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Year of You

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Billy didn’t expect to survive.

 

When he sees white light above him he believes for one mystifying second that he had somehow miraculously managed to wrangle his way into heaven. 

 

But then the light starts to burn, searing into his retina, and he shuts his eyes when pain, so much fucking pain , ignites around his body.

 

He’s pretty sure heaven isn’t supposed to hurt. So maybe it's the pits of hell after all.

 

Except the demons in front of him appear surprising human, bespectacled and bushy eyebrowed, leering close and inspecting. Billy tries to talk, his throat constricting around an obstruction in his throat and he thrashes, weak and panicked, his body terrifyingly uncooperative.

 

A man with graying hair looms above, his mouth moving slowly, a whisper of a voice making its way through the blood pulsing in his ears. "Calm down. Breathe."

 

Ice floods into his veins from the crook of his elbow and his thoughts dim.

 

He drifts.

 

-

 

Consciousness comes back in dribs and drabs. None of the faces that float in and out of his vision are familiar but he hears them speak, voices slow and clear over the rhythmic beeps from various machines situated around his bed. They tell him that he's been unconscious for over a month. That he nearly died. Should have died considering the state of his body after consuming toxic chemicals and being speared through the chest. There’s no explanation for his survival.

 

They tell him this right before their faces turn stern and they say, "you understand we need to keep you under close observation." And Billy can only blink sluggishly in return; limbs made of lead and a tube lodged down his throat, just enough strength in him to process these tiny bites of information before he succumbs to the pull of sleep again.

 

He learns in time that he’s in a military hospital not far outside of Indianapolis; a team of doctors and scientists rotate in and out of the room often lead by a man he comes to know as Sam Owens, who speaks to him as if they're good friends.

 

"We've informed your family that you're awake," Owen's tells him brightly one day, and Billy has no recollection of dates or a calendar to consult but he knows it's been at least a couple of weeks since he first woke, enough time for tests and observations to be run, and if he's deemed safe enough to be seen then he can only hope this means that whatever shadow monstrosity took up residency in his head has been successfully evicted.

 

They arrive a few days later.

 

Owens is all smiles. "His vitals are looking stronger by the day,” he informs Billy’s dad pleasantly, as if there aren’t a gazillion wires and tubes feeding into his body through any available orifice. Like it isn’t obvious to everyone that Billy won’t be taking a shit without some kind of assistance for a while.

 

It’s all fuzz in his ears.

 

Immobilized from both pain and drugs, unable to move or speak, he left to blinkling tiredly at Max, wishing he had the energy to get some kind of message across to her, I’m sorry , maybe, but it’s too much, too hard, and he slips under with the all too familiar sight of tears brimming in her eyes etched into the back of his skull.

 

-

 

Time slips by. The pain lessons, mobility returns; soon he’s breathing and eating on his own again. Owens still comes by and talks to him often, but there’s a little more urgency to his tone--now that Billy can respond--questions to be asked. “We need to understand what happened.” And Billy almost wishes they’d stick the tube back down his throat and inject some of the heavier stuff into his IV.

 

He talks, however unwillingly, because despite the nausating memories that resurface he too needs to know, to understand just what the fuck happened to him. Why him? Of everyone in that shitty little town why did it pick him. Why did he live to see it from start to end when all those other people...

 

His head takes a plunge. 

 

Nightmares have him waking up screaming..

 

He find strands of his hair tangled in his fingers, his scalp sore, as if he could tear the memories straight from his head. Owens tells him it wasn’t his fault, that guilt is a common emotion after surviving a ‘catastrophic’ incident but he must remember it could have happened to anyone--he was unfortunate .

 

“I was gonna fuck this woman,” Billy admits in a hoarse voice, the remnants of a nightmare flickering at the back of his mind. It had taken a sedative to quieten his screams--a cool, clinical calm blanketing the terror that refuses to leave him be, and he’s left him glassy eyed and trembling. “I went to high school with her daughter,” he huffs a weak humourless laugh, “I was gonna meet her at a motel outside of town, that’s where I was going, the night it…”

 

Tears prick at his eyes. In his dreams he screams at himself not to get out of the car--just knock the gear stick into reverse and get the fuck out of there--but he always ends up in that basement one way or another; limbs hooked and pinned by slithering vines, something cold and slimy forcing it’s way down his throat.

 

He feels tears pool at the side of his nose, trickle down his cheeks to soak his pillow. Owens tilts his head.

 

“Why did you want to sleep with her?”

 

He stares at a spot on the wall behind his ear.

 

“‘Cause I was bored.”

 

-

 

It’s the second weekend in September when Max visits again. She’s not with their parents--something Billy only realises he’s grateful for hours later when he’s alone again, because the person who walks in just behind her manages to set all his nerves alight at once.

 

She looks right at him with deep brown eyes and he shrinks.

 

It’s one thing having to share his thoughts and feelings with Owens in their regular and painfully awkward therapy sessions, but it’s something else entirely when confronted with a super-powered child who had quite literally been inside his head.

 

"Hello Billy." Her voice is tired and sad through her smile.

 

"This is El," Max says, taking a seat closest to the head of his bed.

 

"I know." 

 

He met her, kind of, at Heather's house--felt a sense of familiarity that wasn't his own in her presence, followed by an overwhelming surge of fury and loathing.   

 

Kill. Destroy. End her. End them all.

 

It both hated and feared her and it wasn’t until she had thrown him through a wall that Billy understood that this little girl was the only thing in the world that posed a real threat to it.

 

“You remember me?”

 

He swallows down the lump in his throat. “Hard to forget.” The atmosphere grows uncomfortable. For him at least. El nods slowly, her hands clasped loosely in her lap, maintaining almost intimidatingly strong eye-contact with him.

 

“I wanted to thank you,” she says and for a second Billy think he might of misheard because he’s pretty damn sure he almost choked the life out of her one time and knocked her unconscious on another not long after, and unless she’s some kind of masochist then-- “you saved me, at the end. Thank you.”

 

He’s taken aback by that, averts his eyes and picks at a loose thread on his pillowcase. Her gratitude feels undeserving considering all the harm he caused, both before and after he set foot in Brimborn steelworks, but there’s a hard line of resilience to her otherwise unsettlingly blank expression that he knows he hasn’t the strength to contend with. She’s mature in a way that no kid her age should be, she sees more than she should, and Billy loathes to admit that that frightens him a little.

 

He thinks, maybe, he should thank her too, for reminding him, giving him something he could use to fight back and regain control--that act basically saved her own life--but Max is right there and she’s staring at him and he’s never been good at sincerely expressing gratitude.

 

He clears his voice and steers the conversation away from himself.

 

“So you’re like psychic or something?”

 

El fidgets. “Not anymore,” she whispers, her eyes downcast.

 

“Her powers are like… drained or something,” Max explains, “since that night…” And great , that diversion didn’t last long.

 

In the end El tells him her story, from the fall of 83’ to the summer of 85’, filling in the blanks without going into too much detail--for all their sakes, he supposes--and he listens mostly because it means he doesn’t have to be the one doing the talking. 

 

“You almost found out last year,” Max says, throwing him a pointed look. “That night you came looking for me and beat the crap out of Steve; there was a demodog in the fridge.”

 

“What the fuck is a demodog?” Billy asks, completely ignoring the first part.

 

“A smaller version of the demogorgan, more like--”

 

“A dog?” He pinches the bridge of his nose. 

 

I didn’t come up with the names okay? Do I look like I play D&D?” He doesn’t answer, only sweeping his eyes over her in a judgemental way. She looks affronted. “Wow. Unbelievable.”

 

Between them they tell him what’s happened since his hospitalization. The whole lab-under-the-mall thing leaves him gaping for at least fifteen minutes--Owens failed to mention anything about that--while Max bitched about conspiracy theorists swarming around Hawkins and how everyone at school keeps asking her if there were any Russians at the mall that night.

 

Christ , Billy thinks, she’s in high school now . She’s lucky she’s got a tough attitude; the gossip-mongers of Hawkins high are incessant.

 

"I… I'm leaving Hawkins," El says with her shoulders around her ears, and Max's fingers curl into fists in her lap. "My dad, Jim, he's gone now. I live with Joyce."

 

Billy goes still, discomfort trickling down his neck; he knows those names even if he never really associated with the people attached to them. The Byers family and chief Jim Hopper have been at the center of disaster since this gate opened. He also knows they didn’t all make it out alive this time.

 

"We're moving to Chicago…?" El looks at Max for confirmation, receives a little nod in return and Billy glances between them thoughtfully. She’s the first female friend he’s known Max to have and it's clear the upcoming separation is weighing heavy on both their minds.

 

He tries to swallow down his guilt, the relentless tug at his heart telling him this is all his fault.

 

“We’re leaving in three weeks,” El starts slowly, her eyes finding his again, expression hardening. “I… I won’t be there when you go home.” And Billy thinks of her rummaging through his memories--the ones that came after his mom on the beach--and dredging up secrets that are better left untouched.

 

His eyes flicker to Max, taking in her stiff posture and the frown settled on her face before he looks back down at his bedsheets. 

 

He shrugs his shoulders and says, “‘s’probably for the best.” 

 

-

 

He doesn’t get any other visitors. 

 

It’s easier this way, he tells himself, to focus all his attention on physiotherapy without having anyone other than his doctors around to comment on his slow progress, or witness the days when he can’t find it in himself to get out of his bed and try.

 

The bandages around his midsection come away. He hides under baggy t-shirts that once fit perfectly; averts his eyes when he changes and avoids mirrors wherever he can.

 

Owens tells him the scars will fade over time. 

 

Billy slaps the clipboard from his hands, calls him an optimistic cunt and sulks for two days; hand up his shirt tracing the twisted channels where ugly, reddened flesh knits together. 

 

-

 

October is coming to a close when Billy returns to Hawkins in the passenger seat of his dad’s pick-up.  His Camaro had been written off, towed away and thrown on a scrapheap somewhere, and Billy has been numb to that news ever since he received it.

