No seaman ever sailed his black ship past this spot without listening to the honey-sweet tones that flow from our lips and no one who has listened has not been delighted and gone on his way a wiser man. (The Sirens, Odyssey 12:186-190)
It’s an understood thing, that one’s wings change over one’s lifetime. Molting and puberty, and all that.
But then Billy Hargrove walked into Hawkins with the largest wings any small town teen had ever seen. Bigger than most of the adults’ wings too. And in a land of pubescent snobs where size means a bit too much, the Hargrove kid just became the size king.
Steve nearly spit out his soda when he overheard Carol asking one of her friends, “Do you think it matches his set? Down there?”
Thankfully, he sat with Jonathan and Nancy, so one collective glance around the table, and they moved their lunches outside.
“I don’t see what the fuss is about,” Nancy voiced to them. Her own brunette wings fluttered unconsciously behind her. Steve noticed Jonathan’s eyes lock onto them and the little smile that happened afterward. Steve used to tease Nancy about her little restless mannerisms, but he got it. Nancy is cute. Her wings are cute. She and Jonathan are in love.
Steve is fine. He gave himself a mental pat on the back for being over it. He no longer felt the snake in his gut at the sight of them, and it was hard to hate Jonathan anyways, what with how the three of them had each other’s backs when shit came to town. Byers was all right, and he treated Nancy well. Steve could be okay with that.
Jonathan replied, “It is kind of impressive, how early he bloomed.”
Nancy smirked at him. “In case you missed it, the girls aren’t asking if he can glide.”
Steve picked up, “That’s how it always is, isn’t it? Nobody thinks about what a person can do, just what they look like.”
The pair across from him absorbed that thoughtfully. Steve would know, after all. He had the most unique looking wings in Hawkins. Size-wise, they weren’t spectacular—if anything, they were smaller than most of the skinny pairs tucked under backpacks—but they were beautiful. Dark chocolate feathers, almost black, with big, white speckles. In the summer, the edges and tips turned caramel from the sun and shined like gold.
Most wings just matched the person’s hair color apart from the soft white fluff underneath. Billy’s wings weren’t just large and in charge of the halls. They were almost entirely white, but blushed to the same honey blond of his hair halfway down. He had speckles too, which Steve hadn’t noticed until he heard another girl practically squealing about how his wings matched his freckles.
People used to say Steve’s wings matched inversely to his moles, but whatever.
But it was Steve who noticed Billy’s feathers bent in a clear line across his backside, like he’d been shoved against his car or a bookshelf. Sometimes the ends of his wings were in complete disarray. The guy carried himself like he was ready and willing to fight at all times—certainly tried to drag Steve around with his attitude in gym—but at some point, Steve thought the guy had no sense of self-preservation. Even Tommy, the second biggest hothead in Hawkins now, diffused the instant his wings were in danger.
But not Billy.
Billy, who hounded him on the days he slept the worst. Billy, who shoulder-checked him with little to no regard for knocking Steve’s wing in the process. Steve thought he knew bullying the same way he knew a cocky son of a bitch as easily as looking in the mirror, but Billy was something else.
Steve had tried to be nice to him once—the second time he saw strange impressions in Billy’s feathers during a particularly brutal day in gym. They both had lunch period afterward, so Steve hit up the coffee machine with two paper cups in hand. It had been one of the few times he’d seen Billy winded, and he just felt for the guy, you know? The coffee certainly wasn’t great, but it gave one the stamina to finish the day, at least.
“Here,” he’d said upon delivering it. Billy had just looked at the cup and slowly leaned away to look up at him. “At least you got here as a senior, right? You escaped three whole years of the ex-sergeant’s random military training.”
“The coffee sucks, by the way, but it gets you through McGregor’s Crime and Punishment lectures.”
Steve left it at that, but he was pretty sure Billy never touched the cup. He frowned from across the cafeteria as the guy dumped and returned his tray…and just left the cup where Steve had put it.
Okay, fine. It’s not my job to find the pinecone stuck up his ass.
Then Steve won the next basketball game to cheers from his classmates, and that was the end of Billy’s brief period of ignoring him.
It’s some gross humor that the gym teachers assigned their lockers right next to each other. Steve’s expecting it, the hard hit on his shoulder when Billy shows up. It’s a consolation, at least, him having all that muscle. Makes the blows softer. Steve will choose the muscle pillow over a bone bludgeon any day—
Except he catches the elbow of his wing. It freezes the air in Steve’s lungs. For a long minute, he’s genuinely wondering if a bone is broken, or a ligament snapped. It’s been a long time since he had the urge to instantly cry, but wow, does it hit something fierce.
