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maybe there is a beast

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Steve Harrington punches like a rich kid and a pussy.

It’s more performance than anything, Billy can tell. A sort of resignation to the windup, the cheesy line, like he’s only half-way committed to the role—Steve Harrington, fearless protector.

The idiot telegraphs the whole thing too, like he’s never gotten into a brawl that wasn’t a show for some high school cow. Shaking out his fist like he’s already anticipating the sting in his knuckles. Billy lets it connect anyway. Because he’s been itching to get his evils out, sure, but also because this whole night has been fucked all to hell, so upside down and frustrating and just plain weird; Max’s open window, the ugly little melodrama with his dad, the long dark drive to Shithole Byers—and he just wants something he can understand. 

Harrington’s first hit pops him right in the nose, gets the blood vessels going like same-shit-different-day, cinema perfect, all wallop and sound.

God. He’s going to cry—can’t ever seem to help it. It fucking stings in a way that’s connected to his defective tear ducts. Even the most perfunctory of hard-handed slaps from his dad can get him going, especially if there’s an audience. He can already taste his own blood and feel the burn of tears in his eyes, the fearful murmuring of those weird kids as loud as a rocket in his ears. They were all cheering a moment ago—except for Max. She knows better.

Harrington is pushing his ridiculous prom-king hair out of his face, having that quiet moment of realization that he’s started something altogether more dangerous than what he’d pictured in his little hero fantasy, that he hasn’t got the juice for what Billy can take, that Billy is going to make them both play this thing out ugly. He'd figured Harrington was dumb as a bag of hammers, but the guy’s actually surprisingly composed, using the diminishing moment of entropy before one of them swings to size Billy up to put him down, eyes dark and intuitive.

Huh. Selective intelligence, he guesses.

But there’s something else there too.

Billy could just be imagining things. He did just take a direct hit to the face after all. But there’s something about Harrington, some barely perceptible shift from trying on a role, to something more familiar. Something that’s been kept sleeping. Billy can sense it like a snake tasting the air: Harrington is awake now. Almost...eager. Like he needs this fight too. 

The thought of it is so absurd it’s hysterical. Has this choked-up exhausted laughter coming out of him. He was supposed to go on a date tonight, sink a few beers, maybe get lucky. But instead he’s here, in this crackpot house, with these weirdo middle schoolers, and finally, finally, he’s getting a glimpse at the guy who might have been king.

“Get out,” Harrington says, voice heavy with contempt; touches two fingers to his chest.

It’s ballsy. Suicidal. It’s more than Billy could have ever hoped for.

Harrington presses and Billy lets himself be pressed, feeling the slow unfurling of violence inside him, the weight of his arms, the thudding of his pulse in his ears. There’s a silence between them, sparking with anticipation, as magnetic as a kiss.

He sincerely hopes Harrington doesn’t plant his feet for this one, because he’s going to want to roll with it.

It’s a fast swing, hard enough to take teeth out. He doesn’t bother disguising the throw and, of course, Harrington ducks, fast and graceful, coming through with some of that agility that makes him such a vexing defensive player. Then he’s up and punching Billy in the mouth, and again across the jaw; meaner now that he knows he has to put Billy down.

The third hit hurts just right, gets him tasting his own blood over his teeth, shorts him out, everything else falling away to white noise. Harrington getting laid out now is just an inevitability. He can keep dodging or he can take his licks early—Billy’s not going to be able to stop until he’s pulp.

Ultimately Harrington goes belly up without much of a fuss, cradling his head like he’s still trapped in the moment of a plate breaking over it. Billy barely sees him. Can’t hear a thing over the rush of adrenaline. He’ll remember details later: the drawn-out hurt sound Harrington couldn’t control; the way he’d staggered, tried to draw away out of Billy’s grip, instinctively afraid to get hit again; the limp roll of his head side to side and the slick spill of blood as his lip split open.

The unexpected sting of the needle.

Max. It’s better than being high, whatever she's just stuck him with. He stumbles to his feet, the world turning syrupy in the time it takes to pull the syringe out of his neck, the ground tilting out from under him just as soon as he tries to step forward.

Yeah, this is definitely cheating.

Max is saying something, angry, suddenly taller than him—over him?—the colors of her hair and face bleeding together like a smeared oil painting. Billy’s mouth is cotton candy. He can’t hear her, is too busy melting down to particles to reply.

Then he’s underwater.

^^^

Once, Billy’s mom took him out of school so they could go to the beach. He doesn’t remember much about it, except for the anxious feeling of looking back to shore every so often, afraid she wouldn’t be able to see him so far out, and the sucking blackness of the current that pulled him under for a full minute.

He’s in that blackness now, one moment sinking, rolling, breathing water and then—jerking awake—Max slamming a bat full of nails between his legs, but then he blinks and—

Nothing.

He’s alone, the smack of the bat on the floorboards just an echo in his brain.

It takes him a long slew of moments to remember where he is, flat on his back, staring at an unfamiliar ceiling, thoughts coalescing inside his aching skull. He has no idea how long he’s been out for but it’s long enough that his body is stiff with cold, the front door of the Byers’ house left wide open, paper sliding over the floor like dead leaves.

He’d registered that the place was a dump when he first pushed his way in. Beat-up furniture, busted window and glass on the floor, the psych ward drawings taped up everywhere – the Wheeler woman hadn’t given him the half of it. But now that he’s actually looking around the place is downright fucking creepy. No way in hell he’s ever coming back here, or Max either, once this gets back to Neil.

He picks himself up, scrubbing at the blood crusted under his nose and testing his jaw while he waits for his half-frozen legs to cooperate. His face is throbbing and numb so he heads for the kitchen.

This shithole better have ice.

His hand is on the fridge door before he realizes he’s standing amidst the wreckage of all its scattered contents. Shelves and soggy ready meals, and something spilled and slimy. Something fucking stinks. He scoops up a half-defrosted bag of peas, pressing it to his lip and then dropping it when he realizes the bag is more wet than cold. Peas explode everywhere, skittering over the floorboards, over the swathes of scribbled-on paper.

Jonathan Byers. Billy had dismissed him as just some inconsequential loner type too cliché to warrant his attention – a fact which they’d both used to their advantage, sharing the occasional lunch break in the school darkroom, mutually disinterested in each other. When Billy next sees him they’re going to have a little chat. Anyone living in this level of fucked up has layers.

Well, there’s no ice, and no food that Billy is interested in eating if the smell of rot coming off the fridge is any indicator. He’s wasted enough time here and he’s still not sure what his next move should be. When he steps out on the porch he’s half-expecting to see a police car, or Neil’s truck maybe. But there’s nothing. He's already patting his pocket for his keys before he even truly processes just how much nothing he’s seeing.

Bitch, he thinks.

Bitch.

His stomach goes cold and hollow at the shock of it—can barely process that she would dare. If Max thinks her little show of assertiveness is going to survive the night and letting Steve Harrington take his car out for a joy ride then she has another thing coming. Even his dad has never touched his car. It’s one of the few things they both respect.

God, his dad is really gonna let him have it over this. Losing Max and now the Camaro, and losing a fight too. He doubts Neil will be too keen to hear Billy’s interpretation on that one.

He smokes two cigarettes on the porch delaying the inevitable. He can probably make it home in under an hour. The Byers are a little further out from the poor end of town but not too far from Cherry, and on foot there are some woods he can cut through.

He sticks his last cigarette in his mouth, jams his hands inside his shirt under his arms to keep them warm, and starts the long walk home.  

^^^

He gets lost almost immediately after running out of smokes. He’s on some street that’s completely black, the street lights browned out. The houses either side of him are dark, people inside already fast asleep. He could go knock on somebody’s door and turn up the charm, maybe even score a lift home, but he honestly doesn’t have a smile left in him, and his face is probably too banged up anyway.

He’s so strung out from the cold that he’s no longer even angry at Maxine. He’s actually kind of impressed that she had the smarts to maroon him, keep him out of the house while she no-doubt spins her own stories to Susan and Neil about where she’s been all night and what Billy’s done. She might be a Mayfair but apparently she’s got the Hargrove spine. 

He has plenty of time to figure out how he feels about this latest sucker punch to his ego on his walk.

When they’d first moved to Hawkins, he’d had this notion in his head that he could get all of the resentment and festering rage out of his system by giving it the reins. His anger was supposed to punish her—this is your fault—this is the brother you get now—and then, after it was spent, he was supposed to be able to forgive her, give her back the Billy she knew from before, like a sort of peace offering.

He’d really thought it would be that simple. Like maybe he’d wake up one day and what happened back in Cali wouldn’t—wouldn’t hurt so bad. Wouldn’t be this wound in him that he couldn’t even look at without feeling so hot-sick-embarrassed it made him want to rip out of his own skin.

The only thing that had made this shitstain excuse for a town bearable was knowing that she was suffering too, just as alone.

But then somehow she just...wasn’t. Against all odds she’d found something in Hawkins that got her out from under the same weight that was suffocating him. She’d made friends. As if Hawkins was her home. As if—

And Billy wasn’t even allowed to

Billy was just—he swallows around the emotion. Left behind. Stranded. Empty. As if all the anger he’d let fuel him had hollowed him out, changed the fabric of him.

Timid little Maxine who’d been his burdensome shadow since their parents met, who’d dogged his every step like a hungry stray, cobbling together a personality out of his hobbies and his way of speaking and his music and his clothes. The girl who’d had to sneak into his school cafeteria because she didn’t have anyone else to eat lunch with. 

She hadn’t been waiting around for his forgiveness.

She’d cut her losses.

The realization had only truly dawned on him once he was looking at her open window himself, needing proof, the night air ruffling the curtains, cool on his stinging cheek, brain swimming with the knowledge that she’d fucked him over so spectacularly. Again. “We can’t find Maxine,” Susan had said, the words knocking him off-center, recoloring their conversation. He’d still miscalculated anyway, digging himself in deeper, pissed about being left to babysit, missing the moment when he should have played the penitent son.

Driving up and down half of Hawkins he'd realized how stupid he’d been not to see it happening right under his nose; how he already had a handful of names and places to start looking for her at: Lucas Sinclair, Dustin, Zombie Boy. The kid with the stink-eye... Billy used to sneak out his window too, back when it seemed like there was nothing Neil could do to him that would get in the way of him and a good time with his friends.

He tucks his hands in tighter under his arms and grits his teeth, feeling pretty damn sorry for himself. He doesn’t indulge in the feeling often.

He’s so absorbed in coming up with plausible excuses for his return that he misses the slowing approach of a car, not registering the slice of headlights until tires are crunching over the dirt shoulder beside him.

It’s a cop.

Of course. The cherry-on-top of his shit luck tonight. 

The car pulls up alongside him, rolling to a stop. It’s dark in the cab but he can make out the driver: a gruff-looking older guy—Billy’s specialty.

“Get in, kid.”

“You arresting me?” he drawls, coming a little closer to where heat is spilling out of the cracked passenger window. “Sir,” he adds.

“Sooner or later, I’m sure,” the guy says wearily. “Look. It’s been a long night, just—get in the car would you?”

Billy doesn’t need to be told twice, shoving himself down into the seat and jamming his freezing fingers up against the vents. The cab smells like Camels. The cop leans over and cranks the heat up, eyeballing Billy’s instinctive wariness. He checks the guy’s badge out the corner of his eye.

Police Chief Hopper.

They drive in uncomfortable silence for a couple of blocks.

“I just got done dropping Steve Harrington home with two black eyes he’s going to have to explain to his momma in the morning,” Hopper says, taking his eyes off the road to give Billy a shrewd look. “You know anything about that?”

Billy swallows. Harrington better not have grassed on him. “He told you it was me?”

“No.” The man cocks an eyebrow at his bruised face. “Just thought you looked like matching dance partners is all.” He eyes Billy’s near-open shirt. “There a good reason why you’re walking around at one in the morning without a jacket?”

Billy bares his teeth in the semblance of a grin. “Just looking for the nearest beach.”

Hopper sighs like he can’t be assed pushing the matter. “Okay, smartass. Where’s home then?”

Not fucking here, Billy thinks, giving him an address.

Hopper darts a look at him. “You sure about that?”

“It look like I want to spend another hour walking around freezing my fucking nuts off?”

“Okay, okay. Jesus,” he says, taking the next turn. “Your mother know you got a mouth on you?”

“I don’t know,” Billy deadpans. “Guess I’ll ask her if I ever see her ghost around.”

“Damn, kid, alright. Screw me for trying.” He runs a hand over his face. “Let’s not talk then. That’s just fine.”

Billy doesn’t push his luck by messing with the Chevy’s radio, but it’s a near thing and the drive takes an age, identical garden lawns and mailboxes sliding by his window as they navigate the sleepy suburban sprawl. It gets to him, how dark it gets out here. How quiet. In Hayward there was always someone with a light on, noise from people and cars in the street, televisions blaring away through shared walls. He used to hang a sheet over the top of his ratty curtains to keep out the glare of the streetlamp across from his bedroom window.

In Hawkins there are only stars—not that he’s ever going to take the time to stand around in some cow field to look at them.

Hopper lets him out on the curb without a fuss, so Billy doesn’t play the stroppy teenager either, giving the man a respectful nod once he’s shut the car door, hoping he’ll leave before drawing too much attention from the house.

He doesn’t go in through the front door but cuts around the side, stumbling a little in the darkness, fishing around on the ground for a rock.

It takes three tries before the window opens.

“Carol?” Tommy says blearily, poking his head out, hair stuck up every which way.

“Hi Tommy,” Billy says drily. 

Tommy’s eyes blink properly open. “Oh. Uh...hey…man. What time is it?”

Billy takes an annoyed breath in through his nose. “Look, I need a place to crash. I don’t have time to get into it.”

“Oh,” Tommy says stupidly.

Billy raises his eyebrows after an awkward beat. “So…?”

Tommy frowns. “I mean, my parents are kind of uptight. Is there someone else you can hang with?”

Billy tries not to be disappointed. He sure as hell isn’t going to tell this glorified keg-stand assist he’s the closest thing to a friend Billy has in the whole world. He might not have much but he at least has his reputation.  

“Yeah, sure,” he says, spitting into a rosebush to cover the tightness in his throat. “Catch you around, man.” He starts picking his way back towards the side gate.

“Alright!” Tommy whisper-yells after him. “Jeez, yeah, okay, you can stay the night.”

Releif knots in his chest as he doubles back. Tommy hasn't moved, looking down at Billy, waiting. Billy stares back impatiently, following his gaze down to the sloping corner eave, to the nearby trellis and back to Tommy's stupid expectant face. 

“This isn’t Romeo and Juliet, dumbass,” he hisses. “Get down here and unlock the door for me.”

“Fine! Fine!” Tommy says, shushing him. “Just keep your voice down okay. My dad’s a light sleeper.”

His head finally ducks out of the window but it’s quite a stretch of time before Billy hears him fiddling with the back door, his fingers turning numb in his balled fists. He ushers Billy in like they’re breaking into Fort Knox. As if anyone could hear shit in a house this big, he thinks as they march up the thickly carpeted stairs.

Tommy’s room is in the middle of the upstairs landing. It smells overwhelmingly of socks and something powdery Billy recognizes as Carol’s perfume. There’s a signed basketball jersey on the wall and a cabinet stuffed with little league trophies. It’s so tragically expected that it sucks the last dregs of adrenaline right out of him. Tommy has laid down a comforter at the foot of his bed like it’s a grade school sleepover and Billy’s so thankful he could just buckle onto it.

“Wait here,” Tommy says, disappearing into what Billy’d assumed was a closet but is apparently an ensuite bathroom. Christ. He cringes at the sight of Tommy’s freckly legs sticking out of his boxers when he returns holding out a wet flannel for Billy’s lip. Tommy whistles softly. “Oh man. What did Racy Lacey do to you?”

Billy frowns, taking the flannel. It’s dripping, freezing cold. What a fucking moron. “Huh?”

“Your date? Guess you’re not taking her to prom then.”

Oh. Lacey Fieldman. Carol had set them up, promising Billy she’d be easy. Apparently she used to give out blowjobs under the basketball bleachers between classes. Dammit. What a waste of cologne. He wonders if she’s still awake somewhere, blowing out a candle in the window perhaps, complaining to her diary about him standing her up.

Billy dabs at his lip. Now that he’s out of the cold his face is starting to throb again and there’s a shaky feeling behind his eyes from whatever Max dosed him with. It’s messing with him, making him feel like he’s about to spill his guts right here in Tommy H’s childhood bedroom.

“So who’d you fight?” Tommy asks after a while, eyes flicking over his scraped knuckles.

Royalty, Billy thinks.

“Figure it out yourself Monday.”

Tommy snickers, crawling into his bed and turning the lamp off. Billy is left to crawl onto the comforter on the floor in the dark, his jeans stiff and cold and his belt biting into his hip. They’re both too uneasy around each other to actually sleep, but they lay in silence, letting the warm stillness of the room close in, listening to each other’s careful breathing, until, at some point, Billy must close his eyes.

^^^

Tommy kicks him out early. He gives him a waffle for the road at least, still warm. Billy eats it in four bites, hustled out of bed and down the stairs towards the front door with his boots in hand. He remembers only the vague outline of his dreams, a soup of confused half-memories: Lacey Fieldman waiting for him somewhere under the bleachers; the kaleidoscopic skittering of frozen peas over a kitchen floor; Steve Harrington ducking under his swinging fist, again, again, again…

Tommy is practically bouncing with excitement at getting to sneak Billy out of the house like Billy’s his girlfriend. He keeps bumping their arms together all jock-friendly, leaning in way too close and clapping his hand around Billy’s shoulder. Personal boundaries eroded by one night of poor judgment on Billy’s part. If his mouth wasn’t crammed full of dry waffle he’d tell the guy to push the fuck back.

Tommy pauses at the foot of the stairs, peering around the open entrance where Billy can hear pre-coffee murmuring and the dull clink of cutlery. Tommy waves him past, like now – quick. There’s a flash of some woman with her back turned, pink towel robe, cordless phone hunched up under one ear – and then he’s across, pressing up against a row of hanging coats. He bends down to stuff his feet into his shoes. His body, still warm and clumsy from sleep, prickles at the thought of the cold walk ahead of him.

“Tommy, come help me with this bacon please,” Tommy’s dad says from the kitchen, spying his son in the open space between the stairs and the front door. “Your mother’s been called in for a settlement.” 

“Sure, pa,” Tommy says. Fucking lame. He turns his head to mouth, See you at practice at Billy.

Billy gives him an exaggerated thumbs-up he hopes conveys how ambivalent he is towards that prospect – and, as he does so, one of the coats he’s leaned against falls off its hook and onto the floor with a thump.

They both freeze.

“Hold on Jan—Tommy?” a woman’s voice calls from the kitchen. “Who’s there, honey? Did Steve stay over?”

Tommy’s face goes from caught red-handed to hurt to embarrassed inside of a second. Billy doesn’t stick around to see it, grabbing up the coat and sliding out the door before he has to find out any more than he already has. He doesn’t feel sorry for Tommy. Tommy’s about to sit down to a hot breakfast with his Betty Crocker family. What does Billy care if he’s still pining the loss of his friend? Billy’s about to get the strips torn off him. He’ll be lucky if Neil doesn’t make him shave his head again. 

He books it over the lawn, slipping into the coat as he jogs. It’s Tommy’s ugly-ass letterman jacket. Great. Now he probably looks like a prick as well as a vagrant.

The walk home in broad daylight is actually infinitely more uncomfortable than the previous night because of the disturbing amount of Loch Nora residents up bright and early, fetching the paper and pushing lawnmowers around. They watch him with suspicion as he walks by, a garish stranger cutting through their cookie-cutter scenery, arms tense at his sides. He’s so focused on not making eye contact with anybody he walks right into the path of a sprinkler, the looping spray soaking the bottom of his jeans.

By the time he makes it home his head is pounding again, a headache settling like a band around his temples, his mouth dry and metallic. He stalks right past the Camaro parked neatly on the verge, taking note of the dented front, the side scraped down to the metal—nothing he can’t fix. Neil will probably relish the opportunity to get some quality father-son time out of it. Just about the only thing they have in common is a knack for fixing cars (and breaking things).

It’s actually a shock that his dad isn’t being his usual huge asshole self and waiting for him in the doorway, but a quick scan of the driveway reveals his truck is gone, and the house is locked and empty. He fishes out the spare key Susan keeps under an ugly ceramic frog and lets himself in.

The first thing he does is strip off and head straight for the shower. There’s still hot water for once and he lingers, letting it stream over him, washing the itch out of his hair, stinging over his bruised face. It’s the first shower he’s had in forever without someone waiting in line or banging on the door for him to hurry up. It seems like a wasted opportunity not to jerk off, but he’s so wrung out and fried, and he knows better than to touch himself under Neil’s roof. He grabs the closest bottle—Susan’s herbal shampoo—and uses it to lather up, rinsing once he’s clean and the warm water has soothed the worst of the cold ache out of him.

He pads over to the sink with a towel wrapped around his waist to assess his reflection in the streaky mirror. His face isn’t half bad. There’s a splotch on his neck where Max stuck him with the syringe, and a dark bruise with a livid center on his jaw – nothing he needs to put iodine on. His eyes are bloodshot. He rakes a comb through his hair, thinking of those weird drawings again and the bitter look Tommy hadn’t even slightly been able to cover. He presses a finger to his chest under his pendant. He heals fast. In a week it will be like no one ever touched him.

When he finally comes out of the bathroom his dad is waiting for him, standing in the kitchen. He puts Billy’s keys down on the counter, next to Susan’s simmering pot-roast.

“Maxine came home at midnight last night,” he says.

Billy swallows, his grip tensing up around the knot of his towel. He can hear Max and Susan outside, Max whingeing, car doors slamming, getting groceries out of the car.

“Do you want to tell me where she was?”

It’s the same tactic as the cop had used: rope to hang himself with – except that it’s completely different stakes. Except that his dad wants him to lose. He’s watching Billy, jaw not ticking yet, but tense, waiting for Billy to make it easy for him to take the mask off.

Billy has no idea what line Max has already fed him about her disappearing act or how well their stories will line up. He has to think Maxine wouldn’t have told Neil about Sinclair, or stealing the car, or the bat full of nails. He still doesn’t know himself where she snuck off to before ending up at that creepy house. Or where she went after. Not that any of that really matters to his dad anyway, he couldn’t give less of a shit about where Max’s been – that’s just a show for Susan. No, it’s going to be about Billy not getting Maxine home himself, about failing his bullshit test.

“I’m waiting, Bill,” his dad says.

Billy licks his lips. “She was with her friends. I found her at the Byers’ place—off Cornwallis,” he adds lamely.

“She told us you got into a fight”—and didn’t win it, hangs unspoken in the air. 

“So what?” he huffs. “I found her with some creep, dad. Some senior from school. What the hell else was I supposed to do?”

His dad raises his eyebrows at his tone. “You telling me you don’t how to handle yourself without acting like some rabid animal, is that what you’re saying?” 

“She got home didn’t she?”

“She got home, in some stranger’s car, after her mother was up the whole night, worried sick—”

“That’s her problem!” Billy says, voice coming out whiny and juvenile like it always does when he gets into it with his father. “It’s not my fault her kid wants to run around town with a bunch of freaks.”

“And her disappearing on your watch? You think that’s not your fault either? How do you think that looks? Like I can’t teach my own kid some basic damn responsibility.” He pauses, scrubbing a hand over his jaw. “You know, I try and I try and I try with you, Billy. I give you every opportunity to prove to me you deserve to be a part of this family.”

Billy swallows. “Yeah, well I—”

“And all I ask is that you don’t embarrass me,” he says, voice gone quiet and dangerous. “All I ask is that you respect the rules of this house, respect that woman out there who is doing her best to raise you right, like you’re her own son.”

That’s laughable. Susan’s not his mother—not even close. His mother was a spitfire, a lousy cook. She had a laugh like a chainsaw.

Susan is just a fixture in his life, a piece of furniture. It makes Billy sneer, thinking of her waiting up in her slippers and hair rollers, acting as if Maxine’s some spoiled little doll who’s never run off before.

“Well maybe she should focus on raising her own kid right first.”

“Wrong answer,” Neil says.   

“Well, what do you want me to say?”

Neil looks at him, disbelieving. “Say? I don’t want you to say anything. I want you to act like a man.” He leans in, eyes sliding over him slow and disdainful. “But that’s too much to ask of you, isn’t it, Bill.”

Billy’s heart squeezes in his chest. Neil’s insults never miss, he’s learned over the years what really gets under Billy’s skin. But even he draws the line at certain topics. They’ve both been so careful, stitched the memory of that last night in Hayward up so tight it’s like it never happened. Neil had wanted it that way too, and now he’s ripping off the scab, making them both acknowledge things that are best left alone. Like he can smell it all over Billy again. Like Billy’s slipped up somehow, and he hasn’t.

“Dad, I—”

He’s interrupted by Max bursting through the door, her arms full of bags.

“—never does chores and—Billy!”

She seems surprised to see him. Had she counted on him being smart enough to stay away? Her eyes dart between him and Neil, the tense space between them, her sharp little mind working as Susan bustles in behind her.

“What’s—oh,” Susan says. At the sight of him, her face goes tight and pale. “Hello, Billy.”  She makes to close the door behind her and then seems to reconsider. “Maxine, I think we left something—"

Nice try, lady, Billy thinks bitterly. He’s learned not to expect much from her in terms of running interference. What little motherly backbone she has is exclusively for Max.

“No, Susan, let her see,” Neil says, not looking away from him. “It’s about time she learns.”

Billy feels the bottom drop out of his stomach. He hadn’t predicted this. Somehow this has gone wrong, just like the argument last night, sliding into more dangerous territory. Neil almost never gets hands-on when his step-daughter is in the house. It’s like Billy’s North Star for how much he can get away with, whether he should brace for impact.

His dad is watching him carefully, waiting to see how he processes this development, if there’s something there he can use.

Susan frowns, putting her groceries down. “Can we talk about this first?”

“You want her to start running wild, with boys?” Neil scoffs. “You said it yourself, she needs to start thinking about how her behavior looks now that she’s a woman.”

“Mom!” Max hisses, turning furious red.

Oh Jesus. Now he wishes he’d choked on his own saliva and died on the Byers’ floor.

“Neil,” Susan says, wringing her hands, “She’s still tired from last night—”

“No,” Neil’s says, tone firm. “You want him embarrassing us again? Here, in this nice town? You want him teaching her his goddamn…aberrant behaviors, like that’s some way to act?” His nostrils flare. “It might take longer to stick with Billy, but it’s not too late for her. You’ve got to get them early, that was my mistake. I should have stepped in before Roxanne let him turn out—”

“My mom would—” Billy starts, but cuts himself off, biting his tongue.

Neil’s eyes light up with cunning understanding. “Your mom would what, Billy? Something you want to add?”

“No,” Billy says through grit teeth. 

“‘No,’ what?” 

“No—I fucking said no!” he yells.

Neil shoves him, hard, sends him slipping all over the floor, trying to keep his towel up, his hip clipping the table. Max gasps and Susan says something low and urgent to her.

“So now you want to be tough?” his dad asks, shoving him again while he knows Billy can’t get his voice to come out right, getting all up in Billy’s face the way he knows Billy hates. “You a tough guy, huh, Billy?”

It’s like a goddamn magic trick, that combination. Billy locks his jaw, trying to keep a lid on it, but his eyes are already burning, Neil’s big square face blurring out of focus. He’d rather Neil put him through a wall than anyone see him like this.

Of course, Neil knows that too.

There really is something wrong with Billy. Maybe his mom really did raise him too soft or he’s too much of a sissy or something, and Neil knows that he doesn’t want to be, and this is his way of reminding him that he is—the slaps and shoves, they're just the most expedient way of getting there. He knows the part Billy really hates is the part immediately after, when he’s exposed and squirming, when the delusions he’s bought about himself are peeled away. 

He glances at the doorway and, yes, they’ve both seen already. Susan is looking at the ground like she always does, and Maxine—Maxine is looking at him like she doesn’t know what she’s seeing exactly. He can feel his ears turning red, a sick tumbling feeling in his chest.

Neil’s eyes track the suppressed line of Billy’s mouth, trembling at the corners, his balled, useless hands. Whatever he sees is enough to satisfy him. Fuck you, Billy thinks, but he keeps his mouth shut, blisteringly aware that he’s about to cry, that there are always more humiliating parts of him that Neil can dig up and use.

“Remember this next time you want to play big man,” Neil says. “You just remember what you’re made of.” He turns away, dismissive. “Now, go put a shirt on. You’re dripping all over Susan’s clean floor.”

^^^

It was Tommy’s jacket.

That’s what set Neil off, he realizes, after, closing the door to his bedroom softly behind him and sinking against it. He bites into the side of his hand instead of screaming. It just gets so tangled up inside him, all the things he wants to say, all the ways he’s imagined he could win, could make Neil feel small instead. Neil’s right. They do this dance again and again and again and it never sticks.

Tommy’s stupid letterman jacket, so ostentatiously obviously not Billy’s. He’d left it strewn on top of his clothes when he went to take a shower. Fucking careless. It even smells like something else. Tommy’s aftershave, something clean and woodsy, something a mom would keep throwing in her cart at the supermarket. It makes his skin crawl to think of Neil in here looking at it, picking it up, listening to Billy in the shower.

He shudders.

It’s coming up to the surface again.

He'd thought it was gone. But here it comes, out from under the wave, legs beating against the bottomless darkness, weightless, striving for air.

He needs to find a way to drown it.  

 

Chapter Text

Harrington isn’t at school on Monday. Billy knows this because he takes the guy’s parking spot.

His ears are still buzzing with Max’s words when he pulls into the lot. She’s talking to him now. Really talking. Who knew little Maxine Mayfair had such a big mouth on her. For as long as he’s known her she’s mostly kept her thoughts to herself. Typical latchkey kid, like Billy, not used to playing with others. Now that she’s not so afraid of him – now that she thinks she has something over him—she talks, all the damn time.

She rifles through his glove box while she’s at it too, playing with crumpled up cigarette cartons, fucking with his tapes. Neil has the keys to his car and Billy doesn’t keep shit in there that he doesn’t want found but it still pisses him off, the easy way she does it, unhesitating, like no one ever told her she couldn’t just do whatever the hell she wants. He should call her out for being nosey but he lets it go because he can recognize an olive branch when he sees one, and because he’s bored of his own sulk.

She avoids him most of Sunday, picking up on the lines of tension between him and Neil, walking around on eggshells in a way so like her mother that it makes Billy want to bark at her. By the time he’s pulled himself together and resurfaced from his room his dad has cooled off enough to serve him the usual line of hardass bullshit:

No missing curfew. No partying. No missing family dinner.

No lip.

So rote it’s almost comforting. Billy bucks just enough that Neil knows he’s still got a red-blooded son, and Neil lets Billy keep his car so that he can stay out of the house and chase skirt.

Neither of them are fooled that Billy will follow this latest regime for long. Neil doesn’t care about half of his rules anyway, they’re just things he thinks Susan would want. The upshot of this one is that he’s basically got to chaperone Max wherever her heart desires and keep any boys from getting at her.

And, no more allowance.

Billy had got his back up about that. Neil had told him zip it unless he wanted another lesson in manners. Then they’d gone down to fix his car.

Clearly the subtleties of their father-son relationship were lost on Max. She hovers the whole time, watching them anxiously while they work, circling on her skateboard at a wary distance until her mother calls her in. Even then he catches her watching from the window, her face a pale, worried smear.

She doesn’t get it. How could she? For both of them, cars are simpler. They do what they’re supposed to. They break and you can fix them.

And Neil might hate everything about Billy from his boots to his hairspray, but Billy’s a dark horse runner for Son of the Year when he’s working with cars. A real ‘chip off the old block’.

He’d been a hyper little shit when they first started living together and Neil’d figured out pretty quick he was best put to pulling things apart and putting them back together again – that and team sports. Baseball was Neil’s game, but Billy didn’t play all that nice with other little leaguers who got in the way of him and his time in the batting box, so basketball had been the next best thing they found that could tucker him out. Basketball is where all his anger goes, but fixing cars is the balm he needs for his restless mind and hands.

The damage to the Camaro isn’t all that complicated. Neil shows him how to pull out the dent with boiling water and a bucket and makes approving grunts while Billy gets his hands dirty, occasionally reminding Billy to stick his damned tongue back in his mouth when he concentrates too hard. 

They set up a workhorse with sandpaper and primer for the scratches and his dad even brings out the radio, even though Billy isn’t allowed to touch it and Neil won’t listen to anything but classic rock. They have a good rhythm going, so after the scratches are buffed out and painted Billy pops the hood and goes about giving the girl an oil change too.

The weather is just starting to turn when they finish up, his fingers feeling the bite of the cold and his bruised nose starting to sting. Neil leaves him to do the rest on his own.

Billy expects the inside of the car to be a wreck – wouldn’t put it past Maxine to leave roadkill in there or something, but when he finally looks inside the cab it’s sparkling clean, the upholstery smelling faintly of chemicals and the half-dozen air fresheners dangling from the rearview mirror. His leather jacket is folded neatly in the passenger-side footwell. He runs his hands over the dash and the seatback and sits down.

Clean.

It’s such a stroke of good fortune, so unexpectedly considerate of her it’s got him stumped. His best guess is one of the geek squad shat themselves in his car.

He wants to ask, but he also kind of doesn’t want to know, and so far Max has been smart enough not to talk about that night or anything related to what she saw in the kitchen. Mostly what she wants to yap about is some girl who doesn’t want to be her friend—shocker—and the new mall half a town over. Susan’s promised to take her there to buy a new swimsuit for her Christmas present. And a new skateboard, since Billy snapped the last. And a pool. And does Billy think Neil will let them get a pool if he gets a raise? There’s room out the front and he won’t have to set it up, she’ll build it herself. Yeah, Billy thinks, dad’s real tight with money but he’ll definitely fork out for a goddamn pool so you and Sinclair can splash around in his front yard for all the world to see.

He about gnaws his thumb off trying to keep himself from cranking the radio up over her while she chatters, focusing instead on the long colorless stretch of road, jonesing for a cigarette. Then it really registers what she’s saying.

Summer. She’s talking like they’re still going to be here, in Hawkins, come summer.

The thought fills him with dread. Max might be drinking the Kool-Aid already but Billy hasn’t got the stamina to make it in Hawkins that long.

He’s still thinking about it when he pulls into Max’s school, waiting for her to kick herself out. He’s pissed her off somehow even though he didn’t speed or blast his music or even open his damn mouth. She shoves the door open and gets out, turning to glare at him.

“You have to try too, you know.”

Then she slams the door, because she’s thirteen.

He watches her with dull interest as she hurries across the lot to meet up with her friends. He didn’t think they’d be there waiting for her—at least not out in the open. Thought they’d at least hide if they heard him coming. They’re brave little assholes. Oddballs. She fits right in, doesn’t even turn around to see him leave.

They’d moved around enough times back in Cali that he’s got the new kid act down to a fine art. Make a big splash, smile at the right girls, get to the top of the ladder as fast and as brutally as possible so that the rest of it is handed to him on a platter. Not worth trying to get known by anybody, just give them the broad strokes and they’ll paint a picture of him that’s true enough anyway. He’s a closed book for a reason—he’s a dick. No question where he gets that from. Neil could only fool people for so long too, until Susan. That’s why they were always moving, his dad always running out the clock, shuffling their lives around a new girlfriend or a new job.

Hawkins is no different. The kids here are the same as anywhere really, just more inbred, hungrier for something shiny and new. It’s easy enough to enjoy what they want so badly to give him. Attention, jealousy, invites to parties with free booze and girls who think he can be gentle. But the shine always wears off Billy Hargrove eventually. Girls get wise. Guys get sick of his party tricks. Someone will start a rumor and no one will know enough about him or give enough of a shit to counter it.

Except, usually by the time the wheels start falling off they’re already packing up to leave town. It changes things, knowing that he might not be able to cut and run this time.

Jesus Christ, does he live here now?

He’s still so distracted thinking about it when he pulls into the school that he almost runs Lacey Fieldman over with his car.

She’s standing in the middle of his usual spot with an extra big scrunchie in her hair and an extra pissed-off look on her face. Her arms are crossed, so, not a happy diary entry then. Definitely something he’s not dealing with before his first smoke of the day. He brakes with a start and slams on the reverse, wheeling out in a flurry of grit that sends a couple of loiterers scrambling, and pulling into the seniors’ end of the student bay instead.

There’s only one spot left, prime real estate—a straight shot to the school entrance—and so deliberately left empty it might as well have a plaque in front of it.

Fuck it, he thinks, turning in with a flourish. He’s taken Steve Harrington’s throne, he might as well take his parking spot too.

The bank of girls who usually line up for a glimpse at Harrington’s panty-dropper of a car seem taken aback by the Camaro, but they warm up to one of his smiles as he struts past. So maybe he hasn’t burnt all his bridges in Hawkins just yet.

^^^

Nancy Wheeler is skipping first period. It’s not something he would normally notice; she’s not his type. She always has a pinched look about her that gets worse when Billy’s around, for one thing. It’s an expression he’s come to expect from girls with glasses and headgear, the ones that think they can get his attention by glaring at him, fantasizing about the day he’s forced to seek them out for math tutoring. But on Wheeler he thinks it might just mean she hates his guts. Maybe because he drunkenly made a pass at her at some party when she’d had punch all down her front and seemed like a good time, or maybe because she thinks he’s the one who keeps flicking staples into her backpack during English.

Rumor is she’s Harrington’s girlfriend and if that’s true then Harrington is even stupider than he’d thought. Wheeler is boring. Certified uptight. She’s the type of girl who’ll only suck dick after marriage, and even then only once the kids have grown up and moved out. She’s a waste of the bimmer’s probably gorgeous backseat.

It’s because she sits in front of him in English that he notices her missing. That and because the moment the teacher starts giving out last week’s poetry assignments he projects himself right back into his car, chin in his hand, following the thought out the window, and sees her pacing around outside.

She’s clutching her books to her chest in a way that’s distinctly anxious. Waiting for someone. She’s cute, he guesses—if you’re into that kind of thing. Delicate-looking. Bird-boned and pretty. Too much work, he thinks idly. Maybe Harrington likes that. Billy prefers easy. Girls who are fun, or girls who are fun to wind up at least.

“—Billy... Mr. Hargrove.”

He looks up at that. Mrs. Wright, staring down at him with an exasperated set to her jowls. A few of his classmates have turned around to watch the spectacle. “Can I take it from your faraway expression that you’re considering how the school parking lot might be a microcosm for themes of savagery and civilization? Care to share?”

He gives her a tight look that says, not really, slumping back in his chair.

“Perhaps you’d like to read your poem to the class then,” she says, putting his homework down on his desk. There’s a large red D scrawled at the top of his cribbed Metallica lyrics. She’s really stiffed him. “No?” she continues. “Then maybe you’d like to lend your voice to a part in the assigned reading.”

“Shouldn’t we wait until Wheeler’s here?” he says. “Pretty sure she’ll want to do all the parts.”

Someone giggles at that. It’s some big repeat-year guy who could give Tommy H a run for Hawkins’ dumbest student. Billy’s never been interested in playing class clown, certainly not to a bunch of hicks, but she’s backed him into a corner here. He has no idea what book he’s supposed to have preread.

A girl at the front of the room turns around just slightly, pointing her chin towards a large fake seashell on the teacher’s desk. Billy squints at her. She blows out an irritated sigh and then lifts up her own novel, flashing him the cover—Lord of the Flies. Well, that’s easy. He’s already studied it, back in Cali. Not that he can remember a thing about it, but at least there are no girls on the island. He won’t have to read a chick’s part.

“Ok, I’ll do a part,” he says, giving the teacher his most charming smile. Her eyes narrow doubtfully but she’s interrupted by Nancy Wheeler hurrying into the classroom and taking her seat with an apologetic look, stripping out of her fussy little jacket.

“Thank you for joining us, Nancy. We were just assigning speaking parts. You’ll be pleased to learn Billy’s volunteered his talents for one of the central characters.” He tries not to scowl. He’d had his heart set on the pig’s head (or one of the flies). “So who will it be then?” she continues. “The side of democracy or dictatorship? Rules-based society or law of the jungle, or intellect in the face of—”

“Uh, not the fat one,” Billy says. “The cool one—the leader.”

Wheeler turns around in her seat to give him an icy look. “Well, one could argue that that’s Jack,” she says.

Billy snaps his fingers at her like, got it in one.

“It’s decided then,” Mrs. Wright says with an appreciative glance at Wheeler, placing a bent copy of the text in front of him. “Everyone open to page one.”

“Hey.” It’s the big guy, leaning over to pat Billy’s arm. “Good choice, man. Hunt and kill.”

“Yeah, sure,” Billy says neutrally, trying not to shake his hand off. “Hunt and kill.”

^^^

Harrington isn’t at basketball practice the next day either. Coach Green eyes Billy’s scraped knuckles with suspicion as he does his warm-up with the rest of the team, but otherwise doesn’t call him out.

Billy hasn’t said a word about the fight. He wants to say it’s because he’s above all the petty high-school gossip, but realistically that would only work in his favor. No, if he’s being honest it’s because he’s slightly nervous about the stories he’s heard about the Harrington family lawyer, Mrs. Harrington. Guy with a face like that probably has it insured for a hundred thousand dollars.

Without Harrington at practice to get his long legs in Billy’s way, Billy breaks out some of his best game of the year. They cycle through one-on-one pairs at first, then skins on shirts once they’re all fired up. Most of the guys love playing against Billy. He’s something new; a challenge they haven’t had for most of their sad little school careers. Coach puts him up against the junior guys to get them up to speed, and against some of the bigger more physical guys to get them playing serious ball. 

Not every guy on the team is someone he can or should antagonize. Parker is too slow-blooded; impossible to bait. He responds to Billy’s nastier elbows by going placid, giving him a measuredly patronizing amount of space. When Billy takes trick shots on him he eyes the clock, like he’s impatient for another partner.

On the other end of the spectrum are the guys like Miller, desperate for their turn at him but so easy to tangle up and trip with a little bit of offensive footwork that Coach usually blasts his whistle before Billy can really get any satisfaction out of them.

The only one of them who would make it on a team back home is Tommy, who might be an idiot and a loudmouth, but was apparently born to read a play. He fits into Billy’s game so seamlessly it’s like passing back and forth with his own shadow on a wall. He’s everywhere Billy needs him to be to cut in and make shots, one after the other, blowing through guards and into the key, zig-zagging up the center until the guys playing shirts are red in the face.

He guns up and down the court so fast and unimpeded it’s a joke, until his opponents are hanging back more and more. Until they’re not even really there with him at all. No one in front of him. No contact. Just Tommy, every time he turns to look, coming through with the assist.

They bring in one of the fresh guys from the bench to get some height on him but Billy charges him down, gets him fouled up in his own feet so he can take a sexy lay-up right under the hoop just to really kill morale.

The shriek of Coach’s whistle comes like a mercy blow, the ball from his last shot thudding away on the floor. Someone is dry-retching.

“Alright, alright, we get it, Hargrove, you’re a real star,” Coach says drily. “Hagan! Get over here!” Some of the guys snicker as Tommy lopes over. “You want to hold the ball yourself one day, son?” he hears the man say, not un-affectionately.

Billy wipes sweat out of his eyes. The kid Billy just mowed down is still on his ass, staring up at him like he’s a golden god but he doesn’t stick around to help him up, intent on getting in and out of the showers as quick as he can, before he has to listen to Tommy blowing smoke up his ass about how he should go pro.

Tommy catches up with him anyway just as he’s stepping out of the steam, obstructing Billy’s exit with his big pale body to engage him in a full-blown conversation while they’re both naked, like that’s normal. Billy gives him an irritated look, but apparently Tommy’s used up his smarts for the day because he doesn’t move, almost…deliberately blocks him. Maybe Billy is just paranoid. Locker rooms like this get him feeling claustrophobic, thrown in with a bunch of guys who all grew up looking at each others’ dicks. The smell of sweat and too much deodorant sets him on edge.

“So, is it true?” Tommy asks, smiling.

“Back off,” he says, not caring that it comes out harsh, echoing off the orange tile. Despite past (disastrous) lapses of judgment, Billy has a rule about not talking in the showers. Every time he does he regrets it. He has something defective between his brain and his mouth when he’s pumped up and cocky, something that makes him take risks, say shit he shouldn’t—shit that could be misinterpreted. He doesn’t need to be testing the waters like that here, especially not if he’s staying.

“Is what true?” Miller asks, walking past with a towel over his shoulder.

“That your mom’s giving out handjobs in front of the Big Buy,” Tommy wisecracks, garnering a few whistles.  

“Har-har.”

Billy uses the distraction to step around him, making a beeline for his locker. Most of the guys have started to filter in, stripping out of their uniforms and trading shampoo. Billy shoves his soap back in its plastic dish and throws it in his locker. To his dismay, Tommy has followed him.

“Man, put a towel on,” one of the guys moans.

Tommy leans closer, eyes big and serious as Billy towels off and steps into his jeans. “Coach wanted to know if I thought you’d run for team captain next year. Did you hear?” He licks his lips excitedly. “Harrington’s chickened out—he’s not playing for the rest of the season.”

Billy pauses in the middle of scrubbing his hair dry. Coach Green must really be reaching if he thinks Billy is made up of what it takes to hold a team this lousy together. He hasn’t even bothered to learn half their names. But then again, if he’s stuck in this shitheap until he either graduates or saves enough to get out, maybe having team captain as a feather in his cap isn’t such a bad idea. He could even work it into a scholarship, maybe, so long as it doesn’t come with a bunch of small print. And the title of basketball captain comes with perks, probably has more longevity to it than keg king too.

The guys he plays with respect his skills, but he’s pretty sure most of them think he’s a douchebag. It’s not like he hangs out with them outside of practice, or goes to their preppy little team dinners. If he were to make a grab at team captain it might be a worthwhile way to pass the time. What are his other options here anyway? He’s not going to run for valedictorian as long as Nancy Wheeler and the stick up her ass live and breathe.

Tommy interrupts his thoughts, waving a hand under his face. “So?” He looks pointedly at Billy’s knuckles. “Was it Harrington? Did you teach that loser a lesson?”

“What do you think,” he says, just to get him off his back.

“Holy shit.” It’s the kid he knocked over on the court. Peterson. “You beat up Steve?”

“Guy never could take a hit,” Miller says. “Remember when Lacey’s dad caught them at it and chased him down the street?”

“Remember when he cried because Tommy K tagged him in the jewels with a softball?”

Billy tries not to roll his eyes. He’s not exactly proud of losing his shit on Harrington’s face now that there’s a good chance it might come back around to bite him in the ass, but it also stinks to know it wasn’t even that much of an accomplishment, burying a guy who was already on the way down.

His first week in Hawkins it was all anyone seemed to want to talk about. King Steve. Prom king, star athlete, a good time; a real crowd pleaser, like apple goddamn pie. He’d even sniffed Harrington out before they were introduced. But his instincts had been wrong, or maybe he’d just been too blitzed on shitty beer. Harrington wasn’t apple pie at all. He was like a mouthful of store-bought birthday cake, bland and dried out under the frosting. The closest to interesting Billy’s seen from him was when he was selling himself and those kids a lie, pretending he didn’t want to lay into Billy just to see if he had the balls to. But that had been just an afterimage; a glimpse of something already snuffed out and gone.

He accepts their slaps on the back and their high fives anyway, laughs it up at their lame ‘the king is dead, long live the king’ jokes. He even breaks his no talking rule to set the record straight: He caught Harrington with his kid sister. Yeah, in the Byers’ house of horrors. No idea what they were doing but dude wasn’t right and Billy had to show him how to be.

Some of them don’t buy it, but the others, the guys who are still pissed off about all the tail they missed because of Harrington—it gets their respect. Suddenly he’s inside one of their stories, instead of just listening in.

It really isn’t...bad.

“So, you coming out with us Friday?” Tommy asks. “Whole team’s going to the movies, and Lacey will be there. She’s on a mission, you know. You’re probably the only guy in the tri-state area she hasn’t got her mouth on yet.”

“Can’t,” Billy grunts. “Gotta pick Max up from school—family dinner.” It’s the truth. He’s not that put out about it though. It’s not like he has the money to waste on some shitty movie Hawkins is probably the last town in America to get.

“Man,” one guy chimes in. “How have you not gotten any action from Racy Lacey already? Even Peterson’s been with her and he’s got a pindick.”

Peterson squeaks, going bright red. “Fuck you, Danny.”

“Hey,” Tommy says, throwing an arm over Billy’s shoulders, loving the chance to come to his defense even though Billy couldn’t care less. “You should be thanking this guy here. So long as Lacey keeps him busy there’s some left for the rest of you losers.”

Billy shoves him off. This kind of talk – guys squabbling over pussy they’ll probably never get anyway—bores the shit out of him. It’s always the same, in any locker room he’s ever been in, a complete minefield, exactly why he needs to keep his mouth shut and stay out of trouble. But he can’t be too quiet either, he’s learned. They’re all looking at him expectantly now.

“Maybe I’m saving myself for marriage,” he says.

“Yeah,” Tommy says, snorting, “Tell that to all the girls you’ve screwed already. Like, uh”—he counts off his fingers—“Nicole. And Ashley C. And Tiffany.”

“Not what I heard.” It’s Miller, edging into the conversation, eyes gleaming. Billy doesn’t know what it is about the guy but he doesn’t like him. He’s squirrely, too eager: a bottom feeder.

Tommy rolls his eyes. “You’re talking out your ass, dude.”

“Yeah, well my girl said Ashley C keeps a list on the door of the girls’ toilets and Hargrove ain’t on it.”

Billy sneers. “So some bitch is pissed off she didn’t get her turn. What else is new. I’m not gonna waste my time chasing some slut.” He throws his towel in his locker. “The cows here don’t exactly do it for me.”

That gets him a round of heckling, guys offended on behalf of girls they’ve had crushes on since grade school. He laughs it up with them, smirking. Tries to brush off the feeling of eyes on him—Parker, watching him carefully from across the room.

“It true about Ashley?” Tommy asks him later when the rest of the team has already left and Billy’s still fixing his hair. “She’s probably just pissed…you know, because you dumped her for Lacey. I could get Carol to set you up on another date.”

Billy doesn’t bother dignifying that with a response. His hair is fucked, completely flat. Serves him right for gabbing it up instead of getting to it when it was still wet.

“Harrington and Lacey had a thing?” he asks instead. He doesn’t even know why he’s curious. Lacey Fieldman and then Nancy Wheeler. He can’t see a connection.

Tommy snorts, fisting either side of his towel and pulling it tight over the back of his neck. “Had a thing?” He gives Billy a sly look, lip curling. “He popped her cherry—told the whole school about how she went crazy on his dick their first date. Her parents had to pull her out of school and ship her off to Kerley County for a term. Not that it did her any good.”

Billy licks his lips. Tommy doesn’t realize it but his tone has gone from excited about raking dirt over his old friend, to something bordering on fond. Billy’s not going to call attention to it, especially when he’s telling stories about Harrington that have a darker, more savory flavor than the usual hero-worship bullshit.

Tommy obviously senses that he’s said something to pique Billy’s interest though, because he keeps talking, all the way out of the gym and across the schoolyard. Billy only listens to half of it. He kind of wishes Hawkins would just forget about Steve Harrington already. If he has to live here now he’d be better off without the ghost of some guy following him around, reminding him of all the ways he needs to measure up.

He tongues at the inside of his lip, where his teeth had cut into the flesh. The rest of his face has already healed but it’s a wound he can’t stop reopening.

^^^

Susan has made polenta for dinner. Billy picks at his, letting it slop back onto the plate and catching Max’s eyes across the table. His dad shovels it into his mouth, expressionless and robotic, the sound of the spoon hitting the plate as steady as a metronome. Billy's mom would make burnt eggs on burnt toast and covered in ketchup, he thinks. She never cared if he wanted dessert first.

“Susan said there was a postcard in the mail today,” Neil says when he’s finished. “From California.”

Billy stiffens. Neil meets his eyes, relaxed as anything. “Returned to sender.”

“Who are you writing to in California?” Max asks, frowning. Susan leans over and smooths a flyaway piece of hair behind one of her ears, eyeing her cooling food pointedly.

“None of your business,” he says. He pushes his plate away. “Am I excused?”

“But you hardly touched your—” 

“Susan," Neil says. "Let him go.”

“I’m done too,” Max says, rising out of her seat.  

Susan grabs her arm to sit her back down. “No, you’re not, young lady. Remember what we talked about? You’re staying to clean dishes.”  

“That’s not fair,” Max whines. “How come Billy doesn’t have to do chores?”

“You are my chore."

“Billy.”

“I got a team thing,” he explains. He needs to get out, right now. There’s a hot squeezing feeling in his throat. He wants to see it—the postcard—even if it’s just to confirm, just to see the stamp. It’s not a good idea. Not with all of them in the house. He needs to get in his car and go somewhere.

His dad nods, watching him.

“That’s not fair,” Max shouts. “He’s not going out with the team, he’s seeing some girl. Everyone at school knows about it. How come I can’t go to the arcade with my friends but Billy’s allowed to do whatever he wants?”

She throws her spoon into her food—polenta and gravy spattering—twisting out of Susan’s grip and storming off. Susan hurries after her, her chair squeaking over the linoleum. A moment later her door slams and he can hear Susan pounding on it. The sound of their caterwauling only strings him tighter. It’s a high-pitched noise he never gets used to.

He goes and grabs his keys. His dad’s still sitting at the table when he gets back. “Your girl…” Neil starts, then seems to change his mind. He takes a sip of his root beer, slow, staring at nothing. “I don’t need to remind you to be careful,” he says. “Nothing you can do if you get one of them pregnant.”

Yeah, Billy thinks hatefully, filling in the blanks. Wouldn’t want a mistake following me for the rest of my life.

He floors the gas the whole way into town, music blasting so loud he can feel the beat rattling his blood. Hawkins whizzes by, dark and uninteresting, bare-limbed trees bleached of color, nothing to look at but the long black streamer of road in front of him. By the time he gets to the cinema he’s got the worst of it out of him, but it’s still there in the agitated trip of his pulse.

The team is still milling around underneath the marquee, waiting for the previews to start. Tommy is there too, bearhugging Carol, trying to lift her off her feet while she tries to hold a bucket of popcorn away from him. And there, off to one side, looking around hopefully and ignoring one of the other guys, is Lacey Fieldman.

She clocks him before anyone else as he pulls up showily, rubber screeching. He doesn’t bother getting out, just leans over to shove the passenger door open.

“Get in,” he says with a dangerous smile. “Ditch the popcorn.”

“Maybe I wanted to see the movie,” she says as she slides into the seat, giving him a sultry look from under her curly bangs.

“I’ll tell you how it ends,” he says. “The princess and the criminal end up together.” It’s the story she wants—they all do—even if it’s not the whole point of the movie. Even if it’s not what she’s going to get out of him, really. 

They don’t speak the rest of the drive out to Lovers’ Lake and he doesn’t let her touch the radio. He can tell he makes her nervous. Not in the way he makes Max nervous, when she holds onto the door handle like he’s a psycho who’s going to get them both killed. More like she had it in her head how the night would go and he’s skipped a few steps, put her on the back foot. 

“So,” she says breathily once they’ve parked somewhere quiet and he’s turned the music off.

The seat creaks as he leans over and kisses her. She sighs into it, going pliant, clicking out of her seatbelt to crawl into his lap. She slides her hands up under his jacket, sucking his lip into her mouth gently. She’s good. He pushes her back a little so that he can get a look at the flush starting on her neck, kissing up under her ear and breathing in her perfume. It tastes like something under his tongue.

