alive.”

“Good to know,” Steve says drily, but honestly he feels warm, and kind of safe, falling asleep on his couch with Jonathan Byers at his side. His face is aching, but the painkillers are starting to kick in, and the pain isn’t so sharp anymore. The cushions are soft underneath his head - way softer than the ones on Joyce Byers’ lumpy sofa, though he doesn’t say that to Jonathan - and his eyes flutter closed.

It’s over. They fought the monsters, and they won. Steve knows he’s not really important, not like that freaky Eleven kid or Byers’ little brother or even Nancy, but he managed to keep the kids safe, and now…

Now he can rest. So he does.

*

Billy wakes up to a sharp nasty smell prickling his nose and too much unnatural light. He’s still in the creepy shack with all the drawings on the walls, lying on a couch underneath the window, and it’s still dark outside. He can’t have been out too long.

There’s a man standing over him, and as he blinks and makes himself wake up – his head feels as though it’s splitting apart – he realises that it’s the Chief.

“Sir,” he says, almost respectfully, because he’s not an idiot.

The Chief just growls. He looks… weary, and kind of dirty. His clothes are creased, and there’s a smudge of something dark on his forehead. Billy pushes himself into a sitting position, and takes stock of the room.

Walls, still creepy. The drawings are everywhere, mostly on white paper but some on blue or orange. They’re joined together like some kind of fucked up map. His eyes track the nearest pathway until he reaches the doorway. Max, the fucking traitor, is stood just slightly behind the rim of the door. Sinclair is with her, and that other curly-haired kid he’s seen her hanging around with. There’s another boy there too, with dark hair and watchful sharp eyes.

Billy doesn’t bother meeting Max’s eyes. She made her point pretty clear earlier, and while he’s still mad at her for it – so, so fucking mad – he also has the unpleasant sensation of not wanting to confront her again. Like he’s intimidated by her, or something. He feels his teeth grind together in his mouth, and he shakes his head and looks away.

The wallpaper is dingy, the whole place mildly unpleasant, and Billy hasn’t even begun to catalogue the books on the shelves to his right or the corridor leading off to other rooms or the colour of the kitchen table. It’s making him itch under his skin, not to know this place, to be able to map it out in his head, but he ignores the sensation and looks back up at the Chief.

“Where’s Harrington?” It’s a legitimate question, but it’s not what he’s really wondering. He remembers beating Harrington pretty bad. He’d lost it, just given over to the red hot burn of it all, and he’s not totally sure he hadn’t killed him.

The Chief grunts again. “Hospital,” he says. He frowns. “He’ll be fine, no thanks to you.”

Ah. So here it is. Billy, resigned, holds out his wrists; he knows how this story goes. “Take me away, Chief,” he says dramatically, and then laughs, the sound harsh in the small quiet room. He thinks of how incredibly pissed his dad is going to be, and laughs again.

Max makes a tiny, muted sound. The Chief looks over to her; Billy does not.

“Okay, kid,” the Chief says. He turns back to Billy, and his glare intensifies. “Here’s what’s going to happen. I’m going to take you and your sister home—”

“She’s not my sister,” Billy interrupts, tipping his head back lazily.

“Goddammit!” the Chief says, and then he bangs a fist against the wall so unexpectedly that even Billy flinches a little. “I’m taking you and the kid home, and you’re going to leave her, and these kids, and Harrington, alone, and in return I’m not going to arrest your ass.” He brings his face close to Billy’s, too close, and his eyes narrow meanly. “Got it?”

Billy swallow, and focuses on not looking anywhere near as intimidated as he feels. “Sure,” he says. The Chief takes a tiny step forward, and Billy holds up his hands instinctively. “I got it,” he says.

“He already promised,” Max says from the doorway.

“Not actually true,” Billy says, holding a finger up, because sometimes he doesn’t know when to keep his mouth shut. He puts it down again when the Chief growls at him. “Sentiment was there,” he allows. He thinks about Max, yelling at him with that bat in her hands, making him repeat himself. And then he thinks about where she learned that from.

The Chief takes them home, Max sitting in the front of his cruiser and Billy sprawled across the back seat. He’s deliberately not thinking about how his dad is going to react to the pair of them being dropped home past midnight by the chief of police. No one says anything all the way home. Max sits hunched over, her red hair falling over her face, and Billy just looks out of the window and watches the bare trees go by and tries to ignore his migraine.

The lights are still on when they get to Billy’s house, which means that Susan is up worrying. He leans forward, speaking for the first time. “What are you going to tell them?” He hates the faint tremor in his voice.

Max glances back over her shoulder, and then whips her head back around as though she wishes she hadn’t.

“The truth,” the Chief says slowly, and Billy is suddenly struck with the odd sense that whatever he’s about to say is going to be the opposite of truthful. “Your sister snuck out to go sleep over at Will Byers’ house, and you came to find her.” He turns to glare at Billy. “If you hadn’t got yourself into a fight with Harrington, you’d have been home hours ago.”

“You’re going to tell them about the fight?” Billy says, and then wishes he could bite back the words.

The Chief narrows his eyes. “Someone needs to get you in line, kid,” he says, his voice harsh, and Billy’s stomach feels like it’s dropping to his feet.

He gets out of the car first. Better to face the music sooner rather than later.

The Chief strides over to the front door, raps sharply a couple of times. Max looks small and damp behind him, her hair a curtain around her face. Billy shoves his hands in his pockets and rocks on his heels, watching as the shadow behind the curtains of the living room window rises and moves towards the sound.

The door opens, and Billy deliberately looks the other way.

“Maxine!” Susan sobs out, and she practically falls onto Max’s thin shoulders, pulling her into a hug. “Where have you been?” She glances up at the Chief. “We were just thinking of calling you!”

“Hopper, isn’t it?” comes a new voice, and Billy’s heart starts thumping. “My God. Thank you for finding her.”

Chief Hopper coughs. “She was at the Byers’,” he says. “You know Joyce Byers?”

“Oh,” Susan says confusedly, “yes—” She looks at Billy’s dad.

“Her kid Will is in Max’s class,” Hopper prompts. There’s a pause, and then he adds, awkwardly: “And her other son Jonathan goes to school with Billy, here.”

Neil Hargrove takes a step forward. It’s just a step, just one little movement of his feet, a yard closer, but Billy feels it like a thud to the back of his head. “Billy,” he says quietly. He looks at Hopper. “What happened?”

Hopper opens his mouth to speak, but Billy gets there first. “Got in a fight,” he says, looking off to the side like he’s bored. “Creeper kid from school.”

“He’s not a creep!” Max cries. She turns to her mom. “I wanted to go to Will’s to hang out with my friends. Steve was babysitting.” She glares at Billy. “Billy beat him up.”

Billy holds up his hands. “Hey, dude lied to me,” he says. He looks at his dad, then, registers the quiet tight fury in his eyes. Tries to will him to get it without sounding like he’s doing it. “He told me Max wasn’t there. What was I supposed to think?”

“That I didn’t want you around, asshole!” Max says impatiently. “Mom, Billy’s always trying to stop me hanging out with my friends. It wasn’t Steve’s fault.”

“I’m sure it wasn’t, honey,” Susan says, hugging her again, but Billy isn’t listening anymore. Neil has a hard, angry look in his eyes, and it’s more effective than if he’d drawn a line across his throat.

The Chief says: “Harrington will be alright, but he took one hell of a beating.” He scratches his chin, glances at Billy. “I’m not going to be taking this any further this time, Mr Hargrove, but I’m going to need you to have a word with Billy. I know kids will be kids, but this…”

“I understand,” Neil says quietly. “Trust me, Chief, I know this is unacceptable.” He looks, very briefly, at Billy. “I’ll make sure Billy knows it too.”

Susan takes Max to bed after the Chief leaves, with just one shaky glance back over the top of her daughter’s head at Billy and Neil. Billy just waits.

Billy, later, thinks about Harrington. He thinks that, on balance, he’s glad he didn’t kill him. It’s difficult to remember the fight in any real detail; he’d been so angry, so fucking angry, and he’d had Lucas Sinclair up against the wall because he wouldn’t leave Max alone and she wouldn’t fucking listen to him—

Harrington had hit first. He knows that much. Sure, he’d pushed and shoved and shouted, but it was Harrington who threw the first punch. For the first time that evening, Billy had stopped feeling angry and coiled up like a loaded spring with nowhere to go; all that fucking rage, all the unfairness of the whole thing, all of it had given way to a kind of weird exhilaration that coursed through him, taking all the other crap with it.

King Steve. He’s heard that one a few times, but tonight is the first time he’s understood it. Understood who Harrington was, before Billy came to town. It was incredible, like the world’s greatest high, fighting Harrington. Absorbing his punches, and cracking back down. But then Harrington had stopped punching back. Just laid there, like even as Billy bloodied his face he was too good for it all, and all the anger had come rushing back, his head pounding, and the rest isn’t too clear anymore.

He remembers Max, smashing that stupid fucking bat between his legs. Remembers her demanding his complicity. Say it, she’d said. His dad does that too. Always works. He knows – he’s done it himself, to Max, after all.

He wants to get into it again. Wants Harrington to fight back, wants it to go on long and bloody. Was Harrington even really trying, or is he just a pussy? He wants Harrington be stronger. Wants it to be a proper fight. Imagines Harrington hitting him in the side of the head, laying him out. Taking him down.

Carefully, Billy touches the lump on the back of his head. It’s just slightly sticky, but he doesn’t think it’s bled much. His dad did it, shoved him up against the wall, and it’s not fair because Billy can’t fight back. He wants it to be a mark from Harrington. Wants it to be even. His cheek is flaming from the heavy-handed slaps Neil gave him, his nose throbbing from the punches Harrington did manage to get in. The pain feels good, grounding. He can imagine that all of it is from the fight, from the adrenaline of going toe-to-toe with Harrington. The aftermath, the quick ugly shove that caught his side against the kitchen counter, the dirty slaps, the spittle hitting his face, the push that sent him to the ground – none of that has to be real.

“Harrington, you little bitch,” Billy whispers into the warm air of his bedroom. If you look at it that way – if Harrington did all this to him – you kind of have to be impressed. Such a pretty boy, with his carefully styled hair and expensive car, but underneath it King Steve must be a real badass. Went head-to-head with Billy Hargrove, of all things – gave as good as he got, knocked Billy to the floor, made him bleed, left him with marks.

Better King Steve than Neil Hargrove, that’s for sure.

Chapter Text

Billy’s head wakes him up, throbbing in the brightness of the morning sun streaming in through his window. He hadn’t bothered to close his curtains the night before; he always enjoys looking up at the stars before he goes to sleep. It hadn’t been easy - his swollen nose made it difficult to keep his eyes open - but it sure beats staring at the cracked ceiling in his room and thinking about his shitty life.

He pushes himself up onto his elbows. There’s crusted drool around his mouth, and smears of brownish blood on his pillowcase.

He ignores it, rolling exhaustedly out of bed. Any minute now, Max’s mom will rap on his door, to remind him that he needs to get up to take Max to school; she almost certainly won’t speak. Too embarrassed, after knowing what his dad did yesterday. Knowing, and pretending it didn’t happen. He doesn’t roll his eyes, because it hurts, but he’s doing it mentally as he fumbles in his bedside cabinet for some aspirin, swallowing them dry.

School. It’s the last fucking thing he feels like doing today. Steve fucking Harrington will probably get the day off; he’s spoilt that way. Everyone will wonder where he is, and when he finally does come back, they’ll all know. King Steve, defender of the innocent. It might raise his stock again. Or it might make him look stupid, protecting a bunch of kids and losing the fight so tragically. If he is absent, Billy should really take advantage of it, spin the story his way.

Even the thought of it makes his face hurt.

He’s still wearing his clothes from the night before, but they’re sweaty and ripped in places, so he strips them off, snatching up his grey dressing gown from the back of the door. His head is still pounding, but no one at school can know it. It’s not his first time preparing for a performance after a rough night, and it won’t be his last.

He showers quickly, careful not to use up too much hot water, and dries himself in front of the steamy mirror. The aspirin is kicking in, and his headache has dulled to the point that he can comb through his hair without wincing. He wipes the mirror clear, taking stock of himself. His face isn’t too bad - a purple bruise under one eye, and a slightly swollen nose, but nothing to what Harrington will bring to school if he shows. What his dad did is more significant. There are bruises on his upper arms, and a welt on his side where he caught the edge of the kitchen counter. His leg is grazed as well, and the lump on the back of his head hasn’t gone down any.

Back in his bedroom, he dries his hair, running wax through it so that it lies flat over the lump. His usual eyeliner isn’t enough to distract from the bruises on his face, so he puts on some cover-up and blush as well - if it’s good enough for Nick Rhodes, it’s good enough for him. He chooses a shirt with mid-length sleeves to cover the bruises on his arms - tight and blue - and slings on a grey tank top underneath in case his shirt rides up above the cut on his side. He’s well-rehearsed at covering bruises.

By the time he heads downstairs, Billy has his face on. Plastic. He wanders into the kitchen, flat and bored with life, his bag over one shoulder. Susan is standing by the hob, looking her usual blend of anxious and generally faded.

“Oh,” she says, as Billy walks in. Her eyes flicker to the kitchen table, where Max and Neil are sitting. “Good morning, Billy.”

Billy gives a non-committal grunt in response, swinging his bag over the table as he sits. Susan brings him a plate of scrambled eggs and bacon. She’s always nice to him the next day.

Max looks at him from behind her curtain of hair. Her eyes are mistrustful, but there’s the tiniest twitch at the corner of her mouth. She’s not afraid of him anymore. The little bitch is probably glad he got it from Neil, if she even knows it happened.

He ignores her. Ignores the frisson of something unpleasant rippling in the pit of his stomach when she looks at him.

“You’ll take Max to school,” his dad comments, as Billy scarfs down his eggs. He mumbles something incomprehensible around his fork; Neil nods, and no one else says anything at all.

Max doesn’t say a word in the car. Billy glances sideways at her a couple of times, but she just stares out the window and ignores him, so he cranks the music higher and keeps driving. He doesn’t swerve the corners quite so hard as he usually would when she’s pissing him off, though. He doesn’t want to think about why that is.

When he pulls up outside the middle school, he can see her stupid little friends waiting for her in the parking lot. The black kid steps forward a little when he sees Billy’s car. The fucking little pussy doesn’t have a scratch on him.

Fucking Harrington.

“Max,” he hears the kid say, as Max opens the passenger door. She swings out without a backwards look at Billy. “You okay?”

“Yeah,” she says. Billy takes a second to look at them all. The black kid, the weird curly-haired kid, the dark one with eyes that kind of make Billy shiver. There’s usually another one, a little one, but he doesn’t seem to be there today.

The curly-haired kid glances at Billy, and takes a step towards the car. Kid’s got guts, he’ll give him that. Billy shakes his head slightly.

“Four,” he calls out the window to Max, because he doesn’t want her thinking he’s completely lost his touch. “Or I’ll leave without you.”

She looks coolly at him. “Whatever,” she says, and Billy feels a cold shudder run through him. She’s got him now, got the measure of him. She’ll never believe him again for a second.

His hands are trembling as he gets a smoke out of his pocket, puts it to his lips and drives away.

He’s right in thinking that Harrington isn’t in school. It makes him a little shaky when he thinks about King Steve’s busted face, the blood pouring from his nose while Billy pounded on it. But the Chief - Hopper - said that he’d be okay, and Billy’s not exactly in the business of feeling guilty about shit like this.

The day seems kind of pointless somehow, as if having Harrington out of school has taken a bit of colour out of his surroundings. Billy stands at his locker, examining the way his hair is arranged around his face, and pretends that it’s just a normal day. In many ways, it should be. He’s not sure why he’s so affected by what happened the night before; he’s beaten people up before, and his dad has certainly hit him harder than that before.

Except that he’s never quite lost it the way he did, never hit someone hard enough to put them in hospital, and it kind of scares him. He’s clutching onto life with both hands, always has been, but last night he lost control. Max saw it, and for some reason it didn’t scare her, not the way it scares him. He thinks she can see, now, how afraid he is. Afraid of Neil, afraid of losing himself, afraid of everyone seeing how little he actually deserves.

“Hey, Hargrove.” It’s Tommy, leaning back against the lockers on the other side of Billy’s like he’s some fucking city slicker. He grins, trying a little too hard. “How was it?”

Billy doesn’t bother looking up from the little mirror he has stuck up inside his locker. His nose looks red, but the cover-up is doing its job. “How was what?” he says, making sure he sounds as bored as possible.

“Didn’t you go out with Heather Green last night?” Tommy says, his eyebrows crinkling in obvious confusion. The kid is so fucking moronic that Billy’s willing to bet his own shoelaces confuse him. Behind the door of his locker, where Tommy can’t see, Billy lets his teeth sink into his bruised lower lip. The events of the weekend were so dramatic that he almost forgot about Heather fucking Green.

“Shit came up,” he says, still staring at his own face in the mirror. He looks hot, and kind of dangerous, if he says so himself. He can do high school, has always been able to navigate the waters of high school politics.

Tommy, clearly having no concept of fucking space invasion, swings his head around the door of Billy’s locker to see what Billy is doing. He smiles, oblivious to just how pissed off Billy is. “Shit better than Heather Green’s tits?”

She does have an incredible pair of tits. Billy just shrugs.

He walks to class without bothering to talk to Tommy anymore. He’s always found the kid inane, but usually he takes at least a little pleasure from the sycophantic nature of their interactions. Today, however, he just can’t be fucked.

“Good of you to join us, Mr Hargrove,” Ms Young says drily when he gets to his English class. He’s late, which is nothing new, but she doesn’t normally comment on it. He figures it’s just the universe shitting all over him for the fortieth time.

He slides into his seat, skin tingling underneath his shirt. Harrington usually takes this class. His chair is noticeably empty.

“We’re supposed to be in pairs,” Tiffany Buckton - a startlingly unattractive girl for such a pretty name - whispers to him from the seat behind.

Billy glances over his shoulder. “For?”

Ms Young clears her throat. “We’re moving onto a new unit,” she says, obviously tapping into their conversation. She holds up a worn copy of Pride and Prejudice. “Have you read this, Mr Hargrove?”

“Did you assign it?” Billy fires back, irritated. Tiffany sucks in a shocked breath.

“We’re beginning it today,” Ms Young replies. She doesn’t comment on his tone. “You should have a copy, it was on this year’s reading list.”

Billy fumbles in his book bag. Sure enough, the book is there - new, pristine, never opened. He takes it out, more for something to do with his hands than anything else. Ms Young is already walking towards the opposite side of the classroom.

“Did you see the serial?” Tiffany asks Billy quietly. “My mom rented it for me when she saw Pride and Prejudice on the reading list.”

“Nope,” Billy says. He looks down at the book in his hands. It feels kind of hard to care about some centuries-old story when Harrington isn’t in school and it’s his fucking fault. But then again, Billy’s life is always a shitshow, isn’t it? There’s no reason this fight should feel so momentous.

Ms Young makes them read the first two chapters aloud, one paragraph at a time. It’s pretty fucking difficult to be inspired by literature when the language is being butchered by the dry, nicotine-heavy voices of insecure hormonal teens still trailing the tail-end of puberty. Billy tunes out the stumbling voices, reading ahead with a finger on the right page so that when his name is called he’s ready.

“Mr Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve and caprice, that the experience of three-and-twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character.” There’s something about reading out loud that Billy likes; he knows he does it better than his classmates, his tongue sliding along the old-fashioned words to make sense of them. Caprice. He likes the sound of that - being unpredictable. Impulsive.

Impulsive, like losing his shit at Harrington. Like pounding his face in, nearly killing him. He swallows.

Her mind was less difficult to develop. She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented, she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.” He finishes the paragraph, looking up to glance around the class. People are listening. He likes that. Tiffany Buckton actually has her chin in her hands.

When they’ve dragged their way through the first chapter, Ms Young says: “As we discussed at the start of class, you’ll be working in pairs for the next project. Each pair will present on the Regency era, with a particular focus on one of the themes present in the novel. We’ll be discussing thematic links over the next couple of weeks.”

There’s a collective groan. Billy just rolls his eyes.

Unfortunately, Ms Young notices. “You don’t have a partner, Mr Hargrove,” she says. “Consequences of being late, I’m afraid. You’ll have to join another group, everyone else is paired up.”

That’s when Tiffany fucking Buckton pipes up. “Steve’s not in today, Ms Young, Billy could be in a pair with him.”

Stupid, ugly, fucking Tiffany Buckton.

*

It’s late when Steve wakes up, the sun coming into the living room in that bright sparkly way that tells him he’s way, way overslept. He still feels exhausted, his body aching and heavy, and he’s vaguely aware that he’s been dreaming the whole time he’s been asleep, never quite managing to sink beyond the vivid flashing images. He can’t remember anything specific, but he doesn’t need to.

“Hey.” Steve starts at the sound of Nancy’s voice. Slowly, he forces his eyes open. He’s still lying on the couch in his parents’ living room, a blanket covering his bloodstained clothes.

Nancy is sitting on the armchair opposite, her shoes kicked off and her legs curled up underneath her. She has a book in her slender hands, one thumb holding it open at around the halfway point. She looks tired, her eyes reddened and heavy, but she’s showered since the last time Steve saw her at the Byers’ house, and she’s wearing clean clothes.

He pushes himself up onto his elbows, ignoring the pounding in his head. “What time is it?”

“Four,” she says. She closes her book. “Jonathan stayed with you most of the day, but he needed to get some sleep.”

“Fuck,” Steve says eloquently. He thinks about Byers, taking him to the hospital and then, apparently, staying with him all night. “What about his brother?”

Nancy smiles briefly. “He’s okay,” she says. There’s a silence, the conversation fading out. Steve doesn’t know how to be here with Nancy, how to talk to her. The hospital said that they would have to wake him up every hour, and vaguely he can feel memories of Byers swimming around in his head - shaking his shoulder, holding a glass of water to his mouth, rousing him from his broken slumber to make sure he was alive. Byers had literally exorcised his own brother - he did far more than Steve, fought more, understood more, got the girl - but still he’d stayed up all night, fighting the exhaustion, just for Steve.

He wishes he didn’t get it. Wishes he could ask why. But he knows why.

He coughs. “Byers… he’s a good guy,” he says. Nancy’s eyes flick instantly over to him.

“Yeah,” she says, warily.

Steve doesn’t say anything else, and after a minute, Nancy smiles. He’s always liked her smile, the way it lights up her eyes. Transforms her face from something serious and grown-up into… well, a proper teenage face, a young face.

It’s not going to be easy, getting over her. Suddenly, Steve’s face aches.

Nancy gets him the painkillers, and then she goes home. She offers to stay, but Steve wants to shower and change, and he’s out of the danger zone now. He can get some real sleep. Part of him wants to hold onto her - wants to take her up on the offer, have her stay with him - but she can’t give him what he wants from her anymore, and it hurts more to have her there than to be alone.

“Tell Byers I said thanks,” Steve tells her. He tries to keep his voice light, but he’s pretty sure she sees right through him. She always has been able to.

She smiles, her eyes a little sad. “I will,” she says. She hesitates. “You… you’ll call, right? If you need anything?”

“Sure,” Steve lies. She nods, and then she goes.

His face hurts when he washes it. They cleaned off the worst of the blood at the ER, but there’s more in his hair, behind his ears, under his nose, tiny flaking pieces that they hadn’t bothered to wipe away. He feels a little more like himself when he finally gets out of the shower, wrapping a towel around his waist.

He looks like shit. His eyes and nose are a mask of deep purpling bruises, and his entire face is swollen. There are at least three lumps rising at various points on the back of his head, and there’s a long scratch on his shoulder where he fell on the floor. It’s superficial, but it hurts . His hands are covered in tiny grazes and scrapes, and he can feel splinters from gripping the bat moving under his skin.

The knock at the door sounds as he’s putting on his softest t-shirt and joggers. It’s immediately followed by four or five tugs at the doorbell, and Steve rolls his eyes as he makes his way downstairs. Then he wishes he hadn’t; the movement makes his face hurt.

It’s Dustin, of course. He’s standing there with his bike in his hands and Lucas by his side. Steve is kind of glad Mike isn’t with them. He looks too much like Nancy.

“Hey, guys,” he says wearily.

Dustin’s eyes widen. “Shit, Steve, you look terrible!” he exclaims. Lucas shoves him. “Um… I mean… how are you doing, buddy?”

Steve can’t help it. He rolls his eyes again. “You coming in?”

“Yeah,” Dustin says. He leans his bike up against the wall. “Nice place, man.”

Steve steps back to let them both pass. “You guys okay?”

“Yeah, yeah, sure,” Dustin says. He’s looking around with obvious interest. “School was shit.”

He gets that. It’s kind of hard to care about school when you’ve spent the night fighting monsters. Lucas says: “Mrs Byers told us you have a concussion, right?”

“Right,” Steve replies, frowning.

“Like an actual bruise on your brain?”

Dustin laughs. Steve says: “Sure.”

“That’s cool.” Steve looks at Lucas properly now. He has an odd, affected look on his face. When he catches Steve looking, he shrugs. “I mean, it’s cool you did that for me. Thanks, man.”

Steve doesn’t really know Lucas all that well. He doesn’t really know any of the kids that well, to be honest - even Dustin is pretty much just the one who pesters him the most. He tries to think back to last night, to Hargrove hauling Lucas up against the wall, and for the first time he’s glad that he’s the one with the wrecked face.

“Can’t leave a party member behind, right?” he says, and Dustin and Lucas both grin at him.

They’re supposed to be there to check up on him, but they’re eighth-graders, so ultimately Steve’s the one who ends up making some dinner for them all. He throws some pasta and tomato sauce together, fries some bacon to go on top, and serves it up with a healthy handful of cheese apiece. The three of them sit on the living room floor and eat with the television on in the background, Steve swallowing a couple of Tylenol even though he knows he’s not supposed to mix it with the medication they gave him at the hospital.

He’s ravenous. Dustin snorts at him as he practically inhales his food. “Easy, tiger,” he says.

“How’s Will?” Steve asks. Out of all the kids, Will’s the one he knows the least. Probably because for as long as he’s known about all the freaky Upside Down shit, Will has been missing, or possessed. But he’s thinking about Jonathan Byers, staying with him through the night and all day, even though his brother was somewhere else. Will Byers kind of started all of this, and now Steve is involved.

Dustin shrugs. “He’s okay. We went there this afternoon with Mike.”

“He looks worse than you,” Lucas comments.

“He went through a hell of a lot more,” Steve says. He wonders if this is what they’re supposed to be doing - sitting around on the living room floor, eating pasta and discussing the night’s events so casually. There isn’t really a handbook for dealing with this kind of shit.

“Mrs Byers isn’t making him go to school tomorrow,” Dustin says. “He’s lucky.”

“And…” Steve frowns. “Max? Is she okay?”

Lucas glances quickly at Dustin. Steve feels a little bad; he knows Dustin likes Max too. He also knows which one of them she chose. But after everything that happened with Billy, he wants to make sure he didn’t take anything out on his sister later on.

“She’s fine,” Lucas says. “She came with us to see Will. Billy’s leaving her alone.”

“Hopper talked to his dad,” Dustin adds.

Lucas laughs. “Yeah, Max said he was really mad. She heard him chewing Billy out.” He puts on an affected tough voice. “You will not show that kind of aggressive behaviour again.”

“Good,” Steve says bluntly. Hot waves of anger curl up his spine every time he thinks about Billy Hargrove.

“It probably won’t make any difference,” Dustin says. “Max says Billy’s dad chews him out all the time. He’s still an asshole.”

Lucas put an enormous forkful of pasta into his mouth. “Yeah, maybe,” he says disconsolately. He chews thoughtfully. Then, brightening, he says: “But Max thinks he’s scared of her now.”

Steve tips his head back against the couch. It’s tiring him out just to think about Billy Hargrove, about the wild angry aggressive moron who fucked up his face. “Good,” he says again. “Good.”

Chapter Text

It’s his dad who makes him pick up the book again. Billy hasn’t touched it since that first English class, hasn’t so much as thought about the stilted antiquated words he read aloud the day after he pounded Steve Harrington’s face to a pulp. Harrington hasn’t been in school all week, so he didn’t have to think about the fact that he’s now apparently partnered with him for a project he has no intention of doing. They’ve apparently been having discussions about it in class, but Billy has been totally zoned out.

Then it’s the weekend, and Billy definitely isn’t thinking about a stupid English project during his two precious days of freedom. He goes to a party at Tommy’s place on Saturday night, gets fucked up, watches the wallpaper dance and kisses a girl whose name he doesn’t know.

They’re in Tommy’s bedroom, which is distracting because Billy has never been there before. He catalogues the books on the shelf over by the window, the crumpled unmade bed, the clothes kicked hastily underneath it. A couple of postcards, pinned haphazardly above an untidy desk containing pencils and a lamp and several sheets of doodled note paper. A dresser, one drawer slightly open, and a basketball resting on top of it.

“What are you looking at?” the girl asks him.

“Nothing,” he says, and leaves her there, sitting on Tommy’s bed. It’s nothing personal, although he doesn’t mind her thinking that it is. Billy Hargrove is too good to fuck the Hawkins whores.

Later on, Tommy offers him a line of coke, and Billy just leaves, even though he’s still drunk and it’s early enough that his dad will still be up.

“You’re stupid,” his father informs him, when Billy stumbles home. He is stupid, stupid to come back this early, head still ringing and everything a mess. “You stupid, stupid child.”

He claps a heavy hand across Billy’s face, almost casually, like he’s not really thinking about it. Max is having a sleepover at some friend’s house; Billy is supposed to pick her up in the morning. Susan, as usual, is nowhere to be found when shit is going down. There’s nobody to see, nobody to know, so Neil Hargrove doesn’t have to be careful. He doesn’t have to control it, to pretend that there’s a reason.

“Go to bed,” he says to Billy. Billy escapes, his cheek stinging, feeling lucky. Lucky, and stupid.

He is stupid. He didn’t understand the words he was saying, in English class, and there’s no way Harrington will help him, so when the time comes to present their project everyone will know. Everyone will see how fucking stupid he is.

So on Sunday, Billy picks up the book.

He takes it slowly this time, picking over the unfamiliar words, and by the time he reaches the end of the first chapter for the second time, he feels like he has a sense of what’s going on. He’s a fucking walking cliche; the easiest way to make him do something is to tell him he can’t, and in this case it’s his dad. He rereads the line describing Mrs Bennet. She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. That’s what his dad thinks of him - that he’s stupid. Uninformed. Hot-headed.

Well, he’s not going to deny that last part. A flash of himself, pounding into Harrington’s face, crosses his mind. He’s got the uncertain temper bit down. But he’s not fucking stupid, and Harrington isn’t going to be the reason he flunks English.

He’s a slow reader, always has been, so it’s close to an hour and half before he finishes the first three chapters. He can see why Ms Young wants them to research the time period; half the references are going over his head. He’s still trying to puzzle out the obsession with dancing when his dad walks in.

“Billy,” he says. Billy snaps to attention immediately.

“Yes, sir,” he says promptly, but fortunately Neil looks to be in a genial sort of mood, judging by the relaxed smile on his face.

His father’s eyes travel to the book in his hand. “Studying, were you?” he asks. He sounds somewhat approving.

Billy nods. “It’s for English class,” he says, and then wishes he could bite back the words. Not because he’s afraid it’ll piss his dad off - Neil is actually looking a little impressed - but because he hates how much he wants his dad to be fucking pleased with him. He’s not playing that game anymore, hasn’t for years.

“What’s the book?” his dad says. Billy holds it up; Neil raises his eyebrows. “Pretty highbrow for you, isn’t it?” he comments.

Billy bites down hard into his tongue. That’s what he gets, letting his head drift away into the stupid fucking novel. “Yes, sir,” he says flatly.

Neil nods thoughtfully. “It’s about time you picked Maxine up,” he says, clearly over the concept of Billy actually reading. “She’s staying with her friend… Mike?” His lip curls over the name. “I have an address.”

Billy puts down his book. He’s had enough of reading, anyway; a trip to the library, and he’ll be up to his ears in enough information about the Regency era to fumble his way into at least a C grade for the presentation. He grabs his jacket and car keys, stopping to snatch the piece of lined paper out of his dad’s hand even though he doesn’t actually need it. He’s not exactly relishing the prospect of coming face-to-face with Maxine’s little friends again; the last time he saw them properly, he was getting owned by his little sister. He’s taken her to and from school every day since then, though, and so far they haven’t had the guts to say anything, so he figures it’ll be okay.

He heads over to the Wheeler residence. He wonders if he’ll run into Nancy as well; she’s not exactly his biggest fan, although really nobody is. Except Nancy’s mom. He almost laughs at the memory of her fluttering smile. He’s seen Nancy a few times around school, although they don’t have any classes together - she’s in all the AP sets. She’s looked at him all of one time, and it was as though she was looking at an actual shitstain, for all the disdain in her eyes. Figures that she still knows what’s up with Harrington, even though they’re not together anymore. She’s been walking the halls with that creepy Byers kid.

As he pulls up outside the house, Billy is aware of an uncomfortable feeling somewhere in his chest. One he feels fairly often, but doesn’t like to acknowledge - and certainly not one he would usually associate with Maxine.

Fear. It’s fear. He’s fucking scared.

He shakes off the feeling, marching up the front path and ringing vigorously on the doorbell.

It’s Mrs Wheeler who answers, dressed a little more conservatively this time in a pink shirt and jeans. When she sees him, her hands flutter on the frame of the door, and a wide smile comes to her lips. Billy figures that whoever Nancy’s dad is, he’s not a looker.

“Hey, Mrs Wheeler,” he says. His shirt isn’t slashed down to his waist this time, but with a tilt of his head he knows he has her. He catches her eyes, extends the look beyond what’s really acceptable. She dimples. “I don’t know if you remember me? Billy - Billy Hargrove.”

“Maxine’s brother,” she says, nodding. “Of course. Come on in, Billy.”

He steps over the threshold. “I never had the chance to thank you, Mrs Wheeler. You really helped me out of a bind last week. We were worried sick about Maxine.”

She touches her hair. “Was she at the Byers’ house?”

“Yeah, that’s right,” Billy says as she closes the front door. “She forgot to leave a note. I don’t know what I would have done without your help.” He gives her a dazzling smile, and is rewarded by another coquettish simper.

“Oh, any time, Billy,” she says. “Are you here to pick up Maxine?”

Billy lets himself step just a little too close. “I am,” he says. “I like to look out for her.” He grins. “I’m sure Nancy’s the same with Mike.”

She titters. “I wish she was,” she says.

“Is… Nancy home?” He hates himself for the slight quiver in his voice, although he’s sure she doesn’t notice.

Mrs Wheeler shakes her head. “She’s out with her friend.” She sounds a little uncertain, suddenly, and Billy pounces on it.

“Steve Harrington, right?” he says deliberately. “We know each other from school.”

