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But She's Not There

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Maybe it’s because Billy has been told his whole life that his smile looks exactly like his mother’s. That they both share that same relaxed grin- cool and confident.

Cashiers at their local stores used to tell him, waitresses at their most common dives used to tell him… his Great-Auntie May told him about 7 months or so before he was forced to move out to Indiana. When she visited because she was in the San Diego area. When she visited against Neil’s wishes and nearly barged into the house and took Billy out for popsicles on the boardwalk even though he insisted he was too old for that. When she droned on and on in her gravely voice about stories of his mother back when she was a young child… Spoke about stories of his mother’s near-permanent grin that all the time reminded her of Billy’s.

“Whenever she would send me pictures of you on the beach, I swore for a second I was looking at her when she was young. All that curly hair helps too.”

Maybe that made Billy cry that night. Maybe Billy would cry every time he even thought of that.

Maybe that’s why Billy feels like his heart is ripping and like he sees his mother… everywhere.

Or maybe it’s because of that day. That one day. The last mother’s day he actually got to spend with his mother where he gifted her presents he bought at the boardwalk- presents he had saved weeks worth of allowances for. There was that pair of earrings that looked like little seashells that she’d always touch gently whenever they’d pass through the store, and that snowglobe Billy had asked if she’d maybe possibly want to add to her collection because he thought it was cool and wanted to see it every day, and a small bag of that salt water taffy they both loved so much. She seemed to love it all. She hugged him so tight he could hardly breathe for a second. She gave him the brightest smile and they had danced around to their record player and she had given him a big kiss on his forehead even though he whined through it and she whispered about how much she loved and appreciated him and-

And then she left. Day turned to night and night turned to day and that day turned to night and that night saw a taxi driving down the road and out of sight with Billy’s mother inside of it. And Billy saw nothing in her stead but that rusted old ring she would always wax poetic about- the ring that belonged to her mother, Billy’s grandmother, and carried with it more stories than Billy could ever hope to keep track of.

Maybe she left it behind on purpose- to leave Billy a little happiness in her absence. Maybe she left it while thinking of Billy. Billy certainly likes to think so.

Maybe… maybe she wasn’t thinking of anything at all, and certainly not Billy. Maybe if she had she wouldn’t have left… without him. Maybe she gave no thought to Billy at all. Maybe it was a mistake. Billy definitely doesn’t like to think about that.

Maybe that’s why Billy feels so shattered when he thinks about it. Nothing can be trusted because nothing stays. The toys always break, the dog always dies, the flowers always wilt, and the good things… the good things always fade.

And people always worry about mentioning Billy’s mother… but they worry for the wrong reasons. They worry because they think she was a monster. They worry because they believe anyone who could have left their child the way she did must have been cold and cruel. Must have been neglectful. They tiptoe around the issue because they see the way that Billy’s facial expression shifts. They must. Some tell him about it- the kids, in particular, who are young teenagers now and yet still seem to lack tact. Dustin once said: “Woah, did I hit a nerve?” and Steve had chastised him for it.

People always worry because they know it causes pain, but they have the wrong idea about the source.

Yeah he cries, but it’s not because the memories were sour to begin with- oh no, they spoiled over time. Left out in the sun of the San Diego spring, neglected and forgotten and yet not malicious. But they were good before. Maybe it’s because they were too good before. Maybe it’s because they were perfect and sparkling and happy. Maybe that’s what made it so hard to lose. Maybe if they had been rotten before they disappeared, nothing would hurt so much. Maybe none of it would hurt at all.

Maybe it’s the fact that, even though the memories are fading, they’re still colored in a pleasant pastel. And yet with every year past they bleed more and more color out. Maybe Billy’s afraid of the day that they become gray and fragile in his mind. He’s not sure if it’ll feel better or worse. It’s always the “not knowing” that scares him the most.

Maybe Billy thinks about that last Mother’s day he had with his mother. That day right before she left. Maybe he thinks about it too often.

Maybe Billy cried himself to sleep the night she went away. Maybe he cried himself to sleep for a whole week’s worth of nights following that. Maybe he cried until his eyes felt swollen over and his pillow felt permanently damp. Maybe Billy still cries… if he thinks about it too much…

Maybe Billy would never admit it. To anyone. As long as he lived.

----*----

Billy’s honestly a little upset about it, but maybe Joyce Byers isn’t as crazy as everyone says.

He’s only known her for about 2 hours now and he’s mostly certain the woman is just a typical mother. He was kind of looking forward to the drugged out mad-woman everyone painted her to be. Would have made the evening a whole lot more interesting.

It’s a Friday night, meaning it’s date night for Hop, except today’s “date night” includes Billy and El tagging along to the Byers home to have dinner with Joyce, Jonathan, and Will. Hopper was so scared to tell Billy about it that it took him a literal week to do so. Every day Hop would fidget with his hands and stutter over requests and shuffle his feet until yesterday morning when he accidentally broke his coffee mug, sighed heavily, and said “We’re going to the Byers’ house tomorrow so you can meet Joyce.”

Billy just blinked.

Because he’s heard about Joyce Byers. He knows the two of them have some long, twisted, exhausting tale of how they’ve known each other since they were kids and they’ve beat around the bush for decades and shit went down in both of their lives and it “just wasn’t the right time” and blah blah blah… Billy never really listens past that. He knows other shit went down. More serious shit that he can’t help but hear when he tries to tune the whole story out. He knows Joyce was dating a man who passed away in the chaos of last fall. Passed away when the monsters were still present and terrorizing the select few of Hawkins. Billy can’t say he’s unfamiliar with the terror they spread. He wishes he could.

Anyway, now Billy has to meet the Joyce Byers that Hop has been waxing poetic about since they started dating a couple months ago. And he’d be lying if he said his stomach wasn’t turning thinking about it because everyone has met her except for him. Everyone knows Joyce Byers. Hell, Billy thought he knew Joyce Byers. There was still talk of her and her two sons and the shit that happened back in ‘83 by the time Billy took his first steps onto the Hawkins High campus. He heard all about how she went crazy. How she nearly got sent to the loony-bin. How she was on ‘shrooms for months and hallucinated about monsters and vines and things that go bump in the night. Billy can’t say he believed too much of it, but he let it paint some kind of picture.

Maybe the picture was wrong.

It’s just that… this woman doesn’t seem very crazy. A little frazzled most of the time, sure. A little panicked sometimes, yeah. But she seems nice enough and her smile has yet to turn to a leer and that’s alien to Billy. Her smile is warm in a way that reminds Billy of the sun and that’s something he’d never say.

“So, Billy, what do you like to do?”

It’s Joyce, asking politely over a bite of mashed potatoes that Jonathan had to help her with because saying she was frazzled in the kitchen is a bit of an understatement. But she asks… kindly. With soft eyes Billy can’t let himself believe. It’s a strange set of emotions battling in his stomach and up through his chest.

“What?” Billy asks less than gracefully.

“What do you like to do?” Joyce asks again, just as kindly, no hint of irritation in her voice.

And Billy can’t even think of what to say. Having people interested in the general goings on of his life is still a fairly new concept to him, even if he’s been living with Hop and El for the better part of a year now. Even if he’s been basically dating Steve “The Mom” Harrington for the last 6 months.

“I… I don’t…” Billy starts, voice getting caught and turning quieter than he intended. He’s wracking his mind for anything to say.

What does he like to do?

The look Joyce gives him feels like it should be condescending, he knows it, but he doesn’t even see a hint of it. He can’t find anything to hate about it. It’s definitely not for lack of trying.

“Any hobbies or… just things you enjoy doing?” Joyce asks again, so softly that Billy feels his blood get hot at the question. Billy can’t make sense of the looks she’s giving him. She presses just like the rest of them, but she does it without that glint in her eye. She does it with some other intention in mind. Joyce is still going on, softly and kindly. “Like, Jonathan likes to take pictures and Will likes to draw. Is there anything in particular that you like to do?”

And suddenly everything rushing through Billy’s mind feels absolutely small. He feels himself shrinking in a way he’s unfamiliar with. No one has ever asked him this. He wasn’t prepared. The few things that come to mind feel stupid as they pass.

He’s taking too long to answer. Everyone is shifting nervously and Joyce’s brow furrows a bit.

“Sorry to pry, I just… want to get to know you! I don’t know too much about you... but I don’t mean to put you on the spot.”

“Basketball.” Billy says, suddenly and on a forcibly lazy shrug. He mumbles. Joyce still hears.

“Oh, right!” She jumps at the answer as the rest of the table seems to release a sigh at the awkward silence being broken. “Hop said he went to one of your games!”

Billy’s shocked to hear that Hop mentions stuff like that. He just nods.

“I hear you guys are pretty good this year.”

She doesn’t sound disingenuine, but something tells Billy that Joyce doesn’t actually know that much about basketball. He just shrugs.

“We should all go to a game!”

Billy stops eating. Jonathan does too, in lieu of looking at his mother.

“For support!” Joyce continues on as the two boys gawk.

El brightens up, sitting up straighter and giving a big bright grin that Billy can’t look at for too long because he’s far too busy with the very important task of shoving his mashed potatoes around.

“Basketball!” El says through a wide grin. “Basketball is fun!”

Jonathan snorts. Billy grunts.

“It is pretty fun!” Joyce agrees, and Billy can hear her voice pulled a little taut. There are pins and needles on Billy’s seat as he waits for the facade to break.

The conversation shifts to sports for a bit, El saying which are her favorites and why, when the conversation lulls and there’s just the clink of silverware against plates to accompany Joyce’s soft voice again as it speaks:

“So how is school, Billy?”

Shock floods his system, but he hopes it doesn’t show.

From his periphery Billy can see that Jonathan is staring at him. Billy’s skin is crawling and his voice is lodged in his throat like a chicken bone and he just…

Stares...

Probably wide-eyed and definitely shocked at Joyce. The silence is back and there are strange feelings crawling up the back of his shirt and around his knees and he’s itching.

“Uh…”

Hop clears his throat roughly.

Billy jumps a bit, but he doesn’t look away from Joyce. Her eyes are searching, but they’re open and kind. They’re not invasive. Billy doesn’t know if this is better or worse than the leering.

“Fine.” Billy finally gets it out. It’s too loud for the moment, but it dislodges them from the awkward stalemate. Joyce seems almost pleased. Almost.

“How’re classes?”

Billy looks down at his food with a sour taste in his mouth. There are too many eyes on him in too small an area. He realizes suddenly that he cares too much about what these people think of him.

Why though? Whywhywhywhywhy-

Trying to push the feeling down is a feat.

“Fine.” He grunts again, forcing another forkful of food into his mouth to stop letting more words tumble out.

Joyce nods. That’s the end of it.

The rest of the dinner is alright. Light stories and friendly jokes are passed around as Billy shovels the rest of his dinner into his mouth. He tries his best to seem present until he just doesn’t. He’s not sure why he feels like his physical presence can’t be enough in this instance when it’s always been enough before.

Billy’s been done with his dinner for about 10 minutes by the time the fight over who’s on dish duty starts. Will tries to take up the responsibility until Joyce reminds Hop that he promised he’d do them this time which leads to Hop recruiting El to give him some help.

And before Billy can blink, he’s standing alone in the living room, Joyce ribbing Hop in the kitchen, Will by her side asking if they’re sure they don’t need his help, and Jonathan slinking off down the hall to his room.

About a second passes before Billy decides he needs a smoke.

He digs into his pocket, trying to do it discreetly, fumbling around for the familiar box as he opens the door. The door squeaks as it opens, inconsiderate of his efforts to move quietly. He winces at the sound, and the sudden cold doesn’t help, but night air feels good in his lungs so he tries to appreciate what he can. The house is a little drafty, but it seems to do its job well enough because the night is far more biting once Billy finds himself surrounded by it. He walks up to the railing, his boots falling heavy onto the creaking patio, and pats his pockets for his lighter.

The feeling of his thumb on the flint feels good. His first drag feels good. The burning in his lungs feels like a hug he never wishes for and yet brings with it memories. Familiar, painful, pastel memories of-

“Billy?”

Shit-” Billy hisses, whipping his head to see Joyce’s face. He lets the cigarette slip from his fingers and fall to the dirt below the house and then watches for a split-second as the smoke bleeds out onto the dirt before he’s stepping down the stairs in order to stamp it out.

“Oh, I’m sorry!” Joyce says, morphing back into the flustered version of herself. Billy sees her watching with wide eyes when he looks up.

“No uh- uhm-” Billy twists his heel into the dirt for longer than necessary. “M’sorry. Shouldn’t have been…” Billy drags on, feeling stupid for apologizing but knowing he’d feel even worse for getting caught smoking outside of this woman’s house without at least seeming apologetic.

“Oh no! Nothin’ to be sorry about, I smoke too.”

Billy must do a very bad job of hiding his confusion because Joyce chuckles at him. It burns his chest.

“D’you want one…?” Billy trails yet again, digging into his pocket before Joyce holds her hand up.

“No, thank you.”

And suddenly they’re pitched into limbo again, lodged in that same awkward stalemate where Joyce is now standing between him and the door. If he was a cat, this is when Billy’s fur would start to stand on end. This is when Billy’s tail would raise and flick. Instead, he just grits his teeth inside his mouth.

Because this is when the pass is made. This is when the leering starts. Billy braces himself for it. He briefly wonders if he’ll tell Hop about it when they get home.

But... Joyce’s eyes stay kind. They stay soft. The porchlight lights up most of her face as she looks him over and Billy stiffens but… she’s examining him almost like a wounded puppy. Like he’s her son that just walked back home with a scraped knee.

It’s too familiar and it’s because Billy has seen this before. Has seen this on a blonde woman in the middle of a Saturday afternoon when Billy was much shorter. Much warmer. Warmed by the light of the summer sun. Suddenly memories are flashing vividly and Joyce is smiling empathetically and Billy feels like he’s been hit by the word coming to mind.

Empathetic…

“Would you like to sit down?” Joyce asks, taking a step to the side and towards the chairs on the porch. She leaves the path to the door wide open, so Billy could pass her if he says no.

Billy wants to say no.

“No thanks.” He responds, voice sounding forced to his ears because it is. He braces himself again, this time to be coerced to sit. He braces himself for the disapproving looks. He braces himself for the betrayal.

“Alright.” Joyce says and her voice is still just as soft. There’s no hint of betrayal or disappointment in her face. She takes another step to the side and lets the path to the door grow bigger. The only look to be found in her eyes is empathy and Billy stares at it for a little longer even though the cold is seeping through his jacket.

He walks himself up the stairs, letting his mouth twist into some kind of a smile as he passes by her. She’s not even trying to cause it, Billy can tell, but her eyes and his refusal are all leaving a dark pit in his stomach.

Joyce stays out on the porch, but Billy tries a little too hard not to notice. His mind is racing and his stomach is tying knots within him and he needs to splash some water on his face if he isn’t going to get his smoke and-

There’s El on the couch, sitting with Will who’s explaining something about cards and elves and wizards or… something.

“Hey.” Billy calls out, watching the small boy look up quickly before shrinking in on himself. “Where’s your bathroom?”

“Uhm…” Will’s soft voice starts, eyes shifting around like he isn’t sure he should be looking Billy in the eye. “It’s just down the hall. First door on the left.”

Billy nods his thanks, blood rushing too fast through his body as he makes his way to the bathroom. Suddenly all of the space around him feels like it’s too much. Too much of a chance for people to be watching him. He doesn’t have a lot of room in his mind to care about Will seeming so nervous.

Billy gets into the bathroom and looks into the mirror and hears all of those voices that ever told him how “you have your mother’s eyes” and he washes his face until those vivid memories turn pale again.

Sometimes having her eyes and her smile is like a blessing and a curse. He hears it even when people don’t say it. All anyone needs to do is compliment him on how blue they are and he’s thinking of her. They say “you have pretty eyes” and he hears “you have her eyes”. He has her ring and her smile and her eyes. Some days he wishes he had nothing of her with him. Nothing at all. Not her smile or her hair or her anything else.

When Billy finally catches his cool enough to leave the bathroom, he hears something at the end of the hall and sees a tall, lanky figure slinking it’s way through the back door and into the house. Billy registers it as Jonathan, standing still like a scared deer before he slips into his room and shuts it quietly.

Billy can smell the very familiar scent of weed from the other end of the hall. He smirks at the thought, chuckling a little incredulously at the idea of sweet, quiet Jonathan being a major stoner.

He’s briefly itching to go knock on Jonathan’s door, if only to scare the shit out of him, when Hop calls to Billy from the kitchen

“Hey kid! You ready to go?”

The words bring relief to Billy’s blood.

El is swaying on her feet, swearing up and down that she’s “not tired yet” over yawns that split her face in half. Billy figures that’s their sign to leave. Joyce’s eyes and voice are still kind, Will is so bashful he can’t even look at Billy, and Jonathan is lured out by his mother’s call with eyes so bloodshot Billy has to stifle a laugh.

“It was a pleasure to meet you Billy!” Joyce says sweetly, shaking his hand and giving a big grin.