He looks at the dangling air fresheners while she takes her skivvy off, pulling his hands over her bra. He scrapes his thumbs over the lace, making her squirm, up and over the curve of her breasts and around over her shoulders to the fastening. She pushes him back just slightly, breathing heavy, eyes on his mouth.

“You’re a good kisser,” she says.

She’s better at it than him but he’ll take it.

“Do you want to slow down?” he asks, because she hasn’t tried for his belt yet and it seems like maybe she does. She shakes her head, no, and pushes him back into the seat, kisses turning hungry, coming faster, smearing along his jaw. Her hands come up to stroke at his new stubble, one thumb finding the tender spot where Harrington had really nailed him, even though the bruise has faded and gone. He’s quiet—has never allowed himself to be otherwise, but he gasps when she licks over it, sealing her mouth there and sliding her fingers up through his hair, pulling.

She’s smiling into his mouth when he really starts kissing back, his arms tightening against her, wrapping around her ribs to pull her closer, to keep her lips on his. She’s almost laughing. He doesn’t mind. Just keeps kissing and kissing and kissing her. Like he’s always going to be hungry.

Chapter Text

“You will not believe what I just heard.”

Billy pauses with his meatloaf halfway to his mouth. Carol is looking down at him expectantly over her lunch tray, mouth ticked up in one corner, betraying her excitement. He sighs and drops his fork. “Get lost,” he says to the kid across from him so that she can slide in.

He doesn’t normally eat in the cafeteria for just this reason. Prefers to spend his lunch break in his car with the radio on and a three-course meal of Marlboros. Except now he has no allowance, and no smokes since he smoked his last pack over a week ago. He’s aching for nicotine. His dreams are all fucked up and unnatural, have him waking up chewing away at his own fingers. He’s already tossed his room twice in the hope of finding a stray stick, even got up in the middle of the night to look under his car seats with a torch once the inspiration came to him. Nada. The cafeteria food tastes like dogshit, but it beats sitting alone in his car picking at Susan’s crummy health food and listening to his stomach growl.

Carol drops her tray down. Somehow she’s managed to sweet-talk her way into an extra pudding cup. She takes her time settling in, smirking, knowing that he doesn’t want to have to ask if her gossip is about him. He raises his eyebrows at her like, well?

“We missed you at the movies last Friday…”

“Get to the point, Carol.”

Her smile widens. “Word is you took Lacey Fieldman to Lovers’ Lake and didn’t—” She makes a gesture with her fingers, her tongue in her cheek.  

He narrows his eyes. “Says who?”

“So it’s true,” she says, eyes gleaming.

He shrugs, aiming for indifference. “What’s it to you?” He stabs at his meatloaf. “I don’t screw and tell.”

Carol rests her face in her hands, practically glowing. “Yeah, that’s about what she said. So, what’s the deal? She special or something?”

He gives her a flat look. Lacey is the furthest thing from special and Carol knows it, that’s why she promised him she would be a sure thing.

He’s not a pig like some guys, isn’t interested in hurting some bitch’s feelings just for the reputation. Still, he doesn’t need the easiest girl in school going around running her mouth about him treating her different.

“Didn’t have a rubber,” he says around a mouthful of food, letting the implications of that do the nasty work for him, which it does if Carol’s delighted expression is any indicator. It’s a half-truth anyway.

He scans the cafeteria for Lacey’s ponytail, but his eyes land on Nancy Wheeler instead. She doesn’t look so pinched today. She’s sitting with Byers, her normally prissy little mouth stretched up into a wry smile. They make an odd pair. Byers especially looks out of place in the buzzing cafeteria, his satchel tucked between the table and his chest in case he needs to pack up and run.

Carol realizes she’s been tuned out and follows his line of sight to where Wheeler is tugging playfully at a book in Byers’ hands. “Little Miss Perfect?” she says, turning to face him. “Forget it. She might look all sweet and dewy, but she’s very sloppy seconds from what I heard through Stevie’s bedroom wall. Not to mention, she’s dating the freak. Although…” She swivels back around. “You do have one thing in common.”

He tries not to bristle. They have something in common alright, but he doubts that’s what Carol has latched on to. And Byers thinks punk rock is music, so they’re practically a different species. He arches an eyebrow at her. “It look like I’m into wearing hand-me-downs?”

She snorts, prying open the lip of her milk carton. “No. But you’re both into punching King Steve in the face. Maybe that’s her type.”

“Well, she’s not mine,” he says. “And Harrington’s not king of shit anymore.”

Carol hums an agreement. “He’s already in so much trouble with his parents about college applications.” She twirls her hair. “He misses any more class and they’re gonna make him go to summer school.”

“Who’s going to special school?” Tommy asks, sliding in beside Carol and throwing his arm around her. He looks at Billy. “Carol’s going—otherwise they’re not going to let her graduate next year,” he adds out of the side of his mouth.

“Hey!” She socks him in the shoulder. “It’s not my fault Mr. Mundy grades on a dumb curve. I would have passed if there weren’t so many squares in my class.” 

“It’s baby algebra, Carol. I don’t think there’s that big of a curve.”

She gives him a pouty look, dropping a pudding cup onto his tray. Billy averts his eyes so he doesn’t have to see them sucking face.

He finds himself staring at Byers again. It’s an affront to the natural order of things, he decides. No one with a haircut like that should be allowed to steal Harrington’s girl. He’s spent more time this last week puzzling over it than he even cares to examine, like if he works out how the two of them sucked all the fight out of Harrington he’ll be able to get over the feeling of dissatisfaction that’s been plaguing him since that night.

“So, what were you talking about?” Tommy asks.

“No one,” Billy says, but Carol talks over the top of him.

“Nancy Wheeler,” she says in a pointed tone. “Think she’ll set her sights on Billy now?” She walks her fingers up Tommy’s arm. “Sure seems like she has a thing for guys who beat Steve up.”

Tommy’s face darkens. “Yeah, but she also has a thing for losers, remember?” he spits.

The both of them turn to stare at Byers and Wheeler across the cafeteria.

Carol pats Tommy's arm to get his attention. “Hey. Do you think they do it with the camera, like, taking pictures?” she asks.

Tommy grimaces. “You know, I bet he kept all those pervert shots of you from the pool to beat off to.” He mimes taking a snap of her and she shoves him, gagging. 

Neither of them bother to explain what the hell they’re talking about and he’s not going to ask. They do that all the time, get carried away with stories they forget he doesn’t have any context for.

It all fits so poorly, he realizes, these spoils of Harrington’s life. His friends that have conversations around an empty seat when he’s right there across the table from them. The girls that probably recycle the same love letters to slip into his locker. The guys on the team who wait a beat too long for someone else to lead the huddle. It’s like Billy is some goddamn cuckoo bird that’s hatched itself in the nest meant for Harrington.

He needs Harrington to come back.

He swallows around the sour taste of the realization. He needs Harrington to come back so he can stop thinking about when he's going to come back. Can make sure he’s put down for good; so he doesn’t have to feel like an imposter in his own life.

“Are you gonna eat the rest of your meatloaf?” Carol asks, fork already poised over his food.

He tugs his tray closer. “Eat your own.”

^^^

He’s still thinking about it that weekend while he does his English homework, novel folded in one hand while he reads. Whatever kind of bird Harrington is, when Billy kicked him out of the nest he should have made sure he broke his neck on the way down. That’s the crux of his problem, or, at least, that’s what he’s gleaned from the book. The boys on the island can’t let themselves truly enjoy it until they realize there’s no escape and then get rid of the little buzzkill who keeps reminding them that they don’t belong. 

He uncaps a highlighter with his teeth and uses it to circle a chunk of text.

“Mom says you have to take me to look at Christmas trees.”

Billy doesn’t move from his spot under the car, pretending to be asleep. It’s freezing under there, the cold from the cement leaching right through his jeans, but it’s peaceful, and being upright after last night’s party makes him want to barf. He hears Max’s reluctant footsteps scraping closer over the driveway and then the dull impact of her kicking the sole of his boot.

“She gave me money for gas.”

He scoots out from under the chassis, squinting. Susan’s clearly finished giving her her biannual haircut with a pair of kitchen scissors—which is what drove him under the Camaro in the first place—and her cropped locks are as bright as copper wiring in the late afternoon sun. She’s going to be a real beauty one day, just like her mother always tells her.

“Okay,” he says, dusting himself off. “But we’re sure as shit not going to look at trees.”

She bugs her eyes at him, holding up the folded bills like, obviously.

“So, where are we going then?” he asks once they’re out of the driveway and the heat’s running. 

Max reaches over and redirects one of the vents to her. “Downtown,” she says. “I need something for the dance.”

He eyeballs her. It’s hardly a topic of conversation he’s interested in, but it’s unusual for her to give two shits about something like that either. It would seem Susan’s efforts to transform her into a little lady are beginning to have an effect. He’s not sure how he feels about it. It might be nice not to constantly get the blame for her acting like a feral animal. On the other hand, he’s never particularly wanted to cohabitate with a little sister, which was why he’d sunk so much time into teaching her how to skate in the first place.

He shoves the arm of his aviators into his mouth and chews at it while he drives and listens to her nattering on about the apparently mortifying ordeal of middle-school dance lessons. The first thing he’s going to do with that money is buy a packet of smokes.

Even with the heat blasting, he can feel the creep of cold through the glass, getting in under the sherpa lining of his jacket. The air has that kind of cold about it when there’s been no rain to take out the dry, the type that gets in your nose and throat. It makes Hawkins smell like woodsmoke instead of cow shit, which is okay.

“I mean, I don’t want to take her stupid lessons,” Max says, “but what if someone asks me to dance?”

“Doubt it. Guys only want to dance with girls who are pretty.”

Her nose wrinkles. “Lacey Fieldman isn’t that pretty.”

He smirks. “Well, you haven’t seen all of her.”

She’s dead wrong, too. Everyone thinks Lacey’s plenty pretty. Hair with sun in it like Brooke Shields, lips that always turn up at the corners. Perky tits. A hell of a lot prettier than Nancy Wheeler, that’s for sure. And she’s smarter than people give her credit for too, since she’s obviously figured out how to string him along for a few more dates.

There’re plenty of empty parking spaces Downtown since everyone sensible has stayed indoors. Without the usual buzz of people doing their weekend shopping the quaint shopfronts look like staged facades, like the set of an old western.

He trails Maxine into the thrift store. The clerk about dies of shock when she sees she has customers, hastily sweeping her knitting under the counter and giving them a welcoming smile. Max seems to know what she’s after, bypassing the ugly furniture and heading straight into a maze of crowded clothing racks. It smells stale back there so he takes himself off to look at the same bin of tapes and records he’s already picked over a dozen times.

He doesn’t even know how a place like Hawkins has a second-hand store. Sure there’s a poor end of town but it would be impossible to buy something here without eventually running into the original owner. It makes him wonder how many of Jonathan Byers’ clothes have somebody else’s name inked inside the collar. Billy’s not like that. He likes the look and smell and feel of new, even if he can’t always have it; clothes that promise the whole package. He’d rather die than admit it, but he’s about as desperate as any bitch at Hawkins High for the new mall to open.

He shuffles through the bin of cassettes and, yeah, all these tapes are the same crap from years back. Disco, country, Christian learning for children. There’s a distinct hole in the selection of punk. He gives the clerk a sullen look while he flicks through rhythmically—clack, clack, clack. He doesn’t know why he bothers looking. It’s not like someone in Hawkins is going to buy Ride the Lightning and then donate it so Billy can get his hands on a copy. 

He lasts about another five minutes and Maxine is still sliding hangers around with intense focus, so he heads over to the RadioShack. The guy behind the counter goes on alert when he wanders in, eyes following him suspiciously. The Hawkins branch only stocks a barebones selection of metal but the new Metallica album is there on display in its shiny jewel case. He only lets himself touch the corner of it, not pick it up. The cover art is so fucking cool he’s already resigned to seeing it in his dreams—he doesn’t need to get too attached. 

He thumbs the price sticker. It would be the dregs of his savings and whatever he can scrounge from Susan’s overly generous gas allowance. And he still needs smokes for the week.

It’s still tempting.

He makes himself move on, looking at the shelves of electronics, checking out the Walkman he’s already earmarked for his Christmas present this year. He never gave much of a shit about the holiday before Susan came into their lives. Now it’s the best day of the year even if he rarely gets what he wants. It’s still more than what he and his dad used to do for each other.

Once he gets tired of making the RadioShack clerk nervous he wanders back out and idles up the strip, peering in at the display of guns in the bait and tackle place, a boutique with a suit and prom dress in the window. When he was still living with his mom he used to take the bus down to the pier so he could cruise the boardwalk all day long, pigging out on ice cream. He did it day after day and it still felt like he’d never get enough time to explore all of it. He should have rationed Hawkins, he thinks, reaching the end of the strip.

When he’s exhausted everything he wants to look at he heads back to the thrift store, but Max still isn’t ready to leave, straight up ignoring his pointed huffing while she peruses the crowded clothes racks. There’s a selection of ugly puffy dresses folded over one of her arms.

“Christ, Maxine. What’s Susan put in your head now?”

She doesn’t look up from her browsing. “It’s not for me.”

“This gonna take much longer? I got places to be.” Like right back under his car avoiding Neil. He takes off without waiting around for her answer, hating the dry dusty smell of the place. On his way out he hears the store clerk approaching Max.

“Is there something in particular you’re looking for, hun?”

“Something...” he hears Max say just before the door closes behind him, bell chiming, “bitchin’.”

Outside is still cold and gray, colder for having been inside the still of the shop for a moment. He tucks his hands into his armpits and starts walking back down the lot, checking out the handful of parked cars. One of the cop cars is parked out front of the Hideaway but the rest are concentrated in front of the supermarket and the RadioShack. He runs his hand over their tail lights as he walks aimlessly. Gray. Green. A patchy beater he half-recognizes.

Deep red-brown.

He pauses with his hand over the rear badge of Harrington’s BMW.

He swallows, looking around the lot for its owner. There’s no one except for some old lady struggling with a cart further down. He licks his lips, fingers tensing reflexively over the chrome lettering. It’s a 7-Series. He knew that at first glance, of course, but it’s different to see it up close. He’s only really seen one before in a magazine, and even then he’d flicked past the full-page spread with the same level of enthusiasm he would have for an ad for buying a timeshare in the Bahamas; no use looking at something you’re never going to have. He can almost feel the sharp rap on his knuckles for having touched it.

It’s just some rich kid car, he reminds himself. Why half the girls at school are always rubbing all over the thing like cats he has no idea. Although the paint job is top notch, like poured chocolate. He pulls his fingers away, darting another quick look around the lot. It’s not like there’s ever going to be another chance to check one out so freely. Okay. Okay, he’s doing this. He reaches out and traces a hand over the clean line of the tailgate, following it up against the glossy shine of a door panel, stooping to look in at the backseat, and—

Yeah.

Fucking gorgeous. Legroom for miles, big supple leather seats he can almost smell already—probably custom, power windows... His sigh catches on the tinted glass, a shrinking fog of condensation with his reflection behind it.

When he straightens up Steve Harrington is watching him.

He’s standing a couple of meters away from the driver’s side door, keys in hand and paper bag tucked under one arm. It’s a testament to how nicotine deprived Billy is that the unlit cigarette perched on Harrington’s bottom lip must send him into some kind of immediate withdrawal, his face and chest breaking out in a prickling flush, pulse speeding.

Harrington is staring at him, face blank with surprise behind his movie-star sunglasses. He’s still wearing Billy’s colors, although they’re faded to yellow and green, only a nasty cut on his lip still vivid. He doesn’t look anywhere near as bad as he’d imagined or hoped. 

He should say something—or Harrington should—but the moment stretches out too long and then they’ve both missed it. 

“Hey, hey, Steve? Do you think she’ll be pissed off we didn’t get her like, a girl walkie talkie or should we—ahh!” It’s the curly-haired one, busy trying to wrench open the plastic shell on a package and bumping into Harrington from behind so that the paper bag lurches forward, spilling half a dozen blank tapes onto the ground with a clatter.

The tapes keep coming, sliding one after the other out of the sagging bag as Harrington fumbles with it, muttering a quiet, “Fuck.”

Billy doesn’t wait around, just turns on his heel and marches as fast as he can without looking like he’s running, barking, “Max!” over his shoulder, loud enough that she’ll hear it through the window—loud enough that the old lady packing her trunk turns to scowl at him. He slams his car door shut, fuming. It’s a fucking disaster for his ego, running into Harrington like this, with his paws all over the guy’s douchey car.

He watches the BMW pull out and leave. A minute later, Max comes trotting out, not from the thrift store but from Melvald’s over the street, looking unfazed by his glare.

“The fuck took you so long,” he snarls, snatching the change off her. It’s enough for a full tank and more.

Not enough for what the outing’s cost him.  

^^^

He’s going to fuck Lacey. That’s his plan for the night, but also the general consensus of the guys on the team. It’s been two weeks. She must know there’s only so many times they can fool around in his car before he starts to lose interest, and if it stretches out any longer then they’re both going to get confused about who is stalling who. Plus, everyone knows Billy’s girl puts out, so soon her little purity act is going to stop being a thrill and start being someone’s gossip—probably Carol’s, if he’s not careful. The party is just another lame get together in some kid’s cousin’s house while the folks are out of town, but he has it on good authority from Tommy that there’ll be enough booze and enough of a crowd to make it worth his while.

He spends so long getting ready in the bathroom that both Maxine and Susan are annoyed at him when he gets out. Maxine makes a face at the smell of his cologne but Susan looks taken aback. He’s wearing the baby blue button-down she’d bought for him a while back. He’d initially stuffed it in a bottom drawer, loathe to wear anything chosen by someone who voluntarily attended a fortnightly book club, but then he’d realized it actually fell very neatly into the category of shirts he could tuck into his jeans without having to do up at all. He spreads out in the door frame so they can both soak it all up. Max might need her mom to promise her she’ll grow into her looks, but Billy’s always known he was hot shit.

“You’re such a girl,” Max growls, shoving past and gagging when she encounters the residue of his hair spray cloud.

Billy just laughs it up. He doesn’t hate Hawkins tonight. He’s got his music up as loud as he likes, his favorite earring in, his hair set just right – feeling like he fits in his skin for the first time in a long time. Neil is out on a shift at the plant and there’s no one around to tell him he shouldn’t spend time looking good in the mirror.

Even waiting for Susan to get done stuffing Maxine into whatever dress she’s picked out doesn’t put a dampener on his good mood. He heads down to the car early when Susan breaks out the camera and busies himself getting a Whitesnake tape queued up.

Max practically flies out of the house with Susan beaming behind her. The dress didn’t make it but Susan got her compromise in the form of a fussy-looking braid in the front of her hair.

He blows his smoke out the window while he drives since she’ll get at him if he makes her smell. It’s some kind of night. Cold but not biting. Warm enough to be in and out of his jacket, roll his windows up or down. The music makes it near-on perfect. Max is quiet, pissed probably, because of the volume, but even that doesn’t bother him. When he comes to a rolling stop in front of the gym doors and she doesn’t take a hint and jump out he realizes she’s not pissed at all. She’s biting her lip, nervous.

He clears his throat like, hey, are you okay and can you get out of my car?—but no reaction. She’s staring at the wedge of light spilling out from the open doors. He doesn’t have time for this. There’s free booze going somewhere in Hawkins and a house full of people waiting for Billy to drink his fill, so long as he does it upside down with a spout in his mouth.

Some kid’s parent behind them honks so Billy gives the lady a quick bashful wave and a grin and then takes his keys out of the ignition, settling in. Max is oblivious, fingers busy tugging at the knot Susan has put in her hair. He smacks her hand away.

“Leave it.”

She scowls at him. “I look stupid!”

“No shit.”

It’s not, apparently, the right thing to say. She looks at a couple of girls in frilly skirts wandering in through the doors together and hunches in on herself. “Can you just drop me off at the arcade?” 

He blows out a breath. If he’s not supposed to smoke near her hairstyle then Susan’s probably not going to be cool with him shunting her out the car window. “Look,” he says, drumming his fingers even more impatiently. “Everyone at these things looks stupid. Your dork friends are gonna look stupid. At least we’re not from this shitty little cow town, and actually know how to dance.” He leans over her and shoves the door open. “Tell Sinclair to keep his hands above the waist.”

Max stares at him with her mouth pinched in a line. The lady behind is really laying on the horn now and one of the teachers has ducked his head outside the building to see what’s causing the pileup. Just when he thinks he’s going to have to army carry Max in, she unbuckles her seatbelt and gets out, striding off towards the gym all determined like there’s a limit on how many girls in sneakers are allowed to attend and she wants to make the cut. He waits until she disappears inside, a coyote among housecats, before putting his keys back in the ignition.

He’s supposed to wait around for Tommy and Carol so he can follow their car out of town, and he has time to kill, so he pulls up and parks on the outskirts, intending to smoke in peace. It’s still relatively warm out, balmy even, so long as he turns his collar up and ignores the sting in his exposed fingertips. He’s just got the end of his first Marlboro between his lips, patting himself down for a lighter, when a cop car turns into the lot. Shit. He crouches instinctively, moving into the shadowy space between cars and slinking away, out of range of its headlights, cutting a quick path around the side of the building.

Hawkins is fucking creepy at night—the school even more so, all the spaces normally filled with noise and light gone dark and stagnant, an invitation for something sinister; an abandoned world. It’s some comfort to know he’s the meanest thing walking in it, but it still makes the hair on the backs of his arms stand up.

Of course, it makes sense that Harrington’s there too.

Adrenaline fizzes at the base of his brain. Harrington’s leaned up against the brick, arms folded, one half of his pale face illuminated by a slice of light from the propped open door, one big sad doe-eye lit amber as honey. Whatever he’s looking at has him completely entranced, cigarette half-forgotten in one hand. Billy tugs his own unlit stick out of his mouth so that it doesn’t fall when he breaks into a grin.

“You should have stayed buried, Harrington,” he says from a distance, giving the guy a more than fair head start.

Harrington doesn’t even flinch, eyes flicking over him dismissively, mouth unhappy. “Man. Get away from me.”

“And let you stay here rubbing one out to my sister? I don’t think so.”

That gets more of a reaction, Harrington stiffening up against the brick, brow furrowing. “What—No. God, that’s—Don’t you have someone else you can pick a fight with?”

“None who bruise up quite so easy,” he says, reaching out to poke at his jaw. Harrington knocks his hand away with an annoyed sound. Up close, he can see Harrington’s face is actually completely healed—pretty as a picture. It’s like Billy never happened to him, like the bruises just came off with a bit of soap and water. Something about that makes him itch, makes him want to mark it all up again. He feels like he does after a good game, like he’s too high on himself to control what comes out of his mouth. He knows he’s smiling. Knows what that looks like.

Harrington is giving him a completely unimpressed look. He’s got to hand it to the guy, he does aloof well. It must be something, he thinks, to want the guy to like you – coming up against all that silver-spoon-cool superiority. 

“Give me a light,” he says.

Harrington blows out a slow stream of smoke. “Sorry. Forgot my lighter.”

“Don’t be like that, amigo.” He squeezes in against the wall beside the door, way too close for friendly, blocking Harrington’s view. “I’m being real civil.”

“Yeah, you’re a real peach. Answer’s no.”

Billy plucks the cigarette out of his mouth. It’s only really possible because Harrington lets him, arms still crossed, deliberately unperturbed by Billy’s invasion of his personal space. He’s still playing by the rules of his world instead of the rules of the jungle, just like that night in front of the Byers’ house, thinking propriety will keep Billy from sinking his fangs in.

He uses the cherry of Harrington’s stick to light his own and offers it back, amicable-like. Harrington takes it from him just as casual, as if he never minded sharing. On his next exhale he makes a show of thumbing a stray fleck of tobacco off his tongue after, like Billy’s made it taste cheap with just a touch.

Billy’s never really learned to do that: use silence to do the dirty work instead of words or fists. Kids like Harrington and Tommy H do it without having to think about it. With their posture; with that look in their eyes like nothing you say or do to them is really going to leave a mark, secure in the knowledge that life is going to pick them back up and dust them off. Billy doesn’t have that luxury; has to win every fight he starts or he’d never get back up again.

He moves away from the wall abruptly and Harrington can’t quite hide the way he tenses.

“Relax, Harrington. I don’t want our first dance to be to Spandau Ballet.” He waves his cigarette in the direction of the filtering music. “Just wanted to know what’s got you out here in the dark peeping.” He backs up enough to peer in through the gym door. It takes him a while to find Wheeler in the crowd of swaying middle schoolers, but there she is, a foregone conclusion, hair all piled up and pretty, trying to tease Jonathan Byers away from his photographer's stand. Oh man, now he’s disappointed for Harrington.

“Yeah, that’s not what it looks like,” Harrington says, a little too defensive to be anything but exactly what it looks like.

He snorts. “Oh yeah? They know you’re out here? That’s too good, Harrington. You gonna be their driver for the night?”

Harrington’s eyes narrow. Got it in one.

Billy laughs, tongue working excitedly around a mouthful of smoke. “Damn, Harrington. If I knew I was just getting Byers’ leftovers I never would have taken a swing at you.”

“Yeah,” Harrington says, tired and angry, throwing the last of his cigarette on the ground. “Yeah, I don’t need this right now.”

“You can stare at him all you want,” Billy calls after him, following, helpless to his own desire to keep pulling Harrington’s pigtails. “You’re not gonna figure it out.”

“You’re fucking deranged,” Harrington tosses nastily over his shoulder.

“You wanna know why she chose him, huh?” Billy says.

Harrington turns around and he can see the stiff set of his shoulders that says he does, more than anything. “I know why she chose him, asshole,” he says, eyes sliding away and fixing on the open door for a moment. “He’s a good guy.”

“You both are,” Billy says happily, blowing a line of smoke a calculated distance from Harrington’s cheek. Pussy, he thinks when Harrington doesn’t rise to the bait. He flicks the butt away. “He just doesn’t have to try so hard at it.”

It lands better than he thought it would. Harrington’s eyes, so cool and disinterested, go big and round for a moment, flicking over him, darkening. He shakes his head as if to dislodge a thought. There’s anger there now—barely embers, but he’ll take it. Harrington probably doesn’t realize it, but he’s moved just infinitesimally closer, using every millimeter of the small height advantage he has. “You think just because you put me down once you know me? You don’t.”

“Nobody put you down but you, Harrington,” he says. “I just made sure you knew it. You ever want to drop this sheep’s clothing shit, this”—he gestures vaguely up and down—“good guy act, I’ll be here to put you down again.”

Harrington looks at him quietly for a moment. C’mon, Billy thinks. C’mon. But then, disastrously, whatever small spark was building between them just—dies out. “Man,” Harrington says, backing off, tired and sneering. “Whatever gets your rocks off. No one’s acting. This is just me.”

It’s infuriating. It’s such a fucking lie. Harrington’s already turning away from him and Billy’s feet are still planted out of instinct. He didn’t misread shit. Harrington just turned it off like a switch, like it’s something he can choose. He’s spoiled it, for both of them.

It’s a real dent in an otherwise great night, is what it is.

Billy watches him walk away, licking his lips in search of the right words, but before he can come up with anything Tommy’s car is rounding the corner with a squeal of tires and pulling up beside them.

Harrington looks up at the sky, running a hand through his fluffed-up hair in frustration.

“Stevie-boy,” Tommy says, openly delighted, hooking an arm out the driver’s side window. Carol leans forward in the passenger seat, smacking gum. “They kick you out of the Snow Ball?”

“Get lost, Tommy.”

“Whoa, Stevie,” Carol says, putting her hand over her heart all mock-hurt. “What crawled up your ass and died?”

Harrington glowers at them. “Why don’t you ask your new friend?”

“What’s the matter, Harrington?” Tommy asks. “Feeling left out? Hey, maybe you should come with us tonight. Now that Byers is moving up in the world we’re in need of someone to laugh at.”

Harrington flips him the bird. “No thank you and go fuck yourself.” He goes to reach for his car door and then seems to remember something, turning back. “And tell your girl thanks for the casserole.”

Tommy scowls, snarling, “You better get in daddy’s car and get out of here right now, Harrington, or—”

“Or what, Tommy?” Harrington says drily. “You’ll get a nose bleed?”

Tommy ratchets the handbrake so hard it makes Billy cringe. He’s out of the car in a flash, pale face flush with color, stalking towards Harrington like he means business. “Big words for someone who goes down easier than a Kerley County prom queen.” 

“Like you would know,” Carol mutters, slipping out of the car beside him with her hands stuffed in her pockets. She shoots an exasperated look at Billy like he’s supposed to do something about this. He doesn’t like that shit at all, being made to act the part of a bitch. But he also knows he doesn’t want Tommy to get the fight out of Harrington he couldn’t.

“We getting out of here or what?” he says to break it up, grabbing Tommy’s arm before he can get past. The slick fabric of Tommy’s jacket slides under his hand but it’s enough to stop him. He’s like Harrington: all theatre, no actual force.

Tommy jabs a finger at his ex-friend. “I’m sick of this sad-sack bullshit, man.”

“Come on, Tommy,” Carol says, stomping her foot impatiently.

“You know what?” Tommy forces a laugh, shaking Billy off. “You belong out here. You know why you weren’t invited tonight? Everyone’s forgotten about you, man. You’re not what you used to be. You’re bullshit now. You’re a ghost.”

Harrington stares at him for a beat. It pisses him off, he realizes, how a dumbass like Tommy can know how to get under Harrington’s skin so easily.

“Yeah, well, at least I’m not an asshole.”

“Leave it,” Billy says, sensing Tommy winding up again. His good mood is all but vanished. He needs liquor. He needs noise. He needs a crowd of people cheering him as he follows Lacey Fieldman upstairs. The saxophone solo from Careless Whisper cuts across the darkened lot and it’s the lamest ambience for a showdown ever. He shoves Tommy back a step. Yeah, the guy’s definitely giving him a lift to his car after this nonsense. “Like you said,” he says so Harrington can hear. “He’s bullshit.”

Harrington doesn’t have a clever come back for that. He rubs a hand down one arm like he’s just now feeling the cold through his fine sweater. Tommy shrugs out of Billy’s grip again, storming off towards his car. Billy follows after one last scornful look over his shoulder.

“Don’t wait around for too long, okay, Stevie?” Carol calls, trailing after. “I don’t think Little Miss Perfect is coming out here to kiss you goodnight.”

Billy slides into the passenger seat, leaving Carol to climb into the back.

Tommy rounds on her the moment the door slams shut, smacking her arm. “Seriously? You made him a fucking casserole?” 

Carol makes a face. “What? His parents are in Malta. You know he’ll only eat pizza all week.”

“Big fucking deal, he’s—”

They all jump at the sound of Harrington tapping on the glass. He’s standing by the passenger side, eyebrows raised, waiting for Billy to wind the window down.

Billy does it real slow. “Forget something, Your Highness?”

Harrington’s eyes flick over him in annoyance. Up this close with his arm up on the car roof Billy can smell his laundry detergent. Christ. Harrington darts a look at the light spilling out of the gym door and then ducks his head to stare in at Tommy coldly.

“Where’s the party?”

Chapter Text

It turns out the party is on an actual fucking farm. The whole place stinks of fertilizer and he’s apparently the only one who can smell it. From outside the house looks abandoned, empty, its windows dark even though its rooms are packed full of bodies and smoke and the agitated thump of pop music. 

There’s no sign of Harrington.

Billy doesn’t care. Not really. He’s drunk before they even get in the front door.

He didn’t mean for it to happen that way. That’s one of his rules too, like not talking in the locker room: don’t get drunk and stupid. But he’s broke, and Tommy has a slab of some fancy import beer that he can have as much as he wants of for as long as he can keep up the charade of teaching Carol to shotgun. They prop themselves up against his car out front, in between the headlights, watching cars pull up, one after the other, churning the scrubby lawn into dirt. Shitty two-doors. Trucks. Vans.

No BMW.

He can tell after the first can that Carol already knows how to shotgun a beer—sucks it down too neat and fast to be anything but pro, but Tommy lets it happen anyway, too much of a pussy to get Billy’s hands off his beer or his girl. Hell, sometimes there’s a look in his eye like he’ll let Billy teach him how to shotgun too. Billy fumbles the next can on purpose, gets spray all over Carol’s chin just to make her squawk, just to piss Tommy off, just so he can down the foaming beer himself and crack another.

By the time the rest of the team arrives with the keg he’s trashed and stumbling—the best and worst he’s been since Hayward. He’s not the kind of guy who should be uninhibited. Being a happy drunk probably isn’t part of his genetic makeup. Maybe it doesn’t matter tonight. It isn’t the usual Hawkins crowd but something a little wilder; faces he doesn’t recognize and a healthy mix of older college-age kids too. 

Tommy and Carol cling to him like ducklings as they make their way inside, brimming with nervous excitement.

The inside of the house is chaos, loud and smoky, dirt tracked all over the floor, gritty underfoot. The only light filters dimly from somewhere further in, the front rooms seething with people in the semidarkness punctuated by glowing cigarette tips and lighter flames. It loosens something in him: the undercurrent of danger and the anonymity of the crowd. He crows as he enters behind the keg, tripping in the long rut it makes pulled through the mud. Someone crows back as he catches himself on the door, shoving a dixie cup into his chest and spilling something all down his front. He sucks it up through his shirt—straight bourbon, sticky and sweet.   

He was expecting to make more of an entrance but he’s swallowed up in the press of bodies immediately, rubbing up against shoulders and elbows as he shoves his way through. He can’t hear a goddamn thing even though people keep trying to talk to him, Tommy's grip pinching into his collarbone, steering him towards faces he's supposed to recognize. Someone’s playing a shitty pop hit at full volume, but there’s something more satisfying and thrashy coming from one of the other rooms and he feels the clash of it in his atoms.

They get him to the keg eventually, posted up in the kitchen where the light is coming from a single dim yellow bulb. Most of the team has congregated there already, asserting dominance over the punch bowl and all the pretty things in Hawkins that need the light to be noticed. He makes a beeline for Lacey sitting primly on the kitchen counter right under the light like something from a stage play. She draws him in with her legs and he shoves his nose straight into where she puts her perfume, breathing her in and working hard on not burping while she affectionately tucks his shirt back into his jeans. She’s even sweeter than the bourbon, the only thing in the whole goddamn world that isn’t spinning. 

“You’re late, cowboy,” she says, pushing his face back to get a look at him. Her eyebrows pinch together. “You’re drunk.” 

“I still got what you need,” he says, guiding her hands back down to his belt. One of her nails catches on the bare skin of his stomach as she reels him in. He shivers, trying to look down between them to see, but it makes him too dizzy. His body looks like someone else’s body between her legs, numb, hands like plasticine.

“Gonna make me wait for it any longer?” she breathes in his ear.

He shakes his head. “Gonna show you what’s worth waiting for.”

“Take me somewhere quiet then, so you can make me loud.”

The girl on the counter next to them dissolves into giggles and Lacey hits her on the arm. He pushes up against the counter trying to get at her lips but she draws away, smirking, not wanting to smear her purple lipstick or maybe just teasing him.

A hand claps him on the back—one of the guys from the team who probably has a name that Billy can’t give a damn recalling right now. Real freckly. One giant freckle. Damn, if Billy stays in Indiana any longer there’s going to be nothing but freckles left of him too.

“There’s the man of the hour,” the guy shouts at him, shaking his shoulder and tugging him towards the keg. He tries to move but Lacey’s legs cinch around him.

“Fuck off, Toby. We’re busy.”

“What’s the race-y, Lacey?” the guy slurs. “You’ll get him after.”

“Later,” Billy says, pulling away, but her legs tighten again, grip firm on his belt.

“No, not later. Now.”

She’s frowning like it’s a big deal. One of the other guys has come to help, a big wet hand on the back of his neck. They’re chanting for him already. He’s the center of attention and it’s time to start the show. It dawns on him that he lost Tommy and Carol in the crowd some time ago, so they’re not going to be there to cheer him on. Someone not Tommy is going to hold his leg.

“Later,” he promises again, prying Lacey’s hands off him, maybe being a little rough. She hops off the counter, shooting him an indecipherable look before twisting away into the crowd, her friend chasing after. A round of jeers from the team follows her.

The keg is tapped, waiting patiently on a chair like the world’s ugliest dinner guest, the table next to it shaking under the weight of spectators who’ve climbed on top for the view. He’s nowhere near fighting fit. He’s going to puke if they tip him. But fuck it, they’re chanting his name now—“Billy, Billy, Billy”—and he’s wasted, happy, everything he could learn to like about Hawkins under the one roof. He grabs up the keg line and showboats a little, putting the tap in between his teeth.

“What the fuck do you think you’re doing, Peterson?” Tommy hisses, bulling his way through to Billy’s side and slapping the other guy’s hands away. “I’ve got this, man.” He wraps a possessive hand around Billy’s bicep, shouting something in his ear. Tommy’s grip there does something Pavlovian to him, gets him tilting forward into a headstand right away, grabbing for the lip of the keg, the world lurching as the guys scramble to boost his legs up.

Tommy’s words register as his mouth floods with beer.

“He’s here.”

He forgets to breathe through his nose for a moment, like a rookie, lukewarm beer spraying everywhere before he swallows, stinging in his sinuses. He can feel Tommy staggering against him, trying to keep him steady, trying to counter the kick of his legs. He’s carrying most of his own weight anyway, too vertical.

Being drunk actually helps, his focus funneling down to the rhythmic swallowing of beer, staring mindlessly at the crowd of inverted faces, a forest of denim-covered legs.

Five seconds…Seven seconds…Twelve seconds…

His temples start to pound, blood flooding to his face. He keeps chugging, keeps his throat open, sucking down foam without tasting it, nostrils full of bitter fumes. The crowd parts just a little and he can see that, yes, Steve Harrington’s Levi’s are here. He’s talking to some prim-looking college girl, drink in hand, looking far too neat and completely at ease. It’s enraging.

The crowd of onlookers roars as the count hits twenty and Harrington glances over at the noise without breaking conversation, eyes just barely catching on Billy, upside down, and then sliding away, returning to his conversation without pause.

Billy taps out.

He bails fast, the keg nozzle hissing, crowd booing, feet hitting the ground too hard. Getting upright is close to the worst thing he’s ever done. His insides slosh end-over-end, gravity coming back down on his shoulders like an anvil. He lets the guys prop him up, swallowing reflexively around the last mouthful of beer and scrubbing the lather off his chin with the back of his hand, waiting for the world to stop somersaulting.

Twenty-one. It’s not his record, but it is Harrington’s. He sways away from the ensuing press of admirers, snatching a cup of punch as he goes. He’s supposed to find Lacey now. That’s how it’s got to go.

Except that he can’t find her—gets lost, distracted somehow by a series of dark, crowded rooms and strangers who want to keep him upright, time listing sideways as the liquor hits his bloodstream.

What he does find is the room with the faster, harder music playing. He gets straight to dancing, sliding right into the thick of the crowd. He’s a good dancer, or, better than anyone here at least. This music he can shake himself out to. In moments some girl has her hands sliding over his wet chest and a cigarette she wants to share, sticky with lip-gloss around the filter but so damn good. They bump and grind together. He gets a hand down the back of her jeans and pulls hard at her panties, until she’s on tip-toes, gasping, trying to reach his mouth.

Carol is frowning at him at some point, getting in his face. “Billy,” she says again, annoyed. “Where’s Lacey, Billy?”

He looks down at his dance partner. She’s slumped half-way down his side, hair a mess covering her face, but she probably isn’t Lacey. He says something to Carol to make her go away. It’s weird watching her try to push through the throng of people without Tommy there to help her. He laughs. She’s so tiny. She looks like Maxine. He tries to forget about it, giving himself over to the music, jumping up and down in the crush of sweaty, clumsy-limbed bodies, something a little too close to fighting for some of the senior guys who don’t know him. One of them says something sharp and he says something filthy back.

He loses the girl for a bit and then they find each other again, the two of them jumping and stumbling against each other, carving through the crowd to find where the music is loudest, back and forth to the yellow-lit island of the kitchen to dip into the punch bowl. It’s good to feel her up against him. It’s good. He always runs so hot and there’s nobody to share it with. No one to touch him. She’s feeling the music the same way he is, wanting to be violent. She tangles a hand in his hair and yanks so rough he can hear guys cheering for it; gets bow-legged and hard.

A vaguely familiar face morphs out of the clamor of bodies, slapping him on the back. “There he is,” the guy, Miller, shouts at nobody listening. He throws his arm around Billy’s neck. “This is the man.”

“Fuck off,” the girl says, pissed at the interruption, trying to steer Billy deeper and away. Billy yanks the cup of beer out of Miller’s hand and gives him a warning shove back. Miller goes happy and easy but stumbles right into some guy who pushes back hard, sending him ping-ponging right back at them, the beer flying all over some girl. 

“Hey, asshole,” her boyfriend snarls, puffing up and shoving Billy back. “You got my girlfriend wet.”

“Way I see it, I’m doing your job,” Billy says—slurs. (He might just be laughing).

It’s so good and so easy. The guy is shirtfronting him, spit flying. Billy’s girl is rubbing a hand along his stomach in support, tucking up under his arm, the crowd jostling him up and down like indifferent sea swell. The ceiling sways down to him, crawling with smoke. He’s pushed or he slips and someone strong but slippery is propping him up and saying, “Someone get him off me.”

Before he blacks out he feels the prick of the syringe in his neck again; the flood of sedative stoppering all his boundless directionless anger, soaking it up in a long warm wash.

They’re chanting again in the kitchen but it’s someone else’s name.

And that’s all there is after.

^^^

Billy jolts awake in his bed to the echo of a bat slamming into floorboards once more. Sun is filtering in through the curtains already, the room warm and full of dust. He swipes at the hair plastered to his face with sweat, salty in the corners of his mouth, and waits for his thumping heart to sync up with the steady tick of reticulation outside his window.

He breathes carefully as he gets up, still dressed in last night’s clothes, boots toppled on the floor. He doesn’t want to wake Neil or Susan so he creeps through the house, mouth flooding with saliva, waiting until he’s outside with the door shut behind him to vomit.  

His car is parked in front of the garage. He shudders through a round of retching, hands braced on his knees. He doesn’t want to think about how he got home—whether it’s worse that he drove himself or that someone else might have found out where he lives and dropped him home. When he’s done upending the mostly liquid contents of his stomach Max is on the stoop waiting with an orange juice.

He takes it from her wordlessly, gargling and spitting a few times onto the lawn before swallowing it down. His temples throb sharply.

Maxine’s looking at him like how she did when she saw the fight between him and Neil. It’s a complicated expression: fearful and pitying, like she’s realizing he’s not the monster she thought he was, but he’s not something worth saving either. He takes a seat beside her. It’s too cold for her to be sitting out here in her dressing gown. If her mother comes out now this will be Billy’s fault.

“What do you want?” His voice comes out raspy from someone else’s cigarettes.

“We could go somewhere today,” she says.  

He grunts.

She goes quiet for a while, leaning down and folding her hands over her toes to keep them warm. His feet look like goblin feet next to hers, his all long-toed and bent, stark white where his tan ends, and hers still small and pretty.

He looks out at the quiet street. The trees have dropped most of their leaves but no one on this side of town rakes them up. The curbs are thick with banked up foliage, dry and brown. It’s too early for cars. His tired stare lands and fixes on a bird hopping around at the end of their driveway.

“Was it…” Max says, breaking the silence. “Was it really my fault we left Hayward?”

He looks at her out of the corner of his eye. She’s resting her chin on her knees, face averted behind a curtain of hair. Fucking hell, what did he say last night? This is the last thing in the world he wants to deal with right now. He wants a hash brown, and coffee, and the smell of sea salt in the air. There’s a big black hole in his memory of last night and he’s afraid to explore what might have happened inside of it. He remembers only flashes: leaning up against the front of his car before the party, watching dust motes spin in the beam of headlights; the slick soapy taste of lipstick; being alone in the middle of a long, dark, empty road.

He leans over between his knees and half-spits-half-drools a long stringer of orange-juice yellow spit onto the pavement. Nausea is building again, roiling in his stomach. 

“Yeah,” he says. It was.

“That’s not fair.” She tucks her hair behind her ears, frowning. “That’s not fair,” she says more quietly. “I don’t even know what I did.”

“Sometimes it’s like that,” he says. Because it’s true. People don’t always need to explain why they hate you. You don’t always get to know what you need to fix. And sometimes it’s something you can’t fix anyway, and then it’s better not to know. He coughs to clear his throat. “How did I get home last night?”

Maxine eyes him, trying to gauge how much he remembers. “Your friends dropped you off,” she says after a beat. “Mom came out and brought you in.”

Well, shit. “Uh huh.”

“So...she’ll tell Neil.”

So they should go somewhere. Her words from earlier suddenly make sense. He shakes his head. “He doesn’t care about that sort of thing,” he says. “He used to drink too. Don’t sweat it.” He’s practically nostalgic at the thought of it. Neil was so much worse and so much simpler on the Schlitz. Cans on the coffee table? Smooth sailing. Open bottle of something dark and malt? Find somewhere else to be.

Max shakes her head a little, hugging her knees tighter. “You wanted to sleep outside so you, um, argued. You couldn’t speak, really, but you said some things to her.” 

Ah. Well, that Neil won’t like. Maxine’s usually pretty gleeful about repeating all the dumb shit that comes out of his mouth, loves picking up new curse words, and there’s only one word she won’t say, so he definitely called Susan a cunt.

He watches the guy across the street open his front door in his pyjamas, drudging forward to pick up the morning paper, shaking the dew off the plastic wrap. His face lights up when he sees them and he waves. Max and him just stare back awkwardly from their stoop. It’s unnatural, how friendly people in Hawkins are.

His stomach twists with the first flutter of nerves. Both him and Neil have managed to keep their tempers pretty well in check since the last incident. He’s been trying. He swallows around a thick feeling. This is what comes of letting his guard down, of breaking his own rules. He should have recognized the nascent signs, stopped himself the moment he started liking his reflection in the bathroom mirror. There’s never going to be a place big enough or far enough away for him. Maybe it won’t be too bad. The Christmas season tends to soften his dad around the edges. 

“So, how’d the line dancing go, then?” he asks, just to have something else to think about.

“Lucas kissed me,” she says boldly. “Well, I kissed him.”

Billy looks over his shoulder at the kitchen window but it’s empty. He can hear the quiet sounds of Susan puttering around, cooking their breakfast. He looks back at Max and she’s watching him carefully. She’s told him to see this reaction, he realizes.

He stares at her, trying to get his brain to work. He still feels a little drunk. “Don’t talk about shit like that.”

“So you’re like him then?” She means Neil. “You hate people like Lucas. Like his family.”

Billy makes a face. “I don’t give a shit about your little boyfriend, Max, just—I don’t know.” He scrubs a hand over his face. “Don’t bring it up around him.” He honestly doesn’t know. His dad might not bat an eye at Max hanging around with a black kid. It could be something or it could be nothing with Neil. Billy hadn’t known where the line was until it threw him through a door and cracked his rib. 

“I’m not going to stop seeing my friends,” she says, chin picking up. “And I’m definitely not going to stop seeing Lucas.”

“Then get good at hiding.”

“What, like you?”

He gives her a warning look. He might be subdued enough and miserable-looking enough right now that she’s fine with sitting close to him, but he’s never completely defanged. He looks at her skinny arm in her robe. She’d be nothing. Sinclair had weighed nothing. He could punt her like a football. The impulse to do it dies in the same instant as he thinks it. His stomach clenches warningly.

“Maxine.” It’s Susan. She holds the screen door open. “Billy, your father’s up—he’s been called in for a shift. I made eggs.”

Neil is indeed already dressed for work and standing in front of the TV watching sports news when they follow Susan inside. Billy grabs his usual seat and tucks in. He might as well eat before he gets an earful. Susan’s flipped his eggs over, the way he likes them when he’s hungover. It’s not bacon and waffles but it’s like fucking ambrosia after the scouring taste of his own bile.

He only half-follows their stilted conversation about pageants while he eats, keeping an eye on his dad. Neil is muttering under his breath, so absorbed in the baseball stats that his coffee is going undrunk in his hand. Billy frowns. He knows all the forms of his father’s displeasure, including deceptive calm, but this is just unnatural. Susan repeats something completely inane about going to see Christmas lights, clearing her throat nervously when Billy doesn’t respond. He looks at Max. She’s acting weird too, eating her eggs quietly even though she normally has a shitfit if she can’t have Pac-Man cereal on the weekend. His eyes go again to the relaxed line of his father’s shoulders, his loose grip on the coffee mug.

Neil doesn’t know, he realizes, putting it all together. Neil doesn’t know he came home and woke Susan up, because Susan hasn’t told him.

It doesn’t make sense. He glares at her and then at Max. Stupid. His last mouthful of fried egg goes down like sandpaper, his gorge rising. He doesn’t want their pity. He doesn’t want them thinking they need to do misguided, treacherous shit like this; it will only complicate things. Susan and Max, they don’t ever need to be afraid of Neil, but they don’t need to give him a reason to make them afraid of him either. Not by muddying the waters. Not by being complicit. It’s a breathtakingly stupid move and neither of them seem to realize it, both looking at him like he’s supposed to play along with their little game. 

His dad has a shift, so he’ll have to leave soon; it will be easier to just get it out of the way.

He drops his fork onto his plate with a clatter, startling everybody. Neil’s gaze finally breaks from the TV. Max gives him the tiniest shake of her head, lips going pale.

“Maybe just make toast next time,” Billy says, sneering, watching Susan’s face fall, “if you don’t know how to fucking cook.”

^^^

He’d timed it right—gotten off easy. He scowls at his reflection in the mirror of the boys’ toilets, doing up his fly with unnecessary violence. He doesn’t feel like hot shit anymore. There’s new stubble on his jaw and lip and he still looks like a pussy, like a choir boy. He scrubs at his pink cheeks and pokes at the tender indigo mark concentrated in the corner of his eye where his dad’s club ring caught him. He can cover it with his sunglasses or he can play it off as a trick of the light if he tilts his head right and gets a curl falling there. It’s still annoying. His dad is usually more controlled, but Billy had puked on his work shirt halfway through.

The halls are buzzing with gossip when he steps out, laughter and hushed voices picking at the edges of the wound of his blackout. Lacey is nowhere to be found—isn’t waiting at his locker. He swaggers and leers whenever he meets someone’s eyes, but he finds himself picking a steady path out and away, escaping to his usual sanctuary.

“Some house you’ve got, Byers,” he says, when the other boy arrives a few minutes after him, wan in the red light of the darkroom. “You’ve been holding out on me."  

Byers barely acknowledges him where he’s leaned up against the back wall, trying his best to look suitably gargoyle-like. He slips his satchel off his shoulder and starts getting out his camera equipment with tired resignation like always.

“I told you, you can’t smoke in here.”

Billy laughs twin streamers of smoke out of his nose. “And I told you to get a haircut that doesn’t involve a bowl but here we are.” 

Byers gives him a mild look under his bangs. “It’s dangerous. The chemicals…”

“I promise you,” Billy says, rolling his eyes. “At any one time, they’re the least combustible thing in here. What you got for me today?”

Byers grimaces. “Do we have to do this? I have submissions due for the yearbook.”

He shrugs. “I can rough you up first if you need the foreplay.”

Byers gives him a flat look. “Have you considered just asking to see my photos instead of being a gigantic dick.”

“Guess it’s in my nature,” he says, laughing. It comes off a little fragile, and Byers picks up on it, of course, dark eyes tracing over Billy’s face. He looks away after a moment, busying himself with his little potions: develop, stop, fix. Billy wrinkles his nose at the smell, watching over his shoulder as the images resolve in their chemical baths: a staged picture of the cheerleading team in a pyramid formation, a close-up of some chess club nerds wearing medals, Nancy Wheeler’s profile caught in the aperture of a library shelf, bracketed by books. 

“Please don’t touch those,” Byers says when Billy starts flicking around a pair of tongs. “Or those,” Byers says when he taps at the wet photo paper on the peg line. Billy rolls his eyes, shoving his cigarette back in his mouth to cover the sour smell of the room.

“So, what did you hear about the party?” he asks when he can stand the silence no longer. 

“What party?” Byers asks without looking up from his work.

“Don’t play coy with me, Joan Jett. Whatever one you weren’t invited to.”

Byers looks up, frowning. “Is this about Steve?”

Billy frowns right back. “Why would it be?”

Byers gives him a slow look before returning to fussing over his negatives. “I just thought you meant about the keg stand.”

Billy’s stomach lurches. He sees Harrington’s upside-down face for a moment, eyes sliding over him disinterestedly; Lacey’s unimpressed face looming out of his reach, as elusive and as intangible as a bubble sucked away on a draft. He licks his lips and makes himself take a casual puff of his cigarette. “Harrington’s keg stand?”

Byers smiles wryly. “Isn’t that what everyone’s talking about? Here,” he says, holding out a stack of photographs. 

The first one’s of Max, at the dance. She looks like one of those sullen Victorian ladies, spooked and unhappy, her arms held how she would never stand normally. Susan’s going to love it. He shuffles through the rest of them. She’s there again, looking more relaxed in the company of her friends. Sinclair. Gums. The Frog. The kid he recognizes as Byers’ brother, Zombie Boy. He does kind of see it. The kid’s real pale, dark circles under his eyes like he’s old enough to go on a bender. Then again, all these midwestern kids could use some sun. 

“Nice duds,” Billy says sneeringly, tossing the picture of Byers' brother on the table. The kid’s vest is at least a decade old, too big for him.

Byers looks at the photo and then up at Billy warily. “Okay.” 

Billy can feel his temper uncoiling. He knows there’s the same thing inside them: a bitterness, an understanding of what can be endured. They’re both full of the same scar tissue. Where does Byers get off, acting like he’s learned something from it. Like he can control it. He’s so unperturbable, so fucking calm. It just makes Billy want to antagonize him.

He jiggers his leg against the table where he’s leaning until he has Byers’ full attention. “He looks like a real special kid,” he says unkindly.

Byers sighs, dropping his magnifying loop and looking at Billy expectantly.

Billy leers. “Father not in the picture I take it.”

Byers looks Billy up and down coolly, gaze catching on his black eye. “No. Yours is, I take it?”

Billy laughs, tonguing the corner of his mouth. “What, this?” He angles his jaw so the dim light will pick out the ugly blot. “Just some party favor. Nothing like the love tap you gave Harrington—or so I heard.” 

Byers twitches, looking down at the loop in his hands, something like shame flitting over his features. “Yeah, well. That was a long time ago. I was—we were, different people then.” He shakes his head. “What’s any of that got to do with Will?”

“Nothing. Just saying, I can tell he’s real different.”

Byers lets out a slow breath, brow twitching into a frown. “Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, he is.” He puts the strip of negatives he’s holding down decisively, like he’s thinking of saying something. 

He can’t pinpoint it but Byers changes, suddenly looks...menacing, gaunt face hollowed out with lengthening shadows under the red light; a molecular shift from victim to something else, like a blue-ringed octopus flashing its rings. It’s not an invitation, doesn’t make Billy want to fight him, not like with Harrington. It’s a change that says: danger, do not touch. But then Byers just shakes his head, turning back to his work. “I’m glad he is,” he says, quiet and furious.

Well what the fuck is Billy supposed to do with that? He can feel disappointment tugging his mouth down at the corners. He’d been planning to blow off some steam, really rile Byers up about his shit music, but the conversation had gotten away from him. He feels mean. Not like, mean in a way he can apologize for. He feels ugly all the way down to his bones, like he’s something that should stay, here, in the dark.

He puts his cigarette out and shuts his mouth so Byers can make his pictures. It’s not an apology but it’s not being an asshole either, and that’s hard work because Byers ignores him for the rest of the hour, his turned cheek as smug as a Cheshire cat. Like he’s sitting on all of the answers to how to be a better person, working devotedly over his trays, his movements sure and steady.

