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I Don't Care

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12th November, Monday

Seeing your ex making out with her new boyfriend on your first day back at school wasn't what Steve had in mind to start an average day. The first lesson was chemistry, and Steve hated chemistry. He slammed the door of his car shut. Trying to ignore Nancy and Jonathan. Shouldn't they be in class already? His father had been droning on about the importance of having good grades at the breakfast table. Lowering Steve's mood to rock bottom.

When he walked inside school he was surprised that everyone was still standing in the hall. Hadn't he been late? Checking the clock on the wall he noticed that he still had a few minutes left. His head hurting slightly when he focused on the numbers.

“Harrington?” The last person he wanted to see had spotted him. Billy, as if this day couldn't get any worse.

“Haven't seen you for a while.”

“Well, a certain someone bashed my head in”, Steve turned to his locker.

“When are you coming back to practice?” Normally Steve avoided confrontation at any costs, especially if it came from people that had beaten him inches of his life, but today he didn't care.

“Never, the doctor said I can't play basketball for a couple of months.”

“Oh...”, Billy sounded like he genuinely cared. Steve zipped his backpack open, handing the jacket, Billy had lent him, over.

“Thank you”, he said through gritted teeth. Billy nodded, still standing next to Steve. Blocking his path to class. Nervously biting his lip.

“Listen Steve, I'm sorry I hit you...”

“Because of you I'm going to fail classes, and my father is already mad. Leave me and the kids alone!”, Steve shoved him away, his heart beating hard as he expected Billy to come after him, and give him the next concussion. To his surprise Billy let him get away. All the other jocks stepping away, and even Tommy not saying anything when he spotted Steve.

Chemistry went down as expected. All the numbers and equations meaning nothing to him. It's a subject that reminds him of Nancy and her wanting to learn for that test. That leads his thoughts to Barb. Nancy, the only girl he really fell for. Why did he care? And why did Barb have to disappear at his house?

“Harrington?! Harrington, are you feeling alright?”, his teacher's voice pulled him out of his thoughts. “I think you should go to the school nurse. You're looking too pale”, his teacher decided.

When he stood up he felt dizzy. Steve didn't head to the school nurse. She would have said the same as the doctor already told him, bed rest. But he had been bored out of his mind, that's why he had decided to go to school. Maybe a week had been to short. But staying at home just drove him up the walls. Especially after his mother had gone back to work. She had stayed with him throughout the weekend. Hopper had called last week, telling him he had spoken with Dr. Owens, and the bite as well as the spores, all the kids had breathed in back at the tunnels, wouldn't have any lasting effects. Steve swayed and leaned against the wall. Willing the world to steady its self.

“Are you okay”, the sudden voice made him jump.

“Sorry.”

“What are you doing here?”, Steve asked Billy. The other boy smiled slyly, leaning against the wall opposite of Steve.

“I may have pulled a girl's hair.”

“Of course you have”, Steve muttered.

“Haven't you done that before?”

“Yeah, when I was eight.”

“Touché...What are you doing here then? If you allegedly didn't pull anyone's hair.”

“None of your business”, a spiking pain went through his skull.

“Are you okay? I can drive you home if you want to.”

“I am fine”, Steve lied, the last thing he wanted was Billy taking him home. He pushed himself away from the wall, loosing balance immediately.

“Whoa...slow down”, Billy's strong arms steadying him. Steve didn't have the energy to fight, and let himself be led to Billy's car. To his surprise Billy for once didn't let his engine howl, but started the vehicle like a normal human-being. Driving with a normal speed.

“Why did you give me your jacket?”, Steve asked.

“What?”

“Max told me you never give your jacket away. Why did you leave your jacket with me?”

Billy shrugged, “Because you were freezing.”

“Why did you help me when I freaked out?”

“I was out of line.” He must be dreaming. Billy fucking Hargrove would never say he was out of line.

“Pardon?”

“Don't make me repeat myself, Harrington. You just stood up for a shitty kid, and I beat the living daylights out of you. You didn't deserve that, not after all the shit you went through.”

“Oh”, his brain searching for words, but he had nothing. They fell into silence, as Steve tried to wrap his head around the growing enigma of Billy.

“Your folks aren't home?”, Billy stopped the car.

“No, my parents are working they'll be gone for the next two weeks.”

A hint of worry in Billy's eyes, “Are you gonna be okay?”

“Sure”, he reached for the door.

“If you ever freak out again, or whatever happens...You can...can talk to me. I will never beat you up again, promise.” His hand wavered, should he tell Billy how terrified he had been since that eventful night? That Billy had been the least of his problems. But maybe this was a trap. Maybe Billy wanted his trust just to stab him in the back. Act like he cared just to break his heart the same way Nancy did. Steve shook his head, where did that thought come from?

“Thanks...for the ride”, he stepped outside. Billy waved and this time he did let his engine howl, gravel nearly hitting Steve as he sped off.

“You're bullshit”, Nancy's words echoing in his head as he headed into the deserted house.

 

8th December, Saturday

A month had passed since Steve had been nearly killed by a demodog, he stood outside of the Byers' house itching to get back to his car and get the baseball bat, his hands trembling slightly when he knocked.

“Steve, the kids are already expecting you”, Joyce gave him a warm smile and led him inside. He stopped dead in his tracks. Taking in the tidy house. He'd never been there when it had been any other state than total disarray. Now it almost looked nice, homey. The fridge had been replaced and the only remains of the events that had taken place here was the slightly darker wood in front of the fridge.

“Steve?”, Joyce softly put a hand on his shoulder, pulling him back.

“Steve”, Dustin shouted, rushing towards him, “We thought you had died”, the boy squeezed him tightly.

“No, I didn't”, he tried to laugh, but his voice was far too shaky when he stood in the exact same spot where both Dustin and he himself had nearly lost their lives.

“Where were you?”, Mike asked.

“Sorry I couldn't make it, I....”

“Give him a break!”, Max interrupted, “He had a concussion, that takes ages to get better.” Part of Steve was happy that Max came to the rescue the other part of him was worried that she even knew this much about concussions. Even he knew too much about concussions let alone a 13-year-old girl.

“Does your head still hurt?”, Dustin asked.

“A bit.”

The boy frowned then turned to his friends, “No shouting today.”

“You were shouting the entire time, we weren't”, Lucas pointed out. Steve sat down on the couch next to El who gave him a shy smile. Her eyes bright no smudges or dark circles around them. Hair in curls giving her a younger, more innocent look.

“Hopper let you go outside?”

“Yes. When I don't cause trouble, or draw attention. Your mum?”

Steve laughed, “Yeah, my mum allowed me to go outside.”

“She was sad.”

“Just worried because I hurt myself.”

El nodded, “He was worried as well.”

“People that love you are often worried.”

“Are friends as well?”

“Yes, they are.” She nodded again, eyes locking with his, as if she was trying to decipher him, but he wasn't sure what she wanted to discern.

“Do you want some cake, Steve?”, Dustin let himself fall onto the couch. Balancing a plate loaded with pastries. His stomach still felt strange. Steve chalked it up to nerves.

“No thanks.”

“You know, Mr. Clark didn't believe me when I told him that we discovered a new species”, Dustin complained, “I want another Dart.”

“What?”, Steve said a little too loud, now everyone had turned their heads, attention on him. “It nearly killed us.”

“Dart didn't!”

“Yeah, but his friends, or did you somehow fail to notice that?”

Dustin shrugged, “It would have been nice to show some evidence that's all.”

“When are we going to start the new campaign?”, Lucas asked Mike.

“Well, first I have to explain El how the game works. Maybe during Christmas break.”

“Is anybody going away over Christmas?” The kids shook their heads as Mike consulted the calender hanging in the living room. “Okay, maybe after Christmas Day.”

Steve heard the rumouring of the fridge, quickly looking over his shoulder. The door stayed firmly shut, no monster banging from the inside. Fear crept up on him. The neverending fear lurking behind every corner, every shadow. Making it hard to breathe and think.

“Earth to Steve, are you there?”, Dustin clapped his hands in front of Steve's face making him and El jump.

“What?!”

“You zoned out...Are you okay?”, Dustin asked, glance directed at Steve's trembling hands.

“I just... Aren't any of you a bit spooked being here.”

“At Will's house? Why should we be spooked?”, Lucas asked.

“Because Billy almost choked you here, and the demodog jumped Dustin...Oh, and you know a freaking enormous demogorgon drooled all over Jonathan and then nearly attacked Nancy. And before all that even happened Nancy pointed a gun at me....An actual loaded gun at me! Excuse me for being a little bit unsettled.”

Silence, then Mike asked,”My sister pointed a loaded gun at you? What did you do?”, something almost akin to respect in his eyes.

“She wanted me to go away.”

“Demogorgons can be scary”, El softly said.

“Finally, someone who agrees. Thank you.”

“It's over now”, Dustin said off-handedly.

“Until next year”, Steve muttered.

“The only one who really hurt you was Billy, so actually you should be scared of Billy not a demodog.”

“Billy's actually being nice.”

Max choked on her soda, “What? Billy's never nice...Well, I guess he's nice to his girlfriends, but that's it.” Steve decided to ignore the implication that Billy could see him as a girlfriend.

“Don't bring Billy to the party. We're overfilled as it is”, Mike anxiously threw in.

“I won't”, as if macho Billy would care for a D&D nerd club. How Steve was in this position himself still flabbergasted him. It all felt like a weird nightmare he'd soon wake up from, to a life without demodogs and other near death encounters.

“I've got the Poltergeist VHS”, Dustin said, walking towards the VCR.

“Are you sure that's a good idea to watch a horror movie after everything?”, Steve asked, feeling immediately 10 years older for such a mum question.

“Are you scared, Harrington?”, Dustin teased. Steve signed, lying his head on the edge of the couch. In what point of his life had it become a normal situation to be taunted by a boy five years younger than him? His eyelids started to get heavy 15 minutes into the movie. Head hurting slightly because he had to focus on the screen for a long time. Soon he dropped off.

 

When he woke up somebody had thrown a blanket over him. The kids looking slightly worried when Steve sat up.

“Is everything alright?”, he asked, not sure what was going on.

“Are you still sick?”, El asked.

“Mum said it would be alright to let you sleep”, Will said, only now Steve realized the boy had been very quiet the entire time.

“I'm fine, just tired”, he rubbed his eyes, asking himself how he could still be so exhausted even though he'd been sleeping so much in the past few days. The children exchanged glances until Mike nodded and they backed away.

“You have to eat Eggos, they help”, El said.

“Thanks for the tip”, Steve gave her a sly smile, and sat up. “So what did I miss?”

“Just the entire Poltergeist movie”, Max informed him.

“Okay, what are we going to do now?”, his brain felt fuzzy. Trying to shake it off he tried to direct his thoughts back to the here and now.

“We need to get a new cat for my mum”, Dustin pulled out his wallet, “I've got some money. We could go down to the pet shop and buy a cat there.”

“You still haven't told your mum what happened to Mews, have you?”, Steve asked him.

The boy shook his head, “It would break her heart.”

“And hoping that she'll come back someday isn't going to break her heart?”, Steve nearly snapped at Dustin. It reminded him too much of Barb's parents. Still hoping after a year that their daughter was out there somewhere. Her funeral would be soon, and he still wasn't sure if he could bear to go.

“I'll tell her”, Dustin muttered.

“Do you have a bike?”, Mike changed the subject.

“No, you want to go there by bike?”, Steve asked the younger boy.

“Yes, but we could walk as well”, Mike quickly added. Maybe a bit too quick considering how much these boys took care of their bikes. More than Steve took care of his car. Of course that's because his father had given him the car. It felt almost wrong not to crash it, just to annoy him. On the other hand he liked to have a car.

“We can walk. But is it okay with Hopper, El? You running around in public.”

“I have to keep a low profile”, El said, pronouncing low profile with extra care. Proud that she knew such a difficult word. Mike was staring at her like Steve had at Nancy. The gaze that meant that the only girl that mattered was sitting right next to you.

“That's settled then. Don't forget to put on your coats”, he almost automatically said only to mentally kick himself afterwards. When had he become such a parent?

“Yes, Mum”, they all answered in unison.

Chapter Text

The sun was still out making the woods less scary. It seemed like yesterday when Steve had searched for Billy in the dark. The kids were walking at a quicker pace than Steve was. Partly because Steve felt kind of shaky on his legs, but he would never tell them. The little shits had already been worried about him. Mike lagged behind falling in step with Steve. Which surprised him. He never knew why, but out of all the children Mike was the one he could least imagine building a friendship with. Maybe because he'd always be the ex-boyfriend of his older sister, or Mike was just being a moody teenager.

“Steve, what you said earlier about us not being scared about all the stuff that happened to us”, Mike started, not looking at him, but at the gravel he kicked.

“Yeah?”

“Will, he's effected by all this. And he doesn't want to talk about it with his mum, or his brother. Not even with me, but he's even worse than he has been before the whole demogorgon possession”, Mike turned his head, looking at Steve now. His usual guarded eyes were filled with worry.

“Could you maybe talk to him. Will told me you did it before, and it helped. He's my friend, and I have to make sure he can talk to somebody about this.” It warmed Steve's heart, he never had a friend that would have gone to these lengths to protect him, but this was what he imagined best friends do.

“Of course.”

“Thank you”, Mike even smiled, and caught up with the others. At the pet store an argument ensued.

“It's insensitive to buy a cat which looks exactly like Mews!”, Mike shouted.

“But she'll want a cat like Mews”, Dustin argued.

“The appearance doesn't make a cat like Mews. Mews is dead you'll never get another cat who's like Mews. Deal with it”, Lucas harshly threw in. Max and El were looking at the rats running around in the cage. EL's eyes locked on the small animals with an expression akin to fear on her face.

“Excuse me, could you please tell your brother or sister's friends to stop screaming. They're scaring the animals”, the pet store clerk tiredly informed Steve. When he'd been younger, standing in front of the large school building his hand tightly holding his mother's he wanted to have a sibling. Maybe a big brother who would look out for him whenever the older kids teased him he'd tell them to get lost. Or a sister that would help him with his homework. When he'd gotten older and seen Nancy roll her eyes when Mike knocked on her door, asking if he could borrow her bike he had wanted a little sibling. A brother he'd show the ropes, or sister he'd make sure nobody would break her heart. Now, standing in this pet store, surrounded by four boys and two girls he was closer to his wish than he ever thought he could possibly get.

“Sure, sorry about the ruckus. Hey! Keep your voices down.” To his surprise they immediately shut up.

“Does your head still hurt now?”, Dustin asked. And that explained why they'd been so quick to shut their traps.

“I'll get a headache if you're shouting the entire time, and all the pets as well.”

Dustin grabbed him by the sleeve dragging him to the cats. “Which one should I pick?”, he asked. Never had Steve been much of a cat person, but he wouldn't tell Dustin that. Knowing how important this was to the boy he felt equally nervous he'd mess this up and equally proud that Dustin had asked him.

“Pick them all up. See which cat likes you best.”

“Great idea”, Dustin picked up the first one which started to scratch him.

 

All the kids had crowded around the spectacle, with one exception, Will had wandered outside. Glad to have an excuse to get out of the stuffy pet store, Steve followed. The sun nearly shone in their eyes, slowly setting. Making Steve nervous, hopefully they'd get a move on, so they didn't have to go hiking at night.

Closing his eyes, Will let the last rays of sunlight shine on him, “It's warm”, he said. Remembering how cold it had been in the Byers' household Steve pulled his jacket closer to his body.

“He liked the cold”, Will said. From his forlorn voice Steve knew he was talking about the demogorgon.

“Do you like the cold?”

“Not anymore”, Will had opened his eyes, but didn't add anything. Should he ask Will how he was feeling? But wasn't that what everyone else was doing?

“I still have nightmares that he's inside of me”, Will started to talk again, “I'm scared...I know the others aren't, but I am...Like you said, it could happen again.” He didn't tell him it was going to be alright, that they'd seen the last of the monsters because he couldn't lie to this kid.

He couldn't lie to himself, “Sometimes it feels like the monsters haven't left.” Will nodded, had he been a few years older Steve would have bought some beer, now he felt too sober to deal with this. On the other hand he hadn't just avoided beer because of his concussion, but also because of the fear of losing control over his fear when he'd be under the influence. His hands were shaking again.

“You understand the fear”, Will had his eyes fixed on him, “You seem to understand it more than anyone else.”

“What about your mother, or Jonathan?”, Steve asked.

“No, they're different.” Braver, less scared than Steve was.

“I think everyone deals with it in their own way, but you are the bravest of all because you had this thing inside of you, yet here you're standing.”

“I don't feel like it”, Will said.

“I know what you mean”, Steve said, he hadn't told anyone, but after that night he had had another panic attack.

“Bob told me I should overcome my fear. Stand in its way, but when I did the demogorgon came”, the boy shivered.

“You know sometimes you do the right thing and still lose”, Nancy kissing Jonathan still in Steve's head. “But you still have to do it. Life sucks like that sometimes.”

Will nodded, “At least we got a new friend through all this.”

“Yeah, you did? Who?”

He smiled, “You, Steve.” For a moment he was rendered speechless, never had he thought that Will would say his name.

“I...Ahm...Thanks”, he awkwardly stammered.

“Don't sell yourself short”, Will said, “Thanks for not telling me everything is alright because it isn't and it never will be.”

“We got a cat”, Dustin interrupted them, Will and Steve nodded at each other. Mike mouthed a 'thank you' in Steve's direction. El petted the cat and then beckoned Steve to come closer, placing her other hand into his hair. Steve tried not to worry about her messing up his hair.

“Your hair is softer”, she beamed at him. She then stroke through Mike's hair giving him a sad look.

“Your hair isn't as soft.”

“Is that a bad thing?”, he asked her.

“Friends don't lie”, she sadly said. Steve turned away, so Mike wouldn't see him laughing over this absurd situation. Or maybe he was just close to hysterics. Literally seconds before this he had a terrible depressing conversation with Will, but then Will told him he's his friend now, and then this. Too much mood whiplash.

“I can tell you the secret of how Steve maintains his hair”, Dustin said.

“No, you won't!”, Steve quickly intervened, “Let's go. It's getting dark.”

 

“You can come in if you want to”, Dustin offered, sitting shotgun, all the other kids already brought home. The cat struggled in his grip, clambering to escape.

“Thanks, but I have to head home. My father is there, doesn't like it when I'm out late.”

Dustin frowned, “You have a father?”

This threw Steve off track, “Yeah, why shouldn't I?”

“No, it's just....I mean I saw your mum, but not your dad, thought he was gone”, Dustin shrugged, turning his head away. Not saying anything, after a few seconds passed without Dustin talking Steve's worry won, Dustin always talked his ear off something must be truly wrong.

“What happened to your father?”

“He left when I was young, can't remember him much.”

“Oh...”, Steve didn't have enough courage to ask if left meant left as in divorce, or left as in died.

As a child Steve had often imagined his father leaving. Everytime his father went out the door on his long business trips he had hoped that would be the last he'd see of him. Everytime his father came back, a present in hand, something Steve never liked or cared for, his dream broken. When he asked his mother why his father always came back when he clearly hated him she knelt down, tears in her eyes.

“Stevie, your father loves you, he just has a different way of showing it.” And then she would always hug him, her tears falling onto his shirt.

“Do you like your dad?”, Dustin pulled him out of his thoughts.

“Not really”, understatement of the year.

“Does he like you?”

“Oh no”, Steve laughed, trying to ignore the old pain it brought up in him. Dustin looked so unhappy, it made Steve miserable. Since when did he care so much for a 13-year-old kid, since when did he really care about anyone? But here he was a kid he needed to cheer up.

“Dustin, sometimes it's really overrated to have a dad”, he knew this wasn't the best encouragement, hell it wasn't even mediocre, it probably was the worst kind of encouragement Dustin had ever encountered in his life. Still the boy smiled again, maybe just laughing at Steve's lousy attempts of cheering him up. The cat finally broke free jumping onto Steve's lap.

“Hey, get that thing off”, he shouted, his heart beating hard in his chest.

“It's just Dart. She likes you.” The cat licked Steve's hand, and slowly he calmed down. “Are you scared of cats?”, Dustin asked after giving him a weird look.

“Of course not”, he carefully put his hand under the cat, her body feeling warm and soft. Not like the demodog that had brushed past them back in the tunnels. Her teeth small, not a full set of fangs ready to rip everything apart, no need to be scared. Then finally the name sunk in.

“Wait a minute, you named your new cat after a demodog that nearly killed us and oh everybody in Mrs. Byers' house?!”

The boy just shrugged his shoulders, “It's a good name, why shouldn't I use it again?”

“Unbelievable”, Steve muttered, pulling the cat closer, stroking through her fur. Eleven had been right, it was very soft.

“We should really give you a walkie talkie, it would be so much easier”, Dustin said suddenly.

“What am I, five years old? No, I don't want a walkie talkie.”

Wearing the expression of a long-suffering parent Dustin shook his head, “Unbelievable.”

“Hey, don't copy me.”

“I have a walkie talkie ready for you. When the time is right you'll ask for one yourself, mark my words.”

“Sure. Okay, you got to go home.”

“Yes”, Dustin looked at him expectedly.

“What?”

“You still got Dart on your lap.”

“Oh, sorry, here you go”, he carefully handed her over.

Steve watched the boy walk into the dark house. The last thing he wanted to do was drive home. In an ideal world he'd be Dustin's brother, but he wasn't living in an ideal world, was he now?

Chapter Text

Steve heard his father talking on the phone, as he entered the house. The only light coming from the dim lamp in the living room. He halted, peering around the corner.

“Why are you worried?.....You know how Steven is, just trying to find excuses for his terrible grades...Listen, it's late and I don't want to talk about this anymore....” Sweetheart, I don't...Okay, please don't worry. I really have to go now...Yes. Goodnight, Sweetheart.”

His father signed as he placed the receiver onto the hook. “How long have you been standing here, Steven?”

Fear crept into Steve as he slowly stepped to his father. “Not long”

“Well, long enough to hear your mother being worried about you, right?”

“Yes.”

“We're alone, Steven. You can't fool me as easily as you fool your mother.” Steve swallowed hard.

He seized Steve's jacket collar, “I want you to get good grades. Do you understand that?!”

“Yes.”

“And why are you having nightmares? You're 18 years old for heaven's sake. Too old to be scared.”

“Yes.”

“Where were you anyway?”

“Nowhere.”

The grip tightened around his collar. “I'm not going to ask again!”

Steve never told his father about the kids. Some part of him was scared that his father would make sure he'd not see them again.

“It's none of your business”, he muttered.

“None of my business”, his father repeated, his voice icy now, in that moment Steve knew that had been the wrong thing to say.

“I think I should teach you some manners, Son”, he smacked Steve so hard that the boy lost his balance and fell into the glass cabinet. The glass cracked when his head collided with it, pain pulling him into darkness.

 

When he regained consciousness he heard the TV, saw the screen, running some late night commercial. His father was sleeping on the couch. Steve tried to stand up, glass shards crunching, cutting into his skin. His hands were caked in dry blood and some fresh blood was already dripping down his jacket. But the worst was his head, it hurt nearly as bad it had last month ago. At least he still had some painkillers in his jacket pocket. Slowly he made his way to the door into the cold night.

Aimlessly he walked through late night Hawkins, until his sight got blurry, and his head started to pound even though he'd taken some painkillers. Where should he go? All the kids were out of the question, but then who was left? He remembered Billy telling him that he could talk to him if anything happened. Maybe he could go to Billy without Max noticing him there. He soon came to the house, but stayed outside. Unsure what to do next. If he rung the doorbell they'd all be awake. Throw stones at Billy's window? He didn't even know where Billy's room was. Flashes of him climbing up to Nancy's room came back to him. In the state he was in now he'd probably slip and break his neck. A noise made him turn around. His heart beating hard, hands trembling he was just about to turn back and get his bat just in case when he heard a voice.

“Steve? What are you doing here”, a light was unceremoniously flashed into his eyes.

“Billy?”

“Yes, it's me.”

“Can I crash at your place”, his voice nearly broke, eyes slowly filling with tears and he didn't know why. After all it wasn't the first time his father beat him up. Suddenly he felt light-headed nearly missing Billy's answer.

“You don't look so good. What happened?”

“I...”, the world was tilting as he took a step forward. If it hadn't been for Billy's strong arms he would have planted himself head first onto the wet concrete.

“I got you. Come on let's get you inside.”

It was pitch black in the house, Billy carried half his weight, as he dragged him to a room. Carefully he lowered Steve on his bed, and switched on a dim light.

“I'll get the first aid kit.” The black leather jacket had been draped over the chair standing next to a desk. On the desk Steve saw a few sheets of paper. Strange, he never had pegged Billy down for somebody who'd actually sit down and study. A photo of a blond-haired boy with curly, short hair and a blonde woman hugging the boy stood on the nightstand. He guessed it was Billy with his mother. Kinda cute as a child, Steve did not follow this train of thought out of fear he'd come to the conclusion that Billy looked cute now as well. Speaking of the devil, Billy stepped into the room again, he had even brought a bowl of water. Sitting down next to Steve he gave him a once-over.

“Show me your hands.” Steve obeyed, wincing when he saw the shards of glass sticking out.

“Who did you run into this time?”, Billy asked, as he removed the glass with the aid of tweezers.

“Doesn't matter.”

“You don't have to tell me if you don't want to”, he had finished pulling them out. Slowly wrapping bandages around both hands.

“Are you a nurse?”, Steve asked, only half-joking, impressed by the neatness of the bandages.

“Just had to patch myself up pretty often.”

“You don't seem to be the one on the receiving end of fights.”

Billy chuckled, “What do you know, pretty boy”, he leaned closer dabbing the cut on Steve's forehead. Leaning as close as he had when Steve suffered from the panic attack.

“How's your vision?”

“What?”

“Are you seeing normally, or is everything blurry?”

“I don't....”

“Just answer the question, Harrington.” Should he lie, would Billy otherwise drag him to hospital?

“A bit blurry.”

“Shit, okay I'll just shine light in your eyes. Might hurt a little bit.” A shiver ran down Steve's spine, remembering the pain when Joyce had done the same thing a month ago. It did hurt more than a little, and Steve fought against throwing up.

“Well, your pupils are okay.”

“Okay.”

“You should lie down, get some rest.” Steve wearily stood up only to be pushed down again. “Take the bed.” His head was starting to swim again and he felt how he fell sideways.

“Whoa, don't pass out just yet”, Billy steadied him, undoing his shoelaces. “What happened to your Nikes?”, he asked when he pulled off Steve's brown shoes.

“They got dirty”, Steve muttered, remembering the blood amongst other things on the white material.

“Can't you clean them?”

“Have you ever tried to wash blood out?”

“Yeah, it sucks. Okay”, he pulled the covers up and basically tucked Steve in. If he hadn't been this close to exhaustion he'd be embarrassed, now he was far too tired.

 

It seemed like minutes had passed by when Billy shook him awake. Steve opened his eyes, not recognising the ceiling. Had he accidentally fallen asleep at one of the geeks' homes?

“Steve, I just need to ask you a couple of questions. Make sure your head is alright.”

The boy flinched away, heart beating hard. “What?! What are you doing here? Where am I?”

Billy took a few steps back, “You were in a fight, remember?” Slowly images of broken glass, and his father sitting in front of the TV came flooding back.

“I went to your house?”, it came out more as a question than a statement. Not because he can't remember, but because he's asking himself why he'd ever do something like that. Maybe the hit to the head, again, had been more severe than he thought.

“More like sneaked around my house like a stalker. Anyway, let's start with the questions. What's your name?”

“Steve Harrington.”

“What's the date?”

“8th of December, 1984”

“How old are you?”

“18”

“Birth year?”

“1966.”

Billy nodded then started to smirk, “How many girls have you had?” All that time Steve had been staring at the ceiling because it still hurt to focus on one particular spot now he turned far too quickly.

“None of your damn business”, he snapped.

“Or boys”, Billy still smiled. For a moment Steve felt taken aback, was Billy implying something. Did he somehow think Steve liked boys? Not knowing where this came for and too tired to deal with it he closed his eyes. “Your brain's as fine as it can get”, Billy said, something akin to disappointment in his voice, but maybe Steve was just imagining that.

 

9th December, Sunday

The next time he woke up it was because somebody shook him hard, not as gently as Billy had been. Billy and gently weren't things that Steve normally would say went well together, but they did. His life had definitely turned weird. Upon opening his eyes he was met with long, red hair hanging in his face.

“Why are you in my brother's bed?”, Max held a baseball bat, a normal baseball bat, in her hand. Equal worry and equal confusion in her face. “Did Billy do this to you?”, she asked, this time in a softer voice.

“What?”, Steve slowly sat up, exactly this shouldn't have happened. None of the kids should be worried about him. Damn it was his task to be worried about them not vice versa.

“Your face is all bashed up, and your hands are bandaged. Did Billy do that?”

“No”, he swung his legs over the edge of the bed wobbling slightly when he stood up.

“Should you even be out of bed?”, Max steadied him.

“I'm fine”, he lied.

“Sure, as fine as that time Billy nearly killed you and then the demodog nearly killed you”, her voice dripping with sarcasm.

“Billy just helped me. He didn't beat me up”, he told her, not wanting Max to start anything and get herself in danger. And he didn't want Billy to get the blame when he'd just let Steve stay over night, making sure he didn't die in his sleep.

“He helped you?!”, Max exclaimed.

“Don't tell the other about this.”

“Why?”

“I just don't want them to worry, that's all.” The girl shook her head in confusion, but nodded.

“Your secrets safe with me, but...”, she hesitated.

“What is it?”

“You're sure Billy has nothing to do with this?”

“I am, he's actually been...nice”, Steve said, not believing the words himself.

“Nice? This is Billy we're talking about. Sure you didn't hit your head harder than you thought?”

“Has he ever been like this before?”

Max paced the room, “Well, sometimes. When Neil, my step-father, isn't around. Just be careful”, she said. He didn't understand why a girl he didn't even really know was so protective of him. His friends, or his former friends, never cared about how he was feeling. Always using him as their ticket to get free booze, a pool, an empty large house to party in, and he had pretended that this was the life he had always wanted. Sitting at the edge of the pool, watching other people having fun. Smiling, and cracking a few jokes here and there. Making sure people didn't forget he was there, but at the same time hiding behind his façade.

“Who beat you up this time? How much of an jerk were you that you get beaten up so often?”

“I don't get beaten up that often”, Steve protested.

“Well, I've been here for half an year, and you've been beaten up by my brother, bitten by a demodog, and now again beaten up. Dustin told me you lost against Will's older brother.”

“Traitor”, would he ever live that down, the memory leaving a bitter taste in his mouth, how much of an jerk he had been back then. Well Jonathan had Nancy now, so in fact Steve shouldn't even feel that sorry for the boy. Everything turned out well for the older Byers after all.

“So who did it?”, she asked, not letting the question go. Steve hoped Billy would appear in the doorway, so Max's interrogating would finally end.

“A boy from my school”, he lied.

“Not good enough.”

“What?”

“I need names.”

Steve rolled his eyes, “Okay, little Miss Detective, I really don't understand what it's got to do with you.”

“I need to know. You belong to our party now.”

Steve snorted, “Since when do you care about the party? As I can so vividly recall you said you don't belong to the Nerds United Club.”

“Well, everybody in the party is my friend, including you, so who hurt you?” Blinking back tears Steve tried to not show how much it meant to him to belong to Max's friend circle.

“Ahm...Tommy, former friend of mine. We had a bit of a falling out last year, he's an asshole.”

“Anybody else?”

“No”, Steve avoided her gaze hoping to not be caught in the lie.

“Max, what are you doing in my room? How many times do I have to tell you that it's off limits!”, Billy grabbed her by the arm.

“Let go!”, she struggled out of his grasp, “Don't even think of laying a finger on him, or I'll come true to my promise”, she hissed.

“Max, I told you, Billy helped me...”, Steve tried to stop them from fighting.

“I won't hurt him again, Max. Now out!”

“Steve, you should probably go. My step-father is at home, and he doesn't like to see any friends of Billy's stay over, especially not boys”, Max turned and left the room.

Billy had turned a few shades paler, “Shit.”

“Crap dads seem to be a common theme”, Steve muttered, as he tied his shoes. A hand on his shoulder stopped him from standing up, he flinched slightly, his ears starting ringing, his heart pounding harder.

“Sorry, I...”, Billy took a step back, “Didn't mean to startle you.”

“No sorry, I shouldn't....it's stupid”, Steve stood up, blushing slightly.

“It's not stupid, Steve”, something in Billy's voice made Steve look up. Worry and fear dancing in Billy's eyes, he opened his mouth to add something, but as Steve waited, tapping his fingers nervously against the smooth surface of the table Billy shut it again, shaking his head.

“I'll give you a lift home.”

“You don't have to, I can just walk it's not far.”

“It's cold outside, and you might have another concussion. I'm not letting you walk”, Billy already put on his coat, pulling out his car keys, leaving no room for discussion.

“But what about your father?”

“We'll take an alternative route”, Billy opened the window, cold morning air flooding in. Snow had started to fall covering the fields, and the tunnels still lurking underneath sending a shiver through Steve's spine.

 

“Are you cold?”, Billy asked him.

“No, I'm okay.”

“You're sure?” Steve looked surprised not many people asked him a second time. Gave him a second chance to actually tell them he was not doing fine, but that he couldn't tell anybody.

“I...I just thought...the night when the demodogs were chasing me, one of them nearly jumped on me. I came face to face with it, the kids were screaming, and I thought this is it”, he laughed, rubbing his eyes, “I thought I was going to die on a junkyard in fucking Hawkins”, he shook his head, trying to clear his thoughts. Billy had stopped the car dipping the entire world into silence. His eyes now intently fixed on Steve.

“Why am I even telling you this? You are Billy Hargrove, the new King of Hawkins High. Everybody adores you, everybody is afraid of you, the entire school is at your feet. And I'm just some loser, some nobody. No, even worse, I once was somebody important, but now I'm less than nothing”, the words came out bitter, he had wanted to show Billy he didn't care that he had lost everything. He hadn't liked his fake friends, but the house at least not echoed so much, it hadn't been so silent, so empty. It had been less lonely. Now his only friends were 13 year olds taking pity on him, but for how long would that last?

“Steve, you're not a loser. When I first heard about you I thought you were a boring, rich boy, I had seen those countless times back at home. But when I met you I couldn't figure you out. It seems the more I get to know you the less likely I can solve you.”

“Solve me? Is that meant to be a good or bad thing?”, Steve asked, relieved that Billy hadn't thrown him out of the car for his babbling.

Ignoring that Billy said, “My sister told me you saved her from these demo-thingies. So I'm trying to find out if you are a heroic babysitter by night, or a rich boy who is going on a thrill-seeking trip.” He had leaned closer to Steve, he could smell his hair spray, the scent slightly familiar, but he could place it, mixed with the smell of shampoo. Billy flashed him a stupidly perfect smile Steve knew drove all the girls crazy.

“If you find me so interesting why were you always such a jerk?”

Billy turned away, tapping his fingers on the steering wheel. “Listen, I heard you were a piece of work back in the day.”

“I'm not proud of it.”

“Yes, but then you know that sometimes a jerk can redeem himself.”

“Can he?”

Billy laughed, “Aren't you the living proof for that?”

Steve shook his head, he could see the pool from where he was sitting, where Barb had drowned. “I don't know how much damage you can fix”, he muttered. Billy gave him a surprised look, but again opted not to say anything. “Billy, I appreciate you letting me crash at your place, I really do....”

“Is this about me beating you up. I already said I'm sorry, Harrington...”

“No, it's not about me, it's about you threatening to beat a child to death, okay? You attacked a boy four years younger than yourself....”

“I wouldn't have killed him, just roughed him up a little.”

“He's a kid, you can't do that. How are you any different than your father when you take out your anger on somebody who can't defend himself?!” He could see how Billy's hands closed to fists. Instinctively Steve put a hand on the door, ready to escape if Billy tried something.

“I'm sorry I attacked Lucas and hurt you, okay?!”, Billy shouted, banging his hand on the dashboard making Steve flinch again. His heart was pounding harder again, his mouth suddenly feeling dry, he tried not to choke on his next words.

“Your apology means jack to me. If you want to make this up to me, if you want to be friends with me, or whatever this is I have to be a 100% sure you are not going to hurt any of the kids. We're a package deal, so think about something to prove it to me, and most importantly the kids, that you mean it. Otherwise we are done!”, he stepped outside slamming the door. Shoving his hands into his pockets he started walking towards the house. With all his willpower stopping himself from looking over his shoulders. His hands shaking so hard that he nearly lost grip of his keys. Steve had been so preoccupied with Billy that he hadn't thought about the other looming problem in his life.

As quietly as possible he pushed the door open, glass cracking underneath his feet. It was silent, his father's coat and shoes missing. Come to think of it he hadn't seen his father's car in the driveway. Probably another business trip, thank God. Still he had been left to clean up the mess, yet again. When starting to pick up shards of glass the thought of telling Billy the truth, subsequently making him angry could spectacularly backfire. Steve felt queasy when he thought of going to school next week, and even more when he thought of the kids maybe being in danger because of him. Great babysitter he was.

 

Steve didn't want to call Dustin, and ask for a walkie talkie, but he kinda had to now. Even though it been less than a day when he had vehemently denied he needed one, great. He picked up the phone, luckily Dustin picked up almost immediately.

“Dustin Henderson”

“Hey, it's Steve...”

“It's about the walkie talkies, isn't it?”, a cheer in the younger boy's voice.

“How do you even....You know what, no! I'm not calling about the stupid walkie talkies.”

“Really?”

“Maybe I am calling about the walkie talkies, but not only because of that.”

“Oh?”

“You don't believe me?”

“No, no, do tell me why you are calling”, Dustin feigned innocence.

“Well....”, nothing came to his mind at all, “Okay, listen I was thinking maybe a line would be good. Especially for Max, you know how her step-father gets.”

“And brother”, Dustin added.

Wincing Steve agreed, “About that, I might have said something stupid to Billy. Just be careful and Lucas should be as well.”

He heard a sigh on the other end, “Dude, why are you always setting yourself up to get into trouble? I can...oh hold on, Steve, somebody from the party is trying to contact me”, Steve could hear the static of the walkie talkie, and then crackling, “Code red, code red. Billy Hargrove is coming towards the house”, Lucas' voice crackled over the walkie talkie.

“What?!”, Dustin and Steve said in unison.

“Dustin, tell Lucas I'll pick you up and we'll be right over in 5”, without waiting for an answer he hung the phone up. Rushing outside, racing to his car.

Chapter Text

“What did you say to him?”, Dustin shouted, as Steve took a sharp left turn. Thankfully nobody was on the streets during a Sunday afternoon.

“I....it wasn't...It doesn't matter”, Steve brought the car to a hard stop, pushing both him and Dustin into their seats. “You stay here, I'll deal with this.”

“Like you did last time? No chance, I'm coming with you”, Dustin stepped outside and Steve rolled his eyes, taking his bat, ready for a fight.

“Harrington, Henderson what a surprise”, Billy, who had been working on the Sinclair's car, gave them a little wave. Standing next to them where Lucas, his father and a younger girl. Steve just gaped at the scene in surprise.

“What did you say to him?”, Dustin asked again.

“This fine young man here offered his help. Said he was friends with a friend of yours”, Mr. Sinclair told Dustin.

Exchanging glances with Steve he said, “Yes, he's friends with Steve.”

“Mr. Sinclair”, Steve nodded.

“Why are you walking around with a bat full of nails? Lucas, is this one of your psycho friends?”, the girl said, looking accusingly at her older brother. “I could be in danger.”

“Erica, not now!”, Lucas hissed then pulled Dustin and Steve aside.

“What the hell is going on. Billy Hargrove does not fix cars. He does not apologise.”

“He apologised?!”

“Yes, he did.”

“What did you tell him, Steve?”, Dustin asked.

“Well, I just said he should apologise to you, that's all.”

Lucas frowned, shaking his head, “Why would you even say something like that? Of course it's not going to work. He's a bully, they don't just change and become a better person.”

“But that's exactly it, he did apologise to you.”

“Keep your voice down”, Lucas hissed, they quickly turned towards Billy again, who winked at them.

Lucas gaped, “Did he just wink at us?!”

“Maybe he got bodysnatched, or something”, Dustin muttered.

“Nah, I guess because of Max's threat. Did he hit you again?”, Lucas asked Steve.

“No.”

Dustin's eyes grew wide, “I didn't even notice, what happened to your face, and is that a new cut on your head?”

“It's nothing, just some asshole from school.”

“Who?”, Dustin had the same protective glance now like Max had.

“Tommy, but it doesn't matter really”, Steve lied.

“You can tell us if it was Hargrove again. We could talk to Hopper, he'll take care of it”, Dustin said. He felt touched by so much concern.

“It was Tommy, not Billy, I promise.”

Billy had finished, the engine of the car roared to life. In a way Steve wished it had been Billy instead of his father who did this to him. Somebody like Billy was supposed to go around beating other people up, the police just waiting for somebody to press charges. But his father, Mr. Harrington, a well-respected, upstanding pillar of the community and rich. Nobody would believe him, what was he anyway, some spoiled, rich brat living of his parent's money.

Lucas had straightened up, fear in his eyes, as he balled his hands into fists. Ready to attack at any moment, as Billy approached them.

“Well going for some target practice, Harrington?”, he teased. Steve wasn't sure where exactly they were standing right now, and it was confusing as hell. Without even noticing he stepped in front of the boys. Billy hadn't started a fight yet, so that had to count as good news, right?

“Hey, relax I didn't bring my plate with me”, Billy held his hands up in the air.

“Is this some kind of tactic to lure us into some kind of false security, and then strike again?”, Lucas hissed.

“No, kid. I'm just being nice”, he locked his eyes on Steve, “Are you okay to drive?”, there was almost something like care in his voice. Like this morning, as if he really meant it.

“I'm okay, thanks B....Hargrove”, Steve tripped on his words.

“Okay, have fun nerds.”

They all waited with bated breath until Billy had started his car, and drove away. Then they remained in silence, still trying to process what had just happened.

“What the hell?”, Lucas finally broke the silence, “What the hell was that?”

“Maybe Max gave him a dosage that was too high with the sedative. Maybe he has brain damage”, Dustin muttered. A smile crept on Steve's face, Billy seemed to have understood him. Maybe he really was trying to make up for past mistakes. But only maybe, Steve tried to pull himself away from the feeling of things going right for once. A catastrophe probably already waiting around the corner. Suddenly he felt a little light-headed, he leaned against the wall.

“We should talk to Max, maybe she knows what's up”, Lucas already fiddled with his walkie talkie.

“You're just searching for an excuse to call her up on Sunday.”

“No, I'm not!”, Lucas snapped, pulling the walkie talkie closer to his body.

“Hey!”, Steve shouted, getting their attention, “Let's just all be careful around Billy, okay. Now remember what you promised me, Dustin.”

“Okay, we have to go to my place.”

“Wait, is he okay to drive?”, Lucas asked.

“I'm standing right here, Sinclair”, Steve pulled out his keys.

“Why wouldn't he be okay to drive?”

“Concussions are nasty, man. And he doesn't look too hot right now, especially with the new knock he received to the head.”

Dustin frowned, “Do you think he needs a hospital?”

“Seriously guys, I am standing right here. Don't refer to me in another person.”

“Third”, Dustin said.

“What?”

“Third person, Steve.”

“I do not need a lecture on the wonderful English language on a Sunday. I just want to get the walkie talkie, and then go home and sleep until tomorrow.”

Lucas looked up, “Walkie talkie, you want to have a walkie talkie?”

“Yeah, why not? I can handle a walkie talkie, I mean if you can.”

“Precisely we can, you can't.” Was this his life now, being insulted by a 13 year old kid?

“Don't be mean”, Dustin quickly came to his defence which was cute, in a way.

“Well, just keep an eye on him. Back in Nam some soldiers fell asleep with a concussion and their brains started to leak out of their eyes and noses.” Feeling a little nauseous now Steve decided he had enough. Glad that Billy hadn't killed anyone, but Lucas started to get on his nerves. Dustin's eyes had grown wide with fear again.

“Stop scaring him!”, Steve snapped, then pulled Dustin along to the car.

“I'm fine, okay. Now let's get the walkie talkies.” Lucas started snickering, “How hard can it be”, Steve muttered, as he turned the key in the ignition.

 

“Dustin, you really don't have to explain to me how radio waves work. I just want a walkie talkie”, Steve interrupted Dustin's mini-lecture.

“Steve, this is important. Everyone in the party has some knowledge of this, we are all proud members of the AV club, have you even stepped foot into the AV club?”

“Well, Nancy and I once...”

“I don't even want to know”, Dustin pulled a face, then started throwing some words around that meant nothing to Steve. He tried to remain attentive, or at least feign some interest because this seemed important to Dustin, for some reason. But his eyes were slowly drooping until he drifted into sleep, Dustin's voice calming him down. Keeping him tied to the reality, the for now safe reality. Where the gate really was closed, and no monsters were roaming Hawkins.

“Steve?”, somebody was shaking him.

“Steve, you're awake”, Dustin was standing over him.

“Where am I?”, Steve asked, feeling slightly disoriented.

“At my home. You were really tired, that's why I bored you with radio waves, so you'd fall asleep, and I could make sure your brain doesn't leak.”

“Wasn't boring”, Steve rubbed his eyes, sitting up, it was dark outside.

“I promised my Mum you'd stay for dinner, or is your father home?” It was tempting to just lie, and tell Dustin he had to go home. But being alone in the big, empty house was daunting.

“No, he's on another trip. Thank you.”

“Great, Mum wants to meet you”, Dustin smiled.

“Meet me?”, Steve self-consciously ran a hand through his unruly hair. His friend had been fiddling with something on his desk, then grabbed a bottle of some kind, and threw it into Steve's direction, which Steve promptly missed catching. It was hair spray, the one he used.

Dustin turned around in his seat, “Dude, are you sure you're okay, you never not catch something.”

“Yeah...You did listen to me”, he muttered, retrieving the bottle.

“There's the Snow Ball dance next Saturday, and I want to impress the girls”, he said softly. For some reason Steve really wanted Dustin to succeed.

“Oh you will, Henderson. I'll make sure of it.”

“Really?”, Dustin sounded surprised.

“Of course.”

“Would you mind...”, Dustin stopped tinkering, turning in his chair again, facing Steve now the boy struggled with his words, “I....You don't have to...only if you want, I mean probably I'm annoying you, but could you maybe...”

“Dustin, you'd never annoy me. What's up?”, Steve asked.

“Could you bring me to the Snow Ball dance. It's just... my Mum is working, and all the others have their parents driving them there, and I'd like to...”, he stopped, fiddling with a lose thread on his sweater.

A fierce protectiveness rose in Steve's chest. He remembered how it felt to go to the Snow Ball dance alone. His parents too busy to bring him. At the time it had seemed like a huge deal. The other kids talking behind his backs, eyes fixed on him when he walked past the families, and parents. Walking up the steps, head held high, not showing anyone that he wanted to scream, or cry. This would not happen to Dustin.

“No offence, Dustin, but I don't trust any of your friends to have the skills to let you live up to your coolness potential. We'll get you a nice suit, great lines and fabulous hair. And then I'll bring you there, and you will capture every girl's heart in Hawkins.”

“I think that's a bit of an overstatement, but thank you.”

Truth be told Steve was nervous when he walked into kitchen, he had seen Mrs. Henderson before, greeted her when he picked up Dustin, but he had never really talked to her. He never knew what to talk about with parents. Reminding him too much of Barb's parents dinners. The thought of going there making him feel sick. Nancy putting on a brave face, struggling hard not to cry. All the pictures of the girl placed around the rooms, like a shrine to her. The hope that she'd one day return when both Nancy and Steve knew she was dead. Dinners at Nancy's place had been nice enough. Her parents seemed nice, but very normal, it felt almost unreal. And that was about it. All his other friends opted to stay at his place, and order pizza.

“Steve, how nice of you to join us”, Mrs. Henderson, shook his hand warmly.

“Thank you for having me”, he could not mess this up. Not that Steve wanted to say it, but Dustin and the party in general meant a lot to him. It shouldn't, they were just a bunch of kids. But he felt like they were his responsibility now. In the Byers house he had sworn himself to keep them safe. Not just for the night, but for as long as he could.

“Dustin told me you helped him with searching for Mews, and that's how you met?” Steve almost choked on the food, shooting Dustin a panicked glance.

“Ahm, he dated Mike's older sister, so I have seen him before.”

“But you became friends when you searched for Mews?”, Mrs. Henderson asked again.

“Yes, I'm really sorry we couldn't find...”

“We couldn't save Mews from being hit by a car”, Dustin jumped in, kicking Steve's leg under the table.

“We tried, but it happened so fast”, Steve said.

“It's okay, I'm glad you helped my son. And protected him from, what was his name again?”

“Billy Hargrove”, Dustin said.

“Yes, Dustin said you got a pretty nasty concussion.”

“It's fine now”, Steve tried to downplay it.

“Are you sure, you still have a bruise on your head.”

“Oh that's...”, he halted, if he told her he had another fight what on earth would she think of him? That he was a bad influence on Dustin, forbid him to hang out with her son?

“He slipped on the stairs, banged his head”, Dustin quickly saved him, “Steve is going to take me to the Snow Ball dance.” Mrs. Henderson started to beam, the same warm quality to her smile like Dustin's.

“Really, oh this is great news. I really wanted to drive him there myself, but I couldn't get off work. You'd do me a huge favour.”

“Of course.” The rest of the dinner passed quickly, and with an ease Steve never thought possible. Mrs. Henderson was funny and warm like Joyce had been that fateful night. They helped her with the washing up, when Dustin's mother pulled him aside.

“I'm very grateful with you spending some time with my son. He doesn't have any siblings, and really looks up to you.” A warm feeling rose in his heart, one of the few times he felt needed and appreciated.

“Your son is pretty smart, funny and kind, Mrs. Henderson.” With promise of coming over for dinner sometime soon Steve finally made his way to the car.

“My mother loves you, Steve”, Dustin beamed. Despite himself Steve smiled, trying not to show how stupidly happy this was making him.

Chapter Text

10th December, Monday

Steve's top priority had been to not sit alone at the table during lunch. It had nearly worked throughout school, but now this last year less and less people were sitting around the table. Gradually slipping away, at first it had been awkward. Tommy and the other jocks catcalling and trying to trip him when he walked past their table. The nerds staring at him quickly turning away whenever he glanced in their direction. Now Steve Harrington had faded away, as if he had never been there to begin with. Especially now that he wasn't on the basketball team anymore.

He leaned over his maths homework, trying to make heads or tails of it. Since that fateful night he didn't have much appetite, had blamed it on the concussion, but now he knew it was more the thought of how close he had been to death, how close the kids had been.

“Harrington!”

Steve jumped a little, not expecting anyone to talk to him.

“You are so easily scared, like a girl”, Billy sat down next to him. “Sitting here all on your own, doing homework. You are turning into a right nerd”, Billy started to eat his fries.

“Well a nerd could do basic equation”, Steve slammed the book shut in frustration, “Why are you sitting here, as you said I'm a nerd, a loser. Could hurt your reputation.”

“Aw, it's sweet of you to consider, Princess, but I am on top of the food chain, whatever I do people keep worshipping me.”

Steve wasn't impressed, “This is a high school, Billy. Not some religious cult you started. People are not worshipping you.”

“You know they do. Besides who else, apart from you, is really going to take the throne. Have you seen how boring this town folk is.”

“Wish it could have stayed boring”, Steve muttered.

Almost looking sorry for him Billy pushed his plate in the middle of the table, “Eat something, you look like a gust of wind could knock you over.”

Steve ignored the food, “What were you doing at Lucas' house?”

“Helping his family to fix the car.”

“Why?”

“Because of your emotional Mum-speech yesterday. It inspired me.”

Steve stared at him, “I don't believe you.”

Billy laughed, shaking his head, “Harrington, you don't trust easily, do you? Always looking for some kind of angle.” Steve still wasn't sure what Billy was playing at. People like Billy didn't become friends with the likes of Steve, there had to be something else going on.

“Listen, you said I should make it up to you, and I'm doing just that. So the other day you said you were failing classes. Which subject is your biggest problem?”

“What?”, Steve asked, surprised by the sudden change in subject, “I mean...ahm biggest problem, everything”, he shrugged.

“Okay, where do you want to start?”

“Start?”, probably at primary school, maybe he missed something vital there because as long as he can remember he sucked at school.

“What are your interests?”, Billy didn't sound annoyed at all. Everybody else talking about school with Steve had this annoyed undertone in their voice. The mood always dipping in the room when school was brought up, but Billy was calm, even smiling at him, not a trace of annoyance. Why was that?

“I...I don't know”, Steve felt out of whack since last year, the world spinning out of his axis, and he was just existing, going through the motions.

“C'mon, you have to be interested in something”, Billy said, trying to coax it out of him.

“Yeah...”, as much as Steve tried to find something, his mind was a place he didn't want to go to right now, fear and terror over every memory he ever had.

“Let's do literature. What are you reading?”

“The Great...great something.”

“The Great Gatsby?”

“Yes, that's the one, do you know it?”

“Of course I do, it's considered a classic”, Billy said with deep commitment in his voice. Steve had not expected Billy to be this passionate about anything school-related. “So have you already read it?”

“No.”

“It's like 100 pages long, not that much to read. You have time now that you're not on the basketball team anymore.”

“Yeah, no thanks to you!”, Steve snapped, “And I had a headache couldn't read.”

“Listen, that's why I'm trying to help you”, now the annoyance was in Billy's voice as well. Crossing his arms, and leaning back in his chair Steve glared at the other boy. “I know how you managed to get this far. You let your girl read the books and tell you what happened, and maybe she even wrote your papers for you.”

“Nancy never did that”, Steve protested.

“So why are you not reading then?”

“Because I'm lazy!”, Steve shouted, only to see several people turning to look at them.

“No, if you were just lazy you wouldn't be this frustrated”, Billy wasn't annoyed anymore, a mild curiosity in his eyes now. Nobody had ever been interested in Steve's academic failures.

“Well, I'm just a slow reader, are you happy now?!”

“How do you feel about tapes?”

“What's that got to do with anything?”

Billy rolled his eyes, “I'll read you the book, as I said it's only about 100 pages long we could get through it pretty quickly. We can tape it, and then when you write your paper on it, you can just forward it to the time you need to.” Steve stared at him for few moments, trying to find signs of Billy making fun of him, but there was no trace of that.

“Why would you sacrifice so much time to read me a book?”, he finally asked.

“Because it's not going to be my fault that you fail high school, and can't go to college, okay?! Anyways, I was tutoring some girls back in California to earn some money.”

“And with tutoring you mean....”

“My point is, Harrington, that they got better grades after that, so there is hope.”

“You haven't seen me try to do school-related stuff.”

“I like challenges”, Billy bit his lips, smirking at the boy, “Oh by the way, if anyone hears about me reading The Great Gatsby to you then you're dead”, Billy said, standing up.

“Hey, what about your food?”

“Eat something.” Reluctantly Steve started eating a few fries, less out of hunger and more out of having something to do that kept him from returning to his maths homework.

“Steve”, looking up he saw Jonathan, what the hell did he want?

“Jonathan”, the last time he had really seen Jonathan was when he'd been more than a little bit concussed. All the other times from afar kissing Nancy. “I just wanted to ask if Billy Hargrove is bothering you?”, Jonathan asked.

“No, he just asked about homework.”

“Oh, I didn't know you take classes together.” Steve hated himself for being such a terrible liar.

“He really wasn't bothering me. Thanks for asking”, he wasn't sure what else to say, he couldn't ask, 'Hey, how's my ex-girlfriend doing?'

“Well, okay...”, Jonathan avoided his glance looking at his badly battered shoes now. “My mother wants to invite everybody over to dinner on Sunday, after the Snow Ball dance. You're invited.”

“Oh, is the party coming...the kids I mean?”

“Yeah everyone.”

“Can I think about...”

“Just say yes, she won't take no for an answer.”

“Okay, I'll be there, thanks. How she's doing?”

“Nancy?”

“No, your Mum? Bob was her boyfriend, right?”

Jonathan gave him a strange look, “How do you know about that?”

“Will told me, I'm sorry.”

“Yeah”, Jonathan muttered, then again a long pause. Steve could just go right ahead and dub this the most awkward moment of his life.

“Okay, see you on Sunday”, Jonathan finally said. What did Nancy see in this guy, Steve thought to himself, as he slowly opened his maths book.

 

11th December, Tuesday

Billy showed up at his doorstep after practice the next day. Avoiding doing homework all day, normally something Steve excelled at, was getting more and more difficult. Now that he didn't have practice nor an existing social life filled with parties and booze.

“This is a nice place”, Billy said, as he stepped inside.

“Come in, so here's the book”, he threw is across the table. To Steve's astonishment Billy had brought a cassette recorder, Steve was 50% sure that this still could turn out to be a prank.

“Have you even opened this book once?”, Billy asked.

“Once”, the time when Nancy had still been his girlfriend, when he had only seen glimpses of Nancy's younger brother and his friends, just a month ago felt like years.

“Okay, I need something to drink and you to be quiet. One word out of your mouth, and I am done with this.”

“Jeeze, you are taking this very seriously”, Steve laughed as he gave Billy a glass of water.

“This is serious”, Billy placed the tape into the recorder, opened the book then looked at Steve

“Ready?”

“Yes”, Steve tried not to laugh, as Billy pressed the red button down.

“The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Chapter 1, In my younger more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice....”

Seeing Billy so entranced in something, the leering smile in his face gone he seemed like a different person. More like the person that had calmed him down from a panic attack, that had helped him when he had showed up at his house last week. After overcoming the initial shock of Billy really sitting at his table, reading a book to him, looking cute it shot through his brain, he quickly tried to shut that line of thinking down, but couldn't. He saw how Billy's delicate hands turned the page, how his lips moved, how his crystal blue eyes scanned the page, how his curls slightly fell into his face. His voice calming Steve down, slowly he started to listen to the story, closing his eyes and seeing it playing out in front of him.

They had made it half-way through when suddenly the walkie talkie cracked to life.

“Come in. Anybody come in. Over”, the static made both Steve and Billy jump.

Billy slammed the grey button down, the red snapping up as the tape stopped. “What did I say about distractions!”

“Sorry, the kids gave me one of these walkie talkies, so we can keep in touch.”

Billy rose an eyebrow, “Because you don't have any normal phones to do that with?”

“No, you can take it like anywhere, and with the radio waves you can still communicate.”

“Thanks Steve, I know how walkie talkies work, but why did they give you one?”

Steve shrugged, “Your readings good by the way.”

“Don't tell anyone.”

“No, I won't. I promise.”

“Will this is Dustin, do you copy? Over", the walkie talkie came back to life.

“Yes, Billy Hargrove came by today, and offered me and Jonathan some old records. Do you think that's weird? Over.”

Steve shot a glance at Billy who leaned back smiling smugly.

“This is Lucas. Billy Hargrove fixed my dad's car last Sunday. Over.”

“He told me he would go to the skate park with me on the weekend”, Max's voice joined them.

“Max, you have to say your name, and over after you've finished. Over”, Dustin said.

A sigh then, “This is Max. Over.”

“Billy Hargrove gave me a bunch of old walkie talkies. When I asked him why he said he wanted to make it up to us. Over", Dustin said.

“This is Mike, why hasn't he done anything for me yet? Over.”

“Maybe he will this week. Over”, Dustin answered.

“Has El gotten anything done yet? Over”, Will asked.

“No. Over”, Eleven joined the conversation.

“Steve, do you copy? Over.”

“Oh you're up”, Billy laughed.

“I copy.”

