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Like a Sunburn

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Billy’s body is broken. It doesn’t work like it used to do. 

Although his ribs are back in place and his skin has healed over, something seems fundamentally wrong. Maybe the doctors started rebuilding him without checking the fundaments, patched him up but forgot to something take out, a seed or virus that was now festering and eating away at the marrow of his bones.

Everything seems fine from the outside. He can walk again, eat again, all of it by himself. It’s a miracle. He’s healthy. Everything works. 

He should be fine.

So why isn’t he fine?
Why does he feel like he might collapse in on himself like a house riddled by dry rot? 

They already put him through the MRI. Blood tests, eye tests, everything they could think of. He’s sat through all of them trice and without complaints. Nothing showed up. No inflammation, no nerve damage, no arthritis, scoliosis or Ehler-Danlos type 1 to 13. Nothing to explain why his body feels like it has aged sixty years in the seven months he’s been in remission.

Owens says that it’s something to do with his brain. That his body is manifesting the emotional pain as physical as a means to call attention to it. He makes Billy go to psychotherapy, twice a week.

It’s draining.
It’s not helping.
If anything, it just makes him more aware of how shitty his living situation is without the means to do anything about it.

His father has become even more of a pain in the ass since the accident. The man simply can’t stand that his son is a cripple. He took ‘it’s something your brain is doing’ and translated that to ‘it’s all in your head’, a subtle but significant difference. Billy doesn’t know how to explain to his dad that pain, whether it’s ‘real’ or not, is always in your head. Your body can’t ache without your brain interpreting the signals. Every pain, wherever it is in your body, is always felt in your head. But that’s not what his father means when he says it.   

You’re being dramatic.
You’re weak.
You’re not sucking it up like a man ought to do.   

He will scold Billy when he finds his son lying down in the middle of the day because standing and sitting has become too much. He’ll jump his brows and mutter under his breath as Billy takes his Vicodin in the morning, thinks he’s reaching for it too easily. Same with the antidepressants. Crutches, he calls them. Real men don’t need crutches. They bite through. 

So Billy grinds his teeth and keeps his mouth shut. He goes to school, sits in hard, uncomfortable chairs for 8 hours of the day and tastes blood in his mouth from how hard he has to bite his cheek in order to stay upright in his seat. He’s limping by the time he gets home, another thing Neil can’t stand. 

But Billy can’t help it. He’s broken.
His body forgot how it’s supposed to feel.

He’s losing the weight he managed to put on after he woke up in the hospital. The circles under his eyes grow darker. When Steve tentatively asks if he has nightmares, he just answers yes. If it’s nightmares, Steve will at least accept that he can’t do anything about it. The truth is that on some nights, it’s so bad he can barely get to sleep. Every movement feels like pouring acid on his joints. He wakes up at odd hours in the morning, struggling to keep himself together. It would help if the pain was localized. If it was just a phantom limp or a pulled muscle but instead it’s everywhere. There is no center, no focal point. The pain is never not there. It makes it hard to think about anything else, experience anything else. 

“Are you in pain right now?” Steve asks one night as Billy is describing it to him.

“Yeah,” Billy answers instantly and without a hint of mourning. As if Steve asked him if he remembered to buy toilet paper. Even when they are sitting in the comfortable armchairs in Steve's living room, he still feels it, most of all in his hips and knees. Steve opens his lips, eyes radiating hurt. 

“Why didn’t you say anything?” Billy blinks at him. The fact that Steve thought it needed to be said made Billy feel like Steve fundamentally misunderstood the condition Billy just described to him.

“Because... I’m always in pain,” he chuckles humorlessly. “I haven’t had a pain-free moment since the day I woke up from that hospital. It’d be like telling you I have ears every time I see you. It’s always there. I only tell you if it’s worse than normal.”

Only through seeing the way those words affect Steve does Billy realizes that it’s not normal to live this way. That pain is the exception to Steve whereas it has become Billy’s rule. He’s been living from day to day, moment to moment and hasn’t stopped to step back and realize that he’s been in pain, consistently, for over a year now. A full year, where he never caught a single break from these aches that, on his worst days, renders him immobile. And when the realization dawns on him, his throat closes up as well. 

