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My Heroes Had the Heart

Chapter Text

“You know you don’t have to do this,” Nancy says apologetically as Jonathan helps her into her coat. “My parents will be back in like an hour, the kids are fine on their own.”

Steve laughs. “Are they? Cause last time I checked these kids can’t keep themselves in this plane of reality, let alone out of trouble for an hour.”

“He’s right,” Jonathan agrees. “My mom would be happy to know he’s staying with them.”

Nancy nods, carefully crafting her thoughts. “I know. I just don’t want you to think you’re not welcome.” Her doe eyes meet his.

“What?”

“You can see the movie with us. We’ll go to the diner after... Be teenagers, you know?”

That stings. Steve loved Nancy more than himself, but their relationship had never been about love. It had been about desperately trying to recreate normalcy. Nancy blamed him for acting like nothing happened. His only crime had been following her lead. And when the guilt and sadness she’d swallowed for a year lit inside her like a fuze, he bore the burden of the blast. Heart grated by shrapnel, future with his sweetheart lost in the debris.

“It’s okay, Nance.” He forces a smile. “Trust me.”

Relief flickers across her face as she thanks him. It hurts. Of course the invite wasn’t genuine. It was polite. After everything she put Steve through, everything he accomplished in spite of it, she feels she owes him.

She doesn’t owe him anything. Steve would way rather be a glorified babysitter than play third wheel to fake friends.


 Later on, Steve carries a tray of refreshments to the basement. The kids are hollering, slapping the table, bickering back and forth about the campaign.

“Woah, maybe you guys should take a break before you kill each other!” He sets the tray on the coffee table by the couch.

Over the din of Lucas and Mike arguing, Dustin says, “Sorry, Steve. We’ve been at this for seven hours. The next time we take a break is when we’re done.”

He puts his hands on his hips. “Oh yeah? And when will that be?”

Dustin’s answer is a playful shrug, a pause long enough for them to take in the many moving parts. Max insisting Lucas let her pick her own move, Eleven asking Will about the multi-sided dice. Mike pressuring them all to hurry up, because something’s coming.

“Yeah, I get it, buddy. Just know they’re there, alright? Don’t say I didn’t try to feed you brats.”

“Alright, alright, thanks Steve!” Dustin has returned to the game, sealing the circle of backs that remind Steve he has no place here.

Yet he doesn’t go upstairs right away. It’s a miracle to see them together like this. The way Will and Eleven communicate with each other so quietly it’s like they read each other’s mind. Exactly what Mike predicted would happen. Lucas and Max are totally a thing, even though they won’t admit it. And thanks to Steve, Dustin is okay with that. His place in the party still matters, girlfriend or not.

Steve tells himself the same thing: his place in the party still matters. His gut screams he’s wrong. The snacks on the table that will go untouched. His presence unneeded since they all have each other. Who is he kidding? Babysitting is babysitting. He isn’t their friend. He doesn’t have friends anymore.

His place in the party doesn’t exist.

 

Chapter Text

Every breath Billy takes is a crime. A deliberate act of disobedience. A son shouldn’t behave this way. A brother shouldn’t behave this way. A student, a lover, a teammate, a friend.

Yet here he is. Continuing to occupy space in a world that doesn’t want him.

He should have put an end to it in California, before his father caught them and he lost the one person who had been on his side. Who had been like him. Now his friends are myriad fools. Partiers who admire his alcohol tolerance, or stolen subjects of King Steve.

King Steve. The boy next door. The high school sweetheart who hates his guts. If only Steve knew he was the first person Billy noticed in Hawkins. Within days he’d sniffed out all the information he could, found out more than he could stomach. Steve was steady with his first real love. A girl.

Billy should have known, it’s never the pretty ones. They’re always lucky enough to be straight, raised by parents with money and a college education and a knack for actually liking their kids. The lucky ones are never scrappy, abandoned by their mothers, hated by their fathers for not being more.

Why can’t his father see he’s trying? In this fucked up meaningless life, he’s grasping desperately at control. Sculpting his body into one hundred and seventy pounds of cold masculinity. Practicing his wink in the mirror so he can soak girls on sight, talk to his father about dates as if he wants them. And, like the respectful, responsible brother he is expected to be, he picks up Max dutifully every day.

His father only sees what’s wrong. The glaring truth burned behind his eyelids: his son is a faggot. An unforgiving, intolerable queer. The real reason they had to move. Publically, they claimed it was because of Susan’s ex husband, but it was to prevent Billy’s father from losing his reputation to embarrassment. Though the words are never said, Billy knows. Instead of a baby, you should have been a cum rag.

When he first arrived in Hawkins he thought it could be different. As soon as he saw Steve Harrington that hope was replaced with a rage that would have been better off self-inflicted. Too strong, it burned like a wound behind his ribs. It cut off air and set his heart racing, wore away his patience until his nerves were nothing but frayed wire, ready to ignite. Which is exactly what they did. For so long all he has known to do is let them.

But he doesn’t want to anymore.


 Laughter leaks into the night air with smoke. How do they always end up here? Steve’s car in the driveway of a stranger’s house. His sister inside. The brats are hooting over something. He can hear it as his boots crunch pebbles up the walk. Their happiness makes his blood boil, but he is pulled back to safety by the thought of Steve, and the sudden opportunity to clear the air.

He finishes his cigarette and tosses the filter into a nearby shrub. The front door opens and there he is. The ex-king, silhouetted like an angel by the interior lights. Billy can’t help but smile, sweet and dimpled. A rare shred of his true self.

“You’re a sight to see, Harrington.”

“And you’re early. They’re still playing.”

“I can hear that,” Billy grins. “I don’t mind waiting.”

“Good.” Steve begins to close the door.

“There’s something I need to tell you.”

“Alright, make it quick,” he demands. “I’m letting the heat out.”

“Right, well…” Billy tilts his head down so he can look up through bashful lashes. Is he imagining it, or did Steve’s cheeks just flush red? “I owe you an apology, Harrington. Moving hasn’t been easy on me, and my sister’s not exactly easy, either. I know I’ve been a jerk to you since day one--”

“Yeah, you have.”

“And there’s a reason for that.”

Steve scoffs. “Whatever you want, I’m not giving it to you.”

“We’ll see about that,” he chuckles.

“What?”

“God, you’re beautiful when you’re confused.” Steve’s reaction to that is even better. Billy keeps on. “You probably think I’ve been picking on you because I hate you.”

“I haven’t been thinking of you at all.”

“I don’t believe that.” Billy steps closer, leans his shoulder against the door frame. Bites his lip. Steve shifts nervously. “Cause I’ve been thinking of you, a lot. And I’ve heard some rumors, Harrington. Rumors that you might be into guys like me.”

“What?” He swallows hard. Behind him kids spill into the foyer, chattering about their gains and who’s accompanying who home. The freckled leader hands Steve his coat in a flurry of names and addresses.

“Here.” Billy reaches into the pocket of his leather jacket and hands Steve a tiny slip of folded paper. It’s his phone number, of course. Kept inside the pocket of his leather jacket for moments exactly like this. Usually his number is handed out to girls, to please his father and keep his truth distant.

Steve is worth the risk of being found out.

After a moment of hesitation, he takes the paper. Stuffs it in the pants pocket of his tight jeans. “Thanks.”

“My pleasure.”

Before he can see his shitbird sister hug Lucas, he heads down the walk. By the time Steve zips his jacket Billy has the engine revved up. Max rushes after him, skateboard under one arm.

 

Chapter Text

On their first date Billy drives them to a diner two towns over. At first Steve is skeptical, but Billy explains it’s to protect them. They could get hurt anywhere for being faggots, but at least outside of Hawkins they won’t have to worry about their friends and family finding out. He says faggot with venom, like he hates what he is. Steve suspects Billy has lived this threat before.

“Don’t call yourself that. It’s a horrible word.”

“Faggots? It’s what we are, isn’t it?”

“I’m not gay.”

Billy clicks his tongue and mumbles, "You're something."

“Besides, why call yourself a word that’s used against you?”

“Because it’s the truth.”

“Well it makes you sound like a bigot.”

He laughs darkly. “Maybe I am one.”

After a moment Steve says, “You’re right. You are. I mean, you would have killed Lucas that night if I hadn’t intervened.”

“Oh, I’m a racist now, too?”

“You tell me.”

Billy pierces him with crystal blue eyes. Then he looks back at the road. “I don’t need to tell you shit, Harrington.”

He doesn’t. The truth is hard and raw, like Billy’s music. Judas Priest or something. It’s heavy and hard and makes Trooper seem like a serenade. Tapping along to the aggressive beat, Steve stares out the window. Scenery flies by in a dusky blur. It reminds him of the night he woke up in the backseat of this very car. Max was driving. Zoomer, she’d called herself. Steve sees where she gets it from. His blood is probably still embedded in the leather.

Billy’s not a good person. By nature he’s damaged and full of rage. Who made him like this? How will Steve ever forgive him for the wrongs he’s committed, or trust him not to commit more? He’s not thinking of how Billy stole his friends, taunted him, or beat him unconscious. Those things are excusable. What’s not is his mistreatment of Lucas and Max. They are Steve’s children more than they’ll ever be Billy’s. They deserve safety, gentleness, and love. Billy terrorized them, and Steve senses he would continue to if it weren’t for him.

After spending plenty of time before this date came to be weighing the oddity of this advancement, and the legitimacy of Billy's claims, Steve foolishly hopes he can save Billy from his demons. He doesn’t believe Billy is okay with his behavior, or himself. How could he be? If Steve can love the hatred out of him, his life will have purpose.

Billy’s hand leaves the shift and reaches for his. Steve lets him take it, watches with wonder as calloused fingers lace through his. His eyes travel up in time to see Billy turn and wink at him. He’s glad it’s getting dark, because he’s blushing.


At the diner they sit on the same side of the booth, thighs touching. Billy orders them fries and a milkshake to share. He starts to ask about Steve’s life like he actually cares. In the moment Steve believes he does, and answers as freely as he would with any other friend. He talks about his father’s business, his love of sports, how he’s been through hell and back in a way he can’t describe.

“Just try,” Billy smiles and rests his hand on Steve’s upper thigh, thumb absently brushing back and forth. Steve’s heart skips a beat.

“That’s the thing, I’m not allowed to talk about it. None of us are.”

“None of us?” Those blue eyes narrow.

To buy time Steve takes a long sip of milkshake. They’ve been sharing the straw. A prelude to a kiss. He doesn’t want Billy to think he’s lying, but telling the truth could get them in trouble. More trouble than kissing in public.

Billy’s voice is soft, encouraging. “Hey, whatever it is, you can trust me. What happens between us stays between us. Right?”

“Right,” Steve agrees. But can he really trust Billy? What would be his reason if he did tell Billy, even just the safest parts? Is he so weak that one night of that deep, seductive drawl can pull anything out of him? Is Billy’s careless attitude subconsciously driving Steve nuts and causing this urge to do anything to impress?

Maybe. Or maybe Billy represents a completely fresh start for Steve, a thrilling way of life. A life where sexual experimentation doesn’t make you any less of a man, and the best people to love are those who wear their imperfections like badges of honor.

Steve’s imperfect, too. So is his story, and his unthinking mouth.

“You heard about that toxic leak at Hawkins lab? How Jonathan’s little brother got sick, and one girl actually died?” Billy nods and pulls the milkshake closer. “I was involved in that. Because of Jonathan and Nancy. That girl Barb was her best friend.”

He watches Billy’s eyes. They search the table, the food, calculating. Will he realize it’s a lie? A partial truth? Or will he swallow it and move on to the next thing, the next detail of Steve’s past he seeks to claim as his own?

Finally Billy looks up. “So you’re dating Nancy, and she’s upset over this friend of hers, gets closer to Jonathan since he’s freaking out about-- what do they call him, zombie boy? And then she dumps you?”

Steve understands why he shouldn’t tell people about it. Civilians are so far removed, they’ll never take it seriously. It wasn’t a joke to Steve, and Billy’s blunt tone hurts. He hangs his head. “Yeah.”

Billy cups Steve’s chin with his free hand. “Hey, look at me. You deserve more than them, okay? Some bratty girl who abandons a boy who loves her for some guy that doesn’t even talk. Because, what? They know people who got poisoned by same chemical leak?” He scoffs, lets his hand fall away. “I would’ve stayed with you through the whole thing.”

Then why didn’t you? Steve wonders. Couldn’t Billy see that he was upset that day in gym, the day after the breakup? Couldn’t he feel the fear radiating out of Steve’s chest the night he arrived at the Byers’? Instead of attacking him he could have asked why they were all hiding, and how he could help.

Again Steve thinks of helping Billy change. Learn to fight for good. Just like he did last year, Billy could become a useful member of the party. Their purpose in being together could be to keep his children safe. Of course, once Billy was saved from his absurdity, the children would be theirs. The fantasy warms his chest like the feel of Billy’s hand on his.


On their second date, Billy drives them to a clearing behind one of the pumpkin patches. Everything’s barren in early December. Frozen ground, bare branches and crumpled leaves. They’re passing a bottle of whiskey back and forth. Steve’s putting it down like a champ, to show Billy he can. The stuff makes his head spin after twenty minutes, and he leans against Billy for comfort and stability.

“What’s this?” Billy laughs. “Princess can’t hold her liquor?”

Steve smiles. “I’m not used to whiskey. It’s too…”

“Sour?”

“Sure. And don’t call me princess.”

He strokes Steve’s hair lovingly. Nancy never used to do this. He missed out with her, because this feels incredible. Billy feels incredible. There’s a smile in his voice when he tells Steve, “Whatever you say, princess.”

For a while they sit together like that. Steve closes his eyes, feeling only the music and the fingers through his hair. Loud, aggressive vocals ride over a driving beat. I wanna be somebody, be somebody, too. Steve wonders why Billy is drawn to music like this. Is it because it mirrors the anger he can hardly contain? Is it a protective shield meant to get people to back the hell off, so they don’t see who he really is?

Who is he, really?

Steve sits up and reaches for the bottle. He needs this. Otherwise he’ll never get up the nerve to ask. Why is he so angry? Where did this tough guy persona come from, and is it even real?

Billy lights a cigarette and cracks the window. “You sure you want more of that? You’re gonna be gone soon, and I’ll be the one taking care of you.”

“Good,” Steve says, uncapping the bottle. He tilts his head back and dumps a few shots of whiskey down his throat. Billy watches hungrily. Drunk Steve is candy he can’t wait to unwrap. The desire is palpable and excites Steve. “I wanna ask you something.”

“Alright, shoot.” Billy pulls gently at the cigarette, exhales smoke toward the inch of open air.

“Were you always like this? So angry all the time?” Walls go up, but Steve can’t see them. “I mean, you’re happy now, but you’ve got this darkness, and it just sits right under the surface.” He taps Billy’s temple. “It’s in your eyes, the way you walk, the music you listen to.” He gestures to the stereo, which he’s practically shouting over. “And it scares people. Do you do that on purpose? Intimidate people so they become your friends. Or so they stay away from you, or so--”

Billy grabs his wrist and gets in his face. The cigarette between his teeth threatens to graze skin. The smoke makes Steve’s eyes water. “You don’t know me. You don’t know what I’ve been through, or what I come from. And you never will. So don’t make the mistake of asking again. Got it?”

“No, I don’t get it,” Steve says defiantly. “Last week you asked about my past and I answered. I deserve that honesty, too.” He tries to yank his wrist free and is met by a tighter grip. “Hey, what the hell is wrong with you? Let go!”

“The hell is wrong with me? Nothing, Harrington! Everything’s wrong with you . You’re so desperate for attention you’ll volunteer to babysit kids who don’t want you. You won’t admit you’re a faggot, but you gave your girlfriend to the class freak without a fight. I am not the one with the problems here. You are!”

Steve is terrified, heart in his throat. The whiskey and fear make him queasy. He wants to vomit but doesn’t dare move. Billy’s eyes search his and find fear. He lets go of Steve’s wrist and sits back, lowers the music. Without looking up he says, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to do this.”

“It’s okay,” Steve says automatically. “I’m sorry, too. I didn’t mean to upset you. I just want to know who you are.”

“I know,” he nods ruefully. The last pull off his cigarette is the deepest. He pushes the butt through the open window and faces Steve. Dripping vulnerability. “But I don’t want you to know who I am. You won’t like it, and I’ll lose you. I don’t want to lose you. You’re the best thing about this damn town, and the one thing that could actually make me better.”

Steve melts at those words. He takes Billy’s hand in his. “Are you shaking?”

“It’s cold.” He looks away.

“You’re wearing a leather jacket and the heat is on full blast.” Steve traces the back of his hand with his fingertips. “What’s going on?”

Billy shakes his head. “I’ll tell you someday, Harrington. But I’m not ready yet.”

“Hey, that’s fine,” he says softly. “You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to, okay? Ever. But I’m here. I can help if you want me to, and I don’t judge. This world’s too messed up to judge anyone for anything. Just show me who you really are.”

Billy laces their fingers together. With his free hand he cups Steve’s chin. This time he leans in to kiss him.


The familiar clink of silverware wakes him. He is at home, in bed. Wrapped in Billy’s warm arms, inhaling the scent of his bare chest. Closer than the sound of his parents eating breakfast, Steve hears the sound he fell asleep to. A boy’s battered heart.

He rolls over gently and sits up. The movement makes him dizzy, his head swimming with a hangover. The empty whiskey bottle sits on the bedside table. So they finished it last night? What else did they do? He doesn’t remember much after Billy kissed him. It wasn’t just his first kiss with a boy, it was the first kiss that made him feel like he meant something.

Stretching, he feels an ache in his wrist. Examining it he sees bruises shaped like fingerprints along his pale skin.

Chapter Text

He’s satisfied with where this is going.

He’s terrified it will end.

Every chance he gets he sneaks wordless looks at Steve. Since gym is the only class they have together, Billy takes the bathroom pass during other classes and stalks the halls, peers through the glass of classroom doors. He tells himself that it’s healthy. He’s just making sure Steve is okay.

But it’s so much more than that.

The imminence of losing Steve pulses through his veins. Nightmares flash through his mind in broad daylight. Blood on his hands, an angel unconscious beneath him. Steve has forgiven him, is letting him make up for it. There’s no way he’s forgotten, though. Eventually Billy will snap again, and Steve will realize what he is: a monster. Unworthy of love or redemption, unable to be saved. And rightfully, he will leave.

Billy won’t be able to handle losing the only person who believes in him. It will kill him. He will do whatever it takes to escape this fate. To keep Steve from leaving him. Even if it means tying him to the bed and setting the house on fire.


When he suggests they bring the kids to the dance together, Steve says no. His face lights up as he explains how he’s going to help Dustin do his hair and get the girls. And it’s been so long since the kid has called or needed him, he has to be there.

Billy sits alone in his room nursing a six pack and passing the time. His father and Susan are laughing over a movie they didn’t even invite him to watch. They don’t give a shit about him, as long as he meets the conditions. In order for this faggot to live under Neil’s roof, he has to stay off the radar and give the little redhead cunt rides wherever and whenever she pleases.

Pretty soon he’ll have to pick her up at the dance. Where he’ll see Steve waiting outside for Dustin. The middle schooler who stole his goddamn date. This should be their time. Now that he has Steve he’s never giving him up, even for a night. Even when Steve promises they’ll see each other tomorrow.

What if he doesn’t mean that? What if this is the beginning of the end? Without Steve he is nothing. Billy cannot lose him. Cannot. Lose. Him.

Five beers in he lights a cigarette and gets ready.

After draining the sixth beer, he leaves.


Outside the middle school, twenty minutes early, Steve leans against his car. Billy pulls up slow behind him and gets out, lights a cigarette between his teeth. Trained to the sound, Steve turns to him. His breath fogs in the cold air. “Look at you being all responsible.”

“Respect and responsibility. My middle name.” He forces a laugh.

“How was your night?”

“Would have been better with you.” His boots echo on the pavement as he walks towards Steve. “What about you? Have fun with your little friend?”

“Yeah, he’s awesome. He better be dancing with a beautiful girl. Not just sitting on the bleachers crying. He’s gotta realize he’s too cool for that. You know?”

Billy has no idea. He’s never experienced this older brother thing, never loved a kid for what they were. Only what they could give him. He doesn’t answer. Just exhales smoke and draws near to Steve. So close he can smell his fancy shampoo.

“I wanna go together with you.”

“What?” Confusion can’t wipe the smile off Steve’s face tonight. That’s how happy this stupid kid makes him.

“I’m asking you out,” Billy says irritably.

“You’re asking me out, here? What are you, drunk?” Steve searches him. “Oh my God, you’re drunk.”

“A six pack doesn’t make a dent on me, princess. You should know that.” He sucks the cigarette down to ash.

“I can’t believe you’re out here breaking your own rule. You were the one who wanted to keep this whole thing private. Now you’re calling me princess in public? Don’t.”

“Say you’ll date me and I won’t.”

“I’m not ready.” Steve frowns.

“What, I’m not good enough for you?” It’s the only explanation he’ll believe, because he already knows it’s true. He’s not good enough for anyone.

“That’s not what I said.”

“No, it’s what you’re thinking.” He drops the cigarette to the ground and crushes it with his heel. “You’re worthless, you know that?”

“You’re drunk.”

“And you’re bullshit,” he spits.

“Yeah, well. That’s not news.” Steve folds his arms and looks at his feet.

Billy hurt him again. Why can’t he treat the people he loves like what they are? Breakable, breathing humans? Instead he lifts them, high and light like porcelain, to better shatter them against the ground. Stopping to gather the pieces and mend them together would be the right thing to do. He’s drunk, though. Already gone. There is no stopping.

He hates himself for what he’s done and for what’s coming next. Self-hatred shot at a beautiful boy who won’t believe he’s anything more than Billy says.

“You’re damn right it’s not news. Tommy and Carol and all those other shiny friends you had before me don’t even remember your name,” he hisses. “The first serious girlfriend you had dumped you for the class freak. And you didn’t even fight for her! You let her go and replaced her with a bunch of middle schoolers who only need you for rides. Why do you think you’re here, on the outside? Because you’re nothing, Harrington. Nothing.”

He pauses to let that sink in, pulls back. In an eerily rational voice he says, “I’m the only one who wants you. The only one who could ever love you. Do you understand? You’re nothing without me.”

The silence stretches too long. It angers Billy. He wants to to slam his fist against the roof of the car, but kids are filtering out now, glowing and giggling, holding each other’s hands. Max will be here soon, and he’ll have to drive her home safely, in spite of his rage and buzz.

“She’s not getting in the car with you like this,” Steve says without looking at him. “And I’m not talking to you when you’re like this. Go home.”

Billy wants to throw him to the ground and smash his skull against the pavement. He loves him so much he doesn’t want to be away from him. He doesn’t want to be told no. And he doesn’t ever want Steve to be right.

Before the kids come out Billy slams back into his car and screeches out of the parking lot.

Chapter Text

Mr. Clarke reintroduces himself to “Eleanor” when the dance ends, which is awkward for Mike but hilarious for everyone else. After, they exit through a side door and fall in line on the sidewalk. Dustin’s in the lead with Max and Lucas beside him, holding hands. Behind them El wears Mike’s blazer over her shoulders. He has one arm around her and the other around Will, an irreplaceably soft smile on his face.

Steve expects them to come through the front door. They see him before he sees them.

“Hey,” Max swats Dustin’s arm. “What’s wrong with Steve?”

They study him as they slowly approach. His arms are folded over his chest, he’s scowling at the ground. He looks smaller, somehow, like he lost weight or cut his hair while they were inside. It’s strange.

Lucas offers, “Maybe he’s tired. Or maybe he saw Nancy and got upset.”

“No, Max is right. Something’s wrong,” Dustin says definitively.

“Well, what do you think it is?” Max asks. She won’t admit it, but she doesn’t want anything bad to happen to Steve. He’s what a real big brother should be. Warm, sweet, reliable. Unlike abusive, unpredictable Billy. Suddenly fear grips her and she whips her head around. “Wait. Where’s my brother? He’s never late.”

“It’s okay. He probably lost time lifting weights.” Lucas squeezes her hand. “He’ll be here.”

Dustin calls Steve’s name to shake him from the trance. He beams at each of them in turn, hands on his hips. “How was it? You guys have fun?” They’re nodding and talking over each other, vying for Steve’s attention. All except one. The short haired girl Wheeler is in love with. “Eleven, you made it!”

She nods.

Mike says, “Chief Hopper dropped her off earlier, as a surprise.”

“More like an apology for keeping you guys apart for a year,” Dustin points out. “It’s the least he can do for almost starving you to death.”

“Right?” Steve agrees. “The look on your faces when you saw each other that night… And I didn’t even realize that was Eleven. I was thinking, another one ? It was wild, really wild. I’m glad the old man let you out of the house for this.” Mike is blushing. El leans into him, which only turns him redder. Beside them Will grins proudly.

“So, we’ll wait for Ms. Byers and then I’ll bring you all home. Sound good?”

“Everyone, including me?” Max asks apprehensively.

“Yeah, Billy asked if I could drop you off at home tonight.”

Color drains from her face. “That’s not what really happened, is it?”

“No.”

“Tell me.” She locks eyes with Steve.

The others look at him expectantly. He sighs and explains, “He showed up drunk. Then I said something that upset him, and he got angry. There was no way I’d let you go home with him like that.”

“I don’t want to go home.” She says it so fast it raises questions. The closer she gets to her new friends, the less she hides from them. Just because she put Billy in his place doesn’t mean she defeated him. Scars don’t just heal, and knowing him, the abuse could start up again any minute. Like tonight, when he’s drunk and upset.

Steve’s eyes wander for a moment, his face grave and calculating. Then he nods. “Alright. Where do you want to go?”

“With me,” Eleven says. “She comes home with me.”

Punctuating this, Mrs. Byers’s car pulls up behind Steve’s. It’s Hopper who climbs out of the driver’s seat, though. She steps out of the passenger side with a huge smile on her face. The presence of two additional parents make the kids shift awkwardly and let go of each other. When Mrs. Byers asks if they had a good time, they reply in tandem. “It was fun.” “Yeah, great.” “Totally tubular!”

“I’m so happy!” she replies. “Will, El. You ready?”

They nod. Eleven says to Hopper, “Max comes home with us. Sleep over.”

“Oh, so now we’re inviting friends over without asking?” he chuckles and brings her in for a side-hug. “Max, do your parents know you’re coming over?”

She shakes her head, nervous. The chief feels safe, though. He’ll call home and explain it in a way that won’t get her or Billy in trouble. That way next time she sees Billy, he won’t have any ammunition to use against her.

“Well, I’ll call them as soon as we’re home.” He tips his chin at Steve. “You bringing the others home?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You don’t have to call me sir, kid.”

Steve smiles bashfully and motions for Dustin, Lucas, and Mike to get into the car. Dustin takes shotgun while Lucas and Mike hug their dates. The parents call goodnight to each other and start up the cars. They pull away from the curb, Dustin already going on about his night.

When Lucas sees Mike turn around to watch El disappear, he says, “She’s not going anywhere this time. I promise.”

Chapter Text

It’s kind of great that Billy fucked up, because Max likes El a lot. She’s badass, beautiful, and definitely needs the influence of another badass, beautiful girl. Max can be that girl.

As soon as they get to the cabin the girls are inside El’s room, kicking off their shoes and giggling. Max takes the pins out of her hair and asks El if there’s a set of pyjamas she can borrow. The middle dresser drawer slides open. Max jumps.

“What is it?” El asks.

“Nothing,” Max laughs. “I just have to get used to this whole powers thing.” She grabs grey sweats and a green flannel. Shamelessly she begins to change in front of El, who smiles. Curious, Max asks, “Do I look funny?”

“No. Pretty.”

It seems like she’s working something out in her head, so Max buttons up the flannel and throws her red hair behind her shoulders. She’s okay waiting if it means El is able to say what she feels. Or express it in any way. Hopefully Max can help her with that. And learning to skate, and do math, which is the only subject she’s good at, and Dig Dug. Definitely needs to teach El about Dig Dug.

Finally El says, “Never met anyone else who’s not afraid.”

“Afraid of what?” Max’s brows pinch.

“Changing in front of people. I thought… I thought we’re not supposed to. But I was used to it, with Papa.”

“Who’s Papa?” The thought of El being used to changing in front of an adult male makes her skin crawl. She fights the urge to ask about it, or pull El into a fierce hug.

“Bad man.”

“I’m sorry. Men are stupid. They do horrible things. But we’re not stupid, okay?”

“Not stupid,” El agrees.

“That’s right. We’re friends, and we’re girls, so it’s safe. This is the first of a million sleepovers we’re gonna have.” Her face falls when she realizes. “You’ve never had a sleepover with a girl, have you?”

El shakes her head.

“Well, my best friend back in California and I had sleepovers all the time. And at sleepovers, we do everything together. Get into pj’s, brush our teeth, eat snacks, play games, go on adventures.”

“What’s adventure ?”

Max can’t help but laugh. “You of all people should know. You’ve been on so many.” Already comfortable in her new friend’s room, she sits on the bed. “It’s when you go somewhere without a plan and find things to do. You made it to Hawkins, right? And you went away and came back?”

“Yes. I wanted to be home.”

“Right. Friends go on adventures all the time. Usually they’re local, though. Not into alternate dimensions with science fiction monsters.” El sits on the bed beside her. “We’re going to go on so many.”

“Like what?” El is hopeful.

“Remember I showed you my skateboard? I want to teach you how to ride it. There’s a nice street by my house, it’s flat and paved real well, so you won’t fall down a lot. We can go to the arcade, too, and I’ll teach you how to play games.”

“I’d like that.”

“Me, too.” They smile at each other for a moment. Max notices El hasn’t made any effort to change. “You’re still comfortable in that dress?”

She considers it. “Makes me feel good.”

“Then rock it.” Up close she sees El’s makeup. “We’ve gotta wash your face, though. It’s not good to wear makeup to bed.” Suddenly she’s on her feet, energized by the potential of this friendship.

“It’s not?”

“Nope. My mother always takes hers off before bed. Come on.” She takes El’s hand and leads her to the bathroom of Hopper’s cabin, as if she’s slept here a thousand times.


They’re back in the bedroom, Max on the floor in a sleeping bag. The lights are out and they’re talking. Well, Max is talking a lot, El is mostly listening and asking questions. She wants to know about life as a normal girl. Max is more than happy to share with her. It just means holding back the thousand questions she has for El. Obviously she doesn’t want to push her new friend too far too soon. Not when she’s capable of literally killing people.

Static and a soft El? break their conversation. El mumbles a quick sorry to Max and reaches for the radio the boys gave her. She clicks a button. “Mike?”

“There you are! How’s your sleepover going?”

“Better if you hadn’t rudely interrupted us!” Max quips.

They can practically hear Mike roll his eyes. El had mentioned this would happen. Mike calls her every night, no matter what. They haven’t broken their streak of talking every day since she’s been home. Max thinks it’s adorable, but she wishes their sleepover could be totally boy-free. Especially after a night of dancing with boys.

El smiles. “It’s going good.”

“I’m glad. Will ended up coming over.” There’s movement and then Will’s tiny voice. “Hi, El! Hi, Max!” Another shift and Mike’s back on. “We just wanted to, you know, check in.”

“It’s okay, dude. You can tell her you love her or whatever you usually do. I’ll plug my ears.” This actually elicits a laugh from El, which makes Max feel proud of herself. The girl needs more happiness in her life. They both do.

If Max has to deal with any more of Billy’s shit, she’ll run away to Hopper’s cabin for real. Why can’t Billy be the one to leave? He’s not aggressive towards her anymore, but he can’t even pick her up from a dance sober. Thankfully Steve was there. That’s what a real brother is. Someone who keeps you safe.

Whatever Mike says is so quiet she can’t hear, and El wishes the boys a good night. She rolls over to face Max, even though it’s too dark to see any more than the whites of their eyes reflected by the moon. “You had a nice time?”

“I did.”

“Me too.” There’s a pause. “Tell me about school.”

“What do you want to know?”

El sighs. “Everything.”

Chapter Text

The next morning his parents are going over their checkbooks. They’re busy adjusting expenses for last minute Christmas gifts, and food for hosting company next week. When the doorbell rings at noon they ask Steve to get it. He’s still groggy from sleeping off his sadness, and swings the front door open without hesitation.

Billy is holding flowers and wearing his best, brightest smile.

“Let me guess, you’re here to apologize.” Steve steps out of the house and shuts the door behind him. He is too drained to deal with this.

Billy’s words last night are still etched into his skin. You’re bullshit. The fact that Nancy was inside chaperoning the dance when he said it was salt on the wound. Worse, as Dustin stepped out of the car, he gently explained that Steve was duty free now. He could go on with his senior year like a normal teenager.

That’s not possible, though. Steve isn’t a normal teenager. Maybe that’s what Nancy was talking about. They can’t go back to who they were before last November. To compensate for this, Steve needs to feel useful.

Right now he’s useless. Nothing, just like Billy says. After he got home from dropping the kids off, he spent a long hot shower crying about everything he lost-- including himself, who he was growing less and less sure of. He slept heavily, under the weight of his inadequacies.

Billy is calm this morning, warm. He hands Steve the flowers. “Yes, I’m here to apologize. I was upset last night and shouldn’t have taken it out on you. I felt awful.”

“Looks like you’re feeling better now.” Steve holds the flowers limply at his side.

“Damn right. There’s a beautiful boy standing in front of me. And I’m determined to make him happy.”

“I’m beautiful? Really? Because last night you called me worthless and said I was nothing without you. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound like the words of someone who wants to make me happy.”

Billy’s smile falters. “No, it doesn’t.” He leans in, speaks quietly. “Like I said, I shouldn’t take out my issues on you. I’m sorry, and I want to take you up on that offer. I need help.”

“Wow, it’s great that you want help. Really. But, uh... Go get it from someone else.” He reaches for the doorknob to let himself back inside.

“I need you.” Billy touches his hand, so gentle it gives Steve pause. His blue eyes shine like glass. “You’re the only one who will understand.”

“Understand what?” Steve asks.

“All the shit I called you last night, none of it’s true. You’re perfect, Harrington. Perfect. And I need you like the air I breathe. I’m the one who’s worthless. I’m the one who’s nothing without you . That’s why I want to go steady with you. You’re the only person who believes in me anymore.”

The only person? Steve processes this, wondering how much of it is real. How much of Billy’s anger will work out over time, and how much is ingrained into his being? If Steve helps him, how much will be accomplished? Will this just be another disappointment, another love lost?

There are some things Billy is right about. Steve’s lack of friends. His inability to fight for those he loves. His kids, of course, but they’re different. According to Dustin they’re done with him now. Maybe for good. Steve is alone in so many ways. He has nothing to lose by fighting for Billy and trying to heal his damaged soul. It will give him the sense of purpose he craves.

“Yeah, okay. I’ll help you. I’ll go steady with you. But we keep it between us, alright? And if you ever treat me like that again I will leave you. This is your only chance. Do you understand?”

Warmth and desire radiate off Billy as he locks eyes and steps closer. The strong smell of cologne coupled with his dimpled grin melt Steve. Suddenly he wants the comfort of Billy’s body, like the morning they woke up in bed wearing only boxers, arms and legs entwined.

And he will have that again. He’s sure of it. Billy is his boyfriend now. Hard as it may be to believe, it’s happening. Someone desires him as much as he does them. Finally.

Billy licks his lips and says, “I understand.”

Chapter Text

A pre-holiday party at Stacy’s. Jonathan has become a must-have because of the way he captures their drunken joy in photos. Since Nancy has been showing him off, Jonathan Byers isn’t a freak-- he’s a dark soul with a beautiful mind. He has a place with them as their resident artist. The one who will give them proof they had fun tonight when they cannot remember tomorrow.

Their hands are laced together as they enter the house and kick snow off their shoes. They’re forced to let go in the den, where everyone has thrown their coats onto a sofa. She thinks she sees Steve’s but isn’t sure. The only source of light is a dimly lit, delicately dressed Christmas tree.

Nancy shakes the thought of Steve from her head. “You wanna grab a drink with me first? The girls said they made up this new Christmas cocktail I just have to try.” She laughs and rolls her eyes.

“I’ll pass on that,” he chuckles. “Besides, the roads are icy, I don’t want to risk it.”

She stands on her tiptoes to kiss him, grateful to be with such a thoughtful, considerate boy. “I can’t wait to develop tonight’s shots.”

“Me either,” he grins bashfully.

“Enjoy it, okay? You know where to find me.”

They part ways. Nancy heads into the kitchen, where girls squeal her name and envelope her. One puts a green plastic cup into her hand. It’s not the usual party cup color, but she looks around and sees both green and red. A Christmas theme. Another reminder it’s only a few days away.

“Take a sip, babes!” Stacy cheers, and the girls bump cups and drink deeply.

The cocktail isn’t like Christmas at all. Just cranberry, vodka, and a hint of lime. It doesn’t matter much to her, though. She drinks it down and asks for more. Knowing Jonathan will be sober the whole night means she can let go.

The living room has become a dance floor. Most lights have been turned off to create an effect. A thick haze of cigarette and marijuana smoke hangs over them. Nancy bops along to the beat. When the chorus comes on everyone sings loudly around her. Like a virgin… hey! Touched for the very first time. She giggles to herself.

Nearby, Steve is singing along and having the time of his life. Genuine and warm-hearted, always easy to please. She sees now that his optimism allowed him to push on after life fell apart last year. He wasn’t ignoring what happened, he was protecting them from the nightmare that would have otherwise swallowed them whole.

On nights like this she wishes they could have stayed friends. She broke his heart, though, and Steve’s too sensitive to keep up appearances with a girl who doesn’t love him. His distance from her is a way to guard himself. That’s okay, really. But lately he seems distant with everyone.

At school he walks around, forlorn, with downcast eyes. When they cross paths it’s all small talk. He says everything’s fine, but it’s not. Last week she asked the guidance counselor if Steve turned in his college application. Although the man wasn’t supposed to answer, he entrusted Nancy with the truth. After all, she is a true scholar-- a junior looking at colleges. Unlike Steve, who didn’t submit his application at all.


Seven songs and another cocktail later, she’s banging on the bathroom door. The music is thumping, too loud to hear over. She puts her ear against the door and knocks again. No answer. She jiggles the door handle. Whoever’s in there was too drunk to lock it. “I’m coming in!” she shouts, then enters.

Two boys are bent over a row of fat white lines on the counter. In a twisted competition they start sucking up cocaine at opposite ends, rushing to beat each other to the middle.

“So, sorry ,” Nancy slurs as she backs out of the bathroom. She bumps into the door frame and drops her cup, the remaining cocktail spilling red onto the linoleum floor. “Shit!”

The boys look up, each holding half of a cut straw. Nancy’s eyes swish from the straws to the lips and the eyes and the hair. She clings to the doorframe for support. “ Steve?

“Nancy?” His brown eyes are saucers.

Behind him is the mullet-headed new kid, smile splitting his face at the ears. What’s his name? She doesn’t remember, but she knows he’s bad news. “Hey, didn’t you beat the shit out of Steve? Why are you in here together? And what-- what is this?” She looks sadly at her ex. “What are you doing?”

“What does it look like we’re doing, Nancy?,” mullet boy sneers. “Cocaine. Or are you so pure and virginal you’ve never heard of it?”

“Don’t be rude to me.”

“‘Don’t be rude to me’!” He mocks. “I’m not the one who barged into an occupied bathroom.”

“Steve?” She asks worriedly.

“Billy, let me talk to her, okay? Put what’s left back in the bag for later.”

“For later?” Nancy repeats as Steve leads her out of the bathroom. Over his shoulder Billy glares, eyes filled with… is that jealousy or anger? Whatever it is scares her. “Why are you with him? Didn’t he-- didn’t he--”

“Yeah, Nance. He rearranged my face real good. It’s okay now. We’re okay.” He finds an empty room and pulls her inside so they can hear each other. “He made it up to me.”

“Made it up… How? By giving you drugs ? You’re doing drugs , Steve.” She starts to cry and touches his arm. “ Drugs .”

“So what?” He jerks away, agitated. She’s never seen him like this before. “So what if I’m doing drugs? It doesn’t matter. I’m bullshit, remember?”

Her heart drops. He’s still carrying the burden of an insult she never meant. Without thinking, she reaches for him again. “Steve, you’re not--”

“Don’t touch me!” He shouts and stands clear of her. “I know what I am, and I’m fine. This is fine. Hopefully you and Jonathan are fine, too.”

“We are, and we care about you! Not because you kept the kids safe, but because of… because of who you are.”

As she says it, some invisible force removes Steve from his body, leaving only the shell. He takes another step back and shakes his head. “You don’t have to lie.”

Billy’s at the door now, calling for Steve. He says he knows, he’s done anyway and walks out, leaving Nancy alone in a dark room. She hugs herself, even though she’s not cold.

Chapter Text

Mike and Will have just said goodnight to El and laid the walkie talkie to rest when the front door rushes open. Jonathan shuts it cautiously and follows Nancy into the kitchen. A cabinet slams. Water runs. The boys exchange a wide-eyed look and slide off Mike’s bed, which they share at every sleepover.

“What’s going on?” Jonathan urges quietly as they walk upstairs. They enter Nancy’s room and shut the door. The boys sit halfway in the hall to hear better. “Hey, talk to me. What happened?”

“Nothing!”

“You ran up to me crying and dragged me outside. The whole ride home you held my hand but said nothing. Nancy, you’re scaring me.”

“Well, Steve’s scaring me !”

“What?” The bed creaks as Jonathan sits down. “Did he talk to you?”

“I saw him with Billy.”

“They’re friends now? Your brother told me Billy knocked him unconscious. Why would he hang out with someone like that?”

“I don’t know.” She sniffles. Is she crying again? “After dancing, I had to pee. Nobody answered when I knocked, and they hadn’t locked the door, so I went inside.”

He chuckles, momentarily relieved. “Wait-- you saw Billy and Steve in the bathroom together? Were they kissing or something?”

She snaps, “They were snorting cocaine.”

That shuts him up. Will’s hand shoots out for Mike’s and their breath catches. They’ve been told about drugs and the million reasons not to do them. The world of teenagers and their problems is far away, but Steve isn’t. He’s here and real, their hero without a cape. Dustin idolizes him. And he’s doing drugs in a bathroom with Billy Hargrove?

It doesn’t compute.

“Steve?” Jonathan says in disbelief. “He doesn’t do drugs.”

“I’ve never seen him that way. He was just… gone.” She lets out a little sob. “He yelled at me, he said he’s bullshit! That’s what I called him on Halloween.”

“But you didn’t mean that, you were drunk.”

“It doesn’t matter, he believes it. Otherwise he wouldn’t be doing this.”

“Maybe he was just trying it. Teenagers do stupid things, you know?”

“No. He told Billy to bag up the rest for later. That means he’s done it before, and he’ll do it again. Jonathan, this is Steve! He’s still upset and now-- and he’s doing coke !” She falls apart. He must get up to hug her, because her next line is muffled.

“I know,” he says softly. “It’s not okay.”

Will looks up at Mike. How did they let this happen? Party members protect each other. They knew Steve was having a hard time getting through the season, but they were too wrapped up in their own lives to see how much danger he was in. They just figured he would go back to his own teenage life. But Nancy had been his life, and then them, and now no one.

Jonathan speaks once more and they listen up. “Nothing bad is going to happen.”

Why is he lying? Something bad already happened, and no one was there to stop it. As the boys retreat into Mike’s room, they share the sentiment without words.

“What are we going to tell Dustin?” Mike asks as they climb back into bed. He pulls the blankets up around their chins. Will immediately molds himself against his favorite friend. They feel each other’s hearts racing.

“The truth,” Will whispers.

“He’s gonna lose it. I mean, Steve’s the nicest guy we know! He wouldn’t do something like this unless he was totally desperate, or put under a spell!”

Will takes his hand again, gives it a squeeze to calm him down. “Tomorrow we’ll see them at the arcade. We can tell them then.”

“Yeah. Max’ll be there, too.” Mike adds. “Maybe she’ll know what’s going on since that’s her brother.”

Step brother,” Will is quick to remind.

“Right. Stepbrother.”

He reaches over to shut off the bedside lamp and lies there awake, the conversation they overheard playing on repeat. Will sleeps soundly, attached to his warm safety net. No monsters plague him, no violence flashes behind his eyes. Eventually his soft breathing carries Mike off, the last thought in his head that Steve is the one living a nightmare now.

Chapter Text

Dilated pupils absorb every ounce of drama. It unfolds to his liking. Billy salivates with curiosity. What happens next?

Whatever he damn well pleases.

In the kitchen Steve throws down shots like a drowning man gulps air. At this point in the night his veins pump with more alcohol than blood. Of course, he doesn’t feel it. Not with that much cocaine banging around his brain.

Across the living room Nancy grabs Jonathan’s hand, wipes tears from her face. All it does is smear her mascara, making her a scarecrow fit to frighten any bird. Jonathan drops the camera so it hangs on the strap at his neck. Billy reads frantic lips. What’s wrong? Where are we going? Nancy says nothing, just drags him away.

Billy sets off toward the kitchen to collect the mess that is his date. The sea of teens part for him. Whether it’s out of respect or fear, he doesn’t care. Arriving in the kitchen, one of the boys slides him a shot. He takes it and smiles, winks at a girl nearby. She’s been staring since he approached. As if she’s his type.

He leans into Steve’s ear and says, “Meet me at the car. I’ll grab your coat.”

After all, they agreed to keep things private.


Fogged windows act as curtains, enforcing the secrecy they so badly need. Steve straddles Billy’s lap in the back of the car. Drunken fingers pry at buttons, teeth nip skin. Billy tilts his head back and lets Steve have him however he wants. His tongue appeals to pressure points that get Billy hard. Instinctively Steve grinds against him.

This is the king everyone told him so much about.


It’s late afternoon the next day when Billy lets himself inside. His father, who has been waiting for this, shouts so hard his face goes red. With fistfulls of collar he shoves Billy back against the closed front door, barking all the obvious questions. Where was he? Why didn’t he call? Why does he reek of alcohol and chemical bliss?

Billy spits out honest answers. At a party. It was late. I was drinking.

Neil glares into his son’s eyes. “Why didn’t you come home?”

“I didn’t want to drink and drive.” The smallness of his own voice drives him to tears, which he swallows down along with fear and self-hatred.

“Don’t lie to me!” The force of the slap stings his cheek. “You’re never too drunk to drive home. For Christ’s sake, it’s your pastime! Tell me the truth, Billy. Were you making friends with another faggot? Rubbing dicks in the dark, trying not to get caught this time?” He yokes Billy up by the collar, nose to nose. “If I find out it’s happening again--”

“Neil?” Susan interrupts nervously.

“He owes me the truth. Take Maxine into the other room and let me handle this!”

Obediently she ushers Max, who was behind her watching, into the kitchen. Billy wishes they could do something. It’s no use wishing. Even if they could, his father would never let them interfere. Besides, the pain Billy’s being dealt is entirely deserved.

With a tight jaw the man asks, “Were you with a boy?”

Yes , Billy thinks. The love of my life. We were about to go all the way in the back of my car, but he got sick. Like a good boyfriend, I rubbed his back and drove him to the only twenty-four hour diner outside of the city. When we were finally tired we slept in my car, him on top of me, my arms around his waist.

This is dangerous.

Loving Steve is dangerous.

He holds his father’s eyes. “No.”

There’s no space to duck from the first punch. He tries to wriggle from his father’s grasp, but that worsens the blows. The floor comes up to meet him and his father’s knee juts under his ribs. Billy lets it happen. That’s the fastest way for it to be over.

When his father has had his fill of violence he climbs off and stares down at his sadistic son. “Take a shower, you’re disgusting. Then bring Maxine to the arcade, and don’t come back without her.”

Chapter Text

Keith lets him behind the counter. He can hear his friends talking inside before he even lays hand on the doorknob. Over his shoulder he asks, “Do you know what they’re doing in there?”

The older boy shakes his head. “But they’ve been at it for a half hour already. You’re late.”

“Gee, I had no idea!” He waits for Keith to sidle off before letting himself in. As soon as he does, the four party members present fall silent. Max and Lucas share a chair, while Mike and Will sit on top of the desk.

“Hey, man!” Lucas smiles uncomfortably. “Glad you made it, we saved you a seat!”

Cautiously, Dustin sits on the only other chair. His blue eyes flick around, quickly analyzing. No one wants to meet his eye. “Alright, you’re guilty. All of you. I don’t know what you did, but you better get to explaining. Mike, why’d you call a meeting here?”

“We were going to meet here anyway.”

“No, you said it was urgent. Tell me. What’s going on?”

“We’re worried,” Lucas answers carefully. “About Steve.”

Something about his tone makes Dustin’s heart race. “No one’s ever worried about Steve.”

“Yeah, that’s kinda the problem.” Too gentle. Whatever’s going on, they don’t want to tell him. Why wouldn’t they want to tell him? Are they afraid of how he’ll react? Maybe they should be, since Steve is the big brother he always wanted but never had.

He rakes through the storehouse in his mind. What has Steve gotten into lately that could be trouble?

Billy.

“Does this have to do with that jackass? Remember at the dance, Steve looked all sad and said he’d just seen the douchebag, drunk?” As afterthought he says, “Sorry, Max. You know it’s true.”

“Oh, I’m not arguing. He’s definitely a jackass. And this definitely has to do with him.”

“Why, did he hurt Steve again?” No one replies. A sweat breaks out and he leans forward. “Guys? What. Happened.”

Mike gives a little huff, like he’s sorry to bear the bad news. “Steve’s been hanging out with Billy. Like, as friends. Sort of. And the other night there was this party, at Nancy’s friend’s place, right? So they were at a party the other night…”

“And?”

“Well, they were in the bathroom together, and my sister…”

“Mike, come on! What were they doing? Why were they in there together?”

“Seriously, Wheeler?” Max rolls her eyes. “Nancy saw them snorting coke!” Once the smoke clears, she folds her arms and shrugs. “What? Someone had to say it.”

“Not like that! Look at him!” Lucas points to their shocked friend.

“We all agreed he needs to know!”

“She’s right, Lucas. I needed to know.” With reverence, Dustin takes off his hat and sets it in his lap. His eyes are trained to the floor. Momentarily he’s lost. It doesn’t add up. Steve with Billy, doing drugs? When did this start? Why is it happening?

Mike gets up and rubs his back. “We’re sorry.”

“Sorry? Sorry isn’t gonna do shit ! We have to talk to him!” Dustin sits up and Mike’s hand falls away. Again, the four exchange uncomfortable glances. “Oh, no. No, guys. Don’t tell me there’s more.”

Lucas winces. “There’s more, and it gets worse.”

“I wouldn’t call it worse,” Will chimes in. “Well, not that part.”

“That’s because he’s the only guy you know of that’s like you!” Mike says.

“No, you’re like me. Right?”

“Jesus Christ, neither of you are like him! All I want to know is what could be worse than finding out the guy who saved our lives is sniffing lines with the asshole that almost killed him?”

“Finding out the guy who saved our lives is in love with the asshole who almost killed him,” Max says. Everyone groans. Obviously her blunt admission was not part of the plan.

“In lo-- what?” Dustin chuckles. He looks up at Mike. “What is she saying?”

“She’s saying--”

“I can speak for myself,” she snaps. To Dustin she says, “I’ll tell you what I told the others. But you have to understand that this information could get us in serious trouble. Or killed. Do you accept the risk?”

“Of course I accept the risk. Whatever it takes to help Steve.” Dustin says breathlessly.

“If our theory’s right, there might not be anything we can do,” Lucas interjects.

“Why?”

Max explains, “Billy’s gay. Has been for as long as I’ve known him, but he tries to hide it, because of how mean people are.”

“As if he’s not!?”

“Dustin, just listen!” Will whines.

For a moment he’s jealous that his friends found out the truth before he did. They probably wanted to protect him, let him down easy. They failed. This was a horrible way to find out all the dirty secrets of their older friend.

Max continues. “In California I used to take the bus. I came home one day and heard screaming from inside the kitchen. It was Billy and his best friend, fighting over something Billy had done. Suddenly the screaming stopped and I peeked in to see if they were okay. They were all over each other, and I didn’t get it. How could my brother be making out with his best friend, a guy, after they had argued so badly? Not thinking, I told my mom what I saw. She told Neil that I caught them, and… I haven’t seen him beat Billy that bad since. Until today.”

“What happened today?” Dustin asks.

“He didn’t come home from that party until, like, two hours ago. Neil freaked out, kept asking Billy where he’d been, if he was with a boy. Billy denied, but he was clearly lying to protect whoever he’s seeing.”

“And you think whoever he’s seeing…”

“Is Steve,” she finishes.

“Impossible. He dated Nancy for a year. You can’t like both, right guys?” He looks for agreement.

Back on the desk Mike says, “Yes you can, Dustin.”

“Bullshit. It doesn’t work like that.”

This infuriates Max. “Yes it does! I mean, have you met Mike? If he’s not proof enough for you that you can like both, then I don’t know what is.”

He blushes at Will, who smiles openly. Neither of them argue the point, which must mean it’s true. Dustin never imagined Mike like-liking anyone other than El, but now that it’s been announced it makes sense.

Not for Steve and Billy, though.

“Are you sure about this?”

“No,” they chorus.

Mike reasons, “But think about it. My sister saw them at the party together. Then Billy doesn’t come home until this afternoon. Who do you think he was with all that time? Steve. And who would spend that much time with Billy unless, you know, they actually liked him?”

“Is this even safe?” Dustin asks Max. “You said he was, what, dating his best friend? How did it end once they got caught?”

“How do you think? Nothing Billy does ends well. He’s incapable of treating people like human beings. All he does is hurt. It’s so wrong.”

They reflect, remembering the night he almost killed Steve. It feels shameful to know this private information about him, like they committed a crime and got found out. It wasn’t their fault. They hadn’t dug for secrets like they usually do. This time the truth had been dropped in their laps. Surely it was a sign that they were destined to help.

Innocently Will breaks the silence. “Are all guys who like guys wrong?”

“No,” Mike says passionately. “There’s nothing wrong with being gay. But there is something wrong with guys who abuse their step sisters and dates. You’ll never do that, though. You’re never going to be like Billy, ever.”  He puts his hand on Will’s. “You’re not wrong.”

It takes a minute for this all to soak in.

“Son of a bitch!” Dustin finally exclaims. “The party’s full of queers and one of them’s riding the fast train to shitville. What the hell are we gonna do?”


Monday after school they ride over. The only party member missing is El. They tried to catch her up over walkie-talkie on Sunday night, but she asked bigger questions than they could answer. What is cocaine ? What is gay ? Before Mike could promise to explain later, Max said she’d come by soon and tell her everything, in a non-awkward boy way.

Steve’s car is parked in the driveway. They throw their bikes down behind it, along with Max’s board. The five of them patter up the walkway, tripping over each other in a rush to warn Steve. Warn him about what? They have it all planned out, but now that Dustin’s ringing the bell and banging on the door it sounds stupid.

You can’t date Billy Hargrove because he’s a dick.

There’s movement within the house. Are those two sets of feet? Steve shouts something indiscernible and they wait anxiously. Eventually the door opens-- only a few inches. Steve’s flushed face and one side of his body appear. Thinner, definitely. And guarded. Dustin knows they aren’t welcome. Is that Steve, or Billy’s influence over him?

“Hey, buddy!” He shows a toothy grin.

“What are you guys doing here?”

Dustin glances at Mike and Lucas, who nod. Behind them Max and Will hold their breath. They don’t know Steve well, but they know this isn’t him. Steve is soft, warm, loving. Not irritable and distant.

After a steadying breath Dustin says, “We’re worried about you.”

The rosy color drains from Steve’s face. He attempts to laugh it off. “What, me? Why?”

“Well, at first it was because you aren’t answering our calls. And because you looked all depressed when you got us after the Snow Ball. Then we did a little accidental research, and it turns out you’re getting involved in some pretty risky business.”

Steve shifts, closes the door a little more. Trying to block them out. Or trying to keep them from seeing inside. “Whatever rumors you heard, they’re not true.”

“Look, we know about Billy, okay? And we know about the drugs. Yes, we’re disappointed. More about you hanging out with the guy who almost killed you than trying cocaine, but we forgive you, and we’ll do whatever we can to help you be yourself again.”

There’s a dark edge to Steve’s voice. “You need to understand that not everything you hear is true. And just because you’re dying for a new mystery to solve doesn’t mean you get to pry into people’s lives. Alright? I know what I’m doing, you don’t have to worry.”

“But Steve, we--”

“No buts, Dustin! Enough calling me and following me around, and making up crazy stories based on garbage you don’t understand! I’m not your friend, okay? These guys are.” He points to the others. “Stick with them. Don’t worry about me, I’m fine.

These words devastate Dustin. He fights the urge to back away. Instead, he holds eye contact with Steve. Searching, analyzing. What is the truth? Behind the edge and anger is a soft sadness that’s sucking him down. He’s lying. About everything.

Naturally, the biggest lie is that he’s fine.

“I’m calling bullshit,” Dustin says.

“Oh, so now I’m bullshit to you, too?”

“What? No, you’re not bullshit!” he shouts. “You’re my big brother, and a member of this party, and goddamnit Steve, I hate it when you lie!”

Steve remains half hidden behind the door, like one part is reaching for them and the other is trapped. Dustin nods. “You’re right about one thing, though. You’re not my friend, or my family. Apparently that guy has been possessed. So do me a favor, shadow monster? Tell my big brother I miss him, and that I’m going to do whatever it takes to bring him home safe.”

The others echo this sentiment, a chorus of valiant fighters. Steve swallows hard. His eyes are glassy, like this hit him and hurts. Good, because Dustin feels like Steve hit him , and it does hurt. At least he’s sure this whole conversation has been an act, further proving the importance of coming to his aid.

“Whatever,” Steve blinks back tears and slams the door.

Wordlessly, the kids retreat down the walk, pick up their bikes, and start off. They ride slowly down the cold, empty street. Adults are still at work, and kids have gone inside because it’s going to get dark soon. There’s just one car, parked randomly by a stretch of trees. It’s only when they come to the stop sign at the end of the street they realize that car is Billy’s.

Chapter Text

The second the patio door opens Steve is on his feet. He’s been waiting in the living room since he rushed home from school, insane over what happened to Billy. Rumors had spread-- he’d been in a fight at the party, he’d been in a fight after the party, his dad whooped his ass yesterday for being late.

Steve refused to believe anything unless he heard it from Billy’s mouth, and they couldn’t talk at school. Changing in the locker room had been absolute misery. He saw the state of his boyfriend’s face and couldn’t go to him, comfort him, heal him. The rest of the day he couldn’t even focus. Just repeated Billy’s whispered promise in his head. Your house. After school.

An eternity must have passed, but finally Billy’s here. In his arms, face to face, breathing the same air. Delicately, Steve brushes the back of his hand against the mottled bruises. “Who did this to you?”

“I’m sure you heard the talk, Harrington.” Billy’s arms hang loose around his hips. Melting at the touch, Steve leans in, pressing their torsos together. “Which story do you believe?”

“None of them.” His eyes trace the violence written on Billy’s face. Then he tilts his chin up to kiss him gently. Steve doesn’t want to hurt him any more than he already has been.

“Come on, you’ve gotta have a theory yourself. Everyone does.”

“Well, we were together all night, so I know you didn’t get into a fight then. When you dropped me off on Sunday you went straight home. So maybe what Tommy said is right, but it can’t be.”

“What did Tommy say?”

“Your dad whooped your ass for being late.” Billy’s smile vanishes, along with Steve’s light-hearted tone. “Oh, my God. Did he do this?”

“Don’t say it like that,” he grimaces.

“Like what?”

After pushing Steve away he heads for the liquor cabinet. They’ve been home alone before, and Billy remembers things like this.

“Say it like what ?” Steve follows, watches him open the cabinet and kneel before it. There’s no use arguing about stealing liquor. The bigger issue is that Billy’s face was pounded by his father’s fists. “Say it like what? Like I’m worried? Like I wish this hadn’t happened, or I could have stopped it?”

“Like you feel bad and think I don’t deserve it!” he roars. Bottles clink loudly as he rifles for the one he wants.

“Are you saying you do?” When Billy stands back up it’s with a fifth of whiskey. He heads for the kitchen and, again, Steve follows. “Hey, look at me!”

The bottle bangs down on the counter and echoes in the empty house, which their voices rise to fill. “What do you want from me, Harrington?”

“I want you to tell me what’s going on!” Steve gestures for emphasis. “Why did your father do that? Why do you feel like you-- like you deserved it?” He’s incredulous about the latter. How could anyone believe they deserve to be treated like that, even by a parent? Then, he’s allowed Billy to do worse and stayed.

“There’s a lot you don’t know about me.” He pours a tall glass of whiskey and throws back the contents in one gulp. Then he refills.

“Woah, slow down! You don’t need to drink over everything that happens.”

“Don’t need to tell me what to do!” Billy shouts. “I’ve got problems you’ll never understand. I need this.” Swiftly he drains the glass.

“Why do you think I won’t understand?”

“Because you’re weak. You could never handle my story.” He recaps the bottle, moves around Steve to put it away.

“Try me.”

Over his shoulder he calls, “Not a chance in hell, princess. You’ll break.”

Billy’s sudden flippant tone infuriates him. His pulse is hard and heated. Standing alone in the kitchen he screams, “Then break me, I love you!”

It’s too soon to say it. He works to catch his breath and can’t. This is happening. He’s fallen in love with Billy and exposed himself during an argument. And it’s never going to be reciprocated because nothing’s ever reciprocated with Steve, but then Billy’s lips are on his, hands are on his hips, fingers in his waistband, tugging him closer, out of the room, back towards the couch.

They land roughly, kicking off shoes and pulling off all those layers they needed for the late December cold. Billy lays Steve down on his back, alternately kissing and biting his skin, leaving hickeys to prove what he says over and over, in a guttural growl.

“You’re mine.

He yanks and shimmies cloth away so he can treat this boy better. Grabbing, squeezing, shifting. Steve’s heart pounds out of his chest. Adrenaline shoots through him. He’s never been touched like this, but Billy knows exactly where to press and pull. He’s losing his mind.

Then the doorbell rings, succeeded by rapid knocking.


When the door slams shut, Billy finally lets go of his wrist, the one hidden by the door. There are marks from the pressure he applied. Steve blinks tears from his eyes.

“Was the little cunt out there?” Billy says through a tense jaw.

“Who-- Max? Does it matter?”

“Was she out there!” He slams his fist against the door. Steve jumps. “Don’t lie to me!”

“Yes, she was out there. They were all out there, okay?”

Billy laughs, deep and long. It ripples through the air, punches a hole in Steve’s chest. It scares him. Why? This is the boy he loves, the boy who will never hurt him again. Everything’s fine, just like he told Dustin. Fine, everything’s fine.

“It’s over.”

“What?” Steve’s eyes snap to Billy’s face. “What’s over, us?”

“Yes, us. Do you know what happened last time that little bitch found out I was with a guy?” He pauses, then makes a face, disgusted with Steve. “Of course you don’t. You don’t know me at all.” He takes his cigarette pack out, sticks one between his teeth.

“Babe, don’t do that in the house, please. My parents will kill me.”

“Your parents will kill you?” His eyes are wild. Deliberately he lights it, sucks until his lungs are full. Then he blows it into Steve’s face. “I bet you’re the one that told them.”

“I would never.”

“You wouldn’t, huh? Then who did? Cause I sure didn’t. We decided to keep this private, Harrington. That means between you, and me. If I didn’t tell them, who does that leave?” He flourishes a hand with feigned curiosity. “Oh, right. You.”

“I wouldn’t sabotage us. Besides, didn’t you hear Dustin? I haven’t talked to them in weeks.”

“And you’re never going to talk to them again! Tell me, who do you love more? Them, or me?”

This is painful. He loves them all differently, for the different joys they bring. That’s not what Billy wants to hear. So he insists, “I love you .”

“Don’t lie to me, princess.” His smile is cruel.

“I’m not lying. Remember what I said? I love you.”

“If you love me, you will never speak to them again.”

The world shatters around him. Those are his children. The moments in life where he has felt the greatest purpose were moments he shared with them. Their love, unconditional. Their laughter a melody, unlike the grating cackle of his peers. He continues to admire them for the intelligence they display, and the unique qualities he’s getting to know. Will’s creativity. Max’s spark. Eleven’s silent strength.

He wants to protect them, re-involve himself in their lives. And Billy’s telling him to just… abandon them?

It’s a promise he can’t keep.

What will the consequence be for breaking a promise to Billy? Will he hurt Steve? Worse, will he hurt the kids? Foolishly he thought loving Billy would help him let go of his rage. There’s potential in there, a sun pushing at small cracks in a cave. Soon enough the sun will burst through the dust and shine warmth on what was cold and dark.

For a while he believed that he could bring about this change in Billy, and that they both wanted it. Now he sees there is no equality here. Only what his boyfriend wants. Why is he so desperate for control? Is this struggle for power is Billy’s desperate way of keeping him?

With a pang of terror he realizes there is no way out. Whether he says yes or no, stays or leaves, Steve is no longer free to do what he wants or love who he wants.

He will have to abandon his own children.

Another cloud of smoke shakes him and he sees Billy’s face. “Well, Harrington? Are you mine? Or are you just another piece of shit that leaves me when things get tough?”

Those bruises on Billy’s face. His father, because he was late coming home. This is the reality he lives. The reasons behind his twisted, controlling love. Desperate to keep him, yes. In order to survive his father’s brutality and judgement, Billy has to hold fast to the one person who sees the good in him. To Billy, he is home. He is safety.

It is a heavy burden, to allow your own haven to be the harbor for a sinking ship.

It is torture to love someone so damaged.

It is a rite of passage, and he will come out stronger for it.

At least, this is what he tells himself as he strikes up the courage to say it.

“I’m yours.”

Chapter Text

Billy’s walking down the hall to his next class. A boy in sunglasses waits in an alcove as a thin girl passes. He sneaks out behind her, wraps his arms around her waist and spins her through the air. Sunglasses come off to reveal bright brown eyes. The playful smile on his face lights the radius of a mile. Then those sweet lips meet the girl’s.

What he would give to take her place, to not have to pretend.

Of everything, the worst is the pretending.


The day after Christmas Steve answers the door in a clean white tee. It hangs loose from his shoulders. Billy, with his drama, drinks, and drugs, is the reason he’s grown thin. He snuffed out the light that used to play in Steve’s eyes, smothered it. Their love and the air they breathe chokes them, and Steve will never know. He has been successfully blinded, placed under a spell, and anything that happens to him is directly Billy’s fault.

He is the junkie, and Steve is the drug.

He is a clumsy child, breaking everything he touches. Steve is something delicate, to be held carefully by one who can appreciate the beauty. By someone who accepts that to own him is not a game, it’s a responsibility.

His father’s voice rings in his head. You ungrateful little shit, you don’t appreciate anything you’re given.

It’s true. Billy wants nothing more than to do better, but he stands no chance. He fell in love with a boy so soft it cracks his chest open. Blood and guts spill out, leaving him at the mercy of a teen who doesn’t know that all this toughness is an act for survival.

Billy doesn’t own Steve. Steve owns him, and in order to keep him from leaving, Billy has to make Steve believe it’s the other way around. He’s terrified that this weekend will destroy it all. He’ll be out of town with his father, giving Steve three whole days of freedom. By the time he returns to Hawkins, his princess will have moved on.

For right now, though, everything is as it should be. Steve lets him in and shuts the door. Ravenously, Billy pulls at the collar of that white tee shirt, kisses any skin his lips meet. Steve giggles and pulls him into a hug. “I missed you.”

The words, true or not, build pressure below his hips. He lives for this, the one person who belongs to him. He wraps his arms tight around his boyfriend. “I missed you, too. I don’t want to leave.”

“So don’t. Stay here.” Steve’s face is buried in the crook of his neck. Their scents mix-- cigarettes and cologne, clean clothes and shampoo. It’s impossible to let go. Thankfully they have the next few hours alone together while the parents are out at work.

“I would, but I can’t disobey him.”

Still in the hug, he asks,“Who? Your dad?”

“Yes, my dad. You know I don’t answer to anyone else.”

“And you have no choice with him, right?” Steve guesses.

“I have no choice with a lot of things.”

“What do you mean?”

Over the holiday he was under close watch. He couldn’t drink, and finished what little blow he had on Christmas Eve. Sobriety depressed him, stole his energy. Without anything to amp him up, he was forced to self-reflect. His mind traveled back to Steve again and again-- how they met, how he bloodied that angelic face, how he’s been forgiven countless times yet continues to lose control. Each memory was reconstructed and replayed. Could it have been different? What can he do to stop it from happening again?

Nothing. Billy puts up a good front of being in control, when in truth he’s powerless. This is one reason why he grows angry anytime a flaw is pointed out. He hates to look inward. Every time he does, pain lights in his chest like wildfire, his father’s words a blaring alarm. No one’s ever going to love a faggot like you. You’re too pretty, too angry. Too full of yourself. You don’t deserve a damn thing.