“You have to say your name and over. Over”, Dustin said in his 'I taught you better' voice.

“El, didn't either.”

“Steve! Over.”

“She didn't either. Over”, Steve repeated.

“She doesn't have to. Over”, Mike snapped.

“Just because she's your girlfriend doesn't mean she can't...”, Lucas got interrupted.

“She is not my girlfriend. Over.”

“Guys, let's just wait and see what else Billy does, okay? Over”, Steve tried to steer the conversation back to the topic at hand.

“Steve is right, And Billy won't hurt us. Over”, Max said.

“Okay, well I have to go to dinner now. Over and out”, Will was followed by the other kids.

“Steve, you have to say over and out. Over”, Dustin reminded him.

“Okay, over and out, Dustin.”

“No, no, no. You have to say, over and out at the very end. Over.”

“Over and out, Dustin. Over.” They had a shriek on the line.

“Are you doing this on purpose?”, Billy asked, laughing.

“Is somebody with you, Steve? Over.”

“No, just the TV. Over and Out, Dustin. Over and Out.”

“Good night. Over and out.”

The line went dead. Billy started to burst into laughter. “This is the most complicated way I have ever heard anybody conduct a conversation.” Despite of himself Steve joined in, it felt good to feel like a kid again. After they had calmed down Billy stood up, taking the recorder with him, but leaving the tape.

“I have to go, but we can finish it tomorrow if you want to.”

“Yes, that would be great.”

The boy already was outside the door when Steve asked him, “Is this a trap?”

“What?”, Billy turned around stepping back into the flimsy light of the front door.

“Are you trying to get me to trust you, and then you drop me, hurt me or the kids. Is that your plan?”

“No, I already explained it to you, I want to be friends with you.”

“Nobody wants to be friends with me”, Steve said.

“Listen Steve, you just had a bunch of kids on your stupid walkie talkie, and me reading a book to you for hours straight. We all want to be your friends.”

Steve shook his head, “No, you don't understand. People want my money, people want my empty house with no parental supervision and a pool. They don't want me, they want the idea. I don't even exist.”

Billy frowned, “Steve, you've got to calm down”, only now did Steve notice how hard his hands were shaking. Billy gently put his hand on Steve's shoulder and led him into the living room onto the couch.

“Do you want me to stay?”, he asked softly. Steve felt fear welling up in him, his mind shouting at him that it was a trap. That Billy was playing him.

“You're lying...You might be lying”, he muttered.

“Okay, listen I'll call Dustin. You trust him, don't you?”

“Yes”, Dustin didn't play around with people he said what he thought. Even though Steve wasn't nearly as smart as Dustin and his friends the boy seemed to like him, against all odds.

“Promise me you won't get a panic attack, or anything worse than what you're having now”, Billy said, worry on his face as he switched on Steve's walkie talkie.

“Dustin, do you copy? Over.” A few moments they only heard the static, the rain dripping down the window, a dog barking in the distance.

“Don't hurt him. Over”, Dustin's voice full of fear.

“I won't. Can you call him over the landline. I don't want him to be alone right now. Over.”

“What did you do?!”, Dustin shouted, forgetting the 'over', too enraged.

“Nothing, he's just having a hard time, and doesn't want me here. Over.”

“Understandable. Over.”

“Will you call him, or what?! I really don't have time to argue with you, little shit! Over.”

“Wait. Over.”

The phone started ringing, Steve slowly stood up, putting the receiver to his ear. “Yes”, his voice shaking slightly.

“Hey, it's Dustin, are you alright?”

“I....”, the air felt like it had been sucked out of the room, “I don't know...”

“I'm coming over.”

“It's a school night”, Steve feebly protested.

“My Mum's working, I'll tell her I slept over at Mike's. We do it all the time. I'll see ya then.”

“Billy, can you stay, I'll be there in 10. Over”, Dustin said through the walkie talkie.

“Yes. Over and Out.”

 

“What did you do to him?!”, Dustin angrily marched into the house, checking on Steve to see if he had any new injuries.

“Nothing. He was fine one moment, and like this the next.”

“I'm fine”, Steve muttered, through a haze of fear.

“No, you're shaking, and you're breathing too quick. Is this a panic attack?”, Dustin asked.

Billy shrugged, “Well not as bad as the last one at Mrs. Byers house. Just keep him calm, if it gets worse call me.”

“Keep him calm?”

“Yeah, read him a comic as a bedtime story, or whatever you nerds do. Harrington, you better snap out of it”, there was no real bite behind his words. He turned around and closed the door, not slamming it as Dustin had first suspected he would.

Steve tried to calm himself down, there was no reason to be scared. Everything had been fine, had he now blown his chance to ever be friends with Billy? No way that boy wanted somebody who suffered from panic attacks, or showed any kind of fear. Then he remembered Billy had talked him down from a panic attack before, and still seemed pretty damn interested in him.

“Steve, are you sure Billy has nothing to do with this?”

“No”, Steve sat up, fidgeting with the blanket laying on the couch, hoping to hide how bad his hands were still shaking. “He was helping me with school. Nothing happened, I just felt...”, he left the words unsaid, looking anywhere, but at Dustin's eyes.

“It's okay, you know sometimes Will stares into space for a few minutes, because he remembers the demogorgon. It's okay to be scared because of what has happened”, Dustin said.

“Yeah, but I'm the adult. I can't be scared. You have to deal with so much shit. Dustin, you are 13 and shouldn't worry about me.”

“You're only 5 years older than me, you're just as much a kid as I am. And you shouldn't have to deal with this all alone. You have to talk to somebody about this. I know Hopper and Mrs. Byers wouldn't mind talking to you.”

“Yeah”, the thought of talking to anyone about what was going on in his mind was making him even more anxious. His breathing picking up again, he buried his head into his hands. Praying Dustin wouldn't see the tears in his eyes.

The younger boy noticed, "Steve, I'm really hungry, let's cook something together”, he took Steve by the hand dragging him towards the fridge, “Why do you have Eggos in here?”

“El was going on about it, so I decided to buy some of them. Haven't had them in ages.”

“And?”

“They're good.”

“Just good?” Steve shrugged his shoulders feeling slightly dazed. “Don't let El hear that. It's her favourite meal”, Dustin ripped the plastic off.

“What are you doing?”

“I want to eat one of them.”

“That's not your dinner”, Steve pulled them from his hand.

“Hey, Steve.”

“No, we have to eat something healthy.”

After dinner and watching as many Christmas movies as Steve could stomach, and that was exactly one over the top cheesy Christmas movie he and Dustin made fun of the boy had fallen asleep. Leaning against Steve, it felt reassuring to know that whatever his nightmares conjured up in reality Dustin was safe. The fear had subsided to a steady beat just lingering at the edge between consciousness and subconsciousness. Easily forgotten when he was distracting himself.

Chapter Text

12th December, Wednesday

The next day Steve brought Dustin to school. Earning some surprised looks from the party.

“What, we had a sleepover, it was fun”, Dustin said.

“Why did neither of you pick up the walkie talkie?”, Mike asked, already in his usual mode of being annoyed.

“What happened?”, Dustin asked.

“Billy Hargrove came round yesterday.”

“Did something happen?”, Steve felt the fear rise up again.

“Well, no it was strange. He asked me if I wanted to meet up with El. And that he knew a way how we could see each other.”

“Oh no, don't tell me you did”, Steve already could see Hopper killing him, Mike and Billy, and leaving them in a ditch to rot.

“Of course, she's my friend. I haven't seen her in ages.”

“A week you mean”, Lucas said.

“A very long week. Anyway, he took me to Hopper's place, we contacted El over walkie talkie, and I sneaked into her room. Hopper was sleeping. I stayed a while, and Billy waited outside in the car. It was amazing.”

“So Hopper didn't see you?”, Steve asked. 

“No, well...”, Mike frowned.

“Oh please, don't tell me he did see you.”

“Well, I tripped over a can, and it might have woken him up. He was shouting, when we drove away.”

“Oh no”, Steve muttered, “I am so dead.”

“But I did see El.”

“Listen, I don't care if you got to see your girlfriend, or not. The fact is Hopper probably saw you and Billy Hargrove traipasing on his property, doing God knows what in El's room, and of course this is all going to fall back on me. You know how protective Hopper gets.”

“Not my girlfriend”, Mike muttered.

“Hopper can be really nice, sometimes”, Will tried to cheer Steve up. Because it was Will Steve didn't have the heart to say anything against it, knowing Hopper wouldn't be as nice if there was a chance of his daughter being in any kind of danger.

A few kids passed them, turning around and sneering at the party, “Hey zombie boy, alive yet!”, one of them shouted.

“Who are those punks?”

“Troy, he got hold back, and some of his friends”, Mike muttered.

“Are they hassling you often”, Steve asked, protecting his kids from demodogs was not the only thing he needed to do. Mike shrugged, usual bravado broken.

“What did they do?”, Steve asked again.

“They threatened Mike with a knife, said he would have to jump off the cliff into the water, or they'll hurt Dustin, cut out his teeth.”

“They threatened Dustin!”, Steve's anger rose.

“Dude, you missed the point of Mike having to jump into the water”, Lucas protested.

“How did you get out of that situation”, Steve spotted Troy standing at a wall smoking. Away from the sights of parents or teachers.

“I jumped, but then El saved me.”

“You jumped? Do you know how dangerous it is to jump down there?! Nobody survives that”, Steve nearly shouting now. Even though Mike was more annoying than anything else he never wanted anything happen to him.

“I know...”, Mike muttered, “I...I didn't know you cared so much.”

“Of course I do, I saved you from this demodog vine, or whatever, down in the tunnels.” Steve turned towards Troy, “I'm gonna teach this sorry son of a bitch some manners.”

“Listen, he is dangerous”, Lucas jumped into his path.

“No offense, but you never win fights, and you're not 100%”, Dustin joined in.

“Doesn't matter I know somebody who wins every fight. That's all that matters. Hey Troy, I need to talk to you for a minute.” The boy turned, quickly stubbing out his cigarette. His friends clearing off when they saw the older boy.

“Who are you, a brother of one of them?”, he asked.

“You could say that. I heard what you did to Mike, and that you threatened Dustin here. And called Will names. Now we're going to make sure that doesn't happen anymore.”

“How do you want to do...”, the boy started, but Steve had enough, grabbing him by the collar and slamming him hard against the brick wall.

“Do you know who her big brother is?”, he pointed towards Max.

“No.”

“Billy Hargrove, do you know him?”

The boy swallowed hard, “Yes.”

“Good, now what if I would tell Billy that you hurt his sister. You know what he'd do to you?”

“N...No”, Troy was kicking helplessly, Steve holding him in a firm grip.

“He'll knock you black and blue, and you'll have to stay in hospital for a very long time. And you know what, I'll help him. So if you hurt any of these kids again, or just if you call them names, or just look at them funny. I'll make sure Billy knows, and he will make your life hell on earth. Do you copy, Troy?”

“Y...Yes.”

“Good”, Steve let go and Troy picked himself up, and started running as fast as legs could carry him. The kids stared at each other and then at Steve.

“That was amazing!”, Dustin shouted, high-fiving Steve. Will was beaming.

“Even I was scared for a moment”, Mike shouted.

Lucas clasped a hand on Steve's back, “That was good, man.”

“I like how you think, Harrington”, Max said.

The bell rang putting them into a hectic frenzy. Steve raced towards the school, he had history, and was late yet again. The last two times he had said his concussion had been acting up, but he couldn't use that excuse for a third time.

 

Steve didn't expect Billy to turn up anytime soon, so he nearly jumped out of his skin when he heard the knock on his door in the late afternoon.

“Billy...I...”, he fell into his nervous stutter, brushing some hair out of his face.

“Harrington, Max told me you threatened a kid today. Threatening him with me beating him up if something happened to the kids.”

“Ahm...yeah, Troy. He nearly killed Dustin and Mike.”

“I thought I wasn't allowed to attack kids anymore”, Billy laughed, pushing himself past Steve into the house.

“Sorry, I just needed him to not try anything again.”

“I'd gladly help keep these little shits safe”, Billy set up the recorder.

“Really, why?”

“Because you would inconsolable if something happened to their pretty little heads, that's why. Now sit your ass down, we got work to do.” Steve felt a little bit better, but his nerves were still acting up.

“About yesterday, I'm sorry I panicked. Don't even know why.”

Snapping the tape deck shut Billy said, “Sometimes you don't need to have a reason. That's the thing with fear, sometimes it gets you when you least expect it.”

“Yeah”, who had made Billy an expert on fear? He couldn't imagine Billy being afraid of anything. “Stop feeling sorry for yourself, Harrington. Let's go, where did we stop?”, he scanned the page he had put a bookmark in, “When your pint-sized friends so rudely interrupted.”

“Possibly it had occurred to him that the colossal significance of the light had vanished forever”, Steve recited.

“How did you know that?”

“I can remember things, you know. I'm not just stupid”, Steve scoffed, pretending to be offended.

“Oh excuse me, but most people can't recite a line just like that. Did you practice to impress me?”

“Why would I try to impress you”, seriously the ego of this guy, “I'm just good at remembering things, now let's go.”

Billy hit the red button, whispering into the recorder, “Steve the enigma Harrington”, and started to read again. After a few hours they were finished.

“Thank you for reading. That was very...”, Steve wanted to say nice, but decided he didn't want Billy to think he was a loser. Since when did he care about what Billy Hargrove, worlds greatest jerk, thought about him? And since when did his heart pound not with fear when he saw Billy, but with something else he couldn't place?

“Whatever”, Billy made a hand waving gesture, as if he hadn't just spent two afternoons reading Steve a story. Like that was something people normally did for Steve. “Do you need help with the essay? And with help I don't mean I'm gonna write it.”

“No, I'll be fine, thanks.”

“Are you sure, otherwise just give me a call, or do the walkie talkie thing.”

“Okay.” The walkie talkie jumped to life.

“Speaking of the devil”, Billy leaned back, laughing, “This is going to be fun.”

“Harrington, come in immediately”, Hopper's gruff voice on the line.

“This is Steve. Over”, he cast a frightened glance at Billy who was enjoying this far too much.

“Kid, I don't want you to ever bring either Billy Hargrove or Mike Wheeler in front of my doorstep ever again. Do you understand.”

“You forgot the over. Over.”

“Don't get smart on me, son.”

Steve mouthed a 'You are dead' to Billy, “Listen, I'm sorry about that, but I promised Mike he could see El, and Hargrove has a car, and...”

“He's the boy who nearly killed Lucas and smashed your skull in. In what universe is it a good idea to let him bring Mike to El?”

“Sorry, Chief. Over.”

A long huff from the other end, “I know Mike is missing El, but they're gonna see each other on Saturday and Sunday at dinner. Are you coming as well?”

“Yes, Joyce invited me. Over.”

“Good, and Harrington?”

“Yes. Over.”

“Ever pull that shit on me again, and you are dead”, the line went silent.

“Oh amazing”, Billy clapped, then his smile turned into a frown, “Why did you say it was your idea with Mike and El?”

“Because I didn't want Hopper to go ballistic on you. I saved his daughter from the fridge demodog, so he probably won't kill me, but with you...Bets are off.”

“You like to do that?”

“What do you mean?”

“Put yourself into danger to protect other people.”

“I don't think...”

“Stop undervaluing yourself, Harrington. Anyways, have to run. See you at school.”

The house dipped into its familiar silence again, Steve lying on his bed, trying to think of anything but demodogs circling his house. He'd put his bat on the other side of the bed, and switched the tape on. Billy's soft voice flooding his brain, the fear subsiding at least a little bit.

Chapter Text

15th December, Saturday

Dustin opened the door near tears, when Steve picked him up for the Snow Ball dance on Saturday.

“My hair isn't working”, he muttered, furiously wiping his eyes with his shirtsleeve.

“Dustin, don't panic, okay we got this.”

Whilst trying to sort out Dustin's unruly hair the walkie talkie was running hot. Everyone was talking over each other, all the rules of introducing your name and saying 'over' thrown out the window.

“Are we wearing ties, or not?”, Mike shouted over the line, almost in hysterics.

“No, that's far too formal. Just wear shirt and jeans”, Steve answered.

“Not everybody has your hair to counterbalance poor fashion choices”, Mike fired back.

Oh great he was in his usual mood again, Steve rolled his eyes, “Not everybody already has a girlfriend to counter poor fashion choices.”

“I do not have a girlfriend!”

“After tonight you'll have one.”

“I'm not wearing a tie either”, Lucas announced, “Max is going to eat me up.”

“Guys, you know this is an open line? El and I can hear everything you're saying”, Max threw in.

“What are you wearing?”, Lucas asked.

“None of your damn business, Stalker.”

“I want a bow tie”, Dustin announced.

“Ahm...sure”, Steve said, not sure at all. He never had understood the dress code of the Snow Ball, and the real reason for not wearing a tie had been that at age 13 he hadn't known how to tie a tie, and didn't want to ask his dad. So he had gone without, and it had surprisingly worked out.

 

The entire drive to the school Dustin was fidgeting nervously.

“You're going to be fine”, Steve said, trying to calm the boy down. He made sure Dustin did in fact walk in there and not bail, when he saw Nancy, looking happy, genuinely happy. It hurt to think about her, with all that had happened he had forgotten how much he still missed her. Nancy Wheeler, a relationship already doomed from the start. Sooner or later she would have left anyway. Even if Barb had lived, even if Steve had been a better boyfriend she would have left. He'd already felt her slipping back when he had invited them to the pool party. She had always been too smart for him, too perfect. Who could really compete with her?

“Harrington, which of your kids are you bringing to the ball?”, Billy stuck his head in the car.

“What are you doing here?”, Steve asked, slightly annoyed at the interruption, could he just feel sorry for himself and think about what he had lost for a minute?

“I brought Max. I think she's going for Sinclair, and not your kid”, Billy frowned, clearly unhappy about the prospect.

“Lucas is okay.”

“Lucas has a mouth on him.”

“Well, he can't be a bad influence because you already take that position in her life.”

Billy smiled, “So are you going to a party tonight?”

Steve shook his head, “I'm not really interested. Dustin could get his heart broken tonight. I don't want him to go through that alone”, is eyes fixed on the blue Snow Ball banner. Then he realised what he had said, and who he was talking to, he sat up straight, “Not that it's any of your concern. I should probably....”

“No, wait...If you want to we could just hang out here. How long is this even going to go? It's not like they have any booze to actually have a good time.”

“Wow, what a way of seeing the world, Hargrove. But yeah, just let me park the car.”

Steve pulled his jacket closer to gain some more warmth, as they sat on the hood of Steve's car. The sky was crystal clear, and stars painted the sky. They could hear the faint music of the dance, light emanating from it. Steve felt safer with Billy in the dark outside than he had since all this started.

“So we will probably have a terrible time because I don't have any booze”, Billy said.

“Doesn't matter I couldn't drink it anyway. My head hurts enough as it is without a hangover.”

“Really, I'm sorry about that”, Billy actually looked like he meant it.

“Well, if I would have known you knocking me unconscious would suddenly turn you into a less annoying person I would have tried to beat you up a lot sooner.”

“Don't”, Billy pulled out a pack of cigarettes, “Just don't make a joke about it. I could have killed you if it hadn't been for Max.” He placed the cigarette between his teeth, and tried to flick on the lighter, but his hands were trembling too much. Steve wasn't sure if it was due to the cold, or something else. He took the lighter from Billy's hands, their skin touching for a moment, it felt strangely nice, Steve flicked the lighter on and held it as Billy came closer, his curls touching Steve's forehead as he lit the cigarette.

“This is all really weird”, Steve finally said, Billy laid down, puffing circles into the air.

“Tell me about it. I though Hawkins was the most boring town on earth, and then you kill something in front of my face with a bat.”

“If you had the choice would you choose boring, or terrifying for the rest of your life?”

Billy took a slow drag, “Terrifying, definitely terrifying”, he finally answered. A few moments passed without the other saying anything.

“Is this where you take all your girls? Watching the stars?”, Billy asked.

“Sometimes”, Steve shrugged, remembering how nervous he had been when he had picked up Nancy for their first date. How he tried not to care, but deep down did. How his heart had been racing, his mouth felt dry. The same way it felt now, and he didn't know why. He wasn't feeling more terrified than usual.

“My Mum used to take me stargazing when I was a kid”, Billy softly said.

“Oh, was it nice?”

“Yeah, your Mum ever do something like that?”

“No, wasn't around that much. I mean we did do things, sometimes, during holidays, but never much.”

“I'm sorry.”

“Don't be, it's nothing”, Steve quickly deflected, there wasn't much else he could do. All these years had been wasted anyway. Missed chances heaping up making him more and more alone. He rubbed his eyes, “We should go inside.”

“To the Snow Ball? Embarrass all the kids. I'm in.”

“No, the school. It has to be open, right?”

“Steve Harrington, are you suggesting breaking in?”

“Let's do it.”

Billy flicked his cigarette away, “This is going to be great.”

 

Steve walked to the main entrance now eerily quiet and void of people. He pushed down the handle, and it gave away. “Damn we need a flashlight, or...”, the light came on, nearly blinding him for a moment.

“Let there be light”, Billy shouted, echoing in the empty hallway.

“What are you doing? Do you want to get caught?”

“No, but I don't want you to trip over, and hurt your pretty head again.”

Steve rolled his eyes, heading towards the first classroom when Billy grabbed his arm. Instantly Steve's anxiety spiked, he was back at the Byers house, alone, all grown-ups leaving him with a bunch of traumatised kids, and all sorts of dangerous creatures lurking in the dark. Instinctively he tried to push his attacker away.

“Shit sorry Steve, I didn't mean to startle you”, the grip loosed and slowly he registered Billy's voice.

“Steve, are you with me?”

“Yeah, just don't do that again”, he said, out of breath now.

“Sorry...I wanted you to show me your old school locker.”

“Why do you want to see that?”

“I'm just trying to get a picture of little Stevie going to school here....Wait, you have to be on the basketball team photos. They always keep former team photos don't they.”

“We don't really...”

“I'll race ye”, with that Billy took off, turning in his run he shouted, “Come on Harrington, don't be a spoilsport.”

“God you are so annoying”, he soon caught up with Billy who was already awing over an old team photo.

“Look at you. Look at that hair. Were you just born perfect, skipped the awkward teenage phase of looking stupid?” Steve hated the younger version looking back at him in the grainy picture. He had been the kind of boy who bullied the likes of Dustin and the other party members.

Billy probably noticed the troubled look on Steve's face, “C'mon lets go into one of the classrooms. It'll at least be warmer in there.” They ended up sitting on the desk, or more Steve had sat down, and Billy had followed suit, even though there had been so many chairs and desks he sat down next to Steve. In the silence and warmth of the classroom Steve started to get tired.

“Are you okay?”, Billy asked, “You've gone quiet.”

“Yes, just can't sleep that's all.”

“Dammit”, Billy slammed his hand on the table, Steve moved a few inches away. “This is all because of me. Your nightmares, the panic attacks, because I nearly killed you.”

“Hey Billy, you're giving yourself way too much credit here. It's because of monsters nearly killing everyone. Nearly ripping us all to pieces. I don't understand why you care so much. Isn't this in your job description, being a bully and beating people up”, it came out more bitter than he had attended to.

“I don't want to be that kind of person anymore. I realised I'm becoming just like my father. A monster hurting and destroying everything around him. My sister looks up to you, Steve. If she could choose who her brother is it would be you. All the kids look up to you, especially the one with the curly hair.”

“That's Dustin, you really need to learn their names.”

“I'm having an emotional moment, and you're interrupting me.” Steve laughed, feeling a little better now, Billy seemed to genuinely want to become a better person. Which in itself was hard to get his head around, but that he wanted to be friends with Steve was still beyond him.

“How do you do it? How do you just become a better person?”

“I didn't become a better person all of a sudden.”

“That's what people told me in school. One day you were the King, and a jerk. The next day you were sweet, the awkward boy next door with a few kids following you around.”

“Well, facing yearly life and death situations really helps. I didn't really know the kids two months ago.”

“Still you were ready to sacrifice yourself for a bunch of kids you didn't even really know.”

Steve shrugged, “Nancy's brother is one of them, and Dustin more or less kidnapped me into coming along trying to catch his personal demodog pet.”

“As I said, you sell yourself a little too short. Everybody else would have just ignored them, and ran off. And look at you now, nobody is forcing you to spend time with them, but you do.”

“Well, have you see how many other friends I have”, Steve glanced at the clock on the wall.

“We should probably...”, Billy interrupted him, very gently putting a hand on his arm, “Do you think most of the kids in our high school have real friends? They're just hanging out with someone, but you don't care anymore. You're brave enough to go out there on your own.” Like walking to the Snow Ball on his own, head held up high, the mantra of 'You don't care' playing on repeat in his mind.

“Thanks, Billy...I...”, Steve stumbled not sure what to say now, blurting out the first thing that came to mind, “Do you think the two guys from the book, the one you read to me, that they are actually in love with each other”, as soon as the words left his mouth Steve could have kicked himself, why did he ask this question now out of all the moments he could have picked. Billy had been really nice, one of the few people who actually seemed to care for Steve, even though he still couldn't believe Billy Hargrove cared for other people, and then he had to destroy it because of his awkwardness, of course he lost Nancy. Because he was always like this.

He didn't dare look at Billy right now, but the boy seemed deep in contemplation, “Would you....would you like that?”, there was something off about his tone...He almost sounded nervous why was he sounding nervous? Billy Hargrove didn't do nervous, or so Steve thought.

“I haven't really though about it.”

“Oh”, Billy said. Leaving him in an even more confused state, “To answer your question I think one of them is definitely in love with the other, but he isn't sure if the other is interested”, again Steve was surprised how seriously Billy took literature.

“Well, ahm... Dustin said the school has great chocolate pudding. Do you want to raid some?”

“Sure”, the spell seemed to be broken, whatever this all had been, leaving Steve in a state of perpetual confusion.

 

With an armful of chocolate pudding they went back to the entrance of the Snow Ball. A few kids already walking outside some of the parents picking them up, others walking home on their own. Finally Max came in sight, hand in hand with Lucas.

Billy tensed up, “Play it cool, Hargrove”, Steve whispered, then threw a chocolate pudding in Lucas' direction.

“Catch”, the boy did, and upon seeing Billy hastily pulled his other hand away from Max.

“We didn't do anything”, Max blurted out.

“I sure hope...”, Billy started, but Steve interrupted him.

“You want to become a better person, learn from me. Just let them be together for a while. Most teenage relationships don't last longer than a few months. A few months would actually be a lot. Although I think those two could make it longer”, he motioned towards El and Mike, kissing very intently. Billy threw Max a chocolate pudding as well still glaring at Lucas, but letting him be.

“Where did you get the pudding?”, Lucas asked, as he took the spoon Steve offered.

“Well we went inside the school.”

“So you broke in”, Max said.

“The door was open”, Steve threw the next chocolate pudding at Mike's head, having the intended effect of breaking them up.

“Ow, what the hell?”

“Wait, why are you breaking into schools together?”, Max asked.

“We were waiting for you, that's all”, Steve looked past a few other kids, “Where the hell are Dustin and Will?” The others shrugged their shoulders, happily eating their puddings.

“Max, let's go. Lucas, I can give you a lift if you want”, Billy offered, “I won't hurt you, I promise. I mean we've all seen Max and Steve in action with bats. I wouldn't dare to start anything.” Lucas shot a questioning glance at Steve who gave him the okay.

“He's been behaving weird”, Mike said after he had finally managed to stop kissing El.

The girl asked, “Friend?”

“Oh, I wouldn't go that far”, Mike quickly said.

“Well, he's something between an enemy and an annoyance”, Steve muttered, “So are you two together now?”

“Yes”, Mike pulled El closer, they were adorable.

“Well when you need any relationship advice, El, then ask me, I dated a Wheeler....”

“And failed”, Mike finished.

“Hey, I at least managed to date her for more than a year. Something you haven't managed yet.”

“Oh we will”, Mike said.

“Hopper will be delighted”, Steve laughed at Mike's dawning horror.

Finally Dustin and Will walked out.

“A girl danced with me”, Will beamed.

“Nice one”, Steve high-fived him. Then he spotted Dustin, the boy had his head held up high, but even in the dim light Steve could see that he had cried. He had hoped to have this kind of heartache later than sooner. Not after all that had happened. Wordless he pulled the boy into a hug, who soon started sobbing again. Will  joined them putting a hand on Dustin's back, as well as Mike and El. They ignored the last kids walking out of the building.

Dustin finally pulled away, wiping his eyes, “I'm fine now, thanks.” Steve handed him a chocolate pudding, enjoying Dustin's eyes growing wide.

“Dude, those are the ones from the school. Where did you get them?”

“Apparently Billy and Steve broke into the school.”

“As I said before the door was open.”

“With Billy?”, Dustin asked, slightly alarmed. Steve shrugged his shoulders, “He was waiting for Max, I was waiting for you.”

Dustin looked to the ground, ashamed, “You didn't have to wait for me.”

“Oh yes I did, nobody should be left on their own after the Snow Ball. Either they end up sticking their tongues in their throats like the lovebirds over there, or they need somebody who gets chocolate pudding for them, so broken hearts can be mended.”

When they were in the car Dustin said, “I danced with Nancy.”

Steve looked away from the road for a split second, “You danced with her?”

“Yeah, she...Nobody was dancing with me, so she took pity I guess.” Steve thanked all the gods for Nancy doing this, he would have to thank her tomorrow. “I didn't want to tell you because...You know.”

“No, you can tell me. I'm glad she danced with you”, he pulled into Family Video's parking lot.

“Why are we stopping here?”

“Because I want you to pick a movie. Any movie you want. It'll get your mind off things, oh and we need ice cream.”

When they had set up the movie and were snacking on ice cream Dustin was smiling again, “This is actually quite nice.”

“Yeah, almost so nice that it's worth the pain of being heartbroken.”

“You still miss Nancy, don't you?”

“Yes, I think so. I....so much has been going on. It's hard to....It's not just Nancy, but everything that has happened.”

“Yeah, Billy has been behaving weird.”

“He has.”

“Do you think he's legit?”

“I've been asking myself the same question, but I think so. And he's very passionate about literature”, Steve wasn't sure why he felt the need to share that detail.

“Huh, that's certainly strange”, Dustin said, “Are you becoming friends with him?”

“No, of course not. Why would I?”, Steve protested, the idea of friends being people who let you down, who hurt you, deeply ingrained in his thinking. He cast a glance to Dustin, how much longer would they stay friends until Steve would do something stupid and destroy it. But Dustin didn't feel like a friend he felt like a brother, so maybe brothers didn't fit that mould. Maybe a brother would stay, and not betray, or hurt him.

Chapter Text

16th December, Sunday

They were late, everybody else already sitting at the table in the Byers' house when finally Steve and Dustin trooped in.

“Sorry, we overslept”, Steve mumbled an apology.

“We went through my Mum's VHS love story collection”, Dustin sat down next to Lucas. He didn't just say that, did he? All eyes on him, as Lucas started to laugh.

“What?”, Dustin asked.

“Just, don't say stuff like that, makes you less...”, Steve stopped, seeing Dustin's smile drop again, “You know what it doesn't even matter”, he sat down next to the boy.

“I thought you went to the Snow Ball dance as well, when did you two have time to watch movies?”, Hopper asked.

Steve resisted the urge to throw a knife at him. “It wasn't that late actually. And I was around.”

“Oh you were, why didn't you stop this from happening?”, he motioned to Mike and El who sat there suspiciously quiet probably holding hands under the table.

“Well, I wasn't the chaperone of the ball”, Steve said, only to be slapped by Dustin.

“What on earth...”

“Dude”, Dustin motioned to Nancy.

Shit Steve had wanted to be nice to her, “Although, they really tried to get them off each other...”

“Off each other? I thought they were just kissing?”, Hopper alarmed now.

“We weren't even kissing”, Mike protested.

“Nothing really happened”, Steve shrugged his shoulders.

“What more should happen?”, El asked, with anybody else the purpose of this question would have been to let Steve dig himself even deeper, but with El it was genuine interest.

“Boy, how are you going to get out of this one?”, Max said, clearly enjoying this far too much.

Steve rolled his eyes, “Can we just eat?”

“Sure”, Joyce quickly agreed, shaking her head softly when Hopper wanted to say something. The kids were chatting about the upcoming campaign like life and death was depending on it. Mike gesturing wildly with his fork, nearly throwing food on the people sitting next to him. Even Will, who Steve had always known as a quiet person, talked loudly about some scheme. El looking at all of them in awe.

“Steve”, Nancy looking prettier than ever, “Is Billy bothering you?”, she asked in a low tone, so only Jonathan and Steve could hear her.

“Billy, no. Why are you asking?”

“Mike told me he was with you when you came to pick up Dustin, and I saw you sitting with him during lunch.”

“That was one time”, Steve wasn't even sure why he was trying to explain himself.

“And when I passed Billy's locker Tommy asked him why he was talking to you.”

“He did?”, Steve anxiously asked.

“Yeah, it was weird, because Billy seemed annoyed with it, said he could hang out with whomever he wanted to.”

“Oh”, his heart started beating again, Billy wasn't ashamed of other people knowing they were...whatever they were. Friends would be going too far. Acquaintances, somebody you sat next to during school, maybe meet for homework. Somebody you could keep at arm's length, but who could fill the void when you felt like nobody was there at all.

“What Nancy is trying to ask is if Billy is bothering you”, Jonathan said.

“Okay guys, this worrying about me is really sweet, but to answer the same question you asked me a week ago it's still no. He isn't bothering me. He's helping me with homework.”

“Really?”, Nancy asked.

“Yeah, really. Billy's actually pretty great at literature.”

“We could help you with school as well, you don't have to ask Billy. I mean after what he did to you and the kids”, Nancy put a hand on Steve's. Her touch felt wrong, her concerned glance wrong. 'Pretending we're in love' echoing in the back of his mind.

“I'm fine, thanks”, Steve pulled his hand away.

“You shouldn't be friends with somebody like Billy. He's dangerous”, Nancy said.

“Are you sure he's nice to you?”, Jonathan joined.

“What do you want?”, Steve hissed, trying to keep his voice down, “First of all you, Nancy, decide that everything we had was a lie, and then you, Jonathan, not only take my girlfriend away, but now you want to take my friend. You deserve each other!”

 

Only after he stood up, muttering an excuse of needing the bathroom, but went to Will's room instead, did he notice he had referred to Billy as friend, oh boy he let himself fall onto the bed. Annoyed about everything, he would have loved to start screaming. His hands itching for the bat, and something he could destroy with it. There was a knock at the door.

“What?”

Hopper stepped inside, “Thought I would find you here.”

“Did Nancy send you to check up on me”, Steve snapped.

“No, the kids were getting a little bit too loud for my liking, that's all.” Steve wasn't sure what to say, to be honest even though Hopper was around more he didn't really know this man. To be really honest he was a little bit frightened of him.

“So what happened at the Snow Ball?” Steve straightened up, so this is why Hopper even came here, to interrogate him.

“Nothing happened, Mike and El kissed, that's it.”

“I know that, I meant what happened to Dustin? El told me he was crying, and you took care of him?”

“Oh...yeah, nobody wanted to dance with him.”

“Ah”, Hopper nodded, “You don't like Dustin being hurt, do you?”

“Have you seen him? He's like a walking puppy, doesn't hurt a soul, deserves everybody to be super nice to him. Dustin doesn't deserve to be hurt.”

“I feel the same way with El. We try to protect them until we can't. So Nancy was your girlfriend?”

Steve looked up, “How do you know that?”

“I'm the chief of police I know everything”, Hopper laughed.

“No, really though, how do you know?”

“Mike told me.”

“That little snitch.”

“Are you okay with Jonathan and Nancy?” Not sure why Hopper was asking him so many questions, if this was Hopper setting a trap for him, Steve shrugged his shoulders.

“I don't care, as long as Nancy is happy.”

“Don't care...huh...You do care. You care a lot about everyone.”

“What are insinuating?”

Hopper suddenly stood up, pacing the room, “Okay, kid, I'll be honest with you. Joyce told me I should do it slowly, ease my way into all this, but it's clearly not working.”

Steve felt his stomach cramp, “Are you throwing me out?”, he asked, trying to hold his head up high, pretending it wouldn't effect him, pull the rug away from under him.

“What, no kid, of course not! Damn it, listen Joyce and me are very happy you're keeping an eye on the kids.”

“But?”

“There is no but. You had a panic attack a month ago, right in this house.”

“I didn't have any more of them”, Steve quickly lied, trying to ignore his breathing going too quick.

“Son, it's okay. We're just worried about you, and I wanted to ask you how you're doing.”

“How I'm doing?”, Steve asked at loss in which direction this conversation was heading.

“You nearly got killed that night, we all nearly got killed. Sometimes I think there is one of these things still lurking in the dark.”

“You do?”

“Of course I do. It's normal to be terrified after all that happened. If you ever want to talk you can come to me and Joyce, deal?”

“Deal.”

“Good”, Hopper sat down on the bed again, “So how was I?”

“Honest critique?”, Steve asked, mind still swirling from Hopper being so nice.

“Do your worst”, Hopper grumbled.

“Well shouting at me wasn't helpful. Don't do that with El, she'll be scared.”

“Okay, thanks kid.”

“You're gonna give everybody this talk?”

“God no”, Hopper frowned, “Does anybody else need it from the kids? How do they seem to you?”

“Doing surprisingly well for kids who nearly got killed by a monster from another realm. Well, Will isn't doing great.”

Hopper nodded, “Poor kid.” They sat in silence for a while, then Hopper broke it again, “Why did you think I wanted to throw you out?”

Steve shrugged, “I thought I might have overstayed my welcome here.”

“Why would you think that?”

“That's what typically happens, I guess.”

“Steve, listen to me this is important. You will never overstay your welcome here. When I brought you back from the hospital the kids thought you might die. You should have seen their faces even Lucas and Mike were ready to burst into tears because they thought you would die. That's how much they care for you, so of course I'm never going to throw you out. Do you understand?” Steve nodded, even though he didn't, looking at Hopper with wonder, not sure why anyone wanted to have him around.

“Are you finished sulking now?”

“I wasn't sulking.”

“Seemed to me like you were. C'mon.”

 

They returned back to the table. Nancy wanted to say something, but Lucas was thankfully quicker.

“Steve, we need to go Christmas shopping next week, and we need your expertise.”

“Expertise? I don't think I can help you with any nerd related gifts.”

“Very funny, Steve”, Mike shouted across the table.

“Okay when do you have time?”

“Tuesday.”

“Alright, Tuesday it is”, a cheer erupted, as the boys started discussing what to buy.

“Steve, I could go Christmas shopping with them if you need to do something else”, Jonathan offered.

Steve narrowed his eyes, “You're not taking the kids”, he said coldly.

Jonathan swallowing audibly, “Okay, sorry I just wanted to offer...”

Will was furiously shaking his head as Mike tried to come up with an excuse “We want to buy you guys a present a well, so it wouldn't be great if you were there as well.”

“You never buy me a present, Mike”, Nancy joined in.

“Well, I do now.”

Steve leaned over to Nancy, “Listen, sorry about snapping at you both, I didn't mean it.”

“It's okay, we were just worried.”

“You don't have to be. And Nance, I really appreciate that you danced with Dustin, you kinda saved his memory of the Snow Ball dance.”

Nancy smiled, “Like you did mine.” Steve could picture her clear as day, it had been the Summer dance, she'd been standing lost in the crowd, he'd asked her, trying to be cool, hoping she would say yes. He smiled at her, then turned his attention back to the kids.

 

When he came home from school his mother's car stood in the driveway.

“Stevie”, she shouted, running towards him pulling him into a crushing hug.

“Mum, what are you doing back so early?”

“I had some holiday time I could use”, she ran her hand through his hair.

“Mum, stop it.”

She laughed pulling him inside, “So how's everything been?”

“Fine, I guess”, there wasn't really that much to tell, he didn't want to tell her he'd been hanging out with the kids more than people actually close to his age, or the fact that the guy who almost beat him to death was shaping up to become a good acquaintance.

“You have to invite your little friends over”, she opened the fridge.

“Are you cooking?”

"Yes, why not?”

“No, it's fine I'm just not used to it, I guess.”

A troubled look on her too bright face, “Has your father been bothering you?”

“What, no, no he hasn't. Why are even asking?”, Steve lied, sitting down at the table.

“A week ago when I called him he sounded mad.”

“I didn't notice.”

“Okay, but if anything does happen promise me you'll tell me...you know how he gets”, she muttered, her hand on the open fridge door, she didn't move eyes fixed on something beyond. For a moment Steve wished the quiet of the house back, as much as he loved his mother it was hard to pretend everything was alright.

“Mum, are you okay?”

She slowly got out of her trance, “Yes, sure Stevie, I'm fine”, she closed the door. “Your father and I are going on vacation during the Christmas days. Do you want to come?”

“What spend Christmas with Dad? No thanks, I'm fine here. Nancy's family invited me over”, he knew Jonathan would probably be over as Nancy's new boyfriend.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, I'll be fine here. Have fun”, Steve felt his heart sink. On the one hand he was glad his father wouldn't be around. The last time they had spent Christmas together, ages ago, it had been an awkward affair. The atmosphere so suffocating Steve felt sick from just the thought of it. He had hoped he could just spend Christmas with his Mum.

“Are you really sure, I could just postpone, let your father go alone”, his mother was trying to reach out to him. But Steve didn't want her to stay because of pity he wanted her to stay out of her own volition. Like Dustin stayed at his house because he wanted to.

“It's fine really.”

“Okay, how's your head?”

“It's alright.”

“And school?”

“I have a friend helping me with literature.”

The crackling of the walkie talkie pulled him out of this awkward situation. “Steve, come in. Over.”

His mother smiled, “So you really are still friends with the kids.”

“Why wouldn't I be?” He pushed the walkie talkie button down.

“Hang on, I'll be with you in a sec. Over.”

Chapter Text

18th December, Tuesday

Steve picked all the boys up after school.

“Are your parents there, now that it's Christmas time?”, Mike asked, as Steve pulled onto the road.

“Yeah, my Mum is home right now.”

“You didn't forget about the campaign?”, Mike already this close to go into a full tirade.

“How can I, Mike? It's not like you're talking about it constantly.”

“Just wanted to make sure”, the boy muttered, being nearly squished between Lucas and Will in the backseat.

“So you'll spend Christmas with your parents?”, Dustin asked.

“Yeah”, Steve lied, “What about you?”

“We'll be over at my grandma's. Introduce her to Dart.” Everytime Steve heard that name he felt a shiver run down his spine.

“Jonathan is coming in your place”, Mike sounded annoyed.

“Is El not coming?”

“No, I wish, Hopper is spending Christmas with Mrs. Byers and Will.”

“I'm sorry”, Will said, annoyed as well.

“You don't have to spend Christmas with my little sister Erica, that's the worst”, Lucas muttered. Steve shuddered, thinking back to the snarky girl at the Sinclair's place, he could put up with her brother, but hopefully he'd never have to put up with her.

“I can't wait until the mall in Hawkins opens”, Lucas said, as Steve tried to find a space in the overfilled parking lot.

“I don't mind, it's still something special now because it's too far away to go here constantly”, Dustin argued.

“Watch out for cars”, Steve shouted, as the kids snapped off their seatbelts, and opened the doors when he hadn't even fully stopped.

“Yes, we will”, Mike said in a careless tone.

In the big mall the kids stood there, gawking at the mere size of it.

“What, have you never been in a mall?”, Steve was slightly amused at their reactions.

“Unlike you, Steve, we don't have a car and can drive here once a week”, Mike fired back.

“Okay...”, Steve got a little distracted when a group of girls walked past him, snickering, and turning their glances towards him.

“Steve, you're not exploiting us, are you?”, Dustin blocked his view to the girls, “We are here to buy Christmas presents, not to help you score some girls.”

Steve signed, “Okay, I need to get you kids back home before dinner, so let's make a plan before we go running around like a group of headless chicken.”

“Ewww, that's gross man”, Mike pulled a face.

“Seriously, that's where you draw the grossness line? Anyway, who do you want to buy a present for?”

“El”, Mike said.

“What does El like?”

The boy thought for a moment, “I don't really know.”

“What, you don't know? I thought you were calling her everyday for the past 360 days? I thought she was your one true love?”

“She likes Eggos”, Mike said blushing now.

“Eggos....oh my God, this is not happening”, Steve took a deep breath, trying to collect himself. “Buy her an encyclopaedia.”

“What? Why would I do...”

“First of all, she's in love with a nerd ergo she'll love anything nerd-related. Secondly, I reckon she wants to know what's going on in the world. After being caught in the lab, and now with over-protective dad Hopper.” Mike looked like he would say something against it, but Will put a hand on his arm.

“I think Steve is right. She likes to learn new stuff, doesn't she?”

“Finally somebody with some common sense”, Steve was happy at least Will was siding with him. Because Will was Mike's best friend it seemed to change the stubborn boy's mind.

“Right, I might do that.”

“I want to buy something for Max”, Lucas stated.

“Good.”

“No, I'm asking you if you have an idea.”

“Buy her something skateboard-related.”

“You don't think it's a little too obvious?”

“Obvious is good, people actually enjoy presents when you buy them based on their actual interests.”

“When did you get this wise, Steve?”, Dustin grinned.

“It's your good influence, Henderson.”

“But I only have five bucks”, Lucas stuffed his hands into his pockets.

“Jeez how did you even make it this far? Here”, he pulled out a few bills distributing it evenly to the kids, “Spend it wisely, and not just for candy.”

“We aren't seven anymore”, Lucas protested.

“Well you sure look like it.”

“Let's go to the bookstore first. I still wanted to look at the science books”, Dustin suggested. The other boys nodded in agreement racing to the store. Leaving Steve and Will in their wake.

 

Will didn't move, looking right through Steve. “Hey Will, are you okay”, Steve carefully knelt in front of him, putting a hand on his shoulder.

“Yeah s...sorry.”

“Don't be, are you alright?”

“There are so many people here”, Will muttered.

“We could go somewhere quiet if you want to.”

He shook his head, “No, I hear it when it's quiet.” Steve didn't need to ask what Will meant by 'it'.

“Okay, how about we go the record shop, and listen to music.”

“Yes, I'd like that.”

They ended up sitting on the floor in the corner at the back of the shop away from any pesky customers, or shop personnel. Having turned the music up so loud they held the headphones between them listing to the music.

“Should I stay or should I go”, Will softly sang, smiling shyly at Steve, “I sang this when I was in the Upside Down”, he muttered, clutching the headphones so hard his knuckles turned white like it was his last lifeline. Steve's heart broke for the small boy sitting next to him. Having his childhood brutally taken away. Steve didn't say anything, knowing Mrs. Byers, Will would probably hear a lot of worrying from her whenever he talked about what happened.

“I never talk much about the Upside Down”, Will muttered, “El would be the only one to understand, but I don't really know her that well. They made friends with her when I was away”, he wistfully drummed his fingers on his knee. “So much changed. I never wanted anything to change. I wanted Dad to stay, and I wanted not to get dragged into the Upside Down. And”, he looked away, “I never wanted Eleven to find the others again”, he said it so softly Steve had to move his head away from the music to make his words out. “Don't tell the others I said that. They all love her.”

“Will, I won't. Listen, I can not even begin to imagine what you've been through. But don't beat yourself up about you wishing all this wouldn't have happened. It's a normal thought to have.”

“Do you wish it never happened?” Steve remembered all those cold nights, standing too close to the empty pool, the cold tin of a beer can in his hand. Somebody shouting his name from inside, over the music. A sea of people enjoying themselves, really enjoying themselves. The fake smile on his face, pretending that everything was fine. As life passed him by.

“I was a jerk a year ago, maybe even now. It's....I just hate it had to take you and Barb to bring me on track.”

“You're not a jerk now, Steve. You're my friend”, Will smiled, as he switched to the next song. Steve couldn't say anything, couldn't move, tried to blink back the tears in his eyes. Hell he wasn't going to cry over a boy telling him they were friends, but for some reason he was right now. Fortunately Will didn't say anything, just leaned his head against Steve's shoulder as they listen to more music. Steve wasn't sure how long they had been staying there it felt like had listen to every good song in this shop. Will had some excellent musical taste, probably from Jonathan. He needed a mixtape could put it on when Billy stayed over for their next study session. Wait why was he thinking of Billy when he was thinking of mixtapes?

“Hey, are you and your brother going to decide on which record you're buying any time soon?”, an annoyed teenage girl towered above them.

“Ahm...sorry, we forgot the time”, Steve muttered, as Will stood up as well.

“You're both cute, so I'll let it pass this time”, she said.

“Did she call me cute?”, Will asked, when they walked towards the bookstore.

“Did she say we were brothers?”, Steve asked.

“You could be my cooler older brother, always wanted one of those.” Giving him a surprised look, Steve decided to stop underestimating Will, the boy sure had a mouth on him as well.

 

They found the three boys standing in front of the mystery section.

“Where you here the whole time?”

“No, we went to the sports shop, and then came back here. Where were you?”, Lucas had a skateboard tucked under his arms.

“We went to the record shop”, Steve felt slightly nauseous, bookstores always made him uneasy. Reminded him of his primary school teacher telling his mother he just needed to read more books. His mother would drag him to a bookstore going through every book in the children section holding it under his nose.

“What about this book, Stevie. Would you like to read this one?” As if another story would make a world of difference. They all consisted of the same alphabet. A string of letters looking more or less the same. When he finally got a book, more for his mother's sanity, he'd start reading the first page, energy quickly waning when he noticed how much longer and more difficult it was for him to read the page. His father's hands on his shoulders, squeezing a little too hard to be meant as encouragement.

“Apply yourself, Steven.”

“Steve, Steve”, a hand being waved right in front of him, he pushed it away. “Steve, are you back with us?”, Dustin asked, slightly concerned.

“Yeah, of course where else should I be?”

“You didn't answer when I said your name. Are you alright?”

“I am just tired.” The boys exchanged glances “What is it?”

“Max said we should tell a grown-up immediately if you showed any signs of confusion, or severe headaches...”, Dustin started.

“Or seizures”, Lucas added.

“Why should I have a seizure?”

“Because of your concussion. Max said there are long-lasting effects.”

“Okay, guys, as sweet as it is to see you all have discovered that Nurse Nightingale streak in yourselves, I am fine. I just don't like bookstores that much.”

“Why, afraid to get smart?”, Mike teased.

“Shut up, Wheeler. Anyway didn't you want to get Jonathan and Nancy presents?”

“No.”

“Why did you tell'em then?”

“Because I wanted to go Christmas shopping with you, and not with Jonathan, no offense Will.”

“I rather go with you as well”, Will smiled.

“Because of my money”, Steve tried hard not to let them notice how much that idea hurt. He knew this had lasted longer than he had deserved.

“No! Because you saved me and my friends, that's why. We don't care about your money”, Mike vehemently said.

“But it's nice to have a rich friend...”, Lucas started.

“Shut up”, Mike snapped.

Dustin hugged him, “We're friends with you because you're Steve. Not the King of Hawkins, or the rich boy, but Steve, the one who saved my life countless times. Who stayed and cheered me on, and stayed up with me all night after the Snow Ball dance, who helped me get a new kitten for Mum.”

“Who always is nice to me without making me feel like I have to pretend everything is fine”, Will said.

“Who saved me from being crushed by Billy”, Lucas joined in.

“Who helped me find a present for my girlfriend, and saved all my friends from certain death”, Mike ended. Steve didn't know what to say, he hadn't expected this at all. He knew the kids had been fond of him, but he had always contributed it to his money, and having a car, and being the closest they had to an adult who wasn't related with them.

“I...I don't know what to say”, he swallowed hard.

“Don't destroy this moment, don't say anything”, Dustin slapped his back, and they headed to the direction of the car.

Chapter Text

24th December, Monday

Steve's mother had insisted on hanging the Christmas tree, telling him how nice it would be to have it all set up. “Then you can take Nancy here. A romantic day under the candlelight of the Christmas tree”, her eyes twinkling in glee, “Don't do anything I wouldn't have done when I was your age.”

He couldn't stand the sight of it, and he couldn't stand the TV playing the best of movies and songs about Christmas. The time spent with your family. All the kids crowding around the table, waiting anxiously for their presents the next day. Their parents telling them Christmas stories, and taking them on night walks around the snowy streets. Whereas Steve remembered sitting at the window peering into the dark night dreading to see the headlights of his father's car appear.

He remembered the Wheelers, even though Nancy's father was more or less in his own world he'd look at all his kids from time to time and smile. Putting a hand on Holly's back, kneeling next to her, asking her what new doll she had. If she wanted to introduce her to him. Mrs. Wheeler smiling at Mike's glee when he got yet another Star Wars-related toy, and helping her daughter with putting on her new necklace.

He remembered that fateful night, Joyce clinging to Will making sure he was okay. Hopper gathering El in his arms. Anger coursed through him, when it finally sunk in what he could have had, but fate so cruelly took away from him. Coupled with anger at himself for not asking his mother to stay. Why hadn't he asked her. Why did she feel so far away even when she was sitting directly next to him?

Steve gave the Christmas tree a well-aimed kick, the entire thing came crushing down with all the ornaments knocking hard onto the floor. One of the brand new candles rolled towards his feet. He had to get outside, taking his coat and walkman he wandered through the streets. Music up full blast, trying in vain to get his thoughts to stop, but at each house with lit up windows he got angrier.

Finally he came to the junkyard. The bus still standing there as if nothing had ever happened here. Steve didn't venture outside to the woods, especially not at night. Just thinking about it would usual send him onto the edge of a panic attack, but tonight wasn't usual. Tonight he was so angry he couldn't even feel the fear anymore. He found an old branch looking more or less sturdy and started to hit the first cracked windshield of a broken down car. It shattered after a few futile tries. He took another swing which lead to the the branch breaking with it. Steve was beyond caring, he kept at it with his bare fists, glass cutting into his skin.

After a while he was worn out, and slid down the side of the car onto the cold, hard ground. Breathing heavily seeing the air turn into small puffs. He felt empty now, hallowed out. He didn't know how much time had passed, but his hands were numb and ached. In the dark he couldn't see the extend of damage he might have inflicted on them.

There was this Christmas party hosted by another rich kid, it wasn't just for teens, but basically for anybody pathetic enough to spend Christmas alone. Steve had been there before he had started dating Nancy. It had been sort of nice, being in a crowded room with people you didn't know, but at least you weren't alone. Misery loves company, doesn't it? He couldn't remember the address anymore, but he didn't need it. The house was so brightly lit everybody could see it from miles away. Bright Christmas lights greeted him, a few teenagers drunk of their heads were shouting into the night.

He shoved his hands into his pockets, warmth pouring through the door. Steve didn't want to go inside. He didn't want to see anybody. On the other hand he couldn't stay outside, or in his big, large house. Maybe he could call somebody? But who? Will deserved a relaxed, normal Christmas. Nancy would want to spend Christmas with Jonathan, had she wanted that last year as well? Lucas was out of the question, to be honest he was scared of his little sister, and he didn't know Lucas that well. And Dustin wasn't even at home. So nobody left from his pathetic small circle of friends. For a split second he thought about Billy and Max only to push it away again. Even though the idea of seeing Billy was nice, which surprised Steve, both had hinted at Billy's father not liking to see any of Billy's friends in the house. So nowhere else left to go.

He took a deep breath, head held high, “I don't care”, he whispered and stepped inside. The sheer noise, bright lights, and thumping music beats made him nauseous. With resolve he tried to ignore the feeling, got himself a drink. The smell of liquor made him even more queasy as he stepped away from the table the room started to waver in front of him. He nearly lost grip of the flimsy red cup when he collided with someone he didn't know, “Hey watch it”, the boy shouted. Steve swallowed bile, leaving the cup untouched on the counter, rushing outside onto the street. When he was a couple of feet away he took deep breaths, leaning forward, trying hard not to throw up.

A car drove up to him, headlights flashing directly into his eyes. He started to vomit over the pavement. The car stopped, the last thing he needed was somebody from school to see him like this.

“Steve?”, he recognised that voice, Max coming into view.

“Harrington, what on earth are you doing in the middle of the street puking your guts out? Had too much to drink?”, Billy steadied him.

“I wish”, Steve stood upright, the world still spinning, he put a hand on Billy's shoulder.

“What happened to you? There's blood on your clothes.”

“There is?”, Steve muttered, feeling dizzy.

“Billy, he's going to collapse if we don't get him into the car”, Max said.

“Shit, sorry. C'mon.” Away from the bright headlights, and the noise Steve started to feel better. Max sat on the backseat leaning forward, handing him a bottle of water.

“What happened?”, Billy asked, “Did you get into a fight with somebody? Are they still at the party because I can take care of them.”

“No, I...it was just so loud and bright. Made me sick.”

“Oh”, Billy turned away, avoiding eye contact looking ashamed, “Well concussions do that to you.”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“What happened to your hands?” Steve looked at them for the first time after the junkyard visit. They were covered in blood and bruises, he winced when he tried to move his fingers. “Did you hit somebody?”, Billy asked, when Steve didn't answer he asked, “Did you hit something?”

“Yes”, Steve whispered.

Billy tapped his fingers on the steering wheel, clearly troubled. “Okay, why don't we get somewhere nice and quiet. I know just the place.”

“Don't you have to be somewhere? With your parents?”

Billy laughed, “Actually Max and I are trying to avoid them. My father decided to invite all his drinking buddies home. The good thing is his favourite bar, well the only bar in this hellhole, is empty, so we can go there.”

“But what about Max?”

Billy grinned, “I know the bartender.”

 

The bartender turned out to be a women in her late 30s Billy was currently flirting with.

Steve sat in a booth opposite of Max, “He does know she's a lot older than him, right?”

“Yes”, Max looked more annoyed than anything else, “Well there are two things Billy likes and one is older women.”

“Really?”, Steve rose an eyebrow.

“Haven't you noticed yet?”

“Ahm...No, we don't have that many older women at high school.”

“I know you hang out together.”

“Well not at places where older women typically are at.”

“Just make sure he never meets your Mum.”

“What?”, Steve asked, but was interrupted by Billy bringing something to drink.

“Soda for the kids”, he joked placing two glasses in front of Max and Steve. “So I thought your parents were in town?”, Billy said. Steve didn't know what to answer. He knew the party's strict rule of 'Friends don't lie' and he had lied repeatedly. Being caught in one was even worse.

“No”, he finally said, “I just didn't want anybody to feel sorry for me, I guess”, he didn't bear look Max in the eyes. Hoping she wouldn't tell any of the boys.

“It's okay”, Max said to his surprise, “I didn't tell the others either that we'll probably have to flee Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.”

“Next time you can talk to us before hurting yourself”, Billy said softly, noting the fresh blood on Steve's glass. “C'mon let's get you cleaned up. Max, behave yourself.”

“What am I supposed to do here anyway? Nobodies there.”

Billy looked at her thoughtfully then turned to Steve, “How's your headache?”

“It's okay now.” Billy nodded, and tossed Max a coin, the girl broke into a smile, already heading for the jukebox.

“Hey, no Last Christmas.”

“I'm not a ten year old love sick girl”, Max fired back.

“The singer looks a bit like....”, Steve started ending the 'you' in unison with Billy. They started laughing as they headed into the bathroom.

“He has a girlfriend, I don't, so clearly you are the singer.”

“I don't know”, Billy said, as he softly pulled Steve's hands underneath the tap of running water. “I think you look like him, just with nicer hair, and prettier in general”, he was so close now that their shoulders were touching.

“Prettier”, Steve felt his mouth go dry not sure what to make of this situation. The last time he had stood in front of a bathroom sink with someone had been that fateful night Nancy broke up with him.

Billy held Steve's hand in his palm, “Move your fingers, I want to check that there's no damage. Close them to a fist.” It stung when Steve did. “Okay, seems to be alright. I'll ask Rina if she can give us the first aid kit.”

