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running down to the riptide

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There’s an idiot drowning in the ocean. 

It’s a very specific oh shit that dings in Billy’s head, leftover instinct from that barren wasteland of a year spent in bumfuck Indiana fishing snotheads from the deep end of the community pool and doing shitall else. For a hot three seconds of elevator music playing in his ears he is tempted to leave them be: stupid gets as stupid does, as Maxine is so fond of saying. He watches the flailing limbs for a while, blinking at the sea and then at the stretch of beach empty of suckers who look like they’re even mildly equipped to handle this, and thinks pretty seriously about leaving before he remembers that Maxine will somehow smell the culpability on him with her wildcat nose and be in a stink for weeks after.

He is the sucker here. Only him. It’s bullshit how just the thought of his abrasive little sister is enough for him to curse, unbutton the last two buttons of his shirt and dive in. It takes very little effort to reach the drowning dumbass, but even so the flailing limbs are flailing a lot less and the bubbles are tiny and sporadic by the time he does, and after cursing some more to himself, Billy begins the lengthy process of hauling a moron ashore. 

Then -and only then- does he recognize her. The curls have been saltwater-smoothed and cling to her neck like seaweed, but there’s those cheekbones, there’s that damn elf nose, and when she gasps back to life-- spitting seawater directly on her face, eyes like headlights in a car crash-- it clicks inside him so hard it echoes: it’s the kid. Chief Hopper’s little girl. Eleven. 

A feeling like the tide pulling you under, sucking you in, suffocating weight in your earslungsnose

Maybe it’s the way she smiled at Billy back in Hawkins after that long nightmare, or maybe it’s the fact that he’s every bit the soft pushover his dad always said he was, but there’s a tremble in Billy’s hands as he quickly puts his shirt over her. Her bony shoulders are hiked straight up to her ears as she coughs and hacks all the seawater out of her lungs, and he drapes the coil of hair out of the way, steadying her with a hand to her shoulder as the last of her full-bodied shudders die down into a subtler, sustained shivering.

She eventually gets enough air in her lungs to speak, all wheezy and sniffling: “Hopper?”

And oh god, oh Jesus, Billy’s heart squeezes, this poor fucking kid. “Nah, brat, it’s only me,” he tells her, patting her back a little the way his mom used to after a drown scare. “Billy Hargrove. What the hell are you doing out in Cali?”

The last part clearly doesn’t register at all, because her spine, under his touch, goes whipcord-taut and he is backing off post-fucking-haste before her eyes fix on the horizon and she gives a little sigh. “Billy,” she says, like she’s remembering. “You found the ocean.”

“Yeah, sure did,” he says, weirdly touched that she remembered, what, her vision? Whatever that was back then, when she held onto him real tight and pulled him out from under that monster in his head. Right now she looks like someone drove her to the end of the world and left her there, so he continues, “Got real tired of the cold after all that, and goddamn small towns, I guess. Maxine threw a seven-hour fit about coming with me, so we’re both back to where we started.”

The truth was that what happened in Hawkins had turned him around so good he could still hardly tell up from down anymore, secretly, savagely glad of how firmly Maxine told their parents that she was gonna move to California with Billy after his graduation. Having been officially declared dead for two days had been what it took to draw her claws out in Billy’s defense, and it’s been weird, but good, to have her on his corner so thoroughly that she didn’t think twice about putting some miles between her small-town boyfriend for him.

He throws El a rapid little grin, because she’s blinking at him like she’s not entirely done sussing out if this is good news. She curls a sweet little smile back, way too trusting given his personal history, but fuck if she doesn’t look like she’s going to dissolve straight back into the waves with sadness.

Then, the smile blinks out suddenly, and she’s frantic again. “Will,” she says, gripping his arm in a vice. “Joyce. Are they—how are they—”

“Hey,” Billy says, putting his hand on top of hers, absently impressed by the raw fucking steel in those fingers. “I can’t promise to make everything okay, but this I can take care of.”

And there’s a lot here he doesn’t know the first thing about—her weird powers, for one, and how and why they or something else plunked this kid in the middle of the Pacific ocean—but he knows how he can help, and that’s—that’s something.

Her grip on his forearm dials down on the bone-grinding scale till she’s just sort of holding on, and when Billy stands and pulls her to her feet she comes up easy, looking around with unguarded interest.

Her headlamp-eyes come back to him. “Take me back home,” she says, as imperious as a queen. “Things are going to be bad. Help me fix them.”