“Oh - no,” she says, and he’s right, she’s definitely uncomfortable. “I liked Steve, but… Oh, well, girls!” She laughs, and Billy joins in, as if it isn’t weird. “Maxine is downstairs with the boys. I’ll show you.”

He follows her towards the stairs. “Thanks, Mrs Wheeler.”

“Karen, please,” she says gaily. She opens a door off the hall, gesturing down some stairs. “They’re all down there.”

Billy heads down the stairs with one last gleaming grin at her. It’s dark in the basement, dingier than the clean brightness of the rest of the Wheeler home, but he could spot Max’s sheet of red hair from a mile away. She’s sitting with her back to the stairs at a large round table, in between the curly-headed kid and the Sinclair boy. Billy’s eyes travel around the room, falling on someone else sitting on the other side of the table.

Shit.

It’s Steve fucking Harrington.

*

Steve should have gone back to school on Wednesday. Thursday, at a pinch. But his parents have been away all week, and he’s having trouble sleeping, and he knows if he goes back he’ll have to watch Nancy and Jonathan walking hand-in-hand together down every corridor, so… he’s stayed off. His face has mostly healed by now, so he’s just been sleeping through the afternoons, watching television and eating everything he can make without actually cooking.

On Sunday, he heads over to the Wheeler’s. It’s weird, coming here without it being for Nancy, but he’s feeling somewhat starved of prolonged human interaction, and Dustin assures him that Nancy won’t be there anyway.

“Mike says she’s going over to Will’s house,” he tells Steve, which doesn’t exactly make him feel any better about anything, but he goes anyway.

The kids have been having a sleepover. Will is still in hospital, although he’s apparently recovering well - Mike visited him on Saturday, and he’s hoping to come home sometime next week. The other three boys are there, and Max has been staying over as well. They’re all sat round a table in Mike’s basement when Steve arrives, engrossed in a game of Dungeons and Dragons.

He glances at Dustin. “Seriously?”

“Steve, man, come and sit down,” Dustin says expansively, gesturing towards an empty chair. Max giggles. “We’ll teach you how to play.”

“I really don’t want to know how to play,” Steve mumbles, but he sits down anyway. It’s kind of weird, being here, hanging out with eighth graders in his ex-girlfriend’s house while she’s off visiting her new boyfriend, but it’s not like he has anyone else he can talk to. He’s pretty much burned his bridges with his other friends at school, and even if he hadn’t, he’s got no one who would understand what he’s been through in the last… well, the last year.

Lucas says: “How’s your face?”

Steve touches it. He’s still a little swollen and bruised, but he can’t exactly call himself injured anymore. “Yeah, it’s fine,” he says. He glances at Max. “How’s your brother?”

“He’s not my brother,” Max replies immediately. She’s chewing on her bottom lip.

Steve rolls his eyes. “You know what I mean,” he says. “He’s been leaving you alone, right?”

She shrugs. “Yeah.”

They don’t talk about anything important after that. Dustin tries to teach Steve to play Dungeons and Dragons, although he’s more of an observer than anything else because nobody actually wants him in the game in case he fucks it up.

It’s kind of relaxing, just sitting there in between Mike and Dustin at the table, watching the kids play. Mike is the storyteller, and he’s a good one. Steve’s not sure he’s ever heard the kid talk for so long. He tells it like he’s putting on a one-man play, and the others get totally invested, rolling dice, moving their little metal playing pieces around.

It’s like it’s real, but it’s not. Steve knows it’s not, because a week ago, it was real. A week ago, they were fighting real monsters.

The game drags on for hours. Steve gets into the story, and then loses interest, and then gets involved again. He chats idly to Max, who’s just slightly less passionate about Dungeons and Dragons than the boys. He heads outside for some fresh air, and fields some awkward questions from Nancy’s mom. He goes back down to the basement with a jug of juice and some cookies that Mrs Wheeler gave him, and the kids are still at it, arguing over some of the finer plot points that Steve missed while he was gone.

It’s stupid. And boring. And childish. And Steve… Steve feels the most peaceful he has in a week.

Which is, of course, when Billy Hargrove appears at the top of the stairs.

One moment, Steve is laughing at Lucas and his exaggerated groans at a particularly vicious roll, and then he’s glancing at the stairs, perhaps catching a slight movement in his peripheral vision, and there he is. Steve’s blood runs cold.

The stupid, arrogant jerk. There’s a second, the tiniest fleeting moment, when Steve sees the shock in Billy’s eyes. Sees that whatever he was expecting, it wasn’t Steve. Maybe just Max and the other kids, but definitely not Steve. But then something else comes across Billy’s face. It’s not shock. It’s not even discomfiture.

It’s a fucking smile.

“Well, well,” he says, in that lazy smirking voice that Steve hates. “Steve Harrington.”

Slowly, Steve pushes his chair back, and stands up. The kids have stopped their game; they’re all hanging over the back of their chairs, looking up at Billy. Steve can practically feel the tension radiating off Max.

He says, quietly: “What do you want, Billy?”

Billy blinks in mock surprise, holding up his hands. He strolls down the stairs. “Hey, I’m just here to pick up Maxine,” he says. He gestures towards the sullen girl staring him down across the table from Steve. “Question is, what are you doing here, Harrington? I thought Wheeler dumped your ass.”

He grins wickedly.

Steve doesn’t flinch. Not outwardly, anyway. He sees both Dustin and Mike whip their heads around to look at him, but he doesn’t meet their eyes. He just keeps looking at Billy.

He doesn’t have any kind of answer for why he’s here, hanging out with a group of eighth-graders, but then, he doesn’t need one. He doesn’t owe Billy any kind of explanation.

“Max, you ready to go?” Steve says it without looking at her.

She bites her lip. “Um.” Her glance flickers towards Billy. “We haven’t finished.”

“She’s not ready to go,” Steve tells Billy. “Maybe you should leave.”

Billy takes another step down the stairs. Suddenly, his aura is darker. More menacing. He says: “My dad sent me to pick up Maxine. I’m not leaving without her.” He scratches his head, reaching the bottom of the stairs. “Don’t worry, Harrington. This time, she’s got permission to be here.”

“Shut up, Billy,” Max snarls unexpectedly. And Billy… flinches. Steve sees it.

Suddenly, it’s all so… stupid. So tired and ridiculous and fucking stupid. Steve hates Billy Hargrove, he’ll probably always hate Billy Hargrove, a dull throbbing hate in the back of his mind, but it’s boring. Hating demodogs, being afraid of the demogorgon, going up against the Upside Down - that’s real. That’s worth the emotion of a fight. But this? Billy Hargrove?

It’s just not worth it.

“Whatever,” he says. He’s barely aware that he’s spoken aloud, but suddenly everyone is looking at him. Including Billy. Steve sighs. “If you’re not going anywhere, sit the fuck down and shut up.”

Billy raises his eyebrows. “Didn’t know you cared, Harrington!” he says cheerfully. Smugly. It makes Steve want to punch his fucking face in.

Not worth it. Steve just rolls his eyes. “Not about you, jackass,” he says tiredly. He gestures around the table. “Kids want to finish their game, you’re obviously not going anywhere… we can fight about it if you want, but…”

“Steve!” Dustin hisses at him. “He is not staying!”

“Yeah, Steve, he beat you up!” Mike exclaims, as if Steve might have forgotten. Almost unconsciously, he touches his newly-healed face.

But Billy is already moving towards the sagging couch against the opposite wall, that same smirking grin on his face. He throws himself down on it, hands behind his head, far too casual. “Hey, if Harrington is going to let bygones be bygones…” He lets his voice trail off suggestively, and Steve grinds his teeth.

Not worth it, not worth it. “Trust me, I’m not,” he growls.

“Yeah,” Dustin says supportively. The ghost of a smile whispers across Max’s face.

Steve meets Billy’s eyes. There’s a challenge in them. He says, his voice measured: “You’re not sorry, Billy. You messed with Max, and you messed with Lucas, and you messed with me, and you’re not sorry.” Billy’s eyebrows lift, but he doesn’t speak. His teeth sink into his lower lip. Steve continues, “I’m not expecting that to magically change, and even if it did you’d still be scum. But… fuck it.”

Billy leans forward. There’s an odd, wild light in his eyes, and he’s still grinning, but it’s a lot more feral now. “Fuck it?”

“Yeah,” Steve says. He sighs. “Fuck it.”

“That’s the end of your big speech? Fuck it?” Billy repeats. He laughs, the sound aggressive and unpleasant.

“Yeah,” Lucas says, unexpectedly. He nods firmly. “Fuck it.”

“Fuck it,” Dustin agrees.

It’s Max who closes the conversation. She simply turns around, her long curtain of red hair sweeping behind her, and just like that, Billy isn’t there anymore. Isn’t important, anymore.

“Mike,” she says clearly, and gestures forcefully towards the table.

Mike, to his credit, takes his cue quickly. “Uh… right,” he says quickly. “So… the water is knee-high. It’s hard to force your way through the mud. Only the flickering glow of the torches light your way…”

“Kid’s good,” Billy comments. He’s sprawled lazily across the sofa, feet up on a cushion and his eyes closed.

Mike falters, but only for a second. Everyone else pointedly ignores the interruption. “As you carry on walking through the tunnel, you come to a stone door, covered in carvings.”

“Uh… I throw a fireball at the door,” Lucas hazards. Max sniggers. “What?”

Steve kind of zones out of the game after that. He tries not to, tries to keep focused, but it’s difficult when he can hear Billy breathing. See his irritatingly smug smile, the flash of teeth. His unmarked face. Steve barely got two punches in; Dustin told him Billy didn’t even miss one day of school after the fight.

It’s a stupid thing to be pissed about. Steve has totally indulged himself by taking the week off. But the fact that Billy doesn’t have a single bruise, a scratch left on him… it rankles.

He drags himself out of his chair; Dustin and Lucas glance up at him, but Steve has left the table a few times this game, so neither of them comment as he heads up the stairs. Billy won’t do anything, not in the Wheeler’s house with adult witnesses around, and anyway, Max carries far more of a threat than Steve does.

He slips out without having to come face to face with Nancy’s mom, for which he’s profoundly grateful; she’s nice, but she’s always kind of weirded him out. He leaves via the back door, gulping in some deep breaths of air.

It gets kind of claustrophobic in the basement after a while.

“Any idea how long they’ll be?”

Steve shuts his eyes against the inevitability of Billy’s voice. He doesn’t want to hear him, doesn’t want to talk, wants to hold onto his righteous rage, but he just can’t muster the energy. “Nope,” he says curtly.

There’s a pause. Steve doesn’t open his eyes. Then Billy says: “Want a smoke?”

Steve opens his eyes. Billy is standing a couple of feet away, a cigarette between his lips; he’s holding out a crumpled packet like he and Steve are friendly. Like Steve hasn’t spent the whole week off school after Billy beat his face into pulp.

“Nope,” Steve says again. Not worth it. It’s fast becoming his mantra.

Billy shrugs, and lights up. “You want to unclench, Harrington?”

Steve looks away. His breathing feels stupidly laboured, like Billy’s taking up all the available oxygen. No one else seems to feel it the way Steve does - the kids are all playing their games, Nancy is busy with Byers, and for Billy it’s all some massive fucking joke. It’s just Steve who still feels the ghost of bruises on his face, who still dreams about the creatures from the Upside Down.

“You just going to act like it didn’t happen?” he says, keeping his voice as calm as he can.

There’s a silence. Billy puffs on his cigarette. He’s not smiling anymore.

“We’re partners,” he says, eventually.

Steve looks sharply at him. “What?”

Billy laughs, but it sounds forced. “In English class,” he clarifies. “You and me, Harrington, seems we gotta buddy up.” He laughs again, blowing a cloud of smoke into the chilly air. Steve watches him, eyes wide. Billy says: “That’s what you get for skipping school.”

“You…” Steve’s heart is pounding. His head hurts. “Why the fuck would you—”

“Hey, hey, Harrington, I didn’t ask for this,” Billy says immediately. His eyes travel over Steve. “You’re not exactly my first choice either.”

Steve turns back towards the house. He doesn’t want this, doesn’t want to talk to Billy, to talk to anyone. All the sullen weariness of the last week is settling over him again, as though the past few hours with the kids never happened. In two days, he’s going to be back at school, going to class. He won’t get to miss any more lessons. He’s going to be English partners with Billy, apparently.

He doesn’t want it. This stupid, dull life.

That’s it. That’s the part that isn’t worth it.

Chapter Text

School. The prospect looms heavy over Steve’s head. After a week at home, living in his strange weightless bubble, the thought of going back to the structure and routine of a school day is almost more than he can bear.

It’s not like he can claim that he has any reason to be off anymore. There’s no trace of bruises on his face anymore; just their shadow, lurking somewhere in the recesses of his mind.

The morning is crisp and cold, and Steve has to wear an extra sweater underneath his jacket. He’s always cold these days, as if the Upside Down has slipped into his skin the same way it did for Will Byers. It’s probably because he only turns the central heating on intermittently; it feels oddly wasteful to have it on longer, with just him in the big house. He’s turned off the heater in the pool as well, so it’s almost icy to the touch.

It doesn’t matter. Ever since he found out what really happened to Barb there, his pool hasn’t been his favourite place in the world.

He makes himself an egg salad sandwich and puts it in a brown paper bag with an apple and a strawberry Pop-Tart, kind of the way his mom might do if she was ever here and if she was the kind of mom to make him lunches. Usually he gets food from the cafeteria, but the benefit of taking a brown bag lunch to school is that he doesn’t have to eat there. He can take his food out to some secluded spot underneath the bleachers or tucked in a stairwell or something, and avoid speaking to anyone he doesn’t want to.

Nancy hasn’t been around to see him since the day after everything happened. It’s a relief not to have to see her, but he’s also a little upset that she didn’t come. It’s stupid, and illogical, because he’d much rather not see her and he’s pretty sure the reason she hasn’t come is because she knows that, but it’s left him feeling lonely and brushed off.

It’s fucking ridiculous, and Steve makes himself shake off the feeling as he styles his hair.

The phone rings just before he walks out the door; for a moment, Steve considers just not answering, but in the end he goes to pick it up, sighing.

“Hello?” He knows he sounds irritated and terse, but he can’t bring himself to care.

“Steve!” The explosion of sound actually makes him pull the phone away from his ear. The person on the other end adds, possibly unnecessarily: “It’s Dustin.”

Steve pinches the bridge of his nose. “Yeah, I know,” he says. He pauses. “Dustin, I’m going to be late for school.”

“Yeah, yeah, me too,” Dustin says, although he sounds positively jubilant about the prospect. “Can you pick me up?”

“What, now?” Steve says, appalled.

Dustin laughs. “No, after school. My mom has a thing, and I have AV club.”

Steve’s head is already aching. “Uh,” he says stupidly. “What time?”

“Four,” Dustin says. There’s a noise in the background, and he adds quickly: “Steve, my mom’s calling me, I have to go. You’ll pick me up, right?”

“Dustin…” Steve says, pained.

“Great, thanks!” Dustin chirps, and then the phone goes dead, leaving Steve looking down at it in chagrin.

It’s not that it’s a hardship to pick Dustin up. Steve doesn’t exactly have a bursting schedule to keep to. He’s not actually sure why it annoys him so much, except to highlight how pathetic his life has become.

Stupid, really. He picks up his lunch and his book bag and goes to school.

He’s running a little late, so most of the parking spaces are taken and there’s a conspicuous absence of students hanging out outside the school. Steve parks between a dusty red Ford Escort and a pick-up truck and just sits for a second, looking up at the building.

He’s being ridiculous. It’s just school; he’s faced a hell of a lot worse recently. But all he wants to do is go home.

Thankfully, neither Nancy or Jonathan are in Steve’s homeroom this semester, so there’s no one to attempt awkward conversation as he slides into his seat. They’re not in his Algebra class either, although he does get grabbed by Tiffany Buckton, the school’s resident busybody.

“Steve!” she hisses at him. She’s sitting diagonally behind him; Steve has to twist his whole body to look at her. She’s grinning like an idiot at him, and Steve remembers that to people like Tiffany Buckton, he still represents an unachievable tier of school social hierarchy. “You’re back!”

He gives her an awkward half-smile back. “Yeah,” he says. Ian Rice, sat directly behind him, gives Tiffany a weird look.

“I heard you were ill,” she presses.

Steve glances at Ian. “Yeah,” he says again.

She leans across her desk. “Did you hear that you’re partners with Billy in English class?”

“Yeah,” Steve says, although his heart thuds heavily at the reminder.

“He didn’t even turn up for class on Friday,” she confides, as though he’s supposed to be surprised by Hargrove’s lack of academic impetus. “Like, he’s so good at basketball, you know? But aren’t you worried about being paired with him?”

Steve shrugs, a carefully performed gesture. “Hadn’t thought about it,” he says.

Tiffany looks as though she might want to say something else, but Steve turns back to his books. He’s been trying not to think about Billy Hargrove, about the reality of being paired with him for however many weeks, but it’s been a losing battle. He thinks he’d actually rather be partners with Byers.

At least when Byers punched his lights out he deserved it.

He has to face Nancy at recess, when she spots him in the hallway putting his books into his locker. She gets this little crease between her eyebrows and her lips tighten; for a moment, he’s kind of hoping she’ll just leave him alone, but he knows her better than that. She’s looking fresh and pretty in a green sweater with her hair up.

“Steve,” she says, coming up to him. She sounds gentle, sympathetic. He hates it.

“Hey,” he says, closing his locker. It’s hard to see her, hard to look at her without wanting her. He wants to touch her face, to stroke a stray strand of hair and tuck it behind her ear. He wants to be able to take her hand. Kiss her.

He can’t do any of those things. She says: “How are you?”

Steve shrugs. “My face has healed,” he says, which manages to answer her question without really answering it at all. He glances down the corridor. “How are you?”

“It was a rough night,” she says. “I think we’ll all need some time to recover.”

He makes himself say: “How’s Byers?”

Nancy gives him a look. “He’s okay,” she says. “Will’s still in the hospital.”

“Yeah, Dustin said,” Steve says. “It’s not the real one, right?”

She shakes her head. “The laboratory,” she says. She shivers.

Steve really doesn’t want to talk about the laboratory. He casts around for another subject, and ends up saying: “I have to be paired with Billy Hargrove in English.”

Nancy’s eyes widen. “What? Can’t you change?”

He shrugs. “Everyone else’s been paired for a week. Probably not.”

“Be careful, Steve,” she says worriedly. Then her face hardens. “And tell me if he bothers you.”

It’s almost laughable, the thought of little Nancy Wheeler defending him from Billy Hargrove, but Steve still feels the edges of a smile that she wants to. He loves her, probably always will, and the fact that she doesn’t feel the same hurts like hell, but it’s still nice to know she has his back. He figures there’s some things that time doesn’t change.

His English class is right before lunch. Steve has basically been dreading it all day; Billy isn’t in any of his other classes, so this will be the first time they’ve had to face each other since the weekend. He can still remember the smug, asshole look on Billy’s face as he blew smoke into the air, clearly doing everything he could to get under Steve’s skin. He doesn’t give a shit about Steve, doesn’t care about Max. Working with the asshole is the last thing Steve wants to do right now.

He heads into class. Ms Young eyes him as he walks through the door; he finds her slightly intimidating, although he’d never admit it.

“Mr Harrington,” she calls, and he turns to look at her. “We missed you last week. You’re feeling better?”

He tries to remember what he told the school nurse when he called in. A stomach flu, he’s pretty sure. He says: “Uh. Yeah.”

“Glad to hear it,” she says crisply. “Sit over there, please. I’m sure Mr Hargrove will be along shortly.” She indicates a pair of desks that have been pushed together, like all the others in the room. “I’m sure you’re aware by now that you’re partners for the rest of the semester.”

“Yeah,” Steve mutters, and sits down. Tiffany Buckton gives him a sympathetic look.

Steve looks up at the clock. He’s a couple of minutes early for class, which means he’s stuck here, actually waiting for Hargrove to show up. He digs around in his book bag for his copy of Pride and Prejudice . He can remember Nancy reading it last summer, telling him about it; it hurts to think about it. He’s never actually read it himself.

When he looks up next, Billy Hargrove is sauntering into the classroom.

He gives Steve a lazy, shit-eating grin as he walks in, saluting Ms Young as he comes past her. She raises an eyebrow, but doesn’t comment. Billy slides in next to Steve; Steve feels his skin crawling, his heart beating fast. This is the asshole who beat him up.

“Harrington,” Billy drawls.

Steve bites his lip hard. “Hargrove.”

There’s a pause. It’s both awkward and not awkward: awkward because they’re very pointedly not speaking to one another, and not awkward because Steve doesn’t give a shit. Fortunately, Ms Young steps up, clearing her throat a couple of times until the class settles down. Steve fixes his eyes on her, although he can’t help but be acutely aware of Billy at the desk next to him, breathing and smiling and just fucking existing.

“Okay, guys,” Ms Young says. “We’ve covered quite a bit of background on the Regency era, and we’ve talked about the themes present in the novel.” She glances at Steve. “I’m sure Mr Hargrove can catch you up to speed,” she tells him, which almost makes Steve snort. Ms Young turns her attention back to the class. “I’m going to give you some time today to plan the outline of your presentation. It’s really important that you connect your chosen themes to the social mores of the time. So, off you go, and I’ll be here if you have any questions.”

Almost as soon as she finishes speaking, a low buzz of chatter begins to spread around the room. Steve can feel his cheeks beginning to heat. Somehow, he’s actually going to have to talk to Billy Hargrove. Not just talk to him, but discuss literature with him. It’s either that or flunk the class.

He’s actually not sure which one he would rather.

Billy is looking at the copy of the book on Steve’s desk. He taps it. “You read this, Harrington?”

Steve’s bottom lip is starting to hurt with how hard he’s biting it. “No,” he says. He looks at Billy. “You?”

“Some,” Billy says thoughtfully. He doesn’t seem to be as on edge as the last time Steve saw him. He laughs. “First three chapters.”

Steve pinches the bridge of his nose. They’re never going to get anywhere like this, and for all his bravado, he doesn’t want to fail the assignment. He puffs out a sigh. “Okay. Look. Can you… Why don’t you tell me what it’s about?”

Billy raises his eyebrows. “The first three chapters?”

“Yeah,” Steve says.

There’s a silence. Steve waits.

Billy says: “It’s set in, like, the Regency period.”

Steve rolls his eyes. “I got that.”

“Okay, genius,” Billy says, sounding defensive. There’s another silence. When Steve glances at Billy, he almost looks… nervous? But that can’t be right. Steve’s never seen Billy look nervous about anything. Eventually, he says: “It’s about this family. The Bennet family. It’s a husband and wife, and their five kids. Daughters.”

“Elizabeth Bennet,” Steve says slowly. He’s the first to admit that he didn’t take in much of what Nancy told him, but he remembers the name. “Right?”

Billy looks at him. “Yeah,” he says. “She’s the main character.”

It’s like getting blood out of a stone. “So what happens?”

Billy looks supremely uncomfortable. “A rich guy moves into the neighbourhood,” he says. “Bingley.” He stops again.

“For fuck’s sake,” Steve says, and Billy looks at him sharply. “I don’t want to be stuck here all day, Hargrove. Just tell me.”

“Fine,” Billy snaps. “Mrs Bennet wants to meet Bingley, because she wants him to marry one of her daughters. She’s fucking stupid, and it’s the only thing she cares about. Mr Bennet thinks she’s a pain, but he goes to see him anyway. They all go to, like, this party, and Bingley likes the eldest daughter.”

“Elizabeth?” Steve asks.

Billy shakes his head impatiently. “She’s the second one. The oldest one is Jane. Bingley is there with his best friend, Mr Darcy, but he’s an asshole and no one likes him. That’s it.”

Steve blinks. “That’s it? That’s the first three chapters?”

Billy shrugs. “There’s other shit, but that’s most of it. Read it yourself, Harrington.”

“I hate reading,” Steve says, and then shuts his mouth abruptly. He does hate reading, hates the way the words dance around on the page when he’s trying to concentrate on them, but he doesn’t want to tell Billy that. Admitting even the slightest weakness to Billy Hargrove is like inviting danger in at the front door.

Billy is fiddling with the edges of the book. Steve watches his thumb playing over the pages; he doesn’t look particularly bothered by Steve’s admission. “Yeah, who doesn’t?” he says casually. He grins, shark-like, meeting Steve’s eyes. “This presentation is going to be a blast.”

Steve sighs. “Have you thought about it at all? You’ve been in class this week. What theme should we pick?”

“I don’t give a shit,” Billy says, like that’s supposed to be some big surprise.

“Well, I do,” Steve says sharply. “I don’t care about the bullshit, Hargrove. It’s your fault I’ve not been in school, so fucking catch me up .”

For a long, long moment, Billy just looks at him. There’s a meditative look in his eyes, as though he’s deciding whether to laugh or lash out. Steve doesn’t care: he’s tired, and lonely, and he just lost his girlfriend and set fire to the Upside Down in the same week, so Billy can hit him if he wants. Jesus Christ, he’s already done it once.

Then Billy says: “Okay, Harrington. Here’s the deal. Mama Bennet is an idiot.” He’s turning pages in the book now, his hands moving feverishly, and Steve blinks and sits up a little. “Look, check it out, okay? She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented, she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news .”

At first, he reads quickly, but by the time he gets to the second sentence his voice is smooth and even. Steve has to stop himself from actually enjoying the sound of Billy fucking Hargrove reading aloud; he forces himself to concentrate on the words.

“Okay,” he says. His brain feels like it’s made of rubber. “Okay, so she’s, like… mental? Or something?”

“Or something,” Billy says, but it doesn’t sound too critical. “She’s stupid. And, I don’t know, a hypochondriac.” There’s something almost like enthusiasm in his voice now. “No, but here’s the thing, Harrington: she literally has no life. Her whole thing is her kids getting married, you know? She talks about it for basically the whole first chapter.”

Steve looks down at the page Billy is holding open. “Why is she so obsessed?”

Billy grins. “That’s the thing. It took me a bit to figure it out, but I think it’s because she only has girls. They think that girls have to get married. It’s like their job, in the Regency time.”

“It’s sexist,” comes a shrill voice from behind them. Probably Shelby Holland; she uses that word a lot. Both Billy and Steve ignore her.

Steve considers what Billy’s told him. “Is that a theme?” he asks.

“Probably,” Billy says. “It’s weird. Okay, so another thing that’s kind of related is, Mrs Bennet wants her family to meet Bingley, right? Because she wants him to fall in love with one of her daughters. She’s obsessed with him because he’s rich, because the daughters can’t do anything except get married so they have to marry rich.”

“Right,” Steve agrees, just so Billy will keep talking.

Billy nods like Steve said something intelligent. “But she can’t just go and meet him. She has to persuade her husband to go visit him, or something.” He flips back through the pages. “See, it’s here. Indeed you must go, for it will be impossible for us to visit him if you do not .”

Steve frowns. “She can’t meet people without her husband?”

“Sexist!” Shelby Holland screeches.

“Nope,” Billy says. He tips his head to one side. “It’s not all one way, though,” he says thoughtfully. “The men have to be introduced to the women by someone else as well.” He frowns down at the book. “Here, look. So he inquired who she was, and got introduced … and there’s another bit earlier, when Darcy is bitching about Elizabeth. Bingley wants him to meet her… yeah, here. Do let me ask my partner to introduce you .”

Steve folds his arms. “Seems like a weird way of meeting people,” he says. “Why is Darcy bitching about Elizabeth?”

Billy laughs. “He’s an asshole. He thinks he’s better than everyone at the party, and Bingley tries to get him to dance with Elizabeth. He doesn’t realise she’s sitting close enough to hear what he says about her.”

“Why, what does he say?” Steve asks, interested in spite of himself. There’s something extremely surreal about sitting here, being transported into the world of Jane Austen with Billy Hargrove.

Billy doesn’t seem to have noticed. His nail-bitten finger travels across the page as he reads aloud: “ She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me ; I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men. You had better return to your partner and enjoy her smiles, for you are wasting your time with me .” He closes the book. “What a burn, right?”

He reads well. For a second, Steve feels like he understands the story, gets what’s going on in a way he never has before in English class. He says uncomfortably: “You’re good at this.”

Billy looks up abruptly. “What?” He’s suddenly on the defensive, like an animal just realising it had been lulled into a false sense of security. “What do you mean?”

Steve waves vaguely towards the desk and the book. “This stuff,” he says. “You’re good at… getting it.”

“It’s easy,” Billy says dismissively. “You’d be way ahead of me if you’d actually read the book, Harrington.”

“I wouldn’t,” Steve says, and then wonders why he’s disagreeing. He says anyway: “I’m total shit at English.”

Billy laughs. “English, basketball,” he says. He glances at Steve. “Anything you’re good at, Harrington?”

Babysitting , Steve thinks, and nearly laughs out loud.

Chapter Text

This has got to be the weirdest fucking Monday Billy has ever had in his entire life. And that includes the time he wore Penny Walton’s underwear to school back in Cali.

He didn’t exactly know Harrington would be in school, but he seemed basically fine at the weekend, so it was a fair guess. Billy loves a fight, so he was pretty pumped all morning waiting for it. To be honest, he was kind of disappointed that English came before Gym; he’s always liked riling King Steve up on the basketball court.

He wasn’t expecting to deliver a fucking lesson on the first three chapters of Pride and Prejudice . And he sure wasn’t expecting to enjoy doing it.

And Harrington… Harrington said he was good at it. He looked at him with something that would probably be admiration if he didn’t hate Billy so fucking much. He’s not sure anyone has told him he’s good at anything that wasn’t basketball in his entire fucking life. It feels stupidly pleasant to hear.

When the bell rings, Harrington starts packing up his shit in a way that indicates he’s about to hightail out to lunch without looking back. Billy, oddly, doesn’t want the exchange to end.

“Hey, Harrington,” he says, and Harrington stops, glancing at him. He has about fifty percent less venom in his expression than when Billy walked through the door, which feels like both a win and a loss.

“What?” At least he still sounds pissed.

Billy shrugs. “Look, princess, if you want to dick about for the rest of the semester, my grades can take the hit,” he says. “If not, though…” He lets his voice trail off.

Harrington, predictably, takes the bait. “Jeez,” he groans. His head falls onto one hand, and for a moment, Billy wonders just why he looks so damn tired. He puts his book bag back on the floor. “Okay. How do we do this?”

Billy laughs. “You could read the book,” he suggests. Harrington pulls a face, and Billy laughs again. “Hey, I know you said you don’t like reading, but…”

“I read slow,” Harrington says through gritted teeth. It sounds like it was painful for him to admit it, although Billy really has no idea why. It’s not like he thought Harrington was smart . When Billy barks out a laugh, Harrington glances at him. “You haven’t read it either,” he snaps.

“I read slow,” Billy says mockingly. He looks around; most of the class have filed out by now. It’s lunch time, the only thing that makes students rush en masse. “Want to get out of here, princess?”

“Shut up,” Steve says angrily. “Don’t call me that.” But he stands up anyway, picks up his book bag and slings it over his shoulder. It looks like he’s getting ready to escape again, which Billy doesn’t like. Why should Harrington get to run away? Billy’s not done with him yet.

He has no idea why he gets off on needling the kid like this. But he’s not particularly motivated to stop.

So he falls into step with Harrington, walks beside him like they’re friends. “Cafeteria or brown bag?” he asks, the way you would with a friend. Harrington gives him a baleful glare.

“Brown bag,” he says reluctantly.

“Hey, me too!” Billy says in mock delight. He laughs at Harrington’s expression. “Loosen up, Harrington. Come and have a smoke, and we can talk Jane freaking Austen.”

Harrington’s cheeks are bright red. “I am not having lunch with you ,” he spits, low and furious, and Billy feels a spike of something like anger and pain and rejection all at once.

“You will if you want to pass this class,” he points out, keeping his voice light, and Harrington sighs, defeated.

Sometimes Billy’s dad gives him money for lunch, and sometimes he doesn’t. On the days he doesn’t, Billy has to find lunch from whatever Susan won’t miss in the fridge. So today Billy’s lunch comprises of a banana, a can of Tab, and a Pink Lemonade Fruit Roll-Up. He could splash a couple of his own dollars, of course, which is undoubtedly what his dad expects him to do, but Billy is saving his money for better things.

Harrington, on the other hand, gets a proper brown bag out of his locker. When Billy gives him a look, he gives one right back, like he doesn’t get why Billy keeps bugging him. Billy doesn’t really get why he keeps bugging him, but it makes him feel less restless, so he’s not about to stop.

“Where were you planning on consuming that there nutritional luncheon, Mr Harrington?” he asks, and Harrington rolls his eyes. Billy cackles; it hurts his throat.

“Outside, I guess,” he says, and Billy remembers that usually Harrington eats with Nancy Wheeler.

He follows Harrington through the cafeteria and out the back. Harrington walks past the benches where the stoner kids hang out, heads towards the bleachers. It’s cold out, so there aren’t many people eating out here. Billy’s already shivering a little, but Harrington actually looks flushed. He climbs up the rows of benches, picking a spot right at the back that’s as far as it’s possible to be from anyone else stupid enough to be out here.

Billy takes a seat opposite him, sitting cross-legged on the bench to face him. “You ashamed of me, Harrington?”

Harrington looks at him then. Looks him up and down, from dirty sneakers to carefully styled hair. He doesn’t answer, but he doesn’t need to. Of course I am , the look says. Who the hell wouldn’t be?

Billy feels a lump in his throat. He fucking knows Harrington’s better than him. It doesn’t need to be said.

Harrington takes a Saran-wrapped sandwich out of his brown bag. Billy digs the banana out of his pocket. He peels it slowly, savouring the immediate banana-smell that has Harrington wrinkling his nose. With Harrington watching, Billy slides his tongue along the rough flesh of the banana. He’s not quite sure why he’s doing it, but it’s freaking Harrington the hell out. He stares at Billy, his eyes wide and disgusted.

“Want a bite, Harrington?” Billy says in a low voice. His stomach flips over immediately after, and he’s kind of wishing he didn’t do it. Didn’t start this. Steve is just looking at him, like he can’t believe the depths Billy will sink to.

“The hell is wrong with you, Hargrove?” he asks. He doesn’t shout it, the way Billy might have thought he would. He just asks, like he genuinely wants to know. But Billy doesn’t have an answer for him.

He just grins, keeps up the front as he takes a bite from the end of the banana. “Cool your jets, Harrington,” he says cheerfully, although his heart is pounding. He doesn’t even know why. “Eat your fucking sandwich.”

Harrington’s sandwich smells eggy and delicious. Billy’s stomach growls as Harrington eats it. He gets through his banana and Fruit Roll-Up in about half a minute, and pops the cap on the can of Tab, chugging it slowly while he waits for Harrington to catch up. He gets his copy of Pride and Prejudice out of his book bag while he’s waiting, flipping through it to the earmarked page that starts off Chapter Four.

“What’s happening now?” Harrington asks, peering over the top of the book. Billy looks up at him.

“I literally just started reading,” he says flatly. He glances down at the book. “Looks like Jane and Elizabeth are, like… chatting.”