“Who's Rina?”

“The bartender, must admit pretty hot if you ask me.”

“Please stop talking”, Steve cringed.

“What lover boy, never got it on with a mature lady?”, Billy winked at him.

“I really do not want to discuss your love life, Billy.” The boy just laughed and went to the bar. The jukebox came to life blaring Uptown Girl, Billy instantly turned.

“Max, what are you playing that for?”

“It's stuck”, Max complained, slamming it.

“Hey, Miss, stop hitting my jukebox. It's broken, and stuck on that song since November now”, Rina hollered over.

“Don't call me Miss!”, Max shouted back. Billy rolled his eyes, heading back to the table. He carefully bandaged Steve's hands, and put some ice on it. He rose his eyebrow when the jukebox started up again.

“It gets stuck on repeat”, Rina took a bored drag from her cigarette.

“Now you tell me?!”, Billy snapped.

“Yeah, you get more for your money.”

“Not exactly, how often does it loop?”

She shrugged, “Don't complain, you boys and the little girl shouldn't be in here anyway, but back home with your parents.”

“I'm not a little girl”, Max said, sitting down again.

“Let's play 'Have you Ever?'”, Billy suggested. Steve thought in all earnest about faking a sudden return of his headache to have an excuse not to play this game.

“C'mon it will be fun, besides we can't ask anything naughty because of the little girl present”, this earned him a hard kick from his sister. “Ow, stop it. Anyways we just moved here, so we don't really know each other that well.” Steve shot a pleading look towards Max, but she shrugged her shoulders.

“Actually he has a point.” Traitor. “I'll start, have you ever wanted to be somebody else?”

“Jeeze Max, what about icebreaker questions easing into this game.”

“What? We're not going to play an average, boring game, or are you too scared, Billy?”

“No, okay I would like to be a rock star.”

“Oh this is so typical”, Max muttered.

“No, hear me out. I would get all the girls, and people would pay lots and lots of money to see me perform.”

“You're sure they don't already do?”, Max said, making Steve choke on his soda.

“Max, shut up. Anyway, nobody pays me. Okay, you're up. Have you ever wanted to be somebody else?”

“Constantly”, Steve said.

“Why? You have rich parents and a nice house to live in. You were King of Hawkins for a considerable amount of time”, Billy said.

“Yeah, and it sucks to be the rich kid because everybody is only friends with you because of their money, and my parents are working all the time.”

“Well, it sucks to be poor as well. And we're not friends with you because of your money”, Billy tried to cheer him up.

“Who's next”?”, Max asked.

“Whoa not so fast, lady. You haven't answered your question.”

“Yeah, you don't have to answer your own.”

“Yeah, you do.”

“No, but if you want us to play it wrong whatever. I would like to be the first girl that joins the Bones Brigade.”

“The Bones what? Is this some kind of street gang, Max?”, Billy asked alarmed now.

“We don't have any street gangs in Hawkins, not that I know of at least”, Steve felt uneasy now. What if the kids walked into one of those, or even worse joined?

Max rolled her eyes, “They're a skateboard group.”

“Okay, just checking. Susan would never forgive me if I let you join a gang.”

“Who's Susan?”

“My Mum”, Max answered.

“So next question, have you ever kissed a boy?”, Billy said, again winking at Steve.

“A boy?”, Steve asked, not sure if he had misheard.

“Yes, have you? Maybe when you were a little drunk, or really drunk? Could have just been on the cheek”, for some reason Steve got the feeling whatever he answered was very important to Billy, but he wasn't sure why.

Chalking it up to Billy's quirks, like the passion for literature, Steve answered, “No, I haven't.” Was there disappointment in Billy's eyes?

“Would you like to?”

“Ahm...I never thought about it really, you?”, Steve asked, feeling awkward now.

“You would like to know, wouldn't you?”, Billy smirked.

“I kissed a girl once”, they turned their attention to Max, “We were practising kissing, in case we get boyfriends, and I think it has paid off.”

“What, you already kissed Sinclair?”, Billy blurted out.

“Hey”, Steve put a hand on his shoulder, “I can vouch for Lucas, he's not going to hurt her, and besides I can keep an eye on them.” Max threw him a thankful look as Billy calmed down.

“Hey I got you these”, Rina placed steaming hot cups of mulled vine onto the table, “Non-alcoholic kids”, she said and walked away before they could say thank you.

“She really must like you”, Max said taking a sip, “This is delicious.” Steve could hear the next iteration of Uptown Girl, after it had annoyed him now he started to enjoy the song again. Billy quietly hummed, starting to enjoy the song as well. After taking a few sips from the warm beverage Steve started to notice how exhausted he was.

“Okay next question”, Billy said, clapping his hand in front of Steve's eyes.

“Hey, he looks tired maybe we should take him home”, Max said.

“After his question, it's only fair.”

“Are you in love right now?”, Steve asked.

“That's not a 'have you ever'...”

“Shush”, Max interrupted her brother, “I'm in love with Lucas Sinclair right now”, she enjoyed Billy looking more than annoyed.

“Well”, Billy turned towards Steve, the jukebox playing: She's my uptown girl. You know I'm in love with an uptown girl.

His blue eyes interlocked with his, “I am in fact in love.” Steve's heart was beating faster again, Billy's beautiful curls nearly glowing golden in the light. Billy reached for Steve's hands, a small tingling when he touched his skin, “Let's bring you home.”

“No, wait, who are you in love with?”, Max asked excitedly.

Billy looked at Steve again, “With an angel.” Frowning Steve stood up, not sure who the mysterious girl could be. Certainly not one of Billy's many hookups because this time it seemed sincere like he actually meant it, not just a quick one-night stand, but something more. The same glance he had seen in Mike's eyes when he looked at El, the same look Steve probably had when he looked at Nancy, and the same when Nancy and Jonathan's eyes locked.

Steve ended up inviting Max and Billy to stay. He had forgotten about the broken Christmas tree embarrassed he muttered some kind of excuse. Billy looked like he wanted to taunt him, but didn't.

“I'll clean it up, you should get some rest.”

“We could watch a movie”, Max decided. Now that Steve wasn't alone anymore he didn't mind a Christmas movie, of course they watched It's a Wonderful Life which seemed to be on every channel. Billy playfully referred to Steve as Clarence until Steve's eyes drooped and he fell asleep, head snuggled against Billy's shoulder.

Chapter Text

26th December, Wednesday

The day of the campaign made Steve slightly nervous because Mike and Will were acting like it was the most important thing in the world. He was just glad El and Max were new to the party as well, so for once he wouldn't be the only one being seen as incompetent. Nancy opened the door when he knocked.

“Hey, I hope you had a nice Christmas”, he said, trying not to think about Jonathan who no doubt lurked in the bedroom. This time surely taking photos of Nancy with consent, an entirely new experience, Steve was sure.

“Steve”, she didn't move away to let him, “As much as I appreciate you spending time with my brother and his friends it's over between us. It doesn't matter how nice you are to the kids. Jonathan is my boyfriend now, and nothing can change that.” This took Steve by surprise, it hurt. Not so much Nancy again rubbing salt in the wound of him having lost her to Jonathan, no less. But to insinuate he used the kids to get back together with her.

“Do you think I'd be such a jerk”, he nearly shouted, “I would never use the kids for something like that. Do you really think I'm doing this for you, Nancy?”, he stepped inside, forcing her to let him through, “Get over yourself, Nancy. I'm not that desperate, and you are not that special”, he stared her down, noting the hurt in her eyes. He hoped it hurt, because she in fact was special, but nothing worth losing the kids over.

“Steve, c'mon everyone is waiting for you”, Mike shouted from downstairs.

“Got to go”, he hissed in Nancy's direction, who was struggling to say something back.

His anger dissipated when he spotted five overenthusiastic kids and Max looking equally as bewildered as he was feeling.

“Oh thank God, one normal person”, she beckoned him to sit next to her. Sweet, normally quiet Will had turned into a hyperactive menace Steve started to fear. He had accidentally counted his points wrong leading into Will and Mike shouting at him on the top of their voices. Making Steve start to understand how El could camp out at Mike's place for so long and remain undetected. If Mrs. Wheeler would come down here everytime they were shouting she'd never do anything else. He was worried about Mike's heart, the boy was getting more and more into the game, getting more and more agitated. In a vital part of the game it's Steve's turn.

“Give me a dexterity check”, Will said.

“You need 8, you got this”, Dustin said, or more screamed at Steve.

“Oh you better got this, or you'll get us all killed”, Max now equally caught up in the game. They had all moved closer to him, as he grabbed his dice.

“Okay, guys give me some space...I am stealthy, I'll get this no problem”, his heart beating hard, sweat dripping down his forehead as he rolled the dice. “Oh no”, he muttered seeing them.

“Crit fail”, Dustin shouted, throwing his baseball cap on the ground.

“The Rogue gets slain by the dragon. There is only one hope”, Will turned to El, “Can the Mage save the rest of the party, and avenge the Rogue's death, or will everyone be barbarously torn apart alive by the dragon?” El concentrating intently on the dice, her nose started bleeding.

“Hey, your girlfriend's cheating”, Steve shouted.

“No, she's not. How dare you, Harrington?!”, Mike stood up nearly throwing the board over, towering in front of Steve who remained seated.

“What?! I'm not going to die, and she saves you all through a cheat.”

“Steve is right, no cheating El, sorry”, Will said.

“Why do you even care. You don't even like this game”, Mike muttered.

“Well now that you forced me to play it, and I died in the line of duty I am invested”, he brushed a hand through his sweat-soaken hair that had fallen into his face.

“I'm going to save everyone, and bury you, Steve”, El said, determination in her voice, “Without cheating.”

“You don't even need to cheat El you can do without”, Mike cheered her on. In spite of himself Steve stood up, leaning over the table to see what El was going to throw. Just as she was about to roll the dice there was a soft knock on the door.

“Guys, dinners ready, can you all come....”

“Not now, Nancy, we're in the middle of something”, Steve shouted, “El, do it now!” El threw the dice, it rolled off the table, rolling under the blanket fort. Steve exchanged glances with Dustin, they nodded, rushing to the fort, pulling away pillows.

“Be careful”, Mike hollered, “Don't move the dice.”

“Sorry”, El said, avoiding Mike's glance.

“Don't apologise it makes it more interesting, more fun”, he said in a friendly voice.

“Get your asses into gear we haven't got all day”, Lucas slammed his hand on the table. All the game pawns trembling.

“Oh I am having the time of my life!”, Steve pulled another cushion away, his eyes fell on the dice. “I got one.”

“What does it say?”

“7, how much does she need?”

“18”

“I've got the other”, Max announced.

“And?”

“10”, she muttered.

“10? Are you kidding me? We needed one more and she got 10”, Lucas had reached the end of his rope.

“The dragon pounces, tearing the Mage in half, the Paladin is heartbroken over the loss, he doesn't move takes his punishment as the dragon takes a huge breath, and burns him alive. Meanwhile the Bard, Ranger and Zoomer, are still trying to defend themselves with their weapons, but to no avail, the dragon snaps them like mere twigs. His terrible claws ripping all of them to shreds. With the death of the party the kingdom can't be saved and falls into the hands of the demogorgon.”

“Damn it”, Mike threw his dice across the room.

“Hey, why did they get this amazing death scene, and I was just slain?”, Steve complained.

“Well, a dragon can only kill in so many ways”, Will said, at least having the decency to look a little embarrassed.

“The entire party died, and you are complaining about your death, Steve? Don't you have any compassion?”, Dustin shouted.

“I'm sorry, but I told you all we shouldn't do the frontal attack, but no nobody listened to me, per usual.”

“You don't have any credentials”, Mike snapped.

“What credentials?”

“Did you win the battle of Carcosa?”

“Uhm...No.”

“Or the fight in the dark forest of Argicourte?”

“No, but I did win a fight against actual demodogs!”

Mike stopped, thinking about that for a while, “I guess you're right”, he let himself fall dejectedly onto the heap of pillows.

“The way you just went into the choker's lair was reckless, reckless but amazing”, Dustin gushed, high-fiving Steve.

“It was surprisingly intense.”

“Of course, it's D&D, what did you think? I thought you played it before?”

“Well, with an older group of boys, I was pretty young at the time, didn't quite understand it”, Steve shrugged.

“It's important to have the right kind of party, people you can trust”, Will said.

“Can you come to dinner now?”, they had all forgotten Nancy standing in the doorway.

“No!”, they all said in unison.

 

27th December, Thursday

They had actually won the second campaign which Steve was in very high spirits about even though he really didn't care much for the game, or that's at least what he told himself. Now the kids were playing The Game of Life, and he was trying to write his essay, only one more week until he had to hand it in. It made him nervous, one week should be enough time for a short essay. At least he had actually read the book all the way through this time. Contrary to what Billy might think he had written essays on his own, only he mostly stopped around page 50 because he ran out of time. He listened more to the kids talking than actually writing the damn thing. The game seemed to have ended, the kids stood up wandering around his house. The Billy Joel album lazily playing on the record player.

“Hey, could you do something instead of just pacing? You're making me nervous.”

“Is this the bat?”, Dustin excitedly took it, swinging it around, nearly hitting El in the process.

“Watch it, Dustin. That's a weapon not a toy.”

“When we were hiding in the bus, Steve went outside and fought three of them off. Just with his bat, it was amazing”, Max told El, who looked at Steve with new found respect, “Bitchen”, she smiled. Mike and Lucas peered over Steve's shoulder.

“What are you writing?”, Mike asked.

“Could you please stop doing that”, Steve tried to gently push him away.

“You mixed up the 'b' and the 'd'”, Mike laid a finger on the word, “You wrote doat instead of boat.”

“I didn't...”, Steve looked a little closer, damn he had.

"Oh, and here you wrote angle instead of angel.”

“Maybe I wanted to write that.”

“No, wouldn't make sense in context.”

Steve was getting more and more frustrated, “Could you please stop criticising my writing, it all looks the same anyway.”

“I really doesn't.”

“To me it does.”

Mike took Steve's pencil and wrote both words next to each other, “Do you see the difference?”, he asked it in a nice way, not like his teachers had when he'd been younger.

“Ahm...”, after awhile he could see it himself, why hadn't he noticed before?

“Yeah, I can see it now.”

“You can tell me what you want to write, and I can write it down for you, if it's easier that way?”, Lucas said. Which surprised Steve, he'd been sure Lucas would say something mean, the kid wasn't exactly diplomatic.

“Guys, you really don't have to do that. I'm sure you have a lot of homework you still need to do.”

“No”, Lucas shrugged, “We did it on the first day of holidays.”

“You did what?”, of course they had.

“Not a big deal. Anyways, we want to help you because it's our fault, or well...my fault”, Lucas said, speaking less confident now.

“No, why should it be?”

“Because of your concussion.”

Steve almost laughed, “Oh, I wish it was because of my concussion. I always had....”, he wasn't sure what to call it. His father had an array of words going from stupidity to being lazy. Steve never was sure which hurt more. “Well this. And somebody from school is helping me with the essay.”

“Okay.” For a bunch of super smart nerds they were taking it pretty well, although from day one they had probably thought Steve was stupid, so this can't have been such a surprise. The moment was broken when he heard Billy's reading voice, the tape.

“Is that Billy?!”, Max exclaimed, eyes wide with wonder. This is not happening.

“No! What are you snooping around in my stuff anyway. My room is off limits to you.”

Max shrugged, “You didn't say. It's pretty boring anyway, we didn't even find any porn”, she gave him a pointed look.

“What?”, he nearly shrieked, “How do you even...Max, there are other kids present.”

“Jonathan has some hidden underneath his bed”, Will shrugged.

“He does?”, Steve already thought of all the beautiful ways he could blackmail Jonathan now if he ever did break Nancy's heart. Then his mind snapped back to the matter at hand, “No way I'm going to be the one giving the talk.”

Mike pulled a face, and El asked, “What talk?”

“The talk I'm not giving you. Now, give the tape back.”

“Did Billy do this for you?”, Max asked, handing it over. Steve resisted the urge to pull the tape player to his chest to keep it safe. For some stupid reason he did not want to lose Billy's voice.

“My mother used to write poetry for my father, is it something like that?”, Lucas seemed genuinely interested.

“No, it's not”, Steve was not going to be compared to a married couple in relation with Billy. “I'm not a quick reader, and Billy offered to help.”

“He offered to help?”, Max asked.

“Yeah, you know Billy. Turned a completely new leaf this month. Anyways, he told me he was a tutor in California.”

“Are you paying him?”

“No.”

“Well then this ain't tutoring, also he only ever gave lessons to girls”, Max said. 

“And, what's your point?”

“Ew”, Mike said. Will shrugged, “Maybe he's just trying to apologise for knocking you out. I mean he was nice to all of us.”

The doorbell rung, “Speaking of the devil”, Max muttered.

“Hey, none of this to Billy, or you're all dead”, Steve threatened them only to be completely ignored.

“It's kinda sweet”, Dustin said, “Billy reading you The Great Gatsby, the tragic lovestory.”

He gave Dustin one look, “Just shut up.”

Billy smiled when he spotted Steve, “Hey, did you survive the nerd party?”

“It's not a nerd party”, Mike snapped.

“Barely.” Just in that moment, because apparently all the devices hated him today the next song Uptown Girl started playing.

Billy rose an eyebrow, “Can't get enough of that song, Harrington?”

“I got it as a present”, Steve mumbled.

“Really, didn't know you liked Billy Joel.”

“Me neither”, Steve said, “I mean I got it from someone, so....I mean it could be a good song...”, he wasn't sure what he was even trying to say. All the eyes of the kids on him.

“But?”, Billy smiled, clearly enjoying the show. Damn it, he hated Hargrove so much. Did Billy like Billy Joel? And why did Steve even care if Billy did or did not like it? It wasn't any of his damn business anyway. He didn't tell Billy he had actually waited outside the record shop this morning, with a bunch of people bringing presents back. Only to get this album for this one song that reminded him of the first decent Christmas he had had in a while now. The moment in the bathroom, Billy's blue eyes...

“So Uptown Girl, do you need help with your essay”, Billy interrupted his thoughts.

“More than help”, Mike muttered under his breath.

“Oh no, it's going great”, he really did not want Billy to see his stupid mistakes.

Billy didn't seem to believe him, but shrugged his shoulders, “Okay, but if you need help, then just call me, or better call code red over the walkie talkie.”

“Absolutely not, you cannot destroy the integrity of the walkie talkies”, Mike complained, “A code red means a life or death situation.”

“Well, it's his entire future”, Billy said.

“Are you really helping Steve?”, Max asked.

“Not really any of your business, but yes.”

“Why?”

“Because of what happened”, Billy seemed a bit flustered.

“Nothing else?”

“No”, Billy said it too quickly, blushing now, why was Billy Hargrove blushing? Had Steve missed something?

“If you hurt Steve in any way, that bat is going to land between your legs after all.”

“Damn, they are pretty protective of you”, Billy laughed awkwardly. Billy never did awkward that was Steve's metier not his. He got his keys, the kids already running outside.

Billy laid a hand on his, “I can bring them home if you want to.”

“I don't mind honestly.”

“You look tired.”

“Since when do you notice something like that?”

“I'm observant”, Billy smirked.

“You're weird, Hargrove.”

“I'm not the one who is co-parenting six brats.” They had walked to the car, Lucas decided to drive with Max and Billy.

“We have to go now. Bye, Uptown Girl”, Billy let the engine howl loudly, show-off.

“Billy's been behaving very weird lately”, Mike said, as they fastened their seatbelts.

“I think he likes Steve, and is trying to make friends”, Will said.

“Or he has a sinister motive”, Mike said.

“People can change, you know”, Dustin joined it, “Take Steve for example, complete jerk a few months back and look at him now.”

“Well thank you, Henderson”, Steve muttered annoyed.

After he had brought everyone home, Steve opened the door, his shoes colliding with an object, it skittered across the floor. He picked it up, a tape with the words 'Mixtape' on it, he recognised Billy's handwriting. Strange, probably Billy had lost it here, he placed it on the kitchen counter.

After that Steve played the Uptown Girl song countless times, always moving the needle a few inches back to listen to the song again. He closed his eyes, lying on the floor for a long time not thinking about demodogs, or hurt and frightened kids, but about Billy.

Chapter Text

31st December, Tuesday

“Harrington, this is Hargrove”, a short pause, the static flickering on the walkie talkie then “Over.”

“Why are you using the walkie talkie? Over.”

“It's quicker, are you going to the New Year's party? They have a large garden, so we could just hang out there. You won't get a headache. Over.”

“Are you inviting me to a party? Over.”

“No”, Billy sounded offended, “No, I just wanted to know if I'd run into you, or not. It's whatever. Over.” Had he said something wrong, why was Billy like this?

“Ahm...well, I already sorta promised the kids to go to see the fireworks. Over.”

“Okay, never mind I asked”, Billy quickly said, he wanted to add something, but they were interrupted.

“This is Mike, why are you using the line with a non-party member, Steve?” Of course Mike, the nerd, would embarrass him like this.

“He just asked me something. Over.”

“If you want to talk get a private line”, Mike said, “Anyways, when are you going to come pick us up? Over.” Why was he friends with this spoiled brat again?

“I'll bring Max. Over”, Billy said.

“You don't need to, I can...”

“I insist, Harrington. See you then. Over and Out.”

“Dude, what was that about? Over”, Mike complained.

“Could you just shut up for a minute. I'll pick you up this evening. But aren't your parents coming as well? Over.”

“I'm not going to drive together with them. Over”, Mike sounded offended by the mere idea of it.

“Okay, whatever, see you then. Over and Out.”

 

“What's the time”, Dustin asked, nearly jumping up and down in excitement.

“One minute later since the last time you asked”, Steve muttered.

“Lucas?”, Dustin shouted to the other boy.

“11:45.”

“Okay, we can't miss it.”

“Max, where are you? Over”, Lucas had his eyes fixed on the road. “Why did you even let Hargrove drive her here? He probably is being late on purpose”, he complained.

“Hey, no funny business”, Hopper shouted over from the other side of the park. Heads turning from ever person who was sitting there waiting for the fireworks to being.

“Oh my God, he is becoming an embarrassing parent”, Steve said to no one in particular. El probably was blushing he couldn't see much of her in the dark, only that she leaned in for a kiss.

“Harrington, don't make me come over there.” Great now eyes were turning to him, a few parents giving him weird looks, and he could spot some people from high school in the crowd.

“Break it up you two”, he gently pushed them away from each other.

“Why are you on his side?”, Mike complained.

“Because he'll have your and my head if you don't stop, okay?”

“Can we just look at the fireworks”, Will said, sounding annoyed now.

“There she is!”, Lucas pointed towards the headlights of a car, driving towards the direction of the park. Billy and Max didn't walk over to them immediately, conversing in the dark. Uneasiness spread through Steve, had something happened? Finally Max started walking towards them, Billy rummaging in his car. For some reason Steve's heart sank, he didn't know why, but he'd wanted Billy to at least say hello. His heart sank even more when Billy sat back down in the driver's seat, starting the engine. Part of him, a silly part, had hoped Billy would stay for the New Year fireworks. For some reason he started to feel safer when the other boy was around.

“Max, finally. What took you so long, you almost missed it!”, Lucas shouted.

“Sorry, we had a little hold up.”

“A hold up going on for an hour?”, Mike snapped.

“Yeah”, Max looked a little phased, something definitely had happened.

Before Steve could pull her aside and ask Dustin said, “Did you invite Billy as well?”, he wished he had.

“No, why?”

“Because he's walking towards us.” Steve tried very hard not to be happy, to look and sound as indifferent as possible. In the distance he could see Hopper already having a hand on his gun holster.

“Harrington, kids, my car isn't working, do you mind me staying here?”

“Yes”, Mike said.

“Mike, could you just carry on kissing El, and leave us in peace”, Steve snapped.

“The car was working before”, Max frowned.

“It's probably nothing”, Billy shrugged his shoulders, “I'll check it in the morning, when there's some light.”

“Course you can stay, or did you want to go to the party?”, Steve tentatively asked.

“No, not really it's just the same old. California had great New Year parties I don't think I'd like a Hawkins one anyway.”

“Oh, it's your first New Year's here, right?”, Billy and Max nodded.

“You'll love the fireworks”, Lucas quickly assured her.

“We could probably build some fireworks ourselves”, Dustin mused.

“Absolutely not”, Steve was not going to let them build a bomb that would blow up in their faces.

“We burned the tunnels. You helped us with that, a bomb is no different”, the boy argued.

“Helped is a very big word, I was kidnapped.”

“You were on the verge of passing out again, but you insisted on going down the tunnels with us”, Max said, “You very much helped us.”

“Hey it's happening, one more minute”, Dustin counted down the seconds, joined by the other kids.

“They're taking this very seriously”, Billy said with a raised eyebrow.

“Oh you can't even begin to imagine”, Steve said. They joined in. Last year Steve had been at a party with Nancy. Slightly drunk they had kissed when the new year finally started. At the time Steve had thought it would be a good one. His last high school year and after that who knew, he hadn't thought so far ahead. It hadn't mattered, it only had settled in later how trapped he was. Would the next year be as traumatic as this one? The bang of the fireworks made him jump.

“Hey, Steve”, Billy had put a hand on his arm, “Maybe this year is going to treat us better.” Steve didn't believe him, but he felt better standing next to Billy and the kids.

“Promise me we'll all be fine. Nobody will get hurt”, he whispered so quietly he didn't think Billy would even catch it.

“I promise”, Billy whispered back.

“Oh that's a big one, look Lucas, look at that one!”, Mike shouting letting go of El's hand. The girl walked over to Steve and Billy. Taking Steve's hand.

“Hey, is everything okay?”, Steve asked.

“It's so loud”, she muttered, her eyes wide with fear. With every bang of the fireworks she shrunk more into Steve. She shivered, her hand clutching his tighter.

“You don't have to be scared. They're just fireworks can't harm you when you don't stand too close to them.” El nodded.

“They look pretty, don't they?”, Steve knelt down next to her, pointing towards the sky. “That one looks like a flower, doesn't it?”

El slowly nodded, “That's a rainbow”, she said pointing to the next one. He glanced back at Billy who had his eyes fixed on Steve and El, his glance unreadable.

“Are you okay?”, Steve asked.

“Yeah, just never seen your Mum thing in action.”

“My Mum thing?”

Billy nodded, “It's kinda cute, in a girly way.” Why was it that Billy only ever gave compliments that turned into insults? He shrugged out of his jacket, “Give it to her, she's shivering.” Steve was surprised that Billy even cared.

“El, here put this on”, the girl nodded and slipped into the jacket.

She looked to Billy, smiling, “Thanks.”

Billy looked a little taken aback, “Ahm...sure.” Finally Mike noticed his girlfriend wasn't at his side anymore.

“El, is everything alright?”

“Yes”, El said, staying at her spot.

“Why is she wearing Billy's jacket, I could have given you mine”, Mike said.

“Mike, just say thank you to Billy”, somebody had to teach this boy some manners. To his surprise for once in his life this boy actually obeyed.

“Thanks, Billy and Steve. El, do you want to see some of the fireworks with me?”, he almost asked shyly. She nodded and followed him.

“Sorry about Mike. He's actually a pretty loyal, caring kid when he sets his mind to it”, Steve didn't even know where the need to defend Mike came from.

“It's alright, I was a bit of a menace when I was his age.”

“Was?”, Steve teased. Billy nudged him playfully. To his surprise Steve didn't mind, he didn't feel a panic attack coming on.

“Oh shit, sorry I didn't mean to...”, Billy started, probably thinking the same thing.

“No, it's fine”, Steve smiled, Mike, El, Lucas and Max were having the time of their lives, Will was standing a few feet away, staring at the fireworks.

“I'll be right back”, Steve walked up to the boy, he was shaking, short breaths, too quickly. Reminding Steve of himself whenever he experienced a panic attack, shit.

“Will, Will can you hear me, it's Steve.”

His eyes slowly focused on Steve, “What if it's here?”, tears spilling down his cheeks.

“It's not here, the gate's closed.”

“What if somebody opens it again?” The question Steve had asked himself again and again.

“I've got my bat, and we've got El and you”, putting a hand on the boy's shoulder grounding him, “ You are right here with me, okay. You're in Hawkins not in the Upside Down.”

“But it looks like....the sky is red”, Will trembled. Steve looked at the fireworks, lightening the sky up.

“Okay, let's go somewhere else”, he took Will's hand. Mike had spotted them, he and El came towards them.

“What's going on?”

“The fireworks remind him of the demogorgon.”

“Shit”, Mike muttered, “What do we do?”

“Let's go to my car.” He tried not to peer into the darkness of the forest. Out of the corner of his eyes he thought he'd seen the shadow of a demodog waiting for its next prey.

 

Steve tried to concentrate on the present, the kids needed him right now, no time to break down. Sitting in the front Will was still shivering, Steve shrugged out of his jacket helping Will to slip into it. Mike and El where sitting in the back. The fireworks were still going on, at least a little bit muted. But not enough.

“Okay guys, do you want to hear a Billy Mixtape?”

“Billy made you a mixtape?”, Mike exclaimed.

“No, of course not...Why would he even, you know what don't even answer that. He most have lost it at my place.”

“Lost it?”, even El was hellbent on the idea of Billy giving him the mixtape like this was some kind of high school girl crush, which it wasn't. Although even Steve wasn't so sure anymore when Uptown Girl was the first song that filled the silence of the car.

“So, do you have anymore campaigns planned, Will?”, he tried to distract the boy.

Will let out a shaky, “Yeah.”

“Good because I am ready to show the party how stealthy I am as Rogue.”

“Stealthy?”, Mike quipped up from the backseat, “You won one game in three.”

“Nobody can win all the time”, Steve shrugged, “Who played first with you?”

“My brother, he played it with friends”, Will said, he seemed to calm down at bit.

“Nancy used to play with us”, Mike said.

“What?”, this did surprise Steve, Nancy had always seemed like a very normal girl in all respects. Nothing like Billy and the kids, why was he even thinking about Billy in that context? Nancy had always seemed like a girl who'd never belong to a nerd-related group.

“Yeah, she was actually pretty good before boys entered the picture”, he stared at Steve.

“What, it's not my fault..”

“You were her first boyfriend.”

“Yeah, and you have a girlfriend now, so don't throw stones at a house.”

“A glass house, because stone breaks glass”, Mike explained to him like he was a kid.

“I know stone breaks glass! That's why it's a house with windows, because windows break.”

“Seriously”, Mike face-palmed. Will smiled, so that was a win at least. I Just Called to Say I Love You now playing.

“That's from Stevie Wonder”, Mike said, “Seems oddly specific for Billy to have just lost it at your house, don't ya think?”

“It's a coincidence”, Steve said, feeling slightly embarrassed now trying to recall if he had ever given somebody a mixtape out of merely platonic reasons.

A knock on the window made him jump, Hopper stood outside, shining the flashlight directly into his eyes when he rolled the windows down. Hurting his head.

“Could you please put the flashlight away, I had a concussion remember?”

Hopper's resolve faded a bit, he slowly directed the flashlight away, “There better be no hanky-panky in the backseat of your car, Harrington.” Steve felt a little insulted by that.

“I would never let Mike and El make out in my car, or any other car for that matter”, he added quickly.

“I sure hope so. Is everything alright”, he frowned when his eyes fell on Will, “What happened?”

“The fireworks were loud”, Will said.

“Very loud”, El added.

“Okay, are those the Ronnettes, what are you kids listening to?”

“The radio”, Steve said, when Be My Baby came from the tape.

“Okay, if you need anything give us a shout.” They waited until Hopper had stepped away from the car.

“Oh, he is so annoying”, Mike burst out.

“Hey, he's just worried for his daughter, every father would be”, or that's what Steve heard nice fathers normally did.

“I bet you had loads of girls when you were my age.”

“We're not discussing this here, or ever really”, Steve muttered.

“Okay, Will are you feeling better?”, Mike asked his friend.

“Yes, sorry for freaking out.”

“Don't be, it's okay to freak out”, Steve said, not wanting this kid to feel bad about that on top of everything else.

“Yeah, we don't mind”, Mike quickly added.

Another knock, again a bright flashlight directly in his eyes, “Do you mind moving it a little?”, he couldn't even see the person holding it because he was currently only seeing dots filling his vision.

“No, what are you doing in the car like a bunch of losers?”

To his utter terror Steve recognised the voice, “Erica?”

“The one and only.”

“Erica, could you please stop shining your flashlight into my eyes. I had a concussion, bright lights still hurt.”

“I ain't caring about your concussion.”

“I saved your brother.” A small pause, probably considering if saving her brother was a good or bad thing.

“Well couldn't have been a great rescue when you got a concussion.”

Steve shielded his eyes with his hand, “What on earth do you want?”

“Just checking if my idiot brother is in here.”

“No, he's not”, Mike shouted.

“Oh but you are, freak”, the flashlight thankfully moved away from Steve.

“Shut up, Erica.”

“You're telling me to shut up?”

“Please, could you both stop”, Steve just wanted to have a nice night, was this not possible in Hawkins? He instantly regretted saying anything when the light hit him full force.

“A concussion huh? Wouldn't your brain start leaking from your nose and eyes.”

“No...”

“Well can't have been a bad concussion then”, she shrugged.

“Yeah, bad enough that I'm going to be sick if you don't get your stupid light out of my face!” I Want to Know What Love Is now playing.

“Girl, what are you even listening to?”

Steve felt more nauseous by the minute, with a bit of protest he managed to open the car door, squeezed past Erica, and proceeded to throw up on the grass.

“Are you....”, the girl stopped for once taking a few steps back.

“This is your fault, Erica”, Mike sounded angry. Because Steve had his back turned to all of them he could only see the bouncing flashlight beam along the ground. Suddenly it whipped up landing a few feet away from Erica. Steve managed to turn around seeing El's nose bleeding.

“I'm okay guys”, he weakly managed.

“Erica what did you do!”, Lucas, Max, Dustin and Billy approached them.

“I...I didn't know the light would bother him so much”, she stammered, clearly taken aback.

“He told you, you didn't listen!”, Mike shouted a little bit too close to Erica now.

“Guys, I'm fine.”

“No, you're not.”

Steve put a hand on Mike's shoulder pushing him away from the girl. “She didn't know the light would do this.”

“Does this happen often?”, Dustin asked.

“No...”

Max shook her head, but didn't say anything.

“I didn't know”, Erica repeated.

“It's okay”, Steve wasn't sure why he was defending yet another brat, but here he was doing just that.

“Well, I'm driving then”, Billy said. After Lucas had sent his sister away, he turned to Steve, “I am really sorry about this.”

“It's fine, quit worrying.”

“Is that...”, Billy leaned into the car, listening to the music.

“Ahm...yeah, you must have lost the mixtape when you came by last time. We listened to it, I hope you don't mind.”

“No...it's”, Steve could have sworn Billy was blushing right now, “It's for a girl”, he muttered.

“A girl?”, he couldn't keep the disappointment out of his voice, if Billy really hooked up with this girl he loved he wouldn't have time to come to Steve's place for studying in the future. Coming to think of it why was he spending New Year's with him and not the mystery girl?

“Where is she today?”

“Oh...ah she's here”, Billy stammered. Max exchanged a confused glance with Steve, Billy was acting rather peculiar.

“What's the time?”, Dustin asked.

“It's almost an hour past midnight.”

“I promised Mum to be home soon.”

Will hugged Steve, “Thanks”, he handed him over his jacket and El thanked Billy again for lending her his. Lucas kissed Max, this time Billy didn't protest, but still watching them like a hawk. Then Will, El and Lucas made their way back to their families. The ride home was a quiet affair the kids half-asleep in the back of the car. When they finally arrived at Hargrove's place Steve grabbed Billy by the arm before he could step outside.

“I'm going to bed”, Max announced, “Goodnight, Steve.”

“Goodnight.”

“What is it?”, Billy asked looking curious.

Steve stopped the tape, “Here.”

“Oh, you can keep it, I have copies...If you like the music”, Billy muttered.

“Yeah, I do, why didn't you see the girl today?”

“What girl?”

“The girl you made the tape for, the one you are in love with.”

“What makes you say I'm in love with her?”

Steve shrugged, “It's just the way you light up when you think about her.” Nodding Billy looked at Steve. “There, that glance again. Who is she? Who has gotten Hargrove's heart?”

Billy smiled, sad now, “It doesn't matter, she'll never love me back.”

“Why, I mean you're the King of Hawkins. Every girl wants the King of Hawkins.”

“No, this girl doesn't care for things like that”, he muttered.

“Oh, but you can still ask her out, you've been nice”, he still stumbled over that word in relation to Billy, “Girls like nice, well most do. You're still going to help me with school though. I mean, when you have a new girlfriend you probably don't have much time, and it's not like I...”, he stopped not sure what he even wanted to say. Billy was just a jerk who cracked his head open, nothing more. Why did he have to remind himself of that? He remembered Billy talking him down from a panic attack, reading to him, bandaging his hands, lending El his beloved jacket. He wouldn't go as far as saying Billy was a friend, but he was less on the scale of annoying now.

Billy started laughing, “You can be so oblivious sometimes, Steve, you know that?”

“What, I don't understand....” Billy gave him another sad look, “And how would you understand?”, he shook his head, “I'll always help you with school, doesn't matter if I have a girlfriend, or not.”

“When not if.”

“Yeah”, he leaned closer to Steve, “In a perfect world”, he reached over, touching Steve's hair.

“Ahm...what are you doing?”, Steve asked, getting more and more confused.

“You had a spider in your hair”, Billy smiled, still this sad smile. He pulled away, “Goodnight, Steve.”

Only when Billy already was in the house Steve, sitting transfixed in some kind of trance he couldn't understand, realised Billy had called him Steve two times, and not Harrington.

Chapter Text

3rd January, Friday

After having procrastinated for days on his essay, and then finally writing something in a late night craze fuelled by copious amounts of coffee, Steve decided to call Billy. For once he used the landline the kids didn't need to know how often he hung out with Billy, even it was for school and not social reasons. They wouldn't understand anyway because school and social reasons were interchangeable for them, these little nerds actually enjoyed education.

“Hello?”, Max's voice on the line. Dammit why did she have to pick up?

“Hey Max, is Billy around?”

“Hi Steve, is your walkie talkie broken?”

“No, just didn't want to use the party line, ya know.”

“He's not blackmailing you, is he?”

“What? No, of course not”, where did she even get that idea?

“If he's bothering you I can do something about it.”

“No”, he quickly intervened, the last thing he needed was Billy not wanting to see him because of an overzealous sister. “No, he's helping me with school, that's why I'm calling actually.”

“Huh...what did you talk about in the car?”

“School”, Steve lied.

“Sure, you don't talk about school when you can help it.”

“Max, could you please just call Billy to the phone?”

“The car wasn't broken, you know.”

“Why didn't you tell me?”

“You're a good influence on Billy, and”, she hesitated then said, “I like that somebody is looking out for you, anyway I'll get Billy”, she quickly said, not leaving Steve any chance to say anything more.

A few moments later he heard Billy's voice, “Harrington, what's up?”

“Hey, I might need your help, Billy.”

“With the essay.”

“I guess”, Steve felt stupid for even asking.

“Sure, I'll be right over.”

 

His mother had come home from her vacation, still the weekend left before she had to go back to work.

“Mum, a schoolmate is coming over, we're going to do a project together”, she didn't need to know he couldn't even write an essay.

“Okay, what's her name?”

“Ahm...it's actually a boy.”

His mother looked surprised, “Oh so this is really schoolwork then.”

“Of course it is, Mum. What did you think?!”

She smiled, “When I was your age I went out with this football player, and he used to need help with schoolwork, and we ended up making out to Elvis Presley songs.”

“Entirely too much information, Mum.”

His mother laughed, “As if you haven't done that before.”

“This is totally inappropriate”, he grimaced.

“So who's the boy?”

“Billy”, Steve hoped she'd already forgotten the name.

“Billy as in Billy Hargrove, the boy that attacked you last November?” Well, guess she hadn't.

“He's been trying to make it up to me, really. He's been helpful.”

She had stood up, “Helpful?”

“Yes.”

“I'm going to talk to him.”

Steve skidded in front of her blocking her way to the door, “Mum, you really don't need to.”

“He beat you within an inch of your life.”

“That's an exaggeration”, Steve thought how helpful it would have been to have his mother joining him whenever a demodog was on the loose. She'd kill it when it went anywhere near him. A knock on the door, his mother pushed him out of the way.

“Mum, just be cool.”

She smiled, “Oh I'll show you how cool I can be.” Billy looked slightly surprised when he saw Steve's mother, but quickly put on his signature grin that made every girl's knees weak.

“Mrs. Harrington, I presume?”

“And you must be Billy Hargrove, I know what you did to my son.”

He had the decency to look ashamed, “I am very sorry for hitting Steve, Ma'am.”

“You better be”, with that she slapped Billy.

“Mum, what on earth are you doing?”, Steve rushed to her side, why was everybody making it so hard for him to just let him see Billy for schoolwork, just stupid schoolwork, nothing else. He managed to stand between Billy and his mother hoping this wouldn't escalate. Billy wiped his mouth, Steve's mother had actually managed to draw blood, Billy smiled, reminding Steve far too much of the night when he had hit the teen, and he had seemed to thrive on the violence. He cautiously took a step back.

“Damn, Mrs. Harrington you sure have some spunk, so that's where your son gets his fire from. I must say his looks as well. You look absolutely breathtaking.” Steve remembered Max telling him to watch out for Billy flirting with his mother.

“If you lay a hand on him I will obliterate you”, his mother said fiercely, then turned walking back into the house. If she could've stood up against his father like that Steve would've had an easier life.

“I am so sorry about this”, Steve managed.

Billy handwaved it away, “You and I both know I deserved it. Your mother is very protective, like you.”

“On occasion”, Steve nervously laughed, seeing bruising already forming around Billy's eye, “Let me get you some ice.”

 

This time they went into Steve's room.

“I've never actually been in here”, Billy sat down on the bed. Steve sat next to him, placing the ice carefully on his skin. Their shoulders touching, it felt nice to have a solid body sitting so close to him. He wasn't alone, grounded into reality.

Steve shrugged, feeling a little self-conscious now, “Yeah, it's not much, but I usually have the house to myself, so I don't really use my room.”

“Ah the famous bat”, Billy ran his fingers along the coarse wood. “Do you get nightmares?”, Billy finally asked.

“Nightmares...No.”

“You don't have to pretend you're fine, Steve. It's just us, no kids that need you to be strong.”

Steve started to fidget with his blanket, “If I think about it too long, about the nightmares I mean, they start to become more real than reality itself”, he muttered. Even though he wasn't facing Billy he could feel his eyes on him, and the eyes of the monster lurking in his memories. The air in the room seemed to get thinner and thinner, closing in on him.

“Steve, you're here now with me”, Billy's shoulder warm, real against his.

“I know”, Steve let out a shaky laugh, willing his hands to stop trembling.

“So how was the D&D game really? I mean I know you have some kind of older cool kid image to maintain when you're with the nerds, but Max told me you were pretty into it.”

“Do Max and you always talk about me?”

“Well, Max likes to talk, you know?”

“Well, I liked it”, Steve shrugged his shoulders, pretending he didn't almost have an altercation with Mike over his girlfriend nearly cheating at the game, or the moment he had a small meltdown when El missed the points by one.

“It's adorable you being a nerd and all. I like it when you smile and are passionate about something. You look so sad most of the time.”

“When have you seen me being passionate about something, we only do stuff for school which I'm most certainly not passionate about.”

“No, but whenever you talk to the kids your eyes light up, it's adorable”, Billy smiled.

“Thanks”, Steve awkwardly said, not sure if being adorable was a compliment, an insult, or Billy making fun of him.

“Okay, the essay, show it to me.” Steve sighed handing it over, but he didn't let go.

“It's really bad, I tried my best, but it's bad.”

“It's okay, I need you to be bad, so I can successfully mentor you.”

“Nice line, where did you learn that?”

“Shut up, Harrington”, he smacked him with the paper, “Hand me a red pen.” Steve watched him intently, finally getting the chance to stare without Billy giving him a strange look. His stupid long hair falling in curls down to his shoulders, his crystal blue eyes, the inability to button his shirts up, his earring dangling as he read the sheet of paper. His lips...Steve tried to stop looking, tried not to think about how Billy's lips would feel on his mouth. He really needed a girlfriend.

“What are you looking at?”, Billy asked.

“Just trying to find out if George Michael is your long lost brother.”

“Who knows, Uptown Girl”, he handed him back the paper. Steve felt trepidation. “It's not half bad.”

“It's all red, you don't have to lie to spare my feelings.”

“Hey, most of your mistakes are spelling mistakes. The writing isn't bad, we just have to change up the order, that's all. Practically writes itself.” The practically writes itself still needed more than two hours.

“I am so bad at this. Thanks for being so patient with me. Most people get annoyed when they help me with school.”

Billy frowned, “That's their bad, you're not doing it on purpose.”

“Well, I guess I could try harder.”

“Are you kidding me, you are already trying as hard as you can. That's enough, you'll get a good grade for this, I promise.”

Steve looked at him in surprise, “Nobody has ever seen it that way.”

“Don't listen to them because they're wrong.”

“Thank you for helping me.”

“No problem”, Billy stood up, grabbing his jacket.

“If you want to you could stay, and we could do something else not having anything to do with school. I mean if you want to, I mean if you've got something else to do, a party, or a girl I don't want to stop you from...”, Steve stammered. Why was he this nervous?

Billy's eyes lit up, “Yeah, then I can finally ask you, how did Nancy score you?”

“What do you mean? The question is way she chose me in the first place.”

“Well, but you were allegedly the King of Hawkins could have had every girl, and you're kind of a pretty boy too, but you chose Nancy Wheeler. Why is it that?”

“I fell in love with her.”

“Why?”

“She was everything I wasn't. Smart, she always had a plan what she wanted to do with life whereas I don't know anything. I don't have the faintest idea what to do with my life.”

“So what would a person have to do for you to fall in love with them?” Billy seemed genuinely interested, not a trick question.

“Right now they'd have to like the kids.....”

“The kids?”, Billy asked sceptical.

“Yeah, I mean I hang out with them so often she would have to at least tolerate them. And well kind, smart, funny...y'know, the usual stuff”, Steve shrugged, knowing he wasn't excelling at explaining what he wanted in a girlfriend.

“Fight demodogs”, Billy joked.

“Actually it would be easier if it is somebody who's somehow connected to all this Upside Down stuff”, Steve muttered, “Or maybe not”, thinking of Nancy's reaction to Barb's death. “Anyway, I don't think anybody would want me”, he said, why was he telling Billy all this again? “I get panic attacks, and nightmares, and my grades are a mess. Nobody wants a loser boyfriend.”

“Stop that. I'm pretty sure that there's somebody out there wanting you as a boyfriend, Steve”, Billy gently squeezed Steve's shoulder, before Steve could react Billy stood up, “Let's take a look at your music collection.” Ignoring the warm feeling that had been bubbling up inside Steve when Billy had touched him he joined.

Chapter Text

6th January, Monday

Steve slammed the book shut earning an annoyed "Shhh!" from several students, and the librarian. It had been the first day back at school, and through some ill-born New Year-New Me inspiration Steve had finally decided to study for the history test. It hadn't been going well, part of him wished Billy could read the questions to him, or he could just ask Dustin, nerd probably knew all this in his sleep. About done with school and life in general Steve decided to go home.

To his surprise Billy's car still stood in the parking lot, not that he was checking. It was already far past normal gym hours, maybe he could ask Billy about the history test. Find a completely innocent explanation to hang out with him again without having to do the whole friend thing. Probably Billy was still in the gym unnecessarily practising. He did hear commotion when he opened the locker room door. Hopefully not a fight, he really did not need another fight right now. The old Steve would have turned around, let the unlucky person fend for themselves, but now he couldn't just leave.

Quietly he sneaked in, leaned against the wall, and peered around the corner. His eyes went wide when he spotted who actually was there. On the ground Tommy, bloody, whimpering for them to stop. Standing above him Billy, no surprise there, but what did surprise him, and made him incapable of moving were the kids. El had her hand stretched out, blood dripping from her nose.

“What on earth are you doing?!”, he shouted, everyone turned.

“Oh shit”, Lucas muttered.

“We called Billy, I mean school is starting again. We didn't want you to get beaten up again by Tommy”, Mike said.

“You helped as with Troy, and we wanted to return the favour”, Will said meekly, standing the furthest away.

“Tommy never beat me up, what are you all on about?”, Steve could see the blood on the tiles, feeling slightly sick.

“You told us Tommy beat you up last month”, Dustin held a bat in his hands, at least not Steve's nail bat. Then he remembered the lie, the innocent lie to disperse all suspicions that his father had anything to do with that. A shudder ran down his spine, Tommy lying there was his fault. El raised her hand again, ready to do her worst.

“Stop”, Steve skidded in front of El, “Everyone stop. I lied...okay, and I'm sorry about that, but you all wanted an answer, and I can't really talk about who did it”, his heart sank as he noted their faces.

“Friends don't lie”, El sadly said.

“I'm....I'm really sorry. And you don't have to do this. It's my job to protect you, I'm older. It's not your job, do you understand?” They shook their heads, but didn't say anything.

“Who was it then?”, Dustin asked.

“It really doesn't matter.”

Dustin frowned, “Your dad, your dad was there at the time.”

“Dustin”, Steve warned the boy.

“You said you needed to get home because your dad was waiting.” Steve took a step back, this wasn't happening, he just needed to play this cool. Max and Billy exchanged glances.

Billy sighed, “Dammit Harrington.”

“Hopper can have a word with him”, Will suggested. Something akin to pity on everyone's face, Steve hated it.

“No, listen you all keep out of it. It's none of your business”, he knelt down helping Tommy up. He was swaying, leaning against Steve.

“What kind of psycho friends do you have, Steve?!”

“Shut up, Tommy!”

“Oh you don't get to do this”, he spit blood on Steve's clothes, “We were friends, remember? Before you turned out to be such a pussy. Before this backstabbing slut Nancy appeared. And then what? You decide to become a loser? And hang around with these pathetic kids?”, he grinned. Steve felt his anger rise, he grabbed Tommy and slammed him against the lockers.

“Don't ever call Nancy a slut, or the kids pathetic ever again”, he hissed.

“Or what? What are you going to do? Do you think I'm scared of you?”

“Tommy, watch it”, Billy warned.

“Yeah, I've been meaning to ask, Billy. Why the sudden change of heart with Harrington here? It's like you've become friends, or something.”

“What's it to you?”

“Just asking, I mean Steve is a loser hanging out with kids, so....”

“Steve is not a loser!”, Dustin shouted, ready to launch himself at Tommy, but Steve held him back.

“Oh the pathetic boy without teeth, what a freak show.” Steve felt something in him snap, the same way he had felt when the stupid demodog had nearly killed Dustin. He slammed Tommy against the lockers again, hit him hard, the boy sunk to the ground, coughing.

“Is that all you've got?”, he wheezed. 

“Steve, leave him. He isn't worth it”, Billy put a hand on Steve's shoulder.

“Don't...”, Steve shook him off, giving Tommy a well-aimed kick, Tommy howled, rolling to his side.

“Steve!”, Billy grabbed him trying to pull him away, Steve struggled, all he wanted to do was make sure Tommy suffered, wipe that stupid smirk of his face. Everything else didn't matter. Adrenaline pulsing through his veins he nearly managed to get out of Billy's grip, but an invisible force pushed him back, probably El.

“Calm down, Steve. Calm down”, Billy whispered into his ear.

“What the hell is going on here!?” The coach stood in the doorway.

 

They ended up at the police station with an extremely pissed off Hooper.

“What on earth happened?!”, he shouted, making everybody flinch, and shift in their seats. “A boy nearly landed in hospital, and I have parents here who want to press charges. So could you explain to me what happened? Why don't we start with you Steve, seeing as you have bruises on your hand, and blood on your shoes. You better have a good explanation for this, or so God help me I will call your parents, and I'll call the parents of these kids here, and tell them they can't let you see the kids anymore because you're a danger to society.” A wave of protest ensued with all the kids talking over each other, the consensus being that it hadn't been Steve's fault. Steve felt numb, staring at his bloodied hands, his world slowly crumbling. Billy's hand coming to rest on his knee mouthing an 'I'm sorry' at him.

“I am waiting, Harrington! Give me an explanation for all this.”

“I....we...”, he stumbled, not sure what to say.

“Now!”, Hopper slammed his hand on the table, Steve flinched, his heart pounding harder.

“I don't think shouting at him will help”, Billy said.

“We're going to get to you in a minute, now Harrington.”

“We set it up”, Max said, “We attacked Tommy. Steve shouldn't have even been there.”

“What? You? Why did you do that?”, Hopper asked.

“It was a misunderstanding, we thought Tommy attacked Steve”, Dustin threw in.

“Attacked Steve? When then did that happen?” Steve shot a look, shaking his head at Dustin.

“Hey, eyes on me. When did that happened!”

“Last month.”

“And who did it?”

Dustin shrugged, “I don't know”, he lied to the huge relief of Steve.

“So who attacked you, Steve?”

“It doesn't matter”, he mumbled.

“Well, it clearly does because a bunch of kids decided to gang up on the alleged perpetrator. How did this misunderstanding even occur?”

“I lied, told them it was Tommy.”

Hopper frowned, “Are you protecting someone, son?”

“No, it's just not important”, his heart beating harder again.

“It wasn't Hargrove here?”

“No, of course not”, Steve snapped, “Billy hasn't got anything to do with it. He actually helped me when it happened, afterwards.”

“Okay, we're going to talk about that later. Now why did you beat Tommy  up if he wasn't the one who hurt you to begin with?”

Steve shrugged, “He said some things.”

“Listen, Steve, I've spoken to your coach, I have seen your clean police records, I know you, you don't go around beating people up, so what happened?”

“He insulted the kids, and I was angry, I guess.” Steve hadn't any explanation why he'd gotten so angry either.

“Well, you're lucky Tommy's parents are willing to let all the charges drop if you pay them for all the medical expenses.”

“I can do that.”

“Still I need to speak to your parents.” Steve looked up, if his father found out then he'd probably be joining Tommy's beat up state pretty soon.

“Don't”, he almost shouted.

Hopper gave him a surprised look, “I have to, this is common...”

“Please don't tell my father. You only need to notify one parent, right? Just don't tell my father.”

“Why?”, a worried look on Hopper's face, “Is there something you're not telling me, Steve? The others can go outside if you want to tell me something?”

“No need.”

“Is everything okay at home?”, his eyes fixed on Steve.

“Yes”, Steve tried to sound as indifferent as possible. Hopper slowly nodded, not believing him.

“Now to you”, he glared at the kids, “I don't believe I'm saying this because you should know by now. If you, or anybody you know has a problem then go to an adult, an adult not Steve or Billy, but somebody over 30 years old, and talk to them. Do not go around beating up people. Do you all understand?” They all nodded, afraid to answer with words.

“I can...I can still see the kids, right?”, Steve finally asked, already feeling sick when thinking about one of the possible answers.

“Yes, but I never want to see this sort of behaviour from you again, or I might have to make my threat true.”

“Yes.”

“Later on we'll have a long talk about showing your powers in public, lady”, he said to El.

 

They stood outside the police station, Dustin was the first to break the awkward silence.

“We're so sorry, Steve. If we hadn't done all this you wouldn't be in so much trouble.” Steve needed a while to even understand Dustin was apologising to him. To the person who had messed everything up.

“I should be apologising to you. I lied to you, and lost control back there. You shouldn't have had to see all that.”

“It's okay, I'm sorry about your father”, Max said.

“Shouldn't we tell somebody?”, Will tentatively asked again.

“Nobody is going to believe me. He's not around much anyway.”

“But we have to help you somehow”, Mike protested.

“You don't need to help me”, Steve said.

“You could stay with one of us, although my sister can be a handful”, Lucas grimaced.

“Or with me, my mum won't mind”, Dustin offered, all the other kids joined in.

“Thanks guys”, he hadn't been enough of a nice person to deserve these kids.

“Next time just tell us the truth right away”, Max said.

“I will, I promise.”

El stretched her hand in the middle of their circle, “Friends don't lie” they all put their hands on hers, “Friends don't lie.”

 

Billy ended up taking him home, and decided to come inside.

“Hey, I'm staying at your place tonight. You seem pretty shaken up, shouldn't be alone.”

“It felt like I wasn't in control anymore, as if it wasn't even me. I wanted to hurt Tommy. Really hurt him”, Steve shudder at the memory, “What if this happens again?”

“You tried to protect the kids.”

“Was I protecting them though? Tommy wouldn't have done anything, he's a coward. Everything was going okay, you know? No more panic attacks, everything seemed to settle down, and then this happens. It feels like I'm right back where I started.”

“No, that's not true. You just had a slip-up, okay?”

“Tommy nearly landed in hospital, Billy.”

He shrugged, “Tommy will survive. And I should have stopped the little nerds when they came to me. So it's on me as well.”

“Still can't believe they called you.”

“Jealous, Harrington?”

He laughed, “Maybe.”

“Why were you back at the gym anyway? I thought you aren't allowed to play any sports because of your head.”

“Well, it sounds kinda stupid now, but I wanted to ask you if you could help me with my history questions.”

“Shit, really?”, Billy started laughing.

“Hey, it's not funny”, Steve nudged him in the ribs, but to no avail. “I hate you”, Steve muttered, standing up. “Okay we've got the couch, or the bed in the guestroom, take your pick.”

Billy sat up, “I think I should stay in your room, chase all the ghosties and nightmares away.”

“Again, you are hilarious, Hargrove.”

“No, seriously, I just need a mattress and we're all set.” Part of Steve wanted to protest, but the other part, the one that would win, quite liked the idea of Billy sleeping in his room. The sole reason being he'd feel safer, that's what he told himself at least.

He shrugged, trying to show he didn't mind either way, “Let's get the mattress.”

After they had set up Billy's place for the night, and Steve was in bed he said, “Thanks for stopping me from killing Tommy."

“Yeah, didn't want Max to have to visit you in prison. I'd have to drive her there, and all the other kids. And then I'd have to visit you as well.”

“You would visit me in prison?”, Steve tried to keep the delight from his voice.

“Well you can even do a college degree there, so yeah you'd need your tutor.”

“I need my tutor.”

“Which college do you want to go to?”, Billy asked.

“Ahem...I don't really know”, Billy didn't need to know that Steve hadn't even sent his applications, he knew he wasn't good enough.

“The kids are going to miss you.”

“Yeah, it's weird how sometimes you get to know great people when it's almost too late, and you only have a short amount of time with them.”

Billy chuckled, “Stop being so melodramatic, it's not like they'll die. During the break you can hang out with them all the time.”

“I'm gonna miss you”, as soon as the words left his mouth he regretted it, had he just said that out loud? Steve wanted to knock his head against the bedpost in frustration. “Our tutor sessions, I mean”, he quickly tried to save himself.

“I'll miss those to, and so much more.”

“More what?” Billy snickered, not answering. “So where are you going to go for college next year?”

“I think back to California, I really liked it there.”

“Oh that's far away”, Steve said disappointed, for some reason he had still hoped Billy would remain closer, “You won't visit during break, will you? You'll stay there forever.”

“Steve, I haven't even decided yet. I'll send some applications to some colleges closer to Hawkins, besides I don't know if I want to leave Max alone when he's around.”

“Your father?”

“Yeah.”

“Is the girl you love in California?”, that would explain why Billy hadn't tried to hook up with her yet.

“No, as I told you before she's here in Hawkins. One more reason to maybe stay close.”

“Maybe?”

“She's pretty special, so I don't know if she's even interested in somebody like me.”