 

He decides to give it another shot. Another round of examinations. Blood test. MRI. Everything in the book.

Nothing. His body is fine.
He should be fine.

It goes like this in cycles. After every failed diagnosis or treatment, Billy goes home defeated and confused. He starts to think that he’s making it up, again.
It’s the pain meds, he tells himself. They’re fucking with his head. He’s not in pain, he’s just addicted. 

He quits cold turkey. His father certainly seems pleased. He doesn’t seem to mind that Billy throws up every second thing he eats, dizzy from the pain. On his third day ‘clean’, he has to take a break and sit down while doing the dishes. When after 15 minutes he decides to pull himself together and finish the job, he can’t get up. 

His legs stopped working.
His legs
stopped
working.

He stares at his thighs, horrified, pulse throbbing in his ears. He did it. He finally broke himself. He must have a tumour of some kind, something that was pressing at his spinal cord and now he’s paralyzed from the waist down. He should have listened to Steve, should have complained more. He should have made Owens listen. 

Except he can still move his toes. His muscles just aren’t co-operating. It’s as if Billy himself has grown ten times heavier. He probs his hands up on the seat and tries to push himself up that way. It's not much different from the tricep dips he used to do on a daily basis before he got flayed but now it's like lightning shooting up through his shoulders and his dad is wrong.
He can't push through it. 

Thank god Max was home or he’d have to sit there until he’d pissed himself. Still, there is little more dignity in having your little sister pull your dead weight out of a chair because you can’t fucking move. He throws up again in the sink once he’s up on his feet, nothing but green bile.

“Billy,” Max whispers. “You really can’t go on like this.” He spits again, a half-hearted attempt to remove the burning sensation from his mouth.

“Yeah, tell me something I don’t know.”

 

It gets worse as the summer moves into autumn. Billy still isn’t used to the rapid changing of the seasons in Hawkins. Steve tries his best to help where he can, although Billy can tell that most of the time, Steve isn’t aware when Billy’s in pain. Not that Billy can ask that off him. Not that he would want that. He’s glad that Steve gets to live a life where pain isn’t constantly at the forefront of his mind. Most of the time Steve treats him like any other person. It's both the perk and the downside of having an invisible disability: people don't treat you like a fragile baby that must also be mentally disabled. At the same time they also assume that since you look fine, you don't need any help or accomodations.

Sometimes Steve will get Billy his hot water bottle without Billy having to ask him for it. When he notices Billy limping he’ll mention that he’s getting a bit tired, that he’d like to sit down somewhere, just so Billy doesn’t have to admit to his (or what he himself perceives to be) weakness. It's nice. Steve and Max are about the only two people who treat his pain seriously. Neil isn't the only one who's sceptical. Billy knows that's going on in people's heads when he explains his condition.

But you don't look disabled?
But you're a young man?
What is it that you have exactly?

He just starts telling people it's arthritis. It's the closest to his symptoms and it's something people know. It's something they are sort of willing to take seriously. Billy found that there is immense power in being able to name your pain. Without a name, it might as well not exist, not in the eyes of others that is.

 

Billy spends more and more nights at Steve’s place, anything so he doesn’t have to be home. Neil and Susan are fighting again. Staying at Steve's where it's warm and quiet does at least some good for his sleeping.
Steve’s been able to get an apartment of his own. It’s cramped, nothing compared to his parents’ mansion, but the bed is king size and no one is there to disturb them. One night while there’s having sex, Steve stops, his breathing ragged, face riddled with concern. 

“Babe, are you alright?” Billy tries his best to hide his discomfort.

“Yeah, ‘m fine. Don’t stop.” But his voice sounds strained. Steve strokes Billy’s hair back. Billy closes his eyes, tries to breathe through the worst of it. It’s fine. He can make it until Steve finishes. He can do that for Steve.