Harrington starts chewing his lip instead of his food. “About what?”

“Harrington,” Billy says. “I don’t fucking know , because I just started .”

He goes back to the book. Harrington finishes his sandwich. He’s watching Billy and pretending not to, and that’s how Billy figures it out. Harrington doesn’t just hate reading in the way that every kid hates reading. He hates reading to the extent that he’d rather have Billy, someone he can’t stand, tell him the gist of the assigned book that his entire grade depends upon.

Eyes still flickering across to Harrington, Billy says experimentally: “ When Jane and Elizabeth were alone, the former, who had been cautious in her praise of Mr. Bingley before, expressed to her sister just how very much she admired him.

Harrington looks determinedly down at the apple in his hand and doesn’t say anything.

“He is just what a young man ought to be,” said she ,” Billy says. He waits. Harrington snorts. He goes on: “ “sensible, good-humoured, lively; and I never saw such happy manners!—so much ease, with such perfect good breeding — Jeez, she doesn’t ask for much.”

“Yeah, that’s you screwed,” Harrington mutters.

Billy laughs. “You think you’d be in with a chance with her? She wants someone sensible, princess, you’re gone at the first hurdle.”

“Can’t argue with that.” Harrington takes a bite of his apple. “You going to keep reading?”

So Billy does. He reads the fourth chapter aloud, letting himself sink into the story. It’s not how he’d planned on spending his lunchtime, but it’s kind of relaxing, reading the old-fashioned language and letting the words flow out. He knows he has a nice reading voice, but quite apart from that, he’s finding it easier to pick meaning from the passages when he hears them aloud.

It’s not totally seamless. Every now and then, either he or Harrington will comment on the language - not all of the words are totally familiar, and there are definitely contextual clues they’re missing - or on the story. Billy’s oddly impressed by the strong impression he already has of the characters. For a book written in the 1800s, it’s an easy read.

When he reaches the end of the chapter, he stops, taking a last gulp of Tab. Harrington has a small, pensive frown on his face. He says: “Kind of thought I’d hate it more.”

“Me too,” Billy says. He’s feeling odd, his stomach kind of fluttery and tight at the same time.

Harrington looks up at him. “You get any more ideas for the presentation?”

Billy shrugs. They’ve already talked a little about what the story has told them about life in the Regency era, but he’s not exactly knowledgeable about it. “I guess we’ll have to finish the damn thing,” he says. “Maybe go to the library, put in some research.”

“How long do we have before we have to present?” Harrington asks.

“‘Til the end of the semester, so what, four and a half weeks?,” Billy says. He laughs at Harrington’s expression. “Apparently we have writing assignments on Fridays too, but I missed last week’s.”

Harrington’s mouth is slightly open. “We’re supposed to read the whole thing in four and a half weeks?”

“Yeah, and pull together an assignment,” Billy says. “You’ll be alright, princess. I guess we were supposed to read it over the summer.”

Harrington gives him a look, and he laughs.

There’s a short silence, during which Billy pulls out a packet of smokes. They’re not supposed to smoke on school grounds, but he’s fucking freezing at this point and they’re so far out that no one is likely to see them. He puts one between his lips, and then offers the packet to Harrington.

It’s a mark of how freaked out Harrington is that he takes one, Billy thinks. He’s never seen Harrington smoke.

He feels instantly better when he lights the cigarette, not least because watching Harrington trying to inhale is like a comedy show. He doesn’t cough outright, but it’s definitely a near thing. Billy watches and smokes and grins wickedly at him.

“I’m not going to be able to read a whole book in four weeks,” Harrington mutters, more to himself than to Billy. He glances up. “How many chapters are there? We just read the fourth, right?”

Billy checks. He winces. “Yeah, four out of sixty-one,” he says.

“Shit,” Harrington says.

Billy hesitates. “Look, Harrington,” he says, and then stops. Harrington is looking at him, but his expression is unfriendly. It’s been a really weird lunch hour. Billy says: “We could… do this again.” He clears his throat. He’s Billy fucking Hargrove, and he’s not afraid of anything. “We gotta read the book, right, princess? So let’s just bite the fucking bullet and read it, get a passing grade, never speak again, yada yada yada.” He stops, sucks in a lungful of smoke. He feels like a fucking idiot.

Harrington is eyeing him suspiciously. “You mean, you reading?” he asks warily.

“Yeah,” Billy says. He sighs. “Easier than struggling through on our own, right?”

“Didn’t sound like you were struggling,” Harrington points out.

Billy shrugs. He really doesn’t want to explore - even to himself - any of the reasons he’s offering this. “I can keep doing my thing on my own if you want, princess,” he says languidly. “You can have a shitty time reading and I can have a shitty time reading and then we’ll have to get together—” Christ, his heart is beating hard “—and have a shitty time talking about what we read, or we can roll all the bullshit into one really shitty time.”

“You’re really selling it,” Harrington says drily, but when Billy opens his mouth to comment, he holds up a hand. He suddenly looks really, really fucking tired. “Yeah, alright, I’m in,” he says. “Jeez. Fifty-seven chapters in three weeks.”

Billy frowns. “Three weeks?” he says.

“We should leave some time to plan the presentation,” Steve replies. “So, three weeks. Jesus. Is that even possible?”

“They’re short chapters,” Billy says, grinning at the pained expression on Steve’s face. “If we get through two or three a day, we’ll make it.”

“Two or three a day ,” Harrington moans.

Billy snaps the book closed. “Ah, it won’t be that bad, princess,” he says. “One at lunch, a couple after school - it’ll be over before you know it.”

He reaches out and gives Harrington’s shoulder a playful nudge.

Which turns out to be a fucking mistake.

Harrington flinches away, and whatever uneasy camaraderie that might have been established disappears in a split second. Too late, Billy remembers that the last time he voluntarily touched Harrington, he was pounding on his face with a heavy and unrestrained fist. It feels like another lifetime ago, like something that happened to someone else. Right now, he can’t even evoke the memory of the rage that had been coursing through his body in that moment.

Why the fuck did he do it?

“I have to go,” Harrington mutters. “We have to get back to class.”

“Harrington,” Billy says. Harrington is standing up already, gathering up his litter like the responsible fucking citizen he is. “Hey, Harrington .”

Harrington just looks at him, eyes tired. “What?”

I’m sorry. The words are right there, right on the tip of Billy’s tongue. He can feel them in his head. He’s not totally sure they’re true, or at least true for the right reasons, but he knows he should say them. Beating Harrington up was stupid, and probably wrong. He doesn’t know anymore. But he should say he’s sorry.

But he doesn’t. He can’t.

He says, weakly: “After school? My place?”

For a moment, Harrington looks disappointed, and it makes something painful curl inside Billy’s stomach. Then he nods, the motion curt and jerky, and walks away.

Chapter Text

Predictably, Dustin isn’t outside the middle school at four. Steve has successfully managed to avoid Billy, Nancy and Jonathan for the afternoon, but now he’s stuck in his car, head pounding, and Dustin is late.

The events of the morning - and lunchtime - are still revolving around his head like a broken record. Obviously, he’d known he would have to work on the presentation with Billy Hargrove, but somehow he hadn’t really considered the practical details of what that would look like. He’d just focused on the general awfulness of having to spend longer than a hot second in Billy’s company.

Now that it’s actually happened, he’s kind of reeling from it. Partly because he’s never engaged that much with a book in his entire life, and it’s pretty overwhelming - but mostly because hanging out with Billy… wasn’t awful.

God, he’s a fucking mess. He rubs his face, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel. The little digital clock above his wheel tells him that Dustin is officially jerking him around; it’s nearly quarter past four. Steve wants to go home, wants to just drive away and pretend he’s the only fucking human being alive, but he doesn’t. He stays.

Billy hadn’t made fun of him about the reading thing. Of course, Steve had downplayed quite how much he loathes reading, and the written word in general, but it had to have been at least semi-obvious for Billy to have started reading out loud like that. He’d thought Billy would laugh. He has no idea why he didn’t.

“Steve!” It’s Dustin, finally, flying out of the school with his curls bouncing on his shoulders and his backpack on his arm. “Hey!”

Steve glares at him as he clambers into the front seat. “You’re late,” he says, but Dustin isn’t listening, too busy waving to Lucas and - Jesus, is that Max? They’re both climbing into another car, but it’s not Billy’s. It looks like Lucas’ dad is picking them up.

“Mike didn’t come,” Dustin explains, following the line of his gaze. “He’s gone to see El.” He laughs. “You know she’s like his girlfriend ?”

Well, no, Steve hadn’t explicitly known that, but their reunion at the Byers’ residence hadn’t left much to the imagination. “Sure,” he says. He sighs. He’s not going to get an apology from Dustin, and honestly he doesn’t really need one. “How was AV club?”

Awesome ,” Dustin says. “Mr Clarke brought in a compact disc.” He fastens his seatbelt. “How was your first day back?”

Steve considers the question. If you’d asked him before lunch, the answer would have definitive, but now he’s feeling conflicted. He says, his voice measured: “It was okay.”

“Did you hang out with Jonathan? Did he tell you anything about Will?”

Steve coughs. “No,” he says. He starts the car. It’s nearly twenty past four; he has no idea when Billy is expecting him, but somehow he doesn’t like the idea of keeping him waiting. Which is fucking ridiculous. Billy can wait all night if Steve wants him to.

Dustin is looking up at him with a pensive expression on his face. He says: “I guess it must be weird, man. He’s dating Nancy now, right?” When Steve nods tersely, Dustin says wisely: “That’s like me and Max. She chose Lucas.”

“It’s nothing like that,” Steve snaps, and then immediately feels bad for it when Dustin closes his mouth with a clatter of teeth. “Sorry.”

Dustin shrugs tightly. “It’s cool,” he says, but he’s looking out of the window, and Steve’s an asshole.

He bites his lip, and then says: “She’s just not the right girl, you know?”

“Sure,” Dustin says unhappily.

“No, really,” Steve says. “It is kind of like Nancy, I guess. She’s happy with Jonathan, so…”

“So you’re happy for her, right?” Dustin asks, finally turning to meet Steve’s eyes. He sighs deeply. “I’m happy for Lucas too, I guess.”

Steve smiles, bittersweet. “It still sucks, dude.”

Yeah ,” Dustin says heavily. Then he brightens. “But she has so many cool ideas in AV club! We were talking about electromagnetic waves, you know—”

He devolves into a long and complex story that Steve’s only half-listening to, partly because he doesn’t really understand it and partly because he’s kind of jealous that Dustin has moved on from Max so quickly. Of course, it’s not in any way the same as Nancy - he and Nancy dated for over a year, whereas Dustin is an eighth-grader who had a crush for about five minutes - but he can’t help but feel that Dustin’s in a much healthier place than he is. He’s disappointed, but he’s still able to be friends with Max - and Lucas, for that matter.

Steve would quite happily go the rest of his life without looking Nancy or Jonathan in the face. It’s sad, really, since they’re the only two people his age who know anything about what he’s gone through in the last year - he’s a lone wolf, with no one to talk to about the Upside Down, no one to share his fears. There’s just him and an empty house, while everyone else who went through it with him has someone to lean on.

Still, that was pretty much Jonathan last year, so he can’t really complain. Sure, Jonathan had his mom and Steve doesn’t, but he didn’t have Nancy. And even if Steve was somehow able to find a way of being around the pair of them, he can’t imagine talking to them about how scared the Upside Down makes him anyway.

He pulls up outside Dustin’s house, just in time for the kid to draw breath. It’s kind of sweet, how Dustin has latched onto him, and in all honesty Steve is starving for the company. He wasn’t wrong when he told Nancy he’s a kickass babysitter.

“Do you want to come in?” Dustin asks. “My mom won’t care, she’s not even home. She has book club ,” he adds, in tones of deep disgust.

Steve glances at the clock on the dash. “I’m supposed to go to Billy’s,” he says.

He probably should have explained that better, because Dustin pretty much chokes on his own spit. “Billy? As in Billy Hargrove ?”

Steve sighs. “We got put together in English class,” he says, voice betraying his despair. “We have to do a presentation.”

“Steve, Billy beat you up ,” Dustin exclaims, like Steve might have forgotten. “You can’t go to his house! He’s probably going to kick the shit out of you again! Are you staying for dinner? What if he poisons you?”

“Okay, okay!” Steve says, holding up his hands to stem the tide of words. “Jesus, Dustin. It’s going to be fine. His parents will be home, and Max—”

“Max is having dinner with Lucas!” Dustin says. “Steve, he probably waited until she went out! What if his parents aren’t there? There won’t be anyone to help you!”

Steve rubs his head. “Dustin, I have to go. I can’t fail this class. You think I want to spent time talking to Billy freaking Hargrove about Pride and Prejudice ?” As he says this, his stomach twists uncomfortably. He’s not lying, exactly: Billy is still the asshole that beat him up in front of a bunch of kids, and the prospect of hanging out with him all afternoon isn’t one he’s relishing. But he’s definitely overplaying it to Dustin. Lunchtime wasn’t all that bad.

“Who cares about failing one stupid class when your life could be in danger?” Dustin presses.

Steve laughs mirthlessly. “I do,” he says. “If I fail English, I don’t get to go to college. That might not seem like a big deal to you right now, but…”

Dustin stops freaking out when Steve says that. He chews his lip thoughtfully, a little frown on his face. Eventually he says: “Okay, wait here.”

He darts out of the car before Steve can answer. Steve sighs, considers bashing his head against the steering wheel, and just sits and waits for Dustin to come back. All things considered, he’s actually kind of touched that Dustin cares so much about him.

When Dustin comes back, he’s ditched his backpack and his cheeks are pink. He gets back in the front seat, just slightly out of breath; he has a walkie talkie in his hand.

“Okay, if you’re going to hang out with Billy Hargrove, you’ll need this,” he says firmly. “I have a few spares, you know, just in case. I gave one to Max, but she probably has hers with her, so you should take this one. You should have it anyway, you know?” His eyebrows wiggle dangerously. “Everyone in the party has one.”

Steve takes the walkie talkie doubtfully. “Am I in the party now?”

“Of course,” Dustin says, like it should be obvious.

“Oh,” Steve says, feeling oddly affected by the declaration. “Thanks.”

Dustin nods firmly. “If you get into any trouble, use the walkie,” he says. “Mike’s with the Chief, so he can drive over and save you if Billy tries to kill you.”

“He’s not going to try to kill me,” Steve says.

“Okay, but if he does,” Dustin persists. “And we should have a signal, you know, when you first go there. If you sense danger, just, like, say… say ‘code yellow’. And then we’ll know you’re on the alert.”

Steve rolls his eyes. “If I sense danger, I’ll leave,” he points out.

Dustin ignores this. “Code yellow for danger, and code red if you need help,” he says. “And if you think everything is okay, then—”

“Code green?” Steve guesses, and Dustin grins.

“Yeah. That way we know you’re okay,” he says.

Steve spends the next ten minutes practising turning the walkie on and off, and explaining to Dustin that he really doesn’t need to repeat the codes over and over because they’re not that hard to remember. He probably doesn’t argue as hard as he should do. There’s something very, very endearing about how seriously Dustin is taking his safety.

By the time Dustin finally lets him go, it’s almost five. Steve’s heart is racing as he drives over to Max’s place; talking to Dustin has reinforced how anxious Billy actually makes him. Although he doesn’t actually think Billy’s going to attack him - no matter what Dustin says - he’s still unpredictable, and Steve has no idea how the afternoon is going to go.

Hopefully as low-key as lunchtime. That’s what Steve is holding on to when he pulls up outside the Hargrove home.

Billy’s car is outside, but there aren’t any others there, so Steve has to assume his parents aren’t home. He gets out of his car, looking up at the house. He’s not going to stand here like a fucking moron, so he marches straight up to the front door, raises the knocker, and lets it fall.

A few seconds pass. Steve scratches his head. Another few seconds go by, during which he contemplates getting back in the car. Finally, the door opens.

“Hey,” Billy says. He has that irritatingly smug smile that makes Steve’s blood boil. “Wondered if you were going to show up.”

Steve sighs. “Let’s get this over with.”

He follows Billy into the house. His stomach is churning, and he realises suddenly that he really, really doesn’t want to be here; being around Billy makes him feel unsettled precisely because he doesn’t understand the kid whatsoever.

Billy moves restlessly, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. He’s still grinning, but Steve has the distinct impression that he’s not quite as cocky as he’s making out. He says carelessly: “Want a drink, or something?”

Steve, surprised into answering honestly, says: “Uh, sure.”

Thus it is armed with a can of Tab that Steve makes his way up the stairs to Billy’s bedroom. Billy is unusually quiet; Steve wonders idly if he’s nervous too. It must be kind of weird, hanging out with someone he beat up, although it’s not like Steve has a single fucking clue about anything that goes on in Billy’s head.

When they get to his bedroom, Billy closes the door behind them as Steve looks around. His room is untidy, but not overly so, with a couple of posters on the walls and a collection of earrings in a little pile on his bedside table. It looks oddly generic to Steve - somehow he’d expected something more dramatic, a bedroom as wild and avant-garde as Billy himself. But this is just an ordinary room.

“Satisfied, princess?” Steve turns around to see Billy watching him. His smile is predatory. “Like what you see?”

For some reason, the image of Billy licking his banana at lunch pops into Steve’s head. It was so unnatural, so obscene, and it had totally freaked Steve out. He doesn’t know what it is about Billy - this undercurrent in everything he says, like he really means something else. Something Steve is too square to understand.

“Whatever, Billy,” Steve scoffs, trying not to flush. Billy just laughs, and Steve sits down at the desk.

Billy, on the other hand, flops onto his bed. “Relax, Harrington,” he says. “I’m not going to bite.”

Steve opens his mouth to make a cutting retort, but before he can, there’s a loud squawk from his book bag. Steve’s insides kind of shrivel up, because it’s the walkie fucking talkie; Dustin must have switched it on before Steve left his house.

“Steve, status report.” It’s Dustin’s most portentous voice, which is even more embarrassing. Steve dives for his bag, rummaging around for the walkie.

“Harrington, what the fuck?” Billy asks mildly.

Steve pulls the walkie out just as Dustin says: “Steve, are you okay? Are you in trouble?”

He’s itching to just turn the damn thing off, but Dustin will probably take that as a sign that he should come racing over. Steve squares his shoulders. Billy is still looking kind of confused - although Steve is pretty sure that will turn into mockery the minute he figures out what’s going on - but he shouldn’t be confused or mocking. He should feel fucking guilty. There’s a reason Dustin insisted on Steve bringing the walkie.

So he lifts the walkie to his mouth, presses the talk button, and says clearly: “Dustin, chill. I’m fine.”

“Are you there? At his place? Has he done anything?” Dustin asks urgently.

“Whose place?” This voice belongs to Mike. Steve closes his eyes briefly.

When he opens them again, Billy is staring at him, the corners of his mouth twitching. Steve ignores him, pressing the talk button again to say in clipped tones: “Yeah, I’m here, and I’m fine . I’m switching this thing off.” Dustin starts to argue, but he interrupts firmly: “I’ll turn it back on if I need to. I’m busy, Dustin.”

As soon as he’s said it, he twists the walkie off. Dustin and Mike will manage fine.

“That your mom?” Billy says immediately.

“Fuck off,” Steve snaps back.

Billy laughs. It’s not a very nice sound. “Kind of cute that you’ve got a babysitter checking in on you, Harrington. That one of my sister’s friends? I’m pretty sure I’ve heard her talking about a Dustin.”

Suddenly, abruptly, Steve is really, really pissed. He’s on his feet almost before he knows it, cheeks heating up as he glares at Billy. He’s tried, he really fucking has. He hasn’t retaliated, has barely mentioned what happened last week, and Billy is just so smug, so unrepentant. He doesn’t give a shit about what he did, doesn’t care that he gave Steve a concussion, that he could have actually fucking killed him.

“Yeah, it is,” he spits. “You met him before. He was at the Byers’ place last week, remember? I gave him a ride home today, and for some crazy reason he was pretty worried about me coming here.” He taps the walkie talkie. “All his friends have one of these. Including Max, actually, but the one you should be really worried about is Mike.”

Billy is sitting extremely still on the bed. “Mike,” he repeats. “Who’s Mike?”

“Mike is having dinner with Chief Hopper tonight,” Steve says.

“Harrington—” Billy says, and then stops. There’s a moment when it feels like he doesn’t know what he’s going to say, like he’s actually struggling with something. Then he says: “If you’re too scared to be alone with me, we can always go hang out with some of your little eighth-grader friends to study. It’s no big deal to me.”

“Oh, fuck you,” Steve says wearily, sitting back down again. “Just—”

There’s the bang of a front door downstairs, and Billy sits up so straight that Steve actually forgets to hate him for a moment. There’s a weird expression on his face, kind of like a wild animal pricking its ears up to listen for predators, and as Steve watches, Billy glances from his bedroom door to the window and back again in the space of about a quarter of a second.

“That’s my dad and Susan,” Billy says.

Steve frowns. “Okay,” he says. “So?”

Footsteps on the stairs. Billy doesn’t answer him. He swings his legs around to put his feet on the floor, although he doesn’t stand up. Steve is kind of weirded out by the whole thing; Billy seems to have completely forgotten that he’s supposed to be making fun right now.

The door swings open, and Billy’s dad takes a step into the room. When he sees Steve, he stops, his eyes widening a little.

“Billy,” he says. He looks at Steve again. “Who’s this?”

*

Billy had really been hoping Harrington would come over earlier. If he’d just come straight after school, they could have been done by now, Harrington on his way long before his dad got home. Figures he’d be hanging out with fucking middle-schoolers instead.

Neil is looking his normal blend of upstanding citizen and irritated parent, although Billy can see that he’s had to paste on his smile pretty quickly. He wasn’t expecting anyone else to be in Billy’s room. He says: “Dad, this is Steve.”

“Steve,” his dad says, frowning. “Steve. Have we met, Steve?”

Steve glances at Billy, very quickly. “No, sir,” he says. “Billy and me are working on a presentation in English class together.”

“Ah,” Neil says, in that self-satisfied way that means he’s feeling vindicated about something. “So you’re the reason I caught him reading Jane Austen yesterday, right?”

Another minute look at Billy. “I guess so,” Harrington says uncertainly.

Billy’s dad nods, smiling. “Well, it’s good to meet you, Steve,” he says. “Are you staying for dinner?”

“Uh,” Steve says.

“You’d be very welcome,” Neil presses.

Steve looks down at his hands. He probably can’t think of an excuse to say no. “Sure,” he says to his interlocked fingers. “If… if that’s alright.”

Neil smiles genially. “Absolutely,” he says. “I never thought I’d see Billy studying at a weekend. Seems like you’re a good influence, Steve.”

After he leaves, Billy’s shoulders sag. He’s feeling frazzled, his nerves jangling, and he’s aware that Harrington is watching him. He’s kind of wishing Harrington wasn’t here, but at the same time, having him around is an easy distraction. He puts a smile on his face, pretends even to himself that his dad’s final dig didn’t matter, and drums his feet on the floor.

“Looks like you’ve won the parental approval, Harrington,” he says, grinning.

Harrington sighs, sounding pained. “Can you just call me Steve?”

Billy’s heart, for absolutely no reason at all, flips over in his chest. “Ste-e-eve,” he drawls, pulling the word out as long as it will go. He laughs, feels stupid, and stops. “You got it, Steve.”

Steve rolls his eyes, shifting in his chair. He still looks kind of spooked after Neil’s sudden appearance, but at least he’s not threatening Billy with the Chief anymore. It still makes Billy feel weird and uncomfortable when he thinks about being brought home in the police cruiser last week; his head has long since healed, but the image of his dad’s face, of Max holding that fucking bat over his head, of punching Harrington in the jaw… that’s stayed with him.

“Are we going to do this?” Steve asks tersely. For a second, Billy isn’t sure what he’s talking about, but then he remembers that Steve isn’t actually here to hang out, or anything.

He reaches over to his bedside table, grabbing his copy of Pride and Prejudice . “Sure thing, Stevie,” he says flippantly. Steve closes his eyes briefly. It looks like that’s going to be a pattern. “Where were we?”

“Uh,” Steve says, and Billy realises that he took the question literally. “I guess everyone was talking about the ball, or whatever?” He stops, scratching his ear.

“Top marks,” Billy says, but even he isn’t cruel enough to mock too much; Steve is looking truly uncomfortable, a little pink in his cheeks, and he won’t meet Billy’s eyes. Billy flips through the book, finding his place. “Okay, Chapter Five. Let’s do this.”

Steve looks just slightly less awkward. He leans back a little, nods, and says: “Okay.”

Within a short walk of Longbourn lived a family with whom the Bennets were particularly intimate ,” Billy begins, and out of the corner of his eye, he sees that Steve has shut his eyes again. “ Sir William Lucas had been formerly in trade in Meryton …”

Chapter Text

“You must be on crack, Harrington.”

“No, seriously, I think she has a point, you know?”

“Yeah, sure, if she wants the whole world to kick her ass.”

Steve sighs, but he doesn’t sound any less spirited when he retorts: “Not everyone cares so much about saving face, Billy.”

“Jane does,” Billy points out. “And so does Elizabeth, look - she considered with pleasure that it was not likely to be discovered by the world in general.”

“What, and Elizabeth is the expert here? Charlotte makes way more sense. Jane hardly gets any time with Bingley, she can’t be all shy when she does see him,” Steve argues. They’ve been going back and forth for about ten minutes now, ever since Billy started reading Chapter Six.

Needless to say, they have differing opinions.

“Charlotte’s whacked out,” Billy says bluntly. “Even Elizabeth knows it. You know it is not sound, and that you would never act in this way yourself, see? She’s talking out of her ass. No sane person is going to go out there and tell someone they like them just like that.”

Steve snatches the book out of Billy’s hands. “You’re not the only one who can find quotes,” he snaps. “Charlotte’s not crazy, she has that whole thing about love - this bit, right - there is so muck - much—” He stops abruptly. “Well, you’ve read it,” he says.

Billy frowns. Steve is looking embarrassed, his cheeks hot, but Billy’s not really sure why. Unless he’s just realised Billy is right, which obviously he is. He says slowly: “What thing about love?”

Steve shoves the book at him, pointing to one of the paragraphs. “Here,” he says roughly.

There is so much of gratitude or vanity in almost every attachment, that it is not safe to leave any to itself. We can all begin freely—a slight preference is natural enough; but there are very few of us who have heart enough to be really in love without encouragement,” Billy reads. Steve seems to relax slightly as he speaks; Billy glances up at him. “You believe this bullshit?”

“Sure,” Steve says. He doesn’t rise to the jibe; after an hour or so of this, he’s obviously got used to Billy… well, being Billy. “If you like someone and they act like they couldn’t care less, you’re obviously going to move on, right?”

Billy looks down at the page again. “What about the whole thing about gratitude?” he asks. “Gratitude and vanity, she says. You think people fall in love because they’re grateful and vain?”

“Not like that,” Steve says thoughtfully. He hesitates, obviously considering the question. “I guess a little, though,” he says at last. “Not in a bad way, but it feels nice, right? Having someone like you, it makes you feel good, even if you don’t like them back. Sometimes it even makes you look at them differently. I guess that’s what she means.”

“Well, maybe,” Billy says dubiously. “I don’t know if she’s thinking that way so much, though. I think she just doesn’t think love is all that important. What does she say? Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance.”

Steve laughs. “You don’t believe that, though, right?”

“Wouldn’t know,” Billy says lightly. “Never been married.”

“Asshole,” Steve says, but there’s no heat in his words, and he’s actually smiling a little.

For some reason, Billy is thinking about Nancy Wheeler. He knows Steve dated her for a while before he got to town, but they broke up pretty recently. It’s the talk of the school, especially because she dumped him for the school’s resident creeper kid. He wonders if Steve is thinking about her at all when he talks about love.

Billy has never even come close to being in love. He doesn’t really have a point of reference for this kind of conversation.

He’s debating asking Steve about Wheeler when there comes a timid knock at his door that can only come from Susan. She pushes it open a crack, her little mousy face appearing in the gap.

“Billy, dinner’s ready,” she says. Her eyes flicker to Steve, and she opens the door a little more. “I hope you like tuna casserole.”

“Yeah,” Steve says, with an enthusiasm that makes Billy blink. “I love casserole.”

Susan smiles. “That’s great,” she says sincerely. Her smile falters when she glances at Billy, which is pretty typical. “Well, wash your hands, boys, and I’ll see you downstairs.”

She disappears, closing the door behind her. Steve looks at Billy. “Is that Max’s mom?”

“Well, she’s definitely not mine,” Billy says firmly. “You hungry?”

“Starving,” Steve says, which is kind of funny given that he’s the one who had a proper sandwich at lunch.

He actually washes his hands in the bathroom before they head downstairs, because apparently he’s a goody-two-shoes, and Billy laughs at him all the way into the kitchen. And abruptly stops laughing, because his dad and Susan are already sitting at the table, a steaming plate of casserole in front of them. Neil is wearing his default, ready-to-be-irritated expression, so Billy doesn’t bother with a smart comment as he sits down.

Steve follows suit. He says to Susan: “This look great, Mrs Hargrove. Thanks for inviting me.”

“Oh, you’re very welcome,” Susan says graciously. Billy tries and fails to stop himself from rolling his eyes. Of course Steve is a kiss-ass.

To be fair, the tuna casserole is pretty good, although Steve digs in like it’s the freaking manna from heaven. Billy actually feels like a gentleman beside him.

Neil, predictably, doesn’t seem to notice flaws in anyone apart from Billy. Given that Billy isn’t currently exhibiting any flaws, his attention turns to Susan. “What time is Maxine coming home?”

“Oh, I’m not sure,” Susan answers. Billy’s kind of envious of the way she’s not even a little nervous of his tone. “I was thinking we could pick her up after dinner.”

Neil’s gaze redirects to Billy. “Billy will go,” he says. “Won’t you, Billy?”

It’s always a struggle, even after all these years. He still has this pounding, instant urge to give his dad the finger, to tell him to go fuck himself. The response he would have if it were anyone else asking. He says through gritted teeth: “Yeah. Sure.”

He can feel Steve looking at him funny. He doesn’t look, shovelling another forkful of casserole into his mouth.

“Great,” Susan says, completely oblivious as usual. “She’s having dinner with Lucas Sinclair. I’ll give you the address, Billy.”

“I know where he lives,” Billy says.

His dad sets down his fork, frowning. Billy’s heart thuds, but Neil isn’t looking at him. He says to Susan, his voice measured: “Which one is Lucas Sinclair?”

“I don’t think I’ve met him, but I see his mother at the grocery store sometimes,” Susan says. “She’s a lovely woman. You know, the other day she was saying how polite Maxine is.”

“How would she know?” Neil asks carefully. Susan glances at him, and her smile starts to fade; she’s obviously catching onto what has been clear to Billy since she first mentioned Sinclair’s name. “Has she met Maxine before this evening?”

Susan puts down her fork with a tiny clatter on her plate. “Well, yes,” she says uncertainly. “Maxine spent some time with Lucas on Saturday, don’t you remember?”

Billy looks at Steve, hoping he’s finished his meal so they have an excuse to leave the table. No such luck; Steve is still eating like a champion, clearly completely unaware of the subtle drama going on with the happy Hargrove family.

“You know how I feel about that family,” Neil says.

“Mrs Sinclair is very nice,” Susan says faintly.

Billy’s dad picks up his fork again. The sound seems to awaken Steve to the conversation; he glances at Billy briefly, before taking another mouthful. Neil says: “I’m sure she is, Susan.”

Susan smiles. “Maxine likes Lucas,” she says. Out of the corner of his eye, Billy sees Steve smirking a little.

“Maxine has a bright future ahead of her,” Neil says evenly. “You know I want the best for her.”

“I know, honey,” Susan says.

Neil takes a bite of casserole. There’s a pregnant silence as he chews and swallows. “I want her to spend time with people who have as bright a future as she does,” he says at last. Steve, abruptly, stops eating. “That’s why I’m concerned about her spending too much time with the Sinclairs.”

Billy’s face is burning. It’s humiliating, just sitting here while his dad talks this way, with Steve listening to every word. It’s never really bothered him before, but Steve being here somehow amplifies what Neil is saying. Makes it shameful.

Steve takes a breath. “I actually know Lucas Sinclair a little,” he says. Both Neil and Susan turn to look at him like they’d forgotten he was there. Billy sinks a little lower in his chair, willing Steve to shut up.

“Is that right?” Neil says politely. “How’s that?”

“I babysit some of the local kids,” Steve says. Billy, in spite of the tense situation, has to smother a snort.

Susan beams like the fucking simpleton she is. “I bet you’re a great babysitter,” she says.

Steve laughs. There’s something a little forced about the sound. “Well, yeah, maybe,” he says. He redirects his gaze to Neil. “You know, Lucas is actually a pretty smart kid.”

“I’m sure he is,” Billy’s dad says sincerely. “It’s not about how smart he is, Steve. You must know that someone like that isn’t going anywhere in life.” When Steve opens his mouth to answer, he goes on: “It may not be what we want. The world isn’t always a fair one. He may be polite and smart, and Maxine may like him. But she’s got one destiny, and he’s got a different one. That’s just the way it is.”

Billy’s heard it about a thousand times before. It’s not that Neil has a problem with people like the Sinclairs - far from it, he wishes them well, hopes they’ll accomplish great things within their realm - but they’re just not in the same league as people like the Hargroves. White people. They’ll always have a ceiling Maxine doesn’t, and it’s not fair for her to be held back by it.

It’s always made sense, kind of. It’s not like Billy has spent much time exploring it on his own. But now, looking at the expression on Steve’s face… Now he kind of hates himself for going along with it.

He held Lucas Sinclair up against the wall. Screamed at Max to stay away from him. He’s an asshole.

Thankfully, Steve doesn’t argue. His face tells Billy that he strongly disagrees, but he’s too polite to start an argument with someone’s else’s dad in their own home. He just picks at the remainder of the casserole on his plate, looking at the table, and doesn’t speak at all.

Neil, oblivious, says: “So what’s this presentation about, Billy?”

Billy wets his lips, his mouth suddenly unaccountably dry. “Uh,” he says eloquently. “Pride and Prejudice.”

“Oh, I love that book!” Susan exclaims. “Are you enjoying it, Billy?”

“I guess,” Billy says, glancing swiftly at Steve. “It’s okay.”

His dad laughs unkindly. “Quite complex language, as I recall,” he says. The implication is clear. “Is Steve helping you?”

“Billy’s helping me,” Steve says, looking up. “I’m no good at English.”

“I’m sure that’s not true,” Neil says generously.

Billy stabs a piece of tuna with his fork. “Yeah, Steve Harrington is good at everything,” he mutters mutinously. Steve gives him a look.

Neil stills. “Harrington?” he repeats, looking at Steve. “Steve Harrington?”

“Uh, yeah?” Steve says. He glances at Billy.

“You’re the one Billy got into the fight with,” Neil says in a hard voice.

Oh, shit. “Dad—” Billy begins, but he has no idea where he’s going with it.

