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told me you were drowning

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It’s not that hard to sneak into the pool. Duck around the back of the main building, out of sight of the street, and from there it’s just a quick hop over the fence. It’s common knowledge; everyone knows how to do it.

The chain link bites into his fingers as he climbs. Really, the shit he does for these kids. Steve levers himself up and over the top of the fence and lands with a soft thump on the concrete, ankles tingling from the shock. He walks it off, trying to move quietly. There’s a neon glow rising up from the pool, a watery electric blue that’s vaguely unnerving. The deep end, furthest from the streetlights, is swathed in shadows.

It’s summer. El closed the gate.

He forces himself to move. It’s fine. You’re fine. His fingers itch for his bat. He keeps walking. There’s no way Dustin left his hat here, he had it at the diner after they left to get shakes, but try telling him that. Steve did, and here he is, breaking into the goddamn community pool. Ten more steps, almost where he needs to be, and he’s just about got himself convinced that he’s fine when a voice rings out from the shadows, flat and a little mean.

“Pool’s closed, pretty boy.”

He whirls. Stumbles. Loses his balance, topples headlong in the water. Through the burn of chlorine, all he can see is swirling light, twisting and strange. It looks nothing like the tunnels that haunt his nightmares, but his heart is racing and he can’t fucking breathe. The monster is going to come out of the walls. Going to ooze up from the bottom of the pool. Did Barb—

He breaks the surface and gasps for air, frantic, lungs burning.

“Jesus Christ,” he hears the same voice say, not nearly so flat now. “You good, Harrington?”

Steve splashes blindly towards the edge of the pool, no grace at all, and nearly cries with relief when his hand hits the rough concrete lip. He coughs and sputters, shaking with adrenaline. A hand comes down on his shoulder, steadying him as he tries to cling to the edge. He leans into the warm strength of that grip until his vision finally clears and he finds himself looking up at Billy Hargrove.

Of course, he thinks, half-hysterical through the haze of fading terror. Who else calls me pretty boy?

Crouched near the edge, shaded that same electric blue, Hargrove is staring down at him like he’s crazy. Steve can’t blame him. He feels crazy, itchy inside his own skin, shivering even though the water is still warm from the baking heat of the afternoon.

“Harrington?” He’s frowning now, sharp but worried, like he thinks he might have to play lifeguard, after hours or not.

“Yeah,” he rasps out. “I’m fine.”

It’s not remotely believable, but Billy’s posture loosens, tension flowing out of his shoulders. When Steve makes no move to get out, he pulls his hand away and sits down on the edge nearby, water lapping at his calves. Steve misses the contact more than he should.

He doesn’t ask why Steve was sneaking around the pool after dark, and Steve returns the favor. It’s hours past close, no reason for Billy to be here. Silence stretches out between them, thick and heavy, broken only by the quiet ripple of water.

You’re fine, he tells himself again, but he can’t stop shivering. He should get out of the pool, find something to wrap up in. Get the hell away from the guy who beat him to a pulp just a few months ago. Instead, it’s all he can do to hold on to the ledge, keep his head above water. He tries to breathe deep, steady himself. Fails. Feels the air catch in his throat—viscous, like slime, like blood—and panics.

It’s like he’s heartbeats away from drowning until Billy glances down at him. Frowns, shifts, and then the flash of a lighter cuts through the dark and the fear. One breath. Two. The cig catches, and then the hot glow of the cherry replaces the flame. Billy takes a long drag and breathes out smoke like a long heavy sigh. Wordless, he passes the cigarette to Steve.

He takes it. His hands are still shaking. Rivulets of water run drip off his fingers, soaking the paper, but the nicotine hits him like a truck going full force. The tremors start to quiet. He takes a greedy drag, another, then forces himself to pass it back to Billy.

“Thanks,” he says.

“Mmm. Wanna tell me why that scared you so badly you forgot how to swim?”

Steve swallows. His mouth tastes like ash and bile. “Who says I knew how to swim in the first place?”

Billy snorts. “Tommy,” he says, meanness creeping back into his tone. “He won’t fuckin’ shut up about you or your pool. Mostly your pool these days.”

“Yeah, that sounds like Tommy. First-class mooch.”

“Got that right.”

He passes the cigarette back, stares out into the darkness while Steve takes another drag. The panic is almost gone.