“Babe, you’re hurting.”

“Yeah, well I’m never not hurting so you better get on with it,” Billy grunts. He starts rutting his hips against Steve again to drive the point home, even though his pelvis seems to be made of fire, even though he has to hold back his winces with every thrust. He lets out a tortured whine as Steve pulls out and plums down beside him onto the mattress. He scans Billy with doleful eyes, begging him to please look at him. Billy refuses and glares at the ceiling instead.

“You really need to tell me when it’s too much,” Steve says. Billy doesn’t answer.
“I can tell that you’re in pain, you know? I can tell that you’re just doing it for me-”

“I don’t know what else you want me to do!” Billy shouts as he draws his shoulders up to his ears.

“I just fucking told you!” Steve shouts back, devastated. “I don’t want you to do anything that's going to make the next day hell for you!”

“Every day is hell!” Billy fumes. “Every day is a fucking hell in this fucking hell body!” He smothers his face with his hands, nails digging into his forehead as he lets out the most guttural scream. Normally Steve would tell him to keep quiet, to make it so that he can still look his neighbours in the eye when he’s taking out the trash, but this time he doesn’t stop Billy. He holds his breath, trying to choke back his own tears as he listens to his boyfriend’s agony, fully knowing that there is nothing he can do. He can only witness.

The pain is not going away. It’s never going to leave. Billy is never going to be able to go on a run again. He’ll never hike those paths he used to climb as a child back in California. He’ll never wake up in the morning feeling rested again. He’ll never be that capable, young man he used to be.

“I know that,” Steve whispers once Billy has let the worst of it out. “I know that- everything sucks and I know that you’re always in pain and that fucking sucks. It’s so fucking unfair.” He wipes off the tears that have been trailing down his cheeks, wettening their pillow. “But we can’t pretend like it’s not there. There’s just… you have to stop trying to do everything you used to do and start living according to what you can do.” 

Imagine that. Imagine being nineteen and your boyfriend telling you that you just can’t do certain things anymore, that you have to close doors and stop trying to open them. Just accept that you are limited as if you don’t have your whole life ahead of you. These should be the best days of your life. You should be taking on the world. Instead, you're in this stupid bed in this fucking bullshit town, not even able to get your own boyfriend off.

“I know you’re already asked to push yourself over your limits in other parts of your life,” Steve sniffles. “so I don’t want you to make things even worse just because you think you're doing me a service.” Billy doesn’t answer. He stares ahead, seemingly devoid of any thought, although Steve knows Billy’s entire body must be railing as if it’s been lowered into a bath of fire ants.

“What if it means we’ll never have sex again?” Billy’s voice is quiet this time. Steve swallows.

“Then… we'll find other ways to be intimate.”
“Billy.”
“You know it’s not all about fucking a hole, right?” Billy rolled over.

“Yeah, but sometimes I just want my hole fucked.”

 

They fall asleep with their backs turned to each other. At least Steve does. Billy has started to feel the ill effects Steve had warned him about. Because Steve was right, it does get worse when he’s pushed himself too far. The pain throbbed through him like hot red lava, crawling under every square inch of skin. The first tear falls with others following in rapid succession. He can’t keep it in anymore. He’s so so incredibly tired of keeping his head high, of pretending like he’s not in excruciating pain every second of the day. A gasp escapes his lips at the stab he feels every time he lets out a sob. It quickly becomes a vicious cycle, where he's crying because he's in pain because he's crying because he's in pain because his body is betraying him. Because there’s nothing wrong! He’s healthy! Everything works! He should be fine! He should be taking on the world but instead, his body is making him feel things that aren’t there. It’s telling him that he’s bleeding out when he could be sleeping.

Steve stirs beside him.
“Babe, what’s wrong?”

Billy can’t breathe. He can’t make out the words. There is simply no way to begin to explain what this feels like.

That’s the worst part about pain. How utterly alone you are in it. You can describe it, you can come up with fancy metaphors, people can emphasize with it, but you can’t make them feel it. They can’t share your burden. You can’t possibly understand what chronic pain is like, how ever-present and all-encompassing it is, if you are not in it.