“Nothing,” he says.

“Are you sure? You know you can tell me anything. Even if it breaks me, I swear, I’m a better listener than people think.”

“I bet you are, princess.” He takes Steve’s hand and brushes each knuckle with his lips. His love is a whisper, barely heard and gone too soon. Disappeared into invisible air as if it never lived at all.

“So why don’t you give me a try? We’ve got all day. You can start with your trip this weekend. Who are you going to see in California?”

He figures that with sobriety keeping his energy so low, he could say that much without a fire blazing in his chest. “Alright, I’ll tell you. Only if we’re laying on your bed.”


Each Christmas his father forces him to contact his mother, under the guise of wishing her happy holidays. Ulteriorly he hopes that mother and son will strike up a bond, relieving some of the pressure raising Billy causes. As if she ever raised him in the first place. She abandoned him before he turned three. He hardly remembers her but for photos, and likely wouldn't recognize her on the street. It’s okay, though. She's better now, has a family and kids that are not him. Billy gets it. Nobody wants him at all.

Relaying this is exhausting. Steve doesn’t break, though, and he doesn’t run away. He listens and holds Billy protectively to his chest. Nurturance is terrifying because it is so foreign. He wants to sit up and shove Steve away, but he needs this, so he shakes until he’s spent and begins to fall asleep. The last words he hears are: “It’s okay. I’m not leaving. I’m yours.”


He wakes up in the dark, alone. This unexpected abandonment jolts him. He sits up quickly, scrambles for the light. He calls Steve’s name, confused and rejected. What happened? What time is it? How harshly will his father punish him?

Opening the bedroom door he sees that the garland in the hall is lit by golden lights. Those lights weren’t on earlier. Steve’s parents must be home. This mainlines fear into his system. Adults usually like him, but parents? It’s as though they can smell what he is, and the danger he brings.

Tears climb up his throat, tighten his jaw, and rest at the edges of his eyes. He shuts them, takes a deep breath. His blood pumps with fear, sorrow, anger. This is exactly why he didn’t want to tell Steve-- why he put it off so long. Once his emotions are tapped they take over, and all the work he does comes undone. He needs to stay in control.

“Hey, hey, I’m right here.” Steve suddenly pushes into the room, shuts the door behind him. “Babe, what’s wrong? Why are you crying?”

“I’m not.” He is weak.

“Oh yeah? Then what’s this?” His fingertips touch Billy’s cheek and come away sheen. “Did you think I would ever leave you after what you told me about your mom?”

He shrugs.

“I would never. Hey, look at me. I would never . Alright? I was downstairs with my parents. It seemed important to let you sleep.”

“Do they know I’m here?”

“Of course they know you’re here. As soon as my mom got home I told her I had a friend upstairs sleeping. My dad got home not too long ago. Turns out he knows your dad, so he called to tell him you’re staying for dinner.”

His breath catches and he reaches for his chest. Steve notices that it’s absolute terror. The prelude to his uncontainable rage. “It’s okay, I promise. He was cool about it.”

“You don’t know that.” Just as Billy acts cool before the bomb goes off, his father does, too.

This deflates Steve. “You’re right, I don’t. Are you upset with me?”

“No,” he lies. Another tear betrays him. “You were sweet to think of me. Just don’t ever do that again.”

“I won’t.” He leans in to kiss the streaks of tears. “I love you. Don’t forget, okay? I’m yours.”

“You’re mine.” Billy pulls Steve in for a fierce hug. They mold together, one body with two hearts. He should always wake up to those concerned eyes, plush lips, and strong hands. To lose himself in this boy forever would be heavenly. But tomorrow he’ll be on a flight to California, for a long weekend where no one will even deign to say his name.

“And you are saving my life,” he whispers. “I love you.”


The first time he calls, Steve picks up. He can hear the light. A pang of jealousy nips. Who or what is making his boyfriend happy in his stead? He asks what Steve’s been doing, who he’s been with. He says he’s been at home, sleeping and catching up on school work. Their conversation is brief, which leaves Billy insecure.

The second time he calls, it goes to the answering machine. He rages absurdly and for no reason, because Steve calls an hour later and cheerily explains he was helping his mom with errands. Billy says it’s important to pick up right away because he’s risking everything just to hear his lover’s voice. When Steve suggests that they just speak to each other when he comes home, he feels rejected. He hangs up before saying goodbye.

The third day he calls to apologize for being so harsh, but Steve doesn’t pick up, and he doesn’t call back. His worst fear has materialized. Steve has realized his worth, and doesn’t care about Billy at all.

Chapter Text

Friday afternoon the doorbell rings. Dustin gets up from his spot on the couch, where he’s been researching, collecting paddles for his next curiosity voyage. His mom and Tews are watching their favorite game show. When he opens the door he sees a ghost clutching a wrapped gift.

“Steve!?”

“Hey, buddy!” His face lights up. Dustin hasn’t seen him like this since the night of the Snow Ball, when he regarded his children post-dance like little gods. With everything they’ve survived, they are.

“What are you doing here? Come in, come in!” He ushers Steve inside and shuts the door against the cold. “Mom, this is Steve, remember him?”

“Oh, Steve!” She beams lovingly. Not only is he a friend to her son, but an impeccable role model. “Please, make yourself comfortable. Can I fix you something to drink?” She sets Tews aside and stands up.

“That would be awesome, Ms. Henderson.” To Dustin he says, “I want to give you your gift.” He grins and holds up the package.

What a contagious smile. “I missed you, man. Come on.” He leads Steve down the hall and into his bedroom, calling over his shoulder, “Mom, don’t bother with the drinks, this might be a while!”

Inside the small room Dustin begins to spill everything about the last few weeks to Steve, forgetting that he’s never been inside before. He’s several sentences into how the last campaign went when he notices Steve marvelling at his collections. Overdue library books, electronic parts, neglected toys.

“It’s the room of an eighth grade science nerd. What did you expect? And why do you look like a proud parent? I haven’t done anything.”

“You’re just… awesome, man. You’re awesome. I’ve missed you, too.”

“Sure didn’t act like it on Monday. Do you even remember what you said? Cause I wouldn’t be surprised if you told me that you’ve been possessed since the Snow Ball and just got exorcised.”

“It kinda feels like that. I’m sorry. I was awful.”

“Is that why you got me a present?”

“Dude, I got you a present because you’re my little brother!” When Dustin’s jaw drops he laughs, “See? I remember.”

“So it seems. But if that wasn’t really you saying those things, then who was it? Billy?” He motions for Steve to sit on the bed with him.

“I don’t want to blame him, he’s got a lot going on.”

“That’s fine. I’ll blame him for you. He was behind the door that day, wasn’t he?”

Steve’s surprised. “How do you know?”

“We saw his car down the street. Trust me, I wanted to go back and bang down the door and save you, but the others would have killed me. Especially Max. She kept saying, ‘You don’t want to get involved with him!’ Lucas obviously agreed with her, so we rode back to Mike’s. I just don’t understand.” His face scrunches up. “How did you get together with Billy Hargrove?”
“Honestly, I have no idea.”

“Is he nice to you, ever?”

“Yeah, he is. We had a good day before he left for the weekend.”

Dustin’s blood goes cold. “Wait a minute, before he left? So does that mean the only reason you’re here right now is because he’s not around?”

Steve can’t deny it. His smile fades and he nods. “He’s protective, you know? And he needs me. Loves me.”

“That doesn’t sound like love. Sounds like you’re being controlled by a son of a bitch who doesn’t know who you are.”

“And who am I?”

“You know.”

“Lately I don’t. It’s like the only way I can see myself is through him, and most of the time he just wants to drink and get high.” He scoffs. “What am I supposed to do, though? I’ve got no frame of reference for what love should actually be, aside from my parents, and most of the time they’re more interested in money and good housekeeping than each other. For a long time I thought that love was how me and Nancy were, but turns out she never loved me at all.”

Dustin puts a hand on his shoulder. “Steve, you’re worth a hell of a lot more than you think. The day you kick Billy’s sorry ass to the curb will be the day you find yourself again, I promise. Now, can I open my present, or are we gonna sit here and talk about feelings all night?”

The package is a dense rectangle. Obviously a book, but Dustin judges its weight on his palm anyway. He makes a big show of opening the thing, which gets Steve laughing. When the paper is peeled back enough to reveal the title he squeals. “ In Search of Schrodinger’s Cat ? Steve! How’d you even know?”

“I asked the lady at the bookstore what was the most ridiculous science book a middle schooler could understand.”

In awe, he flips through pages and finds the prologue. “‘Nothing is Real’. Pretty sure we can all agree with that one. It’s all one big transient illusion.” He tosses the book on the bed and hugs his friend. “Seriously, thank you. Not just for the book, but for everything. You’re the best.”

“No way,” he dismisses. “And you’re welcome.”

Suddenly Dustin jumps up. “Hey, I can get you a present, too!” He rummages in one of his dresser drawers and comes up with a folded wad of bills. “We can spend some of my Christmas money doing whatever you want. We can get food, go to the movies, go to the arcade-- anything.”

“Woah, I can’t accept that, it’s your money!”

“Exactly. I can do what I want with it, and what I want is to hang out with my friend. What do you say?”

A grin fills Steve’s face, and even with his new thinness and the aura of change that hangs about him like a halo, Dustin knows it’s real. His friend is alive, in his body, free of whatever burden Billy’s presence places on him. They’re both grinning now, two fools in sync, carved of the same marble.

“I say that’s the best Christmas gift ever.”

Dustin hopes Billy never comes back.

Chapter Text

There is an unsealed, unlabelled envelope on his bed. Distrusting and miserably sober, he goes straight for the bottle of whiskey he stole from his aunt’s liquor cabinet. It’s the only thing he unpacks from his ratty duffle bag.

Half the bottle goes down in a few gulps. It burns his empty stomach. He loves it.

Sure that it’s a breakup letter from Steve but unsure of how it got there, he takes the envelope to Max’s room and swings open the door. She’s changing into pyjamas and screams. Since when has yelling at Billy ever stopped him? He strides across her room and sits on the edge of her bed.

“Shut the door, would you?”

She does. “What the hell is wrong with you, Billy? Why can’t you be a normal stepbrother for five minutes?”

“Missed me, huh?” He gives her a cheeky grin.

“Like I would miss a gun to my head.” She rolls her eyes and stands in the middle of the room. “Get up.”

“No.”

“Then I won’t tell you who the letter’s from.”

“But you know, don’t you?”

“Of course I do, I’m the one who put it there. Get up!” Max grabs his arm and tugs, but she’s too small to move him. She tries pushing him, to no avail. She’s a fly buzzing around his head.

“Just tell me, Maxine, and I’ll leave.”

“Fine, it’s from your boyfriend!”

He shoots to his feet and slaps his palm over her mouth. The room tilts slightly around them. “Are you trying to get me killed?”

Rhetorical question. Who wouldn’t want to get Billy killed? A minute ago Max greeted him with what the hell is wrong with you ? He should have responded with the truth: plenty.

Her blue eyes bulge and she shoves at him again. This time he obliges and lets her go. She hisses, “Steve stopped by earlier. He wanted to leave it for you since it’s too risky to show up or call when Neil is here.” She folds her arms. “Is that all?”

“No.” His expression is a loaded gun.

“Then tell me, what do you want? How else would you like to torment me tonight?”

He holds up the envelope. “Do you know what’s in here?”

“Why would I care?”

“Answer the question,” he warns.

“No. He didn’t tell me, and I didn’t open it. Before you ask, yes, it was already unsealed. Steve’s obedient, but he sure as hell isn’t detail-oriented.” She goes to her bed. “If it makes you feel better, he was in a good mood.”

Billy’s dark expression makes her nervous. She climbs under the covers and picks up a book off the bedside table, hoping he’ll go away. He leers at her, chin tilted down. She’s hiding something. He thinks maybe she got the letter when Steve was with her and the other shitbirds.

“What did you do over the past few days, Max?”

“Hung out here. Why?”

“You see those friends of yours?” The envelope spins as he moves his fingers back and forth. “Get a ride to the arcade from someone other than me?” Max shrinks into the bed. “I know Nancy doesn’t have a car, and the creep she calls a boyfriend isn’t carting around anyone except that porcelain doll brother of his.”

“Drop it, Billy. You can’t control everything Steve does.”

That confirms it. His worst fear has manifested. Steve broke his loyalty by hanging out with those brats, and was too cowardly to break up with Billy face to face.

He’s not getting away with this.

Billy spins on his heel and leaves the room.


In the morning he wakes when sunlight hits his face. There’s smeared blood on the pillowcase and the stench of stale sweat and vomit. His pulse pounds heavy in his ears, and he sits up, trying to remember last night. He came in and saw a letter. Talked to Max. Left for Steve’s.

Steve!

The stress of standing sends him crashing down. He stays on the floor for a few minutes, gathering himself. It’s hard to breathe, like a few of his ribs are cracked. There’s bruising on his arms and legs, in all shapes and colors. Scratches, too.

Flashes of last night come back to him. A whiskey bottle, sorrow on Steve’s face. He put it there. Did he put bruises there, too? Did Billy lash out again, causing another fight, this time physical? Even if he did, Steve would never do this to him. There’s only one person who would.

Forcing his body to stand, he pulls on shorts and a shirt and steps out into the hall. There’s coffee in the air, pleasant voices talking over breakfast. Smooth sunlight pouring through all the windows. His father’s robust laugh and Max’s sarcastic comments.

Avoiding the shame of confrontation, he slips into the bathroom and shuts the door. Bracing himself against the counter he meets himself in the mirror. The bruises, black eye and split lip are all normal. There’s a few fingerprint marks around his throat. Does he get extra points for getting his father riled up enough to choke him?

The one abnormality is the blank space between Steve’s house and his father’s beating. It might mean something, how he drank and lost time. He could call and ask Steve about it, but that would require admission of his faults. Billy has enough faults to fill a water dam. He’s not going to risk his precarious relationship with Steve by adding one more flaw to the reservoir.

Instead he’ll swallow the truth, along with the shame and anger. He’ll face his father and eat a little breakfast, maybe throw it up after from nerves. Then he’ll spend the day compensating for the stain he is by working out and breathing smoke. And when he gets to school tomorrow, and Steve sees the desecration, Billy will deny everything. His fuck up, his father’s rage. The perverse self-hate that makes him enjoy the way bruises contour his face.

As he steps out of the bathroom his father calls his name. Already tense, he walks to the kitchen. Susan and Max stare at their plates and toy with their food. Does he really look that bad? Or do they know something’s coming?

“I met your friend last night.”

“My friend?”

He laughs. “Susan, do you hear this? Apparently Billy got so blasted he doesn’t remember.”

“Remember what?” He’s shaking.

“Harrington’s boy, he had to drive you home because you could hardly stand.” His father stands slowly and tosses his napkin down.  “He did the right thing, don’t you think? Not letting you drink and drive. Real respect and responsibility.”

Oh, God. What did Billy do? How horrible was he last night that Steve had to bring him home, knowing it would result in this? He regrets everything, including what he doesn’t know.

“I’m sorry,” Billy stammers.

“It’s funny. You don’t even know what you’re sorry for.”

“I got drunk and started an argument, I inconvenienced you.”

“Damn right you did, but it’s more than that. You’ve been lying to me. See, Steve and I talked on the ride over to his house. And then I found this in the driver’s seat of your car. Looks like someone forgot about it.” He takes a folded envelope out of his back pocket. Billy’s knees go weak as his father advances. It takes concentration not to collapse onto the floor.

“That’s what I thought. You can’t deny it, and you can’t save him. Or yourself.”

“Dad, it’s--”

“Fine, I know. It’s fine, because he never wants to see you again.”

To guarantee Billy never forgets, his father reenacts the beating he wasn’t present for last night.

Chapter Text

Steve doesn’t want to admit that a middle schooler knows more about relationships than him, and he doesn’t want to admit their conversation brought up doubt. Why is he with someone possessive and controlling?

No. He turns negatives into positives in his mind, willing himself to believe like he did at the start. Billy is mean, but he’s trying to change. He isn’t controlling, he’s insecure. He’s not possessive, he’s protective. It’s endearing, and it’s nice to know he’s needed. That’s what he holds onto.

When he gets home the answering machine is blinking. Billy called. Who else would it be? The message contains no words. Only a few beats of erratic breathing, and a man’s muffled voice coming from another room.

Suddenly he feels bad. He left Billy with no support, alone with his father on the other side of the country. This long weekend has been hard for him. All he wanted was to hear his boyfriend on the line. To feel secure, strong enough to survive until he gets home. And Steve couldn’t even give him that. He ran off to play with the kids Billy asked him not to see again.

What kind of boyfriend is he?

Inspired, he runs to the den for stationary, then back up to his room to draft a letter. A love letter. Not the first he’s ever written, but maybe the most important. Billy has such trouble believing anyone could love him. Steve has been trying to make him believe his worth, much like Dustin tried earlier. It doesn’t matter if he knows his worth, though. Not unless Billy knows his.

Billy,

I would have called, but you’re probably on a flight with your father, and when you come home you’ll be exhausted. Maybe finding this will cheer you up. I hope it does, because the thought of you reading this makes me happy.

These past few months haven’t been easy for us. After what happened with me and you, and you and my kids, I thought we could never be friends. The night you gave me your number I was shocked. I had no idea you felt that way. It woke up feelings in me, too. They were there, but I never did anything about them. Then you came along, living this totally different life than me. You looked like you were having so much fun, and I decided to take a chance. I’m glad I did, because you’ve let me be myself, and shown me who you are. I love who you are, mistakes and everything. I know you’re growing and changing and I’m proud of you every time you do good. Keep it up, babe.

I know people don’t think we should be together, but who cares? So what if it’s hard for us to get by? We have each other. We are growing together. I’m doing everything I can to help you get better, like you asked. I hope you feel that. Please know that no matter what, if we fight or break up or scream or throw things, I will always love you.

When you get this letter, just come over. I need you against me.

Forever yours,

Steve


Max answers the door with eyebrows raised. “Well, if it isn’t my brother’s plaything!”

“Plaything? Never. I’m just Steve.”

This makes her smile. “I know who you are, I’m just not a fan of what’s going on. He’s not good for you, but you should know that by now.” She waves him inside.

He steps into the living room he’s only been in a few times before, holding the envelope to his chest. The house is minimally decorated for the holidays. Nothing like his own home.

“Why should I know that? And why am I only hearing this from my kids?”

“Probably because you’re hiding this from everybody else? Which I can’t blame you for. I wouldn’t want to be caught dead dating that monster. And because, if you’re capable of keeping four shitheads safe after getting knocked unconscious, you’re capable of keeping yourself safe, too.”

“I am capable of keeping myself safe.”

“You sure about that?” She raises her eyebrows.

“I want to believe I am.” Unsolicited honesty with eighth graders, these little gods and goddesses that deserve the world and easily extract details from any situation.

Max deserves more than she’s been given. He gets why she doesn’t approve of the relationship. That’s her abuser. Some babysitter he is, getting with the source of his kid’s pain. Shame fills him for a moment, more self-doubt about being with Billy. It is inherently backwards. It doesn’t make sense.

But isn’t that part of the thrill?

Dustin hates the relationship because he sees Billy as not only Max’s but also Steve’s abuser. It’s not like that anymore, Steve tried to assure him. Billy’s changing. Before he left for the long weekend they made a breakthrough. Didn’t they? If he could talk about his past and show emotion, he can  can do it again. Things will keep getting better until they’re both healthy, and their love is too.

“What’d you come here for, anyway?” Max asks. “I know you’re not stupid enough to think you’re going to see Billy while Neil is around.”

“No, no, no, I’m not an idiot. That’s why I wrote this. I was hoping you could give it to him.” He hands her the envelope. “Less of a risk this way, right?”

She accepts the letter with dismay. “I guess. I’ll leave it on his bed so he’ll see it when he gets home.”

“Thanks, Max. Really. I’ll see you around some time, okay? Tell everyone I said hey.”

“Tell them yourself.”

“I would, but he--”

“Doesn’t want you hanging out with us, right?” Man, this girl takes no shit. “Can’t you see that’s not okay? I mean, Billy’s toxic to anyone who breathes the same air as him, so why you think he’d be any less toxic as a boyfriend is beyond me. And we miss you, all of us. Including Will and El. Dustin thinks of you like a brother and, since you’re a way better one than Billy, I do, too. You deserve more than he will ever give you. Seriously.”

Steve opens his mouth to rebut her many points and is surprised by a big hug. He doubts she ever hugs Billy, and is honored by this rare and special show of sibling-like affection.

With her head on his chest she says, “He doesn’t control you, Steve. Nobody does.”

In awe, he wraps his arms around her, like she’s an apparition that will disappear if he moves too soon. Max is strong. She would never let anyone make decisions for her. She owns herself, speaks for herself. And she’s barely thirteen.

Steve’s a different story. He can’t tell the difference between guidance and control. It was decided for him that he was going to join his father's business. It's comforting knowing his future is secure and, if it's comforting, it can't be control. Right?

He wants to believe that Billy isn’t controlling or toxic. Desperately he lies to himself and looks for other signs. Signs to prove that everyone is wrong about Billy, so their relationship isn’t a waste. It’s purposeful-- Steve is purposeful, and tolerating Billy’s erratic behavior makes him a stronger person.

If Billy shows up tonight to see him, it’s a sign that their love is real.


The doorbell rings while he’s watching TV with his parents. He warned them he was expecting company, so when the bell rings and he jumps up, they’re not surprised. He tells them it won’t be long as he rushes out and accidentally slams the door behind him.

“You saw my letter!” He falls against Billy’s chest in an eager hug. Unexpectedly, Billy staggers backward, causing Steve to let go. “Babe, plant your feet! Is everything okay?”

“It’s wonderful.” He sways to the right and almost falls over.

Steve pulls him close and holds him still. Now he sees it, and smells it, too. Bleary blue eyes, their insatiable sadness fed by alcohol. “How much have you had to drink?”

“Not enough.”

“Tell me.”

“A bottle.”

“A bottle of what? Beer, wine?”

“Whiskey.”

“What?” Steve’s stomach twists. That’s not normal, and it’s definitely not safe. This boy he has been trying to love back to sanity keeps destroying himself, and subsequently everything around him. Why? Is the anger so numbing he can’t feel the love?

Against his better judgment he reaches out. “Hey, I’m worried about you.”

Billy takes a few wobbly steps backwards. “Oh, boo hoo. Hargrove’s drunk again! Not a surprise, is it? Besides, you of all people should know that a bottle’s nothing to me. I’m just getting started!” He howls into the night air.

Steve is breathless. It’s clear Billy is deteriorating. Somehow his behavior now is worse than before they started dating. Back when Steve was a punching bag instead of a lover. Shouldn’t love quell emotions better than violence? Or is violence the only way Billy can express love?

Maybe love is something so foreign to him that it cannot be produced. Instead of accepting love he twists it into something evil, something he can’t touch or give. He takes, though. Billy’s great at taking, and Steve’s great at giving. What kind of couple does that make? One where nothing is accomplished. Unless heightened levels of hurt, fear, and deprivation count as gains.

The kids would say they don’t.

At first it was simple. With Billy, what you see is what you get. A guy with a tough life that’s made him rough around the edges. Ever-trusting Steve believed him when he claimed he wanted to change. He appealed to Steve’s need for purpose, his need to feel like he could redeem himself as a boyfriend. It was a sure thing then: he’ll turn around with my help, and return the love I give . But he hasn’t turned around, he’s dug deeper.

Steve could go in circles for hours with this, and still not come up with an answer. One question burns brighter than the rest. “Why are you doing this to yourself?”

“Last time I checked, I don’t need a reason to get wasted.” He shakes a cigarette out of the pack and lights it. With it dangling between his teeth he yanks a crumpled envelope out of his jacket. “But here it is! Your precious letter.” He flings it at the ground.

Steve picks it up like a baby bird. On that paper is his honest heart, and Billy doesn’t want it. Why doesn’t anyone ever want him? Saddened, he tucks it into his back pocket. “Is that what you drank over? Did you even read it?”

Billy laughs smoke and weaves closer, leaning forward a little, about to share some secret thought. “No.”

That’s a punch to the gut.

“Why would I read it when I could come over and give you the chance to tell me in person? So go ahead. What’s so important that you couldn’t call? What’s so important that you couldn’t pick up the phone yesterday, when I needed you?” Then he screams. “You knew how hard that trip was for me!”

This isn’t a dream, it’s a nightmare.

The fabric of his delusion falls apart.

Whatever end Steve desired isn’t written in the script. Whatever his efforts, they always amount to nothing. And he feels it now, the pressure he’s put himself under by taking Billy on. The leash he’s chained to is getting shorter, collar quickly closing around his throat.

Entertaining Billy in this state won’t do either of them any good, and Steve is tired of placating Billy by constantly folding.

“Look, I’m not doing this. We’re not talking about this when you’re wasted.” He holds out his palm. “Give me your keys.”

“What?” Billy’s face scrunches in confusion. He takes a pull.

“I said, give me your keys.”

On a slow exhale, “No.”

They lock eyes. Then Steve springs forward and digs both hands into the pockets of Billy’s leather jacket. He gets hit, but fishes out the keys and holds them tight. “Come on.”

“I can drive myself!”

“Oh, no, no, no. You’re not going anywhere. You’re gonna stay right here while I tell my parents I’m bringing you home because you’re sick, and when I come back out we’re leaving.”

He lets himself into the house.


The car is silent, both of them engulfed in emotion and thought. Steve’s running laps in his head, trying to pin down the moment he went wrong. Billy’s mind is somewhere else. Drowning. He’s slumped over, mumbling to himself. There’s no certainty, but Steve hears sounds like “succubus”, “virus”, and “kill us”. Curiosity gets the best of him again. He reaches over and shakes Billy upright.

“Hey, what’s going on in there? What did you just say?”

He laughs long and cruel. “You’re a goddamn dog.”

“I’m… what? Why are you laughing?”

“I said you’re a dog ! A sniveling, pathetic dog with no backbone. You do whatever anyone tells you to do, no questions asked. Even the kids. Hell, you even listen to the nigger! You lay over puddles to let people walk on you! And you just keep coming back.” He drags the last words out with a sneer.

Steve concentrates on the road. “That’s not true.”

“But it is. I could slit your throat, Harrington, and in your one last gasping breath you’d apologize for bleeding on my shirt.”

Each line of the conversation is worse than a physical blow. Terrified, he turns to see who’s in the passenger seat. It cannot possibly be the boy he loves, who he protects and treats so gently. This is a disgusting replacement, a prop from a hellish play. “Jesus, you’re sick.”

Billy punches the dash and bellows, “I’m not sick!”

Sudden screaming sets Steve off, and he joins in, knuckles white against the wheel. “You have a hard life, I get it! But you don’t even try to change! People try to help you and it’s like you don’t even care, like you want to get worse! And that letter you ignored? It said how much I missed you, and couldn’t wait to see you, and how I would have called but since you were with your father, I figured it was best not to. I’m accommodating you! I think about you! I love you! The least you could do is--” He falters, remembering. “The least you could do is love me, too.”

Maybe he is a dog. Pathetic, obedient scum. Why should anyone without a backbone be given love in return? Isn’t that a part of how this started? Nancy was with Jonathan the day after their breakup. The kids dismissed him after the Snow Ball, leaving Steve so low that Billy’s invitation became an option. He thought he had nothing to lose.

Liar. Nothing to lose? Where is he now? In a car being yelled at and put down, and knowing damn well it’s too late to properly stand up for himself. At the start he had everything to lose, and he did. In trying to fix Billy, who is incapable of intimacy, he lost himself.

“What happened to us? I’ve done everything I can, and you… I miss you. Remember when you said I’m saving your life, and you’d come over after school to snuggle on the couch and watch TV? Remember how you took me on dates and bought me flowers? That’s the real Billy. Where is he now?”

“Sorry to disappoint you, princess.” He spits sarcastically. “This is the real me. That other Billy doesn’t exist.”

“Then neither do I.”


This necessary betrayal is painful.

In the moment he needed Billy gone, somewhere safe where he wouldn’t cause more damage to their relationship or himself. Now he stands at the Hargroves’ door with Billy moaning into his ear, “How could you do this to me? I trusted you.”

And he knows bringing him home was a mistake.

“I’m sorry,” he mumbles sincerely. He is sorry, for ever having agreed to this, and for being stupid enough to fall in love. While he doesn’t want the relationship to be over, he accepts that it’s inherently wrong. This scene-- Billy hanging onto him, too drunk to stand-- is not part of a healthy relationship. The kids are right.

Before he rings the bell he whispers, “You left me no choice.”

A minute later Mr. Hargrove appears. Rage flashes across his face and is carefully controlled. Anxious, Steve spills carelessly honest words.

“You must be Mr. Hargrove! I’m one of Billy’s friends and I am terribly sorry to disturb you this late, but he-- he came over to my house a little while ago like this and I thought, well, he probably shouldn’t drink and drive, so his car’s parked outside my house, you know, cause we took my car, and he said he drank a full bottle of whiskey, and I don’t know how normal that is for him, but I’m pretty worried, and I just want him to be safe.”

Beside him Billy groans, “You’re an idiot, Harrington.”

He’s heard that before and it burns. He steps clear of Billy as if his touch alone is fire, detriment. This causes him to lose balance. Neil lunges for him, and in a swift motion catches and throws him inside the house. He lands on the floor and starts cackling. A door opens within the house. Please don’t let Max see him like this.

Mr. Hargrove slams the front door, shutting Billy in. To Steve he says, “Pardon me, but who are you?”

“Steve Harrington, sir.” He rocks on his heels, mortified.

“You’re Harrington’s boy?”

He nods. “Again, I’m really sorry.”

“What are you sorry for?”

Taken aback, he stutters. “I don’t know, for interrupting your night? For bringing him home like this, and leaving his car at my house.”

“Don’t be sorry. You did the right thing. If you wouldn’t mind me riding back home with you, I can pick up his car now. It’ll give us some time to talk.”

What does he want to talk about? How is he going to deal with Billy later? This man is calm and friendly, as if he didn’t just send his son across the room. It’s unnerving.

Nervous to make a mistake, he says, “Of course, Mr. Hargrove.”

“Please, call me Neil.”

He chuckles. “Sure thing. I’ll go start the car.”

Neil steps into the house, to tell his wife or grab his coat or preliminarily beat his child. It’s an imminent reality Steve cannot get out of his head. He delivered his boyfriend to the enemy. But he deserved it! Didn’t he? Called Steve a dog, an idiot, and there was that hypothetical comment about slitting his throat. Who says that, even drunk? He’s reminded of what Tommy and Carol used to say at parties: a drunk man’s words are a sober man’s thoughts.

Necessary betrayal. The right thing.

He holds onto that until he watches Neil drive off in his boyfriend’s car and realizes the letter that was in his back pocket is nowhere to be found at all.

Chapter Text

Saturday night Max is woken from sleep by a roar. As if the prelude to punishment is a fire alarm, she’s out of bed in a flash, heart pounding. In California she used to slip out of her window and sit on the roof, where she couldn’t hear it anymore. She had hoped it wouldn’t happen in Hawkins because they all had a fresh start. That was wishful thinking.

Knowing she won’t sleep until it’s over, she wraps a blanket around her lanky form and pads cautiously to the door. It’s winter, the first cold one she’s ever had. She needs the warmth and comfort. She’s a kid and shouldn’t be waking up to this.

“I didn’t raise a faggot!” Neil bellows. A hard crack sounds and Billy’s laughter erupts like a canon. It’s the laughter Max elicited from him the night she plunged a needle into his neck. Hysterical, maniacal, partial.

It occurs to her that he likes the pain. Why hadn’t she noticed? Feeling sick, she sinks to the floor and leans her head against the bedroom door. Down the hall her mother is undoubtedly doing the same thing. They thought this would stop on the west coast. They hoped the first few spats were just that, nothing more, and that the scrap over Billy being late would be the last of it.

Now she’s wondering how bad it can get before it stops. Does someone have to die? Do the police need to be called? Should she call the police now?

She opens the door a crack and leans her head out. She has a view of the living room and front door from here. Billy’s on the ground now, and Neils knuckles are slick red. “I didn’t raise a faggot!” He screams it over and over, willing it to be true.

The laughter concedes to screaming through split lips and a bloody smile. “Apparently you did, Dad! Apparently you fucking did!”

He doesn’t shut up until Neil’s hand closes around his throat.


Monday evening there’s a knock on her bedroom door. She’s kneeling by her dresser, packing a bag for the Wheeler’s new year’s bash. The whole party, even El, is having a sleepover followed by a new year’s day campaign. Billy is driving her over.

She calls, “I’m almost ready!”

He opens the door a crack and peeks in. His right eye is still bruised and a bit swollen. The left is fine, but ugly bruises frame it around the temple and cheekbone. “Take your time. I want to know if you have something I could use.”

She scrunches her face. “What?”

He enters the room and quietly shuts the door. His voice is even quieter as he crosses the room. Intimidated, she rushes to a stand. “Do you have any makeup that could cover all of this?” He motions to the bruises, the scabs on his lips, the marks around his throat.

“You know I don’t wear makeup,” she says.

“It’s worth a shot.” He looks genuinely defeated. “I don’t think I can do this.”

“What, bring me to Mike’s?”

“Oh, no, no. Dad will make sure I give you a ride anywhere you damn well please, Maxine. You’re a lucky girl. Me, on the other hand,” his eyes dart around her room as if it will suddenly produce concealer. “I don’t want to go to a party looking like this.”

“There’s a party tonight?”

“There better be, otherwise I put this on for nothing.” He’s wearing his nice black boots, acid wash jeans, and a dark button up shirt. It’s buttoned all the way up tonight, and as much as Max appreciates not having to see his chest, it’s strange. Even his gold chain is covered. What is he hiding, or trying to prove?

“Well,” she starts awkwardly, “just say you got in a fight or something. No one will question you.”

“It’s not them I care about. It’s Harrington.”

She wonders why he doesn’t ever call his boyfriend Steve. Would that make it too real? Are they even still boyfriends, after what happened this weekend? She wants to ask, but doesn’t want to be yelled at. Billy’s fuse is understandably short.

“Have you guys talked since Saturday?”

He shakes his head. “No, but I imagine the opportunity will present itself tonight, and I’m not looking forward to it.”

“Why? Don’t you want to make sure he’s okay?”

“More than you’ll ever know, but I don’t want him seeing me like this. Not to mention I have no idea what I did to him that night.”

“What do you mean?”

“Sometimes when you drink too much, you don’t remember the next day.”

She thinks hard on that. “Maybe… Maybe you just shouldn’t drink.”

“If only it worked that way.”

“It could. If you tried, you know? Maybe you can try it tonight, and when you see Steve you’ll be sober enough to talk to him, and you’ll work it out and realize it’s fine.”

“But it’s not fine , Max. Nothing about our relationship is fine. He’s too good for me and I know it. He should know it by now, too, but for some reason he doesn’t. Unless he figured it out Saturday night and that’s why he brought me back here. I don’t know what I did, but I’m sure I deserved it. I deserved all of it.” He’s talking about being pummeled by Neil. “And now that Dad knows, it’s worse. He said Steve doesn’t want to see me again. What if that’s true?”

“I’m sure it’s not,” she says quickly.

“You don’t know that.”

She doesn’t. This is beyond the realm of what’s fathomable. Boyfriends and parties, arguments that end things. Fathers who can’t accept the people their kids choose to love. He wouldn’t like Lucas, either. Her mother would, though, and that’s a definite step up from Billy’s situation.

“So what are you going to do?”

After a few beats of silence he says, “I’m going to the party, and when I see him I’m going to apologize.”

“But you don’t know what you did.”

“Exactly. I’m sick of myself, and I won’t blame him if he is, too. He deserves an apology, whether he wants to see me again or not.”

“What if he doesn’t? What if it’s over?”

Billy walks to the door, and for a second she thinks the question will go ignored. Then he looks over his shoulder. “It’s never going to be over.”


The Wheeler’s spacious home is a reprieve from Billy’s loud music and cigarette smoke. She takes her sneakers off in the foyer, hangs her coat on a hook. Christmas decorations are still up. At her house she would call it tacky, but here it gives such a cozy feel.

Mrs. Wheeler steps out of the kitchen with a glass of wine and a gracious smile on her rosy face. “Maxine, come on in! How are you?”

“I’m great,” she grins, walking through the living room into the bright kitchen. There’s packages of flour and sugar out, and what looks like homemade icing in a bowl on the counter. Another thing she wouldn’t find at home. “Thanks for letting us stay over.”

“Oh, it’s nothing. Any friend of Mike’s is welcome here. Chief Hopper’s daughter is here! Can you imagine, he just earned custody? Poor girl, I’ve heard she’s had it rough.” Mrs. Wheeler brings the wine glass to her lips.

The gossip makes Max uncomfortable because she’s experienced the truth. This new perspective has given her incredible respect for Lucas and the others. She’s only been keeping secrets for a few months-- they’ve been keeping secrets for over a year.

There’s an eruption of shouts from the basement. Mrs. Wheeler swallows her wine and nods towards the half-open door. “Why don’t you go on down? I’m sure El’s been dying for another girl to arrive.”

She chuckles and lets herself through the door. The mage is already on her feet at the bottom of the steps, as if she sensed this impending moment before she even heard Max’s voice. She probably did, Max thinks as El pulls her into a fierce hug.

“Finally, you’re here. I missed you.”

“I missed you, too.” She blushes. Ever since Mike taught her that phrase, she says it all the time. And how could you not miss her back?

El pulls away. “Good. Now you can explain.”

“Explain what?”

“Co-kane,” She says worriedly, like lives depend on both the pronunciation and meaning.

“Oh!” Max laughs. “Man, if only we hadn’t been interrupted by the holidays, I would have explained it way sooner.”

El smiles and holds out her hand. Max takes it. Together they walk to the blanket fort and climb in. The boys seem not to notice.

Once they’re settled with their backs against the wall, night light between them, Max asks, “Have you ever heard of drugs?”

“Yes. On TV.”

“Okay, so cocaine is a drug that makes you feel happy and energized, but instead of drinking it, like alcohol, you snort it up your nose.” She mimics what it would look like, but doesn’t mention that she’s seen Billy do it before.

El stares, wide eyed. “But drugs are bad.”

“Yeah, they are. Teenagers do stupid stuff, though. I’m sure we will one day, too.”

“No, never. We’re not stupid.”

Max lays a hand on El’s, who holds it in response. “ We aren’t stupid. That doesn’t mean we’re immune from mistakes. We’ll definitely make mistakes. How’s that?”

“Better. Mistakes are okay.” She nods. “What about the other word?”

“Gay. That’s when two guys love each other.”

Her eyes sweep to the boys, who are setting up a new puzzle. “All gay.”

Max laughs so loud everyone looks at her. Lucas asks if she’s alright. “Yeah, I’m great!” She hasn’t laughed this hard in a while. When she gathers herself she tells her friend, “Not that kind of love. Like, the way you love Mike, but with two guys.”

“Mike and Will,” she whispers, absently squeezing Max’s hand.

She laughs again. “Yeah, perfect example.”

“So, they’re in love? Your stepbrother and the one with the big hair?”

“I guess.” Max shrugs. “Tonight I don’t want to think about it. Why don’t you tell me what your dad got you for Christmas?”

That brings the smile right back to El’s face. “Crayons and paper, like Will’s. We went shopping, too, with Mrs. Byers.”

“You got new clothes?” She surveys El’s outfit. Jeans and a sweater she’s seen before. Pointing to it, Max asks, “Isn’t that Mike’s?”

El nods. “My new clothes are at home.”

“Why? The whole point of clothes is to wear them.”

“I like this better.” She lets go of Max’s hand to hug herself.

“Makes sense.”

“What did you get?”

It takes a minute for her to remember, because the first image that comes to mind is Billy on the floor, bleeding. Why does Neil have to be this way? Why did he make Billy the way he is, and why can’t both of them just stop ?

“A skateboard. Billy broke my last one.”

“Oh.” They sit silently. The boys are standing over the table, concentrating and talking in hushed tones. El adds, “Did he get it for you?”

“No, I think it was my mom. Billy’s not exactly proficient at apologies.”

“Proficient?”

“Good at. He’s not good at apologies. Or being nice.”

“I’m sorry. I wish he didn’t have to be your brother.” El frowns, playing with the sleeves of Mike’s knit sweater.

“It’s cool. Soon he’ll be eighteen, and I know his dad wants him out.”

“Out? Where will he go? Back to Cal… Cali…” Her face pinches in effort.

“California,” she finishes easily. “Maybe.”

“Tell me about it again?”

“What, California?”

“Yes, and the ocean.” There’s a twinkle in her eyes. As powerful as El is, she can marvel over the simplest things.

“Are you don’t want to help them with the puzzle?”

“No.” She scoots closer and leans against Max.  “I want to talk with you.”

Chapter Text

Tommy’s face is a freckled egg cracked by a smile. He hops into the car like a puppy about to piss himself. For that reason and many more, Billy resents him. There’s only one reason he offered his classmate a ride. Tommy takes a big bag of pure white powder from his blazer and waves it around.

“I got it, man! Just for you, king of the keg!” His grin vanishes when he sees Billy’s dismantled face. “Shit, who the hell do you keep getting into it with?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know.” Billy snatches the bag and tucks it into his jeans. Then he pulls out the money he owes Tommy for being the middleman. It was easier than doing it himself. Safer, too. Billy isn’t dumb enough to be seen in sketchy places while his father is on high alert. He was only allowed to stay out for the night because he and Susan wanted New Year’s Eve to themselves. Otherwise he’d be on house arrest, like the criminal he is.

“Well, are you ready to get blasted or what!?” Tommy hollers as Billy pulls away from the curb. He shuts up long enough to hear the song that’s playing. “Ugh, Corey Hart? Didn’t peg you as the type.”

“I don’t.” At a red light he shakes out a cigarette and lights it. “A girl made it for me.”

“Another one? Shit, Hargrove, be honest. How high’s your score?”

“Too high to count.”

Anything above one counts as too many. This tape wasn’t made by a girl, though. It was made by a princess. His princess, his baby. They had exchanged mixtapes not long into their relationship. He hadn’t listened to it until now, an unspoken apology for never reading the letter.

Why can’t Billy love like a normal person and listen to a mixtape when it’s presented to him? Why can’t he read a letter before shooting off like a rocket into a dimension from which he can’t return? It isn’t that Billy doesn’t want to appreciate Steve’s music and thoughts. The problem is that he can’t. The romantic desire inside him isn’t a glow that swells in his chest, allowing him to receive and give. It’s an animal throwing itself against his ribs, disabling him from loving properly.

Tonight his plan is to apologize. He ate a full dinner purposefully, so the alcohol doesn’t whisk him away. He bought the coke so he can stay up, maybe through the night, and be present for all of it.

Some plan. He’s cursing himself for daring to believe he’s capable of keeping it together. The thought of seeing Steve makes him queasy. What’s he going to say? Hey, princess, how’d I do this weekend? How badly did I hurt you, and did my father hurt you, too? Is it over?

If it’s over, so is he. Attending this party is a suicide mission. To see Steve is ruination.

Good thing Billy’s already ruined.


The keg stands take place in the backyard, even on a night as cold as this. Billy wins hands down, guzzling for over a minute before he swings his legs down. Blowing lines before a party is definitely the trick.

He lights a cigarette and walks in through the back door. Tina’s living room is a dance floor again. Tonight it’s dark, lit by twinkling white and colored Christmas lights. It’s almost like they’re in a real club. Billy tries to ignore the grating music as he sucks away his cigarette. It’s hot, and there’s beer on his shirt, so he unbuttons it all the way. As soon as Steve shows up, he’ll rebutton it. No way he wants to flaunt how bad the beating is.

When he makes it to the raised kitchen he throws his cigarette butt in the sink. There’s a bowl of punch on the island. Punch isn’t beer, but it’s not as bad as whiskey or shots. He scoops himself a hearty cup and looks out at the dance floor, a king surveying his subjects. A predator hunting prey.

No sign of his boyfriend. Nancy’s here with the freak, though. He’s taking pictures for kids on a new Polaroid camera while stringy bangs hang in his eyes. How could she be drawn to a creep like that, when her other option was Steve? Jonathan is a walking ghoul, and rumor has it his zombie boy brother is queer. Steve is an angel, suffocatingly whole.

As if called by signal, Nancy comes into the kitchen with an empty cup.

Before she can reach for the punch ladle, Billy straightens up and grabs it. “Allow me.”

“What’s wrong with your face?” She narrows her heavily mascaraed eyes at him and holds out her cup.

“I’ll tell you if you promise not to break down any bathroom doors tonight.” He smirks and doles out two full scoops of fuel.

“Why, are you planning to do more cocaine with my friend?”

“Oh, honey.” He sucks his teeth, leaning with one elbow on the island countertop. His half full cup sits by his hand. “You can’t break his heart and still call him a friend.”

She sips from her cup and delicately brushes punch off her thin lips. “I know him, and he would never do something like that unless he was pressured.”

“That’s where you’re wrong.” Billy snaps for emphasis.

“I’m not wrong.” She cocks her head back. “You’ve been here for a few months, I’ve known Steve since middle school. If you really want to be his friend, support him in being a better person.”

“Funny, that’s what he’s doing for me.”

Disgusted, she scoffs. “You will never be a better person.”

“Tell me something I don’t know.” He straightens up and tilts his head back to drain the contents of his cup. When he goes to refill, she’s already gone.


After snorting a few more lines in the bathroom, he reclaims his kitchen throne. He refills his cup and lights another cigarette. The bass thumps. Tommy is grinding on a cowish underclassman. Billy moos loudly across the room at them, but Tommy doesn’t hear. Nearby, Nancy is bopping with Jonathan. How did she get the anxious vampire onto the dance floor? His eyes are trained to her, too afraid to look anywhere else.

Billy works on his drink. Third or fourth cup, he doesn’t know. He can’t feel it. The coke has him amped enough to stay present, which is the plan. Stay present and atone for the sins he’s committed, proof of which is painted on his body. These same sins taunt him with the threat of losing Steve.

A sudden burst of cold means the back door’s been opened. Someone out of view shouts, “Look who’s reclaimed his title! A minute and a half on the clock, king Steve!”

Applause from random kids precedes the pair. As they come into view, Steve wipes beer foam from his mouth with the sleeve of his scarlet sweater and smiles numbly. There’s a cigarette between his fingers, and that fat tub of lard who dressed Greek for Halloween is patting his back. Billy wants to snap his neck for daring to lay hand on an angel.

A fallen angel. How long has he been here, and when did he become such a tragedy? Dark circles under his eyes suggest sleepless nights, and despite having just been upside down, the mess of his hair shouts days without a shower. In all the time Billy has known him, Steve has never been unclean.

The damage is Billy’s fault. It has to be, but he doesn’t know how. Recklessly he drains his cup and lets it fall to the counter. Lard boy leads Steve into the kitchen. “Guess what, Hargrove? You’re done! The real king’s back now!”

At the mention of Hargrove, Steve looks up, attention caught by Billy’s open shirt. His eyes widen as they travel to the marks around Billy’s throat, and the desecration that is his battered face. They lock eyes. All his color drains. The light within him is dim, wavering.

Billy remembers how it was at the beginning. The brightness about him was magnetic. In an effort to save him, Steve has allowed Billy to suck that light away, absorb it into the dark black hole his existence creates. Every attempt to restore the glow is foiled by his inability to control himself, to love like a normal person.

It’s his fault Steve is broken tonight, getting obliterated to avoid whatever mess he made of Saturday night. He has to pick up the pieces, put this boy back together. Otherwise he will slip through Billy’s hands like sand and completely disappear.

He cannot disappear.

Lard boy hoots. “How do you feel now, Hargrove!?”

How does he feel? Like he’s about to be sick. Like he would eviscerate himself with a butterknife to turn back time, to take back what he did, and the drink that made him do it.

It wasn’t the drink that made him do it, though. In the guts he wishes to spill he knows that alcohol is but a symptom. The real problem is him. To accept this truth would shred him alive. He can’t look too closely at himself, which is exactly why the drink, drugs, and anger are so convenient. It’s easier to lose his mind with substances than to lose it over what’s inside his skull.

“That’s it,” lard boy laughs. “Defer to the king! All hail king Steve!”

Unexpected tears are announced by a sting in the jaw. Billy came to apologize. How can he do that when he knows it won’t matter? Steve is above, he is below. Every move Billy makes subsequently drags him under, chains him to a brick and drops him straight to the bottom.

Their love is an ocean, and they are choking on water.

The numb aura that hangs around Steve, the hurt in his eyes. Billy put it there. His blue eyes dart to every possible escape route. How can he avoid the impending pain, the impending breakup, the impending self-destruction that will follow? How can he escape the angel he so thoughtlessly fell?

And how, exactly, did he accomplish such a dirty feat?

“Hello?” Steve says loudly. He takes a pull off the cigarette. It’s such a foreign gesture, he’s hardly recognizable. “I’m talking to you.”

“What do you want?” Billy says tersely.

Steve exhales into his face. The tables have turned. “I call a challenge. You against me.” With an unaffected drag off the cigarette he turns back the way he came.

Trying to maintain a cool air, Billy follows. This is it. The opportunity to prove he is willing to do anything to atone for his sins. And he is, but a drinking game is unlike Steve. Back to back keg stands are nothing for Billy, who is the predestined winner. Knowing this, why would Steve call the challenge? It’s a shortcut to oblivion.

Is he seeking oblivion?

Several kids spill into the yard behind them, eager to see who wins in a head to head battle between this strange pair. Billy is made to go first. A boy from the baseball team holds his legs as he goes up. His stomach sloshes, already full of punch, but if he beats Steve’s time this can be over quickly. They can stop drinking and find somewhere to talk. Without much struggle, he sucks up piss water for a minute and thirty-five seconds.

He swings down, breathless, and smiles with relief. “There’s no way you’ll beat that, Harrington. Might as well give it up now!”

“We’ll see about that.” Steve throws the cigarette on the hard ground and stamps it with the heel of his sneaker. He nods to the baseball player, who helps him up.

Thirty seconds. Billy has never watched a lover do a kegstand. It’s disgusting, beer running past Steve’s nose and eyes, sticking to his hair. Is this what he looks like, too?

One minute.

Kids are cheering. Why are they cheering? There’s nothing fun about this. He’s nauseous, thinking about his own full stomach, how full Steve’s must be.

One minute, twenty seconds. Fear plucks his ribs like strings. Back to back keg stands are dangerous. Steve knows this, and there’s no way he’ll beat Billy’s time. Why is he forcing it?

One minute, thirty six seconds.

He’s making himself sick, it’s not safe. Billy shouts, “Come on, Harrington! You beat me, okay? Now give it up!”

One minute, forty seconds.

His heart knocks against his chest. Steve can’t do this. Why is he doing this? It’s disturbing to watch him hurt himself, why is he hurting himself?

Billy advances on the kid holding his boyfriend’s legs. “Hey shitbrain, let him down. I said let him down!”

The boy laughs. “You just can’t stand to see him win.”

“This isn’t winning, it’s a deathwish. Let him down!”

One minute, forty seconds.

Steve swings down and wipes his mouth on his sleeve. His eyes are unfocused. “That’s how it’s done.”

His buddies jump up and down, congratulating him. A Hawkins record, they say. A high school legend! Steve shrugs them off and walks into the shadows at the right side of the house. He’s going to be sick. Billy stalks into the blackness after him.

Around the corner there is no puking Steve. Instead, there’s a driveway full of cars, the drivers of which are all inside, safe from the cold and having a grand ol’ time waiting for midnight. The last time he saw was a quarter after eleven. The new year is approaching.

The sound of jangling keys quickens his step. Steve’s going for his car, that’s how bad he wants to get away from Billy. No. He’s not doing this. He can’t. If he drives like this, he’ll kill himself. There will be no atonement, just a beautiful boy in a box. A box fit to be buried underground.

“Harrington!” Billy rushes to the end of the driveway, where he sees the polished BMW.

Steve is leaning against the car, shoulders hunched. He’s flipping the keyring around, trying to find the right one. His breath fogs in the cold air. Proof that he is alive. For how long? With each passing minute he looks sicker.

Panic moves to the forefront, making it hard to keep his voice calm. “Give me the keys.”

“No.” Steve turns his back toward Billy and tries to shove a key into the lock. It misses and scratches the paint. Slurred curses follow.

“Cut the shit, Harrington.” Billy moves around him and reaches for the keys. “You’re not driving like this.”

“You’re not driving like this,” he mutters. “Funny, cause a few nights ago I was saying the same thing to you. 'Give me the keys.'”

Billy echoes forcefully, “Give me the keys!”

“Don’t tell me what to do!” Steve stumbles backwards and spins around, bounces off a car and breaks into a sprint. “Isn’t that your motto? Don’t tell Billy what to do, or he might just tell you how he really feels about you!”

Their chase is backed by the din of the party behind them. Billy calls, “Stop! You’re going to hurt yourself!”

“I hope I do! Maybe it’ll--”

The sentence goes unfinished. Steve trips and sprawls across cold pavement. The keys jangle off somewhere as his palms break the fall. Billy is beside him in an instant, trying to help him up. Steve shoves him with bloody palms. “Get away from me!”

“I will once you’re out of the road.”

“What if I want to be here? What if I’m just, uh, begging to get hit by a car or something?” The streetlamps sap what pallor is left in his face. His hair is a wreck. Everything about him gives the impression of a wilting swan.

“And why would you want that?” It’s the only thing he can think to ask.

“So I lay down and die like the dog I am! Retribution!” He slurs the last word. Billy doesn’t hear it. He’s watching blood drip along Steve’s fingers.

“Look, we can talk later. Right now we need your keys, we need to get you out of the road, and we need to take care of this.”

“We don’t need to take care of anything.”

He points out, “You’re bleeding.”

“I don’t care.”

“You should.”

“I don’t. Watch.” Steve shifts so he’s kneeling and smashes his palms against the pavement. Then he drags them back towards himself, wincing from the pain. “I don’t care,” he says shakily. Billy calls his name, but he does it again, and again, a nightmare version of the boy he once was. “Don’t care, don’t care.”

Finally Billy grabs his thin wrists and forces them still. “Stop! Just stop!”

“Why? Are you scared? Am I scaring you?”

“Yes, you are!”

“Good. You deserve it.”

Steve wriggles from his grip and stands up. Billy’s on his feet immediately, ready to catch him if he spills over. “Why?”

They walk along the side of the street, further from the sound of bass and singing. They come to a strip of trees between the houses. “Hey, why do I deserve it?” When Steve doesn’t reply he takes his bicep and pulls him to a stop. “Tell me.”

“No, you can’t handle it,” he slurs mockingly. “It’ll break you.”

He’s heard those lines before. He was the one that said them. This knocks the air out of him. “What are you talking about?”

“You don’t know? How could you not remember that you showed up at my house drunk Saturday night? You said you drank a whole bottle of whiskey, all by yourself. And, you know, it really scared me. Really. It hurt to imagine you being so angry, or upset, or whatever it is that makes you do this to yourself. You! This, this person I love.”

“It was nothing,” Billy lies. He doesn’t remember.

Steve barks with laughter. “Do you hear yourself? Honestly, do you hear yourself? I’m telling you I love you. I love you, and I missed you, and I wrote you a goddamn letter to prove it, and you didn’t even read it! No, you just showed up at my house wasted and yelled at me!”

Guilt knocks the air from him. The consequences of his actions are no longer confined to his very muscle and bone. What he does affects other people. Tonight Steve is giving him a taste of his own poison, injecting the undiluted truth into his veins.

“I’m sorry,” he says weakly.

“Sorry? You don’t give a shit! You threw my love letter on the ground right in front of me, like my love doesn’t matter! And why should it, you know? Because I’m a dog, and a doormat, and a fucking idiot!” Veins stick out in his neck with how hard he’s screaming in Billy’s face. “An idiot!”

“You are not an idiot.”

“Those were your words! Your words!” Angry tears roll down his cheeks and bead at his jawline. “I love you, and you hurt yourself. I love you, and you hurt me. You’re right, man. You are so right, I’m an idiot, and I’m never gonna learn.”

His eyes are glassy with shock and shame. “I’m sorry.”

“You’re not sorry! If you were sorry, you wouldn’t hurt me!” Steve shoves his chest, leaving prints of blood. This draws his eyes to the bruised stomach and ribs. "Do you know sick I’ve been worrying about you? Wondering if you were alive?”

“I’m fine, Harrington. I told you that.” He wants this to be over. The tension of the truth and their precarious relationship is unbearable. “You never have to worry. He knows my limits.”

“Your limits? Goddamnit Billy, you’re seventeen! He’s your father, and he’s going to kill you!”

“So?”

Stricken, Steve whispers, “So?” It isn’t a question; it’s a plea.

Something snaps inside him. As he collapses in tears Billy catches him. Sobs come in coughing gasps, making his bare chest hot and wet. He squeezes Steve tightly and kisses the crown of his head. There is sanctity in their love, no matter how damaged it is. No matter where it takes them. He is so grateful Steve isn’t leaving him tonight.

The sobs fade to hiccups, then sniffles. They sway together like that, a twisted slow dance of intoxication. Sadness, passion, fear. Their love is an ocean pulling them under. Their love is an earthquake, burying them alive. Billy can’t think of a better way to die.

When the crying fades to hiccups, Steve quietly says, “He told me that he’ll kill you if he finds out that we’re together again.”

“It’s alright, baby boy.” With his hand on the back of his head he kisses Steve’s hair. “You are worth the loss of my life.”


Billy drives the BMW, leaves his car at Tina’s. Claims his father knows he’s not coming home tonight. It takes five minutes to calm Steve down, he’s crying again, convinced that if Billy doesn’t go home right away it’ll be the end of him. I can’t lose you is repeated ad infinitum.

Still, Billy parks in the Harrington’s driveway and carries Steve quietly inside the house. Bathroom first, where Billy cleans his hands and bandages them up. The blood makes Steve aptly vomit into the porcelain god. It’s a miracle it didn’t come up sooner. They brush their teeth, and again, Billy helps him.

In the bedroom Steve drunkenly strips, unaware of an enamored Billy watching. How can someone this beautiful, this pure, belong to him? It’s the ultimate turn on, the intensity of Steve’s devotion, the way he has lost himself to save someone else. Billy needs to devour him. Now.

Skin on skin, under covers that trap body heat. The smell of sweat and cologne. Steve lays back against the pillows, eyes shut. Billy begins to touch him, a variety of kisses in different spots. The response excites him, encourages him to do more. He bites Steve’s hipbones and kisses his inner thighs, teasing. It’s not long before they are both hard.

Steve reaches down to touch himself while Billy plays. Moving from lips, ears, neck, to the shoulders and nipples, back to the thighs. Taking over for Steve and then letting go again, so the boy is moaning in complaint beneath him.

After they’re spent, Steve falls asleep in his arms. Billy stays awake until the coke lets him down. For hours he relishes in the feel of soft breath against his chest, slick skin melded together where their legs are entwined. At first his thoughts are pleasant. They didn’t break up. Steve was mad, but it’s okay now. This is how it always should be. Will always be. In a few months he’ll be eighteen and they can run away together, never look back.

These thoughts give way to fears. What if Steve doesn’t want that? What if he won’t leave, because of his father’s company, or those kids he calls his friends? What if tonight is a fluke, and when he wakes up in the morning Steve will kick him out?

He’s been abandoned plenty of times before, by people who couldn’t handle him. Steve is the first one who has ever loved him in spite of his faults. The only one who’s brave enough to save him. Billy wants more than anything to let him. He wishes he could love properly, like everyone else, or that their story could play out like the movies.

Why would he wish that, though? Movies and stories are fake. Their love might be chaotic and intense, but it’s real. Isn’t that how love should be? Yes, he thinks. That’s how love should be.

Delicately he kisses his Steve’s hair again, willing him sweet dreams. He silently vows to protect him forever, the valiant knight to his sensitive storm. He imagines proposing to Steve in a five-star restaurant near their city apartment, three or four years down the road. Who says young love can’t last? Who says it’s foolish, that people can’t be changed by love, and love alone?

Billy can.

He will allow himself to be saved.

He will not be abandoned, because he will never let Steve go.

Chapter Text

Upon waking he slips out of bed and closes the blinds. How could he forget to shut them the night before? It’s too early to be walking around, naked, in the light of the bright winter sun.

Once the room is dim he quietly slides open his dresser drawer and pulls on underwear, sweatpants and a tee shirt. With his parents gone to Chicago overnight, there was no one to man the thermostat. The house is chilly.

Billy is warm enough to stay sleeping, though. He’s on his stomach, face hidden by the covers. It is a miracle to see him so calm and still. No trouble in his voice, no pain in his eyes. Just sleep. Unadulterated sleep.

Carefully he steals out of the room to take a piss and get some water. Thirst overwhelms him, along with a grimy taste in his mouth. He was definitely smoking cigarettes last night, and puked a whole lot, too.

He remembers it like a dream. Hazy flashes link into a definite, if nonsensical, whole. As he pops Tylenol and fills and refills the cup by the bathroom sink he recalls getting to the party late, and immediately being swept into pounding beers in the frigid backyard. The shiver in his body last night felt good. It distracted him from the emotional pain. The keg stands did, too.

It wasn’t his intention to get wasted, but when he saw Billy he couldn’t cope. Two days he spent laid up in the house, unable to show even his mother the playful smile he’s known for. When asked what was wrong he blamed boredom. That wasn’t it, and they knew. They knew and didn’t bother him about it, because they never bothered him about anything. As long as he was passing, staying out of trouble, and talking to them at least twice a week, he was safe.

Unlike Billy, who is never safe. Brushing his teeth, Steve thinks about Neil’s threat. If I ever find out you’re with him again, I’ll kill him. Would a father ever keep such a threat? He prays not. Billy is a loose cannon, but he deserves to be loved. He deserves to be given a chance.

Steve has given him so many chances. Last night was yet another, freely thrown in Billy’s direction by a lush. The argument they had wasn’t much more than Steve crying and venting about the horrors of the weekend, and how seeing Billy like that made him feel. Was it selfish to say all of that? Would it be better if he had never mentioned what happened?

Evidently things worked out in their favor.

The bandages on his hands get dampened after brushing his teeth. He tears at the tape and gauze until it’s loose, and slides his hands free. What he sees shocks him. The skin of his palms is ripped to shreds, and huge open scrapes glisten with plasma and congealed blood. It disgusts him.

He wishes Billy would come in and pamper him like last night. Steve was silent on the edge of the tub with his hands upturned in his lap. He watched Billy work with patient dedication. The memory makes the word retribution surface in his head. Retribution? Seeing each other in their respective states over the past few days counts as punishment enough. They need healing, soft touches, warmth. A chance to grow from the seed they’ve patted snug into the earth.

After he cleans and bandages his palms he heads back to his room. The scent of stale alcohol and sweat is overwhelming. He cracks a window even though it’s winter and climbs under the covers. Propped on one elbow he squeezes Billy’s shoulder to wake him. A deep inhale speaks success, and Steve smiles. To watch Billy’s blue eyes open is to watch the sunrise over an ocean miles and miles away. Ethereal, light, unreal.

But it is real. He leans down to kiss his boyfriend’s lips softly. “Good morning, babe.”

A grunt of protest is Billy’s first response. He stretches and wraps his arms around Steve, pulling their bodies together. It makes him feel beautiful to be held tightly against hard muscle, breathed into like their love is life itself.

As he did last night, Billy kisses the crown of his head. His lips linger. He inhales Steve. Ethereal, light, unreal. But Steve is real, and he’s here, in brown dead Hawkins, Indiana.

“I love you,” Billy states. “You are mine.”

“I’m yours,” Steve affirms.

“And?”

“And I love you, too.”

“That’s right.” Billy rolls onto his back, pulling Steve on top of him. Friction ignites all the right spots. They notice and laugh, in sync, on the same page. Finally, on the same page. Both living in the same mental and emotional space at the same time.

Their day begins with this.


Playing house is his favorite. During his relationship with Nancy they were able to do it once or twice. She never liked to play, though. There was too much on her mind, too much to do. Steve went along with her energy and became engaged in what he hadn’t done before; work hard in his classes, study before tests, do community service, read books. He loved learning about that side of life, and the rewarding sensation it gave him. He also loved that it made Nancy happy to do those things together.

The downside was that, for as much time and effort as he put into her, she didn’t make the same efforts for him. Now he knows why it never happened. Their whole relationship was built on bullshit. Still, he had fun, and he’s glad it happened because he’s better for it. Just like being with Billy will teach him-- both of them. They will both grow.

Plus, with Billy he can spend more time like this.

Steve puts on coffee the way his mother showed him. He sets out a few pans on the stove, sticks toast in the toaster oven, and cooks like it’s part of his daily routine. Billy fiddles with the record player in the living room and sets the needle down.

The extended two note piano intro gives him chills. His mom played this on repeat four years ago, right after his grandmother died. For Steve it’s not a love song, but a sad, haunting tune that conjures soul-memories of loss and unspeakable bonds.

The opening lyrics ring out. Some say love, it is a river, that drowns the tender reed.

He wonders what the song means to Billy, who comes up behind him at the stove and wraps his arms around Steve’s stomach. Though they’re roughly the same height, he feels small when he leans back against his boyfriend. He sets the spatula down and turns off the burners. Everything’s ready when they are.

Breakfast will come after this. Whatever mood Billy’s in cannot be interfered with, even for physical sustenance. They are sustenance to each other’s souls, and in this moment they move as one. Billy turns Steve around and brings him to the center of the room to slow dance. Their bodies meld as they work in small circles around the aromatic kitchen. An odd place for a dance like this, and an odd time for a song so slow, but isn’t everything about this pairing strange?

Yet they fit, wonderfully. Steve believes it. He rests his chin on Billy’s shoulder. He’s still shirtless, perhaps flaunting his chest and stomach, the sculpted areas he know drive Steve crazy. Today they also make him sad. It’s not just the song setting the mood, it’s the bruises and scabs that remind him their love is as fragile as it is intense.

The song ends, and the needle returns to its position. Billy sighs. “I was hoping that would last forever.”

“It can,” Steve assures him. “We can.”

They step apart in order to see each other. Billy is holding his hands. One at a time he brings them to his lips and kisses them, eyes shut. “You are heaven. You are home.”

This isn’t the same boy who antagonized him, beat him, and disregarded his love. This is the boy Steve forgave, the one he will save and cherish forever. Images of their possible future flash before him. Sweetly he says, “You know, by the time I graduate you’ll be eighteen. We can go anywhere.”

“Great minds think alike.” Billy’s grin is painfully charming. “Last night I couldn’t sleep. I kept thinking about getting out of here, with you. Away from my father. Away from this.”

It sounds perfect, except he would have to visit sometimes to see his kids. He lets go of Billy’s hands and walks to the counter. He fills two mugs with coffee and stirs in cream. “We can plan it out over the next few months. Save our money, make sure the car’s running smooth.” He hands Billy.

He sips the coffee. It’s vastly different from how he is with liquor and beer. “Whose car would we take?”

“Yours, obviously,” Steve laughs. “Between your music and need for control, it has to be yours.”

Billy chuckles and leans against the counter while Steve sets up their plates. “Haven’t even been here sixth months, princess, but you’ve got me down.”

“Yeah, I’ve got you down.” He walks their plates to the table, proud and whole. “Come on, let’s eat before it gets cold.”

The table setting has them across from each other, but Billy moves his plate and silverware so he is sitting on Steve’s right. Throughout the meal, while they prattle off fantasies of themselves, one hand rests on his upper thigh. It’s exhilarating to belong to someone who truly needs him. He only wishes that Billy would consistently display his love.

“Hey, about last night, and this weekend,” he starts, apprehensive. He sets his fork down and turns to Billy. For a second he’s afraid he can’t continue, caught up in the innocence of blue eyes and bare skin in the light of early day. He has never seen this before-- a rough boy transformed. Maybe he shouldn’t say anything at all. He doesn’t want to break the magic.

“What about it?”

His thumb strokes Steve’s inner thigh. It’s a challenge to return to the conversation without getting hard or distracted. “Well… It’s going to be difficult, maybe impossible, to see each other now that your dad knows. We have to figure that out before anything else, you know? Where we can meet, when, whose cars, and with what alibis. I know you don’t want me seeing the kids anymore, but they might be our answer.”

“How?” There is a genuine curiosity in Billy’s eyes.

“They meet up at the arcade a lot, and at the Wheeler’s place. There’s school, too. You give Max rides, so maybe I can give Dustin rides.” His face brightens as Billy tries to follow. “Maybe we can meet at the, uh, arcade and head to the diner. You know, the one we went to on our first date. It wouldn’t be like I’m choosing them over you or anything, it would be a way for both of us to be happy. I can spend a little time with them and we can run off together and do whatever we want. Within reason.”