 

They exchange only a handful of words throughout the two hour drive, letting the radio fill the silence with one terrible country song after another; he rests his head against the window, cold on his cheeks, and watches the fields and withered trees whip by--seas of leaves in reds and oranges and browns scattered over the sidewalks, exactly like the day they first moved here.

 

It’s almost a year exactly..

 

He remembers thinking the moment he set foot in Hawkins that his time spent here would be hell.

 

If only he fucking knew what this town had in store for him.

 

Susan has dinner waiting for them on their arrival--lasagne that looks and tastes surprisingly edible considering her horrendous cooking abilities. She serves him up the largest portion, tells him how happy they are he’s home and somehow he doesn’t even get yelled at for not finishing his plate.

 

It’s scarily peaceful; almost enough to make him wonder if the mind-flayer-thing got to his dad too.

 

He excuses himself to his room, shuts the door behind him and presses the heels of his hands into his eyes, taking deep controlled breaths until the heart palpitations cease.

 

His room has been cleaned since he was last in it. Trash removed and discarded clothes folded away in drawers, his sheets changed and the air smelling fresh and clean rather than stained with the stale odour of cigarettes and hairspray. 

 

It’s nothing but a thin veil for Billy. The second his eyes land on his bed he vividly remembers sitting there, incapaticated and terrified, as that thing waited for hours; how he'd agonized, desperately trying to take back any fraction on control. Blink. Wiggle your fingers. Tap your foot. Anything. Nothing. He was there but he was disconnected.

 

His room, much like his body, no longer feels like it belongs solely to him.

 

-

 

Four days in and Max walks in on him attempting to rearrange his furniture.

 

She climbs over his couch--jammed through the doorway--and watches him curiously as he wheezes, fingers wedged under his bed frame, heels digging into the floor, dragging it inch by agonising inch away from the wall.

 

“Where are we moving this?” is all she asks, coming up beside him to offer her assistance and a part of him shrivels up and dies upon realising this is what his strength and stamina has been reduced to. 

 

He bites his tongue in frustration and nods stiffly to the opposite corner of the room, ignoring how she raises an eyebrow doubtfully.

 

She refrains from voicing back whatever cynical remarks she’s clearing sitting on and puts her back into hauling his bed, taking most of its weight in an embarrassing spectacle on Billy’s behalf. His chest is heaving by the time they shift it to the other side of the room, the tender wounds on his chest pull painfully, stinging when perspiration dips into the crevices where his skin is fading to pink. 

 

"Billy, it doesn’t fit…" Max says unsurely, and Billy looks at his bed, now oddly situated alongside the opposite wall right by the door, blocking his shelves at the other end, and, yeah, he realizes blankly, it looks dumb as fuck.

 

He tries to keep his expression blank.

 

Max fidgets next to him, chews on the nail of her thumb.

 

“Do... you want me to help you move it back?” She asks cautiously, stealing restless looks from the corner of her eyes that slip right through the cracks in his posture, and Billy’s palms sweat, heat flushing across his cheeks to his ears hidden beneath his untamed hair.

 

He swallows stiffly. "Just get out."

 

--

 

4819 Cherry lane sees some of its calmest weeks since the Hargrove-Mayfield family moved in.

 

There’s a couple of high tension moments, ones where Billy finds himself clenching up, grimacing at the impatient tone in Neil’s voice, but they pass--thankfully--without escalating into violence. He welcomes the break though he isn’t fool enough to let himself believe the ceasefire will hold out for much longer. 

 

It's a catch 22 situation. He needs to recuperate and gain back at least some of his former capabilities because Neil won’t let him freeload even if he almost ‘died in a fire’, but he knows the moment he can pull himself off the couch without wincing Neil will slip right back into old habits, and Billy doesn’t think he can handle that alongside the nightmares and hallucinations frequenting his day to day life. One at a time, please.

 

His saving grace arrives in the form of a cheque in  the mail.

 

It’s basically bribery, since his accident was labelled a government fuck up and they want to keep the monsters and Russians all hush-hush. Owens called it compensation--for the fucking trauma or whatever--Billy doesn’t care for technicalities, so long as he doesn’t have to foot his hospital bills, and it gives him a supportive leg up and out.

 

He cashes it and uses the money  to move out not a week later. His initial plan had always been to move back to Cali, but since he’s not allowed to leave Hawkins until he’s been cleared--and nobody gave him a time frame on how long that would be--he rents a one bedroom apartment on the other side of town, modest but cleaner and in far better condition than he would have been able to afford otherwise. 

 

He sleeps on a mattress on the floor until the next cheque arrives, a smaller amount than the first, but more than enough to cover his rent and living expenses and he buys himself some furniture from a shabby charity shop and saves the remaining cash for whatever future he could salvage.

 

By December he has something close to resembling a home. 

 

A home severely lacking in character and personal effects, but it provides a sense of stability that Billy has been sorely lacking for too many years. He keeps it spotless, locks the doors, and buys a nightlight for his room, and for a little while he actually starts to feel okay.

 

-

 

On Christmas Eve he pokes his head out of his front door, disgruntled and suspicious, cutting off the persistent knocking coming from his dear sweet sister and…

 

Oh.

 

"Hi." The girl, El, smiles at him sheepishly and Billy grimaces.

 

Ah shit. No thank you.

 

He goes to shut the door but Max sticks her foot in the way and he sighs wearily when she shoulders it open, sparing him a mildly irritated look as she forces her way inside.

 

"Merry Christmas to you too, jackass."

 

El shuffles after her, hopping past Billy with an amused expression. He slams the door shut.

 

“Wow, I can’t believe how clean it is in here,” Max says almost admiringly, dumping two grocery bags onto the kitchen counters and shrugging out of her coat and scarf. 

 

El nods in agreement. “Your room was messy.”

 

“When the fuck did you go in my room?” Billy snaps and regrets it instantly when both their faces go tight, because, yeah of course-- then ; the time that Billy tries so fucking hard not to think about.

 

They’ve been here three seconds.

 

“We brought food,” El says, digging through one of the two bags they brought with them and pulling out four tupperware dishes. “Joyce made it.”

 

Billy slips a cigarette from his packet and lights up; he’s cut back but he feels like he’s gonna need this one. “And I suppose you think you’re eating here?”

 

“Yeah,” Max answers, pulling open cupboards at random until she finds the plates. “I figured you won’t be coming over for Christmas dinner tomorrow.”

 

“Correct. But I don’t see why that means you get to have a play-date here.” 

 

Max slaps her palm on the worktop.

 

“Billy, when was the last time you went outside? ” She accuses, and he sneers at her.

 

“Yesterday.”

 

“Doing what?

 

“I went to the general store.” He needed toilet paper and dish soap.

 

“Okay, let me rephrase,” Max says like she’s speaking with a simpleton. “When was the last time you went out and socialized-- not running errands?”

 

Billy opens his mouth. Shuts it again when he can’t think of a lie quickly enough and Max waves her arms around like an idiot. “ Exactly. You’re like, a recluse, or something. This isn’t normal.

 

“Yeah well I’m so sorry if I’m not feeling entirely normal, ” Billy snarls sacarasitly, vehemently stubbing his cigarette out in the ashtray. “I’ve had a rough year.”

 

He’s fucking trying can’t she see that?

 

“Friends help.” El interjects, unhelpfully. 

 

“Sure, okay.”

 

“They do ,” El says more forcefully, and Billy rolls his eyes at her, snatching the tupperware up and taking it to the microwave. The sooner they’re fed the sooner he can kick them out.

 

“So, are you just gonna hang out here like some weird loner?”

 

“I’m looking for a job, alright?”

 

“Hard to apply for one when you barely leave this place,” Max shoots back and jesus , was she always this fucking pushy?

 

“I’m putting my resume together.” It’s not a lie, he just hasn’t got around to calling Adam--the senior lifeguard from the community pool--for a reference yet.

 

“I’m just trying to make sure you don’t waste away, y’know.”

 

“Do I look like I’m wasting away , Maxine, really?” He near shouts, frustration bubbling just under the surface. He gestures to himself. Clean, groomed, regaining lost weight and muscle. “Am I actively dying? You dont need to come round here like damn nurse, I've already got a fucking therapist."

 

Max scowls at the floor, and the microwave pings. He pulls out the steaming food and wordlessly divides it up onto his unused dinner set, slamming down utensils with a little more force than necessary.

 

They let the topic of Billy’s non-existent social life slide and eat in relative peace, El tells him she can feel her powers slowly returning--positively beaming when she describes how she made a chair float for over ten seconds the other day. Billy grunts in response, hardly impressed when she’d tossed him around in the air like a ragdoll on only their second meeting. Max eventually quits stabbing at her food and starts prattling on about school and how she and Sinclair are now at six months without a break up. He congratulates her in a dry tone and mentally sends his condolences to Sinclair. 

 

He doesn’t fail to notice that she stays well clear of mentioning anything to do with Neil and--and actually, that suits Billy just fine.

 

He takes their dishes to the sink and washes up immediately, wiping down each one rigorously as if he were sanding stone, before drying and stacking them back in the cupboard. Max watches him silently, her lips pressed into a thin line.

 

He dries the tubberware and slides them across to her expectantly.

 

He’s fine . He’s got nothing to prove.

 

Several seconds of intense eye contact seems to go on for years, but she relents, face falling in disappointment, throwing the tubs into one of the bags and shoving the other one towards him.

 

"We got you presents." And Billy groans because he didn't get either of them shit.

 

"This one is from me," El says, points to a small rectangular and terribly wrapped gift. It's a record obviously; Max probably picked it out for her.

 

"Great, fine, I'll open them tomorrow."