“Does it hurt?” Steve asks as he pushes himself upright. He knows not to touch Billy when it gets this bad, that a single touch can feel like a third-degree burn. Billy gasps out another sob and nods, cowering at the sting it causes in his neck. 

“Ev-eh-everywhe-here.” 

 

First thing in the morning, Steve is hollering into the phone at Owens, demanding that they get Billy some kind of expert who actually takes him serious. 

“You don’t have to see him struggling up the stairs at the end of the day! You don’t have to hold his hair back when he’s throwing up from the pain so don’t you get to fucking decide whether he’s okay or not! Don’t you dare tell us you know what’s best for him! Just do your fucking job or get someone else who can do it for you!”

 

Steve is more than a little embarrassed when Owens tells him he's only hearing these problems for the first time and that he's shocked to hear that Billy is doing so badly. 

“Why didn’t you just tell him, babe?” Steve asks while he's doing the dishes that evening. Billy has to watch his boyfriend clean up from his seat at the dinner table. Steve had forbidden him to help out and because he seemed pretty upset with him, Billy accepted the defeat. 

'Same reason why I don’t tell you when I have trouble getting up the stairs,' Billy thinks. 'Because I’m embarrassed. Because I don't want you to think I'm weak when everyone else already does.'
He can't even look in Steve’s direction when he's talking, even when Steve has his back turned to him. Another dish rinkles as Steve placed it in the drying rack.

“He’s your doctor," Steve continues. "You have to be honest with him or he can’t help you.” 

Of course, Billy knows that. He knows that Owens is the one person he should complain to. It's literally his job to listen to people's complaints about their aches and itches. And still.
Maybe it's the sports mentality. Maybe Billy simply wants to be better than the other players. And if he can't be the best on the field, he's going to be the best at recovery. He doesn't like the feeling that he has stagnated. He hates that he's not back to a hundred after all this time. So he lies about it. It's the next best thing. Anything so he won't be the weakest link.

 

A specialized physician flies in, all the way from New York to meet with them. Billy has been worked up about it for weeks. The woman has a reputation as one of the leading experts in her field. It's one of the perks of falling victim to a big government conspiracy. You can demand certain things and the men in suits will usually have the means and motivations to get it to you. As the date of his consultation creeps closer, it dawns on Billy that something might be set into motion very soon. That he might actually get some relief. It should be a comforting thought. He should be thrilled. Then why is the prospect so terrifying? 

 

“I think I’m just scared to know what my life is gonna be like if I’m not in pain anymore,” He says when he's sat on the couch with Steve and a glass of wine, the night before his appointment. “Pain has just been so... front and centre for me over the past year that I think part of me worries about what will be left of me if the pain goes away.” He pauses.

"I guess I've been using the pain to feel strong. I know that sounds weird, but there's some... disturbing satisfaction in pushing through it. Like-" He looks up to meet Steve's eyes. "When I'm able to do something and you don't notice how hard it is, I kinda feel good about that. It makes me feel normal. I guess I'm just scared to lose that." Steve listens, playing with the hair at the nape of Billy’s neck as his boyfriend works through his thoughts. He speaks up only when, after a long silence, it seems like Billy has run out of things to say. 

“You’re not gonna become weaker or less of yourself if the pain goes away,” His voice is calm and patient. Billy nods, eyes welling up. Steve watches attentively as he continues.
“Your life will probably be different from what it is now… it’s probably not going to be the same as before the accident… it will just be different. And that’s good. It can be scary, but it’s good.” Billy nods more firmly this time and takes a deep shuttering breath. Steve smiles wetly.

“Hey,” he whispers as he presses a kiss to Billy’s temple. “Let’s just see what happens, yeah? We don't have to be hopeful. We can just be curious about what tomorrow is going to bring. And I’ll be right there. She’s not gonna bite. She’s there to help you.” 