And, damn, what can he do but laugh and kind of nod at a demand like that? Kid reached under the riptide--

A small steady light in the face of a many-limbed many-armed darkness that sucked the heat out of your bones, made it feel as if you’d never be safe or free or sane again

—and pulled him out, and the way she’s staring at Billy, earnest and fierce, still kinda shaky and worn-looking—no one’s had that kind of faith in him to fix anything before in his whole life. 

“Okay, Princess,” Billy tells her. “Let’s go and fix all kinds of shit.”


She’s still kinda shivery tucked in the passenger seat of his Camaro, so as he drives home he digs around the backseat for a jacket that hasn’t seen the light of day since they moved back to Cali, and once found, layers that shit over both shirts. She’s his responsibility now and he takes that kind of thing very seriously, life debt notwithstanding, and it makes his chest hurt violently to think of what the kid would have done if some unlikely goddamn coincidence hadn’t placed him in that exact strip of beach today. She was tough—could probably make it ashore, but there’s a storm rolling in and he doesn’t want to imagine her huddling under some pier, trying to brave the worst of it on her own. The thought makes Billy’s fingers flex on the steering wheel, makes him drive just a fraction faster to get her to the safety of his apartment.

Maxine is home from her shift at the record store when he shoulders the door open, and the first glance she throws at him is accompanied by a bored “Welcome home, asslord, did you remember to pick up—” before she trails off, half-falling off the couch when she realizes who’s shadowing him inside.

The reunion is almost painful to watch. Maxine always insists that she’s fine and hasn’t even thought about her friends, but the way her knuckles go white when she holds on to El proves that his sister is nothing but a big fat liar, of the pants on fire variety. Their hug is brief and almost violently intense, before they’re pulling apart, hands on each other’s faces like they can’t fully comprehend them being there.

Billy makes to move towards the kitchenette, give them some privacy, but that inconveniently reminds Maxine of his presence, and she whips her head to pin him with a glare that could stop a Demogorgon on its tracks.

“What are you doing?” she says, sharply. “And what’s El doing here?”

“Relax, Jesus, I was just trying to check if we had any hot chocolate, no need to go all attack dog on me,” he bites back, rolling his eyes. “Your buddy here nearly got sucked into the ocean, it’d be better for everyone if you could lend her some of her clothes.”

Maxine squints up at him, judging. “And how’d she end up here?”

Billy stares at her hard, and she doesn’t relent an inch, hands crossed as she glares at him, all righteously pissed. Planting her feet like he taught her. After a beat he lets his posture go easy, like he’s not threatened one bit, and catches her confused scowl before he shifts towards El. “That’s something I’d like to know, too.”

El responds by giving a whole-body shiver, which finally makes Max get with the program and rush into her room for something to keep her warm.

Swaddled in a towel, El says through teeth that no longer fucking chatter, “I was looking for Mike.”

Billy glances at Maxine, because that makes absolutely no sense, but Max seems equally baffled. “Mike? But didn’t you move away from Hawkins? How did you—oh,” then her jaw snaps shut, and she slides a quick, scared glance at Billy that he doesn’t know how to take. “El, I thought you lost your powers after you brought Billy back.”

Billy shifts on his feet.

“I did, most of them,” El says, looking so thoroughly miserable that Billy draws her in for a one-armed hug. She’s small against his side, drawn inward like her body’s getting ready to cough some more.

“But I thought, maybe this once—just to see Mike. And it worked, at first. I could see him at home, he was arguing with his sister over the dishes—but then I fell.”

“Fell where?” Max asks, eyes round and glassy. Terrified. “The Upside Down?”

El gives a small nod into Billy’s side, and fuck, he has no frame of reference for this but this sounds bad.

“Hey, Princess, you’re safe now,” he says, feeling slightly less redundant when she turns her big brown eyes on him, filled with a hesitant kind of longing. “Max, c’mon, tell her. Nothing gets you, not with me around.”

More for El’s sake than his, probably, Maxine doesn’t point out the time that something very nearly did; instead she startles him with a quick hug from his other side, the tips of her weird sticky-outy ears red. Jesus this was one cute asshole.

“El, how did he get out of there?” Maxine says, stepping away as quick as she swooped in. She squawks when he reaches out to fuck up her hair, batting his hands away: a long-established exchange. She barely has to take her eyes off her little friend. “Was it like last time, when you—when you tried to find the Mind Flayer and Billy and you got trapped?”