“Who is she?”

“I'll tell you soon enough, when the times right. Now stop worrying your pretty little head about things and get some sleep. If a demodog comes bursting in here I'll kill it with my bare hands.”

“I'd certainly like to see that”, Steve said, he turned around to his tape player, trying to decide if it would be weird to hear Billy's voice when said person was lying on the floor in the same room. He put the headphones on and decided more Billy could actually be a good thing.

Chapter Text

7th January, Tuesday

Sunlight poured through the curtains Steve sat up greeted by Billy only wearing his boxers. Even in the morning right after sleep Billy looked great. More than great actually. His stupid hair on point, Steve had a hard time keeping his eyes on Billy's face, jealous when he saw Billy's muscular body.

“Like what you see, Harrington?”, Billy sat down on the edge of the bed, not having any qualms about staring at Steve, which made Steve uncomfortable.

“What are you looking at?”

“Does it still hurt?”, Billy softly tapped his finger on Steve's ankle, the one where the demodog had embedded his sharp teeth in. Typically could have just pointed to it, but personal space didn't seem to exist in Billy's mind.

“No”, Steve started blushing.

“Told you, scars are great with the ladies.”

“Do you see any ladies here, Billy? I literally have a boy sitting on my bed, not a girl.”

Billy shrugged, “If you're into that, Steve, maybe you're a little kinky.” Steve completely blanked, not sure what to say to that, he needed coffee before his brain could begin to understand Billy, and that was on a good day. Billy smiled broadly, having the time of his life, that idiot.

“What do you listen to at night”, he snatched the headphones from Steve's neck.

“Hey, that's private”, Steve tried to pull it away his face already turning red.

Billy hit the play button and started laughing, “Oh I never knew how passionate you were about literature, Harrington. Should have said so I have a stack of audiobooks at home. I made us some breakfast, c'mon.”

Steve couldn't believe his ears, “You what?”

“Yeah, you slept like a baby, so I didn't want to wake you. We still have some time before school starts.”

“Okay.”

“That's how you seduce every girl, make her breakfast.” Steve swallowed hard, trying to ignore the butterflies in his stomach, as he sat down watching Billy in his kitchen. Looking perfect in the morning sun.

 

8th January, Wednesday

Steve stood in front of Tommy's house, taking a deep breath he knocked on the door. When he saw the person who opened it, he almost turned on his heels.

“Harrington, what are you doing here?”, Carol already stepped outside, “One step closer, and I'm gonna call the police that you're here.”

“I want to talk to Tommy...Carol let me through for old times' sake.”

“If you attack him again, I'll smash a beer bottle over your head”, she threatened, and stepped back inside. Nothing had changed from the last time Steve had been here more than a year ago. He remembered countless hours spent running around the house playing Super Friends after homework when they were kids. Tommy would always pretend to be Superman and Steve Batman. On occasion they managed to rope the girl from next door in to be Wonder Woman. Tommy's parents didn't mind kids racing around the house as much as Steve's did. Steve smiled at the memory, there had been some good times before they had hit puberty, when Tommy and Steve himself were less jerks. Still he'd never tell the kids he would run around in a cape when he was in primary school, never hear the end of it.

He stepped into his former friend's bedroom. Tommy's face looked even worse in the dying daylight of the afternoon.

Wincing in sympathy Steve said, “I just wanted to say I'm sorry. I didn't mean to...”, he stopped, was this how Billy had felt when he went to apologise to Steve? Tommy sat up, fear and anger in his swollen eyes.

“Well, apology not accepted”, Carol said, “Oh and sending kids to fight your fights really pathetic.”

“I didn't want them to do anything. I didn't know about any of this.”

“Why were they there then?”

“Carol, can I talk to Steve alone?”, Tommy spoke for the first time since Steve had walked in here.

“I have every right to be here. Heard Billy was there as well why are you always hanging out together?”

Steve rolled his eyes, “If this is 20 questions, Carol, why don't you take it somewhere else?”

“Because I'm going to call the cops if you don't do what I say. There probably is some kind of restraining order on you anyway.”

“Billy helps me with school.”

“Oh, like Nancy did?”, Carol never missing a beat.

“Is he your boyfriend?”, Tommy leaned forward, a stupid smirk on his face making Steve regret he went here in the first place.

“No, of course he's not my boyfriend, we're not even friends”, he hastily added.

“Right”, even though Steve hated Tommy now they had been friends throughout school. Tommy always had been a shitty friend, but a friend nonetheless. He could read Steve like an open book and it unnerved Steve. Also the fact that Tommy knew about Steve's father.

“Anyway, are you coming back to school soon?”

“So you can beat him up again?”, Carol snapped.

“Why can't you just shut up for once? I am talking to Tommy”, Steve had enough of her and decided to go, "Well I'm sorry”, Steve stood up, walked towards the door, “Oh and Tommy, Billy was kinda roped in by the kids, so he didn't really have anything to do with it either.”

“The next time you hurt me I'll tell your father”, Tommy posed the thin-veiled threat, Steve swallowed hard.

“What? His daddy would probably just bail him out”, Carol said.

“You have no idea”, Tommy snickered.

He needed to get outside into the fresh air. He tried to not think about his father, but the fear was rising he could feel it slowly slipping away from his control. Outside he leaned against his car taking deep breaths, the cold air hurting his throat. All the memories and fears resurfacing. They had never left laying doormat, he'd managed to distract himself, but they'd always catch up with him. The fear underneath his skin, interwoven into every aspect of his life. The notion nagging in his head that something is about to go very wrong following him every step of the way. He slowly managed to calm himself down, still feeling on edge he drove towards the arcade.

 

The kids were already standing outside, discussing loudly how much money they had, and what they would play.

“We have to go through all the games”, Mike said, like this was some kind of tactical operation.

“We don't have enough money for that”, Dustin argued.

“Let's just look at what other people are playing”, Max shrugged.

“They wouldn't even put the game in the open. It's in some kind of basement”, Lucas said.

Steve was tired, and didn't need this kind of commotion why had he even agreed to meet up with them, oh right because they had practically begged him to come along, and introduce him to the wonders of arcade gaming in Hawkins. He couldn't say no to those puppy eyes. He took a deep breath, trying to shake off the remains of his anxiety that had ebbed into a steady numbing unease.

“Steve, there you are”, Dustin waved, as if anybody would not have noticed them from miles away.

“Hey, why are you all so excited?”

“We're searching for Polybius”, Mike said, as if this random string of letters should mean anything to Steve.

“What's that?”

“I told you he won't know”, Lucas said.

“It's a game, when you play it people have reported to be approached by men in black”, Dustin said with glee. Steve still didn't understand the excitement.

“And what happens then?”

“You get taking away.”

“So let me get this straight, you are searching for a game that could possible get you abducted? Why on earth would you do that?” Steve threw a glance at Will, all these kids could be so insensitive towards their friend. The young boy looked at the ground, unhappy.

“You don't understand, Steve”, Lucas sounded this close to whining, “People who play it get hallucinations, see things, maybe potential government secrets.”

“Allegedly, hasn't been seen since 1981”, Max scuffed.

“Well you don't have to believe it, but we have a secret laboratory right here under our noses...”, Lucas started only to get quickly hushed by everybody else.

“Where did you hear all this?”

“On a radio show, it's called conspiracy talk”, Dustin informed him.

“Yeah, don't listen to that anymore.” The others rolled their eyes. “Okay Will, El you can show me all the games that are not connected to Polybus.”

“Polybius, Dude!”, Lucas begrudgingly followed. El was absolutely delighted as Will played, her eyes fixed on the small ball jumping and rolling along.

“Do you want to try it, El?”, Will asked shyly. The girl smiled, taking a step back at the loud ping.

“It's okay, they're just really loud. A bit like your boyfriend”, Steve assured her. She laughed and started playing, pretty soon winning all the games, the ball doing incredible feats that shouldn't be possible.

Will who stood next to Steve asked him, “Is she cheating?”

“Oh yes she is.”

“Shouldn't she use her powers for good?”

“She's living out her dark side right now. It's probably just a phase.” Will watched her, Steve knew the boy wanted to say something. So he waited.

“Steve? Can I talk to you about something. This might be a little weird don't tell the others.”

“Go ahead.”

“Not here”, Will led him through the arcade to a little backroom.

“Are we allowed to be in here?”

Will shrugged, “We go here all the time. Okay, Billy and you seem close.”

“I wouldn't say close, as in close friends”, Steve quickly said.

Will shook his head, “I know you really like him, and Billy really likes you.”

“You think?” He earned an glare from the boy normally the one that came from Mike always directed at Steve for being exceptionally stupid.

“Of course he does, anyone with two eyes can see that”, Will said as if it was the most normal thing in the world. “Is it okay to like....”, Will took a deep breath trying to calm his shaking voice, “a boy more than a girl.” Steve needed a moment to process that, Will staring at him, looking scared near tears, ready to bolt at any false word or movement.

“Will, you can like anybody you want to.”

“Even....”, Will didn't look him in the eyes, “Even more than just like a boy?”

“Of course.”

“My father, he...he said he hates people like me.”

Steve knelt down, putting his hands on Will's shoulders, “Don't let anybody tell you that you aren't good enough, or not liked just because of who you are. You are Will Byers, the boy who survived the demogorgon. Don't change because of other people. If you like boys, if you love boys that's alright.” To his utter terror Will burst into tears, the exact opposite of what Steve had wanted to achieve, had he said something wrong? Will threw his arms around his neck, hugging him.

“Thank you, Steve”, through tears he smiled. After he'd calmed down he wiped his tears away, “Don't tell the others.”

“Your secret is safe with me. For the record though, I don't like Billy.”

Will laughed, “Sure you do, you don't know it yet that's all.”

“Who made you the relationship expert?”

“I'm one of the few people who has never been blinded by love.”

Steve laughed, “You'll be blinded by love soon enough.”

“Steve, Will, we're hungry”, Dustin barged through the door, taken a little aback when he spotted Will's tear stained face, “Are you alright?”

“Yes, we are”, Steve stood up stretching a hand out to Will who pulled himself up.

“I still haven't shown you all the games”, Dustin complained.

“Oh this entire week I was just waiting for today to play all three arcade games Hawkins has to offer”, Steve said loud enough for Keith to hear who stood at the counter. Keith had been Steve's lab partner for exactly one lesson that had ended up in a semi-explosion and a trip to the headmaster. To this day they had a heated dispute who had made the fatal mistake. Steve was sure Keith miscalculated the dosage and Keith was sure Steve misread the label, and took the wrong liquid.

“If you could read, Harrington, you'd notice all these black boxes are actually games”, Keith shouted.

“If you could count, you'd know you don't have enough games to even open a decent arcade.” The only answer Steve received was Keith eating another potato chip.

“You know him?”, Lucas exclaimed.

“Unfortunately from school.” They grabbed some food sitting down at the table.

“What's he doing here?”, Max asked. Steve followed her glance to none other than Billy sitting at the table with a few boys and girls. His heart leaped he blamed it on his anxiety. Will gave him a shit-eating grin.

“He's not angry with us asking him to help us fight Tommy?”, Dustin asked uneasily. It was the first time any of the kids had mentioned the fight today.

“No, he isn't. I talked to him.”

“More like he stayed over”, Max muttered.

“No way, you had a sleepover with Billy Hargrove? I mean I shouldn't be surprised, but still”, Dustin shook his head something akin to disappointment.

“We....ahm...we had to do a school project”, even to his ears it sounded like a lame excuse.

“Studying?”, Mike said his eyebrow rose, “Like you studied with my sister?” Steve wasn't sure if it was a joke or not, the other kids burst out laughing expect for Will and surprisingly Max who frowned, looking at brother and then Steve.

“So when's movie night?”, Steve asked, trying to change the topic.

“Next Friday at your place, Steve. I'll get the VHS”, Lucas announced.

“What movie?”, Mike asked.

“It's a surprise.”

“When are we going ice skating?”, Dustin asked eating his fries.

“Ice skating? Where do you want to do that?”, Steve asked.

“Down at the lake”, Dustin said nonchalantly.

“At the lake? You know you could break in there, right?”

“The ice is really thick now.”

“You're not going”, Steve said.

“Steve, c'mon you can even come with us and watch over us”, Dustin protested.

“Oh I'm not going to pull any of your sorry asses out of the water because you're not going. End of discussion.” Lucas opened his mouth to protest, but Steve was quicker, “No buts, if you break through you could die out there. How stupid would that be? After all you've been through?”, as stupid as dying on a junkyard Steve thought. The kids were sulking now, but at least alive and sulking. He hoped they would listen to him. His eyes wandering back to Billy who had been looking at him, but now quickly turned his attention back to the pretty girl at his table.

“You don't have a chance with the girls”, Dustin commented dryly, still sour about the ice skating.

“I know”, Steve sighed, eyes still fixed on Billy.

Chapter Text

17th January, Friday

“Hey Billy, I got good news”, Steve said over the phone line.

“Harrington, I haven't seen you in a while.”

“You will be seeing a lot more of me.”

“Oh yeah?”, Billy sounded happy. 

“I got my essay back, got a B”, Steve smiled.

“You go girl”, Billy cheered, “See told ya, you're not a hopeless case. How did your teacher react?”

“Had a damn near heart attack.”

“Good.”

“But you know this means you have to help me with everything now”, Steve glad to finally have a very valid excuse why Billy had to spend even more time with him, without being friends of course.

“I don't mind, you're a far better student than the girls back in California. Most of them wanted to get second base with me, and weren't actually interested in improving their grades.”

“How many girls did you have?”, Steve spluttered out, “I mean as in teaching them stuff?”, he lamely corrected, glad Billy couldn't see him turning red.

“About 15 over the years, I mean some took it serious, but most of them didn't.”

“Feeling sexually objectified, Billy?”

“Cute, can you actually spell that?”

“Low hanging fruit, I can spell it”, Steve muttered, "You're certainly not working against it."

“Like what you see, pretty boy?”

“Ahm no, I see nothing at all....because I'm on the phone with you”, damn what was he even trying to say? “And at school I just see all the girls following you around. I myself don't really know”, he tried hard not to think about Billy's tight fitting clothes, stupid hair, his eyes.

“Sure you do, if you were a girl you'd be all over me”, that smug son of a bitch.

“No, I wouldn't”, he probably would, “I wouldn't even notice your great hair or eyes and....”, fuck had he just said great hair and eyes? Steve wanted to bang his had against the wall in frustration.

Billy snickered, “I would, if you were a girl Steve we'd definitely be first base before we even started to study.” Steve began to feel flustered decided to bring this to an end.

“Billy, it's time you get yourself a girl.”

“Oh I have my eyes on someone”, Billy laughed, “I heard the nerds are coming over, so I won't keep you”, he hung up. The telephone still in his clammy hand, Steve decided he'd never known a boy as weird as Billy.

 

“You did not”, Mike was ecstatic, which was something Steve hadn't really seen on the boy often, it suited him.

“Oh, yes I got the tape from Mr. Clarke.”

“He gave it to you? Isn't it R- rated?”, Dustin asked.

“I told him we'd watch it with a responsible adult”, Lucas shot a glance at Steve.

“So you lied then”, Max commented dryly.

“We're not watching an R-rated movie”, Steve didn't need any of the parents to stand on his doorstep because the kids were getting nightmares. As always Steve got completely ignored. Lucas already prepping the VHS recorder. Steve managed to get the VHS slip, “The Thing”, he read.

“Huh isn't that the alien-dog movie, I think I watched it in the cinema.”

“The alien-dog movie?”, Dustin asked.

“Yeah, the one where they dress this alien-dog in a red jacket. Oh no wait, the boy was wearing the red jacket. And the alien-dog has powers like you, El.”

“I don't believe this”, Dustin buried his head in his hands, “I really don't believe this.”

"What it's an alien-dog”, Steve was sure about that, even though the movie was only dimly in his memory. It had been three years.

“No, no, no....Listen the alien-dog was an extraterrestrial, you know like the name of the movie. It's not The Thing it's E.T.”, Dustin explained to him, trying hard not to shout.

“They were released at the same time. Maybe you saw the posters side by side, and mixed them up in your head”, Will said.

“Oh...I mean, are you sure about that?”

“Of course we're sure, Steve”, Lucas said, “E.T is about an alien and kids. The Thing is about grown-ups in Antarctica being chased down by an alien. Two completely different scenarios.”

“An alien-dog?”, El looked interested.

“It's an extraterrestrial”, Mike corrected her.

“What's that?”

“Ahm...creatures who live on other planets.”

“Planets?”, El asked quizzically.

“The earth, where we live, is a planet, but that are more planets, and more creatures living on those planets.”

“Well, we don't really know if anybody lives there”, Steve quickly corrected Mike.

“There has been scientific proof”, Dustin said, because of course Dustin and the other kids would believe in aliens. The tape started and they all settled down.

“I know that guy, Kurt Russell”, Steve excitedly said when he spotted the actor on screen.

“You know his name?”, Lucas seemed impressed.

“Yeah, he has great hair.” Lucas gave him another look then shook his head as if Steve was a lost cause.

“I like his hair too”, Will shyly said, smiling.

“It looks very soft”, El agreed.

When the monster started attacking Steve regretted he hadn't put his foot down with the movie, “Don't you guys think it looks a lot like a demogorgon?” Mike's eyes beamed even more when he came to the realisation himself.

“Yeah, it does”, Mike took another handful of popcorn.

“Kinda rad we won against it. I think we wouldn't die in this movie”, Lucas munched on his food. Will and El were staring wide-eyed at the screen. Sending shivers down Steve's spine as he tried to forget the demodog's face and mouth opening, directed at him. The kids screaming in the bus, as it was about ready to lurch at him. Two sets of teeth, droll dripping on him. The rest of blood and meat from its last meal hanging in there. He felt his breath quicken, his hands shaking now, he pulled his sweater over them.

“It's easy for you to say, you didn't have one stare in your face, or be in you, or nearly kill you while you have to use your powers to defeat it”, Steve said. Will rubbed his neck, looking truly uncomfortable now.

“What are you scared, Steve?”, Mike taunted him.

“No, I'm just saying maybe we should watch something else. Something less real.”

“We're already halfway through”, Mike complained.

“Okay, fine”, Steve crossed his arms, Will and El seemed okay, but a little bit shaken up. The more he saw the monster the more he felt the teeth of the demodog on his skin, Dustin nearly being pulled down. The dark night, all the kids slipping away into the demodog invested tunnels. His lungs became more and more constricted, the air stuffier.

He got up headed towards the bathroom, the kids too engrossed in watching the movie to notice. He closed it, turning the key. Steve splashed water into his face, looking at himself in the mirror.

“Get it together”, he hissed at his reflection. “Get it together!”, he looked down, when the water in his hands turned into blood for a split-second, he took a step back. All control he still had dissipating into fear. He thought he heard a scratching on the door, he couldn't move. Frozen to the spot, what if the kids were in danger? He needed to check up on them, he reached for the door, trying to get more air, but his lungs were closed. Lightheaded he slipped, and landed on the floor. He leaned against the wall drawing his knees to his chest, trying to take a breath, but he couldn't. Why couldn't he breathe? Sweat had gathered on his forehead, dripping down. A knock on the bathroom door spiked his anxiety.

“Steve”, El's soft voice, “Steve, are you alright?” Bless her.

“I...”, he couldn't get the words out, choking on them.

“Steve, open the door.” He couldn't move, his chest hurt, his sight blurry. His ears starting ringing, he could still make out the key turning, El swung the door open with her mind. Eye wide with fear, she knelt next to him.

“Sick?”, she asked. He shook his head. “Scared?” He nodded.

“I'll get help.”

“N...No”, he tried to hold her back, but she slipped away from his grasp. She must have been shouting because he could hear her through the ringing in his ears.

“Steve is scared, really scared.”

“El, I'm watching a classic”, Mike's voice.

“Come with me...Now!”, she shouted, and soon all the kids were crowded around the door. Dammit not what Steve had wanted, but he couldn't stop his wrong breathing, or the fear clouding his mind.

"Shit, this is a real panic attack”, Dustin was the first at his side.

“What do we do?” Mike asked.

“He's hyperventilating”, Max said.

Dustin had taken Steve's hand, “Call Billy!”

“What, we're not calling Billy”, Lucas protested. For once Steve agreed.

“He helped him the last time. Call him, hurry up!”

Max rushed to the walkie talkie, “Code Red, Billy. Steve is having a bad panic attack.” Steve's heart pounding in his chest.

“Billy's gonna know what to do, and you're going to be fine. We can watch E.T. next time, or something less scary”, Dustin rambled, the boy's hands trembling as well, “You have to slow down your breathing, Steve.” He tried, but he was suffocating. The minutes drained slowly, feeling like an eternity when the doorbell rang.

“I'll get it”, Max raced to the door.

Billy appeared, “What did you do?!”, he sounded mad, kneeling down next to him and Dustin, “Steve? Copy my breathing, like last time do you remember?” Steve tried, but it was harder than last time, even though last time he actually had a reason to be scared. His vision was starting to blacken at the edges.

“Should we call an ambulance?”, Lucas asked in a shaky voice.

“No, get me a paper bag...Now!”, Billy placed it on his mouth, “Deep breaths, slowly.” It finally got a little bit easier.

“Good”, Billy had put a hand on Steve's knee, he still felt lightheaded, and slowly tipped sideways. Dustin quickly sat next to him, steadying him. Slowly his breathing normalised itself, and Billy pulled the paper bag away.

“Are you feeling better?”

“Y...yeah”, his voice still shaky.

“Good, now what did you do?”, Billy glared at the kids. Mike and Lucas looked down shrugging their shoulders. “C'mon there has to be an explanation for all this.”

“We watched...we watched The Thing....it looked like the demogorgon”, Mike finally said, guilt lacing his voice, the usual bravado gone.

“Great, why the fuck would you watch something like that?! Next time stick to My Little Pony”, Billy sounded furious.

“That can be brutal at times”, Dustin muttered. Billy just stared at them, then slowly shook his head again.

“I can't even talk to you right now.” He stood up, slowly pulling Steve up with him. He still felt shaky on his legs, and his knees nearly gave away under him. “Easy, c'mon let's get you back to the sofa.” After Billy had helped him to sit down, Lucas had pulled the tape out and apologised profusely together with Mike. Steve sat next to El and Dustin, who didn't let him out of their sight.

“Okay nerds, Steve, I'll give you a panic attack crash course because you all seem to be incapable of doing the easiest things. I don't believe I'm doing this now. So...”

“How come you know so much about panic attacks?”, Mike interrupted.

“I help your friend, and this is the thank you I get? Steve, tell the brat to shut up.”

Steve sighed, turning to the boy, “Mike”, he warned him, the boy nodded, and didn't say anything more.

After the short 101 all things panic attacks Billy said, “This isn't just concerning Steve, but also Eleven and Will, okay?”, he grimaced, “I know I'll regret this, and I'm only doing it as a favour to Steve, but if anyone of you little freaks has a panic attack, or anything else you can call me.” Steve looked surprised.

“What you're a package deal and all that, aren't ya?”, he carefully placed his index and middle fingers on Steve's neck,“Your pulse is okay now”, he noted in relief, Billy's hand felt warm against Steve's skin and he was checking his pulse a little bit longer than he needed to. Their eyes met for a brief second and Billy hastily pulled away.

 

18th January, Saturday

It had changed, the fear catching up to him. He thought he had this under control, but now he knew he hadn't. Since yesterday, no since last week the feeling lurking in his subconscious had broken free. Clawing its way back to the surface. If he didn't do something he'd drown in it.

He took out his Nikes still covered in dry blood, he hadn't cleaned them since November. A little bit of him didn't want to let got of the past. Afraid that if he did when the gate was opened again he wouldn't be ready to protect these children. As Steve laced his shoes up he remembered Bob's advice to Will, to face your fears. Taking the bat, and zipping his jacket up stepping outside into the dark this was exactly what he was going to do. In a way it felt like coming back home, to something he hadn't really left.

The police tape flattering in the wind, he slipped through underneath it, and pulled the flimsy plywood off the entrance down to the tunnels. Lowering himself in, he jumped into the dark chasm. It was dry, smelled musty, he quickly flashed the light to both sides, but he saw nothing. Almost looking like a normal everyday tunnel. His hands were starting to tremble again, he took a deep breath of musty air.

“Is anybody there?!”, he shouted, then whistling, he could draw them out. If anything was lurking underneath here he would get it. That night he saw and heard nothing, but a few rats scurrying away. He tried to sleep when he finally came home in the early morning hours, he slipped into a broken dream of demodogs chasing him down winded tunnels. The kids shouting for his help, but he couldn't find them in the dark. Only hearing their blood-curdling screams, and seeing the blood dripping from the demodogs' mouths. He woke up, drenched in sweat gripping his bat in a swell of blind panic.

Chapter Text

22nd January, Wednesday

Billy sat down next to Steve during lunch time at school, “Hey, how you doing?” Steve felt detached, he hadn't really slept.

“Great”, he said, not sure if he meant it sarcastically. People were whispering, quick glances directed at both of them. “What are they looking at?”, he took another swig from his coke.

“You look like shit. That's what they're looking at”, Billy said.

“Always know how to charm a girl”, Steve laughed, a thin layer of dirt on his jeans from the tunnels. At least he'd changed his shoes, and he wasn't carrying the bat around even though he wanted to.

“Max told me the kids tried to reach you, but you didn't answer.”

“I didn't notice.”

“They were worried, thought you might be mad at them.”

“Why would I be mad?”

“Because of the movie.”

“Oh that”, Steve handwaved it away, “I'll call them back.” Billy nodded, starting to eat.

“When is your history test by the way?” Steve nearly looked through him. The world seemed removed, like he wasn't even sitting here at this table, at this school, but somewhere else looking at himself, as if he was already dead.

“Who knows”, the history test far away from his thoughts. Billy looked up, frowning he leaned forward, putting a hand on Steve's forehead.

He swatted it away, “What are you doing?”

“Checking if you have a temperature.”

“Do I?”

“No, but you look sick.”

Steve laughed again, “Don't we all”, he wasn't even sure why he was in school to being with it all felt so dull and wrong. Oh yes to keep up appearances, something he excelled at.

“Aren't you going to eat something?”, Billy asked.

“I'm not hungry.” With a sigh Billy pushed his plate away, “Steve, you are behaving way off. Tell me what's going on.”

“Nothing's going on. I'm just tired that's all.”

“Tired?”, Billy asked doubtful, “Have you taken anything? Drugs, painkillers, anything?”

“No, I don't need that”, Steve's head pounding, “You know, you're cute when you're worried, Hargrove.” The bell rang, Steve quickly stood up, his vision greying at the edges, he caught himself, “See you at practice.”

Only when he'd stepped into the classroom did he remember he didn't go to practice anymore. He more or less dozed off behind his book during lessons. Most teachers ignoring him, they'd given up on him a long time ago. When it was time to go he blinked, not sure why time had passed so quickly. It all felt so merged and jumbled in his brain.

 

When he reached his car he saw the kids standing around it. What were they doing here?

“Steve”, Dustin waved.

“Hey, is everything alright?”, then it struck him, what if the gate had opened again? From somewhere he managed to trudge some adrenaline up, for a moment feeling clearer than he had all day. “Is it the gate?” The kids exchanged glances, El and Will shaking their heads.

“No the gate isn't open. Why would you think it would be?”, Dustin asked. Relief swept over Steve, but also the adrenaline drained from him, he leaned against the car, shaky on his legs.

“Are you sick?”, Dustin asked him, why was everybody asking him this today?

“No, so what are you all doing here?”

“We wanted to apologise for picking that movie, you're right it was insensitive towards you, Will and Eleven. Sorry everybody”, Mike said solemnly.

“It's okay, just a movie”, Steve leaned further against his car.

“You had a panic attack. So it wasn't just a movie”, Max said, loudly, hurting his head.

“Don't worry about it I have panic attacks a lot”, as soon as the words were out of his mouth he cursed himself. His brain wasn't really cooperating with him anymore. The kids seemed to be at loss for words, not sure what to say to that. “Sorry, I....I think I have a migraine”, Steve muttered, needing a few tries to open the door of his car.

“Are you okay to drive? I could get Billy”, Max offered.

“No, I'll be fine just need to sleep it off.” If he could ever find something resembling a good night's sleep.

As Steve's car vanished in the distance Dustin asked, “What was that?”

“Was he drunk?”, Lucas asked.

Max shook her head, “No, we would have smelled that. Besides he wasn't acting drunk he seemed really tired.”

“His hair was only average today”, Dustin muttered.

“We have to do something”, Lucas paced on the frozen ground.

“Maybe we just need to distract him from everything, make him happy again”, Mike suggested.

Lucas snapped his fingers, ”We could get him back together with Nancy.”

“No, Jonathan is happy with Nancy”, Will protested.

“It's not about Nancy, it's about the gate”, Max said.

“It doesn't leave you”, Will shuddered, pulling his jacket closer to his body.

“I'll talk to Billy, he can get Steve to stay with us, and we can take things from there”, Max said.

“You think he trusts Billy enough?”, Lucas wasn't convinced.

“Don't tell either of them I said this, but they're friends. And the only real older friend either Steve or Billy have.”

“She's right, you know”, Will said.

 

Steve drove towards his home only to see his father's car in the driveway, and he immediately turned around. He could drive right back to the tunnels, but it was so cold. He didn't want to go down there just yet. Billy was the next option. He stepped out of the car, but remained frozen on the spot not sure what exactly to say. This should come of as a causal 'Could I crash at your place, because it would be fun', and not a 'I need to crash at your place, or I'm dead.' Also that would be the third time there was a sleepover. Steve guessed there's a limit on how often you were allowed to have a sleepover at an acquaintance's place before they had to become friends. He still was not Billy's friend. Even though the evidence pointed to the contrary.

Still trying to figure this out, his head swimming, he heard the door. Billy pulling his coat on, Max talking to him, looking worried. When both of them stopped, having spotted him.

“Steve, I just wanted to go to your place”, Billy smiled, putting a hand on Steve's shoulder leading him inside. “We....I...I mean Max, wanted to”, Billy stammered.

Max rolled her eyes, “You're sick we don't want you to be on your own, so you'll stay over at our place, okay?” The warmth had hit him hard when he stepped inside the house. The hall starting to spin slightly, he put a hand on the coarse wall, steadying himself.

“Steve, are you...”, Billy's voice sounded far away, like a radio channel not being dialled in properly. Static interrupting the voices from time to time, interfering. His vision started to disintegrate, and he fell forward.

 

When he came to he was lying on a soft surface.

“Billy, he's waking up”, Max shouted.

“Thank God, Steve, never do that again.” He propped himself up on his elbow, only for Billy to push him down again.

“You should stay put. Don't want you to faint again. We nearly called the ambulance.”

“I'm fine”, Steve muttered, not feeling much better than he had the entire week.

“You passed out that isn't even remotely fine”, Billy snapped.

“He's pretty cold”, Max had laid a hand on his forehead.

“When's the last time you slept?”, Billy tossed him a sweater. The fabric soft, smelling like Billy, Steve gladly put it on.

“I had things to do”, he said vaguely, knowing he couldn't directly lie about this.

“What could possibly be more important than getting sleep at night?”, Billy sat down next to Max on the bed.

“It's nothing”, Steve pulled the long sweater sleeves over his hands.

Max grabbed another blanket spreading it over him, “Is it about the gate?”, she softly asked.

“The gate?”, Billy frowned. It occurred to Steve nobody had actually told Billy in detail about what was going on. About the demodogs, the lab, El's powers. Steve had been trying to forget it, so he'd never brought it up with Billy. Besides he probably wasn't supposed to talk about it, even though Billy had seen a demodog.

“The demodogs came from the gate”, Max quickly filled her brother in, “Steve, you know it's closed now. If it wasn't wouldn't Will or El know?” She had a point there, but he had to be ready. What did the knowledge use anybody if they were too late?

“I still have to go down there, to make sure”, he almost whispered.

“What, now? It's snowing, Steve. I'm not letting you take one step outside!”, Billy said.

“I'm going”, he stood up, this reminded him too much of the kids wanting to go down into the tunnels, and his ill-fated attempt to stop them. Now he finally understood why they had wanted to go.

“Let me through.”

“No, I won't!”

Steve shoved Billy back hard, the other boy nearly lost his balance, managed to grab Steve by the the collar of his sweater. It was like he was back in the Byers' house, but this time Billy wasn't manically laughing in his face.

“You promised you wouldn't hurt me anymore”, Steve decided to play his friend card.

“I'm not going to hurt you.”

“Then let me go!” For some time Billy didn't loosen his grip, they were both staring at each other.

Finally Billy let go, “Fine, go outside and catch your death, idiot!” he grabbed Steve a little harder than necessary pushing him outside into the snow. The door banged shut.

Steve, not steady on his feet, lost his balance. The wet ground soaking his sweater through almost immediately. Steve wanted to bang at the door, scream for Billy to let him back in. The cold seeping into his bones, making him shiver. Then he remembered the demodog running towards the kids. He stood up, gripping the bat ready to face his fears. When he finally made it to the tunnels, his hands were trembling so hard by now he nearly lost the grip on his bat. Steve slipped yet again, losing his footing on the frozen ground, slipping into the tunnels coming down hard without any chance to break his fall.

It knocked the wind out of him, pain radiated from his entire body. Slowly he turned his head, looking up through the hole in the roof of the tunnels at the pale sky, the moon between two clouds. He heard footsteps, it didn't sound like a demodog, but still a blind panic started to come over him. He tried to reach his bat, but he must have lost it in the snow during his fall. It slowly sank in, his bat wasn't there, he was as good as dead. Maybe he should get up and run for his life. Hope nothing got him, but where should he even run to? Where was home?

“Steve, shit, Steve can you hear me?”, Billy's voice cut through the panic, it registered in his fuzzy brain.

“Billy”, his teeth knocking together, “Why a...are you h...here?”

“Couldn't let any rats down in the tunnels eat you”, he climbed into the tunnel, “Don't move”, he muttered, “Dammit, I should call for help.”

“No”, Steve grabbed Billy's hand, “Do you hear anything?”, he could have sworn he heard the footfalls of demodogs scampering on the dusty surface of the tunnels. Heading their way. Mixed with his ragged breathing, and the blood rushing louder and louder in his ears, he still couldn't make out the source.

“I think somebody is there”, Billy muttered, “Don't move, I'll get help.”

“Please don't”, Steve weakly tried to keep his grip on Billy's hand. “I don't care if I die, but who's going to protect the kids?”

“Steve, nobody is going to die. I just need to get help, we don't know what you might have broken. Don't move.” He tried to let go, but Steve held on for dear life, his nearly numb hands gripping Billy's in a desperate attempt to keep him from abandoning him.

His vision started to swim again, “I don't want you to go, Billy. I don't want to be left alone down here.” The sounds were louder now, somebody, something moving closer to the tunnels.

“Help”, Billy shouted, “We're down here!”

“What are you doing? The demogorgon shouldn't see us”, Steve muttered, trying to sit up, but he felt so tired.

A light hit them, “What on earth?”, Hopper glaring down into the tunnels, “Is he hurt?”

“I don't know, didn't want to move him”, Billy sounded scared, really scared, and Steve couldn't figure out why.

“Okay, I'm coming”, Hopper clambered down, “We should probably call an ambulance.” The word ambulance made Steve's head a little bit clearer.

“No, I'm fine”, he sat up, managing to push Billy away. Only now did he see the rip in his jeans, blood oozing lazily from an open wound. It burnt, but he could move his leg. “I'm fine, I don't need an ambulance. Can I just go home?”, maybe his father would just ignore him.

“You shouldn't be moving...”, Hopper started, but Steve already stood up, leaning against Billy for support.

“Are your folks home?” Steve nodded. Hopper still didn't look convinced, but agreed to take him home. It hurt like hell to pull himself up to the surface, but with Hopper's and Billy's help he managed.

“This yours?”, Hopper held the bat in his hands, Steve felt on edge standing outside without protection.

“Yeah, can I have it back?” Hopper handed it over to him, then glared at Billy, “You better have nothing to do with this”, he muttered.

“No, he hasn't”, Steve quickly answered.

“Well, I hope you understand I don't want you driving in my car.”

“Yes, Chief I do”, there wasn't the usual attitude in his voice. “I think he's sick, somebody should keep an eye on him”, he told Hopper, “Take care, Steve”, with that Billy disappeared into the night.

 

Hopper pulled Steve into the car, driving towards his house.

“So what exactly were you doing down in the tunnels? You know you're not allowed to go there.” Steve shrugged his shoulders, leaning his head against the cold glass.

“Did you see something?”, Hopper asked, a little less gruff now. Steve remained silent, looking at his hands covered in a thin sheen of dust, and superficial cuts. The entire drive Hopper's eyes on him, finally they arrived.

“I'm coming in, I need to speak to your parents.” Steve halted in his steps. “Is there a problem, Steve?”

“No, just...did I do something wrong?”

Hopper sighed, “Well technically you trespassed on a forbidden area, but that's not why I want to speak to your parents.”

“Oh”, Steve didn't have much energy left to protest, so he didn't. Probably pass out anyway whatever his father would do to him he wouldn't even be conscious enough to notice. It was just his luck his father answered the door.

“Officer, what happened?”, anger already clouding his features.

“I'm Chief Hopper, your son was down at the tunnels. He slipped and fell in. I don't think anything's broken, but you should bring him to a doctor, just to make sure.” Steve had hung back he didn't want to go inside. Why had Billy left him? The only thing keeping him grounded Billy's smell still clinging on the sweater he was wearing. His father took one step forward grabbing Steve by the arm and pulling him into the house.

Hopper frowning now, “Mr. Harrington, as I said your son is injured you should be careful...” His father ignored Hopper, his hand on Steve's shoulder now, apply more pressure than necessary.

“This has gotten out of control, Steven! First you fail classes, then you get involved in fights, and now the police shows up at my front door. What are you playing at?”, he rose his hand ready to hit Steve when Hopper got between them, “That's enough!”, he gruffly said.

“I have the right to discipline my son”, his father said coldly.

“Steve is in police custody for 24 hours”, Hopper said. Steve felt his blood run cold.

“On what grounds?”

“Trespassing.”

“That's hardly a crime that requires you to keep him...”

“I think it's in the best interest of everybody when Steve stays under police custody right now. C'mon son”, Hopper carefully laid a hand on Steve's back leading him back to the car. Steve couldn't hear his father's protest over the loud buzzing in his ears drowning everything else out.

“Steve, Steve?”, Hopper softly shook him, his voice slowly dialling back and the buzzing subsiding a bit. Still Steve involuntarily shied away from Hopper. His back pressing hard against the car door.

“Why did you lie?”

“Listen kid, I didn't want you to stay with your father in the state you're in right now.”

“I don't want to go to prison”, Steve shuddered.

“No, no you're not going to prison, we're going to my place.”

“I don't understand.”

“It's okay, you're safe Steve, calm down.”

Steve wasn't sure if he believed him.

Chapter Text

They finally arrived at Hopper's cabin, El opening the door with wide eyes when she saw Steve.

“Are you sick?”, she asked, pulling him into a hug.

“He took a tumble, but we'll fix him up”, Hopper led him to the couch. El set the first aid kit on the table.

“Okay, let's have a look at the damage”, Hopper helped him out of the sweater, looking at the bruising covering Steve's skin. “You're in luck nothing seems to be broken. Probably should still see a doctor”, he mused. Steve didn't really listen, trying hard to keep the fear at bay, breathing steadily in and out, like Billy had told him to do whenever he felt like this.

“El, I need to talk to Steve for a minute.”

The girl nodded, stroking through Steve's hair, “Get better”, she smiled, then went to her room.

“Listen Steve, your father is he always like this?”

“Like what?”

Hopper stood up pacing the room, “He nearly hit you today. Is he like that often?”

Steve shrugged his shoulder, “He's normal, like any father I guess.” Hopper grabbed the back of the chair, his knuckles turning white.

“Steve”, anger barely concealed in his voice, “Do you see me hitting El?”

“No, you don't do that”, Steve muttered.

“So normal fathers don't hit their children. How often does he do it?” His mind swirling especially what his mother would say, what his father would do if he said anything.

“Not often, and it's just a slap nothing bad”, Steve gave him a weak smile, the one he had practised for years now.

“Kid, I want to help you. But you have to tell me what's going on.” Steve didn't know what to say, knowing if he tried to escape again Hopper wouldn't let him leave like Billy had. Besides he wasn't sure he would make it to the door, he was exhausted. He decided to remain silent, probably the best course of action. Hopper would be annoyed and give up like every other single adult in his life. People want to have a problem they can solve, they don't want to have a problem that's not solvable. They grow frustrated, bored and give up. He wasn't sure why Billy hadn't given up yet. He must have better things to do than try to become Steve's friend.

“I know you've been going through a lot these past few months. I know Barb died in your pool”, at the mention of Barb Steve turned his head. “You have to start talking. The 'I don't care rich boy attitude' isn't doing you any favours right now.” Steve crossed his arms, looking anywhere but at Hopper. “I know what it feels like to be alone, having no one to turn to. But sometimes there are people who are standing right next to you, wanting to help you. Pushing them away is not going to help.”

Steve wanted to break down, wanted to tell Hopper he was scared of every shadow at night, of panic attacks just coming out of nowhere, his entire life teetering on the brink of fear, the next catastrophe around the corner. But he didn't, it was an age-old habit too hard to break. He didn't want to lose control once he told Hopper the cards would have been shifted. If he told Hopper something was fundamentally wrong with him, that he was this weak individual he'd have to tell himself that in fact nothing was fine, and his world would spin even more out of control. Hopper was actually trying which made Steve feel even worse for the words he was about to say.

“You are just some guy I don't even really know. What's it to you?” Hopper looked a little taken aback, but he quickly collected himself.

“Is this your way of pushing me away, because it's not working.” Dammit why was it this hard, Steve remembered the blue hair band on Hopper's now El's wrist.

“You couldn't even protect your own daughter”, he felt sick even saying these words, knowing it was a very low blow, but he needed to make Hopper back off. The words bouncing in the room he could never take them back. Hopper didn't do anything for a while, which scared Steve even more, why wasn't he shouting at him? Creaking of El's broken door cut through the silence, her expression unreadable. El always seemed like this sweet unassuming kid, but Steve knew what she could do if she wanted to. He stood up, part of him heartbroken he had managed to destroy this. The one good thing in his life, but this had been his plan all along, he should be happy.

“You're sad”, El stated, walking closer to him, his heart pounding hard as he tripped against the table. She pulled him into a hug, which surprised him so much he froze on the spot, this was exactly the opposite of what he had wanted to achieve. Hopper came closer, again scaring Steve to no end, he flinched ready to take whatever punishment Hopper had in mind for him, he did deserve it.

Hopper pulled him into a hug. Steve expected him to give him a warning threat, but the only thing he said was, “Do you think it's really this easy to get rid of us?” Tears started to spill over, and he started sobbing, trying to keep it in, but it had been too much. His knees gave way, Hopper broke his fall pulling him to the ground, never breaking the hug. “Ssh...it's okay”, he calmed him down, “Okay, let's get you to the couch, you look like you haven't slept in weeks. We'll be with you”, Hopper helped him to his feet.

“And I can read something”, El beamed.

“I don't know if Steve...”, Hopper started.

“No, I don't mind. Helps me fall asleep”, Steve wiped his wet eyes with his sleeve.

“Okay, but I'm not good yet”, El said, looking embarrassed.

“I'll let you in on a little secret, me neither”, Steve smiled, the girl got the book and started reading. Slowly Steve drifted into sleep.

 

23rd January, Thursday

The noise of the TV slowly flitted into his consciousness as he woke up, sun flooded the room. El sat on the floor watching some soap opera, if Mike would get wind of this he'd probably drag the poor girl to the next VHS rental shop and educate her on movies.

El turned around, “You're awake”, she smiled.

“Yeah, how long was I out?”, Steve sat up the constant headache gone, and he felt clearer than he had in a long time.

“School's almost out now, you fell asleep at 11pm.”

“Oh that's long.”

“You were sick, Dad said you should rest he'll be back in an hour.” Steve nodded, rubbing his eyes, still feeling tired. “Let's eat something”, El stood up pulling him along to the table, it was littered with textbooks. “If I can catch up maybe I can go to high school together with Mike and the others”, she smiled.

“That's good kiddo”, Steve felt bad for her, all alone in this cabin in the middle of nowhere. After they'd eaten there was a knock on the door. El cautiously stood up motioning Steve to stay silent, she peaked through the window next to the door, then opened up.

“Hey El, is Steve here?”, it was Max's voice.

“Yeah come in”, following the girl was the rest of the party. Steve blushed remembering how he'd behaved in the last few days, it all had been a blur, but he could remember being quite zoned out.

“You look better”, Dustin clasped his back.

“I'm sorry about the last few days. I haven't been myself”, Steve felt a little bit awkward.

“It's okay”, Will said, “Everybody has their bad days.” Even though Steve appreciated the sentiment other people's bad days probably didn't involve walking around in tunnels with a bat and having mental breakdowns. There was another knock on the door, or far more several in short succession.

“It's Dad”, El opened the door again.

“What are you all doing here?”, Hopper asked.

“Just wanted to check in on Steve”, Mike said.

“Sure, just Steve”, Hopper rolled his eyes, “Don't keep him up too long he still needs to rest. Are you feeling better, Steve?”

“I guess, yeah.”

“Okay, I'm going to call your Mum, is she home?”

“Yes.”

“Good.”

Lucas sat down next to Steve, “So what exactly happened, Max didn't want to tell us.”

“Because it's none of your business, leave him alone”, Max snapped.

“Did you go down to the tunnels? You did mention the gate”, Dustin asked. Steve knew they weren't stupid better to tell them the truth, he had already embarrassed himself so much, a little more wouldn't hurt much.

“Yes, I....I don't know my mind wasn't in the right place. I thought it would open any minute, so I wanted to be there before they attack you.”

“I sometimes have nightmares about the gate opening again”, Will confessed.

“The next time you feel like that call one of us, we can distract you. I won't be annoying”, Mike promised.

Steve laughed, “I don't think you can ever not be annoying, but thanks.” Mike rolled his eyes good-naturedly.

“Billy wanted to know how you're doing”, Max said.

“Billy asked about me?”

“Yeah, actually....”, she turned to Hopper who was a few steps away on the telephone, and lowered her voice, “He brought us here, but he's too scared to come in because of Hopper.”

“Really? I should probably talk to him”, Steve stood up.

Hopper had hung up, “Hey, what do you think you're doing?”

“Billy's outside, I wanted to talk to him.”

“With Billy, no.”

“Billy's not...we're not enemies anymore.”

Hopper rose an eyebrow in surprise, “Well that's why he was so concerned yesterday. Since when are you friends with Billy?”

“I wouldn't say friends, but he's been trying to make up for the plate incident.”

“Well he better, but why are you friendly with him?”

“I don't know. I mean stranger things have happened like you know telekinetic girls and demodogs”, Steve tried to get his point across.

“Don't get smart on me. Well, go, but if you aren't back in five I'm going to come out there.”

“Thanks, I guess”, Steve shook his head protective Hopper was something to get used to he didn't envy El at all.

 

Billy immediately stepped out of the car when he spotted Steve, and pulled him into a hug, “I was so worried yesterday”, he muttered, not letting go. Steve was surprised that Billy was this emotional.

“I'm okay”, he nervously laughed, it was nice to lean against Billy, his arms wrapped around him, he felt safe and comforted. Billy slowly let go straightening out Steve's clothes.

“When I saw you down there for a second I thought I lost you.”

“It's just a few bruises”, the unspoken words of 'you've done worse' hanging awkwardly in the air.

“I thought you'd broken your back, or something. Didn't want to go hauling your sorry ass through Hawkins in a wheelchair.” Steve got a little nauseous at the possibility of what could have happened.

“You would do that?”

Billy shrugged his shoulders, “I mean I would have to.”

“Did you think I lost my mind yesterday? Is that why you followed me and you're here now?”, Steve started fiddling with the long sleeves.

“It's because I'm in....”, Billy stopped, “Does it even matter, I was just worried okay? Am I not allowed to be worried?!”

Steve frowned, “You're not telling me something, like all the times you helped me in the past few months, there is a reason behind it.”

Billy sighed, shaking his head sadly, “Figure it out, pretty boy. Glad you're okay, can you tell the kids we have to go?”

“Yeah, thanks. Oh do you need your sweater back?”

“Keep it, looks good on you.”

 

Steve went back to the house, the kids were standing around in a small circle.

“Aren't we seeing Dr. Owens next month”, Max said.

“Dr. Owens?”, the first he had heard of it.

“Yes, he wants to check everyone.”

“But we're okay”, Steve quickly said, was there something Hopper wasn't telling them?

“Yes, of course we are”, Hopper quickly calmed him, “It's just a precaution.”

“I don't know if I even have time...”, Steve tried to talk himself out of this particular appointment.

“You're going.”

“Dr. Owens is nice, I have to see him every couple of weeks”, Will softly said. Before Steve could further protest another knock on the door, Hopper answered it.

“Mrs. Harrington, thank you for coming.”

“Stevie, are you okay?”, she pulled him into a hug, Steve didn't remember he had received so many hugs from so many different people.

“I'm okay Mum, sorry for the trouble.”

“No, no it's okay”, she sat down next to him, an arm around his shoulder.

“What exactly happened?”

“Your son was down at the tunnels, most have slipped and fell in. He has a few bruises, but nothing's broken.”

“Oh thank God. What were you doing at the tunnels, sweetie?”

“I just needed to clear my head, that's all.”

“Okay, Chief could I have a word with you?” He could still hear their muffled voices, the walls thin in this house.

“I'm not stupid, something happened a year ago. My son isn't the same anymore. I know you can't tell me, but please I want to help him.”

“Mrs. Harrington, I'd suggest you keep an eye on your husband”, Hopper said, making Steve's heart sink, why was he still on about it?

“What do you mean by that?”

“I wanted to bring Steve home when his father nearly hit him right in front of me. Is this happening often?”

“No...I mean, I know my husband is very hard towards our son, but he doesn't want to have him grow up spoilt. He believes in disciplining a child. And I can't....I don't agree with his parenting, but I can't stop him”, she sadly said.

“If he is hurting Steve, or you you can press charges, Mrs. Harrington.”

“It's really not that bad”, his mother predictably said.

“You would help Steve a lot if he didn't have to live in fear in his own home.”

“Really, it's okay. Thank you for taking care of him.”

“I'll bring you home.”

“There's no...”

“I want to”, Hopper didn't leave anymore room for discussion.

 

When they were standing at the door, Hopper put a reassuring hand on Steve's shoulder, “Don't worry, I'm going to take care of this.” Steve wasn't sure this was exactly comforting, he'd seen Hopper angry before, hopefully this wouldn't turn into another fight.

“Mr. Harrington.”

“You! I'm going to press charges against you.”

“What are you talking about?”, his mother joined in.

“He took Steve back to the station because of trespassing...”

“Well who's fault is that”, she snapped.

“What are you insinuating?”

“Chief Hopper told me what happened”, she was angry.

“Okay, let's get this straight, Mr. Harrington”, Hopper said, stepping closer to his father towering over him. “I am the police you are just a rich businessman. You think you have power, but compared to me you don't. So keeping that mind, here's what's going to happen. If your son has a bruise I will assume it was you.”

“You can't...”

“Oh I can. I am the police chief in Hawkins. I can do anything. Steve is going to stay at my place once a week. And if there is a mark on him I will make sure you'll pay. There are certain ways to make that happen”, he had the hand on the hilt of his weapon, Steve's father swallowing hard. Steve couldn't remember seeing his father that terrified. “Steve, get your walkie talkie, I want you to check in hourly today. If something happens after I leave, so God help me, Mr. Harrington, you are going to regret it for the rest of your miserable life in a prison cell.”

“Yes, sir”, his father said.

Steve's mother led Steve upstairs. They sat down on his bed.

“I'm sorry, I didn't tell him anything”, Steve muttered.

“No, it's....it's okay”, tears in her eyes, “I'm sorry I never was strong enough. I never stood up to him.” Steve wasn't sure what to say, the entire situation felt unreal. He had never expecting somebody to actually stand up for him. Maybe this was just another dream he'd cruelly wake up from. Mixed feelings towards his mother made him not really sure how to react. They heard his father's car in the distance.

“Good riddance”, his mother muttered.

“Don't you have to go back to work as well?”, Steve asked.

“No I took a few days off. Wanted to spend some time with my son, if he can forgive me”, she reached out to take his hand, but stopped. Shaking her head, “I don't...I understand it's not that easy. I...we've drifted apart, it's my fault. Would you consider trying to get back where we have been when you were younger?” Steve tried to remember the times spent with his mother, most of them were more with his Nanny, or friend's parents. His mother only popping up a handful of times, but they had been nice. Too nice, he know what he had been missing out on. “You're probably too young to even remember”, his mother muttered.

“I'd like to try”, Steve said shyly, remembering the leap of faith had actually been a good thing with Billy, if he remained cautious, so it wouldn't hurt too much when the inevitable happen and they all let him down. A bit of happiness was better than nothing, he could deal with the heartbreak, the pain.

“So tell me about Nancy.”

“Nancy?”

“That's her name, right?”

“You remembered?”

“Of course I did, you never introduced me to her.”

“You where never there”, bitterness creeping up.

“I guess you're right.”

“I didn't even know you cared.”

“I do care, Stevie, you're my son of course I care for you”, she ruffled through his hair, “I didn't do a great job of showing it, did I?”, she didn't sound angry, more sad, “I'll try to do better. So tell me about Nancy.”

“We're not together anymore.”

“I'm sorry, since when?”

“Since November, she is with someone else now, he's better for her. I wasn't a good boyfriend to her anyway”, he shrugged, it still hurt to think about her, but it had gotten better over the past few months.

“I'm sorry, Stevie. Love isn't all that it's cracked up to be.”

Steve looked at her, “Did you marry the man you loved?”

“No, not really. There was somebody else, but it didn't work out. Don't make the mistakes I did. Only settle for somebody you really love, somebody who would do anything for you.”

“I thought Nancy was the one.”

“There will be other girls out there. If you search long enough you'll find somebody who loves you just as much as you love them.” Steve nodded. “Then tell me about Billy.”

“Billy?”, Steve wasn't sure what that had to do with anything.

His mother laughed, “Please, do you really think I thought you were studying all the time? You were having way too much fun for that.”

“I thought you hated him?”

“You were in such a good mood when he left, he really is trying to make up for what he's done.”

“I guess, doesn't mean we're friends, or anything”, Steve defended the idea.

“Honey, you're allowed to have friends you actually like and care about”, his mother laughed.

“Thanks, but Billy and I aren't friends”, he wasn't sure why he was still vehemently disagreeing with the notion. He was scared something would happen if he let himself fall into a friendship with Billy, of all people.

“Oh you are friends”, his mother laughed, standing up, “C'mon lets cook something together, and you tell me all about Dustin and your other little friends.”

Chapter Text

1st February, Friday

Steve was bored sitting next to Dustin and Lucas, he looked down the hall. “I could still escape”, he mentioned off-handedly.

“No, we promised Hopper we would all speak to Dr. Owens”, Dustin vehemently said.

“Since when do you listen to adults anyway?”, he stood up.

“Hey, where do you think you're going?”, Hopper barked at him.

“I need to go to the bathroom. Am I allowed to do that?”

“You were just there ten minutes ago.”

“Really?”, he threw a glance at the clock, it felt like ten hours.

“Well, how long is this gonna take? We have been sitting here for hours.”

Hopper rolled his eyes, “Dr. Owens wanted to speak with the kids first.”

“He'll just ask a couple of questions, it's not anything hard to answer”, Dustin said.

“Sure, not hard to answer”, Steve muttered, opening the window, the hallway stuffy, and he felt queasy. Mike and Will had stuck their heads together speaking in hushed whispers.

“We got the day off from school”, Lucas said triumphantly.

“I rather be in school, my history lessons are more interesting than this”, Steve tapped his fingers impatiently against the windowsill, looking down into the yard. Hopper's and his car were the only ones standing there. “How come Nancy and Jonathan don't have to come to this meeting?”

“They already had an appointment yesterday.”

“Well good for them”, he scraped dry paint from the cracked wood.

Will cautiously approached him, “You don't have to be nervous, Dr. Owens is nice.”

“Thanks, I just...”, he took a deep breath feeling all the eyes on him, “I'll be fine. Just hate waiting you know”, his hands were trembling slightly. He wanted to shove them into his pockets, but Will put a hand on his.

“We survived the demodogs, we can survive this”, he said quiet enough that only Steve could hear it. Before the older boy could respond the door opened, El and Dr. Owens stepping outside.

“I believe the only one left is Steven Harrington”, he was looking far too happy about his job, Steve noted with distaste.

“Nice to meet you, Dr. Owens”, he managed a more or less convincing smile.

“The pleasure is all mine”, they walked into the room. As soon as he stepped inside he felt even more nauseous, taking all his willpower to cross the room to the chair Dr. Owens pointed at.

“Steven, I'll ask you a couple of questions about what happened last year, and how you've been in the last few months.”

“It's Steve, actually....My father is the only one who calls me Steven”, he shifted in the chair. The doctor nodded, still this unnerving cheery disposition on his face.

“Okay Steve, how have you been?”, his eyes on Steve tapping his fingers on his knee.

“Fine”, Steve smiled, willing his hands to stay still for once. Trying not to think about how small the room was, how the windows and door were shut no means of escaping this situation. He just had to pretend for half an hour then he could go.

“I heard you got an concussion?”

Steve shrugged, “It didn't have to do with the demodogs.”

“Yeah”, Dr. Owens sifted through a few notes, presumedly taken from the conversations with the kids. “Quite the night you had there.”

“I guess.”

“Not your first rodeo with the demogorgon.”

“No”, Steve quickly growing tired of Dr. Owens very smiley persona, was this some kind of shtick to get him to confess something? Who was this guy really? He should have asked Hopper a lot more what this 'check-up' really entitled.

“So how is your head?”

“It's okay.”

“Any headaches, nausea, visual distortions?”

“No.”

The doctor nodded, “Well it is strange because Lucas very vividly, I dare say, described an incident on New Years where his sister shone a light in your eyes making you sick.” Steve felt all colour drain from his face when he was caught in the lie.

“Ahm...I guess I drank too much that night...”

“According to Max you didn't have anything to drink that night because you don't drink since your concussion.” How did Max even know? And how much did Dr. Owens know?

“Well, yeah I get sick sometimes from bright lights.”

“How often?”

“Only when there is a bright light directly shone into my eyes.”

“Dustin mentioned you slipped down the stairs, and knocked your head a month after your first concussion.” So that was the cover story they were going with.

“I'm a clumsy person”, he muttered.

“Any other symptoms you're experiencing?”

“No.”

“Steve, the brain needs time to heal”, the same words the doctor had told him that night, when Hopper sat next to him in the examination room. The night a blur aside from some terrible moments he'd rather forget and couldn't. “Steve?”

He looked up, must have zoned out, “Yes?”

“I was asking if you have been experiencing any anxiety?”

Steve's mouth dry now, “Anxiety?”, his hands started trembling again, he crossed his arms in front of his chest.

“Yes, nightmares, panic attacks, the feeling you're under constant stress, or the fear of another demogorgon attack. These are all very reasonable, completely understandable feelings.” Steve took a deep breath, hoping the kids hadn't told Dr. Owens he had freaked out whilst watching The Thing, or all the other times.

“No, I haven't experienced any anxiety.”

Dr. Owens frowned, “Steve, you nearly got killed by these demodogs, and attacked by a schoolmate. Frankly, I'd be more concerned if you weren't experiencing at least a little anxiety.”