Develop. Stop. Fix.

Chapter Text

Tommy and Carol aren’t in the cafeteria at lunch and there’s nowhere to sit alone that doesn’t look like he didn’t have a choice about it, so he heads outside. The sun is out, taking some of the sting out of the air, and most of the seniors have made their way down to the football field, sprawled all over the faded green and soaking it up like it’s Venice Beach and they’re not less than fifty meters from a staggeringly depressing tree line. He finds Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum parked halfway up the bleachers, Tommy with his head in Carol’s lap, and Harrington crunching away at an apple on the bench above them.

His first instinct is to pinch himself—make sure he hasn’t actually fallen asleep in the darkroom, or that he’s not still upside down over a keg. It’s surreal, seeing them both with Harrington. He hadn’t realized until this moment that they were part of a matching set.

“Hey,” Harrington says when he spots Billy, firing off one of his shitty playboy smiles. Billy wants to punch the wayfarers right off his face. “There he is.”

He tucks his hands into his jacket pockets and starts trudging up the stairs. Harrington has the sleeves of his navy-blue jumper rucked up as high on his arms as he can get them, trying to get some sun, which is real aspirational of him. Billy doesn’t like it. He stops an awkward distance away, then realizes it makes him look like one of Harrington’s nervous groupies, angling for a prom date, so he comes closer. Carol looks up when his shadow cuts across her, squinting against the light.

He says, “You drop my car off Friday night?” Because he can’t bring himself to ask how he got home, certainly not in front of Steve fucking Harrington.

“You were wasted, man,” Tommy says cheerfully from Carol’s lap. “I thought we were gonna have to drop you off at emergency.”

“I thought I was gonna have to drop Tommy off at emergency after he carried you,” Carol says.

Tommy chuffs, shielding his eyes from the sun to look up at him. “Yeah, dude. You weigh a ton. You’re lucky Carol knows how to drive stick.”

Carol shrugs. “I mean, I figured it out. It wasn’t that hard.”

He bites down hard around a growl, thinking of Carol scraping along in the Camaro and fucking with his transmission. “Thanks,” he says, even though it feels like pulling teeth, and even though it comes out quiet enough that it’s lost in the obscene sound of Harrington jamming half an apple in his maw.

“Your mom was really freaked out,” Tommy says like he can barely suppress his laughter, ignoring Carol pinching him warningly. “She was so worried about you waking up the neighbors.” 

He feels queasy at the thought of it. Meek, fretful Susan in her hair-rollers coming out of the house in the dark, trying to pull him out of Tommy’s car. Trying to keep him quiet so they didn’t wake Neil. Trying to drag him off the lawn.

“That was Susan,” he says, scowling. “My mom’s in Malibu.”

Carol frowns. “I thought you said your mom was in Miami.”

“She was,” he says quickly. “They’re shooting on the west coast now. She goes where the work is.”

Tommy whistles.

“Billy’s mom’s a model,” Carol explains to Harrington.

Harrington frowns, looking Billy up and down. “Sure, I guess.” He chews thoughtfully at his apple, swallowing. “For what magazine?”

Tommy laughs. “Nothing you can buy without ID and a paper bag—ow, fuck, Carol.”

Billy smiles weakly. His mom was beautiful—more beautiful than Susan, anyway. And not a bitch. She always had plenty of boyfriends when he was growing up.

“Heard you took a shot at the keg, Harrington,” he says while Tommy and Carol are busy sniping at each other. “Felt like a walk down memory lane?”

“More like an exercise in humiliation,” Tommy chips in, wheezing. “Fifteen seconds!”

Fifteen seconds.

Billy releases a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding. The thought of Harrington beating his record has been gnawing at him since Byers mentioned it, but…fifteen seconds? It’s pathetic, laughable. Billy’s seen kids with asthma do better than that. He tries to reframe what he remembers of the night with this new knowledge and it still doesn’t fit with what he’s seeing: Harrington relaxed as anything, holding court with his old friends like he’s made his grand comeback already. The school is buzzing with his name and no one seems to be paying attention to the small matter of Billy beating him by six whole seconds.

Harrington makes a pained face. “It was warm. I’m not an animal. And okay, yeah, Lacey didn’t exactly hold up her end of the assist.”

“Probably because she wasn’t holding your leg,” Carol says.

“Carol,” Harrington says warningly.

“Maybe she just wanted to skip to her fifteen seconds first.”

“Carol, shut up,” Tommy says, completely heatless.

Billy's heart skips a beat.

Lacey. Lacey and Harrington.

He swallows, trying not to let anything show on his face. Harrington didn’t beat his keg stand record, because he was busy stealing his girl. 

He rubs a hand over the pocket of his jeans, wishing he had his smokes on him, for something to do with his hands. Harrington’s probably watching him for a reaction. It turns his stomach to think of him with his hands all over her, with her purple lipstick all over his face. Everyone watching, making a fool of him. He grits his teeth to firm up his smile. He needs to say something before they think it’s getting to him.

“Didn’t know you liked your ponies broken in,” he says.

Tommy makes a sputtering noise but Harrington just stares back neutrally. “She’s not a horse, man.”

Carol clears her throat unsubtly. “Steve, you coming to Tina's party tomorrow?”

“Can’t,” Harrington says after staring at Billy a beat longer. “Told you, I’ve already got plans.”

Tommy moans. “You’re seriously going to ditch the end of year party to hang out with a bunch of kids?” 

“Yep,” Harrington says, lobbing his apple core down the stands. Figures, Billy thinks, that he doesn’t eat the whole thing.

Carol’s pouting. “You’re still coming on Saturday though, right?”

Billy frowns to himself, chewing on his tongue. There’s no party on Saturday that he knows of. His own weekend plans are to finish his assigned reading and take Max to the arcade so that she doesn’t drive them all crazy another week asking to go.

Harrington makes a face, sucking air through his teeth. “Only if Mr. Winkins lifts my lifetime ban from the bowling alley.”

“Bowling,” Billy says blandly without meaning to speak.

“You’re not coming?” Harrington asks, tone light, eyes flicking from him to Carol. It’s staged confusion, Billy realizes. A question he already knows the answer to but wants Billy to hear. “I thought you already invited him.”

Carol’s hand flutters up to tug at the roll of her turtleneck guiltily. “No, I mean. I asked Lacey, so…”

So he’s not going to be her plus one.

“Hey, man. Come if you want,” Tommy says, trying to make it less awkward.

“Nah,” Billy says. He can’t imagine a worse way to spend his dwindling funds than on watching Tommy and Carol swap chewing gum while Harrington teaches his girl how to bowl a strike. “Not my scene. Don’t want to crash your double date.”

Tommy snorts. “I don’t know, could be more the merrier with Lacey,” he says. “Maybe you can take turns.” He perks up, stumbling onto a joke. “Hey, hey, Stevie. What’s Racy Lacey got in common with a bowling ball?”

Harrington levers the toe of his Nike under Tommy’s hip and pushes him off the bench, Carol cackling.

“Right,” Billy says, rather than sticking around to see them chumming it up. The bleachers thunk loudly under his boots on the way down, not quite drowning out the sound of their laughter. He blows right through a pair of kids making out in the aisle, scattering them, ignoring their annoyed protests.

“Catch you guys later,” he hears Harrington say from back in the stands.

He picks up the pace. Harrington still catches up to him before he can make it much further than around the corner, grabbing at his sleeve.

“Hey. Don’t worry about them,” he says, kind of breathless like the brisk walk winded him, like he’s never played a full quarter of basketball in his life. Billy looks down at the hand on his arm until Harrington removes it. “They’re just being assholes, man. Don’t take it personally.”

“Whatever.” It pisses him off, Harrington acting like they’re his to apologize for. He can’t quite shake the feeling that Harrington knows what he’s doing—working condescension in under the guise of being friendly. If he could go back to the moment Harrington tapped on the glass outside Tommy’s car window he wouldn’t have wound it down and let Harrington in, not like this.

“Look.” Harrington runs a nervous hand through the front of his hair so that it breaks up and droops into his eyes. “I’m sorry about Lacey. I didn’t know—”

“Relax, Harrington,” Billy says, cutting through his bullshit, flashing his teeth in a menacing smile. “Plenty of bitches in the sea, right.”

Harrington’s frown is disapproving. “Hey,” he says softly. 

Whatever he’s playing at, Billy’s not having it. He steps forward, drawing up to his full height. Harrington’s all limb. Billy knows from experience he goes over easy.

“Maybe I’ll go after one of yours next,” he says, letting Harrington do the math on which one.

Billy can tell the moment it sinks in and Harrington lets himself get angry, snatching the sunglasses off his face to glare at him.  

He looks like crap. He’s been wearing the sunglasses to hide it, Billy realizes. The same way Billy is hiding a bruise behind his. It looks like he hasn’t slept in weeks, his eyes exhausted and pouchy. Billy doesn’t remember him looking so worn-out the last time they spoke, but now that he thinks about it, Harrington had been moving slow, almost lethargic.

“Look, buddy—” Harrington says. But he doesn’t get to finish, because a baseball comes whistling past, hurtling right at Billy’s face. 

Billy flinches. Horribly and embarrassingly. It’s just that it catches him out of the corner of his eye—a dark blur. He cowers away even as the ball smacks into Harrington’s outstretched hand, appearing there like magic, like it was there the whole time, Harrington spinning and pitching it back just as quick, the motion so fluid and effortless it takes a moment for Billy to realize it hasn’t hit him, still recoiling from the blow that’s not going to come.

“Ball,” someone calls, a moment and a lifetime later.

“Great batting, Dawkins,” Harrington calls out. “You aiming for a scholarship or just a strikeout?”

“Fuck you, Harrington.”

Harrington smiles back, waving like the world’s biggest asshole before turning back to Billy, shaking his hand out.

“Look,” he says again, friendliness dropping like a veil, face blank underneath, his easy tone all gone, “I know you’ve got this whole”—Harrington waves vaguely at him—“alpha dog thing going on. I get it. But there are things going on right now—things that would make your head spin, and picking a fight with you over some stupid high-school shit is not really a priority for me.” He pushes a hand through his hair again, a nervous tic, or maybe just wanting to show off his flashy watch. He laughs, bleak and humorless. “It’s not even in my top three.”

“What’s the third one?”

Harrington blinks at him.

He rolls his eyes. “You’re not that complex, Harrington. Getting Wheeler back. Pretending you’re Jonathan Byers. What’s your third priority? Renewing your country club membership?”

Harrington stares. Bingo. “That’s not…” His jaw tightens. “Screw you. You don’t know what you’re talking about.” 

“Uh huh.”

“Listen, asshole. I’m being as upfront with you as I can—I don’t need this. It doesn’t matter to me. Just take the out.”

Or else what, pretty boy, Billy thinks. He bends slightly to one side and spits, to make his opinion on that clear, turning to leave.

Harrington grabs at him again, tugging him to a stop, holding his wrist, too soft. Billy dashes his hand off, body shot through with sudden nerves, sick, darting a look around the sunny field in case anyone is watching. Harrington is holding his hands up like, whoa, my bad.

Billy’s lip curls at the sight of him. Harrington’s a mess. A fraud. Too tired and under-committed to be acting like he’s above this; a pale imitation of the challenger Billy wants him to be—one foot in both worlds and no contest at all. Not worth the six seconds it would take to outdrink him. He’s just a guy in need of a nap and a firm-hold hairspray. 

Billy gets a grip on himself. “You do whatever you think you need to, Harrington,” he says, drawing in close. “Shed your skin as many times as it takes to find something underneath you like.” Harrington’s eyes shutter, darkening, and it makes Billy’s smile harden into something crueler. “You get in my way, we’re going to have a problem. And that there is a fight we both know you’re not ready for.” He leans forward just to make Harrington tense, patting imaginary dust off his shoulder. “Priorities, right, buddy?”

He backs up, content with the lost look on Harrington’s face. “Nice catch, by the way,” he adds. “Maybe they’ll let you try out for the team.”

Then he leaves, stalking back towards the school with the sun burning warm over his shoulders and his shadow stretched out in front of him like an arrow.

“Molting,” Harrington yells nonsensically after him. “It’s called molting.”

^^^

It’s not shorts weather. Billy glares at the back of Tommy’s knees while he jogs, feet sliding over icy patches where the rest of the team has already stamped the ground into slush. They track in and out of the gym, a lap around the court and then out the open doors into the freezing cold, down the sloping path to the field and back.

Billy phones it in, trailing behind (or in front, depending on who’s coming up on lapping him). For one thing, he wants no part in the little gossip circle that goes on in the pack of guys who are in the lead, and for another, the cold air makes him want to puke a lung up.

He calls it quits a lap short, trying to spit the taste of tar out of his mouth. Some of the quicker guys are already setting up for drills. He parks his ass on the floor and watches Parker dribbling a ball by himself while he relaces his sneakers and tries to rub the goosebumps off his cold legs. The older guy is apparently a shoo-in for this year’s scholarship. It’s heartening. Parker’s not particularly close with any of the other guys, doesn’t evoke team spirit, and yet he still got himself a golden ticket. So maybe it’s possible for Billy. He’d run the idea past Coach in as roundabout a way as he could, just feeling it out, asking about opportunities to play college ball. He knows he’s not the man’s first pick at team captain for next year no matter what the rumors are, but if there’s a way out of here on the table then Billy’s going to take it.

Tommy and the others finally make it back to the gym looking flush and ready. They go through the usual process of picking teams with Billy defaulting to leader of one side and Parker the other. They’re both at a standoff over who has to take Peterson when Coach’s door opens, Harrington following him out, in his uniform. 

Billy’s gaze drops to his sneakers, not really registering what his eyes are telling him. There’s no logical reason why Harrington would come back to the team now, just over a week out from break. He’s supposed to be stepping back. He’s supposed to be convalescing. Harrington doesn’t even care enough about basketball to be back here yet—had seemed more interested in sniffing after Wheeler at the few practices they shared. He’s not supposed to be back, not now when Billy needs to start putting down roots with these guys. And Billy’s already got designs on annexing his locker.

Maybe they’ll let you try out for the team.

He can’t possibly be that petty.

He looks at Harrington standing practically under Coach’s arm, at the tentatively awed faces of the team, at Tommy practically bouncing in place.

Oh no way. Harrington is—

Harrington is a dick.

“Good news, gentlemen,” Coach says. Billy wants to kick something but there’s nothing at hand. “Your fearless leader here has made a miraculous recovery from being a lazy sadass and has begged for the honor of leading you to the bottom four himself.” Someone whoops and Coach shoots them a dark look. “Go easy on him. I don’t want the whole damn cheerleading squad in here again complaining about his face like last time." 

Billy realizes he’s grinding his teeth. The palpable excitement and relief from the rest of the team feels like a betrayal, like a knife twisting in his back. Parker’s the first to step forward, pulling Harrington into a friendly head rub like he’s not the most stand-offish guy in the whole school. The rest of the guys follow suit, cheering, catcalling, Harrington soaking it up good-naturedly. His eyes hook on Billy glaring at him.

“Go Tigers,” he says.

Billy’s going to cut his head off and slam dunk it into a trashcan.

“Alright, alright, save it for date night, ladies,” Coach says. “Let’s play some basketball, shall we. Who we got left…?” He spots Peterson. “Oh Sweet Mother of Mary. Okay, your choice, Hargrove.”

Billy looks between Harrington and Peterson, agonized. Peterson’s got the shooting prowess of a baloney sandwich. Harrington isn’t even really paying attention, too busy dodging all the welcome back punches from his friends.

Billy ends up choosing Peterson, only because the alternative is so unpalatable.

Coach claps his hands together, moving off to the sideline. “Okay! Skins and shirts, one-on-one, let's go!”

Parker’s already crossed the half court, holding his fist out for Billy to bump. 

“I’ll be—” 

“Skins,” Parker finishes, dry as ever. “We know.”

Billy ignores the jab, stripping out of his shirt.

The next twenty minutes are carnage. He’s not particularly on form but he’s pissed. He’s up against Parker first and the guy couldn’t make it more obvious he’d prefer to be playing as a team with his buddy Steve. They rotate under the hoop for a turn at shooting on each other and Billy does his best to get an elbow in his face. About halfway through defending he realizes he recognizes Parker as belonging to the pair of arms that’d picked him up off the floor at the party, and then things get downright ugly. Parker’s a lot bigger than him and he takes the impact like a pro but Coach swaps him out, smart enough to predict an injury and mindful of Parker’s scholarship season. Billy shakes off his gruff warning impatiently. 

Miller is next, uncharacteristically quiet for once. Billy lets him try out some shady amateur move that he’s probably been practicing all week with his sisters, failing to pull it off when Billy proves to be a lot more muscle than he’d prepared for. He looks across the court and sees Tommy and Harrington playing keepy-off like a couple of sissies, barely playing serious. Miller uses the moment of distraction to slap the ball out of his hands, ducking to get around him. Billy gets his foot planted right where the little weasel is going to want to be and waits for his misstep to throw his weight into him, wrenching the ball out of his grasp and sending him sprawling. Miller’s such a wimp he grabs at Billy’s waist instead of going down clean, but he can’t find purchase, hand slipping right off of Billy’s sweaty back. He squeaks when he lands on his ass.

Coach Green moans.

“Harrington, would you please get on Hargrove? I can’t watch this anymore.”

“Sure thing, Coach,” Harrington says, jogging over, already so covered in sweat he looks like a weight-loss commercial. Billy can’t help the savage grin that comes out at the sight of his hair completely wrecked.

“Yeah, shut up,” Harrington says, eye rolling.

“Perm not holding up, princess?”

Harrington scrubs a hand over his forehead, trying to push sweat around with more sweat. “I gotta quit smoking.”

Billy licks his lips. “Not gonna make you a better player.” He bounces the ball between them, slow enough that Harrington can snatch at it if he wants to take the bait.

And again.

And again, knowing Harrington’s going to call his bluff this time, already shifting his weight back as Harrington drops down into play. Billy can't help but smile. Harrington’s a fucking menace of an opponent front-on. He’s got reach on him second only to Parker, which forces Billy low, seeking a quick-around. He tries to get through and Harrington blocks him, and then again when he cuts the other way. It’s about three seconds of play and the hardest he’s had to work all season.

Harrington’s definitely out of shape though, probably still feeling Billy’s boot-print on his ribs, having to think about his footwork and letting his dominant hand speak over the ball, telling Billy exactly where he’s going to be. Billy rips through his second screen and gets under the post in a textbook play, forgetting that it’s not their turn at the hoop. Peterson and his partner aren’t worthy of the spot anyway. They look like they’re playing fucking claphand at the top of the key, unable to get past each other.

Harrington fucks his topshot but can’t quite get his quick hands around the ball with enough conviction, Billy stealing the ball in close like mine. Coach nips his whistle from somewhere on the sideline, telling them to get the hell out, but they’re way too locked down with each other to break.

Harrington has shifty eyes when he plays, always working, too reflective of what’s going on in his head. Everyone in Billy’s family has blue eyes – pale like Maxine or summertime sky like Neil—all pinprick pupil all the time: a language all on its own. Harrington you can’t tell so much, can’t get a read. Scared or excited, resolved or blank. 

Luckily, he’s real dumb. Definitely that kid that has to mouth along with the reading in class. Harrington’s big dark Bambi eyes slide over to Billy’s poised off hand, his mouth firms up like, fake right, and Billy knows he’s going to change his stance to put more weight in the way of a drive from the left. He’s enjoying himself too, Billy can tell, for now, in the moments he has before Billy atomizes him.

He slips in alongside Harrington’s guard before Harrington can read the double fake and fix his feet, spinning him out with a shoulder so that Harrington’s forced along his back where Billy doesn’t have to deal with his wingspan, bumping him back a few feet to get them both used to it.

Harrington gives good contact, present in a way that the other guys aren’t, secure enough in his form that he doesn’t need to be afraid of a foul, heavy on Billy’s hip to stop him from breaking. He’s made a tactical error getting Harrington front-to-back this close to the post. He can’t read Harrington’s tells like this, and he's too tall for Billy to twist and take a shot over him without space – and Harrington’s got legs to eat up any space he makes, no matter how fast he can make it. Getting around him from this position would take an assist or some next level footwork. But Harrington knows that too, butting up against him rough enough to stop him from putting his weight down in his heels, preventing him from gaining traction.

Harrington gasps out something like a laugh right by his ear. “Can’t plant your feet?” 

Billy gives him elbow, just a lick of it.

Harrington makes a small oof sound before he pushes back, just as hard, not even slightly deterred by the slip of slick skin, wet fringe flopping down and brushing Billy’s shoulder.

“Having fun?” Billy asks.

“Man. Put your tongue back in.”

Billy jostles him back, clips him in the ribs with a foul elbow, dribbles the ball under his own leg before Harrington can recover—so that their audience has something to remember—and takes a bank shot at the backboard which goes in slick as a wet dream. He's so cocky about it he could start dancing. 

“Enough!” Coach Green blasts his whistle. The other guys have dropped their individual games to cheer. “Hargrove, what the hell was that?" Coach yells. "Don’t you bring that fancy California shit on my court, this isn’t Hollywood. So help me god if I ever see that ball go through your legs again...” Billy and some of the guys start laughing.

“And Harrington, don’t you sit down, son.” Harrington ignores him, folding down onto the ground, panting hard and wincing. “What the hell were you doing while you were sat out these last weeks, other than laying around stuffing yourself like a Christmas turkey?”

Harrington groans, flattening out on the floor.

“We should do this again sometime,” Billy says, only a little winded, bracing on his knees. 

Harrington holds up a finger.

“Tommy—no, not you Kalkowski. Hagan,” Coach yells. “Please come scrape your captain up.” He turns and pins Billy with a look before he can escape ahead of the rest of the team. “Billy, come here, son. You heard of meditating? My wife says it’s supposed to help with anger.”

^^^

Coach chews him out for not being a team player and for trying to intentionally lame Parker. By the time Billy gets to the locker room, half the guys are on their way out. He hustles right past a knot of admirers, Tommy among them, orbiting around Harrington like he’s the belle of the ball. No one seems to care that he lost to Billy’s keg record and just got trounced at practice too.

“Hey, Billy, what’s the rush?” Peterson says from within the group. 

It’s the first time any of them have called him out on his routine. He’s paralyzed suddenly by indecision over whether to ignore the jibe or trust his gut instinct to put the guy down. He ends up settling on shooting him a disdainful look, reminding himself—Don't. Talk. 

He grabs a fresh towel and shucks out of his shorts, ditching his sweaty clothes in the hamper on the way to the showers. It’s crowded in there—exactly the reason he prefers to get in and out first. He ends up sandwiched in a corner shower between a couple of chatty cathies while he waits for the water to get hot, palming soap onto the back of his neck where his hair is stuck down with sweat and disentangling his earring from out of a stray curl. The room is clammy with steam but chill outside of the water. He tunes out the other guys and focuses on the inconstant water pressure as he rinses. It’s right on the edge of satisfying but never quite strong enough or hot enough to truly relax into. If he can ever afford his own place, he’s going to get a shower strong enough to grind him down to dust. And one of those wall brackets you can fill with shampoo. And he’s going to sit in it for an hour every day, morning and evening, getting pruney.

He’s getting low on soap, he realizes, making a note to ask Susan to get some more, the bar smoothing down to a sliver in between his knuckles.

“You got shampoo?” Tommy asks somewhere on his left. Billy opens his eyes and spits water, annoyed. “Okay, sorry,” Tommy says, hands up placatingly and then flinching badly when a bottle smacks into the side of his face, fumbling to catch it against his chest.

“Heads up,” Harrington says a beat later, sidling up next to him. Billy scrubs the last of his soap through his hair and roughly under his arms, closing his eyes and leaning into the spray so he doesn’t have to see so much goddamn orange.

“God, what is this?” Tommy asks, popping the cap on the bottle and smelling it. “Is this your mom’s?”

“Yeah,” Harrington says, snatching it off him and squeezing out a dollop before tossing it back without warning. This time Tommy catches it easy. “Why do you think her hair always looks so good?”

Tommy rolls his eyes. “You want?” he asks, shaking the bottle at Billy like it’s his to offer.

He shakes his head, no. No, he does not want. It smells like hay and honey.

“You’re awful quiet, Hargrove,” Miller says, edging in. It’s six guys to five showerheads. After a shared look, the other two guys grab their stuff and dip out. Billy gives Miller a once-over he hopes conveys how little patience he has for conversating right now. He has the sinking feeling he’s about to break his no talking rule and it will be so he can hear that squeak again when he flattens the little punk. Miller doesn't take the hint. “Heard you made a pass at Steve’s girl.”

“Hey, easy,” Tommy says, looking annoyed.

“Way I heard it,” Billy says, ignoring Miller completely and making sure to catch Harrington’s eye, “she’s everybody’s girl.”

“Hey, easy,” Tommy says, this time directed at him.

Miller giggles. “Not yours though, right? Heard the only cherry you got on Friday was your street.”

Billy can’t quite bring himself to smile it off. It feels like the tiles are tilting under him. There are only two people at school who know where he lives. It scratches at him, imagining them on the long drive back from his house, laughing it up. He tilts his head back, letting the insult wash over him the same as water, keeping his expression cool. So he’s trash. So what. “Don’t know what you heard, Miller.” He leans forward a little threateningly. “Only cherry at that party was yours.”

Miller turns red. “Yeah, well my girl said—”

“Move,” Harrington says, turning Miller’s showerhead on and stepping under the spray like he didn’t already have his own. “Man, you got a big mouth for a junior. This your soap?” He picks Miller’s bar off the stand, sniffing at it, making a face and chucking it over his shoulder. “Yeesh, that cheap shit gives me hives. Danny,” he calls, “you got any soap?”

One of the seniors turns around. “You flirting with me, Steve?”

“Flirting?” Harrington says. “No, just trying to turn you on. It working?”

Miller flushes even darker, gaze fixed on his soap sliding towards the shower gutter in a slick of greywater, picking up pubes. His mouth works for a moment: “…Hey.”

“Nah,” the senior, Danny, says, coming over and handing over his soap dish. “I like ‘em dumb, but not that dumb.” He slaps Harrington lightly on the cheek and then claps his arm as he goes, leaving a sudsy handprint on him. Billy hates it. Fucking small-town hicks. Someone did that to him, he would kick their teeth in. Harrington just smiles back, completely unrattled.

“Hey!” Miller says again. 

“Holy shit, you’re still here?” Harrington says dully. “Give me some space, man. Maybe come back later.” He makes a face at Tommy like, kids these days.

Miller leaves, giving Billy one last nervous look like he’s weighing up whether it’s worth getting beaten up to say what he’s sitting on. Billy gives him a look right back that says that it’s not.

Tommy and Harrington rib at each other for a bit before settling into the quieter business of actually getting clean. Their rapport chafes at him if he lets himself dwell on it. He doesn’t trust himself to say anything anyway. Keeps his mouth zipped so that he doesn’t give anyone the chance to shut him down like Miller. He needs more soap but he’s sure as hell not going to borrow any. The water's barely warm now and his scalp is starting to itch where the soap is drying. He fixes his eyes on nothing and works at it while the others continue shooting the shit.

Harrington hangs behind when Tommy leaves, lathering his shampoo through his hair with brisk, sure movements, messing it around and pushing it into a series of abstract shapes, seeming to enjoy himself. It’s like he’s at home, Billy thinks. Like he’s by himself, listening to whatever mainstream pop gets him going on the radio. It’s insulting, when Billy is right there—could get his hands on him inside of a second and crack his head open on the tiles so fast none of his little friends could save him.  

Billy watches him, trying to find something to say and simultaneously aware that this isn’t the place for it. Harrington has the upper hand somehow, just by being so completely at ease—just by ignoring him. Billy wishes he could get up in under his guard, right here, and elbow him again, get them both in a position he knows how to win.  

As if sensing his thoughts, Harrington opens his eyes, looking at him from under the spray, from under the wet spikes of his eyelashes, suds slipping over his shoulders.

Billy feels it just the same as an elbow to the solar plexus. He’s as clean as he’s going to get, he decides, reaching for his towel on its hook, covering himself, already shivering out of the warm water. He has five minutes until class and he’s not going to spend it having a staring match with a guy who smells like girls’ shampoo.

Chapter Text

He sleeps like shit, dreams unspooling faster than he can catch, slick and confusing, dredged up on the fringes of his blackout like a tide. Dreams of being small again, too small to reach the kitchen counter without a chair, and the sound of a can opener, round and round and round. Dreams of being roadkill caught in the sudden sweep of headlights, and of being the tires too, matted with guts.

He lies there for a moment after waking, palms over his eyes, trying to press the thoughts out of his head. Trying to forget the taste of them.

It’s so close to the surface today.

It’s going to be so bad.

He almost can’t breathe with the sudden certainty of it, his throat seizing up around the feeling. He doesn’t want to be angry—so frighteningly uncontrollably angry—but he is, or, rather, he will be. It’s drawing his skin tight over his bones, wiring his jaw shut. He gets like this, without rhyme or reason, like there’s a wound hidden somewhere on him that keeps popping its stitches and getting infected, and he never notices until the poison is already in his blood.

He opens his eyes. It’s still dark out, raining, his room heavy and quiet.  

"Shit," he murmurs, just to make sure he's really awake.

He could get in his car and go. He doesn’t have to walk into that school today. He doesn’t have to be Billy Hargrove. He could floor it the whole way out of Hawkins, go somewhere cheap and seedy where they play his music, where he could smoke a whole packet of cigarettes in a dark corner and no one would even look at him.

He’s already laughing at himself for thinking about it. This is the wild fantasy at the heart of him and it’s just some half-baked copy of another man’s escape plan, something poached from a Jack Kerouac story. He never lets himself imagine where it is he drives to, the bar that serves drinks to a minor, what happens after, when he’s finished the pack, when he gets up from the corner table.

He really does laugh at that, scrubbing the sound out his mouth with a rough hand and reaching for his cigarettes on top of his bedside table. He sucked at running away when he was kid too, never got much further than packing a slice of bread in a knapsack and hiding out on the fire escape until he cried himself inside, usually in the space of an hour. Billy’s not like Max, he doesn’t have anyone worth running to. Not anymore.

He sits up, kicking free of the warm sheets and smoking a cigarette to ease the tight feeling in his throat instead of thinking about all the same dull shit he can’t change.

Tina’s party can’t come soon enough.

He’s pent-up, he decides, has been for weeks. The more he thinks about it, the more sense it makes. He never got anywhere with Lacey. The girl before her had always been on her period. The girl before that had just been some unmemorable hookup in an unmemorable bathroom, too much teeth and annoyed when he put a hickey on her for her boyfriend to see.

He can breathe a little easier with the answer in front of him. He’ll have a girl on him by the end of the night. That’s never been too difficult when he puts his mind to it, and there’s still plenty of bitches in Hawkins waiting for their spin around the dancefloor. He just has to make it until then. He just has to keep a lid on it until the sun goes down, until there’s some pretty face, a rich kid’s bathroom, and his blood turned effervescent with the thump of music on the other side of a locked door.

All he has to do is outlast the clock on this powder keg of a day, and he’s practiced enough at that by now. There’s no real routine to it, no sure thing that works. It’s more like he just throws every obstacle he can come up with in the way of it, and sometimes it holds up for just long enough for him to outrun himself. 

He gets up and makes his bed with unimpeachably-neat military corners, opens the window so that the evidence of him smoking inside will clear out, and then hunts through the contained chaos of his drawers for a pair of shorts to work out in.

No one else in the house is awake, so he has to be quiet about setting up his bench press in the living room, the floorboards flexing under the old carpet. He misses his setup in the garage, but he can make do. He keeps an eye on the door at the end of the hall as he loads up, settling for light reps, curling until his biceps start to burn, listening to the first warbles of birdsong in the dark trees. When he gets his Walkman for Christmas he’ll be able to do this anytime he wants, with music as loud as he wants too. But for now, the muted clank of iron shifting on steel has a rhythm to it that gets him thinking about nothing in a way that works just fine.

By the time Susan creeps out of her bedroom he’s got quite a good sweat on. She seems a little taken aback by him being up so early, an irregular feature in her sad routine, but she keeps her mouth shut and gets on with making Neil’s breakfast: egg white omelet, half a tomato and baked beans. Billy’s made the same thing a hundred times back when it was his job, although, back then neither of them knew or cared what cholesterol was.

Billy can forgive Susan for being a lot of things, but getting in the way of Neil’s early heart attack is not going to be one of them.

The sound of the can lid prying open makes him pause for a moment, reminded uncomfortably of his dream. He shakes it off and pushes himself harder, until he’s breathing hard and brisk, the dumbbells rattling, sweat beading at his hairline and along the band of his shorts.

He’s finishing up when Maxine stumbles out of her room to sit in front of the TV and watch her morning cartoons. She’s barely with it enough to acknowledge the oddity of him awake, although she does eyeball his naked chest with disgust. She should count herself lucky. Billy’s been a paradigm of modesty since the Mayfairs moved in. He even sleeps with underwear on just in case he runs into one of them taking a midnight piss.

He’s in such a mood he can’t be bothered to dress nice; doesn’t bother with an earring or styling his hair after his shower, just throws a sweatshirt and yesterday’s denim on, forgets deodorant and dabs cologne under his ears and on his wrists and then on the back of his neck as an afterthought, since he’s going to get laid.

Maxine’s still not done in the bathroom when he’s ready to go. He does a lap and comes back, leans up against the door, flicking his keys around until his patience runs out (about ten seconds). He knocks.

“Max.”

No response. He can hear her messing around in there. He huffs, knocking again, a little harder. She really doesn’t need to be trying him like this. Even with the lassitude from his workout weighing his arms down he kind of feels like the best thing for him would be to put his fist through the nearest available hard surface, and he doesn’t need the excuse. He slumps against the door.

C’mon, Max.”

“Just a minute.” She sounds odd, a little frantic.

He bangs once on the door, hard enough to be a proper warning, the flimsy wood reverberating in the frame, the palm of his hand stinging. “Now, Maxine. I’m not getting another tardy because you can’t do your shits at school.”

She opens the door, scowling, trying to slink past him. “As if you’ve ever cared about getting to class on time.” 

“Never too late to turn over a new—what’s with your face?” He grabs her elbow.

“It’s nothing.” She tries to tug out of his grip, eyes down, hiding behind her hair. There’s definitely something different about her, her face doesn’t look right.

He squints, a grin forming before he even fully processes what he’s looking at.

Her scowl deepens. “It’s just a little makeup.”

It’s not, just a little.

He starts laughing, low and mean in a way that makes her flush. What’s left of her face that isn’t already powdered pink starts pinking, bottom lip wobbling. “This is how the girls at school are doing it.” 

“Yeah,” he wheezes, “the ugly ones. Christ, Maxine.”  

She tries to push past him.

“What, now you’re in a rush?” He gets in her way, boxing her in. She’s holding something behind her back and he reaches for it. “What you got there?”

“Nothing,” she says, backing up. “Billy.”

“Nothing?” he purrs. “Show me.” He makes another grab for it. “What is it, your application to clown school?”

She makes a break for the door, trying to dart around him and he reaches over and yanks it out of her hand with pure force.

“Billy!” she yelps. “Give it back!”

He sniggers, holding it away from her to look at it properly.

It’s a magazine. Folded open to a sheeny close-up of a girl pressing a kiss against a powder compact, an ad for some tween makeup brand. It takes a moment to register what he’s looking at but when it does his good humor vanishes like smoke. He drops it as if he’s been stung, pages fluttering, hitting the tiles with a slap.

“Get rid of that now,” he hisses. 

She startles back at the expression on his face. “What?”

He slams his hand against the doorjamb, making her jump. “Get rid of it,” he says through his teeth. 

Her eyes widen fearfully. “But—”

“What’s going on here, Bill?”

He spins around, stomach plummeting, moving to block as much of the view of the bathroom as he can. His father is in the middle of fastening his belt, the narrow hallway putting them closer together than they normally allow.

His throat bobs, working until he’s confident he can speak.

“Nothing."

Neil doesn’t look even slightly convinced. He tilts his head to look over Billy’s shoulder, eyes sliding over the scene in the cramped bathroom and back to his face. He must see his pulse beating in his throat. Must smell the fear coming off Billy in waves.

He runs a hand over his mustache and jaw, like a pause, like he’s exhausted already by the dance they’re going to have to go through. The hand drops. “You going to tell me why your sister’s crying?”

“Dad,” he says, choked. “It’s nothing." 

“Move.”

Billy doesn’t move—can’t. He can’t let him see. His father’s eyes narrow at the uncharacteristic stubbornness and they stare at each other for a fraught moment, tension weighing heavy in the air between them, Billy’s pulse drumming in his ears. Neil pushes him aside. It’s just a hand on his shoulder but Billy still slumps awkwardly into the doorframe, legs stiff and uncooperative. He turns around, cringing already, unable to stop himself from looking, like a car crash.

Except, the magazine is gone.

He stares at the bare floor in shock, eyes darting over the tile, the bunched up shower curtain and the cluttered vanity, Max flushed and teary. She has her hand behind her back.

Neil’s flat gaze passes over the mess of the bathroom, catching on the sorts of things that typically spark at his anger like a flint on dry tinder: the comb full of hair, the spatter of toothpaste at the base of the mirror, the mat not hung up to dry properly, soggy with footprints.

His dad’s not stupid. Maxine’s hunched posture is so obvious. She’s withering under Neil’s scrutiny, shrinking down, so unlike herself it makes Billy want to shake her. But Neil won’t push it with her—not in here. Not when her suspicious behavior might be to conceal some mystery of feminine hygiene he’s better off not knowing.

They’re at a standoff.

Neil eyes Billy, the weak link.

His mouth goes dry.

“I’m going to be late for school,” Max says.

The lie hangs in the air as Neil keeps him pinned under his stare, drawing out the moment of decision while Billy swallows, trying to keep his face blank, heart banging around in his chest.

His dad looks around the bathroom one more time. Billy’s hanging so hard on his every tiny expression he can tell the exact moment he loses interest—if he ever had any in the first place, beyond putting a stop to the source of the interruption to his morning routine—the dangerous taut smoothness of his face relaxing into just plain tired.

There’s no relief in it. Billy’s still quailing on the inside as if he just took a hit to the guts. Reeling over how quickly his day almost went from bad to really fucking horrifyingly bad; how insubstantial his efforts to control anything really are.

“Hurry up, then,” Neil says finally.

His hand lands heavy on Billy’s shoulder as he leaves, a paternal squeeze, like he’s concerned about his son frozen in place, rabbit-eyed and sweating. That’s what it probably looks like.

^^^

In the end they make it to their respective schools before first bell, but only because Billy stomps on the accelerator the whole way, refusing to look at her. 

He pulls into the middle-school lot and brakes like an afterthought, hard enough to jerk them both forward, staring out past the scrape of the windscreen wipers at the gray and brown school building, wishing he could just keep driving right through it.

“Billy.”

“Get out of my car, Max.”

He doesn’t like the way his voice comes out, flat and dark, like there’s something else behind the wheel. She’s smart enough or just familiar enough to read the warning in it, dashing the tears from under her eyes and throwing the door open to scramble out. She leaves a bunch of balled-up tissues on his seat, smeared with fuchsia. Bitch, he thinks, flicking them off into the footwell, but it’s shaky instead of angry. He doesn’t want to be thankful to her—not over this, not when it’s her fault anyway.

She doesn’t even truly know what it was she was hiding behind her back just then. What Neil almost caught the scent of.  

It’s just a magazine, he thinks, furious with himself, with all of them. 

It was just a stupid magazine. 

He ends up staring after her as she hurries all the way to the main entrance, too far down under the surface to blink, face stiff. She makes it to the doors and Sinclair and the rest of them there waiting for her, but this time she turns to look back. Don’t bother, he thinks dully. She takes one hand off the strap of her bag and flicks an awkward half-wave at him. His fingers tighten on the wheel, creaking, mouth hardening into a sneer. Don’t bother.

He wheels out of there all showy, like it’s going to make his day to impress a few thirteen-year-olds. The drive from the middle school to the high school is short but he guns it anyway, turning an Anvil track all the way up until the opening guitar riff is rattling his teeth, trying to vibrate the residue of his own fear out of his atoms.

It’s just six hours, he reminds himself. Six hours and he’ll be out of here and he’ll have booze, and a girl who wants him to screw her, and maybe even some shitty weed if Tommy’s guy is there. He doesn’t need to do anything to jeopardize that. He doesn’t need to burn it all to the ground just because he had a bad dream and woke up feeling sensitive about it.

He’s almost put himself back together—almost—when he pulls into the lot and sees Harrington’s car parked in his spot.

He pulls up behind it, hand hovering over the handbrake. The BMW is shiny as a cherry, dark windows dewed with rain.

It looks like an answer to something.

He lets it wash over him, letting it slip under his skin, set his blood to itching. The Camaro idles underneath him, engine thudding, urging him to do something about it.

Someone beeps their horn. Billy looks at them coolly in the rearview mirror before moving off. There are no spots left in the seniors bay so he parks in the next bay over with the rest of the juniors. He kills the music and sits for a moment, ears ringing, listening to the engine tick and settle, the drum of rain on the roof, trying to ignore the slow wind of his temper in his chest.

It’s no good.

His limbs are already pricking, anger stirring warm under the cold stone of his skin. He can’t stop his mind from turning to Steve Harrington; the upside-down violence of his dream. How good it would feel to get his hands in all that leonine-perfect hair and just pull pull pull until it comes out in his hands.

He wants a fight and there’s only one person in this shithole who can give it to him. And he just parked his stupid fucking car in Billy’s spot.

 ^^^

People don’t exactly scatter, but they get out of his way once they’re close enough to see his face. It makes him feel slightly more in control, even as his feet drive him forward, hunting for something he’d be better off avoiding.

The halls are filled with a sort of boisterous energy he should be able to enjoy: kids shaking out raincoats and umbrellas, talking excitedly about the upcoming break, ready to party. He should be there among them, in the center of them. He should be leaning up against a locker with a girl fussing over the state of his hair. It should all be his but it isn’t—still belongs to a guy who can’t even care enough to fight for it, who can’t even hold his breath for fifteen seconds. He doesn’t need it like Billy does—needed it, this morning.

He tracks Harrington to the senior block toilets just as the bell for first period sounds and the halls start to empty. Lacey is waiting patiently outside with her giggling friend.

“Billy,” she says, surprised. 

“Billy,” the friend says in a different tone, body going lax against the wall.

“Hey,” Lacey says more sharply when she sees he’s not going to stop, getting in his way, her eyes darting to the closed door of the boys’ toilets. Oh, that’s real cute.

“Move.”

She does a good job of not flinching at his tone. Her mouth sets into a stubborn shape. Unlike Max her lipstick is perfect, shiny burgundy like the lacquer on Harrington’s car, the bow of her upper lip starkly drawn and clean. Harrington hasn’t been on her yet. Or maybe he has and she’s just reapplied.

“Don’t,” she says. “He’s tired.”

Billy’s laugh is as dry as dust. “Yeah, me too.”

She looks at him, searching for something but whatever it is she doesn’t find it. “Get Tommy H,” she says to her friend.

He takes a step forward and she comes with him. He bites his lip at her, looming close. He can see the moment she catches the scent of him—the sweat and the too heavy cologne, her nostrils flaring. “Coming in?” he asks, voice just as dead and as mean as in the car with Max. He usually saves this for breaking up with the clingy ones, but fuck it, she’s already washed her hands of him; it’s not like he needs to keep the act up around her anymore. He leans even closer. “Don’t act shy now,” he says, hand stroking up past her shoulder to press against the door. “From what I heard, you’ve spent plenty of time in here." 

Her face shutters. “Sure, Billy. Want to do this here?”

“I’ll do this anywhere, Lacey. See”—he tilts his head, baring his teeth in the biggest smile he can manage, something just a little better than a sneer—“I’m easy too.”

“Yeah, I don’t think so,” she says, flat-eyed. “Leave him alone, Billy.”

“No can do. Me and the king have business. You going to get out of my way now, or am I going to have to make you?”

She tenses at that. He can see her trying to figure him out, asking herself whether she should call his bluff. He doesn’t bluff. Doesn’t need to. He barks and he bites—it’s all the same to him, always ends with blood in his teeth. He doesn’t hit girls but he doesn’t need to hit her to hurt her.

Turns out he was right about her being smart though, because she glares, but steps aside.

“Better run and make sure your friend finds someone for when I’m done,” he says as he pushes past her, muttering, “maybe someone with a mop.” 

She shouts a warning that gets cut off by the door swinging shut on her annoyed face.

Billy sniffs. Harrington’s in one of the three stalls, head poking up above the partition where he’s standing on the toilet and smoking out the window. There are two other guys at the urinal.

“Scram,” Billy says to the closest one, moving quick to block Harrington into his cubicle, hands up on the frame so he can’t close the door. Harrington finishes tapping his cigarette out on the ledge, twisting around on his throne to look down at him. He’s wearing probably three different layers of polo shirt.  

One of the guys books it without even zipping up properly, but the other one lingers. 

“Steve?”

“Take a hike or you’ll get the same,” Billy says, not bothering to look.

Harrington raises his eyebrows, shaking his head just slightly like, really? He breathes out a sigh through his nose, looking over Billy’s head to give his little devotee the okay to flee.

“Do we have to do this right now?” he says once the door has swung shut again. “I don’t really feel like dealing with your complex today.”

“Too bad you picked a fight then, huh.”

Harrington’s brow pinches. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“You parked in my spot.”

He’d chewed over the line in his head the whole way here, condensing it down, meaning for it come out like a reckoning, something to really make Harrington shit his pants. But he didn’t account for Harrington standing on top of a toilet, looking down at him, and it comes out kind of small and ridiculous.

Harrington makes a bland face. “Seriously?”

Billy’s grip on the stall tightens, rattling the frame. Harrington is less intimidated by it than Max was, probably because of his height advantage. He’s going to kick Harrington’s ankles from under him in a second if he doesn’t get down from there.

“Here’s the news, Hargrove,” Harrington says, stepping down, carefully, close enough to be a threat and distanced enough to be contemptuous about it. At this angle Billy can see that he really is tired, neat enough, but worn at the edges. He’s so pale under the fluorescent lighting he’s like an old photograph in sepia tones. “It’s just a parking spot,” he says, laying on the accent all mid-western darling. “But if it means so much to you, all you had to do was ask.”

Idiot. Playing by the wrong rules again. Thinking Billy won’t call his bluff. He should have stayed up there, crawled out the window when he saw Billy coming.

Billy snarls a hand in his collar and yanks, so hard his knuckles pop. Harrington stumbles into him a little but otherwise stays loose and uncooperative, putting in only enough spine to stay upright, to keep their faces apart, nostrils flaring.

“You grow some balls since last time, Harrington, or you just got a short fucking memory?”

Harrington snorts, looking away like he’d rather be doing something more interesting, like the fringe of his hair isn’t trembling under Billy’s hot breath. Maybe he’s underestimating how much Billy woke up wanting to hurt someone. Or maybe this is just his way of getting what he wants too, making Billy do all the dirty work.

“Maybe I’m just not in the mood,” he says, eyes half-lidded.

Oh, yeah. He’s a real fucking princess.

Billy grins. “I am. In the mood.” His grip tightens as he draws Harrington closer, grin widening. “So you gonna put out or am I going to have to romance you?”

He doesn't wait for an answer. Uses his grip on Harrington’s collar to throw him around, slamming his shoulders hard into the cubical. Harrington’s head bounces off the wall with a thump, a shocked gasp coming out of him, shoes squeaking on the tile as he tries to get his legs back under him, too clumsy and too slow.  

Billy huffs out a laugh. “Take a little too much of mommy’s Prozac, sweetheart?”

Harrington’s eyes widen. He’s spooked now, trying to put some space between them, prying at Billy’s hands in his shirt. “Get the fuck off me." 

Billy shoves him harder against the wall, just to show him he can. “What’s the matter, Harrington? Can’t get it up without an audience of little kids?” He shoves him again. It’s just like basketball. He just has to find the right combination to make Harrington play. Anticipation sparks along his skin, in his chest. 

Harrington shakes his head, sneering faintly. “I told you, I don’t have time for this right now. There’s things out there—”

He shakes Harrington again, reminding him: here. Hissing, “There’s nothing out there that’s worse than this right now, I promise you.” 

Harrington’s eyes go big, searching for a moment. “I—” His mouth seals up, angry at himself. “You don’t know shit,” he says. Billy can see the fight draining right out of him, can’t keep the desperation off his face as he watches the guy wilt, even as Billy shakes him again. “Look somewhere else for your fix, man.”

No. No.

“No.” He lets go of Harrington’s collar with one hand, screwing his fingers hard into the center of Harrington’s chest, a parody of that night, right where he knows there’s a fire burning, the same as in him. “No,” he says again, meaning: it’s right here, give me this, let me have this. He licks his lip, eyes scrolling over Harrington’s face, looking for some other vulnerability, an in. Already he can feel the adrenaline slowing to a stop, curdling in his veins, clammy cold settling over him like a shell. If he closes his eyes he might just wake up now, back in his bed, ready to start this day again.

It doesn’t make any sense. There’s nowhere for the guy to go. Billy’s got him cornered and caged. He has to fight his way out. He has to hit back.

Hit me, he thinks, face coloring. Harrington’s looking at him real tired, mouth ticked up on one side like he finds the whole thing distasteful. It’s…déjà vu. Or something he’s dreamed before. 

Mistake. The whole thing’s a mistake. He’s not going to get what he needs. Harrington only makes it worse.

He’d have been better off to go to Byers, he sees that now. Byers is like a blue-ringed octopus, a bite smaller and deadlier than what Billy needs, but Harrington is like a big fat deep-sea shark. Billy keeps reopening the same wound, putting more and more blood in the water, and Harrington just—won’t take the bait.

Billy lets him go. His fingers ache, still clawed up. 

They’re at an awkward distance now. Too close to not be fighting. It’s Harrington’s fault, Billy thinks miserably. They could have had something good and bloody, but Harrington spoilt it, like a fumbled shot.

The wind outside surges, blowing a gust of sharp rain in through the open window, spattering over their jacket sleeves.

“You’re a real tease, Harrington.”

“Yeah. This new for you? Someone not giving you what you want?”

Billy bares his teeth. He doesn’t even get to want what he wants.  

“And what about what you want, huh.” He clicks his fingers under Harrington’s nose. “You even awake in there? What’s got Steve Harrington so scared he has to sleepwalk through his day?”

“Man, just leave me alone.”

“That's hysterical. Wake up and look around you. You are alone. You are so alone," he says, almost laughing because it's true.

He’s so close he sees the moment Harrington absorbs it and changes, his eyes sharpening, his lips parting with a small noise. Billy's heart speeds, catching in his throat. “That why you spend your nights playing make-believe with my stepsister and her little nerd friends?”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Harrington says, jaw going hard. 

Billy’s breath rushes out of him shaky and excited, hands fluttering up between them, unsure, but ready, settling on the warm cotton of Harrington’s shirt. 

“No. No, I think I do, Harrington." He tugs him closer, an idea gaining traction, smelling weakness. “The world got scary on you? Things out there change a little too fast for you to keep up? It’s natural you’d want your old life back.” He smirks. “Old friends, old girl... Shit, the best parking spot in the whole damn school.” He crows, smiling, tongue stuck on the tip of his eyetooth. “Nice and easy and safe. Like putting on old clothes. I bet they still fit just right, huh.”

Harrington tenses up under his hands, going quiet. The look on his face—it’s perfect. Gets right into his bloodstream.

Oh, yeah. This’ll do.

“You know,” he says, stepping back a little to look Harrington up and down. “I see it now, what all the fuss is about. You really are something special.” He reaches to touch the swoop of his hair admiringly but Harrington jerks back, wary. “King Steve.” He laughs. “Oh, man. You know, I think I’m gonna remember you when I get out of here.” He drops the smile, turning serious and intent. “Hell, maybe Byers and his girl will too. Maybe those kids you hang out with, once they’re gone.”

Harrington’s mouth flattens into a hard line, eyes glassy, wounded. “Fuck you,” he says quietly.

“What’s the matter, Harrington? I’m giving you what you want, aren’t I? You can have it all back. Your friends, your spot…team captain. I wouldn’t take that away from you.” He gets in close, right in Harrington’s face. “These are the best years of your life after all.”

A small tremor goes through him. He’s awake again, suddenly, really looking at Billy like he’s something that needs to be dealt with, dark and livid. Billy lights up with it.

Yes.

Yes.

“There he is,” he says excitedly.

He slaps Harrington in the face.

It’s a gentlemen’s tap, nothing that will leave a bruise, just something to get them started, an invitation, an easy out for Harrington: he didn’t start shit, he didn’t have a choice. Anything to make sure that spark in Harrington’s eyes doesn’t go out again. Anything to keep Billy’s blood singing.

Harrington’s even nodding, just slightly, like he gets it, struck cheek turning red.

“Okay,” he says, low and vicious, rucking his sleeves up like a priss. “Okay. Do me a favor though—don’t cry like a bitch this time.” Then he punches Billy right in his already bruised eye.

Fuck!” His shout echoes sharply off the tile. His eye—the whole side of his face—explodes with pain. It’s like he’s been shot. He stumbles away, the heel of his palm jammed reflexively against the socket, fetching up against the bank of sinks, half-blind.

“I’m gonna fucking end you, Harrington,” he snarls, face burning white-hot under the streaming tears. There’s a throbbing glittering black spot superimposed over where he guesses Harrington is standing. His hands fumble over the sink for purchase.

“Looking for a plate?” Harrington asks drily. 

Billy laughs, manic, pushing forward.

“Yep, okay,” Tommy says, appearing between them. He has an arm outstretched in Billy’s direction only, like he trusts Harrington to stop on his own. “Enough, man.” It’s so non-committal, impossible to say which one he’s talking to.

“Get lost,” he snaps.

“Yeah, Tommy,” Harrington says, all dry, eyes like blackholes. “Get lost.”

“Steve, don’t be an asshole,” Tommy says. “Carol’s going to kill me if I let you get beat up again.”

Billy laughs. He doesn’t give a shit—not about Tommy or his loyalty. He’s probably been there the whole time, waiting in the doorway to see which horse to back, maybe enjoying the show, or maybe just shitting his pants, too scared to interfere. It doesn’t matter. Tommy's in his blind spot now and he can only see Harrington: his big dark eyes, wet under the lights, his open mouth. He’s looking at Billy like he can’t see Tommy either. Billy's heart is beating in his neck, his teeth sharp in his bottom lip.

“Looks like your rescue got here in time,” he says, even though he’s still breathing fire, feels like he could get his fists against Harrington’s skin and still want more.

“Or yours,” Harrington says. “You don’t look so good, buddy. Rough night?”

Billy leers, running his tongue along his teeth animal-like.  

“Shit, Billy,” Tommy says.

He sniffs, rubbing the back of his hand over his mouth like he can rub the smile off. He probably looks psychotic; eyes watering. He should have brushed his hair. The searing white bathroom tile is still bouncing with black stars in the corners. He's not going to get any more of what he wants out of Harrington, not now with Tommy here. But he has enough.

He points to his eye. It hasn’t puffed up but he’s going to have a grade-A shiner later, something to feel around the edges of at night and remember: Harrington can be got.

“Now I owe you one, Harrington.”

Harrington gives him a filthy look. “Promises, promises.”

Outside, the wind howls, shrieking in through the cracked window, rain drumming harder against the side of the building. One of the light panels overhead flickers and all three of them stare at it until it stabilizes.

Billy snickers, heading for the door. He makes sure to clip Tommy’s shoulder on his way. Just so he knows how inconsequential he is, how presumptuous, to think he could ever get in Billy’s way.  