Another quick little nod against Billy’s side. Kid must be real freaked out, because he knows for a fact that teenage girls think they’re too cool for hugs. “Remembered feeling safe,” she says in the tiniest voice, and he can’t handle the way his heart twists at that.

But it’s all coming together in a disturbing, disjointed way that screams of Hawkins, Indiana’s particular brand of batshit, where little girls were the fucking frontline against all the crazy grim-dark shadows in the world that want to eat you. It makes sense if she thought of the place she’d been trapped like this in the past, makes a little less sense that she goddamn teleported herself here, but that, he figures, is baseball, and the faster he wraps his head around it the more useful he is to anybody.  

He bonks Max’s head lightly.

“Close your mouth, shitbird. And while you’re at it, go check if we’ve got hot water. Listen, Princess,” he says, kneeling a little to make eye contact. Those big ole’ brown eyes will never get any less unnerving, nor the owlish way she pays attention. “Here’s how it’s gonna go down: Maxine here will show you the bathroom and god willing you’ll take a hot shower, and when your body temperature is back to human range you’ll get some of Max’s clothes. Then we can call your friends.”

“Will,” she says firmly. “Will and Joyce.”

“Sure thing,” he says, easy. “Will and Joyce and the runts from Hawkins and the goddamn president, too, if you’re feeling up to it. Now get.”

She hesitates for a bit and then, oh, oh fuck, the kid’s hugging him, big squeeze before she scuttles after Max, who’s watching them with a smile that’s almost motherly. Max seems to catch herself, though, because the middle fingers come up as she’s turning the corner, and except for her little friend holding her other hand, it’s business as usual.

Billy heats up some macaroni and plug the phone back in once they’re gone. He tries his damndest to give Maxine the freedom that he never had growing up, but the phone bills from her calls to her small-town boyfriend started racking up, nearly cutting into the food money, he’d put his foot down. Two hours of talking whatever tween bullshit they wanted to talk about, and then the phone comes off. Maxine obviously knows where he keeps it, but she’s never tried to sneak around behind his back.

A year ago he would have stabbed herself than trust Max, but she’s his main girl now. They’ve both grown up fast.

The girls tumble back just when he’s run out of things to do and started kind of drifting aimlessly around the apartment, picking things up and then setting them down. El looks somehow toned down in her sister’s shorts and striped green T-shirt, less like a miniature sun let loose and more like the small-town kid that he first met. She’s looking around the cramped space of her living room with avid enthusiasm, lingering on every nook and cranny because it’s an apartment inhabited by two equally rowdy teenagers, and it’s just as neat as can be expected.

“Okay,” he says, nudging a plateful of mac and cheese into her hands, which she clutches with her weirdly strong super-fingers. “You get to work on that. Maxine, start dialling.”

It doesn’t surprise him that Max dials faster than the speed of light, straight out of memory. It’s nagged at him in an uncomfortable kinda way, the fact that she wasn’t as close to her friends here as she was to the nerd troop in Hickville, the way she had girlfriends and went to sleepovers and stuff but she wasn’t as obnoxiously happy as when she was on the phone.

These are all concerns that he crinkles his nose at when he catches himself having them, because fretting about his little sister’s social life? Some grade-A bullshit right there.

Still, his heart sorta clenches when Max lights up, shouting, “Will!” as bright as a sparkler.

El loses her preoccupation with her food (barely, he notices: she’s got macaroni in her hair. Kid’s an enthusiastic eater) and looks up, eyes wide. “Will?”

Maxine nods fast, lowers the receiver from her ear to offer it to her friend. “You talk to him, I’m sure he’s worried.”

El does. The wobbling gasp that follows her tentative "Hello?" is so loud it echoes. Someone with the most expressive voice in the world was clearly on the other end.

"Will, it's me," she adds, unnecessarily, as Boy Whose Voice Launched a Thousand Ships does another carrying gasp. “I’m okay. I’m with Max.”

“You’re in California?” Will yelps. Billy foresees El having to answer that question a lot. “I’m so glad,” the boy says, quieter, but still fervent. Billy shoots a look at his sister-- this kid always emote this hard?-- but Max is watching El with a frown, not paying attention. “We were so worried. Mom called the Wheelers to check if he were there and Mike said he hadn’t seen he since we moved, and we weren’t sure what to do--”

“What’s he saying?” Maxine asks, as El’s expression grows more and more distraught. “El, are they okay?”

Motormouth is obviously doing fine, so he lifts an eyebrow at her sister, bemused. 

“Will, are you okay?” El repeats dutifully.