Billy can’t find his voice, so he just nods.

~~~

The car ride back to the cabin is mostly quietly listening to Jim Croce and Creedence Clearwater Revival while El mumbles demands to change the station. Jim says he will and reaches for the radio but just mimics turning the dials. When El asks again, he says: “This is on every channel.” over a chuckle that makes Billy’s heart turn a little fluffy.

El is asleep in the back of the truck by the time they get home.

“What’s got her so beat?” Hop asks as if Billy would know. And yeah, he does know… it’s just the assumption

Billy opens the door to scoop her up and carry her into the house. She wiggles a bit but she’s not awake enough to stand, so Billy just hip checks the door closed.

“She was up half the night talking someone’s ear off. Probably Max.” Billy says, following Hop into the house so he can toss El onto her bed. That usually wakes her enough to get settled in for the night.

It’s moments like this though… moments with this new, strange dynamic… moments where this young kid -who was nearly broken before- feels safe enough to fall asleep in their presence… moments so foreign to Billy that really make him relieved. Because they make the old memories fade to the back of his mind. They create new ones that have no relation to the others. They push the others out.

El’s fast asleep and Billy’s about ready for bed when Hop’s voice stops him.

“So?”

It’s all he says. Billy raises an eyebrow in his direction.

“So… what?”

“So… what do you think? About Joyce?”

Billy must have heard wrong. He knows he heard wrong.

“What?” He asks, stopped by Hop who is currently standing between him and his bed.

“What do you think about her?”

Billy’s mind is racing. He pictures every woman he’s ever met in this same capacity.

Calendar girls…

That’s what Billy used to call them. That’s what Billy always thought of them. That’s what Neil used to play for them- every single one of them. When he started dating again after Billy’s mother left. He’d introduce Billy to these women and Billy would have to sit around and listen to Calendar Girls by Paul Sedaka and question how long this one would last. Neil went through them quickly at the start. Every week or two Billy was shaking the hand of a new woman, or getting his cheek pinched by new, differently colored, well-manicured fingers. Every week another calendar girl. Then every month another calendar girl. Then Susan and Max.

Billy’s used to meeting new women. The memories are a dusky gray.

But Billy can’t say he’s used to this. He can’t understand why these two adults have some sick and twisted desire to forcibly pull every emotion out of his body.

He can’t understand why his opinion even matters.

“She’s… fine.” Billy stumbles, slipping past Hop and making his way to his bed.

“Just fine?” Hop asks, exasperated. Billy’s body boils up as he grabs his pillow.

“Yeah? She’s alright.”

“Really? That’s all you have to say-”

“Well what do you want me to say?” Billy turns quickly onto Hop, still gripping his pillow harshly. “Who cares? You’re the one dating her!”

His voice is too loud but his volume dial is broken.

I care because-! Because…”

Billy eggs him on with his expression, face twisting up to get him to say something.

Hop’s running his hands through his hair, which he only ever does when either of the kids are being especially difficult.

“Because… because you know why!”

“I don’t.”

He does. But it’s wrong. It has to be wrong.

“Because you’re my son now and if I marry her-if I... “ Hop stops dead in his tracks, face falling and eyes slipping to look at the floor. He breathes out a solid breath. Billy just watches.

Watches as this man realizes for what seems to be the first time that he wants to marry this woman. Realizes that he wants to join his family with hers. And Billy just watches.

Hop moves to sit down, flopping less than gracefully onto the couch, his hand shaking a bit. He looks up at Bily standing in front of him and seems to be searching for something- Billy assumes it’s empathy. But Billy just watches.

“Uh... “ Hop starts and fails like a worn out motor. He takes a second to rev again. “You’re my son. And I don’t want to m-... muh… marry anyone that you…. Don’t like.”

It shocks Billy’s system. It’s too much all at once. It’s a flood of emotions and responsibility and Billy’s threshold can only take so much and-

And…

And this man is searching for Billy’s approval on this. Even if it’s small. Even if it’s just a thought, an idea, an inkling, a possibility… Billy suddenly feels like a gatekeeper and he doesn’t like it.

He’s never had the ability to decide on one of the calendar girls.

Billy shrugs, still gripping his pillow so hard he’d be worried about it tearing if his mind could let him get that far.

“I just met her.”

Billy mumbles it quietly. His volume dial is shot.

It takes a second for Hop to react, but when he does it’s just a nod.

“Yeah… yeah you’re right.”

Hop stands up and suddenly his presence feels so much bigger. Suddenly Billy feels a good few feet shorter. Billy almost wishes he could replace the face in his memories with this one. This one that cares to ask.

“Get rest, kid.” Hop says to him in his gruff voice that‘s so surprisingly gentle. Then he walks away to get ready for bed.

Billy drops his pillow onto his bed and wrestles with thoughts for a few hours before he’s able to finally sleep.

----*----

When Billy said “I just met her.” he didn’t think that Hop would hear “Let the Byers invade my life.”

Or maybe that’s just what the universe heard, because the amount of Byers family members in his life has just multiplied.

It’s just that it’s Monday morning and he’s running a little late to school and there’s someone parked in his spot. And okay, maybe it’s not his spot, per say, but it’s a spot that he frequents when he doesn’t feel like parking front and center. He thought this was a well-known fact by this point. Sure he’s only been here about a year but still, he’s one of the most popular guys in school and that’s supposed to come with perks.

So he steps out of his car to size up whoever this dude is when…

“Byers?”

Jonathan Byers steps out of the car at the same time that Nancy appears from the opposite side. Jonathan doesn’t even look up at Billy, but Nancy is clearly disgusted by Billy’s presence.

Billy doesn’t care for that.

“Hey Byers!”

Jonathan barely reacts, but Nancy is glaring now. Billy really doesn’t care for that.

“I know you hear me.”

“What do you want, Billy?” Nancy sneers, lip curling up with it. Billy mimics her.

At this point, Billy’s not sure what he’d have to do to get people like Nancy to stop sneering at him. He knows he was an asshole those first few months that he was here. He knows it was fucked up to try to terrorize kids. He gets it, he really does. He likes to think he learned from it. He apologized to their faces, he meant it with sincerity, he’s spent time with all of the little brats because Steve likes them so Billy has to like them too. And he almost does, honestly. They’re brats but they’re not the worst. Billy can talk to them about their weird, nerdy little games and almost understand them. He drives them places when Steve is busy with work or something. At first he would threaten them not to get his car sticky, to which one of them would always reply “we’re not toddlers, your car is fine.” before then complaining about how cramped it is in the backseat. Now they just ask him to take the long way around so he can speed down the straightaways on the outskirts of town and they can take turns sticking their head out of the car like excitable dogs. He’s becoming friends with Dustin and he drives Max to Lucas’ house whenever she asks or drives the both of them to the arcade and it’s fine, it really is. He’s not on edge every day. His blood isn’t rushing too fast through his body anymore. He’s able to relax and breathe and just stop vibrating 24/7- no longer constantly on the edge of anger or rage like he always used to be.

He’s doing better. A lot better. But people like Nancy still sneer.

And he’s trying not to get too upset over it. Steve said Nancy’s a hard shell to crack. Dustin’s mother overheard and said “not everyone will accept your apology and that’s their choice.” And Billy’s trying to be okay with that.

It’s just that-

“I’m not talking to you.” Billy seethes back to Nancy, feeling his heart grow edges.

“Nance, let’s just-”

Nancy crosses her arms, ignoring Jonathan’s quiet protest. “Well I’m talking to you. What do you want?”

She’s grown some real balls after working for that paper over the summer. Billy can’t say he’s not sort of proud of her. He’s had a fair few interactions with Nancy in the past- most of the time she’s avoiding conflict and acting “holier than thou”. Billy doesn’t really have anything against her, but he wouldn’t go out of his way to interact with her. He wishes she would stay out of this.

“You’re in my spot.” Billy says once he catches Jonathan’s eye again. Jonathan seems confused, but Nancy asks the question.

Your spot? What are you talking about? You park in the front.”

No, sometimes I park back here. In that spot.”

He’s starting to feel petulant. He’s irritated about it. It’s creating more edges that are scraping at his chest.

“I guess we just don’t pay enough attention to you. C’mon Nancy-” Jonathan says like he’s irritated as he pulls at Nancy’s sleeve, but the girl isn’t budging.

“Are you serious? You got a spot, who cares?” Nancy says, planting her hands firmly on her hips while Jonathan keeps trying to pull.

“This spot is under this stupid tree and it’s gonna shed leaves all over my car.”

Nancy laughs incredulously and it makes Billy’s skin crawl.

“You’re serious?” She asks like he’s stupid and he’s gonna fight.

“Nance, it doesn’t matter, let’s just leave. Just ignore him.”

Ignore me, huh Byers?” Billy asks on something that sounds like a roar.

“Nancy let’s go.”

“No! Just because he apologized doesn’t mean he gets to still act like an asshole.” She says it while facing Billy and he’s really about to let someone have it. Except he promised he’d stop fighting because he’s being a “bad influence”. He’s boiling. He’s gonna start screaming but Jonathan seems to sense it because he wraps his arm around Nancy and guides her away.

“Just let it go.” Jonathan says, finally getting her to walk away.

Billy’s left standing there, watching the two walk away, Nancy still visibly angry. Billy’s still fuming, moreso at the interaction than anything else, getting ready to yell after them or something when he hears the aggravating whoosh of a bike being furiously pedaled.

He should ignore it. But there’s a louder whoosh and the sound of a splash and then-

Billy’s pant leg is wet.

“God damnit!” He growls more than yells, but he looks up at the source and knows it was loud enough for the biker to hear because the small figure is stopping and-

It’s a boy on a bike following behind a bunch of other bikes and goddamnit of course it is-

“Sorry!” Comes a small voice, foot coming down to stop himself and little bowl cut flopping as he turns to look at Billy who must look pretty damn mad because the boy’s already pale face goes completely white.

Billy glares harder, for good measure.

“Will! C’mon Will, let’s go!” It’s the voice of one of the other little brats. It kicks Will back into gear, but he seems to still be working on shaky legs as he mounts his bike and rides away.

The bell rings and Billy begins his walk into school with a soaked up pant leg and a car already being covered in leaves.

And Billy’s not religious but if he prayed he’d be praying right now that he doesn’t have to see another Byers boy for the rest of the day.

But he doesn’t pray, and maybe that’s why it only takes about two periods before he’s faced with Jonathan again. Like every day, Jonathan keeps his eyes off of Billy. Billy’s still not sure if it’s pointed or out of fear, but recently he’s been more inclined to believe the former. Something about his actions never seemed quite timid to Billy but rather pointedly ignorant. Like if he just doesn’t acknowledge Billy, he’ll go away. It’s honestly not too far from the truth. Billy’s never been too fond of working too hard for a little entertainment- if someone’s ignoring him then he’ll ignore them right back. It’s no fun if there’s no immediate satisfaction. And it’s not like he really bothers or bullies anyone anymore- it’s all part of him “working on himself”- but it’s still fun to see kids squirm and Jonathan just doesn’t so why even bother.

It’s easier to ignore, and Jonathan seems to feel the same way. And it works perfectly well, the both of them ignoring each other, but only when the universe hasn’t decided to put a wrench in it.

“Partners for your project are randomly assigned, so don’t start causing a fuss.” Their history teacher commands in his liquidy voice. Billy tunes it out, vaguely hearing names until he hears his pair.

“Hargrove and Byers.”

Billy figured. He doesn’t know why, but he really figured.

He slips down a bit in his chair, tonguing at his teeth and forgetting every word of instruction as it enters his head.

“Alright, for the last 10 minutes I’d like you to sit by your partners and discuss a meeting time for you both to work on your project.”

Everyone stands up and bustles around, but Billy refuses to move. It takes a couple of minutes, once everyone is getting settled again, for Billy to look back and realize Jonathan hasn’t moved either.

Billy absolutely refuses to lose this fight, so when Jonathan starts to stare Billy down, Billy just stares right back until a minute has passed and Jonathan sighs and stands and makes his way over to the empty desk next to Billy.

“What’s up, Byers.” Billy doesn’t bother to look up.

“Yeah… Hi Billy.” Jonathan slips quietly into the chair, pulling a notebook and pencil out of his bookbag. “So uh… when can you meet?”

Billy shoots a raised eyebrow in Jonathan’s direction.

“For the project?” Jonathan asks again, as if assuming that Billy wasn’t paying attention at all. It wouldn’t be a far out assumption.

“Uh, yeah, you can do that.”

“I’m not doing this entire project by myself.”

“Well I’m not doing any of it so I guess part of it just isn’t getting done.”

Jonathan is quiet for so long that Billy gets curious. He looks up to find the skinny boy giving him a very pointed look.

“We have to pass this class if we want to graduate.”

“I don’t really care about graduating.”

“Well I do.” Jonathan insists, and it’s the strongest Billy has ever heard the boy’s voice. “So we need to do it.”

“If you’re the only one that cares, then why shouldn’t you be the only one that does it?”

“Because it’s meant for two people, now are you gonna tell me a time we can meet or not?”

“You’re not coming over to my house.” Billy is immediately insistent in a way he doesn’t feel in control of. Still, he doesn’t feel regretful at his words.

Jonathan blinks a little harshly before shrugging. “Fine, okay. Whatever. You can come over to my place, I’m sure my mom will cook you dinner-”

“I’m not going over to your place for dinner.” Billy’s voice gets even harsher, something boiling up just at the memory of dinner at the Byers.

Jonathan is eyeing Billy curiously, confusion set on his brow as his mouth moves with words again, but Billy isn’t paying attention. Billy is falling down more holes of more memories and more feelings right in the middle of class. Jonathan may be trying to get his attention but all Billy can see is Joyce Byers’ soft eyes and all he can hear is Hop asking about her. Asking about marriage. Getting ready to ask for Billy’s permission as if he needs it and dangling this idea of more family right in his face as if he wants it and… and he doesn’t. He knows he doesn’t, he knows he doesn’t want more people around because having more people around means more people to share with and he… he…

“Look, you’re not my fucking brother, alright?” Billy hisses, but it’s quiet. Almost under his breath. Almost too quiet to be heard. It falls out of his mouth like marbles, uncontrollable and overwhelming and no matter how quiet his voice really is, the impact is too loud on his ears. Because Jonathan goes nearly stock still and Billy’s blood is running quickly through his veins in some kind of anxious fear because why did he say that.

“Who said I was?” Jonathan asks, louder than Billy wishes even though it’s hardly loud at all. But the volume is in the look that he gives him and the way he turns to face Billy a little more completely and the fact that his voice is even more sure than before. “Who says I even want to be?”

And if Billy feels something sharp strike near his heart, he would never tell anyone. He barely gets a chance to understand it himself, because the bell is ringing shrill in his ears and everyone around them is moving and their teacher is yelling some kind of instructions and all of those memories and feelings brewing in his chest come out easier if they taste like anger.

So.

“No one.” Billy growls, throwing himself out of his seat as Jonathan stares. Everyone moves around him like water rushing past a stone. “And I don’t wanna be your brother either.”

“Fine.” Jonathan says it like it’s nothing and Billy feels like his insides are being rubbed raw.

“And you can just do the project yourself.” Billy grabs his book and his pen, glaring daggers down at Jonathan who just looks up with a near blank expression.

“Alright fine.” There’s such little inflection in his voice Billy could scream.

“And then we can stay the fuck away from each other.” Billy spat out into Jonathan’s still unchanging face. The thin boy rises, grabbing his things but never looking away from Billy. Only for a second does Billy see something like frustration in Jonathan’s expression.

“Sounds good to me.” Jonathan says quietly but surely before turning and stalking out of the room.

~~~~

Billy needs to smoke.

He tries not to when he’s at school because he got detention for a whole week when he was caught by Janitor Carter, but he’s had to hold off smoking at home because Hop is trying to quit for El… and Will... so Billy has to stop too, so Hop isn’t tempted. But he’s a little too close to the edge right now and he’d rather be caught smoking than smashing someone’s face in so...

He needs a smoke.

So he cuts English because he needs to. He usually cuts Chemistry because screw any class that forces him to mess up his hair, but that isn’t until after lunch and as much as English doesn’t totally suck, he needs this now.

He forgot his English class is right during Freshman PE. Still, standing on the forgotten side of the old gym and finally feeling the nicotine flow through his system is worth having to listen to kids getting screamed at to run around.

He really thought so, at least.

Except some footsteps are getting louder and then a figure dashes past him and then more footsteps follow before his cigarette, only half smoked, is suddenly being knocked out of his hand and onto the ground. For all the rage that flows through him, Billy uses every ounce of willpower to take a deep breath before he unloads hell onto whoever just knocked into him.

It’s some pint-sized little punk. He doesn’t recognize him.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Billy asks, voice hard with a stare to match. He tries to feel bad at the satisfaction that he gets from watching the kid shake.

“Uh…. uhm…. Uh-”

“You just made me lose a cigarette, so you better have a pretty damn good excuse.”

“I wa-wa-was-”

“I’m getting impatient.” Billy bites out, fully aware of the fact that he towers over the little runt.

“I was trying to catch someone.” The boy finally rushes out, still shaking like a falling leaf.

“Uh huh, well I don’t see anyone so you better scram.”

“But-”

“Before I get really impatient.” Billy bites out, making himself even bigger until the kid runs away in the direction he came.

But just like he has been for months now, Billy is all empty threats. All bark, no bite. Most people prefer it that way and, truth be told, he does too. That dark feeling in his chest is gone now that he speaks while knowing he probably won’t act on his own words. It’s easier this way to just talk a big game without showing it. Which isn’t to say he doesn’t get into fights, but those people deserve it… most of the time at least.

There’s shuffling coming from around the opposite corner of the wall Billy’s leaning on. Call it a lucky guess, but Billy thinks he knows who it is.

“Hey, little Byers. I know it’s you.”

There’s a scuffling sound, like someone trying to get their footing.

“You better not try to run away. Come back here.”

A small head peeks out from around the corner, before the rest of the boy appears, holding his arms tightly crossing against his chest.

“H-hi… Billy.”

Billy definitely doesn’t feel satisfaction now, seeing little Will Byers so scared by his presence. He can’t fully explain why.

Billy would ask about the bully chasing him. He would ask why his friends aren’t around to help him out. He would ask why he just can’t find it in him to stand up for himself.

But instead he just gestures to his pant leg.

“See this?” He asks, and attached to it is some kind of hope that it lightens Will up just enough to stop shaking over being chased by a bully. Will’s face falls when he sees Billy’s left pant leg is still a little darker than his right one.

“Oh… uh….”

“Now, who do you think did this?” Billy asks, and if there’s danger in his tone he worked very hard to put it there.

Will looks for the all the world like the most apologetic version of himself that he can be and suddenly Billy feels like an asshole. He doesn’t particularly like feeling like an asshole.

“Sorry Billy.” The young boy’s voice is so quiet that it feels like a slap to Billy’s face. Because he’s just a kid. And maybe he’s a freshman in high school now, maybe he’s gaining on him in the height department, maybe he’s smarter than Billy could ever hope to be and actually has a somewhat active social life, even if it’s filled with nerdy shit, but still. He’s a kid in Billy’s eyes and when he shakes like that he looks so small and… well sue him for being a little worried.

Billy has to look away.

“Yeah well…” Billy sighs, tongue sticking into his cheek as he thinks about what he was even mad about in the first place. “Just… chill out with your bike in the parking lot, okay?”

Will seems shocked to hear it, but Billy presses on.

“People drive too fast.” Billy adds on, sitting in his hip and trying to keep his cool. “You’re gonna get hurt or something speeding through on your bike like that.”

“Uh…” Will seems to be waiting for the punchline. Billy’s just waiting for this whole interaction to be over. “Uh huh. Alright… yeah. Okay Billy.”

The cigarette on the ground is still bleeding smoke into the dirt and suddenly something feels a bit too familiar. Billy stamps it out.

“Alright. Go back to running laps or whatever they’re making you do.”

Will nods frantically, giving a small smile and an even smaller wave before he runs away back to the track.

If Billy feels a pang in his heart at that little wave, he wouldn’t even admit it to himself.

----*----

“So… were you bullying Jonathan today?”

Billy’s not sure how Steve manages to pick the absolute worst times to have conversations like this, but he always does. Just something in his system, he guesses, that tells him exactly when Billy would least like to have conversations like this.

They’ve just finished having sex, laying naked and semi-comfortable on Steve’s bed, limbs sprawled out and bodies still sweaty, when Steve let the back of his hand lightly slap the side of Billy’s face haphazardly and asked that stupid question.

Billy groans, rubbing his mostly clean hand down his face.

“Why do you always have to do this?”

“What?” Steve asks, rolling his head lazily on the pillow and making his voice sound as innocent as possible. Billy could smack him- but instead he wants to kiss him. But there’s no time for that.

“Start shit like this right after we fuck.”

“Would you want me to do it before?” Steve asks, leaning up a bit to look into Billy’s eyes better. “Because I don’t think it’d set the mood.”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever. What are you talking about?”

“Nancy told me you were bullying Jonathan.”

“You believe her over me?” Billy asks as harshly as possible while his body is still coming down from being strung taut.

“You didn’t even answer me yet! I was just asking.”

Billy rolls his eyes, but he’d rather just avoid this altogether. He briefly wonders if he’d be able to start up another round to distract Steve, but Steve currently has that earnest little puppy dog look in his eye and it makes Billy too mushy to try.

“I didn’t bully anyone, I don’t know what she’s talking about.”

“She said you guys fought over a parking spot.”

“Why does she tell you everything?” Billy asks with a bit of bite, arm laid over his face and reaching slowly for a towel with his other hand so he can wipe himself off because his hands are still a little tacky.

Steve chuckles a bit. “She’s just protective or something, I dunno.”

“Yeah, well it’s weird.”

“Just answer the question, babe.”

“What question?” Billy pushes himself up, frustrated with all the interrogating because he just wants the whole thing at school to be over. “I told you, I wasn’t bullying anyone.”

“So you didn’t fight about the parking spot?”

“Jonathan barely even speaks to me. Nancy was the one with the problem.” Billy exasperates, throwing the towel in the hamper and walking into the attached bathroom so he can wash his face.

Steve hums a bit, but he waits until the rushing water stops before he speaks again.

“Will said you were nice to him today.”

Billy slams the towel down on the counter.

“Do you wanna ask me how my day was? Instead of hearing it from everyone else?”

There’s shuffling that Billy can barely hear over his own heavy breaths before his still very naked boyfriend presses up behind him and wraps his arms around Billy in a big hug. He tucks his chin into the crook of Billy’s neck like Billy loves so much and his breath is soft against Billy’s skin and it’s so calming and then Steve whispers-

“How was your day today, honey?”

And that leaves Billy wrecked. All his muscles melt one at a time and he’s left just swimming in a pool of domestic fluff where he aches in ways only seen by Steve.

He sighs. Billy’s not sure why he puts up with this. Or how he found someone who can do this to him.

“I tried to pick a fight with Jonathan but I got Nancy instead. And Will splashed me with his bike and got my pants all wet. And then some kid was chasing after Will during PE and he knocked my cigarette out of my hand so I scared the kid off.”

“Awh, that was nice of you.” Steve coos, running a finger lightly around Billy’s belly button. Billy’s gonna pass out. He can’t tell if he hates it or loves it when Steve gets like this.

“Yeah, I guess so.” Billy mutters, breath getting shorter because he’ll never get used to being treated with so much care. “I was gonna tell Will off but… but he was scared. Of me, I guess. So I just told him not to ride too fast through the parking lot.”

“Yeah, that’s good.” Steve says gently against Billy’s neck where he’s started to plant very small kisses. “I always try to tell them but they don’t listen to me.”

“Yeah, one of them’s gonna get hurt.”

Steve groans something that sounds frustrated and knocks his forehead against Billy’s shoulder. “I know.” Billy laughs a little at it but then Steve flattens his palms over Billy’s stomach and is rubbing soothing circles and it feels a lot like he’s getting Billy ready for something that- unfortunately- isn’t more sex.

“Anything else?” Steve asks softly.

“I dunno, did anyone already tell you anything else?” Billy turns his head to his boyfriend, who now has his chin laying on Billy’s shoulder.

Steve hums with a shrug, pausing for a beat before admitting “Maybe…” in a cute little sing-song voice that Billy wants to be mad at.

Billy really does want to be mad.

But instead he bites at Steve’s ear and gets the boy to yelp.

“I got Jonathan as a partner in History today.” Billy concedes, taking his hands off of the bathroom counter in front of him and instead wrapping them around Steve’s arms that are still wrapped around him in a hug. “I kinda fought with him I guess.”

“Yeah, he said you said something weird but he wouldn’t say what.”

“Did Nancy tell you that?”

“Yeah.” Steve nods, knocking his chin into Billy’s shoulder. Billy digs his short fingernails into Steve’s arms.

“Well tell her to stop gossiping about me.”

Billy enjoys feeling Steve chuckle against his back. “She just likes to complain about stuff and no one will listen to her about you.”

“It’s weird that she talks to you so much.”

“We’re friends now.”

“Yeah but after… everything?”

Steve shrugs. “I’d rather be friends than have everyone hate me again.”

It’s soft and almost sad on Billy’s ears, so Billy tries not to be too offended by it. He knows the twisting feeling deep in his own gut means that he feels the same way. He doesn’t really like to vocalize that part.

Steve’s tapping at Billy’s hip where his arms are still wrapped tightly around him.

“What did you say, though?”

Billy has to pause. Because he’s weirded out that everything is getting told through third parties. He hates gossip and he doesn’t need everyone talking about him all the time- at least not about things that are this personal.

Steve seems to sense the unease, because he squeezes Billy’s middle a little tighter.

“I promise I’m not gonna say anything. I just wanna know.”

Steve’s voice is so soft and gentle that all Billy can do is sigh.

“I just… I…”

He hears his words from this morning run through his mind-

You’re not my fucking brother, alright?

They sound so stupid now. So over-emotional and wretched. He feels like an idiot.

“I…”

Steve starts rocking them back and forth gently.

Billy’s going through the files of his brain trying to find something to say that doesn’t sound completely moronic. Everything that comes to mind makes him feel small and childish. But it’s the warmth of Steve’s arms, of his chest against his back, of his breath against his neck, of his lips grazing his cheek, that all make Billy comfortable enough to say something- even if it’s not necessarily what Steve is asking about.

“Hop… Hop has been talking.”

Steve stops rocking.

“What?”

“About marriage.” Billy responds lamely, gripping Steve’s wrists tight in a desperate attempt to have something anchor him. “About Joyce and… marriage. He asked me about it after we had dinner with the Byers.”

Steve is obviously confused about what this has to do with Jonathan- Billy can see his face trying to process his words in the mirror. But then a smile melts onto his face and he laughs.

“Well it’s about time!”

Billy’s taken aback.

“What?” He asks, his hands slipping from Steve’s wrists and onto the counter.

“They’ve known each other for-ever. I can’t believe it took them this long to finally do it!”

Something is bubbling up inside of Billy.

“Do what? They haven’t done anything yet.” Billy growls like he’s mad because maybe he is.

“Well obviously it’s gonna happen soon if they’re talking about it.”

No.” Billy growls, gripping tightly at the bathroom counter.

“What? Whaddya mean ‘no’?”

Billy’s knuckles are turning white. His chest is heaving a bit. His mind is spinning.

No, it’s not happening soon.”

Steve tilts his head, arms loosening from where he’s still holding Billy and Billy’s gonna push him off.

“What’re you talking about? It’s been forever, they deserve this, I don’t-”

“It’s not happening.” Billy says it like he’s sure because he almost is. He knows Hop is gonna ask his permission. He knows Hop said he won’t marry anyone Billy doesn’t like. Billy gets a say and his say is gonna be no. It’s filling up inside of him and he’s shaking a bit with being so crowded and his eyes are starting to burn and-

“But why? I don’t understand-”

Because I just got him!” Billy yells with full force, from deep in his chest and outward into the air, against the mirror, shaking so much that Steve lets go completely now and the counter is getting wet with Billy’s tears as they fall.

His chest heaves.

Steve takes a step back and lets Billy breathe and the less animalistic part of him is so grateful for it. But the side taking over is wild and unyielding and overwhelming and consuming and the tears burn down his face as he cries over just the idea and he feels like a child.