He sits with this, mulls it over with a few sips of coffee. “Within reason.”

“What do you think?” he asks nervously. He’s definitely finished with breakfast now.

“It could work. Shit, pretty boy, it might be the only thing that does work, until we run away.” He takes a few more bites, clearing the plate.

“I wish we didn’t have to. Like, we could be ourselves and no one would threaten us or give us any shit.”

“It’s a nice dream.” He stands up and takes their plates to the sink. Then he turns on the tap and starts to wash them. Steve stays seated, watching the muscles in Billy’s back dance beneath the skin. He never thought a boy could be this beautiful.

After a minute he gets up and assumes the position Billy took earlier, holding him from behind. The scent of his skin is Steve’s new religion. He inhales and kisses the skin of his shoulders, and lets his hands explore. “We have to be good to each other.”

“Because we’re not now?”

“Not always. I never want to go through that again with you. Screaming, crying, saying things we don’t mean.” He pauses. “You didn’t mean those things you said about me, right?”

He feels Billy take a deep breath as he sets a dish in the drying rack. “Of course I didn’t. I told you I love you, Harrington. Remember that, alright?”

“I will. I will. Just don’t say anything like that again.”

“Promise me you’ll never leave me, and I won’t.”

In the moment it’s a fair deal, because Steve is resolute in his loyalty. He vowed, he swore, and he will keep his word. He is Billy’s, and in turn, Billy is his. That’s how love should be. Strong enough to swallow both parties whole, bind them until their essence becomes dust.

“I promise.”

“Say it, princess.”

“I promise I will never leave you.”

Billy shuts off the water and dries his hands on a green towel by the sink. He spins around and takes Steve’s face in his hands. “You are not a dog. You are not an idiot. You are an angel.”

Their lips meet. Steve is malleable gold, open to being shaped however fate requires.

Chapter Text

Will wakes before anyone else. He opens his eyes but lays still, enjoying the sound of Mike softly breathing, asleep with an arm wrapped around him. It was unexpected, last night, when El elected to have a “girlfriend sleepover” in the fort with Max. That gave Dustin and Lucas the chance to take the couch, one of their heads resting on a pillow at either end, feet overlapping in the middle.

After a while the door at the top of the steps opens. A beam of sunlight from the kitchen reaches the floor, the only sense of daylight in the otherwise dim basement. The boys made sure the blinds were drawn tight, that way they could enjoy a proper night of sleep and wake up ready to use their brains for D&D.

Mrs. Wheeler knocks a few times, but doesn’t come down. It’s a wake-up call before she kindly announces two things. One, happy new year, and two, breakfast is ready. There’s homemade waffles, as per Mike’s request.

Dustin is the first to respond. He stretches out on the couch and shouts, “Thanks Mrs. Wheeler! You’re the best!” This is quickly followed by an “Ow!” when Lucas kicks him for being so loud this early.

It’s probably not that early, Will thinks. He takes Mike’s arm, the one draped across him, and fishes it from under the blankets. The calculator watch says half past nine. They didn’t stay up too late. Maybe Max and El, whose little giggles and whispers carried on past one, but the boys fell asleep soundly. They should be ready for the day.

“Morning.” Mike pulls Will closer and gives him a light kiss. “Happy new year.”

El stirs sleepily across the room. “Mike?”

“Over here!”

She climbs out of the fort, comes over and plops onto the nest with he and Will. He kisses her good morning, too. Max is sitting up in the fort, finger-combing her hair. “Hey, do you think your mom will let me drink some coffee?”

“I dunno, probably.” Untangling from the nest is a process. His legs are too long because he hasn’t grown into his body yet. It’s endearing, Will thinks. Beautiful to watch. El catches Will smiling and nods, the corner of her mouth upturned.

“Good,” Max sighs. “I can’t go into a campaign like this.”

“What, did El tire you out? Cause you barely acknowledged us until, like, ten minutes to midnight.” Dustin adjusts his crooked sweats and sweater.

Lucas pushes the blankets aside and sits up. “Seriously. And to think there was a moment we thought you two wouldn’t be friends.”

“Every Mage needs a Zoomer, right El?” Max laughs, and El does, too. “And no, she didn’t tire me out, but I know you guys will today. God, the last campaign took nine hours!”

“That’s nothing,” Dustin beams.

“Exactly. A girl’s gotta be prepared.”

“That’s the spirit,” Lucas agrees. “Mike, how intense is it going to be?”

Ever since his growth spurt started, it takes Mike a while to really wake up. El is playing with his hair while Will leans against him. He rubs his face. “Very.”

“Very,” Dustin echoes. “I’ll believe that when I’m knee deep in shit.” Will laughs, and Dustin points at him. “Hey, you better not roll anything or get captured or possessed, alright? Enough of that shit. New year’s resolution, Will doesn’t get fucked!”

Max and El are the only ones who don’t laugh. They’re not sure what Dustin means, because they weren’t there the night Will rolled a seven and the demogorgon got him. Or the hydra, which mimicked the size and shape of the shadow monster. Even though he can’t be sure, he hopes it’s all over, and that the first campaign of the year goes smoothly. Or, as smoothly as it can go with six eighth graders sitting around a card table.

“Breakfast?” El asks.

“Breakfast,” the others confirm.

El and Max are the first ones upstairs.


It’s five when the party has to say their goodbyes. Lucas and Dustin leave first on their bikes, expected home for dinner. They definitely worked up a hunger playing all day. The four remaining members congregate in the foyer, three slowly pulling on coats and tying shoes and one watching sadly.

Will wishes they didn’t have to leave, either, but Mom is cooking tonight. Hopper is coming to pick he and El up, so it’ll be the whole family for dinner. Well, he considers it the whole family. The chief and Mom are in love with each other. Hopefully they’ll admit it to each other soon, because then they can all live in the same house, and El won’t have to travel so far to hang out with everyone. Plus, he and Jonathan can teach her how to read and write. The tutor that goes to the cabin three times a week isn’t enough.

“He’s never late,” Max frets. She’s never worried about anything, especially not Billy. This must be the first time he’s late to get her.

Will tries to make her feel better. “It’s okay. He probably just had to stop for gas or something.”

The doorbell rings. Mrs. Wheeler calls to Mike, who shouts back that he’s got it. The others make room for him to swing the door open. Max mutters under her breath about how Billy’s going to get hit again, and this better be him. Before Will can question it, Hopper’s booming voice fills the space.

“Happy new year! Long time no see, come here!” He steps into the house so Mike can close the door, and wraps El and Will in a big hug. They pretend to be bothered but not-so secretly love it. Will hasn’t told El, but he kind of considers Hopper his dad, too.

Mrs. Wheeler comes out of the kitchen, brushing her hands on an apron. She greets Hopper with a rosy smile and makes small talk with him, giving the kids an extra minute together.

Mike says, “Hopper will take you home. Why don’t you ask him?”

“No, that’s even worse.” Her blue eyes are full of fear. Will empathizes. He remembers how scared he was of his father, before Mom kicked him out. He hasn’t even met Billy and he already doesn’t like him because of this reason, and because he hurt Steve, bad. They like Steve. He should never be hurting.

“Okay, well… You can wait here with me, and eat dinner with us.” Mike tips his chin towards his mom. “She’s used to feeding my friends.”

“Thanks, but I don’t think I can eat. I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”

“I can find him,” El offers.

“What?” Max has no idea she can see in the darkness. Will knows, but has never witnessed it. He’s intrigued. Too bad Hopper bids goodbye to Mrs. Wheeler, then to Mike and Max. It’s time to go. The kids hug each other one by one, trading off so everyone gets equal love.

“Alright, alright, come on. You’ll see each other again soon.” Hopper’s got Will and El’s bags over one shoulder. He opens the door to leave and stops short.

The kids peer around him and see Steve with a boy who must be Billy, talking fast and laughing loudly as they share a cigarette halfway up the dark walk. Behind them are two cars, parked hastily on the street in front of the house. Why would they come separately, when Billy only needs to pick up Max? And since when does Steve smoke?

“Looks like you guys are having a happy new year already!” Hopper laughs, but his brows are furrowed, which means he’s picking up clues. Will cues in, wondering if he can catch anything. If the embarrassment on Max’s face is any indication, something’s off.

Everyone steps out of the house, including Mike, who’s only wearing socks. They can’t stand there letting the cold in, but this is too strange to miss. The teens, finally aware of their surroundings, straighten up and catch their breath. As they step into the light near the front door, two things become clear. One, Billy’s gotten into trouble; rainbow colored flesh means someone painted it that way. Will wonders who, but that’s hardly as important as the fact that Steve is not himself.

Usually he is all warmth and contagious smile. He’s positively beaming tonight, but the energy is erratic, uncontainable. It’s even filling up his eyes, the pupils huge black circles that are set like saucers in his thin face. Accenting this is his hair, much like the crest of a bird, and the leather jacket two sizes too big.

Seeing Steve this way is frightening somehow. Will knows he’s experienced this before-- the fear of a person you’re supposed to be able to trust. He tries to place the feeling, like remembering a dream. Then it strikes him. His dad used to come home like this, and it would start big arguments with Mom. High , she used to say. Why are you coming home high? You’re an asshole when you do coke. The kids don’t need to see you like this.

Why is Steve letting them see him like this?

Hopper’s smile dials down. “Feeling alright?”

“Yeah, feeling great!” Steve exclaims. “I’m here to pick up Dustin as, you know, a surprise, to save him the ride home. Where is he? It’s freezing!” He hands Billy the cigarette and pulls the jacket tight around him. There are bandages on his hands.

“Little late for that,” Hopper informs, eying them.

“We’re late?” Steve continues to beam as if a lightswitch inside him broke in the on position. Billy watches, starstruck, and finishes the cigarette. Then he absently tosses it onto the Wheelers’ lawn. Everyone notices but no one points it out. Why bother, when there’s bigger issues?

“You’re really late.” Mike says. “The campaign ended forty minutes ago. He and Lucas already left.” His thin arms are folded across his chest and he’s shivering. Will wants to hold him. If only these older people weren’t around.

“They left?”

“Yeah, they left.” Max snaps. “What happened, Billy? Your dad’s going to kill you.”

Something about that makes Steve sober up. He starts to pull off the leather jacket. “Oh, shit, babe. We’re late.” Half out of the coat he slaps his hand over his mouth, like he shouldn’t have said that. “Shit!”

“Hold on.” Hopper holds a hand up and interjects. He looks at Billy. “You’re Max’s brother?”

Step brother,” she points out.

“Whatever.” He lowers his hand and stares Billy down. “You’re the one that beat the shit outta my kid.”

Confusion pinches the charm away. “I don’t follow, sir. Who’s your kid, this girl?”

“No.” He gestures to the only other teen. “This boy, right here. I heard you made his face look about ten times worse than yours. And you?” He squints at Steve. “You’re callin him ‘babe’?”

They shift uncomfortably at the authoritative tone. Billy turns red and forces himself to keep his chin up, trained not to show weakness in front of authority figures. Beside him, Steve’s grin completely disappears.

Hopper says, “Look, I don’t know what’s goin on between you two, but I know it can’t be good. Steve, you’re a role model for these kids, so maybe think carefully about who you choose to call… babe.” He shakes his head in disbelief and puts a protective arm around Will and El. To Billy he says, “You get her home safe.”

“I will, sir.”

Will isn’t so sure.

Chapter Text

Billy screeches to a stop in the driveway. Six o’clock, that’s not good enough. Nothing he does is ever good enough. Why be upset? Maybe it’s not his father, but the fading high, the oncoming headache, and the shakes that start whenever Steve is absent.

How can they spend time apart, when each moment together intensifies the need?

Going into this they knew it would be a private, secret relationship. Billy didn’t expect to have to give it up to his controlling, watchful father. How will they get around this? Is the only way to meet up while the kids are playing, under the guise of giving rides? What about spring and summer, when it’s too warm to warrant riding around in cars?

He fears this relationship. Living in it, the constant threat of losing it, and the reality that it’s not sustainable. No, he can’t look at that. If he looks at it the facade will crack like glass bitten between teeth, splitting skin and letting blood.

Losing Steve will kill him.

Does Steve feel that way too? When he’s not around, Billy doubts the entire thing. Maybe Steve loves life without the succubus boyfriend that’s got him locked in.

That is not a safe thought to entertain.

Once inside, Max kicks off her shoes and sheds her coat. She calls hello to their parents and runs to her room to throw her bag down. It’s like she adopted the energy Billy had a half hour ago. He’s been steadily coming down since that pleasant introduction to Chief Hopper, who recognized him as the one who beat the shit out of Steve.

If Steve’s forgiven him, why hasn’t anyone else? In truth, Billy hasn’t forgiven himself, so why would they? There’s no need to forgive, since he will undoubtedly rack up mistakes until it kills one or both of them. Hell, maybe they don’t need to break up to kill each other. Maybe their love alone will do the job.

Billy removes his boots and hangs up his leather jacket, the one that smells like Steve, deliberately stalling the inevitable moment where he will face his father. By the time he gets to the table Max already has her plate filled up. She digs in, telling her mom about the campaign in between bites. What is it like to be close to a parent?

His father says nothing to him until after the meal. While Susan and Max clean up, he calls Billy into the living room. Obediently he follows, his heart already in his throat. His father sits in an armchair. Billy takes up the couch.

Then he launches in. “You think six o’clock’s a good time to get home?”

“As good as any,” Billy shrugs.

“What was that?”

“It’s as good a time as any,” he says dully.

“You should have been home earlier. What took you so long?” His father is hunting, and won’t be satisfied until he hears the answer he wants to hear. It’s perverse-- he doesn’t want Billy seeing men, but craves the folly for an excuse to be violent.

Is Billy like that, too? He remembers the letter that he will never get to read. How quick he was to assume it meant the relationship was over, and how he ended up at Steve’s, blackout drunk and belligerent. It had been an arrow through Steve’s chest, yet a thrill to Billy, much like a hit of a drug. The drama he creates feeds a sick need inside him, borne out of that darkness he cannot name, and will never peer into.

“What took you so long?”

“Maxine’s friends. They were playing that game again, Dungeons and Dragons. One game can last hours.” His own voice sounds foreign, a stranger in his physical body, carrying him until it is time to collapse, perhaps sleep this horrorshow of a winter break off. Maybe he can wake up in Steve’s arms again, wake up to big bambi eyes staring right into his.

“Susan seemed to think you’d be home sooner, seeing as those kids had a sleepover. They probably started early.” In a condescending tone he adds, “Meaning you should have been home earlier.”

Billy sighs. “I did what you asked, I stayed out all night and didn’t come back until Max was ready to go home.”

“Right, right. I did ask you to stay out. It was a good choice for Susan and I, since we never have time to ourselves, but it leaves me wondering… Where did you spend the night?”

He shakes his head. “I slept at Tina’s, the girl who hosted the party.”

His father makes a disapproving sound. “You know I hate it when you lie to me.”

“It’s not a lie. You can ask anyone, my car was there all night.”

“Anyone? How bout I ask your friend Steve?” Billy blushes, answering his father’s question. “See, that’s what I was afraid of. My mistake, thinking I could trust you. Thinking that you could ever just leave something alone.”

Billy’s shaking worsens. He’s angry, filled to the brim with self-loathing and a fear so deep it strips his guts like poison. “Maybe I get it from you.”

His father leans forward quickly, making him instantly regret speaking his mind. This won’t end favorably, he knew that before he said it. Maybe he truly is a masochist. “What did you just say?”

“Nothing.” He stares ahead, blankly, wishing he could disappear.

Rather, wishing he could disappear and re-materialize in Steve’s arms, in his loving gaze and bright smile. The coke they snorted earlier to get rid of their hangover headaches brought that light right back to Steve’s eyes. It made Billy proud that he could be helpful and make his lover happy.

Proud to get his lover high on illegal drugs. He is disgusting. Nancy is right, he will never be a better person. Billy is beneath everyone, should be buried below the earth. He sees it in his father’s eyes again, that unspoken truth. Instead of a baby, you should have been a cum rag.

“Say it,” the man urges.

“Why don’t you just go ahead and beat me, because no matter what I say you’re only going to believe what you want.”

“Oh yeah? And what do I want to believe?” He cocks his head.

“You want to believe that I was with Steve all day, and that he’s the reason I was late.”

“Well, was he?”

There is nothing left to lose. A physical beating will distract him from the emotional pain of being without the boy he loves, and from the terror of feeling that their relationship is out of his control and racing towards an imminent end. A pounding would be a manifestation of his own self-worth, what he and his father and the world already know. It’s been a few days. Can’t let the proof fade too fast.

Billy turns and meets his eyes. “Yes.”


The rest of the bag goes up easy. He won’t sleep tonight, at least not until early morning. It’s better that way, he will be alone in his spun out, throbbing head, and asleep during the day when the world demands of him. Plus, in the off chance his father granted him a concussion, he’ll be awake to survive the night. He meant what he told Steve-- that boy is well worth the loss of his life. But if he dies, Steve can’t save him. Or leave him, because they will stay together.

Billy will make sure of this.

His pulse is agonizingly loud, he can’t handle it, and he can’t find the notebook he thought would be in his book bag, because his book bag isn’t here. It exists only in his locker, where the bare essentials of his mediocre student life are kept. There are no notebooks in this room, only a pen that fell under the bed and the only book he’s ever finished.

Kneeling on the floor with the book and pen in front of him, he feels his muscles tense. If it hadn’t kicked in, it’s now ravaging him. A cocaine high that ended his supply-- he’ll have to call his guy tomorrow, stop by that bar that serves underage nobodies like him. He needs more, if he’s going to make it into school with his face looking like this. How else will he pull off the front of being tough, fine, and completely out of love with Steve Harrington?

There is no way he can pretend! He loves him, he loves him, he would gouge his own eyes out with forks if it guaranteed that boy would belong to him forever.

Ripping through the book he finds a few pages without much text. He tears them out and sets them on the floorboards, where he envisions himself slamming his head down again, and again, and again. Fun what a mind can conjure when traumatized and filled with chemical happiness. Billy’s resorted to this tactic so many times it doesn’t feel like happiness anymore. It just speeds up the fucked up thought process he is at the mercy of all the time.

He begins to write around the pre-existing text, flipping pages over so the blue pen stands out against the yellowing pages and black ink. The scrawl of his hand is rushed, terrified, the manic outpour of a man in a fox-hole. The war is the war he fights in his own mind, and the fox-hole is this moment, where he has the clarity to write one last letter, in case he is shot through the head before he can see the sunrise.

You are golden/ You are gold/

You are priceless/ You are warm

You are light/ You are the sun/

You are the moon/ You are my life’s blood

I have never loved until now/

I have never been loved until now/

I have never been loved/

You are an angel/

My lord/ Princess/ Royalty

I will die for you every time/

You are the sky above me/ and the ground below/

You are embedded/ embedded/

in my skin/ I can’t get you out!

I can’t get you out/ Don’t leave me

Don’t leave me alone/

Your skin/ eyes/ bambi/

beauty in the storm/ I am the storm

I am the storm.

I am

Chapter Text

The next chance he has to see Billy is the first day back at school. Steve parks his BMW and trots eagerly towards the building. He’s never been this excited to return from break. Every day without Billy worsened the ache, priming Steve for the only class they share. Gym.

As he heads to his locker he scans groups of passing teens, searching for his Billy, or any of the asshole friends he associates with. All he notices is that he’s not the only one wearing new clothes. Over his light wash jeans is a loose knit sweater, so dark blue it’s almost black. When he picked it out his mother commented about how unlike him it was. Unlike him? He chose it, therefore it’s exactly like him. New year, new Steve, he joked. More like new year, new chapter of his relationship with Billy. The wild ride they took over the past week and a half still has him reeling, in the best way. Steve is positive they’re making progress.

Their love is real, he knows it now. The evidence is everywhere. The way Billy held him when he collapsed on New Year’s eve, the way he took care of him and got him safely into bed. Evidence is in their slow dance, and the understanding they came to about the kids. Steve will have the best of both worlds and Billy will let him. It’s a solution to the issue of his father being hypervigilant. Steve knows Neil is waiting like a hound for a whiff of them together, so he can chase them like rabbits into the burrow. Once he sees them together, it will be the end.

The end can’t come like that, or at all. Every waking minute his love for Billy grows, becomes more secure, and builds the need to nurture. He will do whatever he can to protect this boy. Maybe Steve isn’t saving him anymore-- maybe they are saving each other.

He is entirely absorbed by these thoughts when he arrives at his locker and spins out the combination. When he opens the locker a fluttering of thin pages fall out at his feet. He has no recollection of leaving loose paper before break. Quickly he gathers them like leaves, attempting to stack the sheets together. They’re obviously from the same book, but who put them there?

The handwriting is unfamiliar, and he has never read the book these pages come from. The Neverending Story. Who would read this book, and who would rip it apart to write on its pages? Who would show up early to school to deliver these notes? And who, aside from Nancy, would know which locker is his?

He leans against the locker and begins to read. The words are written like a fever dream, all over, in every direction. Pages of it, randomly selected, some with words that don’t make sentences, some with sentences that don’t make sense. It’s worrying.

It’s Billy.

You are embedded/ embedded/

in my skin/ I can’t get you out!

I can’t get you out/ Don’t leave me

Don’t leave me alone/

Your skin/ eyes/ bambi/

beauty in the storm/ I am the storm

Each line intensifies the ache until he physically hurts.

Billy needs to be exalted before he drowns in his own mind. Are they running out of time? The blackout, the beatings, and the breakdown were horrible to endure, yet proved the realness of their love. What if there's more struggle ahead?

Their love is intense, necessary like breath. Steve has never experienced a person like this before, not a single soul, and he will keep his word. He will not leave. He will show Billy that although he is twisted, he is not the storm.

Steve folds the pages up and tucks them safely into his bag, headed towards Billy’s first period classroom. Screw gym. They need to see each other.

Now.


While he waits for Billy in the bathroom he leans against the tile wall and rereads the pages over and over, even the original text of the novel, to see if there’s any hidden meaning. What was going on when he wrote this? Steve knows what he was thinking, because it’s all over the pages, but why, and when? They’ve only been apart for a few nights.

Still, that is too much.

The door punches open and Billy enters the bathroom, blue eyes sparkling with curiosity and something stronger. Steve kicks off the wall and closes the space between them, squeezing the pages in his hand. “Babe, you are not the storm, okay? You’re not. And I told you, like a million times already, I’m never going to--”

He is cut off by Billy’s lips against his. “Quiet, princess,” he breathes, pushing Steve into the nearest narrow stall. “I need you so goddamn much.” He locks the door behind them and leans in to bite Steve’s lip, hard. “Just like this.”

Blood pumps hot through his veins, he didn’t expect this. A simple talk to make sure his boyfriend is okay and forge a plan about when and how they will see each other again. In one hand the scrunched pages are growing damp with the sweat of his palm. The other hand grips Billy’s denim jacket like a life preserver. He needs to stay afloat. They are at school, they can’t do this here, yet Billy is intent on making him weak.

The back of Steve’s leg hits the toilet and he almost loses balance. Instinctively, Billy’s muscled arm wraps around his waist and yanks him closer. Their hips brush together at the same time Billy takes a fistful of hair and tilts Steve’s head back. “Woah, hey! We can’t do this here, someone might--” He inhales sharply as Billy’s tongue runs hard up the length of his throat.

“No one’s gonna see us, baby. I’ll make sure of that.”

Suddenly Billy lifts him up by the waist. With a squeal of surprise he wraps his legs around his boyfriend and squeezes, to hold himself in place while Billy’s hands sneak under his sweater and grip bare skin. If anyone walked in they’d see one set of feet in the stall. Some good that’d do, when their breathing would immediately give them away.

Steve is getting hard and he knows Billy feels it because he looks up with a smirk. “Can’t go any further without combusting, can we?” He hugs Steve at the waist, arms under the almost-black sweater.

“No,” he giggles. “We definitely can’t. God, I wish we could skip school so I can get a taste of you.”

“Oh, princess, you’ve had that.” Billy kisses his throat. “I think you mean you’re finally ready to be fucked.”

He’s right. They’ve done everything but that. Steve’s ready now.

The bathroom door swings open. They freeze, holding each other tight. Interrupted again, Steve mouths. They hold back laughter while their classmate takes a piss and leaves without washing his hands. A perfect end to their romantic little date.

The door swings shut, leaving them alone. Billy lets him down, smiling big and genuine. It’s mirrored on Steve’s face. Their love is real .

They slip out of the stall, and Steve grabs his bag from the corner. He takes the crumpled pages out of his back pocket. “I want to show you this later, the parts that stood out the most. You know, the parts that are the most beautiful to me.”

“Beautiful?”

“Yeah, beautiful. Like you.” He leans in and steals a quick kiss. Billy is a child, whole and content, secure in knowing he is loved. And Steve has given him this. “Let’s meet tonight at the arcade. I’ll hop in your car and we can go to the diner.”

Billy nods. “Five o’clock.”

He turns to go and Steve feels the panic of being without him. “Wait!”

“Yes, princess?”

“You’re embedded in me, too.”

Chapter Text

The first day back is always doomed. His mother makes him wear the new sweater his auntie got him, and it’s itchy as all holy hell. He can’t wait to change out of it after school, when he gets ready for arcade night. Best way to turn the week around.

What really takes the cake is that El will be there tonight. Her tutor is still on vacation and won’t be back until next week. Dustin can’t wait to watch Max teach her how to play Dig Dug. The last time they brought her to the arcade they played stuff like skee-ball and the crane. In competitive frustration El used her powers to manipulate the props.

There’s no way she can cheat at a screen-only game.

School drags, so during most classes Dustin sneaks out In Search of Schrodinger's Cat and reads. He’s moving past the history of physics now and getting into the meat of quantum theory. By last period he vows to chase down Mr. Clarke after school and ask him about the experiment with two holes.

When the bell rings, Dustin meets up with the party only to tell them to ride home without him. Then he struts through the halls to show Mr. Clarke the book. He’s curious about what curiosity voyage this knowledge will serve as a paddle for. Besides being a useful tool, the book is a gift from Steve, and will not go unread or misunderstood.


By the time Dustin gets home there’s a BMW in the driveway. Steve’s car. An unexpected reward for surviving the long day, but why? At lunch Mike, Max, and Will told he and Lucas about what happened the other night. When Billy arrived to pick up Max, Steve was with him. They were sharing a cigarette and acting crazy. High, Will said definitely. He would know, because of his stupid deadbeat dad.

They were high on cocaine. So much for hoping it was a one time thing, or that talking to him had made a difference. All of Steve’s actions now are colored by Billy, not his kids. That asshole is calling the shots; the only reason Steve gave him Schrodinger’s is because Billy wasn’t around, he even admitted it himself. Yet he showed up unannounced with Billy the night of their D&D game, and has shown up unexpectedly again.

Dustin lets himself in. His mom is sitting snug in the armchair, as usual. Steve is sitting on the couch petting Tews, who is unabashedly languishing on his lap. They’re wrapped up in a boisterous conversation about TV shows, which fades into chummy laughter when they see him.

“Dusty, your friend Steven’s here!” Her cheeks are rosy warm. It’s impossible to be unhappy around Steve, he’s got charm to spare. Honest, wholesome charm, unlike smug Billy.

Dustin says, “I see that Mom, but why?”

She explains, “He called and asked if he could pick you up tonight for the arcade. I told him of course, Dusty will love that! Then I invited him for dinner, because what else can I do to repay such a sweet boy who cares so much for my son?” She turns to Steve as she says this.

He’s scratching Tews behind the ears. “It’s nothing, Mrs. Henderson. Really. Dustin’s my favorite, and I think he knows that.”

“Oh!” She chuckles. “You hear that? You’re his favorite!”

Questions breed like cockroaches in his head. He needs to check in with the party, as soon as possible. He sidles across the room, towards the hallway. “Yeah, Mom, that’s great, he’s my favorite, too! Okay, I’m just gonna throw this stuff down in my room, you two just go ahead and enjoy yourselves, alright?” Shoes and coat still on, he bolts down the carpeted hall.

Behind him his mother calls, “Pizza will be here soon, Dusty!”

The second he shuts his bedroom door he throws down his bag and shimmies off the layers. His radio is on the desk where D’artagnan’s vivarium used to be. He grabs it and buzzes in Lucas.

“This better be quick,” he answers. “My mom’s gonna call me downstairs any second. Over.”

“Yeah, I know. Mine ordered pizza, apparently, because she’s too caught up with our unexpected house guest to cook. Guess who it is? Over.”

After a pause, “Steve? What is he doing there? Over.”

“I dunno, my mom says he wants to give me a ride to the arcade, but why would he want to do that when he knows damn well we ride our bikes everywhere? Over.”

“You think Billy has to do with this? I mean, he’ll be bringing Max. Usually he goes and sits in this bar across town that serves anyone. That’s what she says, at least, and I believe her. Do you think he’ll take Steve there? Over.”

“Some date that’d be.” A knock on the bedroom door snaps his attention back. He hisses, “Shit, I gotta go. We’ll finish this discussion while we watch Max kick your ass in Dig Dug! Over and out!”

He throws the radio onto his bed and shouts, “Come in!”

Steve opens the door, wearing a smile and the darkest sweater Dustin’s ever seen him in. It makes him look pale and thin, like a ghost, and the bottom of it is covered in cat hair. If he’s trying to impress his boyfriend tonight, good luck.

Ugh, boyfriend. Billy is his boyfriend! It’s ridiculous to Dustin, how a hero could be with someone so twisted up.

“How’s it going? Man, I haven’t seen you in like a week!” Steve leaves the door open and walks over to the bed. He sits down and picks up the radio with a glimmer in his eyes. “This is what you guys use to talk, right?”

“Yeah, haven’t you seen us use them before?” Dustin stands in the middle of the room, watching skeptically.

“Maybe. I could use a pair of these.” He fidgets with it in his hands.

“Why, so you and Billy can talk without his dad finding out?” He snatches the walkie talkie and sets it back on the table. “Steve, why are you here? And don’t bullshit me. I want to know the truth, even if it crushes the illusion I have of you.”

“Which is what?” Steve asks curiously.

He scoffs loudly. “It doesn’t matter! The point is that you’re freaking me out and I don’t like it!”

“Hey, hey, come here.” He makes room on the bed and waves Dustin over. Reluctantly he sits beside Steve, who wraps an arm around his shoulders. “Why am I freaking you out?”

Because you smell different, Dustin thinks. How would he even begin to explain that one? It doesn’t make sense, but it’s true. There’s a strange underlying tone of something distinctively not -Steve. Not his shampoo and hairspray, not his detergent or cologne. Not his natural smell, either. Is Billy changing his chemistry?

“Cause,” Dustin ventures. “The last time you came over it was behind Billy’s back. Are you suddenly allowed over now? Are you going to get in trouble for seeing me?”

Steve adopts a serious tone. “No, I’m not. Billy and I talked a lot over the break, and we worked things out. It’ll be way better, I promise. I get to see you guys now, and I get to see him, too. While you’re at the arcade tonight, we’re going to the diner. It’s the best of both worlds.”

Dustin can’t imagine how that’s the best of both worlds. First of all, it’s constricting and, by its very nature, unappealing. Second, there’s no way Steve can exist as both the party’s resident big brother and Billy’s boyfriend at the same time.

It’s like in quantum physics: it’s worthless to ask what particles are doing when we’re not looking. There will never be a lick of proof, because in order to find out what they’re doing, we have to observe. Steve as a big brother is observable, tangible. He’s sitting here now. With Billy? That Steve might be a completely different person-- has to be! That’s a different Steve, existing in a ghost reality where Billy isn’t a swinging dick, and the kids never had to watch him get his face beat in.

There is only one world Steve can exist in, not two he can simultaneously have the best of. What’s the point of asking more about the relationship, though? It’ll just raise more questions. Questions Dustin is too afraid to ask, like where are those scrapes on his palms from, and has he tried any other hard drugs?

Maybe Steve’s afraid, too, and that’s why he’s pretending the classical model of love will work. Those stuffy old storylines where the protagonist falls in love with a damaged person who desperately needs them, and only them, to piece their sorry ass back together.

When is Steve going to understand that isn’t real? You can’t save someone who doesn’t want to be saved, and who won’t accept responsibility of their own actions. Max said that Billy is better to her now, but he’s never atoned for what he did to she or Lucas. Plus, there’s the coke, which Steve never did before this. Worse, the way Billy dictates the conditions under which Steve can hang out with his own kids. Those things sure as shit don’t add up to a guy who wants to be saved.

Can’t save someone who doesn’t want to be saved also means you can’t knock sense into your idol when they want to believe their boyfriend isn’t as crappy as everyone says he is.

At least he’ll get to see his brother more often now.

He leans into Steve. “I want you to be safe. You don’t know what it was like to watch him go after you that night. We thought he was gonna kill you.”

“Are you afraid he would treat me like that again?”

Dustin nods.

“He won’t, okay?” Steve squeezes his shoulder. From the living room comes a dull buzzing sound. “I promise, I’m not going anywhere. I’m here, and I’m queer, and I think the doorbell just rang, so let’s set the table for your mom.”

They stand up together. Dustin rolls his eyes. “I shouldn’t be surprised you worked that in, and yet...”

Steve laughs. His hand remains on Dustin’s shoulder as they make their way down the hall. “Brother of the year award, right?”

“We’re barely a week into 1985!”

“So? I’m just that amazing!”

“Yeah,” Dustin sighs, trying to hide his grin. “You’re amazing.”

Chapter Text

This is what having a boyfriend feels like.

Laced fingers while he drives with one hand. Humming along to the aggressive music he likes, then singing loud and out of tune to the upbeat music you like. Sharing. Riding pressed up against him so close you can kiss his neck, not because you’re cold but because you love him. And he steals glances at you while he thinks you’re not paying attention, watching you like you’re his favorite, favorite thing.

Because you are.

You are.


They blow coke off the dash before heading into the diner. Steve is wearing Billy’s leather coat again. He loves how heavy and warm it is, and how it smells like the boy that loves him. Plus it means Billy’s just wearing a button down, so his chest and biceps and shoulders are visible eye candy.

The waitress recognizes them. She says it’s not often two boys sit on the same side of the booth together, more than once. This is only their third time here! Are they that memorable? She winks and leads them to a huge booth way in the back, inset so they won’t easily be seen. Being memorable pays off.

“Isn’t this cool?” Steve slides into the booth after Billy, his grin so wide it makes his eyes crinkle. “Remember the other day I was saying how I wish it could be like this? Now here we are in a booth and no one can see us. No one even knows us! We can do this, ” he laces his fingers through Billy’s on the seat between them and squeezes.

“It’s cool,” Billy agrees, squeezing back. “A little taste of the future.”

“Yeah, the future!” With his free hand he reaches over and pushes Billy’s bangs out of his face. His blonde hair is getting longer. Absently Steve wonders why he hasn’t cut it yet, seeing as he takes such great care of his appearance.

Maybe it’s not about what he wants to look like, though. He probably grooms carefully because of his father. All that pressure to act like someone he isn’t. Is that why he works out so heavily, too? So he can get Neil off his back, keep up the act that he’s tough?

The waitress interrupts this speedy thought process by setting down two waters on the table, accompanied by two straws. She asks if they’re ready to order. The coke wiped their appetite so they’re not hungry, but they order a vanilla milkshake and fries to be polite. The waitress jots this down and walks toward the kitchen.

“What do you think will happen after graduation? Do you think we’ll really be able to get out of here?”

Billy watches him closely and then laughs. “You meant that? You meant you want to run away with me?”

“Of course.” A flicker of anxiety perks him up. “Are you-- are you not interested?”

“Oh, I’m interested, princess. I’m so interested you’re gonna wish I wasn’t.” He leans over and kisses the top of Steve’s head.

In public! Things really have turned around. Saturday night Steve was saddled with worry, watching Billy drunkenly shout and stumble on his front lawn. Then, on the horrible car ride home, it seemed like his boyfriend was falling apart before him. Now Steve is nothing but confident that Billy’s getting better-- that they are getting better as a couple. He feels good about what he told Dustin earlier. Best of both worlds.

Safe.

“Hey, you know what would be hilarious?”

“What?” Billy’s thumb strokes the back of his hand.

“If we were public about this, ran away, and adopted all the kids.” He giggles.

“Your kids?” Billy sits up a bit, entertained. His eyes narrow when he’s high, because his smile is so big.

Such a smile doesn’t exist in sobriety. If it did, Billy wouldn’t need the drugs and alcohol. Steve pushes this reality aside. “Yeah, my kids! I love them, and I love that you just called them my kids. They could be ours, babe.”

“A whole army of brats. Imagine that?”

There’s not so much as a shadow of anger on the horizon. Steve is encouraged. “I can imagine it. I can’t wait. Seriously, I can’t wait. For all of it. Us, our life, the cramped apartment we’re gonna pay stupid amounts of money to live in, while we work stupid jobs just so we can be free to love each other, free from everyone except our kids.”

“Hmm. What does the apartment look like?”

“Uh, well, one whole wall is just floor to ceiling windows. There’s tons of light, all the time, even when it’s dark because of the streetlamps, you know? The walls are white. Dingy white, cause they haven’t been painted, and we can’t afford to paint them yet. So we cover them with... art, and shelves, and plants that soak up the sun. The shelves, that’s where you’ll put all your records. We can put your posters up, too!”

“Right, right. What about your things?”

“My things?” Steve racks his mind considering what he would take with him. There’s nothing material that’s important to him. Okay, one thing. The nail bat, but how would he explain that to Billy? The kids said he saw it that night at the Byers’, because Max slammed it between his legs. He didn’t know it was Steve’s, though, and it’s probably best to keep it that way.

The things that are most important to Steve aren’t things at all, they’re people. His parents, children, his boyfriend. The latter being the most significant. Yes, Billy now outweighs the kids.  

He continues, “There’s no stuff I really care about, you know?”

“I don’t believe that,” Billy clicks his tongue.

“It’s true. I care more about people.”

Their milkshake and fries are brought over in what seems like no time at all. Coke highs have a tendency of distorting reality. Time and space act differently, and so does he. This is something he only does with Billy, though, and it’s fun. The world falls away around them, leaving a tiny shared space they can inhabit freely.

Billy lets go of his hand and slides the milkshake towards him. Steve takes a few deep sips through the straw. It’s icy cold. He pulls the big jacket closer around him and wonders if this what Nancy felt like when she borrowed his sweaters. Small, safe. Like he means something.

“So, our white apartment with the plants and the music… What else do you see?” Billy picks at a few fries. Steve hopes he ate dinner before meeting at the arcade. He didn’t think to ask, because as soon as he got in the car with Billy in the dark back of the parking lot he was overcome with joy. All concerns vanished like clouds after a storm.

The storm.

“Hey, you know you’re not the storm, right?” He shifts to face Billy. “I mean, I said it, but I don’t know if you got it, and I need you to know this, okay? You aren’t the storm. I love you, you know that? No matter what.”

Billy’s hand finds his upper thigh. “I love you, too.”

“What made you write all that, anyway?”

In his narrowed eyes there is a world of answers. Billy sorts through them, considering how much truth to give. He strokes Steve’s thigh. “Needed to get my thoughts about you on paper.”

He puts his hand on Billy’s. “On paper? There were pages! And they were taken out of a book.”

“Yes, princess.” He laughs. “My favorite book. Clearly I feel a lot about you.” He sips the milkshake and slides it back to Steve. “You were the first boy I saw when I came here. The only one I needed.”

“And you showed it in the best way, didn’t you?” Steve chuckles and wraps both arms around Billy’s waist in an awkward side hug.

“Funny,” he sighs, moving closer to the wall. Using it as an anchor he wraps an arm around Steve and pulls him in. The hug is ten times better with his head on Billy’s chest.

They sit together quietly, allowing the clink of cutlery and bad music pass over them. Steve puts a hand on Billy’s chest, fingers toying first with undone buttons, then the gold chain and pendant. As long as he’s been in Hawkins, Billy has worn this. It was easy to notice in gym class, and in the showers. He wondered about it, but never thought to ask until now.

“What’s the story behind this thing, anyway?” Billy tenses, filling Steve with guilt. “I’m sorry, babe. If you don’t want to tell me you don’t have to.”

Billy pulls him closer. “No, I’ll tell you. It was bound to come up at some point.”

“I guess it was.” Steve snuggles in, amazed at how fearless they both are tonight. Public displays of affection, questions, answers, and fantasies. They are bonding, and it is beautiful.

Billy clears his throat. “My mother couldn’t take care of me, so my father did. When I was little he paid attention to me. Then he got a better job, and I was alone.”

He pauses to sort through memories. Physically he is here, but mentally he is gone. Absorbed by parts of his painful past. Did Steve’s simple question strike a raw nerve? If he inadvertently pushed Billy down a dangerous slope, he’ll never forgive himself. He is supposed to protect this boy, from everything.

Including himself.

When Billy starts again his voice trembles. “I had an aunt. My father’s sister. She was…” He takes a deep breath. “She and her partner were the only ones who loved me. They gave this to me one night when I had to sleep over because my dad was out.”

“What is it?” He touches the pendant again.

“It’s a Miraculous Medal. Mothers give these to their children to protect them. They were like mothers to me. I used to fantasize about them adopting me.” He falls quiet.

Steve asks, “What happend?”

“What didn’t?” He chuckles weakly.

“I’m sorry.” He sits up to survey Billy, whose mood has shifted. Despite his calm demeanor, Steve is sure dark thoughts and emotions stew below the surface. That’s where Billy likes them, anyway. Inside, deep down, stuffed and ignored and forgotten. There’s no room for processing, though. No room for steam to be released.

What will happen now that he’s been reminded?

Afraid to find out, Steve tries to lighten him up. He flicks the silver arrow dangling from Billy’s ear, positive the story behind this can’t be half as sad. “What about the earring?”

With a half smile he nurses the milkshake. “Ninth grade. First time my father accused me of being a faggot. If he thought I was one, why not play the part? I did it to piss him off.”

“Wait.” His brow furrows. “You got your ear pierced to make your abusive father mad on purpose?”

Billy nods. It makes no sense why he would want to provoke Neil. Does he like pain? Is there satisfaction in rebellion? Steve doesn’t need to rebel to get attention. His parents care, albeit from a distance, and wouldn’t mind if he got something pierced. Maybe that’s why he remains well-behaved. Rebelling won’t get him what he wants. Honestly, he doesn’t know what he wants. It’s easy and enjoyable to just go along with what the people he’s drawn to are doing.

“On purpose, yes,” Billy adds. Then he flicks the earing. “But this I did myself.”

When it registers Steve grips Billy’s arm. “What? You did it yourself ? Like, you stuck a needle through your ear and pushed an earring through it, alone?”

“That’s exactly what I did, except there were no needles in the house, only a couple safety pins. As for the earrings, I shoplifted them while I was out with my friends, the ones he didn’t like.”

Steve’s jaw drops. Why does Billy sound proud about this? Getting pierced is one thing, but piercing yourself with a safety pin? It’s sick. Steve can’t imagine inflicting pain on himself. Scraping the shit out of his palms the other night was the worst he’s done in all eighteen years, and if he hadn’t been trashed he wouldn’t have done it, but Billy voluntarily pierced his ears.

Ears.

“Babe, you said earrings,” he points out in a panic. “Where’s the other one?”

Billy closes his eyes to shut out Steve’s concern. “My father ripped it out.”

“What? That’s horrible!”

He sighs. “Harrington, it’s fine . Don’t waste your time worrying about me. I’m not worth it.”

Swiftly he takes Billy’s hand again and kisses it. Three, four, five times. “Don’t tell me what’s worth my time. I love you, okay? The thought of you hurting hurts me.”

“Shh.” His eyes stay closed, and he leans his head back against the wall their booth is set into.

Steve watches him closely. What is he thinking about? His aunt, or the day he pierced his ears? What is he feeling? Sadness, anger-- how close is the impending explosion? He’s not dumb enough to believe Billy can discuss his past unaffected.

“Are you okay? I mean, are you upset at me for bringing it up?” His foot taps anxiously.

Slowly Billy opens his eyes. “Do I look upset?”

Immediately Steve goes weak. How did fate pair him with such a beautiful boy? Lashes so long they are like liner, a dimpled grin and a tongue that knows precisely what to do. A body built like a playground but housing a caged heart.

“No,” he chirps.

“That’s right, because I’m not.” Billy leans in and kisses him gently, nothing like how they kissed in the bathroom earlier that day. When he pulls away he’s shiny bright. “I’m fine, see? And you’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me. Now, what do you say we get the check?”

Chapter Text

“I can’t believe she beat me.” Max is flushed with frustration.

“I can!” Dustin practically shouts. “She’s the mage, remember?”

“Yeah, but I’m the zoomer! This is my game!”

They’re standing around Dig Dug, even though there’s no more quarters to spend. Keith has told them twice not to block the game, but they pay him no mind. Max spent twenty minutes teaching El how to play Dig Dug, but she never expected to be beat! She no longer has the high score. The Mage does, which cracks everyone up.

“Now you know how it feels to be knocked off the top!” Dustin laughs. “That’s the feeling I had when you moved here and beat my score.”

“Your score was pathetic!”

“Woah, fightin’ words!” He turns to El. “Doesn’t it feel good to win?”

“Yes.” El is at Mike’s side. He’s got one arm around her and the other around Will, both of who barely come up to his shoulders. Smiles play on all their faces, as if touching has linked their minds together, too.

“You guys should shake on it,” Lucas suggests. “You know, to prove that there’s no hard feelings. I know Max can be a sore loser sometimes.”

El asks, “What’s a ‘sore loser’?”

“Not me, that’s for sure!” Max protests.

He says, “When you realized she was gonna beat you, you started screaming! It even scared Will!”

“I did not!”

“It’s true.” Will giggles. He explains to El, “A sore loser is someone who gets upset when they lose a game.”

“Sore loser,” El repeats, carefully storing the phrase in her memory. Then she looks at Max and smirks. “Definitely.”

“What! I’m-- ugh!” She stomps.

“Shake on it!” Lucas sings. The others join in a sloppy chorus. “Shake on it, shake on it!”

“Fine!” Max huffs.

El steps forward and holds her whole arm out, straight. Making eye contact with her breaks Max down. She smiles and takes El’s hand, pulling her into a fierce hug. The boys clap and aw at them until they pull apart.

“Friends?” El asks.

Max cocks her head, shocked that would even be a question. “Of course, friends! Always friends, best friends.” The aws that earns are even louder. Max waves at them to shut up and tells El, “You were awesome tonight.”

El blushes. “Thanks. You’re a good teacher.”

Totally tubular! ” Lucas and Dustin mock at the same time.

Will looks up at Mike. “She sounds like you when you talk about El.”

“Yeah,” he watches them adoringly. “She does.”


 

Hopper and Ms. Byers are the first to show up. She jumps out of the car and approaches the party excitedly. He stands at the hood of the car and lets it idle while he smokes a cigarette. The chief constantly looks grumpy, but his eyes are crinkled. He’s interested in hearing about the kids’ night, too, even if he doesn’t show it.

Now that adults are here Mike and Lucas can make their exit, knowing their dates will get home safe. It’s a good idea, too, because Max doesn’t want Lucas and Billy in the same space ever again. It’s not worth the risk. Everyone hugs each other like it’s their last day on earth, then Mike and Lucas bike away.

Hopper flicks his cigarette butt across the parking lot. “Hey, Joyce? Why don’t you guys wait in the car, stay warm. I’ll wait out here with these two.” He motions to Max and Dustin.

She nods and gives them goodbye hugs, too, then ushers El and Will into the car, where they enthusiastically recount their night. The remaining two party members stand before Hopper, confused.

“You have rides?” He asks.

Max says, “Billy and Steve.”

“Huh. They planning to show up?”

She shifts, unable to guess whether or not they’ll show up. What used to be the only predictable part of Billy is now as unpredictable as the rest.

“How’s that going?” he presses. “Real version, none of that dumbed down BS you guys like to give when you think you’re protecting someone, alright? They don’t need protecting, not from you.”

“I beg to differ.” Dustin stuffs his hands in his pockets.

“Oh yeah? Why’s that?”

“Because, Steve’s too sensitive to realize he’s in love with a shithead. If we can see it but that son of a bitch can’t, then it is our responsibility to protect him. When a member of the party needs help, we provide that help.” Dustin gestures incredulously, like the man should intrinsically understand.

Max is bright red, mortified that Dustin overshared. “You didn’t have to say it like that.”

“Like what? Like Steve’s in love, or like Billy’s a shithead? Cause both of those things are true and there’s no sense denying it.”

“I know, but,” she tips her chin towards Hopper.

He shrugs. “Listen, I heard Steve call your step brother babe the other night. Remember? Besides, those two can be quiet, but Joyce is a pro at getting them to open up.” He nods towards the car, where the three are giggling about something.

A sigh escapes Max. “What did they tell you guys?”

“For starters, they confirmed what I thought, which is what Dustin just said. And something else, a lot more concerning than two boys falling in love.”

“Which is…?” Dustin asks, eying Max apprehensively.

“Apparently Steve’s a fan of partying.” He gives them a pointed look. Partying must be a euphemism for cocaine, which is a truth they’ve lived with for a while. Still, it punches hard.

Just then, Billy’s Camaro rolls into the parking lot. The three of them watch closely, hunting for clues. Max wonders what type of mood she will have to deal with on the ride home. The other night Billy could have avoided getting knocked around, but he told Neil he’d been with Steve. The noise was unbearable. Is that going to happen again?

The car comes to a stop a few spaces over. Steve waves like an embarrassing mom. The three continue to watch as he shimmies out of Billy’s coat and says something that makes him shake his head. Max tries to read his lips and can’t.

Steve climbs out of the car and bounces over. He’s ecstatic, but thankfully not manic like the other night. That’s the only good sign there is. Billy stays in the car, a lit cigarette between his teeth. He’s not moving.

Hopper catches her anxiety and leans in seriously. “Hey, you let me know if it gets worse. Promise?”

“Promise.”

Behind her Steve asks, “If what gets worse?”

How naive, she thinks. The most involved, and yet the last to know.


No speaking, no music. The drive home is eerily quiet. She works on breathing evenly to calm herself. There is no way to read Billy, but she knows there’s a Molotov cocktail brewing inside. When it detonates she wants to be far away, not another casualty.

The car is barely in park when she leaps out and trots inside. Her mom and Neil are watching TV on the couch, his arm around her. It’s a sight Max has grown to loathe. He’s not good for them-- not Billy, not her, not her mom. Just like with Steve, she wonders when her mother will see it. Probably never, since the guy before him was pretty awful, too.

The intimate way they’re sitting gives Max a good excuse to go straight to her room. Her mom calls after her but she doesn’t answer. Her focus is staying away from Billy, who entered the room slowly just as she left. She swore there was a darkness surrounding him like an inverse halo.

A minute later there is an unexpected knock on the door. It’s Mom. Max lets her in and shuts the door again. She must sense it, too. The oncoming storm. They sit on the bed together, and bit by bit Max relaxes and shares about her afternoon at the arcade. She’s at the part where El beat her high score at Dig Dug when the arguing starts.

Low at first, so they can’t really hear, but the voices are tense and it’s obvious Billy wants to provoke his father. Max will never understand. If he knows what’s going to happen, why doesn’t he act differently, draw less attention to himself? She remembers that he likes the pain and cringes. He’s so messed up.

Then the voices rise, a cadence developing as the words grow sharp like daggers.

“You haven’t talked about her in years! Why are you bringing her up tonight?”

“Because, I need to understand why you couldn’t do it!” Billy’s boots pace against the wood floor.

“Sit down,” Neil instructs. “If you want to talk about this, sit down.”

He punches something hard and screams, “Stop telling me what to do! Stop acting like you give a shit about me when you don’t!”

“Of course I do,” Neil says forcefully. “You’re my son.”

“I’m your goddamn taxi service! The only reason you haven’t kicked me out is because you need me to babysit that little bitch!”

A piece of furniture knocks over, then a slam. Max and her mom stare down at their feet. It’s uncomfortable to be referred to as a bitch, but it’s worse to witness this, even from her bedroom. Where else can they go?

Neil growls, “Take that back.”

“No.”

“Take it back, now!” Billy screams something inaudible and Neil throws him to the ground. “I should have left your sorry ass in California.”

“Yeah, you should have!” He scrambles to his feet. “So why didn’t you, huh? Why didn’t you let them adopt me? They were the only ones that wanted me!” There is a child-like desperation in his voice.

“You ungrateful little shit.” The blows stop. Somehow Billy has cornered him in conversation. He cannot react to this explosively. Does that mean there is truth in these terrible accusations?

“Ungrateful?” Billy shrieks. “How am I ungrateful, when I’m living a life I don’t want to live? And it’s not like you want me either! If you did you wouldn’t put your job and your reputation before me! You wouldn’t love Susan and Max more than me! So be honest, Dad, why’d you even have me? Huh? Why the fuck would you have a kid you didn’t want?”

Neil bellows, “Because we couldn’t abort!”

All falls silent between them. Max looks at her mom, who avoids her eye. Did she know about this? How deep does Billy’s tragic backstory go? Each blowout fight connects more dots. Now Max understands why he’s cruel to her. He’s jealous of the attention she gets, and hates the attention he’s forced to pay her, driving her everywhere while he’s not allowed to freely do what he wants. If their parents can see that he’s hurting, why don’t they get him help?

“Thanks for the honesty, Dad.” His voice is small.

Heavy footsteps come down the hall.

Billy slams his bedroom door so hard the wall shakes.

Chapter Text

People change, even Satan used to be an angel.

But Billy? He was never an angel.

He was a mistake.


He slams the door and throws another heavy punch against the wall. His knuckles, already swollen and bleeding, leave marks on the paint. The pain bites, it stings, like the words that confirmed what he already knew. He’s worthless, unwanted, wrong.

His jacket is first to hit the floor, then he goes for the laces of his boots. Why are his hands shaking? It’s no big deal, he’s known this for years. He doesn’t belong here.

The top few rungs of the laces come undone, but he still can’t work his feet out. He panics, heart racing, breathing labored. Every fourth inhale is clipped, like an arrow is wedged between his ribs.

It’s not your mother’s fault, Billy. Isn’t that what Dad used to say? She didn’t want to leave. Bullshit, what she didn’t want was him! Neither did his father, but good Irish-Catholics don’t deny God the pleasure of another puppet to dangle on a string.

Finally he kicks the boots violently across the room. He stands up, fingers fumbling for the belt buckle. It slides out with the swish of a whip, and he yearns for the sting of it, the lick of pain that would mirror what he feels inside. He wraps the leather strap around his neck, slides the end through the buckle and pulls.

Maybe if hate was all he’d ever known things would be easier, but at first his father loved him. He had to, because his mother was gone. Drugs and alcohol were more important than her son. His father called it an illness but it was a choice; supposedly she got clean a few years back, but she still doesn’t want him.

Billy yanks harder until the strap groans in protest and cuts into his windpipe. He can’t breathe. Soft black stars brush his eyelids, closing him down. Excusing him from this neverending joke, for which he is the punchline.

He falls forward into the stack of crates he calls a vanity, where the mirror is tilted against the wall. It catches him and cracks, and down goes everything-- boy, crates, and broken glass. He lands on his shoulder and feels a pinch. In the chaos he lets go of the belt, which loosens enough for him to take in a small amount of air.

Someone pounds on the door. It’s his father, saying Billy better clean up whatever mess he made, and shut up while he’s at it. Everyone’s going to bed. He sits up and tugs the buckle loose, pulling the loop over his head. The belt lands on the floor beside him with a dull thud. His body heaves for air.

Without thinking he digs in the pocket of his jeans for the rest of the bag he blew with Steve. Coughing, he brushes a clear space on the floor. Before he pours out the remaining cocaine he reaches for his jacket, where he finds his wallet and, inside it, a dollar bill. His hands shake so bad he it takes three tries to roll the straw.

He holds it between his teeth like a cigarette while he pours the bag out, not even bothering to draw lines. Then, with the straw wedged up his nostril, he bows to the white pile like it’s God. The coke tickles and he coughs again, dropping the dollar bill straw. The end of it is dark red.

What would they say if they could see him? The little boy they loved, now shamefully weak, unable to bear the inherent pain of life. He can’t even talk about his past without wiping out. At the diner all he wanted was to tell his boyfriend and not go under. His mind is out of his control, though, and here he is again. High, hurt, and alone.

His father’s sister, Aunt Beth, was the only relative who wanted to be part of his life. She babysat him all the time and took him places his dad wouldn’t. It was heaven to be fed home cooked meals and listened to. When she introduced him to her new roommate, Dawn, he thought the good times were over. They were only beginning.

By fifth grade they had a routine. Twice a month on Saturdays Aunt Beth would pick him up. They’d grab Dawn and go anywhere. The record shop, the library, the beach. Back at the house he would sit on the counter while Aunt Beth cooked and Dawn, who was a teacher, engaged him in animated conversations about nature, history, and music.

Her record collection was huge, and he lived in it. After dinner Aunt Beth would watch as they played snippets and songs, discussing passionately. She taught him about classical, which he liked, and jazz, which he hated. They danced around the living room to disco and funk, and air guitared to rock. The heavier, the better.

These memories were suppressed for a reason. Despite wearing the pendant every day, he hasn’t thought of them in years. It hurts too much. He does not want to remember this. How Aunt Beth always picked Billy up and dropped him off alone, because Dawn was her girlfriend, and his father could never find out. He doesn’t want to remember the night they presented him with the pendant, a Miraculous Medal, to protect him while they weren’t around.

He doesn’t want to remember how they considered Billy their son. They loved him, but they’re gone now, just like everyone else.

The cocaine hits Billy and his heart trills like a snare. Shallow breaths accompany rushed movements. He gets up off the floor and pulls his shirt off. It lands on the pile of crap he busted down. His shoulder is bleeding from broken glass. Three steps to the door, he leaves it open as he crosses the hall to the bathroom and locks himself in.

The day after giving him the necklace, Aunt Beth spoke to his father about adoption. Billy listened from his bedroom. With his parents unavailable it made sense, but his father took it as an insult. Who was she to call him a bad father! She was lucky to see her nephew at all! When she left he turned the rage on Billy. What had he said to make him look bad? His father hit him for the first time, and when he cried the man hit him again.

You don’t get to be upset, you ungrateful shit.

Don’t cry, it’s pathetic.

Seventeen years old, why’s he crying now?

He’s pathetic.

There are scissors in the drawer below the sink. Staring himself down in the small square mirror he hacks off the mullet he kept because he thought it looked handsome and tough. Truth’s out now: he’s an ugly mistake. There’s no reason to pretend anymore. His father knows he’s a faggot and Billy knows he’s unwanted. He pulls ringlets of blonde hair away from his head and chops at them until nothing but short curls sprout unevenly from his head.

A few months later Aunt Dawn showed up unexpectedly at the house. Something was wrong, he knew. Nauseous, anxious, he listened from the living room, knowing it was safer to stay back in case his father got upset. He would learn later that it didn’t matter where he was; if his father wanted to take out his anger that is exactly what he would do.

The man had never met Aunt Dawn before. He introduced himself to the woman crying on their doorstep, who explained her involvement in his sister’s life. Billy knew it was over. She would never admit that unless this was the end, and it was the end. He felt it before she said it.

Aunt Beth was dead. An accident involving a drunk driver. It was fast.

Ignoring his father, Billy ran to her. She knelt down and he fell into her arms, sobbing. They cried together, for Aunt Beth and for themselves, because they knew this might be the last time. And it was. His father was more upset at learning that his sister was a lesbian than learning she was dead. He refused to attend her funeral, in spite of his uncles’ words, because she had tainted his son’s young mind. When Billy screamed and begged to go and pay his respects he received the first beating that knocked him unconscious.

You don’t get to be upset about this.

The remaining earring quivers as his entire body shakes. His shallow breaths grow heavy as anger mounts in his chest. Each beat of his heart is a punch daring him to do it.

On his twelfth birthday Aunt Dawn called. Even though his father was at work, he said he couldn’t talk long. It hurt too much. She assured him their paths would cross someday, but he wasn’t dumb enough to believe that. She made him promise to take care of himself, and never forget he is loved.

That promise was broken years ago.

He rips the earring out and screams. It lands with a splash of blood in the tiny sink and catches in the drain. A rivet of red travels down his neck, pools in his collarbone, trickles onto his chest. His eyes water, and for a moment all is blurry.

His ear throbs like so many other parts of him, but the pain itself dulls quickly because of the cocaine. He washes out the sink and scoops locks of hair into the garbage. He returns the scissors to the drawer and leaves with shiny wet blood on his skin.

The lights are off. Everyone is asleep. They deserve their rest, really. No need to worry why the teenager is bleeding, or why he screamed. No need to ask if he is okay.

They know the answer anyway, and choose to ignore it. So does he. Reasons to disregard his safety pile up like cars, crashing into each other. He is stupid and unsafe to be around. Nobody will ever love him, he is cursed. Hunted. Haunted. He doesn’t know what love is, so he can never give it. Pain is all there is. It’s comfortable, tangible, and it never leaves.

Love is a lie they use to sell you things, and he’s been buying all his life.

In his room he pulls his jacket from under the debris and fishes out cigarettes and a lighter. He’s too shaky to stand, so he sits on the edge of his unmade bed. With a cigarette between his teeth he flicks the lighter. It doesn’t light right away because it’s running low, like his will to live. Finally a flame pops up, not before burning the skin of his thumb.

Inhaling, he smiles. He flicks the lighter again, testing the flame, letting the metal shroud around the top get hot. Something tickles his stomach and he looks down. Blood, a thin line of it. It belongs there, he thinks. He was born to hurt.

Exhaling, he lets his thumb off the spark wheel and presses the heated shroud against the skin of his hip. He hisses sharp against the sting, his stomach tensing. He pulls smoke into his lungs and sparks the lighter again, letting it heat, then plunging it into his flesh again. He repeats this until there’s a littering of discolored burns like smiles.

He sucks the cigarette to the filter and puts it out on his forearm. When he drops it to the floor he notices the blood on his Miracle Medal. The pendant that was meant to remind him he is loved. If he wore it all these years, doesn’t some part of him still believe he can be?

This thought disturbs him. He takes the chain off and shoves it into his pocket. He cannot wear it anymore. He has succeeded tonight in making himself as ugly on the outside as he is on the inside. Rid of the character he created, no need to pretend he’s not in pain. He’s feral, unlovable. Only hurting himself.

Wait.

Didn’t Steve just say two hours ago, the thought of you hurting hurts me?

Panic explodes in his chest, firing nerves that hadn’t noticed until now. His body stings, throbs. This is excruciating. Steve will be devastated-- he will assume this the work of Billy’s father, when really it was him.

He has to make this right before there’s a chance to make it wrong. Steve is the last good thing he has. Billy needs him like a needle in the crook of his arm. He is the junkie and Steve is the drug. How could he ever forget?

His heart beats in his throat and cuts off his airway. In one stride he’s at the closet, pulling on a tee and sweatshirt he hasn’t worn since California. The shirt sticks to the left side of his body, where there’s blood and open burns. His jacket brushes his hip when he swings it over the sweater, snagging the burns. He inhales deep against the pain, choking on his mistakes.

To massacre the body that houses the soul that Steve fell in love with is a sin. Billy may not want it, but Steve does, so he must atone for what he did. Lessen the weight of this by bringing it forward, instead of letting Steve find out like he did when his father beat him twice last weekend.

He pulls his boots on and doesn’t bother lacing them. Thoughts are pure chaos and he is at their mercy, bending to their will, sneaking out of the house and into the car. He rolls it down the driveway in neutral before hitting the ignition.

Why does Steve want him? Is he a masochist, too? Billy has learned to love pain because it is the only thing that will never abandoned him, but Steve is whole, sacred, and untouched by tragedy. He shouldn’t be drawn to Billy if he doesn’t want to hurt. Self-destruction doesn’t equal beauty, and Billy isn’t salvageable. He is sick.

As he drives he continues to shake, physically weak from abusing his body. He turns up his music and opens the window to stay alert. The worst thing that could happen tonight is crashing the car and dying. It can’t be over for him yet, not when Steve loves him this much. His head spins imagining himself dead on his bedroom floor with the belt around his neck. It’s no different than wrapping his car around a telephone pole. Either way he would leave behind a boy who has tried so hard to get Billy to believe he is someone.

It’s a good thing he doesn’t realize he’s no one, because Billy needs Steve more than he hates himself.

Chapter Text

In the dream he is walking through a city that is supposed to be Chicago. Though he’s visited the city in waking life, he has never seen it in the dream. He gazes up through his Ray Bans at beautiful, intricate architecture, sunlight glinting off the accents adorning buildings housing people he will never meet. Lives he will never live.

He turns around and finds himself on a tour boat full of people. It floats along down the center of the city. Nancy is there, standing at the stern, arms folded against the wind. Her chestnut waves ripple, shimmer in the sun.

“Nance! Hey, Nance!” She turns and searches for the person calling her name. As he trots towards her he calls again and again, but the ship seems to grow longer.

Then he is next to her, leaning against the wall of the ship, smiling. That was always easy to do around her. Blue doe eyes, brilliant mind. Her thin lips turn up in a tiny grin and she points to the sky. “Look at the planets of the universe.”

He looks up at the sky and it’s dark. They are standing in sand, barefoot. Behind them a fire cackles. His arm is around her waist and he leans over to kiss the crown of her head.

“They’re beautiful.”

The planets hang full and low over the horizon. The moon, blood red and glowing. Beside it a glittering purple mass he cannot name, and a few smaller orbs with rings. The choppy waves reflect the light, creating iridescent rainbows.

Indeed, they are gorgeous, but they are also frightening.

“Yeah,” she tells him, sweet and safe against him. “It’s good to be aware.”

They are silent for a time, listening to the lapping of waves. His feet are cold in the damp sand, and each wave licks closer to his toes. She says, “You changed.”

Holding her, he nods. “I’m the same as I ever was.”

She starts to cry. “No, there’s no light.”

Waves several yards away begin to rock, heavy and round. Nancy cries harder. “I was wrong, Steve.”
“About what?” He pulls away to look at her, but only sees the waves. His heart beats fast. Over the crackling wood fire he hears her sob. In front of him the glow of the planets illuminate a shape that rises out of the water. At first he thinks it’s a wave, but it’s not. It is something alive and it breaks the surface. A pitch black mass, a silhouette illuminated by planets over head. The back of this shapeless creature is larger than the moon itself. As it emerges, Nancy’s whimpering grows louder behind him.

His heart pounds faster. He knows what it is and does not want to see it. Instinctively he drops to the ground and folds into child’s pose, hands over his head. The crackling fire becomes the sound of rushing wind, unmistakably loud. As the creature lifts itself to a gargantuan stand he is paralyzed-- cannot look, cannot run. Merely remain curled up in the sand, not looking, yet always seeing.

It’s good to be aware.

The displacement of water produces a large wave that rises high above him. It is going to crash onto him. He needs to inhale, he knows he needs to hold his breath to survive, but he inhales sand and coughs. That was all the time he had.

He braces for impact and jolts awake.


“Steven? Honey?”

The door is open enough for his mother to peek inside, which means she was knocking and he didn’t answer. He rouses now, disoriented, pulse painful in his ears and throat. He smooths damp hair off his face and reaches for the bedside lamp. “Yeah, Mom?”

“I didn’t want to wake you, since you said you had such a bad headache, but… Your friend is here. That boy you had over for dinner, I think his name is Billy?”

That’s all he needs to hear. He untangles from the covers and slides off the bed. From the floor he pulls on flannel pyjama pants and a tee shirt. His mother, in a nightgown and robe, opens the door a few more inches and folds her arms. “Steven, I’m not sure what to do.”

He stops moving. “What? Why? You let him in, right?”

“Of course, I wasn’t going to leave him in the cold. He doesn’t look well. When I asked what happened he just stood there.”

“What?”

“He wouldn’t speak.” Nauseous, Steve starts for the bedroom door. His mother blocks him. “Steven, honey. Be careful. He’s bleeding.”

Alarm rings loud on his face. He brushes past her. How could he consider his own safety when Billy’s might be at stake? From the top of the steps he sees Billy standing in the softly lit foyer. Steve calls his name, but he doesn’t seem to hear. Sprinting downstairs he nearly trips, skidding to a halt before slamming into Billy. One hand grips his leather jacket while the other lays flat against his chest. “Hey, I’m here. What’s wrong?”

Billy’s chest rises and falls quick and shallow, his heart racing under Steve’s palm. They were just together, what happened? And why isn’t Billy responding? There’s no time to think, he takes his boyfriend's hand and leads him upstairs, where his mother is cautiously watching from the bannister.

As they pass her she asks, “Can I help? Should I call his parents?”

Unconsciously Billy squeezes his hand and Steve shouts, “No! No, don’t call anyone. Just, uh, just let him stay tonight, okay? I’ll take care of him and explain tomorrow.” She hesitates, eyes darting between her son and the childlike young man beside him. “Please.”