 

His stomach twists unpleasantly at her hopeful smile. It’s not that he dislikes her or anything, but being around her is like being under a microscope; she knows too much about him--about his past and his home-life--things he wants to let go of but can’t forget under her frustratingly perceptive gaze. Max being her best friend basically means between the two of them they have the best read on him, the good and the bad (and the bad drastically overshadows the good), and that unsettles him to think about what they say behind his back. He doesn’t like being known . It always ends in hurt.

 

Max pauses as he sees them out the door,  teeth worrying her bottom lip before she takes a deep breath.

 

“El and the Byers are staying with Mike’s family until next week. They’re having a new years party--you’re invited .” She gives him a pleading look. “Please just think about it?”

 

-

 

He thinks about it, but he doesn’t go.

 

While the rest of Hawkins cheer and raise their glasses together, Billy spends the final eve of 1985 alone in his apartment wishing his walls were thicker and curtains darker to block out the eruption of fireworks at the turn of midnight. 

 

He shuts his eyes and cradles his head in his arms, rocks to and fro-- breath , Owens would say, remember where you are-- but he’s in Starcourt mall, explosions going off in his head, sparks showering down, the stench of his skin searing and rotting from the inside out… so fucking angry… so fucking scared .

 

It feels like it goes on for hours--the skies rumbling with fireworks, an array of vibrant colours illuminating his walls--he waits for the gentle touch on his cheek, the pull to his memories-- she was pretty… she was really pretty --but it never comes. He hears only the distant echo of screams, distorted and rising in volume--El, Max, Heather, Mr and Mrs Holloway--until there's room for nothing else to fill the space between his ears.

 

Strands of hair fall from his hands onto his pillows. He brushes them onto the floor.

 

Soon after the celebrations die down Billy tears out of bed, grabs a cloth and fills a bucket with warm soapy water and scrubs the shit out of his kitchen--the floor, the units, the appliances. Everything.

 

He’s elbow deep in grease, fingers shriveled and rubbed raw, when he finally retracts his head from the oven to see daylight creeping in through the blinds.

 

-

 

January sees endless gray clouds and snowstorms, carried by harsh, bitter winds and piling in drifts along the roads. The below freezing temperatures have people bundled under layers of sweaters, scarves and coats; tugging their wooly hats down over their ears and hurrying from one destination to another. 

 

Billy is fine though, he has half a bottle of whisky in his belly to keep him warm.

 

He just has to make sure he doesn’t slip and crack his skull open on black ice. ‘Cus that would be awful wouldn’t it?

 

Today is a bad day.

 

The kind where something destructive and self-depreciating rooted deep in his heart convinces him it would be a spectacular idea to go to the cemetery to pay his respects, in honor of his fallen comrades--gone but not forgotten or some shit like that.

 

That’s how he ends up swaying in front of the headstone of Heather’s grave.

 

S’a pretty thing. Polished white marble, rounded at the top, a plain dove carved above the inscriptions: Heather Holloway. 1967-1985. Loving daughter and friend. It rests neatly between two other identical headstones. Tom and Janet Holloway. A family plot. 

 

Billy has no idea what--if anything--is actually buried in the caskets six feet below his feet. There were no bodies from what he remembers--their remains melted down and mangled together; indistinguishable from human or rat.

 

All the flayed had shared a consciousness, a hive mind as Max called it, and he knows all too well  how it ended for the rest of them, those final moments he’s re-visited over and over; the view of the horde marching one by one like following the pied piper down into the depths of Brimborn steelworks.

 

Tears prick his eyes and his stomach turns sickeningly.

 

It shouldn’t have ended like that for her. She was supposed to have started college in September, he remembers her excitedly telling him at the pool, asking what his plans were after summer, and he spoke of California, of getting a job and an apartment by the beach, smiling at the thought of never having to live through another midwestern winter.

 

And now she’s dead, all because she tried to do something nice, and he’s here, spending his freezing January afternoon in Hawkins cemetery, drunk off his ass, because he’s just as fucking weak and useless as his dad always said he was--he didn’t even bring any flowers for fuck sake--and it shoud’ve been him .

 

A single tear lands silently on the frozen grass, followed by a repulsive wet splatter as he hunches and pukes bile and whisky all over Heather's grave.

 

-

 

Billy finds himself one evening at Family Video flipping through the newest releases of action movies and staying sensibly away from the horror section. He wants to have a normal night  that doesn’t involve him deep-cleaning his apartment for the third time this week.

 

On good days he goes out for walks, exercises his legs around the quieter parts of town during school and work hours and enjoys the sun on his skin while it lasts. He sets himself challenges when he can; take a jog around the block after dark, go to the store for smokes near closing hours, or make the forty minute round trip to the video store without shitting himself. 

 

He slaps a copy of Indiana Jones and Blade Runner by the till and looks up to find the girl behind the counter staring at him like she’s seeing a ghost.

 

“Uh?” She says unhelpfully.

 

“Hey Rob?” A strikingly familiar voice calls from the back room. “Have you seen the label gun? I swear to god Keith keeps hiding it just to fuck with me--uhhh?”

 

The last time Billy saw Steve Harrington up close he was wearing an adorable sailor’s uniform and scooping ice-cream at the mall.

 

It feels like a lifetime ago.

 

“Hey man.” Harrington shuffles forward and  wets his lips. “Long time no see.”

 

Family Video doesn’t appear to have a dress code. A pity , Billy thinks as if it matters.

 

Harrington and the girl exchange an awkward look, something uncomfortable and knowing shared in just a fleeting second, and Billy feels the air in the room shift; the hairs on his arms stand on end.

 

He taps on the tapes impatiently. “These.” And the girl jumps into motion, taking down the title of each movie and Billy pretends to check out the notice on the counter explaining late fees to avoid looking at either of them.

 

“You, uh, look well.” 

 

“Should I look unwell, Harrington?” Billy bites through gritted teeth.

 

“Well last summer was kind of rough…” The girl steps in when Harrington fails to respond in full words.

 

“Do I know you?” Billy asks her rudely.

 

“We went to school together for half a year,” she deadpans, pulling a thoughtful face before adding, “and I kind of saw you get impaled by a thirty foot flesh monster.”

 

Oh.

 

So this is the girl who supposedly cracked a cryptic Russain code. He’d only been half listening to that part of the story--still medicated and rather taken aback by the news that there were fucking Russain’s under the mall--but he remembers being mildy impressed by that feat. 

 

“Still working together huh?” Billy says in a strained voice.

 

They must be pretty tight by now, plenty of time to bond over their shared trauma; it brings people together like that. Hell, that’s probably why Wheeler up and left Harrington’s ass--she found someone more compatible to suffer with and now Harrington has too. Clever girl here looks a little more fun than than Wheeler at least.

 

“Well we make a good team.”

 

“He’d be lost without me.”

 

Harrington scoffs. “I think I’d be fine--”

 

“Nope.” She slips Billy’s ten into the cash register and counts out his change. “I basically got this job for you.”

 

“She’s lying.” Harrington shakes his head and Billy’s watches his floppy hair bounce.

 

“Keith hates you.”

 

“He doesn’t.”

 

It’s the way he looks at Billy, eyebrow raised humorously and gesturing to Clever girl’s back as if to say get a load of her, right?

 

It’s weird. It’s normal . And that’s not fucking fair because Billy can barely go a full day without feeling like he wants to crawl out of his skin.

 

“Well, you both sure look like you’re having a great time so…” Billy pockets his change in a hurry, shoves the tapes under his arm and backs up, putting comforting distance between him and whatever horrific comedy-duo they’re trying to reenact. 

 

He glances back once he’s outside, finds their heads pressed together, mouths moving rapidly. Probably gossiping about him.

 

He makes it back to his apartment in half the time.

 

--

 

"You not spending today with your girl?"

 

Its Valentine's day and Harrington is working the evening shift at the video store. He looks up when Billy speaks, all pretty and dumb, balancing a large stack of returns in his arms.

 

"Huh?"

 

"The chick you work with," Billy explains boredly, "you two not got anything romantic planned?"

 

Harrington's face remains blank for a few seconds, Billy can practically hear the cogs turning in his head, before he bursts into a fit of laughter and Billy scowls.

 

"Oh man. Robin?" He chuckles, shaking his head and dumping a copy of The Terminator back on the shelf. "Yeah, so not my girl."

 

“Really?” Billy hums a little disbelievingly. “You seem pretty close.”

 

“We are.” Harrington scoots past him and around to the next row. “Doesn’t mean we’re dating.”

 

“But you want to?”

 

“What? No? She’s my best friend.” He sounds whiny as he says it. “You know you can have a girl friend without her being a girlfriend , right?”

 

“Not really,” Billy clicks his tongue. “So what do you and your girl friend do together?”

 

Harrington’s giving him this really weird look, he tries to shrug his shoulders and nearly drops all the tapes he’s carrying in the process.

 

“I dunno, same as what everyone else does with their friends; we hang out, watch movies, get high and talk shit about people--”

 

“Do you ever talk about that time you T-boned my car?” Billy interrupts and Harrington gapes at him; mouth hanging open like he’s trying to catch flies and Billy starts to grin. “Sit around gettin’ high and having a good old laugh about it…?”

 

Honestly, Billy doesn’t know why the fuck he’s saying any of this. He’s been too restless, too keenly aware of the silence in his apartment and that he goes long periods of time without uttering a fucking word to anyone. The conversation--if it could be even classed as one--he shared with Harrington and his girl friend was the lenghiest interaction he had with another human last week and ain’t that just fucking depressing? 

 

“Jesus, why would we laugh about that?” Harrington breathes, eyes comically wide and framed by a deepening frown. 

 

“Why not eh,” Billy says, throwing his palms up casually. “You and Rob, best buds, sharing a joint and talking shit about the guy who knocked you off your perch in high school.”

 

“Is that what you got out of that?” Harrington asks in disbelief. “That’s fucked up Hargrove. Nobody finds what happened last year funny. Why would you--” He pauses, and wow, his thinking face is adorably stupid. “--have you spoken to Max recently?”