Steve turns Billy around gently.

“Babe… baby it’s okay.” Steve whispers gently and Billy sees blonde in his mind as he screws his eyes shut and lets Steve hug him tightly.

He hates how often he cries but it’s one of the very few outlets he has. He cries more often than he’s angry, especially now. He cries even when he’s angry. Whenever it gets too much he cries because it’s release, finally. And it always feels safest when he’s with Steve.

There’s a warm hand rubbing soothing circles on his back and Billy’s shoving memories of flooding sunshine down the back of his mind again.

“I just got him, Steve.” He sobs violently into his boyfriend’s shoulder, still shaking fiercely. “Goddamnit! I just got him.”

He grabs at the back of Steve’s neck with one hand and around Steve’s middle to his hip bone with the other and he lets himself stay anchored.

They stand like that, Billy shaking in Steve’s arms as Steve holds him and rubs calming circles and hums soft songs quietly into his ears until he’s not shaking anymore. Until he’s strong enough to stand and Steve can pull away enough to look into his eyes and really ask what’s wrong.

And he’s grateful.

And then he’s looking into Billy’s eyes with a question he doesn’t have to ask and Billy’s still shaking a bit, head throbbing as he whispers: “I don’t like to share.”

Steve chuckles a bit, but his smile is sad. “I know, babe.”

Steve leads them to the bed as Billy pinches Steve’s side for his comment.

“What did you say to Jonathan?”

Billy shakes his head, falling back onto the bed and covering his eyes with his arm.

“Just… told him he’s not my brother.” He mumbles.

“Oh… did he say anything back?”

The breath Billy takes is full of bubbles.

“He said… he said he didn’t even wanna be.”

A sudden quiet falls between them and it scares Billy a bit, but it’s not bad enough to uncover his face. He takes a few more breaths to clear his head.

They sit in silence for a while, Billy catching his breath enough that it stops hiccuping. And suddenly in his lack of vision all he can see is Jonathan’s grimace… and Will’s scared little face…. And his mind gets lost with questions of why... most specifically why they’d even want him in their family to begin with.

“Y’know…” Billy starts again, voice languid from his tears. “Hop asked if I like Joyce but… but I don’t think he thought about them not liking me.”

“I don’t think Jonathan meant it.” Steve says like he’s sure. Billy uncovers his eyes.

“Then why’d he say it.” Billy frowns, a couple more tears rolling down his cheeks as he looks up at his boyfriend who seems so certain.

“I dunno… do you mean everything you say?”

Billy doesn’t think that counts, but he huffs instead of responding. Steve seems to take it as some kind of success.

“They’re good people, Billy.” Steve’s voice is gentle and it’s kind and Billy’s heart relaxes a bit at the sound. “I promise.”

“Yeah, so they probably hate me.”

“They don’t hate you.”

“Don’t be so sure.” Billy grumbles.

“Oh, and you’re sure?”

“Jonathan can barely speak to me.”

“He barely speaks to anyone! It doesn’t mean anything.”

Billy’s getting mad at this whole conversation. Who cares if maybe it makes sense. He just stops speaking altogether, staring blankly at the wall and letting his eyes go blurry again.

“Well… hey.” Steve is speaking up again, voice gentle and kind and sweet again. “Whatever you decide, I’m sure Hop will go along with it. I think the last thing he wants is to make you upset.”

Billy knows he says it to help… but it does just the opposite.

----*----

It’s another two hours before Billy is heading back home, now with a bit of a clearer head.

He’s a little more than halfway home, mind wandering off to thoughts of Steve and kisses and luck, when the radio station starts crackling.

“Damn piece of shit.” Billy mumbles quietly, as if he can’t let anyone hear it even though no one else is around.

Changing the station to find another good one is usually too much effort, but he refuses to listen to static for the next 10 minutes, so he goes through the painstaking process of flipping through stations. At this point he’s fine with just anything that works.

He’s a good 6 stations deep by the time he hears a clear voice.

~Now word on the street is we play obscure beats… and I’d just like to say that I like it that way… hope you folks out there do too... and we’re gonna keep it on the West with our very best surfer boys… but let’s go ahead and lower the noise… here’s a beach ballad for you my musical crew… try not to let too many tears fall…~

Billy already knows he wants to change the station. He can already feel his chest heave at who this could be because he’s sure he knows. He can feel the memories licking every edge of his mind. He’s already shaking with the thoughts of people and things that he’s long since lost.

The first few notes from the quickly strumming guitar hit Billy square in the chest. His breath is uneven and his lip starts to quiver because… because he sees her. His mind sees her. Vivid and large and too bright to look at- too far away to touch.

She’s smiling sympathetically and the wind is picking up her hair. Their backyard is bare and the radio is crackling and she’s leaning down to get on his level a bit. To look in his eyes with her own watery ones and ask with a shaking voice “You alright, bub?”

He hears her over the radio, as it starts to sing softly and sweetly-

~ Clearing skies and drying eyes… now I see your smile… ~

“There’s that lovely little smile.”

Darkness goes and softness shows… a changing style…~

Billy’s grandma, his mom’s mom, just died suddenly. He’s 8. He’s devastated.

~ Just in time words that rhyme… Well bless your soul… ~

”It’s alright bub, you can keep crying if you need.”

~ Now I’ll fill your hands… with kisses and a Tootsie Roll… ~

Her hands are so soft as she grabs his and kisses his palm gingerly, as if she’s kissing a wound. She smiles as she offers him candy and comfort and love.

There are rivulets of tears flowing down his face now, at 17, but they come down so easy, like a sprinkling April morning, that he doesn’t even notice until he licks his lips and tastes the salt.

It’s just that she’s there and she’s perfect and he hates it. He wishes the memories were shattered and broken and sour. He wishes he could hate something about them other than the fact that they’re gone.

~ Oh reality… it’s not for me… and it makes me laugh… ~

Billy can’t see straight. His vision is blurry. The dark road is flooded with moonlight. He’s vaguely grateful for the fact that these roads only go straight.

He can see the sun alongside the moon. The sky is tie-dyed a bright blue and the deepest navy, the pine trees are tall like palm trees and the small ones have palm leaves on them. Billy can taste lemonade and he can smell the flowers blooming in their backyard and he can feel the wind twirl against his face gently… but then again he can taste the cigarette smoke still on his tongue and he can smell the manure of the farms as he passes and he can feel the wind whip his face through his open window and…

He’s white-knuckling the steering wheel. His lip is quivering even though tears are still streaming down his face.

The music quiets and there’s a snapping sound and then the voices pick up to croon through the night air and out the window-

~ Love… Hi Rick and Dave hi Pop… well good morning Mom… ~

Billy’s chest heaves.

~ Love… get up guess what I’m in love with a girl I’ve found.... ~

His foot lays heavy on the brakes and they screech and he winces but his heart is beating too wildly because she’s here but he doesn’t know where he is and she’s fading away and she’s just a thought and…

And he wants to tell her. About Steve and love and how it’s better than she ever described it. It’s better than the songs suggest it’s better than… than lemonade and Tootsie Rolls on sweltering summer mornings. It’s so much better and he wants to hear himself say it. He wants her to hear it. He wants to wax poetic about someone to a parent who will be proud.

He’s crying heavy tears, at a dead stop in the middle of the road, when he realizes he missed his exit.

Shit.

He has to back up a little ways down the road so he can get to the off road that takes him out to the cabin. It’s not until the song ends that he’s strong enough to reach out and turn the radio off. He’s driving by the sound of his breath and the whistle of the wind until he gets there.

He sits in his car and lets tears fall until they dry and he can wipe the residue away. He can feel his face is red and his eyes are puffy but he figures he’ll be fine to head in by now.

Except there’s someone here.

“Oh, hello Billy!”

It’s Joyce Byers.

“Hey kid, Joyce just stopped by to-”

They’re sitting on the couch together.

“I’m gonna take a walk.”

The two of them stutter to a stop, eyeing Billy curiously as he takes heavy steps into the cabin to grab a heavier jacket and then following those same heavy steps to go out.

“I got us some pizza-”

Hopper starts, moving to face Billy more completely.

“M’not hungry.”

Billy grumbles, swinging the door wide and letting it shut on its own behind him.

Billy’s walk consists of pacing back and forth on the back side of the house and then sitting against the side where the light still works. He vaguely wishes he had grabbed a beer to bide his time, because now he’s left with the chirping of the night and the darkness that accompanies it and the moonlight that sifts itself through the pine needles.

He sits and breathes and tries to press the memories down and he doesn’t go inside until he hears the cruiser pull away.

~~~~

Billy wakes up in the middle of the night from a fitful rest to an angry and growling stomach. He rubs whatever sleep he can from his eyes and when his vision adjusts to the dark he sees a plate next to him on the end-table/makeshift nightstand with 2 slices of pizza on it.

He sends a whispered thanks to Hop who’s sleeping like a log on the couch.

----*----

“Billy Hargrove!”

That voice is too shrill for Billy to want to hear it at 8 o’clock in the morning and yet… here he is. He wants to walk away but if the voice belongs to who he thinks it does, then he’s sure he’s gonna get asked about it today when he goes to visit Steve.

So.

He turns around and his assumption is correct. Nancy Wheeler, curly brown hair bobbing around her very determined face, is taking sure steps in his direction. He tries not to look too put out about being stopped in the middle of the hallway.

Because you know… he’s a good guy and he’d never want anyone to think he dislikes them…

Also he doesn’t want another post-sex discussion about how he’s being a “bully”. Maybe it’s more so the latter than it is the former. It doesn’t really matter.

“What do you want?” Billy asks tiredly, but there’s a finger in his face before he can blink twice.

You are going to help Jonathan with that project.”

Billy’s eyes are going blurry just from staring at the clean fingernail currently shoved far too close to his vision. He pushes the small hand away gently, but she replaces it quickly.

“Jonathan has already come to me to ask for help and I have too much going on to do your damn project for you. So do it!”

“Alright alright!” Billy concedes, pushing the hand away again.

“You better do it!” Nancy’s voice is tough, but she keeps her hand down. “I’m not going to jeopardize my grades just because you’re a stubborn asshole.”

“Sounds good, sweetie pie.” Billy says with a sickly sweet voice that makes Nancy roll her eyes. It’s worth it. He wants to tack on a stop talking shit about me to my boyfriend for good measure, but they’re in the middle of the hallway and he doesn’t feel like outing himself to everyone in Senior Row.

“Meet him right after school in the library.” She storms away with some friend of hers. Billy tries not to take notice of how they glare at him. He really does hate being glared at.

~~~~

Jonathan is sitting near the back of the library next to one of the very few windows. Billy’s definitely grateful that they’ll get some natural light. He’s trying not to crack his knuckles too much, even though his mind is already running away from him. He tries to avoid this place as much as possible- something about the anxiety he can feel radiating off of everyone just sets him on edge. He already has a hard enough time keeping his train of thought, he really doesn’t need the added pressure of an overly quiet, overly large room to add to it.

“You’re not late.” Jonathan says quietly, like it’s some big feat. Billy’s surprised he’s ever able to hear the boy for how much he mumbles.

Billy sits into his hip, shoving his hands in his pockets.

“Yeah well, I have things to do so I’m hoping we can wrap this up quick.”

Jonathan is so busy writing something down from this book that he doesn’t even look up when he speaks.

“Are these ‘things’ named Steve Harrington?”

It catches Billy so off guard that it gets a chuckle out of him.

“Yeah… maybe they are.”

There’s a beat, Billy waiting for some response, before Jonathan shakes his head a bit and mutters out- “Gross.”

It sets Billy’s blood on fire.

And maybe some people say Billy likes to get mad just for the sake of it, but he’d like to argue that this is not an example of that. As if he weren’t freaked out enough about having to share families with this dude. Goddamnit, how is he supposed to share a house… a fucking family with someone who can’t even accept who he is?

Excuse me?” Billy hisses, maybe a little too loud for a library. Jonathan turns warning eyes up at Billy, but like hell is Billy going to be intimidated by this…. This sack of bones. “What did you say?”

Jonathan is shaking his head, eyes still wide and giving warning. Billy refuses any hints.

“Are you seriously gonna do this right now? Are you seriously gonna say that to me?”

“Billy, please sit down.”

No! You’re calling me gross just for dating someone? And I’m supposed to just sit down?”

“I said ‘gross’ because I’ve known Steve since I was seven!” Jonathan hisses, far quieter than Billy has been. “Now can you just sit down?

Billy’s heart is still beating loudly, causing blood to rush through his sysem too quickly, when he realizes how stupid he probably looks.

He huffs. Then he sits.

Jonathan seems to take a heavy and relieved breath when Billy sits and Billy resents it.

They sit in silence for a good few seconds before Billy can think to maybe say something.

“Don’t tell anybody.”

Billy likes to think he sounds large and intimidating, even if his voice is hushed.

“You already told everyone in the library.” Jonathan mumbles darkly, but there’s something like a smirk on his face. It’s partially hidden by his hair. Billy’s not sure why a laugh is forced from his chest at the words.

He’s feeling a little dumb and more than a little loopy. A lot has been happening recently. He thinks he deserves some slack.

When he looks back up at Jonathan, he sees the boy definitely has a little smirk on his face too. It’s not completely infuriating so… he lets it go.

Billy needs the instructions told to him twice because he can’t concentrate fully. Jonathan needs to show him where in the book he needs to go to find the info he needs… and then he needs to find the actual copy of the book that they keep in the library because Billy doesn’t have his with him.

“Are you ever prepared for anything?” Jonathan asks, finally placing the book on the table between them before flopping back down into his chair.

Billy raises an eyebrow before reaching into his back pocket and producing his pocket-knife to lay rather unceremoniously on the table.

It’s worth it to watch Jonathan jump so high that his hair flops.

Shit! Put that away, what’re you doing?” Jonathan hisses, hands scrambling out to either grab for the knife or push it back Billy’s way with his knuckles. Billy’s not entirely sure. Either way, it’s fun to watch.

Billy’s cackling.

“Calm down, geek.” Billy speaks with mirth. He’s swift to grab the knife back and slip it into his pocket. Jonathan looks winded.

“What’s your problem?” Jonathan asks, but he’s speaking under his breath again. Billy wonders if he cried or whimpered when he was born.

Once Jonathan’s question registers, Billy feels his skin start to prickle.

“What’d you say?” Billy sounds threatening to his own ears. Maybe the added effect of having just put his knife away helps with that.

Jonathan looks up through his hair, eyes hard and unyielding. It’s the first time he’s seen even a sliver of determination possess Jonathan. It goes away after a few seconds. It almost makes Billy upset to see it fizzle. The boy was just becoming fun...

“Nothing.” Jonathan mumbles but Billy isn’t having that.

“No, what’d you say about me?” Billy presses again, sitting up so he can lean over on the table. He doesn’t feel bad for egging him on, even though he knows he’s just gonna snap when he hears Jonathan say it again.

Jonathan is glaring. It’s fun.

But he doesn’t say anything.

“Go on, freak.” Billy spits it out and it’s sour. On his tongue, in the air, on Jonathan’s face as he twists his mouth up like he just licked a lime. Bitter and sickly and wrong. Billy tries not to feel regretful. He hates regret.

“Are you going to sit there and pout like a little kid this whole time just because someone’s finally asking you to do some schoolwork?” Jonathan starts, voice dark but sure. He leans over the table and it causes Billy to sit back. “Because if you are then I’m just going to leave. This is stupid. I can just do this myself without having to carry you like a baby.”

His eyes are dark and hooded and angry. He looks like he’s getting ready to fight. His teeth are gritted and his mouth is downturned and Billy feels something a little more dangerous in his heart that tells him this isn’t really fun anymore.

But then after a second Jonathan is reverting back. His face is relaxing and his mouth is a straight line again and his eyes relax and he sits back in his chair. He’s back and he’s closed off and maybe Billy feels kind of bad about it.

There’s silence between them again. Billy’s anxious in silence. His leg is jumping and his fingers are tapping and he can’t stop licking his teeth and he sees Joyce in his memory, sitting on his couch with Hop and and and-

“I don’t have a problem with this dumb project.” Billy says darkly, throwing the book open and closed again because he needs to do something with his hands.

There’s a few beats of silence, and then Jonathan sighs. As if he has to ask. As if it’s a chore. Billy is gripping at the edges of the book.

“Then what’s the problem?”

 

You.” Billy says it before he thinks.

Jonathan looks unimpressed before he gives a snort in response.

“Alright then.” Jonathan says disinterestedly before returning to his notes.

No.

No.

Billy isn’t letting this slide so quickly because he finally got here. It’s only been a few days but Billy’s been on edge for all of them because it’s all he can think about. It’s consuming him, all these thoughts of “marriage” and change. Adding and adding more and more. More people into his life more people who can… no.

He’s not okay with letting it slip again because he’s gonna hurt someone if it slips away again.

“It’s your family.” Billy seethes and that gets Jonathan’s attention. It’s not exactly what Billy means but he means it enough to stand by it. And it gets Jonathan worked up again to pay attention and that’s worth it enough.

“What about my family?” Jonathan’s tone is threatening and suddenly this is fun again. Or it would be if Billy’s skin wasn’t crawling.

“I see you guys everywhere.” Billy growls, once again sounding petulant to his ears and maybe it’s because he is. Jonathan looks confused, so Billy does the decent thing of explaining. “First you take my parking spot and I’ve got you as a partner for this project and I’m helping Will with bullies-”

“Thanks for that.” Jonathan mumbles and Billy falters a bit, but he keeps going.

“And we’re having dinner at your house and… and then Joyce Byers shows up at my house and-”

“My mom was at your house?”

Billy stops enough to analyze Jonathan’s face. His shock confuses Billy.

“Yeah, a couple nights ago. D’she not tell you?”

“No, she just said she had something to do…”

Jonathan trails off at the exact same time that the words hit Billy. They both share shocked and disgusted faces, thinking about… Hop and Joyce… and doing things…

Suddenly they can’t look at each other, Jonathan’s face screwing up in a way Billy thinks he’s probably mirroring.

There’s more silence, but this time it’s even more unsettled. Billy’s not sure if speaking would make anything better. He’s not sure what to say. He said part of his piece but he’s suddenly been hit with the reality that Jonathan’s in the same boat.

But… but when he thinks about it he’s really not. He’s had Joyce his whole life and the whole problem here is that Billy hasn’t even had a year with Hop before Hop is trying to push the seams of their family to get them to expand and he’s upset. He’s uncomfortable and nervous and… no he’s mad. Mad is easier than the others. He pushes the others away because he’s mad.

But Jonathan is speaking first.

“Look if you…” His eyebrows are knitted in some kind of frustrated concentration. Billy’s not the best at reading people, but he can read that much. In a second Jonathan seems to give up on what he was going to say. Billy’s immediately upset about it but Jonathan is speaking again. “We need to get this project done, alright? So can we… just…?”

Billy’s leg is shaking. He wants to know what Jonathan has to say. He hates all this quiet and silence he hates the library he hates Jonathan Byers he hates all the anger that’s rolling through him….

“Yeah. Fine.” Billy grumbles out, opening his book for real this time even though his head is already aching just at the thought of reading the words on the page. “Whatever.”

----*----

It’s Friday and Max is spending the night at the cabin tonight, meaning Pat Benatar, Madonna, and Rick Springfield are going to be on repeat somewhere in the house for the rest of the night. Meaning they’re going to be dancing around the living room until Hop begs them to take it to El’s room so he can maybe get some sleep. Meaning they’re going to beg Billy to braid their hair because “you’re the best at braids, please?”.

Billy doesn’t mind it. He puts on a sour face and he grumbles and he rolls his eyes all to hide the fact that he feels a little more comfortable when Max is here. And it’s not because he doesn’t appreciate his life now and all that Hop and El have done for him and it’s not because they’ve ever done anything to make him uncomfortable except… they kind of have. They give him such unconditional love and care. It’s not necessarily coddling but some days it feels pretty damn close. They give him hugs and they make him feel loved and cared for and Billy just doesn’t know how to handle it sometimes.

Sometimes he looks around and realizes how drastically his life has changed in such a short amount of time. They’ll be gathered on the couch watching Miami Vice and he’ll be braiding El’s hair and Hop will ask if he wants a glass of milk or something and Billy will forget where he is and where he’s been and where he’s gonna be tomorrow because everything is different. Nothing from his old life is here. The only thing he’s kept is his hair gel and his clothes. He even left his stereo behind.

So… it feels good when Max is here.

Max isn’t a bad reminder. She’s a reminder but seeing her isn’t laced with sorrow or poison. She gives him that crooked frown and punches him lightly on the shoulder and then the frown shifts to a smirk and she’s saying “What’s up, dickhead?” And then Billy messes her hair and tells her to watch her mouth and it’s pretty nice. It’s comfortable. It keeps Billy tethered to something in the way he knows Max’s mother keeps her tethered to something unspeakable. It’s an indescribable feeling. There are just memories that you can’t bear to let go of- not completely. So Billy keeps driving Max around Hawkins. And Max keeps living at home where her mom is. And Billy keeps that ring on…

“Billy! Can you braid my hair?”

Billy just finished washing the dishes, because that’s a thing he volunteers to do now, and is trying to dry the last of them so that they get put away. Because if there’s one more thing he’s taken with him, it’s a desperate need to keep everything tidy. He won’t go into the reasons why.

Max is hitting Billy’s arm with the back of her hand and he’s giving her a disinterested look in response.

“Is there something else you wanna add to that?” Billy asks with raised eyebrows as he puts a dish away.

“Now?”

Billy jabs an elbow out and hits Max’s shoulder.

“Hey!” Max yells, trying to both rub her shoulder and smack Billy on the arm again. He chuckles.

“Woops.”

“Come on, don’t make me say it.”

“Well I think I’m gonna hit the hay-”

Fine, jerk.” Max sighs a big, overdramatic sigh and Billy has to wonder if he may be one of the reasons the kid is such a brat. “Please?

Billy gives an overly sweet smile as he tugs at a strand of her hair.

There, was that so hard?” Billy knows he’s being a little shit and he knows Max is irritated by it.

“Yes.” Max says with a straight face. Billy shakes his head and rolls his eyes, but he has to turn away because the smile on his face won’t go down.

He puts the rest of the dishes away and walks over to the couch where Max and El are sitting watching some dumb game show Billy doesn’t even know the name of. They don’t seem to be watching it, more interested in sorting through bottles of nail polish and talking about George Michael on the cover of some pink bubblegum magazine.