“Words cannot express how ashamed we were when Chief Hopper told us about that,” Neil says. He’s not looking at Billy. He doesn’t need to. Even though it’s over, even though Billy has already been punished for it, he knows he’s going to pay for a second time. “I’m amazed you’re even here, if I’m honest with you, Steve. We would have understood if you told the school you didn’t want to work with Billy. We would have supported you.”

Steve looks deeply uncomfortable. “It was a misunderstanding,” he says.

“It didn’t sound like a misunderstanding,” Neil presses. “The Chief said you were beaten pretty badly. Is that true?”

“Uh,” Steve says. His eyes skitter everywhere except Billy. “I guess. I’m fine now.”

Billy drops his fork with a clatter. “He had to go to hospital,” he says loudly. That’s what his dad wants to know: the extent of Billy’s sins. Now he has it. Now he knows.

Susan makes a faint sound of distress. “You did?”

“Were you badly injured?” Neil asks.

“It was just a concussion,” Steve says awkwardly. “I’ve had worse from basketball.”

Neil finally turns his glare on Billy. “You gave him a concussion?” The disgust in his voice is evident.

What, like you’ve never given me one? Billy wants to yell it, wants to thunder across the table just like his dad is doing to him. But he can’t. Not in front of Steve, not ever. He can scream at Max, scream at the world, get into fights, get drunk at parties - but he can’t say a damn word to his dad. He looks down at the table, cheeks hot and his eyes embarrassingly wet. At least Steve can’t see that part.

“Honestly, it wasn’t a big deal,” Steve says, which is so much more than Billy deserves. “It was my fault, really. Billy and me are fine now.”

That’s so far from the truth that Billy actually looks up, turns an incredulous gaze on Steve. But Steve isn’t looking at him. He’s looking at Neil.

“That’s very big of you, Steve,” Neil says. He sounds sincere, the way he’s always able to sound when he talks to… well, to anyone who isn’t Billy. He pierces Billy with a brief glare. “Please know that you’re always welcome here, and if there’s ever any trouble in the future… Well, there won’t be any trouble.” He looks pointedly at Billy. “Will there?”

Billy is slumped so low in his chair he’s practically falling off it. “No, sir.”

“Thank you,” Steve says uncomfortably.

Neil puts his knife and fork together. “I think it’s time you went to pick up Maxine, Billy,” he says, voice steely.

Billy is desperate to escape. “Okay,” he says.

“Are you boys finished with the presentation, or will we be seeing you here again?” his dad asks Steve.

Steve glances at Billy. “I guess you’ll be seeing me, if that’s alright,” he says.

“Of course,” Susan says gently. “You’re very welcome, Steve. It’s so nice to see Billy spending time with a friend.”

Billy very nearly laughs out loud at that characterisation. Steve is just about the furthest thing from his friend that it’s possible to have. He manages to keep his face blank, though. Maybe, if he takes a while getting Maxine, his dad will have forgotten to punish him by the time he gets back.

Maybe.

“Thank you for dinner, Mrs Hargrove,” Steve says, all politeness. Susan dimples, and Billy grinds his teeth.

They leave at the same time, each to their respective cars. Steve has his book bag over his shoulder; suddenly the walkie talkie doesn’t seem so funny anymore. Billy gets it, gets why none of Steve’s little eighth-grader friends trust him, why they feel the need to check up on him. That’s why the threat of the Chief was so real; Hopper wouldn’t hesitate for a moment before arresting him again. They all see him just the way his dad does: as a scumbag.

“See you at school,” Steve says. He sounds weird, kind of confused and sad.

Billy makes sure his own voice, by contrast, is light, flippant. “Sure thing, Harrington,” he says.

“Steve,” Steve corrects.

“Steve,” Billy repeats with a wide smile that he knows doesn’t touch his eyes.

Steve sighs. “Your dad… He’s kind of intense.”

Billy’s heart thuds painfully. “Yeah, he’s pretty worn out from being disappointed in his son,” he says glibly. “I wouldn’t worry about it.”

“What he said about Lucas…” Steve trails off, and Billy hates himself for being fucking hurt. Hurt that Steve was talking about Lucas and not about him. It’s fucking ridiculous.

“What about it?” he says.

Steve shrugs. “I don’t know. I didn’t like it.”

He has to say something. He can’t not. It’s not an apology, because as much as he might feel regret burning through him, Billy could never, ever express it, but it’s something. He says: “Look, Harrington… Steve. I’m not going to go after Sinclair again, if that’s what you’re worried about. If he and Maxine want to keep up their little romance, I’m good.”

This time, Steve actually meets his eyes. “You don’t care?”

“Nope,” Billy says. He’s surprised to find that he’s telling the truth. He really doesn’t give a shit what Max gets up to with Lucas Sinclair. “I don’t care.”

“That’s different,” Steve comments.

Billy shrugs. “Guess so,” he says. He opens the front door of his car. “See you at school, Harrington.”

As he pulls out of the drive, he glances in his rearview mirror. Steve is just standing there, outside his house, watching Billy drive away.

That shouldn’t hurt. But it does.

Chapter Text

It’s just gone nine by the time Steve gets home. He feels exhausted, like he’s carrying a weight on his shoulders, and his house is cold and dark when he arrives. It’s weird - he’s never particularly wanted his parents around, never needed anyone to help him with his homework or send him to bed on time, but he also hates being alone.

At least he’s not hungry. Billy’s stepmom made an awesome casserole. Steve hasn’t exactly been eating the best meals in the evenings - usually he’s a bit better about cooking when his parents are away, but he’s been stressed and lonely and healing from a concussion, so he’s taken to throwing pizza rolls in the oven or just going hungry.

He heads to the lounge, throwing himself onto a couch and turning the walkie back on. He’s just spent the evening with Billy’s very weird family, but he still has the urge to talk to someone.

Feeling stupid, he puts the walkie to his lips and says tentatively: “Hello?”

“Steve!” Dustin answers immediately in a burst of static that has Steve reeling away from the device. “You’re alive! You’re okay!”

Steve pinches the bridge of his nose. “Yeah, I’m okay. I just figured you’d want to know.”

“What happened? Did he try anything?” This is from Lucas. Steve wonders briefly whether Max is with him, or if Billy has picked her up already.

“I filled the guys in,” Dustin says unnecessarily.

Steve rolls his eyes. “It was fine,” he says. “We just… studied. And his mom made dinner.”

“What did you talk about?” Dustin asks, sounding absolutely fascinated.

“Our presentation,” Steve says slowly. “We were  studying .”

There’s a scuffle over the line. “Guys, guys !” Lucas hisses. “Billy’s here to pick up Max!”

Well, that answers that question. It feels a little weird to know that Max has been listening in on all of them discussing Billy, but then again, she probably hates him more the rest of them. Steve says: “I’m turning this thing off now.”

“No, Steve! You can’t! What if Billy goes after Lucas again?” Dustin says urgently.

“Oh my God.” That’s Max’s voice, a little fainter than the rest. “Chill out, Dustin.”

Steve rests his head against a cushion. “Dustin, Lucas will be fine. His family are there. Anyway…” He lets his voice trail off.

“Anyway, what?” Dustin asks.

For some reason, Steve doesn’t feel like sharing Billy’s promise to leave Lucas alone. Maybe it’s because there’s absolutely no way Dustin will believe it. Or maybe it’s because he feels like he owes Billy something - the decency of privacy, after his dad went after him at dinner.

It’s ridiculous. He doesn’t owe Billy anything.

“I don’t think Billy will go after Lucas,” he says. Dustin scoffs, but as he’s saying it, Steve knows it to be true. He can’t explain why - even thinking it to himself feels a little crazy - but he trusts Billy.

A little. About this one specific thing.

“Let us know you’re safe, Lucas,” Dustin is saying, but Steve turns off the walkie. He already knows Lucas will be safe, and he doesn’t need to get caught up in more middle school drama.

He’s feeling kind of weird about the time he spent at Billy’s place. When he’s around Billy, arguing over Jane Austen, there are times he can forget what Billy did to him. Who Billy is. Times when it’s almost… enjoyable, actually understanding a goddamn thing to do with English class and debating it with someone so opinionated and spirited and kind of funny. Yeah, there were times he felt that.

Then there are times he absolutely cannot forget a single damn thing about Billy Hargrove.

He’s not really sure why he defended Billy to his dad, exactly. After all, everything Neil Hargrove said was the truth: what Billy did was disgusting, shameful, and in some ways it felt good to have someone else reinforce that in front of Billy. This whole time, Billy’s been acting like it’s no big deal, laughing at Steve for still being bothered by it, so it was good to know his dad doesn’t agree.

But Jonathan was right when he said Billy’s dad is creepy. Steve really didn’t like the shit he was spouting about Lucas, even if it was wrapped up in some neat logical little package. That’s just the way it is , he’d said, and even though Steve knows there is some truth in that - the world isn’t fair, and there are people who look at the Sinclairs differently - he doesn’t like the way it was presented. Like it’s immoveable. Like it’s some kind of justification for keeping Max away from Lucas.

Billy had looked uncomfortable when his dad was talking. Maybe that was why Steve defended him, in spite of agreeing with pretty much everything Neil said about Billy hitting him. Maybe it’s just basic politeness. He’s not really sure. All he knows is that in that moment, when Neil turned his glare to Billy, Steve hadn’t wanted him to get in trouble.

What a fucked up sentiment.

Steve goes to bed early that night, but before he switches off the light, he opens up his copy of Pride and Prejudice . He still hasn’t actually read the first three chapters, and he probably should; he can’t just rely on Billy to tell him the salient plot points.

Besides, Billy keeps bringing up shit that happened at the beginning of the novel as a way of proving his points when they disagree. Steve can’t keep letting him get the last word.

It is a truth uni… universe… ” He stops. The words are long, complex, filling up the page.

Fuck it. He throws the book across the room. It’s just a fucking assignment.

He’s feeling hot and frustrated, the covers smothering him and the walls tight and close. Jesus, it’s all Nancy’s fault; before he met her, Steve’s life used to be simple. Basketball, parties with Tommy and Carol and all that crowd, owning the school with his casual assholery and lazy smile. He can’t even blame the Upside Down, because all that shit stopped mattering before he knew about the Mind Flayer and Eleven and everything else. He’s not even sure when he stopped enjoying hanging out with his friends, when life started feeling complicated, but it’s definitely tied up with Nancy. Like she brought new levels of thinking to his world.

He wouldn’t have thought twice about a stupid English assignment back then. He coasted through every class he took except gym. And he wouldn’t be feeling so weird about Billy, about hanging out with the asshole who attacked him.

So Steve turns to the one thing that never fails to help him relax, no matter how stressed out he’s feeling. He pushes back the covers, reaches into his boxers, and takes a firm grip on his cock. He’s not exactly turned on, but as he begins stroking himself, he can feel himself hardening.

He hasn’t done this in a while. When he was off school, he felt too listless and bored to bother, and before that… before that, he had Nancy. Sure, he still jerked off sometimes, on the nights when she went home to finish her homework like the good girl she is, but he always had her to think about. He could always picture her smooth neck, the tiny flute-like wristbones, those large dark eyes and her rare smile. And, of course, her other attributes, the ones he only got to see when they were alone.

It feels weird thinking about her now. She’ll never know he’s doing it, of course, but the thought of Nancy is so painful that it makes his erection flag and his eyes prickle. Steve bites his lip.

There’s no way he’s going to let Nancy Wheeler ruin this entirely solo pleasure for him. He leans back into the pillows behind him, forcing his body to relax; he did this a thousand times before he even met Nancy. He can do it again now.

He won’t imagine her body, so he’ll have to think about a different one. A fantasy body, like he did when he was a thirteen-year-old virgin still dreaming about his first kiss. He makes it leaner than Nancy’s, with darker tan skin so that there’s no way they can be compared. He imagines a tight ass in dark jeans, closes his eyes to picture it more fully as he grasps his cock.

It doesn’t matter who she is, this mystery girl. She’d touch his stomach, sliding her hands across his chest, and Steve mirrors the action, imagining that it’s her. He can almost feel the ghost of phantom lips on his skin, a tongue running down the length of him, and even though it’s just his own hand, he can feel the muscles in his stomach tightening in response. His cock is rock-hard now, and he starts thrusting into his own fist. He thumbs the tip of his cock, rubbing the ensuing damp bead of pre-come along the shaft.

Steve tips his head back, gasping. His strokes are increasing in pace now, his hand pumping furiously as his orgasm approaches. He imagines his fantasy girl mouthing at him - tongue sliding along his cock - eyes glittering wickedly as she sucks, the gesture obscene, dirty, so real he’s sure he’s seen it before… and then, with a deep, gutteral groan, Steve is coming, spilling over his own abdomen.

*

Maxine is silent in the car on the way to school the next morning. Billy is used to that - she never talks to him, didn’t even before, but especially not now - but today feels different somehow. She keeps shooting him little angry sidelong glances, and every so often she’ll take a deep breath, like she’s building towards something.

Billy knows she’s upset. Last night was the first time Neil has ever laid down the law to her. He didn’t get angry - not with Maxine, not with the daughter he’d always wished for - but he was clear. She’s not allowed to hang out with Lucas anymore.

It probably feels like a really big deal to Max. She’d actually cried, right there in the living room, even as she’d dashed the tears away. Billy’s never seen her cry before.

As for himself, he’s just surprised it took this long. He’d promised Harrington he wouldn’t go after Sinclair again, but he can’t control what his dad does. Sad for Max and her little friends, but not the end of the world. Billy’s limping today; he twisted his ankle when he fell, after his dad had him up against the wall for what he did to Steve. Max had been in bed by then. Billy has bruises on the tops of his arms where Neil held him, and another on his hip where the door handle caught him as he was slammed against it. And this goddamn twisted ankle.

Max, of course, doesn’t know about any of that. She wouldn’t give a shit if she did know. She just keeps looking at him, face twisted, and Billy waits. She’ll spit it out eventually.

His thoughts drift as he drives. He’s feeling really fucking weird about the whole evening last night, with Steve coming over, the kids on the walkie talkie, his dad at dinner… such a mixture of bullshit, really, and yet some of it had actually been okay. The bits in his bedroom, him and Harrington sat around discussing their English assignment. The bits before his dad came home.

“I told you not to mess with me.” He turns at the sound of Maxine’s voice. She’s finally psyched herself up to saying something, and she’s glaring at him from behind her wall of hair.

Billy frowns, not following. “What?”

“I know you had something to do with Neil saying I can’t be friends with Lucas anymore,” she says viciously. Billy’s eyes widen, but she doesn’t wait for him to respond. “You hate me hanging out with him, you attacked him, and now suddenly Neil doesn’t like him either. I know it was you.”

There’s a moment where Billy is actually speechless, which might be a first for him. Of all the things he might have expected Max to be pissed about, the possibility of being blamed for this hadn’t even been a blip on the radar.

He says, almost stuttering: “What?”

Max folds her arms. “I told you not to mess with me,” she says again.

“Jesus Christ,” Billy says. Blind panic is rising up inside him, because he’s an asshole, he is, and there’s a lot of shit she has over him that she can be mad about, but not this. He didn’t do this. “I didn’t do shit,” he says. “Jesus Christ, I didn’t do shit!”

He forces himself to shut the hell up, biting his lip hard. He sounds like such an unbelievable pussy. Max is frowning at him, and it’s obvious she doesn’t believe a word he’s saying. It feels so fucking unfair; only last night, he’d sworn to Steve that he wouldn’t go after Sinclair again, and he’d meant it. He’d been embarrassed by the way his dad had been talking, heard the familiar words through Steve’s ears and been ashamed of them. And now… now Max doesn’t believe him.

What the fuck is she going to do?

He’s not afraid of her. She’s a stupid little thirteen-year-old girl who got lucky once. Still, he can’t help himself from sneaking little glances at her as they drive. She just stares out the window, arms still tightly crossed, and Billy looks away and watches the road. She can’t do shit. She can’t .

They don’t speak the rest of the way. Billy’s heart is thudding, his hands clammy on the steering wheel of the car. He drops Max off without a word. She slams the door behind her when she gets out.

Lucas Sinclair is waiting with his usual little posse outside the school, so obviously Max isn’t planning on following Neil’s rules too strictly. Billy feels an odd little stab of fear at that. His dad doesn’t deal too well with being disobeyed.

It’s not his problem, and he doesn’t care. He pulls away from the kerb, heading for the high school next door.

He’s not looking forward to gym class today. He’s covered the bruises as best he can with the make-up he keeps for exactly this purpose, but they’ll be visible in the showers, and maybe sooner depending on how much he sweats. And his ankle… it’ll definitely hold him back. Basketball is the one thing Billy can do, the one thing he’s good at, and he’s pissed that his dad has done something to take that away from him.

Still, gym class isn’t until the afternoon. Before that, he has English. With Harrington.

He’s not sure if that’s something to look forward to or dread.

Byers is in his homeroom this semester. Billy doesn’t know the kid at all, except to know that he’s fucking weird and he’s the reason Nancy Wheeler dumped Harrington’s ass, but he’s been just slightly wary of him since the incident. Everything went down at Byers’ house, after all. So far, though, Byers hasn’t so much as looked at him funny.

From what Billy has heard, he’s got his own reasons to dislike Steve Harrington.

Today, Billy is late to class, and the only seat left available is next to Byers. The kid isn’t exactly popular. Billy slides into his chair, dropping his book bag onto the floor at his feet. Byers glances at him, and then away again.

It’s not much. But it’s enough for Billy to revise his interpretation of Jonathan Byers’ silence.

He’d thought Byers didn’t give a shit. Hell, he’d even thought that maybe Byers was secretly glad Harrington got a beat-down; Tommy has told him enough to know that King Steve wasn’t exactly kind to the kid back in the day. Honestly, although he’d been aware of Byers’ presence in his homeroom simply because the showdown with Steve had happened at his house, he hadn’t even thought to be worried. What reason does Byers really have to give a shit?

Byers definitely gives a shit. In that one, sliding, simple look, Billy can see he’s calculated this all wrong.

Byers hates him.

Billy actually feels kind of… flattened, by the sheer force of the contempt in Byers’ eyes. The kid’s nobody, just some creeper hanging around the parking lot with his camera, but he’s not afraid of Billy. He despises him.

Billy glances up at the front of the classroom. Mr Brady is still rifling through his briefcase, no doubt looking for one of his endless stash of chocolate limes, and there’s enough chatter going on around the room that he feels safe to say, low but fierce: “You got a problem, Byers?”

Byers looks back at him. He’s an odd-looking kid, soft around the edges and hiding behind his straw-like hair. He seems somewhat surprised that Billy has spoken to him.

He says, slowly: “Do you want me to have a problem?”

“Nope,” Billy says, a beat too late. “Far as I can see, we got no reason to have a problem, you and me.” He leans forward, just a little. “Right?”

Byers tips his head to one side, like he’s thinking this over. Like there’s nothing intimidating about Billy at all. Billy can feel the blood rushing in his ears. Byers says: “Right.” Billy opens his mouth to hammer the point home, but Byers goes on: “But…”

“But?” Billy repeats.

Now Byers does look just slightly nervous. Confrontation is clearly not his usual style. But he doesn’t back down. “If you go near Steve Harrington again, then we’ll have a problem,” he says clearly.

Billy snorts. “You his watchdog?”

“I’m his friend,” Byers replies evenly.

“Some friend,” Billy comments. “You usually sleep with your friends’ girlfriends?”

That’s definitely a hit. Byers flinches visibly. When he speaks, though, his voice is just as calm as ever. “That’s between me and Steve,” he says.

Billy laughs meanly. “Then I guess my shit is between me and Steve too, Byers.”

“It is,” Byers says. Billy stops laughing, surprised. “I know you have your project together, or whatever. And I’m not going to give you a hard time about what happened last week.”

“Big of you,” Billy interjects.

Byers ignores him. “Steve’s obviously put it behind him enough to work with you,” he says. “But if anything like that happens again…” He pauses. “If you touch him again, you’ll regret it.” He says it simply, without any emotion, like it’s just a fact he’s making Billy aware of.

It’s giving him chills, though he won’t show it. “You got it, Rambo,” he says easily. He grins. “Watch your back, Byers. I don’t forget a threat.”

“I’m not threatening you,” Byers says, but then Mr Brady is calling the class to attention, and Billy pulls away.

His heart is pounding. He could take Byers in a minute if he wanted - could destroy him, plough through him. He’s sure the kid plants his feet even less than Harrington.

What is it about people like Byers, like Maxine? People who shouldn’t intimidate him, people who have nothing over him? And yet…

Billy grinds his teeth together. How can it be possible that Billy freaking Hargrove is backing down from the fight?

Chapter Text

By the time English class rolls around, Billy is feeling antsy, his skin crawling and his stomach turning with the need to get the fuck out of school. He hasn’t seen Byers since homeroom, but he’s had their conversation swirling round his brain ever since.

He tries to imagine Tommy, or Carol, speaking up for him like that. He can’t make the images fit.

He pushes the thought out of his head. So what if Harrington has better friends than he does? Harrington is alone, and the only guy sticking up for him is the creepy loser who somehow stole his girlfriend. And a group of middle-schoolers. It’s pathetic.

All told, Billy isn’t in a great frame of mind to study Pride and Prejudice .

Harrington is already sat down at their shared desk when he gets to class. He looks up as Billy walks in. He has his book out in front of him, and he’s flipping vaguely through the pages near the beginning of it. Like he was thinking about reading it, but then decided against it.

Billy has the ridiculous, foolish thought that he’d rather Harrington didn’t read the book on his own. He dismisses it swiftly.

He throws himself into his chair. Harrington gives him a sidelong look, but says nothing. Billy is feeling just slightly sick.

“Alright, guys.” It’s Ms Young. She’s not that big, but she has the kind of look about her that means business. The class settles down. “I’m giving you some more independent study today to work on your assignment. Buckle down and use it, because as of next week we’ll be back to regular class time. I really want you to focus on the use of language today.” She frowns around the room. “Okay. Off you go.”

The class begin to chatter around them, but Billy and Steve are quiet. Billy can still feel anger simmering away under the surface; he doesn’t quite trust himself to speak to Harrington without lashing out at him. He thinks of Byers, warning him off. God, he’s fucking furious.

He glances over to Harrington. Harrington sighs, running a hand through his stupid hair. “I guess we should do this, right?” he says.

“Do what?” Billy says brusquely. He looks around the classroom. “I’m not reading aloud in here.”

Harrington nods, like this is perfectly reasonable. Billy, who knows he’s being a dick, grinds his teeth together, even more pissed off. He leans back in his chair, but Harrington is already standing up.

“Ms Young?” he says, approaching her desk.

She looks up. “Mr Harrington,” she replies crisply. “How can I help you?”

Harrington smiles at her. Billy rolls his eyes. Harrington says: “Billy and me, we’ve found some books in the library to help us with our presentation. Can we work on it there?”

It’s not going to work. Teachers are never going to be on their side. Billy waits for the refusal.

“Yes, alright,” Ms Young says. She glances at Billy; her eyebrow flickers, just a little. “I look forward to the presentation,” she adds drily.

Harrington looks triumphant as he comes back to their table to pick up his books. Billy ignores him.

“Let’s go,” Harrington says. There’s the faintest trace of a smile on his face.

Billy wants to dig his heels in, but even he isn’t stupid enough to pass on an opportunity to get out of class for a while. He slings his book bag over his shoulder, sloping out of the classroom after Harrington. He can feel Ms Young watching him as he walks away.

He feels a little better once they get out into the hall, but not much. He can’t figure out why Byers has rattled him so much, but he can’t shake off the unsettled feeling. Every time he so much as looks at Harrington he feels angry, angry and cornered and guilty.

Harrington doesn’t seem to have noticed, or maybe he thinks Billy’s frosty demeanor is par for the course. He says, easily: “You want to go to the bleachers?”

“No,” Billy snaps back. “It’s fucking cold.”

“Okay,” Harrington says peaceably. Billy can feel his temperature rising. He wants a reaction, some acknowledgement that he’s being a fucking asshole, but Harrington seems to be oblivious to his tone. He suggests: “I think my homeroom is empty this time of day - we could go there?”

Billy doesn’t really have a good reason to reject the idea. Then again, he’s never needed a good reason for anything. “You want to hang out in your classroom, Harrington?” he sneers. “You’re not scared to be alone with me?”

“What’s the matter with you?” At last, a real response. Harrington is staring at him, like he’s only just realised Billy’s really there, walking alongside him.

A thousand responses flit through Billy’s head. He’s angry, so angry, and he wants to lash out, wants to hurt. He wants to hurt Steve . But Byers… Byers had warned him about hurting Steve. And he’s pretty sure if he gives into his instincts, Steve won’t give him another chance, grades be damned.

“Nothing,” he mutters. “Let’s go.”

There’s a single, quiet moment when Harrington just looks at him, a frown creasing his forehead. Then he starts walking again, and they don’t speak again until they reach the empty classroom.

When they get there, Billy tosses himself restlessly into a chair. Steve follows more slowly, sitting on the teacher’s desk and pulling his copy of Pride and Prejudice out of his book bag. He looks calm, but his hands are shaking just a little, and Billy wonders with a stab of something unpleasantly like guilt whether Harrington really is afraid to be alone with him.

However, when he speaks it’s only to say: “We were on Chapter Six, right?”

Billy licks his lips nervously. “Yeah,” he says.

“I guess Charlotte and Elizabeth were just arguing about Jane,” Harrington says. He’s flicking through the pages. “Yeah, here it is.”

Billy doesn’t feel like reading. His heart is pounding and his head is aching and he doesn’t want to be still. He wants to move - wants to scream - but he doesn’t. He just sits, his breathing harsh and loud in the quiet of the empty classroom. Harrington glances up at him, holds out the book, and slowly Billy reaches out to take it.

He looks down at the page. It’s excruciatingly hard to start reading - maybe because Harrington is expecting him to do it, or maybe because his skin feels like it’s on fire right now. He wets his mouth, and says croakily: “ Occupied in observing Mr. Bingley’s attentions to her sister, Elizabeth was far from suspecting that she was herself becoming an object of some interest in the eyes of his friend.

He stops. Steve is leaning back on his hands.

He goes on: “ Mr. Darcy had at first scarcely allowed her to be pretty; he had looked at her without admiration at the ball; and when they next met, he looked at her only to criticise .” He stops again. “He’s an asshole.”

“I guess,” Harrington says.

“You guess ?” Billy repeats.

Harrington shrugs. “Yeah. Keep reading.”

So Billy does. He reads the rest of the chapter, letting every buzzing angry thought drift away in favour of unpicking the unfamiliar language. He can still feel the rage, the thudding furious heat coiling in the pit of his belly like an invading creature, but it’s dulled by the sound of his own voice. Muted in the distraction of trying to understand the story.

“Kind of weird, huh,” Harrington says, when he reaches the end of the chapter. “Darcy being into Elizabeth, I mean.”

“Weird,” Billy repeats, his voice high and mocking. He’s feeling slightly calmer, but his skin is still prickling and his hands are trembling. “Seriously, Harrington? Could this guy be any more of a total dickwad?”

Harrington laughs, like Billy’s said something funny. Billy feels his neck pulsing. Harrington says: “He’s not that bad.”

“He said all that shit about her behind her back,” Billy says. “He talks trash about her and now he wants her? That’s fucked up, man.”

“I guess,” Harrington says, shrugging. “Maybe he just realised he was wrong.”

Billy looks back down at the book in his hands. Why is he so mad? Why is every word coming out of Harrington’s mouth pissing him off more and more? He forces his voice to stay even as he says: “Didn’t seem like he thought he was wrong. He doesn’t even want to like her.”

“What do you mean?” Harrington asks.

Billy scans the page, looking for the paragraph he’s thinking of. “Here,” he says. “ Though he had detected with a critical eye more than one failure of perfect symmetry in her form, he was forced to acknowledge her figure to be light and pleasing; and in spite of his asserting that her manners were not those of the fashionable world, he was caught by their easy playfulness. It’s like he thinks she’s hot trash, and he’s pissed with himself for liking her.”

“Maybe he just didn’t expect to like her,” Harrington says thoughtfully. “Maybe he’s not used to her.”

“He’s an asshole,” Billy says bluntly. “You can’t just go around treating people like shit and then want them to like you later.”

He stops, breathing hard, because he can hear his own words.

Harrington is watching him, chewing his bottom lip. Maybe he’s heard it too, the stupid hypocrisy in Billy’s inadvertently relevant statement. Maybe he’s looking at Billy, wondering what the hell he’s doing here, sat in a classroom with the guy that beat him up.

He says, quietly: “You’re in a shitty mood today.”

For some reason, that actually makes Billy feel a little better. Like somehow he needed to know that Harrington had noticed, that there’s a difference between his normal assholery and what he’s doing now. He snorts out a dark little laugh. “You can thank your boy Byers for that.”

Steve’s eyes widen. “Byers? What do you mean?”

“Never mind.” Billy already wishes he hadn’t said anything. He’s not some little bitch, complaining to mommy because the kid in homeroom was mean to him.

Steve, predictably, doesn’t let it go. “Did Jonathan talk to you?”

“Jonathan,” Billy repeats scornfully. “You’re on first name terms now, Harrington? You and the freak who stole your girl?”

He can see it, right there in front of him. It’s like a wall crashes down between them. Harrington retreats, disappears right in front of Billy’s eyes, and when he speaks his voice is flat, hard. If Billy has been gunning for Steve to lose his cool - and in retrospect, it kind of feels like he has been, though he hadn’t really known it - this is about the closest he’s going to get.

“What did he say to you?” Harrington says.

“Nothing,” Billy says. He feels like shit. He’d wanted… well, something , some reaction, but not this one. “You got good friends, Harrington.” There’s something raw about saying that out loud.

Harrington blinks, obviously surprised. “What do you mean?”

“He threatened me, alright?” Billy says impatiently. He laughs meanly. “Like I’m scared of some dweeb hiding behind a camera.”

Steve laughs as well, although there’s no amusement in the sound. “You’d be surprised,” he says. He looks at Billy. “Why’d he threaten you?”

“I guess he didn’t like the shit that went down at his place,” Billy says, shrugging. “Whatever, Harrington. I’m not going to do it again anyway, so he can step down.”

“You’re not going to do it again,” Steve repeats. He’s looking weird now, partly confused and partly… well, partly something else. That wall, the barrier that came down when Billy mentioned Byers stealing Wheeler off Steve… there are cracks in it now.

He says, shortly: “You going to give me a reason to?”

“Didn’t think I had before,” Steve points out, irritatingly reasonable.

“Yeah, well,” Billy says. His heart is pounding, and his head is aching. But he’s not mad anymore. He’s just… tired. Really, really fucking tired.

Harrington doesn’t seem so pissed anymore. He says thoughtfully: “Is that why you’re in such a bad mood?”

Billy thinks about Maxine. “Sure, Harrington,” he says wearily.

“Steve,” Harrington says patiently.

“Steve,” Billy repeats.

Steve chews his lip. “I’ll talk to him,” he offers. Billy feels an uncomfortable lump in his throat.

“Don’t worry about it,” he says. His voice is oddly husky. He glances at his watch; they’re not even halfway through the English period. “We’re on Chapter Seven, right?”

Steve hesitates. “Yeah,” he says. “Billy—”

“What?”

“Nothing,” Steve says. “Chapter Seven.”

*

For the first time, Steve is actually having a little trouble concentrating on Billy’s reading. He’s thinking about Byers, who apparently stood up for him without Steve even asking, but he’s also thinking about Billy. He thinks about Billy saying I’m not going to do it again .

It’s not like he was worried about Billy laying into him a second time. Billy is unpredictable, but he also seems to have got whatever freakish rage that made him lose it that night out of his system. Steve still doesn’t trust him, but he’s not afraid of him.

And yet… it made him feel funny when Billy said it. Like a tension he hadn’t realised he was holding relaxed a little.

He feels the same about Byers, really. They haven’t spoken since that night, since Jonathan drove him to the hospital and stayed with him all night long, and it occurs to Steve now that he never even said thank you. He’s not spoken to Byers once since then.

“Harrington,” Billy says suddenly. Steve blinks, refocusing his attention.

“What?” he says.

Billy looks oddly piqued. “You’re not listening.”

It’s not like he can deny it. “Yeah. Sorry,” he says. He bites his lip. He wants to say something, but he’s not really sure what; something to recognise what Billy so flippantly tossed out earlier. He has no idea how. “Um. Are you… still in a shitty mood?”

It’s a ridiculous question, and Steve feels stupid practically the second the words leave his mouth. Billy is staring at him. “Is that why you’re not listening?” he demands.

“No—” Steve begins, but Billy is already talking over him.

“Is that why you have that weird freaking look on your face? Afraid to be alone with me when I’m having a bad day?” His voice is taunting, but his mouth is twisted and Steve doesn’t like the look in his eyes. “Want to radio your little friends for help?”

It’s such an onslaught that Steve struggles to make sense of it. He says, frowning: “You’re having a bad day?”

Billy’s eyebrows fly up to his hairline. “Seriously, Harrington?”

“Steve,” Steve says automatically.

Steve ,” Billy repeats impatiently. “What do you care if I’m having a bad day, huh?”

“Well—” Steve starts.

Billy isn’t waiting for him. “You want to add to it? Jeez, Maxine first, then Byers, now you, huh?”

“Billy,” Steve says sharply. “Calm down.”

He’s not quite sure what possessed him to say it, but Billy stops talking. He’s breathing hard, a wild light in his eyes, but he’s not yelling anymore. He just watches Steve, arms folded across his body, and for some reason Steve remembers Neil Hargrove’s face at dinner last night. You gave him a concussion?

He rubs his temple. “What do you mean, Maxine?”

Billy laughs bitterly. “Don’t worry your pretty little head about it, Harrington. Steve,” he corrects.

“Okay,” Steve says. It’s clear he’s not going to get anywhere by pushing Billy on this. “Okay, well, I’m sorry you’re having a bad day. You don’t have to take it out on me.”

There’s a moment when he actually thinks Billy is going to hit him again. He waits, but he doesn’t flinch. He’s not afraid of Billy Hargrove, and he’s kind of tired of wondering what this weird thing they have means; if Billy wants to hit him, he’d rather know about it. After all, Byers has his back.

Billy doesn’t hit him. He breathes hard, and says, surprisingly wearily: “Jesus, I need a smoke.”

“You didn’t want to go outside,” Steve points out.

“Yeah, thanks, Harrington,” Billy says. He sighs deeply. “You ever have days where you just gotta ditch?”

Steve blinks. “I guess,” he says.

Billy laughs. “What am I saying? You already did,” he says. It makes a stab of irritation go through Steve - after all, Billy is the reason Steve took time off school.

Except that he’s not. Not totally. It’s been so easy to blame Billy for all the dark messy bullshit he’s been wading through for over a week now, because everything that happened with Billy is mixed up with everything else. But Billy isn’t the reason Nancy left him. He isn’t the reason Steve has nightmares.

With an effort, Steve laughs.