“You've seen the 13 year olds outside your office, right? Ask them, they were attacked and nearly died before they even had their first kiss. They're all still children. Ask them, don't ask me”, Steve snapped, he wanted this guy to back off.

“We are not talking about the kids right now. We're talking about you.”

“No, we're talking about the kids....”

“Stop deflecting”, Dr. Owens said calmly.

“They were scared”, Steve tapped his fingers on the chair, he wanted nothing more than Billy to be here, to tell him to calm down and snap out of it.

“Steve, I spoke to all of them, and you know what they all said? That every step of the way, whenever they were frightened they knew you would be there, you would save them, and you did save them.”

“They said that?”, tears in his eyes now, he would not cry in front of this man, he furiously tried to blink them away.

“Who did you have that night to protect you, Steve? No one.” He remembered them all ganging up on him, pleading with him to go down to the tunnels. The panic he couldn't keep his promise. One of them not coming back. And the sickening realisation he was the only adult in that situation when he really just wanted to call his Mum and go home. “You are not alone anymore, there are people who want to help you, Steve. I want to help you, but you got to open up to me, at least a little.”

“We nearly didn't make it”, Steve muttered, looking at his hands now, for a split second he saw blood on them. “If they had gotten hurt, or worse... I couldn't forgive myself.”

Dr. Owens smiled sadly, “You can't always keep them safe. But that night you succeeded to do just that.” Steve didn't say anything, he really wanted to get out of this office. Go outside and think of something else, that had nothing to do with all this. All the memories he had tried to repress bubbling to the surface.

“Can I go now?”, he asked coldly.

“Not quite yet. Let's talk about those episodes you've been having.”

“I don't have any episodes”, Steve said a little too quickly, his thoughts racing who could have talked, and how much?

“Jim told me he found you in the tunnels a week ago. And you had an altercation with a boy from school, is that right?”

“Is this some kind of interrogation? Because if I would have known I would have brought a lawyer with me.”

“Listen, episodes like this will happen again if you bottle all your feelings up. It's like a can of soda you shake, eventually it will bubble over. Why did you go down to the tunnels?” Steve shrugged his shoulders. “C'mon it was cold outside in the middle of the night, you got to have a better explanation than that.”

“You probably heard the explanation from somebody.”

“No, actually everybody is very tight-lipped. I know the children are all hiding something from me concerning you. But they are all very worried. You might think pretending everything is fine will make people believe that, but they don't. You can't outrun your anxiety, Steve. What happened to you has left scars, these scars will never fully go away.”

“I was trying to face my fear”, Steve quietly admitted.

“Facing your fear is good, but you also have to learn to live with it. Certain things will always trigger your anxiety from now on, but you can learn how to calm yourself down, how to control it. But you can't do it all on your own.”

Watch me, Steve thought, he stood up, “Dr. Owens, you sound like an Afterschool Special”, with that he turned and opened the door. Ignoring the man's pleas to get him back into the room. He marched past Hopper and the kids, racing down the steps towards the door.

 

Leaning against his car, wiping his sweaty palms on his jeans he saw Dustin had followed him. Steve feverishly raking his brain to say something, to at least appear to not be the mess he was right now. The kids were worried Dr. Owens had said. Great now he had given them more to fuel the fire.

“Do you still have that love mixtape? Max told me it was the most awful cheesy music she had ever heard”, Dustin said, a smile on his face.

“Ahm....yeah, I...yeah”, Steve stammered, finally catching himself he pushed the play button. Uptown Girl starting to play.

“Seriously Billy gave you this?”

“No, well yes...but it was for his girl.”

Dustin's eyes widened, “He has a girl?”

“Don't tell anyone, it's nothing official. I don't think he has made his move yet.”

“Hopefully somebody his age”, Dustin muttered, he finally said, “Whatever Dr. Owens told you, I think he means well.”

Steve nodded, now in the car he felt a little bit calmer, “Yeah, I just started remembering the night. It was like I was thrown back there again.”

Dustin nodded, “I'm sorry.”

“What for?”

“If it hadn't been for my brilliant idea of putting Dart into the fridge he wouldn't have jumped me, and you wouldn't be traumatised.”

“I'm not traumatised”, Steve scoffed, “If I were all the demodogs before that would have already taken care of me being traumatised.”

“Yeah....Is that Stevie Wonder? Very specific if you ask me.”

“Oh sure, Billy made a mixtape just for me”, Steve taunted shaking his head, “It's just a coincidence, girls like Stevie Wonder.”

“I wonder if Billy lies awake at night thinking about Stevie”, Dustin mused. Steve thought of the already worn out tape from Billy's reading sessions he listened to at night. “Dude, are you blushing?!”, Dustin laughed.

“Shut up”, Steve about to give him a playful smack. Dustin ducked just in time, then he stopped laughing.

“Steve, Hopper is coming towards the car and he looks grumpy.”

“That's like his default mood”, Steve sighed.

“Harrington, what on earth was that?”

“I don't want to talk about all my feelings with somebody I don't even know!”

Hopper sighed, checking his wristwatch, “Okay, listen I have to go back to work, is somebody staying with you today?”

“Why should somebody be...”

“Steve, I was there that night. I know how scared everybody was, and what it's like to trudge up all these memories. I already talked to the kid's parents, they're all going to be home, and El is staying with me at the station today. But I assume your parents aren't there, so who are you going to stay with? Because I sure as hell don't want you to stay on your own and risk you getting another panic attack.”

“I'm going to Billy's actually we have a class project thing to do.”

“You better not lie to me, son. I'll have El check with Max that you're really there.”

“Yes, okay", Steve knew Billy would calm him down. Like he always did.

Chapter Text

Billy seemed surprised when Steve showed up, but first he turned to his sister, “How did it go? Are you okay?”

“It was a bit weird to talk about that night, but I'm fine.” Steve was surprised, he knew Billy liked Max deep down, but he never showed it that openly. They mostly threw insults at each other almost meant as terms of endearments. But Billy being this open about his worry for Max was pretty surprising to him. Max went to her room, and Billy turned to Steve.

“Are you okay? You look a little pale.”

“I'm fine”, Steve said, the fear still deep in his bones, “I just... do you have time for history?”

“Sure, did you bring your books?”

“Oh”, Steve rolled his eyes at himself, of course he'd forgotten them.

“You know, Steve, you can just visit me as a friend without having to give the excuse of studying.”

“A friend?”, Steve wasn't too sure about that.

“Seriously Harrington, it's hard to get on your exclusive lists of friends, but I'll die trying. Now come in.” They sat down next to each other on Billy's bed.

“So what did Dr. Owens want?”

“He just wanted to talk about the night, and you know how we're doing”, Steve shrugged.

“And?”

“I don't really want to talk about it, Billy”, Steve grabbed a thick book from Billy's nightstand.

“Wow, is that for school?”

“No, I like reading that's all”, now it was Billy's turn to shrug.

“The Stand, what's it about?”

“Read the blurb.”

“I rather not”, Steve laid the book next to him.

“This is not going to be a 'I'm going into the tunnels' episode, is it?”, Billy asked.

“No, Hopper would freak, he has eyes on me now.”

“For a law enforcement guy he seems okay”, Billy said. It was hard to keep this conversation going, the fear back full force, nearly as intense as it had been that night.

“Hey”, Billy carefully laid a hand on Steve's knee, “You are here with me, not there. Don't forget that.”

“It's like I never left”, Steve muttered, “This isn't going to stop, is it? I thought if I just got through the first month it would get better, but it didn't. Then I thought maybe the next month, but it's still there. Dr. Owens said it's like scars, it will never go away”, he felt sick, mind spinning.

“Steve, you get out of bed everyday, you go to school, you mother all the kids. That's good.”

Steve laughed, “Yeah, and I can't sleep and went down into the tunnels.”

“Relapse is expected, you're not going to get better all at once. It takes time, but we're all here to help, if you let us.”

“Now you sound like an afterschool special”, how did Billy know all this? Billy had no business speaking like a psych 101 textbook.

“Don't tell anybody, or you're dead”, Billy muttered.

“Wouldn't want to ruin your reputation”, Steve said, “Did Tommy give you any trouble?”

“No not really, he actually was less annoying”, Billy said.

“Good, I didn't want you to get into trouble on my account.”

“The kids didn't force me to go and beat Tommy up, you know? I didn't get myself kidnapped by a bunch of kids.”

“Need I remind you that a kid knocked you out cold?”

“Okay you win”, Billy smiled, the phone rang, “Hang on, I'll get that.”

Steve looked around the room, he wanted to know who Billy really was. Even though he knew this boy for some time now he didn't really know that much about him at all. Especially because Billy had his high school persona as well. There were a lot of books, so Billy did like to read, him being passionate about literature had been the right assumption after all. There were a stack of books on his table, Steve stood up and looked at the covers. Another Stephen King one, maybe Billy's favourite author, he should ask Max, could be a potential present. Steve stopped himself mid-thought, why would he even think about potential presents for Billy? He didn't even know the guy's birthday.

The next book confused Steve a little bit, 'How to Cope with Trauma', a photo had been stuck in the middle as a bookmark. He flipped it open, the picture falling onto the table. He picked it up only then realising who was on the picture, he froze mid-action. On the photo was Max and he himself, judging from the background it had to be the Byers' house. Jonathan had probably taken it, but why did Billy have this? He heard footsteps and quickly placed the photo and book back where he had found it.

“Do you have any sociology classes?”, he blurted out as soon as Billy entered the room.

“No, why are you asking?”

“Because of the afterschool special talk”, Steve quickly covered, realising that book Billy read was probably because Billy wanted to help Max and him. He felt guilty for Billy trying so hard and he couldn't just get better.

“I don't need school to educate myself. Hopper was on the phone, wanted to check up on you being here for a class project. Told me you walked out on Dr. Owens session.” Why did Hopper have to bring that up?

“I didn't like him asking questions, that's all.”

“Well, then you'll be delighted to hear that Dr. Owens would like to have more sessions with you.”

“Really?”, Steve's hear sank, “Nobody can force me to go there.”

“I told Hopper the same thing.”

“You did?”

“Yeah, it went over as well as you'd expect. But he was glad you aren't alone today.”

“Hopper is warming up to you”, Steve joked.

“Sure, you know what? We should do something fun today.”

“And what do you have in mind?”

“Let's go bowling.”

“Bowling?”

“Yeah, we'll take the kids it will be fun. Besides I miss our friendly competition in basketball.”

“Friendly? You pushed me onto the floor.”

Billy rolled his eyes, “Not my fault you're such a lightweight.”

 

To Steve's surprise the kids were up for it, and nobody complained when he mentioned Billy coming with them. There was a little fight who would be in which group.

“Billy and Steve have to be in different groups, they have an advantage. And I want to be in Billy's. No offense, Steve, but Billy looks like he's better in sports.”

“Wow, thanks Wheeler for the ringing endorsement”, Steve muttered.

“I want to be in your group”, Dustin said, standing next to Steve.

“Me too”, Max announced, “This time I'm going to obliterate you”, she threatened her brother.

Steve rose an eyebrow, “Is this something you do often?”

“Yeah, we did it all the time back in California”, Max tested the grip of the bowling ball in her hand. Exchanging horrified glances with Dustin, Steve didn't really feel ready for this game.

“I'm definitely joining Hargrove”, Lucas announced, a testament to how much he'd grown to tolerate Billy.

“El, you're with me”, Mike said, the girl had looked at the rolling pins with fascination. Steve didn't miss Will looking annoyed at his friend.

“Will, you're with us”, he said.

“I'm not very good”, the boy said, looking nervously around at the other people playing.

“Doesn't matter this is all just for fun, right Billy!”, Steve shot him a look, hoping the boy would understand what he was getting at.

“A game, Harrington, I don't know if it's just a game.” Sometimes he just wanted to throttle Billy.

“Ignore him”, he muttered, “We'll make sure you guys get the lighter ones. It'll be easier to throw.”

“Oh I'm going to take the heaviest one”, Mike bragged.

“Don't do that we want to win”, Billy tried to convince him otherwise.

“You think we can't handle the heavy ones”, Lucas said, ready for a fight.

“Fine, do what you want”, Billy already exasperated.

“That's good, if they're this stupid already then we'll definitely win”, Max smiled.

Mike was first up, the bowling ball way too heavy slammed hard onto the lane and soon came to a dead stop in the middle of it. Mike turned bright red, El quizzically looking at him.

“I thought you have to topple those over”, she pointed towards the pins.

“I know, I underestimated how heavy the bowling ball would be”, he muttered. Dustin took the lightest one.

“Hey, that's not fair”, Mike started to protest.

“We told you to take lighter ones”, Billy said.

“But that's for kids.”

“Okay, take middle ones”, Billy sighed.

“You know at my last maths summer camp we learned how to do bowling with maths and physics.”

“How...”, Steve didn't even know what to say. Doing maths in your free time was even stranger than knowing a telekinetic girl.

“Believe in the power of physics”, Dustin hit six pins.

“Well, that's decent”, Steve said. Max and Lucas were next both taking the game way too serious, and both scoring full pins. Noticing that Will was sitting looking a little frightened Steve came over to him.

“Everything okay?”

“Yeah, it's just...the last time I went bowling was with my dad, and he was pretty unhappy because I'm not good. And people are always staring here.” He looked around again, there were a few teenagers in the next couple of lanes, and a group of adults all of them concentrated on their games, or speaking to their friends.

“They're not looking at us, I mean maybe they were looking at Mike when he destroyed the lane, but they won't be looking when our team throws.”

“Okay.”

“I'll stand next to you, so nobody looks.” Will smiled and chose a ball. El was having trouble how to hold it.

“There are holes, I'll show you”, Mike took her hand helping her. They stepped towards the lane, “You just have to throw now.”

“Wait a minute”, Billy joined them, “May I?” Mike shrugged, looking a little jealous, nothing new there, as Billy helped the girl stand straight. “Now throw.” She did hitting three pins at the left side.

“Hey that's great!”, Billy smiled. Will looking like a deer caught in the headlights now, starting to fidget with the ball.

“You got this, just concentrate on the line and nothing else”, Steve calmed him down. The boy nodded and threw hitting four pins. “That's great, see you're not half bad”, Steve high-fived him.

“Okay, Harrington your turn, don't disappoint me”, Billy laughed. Of course he knocked them all over in one go. Steve hit them all apart from one, it wobbled to and fro. “Ah come on. Come on”, he muttered.

“Fall dammit!”, Dustin shouted at the top of his voice, very much into the game. Now they were attracting glances, a mother with her young kids glaring angrily at Steve and Billy.

The pin remained standing, and Billy laughed, “Bad luck, Harrington.”

 

They carried on playing, Lucas and Max being the most competitive of the bunch.

“You are so dead, Sinclair”, Max channelled her inner Billy, and scored another strike.

“Oh I'm happy to see your team fail”, Lucas sneered, scoring a full strike as well. Steve enjoyed the rhythmic clattering of the pins falling down, them being picked up again, the bowling balls rolling on the lanes. The conversations filling the air. Will finally starting to have fun with the game. El and he even started to compliment the others throw, and gave a word of comfort if they didn't hit them all.

“Hey Stevie Wonder, let's see what you've got”, Steve ignored Billy's ribbing. Finally they decided to take a short break Max gathered them all around.

“We need a strategy to win.”

“Max, I would be happy to give you a free throw, given your drawbacks I want it to be an even chance.”

“Oh shut up, Hargrove.”

“Right back at ya, Mayfield.”

“Don't speak to her like that”, Lucas said.

“Sinclair, this is war, there is no time for personal feelings”, Billy said very dramatically.

“Stop riling them up”, Steve said.

“Sorry, Uptown Girl, but you are the enemy right now.”

“What's up with all these nicknames?”, Dustin asked.

“Billy just likes to annoy people.”

“Especially you”, Dustin laughed, what was he getting at? Billy and El were speaking to each other now in low voices, odd. Were they exchanging money? But before he could make sense of what he'd just seen Max snapped her fingers in front of his eyes, “I have a plan.” After the drawn out strategy talk Steve had only understood half of he was roped into buying everybody something to drink.

“Are they having fun?”, Billy asked, when they fetched the drinks.

“Yes, even El and Will.”

“I think I'm beginning to understand why you hang out with them, they're hilarious.”

“Hargrove, are you finding your inner babysitter?”

Billy shook his head, “I'm not that desperate yet. Are you having fun?”

“Yeah, actually I am. Thanks for doing this.”

“No problem, I'd do a lot for you”, with that he turned throwing the bottles of soda to the kids on his team. It had started to become somewhat normal to hear Billy say something like that. Steve wasn't sure if Billy was just this nice to all his real friends, or what it was. Maybe he likes me more...the thought hung heavy in the room, something he couldn't make sense of...yet. He wanted to find out what Billy wanted, and far more importantly he was curious what Billy meant to him. Steve could dip his toe into his feelings regarding Billy, cautiously define them nothing more. If this were a girl, he thought, all this would be far easier. Billy was talking to Dustin now, laughing at a joke the boy made. The warm feeling back again.

Will walked towards him, “I can take some of them.”

“Oh thanks, are you having a good time? And be honest.”

“I...I think so”, Will sounded surprised, “It's so much more fun than when I went with Dad. Even though I'm as bad as ever.”

“You're not bad, you always threw some pins over. Besides you have a lot of talents others don't have.”

The boy smiled, “Thank you, Steve.”

They joined their team, “We are going to win this”, Max announced. Steve fared worse in the second half the bowling ball getting more and more off course even though he threw it as he always did.

“Steve, what are you doing? We need to win this thing”, Max shouted.

“I honestly don't know.”

“Getting tired, Princess?”, Billy jeered, throwing the perfect game. The next time Steve's ball only touched one of the pins, that still stood completely still.

“Dude, are you okay? Normally you're pretty great at throwing, aren't you?”, Dustin asked in concern.

Billy laughed again, “Harrington is just a bit out of practice with sport-related things.”

“No thanks to you”, Dustin shouted back. During his next turn the bowling ball managed to skip into the line next to them, knocking into the ball rolling in that lane, resulting in both of them drifting off course.

“What on earth do you think you're doing?”, a girl probably close to Steve's age glared at him angrily, “You destroyed my perfect roll, dingus!”

“Sorry, I didn't mean to do that.”

“A piece of advice, if this is your way of trying to pick girls up then it's not working at all.”

“Do you mind”, Steve gestured around to the children.

“Believe me he couldn't flirt if he tried”, Billy flashed her a grin.

“Just both of you, don't talk to me. And leave my lane alone.”

“Let me help you”, Billy stepped behind Steve.

“What are you doing?”

“Showing you how to play the game.”

“I know how to...” He was interrupted by Billy coming closer, putting a hand on his arm, and the other on his shoulder.

“Stand a bit more to the side, stop moving your feet, plant them on the ground”, his head next to Steve's, “Okay, easy swing you got it?” For a moment Billy was the only one in the entire alley. Tuning everybody else out, Steve stepped back just a little bit, to get even closer to Billy. He didn't even know why he did it, but the warm feeling bubbled up in him. “Show me what you've got”, Billy whispered into his ear. Steve threw the ball which again rolled to the side, but now he saw blood running down El's nose, the spell broken he turned around to Billy.

“I don't believe this! You rigged the game”, he started to protest.

“How am I supposed to do that. Nobody can make you throw terrible. That's all you.”

“Oh I don't know maybe you have somebody who could do it, right El?”

“Sorry”, a sheepish smile on the girl's face, “Billy gave me two bucks.”

“This is unbelievable”, Dustin chimed in, “We talked about this. When a Jedi goes bowling he can't use his powers! So nobody can, it's against the rules.”

Billy was clearly having the time of his life, “You really thought you'd throw that badly? Stop underestimating yourself, Harrington. You can repeat all the rolls, and nobody will manipulate it.” Steve managed to throw a decent score, but his mind was somewhere else, standing so close to Billy had felt good, and he still couldn't figure out why. They were down to the last points.

“Max, you have to score a full strike, and Will you need four”, Dustin instructed them.

“Yes, let's do this”, Max threw the ball it skidding along the smooth surface dead centre all but one pin toppling over, “Oh c'mon!” Steve, Dustin and Will were standing at the side eyes fixed on the last pin that was still moving to and fro.

“C'mon, please, c'mon”, Dustin muttered, when the pin toppled over.

“Yes!”, Max shouted on the top of her voice, her shoes squeaking as she jumped up and down.

“Okay, Will you're up”, Steve said, “You got this.” The boy looked nervous again, but nodded his head took a deep breath, and threw the ball, six pins toppling.

“Yes, you did it!”, they shouted in unison. Steve gave Will a high-five, and they went into a team hug.

 

“I have to say, Dustin, your physics ploy worked. Now you can go bowling with Mr. Clarke”, Steve joined Dustin as they gave back the bowling shoes.

“It's really easy.”

“But it involves equations, right? As in maths and numbers?”

Dustin nodded, “You were good without maths."

“Okay, Einstein if you say so.”

“I didn't tell Dr. Owens about your panic attacks”, Dustin said, his voice lower now as they stepped into the crisp cold night. Steve hadn't thought about any of that at all, sometimes distractions were welcome.

“He asked all of us, and we all said no.” Steve wasn't sure what to say to that 'Thanks that you all lied for me' ?

“Dustin, you don't need to lie for me. I appreciate what you did, but I don't want to make you lie.”

“You didn't, we all chose to do it because we knew how upset you would become. Besides Hopper knows it and Billy, so it's not like nobody could help you”, Dustin said matter of factly.

“Thanks, Buddy. I'm feeling better now, sorry about this morning.”

“It's alright”, Dustin smiled.

“If you ever want to talk about what Dr. Owens talked about with you...”, Steve shrugged, he wasn't good at this, “Well you know you can always come to me.”

“Like brothers”, Dustin held his hand up for a high-five.

“Like brothers.”

Chapter Text

6th February, Wednesday

Standing in the shop surrounded by books Steve wanted to escape, it was like he had stepped into his own personal nightmare.

El wide-eyed looking at the covers, “So many books."

“We should get you a library card”, Steve muttered.

“Library?”

“You can borrow books there, read them and take them back without having to pay.”

“Bitchen”, El smiled.

“I guess.” The girl wandered off to the children section, flipping through the books, probably looking at the pictures. Good call. Steve still didn't understand how all his friends liked to read books as thick as bricks.

He started reading the authors, searching for the letter K, finally he found King, the books had far too many pages for his taste, he sighed starting to read the blurbs. A haunted hotel, Steve didn't like haunted house stories because he always had to return to an empty house with all its creaks and shadows in the dark. A haunted town, well that sounded a little too much like Hawkins. A haunted car, Steve could certainly see a pattern here. A book about burying pets, weird. A book about a dog attacking everyone, too much like demodogs. Steve wasn't too sure if he would like any of King's books when he got to a book about a young girl with powers. He placed all the books but one back in the shelf, and joined El.

“I found a book about you”, he whispered in her ear.

“Really?”, El grabbed the book from his hand haltingly reading it, her lips moving. “What's pyro...pyrokinesis?”

“It's when you can set fire to something with your mind, I mean not as cool as your power, but close.”

“Can we buy it?”, El asked in awe.

“I don't know it has a lot of pages. I think you should practice with easier books.” El looked dangerously close to pouting her brown eyes pleading with him.

“You could read it too me,” she smiled taking the book with the others she had gotten walking towards the checkout. Steve ran a hand through his hair, what had he done? Quickly he took another copy of the same book.

“El, you remember when I told you I'm not a good reader?”

“Yes.”

“Yeah well, I don't read that much. I just needed a book for Billy, as a thank you for helping me with school”, because he didn't pay he needed to give Billy at least something, or it really would appear like they were actual friends which they weren't.

“Are you named after him?”, El asked.

“After Billy?”, Steve wasn't sure where she had got that from.

“No, after Stephen King?”

“No, I don't think he's been around as a writer for that long”, or at least that's what he guessed, he wasn't exactly a book expert, “Anyway his name is written wrong.”

“Oh”, El looked at the cover again, “You're right.” They bought the books and Steve asked El if she wanted something else. It was endearing to see her eyes widen as she looked at everything the shops had to offer.

“I want to have make-up”, she finally announced.

“Make-up”, Steve remembered she had looked differently the very first time he had seen her, but it was all a concussion blur, also the fact she had moved something with her mind had kinda made him forget everything else. “El, I don't know if I can help you with make-up, maybe Nancy could...”

“You're pretty”, as if that had got to do with anything, and Steve wasn't sure if pretty was a compliment or not. “And Dad knows nothing about all this”, El sighed. Steve started laughing, imagining Hopper trying to do El's hair on prom night in a couple of years.

“Okay, I'll try to help you”, he could probably do this. They stood in an array of make-up, is was a lot, all bottles looking the same.

“You know you don't need make-up, El. You're just as pretty without.”

El beamed, “Pretty?”

“Yes, and Mike is already head over heels for you.”

“Head over heels?”, she asked quizzically.

“It's a saying when somebody is really in love with you.”

“Head over heels”, she repeated, hands hovering over lipstick in all colours Steve could think of. “We're going on a date”, El smiled.

“What does your dad think about that?”, Steve asked, looking at the mascara.

El pulled a face, “We're only allowed outside for a picnic”, she almost spat the word.

“A picnic...huh?”

“And he's going to be watching from inside.” Taking overprotective dad to an entirely new level, “Why does he hate Mike so much?”

“Oh he doesn't hate Mike per se, it's more he hates any boy who's your boyfriend.”

“Why?”

“Some dads are like that, they're afraid of losing you”, Steve looked at her thoughtfully, did she even know about what had happened to Hopper's daughter?

“He's never going to lose me”, El said.

“Tell him that every now and then. I think he needs to hear it.” El nodded, standing on tiptoes, her hand trying to reach a bottle of foundation. Steve handed it to her, “Just ask me, don't use your powers. Or Hopper is going to lock you in your room for the rest of your life.”

“He won't.”

“Who knows.” After she had gotten some mascara, 3 types of lipstick and nail polish they went to the hair section. Steve decided to sneak his Farrah Fawcett spray into their purchases, he knew it was risky, but with a little bit of luck she wouldn't even notice. Nobody was in the aisle, El deeply entranced in the shampoo section, opening the lid and smelling them. Steve grabbed one of the bottles, hiding it under the other paraphernalia.

“I think I've got everything”, El announced happily. They turned the corner colliding with somebody else, Steve lost the grip on the basket all the things rolling across the floor, dammit.

“Could you watch where....Steve?”, Billy standing there, looking surprised, blushing slightly. Why was he blushing? Then Steve spotted the exact same hairspray he had also wanted to buy in Billy's hand. “It's for Max”, Billy muttered, “Sorry for running into you”, he knelt down collecting all the things. Steve scrambled to get the Farrah Fawcett spray, but Billy was a little bit quicker their hands meeting on the bottle.

“It's for El”, it was Steve's turn to stammer.

“Hey Billy”, El said.

“Oh hey El, are you babysitting Steve?” Steve finally understood why Billy's hair had smelled so familiar all the times Billy had been so close to him. Billy must have come to the conclusion as well, his eyes widened.

He stood up taking a step back, “No way”, he muttered.

“If you tell, I'll tell”, Steve quickly scrambled up, holding the bottle protectively to his chest. How did Billy even have the idea to use Farrah Fawcett spray, who even did that besides him?

“How...Why are you using...”, Billy started asking.

“I'm not having this conversation here where half the girls in Hawkins can hear us”, Steve hissed.

“Okay, yeah....you're right”, Billy turned his head, “The coast is clear....I better get going.” Steve felt his cheeks burn praying this awkward situation would end some time soon. “I always said you were a pretty boy, now I know why”, Billy winked at him and walked into the next aisle leaving Steve a little bit dumbfounded.

“What was that?”, El asked.

“Nothing, let's get you that library card”, Steve said, still reeling from the revelation of Billy Hargrove using the same hairspray as he did. That had to be a sign of something. Couldn't just be coincidence, right?

 

“So the library card is free for anybody under 18. We need name, address and a signature of a guardian”, the girl chewed her gum, looking bored at them.

“A guardian?”, Steve asked, why did they need that?

“Yep, how old are you?”

“18.”

“Really?”, the girl looked him up and down.

“Yes, what do I look like to you?”, Steve said, annoyed now.

“Well, being honest and all you look like 16...15 even. I need to see some ID.”

Steve just stared at her, “What?!”

“Yeah, if you're 18 you can give your signature for your sister's library card.”

“Why is this so complicated? I mean what is she supposed to do with a library card anyway? Borrow too many books and fall into a reading coma?!”

The girl stared at him, “I've never seen you here.”

“Before your time”, Steve snapped.

“I'm 20.”

“Sure don't look like it.”

“Well, it's nice at least somebody got the brains in the family”, she smiled at El. Steve didn't know what to say to that. Going to the library had been a bad idea, initially because of going to any place with books, but now it turned out librarians were verbally attacking him here, he remembered old ladies at libraries not young girls barely out of school, but this is what the 80s had come to.

“Here's my ID.”

“Nearly 19”, she muttered, “Really don't look like it. Here”, she gave him a few sheets of paper and a pen.

El and Steve sat down at the table, “Okay, what's your low profile name?”

“Jane Hopper.” He filled it out almost messing up when he wanted to write Steven Harrington, saving it at the very last minute to Steven Hopper. It had all been worth it when El rushed into the maze of the library.

“Your sister's cute.”

“Yeah, she is.”

“You know Steven Hopper, I would like to hear about your plight of looking like 15 some more. Want to meet up after work?” Steve tore his gaze away from El flipping through the pages.

“Are you asking me out?”

“Yep!” The audacity of this girl, it had been the first time somebody did ask him out after Nancy breaking up with him. So technically now he could get a new girlfriend if he wanted to. It felt wrong to date anybody, as if he was already taken, even though he wasn't. Steve couldn't place the feeling to anyone, it wasn't Nancy. He was getting over Nancy, who else? All the other girls he had dated had been very brief.

“Sorry, I already have somebody”, he gave her a smile, and went in search of El. After a short moment of panic when he couldn't find her in the children section he spotted the girl standing beside a shelf full of comics.

“There are so many”, she muttered, “Which should I pick?”, she asked.

“Ahem, do you like one of the covers?”

“They all look exciting.”

“Well, Batman is good.”

“Batman, does he have superpowers?”

“Not really, but he still saves people.”

El smiled, “Like you”, she took a few issues. If someone had told eight year old Steve he'd actually be likened to Batman because he actually saved kids he wouldn't  have believed it. He felt this stupid warmth in his chest again, trying to ignore it he concentrated on El who was still not ready to leave books behind.

 

When they finally returned home Steve felt both sick and proud by what he'd done. He had brought a kid to literature which was both terrifying and great.

“You can be my reading teacher”, El announced, pulling her face when she spotted veggies on her plate.

Steve's plate nearly fell out of his grip, “Absolutely not, El. I cannot be your reading teacher.”

She looked up, “Why, don't you...don't you like me?”, she looked like she'd cry.

He panicked, “No, no, no, El. Listen when you want somebody to teach you something they actually have to be good at it.”

El shrugged her shoulders, “Everybody can read.”

“Well, not everybody can read. There are people who can't.”

“But you can.”

“Not particularly good. You should ask the boys, I'm sure they'd be delighted.”

“But I want to surprise them. And you're always kind to me. I want to have a kind teacher.” Steve could understand that. El started pushing the broccoli around her plate.

“Hey you need to eat your greens as well.”

“I don't like them.”

“Can't survive on Eggos alone.”

“We used to eat the same food every day in the lab”, she softly said. Oh the lab, why was he always slipping into these uncharted territories with these kids, he was the absolute worst to handle any kind of trauma as the past had shown again and again.

“It's hard to get used to the normal life”, Steve muttered.

“How do you know?”, El asked, curiosity in her eyes.

“You know when the demodogs attacked us I knew I had to protect the others. In that moment your thoughts are crystal clear. The most important thing on your mind, the only thing on your mind. Everything else like the possibility of getting mauled by one of these things, or even getting killed is not there. But when the demodog has gone home you start drifting. Don't know what you're supposed to do.”

El nodded, “I know Dad wants to protect me, but I'm always here. It's sometimes like the lab.”

“That's why you brought so much to read.”

El nodded, “There are so many different foods and lipsticks, but then just this house I have to stay in most of the time.” The longest sentence he had heard her speak.

“You don't like an empty house?” She shook her head. “Me neither.”

“What do you do to stop drifting?”

“Anchor yourself with people. When you have people who care about you, and you care about them you always have a plan. Every time I meet with you or the party, I know I have something to do that day. And get yourself a goal. You want to become so good you can join high school next year, right?” El nodded. “Then you're already doing the right thing”, Steve waved over the heap of books on the couch. “Still need to eat your veggies though.”

 

Hopper's secret knock sequence led to El opening the door with her powers.

“Hey El, Steve, oh you got her to eat broccoli, good.”

“I made you a plate as well”, Steve grinned, knowing how much Hopper loved healthy food.

“Thanks, but I already ate.”

“Chief, really you have to be a good role model.” Hopper rolled his eyes, and sat down, taking a rather unenthusiastic bite. “You have a new son by the way.”

“Why, your father decided to put you up for adoption?”, Hopper looked a little worried, checking Steve, probably searching for any signs of injury.

“No, my mum would never let him. But we went to the library, El needed a guardian, so I'm her older brother now if anybody asks.”

“I always wanted an older brother, like Will”, El beamed.

“You have a cooler one than Will”, Steve threw in.

“Library?”, Hopper's eyes fell to the stack of books, "That's good. Thank you, Steve. Could you practice with her as well?” Dammit.

“Ahem, I'm not great at reading.”

“You don't have to be great, I mean El can read just needs help with the bigger words.”

“I learned another word”, El said as Steve rubbed his face in despair, this wasn't like school where he could more or less slip under the radar. As soon as he managed to make it to high school teachers stopped caring about his reading skills. They assumed you knew how to read otherwise how did you even make it to high school?

“So what's the word?”

“Head over heels.”

“Ah a phrase, what does it mean?”, Hopper smiled proudly at her.

“Falling in love with somebody very hard. Mike is head over heels in love with me”, El smiled mischievously, the little rascal.

Hopper's smile soured, “El, why are you doing this?” She just laughed.

“Statistically young love only lasts three to six months”, Steve added.

“Thanks for your input, Harrington. Is this supposed to make me feel better?”, Hopper grumbled. El levitated one of the books towards the table.

“Can we read this one, Steve?”

“What's that?”, Hopper asked.

“The girl has powers, like me”, El smiled.

“Okay, well you two go do some reading I'll do the washing up.”

Steve started to feel sick, he really didn't need an audience for this. Beckoning him to come sit on the couch, El kicked off her shoes, making herself comfortable. Steve regretted his sudden streak of academic vigour to at least help El in reading the only way he could. He didn't want her to go to school not being able to do it. She didn't deserve his fate on top of everything else. He took the book, it weighed even heavier in his hands now.

“We're not doing it for too long, I'm tired.”

“One chapter”, El clapped her hands in anticipation. Steve took a deep breath and started, the clattering coming from Hopper doing the dishes in the background not aiding him in his already fleeting concentration. It went well for the first page until he stumbled over a word, and then some more. He tried to rearrange his thoughts, his brain. Normally he could skip a few words and still understand what was going on, but he was reading it to El. He couldn't just skip words he didn't recognise, or forgot what their exact pronunciation was.

He felt all his colour drain from his face, when the clattering stopped. Hopper walking towards them, placing a hand on Steve's shoulder, still wet from the water, like his father had when Steve had to read at the kitchen table. His breathing picked up, they wouldn't want him here anymore. Would get angry at him, think he was stupid. Steve knew he was stupid, but they shouldn't know how stupid. Maybe he wouldn't even be allowed to see El again, bad influence, or something. And all the others would ostracise him, the page had gone blurry, his eyes filled with tears, he wanted to say something, but he knew he'd end up crying...again.

“Steve”, Hopper said, softly as if he was speaking to an easily spooked animal, he tried to pull the book out of Steve's hands. Steve wanted it out of his hands, but if he let go he'd been thrown out of the house. “Steve, it's okay”, Hopper said.

“No...I can try again”, Steve nearly choked on unshed tears.

“You don't need to try again.”

“But I can, I really can get it right.”

“Steve, I want you to give me the book, and I want us to talk about this.”

“Please don't throw me out”, a tear hit the book dampening the page.

“Steve, I would never throw you out. How many times do I have to tell you this? And I'm sorry I forced you to read to El. I didn't know...”

“That I'm a failure”, Steve spat out, letting his hair fall in front of his eyes, hoping to conceal tears.

“Hey, don't say that about yourself. You are not a failure.”

“I can't read.”

“I heard you reading, Steve.”

“They said I wasn't trying hard enough, but I am...the harder I try the worse it gets”, Steve dared to look up only to be taken by surprise that Hopper wasn't just looking angry, but also sad.

“Who's they?”, anger seething underneath.

“My teachers.”

“Teachers can be wrong, I know you tried your best.”

“And it wasn't good enough”, Steve said bitterly.

“We'll try something easier, like on of these”, he grabbed one of El's Scooby-Doo books.

“That's a kid's one.”

“What you need is practise and not a long complicated book with no space between words.”

“Comics”, El smiled, patting Steve's knee, he felt a little bit better now.

“You're not mad?”, he carefully asked.

“Why would we be mad? Kid, you need to stop taking blame for things that aren't your fault. Now we'll read this kid's book. You one page, El and you the other, Steve. I'll help you if you stumble over a word. And if you do nobody is going to be mad at you”, Hopper directed his eyes at Steve.

“Okay”, Steve still dazed by this development.

After they had read it once through Hopper stood up, “Okay, now read it again, I'll listen while I'm doing the dishes.” They nodded, Steve only looking on the pages from time to time already knowing which words would come.

“You're quick at memorising”, Hopper said.

“How did you know I memorised?”, Steve asked.

“Didn't look on the page.”

“You got me”, Steve muttered, “For all it's worth I'm only good at memorising texts I forget plots of movies all the time.”

“It's a super power”, El said.

“Remembering texts, I don't know.”

“You could become an actor.”

“An actor”, Steve muttered, “Well Billy would have to read the entire script to me first.”

“He would do it if you asked nicely”, El smiled.

“What's that supposed to mean?”

“He likes you.”

Steve rolled his eyes, “You have more of these Scooby-Doo books?”

“Yep, I would like a dog”, El muttered, a clattering from the sink.

“Absolutely not”, Hopper said.

Steve shrugged, “He'll come around”, he whispered, “Maybe this summer.” They were entranced in the story, Hopper had been right kid's books were easier to read especially because the letters were bigger and not just a wall of text. Steve jumped when he heard a click, he looked up at Hopper with a camera.

“Oh my two children are adorable”, Hopper grinned.

Chapter Text

16th February, Saturday

When Steve looked outside he couldn't see the garden, everything covered with snow. As a child he always had snowball fights with his mum, now he stood in the almost empty house. He wasn't sure if he should go outside, or not. It was warm and cosy, he could just stay in all day long, he'd set up his cassette player which went through Billy's mixtape, playing Uptown Girl again. Putting him in a good mood whenever he heard that song.

Steve had slept through the night without a nightmare, he didn't feel as anxious as usual did. If he did something today to distract him from the fear that would flood his brain whenever he was not doing anything he'd be fine. This was going to be a good day. He felt better than he had in weeks.

“Steve, come in”, the walkie talkie chirped.

“Billy”, he tried to keep the joy out of his voice, but part of him hoped Billy would have time, would Billy be a person who liked snowball fights?

“Do you know where the ice rink is in Hawkins?”

“We're in Hawkins, we don't have one, why?”

“Oh, well Max took her ice skates with her, but forgot her gloves, I wanted to swing by to give them to her.”

“Wait what?”, Steve felt all the blood drain from his face when he remembered Dustin mentioning the lake the kids wanted to ice skate on.

“I wouldn't just drive there for her gloves, but it's on the way to...”, Billy paused, probably trying to come up with some excuse why he wasn't turning into a sweet big brother.

“They are so dead”, Steve muttered.

“What's going on, Steve?”

“I'll explain it later”, Steve took his keys, pulled his jacket and shoes on racing to his car. Quickly pushed most of the snow away from his windshield, threw the walkie talkie on the passenger seat and started driving.

 

The road was slippery as hell, and he couldn't see much as the snow from the upper part of the windshield slipped down. With one hand on the steering wheel he tried to contact the kids.

“This is Steve, does anybody copy? Over.” Only the static filling the car. He took a corner too quickly nearly losing control of the vehicle as it slipped on the snow-covered pavement.

“This is Steve, do you copy?! Over.” Frustration crept up on him, he slammed the dashboard.

“This is serious, does anybody of you shitheads copy! Don't go on the ice! It's too dangerous. I repeat, don't go onto the ice if you want to survive this day.” Nothing, his hands trembling now he pushed the gas pedal down, nearly driving as fast as Billy normally did. Soon he arrived at the lake, the car skidded to a stop. Steve took the walkie talkie, and slammed the door shut.

It snowed steadily now making it hard to see a few feet ahead, his shoes getting wet as he sunk into the snow. He was wearing the wrong clothes for this, he decided as he was already drenched, his hair was white by now, and his fingers had turned a tinge of blue. Slowly he could make out blurs ahead, the blurs moving to and fro. How did they even think this was the perfect day to go ice skating? Steve just wanted to gather all the kids in his car, and get them home. Now he could hear muffled voices. Some of the blurs were starting to get sharper. He nearly slipped before he even noticed he was standing on ice now. The kids were further out than he liked.

“Hey”, he shouted across the lake, “Get off the ice!”, his voice didn't carry, but he could see them now. All six stupid kids on their ice skates. They were so dead. With new commitment he walked towards them.

“Steve”, Mike was the first to recognise him, “Dustin, I told you to keep your mouth shut!”, he complained.

“I didn't tell Steve, because I knew he'd freak.”

Steve's worry was outweighing the anger, “Get off the lake, c'mon.”

“But we've only been here for ten minutes”, Lucas complained.

“Guys, you are supposed to be the smart ones. It's snowing ergo it's warm enough to snow, it isn't cold enough to go ice skating on the middle of a godforsaken lake!”

“It's holding”, Max said.

“Maybe he's right”, Will said nervously.

“No, it's safe, we want to have some fun”, Mike skated away from Steve closer to Dustin who was the furthest out.

“Dammit, Wheeler stop talking back. I am not going to haul any of your stupid asses out of the ice if you break in.”

“We won't.”

“Yeah, you only know that the ice broke when you're in the water freezing to death.”

“That's why we didn't want to tell you because you would be worried”, Mike muttered.

El came closer to Steve, “Is it really dangerous?”, she asked.

“Yes it is”, Steve said, hoping to turn the tide.

“I'm getting back”, Will decided, and El took Steve's hand. Maybe he could get two kids at a time to safety. Dustin and Max could be won over, and he could just pull Mike and Lucas to the bank of the lake, use some violence when necessary. As he was making this plan in his head Max's head suddenly snapped up.

“What was that?”, she asked, terror in her voice. Making Steve feel sick.

“What was what?”, Lucas asked.

“Shh, don't you hear it?”, Max asked. Everybody fell silent as they listened. All the snow already swallowing the noise it seemed like they were standing at the end of the world, or the Upside Down. Almost expecting a demodog to jump out of the impenetrable fog that had started to form around them Steve tightened his grip on El's hand. Pulling Will closer to him with his other hand. He could hear the rushing in his ears, the heavy breathing of everyone, and a crack. So quiet at first that he thought he'd just imagined it. Then it grew unmistakably louder.

“The ice is breaking”, Dustin whispered.

“Okay, don't panic, don't make any quick movements”, Steve said in a shaky voice, “We are all going to move slowly to land, got it?” Everyone nodded cautiously taking the first steps back. The cracking getting louder, Steve was walking backwards making sure Lucas, Mike, Max and Dustin were following him. He could see the cracks forming ahead of him. A terrible though entered his head, what if they didn't make it? Tears were rolling down Will's cheeks and El stared at Mike in terror. Mike and Lucas were picking up speed.

“Slowly”, Steve said, the crack was growing rapidly. They were getting closer to land, the others moving a little quicker. Finally everyone, but Dustin had caught up.

“Join hands, and let's wait for Dustin.” The boy was moving clumsily, Steve could see him shaking, sweat dripping down his face. “Dustin, easy.” He nodded, slowing down a little, but the cracking was picking up even more speed.

Steve let go of Will and El's hands, “Get back to land.”

“But what about you and Dustin?”, Will didn't let go his grip nearly crushing Steve's hand.

“We'll be right behind you, I promise.” He managed to pull away, as Mike made sure Will would follow them to safety.

Steve stretched out his hand, “Dustin.” Nodding the boy cautiously made his way further towards Steve, stretching his hand out.

“I nearly got it”, he managed to grab Steve's hand. Not a second too early as the cracking got louder, and the ice broke underneath his feet. The sudden pull of Dustin breaking into the icy water nearly pulled Steve's arm out of its socket, as he lost his balance and fell on his knees and stomach, he had the presence of mind to keep a dead grip on Dustin. He swallowed through the pain of falling so hard on the ice, the shock of the ice cold water around his hand and arm soon distracting him.

“Help!”, Dustin shouted, voice in hysterics now. Steve inched closer trying to get a better grip.

“Help”, Dustin was struggling, his other hand slipping on the ice. Steve felt himself being pulled closer to the hole, he managed to get a hold of Dustin's arm.

“I'm going to pull you out, Dustin!”, he tried to, but the surface was slippery, and he didn't wear ice skates which would have helped him to claw himself into the ice. His arms were sinking into the water now, and the ice started cracking under his body, Dustin was growing heavier by the minute and his grip slipped, “No”, he tried to tighten it, but Dustin slipped away into the icy water.

“No!”, Steve shouted, he made blind grabs for Dustin, knowing he was too close to the broken ice and would probably break in himself, but he couldn't let Dustin drown. Dustin couldn't die, not like this, not now his life still ahead of him. Steve wouldn't let it happened.

“Steve! Steve, where's Dustin?!”, he saw the kids. Why had they come back?

“Get away!”, he shouted. Somebody grabbed him by the ankles.

“Get Dustin, and El will pull both of you out”, Mike said, preventing Steve from slipping further. He couldn't see anything in the dim water, taking a breath knowing he'd regret this Steve plunged his upper body into the water, his head felt like it would explode, he managed to open his eyes, saw a dark shadow and grabbed it. It was soft under his fingers, he grabbed it coming back up.

“El!”, he was pulled backward across the ice. The wind felt like knives to his hair and skin, but it didn't matter because they'd pulled Dustin out. He managed to stand up, he carried Dustin back to land. As soon as they had earth under their feet Steve laid Dustin down.

“What are you doing? We need to get him some place warm”, Mike protested. Steve unclipped his walkie talkie praying it would still work, he flipped the switch on as he searched for a pulse against Dustin's neck with the other hand.

“Billy, Code red! Call 911, we're at the lake!”

“Copy that”, Billy's voice came over the line. Steve started to pull Dustin's thick jacket away.

“What are you doing?”, Mike was trying to stop him, but Steve ignored his futile attempts. Clasping his hands together and counting as he pushed down on Dustin's chest.

“Steve, what are you doing?”, Max's unsteady voice. He started mouth to mouth then back to chest massages.

“C'mon, Dustin, don't do this.” His hair had started to freeze, several strands hanging limply in his face.

“No, Dustin”, Will started crying. Steve couldn't feel his hands anymore they were numb, everything was so cold. Even the body laying on the ground. Eyes closed, being so still was unnatural for Dustin, flashes of the demodog knocking the boy down intermingled with the vast, infinite white of this hellscape. He kept on going, losing all sense of time. It's like only he, Dustin and all the other children existed in this moment, no one else. Their soft sobbing filling the silence. When suddenly another sound broke the silence, a hacking cough from Dustin. For a moment Steve couldn't even process it, he quickly turned the boy to the side as he spluttered up water. The others didn't say anything. Their faces pale, glittering with frozen tears on their cheeks. Their dead-eyed expressions would probably haunt him for the rest of his life.

“We have to get him to the car”, Steve picked Dustin up, ignoring the tearing pain in his shoulder. As soon as they were in the car he turned the heating on. Grabbing the emergency blanket from the trunk, and draping it over Dustin.

“You're gonna be okay”, he muttered more to himself than anybody else.

“S...Steve wh...what”, Dustin teeth knocked together.

“We nearly lost you, Dustin”, Steve said, his voice cracking, tears filling his eyes, “The ambulance is going to be here any minute now. Just try to stay awake”, he started shivering as the heating picked up.

“Is everybody else okay?”, he asked, looking at the others huddled in the backseat. They gave him muted nods, frozen blood under El's nose. The lights of the ambulance reflected in the car window. Steve stepped outside even though it was the last thing he wanted to do right now.

He waved towards the paramedics, “He broke into the ice and stopped breathing. I did CPR, I think he's okay now.” The paramedic nodded, and they placed Dustin on a stretcher.

“Does anyone else require medical assistance?”, the paramedic asked.

“No.”

He looked at Steve doubtfully, “Get yourself checked out at hospital, son.” With that they whisked Dustin away. Will had clambered to the front, and Steve pulled onto the street following the ambulance.

His walkie talkie jumped to life, “Steve, come in.”

“Yes.”

“Oh thank God, is my sister okay?", Billy sounded extremely worried.

“Yeah, she is”, Steve started coughing.

“Are you?”

“Yes.”

“Should I call somebody?”

“I...”, Steve wasn't sure, the hospital would call next of kin, should the other parents be called or not, “Call Hopper.”

“Okay, take care”, the line went dead. Now they could hear the sirens in the distance again.

Chapter Text

As soon as they arrived at the hospital Steve talked to the women at the reception while the kids all trudged in after him.

“I need to know how Dustin Henderson is doing. He was brought in just a few minutes ago.”

The woman at the desk gave him a bored look, “I can't give you any information if you're not a relative.”

“I'm his older brother Steve Henderson”, he said, not missing a beat.

“Okay, let me have a look.” Steve turned towards the kids, Mike and El snuggled close together, and Lucas had put an arm around Max's shoulder, Will stared vacantly down the hall. “He's still being examined, but when he's ready I'll tell you.”

“How bad is it?”, Steve asked in a low voice not wanting the kids to hear this.

“He'll pull through.” His clothes were damp, and his hair wet. Even though the hospital was warm Steve was freezing, and his head pounded. He sat down next to Will, who started to cry, Steve pulled him into an embrace.

“It's okay, Dustin is going to be okay, I spoke to the nurse.”

“Can we see him?”, Mike asked.

“Not yet, they'll tell us when.”

“We should have listened to you”, Mike said, angrily kicking the chair.

“You didn't know it would happen”, Steve tried to calm him down.

“No, you said we could break through. And we didn't listen. It's my fault Dustin's in here.”

“It's not your fault, Mike. It's not anybody's fault. It was an accident. Just please don't go ice skating on the lake ever again.”

“We won't”, Max said.

“El, you saved Dustin's life, thank you”, Steve said to the girl.

“You did”, she replied.

“Yeah, where did you learn to do all that lifesaving?”, Lucas asked.

“Must have seen it on some TV show or movie”, he didn't tell them he had watched the first aid video cassettes after Nancy, Jonathan, and he himself had been hounded by the demogorgon. The idea of losing Nancy because of a life-threatening injury, losing her when he could have done something to save her, had kept him up at night. The adrenaline was slowly leaving him, and he felt dead tired, but he needed to stay with Dustin. Make sure everything was okay with the boy. He tried to sit up straighter, but grimaced when his shoulder started throbbing more.

“Are you okay?”, Max asked.

“Yeah, don't worry.”

“Family for Dustin Henderson?”

Steve stood up, “Can we see him?”

“Yes, it's room 315, but only family can stay. His friends can see him, but only for a short time he needs to rest.”

“Okay.”

 

With some trepidation Steve opened the door of the hospital room not sure what he'd see. To his utter relief Dustin looked almost normal. He did have an IV taped to his hand, an oxygen mask laying discarded on the side of bed. He looked very pale, but he was up and breathing.

“Guys”, he smiled.

“Don't ever do that again”, Mike said, carefully hugging Dustin. The others followed suit, trying hard not to cry, but Dustin had noticed by now, everybody had red, puffy eyes.

Steve put a hand on Dustin's shoulder, “You can't just die on me, Dustin.”

“The doctor told me you saved my life.”

“Well, actually El did, she pulled us out of the water.”

“You could be the new search and rescue dream team of Hawkins”, Dustin smiled, rubbing his chest.

“Sorry bout that, I didn't crack anything, did I?”

“No, but how do you know how to do CPR?”

“It was amazing”, Lucas jumped in before Steve had a chance to answer, “He put his head into the icy lake to pull you out, then he did CPR and called for help. It was like watching an army medic doing his field medicine thing”, Lucas gestured wildly.

“Guys, we should call your parents, make sure you all get home safely.”

“We want to stay”, came the immediate protest.

“Well you heard the nurse you can't stay.”

"But you can?!”, Mike snapped.

“Okay, listen if anybody asks I'm Dustin's older brother. They only let relatives stay longer.”

“You lied? Can we lie to?”, Mike asked.

“No, I just didn't want Dustin to be alone in hospital, and until his Mum arrives I'm gonna stay.”

“We'll wait outside”, Mike decided. Steve tiredly nodded, sinking into the chair.

“Wait, you're sure everybody is doing okay? No injuries or anything?”

“We're fine.”

“Okay”, he leaned back, wincing slightly.

“You're not, are you?”, Dustin asked.

“Dustin, you're currently the one in a hospital bed. Don't worry about me”, he shivered, pulling his damn flimsy jacket closer to his body.

“You're freezing”, the boy stated the obvious.

“Yeah, it's cold in here.”

“No, it's not really.”

“You're awfully chipper for somebody who just drowned, and stopped breathing giving me a heart attack.”

“I guess it's the nerves”, Dustin started fiddling with the IV. Shit, Steve had forgotten how traumatic it must have been for Dustin to break into the ice.

“Do you want to talk about it?” Dustin shrugged his shoulders. “You don't have to now, just when you want to.”

“Okay. Did you really dive after me?”

“I didn't dive just went fishing for you with my head and hands I guess.”

“That must have been cold.”

“You bet, but at least I wasn't immersed in water like you were.”

“Do you think the Upside Down is like that?”

“I was actually thinking the same thing.”

They heard footsteps in the hall, the door opened, and they caught the tail end of a conversation, “Dustin's brother is already here.”

“Dustin doesn't have a...”, Mrs. Henderson stepped inside, tears in her eyes, she stopped when she spotted Steve sitting at the bedside. “Thank you”, she told the nurse.

“I hope you don't mind, I didn't want Dustin to be on his own until you arrived.”

“No, thank you”, she smiled, hugging her son, “I was so worried, when the hospital phoned they told me you drowned, and stopped breathing.”

“Mum, I'm alright.” She didn't let go, ruffling through his hair and kissing him. Steve stood up wanting to give them some room when Mrs. Henderson turned around and pulled him into a hug as well.

“You saved my son's life, I can never thank you enough”, she was still crying and Steve hugged her back.

Hopper appeared in the doorway, “I'm glad you're okay, Dustin”, he smiled at the boy then motioned Steve to come with him.

“Dustin take care, I'll visit you tomorrow.”

 

“I heard you're quite the hero”, Hopper said.

“El pulled Dustin out without her I wouldn't have managed to do it.”

“I'm still glad you were there.”

“Yeah”, Steve shivered.

Hopper frowned, “Are you sure you're okay? Sometimes you slip into delayed shock, or don't notice injuries until later. Did you get yourself checked out?”

“Yes”, Steve lied.

“Well, you're dead on your feet and the kids already told me what happened, so maybe you should go home.”

“What about the kids?”

“I already called their parents, they'll be here soon.” Steve slowly nodded, they had reached the waiting area.

El jumped back into Hopper's arms, Billy who had talked to Max stood up when he spotted Steve.

“The hero of the hour.”

“Actually you saved them, if it hadn't been for you asking about Max's gloves I wouldn't have gone looking”, Steve said, the weight of it sinking in.

“That's how you knew we were there in the first place”, Mike muttered.

Billy looked surprised, then frowned, “Are you feeling alright?”

“Yeah, I need to go to the bathroom”, Steve muttered, unsteady on his feet. Steve felt his lungs constrict again, the smell of antiseptic reminded him of his hospital visit with Hopper. Billy followed, stopping him in the hall out of sight of the kids.

“Look at me, Steve. Eyes on me. Calm down.”

“They could have all died. If it hadn't been for that walkie talkie call, they could have died”, Steve muttered, his knees gave away, Billy managed to grab him, but jostled his bad shoulder in the process Steve whimpered. Slowly lowering him onto the ground Billy sat down next to him.

“You injured yourself”, it wasn't a question, but a statement.

“I don't know what I'd do if they had died”, the terror on the ice catching up to him as he shivered again. Billy slipped out off his leather jacket, and draped it over Steve.

“The kids didn't die. You saved Dustin's life, he is going to be fine.” The last composure Steve had kept for the sake of the kids ebbed away, and he started to sob. Right in front of Billy, in the middle of the hospital for everybody to see. Billy pulled him closer, wrapping his arms around Steve's trembling frame.

“Everything's going to be alright”, he muttered over and over, as Steve clung to him for dear life. He didn't now how much time had passed when he finally stopped crying.

“Let's find a doctor”, Billy said, helping him up.

“It's probably just a sprain.”

“Yeah, and we are in a hospital, so we can just find somebody who actually can tell if it's a sprain or not. C'mon.” After the doctor did in fact diagnose a sprain giving Steve instructions to wear a sling for a week Steve removed the sling which led to a small discussion with Billy. The compromise was Steve would put the sling back on when he was at home, so as not to worry the kids right now. Then he crept into Dustin's room. He needed to see the boy alive and breathing before he went home. He put his hand on Dustin's the skin warm to touch, not merciless cold like it had been a few hours ago.

“You can never scare me like that again”, Steve whispered, carefully brushing a curl out of the sleeping boy's face.

 

Billy drove Steve's car, “I'm not letting you drive”, he muttered, turning the heating on, “Max, are you okay back there?”

“Yes, thanks for calling Steve”, she said.

“It's okay, I have a lot of making up to do, so this is a good first step.”

“More like 20th step”, Steve muttered, pulling Billy's jacket closer to his chest, stretching his hands above the heating vent.

“Max, I'll drop you off at our place, and bring Steve and his car home, okay?”

“We could just walk...”, Max started.

“No way am I dragging you through the cold. You all suffer from hypothermia. You're staying inside, at home for the entire weekend”, Billy said, with a no-nonsense voice.

“She won't listen to you, they never do.”

“Well, I hope you listen.”

“Yeah, I'm not going to take a step outside. It's cold everywhere”, Steve said.

Billy frowned, “Are you still not warm?”

“No, nor will I ever be.”

“Stop being a drama queen”, Billy huffed. Susan was already waiting at the door, running towards them and hugging Max.

“Is she nice?”, Steve asked as Billy drove towards his house.

“Susan? Yeah, I like her. I mean...she's not my mum, but she's very nice.”

“I think my Mum wants to make things right again”, he said, staring into the dark, snow reflecting in the headlights.

“And what do you think about it?”, Billy asked.

“I'll give her a chance, I guess. She's kind, but....I don't know, it felt like she stopped caring along the way.”

Billy switched the engine off, “Give her a chance, you're worth it, you know? This making things up to you is worth it”, Billy smiled, “Now let's get you buried in blankets.” Steve started coughing again as he stepped foot into the house. Switching on the light, Billy steered towards his room.

“Where are you going?”, Steve asked.

“Getting you some warm, dry clothes, and you should sit down before you fall down.”

“Yeah”, Steve didn't move the floor was shifting under his feet, he could hear the cracking.