 

“No. Why?”

 

“She’s always asking if I’ve seen you around ‘cus you’re avoiding her. Or something.”

 

“Max…” Billy says slowly “...needs to mind her own fucking busines.”

 

Harrington nods. “That’s fair. You should tell her that.”

 

Billy sucks on his teeth, his jaw ticking; he refrains from snapping ‘tell her yourself!’ because even he recognises how childish that sounds. 

 

Harrington shifts his weight to his left leg, tilts his head and looks at Billy thoughtfully. “So did you come to actually get a movie or just to needle me about working on Valentine’s day?” His lips twitch at the corners, a hint of humor easily edging its way into his tone like it had done last week and Billy wishes he could salvage a taste.

 

He doesn’t have a name for it yet--or maybe he does, but he pushes it to the back of his mind out of shame--but it wakes from slumber whenever Billy feels he might be stumbling upon something good , it snakes it’s way inside his head even on better days, and hisses 'you don't deserve it' in his ear until he relents, curling in on himself defensively.

 

He deflates, shoulders sagging tiredly, and holds up the tapes he rented last week.

 

"Just came to return these.”

 

“Oh, okay, thanks, I’ll…” Harrington tries to juggle the other tapes in his arms unsuccessfully. “Just stick ‘em on the top.”

 

Billy slots them just under his chin, steps back and gives him a sweeping look. He's not changed much since high school, same preppy clothes and voluminous hair bouncing on top of his head. Billy's wearing his most worn pair of jeans and a hooded jacket that half covers his hair that he hasn't styled for days.

 

He lingers for a second, burying his hands in his pockets and grieving for a time when he didn't feel so self-conscious, before he shuffles away, tugging his hood to fully cover his head as if it might deflect the stares he feels following everywhere.

 

“Hey!” Billy halts and looks back when Harrington calls out. “Are you free this weekend?” He visibly cringes when Billy’s eyebrows shoot to his hairline, “erm, I mean, you wanna hang out? I don’t get many Saturday’s off and--”

 

“Can’t.” Billy cuts him and the glimmer of hopes that rises in his chest off, “I’ve uh… got an appointment. At the hospital.” It’s not a lie. He still has monthly check-ups with Dr. Owens. “For--y’know…”

 

Understanding flitters across Harrington’s face. “Oh! Oh, yeah, right. Can’t skip that right?” He forces a weak laugh, trailing off pathetically when it doesn’t catch. He shifts the stack of tapes in his arms. “Um, what about next Tuesday? Or Friday? I’m off then too.”

 

And Billy wants to, yearns to place himself amonst people his own age and learn to fucking smile again; to reach out and grasp that sliver of normality and wring out every last bit of midwestern dullness and just fucking bask in it. 

 

The problem is Billy never knows what he’s going to be feeling from one day to the next. If luck is on his side then he might sleep through the night and rise relatively refreshed and ready to make use of his energy, but there’s never any guarantee the following day will hold the same level of productivity. 

 

If Harrington thinks Billy may be a little unhinged now then it’s probably best he doesn’t see him after he’s stayed awake all night trying to scrub the shadows off his walls.

 

“I’ll get back to you.”

 

He won’t. He’ll think about it every fucking day up until and probably afterwards too but he knows, ultimately, that he’ll deny himself whatever this could become.

 

--

 

Brimborn steelworks is littered with signs warning Restricted Area and Do Not Enter; it probably shouldn't have been as easy as it was to find a tear in the wire fence and prize a board away from the windows.

 

A bad day had stretched into a bad week, and Billy’s self-destructive thoughts got the better of him once again.

 

The afternoon sky had been hidden by gray clouds when he'd followed his aching feet along   the winding roads leading out of town; light drizzle slowly soaking into his hair and shoulders, and a crisp wind whipping his cheeks.

 

It's late now. Moonlight breaks past the clouds, spilling through the shattered roof and chasing away the shadows with a pale, misty glow. There's a swamp of soggy leaves matted across the floor and Billy keeps wondering if there are any marks or stains hidden beneath but he doesn't know if he can stomach getting any closer to check. 

 

The dampness of early spring rests in the air, diluting the harsh metallic scent of iron and rust, but if he tilts his head just right he can catch a hint of chlorine and something rotten.

 

He can see his breath, feel the cold penetrating his jacket, and the metal step he sits on is like ice against his ass. That's good. Not the cold itself, but the fact that he can feel it enough to hate it is a strange calm among all the chaos in his head.

 

He thinks again of Heather. Of her mom and her dad and all the random townsfolk who wandered out alone at the wrong time. There was a fucking kid --Adam--he was picked up and brought here by a man called David Collins--a neighbour of the Holloways--only twelve hours after Billy and Heather presented Tom and Janet at the feet of a monster. It had spread quickly after that, working its way through family, friends, colleagues; whoever was unlucky enough to stray into their paths, but in the end it all came back to Billy. 

 

He was the first host, the voice , spared from the same gruesome fate as the others, and Billy’s got to wonder if that made him appear special or favoured in their eyes.

 

Did they know at the end? That he was as much a puppet as they were? That he was only kept around because his sister linked him to El? 

 

Owens would tell him yes; Billy’s stupid fucking brain on the other hand cruelly whispers 'they blamed you, they resented you" and he squeezes his eyes shut, tears leaking from between his lashes and a sob tearing up his throat.

 

It should have been me … it should have been me … it should have been me

 

The metal staircase groans and Billy’s eyes shoot open, fear slicing up his rigid spine as the soft slap of shoes hesitantly descending into the basement rings out.

 

“Hargrove?” A voice call out waveringly and Billy's suddenly met with his shadow flat against the ground as the space around him lights up under the beam of a flashlight and he curls around himself tighter.

 

"Har-- Billy!"

 

The whole stair-frame rattles violently, heavy vibrations rumble beneath Billy’s ass and he sinks his teeth into his lower lip--the light draws closer, his shadow thicker--his throat caves in, heart hammering; the flashlight clatters to the ground, it’s beam flickering off to the wall--he flinches when hands land on his back and shoulder, squeezing testily as if needing to confirm he’s real.

 

Billy… ” A voice breathes and Billy breathes with it.

 

"The fuck are you doing here? Jesus you're freezing!" Harrington is saying. He rubs Billy's hands between his own for a couple of seconds before tearing off his coat and throwing around his shoulders, tugging the collar together and giving Billy a slight shake. “Hey, Billy? Look at me, man.”

 

Billy doesn’t look at him. He’s trembling when he pulls his chin off his chest, his gaze hovering somewhere around Harrington’s waist, buried in the folds of his crumpled t-shirt that kind of looks like it’s been slept in.

 

“Jesus, shit,” Harrington curses, twists his body to look around nervously. “Okay, um, we need to get you out of this place?” He poses it like a question, pauses like he hopes Billy will answer, only Billy’s pretty sure he’s gonna wail or puke if he opens his mouth so his lips remain tightly sealed. Harrington shifts, his hands moving unsurely. “Right um…” His voice is breathy, trembling from both the cold and barely contained panic. 

 

He wraps an arm around Billy’s back, hand tucking under his armpit. “Come on Hargrove, get up.”

 

Billy doesn’t object, but he doesn’t exactly put much effort into helping either. Static buzzes through his legs the second he attempts to stand, and he groans, tilting and slumping against Harrington who stumbles under his weight.

 

It’s slow work getting up the stairs. Halfway up Billy finally lends some strength to the task and grabs the railing to help heave himself up, freeing one of Harrington’s hands to aim the flashlight ahead of them, tracking footprints left in the dust. The other remains wrapped firmly around him, holding him close and tight, and Billy wants to sink into the warmth radiating off his body.

 

He feels weak, possibly dehydrated, and it’s a challenge to coordinate his numb limbs through the broken window, grime from the ledge smears over his hands and the backs of his jeans.

 

“Easy,” Harrington whispers, catching him as he stumbles and righting the borrowed coat when it slips from his shoulders. His car is parked just beyond the fence and he maneuvers Billy through the gap, glancing about the surroundings and chewing on his lip, and Billy follows like he's a lost child looking for a way out of the cold.

 

The moment he has Billy settled in the passenger seat, Harrington fires up the engine and skids out onto the road like hell is on his heels.

 

Billy drops his head against the window, watches Brimborn slowly sink into the distance through the wing mirror. He can feel Harrington looking at him. Idiot should be watching the road; don't wanna be crashing your car around these parts.

 

“How’d you know where I was?”

 

“El.” Steve says, “Joyce called me--said I needed to come get you.”

 

"She spying on me?" Billy croaks, his voice cracking from underuse.

 

"She's worried about you. Max was in tears in the other day because you aren’t answering her calls.” He pauses, and if Billy squints he can see him running a hand through his hair in the reflection on the window. “It was her birthday two days ago.” And shit, Billy was only thinking about that last week, promised himself he’d go out and get her a card and buy a burger or something...

 

But then he had a whole string of nightmares and his phone rang at the wrong time and he flung it across the room in alarm.

 

He sniffs wetly, eyes focused on his reflection, watching several miserable tears silently trailing down his cheeks until he swipes them away, blinking past his face in the glass so he doesn’t have to see fresh ones fall.

 

He’s fucked up. Cold, shaky, and not all there. He feels like he's slowly landing back inside his body, warmth flooding back into his fingers and toes, overtly aware that his clothes and skin don't seem to fit right.

 

Harrington doesn't ask him where his apartment is, he drives straight through Hawkins to where the houses grow noticeably larger, expensive cars parked next to pristine lawns, and pulls up outside the castle he calls home.

 

Billy remembers driving here many times, never by invitation, but out of spite and curiosity, parking up opposite on the nights when it was too dangerous to return to his own house, smoking through a pack of Marlboro's and wondering what the inside looked like and why there were never any other cars on the drive beside the BMW..