“Looks like it’s gonna be a wild night, Harrington,” he says in parting. “Pity you won’t be a part of it. Have fun playing babysitter.”

^^^

It’s almost enough to get him through the day. 

He makes it all the way to last period, buzzing, his thumb pressed snug into the bruise in the corner of his eye as he stares at the slick of rain on the window, replaying the hungry look in Harrington’s eye, like he wanted to dig his fingers in and pull him apart like a rotisserie chicken. King Steve.

He’s still high off of it when the bell goes, drunk almost, piling his books up dreamy and rote, drifting after his classmates out the door.

Something’s wrong.

The halls are deafening, the narrow space echoing with shrieking laughter as the first boom of thunder rolls overhead. Lockers slam, people rush past him, chattering, excited. He can’t hear their conversations but his ears prick at the one word on repeat. 

In the midst of the pandemonium and movement he spies Tina, a bubble of unhappiness. She’s talking furiously to some other girl, trapper keeper clutched to her chest, face dour, free hand slicing through the air sharply.

He already knows, deep down, but he reaches out anyway, snatching at the nearest arm.

“What’s going on?” he asks. It’s some thick-bodied guy already pink in the cheeks.

“You don’t know?” the guy says, walking backwards, pulling out of Billy’s grasp, too excited to stop. He makes a whooping sound, blending into the crowd. “Party at Harrington’s tonight, dude.” He whoops again, throwing a fist up. “Party at Harrington’s. Long live the king!”

Chapter Text

It’s not even that nice of a house.

Billy’s seen nicer.

He drains the last can of Old Style and crushes it, throwing it out the window with the rest of the six pack. He’s been around Hawkins twice already, taken some sharp corners, played chicken with a sixteen-wheeler. Anything to avoid Loch Nora and the steady trickle of cars pouring into Harrington’s fancy cul-de-sac as it got dark.

But he’s here now, he thinks bitterly, blowing out an annoyed breath. 

There’s no gate, no gold-capped fence, no gargoyles. Nothing to keep Billy out except for a long walk over the dark drive and a closed pair of doors lit up like the answer at the end of a hall at the end of a dream.

He scratches at his chest, contemplating driving back to the Fair Mart for more booze first.

He’s not a pussy. He’s crashed bigger better parties than this, with meaner hosts. He’s used to arriving alone too, it’s just that he’s fucked the timing of the thing now. He’s sat too long in his car. Been seen my too many partygoers as they pull up, as they drift in and out of the house. He keeps waiting for someone—Tommy, Carol, Harrington—to come out, following a rumor to see if the Camaro is really there, parked on the curb with Billy Hargrove inside it smoking his way through next week’s gas allowance.

He’s already kind of drunk too, but not in a way that he needs. It just makes him worse, surlier, beer churning in his empty stomach. His skin itches under a patina of flop sweat: too much thwarted adrenaline in one day.

A pair of junior girls walk past, peering in through his window. He stares back at them vacantly when they catch sight of him, slow-eyed, not bothering to smile around his cigarette almost burnt down to the filter. They wave, one of them tottering closer, but her friend grabs her by the strap of her purse with a sharp word, a warning, tugging her away.

He exhales smoke, watching them stumble up the drive passing a flask between them, fluffing each other’s hair. One of them turns to look back at his car, hopeful. It reminds him of Max, of the stupid half-wave that morning, after he’d scared her. Stupid. Stupid like every other girl, even when she should know better. Even after she’d done the smart thing and sunk a baseball bat into the floor not two inches from his nuts.

The girls have made it inside, the big blood-red front doors clapping shut—darkness again. Maybe if he goes up there and rings the doorbell right now Harrington will be the one to answer and they can cut right to the chase.

“Fuck it.” He can’t sit still thinking about it any longer. 

He yanks his keys out of the ignition and pushes his way out of his car, ditching his cigarette butt, headed towards the lighted doorstep. The rain’s dried up for now but the air still smells electric with the promise of more. He tramps right up the steps, his boots cutting dark tracks over the Harringtons’ silvery lawn, and pushes through the front doors like he belongs.  

He doesn’t.

Christ, Harrington’s loaded.

If he didn’t know already, he knows now. He’d know it in the pitch dark. Somewhere in this house is a state-of-the-art sound system and it’s pumping out synth pop with a crystal clear edge, loud enough to make Billy’s heart trip into its rhythm.

The entrance is packed with familiar groups of people; the same crowd as Halloween but with different masks. A few heads turn at the opening of the door and the ensuing bite of cold air.

“Holy shit,” someone says, which is fair.

He shoulders his way into the thick of them quick-smart—like hell he’s going to be caught stood around in the doorway like he’s casing the joint—just a glimpse of lofty ceilings and a long master staircase, nice art on the walls—not movie posters or kids’ stuff.  

The party itself is already on the messy side of full swing, the sort of atmosphere where one too many key players have taken themselves out of circulation, moved on to some other party with an older crew or just found someone to sneak away with and screw in a spare room. There's a girl crying in a huddle of her friends, a guy slumped too heavily against the wall. Some red-faced junior stumbles urgently past Billy with his hand clapped over his mouth. 

So, okay, yeah, it was probably a decent fucking party and he shouldn’t have spent the last hour in his car inventing reasons why it wouldn’t be sad if he parked out at the quarry and taught himself how to skim rocks. He has a limited time to enjoy it now. Someone will have gone running to Harrington already. His friend the Chief of Police is probably already on his way to scrape Billy out of the party like oyster shit.

Whatever. He doesn’t need much time, just enough for people to know he was here. Just enough to get a girl to look past his black eye and the mean set of his mouth. There’s plenty of pretty ones left. Plenty of desperate ones too. They eye him up and down as he slides past, wending his way towards the noise, skirting the edges of larger groups.

He locks eyes with a few familiar guys from his grade but they don’t reach out to him. He makes them uneasy when he’s not smiling. Tommy and Carol usually help with that, softening his edges, stupid enough to stay in his orbit and ply him with booze and flattery until he’s indulgent and approachable and fun.

He ends up bullying his way into a game of beer pong being played on top of an enormous dining table. As a Hargrove he’s genetically predisposed to abhor drinking games—drinking is its own sport—but there’s no keg here that he can see, and playing along seems like the fastest route to free booze.

It still takes some finessing. Even half-way trashed he’s too good of a shot. He manages to down a few cups of sour beer by martyring himself, drinking for his less coordinated teammates and their girlfriends, spitting the ping pong ball back across the table to a chorus of disgusted boos. A girl sidles up to him and presses a bottle of Stoli into his chest, waiting for him to take it before she smooths a hand over his chest, like it’s an even exchange. He’s indifferent to vodka, but it will have to do. He takes a swig and doesn’t make a face at the dry burn of it down his throat. Lets her hand be his center of balance while he tips his head back.

She says something. The music is too loud and she’s too short. He shakes his head—she's interfering with his turn at the game—but he lets her tug him down so she can shout into his ear. Whoever she is she’s wasted, her voice thick as honey:

“There’s no punch.” 

“There’s no punch,” he repeats slowly.  

“Tina’s place always has punch,” she whines. “Who throws a party with no punch? Typ—typ….”

He holds the bottle away from her grasping hands, scanning the room. “Typical.”

He has a pretty reliable sixth sense for rooms with Harrington in them. He’s not here, but the living area is a big space, open, surrounded by glass— overlooked by the second story landing, he realizes.

“Your car got heated seats?”

“No,” he says, eyes on the balustrade above. It makes him uneasy. There’s no one up there, but there could be. “Hold this,” he says, giving the girl her vodka back.

He grabs one of the beer pong players, mouthing a name. The guy points in the direction of the sliding doors.

To hell with it. He needs air anyway.

Harrington has a pool. He’d heard rumors of course, but seeing it is something else. It’s lit up, glowing blue, steaming in the cold air. It doesn’t look like the sort of place where a bear eats a girl, but given the wary distance people are keeping around the perimeter it must be true. There’s no fence before the darkened tree line. He supposes it’s not inconceivable something—something big and hungry—could wander out from the woods for a dip and a snack.

Harrington himself is easy to spot. He’s the only one sat down, relaxed back in one of his pool chairs, sunglasses on like he’s Corey-fucking-Hart. No Lacey. Tommy and Carol are with him and not with him, standing a little ways off, watching. He’s not entirely sure why until he gets closer.

Wheeler—and Byers with her. 

And now that he’s really looking, Harrington isn’t exactly relaxed so much as he’s reclined and shitfaced, a stack of empty cans on the ground beside him. Which explains why Wheeler looks pissed.

“…better than this,” she’s saying.

“Well, maybe I’m not,” Harrington says.

Wheeler shakes her head, ignoring Byers’ hand on her arm. He’s holding a red solo cup, which is just the most bizarre thing Billy’s seen all day. He’d have put money on him being the type not to drink. 

“I don’t believe you,” Wheeler carries on saying. “How can you sit here—here—knowing what happened?”

“It’s my house, Nance. I live here, in it. Next to it. Y’know.”

“And, so, what? You’re just going to be like this now?” She gestures at the party like, this, the party, people dancing, the pool. Like it all amounts to something lacking. 

“Well, what would you like me to be, Nancy?” 

Wheeler’s face screws up, curly ponytail swinging from side to side as she shakes her head with astonishment. “More than this.”

Jesus. What a bitch.

“Nancy,” Byers says. “C’mon.”

“No. No, I want to know why he’s acting like this. Like…like…”

Harrington could be looking at her any kind of way from behind his glasses. “Like what?”

“Like before,” she says, furious. “Like an asshole. Seriously, Steve. What’s wrong with you?”

What’s wrong with you?

Harrington just laughs it off—a bitter-sounding thing, more like a grunt. “Before,” he says slowly. “Yeah...You know, I kind of liked it, before? When I could sleep. When I didn’t have nightmares. When I wasn’t afraid of my next-door neighbor's dog. Yeah, those were good times.”

“Steve,” Byers says, sharing a look with Wheeler. “Hey. We get it.”

“Thanks, man,” Harrington says in a perfectly polite tone of voice.

Steve.

Harrington’s head lolls against the pool chair. “Fuck, what, Nancy? It’s just a party.” He waves the beer in his hand around. “Time was you wanted one, remember? I’ll be Good Steve tomorrow. Hey, shit, maybe if I get drunk enough Jonathan can take me home.”

“You—don’t take this out on him! And that’s not even nearly the same thing.”

“Why, because I’m bullshit and you’re not?”

Her face hardens up, mouth pinching into an unhappy line.

“Nothing to say?” Harrington says, real bitchy. “It’s okay, I get it now. Really. I am bullshit.”

“Steve—”

“No. No, no, no, no. You think I’m bullshit. You think I’m bullshit and all of Hawkins is bullshit and you’re not because you’re going to college.”

Billy looks around to see if anyone is going to step in and stop this train wreck, but only a handful of people near enough to overhear seem to be paying attention, and Tommy and Carol are hovering awkwardly on the fringes, iced out earlier perhaps, or just waiting for things to get more heated, more entertaining.

“No,” Wheeler says, stepping closer, serious. “I think it’s bullshit because we both know there’s more out there than just, I don’t know, being cool.”

Harrington snorts.

Wheeler’s eyes narrow down to slits. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Harrington shrugs. “Don’t knock it ‘til you try it.”

Billy’s breath escapes him in a rush of almost laughter. It’s so conceited it’s impressive. Kind of shocking. He’s moved close enough that Tommy has caught sight of him and they lock eyes, sharing a moment of understanding. 

Wheeler has gone still, mouth pinched tight. Then she starts nodding. “Okay. Okay, I want to leave,” she says to Byers, taking his hand. “Let’s go.” 

“Enjoy your date.” 

Wheeler rounds on him. “There’s no date, Steve!” she hisses. “We canceled. Joyce called the restaurant. You left Will.”

Zombie Boy? 

“He’s…” Harrington actually sounds a little guilty. “He’s with the others. I walkied them. It’s not like he’s alone.”

“I’m sure he got home fine,” Byers says firmly, trying to be diplomatic. “My mom’s just...still kind of sensitive about stuff like that. But, Steve, man, you told them you’d take them to the movies. He didn’t bring his bike.”

“Yeah, well. I didn’t feel like spending my night with a bunch of kids.”

“Sure, of course, I get that,” Byers says. “Just, don’t make promises you can’t keep with him, okay?”

“Whatever. It’s not like he’s my responsibility.”

That gets Byers frowning, annoyed, finally. “What do you know about responsibility?”

Yeah, Billy thinks, wincing, already stalking across the damp pavement. Yeah, he’s had enough of this shitshow. 

“Your pool party fucking blows, Harrington,” he says, snatching the cup out of Byers’ hand and downing the last of it, ignoring Wheeler’s white-hot glare. 

“It’s not a pool party,” Harrington says. 

“Well, not with that attitude,” he says, ditching the empty cup and reaching back with a casual arm to shove Byers over the edge.

Byers only manages a gasp before he hits the water. Turns out he’s an actual pushover, no resistance at all.

The surrounding talk and laughter dries up sharply at the sound of the splash.

For a long moment it’s quiet, quiet enough to hear the first faint spit of rain on the pavement, water slopping up over the sides of the pool, bubbles hissing.

Byers breaks the surface spluttering, coughing, his face barely visible through the thick steam. 

No one’s laughing yet. They’re watching Billy, nervous and expectant, a little eager; hot breath in the frosty air. They’re looking to Harrington too, for what to do next. 

It’s Carol who makes the first move. Wheeler’s still caught in the motion of turning to glare at him in disbelief, mouth shocked open—then Carol is at her elbow, shoving her in hard. 

That breaks it.

Someone yelps as they’re pushed from the other side of the pool, and then too many kids to keep track of are jumping in, falling in, pushing each other in, the pool swarming with them. A plume of water from someone’s cannonball sprays up and spatters over his boots.  

The sliding door is yanked open, releasing the full blast of the music along with a stream of howling partygoers. He almost smiles as he shoulders his way through them. It’s the sort of chaos he likes. Just the wrong day, wrong place, wrong soundtrack. He’s not getting in that water for anything less than Van Halen, and no one is daring enough or stupid enough to push him.

He pauses on his way out, in the entrance, eyeing the foot of the stairs where a half-assed barricade of chairs has been toppled to one side.

He could just leave.

He should just leave. His eye is starting to ache again and the thought of trying it on with some girl, even one of the sloppy, desperate ones, suddenly seems more exhausting than it should be. He’s just drunk enough that if he leaves now he might be able to forget how he woke up when he puts his head on his pillow, and just sober enough that he should be able to make it home if he stays off the main roads. 

No way is he drunk enough to play this game with someone who knows full well what guys like Billy Hargrove get up to if left unchaperoned in their nice big houses. 

He takes the stairs, slow, like if it takes him long enough he’ll come to his senses. 

Upstairs is just as sleek and flashy as the rest of the house, the slanted rafters lit up with the warm glow of the living room below. He peers over the edge at the handful of people still inside, strewn over couches, playing a game in a circle on the floor. Any of them could look up and see him, but they don’t, which seems like permission enough. He moves on after one last glance at the sliding door to the pool. 

He finds Harrington’s parents’ room first. Doesn’t bother with the light switch, the wedge of light from the hall illuminating a king bed in the center of the room, stark and sharp-cornered as a piece of art. Strangely unmade on one side, he notices.

The next room he looks in is a home office, more lived in. Tracks in the carpet where the chair has been wheeled from computer to printer to fax machine behind a big L-shaped desk. There’s a bunch of diplomas on the wall but no embarrassing photos of Harrington on Santa’s lap. Disappointing. 

Goldilocks is at the end of the hall.

And is a slob, he realizes, poking the door open and catching a whiff of pizza leftovers and damp laundry. No need to turn on the lights—they’re already on. A lamp on the desk and each bedside table too.

Nightmares huh. 

He glances around. Preppy plaid wallpaper, matching curtains, a couple of posters. The pizza smell is coming from a greasy box on the floor underneath a butterflied biology textbook. There’s a pile of clothes kicked half under the bed, and another stuffed haphazardly into the desk well, as if Harrington only realized last-minute he might end up with company up here. The bed is unmade—maybe because his parents aren’t home, or maybe he’s just allowed to live like an animal. Either way, the sight of the tangled sheets makes Billy’s skin crawl.

A ticking noise draws his gaze to the window: rain tapping against the glass, just lightly and then harder, and then in a sweeping rush that sends up a wail of laughter and shouting outside. 

He stifles a sigh, plucking a bottle of expensive-looking whiskey off the dresser. 

Harrington has an ensuite bathroom, same as Tommy, and the lights are on in there too. He pushes his way in, regretting it when he catches sight of himself in the mirror. He looks like hammered shit: hair frizzy and wetted down from being in and out of the rain all day, long and straggly over his shoulders, eyes raw.

He leans closer over the sink. The shiner’s come up nice. Looks like someone rolled their thumb in ink and pressed it just into the corner of his eye. One for the price of two. 

“Don’t tell me. Looking for a blow-dryer,” Harrington says from the doorway. 

Billy doesn’t bother looking at him properly. He doesn’t need more than a glance. No sunglasses, been in the pool. Wet. He sets the whiskey down so he can pick up one of the pill bottles scattered on the vanity, squinting at the label.

“Hey, asshole. Want to keep your hands to yourself?”

He manages a half-smile. Not really.

“Depends," he says, tilting his head so the light will catch on Harrington’s handiwork. “You come to collect?”

Harrington sniffs. “Don’t you think it’s kind of poor form to beat someone up in their own home?”

“Never heard of home-field advantage?”

A dry laugh. “This whole town is my home field.”

“You—” he starts, the words dying in his throat. He’s right, of course. He has everything. But he's not supposed to just say it. It's so plainly arrogant, such a shock Billy forgets himself, turning to look. 

Harrington’s leaned up against the door frame, loose-limbed and princely, soaking wet, like a goddamn nightmare. Jeans, shirt, sweater, shoes. Hair. Eyes. The wet sweep of his fringe is dripping a steady bead of water onto the tile between them. He's cocking an eyebrow at Billy like, yes? 

Real top-tier asshole behavior. 

Billy hates it. Has to shove his tongue hard into the side of his cheek to stop from smiling. Harrington sees anyway.

He looks tired, just barely amused, maybe a little cock-eyed. About three rum and cokes past Dutch courage, if Billy had to guess.  He's staring, he realizes, feeling somehow ten times drunker. 

“Did you come up here to piss me off, pretty boy?”

Harrington rolls his eyes. “Yeah, I’m having a real great day. Just wanted to end it finding you in my childhood bathroom.”

Billy shrugs. “You could always leave.”

“It’s my bathroom.”

“You asking me to get lost, Harrington?” he quirks his head. “Where are those upper-middle-class manners I’ve heard so much about?”

“Guess you knocked them out of me.”

He huffs out a laugh. “You got a smart mouth for someone who can’t throw a decent punch.”

“I don’t know,” Harrington says carefully. “Looks pretty decent to me.”

Billy flushes, bruised eye throbbing. He’d forgotten it, somehow, for a moment. 

Oh, you think this is all you?—is what he wants to say. But he can’t. It’s different with Harrington than with Byers—he won’t get it. 

Harrington takes a step forward and Billy tenses, but it’s just to grab a towel off the rail. He strings it over his shoulders, balling it up on one end to press under his dripping chin. Thunder grumbles somewhere outside, deeper, louder than the music and the sound of rain, rolling to a deafening crack over their heads. Harrington tilts his head to watch the bathroom light humming with current. 

Harrington’s a fucking dumbass, mouthing off when he’s too tired to offer up a fight. Billy licks the back of his teeth, thinking. He’s not going to hit him. Not now, when Harrington thinks he has him figured out, thinks Billy is a windup toy for when he feels like being bad. Good Steve, he’d told Wheeler. I’ll be Good Steve tomorrow. Well, Billy doesn’t get to choose—didn’t get to choose to wake up feeling like there’s saltwater burning a hole in him today—and neither should Harrington.

It wouldn’t be satisfying anyway. Harrington looks pale, about as substantial as cellophane. And Billy feels so brittle that punching him would still probably make his whole hand splinter apart. 

“Okay then,” he says. 

Harrington eyes him mistrustfully. “Okay...?”

“Okay.” He shakes the pill bottle. “I’ll save our next dance for when you’ve had your beauty sleep.”

Harrington’s tone is doubtful. “You…aren’t going to hit me.”

He steps a little closer, just to test the boundaries of Harrington’s composure. Harrington does an admirable job of not reacting, like always. Billy’s close enough he can smell the beer on his breath, the chlorine on him, on the towel. He has the faintest pink mark of a scar at his hairline. Billy knows he just promised not to hit him but his heart is already squeezing behind his ribs at the sight of it, knuckles tingling with the memory. 

“Not unless you ask me nice.”

There’s a moment where Billy thinks he’s really going to ask him to do it. Pretty please. But then he just sort of—snorts.

“H’okay.”

Thunder rips overhead again, closer this time—a percussive BOOM—and the lights blink. Billy frowns up at the domed ceiling fixture and when he looks back down Harrington is staring at it again, flat-eyed. 

He runs his tongue between his teeth. “Scared of the dark?” 

Harrington gives him a fed up look. There’s no more laughter or splashing from the pool. People are shouting, rounding each other up, the sliding door banging open and closed an annoying amount of times. The music pauses, subsumed by the dull roar of rain as someone switches out the tape. 

He supposes it’s too much to hope for something with a guitar solo but he keeps his ears pricked anyway: Hazy synth opener. Slow pulse of drums. He makes a face. Foreigner. The sentiment is apparently shared by Harrington who twists to slump more fully against the doorframe, muttering, “Great, great, that’s just. Great.”

“What’s the matter, Harrington? Someone find your Valentine’s Day mixtape?”

“Please leave.”

He snickers. Like hell he’s going out there now. He’s unlucky and he’s tall. He’ll probably get struck by lightning on the Harringtons’ lawn and turned into an ornamental coat-stand. He grabs up the bottle of whiskey and sits his ass purposefully down on the edge of the bath, cracking the seal and taking a showy slug even though it tastes like horse piss. 

Harrington holds out his hand for the bottle, eyebrows raised expectantly. 

Billy ignores him. “Get your own.”

“That is my own, asshole. You’re drinking my Christmas present.”

Come to think of it, the seal did have a kind of ribbon on it. 

Billy takes another draught, sucking his teeth after disapprovingly. “Your Christmas present could use a mixer.”

That startles a weary sort of laugh out of Harrington. Billy’s not quite sure how he feels about it. He’s not really a funny guy—isn’t used to being laughed at. It's over quick enough though, before he can puzzle out whether or not he needs to get offended. Harrington smears a hand over his face and plucks a cigarette from behind his ear.

Billy’s lips part.

It’s not a cigarette.

It’s a joint—a neatly rolled joint. Smooth and even. A little damp from Harrington’s hair but otherwise professional work. 

“Hey,” Billy says, before he even thinks it through. “Give me some of that.” 

“Yeah,” Harrington says with the joint clenched between his teeth, distracted, looking for his lighter, “right.” He pats himself down—chest, hips—balancing precariously on the doorjamb as he struggles to get a hand in the back pocket of his wet jeans. He frowns, coming up empty.

Billy smiles until he has his attention, fetching out his own zippo and holding it lazily between his knees. He flicks it on and snaps it shut. Flicks it again.

Harrington lets out an exasperated sigh, hunching forward so Billy can reach up and light it. He lets Harrington get it started, just the edges of a cherry between his cupped hands, before stretching his fingers out for it in a clear demand. Harrington rolls his eyes but passes it over. 

He’s almost too eager to get it in his mouth, licking his suddenly dry lips. The first draw is good. Fantastic. Dense and skunky, barreling around in his lungs as he holds it. He spares a glance at Harrington and sinks down onto the floor, tips his head back, eyes falling shut, spangles playing over the inside of his lids. He exhales out. And out and out, really registering just how good it is. It’s—

Really fucking strong.

He coughs. Smothers it, or tries to, throat clamping, but something catches sharp and dry in his windpipe and he—

—coughs again, messier this time, smoke choking out the corners of his mouth. 

“Smooth.”

“Get fucked,” he rasps, giving up and coughing hard into his fist.

“You alright there, Hargrove? Need a shotgun?”

Billy glares as Harrington leans over to take the joint off him. His eyes are watering. “Not if you were the last mouth in Indiana. What the fuck is that?”

Harrington laughs. “Welcome to Hawkins,” he says, taking a drag, thoughtful. “The weed is alright.”

It’s more than alright; it’s fucking toxic, the best reefer he’s ever smoked.

He doesn’t cough the second time around, rolling his tongue around the taste. It makes all the smells of the bathroom leap into sharp relief: salty chlorine, the hay-honey smell of shampoo residue still in the tub, potpourri in a little dish on top of the toilet tank. What kind of guy wants to look at rose petals when he’s taking a slash?

He can already feel the beginnings of a high swimming up from the base of his brain, his body loosening, fizzing at the edges. Harrington is definitely laughing at him, he decides, watching him from under his eyelashes. When he figures out if it pisses him off or not there’s going to be a price for that. 

Somewhere between his third and fourth toke he must look sedate enough that Harrington slides down to the floor too, tugging the towel around his neck, one leg stuck out across the tiles dangerously close to Billy’s junk. Billy’s not an ambush predator, but even so, he feels the compulsion to grab Harrington’s sneaker and yank, just to see what happens.

Harrington smokes like a pornstar or a grand old society dame, showy and expert. Billy looks at his own hands, at the stiff, stubby fingers his dad gave him, no good for picking at guitar strings. There’s engine grease under one of his nails.

When he looks back up Harrington is watching him, blue smoke crawling over his top lip. It’s easy to miss, but there’s a smirk there. 

Harrington catches him staring, breathing out a slow cloud of smoke. The scent of it is so dark and grassy it gets his dick hard. He reaches over and takes the joint back, sucking at it greedily, short and sharp, getting as much smoke into him as he can. 

“So,” he says. “How come you’ve got this and Tommy’s weed is for shit?”

“Tommy has good weed,” Harrington says, tilting his head back against the door to look at the ceiling absently. “He can just be…” He grimaces. “A dick.”

Billy frowns.

Harrington looks at him. “He’s fucking with you.”

Oh.

“Don’t take it personally,” Harrington says, tone careful. “It’s a small town.”

It rattles him more than he’d like to admit, the idea of Tommy pulling one over on him, amusing himself. He doesn’t think of Tommy, or Carol, or any of these hick kids, as getting bored. Not since he’s been here to shake their little lives up. He isn’t the type of new kid you’re supposed to mess with.

He takes a hard drag, paper burning, his lungs filling with dry smoke, waiting for his spine to re-soften. Harrington doesn’t seem overly fussed about Billy hogging it, eyes lambent, patient. Fucking rich kid. Billy smokes even more, just to be a prick, slotting it back in between Harrington’s lax fingers only once it dawns on him that he might be getting a little too high.

Harrington has the barest smirk on his face.

It’s a small town.

He settles self-consciously back against the tub, doing his best to not look like his head is floating off his shoulders.

“So...” He licks his lip, tentative. “What else do you smalltown kids get up to? Other than tipping cows and fucking with out-of-towners.”

Harrington gives him a long look—long enough that Billy wants to suck the words back into his mouth. But then he shrugs and says, “Depends on the company.”

Billy nods, wishing he could take the joint back if only to have something to do with his hands. 

“What about California?” Harrington says, taking a draw. 

Billy wishes he could keep his mouth shut.

“No cows,” he says. “Parties were better, always had good weed. And coke, y’know.”

“Uh huh,” Harrington says, his interest dwindled and lost. Billy is surprised to realize he can feel it, the moment of its passing, a moment of cold sobriety in the warm haze of his high. 

Jesus. Jesus, poor Tommy.

“I…” he scrubs his hand over his hot eyes. “You could hear the ocean at night.” It’s a lie. They moved plenty but never anywhere close to the beach. “Waves at night and shit,” he says, kind of lame. He needs to zip it. Weed makes him talky like a bitch. 

Harrington’s nodding. “We stayed in Santa Cruz for a bit one summer. My parents were...There was nothing much for me to do, just, walk around the boardwalk, I guess.”

Billy can’t help but be interested. It’s weird, thinking of Harrington and him being in the same state at some point, on opposite ends of a beach, maybe. A dozen questions bottleneck in his throat and he’s grateful none of them actually make it out his mouth. It’s not like Steve Harrington is the right guy to pour his guts out to, bitching about how homesick he is for a place that hasn’t noticed him gone. 

“You really afraid of the dark, Harrington?” he asks after a while. 

Harrington doesn’t look away from the ceiling, watching the lazy curl of smoke, just barely nodding. 

He’s got two moles, like a snake bite, just under his jaw. Such an obvious flaw.

You shouldn’t tell people stuff like that, Billy wants to say. 

“Good thing I’m here then,” he says, waiting for Harrington’s eyes on him, smiling, rusty at it, maybe kind of fucked up. He waggles his zippo. “I got a night light.”

Harrington frowns, looking at Billy strangely for a long moment, then he shakes his head. “You are such an asshole.”

“Hey. Don't knock it ‘til you try it.”

Harrington snort-laughs smoke through his nose and starts choking on it which starts Billy laughing too, loud and ugly.

The sound of it echoing off the brightly-lit tiles makes the bathroom feel smaller, closer, boxed in and cut off on all sides by rain. It makes him feel the way the cab of his car does sometimes. Like he could go anywhere. Like they’re not in Hawkins. Or like he doesn’t have to hate it. 

He can’t seem to stop, laughing until he’s winded, his whole chest vibrating with it. Harrington’s weird asthmatic nose-wheezing keeps setting him off again until it’s almost fucking painful. 

They let the conversation die out after that, both of them too high and too tired. It’s...comfortable. It shouldn’t be. It won’t be, tomorrow. He doesn’t let himself imagine it. It’s probably a new day already anyway, which means school in a few hours. He zones out to the drum of rain on the roof and realizes after a while that Harrington is crooning along tonelessly to himself and the music has been off for some time.

Billy sits and Harrington fucks up every verse of REO Speedwagon’s hit single Can’t Fight This Feeling and then ashes the joint; a punctuation mark.

Party’s over.

^^^

He has to catch himself on the wall, twice, as he zig-zags down the hall and into his room, his footsteps abominably loud on the thin carpet. He should have taken his boots off outside but it’s raining too hard and his fingers are clumsy from the cold and also he fell over when he leaned down to try.

“Billy?”

It’s just Max. Hovering in his doorway in her dressing gown, rubbing sleep out of her eyes. She looks him up and down wearily as he moves around his room, fumbling his keys and wallet out of his pockets, peeling his jacket off. His boots come off with two too-loud thumps. He smells ripe, but maybe if he hangs his jeans on the windowsill the cold air will make them wearable tomorrow.

He stops with his hand on his fly, bugging his eyes at her like, well?

She bugs her eyes right back.

What, Maxine?”

Her brow furrows. “Why are you smiling?”

He reaches up to his face, surprised, touching over his mouth.

Oh.

He digs his fingers in hard either side where his cheeks ache. Thinks of Tommy saying, Shit, Billy. The way he smiles when he’s blooded and alive. He must be scaring her.

“I’m high as hell, Maxine,” he says, turning away. “Go back to bed.”

He feels her eyes on him a moment longer before the door closes.

He strips out of his shirt and jeans and climbs under the covers, shivering, dizzy and drained. He can still taste the sweet tang of smoke, smell it on his hair and the tips of his fingers as he runs them over his mouth, waiting for the feeling to fade.

Outside the thunder is low, bated. Rising and receding, almost like a tide.

Chapter Text

“Out,” he says as they jerk to a stop at the turn off for the middle school, the Camaro punching a draft into the early morning fog. The school building and the water tower are just dim outlines somewhere beyond the murky expanse of parking lot, the impatient rumble of the V-8 the only life for miles.

“Chop chop, little lady,” he says, pretty hilariously, when she doesn’t move.

Max crosses her arms and slumps further into her seat. “It’s so early,” she gripes. “There’s no one else here, Billy. What if the doors aren’t even open yet?”

“What, like you never picked a lock before?” he asks mildly, tilting his head to admire the lie of his hair in the side-mirror. He woke up late, later than Max for once, and spent most of his morning shower dry retching against the tiles, but all in all his hair’s turned out pretty great.

“What is that?” Max asks exasperated.

He sits back to look at her. Her nose is wrinkled. “What?”

“That song,” she says. “That song. You were singing it last night too!”

He wasn’t. He doesn’t even like that song.

He lolls his head to eyeball her. She’s got something on her lips, sheeny-shiny. “You’re looking very nice today, Maxine. Sinclair gonna get lucky?”

Her face crumples. “Can you be more gross?”

He sticks his tongue out. Yes. “Out you get, Strawberry Shortcake, time’s a-wasting.” He takes one hand off the wheel and punches the seatbelt buckle undone for her, but she’s still not getting out, looking him up and down suspiciously.

“Are you on drugs?”

He gives her a flat look like, No, are you?

She doesn’t look convinced.

And, okay, his mouth still tastes like Harrington’s richie-rich-boy weed. And somehow, even under the heavy clay of his hangover he still feels kind of high. But the only thing he’s on is the aspirin someone—Susan, probably—left out on the kitchen table for him. His dad was already gone when he finally did get out of the bathroom, but early indicators are good he didn’t notice Billy stumbling his way into the house at bullshit o’clock. 

Max is still watching him. He clears his throat dramatically, making a show of looking at his watch.

“Okay, okay, jeez,” she grumbles, tugging her bag out of the footwell. God, she’s slow. She kicks the door open in a way that she knows he can’t stand and gets out, holding the door so she can stoop to glare at him. “Why do you have to be so early today, anyway?”

Modern warfare, he thinks.

“Choir practice,” he says with a grin, and leans over to yank the door shut.

She scowls at him, voice muffled through the glass. “Stop using my shampoo or I’m telling mom.”

He revs a warning, just to make her stumble back so he doesn’t actually take her toes off, and then gasses it, the Camaro tearing away with a roar, shooting down the long undulating road towards the high school like a bullet, scattering mist and leaves. He checks his rearview mirror and, yep, she’s still there on the scrubby strip, flipping him off. What a little psycho.

There are only a handful of cars in the high-school lot – nerds with extracurriculars and kids with early-morning detention. And Billy, swinging into Harrington’s parking spot at speed, neat and professional.

Early bird gets the worm.

He chuckles to himself, fishing around in his glovebox for a smoke and shoving it between his lips. First period isn’t for another half hour, but he has rattlesnake patience, can’t even tally up the hours upon hours of his life he’s spent self-entertaining in his front seat waiting for Max to get done at Pac Man or whatever-the-fuck.

He fiddles idly with the radio, dialing from end to end, flipping past dull early-morning talk-radio voices, Christian honkytonk, local news. His daily ritual of hunting for a track he probably won’t hear until he works up the courage to rob the RadioShack.

He buzzes the window down to flick ash off the end of his cig, sucking in the damp-cold air, letting it quell the lingering dregs of his hangover. It’s nice – the quiet lot with the mist burning off the asphalt, the smell of wet leaves.

The radio host is announcing some rock ballad that’s not his taste, but he doesn’t bother changing the station.

^^^

It takes just about forever to find Harrington’s locker. He thought it would be easier, stand out more somehow, but it’s just a normal locker in the middle of a row of senior lockers, identical to his own and with exactly the same angled slot that he’s able to cram the envelope through. He darts a quick look around before he does it to make sure no one with too big of a mouth has seen, but the halls are still relatively empty. Just some band geek standing there, frozen in place like he’s just witnessed a mob hit and him and his clarinet are going to have to go into witness protection. Billy winks at him and goes back to wiggling his present through the gap, snickering at the dull clank it makes when it lands inside, smoothing his hand over the grate in farewell.

He’ll have to bum a light until he can buy a new zippo at the gas station.

It’s a long walk back to his own locker. He has to chew the smirk off his bottom lip the whole way, thinking about the flummoxed look on Harrington’s face when he finds it.

To Harrington, in case the boogeyman shows.

First period is in the library and he makes it to class just moments before the teacher walks through the door, throwing himself into a seat beside Wheeler with a smirk, making sure to knock his knee into hers. She turns around pointedly, intent on giving him the full force of her glare.  

“You have some nerve.”

He laughs, enjoying her scathing once-over and leering back. “Eyes up front, Wheeler. Unless you’re looking for a new boyfriend.”

She shakes her head, turning back to her note-taking. “You’re trash.”

“Yup,” he concedes. Mrs. Wright is making the rounds from desk to desk, seeing who has and hasn’t started the reading already, back turned. He takes the chance to lean a little closer, close enough that one of Wheeler’s flyaway curls moves under his breath when he talks. “But at least I can swim.”

The big guy across the table snickers nastily. Wheeler’s face puckers like she’s giving serious thought to spitting on him to test his theory.

He continues, “Loosen up, sweetheart. You know what they say: all’s fair, yada-yada.”

“You are so—” She cuts herself off with a frustrated noise, picking up her pen with forced stiffness and pretending to work as Mrs. Wright ambles past them. Billy hasn’t even bothered to get his books out of his bag and she hovers until he does, slumping back into his chair and clapping the dog-eared text onto the table with a bang. She nods approvingly before she moves on, as if she doesn’t know he’s going to spend the whole class at the window sharpening his pencil down to a nub.

“Why Jonathan?” Wheeler says under her breath once the teacher’s out of earshot. “You never messed with him before.”

“Don’t flatter yourself. I could give less of a shit about your bargain bin boyfriend.”

“Then why?”

He thinks on it, drumming his fingers on the ugly yellow book cover. “Rules of the jungle? Guess I’m kinda like my man Jack killing Piggy.”

A narrow-eyed look. “Maybe you should actually read the book, Billy.”

“Maybe,” he says, snatching up an overlong 2B. “But duty calls.”

The pencil sharpener is behind the stacks, tucked into a private corner of the building with a view of the parking lot, and Mrs. Wright won’t come looking for him no matter how long he takes. He does most of his quality napping in here.

He stares out the window while he works. The sun’s come out properly now, radiating off the glass and through the blinds onto his face and hands, cutting a square of warm light in the muted gray of the library. He watches absently as a few more cars pull into the half-empty parking lot. Seems like the entire senior year’s suffering from the same collective hangover, he thinks, yawning. Pussies. If Coach has them run drills later there’s an even chance he’s going to blow chunks, but otherwise he’s doing a standup job of keeping his own hangover tamped down.

He’s only just starting to find his rhythm on the hand crank when Carol finds him, sneaking up and pinching his side like he’s not the kind of guy to throw an elbow. He jumps, making a face when he realizes it’s her.

“Who told you how to find the library?”

“Ha ha,” she says, rolling her eyes under her shellacked fringe. “This was like, mine and Tommy’s favorite spot.” She has both her hands stuffed in the pockets of her windbreaker and she points them at the little study room in the corner. “Primo make-out real estate. We had to give it up once Steve and Nancy took it over.”

“Like I want to know that.”

“Right? I’ve already thrown up like, six times this morning.” And then, proving that she’s never actually spent any legitimate time in a library in her life, she pulls her hands out of her jacket and waggles a packet of chewing gum at him.   

She scoffs at his raised eyebrows, folding a piece into her mouth and jumping up onto the sill next to the sharpener. The gum cracks obnoxiously loud as she gives him a scrolling once over, swinging her feet, enjoying his impatience.

“Get lucky last night?”

He gives her a flat look. “What do you want, Carol?”

A shrug. “Did Mindy find you?”

“Who?”

“Mindy Miller? I told her you’d show last night.” She gives him a lewd smile around her chewing. “She’s very interested in visiting the Golden State.”

Billy remembers, vaguely, the girl with the vodka. So she’s Miller’s sister.

“Not interested.”

Even as the words are out of his mouth he hears how flimsy they are, remembering how quick Carol was to push Wheeler into the pool last night, and how patient before that.

“I mean, you disappeared,” she continues, oblivious, preoccupied with her nails. “I thought maybe you’d taken her on the tour.” She changes tack. “Did you hear the rumor?”

He shakes his head.

She grins, reaching out to toy with the sherpa lining of his collar. “This is nice…”

“What rumor?” he sighs.  

“Oh,” she cracks her gum smugly, sitting back. “Just that Stevie boy cheated on Lacey last night.”

He has to duck his head to disguise the insistent pull of a smile in the corners of his mouth. He hadn’t even known Lacey was at the party. The thought of her dripping on the foyer tiles, tapping her foot, fills him with warm satisfaction.

“Maybe he just went to bed early like a good boy.”

“Yeah, I don’t buy it,” Carol says, cracking her gum, “but no one could find him during the brownout and he was supposed to walk her home.”

He can’t quite keep the smirk out of his voice. “Think he got eaten by a bear?”

“He’s going to wish he was when his parents get back tomorrow. And Lacey’s going to go nuclear if he doesn’t turn up with flowers.”

He snorts. “There a reason you’re not boring Tommy with this shit?”

She blows an unimpressed bubble, bursting it over her lip. “Can’t. He and Steve are skipping.”

He looks at her blankly.

“Boy time,” she says with an eye roll, as if that explains it.

He frowns, vaguely aware that Carol’s still talking, distracted with trying to find a place to stick her gum on the sill.

“—don’t know why I thought it would be different this time around. Like, what if I wanted to skip too, huh? And it’s not like either of them know how to clean a house properly, I’ve seen Steve try to use the creepy-crawly like a vacuum. They’re probably just gonna lie around all day watching their stupid karate movies and they’ll only invite me over when they need food—”

He tugs the window blinds apart so he can look up the slope to the parking lot and— There’s his car, parked in Harrington’s spot. There’s even an empty spot beside it still. It’s a dull feeling, in his chest, at seeing it. A weight, like his body’s just remembered how tired it is.

“—not like I spent months working on Tommy to get him to cool off—”

So Harrington’s skipping. Big deal. Of course he’s skipping; they were wasted. If Billy could afford the truancy he would skip too.

“Billy. You okay?”

Yeah. Yes, of course he is. Why wouldn’t he be?

Harrington was more wasted than him, if he remembers it right. He’s pretty sure he remembers it right: sharing the joint, the bottle. Harrington’s shitty taste in music.

Carol’s looking at him with her eyebrows raised questioningly and the sun behind her is making the edges of her blowout glow, burning it onto his retinas.

Maybe he’s a little queasy.

“I uh…” He grabs the blinds again, squinting out the window just to make sure. Yep. No bimmer. Just the Camaro, the sunlight reflecting off its powder-blue roof in a way that makes his eyes ache.

“I gotta hurl,” he says, turning his back on her, walking fast, ignoring the spangles of light playing over his eyes in the darkened stacks.  

God. Why’d he— They shared one joint. It’s not like— And parking in the guy’s spot like an invitation.

And.

The zippo. His zippo. Waiting in Harrington’s locker like—

Idiot.

Idiot.

^^^

How many shitty ceilings has he looked up at in his life, Billy wonders, head on his pillow, watching sundown play out on the stucco. He flicks the baseball up, spinning up, up in a straight line, and then down, landing in his palm with a soft thump.

How many does he still have to look forward to?

At least this one’s clean. A little slapdash on the paint, built up and crummy at the edges; maybe the work of a family just like this one needing to patch over their sins and get out quick. When they left Hayward it was so sudden they didn’t even have time to clean up after the roach bomb. Anything desperate enough to live crawled into their packing boxes during the night and made the trip to Hawkins with them. He wonders what the family who moved in after them thought of the faint signs of a life the Hargrove-Mayfields left behind. If they peeled Maxine’s stickers off the fridge. If they covered up the Billy-shaped dent in the drywall.

Flick, thump—a little wonky this time. He catches the ball by his temple. It’s old, smudged with fingerprints, polished smooth by two generations worth of being caught. He shuffles it in his fingers to find the coarse line of stitching, tossing it up again. Baseball’s not his game—but this is his ball, since he was a baby. His mom probably teethed him on the thing. He can still remember—six, maybe seven—the hitched breath feeling of discovering it in a tucked away shoebox, under his baby clothes. Under the letters from his dad. 

Dad.

Billy Grouser had a dad, and he wrote love letters and drew little cartoons, doodles in the margins of newspaper cuttings and on motel notepads and on the back of postcards from places Billy could find on a map. With a name he could find in the phone book.

Flick, thump.

No putting the lid back on that shoebox. Not for him, anyway.

Flick, thump.

The radio hiccups. The station is just a blare of static somewhere between the twang of a country guitar and what seems to be a police dispatch – murmured retorts back and forth too fuzzy to decipher. Could be Chinese for all he can make them out. He could get up and change it but the in-between-ness suits him just fine. Whatever drowns out the stutter of canned laughter and studio applause coming from the living room.

His mind wanders to the envelope with the zippo inside sitting in Harrington’s locker and he groans, rubbing his palms into his eyes like he can press the image out of his brain. Idiot. The ball rolls off his chest, settling in the dip of his side.

“That’s some throwing arm you got there.”

Billy drops his hands, ignoring the faint tickle of instinct reminding him to get up, stand up straight.

His dad’s fresh from his shift, work clothes just a little creased at the elbows but otherwise neat as ever, in the doorway watching Billy like he’s got something he wants to say and doesn’t know how to say it unless Billy stands up.

“I already put the trash out,” he says, fishing the ball up onto his chest and looking at the ceiling again. The sun’s set and the circle of lamplight from his nightstand doesn’t reach all the way into the corners. There’s an empty beer can on the carpet not quite tucked out of sight that Neil might call him out for if the mood takes him.

“And you offered to help with the dishes?”

He grunts. Yes

His dad stays put in the doorframe. “Susan tells me you didn’t eat much of your dinner.”

Susan and her big mouth.

“It tastes like shit, dad.”

“Watch it.”

Billy clenches his jaw to stop from rolling his eyes. It’s not really Susan’s fault he has no appetite, but it’s not like it was going to make a valiant comeback for cabbage soup and ham steaks.

“Susan’s taking your sister to the new mall next week to shop for a summer frock,” Neil says. “She thinks it’s a good idea for you to join them.”

“I’m good.”

“You’ll go.”

He grits his teeth. Fine. Just how he wants to spend his first weekend out of school—playing chauffeur while Max picks out a fucking trainer bra.

That should be it, pretty standard heart-to-heart, but his dad lingers, watching him. For just a second Billy entertains the idea of him saying something like, What’s up, sport? But it rings false, even in his head. As insincere as the laugh-track spilling from the TV down the hall. He just can’t make it fit—not any more than the idea of the man who sat in diner booths penning letters full of poetry and promises on the back of take-out menus.

He’s still there, one hand caught on the doorframe when Billy turns to look, eyes like cold lead.

“You’re not getting in trouble again are you, Billy?”

Trouble.

Would he even know what it looks like this time.

“No, dad.”

“Bill.”

“I said I’m not!”—in trouble. He’s not.

His dad breathes out through his nose and pushes off the frame, appeased for now. He points at the radio. “Turn that shit down. Susan’s trying to watch her shows.”

Billy turns it off.

^^^

She wasn’t there. He remembers now, that day at the beach. He was under a full minute, panicking, lost. And when he popped back up like a cork he was looking for her before he even realized he could breathe again, his throat choked so tight with fear he couldn’t even cry out.

But she wasn’t looking for him. Because she wasn’t there.

That’s how it really feels—drowning.

^^^

The Palace is okay as far as arcades go. Not really his thing but it’s not like he hates loud music or flashing lights. Problem is it’s full of kids and tourists and about a square dozen of Max’s little friends who can see him, Billy Hargrove, killing time on a perfectly good date night. But apparently this is what Respect and Responsibility looks like: flirting with the weirdo clerk girl for free cokes and trying not to breathe in too much nerd sweat.

He posts up at his usual spot at the counter and keeps Max in the corner of his eye out of habit.

What a fucking hellcat, he thinks idly, sipping his drink as he watches her jostle her way through the crowd to get from one game to the next. She probably thinks he can’t see Sinclair hiding in amongst the stalls with her. Is he supposed to believe she keeps looking up from her score to grin at the wall? The kid’s completely whipped, following her around, content just to watch as she plays.

“So, in that way, you could say Simon is their conscience, and when he dies, goodness on the island dies too,” clerk girl says cheerily.

Billy’s skeptical. “And…he’s Jesus?”

“Uh huh. Try these.” She hands him another pair of ugly sunglasses from the wheel-around display, standing back appraisingly while he tries them on, pulling a face. Get used to this, he says to himself. Might as well throw in with the rejects now, and it’s not like she’s that bad to talk to, even if she’s certified loony-tunes crazy.

“So what about the fat kid then?” he asks, giving her the glasses back. “If goodness is already dead, why does Jack waste him with that rock?” 

“What? No.” She looks up from her search. “Roger kills Piggy,” she says. “Look.” She slaps a napkin down on the counter, pulling a pen off of her lanyard to sketch a compass of intersecting lines with scribbled names at each point. “Roger is Simon’s foil the same way Jack is Ralph’s.” She taps the diagram. “Evil and good, order and chaos. They’re supposed to be balanced. When Simon dies, there’s nothing to hold Roger in check.”

He squints at the diagram where she’s circled one of the names. “So now Roger’s the bad guy?”

She throws the pen down, grimacing. “You know, you’re lucky you look the way you do, because you are capital-D dumb, my friend.”

He smirks. “You know, this whole cold fish thing you have going on…I bet I could find you a guy thinks it’s a turn on.”

She leans forward too, arms crossing on the sticky red laminate in front of him. “Wow. That is flattering. Thank you.”

“De nada. When—”

“Billy,” Max says at his elbow, giving him a filthy look when he sets his drink down in annoyance. “More quarters.”

“Maxine. Where are your manners?”

She doesn’t answer, holding out her hand.

He makes a show of checking his pockets unhurriedly, patting himself down. It’s Susan’s money, meant for gas and not games, and definitely not for his smokes. But Max is the one who keeps selling her mother the lie, and Billy is the one who knows how much they can skim and still make it to school and back, so basically they’re at a stalemate over who decides how to spend their cut. 

“Billy,” she says impatiently, even after he’s dumped a handful of skin-warm change in her hand.

Wha-at?” he says, masking the sharpness of his tone with his most fraternal smile.

“This is only enough for one game!”

“Cry me a river, Polly Pocket. Why don’t you go ask one of your friends for an advance?”

Her eyes narrow, fixing with determination on his front jean pocket like she’s contemplating if it’s worth it to lose a hand to make a try for the money. Joke’s on her – Billy can barely fit his own hand in there.

He’s sure she’s going to throw a fit, mouth hardening, cheeks turning red—but she flounces off instead, ponytail flicking in a way that he doesn’t even remotely trust.

He leans back on the counter, watching her suspiciously as she reconvenes with the rest of the geek squad over near one of the claw machines. She’s having an animated conversation with the gummy one, who seems to think that whatever she’s saying is disastrously not okay, throwing his hands up in protest—and then all of them are turning as one to stare at him.

Billy starts. The fuck. He glares back.

“Oh wow,” clerk girl says behind him. “Think they’re gonna jump you for quarters?”

“They can try.”

An awed breath. “Which one do you think will give you the most trouble, the skinny one or the one with the He-Man backpack?”

He swivels around to turn his glare on her too. “Those little assholes—"

“Oh, yes, these,” she says, shoving a pair of yellow-lensed aviators at him. “Oh yeah.” She nods, self-satisfied once he’s put them on. “That’s the money right there.” She looks at her watch. “And that, good sir, is my shift. Finish that before Keith sees,” she says, meaning the Coke. “And, take this with you.” She pushes the napkin towards him.

“You sneak your number in here or something?”

“Funny. Enjoy your hot date.” She points two fingers guns at the napkin.  

He scowls at her as she backs out the staff door.

Cer-ti-fiable.

He takes her advice and finishes the drink, crushing the can out of habit and laying it up into the bin to the exact appreciation of no one, the nearest audience laser-focused on rattling a joystick around. The psychopaths have dispersed when he looks up again so he pockets the napkin and does a lap.

It takes a while to find Max. There’s so many kids darting around each other to get at consoles it’s borderline claustrophobic. He’s right on the precipice of a bad temper, just about to holler, when he spots her on the other side of the room getting crowded out of a game by a couple of lanky tourist kids with trucker hats on.

“Hey,” Billy says sharply, getting their attention. “Find another game.” He makes sure he has Max’s eye to signal he’s going outside, and that he’s watching her, and that she and her friends better not pull any of their usual goonie-gang shit or he’s going to tie her skateboard to railway tracks. She gives him a sour look in reply which says she understands just fine.

He pushes his way outside. It’s cold; dry enough that his breath fogs in front of him, but the air tastes good. Crisp and clean, less B.O and old popcorn. He flips his collar up, leaning on one of the posts, tugging his jacket tight around his midsection. The kids’ bikes are right next to the entrance, all thrown on top of each other, unlocked. He ignores the impulse to do something about it, shaking his head. Small fucking towns.

There’s nothing really to do without a smoke to count the minutes so he watches the strip instead, the people wandering in between parked cars, in and out of the streetlight, laughing and holding hands. It’s a busy night in Hawkins for anyone with a life.

“I’m not giving you any more money,” he says softly when Max appears at his elbow again. “Go leach off someone else.”

There’s a couple getting out of their car across from the video store. She needs help with her dress and he’s zipping it up, moving her hair out of the way like he doesn’t care it’s probably full of spray, putting his jacket around her shoulders. If it snowed right now they’d look like two figurines in a snow globe that Billy could shake and shake and shake. And Max still isn’t leaving, an insistent blot at the edge of his vision, refusing to be ignored, to just let him be.

Max what?

It’s not Max.

“Whoa,” Harrington says. “Nice frames.”

Billy snatches the glasses off his face so fast it’s like they were never there, Harrington re-colorizing in front of his eyes, stark and real as dreaming. Billy’s eyes dart everywhere, all over him, remembering him wet and not dry, not dressed up in nice jeans, clean sneakers. He’s done himself up nice.

“The fuck are you doing here, Harrington?”

Harrington makes a face, holding an enormous walkie-talkie up between them like it’s supposed to make some kind of sense. “You don’t have change for ten dollars in quarters, do you?” 

“Quarters,” he says blankly, struggling to connect Harrington with the spill of light and noise from the arcade at his back, the electronic chime and rattle of machines. “Didn’t take you for the arcade type.”

Harrington scoffs, scrubbing a hand into his hair. “No. Me? No. I’m not. This is... This is blackmail.” He frowns. “This is blackmail.”

Billy cocks an eyebrow; doesn’t have anything to say to that. 

“So,” Harrington says, good-boy manners picking up the slack. “What are you doing out here — planning your getaway?”

“What?”

“Your getaway?” Harrington repeats, a tired edge to his voice. “Escape from Hawkins, hightail it for the coast... Figured you’d want to outrun the snow.”

“It’s not snowing,” Billy says bluntly. 

“Well, not with that attitude,” he says, an echo of Billy’s words from the other night, eyes snagging on the showy opening of Billy's shirt. “You might want to get a winter coat.”

“Why the fuck would I need one if I’m running, huh?” he snaps. It comes out too hard. Too brittle. Harrington recoils a little, his face smoothing. He’d been smiling, Billy realizes. “I’m—” he tries, but stalls. There’s nothing he can say now to bring it back. “It’s too early,” he ends up muttering, meaning everything — both. He turns away before something even lamer can come out of his mouth. The way Harrington is staring at him is all...something. Unbearable. He has to look at the parking lot for a bit.

God, he thinks, surveying the lot miserably, waiting for his face to get its shit together and wishing there was still something out there to look at and distract himself with. He’s some sort of pathetic; all he’s wanted from Harrington is a bite and now he can’t bear the thought of the sting...

Harrington draws up alongside him after an awkward enough pause.

“It’s almost Christmas,” he says, casual enough, but he could mean it both ways too.