“Keep your tiny flippers out of the way,” Billy remarks as carelessly as always.
But Steve hears it like a siren and shuts his locker without a word. Just grabs his bag and leaves the locker room, ignoring the calls from Tommy and the rest. He knows the coaches will have hell to pay the next they see him, but Steve doesn’t care. He feels like screaming when he slams his car door behind him, and lets himself cry hunched over his steering wheel on his way home.
Ice, an aspirin, and a while later, his wing is fine, but Steve felt emotionally wrung out by then. He thought he knew pain. Jonathan packed a mean fucking punch when it suited him. Nancy dealt worse without hitting him. Hell, a demogorgon should have put Billy to shame, but here lay Steve: crying into his pillow with an icepack on his shoulder while his wing shivered pathetically.
It occurred to him the next day that it would probably not be the teachers who gave him the most shit, but Billy. That asshole had a talent for knowing when Steve was his most vulnerable. Thankfully it was Saturday, so Steve did what Steve does—goes to Nancy’s house. He can tell he isn’t always wanted; half the time Jonathan’s already there, or she’s getting ready to go meet him. But like with all of Mike’s friends, the Wheeler’s house was just some sort of unspoken sanctum—
Except he’s intercepted by Dustin.
“Do you still have the bat?” he interrogates while opening Steve’s passenger door.
“Bat? What bat?” he all but whines. Nancy’s floor had become his resting place since he’d been demoted from boyfriend, but it still smelled nice and it was exactly where Steve wanted to crash his bad mood.
Dustin’s wings flapped even more energetically than Nancy’s, or at least it looks like it with how wild his curly feathers are. “The one with the nails.”
Oh no. “Why?” Steve didn’t bother concealing his anxiety at this kid’s antics.
“I’ll explain it on the way.” Dustin got into his car with no prompt or invitation.
All things considered, throwing raw meat around wasn’t the strangest way Steve could be spending his weekend. But leave it to Dustin to be observant. “Hey, what’s wrong with your wing?”
“What?” Steve played off, tossing another handful of pink cubes over the railroad.
“Come on, don’t give me that shit. You’re Steve Harrington. Wings and hair always in dumb, glossy editorial glory.”
Steve frowned, unsure how to process that. “Gee, thanks.”
“I’m sorry,” Dustin apologized. “That was a bit much.”
Steve shrugged and let his hand rest in the bucket. “I have bad days too. Don’t worry about me. It’s your…thing we’re trying to find.”
He glanced up to find imploring eyes in the kid. “Yeah, really. Actually, you know…Nance once told me how you and Mike sometimes got…well…”
“Chewed out by assholes?”
“Uh. Sure. That’s a way of putting it.” The mouth on this kid, yeesh.
“Yeah, but El scared ‘em off. It was pretty bad ass.”
Eleven. The girl who didn’t have wings. But then again, she didn’t need ‘em.
Steve made sure to look at Dustin when he asked, “Yeah, I’m sure, but like…that hasn’t happened since, right?”
Dustin shrugged at the ground. “Some kids still have garbage things to say, but I know it’s coming from jealousy. It’s kind of amazing how worked up they get over my grades.”
“Those things don’t come so easily for other people as they do for you. Everybody’s got something. I got the hair, but you actually got the stuff underneath it.”
Dustin’s lips parted as he looked up at Steve, who held his gaze before tossing beef ahead of them. “All I’m saying is, I’m an option, all right? If that shit starts up again. You don’t have to put up with it.”
He heard Dustin swallow and look back down in his peripheral. Then, “No offense, because that’s really cool of you, but I’d sooner tell Jonathan. I mean, he did beat the shit out of you.”
Dustin chuckled. “So are you gonna tell me what happened to your wing?”
“Not a chance.”
Except Hawkins had a real talent for going to hell in an afternoon. Steve made sure Dustin stood behind him when it came knocking on the Byers’ door, even though it turned out to be Eleven knocking demodogs around. The whole house breathed a sigh of relief at seeing her.