“I think there’s a sleeping bag in the linen closet.”

“Thank you, Mom. Thank you!” He kisses her cheek. She reminds him to be quiet because his father’s already in bed. He thanks her again as they enter his room and shut the door.

Weak, Billy leans against the wall. He won’t look Steve in the eye, which is uncharacteristic and almost as frightening as the details. Short uneven curls replace the hairstyle he so carefully maintained. There’s blood around his right nostril, almost like Eleven, but Billy has no powers, unless self-destruction is considered one. In that case he’s a superhero.

Steve’s eyes move to the mass of dried blood on the side of Billy’s neck. He gasps aloud when he realizes the silver earring is gone. His father ripped the last one out, he must have torn this one out, too. But why? Billy had a good day, why is this happening now?

Tears spring to Steve’s eyes. He swallows against them, hiding how upset this makes him. He doesn’t want to make Billy feel worse. “Babe, talk to me. What did he do?”

Silence. As Billy continues staring at his feet, Steve’s chest tightens with panic. Is this because of the question he asked at the diner? Did it send Billy into a tailspin, or an argument with Neil? Guilt rips at him, he is queasy. “Please. You’re safe with me. I promise.”

Billy’s breath hitches and his face twists like he is about to cry. He is visibly shaking now. All Steve wants to do is hold him, but he has never seen his boyfriend this way. He seems so small he might break. What is he supposed to do? The wrong move will exacerbate this, but Billy came to him. He isn’t angry, he isn’t yelling, he isn’t drunk.

Instead he is a child, and Steve decides he must be brave and do what he said he would.  Take care of him. In order to do that he needs to see how far the damage goes. His mind is already ticking through a list of needs. Warm water. Clean clothes. Bandages.

“You’re going to have to let me see.”

Billy nods and pushes off the wall to stand up straight. Still staring at the inch of carpet between their feet, he slips the leather jacket from his shoulders and drops it. Then he hooks his fingers under his sweater and shirt and lifts them over his head.

Steve stumbles back. Without the thick collar and sweater he can see a ring around Billy’s neck that’s not from hands. There is a smear of blood along his shoulder, which is unrelated to the dark blood that starts at his ear, travels across his collarbone, and branches down his chest and ribs. On his stomach, still bruised from last week, are several puckered burns, concentrated near the sculpted muscle of his left oblique.

Upon closer inspection Steve realizes they are lighter burns. Below the shirt? Along with everything else, including a burn on his arm and swollen knuckles, it seems less like the work of Neil and more like something Billy would do to himself.

Suddenly aware, Steve feels sick. He holds himself and shakes his head. “Please, baby, tell me you wouldn’t do this to yourself.”

Slowly Billy lifts bloodshot crystalline eyes. He whispers, “I’m sorry.”

Steve covers his mouth. For the first time he sees that this is beyond him, a problem way bigger than he can solve. There is a disturbance deep inside Billy that causes this. It isn’t as simple as the abuse from his father, or the loss of people he loved, or the frustration he carries. He needs more help than Steve can give him. Love alone won’t fix this.

Yet, didn’t Billy come to him, the only one he trusts with his brilliant, broken mind? He committed to be the harbor for this sinking ship, knowing it would be difficult. A responsibility to carry like a heavy weight, the reward intrinsic and untanginable. Love.

He will endure the pain of this relationship because it is love.

“It’s okay,” he whispers, even though it’s not. “Does it hurt?”

Tears roll from Billy’s eyes to his jaw, then his chest, running new tracks through half-dried dark red. He shakes his head. “No.”

How can this not hurt him? It’s wrecking Steve.

He takes Billy’s hand again and goes to the door, opening it to make sure the coast is clear before leading this lost boy into the bathroom. The light over the sink is bright white, drawing out the colors and textures of everything it touches.

Flecks of gold hair dust Billy’s shoulders. The cut there, what is it from? Is it self-inflicted, or did this night start with a fight between he and Neil? There is no reason to ask, only work to be done. Steve goes to the linen closet and finds the rattiest towel on the bottom shelf. He lays it down and brings Billy to stand on it. Then he turns on the hot water in the tub.

With grave concentration he undoes Billy’s pants and slips everything to the floor. Habitually Billy steps out and kicks the clothes behind him, unashamed. Steve finds it easy not to stare, since so much of his boyfriend’s body is in ruins from the war he waged on himself. He grabs a washcloth and soaks it under the hot water.

Standing up he tells Billy, “This is going to sting.”

Steve presses the cloth to the area around his ear. Every muscle jumps to attention and he winces. Several times Steve wrings the washcloth and wipes blood away. Water slides downward and hits the burns. Billy has to hold onto him to stay on his feet. He is weaker than when he arrived, and shaking harder.

The ratty floor towel is speckled with diluted pink by the time he finishes. Better that than in the tub, which is plugged now and filling up with clean, hot water. He helps Billy into the bath and sits on the edge. Gently he begins to wash him clean from his hair to his toes, paying careful attention to the ear and burns, which he surveys with unmasked disappointment.

Minutes later they are standing again, the drain sucking away soapy water. Steve wraps the biggest towel he could find around Billy, who shivers and watches him adoringly through sleepy eyes. His short hair stays off his face, allowing Steve to really see him.

Long lashes stick together, eyebrows darkened by water. Billy’s lips are pink and turned up at the corners, a flash of what this moment should be-- sweet, wholesome, untouched by the weariness Steve feels, or the worrying voice in his head insisting that it will not end here. It will not end well. He will never admit that he is beginning to fear for Billy’s life, looking at him not as the tough, calloused jerk he first presented, but something invaluable that at any moment might slip away.


They lay in the same bed, disregarding the sleeping bag. If his mother catches them, so what? Tonight Billy needs him. All of him. His bed is large enough, anyway. He lays on his back with Billy’s body draped over him, head on his chest. The area of his hip that Steve bandaged brushes him, reminding him of the seriousness this sleepover carries. Does Billy realize the severity of his actions? Why did he hurt himself so badly? Steve knows not to push things with Billy, but he needs to know the nuances of his boyfriend’s pain.

As if reading these thoughts, Billy tightens the arm wrapped around him, bicep firm against Steve’s waist. Absently Steve plays with his damp short hair, until fatigue stops it, cupped around his temple, anchoring him to his chest.

Steve lays awake for a while with his eyes closed, waiting.

He knows Billy is asleep when the shaking stops.

Chapter Text

In the kitchen she pours herself cereal and sits down to eat. Turns out Billy didn’t come home last night. Neil’s going on about his audacity. Not the fact that he left in the first place, or locked himself in the bathroom screaming beforehand. Didn’t anyone notice the silver earring at the top of the garbage, along with locks of golden hair?

Max picked the earring out this morning when she saw it, stuck it in her pocket to keep. She didn’t bother questioning her own motives. The air in the house was different, like last night definitively changed the dynamic of the family. Obviously it did, since Billy is nowhere to be found, and Max is going to have to take the bus.

She would have gladly been taking the bus this whole time if Neil had let her, but he insisted Billy drive her. It never made sense to either of the kids. They had to oblige because if they didn’t, Neil was liable to get livid. Much like Billy, he had a short fuse and a knack for getting tight at exactly the wrong moments. Luckily he never took it out on her. Only Billy did.

Max wonders what the real story is. She’s heard snippets, between last night and the conversations she’s overheard. Her mother must know, she decides. She must know everything that’s led to this, and thinks she’s smart not to interfere.

Ignoring this isn’t smart, though. Last night’s argument gave Max a whole new perspective on her step brother. Maybe it’s pity, or empathy because she’s been abused herself-- by the exact boy she watches suffer. This is a cycle, isn’t it? A domino effect. Instead of getting to the root of the issue and changing, it’s easier to stay the same, play the game and enjoy the pain.

After she dressed earlier, she snuck into Billy’s room and saw the mess that Neil is currently complaining about. He’s telling her mom he destroyed his room on purpose to piss him off more, and when Billy shows his ugly face again Neil’s going to shove him into his room and watch him clean everything up. As for the mirror, it will never be replaced. Why not? Why is it so hard to forgive your kid and take care of him? It’s wild how cruel people can be.

If and when Billy comes home, Max will apologize. Not out of fear, as she usually does, but because she means it. She’s sorry he has to go through this, and drive her around on top of it. She’ll start taking the bus so he can live his life. She’ll even stop pointing out how horrible Billy is to Steve. Maybe he’s not a horrible person, he’s just full of horrible things.

For the first time since they moved here, she genuinely hopes Billy is okay.

She is putting her bowl in the sink when the front door opens.

“Max? Let’s go, we can’t be late!”

It’s Billy. There’s an edge to his voice, but no anger. More like armor. She grabs her backpack from the floor by the kitchen table and calls loudly,  “I’m coming!”

By the time she gets to the front room Neil is there. Her stomach turns. One plus one equals bad. Billy catches her eye and motions discreetly for her to head out the door. He and his father are by the fireplace. She begins to go around them when Neil grabs her shoulder. “You’ll take the bus.”

“Why would I take the bus?” she reasons. “Billy’s here now.”

This boosts him and he smirks. “Yeah, Dad. I’m here now.”

“I see that. What the hell are you wearing?” He places his hands on his hips authoritatively. Billy is wearing clothes that aren’t his, from the light wash jeans to the tight shirt and plaid scarf, the ends of which are tucked into his leather jacket. Neil points out, “You don’t own any scarves.”

“Look, I’m not here to talk to you. I’m here to take Max to school, like the respectful, responsible son I am. Just let me.” He looks so different with short hair and a bandaged ear. Gentler, somehow, and she would have never described Billy that way before.

“You’re not taking her until you clean your room and tell me where the hell you’ve been, and why you showed up just now looking like a faggot.”

“Did you forget I am one?” Billy laughs. “I’ll clean my room later. We need to leave.”

“You need to do what I say.”

“No, I don’t,” he repeats.

Again he nods to Max, go outside. She edges towards the door, almost free, when it flies open and Steve bounces in, hair rising like the crest of a wave. He’s smiling.

Billy rolls his eyes. “Harrington, I told you to stay in the car.”

“And I told you if it took longer than a minute I was coming in after you. Figured, you know, whether or not your dad sees us together at this point, he’s still gonna try and kill you, and uh, I’d rather you not die. Especially on a school day.” Cheekily he turns to Neil. “Oh, hey Mr. Hargrove! How’s it going?”

The man stares daggers at Steve, who is wearing the pendant she recognizes as Billy’s. Then he glares at his son. Tonight, if Billy’s home and Steve’s not around, Neil will put him through a wall. He replies through gritted teeth. “Fine, and you?”

“Great, actually! Having a real good morning, ready to take this one to school.” Steve says to Max, “We’re picking up Dustin, too.”

“What about the others?”

“Bikes,” Billy answers. Since when is he interested in the lives of the party? Since when does he care how they get to school?

“Cool,” she says awkwardly.

“Ready?” Steve puts an arm around her, gazing down lovingly, how a mom would. She nods, and he opens the door. “Billy?”

“Right here.” He glares back at Neil, then turns and follows them.


On the ride to Dustin’s she leans forward from the back seat. Steve is driving, with Ray Bans and the stereo on, which is wild because it’s always Billy who needs to be in control. Last night was terrible, why are they so happy now? Did they do more coke? She hates that.

“Hey,” she says to Billy. “I was thinking last night, and I just want to tell you I’m sorry that you have to give me rides all the time, and that your dad is such an asshole.”

He’s wearing sunglasses, too, a pair that must be Steve’s. He takes them off and cranes around to look at her. She half expects Billy to explode. He says, “Me, too.”

Pigs flying would be less weird. She wants to ask about the screaming, the knocked over crates and broken mirror. The chopped off hair. It’s best not to, though. Besides, she pieced together all she needs. He must have ripped out the earring after fighting with Neil, then ran to Steve, his safety net.

It’s a good thing Steve is in his life, even if it’s probably not a good thing Billy is in his.

Maybe that will change soon. She sits back in the seat and listens to the next song that comes on. And when she shines she really shows you all she can. Oh, Rio, Rio dance across the Rio Grande. El likes this song because Nancy showed it to her the same night she gave her makeup for the Snow Ball.

Billy puts the sunglasses back on and leans back against the seat. He rolls his head to the side and watches Steve with a dimpled grin. He’s tapping on the steering wheel, singing totally off key and having the time of his life. Billy holds out his left hand and Steve takes it, lacing their fingers together.

For the first time, she thinks it’s sweet.

Dustin, who climbs into the car three minutes later, does not.

Chapter Text

It wasn’t supposed to be this way, honest.

He never meant to get his girl pregnant, or have a child, and when that child was born he never imagined that she would get worse. But she got so much worse that he feared for the babe’s life. He did what any proud, responsible man would do. Took his boy and left.

Billy was beautiful. At first he resembled Neil, with pale eyes and dimples, but somewhere in elementary school he began to look like her. The blue of his eyes darkened, his blonde hair curled, he carried himself differently.

Too differently.

That’s when things began to get difficult.

Neil never had a role model to teach him how to be a good father. He, his older brothers Troye and Ryan, and his only sister, Beth, came from a line of Irish-Catholics. Their grandparents were first generation immigrants who suffered incredibly to make a life for themselves in New York, where Neil and his siblings parents were born. Some of their extended family had immigrated here, too. Half of them were drunks and the others workaholics, rageaholics, or both.

Their father was both. He had served in the war and returned a walking disaster. Within a few months he picked up the family and transplanted them in California. The geographical change didn’t solve anything. The old man reeked of alcohol from morning to night, frequently ripped doors off hinges, and threatened anyone who dared disobey him.

Neil swore he would never become that. If he was ever a father he would break the chain. No more shell-shocked veterans or substance abusers. No more men who couldn’t love their kids because their pride got in the way. He would settle down with a wholesome girl and if they had a child they would raise it together, properly, with a firm loving hand.

Sadly, he had no choice over the woman he picked. Raised in a dysfunctional household, he was programmed to be comfortable in the chaos. His siblings were, too, although they came out alright. The two oldest were money-hungry men with well behaved wives who happily married into financial security. Beth was successful in her own rights, and while she seemed to avoid relationships altogether, she was really just private about her love life for a reason. She died living with a partner who was clean, caring, and stable.

Or so he was told. To this day remembering the woman on his doorstep that night turns his stomach. How could Beth be with a woman, watching his son and exposing him to that? His brothers told him to let it go, but he couldn’t. Still can’t.

Of course the wife he chose was an alcoholic. He hadn’t known that going in. She was a fair haired, beautiful girl who loved books as much as she loved dancing. She was bright and smart and he laughed more with her than he ever had in his life. It didn’t bother him that she was a drinker-- naturally he was, too. There was a comfortable chaos to their relationship he didn’t realize he needed. They hadn’t planned to get pregnant, but in marriage contraception wasn’t used, and any life that was conceived was brought into the world.

It was terrifying. His way of handling it was to buckle up, get to work, and make the bread. Her way of handling it was nothing short of a nightmare. After she bore their son she descended into a plane of existence so dark it was like she disappeared. The brilliant woman Neil had loved was gone, and there was a cold, pill popping skeleton in her place.

There was no way he could break the chain raising a child with an alcoholic drug addict. Yet the thought of being a single parent was paralyzing. For many months he prayed weekly at church, with baby Billy on his lap, about how to handle this. Ultimately he did the responsible thing: left her to raise his son alone.

Alone was lonely. Having a child was a wonderful distraction. He enjoyed playing with his son, teaching him, watching him absorb the world. Yet he was deprived of the adult contact he needed. When Billy was small he dated, hopeful he would find another woman to keep him company and help him rear a son. He imagined that in a few years Billy would be on sports teams, handsome and strong, in training for a future of service and fun with girls. A wholesome, all-American life. That’s what Neil wanted for his son, because that’s what he lacked.

Luckily Beth, who lived about a half hour away, loved watching Billy. That gave him time to date, relax, or even work overtime at the new job without worrying about a child. He knew it would be taxing, parenting, but never did he think it would wear him down so much so fast. At times he wished he could give Billy to Beth, whose abundant energy would match the child’s.

There was a brief discussion about it once. Instead of acting civil he launched into a full argument with his sister, irrationally defensive about his role as Billy’s father. Why did he get that way with her? She brought up something he had already considered. Was it because thinking it made him feel guilty, like the shit father he was so afraid of becoming? Was it that he worked himself to the bone trying to do the right thing for he and Billy, yet it clearly wasn’t enough? Or maybe it was jealousy, because his brothers were able to care for their children with their wives, and he was sinking all alone.

Neil didn’t want to be inept. He didn’t want to be a cruel, unloving father like theirs had been, and he didn’t want Beth to be better than him. She was, obviously. Neil, who had gotten married young, wasn’t fit for parenthood. His sister was, and she lived closer than their brothers, so it made sense. She should take Billy. The conversation was well-intentioned, even logical, but he couldn’t handle the emotions it brought up.

Whenever he couldn’t handle emotions he lost himself. At times it was like blacking out without a drink. Rage would overwhelm him and he would leave his body, returning only to find his son curled in a ball on the floor, sobbing or bleeding. How many times over the next several years did he come out of a rage blackout, shaking, praying he hadn’t severely hurt his son?

He hated himself for it, and he hated Billy for taking it. What was the child supposed to do? He assumed his father’s abuse was because of something he had done wrong. Often times it had nothing to do with him. Billy’s strong enough to fight back now, but he doesn’t want to, and he doesn’t cry about it anymore either.

Instead he laughs, which is proof to Neil that he failed. He continued the cycle by raising a son who was programmed to need the pain.

On top of that, he raised a faggot.

Susan and Max were the one thing he got right, and the only way he could cope. While his failure was glaringly evident in Billy, his success was reflected in the girls. He could salvage something, pushing Billy to be a brother to Susan’s daughter, who he treated as a second chance.


 

All day at work he struggles to concentrate. Each time he calms down enough to get work done, the argument with his son replays, making him angry again. Why did Billy bring Beth and her partner up after all these years? Why did Neil allow himself to be baited into the fight? What did he do before he left, and why did he come back for Max this morning when he clearly could have stayed gone?

Perhaps the memory of the morning is the worst. The audacity of Billy and the Harrington boy is simply astounding. Steve strolled boldly inside Neil’s home to fetch both his kids. And Billy, blatantly going steady with a boy? How long has it been? How many other people know?

They can’t move again. Who cares that the people of Hawkins don’t seem much concerned with that sort of lifestyle? This entire town gives him the heebie-jeebies, with its secrets and talk, but it doesn’t matter to him if they care or not. The true issue is that Neil sees his son’s sexuality as a sign of personal failure.

When they moved from California it was with the goal of setting Billy straight. Like everything else, it failed.

He leaves work early that afternoon, intent on getting home before Billy and Max, and certainly before Susan. Whatever happens now is between he and his son-- and if the Harrington boy is there, he’ll be a part of it, too. Neil knows it scares Susan to watch him be hard on Billy, but he has to be. Life has given him no choice, no solution for this.

In the front room he sits with a beer and waits.

At exactly three thirty Billy’s blue Camaro rolls into the driveway. He and Max walk through the door, alone. Neil rises to greet them. Immediately Max’s face goes white and she rushes to her room. She’s afraid of him, or what he and Billy combined are capable of. It’s a horrible feeling to know that your children are afraid of you, and that you have succumbed to the person you swore you’d never be.

Instead of serving as inspiration to change, it sucks him deeper into the quicksand that is the chain of dysfunction and abuse. As he goes down, he drags Billy down, too.

Without a word, Billy starts for his room. Neil blocks him and sets his beer on the mantle piece. He squares up to his son, who usually mirrors the stance automatically. Today he’s deflated, rid of the macho exterior he played so well. Did he only play the part to please Neil? Nothing is ever enough for him, and maybe last night was the moment Billy realized that. It would make sense, seeing as Billy suddenly ditched the bad boy look for this mess of slumped shoulders, short hair, and clothes that don’t fit.

“Stand up straight,” Neil demands. Billy obliges, a good sign. He starts where they left off this morning. “That room needs to be cleaned in the next ten minutes.”

“Or what?” he sighs.

“Don’t give me that shit.” The edge he hated so much in his father’s voice is ever present in his own. It spurs his anger, because he hates himself for it. “You’ll clean it, period. First, you’ll take off that damn scarf. Did you really wear that thing all day?”

“Yes, and before you ask, yes. It’s Steve’s.” Billy reaches up and pats where the ends hang down like a tie. Satisfied. With what? The fact that he’s pissing his father off?

“Get rid of it.”

His son steps back and clicks his tongue. When he meets Neil’s eyes he says, “No.”

“Don’t make me get rid of it for you.”

Billy seems to consider this. He gives a slight nod and, maintaining eye contact, wraps a fist around the end of the scarf. Achingly slow he undoes it, finally slipping it off and holding it out for Neil to take. Instinctively he does, not because he wants the scarf-- it was a simple show of power-- but because he’s so in shock of what it was hiding.

There is a thick ring around Billy’s neck, high up by the jawline. Angry red, bruised. He can’t remember the last time he saw his son like this. Small, vulnerable, exhausted. Billy doesn’t want to fight. Clearly there’s no fight left in him because he already attacked himself. Was this all because of their argument last night? The foolish admission Billy provoked? Neil should have never let it slip, but it is true.

It is true.

Neil isn’t stupid, he knows what a ring like that means, and he knows what Billy is capable of. Unfortunately he’s learned from the best how to be reckless and fearless in the worst way. He can’t fathom how he put his son in this spot. He can’t accept the reality before him, so he retreats to his most comfortable place. Denial.

“What’s that?” He waves the scarf as he gestures to Billy’s throat, holding it like homosexuality is a contagious virus, embedded in everything the boy touches.

Billy’s jaw tenses. “What do you think it is, Dad?”

“I don’t know, you tell me.”

“You wouldn’t care even if I told you.” He isn’t picking a fight, he is stating a fact. It burns Neil’s gut. It wasn’t supposed to be this way, honest.

“Try me.”

He seems to shake with the telling of it. “Last night after our wholesome discussion, I choked myself with my belt until I blacked out and fell into my mirror and knocked down all my stuff. I didn’t clean it because that wasn’t where my night ended.”

Ignoring the details he asks, “Where did it end?”

“At Steve’s. He took care of me, like you never would.”

A burst of red ignites the rage. This is his son’s truth, and it is too much for Neil to bear. He shoves Billy into the mantlepiece, audibly knocking his spine against it. “Don’t you dare try to tell me I never take care of you. I have brought you this far.”

This time Billy doesn’t laugh, smirk, or spit back. His eyes don’t get misty, either. It’s as if he’s not even there. Gone, his perverse spirit released. Again he sighs. “So let me go. I’ll stay with Steve until I’m eighteen and figure things out. I’ll pick up and drop off Max everyday as long as she wants me to.”

“What the hell are you saying?” He grips Billy’s shirt tighter.

“I’m saying I can’t do this anymore. I can’t pretend to be someone I’m not. I will never make you happy. You’ve known me for seventeen years, and every year you like me less.”

Neil winds back and punches his son so hard his knuckles sting. It’s a blind reaction, spurred by another unfathomable truth. His face is inches from Billy’s now. He wants to slice him apart. “Be. Careful. I told you both what would happen if I caught you together again, and I have. You’re lucky to still be breathing.”

“No,” Billy chuckles weakly. “No, I’m not. If you really want to kill me, go ahead. I’m willing to die for him, and you want to know why? Because I love him. He is beautiful, and playful, and he makes me laugh. When was the last time you saw me laugh?”

The night I choked you.

“Exactly,” Billy says. “He is worth the loss of my life. So what’s it gonna be?”

Neil can’t kill him. He isn’t stupid enough to put his son in the hospital or end his life, no matter how tempting. He has lost his power, at least for now. How long do relationships between two high school boys last? Not long, he imagines, especially with an animal like Billy in the mix.

It won’t be long before he comes running home, Neil tells himself. They’ll handle this then.

For now, he steps aside to let Billy pass.

Chapter Text

There’s a knock on his door. He ignores it. Then another. Light raps, like a child. He remembers he came home with one. Maxine, the sister he’s abandoning to fulfil his own selfish needs. Avoiding his father’s brutal fist, Susan’s meek helplessness, and the burden of responsibility.

His biggest need of all is sleeping in the arms of an angel.

It will be worth what he gives up.

“Come in.”

She does, nervously, although she’s not a nervous girl. Only around him. It strikes the familiar chord of guilt in his chest. This morning she apologized for what he goes through, as if she’s the burden. Of course she’s not, but he can’t treat her with the respect she deserves. He looks at life through a broken lens. Always she is a distortion, never a sister. Earlier in the car she looked like a sister for a split second, and then the image disappeared, along with the thought that he could ever be what anyone expects him to be.

Steve will realize one day, too. He is a monster, he cannot be saved, and he will never be loved. Until the illusion breaks he will revel in the sunlight Steve’s existence pours on him. Whatever he has to do to keep this relationship and reproduce last night’s softness, he will do.

He zips the duffle bag set on top of his bed. It’s made now. Before he packed he cleaned the mess and broken glass, organized what he could. Though he has no intention of ever coming back here, it’s still his room, and he isn’t going to leave it like a murder scene.

His hand rests on the zipped bag. “What is it?”

She moves closer, voice quiet. It would make sense that she’s afraid of his father, too. Funny, because she’s the one who doesn’t have to be. Maybe leaving will do her good. Remove the unpredictable chemical in the experiment, things will balance out.

Pulling her long hair behind her ears she says, “You don’t have to get me anymore. Really, I’ll take the bus, or get a bike and start riding with my friends.”

The offer is tantalizing. He’ll take her up on it. Will Steve? About a week ago they were planning to use the kids as their cover. Now they’re talking about bringing the kids to school like bonafide parents. Does he care? No. He’d sooner stitch himself to Steve without anesthetics than share him with the kids. This is important to him, though, and Billy needs to honor that. He will do whatever he needs to for Steve to keep loving him.

Billy’s dislike of the kids is mutual. They will never like him either, with good reason. Why should anyone get past watching a teenage monster viciously pound their friend unconscious? Come to think of it, how has Steve gotten past it? Why does he choose to see the good in someone inherently bad? Why did he care unconditionally for Billy last night, after he admitted the harm done was self-inflicted? That’s enough to destroy the illusion, yet Steve continues to gaze at their love through rosey lenses.

The lens that Billy sees their love through is broken. To him it’s not merely a dream, or reverie, it is life itself. Steve is all he thinks about, and last night intensified it. He couldn’t concentrate at school, and it wasn’t because of what his father said, or the aching pain throughout his body. It was because he couldn’t stop imagining what it will be like when they live together, sleep together every night, take showers together, fuck, get their homework done, get their shit together.

Together.

If anyone had told him when he arrived in this shithole town that he would go steady with Steve, he would have never taken out his rage on him that night at the Byers’.

“Max?” Unconsciously he taps the bag, twice. “I would have killed him if you hadn’t stopped me.”

“What?” She cocks her head, appalled. Uncomfortably she sticks her hands into her back pockets, rocks on her heels.

He watches her. “You heard me. I would have killed him.”

She glances at the floor, her tattered Vans. Then his room, the different dingy elements, the space he will no longer occupy. She meets his eyes. “Yeah. You would have.”

“Thank you.” This startles her. He chuckles and picks up his bag. “Yes, Max. I’m thanking you.”

“You’re… welcome? I mean, I shouldn’t be thanked for what I did. You should be figuring out how to never do it again.”

That pisses him off, but he chokes his pride down quick, remembering Steve’s horror at the sight of his marred skin, the realization that he did this, and that he is not as well as he seems. She is right. He shouldn’t be running towards the only thing in the world that lets him breathe. He should be learning how to breathe on his own, to breathe with someone. Not because of them.

He nods. “I’ll talk to Steve, see if he’ll let you take the bus.”

She rolls her eyes, but she’s smiling. His step sister will always love Steve more than him. It makes him jealous. Another piece of pride to swallow. He knows why the kids love Steve; for all the reasons he does, too.

“Do his parents know you’re coming?”

“By the time I show up, hopefully.”

“What will you do if they say no?”

Billy pouts in thought. Decidedly he says, “They aren’t going to.”

Earlier today he skipped class and went to sit with Steve in the cafeteria. They reviewed the events of the morning-- the magic of waking up together, the adrenaline rush of getting home in time to pick up Max and act like nothing happened, the danger of seeing his father. He was grateful Steve interfered.

They discussed fantasies, the biggest being waking up like that all the time. Adorably Steve described what it would be like if he moved in. Optimistically he began to hash out a plan. Getting home and calling his mom before she left work, telling her Billy needs to stay a few more nights, cleaning the house and setting up dinner to win her over when she arrived with inevitable questions. By the time Billy showed up, battered or not, Steve’s mother would be convinced.

Stage one of running away at eighteen: live with your boyfriend until you’re eighteen.

Soon he will find out if their plan will work. After this he’ll make a quick stop to pick up both dry and liquid goods. Then he’ll drive to the Harrington house, praying the whole ride that Steve’s parents will let him stay. They will, he assures himself, as Steve did at lunch. They will, and later they’ll steal away to his room, where Billy will reveal the goods and stash them in his boyfriend’s sock drawer.

Thinking about it turns him on.

He smiles at Max. “See you around.”


The door swings open. Steve, whose big brown eyes are filled with sadness and worry, lets out a long-held breath. He takes Billy’s hand and holds it flat against his chest. His heart is racing. Did he intend for Billy to feel this, or does he need to feel that Billy is real?

The latter. He leads Billy upstairs to his bedroom. As he sets his bag down Steve shuts and locks the door. “What took you so long?”

“Nothing, princess.” Steve’s eyes flick to the shiner Billy came here with in disbelief. It’s fresh. “I’m fine,” he says preemptively. It doesn’t matter that he craves Steve’s attention-- he hates himself for being the reason Steve is trembling with anxiety. In the last two weeks he’s grown programmed to live in fear of the worst. That’s Billy’s fault.

“If you were fine, why weren’t you here sooner? It’s almost five thirty, dinner’s almost on the table, and I--” His voice cracks. “I was imagining you dead.”

“Harrington…” Billy pouts. He wants to be angry at Steve for caring, because as much as he needs to be cared for, it’s uncomfortable to know someone does. Being angry at someone else would also give him a chance to deflect the hatred he feels towards himself. He caused this, created this expression on his lover’s face that screams agony.

There’s no time to be angry. Steve asks, “What did he say?”

Recalling the last words his father spoke, he says, “That he’s sure I’ll be back soon, and when I am I’ll have to answer to him.”

Steve searches his eyes, reading all the unspoken words. He shakes his head.  “No, no way. That’s not happening.”

“Why?”  

“Because I’m never letting you leave!” Too heavy. That’s too heavy, it’s what he always thinks. Steve continues, “I’m not letting you go back to someone who drove you to this point!”

“Drove me to what point?”

“This!” He pulls Billy in front of the large mirror that hangs above his low dresser. They stand at the same height, their reflections worlds apart. Steve is narrow, pale, scarless. The scarlet knit sweater hangs loose from his shoulders, where it used to fit well. Billy’s form is bulky in comparison, his hair a mess, his skin bruised and marred in a fucked up design of his own making.

The only commonality is sorrow in their eyes.

Billy’s heart begins to race. He is being reprimanded once more by the only person who loves him. It puts him on edge. The first reprimand came that morning he showed up with flowers. And if you ever treat me like that again I will leave you. This is your only chance. Do you understand? That was months ago, and Billy has treated him poorly again. Steve gets upset yet dismisses it every time.

Eventually Billy will do something inexcusable. They are getting closer to that moment, he feels it in his gut. The illusion, the intensity. These are always the beginnings of abandonment, but it is a derailed train, moving of its own volition in a way that cannot be stopped.

His mind is a mess. He is a mess. There is no way to dial it back or make it perfect. He will have to cling to this softness until it, like everything else good in his life, disappears.

They lock eyes in the mirror. “You were the reason I stopped.”

Steve turns to him, face pinched with emotion. “Don’t tell me that.”

“It’s true.” He lifts his shirt to expose his hip, with its puckered half-scabbed burns. Steve grimaces. “I remembered what you said, and I stopped. I drove straight here because I wanted you to find out from me. Not through one of our stupid classmates, not through the kids, and not at a party.”

Steve presses Billy’s hand away from his shirt, so it falls back over the wounds. “Why did you take off the bandages?”

“Because I like the way it hurts.”

Suddenly Steve is against him, arms thrown around his ringed neck, lips pressed to his ear, arms tight around his ribs, bodies pressed together from chest to stomach to hips to thighs. Stretched like this he is even thinner; Billy can wrap his arms clear around Steve’s waist and touch his own sides. It is harrowing and sad and such a fucking turn on.

In this tug of war the goal is to become one with the other person. Billy leans down to get leverage and picks Steve up. Instinctively his legs wrap around Billy’s hips as he carries him to the bed and sets him on his back.

Immediately they shift to sync up. Steve squeezes him closer with his thighs, pulls him closer by the collar. Their lips meet. Billy runs fingers through his wild hair and balls up a fist. In response Steve bites his lip so hard he tastes blood.

“Sorry,” Steve mumbles between kisses.

He bites back, smiling. “It’s an honor to be tortured by a masterpiece.” He grinds himself upward against Steve, who moans. He’d rather those legs be bare and thrown over his shoulders, but there’s a time and place for everything. He knows Steve isn’t ready for that yet.

Moving away from his lips, Billy kisses and licks his neck, nips at his earlobe. While Steve is greedily tugging him down for more, he adjusts himself, hooks one leg over Steve’s so he’s on top now. He lowers half his weight and continues to grind, friction building heat in the right spots. The noises that escape Steve are perfectly hungry and carefully hushed.

“You’re mine,” Billy breathes into his ear. He slides a hand up Steve’s shirt and fingers his nipple. Then he lowers the rest of his weight.

Steve gasps. “I’m yours.”

“You love me.” His fingers rake over ribs and grab the flesh at his waist. Billy wants all of him, now .

“I love you,” Steve groans. “God, I love you.”

He runs his hand over Steve’s stomach and stops at the buttons of his jeans. These need to come off before the pressure inside makes him burst. He’s tasted Steve before and he needs to again, needs to drink him like an elixir that will give him more time.

A loud call from downstairs interrupts them. “Boys! Dinner!”

It’s Mrs. Harrington. They have to respect her, of course. Disappointedly they separate themselves, standing and adjusting clothes and hair. They glance at each other and burst into laughter. Steve’s smile is the air Billy survives on.

“What did she say, anyway?” he asks.

“You can stay as long as you need to.” He takes Billy’s hand again and laces their fingers together. Bringing the back of Billy’s palm to his lips he says, “Basically, you can stay forever.”

“Forever.” He’s still hard. They need a minute to calm down before going to the table. “I want to be with you forever.”

“I know.” Steve pulls him into another hug, gentler but no less full of love. “Me too.”


Dinner, as with the last time Billy stayed to eat, is fluid and casual. Steve and his mother fill most of the space making conversation, and when their mouths are full they put it on Billy to talk. Mr. Harrington is the quietest, yet follows everything. He asks Billy a few things, building off the last dinner’s talk. It’s strange for an adult to recall things about him, like the name of the town he lived in on the west coast, or the sports he likes to play. Then, he remembers Mr. Harringrove was part of why his father got work out here. They’re in the same field. That must be why he retains the information.

Is he going to say anything to his dad about this? It’s already established that he’s having a rough time at home and that’s why he needs a place to stay for awhile-- that’s what Steve told his mother, who relayed it to his father when he got home around the same time they made their way to the table. He hopes there’s no fuss about it. Steve fussing over him is more than enough, he doesn’t need adults making a big deal out of nothing.

After dinner he offers to clean up. Mrs. Harrington waves away the offer, but Steve jumps up to join him, and show him around the kitchen. He knows his way a little because of New Year’s Eve, but it’s good to get the full tour. Steve does the dishes while he dries and learns where to put them away. The parents have retreated to the living room, where they turn the TV on. When the boys are done in the kitchen they do something wild: watch TV with them like a family.


 

Later, they’re doing homework in Steve’s room, sitting at the foot of the bed with their backs against it. Neither of them have done homework in a while, but they decided if they’re living together they need to help each other do good.

The door is open about a foot, but Mrs. Harrington knocks anyway. “Can I come in?”

“Yeah!” Steve calls.

There’s a sleeping bag in her arms. She crosses the room and sets it on the bed, then kneels before the boys, face to face with Billy. This makes him nervous. Whenever an adult gets this close to him it means he’s done something wrong and there’s going to be a confrontation.

Apparently that isn’t what it means in this household.

“Billy,” she reaches out and lightly touches his knee. “I noticed your neck and ear. It’s fine if you don’t want to talk about it, I just don’t want you to think I’m ignoring what I see. You don’t have to handle it alone.”

Steve watches him for signs of impending detonation. Her comment isn’t upsetting, though. It’s startling, reminiscent of Aunt Beth and Dawn. They wouldn’t pressure him to talk or insist on solving his problems. There was simply an open channel of communication between them that brought the truth out of Billy, from the way he felt living alone with Dad to the deepest desires he had for his future. Those meant nothing after it ended.

Maybe they could mean something again now. He might dare to dream here. Steve has already saved his life more than once, can his mother aid in the process of keeping him alive and helping him get well? This is the first time in Billy’s life he feels like he could want to get better. He could allow himself to be fixed.

“Thanks, Mrs. Harrington. That means a lot.”

She smiles sweetly. Steve has her full hair and round brown eyes. “No need to thank me. Just treat the house with respect, and take care of yourself.”

“Of course,” he nods. No charming grin appears. He is still taken aback. “Always.”

As she leaves Steve leans against him. “I’m proud of you.”

“What for?” He is genuinely confused.

“For doing this. Standing up for yourself.”

“Oh.”

There’s no way to articulate what this experience means to him. His breakdown last night, his arrival here this evening. Why should anyone be proud of him? He’s still ashamed of himself, and he isn’t standing up for himself so much as he is drawing closer to Steve.

Chapter Text

ABBA is blasting in the living room downstairs. They’re supposed to pick up Max and bring her to the Byers’ tonight, where she’ll have a sleepover with Will and El. The teens were invited to stay for pizza, and Steve isn’t missing that. Plus, he won’t miss a chance for everyone to get to know his boyfriend and realize he’s not a crazy monster-- and that he’s not crazy for dating him.

It’s been two weeks since Billy moved in, one week since they ambushed his father’s house for more of his things. His weights set, which Steve struggled to help carry to the car, his records, and more of his clothes. Right now Billy’s in the living room working out, furniture pushed aside and record spinning. Some days Steve jumps in for a workout with him, but tonight he’s excited to be social, with Billy at his side. He’s eager for the kids to get over their irrational hatred.

It took about four separate conversations with Dustin to convince him to let Steve and Billy get him before school, and even then it’s only on cold days. Same for Max, which is surprising, because Max and Billy seem to be getting along for the first time. It’s as if they’re tolerating each other for Steve, with no genuine interest in growing close like the family he wants them all to be.

Please let that change.

The bridge of the familiar anthem comes in, crescendoing towards the chorus. You’re in the mood for a dance… And when you get the chance…   This is one of his mother’s records; Billy was amazed when she told him he could use the record player any time he wants. Still, ABBA? Steve shakes his head. Who knew that behind the brick wall exterior is a soft boy who loves all kinds of music?

Steve checks his reflection in the bedroom mirror. Is it the black sweater and gold chain washing him out? He notices now that his cheekbones and jawline are pronounced, and there are circles under his eyes because he hasn’t been sleeping, because he and Billy do something every day, whether it’s a few lines of coke or drinks or fooling around and talking. Hopefully Mrs. Byers and Hopper don’t notice the change, because he wants to appear healthy and whole in the relationship with Billy. Not like a deteriorating version of himself, which Dustin seems to think he is.

Does he let you eat?, Dusin demanded over the phone the other night.

Anxiously Steve had laughed. Obviously! What kind of question is that?

I dunno, a reasonable one? Honestly, Steve, you’re starting to look like Mike. It’s not his fault because he’s growing, but you’re eighteen, so what’s your excuse? And don’t tell me it’s because you forget to eat because you guys are that wrapped up in each other. I know you. You might share your food, but you’d never miss a meal.

He insisted he had no idea what Dustin was talking about, but as he stares at himself now he sees it. To his frustration, his little brother is right. Again.

Abandoning the mirror he trots downstairs, into the living room. Over the music he calls, “Hate to burst your bubble, babe, but we have to go!”

Billy counts out three more bicep curls and sets the weights down against the wall, where they live now. Then he takes the needle off the record, since the next song is slow and sad. “I thought they aren’t expecting us until seven.”

“They’re not, but we have to get Max, and I have to stop for gas--”

“We’ll take my car.”

“I want to drive tonight.” Steve pouts. He crosses the room to Billy and drapes his arms loose around his hips. “Let me drive.” He’s in a white tank top, his shoulders glistening. Steve can’t get enough of his smell after a workout. He leans in and sinks his teeth into the meat of his shoulder.

“That’s how you want to play?” He laughs. Holding Steve tight Billy kicks his legs from under him and lays him on the floor. “I guess you’ll help me with this last thing.”

“Oh yeah? What’s the last thing?” He giggles, gazing up at Billy, who lowers himself into a plank right above him.

“This.” Billy smirks, dips into a push up, and kisses him. “One.”

He does it again, and Steve counts, “Two.”

Each rep Steve gets a kiss and counts out loud, failing to stifle giggles. His boyfriend really is this strong. His boyfriend really is kissing him on the floor of his living room, his heavy breathing acting as background music. Steve is rendered putty by blue eyes and long lashes and parted lips.

He belongs to this.

By the fifteenth rep Steve isn’t giggling anymore. He’s quiet, enamored by the beauty that has entered his life and penetrated his soul. Embedded , that’s what Billy wrote on the page of his book. You are embedded in me. Yes, that describes it perfectly-- falling in love.

Billy begins to tease him, grinding against Steve when he dips down, getting him hard and smirking about it. What a tease! The next time their lips meet Steve bites, and Billy’s hips hit his and he can’t take it anymore. Steve shoves him away so he falls back, then climbs on top of him, hands on either side.

“That needy, pretty boy?” Billy’s voice is an octave lower than it was a minute ago. He must feel Steve getting progressively stiff, because he laughs. “Someone’s about to get blown harder than our chance of being on time.”


They stand at the door, two teens jittery high, all three of them cold. Max steps forward and knocks as Billy takes the last few pulls off a cigarette and tosses it into the yard. Inside Steve picks up the unmistakable sound of his children laughing. One, two— three? Who else came over tonight?

The door opens to reveal Jonathan, who ushers them in with a warm smile, Polaroid camera in hand. “We tried waiting for you, but...” He shrugs. “Thirteen year olds.”

From the kitchen El chirps, “Max?”

The redhead rushes towards the sound, grateful to be with her friends. Steve and Billy stand awkwardly in the living room for a moment. The last time they were here together they were rendered unconscious. One by Billy’s hands, the other by a syringe of sedatives. It has crossed Steve’s mind before that if Max hadn’t stepped in, he’d be dead right now.

That thought is too dark to entertain, especially while he’s high. They did a healthy line each before leaving. He shakes the darkness out of his head as Jonathan properly introduces himself to Billy and invites them both into the kitchen. There’s more people here than he thought there would be. Four of his children sit around the table. It’s not just Will, El, and Max. Their other boyfriend Mike is here, too, eating a pepperoni slice and sitting across the table from his sister, who’s giggling freely at something one of the girls said.

“Nance?” Steve hears his voice before realizing he called out. Another awesome element of coke highs: tongue tripping over your brain. He’s not ready to see her, let alone have a big family dinner with both their boyfriends included. It’ll be like a double date, except that Nancy and Jonathan don’t know they’re dating. Do they? How much have his kids said? How much has he said? Lack of sleep and too much cocaine is warping his memory. He starts to sweat, paranoid.

Nancy turns around to face him, her familiar tight-lipped smile crinkling the corners of her sparkling doe eyes. Beautiful, as always. “We were wondering when you guys would get here!”

Before he can reply Billy flashes a smarmy grin. “Well, we’re here now, aren’t we?”

Her joy dials down. “Yeah, you are.”

Don’t get upset, Billy. Don’t ruin this. As soon as he thinks it he feels guilty. Billy has been through so much in his life. How could Steve blame him for having a short fuse? Besides, he’s trying. In two short weeks he’s gotten better, helping out with cooking and chores, doing his homework-- his attitude at school is different, too. When Steve passes him in the halls Billy is smiling, moving towards class with the intention of actually learning.

Their relationship is the catalyst for this growth, Steve tells himself. There’s no reason not to trust him tonight. He’ll handle this well like he’s been handling everything else lately, and tonight when they get home, if Steve’s parents are still out, he will reward Billy for it.

Mrs. Byers recognizes the sudden tension and jumps in. “Come on, guys! Have a seat! We’ve got plain cheese, pepperoni, and the weird all-topping one he likes.” She nods towards Chief Hopper, who’s been watching everything unfold with patient amusement.

“This is how it’s meant to be.” He lifts his soda glass, as if to say cheers. Around him everyone falls back into boisterous conversation, talking over each other and laughing.

Steve and Billy sit beside each other at the only empty place sittings. Billy reaches for a slice first, then asks Steve what kind he wants. He’s not even hungry-- won’t be for a couple of hours, when the high wears off. It’s kind of sad he agreed to get high, because he had really wanted to enjoy the meal. It wasn’t hard for Billy to convince him that their visit would be more fun while high. He goes along with whatever Billy says, but he should have stood his ground tonight.

There’s a certain guilt attached to knowing he’s messed up around his kids.

The pizza tastes like cardboard, so he drinks soda to quell the cotton mouth, which just makes him full faster. He sees the adults eyeing his plate, the slice that only has three bites taken from it, and tries to engage in any of the multiple conversations. For some reason he can’t join any. He simply watches, heart racing, taking in the details of this overwhelming moment. A moment that should be relaxing and fun.

Jonathan, who sits on the other side of Billy, asks him about different parts of California. Curious, Billy asks why he wants to know, and that’s when they begin to discuss photography and travel. Adjacent to them, Nancy is describing the kinds of makeup she brought over to El. There’s a light in her deep brown eyes that has Mike and Max melted. Beside Mike sits Will, who watches and asks Nancy questions giddily, leaning in close.

Minutes go by, until an inevitable lull signals the end of their meal. A sparkle appears in Hopper’s eyes. “There’s just somethin about us all being around this table again, huh?”

“Yeah!” Will adds. “Too bad Lucas and Dustin didn’t want to come.”

“Really? That isn’t like them.” The kids shoot Nancy a look. “What? It’s a reasonable question, you guys are always together.”

“Well, not tonight,” Mike says sharply.

“Why?” she asks.

Testily he says, “They had things to do. You know, important things. With their moms.” Then he gives her a look like shut up before you get us in trouble.

“But Mike, didn’t you say they--” El begins, but Max cuts her off with urgency.

“Nancy! Can you show us the makeup you brought? I’m really excited to let El do my makeover.” Her expression exaggerates this point.

Steve knows what they’re covering up.

“Okay, sure,” Nancy slides her chair back. “Let’s put our plates in the sink first.”

The girls nod and get up from the table. Mike and Will jump up after them, relieved to be rid of the audience. This leaves the adults with the three teen boys. Even more awkward than having an impromptu double date with your ex and both your new boyfriends.

Billy bites into his crust as the kids’ voices travel into the other room. “You guys have dinners like this often?”

“This is the first we’ve had, I think.” Mrs. Byers looks to Jonathan for agreement.

“It is,” he nods. “The last time we were all together here, it was the anniversary of everything. Both times we traded food for, you know...” He trails off with a reminiscent half-grin. Surely each of them, except Billy, are imagining the weapons and roles they were placed in. Like Dustin says, each member of the party contributes in their own way. Steve felt like his role as babysitter was so unimportant, but maybe it wasn't. He’s glad he still gets to be with them, even though he knows deep down Billy isn’t.

“Anniversary of what?” he asks.

“Oh…” Jonathan glances at Hopper to save him, but Steve finds his voice first. “The anniversary of when Will came home.”

“Yeah!” Mrs. Byers is pepped with anxious energy. “We had sort of a party, you know? It was such a stressful time, and we were all so relieved to have him back.”

“I bet,” Billy says, but it’s obvious he doesn’t trust the story.

Why is he so hypervigilant for all the wrong reasons? He can detect the slightest changes in other people’s body language or demeanors, yet can’t control his own emotions or moods. Steve knows this topic will come up again later tonight, in private, and he better have his lie prepped and ready when it does. He’s not sure he wants to know how Billy would handle learning about the Upside Down.

There’s no need to worry about it right now. Steve’s kids are in the living room, a mess of lanky limbs, wide eyes, and white teeth. Nancy’s got a several makeup palettes and other pieces out on the coffee table, and is explaining tenderly to Eleven what each is used for. Will is equally amused, while Mike and Max appear interested only because the others are.

Drawn to this new scene, Steve clears his spot at the table and asks Billy if he wants to come along. Surprisingly he elects to stay at the table with Hopper, who has pulled him into conversation, giving Steve time to be free with his children, without any concern for what his boyfriend will think about the attention he gives them.

Chapter Text

Nancy is one of her heroes because she is more than just a pretty girl.

Eleven knows this because she has asked.

When Jonathan was too afraid, Nancy learned how to shoot a gun to help kill the demogorgon. The night Steve showed up at the Byers’, she protected both boys. After losing her best friend she continued to study hard and keep her grades up-- she even coached Steve through school and college applications. Then she came up with the idea to reveal the truth about Barb, and helped Jonathan with Will at the same time.

Right now in Eleven’s relationship, the others have more to offer her than she does them. Mike, Will, and Max can read, write, and do math. They know how the world works, and what happened before they were born. They’re constantly teaching her new words and concepts and, while she loves it, she wishes she could be more for them.

All she can do is get angry and move things.

They wouldn’t say that, though. They would tell her she is amazing, regardless of what she can do. Sadly, El isn’t used to being loved for who she is. During her short time here on Earth she has endured more stress and trauma than most people in their lives combined. Mrs. Byers and Hopper-- who she likes to call Mom and Dad in private, which Will adores-- have started to explain bit by bit that what she went through isn’t normal, and that it is going to take years to process and work through.

She knows. How often do nightmares rip through her chest, waking her up screaming and sobbing into Hopper’s arms? How many times does a quick movement or sharp voice trigger an involuntary response, like freezing in place or lifting her hand, prepared to take down whoever or whatever comes her way? And how many times does she finally feel safe enough to describe a memory, only to bring the listener to tears?

About a month ago Mike was over in the afternoon to help her with school work. The tutor had left, and Hopper wasn’t home yet. They were sitting next to each other on the same side of the kitchen table, books spread out before them. A memory appeared and wanted to come out at once, but words evaded her. Always. My sister was… My sister wasn’t… Minutes passed, with Mike allowing her to speak on her own time. Finally, the words fell from her lips, clumsy and unfamiliar.

My sister wanted me to kill.

He perked up at that, alert and listening close. Despite her limited speech she described travelling alone to a strange city, walking through alleys and garbage to find a band of homeless misfits who committed crimes to survive. She explained what it meant, those words Mama repeated, and how her sister Kali pressured her to kill one of the bad men. Mike listened raptly and asked questions, the answers to which brought rosy color to his cheeks, and a glassy look to his warm brown eyes.

At one point she paused. Mike, are you okay?

He had become aware of himself then, sat up straight and sniffled like he was fine. He wasn’t fine, though, because nothing about her story was fine-- and she didn’t know. So he told her. Softly, Mike softly spoke to her about how a good sister would never force her to kill anyone. He held her hand and brought it to his chest. His heart was beating like those machines they used to connect to her head, the ones that made up and down scribbles. That’s how his heart went, and it worried her.

What’s wrong?

That’s how it should feel, El. When you’re in danger, or when something isn’t right. You should feel this and turn back, or get help.

Her face had pinched up. It made no sense. But, Mike, when my heart beats like this it means I’m doing the right thing. She told him about Papa, and all the times she had delivered for him, shaking and sobbing and bleeding in his arms. He would hold her and smile, whisper about what a good job she did, and how proud she had made him.

As she spoke, Mike’s face crumpled. He is beautiful when he cries, even more beautiful when he wraps his bony arms around her and pulls her close. Into her hair that night he said, Papa was a bad man, El. He made you do bad things and tricked you into believing that what felt wrong was right. Through tears he assured her, You don’t have to believe that anymore.

Similar scenes unfolded with Mrs. Byers and Will, who were equally empathetic and eager to help her heal. It was different talking with Will, though. Eleven understood him without words. What Mike explained to her she could intrinsically feel with Will. That helped her internalize these important changes; she wasn’t a monster, but there were broken parts of her, and with time those broken parts would be sealed up with gold.

Kintsugi , Will said. His older brother had an art textbook that showed pictures of it. He showed her. Broken porcelain turned into lovely creations, pieces bound together by gold, making the whole stronger than it ever had been. That’s what she would be someday soon. A unique piece of art with a story to tell, and wisdom that would inspire others.

Maybe that’s why Jonathan loves Nancy. She’s beautiful because she’s been broken, too, and is way stronger because of her struggles. Last year she lost her best friend. This year she fell out of love and back in. She has shot at and burned monsters, and even survived being in the Upside Down.

Eleven loves the tough girls around her. They give her hope.

While Nancy does her makeup in the living room she gazes up, admiring how her hands work, how her face looks when she’s concentrating. Max and Will are watching from either side of her. Will’s eyes dart from Nancy, to El, to Mike, who’s sitting beside El on the couch. Even though they can’t actually read each other’s thoughts, it takes hardly any effort to read Will.

“Just ask. He’ll say yes.”

His big bug eyes snap to El’s. He chuckles, caught. “What?”

“You want to try it on Mike.”

The expression on his face is priceless. As Mike and Max piece together what she means, Nancy laughs. “I think that’s a great idea, El. Everyone deserves to play with makeup, right?”

“Right,” El says.

Mike shakes his head. “No, I’m not-- boys don’t wear makeup.”

“Sure they do!”

They turn to the new voice. Standing behind Nancy is Steve, the nice one with the big hair. He seems small tonight, arms folded over his chest, but he looks excited. Not as excited as he did that night after the campaign. Eleven remembers how uncomfortable it was, with Steve and Billy smoking and laughing and picking Max up so late. El had been nervous to let Max go home with her step brother like that. It was one of those times her heart beat fast and she knew it wasn’t right. Family shouldn’t be that way.

Steve seems alright, though. He notices the kids’ dumbfounded looks and grins. “Seriously, Mike, if you’re afraid of looking stupid or something, don’t be. One, you’ll look badass. Two, you’ll make Will happy, and three… well, I’ll let him practice on me, so by the time he gets to you he’ll turn you into art.”

Eleven smiles to herself. “He already is.”

“What?” Steve asks.

“Art. Mike is already art.”

There’s a chorus of awwww , then the snap of a camera. Eleven’s used to Jonathan snapping pictures at random. She has a few Polaroids of Will and Mike at this point, and tonight she’ll definitely get a keepsake picture of her with Max.

While Mike is busy blushing, Steve sneaks onto the couch beside him. He and Nancy make eyes at each other, like they understand something the kids don’t. What could it be? Eleven thought they weren’t really friends anymore, especially with Jonathan nearby, but it seems like having the kids around them makes it easier. Maybe the kids give them the chance to forget all the rest.

Nancy gestures to the different makeup palettes on the table. “Will, do you want to try?”

He glances around at each of them. Then he nods. “Yeah, okay. I’ll try it.”

“Yes!” Steve claps and rolls his sleeves up, as if he’s the one about to work. He straightens up and brushes his hair back, the better for Will to reach his face. “I trust you, buddy. Go wild.”


El thinks Steve probably shouldn’t have trusted Will.

First he powdered their friend’s entire face, to make him paler than he already is, then carefully layered colored shadow around the whole of his eye sockets, up to the eyebrows, and even dusted his temples and hairline. Electric pink, pastel blue, and purple. This style is heavier than anything El learned from the punks in Chicago. After a few tips from Jonathan, who apparently understood exactly what his little brother was going for, Will added color to Steve’s lips-- more pink, with a darker outline that exaggerated the shape. Finally he used yellow and orange to create a sort of lightning bolt diagonally across one eye.

Halfway through the process Mrs. Byers came in and took up her recliner. Now they’re all wrapped in a semi-circle, Nancy and El sitting together, Max on the arm of the couch. and Jonathan standing with Will and Mike.

Steve is standing, too, and Jonathan’s snapping pictures, laughing.  “Man, this is great.”

“Yeah? What do you think, guys, how do I look?”

The kids shrug. Nearby Mrs. Byers giggles at their bemusement. Max tries her best not to sound rude but still does. “What… what is it supposed to be?”

“Oh, boy!” Hopper guffaws as he enters from the kitchen. Beside him is Billy, short-haired and smirking. “This is priceless, Jonathan, tell me you’re getting it!”

Jonathan waves a still-dark photo. “Already got it.”

Steve bounces with anticipation. “Wait, so, what is it? What do I look like?”

“You look like Bowie,” Billy answers in a deep drawl.

Will spins around. “How’d you know?”

He takes a few more steps into the living room, hands in his pockets. That body language suggests he’s nervous, but he can’t be, not when he is capable of such unrestrained violence. Although, isn’t it El’s experience that power in some situations doesn’t equal comfort in all?

She shivers at the thought of relating to Billy, and the fact that she isn’t the only one. Will’s innocent admiration shouts relief; here is another guy who gets it.

“Because you did a knock-up job. Mrs. Harrington has that album, the one you were thinking of.”

“Really?” Will looks to Steve, who nods. Then he exclaims, “That’s awesome!”

Regardless of Eleven’s apprehension about these new connections, Steve is ecstatic, however, and for the rest of the night the living room is full of music, creation, and laughter. Mike lets Will do his makeup, which everyone expects to be brash like Steve’s. Instead it is gentle and lovely, made to bring out his freckles and loyal eyes. With a bit of convincing Max lets El do her makeup, minimal but poppy. In the background Jonathan and Billy talk about music, as the adults commentate and sip soda.

At one point Mike, softened by lilac shadow and lip gloss, locks eyes with El, and he smiles almost imperceptibly. She knows it is meant only for her, and it says so much. A mix of Isn’t this whole night ridiculous? and I love him so much I’ll let him do this a million times if it makes him happy. El returns the smile. It’s funny, yes, and Will is happy. He deserves to be happy, all the time, forever.

Steve deserves the same uncontainable, pure bliss. Can Billy provide it? The way that Mike, El, Will, and Max are with each other, can Billy be that for their hero? A place to go for comfort and strength, a place where he can go to heal, and discover, and be loved?

That’s what love is supposed to be. A little world you build together with the people who take care of you. The people El loves are heroes. She is loved by heroes. This room is full to bursting with fierce, passionate fighters and brilliant souls.

Gratitude washes over her and she begins to cry without noticing. A warm arm drapes around her shoulders and hugs her in. Steve. A hero because of the sacrifices he makes to keep others safe and well. She melts into his side and closes her eyes.

Quietly she exhales in relief. “Thank you.”

There’s no way he could hear her over the rock record playing, or the playful bickering between Max and Mike, but then he leans down to plant a quick kiss on the top of her head.

“No way, El. Thank you.

 

Chapter Text

Jonathan drives her home. No little brother in the backseat to pass judgement, no interruptions. He likes it best this way, just the two of them. It’s what he wanted all along, ever since they teamed up over a year ago and felt what it was like to have her attention.

Now he truly has her, and thankfully there’s no worry that Steve will interfere. He’s so busy with Billy Hargrove he hardly knows his own name. It was strange, having both of them over together, because nobody except the kids really knows them.

The same way that Jonathan had bonded with Nancy over adrenaline pumping life-or-death moments, the kids took to Steve. They love him, know him in a way he never will as a classmate and peer. In all this time Jonathan has only gotten to know Steve to the extent that it helped him work his way between he and Nancy when they were together.

She is royalty, a queen amongst peasants, but that isn’t what drew him to her. Jonathan wanted her mind. He wanted to break down the barrier propped up by years of suburban living, help her figure out who she really is.

The night they were physical at Murray’s they threw down their gates and opened their kingdoms to each other. Changes manifested, inside and out. Nancy wore her hair differently after that, and carried herself a little looser, as if she had finally been able to exhale after all this time.

Was Nancy ever able to exhale with Steve? He thinks not. She has told him since they began going steady in November that she wasn’t able to be real in that relationship. He thinks of Steve and Billy. Are they real with each other? Are they good for each other? From what he’s heard, they’re not, but the kind side of Billy he saw tonight skewed his image.

He turns down the Sex Pistols and glances at Nancy. “Hey, what do you think about Billy?”

She’s staring out the window, catching the lights of houses that insisted on leaving holiday lights up. Slowly she draws her attention back to him. “You mean how he is with Steve?”

“Sure, yeah.”

Hugging her coat around herself she says, “I don’t think Billy can be trusted. As for Steve, I think he’s given up on making good choices.”

That’s a strong statement. Jonathan laughs weakly, thinking about what they’ve heard from the kids and his parents: Steve and Billy are dating and it’s as successful as a blind man trying to conversate with a deaf one. The intention is there, the means to love each other are not.

Jonathan remembers his father, and how long his mother tolerated the abuse. It wasn’t always obvious, she explained. Apparently their love had began all fire and passion, and what one lacked the other made up for. Intensity isn’t always a good thing, and the more serious their relationship got, the quicker it unraveled. They’d gotten together young, and as adulthood took them hostage they developed unhealthy ways of coping, which didn’t involve each other at all.

The worst of it was his father’s drinking and drug use, which lead, without fail, to thrown objects and swinging fists. After almost a year of that his mother accepted that it wasn’t going to get better. He wasn’t going to change. Loving someone isn’t enough if they don’t want to get better, or if they can’t even see the light.

Will Steve and Billy be like that?

Jonathan learned they are a couple on New Year’s day when Hopper brought Will and El home. He was sprawled on his bed reading Bukowski’s Hot Water Music -- less hysterical than his other works and more absurdly abject-- and listening to The Smiths. His door was open because he’d been waiting for his family. When the front door opened he sat up and marked his place. The kids ran into Will’s room and shut the door, signalling the start of important and secret communication. The two of them could be in there for hours, speaking less than fifty words each and still having conversations deeper than the quarry.

Curious, Jonathan stepped quietly out of his room and padded barefoot down the hall. His parents-- and no, he hadn’t called Hopper ‘Dad’ yet-- were at the kitchen table, freshly lit cigarettes billowing smoke into the air.

“... so they’re obviously high outta their minds, and then he says somethin like, ‘Babe, we’re late’, like they had no idea what day it was. I stood there lookin at them like, you gotta be kiddin me.” He shook his head. “Turns out the kid he’s callin babe is Max’s step brother!”

“Step brother… Step brother,” his mom gestures vaguely and takes another puff. Then she perks up. “The one who attacked Steve?”

“Yeah, that one. And I dunno about you, Joyce, but I consider Steve one of ours.”

“Of course!” she chirps. “He almost gave his life to protect those kids.”

“Exactly. So now this guy comes along, apologizes, and Steve just accepts it? What, because he’s cute?”

“Is he?”

“Apparently. They’re dating.” His mother’s jaw dropped. Hopper nodded. “Yep. Those two pipsqueaks took a bit of convincing, but I got it out of them.” He motioned behind him towards the bedrooms and caught Jonathan standing there. His mother turned, too, her eyebrows raised in surprise.  

Jonathan cleared his throat and stepped into the room. “I wasn’t trying to eavesdrop, honest.”

“Sure you weren’t,” Hopper exhaled. “Come here, kid. Sit down with us.”

He did. They shared everything they collectively knew; what Billy had done to Steve in a rage blackout, how his family was the polar opposite of supportive, that he and Steve had been going together since around the time of the Snow Ball, and that they’d been sighted at least twice on drugs. They agreed to keep the information, and whatever else they gleaned from the kids, to themselves. Themselves included Nancy, whose lips became a grim line of concern.

She wears a similar look now, sitting beside him in the car. Jonathan asks, “Why do you think he’s given up?”

After a beat she scoffs. “He’s always more concerned with taking care of other people than taking care of himself.”

That confuses Jonathan. “Wait, wasn’t he all about trying to impress you last year? No substance, just dumb-jock charm? Didn’t seem too caring to me.”

“Well, he’s different when you know him.” There’s a softness about her tone that wasn’t there a minute ago. Does she pity Steve? Is she remembering some part of their connection she hasn’t shared? As he wonders anxiously about it she adds with a smile, “Like, he offered to be the guinea pig when your brother wanted to play with makeup.”

The image of Steve Harrington in chaotic Bowie makeup gets him to laugh. He agrees, “It was great. I got some good pictures, too.”

Several good pictures, actually. Billy had asked if he could keep one of the photos. Of course , he told Billy, surprised by his manners. It’s  yours. With unassuming grace he took the picture-- the one where Steve is laughing at something, looking away from the camera-- and held it against his chest. Thank you.

“What do you think about Billy?” Nancy asks. “You guys were talking for a while. How was that?”

“Oh, it was alright.” He turns onto the street where the Wheelers’ live. “Not as angry as I expected. He knows a lot about music, all different kinds. I guess he was raised on it as a kid.” Jonathan doesn’t clarify that a lot is an intimidating warehouse of knowledge. Unequivocally Billy knows more than him. Next to him, Jonathan is fallible and inadequate.

Reflecting on it is frustrating. He is hasty to denounce his peers for bowing to conformity, becoming superficial replicas of their parents and favorite celebrities, naively believing their outsides reflect their insides. Of course they don’t, and he is a hypocrite for passing harsh judgement on the likes of Steve and Billy, who have dropped their respective images and traded them in for authentic selves, while he is still trying to be somebody with his music and art.

Tonight the couple dressed and moved genuinely, without the slightest concern for others’ opinions. Beyond that was something unspoken, stronger than words. An aura of protectiveness so loyal and fierce it was felt like the air before a storm. Present, all encompassing, yet invisible. There’s no guarantee a love like that will last , Jonathan reminds himself, thinking of his parents. And no guarantee that it’s healthy.

Still, he hopes he and Nancy radiate the same energy.

“Yeah, he knew about Bowie,” she comments. “Your brother got a kick out of that. Imagine if he becomes the second babysitter?”

They pull up outside the Wheeler house. He shuts the car off and looks at her. “If he becomes the second babysitter then I’m fit for Julliard.”

Nancy cracks up, the image is so funny. It should be, because that would never happen. Just like Billy-- who walked through hell and didn’t heal the burns-- would never be a babysitter to their little brothers. It would be unnatural, uncomfortable, and altogether a horrible idea.

Hopefully they can trust Steve to know enough not to let Billy around those kids for long periods of time. He might be intelligent, magnetic, and head over heels in love with their classmate, but that doesn’t mean he is stable.

Tonight’s pleasantries can’t erase Jonathan’s memory of scrubbing Steve’s blood off the living room floor. Like the kids, he won’t forget that’s the foundation of the relationship. Besides, Nancy said herself he can’t be trusted, and her intuition has yet to fail.

He gets out of the car and walks her to the door.

Chapter Text

“Do you really have to put it on display like that?” Steve cringes at the Polaroid picture Billy stuck into the frame of his bedroom mirror. In the photo he’s done up like a glam rock icon, laughing candidly. He studies it and takes another sip of his drink. Mostly vodka, from the pint Billy got last week, with a splash of soda. The replenished stock also includes a huge bottle of whiskey and several grams of cocaine, a good third of which went up their noses earlier tonight.

Shameful, really. Openly enjoying himself around his children, high . Arriving at dinner too high to eat, still honoring the invite. The guilt is projected right onto the photo that is now in plain sight. He takes another sip. “It’s embarrassing.”

“Sorry princess, did you say embarrassing ?” Billy strips unabashedly in the middle of the room. His lips are shiny from the whiskey that lifts his spirits. “How could you ever feel embarrassed when that’s what you look like?” He points to the picture and grins, but Steve’s not paying attention to that. Billy notices. “Hey, baby boy. What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” They lock eyes and he forces a smile. “Still feeling needy, that’s all.”

“Still? You’re inexhaustible. Just how I like it.” He takes a drink from straight from the bottle. It makes Steve nervous-- what if he blacks out again? As Billy strokes his painted cheekbone he prays it won’t happen. They can stay here, in this moment. A soft kiss on the lips, a sparkling grin meant to entice him.

Instead it makes him sad.

The sadness is a shot that spreads through his veins during the come down, and it is increasingly familiar as they frequent their bags and bottles throughout days and weeks. How long has it been since Steve went a full day sober? He wishes he would say no, but every time it’s there he does it so his boyfriend won’t feel wrong or alone.