 

He’s barely given a second to examine the wide entrance hall, or the cushy looking living area to the left; he’s steered by the elbow up the wooden staircase adjacent the door and taken to what he can only assume is Harrington’s bedroom. He leaves Billy in the centre of the room picking at his nails while he rummages through his closet, pulling out clothes at random and discreetly giving them a test sniff.

 

“Where are your parents?” Billy asks to fill the silence.

 

“Out of town.” He says simply. “Here, change into these.” He pushes something thick and wooly into his hands. Billy takes them suspiciously, unrolls a pair of gray sweatpants and… some awful brown monstrosity that turns out to be a sweater made from at least a dozen sheep. Harrington shrugs apologetically.  “Don’t ask. My great aunt knits one every year for my birthday, except she thinks my birthday is in January , and I'm gonna die of hypother--”

 

“I didn’t ask,” Billy interrupts and Harrington blinks at him stupidly.

 

“...No, I guess you didn’t…”

 

He pauses awkwardly, points to the door and says, “I’m just gonna.. I’ll be back in a minute.”

 

Billy watches him go, setting Harrington’s coat down at the end of his bed and taking in the room and it’s contents, from the clothes overflowing from open drawers and dirty dishes on the floor (he twitches at the sight) to the shelves filled with sports trophies and awards--swimming, baseball mostly--and photographs from a time before Billy Hargrove. 

 

There’s a nightlight just like the one Billy own on the bedside table that he notices is already switched on.

 

King Steve is no fan of the dark either it seems. Billy finds that oddly comforting.

 

He slowly kicks his boots off and begins to peel away his damp jeans and jacket and slips on the borrowed sweatpants, stripping away his shirt quickly before--

 

Jesus…

 

--before that. He turns away from the door and pulls the sweater over his head.

 

“S’rude to stare, Harrington.” He says over his shoulder.

 

“Sorry, jesus, I wasn’t--sorry. I just…” He has the good grace to at least look guilty, not that it soothes Billy’s wounded pride at all. His scars are fucking ugly. Hence why nobody outside the hospital sees them.

 

He stands awkwardly holding a glass of water in one hand and cradling three cans of coke to his chest with the other. They share this painfully weird stare-off where its obvious both want to look away, but Billy’s tears have dried up, taking with it all but the dregs of sickness and dread, leaving room for a semblance of calm--cool and dispassionate--to settle into his bones, and instinct urges him to drive it outwards; wear it like a mask as if Harrington never saw him cracked open and weeping barely thirty minutes ago.

 

It’s pointless really. He knows he probably looks like some kind of unhinged hobo, if the expression on Harrington’s face is anything to go by. He takes the water silently.

 

“Look I--I don’t really know what to say here, but, do you want to talk? Or…” Harrington gestures to his bed. “Sleep? Or...” His eyes shift nervously around the room before they land back on Billy, extending a silent plea, help me out here man .

 

“I’m not tired,” Billy says softly, and he is tired, fatigued, like he could drop down and not move for a week, but just not for sleep. He does sit on the offered bed though-- Harrrington’s bed with it’s thick sheets and plump pillows, all navy--and sips his water tentatively.

 

“Talk then?” Harrington asks hesitantly.

 

“Talk.” Billy repeats, his heart pulling painfully when he thinks about how he used to be so good at talking, at reciting the appropriate words to achieve his desired effect; now just the thought of conversation makes him tired and there’s just too many things that make him tired, this--whatever it is, an intervention maybe--included. He’s dragging his feet up and curling loosely onto his side, head landing on the pillows with a soft thwump , watching his water sparkle in its glass under the nightlight. He presses his cheek into the pillow, voice slightly muffled as he asks, “what do you wanna talk about?”

 

“The obvious, maybe?” It comes out half-hearted, like the impending topic is not one he’s entirely prepared to tackle. He probably isn’t. Billy doubts Harrington woke up this morning imagining this is how his day would end, and well

 

Neither did he. Dead in a ditch maybe, but not in Steve Harrington's bed.

 

“Yeah, I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

 

“Why not?” He exhales loudly, going around to the other side of the bed and dropping the cans clumsily onto the bedside table there. “Look, I don’t wanna stick my nose in where it’s not wanted but,” his hands go to his hips like its a natural reflex, “you’re not talking to Max, or El, or anyone else as far as I know and I--I just don’t think that’s working out too well for you if I’m honest.”

 

It’s a polite way of saying you’re a mess , and as much as it might offend him it’s not like he can deny it convincingly.

 

“That was honest.” Billy comments dryly after a drawn-out pause, and Harringon drops his hands, shoulders sagging, the fight exiting his body like the air from his lungs, and he all but collapses besides Billy, scrubbing his hands through his hair. 

 

“Yeah, sorry…” He sinks back into the pillows, which should be weird because now he’s in bed with Billy , but it’s not, and the fact that Harrington chose to do it in the first place makes Billy’s heart flutter uncomfortably.

 

He can't remember the last time he shared a bed with another person that he wasn't actively trying to screw, Billy doesn't do quiet and tender, never hangs around long enough to share soft words and niceties, yet this… this is okay.

 

They lie there for some time, Harrington’s rolled to face him, hair swept over the pillow, a similarly tired yet thoughtful look on his face; Billy thinks about poking him, or blowing hot air at him, something to shake up his expression, but his hand only slips halfway through the space between them, lingering unsurely, before he points to a faint, silvery scar right up by Harrington's hairline, barely noticeable unless you were looking for it. "I gave you this." 

 

"Yeah, you did." He doesn't sound angry.

 

Billy drops his hand and rolls onto his back, tilts his head away.

 

"Sorry about that."

 

He hopes he sounds genuine. Most apologies that leave his mouth are false, either forced out under pressure from his dad or spat, poisoned with sarcasm and ridicule, at whoever he needs to appease for five minutes. 

 

He means this one though, even if the words twist foreignly around his tongue and his voice lowers itself to little more than a whisper.

 

"S'kay man. Too much shit has happened since then," he huffs a short laugh, "...it feels like fucking forever ago."

 

"Max told me what went down that night, seems you're a real pro at this monster fighting business."

 

"Not really," he chuckles. "I didn't know what the fuck was happening half the time. Those kids just start doing things and I try to keep them alive."

 

“Guess I didn’t help out much there did I.”

 

"No you didn’t,” Harrington says almost fondly , like they’re just remicing over harmless dumb memories from highschool. “We worked around it though; you're lucky you didn't get dragged into it really.”

 

"Maybe things would have turned out differently if I had."

 

He hears Harrington swallow. "Maybe."

 

Just another maybe. Nothing to give him some clarity and help him figure out just what the fuck hes supposed to do with his life now. 

 

He’s spent his whole life waiting for his chance to escape, waiting ‘til graduation, his eighteenth birthday, for the end of summer when he could finally chase the sun west. Now he's stranded here indefinitely,  without a car--his fucking car, his Camaro, his baby --freedom slipping seemingly further away and his heart fucking aches for everything he’s lost, weighted and shackled, scarred by the possibility that it was never meant to be.

 

"You ever feel like you want to ruin yourself, Harrington?"

 

His words hang depressingly in the air, he almost wishes he could take them back when Harrington’s breath hitches, holding the air inside his lungs before it rattles free. Rain patters lightly against the window and Billy rolls over after several agonizing seconds of silence, finds him staring at the ceiling with dark hooded eyes, slightly glazed as if reliving something distant and painful. His gaze wanders over the curve of his nose, counting down the moles on his cheek to his neck; he swallows when Harrington’s throat bobs, eyes flickering up to his mouth when pink lips part.

 

“Yeah.” He swallows again, rolls his head over to look at Billy, tired lines and dark circles aging his face. “I know that feeling.”

 

--

 

Spending time with Harrington becomes a thing.

 

They don’t really talk about it.

 

When Billy shuts himself away for too long Harrington shows up at his door and lures him out with promises of beer and pot, which Billy accepts with far less fuss each time. On better days Billy meets him after his shift at the video store and they grab burgers and milkshakes at the diner, talk music and movies, normal stuff, and Billy reluctantly begins to admit he might actually enjoy Harrington’s company.

 

Most of the time anyway.

 

“You’d do better with some proper cleaning products.” 

 

Harrington’s gone and let himself into his apartment again and Billy didn’t hear a fucking thing over the sound of Iron Maiden blasting out of his radio, and this stubborn fucking stain thats been mocking him for the past half hour.

 

His shoulder is aching from scrubbing and the black smudge has barely lifted at all; he’s really not in the mood for Harrington today.

 

“As if your fancy rich ass has ever cleaned anything.” Billy snarls.

 

“Well I know that our housemaid doesn’t use soapy water to clean the skirting boards.” He walks closer and slouches against the wall near Billy’s head. “She has a whole basket of cleaning supplies.”

 

“Good for her.”

 

“And actually ! I clean up down at the store y’know? Some of those kids have really sticky fingers and they touch every--”

 

“I could get you fucking fired for looking up my address,” Billy cuts across him, swearing under his breath and tossing the rag into the bucket; the smudge is still there and he glares at it.

 

“That’d be a real doucey move since Max was the one who gave me your address and you know it.” He raps his knuckles on the wall, and speaks softer. “Hey, seriously though, our cleaning closet is always stocked, I could grab some stuff and bring it over? I mean,” Billy watches the faint shadow of his hand on the wall as he gestures around the room, “you look pretty much done here, but, for next time, yknow?” And Billy grips his thighs, glares a hole in the floor and avoids Harrington’s eyes. It’s not exactly fun to admit the sight of Clorox makes his stomach turn and he can barely last a few seconds on the household cleaning aisle at the grocery store without breaking out in cold sweats.

 

He pushes himself to his feet, grabs the bucket of water and empties it down the sink.

 

“You’re a real knight in shining armor Harrington but you can take your chiverally elsewhere. I’m good here.”