But then Steve was the only option. Because Will and Joyce needed Jonathan, and Jonathan needed Nancy. Thus Steve became in charge of the kids. They were just as pleased as he was. While arguing with them, Steve felt like he was cleaning up after their over-excited wings knocking things over more than Upside-Down mayhem—
A sound cut through the air, turning each of their heads, but most prominently, Max’s. The cupcake of the night was being iced with the crescendo roar of Billy’s Camaro.
“He can’t know I’m here. He’ll kill me—he’ll kill us,” Max exclaimed as gravel bit underneath tires. Steve didn’t know how the douche bag fit himself in that vehicle but more importantly, what kind of sister talks about her brother like that? Steve may be an only child, but he knew that’s not how family is supposed to work.
“Stay in here and stay quiet,” Steve announced, and shut the front door behind him.
He had to admit to being impressed by Billy’s smooth step out of his car. It really defied physics—as if Steve would know anything about physics—fitting those wings in a Camaro.
“Am I dreaming, or is that you, Harrington?”
Here we go, Steve sighed to himself. “Yeah, it’s me. Don’t cream your pants.”
He focused on not tripping off the Byers’ porch. He didn’t need to see Billy’s smirk around his cigarette, but the removal of his leather jacket was worth noting. Asshole’s always ready to fight.
“What’re you doing here, amigo? Last place I expected to see you after you skipped school crying yesterday.”
Steve didn’t bite the bait. “It makes more sense for me to be here than you.”
“Oh yeah. That weird three-wheeling you do with the guy who took Nancy Wheeler. Well…birds of a feather, maybe. This whole town reeks of weird flocks. I’m more of a pack animal, myself.”
“Cute,” Steve hushed. “Then what brings you out here all on your lonesome?”
He could hear the bristle in Billy’s tone but he wasn’t sure if it was because of him or not. “Looking for my stepsister. Little birdie told me she was here.”
“Huh. That’s weird. I don’t know her. Frankly, never would’ve guessed you’d have a sister.”
“Small? Redhead? Bit of a bitch.”
Jesus, this guy needs to leave, Steve silently fumed. And besides that, El threw a freaking demodog through the window. How many more were lurking in the woods, keeping tabs on the house? “Doesn’t ring a bell. Sorry, buddy.”
“You seem a little distracted,” Billy pushed.
“Yeah, well, you know. Things go bump out here.”
Billy stared at him. “You’re not telling me you’re afraid of the dark.”
“Not afraid, no, but I think I have a better awareness of what’s out there than you do. So why don’t you run along home nice and fast, amigo.”
But Billy didn’t seem motivated to go anywhere. He took another drag from his cigarette and grimaced. “You know…I don’t know, this… This whole situation, Harrington, I don’t know. It’s giving me the heebie-jeebies.”
Steve can’t help but huff a laugh. You have a low tolerance, then. “Oh yeah? Why’s that?”
“My thirteen year old sister goes missing all day…and then I find her here with you, in a stranger’s house. And then you lie to me about it? Why are you here, then?”
“The Byers’ aren’t strangers. As far as I’m concerned, you’re the strange one here, walking into town like you own it just because some genetic protein gave your wings a boost ahead of everyone else.”
Billy grinned but Steve didn’t share his mirth. “I’m baby-sitting. Will’s got friends who need looking after. It’s more than you can say.”
“Will Byers…” He let the name roll around in his brain. “The kid with one wing? Heard he caused quite the commotion last year. Heard his brother’s a real creep. Makes his, yours, and Wheeler’s thing even more…disturbing.”
“Look, I don’t know what bullshit you’re carrying around from home, but why don’t you take it back and stay there. I want you to leave. Leave me and the tiny flippers alone.”
“No can do. Because one of those tinies is a pain in my ass, and if I don’t bring her home…” Steve waited for the end of that sentence, but whatever flickered in Billy’s eyes vanished behind cocky bravado. “Well. I guess I don’t have to paint a picture. I’m the one trying to return a kid home while you’re keeping her at a house already holding the reputation for a kid going missing.”
Steve couldn’t help but smirk. If Billy really thought he could pull the law into this, he had one hell of a surprise coming in the form of Sheriff Hopper.
“Even if I’d seen her, do you really think I’d let a kid go off with a hot head like you?” His eyes flicked down to Billy’s tongue doing an odd lap around his lips. Billy certainly liked being the big, bad senior, but he looked younger while doing that childish gesture. “I don’t know what you don’t understand about what I’m saying. She’s not here.”
Billy leaned in close. Real close. Steve’s breath held in his chest as Billy pointed with his cigarette. “Then who is that?”