Billy snorts, eyes darting traitorously. “Don’t think I’m gonna get what I want under the tree."

A shrug. “I don’t have a tree. And some asshole crashed my party and drank my present.”

“Buy a new tree,” Billy says. “Buy a new present.”

Harrington sucks air through his teeth. “Yeah, see, I would..? But it’s gonna snow.”

Billy laughs, hides with a cough, looking at Harrington out the side of his eye.

“Come on,” Harrington says, catching it anyway, tilting his head towards the arcade. “Show me around nerd city.”

Like that’ll go over well.

“I think I’m good here.”

“Yeah I’m not going in there alone. Come on,” he says, and tosses him the walkie.

Billy rips his hands out of his pockets just in time to catch it, an objection sharp in his throatfucking—but Harrington’s already gone, the door swinging open behind him like a taunt, and Billy lasts all of two seconds before he has to follow.

Turns out Harrington doesn’t need him either way; guy only gets halfway to the counter before the brats are converging on him in an excited mob, the whole lot of them, even Max, and she has a sophisticated mistrust of guys Billy’s age and up.

“Hey, hey!” Harrington says, shimmying around to avoid their grasping hands. “Watch the threads, Henderson.”

“Steve. What the shit is this, Steve?” the gummy one says, holding up the ten-dollar bill. “This is not what we agreed.”

“Relax, okay. I’m going to change it.”

“Keith doesn’t do change,” Max moans at the same time Byers’ kid brother pipes up with a shy, “Thanks, Steve.”

Thanks, Steve,” Wheeler’s brother simpers, yanking the bill back and putting it in Harrington’s hands. “Hurry up and bring our quarters.”

Harrington takes their mouthing off at him in his stride, comfortable in their midst even though he’s outnumbered and out of place, head and shoulders taller, starkly cool-looking against the backdrop of sweaty nerds and space-print carpet.

“Why’s he got your walkie, man?” Sinclair asks, noticing Billy.

Now that Billy looks, they’ve all got matching walkies on them. Max too—a big one he’s willing to bet is a perfect match for Harrington’s. What kind of E.T. phone home bullshit…

“Steve. Steve, that’s not an approved use of the system. Get it back.”

Billy sneers, holding it out of reach.

“Give it back, asshole,” gums—Henderson—says, which is a hell of a lot braver than what Baby Byers can manage, the poor kid transfixed with terror, staring at a point on Billy’s chest like he can’t bring himself to look up into his eyes. Billy remembers now, Henderson’s the one who egged Harrington on that night—Kick his ass, Steve. His sneer firms up, grip on the thing tightening.

“Billy,” Max says petulantly.

Oh my god,” Harrington says, nudging him hard in the ribs and swiping the walkie-talkie out of his hand. “Take this,” he says to one of them, shoving Billy towards the counter by the lapel of his jacket. Billy shakes his hands off with a sharp look but Harrington’s already past him again, expecting Billy to follow, pretty pleased with himself if the set of his shoulders is anything to go by, and—yep, looking over his shoulder with that shit-eating grin. “What was that team you told me to try out for?”

Billy scowls back, not trusting himself to speak, lungs caught. Harrington’s winded him with that elbow, his whole body stinging along one side.

“No freebies,” Keith says as Harrington approaches. He watches Billy put the sunglasses back on the display with wary disdain.

First week in Hawkins, he’d tried to tell Billy not to bring his smoking inside and Billy had answered with a lit butt flicked at his name badge. That should have earned him a pretty dependable degree of hatred out of the guy. But it’s nothing—nothing—compared to how much this guy hates Harrington.

For his part, Harrington seems completely oblivious to it, smooth-talking his way through an explanation with the usual combination of charm and high-handed friendliness.

“No. Freebies,” Keith says again, impassive, once Harrington is done.

“Okay,” he says, frowning. “What if I buy something? A, uh…” He grabs a handful of twizzlers out of the display on the counter. “These.”

Keith stares at him and puts another frito in his mouth. “Strawberry milkshake,” he says when he’s done chewing.

They both recoil. “What?”

“Strawberry. Milkshake. You buy one, I’ll change a twenty.”

Harrington hisses, “Twenty—” And Billy thinks he’s going to spew, but he folds his wallet out with a dark look, grumbling. It’s enough quarters to not see Maxine outside of the arcade for a week.

“And it’s a dollar for the candy,” Keith adds, punching something into the till to make its drawer pop open.

Max and Sinclair pounce once Keith is done cleaning the register out of change, scraping the small fortune of quarters off the counter and snagging the twizzlers too, Sinclair keeping both eyes on Billy like it’s a real possibility he’s going to decide he wants their fucking candy. (He makes sure Sinclair knows he could if he wanted to, lazing on one elbow, casual but close enough to menace.)

“Hold this,” Harrington says, startling him into grabbing the styrofoam cup that’s been shoved against his chest.

Once again he finds himself flummoxed, he only takes it out of shock, not wanting to spill it down his front, pushing his way through the crowd intent on giving Harrington his stupid drink back as violently as necessary, but by the time he catches up Harrington’s already busy slotting a quarter in one of the pinball machines.

“You’re shitting me.”

Harrington waggles his eyebrows at the start-up music, all cocky, like Billy’s supposed to be impressed. He eyeballs the cup in Billy's hand. “Don’t drink that.”  

Billy’s lip curls. “Don’t like sweet things.”

“Go figure,” Harrington says drily, rubbing his hands together with a flourish like he’s about to perform surgery and not immediately sink that quarter. Which he does—pretty spectacularly fast, one ball after the other racketing off the sides and slipping down the gutter past the flippers. It’s painful. Billy should cringe but then he’d have to look away from Harrington sucking so hard at something. The alley’s too full of people busy with their own games and there’s no one watching to share his distress anyway.

Harrington isn’t put off. Doesn’t seem to mind too much finding out the game’s more of a challenge than he thought. Billy supposes he shouldn’t be too surprised; Harrington seems like he likes things easy—makes things look easy—but the guy did try it on with Nancy Wheeler after all.

He watches as Harrington pulls the launch pin and sends the ball arching in a slow loop over the playfield, managing to sweep it up with a flipper this time, only to have it chute down the center and through a moment later. The game over jingle sounds.

Harrington shrugs, feeding another quarter into the side of the machine. Jesus H. Christ.

“Don’t bat so much.”

Harrington smirks without taking his eyes off the table as the first ball loads, but he takes Billy’s advice and lays off the controllers, waiting for the ball. He keeps it in play for a good couple of minutes this time before he knocks it into the out-lane. On the next turn he manages to stripe it up into the bonus target, beginner’s luck. Harrington crows, smacking the side of the cabinet in celebration and Billy grins back condescendingly, waiting for him to realize the ball’s still in play, which he does, just in time, scrambling to get his fingers back on the controllers and catch the downward trajectory of the ball.

Harrington’s a quick learner, natural at it, quiet when he’s focused. He’s completely absorbed, eyes gleaming, trying to butt up against the table with his body like that’s gonna do anything other than get him a tilt warning. Billy watches him beat the flippers reflexively as the ball putters around at the top of the board. He’s gotten some sleep since Billy saw him last, maybe, and he looks better for it, brighter, the tired cast from before bleached away by the funhouse twist of light from the game. Even his teeth look whiter where he’s biting his lip...  

Billy could watch him forever, losing at something.

Fuck, did you see that?”

Harrington’s beaming at him. He’s missed some sort of win somehow. 

He clears his throat. “Yeah yeah. Don’t go signing up for the nerd Olympics just yet.”

Harrington snorts, fishing out another quarter. “That’s a shame.” He pulls one hand off the side of the cabinet, middle finger up. “I already got the gold medal for you right here.” 

Billy rolls his eyes, thrusting the milkshake at him. “Move over, butterfingers. I can’t watch you drain another ball.”

Harrington bitches but he moves aside to let Billy knuckle the quarter in. He wipes the condensation on his jeans. The trick is to stand further out from the machine and put your weight forward. There’s a string of battered machines in shitty road stop diners all the way from Cali to Indiana that will testify to that.

“You do know you don’t get to beat anyone up at this game, right?”

Billy punches the launcher so hard Harrington actually jumps.

The ball fires over the playfield, chiming against the bumpers, zipping from one side to the other and finally slowing to settle in the bonus target. The machine trills, racking up his points.

Billy bites his tongue hard. Eat your heart out, pretty boy.  

“I can see you smiling, asshole.”

He catches the ball on the tip of a flipper, showing off, and wings it back up into the target. Textbook. He bites his tongue harder but it’s no use. Harrington’s frowning at him. 

“Did you drink some of this? It feels lighter.”

“No,” Billy lies.

A few people turn to watch when the high scores board lights up a while later, but Billy’s too busy having fun, trying to stop the gloating laugh that comes out whenever he gets more points and makes Harrington gasp and scowl.

He takes a moment while the third ball is loading to check on Maxine, catching a glimpse of her hunched over a joystick. One of the guys from before is braced on an arm over her, observing.

“Hey, Cindy,” he barks. The guy looks up. “What’d I say? Touch that machine again and see what happens.”

Harrington follows his gaze, eyebrows raised. “Protective much?”

“Where’d all these fucking tourists come from, huh?”

He looks back just in time to catch the bemused look on Harrington’s face, lips sealed shut like he’s trying not to laugh or say something that will get his ass beat.

“What?”

“Nothing.”

Billy glares at him suspiciously but the game demands his attention, insisting he look as the ball ricochets off the bumpers noisily. He shouldn’t try his luck, but fuck it, he’s already given Harrington a masterclass in winning, he might as well school him in cheating too. He waits for the right sweep of the ball over the playfield and bangs his hips up into the machine to force the ball into the bonus socket, nudging the cabinet off its feet just a little, careful not to trigger the tilt warning. The ball suckers in obediently and he looks up, victorious, prepared to say, and that’s how you treat a lady but—

Harrington’s smiling, like he doesn’t want to be, real nice. He’s stripped out of his jacket at some point, his t-shirt something expensive, fine material that catches, and Billy can smell his laundry detergent again, crisp and cottony—and the woodsy, peppery notes of his cologne where it’s drying off warm skin.

“Now who’s got butterfingers,” Harrington teases, eyeing the display. Billy follows his gaze down just in time to see the ball tip off the end of his dropped flipper and disappear down the chute, the machine buzzing angrily—TILT, TILT, TILT.

“Aw, man. Amateur hour,” some kid watching says, shaking his head and walking away.

He drops the machine, embarrassed.    

Harrington hasn’t noticed. “There’s got to be something here I can kick your ass at.”

Billy snorts. “Yeah, whack-a-mole, maybe.”

“Sure. What are the rules?”

It stuns a laugh out of him. “I’ll give you a primer in the parking lot.”

Harrington snorts, looking at him quizzically, trying to catch up with the joke but content not to it seems like. It’s a look Billy can’t quite hold, heart hooked under his ribs. He fumbles a cigarette out of his pocket, putting it in between his lips, just to do something he knows how to do.

“I’m—match,” he explains, clearing his throat again, patting his pockets.

Harrington’s tone is easy. “Lost your night light?”

Billy stares. 

His mouth is crooked up on one side, eyes gleaming. He’s smiling. Harrington knows and. And he’s fucking with him. But he’s smiling too.

It doesn’t sting like he thought it would: the bite.

“Hey, quit it,” someone says loudly, forcing him to look away. Something’s happening, kids looking up from their games towards the entrance. The voice comes again, higher pitched this time, edged with desperation. “I said quit it, dickface.”

“Did you hear—” he turns to ask, frowning, but Harrington’s already moving, weaving his way towards the sounds. Billy swears under his breath, pushing down the alley after him, his skin burning all over with cold as they stumble outside.

“What the hell are you doing?” Harrington chokes out before Billy’s even fully taken in the scene.

Sinclair is down, he sees, spilled coins around him like spent shrapnel; Wheeler’s brother, scrambling on the ground next to him, trying to piece together a walkie-talkie that’s been smashed into about a hundred parts. There’s a big guy standing over them, arms on him like cannons. He’s got Zombie Boy by the bowl cut, shaking him down, and his buddy—the lanky one—has Henderson.  

“What the hell are you doing?” Harrington says again, his voice so dark it shakes. “They’re just kids.”

Henderson makes a pitiful noise. The lanky guy’s slapping him around the face, not too hard, but faster than he can get his hands up for. That’s the fun of it, Billy remembers from his days experimenting as a lunchtime bully. 

Harrington lunges at them.

Ah, shit.

“Hey,” he says, resigned, to the one holding Byers. “You’re wasting your time. Kid hasn’t got any money. Trust me, I’ve seen the house.”

The big guy’s face scrunches up. “What do you want, faggot?”

That searing word, like a tug at the scruff of his neck. He’s struck dizzy with the shock of it. So surprised to hear it, here, tonight, that the cigarette almost drops right out of his mouth. He flicks it aside, stepping forward. “The fuck you call me?”

“Oh, shit,” Henderson says.

“Billy don’t!”

The big guy tosses Byers aside too late. Billy’s got him by the shoulder, wrenching him down onto the fist aimed at his kidneys. He slugs him once, twice, nails him in the jaw as he slides down to the ground. Please stay down, Billy thinks, trying to shove him off where he’s folding, slumped against him. He looks around, catching sight of Maxine. She’s got her skateboard out like she’s honest to god thinking she’s going to do some serious damage with it (and probably get him boarded up in his room for the rest of his life).

“No fucking way,” he barks at her, jabbing a finger at the car. “Get—” But he’s cut off, stumbling as Harrington knocks into him. It takes him a moment to realize Harrington’s not attacking him, that he only cares about getting his hands in the big guy’s shirt, hauling him up off his knees so he can slam his fist into his face, following him down. “They’re just kids,” he shouts again, wild-eyed, hitting him again. And again. Kind of maybe trying to brain him on the pavement.

Lanky guy has been laid out cold.

Jesus, Billy thinks, trying to catch his breath, a little impressed. Harrington’s deranged.

“What the fuck, Steve!” The familiar voice rings out in the lot, ending the fight like a gunshot.

It’s Lacey. Lacey with her arms crossed, maybe because she’s furious, maybe because she’s just really fucking cold in her pretty dress. She has Tommy and Carol with her, he realizes, something about it sparking his memory. Something about bowling…

Harrington drops the guy, panting. Lanky guy must have got a hit in at some point because he’s bleeding from somewhere, his mouth bloody. Billy can see him swallowing, sucking air, trying to keep his shit together.

“You left an hour ago,” Lacey says. 

Billy’s stomach does a backflip. The date. The double date. Harrington skipped out on their date.

“Inside, now, Max,” he says. Maybe there’s something about his tone but she listens for once, picking her friends up off the floor.

Harrington still hasn’t answered her, standing there like he’s been struck mute. Lacey looks him up and down, her mouth pursing. Billy’s suddenly irrationally afraid she’s going to spit on him—afraid that Harrington’s not going to be able to take it.

But all she says is: “You’re a piece of shit, Steve Harrington.” Defeated but not surprised. The crowd is already dispersing, disappointed. Lacey’s awkward as hell out in the cold in her thin dress, waiting for her date to come put a jacket on her. Whatever she sees in Harrington isn’t enough for her to stick around and wait. She swallows whatever was going to come next and shakes her head and leaves, Carol snapping to heel after a quick imploring face at Tommy. 

“So,” Tommy tries, once she’s gone. "I guess you didn’t get that drink for her then.”

“Shut up, Tommy,” Harrington says harshly.

“Hey, man, it’s not so bad,” Tommy says, misreading, reaching for him. “We can fix this—”

Harrington slaps his hand away, shoving him to follow up. “Shut the fuck up, Tommy! Shut up!”

Tommy’s not moving, stunned. His mouth flaps open to say something and Harrington shoves him again, snarling, and Billy’s sure he’s going to take a swing, but then he’s gone too, storming away across the lot.

Tommy rubs a shaky hand over his mouth and his eyes meet Billy’s. It’s too much silence to fill and he doesn’t even know where to start with the look on Tommy’s face, the layers of hurt and anger. Tommy’s embarrassed again, like that morning in his house—a sore spot he doesn’t want Billy to see. Billy knows that feeling well enough himself to let him go. Let him chase after his girlfriend, get in his car, and go home. 

And just like that the lot’s empty again. 

He darts a look at the arcade. There’s no one left watching. He shivers in the sudden quiet, the cold starting to bite. Even Max and her friends have been smart enough to retreat back inside where it’s probably nice and warm. It's goddamn freezing out and he’s not built for this sort of cold. He should head inside too. 

It’s a long walk across the asphalt in the dark, the air chafing at his hands and throat. Harrington’s parked under the furthest street lamp, at the edge of the light, sitting on the lip of his open trunk, bowed over with his hands clasped in front of his head. Billy can see he’s shaking. 

“So,” he says after it’s been quiet for long enough. “You’re kind of a psycho, Harrington.”

Harrington makes a bitter noise from between his legs. “Like I want to hear that from you.”

Billy nods understandingly.

“They’re just kids,” Harrington says after a while, quiet.

“I know.”

His voice is odd. “It’s fucked up.”

Billy’s not sure what to say to that. He went through the same crucible as any other kid. Picked at and picked on until he could give back just as good as he got. He thinks of Max’s skinned palms.

“They can handle themselves.”

“You don’t get it,” Harrington moans. “He was just some guy. Some regular guy, and I still couldn’t—couldn’t stop him.”

“Well,” Billy tries. “Don’t take this the wrong way, sweetheart. But you kind of can’t fight for shit.”

Harrington doesn’t laugh, but his shoulders tense, annoyed instead of just sad. Better.

Billy huffs. He can work with that.

“C’mon. Let me see.”

Harrington tilts his head up. It’s not so bad. There’s blood all down his nice shirt but it’s just from his nose, dripping over his lips and off his chin. The look in his eyes is where he’s really hurt, his jaw clenched so tight he’s trembling.

“Tip your head back,” he says.

“Actually, you’re not supposed to—Ow!” He flinches at the cuff off Billy’s jacket pushed up under his nose, forcing his head back. “Use something soft, asshole!”

“Jesus, what a fucking princess,” Billy mutters, fumbling the napkin out of his pocket and pressing it to Harrington’s busted face as gentle as he’ll allow himself. Harrington slaps his hands out of the way anyway, taking it for himself, the white paper blossoming red through in seconds. He glares at Billy over the top of it. He’s got a fine shiver running through him, bare arms almost blue with cold, but he doesn’t seem to want to do anything about it or even care. 

“Think you might have hurt Tommy’s feelings back there,” he says. 

“Yeah, well,” Harrington says with a thin laugh. “He’s a shitty friend.”

“Not to you.”

Harrington blinks at him.

“You’re kind of the shitty friend,” Billy continues. 

Harrington lets out an incredulous sound, staring. 

Billy picks at the muddy stain on his jacket sleeve. He should go. He can still get it out, scrub it out, with cold water, if he gets to it before it dries. It’s not too late to do that.

“How’re the goods?” he asks, the car creaking under his weight as he sits next to him.

Harrington shows him. There’s just a bit of blood left ringed under each nostril, mostly smeared to pink over his top lip. Billy swallows. 

“You know, just because you found someone to thump you doesn’t mean you get out of me owing you one.”

Harrington snorts and then winces, pressing the napkin tighter under his nose and glaring at Billy like that’s somehow his fault. After a while his hands drop into his lap.

Billy rubs his own hands down his legs to get some feeling back in them and, after a thought, draws his smokes out of his pocket, tapping one out of the pack. Harrington smirks weakly and pulls Billy’s zippo out of the back of his jeans, passing it over.

It takes him three tries to light the damn thing, strangely self-conscious about it. Thankfully, mercifully, it catches, and he draws in a breath and offers it to Harrington without being asked. They smoke in silence. It’s a good cigarette, even if he only gets half of it.

“What the hell are you smiling at?” he asks after a while, catching the wry look on Harrington’s face.

Harrington says, “Nothing.” He snorts. “Told you.”

“Told me what?”

Harrington squints one eye, tilting his face up in profile. Billy follows suit, looking up. And up—at the night sky and the strange pinprick galaxy of eddying snowflakes falling and vanishing into the lamplight over their heads. He breathes out watching it, time going slow and quiet, the matched plumes of their breathing rising up to meet it. 

When he finally looks away Harrington is watching him, eyebrow cocked.

Billy doesn’t know what the hell he’s so smug about. It’s not even really snow. Delicate as dust. Barely there. Just a promise of a thing.

Chapter Text

He gets them both home before curfew, but it’s a long time after that before he can sleep, his head too full of noise, and his chest—too full of quiet. He spends most of the night under his bedroom window, sucking down cigarette after cigarette, waiting for it to take, not brave enough to lie down and let himself dream.

This is like a dream anyway. He turns his lighter over in his palm, and over again, skin-warm, familiar and unfamiliar at once. Changed.

Maybe Harrington knows or maybe he doesn’t: what a gift this is, to have it back in his hands like he was never so damn stupid as to give it away. Maybe he wanted to do them both a kindness. Maybe he just forgot Billy was the one holding it when he got in his car and left... It doesn’t matter, he tells himself, jittery with relief, sparking the wheel over and over until the skin at the edge of his thumb is raw.

He falls asleep with it, balled in his fist under his pillow like an amulet, something to wish upon, his face mashed into the clammy fabric of his pillow, eyes pinched against the relentless creep of watery morning light.

Footsteps on the hallway carpet... Bird claws scratching on the gutter: the world not waiting to start over.

This is a chance, he thinks dazedly, half pulled under—the best he could hope for. A way to make things how they should have been from the start.

In his sleep he almost smirks. Let Harrington have his crown—shit was too easy to win and too boring to keep fighting for anyway. Like this, things can be easier, like this, things can be as they’re meant to.

Like this, he can almost see the surface, the way out, the wobbly patch of light where he’s supposed to go for air.

^^^

Sleeping helps, shakes him all up to let things settle the right way up inside him. He doesn’t remember much from his dreams except the ending: the long dark road from the night of the party and a car at the end under a streetlight with the light on inside.

^^^

The snow’s all but gone when he wakes up to look and Max is avoiding him. He watches her grinding up and down the street on her board while he works on his car, the dull repetitive sound scoring a groove in his brain.

He’s not that surprised about the snow, he tells himself. Wipes his nose on his bicep, hands busy and covered in muck. It was hardly enough to stick anyway, and it’s not like this side of Hawkins was going to transform into a fucking winter wonderland overnight either; their lawn is still brown and patchy, the trees just as bleak and gray. When he got sent out before breakfast to put last night’s garbage in the can there was still a thin crust of ice at the edge of the front step, grimy and hard, optimistic, but it scattered easily when he kicked at it.

A crunching noise startles him, draws him back.

Max. She’s graduated from trying to do one-eighties to trying to do kickflips, and she’s just as bad at it, the board shooting out from under her tangled feet to smack into the curb with a reverberating crack like a gunshot. Even at a distance he can tell she’s blushing, pretending she doesn’t know he’s watching her and judging. She knows full well he’ll only show her how to do it properly if she swallows her pride and asks, and maybe not even then if she doesn’t ask nice.

Or maybe he’ll just teach her anyway so she’s not such an embarrassment. That’s how he ended up teaching her in the first place after all, when she used to hang around his friends getting all underfoot. He’s in a good enough mood for it and there’s limited time now, too, he figures, to teach her how to stick her landings. It seems kind of reckless, he thinks, in hindsight, to only teach her the flashy part and not the rest, especially since her board’s such a hunk of crap.

Not that he gives a rat’s ass, but one day it’s going to pop its duct tape and break in half, and when she skins her knees…yeah, then it really is going to be his problem...

Case in point, she lands too heavy on the next trick and wipes out, the board scooting rudderless down the road without her. He watches as she darts a quick look at the house before swiping at her elbow, checking for blood: nothing. She hasn’t broken the skin, or, it won’t show through her sweater at least. She looks up again and their eyes meet for a second before she looks away quickly, cheeks flushed, chasing after her runaway board.

She’s been doing that a lot, since the arcade: avoiding eye contact—not for any good reason he can think of. She was quiet the whole way home except to ask whose blood was on his hands, and then completely silent after when he said “Harrington’s” and kind of implied that he killed the guy.

Then, the next morning, when he was stumbling his way to the bathroom, he’d run into her and she’d almost danced out of his path, eyes downcast, lips pressed together in a fraught line, not even a customary glare for the hand stuffed pre-emptively in his boxers; strange behavior for someone who can’t usually let him take a shit in peace.

Truthfully he’d only woken up enough to catch on after he got done slurping down his second bowl of soggy wheaties, enjoying an unusually long run of decent music on MTV when he realized she hadn’t tried to steal the remote out of his lap or bitched him out to Susan. Instead, she was just perched on the end of the sofa, watching him, like maybe she had something she was stewing on. Except when he stared back at her like What? I’m wearing a shirt. What more do you want?—she just got kind of fidgety and pinch-lipped and left. Weird.

Initially he figured he’d just scared her a little, going after that big guy, but nah, he’s scared her plenty more than last night (with more determination) and she hadn’t seemed all that scared by the fight when it went down either, all gung ho about jumping in and getting her own ass beat.

He eyeballs her where she's fetching her board off the curb a few houses down. She lingers for a suspicious beat, crouching to peer in at the mouth of a storm drain.

Does she honestly think he can’t see her over there, sizing up her whole Ninja Turtle dream life? Christ, he could never take her to Sacramento...

“Where’s your head?” His dad nudges him with the bottle of antifreeze.

He sniffs, pulling his attention away from Max and back under the hood of his car. He reaches for the radiator until Neil’s grip stops him at the wrist, showing him where to press the back of his hand against the engine block first. “Always check,” his dad explains. “You drop a V-8 engine in a car like this and it’ll run hot enough to crack—give you a face full of steam.”

Billy nods and Neil lets go so he can unscrew the cap, checking the reservoir like he’s been taught. His dad nods approvingly.

They mix the coolant up together, Billy pausing to blow on his hands whenever Neil takes over, stamping his feet when the cold soaking up through bitumen gets to be too much. Neil eyes the skimpy cut of his workout shorts but he doesn’t say anything that Billy isn’t already thinking.

“Reckon the ’81 has a heavy-duty radiator could handle an even bigger engine.”

“You buy an ’81?”

He takes the offered funnel sulkily: No.

Neil leaves him to it.

Indiana and then Illinois, he reminds himself to tamp down on his annoyance while he pours the ruddy mixture in, thinking about the car at the end of his dream, the way it had been waiting for him, lit up under the streetlight, such an obvious answer.

Illinois and then Missouri, Missouri and then Kansas. He’ll take the big roads because he likes to go fast, and because he’ll need to go fast in the beginning. It was the other way round when they left California. He followed behind the movers’ van for as long as he could, thankful for every stoplight, dreading the moment the traffic would open up and the familiar snarl of city would run out. When he goes this time it’ll be pedal to the metal until he’s all the way clear of town—fast enough and far enough he won’t be able to change his mind.

He figures he’ll burn through a lot of fuel in the first couple of weeks. After that he’ll just have to make his way, work odd jobs to stay on the road. He’s not exactly proud about what he does. He can sling diner food somewhere for a while. Or maybe become like, a bouncer, at a bar. Yeah, he can do that easy. And like his mom always told him, the world gives you lots more chances when you’re good-looking.

He sniffs, nose running again in the cold. Maybe he should go south first, he thinks. He huffs. West, south... Either direction is going to need more money than what he can skim off Susan in the next few months.

He finishes up and trails over to the propped-open bonnet of Neil’s truck.  

“Dad, about the mall next week...” The words get him a warning look: if it’s a complaint, Neil doesn’t want to hear it. It’s as good a sign as he’s going to get to continue. “...Do you think I could get some money for tire chains?”

His dad is silent, working the grease from between his fingers with a rag. 

He pushes on. “Susan might appreciate it, you know, if there’s ice on the roads, with Maxine in the car. Safety first.”

Creases appear at the corners of his Neil’s eyes. “It’s Indiana, Bill. You’re not going to need any tire chains.”

He swipes his hands down his sides instead of letting them ball up into fists, tries not to let his frustration show. “Well, what if we get, you know, bogged down or some shit, out in the middle of fucking nowhere.”

His dad snorts, ditching the rag and yanking the truck’s bonnet shut. “That’s why we do maintenance. So long as you put in the work, take care of things like you should—it won’t let you down on the road.” He claps Billy on the arm, ignoring his bristling. “You let things start to slide…” He looks meaningfully at the rime of ice built up on the windshields of both cars.

Billy fumes through his nose instead of growling like he wants to as Neil walks up the steps to the house.  

“Can I at least get my allowance back?”

“Money’s like respect, Bill,” his dad calls back without turning around. “You earn it.”

Fuck.

Fuck you, he thinks, annoyed at himself for asking more than anything else. He marches away from the toolbox and away from the impulse to kick it and scatter its contents satisfyingly all over the drive.

Indiana to Illinois, he chants in his head instead. Illinois to Missouri, Missouri to Kansas.

He keeps going, keeps reciting it while he works his way around both cars in a sulk, drawing an imaginary route with the Camaro while he rubs and scrapes at the icy windows, getting into the corners as best he can with an old spatula. It comes off easy enough, in sheets for the most part, half-melted, but his hands get clumsier and clumsier in the cold, red and raw where he rings slush out of the rag. It’s not long before his fantasies have boiled down to not much more than getting inside, being able to put his hands in the kitchen sink, in the probably lukewarm dishwater left over from breakfast.

When he gets round to the back of the truck, what he sees pulls him up short. There are letters scraped into the frost of the rear window in big slanting letters:

A-S-S-H-O-L-E .

He takes a moment to admire it, half-pissed and half-impressed. It’s neat work. Sneaky. How she got close enough to pull it off while they were talking he doesn’t know. But she’s slipped up and left her calling card behind, one of her gloves limp on the lip of the truck bed, real obvious.

Dumbass.

He looks around to yell at her, but she’s gone already, just a distant scraping somewhere down the far end of Cherry...

^^^

The first half of practice is uneventful. Harrington is late, not that he notices, too busy rebounding a basketball off of Peterson, testing a theory that if he smacks him enough times in the face he’ll reveal a final form that can actually play basketball.

“Good of you to show up,” he hears Tommy say cattily, Harrington scoffing in reply. Billy shakes his head and renews his focus, chest-passing to Peterson so hard it forces the guy back a step, the ball smacking into his hands with an ugly sound. His own palms tingle with expectation, but Peterson throws the ball back like a limpdick, no legs behind it.

“Step to the pass,” he hisses, dribbling the ball to give the guy time to recollect before he passes again, in exactly the same spot. Easy as piss, but Peterson’s too spooked by the sting of it now. The ball punches into his timid receive and pops right back out.

“Hargrove!” Coach yells, stomping across the court. “I got to partner you with a wall the rest of the season like a five-year-old?”

He grits his teeth. Figures he’d get the blame for being too good at something. 

“No, sir.”

“Then temper your passes,” Coach says. He adds, in a more private tone: “You keep taking their thumbs off with those rockets, son, and you’re going to end up alone on that court.”

“Yeah,” Billy grumbles, “and then maybe we’d stand a chance at winning.”

He regrets the words immediately, more insolent than he intended, downright disrespectful. He almost winces. The guys close enough to overhear stop in their tracks, ears pricked for the inevitable explosion. But Coach Green isn’t going off. The man’s just looking at him, tapping a knuckle against his mouth, assessing. Honestly it makes Billy more nervous than a blow.

“Okay,” he says after a tense wait, after Billy’s already swallowed half a dozen things he wants to say to make it worse or better. “Okay.” He blows his whistle, bringing the other practice groups to a stop. “Hagan, put your shirt back on, you’re up against Hargrove.”

What?

He struggles not to make a face, nerves replaced by flooding disappointment. Sure, Tommy can handle his passes better than most, but he’s hardly the right instrument to use to take him down a notch. If Coach is so keen to make an example of him he’d be better off pairing him up against a bigger blocker like Parker, someone with a height advantage. Or at least someone who doesn’t actively want Billy to have the ball.

Tommy gives him a friendly slap on the shoulder as he brushes past, settling into a loose guard in front of him. Too loose, Billy notes. It’s not like he’s pissed at Tommy for anything yet, but he’s still going to make him regret it. He’s still going to remind him—all of them—what he’s capable of.

He smacks the ball up into his hand, sinking down into his usual posture.

Poor Tommy. He looks playful, eager. Completely unaware that every freckle on him is about to get shaken off.

“Hargrove. You’re defense.”

“What?” he and Tommy both squawk at the same time.

He straightens out of his crouch, fingers tightening possessively over the ball, glancing at Tommy like, don’t even think about it, even though Tommy looks just as confused by this turn of events as he is.

“You heard me,” Coach says. His expression is flat, unimpressed with Billy’s hesitation.

Billy knows he’s glowering. It must really be something special because all the color blanches out from under Tommy’s freckles when he turns to face him. But—Billy realizes, incredulous—he actually has his dumb fucking hand out for the ball.

Un-fucking-believable. No way Tommy’s going to score on Billy. Not in a hundred years. No fucking way.

He ditches the ball at the ground, childish, hoping it takes Tommy’s stupid head clean off, and makes a nasty sound when Tommy has to stumble to catch it just under his chin.

“Is this supposed to be a challenge?”

Coach raises his eyebrows, that same weighing look. “You’re right.” He blows his whistle again. “Harrington, get over here. Two on one.”

Billy shuts his mouth so fast his teeth clack, nostrils flaring, trying desperately not to blow his top with Coach staring at him coolly, daring him to talk back again as Harrington’s sneakers squeak closer over the polished floor.

“Well, this is nice,” Harrington says because he’s a jerk.

“Eat me,” Billy says, at the same time as Tommy says, “Stow it why don’t you.” So, probably not over their little spat from the other night then.

“Save the histrionics for your tea party, ladies,” Coach says, blowing his whistle to disperse the others back to their own games. “You’ve got ten minutes at the hoop and so help me god if any one of you pulls the other’s hair, I will have you running laps until nineteen-eighty-five.”

The three of them stand around awkwardly once Coach has moved on, sizing each other up. Fucking Harrington’s not even warmed up yet, he notices involuntarily, watching him fuss his hair into a hairband, eyes snagging on the bruised knuckles of his right hand, smears of raw strawberry-jam pink against the pale skin that makes his throat go dry.

Tommy clears his throat after a glance in Coach’s direction and bends his knees, and Billy resigns himself to crouching down to engage.

God. This is going to suck.

Tommy bounces the ball experimentally, like he’s not so sure he’s going to go through with it, eyeing the placement of Billy’s feet, his hands. He steps forward again, dribbling the ball a little more. Billy lets him come on a couple more steps. His form is a dead giveaway: a straightforward rip-and-drive he’s probably seen Billy pull off a dozen times. It’s kind of flattering. And sad, really, that Billy’s still going to break him in half like a Kit Kat.

He indulges Tommy three more steps, waits for him to get just a little confidence up, find his feet, and then on the fourth step—shoots forward, presses in so fast Tommy actually balks up out of his posture. Billy taps the ball out of his slack hands, lines up and shoots, unhurried and insultingly slow, turning so he can watch Tommy’s face flush a humiliated red while it rackets off the backboard and through.

“Best of three,” Billy offers. “Unless you want to drag this out?”

“Man,” Harrington says. “C’mon.”

“You his cheerleader or you here to play?”

Harrington makes a bitched-at face, ignoring him and looking for an answer from Tommy instead. Something about the gesture gets under Billy’s skin.

He takes the second basket off Tommy only a little slower, toying with him more than anything, letting him try out a whole range of plays that are all laughingly easy for Billy to stop cold. Tommy loses his smile and his nerves somewhere after the fourth or fifth block, sweat breaking out on his forehead, his mouth taking on a wobbly defeated set. He barely fights at all when Billy takes advantage of a misstep at the post to wrestle the ball out of his hands, stealing an easy layup off him.

He makes a show of stretching his legs while he fetches the rebound, just so Tommy can see the difference between the two of them. How Billy is fitter and harder and stronger, better footwork and faster hands. What has Tommy got against all that, huh? Jack. Shit.

Billy turns around and Tommy’s just standing there, the spine gone out of him. He has his hand held out for the ball all lax as if he expects Billy to spoon-feed it to him, to take the win off him easy. It makes him....so suddenly angry, that resigned expectation, the dropping of his guard. Weak, Billy thinks viciously, and fires the ball back to him across the key as hard as he can, hard enough to regret it the moment it leaves his fingers, so hard he actually flinches when he hears the damning CRACK of contact.

Except that the sound is the ball striking Harrington’s palm—stopped—Harrington just barely wincing, drawing the ball down to write off the sting of impact with a neat two-handed flick, laying up for a perfect shot.

Billy watches dumbly as the ball sinks clean through the basket, as it bounces twice off the floor back towards Harrington like a loyal pet.

“Thanks for the setup,” Harrington says, swiping the ball on the up-bounce lazily. “Best of three?”

Heat floods through his body, down his arms, his heart thumping excitedly in his chest. Harrington like this… He makes himself look away, at anything else—at Tommy’s sweaty face. Tommy’s rolling his eyes at Harrington’s interference, but Billy can tell he’s relieved, face flushing happily when Harrington slips him the ball.

Tommy pushes the ball to Harrington and Harrington pushes it back: Tommy to Harrington, Harrington back to Tommy. They don’t even have to look at each other, he realizes, the ball traveling in familiar sweeps between their matched on and off hands, smooth as cream, distractingly efficient. He only remembers he has feet he’s supposed to be using when the ball snaps into Harrington’s dominant hand with sudden unambiguous purpose and then they’re both pressing forward, attacking.

Oh shit, he thinks breathlessly, scrambling to engage.

He’s seen guys do this, defend one-on-two. He never much bothered to learn because as far as he’s concerned the best defense is taking the ball for yourself and dunking all over the opposition until they tap out. But now he regrets not watching more carefully. What is that shit Parker’s always doing? Triangulating? The thoughts freeze him up a beat too long and Harrington’s coming at him—hard.

God-damn. He’s always grudgingly sort of thought Harrington was good at defense, or maybe just at getting in Billy’s way, but now he sees—Harrington’s been holding out on him.

As an offensive opponent he’s a whole new kind of animal.

One moment he’s at the line and the next he’s driving Billy backward, immediately threatening, graceful, surefooted, inside his guard like it’s the easiest thing in the world. Like he doesn’t know firsthand what a bad idea it is to come within snapping distance.

Billy only just manages to screen him out of the circle, almost tripping to keep up with Harrington’s easy speed. Harrington moves the ball around fast, making him work to stay with it, trying to get him off-balanced. Billy snarls as his first attempt at a snatch is foiled.

Defense, he reminds himself, forcing himself away from the all-consuming need to wipe the smug look of Harrington’s face. He’s a great match for Billy’s reach and reflexes, fast when playing close to the ground but quick to get his hands up to shoot too. Exhilarating. Billy gets in close to stop both, one hand low and one high, and Harrington yanks the ball down low and tight so he has to stoop to follow it, working hard not to foul him, oddly conscious of his breath ragged and hot on Harrington’s ear.

“Did you forget to shave this morning?” Harrington taunts.

Ignore him. He swipes at the ball, hot in the face.

“I’m serious, man,” Harrington pants. “I think you missed a spot. Up late counting snowflakes?”

“Shut up,” Billy chokes, biting down hard on a smile.

He lunges, impatient—and misses by a hairsbreadth as the ball whizzes away from them to Tommy at the top of the key. He goes to follow it—not a fucking chance—and locks up, realizing he’s caught.

He can’t move off Harrington. He can’t leave Tommy open to shoot.

Sure he can count on Tommy not to make a big play, not down the center where Billy can move to squash him, and not when his kamikaze idiot friend is ready on the wing with none of the same hesitation. But with enough space there’s nothing to prevent Tommy from at least trying for a three-point throw, which he does, while Billy is still stuck an indecisive distance between the two of them raging over it, powerless to stop it going in.

And then, just like that, they’re tied.

He glares, sucking on his teeth while he waits for them to stop cooing all over each other about it.

Harrington scrubs some of the sweat off his chin with his shirt, bouncing the ball idly to stall for time while they all privately catch their breaths. “You’re not a sore loser are you, Hargrove?”

“Wouldn’t know,” Billy says darkly. “Want to find out?”

“Uh...” Tommy says.

“Kind of,” Harrington says happily, and passes.

They work him into a corner like textbook predators. Billy’s good enough to push them, keep them moving, his calves burning, but he can’t gain an advantage. Not with Harrington there to press every moment of indecision, and Tommy everywhere just a beat before he thinks to look. They pivot around Billy all over the key, running him, wearing him down.

Twice Billy almost gets his hands on the ball, magnetized to it too hard to be apart from it for too long, snapping inside of Harrington’s plays. But both times Harrington pulls up and away at the last moment, gives him shoulder, snaps the ball up like a yoyo and away to Tommy’s waiting hands with unshakeable certainty, nothing like a retreat. Sweat rolls down his back, soaks through the band of his shorts. The collar of Harrington’s vest is dark and clinging.

They could both take a lot more shots, but he knows—just knows—Harrington’s waiting for the right one, the buzzer-beater, the one that’ll hurt Billy’s pride the most.

The opportunity comes a moment later, caught overreaching to intercept a pass. Billy moves in and Harrington flashes the ball away and back to Tommy. Don’t jump. Billy tells himself, even as his thighs tense to spring. Too late. He’s too far forward on the balls of his feet and Harrington’s low already, has the ball back from Tommy and tucked in tight, driving at him, the ball crossing at his feet, too tempting not to try for.

It’s an ankle breaker, or would be, if Billy was just a little lighter. If he didn’t always always always plant his feet.

It’s a near thing anyway.

There’s an adrenaline-spiking moment where he’s falling, one knee buckling, his grounding foot slid too far out and Harrington, his eyes, right there, way too close.

He doesn’t fall—won’t let himself. He braces down to correct his spread but his weight’s in the wrong place and Harrington knows it. He rams his shoulder into Billy, nudges him back a step and doesn’t wait for him to settle, inside his guard again, merciless, all along his side, slick, jostling him back, and Billy—forgets, just a moment, just long enough for Harrington to rip past him for the shot.

Harrington sinks the third basket and does a dumb victory high-five with Tommy and stands over Billy with the ball tucked under his arm and doesn’t apologize about almost spraining his ankle.

“I can keep going if you can,” he says, all charm, hair fucked six ways to Sunday.

“I could go all day,” Billy says, drawing himself up, heart pounding.

“You suck,” Tommy gasps. It’s unclear which one of them he means. He’s hunched over, clutching his side and he lets Harrington throw an arm over his shoulders, tugging him down into a friendly headlock.

“Hargrove,” Coach Green says, snapping his attention away. The other teams have already broken up, ditching their balls back in the caddy en route to the showers. “Come see me in my office.”

Harrington takes a chip-shot at his sneaker on his way past, making him stumble. He’s smug. “Thought I had you for a second there.”

Billy licks his lips.

“In your dreams.”

^^^

He lets himself replay it alone in the showers, soaps up all over twice with the cheap school soap with no one to notice or comment on it. Breathes in and out in the steam in gusts, letting himself deflate, letting the feeling he carries with him always work its way out from the spaces between his ribs, letting himself smile, exhausted, into his hands.

They sting. They’re still stinging, hotter than the water. Hot against his mouth, where he presses them against his eyes. He almost laughs, breathing into them, the muscles of his arms aching from use, skin pricking excitedly. How can something you can’t see make you feel so much.

He lets the feeling build until it’s dangerous and twists the tap off, relishing the stillness for a moment, the drip of water on tiles, the cool air eating away at the warm shroud of steam as he wraps a towel around himself.

The locker-room is cold and stale-smelling by the time he gets out and he’s so focussed on ignoring it, drawing himself back under his skin while he picks his way through the mess of strewn towels and discarded sneakers, that he doesn’t notice Harrington idling next to his locker until it’s too late.

“Jesus,” Harrington says, seeing him.

He tenses, defensive, hand tightening in the knot of his towel. “What?”

“You sure you weren’t held back a year? A couple,” Harrington says, voice strained, “of years?”

Oh. Billy tamps down hard on the urge to preen, tensing deliberately this time, because, well. “I work out.”

“Yeah, sure, okay,” Harrington scoffs. “Me too.”

Tommy rolls his eyes from where he’s kicking around in the doorway. “You just told me you wanted the door prize for the mall opening to be a lifetime supply of pretzels.”

“Watch the door would you,” Harrington snarks and Tommy rolls his eyes again, turning his back. 

Billy feels a muscle tick in his jaw. What in the hell they’re still doing here so late after they’re supposed to have cleared out he isn’t sure he wants to know. Harrington’s in between him and his locker, being an asshole, lolling against it like he doesn’t know how uncomfortable it is to see him so close to all Billy’s possessions, to see him dried off and dressed while Billy’s still got water snaking down the back of his neck.

Don’t talk, he reminds himself like always. Kind of hard when Harrington apparently hasn’t got the memo about the truce and has decided a good answer to Billy generously not parking in his spot is to corner him in the guys’ locker-room. And yeah, sure, maybe he started that, but his plan on making it out of this shithole incident free is pretty much dependent on keeping his interactions with Harrington to a practicable minimum from now on—which he thought Harrington would at least recognize, if not be grateful for, since he’s only been begging Billy for just that since they met.

The guy could at least meet him halfway, he thinks sourly, cutting close past him to yank his locker open, dropping his towel because it’s worse to be shy about it and there’s nothing badly made about him, but he keeps the locker door snapped open between them so he doesn’t have to know if Harrington does or doesn’t look.

Improbable. Harrington isn’t one of the ones who looks—doesn’t need to, pretty obviously.

Harrington presses the door out of the way anyway, leaning against it to watch him, idle, bored. Billy returns the look with banked annoyance, nose flaring at the sudden press of his cologne. He’s in fine form, Billy notices, eyeing the popped collar of his members-only jacket, the smug mouth, the hook of hair curled softly up under one ear.

This kind of shit is probably why he gets his ass beat so much.

Not your problem, he tells himself, channeling the sudden rush of nerves into stripping the water off his legs as quickly as possible, rough with the towel, shoving them one at a time, still too damp, into his jeans.

“Coach invite you to the Christmas wind-up?”

Ah. Not King Steve then—Captain Steve, he realizes dully. How dutiful.

And he did—invite him. The old hardass was weirdly fumbling about it, slow to pick his words, like he didn’t want Billy to think no one else on the team would ask him. They didn’t. But it’s not like he wants to spend a perfectly good night off in some lame pizza parlor watching a bunch of hicks slap each other on the back and drink ice-cream floats.

“Not my scene,” he grunts, doing his fly up.  

“Well yeah,” Harrington says in a dry tone that rasps all the way down Billy’s spine. He gives Harrington a warning side-eye, stuffing his deodorant under each arm. Harrington ignores it, amusing himself peering half-interestedly in at the contents of Billy’s locker. “It’s a total snooze-fest. Thought maybe if you came this time I wouldn’t feel like blowing my brains out.”

“Not your entertainment.”

Harrington laughs, a small percussive noise mostly in his nose. It’s not confirmation but it’s not a denial either and Billy doesn’t know how to feel about it at all—same as always when Harrington is laughing at him. It should make him want to smack the guy in his stupid face. “Don’t be like that amigo,” Harrington says, that dry tone again, so laid-back it’s like sandpaper, rubbing up against all of Billy’s raw spots. “Come,” he says a little more sincerely. “I’ll make it worth your while.”

“You that hard up for a date?” Billy sneers, throwing a towel over his hair.

“Maybe.”

He hates that it’s just that easy for him to say it like that.

“We’re meeting at Carol’s before the diner,” Harrington continues, sounding distracted. “Can’t promise there’ll be a keg but the den’s, you know, pretty well-stocked. And Carol’s mom makes a mean artichoke dip.”

Billy grunts noncomittally. “Smartened up about letting foxes into your henhouse?”

Harrington groans. “Worse—my parents are going to be home. My dad… He’s kind of a buzz kill.”

“That must be real hard for you.”

“You have no idea,” Harrington drawls, oblivious. “I’ll pick you up at six.”

Yeah, like that’s going to go down well, him waiting around on the front step of his shitty house for Harrington to come put a corsage on him like a horny goddamn prom date. Neil sees that car—sees the guy driving it—he’s going to hit Billy over the head with a shovel and bury him in the backyard.

“I can drive.”

“Huh,” Harrington says. “And here I was thinking Max was driving you to school every morning.”

“She can’t drive stick, smartass.”

Harrington makes an odd coughing sound.

Billy looks up from toweling his hair. Harrington’s distracting himself, turning a pack of smokes over in his hand, thumbing the crumpled lid open and shut. They’re Marlboros—they’re his Marlboros, he realizes a moment later, startling, his stomach fluttering at the sight of them in Harrington’s hands. He snatches them back with a scowl, shoving them in his locker. “Don’t you have class?”

Harrington blows out a breath, slumping. “Yeah. Double math. Like I can even keep up with single math.”

“Don’t you take the same math as Carol?”

“Yeah, why?”

Billy snorts. “Never mind.”

“Steve,”  Tommy says impatiently from the doorway.

“Yeah, yeah. Hold your horses,” Harrington gripes. He straightens up, wincing, flexing his skinned knuckles. “Jesus. Showing up to practice was a mistake—my whole body hurts. Aren’t you sore? I saw you slug that big guy.”

Billy shrugs. “Yeah well...I actually know how to throw a punch.”

“Tell me about it.” He says it all coy, like Billy didn’t seriously hurt him. Like he didn’t make mincemeat of his pretty face not too long ago. He feels kind of sick about it now, looking at Harrington’s nice clean facehis easy smile—struck with the tactile memory of Harrington’s hair caught and slipping in between his fingers, sticky with blood—of his heart knocking frantically under his ribs under Billy’s thighs. He swallows hard and looks away, but not before Harrington catches on.

“Hey,” he says, not ungently.

Take a hint, dumbass, he thinks miserably, glaring down at his fingers paused uselessly over the buttons of his shirt, forcing them to move. Harrington’s right, his knuckles...the skin isn’t even broken.

“Hey,” Harrington says again, voice thick like he wants to be saying something else, but can’t quite make up his mind. There’s a long pause and, a sigh. “I need a smoke,” he says, finally, decided. “You coming?”

Steve,” Tommy whines. “C’mon man. I gotta copy the homework.”

Harrington ignores him and Billy feels his eyes on him, expectant.

“I got English. Second period,” he mutters, staring fixedly at the mess in his locker like there’s something in there that can save him.

Harrington tugs the locker door out of his hand.

Billy doesn’t look for as long as he can bear it. Then looks and wishes he hadn’t.

Harrington’s close. Way too close for off the court. And he’s smirking, just barely, eyes dark, slotting a cigarette—one of Billy’s cigarettes—behind his ear.

“Skip it.”

Chapter Text

A near-perfect school record, weeks of consecutive attendance—destroyed; blown to smithereens for the lesser half of a cigarette.

The last time he got caught for playing truant his dad popped him in the jaw so hard he was sure one of his teeth had come loose. He spent the whole rest of the school week fuming with his lips clamped shut, sucking it into place, worried if he opened his mouth to speak it would just fall out.

He feels kind of like that now: jaw locked, mistrusting, tramping up the frosty school lawn in the wake of their three-headed shadow, the only one of them to look back.  

“Thought we were going for a smoke,” he says, trying not to sound like a nancy about it.

“We are,” says Harrington calls back cheerfully. Tommy turns to shoot him a conspiratorial grin.

Dumb, he thinks. This is a dumb idea and he’s annoyed at himself for getting caught up in it. The others are graduating, they can afford the fallout. They get caught at whatever bullshit stunt this is and he’s the one who’ll have to see out a whole school year with the principal riding his ass. He turns to look again at the long span of windows facing the lot, blank and dark. Anyone could look out and see him and make a phone call...

The feel of an arm looping through his makes him jump. Carol. She’s not strong but she’s weirdly forceful, insistent, bullying him up the hill while he keeps his hands stuffed in his jacket pockets, at a loss with that to do with them since it doesn’t seem like what he’s supposed to do is put and arm around her or something.

“Don’t worry,” she says, eyebrows up and reading him, cracking gum. “We never get caught.”

“Yeah, that’s because you’re you,” he says dourly. (Billy always gets caught.)

“Hurry up,” Harrington says from up ahead, contradicting her with a scoping look around the lot as he rounds the BMW, keys out. Tommy goes straight for the passenger door but then Carol’s dropping Billy’s arm to smack his hand away, shaking her head eye-rollingly at his loud protests.

Ow—what the fuck, Carol,” he says as she shoves him into the back ahead of her.

That leaves the passenger seat for Billy unless he wants to play corners with the odd couple the whole way to wherever-the-fuck. He considers again what it would look like if he just took the out now. Sure, it would be a pussy move, critically damaging to his image, social kryptonite if it ever got out. But at least he’d still be on track to graduate with all his molars.

Harrington buzzes the window. The asshole’s got his sunglasses on already. “Second thoughts, amigo?”

Oh yeah. No fucking way is this gonna be worth it. 

He stomps his boots on the asphalt to get the worst of the matted grass out of the tread and pries open the door—(it still feels illicit to touch the handle)—dumping his satchel inside and sliding in after it. Harrington’s looking at him once he gets done settling, amused, if the grin plucking at the corner of his mouth is anything to go by.

“What?”

He has manners.

“Nothing.” Harrington says, grinning harder. He turns the key in the ignition and the engine turns over velvety-smooth.

Once, back in Hayward, when Susan and Max had just moved in and Neil was giving Billy more of an allowance to stay out of the house so they could all play happy families without him, he spent an afternoon getting high under the pier and came home with the munchies so bad he ate Neil’s whole birthday cake right out of the fridge; dug right in with a fork with the fridge door open, letting all the cold out,  the plastic shell-lid smudged with frosting discarded on the floor.

He needed to eat that shitty cake so bad he barely even tasted it. But he still knew, even high, somewhere between the first bite and the last, that he shouldn’t be doing it—that the stolen moment of joy would cost him more than what he was willing to think about.

But Susan must have caught on faster than he gave her credit for, even back then (even before the mask came off), because when he woke up the net day...the carnage was all gone. The crumbs, the fork. The sandy tracks. And there was a new cake; identical, store-bought, with the use-by sticker peeled off, in the fridge beside the cold lamb roast and Neil’s root beer, and no one said anything about it other than how nice it was, and later that night Neil blew out the candles on forty-three none the wiser.

Sitting in Harrington’s car is like eating that cake—odds are, there’s going to be consequences for it.

He slouches against the seat, eyes sliding over everything he can’t afford to touch—the dash, the big sexy wheel, the helicopter cockpit of features; power windows, power seats, power mirrors, front and rear A/C, Harrington reaching over to toggle one of the controls as they pull out of the lot.

He inhales and has to bite his tongue. Goddammit. No wonder Harrington gets laid so much—it even smells European in here: clean and leathery, the faintest bit like stale cologne.

Harrington pulls smoothly out into the lane headed away from town, indicator ticking because he’s a good boy. Billy scowls, averting his face. Short a couple of tense rides in the front of Neil’s truck or being clean passed out he hasn’t been on the bitch side of a car since before he learnt to drive, and it makes him antsy, not having control, not knowing what to do with his idle hands—same as having Carol on his arm with no set rules for what to do next. He settles for buzzing his window all the way down—an excuse to touch the glossy paneling, letting the cold air buffet his face and toss his damp hair around, shivering.

He heard a rumor Harrington’s old man got everything done custom, knew a guy let Harrington pick out whatever finish he wanted at the factory. It’s just a rumor. Might be that there’s a hundred cars off the belt with the exact same honey-brown wood-grain, but it’s real nice, and Billy’s hardly going to luck his way inside another 7-Series in his lifetime to do a compare and contrast.