“Yeah, we’re fine,” says Will, still somehow as clear as a bell when he’s quieted down to a two on the Excitement at Hearing From Your Weird Teleporting Friend scale. “I haven’t seen anything since you left. Jonathan says that maybe the Mind-Flayer’s looking for a way in, either through you or through me. Or, um, Max’s brother.”

El’s eyes snap to Billy. He recognizes her game face: she was getting ready to break him in half with her bare hands, if needed, never mind that she’d been clinging to him like a baby koala just ten minutes ago.

The brass balls it takes to make a snap decision like that-- the fight or fight instinct, Max calls it, usually in reference to how Billy’s rearing for a fight near constantly-- makes him snort with admiration. “Relax, Princess, I’m still me. That thing’s not getting me again.”

 Her eyes narrow. “That’s what it would want us to think.”

“Listen, I’ve been through this whole song and dance before. You wanna lock me up in a sauna again, that it? Or can we just establish the fact that I’m not enough of a sucker to get possessed twice and move on with our lives?”

“Hey, don’t yell at her!” against all odds, it’s the boy who shouts this.

Billy glowers at the phone. “I’m not shouting, birdbrain, how the fuck are you hearing all this? He got bat ears or something?”

“Billy,” Maxine says, quiet. It’s not like her not to be louder than everyone in the room, so he turns his scowl to her in an unspoken now what. “Billy, how are you talking to Will? I can’t hear a word he’s saying to El over the phone, and neither should you. What’s going on?

“What’s going on?” Will says in the silence that follows. “Guys?”

Billy’s tripped up enough to say, “Kid, how the hell are we hearing each other so clearly?”

“Oh,” Will says, piping down for a second. Then he says, all nonchalant, “must be the Mind-Flayer connection. Since, um, you know, we were both technically the same entity at two different points.”

Teenagers scare the living shit out of him. It took Will barely a second to wrap his head around that and theorize, and El is nodding like this half-baked theory makes sense.

“Yes, Bat-Ears, but that means we both have some of that creepy shit left over.”

“Oh,” says Will, and Billy rolls his eyes so hard he nearly sprains something. Then Will says, “I’m sure we’ll notice if we’re about to be, like, fully possessed or something. So for now it’s just a neat perk.”

Fuckin’ teenagers.

“Neat perk,” he echoes, letting the full weight of his disbelief rest on the two words.

“Neat perk,” Will reiterates. “Now we can keep tabs on each other and El can do damage control as soon as possible!”

El nods.

He sighs and scrub a palm over his face. “Kid, that sounds like a terrible idea. And even if it wasn't, which of the two of us is really capable of protecting ourselves without Princess here?"

"It's a temporary solution," agrees Will, unexpectedly reasonable. "What would actually be helpful is if we were both in the same place."

"Adults don't have Spring Break, William," Billy tells him slowly, once he catches on to what the kid’s implying. "I simply lack the time and inclination to drive her back to Hicksville, and--"

"You don't have to," Will blurts. "I can come up there."

"And who exactly is willing to chaperone one nerdy kid all the way up to California?" sometimes it feels like whatever was in the water in Hawkins that made everyone so goddamn weird was slowly stealing away brain cells as well, because he could have sworn this kid seemed smarter at the beginning of the conversation.

Silence on the other end.

He look up at Maxine. She looks positively shifty.

"Gonna repeat that one again, William," he repeats, soft and dangerous. "Who exactly is bringing you up here?"

Max says, bluntly, "You're not gonna like this."


"Harrington," he says in abject disgust. "Steve Fuckin' Harrington is our backup? What’s he gonna do, show up and get blown away in the wind in our defense? Are we talking about the same Harrington here or do you merry idiots know a different Steve Harrington that might actually be remotely useful in a life or death situation."

The three of them make an unlikely trio, piled into a Camaro that wasn’t exactly built for family trips, en route to pick up groceries because as it’s quickly turning out El subsists on pure sugar. Diet-wise, Billy runs a loose ship: neither he nor Maxine are picky eaters, and their meals are mostly decided by the sliding scale of what they’re in the mood for and what they can afford. Even after his paychecks became routine, the two of them were already in the habit of eating healthy and cheap: a lot of protein, stray greens when Max feels like it, not a whole lot of processed food. El’s the odd one out with her addiction to frozen waffles.

From the passenger seat, Max snorts. She may have been all prickly and snappy and sharp-eyed when El first came, but she’s relaxed all the way, probably because Billy and the brat get on like a house on fire (even with most of her powers dormant, El is almost constantly ready to throw hands and damn if that doesn’t resonate with him in a fond, big-brotherly sorta way) and the glance she throws him is a little teasing. “You’d be singing a different tune if you saw what he could do with that nail bat, Billy.”