Billy begins to undress him. The sadness multiplies with each article of clothing removed. First the black knit sweater, which comes over his head easily but messes up his hair. Then the white undershirt he wore. All that’s left against his chest is the gold chain and pendant. Billy slips off his belt, causing the jeans that used to fit perfectly to drop low around his hips. When the buttons are undone they fall straight to the floor. He steps out of them for Billy, who then strips him completely bare.

He hadn’t planned on being naked outside of bed tonight, but there is no resisting Billy, who lovingly caresses his shoulder, his bicep, his ribs, and leans in to kiss his colored cheekbone, his collarbone, the place over his heart. Fingertips trace over Steve’s hip bones. They stick out now, he notices, and the sensation of touch makes his skin jump.

He inhales and shuts his eyes, at the mercy of a boy who takes this as a sign of bliss. Tonight’s bliss lies light and faint in the back of his head, like a dream. The harder he tries to conjure a vivid image, the quicker escapes him. There is only the sorrow that settles beneath his skin after the comedown. It’s worse than the dull headache, or the hunger he finally notices but is usually too tired to do anything about. Headaches and hunger will pass with sleep, but the sadness likes to stick around.

Right now it’s bad because they’re drinking, too. Another depressant on top of the come down. In some ways this mirrors the solemnity of the night he patched Billy up, when, with grim resolution, he surrendered to the task and did what he was called to do. There is no active press to perform service tonight, just a passive sense that he is dutiful through surrender. If he lets go of everything, everything, Billy will be happy.

Blessed .

The word is whispered in his ear as Billy lays him on the bed and works him, slowly at first and then harder as his body responds. His mind isn’t into it. He’s still shameful about dinner. Nothing went wrong, and neither the kids nor adults seemed to notice they were high, but they were. All the cute, fuzzy interactions between he and his children seem monstrous now, the shame multiplying with each stroke.

Angel .

No, no, he isn’t one! If he was an angel this would be different. Living with Billy wouldn’t have these confusing ups and downs. It would be perfect, like it was earlier, all the time. Steve was hard before they got high and left, getting playful kisses while Billy did pushups. He was bursting with joy, and the amped up tension he felt at first over dinner dissipated. Now this dark mood? Why? And why can’t he speak up and tell Billy that he doesn’t want to do this anymore? He doesn’t want to drink during the week, or stay up until two, or substitute meals with cigarettes.

When he was with Nancy they helped each other do good. Now Steve is doing everything in his power to make Billy do good, and to make him healthy. He’s getting there, isn’t he? Clean, short hair. Clear skin, no bruises. A pink scar on his ear that merely whispers of the pain he caused himself. His clothes no longer smell of smoke, because they can’t smoke cigarettes inside. Billy’s homework is done, his grades are going up. When he and Max see each other they exchange pleasantries instead of threats.

So if Billy is getting better, how come Steve is getting sick?


 

After being spent, he is exhausted. Licked clean. He finishes the drink and, in spite of not having requested it, he is poured another, which he drinks on an empty stomach as he lays against the pillows. Billy is curled up with his head on his chest, looking up at Steve and playing with the Miracle Medal.

“What happened to Will when he went missing?”

Steve had forgotten the comment at dinner. It’s the last thing he wants to discuss. “Can I tell you about it tomorrow, babe? I’m sleepy and my head hurts.”

“Story telling takes no effort,” he insists, absently swirling his fingertip against Steve’s chest. “Go on.”

He takes a deep breath, feeling the weight of Billy’s head resting on him. “He was riding home from the Wheelers’ one night and got spooked by something. Ended up running into the woods, got lost, and was found a week later freezing and half-starved.”

Billy chuckles, rough and low, and sits up. The scabs on his hip and stomach are almost healed. He did that to himself, Steve remembers. He is as unpredictable as he is passionate. It makes his heart beat faster, nervous.

“You don’t expect me to believe that, right?” Billy says with a charming smile.

“What I expect is for you to trust me,” he retorts. This isn’t how he wants to spend the night. He doesn’t want to go to bed upset, and that’s the only direction this will take.

“I do trust you, Harrington, but I also have a brain. Plus...” He leans in slowly and boops Steve’s nose. “You’re a terrible liar.”

He shakes his throbbing head and sits up, hugs his knees to his chest. “Just leave it, babe. I don’t want to do this right now.”

“Do what?”

“This!” Steve gestures sharply, hair bouncing. “I feel like shit and I want to rest, not get into something that’ll make me feel worse.”

“You feel like shit?” Billy feigns genuine concern and curiosity. “That’s news to me. A few minutes ago you were moaning.”

Steve sulks. “I didn’t want to. I was just doing it for you, so you could be happy.”

Disbelief akin to rage flashes in his blue eyes, which lock onto Steve. “My princess faked it?”

“No,” he winces. “I just wasn’t into it. I’ve had enough and I want to sleep. Can’t you just hold me until I fall asleep?”

“Oh, I can. I can. After you tell me the truth about everything. The reason Will went missing, how they got him back… Why you and those little shitbirds are so close.” He emphasizes this with a snap. “There’s something missing from the picture, Harrington, and whatever it is has a lot to do with why you love them more than me.”  

“I don’t!” Steve says defensively, sitting up straighter. He suddenly wishes he were clothed, and that he’d never had that second drink. It was another thing he did for Billy, and now he’s paying for it, falling into a trap. He hates himself.

“Then tell me what’s going on,” Billy demands. “Tell me and I’ll rock you to sleep like the baby you are.”

Of course his concerns aren’t taken seriously, because he’s acting infantile. Whiny, petulant Steve trying to get his way. It’s ridiculous. Ashamed to be naked, he rushes to a stand. Immediately the floor comes up to meet him. The spins, that aura around the head, causes him to lose balance. Billy doesn’t help him up, and that’s fine. He stands up on his own and looks for clothes.

“Tell me,” Billy repeats, watching Steve with hawk-like eyes. Hastily he pulls on flannel pants, then fumbles for a tee shirt on the floor. He stumbles and catches himself on the wall.

“Harrington!” Billy hisses, conscious of the parents sleeping down the hall. Standing now, he approaches Steve, who is pulling on the shirt. “What is wrong with you right now?”

A cord in his heart snaps. He wants to cry, but not here. Not in front of Billy, who could be blacked out. This could be another one, since they’ve been so good lately, and Steve hasn’t seen him this mean since he threw the letter on the lawn. A blackout would be an easier, softer explanation for this reaction to Steve’s sensitivity. Otherwise, he is merely dating an asshole with a critical stare.

An asshole he empties himself for, again and again, refilled only when he is desecrated. Right now Steve is, empty, hungry, and lonely. How can you be lonely in the room with the person you love? How can you feel unsafe sharing your truths with the person who says you’re an angel?

“Hey, do you hear me?” Billy grabs his shoulder. “What is wrong with you?”

“Everything!” he shouts. Rebellious tears fall. “Everything is wrong, and you don’t care! If you did you would respect me when I say I don’t want to talk about it, and you would trust me when I tell you what I know!”

“But that isn’t what you know, is it?” He closes the space between them intensely, keeping his voice a hiss that would be a roar if parents weren’t home. “There’s a whole world of information you aren’t giving me. Haven’t I shared enough of myself with you to warrant reciprocation?”

“I’m not supposed to tell anyone!” he cries.

“Oh!” Billy exclaims. “I’m anyone now?”

“No!” He pushes past and climbs onto the bed, hugging his knees again. He puts his head down, folded into a ball. Shutting out the drama. Unpredictable passion, unpredictable love. He feels Billy standing beside the bed and mumbles, “You’re someone, but I can’t break my promise to them.”

“So I’m right. They’re more important to you, and this is why. You’re all in on some secret together.” He laughs, hand on one cocked hip. “I bet you got my sister involved, too, huh? But, no, I’m just an outsider.”

Steve lifts his head. Tears streak his face. “It’s to protect you.”

That is not a lie. They keep the secret to protect each other. Especially Eleven, whose abuse led them here. If her mother was able to keep her, and raise her like any other girl, there would be no gate opened in the lab. No demogorgon or shadow monster. The kids wouldn’t know him, because he never would have entered the hive mind with them. Eleven wouldn’t have saved them all, twice.

Again Billy chuckles, that low warning sound. “Bullshit, you’re like everyone else. You think I can’t be trusted. Who do you think I’ll tell? The only person I’m with anymore is you, and it’s because I love you.” He clicks his tongue, disappointed. “Too bad you don’t love me the same way.”

“I do love you!” He pleads. Is he in a nightmare, or didn’t he just tell Billy tries to make him happy? Why would he go through so much discomfort for blips of joy that disappear like lightning because this boy too damaged to stay stable for more than two weeks at a time?

It’s love, it’s all for love.

“Bullshit!” Billy hisses.

Apparently Steve isn’t doing enough. He’s never doing enough, if he was he’d still be dating Nancy, who might have called him an idiot but never degraded him, never made him feel like he deserved to be ashamed, or in pain, or subjected to a touch he doesn’t want.

Steve’s never been with a guy before, but something tells him these things are not normal. A boyfriend shouldn’t lash out at you and show up with flowers the next day, or leave bruises around your wrist, or… No, that was before they were dating, so it doesn’t count. Still, these are realities for them, and those premature self-made scars from the lighter speak of a greater problem: at some point Billy needs to get help. In order to stay with and serve such a boy, Steve must be bullshit. He must be as wrong as Billy treats him, and as fake as the sweetness, in hindsight, seems to be.

“Listen,” he says, resigned, “I know that’s what I am. I don’t need to be reminded of it every other second, especially when I’m like this.”

“Like what?” Billy spits. He squints at Steve, giving him the up and down. “Like a queen with all that makeup on?”

Until now he forgot he was still done up. He feels around his face. There is colored dust on his fingertips. An external show of vulnerability-- the stupid things he thinks are fun. Letting his little brother’s friend play dress up with him to boost his confidence. And the enjoyment he felt was fake, because he was high. Mrs. Byers and Hopper looked at him like he’s such a good guy, but how can he be when Dustin and Lucas wouldn’t come to dinner because of who he’s dating?

The shame is overwhelming.  “I didn’t want to do coke tonight, and I didn’t want to fool around, or have that second drink.”

“Then why did you?” Billy grows angrier with these admissions.

“To make you happy! This is all for you.” He gestures again. “It’s like you’re not even grateful!”

Billy rushes him, grabs him by the throat and slams him back into the headboard. He is on his knees, too close, breathing into Steve’s face. “You’re the one who’s ungrateful, Harrington. You know that? I let my father beat me so I could see you, I left my house and ran to you because you’re my safety.” He shakes his head and his tongue flicks across his lips. “Used to be, at least.”

Steve’s hands are wrapped around Billy’s thick wrist, prying it away. His airway narrows. He unfolds his legs to kick, but Billy’s got weight on him, knees and thighs like a wall trapping Steve in. Any moves to stand up for himself or protect himself are spun into weapons used against him. How is Billy capable of such charm and then this ?

He chokes, “Get o-- stop!”

“Not until you admit you’re ungrateful. Selfish.” He smiles wildly, unperturbed by Steve’s failed tries for freedom. “Who rolled up the bill while I cut us lines tonight? Who gave me their allowance money last week to make sure we’d have booze to bring to the party? Who came onto me when we were supposed to leave to visit his friends?”

Billy lets up enough for him to cough, “Me! I did, I’m selfish!”

“So what?” He jerks Steve against the headboard again. “Tell me something I don’t know, Harrington. Tell me why you would dare say I’m ungrateful when I went to the house of some people I don’t even know, with kids who’d rather see me dead on the side of the road than at the kitchen table?”

Black stars enter his peripheral. He wants to puke. Billy must realize he’s gone too far, because he throws Steve away and sits back. Watching him pant and rub his throat he scoffs. “If you can’t appreciate what I go through for you, I’ll leave. Is that what you want?”

When he regains breath and vision he looks at Billy, wide-eyed and betrayed. What he wants? Clearly what he wants doesn’t matter. Only what Billy wants, which is exactly what he’ll do. He remembers Billy, blackout drunk in the car, shouting that he’s a pathetic dog with no backbone. You do whatever anyone tells you to do, no questions asked.

Yeah, he does.

He even does what he isn’t asked to do, like nurse Billy to health the night he hurt himself. Steve remembers the shock when Billy pulled his shirt off. Self-inflicted wounds, attempted suicide! These things were addressed as far as Steve could comfort, no more. This is beyond me, he thought. This is a way bigger problem than I can solve.

Yeah, it is. Billy’s fingers just dug into his windpipe. There will be bruises tomorrow, and he’s drunk and hungry and not allowed to rest because whatever he said made Billy upset enough to lose himself. Again. Maybe he should leave, so Steve can get some fucking sleep.

The thought gives him anxiety and guilt. If Steve lets him go, he’ll be like everyone else, which is exactly what Billy expects. This whole scene is a test, and he has to ace it. That means he has to tell truth. He owes him that much, after lying to him that night at the Byers’ and again tonight. Whether he believes the story or not won’t matter. Hopefully he won’t, because breaking his promise to his children, Nancy, and Hopper would be true proof he’s an idiot. A shithead.

Then again, he’s already those things. What’s a little more shame, a few more people disappointed in his decisions? At least it will be off his chest.

“There was an accident at the Hawkins Energy lab,” he explains defeatedly, rubbing his throat. “A gate opened up that led to another dimension, and a monster from that world got out. It took Will. We got him back, but it wasn’t over. Not until the end of October last year.” He’s nauseous. The room is spinning and he’s never said this out loud to another person. He’s hardly even talked about it with the others. Nancy liked to reserve discussing it for anniversaries or hushed 4AM talks.

What if Billy believes him? Oh, God, what has he done? Screw owing him, Eleven and Will and his other kids deserve to be safe. He begins to cry and it hurts, so he forces himself to stop. Self-hate burns his gut, rots him like acid. This isn’t about Billy losing control again, it’s his own poor decisions, his talent of fucking everything up.

You’re an idiot, Steve Harrington.

Sitting there, arms folded over his bare chest, Billy absorbs what he’s said. Finally he nods. “Alright. Sure. Alternate universe monster steals twelve year old boy and,” he flourishes, “spits him back out. Makes sense.”

This reads like sarcasm and it depresses Steve more. “Do you believe me now?”  

“About the monster?”

Steve nods, pouting like a child.

The hint of a grin plays on Billy’s lips. “No, no. Not at all.”

Relief turns his bones to jelly. Thank God.

“It’s alright now, princess.” Billy pats his head. “That story proves you really don’t feel good. No wonder you were talking to me like that. You partied yourself out. You do need a break.”

Yeah, he does.

As Billy climbs towards the headboard to lay down, Steve slides off the bed and stands, this time slow and aware of the dizziness. He tells Billy he’s going to the bathroom and leaves. Inside he shuts and locks the door. He turns on the shower, lifts the toilet seat and vomits, heaving until only strings of saliva dangle from his mouth.

Then he flushes and wipes his face on his shirt. He hooks his fingers under it, throws it off, and catches his made-up reflection in the mirror. Why is he undressing for the second time tonight? Being bare with Billy was awful, being bare with himself and alone with this mess of thoughts will be worse.

While the shower runs, he gets a washcloth and roughly scrubs the makeup off. There are circles under his big sad eyes because he hasn’t been sleeping. So what? This is just another night, another fight, another shade of darkness painted on. A bit more flesh lost from his face, where his cheekbones stand out and his mouth turns down.

Where is the boy in the photo? The one with laughter lighting up his face? Where is the strong big brother, the babysitter good enough to know when the kids are right and guide them on a tour through hell and back safely?

He isn’t here, and he isn’t in the mirror.

Whoever is in the mirror is slowly lost to steam and fog.

Chapter Text

It’s painful to be told the worst things about yourself.

It’s even more painful when you know they are true.

He has time to reflect on this while Steve in the shower, hiding. Crying, Billy imagines, or criticizing himself for being stupid enough to date a Hargrove. In his supposed truth about Will, Steve spoke of a monster. That’s funny, because Billy’s sure the only monster in this godforsaken town is him .

The lights inside are automatic, there is no switch. Not even a dimmer. They are on or off, whatever the circumstances call for. Billy is happy or angry, never giving more than a two dimensional, superficial display of emotion. If only his life circumstances were kinder, he’d be kind, too, and all the bad thoughts and harsh actions would fall away like ash.

Circumstances have changed, though. A few months ago his family moved, and after a rocky start he got a gorgeous boyfriend and escaped his father’s abuse by moving in with him. However dreamlike his reality is, it hasn’t changed him. The visible, tangible outcomes in his life are always the same, because he is always the same. Change looks good, and he thinks he wants it. In actuality he wants the world around him to change, believing that if it does, he will be different, too. Doing the work necessary to change is a weight he cannot fathom. Easier to continue the way he has been for years, praying from the foxhole for different results.

Easier for him. Comfortable for him. Everyone around him suffers for it. There is something wrong with me. It isn’t a thought, but an intuitive understanding, a sharp moment of clarity like a trick of the light-- gone the second he focuses on it. The way he lives isn’t easier, not anymore. Tonight he hurt Steve again. How many times before he leaves? Or before Billy does something worse?

Steve pointed out what he already knows about himself; his father has driven into him that he is ungrateful and selfish. The panic of Steve acknowledging it with such frank honesty, because it affects him, too, set Billy off. He felt threatened. Here is this awful thing about him, seen by the one person left in his corner. What comes next? The only thing that could. Abandonment.

Panic turned to anger and he, in essence, blacked out. Not from drinks and drugs this time, but from his own anger. Then he treated Steve like his father treats him. He never wanted to become his father, but he has. Disgusting!

Disgusting, and also not his fault. During moments when the switch conveniently flips from joy to rage, Billy has no choice over whether he lashes out or not. Reason around behavior is nice, but doesn’t absolve him of responsibility. So what if the mechanism inside that allows others to articulate fears and doubts, insecurities and dreams, is broken? He is still an animal, capable of egregious crimes.

But he isn’t like everyone else, there’s something wrong with him, and now he is like his father! He is poison to himself, each upset fueling the self-hate, adding bullets to the chamber of the gun he plays Russian Roulette with-- and he isn’t playing by himself anymore. The gun is passed back and forth between he and Steve now. Click. He spins words and misreads actions. Click . He’s too sensitive, he panics. Click. Anger takes over, he hurts the only ally he has. Click.

Again.

Click.

He has become his father.

Boom.

Billy hops off the bed and goes for the whiskey bottle. There’s about one fourth left; it was the biggest bottle he could get, and he’s spanned the draining of it over the past week. That’s improvement. Ha, improvement. Meaningless, because he’s nothing but a version of his father, and whatever people whisper about him is right. He’s not just mean, he’s abusive. He’s not just an asshole, he’s insane.

He throws off the cap and sucks at it like a bird to nectar. This is his nourishment.

Why do I keep doing this?

Why can’t I control myself?

In less than twenty seconds he takes down the rest of the bottle, leaving it empty, like he is. Gutted by shame and fear he refuses to look at. Filled by booze and smoke, safe distractions, and a love that hits like ecstacy. Why wouldn’t he cling to it with a fever? And he wants to, now more than ever. He wants to be someone Steve deserves, but fear tells him what everyone else already has: that’ll never happen.

What if the reason that he can’t change isn’t people or places?

He’s thought this before a thousand times, always in the mode of self-deprecation, never with such honesty: what if the problem is him?


The bed is cold. A window is cracked. Sun fills the space around the blinds. Morning is always his favorite because of its inherent innocence. Unplagued whiskey-drunk sleep took him quick last night, sapped up all his anger and fear. For the next few minutes he will continue to savor the quiet in his head, the peace in his body and the boy beside him.

As he stretches out he finds there is no boy beside him, merely a blank space explaining why the cold this morning is so striking. Normally he and Steve wake up close, if not wrapped together. Slowly, forcing himself to stay calm, he rolls over and looks off the edge of the bed. Steve is tucked inside the sleeping bag, with only his hair and sweet angel face peeking out. He is serene, untouched.

Fear strikes early as Billy recalls what he did last night. What if he hadn’t stopped? What if he had come to after the rage to see blood on his hands? They have been here before, but it was back when they were strangers. How could it happen again, and how could Steve tolerate it? He has known all along that sooner or later Steve will leave him; that moment is pressing upon them now, spiking the panic, driving Billy to do anything possible to hang on to him, to keep him from disappearing or abandoning him, because if it happens he will kill himself.

Failure is predestined. Why engage in a relationship so intense you will die if you lose the other person, when you know damn well your erratic behavior will cause them to leave?

Too early for for this. He had more than his fill of revelations last night. He swings his legs over the bed, stands and dressed quietly, without disturbing his lover, who desperately needs the rest.

Can’t you just hold me until I fall asleep?

He could have, but impulsively he pushed and pushed until he crossed the line. Of course. Billy can’t see boundaries until he’s overstepped them and somebody’s pointed it out, and the few boundaries Steve has are set in dust, easily blown or swept away. This makes it difficult to observe them. If you ever treat me like that again I will leave you. This is your only chance. Clearly not. We have to be good to each other. Have to, but haven’t. I never want to go through that again with you. Yet here they are.

How far will too far be for Steve? Last night he told Billy his secret. The answer was nonsensical, proving that his original story about Will must be the truth, but it was out in the open anyway, just to appease him. Make him happy . Oh, he resents that word, and that it should ever be warranted him-- it shouldn’t. All his meager, substance-laced joy should be traded in for Steve’s sadness. Considering how much his lover gives, Steve should have no sadness at all.

Disappointedly he reminds himself that he put it there, by repeatedly losing his cool over little things, calling possessiveness protection, coaxing Steve into using so he won’t use alone. The light lost is his fault, a crime committed by his dirty hands, as if an unconscious part of him needed to snuff Steve’s light to feel better about there being no switch on his own.


They have the house to themselves for the better part of today, according to the note left in the kitchen. Though he’s a horrible cook-- and an even worse boyfriend-- he makes coffee and french toast, topped with powdered sugar he slaves through the cabinets to find. When he is finished he sets the table. He is tempted to put on a record and play it real soft, but if he wakes Steve up prematurely he will hate himself more.

Thankfully it’s not long before his love enters the kitchen like a ghost, hair tousled and face sullen. There is a desecration to him that plucks strings of shame in Billy’s heart. Choke bruises. This is what it must have felt like when the tables were turned New Year’s Eve, and Billy inadvertently revealed his father’s damage. Shocking. Appalling. Though he put these marks on Steve himself, he reacts to them as if they were put there by some other hand.

“What are you doing?” Steve asks flatly, snapping him back to attention.

“Breakfast,” he motions. “Figured you’d be hungry after all that sleep.”

“Is this an apology meal?”

“If you want it to be.”

“I want to not be treated like this anymore,” he says. “Do you even remember, or was that another blackout?”

“I remember,” he nods.

“Great, so you did it consciously.” Steve shrugs. If possible, he looks more upset with himself than Billy. That stings, like watching him drink himself straight onto the pavement at that party, scraping his palms up and asking if it scared Billy. It did. He never wanted to hurt Steve or see him hurt himself again.

He wishes he could explain that when the anger takes over it’s like a blackout, and last night during those few minutes, he wasn’t in control. That would upset Steve more, with good reason, because the thought alone sounds like an excuse. Maybe it is one, and Billy’s just not putting enough effort into changing.

Steve says disappointedly, “I’m trying to help you. I’m doing everything I can.”

“I know.” He looks down, deferring to Steve. “I’m sorry.”

“Irrelevant.”

Billy shuts his eyes to brace for the wave of emotions that follow. Shame chased by panic. Steve knows . He sees through the thoughtful breakfast and doesn’t seem keen on forgiving this time. Panic is followed, as always, by hot anger, which he absolutely under no circumstances can react to. The switch that betrays him cannot flip right now, although it would further prove what he has begun to realize about himself.

He opens his eyes, daring to offer all he can think to. “If you want, I’ll leave.”

There’s a suspensefully long beat. Steve meets his eyes. “Do you want to leave?”

“I want to stay with you for the rest of my life.”

He nods gravely. “Then why do you keep doing this? The second you seem like you’re getting healthier, you snap. Why?”

“The truth?”

“Yeah, the truth.” He tilts his head, eyes flickering to and from Billy’s. Whatever answer he hopes to hear, Billy can’t give. Daringly, he decides to take the opportunity and admit what he realized. How will Steve take it? As a cop out or context?  

Each word is a bubble that pops in the air, a ridiculous carnival trick he can’t expect to be bought. “The truth, Harrington, is I have no better idea than you why it keeps happening. If I did, I’d like to think I would be able to control it by now. ”

Steve whispers something inaudible, looking at his feet and the linoleum floor.

“What was that?”

“I knew I wasn’t enough,” he says louder.

“Enough for what?”

He looks up. “To heal you.”

Billy’s stomach drops and he approaches Steve cautiously. “Baby boy, you’re everything. You’re the only source of security in my life.” He steps closer, afraid he has snuffed the lights out permanently. “You’re more than I could ever dream of.”

“Cliche,” he pouts.

“Doesn’t make it any less true.” He brushes Steve’s bangs out of his face. They’re overgrown. “Let me try again, like today is the first day of us. I love you.”

Now Steve closes his eyes. Is he fighting with himself about staying in this relationship? There would be no blaming him. Or is he imagining the same thing Billy is: welding broken hourglass together, trying to get back the time spent tearing this apart?

Finally he whispers, “I love you, too. You made me yours.” He leans into Billy’s touch and opens his eyes slowly. “Take care of me.”

Billy smiles gratefully and opens his arms. Steve melts into them. “I promise.”


Once “The Sentinel” comes to a close, Steve finds a record he likes and busts out laughing. His face is so bright, eyes and smile larger than life itself. Billy grins back.

His boyfriend's light is back, contagious and warm, thanks to a couple lines he coaxed Steve into doing after breakfast, with a promise that when this bag runs out they won’t buy any more. Billy wanted to do it because making up isn’t enough, it never is. He has a compulsion to push things further, consequences be damned. Luckily this time the consequence is pure, unadulterated bliss. He wishes to bathe in it for eternally.

Steve’s manic hands delicately switch records. He’s still giggling. It amuses Billy. “What’s so funny?”

“This right here?” He picks the needle up. “This’ll make you dance. You're gonna love this one.”

“Do I know it?”

“You have to! If you don't, we can't be friends.”

“We're not friends,” Billy chuckles as Steve drops the needle. “We're in love.”

The opening guitar riff cuts him off with a loud twang, and leads straight into the bopping beat. It's got a familiar retro sound, but he can't place it. Steve snaps along. “We're what?”

“We’re--” he calls over the music. Then he shakes his head with a smile, because Steve is full already force dancing. “Never mind. Just enjoy yourself.”

“Yeah, okay!” He clearly hasn’t heard a thing.

Watching Steve dance is a spiritual experience. He completely forgets himself, jiving and swinging his hips. His mussed hair accentuates his exaggerated movements. Before the chorus he’s built up enough heat to strip his shirt off, swinging it above his head like a lasso as he bounces around.

This isn’t head-banging music. It’s let-loose, be yourself music. Naturally Billy is awkward and stiff on his feet, even more so compared to Steve’s uninhibited aura. High or not, he’s authentic, couldn't give a shit about how he looks as long as he’s into it, like the Bowie makeup last night. It's beautiful. Billy aspires to this, like he is a child and Steve is the hero. Isn’t that the truth?

It never felt so good, it never felt so right,

And we're glowing like the metal on the edge of a knife,

Glowing like the metal on the edge of a knife...

Shouting these lyrics, Steve bops around him like a tease. He tugs at his shirt and brushes up against him. C'mon! Hold on tight! Billy pulls him in by the waist, sudden and close. His skin is slick with sweat and God, he wants to lick it clean. He leans in and kisses Steve, bites his lower lip, moves along his throat, running his tongue around bruises and kissing them, too.

The song shifts again, a modern symphony, one movement following the other. Steve takes Billy's hands and drags him to the center of the room. “Dance with me!”

“No way, Harrington. Air guitar’s one thing, but this?”

“Excuses, excuses!”

His eyes are shut and he’s bopping again, moving Billy by their linked hands. There’s only one choice: join in. He stumbles at first, unsure how to swish his hips, jealous that Steve makes it look so good. Despite their being together for months, he still needs to be impressive, a compensation for everything he lacks. It’s not necessary, though. Steve is everything he lacks. He is doubly blessed .

By the time Billy gets into the groove, the song bangs to a climax where the woman screams, Stop right there! I gotta know right now! Steve lets go of him to match her, dramatically shouting loud and off key into an air-mic. Quick and quiet she fires off an intense round of questions, mirrored by the crescendoing piano. Steve crouches and builds himself up with it until the woman is yelling again, never taking his eyes off Billy.

Before we go any further, do you love me?

Will you love me forever?

Do you need me, will you never leave me?

Will you make me so happy for the rest of my life?

Will you take me away, will you make me your wife?

I gotta know right now!

Are these lyrics are directed towards him? Regardless he thinks, of course I will. He almost says it out loud, but the dialogue between both singers is going strong, and as the beat builds back up to an intense burst of instruments, Steve lets go of Billy and spins around the room with his eyes closed.

This boy is his religion. How could he ever treat him wrong? No, he never will again. His promise in the kitchen meant something this time, and this new start is exactly what they need.

Foolish, foolish hope.

Eventually the song fades out. Steve says, “Hey. Babe. I’ve got an idea.” His skin glistens as he crosses the sunlit living room and starts the record from the top, an insane and pounding beat led by piano. He trots back over and kisses Billy. “Do you trust me?”

“With my life.”

Pressing their foreheads together, Steve says, “Good.” Then he runs upstairs.

Curious, Billy follows, hand sliding slowly up the rail as he ascends. “Is this going where I think it is?”

“Duh!” Steve calls from inside the bedroom. He’s rustling through a drawer, and when Billy enters he procures a condom and a bottle of lube. “I’ve had these for awhile, you know, for the ladies, but, uh… I figure it’s good for boys, too, right?”

“Absolutely right, my princess. My queen .” Billy moves swiftly toward him and falls to his knees, wrapping his arms around Steve’s thighs, pressing his face into him. “Take me, please .”

“Sure, sure, sure,” he says with anticipation. The music fills the air around them in a distant, otherworldly way.

Now. ” Billy yanks his shirt over his head, then starts on his jeans, all the while gazing up at Steve like he is holy, he is church.

Once they’ve moved to the bed they hunt each other’s bodies with heavy touches and kisses, until all the right spots are lubricated and warmed up. Steve has fingered him before, but this time he’s nervous, breathing fast, his face flushed red, because they’ve both accepted where this is going. “I don’t want to hurt you,” he worries as Billy shifts to his forearms and knees, presenting himself in the most accessible way.

“You won’t, baby boy. You won’t. Here,” he reaches back and helps guide Steve, prepped and lubricated, to where he needs to be. Encouragingly he talks him through, until Steve stands tall on his knees and presses into him. Then he gasps.

Moving slow and steady Steve asks, “Are you okay?”

Billy nods into the blankets. “You’re doing amazing.” He pushes himself back and Steve takes the hint, grabbing his hips and gradually intensifying the pressure and motion. After a minute or so Billy hears a small moan. Excellent, they’re both enjoying this. That really gets him going, and as sensation builds on the inside, he works himself to climax.

Even more satisfying when he feels Steve climax, too.


 

A soft intro near the end of the record leads into a song Billy recognizes. He can’t place where he’s heard it, but lazily wags his foot to the beat as the chorus rises. I want you. I need you. But there ain’t no way I’m ever gonna love you. He laughs tiredly, holding Steve, thinking of the song that began this whole tryst, how different the lyrics were.

“Do you love me?” he quotes.

Steve is laying half on top of him, head on his chest, arm wrapped snug around him. Skin to sweaty skin. The best way to bond. “Yes,” he answers. “Will you love me forever?”

“Yes.” He considers the next line. Do you need me? Steve probably doesn’t need him, but Billy needs this love like oxygen. Afraid of what the answer might be, he stops chirping lyrics and instead assures Steve, “I’ll love you longer than forever.”

“Good.” He grins against him, kisses his chest. “Cause today really is the first day of us.”

And they are safe again.

Chapter Text

Pings and whirs give the arcade a casino feel, along with neon lights and music, which back the bickering of pre-pubescent teens. The four boys hover inside the door again, waiting on Max. She’ll be the token girl tonight. Any other girl would hate to hang out with a bunch of dumb eighth grade boys, but she doesn’t mind, because she knows she’s stronger than all of them, so they can’t trick or beat her. That self-assurance is just another thing Lucas loves.

Every week when she gets dropped off they see Steve and Billy, too. Luckily for him Billy never gets out of the car, but some nights it seems like Steve would rather stay and hang out with the kids. Billy always pulls him away, though, and Dustin hates it, because he believes Billy is intentionally holding Steve back from doing what he wants. Maybe that’s true, but who are they to get involved? If they do it won’t end well, so in an effort to protect himself, Lucas tries to minimize the concern.

Tonight Dustin is practically dancing with anticipation over seeing Steve. Watching with amusement, Mike drapes an arm around Will, who reaches up and discreetly hooks their fingers. No shame with these two. They’re not bothered by the ever-looming threat of homophobia, why would they be bothered by Dustin’s worrying?

To Lucas it’s annoying. “Will you calm down ?” he says. “If Steve wants to date a douchebag, he can date a douchebag. He’s eighteen .”

Dustin spins around in disbelief. “So?”

“So, he can be trusted to make his own decisions.” He gestures duh.

“Can he? Cause I’m pretty sure Billy snuck inside his head like a ninja and isn’t planning on leaving any time soon. I mean, did you see what Steve looked like last week? He’s wasting away.”

Lucas groans. “I swear, it’s like you want there to a problem.”

“Are you kidding? I want there to not be a problem, and Billy is a problem!”

“Of course he’s a problem, but--”

“But what, Lucas? I’m making too big a deal?”

“Yes!”

“Really?" He advances. "Then tell me, has he ever apologized for threatening to kill you? Is he the one who replaced Max’s skateboard at Christmas? Has he ever tried to make amends to her at all?”

“No,” Lucas swallows, folding his arms over his chest. “He hasn’t.”

Dustin points a finger. “Exactly. Because he’s not sorry. He’s never sorry, and that’s why he’s a problem.”

“He wasn’t a problem Friday night,” Will chimes unexpectedly. “He and my brother got along really well.”

“That’s an overstatement,” Mike counters. “Sure, they got along, but I still think he’s a creep.”

Will looks up. “You do?”

“Yeah, I do. One night of makeup isn’t enough to change my impression.”

“Wait.” Lucas glances quick at Dustin, who’s aggravation has morphed into a smirk, then back at the other pair. “Did you just say makeup ?”

“We didn’t have time to tell you at school. Friday my sister brought her entire collection to dinner so El and Will could play with it.” Mike squeezes Will. “I let him dress me up.”

Surprised, Dustin asks, “Did your brother get a picture?”

“He got pictures of everyone except Max.” Will digs into his pocket and pulls out a bent Polaroid. “Look at this. I turned Steve into Bowie!”

Dustin takes the photo and holds it so Lucas can see, too. It’s Steve, sitting on the couch, face brightly powdered with a gradient spanning from purple-pink to yellow. His messy bangs are pushed aside, and he’s pale against a dark sweater, gold pendant hanging over it. Mike sits beside him, pouting, while Steve cheeses directly at the camera, sparkly doe eyes crinkled cause that’s how happy he is.

“Oh, this is a national treasure,” Dustin chuckles.

Lucas smiles. “Max didn’t tell me there was makeup involved.”

“That’s cause El did hers, too, and she refused to let Jonathan take a picture!”

Imagining her being obstinate in makeup breaks them into giggles. Soon their joy is interrupted by the rumble of an engine-- the Camaro. Like Max, they’re trained to be wary of this sound. Will is the only one who doesn’t react to the sound itself; he reacts to his friends’ sudden shift in mood.

A minute later Steve opens the door for Max, who walks right over to Lucas and finds his hand. He smiles at the kids, eager for the time he gets with them each Monday before disappearing into Billy’s car. “So,” he says with his hands on his hips. “Are you guys ready to get beat by a girl again or what?”

It is strange, what Steve has been reduced to. When he and Nancy were together he cared about his appearance more than she did. Now his hair is overgrown and he looks used. Worn, even, like an alternate universe self that bears no resemblance to the annoying, preppy jerk they used to know. He’s wearing a familiar grey jacket, too thin for this weather, with a bandana tied around his neck. Is he reliving their night in the vines, or is he hiding something? Upon closer inspection Lucas sees purplish marks on his throat and decides it's the latter, definitely. Probably hickeys. Gross!

Meanwhile Dustin is boasting, "We’re not the ones who need to get ready. Mad Max, you’re about to be knocked down a few notches.” He mimes cracking his knuckles.

“Oh, am I supposed to be scared? Even if you beat me, The Mage still has top score on Dig Dug.” She wags her eyebrows patronizingly. “Either way a girl wins.”

The boys laugh and tease Dustin until he’s flustered. Steve sighs. “Man, I wish I could stay and see the showdown.”

“So stay!” Will suggests.

“I can't. Me and Billy, we’re uh, going out to eat.” He flashes a nervous grin, giving Lucas the sense that there’s more going on than he’s inclined to share.

“Out to eat? Jesus, it’s a miracle!” Dustin frantically yanks quarters out of his pockets. Some drop as he offers them to Steve. The noise draws attention and sidelong glances, to which he pays no mind. “Here, take these. Seriously, take them! Get double of whatever you order. Please, do it-- do it for me!”

Steve refuses the change and steps back, hands in the air. “Is it just me, guys, or is he acting weirder than usual?”

Lucas shakes his head. “Sadly, this is within the range of normal for him.”

“Totally normal,” Dustin agrees, retrieving coins from the floor. Then he straightens up. “By the way, that Bowie getup was incredible. You should let Will do your makeup all the time.”

Steve cringes. “You saw?”

“We all saw, thanks to Will carrying around a picture of you and his boyfriend.” Dustin winks at the pair, who blush.

“Right, the pictures. Billy’s got one of me stuck in the mirror at home.” He rocks on his heels. Lucas wonders what he’s so anxious about. His smile would say he’s comfortable but his body language disagrees.

“A rare show of appreciation, just like those hickeys on your neck!” Obviously this is the wrong thing to point out, because  Steve suddenly looks fit to break. Stupidly Dustin adds, “That bandana isn’t doing you any good, buddy.”

“Dude, shut up ,” Max hisses.

“What?” he shrugs. Mike and Lucas glare at him as Will suffers second-hand embarrassment, mouthing why would you say that?

Self-consciously Steve’s hand goes to his neck, aware now that the thin cloth doesn’t cover the marks that climb right up under his jawline. They’re only on the left side, in a pattern resembling... fingertips. Lucas’s eyes widen and he turns to Max. She cuts him off with the same shut up expression she gave Dustin. Something is going on, and she knows.

Before Steve can defend himself a car horn sounds outside, signalling the end of their short conversation. Always too brief. He says an awkward goodbye to the group and tells Max they’ll be back in a couple of hours. Then he’s gone, as fast as he appeared.


Later that night the phone rings. Lucas continues to lay on his bed reading, because the phone is never for him. If his friends need to talk they use the radios, except for Max and Will, who are out of range. They usually wait until school to talk. Erica is in the living room watching TV with their parents, and she answers it. For the whole thirty seconds it takes him to run downstairs and take the receiver, she nags and taunts him about the girl on the other line.

He drags the phone as far away as the cord will allow.  “Hello?”

“Hello  Lukey ,” Max giggles.

“I know, I’m sorry about her.” He waves Erica away. She sticks her tongue out and hovers. “What’s going on?”

“Okay, you know how Dustin called out Steve’s hickeys earlier?”

“Yes, it was awful.” His sister inches closer and he swats at her.

“Dustin’s always awful, but that’s not the point.” Max’s tone grows serious. “I don’t think those were hickeys.”

He leans away from Erica, who’s trying to listen. Finally their mom calls her away, giving him a little privacy. “Me either. They looked like bruises.”

“Yeah, choke bruises. I’m almost sure of it.”

That's shocking to think about. Then again, they are talking about Billy, who she's lived with for years. “You’ve seen bruises like that before, haven’t you?”

“Several times. And you know, I kind of want to pity him, but how can I when he’s perpetuating the cycle, treating Steve like Neil treats him? It’s asinine.”

“Seriously.”

“At first I didn’t want to tell you, because I felt like it would be wrong to assume the worst just because it’s Billy. Then we got in the car Steve asked him if he thought Jonathan noticed, and Billy said that even if he did, he’d think they were hickeys, not bruises.” She pauses. “If he suggested people will think it’s hickeys instead of bruises, then--”

“They have to be bruises.” Canned laughter rings out of the television, an eerie backdrop to their conversation. “Did Steve say anything after that?”

“Yeah, he said, ‘That’s what the kids think', all down on himself, you know? And Billy said, ‘Who gives a shit what the kids think? You don’t belong to them’.”

Anger strikes like a match in his head. “He doesn’t belong to Billy, either!”

There’s another, longer pause. “I don’t think he knows that.”

How could a senior in high school not know he’s his own person? This is Steve, the guy who played bait for demodogs, took a royal beating so Lucas didn’t have to, and hoisted each kid to safety before thinking of himself. How could someone that selfless feel indebted to his shitty boyfriend?

“No, he doesn’t," Lucas agrees. "But we do, and when a party member requires assistance it’s our duty to provide that assistance.”

She scoffs hopelessly. “What assistance? We’ve all talked to him, and he’s still pretending their relationship is awesome when it’s going to shit. There’s nothing he can do, because Billy knows he’ll never stand up to him."

“Maybe it’s time we go to Chief Hopper.”

“No! No way. The sheriff?”

“He helped with everything else, didn’t he?”

“Yeah, but this isn’t the Upside Down. This is life. Hopper’s not going to be able to stop them from being together any more than we can. Besides, if we tell him, Steve will get hurt.”

“He’s already been hurt!”

“Well imagine how much worse it’ll be when Billy thinks Steve complained about him, like he’s so terrible that the sheriff needs to be involved! Imagine how much more pressure Steve will feel after that to act like everything’s okay when it’s clearly not!”

He can't argue that. This is a reality she has lived, and it reminds him that abuse does not simply stop; its nature is to permeate and expand. Billy used to treat Max roughly, controlling her with intimidation and threats. Now he’s controlling Steve, and it does seem hopeless. How will a bunch of kids stop him when they couldn’t stop him from attacking Steve in the first place? It was a drug that did it.

Lucas wishes now that the drug had been lethal. Saving Steve would be a whole lot easier if Billy would drop dead. Whether he’s alive or not, though, they have to try something.

He clears his throat. “Max?”

“What?” she demands.

“Think about it. There’s six of us, and Nancy and Jonathan make eight. Plus the adults. A couple months ago we figured out what the vines were, where they went, and how to draw the demodogs away from the Gate. We figured out how to communicate with Will while he was possessed, and how to expel the Shadow Monster without killing him.”

“Your point?”

“My point is, we solved some huge problems  together . I know it's scary, but joining forces might be our best option, and if Steve gets hurt again in the process of us getting him out of this relationship, then… I think it’s worth the risk.”

There’s silence on the other end as she considers. Finally she says, “I’m supposed to sleep over at El’s this weekend.”

“Are you going to tell Hopper while you're there?”

“No, not until we know exactly what’s going on. We need proof, not just bruises Billy can say are hickeys. They'll fade soon. It has to be something he can't escape or lie about."

“Like what?"

"I don't know. That's why we'll join forces. El can go  into their memories, or whatever it is she does with the blindfold on. She called it something, I don’t remember.”

Light bulbs brighten the outlook of this whole tragedy. He smiles. It's the best idea they've had so far. 

“Sensory deprivation.”

Chapter Text

“You know, staring out the window’s not gonna make her get here any faster.”

“Dad,” El says blankly, turning from the window. “I’ve been waiting for a week.”

A sweet crooked grin breaks his bearded face. “You sure it’s only been a week? With how many times you’ve reminded me, it feels like a year.”

She mirrors the grin and goes back to watching the yard vanish beneath the quickly falling snow. Last weekend, Max’s mom had to take her to Chicago to pick a fancy dress for some family event she’ll be forced to attend over spring break. Since it was far, their sleepover was cancelled. To make it up to El, Hopper brought her to the Byers' house for an impromptu movie night. Jonathan was out, so El and Will got to snuggle in between their parents.

It was healing and lovely, but nothing like the Thursday night sleepover they are about to have. School is cancelled tomorrow, thanks to the fat, dense flakes that reflect the golden porch light, and since the snow is supposed to stop early in the morning, they’re all going sledding in the afternoon. More exciting, Max has enlisted El to help the party with something.

Headlights break her trance, preceding a car that crunches up and halts behind Hopper’s truck. El flies to the door and throws it open, letting in all the cold. As Max hikes her bag over one shoulder and shuts the car door, El sprints barefoot down the snowy driveway tackles her with a hug.

“Finally!”

Max steadies herself against the car and pulls El in tight. “I missed you!”

“I missed you, too.”

They let go and turn towards the cabin. Hopper’s in the doorway, waving at Steve, who climbs out of the passenger’s side. “Hey, get Billy, too!” Hopper calls. “Tell him to come in for Eggo extravaganzas, free of charge.”

With a broad grin Steve coaxes Billy out of the car. He heads up the driveway deliberately slow. El glances at Max, gauging Billy’s mood. Max rolls her eyes and says, “I’ll explain later.”

“Oooh, sleepover secrets,” Steve teases, mussing El’s hair. Then he notices her bare feet. “Mind if I give you a lift?” El, slightly confused, nods because she trusts him. He crouches down and gestures for her to hop on his back, then carries her into the house with Max in tow, giggling.


They eat in the living room to avoid the cramped kitchen table. Each pair shares a wildly decorated plate of Eggos, while Hopper enjoys a plate all to himself. Steve settles in right away, sitting on the floor with his legs folded, forking candy-adorned waffle into his mouth from the coffee table. He tells Hopper about school, how he’s working to get his grades back up after they dipped around the holidays, and how he wants to try out for track in the spring to get back into shape.

From there the conversation moves to Billy’s grades, his workout regime, and his knowledge of music. Within minutes Hopper’s putting on a record the girls have never heard, babbling with a full mouth about how this legendary bluegrass band stole his heart. He drops the needle and snaps to the beat, tapping his foot.

El winces. She leans into Max, beside her on the couch. “Are dads always this embarrassing?”

“Only the good ones.”

They smile at each other, and El touches her head to Max’s. A little sign of love. For a moment their forks lay abandoned. Naturally the groove works into them as well. El follows the lyrics and tune as best she can.

I got nothing but love for you,

tell me what you really want to do.

First you love me, then you get on down the line,

but I don't mind, I don't mind, yeah.

She’s not sure what it means, but it’s an upbeat song about love, so it has to be good. It has a good feel, too, like it’s right. Something she’s learning about love is that when it’s real it feels right. A delightful flutter in her stomach with Mike and Max, a deep warmth with Mrs. Byers and Hopper, and a constant bubble of laughter waiting to burst with the boys.

What about Steve? Does his love with Billy feel right? Are they building something beautiful together, taking care of each other? Observing Steve tonight while he thinks no one is watching gives her a sadness that makes her take up Max’s hand. He’s gazing up at Billy and Hopper, who are both at the record player feeling the music. Poor posture makes his adam’s apple prominent, like Mike’s. Instead of bopping along to the beat he sits still, slightly slumped, like he is weighed down by an invisible load. His big brown eyes reflect that heaviness as well.

During the chorus Steve gives his attention back to the food. He cuts a section with his fork and barely lifts it off the plate before he sets it down and gives up. What is he thinking about? And what happens in his dreams? Tonight El will get into his head and explore. Max hopes she’ll find proof that will help them split the pair up, because at this point everyone but them knows it’s bad. El hopes she’ll discover something that’ll make the relationship make sense.


“So how are you doing, really?” Hopper asks Steve. They’re having a word alone while Billy brushes snow off the idling car. Considering the open structure of the cabin, the girls easily overhear the conversation as they lay on the couch. “No bullshit.”

“I’m okay, seriously. I’m just a little tired, you know?”

“No, I don’t know,” Hopper says softly. “Why don’t you tell me. What’s it like having him as a houseguest? You’re goin on what, a month?”

“Just about. He’s a great houseguest, honestly, it’s--”

“I said no bullshit, kid.”

Now the girls peek over the back of the couch. Steve runs a hand through his hair. Even with his coat on he looks flimsy. El wonders how he carried her on his back earlier. It had happened too fast for her to take any mental notes. “Okay, I’m not saying… Billy’s great, you know? He loves me. But, sometimes, you know, I, uh,” he stalls. Hopper patiently waits until Steve admits, “Sometimes I want a break.”

Why is it hard for him to acknowledge that? It’s glaringly obvious to those around him. This relationship is chipping away at Steve’s energy and essence. Even the adults have taken notice, and are keeping a watchful eye. Max said they can’t tell Hopper everything yet, not until they know for sure what’s going on. Tonight they’ll figure it out.

Hopper sets a loving hand on Steve’s shoulder. “Then take a break. Tell Billy to go home for a weekend so you can recharge. It’d do you good, kid. You’re lookin more worn out every time I see you.”

“I know,” he agrees. “But I could never tell him to leave, he’d take it the wrong way. Besides, his dad is a bigger asshole than he is.”

Hopper’s eyebrows raise. “So just cause his dad sucks, he should stay with you? It’s not your job to protect him.” He lets go of Steve. “Not at your expense.”

“Right, I know that, and I’m not-- I’m just--” He sighs, shifts his weight and looks at the floor. “I’m just tired.”

“I bet,” Hopper nods. “Your parents okay with all this?”

That’s right, parents! What did Steve tell his to let Billy stay this long? El imagines asking Hopper if Mike could move in. He would shoot it down before the question left her mouth.

Steve shrugs. “They love him, because he’s stronger than me. He puts on his best manners, you know? They’ll probably let him stay as long as he wants, and he wants to stay forever.”

“That’s exactly why I want you to really think about taking a breather, alright? Even just for a day. Come here, or go to Joyce’s, you don’t need to call ahead or ask. We’re here for you, day or night, regardless of what’s going on. You understand? We’re here for you .”

Steve avoids Hopper’s eye, the offer too intense to accept. He opens his mouth and stammers, unable to form a reply. Before he can try, the front door opens, and Billy kicks the snow off his boots.

“Ready?” His cheeks are rosy, complimenting his blue eyes and the winter hat he’s wearing. He is handsome, but what’s a handsome boyfriend when you can’t breathe?

“Yeah, ready.” He sounds disappointed. Billy either doesn’t notice or isn’t bothered by it. What if he is bothered and waits until they’re alone to tell Steve that? There’s a strong sense of foreboding, and suddenly she is afraid to say goodbye, but she has to. What if it’s the last time?

Abruptly she gets up from the couch and marches into the kitchen. Max follows, knowing it’s time to see them out. Steve braces for El’s hug and catches her, responds to her fervor by squeezing her tight. She shuts her eyes, as if through contact alone she can absorb all his pain.

“Be safe, please.”

“I will,” he says into her messy hair, rocking her. “Billy’s a good driver, and the roads will be clear by tomorrow when we meet up for sledding.”

He pulls away and smiles so innocently that she can’t tell him he misunderstood.


Max has the tissues out and ready. For crying, yes, and the inevitable nosebleed. Her consideration makes El brave enough to move forward in spite of the fear. No matter how many times she ventures into the void it continues to frighten her because of the sheer immensity of the unknown. The possibility of waking up another creature, pressing another raw nerve. Starting a war.

All she wants is to help her friend. Over the past hour Max has caught her up on everything and given her all the context she needs. Yes, Billy is hurting, too, but the kids can’t help he and Steve simultaneously. Involving themselves in their messy relationship is risky and futile to begin with. Max predicts that the best case scenario will be the couple breaking up, and taking the space and time necessary to heal their own personal wounds. She predicts the worst case scenario will be more violence.

El hardly knows Billy, but she senses in him the energy her friends describe, and she understands that everyone, regardless of their demeanor and appearance, is capable of committing crimes and ending lives. The part of her hoping she’ll find no evidence against Billy is drown out by the noise assuring her she will. Once they can say definitively that there is something wrong between Billy and Steve, they can meet with the party and decide their next action.

What that is depends on what she discovers.

“Are you ready?” Max asks. They are sitting on the floor together. When El nods, Max comes around to tie the blindfold on for her, and kiss her cheek. Then she resumes her post, kneeling opposite her friend. “I’ll be right here the whole time, okay? Good luck.”

El smiles softly as radio static turns up and lights go out.

Black silence is deafening at first. It always is, until she takes a step forward and hears the squelch of water beneath her shoes. The slow drip of water drops, growing pregnant and falling from infinite walls and ceilings, echo around her and bounce off unseen surfaces like reflections in a funhouse. She holds her breath, perfectly still, tracking. There is a murmur beyond, and that is what she follows, water splashing as her stride picks up.

Finally she finds them in mid-argument. There is an edge to Billy’s voice that spells danger, and an apologetic expression on Steve’s. What is he sorry for? All the stories about him have put him on the top. Not once has he been painted as the bad guy. Only the fool, wearing bright makeup and losing dignity as his boyfriend reprimands him. Fools are loveable and easy to forgive, though, so what are they arguing for?

Listening closely she hears Billy call Steve bullshit . Inching towards them, while maintaining a safe distance so they will not dissipate, she hears Steve mutter that he already knows that’s what he is, and he doesn’t need to be reminded of it when he’s like this.

Like this?

“Like what?” Billy spits, the same question alive in his mind. He squints at Steve, judging him. “Like a queen with all that makeup on?”

Queens are royalty, but it sounds like an insult, and it shames Steve further. He explains quietly to the bed, “I didn’t want to do coke tonight, and I didn’t want to fool around, or have that second drink.”

Drinking, cocaine, still. Demons possessing their minds. Fooling around? El has heard that before. In Chicago, listening to Kali’s misfit friends talk, they mentioned fooling around with guys and girls, and they meant it in a sexual way. Concentration pinches El’s face as she connects the dots. Fooling around when you don’t want to? Not good. Drinking and doing drugs when you don’t want to? A problem. And who is instigating or inspiring these things? Billy.

They should not be together, not if they can’t be kind and loving to themselves and each other. Mike would never coerce Will into doing something he doesn’t want to. Actually, Mike would know right away that Will’s not into whatever it is, and he would instead ask what he would like to do. Same thing with El, and she would never pressure him, either. Relationships and love are about building safety, a home of reprieve and growth. Not a dark prison of conflict and self-destruction.

“Then why did you?” Billy retorts, his already deep voice reverberating like a growl.

Cornered, Steve shouts, “To make you happy!”

Truth echoes around them, except she is the only one here, alone in a space with holographic versions of people impacting the lives of her close friends. To make Billy happy? Oh, this sickens her, touches her deeply in ways she could never describe. She almost misses Steve’s next line. “It’s like you’re not even grateful!”

Before she can digest this Billy lunges for Steve’s throat and slams him against the headboard. “You’re the one who’s ungrateful, Harrington. You know that? I let my father beat me so I could see you, I left my house and ran to you because you’re my safety.” He shakes his head and his tongue flicks across his lips. “Used to be, at least.”

Panicking, Steve tries to kick and shove Billy away. Despite being the same height, he's twice his weight, and easily traps Steve. There is a terror in Steve’s eyes that should make Billy release him immediately. How could you strike this fear in someone you love? How could you dare?

Billy sneers,  “Who rolled up the bill while I cut us lines tonight? Who gave me their allowance money last week to make sure we’d have booze to bring to the party? Who came onto me when we were supposed to leave to visit his friends?”

There is no sign of safety for Steve-- if anything, Billy’s hand digs in harder, tighter. El’s bones burn with needing to intervene. She reminds herself this isn’t real, it isn’t happening now, but it is happening, and she is the spy here to gather information so they can break the relationship apart and make sure this never happens again.

Billy forces Steve to claim he is selfish. That is a lie-- Steve is lying about himself for a boy who treats him worse than Papa treated her. Max is right. Earlier she shared with El that Billy has been abused badly, and that in some ways it’s not his fault he is this way. Not his fault doesn’t mean not his job to fix. It is his job to fix, and he can’t fix anything when he's choking Steve so hard his eyes are losing focus. Doesn't he see that Steve is quickly losing life?

“Fight!” she screams, vaguely aware that he can’t hear her, but nevertheless enwrapped in the crisis. “Steve, fight!”

He doesn’t.

Suddenly Billy releases him and sits back, unaffected, as Steve clutches his throat and heaves for air. Shortly after, Steve gets up and leaves for the bathroom. As always, she rushes after the loved one suffering, this time gripped with a fear that Steve might hurt himself. He disappears then, like fog when it lifts from the forest floor, as if it was never there. Replacing this vision is a thin glowing ember in the blackness, far from where she now stands. Again she listens, then moves steadily towards it.

It is the same bedroom, dressed differently this time. Snow slips past the window. Steve sits on the bed, wearing a tee shirt so loose it can’t be his, and briefs that show off his thin legs. Boy legs are funny, El thinks. Soft and slim like girls, but fuzzy, reminding her that neither gender is more vulnerable than the other. Really, they are so much the same.

She surveys him for damage as he slips those legs under the covers and settles against the pillows. There is none-- this is not an extension of the memory she just discovered, it didn’t happen last week. This is happening  now . Billy climbs in on the other side of the queen size bed and invites Steve into his open arms. Says he loves him, Steve belongs to him, and they smile. A part of El wishes he would resist this coy invitation, but he moves closer and allows himself to be held. Kissed.

How? How can Steve believe there could ever be love between he and somebody so volatile? El wouldn’t feel safe around a person whose mood zigzagged, predicated by whether or not conditions met their satisfaction, or someone who talked her into doing things she knows are unsafe.

A new sound from behind startles her, followed by blindingly white light that forces her to turn her attention away from the boys cuddling. When she turns her heart skips a beat and her knees immediately go weak. She physically holds herself together with skinny, shaking arms.

There sits Papa, demanding that a past self crunch a cat’s skull until bone impales brain.

Another sound, another replica, yards to the left grabs her attention. It is Papa, again, this time a silhouette at the end of a hallway, watching amiably as her past self is carried down a hallway by two nameless men with cold hands. The men throw her, hysterical, to the floor so carelessly she hurts her elbow and shoulder. They will slam and lock the heavy door, shutting her in complete, pressing darkness. El watches herself jump up and blast the door open, blowing the men away. Eliminating the threat and surviving by using her powers in a way she had no idea she could. This unknown part of herself shocks her into body-wracking sobs. She hates the violence that lives inside.

Heels of fancy black shoes click achingly slow down the marble floor of the hallway. Past El wants to run, but exhaustion and fear render her useless. There is no running from this, and why should she run from Papa anyway? He appears, kneels, strokes her face adoringly. Present El watches as he lifts the weak and crying past self, as if she is a miracle, and brings her to bed. He tucks her in and utters encouraging words, as if he had never inspired her to cause harm. And he didn’t, did he? No, he was merely disciplining her. She was the one who chose to harm others, even though her choice was either survive or perish.

Another sound. She spins around again and sees Papa promising her big rewards if she submerges herself in a tank of water wearing a suit weighted with bricks. El feels the same thick nausea that adds to the weight put on her past-self. Her heartbeat now mirrors her heartbeat then, but it was never her fear that mattered. Only that she complied. If she didn’t, she would be hurt, not just physically but by the knowledge that she disappointed Papa, the one who loves her most. For him she will use her newly found powers how he has asked. To attain different information. To spy.

To accidentally open a gate to the Upside Down.

Her past self is nodding, being geared up and led to the tank. This scene, projected from her head, shakes her like all those bad dreams that send her tiptoeing into Hopper’s room, where she slides quietly into bed beside him, only able to breathe again when he wraps one solid arm around her and mumbles bad dream, huh? Every time she nods, and he kisses the top of her head. You’re safe, it’s not happening anymore.

It echoes in the void. You're safe.

Safe.

Gasping, she throws the blindfold off and searches for ground. Max is right there, as promised, haloed by the dim bedroom light. Even though she is worried, her strength gave her the patience to sit still while El put herself through pain to find answers. In some ways, she is still doing Papa’s work, but it is really her work, because her friends aren’t forcing her to help. She wants to, and chooses to, because they give her so much in return.

Choice is liberation for her. She sees what Kali meant. Revoking a person’s right to choose is a crime. Papa took her choice, just like Billy takes Steve's, but she couldn’t see it, and so she believed that he really did love her. Similarly, Steve believes that Billy loves him, even when evidence points to the reality that he only loves Steve inasmuch as he can provide something. You’re my safety, Billy said. But is that reciprocated?

Safe. A word loaded like a gun.

Without hesitation Max moves forward with a tissue, carefully dabs under El’s nose. Then she folds up a fresh tissue and dabs beneath her eyes. Of course she has been crying. It subsides along with the shaking, now that she is present at home.

“How’d it go?” Max asks.

El takes her hands absently, shakes her head. Their knees touch.

“What did you see?” Her eyes are intense like the ocean but soft like the sky, and El gazes into them, lost in thoughts she has no way to articulate. Max leans in closer, careful. “I wish you could take me in there with you.”

“Me, too.” Processing takes time. She pulls Max to a stand and onto the bed. “I understand now. Why he stays with Billy.” She plays with Max’s hands, livening up a little, like warming up at the fire after coming in from the cold. “He wants to make Billy happy so Billy will love him.”

“What did you see?”

“They were arguing. Billy choked him.”

Max hangs her head. “I knew it. He’s doing exactly what Neil does to him.” When she looks up there are tears in her eyes. “I’d rather him do it to me than Steve.”

“No, you don’t.” El squeezes her hands.

“Yes, I do!” She laughs and looks away. When she blinks, tears fall. “Better yet, I wish I’d killed the fucker that night. He doesn’t deserve to be wrapped up in this.”

It’s unclear whether she means Steve or Billy. Neither of them deserve the drama. Death isn’t an answer to that, nor is wishing to replace your loved one. If no one should suffer, no one should suffer. But inherently everyone will.

“Max.”

“What?” she wipes her eyes on her sleeve.

“Don’t wish that. Anyone can kill, but it’s not good to live with.”

“It isn’t good to live with this, either! They’re both getting worse, why don’t they see it? How could they stay together?”

El repeats, “Steve wants Billy to love him, and Billy wants to be loved. Tonight they were laying together.”

“Tonight? How do you know?”

El motions toward the window. “Snow.”

“Are they happy?”

Naturally, reliving the memories of Papa made her uncomfortable. Their congruence with what she learned about Billy and Steve must bear meaning. She drew the connection that, like herself, Steve believes that a bad person loves him, and is going along with what he says to appease him, or to avoid any further conflict. Or because he now believes that Billy's words are right.

Unanswered questions are bred from the connections. If El hadn’t escaped when she did, what would have happened to her? If the relationship between Steve and Billy doesn’t end soon, what will become of them? Do the things you do to survive change your ultimate fate? Will was supposed to die, but they saved him by collaborating with each other, creating an unexpected harmony. Can they save Steve without anyone getting hurt?

Billy is a problem, yes, but he is suffering, too. Like her, he grew up with an overbearing father. Like her, he doesn’t know how he fits into this world. But unlike her he isn’t willing to admit he’s wrong, or get help. Why not? Healing is painful, yes, but no more painful than the trauma that creates warped young adults.

Max shakes her hands to bring her back. “El? Are they happy?”

“Yes,” she answers solemnly. “But they are not safe.”

Chapter Text

Click. The crunch of snow under boots. Click. Laughter, six kids, two of which have never ridden a sled before. Click. Nancy, snug in her scarf and matching hat and gloves, double checking the girls’ snow gear. Are their snow pants tucked into their boots? Are their coats zipped tight? She gladly shows them how to properly play in snow while taking care. Soon enough Mike and Lucas settle onto sleds, and El and Max, respectively, climb on behind them. Click. There’s about to be a race.

Jonathan gets a few shots as Mike and Lucas kick their sleds off. Then he watches, camera forgotten in his hands, as the two sleds zoom down the spacious hill. Other kids and families dot the field, so Dustin and Will wait at the bottom as a marker, ready to help their friends if the sleds topple over. Luckily they don’t, and the girls’ screams of shock turn into those of joy.

They jump up from the sleds and hug each other; Jonathan can hear the echoes of their laughter. Beside him Nancy giggles. “It’s great to see them all having fun together, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, they’re really all here.” He turns to her as the kids trudge up the hill, chattering.

“It’s a miracle.”

“I know, it’s--”

“Woo!”

The piercing hoot startles them. Jonathan knows who it belongs to before he turns around. Billy, of course, walking in front of Steve, who’s dragging a sled. Oddly enough Steve is wearing Ray Bans. Because the sun glares off the snow or because of something else? He’s not nearly as warmly dressed as Billy, as if his snow clothes were traded in for expensive sunglasses. Fancy accessories won’t help a skinny teenager stay warm for hours in the snow.

“Rumor has it you needed another one of these,” Billy says charmingly, motioning to the sled. His rosy cheeks and short blonde curls-- poking out from under his knit cap-- give the impression that he’s some kind of male model in a winter catalogue. Did Steve fall for Billy because of this? Couldn’t be his delightful personality. Cool as he may seem, Jonathan knows that doesn’t exist.

The kids know, too. They reach the top of the hill, flushed, and when they see Billy their expressions harden. Tension settles over them. Six kids, none of whom like Billy, and four teens, all with wildly different perspectives of each other. They share the tension equally, waiting for someone to break the silence. Steve and Billy were expected, but Jonathan was hoping they-- at least Billy, after what El saw-- wouldn’t show. If the expressions on Lucas and Dustin’s faces mean anything, they wished it, too.

“Well, shit. At least you showed up with one useful thing.” Dustin extends an arm to Steve, damned if Billy reacts, and motions for the sled. “Hand ‘er over!”

Surprisingly he isn’t upset. This relaxes Steve, who mischievously smiles. “Not before I beat you first.” He breaks into a sprint towards the summit and, at the last second, hops onto the sled.

“Bastard!” Dustin grabs a sled from Mike and totters towards the slope.

Everyone watches the race, which Steve wins without question. Jonathan zooms in on the bottom of the hill, capturing the moment when Dustin starts shouting profanities and Steve tackles him into the snow. Strangers turn to check out the noise; when they realize there is no fight, they return to their own snow day fun. Click .

As Jonathan snaps away, Nancy makes small talk. “So Billy, Max said this is her first time sledding. Is it yours, too?”

He sparks a lighter and inhales. Jonathan smells cigarette smoke. “It would be, but I don’t plan on sledding today.”

“Why not?” Will exclaims, bouncing. “It’s so fun!”

Jonathan lowers his camera, interested in Billy’s response. “Just not my cup of tea,” he blinks bashfully, cigarette dangling between his teeth.

“Well, you should try it.” Will suggests hopefully. “Have Steve take you. It’ll be fun! You could definitely use a little fun.”

“Oh yeah? Who said that?” His sharp blue eyes flick to Max.

In spite of his reasonable fear, Lucas jumps to her defense. “Nobody said anything bad about you.”  

Mike rolls his eyes. “Seriously, your existence says enough.”  

Another insult. How many until Billy is invited to explode? Supposedly he’s doing better, but they all know that’s a lie Steve likes to protect him with. On the drive here Max and El filled he and Will in on the scene she saw in her psychic-state. There’s nothing good about what goes on between them. Yet here they are.

Jonathan glances around at the group. There’s a half smile on Nancy’s face. She isn’t scared, and has no sympathy or regard for Billy’s feelings. El isn’t afraid either, though Max is mortified, glaring at Mike, who stubbornly folds his arms. Lucas seems to be holding his breath waiting for a response from Billy, who wears a bitter smile.

“Ah, existence... Always giving me away.” He looks out over the hill, gloved hands stuffed in the pockets of his coat, which Jonathan notices now is at least one size too small. Must have been Steve’s. Exactly how much of himself is Steve willing to give?

Maybe Nancy shouldn’t have let him go so easily. Before she linked up with Jonathan she could have fought for him. After, even-- their love could have evolved as a trio. Polyamory is possible, isn’t it? Nancy finds both boys attractive, and if Steve can explore his sexuality, Jonathan can, too. If that happened, they would have excluded Billy from not only their relationship but their lives, and subsequently protected Steve. But who is he kidding? He’d never share Nancy in a million years, and no matter how many times Steve proves himself as compassionate and capable, Jonathan will never find him attractive. Instead, he finds the conventional symmetry of his face and the natural coif of his hair offensive. Still, he doesn’t wish ill on him, and certainly not… choking .

Dustin and Steve reach the top, winded and laughing, Steve’s arm draped over the other’s shoulders. They see the semi-circle of awkwardness and pause. Determined not to let this afternoon escape them, Dustin shrugs Steve’s arm off, takes his hand and holds it up. “Ladies and gentleman, King of the Hill!”

“No way!” Max shakes her head, cheeks nearly the same shade as her hair. “You might have won this round, Steve, but we’ve got you next.” She takes El’s hand. “Right?”