It takes a moment to register that the warm glow he’s feeling is coming from the seats, the buttery-soft leather upholstery seductively warm under his ass. For all appearances, Harrington’s got his eyes fixed on the road, but Billy can tell he’s waiting for his chance to be smug about it.

“Alright, Pogo,” he says, resigned. “Where you taking this clown car?”

Harrington’s smirk deepens. “Guess you’ll find out.”

“We’re going to Fair Mart,” Tommy answers, less mysteriously, from the back. “Carol wants Parliaments.”

“Parliaments are for pussies,” he replies automatically. And because he knows little boy rich’s glovebox is probably full of them.

“Well, we’re not smoking your cigarettes again,” Carol says. (Like he was going to offer.) “They make Tommy’s breath smell like trash.”

“Oh, do they?” Tommy asks, followed by the sound of shuffling, the creak of the leather seat.

“Ew, gross, Tommy. Get off me.”

One of the two of them bumps into his headrest and Carol giggles, the giggle morphing into a sigh.

Christ. He frowns. Are they making out already? He doesn’t normally give a shit when he’s third-wheeling with them, even when they go at it hot and heavy, but having Harrington there to share in the awkwardness makes it embarrassing somehow, makes him hyperaware of every little noise. He props his elbow up on the window to get more cold air on his face, grimacing into his palm, eyes darting compulsively to the rearview mirror.

And blinks.

There’s an air freshener dangling there—tree-shaped. Familiar.

Huh.

He looks up and his eyes meet Harrington’s in the mirror, noticing him noticing, hard to read behind his shades.

Harrington’s eyes flick away at one of Tommy’s breathy sounds.

“Can you guys quit it?” he groans, turning in his seat to reach back there, trying to swat them apart. Billy watches the road shoulder grow closer as the BMW skews left. “I don’t want to have to have the seats dry-cleaned again, okay.”

Carol extricates herself out from under Tommy’s insistent kissing with a wet smack. She’s not listening to Harrington though, more interested in lurching forward to dig for something under the seat, sitting up with her find held out at arm’s length.

It’s a bottle of beer: a long-neck.   

Carol waggles it apprehensively between the seats. “Ew, Steve. What lame-o dates are you taking Lacey on?”

Tommy pulls a face. “And since when do you need to butter that biscuit.”

“Hey,” Carol says, hitting Tommy to interrupt him, already snickering. “Hey, who am I? Think quick.” She tosses the bottle. Tommy’s not expecting it and he flinches back against the door siding, juggling it awkwardly against his chest like a hot potato before he bursts out laughing, realization breaking over his face. He turns to Billy—“Think quick!”—and tosses the bottle through the gap so that Billy has to twist awkwardly in his seat to catch it against his shoulder.

Oh.

He snorts.

“Can you guys cut it out?” Harrington grouches.

“Can you just pass stuff to people like a normal person,” Carol quips.

“Yeah, man. Just hand things to people. Not all of life is a sport.” He sticks his head between the seats. “Billy,” he says excitedly, flush from making out. “Man, do that thing—show Steve that thing with your teeth.”

He means the bottle cap, opening it with his teeth, just a party trick Billy showed them one time when they wanted to talk about some shit he wasn’t interested in sharing, something he can roll out when he needs people to stop asking nosey questions.

He shrugs, biting the cap, testing for the right spot. It’s way easier to do half-plastered when you don’t care so much about it going wrong—chipping a tooth or cutting your lip open—but he doesn’t get a chance to properly bite down because then Harrington’s going, “What? Jesus, hey, no!” and his hand is off the wheel, tugging at his arm, pulling the bottle neck out of reach of Billy’s mouth, frowning behind his wayfarers. “Don’t do that.”

Billy’s eyes drop to Harrington’s fingers snagged in his sleeve, at his wrist, right where the cuff is doubled back and his heart squeezes a warning.

“No, Steve, dude—you’ve got to see it, it’s so cool.”

Carol makes a bored squashed noise.

Harrington’s face is unreadable, his eyes behind the dark lenses darting between Billy and the road. He lets go right as Billy remembers he wants him to. “Whatever,” he says, finally, hand back on the wheel casual-cool, but his mouth on the side Billy can see is still turned down at the corner. “Just—don’t get beer all over my car.”

Or what? 

“Don’t worry, princess,” he says after a beat, the flip tone striving for familiar ground. He reaches over and flicks the swaying air-freshener, making it bounce on its elastic. “I clean up my messes almost as good as you do.”

Harrington snorts and shifts gears, unfazed. “Low bar to jump, man.”

“You always are.”

“Funny. ”

“Oh my god, what are you even talking about?” Carol says from the back, critically bored. “And Steve is terrible at cleaning. Have you seen his room?”

Yes.

He has.

His eyes search around helplessly for something else to think about and snag on Harrington’s hand still on the gear stick, the sight of it putting a swoop in his gut, like déjà vu from whathe doesn’t even want to think about. He hunches, leg jiggering impatiently. “You gonna keep her in third the whole way?”

Tommy bursts out laughing. “What’d I tell you? Pay up.”

“You said he’d just take the wheel!” Carol argues, smacking him. 

Harrington just smirks. “You got somewhere to be?” 

Walked right into that one, Billy thinks tetchily. But Harrington turns them off the main road, shifting gears, third to fourth, Billy letting himself follow the movement of his hand with its scraped knuckles out of the corner of his eye before looking away and out the window instead.

A lot of Hawkins is just woods and cornfields. It would be creepy if it weren’t so boring. Still, it being Hicksville means there’s plenty of roads long enough and empty enough to really floor it, and Harrington—does, surprisingly. He palms the gear into fifth with a light touch, the transmission doing it easy, no showy revving, sending them flying down the road, blasting apart the thick carpet of leaf litter.

The speed gets the adrenaline fizzing happily in his limbs—would be better if he had his foot on the pedal, but he’ll take it. He lets himself relax a little, slouch a little more, arm on the door, tilting his face towards the window. He closes his eyes for a beat. And again, a beat longer, letting the cold air sting his cheeks. It still smells like cow shit but it’s cut with something greener, sweeter; wet hay and smoky burn-off.

Tommy leans through the gap after a while and dials the volume up to catch the middle of the latest sad-sack pop hit, something Billy knows from a few parties, not half bad but not anywhere decent either. Harrington seems pretty relaxed for once, has the window cracked so a thin stream of cold wind ruffles just the top of his hair, one hand on the wheel, doing only the high parts. 

Billy holds his tongue and glares out the window, ignoring Tommy’s seat drumming and Carol’s fingers walking teasingly down his sleeve to the beat.

“Not your style, Hargrove?”

Carol’s tone is all bait. “Maybe he’s Out of Touch.

“Maybe I just got taste, unlike you backwater hicks.”

“Whoa,” Harrington says, delighted. “Backwater? We have a Dairy Queen.”

“I mean, not yet,” Tommy says. “When the mall opens.”

“Great. You can buy yourself some real music while you’re there and maybe learn something.”

“Like you?” Harrington asks, gaze wandering over to him and back to the road. “Do I have to sit in my car every lunch break too, you know, learning?”

Carol. It must be. He feels the back of his neck turn hot.

“Would if I could,” he mutters, spiky. “Nowhere in this shithole gets reception worth a damn.”

Instead of more smug laughter, Harrington goes quiet, chewing on his knuckle. He turns to look at Tommy, then back at Billy, he says, “I might know a place.”

“No. Steve,” Tommy whines. “C’mon. It’s probably closed up for the winter. Let’s just go to the quarry or something.”

“Shh, shut up.” There’s a smile growing on Harrington’s face, an idea solidifying. “Do you still have the key?”

Tommy sighs, throwing himself sulkily back into his seat. “Yeah.”

“Then what’s the problem?”

Harrington turns the music up after that so there’s no argument and it isn’t long before they find something twangy and folksy to sing along to, going too fast for Billy to throw himself out of the car. He endures it, keeps the wind in his ears as much as he can, watching the road unspool ahead of them through the fields. Listens to the three of them belting out the sort of song he and Max had both been afraid country kids would sing out here—about chopping wood and ringing bells and Yankees—and the only part they all seem to remember enough to come together on is the chorus of naaa naa na-na-na naa which sounds like the sort of shit Neil would have taken Susan line dancing to back in the day.

They hit a dirt road and the bimmer handles it beautifully, tires grinding, clearly wouldn’t sweat another ten, twenty, fifty with Harrington’s foot flat on the gas. Not that it’s worth it since Harrington’s beauty queen car doesn’t put out no matter how hard you push her, but he likes this anyway, despite himself, soaring down a long single-lane road through some sort of pine farm, the dark trees crowding in at the shoulder.

They get him good and lost, one long backroad and then another, and then Harrington is pulling onto a road Billy actually vaguely recognizes—might have been down once, the opposite way, in the dark—and into the abandoned lot for the Hawkins Community Pool.

“What the hell, Harrington,” he says, mostly to himself, clambering out into the shock of cold Fall air and hunching into his jacket, missing the warmth of the car seat already, not that he’d ever say it. He does a three-sixty sweep of the empty lot. The BMW’s parked prim and proper in a bay but Harrington needn’t have bothered, there’s no one and nothing around for miles and the lot is empty, just faded asphalt and long snaking drifts of leaves, and the pool building, an ugly brown-brick with a yellow bore water stain up one side like a tide mark.

He watches Tommy chase Carol towards the pool fence as Harrington pops the trunk.

“Let me try,” he hears Carol say impatiently. They’ve come to a stop at a point further down the fence, huddled together, messing with the gate under a no trespassing sign.

“Steve,” Tommy calls.

“Yeah, hold on.”

Billy shuffles around to the back of the car to join Harrington where he’s got the trunk open and is stuffing something furtively into a backpack. He knows, logically, that Harrington’s got to carry school books around same as everybody else, but it still doesn’t fit with his image. Harrington’s kind of self-aware with stuff like that. Guy always dolls himself up and carries himself like he knows he’s being looked at. It doesn’t suit him to have some little kid backpack to cart his juice box around in or something. Billy himself ditches his satchel in his locker first thing in the morning and doesn’t revisit it until he leaves. Never carries more than a book at a time if he can help it. Has never brought his own pen.

Harrington zips the backpack shut and Billy’s eyes wander and suddenly he’s seeing it. The bat. The bat—in the trunk beside it.

Fear drops a cold slug all the way down his throat, into his stomach. His hand goes reflexively to the spot on his neck where Max stuck him.

There’s something dark and rusty—blood?—blood—all gunked up in the nails of the thing, and Billy’s recollection of that night is hazy, but he’s pretty sure it’s not his.

Harrington must see his mouth fall open because he says, “Oh, yeah, don’t look at that,” like Billy’s just supposed to not notice the very obviously used weapon in the trunk of his luxury car.

What the actual hell.

“Why’ve you got Max’s bat?” he asks, which is the least of his questions.

Harrington makes a face, clapping the trunk shut, slinging the backpack over his shoulder. “It’s uh, mine.” He makes a face. “Sort of.”

Billy gives him the stink-eye.

“Just, trust me.”

“Yeah,” Billy says sarcastically, following at a safe distance.

“What’s the hold-up?” Harrington asks, approaching Tommy and Carol at the gate. Tommy steps back to reveal the heavy chain cinching the two fence doors together. 

“Oh,” Harrington says, sounding put out. “That’s new.”

Tommy pulls a face. “Mom’s key’s only good for the gate. What are we gonna do now?”

“Can’t one of you kick it or something?” Carol asks, chewing her gum, unimpressed.

“Oh, yeah, Carol. Because Tommy’s fourth-grade judo means he’s gonna be able to Ralph Macchio his way through solid steel.” Harrington tugs the chain in demonstration, rattling the heavy lock on it.

“You could at least try,” Carol says, unmoved.

Jesus, Billy rolls his eyes. Fucking losers. He walks away while they keep bitching at each other—something about whether or not Tommy ever got his black belt.

He hooks his fingers into the chain link and gives it a little test, his hand coming away peppered with rust. There’s a loose scroll of barbed wire at the top, barely prohibitive, but still kind of overkill for a place like Hawkins—nothing compared to some of the walls he’s scaled back in Cali.

Yeah. Okay.

Doable.

The cold is immediate as he shrugs out of his jacket, heavy, pressing hard at his ribs through the thin material of his shirt. He throws it over his shoulder. It would be easier to do this out of his boots, they’re too heavy and too big to really get a decent purchase in the fence and the whole things bows when he hoists himself up.

“—would have made green too, if crybaby here hadn’t gotten us—oh my god—” Tommy breaks off, cackling delightedly.

“What are you doing?” Carol sounds horrified.

He gets the toe of his boot hooked in good enough and pulls himself up higher, the cold metal cutting hard into the flesh at the base of his fingers, the fence drooping a little under his weight. He chances a look back at them, at their shocked faces: Carol’s skeptical frown; Tommy looking like he can’t wait to see how wrong it goes. Only Harrington is looking at him different, his sunglasses pushed into his hair and his big eyes darting over Billy with unschooled interest, mouth parted, on the precipice of a smile.

Billy rolls his eyes and goes back to climbing, reaching up as high as he can with one hand, kicking around at the chain-links until he finds a space for his toes, pushing himself up.

The fence bucks and rattles under his hands.

“Steve!” Carol hisses.

He looks down. Harrington’s got a good start on the fence, eyeing Billy, figuring out where to put his hands and feet with characteristic deftness. Billy shakes his head and continues to climb, just two more pushes to the top. It takes a moment to wrangle his jacket off his shoulder one-handed but he does manage it, throwing it over the anemic loop of wire and smothering it down with a few haphazard pushes so he can lever himself belly first over it.

The whole fence wobbles under him with something more than just the force of Harrington’s swift climbing.

“Uh-uh, no way,” he hears Carol say and the fence sways, shakes, and a pair of sneakers hit the ground with a dejected clump-clump. Tommy. He snickers to himself, shuffling past his tipping point, hinging at the hips, ignoring the dull jab of wire spikes under the denim, finding a place to hook his hands through the links a little further down and flipping himself over, dropping down on the other side in way that’s supposed to look effortless, that jars his knees real bad. He rights himself and smacks the worst of the dirt off his hands.

Harrington’s made it to the top too, nimble in his lighter sneakers, biting his tongue in concentration.

“Watch your shirt,” Billy says. It’s a nice shirt, soft-looking, easy to catch on part of the fence and rip.

Harrington hoists himself awkwardly over the top, sitting side-saddle with only Billy’s jean jacket between him and the wire, which is just not what Billy would ever recommend anyone with nuts doing. He’s looking around, trying to figure out the best way to get his other leg over without neutering himself

“Careful, princess.”

Harrington shoots him a cocky look. Billy blows on his cold hands, smiling.

“Do you think he’s stuck?” says Carol beside him.

He blinks at her.

She rolls her eyes, hands in her pockets, pointing her chin towards the gate where Tommy’s squatted down, trying to squeeze himself side-on through the narrow opening, under the chain. “There’s like, a gap.”  

He turns back just in time. Harrington hits the ground stumbling but quickly straightens up with a flourish like a gymnast sticking a landing, smiling, Billy’s jacket held victoriously in one hand.

Billy snorts. “Nice landing.”

“Like a ninja, right?”

“You’ve got shit all down your pants,” Billy says.

“Aw, man.” Harrington swipes at the powdery rust stains all down his nice jeans, making it worse. Carol makes a face and goes to pry Tommy out of the gap where he’s still struggling.

“C’mon,” Harrington says, shoving the jacket at him and clipping his shoulder as he pushes past.

Billy follows.

In Cali, they were always jumping fences looking for empty pools—abandoned ones with just a few puddles in the bottom to pump out, or smooth-edged new builds with no owners—whatever was clean enough to climb into and skate in. New pools were great, but what you really wanted to find was the type of setup where the house was a real shitheap, somewhere the agent couldn’t sell without a lot of work. The kids Billy was running with would get in fast and spray it up, smash the windows in—nothing too serious, just rough it up enough that it was too much of a headache for the agent to do showings during the daylight hours. Then they’d have it all to themselves, sometimes for a few weeks.

No one’s jumping the fence to skate in the Hawkins community pool.

It’s way too big, for one thing, has only lost about three feet of water over the winter, no cover, and what’s left is brackish green at the bottom, full of leaves and branches, skeins of colored rope and what looks like an overturned pool chair.

Harrington skirts around it, leading him through the covered area. He seems to know exactly where he’s going even in the dim light, darting one glance back to make sure Billy’s following. They pass a toilet block and a staff-only sign and a canteen with the roller-door locked shut, cold and quiet as a morgue.

Through to the other side of the building, he follows Harrington along the back fence, down a narrow strip of packed dirt speckled with cigarette butts: the sort of place where the kids who work here during the summer probably come to smoke and make out and talk shit between shifts.

He kicks at a string of chewed up foam buoys and they scuttle over the ground, butting up against one of Harrington’s sneakers. 

Harrington’s brought them to a set of dumpsters and Billy watches as he slings his backpack on top of one and clambers up after it, getting to his feet and holding his hand back for Billy to take. Billy eyes it with contempt and hoists himself up, the slanted plastic deceptively hard to stand on, buckling slightly under their weight.

“Give me a boost,” Harrington says.

He looks up at the daunting span of brick between them and the gutter and gives Harrington a flat look.

“Me and Tommy used to do it all the time,” Harrington reassures him.

He blows out a breath—fine—and makes a cradle for Harrington to step into.

The cold rubber of Harrington’s sneaker stings against the already raw skin of Billy’s palms and his own feet squeak loudly on the dumpster lid when Harrington throws his weight at him and up. He only catches his hair a bit, boosting off his shoulder, shooting up, all legs, to get his elbows onto the roof, heaving himself up. Billy jerks his head back in annoyance to avoid a knee to the face. Like hell Harrington and Tommy did this.

“Wait there,” Harrington says, disappearing. Billy can hear him scuffling around up there, throwing stuff, swearing under his breath. He wipes his hands on the ass of his jeans, looking around.

It’s quiet. There’s nothing past the back fence but grass and more woods, the trees shushing, frothing gently in the cold afternoon sun.

“Hey,” Harrington says, reappearing above him, smirking. He ducks back out of sight and then there’s an honest-to-god ladder being lowered, something that should have been welded to a diving board or a lifeguard’s chair: short, narrow, powder coat coming off it in big flakes.

Trust me.

The thing twists dangerously from side to side as he climbs, grating along the gutter, but Harrington helps, does his best to hold it steady by the arched handles until Billy can lever himself up and onto the roof.

“Nice digs,” he says, straightening up, meaning it only half-sarcastically. It’s a rooftop, a flat gray expanse broken up by a sparse grid of turbine vents, an electrical block in the middle. Harrington looks pleased as punch about it, cocking his head for Billy to follow.

“Tommy’s mom used to do a lot of council stuff here in the summer,” he explains, dumping the backpack. “We got bored of swimming.”

Billy wanders over to join him at the edge, looking out over the pool and, yeah, okay, the view is kind of killer. He can see, all of a sudden, how it would look in summer: the parking lot jammed with gleaming cars, the pool lined with colorful umbrellas, people everywhere, swimming, running, eating ice-cream. He can smell it too, almost: tan oil and sunscreen, and the thick chemical tang of chlorine.

He hadn’t realized it driving in but they’re up pretty high. High enough to see most of Hawkins—the woods spreading out for miles, sloping down, and the long streamer of blacktop they must have taken here; a patch of pale limestone that must be the quarry. It looks nicer from up here, like something you could put on a postcard.  

“I wouldn’t get bored,” he says.

“Huh?”

“Of swimming,” he says, sitting down, dropping his legs over the ledge. “Max and me used to go to a place back home—spent a few weekends there.” He has a feeling Harrington’s looking at him funny so he adds, “Kept her busy.”

Harrington nods, looking away, mulling something over. “There’s an indoor pool next county over that’s open during winter,” he says, careful. “If you need to keep her busy.”

It’s an interesting offer, Max would certainly lose her shit. “You been?”

“No,” Harrington snorts. “It’s for—” he stumbles. “I mean I—uh, have a pool.”

Oh. Of course.

Harrington breaks the awkward silence by rummaging around in his bag, pulling out a walkie talkie. Billy refrains from rolling his eyes. Does the weird shit never end with this guy?

“Yeah,” Harrington says at the look on his face. “Judge all you want, bucko, but this thing picks up everything.”

“Everything,” Billy repeats flatly.

“Uh huh.” Harrington gets to his feet, fiddling distractedly with the dial. “Better than the old radio me and Tommy had, anyway, back when we used to try and tune into Indians games—piece of shit belonged to his old man—was probably from the Viet Kong or something. Anyway, sometimes you can pick up stuff from the next state over up here.”

Harrington finishes messing with the walkie, propping it up on its base on the high point of the electrical block and stepping back, the static cutting away. They both pause expectantly to listen but it’s clear after a while that all they’ve picked up is some guy talking, dry and crunchy and fading. Harrington tweaks the dial once more and then sits down next to him, at a reasonable distance, legs dangling.

So maybe Harrington didn’t drive him all the way out here to ditch him. He only realizes he knows it to be true as the last few needles of wariness leave him on an exhale. There had been a part of him that was nervous about it, he realizes now, trying to clock every street sign and corner on the way up like breadcrumbs for the inevitable dejected journey home.

“It’s kind of nice, right?”

He looks at Harrington. He’s smirking. He means the view. Billy shrugs. “Beats school.”

“Yeah,” Harrington says, plucking the Marlboro out from behind his ear, finally, arching an eyebrow at Billy like, Yes?

Billy arches his like, Duh, asshole, it’s my damn cigarette, and shakes his hands out of his pockets to pinch it out of Harrington’s fingers, lighting up with a showy snap of his lighter.

The first inhale tingles, his body waking up for its first dose of nicotine for the day, lungs itching. He exhales with a gusty sigh. Does it again, a little slower, tongue rolling around the dry taste. He passes it back and tucks his hands back into his jacket while Harrington fishes around in his bag again, Billy’s cigarette clamped between his lips. A moment later he’s holding out the beer bottle from the car.

“One beer? Jesus, Harrington. For a rich kid you really are a cheap date.”

“You saying you don’t put out for Miller Lite?”

“Better than a strawberry milkshake I guess.”

Harrington coughs on his smoke, laughing. “Asshole,” he says when he’s done. “Here.”

Billy takes the cigarette, leaves it bobbing limply on his lip while he watches Harrington do the neat trick of taking the cap off the bottle on the ledge with a sharp tap of his palm, way too pleased with himself about it going by his smirk—hypocrite—bringing the foaming bottleneck up to his mouth with a wink. What a waste. Billy can’t even watch.

“Don’t drink all of that,” Tommy says from below, craning his neck to look up at them, finger pointing.

Billy makes a threatening hocking sound, leaning forward.

“Yuck,” Carol yelps, jumping out of range, dragging a reluctant Tommy with her.

Harrington snickers, passing him the beer. It’s warm, flat. He takes a sip and plants it between his legs, more interested in smoking his fill since Harrington’s characteristically lazy about asking for his turn, expecting Billy to pass it over right on the border of being selfish about it.

They smoke and pass the drink back and forth in silence for a while, both of them watching Tommy stalk Carol around the far perimeter of the pool.

“About the other night,” Harrington says, out of the blue. He darts an uncomfortable look at Billy and then back at the trees beyond the fence. “I kind of…” Billy hears his throat click. “I didn’t mean to just, lose it like that, you know.”

Billy shrugs. “Max thinks I killed you.”

Harrington laughs, the sound too thin. “Aw, man. Again?” He sounds embarrassed. He should be, Billy reminds himself. If he’d stopped to think before he picked a fight with someone twice as mean as him he might not have gotten his pretty face ruined.

He looks down at his knuckles flexing around the bottle neck, thumbing the corner of the label.

“Second time lucky,” he says, just as unfunnily. Somehow Harrington must pick up on it, the bitterness, because he nods but goes quiet for a bit and Billy can feel him stewing over what he wants to say.

“Messing with the kids like that,” he says, finally. “It brought up some stuff for me I can’t really talk about, because I—can’t. Talk to anyone about it. So I just. I took it all out on that guy, you know,” he says. “My anger.”

Does he think he’s being subtle?

“Uh huh.”

“So I, uh,” Harrington continues, blowing out a frustrated breath. “I guess what I’m trying to say is, I get it, you know.” His eyes dart to Billy. “Not being in control of that sort of thing.”

Wrong. Billy’s in control, all the time. Has to be.

“Maybe I just wanted to beat the crap out of you, Harrington. You think about that?”

Harrington grimaces. “I, um.” He looks away, at the forest again, down at his hands. “I get that, too.”

Since fucking when? Billy thinks, kind of unfairly. He’s seen the pills on the counter, the bags under the guy’s eyes. 

“Something eating you, princess?”

Harrington pulls a face and says, “Stop calling me that,” but he looks at Billy like he wants to know if he’s being serious asking and then away, considering. Billy follows his gaze. He’s not just looking at the forest, it dawns on him. He’s looking at the trees—at the tree line, specifically, the spaces in between, where it gets dark.

He breathes out a low whistle. “Jesus, Harrington. There anything you’re not afraid of?”

Harrington squints, mouth curling up on one side. It’s a good look on him. “Heights.” He sneers at Billy. “Californians.” 

He jumps badly when Billy flicks the cherry at him, pawing sparks frantically off the knee of his jeans. He’s still laughing though so Billy puts the cig back in his mouth and charley horse punches him hard as he can in the arm. Harrington pegs him back right on his bicep. 

“Ow, shit. You looking to get bruised?” He rubs the spot, frowning. Harrington actually kind of nailed him. 

“Maybe. Do I get a loyalty card or something?” 

He curls his lip. “Like you’d go to someone else. I’m the best you ever had.” 

“Oh, I don't know,” Harrington sighs. “Seems like I’m kind of an asshole these days. Could get a round two out of Jonathan.”

“Heard he laid you out pretty good.” As good as me?

“Yeah.” He knuckles his eye tiredly. “Yeah, I kinda deserved that one though. Tommy’ll tell you that. I was being a dick to Nance and…and I really hurt her.”

Billy croaks out a laugh, letting smoke plume up over his top lip, drawing it back in through his nose. “I'll bet. King Steve.”

Harrington rolls his eyes. “That’s not why they call me that.”

He knows. Of course he does. “So what,” he says. “Wheeler’s a bitch. ”

Harrington snorts but he gets a look to him that says Billy’s on thin ice. “Don’t call her that.”

“Why? She sweet on me or something? Think I have a chance?”

“Yeah,” Harrington drawls. “She’s not exactly your type right?”

“What is it you think my type is, Harrington?”

Harrington hums, smoking for a bit. “I dunno,” he says, grimacing a little on the inhale, releasing it in a rush. It’s pretty obvious he only smokes for show. “Carol says you’re not really into any of the girls at school.”

Jesus Christ does she ever mind her own business?

“Yeah, well,” he scoffs. “Cows here are all stuck up.”

A dry laugh. “What’s Cali like?”

“I told you,” he says, “it’s got beaches and shit.”

“I meant the girls.”

Oh. Billy’s throat bobs. “Easier,” he says. They were. Easy come, easy go.

Harrington huffs, amused. “You know, from when we first met, I thought you’d never shut up, but you don’t actually talk all that much.”

“You short on talkers?”

The implication only strikes him after he’s said it—the presumption. Harrington lets out a stunned laugh, maybe not realizing. He looks down at Tommy and Carol where they’re messing around at the edge of the pool, Tommy straining to counterbalance Carol while she leans out over the surface, trying to fish something out with a stick.

“I’m short on a lot these days.”

He nods. “Dire times, I get it.”

“No. Hey, no,” Harrington says. “No, I—" He scrapes a hand through his hair.

“Don’t sweat it, Harrington,” Billy says, passing his smoke back. “Not like I plan to stick around anyway.”

“Oh.” Harrington stares at the smoldering cherry pensively. He looks relieved, maybe. The static on the walkie talkie stutters and restarts. “So what’s the plan then?” Harrington asks in the ensuing quiet.  

Billy shrugs. “Get in my car and get the fuck out of this Podunk town.”

Harrington breathes out smoke, head bobbing in agreement. “Sure. Where to?”

“What?”

Harrington raises his eyebrows a fraction. “Where to after here? You get out of here and then what—all the way to Hollywood?”

“What the fuck is it to you,” Billy says, voice traitorously gruff. 

“I’m just asking, man.”

Billy swallows more beer to ease the tightness in his throat. “I guess Kansas,” he says, fucking it up already. “Illinois and then Kansas,” he corrects quickly. “Whatever’s fastest—to Sacramento maybe. Get a gig there.” Shut up. Shut up

Harrington nods appreciatively. “That’s cool, man. You looking to get into a college there or something?”

“College is for suckers.”

Harrington looks kind of impressed. “Are you gonna get a job or something, then?”

“Maybe, I don’t know. I could be a musician.”

Harrington chokes. “You’re not in band.”

“Band’s for losers.”

“Do you sing?”

Yeah,” he says defensively.

Harrington laughs. “Billy Hargrove, band geek.”

“Fuck off,” Billy says, shoving him. Harrington coughs, laughing, passes Billy the cigarette.

“Huh.”

“What?”

“Nothing. I guess I just thought…” he trails off. “Just thought you’d head straight for, I don’t know, Malibu or something.”

“Malibu?” Billy scoffs, picking at the stubborn bit of dirt under his thumbnail. “The fuck’s there to do in Malibu?”

Harrington eyes him, shakes his head, smiling easily. “Nothing, man.”

Harrington breaks out his own cigarettes and they shoot the shit a while longer, mostly about what summer school involves—(a whole lot of pussy for Harrington, as he tells it, but also, a whole lot of being terminally bored and running out of snacks before the first bell)—and, once Harrington’s buttered him up enough about his costume the night of the Halloween Party, what Billy thinks of Terminator—(Harrington’s only seen half of it, the implication being that he was more involved watching Nancy Wheeler, his date).

Harrington pulls a face when Billy offers him the last swig of beer, which, fair enough, it’s probably mostly spit, so Billy winds up and pegs it as far as he safely can from his seat on the ledge, right out into the deep end of the pool. Harrington doesn’t applaud, just cocks an eyebrow at the small splash. 

He’s like that, Billy's coming to realize. Harrington has an odd way of talking that keeps leaving him at a loss. Billy gives the guy all the usual stories: days on the boardwalk, parties in parking lots, a guy who taught him how to do bong hits when he was twelve, the time he got a whole bunch of kids cheering him on to snort coke off some older girl’s perfect tits—the stuff that Tommy can’t get enough of and the stuff he doesn’t dare tell Carol about. But Harrington just nods, only mildly interested, getting on his case about all the wrong stuff, like didn’t he get bored of just the beach all day every day? Who was his best friend? When’d he meet Max?

Billy tries to wow him with all the coolest places he’s been in Cali but Harrington’s already been there, or somewhere better. He talks about places all over the country his parents have dragged him only to leave him to his own devices, bored out of his skull, doing laps of country club golf courses while his parents schmoozed some new business partner or another. He tells Billy he’s been to Europe, once, when he was a kid, and like, an airport too, in Arabia, but there’s some story there between the lines about how maybe he was too much of a handful and now it’s easier—cooler—to just stay in Hawkins.

He’s a complete asshole about shit Billy actually cares about, too. Eggs him on a bunch about him and Byers starting a club because they like the same music even though Byers likes fucking British music. Acting like he doesn’t know The Clash and Metallica are completely different bands in completely different movements, until Billy’s worked up and yelling, too far gone even after he realizes Harrington’s fucking with him.

“Well, for one thing, those are punk bands,” Billy says, stabbing pointedly with his cigarette. “And Metallica is metal, retard. And for another, The Clash is bullshit. It’s worse than bullshit. It’s shitty talentless prom music for virgins and commies.”

“Huh,” Harrington says, smirking. “Guess I just always thought they sounded the same.”

“They’re not, the same,” he says through gritted teeth, determined not to let Harrington get his kicks any more than he already has. “Punk is…it’s got no story, no technique. It’s not cool. Metal is”—he swallows. God, can he ever shut up—“Metal is tighter, it’s smarter. It has—it’s fucking romantic.”

The look on Harrington’s face is gonna get him punched.

It can’t be any later than four but it’s already starting to get dark, he realizes, the sun going down early in Hawkins these days, gloom creeping in at the edges of the woods, cold leaching out of the brick and turning his ass numb. Harrington doesn’t appear to notice it at all, seemingly unaffected in his light jacket, nose just a little bit pink.

Harrington’s passionately defending his choice of poptart when Billy’s ears prick, the static fuzzing away around the faintest plucking of something...something soft and melodic. “I’m just saying, if you want peanut butter and jelly you might as well make a sandwich. Chocolate fudge is—"

“Shut up,” Billy says.

He hears it again, the sound of the steel guitar: slow, celestial, impossible. He jumps up from the ledge to grab the walkie, staring at it in disbelief, tweaking the frequency dial.  

“What’s the—”

“I said shut up,” he says urgently, zeroed in on the handset fixed on some innocuous station that never plays anything but static when Billy dials past it. He licks his lips. He’s not even one hundred percent sure. It’s too acoustic, too slow, could just be something similar… But then the first electric riff cuts in and he knows, he knows it, all throughout his paralimbic system.

It is. It’s James Hetfield’s voice: mournful, distorted, itnny on the walkie’s speakers. Could be anyone, but it really is him, and it’s—fuck—something he hasn’t heard before, it’s... He holds his breath. Something from the new album, something...

Fucking beautiful.

Harrington appears at his side, reaches over to pluck the walkie out of his hands with a look, and for a moment Billy’s sure that he’s going to have to kill him, but then Harrington just slides the antenna out, doubling its length, the signal solidifying crystal clear on the opening chords of an electric guitar ascending straight up up up into nirvana.

Holy shit, he thinks. It is and isn’t like their other stuff. Sad and pretty, heavy riffs that get him right in the fucking heart, that pull all the feelings out of him like taffy, the percussive grunt of the six-string vibrating in his throat. It’s so fucking cool, so powerful it makes his heart ache. He wants it to go on forever. He wants it to end so he can somehow magically replay it from the start.

“That’s Kirk Hammett,” he shouts over the music, biting his lip, shaking his head out appreciatively to the climbing strum of the guitar solo, the urgent, pacing beat.

“Cool,” Harrington shouts back.

The sound on the walkie is too small to ever do it justice, but he has it cranked up loud enough to bang his head to. Loud enough to appreciate the plunging soaring screeching shred of Hammett’s solo when it starts, whining higher and higher ‘til it’s like it’s going to split his skull open. He reels happily.

“That’s the fucking shit, man. That’s Hammett.”  

“Cool,” Harrington says again, with a look in his eye.

Laughing at him again.

Fuck. Fuck, he likes it.

“Steve.”

Harrington gives him a look and crosses to the ledge, looking over to talk to Tommy. Billy fumbles the switch on the walkie off even though the final twang of the guitar is still whining, his ears still ringing with it, blood still racing around his veins in tempo.

“Come on,” Harrington says, taking it from him, sliding his backpack on. “Time to go.”

They don’t bother with the ladder on the way down, each twisting clumsily over the edge, fast but not fast enough to admit they’re racing. The rough brick just about takes Billy’s nipples off through his shirt but he makes it first, thumping down on the lid heavily, waiting for Harrington to give up trying to lower himself the whole way down with his mediocre upper body strength, sneakers straining a handspan away from the dumpster lid. Eventually he drops, coming down heel first on the slanted surface, pitching backwards, backpack swinging wildly off one shoulder. Billy grabs at the strap to steady him, tugging him close enough he can smell his cigarettes on Harrington’s breath.

“Smooth moves, Revenge of the Ninja.”

Harrington beams.

He rolls his eyes, turning around to clamber off the short-side of the thing, looking up at Harrington crouching to do the same, fully prepared for Harrington to use him like a step-ladder again, when Harrington suddenly freezes, eyes going wide as saucers, looking at—what the

—something dark and fluid, barreling towards them low along the fence.

Shit.

He doesn’t think it through. He yanks Harrington right off the top of the dumpster, Harrington’s elbows banging noisily on it like a drum, pulling him down, crushing him into the corner of the wall and the bin. Harrington’s trying to find his feet, head coming up, and Billy yanks him down out of sight, hissing, “Shut up. Be quiet.”

The dog is on the other side of the fence luckily but it’s still found them, tail wagging excitedly, all its teeth bared, barking, signaling.

“Come on out from there.”

The voice is unfamiliar, wearied, coming from somewhere further down the fence but way too close for Billy’s liking. 

His grip on Harrington tightens. They’re so sprung. Harrington’s shaking so hard in his hands he’s hard to hold on to, making an odd hiccupping noise. The dog barks again, keeps barking, the sound bouncing off the brick, sharp and aggravating. 

“Shh! Shut up,” Billy hisses urgently.

Harrington shakes harder. He’s—he’s laughing, Billy realizes. The psychopath’s laughing, can’t even hold it together enough to hold a squat, hands balled in Billy’s shirt for balance, laughing so hard it looks like he’s crying.

“The fuck, Harrington,” he whispers angrily.

He can hear the security guard—cop, maybe—getting closer, heavy footsteps and the jogging of a chain. “Police. Come on out. I’ve got your car.” Billy risks a glance and catches just an outline, thick-set, broad brim hat. The dog’s panting, yapping turned shrill and rhythmic, bouncing on its paws impatient for its owner to catch up with its quarry.

“Picks up everything?” Billy mocks. “You couldn’t pick up cop radio?

“Looked like you were too busy coming your pants to Iron Maiden!” Harrington whispers back, hysterical.

 “Metallica. It’s Metallica!

“Tommy Hagan?” the voice shouts all of a sudden.

“Oh no way,” Tommy says from where he’s rounded the corner somewhere.

“Stop right there, you little punk! I warned you!”

Then Carol shrieks and Billy hears scrambling—she’s taken off running.

Harrington shakes his grip off, popping up from their cover, just standing up in full view, grinning like an idiot. “Hey,” he calls out.

What the fuck are you doing? Billy tries to communicate in a glare. Harrington might have the sheriff in his back pocket but them getting caught is nothing but bad news for Billy’s quality father-son bonding time.

Harrington’s still grinning, yanking him up by the elbow. “C’mon,” he says, and takes off running.

“What the hell, Harrington,” Billy yells after him, stunned. The cop—a black guy with a big gun belt—is stuck between the two fleeing groups. On the other side of the fence, thank god, but paused in front of a padlock with what Billy would bet his bottom dollar on is a master key. He clocks Billy.

“Kid,” the cop says sternly. “Don’t even think about it.”

Harrington laughs up ahead, stumbling. “Keep up, Hargrove.”

Dammit.

He takes off stumbling in Harrington’s wake, jumping over stacks of old life-vests and clumps of pool rope, ricocheting between the brick and the fence, following desperately after the flash of Harrington’s sneakers. The dog is going crazy bounding up alongside them, frothing at the mouth, and Billy hears the clang of the fence door swinging open and the pounding of heavy footsteps behind them.

They burst out the other side of the building together, rounding the pool, Harrington going full-stick for the fence. Billy hits it only a moment later, scrambling to get up, trying not to think about the barbed wire waiting at the top. Harrington’s over it before him, impressively quick, shimmying over with none of the same hesitation from before, something catching and ripping, the fence bucking under Billy’s hands as Harrington throws himself over, half-climbing-half-dropping down the other side, strangely graceful.

“C’mon.” Harrington shakes the fence, impatient on the other side. “C’mon, c’mon.”

Tommy and Carol burst out from the covered area a moment later, catch sight of them, and dash towards the fence too, zipping straight past them for the gate, Tommy hustling Carol ahead of him.

“C’mon, move it,” Harrington says, eyes darting to the building and back.

Billy does. Swings himself up and over, ignoring the painful jab where he’s been stuck somewhere, in his ass cheek, he’s pretty sure. Goddamit, now he’s got tetanus because of this loser. The fence wobbles as he hooks one leg over.

“Get down from there right now,” the cop yells. He’s reached the fence, the dog on its lead with him. He jumps up, taking a swipe at Billy’s foot and Billy yanks it up and over just in time.

“Jump,” Harrington says.

Billy swears. He’s caught on something somewhere. He tries to push himself up off the fence to jump and something—the edge of his jacket catches. He slips, his foot banging uselessly against the fence instead of finding a purchase and his jump turns into a fall, the thud of impact in his ankles and knees secondary to the jarring force of crashing into Harrington on the way down, sending them both sprawling.

It knocks the wind right out of him, something crunching, his jaw knocking against the high point of Harrington’s shoulder so hard he almost bites his own damn tongue off. Harrington’s wheezing—laughing again, he realizes, already scrambling out from under where Billy’s trying not to knee him in the stomach. He pulls Billy up with him, flinching and laughing uncontrollably at the sudden snap of static electricity between them.

“You’re fucking cracked, Harrington,” Billy says, even though his tongue feels ten times too big in his mouth.

“C’mon,” Harrington says, eyes flashing to the fence, turning to run, pulling hard on Billy’s jacket until he finds his feet.

“Steve!”

The cop’s already taken off down the fence after the easier target: Carol frantically trying to shove Tommy under and through the gate ahead of her, the dog baying and its owner closing in on them at an unhurried jog.

“Come on.” Harrington wrenches at his jacket again, starting to run, forcing Billy to stagger after him. “They’re screwed—come on!”

“Shit,” Billy gasps, exhilaration turning it high and breathy. Shit.

He lets out running.

Harrington propels them straight past his car, straight out of the lot, cornering out onto the road so fast Billy’s legs almost go out from under him for a second, boots stiff, too heavy, jeans too tight. There’s no time to get his bearings; he has no idea where Harrington thinks he’s taking them, why they’re still running when they’re so clearly busted. He can’t ask though, not with Harrington yanking him off-balance after him, pushing him to keep up, to go faster, fingers snarled in Billy’s jacket, the shoulder seam straining.

The dusk is quiet, empty except for the pounding of his boots and Harrington’s sneakers slapping hard and loud over the asphalt, their harsh breathing. He’s gassed inside of the first minute, lungs burning, air turning sharp in his throat, coming out of him like a gasp.

The road is just an empty road in Hawkins and it could go anywhere, and he’s laughing, wild and breathless, winded and hurting under his ribs, and Harrington turns just enough to look and he’s laughing too, the streetlights coming alive ahead of them, one after the other, like guideposts, and their shadows stretching and merging on the asphalt, chasing behind them like giants.

Chapter Text

It takes him a while to figure out Harrington’s fucking with him. Detention should have been the first clue.

He wakes up when it’s still dark out and makes the drive to school in a haze, squinting blearily through the windscreen, blinking hard to stay awake, his legs stiff and freezing in his jeans. He’s so out of it he doesn’t make anything of the empty lot, just slip-staggers down the path to the gym and shoulders the door open in a huff of frosty air, wincing at the stab of yellow light.

It’s empty, fluorescent lights humming in their brackets, the floor gleaming yellow; the faintest whiff of bleach and old vending machine coffee.

He sniffs.

There’s no teacher yet either—just a row of mismatched putty knives laid out on the wooden bleachers next to an attendance sheet and an egg timer, already ticking. He dumps his satchel next to it and takes a seat, flicking his collar up against the cold.

The clock on the wall reads six-thirty and he’s chewed the hangnail on his thumb red and raw by the time he figures there’s no one else coming. He can’t sit still for one minute longer, so he takes his pick of the tools and gets to work. It’s stale-smelling and dusty under the bleachers, but it could be worse. He likes to have something to do with his hands, and it’s not like chiseling away at old gum is all that different from de-icing his dad’s truck, just grosser and more stubborn.

He’s grateful for the detention, he reminds himself, chipping away at a semi-calcified blob of grape bubblegum. They got off light. Honestly, he had been expecting much, much worse, something ending with him in cuffs in the back of the Chevy and an infinitely longer ride back from the station in his dad’s truck.

Harrington had given up easy when the cop finally caught up with them—like it was all fun and games, but Billy... The moment he saw that cop car pull up alongside them, that bright giddy feeling of running and running and running—it up and died on him like a bug flying into a zapper—poof, gone. He was all his weight and more back in shoes again, with a stitch in his side like a broken rib and the weight of all his mistakes crushing back down on him too.

Somehow—how, how, how?—he’d forgotten about Max. School would be out already and she’d be waiting for him to pick her up, or sitting on the bench outside the principal’s office. Maybe some well-meaning busybody was already placing the call, looking for a parent.

He was sweating all over by the time they got back to the lot, dry-mouthed and angry—at the three of them, at himself for ending up where he knew this would end up, for the way the nervousness was lathering up in him so sour he already knew he was gonna snap at the cop and get himself in more trouble.

And then. And then it just wasn’t that big of a deal anymore. Harrington was talking to the guy. Whatever that thing was in Billy that boiled him down to poison every damn time—he got to watch that same thing bring Harrington to life like a hothouse flower, got to sit flummoxed and swallowing as Harrington went to town sweet-talking the guy, convincing him they were up to nothing much more than good clean fun with all the ruthless charm of a homegrown politician. Somehow he got him onside enough to take it directly to the school instead of their parents, made it seem like a big hassle what with who Tommy’s mom is and who his parents are and where they are... And then none of them could seem to remember Billy’s last name, even though Harrington had definitely shouted it a couple of times when they were fleeing. He’s pretty sure the cop knew who he was anyway, since cops generally tend to know about Billy.

Max was smart for once and didn’t say shit when he got home, just passed him a dishtowel to scrub the dirt and rust off his hands before Neil pulled into the driveway. They ate Susan’s latest experiment in silence, staring at each other across the table, Billy waiting with bated breath for the inevitable meltdown—for at least some form of veiled threat.

But it didn’t come. The door to her room stayed closed after dinner and he ended up falling asleep thinking too hard on what he could do to either bully or buy her silence.

Not that he got much rest, ears ringing and ringing with the dying whine of the guitar, the ragged sound of breathing. Running in his sleep like a dog on a mat.

The shrill buzz of the egg timer breaks him out of it. He’s finished up and dusting himself off by the time the teacher arrives, thermos in hand, looking hungover as all get out. Billy hands him the clipboard and the guy twitches his mustache skeptically at the row of signatures all in the same hand but lets him go without a fuss.

He sits through two more classes after that before he gets round to thinking it over properly, spacing out during the whole of English, jigging his leg and staring at the aura of fine hairs glowing around Wheeler’s ponytail, listening to the teacher drone on about the kids on the island building a fire and the good kid in the story just sitting on his ass and doing nothing—“Against this weapon, so indefinable and so effective, Jack was powerless and raged without knowing why...

And suddenly the Lego pieces clip together in his brain and he’s fuming.

Fucking Harrington.

Fucking Tommy. And Carol—fucking half that gum probably came straight out her big fat mouth!

He’s halfway to his car for lunch before he realizes he needs to pick a fight and has to turn around and head back to the cafeteria. Lunch is in full swing and he cuts straight to the front of the line to grab up the first tray he sees, not caring what’s on it.

The three of them are at their usual table of course, Tommy in the middle of telling some dumb story with his fork. He makes a beeline for them, firing on all cylinders, not sure what he’s going to do exactly, but intent on doing something, something mean, and then Harrington sees him and—lights up.

“Hey,” he says sunnily, sliding his fruit cup across the table so it comes to a stop in front of him. “What took you so long?”

“I—” he barks before Harrington’s face disarms him. He wasn’t expecting... He looks down at the seat that’s been left open for him. At Tommy and Carol’s quietly expectant faces. “Missed you in detention,” he grits out.

“Oh, shit,” Harrington says, just slightly too candied to be earnest. “You actually showed up for that?” His eyes are gleaming.

Tommy’s open-mouthed chewing slows as his eyes dart between them, a grin creeping in at the corners.

Fuckers.

He dumps his tray with a loud clap and sits down, ignoring the filthy look he gets from the next guy over who has to scoot away from his knee. “Just doing my civic duty,” he says, smiling through his teeth. He picks the fruit cup up and puts it back down on Harrington’s tray like, shove it up your ass, Molly Ringwald. “Figure once all Carol’s gum is gone it’ll be like the three of you were never here at all.”

Harrington cocks an eyebrow like, touché.

“Hope you washed your hands after,” Carol says, completely impervious to the jab, eyes following Lacey and her friend as they saunter past with their trays. “There’s worse under those bleachers than just chewing gum.”

“Play nice,” Harrington says, placing the fruit cup back on Billy’s tray.

“Make me.”

“Why?” Carol asks, assuming the warning is for her. “She isn’t. You should see what she wrote about you in the bathroom.”

Harrington snorts. “I think I can take it.”

“Not according to what she wrote,” Carol sing-songs. “Not that it’s anything that hasn’t been taken before.”

“Yeah, by the whole team,” Tommy says with his mouth full of mashed food.

“Hey. I told you guys to lay off. Me and Lacey are cool.”

Tommy shrugs. “It was probably Ashley C. She’s the one who keeps a list.”

“Whore,” Carol says cheerfully. She considers the peas speared on the end of her fork. “Maybe it was Billy she was talking about.”

“I’m not a fucking limp-dick,” he snarls, tensing, but Tommy’s already shaking his head.

“Billy’s not on her list, remember?”

“She not your type, too?”

He breathes out carefully, meeting Harrington’s smirk. Harrington’s just toying with him, he knows. Playing a game of chicken that Billy started. But it’s still...dangerous. Dangerous because Billy knows exactly where the road of the game runs out for him, where and when and how hard he’s supposed to lay on the brakes and that was probably back a few miles ago.

He puts the fruit cup firmly back on Harrington’s side of the table. “Why don’t you just keep striking out with Lacey and you’ll find out what my type is.”

Harrington doesn’t miss a beat. “My rebounds?”

“Not my fault they come to me looking for a follow through.”

“Hey,” Harrington protests, tone firm. “I always follow through.”

“Nah,” Billy says, sitting back. “Nice boy like you?”

“I haven’t had any complaints.”

Billy let his mouth curl into a slow smile in place of an answer.

He can see the hook take, Harrington’s eyes narrowing. “I go down.”

Billy hums agreeably, pointing his chin over Harrington’s shoulder to where Wheeler and her beau are playing footsies at their table on the far side of the cafeteria. “Not as good as Byers does, apparently.”

Tommy coughs into his food and Carol twists in her seat to look, but Harrington doesn’t take the bait this time, staring back at Billy with cool displeasure.

“I wouldn’t go feeling too cut up about it, champ,” he continues, twisting the knife. “Girl like her is probably the finest thing he’s ever tasted. Any wonder he’d learn to eat it right?”

Carol snickers, whispering something into Tommy’s ear.

“Man,” Harrington says, a little too drawn out for unaffected. “Screw you.”

“No thanks.” A beat. “Word is you don’t follow through.”

Harrington’s face goes flat with annoyance.

He waggles his tongue.

It’s so much fun trying to get a rise out of Harrington he actually forgets for a second that he was supposed to be getting back at him.

Carol launches into some story about a class she’s failing, diffusing the situation until Harrington breaks their staring contest to offload a gray-looking cutlet onto her plate.

“You can’t just flip Mrs. Wright off every time she asks for your homework, dipshit. Do you want to end up in summer school with me?” He turns to Tommy. “Aren’t you supposed to be helping her?”

Tommy makes a don’t ask face like maybe he’s already tried that and Carol ripped him a new one.

“I got her for English,” Billy contributes. “She’s a bitch.”

“Thank you!” Carol says, vindicated. “She’s from the Ice Age.” She hits Tommy in the arm. “Remember when we had her last year and she made us hold that stupid shell to talk?”

“The Conch,” Tommy says at the same time and in the same tone of dread as Billy. Billy continues, “She make you read all the parts out loud, too?”

The three of them nod like they’re remembering something traumatic. “It sucked total ass. Who’d you get?”

“Jesus, Carol,” Tommy says. “Who do you think he got?”

“Let me guess,” Billy says in retaliation for the derogatory noise Harrington makes. “Boy Wonder got the part of Ralph.”

Carol snorts. “God, no. They didn’t give him lines.”

“I got to sharpen a stick.”

“We all got to sharpen sticks, dude,” Tommy says. “Did you even come to that class once on time, or were you too busy—” He cuts himself off awkwardly, eyes down at his food. 

“We’re not up to the stick sharpening yet,” Billy says. “I think we’re just about to do the bit where they think the beast is a kraken or something, and all the little kids won’t stop crying.”

“Gross. That book’s totally bogus. They only go crazy like that because they’re all boys. It’s basically what’s going to happen at wind-up,” Carol says, changing the subject deftly. “I don’t know why you can’t bring your girlfriend.”

“It’s tradition,” Tommy says.

“So’s having the party at Steve’s house, but look what happened.”

“Yeah, sorry, “ Harrington says, cringing a little. “It’s my parents’ shitty timing.”

Tommy makes a face. “Since when do they come back here for winter.”

“I know,” Harrington grouses. “Something to do with the mall opening early. And mom’s sick of the Hilton.” He rubs a knuckle into his temple, defeated. “They find out how much of their booze is missing, my ass is grass. I’ll be lucky if I’m off curfew by the time I start college.”

“So never then,” Carol says.

Tommy perks up. “At least now you can drive us to the diner.”

Harrington sighs. “Yeah, sure.” He turns to Billy. “Four-eight-one-nine Cherry Lane, right?”

Oh, wow. Yeah, he already hates that Harrington knows where he lives.

“Told you. I prefer to drive.”

“Not for this one you don’t. I’ll give you a ride,” Harrington says, smiling in that barely detectable way. “Promise it’ll be worth your while.”

Carol raises her eyebrows doubtfully. “Again: not what Lacey says.”

Harrington ignores her. “It’s supposed to get down to four below, so wear a coat, okay, Don Juan?”

He cocks an eyebrow. “You gonna take the night off from babysitting, Samantha?”

“Four below,” Harrington insists. “Can you count to four, Hargrove, or do you max out? Is that why you can’t do up a shirt—too many buttons?”

He laughs. “You wanna do some math, princess? Why don’t you count how many fingers I’m holding up right now.”

“Yeah, I think I got it. Thanks.”

“Round two?” he gloats. “Can’t let you go without at least one run on the board.”

“Oh, I think I already got one,” Harrington says, eyeing Billy’s tray pointedly. Billy follows his gaze down, blinking with confusion at the fruit cup that has somehow found its way back onto his tray.

It must have been Tommy, he realizes, frowning. Tommy, picking up on the play without a word, just waiting for the right moment of distraction to carry out the assist.

Carol rolls her eyes. “Billy doesn’t like sweet things,” she says, reaching over. 

He swats her fingers away from his tray. “Hands off.”

“Jeez. Constipated, much?”

“Yeah.” The voice he uses is thick with sarcasm. “Got kind of an early start.”

“Ahh, morning detention,” Harrington says, relaxing back in his seat like he’s reminiscing fondly. “Mr. Mundy still rocking the Tom Selleck ‘stache?” His eyes flick to the stubble coming in on Billy’s lip. “He give you any tips?” 

Billy tongues his cheek, incredulous. Maybe there'd been a moment where he forgot he was going to make Harrington pay for fucking him over this morning, and now he can’t hardly believe his luck that Harrington would choose to pull his pigtails in just the right way to set himself up for what’s coming to him.

“Ask him yourself,” he says, watching the smirk slide off Harrington’s face. “He’s expecting you there tomorrow for your make up. ‘Six am, on the dot’, I think he said.”

Harrington’s frozen. Tommy and Carol look up from their food too, stricken.

“Wait. You…didn’t sign for us?”

“Oh I signed alright,” he says, smiling. “For some of us. Guess I got confused after”—he props his elbow on the table, counting loosely from his thumb. One, two— “three?”

Fuck,” Harrington breathes, dropping his fork to press his palms into his eyes wearily. Tommy claps an unsympathetic hand on his back.

“Hope you got your beauty sleep,” Billy says, peeling the lid off his dessert and taking a bite, smiling around the spoon.