Steve knew it was a bad idea the second he looked over his shoulder. Four heads in a row stared at them from inside the house. Steve could hear Dustin’s muffled voice, “Shit! Did he see us?”
“Oh shit,” he groaned, pivoting back around. “Listen—”
Billy shoved him, hard. Steve might as well have been a domino knocked clean off his feet.
The crisp sound of a bone snapping underneath him registered faster than the agony itself. Steve lay as still as he could but his own momentum rocked him over the pavement. Distantly, he heard Billy over him, “I told you to keep your flippers out of the way.”
The kick in his gut was really unnecessary. Now Steve couldn’t move or breathe. He had no idea what Billy had against him, but the guy seemed really intent on killing him tonight.
Steve heard the Byers’ door smash open and slam closed. He heard the rattled voices of the kids and then Lucas’s name. Tears streaming down his face, Steve pushed himself up, sucking in air despite his blown out stomach. He didn’t have the mental capacity or the time to open the door, so he crashed through it—
“You are SO DEAD, Sinclair!”
Steve, red-faced and glistening, turned him around by the elbow of his wing. “No. You are.”
He couldn’t say if it was one of his better punches. It sent Billy reeling, but Steve all but collapsed against the wall. Jolts of the most mind-numbing pain he’d ever felt shot through his shoulder, lungs, and arm. Something was definitely broken, but fresh tears just slipped over his cheeks as he watched Billy laugh and laugh.
“Looks like you got some fire in you after all, huh?” Steve stood as tall as he could while Billy gestured grandiosely and approached him with a bloody nose. “I’ve been waiting to meet this King Steve everybody’s been telling me so much about.”
Steve had a lot of fucking things to say but now wasn’t the time. He couldn’t speak for Max, but the rest of the kids had probably never seen a real fight in their lives. They didn’t need Billy’s bullshit.
His voice came out hoarse and gravelly as he shoved Billy back a step. “Get out.”
One might say A for Effort but his grades had always been shit.
He ducked under Billy’s swing but he couldn’t help but feel like, in the middle of his punches, that Billy was letting him have the hits. Then he waited too long for the next one. Billy used the milliseconds to grab a plate Steve didn’t see in time.
“Holy shit,” Mike’s voice exclaimed behind him. Steve stumbled backward, his shoes slipping on the shards while he tried to quickly gauge how fucked his face was—were his eyes okay—
Billy wrenched him up by his jacket, eliciting a high-pitched breath from his chest as the fabric forced his wings to move.
“Nobody tells me what to do.”
The last thing Steve expected was for Billy to head butt him, but Billy’s muscle was finally working as a disadvantage to Steve. He careened backwards, and as he slid across the papers taped to the floor, Steve knew he was done. Lungs could only have the air knocked from them so many times in as many minutes, and all he could hear were Billy’s footsteps and his bones grating together.
* * *
The boys could only stare as Steve Harrington got worse than they’d ever seen, but Max found one of the medications used to sedate Will, and moved quietly forward.
One jab. Push the plunger down. That’s all she needed.
Billy froze, turning to her and fumbling for the odd pain in his neck. He stared dumbly at the syringe. A syringe? What the hell were the Byers into that they just had a syringe lying around? “The hell is this?”
The room began to spin. “You…little shit. What did you do?”
At least, that’s what he thought he said, but he was falling, falling backwards. His large, fully wings caught him. Not like the little runts’ pairs, no. His were strong and full—
“AGH!” he drunkenly bellowed as Max pressed her foot over one. Through slit eyes, he saw a…a bat? What the hell’s on the end of it?
“From here on out, you leave me and my friends alone. Do you understand?”
“Screw you,” he mumbled. Stupid punk—
A sharp crunch landed between his legs. Billy could only stare at Max wrenching the bat off the floor an inch from his balls. First a syringe, now a bat with nails?
“Say you understand! Say it. SAY IT!”
He sighed. The room was spinning too much for this shit. “I understand.”
Maybe he really wasn’t good at speaking right now. His throat worked around a swallow. “I understand.”
The bat landed somewhere nearby. What the hell is taped to the ceiling? Billy couldn’t tell if the drug was doing more than sedate him or if the Byers were really as fucking weird as he’d accused…
Something moved in his jeans pocket. The jangling of his keys.
“Let’s get out of here.”
Feet rushed around him. One of the boys hollered above him, “Steve? Steve! You need to wake up!”