Billy lightly pushes at Max until she gets off the couch and sits on the ground so he can sit behind her and swing a leg over the arm of the couch and start to braid her hair. Like always, her hair is basically a rat’s nest. She’s gotten better at brushing it since she’s gotten older, but still… it’s a mess. He combs his fingers through it and hits a few knots (and earns a jab in his leg, which he’s sure is because he just pulled her scalp). He’s vaguely listening to their conversations about Madonna’s newest album as he braids her hair.

In about 10 minutes they’ve already convinced him to let them try nail polish colors on him to see which ones they want- all it took was a couple pairs of pouty eyes and a few promises of not playing Jessie’s Girl more than twice. He tells himself it’s the start of the weekend and he’ll be able to pick it all off by the time he has to go to school on Monday.

He’s currently got an ice cream parlor of colors on his hand, from “Pretty in Pink” fuschia to “Manic Monday” yellow. His pinky is in the process of being colored nearly down to his knuckle in a rather sickening shade of “Vaporwave Vermillion” (which none of them can pronounce) when Hop walks in.

“Hi!” Max and El call out, El sticking her tongue out a little as she tries to concentrate, even though she’s missing her target majorly.

“Whatcha up to?” Hop asks, peeking his head over the couch as if he doesn’t tower over them. El sits back from Billy’s hand to show off his now confetti colored nails.

“Nail paint!” El chirps brightly.

Hop is obviously trying not to laugh. Billy’s not too sure if he appreciates it.

“They’re uhm…” He clears his throat. “They’re nice! Looks real good on you.” Hop pats a large hand on Billy’s shoulder, which causes Billy’s body to shake a bit and causes El to paint more of his knuckle neon orange.

Billy grimaces up at Hop.

Thanks.

“I smell food.” Max comes to attention, shooting her head up to look at Hop. Billy snorts. Sometimes he really does wonder how they’re not blood related.

“I brought take-out.”

“Sweet!” Max scrambles to get up as El screws the nail polish closed before getting up to grab some food, too.

The girls scatter over to the table, El grabbing the bag to empty out its contents.

“Thanks Chief!” Max says while giving a large pat to Hop’s back.

Hop shoots a questioning look to Billy, who laughs at the interaction and moves to stand up.

“Don’t smudge your nails!” Max calls after him, grabbing boxes of food out of the bag.

Billy pauses what he’s doing, which is fixing his shirt where it’s getting wrinkled.

“Hafta see the colors dry!” El calls out, opening a box of food to start eating.

Billy’s tired, but he pointedly shakes his hands pretty violently while making eye contact with Max. She gives a nod of approval.

He feels stupid, but he does what they ask and tries his best not to touch anything that’ll mess up his nails. Some of the boxes of food get neon colors on them, but Billy would say it really couldn’t be helped.

It’s past 10 by the time the girls move their talks of actresses and singers and comic books into El’s room. Billy almost wants to call Steve, but he knows he’s probably knocked out because his folks are in town and when his folks are in town all he wants to do is sleep. He figures Steve will call once they’ve left, like he always does.

Billy is lazing around on the couch with Hop, drinking a beer because it’s Friday and Hop felt bad that Billy spent his night here instead of out with friends or Steve or something. They’re absent-mindedly watching late night television, Billy confused as to how Hop isn’t snoring wildly yet. Usually Hop passes out as soon as he sits down, but tonight his leg is bouncing and his fingers are tapping his bottle and his eyes are shifty.

Billy doesn’t have to wonder for too long about what the problem is.

“Hey do you uh… uhm…”

Or maybe he does. Because Hop is verbally tripping over words like they’re rocks in his way and Billy almost wants to try not to be amused. But like… it’s amusing.

“Huh?”

He knows it’s going to force Hop to start over. He kind of doesn’t care because it’s funny.

“Do you want to… to talk...?”

Billy is watching Hop and knows he’s searching for a bone here. Hop’s eyes look open and pleading even past his heavy brow and Billy really doesn’t want to laugh in his face. It’s just that… he’s doing some pretty minimal effort for some maximum reward over here. If this is his way of getting some “heart-to-heart” then he’s gonna need to do something better. Like finishing his questions.

“About what?” Billy asks, elongating vowels and being a real brat about it, even though his question really is sincere.

Hop seems exhausted and distressed already and just from that Billy knows he’s not gonna want to tell this man anything. And he almost feels bad because Hop very clearly wants to be “that person” for Billy. He wants Billy to be able to talk to him and like… confide in him or some shit. It’s just that the last thing Billy wants is to be a burden and even though Hop is trying, when he sighs like that and rubs his hand down his face just from attempting to ask how Billy is, then how is Billy supposed to talk to him about what’s actually wrong? He’s already a burden just having to be asked about his feelings, who knows how much of a burden he’ll be once he actually starts to tell him how he feels.

The last thing he wants is for Hop to just give up. The last thing he wants is to be a burden.

“About… about feelings.”

Billy swears he can see smoke coming out of Hop’s head from how hard he’s working to get these words out.

“Don’t strain yourself, big guy.” Billy says through a chuckle, patting Hop’s shoulder as he gets up to put his beer next to the sink. He tries not to look at Hop because Hop is currently sighing and rubbing a hand down his face again and Billy can’t think about it too much.

“C’mon kid…”

“I don’t know what feelings you’re talking about.”

“Oh, enough of the act. I get it, you’re tough and you don’t do feelings.”

And this is where Billy gets irritated. Because Hop does this a lot. Hop is so sure he knows all the ins and outs of Billy because he’s sure he used to be Billy. Whenever he can get the words out, he’ll talk about how he used to hate his own father, how he used to put up a fight at everything, how he used to push away all the good things, how he used to get mad for the sake of it. Some of it he doesn’t say in quite so many words, but the intent is there and his eyes bore into Billy’s like he’s waiting for Billy to crack like an egg and seep out all over the outdated and dirty carpet.

The only thing it ever succeeds in doing is making Billy eyes hard and angry.

“I don’t have anything to talk about.”

“You’ve been pouting all week!” Hop calls out into the air like he’s accusing him. Billy prickles.

“Well I have nothing to say!”

“Alright, fine!” Hop’s voice is getting loud, but it isn’t angry. It doesn’t shrink Billy but it doesn’t help his anger. “I was just trying to… be…. helpful!

“And you’re not helping!”

“Alright fine!

“Fine!”

With that Billy storms into the bathroom and throws the curtain closed. He hears a heavy sigh.

When he walks out Hop is gone, and a number of thoughts run through Billy’s head, some worrying about if the man is smoking when he’s trying to quit, others telling himself that it’s not his problem.

----*----

Maybe Billy just isn’t used to having “family”. Especially not when they’re making an effort to support him.

The first time he saw Hop and El alongside Steve and Robin at one of his basketball games, maybe a few weeks ago now, he nearly fell through the floor. He saw them and just knew. He’s been living in the cabin for less than a year and yet still, the warmth and comfort of seeing them there, faces painted and signs waving, explicitly stating they were there for him, made him see them and think “family”. For the very first time he saw them and his initial reaction was “family”.

It was an exciting feeling. A feeling he can still remember near vividly now, when he thinks about it. He took the poster El made for him and hung it up on the wall next to his bed and it makes something in him feel bright. Because he’s got a group of people who care about him. They all went out to ice cream afterwards and shared laughter and smiles and excitement. Billy explained what he could of the game to El. Robin ribbed him for being a show-off. Steve ribbed him by saying he could have done better. Hop asked about the rest of the season and if they still play away games.

The whole evening left Billy with an intimate feeling that he hadn’t felt in ages. He went to bed that night feeling something full in his heart. It felt like he took everything, all of them, the whole experience with him- to stow away in his heart and his mind. He felt such a need to keep them protected.

And he still has that feeling now, as he runs out onto the court for the basketball game tonight, with horns blaring and music blasting and people wailing and he sees Hop and El and Steve and Robin and…

Joyce.

It’s Joyce, smiling something wide and bright and excited.

If the memory of that first game with Hop and El is a bubble, then Joyce is the needle that popped it.

Everything feels frozen. They’re all waving with kind smiles and joyful laughs and then there’s Joyce. And hers matches them tenfold but it’s different. It’s strange. He’s had enough strangeness already, he doesn’t need someone else to add to it. He’s just beginning to feel comfortable with what he has.

He’s staring. Steve waves and woops and winks like always, Robin is rolling her eyes at Steve and hitting him and probably whispering about how he’s so loud, El is jumping up and down cheering, Hop is clapping and smiling, and Joyce is smiling and… and waving...

Like she knows him. Like he knows her back.

His heart beats hard enough to deafen him to the crowd. His blood starts rushing so fast that it sets him on edge immediately. A teammate reaches out to pat his back and he flinches and turns on him. He feels watched. In a far worse way than normal, where the looks burn and his chest hurts.

Needless to say, he doesn’t play his best.

They don’t win. El doesn’t have to ask how they did anymore, but she does still tell Billy that he did good even though he knows it’s not true. She still doesn’t really know any better. The only reason Robin knows any better is because Billy is sure he’s pouting up a storm. That and Steve probably hissed and explained every bad play as it happened.

Needless to say, he’s pretty much fuming.

But Robin doesn’t rib him and Steve gives him a pat on the shoulder like the two of them do when they try to express affection while they’re in public and El tells him he still played good and Hop nods his head like he agrees and… Joyce smiles.

She smiles and she says: “You did good! You’ll get ‘em next time.” like she’s the soccer mom tasked with supporting the team. Like she’s known him his whole life. Like it makes sense for her to do because it’s natural for her.

All he can do is mutter a thanks.

After he’s out of the locker rooms Hop suggests heading out for ice cream- like they always do after his games. Billy looks forward to it every time because he has a major sweet tooth. Now he’s a little nervous to sit at a table with all of them.

He’s mostly silent in the car, riding with Steve and Robin as they argue mildly about music. Steve knows when to leave things well enough alone and he seems to get now that Billy wants some time to think. They’re all four in Steve’s car, El in the back with Robin, the smaller girl trying to keep up with their argument over music.

When they get there, it seems that everyone the next three towns over has decided they want to get ice cream as well. Joyce and Hop aren’t here yet and there are only two tables open: one that seats 4 and another that seats 2. They’re all done ordering and paying and are tucking into their ice creams by the time Hop and Joyce come in.

El waves happily. Robin gives a nod and Steve smiles slightly around his ice cream. Billy points to the other free table as soon as they walk up.

“There’s a table over there.”

The couple looks surprised as they see the empty table- it’s at least 3 tables over.

“Oh… Maybe we should pull up the chairs?”

“Nope.” Billy says lazily. “This is the kids table. No adults allowed.”

Billy gets ready for the ribbing, but Hop seems too taken aback to say anything. He and Joyce walk away, quietly returning goodbyes.

“What was that all about?” It’s Robin’s voice, sounding lazy but the slightest bit concerned. Billy has been around her enough to be able to pick up on some of the details of her voice.

“What was what about?” Billy’s defensive. That doesn’t work with Robin.

“Nothin’, just didn’t know you ordered the Sour Tart Sherbet.”

“Shut up.” Billy hisses, but Robin just looks smug in response.

Steve tries to switch the conversation over to basketball as seamlessly as possible. Billy takes a napkin and steals the pen they found forgotten on the table to draw and explain plays to El. Steve puts in his two cents. Robin mutters about how she’s just happy they don’t ask the whole band to squeeze themselves into the gym for basketball.

There’s a loud laugh. A couple of them. They sound familiar.

Their whole table looks up to see Hop and Joyce, sitting at that two person table, sharing a milkshake and laughing like maniacs. Hop puts his hand on Joyce’s. Her blush is visible from here: red and vibrant. She ducks her head. Hop has stars in his eyes.

Billy nearly crushes his cone.

He looks away as quickly as he can take his eyes off of them, turning back to his ice cream and grumbling under his breath. He can’t help it.

There’s a pause, and Billy assumes it’s for everyone to keep looking and admiring… but it’s setting Billy’s limbs on fire. He’s itching. He wonders if he can leave-

“Y’know, Joyce wants to adopt you.”

Billy starts to choke.

Robin and El start to laugh as Steve hands Billy a napkin and the glass of water Steve asked for with his ice cream.

“You alright?” Steve asks before getting hit in the stomach.

“Don’t say that.” Billy wheezes.

“Say what?”

“Say… that.”

“It’s true.” Robin confirms Steve’s statment and Billy can only growl. She shrugs in return. “She talked about you the whole game.”

Billy is stunned.

“It was annoying, I already hear your name enough in school.” Robin adds. Billy throws his napkin at her.

“I was the reason you guys even came… of course she talked about me.”

“Yeah but…” Steve starts a little tentatively, as if worried about getting hit again. “She was asking about you. Like how you are in school and… if you’ve been eating well? That one was a little weird to me, but-”

“It was kinda cute, actually.” Robin chimes in.

“It was just so sudden. Like if you eat your vegetables? It was weird.”

“She’s just being a mom.”

“Yeah I guess…” Steve’s voice wanders, like he’s lost on those words and what they mean and Billy knows the feeling because his mind is currently swimming against the current. It’s being drowned with ideas of worried and caring mother figures.

The world is blurry for a second before he feels someone knock their hand into him.

Your mom.” Robin insists.

Billy snorts. El is watching avidly. There’s a long pause.

“Joyce is nice.” El chimes in. Everyone nods their agreement, but there are varying thoughts silently passing through the air.

It’s a sadistic sort of urge he gets when he looks back over at Joyce and Hopper.