November was a long time ago, but not long enough to think he and Billy were capable of civil conversation. Steve takes his time, flicks some ash away. Studies Billy’s face in the eerie blue light. The stubborn set of his mouth, the sharp cut of his jaw, it all adds up just like it should; the king limned in shadow. It’s familiar, and wrong. Billy doesn’t sit quietly like this, doesn’t let Steve exist nearby without needling him. One fight wasn’t enough—he’s always gotta see what else he can tear apart.

Steve looks closer. Nearly hidden in the blue and the shadows, there’s a bruise creeping across his cheekbone. Dark. Painful. When he takes the cigarette back from Steve, his hands are fine. Whoever hit him got away clean.

“Quit looking at me like that.”

Maybe Billy meant for it to come out sharp, come out like a threat, but he just sounds tired. Worn down, hollowed out. The way Steve feels all the time these days, tangled up in fear and sleeplessness.

“Sorry. I just—” he swallows again, licks his lips. Suddenly nervous, worried he’s gone and fucked up whatever weird peace the cigarette bought them. “Sorry.”

His hands are shaking again. The edge feels far away. What the fuck is he even still doing in the water—

“Fuck, Harrington, calm down—”

Billy’s right there, hand on his shoulder, steady, like he can hold back Steve’s panic through sheer force of will. The terror starts to recede. He’s still jittery, still shaking. Still fucked up from memories of the Upside Down, from imagining Barb’s death, from the neon blue of the pool, radiating out and staining everything in sight. He’s not thinking straight, so when Billy’s hand tightens on his shoulder, tugging him close, he just— goes.

“C’mon, pretty boy,” he says, voice low and gentle. “Take a breath. In, out. You can do it.”

He does. In, out.

“Again.”

His heartbeat slows. Clarity washes back in: he’s in the vee of Billy’s legs, arms wrapped around his waist, dripping water all over Billy’s worn cutoffs. Clinging. He should be embarrassed, probably, but he’s too grateful to care.

“Sorry,” he repeats, voice raspy.

Billy doesn’t say anything. He just offers up the remnants of the cig, holding it up so Steve can take a drag without letting go. The gentleness scrapes him raw. He forces his fingers to unlock, raises one hand to Billy’s face. Traces the shape of the bruise, trying to give something gentle back.

Billy flinches then settles, eyes flickering shut. The cigarette burns down to ash.

I don’t know him, Steve thinks abruptly. I don’t know him at all.

He’s exhausted. Cold. His mouth still tastes like ash and bile, and he knows a terrible idea when he sees one, but he can’t make himself care. Stupid or not, he wants to know this Billy Hargrove, silent and painted blue, careful instead of careless. Wants to hold on to the simple animal comfort of a hand on his shoulder, his palm on Billy’s cheek, skin warm beneath Steve’s touch.

“Hey.” Billy’s eyes open, dark and tired. Glassy, like he wasn’t expecting any tenderness.

Wary, Steve thinks.

“Think I owe you a smoke.” It’s a shitty opener, not at all what he meant to say, but Billy seems to understand anyway.

“Yeah,” he says. Licks his lips. Nervous, maybe. Disbelieving. Watches Steve watch him. “Yeah. Sounds good.”

If he’s nervous, it falls away as he helps Steve out of the pool, hands warm and sure as they haul him up. Some of the exhaustion is gone. He looks more like himself. It’s good.

Steve doesn’t know how long this strange peace will hold. Doesn’t know who put that bruise on Billy’s cheek. Doesn’t know if he’ll ever be able to get back in a pool without drowning in memory and the bitter taste of regret. He doesn’t even know where Dustin’s damn hat is.

Those warm, sure hands pull him close, wrapping around his shoulder, holding him steady.

“Come on, pretty boy,” Billy says. It doesn’t sound like an insult at all. “Let’s blow this popsicle stand.”

Steve laughs, hoarse and startled, and then keeps laughing, hoarse and vaguely hysterical. He sounds fucking ridiculous. They both do. Billy joins in, and Steve still doesn’t know shit, but for now, he doesn’t care.

Billy has a key but they climb the fence anyway, giddy and stupid. Steve flops into the passenger seat of the Camaro, watches as Billy turns the stereo off and peels out of the parking lot at a mostly reasonable speed; it’s Hawkins after midnight and the roads are empty.

They leave the neon glow of the pool behind. Steve doesn’t look back.