“We can’t take him with us. He didn’t want us to go in the first place. We gotta get to the McCorkle Farm now!”
“He’ll be cool! I promise, he’s just worried and trying to do right by Nancy. You should’ve seen him at the junkyard! It was awesome.”
“Just take him, already, because it’s not gonna be good if Billy’s the first one to wake up.”
Billy pushed his mind through the fog. “No…hold on.”
Trying to lift himself up may as well have been the same as lifting his car, but he managed to roll himself onto his side to see Steve’s legs being dragged through the front door. “Not…Hey…not my car, you little shits!”
“Is he waking up?”
“Oh shit! Go! We gotta go!”
“Uh, guys? I think Steve’s wings are broken. These things don’t look right.”
“How’s he waking up? That stuff knocks the Mind Flayer out, cold!”
“It knocks Will out. Will’s smaller than Billy! Hurry up!”
“No no no! Everybody cram into the back! Steve’s needs to lie on his stomach! Put the front seat down!”
Billy managed to get himself onto his stomach but dragging himself across the floor was another matter. Really, what the hell was with all the papers everywhere? “Hey! Hey!”
He watched in drugged horror as Max revved his car and swerved a wide doughnut on the front lawn. By the time he managed to climb to his feet and lean against the doorjamb, his car was a long ways down the street.
* * *
“Incredible!” Mike exhaled.
“I told you,” Max said while swiping her seatbelt off. “Zoomer.”
This is the worst night of my life. Thisistheworstnightofmylife, Steve chanted as he struggled to get out of the vehicle. He succeeded in throwing himself onto all fours in the hard, spiked grass, leaves, and hay. “Guys…” he groaned.
However, the kids were more than intent on getting a heap of supplies out of Billy’s trunk. Steve’s attempts to herald them went unheard until he picked himself up and took the junk out of Dustin’s hands.
“Hello? We are not going down there right now. I made myself clear! Hey! There’s no chance we’re going down that hole, all right? This ends right now!”
“STEVE,” Dustin corralled. “You’re upset. I get it. You’re stressed, and you’re in a lot of pain. But the bottom line is, a party member requires assistance, and it is our duty to provide that assistance. Now I know you promised Nance that you would keep us safe, but I think we both know that you’re not really cut out for it right now. Your wings are broken. It’s okay that you stay up here and act as our lighthouse—”
“You’re absolutely crazy if you think you’re going in there without me!” he erupted before he meant to.
A moment of silence passed before Dustin handed him a bandana and goggles. “Then keep us safe.”
Definitely the worst night of his life.
Dustin helped him cut the straps of a backpack to go through his belt loops to hold his bat, and then he let himself fall gracelessly into the godforsaken hole. There was definitely a lot broken in his back, but that didn’t stop him from yanking the map out of Mike’s hands. “I don’t think so. Any of you little shits die down here, I’m getting the blame. Got it, dipshit? From here on out, I’m leading the way. Come on, let’s go.”
Something must’ve been in his tone, because for once they didn’t broker any argument and actually followed behind him. “Come on. Hey, a little hustle!”
* * *
McCorkle Farm, Billy replayed in his brain. The longer he spent out in the cold night, the more awake he felt. That’s the…the pumpkin patch place, right?
His wings caught on tree branches even without his drugged up clumsiness. Fucking Hawkins was all trees and narrow roads; no place to spread his wings properly. He could try going above the tree line, but there wasn’t any point if he didn’t know where he was going in the first place—
McCorkle Farm 2.1 miles, read a road sign. Under it stood another sign on a wooden post: Patch CANCELLED this year!
Billy took a moment to just hold onto the sign, gulping down the fresh night air. “Why the hell would you shit birds go to a closed pumpkin patch?”
* * *
“All right, Wheeler. I think we found your hub.”
As good as it felt to finally be in the intersection of the inter-dimensional tunnels, it felt like the heart of danger and it was all Steve could do to keep his breathing even.
“Let’s drench it,” Mike announced.
Steve left them to it, remaining by their exit tunnel and keeping an eye on the trail of gasoline they left behind them. “No, splash that part again. If we want the flame to travel all the way from here, it can’t be patchy.”
“I’ve been thinking,” Dustin announced conversationally. Steve already had his metal lighter in hand, fidgeting the cap open, closed, open, closed. “What’s the point of us having wings? With modern stuff like cars and planes—”
“Aw, come on. This again,” Lucas complained.