“Right.” Her darling dimples are showing.

Billy snaps his fingers as if a brilliant idea struck him. “Incorrect. We’ve got you beat.” He approaches Steve, his encroaching presence pushing Dustin away. Standing by Steve he tells the girls, “Two against two is only fair, don’t you think?”

El is about to say something when Mike steps forward. “Then we’ll go, too. Me and Will.”

“Hey, what about us?” Dustin whines.

“We stay up here, doofus. It’s called taking turns.”

He gives Lucas a sidelong glance. “I told you we should have picked up another sled on the way over.”

The kids take their places, Mike straddling Will, who’s handling the reins, and El doing the same with Max, who insists on holding the steering ropes because-- now that she’s tried sledding once-- she can assume her role as Zoomer. Jonathan lifts his camera again. Click . To the right of both these pairs are Billy and Steve, who hardly fit together on the narrow sled. They’ll probably crash before making it to the bottom.

A metaphor for their relationship , Jonathan thinks. They hardly fit, but they’ll kill themselves insisting they do.


Nancy is kneeling in the snow, working on a neat pile of snowballs. The girls add onto it, though their spheres are terribly misshapen. Their smiles are set into flushed faces, accented by red button noses. Click . Several yards off the boys hastily work together to build a fort. When Dustin challenges Mike for doing it wrong, they banter. Will and Lucas laugh openly at them. Click. About ten feet behind them, near the edge of the field, Billy tries to snatch the Ray Bans off Steve’s face. They grapple, and Billy throws him playfully into the snow, where they roll around and sneak in a few kisses. Jonathan snaps a series of photos, curious. Click.

Does the complete publicness not phase them? Even at moments of heightened charge, he and Nancy have never lost themselves like that. She is always aware and conscious of their surroundings, even when relaxed. They’ll hold hands at school, but nothing more. He won’t kiss her before class because she isn’t into that type of attention-- and wasn't when she was with Steve. Instead they kiss strong and full after school in the dark room, or whenever they are alone.

Their mutual value of privacy works, but a part of Jonathan wishes he could be bold with her, because the unrestrained passion of Billy and Steve’s relationship is alluring. It makes him jealous, as it did the night of their big dinner. Rationally he knows there’s nothing to envy, but then there resides in him a hopeless romantic that wants to be the storybook lover.

Too bad nothing about Jonathan is storybook. Nothing about Billy is, either. Unless the storybook character is Alex from A Clockwork Orange . Charming and appealing, he brings out sympathy in most people he meets, only for them to discover his cruel underlying nature. In the middle of the novel his own friends catch on to the fact that they are manipulated by his power, and during an incident of breaking and entering, they let Alex get arrested and carried off.

During the second half of the book he is imprisoned and tested on, until he wills that he had died before getting caught. Jonathan found it an interesting exploration of an abusive character losing his agency. When will Billy lose his, and will he be taught similar lessons? The swagger he walks around with, the smug self-assuredness, it’s not real. If anyone thinks it is, they're buying the image he’s worked incessantly hard to build. No matter what, he will come out on top. Why does he need to be in control so badly? Jonathan knows his home life sucked before moving in with Steve, but now that his dreams are coming true, he should be nicer. He isn’t.

Maybe that’s not fair. Alex is fifteen in that book, and shows no remorse, while Billy is two years older and has shown remorse. To Steve, at least, about beating his face in. Watching him play in the snow reminds Jonathan of that friendly, cordial kid who talked records with him and made his brother smile. And look-- he’s making the kids smile again now, engaged in the snowball fight: he and Steve versus the girls. Excitedly Will bounces over like a colt and joins the boy’s team. The others, finishing up the fort, observe this strange scene from the wide mouth of their curved confine.

The lightness of Billy’s presence reminds Jonathan that he, too, is human, regardless of what he’s done. He hears the tune of that new Smiths song in his head as he watches them play; Morrissey’s pitchy voice backed by that looping riff and unique, twangy wah sound.

You shut your mouth , h ow can you say

I go about things the wrong way?

I am human and I need to be loved,

just like everybody else does.


Finally they convince the kids it’s time to go. Knowing she’s freezing by now, Jonathan tosses Nancy the keys so she can warm up the car. He grabs the sled they came with and starts after her, calling to his brother and El. They wave him off, promising one more minute to talk with Billy, while some distance to the right Dustin convinces Steve to climb inside the fort. Unsurprisingly he fits, given how slim he is now. This entertains Max and the boys.

At the top of the hill Jonathan catches up with Nancy, who opens the trunk and waits for him. “I didn’t realize he could smile for so long.” He motions behind him, where at the bottom of the hill Will is talking to Billy, who now looks only mildly amused. In the distance Steve stands in the center of a half-demolished fort. Bumps of snow ride his shoulders. He shakes them off and panics when he notices his sunglasses are missing. Of course the kids consider this a riot. Will digs the glasses out and tries them on. They’re twice the size of his face, and Dustin quickly steals them.

“Who, Billy?” Nancy studies Jonathan with big blue eyes as he carefully fits the sled into the trunk. At once he feels boyish and strong, knowing she appreciates him even when he’s not looking. When he returns his attention to her, he chuckles. She is beautiful in her scarf and hat, her wavy hair framing her face. Her grin broadens when he doesn’t reply. “Oh my gosh, you like him, don’t you?”

“What? No, he’s still a total jerk.” He shuts the trunk carefully. “I’m just saying, it must be some kind of record.”

“It’s a record, alright.” She hands him the keys. He dips into the driver's’ side to hit the ignition and set his camera down, but they hang by the hood of the car since it’ll take a few minutes to warm up. She stands close to him. “They probably did coke before they came. I don’t think I’ve seen them happy without it.”

“Me either. It’s such a juxtaposition, you know? On the way over here the kids told me that El went into that…” He taps his temple and she nods, supplying the term. “Yeah, sensory deprivation. She saw something from last week, they were arguing. Billy choked him.”

“Steve?” Her eyes widen with concern.

“Steve,” he confirms. “That was last week, now this? Laughing and playing like it never happened. How can they think they’re in love?”

She nudges him softly, saddened. “You said yourself, remember? Your parents took a long time to figure it out.”

“It was a total disaster, and it wrecked my mom, not to mention Will.”

“Well, now you’ve got Hopper,” she points out optimistically.

“Still a disaster,” he jokes.

“Shut up!” She nudges him again, harder. “You love him.”

He grins. “Definitely.”

A sudden shout of rage at the bottom of the hill grabs their attention. They take a few steps forward to get a better look. Billy has been knocked into the snow. He gets up immediately and squares up to Will and El, roaring. Jonathan and Nancy left the group for a minute! What did those two say to get Billy angry so fast?

In wordless agreement they take off at a sprint, toppling down the slope, sliding and scrambling in an attempt to stop the momentum. By the time they reach the bottom they’re covered in snow, exacerbating their look of sheer panic and drawing the attention of a few bystanders, who rightfully decide it’s not their business.

From a few yards off Jonathan shouts, “Hey! Hey, asshole, stop!”

The others that were fooling around in the busted fort are rushing over, too. Max takes up a power stance next to El, while the boys hover around, considering the best angles to cause damage. Dustin takes the Ray Bans off, fully charged.

Steve approaches Billy with the meekness his mother used around his father. He wants to be aggressive, alright, but knows he has no influence over his boyfriend. Still, he’s obligated to try. “Babe! Babe, back off, he’s a kid!”

Ignoring the onslaught, Billy barks at Will, “I asked how you know that!” His eyes are not the same as before. They are injected with venom, poisonous.

Swaying nervously, Will stammers, “I told you, w-we just know !”

Minutes ago Jonathan thought of Billy as human-- a crooked teen deserving of love. Now that’s lost. He’s feral, and he lunges at Will only to be thrown several feet backwards by unseen hands, landing hard enough to knock the wind out of him. Jonathan's eyes dart to Eleven, thinking she used her powers to push him over in the first place. Sure enough, her fist is clenched. Nancy notices, too, and draws close to whisper something in her ear.

“Then let them see.” El remains fiercely focused on Billy.

Markedly softened by disorientation, he shakes the snow off and trudges forward. Jonathan steps in front of Will to guard him. “Go away! He didn’t do anything to you.”

Billy stops, astounded but not enraged. “Yes, he did. And I want to know how he did it.”

“Babe, seriously. Just leave it.” Steve grabs his arm.

Interestingly, Billy does not hit or push him away. The venom has fully drained. A realization takes its place, brightening him in a thoroughly disturbing way. Jonathan hears Mike’s gentle voice behind him and feels Will being walked to safety. Billy tracks them for a moment. "Holy shit. You were telling the truth.”

“What?” Jonathan asks, confused. 

“Not you, Byers. I'm talking about Harrington.” He hikes a thumb in Steve’s direction. “He said your brother got taken by a monster and survived in another dimension for a little while. Apparently he came back with powers."

There’s a collective disappointment so great it’s audible. Around them the wind picking up snow feels like a vacuum, sucking out the air they need to breathe. The kids are in shock. How could their babysitter, their friend , reveal himself a traitor?

Under his breath Dustin mumbles, “Shit.” Lucas’s face becomes a pained picture of agreement. “This isn’t good.”

El’s determined anger is now turned on Steve, and beside her Nancy’s face scrunches in disbelief. “You told him?” When Steve says nothing she scoffs. “You’re an idiot .”

Over a year, and none of them have broken their word. There was never a fear that anyone would. Together they survived something that civilians would deem them crazy for, giving them no reason to share their secrets. Even Steve, loudmouth jerk who frequented parties and played jock around school, kept his lips zipped tight. What made him divulge the details now-- and how much information did he give?

“I --” Steve shuts his mouth and swallows hard against the heartbreak of his own folly. There is no way to justify what he has done, no way to undo it. He jeopardized everyone’s safety by disclosing the truth. Understanding this, Steve surrenders to his own stupidity with sagging shoulders.

“Oh!” Billy quips, raising his eyebrows. Standing tall he scans their faces. “Oh, that’s right, it’s a secret . He wasn’t supposed to tell me, was he?”

“No,” Nancy says tersely.

“Right, right." To Steve he adds, “And you didn’t want to tell me because you had to protect me, wasn’t that it? From what, this telekinetic runt?” He laughs, perversely satisfied. “I should have known you’re not capable of making something like that up.”

They’re all watching Steve, appalled. He is heavy with shame, betrayed by the boyfriend he has irrationally devoted his life and health to. His brown eyes are glassy, tear-filled. He folds his arms and hugs himself against cold, unforgiving reality.

In this moment he lost the last real friends he had.

Chapter Text

A gust of cold air precedes the slam of her front door. Beside her at the kitchen counter Hop is chopping lettuce. “Uh-oh,” he sings. “Sounds like trouble’s home!”

She smiles lightly and turns away from the boiling pot of pasta, expecting three happy kids ready for a hot meal and later, hot chocolate. Instead, El marches a whimpering Will into his bedroom and, without hands, shuts the door. Jonathan reels through the kitchen behind them, avoiding eye contact with the adults.

“Not so fast.” Joyce steps away from the stove. Her son pauses but doesn’t look at her. “What’s wrong?”

Hop sets the knife on the cutting board and stares curiously down the hall. “And what are those two doing?”

“Nothing, it’s fine. They’re fine.”

“Jesus, you sound like Steve,” he chuckles. “Seriously, kid, what happened?”

“Steve!” Jonathan explodes. “He’s what happened, and that asshole he calls his boyfriend!”

“Hey,” Joyce frowns. She raised her boys better than to badmouth others. However, she immediately regrets calling him out; it takes Jonathan a lot to get worked up, and today was supposed to be such a pleasant day. Something went very wrong.

“It’s true, Mom! Billy’s an asshole, and he’s got Steve wrapped around his finger. It’s pathetic. If you stood up to Dad and made him leave, why can’t he?” Jonathan huffs, frustrated. “Everything was going great and then at the last minute Billy tried to attack Will. El used her powers to block him, but Billy thought it was Will, and then— Steve told him last week. He knows!”

“Knows?” Hop is alert. “Knows what?”

“About Will disappearing!” He throws his arms up. “Being taken, whatever. He knows about the Upside Down and the demogorgon. And now he thinks Will has powers!”

Hop shakes his head, thick brows furrowed in thought. Joyce takes the pause as an opportunity to exhale. “Can you start from the beginning, honey? Here, we’ll all sit, you take as much time as you need.”

They sit at the table and Jonathan describes their day from start to finish. It was good for a while. He got pictures, spent time with Nancy, and enjoyed watching everyone play. Then it took a fast turn, leaving Joyce’s heart pounding. What made Billy lash out at the kids? If they haven’t told Jonathan yet, will they feel comfortable enough to tell she and Hop? Although Joyce is grateful El used her powers for protection, it’s worrying. There should be no need to. Billy’s not a monster, he’s another misfit kid.

“So what’s going on with them?” Hop points a lit cigarette towards the hallway. There’s one between her fingers, too. Joyce doesn’t remember lighting it. Her imagination is in overdrive.

Jonathan shrugs. “I don’t know. They were whispering in the car. Will started crying. I think they want to see what made Steve tell. El thinks Billy forced it out of him, but I think he’s just an idiot.”

“Hey,” Hop says sternly. “Steve is not an idiot.”

“Then what would you call a guy that’s staying in a relationship with someone like Billy?”

There’s a pause. Joyce sets her cigarette in the ashtray and lets it smoke. “Was I stupid for staying with your father as long as I did?” she challenges.

He looks down at his lap for a moment, guilty. “That’s not— you weren’t—”

“I was struggling. I believed he loved me even when he was mean, and it took years of pain for me to know when I’d had enough.”

Hop follows her line of thought. “This kid hasn’t had enough yet. Neither has Billy. Hell, he’s got it made. Livin at the Harrington’s, away from his father, doesn’t have to watch Max all the time.” He takes a deep, thoughtful pull and exhales. “Have you talked to him?”

“Who, Steve?”

Seeing right where Hop’s taking this, Joyce adds, “Right, have you told him you get it? That I get it? Have you told him he can talk to me anytime he wants?”

“No, I didn’t think to,” he says to the table with a shrug. Anxiously he twists a loose thread at the hem of his sweater. “We’re not exactly friends.”

“Oh, don’t give me that horseshit.” Hop stubs the cigarette out. “You took his girl, he got over it. Or maybe he didn’t, so what? He was here the night you guys tried to take down the demogorgon, and he was there for those kids when you, Mom and Nancy went with Will. You’re not enemies.”

“Sure, he was helpful before, but he told Billy. We can’t trust either of them!” Jonathan searches their faces, exasperated.  “Why aren’t you guys more upset?”

“What do you want us to be upset about? It’s over. Steve made a mistake. You just said yourself, he was helpful before Billy.”

Joyce agrees. “It’s a risk, Jonathan, but who’s going to believe Billy? He has no proof. Just words. I’m more concerned with Steve. A whole year went by. Why tell now?”

After a beat Jonathan admits, “I wondered that, too.”

Disappointed, Joyce leans in. “Then why haven’t you talked to him?”

He shifts in his chair and stammers. “I don’t know.”

They sit together in silence for a long stretch, until finally Jonathan gets up to check the pasta that Joyce forgot was still boiling. He takes a strainer from the cupboard and carries the pot to the sink. Hopper slides away from the table and continues chopping lettuce. They work quietly beside each other, with an air of disappointment, and Joyce feels an unspoken consensus that action needs to be taken.

She and Hop have waited, as adults should, to see if Steve and Billy would resolve things independently. Steve is a senior, after all, with Billy not far behind as a junior, same class as Nancy and Jonathan. Joyce wonders how all of this is affecting her. She left Steve for Jonathan, although her son would never describe it that way. Has she shown any concern? Or have they abandoned Steve now that he’s not directly useful, even though he never abandoned them?

She clears the ashtray from the table, dumps it, and sets clean plates and napkins down. As the guys finish prepping she slinks off to grab the kids, forcing herself to be cheery. Twice she raps on Will’s door.

“Knock knock! Dinner’s ready.”

There’s no response. Then a click and the door opens. Will and El are kneeling on the floor in each other’s arms, blindfolded. Remaining connected, El lifts the cloth from her face. Her eyes are slightly bloodshot. Will continues hugging her, crying. It takes effort not to react.

She forces a smile. “Can I join you?”

El nods and closes the door for Joyce, who kneels with them, their knees touching to create a soulful star. These are her children, using magic to learn more about their older friend, who she and Hop consider another one of their own. How does it always comes back to this? Working together to decipher horrorshow riddles and puzzle piece placements in order to save and heal? Forgiving Steve for letting the secret out is no matter when his safety is in question.

“So,” she begins. “Jonathan said you don’t think Steve told the truth because he wanted to. You think Billy has something to do with it. Is that right?”

Again El nods, absently rubbing Will’s back, like Joyce has done for her. “Max wanted us to wait until we knew for sure. She’s afraid that if we tell the grown ups, Billy will think Steve told on him.”

Fright washes away the mask of cheerfulness she put on. Information clashes in her head, buried memories lighting like fireflies, at once close and elusive. As her past wakes up and shakes dust off, her chest grows tight. Despite having prepared mentally for their relationship to deteriorate, knowing Steve and Billy are at this point already sets her into remembered panic. She has lived in fear of a man, and she has lived in fear of leaving one.

Disheartened, she takes a guess. “Is Max scared Billy will hurt Steve if we get involved, or if we tell him they should break up?”

“Yes.”

“Okay.” She takes a deep breath, bracing for the impact of whatever they saw. It is both a blessing and a curse raising kids to be comfortable sharing with adults. She is honored to be trusted, and proud to see middle schoolers able to decide when to get parents involved, the same way she and Hop waited to involve themselves. However, when they give her information, Joyce becomes responsible for figuring out how to help. In this case, it’s how to help two boys out of a toxic relationship without causing more harm.

She exhales shakily. “Wanna tell me what’s going on?”

At this point Will breaks the hug. He sits back on his heels and lifts the blindfold, turning his hair into chaos that mirrors what Joyce feels inside. Habit says smooth his bangs, but judgement stills her hand. Her baby’s eyes and cheeks are wet, tears forgotten in the wake of what he saw.

“Mom, we have to help him,” Will shivers desperately. “We have to help Steve.”


After some hot chocolate and a half hour of Ghostbusters , the kids are asleep, Will curled against Hop’s barrel chest and El snuggled against her side. Over the background noise of the movie Joyce does her best to describe the story in whispers, without letting emotions seep in. Graciously Hop pretends not to notice when they do.

“Will wanted to ask Billy if he had fun on his first snow day. You know, because they’re from California. So he and El went over, and Will told Billy he knows how it feels to be mistreated by your father.” She makes a face, knowing exactly where her son misstepped. “Then he said his dad used to call him a faggot, too.”

“Hell, that’d get me riled up.” Hop sighs. “Little boy trying to tell me he knows what I’ve been through.”

“Billy wanted to fight him, Hop!” Her face morphs into judgement.

“Right, but she was there.” He tips his chin towards El. “I know we don’t like her using her powers, but she was there.”

“That’s not the point.”

“I know,” he assures camly. “Tell me the rest.”

Joyce goes on to explain how Billy reacted, and how El subsequently revealed her powers, which inspired Billy to make the connection. Once it was out, everyone turned on Steve and left without saying goodbye. At this Hop shakes his head, commenting that the last thing Steve needs right now is to be ostracized. All that’ll do is give him more time alone with Billy, which both adults agree is, however unconsciously, what Billy wants.

Then Joyce recounts the scene El and Will saw: Steve being choked when trying to stand up for himself. Originally, he didn’t tell the truth, and wouldn’t have if his safety wasn’t at risk. Joyce remembers what it’s like to decide it’s not worth the fight. Many times she would give in to Lonnie, believing that if she did he would love her again, or love her more , or better. She would give in to him because he made her feel guilty, like she was a bad girlfriend or a bad mom.

Abruptly a door opens down the hall. The parents fall into a patient silence and watch as Jonathan saunders into the kitchen wearing pyjamas, holding his place in a new library book. With his free hand he pours a glass of water. When he catches them watching, Hop gives a cheeky little wave. Jonathan half-heartedly smiles and returns to his room.

Resuming their discussion, Hop asks, “What do we do now?”

Joyce’s eyes dart around, as if the living room that’s been beaten to hell by all of them, twice , can supply solutions. “We need to talk to him.”

“Again? He doesn’t wanna hear it, Joyce. Even last night, I got him to admit he wants a break from the guy sometimes, but he knows as well as I do he’s not gonna get it. Billy lives in his house, and apparently is now his only friend.”

“No... not his only friend,” she whispers, far off in her head. “Maybe the kids are upset tonight, but I don’t believe for a second that they would abandon him.”

“Well, we could get Steve and the kids together and stage an intervention.”

She balks at the idea. “They shouldn’t be there when we talk to him. We need to make it clear that this relationship he’s in is serious.”

“I think he knows that, but alright. We’ll get him alone, give him a scary parent talk.”

“You say that like it’s going to be easy finding  Steve alone.” She slumps. El stirs softly, but when Joyce strokes her curly hair she continues to sleep. “God, just talking about it upsets me. Thinking of him hurt, trapped, and so young .”

“Hey.” Hop leans in, hugging Will closer to him. “Listen, we’re gonna do this. We’ll find a way to talk to Steve, just Steve . Best case, we get through to him and he makes the decision to kick Billy out. Worst case, we go to the parents and have ‘em keep these kids in their own damn houses.” Joyce’s eyes bulge. “Okay, or we don’t go to the parents.  Why not?”

“Because, we’re not like the other parents, Hop,” she points out. “We’re not like most.”

They glance at the kids between them. A small boy who’s survived kidnapping, possession, and being burned all over, next to a girl raised in captivity, manipulated to believe her abuser was her one true parent. Both asleep in safe arms, with a family movie rolling in the background, and a compassionate older brother in bed reading on a Friday night.

“You know what?” Hop’s eyes sparkle proudly. “We’re not like other parents. And I say that’s a damn good thing.”

Chapter Text

 

That night his mother pesters him about his half-finished dinner. To quiet her down, Dustin offers to clean up and wash dishes. The offer both delights and gets her out of the kitchen, so he can reflect on the shitstorm snow day without distraction. What started off as a dream come true quickly descended into a nightmare. In the same two hour period he raced his brother downhill and watched the image of him shatter.

How could Steve do this? He knew what was at stake! Everyone promised to keep the secrets safe because saying them out loud risked death. While he was with Nancy he kept it all to himself, and now he tells Billy? What could that asshole possibly do to deserve the truth? Nothing. Steve couldn’t even explain himself earlier, because he knew there was no reason. He had betrayed them, and put El and Will in danger. Nancy had called him an idiot, which hurt, but on the walk home she said something even worse: Steve couldn’t be their friend anymore.

If the look on Mike’s face hadn’t stopped him, Dustin would have argued the point. Yeah, what Steve did was fucked up, but abandon him as a friend? No way. Lucas had betrayed them when he told Max, and they kept him as a friend! How was this any different?

He knew why, though. Max was a grumpy gamer girl, not an unpredictable antagonist. Way before Lucas spilled it to her she had been willing to help them. Once she was properly called upon, she jumped right into her self-assigned role as zoomer , and after her step brother beat the consciousness out of Steve, she was the one who helped Dustin get his dead weight into the car, leaving him indebted to her.

The others had wanted to leave Steve behind that night, totally blind to the value and place he had within the party. Livid, Dustin screamed that to leave him at the Byers’ was murder. If Billy had woken up to Steve bloody, broken, and still unconscious, he would have gladly finished what he started.

Imagining the alternate ending makes Dustin sick. He drops a slippery dish in the sink and soap suds splash on his shirt. His mother asks if he’s alright and he lies again, feeling a lot like Steve pretending his relationship is going well. What ever made him buy into the crock of absolute garbage that is Billy Hargrove?

Honestly, I have no idea.

Dustin shivers. How could an act so violent befall such a selfless guy? Later that same night in the tunnels, with a swollen face and mild concussion, Steve hoisted everyone to safety before he dared worry about himself. When the herd of demodogs came through, he threw his arm around Dustin and held him tight, heavy bat propped in the other hand, ready to swing.

He was willing to die if it meant keeping the kids safe. They weren’t even his kids back then, just “shitheads” he was bid to look after. When did they turn into his kids? After he returned them to safety? When he realized that, for the second year in a row, they’d all survived because they worked together ? Was his confidence boosted because the kids appreciated him unconditionally, in ways Nancy never could?

Steve was a hero because he laid his life out on the limb, time and time again, for others, even when he knew he couldn’t win. All Dustin could think was I wanna be like him . Sure, he did his hair and dressed for others-- the girls he wanted to impress, which turned out to be guys, too. Dustin cared about that stuff, but what he really admired Steve for was his selflessness, and his ability to go about life with both humor and clumsiness. Somehow that gave him grace.

As he sets clean dishes and pots in the drying rack it hits him. These thoughts are in past tense. Steve has changed, in the worst ways. It started with not seeing the kids as much, and graduated to only seeing them when it was convenient for Billy, too. Rides, dinners, play dates. Not fair. And his appearance went to hell faster than his attitude. Today he wore loose jeans, ugly boots too big for him, and a coat too thin. The coat Billy wore looked thicker, so did the hat and gloves. Was Steve even wearing gloves? Everything about this afternoon moved so fast Dustin can’t recall. He does know there were Ray Bans. Those came home with him accidentally.

Most upsetting is the change in Steve’s personality. It’s not just his body that’s whittling away; the light of his soul flickers on and off, lighting only when circumstances allow it to. He’s not building himself up, he’s allowing himself to be built. Similarly, he’s allowing himself to be dismantled.

Dustin’s stomach aches. In 1893 they lost Will, discovered El, and the Upside Down. Last year they did it all over again. Those things were incredibly stressful, but watching Steve vanish in a relationship he barely understands is twice as bad. El can’t use her powers to fix this, and the grown ups might not even be able to use theirs. Lucas and Max spoke to the rest of the party last week about when to involve Hopper. It’s going to be soon. What if Hopper gets mad at Steve and refuses to help him? What if he punishes him for sharing the secret with untrustworthy scum? El and Will are his kids! He’ll definitely be pissed.

Dustin was pissed at Steve, too, for about ten minutes. By the time he got home and smelled his mom’s cooking he knew that being upset with Steve is pointless. It won’t help, and Dustin wants to help. He’s wanted to all along, but it’s hard when you’re a stout thirteen year old whose opponent is a coked up body builder.

He shuts the water off as his mother sidles back into the small kitchen. “Why don’t we have a nice cup of hot cocoa and watch a movie?” She takes a pot and dries it with a dish towel. For some reason Dustin thinks of Steve.

Determination lights like a flare inside, glowing bright and steady. “Hot cocoa sounds great, Mom. I’m gonna make a phone call, and then we can find a movie. Okay?”

A warm grin blooms. “Of course! Who are you calling?”

“Steve. I need to tell him something.”

“Oh, Steven! Please invite him over, Dusty! If he can’t make it tonight, tell him we’ll still be here tomorrow. He’s such a good boy.”

“Try getting him to believe that.”

There’s a phone on the end table in the living room, on the side of the couch where Tews is sitting. Dustin plops down beside the cat and picks up the phone, quickly punching out Steve’s number. He’s had it memorized since the Snow Ball.

As he waits for someone to answer, he rehearses in his head. Screw whoever thinks you’re a traitor, you’re still the best big brother in the world. Or maybe he should emphasize the fact that even though Mike is being a bitch about this, Lucas and Max are still on Steve’s side, figuring out how to get the right help.

There’s a connecting click followed by a deep, “Hello?”

“Mr. Harrington!” Dustin cheeses. “Sorry to bother you on this lovely Friday evening, but I’d love to talk to your son. Steve, not the fake one, if you’re even referring to him as a son yet, which I hope you’re not, because--”

“Oh, no, no, I’m sorry. We’re not buying anything.”

What? That’s not Mr. Harrington’s voice.

It’s Billy’s.

“Son of a bitch,” Dustin whispers. Louder he says, “Let me talk to Steve, now. I know he’s home.”

“Look, I already said, we’re not buying anything.” There’s an unmistakable smile in his voice, a disgusting, smarmy smile meant to charm the pants off whoever it’s directed at. In this case it’s meant to fool whoever else is in the room.

Proving his point Steve’s muffled voice asks, “Who is it?”

“Nobody, Harrington.” Billy’s voice begins to fade. “Don’t worry about it.”

By the end of the sentence there’s a click . Then the line goes dead.


In the dream darkness hangs overhead like a blanket, shutting out air and light. Damp earth sucks at his sneakers as he trudges, screaming Steve’s name, through the field, spinning the flashlight wildly in every direction.

There is a vast and echoing groan like weeping metal. Far off. Did they really lose him? Over the reverberating mass of movement there is a screech. No metal. It was a monster this whole time, and the groan a forceful whoosh of fire. Something is burning. Something huge.

He is breathless, screaming. Running out of time. No, this can’t happen. If they burn everything down and Steve is forgotten somewhere, he will die too, and they can’t lose him, they cannot lose him . Choking on his heart Dustin breaks into a run, but the mud sucks his feet down, and he’s achingly slow, pumping his legs harder and harder, bouncing as if floating, one yard at a time, until he falls into the earth.

Into the earth. Down, down, losing the flashlight, losing his footing. Down, down, bang .

The floor of the vine is a fleshy mess beneath him, gripping him with sticky slime on every inch of surface area his small body provides. When the air comes back to him he screams for Steve, scrambling to his feet. Where is he?

There!

Leaning against the rounded wall, silhouette lit by the red glow of flames, belching through the vines towards them. Dustin sees the approaching fire before he does because there’s something in his hands, an object distracting him from the purpose. What’s their purpose? How did they get down here? Dustin remembers bright white, a candelabra, a rainbow band-aid on a doorknob they reached for, and the revving of a car engine.

“Hey, buddy!” Steve calls. He is no longer a silhouette, but a live person Dustin waddles over to, forcing his knees up each step. When he reaches Steve he sees everything about him is nostalgically perfect. Goggles rest on his head like a headband, pushing back his shiny, voluminous hair. He pulls the red bandana away from his face to speak. His skin is clear, there’s  a healthy pallor, frame filled by full meals and laughs. That coat, the little green-grey coat, and a bat with nails leaning beside him. One leg bent, foot propping him against the tunnel wall.

“Steve.” The word is nothing but an exhale. Dustin cannot say, they’re coming . But he knows it like he knows his address, or the fact that Mike, Lucas and Will are all his best friends.

“Did you know?” Steve asks interestedly, looking at his hands, the book he’s holding. "Our world is a hybrid combination of the two possible worlds… ” The book has a cat on the cover, and a box. The encroaching fire reflects off the page, makes it visible. “… and each world interferes with the other?”

Something’s missing.

“Steve.”

“Right?” He beams. “I thought that was cool, too! Wait, wait, check this out.” He flips pages. “The ‘paradox’ is only a conflict between reality and your feelings on what reality ‘ought to be’.” He shuts the book and shakes his head in awe, drawing Dustin in. “ Ought to be . Isn’t that something, man? I mean, two worlds existing at once, but each only exists as much as we believe it does?”

A thundering that is not fire and not metal and not good moves towards them. Dustin knocks the book from Steve’s hands and grabs him, pulls him towards the opening he fell down moments ago, only to find that there isn’t one. It has disappeared or sealed up or maybe they’re both lost. Gone, in seconds, when the demodogs catch them.

Choking on his heart, he wraps both arms around Steve’s waist and squeezes. They are going to die. Growling and snarling like real dogs, real dogs, makes the ground quake. Dustin shuts his eyes, hard. He doesn’t want to see his own death, and he can feel Steve but Steve isn’t there, no longer a safety but a child, absently reciting quantum theory, far away and pleasant.

“Our world is a hybrid combination of the two possible worlds… and each world interferes with the other.”


Monday after the bell Dustin rushes out to meet Steve. He tried calling again Saturday and Sunday to no avail, and actually obeyed when his friends told him not to go straight to the Harrington’s house. Running down the hall towards the exit they see him and ask where he’s going, since they always ride bikes home together. He reminds them he’s going to Steve’s, and he’ll meet up with them at the arcade later. Max, who is saying goodbye to Lucas, hurries after him.

Minutes later they are panting at the trunk of the BMW. Dustin looks at his watch, worried. Steve’s not a part of any clubs, and if he was, Billy would probably be in them. Besides that, they’re always here on time to take Max home.

Both kids shade their eyes and survey the front door of the high school. They don’t see Billy come up behind them through the rows of cars.

“Boo.”

Dustin shouts and spins around. “Damnit, Billy! Where’s Steve?”

Unlocking the driver’s side door of the BMW, Billy shrugs.

“You have his car keys, so you obviously know,” Max sighs. “Come on.”

“Come on, what?” His face pinches in irritation as he pops the door open. “I don’t owe you shit.”

Dustin steps forward. “Listen, asshole, we don’t care what you do or don’t owe us. We need to talk to my brother.”

“Last time I checked, Harrington is not your brother, and this asshole is going home.” He lowers himself into the seat. “Max, are you coming or what?”

Standing tall beside Dustin, she shakes her head. “Not unless you tell us where he is.”

Billy laughs, slow and hearty. Aggressively he slams the door, hits the ignition and kicks into reverse, as if this is his Camarao. Max grabs Dustin and they jump out of the way. His heart is pounding like it was in last night's bad dream. This isn’t going according to plan. How can he make sure Steve knows they’re still friends if he can’t even see him? What if Billy’s hiding him somewhere? What if he’s hurt?

The car screeches to a halt next to them. Billy rolls down the window, hard guitar riff blaring, some guy squawking unintelligible lyrics. Obviously a tape he stuck in Steve’s cassette player. Suddenly Dustin is sick with the ominous sensation that his big brother is being replaced.

Billy sneers, “We told his dad we’d be home to help around the house, and since I’m living there for free I’m going to attend to that. But if you’re that worried, try the police. The sheriff picked him up around noon.”

He jacks the volume up and screeches off, leaving Dustin and Max with the only discernible lyrics: T he horsemen are drawing nearer , on leather steeds they ride . They have come to take your life .

Chapter Text

 

Layers that barely kept him warm managed to cling to him as he sweat the entire car ride home. The car wasn’t hot. His shame was, and it continues to be now, burning him like a fever, threatening to shake him to pieces.

You’re an idiot .

“Babe, get out the whiskey.”

Billy stops, stripped to the waist and unbuttoning his flannel-lined jeans. “I’m sorry, what did you just say?”

“You heard me,” Steve answers sternly.

“All fired up, I see.” He kicks his pants into the corner and heads to the closet, where he’s hidden their newest liquor bottles. Each week the supply is dutifully refilled. With what money? Steve wonders on occasion. Probably best not to ask.

“Something like that,” Steve mumbles. He’s stripped except for a loose, off-white tee. Throwing that over his head he faces the true terrorist: the reflection in his bedroom mirror. The person looking back is an absolute stranger. When he runs both hands through out of control hair he hears those words again. You’re an idiot. Who? The stranger he sees, or the boy he used to be?

“You,” he confirms out loud, glaring at the lost boy. The stranger glares back, a threadbare puppet acting in his stead. His soul, the essence that Dustin feared is leaving, is hidden away inside like a sin that will blind virgin eyes. As well it should be, because that soul is the idiot that can’t do anything right. That soul is what brought him to this point, with no friends except the boy that brings up an uncapped bottle of whiskey from behind.

Billy wraps one arm around Steve and pulls him close, bare chest strong against his knife-blade shoulders. He breathes in the scent of the nape of his neck and presses his hand on Steve’s stomach, slides it up his ribs, chest, collar bones. Fingertips gently probe his throat, and maybe it’s supposed to feel sensual, but Steve feels more like prey in a predator’s claws. In the mirror he sees Billy pass him the bottle, and he sees himself drink from it until his stomach hurts and he cannot breathe.

He sets the bottle on the dresser, watching the lost boy in the mirror catch his breath, noticing now that when he sucks in air and lets it go, his ribs and hipbones grate against pale skin. Billy kisses the cap of his shoulder. Once it was firm with muscle, now it’s just a wing-tip bone.

Since when is his soul housed in a ragdoll body with no weight? Wasn’t his soul more attractive when it belonged to a sound-minded teen who got workouts on the field instead of in the bed, and ate solid meals instead of cocaine lines? It’s like two realities exist in one narrow frame; the person he was and barely remembers, and the lost boy he has become.

But that’s a paradox. There is no puppet impersonating him, pretending to be him, stealing the shape of who he thinks he should be. There is only one Steve. The idiot. And that is exactly the Steve staring back in the mirror, hopeless. Loving desperately, as if giving and receiving can prove he is a person with purpose, not a strung-up stick figure.

Forcefully he grabs the bottle again, lifts it to his mouth and drinks, longer now, like the night he beat King Billy at keg stand. Beat his old record, too. King Steve never needed to prove himself. He excelled in life by having fun, and doing what felt right . Nothing feels right tonight, but it dulls the razor sharp thought slicing his brain matter like Newton’s Cradle.

You’re an idiot.

On New Year’s Eve, when Steve’s feet returned to the ground, Billy’s face was sheer panic. He was haunted by how Steve had treated himself. Tonight Billy smiles, like watching him dump poison into his hollow body is a delicacy. Maybe there is no paradox, because Steve is not the idiot soul housed within. He is the shell. Only the kids seemed to notice this. Now, nobody cares.

“Don’t waste your time worrying about them,” Billy croons confidently, his voice so deep it’s arousing.

“I’m not.”

Steve goes to set the bottle down again, but Billy takes it and drains it in four gulps. Hissing from the sharp, sour taste, he smiles. “You know, you’re so cute when you lie.”

He’s heard that before, in the bedroom of a girl he cracked his heart open for. Here, take it, all the nutrients and gold it has to offer. Maybe it’s not pretty, and it definitely doesn’t make sense, but it’s me. Take me, please. Love me.

He’s heard it before, alright, because he said it. Begged for it, and look how that turned out.

“Seriously, Harrington. They just don’t get us.” He places the empty bottle on the dresser and locks eyes with Steve through the mirror. Both palms massage him now, starting at his chest. “Besides, you’re a little old to be hanging out with middle schoolers, aren’t you?”

He nods.

“Right, right. And Nancy? She gave up a guy like you, so what does that say?” He leans in and nibbles Steve’s ear, slides his palms down to his hips, and digs his fingertips into flesh like they are handles and not bones. “ She’s the idiot. Not you.” Maintaining eye contact Billy leans in closer and whispers, raspy and bold. “You are beautiful, and pure. I’m more than lucky to have you.” He punctuates his words with kisses, right at Steve’s jawline. “No one loves you like I love you.”

Steve spins around so fast his head swims, fuzzy from the rush of alcohol. His whiskey-glossed lips find Billy’s and he throws his arms around his neck. Again the sensation he lives for, being squeezed and supported by two strong arms. Skin on skin, closer, now. One leg lifts automatically as if to climb him, thirsting. Billy responds to the cue by hooking his arm under Steve’s thigh and lifting him.

Then he’s on the bed with Billy on top of him, but that’s not how he wants it, so he hastily flips the script, straddling his boyfriend’s hips like a jockey fit to ride a horse. Instinctively he posts, riding until they’re both hard and their briefs no longer dry. Billy’s nails scrape the tops of Steve’s bare thighs and he tips his head back. Steve leans down, distracts him with a deep kiss, and rakes his nails from chest to groin.

Billy hisses and sinks his teeth into Steve’s shoulder. Teeth grind against bone and bruise skin, and without thinking he’s biting back. Bicep, pec, lighter burn scars. Steve wants it to hurt, and it does. One of Billy’s hands winds through his hair and yanks, jolts him. In charge, Steve shifts back and tugs at the last cloth that covers Billy until he’s able to bring the length of him into his liquor-sweet mouth.

Minutes later, after he swallows like the dutiful princess he is, Billy throws him onto his stomach and preps for the only thing they haven’t done before. There’s lube in the bedside drawer; Billy fumbles for it while pressing the side of Steve’s face into the covers. Drunk and in love Steve thinks Billy could sink him ten feet into the earth and he’d be grateful, accept it as a gift from the gods. When slick fingers work into him he gasps. This is foreplay, he knows, a way to warm up before the race. Steve’s always been too afraid to go further, but right now?

“Take me,” he groans. Biting on blanket he pleads, “ Now.

Billy begins to tease him when a call from downstairs interrupts. That’s right, dinner. Maybe he was hungry for food at some point, but right now all he desires is his boyfriend’s touch and to know he’ll stay by his side no matter how bad things get.

“I swear, the next time we’re going all the way,” Billy mutters as they sit up and fix themselves on the bed. “Nothing’s gonna stop me.”

It feels good to be needed. Steve smiles, finger-combing his hair. “Hey, babe?”

Billy batts long lashes adoringly. “Yes, angel?”

“Will you stay mine?”

Billy’s dimpled grin moves him, the way his soul shines through his bright blue eyes. Steve reaches for him and melts when he is pulled into a protective hug. “As long as you’ll stay mine.”

“I told you I’d never leave.”

He kisses Steve’s damp hair. “I believe you. I should always believe you the first time.”

“It’d save us a lot of trouble, wouldn’t it?” His cheek presses against Billy’s shoulder. The room unfocuses for a moment, dizzy from drink. He’s going to have to use mouthwash to hide this from his mother. Maybe he’ll be able to eat more than half a plate tonight, though, because liquor does a whole different job than coke.

“Oh, baby boy, how many times have I said it? You’re worth the trouble, all of it. You’re--”

He nods against Billy’s warm skin. “Worth the loss of my life.”


As soon as he hits his first serve in the game the gym door squeals open to reveal not another late student, but the assistant principal, looking severe in his slate blue suit and tie. The game pauses for a moment because of this, and the foreignness of seeing him here.

“Harrington!” the man calls with a curt wave, having known the teen since freshman year. Usually Steve’s shouted out for scoring victory points in games, or the title of homecoming king. Knowing he’s done nothing positive lately to warrant administrative recognition, he breaks out in a sweat that’s unrelated to a work out.

To the tune of taunting jeers from classmates, Steve trots over to the door. “Yes, sir?”

“There’s someone in the office to pick you up. Go collect your things.”

“One of my parents?” he worries.

The man shakes his head. “Best to let you see for yourself. Hurry up.”

As he trots back across the gym to the locker room the game continues. He catches Billy’s eyes for a moment, a sharp and piercing glare, curiosity mixed with concern. Then the ball soars over the net and catches Billy’s eye. His solid form lunges for it.

In the locker room Steve changes, hands shaking from nerves. Lately he’s started to shake at random, probably because of constant underlying hunger. They ate cereal this morning, Billy wolfing two bowls in the time it took him to finish one. After, they blew a few lines, a habit that since last week Steve accepts with resignation. Why fight it? What Billy said was right. There’s something about it he enjoys.

It’s pointless to change back into his regular clothes so soon. Depending on who’s in the office for him, though, he won’t want to be in a ratty grey tee and green shorts. At least his outfit today features new jeans. Saturday afternoon his mother took him shopping. She insisted Billy come along and offered to buy him clothes, too, but he made an excuse about helping Steve’s dad with something. It’s common knowledge among their peers that Hargrove’s been crashing at Harrington’s for nearly a month and a half, but it wouldn’t do them any good to be seen on a mall date with mom. Rumors circulate; no one needs ammunition.

Over lunch on Saturday she asked how he’s been feeling, if he wanted a haircut, if his change in appetite is because of her cooking. Steve lied. It’s he and Billy’s workout regimen, it’s a lack of sleep from constantly having his best friend around. No need to acknowledge the truth: the sleeping bag rumpled on the bedroom floor is bullshit.

Since buying new clothes used to be a want for him instead of a need, his mother prodded him about that as well. Why don’t you care about looking nice anymore? What changed? He played that off too, saying looks aren’t a priority now that he’s removed himself from the dating pool. When she asked about that, he admitted Nancy had broken his heart bad enough to put him off girls for a while. She gave him a funny look then, but didn’t push the subject.

In the locker room he pulls on the new jeans, grateful for pants that hug his hips, even though he’s embarrassed by the small size. Dustin was right to compare him to Mike. Thinking of those boys makes his stomach ache. Nancy’s little brother now believes he’s an idiot too, and Dustin? There are moments when Steve feels like Dustin’s more of a best friend than Billy. He would never say that out loud, and he’ll never need to. The opportunity to share his life with a little renegade comedian passed when he gave up the secrets.

Walking across the gym with his bag over his shoulder while the others continue to play is shameful, as if his peers know that he told. Even if Billy mentioned it to someone, there’s no proof. He would sound crazy, and that’s something Billy works overtime to convince people he’s not . By that theory, Steve’s got nothing to be scared of. Still, he’s terrified.

In the hall the noise of the game quickly fades, giving way to murmurs and closing doors that make Steve feel incredibly, wholly alone. He inhales to calm himself and checks his watch. Halfway through the period. How much of the day will he miss? Who is he going home with? The only other time he was picked up was when his grandmother died. What if his parents died and the police are here to tell him?

As he rounds the last corner before the main office he hears a familiar belly laugh. He enters the office with great trepidation and sees Chief Hopper leaning on the secretary’s desk. They’re carrying on a conversation and she’s unmistakably blushing, reminding Steve of Billy, whose natural charm help him manipulate his way in and out of everything.

Hopper sees Steve and straightens up, joy replaced by disappointment. “Ready?”

“For what?” He clears his throat uncomfortably. “Sir.”

“Don’t call me sir. You know damn well what I’m here for, and yes, I have permission to remove you from school for the rest of the afternoon.”

Steve’s jaw hangs open. The repercussions he feared are manifesting. How should he reply? Luckily he doesn’t have to. Behind him someone enters the office, taking Hopper’s face from disappointed to utterly unimpressed. Peeking over his shoulder he sees Billy, shirtless and covered in a familiar sheen of sweat. The curious concern in his eyes is soft now. He’s afraid, too. For who, Steve or himself?

Politely he clears his throat. “I’m sorry to interrupt, but is everything alright?” He looks at Steve. “You left the gym looking upset.”

Hopper nods. “Everything’s fine. You two drive here together?”

The secretary watches the exchange, bemused. Billy is equally confused. “Yes. Why?”

Ignoring his question Hopper tells Steve, “Make sure he has your keys so he can get home. Let’s go.”

Without hesitation Steve follows the order, digging his keys from his bag and passing them to Billy, whose hand lingers on his for a moment to remind him who he belongs to and who is on his side. Noticing this, Hopper puts a protective hand on Steve’s shoulder and leads him out of the office.

Billy starts after them. “Wait, what’s going on? Is he in trouble?”

“Yes he is, but you aren’t.” Hopper continues walking. “This doesn’t involve you. Go back to class.”

Walking beside them uninvited, Billy puts on his huskiest convincing voice. “Sir, whatever he did, I’m sure it’s not his fault. Besides, we’re together so often, I could be his alibis.”

“Yeah, I bet,” Hopper shoots sarcastically.

As they near the front doors, Billy realizes his charm isn’t working. Desperation overcomes him and he scrambles for the right words, unable to be apart from Steve without warning. “Why don’t you take me, too?”

Hopper stops short and turns on Billy so abruptly he flinches. In the presence of the sheriff they both feel small, but Billy is undoubtedly reminded of his father, the most fearful authority figure in his life.

“Listen kid. The day I take you with me is the day you’ll be wishing I won’t, so when I say something doesn’t involve you, trust that it doesn’t and let it go .”

They leave Billy at the front doors, strapped to the spot, paralyzed and childlike.

It is one of the only times Steve has seen him obey.


Once inside the station he is introduced to those who work there. Notably Flo, who appears to be the only bonafide adult, and two police officers who playfully tease Hopper for bringing in a kid. When Steve does nothing more than wave feebly at them, increasingly frightened of what this meeting might hold, Hopper elbows him.

“What’s with being shy? Far as I know you always have a mouthful to say, even if it doesn’t come out pretty.” He walks down the hall to a closed door, Steve’s anxiety mounting. “I know I probably scared the shit outta you showin up at school, but we do what we have to.”

The door opens to a small office, where Mrs. Byers is smoking a cigarette in a chair across from Hopper’s desk. As soon as she sees Steve she stands, stabbing the cigarette out roughly in a glass tray. “Hey! How are you feeling?”

“I’m…” He shrugs. This cannot be the mother of the child his boyfriend attacked. If she’s not upset about what he did, then there’s no need to be here. “What’s going on?”

Smiling sympathetically, Mrs. Byers gestures for him to take the chair next to her. He does. Hopper shuts the door and goes to his desk, blocking out the ringing phones and office banter. She says, “The kids came to us. They’re worried about you and Billy.”

“I’m sorry!” he blurts, looking between them. “I’m sorry, okay, I know anything is too much, but I didn’t tell him everything. That sounds like an excuse, but I’m just-- if you’re worried about what he knows, it’s not a lot. Just that Will was taken into another dimension when the gate opened up and a monster had him for a week and, uh, I guess he thinks Will has powers. I didn’t tell him anything about that, though, and I didn’t tell him about El.”

Hopper’s eyes crinkle at the corners. “There it is.”  He leans forward on the wide wooden desk. “A mouthful.”

Steve hangs his head, the clean clothes he put on earlier feeling dirty now. The clothes aren’t what’s dirty. It’s him. “Honestly, I’m ashamed of myself.”

If they hadn’t blown coke that night before dinner, or drank when they got home, maybe Steve wouldn’t have been upset enough to give in to Billy. Maybe Billy wouldn’t have pushed the subject in the first place. There was no reason for him to demand the truth about Will, no reason for him to wonder about it in the first place. You’re an idiot reprises in his head again.

“Ashamed of yourself?” Joyce echoes. Her tone becomes overly motherly, soothing. He feels even smaller. “Please, don’t be. We’re not here because you told Billy a little bit of the truth. That boy’s got no proof, and no one will believe him if he tells.”

Mystified, Steve pinches the webbed skin between his thumb and forefinger. He’s not dreaming. “Then what are we here for?”

“You heard her,” Hopper states. “The kids are worried about you and Billy, and quite frankly, our kids couldn’t give one shit about him, which means they’re really worried about you .”

Instinct urges him to defend Billy, who isn’t a bad guy. Why are they acting like he is? Oh. Probably because six kids combined their powers and brains to put the puzzle together and then told the only parents they trust.

“Yeah, that’s right,” Hopper nods. “They weren’t even upset at you, and I’m talkin Will and El, who were apparently Billy’s targets. They just couldn’t understand why you would tell him in the first place.” He sighs. “Look, you said you want a break from him sometimes, but can’t have one because he’d take it the wrong way. Right?”

“Sure, right. But it’s fine.”

“It’s fine?” His eyebrows raise.

“Yeah, it’s fine!” he says sharply. Usually he’d be high again by now, having blown another line in the locker room after gym. This isn’t about the comedown, though. He’s cagey because he doesn’t want to discuss this with himself, let alone two adults. Billy loves him more than anyone else does. That’s all he needs to know.

Mrs. Byers goes to touch his arm and smartly retracts her hand. “Steve, do you feel like yourself with him? Like the best and most authentic you that you could be?”

“Of course.” He folds his arms. “Why wouldn’t I?”

“Tell us about yourself, then,” Hopper invites. “What’s Hawkins High senior Steve Harrington like?”

His mouth opens preemptively and closes. Then he lies, “I’m just having a lot of fun, you know? I’m tired because that’s how much fun I’m having. With Billy.”

Apparently that’s the wrong answer. Hopper’s eyes widen and he glances at Mrs. Byers, who moves right along. “I’m going to list off a few things, Steve. You tell me whether or not they apply to you guys. Okay?”

It’s like they’re putting words in his mouth, supplying him with issues so they’ll have something to discuss. Why can’t they just be upset he told Billy about Will and punish him? That would be easier. Instead they-- what? Want him to reflect on his relationship, already expecting drama instead of honey and roses? Why won’t they trust him when he says it’s fine?

Because of the kids.

“Did they tell you he’s hurting me?”

After a suspicious beat Hopper says, “No. But is he?”

He cocks his head. “Of course not.”

“Steve,” Mrs. Byers says carefully. “The people we care about can hurt and love us at the same time. And I’m not talking about typical little road bumps like bickering or saying something mean because you’re having a bad day.”

His eyes dart around. “Then what are you talking about?”

The adults share a relieved glance. He’s taking interest. Mrs. Byers clarifies, “Well, your partner could demean you one day and the next, tell you how amazing you are.”

His heart bursts through the gates like a racehorse, memories rushing in to fill every empty space. I said you’re a dog! A sniveling, pathetic dog with no backbone. He can almost smell the whiskey on Billy’s breath. The next time they saw each other was New Year’s Eve. Billy held him as he sobbed over the pain they caused each other. It’s alright, baby boy, he’d said, kissing Steve’s hair gently. You are worth the loss of my life.

Without pausing, Mrs. Byers offers another example. “They could threaten or intimidate you to get what they want, at the same time insisting they are giving you what you want.”

Shallow guppy breaths are not enough to fill his lungs. He feels dizzy. You’re the one who’s ungrateful, Harrington. He growled those words while his hand closed around Steve’s throat. All he had wanted that night was for Billy to understand how much of himself he gives to ensure the other’s happiness. It’s Steve who’s ungrateful, though. That was made clear. I let my father beat me so I could see you, I left my house and ran to you because you’re my safety… Used to be, at least.

Another scenario bombards him before he’s able to put the last memory away. “Maybe your partner loves you so much it makes you scared to leave them, like they need you to survive.” Mrs. Byers emphasizes with flitting hands. “That can be overwhelming, even though it’s nice to be needed.”

After Nancy and the kids disposed of him, Steve needed a sense of purpose. Trying to heal Billy’s damaged soul gave him one until Steve dared to realize he can’t fix the boy he loves; he is constantly bending to meet Billy’s needs, at the expense of his own standards. Even when he is mistreated, and there are promises of change, those promises rely on him giving something of himself. Don’t say anything like that again. A simple request, if you really love someone. The response? An ultimatum. Promise me you’ll never leave me, and I won’t.

“They might want to spend every minute with you because they love you, but that means they don’t want you spending time with anyone else.”

When the kids visited his home and Billy was behind the door, controlling him like the puppet he is. If you love me, you will never speak to them again. And he agreed to it! You’re an idiot ! Fate was on his side for a moment, when Billy moved in and they brought Max to the arcade and saw the others, but it wasn’t the same. Now it’s immaterial. You’re a little old to be hanging out with middle schoolers, aren’t you? Yes.

In his rapidly beating heart he disagrees. He’s not too old to hang out with them, those are his kids! Wiping his sweating palms on his knees he thinks to say something to stop Mrs. Byers, but she’s already on to the next example. “The sex might be awesome, but they might pressure you to do it when you don’t want, or touch you in a way you don’t want.”

Nausea punches him, a rude abject appearance. I didn’t want to do coke tonight, and I didn’t want to fool around. He didn’t want to be touched. How could he not want to be touched by someone he loves, someone who loves him ? Could it have anything to do with the countless nightmare visions causing an avalanche in his head? And those beautiful reveries he fights to prove exist, why aren’t they enough to halt the mental storm?

“Stop!” Steve shoves his chair back, nearly knocking it over as he stands. “Please, stop!” He says it with such force that his hair bounces, irritatingly long, out of place, like everything else today. He is a visitor in this world, a visitor in this body in which he came to after three months and barely recognizes. Again he echoes, “Please, Mrs. Byers. Just stop.”

She respects his wish, searching him. Below the surface he’s hysterical, every fibre working to contain the scream that wants to rise up, tear through his pale shell and crack him to bits. Does she know that these suggestions, these possibilities are realities he’s working to forget? This meeting isn’t helpful, it’s digging holes into his already frenzied mind and dropping seeds, watering the ones he’d already lain himself.

“Hey, you with us?” Troubled by Steve’s reaction, Hopper gets up and rounds the desk, unintentionally looming over him, making the sweat and pimpled flesh and shallow breaths unbearable. Hopper reaches for his shoulder. “What’s goin through your head right now, kid?”

“Don’t touch me!” He jerks away, nearly falling backwards over the chair. “I came here because I thought you wanted to talk to me about how I screwed up, not because you think I should break up with Billy!”

Hopper furrows his thick brow. “We never told you to break up with him. You said that.”

“Well I love him, okay?” he shouts. “He tires me out sometimes, yeah, but he’s good to me, and he needs me, and I love him !”

“Does he love you, too?” Mrs. Byers interjects. The simplicity of the question delivered without any accusation catches him off guard. Hopper is right-- Steve’s the one defending Billy. They never attacked him. All they did was ask if everything’s alright and lay out some signs of toxic relationships.

“Of course he loves me,” Steve insists, desperate to believe.

“How?” she challenges, looking up at him.

“What?”

She shifts to the edge of her seat. “How do you know he loves you? Can you see it? Can you feel it? Or is it just empty words?”

“They’re not empty words. He’s trying to get better.”

Hopper jumps on this. “So you acknowledge Billy needs to change in order to show you real love.”

Combating in his head are memories, questions, and his own insecurities. The adults read him like a large print book when he doesn’t even recognize himself. “Well, no, he--”

A shrill ring blows the moment. Hopper picks up the phone and demands, “What?” They can’t hear who’s on the other end of the line, but within seconds there’s shrill yelling from the lobby of the station. Hopper grumbles into the receiver. “Alright, let him back here, but for God’s sake, Flo, just the one!”

By the time he hangs up fists are pounding on the door. Unmistakably Dustin, screaming, “Don’t punish him, you bastard! He did nothing wrong!”

Hopper opens the door so abruptly Dustin trips. He’s yelling when he scrambles to a stand, threatening the man, who clamps a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Jesus, kid, you gotta calm down. He’s fine .” Hopper points at Steve. “Look, I’m not punishing anyone.”

“You better not be, cause he doesn’t deserve it! He’s going through enough shit.” Dustin looks at Steve when he says this.

Under the spotlight of three pairs of eyes the shame returns. Hasn’t Dustin, like the others, accepted that Steve’s a fuck-up for dating Billy and, ultimately, given up on him? His presence further smashes the idea that Billy is the only one who truly loves him. Two people unconditionally caring about him, challenging him to look at the nature of his relationship is uncomfortable, but three is way too much.

“Why are you here?” Steve asks, a lump creeping up his throat. “Please, make it easy and say it’s because you hate me now. I won’t blame you.”

“What?” Dustin chirps. “No, no, no, Steve. I’m not here because I hate you, I’m here because I didn’t want Hopper ripping you a new asshole for telling that douchebag what really happened to Will.” When he frowns Dustin adds, “Yes, I still think Billy’s a douchebag and yes, I ran here to protect you, because you, buddy, are not a douchebag.”

Steve can’t accept this. He shrugs bitterly. “You’re right, I’m not a douchebag. I’ll tell you what I am, though. I’m bullshit, a traitor to the party. Shit,” his laugh is unstable. “I’m a total idiot.”

“Steve!” Dustin spits. The adults are only mildly surprised by how he grabs the teen’s shoulders and shakes him, standing on tiptoe to set him straight. “Are you serious? Screw Nancy for calling you that, and screw whoever thinks you’re a traitor, okay? I don’t give a flying rat’s ass what you’ve done, you are still the best big brother in the world!”

The conviction in his green flecked eyes washes over Steve. These people aren’t here because they want to ruin his relationship. They love him. Instead of finding comfort in it, he wants to push them away. Why is it that now, with Billy, he can neither properly access his emotions or work through them? He experiences them as mistakes, causing him to experience himself as a mistake. All along that’s what Billy thinks about himself; one of the many warped perspectives Steve sought to eradicate through loving him. Rather than eradicate it, he’s adopted those hostile self-affirmations.

You’re an idiot .

But Dustin says he’s not, so who is he?

At once his face crumples and he drops into his seat. Hiding behind his hands he doubles over, shaking as he releases sobs so harsh and jarring they hurt his empty body.

“Son of a bitch,” Dustin exhales. “I broke him.”

“Oh, no honey,” Joyce assures. “You didn’t break him. He’s just…”

“Thinking things over,” Hopper finishes, their voices all floating over his head.

Feet scuffle. The chair Joyce was sitting on scrapes right up against his. “Here, Dustin, why don’t you sit with him a while? I’m sure he’d love that.”

“Love that?” he chuckles. “Looks like the last thing he wants is to be around a snot-nosed brat.”

He hears Hopper shift behind the desk. “Go head, kid. He needs you right now. Your timing couldn’t have been better.”

Though Steve’s eyes are closed tight, leaking into the palms of his trembling hands, he knows it’s Dustin that sits and wraps an arm across his back, hugging him in.

“Shh, buddy, it’s okay.” He leans down and soothes Steve like a pro. “It’s okay. I’m not going anywhere. I’ll always be your friend.”


Reality is an evasive, tricky thing. Friday he reflected on his shape and how drastically it and the soul questionably housed within have changed. Earlier he was pulled from school, certain he would be reamed out for impossibly bad decisions, only to be shown what unconditional love actually is: the decision to forgive and stand beside a struggling person, and the patient strength needed to watch them suffer or succeed, knowing that ultimately they alone must choose. Unconditional love is loving with the foresight that those we care about are fallible, and, despite all good counseling and charity, entirely out of our control. Different from Billy’s empty promises, and his own insatiable need to please.

Now Steve sits at the kitchen table in his parents’ home, listlessly forking leftovers into his mouth. His mother and Billy sit opposite him, palms cupped around warm mugs of tea. Billy Hargrove, a tea drinker? Yes. A monster made gentle by calming touches and soft whispers. Their concern is worlds apart from the worry worn by Hopper, Mrs. Byers, and Dustin, who see Steve clearly, as he is and not as who he wants to be seen as, or who others desire him to be. Billy and his mother wear concern adorned with a nosiness that intrudes upon the last shreds of self Steve is clinging onto.

Food and drink restore color to his cheeks and return the strength necessary for speaking. He answers their questions as best he can. Hopper prepped him with a lie he wouldn’t be able to mess up-- it was perfectly aligned  to what the chief had told Mr. Harrington about why he needed to speak with Steve, and what Billy already knew. As he relays the story, a glint of disbelief shows in Billy’s blue eyes, then disappears. He seems to decide it isn’t worth pushing. Is he guilty about inadvertently putting Steve in this position? He may feel entitled to full, undiluted honesty, but there are some things he does not need to meddle with.

Relieved to be done with late dinner, he and Billy retire to his room, where they spread out classwork and notebooks. A nightly routine, thank God, that is helping glean some level of success for each of them. The one area of change Steve isn’t lying about, and tonight they work quietly together, sober. Well, Steve is sober. Whether or not Billy is doesn’t matter. He’s satisfied with himself for surviving the comedown, the interrogation that opened the floodgates, and the ride home with Hopper, all without the usual mid-afternoon bump.

Maybe he can quit using as much. It’s fun, but doing it so often negates the effectiveness, cancelling the positives and leaving only dismal after effects like hunger, headaches, irritability, fatigue. Silently he repeats his vow to stand up to Billy the next time he doesn’t want to do something; he will actively say no, and go against whatever pressure his boyfriend creates. He committed to this earlier at the station, out loud and primarily for Dustin. The three gazed at him in pitying wonder. Will he be able to do it? Steve sensed they doubted him, but that could be him projecting his habitual self-doubt. Then again, does he honestly believe himself? If another fight breaks out between he and Billy, can Steve stand his ground? Plant his feet? Does he even know what ground he stands on?

Around nine they climb into bed, far before their typical bedtime. Having come home emotionally spent and sober, Steve is already slipping into sleep. His body needs it. Billy retains a base level of tightly wound energy, the kind that vibrates at a higher frequency when he fears Steve will fall asleep before him, as if sleep is a form of abandonment. This usually drives Steve to stay awake, to soothe Billy with his presence, so he won’t be alone with his crazy thoughts.

Tonight Billy seems to intrinsically understand Steve will be asleep soon. Calmly, in the dim bedside light, he flips through a poem book he recently found downstairs on a dusty bookshelf. Before he chooses a poem he sets the book back down and rolls over to face Steve, who is lying on his side with the covers pulled up around his chin. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

He nods sleepily. “Are you?”

Billy touches his index finger to Steve’s nose. “Look at you. Always fussing over everyone else.”

“I don’t fuss.” He wrinkles his nose.

“No? Well, listen, you’re gonna need to let me fuss over you sometimes, too.”

“Oh yeah?” Under the covers he runs one hand up the length of Billy’s bare, muscled side.

“Yeah.” Absorbing Steve with awestruck blue eyes, a smile plays on his lips, lush and welcoming.

Where is this coming from? Lately it seems his softest moments coincide with the deepest scars. Internal scars that neither of them see, making them difficult to detect and heal. That’s what this is about, Steve senses. Billy wants to fix a perceived problem he created. Which one?

“So fuss over me.” He continues to trail his fingers up and down Billy’s smooth, warm skin, traveling flirtatiously around his hips and retreating.

A sigh is the greatest compliment. Billy struggles to focus as he explains, “I’ve been planning for a while, since Valentine’s Day is this week, but seeing as you’re so demanding…” He pauses for effect. Steve’s flesh tingles. “We’re going away this weekend.”

“Really?” He shimmies closer until he is flush against Billy. “Where?”

Both arms wrap around Steve so they are a mess of limbs and heartbeats. “I’m not telling.”

“Not fair!”

“Please, Harrington,” Billy laughs. He feels the reverberation from head to toe. “When have I ever been fair?”

Steve laughs along with him, feeling small and loved when Billy kisses the crown of his head. They lay that way together until he dozes off, safe. A brush of lips on his forehead brings him back to awareness. “Here, you need to sleep.”

Billy lets go of him, sits up, and snugs the blankets up around his jaw where they had slipped. Then he leans against the pillows and takes up the book of poems again. Yellowed pages have been meticulously earmarked. Concentration etches Billy’s face as he fans through pages, stopping at each bent corner with an expert thumb. He is soft in this light, a wild force finally tamed. Impossible that this same boy has brought him to tears.

“Babe?” Steve mumbles.

“Yes, princess?” He glances down.

“I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

“Read to me?” His voice is thick with encroaching sleep.

Eyes closed, Steve hears Billy flip through pages. Then he begins to read, low and deep, one poem after the other. Short, mostly, with images that quickly conjure dreams. The last poem he hears doesn’t sound like a poem at all, but words directly passed from his boyfriend’s heart to brain to mouth.

My true-love hath my heart, and I have his,

By just exchange one for another given:

I hold his dear, and mine he cannot miss,

There never was a better bargain driven.

My true-love hath my heart, and I have his.

And he is rocked to sleep.

 

Chapter Text

Thursday night the doorbell rings. It’s Valentine’s Day. Whoever it is, they’ve got the wrong house. Dustin and his mother are both single, and neither are ready to mingle. At least he isn’t, as much as he’d like to try and impress the ladies with his curls and pearls.

“Dusty! Would you please get that?” his mother calls from the spare room, where she’s cleaning Tews’ litter box. His chore was dishes, which he already washed, dried, and abandoned for a book in his bedroom.

“Coming!” He screams. The book slides to the floor as he pushes himself off the bed and sidles down the carpeted hall. Powdery fresh litter tickles his nose and he sneezes. Twice.

The doorbell rings again. “I said I’m coming!” he yells directly at it. Who would bother them at this time and not have the manners to wait? It’s too late for Girl Scouts, or those weirdos who spend their spare time promoting Jesus to strangers.

When he swings open the door he sees Steve, hugging a huge heart shaped box of chocolates and a bouquet of roses. He’s glowing with a natural optimism Dustin wasn’t sure he’d see again. It’s brighter than the happiness he arrived to the hill with on Friday. Hopefully it’ll last longer, too. He and his mother sure as shit won’t do anything to make it disappear.

“Dude, you gonna let me in or what?” Steve bounces lightly. Did the intervention Hopper and Mrs. Byers staged at the station recharge him? Or is there something else going on? Dustin studies his wide eyes, expecting to see signs of chemical bliss. There’s none of that, but with how thin he’s gotten his hair, eyes, and nose give the appearance of a baby bird. A sweet, innocent, wholesome baby bird.

The idea makes Dustin laugh out loud. He opens the door fully and stands aside. “Awww, Steve, you shouldn’t have!”

He enters with an eye roll. “They’re for your mom, you dweeb.”

“You’re trying to court my mother? I’m appalled!” Dustin shuts the door.

His mother enters the living room with a tied up plastic bag and nearly drops it when she sees their visitor. “Stevie? What a surprise! Could those be for me?”

“Definitely for you, Mrs. Henderson.”

Heartwarmed, she hands the garbage bag to Dustin. “Here, honey, take this out. I’ve just got to see these beautiful flowers.”

Slightly bitter about the extra chore, Dustin grabs the bag and makes a face at Steve, who returns it in full.

Outside the air is stone silent. There’s a serene snowfall comprised of tiny white spots floating in a twilit sky. The BMW in the driveway is a welcome sight, but why is Steve here? There must be a catch, like the day he came over to deliver his Christmas present, or all the subsequent times he’s come around to give brief car rides. There’s always a story behind Steve’s freedom.