They’re smiling at each other, in a bubble all their own.

~~~~

Steve drives Billy home after dropping off Robin at her place. El is in the back, singing along to music and trying to talk to Steve about when their next game night can be, so Billy can’t really get a word in edgewise. He just sits and listens casually and tries not to let his head float away too far.

When they get to the cabin Billy warns El she’s gonna wanna leave the car as quickly as possible before he starts to kiss Steve. She pretends to gag and then leaves to run up to the house. The two boys chuckle around their kiss.

Steve pulls away, looking at Billy with so much care and concern he thinks he might melt. Or hit him. Either one.

“You alright?”

“Why is everyone asking me shit like that?” Billy huffs, sitting back in his seat. He’s fully aware he’s pouting now but like hell is he gonna try to help it.

Steve snorts. It’s unbecoming. Billy hates how he still finds it ridiculously charming.

“Because you’re acting miserable.”

“Fuck you.”

“Yeah yeah, alright. Now what’s wrong?”

Billy hates when Steve does that. He acts like Billy’s not even mad at him. Like Billy will just back off when Steve keeps calm.

Which… is right, but Billy still hates it…

Billy sighs, knocking his head back against the headrest.

“I just… I had it all laid out. Everything was fine.”

“Before…?”

Billy shoots an incredulous look at Steve, before gesturing matter of factly at the house. Steve doesn’t take the bait.

Her.” Billy whispers like she has any chance of hearing him. Steve chuckles.

“C’mon, babe… she’s nice.”

“I know she’s nice. That’s the problem.”

“The problem is she’s nice?”

“Yes!”

“So… you’d rather her be mean?”

Billy has to take a second to think. He’s exhausted.

Yeah. Yeah I would. It would be easier.”

“What would be easier?”

Hating her.” Billy insists. The words feel full and bitter in his mouth. Like cotton balls soaked in vinegar.

Steve scoffs and it sets Billy on edge. Steve seems to notice, because he softens a bit. He brings a gentle hand down to Billy’s thigh.

“They’re good people, Billy. Trust me.”

“I know that, I-... I know.”

“Then?”

Billy’s heart is threatening to rip a hole in his chest. His voice is betraying him. “Hating is easier.”

He says it over a bubble in his throat.

“What do you mean-?”

Steve can barely get his question out before Billy is pulling away.

“I gotta go.”

“Huh?”

“I gotta… get inside.” It’s all Billy can come up with. He can’t even think of a good excuse why. He hates running. He’s just so tired. Tired especially of his boyfriend always acting like his mother too. He thinks of how tired Steve must be...

“You sure?”

No.

“Yeah. I hafta go.”

Steve doesn’t look too sure either.

“Alright babe well… I’ll see you later, yeah?”

Stay.

“Yeah, sounds good.”

They kiss each other gently. Steve holds Billy’s neck with sure hands and Billy is sure he feels love in them. Seeping into his bloodstream and calming him down. He sighs into it.

“Goodnight.” Steve mumbles against Billy’s lips.

“G’night, princess.” Billy sighs right back.

His walk up to the cabin is a little warmer now that Steve’s kiss is lingering on his lips.

He’s so lost in the warm thoughts of Steve that he almost doesn’t hear the rustling coming from the side of the house.

It takes less than a second for him to be completely on edge. Every hair is standing up because it’s footsteps. There’s no doubt that those are footsteps. No one ever comes out here. He doesn’t want to think about who would be lurking around the side of the cabin this late at night.

He clenches his fists and hopes that it’s just Mike being an idiot trying to get to El when-

When a small figure appears from around the corner and Billy knows, immediately, even in the low light seeping out from inside the cabin, that it’s Joyce.

She’s hunched a bit, in a way that makes her seem dejected. She’s holding something glowing. She’s looking at her feet as she walks.

He lets out a breath.

“Oh!” It immediately catches her attention, and there’s something about the concern in her face that makes Billy feel a little sorry. Then he feels stupid for feeling sorry. “Hello Billy.”

Her hands are fidgeting and in a split second she winces. They both look down to see she’s touched the smoldering edge of a cigarette.

She drops it quickly, hands shaking a bit as she stamps it out.

“Uhm…”

Billy raises an eyebrow.

“You shouldn’t smoke.” Joyce says quickly.

Billy is unimpressed.

“I mean… you can do what you want.” Joyce is clearly nervous. Billy once again is waiting for it- for the flirty words and the smiles to match. But Joyce’s face never shifts from her concern.

Once again… Billy feels bad.

“Did you wanna sit?” She asks, eyes searching and slightly hopeful. The pit in Billy’s stomach is shrinking just a bit. There’s some small part of him, still 8 years old and needy and shaky, that urges him to cling to this with all he’s got. Urges him to understand that this is what he’s wanted.

I guess…

“Sure.”

There’s not really any seats on the porch of the cabin. Hop says it’s to keep people from loitering- as if anyone comes all the way out here in the first place. They’re in the middle of the woods.

They sit on the steps.

“You played really good today!” Joyce actually sounds sincere.

“We got crushed.”

Joyce chuckles a bit but Billy isn’t mad about it.

“Yeah well… you’ll get ‘em next time.”

Billy doesn’t know how she can sound so sure about that.

“Yeah… I guess so.”

“I hear you guys are good this year!”

“We’re not bad.” Billy says on a shrug.

“Hop said that a scout came a couple of weeks ago?”

Billy nods. His heart flutters. He still hasn’t heard back from them yet.

“That’s kind of exciting, isn’t it?”

Billy shrugs again. “I guess…? I dunno if I should be excited or not.”

“Why not? It sounds like a great opportunity.”

“Because I hate school.” Billy says and if he sounds dejected he doesn’t mean to. “I… I don’t have the grades for that shi- uh…” He clears his throat. “I don’t have the grades.”

She hums in understanding and some crazy part of him convinces Billy that she does understand.

“Not even sure if I’ll graduate…” Billy mumbles under his breath, picking at his cuticles and feeling unspeakably small.

There’s a beat of silence, and then a hand is being placed on his knee. He almost jumps but the thumb soothes him down a bit.

It’s not a pass. It’s the fact that it’s not a pass that shocks Billy more than anything. Just like with Steve, he can feel energy through the hand, and the energy is motherly. It’s maternal and it’s so warm.

“Well… I’ll tell you what I tell my boys.” Billy’s back stiffens at that, blood running quicker at the words and the idea attached to them. “As long as you’re proud of yourself, that’s all you should be worried about. Don’t worry about being perfect or any of that nonsense. Just as long as you look in the mirror and you’re proud of yourself, then I’ll be- uh…” She stutters to a stop, clearly flustered at her words. Billy’s glad he’s not the only one.

She takes her hand back. Her voice is a little quieter now.

“Then people like Hop will be proud of you too.”

Billy’s hands are shaking. He feels prickles in his knees and the joints on his hands.

When he looks up at her she gives him a smile- warm and kind and maternal.

The bubble has popped.

----*----

Billy’s not sure if he’s upset about it or what, but maybe Joyce Byers is actually really nice.

He’s only known her for about 2 weeks now and he’s mostly certain the woman is just a good person. He was almost looking forward to getting angry and… almost hating her. For whatever reason. Maybe to make it easier.

But he can’t. For as much as he’s trying, and for as much as he kind of feels like shit for trying, he can’t hate Joyce Byers. Not when she stopped by the cabin a couple days ago to ask if they needed any groceries. Not when she speaks to El so gently and reassures her that she doesn’t need to be so worried about boys. And definitely not when they’re over at her house and she’s explaining hippie music to El.

El is sitting criss cross on the ground in front of a very beaten up record player as some song croons through the speaker. Billy thinks it sounds vaguely familiar, maybe some old Fleetwood Mac song or that one Airplane band. Billy’s not too sure about the name of the song and he doesn’t really feel the need to ask. He just listens in to the hushed whispers as Joyce explains about world peace and anti-war rhetoric. It’s interesting to note that Joyce was a real hippie not too long ago. Sometimes Hop talks about Woodstock with a strange kind of lilt in his voice, as if he has some kind of attachment to it. Billy wonders if it’s a personal thing or more linked to Joyce than anything else.

Billy looks to Hop, who’s sitting at the one of couches with Will, listening as the boy talks about the drawings he’s making for his little geeky friends and their DnD characters. Billy feels something strange seeing Hop listen so intently to young Will.

Any time Billy and Hop have any kind of “disagreement”, Billy can’t help but think about it for days afterwards. Sometimes weeks. Even if they make up the very next day because neither of them cn stay mad for very long- not with each other. As everything nowadays, it’s a very weird situation and leaves something heavy in his chest. His mind is always buzzing with the thought that it’s all gonna crack one day. That it’s all going to fall out from beneath him and he’ll be left where he was. It never seems to happen.

And still, he lives day to day.

Because getting attached requires trust and trust is something Billy only has so much of. It’s a string with 2 ends and no stretch. He’s given most of it to Steve if he’s being really honest. The rest lies in the hands of Hop and El and Max. If there’s any left to give, he doesn’t know where he’s put it.

It’s just that memories are bitter and they’re harsh and they’re large. They’re too hard to swallow. They’ve cut his string small and they cut it smaller every time they crop up.

But they don’t tend to crop up.

“Ooh, ABBA!”

Not usually.

“Billy, listen to music with us!” El calls from her spot on the ground as she hands the record over to Joyce who has joy in her eyes.

Billy wanders over, drumming his hands on the top of El’s head from where she’s sat on the ground. She swats at him.

“Whatcha listening to?”

“ABBA!”

Billy’s heart flutters with memory. He nods.

“Oh yeah? Gross.”

“You like ABBA!”

“Do you really?” Joyce asks, just about done setting the record up.

“He sings them all the time-ouch!

Billy has pulled a strand of hair out of El’s head. She rubs at it before hitting Billy angrily.

“Do not.”

“Do too!”

“Well, if you do, you have very good taste!” Joyce says with a bit of a chuckle in her voice. It surprises Billy. “And if you don’t, that’s fine too! Nothing wrong with that.”

Billy feels like he has no purchase on the ground. Even the smallest ounce of reassurance from her comes with a pound of gratefulness. It’s liable to drown him if he’s not careful.

Her smile is just so kind.

There’s the sound of a piano rolling and then the disco music starts. El squeals as she hops up.

She’s immediately dancing, hopping around as she reaches for Joyce’s hands. Joyce’s laugh is vibrant. Billy’s memories are rising up to match the colors.

The piano strikes something in Billy’s heart, something that feels like someone poking threateningly at his chest. He’s suddenly winded.

Joyce’s smile is almost as wide as El’s as the curly haired girl jumps and twists and giggles happily. Joyce is trying to follow as much as she can.

~ Oooooh ~

Billy can hear too many voices. Some of them are far more familiar than others.

~ You can dance… You can jive… ~

There are blue eyes. Eyes that rival the sky and the ocean and the bluest of popsicles. They’re clear.

~ Having the time of your life… oooooh… ~

There’s blonde hair. It’s bouncing like it has its own life source. It frames the prettiest, kindest face.

~ See that girl... ~

He can see her.

~ Watch that scene… ~

He’s watching.

~ Digging the dancing queen… ~

He’s watching two people but he’s seeing four. They morph and they shrink and they stretch to fit the narrative still stowed away and colored in Billy’s mind. Any specks of dust burn away from the memory as it comes alive because that’s him. That’s him and he’s 7. He’s young and he just lost a tooth this morning. He’s been lisping all day and he feels a little silly but his mother smiles warmly and laughs even warmer and makes him feel better. She just came back from going out with his father. Her husband. They smiled as they walked in the door, her a little brighter than him but Billy took no notice. She’s smiling and walking up to give him a hug as her husband goes to pay the sitter.

She’s radiant and larger than life. She’s every depiction of an angel that Billy can imagine. She wraps Billy up in her warm arms and spins him around and hums along to the song and she’s smiling at Billy and pointing and laughing and calling him the “dancing queen” and then she’s humming and humming and…

She’s in front of the sink. It’s too early to be warm- 6 am on the dot and the birds are just beginning to sing songs for each other. The sink is running and there’s a light clinking mixing in with the voices of the music and the humming. She’s humming along to the tune of the song.

Hmmmm… mmmhmmmm…

Her voice is soft and sweet and threatens the birds for the prettiest sound. Billy just turned 8 a week ago and just had a nightmare last night. He saw red eyes in the dark and couldn’t run from them. He tugs at her shirt and rubs at his eyes. She looks down and smiles. He’s upset to hear her humming stop.

”Hi there bub… you alright?”

He shakes his head no.

”Wanna help me out?”

He nods his head yes and stands on his tip toes and together they soap up the dishes. She’s swaying to the music. She’s humming and smiling sweetly. She pokes his nose and a bit of the bubbles stay. He scrunches his face up and she laughs brightly. The birds chirp and it sounds like laughter.

~ You are the dancing queen… ~

She’s calling to him.

~ Young and sweet… ~

She’s asking for his help.

~ Only seventeen… ~

“Billy!”

His hands are being grabbed and he’s dropping the dishes that’re suddenly stacked in his hands and he flinches even though…

There’s no crack. No shatter. He blinks hard and the person in front of him is much smaller now, holding his hands and trying to spin him. There’s no sun and no birds, only the darkness of night and the smile and laughter of a woman he doesn’t recognize.

He’s shaking.

“Billy?”

Those eyes aren’t blue. That hair isn’t blonde. He’s shaking.

“Billy… are you okay?”

He’s gonna hurl.

He rips his hands away, muttering something he himself can’t decipher as he rushes to the bathroom for some space but finds himself following the line down the hall all the way to the porch out back.

He’s heaving, the cold air soothing him in any way it can. It feels like a hand, gently stroking away the edges of the memory, smoothing them out like an attempt to smooth out his unruly hair. He’s stuck in a sort of limbo, between here and an intangible place years ago- so so far away.

The memories and the humming and the music quiets down before he hears it.

Rustling.

Somewhere deep in the trees behind the house. Billy’s chest tightens. He sees a glow and hears something beating… then something almost wailing.

Every memory fades quickly, falling from Billy’s mind to dissipate in the dirt, as he takes a step off the porch. He stalks into the night, crowded by trees and darkness aided only by the soft licks of the moonlight as it graces the trees and he feels fear. He thumbs at the pocketknife in his jeans as he steps closer to the sounds, hearing them grow louder.

The beating is consistent and insistent and deep. The wailing is muffled and indecipherable. He follows into the forest until it gets louder, and then follows still. He’s pulling his knife out slowly, his feet always stepping on one of the beats so as not to alert whoever or whatever is out here.

Then suddenly he’s close enough to realize the wailing is a song that he can recognize.

~ I get hurt, crying inside… because everybody’s so fine and… And they don’t need me… ~

Billy slips the knife out of his pocket, even though he’s fairly sure he knows who’s behind the trees in the small clearing. He could smell the weed a few steps back from here.

Still, Billy steps quickly from behind the trees.

Holy shit!

It’s Jonathan.

Billy cackles.

“How’s it going, loser?” Billy slips his knife back into his pocket, leaning his shoulder on a tree and crossing his arms and watching as Jonathan tries to catch his breath. It’s entertaining.

“What the fuck?” Jonathan mutters under his breath, pressing the heel of his left hand to his forehead. Billy was right- in Jonathan’s right hand is a smoldering joint. He’s sitting on the ground, back up against the tree. Near him is a beaten up cassette player, playing loudly. The song is near over. Billy’s surprised to hear Jonathan listening to it- Billy actually likes this song.

He can’t help but chuckle at the sight.

“Damn Byers… you’re a real pothead, aren’t you?”

“Shut up, Billy.” Jonathan says with certainty, even though it’s quiet.

What’d you say to me?” Billy feels indignant at the jab. Jonathan looks up with tired eyes, not yet pink. It looks like he just lit his joint.

“Nothing.” Jonathan responds. It’s louder than before. Billy scoffs.

It’d be inaccurate to say there’s silence between them, because the voice of Iggy Pop is still wailing through the cracking stereo near them.

“Didn’t know you listened to this stuff. I thought you just listened to bullshit like… REM or whatever.”

“REM isn’t bullshit.”

“Yeah, alright then. I forgot you have no taste.”

“What do you want, Billy?”

It’s hostile. Billy’s surprised to hear that. His mind ventures back to a few minutes ago when he got sucked in to memories that he needed an out from. Even if Jonathan is a loser and even if it’s cold as hell outside… this is better than that.

“Some fresh air… maybe to listen to some good music…” He pauses and takes a breath and sees that it’s visible for the first time this winter. He watches it melt into the air. “Maybe to have some company.”

“Yeah right.” Jonathan mutters and scoffs. Billy watches him take a pull off his joint, face wincing with something Billy’s not sure of.

“Can you at least believe the first two?”

Jonathan looks up with those tired eyes and it takes him a second… but he nods.

They sit and listen to the song taper out as the next one plays. Billy thinks it’s that song by the Talking Heads or whatever. Something about a killer. It’s not bad, so he stays quiet about it.

It’s not until the chorus hits that Jonathan speaks.

“You uh… wanna share?” He asks, holding the joint out to Billy. Somehow, to Billy’s mind, the joint looks like it’s shaped like a bridge.

He raises an eyebrow.

“Who said I want your germs?”

“Alright, fine-” Jonathan begins to retract his hand before Billy speaks.

“Hey, I didn’t say no.”

Jonathan rolls his eyes and Billy really relishes in being difficult.

“Then say yes.” Jonathan gripes, but he holds the joint out again for Billy to take.

Billy is sitting down on a nearby tree, blowing out after his second drag, when he says: “So uh… your mom is nice.”

Jonathan’s look is more than skeptical. He nods as he takes the joint back.

“Yeah… I know.”

Of course he knows. Shame tightens screws into Billy’s chest, but he ignores it in favor of listening to the song.

Jonathan’s fingers are fidgeting and for a second Billy sees Joyce’s hands.

“What do you think of Hop?”

It blindsides Billy. He blinks.

“What do I think?”

Jonathan shrugs, handing the joint over. He seems unsettled not having anything to occupy at least one of his hands.

“Yeah uh… just what do you think of him?”

Billy takes a second to eye Jonathan, more than confused about the question.

“He’s cool…” Billy trails off a bit, still confused about what the expected response could possibly be for this question.

By the way Jonathan sighs, he doesn’t seem to know either.

“Sorry it’s just… I’ve known Hop since I was a kid and I still don’t know how to feel.”

Billy hands the joint back with a raised eyebrow, and it seems to be enough to get Jonathan answering him, but first taking what seems like a much needed drag out of the joint.

“My mom… she’s been talking about marriage.”

It punches Billy in the gut.

It seems to show.

“Yeah… I know.” Jonathan sighs, smoke curling out of his mouth and into the cold air around them. He starts to hand the joint back. “I was just… wondering what you think about him. Like, how he is with El and everything.”

Billy takes a puff because Jonathan is still talking.

“I mean, I see that he’s like… gentle with her and everything. And he’s the same way with Will, too… when he’s over here.” Jonathan pulls his knees up, hooking his elbows around them to grab his wrist, feet crossed at the ankles. “And when Will was going through all that… that bullshit with the Mindflayer he was always going to the hospital with them and helping my mom out and…”

Jonathan sighs again. Billy’s busy watching his breath.

“I just wanted to ask. Because she’s asking if I’m okay with it and… and I don’t know if I am but I figure you probably know. Probably better than I would.”

Jonathan seems lost to his thoughts for a bit, so Billy just lets him ride it out before handing the joint back.

“Yeah, I get it.” Billy says with a muffled voice as he rubs his hand over his mouth. “I was gonna ask you the same thing about Joyce but uh…. Yeah. Yeah, he’s good. He’s a good d-” Billy swallows his voice. He has to clear his throat before trying again. “He’s a good dad.”

Jonathan’s eyes go wide, but then he smiles and Billy would fight him if he wasn’t currently fighting a buzz.

“Good to know.” Jonathan says, leaning his head back against the tree to stare at the sky. He seems lighter now- like some large weight has been lifted.

Billy’s surprised… seeing him look so calm. It’s the most relaxed Billy has ever seen him since he’s known him. It looks nice on him.

When the joint is fizzling out, Jonathan tosses it onto the ground near his shoes and stamps it out with the ball of his foot.

Billy is still thinking about Joyce and her smile and the way she touched Billy’s knee and the way she held El’s hands.

“Y’know…” Jonathan starts, voice lazy and smile even lazier, yet still unmistakable. “Just in case you’re still wondering, my mom is a good mom. She’s… she’s a really good mom.”

Billy knocks his head back against the tree as well. The weed must have been good because he forgets to worry about his hair getting caught in the bark. He watches the stars and when they start to blur into each other he prepares himself to deny any possibility of tears in his eyes. He sees her again, in flashes of every bright star. He swears he sees one fall from the sky. He sees the blonde and the blue eyes and he watches them shift and… and he sighs...

He tunes in then, to the music filling the cold air between them, barely able to decipher the words behind all the music.

~ Then you revealed to me… All that I need to know now… ~

She’s a really good mom…

Billy sighs.

“Yeah… yeah I know.”

----*----

Joyce comes to every basketball game from then on.

He plays better and better with every passing game. They all cheer and when Billy looks over their way he sees Joyce first. Almost always he sees Joyce first. She smiles and claps and seems a little out of place. She’s a sore thumb in the middle of all those teenagers and it makes Billy’s chest flutter more. He knows this isn’t her scene- he knows that, no matter how much she pretends like she loves basketball. After they win sometimes she’ll give a thumbs up at him and put on a big cheesy grin. It makes him laugh. Seeing Joyce’s face doesn’t pop his bubble so much as it creates a new one. And still, it feels invasive.

Friday nights always mean having dinner at the Byers house (and never vice versa, because the cabin isn’t exactly fit for “company”).

She always asks Billy how he’s doing- in school, at home, with work. It never seems like a chore when she asks. It’s a strange thought that passes through his head but… he thinks she may be the most genuine person he’s ever met. She’s so patient when she waits for his answer and she’s so attentive when he gives it. She asks about things he previously mentioned, to check in and see how things are going. When he doesn’t want to speak, she seems to pick up on it. She never pushes him to speak more than he seems to want to. He’s grateful.

Once a week she stops by to ask if they need any groceries.

It used to bother him but now he looks forward to it. She ribs Hop about how poorly he feeds the “children”. She only says the word “children” a couple of times because Billy fully resents it. In these passing weeks he figures either he’s an open book or she’s especially intuitive. Hop always tries to give some kind of reasoning, saying there isn’t a lot of time for him to go shopping or that when he does they never have good fruit in stock- as if he could even tell what good fruit really looks like. Joyce always crosses her arms and says that frozen meals are not real food and should not be given to growing kids. Billy tries to let that word slide because it’s funny to see Hop get so sheepish.

But what really gets Billy is the quiet moments- the moments that push the border of domestic. The moments where Jonathan and Billy are sitting at the table doing their stupid history project and Joyce has employed the help of Will and El to get everything for dinner prepared because her biggest issue is just keeping her mind on one track when she’s in the kitchen. And where Hop is playing records and trying to steal Joyce’s attention away to dance around the kitchen with her.

She shouts with happiness in her voice as she tries to swat him away with a smile and a laugh. El laughs and Will does too. Jonathan looks up and smiles but something about it seems to be battling discomfort. Billy knows the feeling.

And things go on like that. It happens and it happens for another two months or so until it seems like Hop is bursting at the seams with energy and fear and anxiety. He sits Billy and El down when he gets home from work one day and he’s fussing with his hat to the point that it’s bent out of shape and he’s running his hands through his hair till it’s disheveled and he’s muttering and stuttering until they can finally understand some of the words- words like “Joyce” and “marry” and “if it’s alright with you both”.

There’s a bit of confusion, mostly on El’s side. Hop didn’t seem too prepared to have to explain the concept of “marriage” to his 14 year old daughter.

But he fumbles his way through it and El seems to make the connections and Billy leans back on the sofa and pictures what his life was like less than a year ago… and then what it could possibly look like about a year from now…

His head is dizzy.

But El seems excited. She’s jumping up and nodding and saying she likes Joyce and Will and even Jonathan. She says she likes going to dinner with them and hanging out with them.

There’s talk of moving house. Because “it’d be easier to live together and… I’m sure you can tell, the cabin isn’t really big enough for all… six of us.”

The number six throws Billy for multiple loops.

He’s leaning back against the cushions, trying to make sense of the number six and trying to apply that to the idea of people. By the time El is giving her blessing and asking if she can get some ice cream from the freezer, Billy has just about figured out how they can make the rooms work in the Byers home.

“Are you sure, kid?”

It’s Hop’s voice, rough yet still quiet.

Billy has to think for a second. His mind races to provide him with thoughts and images, some of them bleeding into other ones. Some are pastel and paler than before- with blonde, beachy hair getting tangled in the wind and big sun hats keeping the invasive rays at bay. Others are bright and vibrant and maybe a bit too loud- dark brown hair and dark brown eyes and the brightest, kindest smile that blinds him.

He can’t tell if the discomfort he feels is a good sign or not.

Still, he nods. He can immediately feel the energy of the man next to him shift.

“Do you mean it?”

“Yeah… I wouldn’t say yeah if I didn’t mean it.”

There’s a pause, everything hanging in the air like dust clinging to the invisible words.

“Well you didn’t really say anything at first…” Hop says, and Billy immediately hits him with the back of his hand.

The two of them laugh, and Billy wonders if this will still feel the same when three suddenly turns into six.

----*----

Billy really didn’t ask for any of this, and he’s not exactly sure how he got stuck here, but he’s sitting at a lunch table with Jonathan, Nancy, and one of Nancy’s little friends. The two girls are fussing over which shade of baby pink is just right while Jonathan tries to provide his (very quiet) two cents over his bite of lukewarm mac n’ cheese.

Billy’s confused.

“I think my mom just wants a casual thing.” Jonathan’s too quiet for his own good.

“It cannot be casual… this is a major thing!” Nancy’s friend- Billy thinks it might be Jessica -says rather indignantly to Jonathan over the color swatch she’s holding. “Your wedding is supposed to be the most special day of your life.”

“Yeah uh… my mom kinda already did the whole wedding thing. I think she wants this to be kinda small.”

“Still, we need to find the best colors! There needs to be a theme, right?” Nancy insists, looking at the swatches in her hands. “Your mom is so good to everybody, she deserves a beautiful wedding.”

“Well… if you’re gonna pick a theme don’t you think it should have more… I dunno, contrast.” Jonathan insists quietly. She-might-be-Jessica doesn’t seem too thrilled.

“Whaddya mean?” Nancy asks distractedly.

Billy listens to about 10 seconds of Jonathan’s color theory speech before he decides he absolutely does not want to be dealing with this.

“Why am I here again?” Billy cuts in, halting the current conversation.

Billy resents Nancy’s irritated glare.

“You’re just as involved as Jonathan is. They’re going to be your parents.”

Billy’s head spins at the word, almost enough for him to miss Nancy’s next statement-

“Besides, when Jonathan is at work we’ll need you to drive us to stores.”

Almost.

What?

Nancy tries to explain herself but Billy cuts her off again.

“Who said I’m driving you two anywhere?”

“Well c’mon, don’t you want to do something nice for them! This is their wedding.”

“I thought you didn’t even believe in marriage.” Billy leans over the table, voice lowering. “Aren’t you the one that’s always complaining about the nuclear family?”

“How do you know that? That’s personal.”

“Real personal. You talked about it everyday in History last year.”

Nancy sits back in her chair, pouting something fierce, arms crossed tight around her chest.

“It just so happens that I fully believe in marriage when two people actually love each other. And I don’t believe in it when two people marry just to pretend to be perfect!”

Billy’s scowling right back, but something about her words hit his chest.

“You just want something to be mad at.”

That seems to hit Nancy right back, her eyebrows furrowing with what looks more like confusion than anger.

Billy takes advantage of that and lets his eyes fall to the notebook in front of her that she’s been writing on all lunch period.

He snags it before she can stop him.

“Hey!”

“What are you even trying to buy?”

“Billy give that back!” Nancy hisses through her teeth, but Billy just leans his chair back on it’s back legs and holds the notebook out with his arm so he can scan through the words.

He nearly gags.

“What is this shit?”

“I wouldn’t expect you to understand.” Sneers maybe-she’s-Jessica but Billy doesn’t have to work too hard to ignore her.

“Personalized invitations? A live band? Fifty candles? What’re you trying to do, burn the place down?”

“They don’t even know the venue yet!”

Embroidered napkins? What the fuck? Why would anyone need embroidered napkins?”

“My parents had embroidered napkins at their wedding!” possibly-Jessica budges in, nose scrunching up in the most irritating way.

Billy leans over with a threatening sneer.

“Oh yeah? And how is their divorce going?”

It feels bitter on his tongue. He’s not sure for a second if the look on her face is worth what he just said.

Her whole face flushes red and she starts huffing like a kettle as she stands to grab her bag and books.

“Sorry Nance, I can’t help you anymore. There’s no way I’d want to spend one more second with this dickwagon.”

“Dickwagon? Sounds like a fun time.” Billy leers before licking his teeth gratuitously. She scoffs in disgust as she turns to leave.

Nancy isn’t happy, which means Steve is gonna hear about it- and yet, Billy really can’t spare even a second out of his day to care..

He’s pushing his unappetizing food around as Nancy stands up.

“I cannot believe you!” she rages, before stomping off to follow her friend, calling out: “Jenny! Wait up!”

Billy’s lazily looking over the rest of the list, judging every word, when he hears someone chuckling.

It’s Jonathan, shaking with his laughter. His mouth is upturned. Billy could punch the table.

“What are you laughing at, punk?” Billy seethes, stabbing at his food for emphasis.

Jonathan seems completely unfazed by Billy’s empty threats though, because he leans back with that laugh still playing on his face and says with a lilting voice: “Dickwagon.”

There’s a pause between them, somewhat filled by Jonathan still quietly laughing, before the bubble pops.

And then Billy is running a hand tiredly down his face, vibrating slightly with his own laughter, shaking his head and letting his chest be consumed with chuckles.

----*----

Billy, admittedly, might be a little upset about it, but Joyce Byers is the kindest woman he’s ever met.

He’s only known her for a little over 2 months now and he’s absolutely certain the woman is just nice. Getting angry makes things easier, and it’s not as if anger isn’t imminent in his chest, but… it’s not directed at her. He couldn’t even pretend that it is. It bubbles for something intangible and invisible. He wants to punch the ghosts of the memories- for denying him the kind of joy he’s sure Jonathan and Will must be feeling at seeing their mom so happy. He knows his memories aren’t to blame. He just wants something to be mad at.

He watches Nancy run around trying to help out with the wedding with the excuse that her mother is helping out too, but soon she gives up.

There’s a lot of fuss and stress and struggle for about a week or so until Joyce and Jim have to insist that this is going to be casual. They don’t even really want a ceremony because it doesn’t seem “appropriate”. They might have a reception-like-thing. They’re gonna roll with the punches. Hop figures it shouldn’t take him too much to rent out the community center in the park just for their friends to… “celebrate” or whatever everyone feels entitled to when it comes to their marriage.

Billy understands their irritation.

And that’s what he tells Steve and Nancy as they hang out in Steve’s living room. Steve nods and Nancy huffs. Steve is the one who invited Nancy in. Billy is convinced that he also invited her over here, but the boy refuses to answer the question.

And so Billy is (alright maybe possessively) holding Steve in his lap on the couch while Nancy sits in the adjacent arm chair and basically rants about the fact that the wedding isn’t being “planned”.

Steve has a lot more patience than Billy does.

“You know them though, Nancy. You know they’re real casual people.”

