“It’s not weird, it’s tradition,” Steve says as he arranges an elf on the shelf between their combined knick knacks.
“It’s fucking creepy, Steve. I don’t want it in the apartment.”
“If you get to keep that nasty Metallica poster that hurts my eyes every time I look at it, I get to keep my shelf elf.”
Billy groans. “Fine, just…put it somewhere else. I don’t wanna get up to piss in the night and have the little bastard eying me up.”
“How else is Santa gonna know if you’ve been naughty or nice?” Steve teases.
“If Santa gives me a lump of coal he’s getting slugged with the stocking.”
Steve huffs. “You’re no fun.” He disappears into the kitchen, elf in hand. Billy watches him go.
The shenanigans begin the next day. Billy moves the alarm clock to his side of the bed, sets it half an hour before Steve has to be up for work.
He feels like shit when he wakes up more than an hour earlier than usual for his little prank. The exhaustion is more than worth it when he watches Steve open the refrigerator and nearly yank the door off the thing when he spots the elf front and centre, legs and arms tangled around his breakfast yogurt.
“Jesus fucking Christ Billy!’
Billy splutters into his cereal. “You-you practically fell over.”
Steve snatches the elf out of the fridge and throws it at Billy. It falls short by a few centimetres and flops onto the table, one cotton foot landing in his bowl, soaking up the milk.
Steve glares at Billy, hands on hips. He looks ridiculous with his loose briefs, one sock on, robe open, shirtless and hair nothing short of an absolute bird’s nest. “I know you, Billy Hargrove. Don’t make this a thing, or you can cook your own damn dinners.”
Billy presses his lips together, desperately suppressing laughter. “Uh huh.”
Steve narrows his eyes at Billy like he does when he knows Billy is full of shit. He grabs his yogurt and a spoon, huffing as he trudges out of the kitchen, forgetting his mug on the table.
“You forgot your coffee!” Billy calls.
“Fuck off!” Steve replies.
It only escalates from there. Scaring Steve becomes Billy’s new favourite pastime. It surprises him when the novelty doesn’t wear off. Surprises him more when Steve continues to be startled by the ugly decoration he insisted on. Billy doesn’t know why he won’t just throw it out.
“Why don’t you just throw it out?” He asks.
“You already put it in the trash to scare me. You’ll just get it out and put it somewhere else.”
“No I won’t. Promise.”
Steve looks at Billy. “You expect me to believe you won’t buy another one?”
“Promise.” Billy says, corner of his mouth twitching.
“I don’t believe you.” Steve replies as he leaves the room. To Billy’s credit, he’s never broken a promise to Steve. To Steve’s credit, Billy isn’t exactly worthy of trust right now.
There’s nowhere he hasn’t put it. Tucked it up in bed so it’s the first thing Steve sees when he pulls the covers back to get in, inside the cereal box, in Steve’s shoes, wrapped around the shower head, even curled it up on the pillow next to Steve while he slept.
Billy’s run out of spots, so he has to stop. But he doesn’t want to stop.
“And…you want me to trick him?” El asks, frowning in disapproval.
“Sort of, I mean, not really. More like a surprise.” Billy replies.
El perks up at that. “Like we did with Dustin’s toys?”
Billy has no idea what El’s talking about. He rolls with it. “Yeah! Kinda like that.”
“What is the surprise for?”
“What do you mean?”
“When I made Dustin’s toys walk, it was to welcome him home from camp. Steve hasn’t gone anywhere.”
“You’re asking what the occasion is?” El nods. “There’s no occasion. Steve just likes being scared.”
El frowns again. “Really?”
“Oh yeah, he’s a real adrenaline junkie. He watches scary movies all the time.”
“I don’t understand.”
Billy pats her on the back. “You don’t need to kid, I just need to know if you’re in.”
“You’ll buy me lot’s of Eggos, if I help?”
“If you do this for me, you won’t be able to say Eggos without me throwing a box at you.”
El smiles at that. “Okay.”
Billy knows he should feel guilty for taking advantage of El to prank Steve, but he just can’t help himself. He can’t remember ever having this much fun.
It’s Steve’s day off, and he’s using it to spring clean the apartment. ‘You don’t spring clean in the winter, dingus. You do it in the spring,’ Billy had said. Steve had just arched his brows at him, asked, ‘Do you like living in filth?’
Billy doesn’t actually have work today, but Steve doesn’t need to know that. He leaves in his uniform at the usual time, checking the elf is back in it’s original spot amongst the knick knacks on his way out the door.