Billy raises his eyebrows. “That painful, Harrington?”

“Shut up,” Steve says without heat.

They don’t speak for a moment. Steve is feeling a whole host of things that don’t make sense - he’s pissed off, which is fairly typical for his interactions with Billy, but he also feels oddly calm. Maybe it’s because he’s on solid ground here. Billy is refreshingly human, for all his wild unpredictability and mood swings.

Hesitantly, Billy says: “ Their visits to Mrs. Phillips were now productive of the most interesting intelligence .”

“What?” Steve says, and then he catches on. He smiles, and then stops smiling as soon as he realises what his face is doing. “Right, yeah. Carry on.”

Billy nods, like Steve is finally being reasonable. “ Every day added something to their knowledge of the officers' names and connections ,” he said. Steve closed his eyes. “ Their lodgings were not long a secret, and at length they began to know the officers themselves. Mr. Phillips visited them all…

When the bell rings for the end of the period, both of them jump. Steve has let himself become totally absorbed in the story again, following the lilt of Billy’s voice, and he’s surprised by how far he’s travelled away from the classroom they’re sitting in. It’s like he’s not expecting it to be Billy sat here in front of him, like he’d been transported into a world where Elizabeth Bennet was as real as the scratched desks and untidy papers surrounding him.

“Guess it’s time for lunch,” Billy says uneasily. His eyes flicker over to Steve.

Steve bites his lip. “Cafeteria or brown bag?” he asks.

A beat. “Brown bag,” Billy says at last.

“Outside?” Steve asks.

Billy snorts. “You sure you want to spend your lunch with me, Harrington?” he says. He runs a hand over his head, clearly uncomfortable. “You got other friends, right?”

There’s bite in his words, but his voice shows only uncertainty. Steve feels the familiar stab of irritation, but it fades quickly. Maybe he’s getting used to Billy. He shrugs. “Don’t let me keep you from Tommy and Carol,” he says drily. Internally he’s shuddering; he can’t quite remember why he was ever friends with the so-called popular crowd. None of it seems very important now.

“Tommy’s a moron,” Billy says bluntly. He gives Steve a sideways look. “Useful, but a moron.”

“You’re not wrong,” Steve sighs.

There’s a pause. Then Billy says hesitantly: “Guess it’s the bleachers, then.”

“Yeah,” Steve says. “Guess so.”

Chapter Text

Billy ditches school on Friday. It’s always easier on Fridays, because Neil and Susan have this thing where they take Maxine out to breakfast before school on Fridays. They get up early, Susan making a half-hearted attempt to invite Billy to come with them which he swiftly negates, and they take Max to school afterwards so he doesn’t even have to get up. He doesn’t do it every week - okay, he did it last week too, but usually he waits a while in between times, so the school doesn’t get suspicious enough to call.

The rest of the week has been weird. He’s been simmering under the surface for three days, like he’s ready to explode at any minute, but nothing has quite been enough to set him off. He and Harrington have worked their way steadily through Pride and Prejudice , and through two more sets of English lessons and lunch hours, they’ve managed to hit Chapter Twenty.

They haven’t seen each other after school since the single, disastrous dinner at the Hargrove household. Two sessions of reading fucking Jane Austen are enough for one day. They haven’t talked about it, but Billy hasn’t invited Steve over again, and Steve sure as hell hasn’t asked him round after school.

Byers hasn’t said anything else either, although Billy makes sure to give him a cocky smirk every morning in homeroom so that Byers knows he hasn’t succeeded in intimidating him. He has no idea if Steve talked to him, the way he said he would. He doesn’t give a shit.

Maxine, too, hasn’t followed up on her weird teenage threats. Looking back, Billy’s not really sure why he got so freaked out. What can she do? He’s bigger than her, stronger than her, and whatever bullshit she comes up with is nothing compared to what Neil Hargrove can put him through. So he’s just driven her to school, picked her up again after, driven recklessly around the corners and ignored her angrily glowering at him.

He still feels like shit. He’s pretty much permanently on his dad’s shit list at the moment, and he can feel rage bubbling underneath his skin. But he’s fucking tired of feeling so restless and pent-up, so he skips school.

For a couple of hours, he just sleeps in. It’s kind of nice, just being able to doze in the sunlight without worrying that anyone is going to bang on the door or yell at him. When he does get up, he takes his time in the shower, styles his hair, applies a thick stripe of eyeliner.

He looks good. He feels like crap.

He really doesn’t get why everything is dragging him down so much at the moment. Maybe it’s because he has to hang out with Harrington every freaking day, has to look him in the face and be normal and read aloud from a stupid book. Maybe it’s because Max… well, she’s always hated him, but it feels like the way she hates him has changed. She’s not afraid of him anymore.

Billy shakes off the thought. He grabs a banana from the fruit bowl as he heads outside, and tries not to remember the disgusted look on Steve’s face the last time he ate one.

The buzzing, unsettled feeling is back, and Billy’s skin is crawling with the need to get the fuck out of this place. Sometimes Hawkins feels like a prison. Cali wasn’t exactly better, but it was bigger, less claustrophobic. Here the trees crowd around him like prison bars.

He drives out into the woods. The trees are bare, and there’s ice in the air; he doesn’t think it’ll be long before the snow starts falling. He doesn’t really know where he’s going, but it doesn’t matter. He’s just following the road aimlessly, heading whichever way looks the darkest, the loneliest. He doesn’t want to be around people right now.

His head is hurting. He’s thinking about his dad, getting right up in his face the evening after Steve came over for dinner. He’d held Billy’s upper arms, fingers digging in hard, and he’d come in close. Like he wanted Billy within spitting distance.

Sometimes he doesn’t get why Neil fucking hates him so much. And then other times he totally, totally fucking gets it.

Byers got it. He warned Billy off. Fucking Wheeler, looking at him with disdain every time he’s unlucky enough to cross her path. Maxine, glaring at him in the car like there’s nothing in the world she could despise more.

Billy slams his hand against the steering wheel. The car swerves a little in the road; he realises with an icy shock that his whole body is shaking.

Jesus Christ. It was never this bad in California. Yeah, sure, he was an asshole, and Neil didn’t like him, but it was easier to get lost in Cali. Easier to melt into the crowds of idiots in his old school, easier to dominate, easier to forget the shit that went on at home. Like a different world, a different life. Here, he’s pressed up against every fucking person who hates him, because Hawkins, Indiana is the size of a shoebox with everybody trying to fit inside.

He pulls over. The hopelessness of it all is fucking suffocating him from the inside out. He’s got nowhere to go. There’s nothing he can do. Sure, he can swagger around the high school with Tommy and Carol and the rest of those morons, but every day he’s aware of Byers and Wheeler watching him, every day he has to face Steve Harrington, and every afternoon he picks Maxine up from school and all her little friends are there to let him know what they think of him. Even if it’s just with their eyes.

Trembling, Billy opens the car door. It’s a cold, overcast sort of day, and he instinctively pulls his jacket a little tighter around himself. He doesn’t know why the fuck he can’t pull himself together. He’s not some fucking pussy.

Still, there’s no one out here to see, so Billy lets himself aim a vicious kick at a pebble on the road, sending it ricocheting into a nearby tree.

“Fuck,” he says aloud. Then, louder: “ Fuck!”

He staggers into the trees. It feels just the tiniest, slightest bit better, being out here alone in the woods with no one to know he’s having some kind of fucking meltdown. He kicks another stone, and then pounds his fist into the thick trunk of a tree,

It hurts. It feels good because it hurts. “Fuck!” he yells out. “Fuck it!”

Harrington said that to him once. He still remembers it, remembers the clear level way Steve had looked at him that day in Wheeler’s basement, remembers how Harrington hadn’t backed down an inch. Fuck it. You’re not going to change.

“Fuck you!” he screams out, because who is Steve Harrington to tell him he can’t change? “Fuck you, you piece of shit!”

Even if you did change, you’d still be scum. Billy yells again, a wordless furious scream of utter frustration. Steve Harrington doesn’t know him. Maxine doesn’t know him. Not even Neil Hargrove knows him, as much as he thinks he does. Maybe Billy is scum, maybe that part is true. But he could change, if he wanted to. He could do anything the fuck he wanted. Maxine doesn’t scare him. Byers doesn’t scare him. Billy Hargrove isn’t afraid of anything.

He can’t see the road anymore, can’t see his car, can’t see anything except the bare trees and the slivers of sky above him. He leans against a large tree, letting himself slide down it to sit on the ground. His head is still pounding and his chest hurts and his throat is raw, but he feels better. A little better.

It’s the crunch of breaking twigs that has him leaping to his feet, head wrenching to the side so quickly that it’s painful. Billy’s heart is thudding.

Standing between the trees a few feet away is a little girl.

At least, she’s little compared to him. She looks around Maxine’s age, small and stocky and somehow a little lost-looking, here all alone out in the woods. Billy forces himself to calm down, gulping in a couple of deep breath.

“Kid,” he pants. “You scared the shit out of me.”

The girl takes a step towards him. She has very dark brown eyes, and she’s watching him intently with them; there’s something just slightly unnerving about her expression. She says, her voice faint and fluting: “Cold.”

Billy leans back against the tree. “Yeah,” he says. It is cold, cold enough that his jacket is too thin, although the girl looks more insulated in denim dungarees and a thick brown coat. Her hair is a mass of untidy dark curls. He frowns at her. “Shouldn’t you be in school?”

She arches her eyebrows at him. “Shouldn’t you?”

He huffs out a laugh. “You lost, kid?”

“No,” she says calmly. She’s still watching him, eyes searching his face. “Who are you?”

“Billy,” Billy says. “Go home, kid.”

She takes another step towards him. “Home,” she repeats. “I am home.”

He glares at her. “What, you live out here?”

“Yes.”

For a young teenager, she seems remarkably chilled out about being here in the woods alone with a stranger yelling at the sky. He wonders, with a brief spurt of conscience, whether she’s homeless; he remembers vaguely hearing about some kid who went missing before the Hargroves moved to Hawkins. He says: “What’s your name, kid?”

She smiles, unexpectedly. “Jane,” she says.

“Where are your parents?” Billy persists, and then stops, biting his lip. He’s not some concerned citizen taking an interest. If this kid is a runaway, if she’s ditching school just like him, if she’s the daughter of a local hobo - he doesn’t give a shit.

Jane replies: “Working.” She leans against the tree next to his. “You’re lonely.”

He looks sharply at her. “What?”

“Lonely,” she repeats. She looks at him serenely, like that wasn’t a fucking creepy-ass thing to say. “Why are you lonely?”

Billy stares at her. “You’re a freak, you know that?” he says. It’s not like he has much ground to comment, really, given that he’s been out here screaming into the woods and now he’s conversing with a child his sister’s age. But still. This kid is weird.

The girl just smiles. “I’m lonely too,” she says. She looks at him, and her eyes narrow. “But not… angry.”

“Angry?” Billy repeats, suspiciously.

Jane nods. “You’re angry,” she says. “Why are you angry?”

“The fuck do you care?” Billy says irritably. He looks out at the trees. He wants to go home, except that when he thinks of home he’s not thinking about Hawkins, Indiana. He’s not even thinking about Cali. He hasn’t got any safe place to go, or even to want to go. It’s a fucking depressing thought.

“I don’t go to school,” Jane says. It’s such a non-sequitur that Billy is shaken out of his spiralling thoughts. She goes on: “My friends visit me here.”

Billy leans his head back against the tree trunk. “How’d you meet any friends if you don’t go to school?”

He’s not asking because he’s really interested; it’s more that she’s there, and she’s talking to him, and any conversation is better than the mess inside his head. So he’s only half-listening when she answers: “I met them here, in the woods. My father lets them visit.” There’s something warm in her voice when she mentions her father.

“You met friends in the woods?” Billy repeats sceptically. “Alright then, freakshow.”

She tips her head to one side. “What’s… freakshow?”

Billy stares at her. “Ask your friends from the woods,” he says at last.

Jane, improbably, giggles. “They don’t live here,” she says. “They all go to school. That’s why they’re not here.” Her face falls a little. “Not even Mike.”

“Who’s… Nope, scratch that.” He shakes his head. He doesn’t give a shit. His head is buzzing; he turns to look at her properly, to catalogue the faded patches on her dungarees and the hollows in her cheeks and the way her nails are so bitten that her fingers have bled. She doesn’t say anything as his eyes travel over her, from her thin shoulders to her grubby white tennis shoes.

The wind is starting to pick up, and Billy shivers. Seems he’s always cold these days, although half of that is Steve Harrington taking them outside every lunch hour like he doesn’t even feel the chill. He’s been giving Billy some odd looks this week at lunch, maybe because Billy never really has anything to eat. Neil has been in a particularly foul mood these past few days, and it’s not worth asking him for lunch money.

“I miss mama, sometimes,” Jane says quietly.

Billy glances at her. “Your mom’s not around?”

Slowly, Jane shakes her head. She looks sombre. She says: “Like you.”

“What do you mean, like me?” Billy is instantly defensive. “You don’t know shit about me, kid.”

“You miss your mama,” Jane replies calmly. “Like I do.” She frowns, her head tilting. “But your mama… your mama’s in a different place.”

Billy closes his eyes. For the briefest of moments, he lets himself think about his mother; lets the image of her face swim in his mind. Then he dismisses the thought, opens his eyes again. “My mom died a long time ago,” he says roughly.

“Yes,” Jane says. “I can’t find her.”

There’s nothing to say to that. Jane’s one odd kid, but Billy finds that his heart isn’t thumping in his chest anymore, like sitting next to this strange child has calmed him down a little. He still doesn’t feel great, but he’s better. The combination of freedom and fresh air has helped him to shift that sensation of waiting to boil over.

So he just sits there, lets the breeze wash over him, and doesn’t think about anything in particular. Jane doesn’t speak again; she sits beside him and watches the branches of the trees sway in the wind. In spite of the cold, it’s actually a beautiful day. Crisp, the treetops making a stark dark contrast against the brightness of the pale sky, but beautiful nonetheless. Billy can’t say he’s ever been much of a nature-lover until now, but he’s beginning to see the appeal.

He sits until his stomach starts growling, reminding him that he hasn’t eaten all day. The sun, as weak as it is, is high above him; it must be at least midday, and possibly later. Reluctantly, Billy clambers to his feet.

“See you around, kid,” he says bracingly to Jane.

She smiles drowsily at him. “Yes,” she replies. She regards him thoughtfully. “I’ll see you around.”

It almost sounds like a promise.

Chapter Text

Steve wakes up early on Saturday morning. The sky outside is still pink and orange from the sunrise, but he feels wide awake, can’t convince himself to try to go back to sleep. He lies in bed, staring at the ceiling and listening to the sound of his own breathing.

His mom and dad came home on Thursday. It’s weird having them around, weird to make breakfast in a kitchen that has signs of occupants that aren’t him. He’s often lonely when they’re gone, but the shine of having them around wears off pretty quickly. His mom, in particular, is scatty and untidy, leaving unwashed plates by the sink and tossing her things any old place she likes. It’s not that Steve has any burning desire to keep the place neat, exactly, but it’s not his mess. It’s hers.

She cooked dinner on Friday night. She doesn’t cook often, but when she does she turns the kitchen into a garbage heap, piled high with potato peelings and used crockery and chopping boards. It’s frustrating, but the end result is always worth it. She’s one hell of a cook.

Over dinner, she and his dad asked Steve the usual questions - about school, his friends, his life. He told them about Nancy; his mom expressed sympathy, his dad commented that he’s too young to be settling down anyway, and then they moved on. His dad didn’t talk much, but his mom filled in the gaps with stories about the wonders of Tokyo. Steve wouldn’t know. He’s never left Indiana.

Now it’s the weekend, and the house is quiet. Maybe in a couple of hours Steve’s mom will wake up, make breakfast, fill the silence with her loud voice and infectious cackling laugh, and she’ll hug him and leave him with the imprint of her perfume while his dad sits quietly eating his bacon and eggs. And then sometime next week - maybe Monday, maybe Tuesday - they’ll leave again, jet off to Moscow or Boston or London. Steve knows, objectively, that there’s a reason he gets to live in this beautiful house with a pool and style his hair with as many expensive products as he likes. So he’s not complaining.

He’s not complaining, but it’s weird. It’s weird having part-time parents, weird being alone in the house most of the time but then acting the kid again for a weekend. When he was younger, his mom used to stay home for some of the trips, but it’s been a while now since he hit the threshold of being old enough to be alone.

They’re not as rich as they should be, for all the time they spend out of state. They should be living it up in some mansion in San Francisco, but Steve’s dad isn’t some superstar businessman. He’s a peon to a superstar businessman, and it keeps him comfortable but absent. He’s not from Indiana originally, but since it was Steve’s mom who had to stay home when she first had a baby, they bought their house in the place her family came from.

All her family is gone now. There’s just Steve, left behind every time his parents have somewhere more exciting to be.

He’s being bitter. Bitter, and sad. He bites his tongue, snaps out of it, and swings himself out of bed.

He doesn’t have any plans for the weekend. He heard around school that Carol’s parents are out of town and she’s throwing a party, but he hasn’t been invited. It’s not like anyone would kick him out if he showed up - he’s done that more than once with Nancy, and he’s been welcomed - but he’s just not sure he has the energy for it.

He could reclaim his title, if he really wanted. King Steve. Billy Hargrove didn’t have to work all that hard to take his crown; if he wanted to, he could slide right in and steal it back.

He just doesn’t want to.

He picks up the copy of Pride and Prejudice lying on his bedside table. Several times now, he’s tried to settle in and read the first three chapters; he hates feeling like Billy has something over on him. But the words are long and tangled in his head, and it makes something hot and tight bubble in his chest when he tries to make them out.

Jesus Christ, what’s the matter with him? He’s not normally so maudlin.

It’s several hours before he finally hears the sounds of his parents waking up and beginning to get on with their day. In that time, he’s showered, attempted to cast an eye over the first chapter of the book at least three times, thought about masturbating, rejected the idea, and finally just lain on his bed feeling bothered and irritable. When the normal household sounds start to float up to him, he gets up gratefully.

His mother smiles at him as he walks into the kitchen. She’s making breakfast, a stack of rapidly cooling toast sitting on a plate behind her; it occurs to Steve that he could have come down to get his own food ages ago. The way he would normally, when his parents aren’t around. The thought hadn’t even crossed his mind.

“Have some toast, Stevie,” she says as he sits down, passing the plate over. “Your father is just in the shower. He’ll be down soon.”

Steve takes a slice of toast. “Thanks,” he says.

“Do you have any plans today?” his mother asks, settling herself opposite him. She laughs prettily, and goes on before he can answer: “Your father and I are having lunch with Mayor Hunter and his wife!”

For some reason, there’s a lump in Steve’s throat. “Sounds fun,” he says huskily, and takes a bite out of his toast.

She frowns at him. “Don’t you want some butter, Stevie?”

“I’m good,” he says with his mouth full. “I’m going out too.”

“With Tommy?” she asks, delicately spreading butter on a piece of toast of her own.

Steve shakes his head vehemently. Obviously, his parents know nothing of the secrets Steve has had to keep for the last year, but it’s been a long time since he and Tommy were anything approaching friends. Surely she must know that? “No, I’m… seeing someone else,” he says lamely.

She waits. When he doesn’t elaborate, she gestures impatiently. “Who?”

“Billy,” Steve’s mouth says, before his brain has time to catch up.

His mother tilts her head to one side, picking up her cup of coffee and sipping contemplatively. “I don’t remember a Billy,” she says.

Steve has to bite his tongue, because it’s not like she knows any of his friends. She’s not around enough for that. He says: “He’s new in town. We’re doing an English presentation together.”

“Oh,” she replies. “Well, have fun.”

Of course, that means Steve actually has to go out. It’s just gone eleven by the time he pulls out of his drive, and then he has absolutely no fucking idea where to go. He’s got no real friends at school anymore, and the thought of showing up at Dustin’s place in the hopes of some company is just too pathetic to think about.

He could, hypothetically, go to see Jonathan. They’d ended up having a conversation at school on Friday, because Steve hadn’t been able to stop thinking about what Billy had told him. Billy wasn’t in school, so Steve had nowhere to go at lunch, and in the end he’d wandered out to the parking lot feeling miserable and weird. And Jonathan had been there, leaning against the brick wall in the sun.

“Jonathan,” Steve had said, before he could stop and think about it. Jonathan looked up; when he saw it was Steve, he looked surprised, but he smiled.

He peeled himself off the wall. “Steve,” he said. He scratched his head a little self-consciously. “Hey.”

“Hey,” Steve said. Then he stopped. It was awkward.

“How are you doing?” Jonathan asked, which was probably what Steve should have said. “I haven’t really seen you since…” He waved a hand with an uncomfortable smile.

Steve shrugged. “I’m okay,” he said. Then: “Thanks for staying with me, man. You didn’t have to do that.” He immediately felt better after saying it, like he was paying off some debt he hadn’t realised he owed.

Jonathan just smiled. “I’m just glad you’re okay,” he said.

“How’s your brother?” Steve asked.

“He’s okay,” Jonathan said. “Recovering. He came home a couple of days ago.”

“That’s good,” Steve said.

There was a silence. Steve still felt like there was more to say, but it was just so fucking awkward around Jonathan. He’d been a dick to him, back in the day, rubbed Nancy in his face and tried to go for him. And then he’d come to a better place, but they definitely weren’t friends , and now he’s lost Nancy to Jonathan anyway. Jonathan is being a hell of a lot nicer about it than Steve was.

“Billy said you talked to him,” he said at last.

Jonathan’s eyebrows shot up to his hairline. “He told you about that?”

Steve shrugged uncomfortably. “Yeah, kind of,” he said. “You didn’t have to… I mean, that was nice of you. What you said to him.”

“Steve,” Jonathan said, and then bit his lip. He ran a hand through his hair, and suddenly Steve felt very young. “I know it’s… weird, between us,” Jonathan said. “And I’m not expecting that to change, or anything, but… we went through some shit. All of us. And I hope that means that when it comes down to the line, we have each other’s backs.”

Steve took a step forward. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, we do.”

Unexpectedly, Jonathan smiled. Steve hadn’t really seen him smile before; it transformed his face, lit it up. He said: “I’m really glad, Steve.”

“Thank you,” Steve said.

Jonathan began to walk back towards the school entrance, but as he passed Steve he stopped, laying a hand on Steve’s arm. “If you ever want to talk about any of it…” He laughed, a little nervously. “Well, I mean, you know where I live.”

“Yeah,” Steve said, and that ended the conversation. But as Jonathan walked away, Steve was struck with the odd thought that he understood why Nancy liked him.

Like, really got it. Because Jonathan was gentle, and kind, and didn’t hold a grudge. And that smile… it was making Steve feel weird, thinking about that smile, because it had reminded him of Nancy and he didn’t understand why.

So yeah, he could go see Jonathan Byers. But the conversation only happened yesterday, and even though he knows Jonathan won’t judge him or be weird about it, it feels kind of pathetic to head over there straight away like this. And besides that, Steve doesn’t really want to go there. He doesn’t want to talk about the Upside Down, or Nancy, and he’s a little afraid of being around someone so unequivocally nice to him all the time. Like if someone is too nice, he’ll fall apart.

Somehow, all that indecision leads to him sat in his car outside Billy Hargrove’s house, without quite knowing how he got there.

Steve, by now, has experience in not thinking too hard about what he’s doing when it comes to Billy, so he gets out of the car quickly, heading up the drive towards the front door. Billy could feasibly have plans, or be asleep, or simply have no interest in hanging out with Steve and reading Jane Austen, but the good thing about Billy is that Steve doesn’t give a shit what he thinks, so he doesn’t care if he gets turned away. He knocks on the door.

A few moments pass, and then Susan Hargrove opens it. When she sees Steve, she smiles immediately.

“Steve!” she exclaims. “Billy didn’t tell me you were stopping by. How are you? Do you want to come in?”

It’s a little overwhelming, how pleased she is to see him. He says, stepping through into the house: “Thanks, Mrs Hargrove. Is Billy home?”

“He’s home, he’s home,” Susan says. “Come on in and I’ll get him.” She walks briskly away towards the stairs, calling out: “Billy? Your friend is here!”

Steve waits, looking around the living room of the house. It still feels kind of weird to be here, here in the lion’s den, but it also feels good. Billy has a way of making Steve feel strong, purely because he’s such an asshole and Steve doesn’t care . He doesn’t care about Billy, about what Billy thinks or feels, and he can let Billy be an asshole around him and stay unaffected. It’s nice to be unaffected.

“What are you talking about, Susan?” comes a grumbling voice from the top of the stairs, and then Susan comes back into the room, swiftly followed by Billy.

He’s wearing sweats and a tank top, and his hair is an absolute state. He must have been asleep. His feet are bare, and Steve, inexplicably, finds his eyes drawn to them. There’s something interesting and vulnerable about seeing Billy without all the jewellery and style he usually carries around with him.

Billy raises his eyebrows at the sight of Steve. “Harrington?” he says. “What are you—?”

He stops, abruptly, as his father walks into the room.

Steve’s not an idiot. It’s clear that the relationship between Billy and his dad is shaky to say the least; he still remembers the contemptuous look Neil Hargrove had thrown at Billy when he’d found out who Steve was. Which, yes, had felt like a form of vindication, but Steve can’t really imagine his dad ever looking at him that way no matter how many fights he got into. Now, Billy’s eyes flicker between Neil and Steve, and Steve is struck by how oddly skittish he looks.

“Steve,” Neil says in a hearty voice. He leans over to clap Steve on the shoulder. His hands are large and heavy. “It’s good to see you back again. Billy didn’t mention you’d be stopping by.” He turns his gaze to Billy; Billy glances at the floor.

“Yeah, I’m sorry, I should have called first,” Steve says. “I just figured since we didn’t get to work on our presentation on Friday, it might be a good idea.”

Billy’s head shoots up, and Steve doesn’t get why until Neil says in an odd, tight voice: “Why didn’t you get to work on the presentation on Friday?”

Now Steve just feels shitty, which makes no sense really. He hadn’t even thought about it, but of course Billy had been ditching on Friday. And yes, he knows there’s no reason to care if Billy gets in trouble or not, but he’s no snitch. He says, as smoothly as he can manage: “Well, we had a pop quiz in English class on Friday, so we didn’t have any time to work on it.”

“I see,” Neil says, in a more normal voice. Behind him, Billy’s head drops to look at the floor again. “Well, Steve, you’re very welcome here. Feel free to study in your room, Billy.”

“Yes, sir,” Billy mumbles. He glances at Steve. “Come on,” he mutters.

Steve follows him upstairs. Billy doesn’t say anything else, so Steve can’t really tell what he’s thinking about Steve randomly showing up at his place, but knowing Billy it can’t be great. He’s already starting to second-guess his decision to come here, but then again they really do need the time if they’re going to get through the book before the end of the semester. There are only two weeks to go before the deadline Steve imposed on them.

Finally, they get to Billy’s room. The curtains are closed and Billy’s bed is rumpled and unmade; Susan must have had to wake him up to bring him downstairs. Steve feels kind of bad, actually. Just because he’s been up since the crack of dawn doesn’t mean anyone else has.

Billy closes the door behind them, and says evenly: “What are you doing here, Harrington?”

Weakly, Steve holds up his copy of Pride and Prejudice, clutched in his left hand.

Billy looks at it, and then back at Steve’s face, eyes narrowed like he’s studying him. There’s a long, long moment when Steve doesn’t know what he’s going to do. It makes him feel weirdly calm; he can deal with Billy’s unpredictability. It’s not life or death. It’s kind of interesting, just to see what will happen.

At last, Billy sighs, and the tension deflates from the room. He scratches behind his ear. “Okay,” he says. It almost seems as though he’s talking to himself. “Okay, Harrington. Sit your ass down.”

Steve goes over to the window and opens the curtains. It’s a cold, crisp day, but the sun is shining and the light immediately brightens the room. He sits on the chair by Billy’s desk; Billy sprawls on his bed. There’s something strangely personal about seeing him sitting there, obviously unprepared for visitors among his untidy bedclothes.

“Where did we get to?” he asks, flicking through the pages.

Billy picks up his own book from his bedside table. “Collins had just proposed,” he says, rubbing his eyes. He looks tired, and oddly subdued. It makes the game of Steve not caring feel less enjoyable.

He says, quietly: “Is your dad always like that?”

Billy’s head comes up so fast it looks like he might have given himself whiplash. “What?”

“Your dad,” Steve repeats, fidgeting a little. “He’s kind of… intense.”

There’s something Steve doesn’t like in Billy’s eyes, something creased up and hurt and jumpy. He blinks for a few moments, like he’s deciding how to answer, and then he says with a show of bravado that Steve doesn’t believe in: “Getting worried for your safety around the Hargrove men, Harrington?”

“No,” Steve says, frowning. He doesn’t quite like Billy’s response, but he can’t put his finger on why. He says, irritably: “Why do you do that?”

Billy starts. “Do what?”

“Make a joke when I’m asking you a question,” Steve says, and then isn’t sure why he did.

“Maybe I find your questions funny,” Billy shoots back, but his hackles have definitely been raised. His shoulders are hunched defensively, which normally looks intimidating but today, in his sweats with sleep-dusted eyes and bare feet, makes him look small and a little vulnerable.

Steve rolls his eyes. “Okay, Billy,” he says.

“Well, why the fuck do you do that?” Billy snaps.

“What?” Steve says, startled.

Billy waves a hand irritably at him. “Not be… pissed off, when I’m pissing you off,” he says.

“You’re not pissing me off,” Steve says. He can hear how baffled he sounds.

“Sure, I’m not,” Billy sneers.

Steve stares at him. “Are you trying to piss me off?”

“No,” Billy says grumpily, but suddenly Steve knows it’s a lie. And just like that, he knows the answer to his own question; he knows why Billy mocks him when he asks questions. It’s because he’s defensive, because Steve for some reason has touched on a nerve and Billy doesn’t want to admit it.

“You are,” he says, just to see Billy flinch. “You’re trying to annoy me.”

He’s not disappointed; Billy shrinks into himself, just a little. “Not like it’s hard, Harrington. Everything I do pisses you off.”

He sounds so weary when he says it that Steve actually feels a twinge of something. Something like pity, even though Billy Hargrove is the last person on the planet he should be feeling sorry for.

“You don’t piss me off,” he says. “I just don’t get you.”

Billy laughs bitterly. “Join the club,” he says. “Harrington,” he adds with emphasis.

Steve sighs. “You ever think about… not being an asshole?”

“Nowhere near so much fun, Stevie,” Billy says with a fake cheeriness.

Are you having fun?” Steve asks.

That definitely hits a nerve. Billy opens his mouth, and then closes it again, his face flushing pink. And that, right there, is when Steve realises he just can’t be bothered to hold onto this grudge against Billy Hargrove anymore. He doesn’t care, he’s known he doesn’t care for a while, but he thought it meant he didn’t care what Billy thinks - and it does, in a way, but it’s more than that. He doesn’t care about what happened at Jonathan Byers’ house anymore either, or at least, not enough to hold onto.

“Let’s read,” he says abruptly. “Let’s not do this. Let’s just read.”

For a long moment, Billy looks at him. Like he’s trying to figure out what the catch is.

Then his eyes fall to his book. “The discussion of Mr. Collins’s offer was now nearly at an end, and Elizabeth had only to suffer from the uncomfortable feelings necessarily attending it…”

Steve closes his eyes.

Chapter Text

“I get it,” Billy says with a shrug. “That’s all I’m saying. I get it.”

“Are you serious? You get it? You get her marrying him?” Billy had mostly been winding Steve up, and it’s gratifying to see how easily it’s worked. “You’re telling me you’d marry Collins in this scenario?”

Billy leans back. It’s too easy. “Well, sure,” he says lazily. “What’s her alternative? She’s got no money, and she’s getting on, right? She’s not marrying him for love .”

Steve shakes his head. “Things can’t be that shitty at home,” he says. “Nothing is shitty enough to need to marry this guy. There’s no way.”

Shitty at home. Billy suddenly has to swallow down a lump in his throat. He looks up at Steve; he’s still sitting in Billy’s chair, his hair perfectly styled around his face and the book in his lap. He doesn’t mean anything by what he’s saying. How could he? He has nothing to escape from, nothing worth avoiding.

“Agree to disagree, princess,” he says, to cover his discomfort.

Steve looks at him with narrowed eyes. “Steve,” he says. “Don’t be difficult.”

“I’m not,” Billy says, which is true; at least, he’s not being difficult on purpose. Needling Steve comes so easily that half the time he’s not even aware he’s doing it.

There’s a pause. Then Steve says: “Sorry for just showing up here like this.”

Billy had definitely been kind of pissed to be woken up because Steve Harrington had decided to drop by unannounced, but he’s not feeling it now. The last hour or so has been… nice, in the way that reading Pride and Prejudice together is always nice because they can get lost in something and not talk. The more he reads, the more he’s enjoying the story, as antiquated as it is, and Steve always provides a source of energetic debate.

“It’s cool,” he says eventually. “Why did you?”

Steve sighs, scratching his neck. “Needed to get out of the house,” he says. “My parents are home.”

What, so you came here? Billy wants to say. Instead, he says: “Your parents?”

“They’re away a lot,” Steve explains. “I’m not really used to having them around so much.”

For a moment, Billy thinks about how fucking awesome it would be if Neil and Susan were away a lot. And how fucked up he’d be when they did come home. Obviously, he’s pretty sure Steve’s parents are nothing like the Hargrove family shitshow, but it’s hard to imagine a scenario where anyone would be happy to see their mom and dad around all the time, especially if they weren’t usually. He’s pretty sure Tommy has mentioned how Steve always has an empty house before.

“Sucks to be you, princess,” he says. Steve rolls his eyes.

It’s kind of weird how he’s not so touchy around Billy anymore. Like maybe he’s got used to Billy’s bullshit, which is weird, and makes Billy’s skin itch. Being a dick is so much a status quo for him that he doesn’t know how to feel about someone not rising to it.

“So how come you weren’t in school on Friday, anyway?” Steve asks.

Billy shrugs. “Wasn’t in the mood,” he says.

Steve tilts his head to one side. “Another bad day?”

“The fuck do you care?” Billy fires back. Steve doesn’t respond; he just waits, and Billy sighs. “Yeah, I guess,” he allows.

Steve glances at the window. The sunlight is pouring in, illuminating the room in a warm glow and washing over the chair Steve is sitting in. He says: “You want to get out of here for a bit?”

Billy blinks. “What, you and me?”

Steve rolls his eyes. “No, me and your mom,” he says, deadpan.

“Not my mom,” Billy rejoins immediately. Steve just looks at him. “Where do you want to go?”

A shrug. “Out. It’s a nice day.”

“We friends now, princess?” Billy says scornfully, although even as he speaks he’s not sure why he’s pushing back. Not sure why he always pushes back, because the truth is that he would love to get out of the house and have someone other than a weird twelve-year-old to hang out with that he doesn’t want to strangle. Which pretty much rules out Tommy, Carol and all that other crowd.