Steve takes the day off work so he can be there as emotional support. Billy knows that Steve mainly wants to be present to ensure that Billy doesn’t trivialize his condition when he finally has a good shot at getting some serious help. And as it turns out, Steve actually has some interesting observations to bring in, things Billy hadn't even thought of himself.

“It tends to be worse when it cold or raining," Steve says when Mrs. Jenkins asks if Billy experiences any patterns in the intensity of his pain. "But also before it’s about to rain. It’s like his body knows in some way.” Billy stares in pure awe as his boyfriend lists off aspects of his condition he never even told him about, things he didn't think anyone noticed. 

For what feels like hours to Billy, Mrs. Jenkins asks and listens and writes things down.

“And what kind of diagnosis did you say you have had up until this point?” She asks after a full walkthrough of his medical history up until that point.

“Nothing,” Billy replies, almost... embarrassed. As if his lack of diagnosis isn't the sole reason he's here today. “They’ve tested for everything and nothing came back, so… I have nothing.”

“It’s not nothing, Billy.” Mrs. Jenkins replies. She has a deep, maternal voice that feels like a hand rubbing up and down your back.

She has him strip down. Steve has to wait outside.

”What I’m going to do now is I’m going to apply a light pressure in a few places and you tell me if it hurts, okay? You tell me to stop if it’s too much or if you feel faint.”

Billy nods. He watches anxiously as Jenkins raises a hand and touches the side of his neck where he knows his lymph node to be, soft at first before pressing down. It feels like a sunburn, spreading all the way to his shoulders.

“Does this hurt?” 
“Yes.” 

The hand moves to the other side, same place.

“Does this hurt?” 

“Yes.” 

It quickly becomes redundant. After the first five points, Jenkins stops asking the question. When she presses down, Billy answers with a simple yes (most) or no (few). After they’ve gone down every part of his body on both sides, Billy can put his clothes on again and Steve is allowed back inside.

Once seating behind her desk, Jenkins puts her pen down and intertwines her fingers in front of her. 

“What I’ve just done is I’ve gone down some ‘tenderpoints’ with Billy, as we call them, and I can tell you right now that based on that examination and what you’ve told me it sounds like you have fibromyalgia.”

A sob stumbles past Billy’s lips before he realized it. It's so sudden, so immediate that he doesn’t know what to do with himself. He closes a hand over his mouth, eyes blown wide as he tries to breathe past his shaking breaths. All the nervous energy is released at once.

Fibromyalgia.

He has a word. Finally, finally, he has a word. He doesn’t even know what it means yet. He doesn’t know if it's actually the thing that is wrong with him but to hear a word… to hear the simple fact that there is a condition out there that might explain his symptoms, it makes him feel so much less alone. 

“You haven’t been making it up,” Jenkins continues as if she can read his thoughts. “It’s a real condition. It affects a lot of people all over the world. For a fibro diagnosis you need a ‘yes’ on at least 11 or those 18 points we went down. You had 16.”

This is all Billy needs to hear to open all the faucets. Steve's arms wrap around his shoulders and he turns his head to bury his nose in Steve's neck.

He’s not alone.
He’s not alone. 

He may be broken, but at least some other people are broken in the same places. And this woman seems to know which parts these are.
Maybe she can even fix them.

“At this moment there are no treatments,” Jenkins replies when Steve asks if there is a cure. “We don’t know how to repair or reprogram the brain. What we can offer at this moment is pain management and cognitive behavioral therapy. There are definitely things that fibro patients can do to make their condition more livable.” 

“So is it... like- terminal?” Steve asked, eyebrows knitted. Jenkins laughed.
“Not terminal, but I think you might mean chronic, in which case yes. And it's progressive as well, so it will get worse over time. I’m afraid it’s not going away.”

The words echo in Billy’s head.

It’s not going away.
The pain is never going away.
It will only get worse.
This will be you for the rest of your life.

 

In fibromyalgia, the brain distorts and misinterprets stimuli as pain. 

"It's not always clear what causes fibro, but we know that physical and mental trauma are risk factors," Jenkins explains once Billy has worked through his initial emotion. "That would explain why you only started experiencing symptoms after your accident."