He stops at Krispy Kreme for a box of powdered donuts and coffee. Billy’s not seen El use her powers before but he knows it exhausts her, so he’s covering his bases.
Billy honks his horn once he’s idling outside of Hopper’s house. El bounds out the door and to the car. She waves at Billy through the window, eyes wide when she spots the donuts on the passenger seat. Billy reaches over to slide the box into the back so El has somewhere to sit. She slides in, eyes glued to the box.
“Hey, El. You good?” She nods slowly, still staring at the donuts. Billy chuckles. “Something on your mind, kid?”
“Are those…for me?”
“Sure are. I got coffee, too. I don’t know if you like coffee.”
El looks at him, eyes growing impossibly wider. “Hopper says I’m not allowed coffee. It makes me hyper.”
“You like it though?” She nods. “Alright, you can have one donut and a few sips on the way, and you can have the rest when we’re done. Deal?”
They don’t talk as Billy drives back to the apartment, El nibbling on her donut and taking slow and controlled sips of her coffee. Billy’s glad he put a cap on what she could have prior to the prank, since she’s already practically vibrating out of her seat. Billy swears he watches her pupils dilate as she slurps on her coffee.
“Alright, that’s enough of that for you,” He says as he gently pries the cup from her hands. “You’ve got work to do, c’mon.”
Billy juggles the coffee and donuts and keys, not trusting El to not take sneaky sips or bites if he risks sharing the load. They take the elevator to the second floor and creep up the hall. Billy can hear Steve belting Everybody Wants to Rule The World over the vacuum.
Their neighbours moved out around two weeks ago, leaving the adjacent apartment empty. Billy nods at the locked door and watches El unlock it with a jerk of her head.
“Damn, kid. That’s pretty cool.”
El sniffs, smiles up at him. She pushes the door open with her hands, closes it behind Billy.
Billy deposits the donuts and El’s cup on the windowsill. “So, how does this work?”
“Did you bring a blindfold?” Billy pulls a folded bandana out of his front pocket, hands it to El. She takes it, walks to the shared wall between apartments, sits with her back to it, legs criss cross applesauce. She wraps the blindfold around her head, rests her hands on her knees.
“You have to be quiet.” She says. Billy whispers okay, sits opposite her. A single trickle of blood drips from her left nostril.
“Everybody wants to rule the woooorld!” Steve sings, shaking his ass for good measure as he gets under the couch.
He’s had a busy morning. He’s dusted every surface, cleaned every window, aired out the apartment. All that’s left to do is beat the rugs, finish vacuuming, clean the fridge and the bathroom.
He unplugs the vacuum, wraps the impossibly long power cord round and round the base, depositing it in the closet by the front door. Steve startles when he turns, his elf on the shelf angled so it’s looking right at him. Knew I shouldn’t have put it back there, he thinks. It’s only on the shelf to punish Billy for his incessant pranks with he damn thing, not that Steve thinks it’s working.
He moves to grab it, freezes when the head starts slowly turning towards him. Steve rubs his eyes, but it’s definitely facing him. Like, the head is twisted on the body in a way it shouldn’t be able to without manual manipulation.
“Losin’ my damn mind.” He says to himself.
Steve shakes it off and gets on with cleaning the apartment, starting with the rugs. He rolls them up, carries them to the balcony, drapes each of them over the hand rail, starts going at it with his Grandma’s old antique rug beater.
Steve can’t shake the feeling he’s being watched, though. He knows it’s the elf. Knows it’s stupid. He ignores it until he can’t. One beaten rug later he snatches the thing off the shelf and tosses it in the trash.
“What’s he doing now?” Billy asks, knee bouncing up and down in anticipation.
“He’s…looking at the elf.”
“Is he scared?”
“He looks mad.”
Billy jumps for joy internally. “Make it move, just a little. Turn the head or something.” El nods, does what she’s told.
“He took the elf off the shelf and put it in the trash.”
He gets on with his morning. But he still can’t shake the feeling that something isn’t right. Steve opts to resolve the issue by tying off the half full trash bag and throwing it down his floor’s chute.
Elf disposed of, Steve replaces the bag in the trash and gets to work cleaning the bathroom. He gloves up, puts a disposable mask and chemistry goggles on to spare himself the worst of the bleach fumes.
Billy grins. “Oh, perfect. Is he looking at the trash?”
“No. He’s looking in a drawer.”
“Doesn’t matter. Can you make the elf crawl out?”