Huh. Revenge does taste sweet.

^^^

He should be expecting it, but Harrington waiting at his locker the next morning like a reject take from The Shining still makes his heart skip a beat—maybe because he’s got something clasped in one hand that looks a whole lot like the banged-up copy of Lord of the Flies that’s supposed to be inside his locker.

Harrington’s making a scene, of course. Way more girls than usual finding a reason to loiter at their lockers all of a sudden, taking their sweet time putting their books away—real fucking obvious.

“You should really get a lock,” Harrington muses, looking up from the page he’s reading when Billy gets close enough. His polo collar is neatly pressed and there’s not a hair out of place, but his eyes have the heavy, rubbed look of someone who had to wake up while it was still dark out. He doesn’t give Harrington the satisfaction of a response, snapping the locker door open right in his face.

Pretty much as expected, Harrington’s placed a cafeteria jello cup in the middle of his locker, sat on top of his empty trapper keeper like it’s a pedestal. Billy snorts, letting out a breath he didn’t know he was holding.

Lame.

He was expecting more, but he’d be lying if he didn’t say he’s a little relieved. The way he riled Harrington up at lunch, he’d been sure something really nasty was coming his way. Turns out Harrington’s best effort is some pretty juvie-level stuff.

That’s what you get, he thinks, hanging around with grade-schoolers.

He picks the cup up and fixes Harrington with an unimpressed look as he slow pitches it into the closest trashcan.

Harrington’s characteristically unruffled, smiling calm and annoying until Billy has to bite his tongue not to say something stupid, snatching his book out of Harrington’s hands and stowing it, determined to ignore him.

“Wanna smoke?”

Billy snaps the door shut. “Yeah.”

^^^

Harrington can’t roll a joint for shit.

Whatever he’s used is smoking like crazy, burning down under their fingers almost too fast to smoke, all lopsided. And the skunk tastes like ass. He spends the whole time distinctly not enjoying it, glaring at Harrington between tokes and waiting for the other shoe to drop, for Harrington to reveal that they’re smoking a handful of roadside weeds or something.

They don’t talk much; it’s too cold behind the science block to have their hands outside of their pockets, so they mostly stand around coughing and stamping their feet and trying not to acknowledge how bad Harrington’s attempt at a peace offering is.

By the time he gets to class, his nose is running and he’s too buzzed and weirdly happy to even really care about Wheeler reading her part like she’s trying out for fucking Talent Time. He only half follows along, the book propped open under his elbow, staring out the window trying to daydream like usual but unable to stop smelling Harrington’s gross skunk on his fingers. His part is almost up, just as soon as Wheeler winds up her pitch for the Academy Award for most irritating voice of the year.

“Last night I had a dream,” a boy at the front of the class says, stilted, following along with his finger on the text. “A horrid dream. Fighting. With things.”

Billy breathes in and out, face tingling, tuning him out.

“That was a nightmare, said Ralph,” Wheeler reads on crisply. “He was walking in his sleep.”

The teacher reads. Then Wheeler again. He’s up soon.

He stifles a yawn and starts flipping through the pages, looking for the part where the little kids remember home and start crying, where he gets to yell at them to shut up and…and—

He frowns. Flicks forwards again. And back.

It’s missing: the part he’s supposed to read. The page is somehow...not there.

He stares down, uncomprehending, at the ragged, furred edge where the page has been hastily torn out. At the silky square of rolling paper wedged into the spine of the book in its place.

“—Jack?”

He looks up. The teacher’s staring at him, along with half the class. Even Wheeler’s turned around, brow furrowed questioningly at him. 

“Uh,” he says, stalling. He looks down at the stump of the missing page and back up again. Man is he stoned.

“And what about the beast?” Wheeler mouths.

Oh. Yeah.

He clears his throat, thumbing the rolling paper over to read the biro print bleeding through from the other side, the handwriting surprisingly neat:

--Enough of a follow through for you?  

^^^

Shit escalates after that.

He retaliates in the period after lunch. Uses a tactical hall pass to get out of Shop so he can find Harrington’s locker and jam a whole lot of superglue in the hinge. He’s not around to witness the results firsthand, but he figures Harrington’s pretty mad, because some geek kid shows up in the middle of Library the next day to ask him very fucking loudly when he wants to set a date for the remedial math tutoring he requested. The teacher chews him out for barking at the guy and the ensuing looks of consternation he has to endure from Nancy Wheeler while he’s forced to stew in silence—it puts a whole new level on the thing.

He doesn’t fuck with Harrington’s car. That’s only going to escalate to Harrington fucking with the Camaro and getting good and dead in return.

Instead, he puts the hard lean on some theatre dweeb with access to the PA system. He’s in class when the call comes over the loudspeaker for Harrington to come collect his medicine from the nurse’s office. So, again, he doesn’t get to see the fruits of his labor, but he feels them when he gets to his car at the end of the day and some stress-head teacher is waiting on an anonymous tip-off to lay into him for parking in the seniors’ bay.

Thursday rolls around and he’s too paranoid to open his textbooks, clear out his gym locker for the season, or even take a piss without looking both ways first. His biggest play yet is set to unfold during lunch: Geoff Dawkins, captain of the Hawkins baseball team, cap in hand by the entrance to the cafeteria, waiting eagerly for his latest recruit, who, rumor has it, is simply too shy to ask for a try-out directly—a real fuckin’ tragedy, if you ask Billy.

He’s so busy blending in with the lunch crowd, waiting for Harrington to walk his dumb ass right into the trap, that he doesn’t see the junior girl and her face full of headgear coming at him until it’s too late—she’s seen him see her, has her hand closed tight around some sort of letter he’s willing to bet is filled with a whole lot of poetry he never wrote. He spins on his heel and makes it barely two feet against the wave of hungry students before he’s colliding with Harrington.

“Where you running to, asshole?” Harrington grouches, clearly also running away.

“Fuck off,” Billy says, using the mob as an excuse to shove him. “Why don’t you go talk to Dawkins about your try-out.”

“Sure,” Harrington says, darting around an annoyed-looking big guy. “Come with. I have someone who wants to meet you. She’s getting her braces off in spring and she’s been waiting for the right guy to teach her how to French.”

Billy scowls, grabbing him hard by the sleeve and yanking him after him past a group of stragglers and through the nearest door. He doesn’t recognize where he’s brought them at first, but then Byers is going “Hey—!” and hunching over his precious work, protecting it from the spill of light from the hall before Billy slams the door shut and plunges the three of them into the amniotic orange-red glow of the darkroom.

Right away Harrington’s breathing like he’s asthmatic, way too loud in the dark. It takes him a beat to realize he’s laughing. That’s Harrington’s thing apparently—wheezing like he’s dying whenever he’s having a good time. Billy scrubs a hand over his mouth so he doesn’t start doing it too.

“Steve? You okay?” Byers asks, poised with a pair of tongs in one hand, eyeing Billy suspiciously—which is offensive, for a lot of reasons. Chief among them that Byers thinks he could somehow take Billy in a fight. 

“What’s your problem? We interrupt your jerk off session or something?”

“Jesus,” Harrington says. “Leave him alone.” He claps a hand on Byers’ shoulder in a way he doesn’t seem to realize Byers probably doesn’t like much. “Sorry, man. We were just messing around. Hope we didn’t wreck your stuff.”

Byers’ gaze flicks between the two of them like he doesn’t quite take Harrington at his word. He looks down at his work in its chemical bath, wincing. “No, uh…it’s fine,” he says, obviously lying.

Billy scoffs. “Nice one, Harrington, you fucking jerk.”

“Hey, you dragged me here.”

“Was I just supposed to stand around and let Tinsel Teeth tear up the moneymaker?”

“The nurse thinks I have a wheat sensitivity because of you!”

“Um,” Byers says, setting his tongs down. “I think I’m just going to go to lunch.” He eyes Billy one last time, trying to convey something to Harrington with a look. “Do you want me to save you a seat?”

“Oh,” Harrington says, catching on. “Nah. No, that’s okay. Sorry again. I really didn’t mean to…” He gestures hopelessly at the trays.  

“Hey, don’t worry about it,” Byers says, infuriatingly gentle.

He stays put so that Byers has to edge around him to get to the door, reminding him that he doesn’t need a swimming pool to push him around if the mood takes him, that he’s being plenty polite right now. Harrington slumps when the door swings shut behind him, pinching his nose and cringing into his knuckles. “Yeah, that went well.”

“Not for me. Was kinda hoping he’d bite your head off.”

Harrington huffs, unamused. “Think it’s okay to smoke in here?”

“No sign says we can’t.”

“Yeah, but there’s also no windows.”

“Yeah, and no smoke detector,” he points out. 

“Yeah, okay,” Harrington says, won over. He scuffs a hand through his hair. “So, you got any smokes?”

Billy breathes out bullishly through his nose: You better be kidding.

“Okay, okay,” Harrington says, patting himself down. His face lights up when he gets to his chest pocket and he pulls out a lone bent Parliament.

“Well aren’t you just the most charming Boy Scout in all of Indiana.”

Harrington snaps off a perfect three-fingered salute.

“What’s this one made out of,” he asks, eyeballing the cigarette. “My homework?”

“You do your homework?” Harrington mutters under his breath. “No, look.” He holds the crooked Parliament out like he’s a girl in a movie offering a sugar cube to a horse. “Truce?”

Billy sniffs disapprovingly but takes it.

“Lighter?” Harrington asks after an awkward pause.

“Don’t got it on me.”

Harrington sighs. “Of course,” he says, world-weary. He turns and starts ferreting around on the desk for an unlikely box of matches. Billy rolls his eyes but starts doing the same, tugging open cabinet drawers one after the other, full of paperwork and junk.

“It smells like B-O in here.”

“Chemicals,” Billy grunts around the cigarette, pawing through a drawer of jumbled film canisters. “Breathe it in while you can, princess. That’s pure unfiltered Eau de Nerd.”

“Don’t you like, hang out in here all the time?”

“When Byers lets me.” He looks up to find Harrington’s not even looking properly anymore, toying with an old Pentax. “Hey.” Billy snaps his fingers. “Focus.”

Harrington puts it down. “Want to see something cool?”

“There is nothing cool in here, Harrington.”

“Aw, don’t sell yourself short, bud,” Harrington says, pulling him out of the way by the shoulders so he can have at the cabinet himself. After a few seconds of rifling determinedly through a stack of manila folders, he extracts one with a flourish. “Here,” he says, moving to sit on the benchtop, under the globe where the light is strongest, leaning against the brick.

Billy dumps a couple of empty developing trays on the floor to make room and jumps up beside him and Harrington takes his unlit cigarette back, putting it in his mouth so he can pass Billy the first picture.

He frowns. What the hell?

It’s a photo of Tommy and Carol. They’re standing at the edge of Harrington’s pool. The image is slightly out of focus, gritty in the low light, but still recognizably them. The camera has caught Carol in a rare moment of contentedness, smiling to herself, eyes on something far off and distant; Tommy the same, but eyes on her.

He looks at Harrington, perplexed, but Harrington just shrugs and passes him the next one.

It’s the same pool, except now Tommy and Carol are in it. Harrington and Wheeler too. All of them messing around, splashing, wet hair and clothes. There’s so much steam coming off the water it’s like a vignette drawing the eye in.

“So when Carol says Byers is a creep…?”

“Nah, it’s a long story,” Harrington says. “He was doing it for the right reasons, I think. Maybe. I don’t know. That night was actually kind of a mess, it turned out. For everyone. Except me. I mean, I thought it was a pretty good night. Guess it wasn’t.” He trails off. “Jonathan only kept the photos because I asked him to.”

When it becomes clear Harrington’s not going to clarify whatever it is he’s talking around, Billy inhales like, okay then, and takes the next picture out of his hands, squinting at it.

They’re out of order because Wheeler is still dry in this one, standing beside the pool with her arms around herself, doing a bang-up job of looking like she’s not waiting for someone to push her in—someone just out of frame. Billy smudges his thumb over the slick paper as if he can rub a little of the steam away and reveal him. Harrington doesn’t say anything, fiddling absentmindedly with the end of cigarette stick, trying to work the kink out.

The next photo is a closeup: a girl he doesn’t recognize—the one that drowned, if he has to guess. She’s alone, all by herself on the end of the pool diving board, face unreadable. He can feel the weight of Harrington looking at that one too, the silence in the room becoming gradually unbearable with the both of them staring a picture of a dead girl until Harrington wets his mouth to speak:

“You’re not…gonna ask why I wanted him to keep them? They’re weird, right. It’s weird?”

His voice—there’s something fragile about the way he asks it.

Billy shrugs. “You said it was a good night for you.” He holds up the picture of Harrington splashing around in the pool with Wheeler, holding a shoe out of reach, teasing her, smiling. “You look like you’re happy.”

He looks up.

Harrington’s close, eyes like two black coins in his pale face, fixed on Billy. His mouth is parted like Billy’s answer caught him off guard, like he was ready for something else. His gaze drops to the photograph Billy’s tilted towards him. “Yeah,” he says, frowning.

Billy can see his Adam’s apple bobbing like he wants to talk some more, but then he just passes Billy the sheaf of photos and gets up. Billy watches him out of the corner of his eye for a while longer as he ambles around the room in some sort of directionless funk, poking at a desk of disassembled camera parts half-heartedly.

Some of the photos have been ripped into pieces and carefully sellotaped back together. He knows this part of the story: King Steve, defending his girlfriend’s honor. And losing her in the same stroke, if his read on Wheeler is worth anything—if it really went down how Tommy said it did. He can picture the version of Harrington that did it; probably with the same cruel ease with which he ripped the page out of Billy’s book.

It’s strange. If Billy had found these pictures on Byers he knows he would have beat the shit out of him, but he can’t help but feel a pang of sympathy for the guy—the way he’s so obviously followed Wheeler around with his camera lens, hiding in the dark just to get a chance to look at her the way he wanted to. Which is, yeah, creepy. But sad too, if the dry ache in his throat is anything to go by. 

The last couple of pictures are of Harrington’s bedroom window—he recognizes the curtains, is shocked to realize what he’s looking at is the fragile shape of Nancy Wheeler’s bare shoulders. She’s undressing. And in the next photo—

His breath hitches in his chest.

The photo is such a patchwork of tape and torn pieces it feels natural that it folds in on itself in his tightening grip, crumpling into a ball in his fist until he’s staring at just his whitening knuckles, heart pounding.

“I saw you.”

He jumps, tensing. “Huh?”

“The night of the party?” Harrington says, not even looking at him, turning the cigarette over in his hands. “Out on the farm? I saw you that night. Or”—he snorts a little—“you saw me, I guess.”

“So?” He tries not to bristle. He knows what Harrington is driving at—that blank patch. The missing time, like a memory of a dream he’s been letting dissolve away a little more with every night of sleep, happy to forget. He drops the photos aside, cramming his hands in his pockets with a shrug, aiming for nonchalant. “Everyone saw me. That’s kinda how it is with me at parties.”

Harrington keeps staring at him.

“I figured you didn’t remember,” he says after a deciding beat. “When I saw you the day after, I thought for a second… But then you didn’t bring it up.”

“I’m holding my breath here, Harrington,” he says, slightly too strained.

Harrington stares at him a beat longer. He tucks a piece of hair behind his ear, a strangely feminine gesture—nerves, he realizes. “If you had to keep a secret, could you?”

Nope.”

“I think you could. I think you do.”

His pulse is thumping in his ears. The room feels claustrophobic all of a sudden; ten degrees too warm. “Whatever it is you think you know about my secrets, Harrington? You don’t.”

“What about nightmares?”

“Only when your mouth is moving.”

Harrington laughs humourlessly. “If I told you something, would you trust that you’d already told me something too? That you have to keep it?”

“What is this?” he says, cotton-mouthed with fear. “You want to pinkie swear?” He can feel himself getting worked up, angry. “If you wanna fucking threaten me, you better come on out and do it—"

“I’m not threatening you. Jesus. Would you relax? I’m trying to tell you I trust you,” he says, speaking with his hands. “It’s fucking crazy—you’re a total asshole, but you’re the only person I can tell about—” He fumes through his nose. “I just need you to know that…that I know, okay? You didn’t tell me anything that night. You just said you had secrets. You just said that you had secrets and I had secrets and you could see them because you had secrets too, and then you threw up all over the porch and tried to walk home.”

“I…said I could see your secrets?” he says doubtfully. 

“Yeah,” Harrington says. “‘I see you. I see you. You think I can’t see you, but I can.’” He drops the accent. “Lacey was there. She was really pissed. You were bleeding.” Billy touches his upper lip, remembering. “I had to leave her inside to catch up with you—you were already at the end of the drive. You said to fuck off and you were going home but you were kind of… I don’t know. I went back and told Tommy and Carol to get the Camaro and then I got in my car and went after you.”

He remembers it a little better now—the long dry dirt road away from the farm, the sound of gravel crunching underfoot, and then the slick black stretch of asphalt. Walking. The swirl of dust in headlights, shielding his eyes against the glare. He thought he’d been alone, but now he remembers— Harrington was there too.

He has the uneasy feeling Harrington’s still holding out on him. Something he said that night’s got Harrington thinking Billy’s the right guy to spill his guts to. And, yeah, he’s not a fucking gossip, but Harrington should know by now, Billy’s never not looking for a way under his armor. Even with the threat of mutually assured destruction he doesn’t half trust himself not to use whatever Harrington’s about to give him.

“I was blitzed,” he says, covering his bases. “I talk a lot of shit. Don’t take it so personal.” He changes tack. “This secret of yours...it got something to do with why you’re carrying a bat around in your car?”

Harrington blinks at him. “I forgot you knew about that.”

“We’re acquainted,” Billy says. “So, why you got Max’s bat? Playing softball with your demons?”

Harrington’s looking at him like he’s stunned Billy could be so astute. “It’s not Max’s,” he says. “It’s Nancy’s.” Billy feels his eyebrows shoot up. “Or Jonathan’s,” Harrington continues, frowning. “I think he put the nails in it.”

“Jesus Christ, Harrington. Just tell me.”

Harrington makes a small, frustrated gesture with the cigarette. “Do you remember that day there was that big storm? You told me I was alone? That I was sleepwalking through my day.”

He nods.

Harrington still doesn’t say anything for a long while – long enough that Billy’s opening his mouth to interrupt when Harrington says, “The night you came looking for Max.”

He sits up, ears pricked. Personally, he thinks of it as the night he got roofied by his step-sister and the local prom king stole his car, but he’s not going to split hairs when he’s as close as he’s ever been to getting an answer to the whole mess.

Harrington continues, “Me and the others and Max, we ended up in this, uh, kind of like a cave system? More like a sewer. Anyway. We went down there and—and there were these…things, down there with us. Like...big rats.” He swallows. “Giant ones.”

He checks for Billy’s reaction.

“Gnarly.”

He’s pretty sure he’d know if Hawkins had a giant rat problem.

“Yeah,” Harrington says.

“Were you…” He tries to think of the right question to ask. “Down there a long time?”

Harrington breathes out, sagging with relief. “Yeah,” he says. Then all in a rush, “Yeah, it was the longest night of my life.”

For you and me both, he thinks mildly, but he doesn’t say it out loud, waiting patiently for Harrington to build his nerve up to speak. He’s not an idiot, and neither’s Harrington, for that matter. He’s only going to get part of the story, no matter what crap Harrington says about sharing secrets. Billy’s plenty used to half-truths and he’s got all the time in the world for Harrington’s.

Harrington licks his lips and starts to talk:

“Things were—things got totally crazy. We climbed down this hole and it was—everything was just—upside down.” His throat clicks. “We got lost so fast and it was so dark, and cold, and the kids were scared and I… I was.” He swallows again. “I had this flashlight, and I just kept shining it on them, counting them, shining it on their faces, like if I didn’t keep doing it they’d just—disappear, get taken.”  

“After a while the battery in my flashlight died and I couldn’t do that anymore and it was like… It was dark in this way where, I thought it was just going to be dark forever, you know, like a nightmare? Except it’s real, and there are these kids, and if you don’t do something about it then—”

“When we finally got out,” Harrington says after a while, a little less wobbly. “When it was all over. Everyone’s parents were so mad. Dustin’s mom… It was late. We must have been down in those tunnels for hours. Everyone had—” He lets out a shaky breath. “And just—nobody came looking for me, you know?”

He finally looks at Billy.

“Sometimes I think if I’d gone down there by myself I’d still be... And no one would look,” he says. “Or when I’m talking to Tommy and Carol and we’re just doing the same old thing, laughing about the same old stuff—it’s like déjà vu, you know. Like something I’m making up in my brain, because I’m really still down there and I don’t want to wake up. So, you know. That’s what the bat’s for—why I have to keep it. That’s what my nightmares are about.”

The irony is that Harrington barely looks real himself right now, spooky pale in the dull red light of the darkroom, his black eyes boring into Billy’s, like a specter Billy dreamed up to terrorize himself.

“Pretty metal, huh,” he says weakly. 

Caves, sewers… Tunnels. He thinks about how Max had been poking around the storm drain in their street. Harrington’s story is definitely missing parts. A lot of parts.

“Pretty metal.”

The darkroom is so quiet in the breath of stillness after Harrington’s story that he can hear his own watch ticking.

“You just need sleep, Harrington,” he says. Because what else do you say to something like that? “You’re not sleepwalking,” he adds, softer than he even thought he could sound. “This’d be a pretty shitty dream if you were, right?” He points at the cigarette. “We don’t even got a light.”

Harrington laughs through his nose. “No. No, I know. I know I’m not dreaming. You’re not…I just, don’t think I’d be able to make you up. Does that make sense?”

He nods even though he’s not sure it does. “You know,” he says, careful. “I’m pretty okay with rats. Even big ones.”

“I don’t doubt it.” He can hear the almost smile returning to Harrington’s voice. “But, no. I think we took care of them.”

“But you have the bat.”

Harrington nods. “I have the bat.”

“Just in case.”

“Just in case.” He can hear people rushing past in the hall outside, talking and laughing, going to class. The bell must have gone some time ago.  “You’re not going to tell anybody, right?”

“About you and a bunch of middle schoolers going postal on some mutant rats in the Hawkins sewers? Why would I tell anyone about your crackpot story, Harrington?” He huffs. “They’d only blame me for giving you the brain damage.”

Harrington laughs breathily. “Thanks.”

He scratches his mouth, feeling funny about it.

“We better go,” Harrington says, tucking the Parliament back into his pocket and opening the door, peering out into the busy hall. “You still owe me a secret, though.”

“Yeah,” Billy says, deflecting. “And a black eye, remember?”

“That too. Maybe if I play my cards right I’ll get both in one night.”

That tight feeling in his throat again. Why is Harrington so interested in his secrets? Why would he even care?

“Harrington,” he says. The door stays cracked open. “That night on the farm. Why’d you go after me?”

Harrington pauses. With his back to the open door he’s just a black shape, profile seamed with light, his expression unknowable. Billy can feel him thinking, weighing an answer. “I don’t know,” he says finally. “You wanted to leave, you just…looked like you didn’t know which way to go.”

His hand tightens around the photo in his pocket. “You don’t want to know my secrets, pretty boy. They’re not something you can swing a bat at.”

“Maybe.” A soft snort. “But rumor is I’m kind of a crack shot. See you tomorrow,” he says, with a wink Billy can’t see in the dark. 

Chapter Text

His mom had been beautiful. A real knockout. Billy got his eyes from his dad but he got the rest from her. Her eyelashes, her smile; skin that likes the summer. She’d be really proud to see how he’s turned out; how his hair turned out, and his earring—she’d love that.

When he was small and she was in one of her romantic moods, she’d put a record on and he’d sneak out of bed to watch her at her vanity, fixing her hair and makeup, practicing her smile. She always put her earrings on in the exact same way: glamorous-slow, meeting his eyes in the mirror, and that was when he was allowed to come out of the doorway and climb into her lap.

She never cared how late it was, wasn’t stuck up about stuff like that. She’d sit and smoke at her reflection and stroke his hair, letting him play with all her stuff: her pins and Velcro rollers, the smudgy pencils worn down to nubs, compacts with little sponges inside. He can still remember the smell of her powder. The sound of the ice tinkling in her old fashioned and the little pink cherries she put in it the same color as her lipstick.

How’d you get so cute, huh?” she’d ask—their little joke—and he always gave the same answer, even after he figured out why it made her laugh:

I got good jeans.”

And yeah, so what if he didn’t get that apple-pie heartbreaker-type face that gets you everything handed to you on a silver platter, that makes people hopeless about you, but he’s got something at least—all the parts that make people look at you and like you without needing to know what’s underneath.

He puts the finishing touch on his best curl and leans back to admire the effect, winking to test his reflection winking back at him.

So maybe he got a little of that from his dad too.

“Can you stop looking at yourself in the mirror? You’re like a parakeet.”

Max.

“Knock first,” he says darkly, putting the cap back on his gel like a warning.

She rolls her eyes. “Neil says to tell you it’s seven o’clock.”

Oh. Well, shit. He frowns at his watch. He figured it was late, he just...hadn’t thought it was that late.

Max continues. “Weren’t your friends supposed to pick you up?”

“Shit,” he says, ignoring her, stubbing his cigarette out in a hurry, he casts around his messy room for his jacket. Message delivered, Max doesn’t stick around, sulky about having her tight schedule of painting her toenails or whatever-the-fuck disrupted. He tucks his necklace into his shirt, buttoning it the rest of the way up and fishing his denim jacket out from under a pile of dirty laundry to throw over the top. The rings he works off last—one, two, three— they get stuffed into his back pocket along with his wallet. He grabs his keys from the dish on the way out.

The door to Max’s room is open and he doubles back down the hall on a whim, looming over the threshold with both hands on the frame. By all appearances she’s flipping idly through one of her comic books, on her stomach on her bed with her feet up, but he can see the telltale lump of the walkie-talkie hastily hidden under her comforter.

She looks up with her chin in her hand, eyebrows arched impatiently. “What?”

He rubs a thumb over the doorjamb for a second, deciding, but then just goes for it. “You seen any rats since we been here?”

The eyebrow hikes a fraction higher. Her eyes skim over him derisively. “You mean besides you?”

Liar.

He pats the jamb, satisfied, leaving.

He still owes her for the other night. As far as he can tell she’s kept her mouth shut and no one is any the wiser about Billy’s little misadventure at the pool. His close call with the cops. She must have walked home. Or maybe she hitched a ride on a bike with one of her little friends. She’d covered for him with the detention the next morning too, letting her mom drive her to school so Billy could go to his early basketball practice. There’s a price for that too, he just knows it.

The TV is on already as he passes the living room on his way out—an old spaghetti western, thrumming hoof-beat track and shifting colors washing out onto the hallway carpet. His dad has his socked feet up and Susan tucked in against his side on the couch, her mending forgotten in her lap, the both of them engrossed in the movie.

“I’m heading out,” he says woodenly.

Neil drags his eyes away from the screen, giving Billy a slow up and down with all the dead-eyed interest of an alligator. He goes back to watching the movie. “Your friend lose his way?”

“Must have got a flat.”

Neil sniffs: permission to leave. “There’s beer in the fridge.”

“Thanks,” he says.

There are five cans of the six pack remaining; an old familiar brand. He stares at the empty loop for a moment before he takes them.

^^^

Carol lives in a picture-perfect single story on Maple Street, the kind with a freshly painted letterbox and a Christmas wreath on the door already. It’s not Loch Nora, but it’s still nice—nicer than anything in his neck of the woods, that’s for sure.

He spots Harrington’s BMW right away, tetrised in on all sides by three unfamiliar cars. There’s no room left next to it on the driveway, so he pulls his car up over the curb and parks on the neat stretch of lawn beside it. He does a last hair check in the visor, scoping the joint out while he crams his rings back onto his fingers. Other than the small crowd of cars on the verge and the lights being on inside there are no obvious signs of a party.

Mrs. Perkins opens the door on the fourth knock.

“So you’re him,” she says huskily before he can even reel off a line.

“I’m sorry, I—” He blinks at the bright green margarita in her hand. “...parked on your lawn,” he recovers, smiling reflexively, register dropping down smooth and low. The six pack under his arm is sweating cold against his ribs. “I hope you don’t mind.”

She makes a sound like, pssh, flapping a hand, margarita sloshing dangerously in its glass. “Not my lawn, not anymore.”

But whatever she’s on about with the lawn thing, Billy’s saved from having to come up with a reply by Carol suddenly appearing in the doorway, darting out from behind her mother—sprayed curls, big earrings, purple turtleneck—“Oh, thank god”—and grabbing him by the front of his shirt, yanking him inside after her. “Come with me. It’s bad.”

He stumbles over the threshold, flashing one last polite grin at her mother. “What?”

“You’ll see,” she says.

“You kids call out if you need any more of that dip!”

“We definitely won’t,” Carol sings back under her breath, dragging Billy through a door and down a flight of basement stairs.

He snickers. “Your mom sounds like she’s having fun.”

“Yeah, it’s margarita hour every day from four since she found out about dad’s new girlfriend.” She adds scathingly, “Marcy is in college.”

It surprises him. She’s never brought it up before. “Didn’t know your folks had split.”

She comes to an abrupt halt at the bottom of the stair, turning to frown at him, boggled, as if he just said the dumbest thing ever. “Um duh, because it’s such a bummer. Why would I talk about it? Speaking of.” She waves an arm in reveal at the lackluster gathering in the den.

It’s immediately apparent what she means.

The vibe is bad—too little people in too big of a space; keg untapped, a game of darts that’s already been won and abandoned. There’s music at least, something mellow and poppy playing on the turntable, but it’s not nearly loud enough to cover the lack of conversation. Just a handful of guys from the team—Parker, Peterson, Danny—sitting around on couches, eating chips and drinking beer from cups in near silence, their girlfriends shooting them dirty looks from out of a huddle at the corner bar.

The dip bowl is fucking huge.

“Hey, man,” Tommy says, suspiciously chipper, coming over to greet him. His eyes slide pointedly to one of the couches. “Glad you could make it.”

“Killer party,” Billy deadpans. “Where’s the team?” Where’s the rest of them?

“Oh, they already left,” Tommy grits through a phony smile, lifting his arm so Carol can slot back into place against him. Her face when she looks at Billy is strained, almost apologetic.

Steve? Hey, look who’s here.”

Harrington looks up from where he’s sprawled, boneless, on one of the couches, a noticeable two-foot blast radius around him.

He blinks slowly at Billy.

“Heyyyy.”

“Well, look at you,” Billy croons. His tongue crooks behind his teeth as he looks him over, predatory instinct tingling. “Someone been at the special punch?”

“Brought my own,” Harrington says, shaking a flask. “‘S’got m’name on it.”

“Your turn,” Parker says bluntly, getting up and side-stepping out of the way.

Billy flops down on the couch in Parker’s place, six pack in his lap. “What’s the deal, princess? Thought you were supposed to make this worth my while.” He surveys the small table in front of them. It’s surface is cluttered with empty soda bottles and chip bowls, tossed beer caps, rolling papers and mossy sprinkles of shake. “I’m gonna take a wild guess and say you smoked my present.”

Harrington frowns, trying to focus those big dark Bambi eyes. “I…did.”

“That’s fucking great, Harrington.”

“Um, do you want to try some dip,” the mousy-looking girl on his other side asks.

Billy ignores her, pulling the flask out of Harrington’s limp hands, seizing the opportunity to look at him while he takes a long swig. The guy’s put together all wrong tonight. Nice smart jeans, black t-shirt that’s too thin even for the weedy-warm stillness of the den—Billy can see all the hair standing up on his arms. He’s clean-shaven too, tender-skinned as a new peach but bruised with fatigue under each eye; his hair styled up and sprayed but too oily, coming loose in the front, drooping. All of it. It only makes him more handsome somehow.

“Hey, look,” Harrington says, squinting at him. “Who am I?”

He waggles his tongue, pink and wet.

Billy looks away, stomach twisting. He glares at Tommy and Carol. “What’s wrong with him? What’s he on?”

“I don’t know,” Carol whines. “Just some pot.” She waves a hand at the little pipe on the table. “A couple of my mom’s Percocet…”

He bugs his eyes at her.

“He said he had a headache!”

“I gotta secret,” Harrington says.

“Nope, you already told me,” Billy says, scooping him up by the arm.

Hey,” Harrington slurs. “I told you to wear a coat.”

“Bathroom?” he asks Carol.

“Upstairs. End of the hall.”

Harrington is no fucking help at all as Billy heaves him up the stairs, jelly-legged and heavy, swaying dangerously far out over the open side of the stair one moment and then plastered onto Billy’s side the next, hot as blood. It’s a small miracle when Billy manages to push him up and over the threshold.

“Oh my!”

Carol’s mom startles, coming around the corner. She lifts up a platter full of carrot sticks. “I was just coming down with some more snacks for you boys.”

“No thanks.”

“You’re so nice,” Harrington says.

Mrs. Perkins brow pinches. “Well, Steve, darling, it’s just some croo-di-tay.”

“He’s talking to me,” Billy says.

“Oh.” Her frown deepens, nose flaring. Billy almost winces, realizing. Harrington stinks of grass. His eyes are like goddamn saucers. Billy can read the moment she catches on as clear as day, lip firming into something more stern, tone concerned: “Steve, darling. Do you think maybe we should call your mom?”

Harrington laughs bitterly. “Sure. You got international dialing?”

She looks taken aback. “Oh. But I thought I heard Carol say... I see. I thought perhaps Harry and Jack would be joining us for Christmas this year. That’s...such a shame.” She looks like she wants to put the tray down and reach out and touch him or something. “Are you sure there’s no one else I can call?”

Harrington opens his mouth. “Ghost—”

“He’s okay,” Billy says quickly, laying it on thick for Mrs. Perkins with his most charming smile. He doesn’t wait for her reply, hitching Harrington up where he’s starting to list and turning them both around towards the bathroom. “We just need to get some water into you, don’t we, darling?” Harrington shudders against him, maybe because he’s just realized whose care he’s ended up in, maybe because he’s going to chuck.

The hallway they stumble down is all apricot-pink stucco, so plastered with framed photos of Carol and her family there’s barely any free space left on the wall. Baby Carol, toddler Carol, Carol in middle school. Carol with sunburn and an ugly bathing suit. Carol with birthday cake all over face.

They stagger past a narrow console crowded with more picture frames: Carol painting Easter eggs, building sandcastles, skiing, showing off a grazed knee. No medals. No trophies. The girl hasn’t won so much as a participation award in her life and her parents have put her pictures up likes it’s the hall of fame.

Amusingly, plenty of the photos have Tommy and Harrington in them too. Together at tee-ball games and school camps and sleepovers. The three of them posing stiffly together before a school dance.

For some reason it makes him think about what he saw the night of the party at Harrington’s house—the art on the long creamy walls and the big empty rooms. The unmade side of his parents’ bed.

He pushes Harrington into the bathroom—(more shades of pink)—following after him and dumping his beers on the top of the toilet tank. There’s a neat line of empty cans already on the edge of the bathtub and Harrington sweeps them out of the way so he can sit while Billy closes the door behind them.

Billy grabs a cup off the sink, ditching the toothbrushes out so he can fill it with water and shove it in Harrington’s hands, turning back to fumble the plug into the to the basin. The house is so nice the pipes don’t even groan, the water gushing out in a steady hiss.

He twists the faucet off after a minute.

Harrington’s motionless on the edge of the bathtub, staring at the cup in his hands. When he’s drunk it all Billy refills it for him and waits for him drink it again. He fixes him a third and cracks a can of beer for himself, slurping the foam off his wrist, watching him, feeling like he should probably say something.

“Your mom not so sick of the Hilton after all, huh.”

“They got a yacht,” Harrington says, like that’s a normal answer. He rubs a thumb along the rim of his cup. “Palermo is beautiful this time of year.‘S'too good an opportunity to miss.”

He hums apathetically.

“Your mom’s name is Harry?”

“Cece,” Harrington says. “Cecilia Harrington. They just call her Harry at the country club.”

Billy whistles.

Don’t,” Harrington moans. “Don’t, I’m not like them.”

“Relax, junior. I already know you’re a psycho, remember?”

“Fuck,” Harrington says mournfully, slumping. “Why”—he mumbles something indecipherable—“always in a bathroom. This is bullshit.”

Billy ignores him, finishing his beer off in one long pull and crushing it.

“Splash,” he orders, cracking another and pointing it at the filled sink. Harrington glares at him balefully, looking more sober already and pissed about it, face flushed. Billy smirks at him. “You want a flannel or something, gorgeous?”

“Fuck you.”

He raises his beer in a toast.

It looks a whole lot to him like Harrington gets to his feet out of pure spite, leaning heavily on the sink for balance while he splashes cold water on his face and the back of his neck, getting water all over the tiles. Eventually, he grabs a hand towel off its ring and dunks that in the water too, sitting back down on the tub and throwing it over his face with a wet slap, leaving it there, dripping. He makes a loud pleased noise through the cloth.

Billy just keeps drinking quietly, watching the water bead down his front to his belt, the collar of his shirt get slowly soaked.

“Neither you or Tommy know how to wring out a rag?”

“Better this way,” Harrington says. “Shit, I’m dizzy. Talk. Say something.”

He huffs. “Christ, you want me to sing you a lullaby next, too?”

“Metallica do any lullabies?” Harrington mumbles archly, a little of his usual wit returning; he lifts a corner of the flannel to peek at him. “Tell me something.”

Billy knows by the way he says it what he means:

Tell me a secret. A secret for a secret.

But he just—can’t.

He plays dumb. “Like what?”

Harrington gives him a look that says he’s not impressed by the side-step, but he drops the wet flannel back over his eyes. “I don’t know,” he says, muffled again. “Like, what about...when was your first fight?”

He shrugs. “First I won, or first I lost?”

“Uh, first one you won, I guess.”

“Donny Pesquera,” he says. “Fifth grade. Had a pair of cleats I wanted.” He can tell Harrington’s frowning under there.

“What about the first one you lost?”

“He had brothers.”

A pause. “Oh.”

Billy crushes his second can and starts another.

“You wanna slow down there?” Harrington murmurs. “You’re kinda looking at a cautionary tale.”

“Like father like son.”

It just comes out.

He clears his throat. “Someone’s gotta be in fighting form for that keg downstairs. Might as well be me, seeing as the King’s a write-off.”

“You don’t have to do that.”

Billy scoffs. “And let you take another shot at the record? Nice try.”

Harrington tilts his head forward, the flannel sliding off his face and into his lap. “No. I mean you don’t have to do that—perform for those assholes.”

He snorts, cynical. “Just giving the people what they want, Harrington.”

“They don’t care,” Harrington says bitterly. He’s up again, rewetting the hand towel at the sink. “They don’t give a shit, Hargrove. You do it and you do it and you do it the next time, and you just keep doing it and they don’t give a single shit about you.” He sits back down. “You try and change and they’ll pretend like you never did any of it anyway. Fuck this town.”

He tosses the flannel onto his face so angrily it flops right off. Catches it up off his chest in a flurry of frustration, throwing it viciously to smack against the wall. “Fuck! Fuck this town. Fucking—stupid fucking bat that gives me nightmares. Never being able to fucking sleep.” He sinks his hands into the front of his hair, pulling. “Nance was right, this place is bullshit. Only bullshit people live here. They’re the only ones who stay.”

Billy takes a long considering draft of his beer, wiping his mouth after. It’s quiet and still enough in the bathroom he can hear the tick of water dripping from the thrown cloth, feel the warm glow of the ceiling lights.

There’s a small window above the toilet. He flicks the seat shut and climbs up. The frame is sealed shut with a crust of old dirt and new paint and it takes some muscle to winch it open, but once he has it cracked a nasty chill wind whistles through, cold enough to sting, and he hears Harrington sigh relievedly behind him.

He breaks out his smokes and lights up, sighing with relief himself on the first draw, the nicotine sparking behind his eyes, making him feel tired and inside of his skin all at once.

Somewhere down below, someone slides open a window too. He smokes peacefully, listening to the drifts of talk and laughter, the pulse of music filtering softly up through the dark. It’s too cold for bugs, but the faint tap of a tambourine beat is almost like a cicada scratching its legs.

“I drowned this one time. When I was a kid.”

He puts the cigarette back on his lip, finished.

Then takes it out again in the same movement. “Not like, really drowned,” he clarifies. “There was this bit of chop I wasn’t supposed to be on. Waves for older kids, pros. The swell got really big. I was kind of into that shit when I was little.”

He clears his throat. Flicks a little ash off the end of his stick, hearing the invitation to continue in Harrington’s silence.

“Whatever. I went out too far with my board. Wiped out. Got dumped.” The End.

There’s a long pause.

“How long were you under for?”

He swallows. Just thinking about it, he can hear the rush of bubbles past his ears again, feel the saltwater in his nose, in his throat, burning in his eyes. That walloping red-black feeling of having to hold his breath for too long, his lungs seizing, chest crushed, desperate for air even while he was still tumbling, still lost, no surface in sight…

“Don’t know. A minute?” He snorts. “Probably long enough killed a few brain cells. The rip dragged me out a ways. That was probably the worst part,” he says, “being too tired and weak after to fight it. Having to wait for it to let me go. Getting further and further away from shore. The swim back took forever.”

“Jesus,” Harrington says quietly behind him. “Your mom must have been pissed when she found you.”

She wasn’t.

He just nods, smoke crawling from his open mouth on a slow exhale. A half-truth for a half-truth.

“The point is…” he says after a while. “It sucks. Knowing you gotta get yourself outta something because no one else is coming to do it for you.” Because no one else is looking. “I get it.”

Silence.

Then there’s a tug on his jacket sleeve, startling him, and Harrington is stepping onto the toilet lid beside him, using Billy to draw himself up, stepping on his feet, nudging him aside to get at the window.

Billy tsks, yanking his sleeve free. “Watch it.”

“Move over.”

“I was here first, asshole.”

Harrington ignores him, cramming himself in alongside him so he can get an elbow on the window too. “See that tree over there?” Billy drags his glare away from him to look. It’s just a stock-standard backyard tree; the type you put a swing on or build a treehouse in. Harrington continues, “I made it with Lacey behind that tree for the first time at Carol’s sweet sixteenth. Our first date.”

“Yeah. And told the whole school after, huh, Prince Charming.”

“Ha,” Harrington says. “No, that was Tommy—he’s the only one I told.” He sighs. “He’s my friend. He's my best friend; he just—can’t keep a secret.”

“Ah.” He remembers the throwaway remark Miller made in the showers about where he lives. How only Tommy and Carol could have known and how much it stung that it was them when it wasn’t supposed to. “And you think I can, that your point?”

“No, my point is”—he plucks the cigarette out of Billy’s fingers, and then—drops an elbow sharp into Billy’s ribs, knocking a gasp out of him—“I was here first.”

Billy hacks, clutching his side, sucking smoke in on a laugh. Harrington eyes him, smirking quietly, Billy’s cigarette crooked in the corner of his mouth.

He straightens up. Harrington lets himself be bullied aside so Billy can crowd back under the window, eyes watering, shuffling a new smoke out of the pack since Harrington is about down to the filter on his last. Harrington draws hard on the end of his stick, getting the paper to char so he can flick the embers out into the dark and they both watch the specs of paper swirl and scatter, tiny cinders winking out like stars. Pretty.

“How was the weed?” he asks after watching the last few sparks disappear.

“Phenomenal.”

He hisses jealously. “That freckle-faced sack of shit owes me.” He glances at Harrington to find him giving him a funny look, eyes all tired and whacky. “What?”

Harrington looks away, smiling privately to himself. “Nothing.” He scrunches his nose. “Well, nothing a little sun won’t fix, I’m sure.”

Ah, shit.

“Fuck you, Harrington. At least I can get a tan. Just you wait ‘til I get the fuck out of this shithole and find a beach.”

Harrington blows out a shaky line of smoke. “At least you know you want to get out of here.” He shakes his head. “Sometimes it’s like, I know there has to be something else out there, but it’s always…There’s nowhere else I want to be, you know?”

Billy grunts, running his thumb over his teeth. “It’s home.”

“Yeah,” he says in that quietly confounded way that Billy’s coming to understand means something he’s said has thrown him.  

“Doesn’t mean you have to stay forever,” he continues. “You can figure it out later, Harrington. You got options.”

Harrington slumps, tucking his chin into his arm on the sill. “It doesn’t matter. My asshole dad’s gonna cut me off the second he finds out I didn’t get into any of his colleges. Then I’ll really be stuck here.” He blows at a wet loop of hair frustratedly. “You’re lucky you can just leave.”

He doesn’t say what he wants to say. Lets it swell in his throat like a hot marble and says, “Get a job,” instead, sipping his beer.

Harrington coughs a little. “What?”

He cocks an eyebrow. “Get a job? Work. Get your own money.”

Harrington taps his cigarette on the sill, frowning, nudging the clump of ash out the window with a knuckle. Billy sniffs and bites his tongue not to say anything, deciding it would be easier if he just didn’t watch it, the fussiness.

“Maybe,” Harrington says, adding wryly, “I’m good at babysitting. I just, I think I want to do something different, you know? Something that’s just me. Guess I just don’t know where to start.”

Billy shrugs loosely, draining his beer. “Throw the dice for an initiative spell or something.”

The look Harrington gives him is one of pure confusion.

“Your nerd-burger game?” he tries. “The one you play with my sister and her friends? Dorks and Dragons?”

“Dungeons and Dragons,” Harrington corrects amusedly. “And I don’t think that’s how it works. You don’t cast spells. You roll for, I don’t know, skills or something. I haven’t read the instructions yet.”

“Whatever. Roll for some sack.”

“Yeah, I don’t know if you can do that. There’s like, Strength, Wisdom….Being a Wizard? I don’t know. Henderson told me it has something to do with what kind of fighter you pick at the start, and then what score you have. And you’re not allowed to just make cool stuff up,” he says, clearly put out. “Maybe you can roll for Charisma, but you’d have to have a high score first.”

“What I gotta roll to make you shut up?”

Harrington laughs.

Downstairs, someone with a sick sense of humor has put on that Foreigner song Harrington hates, the ambient synthesizer notes of the intro wobbling up from below, but tonight it doesn’t seem to bother him so much. His color’s gone down, Billy notices, damp hair drying wavy at his temples. 

He sniffles, taking the cigarette out of Billy’s fingers. “Don’t know about you but I could kill a whole pizza by myself right now,” he says.

Billy blows smoke out his nostrils, short and sharp, in agreement. Lunch was a long time ago. There’s nothing in his stomach now except beer. “What’s this diner joint like?”

“Think of like, Pizza Hut, but the food’s cold and you gotta fight Tommy for it.”

Billy makes a disdainful noise.

“God,” Harrington says, laughing, eyes falling shut, tilting his face into the cool air. “You’re right, this place is a shithole. You must hate it here.”

“…Not always.”

Harrington snorts doubtfully.

Billy looks away from him, taking his cigarette back and smoking out the window into the night instead, trying not to smile. It’s cold enough that his nose burns, but his denim jacket is snug and Harrington along one side is warm, their arms pressed together at the elbow, where Billy has his blood rolled up under the cuff.

^^^

They keep drinking on the way to the diner, passing Harrington’s flask and a fifth of someone’s gross peppermint schnapps back and forth along the row of guys squashed into the backseat of Parker’s totally crummy Ford Festiva. By the time they pull up to the gas station next to Freddy’s, he’s good and shitfaced, dizzy, and sick of hotboxing it with six different kinds of cologne.

It takes him two tries to get his boots out the footwell, clambering out after Tommy in a spill of cans.

Parker’s at the hub with the fuel nozzle out, stamping his feet to stay warm and giving him the stink-eye—(for voicing his opinions about putting front-wheel steering on a fucking toaster, probably)—but everyone else has already stumbled off in the direction of the diner, drawn by the promise of warmth and the inviting spill of light from its windows.

He flops against the car for a moment to light up, waiting for his sea legs to kick in, watching the others troop over the forecourt in a loose clump, shaking his head incredulously at the sight of Harrington amongst them in the goddamn nicest coat he’s ever seen, looking like he’s about to go tippy-tap-tap away at a computer on Wall Street or take calls on his car phone or something.

“Fuck,” he hisses through chattering teeth, trying to blow on his hands without losing his cig. Harrington wasn’t kidding about it being four below.

“Hey.”

He turns at the sound.

It’s…some girl. He vaguely recognizes her from the party at the farmhouse, before he blacked out—they were dancing together. She’s wearing an Iron Maiden ringer tonight, can of Schlitz in one hand, leaning out the back of a truck bed that’s loaded up with older guys; some of them a lot older, he realizes. Couple of guys with full beards.

They’re his kind of crowd—just a little further down the line.

He clocks the driver fueling up, wearing the sort of leather jacket Billy’d risk a knife for, but with a hard-pressed neatness about him same as Neil that says not to try, watching him with placid amusement, cigarette burning away on his lip. If he’s not Iron Maiden’s father, he’s her boyfriend.

The girl nods her chin at him when she has his attention again. “I like your earring.”

Billy nods back. “I like your shirt.”

She bites her lip, eyes sparkling.

The wiry-looking dude across from her leans forward, speaking through a long fringe of hair. “You looking to party?”

Billy spits on the ground, shrugging. “Think I might already be at one.”

The girl tilts her head to look at last of his teammates bottlenecked in the entrance to Freddy’s, fooling around. Some of them have their dumb letterman jackets on. Her face when she looks back is knowing.  

“You from Cali?”

“Uh huh.”

“Right on,” someone says.

“Sure we can’t offer you a ride?” She sticks her tongue between her sharp little teeth, smiling. Christ. Is that what he looks like? “Promise it’ll be worth your while.”

Billy smiles back, polite. “Yeah, I heard that before.”

“We don’t bite.”

“Climb on up, kid.”

“It’s a school night,” Billy says, sharky, ditching his cig and scrubbing it out on the ground with his boot. Fucking figures he’d find his people on the one night of the year he’s committed himself to good clean fun with a bunch of small-town assholes.

“What are you some sort of pussy?”

“Willa,” leather jacket says softly.

“Maybe next time,” Billy says, walking away, ignoring the half-hearted jeering at his back.

It’s too fucking cold anyway, he reminds himself, loping off towards the diner, head down. He’s going to sit somewhere warm and get the feeling back in his hands and eat enough mediocre pizza to soak up some of the booze he’s drunk. Cali was never cold like this; this shit gets in your bones. This is what it’s gonna feel like to be old.

He’s up the diner stoop and pushing through the door, smelling the grease from the fryer already, when he realizes the figure he just blew past is one with the exact shape of Steve Harrington.

He steps back, curious, to make sure.

Long camel coat with the collar turned up; smart leather gloves—it’s Harrington alright. He’s off to one side, staring in the window at something like Tiny Tim at a Christmas dinner, smoking. He barely acknowledges Billy when he approaches, only blinking permissively when Billy pinches the smoke out of his fingers and takes a drag.

Billy’s half expecting to see something horrifying in that diner window, what with the way Harrington can’t seem to tear his eyes away: a Wheeler-Byers date, maybe. But there’s only the team.

Harrington’s only looking at his friends.

Billy sniffles, observing. Nothing out of the ordinary. They’re just a regular bunch of jocks on a Friday night, clowning around, greeting each other with backslaps and high-fives, throwing napkins and cutlery at each other under the exasperated gaze of the waitress with her notepad out already. It’s so…inviting. So easy-looking. So vividly perfectly normal it’s like it’s staged. Like a diorama someone’s made for a school project. Tommy’s fighting Peterson over a laminated menu in one of the booths and he looks up and spots them, saying something excitedly that makes Peterson look over and laugh too.

Harrington doesn’t respond except to accept his cigarette back from Billy, staring blankly at the scene inside the diner like it’s something playing on TV, something he can watch but isn’t a part of.    

Billy…Yeah. He knows that feeling.

“Okay,” he says. He grabs Harrington by the shoulder of his nice coat. “Let’s go wake you up, princess.”

Harrington lets Billy twist him around by the arm, hustling them back over the patchy tarmac, the two of them legging it out of the way of the headlights of a turning car.

The truck is pulled up at the mouth of the road but the driver has his window down, arm hung out the side, tapping along with the beat of music in the cab, watching them approach.

Billy catches his breath. “Still room for one more?”

Leather jacket smiles slightly, giving Harrington a scrolling up-down, taking in his coat, his shiny white Nikes. The haircut. “Think you might be one off on the count, kid.”

“Princess here’s a lightweight,” Billy says. “She can sit on my lap.”

For once, Harrington doesn’t say anything, even though Billy can practically feel the drunken belligerence coming off him. The guy doesn’t look convinced even so, but then Harrington lifts his arm to show off the bottle he’s apparently kept a hold of, still half-full of godawful peppermint schnapps. And, yeah, it’s 90 proof, but Billy doesn’t feel good about having it in his stomach or on his resume, and he’s willing the bet Iron Maiden and her crew don’t make a habit of drinking grandma juice either.

The guy snorts, but turns away to face the road, truck idling as an answer.

He breathes out a muttered thanks and grabs Harrington again since he’s just standing there like a tool, dragging him round to the back of truck.

“Change of heart?” Iron Maiden girl—Willa, asks. “Thought it was a school night.”

“We’re honor roll students.”

“I’ll bet,” she says drily, though her eyes linger, disapproving, on Harrington, like she could half buy it about him. Billy wishes he had the time or faculties to get into just how much of an honor student, or even a passing student, Harrington is not. How he’s obviously coasted by on some combination of charm and pity and having the face that’s on his face his whole life. But it’s cold and he’s freezing his nuts off, and if they stand still for much longer Harrington’s going to do something seriously fucked up like try and throw a money clip at them.

“So, Rapunzel, you gonna throw your hair down or what?” he asks, a little gruff, hand hard around Harrington’s bicep so she knows it’s a package deal.

She looks him over coolly, sucking on her teeth, trying to figure out a price for the earlier brushoff.

“Kill ‘Em All, favorite track.”

“Whiplash,” he says without hesitation. And then, because he needs Harrington not to bomb, “But Hammett’s solo in Horsemen? Gets me hot.”

She raises her eyebrows, mildly impressed, gaze shifting to Harrington next like, and you?

“Um,” Harrington says, obviously stalling despite Billy’s best effort to cut him in. Billy’s hand is clamped around his arm so hard he can’t feel his fingers anymore. “I guess I’m more a fan of their new stuff.”

Billy’s…actually kind of impressed at the dodge. Even when he’s loaded Harrington got some kind of mouth on him. They’re still sunk though, Willa doesn’t look convinced.

Then, wonder of wonders, the guy with the fringe is twisting around in his seat again, leaning forward. “Fade to Black? I fucking dig that song, man. Right on.”

Just the name sends chills down his spine, puts sparks in his gut. He hadn’t realized that was its title. Fade to Black.

Fuck that’s cool.

Harrington says, “Yeah, that’s the one.” He relaxes in Billy’s hold, grinning slyly at Billy like he’s in on the joke. “It’s romantic, right?”

Willa sputters into her beer, missing Billy’s glare. “Sure, I guess.” She waves her hand. “Okay, passing marks. Climb on up, lover boy.”

To his surprise, Harrington bolts right up into the truck ahead of him—foot on the tire and up and over like it’s a hayride at the county fair. Billy blinks after him, trying to feel less drunk. He heaves himself over the side, settling between two guys. Harrington’s already drinking again, straight out of the bottle, wedged between Willa and some stoner in a denim vest staring openly at Harrington like he’s got to be some sort of hallucination. Yeah, me too, asshole, Billy thinks.

Willa mistakes his looking and quirks an eyebrow, producing a pill out of her bra. Now that he’s level with her, he can see how her blue eyes are eaten up by pupil. “You looking to roll?”

He wants to. Fuck. Fuck, if it was anyone else but Harrington across from him, he would (he could).