“Yeah I know I just…” She sighs like she’s disappointed. Billy thinks he might believe it. “I got so excited.”

“It’s not your wedding, Nance.”

“I know, I know. They’re just so cute together and it’s been a long time coming and Joyce is so good to everyone… and she deserves something nice.”

Steve rests a bit heavier on Billy’s lap, leaning back a little further.

“She already did the whole wedding thing though.”

“Yeah, with someone she hates now!” Nancy sits up straighter, clearly flustered at the statement.
“It’s not the same!”

“Probably for her to decide.”

Steve says it so lazily that it causes Nancy to slump back in the chair.

In the quiet moment Billy wonders silently about their previous marriages. Because they both had them. They both did “the whole wedding thing” and then some. They both claimed to love someone else enough to make it official. They both claimed to love someone else enough to have kids with them. Billy often thinks about Will and Jonathan facing their father- and far too often does he wonder if it ever looked or felt a little like Billy facing Neil. Billy often thinks about young Will and Jonathan when their mother kicked their father out.

Billy often thinks about Hop and his wife and their early days with Sara. He thinks about how every day must have felt like the early days. They never really got past the early days.

He’s stuck in his head thinking about it until someone pops his bubble.

“I still can’t believe you have so little to say about this.”

He snaps out of it to see Nancy shooting him a rather serious stare.

“What?” He asks lamely and it only worsens her glare.

You. It’s like you don’t even care.”

“I care plenty.”

“Then why don’t you ever say anything about it?”

“Because maybe I don’t feel a need to run my mouth like you do.” Billy growls, admittedly. He leans forward as far as he can with Steve still sitting in his lap.

Nancy seems to be trying to engage in some sort of staring match, but Billy knows two can play at that game.

They’re about a full 30 seconds in before Steve is struggling in Billy’s lap and tugging at Billy’s wrists.

“I’ve gotta use the bathroom.”

“I’ll come with you.” Billy mumbles, still glaring in Nancy’s general direction. He tries to keep his arms somewhat around Steve, tries to stand with him, but Steve shoves him back down.

“No, stay here. I’ll be right back.” Steve rushes out, sending Billy a pointed look before rushing out of the room.

Billy doesn’t like the sudden implication in the air.

Nancy is still scowling, but this time more to herself than anything else. Her arms are still crossed and she’s still huffing to herself as she stands up and storms silently over to the kitchen. Billy really hates the tugging feeling in his chest telling him that he probably needs to follow her.

When he does, Nancy doesn’t seem particularly shocked or angry- just slightly put out. She’s fuming silently around the kitchen, seemingly trying to decide if she wants something to eat or drink or if she just wants to leave. Billy’s not gonna have this- he knows why Steve left them here and he’s not going to upset his boyfriend just to avoid whatever discomfort this whole thing is going to cause.

So Billy leans against a counter and crosses his arms and tries his best not to look completely unimpressed by this whole scenario.

“Look… I apologized.”

Nancy shoots him a tired look, but her eyes still hit like daggers. That’s all she does by way of response, so he tries again.

“I did more than just apologize… I changed. I’m still changing. I don’t know what the fuck you want from me.”

She opens a cabinet just to organize the glasses and close it again. He rolls his eyes.

“I apologized and I know I can’t… expect you to forgive me or whatever but… but I didn’t even apologize to you.” He realizes, mind spinning in circles as it works. “You can’t accept it anyway because it’s not for you. I never even did anything to you! What did I even do to you?”

Suddenly she can’t seem to face him. Everything but Billy is able to keep her attention. He’s exhausted and fed up with having to bend over backwards for this girl that he barely even wronged in the first place.

“Alright, c’mon, what’s your problem?” Billy breaks the silence again.

Billy tries not to laugh at the disgusted look Nancy throws his way.

“Seriously?” Nancy punctuates it by crossing her arms.

“Yeah, seriously.”

“You’re an asshole, Billy Hargrove. That’s my problem.”

She opens a cabinet just to slam it shut two seconds later. Billy sucks a bit on his teeth.

“Alright then. What makes me an asshole?”

He knows exactly why she’d call him that, but something tells him that she doesn’t have a real reason in mind. As to be expected- she has to grasp for straws for a response.

“You’re… you’re so rude to people-”

“And you’re a saint.”

Nancy’s the one to look unimpressed at that.

“You insult people all the time.”

“And you’ve insulted me every week for the past three months.”

Billy swears if he looks hard enough, he’ll be able to see smoke come out of her ears.

“You were an actual monster over summer.”

That one hurts. Billy’s chest feels like it caves in a bit. His fingers grip at the counter and his breath is turning funny because he hears something in his memories- something a lot more sinister than the humming of a kind, blonde woman…

“I was possessed.” Billy growls, but it’s low and almost too quiet. He feels like he can barely hear himself, but maybe that’s because he’s fighting to be heard over the growling of an invader. “I didn’t have a choice.”

Tears are pushing at his eyes and it doesn’t take more than a second to know that Nancy can tell. Her face falls and softens, and her eyes look guilty. Billy wants to hiss at it, but he needs all the energy he can muster to push the tears back down.

Nancy can’t even look him in the eye and that’s what pisses him off the most.

“You just want something to be mad at.” He hisses at her, feeling every thread of emotion in him pull taut with hostility. Either she’s shaking or he is.

“Yeah, I do want something to be mad at!” Nancy shouts with full force, small hands clenched into smaller fists and Billy feels the edges in his chest soften just a tad. Because when he looks up to her face again he sees her doing the same as him- forcing down the tears that are forming in her eyes. She’s scowling and her mouth is wobbling and he sees a bit of himself. He sees his reflection in her watery eyes.

Billy fights the instinct to cross his arms again.

“I’m not going to pour my heart out to you.” Nancy says, using the back of her hand to wipe at her eye but not making any other move to leave.

He can only raise an eyebrow, and otherwise tries his best to wait patiently.

“It sounds like you are.”

“Well I’m not.”

She’s almost sniffling now with her hands folding tight into her armpits as she stands defiantly and yet still refuses to move.

A few silent moments pass between them.

“Nancy… I’m listening, okay?” Billy sighs through it, but he means it. He hopes she can believe him even slightly. “It’s easier to talk about it to people who know… y’know?”

He’s not shocked at her skeptical look, or at the scowl she’s still wearing on her face… but he is a little surprised to see a couple of tears fall.

He’s pretty sure that she’s the one shaking.

“Look… I’ve been in a nightmare for three years. Three years these horrible… things show up all these… these monsters and then they destroy my life and then they just disappear! And I can’t tell anyone, I can’t tell my friends, I can barely tell my family and… and I’m crying every day and I have nothing to show for it! And I can’t even be mad at anyone else because there’s only El and… and Will and they’re just kids and it’s just… easier! It’s easier to say I hate you and it’s easier to feel like there’s something around for me to be mad at.”

She’s definitely the one shaking. Tears are falling down her face and Billy feels worry bubble up in him.

“And it’s just… you just moved here you don’t understand....” Nancy continues, breathing so unevenly Billy’s a little concerned she may be hyperventilating. “You don’t understand, we’ve lived here our whole lives and suddenly nothing feels safe anymore. Joyce wanted to move out of Hawkins! And I’ve… I lost my best friend and still no one talks about her and just last summer we lost like… we lost so many people and they… they weren’t just faces. I went to kindergarten with some of them! Mr. Godfried was one of them! He lived on my street corner! I used to babysit his kids! They were parents and children and aunts and uncles and I’m… I just hate it.”

Her tears are falling heavily now, arms folding tight around herself less in defiance and more in some kind of vain attempt at comfort.

Billy can’t just stand by and watch her crying. She’s right, he doesn’t understand. He still has pastel and pleasant memories of California. He can’t imagine it being invaded by intangible and unspeakable monsters. He has physical beings to funnel his hatred into. She’s grasping for straws because the things she hates are things hardly any of them understand. She probably feels so alone. He wonders how everyone else feels.

He can’t just stand by and… and watch her cry.

So he takes a few steps forward to get her attention… and then he holds his arms out a little bit in a (hopefully gentle) invitation… and then he twists his mouth up into something he hopes is sympathetic because that’s truly how he feels.

And her eyes are red and watery and yet still skeptical and her lip is quivering and upset and yet still frowning and then she walks into Billy’s embrace and lets him hug her.

It’s a strange feeling- Billy has come to find that he actually is a pretty touchy-feely person, but it will never cease to feel utterly strange to have someone in his arms in a hug. It’ll never stop weirding him out that he’s capable of receiving comfort and giving it in turn.

Nancy is shaking in his arms, her own arms still crossed across her chest and thus laying heavy against his own. He pats her back.

“I’m sorry.” He mumbles so his voice doesn’t come out too rough.

“No… you’re right. You have nothing to apologize to me for.” Nancy mumbles back, sniffling a little. Barely a second later she’s wriggling to get out of his arms. “You smell awful, what is that?”

“Probably my cologne.”

“It’s horrible.”

“Hey, Steve likes it.” Billy chuckles, feeling his chest rumble against her before he lets her go. “A lot.”

“Gross.”

“Well, let’s just say I wasn’t exactly planning on you being here when I came over.”

Grody can we not talk about you fucking my ex?” She asks, voice nasally as she sniffles again and rubs at the tears that have paused on her cheeks. Billy just laughs.

And in a few minutes of Billy struggling to decide whether it’s rude to leave a girl who’s crying or if it’s rude to stand and watch a girl blow her nose into a paper towel, they’ve made it back into the living room. And in a few minutes more, Steve is tip-toeing into the room with expectant eyes, asking if they’ve “fixed everything.” Billy just rolls his eyes and opens his arms in an invitation for his boyfriend to sit back down on his lap.

Nancy is off in the bathroom when Steve turns to Billy and plays with his hair. He’s one of exactly two people allowed to touch his hair.

Billy must have a pretty serious mug on his face, because Steve looks concerned.

“You good?”

“Yeah,” Billy nods, eyes hyperfocusing on the pattern of the carpet. “I just… I was barely banking on getting a new dad. And now I have a new dad, and another sister… I’m getting a new mom and two brothers… and now I have like… what, a sister in law? And you, and you came with about 5 other children.”

Steve laughs even though Billy is in far too deep of a crisis to find this particularly funny.

“Well, I don’t really see a reason to complain. Sounds pretty nice to me.”

Maybe it’s the exhaustion, but Billy can’t find enough footing to argue.

----*----

The ceremony really isn’t anything to gawk at. It’s small and crowded because they’re just in the City Hall of the next town over and they had to squish all 6 of them into the small room to hear the vows.

It’s all very lackluster. If Billy kind of wants to cry, it’s definitely not because it’s “beautiful” or anything... he’ll just blame the stuffy nature of the room.

The “reception” on the other hand is far more interesting. Billy’s stomach has been flipping for weeks now at the thought of everything finally being official. No more kidding around, no more tip-toeing around the idea, no more joking or playing or complaining- it was gonna be real. And maybe it’s at the ceremony where things became official, but Billy knew it would be at the “reception” where things became real.

And he wasn’t wrong.

Everyone in Hawkins wanted to be invited. Only a very select few actually were. Sure maybe everyone from Sheriff Hop down to Janitor Joe at the local pizza joint knew each other, but that doesn’t mean that everyone needed to be present. It’s just the two guys from the station along with Flo. Callahan tells Hop he has to leave about fifteen minutes in because he and Powell flipped for who would be on duty during the reception and Callahan lost. Then there’s the kids and all of their parents- most notably Mrs. Wheeler who is just ecstatic at the whole endeavor. Her husband claims he has to leave about 20 minutes in and then disappears in the Wheeler family car before even congratulating Hop and Joyce. Then finally there’s Murray and Alexei, sitting happily in the corner and trying to avoid as many people as possible, yet still getting caught up in wild conversations with the kids as they ask about the newest theories and the craziest parts of Russia.

And… that’s about it.

And it’s nice. It really is. It’s fairly small and mostly quiet. They’re in the community center in the park and Steve brought his loudest stereo to fill the room and there’s food and tables and chairs- all hardly decorated. In fact, nothing is decorated. The smiles and the music and the laughter decorate every inch of the place.

They’re about 10 minutes into the party when Hopper looks a little solemn as he pours a beer out for someone named Benny.

Everyone is wearing button downs and ties and flowy dresses that look like they’ve been collecting dust in the back of their closets. All except for El’s, which looks shiny and new and sparkly. Apparently Max took El out to buy a dress because she’s still spending most of her time wandering around in Hop’s worn out clothes. Billy gave her a couple of his old t-shirts before Max threw a fit at the fact that she had to steal his band tees from his room fair and square. Y’know, before he turned soft. So he had to stop giving them to El- he’s since opted to give them to Steve instead.

His eyes fall to Steve, who’s currently with Robin, grabbing some punch to bring back for the table. Billy’s mesmerized at how effortlessly good he looks in everything. He cleans up almost better than he dirties. It really is a sin.

The worst part is how comfortable Steve looks. In his half-monkey suit, collar all buttoned and tie all done up. It’s not fair he gets to wear something so stuffy and look about as relaxed as can be as he leans a hand on the table and laughs at Robin who fucks up using the punch ladle and accidentally gets a waterfall of punch falling down her arm. It’s ridiculous. He’s cracking up and bending to slap his knee and he may as well be wearing just his boxers and a tee shirt for how comfortable he looks.

In fact, just about everyone looks comfortable. They’re all smiling and laughing and wearing fancy dresses and pants and shoes all accessorized by bright smiles like this isn’t the strangest thing to happen. Who cares that about 90% of the people here know about the monsters that crept up through the darkness and about the experiments Russia supposedly funded and pumped into their quiet town- this is stranger. Billy Hargrove, resident asshole, got adopted by the Chief of Police right after said Chief adopted one of those “experiments”. And now the Chief is going to marry his high school sweetheart AKA the clerk from the general store who has 2 boys of her own because she was previously married and, oh, their friends include a Russian scientist and a crazy conspiracy theorist and at least 50% of the rest of the attendees consist of literal children.

Absolutely no one can tell Billy that stranger things have happened.

But no one seems to agree- or else they just don’t care -because they’re all dancing and laughing and acting like this isn’t completely nuts. It’s mostly the kids being spun around by El, who is having the absolute time of her life. The only ones who look even semi-uncomfortable are Hop and Joyce, who have been swept up in conversations and random dances all afternoon. Billy feels bad for chuckling at their confused faces, especially considering this whole thing is supposed to be for them. Still, count on those two to know how to make him feel a little better, even if it’s unknowingly.

Billy has been practically clinging to Steve all afternoon. He whines when Steve insists he has to get up to get punch or food or use the bathroom. Steve always assures him he’ll be back soon and he squeezes Billy’s shoulder for good measure. Most of the people here know about Billy and Steve, but the rest of the attendees are parents and people from the station, so the two still have to be careful. There’s no need to put on a show for others to gawk at. But he clings as much as he can, and Robin makes fun of them no matter how deeply Billy scowls at her, and Billy refuses to talk to anyone except for those two, no matter how much the other two at the table insist because-

“They’re like… your parents now, right?”

“Shut up, Robin..”

“You can’t just pretend you’re not here.”

“Shut up.”

Hey!” Steve whines suddenly, wiggling a bit. “I get you’re mad at her but don’t step on my foot!”

Billy grumbles out his apology.

It’s just that he wants his anchors for as long as he can have them, because he knows in a few minutes they’re going to have to leave him. And lo’ and behold, there they go. Steve insists Billy will be alright, that he can “go talk to the kids! Or Jonathan! It’s fine, you’re fine! They like you.” he says with a squeeze on Billy’s shoulder as Steve and Robin sneak away to get their equipment.

Billy just can’t imagine moving though. So he sits and he nurses his punch for a minute before taking the rest in one gulp and slightly wishing someone had spiked it. And his leg jumps and his fingers twitch and he watches everyone smile and he realizes that… that these people are his now. Sort of. They’re opening their lives up to him like their open arms are unlocked doors.

He suddenly feels like he’s not doing anything in return.

He’s still swimming in the realization that everything is going to change yet again when he hears voices start cheering and whooping. He looks up to see all the kids clapping and cheering, Dustin especially, at the people currently standing up at the front of the room. Billy already knows what’s going on.

Robin is busy setting up microphones for the two of them while Steve waves his right hand in the air, the left one holding the neck of an acoustic guitar, pretending like he’s a major rock star walking onto a stage. The kids feed into his fantasies with more screams and yells and a couple of whistles. Robin rolls her eyes and kicks Steve’s ankle as she passes him to plug the mic in, to which Steve sticks his tongue out even though her back is turned to him. Billy chuckles while distractedly trying to drink from his empty cup.

Hop and Joyce look a little lost. Jonathan is smirking on the other side of the room.

“Hey uh… hello? Testing… testing testing…” Steve mumbles into the mic and something about it really would do Billy in if literally all of Steve’s children weren’t present. Still, his heart pangs strongly at his boyfriend up there, all dressed up in his black slacks and black tie and dress shoes. Fuck he’s loosening his tie now so he can unbutton his collar. Billy wonders if he’s nervous.

“Uhm, hi guys!”

Steve is stepping over the wire Robin is carrying as she passes by, but she nods her head and gives him a thumbs up as she goes. As she’s getting herself set up with her own guitar, snapping into the mic to check if it’s live, Steve keeps fidgeting with his collar. He unbuttons and rebuttons the top of it a few times before eventually opting for more air rather than less.

“So… some birdie told me that the happy couple likes this song we’re about to play. And we could have just put on a record or a tape or something, but… what’s a party if there’s not someone trying to screw up a song by playing it live? So uh… this goes out to our newest couple.”

Steve puts his guitar on quickly so he can clap for them. Everyone else follows suit, to what looks like Hop’s and Joyce’s dismay. Billy smirks at their obvious discomfort and confusion.

“Uhhhh… yeah!” Steve continues, putting on that charming little smile that hides his obvious nerves. Steve offered to do this- Jonathan and Billy and Nancy were just playing around with the idea. Steve insisted, so Billy’s trying not to feel too bad at the nerves that are spread thick all over his boyfriend. “Hope you guys enjoy this.”

Steve starts to strum the guitar, creating the beginning rhythm of the song “Night Moves”. His hair is flopping a bit as he strums the intro, and then he’s talking over his strumming. Billy’s face warms at how cute he is.

“Oh and I just wanna let you guys know-” he starts, looking at Hop and Joyce where they’re sitting next to Flo and Powell. “I’m so happy for you. Seriously you two deserve just… every bit of happiness. And just… thanks for everything you do. Alright.”

Steve takes a big breath before he starts to sing and Joyce looks like she’s about to cry.

I was a little too tall… could have used a few less pounds…

Steve adds in the word “less” and Billy turns quickly to see Hop looking very unimpressed. Joyce is laughing and poking at him.

Tight pants points hardly renown… She was a black haired beauty with big dark eyes… and points all her own, sitting way up high…

Steve’s nerves melt as he sings, voice coming out raspy and striking Billy through the chest. If he ever wondered about anything in regards to Steve and him, he doesn’t have to wonder anymore.

But Steve bites his lips as the lyrics fall quiet, and then he’s not singing so much as speaking in a sing-songy way as he says: “Not gonna sing the next line…”

Billy laughs, and a few other people who know the song do too. Billy can understand what must be a little discomfort at singing this song to two people he’s known almost all his life.

Out past the cornfield where the woods got heavy… out in the backseat of my ‘60 Chevy… workin’ on mysteries without any clues...

Billy tears his eyes away from his boyfriend to watch Joyce and Hop, and he looks quickly enough to see their eyes sparkle. He wonders how much of this song hits home to them.

Workin’ on our night moves…

He tries not to think about it being too accurate. He doesn’t have to be related to either of them to know he doesn’t want to think about them doing... that...

Steve seems to feel the same way, because he grits his teeth and scrunches his nose and smiles a bit with each suggestive line. He looks to Robin who’s standing a bit behind him, but she’s too focused on her own guitar picking to take notice- either that or she’s purposely ignoring it.

By the time the second chorus rolls around, Robin is picking up the backing vocals and making Steve shoot her a bright and flashing smile, Flo and Powell begin to shove at the couple to get them to stand. They push against it as hard as they can, Hop grumbling and growling something Billy can almost hear even from across the room, but the struggle seems to be useless. Others are taking notice and they’re clapping and yelling and egging them on. A slightly drunk Murray blows his cover so he can yell at them “Just get up and dance already!” from his spot next to Alexei in the corner. Alexei laughs and claps along.

And so now the two are standing, rolling their eyes and shuffling a bit before Hop smirks down at Joyce and pulls her in close to sway along to the song with her.

Everyone cheers and claps and whoops so loud that Joyce has to hide her face in Hop’s chest. Hop sticks his middle finger up to Powell, who is currently making kissy faces at the two of them. Jonathan is taking pictures. Billy can’t help but laugh and Steve seems to feel the same way, laughing around the words he’s singing.

And oh the wonder… felt the lightning… and we waited on the thunder…

Hop spins Joyce around then, her laugh ringing through the building. Hop looks like he’s singing along.

Waited on the thunder…

And then there is a single chord, and Steve halts, Robin picking gently and quietly at her own guitar. The whole room pauses, hushed and silent as Steve’s voice begins to sing again, a chord accompanying each line, voice raspy and emotional-

I woke last night to the sound of thunder…

Once again, as he watches the two of them watch each other with telling eyes, Billy wonders if they feel like this song was made for them.

How far off I sat and wondered…

Did they ever think about how far off the thunder was? The thunder of losing a kid and losing a husband and losing a wife. The thunder of monsters threatening their quiet lives.

Started humming a song from 1962…

How often did they hum songs together? Back then when they were in high school and life was simpler. Back before Hop joined the military and Joyce joined the line of young wives and young mothers. How often did they sit in Hop’s car and imagine that life would never get past the monotonous days of high school?

Ain’t it funny how the night moves…

Do they ever wonder how they got here? Could either of them have predicted this back when they were 16 and worried about prom and cars and summer jobs? Could either of them, at 16, ever imagine themselves here, at 43?

When you just don’t seem to have as much to lose…

How hard was it to feel like you lost everything and yet find yourself still having to fight? How difficult must it have been to have so many things swiped out from under you and then be told to keep going? How quickly did those years go by?

Strange how the night moves…

Stranger things haven’t happened.

With autumn closing in…

They take a few of those elongated, suspended moments to just hold each other and everyone lets them. No one says anything, no one does anything… people hardly move. Because most of the people here know. They know the implications and they know the threats of recent years and they know the struggles and they know the pain. They know the nightmares because they’re all plagued with them. And if Billy failed to feel bonded to any of them before… well…

Robin’s guitar picks up again, Steve following suit. Hop and Joyce sway a little more, watery smiles forming on both of their faces. Robin does something fancy with a particular chord and Steve shoots a playfully harsh look back at her and hisses a small “hey! Cut that out!” and she just sticks her tongue out and he just laughs and adlibs some vocals.

And then they’re both playing louder, the music picking up and getting faster, singing out louder and then there’s laughter and Billy has to look away to see El in-between Hop and Joyce, smiling brightly up at them. They laugh, as she grabs their hands and spins them around for a few beats. Joyce lets go first, looking a little dizzy as she gestures for Will to come over. The rest of the kids push him forward, and Will succumbs to it as he walks over to his mom who sweeps him into a dance.

Billy watches as all four of them trail colors- bright vibrant colors that singe his mind with new memories. The smile on his face can’t be helped. He has to wonder, yet again, how these people have decided it’s a good idea to let him into their lives. How they think it’s even worth it.

His eyes are going a little unfocused from where he’s staring at their moving feet, but he’s not allowed to wallow for long because a hand is shoved into his vision.

“C’mon… let’s go.”

“What?” Billy asks, voice sounding groggy to his own ears as he looks up into Jonathan’s face.

“They’re making me go dance with them so you’re coming with me.”

Billy shifts his focus to the moving figures behind Jonathan and sees El beckoning frantically, Will twisting around with his mom and Hop spinning in a circle, doing the lamest dad moves imaginable.

Billy feels frozen stiff.

“Uh… yeah, no.”

He feels so out of place. He’d be an absolute sore thumb with them. He doesn’t appreciate Jonathan rolling his eyes.

“If I have to go then you have to go too, come on.”

“No.”

“C’mon, don’t be a jackass.”

What’d you just call me?” Billy growls, sitting up a little straighter in his chair to seem more intimidating. Jonathan just rolls his eyes again.

“A jackass. Now let’s go.” Jonathan says insistently, shoving his hands in his pockets. “You’re family now, right? So come

Billy’s heart shreds itself to pieces at the sound of Jonathan calling Billy his family. He looks past him again to see El’s face even more persistent- it’s serious enough now that Billy’s sure she’s a few seconds away from using her powers. Hop is too distracted with looking Will right in the eye with a goofy smile as he dances, clearly enjoying how much he’s embarrassing the poor child. Joyce seems to have caught on to what’s happening with Jonathan and Billy because she’s looking over and her eyes are wide and expectant and she’s beckoning gently and Billy could fall through the floor. He really could. Because nothing is real anymore. This can’t possibly be reality.

But even if it isn’t… he figures he’ll still revel in it anyway.

He heaves himself up off the chair, glares at Jonathan’s victorious smirk, and follows the lanky boy over to the middle of the makeshift dance floor.

Joyce is standing there with a laughing face and open arms.

And in less than a second, Billy is being swept up by El as she grabs his hands and starts to twist around with him. Jonathan goes to his mother, smiling softly as she spins him around a little bit.

Billy is twisting along when he hears Steve laughing through the lyrics he’s still singing. It’s enough to cause Billy to shoot daggers at him.

“Quit laughing at me, Harrington.” Billy threatens from where they’re dancing. Steve just winks and sticks his tongue between his teeth. It makes Billy’s knees go weak.

El moves on to Will and Hop, shoving at Hop for being so embarrassing and then near squealing when Mike runs up to join in on the terrible dancing. Will laughs as Mike hooks his arm in his and they spin together, the rest of the kids following Mike’s lead to join the group on the dance floor. Jonathan’s face lights up when Nancy flutters towards him, before he holds her close and they start to sway together.

And then Joyce is standing there, looking at Billy, laughter in her smile and her eyes and shaking her shoulders as she holds her hands out for Billy to take. He almost feels bad for hesitating, and he vaguely thinks that he’s waiting for her image to shift like it always does to blonde hair and blue eyes.

But it doesn’t.

So he takes her hands and her laugh is a song in itself and he feels the safest and most comfortable he’s ever felt. It’s something reminiscent and serene and yet so completely new. And Steve is still wailing and singing and the guitar is still playing and everyone is clapping as it slowly comes to an end and Billy feels so warm as Joyce pulls him in for a hug.

----*----

Much like the ceremony and the reception, nothing about this whole ordeal is necessarily anything to gawk at. So the honeymoon portion consists of Joyce and Hopper staying at Hop’s cabin for the night while the kids spend the night at the Byers’ home. Hop had requested the other way around, but Joyce insisted on this because this way there would at least be almost enough beds for all the kids.

Except, there’s 3 beds in the house and 4 of them and no one wanted to share a bed with each other. Steve’s parents have suddenly decided to make an appearance back in town so Billy can’t stay with him, and Jonathan feels like an asshole for making Billy sleep on the couch while he gets a bed, even though Billy insists that “it’s fine, geek, I’ve slept on plenty of couches.”

“Don’t call me ‘geek’.”

So Jonathan let’s Billy take the bigger couch because he’s taller and Jonathan takes the loveseat. Jonthan piles a bunch of blankets on top of Billy and laughs as Billy punches at them like a cat trying to get out from under the covers.

And now they’re laying in the dark, the moonlight blanketing itself across the floor between them, as they listen to crickets and the wind. There’s a strange lull in the silence, even though this isn’t necessarily a time that demands conversation. The silence feels akin to the stalemate that Billy felt months ago, that first night that he was over here for dinner.

Billy’s wide awake, even though his body is physically tired, and he’s staring at the ceiling and the swirls in his vision as his eyes work to adjust to the lack of lighting and he asks:

“Do you think they’re gonna have sex in my bed.”

It doesn’t come out too much like a question as it does like a statement. Jonathan gags loudly.

“Please don’t talk about that.”

“I’m serious.”

“So am I. It was bad enough I had to hear Steve Harrington sing Night Moves to them.”

“Are you making fun of my boyfriend’s singing?”

“I’m making fun of our parents’ song choice.”

All the air leaves Billy’s lungs, even though the rest of the air feels like it’s sucked out of the room. Jonathan lets out a harsh breath as well. They’re suspended in silence again, left alone with the words “our parents” floating around them- omnipresent.

They sit in silence for what feels like too long. Billy won’t be able to get those words out of his head for weeks. He goes back to the easiest distraction.

Billy sighs.

“I slept in that bed for almost a year.”

“Oh my god, Billy, please stop-”

“And now they’re gonna have sex in it.”

“Billy, please-”

I didn’t even get to have sex in it.”

“I don’t want to hear any of this!”

Billy chuckles lightly as he watches Jonathan’s figure through the dark pick up a pillow and put it around his ears.

Billy twiddles his thumbs from his position laying on his back, thinking of how everything changed in only a few months. He thinks back to the lyrics of the song. Even with everything to lose, the nights still move quickly. Less like lazily rolling thunder, more like flashes of lightning.

“Do you still not want to be my brother?”

It’s out of Billy’s mouth before his mind can wrap around the words. It sounds juvenile and ridiculous to his ears, but he waits on pins and needles for the answer.

There’s a long pause of harsh silence, and then-

“What?”

Billy snorts.

You. What you said. That one day. Do you… do you still not wanna be my brother?”

There’s another pause. It feels far less intimidating this time.

“I never meant that.”

“Then why’d you say it, asshole?”

There’s a beat of silence, and Billy looks over to Jonathan to catch what he thinks is the tail end of a shrug. “Do you mean everything you say?”

Billy hears Jonathan and sees Steve.

“Fuck you.”

Jonathan chuckles. “What?”

“Steve said the same thing.” Billy growls, but it’s more grumpy than anything. “You guys are dicks.”

Jonathan is almost fully laughing now. He probably would be if he wasn’t so tired.

“You talk to your boyfriend about me?”

“Shut up.” Billy grumbles, turning towards the backrest of the couch and hugging a pillow into his chest. Jonathan is still laughing. It’s not the most irritating thing Billy’s ever heard… but it might be slowly getting up there.