He’s expecting Steve to back off in the face of his contempt, but Harrington, as usual, surprises him. He just shrugs, as though Billy’s outburst was no more than he anticipated. “Why not?” he says.

“Why not?” Billy repeats. “I can think of a few reasons.”

“Such as?” Steve challenges.

Billy raises his eyebrows. There’s something different about Steve today, something simultaneously relaxed and provocative that Billy’s not quite sure what to make of. Like he knows he’s pushing Billy, and he’s doing it on purpose. He’s not flinching when Billy moves anymore.

He sighs. “I don’t know, Harrington - Goddammit,” he cuts himself off, as Steve opens his mouth. “Steve. Jeez, it’s just a habit!” Steve quite obviously hides a smile, which is irritating for a multitude of reasons Billy doesn’t want to explore. “Maybe because we don’t like each other, none of your little protectors like me, I went after you… take your pick.”

Steve sits back a little, face pensive as though he’s actually considering this. He says slowly: “Is any of that shit a big deal?”

“Jesus,” Billy says, pinching his nose. “Okay, Steve. Let’s say it’s not. Jesus Christ.”

And Steve… laughs. “That painful, Hargrove?” he teases.

Yes,” Billy says firmly. But for some reason, he almost feels like smiling, like Steve making light of the situation is making him feel lighter as well. He doesn’t, obviously. He puffs out a breath. “Okay, princess. We’ll go out. Jesus.”

He’s changed clothes in front of Steve a thousand times in the locker rooms, but Billy feels oddly shy here in his room with just the two of them. He pushes down the feeling, gathering up his jeans and a shirt from his closet and stripping down quickly. Steve looks out of the window while Billy pulls on his clothes, only looking back when he’s dressed and examining his reflection in the mirror.

His hair is a mess, so Billy tames it with his fingers and tries to be discreet about applying product. Steve must see him, but then his own style is so clearly manufactured that it’s not like there’s anything he can say about it. Billy does notice his eyes widening slightly at the application of eyeliner, though.

He doesn’t give a shit. He looks damn good and they both know it.

“Okay,” he says at last, when he’s done. “Let’s get out of here before I change my mind.”

Steve stands up. “Your car or mine?” he asks.

Billy raises an eyebrow. “You have to ask?”

They manage to get downstairs without Neil or Susan seeing them, for which Billy is profoundly grateful. However, their luck is short-lived, because as they’re crossing through the lounge - Billy hurrying without looking like he is - a figure appears in the doorway to the kitchen. A small figure, with long red hair and a guarded expression.

Billy closes his eyes briefly.

“Steve?” Max says, her voice betraying her shock.

Steve stops in his tracks and turns towards her. “Max?” he answers. Billy glances at him; he’s smiling, a wide, beaming smile that doesn’t have to try at all. “Hey!”

Maxine’s eyes flicker from Steve to Billy, and then narrow. “What are you doing here?”

“Hanging out,” Steve says easily.

Max glares. Billy rolls his eyes. “Studying,” he says.

“You’re hanging out,” Max says in a harsh voice, as though Billy hasn’t spoken. “With Billy.”

Steve glances at Billy. “Yep,” he says.

Why?”

That’s a question Billy definitely doesn’t want to hear the answer to. “We’re studying, Maxine,” he says roughly. “Mind your own fucking business.”

“Don’t talk to her like that,” Steve says, which makes Billy want to scream with frustration.

Maxine, on the other hand, just looks satisfied. Like she was expecting Billy to act out, knew he wouldn’t be able to keep his cool. She folds her arms across her narrow chest. “Guess it must be nice to have friends to hang out with,” she says in a loaded voice. She looks back at Steve. “You know he got his dad to stop me hanging out with Lucas?”

Steve frowns, casting a brief look at Billy. “Really?”

“No,” Billy says sulkily. “Like I care who you hang out with.”

“You’re such an asshole!” Max says furiously. Billy glances instinctively towards the door; she laughs derisively. “They’ve gone out. Why are you so fucking worried?”

“Max,” Steve says quietly. She stops yelling. “Um… for what it’s worth, I was here when your dad - when Billy’s dad,” he corrects hastily at the look on her face, “was talking about Lucas. I’m pretty sure he came up with that on his own.”

Billy feels his face flush, although he’s not sure why. Maybe it’s just that he can’t think of the last time someone defended him.

Max is less impressed. “You’re siding with him?” she gasps incredulously.

“No,” Steve says patiently. “I’m not siding with anyone. I’m just saying, maybe you don’t need to be on opposite sides.”

She scoffs. “Yeah, right,” she says. “After what he did to Lucas - and to you… I don’t even get why you’re talking to him.”

There’s a silence. It’s ridiculous, because Billy knows what Maxine thinks of him, he knows she hates him, she’s hated him since the moment they met each other three years ago and he’s always felt the same way too, so it’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculous that he feels like the bottom has dropped out of his stomach. Maybe it’s because of Steve, standing here in Billy’s living room and hearing her condemnation of him. It’s like he’s been living in a bubble where he actually believed that maybe all the shit that went before didn’t matter to Steve. And now here’s Max, reminding him of all the reasons that can’t be true.

After a few moments, Steve says quietly: “Well, that’s up to you, I guess.”

“Yeah,” Max replies. She hesitates, and then sighs. “Are you coming to Dustin’s tomorrow?”

Billy looks over to Steve. He’s coloured a little, but replies steadily: “I think I’ve heard him mention it once or twice.”

Max laughs. “Or a thousand times,” she says. “It’ll be better if you’re there.”

“Yeah, okay,” Steve says. There’s another pause, and then, so suddenly that Billy is taken aback by it, Maxine rushes forward and hugs Steve around the middle. He pats her head a little awkwardly, but hugs her back all the same.

She retreats almost as quickly as she arrived. Steve is looking a little bewildered, but Billy sees the triumphant look Max throws his way and knows exactly who that was for.

“Bye, Steve,” Max says, pointedly ignoring Billy. He rolls his eyes. “See you tomorrow.”

“See you tomorrow,” Steve says, and then, finally, they leave, stepping out into the crisp winter sunshine.

Steve follows Billy to his car, sliding into the passenger seat. He seems… thoughtful, as if he’s considering the altercation that just took place, and although the last thing Billy wants is for Steve to examine the situation too closely, he can’t think of anything to say to shift his attention. He rolls the window down as he backs out of the drive, leaning his elbow on the door and trying to focus on the dappled patterns of light coming through the surrounding trees.

At last, Steve says: “Is that why you were in a bad mood this week?”

Billy turns sharply. “What?”

“Max,” Steve clarifies. “She’s mad at you.”

Billy laughs humourlessly. “Max is always mad at me,” he says. “But yeah, at the moment she’s got this idea in her head that I’m out to get her little boyfriend. Like I give a shit.”

There’s a pause as Steve digests this. “I guess you can’t really blame her for wondering,” he says carefully.

Isn’t that the truth. “Nope,” Billy agrees, popping the word on his lips.

“You didn’t say anything to your dad, right?”

“Nope,” Billy says again. He’s not actually sure where he’s driving; he’s just following the road, heading into the woods by instinct. It’s easier to pretend he’s concentrating on where he’s going than to engage in the conversation.

Steve frowns at him. “Did you tell her that?”

Billy laughs again. “You think she’s listening to a word I’m saying?” He glances at Steve. “Don’t worry your pretty head about it, princess. Hate to break it to you, but Maxine’s social life isn’t keeping me up nights.”

“I guess,” Steve says in a measured voice, “she’s pretty pissed about what happened at the Byers’ place a couple of weeks ago.”

Billy makes sure he’s looking straight ahead. “Guess so.”

Another silence. “You could always apologise,” Steve says evenly.

“To Max?” Billy returns without thinking about it.

Steve glances at him, and then swiftly looks away. “Yeah.”

How the fuck did they get to a point where they’re talking about this? Billy’s thought about apologising for that night, although honestly he hasn’t considered saying sorry to Maxine. Every time he’s imagined saying the words, it’s been to Steve. Steve definitely deserves an apology more than Max does, but Billy still doesn’t think he’s actually capable of giving one. The idea is just so humiliating.

Steve must know what he’s thinking, but he doesn’t press the issue. Which, of course, just gives Billy more space to think about it. He can’t stand Maxine, has always found her prickly and difficult in addition to being the constant reminder that yes, it’s just him Neil hates. But now, for the first time, he tries to think about it from her perspective. She’s just a kid, and she was tied into his shitty family without any kind of say in the matter. And now they’ve moved here, away from everyone she knows, and she’s managed to make some friends, and Billy—

Well, Billy’s been a dick about it.

Yeah, he gets why she’s pissed about that night. She shouldn’t have run off the way she did, leaving Billy to take the fall for her absence, but then she doesn’t really know how much trouble he got into, and Billy hasn’t exactly fostered a relationship whereby she could have told him where she was going.

Goddammit. There’s nothing, nothing worse than the feeling of being wrong.

He says hesitantly: “You think that would make a difference?”

It’s been long enough since they last spoke that Steve would be justified in asking him to clarify himself, but Billy is relieved when Steve doesn’t do that. He just nods. “Yeah, I do,” he says. Then he bites his lip. “Well, I mean, I don’t think every opinion of you is going to change overnight, but you know. It would be a start.”

Translation: she’ll still hate you, but you should do it anyway. Billy’s surprised to find that Steve’s careful wording is amusing; maybe it’s that that has him saying: “What about you?”

“Me?” Steve echoes.

Billy’s chest is starting to feel a little tight. “Would that work for you too?”

Steve hesitates. “Like… apologising?”

Billy nods tersely.

“Uh,” Steve says. “I guess?”

“Good to know,” Billy says, still looking firmly at the road. And it is, kind of. He still doesn’t think he’s got it in him to actually get the words out, but it helps a little to know that if he ever does manage it, Steve will be receptive.

Well. More receptive than Maxine, anyway.

*

By the time Billy pulls up at a layby, they’re pretty deep into the middle of nowhere, and Steve’s head is spinning. Never in a million years could he have imagined that his conversation with Billy would have wound up in the place that it has, and yet there’s been nothing forced about it. The events at the Byers’ place felt taboo, untouchable, and yet they’ve talked - albeit delicately - about what happened, and the world hasn’t exploded.

That’s probably because Billy still only has a fraction of the story. But still.

For a second there, he’d actually thought Billy was going to apologise to him. He’s almost glad that didn’t happen, because he has no idea how he’d react to it; until now, it’s not something he’s so much as briefly considered as a possibility. He hadn’t thought Billy actually felt any regret.

He’s not expecting an apology. He’s never expected an apology, not even right after everything happened when he was still steaming. He’s not an idiot. Billy Hargrove is not the apologising kind.

But now… now, Steve doesn’t know what to think. He shakes his head, trying to dislodge the uncomfortable thoughts rattling around. If Billy actually feels regret, actually feels anything close to remorse… well, Steve still can’t see him actually being able to express it, but it the fact that it’s there kind of has to mean something. Like maybe he’s only 80% an asshole, rather than the 100% Steve had assumed.

Which would make sense. After all, they do have… well, fun , sometimes, when they’re discussing Pride and Prejudice and they both forget who they’re talking to.

Billy takes the key out of the ignition and gets out of the car. Steve looks out of the window; he doesn’t recognise his surroundings. It’s just a stretch of the same tall, chilly trees as he passes every day to get to school. He follows suit more slowly.

“Where are we?”

Billy turns to look at him, an odd smile on his face. “Out,” he says, raising his hands. “Nowhere. Wherever.”

Steve frowns, perplexed. “Any reason you brought us here?”

“Figured you wouldn’t want anyone to see us hanging out.” Billy’s voice is sharp and mocking, but it doesn’t bother Steve. He’s used to Billy’s strange, prickly temper by now. “Didn’t fancy the arcade or the mall anyway.”

“Fair enough,” Steve says, following Billy into the treeline. He has to admit, it’s refreshing just to be outside, away from all the shit that’s been pinning him down. No school, no Upside Down, no Nancy or Jonathan or anything else he has to feel confused about. Just Billy.

Well. He feels confused about Billy too, now. But he cares a hell of a lot less.

Right?

Chapter Text

They end up reading. No surprises there; it’s the only time Steve feels like he can talk to Billy without wanting to strangle him, no matter how much he feels like they’ve drawn a line under the events of two weeks ago. They read another chapter, the breeze picking up around them as they sit under the trees, and Steve closes his eyes and lets himself drift into Billy’s voice.

“You ever think you’d be here, two weeks ago?” It takes Steve a second to realise Billy has closed the book. He’s staring up at the patches of sky visible through the branches, and there’s an odd, meditative sound to his voice.

Steve looks over to him. “No,” he says. “Of course not.”

Billy huffs out a little laugh. “Yeah,” he says. “Of course not.”

He sounds so melancholy that Steve can’t help but ask: “Are you… okay?”

“Never better,” Billy returns, so quickly that it can’t possibly be true. He snorts. “Don’t get sappy on me, Harrington.”

“Steve,” Steve says automatically.

Billy rolls his eyes. “Steve,” he repeats. He shakes his head. “You’re going to be doing that ‘til the end of time.”

“It’s going to take you that long to remember my name?” Steve says, eyebrows raised. He doesn’t mean anything by it, but Billy flushes an angry red.

“Fuck off, Harrington,” he snaps.

Steve raises his hands peaceably. He’s not in the mood for a fight; although he had been feeling vaguely combative, back at Billy’s house, the brisk November air has calmed him down. He’s actually enjoying sitting out here, letting his skin cool under his jacket, feeling the wind toss his hair around. He says: “I’m kidding, Billy.”

Billy glares at him. “Whatever,” he mutters. He doesn’t look anywhere near as calm or rested as Steve feels out here. 

It’s odd, really, because out of the two of them Steve should be the jumpy one. He’s the one who’s been fighting demodogs, having to prepare for the attack of otherworldly creatures coming around every corner. He should be on edge, but he’s not. They closed the gate, or rather, Eleven did, and Steve feels safe.

Billy, on the other hand, looks restless and tense, like he’s the one waiting for an attack. He’s chewing on his thumbnail, and his blue eyes skitter around the trees. 

Steve doesn’t get it. And suddenly, for no reason that he can understand, he wants to know something about Billy Hargrove. Something beyond the cocky asshole exterior he presents at school, beyond the racist dickweed who went after Lucas Sinclair, beyond the aggressive fucker who gave Steve a concussion. There must be a real person behind all that shit, a real person biting his nails and reading Jane Austen in the woods with his enemy.

“Billy,” he says, and something must be off with his tone, because Billy turns his head sharply towards Steve.

“What?”

Steve isn’t actually sure what he wants to say. Something to recognise the humanity of Billy, maybe - something that somehow lets Billy know that there’s a glimpse of something real showing here in the woods, and Steve has seen it. He can’t think of a way to put it into words.

He says, hesitantly: “What was California like?”

Billy stares at him. “What?”

“What was California like?” Steve repeats. Now that he’s said it, he’s actually curious to hear the answer; he’s never left Indiana himself, and Billy has lived on the other side of the country.

He’s not actually sure Billy will answer, but after a moment, he says: “Warmer than here.”

Steve smiles. “Yeah?”

“We lived near the sea,” Billy says reluctantly, like the words are being dragged out of him. “I hate being so far away from the water. You could go out in the morning and watch the surfers from the beach.”

“Did you surf?” Steve asks.

Billy shakes his head. “You have to be serious about it to surf in San Diego,” he explains. “The tide’s not safe there. There are beaches you can go swimming, though, and play volleyball.”

“I didn’t know you were from San Diego,” Steve says.

“Yeah,” Billy says. There’s a tiny smile on his face. “Pretty different than here.”

Steve moves a little closer to him. “You miss it?”

Billy shrugs. “I guess. Nah, not really. Same shit, bigger town.”

“You must miss your friends,” Steve says probingly, because maybe that explains why Billy is such a colossal asshole. But Billy just laughs.

“You miss Tommy and Carol?” he asks pointedly, eyebrows raised.

Steve thinks about it. “No,” he says.

“Yeah,” Billy agrees. “I don’t miss my friends.”

That makes Steve feel a little sad - for himself, more than for Billy. He wonders what it would feel like to have friends he’s actually miss, if he left town. He’s barely noticed the loss of his so-called friends, has let his cloak of popularity slip from his shoulders without a second thought. He thinks about Nancy, vigilantly searching for a way to prove the truth about Barb’s death. He can’t think of anyone he’d go to that much trouble for.

He thinks of the kids, willing to face the Upside Down for each other. Well, he’d helped them, so maybe he’d go to that much trouble for them. Them, and Nancy, and Jonathan. But he’s not sure he can really call any of them friends.

He says: “How come you guys moved here?”

Billy gives him a sidelong look. “Max hasn’t told you all this shit?”

“I never asked,” Steve says truthfully.

Billy nods. “Uh, well, official story is my dad got transferred,” he says.

Steve raises an eyebrow. “And the real story?”

“He got demoted,” Billy replies promptly. “He was busy playing happy families with Susan, and he was taking time off to be with her, or whatever.” He laughs, the sound bitter. “I don’t know the whole… thing, but I think there was some kind of showdown with his boss. My dad lost his temper, lost his job, and basically saved himself by agreeing to move out here.”

“Oh,” Steve says. He frowns. “And your mom and Max just came with him?”

Not my mom,” Billy says in a hard voice. “Max’s dad lives in Ohio, so that had something to do with the decision, I think. Closer, you know?”

Steve didn’t know Max was even in contact with her dad. “What about your mom?” he asks.

Billy looks away, through the trees. “Died when I was ten,” he says.

“Shit,” Steve says. “Sorry.”

Billy doesn’t answer at first, and for a while Steve isn’t sure he’s going to. He doesn’t blame him; he can’t imagine what it must be like to lose a parent. His own mom and dad aren’t around very often, sure, but they’re still there - Steve can pick up the phone and call them, if he wants to. No wonder Billy is so touchy about Susan not being his mom. 

After a couple of minutes, Billy says with a forced casualness: “How come your parents are away so much?”

It’s such a non-sequitur that Steve is taken aback, but he doesn’t mind it. It feels almost… normal, to sit here with Billy and have an ordinary sort of conversation. He says: “My dad works all over the country, and my mom gets lonely without him.”

“How often do they come home?” Billy asks.

Steve shrugs. “Every month or so, for a few days. They’re usually around for Thanksgiving, Christmas, that kind of thing. My mom used to stay back when I was younger.”

“You miss them?”

“Sometimes,” Steve says honestly. “I get kind of pissy when they’re home, though.” He laughs softly to himself. “I like having the house to myself.”

Billy nods like that makes total sense to him. “Tommy told me you always have a free house,” he says.

“Yeah,” Steve says. It feels pretty weird to be discussing his ex-best friend with the guy that swooped in and stole his allegiance. “I used to throw a lot of parties, you know, before—” He stops, unsure how to finish his sentence.

Billy just laughs. “Before you lost the school?”

For some reason, it doesn’t sting like it should. “Right,” Steve agrees. “Before I lost the school.” He laughs, surprising himself. “Jesus. I don’t miss it at all.”

“You don’t?” Billy seems genuinely shocked by Steve’s words, as if the possibility of Steve being okay with his lowered social status has never occurred to him.

Steve shakes his head. “Nope,” he says. “Tommy’s an asshole.” He hesitates. “I was an asshole. You didn’t know me then.”

 “Harrington,” Billy says drily, “I know you’re an asshole.”

Steve laughs. “Okay, I was more of an asshole,” he says. “I didn’t like myself at all.” He stops, suddenly embarrassed. “I don’t know why I’m telling you all this.”

“Why not?” Billy says easily, leaning back against the tree and closing his eyes. “Who am I going to tell? You think any of my friends give a shit about you anymore?”

“You think any of those douchebags you hang out with are actually your friends?” Steve counters, whip-fast. He’s expecting Billy to be offended, but he just gives a low chuckle. Steve sighs. “I spray-painted a whole bunch of shit about Nancy all over town,” he says, without really knowing why he’s confessing.

Now Billy looks interested. “Little Miss Perfect?” he says. “What did you say about her?”

“The usual shit. Whore, slut, that kind of… Well, I was an asshole.” It’s been a long time since he’s thought about doing that; Nancy has long forgiven him for it, but he still feels pretty shitty about it, when he lets himself go back there.

Billy whistles. “Jeez, Harrington,” he says. There’s a note of amusement in his voice. “You badass.”

Steve, in spite of himself, feels a smile creep across his face. “Shut up.”

“Wait a second,” Billy says. “This was before you guys dated?”

“Early stages,” Steve says.

Unexpectedly, Billy lets out a cackle. “She kept dating you after that?” When Steve nods, he laughs again. “You really were King Steve,” he marvels. “You told the whole town your girl was a whore and she kept going out with you? How the hell did you pull that off?”

“Well, we broke up for a while,” Steve tries to defend himself, but Billy’s not wrong. If it hadn’t been for Steve proving himself with the Upside Down, if he hadn’t made his peace with Jonathan… well, he’s still lucky Nancy decided it didn’t matter to her. “I apologised,” he says, because he’s still a little bit of an asshole. “I made it up to her.”

“Not for long,” Billy rejoins immediately, clearly knowing exactly what point Steve is making and jabbing right back. 

It should piss him off, but he just rolls his eyes. “We dated for a year,” he says. 

“Until she left you,” Billy presses.

Steve wraps his arms around himself. “Until she left me,” he agrees, evenly. 

Billy is watching him. “What’s your deal with Byers?” he asks. Steve looks at him quizzically; he goes on: “Why is the guy who swooped on your girl defending you?”

“Oh,” Steve says. “It’s hard to explain.” Isn’t that the truth? When he thinks about Jonathan, he feels odd, a combination of sadness over Nancy and… gratitude, maybe? He likes Byers, which is a ridiculous thing to feel about someone who swooped on his girl, as Billy puts it. Maybe it’s because he doesn’t have any other friends. Maybe it’s guilt over the way he treated him in the past. Jonathan is… a good guy. He kind of wishes he’d realised that before Nancy came into the picture, because there’s actually a chance they could have been friends.

Well. The way Jonathan is behaving, they still could be. If Steve wants.

Billy is clearly unsatisfied by his explanation. “So? Try,” he says impatiently.

“We went through some stuff,” Steve says vaguely. He sighs. “He didn’t actually… steal Nancy. They got together after we broke up. Sort of.”

“Tommy said she left you for him,” Billy says.

“Tommy’s an idiot,” Steve replies crisply. He can still remember them all standing there in that alleyway, Tommy’s derisive smile as Nancy slapped him. “Tommy’s the reason I was such an asshole. I mean, he’s not, but he made me worse. The spray-painting thing was his idea.”

Billy’s eyebrows lift. “He didn’t mention that part.”

“Yeah, well,” Steve says. “He’s probably embarrassed. Jonathan fought back. Tommy’s not used to people fighting back.”

“You guys fought?”

Steve smiles grimly. It’s kind of ironic, now he thinks about it. “He beat the crap out of me, if you want to know.”

There’s a moment of silence, and then Billy bursts into laughter. Steve, in spite of himself, finds himself smiling, looking in the opposite direction so Billy doesn’t see. Looking back, yeah, it is pretty funny, especially in light of everything that happened two weeks ago. It’s not like they’re the same thing at all - Jonathan may have beaten him up, but Steve is fully aware that it was his own fault, and Jonathan isn’t the rage machine Billy is - but still. It’s kind of disconcerting how many times tangling with the Upside Down includes a beatdown for Steve.

Byers beat you up?” Billy says, merriment clear in his voice. “Byers? Jesus, Steve, maybe you need more advice than just planting your feet.”

“Hey, I got a few knocks in,” Steve finds himself protesting, but he’s grinning. 

Billy cackles again. “Sure you did,” he says. “Poor little pretty boy.” He snorts. “No girl is worth a punch-up.”

“It wasn’t really over Nancy,” Steve says. “It was my fault.”

You picked a fight, princess?” Billy says sceptically. 

Steve shrugs. It’s easy to talk about this with Billy, maybe because Billy doesn’t have a leg to stand on to judge him; he doesn’t have to pretend he wasn’t the colossal dickhead he was. He says: “I thought Nancy was cheating on me with him. That’s why I painted all the shit. Turns out she wasn’t, but when he tried to get her to walk away… I wouldn’t let him.”

Billy’s head tilts to one side. “What did you do?”

“Insulted him,” Steve says, mouth dry. He’s never really acknowledged it out loud before; after everything that happened, it never felt important enough, and given that Jonathan laid on the fists, he seemed to feel that Steve had been appropriately punished. “Insulted his family. His brother.”

“His brother… that’s one of the nerds Max hangs out with, right?”

Steve nods. “He went missing,” he says. “That’s why Nancy was hanging out with Jonathan. She was being a good friend while his brother was missing.”

He sees Billy’s eyes widen. “You insulted his little brother who had gone missing?”

“Kind of.” There’s no reason for Steve to admit this, except that he never has and Billy is an easy audience. “I said… I said it was no wonder he’d disappeared. Because his family was so fucked up.”

There’s a pause, while Billy digests this. Then he says, wonderingly: “Cold, Harrington.”

“Yeah,” Steve says bitterly. “I told you. I was an asshole.”

“Wouldn’t have thought you had it in you.” Billy almost sounds admiring.

Steve rolls his eyes. “That’s why I don’t miss Tommy, and those other morons,” he says. “It was my fault, but they encouraged me. Nancy… she was disgusted by me.” The words hang in the air, and he coughs to hide their importance. “I’d rather have friends like her,” he finishes, somewhat lamely.

“You guys still friends?” Billy asks curiously.

That’s not so easy to answer. “She’ll always have my back,” Steve says. “It’s… weird, right now.”

“Fair enough,” Billy says.

Steve, suddenly restless, swings himself up onto his feet. It’s weird, this whole conversation - being able to be here with Billy without fighting, being able to talk to him. And he can’t help but feel that maybe he’s been holding too much of a grudge. Sure, Billy’s an asshole, and he hasn’t apologised for it, but retelling the story of what happened between him and Jonathan has reminded him that Billy’s not the only one. They’ve all done things they shouldn’t.

He rolls his neck, feeling it crack. He’s been sitting still for too long. He stretches his arms up above his head, letting them lengthen. He should be feeling stressed, but he’s not. He’s okay with talking to Billy like this. They’re not friends, of course they’re not friends - but it feels a little like they are friends, and it’s a good feeling.

Behind him, Billy makes an odd noise.

*

It happens so quickly that Billy has absolutely no warning for it.

One moment, he’s sitting underneath a tree, oddly relaxed, talking to Steve so casually that he almost forgets they don’t like each other. It’s nice, just to talk, to be normal. Maybe that’s what makes it creep up on him; he has his guard down.

Because then, Steve is standing up, turning away from Billy, and reaching his arms up towards the sky. The muscles in his back tighten as he stretches, and a small sliver of bare skin is exposed just above his jeans. He’s just stretching. It’s nothing.

Except that Billy has a hard-on.

He’s so shocked by it that he actually fucking squeaks. Harrington turns almost immediately, lowering his arms, but the damage is done; the image of his taut body is burned in Billy’s mind. 

“Billy?” Steve says, sounding fucking concerned, which is ridiculous. “You okay?”

“Yeah,” Billy gets out, his voice strangled. “Just scratched myself, that’s all. You ready to head back?”

Steve smiles, blissfully unaware of what’s going on. “Sure,” he says.

Billy is barely holding on. He has no fucking idea what’s happening. He has a hard-on. Because of Harrington. It makes absolutely no sense. This has never happened to him before. He doesn’t even like Harrington! He doesn’t get it, doesn’t understand why he looked at him - that’s all he did, just looked at him, and Harrington wasn’t doing anything, just stretching - Billy’s seen him goddamn naked in the showers at school, and Jesus, now is not the time to think about that—

He forces himself to stand up, holding Steve’s copy of Pride and Prejudice in front of him in a casual sort of way, as though it’s normal to carry it that way. Luckily, Steve is already turning away, back towards the car, so Billy doesn’t have to worry too much about being obvious. His jeans are tight, sure, but not so tight that a single glance at him will reveal his predicament. And anyway, there’s no reason for Steve to be looking.

He follows Steve back to the Camaro, parked haphazardly in the layby at the side of the road. Fortunately, Steve seems to be content to sit in silence next to him as Billy starts up the car, because he’s pretty sure he wouldn’t be able to focus on a conversation right now. He drives back towards his house, trying not to speed around the corners for fear he’ll lose it completely.

The hard-on doesn’t go away. It’s not… ridiculous, or anything - if Billy were to be in a position to touch it, it could get that way pretty quickly, but right now it’s at a manageable level. It’s just there, warm, rubbing against his jeans, just enough that he can’t forget about it. Can’t forget that somehow, impossibly, Steve Harrington gave him a freaking hard-on.

What does that even mean? Steve is a dude. Billy’s dick is not supposed to make an introduction around guys.

It’s not like it’s the first time, his brain insidiously reminds him. Billy pushes the thought down furiously.

“You’re quiet,” Steve comments. They’ve been driving for several minutes without speaking, which, Billy reflects, is unusual for them. They do tend to snark at each other at every possible opportunity.

“Just imagining mousy little Byers smashing you to pieces,” he says glibly. Steve laughs. “You ever win any of the fights you get yourself into, Harrington?”

Steve rolls his eyes and smiles out of the window. “I’ve only been in two,” he says.

“So that would be a no,” Billy says. Without his focus on it, his cock is quietly deflating. “Guess you really are just a pretty face.”

Definitely the wrong thing to say. His cock twitches a little. Jesus fucking Christ. Calling Steve a pretty boy is meant to be a fucking insult, not something he actually - apparently - thinks.

“Gee,” Steve says, sounding amused. “Thanks, Hargrove.”

“Explains why you suck at basketball,” Billy says hastily, covering his accidental compliment. He pulls into his driveway. “Too afraid of messing up your hair, right?”

Steve laughs. “Like you can talk,” he says easily.

They get out of the car. Billy’s dick is softening, thank God, and then another car slides up outside the house, and that has the effect of shrinking his hard-on down to nothing. It’s Susan and Neil, back from wherever the hell they went earlier.

Neil stops in his tracks when he sees Billy and Steve. 

“Billy,” he says, his voice hard. For a fucking change. “I thought you were studying.”

He rolls his eyes. He doesn’t always let himself show bravado to his dad, but he can never bring himself to totally roll over. It feels too much like defeat. “We were, dad,” he says.

Neil takes a step forward, and that’s when Billy realises his mistake. Now is the wrong time to push; his dad is fucking livid. One glance at Susan’s ashen face, and he realises they must have been fighting. It doesn’t happen very often, but it’s always a bad time for Billy. Susan and Maxine represent the happy, domestic family Neil wants to pretend he has, so when anything happens to shake the fallacy - like a fight, or Max running off - it gets him angrier than anything else can.

“Billy,” his dad says again, and this time hard has turned into menacing. “That tone is not acceptable.”

He doesn’t so much as glance at Steve. “Sorry, sir,” tumbles out of his mouth. He probably looks like a moron to bloody Harrington, but he doesn’t want a fight today. Not today. “I just meant, we took a break. We’ve been studying all day.”

Neil takes a breath. Then another. At last he says: “Okay. Get yourself in the house.”

Billy exhales.

Then Neil turns to Steve. “Are you staying for dinner, Steve?”

Now, Billy does look at him. He has a tiny frown on his face, and Billy definitely expects him to beg off, but he answers decisively. “Yes, please, if that’s alright.”

“Of course,” Neil says warmly. An audience to his perfect family; of course it’s alright. He looks back to Billy. “It’ll be around an hour. Gives you a little more studying time.”

The message is clear. Billy leads the way into the house. He hadn’t realised how long he and Steve have been out in the woods; the light is definitely beginning to fade, and Billy realises vaguely that he’s starving. He hasn’t eaten all day. He didn’t even think about it earlier.

Because you were with Steve, that nasty little voice in his head whispers. Billy ignores it.

Chapter Text

“You need to call your parents or anything?” Billy asks Steve as they make their way up the stairs to his bedroom. 

Steve just snorts. “They’re hanging out with the mayor, or something,” he says. He sounds somewhat bitter. “They won’t even notice I’m gone.”

Billy opens his mouth, closes it again, and then asks anyway. “They just got home and they’re spending their first weekend with the mayor?”

“Yup,” Steve says tersely. Billy decides not to push the issue.

The hour before dinner is spent, predictably, reading Pride and Prejudice and arguing about Jane Bennet. This time, Billy is surprised by their positions; usually he’s the one deriding Jane’s passivity, while Steve defends the softer characters of the book like they’re the younger sisters he never had. Today, however, things are different.

“I just think she’s kind of naive,” Steve says. “Read that bit again, the bit about everyone behaving unnaturally.”

Billy narrows his eyes at him. Someday, he’s going to get to the bottom of Steve’s aversion to reading. Not today, though, so he obligingly reads: “If they believed him attached to me, they would not try to part us; if he were so, they could not succeed. By supposing such an affection, you make everybody acting unnaturally and wrong, and me most unhappy.

“Yeah,” Steve says. “I don’t get it. Elizabeth is clearly right, and Jane is just… being blind on purpose.”

“She’s innocent,” Billy points out. He doesn’t really feel strongly about it one way or the other, but he’s finding it amusing to rile Steve up a little bit. “She thinks everyone is a good person.”

Steve scoffs. “Sure, but why? Isn’t that the unnatural thing? Everyone can be… I don’t know, bitchy sometimes, even Elizabeth. Jane’s the only one who acts perfect all the time, and then she’s surprised when no one else does.”

“It’s like she lives by different rules,” Billy says thoughtfully. “But she’s not the only one.”

Steve frowns at him. “What do you mean?”

Billy shrugs, folding his arms across his chest. “Lydia and Kitty don’t live by the same rules as Elizabeth and her dad,” he says. “They do want they want, and she gets totally embarrassed by them, right? Same as Collins. And even Darcy and the bitch sisters - they have money, and class, but they’re rude to everyone. They all live by their own rules.”

“What, and Elizabeth’s the only normal one?” Steve asks.

“No,” Billy says. “Just… her rules are different too. They all see the world the way they think it should be, and they all see it differently.”

There’s a silence as Steve considers this. At last, he says slowly: “That doesn’t mean that, like… nobody’s right. I mean, in this situation, Elizabeth is right.”

“Maybe,” Billy allows. “I mean, yeah, she’s right about Bingley’s sisters. But does it matter? Bingley is still gone, and Jane says it makes her unhappier to think about it that way. Isn’t it better for her to believe what she wants to believe about it?”

“Wouldn’t you want to know the truth?” Steve presses.

Billy laughs. “Yeah, I would,” he says. “But she wouldn’t.”

Steve sits back, apparently thinking it over. Billy always likes saying something that makes Steve think about things, or even change his mind. It makes him feel smart, as much as he might know that isn’t true. Like Steve actually thinks he’s made a good point.

His bedroom door swings open. There’s only one person in the house who bursts in on him without knocking.

“Max,” Steve says in greeting, smiling at her.