“Steve is strong,” agrees El gravely. “He will protect Will with his life.”

There is a sour taste in Billy’s mouth, the taste of old, half-forgotten rage. “I didn’t say he wasn’t a good guy,” he says. “Guys like Steve Harrington are all good intentions and no follow-through. I sure as hell don’t need someone that half-assed watching my back.”

“Billy,” Maxine says, not ungently. “You think you don’t need anyone watching your back.”

The And you’re wrong, dipshit, goes unsaid: it’s an old argument, starting from the days when he couldn’t fully wrap his head around Max being on his side. And yeah, sure, he’s died in every way that counts riding solo, but surely the difference between wanting Max in his corner and wanting Steve Harrington to come bumbling in should be crystal fucking clear. His sister is a goddamn hurricane and Steve Harrington is a tumbleweed who wouldn’t dig deep against a light breeze.

“Whatever,” he mutters, taking a sharp turn to screech incongruously into the grocery store in a stunt that would have drawn slack-jawed stares in Hawkins, but now flies completely under the radar. The three of them strut out as cool as three of the coolest of cucumbers, El visibly trying to match her strides with his manly swagger. Discreetly, he slows down so she can note the mechanics of it, the way you had to lead with her hips; all the while trying not to notice Max rolling her eyes violently in the background.

What is scientifically known as a whole fuckton of sugar is duly acquired, mostly of the processed junk food variety. Several times during shopping he looks dubiously at the colorful boxes and suchlike in the trolley and opens his mouth for a suggestion before he closes it decisively: the kid’s dentistry wasn’t his problem, and he and Max eat far too healthy on a regular basis for it to really matter.

El is clearly unused to the law of the jungle that prevails in his dominion, though, so he mulls it over before saying, “Think of it as a holiday, Princess, not an everyday thing. Unusual circumstances and all.”

Appeased, she tips the boxes of Sugar Bombs in her hands into the trolley.

Billy buys some chicken out of habit, mentally rifling through his not-insignificant repertoire of recipes acquired during his pre-Hawkins healthy eating kick for something that would satisfy the toddler tastebuds that El clearly has. Then he shrugs. His ship, his rules. She could default to Eggos anyway; no skin off his back.

Max and El get into a pretty heated debate about cola brands, which is as good an opportunity as any to begin herding them to checkout. The cashier gives a double-take-- first at his lazy grin, very well hey there, and there’s some cute blushing action going on as his eyes drag down, past his lips with a toothpick sticking out, down the open vee of his shirt, and straight on to the quarrelsome teenage girls pushing the trolley, and at that point he does another double-take and his eyes come screeching back to Billy’s.

He rolls his shoulders, only a little irritated. It’s probably all the sugar but he’s been feeling pretty damn lenient.  “Runts,” he says pleasantly. “Look sharp.”

Their shopping adventures wind down with the consciousness of a lingering gaze on Billy’s ass as he struts out the doors with his two wards.

They pile into the car, and since there’s still a bit of light left, decide to go to the beach and El watches the waves, transfixed, as he and Maxine fuck around the water without getting their feet wet.

When he drives back home the unhappy curl in her brow is gone like it never was. She knocks her shoulder into his and holds hands with Maxine, and he thinks, yeah. Maybe he won’t fuck this one up after all.


Billy jerks awake with nightmares only four times in the night, which for him is pretty good considering the feature in so many of them is now living under the same roof. He can hear the sea from his bedroom whenever he wakes up, and the crash of the waves always lulls him right back. It’s the kind of thing he yearned so deeply while he was stuck in Hawkins. It’s enough to drive the memories—

a dark many-legged thing that likes the cold, Mom I could feel it everywhere

—to the back of his brain, where he can learn to ignore it if he ever wants to pass off as normal again.  

El is all sorts of wobbly when he finds her in the small shared space that they don’t bother to call a living room, and he’s guessing that all that exertion right after a near-drowning didn’t go over so hot. Her curls are straggly and sad from restless sleep.

“William,” he says without thinking. Or mostly just thinking about how he is not even remotely qualified to deal with this shit. “William, your friend’s not doing great.”

“Oh jeez,” says a voice right in Billy’s ear, and he nearly has a heart attack right there. “I think she might be sick. Hey Steve,” he says, voice going a little muffled, “I think El’s got a fever. Billy’s asking if we can pick up some medicine on the way.”