“Steve, c'mon”, Billy took his good arm slinging it around his neck and helped him upstairs. Only now did Steve feel the bone-weary exhaustion, as he stumbled towards his bed. Good thing Billy was there because Steve couldn't move one more inch.

“So let's see what we've got here”, Billy opened his wardrobe, of course not asking for permission, why would he?

“You have a suit”, Billy sounded delighted.

“Of course I have a suit, doesn't everyone?”

“Yeah, but I've never seen you wear one.”

“Wore one at that stupid party ages ago.”

“That was a blazer not a suit. How does it work with your hair? Probably looks very....”, Billy stopped, and grabbed a thick sweater, and a couple of blankets.

“Looks very what?”, Steve asked, kicking his shoes off.

“You'd look divine”, Billy laughed, Steve wasn't sure how much was taunting and how much was real. He changed into warmer clothes and Billy helped him put the sling back on, lessening a bit of the pain. Finally he started to feel a bit warmer, all the blankets piled up on him he tried to relax, but even the bed felt like it was shifting under his body.

“Are you going to be okay on your own?”, Billy asked.

“Sure, thanks for everything.”

“It's the least I could do”, he laid a hand on Steve's forehead, it felt nice.

“You're actually getting a bit too warm”, Billy looked worried now.

“I don't feel too warm”, Steve muttered.

“Listen, call me if anything happens”, he put Steve's walkie talkie back next to his bed, “Day or night, I have to go now, my father will be back, don't want Max and Susan to be alone with him”, he muttered.

“I understand, you really don't need to babysit me”, Steve said, then sat up, “You won't get hurt when your father is there, right?”

“Are you worried about me, Harrington? No, he won't. I'll lie low. Now rest, I'll check on you tomorrow, okay?”

“Yeah.” When he left Steve shivered curling himself into the blankets, trying to get the cold out of his bones, he finally started to understand Will's distaste for it. It was clinging at him like his anxiety did, making him nauseous. Getting to his core, his fingertips still cold, Dustin being pulled into the dark depths of the water. When he closed his eyes the terror-stricken eyes of the pale kids staring back at him.

Chapter Text

17th February, Sunday

The next day Steve woke up with a headache and a sore throat. His hair drenched with sweat. Sleep had been disjointed, Dustin slipping from his grip, when he tried to reach him he only grabbed into the empty, icy water. The hole freezing over mixed with the demodog traipsing on the ice, leaving bloody footprints behind.

He decided to look in on Dustin. Turned out all the others had the same idea, they were waiting in front of the hospital room.

“You look like shit”, Mike greeted him, being his ever so charming self.

“You too”, Steve muttered, his voice giving away, sending him into another coughing fit. All the kids were bundled in thick coats, shivering slightly.

“What happened to your arm?”, Lucas asked, eyeing his sling.

“Shouldn't you all be in bed?”, he asked with a low voice.

“What about you?”, Lucas shot back, but there was no bite in it. The door opened, out came Dustin looking the healthiest of them all.

“You can go?”, Mike cheered.

“Yeah, doc said I had to take it easy, but I can go”, Dustin smiled, a little taken aback when he realised the state they were all in. “What happened to you?”

“I don't know? We just all nearly drowned”, Steve said, pulling the boy closer into a hug, “Glad you're okay.”

“You saved me three times now”, Dustin said.

“Yeah, I'm Batman and you're his little sidekick....What's his name?”

“Robin.”

“Yeah, Robin, you're Robin.”

“No way you're Batman”, Mike complained.

“I think I could be Batman”, Steve defended himself.

“Catwoman, you look good in Billy's leather jacket”, Max laughed.

”I don't even know what to say to that.”

“How do you know about Batman, did you read the comics?”, Lucas asked, in a voice telling Steve he didn't believe him.

“No, I watched the cartoon.”

“Which one?”, Mike asked.

“Which one? I watched Super Friends. Is there more than one?” Mike shook his head Steve was a lost cause to him.

“You should read the comics they're better”, Lucas informed him.

“Sure.”

Dustin still frowned, “I thought you weren't injured, Steve?”

“It's just a sprain.”

“Does it hurt?”

“No, no....I don't even need the sling it's just...a precaution. Billy bullied me into seeing a doctor yesterday”, his shoulder throbbed, he did need the sling, but he wasn't about to admit that to the kids. They had too many worries in their short lives already, he didn't need to add another reason.

 

He went back home, huddling into his blankets, Close Encounters was currently on TV, and he slipped in and out of consciousness, only seeing bits and pieces of the movie. It was either too hot or too cold. He should call Billy, he thought, but decided against it. Wasn't the first time he'd been sick, and on his own. Reality merged into his sleep, the entire house turning into a lake of ice. Steve tried to stand up, but the ice didn't carry him. Looking around he saw nobody else, just the walls of the house, all the doors frozen shut.

“Steve”, he turned when he heard his name. It was Barb, wearing the same clothes she had worn when he'd last seen her. Her glasses were cracked, as she stepped closer, the cut on her hand had never stopped bleeding, leaving a trail mixing with snow on the ice.

“Barb”, he muttered, taking a few steps back. She came closer, the ice cracking under the weight of both of them before he could warn her they broke through. The cold water shocking his system, water filling his lungs. He couldn't breathe, Steve woke up with a gasp.

Soft classical music coming from the TV, the sunlight dying outside. He was drenched in sweat, Barb running in his mind. Had she drowned in his pool, or the Upside Down? Or had the demogorgon ripped her apart piece by piece? He could see the pool from where he was sitting. Slowly he stood up this time the floor was solid under his feet as he opened the porch door. Cold air hitting his feverish skin. Dead leaves had gathered at the bottom nobody had bothered raking them away. Nobody used the pool anymore, it had died the same day Barb died. Steve walked to the edge, looking down, without water it didn't appear shallow anymore, but deep. It was quite a drop if you happened to fall in. He took half a step forward, feeling nothing as he balanced on the edge. They could all have died, just like that. One foolish decision, and they would have floundered under the ice, like dying fish.

“You can't always keep them safe”, Dr. Owens' voice echoing in his head.

“We try to protect them until we can't”, Hopper's voice intermingling with it. He couldn't save them, it didn't matter how hard he tried. There would be some catastrophe around the corner, it was this godforsaken town, and the lab, lying in wait. Ready to attack after a recuperation period. El wandering in the woods, in this small cabin with Hopper, counting the days they had together, because wouldn't they get her? Or far more, would the demogorgon get her? He knew something was wrong with the way he was thinking, but the pool stared at him. Reminding him of his failures. If he lived or died, did it even matter? He balance himself out on the edge, taking a few steps. His sock-clad feet starting to slip, he nearly fell, if he hadn't managed to counterbalance, and lean back. For a moment he an urgent fear overshadowing the constant nightmarish terror he was experiencing.

“Steve, what are you doing?”, a voice from a distance. Dazed he turned his head, Billy rushing towards him, was this real? “Dammit, get away from there, you could fall”, Billy grabbed his arm, “Shit you're burning up, shouldn't have left you alone. Let's get you inside.”

Steve let himself be led back into the warmer house, but looked over his shoulders in the corner of his eye he caught a blurry figure, he stopped dead in his tracks, “Barb?”

“What?”

“Do you see her?”, Steve pointed his shaking finger towards the woods, but the figure seemed to have vanished.

“No, the fever is messing with you”, Billy closed the door, and pushed him down on the couch. “When's the last time you took one of these?”, he rattled with the bottle of fever reducers.

“This morning.”

“Morning? It's afternoon now, well no wonder you're like this”, Billy handed him one pill, and a glass of water. “Why were you standing at the pool?”, he dabbed Steve's forehead with a cold cloth.

“I can't protect them, whatever I do I can't protect them. And Barb she...the demogorgon got her here in my pool”, he shuddered.

“It's not your fault.”

“But I invited Nancy over, and Barb was her best friend.”

“You didn't set a trap for her. Steve, stop taking responsibility where you don't have any. And you saved the kids yet again from their own stupidity. They're pretty tough anyway.”

“Are you real?”, Steve wasn't trusting himself right now, everything felt slightly off, weird he couldn't even begin to put it into words.

“Yeah, I am, or does your delirious mind conjure me up, and not a hot nurse?”

“You're better”, Steve murmured, not noticing he'd said it out loud. Billy had just been wringing out the cloth, but stopped mid-motion.

“Really?”, he didn't say anything more, remaining mysterious ever, “Tell me why you were standing at the edge of the pool?”, he asked again.

“I....I don't know. It felt like it didn't matter if I fell in or not”, Steve shrugged.

“What!”, the boy slammed the cloth into the water, it splashed, water droplets hitting Steve's face. He cowered further into his blanket, scared. “Sorry”, Billy said softly now, “I just....I care about you, Steve. Dammit you're my best friend. And I can't have my best friend standing at the empty pool asking himself if he should throw himself in, and crack his head open. I wouldn't know what to do without you”, he turned away, but Steve had already seen tears in the boy's eyes. He didn't know what to say, he knew Billy saw him as a friend, but he'd never realised Billy was this serious about it. And when he'd told him he cared about Steve he had the same look he had when he spoke about the girl, the girl Billy genuinely loved. He cared as much for Steve as he cared for the mysterious girl, and that was far more than Steve had even dared hope.

“I....I am sorry, Billy. Am I really your best friend?”, he asked tentatively.

“Of course you are, idiot. Why else would I be sitting at your bedside nursing your sorry ass back to health? Unlike you I don't go around saving puppies who are in danger. I only do this for people I care about. Don't tell anybody I said that.”

Steve laid back down he needed some time to process this. He never had a best friend, not in the sense of the word. Sure he had Tommy who hung out with him almost every free minute they had. But Tommy would always complain and criticise everything Steve did. He wasn't even sure why he hadn't cut ties with Tommy sooner. Maybe because deep down he knew nobody would be friends with Steve. Steve the King of Hawkins High- Yes. Just Steve- No. His nerves acted up again, as he realised having a best friend also meant responsibility. What if he did something wrong, and Billy would hate him?

Steve still wasn't sure if he even wanted to be friends with Billy. Initially because of Billy being well...Billy, the boy who had threatened Lucas, and gave Steve a concussion. But now it was more that Steve had this feeling he never had with anybody else. Like being drawn to the fire, if you fall too deep you get burned. He wasn't sure if he was ready for that, not after Nancy. Not after having to bring the person who mattered most to him back to life a mere day ago. He couldn't lose somebody again. But hadn't he already taken the first step into freefall when he'd came to Billy's house all those months ago? Seeking refuge after the confrontation with his father. He looked at Billy, who nervously fiddling with his medallion. Maybe the possibility of being friends with Billy wasn't as impossible as he initially thought after all.

“I got you a present”, Steve said.

“Really?”, Billy beamed, “I mean that's cool”, he tried to dial his smile down, but completely failed, endearing.

“Yes”, Steve sat up, his head immediately swimming.

“Easy”, Billy pushed him down,“Tell me where it is. I'll get it.”

“Would ruin the surprise”, Steve managed to stand upright, staggered to his room to fetch the book. “Here”, he ruffled through his already messed up hair nervously, “It's just a thank you for helping me with school and stuff”, he lamely ended. Billy flipped through the book, probably checking the page number, nerd.

“I hope you haven't read this one yet. That guy has written a lot of long books”, just thinking of it made Steve even more exhausted.

“You really went into a book shop, looked at all the Stephen King books to find one for me? How did you even know I liked King?”

Steve shrugged, “When I visited you after Dr. Owens  you had The Stand on your bed. That's how I know.”

“You remembered”, Billy almost sounded in awe. Steve never had seen anyone being this enthusiastic about a present he'd given them, no less a book. The floor seemed to be pitching again.

“Giving me a thoughtful present is definitely a friend thing, Steve. You know that, don't ya?”, Billy's smile died on his lips as he looked back to Steve. “Okay, back to the couch, you've gone pale.” To Steve's surprise Billy sat down putting the pillow on to his lap.

“What are you doing?”

“Keeping your head a little elevated when you're sick it's supposed to help getting better sooner”, Billy said.

“Really? Where did you hear that?”, Steve said, dazed he laid his head on the pillow in Billy's lap.

“In biology class.” Strange he couldn't remember his biology teacher had ever taught him anything useful like first aid. It was comfortable so Steve decided not to complain.

“Can you...”, he hesitated.

“Yeah?”, Billy asked softly, placing the wet cloth back on Steve's forehead, brushing unruly strands of hair aside.

“Can you read to me until I fall asleep?”

“Sure”, he opened the book Steve had given him.

“Why did you choose this one?”, Billy asked.

“Well, it's a book about a kid, I like kids...”

“Really, Harrington? I haven't noticed that at all”, Billy teased.

“Shut up”, Steve tiredly curled closer towards Billy, “It's about a girl with powers, like El, only she's pyro...”, he stumbled over the word his mind swimming, “Sets fire to things. Why did you pick The Stand?” Billy blushed, Steve squinted at him to make sure this wasn't his delirious mind playing tricks on him.

“It's a very stupid reason actually”, Billy stalled.

“Really?”, Steve laughed, “Besides the obvious thing of reading a book.”

“You're a hopeless case.”

“I warned you when you wanted to teach me literature, didn't I?”

“Yeah”, Billy smiled fondly.

“Tell me the stupid reason.”

“It was the longest book, 823 pages”, he almost whispered. Steve's stomach turned just by the mention of the page count.

“Bookworm Billy”, he muttered.

“Don't, or I'm gonna dump the water bowl in your face.”

“Such a nerd”, Steve muttered.

“Oh, rich coming from the person who completely flipped when he got killed by a dragon during D&D.”

“Nerd apocalypse”, Steve laughed, feeling giddy.

Billy stared at him what felt like a very long minute, “You are compromised, so I'm not comment on that. I'm reading this now, and your fevered ass needs to shut up.” His voice calming Steve down, his fevered mind asking why it would be so bad to actually be friends with Billy.

Chapter Text

20th February, Wednesday

“Well Hargrove understated how much you look like shit”, Hopper greeted Steve when he came to his weekly babysitting appointment, glad he left his sling at home. If he didn't move his shoulder too much it was okay.

“Thanks”, he muttered, not in the mood for another lecture, he still felt tired even though he had more or less stayed in bed since Sunday. At least he didn't have to go to school.

“I should have called, I didn't expect you to come, being sick and all.” Something akin to concern in the man's voice.

“No, it's fine”, it was the first time he'd been outside again after standing at the edge of the pool, he shuddered just thinking about it.

“Steve”, El's face lit up, she jumped from the couch, “We're going to the movies”, she cheered. Colour in her face again.

“Yeah about that”, Hopper scratched his head, leaning against the kitchen counter, “Don't you think it's a little too soon to go to the movies?”

“I think Dustin needs to get outside, or he's going to break. His mother is very responsible about the strict bedrest”, Steve chuckled.

“What about you? You still look sick.”

“I'll be fine”, his lungs betrayed him immediately, and he started coughing again.

Hopper rolled his eyes, then held his hands up in surrender, “Okay, just call me if any of you feel sick.”

“We will, Dad. Don't you have to go?”, El asked softly.

“I know what you're trying to do, Missy. I just don't want anybody to have a fever-induced seizure.” At first Steve wanted to go into detail on how unrealistic that scenario would be, but then he remembered how nervous Hopper had been when he'd brought him to hospital after his fight with Billy. Maybe his daughter had experienced one of those. He kept his mouth shut.

“Well, then have fun, and Steve, just take it easy”, he put a hand on Steve's shoulder, his expression reminding Steve of all the fathers Steve had watched on the playground, being proud of their sons. Something he never had.

“I will...by the way, how did you know I was sick, I didn't tell anyone”, he remembered the start of their conversation.

“Do you really think I would leave drowned children unattended?”, Hopper huffed, sounding personally insulted.

“We didn't drown.”

“But you could have. So I called everybody on Sunday.”

“You didn't call me.”

“Because you would be near death, and assure me everything is fine. I know the Hargrove kid seems to have developed a sweet spot for you, so I called him. Turns out he was already on the way over to you. He used your walkie talkie later on. Sounded scared because your fever was so high. Wasn't sure if he should take you to the hospital or not.”

“Really?”

“Don't act so surprised”, Hopper grabbed his jacket.

“Did Billy say anything else?”, he hoped Billy had kept his mouth shut about the pool episode, he hadn't been himself back then.

“Did something else happen?”, Hopper asked.

“No, I just....I was pretty out of it, can't remember much”, Steve lied.

“Hmm”, Hopper didn't sound like he believed him.

“How are the others?”, Steve quickly asked, “Nobody was moping on the walkie talkie line, I'm getting worried.”

“You were the sickest of the bunch.”

“Good”, better him than the kids for all he cared.

“Take care, both of you.”

El lifted a blanket from the couch levitating it towards Steve, blood dripping down her nose.

“You don't have to use your powers for that.”

She shrugged her shoulders, “You're shivering.”

“Does it hurt using your powers?”, he wrapped the blanket around his shoulders, coughing.

“No, not if I don't use them too much”, she put the kettle on, then sat down at the table again. Her cheery disposition damped now.

“Hey, is everything alright, El?”

“Dustin would have died if we hadn't saved him”, she muttered.

“I know”, Steve softly said, the same thought running through his brain.

“I always get them in danger”, El muttered. She abruptly stood up going to the kettle that was still boiling water. Knowing the guilt Steve didn't want a young girl to experience this kind of pain.

“It's not your fault. None of this is your fault. As I said before, breaking into the ice was an accident.”

“But the demogorgon is after me. Will and Mike nearly died, and all the others, because of me”, he could see a tear drip down onto the weathered kitchen top.

“Did you decide to grow up in Hawkins Lab?”

She shook her head, “But I shouldn't be friends with anyone, it's too dangerous”, the kettle whistled loudly through the small cabin. Steve remembered the pull to give up, to let himself fall. Because sometimes it was easier to lock everybody out. Now that he had people who cared about him he sometimes felt the burden of trying to not make them worry, to pretend everything was okay, to keep everything together, even more crushing.

“Every single one of us decided to be friends with you. We all take that risk, and we're all rewarded by having you in our lives.”

She turned, wiping her tears away, “Friends?”

“Of course”, Steve pulled her into a hug, “And as Dustin said we make a great rescue team. We can start saving cats from trees.”

She laughed, “Billy is your friend now”, she poured the water into two mugs, placing the steaming tea in front of Steve.

“I don't really know what Billy is”, Steve decided to be candid about it.

“He's your friend”, El did not leave room for discussion.

“I don't know”, Steve shrugged, “I'm not actually good with this friends thing it's kinda new to me, don't tell the others.”

El smiled, “Me neither”, she stood up fetching the encyclopaedia Mike had given to her as Christmas present. The book already looked worn out, Steve noted with pride he'd been right about that present.

“I don't think the encyclopaedia will be of any help to us.”

“It explains the entire world”, El said in a very serious voice.

“Wow, it's like I'm watching an ad for this book.” El needed awhile to locate the page, then laid her finger on the paper she started reading.

“Friend: Somebody you know and like very much, and spend time with.”

“See, I can't say I like Billy very much”, Steve started, but El interrupted him.

“Mike said a friend is somebody you'd do anything for.” Steve remembered Billy talking him down from panic attacks, spending afternoons helping Steve with school, checking on him when he was sick, without so much as a complaint.

“Billy told me I'm his best friend”, he said.

“I know you like him, whenever he's around your face lights up. You like Billy a lot.”

“That's a bit of an overstatement”, Steve blushed, did his face really 'light up' when Billy was there? “And I don't know if I would do everything for him.”

“You would, when the time comes you will, because you've done it for us countless times.” 'When the time comes' echoing in his head, not 'if' but 'when'.

 

El and Steve joined the others standing outside the cinema. They were a little less loud than usual what worried Steve, even though he should be happy. There was a chance of him having a quieter evening after all. But they were still sickly, Dustin seemed to be the most active of the bunch.

“Steve, you came, Max said you were sick.”

“Yeah, because I had to save you, didn't I?”, Steve was just glad the boy was standing in front of him not lying in some kind of cold morgue on a slab. He shuddered, he couldn't even begin to imagine Jonathan's state of mind when they falsely declared Will dead two years ago.

“Okay, what are we watching? Please something funny, it's becoming depressing to look at you.”

“The Breakfast Club”, Mike said.

“Okay, what's that supposed to be?”

“You'll find out when you watch it”, Lucas sighed.

“It's not a horror movie, right?”, he really didn't want this to end like last time. Thinking about it, just going into a movie theatre with the lights dimmed, in a crowded overstuffed room made him slightly nauseous.

“That would be a pretty lame ass title for a horror movie”, Mike said, “But it's a comedy, don't worry”, it sounded genuine, not like he was making fun of Steve which was more than half the time normally.

“Hey, Nerds”, Max stepped towards them. Closely followed by Billy, Steve rose his eyebrow what was Billy doing here?

Mike pulled a face, “This is a party only thing, Billy. You can't join us.”

“Oh remember what happened last time when you had this bright idea to watch a movie together?”, Billy shot back, “He could get a panic attack in there, and then what would you do?” Steve quickly glanced around, not everyone in Hawkins needed to know about his panic attacks, already too many people knew about them. But all the people were busy talking to their friends, buying popcorn and kissing.

“Okay, but don't even think about bringing a girl you end up kissing the entire movie long”, Mike bargained.

“Do you see a girl around me, Wheeler? I see a girl with you.”

“Don't tell Hopper.”

“Hey”, Steve stepped in, “As long as it stays first base with both of you”, here he shot a quick glance to Lucas and Max, “We will leave you be.”

“First base?”, El seemed confused.

“As long as it's just kissing. And don't think we can't see you in the dark.”

“Or hear you”, Will said in disgust. The couples nodded.

“Well at least we're even-numbered”, Billy said, “Four singles and two couples.”

“We'll sit next to you”, Dustin said, pulling Will along.

“Or we could sit further in the back, so as not to disturb you”, Mike quipped up.

“No way!”, Billy and Steve said in unison.

“Ugh...I could have just gone with my Mum”, Mike muttered under his breath.

“He is terrible”, Billy whispered in Steve's ear, “I'll buy some popcorn. Let me guess, you're an extra sweet popcorn kind of guy.”

“How do you know that?”, Steve asked, realising he knew next to nothing about any of Billy's habits.

“Whenever I see you drinking something it's already sweet, and then you dump some more sugar in for good measure.” He walked towards the popcorn counter Dustin and Will joining him to get the food.

El stepped next to Steve, “You're beaming again”, she smiled, following Steve's glance to Billy.

“No, I'm not”, Steve blushed, only now noticing he was feeling much better than he had since Saturday.

 

The cinema hall was packed, Billy's hand on Steve's back leading him through the crowd they finally found their row a short discussion erupted who would sit where. Initially Mike wanted to have Billy and Steve sit on one side and he and El furtherest away. But Steve quickly vetoed against it, they did end up sitting on the one side. Lucas and Max were allowed to sit furtherest away, because Billy said he trusted Max enough not to do anything stupid, still he was looking at them like a hawk.

“Billy, relax”, Steve laughed, “They won't tear each others clothes off.”

“You said kid relationships only last 3 months”, Billy hissed, “It's been 3 months, I don't see them breaking up anytime soon.”

“They did break up actually”, Dustin said, sitting next to Steve munching on some popcorn.

“Really, how haven't I heard about this?”, Steve asked.

“Well, you were busy at the time, and each break-up only lasted a couple of days.”

“Huh.”

“Young love”, Billy said, throwing popcorn at Steve.

“Dude, what are you doing?”, to his utter terror Will and Dustin copied Billy.

“Stop it all of you.”

“Excuse me”, a woman from the row in front of them turned around, “Some people actually want to watch the movie, so be quiet.”

“Well actually that's not the movie, but just a trailer”, Lucas shouted towards the lady. Thankfully the woman chose to ignore them.

“I really can't take you anywhere”, Steve muttered, trying to free himself from the popcorn sticking to his clothes.

“Got some in your hair”, Billy still laughed, softly pulling it out, his hand staying a split second too long on Steve's hair.

“Billy?”, a girl from their school had sat down next to Billy.

“Hey”, Billy didn't sound the least bit interested.

“It's Tammy from school, we take chemistry together.” Steve rolled his eyes, great the last thing he wanted was Tammy sitting next to them, especially not next to Billy.

“Is Billy dating somebody right now?”, Dustin whispered.

“No”, Steve started coughing.

“Are you okay?”, Dustin asked anxiously.

“I'm fine, so why are so many people here? Do you think this movie will actually be good?”

“Actually be good, Steve? This is a John Hughes' movie, of course it'll be good. I mean it's not out favourite genre, but it'll be good nonetheless”, Dustin huffed.

“What, am I supposed to know who John whatever is?”

“Yeah, you should.”

“Well, sorry that I don't know all...”

“Isn't that Steve Harrington”, Tammy interrupted him, “I've got history class with you.”

Steve tried hard not to be impolite, “Tammy, what a surprise seeing you here”, he himself cringed at the overenthusiastic way he'd said that, even to him it sounded fake.

“Didn't you break up with your girlfriend, the timid one”, Tammy blew a bubble with her chewing gum.

“None of your business”, he said through gritted teeth, Tammy would be better if she were more timid.

“Hmm, you know you actually need a pretty, popular girl like myself by your side.”

“Tammy, I'm not interested”, Steve said in a clipped voice. Single life which had been a bother to him sounded more and more appealing right now. Smiling Tammy laid a hand on Billy's knee and leaned over him, coming close to Steve's face. He could smell the strawberry flavoured gum, with her other hand she cupped his face. Only now did Steve realise how much he actually didn't mind it when Billy pulled stunts like that now he got the comparison with somebody he really didn't want near him. He tried to pull away, but she just leaned further towards him, he couldn't create a bigger gap between them.

“You'll be interested”, she winked at him, her hand wandering towards his hair, the same move Billy had done minutes earlier. Only he'd actually like Billy running his hands tentatively, softly through his hair.

Tammy was nearly pulling them, “You're already hot”, she said suggestively as her hand touched his feverish skin.

“Tammy, stop it”, he tried to gently push her away, but to no avail.

She nearly had this lips on his when Billy grabbed her arm, “Steve's already taken, now do one.”

“I'd take you both.” Steve heard a disgusted 'Ew', presumingly Mike.

"Tammy, there are kids present, so stop talking like that.” Her unfazed attitude changed, she finally registered the kids sitting next to Steve.

“Well, Harrington, you suck anyway. No girl wants to date you, and why are you hanging out with a bunch of pathetic losers?”, she spat. Steve had enough of her, insulting the kids was a step too far. He straightened up, looking down on her, the old sneer Tommy and Steve had perfected, the one you used when you were out to bully somebody, when you wanted to make somebody feel worthless.

“Tammy, you know what kind of girl you are? The boys on the team talk, and they talked about you specifically, how desperate you are for a little love and attention from anybody. Because you have daddy issues and terrible grades. Your parents don't love you, so you go out searching for some attention from others. And anybody that is happier than you, like these kids, you want to make them suffer. Because you are so miserable you can never achieve happiness. You know why I know this? Because I've been exactly where you've been now. I've been a pathetic bully, so my word of advice. Get yourself together, be kind to people and get some real friends who actually care about you, and not your appearance and money.”

His heart was beating as he finished, sweat pouring from his forehead. The anger still cursing through his system, he felt somewhat terrified he could slip back so easily into being a bully. How much had he really changed if he could still do it with such ease? Tammy opened her mouth, only to close it again, she had even stopped chewing her gum. In the dim light Steve could see tears glistening on her cheeks. Damn he hadn't wanted to make her cry, his anger dissipated, feeling sorry for her now. Should he apologise, had this been too much? Tammy stood up, clutching her purse close to her chest, and disappeared into the darkness of the cinema hall. For a moment nobody said anything, Billy eyes had gone wide.

“That was amazing!”, he finally said, awe in his voice. His heart skipped a beat when he saw Billy's reaction.

“Menacing”, Dustin said, “I mean I don't think the movie can really top that show.”

“Rad” Lucas said, and Mike nodded in agreement.

“Is every girl so annoying at high school, because then I don't want to go there”, Max said.

“Mouthbreather”, El agreed. Steve was slightly relieved nobody thought worse of him.

“What Tammy said about you guys, don't take it personally. She just wanted to get at me, not you”, he knew they were bullied enough as it was no need to get more crap from older teens.

“Thanks for defending us, Steve”, Will said. He was saved from further awkward moments because finally the movie started. But Billy still looked at him, as if Steve was some kind of revelation, which was a first. Normally Steve was not a revelation, but rather a disappointment to people.

Billy put his hand on Steve's knee, “That was amazing”, he repeated, and left his hand there. This time Steve didn't even try to ignore the tingly feeling it caused in his stomach, giving Billy a shy smile, which the other boy reciprocated.

Chapter Text

27th February, Wednesday

“Today's the picnic”, El greeted Steve, a grumpy Hopper eating cornflakes on the couch.

“The date?”, Steve asked, “It's going to be so romantic, El”, he said in hope of winding up the chief as much as possible.

“I know what you're doing, Harrington. Stop making fun of my plight.”

“Don't you think it's a bit much to stare at them through the window the entire time they have their picnic?”, Steve asked.

Hopper pulled a face, “No, you know what could happen?”

“It's Mike, he's a good kid, most of the time at least”, had an antisocial streak, and a massive problem with respecting authority, but who hadn't his age apart from Dustin of course.

“Exactly, it's Mike”, Hopper said.

“Steve could keep an eye on us”, El said.

“Me?”, why was it he always got roped into things like this? Watching Mike and El kiss for two hours was not his idea of fun.

“I don't know, El. He might go soft, leave you to it.” Steve rolled his eyes, even though it was the truth.

“Please, Dad”, El pleaded, “I've been in this cabin for so long. Can't I have one afternoon?” Hopper wavered, he'd put on a bit of a show, then give in. Watching in fascination Steve thought about his own mother. Even when she was actually around she always had been an easy-going parent. There were only very few instances where Steve had to fight for something. He didn't know if he liked it or not. Maybe it was her guilt for being an absent mother for most of his life.

“I don't want you kissing.”

“But it's a date, you're supposed to be kissing on a date”, El's soap opera knowledge coming back into play.

“What else are you supposed to do on a date?”, Hopper huffed.

“Look pretty”, El beamed.

“You already look pretty.”

“No, like dressed up.”

Steve leaned closer to El, “I think your Dad just goes to a date in his uniform. Wouldn't know what to do with a normal shirt.” El started giggling, Hopper threw the TV magazine at Steve, he ducked just in time.

Hopper looked up, “How did I end up with two kids?”

“I need to find something to wear.”

“Take the dress from the Snow Ball”, came Hopper's practical advice.

“No, I can't wear the same dress.”

“You could wear nothing and Mike would like you.”

“Harrington!”, Hopper growled.

“I'll find something”, El smiled, running towards her room.

“I thought it would be easier to have a girl”, Hopper muttered.

“Did you want a son?”, Steve asked.

Hopper shrugged, “Son or daughter it doesn't matter.”

“You know El can defend herself”, Steve said softly, knowing Hopper was scared, knowing the dangers lurking in the tunnels, beyond the gate, in the breaking ice of a lake, in a disease. Protecting them seemed futile at times, but they had to let them live their lives.

“I know, could you just keep an eye on them, I'd feel better if you did.”

“No problem.”

“Thanks, Steve. So how's school?”

“School?”, the question taking him by surprise, had been some time since any grown-up had asked him that particular question. “It's okay, I guess.” He avoided eye contact his eyes falling on a new photo held secure with a fridge magnet.

“Is that me?”, he asked surprised, it had been the one Hopper had snapped when Steve and El had tried to read.

“Yes.”

“Oh.”

“What's the matter?”

“It's just....I don't think anybody put a non-formal photo of me up anywhere in our house.” Hopper frowned, which threw Steve off a little, “Is that weird?”, he cautiously asked.

“Yes, parents should actually put up your photos, drawings...Nobody ever did that in your family?”, there was pity in his voice.

“My Mum does in her office”, Steve quickly explained, “Just not my father.”

“Has your father been bothering you in any way in the past few weeks?”

“No, he's ignored me when he's there, which isn't often”, Steve shrugged, it still hurt, but at least he didn't have to live in fear of the next beating.

“Good, if that son of a bitch tries anything you tell me, okay?”

“Yes.”

Hopper slowly nodded, “Any plans for next year?” Steve dreaded the question since last year when he'd realised he needed to enroll in colleges. The terrible essay he had written, laying forgotten in one of his desk drawers.

“Not really”, he muttered, knowing this wasn't what grown-ups wanted to hear, it made them mad, which usually would trigger a long tirade of accusations.

“What do you want to be?”

“That's a pretty big question”, Steve tried to stall, hoping El would ask him for fashion advice, or something. Anything to escape this awkward situation.

“What do you want to do job-wise?” Steve could lie, could give Hopper some bullshit of trying out some random job, about discovering his talents, finding his true passions. Not just a job, a calling, something that changed the world. All the stupid hallow phrases that were thrown around on career day when in fact half the class would wind up either at a boring desk job, or work in retail. He owned Hopper the truth, besides Hopper seemed to get madder when he was lied to than Steve telling him the incredibly stupid truth.

“I honestly have no idea”, he finally said, “How am I supposed to find something I have to do for the rest of my life when I don't have a clue who I am? Apart from being a failure.”

“Steve, you are not a failure. I wouldn't let failures babysit the most important person in the world”, Hopper said. It was nice of Hopper to say he wasn't a failure, actually it was more than nice, it felt like he was drowning and Hopper threw him a lifeline. But it still wouldn't change the facts all pointed to him being a failure.

“If you ever want to join Hawkins Police you got my number”, Hopper smiled.

“Police?”, Steve asked in surprise.

“Yeah, I'd actually like somebody on the force who has fought demodogs and demogorgons before. Between you and me some of my colleagues are a little useless, especially in a crisis.”

“You think it's going to happen again?”, Steve asked, his stomach lurching at the thought he already knew to be true. If somebody else shared his opinion that it might happened again it wasn't just a thought conjured up in his own faulty mind.

“It doesn't have to be anything like that. We've had crisis that didn't revolve around the Upside Down.”

“Like what? Before Barb and Will Hawkins was the safest city in Indiana”, Steve snapped.

Hopper frowned, “I'm not going to lie to you, son. Hawkins has been pretty dangerous, we don't know if the demogorgon will come back someday. My point is, I have to protect this town, and my family in it. Someone has to do it, and I rather not want it to be the kids”, he held his hands up in surrender, “You don't have to become a policeman, it was just an idea.”

Steve realised how rude he had been, “I'm sorry, thanks for the offer.”

“It's okay, listen Steve, when I said you can come to me when you want to talk. I didn't just mean demodogs. I also mean school, your future anything really.” Steve nodded. “You know when I was your age, I just wanted to get out of Hawkins, away from my old man. I hadn't gotten the girl, and nothing was here for me anymore.”

“The girl being Joyce?”, Steve guessed.

Hopper rolled his eyes, “Yes, it keeps happening. Not that I didn't like Bob, he was great with Will, and he took care of Joyce.” Steve nodded, it was strange to imagine Hopper being his age, just a teen, living in this weird town, maybe even passing the lab when he drove around on his bike with friends. Not knowing what the terrible future had in hold for him. “After high school I joined the army, then I met my ex-wife”, a sad glint in his eyes.

“Do you...”, Steve stopped, he wasn't sure if he was allowed to ask, in his mind Dustin not breathing playing on repeat, the terror mixed with fear. He put a hand on Hopper's arm, “I'm sorry”, he just said, even to him it sounded hallow, but he had to say something. Hopper's daughter had existed, she deserved to be acknowledged. Tears were in Hopper's eyes, shit was he going to cry. Kids crying already terrible, Hopper crying, the man who kept El and Steve safe shouldn't cry.

“Sara would have liked you”, Hopper smiled.

“How was she?”, Steve tentatively asked, maybe Hopper hadn't ever talked about her after she had died.

“She was energetic, cheerful not a grump like me”, he laughed, “She was kind, caring and sweet. Like El, and like you.”

Great now Steve had tears in his eyes, he swallowed them down, “I promise you, that Eleven will not die on my watch. You're not going to lose another daughter”, he knew he couldn't promise it, but he would die trying to keep her, and the other kids safe, “You'll have to see her kiss Mike for the next years. See her grow up, see her have kids of her own.”

“I hope I'll be around to see that, I hope I'll be around to see you have a children of your own.”

“I already have”, Steve half-joked.

Hopper wiped his eyes dry with his sleeve, “You're a sweet kid, Steve”, he smiled again then called, “Hey El, come here for a second, and stop your ...fashion show.” The girl sat down next to them. Hopper slung his arm around her shoulder, probably needing El close after remembering Sara. “I brought you both something”, Hopper placed a small box on the table containing 12 cassette tapes. “It's for the book you wanted to read.”

“Did somebody read it like Billy did?”, El asked in wonder as she took the first cassette out of its casing.

“Billy read a book?”, Hopper asked, a little confused.

“He was helping me with literature”, Steve blushed.

“Well, I spoke to a teacher, and she told me reading along is supposed to help, so let's do that.”

Steve looked up, “You asked a teacher”, his heart beating again, did he know this teacher? Would there be some kind of consequence tied to this? “Please don't tell me that you told her my name. She's not from my high school, is she?”

Hopper frowned, “Relax Steve, I just said I had two teenagers here who were struggling with reading.”

“Does she think we're...”, Steve wanted to say stupid, but El was looking so delighted, already opening the book again he didn't bear say it out loud.

“No, of course not”, Hopper seemed to understand what he had been getting at. “She was surprised it remained undetected.” His eyes bore into Steve's, he probably should say something.

“I wish it had remained undetected would have had a lot less hassle in primary school”, he muttered, “And you just pretend you're not a problem anymore in middle school. People see what they want to see.”

“What did they do?”

“Ahm...I had to read a lot more than the other kids. After homework, Mum would help me, and after awhile I memorised the books, so they thought I'd been cured”, Steve shrugged his shoulders.

“And when you got new books?”, Hopper asked, even now sending a shiver down Steve's spine.

“I'd find excuses for my friends to read the books first, so I memorised them then.”

“Nobody noticed?”

“They all thought I was just being lazy anyway, and I can read when it's not too long.”

“Whatever they told you, Steve, you're not a problem to be solved. We're doing all this because I want both of you to live up to your potential.”

“Where's potential?”, El asked.

“Here”, Hopper lightly tapped against her head, “In your brain. You're both pretty smart.” First time somebody had called Steve smart, should he mark his calender?

“Like Mike”, El beamed.

“No, I wouldn't say Mike”, Hopper started.

“Like Dustin”, Steve quickly came to the rescue.

“Yes, like Dustin”, Hopper agreed, “So after your date, do some of this”, he pointed towards the cassettes. They both nodded in agreement and El dragged Steve into her room.

“Which dress should I wear?” Steve hadn't even known El had so many, both Max and El had never struck him as girls who wore dresses unlike Nancy who often did.

“We should colour coordinate this”, Steve said, must have seen that in some tacky teen show he'd watched when he'd been bored to death.

“Colour coordinate?”

“Yes, that's what your friend failed to do. We're not going to have you dressed all in black”, even concussed and exhausted Steve could remember that outfit, the first time he saw El. Steve somehow ended up being the one who had to apply the mascara and lipstick, he'd seen Nancy do it millions of times, she should be doing this not him.

“I love it”, El beamed, Steve immediately changed his mind when he saw the look of sheer delight on her face, his fashion consultation showing promise. A knock on the door.

They both heard Hopper's gruff, “Hello!”

“Better get out there and save him.”

“Do I look okay?”, she brushed her dress straight, tightening her shoelaces.

“El, you look very pretty, now save your boyfriend before Hopper does something.”

“Okay”, she blushed slightly, and opened the door.

“El....you look....amazing”, Mike, the doofus, in his normal everyday get-up.

“Thank you”, El took his hand. Hopper almost said something, but seemed to change his mind.

“Steve's going to be your chaperone. So if you do anything stupid, Wheeler, Steve is going to report back to me.”

“Steve”, Mike pulled a face.

“Wow, don't bother with a warm welcome on my account.”

“No, it's just...”

“Do you rather have me watching you?”

“No, Steve's fine actually”, Mike hastily said, he took the picnic basket he had been carrying, and tucked the blanket under his arm.

“Don't go too far into the woods, and don't stay after dark.”

 

Steve ended up letting the kids lead the way, walking behind them to give them at least some space. He already starting imagining how Billy would probably have a field day with this one, the heights of Mum Steve reached. They finally stopped at a clearing, Steve's hands itching for the bat, his car and Hopper's cabin not in sight anymore. Mike spread the blanket, carefully laying out plates and food. Probably let his mum bake those cupcakes, good move.

“I wrote your name on this one”, he handed it over to El, even a red heart on it. This was turning saccharine. “You want a cupcake as well, Steve?”, Mike asked, for once being cordial.

“Thanks, who made those?”, he couldn't resist seeing the boy struggle.

“Did you bake them?”, El asked.

“Ahm...well you know, Nancy helped.” So Nancy baked them. “But I did all the decoration.” Steve looked at his cupcake, it wasn't artistic quality like Will's probably would have been, but there was a stick-figure jumping a fence, or something, and 'Rogue' written on it.

“Oh Mike, you shouldn't have”, Steve teased him.

“Shut up, Harrington”, Mike muttered, blushing now.

“It's beautiful”, El said.

“Like you”, he leaned closer probably to kiss her, but then turned to Steve.

“It's okay, kiss her all you like, but no funny business”, okay this sounded way too much like Hopper. “I'll leave you two in peace”, he took the cupcake and walked a few steps away. Back turned to them, he did sneak a look over his shoulder from time to time, but aside from kissing and talking they weren't doing anything too worrying.

He pulled his walkman out, Billy had taped the history dates, and he hadn't been studying for long, but all the dates were in his head. Maybe the concussion had been a good thing, it felt a lot easier to study now. He didn't want to think about Billy maybe being the fact that everything worked better in school. Steve turned his attention back to the here and now. He'd actually liked being outside as a kid. Closing his eyes and listening to the wind going through the trees, leaves falling to the ground, animals rustling in the branches and undergrowth. It had felt save in a way his home and school had never been. It was the first time since the demodogs he wasn't scared anymore to sit here in the woods, almost getting the feeling of calm back, like a missing piece of his childhood had been retrieved again.

The sun slowly started setting, Steve stood up, “Mike, El we need to go.” Without much of a fight they stood up, gathered everything and followed Steve back to the cabin. “So how was your date?”, Steve asked.

“Romantic”, Mike said in a dreamy voice, boy he was already in too deep.

“Head over heels”, El chimed in.

“El told me you helped her with her make-up?”, Mike asked. Oh...well no use in denying it.

“Yes.”

“You're weird, you know that?”

“Weird, Mike? Weird for knowing how to dress in a nice way, and to make somebody even prettier than they already are? You have a lot to learn in the ways of conquering a woman's heart”, Steve had no idea where that turn of phrase came from, even to him it seemed a bit much.

“What?”, Mike asked, giving him the same confused expression he'd given him back in the car when the kids had kidnapped him, and he thought Mike was Nancy.

“I'm a woman”, El stated.

“Yes, you are”, Mike said breathlessly.

Steve nearly started laughing, they were too adorable, “Just a small town boy”, he started singing.

“Shut up”, Mike nudged him in the ribs.

“Ow that hurt, Wheeler.”

“Good.”

Hopper didn't answer when El did the secret knock.

“Maybe he's at work”, Steve said, as they opened the empty cabin. Mike looked relieved, Steve was glad he wasn't in Mike's shoes. Nancy's father had never been a father who would threaten you within an inch of your life when you started dating his daughter. Mike kissed El goodbye, and El danced happily around the room. He knew the feeling.

“Let's do this”, El held up one of the cassettes. They had lain down on their stomachs on the floor, the book between them.

“Okay, are you ready?”, his finger on the play button. El nodded, Steve hit play, and they read along with the voice.

After a while Hopper's shoes appeared in Steve's view, he tore his eyes away from the page. El pushed the pause button.

He smiled warmly at them, “You didn't hear me coming, is it that interesting?”

“Yes, she has powers like me”, El nodded. Steve would never admit it, but he had actually enjoyed the book as well, or far more the tape, but he had tried to follow the letters on the page, it had been a little bit easier with the audio to guide him.

“How far are you?”

“We finished chapter one.”

“Okay, don't overdo it, Steve looks tired.”

“I do?”, he did now that Hopper was mentioning it. Hopper smiled again ruffling through both El's and Steve's hair and picked the tape recorder up.

“So kids, are you ready to eat?”

Chapter Text

28th February, Thursday

Lucas had insisted on having a party meeting at Mike's place after school. Only homework waiting for him at home Steve decided to humour them.

“I hope this is not another one of your brilliant ideas”, he said, sitting between Dustin and Will, fiddling with Mike's millennium falcon.

“Don't worry we're not going to go ice skating”, Mike quickly interjected, “This is actually something that's adult supervised.”

“When is anything adult supervised?”, Steve asked.

“Dude, Hopper has eyes on me every time I visit El.”

“That's like the exception to the rule”, Steve argued.

“Guys”, Lucas shouted, “Listen up. Mike, Dustin and Will already know this. Every year my family has an annual hiking trip. We're going after school on Friday and come back Saturday afternoon.” He looked expectantly at them.

“Isn't it a bit too cold to go camping?”, Max asked.

“You just need to take enough blankets with you”, Lucas quickly answered, “So?”

“It's nice you have a family tradition”, Max said, exchanging confused glances with Steve.

“Lucas, why are you telling us all this?”, Steve finally decided to ask. Earning an eye roll from several members of the party, nothing new there.

“I'm inviting you to join.”

“Oh”, that was actually pretty sweet Steve couldn't remember a time when somebody had invited him to a trip.

“So do you all wanna come, or not?”, Lucas seemed a little bit nervous. Must mean a big deal to him.

“It's always so much fun. That one time we accidentally set one of the tents on fire...”, Dustin started.

“You what? I thought you had adult supervision?”

“Unfortunately”, Lucas muttered.

“His dad was so mad. Now our fireplace is further away from the tents.”

“One time we saw a bear”, Mike said, roaring at El who flinched. How Mike even managed to score a girl would forever remain a mystery to Steve.

“A bear? Are they going to attack?”

“No, Dad has a gun.”

“Is this supposed to make me feel safer?”, Steve asked, how ironic would it be that they all survived a demodog attack just to get mauled by bears.

“We have been on the same trail for years now, nothing ever happened”, Lucas said, “So are you coming, or not? Billy can join if you want to”, he quickly added.

Steve frowned, “Why would I want Billy to join?”

“I don't want you to have a panic attack because of a supposed bear”, Lucas snapped. A bit stunned Steve was at loss for words. “Max, I need at least one brave person on this trip, would you like to come?”

“It sounds dangerous, I'm up for it”, delight in her voice.

“El, would you like to come?”

“Yes”, she beamed, Mike put a hand around her shoulder.

“We can share a tent.”

“Hey, don't tell Hopper about the bear or the tent sharing”, Steve quickly said, not missing Will's disappointed look, he probably had shared a tent with Mike all the years before this.

“I guess he's right”, Lucas muttered, “I don't think we're allowed to share the tents with the girls.”

“I want to share a tent with you”, Dustin said, “Or is Billy going to be in your tent?”

Steve nearly dropped the millennium falcon, “Why would I share a tent with Billy?”, memories of Billy only walking around shirtless after that one time he'd stayed over replaying again and again in his mind. “Wait, are Jonathan and Nancy coming as well?”, that would be very awkward.

“No, of course not”, Lucas sounded insulted by the mere suggestion, “I only invite party members. So actually you should be happy Billy is invited at all”, he stared Steve down.

“Yes, I am”, it slipped out before he could think about the words, “I mean happy that....ahm...”, his brain went blank.

“It's okay, we know Billy's your friend”, Dustin patted his arm, like you would a small child's. Before Steve could even begin to protest the notion Lucas started rattling off what they needed to pack. The others started discussing the intricacies of hiking in the cold, and what exactly to wear, and how to defend yourself in case of a bear attack.

Steve joined El and Will who had started to build a planet city for Mike's tie fighters. Knowing he was way past the age of playing with lego bricks Steve justified it through the excuse of him babysitting them. Just as Will was planning the layout of the local Jedi temple there was a knock on Mike's basement door. Before anybody could answer it was already opened.

“Oh the loser hideout”, Billy climbed down the stairs, “Steve, what are you doing?”, he smiled, looking amused at the construction.

“We're building a Jedi city”, El informed him.

“A Jedi city?”

“Don't pretend you don't know what a Jedi is”, Steve rolled his eyes.

Dustin snickered behind him, “It's okay, Billy. This is a non-judgemental nerd zone.”

Billy rolled his eyes, “I'll play your game”, he fixed his eyes on Steve, winking at him now, Steve was glad he was sitting otherwise that wink would have made his knees go weak. Where did that thought even come from?

He was so distracted he almost missed Billy saying, “I love you.” Which didn't make much sense in any context, but his heart was beating harder now when Max answered, “I know.” Only then did he realise they were quoting from the movie, his heart slowed down in relief, and maybe a little bit of disappointment, but for what he didn't know.

“The most romantic moment of cinematic history for you nerds”, Billy laughed.

“Maybe just went over your head”, Dustin said.

“I understand why you're Steve's favourite”, Billy shook his head, “Max, we got to go.”

“Steve has to ask you something first.”

“Oh he has”, Billy rose his eyebrow, “What's up Stevie boy?”

“Ahm...”, all the attention zeroed in on him, Steve felt nervous, he stood up nearly tripping over the lego city.

“You okay?”, Billy pulled him aside.

“Yes, I just....so Lucas invited us to this hiking trip...”

“Hiking in February?”

“Technically March, but it seems important to him, and there are bears running around, so....”, Steve shrugged his shoulders, “I mean Lucas' father apparently has a gun...”

“Bears, a gun?”

“I know, like we stepped back into the middle ages”, Steve laughed, running a hand through his hair.

“Sounds exciting, I'll come along.”

“So if you'd like to...”, finally Steve's brain caught up with what Billy had just said, “Oh great, we are going to stay one night in a tent, so maybe bring one along.”

“I have the right one”, Billy clasped Steve's shoulder, “You're going to love it, and we can go stargazing again.”

“Wait Billy, I already promised Dustin to share a tent with him”, Steve shouted after him who pretended not to notice. “Never mind”, he muttered.

“Are you still sick, you look a little flustered”, Dustin had joined him.

“What? Ahm no...no I'm fine.” Damn Billy Hargrove for throwing his brain so off track.

 

1st March, Friday

“I want you to check in with me as soon as you're back in walkie talkie range, okay?”, Hopper zipped El's jacket up.

Joyce kissed Will on the cheek, “Mum, I'm only gone for a day”, the boy pulled away.

“I know, just stay safe.”

“Mrs. Byers, Chief I assure you we're going to keep all the kids safe. Back in Nam we fought bears and snakes in the bush. The Indiana trail is harmless.”

“Are there even any bears in Nam?”, Mike whispered to Lucas.

“Dad's just excited, that's all”, Lucas said.

“Of course there are bears in Vietnam”, Dustin joined their conversation, “That's not what we should be worried about.”

“Could you not?”, Steve's hands starting trembling, as he fastened his backpack strap.

“Sorry, well we never ran into anything dangerous on this trail. Besides it's not even in Hawkins.”

“Oh you think a demogorgon has acquired the ability to read, and stops at the town sign?”, Steve snapped back.

“Calm down, nothing is going to happened”, Lucas said. A car pulled into the parking lot, Max and Billy stepping outside. “You're late as always”, Lucas complained.

“What's he doing here?”, Hopper pulled a face when he spotted Billy. Steve rolled his eyes, why couldn't Hopper just get over his Billy hate, it wasn't that hard.

“I asked him to come”, Steve finally said, knowing Hopper at least trusted him.

“Well, I don't want you doing any drugs around my girl.”

Billy started laughing, “Drugs? Do you think I have clandestine meetings behind the school building dealing them? The only meetings behind the school are dealing with passion”, with that he clasped Steve's shoulder, pulling him away from Hopper.

“He's taking this protective father thing very seriously.”

“I know”, Steve let out a long suffering sigh, as he realised Hopper was still shooting daggers at them. “You're not dealing drugs though, are you?”

Billy let go clasping his chest, “I am hurt, Steve, don't you know me at all? I would never.”

“You have this entire bad boy persona going on, not sure how far you would go.”

“Well”, Billy stepped closer, their hands almost touching, “Could frisk me if you want to, make sure I'm not lying.” Steve's mouth went dry, Billy standing too close now.

“Maybe I like your mysterious nature more”, he said, but didn't take a step back, why his heartbeat accelerated when he was standing this close, and far more importantly why he was beginning to enjoy it was a question for another day.

“Are we interrupting something?”, Dustin's voice pulled his attention away from Billy. Dustin could do pretty much anything and Steve wouldn't get mad, but right now it was cutting close. He didn't even know why he was getting so angry, it wasn't like he was having a moment with Billy or anything. All the other kids had crowded around them, great.

“I didn't want Steve to catch another cold”, Billy started straightening out Steve's scarf, his hand brushing the back of Steve's neck, sending shivers down his spine.

“Nobody ever got a cold from hiking the trail”, Lucas rolled his eyes.

“So going ice bathing every year isn't your thing?”, Billy mocked him.

“Hargrove, just....”, Lucas shook his head, “Dad says we're ready to go.”

 

They set out on a brisk walk Billy hovering around Steve, the kids a few steps in front of them.

“This is the most action you've got since our basketball practices, isn't it?”

“Our practices?”

Billy chuckled, “C'mon Uptown Girl you were the only one who could really play. Gotten more boring now without you”, he flinched at the end of the sentence. Their past still looming over them.

“It's okay, I don't even think I liked basketball that much”, Steve answered Billy's unspoken apology.

“Actually I should make you feel better not the other way around”, Billy said.

“Tough, you can't tell me what to do.”

“I know, half the fun. But you are okay though?”

Steve wasn't sure how to answer that, “Okay generally, or right now?”

“Both.” He shrugged his shoulder, avoiding Billy's eyes, looking on the path before him. Trees looming over their heads, as he tried not to think about anything that would destroy this moment. Trying to block out the neverending worry of the kids being safe, the gate, school, his parents, his future, how Billy figured into all of this. Feeling alone in the midst of people, even now. Like glass keeping him isolated from everything, he turned his eyes back to Billy. Close enough to smell his hair spray, but not close enough to feel his warmth. He almost wanted to take Billy's hand, but fought the urge, because Billy wasn't his friend.

“How about you?”

“You don't get to ask the same question when you didn't even answer it”, Billy complained.

“I'm fine, Billy”, Steve signed, “Let's talk about something else.”

“Fine isn't an answer. You weren't fine when you were standing at the edge of the pool.” Steve nearly halted dead in his tracks, his stomach dropping, he'd hoped Billy would never bring it up.

“I don't want to talk about it”, he picked up the pace, Billy easily catching up with him, he couldn't go far because of the kids walking in front of them, no escape.

“Steve”, Billy caught hold of his wrist stopping him, “Am I not allowed to be worried about you?”

“I don't know what you want me to do”, Steve almost shouted, glad the others were already further away. He wanted to stop himself, starting a fight when he was supposed to share the tent with this boy wouldn't be exactly ideal. But his mind was racing with frustration and confusion. Pulling away from Billy's grasp he took several steps back.

“Steve, I don't want you to do anything. I just want to make sure you're doing alright.”

“Why do I have to tell you everything when I know nothing about you?”, Steve shot back.

“There's not much to tell about myself”, he went around the question.

Steve clenched his fists, “Oh so I'm the only one who needs fixing?! Is that it?”

“No, Steve, it's not that at all...”

“Spare me your false sympathies. Am I a project to you, or are you just trying to calm a guilty conscience?”, he knew he shouldn't return to the fact that Billy had beaten him up, he knew Billy was doing everything to make up for it. But it still had happened, the headaches reminding him of it.

“I'm sorry if I pushed you, I didn't mean to make you feel under pressure, or...”

“I don't need your pity.”

“It's not pity, Steve. You have been struggling these past few months, no thanks to me. For all the times you're worried about the kids and trying to help them you should have a better understanding about worrying about somebody you care about!”

“How many times: I am doing fine!”

“Just saying it doesn't make it true. Who told me that actions speak louder than words, Steve?”

“And what's it to you? You are just going to be somebody who's going to move back to California. Don't you understand all this is never going to stay forever. In a few years you won't even remember what I look like. One of us could die, and the other would never know. Stop trying to hurt me.”

Billy said nothing, for once at loss for words, served him right. Steve clenched his fists so hard his fingernails were cutting into his skin if it hadn't been for the gloves he was wearing it he would've drawn blood.

“I won't leave you”, he finally said, tears in his eyes.

“How do I know you're not lying?”

“You don't understand, Steve.”

“What don't I understand?”

Now it was Billy's turn to avoid his eyes, “Can't we just be friends, Steve?”

“No, didn't you listen to anything I just said? Why should I become friends with you only for you to go. Besides, how am I even going to live up to your perfect friend ideals?”

Billy frowned, “What do you mean with friend ideals?” Steve really wanted to punch Billy now, was he doing this all on purpose?

“Nobody has ever cared about me so much like you did these past few months. You helped me with my panic attacks, you took care of me when I was sick and when I was losing it down in the tunnels.”

“Yeah, that's because I'm your friend. Why is this making you so angry?”

“Because you're too perfect as a friend. I could never compete.”

He frowned again, “Not everything is a competition, Steve.”

“Isn't it?”

“No, I enjoy spending time with you because you are you. When you want to be my friend you don't need to change anything.”

“No, I have to be better, and I can't do it. I've tried, but I can't switch it off. Don't you understand I can't be normal.”

“Steve, nobody is normal. I just want you to trust me enough to tell me if anything is bothering you. Being friends is not a transaction, you don't have to give me anything in return.”

“You're lying”, Steve's vision turned blurry with tears.

“I'm not lying”, Billy had come closer, wiping Steve's tear away with his thumb.

“Don't! You're making this harder”, Steve shoved him away.

“What are you talking about?”, he didn't sound mad, more confused.

“I don't want to be your friend, I never wanted to be friends with you, or anyone else. Friends let you down, they always do. I already have six kids who are going to leave in a couple of years. I can't bear to lose anybody else.”

“As I said before I won't leave you.”

He needed Billy to understand he couldn't do this anymore, but he wasn't getting through. Steve tried the direct approach hitting Billy, it was a ill-coordinated punch Billy only took because he wasn't prepared for it. Steve lunged forward trying to hit him again, but the boy ducked then managed to grab both Steve's arms pinning them down. Billy gently pulled Steve down with him onto the cold, hard ground. The fight had left Steve, not that he'd even wanted to hurt Billy in the first place, but he was going to lose him, the same thought running on repeat. He tried holding back the tears, but they didn't obey him. He leaned against Billy's chest, the tight grip of his embrace taking a little of his loneliness.

“I'm sorry”, he sobbed.

“It's okay, Steve”, Billy softly said. They stayed this way for a while, time slipping away into meaninglessness. The clear sky had dipped into a golden sunset, from their spot they could see the entire forest stretched out under them.

“It's breathtaking”, Billy muttered.

“Yeah”, Steve had turned his eyes fixed on Billy, “It's beautiful.”

“You know we don't have to be friends. We can just be boys hanging out together”, Billy had absentmindedly started to run his hand through Steve's hair.

Huddling closer to Billy Steve muttered, “We'd still be friends though.”

“Well, you know some friends are so close that they turn into family. I know your thing is adopting kids, so you should be familiar with the concept.”

“That only works with people who are not my age.”

“I bet all the members of your little nerd club see each other as family.”

“Yes, but they're going to be 14 soon, friendships break all the time.”

“It's not fate, it's you not letting them break.”