“Later,” he says, blinking slow so she knows he’s plenty trashed already. But Harrington just goes ahead and passes her his bottle like a fair trade. Licks the little white pill out of her palm as docile as a kitten, smiling at her after in a way he knows just stripped all the thorns off her. It’s hard to tell with how chafed her nose and cheeks are by the cold, but he thinks she’s blushing.

“Your friend’s kind of a square,” she says, eyes on Billy.

“He’s not,” Billy says, only sure which part he means once it’s out, but Harrington says, “I’m working on it,” at the same time, and then they’re just kind of staring at each other, too drunk to be anything but confused. He glares at his hands stuffed between his knees instead, hunching forward against the cold, the truck’s metal sides like ice burning through the seat of his jeans.

“Cali, huh?” the older guy on his left asks, noticing. He gestures for Billy to help himself to the slab of Schlitz at their feet. “No one tell you it’s December here?”

Billy takes one, throwing another at Harrington, trusting him to catch. “Yeah, well, the forecast wasn’t for fucking snow.”

“No snow tonight, friend,” denim vest says, pointing up at the night sky. “Too fucking cold for snow.”

“It’s bullshit is what it is,” Willa says, shivering.

“Yeah, it sucks hard.”

Harrington speaks: “I kind of like it. Sometimes you can see Orion’s Belt, if it’s clear out.”

Billy tenses, eyes bugging. Fucking Harrington.

Then the guy with the fringe reaches over and fucks Harrington’s hair up and says, “I love this kid,” and Willa snickers into her beer and Billy lets out a breath he didn’t realize he was holding. He holds out his hand for a pill, throwing it back before he can think twice, before the smug daring look on Harrington’s face like this whole thing was his idea makes him forget who he’s got to be.

Bad idea, the little voice says.

His mouth is sour and gluey with beer and tobacco and sickly peppermint schnapps, and the pill doesn’t taste like anything at all.

“Alright,” he says, cracking the can one-handed. “Let’s motor.”

“Righteous,” denim vest says, banging on the side, and the truck rumbles out onto the road.

Chapter Text

The streetlights come more and more sparse as they head out of town, the white-yellow frizz of their trails jerking between one post and the next like stretched toffee, like slow lightening, streaming past his eyeballs and into his brain as cold as ice water.  

Willa leans forward, tips something dark into his Schlitz, and time slip-slides forward again. He doesn’t think about it too hard. Keeps drinking, even though he forgot how to taste anything other than sweet a while back.

It’s against his rules, but it’s also past them. Some time ago, actually. Maybe when he took the pill. Maybe when he pried Harrington off that couch back at Carol’s house, his hand under his jacket, shirt warm, surprisingly damp in the small of his back where he’d been sweating, in a way that made the whole of Billy’s hand feel like it was going to be stuck there forever.

Now...Now it’s the first time he hasn’t had to think how to breathe since the day they rolled into town. Since that first night he spent prowling the neat, sleepy suburbs of Hawkins on his own with his balled hands trembling on the wheel, swallowing hard around his panic, looking for a place—any place—far enough away from their fresh start to just sit and suck air and try not to blub like a bitch.

But out here.

Out here it comes effortless, his whole chest filling up with it, cold clear oxygen burning over his cheeks, stinging on the way past his teeth, glittering in his veins and arteries, all the way down to his fingertips.

And there’s music: steel guitars keening from the cab’s open windows, torn up and lost in the barreling thrash of wind that pummels through their coats, tosses his hair into his eyes and mouth and the collar of his jacket. Definitionless noise. But it’s drums and guitars in the buzz of his throat, in his heart beating high and fast right under his tongue, in the pump of blood under his skin that seems to race and skip along with the knock and grind of gears.

Now he slides around in the truck bed with the others, butting up against leather and denim shoulders and jeering when the driver corners hard without slowing, familiar with all the fastest roads out of Hawkins even in the dark, even when the lights dry up and there’s just woods and sky the same shade of blue-black, and the splash of pale asphalt a few taunting feet in front of the truck’s high beams.

It’s a wave, he decides, tipping his head back to watch the broken center line feeding under the bonnet in a neon stripe, surfing the undulating black road out in front of the truck like it’s seven feet of swell. His eyes fall shut against the spray of saltwater, waiting for the pills to kick in.

“Where you going, Hargrove?”

He squints against the memory of headlights: a different night, the dizzying drunk feeling of inertia and the world still spinning: the silhouette unfolding from behind the open car door.

Harrington’s spoken—is speaking.

Billy blinks away the afterimage, seeing Harrington properly again—Harrington in his nice coat and jeans perched on the rusting side of the truck bed like the sum of every bad dream Billy’s ever had about him.

“Where’d you go?” Harrington yells again over the roar of sound, glassy-eyed and smiling knowingly. The wind keeps taking his hair and making it into new shapes.

Billy answers, tongue slow.

Harrington laughs. “Nowhere?”

“Yeah. Nowhere,” Billy says. He’s smiling now too. “Nowhere, Hawkins, Indiana. Surf’s great.”

Tubular.”

“Tubular,” Billy says with Harrington’s voice.

Harrington lurches forward all of a sudden, leaning over the bed of the truck, yanking Billy down towards him by the wrist, his pupils so big and consuming in his face it’s like Billy keeps on falling for the space of a blink. “I think I’m high,” he shouts confidentially, loud enough for everyone to hear, his breath a warm wash over Billy’s numb cheeks. “I feel amazing right now.”

It’s hard to roll his eyes and talk at the same time; his words come out as slow as glue: “Get a grip, Harrington.”

But Harrington can’t get a grip, buckling forward between his own knees, wheezing, his laughter traveling up the bones of Billy’s arm like a tuning fork, vibrating around in his chest, shaking up out of his throat.

“Stop it,” he says, high and breathless between laughs. He can’t seem to shake the warm brand of Harrington’s glove off him either—it’s goddamn embarrassing how much of a lightweight the guy is. “Leggo’me, asshole.”

That just makes Harrington laugh even harder, his knees hitting the truck bed as he tips forward, sending a spray of empty cans everywhere and almost pulling Billy out of his seat too.

Willa and denim vest wrestle Harrington back, up off his knees back into place between them. “Okay, hotshot,” Willa says patronizingly even as she slips another beer into his hand. “Save some for the party.”

Billy’s own beer is half-crushed in his hand from when Harrington unbalanced him and he throws back the last dregs, getting most of it on his chin. He ditches the can, idly wondering if he should go another. He’s somewhere between eight and eighteen—he lost count a while back, racing to black out before he starts to roll. Doesn’t matter so much either way, he figures, since however off the map shit gets, Harrington’s going to be the first one over the edge by a long shot. The empty bottle of schnapps is scuttling around in the truck bed somewhere as proof.

Their driver steps on the gas and the wind hardens, the truck speeding up on an open stretch of road. They’re really flying now. The feeling makes him want to crow, so he does—tips his head back and lets loose, finds the point where his voice cracks, the older guy at his side squawking out a laugh and joining in, howling. Fired up, he stands and—stumbles a little, a hand shooting out to steady him, someone cheering, the truck bed wavering under his feet, empty cans skittering—he does it again, not sure if he can hear himself or if it’s just the wind screaming in his ears, his jacket collar beating so hard against his neck it stings.

Then there are hands on him, yanking him down, someone shouting, “Far out, you’ve made your point, you psycho!” and shoving his shoulder admiringly. He flops down in his seat and takes the offered beer, fumbling it open, clumsy with adrenaline, slurping down silky foam to sooth the raw patch in his throat.

“You must think you’re hot shit, huh,” Willa says, her eyes sparkling a challenge.

Billy just pops an eyebrow at her in agreement, busy drinking.

“Well? Tell me.”

He smothers a belch. “What?”

“How’d you get stuck with PG thirteen over here?” She tilts her head at Harrington beside her. He’s nodding along good-naturedly at whatever burnout conversation denim vest is having, but he perks up when he realizes there’s more than one pair of eyes on him—guy’s got a sixth sense for it.  

Billy shrugs. “Parents won’t let him out without a sitter.”

“Hey,” Harrington protests. “If either of us ‘s the sitter here it’s me. No one—" he points a finger that lists somewhat in Billy’s direction “—no one would trust you with their kids.” He turns to Willa, tone changing. “And I am not PG thirteen.”

Willa snorts skeptically into her drink like, uh-huh.

“He’s right,” Billy says. No idea why he feels like he’s got to. It’s not like it wouldn’t be nice to see Harrington be the one out of his depth for once. He waves a hand, conceding. “Harrington here’s a grade-A, action packed, surround sound, R-rated crazy. A bona fide horror show.”

Harrington nods.

“Oh yeah?” Willa says, eyes alight again. “Prove it.”

He has no idea what Harrington’s going to do. Puke. Snatch the rest of the whiskey out of her hand and down it, maybe.  He’s definitely not expecting Harrington to turn in place, one hand dropping low between his knees, beer dangling, the other moving smoothly into the cropped side of Willa’s hair, leaning in close to murmur something in her ear with a smug glance at Billy that slides a fish hook into his stomach.

And the laugh that’s been building up gets stuck halfway in his throat as he watches Willa go completely still, mouth parted, eyes darkening, and finally a hand clapping over her mouth to smother her delight. Harrington keeps talking, his eyes flicking over to Billy again, smile turning downright filthy, and the hook tugs.

Willa barks out a disbelieving sound, looking at Billy now too. “Really,” she says, eyes sweeping over him, dry. Her eyebrows shoot up. “Go Tigers.”

“Huh?” he rasps.

“Nothing. You could have told me y—oh shit!” She cuts herself off, train of thought dropped, eyes wide, her bottle hitting the truck bed with a clunk as she lurches unevenly to her feet. “Fuck, shit, here it comes!” she says excitedly, struggling with the hem of her top. They all wrench around in their seats to follow her gaze.

It’s a car, a pair of headlights approaching out of the darkness, beams bleeding into long twin stars as it grows closer. The truck revs a warning as they near, music speeding, and Willa whoops, Billy turning just in time to catch her as she rips her shirt up, flashing her tits. The driver lays on the horn as they blow past—a long appreciative blast, and the truck bed erupts in cheers as Willa shimmies, the beams painting her torso a searing corpse white, sliding over the curves and hollows of her tits and stomach—over Harrington’s smiling face as he winces away from the cut of light.

Willa whoops again, jamming her shirt back down. “Fuck yeah!” She shakes her hair out, eyes alight. “You guys want to see something really crazy? Donny, help me with the gate.”

“No—fuck, Willa!” The older guy says. “It’s too dangerous—”

But she’s already messing with one corner of the truck bed and the guy on Billy’s left leans over, resigned, and unlatches his side too, kicking the tailgate sharply so it falls open with a bang. At a look from Willa, denim vest bends to rap on the cab’s rear window and the truck shifts gears, Willa lowering herself onto her butt in the middle of the truck bed, turning her gaze on him daringly as she shuffles towards the edge.  

Still, it isn’t until the older guy on his right nudges him that things click into place.

Oh, Jesus fucking Christ—okay.  

He scrambles, dropping to his knees, too drunk to feel the impact except in the way his teeth clunk together, his fingers catching the fabric of her top and the hem of her jacket to stop her from sliding right on out the back of the open truck bed.

She’s stiff as a board against his knuckles, arms clamped tight over her chest as he helps shuffle her out over the lip, half-convinced he’s about to watch her get sucked out into space and spattered all over the road. He’s holding onto her shirt so tight he can’t feel his fingers, her body straining to hold in place, eyes pinched shut.

Then the truck starts wagging from side to side and she hiccups out a laugh that sounds a lot like a scream, her hair escaping the neck of her jacket in long bleached-white streamers.  

Thank god she only last a minute before she taps out, a hand darting down her body quickly to bang against the truck bed before snatching back against her chest.

He yanks her in as the truck winds down a gear and she lurches up and back into her seat gracelessly, grabbing for the nearest bottle and taking a fortifying swig, her face stung vivid pink with blood.

“Crazy enough for you?”

Billy blinks at her, astounded, and still, in some stupid corner of his brain, he thinks: Not even close.

He doesn’t have time to reply though, because next thing he knows Harrington’s throwing himself down in her place, Willa cackling, impressed at last. He finishes wrenching his coat off and flops down on the truck bed at Billy’s knees, grinning like an idiot.

“No way, ho-say.”

“Please don’t drop me,” Harrington says.

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.”

“C’mon,” Harrington needles. “You’re not scared are you?”

“How they gonna crown you prom king if you’ve only got half a head, dumbass.”

“My good half or my bad half?”

Billy gives him a raw look.

“Just kidding, I don’t have a bad half.”

“Not yet,” Billy says, tone loaded.

A snort. “What’s a little road burn. Chicks dig scars, right?”

Billy swallows. Tries to sneer out an answer, pulse leaping uncertainly. Harrington has his hand back at Billy’s wrist again, burning. I’m shitfaced, he tries to communicate through it, like the reverse of when Harrington had infected him with his laughter. Shit always goes wrong with me, he pushes. I always break things, I always

“Hargrove,” Harrington says. His eyes are sincere, all swallowed up with pupil, gooseflesh breaking out on his exposed arms. “You got this.” His grip tightens briefly, a squeeze, a message—and he lets go.

Billy’s hands tremble as he digs them into Harrington’s side; one snarled in the thin t-shirt, the other hand balled around his belt to help lever him down the truck bed. Harrington sucks in a breath and lets it out, crossing his arms over his chest, smile wobbling. Compared to Willa he’s a real heifer, so one of the other guys sinks down to grab hold of Harrington’s other leg, and together they shuffle him over the lip.

Every afternoon of abject boredom spent staring at a wall and pumping iron is worth it for the moment Harrington’s upper body is suspended out over the road and Billy can take it. His biceps pull tight, engaging, shoulders drawing back. Harrington’s out, hanging, right there, and Billy—Billy’s got this. Billy’s got him.

Harrington’s tense at first, arms pulled in tight, following Willa’s lead. But after a few harrowing seconds—impossibly, terrifyingly—he starts to relax, going limp and heavy in Billy’s grip.

It’s all Billy can do to concentrate on keeping a hold of him, arms locked, not daring to budge a muscle in case he loses control. His pulse is pounding frantically in his throat as Harrington stretches, his arms sweeping up and out over his head, cautious at first, then all at once. He goes lax, arms hinged limply at the elbow, hands draping dangerously close to the road, all the hesitance leaving him in something like a sigh that’s lost in the roar of the pickup’s exhaust.

Someone whistles, awed.

Billy’s holding his breath without realizing it, bearing the extra weight. His eyes are watering with how hard they’re fixed on his grip on Harrington’s side, his shirt riding up away from where Billy’s knuckles are burning into the soft skin above his belt. His whole face goes numb, tongue thick and dry in his mouth. And that’s when he realizes that, yeah, maybe the pills have kicked in.

At a knock on the cab the truck starts swerving again, big lazy curves over the road, the center line zipping past underneath Harrington’s head. His face is ghostly pale against the wet sheen of the blacktop sliding past underneath him, hair tossed around in a spiral of glittering dust in the rear lights, palms turned up. He looks like he’s floating.

God, he thinks. God, he’s so much further gone than he thought.

And Harrington, Billy realizes, shock detonating outward from his heart, stomach dropping—

His eyes are open.

The psycho’s got his eyes open, watching the sky. Fucking—stargazing, probably. All the stars in all the sky spinning and sliding over his wide-open eyes. Not afraid at all. Happy.

Awake.

^^^

Harrington never taps out and in the end the other guy just calls it, up and drags Harrington back in by the knees, right when Billy’s starting to lose feeling in his hands, arms getting shaky, waiting years inside of seconds for Harrington to tap out so he can stop watching him with his heart in throat.  

Harrington sits up, eyes wet, far away. He sees Billy in a series of slow blinks, like he’s remembering him, his mouth turning up at the corners finally.

Hi,” he says, husky. 

Oh man.

The high is on him in full force now. A slow, unreckonable wave that buoys him up, skin buzzing, feelings swelling up like bubbles in his chest, just waiting for a moment of idiocy to come pouring out.

He’s saved from responding by the music cutting out, the sudden quiet like a vacuum as the truck slows and comes to a stop. He twists in his seat, looking around.

They’re in the middle of an empty road. No streetlights, no cars, no people. Not even a shoulder to park on. Just the road pointed forward and back, the red wash of brake lights and the mass of dark tree trunks pressing in on either side, the truck’s engine hiccuping softly as it idles.

He hops out the back, boots thumping. “Why we stopping here?”

“End of the line,” Donny says, hiking the last of the beers under his arm and hopping out after him. The other guys are climbing over the sides; Harrington too, loping out of the open truck bed, shoving his arms back into his coat.

“This is as close as we get in the truck,” Willa says, more helpfully. She’s rummaging around in a duffel bag on the truck bed. “Cops keep an eye on the slip-road. He’ll park somewhere else and meet us later—aha.” She straightens up holding a big boxy flashlight, the kind that needs winding up, that she passes off to one of the guys, and a paper lunch bag that she tosses to him. “Put one of those on.”

He frowns, looking inside the bag, enjoying the crumpling sound of it in his hands. It’s full of dull plastic tubes: glowsticks, he realizes. The type you buy loose at the dollar store. Lame, his brain supplies.

“I’m good,” he says, tossing the package back to her.

She scoffs. “It’s for the party. Just take one, you’re going to need it.”

He catches Harrington’s eye, his hesitance reflected perfectly in Harrington’s pained expression.

Willa catches the look passing between them and rolls her eyes in comprehension, “Yeesh, okay.”

She grabs a handful of sticks out of the bag and crunches them together demonstratively under Harrington’s nose, waving them around as they bleed from grey to vivid green and pink and orange. Harrington’s head quirks back on his neck, eyes widening. “Whoa,” he says, hand up reaching, stoned out of his gourd. Billy blinks hard, the streaks of neon repeating behind his closed eyelids.

Whoa.

In the end neither of them are willing to be the first to take any though, at a stalemate, both too committed to not looking uncool. Sure, Harrington is going to stick out like a sore thumb dressed as he is like a junior accountant, and Billy’ll be lucky if he makes it through the night without multi-limb frostbite, but appearances are appearances.

Willa gives up after a last offer and switches tack, sidling up to Harrington and exposing her neck for him to connect a loop of glowsticks around it in a pretty glowing band. Harrington’s so smooth about it, brushing her hair out of the way, like he did in the back of the truck. Billy’s own neck prickles at the sight, remembering the couple from in front of the arcade for some reason. The intimacy of it—that spun-out far away feeling like looking at two figures in a snow globe. Willa’s not some blushing dinner date though; her smile has a teasing edge to it. She’s playing some sort of game all for herself, testing Harrington’s boundaries, maybe.

“Gotta take a leak,” he says to nobody.

Seems like she’s warmed up to him plenty, he thinks, sour about it, stumbling off towards the trees to piss out of range of the truck’s brake lights. He has to blow the feeling back into his hands out before he can unzip. His arms are all messed up, sore and too light. He hears Willa laugh breathily, saying something like, “Look, now you can find me even in the dark.”

Billy mutters the words under his breath, not so sweetly. He’s not even her type. Billy’s her type. She already left her mark on him at the party at the farmhouse, grinding up on his leg, kissing lipstick and cigarette smoke into his mouth.

Harrington sniffs loudly behind him a moment later, fetching up at the next tree over and unzipping, time going funny. Billy frowns down at his own dick. He’s supposed to be pissing. He scopes around for Willa but she’s over at the truck, talking to the driver through the open window, waving him off.

“What did you tell her about me?” he asks. Typically he’s not one of those guys like Tommy who can piss and shoot the shit at the same time but he’s in the mood for distraction apparently.  

Harrington looks up. “Hmm?”

Billy nods his head back at the road. The truck is gone already, just a glimpse of Willa’s glowstick necklace disappearing into the woods after the others. “What did you say to her, back in the truck?”

“Oh.” Harrington snickers. “Nothing, nothing. Just told her you’re an animal, man.”

“…That’s it?” he asks flatly.

“Yeah, man.” Harrington sniffs purposefully again, but barely lasts a second before the laughter is wobbling out of him—that annoying nose-wheeze. He adds, all in a rush, “Hit you with a tranquilizer and you purr like a pussyc—”

Billy pushes him so hard he doesn’t have time to do up his fly, hands rushing out in front of his face just in time to not eat tree trunk. His indignant yelp is girly as hell.

Billy feels a dry laugh bubble out of him at the sound, equilibrium restored. He chuckles watching Harrington fuss grouchily, fumbling his zipper up, making a big deal of checking the soles of his sneakers. Billy gets a hot look once he’s straightened himself out. Harrington stumbles as he stalks off and shoots Billy a peeved look like that’s his fault too. “Try not to get lost without me,” he snipes, leaving Billy to piss in peace.

“I’m not the one afraid of the dark,” Billy retorts a while later, crossing over the road and into the woods, catching up with him a few yards behind the others. The flashlight skips and bobs up ahead, a pale stripe interrupted by the even black comb of plantation pines.

It’s cold—way too cold, but his blood is racing hot and fast under his skin, alcohol like fire on his tongue. He sucks a breath in through his nose, smelling crisp night air and dark soil, soft and loamy underfoot.

Harrington huffs, an exhale of frost, marching steadily at his side, twigs popping. “Guess I’m not,” he says cheerfully. “I mean, normally, maybe. But tonight…” He hugs his coat tighter around him, smiling, teeth and eyes shining wet in the moonlight. “Tonight I guess I don’t give a shit.”

“Uh-huh,” Billy says doubtfully. Even he’s a bit creeped out, out here. The others are far enough up ahead that he can only make out the hum of their voices, Willa’s pitched a little more shrill.

A twig snaps somewhere and Billy can’t say for sure if it’s come from them or the group ahead or somewhere else. The pines are tall enough and spaced out enough that they don’t really need to duck or even pick their footing, but every now and then he gets the urgent brain nag of a feeling he’s about to tread on something irregular in the murk—a root or a dug-out animal den. Or a skeleton...

Didn’t some kid go missing out here before they got into town?

Didn’t that girl get eaten by a bear?

Jesus, don’t think about stuff like that, he warns himself. You're just high.

Harrington bumps up against his elbow, catching onto his jacket sleeve. He giggles.

Billy misses a step, staggering a little. “What?”

“Nothing,” Harrington says, but he giggles again and this time it makes Billy laugh too.

The laugh turns into an annoyed groan as he tries to scrub the stupid smile off his face, cheeks rubbery. “Aww what the fuck, Harrington.”

“I’m just really…” He lets out a big sigh.

“What? You’re just what you drunk sack of shit?”

“Just really. Like. You’re just like, a simple guy—you know?”

Something rustles nearby, a twig popping again, close enough to startle, and they both jump and Harrington’s hand slips off his sleeve, his knuckles snagging against Billy’s. They both flinch away at the rubber-band snap of static electricity.

Harrington laughs a frosty plume. “Zap.”

“Stop it.”

You stop it. You’re the one going round electrocuting people.”

“It’s static, shitbrains,” he says, “It takes two.” But he grabs for him anyway, wanting to shock him again. Harrington dances out of reach, pulling some hilarious karate move shit to dodge his reaching fingers, his laughter turning raspy and manic, bouncing off the trees like music.

They stop for a breath and Billy feels light-headed, giddy, happiness diffusing through him like sparkling honey. If Harrington ran right now he would chase him. He could probably climb a tree after him if he had to. Everything smells green, like crushed needles and sap, the night so still without laughter to fill it, the trees leaning a little, maybe, only when he fixes his stare on them for long enough.

“I wonder why that happens,” Harrington gasps a little while later after they’ve both given up.

Billy snorts. “It’s basic science—electrons and shit. Because of the weather.”

“Gee thanks for the lesson, Mr. Mundy. What’s next, quadratic equations?”

“Like you would know one if you heard it.”

“Ha! E equals…” Harrington’s face scrunches up.

“Don’t hurt yourself, Einstein.”

He shakes his head, wide-eyed, smiling when nothing comes. “Wow, I am like, really really high.”

“And drunk.”

“And drunk,” Harrington agrees. He rakes his hands up through his hair, sighing. “But I feel… Do you feel that?”

“Yeah,” Billy says gruffly.

He’s shaking his head again. “I would have never done this, you know. Not with Tommy—before. We always. I mean it was my fault. I only wanted to go where I knew things would be easy. I always took us to the same places. The same people.”

Billy doesn’t answer, picking his way over a clod of turned earth.

Harrington waves his arms around at the woods. “Out here? Anything could happen.”

“Something bad could happen.”

“No. No, I don’t think so. I feel good.”

“Bad shit happens when you feel good sometimes.” He doesn’t know why he has to say it like that. He feels great. He does.

Harrington scoffs. “Do you ever have a good time?”

“I’m always having a good time, Harrington. No one’s having a better time than me.”

Harrington twists around, walking backwards, the doubtful arch of his eyebrow pretty judgmental for someone out of his tree. “Yeah, you’re the life of the party.”

Billy swallows down a disbelieving laugh. “You trying to start a fight?”

Harrington shrugs, spinning back around and only tripping a little bit. “Maybe. I really. I just…want to let go. I want to dance or something, man. Don’t you want to?”

He does. He really does. There’s a beat skipping just under is pulse, urging him to find some music, to move. The pill is fizzing away inside him, he knows, a promise right there waiting for him. It can pull him down and under if he’ll just let it.

He remembers now—that night. Walking away from the party. Drunk, his strides heavy and loose. He’d been hypnotized by the sight and sound of his own boots clump-clump-clumping along the neon line of the road shoulder, one foot after the other, programmed to just keep going somewhere, anywhere, so long as he didn’t look up or think about where.

And then Harrington had been there, behind the glare of headlights:

“Where you going, Hargrove?”

The ground under his feet now is just dirt. It doesn’t point in any direction at all. It doesn’t lead anywhere.

“I want to,” he says, catching the trailing thread of their conversation, forgetting what came before.

It’s too dark to tell for sure, but he knows Harrington’s beaming behind a warm cloud of breath.

“C’mon,” he says, rolling his eyes to shuck off the moment. “We better keep moving.” He shoves him by the shoulder to turn him around, hand lingering in case he trips again. “We lose the others, we’ll never make it to the party.”

Harrington chuckles but he starts walking again, matching Billy’s strides. “I don’t mind,” he says next to him. “This is fine with me.”

They keep walking, the shush of their footsteps soothing, the trees starting to thin a little—laughter and noise up ahead. Billy’s glad for the small time he has left in the dark, glad no one can see his face—how he feels, like Harrington’s just snapped him like a glowstick—lit up, all the way through.

Chapter Text

As raves go, it’s not the worst he’s ever seen.

He went to one under a bridge once. Just something he stumbled onto by accident one summer, hanging around the strip mall when school was out—coded directions on the tear-off part of a lost & found flyer. That couldn’t have been more than two dozen people, and some of those just the local homeless. More of an excuse for base heads to meet up and swap pills and tapes than anything else. He’d been the youngest one there by far and it had been his first time getting high too. He’d come to the next morning in a sand dune, parched, covered in bug bites, his neck smeared with tacky blood from his newly pierced ear.

He wasn’t going to let that happen to Harrington.

At least, that had definitely been his intention earlier in the night.

He’s sure he remembers deciding it, the mire of his thoughts crystallizing into a nice neat purpose, but somehow it’s dissolved away again, scattered, the beer blackout he’s been flirting with since they left the diner finally catching up with him, breathing down his neck, making a confusing soup out of things. One moment he’s playing Hansel and Gretel with Harrington in the woods, the both of them talking excitedly over each other, rabid and breathless, the distant clash of music growing closer, and then the next—

Bam. He’s at the party.

He gives up fumbling to get a spark out of his lighter, straightening, stumbling a little, frowning around his unlit stick.

He’s in...some sort of factory—is what he’s put together so far, taking in the vague shapes of dead machinery stacked up at the muddy-dark edges of the building, dull moonlight streaming in through a mosaic of broken windows, disappearing up into the rafters above. It smells rank, damp, like wet cardboard and rat shit...something faintly metallic that tickles the back of his sinuses like a burr.

The crowd fills the room wall to wall, a seething swamp of bodies packing tighter towards the center of the floor, more people than he ever would have thought lived in Hawkins. But of course they’re all out-of-towners—drifters from all over the county come to catch a show and party with their own kind. And the music...

The music—(holy fucking shit)—sludgy amateur thrash metal. Beautiful. So loud it rattles his teeth.

His eyes snag on Willa on the fringes of the crowd at the same moment as the music cuts out, feedback whining. Someone taps the mic, slurs an apology that’s too fuzzed-out with static to decipher and a groan goes up all over. Willa’s one of them, shouting something crude before she clocks him, breaking away from her group.

“Took you long enough.” She hooks bodily into his side, hands sleeking under his jacket. “Thought maybe you’d ditched us. Where’s your boyfriend?”

He blinks at her. The room is cold but she’s sweating already—been dancing, his brain supplies—hair stuck to her neck in damp whorls, makeup smeary under her eyes. It hasn’t been that long—has it?

He scrapes back through his recent memory, running the tape: the diner, the truck, the road, the woods. Harrington. Harrington licking up the pill. Harrington laughing, walking next to him. Harrington sharing his heartfelt opinions on his dad’s buzzkill retail leasing business, on the prospects of the Indianapolis Colts, on the list of foods he thinks would taste better if they were waffle shaped. And then…Then what comes after is just a big stuttering mess.

He thinks Harrington might've said something about going to 'yackitally tactically.' Had Billy been supposed to wait? Had he been waiting and Harrington forgot about him? Maybe he went on ahead and he’s out amongst it already, in the crowd. He had said he wanted to dance...

He scours the mob of party-goers, the looser scatter of people smoking and talking in small groups on the outskirts, his eyes peeled for a familiar figure, but it’s too big of a space. Too many dark corners and too many people packed together in it. An indistinguishable thrashing jumping mob of teased and permed hair and black clothing.

Willa might have been onto something with the glowsticks.

And then it registers what she just said and he feels himself stiffen, lip curling.

“Whoa, kujo,” she starts at the hard look on his face, laughing, but stops short at his hand on her wrist, wrenching it slow but firm out from under his shirt. She winces but goes pliant in his grip, free hand snaking up to grab him by the chin, squeezing playfully at his frown. “It’s just a joke, curly. Come on, come party with me. Live a little.”

He goes to say something like, I don’t do anything little, but that’s when the music flares up again, reconnected, the pounding shred of an electric guitar rending the room apart and—holy shit. His eardrums throb. If it isn’t the best and loudest thing he’s ever heard. It draws a smile out of him instantly. He only realizes when he catches Willa’s face and she’s smiling back at him knowingly.

People have started moving again, dancing, moshing, cheering—although it’s inaudible over the wail of a second guitar joining in, dueling. The sound moves through the crowd like a pulse, drawing them in tighter, faster. It’s a shrieking thundering wave that crashes over them and around, nothing to absorb it, racketing off the concrete and steel.

It turns the ecstasy in his blood into warm seltzer.

He forgets about Willa, swept up in the clash and kerrang, the vivid assault of noise, gravitating towards it like a moth until he feels her tugging on his belt, dragging him on a more purposeful route. He lets her weave them through the formless clumps of loners and loiterers, headed for the thick of it, the beating heart. Looking at the back of her head, getting pulled along in her wake—it gives him this feeling like they never left the party at the farmhouse. Like she’s been pulling him and he’s been lurching after her this whole time, through one giant unending party, and this is just the continuation of it.

Except then he remembers, and puts his heels down, looking.

“Leave him,” Willa shouts in his ear, tip-toeing up against him to do it. “He’ll be fine.”

He ignores her. It’s easy to do—the music so loud her words barely come together in his brain anyway. But it’s even harder to canvas the room from inside the beast, the crowd jumping, hemming him in, faces indistinct and hazy in the dark, streaked with glowing neon. None of them are him. He could be fucking anywhere.

“He’s a big boy.” Her voice is harder this time, lips moving wet against his ear. “He can do what he wants. Let him figure it out himself.”

And the thing is…

The thing is, she’s right.

This is what Harrington wants—what he asked for. This is what he’s been hurtling towards the whole night, letting Billy steer him, trusting him of all people to be the guardrails on their little misadventure. A night to not give a shit—that’s what he’d as good as said. Fun with no consequences.

Well, Billy’s made good on the half he knows how to. Set him loose in this anonymous tangle of people who are gonna rough him up and show him a good time.

And it’s not like Harrington even really needs Billy to look out for him either. The world—even this one—it takes care of guys like Steve Harrington. He’ll come out the other side of this just fine. With a bit of whiplash and a sore head, sure, but nothing he can’t shower off.

And Billy? A night like this is probably the best thing he could hope to find in a town like Hawkins: a small pocket of time and space where he actually fits. It’s a party for fuck’s sake—the only time he ever feels right. The only thing that works.

One of Willa’s nails scratches along his jaw, bringing him back.

She looks like the definition of a good time; her fucked up yellow hair, her dirty laugh, her tits under her t-shirt that he’s already seen once tonight and had pressed against him. She’s not wearing a bra. Maybe not wearing panties either. She’ll stomp all over his feet when they dance and not apologize—he remembers that pretty well, and he likes that about her too.

Fun with no consequences.

And now her hand is dropping away, impatient and she’s giving up, leaving, so he snatches at her, picks her up. If she yelps he can’t hear it. He spins her around—a quick whirl in the tight space between bodies—and sets her down again and she stumbles back against the wall of people dancing behind her, dizzy, pupils huge when they refocus on him, teeth pinched into her smiling bottom lip.

It’s him who pulls her this time, throwing them both straight into the crush of people, cutting a line to where it’s loudest, to where the crowd is thickest, most violent. That’s the best part. That’s the part he wants at.

The first few blows of elbows and shoulders, boots coming down hard, jars him until he falls into rhythm with them, jumping, pushing back. Eventually he can drag them no further, the diehards closing ranks, packed in too tight. He’s brought them to where the heaving is hardest, the source of the music a small mountain of amplifiers and two guys with long curtains of hair bent over their rigs.

They’re still battling, the same filthy unending riff over and over and over and over, bashing out of the speakers so loud at this distance the distortion is like a saw in his brain, an ache in his jaw. Then one of them rips out into a squalling, luscious solo and the crowd sucks inwards and out, a line of people breaking through, sliding towards them like a white-water rapid.

Willa twists, stepping into his arms, using him like a shield against the worst of the crush and he takes it all down his back, colliding with her in a way he doesn’t need to worry about, that makes her grin turned up at him turn sharper.

It’s still cold but in the pack of bodies they dance until he’s sweat his hair flat, sweat through his shirt, lost the last few buttons. Willa’s bracketed in his arms, her hands slipping over his chest. Someone bumps into him so hard his chin clunks against the top of her head painfully and she surges up against him, her mouth reaching for his.

He opens his eyes and closes them again and her tongue is stroking up over his chin, teeth latching onto his lip, pulling. He chases the feeling down and kisses her. He can’t feel her tongue in his mouth, it’s just slick wet pressure, as easy as the music, the feeling trembling down the front of his body, sparking in his stomach. She pulls away, turning in his arms, wrapping them around her, and they’re dancing again.

It becomes a game. He’ll manhandle her around, wanting to kiss, wanting the dizzying up-down thud of the crowd with him and her in it and the rainbow glow of her necklace burning warm behind his eyelids, then she’ll want to dance, to shake her hair out and grind her ass up against him, waiting for his restless pulling, coming easy but teasing away too soon.

He’s so thirsty. For her mouth. For anything.

The guitar solo goes on and on, changes into something else; something else again.

“I’ll get us a drink,” Willa mouths into him, pushing the words straight into his mouth over the alien-frequency scream of a Fender. Maybe he’s telepathic. He doesn’t remember speaking. His body is singing out, pulsing, wanting water, beer, anything.

Willa’s gone a long time. Maybe not too long at all. It’s hard to tell with the way one song bleeds and growls into another.

He dances with a new girl for a while but she doesn’t give a shit about him or care about how thirsty he is and when he tries to kiss her, her hand slams into his chest, pushing him away so hard he actually loses his footing, the crowd pummeling him until he finds his feet, the edge of his boot clipping over something hard and uneven, some fixture stripped down to bolts on the dusty concrete.  

The music finally breaks for a moment, his ears ringing in the trough of fading reverb, but inside the same breath it kicks back up again. It’s speedier this time, harder, frenzied. Not something to dance to, just raw angry face-melting sound. It puts an energy out onto the floor he can feel buzzing in his marrow, welling up in his fault lines—a cup spilling over—violence he needs to shake out.

When the fight breaks out, bursting through the wall of bodies in front of him, it’s like he caused it, like he magnetized it to him, and he throws himself into the fray.

It’s just another kind of dancing—a little angrier, a little more vicious. He feels so strong. His boots are trying to find other boots to stomp on. A pocket of space opens up a few feet away and a guy spins loose into it, throwing punches, snarling, and Billy squeezes himself free of the scrum to meet him—misses, overshoots, sucked up in a slipstream of bodies going the wrong way.

And then Harrington there.

They smile at each other in stunned recognition, Harrington caught brawling or dancing, Billy striving futilely against the current of the mosh pit like a cork in a thresher. Then the throng closes up between them again, Harrington shouting, jumping to keep sight of him above the swarm and then gone, pulled away—

—the tearaway wail of a high chord like an ice-pick between the eyes, his heart dropping inside his chest—

—and popping back up again, just a glimpse of him, a little closer. An arm jags out from the melee, seeking, and Billy doesn’t need to think. He grabs hold and wrenches.

Harrington slams into him like a fucking line-backer; Billy just about bites through his tongue on impact, crashing together into a wall of shoving hands, a stumbling tangle, holding each other upright, laughing incredulously.

He’s lost the coat again, is Billy’s first cogent thought. His t-shirt is soaked through and clinging, hair shattered in a dozen different directions. He’s already shouting a story at him, hands chopping through the air under Billy’s nose, stuffed in his fringe, waving. There’s a fresh pink scratch on his neck and his eyes are like two spinning dimes.

What?” Billy shouts back, right in his face.

He shouts something but Billy can’t hear him, watches as he throws his head back and laughs, trying again, closer, his chin bumping Billy’s temple.

“I’ve been in the pit!” he shouts. Billy shakes his head. “Been in the pit,” he tries again, more enunciated. His hands come to wrap around Billy’s biceps, tugging him away from the jostling horde at his back, bracing him from the press at his front.

“The pit?” Billy shouts into his ear in turn, grabbing him back, getting a mouthful of his hair. Harrington’s doing that magic tuning fork thing again, the music vibrating through him at every point of contact, his insides quivering like a guitar string that’s been strummed.

“Pit,” Harrington yells back, and pulls away.

He lets Harrington turn him, pointing him. Over the sea of heads he can just make out something—a tin roof, some sort of structure in the middle of the floor: a covered stair. Its doorway yawns open, dark and smoky, the crush of people spilling down into it like a sinkhole.

Nope. No way. Not the kind of vibe he wants right now. He shakes his head—Are you fucking nuts? And then, because Harrington is giving him blown-out megawatt puppy eyes:

“Bad idea!”

“Come with me,” Harrington yells, breath flammable, sweet as schnapps, wrenching Billy by the jacket.  

He darts another glance at the stair, his mind jumping back to the quiet space of the school darkroom, the red light, Harrington and his eyes big and liquid and black in his pale face. “I thought it was going to be dark forever…”

“No bat!” he tries.

A uncomprehending smile. Harrington’s eyes locked on his mouth. “Huh?”

“Rats!” Billy shows with his hands: Giant ones, remember? He repeats, stronger, miming. “No bat.”

Harrington’s head tips back, laughing wildly, grip on Billy’s denim jacket pulling tight. “You!” he shouts, shaking him to demonstrate, the force knocking their knees together. He pushes a knuckle into Billy’s solar plexus for punctuation.

Billy shakes his head. Without thinking he grabs him by the neck, pressing the corner of his thumb into the scratch. Dangerous, he’s trying to say, without having to be Billy Hargrove saying that something is too dangerous. And Harrington teeters towards him, dazed, and Billy can feel the jut of his voice box moving, swallowing, under his thumb. Realizes he has his whole hand wrapped around the side of his neck, his pulse beating high and thready under his damp skin.

Harrington thinks he’s harmless, is opening his mouth to say, This? This is nothing. And Billy’s not going to fight him this time. He’s not going to be the one to decide what is and isn’t dangerous, because apparently he doesn’t fucking know anymore.

Which, of course, is when some drunk asshole careens away from a group of headbangers and slams into Harrington’s side, pitching him into Billy, his elbow colliding sharply with Billy’s ribs. Billy hauls him upright and away, scowling.

I’m good, Harrington’s pat on his shoulder says. He’s already jumping up and down again, pulling Billy with him—dungeon quest forgotten.

For a handful of glorious seconds, Billy gets to just watch him. His eyes are closed, head banging, thrashing around in time with the relentless crunch of the guitarists trying to blow out a speaker. Christ, he’s even putting a groove on it somehow, shoulders and spine loose, hair bouncing.

Preppy prom king Steve Harrington jamming out to dirty garage spank metal:

It’s so fucking far beyond his control how much he likes it.

He knows the laugh that comes out of him is unhinged. He can’t hear it and neither can anyone else (although Harrington has heard it before, once). The music is a throb in his chest that spreads through him and it’s so good. So easy. Like putting his foot on the gas pedal, all the way to the floor and letting go.

He closes his eyes.

Dancing next to Harrington is different than with Willa. Harrington doesn’t need him, doesn’t tuck himself inside Billy’s space away from the crowd. He seeks it out. Trusts the heaving wall of bodies to keep them in place, bouncing into it, letting it squash them back together.

Billy doesn’t even need to see him to know he’s there. He keeps his eyes shut, slams his head down and back up, curls heavy with sweat. Lets himself be buffeted, staggering into hard shoulders, a spine ribbing against his back—someone behind him thumping up and down to the same beat.

He’s jumping. Harrington’s jumping. His sneakers keep coming down on Billy’s toes, out of sync, and finally finally he’s rolling too deep to care. He holds onto the sweaty crook of Harrington’s elbow. His wrist. His shoulder. The hem of his clammy t-shirt and the cap of his sleeve. Harrington is too much to hold and not ever enough. Slippery. Smiling.

Billy can feel the next solo coming on before it even happens, the chords bending through him and out, the soaring squealing bash of it when it comes like a kick in the ribs, his heart right there with it doing 220 bpm, tremolo wobbling in his ears.

And then there’s some sort of commotion—a shriek—a girl falling off someone’s shoulders, finding air, pitching down on top and through the canopy of limbs. Everyone able piles in quick to get her up off the floor, Billy included, and when he trips free of the chaos, Harrington is gone again, probably for good this time.

He carves back through the dancing looking for him anyway, finds the rusted edge of a massive steel pillar to brace against for height. But every face that turns to look up at him is the wrong one, a confusing roiling mass of strangers.

Instead, he finds Willa, colliding with her by chance as he steps down.

“Water,” she shouts in his ear, pushing a bottle up to his mouth.

He takes it from her, chugging until the soft plastic collapses in on itself. He tosses the empty bottle overhead when he’s done, watching it bounce away into the crowd, disappearing. Lost.

Lost, lost, lost—fuck!

Willa’s hands wind around him, drawing herself in close.

“Gotta find him,” he says even has she strokes a hand up over his chin, over his mouth, pushing it shut. Her skin is damp and salty and the touch makes him shiver all over, still thirsty, and he licks without thinking, pulling her in, seeking more.

He bends to kiss her, down, and down, until his eyes pop open and he sees she’s tilting her head away, creating a teasing distance between their mouths. He doesn’t want that any more. No more games, his hands on her hips say, yanking her weight up onto him, thigh sliding between hers. That gets a gasp, breath hot on the tingling skin of his lower lip: waxy lipstick and cigarettes.

They’re not kissing yet. One of her hands finds its way into the tangled hair at his nape and her eyes sparkle, remembering, fingers balling tight. His eyes fall shut. He probably makes a sound, pleasure spiking in his stomach, getting hard, finding the line of her fly to press against and rub up into and—

God. Christ, that’s—

Hands find his waist. She levers herself up tighter against him, turning the up-down jump of the crowd into a rhythm that’s something more grinding. His hands rub over the ass of her jeans, looking for purchase, trying to get her off her feet.

He forgets about the kiss, concentrating on the slow sharp friction of his groin against hers, his eyes snapping open in shock at the first lick of her tongue in his open mouth. It’s like closing a circuit, nerves lighting up, brain to balls. He groans loudly into her, kissing back.

He can feel her laughing against his lips, buzzing, the feeling spreading over his face. Ha-ha-ha.

He groans again, weak, no control over it, his fingers clawing hard, riding her up onto his thigh to get her gasping too, squirming on him. She moans, bucking hard and decisive up against him, her hand slipping down his chest, over his abs, the scratch of her nails almost making him lose it. She gets her hand between them somehow, palming him hot through his jeans.

Her hand tightens over him and she gasps, pleased, in his ear, “Oh, you like me again, huh?”

He barely registers her saying it, stuck on a loop of those nails stroking down his stomach, her palm so impossibly hot over his jeans, squeezing his dick like a pro.

They’ve found a beat now that’s just perfect, the sound like walloping, everyone around them moving with it, sinuous as a pulse in the semi-dark. She tugs his hair again, teeth finding his earlobe, scraping over the earring, pulling sharp, heel of her palm rubbing a firm line over his cock, and he feels his brain go loose.

“I like you,” he gasps into the bolt of her jaw. His forehead drops against her shoulder, rolling, eyes pinched shut. “I always like you.”

Laughter vibrating against his chest. “Yeah?

He nods, mouth smearing over her collarbone, hips circling against her hands so that the seam works against him just right. The music is pounding in him like a heartbeat, stirring the awful shameful words up inside him, coming out of him all broken up:

“I think about you all the time.”

He hikes her up, straining.

“You’re all I think about.”

He rubs his stubble against the warm curve of her neck, hands pulling harder. “I want you,” he gasps, like a sob. “I want you—so bad.”

She grabs him hard through his jeans and his jaw drops open, wet against her neck. He didn’t know he was so close but now the feeling is like the snap of a giant rubber band in his gut, his skin growing tight all over.

“I hate it,” he chokes out, face hot, rutting up. “I hate it. I—”

The cold air is a shock on his back as she pushes him, walking him backwards out of the crowd. He flops backwards when his legs hit something soft—an old two-seater couch. They’re at the edge of the building already where the crowd is thinner, where the music isn’t so jarringly consumingly loud. He feels like he’s reeling without it.

“Fuck, it’s freezing,” Willa hisses, slipping into his lap, hands fussing inside his jacket, her teeth already chattering. An awkward slide of limbs and tangled hands and she’s on her feet again, standing over him—“Wait here”—followed by something that he doesn’t catch. He just nods, watching her pick her away across the floor, disappearing behind a knot of danced out, sweaty-faced bystanders.

He shifts on the couch, wedged in between the armrest and another couple going at it hot and heavy. Silvery torn-open condom wrappers and steel filings on the floor at his feet.

He tries not to think beyond his hard-on aching between his legs. It isn’t long at all before she’s back, changed, straddling him with a knee on either side, settling her full weight into his lap slow, like a reward, pinning him down into the crusty cushions.

He’s thirsty again but her mouth is right there this time, closing on him, her tongue curling slick behind his teeth. He wants to pull her thighs apart more, yank her down onto him where and how and how fast he needs her, but his arms feel too heavy, clumsy, body sinking, prickling all over like a slept-on arm.

It doesn’t matter. He can have this. This will work.

Like a goddamn angel of mercy she’s grabbing his hand, no nonsense, guiding it down between them, down the front of her jeans, his fingers slipping slick over her clit and down, the angle too tight to hook more than a fingertip inside her, but it doesn’t matter. It’s enough. She goes loose on him, hips moving quick and shuddery, jerking forward and back, doing the work for him.

He mouths at her neck. She smells different under the cigarettes now, something warm and familiar that goes straight to his dick. It makes him crazy for her, his hips seeking up for friction, his breath coming out in half groans on her damp skin, and just like that he knows he’s going to come in his pants—the relief of it making him shake, heat curling low and urgent in his gut, hips rubbing up against the crotch of her jeans tight and desperate and just right. He does it again, the pleasure knife-sharp, huffing greedily at that warm note of cologne under her ear. His free hand circles around her waist through the thick coat, grinding up again, trying to nose in past the collar, to get more—

His eyes snap open as he jerks back away from her. She’s already leaning in again, out of it, mouth open for another kiss. His knuckles tighten over her shoulders, jerking her back.

How—?” His voice breaks, hoarse. He clenches his jaw, grits, “Where’d you get this?”

A snort. She brushes his grip off, trying to resettle in his lap, get them going again. But it’s knitting together in his brain now, even as he tries to pull it back apart. Too late. His hard-on is gone so fast he’s almost goddamn woozy in the wake of it, pleasure curdling, going cold like lead in his stomach. He lurches to his feet, dumping her out of his lap.

“What is your issue?” she whines, finally irritated.

“Where the fuck did you get that?” he snarls, half reaching for the collar of the thick camel coat before he remembers himself, snatching his hand back.

Her eyebrows shoot up, looking at him like he’s insane, and maybe he is. He feels sick, seedy. He’s definitely not rolling anymore. Or maybe he is, but it’s turned bad—real bad.

Oh man, is he gonna ralph?

“Your friend gave it to me,” she explains, very slow. “I told you, he left it with Donny ages ago. It’s cool.”

“No,” he starts. “You—” His stomach wobbles—lurches, his throat locking shut.

Oh. Yeah. He’s gonna ralph.

Her face folds, a disgusted smear as he turns, staggering away towards the exit. Thank god it’s close: a cut-out of pale grey wavering in the center of his pin-holing vision; outside, the wash of thin cold air and ash.

He manages to walk pretty normally around the side of the building, staggering only the last few steps and sinking down into a squat behind the nearest pile of scrap. He braces against the wall, breathing hard, staring at the packed dirt.

Nothing comes when he tries to retch, his stomach twisting over empty.

It’s cool it’s cool it’s cool, a voice is chanting in his head—Willa’s words. “It’s cool.”

Inside the warehouse the music is still thumping, crashing out into the frigid night.

Just breathe, he tells himself, temples pounding, counting a rhythm, better with each claggy rasp of air. He’s not a pussy. He’s not going to puke. He’s high. He’s having a good time. He just needs to wait for the world to stop spinning, for the ground to stop tilting so much between his knees…

Slowly it dawns on him that he’s okay; the rough brick icy under his palms, cold stroking the skin of his lower back where his jacket is rucked. The vice grip of nausea has receded, enough to stand, which he does, blinking the last of the dizziness away, scrubbing a hand over his mouth.

Something metallic crunches underfoot when he rounds the corner, a can skittering, heads turning at the noise. Despite what Willa had told them about the truck not being able to get close enough to park, there are a few cars pulled up in the gravelly clearing out front. A loose circle of hard-faced older types hanging out beside them, swapping cigarettes. Having conversations that Billy definitely doesn’t want to be his business.

He kicks the can out of his way, deliberate this time so they know he’s not sneaking, head down. But as he reaches the door his eyes snag on a leather jacket familiar in a way that snags at his attention.

It’s their driver. He’s sure Willa called him something earlier in the night—one of those instantly forgettable names.

He’s at the edge of the clearing, a little further out than the others, and he’s with the cops.

Billy stills.

The three of them are talking, smoking, shooting the shit in a way that looks polite enough from afar—but it’s not right. There’s too big of a distance between them. The younger fuzz a few paces off is stone-faced, tense, not bothering to pretend.

Leather jacket murmurs something and the older cop, the chief—Hopper, Billy remembers—chuckles drily and puts his cigarette out. Does a cop scan. And his eyes land on Billy.

Billy backs up, quick as he can.

No one inside the factory is any the wiser, the party now in full swing, crowd beating up against the walls. The smoke is so thick after the clear air of outside it’s like a film he wants to rub out of his eyes.

He doesn’t waste any time strategizing. Way he figures it, he’s got about two minutes before those cops decide they’ve got grounds to be in here looking for underage drinkers, so he plunges right in, cutting the rudest line he dares straight through the center of the dancing, stumbling, craning his neck to look back at the open door, eyes fixed like he can stop them from coming bursting in just so long as he keeps looking. And then he can’t see it anymore anyway, swallowed up in the press of people.

Everyone he pushes past—grabs at, turns—could be Harrington. Guys with similar builds, pale faces, dark eyes catching his—doped and surprised and hostile as he elbows and shoulders them aside. He already knows they’re not him though. He knows where he’ll be.

He’s almost made it to the stair when the first ripple reaches him.

Someone yelps, just a little higher than the bending scream of guitars. A girl pushes into him, drink slopping down his front and he pushes her away, rocking up on his toes, looking back towards the door, and now there’s a flashlight, sweeping.

Shit.

A few other heads start to turn.

He drops back down, trying to pull his thoughts together, the one half of him screaming to run, to find an exit ahead of the crowd, and the other saying, Down. You’ve got to go—

Down.

The dark maw of the stair is right in front of him. There’s a group wedged in the entrance, a bottleneck, people feeding down and others coming up, emerging wild-eyed and battered. Scratched up.

The pit. It might not be a sewer, but Harrington’s baby psycho bat sure would come in handy right about now.

He bulls through the mess of people at the entrance, the push-back furious, ribs horribly compressed for one moment, breathing again when his hand snags onto a rail and he pulls himself after it. His foot has barely found the first step before someone is shoving him from behind, urging him down faster. Billy shrugs them off, throwing his weight around properly now, shoving the slower ones out of his way as he descends.  

It’s too dark to see but there’s a guitar grunting down here too, slower, grungierless skilled. Distortion yowling, drawing the walls and ceiling in closer in the pitch black, suffocating, stinking of weed and sweat.

His feet hit the bottom stair at the same time as the first slice of a flashlight cuts across the room illuminating a writhing swath of faces wreathed in smoke.

The music dies in a series of ugly disconnecting crunches—the ear-splitting thump of a pulled aux cord—the space suddenly full of the clump of shifting feet and the dull roar of protest, clamoring for sound.

The light carves a figure eight over the sea of heads and Billy follows it desperately, struggling to make headway against the rift of people sober enough to realize what’s happening, driving back towards the stair.

The light sweeps through the crowd again, hunting. It doesn’t matter if the cops don’t find who they’re after—this place is a fucking fire hazard if ever he saw one, he thinks, following it. And then—

Then, there he is—just one turned head among many, for just one split second, pale and glassy-faced in the trembling corona of light, squinting. His eyes find Billy’s, or maybe he’s seeing nothing at all, blinded, mouth making a shape—and then he’s gone, lost in the anonymous darkness as the flashlight moves on, stroking over new faces.

“Cops!” someone bellows, finally, loud enough over the din of storming feet and shouting that it carries, a cry going up, panic catching. All over people are calling for each other in the dark, jumping, waving glowsticks like tokens.

It’s pandemonium.

The crowd surges towards the stair. Crashes against and around him like a wave, and then he’s among it: hot breath and panicked shouting, the crowd seething in on every side, a cacophony of noise without music.

He drives forward against the fleeing tide. A shoulder clips into him hard and he trips, spun, struggling for clear footing, coming down on something alive and spongy—an annoyed smack of hands on his chest. Someone latches onto him, paws at his wrist, seeking, and away.

Another weaving flashlight, sparking over him this time, sharp in his eyes. He winces, ducking, working himself further into the room. There’s cursing. Laughter: stoners and punks and degenerates enjoying the turmoil—the chaos—and he’s one of them. Letting the rush of bodies squash and batter him upstream, shoulders clipping, turning him around and around and around. He doesn’t care, keeps pushing his way forwards and through, disoriented, grinning. Lost, but it doesn’t matter.

In the dark they’ll find each other.