She graces him with an answering smile, and then turns to scowl at Billy. “Your dad told me to tell you dinner’s ready, and to come down right away,” she says.

“Okay,” Billy says. Then, with an effort: “Thanks.”

She glares at him from behind her hair, and whirls away. 

Billy swings his legs off his bed. He’s not looking forward to dinner; the hour since he saw his dad last will almost certainly have done absolutely nothing to cool Neil’s temper, and Max, of course, will be angry with him no matter what else happens. His only silver lining is that Steve might - might - be enough to keep Neil sweet. The perfect epitome of everything he wants in a son - how could he not be? And as long as Billy doesn’t do too much to draw comparisons between them, he might fly under the radar.

Neil and Susan are already sat at the dining room table when Steve and Billy follow Maxine into the room. There’s a big bowl of salad and some chicken fillets in a tray in the middle of the table, which won’t be helping Neil’s mood. He hates hastily assembled meals.

Still, with Steve in attendance, he doesn’t bark at Billy the way he usually would. They sit down at the table, and Susan serves up dinner.

Billy is ravenous. He digs in immediately.

“How’s the studying going?” Neil asks. It’s not just a question; Billy’s senses are immediately heightened.

He struggles to swallow his mouthful, but before he can, Steve is answering. “It’s going well,” he says. “I really struggle with this stuff.”

Neil brings a forkful of chicken to his lips. “I’m sure that’s not true,” he says. His eyes turn back to Billy. “Did you enjoy your break from studying, Billy?”

This time, Billy’s mouth is empty, although he has no idea how to answer. His mind is working furiously, trying to understand his father’s angle. “I guess,” he says guardedly.

“And your sister?” his dad presses, and the pieces click into place. “Did she enjoy your absence from the house?”

“Uh,” Billy says.

Neil’s gaze transfers smoothly to Steve, as though Billy doesn’t exist anymore. “Do you have any brothers or sisters, Steve?” he asks. Billy’s heart is pounding, and his cheeks are hot; he shovels another chunk of chicken into his mouth.

Steve glances swiftly at Billy and then back to Neil. “No,” he says. “I’m an only child.”

“Ah, but as I recall, you babysit locally?” Neil asks.

Another quick look at Billy. “Yeah, I do,” Steve says slowly. Billy knows how he feels: knowing there’s something there, some hidden meaning, but not understanding it. He wants to tell Steve not to worry. Whatever Neil’s getting at, it will be about Billy, not Steve.

“I assume if you were babysitting, you wouldn’t leave one of your charges alone in the house while you went on a jaunt,” Neil says evenly. Billy closes his eyes.

“Neil,” Susan says, very quietly. Billy’s dad ignores her.

“Um,” Steve says. The silence around the table crackles with tension. “I don’t know.”

Neil smiles. It’s not a pleasant smile. “You’re not to blame in the least, Steve,” he says warmly. His eyes flicker back to Billy, hard and flinty. “Billy and I have had conversations about… what is it we’ve talked about, Billy?”

“Dad,” Billy says quietly. 

Across the table, Max’s face is white. She’s seen Neil go off at Billy before, of course she has, but there’s something particularly deadly about the way he’s talking right now. She says bravely: “I’m thirteen. I don’t need a babysitter.”

Susan reaches over to touch her shoulder. She shrugs her hand off irritably.

“You don’t have a babysitter,” Neil says calmly, eyes still on Billy. “You have a loving older brother. Isn’t that right, Billy?”

Billy bites the inside of his cheek, hard enough to make him flinch. “Yes,” he says. He can’t look at Steve. He has no idea what he’s thinking. Can’t bear to even consider what he’s thinking.

“And what is it we’ve discussed?” 

He’s not going to stop. Not until he gets his pound of flesh, until Billy is utterly humiliated. His mouth is dry; he licks his lips, trying to get some air into himself. His throat is croaky when he says: “Respect.” He closes his eyes briefly. “Respect and… and responsibility.”

“Respect and responsibility,” his dad repeats. “I’m glad to hear it, Billy. It seems you’ve managed to find yourself a friend with both in spades.” His unspoken incredulity at how Billy has achieved such a feat is evident in his tone. He looks at Steve, and at last he smiles. “Perhaps you’ll rub off on him, Steve.”

Billy’s hands are clammy. He needs to hit something, needs to get back in his car and drive off the edge of a cliff. He has to bite his tongue to stop the tears from falling; he’s been humiliated enough - in front of Max and Steve - to let that happen. It’s pathetic that he’s already on the edge of crying. When his dad hits him, sure, he can allow tears then, but Neil hasn’t raised a hand to him yet. Under the table, his fingers dig into his thighs.

“This is delicious, Mrs Hargrove,” Steve says to Susan, sounding just a little uncomfortable. She gives him a wan smile. He turns to Neil. “Mr Hargrove, uh… Billy was telling me you guys moved from San Diego.” He smiles, and it almost looks sincere. “What’s it like there? I’ve always wanted to see California.”

Billy doesn’t really hear his dad’s answer. He’s back to being the Family Man, full of stories about all the sights of California, and Steve’s making all the right noises of appreciation in response, but Billy’s not really there at all. He can’t lose it, not here, but he wants to. God, he wants to. He wants to tip the table, throw his plate against the wall, and he can’t.

Across the table, Max is watching him, her mouth set in a hard line. Billy forces himself to pick up his knife and fork. She’s waiting for him to fuck up. He can feel it.

He carves a piece of chicken off the breast on his plate and puts it in his mouth. It tastes like nothing.

Somehow, he gets through the rest of dinner. He’s angry with himself for reacting so badly; it wasn’t a particularly bad altercation with Neil, not really. It’s just having Steve here, and even Max to some extent. He’s never brought anyone home before, but he’d kind of assumed Neil wouldn’t needle Billy the way he normally does in front of Steve.

Well. He hasn’t, not really. This was tame. But it’s still humiliating.

“Can I leave the table?” Max asks, when her plate is clean. Susan is already gathering the dishes together.

“Yes, of course,” Neil says. That’s a cue for Billy, as well, so he pushes his chair back to stand. But Neil’s not quite done with him yet. He says warningly: “Billy?”

Billy turns to look back at him. “Yeah?”

“Thank Susan for dinner,” his dad says. His eyes dare Billy to challenge him.

It’s not worth it, not with Steve standing close by. Billy looks at Susan. “Thank you for dinner, Susan.”

“Really, it’s no trouble,” she says faintly.

“Are you staying longer, Steve?” Neil asks him.

Steve smiles. “Yes,” he says, which is such a shock that Billy actually takes a small step backwards. Steve is staying? After that shitshow of a meal? Steve goes on: “We just had one small thing to finish up, if that’s alright.”

Neil returns the smile. “Of course, Steve,” he says. “You’re always welcome here.”

Billy is desperate for Steve to fuck off, actually, but he can’t say so now. It’s kind of creepy how much Neil likes Steve being here, but then, he’s always welcomed any additional weapons he can use against Billy. Steve, with his perfect hair and clean good-boy jawline, is everything Neil could have dreamed of.

Billy tucks in his chair, but Steve hasn’t moved. He’s still looking at Billy’s dad. “Oh, Mr Hargrove, I nearly forgot,” he says. Neil nods encouragingly, and he goes on: “My parents are in town, and they said it was alright if Billy came to my place to study after school next week. Is that okay?”

Neil looks at Billy, who hastily rearranges his face so he doesn’t look as shell-shocked as he feels. Why the hell did Harrington say that? They haven’t talked about Billy going over to his place after school.

Then again, that was probably the most uncomfortable dinner in history, and they do have to finish the damn book.

“You’ll still need to bring your sister home,” Neil warns him.

“Yeah, of course,” Billy says huskily.

His dad nods. “Alright,” he says, and then his attention is on Susan, and Billy is dismissed.

He practically runs up to his room, with Steve following him up the stairs. Billy’s hands are shaking; so much has happened in such quick succession that he doesn’t know what to do with himself. What he wants to do is punch something - the wall, the mirror, somebody’s face - but that’s not an option with Neil downstairs. He’s used to swallowing his more visceral reactions while he’s in the house. That’s what the woods are for.

Or Jonathan Byers’ house.

Still, he can’t quite stop his bedroom door from crashing against the wall as he bursts into the room. Everything is going round and round in his head, making it ache, making him feel like it might explode - Steve, Max, fucking Byers - he can hear their voices in his mind. Thank Susan for dinner… even if you did change, you’d still be scum… the way Steve had looked at him, that strip of skin as he stretched his arms out, Max’s pale face - I don’t even get why you’re talking to him. The weird kid talking to Steve through the walkie, all worried about his safety. What is it we’ve discussed? If you go near Steve Harrington again, then we’ll have a problem.

Steve comes in after him, closing the door far more quietly.

“Billy,” he says.

That’s enough. It’s enough for Billy to turn on him, furious and spitting. “What?” he snarls. Wasn’t this how it started the last time? Steve standing too close, too close, and his dad up in his face and Maxine - isn’t this how it happened? 

He could do it again. It would be so easy to smash all of the overwhelming tightness in his chest into Steve’s face, to let it pour out of him, and screw any consequences. 

“You promised you wouldn’t,” Steve says. His voice is very, very calm.

Billy blinks. He’s standing right up in Steve’s face, nose to nose, and he’s breathing hard, and his fist is raised. He doesn’t even remember raising it, but it’s there, threatening, waiting, aching to lash out. And Steve… Steve isn’t backing down. He’s just standing there, and he’s not mad or scared or upset, he’s just standing there looking steadily at Billy. You promised you wouldn’t.

Slowly, Billy lowers his fist. Takes a step backwards. Then another.

Steve just watches him.

The edge of the bed hits the back of Billy’s legs, and he sinks down onto it. The swell of anger has drained away, at least for now, and he’s suddenly fighting a wave of tears. He won’t cry in front of Steve fucking Harrington. He won’t cry. He can’t cry, and he can’t fight, and he doesn’t know what he can do. 

Carefully, Steve sits down in the chair behind him. He’s biting his lips.

“Harrington—” Billy begins.

“I have dyslexia,” Steve says.

Billy reels. “What?”

“I have dyslexia,” Steve repeats. His cheeks are slightly pink. “I can’t… I basically can’t read.”

Billy isn’t sure his brain can take any more information. He wets his lips. “Dyslexia,” he repeats. “Like… the word thing?”

Steve nods curtly. “I think so, anyway,” he says. “One of my middle school teachers told me about it. She thought I had it. It makes it hard to read. That’s why I like you reading to me.” His voice is jerky.

“You… can’t read?” He’s aware he sounds somewhat moronic, but he’s struggling to process what Steve’s telling him. A lot of things about the way they’ve been studying together are starting to make sense.

“I can read,” Steve says. “I just find it… hard.”

“Oh,” Billy says.

Steve takes a breath. He’s looking oddly determined. “I still haven’t read the first three chapters of Pride and Prejudice,” he tells Billy. “I keep trying, at home.”

Billy looks at the book, sat innocently on his bedside table. His head is spinning. “Show me,” he says, with no idea why.

For a moment, Steve just looks at him. Then he leans forward, snags the book from the table, and flips it open to the first page. His face is properly flushed now, and suddenly Billy realises that Steve is making himself incredibly vulnerable right now. He’s doing something brave, and Billy opens his mouth to say he doesn’t have to do it, but then Steve is saying unsteadily: “It is a truth… universally ak - acknowledged…” He stops, taking a deep breath. “Acknowledged,” he says again. “That a single man in p… poss…”

“Possession,” Billy says quietly.

“Possession,” Steve says. His teeth sink angrily into his bottom lip. “In possession of a good fortune, must be in… in want of a wife.”

He shuts the book with a snap, staring at his own hands.

Billy’s heartbeat is calmer now. He says: “Harrington,” and then sighs. “Steve. It’s an old book. It’s hard.”

“Don’t patronise me,” Steve says in a hard voice.

Billy feels his temper flare, just for an instant, but it dies down again almost immediately. “I’m not,” he says. “It’s not an easy fucking book.”

“You don’t have a problem with it,” Steve points out.

“Yeah, well, I can think of plenty of things I have a problem with that you don’t,” Billy says.

“Yeah,” Steve says. Billy can’t meet his eyes. “I’m getting that.”

Chapter Text

Steve hangs out with the party at Dustin’s place on Sunday. He spent a restless night at home after leaving Billy’s place, unable to shake the memories of what had happened over dinner; it’s hard to stay indifferent to Billy after what he saw. 

Max has never even hinted that things were like that at home, but then, Steve barely knows Max really. Anyway, it hadn’t seemed as though Max had really come under fire. Neil hardly said a word to her. He just went after Billy.

Steve is still trying to wrestle the events of the evening into some kind of sense. He’d already noticed that Neil is on the stricter side of parents; the dinner a week ago had shown him that. Definitely tough, and maybe not too involved in Billy’s life. His own dad is much the same way, except the tough part gets diluted by his long absences from home. He’d been aware of it, but not given it much thought.

But last night… Neil had been angry from the second he got home, and the moment he’d realised it, Billy’s entire demeanor had changed. Like a wary animal, skulking in the corner, trying to avoid getting kicked. Steve’s never seen anything like it, especially not from Billy. Billy’s the guy who isn’t afraid of anything, who laughs in the face of a challenge. But not this time.

Steve can’t imagine his dad forcing him to embarrass himself like that in front of a school friend. It had felt like Neil was trying to rope him into a team of people against Billy, and while Billy isn’t Steve’s favourite person, he hadn’t wanted to play. It had been horrible, watching Billy’s dad laying down the law, and if Steve hadn’t already been convinced it was Neil’s initiative to keep Max away from Lucas, he would be certain now.

That’s why he stayed behind afterwards, why he invited Billy to study at his place next week. He didn’t want to leave Billy with the memory of Steve witnessing his humiliation.

He’d thought Billy would lose it. But he hadn’t.

He’s not sure why he told Billy about the dyslexia. He wanted to give him something vulnerable, because he could see how angry and embarrassed Billy was. It felt like he’d seen something he shouldn’t have done, so he’d given a piece of that back.

The whole thing is making Steve’s skin crawl.

So he heads to Dustin’s place, and tries not to think about what happened last night too much. His parents don’t even notice him leaving; they’re sitting in the living room, talking about the lunch they went to yesterday, and Steve just slips out.

Dustin’s front door is opened by a woman who can only be his mother. She has the same sunny smile as she greets him.

“You must be Steve,” she says warmly. “Dusty talks about you all the time!”

“He does?” Steve says, pleasantly surprised. “Well, he’s a great kid. It’s nice to meet you, Mrs Henderson.”

She laughs, stepping back so he can come inside. “Call me Claudia,” she says. “The kids are all in the back room, Steve. It’s so sweet of you to come and look out for them! Still, I guess you’ll have Jonathan to talk to.”

Steve stops in his tracks as she closes the front door behind him. “Jonathan’s here?”

“Well, yes!” she tells him. “He brought Will. Poor little thing, he’s not been well, you know. Let’s see, Will is here, and Lucas, of course. Mike hasn’t gotten here yet, and of course there’s that girl Dusty’s been talking about, Maxine. Do you know her?”

“Yeah,” Steve says. Then, feeling perhaps an explanation is called for, he adds: “I’ve babysat for her, as well as the other boys.”

Claudia’s already nodding. “Yes, Dusty was telling me about that,” she says. “You brought him home last week after school, didn’t you?” When Steve nods, she goes on: “If you wanted to make it a regular thing, Steve, I’d be happy to pay you for your time. I’ve not felt quite right about Dusty making his own way home so late ever since Will disappeared, you know, and he likes you so much.” 

Steve is pretty sure he would have wound up being roped into picking Dustin up regardless of payment, so he’s glad he spoke to Dustin’s mom before speaking to Dustin himself. “That would be great, Mrs Henderson, if that’s okay with you.”

“Claudia,” she repeats, smiling. “It’s nice for Dusty to have a young man to look up to, Steve.” She sighs. “His father, you know, isn’t so involved. And Dusty says such good things about you!”

Steve smiles. “That’s really nice,” he tells her, and it is. 

“Mom!” It’s Dustin, appearing suddenly at the end of the corridor. “Oh my God, mom, leave Steve alone!”

Claudia laughs. “Dusty, sweetheart, Steve’s going to bring you home every week after AV club,” she says. “We were just talking about it.”

“Looks like I’m going to be your regular babysitter,” Steve tells him. “Dusty.”

“Oh my God,” Dustin groans.

With a last smile at Claudia, Steve follows Dustin through into the back room, where a large table is set up for the upcoming game. Lucas is already sitting up at it; he gives Steve a quick wave as he comes in. Jonathan is sat on a couch by the window, and next to him, looking very small and pale, is Will. 

Steve’s not actually sure if he’s met Will Byers before, as much as he’s heard about him from all corners. He looks like Jonathan. He looks bruised, not physically but mentally, with huge shadows under his equally huge eyes, but Steve is well aware of how much he’s had to come through. He’s such a tiny kid, to have shouldered so much.

“Steve!” Jonathan sounds genuinely pleased to see him. “Hey.”

“Hey,” Steve says. He shoves his hands in his pockets, feeling awkward. Jonathan has good reason to be here; Will is still unwell, and frankly it’s pretty sweet of Jonathan to be here with him. Steve has no such excuse. He’s just here because he’s a lonely idiot with no real friends. 

Even Jonathan, nice as he is, must notice the irony of that.

If he’s thinking about it, he doesn’t say so. He gestures toward the couch where Will is sitting, and Steve follows him around the table and sits down. Dustin and Lucas are arguing loudly already about the set-up of the game, which Steve ignores. He sits at the edge of the couch, with Jonathan settling between him and Will.

“Are you going to go play, buddy?” Jonathan asks his brother. Will’s eyes flicker between him and Steve; after a moment or two, he nods, and slides off the couch. Jonathan moves further down, giving Steve more space.

For a moment or two, neither of them speak. The memory of their conversation on Friday is still fresh in Steve’s mind, and although he’s sure he’d be feeling a hell of a lot worse right now if they hadn’t talked, it’s still awkward to be here together. 

He scrambles for something to say, just to fill the silence. “How’s he doing?” he asks, gesturing towards where Will is seating himself gingerly at the table. 

Jonathan follows his glance. “Better,” he says quietly. “I think this… doing normal shit, you know, it helps. The kids have been great.” 

“Yeah,” Steve says. He can understand how it makes Will feel better, being around his friends and living his life the way he had before everything happened. Maybe that’s why he feels so unsettled half the time: nothing has gone back to normal for him. “I get that.”

“How about you?” Jonathan is watching him, his head tilted to one side. “How are you doing?”

Steve shrugs. “Face healed a while back now,” he says bracingly.

“I didn’t mean your face,” Jonathan says. “I get nightmares, you know?” He sits back, looking over to his brother again. There’s a pensive expression on his face. “I dream it’s still inside Will, that we didn’t manage to defeat it. Still seems so unlikely that we fought it off.”

“We didn’t, really,” Steve says, leaning back against the couch cushions. “That was Eleven.”

“Yeah, mostly her, but she wouldn’t have made it as far as she did if you and the kids hadn’t done what you did,” Jonathan points out. “You saved her life.”

Steve can feel himself flushing. It seems so fucking obvious that out of everyone, he did the least - just like last time. He still remembers that moment, out by his car over a year ago now, looking back at the flickering lights and knowing he had to make a decision. Run away, or jump in.

It hadn’t felt like there was much of a choice. He loved Nancy. And as much of an asshole as he’d been back then, he’d never been the kind of asshole who ran away.

He says, awkwardly: “I know what you mean. About… about not believing it’s really over.”

“You get nightmares too?” Jonathan asks, and there’s nothing judgemental whatsoever about his tone.

“No,” Steve says. “I just… don’t sleep.” He scratches his head, embarrassed by the admission. “I don’t know, man, it’s just weird, you know? Going back to school, trying to concentrate on all that ordinary shit when there’s something so much bigger out there.”

The doorbell rings, and both Steve and Jonathan start at the sound. Dustin and Lucas are still too busy arguing to so much as turn their heads, but Steve can hear Mrs Henderson shuffling through the house to answer the door. Jonathan says softly: “It must be tough, when your parents don’t know any of what’s going on.”

Steve turns sharply towards him. “What?”

Jonathan shrugs. “I mean, it’s easier for me and Will, because mom knows. It means we don’t have to… pretend.”

“Oh,” Steve says. “Yeah, I guess.” He tries to picture his parents knowing about the Upside Down; the concept is so jarring that he can’t get it to sit straight even in his head. “That’s the same for all the kids, though.”

“Yeah, but they have each other,” Jonathan says. The unspoken implication hangs heavy in the air.

Steve can’t think of anything to say, but luckily he doesn’t have to; at that moment, the door swings open, and when he looks up, the conversation with Jonathan falls out of his head. He should have known, really.

It’s Billy, standing in the doorway beside Max and Claudia, looking vaguely uncomfortable. Steve feels his heart stutter a little in his chest, although he doesn’t really know why.

“Here they are,” Claudia is saying warmly, completely oblivious to Billy’s discomfort. “It’s so sweet of you to come with your sister! The other big brothers are over there.”

Billy looks up - and meets Steve’s eyes. He doesn’t look surprised; Steve remembers that Max had invited him here in front of Billy. Instead, he looks oddly determined, a fixed set to his jaw. While Max slopes over to the kids at the table, Billy strides over to the couch.

“Harrington,” he says evenly. There’s something there, behind his words - something wild, barely controlled.

Steve rolls his eyes exaggeratedly. “Steve,” he says. 

Billy’s eyes flicker over to Jonathan. “Whatever.”

“You know Jonathan, right?” Steve says, just to be a dick. Billy’s mouth tightens.

“Hey,” Jonathan says easily. Steve wonders vaguely if anything actually fazes him; he seems to be so calm, no matter what the situation. Even with Billy. It’s somewhat enviable.

“Byers,” Billy says guardedly. He folds his arms, looking between the two of them. “Very cosy, aren’t you?”

Jonathan actually looks a little amused, which makes it funny for Steve, too. Jonathan says: “Are you staying?”

There’s a second - a very brief second - where Billy looks absolutely floored. Like he never expected to be asked. And then the shutters come down, and he laughs derisively. “Going to have to take a pass on that one, Byers. No offence, but this babysitting gig really isn’t my scene.”

“Okay,” Jonathan says peacefully.

Billy looks from him to Steve. There’s something very odd going on in the pit of Steve’s stomach - something almost… disappointed? It’s fucking ridiculous. He can’t stand Billy. But somehow, having Billy there makes things seem more interesting. And yeah, he’s kind of disappointed that Billy isn’t stick around.

It’s a fucking joke. He’s spent way too much time with Billy recently as it is. 

“See you, Harrington,” Billy says. He grins. “Steve.”

Steve rolls his eyes again. “See you, Billy,” he says. But as Billy leaves the room, he can’t help but smile at his retreating back.

*

Billy is an idiot. A fucking moron

He drives straight into the woods once he’s left Steve fucking Harrington behind, and it’s a real effort not to just scream. Why the hell did he go into the house? Max’s friend’s mom had invited him in, sure, but he could have easily declined. Could have left Maxine at the door, the way she undoubtedly expected him to. He hadn’t missed the glare she’d given him when he’d stepped inside.

So why the hell had he done it? Because he’d seen Steve’s car parked outside, and some stupid part of him hadn’t been able to resist.

He slams a hand into the steering wheel. What is it about Harrington? The kid hates him. They hate each other. And yet… and yet, when Billy had turned to leave, he’d wished he didn’t have to.

Jesus Christ.

He’s been trying so hard to forget about that moment out in the woods, when Steve had stretched and Billy had looked and for some reason his dick was suddenly hard. Every time the image of it has popped into his brain he’s pushed it viciously away. But he can’t ignore it.

He can’t ignore it, because the second he’d seen Harrington sitting there on the couch next to Byers, it had all come rushing back.

He doesn’t want to think about this. Doesn’t want to go there in his head. Harrington is a dude, and Jesus Christ, Billy knows he’s not supposed to think like this about dudes. He’s not supposed to look at someone like Steve Harrington and feel the blood pounding in his chest and… want something. He’s not even sure what he wants, but he knows it’s wrong.

He hits the steering wheel again, hard enough to make his hand sting. He hates the thoughts buzzing around his head; hates that he can’t stop replaying that moment when Harrington reached up, when he realised that there was something… good, about how that made him feel. He’s seen Harrington sweaty and half naked in gym class, in the locker rooms after, but he’s never had that reaction to him before.

Jesus Christ. Billy runs a hand through his hair. He never had that reaction at the time, but now, remembering Harrington in the shower, water running down his body… He can feel his cock stirring again.

What the fuck is wrong with him?

It’s not the first time. That’s the worst part. He never thinks about this, never lets his mind go there, but it feels like he can’t hold it back now that it’s happening again. It hadn’t been the same that time, of course, but Billy remembers it like it was yesterday. It takes almost nothing for him to be back there, fourteen years old, bored out of his mind in math class when the classroom door opened, and there he’d been.

Brandon Clement. He was the new kid at school, so of course he’d put on a show of bravado, but Billy could tell he was nervous. He was broad without being jacked, and he wore glasses that perched on his nose and made him look smart. He had pale skin and dark hair and freckles, and he looked delicate and a little breakable and totally… cute. 

Yeah, he was cute. He settled into school well enough - not cool enough to be in the popular crowd, but not unpopular either. He looked weirdly feminine, all soft edges and gentle features, and there were enough girls who liked him to stop him being bullied. He was quiet, but not shy. He’d talk if he was given a chance, and he had a dry humour that made Billy crack up.

Of course, Billy pretty much melted over everything Brandon did. At the time, it had felt like he wanted Brandon to be his best friend - but he knew it was more than that, even if he didn’t understand it. He knew it enough to stay away from Brandon. He wasn’t the big man back then that he is now; he had pull, but he didn’t rule his large faceless California school the way he does here. He definitely didn’t have the standing to befriend someone like Brandon.

He has no idea if Brandon even knew he existed. They never spoke. Billy sat near him sometimes in class, listened to him when he spoke to other people, watched him out of the corner of his eye. And sometimes, late at night with his hand wrapped around his cock, he thought about Brandon’s pretty face.

Jesus Christ. His hand aches from pounding the dashboard. He hasn’t thought about Brandon in so long.

Brandon wasn’t in school long. His dad was in the navy, and they moved around a lot. So Billy watched him go just over a year later without ever having had a conversation with him. He was too savvy to be sad about it, but it took him a long time to get out of the habit of picturing Brandon when he jerked off.

It’s wrong. He knows it’s wrong. There’s nothing worse you can be called in school than a faggot. He’d tried so hard to push it down, started dating girls, talked lewdly about them in the locker room with the other guys, imagined tits when he touched himself. And for the most part, it had worked. He blocked out every memory of Brandon, and he’d never met anyone else who made him feel so worked up. Not a guy or a girl.

Until Steve Harrington.

It’s like it’s too late, or something. Because unlike Brandon, Billy has talked to Steve. They’ve had long discussions about fucking Jane Austen, and sometimes Billy makes Steve laugh, and sometimes Steve looks surprised by something Billy has said, but in a good way, and Jesus Christ, he wishes he didn’t hate Steve Harrington so much. That none of the bullshit between them had ever happened.

He could jerk off to the thought of Brandon because even though it felt weird and wrong and he knew he had to hide it, Brandon was a stranger. Brandon was no one. But he couldn’t do that with Steve. How could he touch himself thinking about Steve and then be normal with him the next day, even if their normal is so fucked up? 

And Jesus Christ, why is he even thinking about jerking himself off to the thought of Steve?

His hand is on his crotch without him even realising he’s put it there. He’s half hard already, and Christ, it’s so wrong, but when he palms himself through his jeans it feels so fucking good. He can’t remember the last time it felt like this.

Fuck it. He unzips his pants, reaching into his boxers to wrap his hand around his cock. He’s thinking about that little strip of skin showing when Steve stretched, his shirt riding up, and his hand slides down his own length. He’s thinking about Steve’s stupid fucking hair, the way it flies in the wind when Steve is running down the basketball court. He strokes faster. He’s thinking about Steve when his hair is wet, the way he frowns at Billy, the way his mouth looks when he laughs. 

His breath is coming harder now. It feels so good, so fucking good, and Billy tips back his head and imagines that Steve doesn’t hate him. He pictures Steve laughing because… because what, because he likes Billy? Wet in the school showers, laughing, stretching, all the moments Billy’s seen Steve and hadn’t realised he’d been noticing. He gasps at the thought of it, of Steve Harrington, King Steve, the sound of Steve’s voice, just Steve, talking to Billy, sitting beside him, scratching his neck and laughing. God, Steve’s laugh. 

With a groan, Billy comes. And then he’s just sat there, alone in his car, cold and covered in his own mess, left with the bittersweet thoughts of a person who can’t stand him.

Eyes prickling, Billy hits the steering wheel once more.

Chapter Text

Billy heads back to the Henderson kid’s place way too early. He knows he’s too early, knows Max won’t be nearly done with her game yet, but he’s been lurking in the woods for a few hours now and practically vibrating out of his skin. And what the hell, she already hates him, so he might as well give her another reason.

Harrington’s car is still outside when he pulls up. He tries to ignore the way that makes his heart beat.

Mrs Henderson answers the door with a smile, which is weird and confusing; it’s not that fluttery, turned-on thing Mrs Wheeler does when she sees him. Then again, Mrs Henderson is nothing like Mrs Wheeler. She looks like a proper mom, a little round and comfortable, with a warm face and sensible footwear.

“You’re a little early,” she warns him as she lets him in, as if Billy didn’t already know. “I don’t know if they’re done yet.”

“That’s okay,” Billy says. “I can wait.” 

He’s trying to ignore the way his chest is tight and painful, trying to pretend that what lies ahead in Mrs Henderson’s back room doesn’t matter, but he can hear how stiff and clipped his words are. Fortunately it doesn’t seem like Max’s friend’s mom is paying much attention to him. She leads the way to the door, but leaves him to walk through it alone.

Billy had the stupidest, most unreasonable urge to turn around and get back in his car.

He reaches out and pushes the door open instead. 

He remembers that day, in the Wheelers’ place, coming down the stairs into the basement and coming face to face with Harrington for the first time since everything went down. The scene in front of him is almost identical; the same kids, gathered around a table with their game spread out and Mike Wheeler reading from a card. Max, shaking her head at the Sinclair kid, her long red hair swishing around her shoulders. This time, though, Harrington isn’t at the table. He’s sat on the same couch as he was earlier, talking to Byers.

For a moment, no one seems to notice that he’s come in. Then the curly-haired kid looks up, and his mouth drops open.

Mike,” he hisses, chubby hand whacking Mike on the shoulder, and Mike stops talking. Gradually, the room falls silent. All eyes turn towards Billy, round and shocked and angry, just like they were the last time. These kids hate him. They hate him. 

Billy does the only thing he knows how to. He leans back a little, folding his arms, and lets his mouth slide into a lazy smile. “Am I interrupting something?” he drawls, cocking an eyebrow. Thank God he knows this room already, he catalogued it when he dropped Max off, because if this was happening somewhere unknown his skin would be itching even more than it already is.

Max glares at him, hard enough to burn right through him. “You’re early,” she spits. 

He makes a show of looking at his empty wrist. “Didn’t know we’d agreed a time,” he says, which is funny because it implies that Maxine would ever agree anything with him. She opens her mouth to argue, but that’s when Billy realises that there are more kids here this time. There’s the Sinclair kid, Mike Wheeler, the Henderson kid… but there’s also a small boy with enormous eyes and sunken cheeks, sitting between Wheeler and Sinclair. And there’s someone else.

“You,” he says in disbelief.

Jane smiles serenely back at him.

Mike Wheeler stands up abruptly, dropping the cards he’s holding. His chair scrapes across the floor. “What did you say?” 

Billy’s eyes flicker around the room. For some reason, the atmosphere is suddenly tense, charged in a way it wasn’t a minute ago. He can see Harrington out of the corner of his eye, not speaking but watching, and all the kids around the table are still. Most of them are looking at Wheeler.

All except Jane. She still has a tiny half-smile on her face, like somehow out of everyone in the room she knows what’s going on the best, and Billy remembers that he felt like that around her before, out in the woods. He also remembers that she’d mentioned a Mike, when she’d spoken about her friends. He hadn’t really been paying attention.

“Jane, right?” he says slowly, eyes on Wheeler. The kid makes an odd, aborted movement, and there’s something curiously close to panic in his eyes. 

Byers stands up, his eyes narrowed. He says to Harrington: “Close the door.”

Harrington obeys, which is so unlike Harrington that Billy’s eyes widen.

“Jane,” Byers says, and there’s an odd emphasis in his voice, like he’s not used to saying her name like that. “How do you know Billy?”

“Met in the woods,” she replies placidly.

“What?” Mike cries. “You met him in the woods? Does he know where you live? What did he do?”

Jane frowns at him, lifting her chin and folding her arms. The stubborn expression on her face reminds Billy so much of Maxine that he almost smiles. “Nothing,” she says.

“Mike,” Byers says softly. “Calm down.”

“Calm down?” Mike yells incredulously. “Calm down? She’s supposed to - no one’s supposed to - and it’s him!” He flings an arm dramatically towards Billy, who raises his eyebrows. “What happens if he—”

“Mike,” Jane says, leaning forward. “Friends.”

He stares at her, eyes bugging out of his face. It’s pretty fucking comical to watch; Billy just wishes he had popcorn. “Friends? El, this guy is not your friend.”

Jane glares at him. “Friends,” she says firmly.

“Who’s El?” Billy asks conversationally.

“Billy—” Harrington starts, but Mike cuts across him.

“See!” he exclaims. “Now he’s asking questions!”

There’s a stark silence after he finishes talking. None of the kids seem to have anything to say; Billy hasn’t got a clue what’s going on, but it’s amusing enough to watch them all freaking out. He doesn’t look at Harrington, doesn’t want to risk giving himself away. It’s amusing, yeah, but it’s also a distraction from what he did in his car before he came here. And sure, there’s no way Harrington can tell, but Billy still can’t look at him. 

Jesus. He’s sick. He touched himself, thinking about Harrington, and now Harrington is right here in the room with him and Billy is going to have to read Jane Austen with him again at some point and pretend like it didn’t happen.

Suddenly the whole scene doesn’t seem so funny.

“Let’s all calm down,” Byers is saying. There is something calming about his voice, and oddly it seems to be working; Mike sits back down, although he’s still glaring at Billy. “Billy, come and sit,” Byers presses.

His immediate instinct is to push back, because that’s what Billy does: he always pushes back. But Byers is looking at him beseechingly, and finally Billy moves across to the couch where Byers is standing and sits down.

“What’s the big deal?” he asks.

Mike makes a noise, but Jonathan holds up his hand. He looks at Billy earnestly. “Look, after the other day, at my house, they’re pretty touchy, okay?”

Billy feels something unpleasant shudder through him at that. Is that what this is all about? Mike thinks that Billy is going to go after Jane? It’s been a couple of weeks now! Why would he even target her? She’s just a little girl, just a kid.