“Always takes two for that”, Steve reminiscently said, remembering the fracture in his and Nancy's relationship.

“Exactly, so if you found the right one it won't break.”

“The right one?”, Steve teased.

“The right friends”, Billy blushed slightly, “It helps if you let people in, Steve.”

“Trust always gets broken.”

“It's the risk of life.”

“What if I don't want to take it?”

“You'll end up alone, and that would be a shame. Because you are a beautiful person, the world needs people like you”, he said without a trace of teasing. The warm feeling rising up in Steve again.

“I guess I still owe you an answer. I am coping, but I am still terrified.”

“Of losing them?”

“Yes, the worst thing is that it's true. People have been killed before, Dustin's heart stopped when I pulled him out of the water. It's not just my mind overreacting. How am I supposed to not worry about monsters under my bed that really exist?”

“You know it's pretty normal to be scared about all this.”

“Well, everybody seems to be dealing with it better than me.”

“It's not a competition”, Billy gently reminded him, “You're not worth less just because your anxiety might be more severe, you know that, don't you?”

“Ever considered becoming a psychologist, William Hargrove?”

“Shut up”, he tousled through Steve's hair.

“Stop it.”

“If I ever do become a psychologist I'll make sure to include you in the dedication of my book.”

“Your book”, Steve laughed.

“I'll make sure to tape it for you.”

“I am honoured.” They settled into a comfortable silence, it was dusk now.

“We should probably get going”, Billy finally said.

“It's cold”, Steve muttered, that's why he was so close to Billy, he was definitely not snuggling.

“Yeah, because of the crazy Sinclair family doing their annual hiking trip in February. Who in their right mind even does that?”

“Well it's March now.”

“Still too cold.”

“Yeah”, Steve felt sorry for the lack of warmth when Billy stood up.

“They're gonna send a search party”, Steve chuckled, as he stood up himself, brushing dirt from his jeans, “Probably think you threw me off a cliff.”

“I would never do that if I wanted to make you vanish I'd take you back to my place.”

“Word of advice, not a great pick-up line for a girl.”

“Who says I'd use that pick-up line on a girl.” Steve was too exhausted to decipher that meaning.

“You're weird, Billy.”

“Right back at ya.” They headed down the trail, no trace of the others. Billy switched his flashlight on, it illuminated the path before them, dipping everything else into even more darkness. Billy didn't seem to think any worse of him even his newest meltdown hadn't scared the boy off.

“Billy?”, he softly said, Billy didn't react. He could leave it, keep floating in this place between being less than a friend, but more than a stranger. Steve didn't want to, maybe he wanted more. Not waste his chance when he finally had some luck in life. He took another deep breath, willing himself to talk. It shouldn't be this hard.

“Billy?”

This time the boy turned, “Yeah?” , his face half cast in shadows.

“Let's be....”, Steve stopped, this was shaping up to be even harder than that time he had told Nancy he loved her. Why was this harder, just a friendship, no big deal.

“Let's be friends”, he managed to say. Even in the dim light he could see a smile break on Billy's face, then he put on a frown.

“Have you been body snatched? Where's my Steve? My Steve doesn't do the friend thing.”

“Stop”, Steve rolled his eyes.

“I've waited for this moment for more than three months”, Billy grinned.

“It's just a friendship”, Steve said, glad nobody could see him blushing.

“Oh according to my best friend it's a lot more”, Billy winked at him.

“According to my best friend it's family”, Steve smiled, trying not to be too pleased, but he couldn't help the light-headed giddiness flooding his system.

“I mean it only took me selling my soul to the devil to make you my best friend. You know you have impossible high friend standards as well.”

“Thought you already sold your soul to the devil before you met me?”

“Yeah, you're right, that's where I get my devilish charm.”

“Devilish charm? I don't see any charm.”

“You wouldn't see charm or somebody flirting with you if it hit you square in the face.”

“Touché”, Steve smiled, they settled into a brisk walk finally seeing the light of a campfire on the horizon.

Chapter Text

Billy and Steve arrived at the campsite some of tents were already set up.

“Where were you? I almost had to tell Dad we lost two people of the platoon”, Lucas ran immediately up to them.

“The platoon is a bit much, don't you think?”

“What did you do?”, Dustin asked.

“Nothing”, Steve lamely said.

“Did you see a bear?”, Dustin looked excited now.

“No, if we'd seen a bear Steve would have killed it, and we had eaten it for dinner”, Billy answered, “We were just looking at the splendor of nature.”

“Splendor of nature?”, Max had leaned her head on Lucas' shoulder laughing, “Did you see any girls on the hiking path? Is that what you're trying to say in the most pathetic way possible.”

“Sure, girls”, Steve muttered.

Max frowned, “Or was it really just you two?”

“Are you sharing a tent with Lucas?”, Billy asked his sister.

“No, I'm actually not. I'm sharing with El.”

“Good.” Mike and Will were struggling with their tent in the distance.

“Well, shame we can't go skinny dipping”, Billy winked, then unpacked his tent.

“You ever went camping?”

“Not really”, Steve said, taking the side of the tent Billy was handing him.

“Really? It's okay. Almost like sleeping outside.”

When they had set it up Steve went inside, “It's pretty small.”

“Yeah, I had a bigger one, but I didn't want to carry more”, Billy shrugged.

“You didn't plan this, did you? Using a smaller tent just to annoy me”, Steve asked, noticing he could just about lay his sleeping bag down next to Billy's.

“It learns”, Billy snickered.

“Insufferable. I'm feeling sorry for all the girls you're going to date in the future.”

“Who says they won't love it. Anyways, not the first time we're spending the night in the same room. Third times a charm.” Third time, but friends had sleepovers all the time, right?

With this thought still churning in his mind he went to the campfire.

“Steve”, Dustin shouted excitedly, “I'm making the best s'mores ever.”

“We're making the potatoes first”, Lucas argued. Billy was helping Will and Mike with the tent now. Lucas' parents and Erica were sitting at the campfire closer to the tents.

“Where are the potatoes, Dustin?”, Lucas asked exasperated now.

“I don't know, ask your Mum, she'll know.” When he had finally shuffled away, Dustin and Steve were the only two left. Steve was shivering, holding his hands closer to the fire.

“You're still cold?”, Dustin asked, putting a marshmallow on a stick holding close to the fire. Steve watched him prep another one, “I'll make you one as well”, he frowned, “Is everything okay, Steve? You're quiet.”

“Just glad you're alive that's all.”

“I thought the demodog would kill you in the junkyard, and then again when Billy attacked you”, Dustin said softly, “You're not the only one being worried.” Steve shuddered again, this time not because of the cold air.

“Shit Dustin, I'm sorry.”

“Don't be sorry, you are always protecting us. The one time I get hurt because I was stupid”, he nearly let go of his stick, sparks flying a little higher.

“I know you won't do anything that stupid again, so stop blaming yourself.”

“Sometimes it's like I'm back there”, no trace of a smile on his face, not the cheery, bubbly personality Steve had come to know and love.

“Under the water?”, he tentatively asked.

“Yeah, I can hear you screaming my name, but it's all muffled. I can't breathe and the ice closes.”

“I'm sorry”, Steve said, because else was there to say, he couldn't take any of that away. He had tried to protect them, but they'd always lose some of their innocence when things like this happened.

“How do you do it?”, Dustin asked.

“Do what?”, Steve asked, rubbing his hands together.

“Living with all these memories, these fears?” It was a difficult question he dreaded to answer because there was no solution to it.

“You just keep on going, I guess. Try to overcome that fear, get up every day and carry on. And if the fear drowns you, which it does, you try and distract yourself, dim the pain. Talk to somebody who cares about you, often they know what to do”, he remembered Billy's embrace, hugging him tightly. “And you can call me, Dustin, day or night.”

A smile broke on the boy's face, “Thanks, Steve. Who do you call when you feel it's too much?”

“Ahm...You know”, Steve stalled, “I don't...”

“Is it Billy, or somebody else? Is there a girl you care about?”, Dustin asked.

“Why the sudden interest in my non-existent social life?”

“You seem different”, Dustin said.

“A good different, or a bad different?”

“I don't know yet, because I don't know the reason behind you being different”, Dustin said vaguely.

“I am capable of changing on my own without other people being the reason for it.”

“Is there somebody else?”

“Just because your two best friends are dating now, doesn't mean everyone is having a new girlfriend or boyfriend.”

“Hmm...well I would probably know about her if there was somebody”, Dustin concluded.

“To be honest I'm not interested in a girl right now”, Steve said.

“So nobody you have set your sights on?”

“Yes.”

“Yes?”

“I mean yes as in yes there's no girl”, Steve pulled his jacket closer, he'd love to lean against Billy's body again. “Any girls in your life I should know about?”

Dustin shrugged, “Not really. Nobody is interested.”

“Don't worry you have all the time in the world to find someone.”

“How do you know if you've met the right person?”, Dustin asked.

Steve stared into the flames, “They break your heart. Sometimes you don't even want to fall in love when you meet them, but it just hits you, drowns you. No matter how hard you fight it you always end up spending time with them even if it's impossible. Even if you know they're gonna leave you anyway.” A long stretch of silence followed.

“That's pretty dark”, Dustin finally said, “I know you loved Nancy, but there are a lot of other girls.”

“Yeah, there are other girls”, Steve said bitterly, brushing hair out of his face. Frustration creeping up when he all the puzzle pieces slowly slotted together, when he realised who exactly he had been talking about.

“Dustin, I'll be right back.” He walked a few steps away. Lights of a small city flickering in the distance. His mind jumbled up as always, so many thoughts and emotions racing, colliding making it hard to not just scream in frustration. Even though he was standing in the open, no walls around him Steve felt trapped. Did Billy really mean that much to him? Or was this just another step towards madness? Was his mind breaking down even more, was this some sort of self-sabotage? Trying to reach the unattainable, the impossible?

“What is it with you, and heights?”, Billy's voice made him jump, for a second Steve was afraid the boy could read his mind.

“What?”, Steve asked.

“This is very byronic hero of you. Standing in the dark at the edge of a cliff, looking moody. It suits you.”

“Byronic hero?”, Steve confused now.

“Literature”, Billy said, as if that would explain anything, “So why are you standing moody at the edge of a cliff?”, his voice almost teasing, but Steve knew the boy by now that he could detect the underlying worry.

“It's nothing, just feel a bit sad”, Steve shrugged.

“About anything in particular?” About you, Steve wanted to say, but didn't.

“No, sometimes I don't need a reason”, he tried to talk himself out of it.

Billy nodded, “At least the view is nice. Dustin is asking for you, wants to show you his s'mores. I think you'll die from a sugar shock, but considering the sweet tooth you already are a risk you could take.”

“Billy, how serious is this girl, you keep talking about, to you?”, Steve asked.

Billy flinched slightly, but took the abrupt change of subject in stride. “Very serious, actually. I don't think I've ever really been in love with somebody before her.”

“Oh”, Steve couldn't keep the disappointment from his voice.

“Why do you ask?”

“No reason.”

“Anybody in your life?”

“Maybe”, Steve wasn't happy with the direction this conversation was taking.

“Nice”, Billy said, his easy smile had faded then he pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket, “A girl I know?” Steve watched how the flame of the lighter illuminated Billy's face.

“Don't think so. Doesn't matter really, she's not going to date me.”

“So we're both stuck with girls who are never going to be our girlfriends”, Billy chuckled, taking a drag. Steve laughed as well even though he wanted to cry. “At least we've got each other”, Billy smiled.

“Yes”, if this was a good or bad thing was still up to debate.

 

“Sweet dreams, Steve. But not too sweet, seeing we're lying in close proximity to each other”, Billy teased.

“No thanks to you”, Steve muttered, their shoulders almost touching.

“I don't know how you do it, but even grumpy you are pretty endearing.” Any other time Steve would have found that compliment endearing, but now he was fed up.

“I'm not grumpy”, he turned away from Billy because right now he did not want to fall asleep staring into Billy's perfect eyes. Why did Billy even have to move to Hawkins, out of all the places in the entire world, why Hawkins? People didn't even know where it was on the map. People didn't move to Hawkins they moved away. And why couldn't have Billy just stayed a jerk? They would have passed each other in school ignoring the other's existence. Life would have gone on. Steve would have found another girl, or just stayed single. Love was highly overrated anyway, he crossed his arms trying to get comfortable, but his mind was running, running, endlessly spinning around.

He'd reached the point of being annoyed with everybody and himself. He should never have let Billy worm his way into his life. Not have been so stupid to go there when he needed a place to stay after the fight with his father. Shouldn't have let Billy being nice to the kids influence him. He'd fallen deeper and deeper without even noticing. Steve blamed it on the concussion, otherwise even he wouldn't have done something that was this stupid. He sat up, sleep wasn't really an option now.

“Can't sleep?”, Billy asked.

“No, guess it's the small tent.”

“Sorry”, Billy said with a voice that indicated he was not sorry at all. Steve stood up, slipping into his shoes. Billy placed his chin on Steve's shoulder, the closeness making Steve's breath hitch.

“We could go stargazing”, Billy suggested. As much as he didn't want Billy lying next to him, there was a part of Steve, the masochistic part, that wanted nothing more. It won in the end. He nodded, stepping outside in the cold air.

“If we freeze to death I'm suing Sinclair”, Billy muttered, throwing a blanket over Steve's shoulder, and wrapping himself in the other blanket. “We might just have to huddle up for warmth to survive.”

Steve laughed, despite himself, “Stop being so dramatic, Billy.”

“Dramatic, you are the most dramatic person I know.”

“Takes one to know one”, Steve shot back.

“You are witty after all”, Billy started the campfire up again, then sat next to Steve. “I've got you something, now that we're friends”, he pulled out a plaited band.

“What's that?”, Steve asked.

“A friendship bracelet, I need your left hand.” Steve laid it on Billy's knee, Billy's cold fingers touching his wrist.

“Where did you get a friendship bracelet?”

“Asked Erica, she still felt guilty for shining that flashlight in your eyes and making you throw up at New Years'. I exploited that to get one.”

“Wait, you guilt tripped a little girl into giving you her bracelet?”

Billy shrugged, “She's not a little girl anymore, she's a hustler, dangerous if you ask me.” Well at least somebody else who was afraid of Erica. “Now any time your anxious ass is worried I'm going to leave you for the sandy beaches of California just look at your bracelet, and call me”, Billy winked. Leaning against Steve, yawning.

“Thanks, it's...", he wanted to say sweet, but bit his tongue, settling for, "It's rad. You don't have to stay up on my account.”

“What, and risk you getting all the fame when a bear attacks, and you defeat him? No way.”

Steve couldn't help, but already feel better with Billy by his side. Even though Billy would never be his they could still be friends which had to be enough. He would never stand in the way of Billy's happiness. Actually he was happy for Billy because just as Nancy was happier with Jonathan, Billy would be happier with his mystery girl. He looked at the friendship bracelet.

Being friends had to be enough, he repeated the thought again, the bittersweetness of the moment already haunting him as Billy was falling asleep on his shoulder.

Chapter Text

2nd March, Saturday

After they had returned home from their cold hike, Steve asked Billy if he wanted to stay over for awhile. He was trying to give this friend thing a go, now that he had finally come to terms with Billy Hargrove, the Billy Hargrove, being his friend. Okay, maybe he was still coming to terms with it. Who was he kidding, he was trying to come to terms with the fact he loved Billy, and could never act upon it. He remembered the definition of being a friend. Doing something for the other person.

“Listen, Billy, this friendship has been pretty one-sided. And I've been...you know me, a failure at everything, especially at being a friend. I want you to be more ha...”, he stopped himself, happy wasn't the right word, he was not going to turn into a mushy friend. “I want you to become less annoying.”

“Is that so”, Billy took a bite from an apple, looking slightly amused.

“Let's get the girl.”

“The girl?”, Billy seemed confused now, and a bit worried, “What girl?” Steve rolled his eyes, seriously why was Billy so cagey about all this, wasn't in his character at all.

“The girl, your girl, the one where your face lights up when you talk about her.” Like Steve did when he talked to Billy.

“Oh that girl”, Billy laughed, “Sure, we'll get the girl”, he shook his head taking another bite.

“C'mon Billy, I'm doing something nice here. 20 questions, c'mon, I'll guess who she is.”

“You never will”, Billy sounded pretty sure of himself.

“Try me.”

“Okay, the girl will be at the party tonight. She'll stand outside. She won't drink. She'll have a mixtape in her car. She'll be worried about her brother, and his friends”, Billy had been avoiding his glance, but now he turned towards Steve, “She'll overthink everything. She'll be nervous and anxious, but she'll still go.”

“Why?”, Steve asked breathlessly, somewhat enthralled in Billy's narrative of the mysterious girl.

“Because she thinks she doesn't deserve anyone's love.”

“How do you know so much about her?”

“We've talked.”

“What?”, this was entirely new information, Billy had a lazy smile on his face now. “Why haven't you told me yet? Friends are supposed to tell each other everything”, Steve knew that he was exaggerating, but right now he didn't care he was channeling his inner Mike, he needed to get the point across.

“I'm not sure she feels the same way, Steve”, Billy looked at him expectantly. As if Steve could give him a great relationship tip with his track record being so abysmal, but he was here to help, there was an off chance this might just work.

“Well, you have to find out, right? Take the chance. I mean if she doesn't feel the same way you'll have to watch love movies with me, and eat ice cream like I did with Dustin.” Billy didn't say anything, time seemed to have slowed, a pang of jealousy when Steve thought about the perfect girl. Again he wasn't the one, again second choice, he shook his head, Billy would still be his friend even if he had a girlfriend, right? Right? The selfish part of him wanted the girl not to date Billy. Feeling guilty for even thinking that he took a deep breath trying to push personal feelings on the matter aside.

“Just come to the party, Steve. She'll stand at the pool”, Billy sounded sad now.

“It'll be okay, you know the effect you have on girls”, Steve tried to give him a pep talk, “And she sounds really nice.”

“Yes, she's perfect, I don't deserve her, you know.” Billy put his hand next to Steve's, coming a little closer, but not too close.

“Are you okay?”, Steve was more than a little confused by how mournful Billy seemed. “I mean she hasn't even said no yet. You don't have to be...”, he tried to find a better word than sad, but his brain remained blank, “Sad.”

Billy shook his head, “Come to the party, and you'll understand”, he checked his wristwatch, “I gotta go, Steve. You know where the party is?”

“The one at Claire's house?”

“Yep, see you at ten”, Billy quickly walked to the door, none of the usual Billy swagger left. Steve stayed on the couch for awhile longer trying to understand what had just happened. Had he gone too far, was Billy mad he intruded his love life? He'd just wanted to help. Maybe he wanted to help himself as well. If Billy were to have a girlfriend Steve's feelings towards Billy might grow colder again.

“Dustin, come in. Over”, he knew the boy could help him, he seemed to understand people better than Steve.

“Hey Steve, everything alright? Over.”

“Ahm...this is a little awkward to explain, okay if I had a friend who is in love with this girl, and I volunteered to get them together...”

“This is about Billy? Over.”

“No...wait how did you know that?”

“Because you either hang out with us, or Billy. Over.”

“Okay, fine Billy is the friend. Anyway I volunteered, and he wants me to meet her at the party. But he thinks she's not in love with him. Over.”

“Why? I mean it's Billy. Almost every girl loves him. Over.”

“Right? That's what I said”, Steve ran a hand through his hair, “He was pretty torn up about it. Do you think I overstepped a boundary? Over.”

“I don't think so. I mean why would he want you to meet her anyway? Over”, Dustin sounded honestly baffled.

“Maybe he wants to....Hell, I don't know how his mind work, he's pretty mysterious most of the time. Over.”

“Part of his charm”, Dustin huffed, “Well just go there, meet her. Probably you'll understand why he thinks she won't say yes. Maybe she's a straight A-student, nerd girl. Over”, Dustin laughed.

“That would be something. Over.”

“Or a Mum. Over.”

Now Steve was getting a little more nervous, “I hope not. Over.”

“Tell me how it went. Over”, Dustin said a little louder, getting excited.

“Okay, I'll talk to you tomorrow, thanks. Over and Out.”

“Have fun. Over and Out.”

 

Steve threw his bat in the trunk, and started the engine. The mixtape coming to life. His mind was partly on the mysterious girl, but also on Dustin, and the kids. They seemed to be doing alright, but he should check up on all of them make sure the icebreaking incident hadn't brought about long-lasting scars. He hadn't done it before because especially Mrs. Henderson, Joyce and Hopper had been pretty concerned for their kids, talking about it all the time. As he thought about all this he realised the party was at the same house the Christmas party had been, when he'd crossed paths with Billy and Max. After he had humiliated himself in front of them. Steve got out of his car, he was nervous now, didn't even know why. It seemed to him this would be a turning point in Billy's life, and also in his. Would she even like Steve? Girlfriends required time, and freshly in love everything else dims, only the girl is on your mind. Who was he kidding, Billy would probably lose interest him. He'll just be Steve, a boy he had to make up to, he peaked into this boy's world, only to get the girl and take her to California.

But he still had to go because Billy was his friend, and he wanted to see Billy happy. It didn't matter the personal cost. He shoved his hands into his pockets, head held high, 'I don't care'. This time around he didn't get as sick from the strobing lights, or the loud music. But he was still glad when he crossed through the crowd of people without anybody talking to him, and the ringing in his ears subsided as he stepped onto the porch. The pool opposed to his pool was actually filled with water, even though it was still the middle of winter. Who in their right mind would even go outside, it was just above the freezing point. And he was only here because of his, how had the doctor put it, still healing brain that couldn't stand the commotion inside. Coming to think of it why were they meeting outside? And what type of girl would Billy even fall in love with?

He waited, rubbing his hands together, trying to keep warm, his breath came out as a white puff in the dim light coming from the house, muffled music coming from inside. He looked at the teens, dancing, kissing, making out, having the time of their lives. And he was here on the outside like always, it reminded him of his old life. Steve shuddered, he didn't care, he was here for a friend. His hands were itching for the bat, he took a deep breath directing his eyes towards the stars, and not the neverending darkness of the woods.

The porch door opened, Steve turned around, expecting the girl, but it wasn't her, it was Billy.

“Hey, you came”, still this sad smile on his face as if he knew something Steve didn't.

“Of course I came. Where is she? It's eight past.” Billy came closer, eyes fixed on the smooth surface of the untouched water in the pool, stars reflecting in it. “Billy?”, Steve asked, not sure what to make of the situation. He finally looked up again, his face serious. “Billy, if you don't want to meet her today, we don't have to. I didn't mean to push you”, Steve said. Billy nodded, and Steve went towards the door, ready to open it, when Billy grabbed his wrist.

“Wait. Steve, come back”, his voice trembling.

“Okay”, in the dim light Steve couldn't check for any bruising, but the thought of maybe Billy's father having to do with the state of Billy was in creeping up on him. Billy didn't say anything, he hadn't let go of Steve's wrist, holding onto it, he took a deep breath, then looked at Steve, nervously biting his lips.

“She is right here”, he finally said, it sounded like it had taken him everything to say it out loud.

“Right here?”, Steve turned his head around, maybe he had not spotted her, would she come out of the shadows? But there wasn't anybody else outside. “Billy, we're the only ones here”, was Billy drunk? His brain racing with the sheer amount of possibilities.

“She has a bat in her car.”

“Really, that's weird”, Steve didn't know any baseball clubs in the area. Billy laughed, pained it sounded wrong in the cool night air.

“A spiked one.”

“A spiked one?”, why would anybody need a spiked bat apart from the obvious reason of hunting demodogs of course.

“Don't you get it?”, Billy desperate now, tears in his eyes, the grip tightened, “It's you. You are the girl, Steve!” Steve's racing mind came to a halting stop midthought, he felt a little lightheaded, not understanding what Billy was trying to tell him. Billy waited for him to say something, but he didn't know what to say.

“Dammit, Steve, I love you!”, Billy almost shouted, “How dense can you be?! I pretty much told you countless times already.”

Steve gaped at him, “I thought there was a girl...”, he said weakly, his head spinning.

“I sent all the signals, and you didn't notice them. I mean it was adorable at first until it wasn't.”

“The signals?”, Steve asked in bewilderment, remembering a few instances, the touches, the excuses to spend more time with him. Billy's rather passive aggressive comment that Steve wouldn't notice flirting if it hit him square in the face. He could hear the music in the background going on as if nothing had happened, as if his entire world hadn't changed. “So there never was a girl”, he spluttered out.

“No, of course not”, Billy almost sounded mad now, but his grip still on Steve's wrist grounding him in the moment, he prayed Billy would never let go. But if the girl had been Steve all along that meant the way Billy's expression changed when he talked about her, like she was the only thing that mattered was in fact Steve, it slowly sunk in. Billy shook his head.

“I'm sorry”, he leaned forward cupping Steve's face, coming so close like all the other times, their foreheads touching, but this time neither of them pulled away. Transfixed by the sensation of being so close, directly looking into Billy's eyes, as his mind was screaming at him to make sense of this rollercoaster. Mere inches between their lips, Billy's hand resting softly on his cheek, he leaned in and kissed him. Steve couldn't move, completely frozen his system in shock, the butterflies in his stomachs going wild it felt like a surge of electricity going through him.

Billy pulled away, a tear rolling down his cheek, and letting go of Steve's wrist, and turned around disappearing into the night. Leaving Steve standing there, it was colder now, he missed Billy's touch, his hand around his wrist and the touch of his lips. Steve knew he should catch up with Billy, run after him like in Mrs. Henderson's love movies, and kiss Billy back. But he couldn't move, he was meant to lose Billy tonight, but not like this. He wanted to make Billy happy, but he didn't know it was also his happiness. That he wasn't second best for once in his life, but first choice.

Standing alone between the forest, and the house full of people he softly whispered, “What just happened?”

Chapter Text

3rd March, Sunday

The rest of the night had been blur, the only thing static in his tumbling thoughts Billy's hand on his wrist, and the kiss. He couldn't even remember a time somebody had turned his head like that. Stumbling to his car, the mixtape suddenly taking on an entire new meaning. Since when had Billy been in love with him? Since Christmas when he had first mentioned the girl, or even before that, telling him he was trying to find out who Steve was. The night in Joyce's home when he talked him down from a panic attack, or even before that?

Had there been a moment, something that Steve had done to make the boy fall for him? And what about him, he was in love with Billy, but did he really want to actually get together with him? Billy, the king of the school, the boy every other boy was scared of, every girl swooned over? What did he want with Steve? Steve flipped the light switch on and paced the room.

His eyes fell on the book Billy had read to him, Billy telling him he thought one of the men loved the other, but the other not noticing. Too preoccupied by the girl in front of him already slipping into the past. He pulled on the headphones, lying down on the couch, staring right ahead at the empty pool. Billy's voice in his ears as he could see the first streak of red in the night sky.

“Steve, are you awake? Over”, Dustin said over the walkie talkie.

“Yes”, Steve said a little dazed.

“So who's the girl? Over.”

“There was no girl”, Steve laughed, his head swimming.

“No girl? Over.”

“She...she didn't show”, Steve quickly lied.

“Oh, that's anticlimatic. Over.”

“Not really”, he muttered.

“What? Over.”

“Hey Dustin, can we talk later, I'm still tired.”

“Sure, see you then. Over and Out.” The line went dead leaving Steve again with his thoughts.

The sun was out now, and the tape run through, he must have fallen asleep somewhere in this disjointed night. He checked his wristwatch, almost noon. Steve needed to talk to Billy, maybe then things would be cleared up. Maybe not, but right now he felt lonely and wanted to talk to his friend, his best friend.

Max opened the door, not letting him in, “What have you done to my brother? He locked himself in his room, and hasn't come out yet.”

“Nothing”, Steve muttered, trying to look over her, but she blocked his view.

“You must have said something”, Max said.

“Max, does Billy like boys?”

“Yeah, don't be a dick about it”, she said defensively, Max never had been this hostile to Steve before, he felt a little taken aback. “Has this got something to do with it? Did you say something to him?”, anger gleaming in her eyes.

“No, no, I didn't”, and that was the problem he hadn't said anything, that's why Billy had fled.

The girl frowned, “Do you like boys, Steve?”, her hostility replaced my curiosity.

For the first time Steve hesitated, “That's a good question”, a question he couldn't solve because he was still desperately fighting the notion, Billy deserved a normal girl not Steve. “Tell your brother I was here”, with that he turned around.

He switched on the walkie talkie, “Code Red, code red.”

“This is Lucas, what's happened, Steve? Over.”

“I need to talk to all of you right now. Over.”

“We can meet in 15 at Mike's. Over.”

“See you then. Over and out.”

 

Nancy opened the door, he wanted to brush past her, having other things on his mind.

“Steve, I wanted to apologise for what I said.”

Steve took a deep breath and halted, “Did we have a fight?”, could she get this over with quickly. Only his love life was hanging in imbalance.

“Well, yeah”, Nancy started fidgeting, any other time Steve would have found it cute, now it was annoying.

“Nancy, I really need to run, so...”

“Don't be like that!”, she snapped.

“What?”, why was she angry now, “I'm not anything.”

“I'm sorry for assuming that you would befriend the kids so you could get back together with me.” Steve stared at her, dimly remembering their argument, it had been during Christmas. He hadn't talked with her since, and hadn't even noticed. Someone once so important now somebody he passed in the hall without even noticing. “And you saved Mike from breaking into the ice. Don't tell him, but if anything happened to him...”, she stopped, shaking her head, “Thank you, Steve. I'm sorry, I hope you forgive me.”

“There's this girl, I know she loves me”, he said.

A look of confusion on Nancy's face, “Do you love her as well?”

“I think so”, the first time he had really said it out loud not just in his head, feeling like he was free falling. He left her standing there walking downstairs. All the boys were already gathered.

“The girls couldn't come”, Mike said, “So what happened?”

“Ahm”, Steve ran a hand through his hair.

“Is this about your father, did he do something?”, Will asked softly. Fear in the all boy's eyes.

“It's not that.”

“Is there a demodog you saw”, Lucas nearly shouted.

“I should call El again”, Mike already had the button on the walkie talkie.

“I got a flamethrower, and you still have the bat, Steve, so we could just...”

“Guys, it's nothing like that. This is about a girl.” Instantly the room fell silent the boys exchanging glances.

“A girl?”, Mike asked finally, as if it was the last thing he had expected.

“Yeah, a girl.”

“That's not a code red”, Lucas rolled his eyes.

“Of course it is a code red, I messed up, okay. Listen, what if there's this girl who kissed me, confessing her love, and I was too surprised to do anything about it?”

“Dude, really?! You suck”, Lucas shouted, clearly at his wits end.

“It was a confusing situation, okay?”, Steve threw himself onto the blanket fort pillows.

“You didn't tell me about this girl. You only told me Billy had a mystery girl who didn't show up, but you never told me you were in love with a girl. I thought we were friends?”, Dustin said disappointed.

“I...”

“Friends tell each other everything”, Dustin headed towards the door. Dammit this was the situation Steve had feared from the start.

He grabbed Dustin's wrist, “Listen Dustin, there's a reason I didn't tell you, but I can't explain it right now. You have to trust me.” Dustin shook his hand off, leaving like Billy had last night. It hit him harder than it should, everybody was leaving him. Fading away like he gradually had last year, and finally when he resurfaced he was pulled down again.

“He'll snap out of it”, Mike said softly.

“You have to go to her”, Lucas said, “Tell her how you feel, tell her she is the most beautiful thing in the world, and then kiss her....Passionately.”

“Kissing always works”, Mike joined in. It sounded so simple, yet it was the hardest thing.

“I'll do that”, he needed to talk to Dustin, get this mess sorted out. Absentmindedly he walked upstairs, therefore he didn't notice Will had followed him until he had nearly reached the door.

“Steve?”, Will made him stop, “Just tell him you love him. The way he looks at you..”

“Hey, I said it's a girl”, Steve quickly interjected.

“We're talking about Billy”, Will said, matter-of-factly. Had somebody talked? The anxiousness that had accompanied him all day surged.

“How do you know..."

“It's obvious, the way you've been behaving around each other. The others only haven't picked up on it yet because you're two boys.”

“Well, it's not Billy”, Steve stated, he didn't want anybody to know something he wasn't even sure about himself.

“I understand you don't want the others to know, but you don't have to lie to me”, Will gave him a smile, and went downstairs again. Steve leaned heavily against the kitchen counter, taking in the quiet house. The suburban house interior standing in crass conflict with him, standing in the tidied up, clean kitchen. His clothes crumpled, his hair unruly, not a girl on his mind, but a boy.

Dustin sat on the grass beside the house.

“Get up, it's too cold to sit on the ground”, not the best sentence starter Steve had to admit, Dustin ignored him. “Dustin, listen I'm sorry”, he knelt down next to the boy. Still not answering, but not moving away either, Steve counted it as a win. “I'm not sure how I feel about her, I didn't even know she was in love with me”, he started. “I didn't even know I was, I mean maybe....There were moments were maybe I was, but I didn't want to...to lose somebody again.” Dustin had drawn his knees to his chest, looking up now.

“There never was a girl, Steve, was there?”, he sounded cold, devoid of the usual warmth and bubbliness that defined him. A shiver ran down Steve's spine, Dustin couldn't know, could he? Steve had just discovered it himself.

“What? No, I'm telling you Dustin, there is a girl.”

Dustin shook his head, “I'm not stupid. You know who you hang out with, Steve? With us or Billy, there aren't any other friends in your life”, it sounded harsh in Steve's ears. To be reminded how alone he truly was. Normally he pushed it away, but it always came back with vengeance.

“The girl is Billy.”

“No, no, it's not Billy”, he tried to laugh, but it felt forced.

“Don't lie to me, Steve.”

“I'm not lying.”

“Okay, look me in the eyes, and tell me the girl is not Billy. Straight to my face.” Steve shifted uncomfortably,

“I swear Dustin, it's a girl.” There had been a glimmer of hope in Dustin's eyes, but it died as he said the words.

“You specifically told me there wasn't a girl in your life just two days ago. I don't care if you're in love with a boy, Steve. Why do you think I would care? I thought we knew each other better than that. Why did you fabricate the story with Billy having a mysterious girl, why did you call me yesterday to get advice? I mean I got to hand it to you, for your standards it was pretty intricate.” The rushing in his ears nearly drowned out Dustin's voice, he started sweating, even though he was only wearing his flimsy jacket, in the cold air.

“I didn't know who the girl was”, he muttered.

Dustin stood up, shaking his head in disgust, “Friends don't lie, Steve”, he picked up his bike.

“Wait”, Steve jumped in his path, grabbing the handlebars.

“Move!”, no trace of a smile.

“I can explain, Dustin.”

“Oh, so you can lie to me some more? I really thought we trusted each other with all this. You don't have to tell me everything, but don't go out of your way to lie. Friends don't do that! Brothers don't do that!”

“Billy told me about the girl”, Steve's grip so tight his knuckles turned white.

“I don't want to hear another story. I don't care, you're just Nancy's ex-boyfriend. Now move!”, Dustin stepped into the pedals the bike rolling forward.

“Dustin!”, Steve tried, but Dustin jerked the wheel around hitting Steve's leg, it was more the surprise than the pain that made him let go. Dustin pedalled past him onto the street. He watched until Dustin turned into a speck of dust on the horizon. Steve held his head in desperation, how had he managed to alienate his two best friends in the course of a day? The road started to become blurry, from the tears in his eyes, spilling over and rolling onto his cheeks.

For a while he just stood there on the road, in the deserted neighbourhood. Unsure what to do, his mind reeling. He needed to do something, to take back control. But this wasn't something he could solve with a bat and some force. Steve tried to clear his head, to make logical, rational decisions, but his brain started jumping to all kinds of irrational conclusions and scenarios that made him even more anxious.

With trembling hands he unlocked the car door, the mixtape coming to life. He switched it off, not bearing to listen to it right now. His trembling hands on the steering wheel, should he go to Billy? Sneak in through the window? And what would he tell Billy? He still didn't know where he stood. Go to Dustin, and try to explain the situation? The boy wouldn't listen. Go home, the pool and forest in his viewpoint inviting him to go there, or down into the tunnels. What would he do there? Where ever he went he'd still be alone with his thoughts. He didn't want to be alone. He needed somebody to steady his thoughts. Hopper had been nice the last few times he had been there. And Hopper had seen him at his worst, and still tolerated him.

 

Steve wiped his eyes with his sleeve, not even daring to check himself in the rear-view window he knew he looked terrible. He saw the curtains had been drawn El and Hopper having a nice Sunday, and he was going to destroy it. Maybe he should turn around again, maybe chalk up the past few months to an experiment of trying to be a friend ending in failure. Maybe being a lone wolf was the only thing he truly excelled at. Just Nancy's ex-boyfriend. But he couldn't bring himself to either step outside, or turn the car around. There was no path left for him to travel, no alternative would bring a positive outcome. Normally he would have gone to Billy, a safe haven, but now what was left? The door opened, Hopper stepping outside, Steve thought about ducking down, so the chief wouldn't see him. But part of him wanted to be spotted, wanted someone to ask him how he was doing. Hopper walked towards the car, opening the door.

“Steve, are you okay? Did your father try something?” Steve slowly shook his head, his eyes filling with tears again.

Hopper frowned, “Kid, did something happen?” Steve nodded, afraid to speak, knowing he'd burst into tears.

“Are the kids okay?” He nodded again.

“Is Hargrove okay?” Steve nodded, more tears falling at the name of Billy's name.

“So what's this about?” He shrugged his shoulders still not trusting his voice.

“Okay, I can't have this conversation standing here.” Hopper moved, Steve caught hold of Hopper's coat.

“Don't leave”, he couldn't bear anyone else going away.

“No, I just wanted to sit in the car”, Hopper said cautiously, circling the car, and sat down next to him, “Now tell me what's the matter.”

“I messed up.”

“What did you do?”, Hopper asked, the same gentle voice he used when he spoke to El.

“Everybody hates me”, Steve sobbed.

Looking a little bit alarmed now Hopper asked again, “What happened, Steve?”

“It's about a girl.”

“A girl?”, Hopper asked confused, “Wait, all this because of a girl? The one time I don't have to drag you here kicking and screaming to talk about something it involves a girl?” Steve nodded, blushing slightly. “Teenagers”, Hopper muttered under his breath, “Okay, tell me about the girl.”

“She kissed me.” Hopper expectantly looked at him, then when nothing more came he frowned again.

“A girl kissing you is normally a happy occasion. So there has to be more.”

“I thought she loved somebody else. I was so surprised that I didn't react, and now she doesn't want to talk to me.”

Hopper rolled his eyes, “Typical teenage love. You know you're all making this way harder than it has to be?” Steve shrugged, wiping his eyes again. “Do you love her?”

“I'm not sure.”

“Well, that's to be expected.”

“Really?”, Steve asked in surprise.

“Yes of course. When you thought she loved somebody else you probably backed off, didn't you?” Why did Hopper know what was going on in Steve's head? “You didn't allow yourself to feel for her because you thought she would be happier with another man”, Hopper looked outside the window wistfully. Steve hadn't missed the way he'd looked at Will's Mum. “So sort your own feelings out before you go talking to her.”

“What if I lose her, what if I have already lost her?”

“You didn't lose her, Steve. It takes courage to tell somebody how you feel, maybe she just got scared.”

“Scared?”, the tight grip on his wrist as Billy leaned forward to kiss him.

“Love is a scary thing. Now tell me about the others that supposedly hate you.”

A cracking filled the air, Steve jumped, “What was that?”, his heart beating wildly. Ready to get the bat.

“Relax, it's only El, she's practising her powers.”

“Oh”, Steve decided to go with that explanation.

“So who are the others?”

“Dustin.”

Hopper rose an eyebrow, “Dustin? I mean Wheeler or Sinclair I'd understand, but Henderson. Haven't seen that kid mad. What did you do?”

Steve shrugged, “It's about the girl....I can't tell him who she is, but he thinks I lied to him. Now he is mad. Doesn't want to be my friend anymore.”

“Did you try to tell him you didn't lie?”

“He doesn't believe me, and I might have lied a little.”

“Why?”

Steve shook his head, “I can't talk about it.”

“Dustin will come around.”

“No, you don't understand”, Steve said desperately, “He was really mad at me. He said he doesn't want to be friends anymore.”

“Steve”, Hopper said, “You know that in friendships you sometimes have a huge fight, but you still come back together in the end.”

“But I messed up”, he crossed his arms, “I know this would happen, this always happens.”

“Fights happen”, Hopper said.

“No, you don't understand. Every fight I had with friends turned out to be the last thing we ever did. I had a fight with Tommy and Carol and we hate each other now, Nancy broke up with me, and now I lost Dustin. I always end up on my own”, he smacked the dashboard with his hand.

“Hey”, Hopper put a hand on his arm, “You know you forgot somebody on that list. Billy, you had a fight with him, and now you're pretty good friends.” Steve couldn't help but laugh at the irony of the situation.

“Yeah, I guess.”

“Word of advice, this might seem like the end of the world, but it isn't.”

“I wish it were the end”, Steve muttered, “I don't want to be alone again”, he said quietly.

“You are not, El and I are still around, and all the kids love you. Billy's there and Dustin will come around.” Steve nodded, letting Hopper pull him into a hug, “Are you feeling better?”

Steve felt a little more steady, “I think so.”

“Good, and good that you came here, you know the door is always open for you?” Steve nodded again. “Okay, c'mon let's go to El, before she starts practising on the cabin. Do keep me updated on that girl, though. She sounds like something special.”

“Yeah, she certainly is something”, Steve couldn't help but smile.

Chapter Text

Steve was lying on the couch, still wearing his shoes and jacket. His eyes transfixed on the wooden panels of the ceiling. The walkie talkie standing next to him, he reached for it.

“This is Steve, Dustin come in”, he waited the crackling static of the line filling the room.

“Dustin, please come in”, he tried again, but nothing.

“Billy, come in”, again greeted by the empty static.

Then Max's voice, “Steve, can't you get Billy a walkie talkie? Over."

“Max, is Billy there? Over.”

“Currently sulking. Over.”

“Sulking? Over.”

“Yeah, doesn't want to talk to you, he explicitly said that, so what did you do? I've never seen him this upset. Over.”

“It's not what you think. Over.”

“Lucas told me about a girl, does it have anything to do with that? Over.”

“Max, just let me speak to Billy. Over.”

“He won't open his door, believe me, I have tried. Over.”

Steve sighed, “Okay, well I'll see him in school anyway. Over.”

Max huffed, “He might just skip school for a few days. Over.”

“Damn”, Steve cursed, he thought he could get this sorted on Monday the latest.

“He'll snap out of it, eventually. Over.”

“Thanks, Max. Over and Out.”

“Please sort out your differences. Over and out.”

 

Having accomplished nothing Steve decided to stay on the couch when he heard the key being turned in the lock. His head was hanging from the couch, everything was upside down, and his head started to hurt, seeing everything this way. Upside down, he tried to ignore that word and further associations.

“Stevie, what on earth are you doing?”, his mother walked into the clearly not tidied up house. He couldn't bring himself to care.

“Nothing”, he sat up and immediately held his head, as the sudden change worsened his headache.

“What happened?”, his mother placed her bags on the counter, and sat beside him.

“Doesn't matter”, he realised he had to look terrible, dirty tear tracks on his skin, red, puffy eyes. Leaves sticking to his clothes and fresh soil from the forest. His mother put her arm around his shoulder.

“Tell me what happened”, she softly said, brushing hair out of his face. Tears started brimming over, he couldn't remember a time he had cried so much.

“I...I had a fight”, he slowly said.

“A fight, did you get hurt?”

“No, not that kind of fight...It's more of a misunderstanding I guess, but now Dustin and Billy hate me”, he drew his knees to his chest, curling closer to his mother.

“I'm sure they don't hate you.”

“They do. They don't want to talk to me, even though I want to apologise. Hopper said they'll come around, but what if they don't?”

“What exactly happened?”

“All these past months they've been there, you know?”, Steve said, his hands trembling. He'd lost them after all, after everything he'd done he had still lost them. Now he was alone again, alone in his head, which frightened him. The thoughts of what could happen, how they would all die, and he couldn't even try to protect them because he'd never be involved in any future demodog attacks anymore. He'd opened the newspaper one day, switch on the TV and find out six Hawkins' kids were found dead in the woods. Maybe even the chief of police, and Billy? Billy would go back to California, he wouldn't find him even he tried to. Somewhere lost on the sandy beaches. He'd forget Steve, like a faded photograph remember him less and less each day until he was nothing. Steve Harrington again fading out of existence.

Did he even really exist if he didn't in anyone else's mind? His chest started hurting, sweat dripping from his forehead. Dustin's arm slipping from his grasp into the icy water, the cracking of the thin surface breaking in his ears. The smell of copper in the air, as the demodog pounced. Everything closing in on him, all his thoughts circling madly in his head, he couldn't stop them, the last rational part of his brain screaming at him to stop, to take a breath, but it was fading fast. No air in between his thoughts, everything coming closer, crashing in on him, suffocating. You can't save them. You can't save.

“Stevie”, somebody pushing him upright, even though he wanted to stay in his curled position, but he was too weak to fight.

“Stevie”, his mother's voice, he'd forgotten she was even there.

“Look at me”, she cupped his face with her hands, eyes fixed on him. Like Billy had at the pool. He'd liked it, the positive racing of his heart, not banging as hard against his chest as it was now. Butterflies dancing in his stomach, now causing him to feel deathly sick, ready to throw up. Billy left, everybody always left. However much he tried to hold they always slipped from his grasp, and he stood alone.

“You need to copy my breathing”, his mother's voice went through the whirlwind of racing thoughts. He tried to focus on her, her steady voice, her hand taking his, squeezing slightly. “In and out, honey. In and out.” Slowly, slowly he could get some more air into his lungs. His chest still hurt, but he could breathe again.

“Are you feeling better?”, his mother asked. What would she think of him now?

“I'm..”, he coughed, his mouth dry all of a sudden, “Sorry”, he muttered.

“You've nothing to be sorry for”, his mother said.

“No, you shouldn't have seen this”, he tried to stand up, but his legs felt wobbly, she pulled him down.

“How long have you been having panic attacks, Stevie?” He didn't want to have this conversation, why did she have to be here? The one time his mother was home, and he had to be in this state. Just his luck.

“Remember what we talked about, that I want us to be closer again?”, she asked him, “Don't lie to me, just tell me the truth, I can handle it.” Don't lie to me, Dustin telling him he wasn't his friend anymore. The ringing in his ears picking up again. No, he couldn't have another panic attack. He couldn't control it anymore.

“Stevie, you're breathing quicker again”, his mother softly said.

“Don't tell Dad”, he stammered.

“I won't. Now talk to me.”

“I don't feel like it's over”, Steve muttered, trying to get out of this state, to escape. Get back into his normal state of mind.

“What's not over?”

He propped his elbows on his knees, holding his head in his hands, “Everything.”

“Sometimes it all seems a little bit too much”, she draped a blanket on him. Steve turned his head in surprise. “Please, do you really think I've got everything together?”, she laughed, “You know I don't.”

“Are you...are you mad at me?”

She frowned, “No, honey, why would I be?”

“Because of this.”

“You probably won't remember, but when you were very young you had a panic attack. We thought it was asthma, should have seen your father, he broke the speeding limit on our way to hospital.”

“Really?”, it was nice to know that at least once his father had cared about him, now he probably wouldn't mind his son dying.

“Yeah, you had them a few more times, but then it stopped. I always feared this day would come”, she said.

“Why?”, Steve asked uneasily.

“Because I don't want to see you suffer”, there were tears in her eyes now, “Believe me I know we've been terrible parents”, she tugged the corner of his blanket closer to him. “You still turned out to be a beautiful, kind boy. I want you to tell me when you have more panic attacks, okay? It helps to talk to somebody about them.” Steve nodded, he wouldn't tell her, she was never there anyway, but he was touched by the sentiment.

“So tell me about this fight you had.” Steve had hoped they could just forget about all this. His head ached, his chest still hurt, and he was exhausted.

“It's very complicated.”

“Is it about a girl?”

“How do you know that?”

His mother laughed, “It's always about a girl.”

“Well, there's this girl who kissed me, but I didn't know she loved me”, he didn't look at his mother, it felt weird to talk about this to his mother, even stranger than with Hopper. He'd never even talked about Nancy with his mother.

“What did you do?”, his mother sounded curious.

“What do you think, I blew it”, he laughed, half caught between a sob. His mother laid her hand on his back, slowly rubbing circles. “I froze, and now she thinks I hate her, but I don't hate her....I just don't know if I love her. I mean I do know I love her it's just..., I love spending time with her, but I just didn't ever think we had a chance together”, he rambled.

“Tell her exactly that, you don't have to decide right now how you feel about her.”

“She hates me, Mum. She'll never talk to me.”

“Give it a week, then she'll talk to you.”

“A week, what if she finds somebody else?”

“Then she's not worth it, don't undervalue yourself, Stevie. Only get together with somebody who sees all your worth.” Billy had said the same thing to him, and that he didn't deserve Steve.

“Does this girl have anything to do with Billy?”

“Yes and no”, Steve stalled.

“Ever thought of becoming a politician, Stevie? This is all very vague.”

“I can't really say much.” His mother waited, but he wasn't more forthcoming. It was one thing his mother knew about his panic attacks another he might just be in love with a boy. He himself hadn't come to terms with that fact yet.

“So, what about Dustin then?”

Steve sighed, “It's all pretty connected with the girl thing. He thinks I lied to him.”

“Did you?”

“Not really”, Steve was getting frustrated how was he supposed to be entirely truthful about this. Why did Billy even have to come here with his stupid good looks, and suddenly develop a caring side. Why couldn't he have just stayed in sunny California, and Steve could have just had a solitary life, being single, enjoying it. Love was overrated anyway.

“So who is this mysterious girl who made you so secretive and led to this fallout, she must be very special.” Steve fiddled with a loose blanket thread, was this all even worth it? Billy was worth it, but was he Steve really worth the hassle? Billy would get another girl....or boy, if he wanted to. He could get somebody who didn't get panic attacks over a stupid VHS tape, or lost friends. On the other hand Steve was exhausted of pretending, Nancy had been right he'd just been pretending all this time. He didn't care about not being King of Hawkins anymore, he didn't care about his diminishing reputation.

“Actually, Mum”, he softly said, not having enough courage to look her in the eyes, her hands still rubbing circles on his back.

“Actually, it's a he”, as soon as the words were out he wanted to take them back. Wanted to take everything back. She would probably hate him now. Her hand had stopped, resting on his back, feeling heavier and heavier, the room seemed to be closing in on him, his chest hurting more now, he felt sick to his stomach.

“A boy”, she said, she didn't sound angry, or sad which confused Steve even more. “Stevie, you're breathing too quick again, slow down”, she resumed rubbing circles on his back.

“If you are happy with a girl or a boy, I'm happy. Now tell me all about this boy.” Steve needed time to process this, why wasn't she mad? Slowly he looked at her, she was smiling warmly. He had forgotten how often she had done that. At his first day of school when he didn't want to let go of his mother's hand, the first day of high school when he'd felt queasy going into the building were everybody was older and a few heads taller than him. When his basketball team had won and he'd told her the next day at the breakfast table. One time when he'd sat at his desk struggling with his reading she'd stood at the door. Everytime she came home from a business trip and saw him again. Smiling, believing in him.

“Stevie, are you still there?”

“Yes, I....you don't like the boy.”

“Oh, I know him?”, his mother looked positively excited about this, “Let me guess...Somebody I know”, she frowned, “Have I spoken to him?”

“Yes”, Steve was still amazed his mother was treating this like a game of charades.

“Let's see...it's not the Byers' boy, is it?”

“What Jonathan?! No, of course not.”

“Okay, just checking.”

“Besides when have you ever spoken to him?”

“I was at the store his mother works at, he sometimes helps out. Wouldn't fit anyway, not the type of hair you would go for in a....Oh...”, she looked a little bit worried now.

“Mum?”, Steve was already dreading this.

“It's the boy I slapped, Billy. He's not mad at me, is he?”

“Ahm...No, are you?”

“Well, a bit, but he seems to have made it up to you. If he ever hits you again my threat still stands, I will obliterate him. So you did 'study' after all”, she gave him a smile.

“Mum, we really did study, as I said before, the first time we kissed was Saturday night”, if this had been a conversation with one of the kids he would have told them in no uncertain words to get their minds out of the gutter, but he stopped short because it was in fact his mother he was talking to. This conversation was not going as he had expected it to go.

“So that's why you were so surprised.”

“He told me he was in love with a girl, turns out I was the girl the entire time, and I didn't even notice him flirting with me”, Steve rolled his eyes.

“Happens to the best of us”, his mother started laughing.

“Why are you laughing?”

“Because it's so adorable, Stevie. He's probably just embarrassed now.”

“For kissing me?”

“No, of course not, he loves you, Stevie. I think he's scared you'd hate him for liking boys.” Steve remembered how nervous Will had been when he'd told Steve he liked boys more than girls. “One thing I don't understand how does Dustin factor into all of this?”, his mother was as invested as a woman watching her favourite soap opera.

“It's stupid really, I told Billy he should finally confess his love to the girl, I was trying to be a good friend, but then I thought I might have overstepped. That's what I discussed with Dustin. Then afterwards Dustin realised I was talking about Billy, and thought I had invented Billy having a girl, he got mad because I lied to him for months about the girl, and I told him it was a girl I kissed, and not Billy”, Steve shrugged his shoulder, "It's all very complicated."

The panic had been replaced with a heavy exhaustion making him want nothing more then to curl up in the blanket and do nothing. Everything seemed greyer, his thoughts had come to a sluggish stop, what he had so desperately hoped for now made him feel dispassionate. He wasn't sure which feeling was worse. Why was he bouncing back and forth between two polar opposites of the emotional range, why couldn't he reach the middle?

His mother noticed, “Stevie, tell me what's bothering you right now.”

“Nothing, I just feel weird.”

“Weird how?”

“Like I'm fading.”

“Fading?”, she wasn't making fun of him, but genuinely tried to understand.

“Like I'm not really here anymore. And when everybody is gone there's no one left.”

She nodded, “Do you feel my hand on your back?”

“Yes.”

“That means you're still here.”

“But that's because I'm not alone right now.”

“Okay, place your hand on the table.” He obeyed, “Do you feel it?” The table smooth and cold under his hand, like ice. “You're still here. And nobody is going to leave. Billy wouldn't have kissed you if he didn't really love you. He didn't know if you even like boys, so he took a huge risk. And as hard as it seems right now, tell Dustin the truth. If they really are your friends they'll understand.”

His eyes fell to the walkie talkie, “They're both not answering”, Steve whispered.

“Give them a few days.”

He nodded, “Thanks, Mum.”

She kissed his cheek, “I love you, Stevie. You should really get some rest, I get tired just looking at you.”

“My head hurts”, he muttered.

“Where are your painkillers?”, Steve fished them out of his pocket, his mother looking a little troubled at that. “Are they still this bad?”

“No, just sometimes...with bright lights they suddenly come”, Steve said.

“Well, at least you don't have to play basketball anymore”, she handed him a glass of water, cool under his fingertips, “I always though it was dangerous.”

“Mum, it's basketball not football”, Steve protested, he was glad his mother didn't know about the demodog fighting otherwise she'd be worried out of her mind.

“You know there was this really racy movie running in one of the underground cinemas at my high school. We used to sneak in, and it featured two men having a very nice time...”

“Mum, stop it.” She laughed, and he started to feel better, at least a bit of the weight lifted from his chest.

Chapter Text

4th March, Monday

Steve couldn't wait for lunch time, the plan was to find Billy, but when he looked around the sea of high schoolers sitting at their tables he didn't spot Billy anywhere. Even at the basketball table no sign of Billy. He decided to wait until practice.

He could hear the shouting from a mile away, basketball had been just one of these things he'd ticked off to appear as normal and popular as possible. Something he could actually do that didn't involve sitting in a dusty classroom, trying to make sense of the letters dancing on the pages or blackboards. Now he wasn't even sure if he had ever enjoyed it. For the first time glad that he didn't have to play anymore. He nearly bumped into Tommy, just his luck.

“What are you doing here?”, Tommy was equally parts scared and annoyed. All the bruisings had faded from their last run-in, it still made Steve uneasy, a nightmarish sequences of what he could become if he didn't keep his emotions in check.

“Is Hargrove around?”, he looked past Tommy, to see if he could spot the boy in question.

“Nah, haven't seen him today.” The resolve to confront Billy, quickly faded, disappointment the only thing left.

“Okay, thanks”, he wanted to turn around, but Tommy stepped in his path.

“Wait, from former friend to former friend what's up with you and Billy?”

“Nothing.”

“Is that so? Because I heard you were at the party with him.”

“What...”, had somebody seen them outside, kissing?

“What were you doing there with Billy in the first place?”

“It's really none of your business. I have to go.” Steve quickly stepped into the empty hall, Tommy followed.

“Steve, you at least owe me an explanation.” Still feeling guilty about beating Tommy up Steve stopped.

“Okay, you got me, Billy and I are friends”, strange he actually rather enjoyed telling somebody Billy was his friend.

Tommy's face fell, “I knew it, I mean he told everybody on the team that if anyone bothered you he'd make sure it was the last thing they'd ever done”, Tommy deflated, leaning against the wall. It was such a Billy thing to do, Steve still liked it though. Like he was worth something.

“Why do you do it?”, Tommy finally asked, the sneer not on his face now.

“What are you talking about?”

“I know you're not interested in all this anymore”, Tommy waved over the trophies of the basketball team, and the school lockers. “The things we pulled with your girlfriend went a bit far. For the record writing slut on the cinema wall wasn't my idea, it was Carol's. She sometimes goes a little bit overboard with such things.”

“You think?”, Steve scuffed, leaning against the opposite wall, surprised at Tommy's honesty.

“But I like to think we were friends once.” Steve didn't like to be reminded of his younger self, trying to navigate school through becoming the worst version of himself. Having real friends now he finally realised Tommy hadn't been a friend. Sure they did have fun, but Tommy wouldn't have come to calm him down from panic attacks, or stay with him when he would be sick. Wouldn't try to be nice to the kids.

He looked at the other boy tiredly, “I think we were allies, not friends.” He moved closer to the door, not sure if Tommy would attack him again, but to his surprise the boy remained calm.

“Then why are you taking Billy away?” Steve was thrown by that question. “God you can be so stupid sometimes. You're not even noticing, are you?”

“What should I be noticing?”

Tommy laughed, “You are something else, Harrington. First you stop being friends, allies, with me, so I have to find a new friend to hang with. You know how hard that was to be dumped by the king....I mean now you know what it feels like to be nothing at all, so low on the pecking order people don't even perceive you enough to bully you. Then Billy finally takes over, I manage to get into his inner circle, and now you have to be friends with him. That's great, Steve, just great. Why can't you hang out with the nerds you so clearly love. Too stupid for them?!”

Deciding to ignore the last comment Steve said, “Tommy, you need to stop hanging out with people only because they're popular, a few months from now this won't even matter anymore. Don't you understand school is nearly over! This is all over!”

Tommy shook his head, “No”, a hint of fear in his voice.

“You need to stop tagging along, do you really think Billy sees you as a friend? Get yourself people who actually care about you”, Steve said, “And start being less of a jerk, believe me that actually works.” With that he turned leaving Tommy in the empty hall as he exited the building. It felt weird like leaving something from his old life behind. Finally closing a chapter.

 

5th Tuesday, March

The third day of radio silence was driving him crazy. He had given up on searching Billy, giving him one week sounded decent enough. He'd half drawn up a plan to ambush him at home, try to break in through his window. Hoping Billy wouldn't kill him in the process. Especially hoping Billy's father wouldn't be home.