His laughter falls away into the silence, once again. Billy looks at the pattern on the couch in front of him and sighs quietly.

Tomorrow they’re gonna start moving house. Hop bought the Old Wilson home out on the outskirts of town. It’s a little older but it’s bigger. The biggest draw was the fact that it has enough bedrooms for all of them. And yeah, maybe Jonathan and Billy are going to possibly be heading to college soon, but that’s almost a year from now if they even move right away. So. Joyce just wants them all to be comfortable- she expressed as much multiple times, with Hop reiterating it. Billy will have to hold out to see if the word “comfortable” really fits the bill.

He’s still wide awake with thoughts of how the nights move far too quickly, when he hears a half drowsy voice slur into the darkness something that sounds a whole hell of a lot like: “You’re a pretty cool brother…”

Billy feels the night move slower and thicker around him as he thinks about those words.

----*----

It’s not really any kind of shocking revelation, but moving is a lot easier with 5 other people who actually try. The worst part, next to packing everything into boxes, is moving all the furniture. Because there’s a lot of furniture. Packing everything into a U-Haul and then un-packing it is a feat in itself. Billy remembers why he was so beat after the move out to Indiana.

They’ve just about finished getting the last piece of furniture in for the communal rooms when El and Will run up excitedly.

“Can we pick out rooms now?” El asks, Will nodding beside her eagerly, eyes wide and bright.

Hop and Joyce share a look with each other before giving their nod of approval. And with that, the two kids take off running to explore, Jonathan follows lazily behind them, and Billy flops heavily onto the couch that they’ve placed haphazardly in the middle of the living room.

“Dontcha wanna pick out your new room, kid?” Hop’s voice calls out from somewhere near the door. Billy just shrugs.

“Nah, I’ll just take whatever’s left.”

“You sure?” Joyce asks and her voice nearly startles him. He briefly wonders how long it’ll take him to get used to it. “There’s a few of them that are pretty cool.”

Billy just shrugs. There’s some young part of him- the part that he sees when he sees her. The part he feels when she shows up again. The part that always wondered what it would be like to move house and experience new things. The part that saw his friend’s rooms and would get jealous about this or that. The part that would jump up and sprint to get the first pick at the “coolest room”.

The older part of him, the majority of him, is just happy to have a roof over his head and people he kind of maybe enjoys seeing. That’s enough for him.

He vaguely listens to the chattering of small voices and the pattering of feet running from room to room and then up and down the stairs like they’re on a mission.

The muscles in Billy’s arms are just now cooling down when he hears a tiny voice clear its throat. He opens an eye to look up and see who it is.

“D’ya wanna come pick out a room?” asks Will, voice small but clearly smiling.

Billy can’t help the chuckle that bubbles up.

“I’m good.”

“Are you sure? I mean… I can wait-”

Go, kid. It’s fine.”

“D’you at least wanna come see them?”

Will’s voice is getting quieter. Billy feels something pull at his chest… like he has a duty. Or maybe not… maybe more like he wants something. Wants to make this kid smile a little more. Wants to make him feel better. Maybe the younger part of Billy connects to this kid a lot more than he ever realized before.

He turns his head to look directly at Will and sees his hands are fidgeting. He sees Joyce’s… sees Jonathan’s… can’t help but chuckle again…

And then he hoists himself up off the couch.

“Alright, c’mon. Show me the one you’re picking out.”

“I haven’t picked one yet!” Will insists, following Billy towards the hallway.

“Yeah, sure. You gotta have one you like the most.”

There’s a pause, then feet hurrying a little more and Will’s suddenly at his side. He shrugs his little shoulders, face looking sheepish.

“Maybe…”

Billy chuckles, knocking his shoulder into the smaller one.

The house is kind of old and the stairs are kind of frightening- they’re really steep and walking up them feels like walking through a tunnel -but the ceiling on the second floor is vaulted which is interesting. The room Will likes is pretty cool. It has a lot of wall space and a little alcove for his drawing desk. Billy didn’t know the kid had a specific drawing desk, but his excitement is making Billy excited for him.

El drags Billy over to the room she likes the most, which is the one with the most windows. One of them is even circular, which she finds way more exciting than Billy thinks any 14 year old should find a window. Still, he gives her a smile and says it’s cool. As she plans out where all her furniture is going to go, Billy heads out to find Jonathan in the room with the least amount of windows. Billy can’t say he’s necessarily shocked.

By process of elimination, Billy knows what room he’s getting. Joyce and Hop have already claimed the room on the first floor so the “kids” can have the rooms on the second and share a bathroom or whatever. Still, he walks past it without so much as a second glance.

Billy helps Hop and Jonathan carry the furniture for everyone’s rooms up the stairs. Realistically, Hop and Billy are doing most of the work while the rest help where they can. Jonathan is stronger than he looks, but neither of the two bigger guys want to see the lanky boy stuck under a dresser in an attempt to get it up the stairs.

Once again, Billy’s beat and fully ready for a nap on the couch that’s a little closer to a wall now than it was before, when Hop calls out to him:

“Hey kid, the rest of the stuff in the truck should be for your room.”

“In a minute.” Billy grumbles, but Hop’s heavy footsteps coming his way let Billy know that the man isn’t having it.

“C’mon, don’t get too comfy down there.”

“I hate moving houses.” It’s not a whine because Billy refuses to acknowledge the fact that maybe sometimes he whines, but he will acknowledge that it might be kind of close. Moving is just exhausting in every sense of the word. It might be better with people who want to help, but not enough to convince him to get up right now.

“Yeah… yeah I do too.” Hop says it like there’s a secret somewhere- like there are hidden demons ready to creep into his mind and find a home there. Billy doesn’t like to think about Sara and how it fills Hop with a bitter and lonely sadness, but he tries not to forget her- for Hop’s sake. It’s interesting to Billy, just to see when Sara seems to creep up into Hop’s mind… the same way his mother does to him….

“C’mon, an object at rest stays at rest.” Jonathan’s voice comes and goes, obviously heading for the door to get Billy’s stuff.

Billy grunts as he rolls himself off the couch.

And it’s really not until he’s outside, standing in front of the truck with Hop and Jonathan on either side, that he realizes. Really realizes. Not even packing did he realize.

The only thing left in the truck is a bedframe, a mattress, and a dresser.

None of which are technically his so much as they were kind of loaned to him by Hop.

It feels like a punch to the chest.

“Well… at least it’ll be easy.” Hop quips, but it’s kind of quiet. Jonathan doesn’t really say anything as Hop climbs into the truck, but he elbows Billy lightly and nods over to the stuff in a silent attempt to get Billy moving again. His face looks apologetic. Billy’s not sure what the heat boiling up in his chest is, but he’s mostly sure it’s anger. Real anger.

It is easy. Relatively so, at least. Billy kicks open the unlatched door to his new room and even the small, young part of him doesn’t get excited because there’s nothing really to get excited about. He has a couple of windows. He has a real closet again. Still, when they get the bed and dresser in the room, it looks just as empty as it did when they walked in.

Billy’s the first one to walk out.

He ignores the calls of El and Will and opts for jogging down the stairs to get a glass of water. Fresh air. Something. He passes Joyce who’s struggling to move a chair and heads straight for the kitchen. There’s a lot of natural light in here. He’s grateful for it.

But he can hear the hushed whispers. The “is he okay?” and the “his room is kinda… empty.” reply.

He’s ripping open a box to get a glass of water as the hushed voices continue.

And it feels a little stupid to get so upset about this. But seeing that empty room brought with it the image of his old room. Old rooms. With stereos and posters and chairs and desks. With mirrors and bedspreads and character. Even if those places forcibly squeezed him out of them… still. He had roots in them. It was evident. Suddenly, as everyone debates where to put their furniture to create their new space, Billy feels so separate. Like a drifter that joined their home. Because he is, when he thinks about it. He feels like a rat. He’s snuck in and no one’s noticed.

Joyce is in his periphery before he knows it.

“Hey Billy!” Her voice is kind and gentle. As always. “Did you wanna come with me to go furniture shopping? I have uh… other things I wanna get! For the… kitchen!”

Billy side-eyes her. It’s clearly bullshit. Maybe there’s a few more things for the kitchen she may want but it’s nothing necessary and Joyce isn’t one to spend money where she doesn’t need to. Billy’s noticed. He admires how hard he works.

She seems a little nervous, but it’s clear she’s trying to push it down.

“I could use some help carrying all the boxes and stuff too.”

She’s not forcing him to do anything, and yet somehow he still feels forced.

So he goes- to help with boxes or whatever else excuse he needs to tell himself -and in a good 30 minutes they’re at the department store a couple towns over. In another 10 they drop all pretenses of finding furniture for other rooms.

“I think you need a vanity.”

Billy remembers the stack of boxes he used to place next to his mirror. He just shrugs.

“Just a mirror is fine.”

“You’ll need something to put all your stuff on!”

He shakes his head. “All I need is a mirror-”

“But what do you want, honey?”

Billy blinks. It’s such a stupidly simple question, and still it makes him a little dizzy.

He shrugs. She smiles like she knows. She always smiles like she knows- knows what he’s thinking, knows what he means, knows what he wants, knows him. Sometimes Billy really believes it.

So he picks out a mirror and a small table and he doesn’t look Joyce in the eye for fear of fainting in the middle of the store.

“Oh, kids used to love beanbags.”

They’ve moved on to the next section, staring at a pile of what looks like forgotten and very dusty beanbags.

Billy chuckles.

“Yeah… like a decade ago.”

“No!” Joyce insists, looking at Billy like he’s just committed some mass offense. “Not a decade ago!”

Billy raises his eyebrows.

Really?” Joyce asks again. Billy just nods. Joyce looks absolutely heartstruck. “Where does time go?”

Billy knows for a fact he’s not able to answer that question, so he just laughs and shrugs and eyes the bean bag chairs, wondering if he might actually want one.

And it really doesn’t take too long to solidify the fact that Joyce is a hippie at heart, because she’s drawn to bean bags and beaded curtains and lava lamps like a moth to a flame. It’s fun to watch. Billy tries to make sure it’s clear that he’s laughing with her rather than at her. As always, she seems to understand. He takes note of things she may want… in case he ever wants to get her a gift or something...

Of everything being stacked into the car, the only things Joyce bought for the house are some windchimes for the front porch and a new toaster for the kitchen. Just the fact that she bought something for the house at all- staying true to her word -makes Billy feel a little more comfortable.

Leave it to Joyce to find the smallest ways to make Billy feel even a little more comfortable.

----*----

Three plus three feels like a double digit number.

It may just be the fact that Billy has added a lot of new people into his life very recently and all at once. He lost one, got rid of two, but in the last 10 months he gained about eleven. It’s a lot to take in. His string of trust still has no stretch, but it’s making attempts to unravel to fit into all of their hands.

But six, whether it feels like a double digit number or not, still fills up a kitchen in the morning.

The first day of school in their new household feels hectic. Billy really took for granted being the only one heading out for school in the morning. He and Hop also really didn’t think about the toll it would take on El to see not one but three people leave for school knowing full well that she still can’t go. Joyce debates it for a second before she calls in sick to work so she can stay behind and console her- to keep her company. Billy always forgets to think about what it must feel like to be a prisoner in your own home. Sometimes she leaves, most times she stays and has to find ways to entertain herself. If Billy ever feels too close to her, he can always reassure himself that they are in fact not related because if she were anything like him, she would’ve carved whole choruses and verses of song lyrics into the walls.

But aside from El being upset about having to stay at home still, everyone tries to eat breakfast. Billy, who usually likes to carbo-load (because these muscles don’t keep themselves) has to settle for an apple and a slice of bread because the toaster is being used and cereal is being poured and Billy doesn’t have the time nor the wherewithal to deal with maneuvering around the kitchen. To be honest, it could be the biggest kitchen in the world and Billy would still be convinced that it’s crowded now that the amount of people has doubled.

He’s finished his slice of bread and is about halfway done with his apple, just sitting at their new little island/bar thing, watching the rat-race of breakfast-making go down, when a brown paper bag is shoved in his face.

He perks up a bit on instinct, trying to get his eyes to focus on what’s in front of him.

“What’s that?” Billy asks, looking up into the face of Joyce, who’s currently holding the bag.

“It’s your lunch!” She says with a smile, putting it down on the counter in front of him. “For your first day of school with us… as a family!”

Jonathan’s chuckle nearly pushes Billy to smack him.

“You haven’t made lunch for Will and me in years, Mom.” Jonathan’s eyes are practically sparkling with laughter and Billy doesn’t know how much hatred he should feel towards this.

“Yeah, but you both got lunch on your first day! It’s only fair.”

Billy doesn’t know what’s fair, but he knows what’s not fair, and working to make sure Billy feels like he’s a part of their little, familial, domestic traditions right before he has to go off to school is not fair. He pulls the bag a little closer to himself.

“It’s crunchy peanut butter and raspberry jam! Like you like, right?”

“Uh… yeah.” He’s brought it up with her before, off-handedly when she came by to ask if they needed groceries. He didn’t know she listened to everything.

He grabs the bag and lightly bumps into Jonathan’s shoulder and asks if anyone needs a ride.

“Not unless you wanna pick up Nancy too.”

“No thanks. Not this early in the morning.”

Jonathan’s snort sounds unamused.

But Will takes the offer, claiming he doesn’t know how to get to the school by bike yet. Billy nods and resolves to drive slow, because Will can’t really handle the speed of the Camaro.

And when they get in Billy’s car and he looks at who Will is waving to, he sees Joyce in the doorway. Smiling and looking straight for them.

He waves back at her a little bit, even though his heart pulls and his mind provides him with images he hasn’t seen in far too long.

----*----

Billy never would have guessed it, but Jonathan talks a lot.

“And she was saying she still wants to go into journalism, and I hope she does because she’s really good at it-”

Mostly about Nancy.

It shouldn’t bother Billy. If it bothers him at all, it’s not even the fact that it’s about Nancy. Billy’s not exactly the best of friends with her, but sometimes he needs a break from the loud and brash boys he has lunch with everyday at school. He and Nancy have basically made up since that day at Steve’s, and now when Billy decides he wants to go bother Jonathan for a lunch period, he feels almost welcome to sit with the two of them. He used to ask Nancy to summarize the books they were reading in English until she caught on and told him he has to “read his own books or fail”. Now he’ll talk through the plots with her instead, expressing his gripes and fighting with her about the best characters or the stupidest decisions. It’s actually kind of nice and Beowulf was pretty badass, so it’s been beneficial.

No, it’s not because he’s talking about Nancy… it’s more the fact that he’s so comfortable when he does it.

There’s a bitterness in Billy’s chest when he sees that shy smile on Jonathan’s face and the way Joyce and Hop hang off his words and the look in their eyes when he talks about her… like they’re so proud.

It’s a childish sort of thing. The younger and smaller version of himself mingles with the older, bigger version and he’s screaming inside. He wants something he can’t name. He knows it has something to do with the way they look at Jonathan. Like they’re so happy for Jonathan .

And he knows Hop is understanding and that he works hard to be, which is better than anything Billy could ever ask for… but still. And it’s not like Joyce or anyone has really given him sufficient reason to believe they don’t accept him... but still. Still he worries and still he frets and still he feels like a child talking about their favorite toy. He feels small and fragile and it feels maddening to know that he’s the one making himself feel that way.

So he pouts. He’s short with Hop. He picks at El a little too harshly. He’s fed up because he’s in his head and when Joyce asks if he wants to help her with the dishes tonight…

He looks into her eyes and can’t say no.

And so when everyone else is busy in their rooms or doing other things or passed out on the couch (ie. Hopper every single night), Joyce asks Billy how he’s feeling.

“Peachy.”

She nods, and Billy takes the dish from her hand to dry it.

“So… you and Steve?”

Billy puts the plate down a little aggressively. He’s winded.

“What about me and Steve?”

She gives a little smile as she shrugs.

“You guys are together, right? Or something like that?” She laughs a light little thing. Billy hasn’t invited Steve over to this house nor has he spent any excessive amount of time with him. Billy briefly wonders if she just knows everything.

“Uhh… yeah…”

Joyce laughs a little louder.

“Don’t worry, Hop told me. A while ago, actually.” She gives him what looks like it’s attempting to be a comforting look. “You know how he is- always worrying. He never knows what to say.”

Yeah, Billy knows.

Maybe he’s a little lost in the swirling of his mind for a little too long, because she’s jumping back in again.

“If you wanna talk about him… I’m here to listen.”

Billy’s mind spins faster. He’s been drying the same plate for the last 5 minutes. All he can do is shrug.

“Talk about… what?”

She shrugs now.

“Anything you want! How is he? What’s he up to?”

Billy feels his heart tug. A smaller, younger version of him is running in circles, smiling crazily, laughing and giggling and gushing about new friends new friends new boys.

“He’s good. He’s working at the video store across town.”

“Oh right. He told me at one of your games!” Billy still can’t believe she goes to those. “I asked him for some movie recommendations but… it wasn’t very helpful.”

“I can imagine.” Billy says over a laugh, finally putting the plate away gingerly. “Did he start talking about the teddy bears?”

“He was mentioning the movie with Alex Keaton in it? Which was confusing because… I mean even I know the actor’s name is Michael J. Fox.”

Billy laughs a little harder at that.

“And then he said I need to… watch out for a movie with Sesame Street and fire.”

Billy snorts at that, putting down the glass in his hand and shaking his head.

“Is he talking about that movie with Emilio Estevez? Came out last year?”

Billy nods with a sigh.

“Yeah, probably. He’s… just bad with movies.”

They laugh together, washing dishes in silence. If there’s a presence of memories lurking in Billy’s head, at least it’s dull and quiet.

“Is he thinking about college at all?” She asks again, but her tone isn’t condescending or expectant in any way. Billy’s still unsure how she does that.

“Nah he… he says he doesn’t have the grades. And he’s not sure where he’d go anyway. So…” Billy just shrugs the sentence away, focusing on specific spots of the plate in his hand and hoping the conversation goes away.

Joyce nods. “Ah yeah… I felt the same way when I was young.”

“Really? You?”

“Yeah! I swear to you right now, I had no prospects and no ambition. Looking back now, I see I gave up before I could even start.”

Billy’s quiet as he puts the plate away, so she continues gently.

“I know you two are both very bright boys. You don’t need college, by any means, but if you ever want to go… well I’m sure you’ll surprise yourself if you let yourself try.”

He’s still quiet, swimming in thoughts of college and moving and leaving and doing it with Steve. Then thinking about money and places to live and food that would need to get on the table…

“Did you ever hear back from that scout?” Joyce’s voice interrupts his thoughts.

He did. He nods.

“Yeah uh… they liked me. A lot, actually.”

“That’s great!” Joyce’s voice is so full of pride. It’s that pride that filled her eyes when Jonathan talked about Nancy. Billy can’t dare to look and see if he can see it as well as he hears it.

He shrugs.

“I guess. I dunno what I want.”

He’s thought about it. His couch told him to talk to him and let him know what he’s thinking- that they won’t wait around forever. He just doesn’t know what to think at all. Is it a matter of doing basketball forever? What if he gets tired of it? What if he gets there and hates everything about it? Maybe he doesn’t even want to try to be a professional player? What if he just wants to sit under people’s cars and get them working smoothly? That sounds better. Nicer.

He’s readying himself for the speech- the “don’t waste this precious opportunity! You need to accept the hand that’s trying to feed you. This is a special chance and a dream and you’re going” speech. Hop has been on the verge of giving it ever since Billy brought up the scout to the point that Billy just never mentions it anymore. He’s totally forgotten until now.

“You’re so young, it’s okay to not know what you want right now.” Joyce says assuredly- again like she just knows. “If you know you won’t like it, then you don’t have to push yourself to accept it.”

Billy blinks.

“Still, we can try to learn about the school, maybe?” Joyce continues, soaping up a pan real good. “Just to see how it is and if you’d like it.”

Billy nods before he knows he’s doing it.

They quietly wash dishes for another few minutes, the water rushing and filling the silence between them which Billy is supremely grateful for because he hyperfocus on the rushing water and tune out all of the thoughts trying to rush out with it.

“So… how do you feel?”

Billy’s shoots a confused look Joyce’s way before she can clarify.

“About Steve. How do you feel?”

Billy thinks about it. Thinks about his eyes and his voice and his smile and the way he scrunches up his nose when he’s irritated. About the way he puts his hand on his hip when he’s trying to be authoritative and how it’s the cutest fucking thing to witness. About how he’s supportive and kind and picks up every single role Billy needs without complaint. Without delay. About how he laughs like a bell- a big brass one that fills you with comfort. About how he has a few little freckles and moles that Billy would worship if he could because they accentuate every little wonderful thing about his physical being. About how he’s just such good energy.

Billy hears a distant song… from months ago in his car as well as from years ago when he was a child…

~ Get up guess what I’m in love with a girl I’ve found… ~

“I love him.”

Billy says it before he can think. It’s not even a whisper- he says it with his whole chest.

Tears spring into his eyes. He wants to erupt with every single reason.

He looks to Joyce who’s looking back at him with that look in her eyes- a cocktail of pride and joy and happiness.

“That’s so wonderful, honey.” She says like he’s hers. Her son who’s in love.

He’s about to cry. It fills his chest and his throat and his eyes and he has to excuse himself, putting the plate down and rushing up to his room to close the door as quietly as possible and sit on the floor at the foot of his bed and feel something prop himself up as he swirls through this idea that he has someone who’s his. He has many many people who are his.

----*----

It only takes about a month before it starts, and then Billy sees her like a ghost through the house.

The memories lay heavily over moments like a blanket. He sees her and he sees her and he sees her still in the kitchen and the living room and the front yard and the backyard. Gardening and cooking and dancing and laughing. She’s images of happiness but she’s fading away into a colorless vision. Her colors are seeping out and she’s turning gray and Billy’s almost worried about it.

There’s nothing keeping him tethered to her. Max is no reminder of her. She’s too far after her. Billy tries not to think too hard about it… that Max gets to keep reminders of her old life and he just twirls the ring around his middle finger and clings to memories.

He tries not to let his heart sink with the thoughts that he’s the one doing this to her. She’s fading and he’s allowing it. He tries to allow himself the happiness of the colorful moments that’re happening now. And still, she stays. She stays even though the color is leaving. She puts herself in the place of Joyce, washing dishes and cooking dinner and sitting out in the garden. She’s relentless. She smiles, still, even though her color is gone. Her hair is white instead of blonde and her skin is gray instead of tanned and her eyes no longer match his and he’s… he’s...

He’s mad. Billy knows he’s mad about it, because his mother was one of the kindest people in the world and he knew it and then she left and made him look like a fool. He can’t talk to anyone about it because he has to end it all with “and then she left.”

He feels idiotic. He wants to hold her unaffected in his memory but she’s the one who affected herself. She did this. She left and left him with this. With happy memories fading gray and turning brittle and sour. Because every happy moment can only be concluded with “and then she left.” And he can’t reach her, he can’t touch her, he can’t ask her how she feels about all of this. She stopped answering his calls, she stopped telling him where she was, she stopped reaching out. He knows now that there were serious reasons. He still wonders why she didn’t think to bring him with her. Or if she did and then decided against it anyway.

He’s stewing inside over the thoughts of her. The thoughts that she was able to just leave. The thoughts that she’s now gone to him. Every day is a step further away. A yard. A mile. Too far away. He sees every memory of himself with her.

He always wonders what he did wrong.

...

He needs water.

So he gets himself out of his room to run down the stairs and grab a glass of water. From the bottom of the staircase he can already hear the sound of rushing water and knows that it’s Joyce at the sink, cleaning dishes like he wouldn’t have totally done them himself.

He’s halfway there when he starts to hear something else… something a little crackly and hushed and soft and angelic… something that he can hear in his mind, too.

~While I’m far away from you my baby…~

He hears it straight into his ear.

~I know it’s hard for you my baby…~

Two different voices are singing it, and somewhere further off there’s humming.

~Because it’s hard for me my baby…~

He feels like he’s walking through pudding.

~And the darkest hour is just before dawn…~

The music ramps up and gets louder and then he’s standing at the entrance to the kitchen and she’s there. She’s washing dishes but she’s in his ear too. He’s 5’10” but then again he’s barely 4 feet. He’s 17 but maybe he’s 8. She’s happy but then again maybe she’s crying into a phone and the receiving end is pressed up harshly against his ear and he’s sweating and crying just the same as her. Harder. He’s crying so much harder he can barely hear her sing to him.

~Each night before you go to bed my baby…~

He’s begging her in whispers that can barely escape his throat.

~Whisper a little prayer for me my baby…~

He’s clutching the cross hanging on a chain around his neck that he’s had since he was a baby- when he got baptized.

~And tell all the stars above…~

He’s wondering what he did wrong.

~This is dedicated to the one I love…~

Her voice is so soothing but it sounds so tinny. So foreign and confused. His eyes are welling up. He’s crying in both states of mind.

“Billy?”

The more he blinks the more tears show up and the more she’s washed away. Her gray visage being replaced by this woman in front of him. This woman who was just humming and washing some dishes. This threat-less being.

“Billy are you alright?”

”Are you alright bub?”

Billy just shakes his head. He’s not alright and he’s immediately telling her and he can’t believe he would even hint at it.

He leaves as quickly as he can, heading outside and getting into his car and driving off to just... just get lost. Wander the winding back roads he doesn’t know as well as the others because they all look the same and yet all lead to different farms and ranches and pieces of land.

And he’s sitting in his Camaro, driving aimlessly, feeling his younger self start to shake. Feeling what it felt back then- back when he knew it was for real that she was gone. Back when she still used to sing to him over the phone. Back when he tried and tried and tried to talk to her about…. About anything. Back when she just didn’t listen and he didn’t know why.

He still can’t piece together a solid answer as to why. His memory and sadistic mind try to provide him with every cruel option.

After a little while of wandering and winding and letting the roar of his engine fill his mind, he finds his way back and sneaks in through the back door and up the stairs to get into bed. And once again he spends a night crying and thinking of that night and wondering over every possible answer he could give to the question why?

----*----

Even though they’re in the middle of winter and the days are cold and snowy, Billy feels the sun exist within every window pane of this home. It’s sunny every day, even on the days that there’s angry flurries whirling through the air. There’s always laughter even when there’s fighting. There’s always smiles even when it feels as though they’re pushing the seams of this already spacious house. There’s care and comfort to be found in every corner and it feels like the best gift all wrapped up in the nicest bow.

And still, Billy feels anger boil within him.

Ever since that night he hasn’t been able to even look at Joyce. She’ll ask for help with things and he’ll say he has homework to do and then she just stops asking. She smiles and asks him gentle questions that get gentler and gentler until they just stop coming. She tries to be there physically to provide some kind of comfort and it’s so obvious to Billy and he doesn’t want it so she just steers clear.

It’s just because he can see her. His mother is consuming the house. She’s in his memories dancing through every room and leaving a trail of colors behind her. She’s glowing brighter and brighter with each passing day. He clings to the memories like they’re a comfort and not a curse. He feels like he needs them.

It feels better to cling to something that’s already left. It used to hurt but now it feels like the only safe space he has. He can’t hope for anything because it’s already gone. He can only color in the memories with the most vibrant of Sharpies and hope that they’re as permanent as they claim. He can only apply the happiness once, twice, even three times removed and just… just accept that. He used to be mad that they were happy and now he remembers them as almost untruthfully happy because he already lost them and you can’t lose what you don’t have anymore. If he clings to these intangible things, they can’t run away. He is in full control. He knows he is, he just knows it. He can convince himself that he is.

He can’t convince himself to believe that he hasn’t changed though. He can’t convince himself that he’s the same person he was a week or so ago. Because Jonathan has pulled away and grown quiet again and Will is back to shaking and El is steering clear of him and giving him weird looks when he’s around and Hop is confused and expressing his concerns in confusing ways.

And it sucks to know that he’s changing so much because he can barely see himself behind the memories. He’s afraid of reverting back. In the dead of night, when it’s dark and he can think too much, he tries to tell himself that being afraid of reverting back means he doesn’t want to. And if he doesn’t want to then he won’t. He won’t allow himself and… and he’s not really in control anyway.

Still, he ignores Joyce.

And then the world just feels bad. Everyone is looking at him funny. The wind is too cold and the sun is too hot and every single classroom is too warm and stuffy. Life is handling him wrong and it’s personal. He knows it’s personal. He’s convincing himself it’s personal. And that guy who brushed up against him as he walked by in the hall definitely made it personal, rampant apologies be damned, so he had to.

Joyce comes to pick Billy up from the office.

”Get that boy’s act together or he will not be allowed in this school anymore.” comes the voice of the Principal.

He hasn’t gotten in a fight in actual months and already they’re threatening to expel him. There’s no grace here.

They’re sitting in the car, music flowing so quietly that Billy can’t focus on it, when he hears a voice ask: “What happened?”

He ignores it in favor of counting the trees that pass and the signs that stare back at him.

“Billy?”

Nothing.”

Silence invites itself to their conversation.

“I wouldn’t be called for nothing, though… right?”

“I hit him.”

“Why?”

“Because I wanted to.”

He’s growling on the outside and screaming on the inside. He’s telling himself he wouldn’t change if he didn’t want to. As if it’s true.

Joyce goes quiet. They give the conversation up to silence. She just nods.

Hop is upset when he swings by during his break just to grab some lunch. Joyce is about to head off to a shift and she’s begging Hop to be kind. Hop does that thing where he antagonizes Billy without realizing, except Billy is convinced that he realizes. That he knows what he’s doing. That life is dead set on handling him wrong.

”You need to listen to him, Hop!”

”Yeah, I’m trying to but he’s not saying anything!”

”Yeah I…. I know..”

The bigger, older part of Billy clenches his fists and goes to hit the punching bag Hop made him for his room. The smaller, younger part of Billy shakes and asks himself over and over if they’re giving up on him. If they’re going to leave. If he’s just too much.

Both parts fear the answer.