El nods, holds her hand out for more coffee. Billy passes her his cup. She sucks on the straw loudly, furrows her brows.
“I did it.”
Billy clenches his fists in excitement. “Did he see? Is he freaking out?”
“No. He’s taking out the trash.”
Billy huffs lightly. “Alright. Where’s the elf?”
“Hide it behind something so he doesn’t see it when he comes back.”
He hears their apartment door open and close. Billy stares at his watch face, knows he’s being impatient. “Update?”
“He’s putting on rubber gloves. And a mask. And goggles. And…flip flops? But he’s inside.”
Bathroom. “Tell me when he goes into the bathroom.” El nods.
“Alright, I want you to make the elf army crawl in there.”
“Uh, Hopper have any war movies lying around?” El presses her lips together. “I won’t tell him you watched them.” El exhales in relief, nods. “You know how they get real low on the ground, move on their forearms and knees? Like that.”
“I will need another donut.” Billy gets her a donut. She takes a huge bite, powdered sugar rains into her lap.
Steve stills mid scrub, toilet brush in hand. He can hear… shuffling. It’s so faint he’s not sure he heard anything at all. He keeps scrubbing. Stops and starts once, twice. Feels the fine hairs on the back of his neck stand to attention, goose pimples erupt along his arms.
Steve turns his head real slow, feels his heart drop out his ass when he sees that fucking elf dragging itself across the bathroom tiles toward him, plastic eyes fixed on his. Oh, fuck. “Oh fuck. Oh fuck. Oh fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck!” Steve drops the brush and jumps to his feet, launches himself over the possessed toy, lands wrong on his ankle and crashes onto the floor.
He’s panting, trying to get to his feet but he’s so overwhelmed by adrenaline he can’t make his damn hands work. He’s scrambling to get some purchase on the arm of the couch when he hears the shuffling again. Steve can hardly breathe. He turns his head again in spite of every instinct demanding he do the exact opposite.
The elf is standing up. It’s walking towards him. Steve screams.
“Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck!”
Billy’s heart is racing from the excitement. He hears a loud crash, followed by a scream.
El’s face is noticeably sweaty. “You can stop now.” She lets out a loud huff when she does, slumps against the wall. Billy pushes the box of unfinished donuts and coffee towards her. “I’m gonna go check on Steve. You good here for a minute?”
El takes off the blindfold, wipes the blood away with it, nods enthusiastically when she sees the donuts.
Billy leaves her, heads next door. His smile melts away when he sees Steve curled into a ball beside the couch, near hyperventilating. “Oh crap. Steve?”
“B-Billy?” Steve gasps. Billy turns the music off before rushing to his side.
“It’s me, baby. You’re alright, just breathe. Slow, slower, good.”
Billy rubs Steve’s back for a few minutes, helps sit him up, takes off his goggles and rubber gloves.
Steve’s eyes are wide, he’s still shaking a little. “You will not fucking believe what just happened to me.” He says.
Billy presses his lips together. “I uh, I might have an idea.”
Steve blinks at him. “You might…”
El steps through the open door, waves shyly. “Hello, Steve. Did you like the surprise?”
Steve glares at Billy. Shoves him away by the shoulder. “Oh, you asshole! You giant asshole!”
“Language! There’s children present.”
Steve turns away from Billy, pulls himself up by the arm of the couch. Billy tries to help him. Steve slaps his hands away. “I got it!”
Billy eye’s Steve favouring his left foot, right toes hovering above the floor. “Are you okay?”
“No! I’m not fu-I’m not okay! You scared the hell out of me and I twisted my ankle trying to get away from my own god damn elf on the shelf!”
Billy swallows his amusement. “I’m sorry, baby. Maybe I took it a little too far.”
Steve looks at him with wide eyes. “A little? I’m injured!”
“I’m sorry too, Steve.” El says from the doorway. “Billy said you liked scary things.”
Billy narrows his eyes at El. Traitor, he thinks.
“It’s not your fault, honey. Billy’s just an asshole.” Steve manoeuvres himself onto the couch, hands Billy a pillow. “Put that on the coffee table-no, where my foot can reach it you idiot. Now go get me some ice.”
Billy does as he’s told. “Don’t have any ice, got you peas instead.” Steve snatches the bag away from him, sighs as he drapes it over his ankle. “I need to take the kid home. You gonna be alright by yourself?”
“Get me the remote. And my Sports Illustrated. And take that god damn elf with you.”