 

“Yeah, you are not convincing anyone,” Harrington stands with his hands on his hips, frowning like a disapproving mother. “You unplugged your phone again.”

 

“What of it?” Billy grumbles, grabbing his carton of Marlboro’s and fishing his lighter from his back pocket. He doesn’t need this right now.

 

“Come on, Billy, don’t do this.”

 

A petulant part of him wants to ask do what? And send the conversations around in circles until Harrington calls it quits and leaves him to it, but Billy’s pretty sure his own patience won’t stretch that far today. He’s barely slept and the thought a prolonged argument has tension building behind his eyes. He inhales a lungful of smoke, watching his feet as he taps ash off the end of his cigarette, and sighs on the exhale.

 

“What do you want me to say, Harrington?”

 

“Anything. So long as you're talking and not telling me to fuck off.”

 

Billy scrubs his free hands over his eyes, grimacing and biting the inside of his cheek. “S’just fuckin’ nightmares.” He grumbles eventually, bringing his cigarette back to his lips. “When I wake up, sometimes I can smell it? Like something’s rotting. But--chemicals too. And it’s fucking everywhere.

 

Harrington’s eyes glaze as he thinks, his brow pinched, and Billy watches his lips slowly part in realization.

 

He looks to the sink--the last soapy suds frothing around the drain--then to Billy, who shifts uncomfortably under his gaze. It’s not the same as talking to Owens--a professional --he has the qualifications needed to deal with basketcases like Billy, as well as the pleasure of not knowing him before his near-death experience; there’s not as much pressure to be the person he once was when he started off as nothing more than a blank page in Owens’ notebook.

 

Harrington, Mr. More-Hair-Than-Brains, manages to surprise him though. He might not be seeing a psychology degree anywhere in his lifetime, but he does however appear to know how to read a room; and Billy for that matter. He looks at the black mark on the skirting board. 

 

"You might be better off just painting over that."

 

"Probably."

 

"You want me to drive you to the hardware store?"

 

On days like this Billy usually doesn’t leave the apartment least he ends up doing something regretably stupid, but Harrington’s here and he’s offering , and Billy did put together that mixtape because Harrington clearly has no idea what real music is...

 

He swallows slowly, stubs out his cigarette and nods.

 

--

 

Billy plugs his phone back in.

 

It’s morifying at first, being the one to reach out, pressing the receiver to his cheek and punching in Harrington’s number, pick up, don’t pick up , and then having to say things, things that aren’t outright lies because somehow Harrington is pretty good at weeding those out. He rambles half-truths instead, waters down his anxiety from a nine to a six, uses words like restless and tense and tries to smoothe out the wobble in his voice.

 

But Harrington is patient with him, still and listening until Billy uses up all the air in his lungs and softly asks, do you want me to come pick you up? And he learns to say yes, desperation voicing the silent please.

 

If Billy begins shaping his life around Harrington’s work and social schedule then neither of them mention it. If Harrington empties a drawer for Billy to keep his clothes then they agree that it’s simply more convenient.

 

He asks Harrington where his parents are, since Billy’s spending a great deal of time at his house and he’s yet to meet them. Harrington tells him they spend more time away on business than at home, and a year ago Billy wouldn’t have cared to notice the shift in his tone or sudden blankness in his eyes, blinked away as quickly as it appeared, but he’s learning to read Harrington too.

 

He knows--long before Harrington tells him--that he doesn’t sleep well in the dark, that he often drives late at night to escape the silence and stillness of his house, and that there’s a familiar bat studded with nails stashed in the trunk of his car. For emergencies.

 

Billy in turn opens up about California, turning over the medallion on his necklace as he reminisces about the sun and the waves and his mom. 

 

“I always meant to go back.”

 

Harrington nods, taking the cigarette from Billy’s hands and bringing it to his lips. “I’ve thought about throwing some clothes into a bag and just driving the hell out of this town. Starting up somewhere new and far-away.” He exhales, and Billy watches a haze of smoke ascend and dissipate above his head, carried off with the cool breeze creeping in from the window.  “‘Scares the shit out of me though, y’know? My dad says I wouldn’t last two minutes in the real world.”

 

Billy has listened and figured out enough to know that Mr. Harrington is a real prick. Not the same shade of violent as Neil but cold and blunt with his words, rooting doubt and pessimism into the back of the skull; Billy’s spent more than enough years fighting to stem the spread to know how exhausting it is. Bruises heal in a week or two, it’s the words that stick around for far longer.

 

“My dad used to say I’d be dead before I made it to twenty-one.” Billy says conversationally, and he surprises himself by how easily it slips out. “He was probably devastated last summer when he didn’t get the opportunity to say I told you so to anyone who’d listen. Still, got a couple more years to prove him right though. ” He raises his coke can in a mock toast. “Here’s to shitty dads.” 

 

And Harrington laughs, eyes crinkling around the corners, tapping theirs cans together and Billy feels like he’s falling.

 

--

 

“A girl died in this pool.”

 

Billy has a mouthful of beer when Harrington drops that one.

 

He didn’t sleep well last night and quickly determined that Harrington didn’t either after finding him buried in a blanket on his sofa curled around a tub of ice-cream, scooping spoonfuls of soft vanilla rhythmically into his mouth and eyes lost in the muted television. He’d dragged him to sit out by the pool, figured the fresh air would do them both some good… though he probably would’ve thought twice about it if he’d known that morbid little detail beforehand.

 

He coughs beer out of his lungs, wipes it off his chin, and strains his watery eyes at Harrington, hanging on for an explanation. Harrington's swaying slightly, gaze lost somewhere under the surface of the water lapping quietly at the pool walls. The tips of his fingers, barely visible under the sleeves of his jacket, wring around the neck of his bottle restlessly.

 

“Barb. She was Nancy’s best friend. I--I don’t know how much they told you, but when the gate first opened, it came here, took her right there ,” he points at the diving board and takes a swig of beer, “she never came back.”

 

Billy doesn’t know what to say to that. Tommy once told him a girl went missing after one of Steve’s parties, and it astounds him that he didn’t join that piece together as soon as he saw her name in the newspapers under reports of chemical leaks and suspicious deaths . Max and El even told him Wheeler’s friend died the first time this shitshow went down, taken by the monster known as the demogorgon.

 

And it all went down here, in King Steve’s backyard.

 

“She shouldn’t have even been here,” he continues, staring off into the trees. “I invited her along to convince Nancy to come, ‘cus I wanted to sleep with her, I didn’t even know Barb that well, I didn’t really care. And we left her out here.”

 

Huh. Seems thinking with their dicks got them both dragged into this disaster, Billy almost laughs at the irony. Instead he takes a sip of his beer and asks, “did you blame yourself?”

 

“Not at first. I was too freaked about my parents finding out I had a party while they were gone, and then afterwards I just wanted to put the whole thing behind me, y’know? But then Nancy got drunk at Halloween, said we killed Barb and that I’m bullshit ..”

 

Harrington drains his bottle and rests it on the ground, his eyes focused tiredly on the diving board. “Fucked me up for a while after that, everytime I looked out my bedroom window I thought about her sitting there." He shakes his head. "Should of walked her back to her car at least."

 

And Billy gets that. It feels like he lives on a constant trail of should have's and maybe's , lying awake for too long thinking of alternate options and missed opportunities. If he hadn't responded to Mrs. Wheeler's flirting, if he'd taken his chances on the road the day he turned eighteen instead of waiting out the summer.

 

"It would have just taken someone else," Billy says after a while and Harrington nods in agreement.

 

"Yeah, I know. Doesn't stop me thinking about it though."

 

"I get that."

 

Billy fishes out another bottle from the pack next his feet, uses the ring on his finger to break the cap off and passes it Harrington before taking one for himself.

 

"It gets easier," Harrington says quietly, he laughs shortly, chin pointed to his chest, his hair flopping over his face. "Sounds dumb considering… there's days when I wake up and I just can't stop thinking about it, and I wonder how the fuck I'm supposed to have a normal life after everything I've seen, but," he looks over to him, bounces his bottle in his hands until froth is bubbling over the top. "It gets easier," he repeats.

 

-

 

Harrington drives Billy to his next hospital appointment, hangs about it the waiting room for two hours while Dr Owens takes Billy back for some tests--staring at the walls and sipping at a styrofoam cup filled with bitter coffee. He doesn't ask many questions outside of a simple 'everything good?' to which Billy just nods.

 

The mixtape Billy put together is playing while they make their way back into town--Harrington listens with a pained expression but Billy won’t stop thinking about how his cheeks and ears tinged pink when he handed it over, how his soft lips parted, eyes lighting up affectionately, “ you made me a mixtape?”

 

It still makes his stomach swoop and he avoids eye contact until he stops feeling so jittery about it.

 

"Have you thought about getting a new car at all?" Harrington asks when they stop off at a dinner just outside Hawkins.

 

Billy licks a spot of sauce off his thumb. "Getting bored of carting me around?" He grunts, taking another bite of his burger and secretly hoping that isn’t the case.

 

"No, I just… I thought you'd have bought a new one months ago," he scratches his head, shovelling fries into his mouth and talking around them.  "I woulda had to get another, I fucking hate public transport."

 

"Same…"

 

Truth is, he's thought about it plenty, has the money all ready and saved up from the compensation he still receives--he doesn’t need to settle for some rusty tin-can--but the loss of his car hit him harder than he imagined. The Camaro had been a symbol of his freedom, wild and reckless, earned from a dislocated shoulder and Neil’s guilt money; he was rough with her sometimes, pushed her to her limits and smoked up the engine. She saw him through the screams and rage, and the tears and quiet that followed. 

 

It hadn’t felt right to just replace her.

 

(There’s also the temptation to put his foot on the gas and tear out of state whenever he’s on a downward spiral to contend with, and these days he's lucid enough to understand that that would be a disastrous decision. He's this close to getting the all-clear from Owens; he isn't about to fuck that up by disappearing before then. God, the sheer fucking chaos that would cause.)