She explained that, based on recent research, fibro is believed to be associated with what is call 'explosive synchronization' in the brain. It means that the brain receives one minor pain signal, blows this out of proportion and synchronizes this signal over every pain receptor in the body, thus creating the feeling of widespread pain. The problem with fibro is that the pain can't be resolved. Normally, pain functions as a means to let us know that we've been injured. It urges us to take pressure off the wounded area so it can heal properly. Once it's healed, the pain goes away. But because in fibro there is no injury that can heal, the pain can't be resolved. The body will continue to believe that it's injured and will make the pain signals stronger over time in order to call more attention to them.

"This is what makes fibromyalgia a progressive condition. The body keeps telling itself it's in pain, shouting louder and louder until someone will finally listen and take care of it. Only there is nothing to patch up."

The optimism Billy initially felt upon hearing his diagnosis melts away. It takes him a few days of uncontrolled crying to come to terms with the fact that he's going to be in pain to one degree or another for as long as he'll live. It will take him the rest of his life to fully accept his condition, but this is a start. One morning he gets up and opens the curtains. The sun is bright on his eyes. It hurts. It will always hurt. But at least he's feeling something.

 

He picks up yoga. It's hard and he definitely regrets it when his muscles are sore the next day, but with the encouragement of Dr. Jenkins, he keeps at it. And low and behold, after a few weeks, he starts to experience some benefits. He notices an acute difference between his pain levels on days when he stretched in the morning compared to the days when he oversleeps and has to hurry. The exercises make him a little more aware of his body and sometimes even grateful for the things he can still do. The realization that this is probably as good as his body is going to get is a tough pill to swallow but it gives him all the more reason to be grateful for the times he can still hoist himself up the stairs, no matter how painful it is. 

Steve gets him an electric blanket for Christmas which quickly becomes their favourite possession. The impact that getting into a warm bed at the end of the day has on Billy’s body is unbelievable. He sleeps better than he has in months. It doesn’t take long before they have a smaller one downstairs on the couch for when they're watching tv. Because they have a routine by now.

Billy doesn't fully register that they're living together until Steve asks him one morning if he thinks they should repaint the living room. Billy shoots him a dazed frown.

“Why are you asking me?”  Steve answeres the question with an equally puzzled expression.

“Because you live here, too.”

Billy really should have known when he found out that he barely had any clothes in the drawers at his pop’s place. The moment when Steve gave him his own set of keys should also have said something. But mostly the fact that this is what he thinks of when he says he's going ‘home’.

This is home. Steve is home. Home is the two of them together, wherever it leads. 

 

At that point, Billy had long been the prisoner of his own body. It's the one place he cannot escape. He can flee his family, trash his relationship, but he can never leave his body behind, no matter how shitty it is.
Pain is still a structural part of his life. He still has bad days, horrible, excruciating days where even the act of breathing seems too much to handle. There are still times when he's simply unable to get out of bed. In the end, the yoga and the heat pads and the relief meds are just that: relief. They never fully eradicate the bad. But it sure takes the edge off. It makes the pain he still feels more tolerable. It makes things decent enough for him to be able to live outside of his body every once in a while. 

 

In the summer, a few years down the line, home leads them to California. They stay at Billy’s mom’s place, who's thrilled to finally meet her son's boyfriend. On their third day there, Steve catches Billy staring out the window, at the beautiful landscape outside. 

“Whatcha looking at?” He whispers as he presses a kiss to Billy’s bed hair. They slept well that night, woke up late and cuddled up in the warmth of each other’s bodies until their gurgling tummies forced them out of bed. Billy hums contently without lifting his eyes from the window.

“Do you wanna go hiking today?” He asks. Steve strokes Billy's head.

“If you’re feeling up to it." He knows better than to ask Billy if it's a good idea. Babying him typically only makes him more stubborn. Although he's still pretty set in his ways, Billy’s combativeness has mellowed out quite a bit since the diagnosis. Especially with Steve, he’s become way better at admitting to his own limits. And so Steve trusts that Billy wouldn’t have proposed a physically demanding activity if he isn’t fully prepared to pay the price. 