~~~~

Billy hides away until he can’t anymore, and then still he tries. Except his stomach is screaming some kind of demonic curse at him to eat and he feels he needs to oblige.

He sneaks down the stairs and listens in to try and hear any voices. He doesn’t hear any of the kids so he continues on to the kitchen.

But then there’s-

”Don’t worry too hard about it.” The voice is gruff and concerned, followed by-

”How can you say that? He… he hates me.”

”You don’t know that.”

”He can’t even look at me, Hop!”

A pause. Billy’s leaning up against the wall separating him from the kitchen. The gentle voice is talking again.

”He’s such a good kid. And he still doesn’t believe me.”

”You always say it takes time-”

”I know I know… I’m just worried I’m running out of time with him. Like he’ll just… give up on me.”

”You’re paranoid-”

”Don’t call me paranoid! I… I love that kid, Hop. He’s such a good kid.”

There’s so much pressure in Billy’s chest.

I know how you feel. I love him too.

”I just wish I could do something for him.”

If he had enough air in his lungs he would scream.

He’s vibrating. Shaking with every thought that’s been swimming in his head for months now. Every thought that there’s any possible way to replace the woman who still lurks around him. Except…

Please come home Mom please come home…

Except…

Mom… I made a friend today…

Except....

I beat someone up today Mom… I don’t know why…

Except she’s not here.

She’s not here.

He’s projecting her onto every space he wishes she could be present because he thinks that’s the only way to be normal. How can you replace a good thing? That’s the only question that’s been in his mind over and over and over again. How can he replace the only good thing he was ever able to cling to back then?

He could have sworn to anyone that she’s been here, in this house. Except she’s been gone from his life for nearly a decade now. She’s stopped talking to him for a little less.

He wanted her here because he wanted to be normal. It feels like everyone else gets to be normal. He hears her because… because he’s desperate to hear her. He wants her here. He needs her here like a kid needs a teddy bear. The last time he got this kind of care was when she was still here. With him laughing and singing and asking if everything is alright.

But she’s not here. She hasn’t been here. Billy’s here and he carries her like a crutch because he thinks… he thinks home equals mom.

But mom equals care and… and she stopped giving that. And this woman started. And she’s worried that he’ll give up. There’s high stakes that both of them feel. He’s made her distressed and he feels so responsible and he just wants to… wants to…

“Billy? Honey, are you alright?”

When he sees Joyce’s worried face he finally hears how quickly his own breathing is coming out. All he can do is nod his response.

“You’re sure?”

He nods. She sighs.

“I uhm… I don’t know if you heard anything but… but I just want you to know that I want you to feel comfortable here. And if I ever do or say something that makes you feel uncomfortable, then please let me know because that’s not… that’s not fair to you in any way.”

She’s so bright and colorful. There’s no blonde to cling to anymore.

“If you’d like me to get out of your hair, I absolutely will! I just don’t want you feeling… so upset in your own home. Because this is your home.”

There’s no blue and he can finally breathe again.

“I mean… if you want to leave you can do that too. I get that you’re almost eighteen and you’ll be able to leave if you want to, which is totally fine! You’re not a prisoner here or anything.”

The California sun doesn’t exist only when she is present. It’s not tethered to her. He can visit without needing her.

“But still, I just hope you’re comfortable here because you deserve to be comfortable. And you’re… you’re my son now. But that doesn’t mean you have to call me mom if it makes you uncomfortable! Just know-”

Billy is taking the two steps it takes to get to her and wraps her up in a hug as soon as he’s able and as tightly as he’s able. She gasps before hugging back just as tightly. He feels like he’s clinging. He tells himself he’s not.

He can feel her energy seeping through him. Warm and inviting and happy. Overjoyed. One of them is shaking with it.

“Thanks Mom.”

Joyce gasps and Billy’s heart races at the words that just left his mouth. But they’re not bitter on his tongue and he hasn’t said them in so long and they feel like a good memory now. Like a very good memory.

“Fuck.” Billy whispers again, under his breath and involuntarily. There are tears in his eyes and he’s fairly sure he’s the one shaking when he feels someone pinch his shoulder hard.

“Language, young man.” Comes a half stern, very quiet tut from Joyce. Billy pulls away to laugh through his tears. She joins him.

----*----

It’s the second Sunday of May and El is jumping out of her boots excited.

They’re driving back from the store after picking up a cake and some flowers while Jonathan and Will are making breakfast at home and she’s asking what people do on “the day for mothers”. Billy just shrugs. He remembers some of them and he remembers that one specific one and his heart twinges a little bit but… it’s only a chord. A single stroke. It’s over before it starts. If he hears her she’s quiet and it’s happy rather than haunting.

“Buy flowers and… go to brunch or something.”

“Brunch?”

Living with El really makes Billy aware of all of the random, strange words people have come up with.

“Yeah, uh… it’s like breakfast and lunch together.”

“Really?” She asks, sounding way more excited than she probably should.

“Yeah, it’s like… you eat pancakes and sandwiches together, almost in the afternoon.”

“Almost afternoon?”

“Yeah…” He’s thinking of how to explain time and figures he’s too tired to even try. “Between morning and afternoon.”

El seems a little too tired to pry, yawning as she nods and settles for the answer. Billy is grateful.

Their car ride is mostly silent, until El’s little voice pipes up and asks:

“How’re you feeling?”

The sun is hitting his face, the air feels crips and cool, the birds are singing to each other like their excitement knows no limits. He’s heading home to celebrate a person who deserves it more than anything. He’s nearly vibrating but it’s light and happy rather than the reverse. Rather than the kind he feels he’s felt his whole life.

“Pretty good.” He answers, before turning and raising an eyebrow. “Why? Am I still pouting?” He asks even though he knows it’s more of an inside joke with him and Steve. He sticks his tongue out and furrows his eyebrows and she laughs.

“No,” she responds, turning back towards the window to watch the trees go by in their green blur. “Just askin’. Joyce says it’s nice sometimes to just ask.”

It sounds like something she’d say. Or maybe something she’d tell El when she can tell the girl is pouting and she’s trying to play it cool so El will get to talking. Either way, Billy smiles.

“It is.”

They’re silent some more, the radio playing Fleetwood Mac. El loves them. She’s smiling softly and Billy feels so happy to see it.

“Joyce is really nice.” She says through her smile, nodding along with her words.

Billy couldn’t agree more.

“Yeah, she is.”

They get home just in time for breakfast to be ready and for Joyce’s eyes to open up from where Hop has his hands placed firmly over her face.

“C’mon, enough! You’d think it was my birthday or something!”

“It’s a surprise!” comes Will’s voice.

“Alright, alright!”

Billy closes the door as quietly as he can, gesturing to El to be quiet as they walk up and watch Joyce’s reaction to the large breakfast in front of her. She’s beaming, and so are the rest of them- probably just at seeing her smiling face.

Billy can’t find a single part of him that feels out of place in this moment.

“Surprise!” El calls out, sticking her arms out a bit and holding the bouquet of small, simple flowers in her hand. Billy just gives a smile and holds out the cake.

“Oh my goodness! You guys are ridiculous.”

Hop is laughing with his hands on Joyce’s shoulders. “Hey, you doubled the amount of people to take care of and now you’ve doubled the amount of children to wait on you.”

She’s smiling so wide and thanking everyone profusely and hugs them each in turn and it’s warm.

Billy’s cheeks hurt from smiling so much.

“Happy Mother’s day, Mom.” He says through his smile, leaning down to kiss her gently on the cheek. She laughs, her eyes so proud.

“Thanks, honey.”

 

Billy’s not sure if it’s physically possible, but it feels like every inch of his skin smiles with him.