Deciding not to think too hard about it, Dustin throws the bag into the metal trash bin, which never fails to remind him of Dart, and heads back inside. His mom and Steve are in the kitchen now. She’s putting on a pot for hot chocolate while he’s delicately settling the roses into a vase she procured from the cabinet. They’re chatting warmly, catching up like old friends. It feels like Steve’s the oldest son, home visiting from college for the weekend, not the babysitter he adopted as a family member. That’s cool with him. He’s always quietly dreamed that their family was bigger, or at least that it hadn't gotten smaller over the years.

Steve sets the vase in the center of the table and takes a seat. “Ready to try these, Mrs. Henderson?”

“You bet your fur I am!” she exclaims, taking the seat across from him. She unwraps the box, uttering little noises of delight. Finally she removes the top with a squeal. “These are just delightful. Stevie, why don’t you pick first?”

“Oh no, I couldn’t.” He waves away the offer as Dustin pulls up the seat beside him.

“Please, I insist!”

“Alright, just for you.” He considers the options for a beat, then nimbly plucks a milk chocolate rectangle. He bites into it, revealing a raspberry mousse filling.

“Taking one for the team!” Dustin laughs. “I hate that one!”

“How?” Steve says as he chews. “It’s amazing.”

“You’re only saying that cause my mom’s right there.”

“No! I wouldn’t lie.”

“You wouldn’t? That’s even more hilarious.” His tone is lighthearted, and Steve returns a smile.

“Well," his mom chirps, "I’ll go ahead and pick the next one.”

She happily reaches forward for a round dark chocolate piece. Obviously a cherry. Safe choice. Dustin greedily picks a perfectly round one that ends up having a fudge center. Ten times worse! His cringey reaction makes the others laugh.

After another round of fated chocolate-choosing, his mom gets up to fix the hot chocolate. Over her shoulder from the stove she says, “Stevie, as lovely as it is to have you visit tonight, I can’t help but think... Doesn’t a good boy like you have a girlfriend?”

“Mom!” Dustin bangs a fist on the table in warning.

“What, Dusty? It’s a reasonable question.”

“Yeah, man, quit overreacting,” Steve tells him, leaning forward. “Actually, I am seeing someone, Mrs. Henderson, but we couldn’t do anything special tonight. I figured it’d be a great time to stop by, since it’s been a while.”

Pouring the lush drink into thick mugs she assures him, “I’m so glad you did.”

Sitting down again she kindly asks more about his life. School, sports, TV. Steve answers each question comfortably . As Dustin sips at his drink he listens, remembering again that he admires Steve. True Steve, the imperfect human with a heart full of positive intentions, ready to help anyone with anything. In this case he figured Dustin’s mom might like a gift on a dumb commercial holiday. How cool is that?

Still, if he’s here tonight it means he’s not with Billy. Is the other buttering up to Mrs. Harrington, or is he home alone? Do Steve’s parents go on dates? How do relationships work, anyway? Dustin doesn’t have the slightest clue, but he knows what they’re not: Billy and Steve.

The intervention on Monday cemented the disdain he already felt for their so-called love. Someone who hurts you even when they say they love you isn’t good to be with, and the adults helped drive that home. Steve finally saw-- and better still see-- that their relationship is shit and he’ll need to let it go, sooner rather than later.

As for healthy relationships, the only ones Dustin has are his friends, and since they’re practically all dating each other it’s hard to keep up. Earlier Mike radioed to say he’d gone to the Byers’ after school, where both El and Will were hanging out while their parents got ready to go on an official date. Finally! Mike said he gave El flowers and gave Will a teddy bear. More so, he snuck in a little kiss on the lips with each of them when Hopper and Mrs. Byers weren’t looking.

That was a cute story, but polar opposite the story Lucas relayed when he buzzed in minutes later. There was hardly anything to tell because Lucas couldn’t surprise Max on V-day. Imagine him showing up at the Hargrove’s unannounced? If Billy hates Lucas, his asshole dad will, too. Instead he’s planning something for the weekend, when they can discreetly celebrate their few months together.

Romance works differently when the relationship is stigmatized. It has to in order to keep all parties safe. Maybe that’s why Steve couldn’t do anything special with Billy tonight. Problem is, stigmatized or not, their relationship is never safe. It’s taken this long to get Steve to see that.

How long will it take him to make a change?


Later, Steve is stretched out on Dustin’s bed, arms folded behind his head and one leg crossed lazily over the other. Picture perfect brother, more amused than annoyed by the baby’s antics.

“So, what do you want? Did you drag me in here to ask me a million questions, or to stand there staring at me?”

“Staring, definitely.” He says sarcastically, and walks over to the bed to squeeze his cheeks. “My little Stevie is just so cute!”

Whacking his hand away he laughs. “Shut up! Or don’t, I guess, if you actually want to talk to me before I go home.” He checks his wristwatch. “It’s after nine on a school night!”

“As if you give a shit.” Dustin sits on the edge of the bed by Steve’s matchstick legs. New pants, it looks like, because they actually fit. Adopting a serious tone he says, “Okay, I’m wondering why you’re here on Valentine’s day. I mean, shouldn’t you be on a secret date with Billy, testing him to see if he’ll be mean again so you can stick up for yourself and dump his sorry ass?”

“It’s not like I’ll just dump him the second I stand up for myself, I’ll--”

“If you say ‘give him another chance’, Steve Harrington, so help me.”

He releases his arms from behind his head. “Guess not. I made an agreement, didn’t I.”

“Yeah, you did. You said next time he’s pressuring you and being a dick you’ll tell him to leave you alone. Right?”

“Right. I promise. And you guys will be my backup?”

“For eternity.”

They share a smile. Then Steve breathes deeply and explains, “We can’t make a bigger deal out of our friendship today than we usually do.” Air quotes accompany the word friendship, because clearly that is not what Steve and Billy have. “But he’s taking me somewhere this weekend, you know? To make it up to me.”

Dustin doesn’t have to ask what Billy wants to make up for. Shouldn’t gifts in relationships be given because the person wants to give it? Not because they’re groveling. He pictures the number line they use in math; Billy’s deep in the negatives, and with each tiny credit he accumulates he moves closer towards positive. In order to reach the positive side of the line he’ll have to cross zero, and Dustin’s more than willing to bet that’s exactly where he’ll get stuck.

“So where are you guys going?”

“It’s a surprise, but I know we’re going out of town. Maybe the city. He spent time planning it last weekend while I was out shopping with my mom. He must have told her about it, though, cause she gave me money to fill the gas tank.”

“Does she know he’s your boyfriend?”

“No way! If she knew, she’d tell my dad, and he’d throw Billy out faster than I could say don’t.”

“Good,” Dustin mutters reflexively. Catching himself he says, “I mean, yeah, you don’t want that. What are you getting him?”

“I have something in mind, but it’s small. Sort of a… trade.”

Dustin doesn’t want to know what that means, but it sounds unpleasant. “Haven’t you already given him enough?”

“He’s been good to me this week.”

“This week ,” Dustin rolls his eyes. When Steve frowns he says, “You should call before you guys leave and tell me where you’re going, or call when you get there. Or both. I really can’t have you out of town, alone, with a guy who’s unpredictable.”

He winces, like an insult to Billy hurts him . “He’s so much more than that.”

They’re quiet for a moment, Dustin focused on not outwardly gagging over that last comment. In the living room his mother’s got the TV on. She’s chatting with Tews about prime time shows. Steve asks, “Does your mom ever date?”

Dustin shakes his head. “Not since my dad. She hasn’t been interested in anyone since him. Well, anyone real . If you ask her about Don Johnson it’s a whole different story.”

Steve chuckles softly. “Yeah... Where is your dad, anyway?”

This catches him off guard. He cocks his head. “I’ve told you that.”

“No, you haven’t. And if you did, I forgot, so I’m sorry. But I want to know, because I care.”

Dustin pats his leg. “I know, buddy. Maybe I didn’t tell you. All my friends know by now, and you’re one of my friends, so I figured I’d already covered that base. It’s not something I like to relive.”

“Oh,” Steve retreats. “You don’t have t--”

“Shut up, you deserve to know. It’s not like keeping it inside will change the shitty fact that he’s dead.”

Steve gasps. “Dustin, I’m so sorry.”

“Sorry won’t change it either, and it’s not your fault.” He shrugs, gazing out at the carpet. Whenever he says out loud that his father passed it lifts the lid of that pit he thinks of as the well of pain. The levels in his well have gone down over the years. Opening it up could allow more to pour in. At least there’s room in his well, though. Steve’s must be overflowing, no cap at all.

“How’d it happen?”

“Motorcycle accident. I was in third grade. We moved here the year after.”

Steve shrinks. “I’m sorry, that’s awful.”

He shrugs again. “It sucks, and I miss him, but he was riding a motorcycle.” He looks at Steve. “You kind of accept the risk of death when you climb onto one of those.”

“Do you miss him?”

“Of course, but I was so young sometimes it’s like a dream, like I didn’t know him at all. That scares me more than the fact that he's gone. What if I forget him someday?”

“You won't forget him.”

“I hope not.” Self-conscious under Steve’s sympathetic gaze he stands and steps over to the dresser, where he picks up a pair of folded Ray Bans and begins to absently fidget.

After a moment Steve notices what he’s toying with and brightens again. “Hey! Those are mine!”

“What?”

Steve sits up, swings his legs off the bed. “Those are my sunglasses! I’ve been looking everywhere for them.”

“Oh, these?” He lifts them. The ceiling light reflects off the lenses. “I was wearing them when we were playing in the snow fort. Still had em on when your boyfriend decided to throw a tantrum.”

“We’re being funny again, huh?” He narrows his eyes and stands with his hand held out, palm up. The other hand perches expectantly on his hip. “Well, I want them back. Now.”

“Sorry, buddy, no can do. What’s that old line? Finders keepers, losers weepers?”

“You’re just jealous you don’t look as cool as me!” He swipes for them, but Dustin jumps back.

“Who needs looks when you’ve got brains like these, baby!” Teasingly he wiggles the glasses between his fingers and takes another step back.

Steve shakes his head. “That’s it, you’re going down, brat!” He playfully wrestles Dustin to the floor, tickling him until he tosses them into the air on reflex, hysterically laughing. As he lunges for the glasses Dustin tackles him, but he's no match for an eighteen year old guy that's played sports all his life.

In the week Dustin had the Ray Bans he felt closer to Steve, like maybe through the small physical token he could keep tabs on his friend from afar, or absorb some of the chaotic energy he used to radiate like the sun. He was hardly radiating it anymore, but he’s radiating it now. Monday’s intervention must have done some good, even if it didn’t result in Steve immediately kicking Billy to the curb.

Finally Steve snatches the glasses and sits against the wall, catching his breath and inspecting them. “Gross, dude! You got your grubby middle school paw prints all over the lenses.” He puffs air on them, gently cleaning the lenses with his sweater.

“So?” Dustin presses his back against the wall beside Steve, equally winded. “They were loved.”

“Yeah, yeah.” He holds the glasses up to the light, checking for smudges. Satisfied, he puts them on and pushes them up like a headband, making his hair stick out in every direction. Dustin stifles a laugh. “What, I look like a joke to you?”

“A joke? No. More like a goddamn parrot!” He erupts in laughter.

“And that’s my cue to go!” Steve draws to a stand, a grin on his face that says he wishes he could stay. He helps Dustin up. “Gotta pack for tomorrow.”

Fine ,” he sighs dramatically.

He follows Steve into the living room and watches him bid his mother and Tews goodbye. She invites him to come again next Saturday for a proper dinner, and he agrees. That’s something to look forward to, but will it happen? He pictures Steve in the station, sobbing and shaking, the gravity of his love pulling him under, and that weak resolve. When literal push comes to shove, will he be able to keep his promise?

As Dustin watches Steve walk to his car, waving to he and his mom one more time, he prays yes . Steve will keep the promise, he’ll break up with Billy, and they will see the beautiful chaotic good of him again.

Chapter Text

 

Smoky car and grey lungs, the smoke they exhale is blue. Those Ray Bans make Steve look like a god, a teen prodigy, a legend that’ll live longer than Billy ever will in people’s memories alone. Doesn’t matter that it’s getting dark already, those shades are a form of armor for Steve, a way to perpetuate the sense that he is immortal, when in actuality he’s just a boy.

But he’s so much more than that.

Billy bites down on the cigarette between his teeth and inhales deep. On the exhale he shouts over the music, “You’re a god, Harrington.”

“What?” Steve shouts back.

The bass pumps through his bones. If he can feel it, Steve must be quaking. Taking the cigarette between his fingers he belts an explanation. “I said I was right, you’re not a king. You’re a god.”

Steve blushes, smiling to himself as he fidgets with his cigarette. Ashes drop onto his new jeans. He swears and brushes them off, creating a white smudge, and just like that the smile disappears. It’s Billy’s fault for distracting him with unnecessary gushing praise.

Don’t fucking ruin this, Hargrove.

In keeping with his vow to never let their love die, he planned this weekend getaway. Perhaps it’s a foolish way to ensnare his lover, but this type of reaction is his only defense against the anxiety that this will soon end, which has been plaguing him all week. He prays to a higher power he doesn’t believe in that the itch in his ribs saying it’s over is nothing more than an itch.

And if it isn’t?

Thankfully there’s no need to worry. Every night this week Steve was rocked to sleep by the sound of recited poetry from a book so old it smelled of vanilla and dust, and each morning he looked brighter. Billy blames his paranoia on lack of coke. Upon Steve’s request this week they did none. Great, aside from how it undeniably messed with his head. Constantly he reminds himself that Steve still loves him, because he stays and endures. Rather, endures him.  His mess, his rage.

Last Friday Billy's rage was outpoured onto the runt and his Shirley Temple freak of a friend. Oddly, he didn’t regret losing his temper around them; vengeance was comfortable because it quelled the inner child that screamed and railed against his own maltreatment. Instead he regretted letting go of himself publicly, because he couldn’t adequately threaten the kids who knew too much about his personal demons with eight onlookers.

Then he’d made a bigger mess by disclosing the puzzle he’d pieced together, but that later became a win. By accidentally destroying his boyfriend’s relationship with his misfit family, he ensured they’d have more time alone. Steve’s heartbroken expression on the field was hysterical, and when it transformed into self-loathing it became an aphrodisiac. Steve was his now. He would have devoured him whole if Mrs. Harrington hadn’t interrupted for the thousandth time.

Any remorse he felt was superficial, because remorse for Billy directly correlated to whether or not things went his way. On Monday when Chief Hopper took Steve from school, Billy wasn’t sorry for the pain and trouble he had caused Steve. He was sorry for the pain and trouble it would cause him if his lover’s light snuffed out completely. If he loses Steve he loses himself, and that’s exactly why he goes to such lengths to escape the fate. Even if it means tying him to the bed and setting the house on fire, he had thought at the start. Now he knows he that, should he ever hurt Steve again, he'll gratuitously harm himself as punishment. 

Once finished fussing over the smudge on his jeans Steve takes a strong drag that reignites the cherry. He shouts back, “Thanks!”

Tonight they’ll be drunk in the best nightclub in the midwest. Billy’s fears and the bags under Steve’s eyes will be abandoned, traded out for beats that pull hips to hips and lips to lips like magnets.

All along that’s what Steve has been for him-- a magnet. A god or idol, a magic that keeps him safe, a well that never runs dry. For the past week he’s done everything in his power to refill it. Reading sappy poems, pleasing Steve at whim, holding him in the night and stroking his damp hair when he whimpers in his sleep.

What does Steve dream about? That other dimension? The monster? How involved with that sci-fi drama was he? Mistakenly he thought he’d seen more than Steve ever had and therefore had a permanent advantage. Steve could never say he was sad or angry or worn down because Billy always had it worse, and there were scars to prove it. But Steve had helped save a queer runt from another universe, one he can’t fathom. Could Billy rise to the occasion if called upon? He thinks about that night again. He was looking for a fight, a face to release his self-loathing on. It wasn’t the black kid, like he thought it’d be. How shocked he was, and yet aroused, to learn that his unrequited lover was inside, babysitting children at a stranger’s. Perfect.

What if he had listened instead of attacked? Steve was protecting those kids for a reason. What if he’d dropped his personal vendetta and directed his pain at the obstacle instead? Would he have been a hero alongside others? Would he have absolved himself?

Can he now?

The song changes, and he notices his cigarette has gone out.


Alone with Steve in a dingy hotel room feels like home. This could be their apartment, if only it had a built-in kitchen. They’ve got a halfway decent view of starry Chicago, a bottle of vodka chilling in the ice bucket, and two outfits set out on the spare bed, the one that’s closest to the bathroom wall.

Steve showers first, with the door open and steam billowing into the rest of the small room. He starts singing, soft at first, then loud and tremendously off-key, imitating the husky voice of the singer. Have mercy baby, on a poor girl like me. You know I’m fallin, fallin, fallin at your feet… Some song his mother was playing earlier that afternoon, while she cooked them dinner before they climbed into the Camaro. It’s the same band Chief Hopper introduced them to last week. I’m tingling right from my head to my toes, so help me, help me, help me make the feeling grow.

Is that an invitation? If it is, Billy resists, sensing that when they return to the room tonight they’ll find the perfect time to play out their wild fantasies. How often have they been interrupted, or had to bite their bottom lips or bed sheets to keep from screaming while parents were down the hall? Tonight Billy’s gonna hear Steve scream. He’s going to show him what this muscled body can really do.

Now Steve’s mimicking the sounds of Fleetwood Mac’s twangy bluegrass strings. Billy laughs and fishes out the bottles he brought. Medusa’s, the infamously popular and open-minded nightclub, doesn’t have license to serve alcohol. Word has it guests sneak their liquor in. Easy for Billy, with his heavy boots. One pint snug against each ankle will suit them fine.

However, he’s brought along a bottle of whiskey and a bag of cocaine for himself alone. Chemicals are nothing to Billy. Sometimes it’s like his body doesn’t register that anything illicit has been dumped inside. Earlier this week Steve brought up how often they’ve been using, and together they agreed to save that sort of fun for special moments, so as he undresses for the shower he opens the bottle and gulps, intent on draining at least half of it now.

Naked, he enters the bathroom and sets his bottle down on the counter. Steve pokes his head around the curtain, hair in a mop on top of his head. Indiscreetly he reacts to the fact that Billy’s nude. “Want me to, uh, leave the water running for you?”

He smirks, lips glossy from drink. “Please.”

They swap places, and Steve leaves the room to busy himself with his appearance. It’s been a while since he put effort into that. Part of his immediate charm to Billy was that, even though he knew he was pretty, Steve really didn’t know his worth. He overcompensated by perfecting his outward looks and reputation. Keg stands, sports teams… things he would never truly be good at, but would make him cool enough to be wanted. Tonight some of that flair is making a comeback.

Minutes later Billy steps carefully out of the shower, aware of the buzz half a bottle gave him. He towels off and arrogantly struts out of the bathroom nude, anticipating a reaction from Steve, who is sitting in a chair by the window.

“It’s calling you, isn’t it.” Billy says.

“What, the city?” Steve half-turns and gives him the up and down. He is fully dressed, though not in the crop top Billy jokingly wanted him to wear, and there’s a can of Farrah Fawcett spray on the dresser. “Yeah, it’s calling. What’s the name of this place, again?”

“Medusa’s.” Billy walks around the spare bed where his outfit is laid out. There’s a small grey jewelry box on top of it. “Harrington?” He turns towards Steve, holding the box loosely between his thumb and middle finger. “What is this?”

A flash of fear passes over Steve’s face as he gets up and walks over, so close Billy can smell his hairspray. God, he wants to strip him down and taste his body, devour him right here on the narrow strip of shoddy carpet between the beds. He swallows down the urge and watches Steve’s eyes dart to the laid out clothes, the little box in his hand, the drops of water forgotten on his shoulder. He’s crafting a response, or deciding what’s best. Whatever’s in here, Steve expected him to discover it before demanding answers.

Deja vu plagues him. Hasn’t he done this before? Chugged whiskey, found a mysterious item delivered by a lover to his bed, and acted rashly upon fear? The letter he found after returning home from California with his father. Amped up from the stress of that trip, he let paranoia of his too-good-to-be-true relationship light him like a rocket, and when he fired off he hurt Steve, and subsequently himself. That had been the last time he blacked out.

That’s not going to happen tonight. He is not going to ruin this experience, or this gift. All week he was curious about what Steve would get him for Valentine’s Day. Would it be something purchased, created, given? Billy would have been happy to physically take him, that would have been enough of a gift to last him until next year.

Steve locks eyes with him. “Open it, babe. Open it and see.”

His heart races, as if it’s a trap, reminding him of all the times people showed him kindness just to rip the rug from under his feet. Don’t ruin this , he tells himself again, hoping Steve won’t give him reason to. Tentatively he lifts the top and sees a ring with a silver band and green stone. Hasn’t he seen this somewhere in Steve’s room? The top of his dresser, maybe? Safely stuck into the sock drawer? He can’t recall, but this ring belongs to Steve; his name is engraved inside the silver band, and around the stone are the numbers 19 and 85. His graduation year.

As Billy gently rocks the ring between his fingers the gem flashes in the fluorescent lights. “Why are you giving me this? Shouldn’t you be wearing it?”

“Yeah, but I’d lose it in a second. Junior year we chose our designs and when I picked this up I said, shit, I’ve gotta put it somewhere safe until… Well, I wasn’t sure what I was waiting for, but now I do. I was waiting for you.”

Where is this coming from ? Billy wants to ask. The gesture is kind. His boyfriend is gifting him a personal piece of jewelry, a trade off for the pendant necklace he has worn night and day since Billy adorned him with it. Skeptically he points out, “You haven’t lost my necklace.”

“Of course not. It’s a part of you.” He lays his palm on his chest, where the pendant rests beneath his shirt. “It feels like a promise, so I wanted to give you a promise, too.”

“A promise ring,” Billy laughs. He stubbornly sticks it onto a few fingers of his right hand until he finds the best fit. His pinkie. Is Steve that much smaller than him? He grins at the shiny gem, the warmth of the whiskey and the potential of this night allowing him to overlook his fears, like the fear that Steve doesn’t really mean this, or want this. That he’s leaving soon.

“Hey,” Steve says softly, closing the gap between them with a hug. “I love you.”

Billy kisses his neck. “I love you, too.”


It occurs to them once they enter the venue that they can be public here. They have never touched or kissed in a place they could be seen, aside from the back booth of that diner two towns out from Hawkins, where they were discreet and kept antennae up for unwanted stares.

At Medusa’s there are no unwanted stares. Everyone is dressed according to their own doctrine, brought to life on the dark, thumping dance floor. There are people of all ages here, wearing clothes Billy never imagined he’d see in person. Outrageous, really. Half skank-drag and club couture, a collage slapped together from parts of fashion magazines. Regardless of how people are dressed, they jive and freak out to the music like they requested it.

As Billy and Steve scan the dance floor they see that partiers are paired however they want, or not paired at all. There are guys with guys and girls with girls mixed in, too. Those in drag catch Billy’s attention. Aunt Beth and Aunt Dawn told him about a club in New York City, years ago. Something happened, something big that paved the way for more places like this, where people of any creed and color could dance.

They work their way into the crowd, Billy leading Steve by the hand. His eyes are saucers, dilated from darkness and cocaine, which he once more convinced Steve to do with him. He reacts in awe to every moving piece of this puzzle. An air of mischief fills the room, easily sweeping them into the over the top, make you cringe, off the hook vibration of the party.

Billy had no idea he hungered for this very kind of scene. It was on a whim that he thought to drive out to Chicago and try a club where homosexuals were welcome, because what could be better on Valentine’s Day weekend than dancing openly in a flashy, trashy room banging with music? It's radically different from other parties, because the underdogs, outcasts, and creatives are all thrown together. It makes it more interesting, this equality. Billy feels stripped, raw, and yet wholly open to the experiences of the universe.

Once they nicely tuck themselves into the throngs, near the center of the floor he takes Steve’s face and pulls him into a deep kiss, then runs his palms down his chest and stomach until they land on his hips. Holding Steve at arms length he admires the way those new jeans fit like a glove, perfectly molded to his slim frame. Smooth and loose from the liquor, he moves his body to the beat, watching Steve do the same, guided by his hands. What if he yanks him close enough to feel the friction? What if he wraps an arm around Steve and works his hand through the snug waistband of his jeans and cups his ass, squeezes it hard enough to bruise?

Thinking of it builds pressure, backed by the powerful cocaine that causes the pulse of the lights and bass to rock him less like a funky groove and more like a hurricane. He rakes his ravenous gaze over Steve’s body and finally meets his bambi eyes. Smirking, he leans in and kisses Steve again, with tongue. Then Billy draws him in, wrapping his arms clear around his waist, drunk enough to find the way his palms come back to meet his own sides more material for lust. Articulating it would drive him insane, but something about Steve’s dwindling nature, the fight to save his light and salvage what parts of him haven’t disappeared, strengthen his resolve as a lover, and multiply the arousal he feels upon the slightest touch.

When the heat in both the room and below his hips becomes too much he pulls back to breathlessly remind Steve, “You’re mine , princess. Only mine.”

The response he gets blasts all doubt from his mind. Steve laughs, leans in to kiss his neck and bite  it. Laughing harder he says, “Sure, babe, as long as you’re mine, too.” He takes Billy’s right hand, where the gem of his high school ring glimmers on his pinkie like a star in the flashing lights of Medusa’s. “This is a promise, remember?”

“I remember.” Billy nods fervently. The song changes, the next louder than the first, shifting genres. He glances at the ring, then back to Steve, and shouts over the music. “The center of each other’s universe.”

Steve echoes the words back like an oath, but they are inaudible, drowned out by the driving beat. To honor the moment, Billy fishes into his boot for a pint of vodka. He uncaps it and passes it to Steve, then fishes the whiskey pint out of his other boot. Motioning for a toast he shouts, “To Harrington!”

“To Hargrove!” Steve smiles proudly.  He tips the bottle and imbibes his favorite poison.

Liquor’s never much of a poison for him, though, is it? He gets drunk and hungover and moves on. No major incidents for Steve, the angel, the perfect person who Billy loves so badly he wishes he could climb inside and be . Meanwhile those intense thoughts are the very troublemakers that weave into his bloodstream with the poison he chooses, and he doesn’t sip that shit.

He empties the bottle and drops it to the floor.

Chapter Text

Around him the world pulses to a chaotic beat laced with unintelligible lyrics. His body moves naturally to it, like the music is born within him and is now being played out loud. Billy watches him with hungry fascination, eventually pulling him in and grinding their hips together in time with the banging song. Heat starts to build and sweat beads on his forehead. At some point he goes for a soda, Billy behind him, hands glued to his now-bony hips.

On the sidelines Steve uses the soda to chase his vodka. Stupidly happy and unthinking, he passes the pint to Billy, who drinks freely, his eyes feline and wild. A new song starts playing and Steve forgets himself again. He grabs Billy’s hands and bolts to the center of the dance floor.


City light throws off a cool orange glow. This and the digital numbers on the bedside table are the only light in the room when they barrel through the door shortly after three, knocking into walls and shoving each other towards the bed. Billy throws him like a ragdoll and tickles him into submission, holding him tight each time he tries to wriggle away, until he’s fighting for air and crying from laughter.

When Billy lets up, he straddles Steve and licks the tears off his face. Then he kisses him, hands working up his shirt. There’s no magic, no music, just sloshy lip smacking and moans. Music would be unnecessary, anyway, because Steve is still half-wasted, Medusa’s banging beats echoing in his head. He hooks his arms around Billy and pulls him closer, sticks his tongue into his mouth, wanting.

Billy delves into the kiss until they need air. Breaking away he says, “You’re a slut, pretty boy.”

He’s never said that before, but it gets Steve hard. “Oh yeah? What are you gonna do about it?”

Honoring the challenge, Billy stands on his knees and grabs the hem of Steve’s shirt. Aiding him, Steve arches his back and shifts his shoulders. The shirt is thrown into the darkness and Billy’s teeth bite down hard on bare skin as his hands find the buckle of Steve’s belt and hastily work to undress him, jerking his hips in the process.

Wanting to taste Billy, too, Steve sits up halfway and reaches for any article of clothing he can pry off. With a grunt Billy pushes him down, one hand flat on the center of his chest. The pressure almost hurts. Steve groans, pained more isn’t happening faster. A belt buckle clatters lightly and he realizes with exhilaration that Billy’s undressing himself. Within a minute hips meet hips, both of them equally aroused.

Lost in this, Steve’s hand wraps around Billy’s upper arm and squeezes. Muscle, sculpted and shaped and so very capable, hardens beneath his touch. Steve wants to sit up and nip at every inch of him. Again he tries to move, and Billy pins him down. It’s frustrating, denied the agency to participate, but Billy knows all the right spots and he falls back, completely at the other’s mercy.

Two fingers brush Steve’s shiny lips. Billy says, “Open.”

He obliges, sucking wetly until Billy removes his fingers from Steve’s mouth and presses them into him. Their position isn’t right for this, so Billy throws Steve’s legs over his shoulders and leans forward, making it easier to finger him. The sensation is too intense. Spit isn’t good enough lubricant to warrant pushing into him that hard and deep. As Billy enjoys himself he leans more weight onto Steve’s legs, which bend back towards his face, making his hamstrings scream. He is thin, but not flexible. Blindly he waves his hand around and finds Billy’s free arm. Tapping at it he mutters, “Babe, back off a little?”

Thankfully Billy releases one of Steve’s legs flat onto the bed-- leaving the other bent, propped over his shoulder-- only so he can shift his weight, allowing him to bring Steve into his mouth and finger him simultaneously. Intense, and not quite what he imagined their tryst would be like. When Billy flung him onto the bed he wanted equal play. Still, there’s no shame in receiving, and he’s close to orgasm. Billy grazes him with teeth, pays attention to the head, presses his tongue underneath and slides up to the tip. Steve tilts his head back and groans again, primal, balls up a fist of Billy’s short hair and yanks. Billy responds by adding more pressure to each thrust of his fingers, picking up a faster rhythm, mirrored by his mouth.

Knowing the precise moment he is about to orgasm, Billy pulls his fingers out and sits up on his knees, aiming Steve so when he comes it’s all over his chest and stomach. Another thing he’s never done in bed. Steve marvels, fascinated, as Billy sticks a finger in the hot substance dripping down his torso and licks his it clean with a moan.

“You’re delicious,” he muses. “And now it’s my turn.”

“Finally,” Steve whispers with a lazy grin, sitting up. “However you want it, babe. I’m ready.”

“That’s good, princess, because this time I’m gonna get mine. No interruptions.” He smiles, teeth an eerie white floating thing in the dark. “Roll over.”

“Wait, are we really doing this? Like, now?

“What are you, deaf? Yes. Roll over.”

“Hang on, did you bring lube?” Foreplay with spit left him sore and he’s never been penetrated by anything other than fingers. He’s nervous, so his body is tense. Lubricant would help, because it should feel good for him, too. Right? Suddenly he sees how unprepared he truly is.

“For Christ’s sake, Harrington, shut up!” Billy grabs him cruelly by the skin around his ribs and forces him to his side. The pinching hurts, and when he winces loudly Billy pinches harder. He shoves Steve onto his stomach and slaps his ass so hard it stings. Hitting during sex is okay for some people, but Steve hates it. He prefers sex rough from passion over sex rough from pain, and Billy knows that.

But right now Billy doesn’t care.

He slaps Steve’s ass viciously, three, four times, and when his fights to roll over again Billy grabs the back of his head and shoves his face into the blankets. Fear blooms inside like a searchlight, swinging out of nowhere and illuminating everything. Billy is never violent in bed, and only gets like this when he’s upset and can’t control himself. Tonight was so good, they got high and drunk and danced and made out in public. There’s nothing to be upset about. Why else would he lose control?

Horror stricken, Steve realizes Billy must be in a blackout.

“Stop!” he shouts, bucking his hips to get his knees under him so he can fight his way out of this. Whatever he said a minute ago isn’t true now. Steve isn’t ready to finish what they started last week. He’ll never be ready if being fucked means being pinned beneath your blacked out boyfriend who doesn’t give a shit if you’re comfortable, much less feeling safe and loved.

Steve gets his legs folded under him, bent at the knee and spread uncomfortably, but when he tries to push up Billy utilizes the position by pressing down and mounting him. The pressure of being folded and pinned beneath his heavy weight is unbearable. Again he struggles, only to have his face shoved into the blankets once more, and this time he can hardly breathe. The spotlight of panic is now blinding white light, burning him from the inside out. Nightmarish memories fill his head like firecrackers. Billy refusing to leave the Byers’ house because Max was there, when really he was looking for a fight. Billy straddling him, throwing hit after hit, all of Steve’s attempts at guarding himself foiled, forcing him to take the beating until pain and the warmth of his own blood knocked him out.

At least it wasn’t in vain. By letting Billy use him as a punching bag he kept his kids safe. Tonight the only one he needs to keep safe is himself. Tolerating violence isn’t martyrdom, it’s suicide. His stupidity astounds him. How could he simplify and overlook everything Billy has done, and get into a relationship with him? Their time together has done nothing but prove what everyone already knew about Billy-- he is broken in ways Steve’s good hearted nature won’t ever fix.

He can’t breathe, and he can’t fight. Billy takes him ruthlessly. Skin tears, blood blooms. His mantra plays on loop in his head, a statement at first and then a screaming, degrading whip. You’re an idiot, Steve Harrington. Those words weren’t his to begin with, but he would never know that now. They have become him.

He bites down on the covers to stifle his screams.


Naked and shivering, Steve stands in the bathroom watching the ghost in the mirror vanish in steam and fog. If ever there was a soul inside his body, it has been permanently gouged out. His head spins. He’s no longer a person, but a shell. He has never felt so alone, but it makes sense, considering he is nothing but a cum-bucket of mistakes, only purposeful to Billy so long as he can be used to meet his needs.

Yet even what he gave Billy tonight wasn’t enough to satisfy him. If it was Billy would leave him alone to shower in peace, but he’s pounding on the door, demanding to be let in. Steve can’t answer or he’ll start crying. The boy he loves wants to be with him, but that same boy just attacked him, again, and this time it wasn’t just physical. It was sexual. Joyce’s words come to him, a truth pointed out before he could hear it. The people we care about can hurt and love us at the same time. Yes, they can, but what is he supposed to do? He stood up for himself tonight and still ended up hurt!

Aggravated by being ignored, Billy punches the door so hard he cracks wood. Steve flinches at the sound and hugs himself. What if he busts the door down and punches his face until he cracks bones?

“Damnit!” Billy shouts from the other side. “I’m bleeding now. Are you happy?” He bangs the door again for emphasis. Silent, Steve waits. “Whatever, Harrington. I hope you drown in there.”

Footsteps carry him off, and the bedsprings creak. Steve prays he’ll be asleep by the time he ventures outside to grab clothes. Otherwise he could be dead. Billy is blacked out, for who knows how long, and they’re alone in a hotel room, away from home. In theory this was a romantic getaway. In actuality it’s the final qualification to consider their relationship a complete disaster.

With shaking hands he fumbles to turn the shower on. Between the aching in his body and battered heart he is unraveling, his world coming apart at the seams. He steps into the stream of hot water and is shocked by the sting. Pain overwhelms him, crumples him to the floor of the tub. Sobbing, he hugs his knees to his chest. That makes it hurt more. He can’t sit comfortably. Tendrils of pink smoke flow down the drain.

I hope you drown in there.

Who says that to someone they call “angel”? And who cares? He deserves to drown for being stupid enough to buy into the bullshit that is someone’s promised love. Bullshit. That’s what Nancy said about his promised love, because to her it was fake. Naivety led Steve to believe it was real. He knows better now. All love is fake.

But that’s not true! What about Mike, El, and Will? What about Lucas and Max? Their relationships are young, pure, and unapologetically human. Imperfections are welcome, loyalty and protectiveness unconditionally given as a bare minimum display of love. The bonds between them go to the bone, and even when they break up and move on they’ll hold love for each other, because they understand life and why things tick. Their immeasurable powers, both characteristic and supernatural, make them incredible problem solvers and skilled survivors. Dustin lured D’art into a trap. Eleven sealed the gate. Will used Morse Code to communicate while possessed. And Max. Max got Billy to stop abusing her. Why can’t Steve do the same?

Because he’s an idiot. Any self-worth he had in 1983 is gone, without so much as a thread to remember it by. His breakup with Nancy made him vulnerable enough to allow a charmingly arrogant boy to march into his life and take over absolutely. Now that same charming boy has exhausted him, driven him to lock himself inside the bathroom and sob on the floor of the tub.

Another bit of Joyce’s wisdom rings in his head. The sex might be awesome, but they might pressure you to do it when you don’t want, or touch you in a way you don’t want. He had wanted it, hesitated, then completely changed his mind, and rather than listen to him Billy used him as a prop.

Steve hangs his head and sobs, choking on water. He sees the Miracle Medal. Some miracle, being Billy’s boyfriend. Tonight he accepts the truth: this relationship is shattered, it’s unhealthy. He has let Billy break his trust and regain it before, but this time there is nothing left to rebuild. He believed he was doing something good, helping a lost boy change, and in all this time Billy has gotten everything he wanted. The only one who’s changed is him.

Chapter Text

Shimmering ring, reflecting dance floor lights.

His lover’s easy smile, a beautiful, endangered thing.

An oath taken in a sea of people: The center of each other’s universe.


It’s dark when he wakes to the sound of violent retching. Disoriented, he sits up. Where is he? This isn’t Steve’s room, nor the small bedroom at his father’s house. The bedside clock reads 6:24 . Morning or night? In February, darkness is always upon them. He shimmies towards the edge of the bed, because he was sleeping dead center, and flicks on the light. The spare bed is unmade, their bags have been placed on the floor by the dresser, and he’s naked. He doesn’t remember getting naked. He doesn’t remember returning to the hotel at all.

Climbing out of bed makes his head throb. Hangover. Dehydration. Too much cocaine. The toilet flushes. Steve is in the bathroom, alone and sick. He’s a bad boyfriend if he doesn’t check on him. Groggy, he walks over to the bathroom door. It’s open a sliver, but that’s enough light to reveal a dent in the wood that wasn’t there yesterday. Billy looks down at his right hand. The knuckles are scraped, and the ring on his pinkie is spun upside down, with the gem facing away from him.

He fixes it nonchalantly, with no thought to what might have happened last night. Then he knocks gently. “Hey, you alright in there?” Steve reacts to his voice like a deer to a gunshot. Nudging the door open, Billy peeks in. “It’s just me, princess. Didn’t mean to startle you.”

After a moment Steve releases a breath. “It’s okay. I’m sorry I woke you up.”

“No, no, no, don’t be.” He enters the small bathroom and kneels beside Steve, who shies away to give him room. “How long have you been in here?”

Steve shrugs. He’s fully dressed, in pyjama pants, an undershirt, and a sweater over that. He’s even wearing socks. Their room temperature is comfortable; Billy is entirely bare, and aside from his headache he’s fine.

“Do you feel better?” Steve gives a slight nod and Billy offers an encouraging smile. “Why don’t you come back to bed, then? My bed, I guess, since you must have taken up the spare when you felt sick. Is that right?”

“Yeah.” Steve clears his throat. “My stomach’s bothering me, and my head.” He stands up, wobbly as a fawn.

Billy stands, too, and puts a steadying hand on his shoulder. Their reflections in the bathroom mirror are haggard. He chuckles. “We had a wild night, huh?”

“You could say that.” Steve turns on the faucet and rinses his mouth and face. He cups water into his hands and drinks for a while.

When he turns off the faucet Billy hands him a clean hand towel to pat himself dry. His unruly hair looks damp, like he showered before bed, but it could be sweat. This isn’t typical hangover Steve, but Billy figures it has to be six in the morning, not six at night, and sleep will solve everything.

“Come on. We’ve got nowhere to be tomorrow except the Art Institute. Let’s rest until then.” He takes Steve’s hand and leads him to the bed, unphased by his own nudity.

The sheets and blankets are messed up, so he takes a moment to straighten them. Then he climbs in and invites Steve, who reluctantly settles in beside him. Immediately he pulls Steve in, spooning him, one arm slung over his torso. He finds his hand and laces their fingers together, then kisses the nape of his neck. His entire body shivers, and the pace of his breathing picks up.

“Still cold?” he asks. Steve hums in agreement, but says no more. “You’re safe, baby boy,” Billy assures him. “I’m right here.”


Around a quarter to two in the afternoon Steve wakes him up and says it’s time to go. Their bags are already packed, sitting on top of the unmade spare bed. His bed is cold, meaning Steve’s been up for a while. This little form of abandonment-- waking up without him, packing up without him-- sends a prickle of anxiety up Billy’s spine. Last night was perfect, but now something’s wrong.

Are they late for something? Lines of worry crease Steve’s face and his coat is on. He paces, making sure he’s got everything. Racking his brain, Billy works to recall the details of their romantic getaway. They arrived yesterday evening, went to Medusa’s, and… Well, and then this . Billy doesn’t remember coming back here last night. Should he?

Yes.

As he props himself up on his elbows and watches Steve pace, he remembers waking up in the early morning hours and taking care of Steve while he was sick. Evidently he’s feeling better now, probably anticipating their trip to the Art Institute of Chicago, a place they often spoke of visiting before this trip. This weekend is their time to live the dream, as if being in love doesn’t already constitute as that.

“You know,” he says with a yawn, “We don’t have to bring our bags to the museum.”

Steve physically jerks his attention back to Billy. He’s standing near the dresser. Worry lines become confusion. “What?”

He gestures to their bags. “We’ve got the room until noon tomorrow. We can leave our bags here while we’re at the museum.”

“Oh. Well, I was, uh…” Steve deflates a bit. He stuffs his hands into his coat pockets, looking nervous. “I was thinking we could go home today. Like, now.”

“Why?” Billy swings his legs over the side of the bed and stands up. Stretching his arms over his head he says, “Are you still feeling sick?”

Steve’s face brightens. “You remember?”

“Of course I remember,” he sighs, lowering his arms and shaking his shoulders loose. He moves to the spare bed and unzips his bag, deciding what to wear. “Why wouldn’t I?”

“I dunno,” he chuckles. “Stupid, of me, right?”

He fishes out underwear, a clean pair of jeans. “You said it, not me.” When Steve doesn’t laugh he looks over his shoulder. “What, do you think I blacked out again?”

Steve replies quietly, staring at the floor. “You said it, not me.”

That stings. He wants to shoot back a nasty comment and has enough sense not to. Pulling on clothes he asks, “So, why are we going home a day early?”

“I need to rest. It’s not… I’m beyond hungover, you know? Kinda want my mom’s cooking tonight.” He smiles sweetly, but the light in his eyes is gone. “Plus, it’ll save us money, right? We can come out where another time, party less, explore more.”

“Are you sure?” Billy buttons his shirt halfway. Honestly, he doesn’t care if they stay or go. He figures he got everything he wanted last night; they definitely enjoyed Medusa’s, toasting to each other on the dance floor, and they must have fooled around when they returned to the hotel, because he woke up naked. If they go home now he can use the money he would have spent tonight to re-up their stash. Either way he wins.

“Yeah, I’m sure,” Steve mutters.

“Alright, but we’re stopping for food on our way out.” He crosses the room to the tiny closet, where his boots are. He shoves his feet into them and yanks his leather jacket off the hanger. Swinging it on he pats the pockets, finds his wallet and the cocaine. Pleased, he holds the bag up. “There’s enough left for both of us!”

When he moves towards the dresser Steve shrinks away. Grinning, Billy kneels down and empties the bag onto the wood. He fishes his driver’s license out of his wallet and cuts equal lines, overly eager for a chemical drip in the back of his throat.

Steve watches with trepidation. “You don’t have to split it, I don’t want any.”

“Too bad, Harrington, you need it.” He slips the license into its spot and grabs a wrinkly dollar bill. Rolling it tightly into a straw he looks up. Steve’s eyes are huge, full of sadness, and he’s miserably pale. Billy writes these off as fatigue. He was puking his guts out at six in the morning, he deserves a break. “Seriously,” he pressures. “Have a look at yourself. A bump’ll do you good.”

For a moment Steve struggles. Then he says, “No, thanks.”

Resentment tempts him, but he shrugs it off. “More to get me through the drive.”

He sticks the money straw in his nose, bows his head and inhales.


They’re on the road by four. Diner food sits heavy in his stomach, a perfect compliment to the cocaine high lifting him up. He’ll be full until they get home, and by then Mrs. Harrington will have food on the table for them, or leftovers boxed away.

Ah, the perks of being Steve’s boyfriend.

He slips in an old mixtape, songs he used to crank on the beach in California before everything went to shit, and happily lights a cigarette. After the first pull he offers it to Steve, slumped against the passenger door with his Ray Bans on. “No, thanks.”

“‘No, thanks’,” Billy mocks over the stereo. “What are you, a broken record today?”

He mumbles something.

“What was that?”

Steve straightens up to project his voice. “I said I’m just broken.”

He grimaces. “Christ, Harrington. I get it, you’re sick, but cut the depressing shit, okay? It’s killing my mood.”

“Yeah, well this music is killing my mood. Can you turn it down a little?”

“Sure!” he exclaims sarcastically. “Is there anything else you need me to do for you? I mean, I bought you lunch and you couldn’t keep that down. I offered you my jacket since you won’t stop shivering, but you didn’t want that either. Oh, and I’m driving home from Chicago a day early because you can’t hold your liquor, but clearly you’re not satisfied, so please, tell me what else you need!”

The louder he gets the smaller Steve makes himself. This makes him angry. Why is he acting like this? He’s hungover and sick, maybe feverish, but they’re on their way home and they’re together. Shouldn’t that be enough? It’s like he went to sleep next to Steve and when he woke up he was gone, nothing but a shell, a whisper of the the soul his lover housed only hours before.

Billy never went to sleep, though. He blacked out. Everything he remembers up until the blackout plays in his head like the peak scene in a dynamic romance movie. Waking up to Steve like this has been increasingly confusing, frustrating, and hurtful. The point of this trip was to make their love more real, not watch it evaporate like it was never there.

But he hasn’t watched anything, because he wasn’t present for it! Pride will never allow him to admit that he blacked out. That would mean admitting defeat and loss of control. The last time he lost control it wasn’t an alcohol blackout, yet he managed to choke Steve and make him hide in the shower, alone. Billy had a moment of clarity that night, small and yet so poignant. What if the problem is him?

In last night’s blackout, any progress he made since the night of their last fight could have been-- no, must’ve been-- destroyed. He could be the reason Steve is sick and shaking and not know. For that, he hates himself. For the silence, he hates Steve. He’d rather be slapped in the face with the truth than pretend this is all just a wild night turned nasty hangover, because they both know it’s not.

The songs ends and leads into track two. An old Krokus favorite he’d almost forgotten about. 1983 wasn’t long ago, but it feels like it. Relieved by the distraction, he grooves, drumming his hands on the wheel to the mellow beat. Sons of vengeance, can you rescue me? They got me tied up to a woe tree. Finished with the cigarette, he tosses the butt out the window and rolls it back up. Joining in, Billy sings: They had me screamin' and alone in the night, I'm beginning to see what's wrong and what is right! What is wrong and what is right…

Beside him there’s a hiccup. He glances over to read Steve’s expression. There’s none to see because of those damn sunglasses. On the ride to Chicago Billy thought they made Steve a god. Now he wants to rip them off his face and throw them out the window. Instead of acting violent he bangs along to the beat harder, singing louder to the chorus and cranking the stereo up to spite him.

Screaming in the night, fighting for my life, I'd die for you. I knew it all along, headed for the sun, our love was true...

Another hiccup catches his attention, this one louder. From the corner of his eye he sees Steve take the sunglasses off and swipe at his face with his sleeve. Turning to look, he notices thin streams of tears, gleaming in the oncoming headlights. Why is he crying? The music’s loud, fine, but it’s not aggressive! If anything it reminds Billy of their relationship. Fighting for my life, I’d die for you . He would absolutely die for Steve!

Then again, didn’t he just fight off the urge to throw his Ray Bans out and onto the highway? Didn’t he lie when he told Steve he remembers everything? He disgusts himself, lying and hurting his lover without actively doing anything to stop, because to stop he’d need to change, and in order to change he might need to do something different than what he has been.

The prospect of overhauling his life sounds great in theory, but in practice it’s nauseating terrifying. He’d rather continue re-earning Steve’s trust and forgiveness each time he fucks up, so he won’t ever have to admit what he is beginning to see is right: the problem isn’t on the outside. The problem is him.


That night, upstairs, he sets both bags on their bed. Steve takes off the sunglasses, finally, and sets them on his dresser. He sees where Billy put the bags and frowns. “Can you put those on the floor please?”

“Why? It’s easier to unpack this way.”

Steve walks over and takes his bag, drops it on the floor. “I’m not unpacking right now, I’m going to bed. I still don’t feel good.”

Suddenly he snaps. “Stop lying! This morning you said you weren’t just hungover, you were sick. Then in the car you called yourself broken, and you cried the whole ride home. There’s something you’re not telling me.”

Shrugging his coat off he says, “Yeah, because you wouldn’t remember even if I did, so what’s the point?”

“Hey!” Billy advances on him. “Hey, look at me! I told you I remember everything.”

Steve’s voice trembles. “Then why did you punch the door?”

He’s blindsided, all power lost. “What?”

“Why did you punch the door last night? This one’s easy if you weren’t blacked out.” Steve folds his arms across his chest protectively. “Oh, and don’t lie and say you didn’t, because your knuckles are scabbed, so it’s obvious you hit something, and for once it wasn’t me.”

Hot with anger, Billy’s left hand shoots out and seizes Steve’s bicep. “Watch it, Harrington.”

“Or what?” He looks disgusted, like that night at the Byers’, for those few minutes he pretended to be tough. “Seriously, or what? You’ve taken everything from me but my life, and at this point I wouldn’t put it past you to do that, either.”

He tightens the grip on his arm menacingly, feels his frightened pulse. “I promised to take care of you, and that’s a promise I intend to keep.”

Steve guffaws. “Shit, I wish you’d remembered that last night when you forced yourself into me even though I told you to stop!”

Self-hatred wipes his senses away. He laughs right along, mortified. “What are you saying, Harrington? That I raped you?”

Now he is sideswept. His eyes dart around as his mouth opens, shuts. Then opens again. They lock eyes. “Yes.”

Like a triggered gun Billy shoots a right hook across his face. Something catches, but he winds his arm back and punches Steve again. This time his knuckles come away shiny with blood. Tracks of it run down the side of Steve’s eye, and the sharp cheekbone underneath. Stricken, Billy looks at his right hand and sees what caught flesh: the ring on his pinkie. The ring Steve gave him. A promise that sliced skin, and a promise, the last time Billy hurt him, broken.

You made me yours. Take care of me.

Instinctively Steve covers the left side of his face with both hands. He sits down on the bed, blood seeping between his fingers. He glances at up, appalled and wholly betrayed.

Billy says, “I’m sorry.”

“I don’t care! Just get me a tissue or something, I can’t--!”

A silent sob scares Billy into action. His bag is still on the bed, so he hastily unzips it, grabs the shirt he wore into Chicago yesterday, and hastily balls it up.

Steve takes it from him and holds it to the side of his face. “Billy?”

Familiar panic tightens his chest, his heart jumps to his throat. He is about to be left. Abandoned by the last person that loves him. “Yes?”

“You always say that I'm worth the loss of your life, but you're not worth the loss of mine.”

That is the most violence Steve can do to him.

He spins on his heel and leaves.


When he returns an hour later he is drunk. Steve is gone, and he is asked to leave. His father knows he’s on the way home. Almost moved to tears, he thanks Mr. and Mrs. Harrington for letting him stay so long. Graciously they thank him for being a good house guest, and let him go.

But he can’t go back to his father. The man doesn’t want him alive, taking up space. Inconveniencing him. Frankly, Billy doesn’t want to be alive, either.

His last thought, revving up the Camaro, is that maybe he shouldn’t be.

Chapter Text

Funny how life laughs at you.

After losing Sarah he swore he’d never love again, and he almost didn’t. He’d lost everything when he lost her-- his sobriety, his wife, his home. At least he’d had the sense enough to go to work every day. Yet now, only a couple years later, he owns the world. Life granted him the gift of redemption. A home to rebuild, an adopted daughter to raise, and, if he’s lucky, a woman to lay beside each night.

Considering the short distance between her house and the cabin, it's surprising he hasn’t slept over yet. They’ve had chances to fool around, but there’s been no opportunity to intimately share a bed. So what? He’ll wait through the end of the world for Joyce, and he’s made that clear. A week ago he asked her on a date, assuring her that they’ll go at her pace. I know these past two years have been hell, and I’m not tryin to add to that. I want to make it easier. The sentiment touched her so deeply she almost dropped her cigarette. He smiled, knowing he had a shot.

Tonight’s supposed to be the night they sleep side by side. He’s only just pulled out of his driveway onto the pitch-black road and El’s put in some mixtape. She’s hugging a sleepover bag on her lap, wrapped in a sweater that must be Mike’s. Bowie starts singing as the truck rumbles into gear.

“Hang on,” Jim lowers the truck’s stereo, much to her consternation. “Who made this tape?”

“Jonathan, when you and Mom were out on Valentine's Day. I told you.”

“Jonathan, right.” He nods, one hand on the wheel, listening to off-beat noises build up. Audience applause, guitar, and some plain old drum sound. He teases, “And you like this?”

She shoots him a look.

“I know, I know. Old man’s got no taste in music.”

Her expression yields. “Taste in music?”

“Yeah, the type of music you--”

“Best part!” With that brilliant mind of hers she turns the music back up and starts to sing real quiet along with Bowie’s erratic track.

Oh no, love! You're not alone.

You're watching yourself, but you're too unfair.

You got your head all tangled up, but if I could only make you care.

As glad as Jim is that Jonathan’s exposing she and Will to new music, he wishes it wasn’t so out there. They’re bonding, though. More than bonding. Valentine’s Day night he drove over with El, dressed up fine for his first official date with Joyce. The kids couldn’t get rid of them fast enough. Jonathan had promised that after homework and dinner they could blast music and bounce around the house.

Some commitment! Watching over two otherworldly pre-teens when you could be out with your girlfriend instead? Respectable, genuine. Content with his photography, music and books, Jonathan’s not rushing to get out of the house or chase down false happiness with the rest of his peers. Makes sense why he and Nancy hooked up. She’s grounded, too. His stepson’s dating a responsible, kind-hearted girl. What more could he ask for?

Okay, Jonathan isn’t his stepson, and he never will be. If and when they marry-- Jim hopes it’s a when -- he’ll proudly sign adoption papers for her boys. She’ll sign one for El, he’s sure. What a wild game changer that would be for these kids. Maybe their relationship crashes before it flies. That’s fine, because he and Joyce will always be old friends, and in this world that still counts for something.

El’s singing a little louder now.

Oh no, love! You're not alone.

No matter what or who you've been.

No matter when or where you've seen.

All the knives seem to lacerate your brain

I've had my share, I'll help you with the pain.

Quirkily she bops to the beat, snapping her fingers clumsily, the way he taught her. As embarrassingly as possible he joins in, making up words and singing an octave lower than the chorus backing the doo-woppy song. They glance at each other. She laughs. For a moment he hears the music how she does, like she stepped inside his mind. Symphonies for her, where all he’s got is dissonance.

Then something on the dark road catches her eye and twists her face in terror. Before he can slam on the breaks she throws out her hand and forces the truck to a screeching halt. Jim jerks into park and they stare out the windshield, panting with adrenaline, wondering if what they’re seeing is real, because it looks like Steve Harrington throwing up outside his car.

“Shit.” Jim kicks his door open and orders, “Stay here.”

“No, I’m--”

Stay .” He steps down and slams the door shut, muffling the music as it changes into the next song. He trots towards the hazardously parked BMW. “Hey! Kid!”

Steve is doubled over, clinging to the hood, retching spit and strings of saliva. Anguished, he hears Jim and looks up. In the truck’s blinding headlights he is a struck animal, the left side of his face covered in dark, half-dried blood, stuck to his hair and gooped up around his swollen eye. He wipes his mouth with the sleeve of his thin green coat and mutters something.

“What’s that?” Jim asks, drawing up beside him.

“S-sorry.” His entire body shakes. “I sh-shouldn’t have come out here.” Nervous, he runs his hands through his hair, snagging locks glued to his skin by blood. They tear free and he yelps at the sudden pain. Jim watches shiny fresh beads rise instantly to fill the space. Steve hangs his head.

“Hey, what do you mean you shouldn’t have come out here? What’s going on?” He plants a firm hand on Steve’s shoulder.

Wrong move. Kid’s in complete panic mode, jumps nearly a foot and knocks into the mirror of his car. Of course he immediately starts crying. Rough, ugly crying Jim would have never anticipated. He leans against the car door, sucking in rapid, shallow breaths. Questions breed like mice. Weren’t he and Billy supposed to be away this weekend? That’s what Dustin told Will, who told Joyce. And if he’s bleeding because of Billy, why? More importantly, where is Billy ? Did Steve run away from him? Was he purposely driving to Jim’s cabin, or simply running until fear overrode his body?

Agonizingly Steve explains, “We had a fight. He left, and then I left, but--” He gasps for air. “But he’s going to come back, and when he does he’ll see that I’m not home and he’ll do something.”

“Do something? Like what?” Jim needs to keep him talking. As long as Steve’s stringing words together he can arrange the puzzle pieces.

“Hurt himself! Hurt me, I don’t know, but I can’t be around you.” He shakes his head fervently. “I’m sorry.”

“Why can’t you be around me?”

“Because he could hurt you, too!” Shouting sends him into a fit of coughing, then gagging, and still nothing comes up. Heaving’s gotta hurt, because he cries harder, sinking against the car. More questions arise, like when was the last time he kept food down? How long has he been out here in the dark? What did Billy do to warrant a reaction this extreme?

Although Jim senses the answer, he has to ask. “Why’d you come out here?”

Steve straightens up slightly, holding his stomach. “What?”

“You said you shouldn’t have come cause Billy might follow, I get that, but why were you headed here in the first place?” He shifts his weight, hand on hip.

Steve looks up, total disaster. Headlights reveal that his good eye is bloodshot. He’s puked enough to burst capillaries. Beyond that is distress great enough to kill him. “I wanted to ask you something.”

Jim waits. When Steve doesn’t say anything he gestures. “Go ahead.”

“Can boys get raped?”

Last week’s conversation with Steve had some value, because Jim can’t conceive this coming up if Joyce hadn’t planted the seed. Still, how the hell do you help a kid who’s suffering this way? Does he play the role of understanding parent or stern law enforcer? Depending on what Steve says next, should he urge the kid to press charges? If he does, how bad will Billy react?

Useless shit to worry about right now. Steve took his offer to heart that night when he told him to come anytime, without even calling. His job right now is simply to listen, and aid in the process of self-discovery. In this case, Steve’s discovery of exactly how badly he’s being treated.

So Jim says, “Yes.”

“Oh.” Steve stares at his feet and nods. “Okay.”

“Is that the only reason you drove out here?”

“No,” he shakes his head again. “I just, uh… I don’t want to be hurt anymore.”

Music to his ears. Accepting a situation is one thing, but surrendering is the real first step. People need to be in enough pain to want to change. Steve’s there now, he said it himself: he doesn’t want to be hurt anymore. From here they can guide him through and safely out of this nightmare. And yeah, this is a nightmare, even compared to demogorgons and supernatural sludge. At least in those bad dreams the worst thing that happens is you die. A fucked up seventeen year old can cause so much more damage than death.

Softly Jim says, “You don’t have to be.”

Once more Steve breaks into sobs. Supporting himself with the hood of his car is futile, he’s sinking fast. Jim sighs and slowly reaches for Steve, who willingly turns to him this time. He wraps his arms around the now-bony kid and pulls him into a strong embrace, one hand cupped around the back of his head protectively, the way he would rock a child.

Behind them the truck door opens and shuts. El approaches with the stealth of a ninja. “Is he okay?”

Honestly, Jim has no idea. He’s never mentored a kid in this position. Joyce has experience, though. She’s been Steve. Once they get home she’ll intuitively know how to handle it. She has to. They can’t fail Steve. He finally came around, they can’t fail him.

“Not right now, but he will be.” El looks up at them, worried. Jim releases one arm and brings her into the hug. “He will be.”


Inside the cramped bathroom they sit Steve on the lid of the toilet. He hisses in pain but tolerates it. Joyce gets out the first aid kit and sets it on the counter for Jim, who wets a washcloth with warm water and works while she draws the story out of Steve. In the other room the kids set up Will’s bed and sleeping bags so when he sleeps later they can stand watch like sentinels. In the kitchen Jonathan heats leftovers and water for tea.

Jonathan was surprisingly reluctant to jump into action. He had been laying in bed reading when they brought Steve in. Curious about the commotion and his mother’s crooning voice, he peeked into the hall and gawked like he’d never seen a wounded human. Does he hold no sympathy for Steve, who’s not only his peer but a misfit party member? Was he hesitant because of the whole Nancy ordeal, or is he really that shy?

At least shy keeps him safe. Steve reads like an open book, and that creates problems. By the time he needs boundaries they aren’t there, because he’s trusted too freely to create them. With any luck, Joyce and Jim will guide him through creating those boundaries, better late than never, and maybe by some miracle Billy can get his shit together and leave the poor kid alone.

He’s always telling me I’m worth the loss of his life, so I told him he’s not worth the loss of mine .

Well, if that isn’t Jim’s favorite part!

Several times he wrings red out of the washcloth, rinsing it and dabbing blood off Steve’s face again. Kid takes it like a champ, numb from emotional exhaustion. When Jim uncovers gashes he stays quiet. Joyce does too, even though her eyes bulge in horror when she sees them. Pro parent, she trains her gaze right back on Steve and keeps him talking as Jim fishes out butterfly stitches and the big patch bandages.

“So what do you want to do now, sweetie?”

“Make this disappear.” Steve looks at his feet. Jim lifts his chin and cautiously sets a butterfly stitch. He winces. “I’m an idiot for trusting Billy after everything he did. I mean, I knew how he was with Max, and I saw him attack Lucas. I just thought I could change him.”

She nods. “That’s how I felt about Lonnie. But you’re not an idiot for trusting Billy. You were brave to be so forgiving. And now you’re even braver for saying you’ve had enough.”

“I guess. Once you realized how bad it was with Lonnie, what happened?”

“Well, to be honest, I wasn’t as brave as you. I stayed with him a long time after I knew it wasn’t right. Not knowing what would happen when I let him go seemed scarier than sticking with what I knew. It wasn’t until I saw how our relationship was taking a toll on my boys that I decided to do something, and it wasn’t til way later I realized I deserved better, too.”

Jim’s chest burns with resentment towards Lonnie. Piece of shit never deserved her, or those two incredible sons. He hates that her self-esteem was low enough to buy into his cocky garbage, and hates that Steve’s gotten to that point, too. As he places the last bandage over the butterfly stitched cut a question comes to mind.

“What did you see in him?”

“Who, Billy?”

“No, the Queen of England.” Jim closes the first aid kit. “ Yes , Billy. I’ve been dying to know how you went from Nancy Wheeler to big bad wolf.”

“He’s not a bad person,” Steve says defensively. “If anything, it’s his dad who made him this way.”

Joyce reaches for his hand. “Hey, you don’t have to apologize for him or explain who and why he is. His actions show that perfectly clear, and his actions are his to own whether or not his upbringing predisposed him to this behavior.”

As he digests this, Jim opens and closes bathroom cabinets until Joyce points out where the first aid kit belongs. Then he leans against the sink, patiently awaiting explanation. There has to be one. Precious book smart girl from a good family, secret badass. Dating a girl like that probably boosted Steve’s confidence, and his grades. Her approval meant something because it came from on high.

If Jim is imagining their dynamic right, Billy’s approval must be like currency. The only time Steve is allowed to feel good about himself, or anything else, is when Billy is happy, which directly depends on what Steve chooses to do, making it a catch twenty-two that’s all but torn the kid to shreds. Shit, the side of his face is torn to shreds.

After clearing his throat Steve explains, “She was the first girl I ever loved, and I swore I’d love her forever. She told me she loved me, too, but… she didn’t. She didn’t even need me.” He frowns. Joyce squeezes his hand, inspiring him to continue. “I was with her for a year, and I’d stopped talking to most of my other friends, since they weren’t really friends at all. When I was alone I was really alone, and the kids didn’t need me, either.”

“So when Billy approached you he made you feel needed,” Jim gathers.

Steve nods sadly. “Stupid, I know.”

“Would you cut that out?” Jim stoops and sits next to Joyce on the edge of the tub. “You heard what she said a minute ago. Falling for someone who makes you feel good isn’t stupid. You’re not stupid. But you need a plan.”

“A plan?”

Just as Joyce opens her mouth to speak the phone rings shrilly in the kitchen. A pattering of children’s feet rush past the bathroom door. Will and El, fighting over who answers it. To their dismay Jonathan picks it up. Seconds later he calls for Jim.

“Coming!” He shouts, cracking open the door and wedging his way out. “Who is it?”

“Officer Callahan.”

Last place he wants to hear from is work. He outstretches his hand and inhales deep as Jonathan passes him the phone. Nosy, El and Will watch at his elbow. “Not allowed to enjoy my weekend, huh?”

“Good afternoon to you, too, Chief.”

“It’s past eight.”

“Actually, sir, it’s nine, and we would have gotten a hold of you a lot sooner if you cared to make yourself more available.”

“Christ, what do you want?”

“Car accident.”

Jim shifts his weight and says forcefully, “Unless someone road rashed their skull off their neck, call the fire department and handle it without me.” He hangs up. Too bad this is his job, and Callahan calls right back. “Okay, you’ve got thirty seconds to sell me on why the hell you need me there.”

“Some kid totaled his car. Drunk as a skunk, we’ve got him here at the station. Blew a point one-five, he won’t come down for a while.”

“Kid?” He’s alert. “What kid?”

“You know, the one always speeding around in that blue Camaro. Said he was headed to your house.” Callahan snickers. “I think his name’s…”

“William,” Powell says in the background.

“I told you ,” a distant voice says. “It’s Billy.”

“Right, that’s right,” Callahan tells Jim. “Billy Hargrove.”

Infuriated, he slams the phone against the receiver. Can this kid, for one Goddamn minute, stay out of his own way? Steve is a bleeding, sobbing mess in the bathroom because of their falling out, after Billy raped him last night in a blackout. Now he interrupts Steve’s healing by taking one of the only two adults who seem to give a shit about him out of the house? Ridiculous.

“Is everything okay?” Jonathan asks.

“Peachy,” he grunts. “Joyce!”

Alarmed, she runs out of the bathroom. He guides her into the living room and quietly relays what he knows. Her eyes widen, and he emphasizes safety. “We gotta keep this off the kids’ radar for tonight. If Steve finds out Billy crashed after he ran off, he’ll panic, and he doesn’t need to panic. What he needs is rest.”

“Absolutely,” she agrees. “I’ll stay here and make sure he’s fed, showered, and changed.” She’s lit up, optimistically approaching another insurmountable task. “Once that’s taken care of I’ll talk to him about the plan .”

“Good, cause at this point I’m afraid his survival depends on it.”

After stealing a quick kiss he blows out of the house.


He waits until Billy is seated before shutting the door.

“I don’t have all night.”

Confused, he turns. Jim remains at the door, hand loosely perched on the knob, debating whether or not to stand. Arresting kids is never fun, but it’s downright awful when the one in question is yours by association. Despite the satisfaction he’d get from throwing Billy in a cell and forgetting about him for a while, he’s attached to Steve, and Steve is in Jim’s charge.

How does it always come back to this? Coaching kids out of the messes they make when they try to handle it on their own. It was never a thrill, but there’s no fun at all in this anymore.

Eventually he walks around his desk and sits heavily. He leans forward and commands Billy’s gaze. “You were headed to the cabin. Why.”

“What?” Billy scrunches his face like he can smell shit. Charming, pretty boy is gone, replaced by an arrogant drunk who doesn’t have the right to ask questions. His crimes are paramount at this point. He beat the life out of Steve, convinced him he’s an idiot, and raped him .

Jim’s blood boils. He speaks insultingly slow. “Why were you driving to my cabin?”

“I wasn’t.”

“For Christ’s sake!” He bangs his fist on the desk and Billy flinches.

“Okay, okay, I was looking for Steve.”

Thank you!” he shouts, leaning back in his chair with an effective eye roll. When he casts another glare at Billy he notices the shift in expression. Fear shines through the eyes of madness. Good. Between playing into his fear and acting dumb as a fox Jim can get the whole story. “Why’d you think he’d be with me?”