Mike picked up. “We’re faster in planes and cars.”
“Yeah but it still doesn’t make sense. We’ve got all these anti-flight laws because of ‘safety,’ but like…we’ve got these wings just like we’ve got arms and legs. We’re not in the wrong. Why not just make things safe instead of keeping us from supposed danger?”
Max wondered with a helpless glance at Steve, “Is now really the time for this?”
“It’s the corporate entanglement, man, I’m telling you,” Lucas repeated like this was an age-old argument. “The government wants money. Corporations make money. Governments get the money but wind up giving corporations the power. It’s all about keeping the little wings down so the big wings fly on that green air. Shit, after we discovered the Upside-Down and how aware the government already is about it? They definitely don’t give a shit about our safety.”
Steve pushed a careful breath out of his bruised lungs. “Let’s just focus on not lighting ourselves up, yeah? Feathers make excellent tinder.”
Dustin’s head snapped up. “That’s scary shit, Steve! Don’t say that!”
“Then let’s get this done and done right. Move it.”
“The hole’s just up there,” Mike announced, “We should stop here to allow for the fire to expand without reaching us.”
Steve liked the sound of that. “Alright, you guys ready?”
A chorus of, “Ready,” sounded as they huddled behind him.
“Light her up,” Dustin confirmed.
The only thing that smelled worst than these tunnels, were the tunnels on fire. Steve had to admit, it felt like a job well done, seeing the black and grey tentacles along the floors writhe and scream. It was less gratifying to know that they could’ve moved this whole time. Light and heat engorged behind them as they booked it back to the exit—
He barely had time to think. He doubled back for Mike, who was quickly getting wrapped up in an angry tentacle. “MOVE! Get out of the way!”
Raising the bat over his head the first time made him see dark spots.
The second made him see white.
The third made it so he wasn’t sure if he was passing out, dying, or if his eyes had so overflowed with tears that his goggles had fogged up—
One of those echo-locating screams reverberated around them, and then it was the kids in front of Steve. He gripped Dustin’s shoulder while the latter chirped, “d’Art?”
Then he was moving and Steve was losing his crutch, and Dustin was walking face first to a demodog and—
Plant your feet. Plant your feet. Plantyourfeet. He gripped the bat as Dustin talked to it, removed his backpack for something inside.
A chocolate bar. A freaking chocolate bar. Dustin waved them around the feasting demodog and Steve vowed to berate the kid later. Cleaning out a candy aisle would have been loads cheaper than pounds of fresh beef. He still wasn’t sure how he was going to explain that expense to his parents when the credit card bill arrived.
The tunnel began to tremble. That was never a good sign in the movies. Knees knocked as the rope came within sight. “There! It’s there!”
“Let’s go! Let’s go! Let’s go!”
Steve heaved Max up first. She was the fittest and had kept up with him the best; it made sense to have her up top to haul the others up. Steve worked on autopilot now. Adrenaline numbed everything except the biggest lightning bolts of pain that made his vision vignette and distort.
“DUSTIN! Come on!”
Steve whirled around, a different sound now close enough to overlap the kids’ voices. He gripped his bat and braced himself beside Dustin. They were out of time.
“Dustin! Come on!”
“Climb the freaking rope!”
The force of demodogs sprinting past Steve whirled him around. His arm clipped Dustin, swinging him around too. Between Dustin and the rope, Steve gaped at the herd of creatures completely ignoring them—
“What the hell are those?”
Dustin’s head jerked up the same moment Steve crumpled to the ground and Max exclaimed, “Billy!”
“Is somebody gonna explain to me what in god’s name—?”
Mike yelled, “Pull Dustin up! You need to pull Dustin up!”
But the kid himself screamed, “Steve’s down! Oh my god! Steve’s passing out! Steve? STEVE!”
Dustin startled at a large weight landing next to him, then outright screeched at Billy hoisting him up by his front. “Climb, dirt bag!”
The kid had the wherewithal to do that much, at least, and then Billy held a hand over his face. “Ugh, Jesus, what is that smell? What’s all this shit in the air?”
“PULL STEVE UP!” the kids shouted collectively above him.
Billy pursed his lips at all twelve of them and shook his head for clarity as he crouched over Steve. The bag hanging from his waist would have to go. With quick hisses from the straps, it fell away as Billy lifted him up. “Look alive, pretty boy.”