He was tapping his pen against a list of numbers in his history book. Sitting in the penultimate row, beside a window he had discovered was the perfect place. The last row always got the bad rep, the second to last students were left alone, at least in this class. They were ignored, either the shy ones, or the ones the teachers had given up on. Steve joined the latter group. Additionally, Steve had come to be nervous when people were sitting behind him. Glancing at the clock with dread he discovered it had only moved one minute from the last time he'd checked it. Steve wasn't sure he could wait much longer, for lessons to finish and to see Billy. Maybe he should just ambush Billy today. Chances were he'd be met with an empty house, without having to deal with parents.

He'd decided to be open about the experience, decided he would try to be more than a friend to Billy. No harm in trying, he told himself. Ignoring the irrational part of his brain screaming at him this would end in tears like everything had before. That Billy would take his heart and break it leaving him a mess. But maybe all the pain to come would be still worth it. If that meant for a time at least he could breathe again, stop just functioning, start living that would maybe be okay. On the other hand Nancy had hurt, did he really want to go through all this again?

There was the pressing matter of getting Billy to talk to him. He decided to skip the next classes, wouldn't use him anything anyway, he couldn't concentrate on equations until he had sorted out his pathetic love life, or lack thereof.

Crowbar in hand he circled to Billy's window, peering through he could see Billy sitting on his bed, reading. Before he softly tapped on the glass, he took a moment to appreciate Billy. All these weeks before he hadn't seen Billy every day either, and for the most part had been okay, but now he noticed how much he'd missed the other boy these past few days. Even though Billy was probably staying inside today he was still dressed perfectly. How did he manage to look this flawless? He probably didn't even stand in front of the mirror fighting with his hair, like Steve had to.

After he had tapped on the glass Billy turned, their eyes met. Steve's heart went quicker, he started to feel a little queasy. He smiled, giving Billy a little wave, who glared at him. Great this was turning out to be harder than expected. Why exactly was it always Steve who had to go to apologise when it wasn't even his fault to begin with? Billy stood up coming to the window, at least they could talk. Steve would not mess this up, he couldn't. To his utter astonishment Billy pulled the blinds down.

“Billy”, he knocked harder against the glass, “Come on, I just want to talk!”, he shouted, hoping the window wasn't too soundproof. No answer, Steve had not skipped school only for Billy to sulk and not let him in. With new resolve he set the crowbar between frame and window, using the leverage to push the window up. It worked, albeit with a lot of squeaking and commitment to the cause. The blinds were snapped up.

“I don't want to talk to you, Harrington!” It hurt more than it should that they were back on last-name basis now.

“Billy, I just want to talk about Saturday.”

“Nothing happened on Saturday. I don't want to talk about, don't you get it? Don't you have some kid to pick up from somewhere?!” He already had his hands on the window ready to slam it shut.

“I really like you, Billy”, Steve blurted out, desperately trying to make Billy talk to him.

“Shit...I didn't mean to, it was a mistake...I shouldn't have pulled you in this mess”, Billy muttered.

“What?”, Steve felt the blood draining from his face, “But I thought....”

“I'm sorry, but it was nothing. Now leave me alone”, with that Billy pulled the window down. Steve too stunned to say anything, and worse to pull his hands away from the windowsill, the wooden frame coming crashing down. Searing pain pulled his thoughts away from Billy, for a split-second he welcomed the pain, but then he didn't when his vision started tunnelling. He managed to pull away, losing his balance and toppling on to the grass.

“Steve!”, Billy's worried voice faded in, he climbed through the window and was by Steve's side in mere seconds. “I am so sorry.”

“It's...it's alright”, Steve said through gritted teeth, he swallowed against the bile rising in his throat.

“You've gone pale, dammit.”

“Why is it...I only get your attention when I'm hurt?”, Steve winced.

“Because you are the clumsiest person I know, just being friends with you means I'm statistically often around when you hurt yourself.”

“Well, this was your fault”, Steve managed to lean against the cold wall, breathing against the nausea.

“Should I drive you to the ER?”

“No....”, as the pain subsiding at least a little bit he thought back to Billy.

“I don't think it was a mistake”, he finally said.

“What slamming a window frame on your hands? I don't know, seemed to be a pretty big one to me.”

“The kiss”, Steve said.

“We should get some ice for your hands”, Billy changed the topic, “Can you stand up?”

“Of course I can”, Steve muttered. They walked inside, beer bottles lining the table.

“Sorry, it's a bit of a mess”, Billy blushed as he rummaged through the freezer shelf in the fridge.

“I haven't really been in the kitchen”, Steve stated.

“Yeah, you see why. Hands flat on the table.”

“Okay”, Steve winched as he tried to stretch them, the skin was a mix of red and blue bruising when he looked too long the need to throw up intensified.

“Not gonna lie, this might hurt at first, but then it'll lessen the pain”, Billy said, gently placed the ice packs on Steve's hands. Even though he had braced himself, the pain picked up again, he instinctively tried to pull away, Billy caught hold of both his wrists, not letting him escape.

“Steve, the pain's going to lessen. Tell me why you're not at school?” Steve tried to ignore the pain.

“Why aren't....you?”, he bit his lips so hard they drew blood, it hurt so much. He tried to pull again, but to no avail.

“Steve, you need to wait a little bit longer. I...I was trying to avoid running into you.”

“Why? Do you hate me?”

“No, no of course not, I was just embarrassed.”

“Why didn't you answer any of my calls? Do you want to avoid me for the rest of our lives? I thought we were friends”, Steve said, his breathing picking up again. He was slipping, if Billy decided he wasn't going to be his friend anymore what would he do?

“We are, I just...”, Billy hesitated, slowly letting go of Steve's wrists, “I'll get you some pain killers.”

“You started all this”, Steve almost shouted, anger mixing with fear, “You wanted to be friends with me, and I hesitated because I knew this was going to happen. I knew you would lose interest, and leave me like everybody else does”, Steve laughed, “And to think I've been this stupid, you did so much for me I thought...”, he was out of breath, “I thought you were a real friend, but now....You kissed me, and then you just throw me away. Was that your plan all along? Befriend me, seduce me and then what? Do you have a bet running with Tommy, the entire school?!”, he took another deep breath, pulling his hands away, the numbness created by the ice slowly vanishing leaving him with new pain.

“No, Steve, you got to believe me, it's nothing like that. You are my friend”, Billy pleaded with him. He had known from the start this would end in tears why hadn't he just listened to his worries, his fear for once? It hurt because he had enjoyed the last few months. Even though they had been filled with panic attacks and other catastrophes, but he hadn't been alone for the first time in his life. The kids and Billy with him every step of the way, and now this was rudely snatched from him.

“You promised you'd never leave me, but your promise means nothing, does it?”, he unfastened the bracelet throwing it on to the kitchen table. The kiss playing on repeat in his mind, how could one kiss already make him feel like this, like he was falling headfirst into nothingness. He was still out of breath even though he was standing still, Steve needed to get outside, away from Billy, away from everything. Biting down hard as he jostled his hand in the process of opening the door.

“Steve, stay. You shouldn't be outside right now.”

“Stay”, Steve shouted, “You know what I should have done, Hargrove? I should have let that demodog get you!”, he slammed the door shut, the pain tilting the world, as he yet again lost his balance and fell on to the hard concrete, instinctively he had used his hands to break the fall. Blood in his mouth from biting down so hard as not to scream from the pain. He couldn't catch a breath anymore, bile rising, and it took him everything he had to not throw up. Footsteps over the ringing in his ears.

“Steve, I told you to stay put!”, Billy carefully pulled Steve into a sitting position, “I fucking care about you, a great deal more than just a friend, okay!”, Billy angrily pushed some lose curls from his face. “I know you like girls, I know I'd never have a chance with you, but I couldn't keep on pretending I was in love with somebody else. At first I just wanted to be your friend, but then slowly I fell in love with you, you idiot.” Steve knew Billy long enough to know Billy wasn't lying.

“You have a...chance”, he gasped for air.

“Really, I have?”, Billy looked surprised.

“Why else would I break into your house, idiot!” Billy was at a loss for words. Steve leaned heavily against him, his chest hurting more now, he realised what it was. “Shit”, he muttered.

“What?”, Billy asked.

“Nothing”, Steve closed his eyes trying to concentrate on his breathing.

“In and out”, Billy whispered softly in his ear, seeming to have caught on now, “Sorry for being a terrible friend, as always”, he muttered.

Steve shook his head, “Good...friend”, he stammered, taking in another breath.

“I managed to injure your hands, and give you a panic attack under an hour. Let's be real, I'm not winning any friend of the year awards.”

“It's only March”, Steve pointed out. Billy snickered, they stayed there on the cold concrete for a while. As his breathing normalised, the ringing stopped and the throbbing in his hands had returned to a bearable pain level he could feel Billy's heart beating, as he curled closer to the boy. Steve looked across the landscape to the forest, the one leading to the tunnels, the need to go there had faded.

“Show me your hands, we have to check they're not broken”, Billy said.

“This is like Christmas, in the bar. Remember?”, Steve muttered, as Billy carefully ran his fingers over his hands.

“How could I forget that song playing on repeat?”

“Uptown Girl”, Steve said dreamily, inching closer to Billy, “I liked the mixtape.”

Billy blushed, “ Should have thought that through a lot more”, he muttered, “Can you make a fist?” Steve obeyed, it still hurt like hell, but he could move his hand. “Seems alright”, Billy hadn't let go, Steve laid his forehead on his. Like it had been during Christmas Night, when he hadn't understood what made him feel so good, but he'd still enjoyed Billy standing in close proximity, and suddenly it didn't matter anymore that this was boy.

Steve tentatively kissed Billy, the boy first froze under his touch, but then kissed him back. Their hands still clasped together. Finally it felt right, Steve giddy with joy when he pulled away.

Billy was grinning, “The girls were right you are a good kisser.”

“You're not bad either.”

“Not bad? You haven't seen me in action, Stevie Wonder.”

“Looking forward to it”, Steve murmured, getting a kick out of Billy turning bright red.

“Do you really want to do this?”, Billy asked.

“Do what?”

“Try this boyfriend thing. You don't have to if this makes you feel uncomfortable.” Steve decided Billy was even more adorable when he was like this, he seen it before, but then he always had to stop his thoughts, it was nice to actually let them wander around the subject of Billy Hargrove, world's greatest idiot, now his idiot.

“Billy, you know me, everything in life is outside my comfort zone. I'm scared about basically everything. I'm scared of this, but I think it's actually worth the fear.” Billy still looked troubled, averting Steve's eyes, as his thumb slowly stroked over Steve's wrist.

“I'm sorry for lying to you about the girl.”

“It's okay, I get it.”

“Did you really want me to get together with her?”

“Well, I saw how much you loved her, and I thought a good friend should help make the other one happy. Although I thought she'd take you away from me, I was scared I'd lose you.”

“I'm sorry”, Billy said again.

“It's actually more of a problem with Dustin, he kinda guessed I was talking about you when I talked about the girl...”

“He guessed?”, Billy looked a little bit nervous now.

“Yeah, sorry, I...you know how smart he is. He thinks I invented the girl all along, don't think he's my friend anymore.”

Billy sat up straighter, “What? Dustin's basically your brother by now, he can't just get up and leave....I'll fix this, Steve. Let's get back inside.”

Chapter Text

Steve was sitting on Billy's bed, slightly nervous now, “How do you exactly want to fix it?”

Billy rolled his eyes, “Through the power of language, I mean what else do you think?”

“Dustin doesn't want to talk to me.”

“That's why I am going to talk to him. Now listen and learn.” Billy retrieved the walkie talkie from Max's room, and switched it on.

“Dustin, do you copy? Over.” They were welcomed with the all too familiar dead static.

“See I told you he doesn't want to...:”, Steve started when the walkie talkie came to life.

“This is Dustin, is Steve okay? Over.” Steve was confused by that question.

“He's fine...ish. Do you want to talk to him? Over.”

“No, I just...doesn't matter. Over.”

“I know you two have had a falling out, and actually it was my fault”, Billy took a deep breath, “I lied about the girl. Steve had no idea.” A long silence on the line. “Dustin, do you copy? Over.”

“What do you want with him, Billy? Over.”

“What I want with him?”, Billy exchanged a glance with Steve, he wasn't sure what they should tell Dustin. The truth, or another lie. It was as simple, and as hard as that.

“Just tell him the truth, he already knows anyway”, Steve decided.

“Billy, are you still there? Over.”

“Yes, you're not going to tell this to anyone else, have you got that? Over.”

“Copy that. Now what do you want from Steve? Why did you kiss him?”

“Because...”, Billy hesitated, glancing back at Steve, who started to feel nauseous again, could Billy even say it out loud, and more importantly, could he?

“Because I love him, okay, are you happy now? Over.”

“Yes, I just wanted to hear you say it. Can you tell Steve I'm sorry, I said some things I shouldn't have said.”

“Oh no, I'm not playing mediator forever. You better meet up with him. Over.”

“Yes, you're right. Billy, don't mess this up. If anything happens to Steve if you hurt him physically or emotionally you'll have to deal with us. Over.”

“Oh the Nerd Brigade is coming to attack, I am shaking in my boots”, Billy couldn't be civil for once, Steve rolled his eyes, shaking his head.

“We killed some demodogs, and we've got El. Over and out.”

Billy switched the walkie talkie off, “Physically and emotionally....The nerve this kid has.”

“C'mon aren't you at least a little bit impressed”, Steve smiled, feeling pretty proud of Dustin.

“Do I need to attend some kind of D&D themed dinner to pass the boyfriend test with these nerds?”, Billy sat down next to Steve.

“Maybe....thanks for talking to Dustin.”

“This is my fault I'm really sorry about all this.”

“It's okay”, Steve smiled, “There would have been less complicated ways though.”

“Like what?”

“Maybe just ask me.”

Billy laughed, “Sure, I heard you were quite the womaniser back in the day.”

“Funny, I heard the exact same thing about you.”

“Can we agree we were both stupid”, Billy finally said.

“Yes, let's do that”, Steve leaned forward kissing him again. He wanted to run his hands through Billy's curls, cursing his useless hands.

Billy however could and did, “What do you put in your hair? I know it's not the Farrah Fawcett hairspray that was totally for El.”

“It's a secret”, Steve teased.

“Shame, what do I have to do to make you tell me?”, Billy asked.

“You know I have some ideas...”, his eyes fell on the clock in Billy's room. “Oh shit, I'm late.”

“Late for what?”

“I'm babysitting El today.”

Billy theatrically flopped himself on his bed, “Is it always going to be like this, do I have to share you with the kids?”

Steve kicked Billy's leg, “What did I tell you? We're a package deal.”

“Are you driving with those hands?”, Billy asked. Steve had half forgotten his plight, which should be a good sign, right? They looked even worse now, but he could move them...a bit. It didn't hurt too much.

“I'll be fine.”

“Fine my ass, I'm driving you.”

“Billy, you really don't need to.”

“But I will. And don't forget this”, he fastened the friendship bracelet, “I meant it, I'll never leave you.”

“Don't break your promise”, Steve warned him, knowing he had completely fallen for this boy. Trust was the only thing left for him now.

 

“Steve, as much as I appreciate the enthusiasm I wasn't expecting you on a Tuesday....”, Hopper started, then his eyes fell on Steve's hands. “What on earth happened to you?”

“I had a Romeo moment which did actually work in the end”, Steve nearly danced into the house, leaving a very perplexed Hopper in his wake.

“A Romeo moment, huh. Are your hands broken?”

“No. Hey, El.”

The girl looked at him in confusion, “Does it hurt?”, she finally asked.

“Not that much anymore”, Steve plopped himself down on the couch, feeling positively giddy. Only now was it really sinking in. Billy loved him, not some girl, but him.

“Drugs?”, El asked Hopper.

“I'm not sure. What happened, Steve?”

“I got hi...her”, he just about saved himself, “I have a girlfriend now”, he beamed, nothing could destroy his good mood now. Not some panic attack, not some impending demogorgon attack.

“Oh no”, Hopper sighed, burying his head in his hands with resignation, “Not you too. Young love”, he shook his head.

El smiled mischievously, “He hates kissing”, she informed Steve, sitting down opposite of him. “Is she pretty?”

“Yes, she is very pretty. Especially her hair and eyes.”

“Don't think of ever bringing her here, and if you do leave the goddamn door open 3 inches. I'm not having any sort of hanky-panky in my house”, Hopper nearly shouted. Steve imagined him seeing Billy, and started laughing.

Hopper shook his head again, “You should bring her over for dinner sometime. What's her name? We should check her police record.”

“What?”, Steve stopped laughing, realising Billy's joke about the boyfriend test wasn't that far removed from reality. He was just surprised Hopper was falling into protective dad mode with him as well. Despite it all he did enjoy that, his father didn't care, so it was nice for a chance to have somebody who actually did.

“I don't think you'd like her”, he carefully said.

“Story of my life”, Hopper muttered, he wanted to reach for his mug which wandered over the kitchen table to the very edge.

“Hey”, he protested as El was ready to move it further.

“Mike is nice.”

“Can be nice on occasion”, Steve muttered, El glared at him.

“Well, at least I'm not the only one”, Hopper muttered, “If you move that mug further, so God help me.” The mug went over the edge, but stayed levitating in the air. “Eleven, we talked about this. I just want you to be careful with the Wheeler boy. And not hang out with him all the time.”

“How often does he come here?”, Steve asked.

“Three days a week.”

Steve chuckled, “It's only going to get worse.”

“Whose side are you on, Harrington?” Steve shrugged his shoulders.

“You know I don't necessarily like teenagers.”

“Oh, so that's why you have one here”, Steve said.

“Two actually”, Hopper glared at him when there was a knock at the door, breaking El's concentration the mug fell, breaking into pieces, the liquid splashing on Hopper's clothes. El said nothing, eyes wide in terror.

“Great, this is probably him again, he's not going to see you today.”

El exchanged glances with Steve, “Whoops”, she said, sounding a little scared.

“Dustin, what are you doing here?”, Hopper asked in surprise. Steve sat up when he heard the name.

“Is Steve here?”

“Yeah, annoyed us all with his girlfriend talk.” Steve hoped Dustin would understand why he'd said that.

Dustin gave him a shy smile, “Girlfriend, didn't know the day would come.”

“Yeah, now I have two lovesick teenagers to deal with.” “

El had knelt down picking up the shards, “Steve told me she has pretty eyes and soft hair”, she said.

“You could say that”, Dustin said after a moment's hesitation, “Steve, can we talk?”

 

They went outside sitting next to each other on the ground covered in dead leaves. The good mood was slowly waning switching back to nervousness.

“I'm sorry I lied to you”, Steve started.

“It's....I shouldn't have said the things I said. You know you can tell me anything, right?”, Dustin said.

“Yes, it was just...it was a weird situation”, Steve shrugged his shoulders.

“It is, but I know he cares about you. I'm actually glad he's the one.” Steve looked up, he had been scared Dustin would be annoyed with his choice. “Billy knows how to help you, remember when we watched The Thing...I was terrified when you were hyperventilating. We all didn't know what to do and Billy helped, he managed to calm you down. As much as Billy pretends he's a jerk, he's actually pretty nice sometimes.”

“Thanks”, Steve felt relieved even though Dustin's opinion shouldn't matter to him.

“You're not just Nancy's ex-boyfriend, I don't even know why I said that. I never meant it”, Dustin fidgeted with his coat.

“You know we're brothers, right?”, Steve said cautiously, hoping Dustin would say yes.

The boy smiled and hugged Steve, “We're brothers.” They remained sitting, it was quiet in the woods, in the cool air, sometimes a twig snapped leading to a spike of adrenaline for Steve as he sat up, trying to find the culprit.

“Are you going to tell the others?”, Dustin asked.

“I don't know...I guess we should, but...”, he wasn't sure how to tell them. Would they even want to hang out with him anymore? A boy, and Billy to top it all off?

“I don't think they'll mind”, Dustin said.

“I hope so.”

“When....When did you know you liked boys?”

Steve laughed, “I actually didn't. It never crossed my mind, really. I mean...after I started hanging out with Billy, I started to like him, but I didn't even let myself think about the possibility. All this feels like a dream I'm going to wake up from, and I'll be alone”, Steve drew his knees closer to his body.

“Yes, ever since Will disappeared it has been unusual.”

“Unusual, that's the word you're going with?”

Dustin shrugged his shoulders, “It's pretty unusual we're brothers now, I had a pet demodog...”

“Don't put your pet monster into a sentence with me.”

“Okay, Steve, and it's pretty unusual that we know a girl with telekinesis, and your boyfriend is Billy.”

“Billy feels like the most unusual thing that happened”, Steve agreed. What had his world come to that loving a boy was stranger than being attacked by a monster from another reality.

“You know what's even more unusual”, he asked Dustin.

“What?”

“That it's been four months to the day since the gate closed.”

Four months younger Steve would have laughed at anybody telling him he'd end up falling in love with Billy, but four months older Steve was smiling.

Chapter Text

9th March, Saturday

Steve was pacing the room, “You think this is going to work? I mean maybe we shouldn't tell them, and just....”

“Have you seen how much you excel at being subtle, Steve?”, Billy was lounging on the couch, “We'll tell them, they might throw a fit at first, but then they'll get used to it. You're really overthinking this.”

“It's my thing, Billy, okay? I overthink things”, Steve muttered.

“Besides Dustin already knows, so he can convince the others.” His eyes fixed on the door, he took a deep breath, trying to calm himself.

“Come here”, Billy tugged his sleeve, “They are not our fathers, you know it'll be fine.”

Steve sat down next to him, “I just...I don't want to lose them.”

“And you won't”, Billy slung his arms around him, lying his head on Steve's shoulder, “So I'd probably be the Dad of your ragtag, family right? Because you're clearly the Mum worrying all the time.”

“Shut up”, Steve said, lightheartedly wanting to punch him, but his hands still hurt, so he let it be. There was a knock on the door, Steve jumped up, looking over his shoulders to Billy, who smiled.

“Try to panic after you told them, okay?” Not helping, Steve's hands started trembling when he walked towards the door, and pushed it open.

“What's he doing here?”, he was greeted by Mike, who held El's hand pulling her inside. This was a great start, Steve's stomach started hurting, what if they all hated Billy?

“Wheeler, always a joy to see you”, Billy shouted towards the boy.

“Steve's friend”, El said, “He gave me his jacket at New Year's.”

“Thank you”, Mike said through gritted teeth. Lucas seemed a little confused, but then shrugged his shoulders.

“What happened to your hands, man?”

“Caught them in a window.”

“How did you do that?”

“I'll tell you later.” Max was looking back and forth between Steve and Billy, trying to figure something out, and Will was smiling broadly at Steve.

“Why are you smiling so much, Will?”, Steve felt a little weirded out, Will normally had a melancholy disposition, not that he wasn't happy that the boy seemed to be doing better these past few weeks.

“You know”, was the only answer he got.

“I know what?”

Dustin slipped past him, “This is going to be something”, the same tone of voice he used anytime they were about to go to a movie, and he already had his popcorn in hand. All the kids had plopped down on the couch. Billy sat down on a chair a little further away, and Steve decided to just remain standing. Adrenaline was coursing through his veins. Maybe this was even worse than fighting a demodog, at least you can beat that. He wasn't sure with this situation, the kids looking very expectedly at him. His throat had turned very dry, and the room was too warm.

“Steve, what did you want to tell us?”, Mike finally asked.

“Ahm”, he ran a hand through his hair, avoiding eye contact. He could feel Billy rolling his eyes, even though his back was facing him.

“Is it something serious?”, Lucas asked.

“You're not ill?”, a worry in Max's voice. The other kids exchanging glances, reminding Steve far too much of the scene on the ice. Their dead eyes staring back at him.

“Are you dying?”, El asked solemnly.

“No, no...this isn't any bad news..”, he hesitated for some it could be, “Well...not just bad news.”

“Harrington”, Billy hissed from behind him.

“Just tell us”, Lucas nearly shouted, “You're making me really nervous with all this waiting.” Steve was making himself nervous, he swallowed audibly, he had stood face to face with a demodog he has got this.

“Billy and I....”, he has not got this, not sure how to proceed.

“Yeah, what's with Billy and you?”, Lucas asked.

“Ahm, we...” Dustin was burying his head in his hands. Will still beaming at him in anticipation, as of he knew what was about to come.

“I can tell them, you know?”, Billy chuckled, the nerve.

“No, I can do it....”

“Steve, we haven't got all day”, Mike complained, “Just tell us.”

“It's a little unusual.” They gave him a blank stare.

“When Lucas told me about the demogorgon when I first came here I thought that was unusual, nothing can really shock me now”, Max said.

“Listen, if you don't tell us in one minute we're going to do something else. Isn't it arcade night anyway, or we could rent a VHS, not The Thing, but ET maybe”, Lucas suggested.

“And then”, Mike leaned forward, “You have to sit there with your secret all 2 hours and 30 minutes.”

“I thought it was only 2 hours”, Lucas said.

“It's the director's cut.”

“There isn't a director's cut out for ET that's Close Encounters”, Lucas enraging Mike.

“Do you think I would just mix up ET and Close Encounters like an amateur...” Their shouting hurting Steve head.

“Guys, Billy is my boyfriend now!”, he shouted. Instantly the room fell silent, four sets of eyes staring at him in surprise. Will and Dustin were both beaming now. Steve cursed himself, there could have been a perfect why to ease into this subject, but no he had to shout it at the top of his lungs like a lovesick lunatic. He wasn't feeling better like he thought he would with telling the truth actually he felt worse his chest started to hurt. Oh no he was not having another panic attack. It was so quiet he could hear the humming of the fridge in the background. The silence nearly suffocating him. He started to feel really sick now, if nobody said anything he'd probably start throwing up.

“We really can't have more party members”, Mike broke the silence. Steve needed several minutes to register it then he slipped into his default mode with Mike: Annoyance.

“Really, this is the only thing you've got to say to what I just said!”

Mike shrugged his shoulders, “Yeah, you're weird, Steve, I know you would have a weird choice of who your next partner is, but I don't care because you're you.” This was oddly sweet in the obnoxious Mike way.

“Thanks, buddy.”

“Just for the record I don't want to be in your little nerd party”, Billy said.

“Oh, that's good because your boyfriend is probably better than you anyway.” This was the first time somebody had referred to Steve as Billy's boyfriend, a stupid smile spread across his face, and the sensation of having to throw up lessened.

“Finally”, Will nearly clapped, jumping to his feet and hugging Steve.

“Finally? Since when did you know?”, Billy asked in confusion.

“Since New Year's maybe earlier. You were always around, and Steve was happy anytime you were.”

“Huh the kid found out sooner than you did, well then again you've never been quick on the uptake”, Billy laughed, biting into an apple. How could he eat right now?

El smiled, “I knew he was a friend.”

Max smiled as well, “I knew it. Finally no moody Billy anymore.”

“I wasn't moody”, Billy defending himself.

Max shot him a wicked grin, “I have some things to tell you, Steve. He was acting like a lovesick girl the entire time. I just wanted him to get his crush laid and...”

“Max! There are kids present”, Steve interrupted her.

“Well, don't break each others hearts.”

“We wouldn't dare”, Billy said, sounding genuine for once, “The heartbroken look doesn't really suit you, Steve.” They had all seemed to guess.

“Is nobody surprised?”, this turned out to be very anticlimatic.

“I'm actually surprised”, Lucas said, “I mean Erica said you were hanging out together a lot, but I thought you were just friends.”

“Hold on Erica?”, Steve asked.

“Yeah, she said you were making eyes at each other.”

“We were most certainly not”, Steve didn't know where Erica had seen them, and come to think of did there had been times he had checked up on where Billy was, not made eyes at him.

“It all makes sense now”, Max said, “In the arcade when Steve looked at the girls it was Billy.”

“The bowling match when Billy rigged the game to teach Steve some bowling”, Mike laughed.

"Seriously?”, Steve asked, as Billy shrugged.

“The love tape should have been a dead give away, and the broken down car, how convenient, Billy”, Max said.

“You were studying”, Lucas said, oh no not this again.

“We all know what you were trying to study”, Mike joined his friend.

“Wow, how old are your kids again?”, Billy chuckled.

Long-suffering look on his face Steve said, “13 nearly 14.”

“That's why he helped with all his panic attacks”, Will softly said, walking towards Billy, “Thanks for doing that.”

“Oh it's fine”, Billy looked a little uncomfortable not sure what to do with the kids being nice to him.

“You haven't said anything yet”, Mike turned to Dustin.

“I pieced it together last week.”

“Was that why you had the fight?”

“Not because of that, but everything is fine now”, he beamed, “I am so happy for you both”, he hugged Steve then turned to Billy.

“You really don't need to hug me”, Billy stood up taking several steps back.

“But you're family now”, Dustin hugged him as well, and as much as Billy was trying to show he hated it the smile gave it away.

He did shake himself after he was released, “Thanks for the help.”

Steve shrugged his shoulders, “They're not perfectly trained, and besides you belong to the family now.”

“Are we watching the movie, or not”, Lucas broke the moment.

“I'll drive”, Steve and Billy said in unison.

“Aren't they cute”, Max said in a high-pitched voice.

“You can find out if you have the same hairspray now”, Dustin threw in.

“I really don't think Billy needs to know”, Steve blushed, the entire hairspray business still felt awkward.

“Don't you worry, Dustin, I will find out and report back”, Billy ruffled Steve's hair up, playing along with being clueless about hair spray preferences.

“Hey, stop messing with my hair”, Steve ducked away from him. Billy leaned closer, so only Steve could hear it.

“You know I don't think it's just the hair that makes you beautiful.” Normally Steve would file this under cheesy pick up line, but because it was Billy he still loved it.

“It's soft”, El said, now cautiously running her hand through his hair.

“Yes, it's nice”, Billy said dreamily.

Max looked up for a second, “Oh boy, you really are deep”, she shook her head, “Well, let's go on foot it's not far, is it?”

They didn't hold hands, but Billy walked so close their hands nearly touched, nearly brushing against each other.

“See that went over well. Everybody is still here, safe and sound.” It was just what Steve had needed to hear, and his anxiety slowly died down as they walked down the street. For the first time he didn't turn around to check the woods. Feeling safe next to Billy and the kids.

 

“This is the alien- dog movie”, Steve said excitedly.

“No, for the hundredth time it's an alien”, Lucas shouted.

“Well it looks like a dog”, Steve muttered, looking at the puppet.

“A pretty ugly one”, Billy said.

“No it's kinda cute, a bit like El.”

“What, are you comparing this alien to El?”, Mike sounded pissed.

“Am I cute, Mike?”, El asked.

“Of course you are, but the alien isn't.”

“I wasn't talking about cuteness...”

“Am I not cute”, El asked.

“No, of course you are, I was talking about the alien having powers.” El laughed levitating the TV a few inches than gently setting it down again.

“That's right actually”, Lucas said, munching on some popcorn.

“Hey Dustin, catch”, Steve threw some popcorn towards Dustin who caught it expertly with his mouth. “Very good.”

Steve laid his head on Billy's lap getting tired, Billy threaded his fingers through Steve's hair, while he was looking captivated at the screen. For once everything seemed right with the world, maybe this was their perfect world after all.

Chapter Text

23rd March, Saturday

Steve woke up to sunlight flooding in his room, Billy next to him. Everytime he felt this stupid joy that Billy Hargrove was lying in his bed, how he managed that was still beyond him. He always seemed to get people he didn't deserve. Slowly he sat up trying not to wake Billy up. The other boy looking even cuter than normal, and more like a harmless big cat than the tiger he normally resembled, he should ask Jonathan if you could borrow his camera, so he could take some photos. For blackmailing reasons of course.

It was still cold in the house, so he pulled Billy leather jacket over tip-toeing out of the room. He walked outside. The pool filled with undisturbed water, he could see the reflection of the trees in it. It almost looked like a thin sheen of ice. A shiver ran down his spine, he took a deep breath, concentrating on the sensation of his bare feet on the concrete, he was here now, and right now everything was peaceful and safe. The gate was closed.

“There you are, jacket snatcher”, Billy walked up towards him, not wearing a shirt, only wearing his black boxer shorts.

“Are you doing this on purpose?”, Steve asked.

“What?”

Steve laid a hand on Billy's chest, “Looking like somebody from a bodybuilder commercial?”

“Oh, so that's what you watch, naughty boy.”

He started blushing, “I don't.”

“Sure you don't”, Billy's teasing died down, “You're sure you're ready for this, Steve?”, he asked, motioning to the pool.

“No”, if he didn't remember he was right here, he could almost make out the dark shadow of Barb's body on the tiles of the pool. “But Dr. Owens told me I have to live with the fear and not push it away. I want to make new memories with this”, his eyes met with Billy's.

“Besides you're the new swim guy next summer, so if anybody does drown you'll save them. I mean, you already saved me.” Billy smiled, cupping Steve's cheeks.

“You saved yourself, I just helped.”

“Cheesy, but cute.”

“Are you rating my lines now, Harrington?”

“You're the king of Hawkins, I expect your top flirting game”, Steve laughed.

“Sure, Princess.” They were just about to kiss when Steve heard the door open.

He turned around, “Mum?”

“Stevie”, his mother looked delighted when she spotted the boys outside. Billy at least had the decency to look a little embarrassed.

“Mrs. Harrington, nice to see you.”

“I'm sorry I hit you last time, it's just I was protecting my son.”

“I understand, I deserved it.” Steve was relieved they seemed to have sorted their differences out. He wanted his Mum to like Billy.

“You look so cute together. We should take a picture.”

“Mum, we really don't have to”, great his mother was embarrassing him again.

“He looks so cute when he's embarrassed, doesn't he?”, Billy said, putting a hand on Steve's shoulder.

“He does.”

“Could you please stop?” He was starting to regret wanting his mother and Billy to get along.

“Sorry, Stevie. Why is the pool filled?”

“I didn't know you were coming. Will had his birthday yesterday, and we wanted to have a pool party. I hope you don't mind.”

“I love it, Steve. The pool hasn't been used for some time now.”

“Yes”, Steve looked on the ground not wanting to talk about it anymore.

His mother sensing the dip in mood quickly said, “Now I'm gonna leave you boys to carry on kissing, don't do what I wouldn't have done.” Steve felt his skin turn red as Billy started laughing.

“Your mum is just as awesome as you.”

“And embarrassing.”

“She's like my mum”, Billy said, turning towards the water. Steve slung his arm around Billy's shoulder, not saying anything, he didn't know what to say to comfort Billy.

“You know when Max and I first found out we had to move here we were really mad. We both had friends in California, and I know how much Max misses her dad. I thought I'd stay here for a year or two and then go back, but now....I'm glad I came here otherwise I'd never have met you.”

“Have you solved me yet?”, Steve asked, remembering what Billy had told him in car when he had brought him home all these months ago, a time when he'd still been scared of Billy.

“No, but I think that's what makes you so special. You're too intricate to solve.”

“Is that a compliment?”

“Of course it is, idiot.”

“Oh...Well”, he tried to think of an compliment to give back, but his mind came up blank, “I've got nothing”, he muttered, annoyed with himself.

“Just stay the way you are”, Billy kissed him.

 

Steve was putting the finishing touches to his cake peering over to Billy's which looked perfect.

“Really, is there anything in the world you don't excel at?”, he complained.

“Jealous, Uptown Girl?”, Billy laughed.

“No”, Steve denied.

“Well for all it's worth, yours looks better.”

“You are just saying that.”

“No, I actually didn't know you were such a great baker.”

“Same.”

“Oh I am an expert in using whipped cream in all the right places.”

“Okay, could you stop. You're distracting me. And stop winking at me.”

“Are you stressed, Mama Harrington? Your pint-sized friends will love all this.”

“Yeah, it's more about the older ones. Should we tell them?”

Billy frowned, “Well I don't know if I can keep my hands off you for an entire afternoon and evening, Stevie Wonder.” Couldn't Billy take anything seriously? He threw some flour in his direction.

“Steve....great now they'll be thinking I'm a drug dealer”, Billy complained, brushing the white powder of his clothes.

“I really want to see Jonathan and Nancy's reaction though”, Steve placed the cake on the countertop.

“You should bring your bat, just in case they get violent”, Billy said.

“I think they'll pretend they're cool with it, but then keep exchanging confused glances”, Steve smiled.

“I mean just for their reaction we have to.”

“Yeah, I don't think Mrs. Byers will mind”, he was 50% sure she already knew about Will liking boys.

“Well and Mr. Grumps will just have to live with it.”

“Don't let Hopper hear you call him that name.” Billy ignored him, taking some of the whipped cream off Steve's cake and licking his finger. “Hey, stop that.” Billy sat on the countertop feet dangling.

“So should we choose a subtle approach? I mean can you do that?”

“Of course I can, ease into it and all that.”

“Well, the last time you just screamed it at the top of your lungs.” Steve blushed, it could have been handled better.

“We could just hold hands.”

“That's too subtle”, Billy decided.

“I don't want to be the one to tell them again.”

“You're nice boy Steve who helps their weirdo kids, so it'll be okay. Nobody can be mad at you for too long, you're too cute for that.”

“Is this how it's gonna be from now on?”

“I think they all hate me”, Billy sounded a little troubled at the thought.

“No, they don't hate you. I know the kids don't mind you, and everybody else hasn't seen your sweet side”, Steve quickly tried to cheer Billy up, he couldn't bear people he cared about to be sad.

“I'll be on my best behaviour I promise. I don't want anybody to think less of you because I'm your boyfriend now”, Billy said solemnly.

 

In the afternoon they all came bundling in, Will was delighted when he saw the food.

“I got two cakes?!”, he cheered.

“Yeah, the candles didn't fit on one”, Steve smiled.

“Thank you.”

“The pools open”, Lucas said excitedly.

“That's why you said we should bring swim clothes with us”, Dustin smiled.

El went straight up to Billy, “Can I touch your hair?”

“Ahm, sure”, Billy said in surprise. She motioned Steve to come closer and placed her other hand in his, frowning.

“I don't know which is softer.”

“Soft hair is overrated”, Mike said.

“Oh and you would know, as a boy”, Max snapped back.

“Billy, we I got a new slingshot, want to try it out?”, Lucas asked, which surprised Steve. Were the kids trying to be nice to Billy, and include him in the group? He didn't miss Billy's genuinely beaming, which he tried to play off as nothing as he followed the kids outside.

“Hey Steve, what's Billy doing here?”, Nancy asked.

“Ah you know...”, he should probably tell her get it over with. Then again Billy should witness their reactions.

“Kid, where is that girlfriend of yours?”, Hopper interrupted them.

“Girlfriend”, Joyce sounded delighted, “You have to introduce us to her, is she here?”

“Ah”, he ruffled through his hair nervous now, “I....she is here, but....”, he looked outside hoping Billy would save him, but they were busy doing target practice on a few cans across the pond, and El levitating them around.

“Come with me”, now or never he guessed as they walked into the sun.

“So where is she?”, Joyce asked excitedly.

“She really has to be something he should have seen the state he was in when he came around on Tuesday, young love disgustingly sweet”, Hopper pulled a face.

“You're just jealous”, Joyce nudged him.

Steve stepped towards Billy, “Can you..”, he wasn't sure how to phrase it, his stomach lurching, feeling all eyes on him.

“Lucas here is not half bad with defending himself....”, Billy started when he turned to see Steve's terrified expression. He followed Billy back towards the others.

“So where's your girlfriend?”, Joyce said. The kids were crowding around them, Steve felt somewhat safer with them by his side. He knew if somebody said anything stupid they'd jump to his and Billy's defense.

“So my girlfriend...”, Steve bit himself on the tongue to not jump into an excuse that his supposed girlfriend couldn't make it.

He grabbed Billy's hand, “Actually I don't have a girlfriend, but a boyfriend”, it took all his will to not break eye contact with the others.

“Oh no”, Hopper said, Steve's heart sank if Hopper didn't accept it would he ever see him or El again? He had come to like Hopper, somebody he could come to if something happened, unlike his own father Hopper cared.

“Now I have to deal not only with Wheeler, but Hargrove as well”, Hopper shook his head in despair.

“Who would you rather have us date?”, Mike shouted, “Do El and Steve only deserve boyfriends from the most boring, uptight, upstanding members of this community?!”

“No, it's just...” Joyce threw him a look, “I am happy that you're happy, Steve. But if you do anything, Billy, Steve is not your jail free card, got that! And if you hurt any of the kids, and with kids Steve is included, I will hunt you down.”

“I promise nothing will happen, Sir”, Billy quickly said.

“Oh, you better pray it won't.” So that's how girls felt like when their fathers jumped into dad mode, Steve thought to himself, slightly disconcerting.

“I am so happy”, Joyce, like Will, was beaming and pulled them both into a hug. Billy looked terrified, which was a first.

“We're happy for you”, Nancy said, holding hands with Jonathan, they both exchanged an uneasy glance. Steve tried to remain stoic, avoiding Billy who was trying to mask his laugh in coughs. Slowly the group dissipated and both Billy and Steve started to laugh in earnest.

Dustin giving them a concerned look, “Are you okay?”

“Sure we are”, Billy wrapped his hands around Steve pulling him closer to the pool.

“What are you doing?”, Steve asked, “Don't throw me into the pool.”

“Why not?”

“Messes with my hair.”

“So you're one of those people who hang around the pool, but don't join the fun?”

“Basically your job description next summer.” Before Steve could react he was swung into the cold water. As his body submerged it reminded him of the broken icy depths when he tried to grab Dustin. For a moment blind panic made him take a mouth full of water, when he came to the surface he started coughing.

“Shit, you can swim right?”, Billy that idiot kneeling at the side of the pool, the kids standing around him grinning.

“I want to go in as well”, Mike decided Lucas and Max followed, wearing their swimwear underneath they jumped in. The splashes they created coming into Steve's eyes. He was here to create new experiences, Steve reminded himself, he grabbed Billy's hand trying to pulling the boy in.

“Hey El, I need some help”, the girl smiled, and Billy lost his balance.

“That was cheating”, Billy complained, when he swam back to the surface.

“Well, you played dirty during the bowling game.” Will and El were dipping their feet into the water.

“It's cold”, Will said, the girl nodded. Standing further away from the water was Dustin. Eyes fixed on the pool. The possibility of Dustin being scared of the water hadn't even crossed Steve's mind till now. He pulled himself out, glad to tug his soaked shoes and socks off.

“Dustin, are you okay?” The boy, already standing there in swim trunks, didn't answer.

“Dustin?”

He looked up, “Yeah, I'm fine.”

“Do you want to go in as well?”

“Shouldn't we wait for at least half an hour before we go swimming?”

“Why?”

“Because we had cake.”

Steve put a hand on Dustin's shoulder, “We didn't have cake yet. You know everytime I see this pool I think of Barb?”

“Nancy's friend, you only talk about her when you're really scared”, Dustin softly said.

“Yes, well I'm trying to create new memories. I don't want to look at this pool day in, day out and think about her, or my old life”, he stretched his hand out, “Do you trust me?”

“You know I do.”

“Then trust me this won't be like the lake.” Dustin nodded, taking Steve's. He sat at the edge.

“Are you ready?” Dustin had turned pale, but nodded. “Ready....Steady...Go”, they both leveraged themselves off into the water. The grip on his hand tightened.

“Dustin, look at me. You are okay. Nothing is going to happen”, Steve calmed him down. Slowly he relaxed, but stayed at the edge whereas Bill and the others were soon caught in a heated water splash battle.

“Can I....”, Dustin softly started, “Can we get out now?”

“Sure, too cold anyway.” Dustin nodded, they sat down on the lawn, Steve shrugged on Billy's jacket and gave Dustin his own, the sleeves were a little too long, but otherwise it looked good on the boy.

“Huh...I think I know who I can give all my old stuff to. Although I don't have T-shirts you need to read.”

Dustin laughed, “Too cool for school?”

“Basically.” For awhile they said nothing watching the kids splashing in the pool with Billy being jumped by five pint-sized terrors. Sitting on the deckchairs were Joyce, Hopper, Nancy and Jonathan.

“I think I missed my chance of belonging to the grown-up table.”

“Good, it would be boring anyway”, Dustin said.

“That's right.”

“You're not going to leave, or spend less time with us, are you, Steve?” The same fear Steve had had when Billy talked about this mysterious girl.

“No, we're still going to be the party. And you're still going to my brother. Whatever happens, this is a lifelong contract we're having here.”

Dustin smiled, “Good.”

“I'm actually more worried you're going to go. I mean you're all super smart, so Hawkins is not the right place for you.”

“But my family is here, my Mum and you. Even if I go we'll visit each other all the time”, Dustin for once sounded younger than his age. Steve had heard this promise countless times from friends who moved away. Always to be broken. Then again had they really been friends? Steve swore he would make this work, make sure they never broke apart.

“Steve, I'm sorry about not staying in the pool”, Dustin started plucking grass from the lawn.

“Hey, no need to apologise, these things take time...A lot of time. This was only the start”, he still felt wrong to use the pool, but it also felt wrong to not be down in the tunnels. Just his brain tricking him.

“So what are you doing during summer break?”, Steve asked. Glad he had asked the question as Dustin started beaming.

“I'm going to camp Know Where.”

“Camp Nowhere?”, Steve asked, confused, “Why is it called Nowhere, is that an actual city name?”

“No, it's Know Where with an K”, Dustin said in a tone that hinted this would solve all the problems.

“So?”

“I'll write it down”, Dustin stood up walking into the house, it showed how much time he spent in Steve's house when he pretty quickly found pen and paper.

“See Know Where.”

Steve stared at the word, “That looks wrong, even I see that.”

“Because it's Know and where.”

“Oh”, he slowly started to understand.

“Don't worry you'll get it when I get my Know Where baseball cap.” As if another baseball cap was what this boy really needed.

“So what do you do at that camp?”

“It's an amalgamation of maths and engineering for teens”, Dustin looked as excited as he had been when he had talked about radio waves and walkie talkies.

“That...”, Steve wasn't sure what to say to that, it sounded terrible, miserable, “That sounds great.”

“I cannot wait to go there. What are you going to do?”

“Ahm”, his future was up in the air, the first summer he didn't have to dread to go back to school, the first summer not filled with the best intentions of catching up on lessons and failing each and every day. But now he wished he had that dread, the blank nothingness stretching out before him before him terrified Steve.

“I have to get a summer job, the new mall will need some help I guess.”

“Are you going to go to college?”

“You haven't seen my grades.”

“What about your essay, the one Billy helped you with?” Steve was surprised Dustin had even remembered that. He never had thought he'd say this now, but this was how ridiculous his life was shaping up to be.

“That essay might have just been one of the best things happening to me.”

“Was it that good?”, Dustin asked in surprised.

“It was a B, but most importantly Billy....well I had an excuse to let him come into my life. I don't think I'd let him do it otherwise”, the one time academical failure actually helped instead of hindered his life.

“That's actually very romantic”, Dustin teased him.

“Don't tell Billy I said that, Henderson.”

“No, no I won't. You can still start a job."

Steve shook his head, “Don't even know what I want to do.”

“You could do something with kids, you're good at that. Or law enforcement.”

“Law enforcement?”

“Live out your protective side.” Steve had the inner picture of overprotective Hopper in front of him, and he pulled a face. Dustin walked over to the cake.

“Who baked these?” Steve was not ready to bury all his reputation.

“We....we bought them”, it sounded more like a question than a statement.

“Hm...bought them, right?”, Dustin ran his hand through a thin sheet of flour still on the kitchentop, “Wonder how this came here then?”

“Tell anybody and you're...”, Steve stopped himself short at the word dead. It still held too much real meaning.

“Yeah, I know, your usual threats. Where'd you learn to bake?”

“Does it matter?”

“Yes, it does.”

“Watched a few cooking shows”, and with a few he meant a lot which had started because he'd decided he didn't want to live on junk food and takeouts alone. Now it had become a welcomed distraction from life.

“Cooking shows”, Dustin repeated, his hand already too close to the cake. Steve grabbed him by the waist hauling him out.

“Steve”, Dustin complained.

"We wait for the birthday boy.”

Chapter Text

The kids all gathered around Steve and Billy.

“What's up?”, they all looked a little awkward and tense, was this something to worry about?

“We have something for Billy”, Mike said, nearly shoving a wrapped object in Billy's hands. A look of surprise on Billy's face, Steve was glad even Billy seemed to get a little bit teary-eyed, the kids had that effect on you.

“Thanks”, he carefully unwrapped it, Steve though Billy would be more of a tear it all off kinda guy, did this mean he'd actually have some foreplay...He shook his head, embarrassed he was thinking about this right in the company of kids for Christ's sake, this was entirely Billy's fault.

“A walkie talkie?”, there were some little pony stickers on the front, and was that glitter?

“Do I look like a girl to you?”

“I told them you love pink”, Max stuck out her tongue, “We wanted you to have pillow talks with Steve without having to use mine all the time.”

“Please don't use the open line when you talk. Don't want to get traumatised”, Lucas threw in.

“You're not in the party, but you're an honorary member”, Mike quickly said. Steve put his hand on Billy's back leaning over his shoulder.

“Why didn't I get such a nice walkie talkie, Dustin?”

“Shut up, Harrington”, Billy said, “You already look so much like a girl with your stupid hair, they were scared people would mistake you for one when you walked around with a glitter walkie talkie.”

“Says the one who has longer hair than three of the four women present here.”

Billy shook his head, “I'll be the best honorary member you have ever had in your nerd club.”

“It's the party, Billy”, Mike snapped.

“Wow, they take this all very serious”, Billy muttered, “Can I at least watch you play the next D&D game, I want to see Uptown Girl going crazy.”

Mike gave a long-suffering glance, “If you buy all the food, then yes.”

“Deal.”

“You really don't have to...”, Steve didn't want to embarrass himself further in front of Billy than he already had.

“Relax closet-nerd, I want to see all your sides. So many to explore.”

“Get a room already”, Max shouted.

“Are you going to come to Halloween?”, El asked.

“What are we doing on Halloween?”, Mike already stressed again.

“Batman and Robin”, El beamed, Steve felt a little uncomfortable now. It had seemed nice at the time, and besides how could he say no to El's puppy dog eyes.

“Who's Batman?”, Mike asked, probably already planning to buy a costume.

“Steve is, I'm Robin”, El smiled.

“Steve is Batman?! No, absolutely not, we need a new concept.” El face fell.

“Mike, it's her first Halloween let her dress up as whoever she wants to”, Steve quickly jumped to her rescue, then he winked at Billy.

“You could be Catwoman, leather suits you.” Billy blinked in surprise, did Billy really think Steve couldn't play the game of flirtation?

He leaned closer, whispering so Billy could only hear, “Probably very revealing.”

“And here I thought you were a boy scout”, Billy didn't break the gaze.

Max shook her head, “Let's go before we need brain bleach.”

 

“Can we eat the cake now?”, Will asked.

“Sure, get everybody round.”

“You need to make a wish”, Mike threw in as Will stood in front of the cake.

“I don't think I can blow out two sets of candles.”

“You can ask one of us to help you”, Mike suggested.

Will nodded, “Steve, can you help me?”, he almost asked shyly.

“Me?”, Steve had thought Will would choose either Jonathan or Mike, not him, people didn't choose him.

“Yes, you can make a wish as well.”

“That's not how it works”, Lucas protested.

“You still really believe all your wishes are fulfilled when you blow out candles on a cake?”, Max asked her boyfriend.

“Stop being a Grinch!”

“Stop being a four year old.”

“Guys, cut it out”, Steve said automatically, only now noticing that the Joyce had been about to say something. Max and Lucas stuck their tongues out.

“Can I wish something as well?”, El asked Mike.

“When it's your birthday, or when you see a shooting star.”

Billy leaned closer to Steve, whispering in his ear, “At the Snow Ball Dance I made a wish when I saw the shooting star.”

“And was it fulfilled?”

“Got you, didn't I?” Cheesy beyond belief, but Steve couldn't help, but smile.

“I'm making a wish”, Will decided, “We have to do it at the same time, Steve”, he leaned forward.

“I'll count to three, and then you blow the candles out, okay?”, Dustin said. Steve leaned forward as well.

“1”, Dustin shouted.

The candles burning like the fire down in the tunnels, him flicking the lighter in the bus down at the junkyard, waiting for the demodogs to attack. Intermingled with the kids staring at him tears in their eyes looking deathly pale as Dustin lay on the ice, cold and unresponsive under Steve's hands.

“2”

The demodog ready to jump directly on to Steve, the flimsy bat the only thing to save him. His heart beating hard, the kids hiding in the bus, in his mind the mantra 'You have to keep them safe' playing on repeat. Pulling Dustin out of the ice, the cold water around his head. All the times he had nearly lost them, all the times he couldn't protect them.

“3”

Billy telling him to calm down. Kissing him and vanishing into the cold night. Him falling down the tunnels and Billy having tears in his eyes, pleading with him not to move. Billy talking to him when all he could think about was the monster on the an VHS tape. Barb floating in the pool.

“GO!”

Through the haze of the blown out candles he saw all the kids cheering, clapping, smiling. Lucas, Max, Mike, El, Dustin and Will standing next to him all safe and sound. He had made it, he had protected them this far he could protect them for another year, and another, and another, forever. Steve made his wish, that the kids would all survive. His eyes met with Billy's, who smiled at him, love dancing in his eyes directed at Steve.

He wished he would grow old with Billy by his side.

“You need to cut the cake”, Dustin's voice pulled Steve out of his trance, his hands trembling when he took the knife.

“Hey, I'll do that”, Billy carefully took the knife from Steve's hands, giving out slices of cake to everybody.

“Steve, you're here with me”, he softly said as he handed Steve a plate.

“Yeah, I know”, he managed to say, Billy's eyes still on him.

“Let's go to the kid's table again”, Bill made a mock sigh which made Steve smile in spite of himself. Still he couldn't shake the surge of memories, the discussion if a slingshot could be used in the event of another demogorgon invasion, being held by Lucas and dismissed by Billy, Max and Dustin went past him. He laid his hand on the cool table, the cake tasting like blood and ash, like the dust in the tunnels coating his mouth. Will had been talking to his mother and Jonathan, now he sat alone at the table Steve sat next to him.

“You like it?”, he pointed towards the cake.

“Yes, I love it. And I like all this as well, better than the game Dad dragged me to.” Steve would have loved to watch a game with his father, but he did understand why Will didn't like it.

“Yeah, playing is a lot better than watching.”

“Billy's actually pretty nice.”

Steve laughed, “He is afraid to show his nice side too often. Messes with his bad boy reputation. You know your Mum didn't seemed to mind I like a boy”, Steve carefully said. Will's fork stopped midmotion.

“You're not going to tell anyone, are you?”

“No, no. It's your place to tell, I'm just saying she doesn't seem to mind all, so you could tell her if you wanted to.”

Will frowned, “Maybe, but I don't really have anybody, so I'll wait.”

“That's okay as well.”

“Since when did you know you liked boys?”

“Ahm...well I never thought about it until Billy came along.”

“But you like girls as well?”

Steve shrugged, “I guess I like both.”

Will nodded thoughtfully, “I know you're worried”, he finally said.

“What?”, his brain too sluggish with terror to understand the sudden turn in conversation.

“I know what you wished because I wished the same”, seriously sometimes Steve thought this kid had some kind of sixth sense, he could read Steve like an open book.

El walked towards them, “Scared?”, she asked softly. Will nodded and Steve deciding there was no use in denying it, besides friends don't lie, nodded as well. El took Will and Steve's hands.

“Me too, but we can all fight it. We're the three musketeers. You can sense them, Will, and Steve and I can fight them.”

 

Somehow Billy had managed to rope Jonathan into an conversation. Nancy was standing further away staring at the pool.

“Hey”, Steve said, feeling a little awkward with all this.

“Steve”, she gave him one of those brilliant smiles he had once loved so much.

“So Billy, huh who would have thought?”

“Not me”, the lights shining brightly in the dark.

“He loves you”, Nancy said, “The way he behaves around you. I'm so happy for you, Steve, you've got the chance at something good here”, a tinge of bitterness in her voice.

“Same with you and Jonathan. We kinda stood in each other's way to happiness.” Nancy nodded, her mind probably on that night.

“I'm sorry I invited you over that night. If I hadn't Barb would still be here.”

Nancy turned her head, frowning, “Steve, are you still blaming yourself for this?” Steve was a little taken aback, of course he was still blaming himself, wasn't she blaming him as well?

“That's why you went to all the dinners with her parents...It wasn't your fault. How should you have known that a monster would get her in your pool?”

“It's still my fault, doesn't matter if I could have known or not. What counts is that a girl is dead because of me”, he said coldly. Nancy didn't say anything, pulling her jacket closer to her body.

“Everything has changed. I thought we could just pretend it hadn't, you know? Remain at that night when the only thing that mattered in life was you”, she said, “But we had to grow up, and part of me is happy we did. The other part is mourning our loss.”

“I know what you mean”, Steve would never forget her, his first real love, even though he loved Billy now, there were still traces of him forever lost in Nancy. He looked back at Billy gesturing and Jonathan laughing at something he'd said.

“We did okay, though, Nance, didn't we?”

 

“There's Batgirl”, Billy cheered when Steve and Nancy went to their respective boyfriends. Billy beaming whenever he saw Steve, as if Steve was the most important thing in the world. And the neverending iteration of nicknames which Steve wasn't sure if they were meant as an insult, or an term of endearment.

“Jonathan told me you saved him with your bat”, there was awe in Billy's voice.

He shrugged his shoulders, “Jonathan saved me as well.”

“Still I like somebody who can handle his bat”, Billy said suggestively.

Jonathan looking nervously anywhere, but them, “We need to go to...go to speak to my Mum”, he quickly stammered an apology.

“He is so awkward”, Billy laughed.

“You get off on this, don't you? Antagonising people”, Steve asked.

“Oh pretty boy, I get off on so much more”, he reached for Steve's collar, pulling him closer, “Especially you wearing my leather jacket.” His heart started pounding again, he laid his fingertips on Billy's arms, it felt real, but he still couldn't shake the haziness clouding his mind. As if this was all a dream he would wake up from, he hadn't decided if it was a dream or a nightmare.

Billy pulled away, “Steve, what's the matter? We can take it slow if you want to. I mean we were dancing around each other for four months I can take a few more.”

“I don't...I just feel weird”, Steve muttered.

“Weird, how?”, Billy brushed some hair out of Steve's face.

“It's like I know something is going to happen soon to destroy all this. This is going to collapse. It's too good to be true.” The gate would not be closed forever, the demogorgon had came before he would come again, like a vicious cycle repeating itself again and again until it won.

“Steve, nothing is going to happen.”

“You don't know that”, he clutched to Billy, he was his lifeline right now.

“If and that's a very big if, the demogorgon comes back here I'll make sure he doesn't get you, or the kids. He'll have to go through me first.”

Steve looked up, “Then you'll die”, a tear rolled down his cheek.

Billy gently wiped it away, “Hey, none of that, nothing will happen. It will all be fine.” Steve leaned his head against Billy's chest, looking at the kids lounging around the pool, chatting about something, probably some D&D campaign, or some kind of movie they really needed to watch. Dustin turning towards Steve, smiling and waving at him before turning back to their probably nerdy discussion.

“It has to be”, Steve whispered. Billy intertwined his hand with Steve's pointing towards the friendship bracelet.

“Remember what I promised you?”

“That you'll never leave me.”

Billy nodded leaning forward to kiss Steve. His bloodied Nike shoes and spiked bat still in the car, ready for the next catastrophe. This time however he wasn't alone in protecting the kids, he had Billy by his side.

Maybe for once it would be enough. Maybe, just this time, he was living in the universe with the best possible outcome.

Or the clocks had already started ticking backwards, marking the beginning of the end. All Steve could do was tighten his grip on Billy's hand. Trying to hold on to the kids and Billy as long as he could before they started slipping away.