 

"I've got an interview next week. At the general store." He says, staring at the piles of napkins on the table. “Figured I’d get a car then. If they take me on, I mean.”

 

“I’m pretty sure you’ll ace it. Life-guard’s gotta look good on your resume, right.” Harrington says confidently. “You gonna get something similar to your old car?”

 

“Not seen a great deal like that around here to be honest,” Billy grumbles, omitting the fact that he’s hasn’t looked much. He's taking baby steps .

 

“We could go out of town to look? There's a huge dealership just past--"

 

“Alright, Harrington. If you’re that eager to get rid of me.” He hates himself for sounding like a brat but--he hates that Harrington might be beginning to tire of his frequent presence more.

 

As his reading his mind, Harrington nudges Billy's foot with his own, drawing his eyes up to meet him. "You know I don’t mind driving you around right? I uh…" he hands twitches, fingers stretching across the table. "I like spending time with you."

 

His heart beats faster, heat simmering in his chest; his own hand uncurls, the tips of his fingers an inch or so away from Harrington’s.

 

"Yeah. Me too." Billy says quietly, barely restraining the urge to close that gap.

 

Harrington's smiling, light and almost shy upon his lips.  "good. So uh, you can call me Steve, by the way. If you want..."

 

Billy does want.

 

--

 

He gets the job as easily as Steve predicted and he takes him to a car dealership two towns over and makes unhelpful comments that have Billy questioning whether or not he knows the wheels from the bumper until he shoos him away to browse in peace.

 

“S’your money man,” Steve says over his shoulder after catching him making moon eyes at a 75’ Chevoret Chevelle for sixth time. It’s in pretty good nick considering its age and mileage; priced at a little more than what Billy had intended to spend but-- “it’s pretty cool though."

 

And it is .

 

The keys are in his hand an hour later, his wallet considerably lighter, and Steve is grinning besides him.

 

"Ready to take her for a ride?" He asks, rocking on the balls of his feet and giving Billy a nudge.

 

He steals the mixtape he made from Steve’s car, refuting his undignified ‘ hey!’ by saying he needs to listen to something and he’s not going to dirty his new-- used but whatever--car by breaking her in with Madonna or fucking Wham!

 

He drives behind Steve at a respectable speed for several miles, getting used to the steering and relaxing into the familiar vibrations strumming through the leather beneath his ass. It might not be his Camaro, but he’s missed this ; the sense of owning and being in control.

 

When they hit a long stretch of road Billy revs up a gear, steering into the other lane and runs parallel with Stevel, his trademark grin-- long out of use--stretching across his face, teeth bared and dazzling; he laughs wildly, barely audible over the guitars shrieking from the speakers and wind roaring past his ears. He presses hard on the gas, shoots forward and pulls ahead, clocking Steve in his mirror and sticking his middle finger up-- come get me pretty boy-- and whooping as Steve rises to the challenge. 

 

Adrenalin courses through his veins, the slightest hint of danger thrumming under his skin; he ascends, heart beating between his ears, and soaring on a long anticipated high.

 

He feels alive. 

 

They pull over just outside of Hawkins, climbing out of their cars next to a large, rusted metal gate separating the road from a dried out field stretching several acres. Steve stretches his hands in the air, fingers clasped together over his head, a satisfying pop coming from his back, and breathes in deeply.

 

"Man that breeze is nice," he remarks, and Billy would make a comment about the stench of cow shit that everyone who isn’t him seems to be unbothered by, but he’s rather transfixed by the sliver of skin revealed just above Steve’s hip, pale and delicate looking; he digs around in his pockets for his cigs and lighter to occupy his hands least he follows temptation and reaches out to touch.

 

They end up slouched side by side, arms folded over the gate and passing a cigarette back and forth--another one of their habits that they don’t really talk about, along with owning a key to each others places and the regular bed-sharing. 

 

He hasn't a name for what they share and he figures it shouldn't be that important, but the word friends tastes wrong on his tongue when he looks at Steve and wants to run his fingers through his hair and bury his nose in his crook of his neck, and it's only fear of rejection that limits his touches to the brush of fingers and shoulders.

 

Steve checks his watch. "I gotta go pick up the shitheads soon."

 

" Urghhhh. " Billy groans in a puff of smoke, not budging from his spot. The sun is warm on his back, the muggyness of early summer held back by a light breeze and Billy wishes they could stay out here a while longer just listening to the chirping of cicadas and sharing the rest of his Marlboro's under the cloudless sky.

 

With a little nudging and bitching (" they've got legs, Steve, you can't keep hauling them around all the time. They're in high school now") Billy agrees to follow him to the arcade, grumbling under his breath about Steve's shitty smug face (" come onnn, don't you wanna show Max your new wheels?") and amping himself up to be seen out in public like a normal person in control of their own life.

 

He supposes he owes Max a proper conversation after all the avoiding and unanswered phone calls. Still, he’s anxious as he waits, watching Steve point in his direction and the four heads that swivel to follow his finger and Billy raises his hand off the wheel in half hearted greeting. He's kind of glad he's at a distance where he's unable to make out their expressions, but he can feel the scrutiny nonetheless. Three of the four pile into Steve's car and Max slowly trudges over, a frown on her face as she sweeps her eyes over the Chevelle.

 

“Well hello stranger.” she says, dropping into the passenger seat and slamming the door behind her. Billy sighs.

 

“Yeah, I’m sorry, okay.” he swallows, but the words don't jam as he expected them to. "I had a bad… month… or two--"

 

"Or ten?"

 

"Or ten …" he admits, dropping his chin an inch. "But I'm doing better." And it's no lie, because he wouldn't have shut himself in an enclosed space with her if it were.

 

“Better enough to buy a new car, I see.” She runs her fingers over the dash panels and he smiles.

 

"Like it?" He revs the engine aggressively and ahead, one of brats--Wheeler, he thinks--in Steve's car turns to stare out of the rear window at them and Billy almost, almost , flips him the bird, restraining himself only because he's Max's friend and one of Steve's children. He'll play nice for them.

 

"Its very you," Max comments, unbothered by his bravado, and leans over to start fiddling with the tape deck. “I’ll let you drive me around to make up for ignoring me.”

 

“How very generous of you.”

 

“Listen, my mom drives now and it takes three years to get anywhere--” Billy snorts, Susan is as bad at driving as she is at cooking. “I honest to god can’t wait to get my license. And listen to my own music.” She’s pulling a face at the speakers as heavy riffs and obscene lyrics begin to pour out and Billy feigns hurt.

 

"But you love my music!" He gasps slapping his hand over his heart.

 

"I don't. Not this anyway. Where's the metallica tape I got you for Christmas?" She asks, tearing open the compartment--empty. She scowls.

 

"Didn’t have anything else on me," he grins, delighting in her dramatically pained expression. She picks up the tape case, squints at the band and song titles listed in his cramped handwriting, and her eyebrows shoot upwards.

 

“You made this for Steve?” She says, both shock and amusement playing in her tone and Billy’s feels his cheeks heat up. He flips his eyes back to the road.

 

“Shut it.”

 

“You made Steve a mixtape with Anthrax and Exodus.” She’s grinning like a fucking idiot, he can hear it in her shitty annoying voice. “Just what kind of message are you trying to send him exactly?”

 

As if to demonstrate her point Paul Bayloff screams from the speakers, “...I’ll teach you a lesson in violence you soon won’t forget…”

 

Billy clicks his tongue. "I was trying to introduce him to some real music…"

 

"...the pleasure of watching you die is what I will get…"

 

"Wow," Max deadpans. "He's probably gonna take this as a threat."

 

"It's not a threat!" Billy snaps impatiently, snatching the case from her hands and tossing it in the backseat. "There's no message , alright! He’s just got shit taste in music!"

 

Max nods patronizingly. "Uhhh huhhh." God, she's such a little bitch, can't believe he's wasting his time and gas on her. 

 

"Steve likes you," she says conversationally, resting her head back and gaging his reaction and Billy’s cheeks must be scarlet by now..

 

"Steve likes everyone. He’s dumb like that." He says dismissively and he can feel her burning a hole in the side of his head. He shoots her a look. " What?"

 

She rolls her eyes. "God you're so dense."

 

He punches her in the arm and she yelps, glaring daggers at him before she rears her fist back, leans over the console and punches his thigh. Hard.

 

Like, way harder than he was expecting.

 

"Ow, you little psycho," he screeches, barely avoiding swirling into the opposite lane. "I'm driving."  He's gonna have a fucking bruise.

 

"Shut up, I hit Bradley Marsden way harder than that."

 

" Who?"

 

"This dickbag at school, he was giving Dustin shit about his teeth so I socked him." She looks pleased with herself. "He nearly started crying."

 

Billy manages to feel a little proud, the slightest hint of a smile curling on his lips even as he tsks. "Fighting at school? I don't know where you get it from, Maxine."

 

" Surrrre you don't," she clicks her tongue and scowls. "They called my mom up though. Neil was pissed."

 

Billy's heart skips a beat.

 

"Max…" he starts hesitantly. "Don't--"

 

"I won't okay?" She looks at him pointedly, arms crossed. "He's a dick but he hasn’t bothered me."

 

"Good," he breathes, fingers clenching around the wheel. "Keep it that way."

 

Ahead, Steve pulls into the busy parking lot outside the diner and Billy follows, steering them into an empty space a few cars down. 

 

"That'll be $5."

 

"Ha ha. You're hilarious." She shrugs off her seatbelt, pausing with her hand on the latch, and Billy should have predicted her next words really. "Come in with us."

 

Honestly he’s never going to understand how she keeps coming back to him filled with so much hope after all the times he shot her down, shoved her away; or whether he sees her resilience as admirable or stupidly naive.