He gave Steve some harmless slaps through the bandana before he had to come to terms that Steve definitely wasn’t able to climb. Frankly, he didn’t know why the guy was down here at all after a fight had knocked him out cold.
“Jesus,” Billy sighed, letting the guy slump onto his front while he examined their situation and how to get out of it…
Movement on Steve’s back locked his gaze onto his dirtied, shivering wings. The feathers had been scraped off the edge of one, if the elbow crusted in blood was any indication. “Hey, your wings are actually the right size to do something in here. Steve, I’m talking to y—”
He touched Steve’s wing that wasn’t bloodied up, and the whine that burst out of him had the kids flinching from their perch around the hole.
“They’re broken,” Max said. “You broke his wings.”
Both of them, Billy realized as Steve sobbed in and out of consciousness.
“Steve,” he tried again, this time taking off the stupid goggles since all they were doing was collecting tears. “Look at me. You remember rope climbing in gym? You remember that?”
Some sort of awareness moved his gaze around Billy’s face. “Remember when our asshole, ex-military coach had us carry each other up the rope? Do you remember that?”
Steve’s eyes flicked down to the gold pendant dangling near his face, then back up. A slight nod. “Then hold onto me.”
He knelt so Steve’s arms could hold his elbows around Billy’s neck. Then his legs crossed weakly around Billy’s waist. “Hold on tight,” he threw over his shoulder. Steve didn’t feel confident on his back—more like he would slip off at any second—but it was all they had.
Billy had actually struggled during that gym class. He’d certainly done better than most of the others—if nothing else, than in sheer drive and persistence—but he’d worked on building up his weight training ever since.
The rope in gym had been thicker, though. Thicker and made with proper hemp. Billy tried to wrap his hand as well as his wrist with the smooth, plastic threads but with two people drawing it taut, he just had to grit and bear them both. At least the hole ramped like a funnel, so once Billy managed to get over the lip, the kids pulled Steve off his backside.
“Steve! Come on, buddy, into the car, come on. Lie on the seat again and we’ll get you out of here—”
Billy sat up only to flinch behind his hand as the Camaro’s headlights glowed brighter than high beams. Hell, as bright as stadium lights. He glanced at the Wheeler kid when he said a word. Billy could have sworn he said, “Eleven,” but the number seemed a bit too random despite the night’s events.
When the lights faded back to normal illumination, the kids exchanged glances with one another. Billy got to his feet. “Who’s going to tell me why there’s a slimy tunnel underneath a pumpkin patch?”
They flinched from him like they’d forgotten he was there. Dustin called from the car, “It’s easier if you just come with us back to the Byers’ place.”
“Why would I go back there? I’m asking about here—”
“Steve put a demodog in the fridge for me,” Dustin drawled like he was already jaded with this discussion. “It’s easier to tell you with evidence. Let’s go, already.”
“A what?” Billy breathed, but the kids were filing back to the car. Then the real test of the night happened: six people in one Camaro.
* * *
Steve felt the desert in his throat first. And then he heard the mechanic beeping. It took him a long time to get his eyes open properly, and then he realized it was because he lay face down. Something brown entered his vision, and the longer he focused on it, the better he saw her. “Nancy?”
She smiled with a relieved, “Hey. Drink this. Try not to move too much.”
Dustin shot into view, but Steve desperately gulped from the straw she leveled with his mouth. The water was the best he’d ever tasted.
“Steve! Oh my god, you scared the shit out of us.”
“Take it easy, Dustin, he just woke up. The doctor said he might not even stay conscious for long.”
“Thewater’sdelicious,” he slurred around the straw.
She and Dustin giggled. Steve drank until he gulped air, and then he just focused on trying to make his brain stop teetering. Nancy’s hand rubbing the middle of his back felt nice. Distant, mostly, like his back was numb or something—
“Nance,” he chirped.
“Hm?” she chimed back, but her content smile broke against his red-rimmed eyes.
“A-Are they gone?” he whispered. Her expression began to fade into something else, and Steve didn’t like it. The worry and the sympathetic hurt. Then her face blurred behind tears.
“Are they gone? Are they gone?” he sobbed, his body shuddering with his hysterical breaths. “Are they gone, Nancy—”
“Steve, shh, shhh, you need to calm down…”
But Steve could feel the choice as if his feet had arrived at the edge of a cliff. The choice of staying awake or letting his brain bail out of the situation entirely. He let himself lean and fall into darkness.