So was Sinclair. So is Max. The voice in his head doesn’t pull any punches. He shivers.

Mike is still watching him mistrustfully. Billy looks up at him. “Your little girlfriend there about to get me in any more trouble chasing Maxine all over town?” he asks belligerently. 

“That wasn’t—” Henderson explodes, but Harrington takes a step forwards from his position by the door, and Henderson subsides.

“No,” Mike says sulkily.

Billy spreads his hands. “Then we got no problem, Wheeler,” he says flippantly. His eyes flicker to Max. She hasn’t said a word this whole time, her face hard and tight. “See, I’m just a concerned big brother,” he says. “I’m just looking out for my precious little sister. As long as she’s where she’s meant to be… well, then there’s no problem. Right, Max?” He glances at her, a warning right there in his words.

She leans forward in her chair, her eyes flinty. There’s something there, something in her face that reminds him of her standing over him with that baseball bat. She’s not afraid of him, and it makes his stomach turn over.

“That’s right,” she says evenly. He frowns. He wasn’t expecting her to say that.

“What about E-Jane?” Mike says loudly.

Billy just looks at him. “What about her? I told you, Wheeler, I got no problem with your girlfriend.”

Something flickers on Max’s face. She says slowly: “So… if I stay where I’m meant to be, you won’t go after any of my friends?”

“Now she’s getting it,” Billy says. He can feel Harrington looking at him, but he won’t look back.

“Why do you care so much where I go?” Maxine asks.

He shrugs, although his heart is pounding. “Hey, I’m your big brother,” he says. “It’s my job to look out for you.”

*

My job . Steve hears it, right there in Billy’s words, and he can’t believe he didn’t realise before.

Neil Hargrove had been so mad, at dinner last night, because he and Billy had left Max alone in the house. He’d humiliated Billy at the table, made Steve’s skin crawl with the things he’d said. You don’t have a babysitter. You have a loving older brother. Right?

Of course it’s not the first time. What had Billy said, right before he first knocked Steve into the dirt outside the Byers’ place? He’d said his sister had been missing all day . And just now, even though he probably hadn’t meant to say it that way, what had he said to Mike? Is your girlfriend going to get me in trouble chasing Maxine all over town?

If Neil Hargrove gave him as much of a hard time as Steve saw when he left Max for a couple of hours in her own home… what did he do when he couldn’t find her all day?

“Billy,” he finds himself saying, almost before he’s realised he’s going to.

Billy doesn’t look at him, eyes still on Max. “What’s up, Harrington?”

He hesitates. “Jonathan and I were just going to get some fresh air,” he says at last. He can feel Jonathan glancing at him, but he has the sense not to say anything. “Come with us. Leave the kids to play their game.”

“Steve!” Dustin exclaims, but Steve ignores him.

Finally, Billy looks at him. It’s the first time since he walked in, and Steve’s not even sure why he’s registering that. His blue eyes are thoughtful. He says, voice measured: “Alright.”

He and Jonathan stand up, and Steve opens the door. He can see Dustin gesturing furiously, but he’ll smooth that over later; Billy needs to get out of here. He gets why the kids hate him so much - hell, he hates Billy, always has, always will, but at the same time, spending the time with him that he has recently means he understands a little more than a bunch of thirteen-year-olds. 

Steve is absolutely certain that Billy’s dad gave him one hell of a hard time the night Maxine went missing. After dinner, Billy had stood in front of him, breathing hard, fist raised, but he’d held back from hitting Steve. Just. That night… that night, he didn’t hold back. He lashed out. So there’s a pattern there, a pattern where Billy’s dad gets under his skin and then Billy, being the asshole he is, takes it out on someone else as aggressively as possible.

It’s not okay. It doesn’t make what Billy did to him, to Lucas, okay. But Steve was there, when Mr Hargrove laid into Billy right there at the dinner table, and it had been so nasty, so horrible, that he can’t help but feel a twinge of sympathy for Billy.

Sympathy for Billy Hargrove. Jesus.

Once they’ve closed the door behind them, Steve hears a cacophony of noise break out on the other side as the kids furiously discuss what just happened. He shakes his head, following Jonathan and Billy to the back door.

It’s cold outside, and Steve is glad of his thick jacket. He can see Billy shivering, just a little. Still, it’s got to be better than being stuck in that small room, everyone staring at him. 

Steve gives himself a shake. Since when did he care?

“Want a smoke?” Billy asks Jonathan. He casts a look at Steve. “Not you, Harrington, you don’t know how to do it properly, it’s embarrassing.”

Jonathan, the traitor, laughs, accepting the proffered cigarette. He wanders over to the Hendersons’ outdoor set, which consists of a wobbly-looking wooden table and a few chairs with peeling green paint, and sits down. Steve follows; Billy, lighting his cigarette with a match, just watches them go.

“Billy,” Steve says. “Come on.”

There’s a beat. Then Billy walks slowly over, eyes on Steve as he takes a seat; the expression on his face is unreadable.

“Hey,” Jonathan says. “Light me up?”

He has the cigarette between his lips; Billy takes out his box of matches, holding one hand around the one he lights to protect it from the breeze. There’s something oddly fluid about his movements, like every small thing he does is totally deliberate, done for effect. Steve watches as Billy leans across the table, holding the match to Jonathan’s cigarette, and then shaking out the tiny flame.

Jonathan leans back, apparently more relaxed now that he’s smoking. “Jesus,” he says, exhaling. He glances at Billy. “Thanks.”

“No problem,” Billy says guardedly, putting the box of matches back in his pocket. “How long are the brats going to be?”

“Hours,” Steve tells him, and then can’t help but crack a smile at the expression on Billy’s face. “It’s torture, man. Jonathan and I have been playing cards to get through.”

Now Billy looks interested. “What are you playing?”

Jonathan slides the pack of cards out of his jacket. “Gin rummy,” he says. “You want to play?”

Billy grins, the expression unnervingly predatory. “Fuck that,” he says, and his eyes, dark and glittering, meet Steve’s. “You two shitheads know how to play poker?”

Chapter Text

Two hours of playing poker with Harrington - terrible, as predicted - and Byers - a surprising dark horse, managing to beat Billy twice - are just about enough for Billy to feel a little less awkward about reading Pride and Prejudice at school on Monday. Just. 

He’s still paralysed with anxiety whenever he remembers, like somehow Harrington will look at him and know

He shakes away the thought. It’s not going to happen. Maybe if he keeps telling himself that, he’ll eventually believe it.

The conversation out in Henderson’s backyard had been pretty tame. He could tell that Harrington was working hard to keep it that way; they talked mostly about the poker, and a little about school. Nothing about the kids, or Jonathan’s girlfriend, or any of the other contentious subjects that lay like undisturbed mines between the three of them. Billy had thought Byers would give him a hard time, especially after the last time they interacted, but Jonathan was surprisingly chilled.

Chilled, and kind of funny, in a low-key way. If Billy’s the lion at the top of the food chain, Jonathan’s basically a fucking amoeba, but there’s no denying he made Billy laugh. More than once.

Every time it happened, Harrington just looked between the two of them with this odd look on his face, like he was trying to figure them out. In all fairness, you couldn’t put together three more unlikely companions.

So by Monday, he’s relaxed somewhat. Byers nods at him in homeroom - Billy rolls his eyes, obviously, but still - and he manages not to have a heart attack in English class when he sees Steve. I touched myself, thinking about you, his insidious brain reminds him, but Ms Young is speaking and he can focus on that instead.

It’s a different story at lunch, when he and Harrington head to the bleachers in a way that’s become routine. Tommy H frowns at him as they pass him in the corridor; Billy has already explained the English project to him, but he knows at some point soon he’s going to have to address why he’s spending so much time with Steve Harrington during the school day. He can’t remember the last time he hung out with his friends properly.

You think any of those douchebags you hang out with are actually your friends? Harrington hadn’t been mad when he said it - he’d almost been smiling, like it was funny - but still, Billy flushes when he remembers it. 

He jerked himself off, thinking about Steve. And now he has to sit out in the cold with him and shiver through some Jane Austen like nothing happened.

His heart is beating unreasonably fast.

It doesn’t help that Steve… Steve is looking pretty good today. He’s wearing a grey jacket over a green jumper, and his jeans are riding high up on his ass. Not that Billy is looking at his ass. Why the fuck is Billy even thinking about Harrington’s ass? The whole… thing, in his car, that was just a one-time thing. It doesn’t mean anything, doesn’t mean he’s going to start looking at Harrington, or anything. 

“Billy?” Harrington says, and Billy blinks out of the conversation going on in his head.

“Yeah?” he says, going for nonchalant. 

Steve just looks at him. “Are you still coming to my place tonight?” he asks.

Jesus. With everything else going on, Billy had completely forgotten about that. He tries to imagine being in Harrington’s house. There’s no doubt it’ll be ten thousand times better than that awful dinner at the Hargrove place, but still… being in Steve’s room, being alone with him in his space, knowing what he did…

“I have to drop Max off,” he says guardedly.

Steve shrugs. “Yeah, I figured,” he says. “I’m getting Dustin from AV club.”

Billy had actually forgotten Max had her stupid little nerd club. It’s probably a good thing; he can spend the extra time hanging out with Tommy and Carol, reminding them he’s still king of the school. “Okay, Harrington,” he says bracingly, and then rolls his eyes when Steve opens his mouth. “Steve. Your parents still home?”

“Yeah,” Steve says. There’s something slightly off about his tone. “My mom’s cooking.”

“She a good cook?” He lets something slide into his voice, the way you’re supposed to when you talk about your friends’ moms. And then he kicks himself for it, because Steve Harrington is not his friend.

Luckily, Harrington hasn’t seemed to notice. “She’s a great cook,” he said, and this time Billy definitely isn’t imagining the faintest hint of bitterness in his voice.

He doesn’t say anything though, the same way that neither of them are mentioning what happened at Billy’s house over the weekend, or what Steve had told him about reading, or even the altercation between the kids at the Henderson place. And Billy is definitely, definitely not mentioning what happened in the woods, or in his car. There’s a whole lot they’re not mentioning about one goddamn weekend, come to think of it.

So Billy shivers through Chapter 26 during lunch, and then after school he and Tommy H hang out at the quarry for an hour. Tommy is, frustratingly, quite good company when Carol isn’t hanging around like a little bitch; it’s relaxing just to be with him, to shake off all the weird uncomfortable feelings he gets when he thinks about Steve, and just enjoy slipping into his old role.

“We never see you anymore, man,” Tommy says lazily. He throws a pebble into the quarry, and Billy listens as it hits the rocks below. 

“Yeah, lot going on,” Billy says. “This project’s a fucking bitch.”

Tommy laughs. “Since when do you give a shit about school?” he asks, and then he gives Billy that little look, the one he always does when he’s worried he’s crossed a line.

Billy cuffs his shoulder. “Stupid thing accounts for half my grade,” he lies. “You think I’m passing up the opportunity to get out of this hellhole?”

“Must be weird, having to work with Harrington,” Tommy comments scornfully. Something rises up inside Billy at that, almost like… like he’s mad, or something, which is ridiculous; he and Tommy have trash-talked Steve plenty of times.

He makes sure not to let it escape. “You talk like you never worked with him on a damn thing,” he says with a snort. “Weren’t the two of you best buddies before I showed up?”

“Nah,” Tommy says at once. “Not for a long time. He used to be cool, man, but then he started dating Nancy Wheeler. Turned into a priss just like her.”

“Yeah, chick’s a bitch.” That, at least, is easy to agree with; Billy doesn’t like Nancy. She gives him looks in the corridor, like she thinks she’s better than him, and it doesn’t sit right. Besides, she left Steve Harrington for goddamn Byers, which makes her a fucking moron.

And it’s time to stop that train of thought right in its tracks. Billy stands up, kicking another stone into the quarry as he goes, and heads towards his car. Tommy knows he has to pick up his sister; he doesn’t comment as Billy drives off, just giving him half a wave. Billy nods back, letting his face slide into a grin. He enjoys spending time with Tommy; it’s easy-going, and he doesn’t have to think. But at the same time, his heart is already pumping at the thought of hanging out with Steve after he’s dropped Max off.

He looks out for Steve’s car when he gets to the middle school, but he doesn’t see it. Max is a little late out, which doesn’t do Billy’s temper any favours. Still, he manages not to say anything, and she’s as silently angry as ever, so the car ride home is actually surprisingly peaceful. He drops her home without even getting out of the car. Why would he? He has no reason to hang out at home if he doesn’t have to.

“Where are you going?” Max asks him as she’s opening the passenger door, her eyes narrowed at him.

“Out,” he says blandly.

She glares at him. “You’re going to Steve’s,” she says.

He rolls his eyes. “So why’d you ask, dumbass?”

She slams the door extra hard as she gets out of the car, just for that comment. Billy doesn’t care. It’s not like it’s any different from the normal state of affairs.

He’s never been to Harrington’s place before, only knows where it is because Tommy H pointed it out as they were passing one time. It’s pretty much exactly what he might have expected if he’d thought about it ahead of time; too big for Hawkins, really, with too many windows and three cars parked up outside. Billy knows Steve’s family are better off than most in this town. Harrington’s always had a slight air of the rich kid.

He slides the Camaro in behind Steve’s sedan, taking a minute after he’s taken the keys out to take a few deep breaths. He shouldn’t be as nervous as he is; there’s no way this can be any more awkward than the Hargrove family dinners. 

Except that now Billy has the memory of jerking off to Steve, right there in his head. He has no idea how he’s supposed to put that behind him long enough to talk literature, for fuck’s sake.

Slowly, he gets out of the car, looking up at the big house in front of him. Catalogues the flat white wooden slats it’s built out of, the oddly impersonal feel of the sparse front yard, the curling driveway, the wide red front door. He wonders whether Harrington told his parents that Billy beat him up. If he did, they’re not likely to be his biggest fans, as good as Billy usually is at turning on the charm. 

Heart hammering in his chest, he walks up to the front door and presses hard on the bell.

Steve answers the door. He’s changed his shirt since school, which is the kind of thing that Billy really shouldn’t be noticing about him, and his hair is a little floppier than usual. There’s the tiniest smudge of flour on his face, just by his ear. He’s not wearing any shoes, just a pair of green socks underneath his tight jeans, and as he opens the door, he runs a hand through his hair.

“Billy,” he says.

“Harrington,” Billy replies, because he’s an asshole. I jerked off to you, he thinks, and his heart rate picks up. I jerked off thinking about your pretty face.

There’s a silence, a beat, and then Harrington steps back and gestures for Billy to come inside. His front hall is nice, well laid-out - dark wooden floorboards, cream wallpaper, a smudgy painting of trees and a river on the wall with a gold frame. Billy’s eyes flicker from side to side as he takes it all in. Dark wooden sideboard against one wall, large leafy plant in a white pot on top of it. A couple of sets of keys in a little green dish. A letter, half out of its envelope, lying on top of a magazine and a couple of flyers. It’s all very clean, very generic. Not like a showhome, exactly, but almost like someone set it up to look like people live here.

Steve is watching him. “You done?” he says archly, when Billy has stopped looking around.

“Yep,” Billy says, as nonchalantly as he can manage. I touched myself. I thought about you.

“Stevie?” The voice is feminine, soft, and Harrington closes his eyes briefly at the sound of it. Billy lets himself crack a grin at the nickname, undoubtedly the source of Steve’s embarrassment. “Stevie, is that your friend?”

A door off to the side opens, and a woman walks through it. Immediately, Billy knows that if she were around more often, Steve would be inundated with ceaseless innuendo; his mom is tall, graceful, beautiful. She’s broad-shouldered in a way that shouldn’t look good on a chick, but somehow it works for her. In fact, as he looks at her, he realises everything about her is a little like that: slightly too big, too wide, but pulling together into one hell of a figure. 

She smiles at Billy. “Hello,” she says. “You must be Billy.”

“That’s me,” Billy says, and he flashes her a glimpse of teeth, lets his face slide into the easy confident expression he uses with Mrs Wheeler. He can’t use the same trick that he did then - Steve’s mom, while beautiful, couldn’t possibly be mistaken for his sister, and even Billy isn’t quite brazen enough to pull that kind of line right in front of him - but he can still get her on side. “Your home is lovely, Mrs Harrington,” he says, leaning forward to imply the just like you.

“Oh, yes,” she says, looking around as though only just seeing her front hall now. “Thank you.” She glances at Steve. “What time would you like dinner, Stevie? He’s been helping me cook, you know,” she adds distantly to Billy.

“He says you’re one hell of a cook,” Billy tells her, and he’s rewarded with a dazzling smile.

“Oh, well, it’s only salmon,” she says. 

Steve shifts restlessly. “Maybe in a couple of hours,” he says abruptly. “It’s not even four thirty yet.” He reaches up, runs a hand through his hair almost without thinking. Billy swallows.

Mrs Harrington smiles vaguely, and drifts back through the door she came in by. 

“Your mom—” Billy begins, grinning.

“Don’t,” Steve says shortly.

They go upstairs, Billy touching the polished banister with one hand and gazing about unabashedly as he walks. The interior of the house continues to be neat and tasteful, with attractive wallpaper and well-placed furniture along the upstairs corridor. All the doors off the landing are closed, and Billy wonders vaguely if it’s Steve or his parents that keep it that way. Does Steve run the vacuum cleaner along this pristine carpet? Billy can’t picture his mom polishing the wooden tabletops or watering the plants. Maybe they have a cleaner?

At last, they reach Steve’s room, at the end of the corridor. Steve hesitates, one hand resting on the doorknob.

“I showed you mine,” Billy points out.

Harrington rolls his eyes, and opens the door.

His bedroom is pretty much exactly what Billy might have expected. Blue and white checked wallpaper with matching curtains, several generic-looking pictures that Billy would bet every cent he’s got that Steve didn’t pick out himself. A large comfortable-looking unmade bed with blue covers and a thick blanket folded at the end of it. All the decor looks expensive, impersonal, quite unlike Billy’s own room with his hastily tacked posters and collection of clothes and jewellery. 

“Nice digs,” he says, rolling his words just so Harrington can’t be sure whether or not he means them.

“Thanks,” Harrington says warily. Billy grins, but it’s a half-hearted gesture; he can’t help but keep looking at Steve’s face, all open and ordinary, because nothing has happened to him.

Not like me. Because I - I touched myself, and I thought about you.

Harrington sits on his bed, picking up his copy of Pride and Prejudice from his bedside table. It feels strange to be here, in Harrington’s house, like Billy’s intruding on a different kind of life that he’s not entitled to. Maybe it’s because Harrington always seems to appear at school, fully formed with his well-styled hair and slick car, and seeing him here feels like being backstage at a gig. Harrington’s clearly not totally at ease with Billy being here; he keeps fidgeting, fingers twitching on the pages of the book. That makes it easier for Billy to pretend he’s fine, to grin as he sprawls across the other end of the bed.

“Where were we up to?” Steve asks.

Billy shrugs. “Jane figured out Miss Bingley’s a bitch,” he says. He holds out his hand for the book. “And Lizzy’s aunt warned her off Wickham.”

“I don’t like him,” Steve says, not for the first time. He passes the book across. “He’s too…”

“Cool? Awesome?” It’s an argument they’ve had before. Billy flicks through the pages, trying to find their place.

Steve rolls his eyes, leaning back against his headboard. “He reminds me of Tommy H,” he mutters.

Now that is a first, and Billy looks up interestedly. “Like how?”

Harrington shrugs uncomfortably. “I don’t know,” he says. “He bitches all the time, you know? And I don’t like the way he moved onto that other girl so quickly.” He drops his head, obviously realising he’s said too much. “Whatever. Keep reading.”

There’s something in that, something Billy wants to look at later, but for now he just flashes Steve a grin and looks down at the page. “With no greater events than these in the Longbourn family, and otherwise diversified by little beyond the walks to Meryton…” He stops, heart beating. Harrington hasn’t noticed anything amiss, but Billy is struggling to read as evenly as he usually would. I thought about you, and you made me come

“Billy?”

He shakes his head, trying to get rid of the unwelcome image. “With no greater events than these in the Longbourn family, and otherwise diversified by little beyond the walks to Meryton, sometimes dirty and sometimes cold, did January and February pass away,” he repeats. “March was to take Elizabeth to Hunsford…”

Chapter Text

“She’s a cocky shit,” Billy says, and he’s grinning like a cocky shit himself, knowing that he’s getting under Steve’s skin.

Steve knows exactly what he’s trying to do and takes the bait anyway. “Seriously, Hargrove, just because someone’s smart—”

“Oh, sure, smart,” Billy says. “What would you know about smart, Harrington?”

Steve,” Steve says through gritted teeth. 

Billy laughs easily. He’s half sitting, half lying across the foot of Steve’s bed, shoes kicked off and hair in his eyes. “Hypocrite,” he says comfortably, and Steve briefly considers throwing his alarm clock at Billy’s head. 

“She’s the literal heroine,” he argues instead. “You can’t not like her.”

“Oh, I like her,” Billy assures him, and there’s something in his tone that makes Steve swallow. “She’s just, you know… a cocky shit.”

“Whatever,” Steve says lamely, and Billy just smiles at him, a wide shit-eating smile that flashes his teeth and makes his eyes crinkle. He doesn’t seem to be remotely bothered by being here, in Steve’s bedroom; he’s a thousand times more relaxed than he has been any of the times Steve has gone over to the Hargrove house, and vaguely Steve wonders why he even suggested it initially. Steve, on the other hand, has been on edge all afternoon. Having Billy here in the same place as his parents is… weird.

Billy snaps the book shut. “We going to talk about your mom at any point, Harrington?”

This, at least, Steve has been expecting. He rolls his eyes. “Pretty predictable, Hargrove,” he says.

“Hey, when your mom looks like that…”

“Yeah, my mom’s hot,” Steve says, already bored with the conversation. He’s already done this, with Tommy H and a small handful of the other guys from school who have managed to come face to face with his mom over the years. Luckily, she’s not around enough for the joke to stick for too long. “I’ve heard it all before, Billy, see if you can say something original, okay?”

Irritatingly, Billy just looks amused, his eyebrows raised and that grin sticking to his smug face. “Jesus, Harrington, untangle your panties,” he says mildly. He looks away, towards the window. “Trust me, if mom was still around you’d be saying the same damn thing.”

Now Steve just feels like an ass. “Your mom,” he says hesitantly. “What was she like?”

Billy looks back at him, face surprised, like he wasn’t expecting Steve to ask. “She was a hippie,” he says bluntly. A smile creeps over his face, and this time it’s different. Less arrogant. “She was obsessed with music, always playing records. Weird shit, all this folksie shit. She used to sing all the fucking time. In the shower, in the car… It made my dad so mad!” He shakes his head a little. “She was pretty,” he says quietly. “She was really fucking pretty.”

“You must miss her,” Steve says. It’s a stupid question, but he doesn’t know what else to say; he doesn’t have any experience with death, not really. Pretty fucking ironic after everything he’s been through over the last year, but this is something that has nothing to do with the craziness of the Upside Down. This is something heartbreakingly human.

“Yeah,” Billy says. “I do.”

For a moment, they just sit there: Steve leaning back against the headboard, Billy sprawled at the end of the bed. Steve says: “That sucks, man.”

“Don’t go mushy on me, Harrington,” Billy says bracingly, but he doesn’t look pissed, and Steve, after a moment, just rolls his eyes. He can’t quite hide a smile.

He says, hesitantly: “So… I was kind of meaning to ask how you met Jane…” He trails off. He hasn’t been meaning to ask; Dustin demanded that he find out, in the car on the way home from AV club.

“Mike’s still worried, Steve!” he’d hissed. “No one’s meant to know about her! What if he tells?”

“He doesn’t even know there’s anything to tell,” Steve had pointed out. “It was only you guys acting so weird that made him think twice about her even being there.”

Dustin huffed at him, the way he always does when he thinks Steve isn’t being serious enough. It had made Steve a little shocked at himself that he knows Dustin well enough to even know that. “No, he singled out her out, like, the second he got there,” he argued. “He thinks her name is Jane!”

“Isn’t that her legal name now?” Steve asked. “Dustin, what’s the big deal? Isn’t she Hopper’s daughter now, or something? She’s not going to hide forever, right?”

The fact that that was true didn’t stop Dustin from rolling his eyes. “Well, yeah, but there’s going to be a whole plan for introducing her to Hawkins! He can’t just turn up one day with a daughter, people will have questions. And Billy Hargrove is the kind of guy who ruins things, Steve!”

“He’s not that bad,” Steve said, and that was his big mistake. It was also the last time he got to speak until they reached Dustin’s house.

He kind of zoned out until he heard the words Stockholm Syndrome.

“What?” he said, interrupting Dustin’s diatribe. He was parked outside the Henderson place by now. “What the hell is Stockholm… whatever you said?”

“It’s when you spend so much time with the enemy you start sympathising with them,” Dustin hissed at him. “You keep hanging out with him, Steve!”

“We’re working on—”

Dustin shook his head. “Yeah, you keep saying that, but you’re acting like… like you’re friends, or something!”

“Dustin,” Steve said patiently. “We fought actual demodogs, you know, the real enemy? Billy Hargrove isn’t shit compared to that, right?”

Dustin squinted at him, which meant Steve had made a good point. “Well, I don’t trust him,” he said at last. “Can you at least find out what he knows about El? She wouldn’t say anything, I think she’s got Stockholm Syndrome too.”

“Fine,” Steve had said, which is why he’s brought it up now. 

His words obviously sound as clumsy to Billy as they did to him, because Billy narrows his eyes at the question. “What, the kid?” he asks, sounding surprised Steve asked.

Steve should definitely have prepared this ahead of time. “Yeah, is she a friend of Maxine’s, or something?” he improvises. “I’ve never even met her, and all the kids were really weird about it.”

“Doesn’t surprise me, she’s freaky, man,” Billy mutters, and then flashes a grin at Steve. “Even you must have noticed that, Harrington. Steve.”

Steve laughs, although mostly at the way Billy still doesn’t seem to be able to remember his name. “Yeah, I guess.”

“First time I met her, she’s wandering around in the woods on a school day and she starts talking about my mom,” Billy says. He meets Steve’s eyes. “Weird, right?”

Before he can answer - and indeed, he really doesn’t know what he wants to say - there’s a soft tap at his bedroom door, and his mom steps into the room. Billy immediately gives Steve a sly look, pushing himself up into a sitting position; Steve rolls his eyes.

“Dinner’s ready, boys,” his mom says. She looks at Steve. “Your father’s home.”

She disappears, and Billy gives him a sideways look. “Your dad anything like mine?”

It’s one of the rawest things he’s said, and by the look on his face, he didn’t quite mean to let it slip. Steve runs a hand through his hair. “Some, I guess,” he says, and then takes pity on Billy. “Come on.”

They head downstairs. Steve’s mom has laid up in the dining room; she always does for dinner, even though the table seats ten and there’s only four of them. It makes Steve feel uncomfortable, like she’s showing off in a way he doesn’t want Billy to see. Billy’s family definitely has its own issues, but they felt like a real family, sitting at the kitchen table and present. Steve’s parents are just pretending.

His dad, of course, is at the head of the table, wearing a suit. It makes it awkward, because with his mom on one side, somebody will be a little out of the loop when he and Billy sit down. He could let it be himself, but then Billy will have to sit next to his dad, and that just feels mean.

Goddammit. Since when does Steve care this much about how Billy Hargrove feels at dinner?

He sits on his dad’s other side, letting Billy pull out a chair next to him. Billy doesn’t seem too perturbed; maybe, after the stressful Hargrove family dinners, he’s figuring Steve’s family will be a breeze. And to be fair, he’s probably not wrong.

“Thanks for dinner, Mrs Harrington.” Billy’s clearly putting on the charm, and Steve’s mom dimples at it.

“It’s always nice to see Stevie’s friends,” she says, as if it’s something she does on the regular. She looks at Steve’s dad, who’s already digging into his salmon. “Simon, this is Steve’s friend, Billy. They’re doing a project together.”

“Mm,” Steve’s dad says. He wipes his mouth with his napkin and glances at Billy. Then he looks at Steve. “I thought his name was Tommy.”

It’s a clean cut, at least. Steve’s dad isn’t like Billy’s; he isn’t trying to be hurtful. But in some ways that’s what makes it worse: that he doesn’t know enough to know why that’s wrong. Tommy H and Steve haven’t been friends for over a year now. Steve looks at his plate.

“You mean Tommy H?” Billy says, and Steve can feel him looking. “Yeah, I know Tommy.” He pauses. “We’re all friends,” he goes on, and Steve’s head shoots up. “I’m new to Hawkins, and Steve and Tommy have been pretty cool about welcoming me, you know?”

Steve’s dad raises his eyebrows. “New, are you?” he says.

“That’s lovely,” Steve’s mom says. “Where did you move from?”

“California,” Billy says.

“Oh, really?” Now Steve’s dad actually looks interested. “I’ve spent some time working in Cali. Beautiful place.”

Billy takes his time chewing a mouthful of salmon. At last, he says neutrally: “Steve said you travel a lot.”

There’s something there, Steve can hear it, but his dad totally misses it. He just laughs, looking pleased, like Billy’s paid him a compliment. “I get around,” he says heartily. “Does your family get the opportunity to travel much, Billy?”

“Only here,” Billy says. He sounds a little uncomfortable. “This is great, Mrs Harrington.”

“Oh, I’m glad,” she says happily.

Steve’s dad, in a classic example of completely failing to read the room, goes on jovially: “And what does your father do, Billy?”

There’s a beat. Steve doesn’t actually know the answer to this question, but he recognises the evasion when Billy finally says: “He works at a bank.”

Of course, Simon is overjoyed by this response. “Oh, does he?” he exclaims. “Well, he sounds like an interesting man.”

“Yeah,” Billy says dully.

“It’s a good economy for a banker,” Steve’s dad goes on. “He must be very proud to be a part of it, eh? Are you following in his footsteps?”

Billy glances, very briefly, at Steve. He says carefully: “I’ve gotta say I’m not too interested in being a banker, sir.”

“Are you planning on going to college?” Simon asks interestedly, chewing on a mouthful of salmon.

“Definitely,” Billy says, so vehemently that Steve looks at him in surprise. Billy gives one of his most insincere smiles. “There’s no other way to get ahead, right?”

Simon brightens. “Oh, excellent!” he exclaims. Steve, face warm, concentrates on cutting up his green beans. “Did you hear that, Steve? I guess I’m not such an old fogey, after all!” He leans forward a little, speaking conspiratorially to Billy. “I’m sure Steve has told you how keen I am for him to go to my old alma mater?”

“Dad,” Steve says, a little desperately. 

“Northwestern,” his dad explains to Billy, as if Steve hadn’t spoken.

He can see Billy looking between the two of them. “Well, he’s definitely smart enough,” he says.

Simon, of course, misses the dubious note in his voice. “That’s what I keep telling him - school is all about application, right?”

“Right,” Billy says evenly.

“Darling, that’s enough college talk,” Steve’s mom says decisively, in that way she has when she’s bored of a conversation. She smiles around the table. “What have you boys been up to tonight, anyway?”

“Studying, mom,” Steve says, resisting the urge to roll his eyes. “We’re doing an English project, remember?”

She takes a sip of wine. “No parties? You know what they say about all work and no play.”

“Irene,” Steve’s dad says quietly.

Steve’s mom touches his hand. “I know it’s important he studies,” she says placatingly. “What’s the project about, anyway?”

Pride and Prejudice,” Billy says. 

“Oh, Austen!” Simon says. “Of course.” He frowns, glancing at Steve. “How are you finding it?”

Steve takes a mouthful of salmon. “It’s okay,” he says, around his fish. “Better than I thought.”

“I wouldn’t have thought you’d find it an easy read,” his dad comments, and Steve’s stomach turns over again. Another blow, albeit unconsciously applied. His dad has a way of making him feel angry and anxious and inferior all at once, with his complete obliviousness to how his words are felt. His parents know about his struggles with reading, of course; they’ve heard the word dyslexia, too, from his middle school teacher. He’s pretty sure his dad thinks it’s some sort of phase.

“Yeah, it’s tough,” he mumbles into his dinner. 

Billy says: “Hey, man, don’t sell yourself short. English was so fu… so boring before we started this project.”

It’s the almost-swear that makes Steve pause. Like Billy actually means what he’s saying, enough that he forgot who he was saying it in front of. Either way, he appreciates Billy filling in for him; he’d tried to do the same, back at the Hargrove house, and it makes him feel reassured, reassured that Billy isn’t going to be a dick about this.

Reassured that however much they dislike each other, shitty family isn’t going to be something they hold against each other.

They get through the rest of dinner relatively unscathed. Towards the end, Billy thanks Steve’s parents for letting him come over again, and Steve wonders vaguely how much he means it. How happy is Billy, really, that he gets to miss out on his own awkward family dinners? Billy has seemed so much lighter here, away from his dad, from Max, and as uncomfortable as Steve’s parents have made him feel, it’s nothing to the Hargroves.

That’s what propels him to say, during dessert: “Mom, it’s okay if Billy comes again tomorrow, right?”

Billy looks sharply at him, but doesn’t say anything.

“Of course,” his mother says, blinking dreamily. She smiles. “This must be an important project!”

“Of course it’s important,” Simon says jovially. “I’m glad to see you getting stuck in, Steve. You’re welcome here any time at all, Billy.”

Billy puts down his spoon. “Thank you, sir,” he says politely. 

It rankles, a little, to hear his dad say that. Partly because he hates how his dad has decided Billy’s a good influence, based on one conversation about college and his dad being a banker - he knows nothing about who Billy really is, hasn’t even bothered to ask Steve. But also, it bothers him to have to get his dad’s permission to invite Billy here, like this is his dad’s space, like Steve isn’t the lord and master of his lonely home.

“How long are you guys staying?” he asks abruptly, pushing his bowl away.

His mom looks surprised. “‘Til Friday, of course!” she says.

Steve stares at her. “Of course?”

“Steve,” Billy says, and his tone is amused. “It’s Thanksgiving on Thursday?”

“Oh,” Steve says. “Right. Yeah, Thanksgiving. Jesus.” He’d totally forgotten. His parents always come home for Thanksgiving, for all the major holidays, but he hadn’t even registered that that was the reason for this particular trip. He’s so out of it. 

His dad laughs. It irritates Steve for no particular reason. “You’d forget your head if it weren’t screwed on!” he chuckles, and Steve pushes down the stab of annoyance. 

He shows Billy to the door, like he might have forgotten the way with all that looking around he’d done when he first walked in. “See you tomorrow,” he says drily.

“Your dad seems to like me,” Billy comments, eyes dancing.

“Yeah, and yours likes me,” Steve rejoins swiftly.

He’s expecting to pierce Billy’s smug expression, but his smile only widens. “I know,” he says. “Irony, right?”

Steve watches him walk down the front path. There’s some feeling tight in his chest that he doesn’t like. “Yeah,” he murmurs, as Billy gets into his car. “Irony.”