“I am doing no such thing,” Billy bristles. “We can get the damn—”

“Steve says okay!” Will sings, making Billy’s eyes narrow: this kid had to be messing with him. It’s weird because what little of Will Byers he remembers goes along the lines of wide eyes, pale skin, and bottomlessly sad silences. Even his big brother flinched gratifyingly when Billy loomed in close, so what gave?

Teenagers, Billy thought again heavily. He’d never figure them out.

“Hear that?” he says to El, who blinks tired too-bright eyes at him. “Fuckin’ Steve Harrington is gonna bring you medicine, glory hallelujah. Till that glorious hour, are you in the mood for soup or hot chocolate?”

“Hot chocolate,” El says, and yeah, he saw that coming. He ruffles her hair, thankful that she, at least, was predictable, and she leans into it like a cat. “Steve is close?”

“Steve is real close,” Billy says, not knowing how he knows. He feels a phantom breeze on his temples lifting a fringe he doesn't have, which means it's coming from Will. “Steve and Will both.”

Harrington must have driven through the night, for them to be as close as Billy senses them to be, and the thought is like banging his head against a familiar rock because he just can’t figure out Steve Harrington’s deal: did he have that fire in him or not, was he just as washed-out as the rest of that town or not?

“Can you ask Max to call my mom and tell her we’re okay?” is the next outrageously presumptuous thing Will says, and Billy’s starting to sense a pattern here. He scowls down at the coffee he’s making for himself.

“Maxine has the morning shift today,” Billy says. He turns to El and finds her breathing in the steam from the hot chocolate with her eyes closed, the picture of contentment, and experiences another of those weird tugging sensations in his chest. “Hey Princess, you know the number to William’s house?”

El’s eyes don’t even open. “No,” she says.

Billy shrugs in Will’s general direction. “Looks like your only option is to ask Harrington to drive a little faster.”

Will, the little prick, apparently doesn’t get a memo if it comes up to him and does a little dance. “C’mon, Billy,” he honest to god whines, and seriously when the hell did this kid get so comfortable around him. “My mom’s gonna be so worried. Plus the only reason she let me come is because she thinks you’re responsible.”

Billy has nothing but respect for Mrs. Byers, who really came through when it was time to explain to the whole world how exactly Billy came back from the dead.

He inhales deeply through his nose. Respect and responsibility. It looks like he’s repaying a lot of favors this weekend.

“Tell me the damn number,” he says resignedly, and hunts for a pen as Will cheers.

The call takes an hour. In between telling Joyce that no, Billy’s paycheck can handle a few weeks of Eggos, El and Will both trying to tell Joyce stuff through Billy and both of them chattering over one another, and Joyce going off on a tangent about how kids grow up so fast, the whole ordeal feels like it chops a solid ten years off his lifespan. By the time they’re done Billy can feel Will entering the block, getting steadily closer to their building and then rolling to a smooth stop.

Billy checks the clock. Maxine is going to be so pissed she missed this.

“Runt’s here,” he remarks offhandedly.

Before El can even finish widening her eyes, the doorbell rings, and Billy pulls the door open.

It’s almost worth the curse of being aware of Will Byers’ movements all the time for their visible surprise at the door opening so soon. Will is -somehow, miracles never cease- even tinier than he remembers.

“William,” Billy says, with his most sharklike grin.

Will doesn’t look even a little fazed. “William,” he greets back, and his lips are twitching, the little fucker. His mock solemnness fades when El elbows Billy aside and tackles him, and it’s a repeat of the intensity of Max and El’s meeting, both of them clinging to each other like castaways in a storm.

Billy meets Harrington’s eyes over this display of unadulterated love and catches him looking exactly how he feels: exhausted, protective, and a little scared of how intensely these kids seemed to feel things.

“Come inside, King Steve,” he says shortly. “Life’s too short to wait around for these kids to stop hugging each other.”

Harrington’s lip quirks and eyebrow twitches at the same time, like he’s not sure what expression he should be wearing. He decides on a smile, finally—tentative and tired, dark circles deep as craters under his eyes.

“I’ll grab their arms if you get their legs,” he says.

And there's something about the way he says it-- the way he shapes his words, drawling-- makes Billy crave a cigarette all of a sudden. 

Shaking his head at himself, because what the fuck, Billy grabs El by the collar and pulls her in. He can hear Harrington's muffled laugh as he follows, the door clicking shut behind him, the start of one of the strangest ordeals of Billy's life.