 

He eyes the brats piling out of Steve's car carefully; Max might be intent on pulling him back into her life but he’s unsure if the sentiment is shared by Sinclair, Wheeler or… the one with the cap and teeth--Dustin (he’s Dustin and he’s Steve’s favourite). The last time they were all in the same room together he was trying to kill them, which they might have forgiven him for that one the count of, y’know, him being possessed , but on the only other time before that he almost beat their babysitter to death and had to be sedated like a wild animal so…

 

Billy’s not particularly eager to sit down and eat with a bunch of people who are wondering if he’s going to snap at any moment and finally succeed in offing one of them. Third time’s a charm after all.

 

Max’s hand touches his arm, draws his attention to her eyes, laid bare with an offering of faith and solidity.

 

"Please.” She says. “I want you to."

 

He knows he’s gone soft when such an admission of trust doesn’t make him want to scoff or berate--when instead he wants to embrace it and try because the thought breaking that trust has his stomach clenching painfully, and he’s being given an opportunity here, a second chance to rewrite some of the wrong and finally give her the brother she deserves.

 

She’s waited long enough.  

 

Billy cuts the engine, the music and rumble of vibrations blink away, and clutches tightly around the key in his lap.

 

"Alright…"

 

He drags his feet when he walks, hands shoved in his pockets and shoulders slouched like it's nothing, no big deal, this doesn't make him nervous at all. Max practically skips by his side, big stupid grin on her stupid face as they approach, and shit , just when exactly did these brats get so fucking tall? Sinclair has inches on him and even Wheeler gangles over him all long-limbed and bony, only Dustin has the decency to remain small and unthreatening and maybe that's why he gets to ride shotgun.

 

"Come on losers, I'm starving," Max commands without breaking her stride, and everyone just moves , without question or hesitation, following midget Max's lead like Billy being there isn't an issue at all.

 

Steve is smiling, hanging back to fall in line besides him.

 

"Thought you weren't coming in?" He teases and Billy lets out an exaggerated sigh. 

 

"Max is a persuasive little shit."

 

"Oh yeah, what did she say?"

 

He could lie, pretend she shrieked and nagged him to near death, or bribed him, she is a devious shit when she wants to be, but he’s starting to grasp that the truth doesn’t always have to be painful.

 

"She said please. " Billy admits with a shrug and Steve positively beams.

 

--

 

Billy turns nineteen the second week in June and nearly dies of embarrassment when he groggily stumbles into Steve’s kitchen with a growling stomach and is startled awake by a herd of children screeching “ HAPPY BIRTHDAY! “ completely out of sync with one another.

 

Like, nobody has made a big deal out of his birthday since his mom left, so that’s just awkward on it’s own, but then he remembers what he’s wearing--shorts and a fucking croptop--and everyone’s eyes--excluding Steve’s--flick to the scars littering whats on display.

 

There’s this real ugly pause, and wow, this is already shaping up to be another horrible birthday.

 

Of all fucking people it’s Sinclair who comes to his rescue. “Yo, those scars are pretty badass.”

 

Billy stares at him oddly. "What?” and Sinclair just shrugs nonchalantly like I said what I said .

 

“Okay, this totally settles it.” Dustin announces waving his hand in Billy’s direction dramatically, “ Barbarian class.” There are various hums of agreement and Billy blinks, unsure if that was an insult or... 

 

“When was that even up for negotiation?” Wheeler butts in. “I thought we’d all agreed on that ages ago.”

 

“I’m just saying,” Dustin stresses, voice rising unnecessarily high, “put an axe in his hand and he’s got the whole look.”

 

And Steve says, “yeah nobody is putting axes anywhere .” He grins at Billy’s astonished face and little Byers assures him, “don’t worry barbarians can be really cool.”

 

“Totally cool,” Dustin adds. 

 

Billy rolls his eyes. “That means so much coming from the likes of you lot.” Nerds .

 

“Stop being a dick, Billy,” Max scolds and kicks him.

 

“You just nearly gave me a heart attack , Maxine, and now you’re calling me a barbarian, what kind of birthday surprise is this?”

 

“Keep bitching and you won’t get your presents,” she shoots back and before he can return the snark El takes him by the hand, her little fingers curling around his, and steers him into a stool at the breakfast bar.

 

“Eggos for breakfast,” she says pushing a plate stacked with waffles towards him, and lining various condiments up for viewing. "Goes well with maple syrup." She squeezes an obscenely amount onto her own plate and tucks her hair behind her ears, smiling at him from around her fork in her mouth.

 

It’s weird. Sitting in Steve’s kitchen surrounded by a bunch of kids. It’s weird when they bicker and fight over who gets the next round of waffles. It's weird when they lead him to the lounge and reveal a small mound of presents on the couch, when his throat swells and cheeks burn as he brushes his fingers over the colourful paper and carefully tears them open at the edges.

 

His vision is starting to get misty by the time unwraps the last ones, a sleeveless Iron Maiden top and a mixtape from El and little Byers, and Max prods his side playfully, "look Billy you can listen to something that isn’t metal," and he’s never going to willingly listen to The Police or The Who, not in a million years, but his chest tightens and his voice comes out wobbly when he utters a quiet, "thank you…"

 

They allow him chance to escape and breathe , to scrub his hands over his eyes and lets his tears blend with the water swirling around his toes in the shower, and to pat his face dry afterwards.

 

El is waiting for him out in the hallway, leaning patiently against the wall opposite the door. 

 

“That is Steve’s room,” she states simply as soon as he shuts the door behind him and Billy sees no point in denying it. They all know he and Steve have been having some kind of extended sleepover these past few weeks.

 

“Yeah it is…” He runs a hand through his curls, still damp at the roots, clears his throat and says, “I sleep better, with somebody there…”

 

El nods understandingly. “He makes you feel safe. Like Mike does for me.”

 

Billy’s slightly wounded that she would even compare Steve to Wheeler --gross--but he understands the underlying message and he feels hot all over again. El smiles at him in that knowing way, and it still leaves him nervous, how his pain reflects so clearly in her eyes, how one look can make him ache and yearn and cry, and he doesn’t mean to but somehow he ends up with his arms thrown around her shoulders, nose buried in her scalp and trying to not blow snot all over her soft hair.

 

“You shouldn’t be crying on your birthday,” she laughs wetly from somewhere in between the folds of his t-shirt and he holds on tighter, her dainty frame lost in his regained bulk, and he laughs with tears on his cheeks, closes his eyes and hears the sound of seagulls and waves crashing against the sand.

 

Later, after the sun sets and he’s exhausted and overwhelmed from so much emotional output, he flops down on Steve’s sheet and breathes in the calm and quiet, lets sleep crawl over him naturally--the sound of Steve’s breathing by his side lulls him under, the nightlight on the desk silhouetting his profile in an almost ethereal way--and Billy feels like the whole day could have just been one vivid dream.

 

"So did you plan all this?" He asks sleepily, gazing at the ceiling with hooded eyes.

 

"With a little help from Max and El." Comes the groggy response.

 

"How much did you have to pay the kids."

 

Atop of the sheets Steve's hand is right beside his, close enough he can feel the warmth radiating from his skin, and he thinks his tired mind might be playing tricks on him when he feels the softest nudge against his finger.

 

"Nobody paid anyone."

 

He's not imagining it; the tip of Steve’s finger lightly tracing over his own, caressing circles around his nail bed, rotating upwards to the first knuckle, so soft it tickles, and Billy feels that there’s no way he could possibly be misinterpreting this but he’s shaky as he slips his finger beneath Steve’s, curling and linking them together, breath wavering when Steve accommodates him, falling still with their pinkies entwined.

 

"Good birthday?" Steve whispers.

 

The best , he thinks. "Yes.” He swallows down a little more of his pride and gently bumps their wrists. “Thank you.”



--

 

July 4th edges closer. 

 

It’s not just a dreaded anniversary for him but for everyone--the whole town senses it approaching and Billy anticipated more bad days than good, only to find he’s rarely left to dwell on the misery bathed in the air alone. 

 

He sees Max almost daily, usually when she wants a ride somewhere, and he indulges her--takes her to the movies and out shopping with El in Indianapolis and even agrees to sit in on one horrendously extensive D&D campaign to which he swears never again .

 

He meets Robin, properly now that he doesn’t feel so threatened by her, and they spend lazy evenings passing a joint around and laughing at Steve’s impressions of Keith and Tammy Thompson. (Why Tammy Thompson he has no idea but Billy has heard that girl sing and they're right, she does sound like a muppet.)

 

He stays at Steve’s house most days when he isn’t working, sleeps by his side most nights.

 

They still haven’t talked about it, and Billy’s been stewing on it for a while now, gathering up his courage and refining the words in his head, I’m not reading this wrong am I, tries to quell the turbulent fear of rejection rolling around in his stomach, and there’s nothing particularly significant about this moment, it’s just another unbearably humid day and he woke up with his legs tangled and sweaty between two pale ones and he hasn’t stopped thinking since.

 

It’s past midday and the kids are trying to drown each other in Steve’s pool and Billy has his shirt off, his scars glossy and whitened against tan skin but he doesn’t care because Steve is relaxing in the lounger beside him, bare aside from a tiny pair of baby-blue dolphin shorts, a straw perched between his lips, throat bobbing rhythmically as he swallows down some fruity, alcoholic beverage he concocted that morning.

 

He catches him staring, tilts his head in an adorable fashion, eyebrow quirking over his Ray Bans, and Billy just needs to know for sure.

 

“Do you like, like me?” He asks honestly,

 

Steve puts his glass on the floor and pushes his sunglasses up, resting them atop his ridiculous hair and leans over, bridging the gap between their loungers and takes Billy’s chin between his finger and thumb.

 

His breath ghosts over Billy’s lips as he says, “what do you think?”

 

It’s the softest of kisses.

 

His eyes flutter shut and he tastes pineapple and sunblock and promise, and he knows, feels it in the way his heart flutters and palms sweat with childlike excitement that this isn’t just surviving anymore.

 

He’s living, finally.