 

In an hour’s time, they're climbing up a hill on a narrow meandering dust path. Thankfully, Billy’s mom had a spare pair of hiking boots lying in the shed that only fall a little short on Steve’s massive feet. They felt fine when he put them on back at the house but after walking for 45 minutes, his toes start to have serious complaints. Billy notices the constipated look on Steve’s face and says:

“Do you wanna catch a break? I’m a little tired.” Steve plants his hands in his sides and puffs out a breath. 

“Yeah. Sure.” 

 

“Your nose is turning red,” Billy smirks after they find a bench and sit down on the side of the track. Steve furrows his brow and touches his nose with careful fingers.

“Are you kidding me? I just put sunscreen on before we left.”

“I think you forgot to do your face,” Billy says with a fond smile. “Does it hurt?” 

Steve lets out a begrudged hum. “Not yet. Does it look bad?” Billy purses his lips.

“Could be worse.” and presses his lips to Steve’s nose before he steals a proper kiss. Steve grins and pulls him in, eager to make the moment last a little longer. 

 

“Goddamn, look at that view,” Steve sighs once they've parted, nodding at the landscape below them. 

“I know,” Billy muses. “I used to come here all the time as a kid.” He twists around and points ahead. "My buds and I would climb all the way to that top and then we'd roll down the hill. We could keep going at it for hours." Steve smiles wistfully.

"Sounds like a wonderful place to grow up," He notes. Billy's lips quirk up in something that is not quite a smile but also not far away from it.

"It was."

 

[Harry Styles - Fine Line]

Without either of them noticing, they slip into a comfortable silence, each sitting with their own thoughts, the soft rustling of the wind as their company. Billy squints his eyes against the brightness of the afternoon sun. He's surprised by how little everything has changed since he left for Hawkins. Sure, some trees have been cut down. There's a construction site that wasn't there a few years ago, but other than that, everything has stayed the same. It's the same landscape that formed the backdrop of his youth. The ocean still appears like a slither of deep blue in the distance. Unchanging. Eternal. 

'If only I could be like the water,' Billy thought. 'If only I could be this ageless thing that can mould itself to whatever it needs to be. Something that can't be crushed, only does the crushing.' 

He remembers how much he used to love the ocean as a kid. How powerful and weightless it made him feel. How he loved to spread his arms, close his eyes and let the waves crash into his body. How he used to be able to give up control. And how the water drowned out every sensation, every emotion he had, everything washed away. 

 

"Jenny from support group has a wheelchair now," He says after a while. Steve turns to look at Billy, but the boy keeps his gaze set on the horizon. He appears calm and for the most part, he is. Still, Steve knows. He knows what Billy means. 

"How is she doing?" He asks as he glances back at the hills in front of them. 

"Not too bad," Billy replies, "She says it was the right decision for her, but it's still hard to come to terms with it."

"Yeah, I imagine."

"The hardest part is that you know you're never getting out of that chair again," Billy adds. "Not really." There's another pause before Steve speaks up.

"It's been on your mind a lot, hasn't it?" Billy nods.

Of course, he tries to centre his attention away from his throbbing joints. He tries not to think of what he used to be capable of, what he can do now, what he might lose in the future. Sometimes he can minimize those thoughts, but they never truly go away. The same way you can't stop the tides from rolling in.

Sometimes you just have to bite through it.

 

Steve turns and glances at the path ahead of them.

"What do you say?" He grins. "Do you want to see if we can make it all the way to the top?" Billy follows Steve's eyes. In his mind he can see himself and his childhood friends zigzagging uphill, tripping and scraping their knees. He remembers how, regardless of where they were on the mountain, they always felt on top of the world.

"Nah," he whispers, a quiet smile playing on his lips. "I just wanted to come here one last time." He glances back at the water on the horizon.

"Let's go home."