There’s a precarious moment where Jim considers lunging over the desk and shaking him. He can’t fly off the handle, but God does this piss him off. He found Steve in the road, held him as he hyperventilated. Blood stained his coat.

Finally Billy says, “We had a fight.”

Another one,” Jim emphasizes.

“We don’t--”

“So help me if you lie,” Jim warns. “So help me.”

“Yeah, we had another fight,” he spits. “Are you happy?”

Jim seethes. “You couldn’t make me happy in a hundred years, but go ahead, enlighten me. What was this one about?”

“He accused me of something I didn’t do. Then told me to kill myself.”

Livid, Jim takes a deep breath. Why is he lying? He totaled a car and got arrested for DUI. The guy he's seeing is on the verge of breaking up with him, there is no point in evading the truth.

“I left, and when I came back he was gone. His parents said he…” Billy flourishes one hand. There’s a pinkie ring, a big band with a green gem. The knuckles are dusted with scabs. “He ran out, crying and bleeding. I was worried. I went after him. Figured he’d be at your place, or the Byers’.”

“Why was he crying and bleeding?” Jim knows the answer, but he wants to hear Billy say it. “You hit him or somethin?”

“No. Are you accusing me?”

“I’m asking why he ran out of his own house crying and bleeding.”

“He tripped.”

“Into your fist?”

“I said I didn’t hit him!” he barks.

Oh, yes, Jim thinks. He’s rattled now.

“Then why are you gettin so worked up?”

“Because my father’s the one who hits people, not me!”

Sarcasm drips off every word. “Right, you’d never hurt anyone. You’d never threaten the life of a black boy or hammer in the face of his defender. You’d never attack a thirteen year old child on a public field, and you sure as hell wouldn’t do any of it twice!”

“Alright, I’ve done those things!” Billy wrestles himself to an unsteady stand. “But that’s not who I am. I’m not my father.”

“Then show me who you are!” he bellows, sending his chair into the wall as he rises.

I don’t know!

There's a pause of clarity. Jim snorts. “First honest thing you’ve said.”

Man, it’s hard to muster up empathy for a kid like this, but Billy’s eyes alight and it puts Jim right where he needs to be. Kids don’t just get arrested; they’ve gotta be fucked up enough by the world to bring themselves to the brink. He sees it now: Billy is on the brink, the fire within stoked and starved. The slightest wind will cause it to blaze. It’ll consume him if he isn’t careful, and he is never careful. He’s never in control, but he plays God to pretend he is. Blackouts, dilated pupils, cocaine. Funny thing about life, it can snap your neck in a pinch. This kid is sick, neck exposed, and if Jim wants to help Steve he’ll have to find it in himself to help Billy, too.

Resigned to the mess that is yet another Hawkins teen, he sits back down. “Couple weeks ago we were eating pizza, talkin about our favorite teams. Week after that I fed you waffles and showed you my record collection. You proved yourself smart, charming. Now you’re here.” He opens the bottom drawer at his desk and fishes around for a pamphlet. “There’s two sides to reality. The one you design, and the one that designs you.”

He jots the address to a popular meeting on the inside, then tosses the pamphlet on the desk. This is A.A.: An Introduction to the A.A. Recovery Program. Sitting back down Billy leans forward to read the title. He looks up, side swept. “You think I’m an alcoholic?”

“Maybe,” Jim shrugs. “Maybe not. Only you can know that. But I get it. More than I can tell you, I get it. Have someone give you a ride, then sit down and shut up. Worst case, you hate it. Best case, you hear someone tell your story and realize you don’t have to do this anymore.”

“Do what?” There’s a flicker of genuine curiosity behind his whiskey sharp eyes.

“Let your anger consume you.”

“I’m not angry.”

“You’re totalling cars and racking up a body count.”

“I haven’t killed anyone,” he says defensively.

“Yet. You keep goin like this and you will.”

Billy mumbles something.

“Excuse me?”

“I said I hope it’s me.” Boldly he holds Jim’s eyes. “Are we done?”

“Almost.” He reaches over and picks up the phone.


Your kid gets arrested at seventeen after totaling a Camaro you’re still paying off. It’s disappointing, deserving of discipline. But when Neil doesn’t show there’s another message, and it reeks. I don’t have time for you. Billy’s not a son, he’s an inconvenience, and this jarring rejection isn’t tough love, it’s a big fuck you to the kid, who’s coming home tonight after a month and a half of absence.

It’s a risk bringing him home. Legally Jim knows nothing about Neil’s treatment of Billy, only what the kids and Steve have told him. He can’t step in unless maltreatment is forcibly brought to his attention, with proof, and it never will be. Worse, for every one kid like Billy, whose pain is recognized, there’s gotta be five or six more who aren’t even noticed. They quietly fall off the board.

“Remember what I said, okay?” He says, hand heavy on Billy’s shoulder. “Stay out of trouble, show up for your court date, and try a meeting before then. I can bring you, all you have to do is call.”

“Yes, sir.”

He rings the bell. Billy starts, like the electric signal fired off against his ribs. Is it that bad in there? This is the house where Max lives, too. The thought makes his skin crawl.

Uneven footsteps weave through the house. Lights come on. Billy’s breath is shaky. He turns and looks up at Jim. “If you see him, will you tell him something?”

“Depends.” He hasn’t disclosed what he knows, and he hasn’t encouraged Billy to either stay away from or seek out Steve. Time will take care of these things, and he’ll be there.

“I love him.”

There’s pain in his eyes. He knows , Jim thinks. He knows he’s messed up, that he is the core of all his problems. Yet there isn’t shit he can do to save himself, and that’s exactly why he goes to any lengths to seek it from the outside.

What is love like for Billy? It’s not unconditional, and it sure as hell isn’t healthy. It’s drug like. Relaying the message to Steve will do more harm than good because Billy can’t love anything. He’s too sick, and he’s barely breached the surface of that truth. However, love exists between them as much as broken rope can hold ship to anchor in a harbor. What’s holding them together is delusion. Difference between them is Steve’s made progress where Billy hasn’t. He’s the anchor, and he’s decided to let the ship go.

“I know you love him,” Jim affirms quietly. “But I can’t tell him that.”

Footsteps find the door as Billy casts him a pleading glance. Locks click. The kid’s body goes rigid, his hands ball into fists, then forcibly relax. He’s still drunk, micromanaging body language should be the last thing on his mind. If he’s this vigilant drunk, he lives life here as a prisoner. Anything can be misread, which explains why Billy is constantly misreading things. There’s consequences to that, leaving Jim to wonder.

What are the consequences for Billy?


Around 1AM he arrives to a silent, sleeping house. Walking down dark hall he notices all the bedroom doors are shut except Joyce’s. A halo of light shows him the way. Did she wait up for him? She shouldn’t have. This night has been exhausting for everyone, they all deserve rest. Slowly he opens the door and sees that, no, she didn’t wait up. She’s not even in the room.

Peacefully asleep on the far right of the bed is Steve, curled up with the good side of his face resting against a lumpy pillow. Underneath the knit blanket that’s been thrown over him Jim can see he’s wearing a clean set of Jonathan’s pyjamas. In the middle Will is propped up by pillows, serenely sleeping with a book tented on his chest. El is folded into him, her head in the crook of his neck, hugging her stuffed animal. Listening close he hears their gentle, synchronized breathing.

“He was reading to them.”

Surprised, Jim turns around. Joyce steps into the hall, groggy, hugging a blanket around her shoulders. “Will, he was reading to them. I let them take my bed so they’d be more comfortable.” She stands at his side and leans into him. “It’s good for Steve, I think. They’ve got this energy.”

What a relief to hear Steve’s night ended how it should have-- warm, soft, and full of love. Tiredly he wraps an arm around Joyce and kisses her head. “They’re healers.”

“Yes,” she smiles proudly. “They are.”

Chapter Text

Saturday night the phone rings. One call to mark the tragic end of peace and serenity in the Hargrove household. Billy’s absence was beautiful, and as always with beautiful things, it is gone as suddenly as it started, collapsed by a car crash and seven short words.

The Harringtons’ asked him to go home.


When he opens the door he sees the sheriff, a good head taller than him, with one hand on his lost son’s shoulder. Strange, like the cop is protecting Billy. From what? His return was heralded by desecration of dignity. He doesn’t need to be protected, only set straight.

“Chief Hopper, we spoke over the phone.” He extends his hand. Neil shakes it. “Since you failed to show up at the station or pay bail, I took it upon myself to give Billy a ride home. Waived the fees and everything.”

“You shouldn’t have. Boy needs to learn there’s consequences to his actions.”

“Oh, he’s aware of that. Consequences aren’t his problem.”

“Then what is?”

“Nothin that’ll disappear in a jail cell.”

Irritated by the cop’s arrogance, he sighs. Neil has done the best he could raising his son alone. Respect and responsibility haven’t stuck. This failure isn’t his fault. Billy brought himself to the brink, he’ll need to save himself from falling. How could this man think any differently?

“Thank you for the effort Chief, but I’ll take it from here.”

“Great,” he says doubtfully. “And in case you’re wondering, we took care of the Camaro, too. It’ll be held until the tow charge is paid off.”

“How bad’s the damage?” He feels Billy’s eyes on him. When he glances over the boy looks away.

“I’d worry about your son before some heap of metal.” Chief Hopper claps Billy firmly on the back. “Be good.”

Neil chuckles. “He’s never made a habit of that.”

“Oh, he can.” Then would-be prisoner is released to proper parent. Billy looks pleadingly at Chief Hopper before Neil ushers him inside.

Repeated with faith: “He can.”


He waits until the sheriff's truck pulls away before shutting the door.

“Give me one good reason I should let you stay.”

“Because otherwise I’ll be homeless.”

Already daring to speak back.

“Maybe that’d teach you a lesson,” Neil snaps. “Seems like my words haven’t done enough. Every good thing you have, you throw away.” He shakes his head. “Why is that?”

“It’s not like I want to!”

“Are you saying it’s not your fault?” He chuckles, enraged by his son’s stupidity, careful to keep it low so the girls can sleep.

Billy swallows hard. “It is my fault.”

“Then why don’t you stop?”

A slight flare of the nostrils signals Billy’s sensitivity. Good. Let him be offended, let his heart rupture. Everything about him is a burden, there is nothing that will absolve him from returning unannounced to ruin the family’s reprieve. He deserves every bit of discomfort this conversation brings. In the back of his mind logic tells Neil this justification is too severe, but his anger won’t let that register.

“I can’t.

He backhands his son and yokes him up by the collar. “I want answers, not excuses. You embarrass me, marr the family name and cost me thousands of dollars, for what? For you to stand here and tell me you can’t help yourself?”

“Guess I’m just a monster like everyone says.”

He punches Billy into the wall. “Did I say that? Did I say you’re a monster?”

“No, you said I should have been aborted!”

Remembering turns his blood to acid. “I would never say that.”

“Of course not.” Billy says sarcastically, bitter about the hole shot through the chest. “But I’m saying it. I wish I’d been aborted. Steve is the only person who still gives a shit, and tonight I made him cry. If I can’t get him back I’ll end it, I swear. I’ll end it.”

Believing he means to end the sacrilegious relationship, Neil nods. “Might be the best idea you’ve ever had. We’d all appreciate it, I know that much.”

Blue eyes glass over, betrayed by the agreement. He places a hand on Neil’s forearm, where he still grips the collar. “Let me go and I’ll do it now.”

“Thought you said you’d try to get him back first?” he mocks.

“Yeah, well maybe you’re right. Everyone would appreciate it.” Wrestling against his father’s fist at his throat he insists, “Let go.” When he doesn’t, Billy shoves him. “I said let go !”

Vision goes red. Out of body, Neil watches himself punch his son in the jaw, and this time Billy hits back. Oh, this calls for punishment! The rod of discipline to right Billy. He sends his son to the floor and stomps his gut several times, pumping breath out. Then he pins him and, hand wound up in dirty blonde hair, slams his head against the floor repeatedly.

At some point Billy goes limp, and Neil stops. Coming out of a rage blackout is no less terrifying now than when his son was small. He hates himself for reacting like this. Every time. He can’t control how he treats Billy when he’s upset, and he can’t hold half a conversation with the boy before compulsively lashing out. How is it possible to love someone dripping with your ex wife’s disease and reeking of your own self-doubt? In his experience, it’s not, but as a parent you’re given a blank slate. You pummel the clay to mold it into the shape you want. That’s what he did, aiming for a son that wouldn’t be like him. However, most parents turn their blank slate into something respectable, human. He has created his in the likeness of his own devils. He hates himself for having no control or sympathy, and for not being able to properly father his own spawn.

He thinks of his deceased sister. Beth loved Billy, long before he became this monster. Would she love him now? Could she? Could anyone ?

Standing up he wonders how bad the damage is. Did he kill him? No, Billy’s eyes flutter open. He rolls to his stomach and pushes himself off the floor with trembling arms, revealing a pamphlet that fell out of his pocket. Drops of blood decorate it, soaking through the words. This is A.A.: An Introduction to the A.A. Program of Recovery. An alcoholic? Is that what Billy has become? How can Neil stand over the son he raised, bloodied by his own hand, not knowing anything about him other than what he hates?

Respect and responsibility?

Neil has none.


In the dream he is with his sister in their childhood home. The kitchen, but it is empty. There is hardly any food. Beth is thirteen, a lanky Irish girl leaning against the counter, smoking a hand-rolled cigarette. He thinks, You shouldn’t smoke in here, Dad will kill you .

She speaks before he can. “Mass tonight.”

Is there? Daylight shimmers through the trees of their yard. Riddled, he goes into the fridge for a beer and finds a box of leftovers. He sets them on the counter. They are now a carton of eggs. She eyes them suspiciously and takes another drag of her cigarette. Offers it to him. He inhales but feels nothing, as if there is only burning air.

“How many eggs?” She points at the carton.

Now the cigarette is gone, the air clear. Lifting the top he gets yolk on his fingers. Inside they are all cracked. Fear strikes him. He is small. Their family’s food, their lives. Shattered.

Beth exclaims, “You broke them!”

Beneath the weight of his guilt he regresses; he is only a boy, looking helplessly at a mess he never meant to create. He begins to cry. “It’s not my fault! I didn’t mean to!”

“Doesn’t matter. You did it, so it is your fault. Dad’s gonna be irate.”

“No, no!” He’s afraid, even though his gut tells him that man is dead. “You have to help me.”

“Why weren’t you more careful?”

“I was careful, I--”

“‘Do good, reap good; do evil, reap evil.’ Isn’t that how the proverb goes?”

“Can’t you help me clean it up?”

She shrugs. “I offered, but you didn’t want me to.” Glancing at the clock above the kitchen sink she adds, “Don’t be late for mass.”

Panic paralyzes him as she leaves the room, reciting pairs of numbers that grow more distant with each step. 13:24, 22:15, 29:17. What is this messed up script? All the time that he has left? There are only twenty-four hours in a day, and she’s leaving him with the evil he did. Why did he turn down her help? There’s no way he’ll clean this before mass and get to the church on time.

“Wait! Beth, wait!”

Finally his feet break free. He runs out the front door to the edge of the lawn of his home in Hawkins, Indiana. Yelling’s no use. She vanished without so much as a furl of smoke, leaving him a sulking, sorry adult.

Sadly he realizes she’s dead. Beth, the sister he was so close to, gone forever. Gone for years. In this moment he aches for her, the help she gave him, the good she did. The way she looked at his son. His son!

Like remembering the stove is still on he barrels back into the house, calling for Billy. There is no one home. His son’s room is empty-- why? Where is he? He has to come home! Be brought up to do good. Reap good.

On the wall of Billy’s abandoned room is the clock from the kitchen he grew up in. Broken. It has to be. There’s no way that much time passed since she left the house she died before visiting. 

Besides, how could anyone hold mass at 19:18?


He wakes thinking of God, and all he has failed to do.

Billy’s room was empty in the dream, as it was for the past month and a half in waking life. Now that sunken twin size mattress bears the weight of him again. For how long? Until he turns eighteen and escapes this town? Until he gets himself arrested again or dies because of his reckless behavior?

It’s pitiful. A damn shame for a life to be spent uselessly. Neil tried so hard to beat it out of him at the first glint of trouble. By that time he had no idea how to love a child anymore. Prayer didn’t help. He powerlessly watched his family cruelly fall away. Eventually he built a new one. At the time he married Susan and became step-father to Max, Billy was an outsider. It was an unspoken truth, and Billy knew. He always picked up on the opinions and moods of others, and knew his father had come to love Max more than him. She’s lovable in ways he never will be.

That’s the thing about children: they are never truly yours . Despite Neil’s best efforts Billy grew warped. But what were his best efforts? Instead of allowing his son to blossom he snuffed him out and blamed how he turned out on everyone but himself. Billy is a problem, yes, but Neil aided in that manifestation. The life of a boy turned into a bedevilment. Clay sculpted into the demons that haunt his adulthood.

A vision interrupts his mind’s eye. The clock in his dream.

19:18

Quietly he slips out of bed, suspecting it must be near dawn. In the drawer of his nightstand is his Bible, which he retrieves before stealing out of the room to find a spot in the house where he can sit with God.

In the hall he notices a thin beam of light at the bottom of Billy’s closed door. Aggravated by the invasion of his private moment, Neil pauses. That boy should be asleep. Out of sight, out of mind. His existence in this house is a persistent reminder of what needs to be taken care of and never will be, because it can’t. On the other hand, Max and Susan can and should be cared for. Deserve to be, since caring for them is easy. They aren’t representations of his failure as a father.

An odd compulsion pushes Neil to reach out and open Billy’s door. He is surprised to see Billy sitting calmly on the floor, back against his dresser, scratching away in the margins of a book on his lap. There’s no mullet, no earring. No signs of choking around his neck. The side of his girlish face will be bruised tomorrow, but aside from the dried blood at his temple he looks healthier than when he left. Although Neil doesn’t want Billy to begin with, the idea that he did better away from home is insulting. Just like when Beth said it made more sense for her to adopt his son.

His son.

“Why are you writing in a book?”

Blue eyes snap up to meet him. “I don’t have any other paper.”

“What are you writing about?”

“Just writing. My head hurts, and I…” He chooses his words carefully. “I don’t want to fall asleep.”

The room is oddly serene. After an argument, Billy is manic, amped up. Their last fight ended with him storming into his room and destroying it. Presently his room is near pristine. It irks Neil because it isn’t typical, which makes it wrong. Another thing to be righted by his will.

“Plan to stay up all night?”

“At least until I can call--” Billy frowns. “Nevermind.”

“You think he’s gonna take you back?”

“I already said what’ll happen if he doesn’t.”

Neil nods, surveying the room. Most of Billy’s belongings are gone. That’s what makes it look clean. Are they still at the Harringtons’? He steps into the room, wondering. “What was it like?”

The question side sweeps Billy, so genuine it seems. “What do you mean?”

“You lived with another family. Did they know your dirty secret?” He clicks his tongue. “Two kids living in sin under their own roof.”

“No. They think we’re best friends.”

“But you’re not, now, are you?”

“I don’t know. I don’t want it to be over.”

Part of him doesn’t want it to be over either. Billy should stay gone. It’s better for everyone, except the Harringtons’. They’ve given charity while he’s given nothing. Sincerely he asks, “Did they treat you right?”

“Living with them is everything living with you is not.”

Deeply insulted, Neil advances. “Excuse me?”

“It’s the truth.”

“Not the one I want to hear.”

“Then why ask?!”

The pitch of his voice rises, reminding Neil of the weak son he raised. He lunges forward and stoops to his son’s level, Bible clenched in his right hand. Billy shrinks against the dresser. Weakness, that’s all this boy is made of, and who made him? Neil, and that wretched, shriveled woman he once loved.

“Because I am your father. You owe me respect. Answers!”

“I owe you nothing !”

Blinded by rage, Neil lays The Book across his son’s face hard enough to draw blood. “Say that again!” He hammers him. “You ungrateful piece of shit, say it !”

“No!” Billy resists, as he did earlier in the front room, scuffling to get his feet under him. Neil’s left hand shoots out and locks around his throat, forcing his spine into the dresser once more. He sputters and kicks, yet still the man continues, incoherently screaming, spitting venom about the quiet role a child should play, and how far from picturesque Billy is.

Suddenly Neil is struck from behind by what could only be a wooden plank. Loaded with wrath, he whips around and sees a flash of red hair before the edge of a skateboard bears down against his arm. Max. This is inexcusable. She is not a part of this.

Neil stands up and starts towards her. “Go back to your room.”

Her blue eyes are live wire. “Not unless you stop!”

“Stop what , exactly?”

“Beating the shit out of him while I’m trying to sleep!”

“I’m not--”

With deft precision she swings the skateboard between his legs and nails the weakest spot. He drops the Bible. From the periphery he sees her wind the board up again. As she swings it down he catches it and, like kickback from a gun, punches the edge into her chest. Stunned, she releases the board and stumbles to the floor, issuing an immutable whine like a beaten dog. Unthinking, he raises the board. She’s thirteen, but in this moment she’s a fly to be swatted down. Everything is an inconvenience when you're a hair trigger grenade.

Don’t touch her! ”  Billy roars.

He snatches the skateboard mid-swing and yanks it free. Planting his feet, he reels it like a baseball bat. Neil charges, fast and heavy, disrupting the arc. The board hits his arm again, a futile attempt to break the rage. Nothing can. Billy sees this and holds the board tight to his chest so it can no longer be used as a weapon. Neil winds back and punches him in the eye.

“Stop it!” Max is on her feet, her terror-drained face in stark juxtaposition to the bright green of her pyjama bottoms. She comes around the side of Neil just as he recoils his arm to shoot another punch. His elbow strikes her mouth, and by the time he turns to see her there’s blood dribbling down her chin.

Shocked, he slinks away from the children towards the door of the bedroom he should have never entered. Any space Billy occupies becomes diseased because the perversity of his mind radiates like a dangerous nuclear chemical. It caused Neil to hurt Max.

“Billy?”

The three turn. Susan is in the doorway, transfixed. Without context, she sees her stepson holding the skateboard she bought her daughter for Christmas, after he broke the first one. Max is cupping her mouth, bleeding where teeth tore lip. Evidence adds up to one easy conclusion.

“Get away from her.” She’s shaking.

“Susan, I didn’t--”

“You heard her!” His father grunts. “Give me that, now .”

Billy hands him the skateboard and holds his arms up in surrender.

“Max, come here.” Susan motions and the girl meets her at the door, exchanging a look with Billy that Neil can’t read. His wife catches it, too. With a protective arm around Max she tells Billy, “I don’t want you around her. At all.”

“Mom, he--”

“I don’t want to hear it, Max.” To Neil she says, “It isn’t safe to have him here anymore.”

He nods curtly and follows his wife out of the room. Over his shoulder he casts a last forlorn look at Billy, his greatest mistake.

His only begotten son.

Chapter Text

“Will-- something happened to Max.”

“Hm?” His voice is soft as he stirs into the waking world.

“I saw her in my sleep.”

“What happened?”

These whispers wake Steve, whose eyes slide open and take in the light and color of a room that isn’t his. Beside him is Will, who absently plays with a lock of El’s curly hair as she briefly describes the dream. When she notices Steve is awake she stops to offer a small smile.

“How are you feeling?”

Will turns, too, and they’re both studying him, brown eyes soaking up unspoken thoughts and words. He seriously wonders if they’ve developed telepathy by now. Gently he invites movement back into his body after the heaviest sleep he’s had in months. “Way better. How bout you guys?”

“Hungry!” Will grins. El nods in agreement.

“Let’s eat, then.” Steve pushes himself up and sits, sensing his body. His face throbs. Memory returns and the weightless mood he woke with dissipates, replaced by a rock sinking in his gut.

They see the storm roll across him. El says, “You’re safe.”

“Yeah! And after breakfast we’ll take you to Castle Byers. That’ll make you feel better, I promise.”

“Castle Byers?”

“His fort in the woods," El explains.

“You have a fort in the woods ?” Steve’s eyebrows raise in surprise. It hurts to make that expression. He winces and forces his face to relax.

“Yeah I do!" Will beams. "It’s awesome.”

So awesome,” El echoes.

What a blessing to wake with them. They act like it’s totally normal to rise in the same bed as a high school senior with a scabby face, like he wasn’t sobbing his eyes out last night after interrupting what he gathered was supposed to be a calm family night in. Their acceptance of him as is comforts him, saps out some of the deep-seated shame he holds about himself.

A smile blooms. “Well, you’ve sold me on it. I’m definitely gonna have to see it now.”


 

Castle Byers is just as cold as he imagined for February, but it definitely isn’t as small as it seems from the outside. It’s spacious enough for Steve to sit comfortably with his legs stretched out, plus El on one side and Will on the other, with a few folders full of drawings piled on his lap. As Will gives them a tour of his favorite pieces, El rests her head on Steve’s shoulder. He reaches up and scrunches her curly hair and they listen raptly as Will describes portraits of the party, who they’ll see later today for a campaign at the Wheelers'.

There are full color illustrations of Mike as the paladin, which Steve learns is like a knight, and Dustin as the bard, which makes total sense because he’s a goofball, but still lifts morale. Lucas as the ranger, and El as the mage. In the drawing of El she’s floating in the air. Steve is amazed to learn that she has actually levitated before.

“Woah, is that Max?” He points to a drawing of a girl with flame-colored hair and wild armor. Leaning against her leg is the most badass skateboard he’s ever seen.

Bashfully Will says, “I drew her kind of like Sune, because she looks like her with that long, long red hair.” He mimes running his hands through hair. El giggles. “But she wanted to make sure I drew her as Zoomer. Still pretty cool.”

“Very cool,” Steve marvels.

Very cool,” El echoes softly.

Peeking out of the pile is a wing. Eagerly Steve points at the corner of the paper. “Can I see that one?”

Embarrassed, Will tucks it back into the stack. “It’s not ready!”

“Show him,” El says, leaning into Steve. “Don’t be scared.”

“Okay.” Sighing, Will takes out the drawing and sets it on top of the stack.

The creature has long elegant limbs, shaggy dark hair and big dark eyes. It could be human if it weren’t for the huge golden-green wings erupting from its back, stretching to the edges of the page. Will’s attention to detail is incredible, he must have spent hours on this. Atop the creature’s head is a small jeweled crown. In its hand is a studded club, meant as a weapon, and on its feet are battered Nike sneakers.

“Wait,” Steve’s jaw drops. “Is this me ?”

Blushing, Will nods.

“What am I?”

“It’s obvious.” El leans across him and prods the wings of the drawing. “Angel.” Steve’s face falls. When El sits back she sees the change. “What is it?”

“Nothing, it’s just… Billy always calls me that. He means it like I’m perfect, or pure or something, but I’m not. It makes me feel like a joke.” Remembering what Hopper and Mrs. Byers have said about the way his kids love him, he turns to Will. “Is that why you drew me as one?”

“No way!” he exclaims.

“Then why?”

At first Will struggles describing it, staring down at the drawing. Then he gets more confident and looks Steve in the eye. “Angels are good. They don’t lie, cheat, or steal. Ever. But they’re chaotic, and strong. They’ve got a protective aura they use to deflect the attacks or effects of evil creatures. Resistance, too. Anyone within twenty feet of the angel has this kind of shield around them. Any party is lucky to have an angel.”

Steve reels. “I’m in the party?”

“Well… yeah.”

Another obvious fact, apparently. Maybe he’d known he was a member of the party and forgot, because in the past week it was like everything good fell away-- his happiness, his true friends, the love he thought he shared with Billy. To be reminded he’s a member of the party, wanted and cared for by kids happy to still be his, is a gift that warms his heart and makes the pain in his face and body weaker with each pulse.

Will continues. “You went back into the house to help Jonathan and Nancy with the Demogorgon, and while you were dating her you were there for Mike when he was upset about El. Then around Halloween you helped Dustin, and you got Billy away from Lucas. You kept everyone safe in the tunnels. You’re trustworthy, loyal, and protective.” He taps the drawing and says matter of factly, “Angel.”

Absently Steve says, “I forgot about that.”

“About what?” El asks.

During the year he and Nancy were dating, anytime he went to the Wheeler house he’d check in with Mike. He always got the sense that Mike wasn’t thrilled about his presence, so he didn’t hang around long. It seemed like a good idea to see how he was doing, though, because there were times he radiated sadness when he thought no one was looking.

One night after dinner, the duration of which Mike spent miserably playing with his food, Steve found him in the basement. As he reached the sheet fort Mike tossed his radio aside. Clearly he’d interrupted something, but Mike was nice enough to let him sit outside the fort and make small talk. After a minute he asked the question that was really on his mind. Do you miss her? Mike was so surprised by the question that he blurted, Day and night. Steve understood totally, and he said so. I’d be worried sick about my girl if she disappeared. Relieved he could relate, Mike told him all about El and the world he’d show her when she came home. Conversation continued comfortably until Nancy called Steve back upstairs.

Turning to El now, Steve says, “I’m glad I know you.” He pats Will’s head. “Glad I know you, too, shrimp.”

“Hey!” Will whines.

El laughs and hugs Steve. “We’re glad to know you, too.”

Heavy footsteps crack twigs as they approach the castle. A gruff voice says, “Knock knock.”

“Password!”

“Oh, God,” Hopper grumbles. “I don’t need to come in, you know. I just need to talk to Steve. Alone.”

“Give us the password and you can have the castle to yourselves for as long as you need.”

“Alright, if I can remember it.” He pauses. “You gotta stop makin these so damn hard. How about-- what is it? Psionic?”

“You got it!”

The two scuffle to a stand, gathering Will’s folders as they go. Hopper climbs into the fort, oversize and out of place. Once settled, legs folded, he exhales a sigh like a bad omen.

“Before you freak out, Billy’s fine.”

His heart skips. “Fine? As opposed to what, what happened?”

Hopper rolls his eyes at the fact that he even has to disclose this. “After he left your house last night, he went to the bar. They served him even though he’s underage. Around the time we picked you up, he came back, and your parents told him to leave. When he left he must have gone looking for you, because he crashed his car not far from here.”

“Crashed-- what?” Steve clutches his chest, feeling for the pendant beneath his sweater and coat.

Hopper nods. “Talked to him at the station for a couple hours last night, figuring out paperwork and what the hell is going on with him.”

“Did you talk about me?” Steve worries.

“You came up, but I didn’t tell him anything that’s not his business.”

“But I am his business.”

“No.” The edge in his voice cuts. “You’re not his business. You don’t answer to him, you don’t apologize for him, and you don’t belong to him. Got it?”

“Yes.”

He doesn’t, really. Part of the heartbreak over Nancy was this utter confusion. How can you tell someone you love them when it’s a lie? When Steve makes promises he keeps them, and when he professes emotions he means them. They are contracts to him, not decorative tissue paper that can be ripped or crumpled at any time. Hopper tells him he’s his own person, but he can’t feel it. He feels Billy, even though he’s not here.

“Did he get in trouble?” Steve asks.

“Drunk driving as a minor, what do you think?”

He frowns. “Last night Mrs. Byers said that it’s always the men who does the most damage, not the monsters. She said men are the monsters.”

“Fountain of wisdom right there.” He half-smiles.

“I know, and, well, Billy’s not a monster. Everyone thinks he is, but he’s not. He just needs help.” There he goes apologizing for him again, without realizing it.

Warmly Hopper says, “A lot of help he ain’t ready to get. In order to change, you have to work, and Billy doesn’t want to do the work.”

“But he’s told me he would, he promised he would change because he loves me and doesn’t want to hurt me anymore.”

“And has he changed?”

“No. But he could.”

“Anytime soon?”

That shuts him down entirely. He imagines Billy alone at home, locked in his room after his father’s inescapable punishment. It hurts to visualize the one he loves wrestling with his pain, enduring the physical and emotional abuse, alone. How could Steve abandon him now, when he promised he never would? Because if he hadn’t, he might not have made it to safety last night. He has to be honest with himself now. Each time he stays in spite of Billy’s broken promises he gets hurt worse. Last night it occurred to Steve that, although Billy’s hurt deserves to be healed, it isn’t worth his own health and sanity. This relationship is draining him. He’s already lost himself. He doesn’t want to lose his life.

“Billy’s not a monster,” Hopper admits. “He’s a sick kid, and I’m gonna tell you somethin right now I need you to trust me on, okay?”

“Okay.”

“Do not be alone with him again, for any reason, or any length of time. At all.”

“What about class? We have gym together, and sometimes he skips class to have lunch with me.”

“I'm going in Monday to have your schedule changed. No one needs to know you guys split up, or that you were ever a couple, but--”

“We haven’t split up.”

Hopper stares. “Please. Enlighten me.”

“We argued, and I told him he isn't worth the loss of my life. That's when he left, so it’s not like I said I don’t want to be with him anymore.”

“Do you? After everything that’s happened between you two in the matter of, what, three months, do you really wanna keep exposing yourself to this kind of hurt?” He gestures to Steve’s face.

“You’re right.”

His eyebrows raise. “Don’t tell me I’m right, that’s a question only you can answer. You’ve gotta decide the quality of life you want to have. If you keep dating Billy, what kind of quality is that?”

Better than the quality of Billy’s life alone. “I feel bad about what I said, and making him leave. His father…”

“Isn’t your responsibility. Billy feels like your responsibility, I get it. His pain feels like your problem, but it’s not. You’ve gotta take care of yourself.” Hopper places a loving hand on his shoulder. “We’re proud of you.”

When Steve shoots him a disbelieving glance he chuckles. “We are. You were brave enough to get yourself away from danger last night. In a few days, when you're feeling up to it and he's had time to cool down, we can see him together. That way you can officially break this thing off, cause a kid like Billy’s not gonna believe it’s over until it’s carved into the back of his eyelids.”

“Together?”

“Remember what I said. It’s not safe to be alone around him right now. He gets upset easily, and when he’s upset he has no control over himself. Whoever’s in the line of fire gets shot.” Again he gestures to Steve’s face. After a beat he continues. “You're heartbroken. It's normal, and it’ll hurt for a while til it gets better, but it will get better. Today just focus on you. Do whatever it is that makes you feel good, alright?”

He picks his head up, thinking about Will’s drawing. Angel. Powerful being, a part of their party. The protector. If only he could protect himself. This is the first step. Sticking around safe places and people, following the advice of those who care. Hopper said he’s proud, and Mrs. Byers said the same thing last night. When was the last time Steve heard that from an adult?

“Alright. And, uh, can I tell you something?”

“Don’t gotta ask, kid.”

“Sorry. I just, you know, I just want to tell you it means a lot to have you and Mrs. Byers’ support. Thanks.”

Hopper’s smile crinkles the corners of his eyes. “Best way to thank us is to take care of yourself.”

Together they get up and walk back to the house. Maybe it’s right that he begins to heal here. This is the house where he first learned who he is-- where he decided that, since he wanted to be a better person, he could be . Strength came to him here, the confidence to take risks and contribute, which has fueled a lot of his decisions over the past year and a half.

As much as this house has made him strong, it also made him softer. He always hid his inherent sensitivity behind his looks, sports, and parties. Whatever made him popular. Over the past year he learned to curate and embrace it. Then, being with Billy, he lost himself. Now he can rediscover himself.

Full circle.

Chapter Text

Around seven o’clock Sunday night Steve goes home. His parents are watching TV together. They actually look up when he comes in, and even ask how he’s feeling. These are not true parents, though. He understands that now, and, having been cared for by true parents this weekend, decides it’s not worth explaining anything to them. How would they ever get it?

At least they managed to get Billy out of the house. Too bad his absence is just as oppressive as his presence. Steve carries the weight of it with his sadly packed bag upstairs to a room that is no longer his. From scent to sight it bears Billy’s mark, obviously torn apart by an angry boy who was betrayed by the only person who believed in him.

How could Steve send him back to Neil? Imagining Billy, drunk, raging, and terrified to go home, hurts. That wasn’t the intention, but Steve had to betray him. Those words. You’re not worth the loss of mine . For the first time he was undyingly honest. Every time he catered to Billy, professed his loyalty and love, he thought he meant it. He did, in a way. Problem was, his desire to serve wasn’t selfless. It was selfish, a way to gain purpose. Taking care of Billy certainly provided that, until it didn’t, and snuffed out his happiness and light.

Last night Mrs. Byers told him that his happiness can’t depend on another person. Uncomfortably Steve realized that for the past few months his happiness has been dependent on two things: Billy’s mood, and what drugs or drinks they took. Pathetic. He lost control over himself. Is it too late to recover? Can he let this weekend be the last time? He doesn’t want to be hurt anymore, but how many times has he said that only to be hurt again?

Dropping his bag, Steve goes to the mirror above the dresser. Color has returned after sleep and a few good meals. Despite that, he again fails to recognize himself. Shaggy hair almost to his chin, unstyled. Cheekbones like blades-- he looks like someone who frequents hard drugs. He’s still in Jonathan’s pyjamas from last night, even though they got his car and the bag in it earlier that day. There are two bandages on his face, covering cuts doled out by someone who loves him. A love that’s unreal. Ending. Steve feels unreal, too. Is he ending? Or is this end the beginning of something so much more? And if so, why does he feel so less than ?

Suddenly the phone rings, both downstairs in the living room and down the hall in his parents bedroom. Please let that be Dustin , he thinks. Why would Dustin call on a Sunday night? They’ll see each other tomorrow, because Monday is always arcade night. Without Billy pressuring and guilting him about hanging out with the kids, he can stay all night. They’ll definitely lift his spirits. Hopefully Billy won’t show up and ruin it.

It isn’t Dustin who called. He knows before his mother shouts upstairs that Billy’s on the line. She shouldn’t have revealed that he’s home! And Steve shouldn’t feel fearful. Right? Wrong. Hopper’s voice surfaces. After everything that’s happened between you two in the matter of, what, three months, do you really wanna keep exposing yourself to this kind of hurt? Steve has every reason to be fearful, and needs to stay vigilant lest his guard slip. He can’t let Billy back in. They’ll talk soon, together, and officially break up their relationship. It’s going to suck, but it has to happen in order for them both to survive. In order to change, you have to work, and Billy doesn’t want to do the work. Being with Steve won’t alter that.

Smartly, he calls downstairs, “Tell him I can’t come to the phone!” His heart pounds, as if he’ll get in trouble for this. As if Billy can drive over and express his frustration with Steve. Luckily, he can’t. He got drunk and crashed his car. Made it out unscathed, of course, but with what fresh damage in his head and heart?

He’s a sick kid…

Observing himself in the mirror Steve realizes that he’s sick, too, and letting go of Billy is the best way to get better.

Moments later his mother mounts the steps and knocks on his half-open door. When he calls her in she says, “That’s the fourth time he’s called today. I was hoping you’d take it, now that you’re home.”

Take it. He almost laughs. How many times has he “taken it” over the past few months? Instead he looks at the floor. “I’m not ready yet.”

And how many times has he said that ?

Confusion etches fine lines on his mother’s face. “What happened between you two?”

“Doesn’t matter,” he shrugs.

“It does to me.”

“If it did, you’d know.”

She’s taken aback. “You think I’m tuned out of your life? Honey, I see you. I know you’re not okay.”

“I haven’t been for a while.” His gut aches, much like his head. He runs his hands through his hair. She notices him, in this moment, but the moment passes. Part of his aching is accepting that she can’t help him. Not now, it’s too late.

“It’s okay, though,” he adds. “Really. I just need time to figure things out.”

Concern roots her to the spot for a slow minute, tempting Steve to fill the silence. What can he tell her? Nothing. The truth isn’t for her. It’s for him and those who know him-- both the authentic self he lost and the stranger who inhabited his shell. Coming back into his body after so long is strange, but today was healing. His mother isn’t a part of that.

Intrinsically, she knows. “Alright, well… Let me know if you need anything.” He meets her eyes. They share the same expression. She insists, “Anything at all.”

“Thanks, Mom.” He doesn’t bother saying yeah, I’ll let you know , because he won’t.

They say goodnight and Steve stands alone once more, surveying the room that is no longer his. Billy’s scent is strong. When was the last time the sheets were washed? Have they been changed at all since he moved in? Even if they were, they’re soiled again. He notices the balled up bloody shirt from last night, stray blood drops. A necessary betrayal, breaking Billy’s heart. And it’ll break again when Steve musters the courage to tell him that they can’t ever be together.

First crumpled blankets, then sheets. He strips the bed roughly, annoyed when the fitted sticks around the top right corner of the bed. Billy’s side, a spectral assertion of his authority. His place. Steve yanks forcefully until the sheet comes free in his hand, and throws it all to the floor.

Fourth time Billy called today? What’s going through his head? He wants to apologize, of course, but he’s done that before and nothing’s changed. Steve isn’t stupid anymore, he won’t be tricked into believing it’ll be different. He won’t be dragged down by problems another chooses not to solve.

Tragically, love is not a solution.


 

Without Billy, school is quiet. Shuffling feet and the shut of lockers are muffled. Instead of peace it creates an ominous air. Even absent, Billy manages to foil weightlessness. Yesterday Steve spent time with those kids, those miracles . Proof that Steve is cared for, loved in ways he doesn’t believe he deserves to be. Maybe he did once, but his sense of self-worth is a dwindling flame in a rainstorm. How long can a flame last in a storm?

Since Billy is never absent, it draws attention. In the locker room Tommy asks Steve what the hell is wrong with his face. Reflex tells Steve to touch the scabs, but as his fingertips twitch, judgement-- a virtue he hardly knows-- stills his hand. Where’d the Coke King run off to now, the county jail? It’s a flippant joke, yet hauntingly true. Billy, the real king, gone in an instant because of his own folly. Indiscretion. What about Steve’s indistrection? He chose to love someone who can’t feel it, tried to save someone aroused by the concept of having a savior but turned flaccid by the idea of being saved. The only thing Billy gets off on is hurting.

After lunch he’s called down to the office. On the way he bumps into Nancy, on her way to the library. She’s peeking through papers in a folder, hunting. Blazing blue eyes, always beautiful. Sharp and soft at the same time. Jonathan gets those eyes now, he gets her . It’s okay. Really. Steve’s on his own journey.

“Hey!” She smiles. “It’s like I’m running into everyone today.”

“Oh yeah? Who’s everyone?”

“Chief Hopper, and Eleven.”

“They were in the school?”

She nods. “They were leaving the principal’s office while I was dropping off applications for summer internships.”

Some of his apprehension falls away. If Hopper stopped by, it’s a good sign. Especially if El tagged along. “What was he doing here?”

“Said he was doing you a favor.” Her eyes narrow. “What does that mean?”

I'm going in Monday to have your schedule changed. No one needs to know you guys split up, or that you were ever a couple…

No one knows how far it went. Steve would like to keep it that way. Experiencing this has been embarrassing. Emasculating. He answers, “Yeah, he, uh… wrote me a letter of recommendation. Late applications, you know?”

“Wait, you never sent in to the colleges?”

“Well, I mean, I did , but it-- I mean, I didn’t--” He sighs. “I just gave up.”

Gently she shakes her head. “You deserve more than staying here. Definitely more than Billy can give you.” She adds a cute eye roll for flair.

“Sure, right. About that… I’ve gotta go.” He starts walking. Then he spins around and walks backwards. “By the way, thanks for all your help. Honestly, it meant a lot.”

“How, if you never submitted the application?”

He makes a grandiose gesture, waving his hands airlily. “You’re a good person Nance, what can I say?”

Hopelessly she shakes her head, peering after him. “I dunno, maybe how you’re really feeling?”

“Trust me,” he chuckles, flashing a false but charming grin. “You don’t wanna hear about that.”

At the corner of the hall he turns and disappears.  


Around three o’clock he arrives home. He’s no sooner shut the front door than the phone starts shrieking. Figuring it’s Dustin calling about arcade night, he heads for the living room phone and drops his bag on the sofa. He lifts the receiver and starts talking, excited to see the kids later. An effortless escape.

“Hey man! I wanna come with you guys to the arcade tonight. You know, if you want.”

“What?” An unrecognizable wimper cuts through his optimism. “Jesus, am I that easy to forget?”

“Billy?” He feels sick. “Are you… Are you crying ? What’s going on?”

“I miss you.” Breaths come like choppy waves. “I miss you so goddamn much, but you don’t miss me.” There’s a loud thud. Suddenly he’s screaming. “I should have known it! Stupid, stupid!” Several thuds in succession. Billy is punching a wall. Hurting himself.

Panic overwhelms Steve, guilty he upset him and reflexively undoing the damage. “Hey, hey, hey, calm down . I just-- I was just--”

“Moving on?” Billy cries. “It’s okay, you can say it. Tell me we’re over. Break me !”

Quietly, thinking of the first time he confessed his love, Steve admits, “I don’t want to break you.”

“Too bad,” he scoffs childishly. “You already have.” Rustling, then gulping. He’s drinking, probably at home. Alone. “I just want to see you one last time.”

Steve’s heart pounds. “One last time? Babe, what’s going on?”

“‘Babe’!” he mocks. “What do you care?!”

“I care!” Steve shouts defensively. “Okay? I do, and I probably always will. That’s what makes this so hard. Now tell me what’s going on!”

Silence, punctuated by a sniffle. “I can’t do this without you.”

“Do what?”

“Look, I know you’re leaving me. Don’t pretend you’re not, because I can’t handle another lie. Just let me see you again. One more time, before it ends.”

Why does he have to make this harder? Hopper told Steve not to see Billy alone, but he’s never sounded this bad. What if he really needs help this time-- from himself instead of his father? If Billy’s situation is that dire, Steve should call an ambulance and stay home. Abandonment, rejection, letting Billy suffer his worst moments alone. He’s making it seem like this isn’t just the end of their relationship, but the end of him . What if this is the last chance Steve gets to see him?

What he should fear is whether or not Billy is going to convince him this can be repaired. The last time Steve fell for that he got physically sick, and that was one of many times, each in succession worse than the last. It scares him to think he repeatedly puts himself in harm’s way, blindly expecting the result to be different. Anyone who could think that at this point really is an idiot. Stupid.

Steve doesn’t want to be stupid anymore.

“I-I can’t,” he stammers. “Not today.”

“You’re hurting me so bad !” Billy sobs.

“I know, and I’m sorry, but I can’t come see you.”

“Why?” he whines.

He is crying now, too. “Because, I’m not ready to see you yet.”

“Steve, please !”

Hearing his first name shocks him. When was the last time Billy called him by his name, if ever? Always aggravated Harrington , doting or conversely mocking Princess , and the occasional yet sickeningly sweet Baby Boy . Never simply Steve , as if Billy never saw him as a person to begin with. Come to think of it, he probably didn’t. Suffering, stuck in a pattern of abuse, Billy can’t treat people humanely because to him people aren’t human. They are machines, and if he presses certain buttons he can insure certain outcomes, a plan designed to keep himself safe. This knowledge, coupled with Billy’s acknowledgement that they’re over, gives Steve the courage he needs to drive there, open the discussion they need to have, close it, and leave.

“Okay.” He breathes deeply. “Okay, yeah. I’m leaving now.”

Sometimes, Steve is learning, the devil wears your skin. The devil is wearing Billy’s, but it will never wear his .


The door is unlocked. He knocks, receives no answer, and cautiously lets himself in. Dying winter light creeps in through the windows as he moves deeper into this unfamiliar space. All the lights are off, save the garish ceiling fixture in the kitchen. This is where he finds Billy, slumped dejectedly at the table. In front of him is an almost empty bottle of amber liquor. The room smells, transformed from a place of livelihood to a mausoleum of their love.

Steve steps forward. “Hey, what’s going on? Talk to me.”

Billy’s eyes are bloodshot. Shadows flit violently in their depths, veiled by overdue tears. This isn’t him. It’s unnerving. “Is this it? Is this how it ends?” His voice is hoarse like he’s been screaming, but no one is home.

“It has to,” Steve blurts. Unexpected honesty serves him. He’s afraid to tell Billy this, but he has to. There won’t be another time. He rounds the table and sits adjacent to this devastated boy. “We can’t be together safely.”

The drinks, the drugs. What Billy did Friday night. He hasn’t recovered. How could he? Somehow, he senses Billy knows this. There is no coming back. No matter what he does, Steve will never trust him again.

“We could be,” he reasons. “But you don’t want to.”

With him as the sniveling child, Steve finds his voice. “This isn’t about what I want. This about what we need. We can’t be together safely, are you not hearing me?”

Billy shoves the chair back and draws to a stand, startling Steve. “This is about you, Harrington. This is about what you want. You didn’t come over here to save me, did you? Because you don’t think you can. You don’t think you can . Do you?” He slams his fist on the table. “ Do you !?” The liquid in the bottle ripples. Remembering the whiskey, he picks it up and drinks deeply. Hisses from the sting. “No,” he answers for Steve. “You don’t. You’re just like everyone else.”

“How could you say that to me? I’ve given everything, but I can’t help you because you don’t want to be helped. And I can’t be here for somebody who treats me worse and worse-- it’s unhealthy! Billy, we aren’t healthy together, we can’t do this. We’re done. It’s over.”

This isn’t a truth Billy can handle. He drains the bottle and throws it on the floor. It splits into shards around their feet. “You don’t love me. Nobody does! I don’t know why I thought you’d be different, or why I trusted you.” He stoops to grab a shard, cutting his hand in the process. “I can’t live like this, knowing I can’t have you. That you don’t love me!”

A sweat breaks out across Steve’s forehead. He regrets letting Billy talk him into coming here. Why would he ever listen to him after what he did? It’s absurd. Everything involving Billy is absurd. And it can’t be stopped.

For several shaky breaths he sits there, eyes locked with Billy, who huffs with the high of his indiscretion. He brings the point of the glass to the crook of his jaw, where it meets the flesh of his throat. His shaking hand drops blood onto his collarbone. “If you love me, you won’t let me do this. If you love me, you’ll stay. I’ll put this down if you stay.”

“Billy…” Breathlessly, he stands up and watches the boy he loves pursue the gates of insanity. Possibly the gates of death. “I love you, you know I love you. Please, please, please don’t hurt yourself!” his knees buckle and he leans on the table. “Put it down!”

“Why should I?” He pushes the point into his skin. Blood trickles down his neck. A terrific tragedy love can’t solve.

“Jesus, Billy, please!”

“Tell me you’ll stay.”

“I’ll stay! I’ll stay, but only if you let me call an ambulance, you’re sick .”

Tears spring to Billy’s eyes. “I’m too much for you, huh? Too much for you to deal with. I knew it. Nobody wants me, not even you.”

“People want you. Shit, they admire you, but not because of what you give them. For how you carry yourself, they wish they could have your… your freedom!”

“I’m not free,” he smirks.

“I know that, but they don’t. I love you because I know you’re not free, and I loved you more because you needed my help and protection and that gave me purpose. But love isn’t putting someone’s pieces together.”

“Then what is it?” The point quivers at his throat.

He thinks of Hopper and Mrs. Byers, of Mike, El, and Will. Of Dustin, rooting for him even when Steve lost his crown. Hope brightens his face. “Love is when you both care about each other, whether your pieces are scattered or not. And you stand by each other and, I don’t know, encourage each other to put the pieces back. Love isn’t mending someone. It’s supporting them while they mend themself.”

Billy clicks his tongue. “Oh, yeah? What do you know about that?”

“A lot, actually,” he nods fervently, missing the sign that Billy’s mood is shifting from vulnerable, child-like, to the belligerent promise of violence. “And I want to know more. I want to learn how to love someone instead of just trying to make them happy. All I wanted to do was make you happy, and all you wanted was for me to make that happiness so you could take it. But every time you have happiness you destroy it, and—”

“That is not my fault,” he growls.

“It’s not all your fault, no, but until you take responsibility for the parts that are, you won’t love. All your love will be fake, just like ours was fake, which is why we can’t be together.”

“You just said you would stay,” he shakes his head. “You lied. Everyone lies .”

“I don’t. And I’m not leaving you, not like this. But you need to understand that I came here because I’m afraid for your life, not because I want to make us work. Honestly, I can’t fix you. Not before you destroy me, and I’m not waiting around for that.”

“You’re right.” He laughs, toes the shattered bottle on the floor. “I destroy everything that makes me happy. You made me happy, and I wanted to choose you over this, so bad.” Then he looks up, slowly. The shadows in his beautiful eyes have escaped his control, shrouding his being in darkness. “You should have never forgiven me.”

Steve opens his mouth to ask what that means and is silenced by a sudden punch to the throat. Immediately he understands the reality of danger. There is glass in Billy’s hand and he is no longer listening. Enough time spent on the receiving end of his abuse has familiarized Steve to the pattern. This time, however, it must be broken.

And so their fight begins.

Chapter Text

In the void Max’s lip is bleeding. Blood drops slap against the white bathroom sink. They’re cramped in this small space, on a ghostly set mimicking the Harringrove house. Presently El is an invisible outsider, absorbing every detail, though she has never seen this home in waking life. Max recoils as her mother dabs a cloth at her bloody chin. Wiping clean the evidence, El notes. Of what?

“I’m telling you. It wasn’t Billy.”

But isn’t it always him? What could he possibly be innocent of when he has already committed the worst crimes? He acts like Papa, bossing others around, convincing people believe he cares when he’s actually a terrifying, unpredictable power, much like the void itself. What El finds in this dream does more than frighten her-- it reminds her Steve isn't the only one involved in the suffering. Max is, too.

“I told you. Enough.” Her mother’s blue eyes dart over Max. She speaks quietly, denying the truth and it's unbearable weight. Why do parents run from reality? Up against the truth we muster all our strength, and take a step. Anyone can.

“No, not enough!,” Max insists. “Neil was beating him again, for the second time in one night. It’s never been this bad! And when--” She winces and pushes her mother’s arm away. “And when I walked in to stop him, Neil pulled his arm back to punch Billy, and his elbow hit me instead.”

The woman leans back, resigned. Exhausted. “You know better than to interrupt them when they’re arguing, Max. You know how they get.”

“That’s not fair.” Her nostrils flare slightly. How can her mother dismiss it?

“Of course it is. He was arrested tonight. He needs to be disciplined.”

She steps back. “Like that !?”

“It’s not your place to judge Neil’s parenting.”

“Who are you trying to convince? The way they fight affects all of us, and if you can’t see that, you’re blind. I’m not saying Billy’s a good person, but he’s not a dog, and he didn’t hit me, Neil did!”

Max spins on her heels and walks right through El, who watches her beautiful friend stomp down the hall and slam her bedroom door. Her mother remains listless in the bathroom, sadly reflecting on her place in this family, and whether or not she handled that scene correctly. After what El's been through, she can easily confirm she didn't.

She didn't handle it at all.


By Monday afternoon it’s obvious something’s changed.

It’s in the way Mrs. Wheeler orders pizza instead of preparing dinner. It’s in the way they're meeting to play yesterday’s postponed campaign before going to the arcade. It’s in the darkness of the basement when the kids arrive, chased away only when Mike flips the lights. And it’s in the pain on Lucas’s face.

In the basement he squares up to Max. “So are you gonna tell us about that cut on your lip now, or what? You’ve kept us waiting all day.”

“And I’ll keep you waiting as long as I want, it’s my story.” She folds her arms defensively.

Ashamed she already knows Max’s story, El steps back and bumps into the coffee table. Mike steadies her with a loving hand. You okay? he mouths. She nods, but he easily reads her. She isn’t okay. The truth is hiding. More than anyone, El understands that when the truth hides, that is exactly when it must be brought to light.

“Yeah,” Lucas says. “It is your story, but we’re part of it.” He gestures to the party, fanned out around him. The game table has already been set up. El gets the sense that they aren’t going to play. “Tell us what happened. Did Billy hit you?”

“Oh, cause everything’s always his fault, right?” Max laughs darkly. Echoing in El’s head, she’s heard that before. A different body, a different fight. Same laugh. What does it signal?

“Damn right it is,” Dustin chuckles. Beside him Mike nods.

“Well, this time it wasn’t. He didn’t hit me. He was trying to protect me from Neil.”

“Wait-- Billy’s dad hit you?” Lucas exclaims.

Max rolls her eyes. This is exactly why she hid the story. El steps forward. “Max, I know. I saw.”

She cocks her head, confused. “You saw ? When?”

“In my sleep last night, I saw you and your mother. Talking, in the bathroom.”

Max sighs. Her folded arms aren’t defensive now. They’re self-soothing. “Yeah, she blamed Billy for hitting me, but he was trying to stop Neil.”

El softly prompts, “Why were you near them in the first place?”

Glancing at the boys Max says, “I woke up to fighting, again. Second time in one night. It’s like, obviously Neil’s pissed at Billy for being an asshole, but this is ridiculous. We’re trying to sleep, and knocking him around clearly isn’t teaching him anything. So I… kind of lost it.” She looks down, face flushed. Embarrassed.

“Lost it?” Mike asks. “How?”

“I ran in with my skateboard and started swinging it at Neil. He snatched it out of my hands and was going to hit me with it, but Billy stopped him. That’s when it happened. Neil went to punch Billy and hit me instead.”

The boys calculate this in their heads. One by one they nod, uncomfortable. This challenges what they know about Billy. Is there a shred of humanity left in him?

After some time to process, Lucas admits, “I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

“For your shitty step-dad. You shouldn’t have to deal with this, and…” He eyes the others hesitantly. “Billy shouldn’t, either.”

Mike asks, “Is this why you weren’t allowed to come over yesterday? Because you were in trouble?”

She shakes her head. “Neil has this thing about not wanting people to find out what really goes on in that house. Stupid. Even if they knew, they wouldn’t care. I mean, you guys know, and you don’t care.”

“Yes we do,” Lucas insists.

“No, you care about me .” Max shakes her head again. “Look, in putting all our effort into saving Steve we’ve completely ignored the fact that Billy needs help, too, and not in the form of a boyfriend who’ll lay down like a dog.”

“Hey! Steve’s not a--”

“Shut up, Dustin!” Mike interrupts. “Let her finish.”

She continues, “My mother and Neil are kicking Billy out by the end of the week if he doesn’t find someplace. Steve can’t take him back, and the only other friends he has are probably drug dealers. Maybe he’ll be homeless, I don’t know. But he’ll get worse.”

“And if he gets worse…” Mike begins.

“He might hurt Steve again,” Lucas finishes.

“No. No!” Dustin shouts. “He won’t hurt Steve again, cause we’re not gonna let that happen. Mike, I’m going upstairs to call Steve and get him over here. We’ll make sure he doesn’t let Billy--”

“Stop!” Max snaps. “Steve doesn’t need us to remind him that he’s in a shitty situation. He knows . Instead, we should get Billy a place to stay. That way, he won’t go to Steve.”

“I don’t get it,” Dustin shrugs dumbly.

Gears turn in Mike’s head, amusing El. For weeks he’s silently brewed resentment towards both Billy and Steve about shared secrets and threats, overlooking harm done. His face lifts as he realizes, “Only focusing on Steve and ignoring Billy doesn’t solve the problem. Not if the root of the problem is Billy.”

“So at this point we need to help Billy in order to help Steve,” Lucas adds, finally understanding.

Dustin watches his friends turn in agreement, seemingly siding with Billy. Forgiving him. His bright eyes flick accusingly across each face. “We are  not helping Billy! He doesn’t deserve it! We’re only helping Steve.” Then he runs upstairs, leaving them to settle into rickety chairs around the game table.

El is eager to get lost inside the game for a little while, but turns out her gut instinct was right. There is not going to be any campaign time tonight. Moments later Dustin sprints back downstairs in a panic. “Guys, he’s not answering. I called twice.”

“Maybe he’s busy,” Mike offers.

“With what ?”

“Sports, or something. I don’t know!”

Dustin paces near the table. “He’s definitely not busy. He’s got no life anymore cause of that asshole. It’s after three, he should be home.”

“Well, what should we do?” Will asks.

“Hang on,” Mike says. “Dustin, do you really think it’s something bad?”

“Yes, yes, of course it’s something bad!” He continues rambling, more to himself than them. Max watches him warily, pale.

“El,” Mike touches her arm. “Do you want to check on him?”

A tough decision. Yesterday night, after Steve went home, Hopper and Mrs. Byers asked her not to explore the void while this situation unfolds. Confused, because her powers are only restricted outside of the house, El went to Will, who went to Jonathan. His best guess was that the adults want to protect her from seeing all the bad stuff between Steve and Billy.

But sometimes the bad stuff needs to be seen.


Out of the blackness comes the Byers’ living room. It is shrouded in grey light, coated in dust. Unlived in. What it might have looked like if Will died, sending the remaining family members into a deep, dark slumber.

The phone rings, cracking through the still silence. El jumps. Trepidatiously she moves towards the phone, trembling with each shrill scream.

An abrupt click and the answering machine picks up. After a moment of whirring, a voice cracks through. “Hey, it’s me. Uh, Steve. You know, Harrington.”

His pleasant voice fills the void, loud like he’s behind her. She spins around, feet splashing in the low water, and sees him standing in his own living room, one hand in his hair and the other around the receiver. He wants to hide something.

“I just want to let you know that I’m going over to Billy’s. To end it, I mean. He’s having a hard time and I think it’ll… Well, I know you said don’t see him alone, but I’m calling to let you know. It’ll be okay.” He looks at his feet. Then he picks his chin up, willing himself to be confident. “I promise.”

Promise.

"Steve!" Panic sets El in motion. “Don’t go!”

But he vanishes, just as he hangs up the phone.


Heed warning: the front door is already ajar. Cold air pushes it further open as they approach, silhouetted by winks of dying sun. From inside they hear gales of laughter, interrupted by a deranged voice spitting words they can’t make out. Prepared by nothing more than prior trauma, they step into the house, the brisk wind a guiding hand.

A light is on somewhere beyond the living room. Max whispers kitchen and leads the way. They approach the threshold like ghosts, afraid of what they’ll find. Ears prickle, attending to the silence that flexes to accommodate bursts of noise. Unnoticed, they arrive, stepping into a plane of existence where nightmares take the shape of waking life. Rather than a universe governed by supernatural forces, or shadow monsters who breach barriers by honest mistake, this universe is governed by the heart’s darkest fears, and revels in it.

Prior trauma prepares them for nothing here.

Evidence of a fight is everywhere. In the overturned kitchen table, in the yellow phone dangling by its cord, swinging softly like a pendulum against the brightly colored wall. Lastly, proof is in the blood matting Billy’s short blonde hair and he leans over Steve, who they cannot see because Billy's back faces them, blocking anything like a view with which to assess damage. They need to assess damage.

Finally Billy’s threatening words become audible. He sneers into Steve’s face, “If you ever tell anyone about this, especially those Goddamn brats , I will gouge your eyes out. You got that?”

They don’t hear the reply, but Billy violently shoves him. “Stop playing around, Harrington!” He smacks Steve’s face. It squelches. “ Get up !”

A whimper escapes Will. He shrinks backwards to the kitchen wall and begins to sway. Mike starts, so drained of color his freckles seem dark. Rather than wrap a protective arm around him, he turns his back on the scene and buries Will’s face against his chest, so neither of them can see. He knows El won’t let anything happen. “Hey, hey,” he whispers. “You’re okay. We’re okay.”

“Steve’s not okay!” he cries, and Mike cannot deny that.

Suddenly Billy spins around, snarling at the children interrupting his intimate moment. His fiery blue eyes race across them, settling dangerously on Max, close beside El. Is this how he looked the first night he attacked Steve? It’s certainly how he looked in the void when El saw their fight. The most threatening thing about Billy right now is that he is somehow not there.

“You! Red-headed cunt, this is your fault.”

“W-why?” Max is frozen, in doubt of herself.

Cackling is his answer. He stands up to better confront her, revealing the desecration of the body behind him. Familiar yet impossibly small, doused so heavily in blood it is almost unrecognizable. Two feet, one shoe missing. Even his sock is wet with congealing red.

Billy struts across the room. His head and nose are bleeding, along with his neck, arm, and knuckles. How many hits did Steve get in before the other turned him into a bloody husk? This time, will he get back up?

Boring his eyes into Max he says, “You know exactly why.”

Salvaging the small moment of distraction, Dustin sprints towards Steve, ignoring Lucas’s warning not to get close. Immediately Billy jerks him to a stop, hand clenched around his throat. Flailing, Dustin coughs, “Get off of me, you son of a bitch! You fucking monster !” He kicks Billy hard in the groin, freeing himself, and falls to his knees at Steve’s side.

Billy shouts, lunging and possessively snatching Steve away like a ragdoll. “You’re the monster! You think you can control what people do? Think you can just cut off someone’s happiness because you claim something’s wrong!?” Dustin edges closer, reaching for Steve. Billy smacks him clear across the face and stumbles onto his knees. “Stay back!”

Quickly Lucas follows and sets a hand on Dustin’s shoulder, telling Billy, “Stop it! Haven’t you done enough damage?”

“Me?” Billy barks, on his knees again, leaning protectively over Steve’s listless form. “I haven’t done anything.”

“Then who did?” El asks calmly. Without indicating, she uses her powers to slide Billy away from the body. A two-hundred pound prop in a story he claims he didn’t write, saturated with someone’s blood.

"What!" Startled, he whips his head around to see who’s touching him. No one. Nothing but the scuttle of glittering stars on the floor. One gets lodged into his knee as El draws him forward. He screams loud enough to make Max jump, thrashing around in search of Will, who is almost hidden by Mike’s lanky form.

“This is you, isn’t it!” Billy growls, breathing heavily. Brown eyes peek over Mike’s shoulder. “Let me go, runt . This is none of your business!”

“W-what?” Will manages.

Holding him, Mike urges, “Shh, don’t talk to him.”

From the floor Dustin shouts, “I hear something!” His ear is close against the squelchy pulp of Steve’s mouth and nose.

Mike sighs, “Thank God." He won’t leave his charge for anything, but he glances over at El.

At once she understands he never hated Steve. His resentment, distance, and doubt were byproducts of fear. When Mike lets someone in or loves them, he gives them his all, including undying loyalty and trust. Weeks after they accepted Steve as a member of the party, he all but disappeared. Not wanting the disappointment of losing another friend, and not wanting any of his other friends to get hurt, it was logical to write Steve off. Billy just made that easier.

And it’s true, what Max said. In putting all our effort into saving Steve we’ve completely ignored the fact that Billy needs help. She was also right that nobody wants to help Billy. Unpredictable, ungrateful Billy doesn’t want to help himself. That’s why they chose to protect Steve, until it became clear that they weren’t enough. Adults had to be involved, and even the adults can’t fix everything. They understand this now, despite smartly calling Hopper and Mrs. Byers before pedaling like mad to the Hargrove house. A fight they expected, but a massacre? No. Only focusing on Steve and ignoring Billy doesn’t solve the problem. Not if the root of the problem is Billy. Would this scene still be unfolding if they’d come to this conclusion sooner? In failing to help Billy did they cause this demise?

No.

“Let me go so I can kill you!” he screams at Will, struggling against the invisible barriers thrown up around him. “I’ll rip your head off!”

It doesn’t matter who caused this, like it never mattered who opened the gate. All that matters is stopping the absolute annihilation of humanity.

Nearby, Lucas hears the same abject gurgle from Steve. “Sounds like he’s choking on his own blood.” He looks at Dustin. “Come on, let's roll him on his side so he can breathe.”

As they roll Steve over, blood pours from his mouth. Some animalistic grunt is evoked, all pain and horror. Dustin's stomach turns. His big brother, hunted prey, captured. Toyed with until agency was stripped away. As if agency ever belonged to him. He never had that, leaving him vulnerable to people like Billy. This weekend, Mrs. Byers helped El and Will understand that. I wish we could adopt him , Will quipped after Steve left last night. Hopper rolled his eyes, joking. If we’re gonna have another kid, at least let it be one that understands the difference between Germans and Nazis! Everyone sitting together on the couch laughed, soon interrupted by El. What is 'not-sees'?

“Stop, stop, stop!” Dustin shrieks. He and Lucas ease Steve flat on his back again. Blood now slides from the corner of his mouth down his cheek, dropping onto the floor, making a puddle. Dustin takes his hand and squeezes, tears lighting his eyes, while Lucas gently runs his fingertips over particularly massacred parts of skin or soaked clothing, estimating damage. Tucked in the middle of a dark crimson stain beneath the ribs is something oddly shaped. There’s blood, but also a shimmer. Curiously Lucas probes it and Steve’s body jerks, as if it’s attached to him.

Because it is.

“Jesus!” Lucas recoils.

“What? What happened?” Dustin panics. “Lucas!”

“There’s something in-- he’s got--” His eyes flick across the floor. So much broken glass. He shakes his head. “Shit, I didn’t notice it until now.”

Dustin follows his line of sight until his eyes bulge, and he realizes Steve’s been stabbed. Sticking out of his stomach is a large glass shard. What organs are there, right below the ribs? Dustin racks his brain recalling information, but science is hard to keep in order when the stakes are so high.

“Should we remove it?” Lucas’s hand hovers above the wound.

Thankfully knowledge flashes through Dustin's mind. “No, no, no, don’t remove it! Mr. Clarke said that anytime someone’s been impaled, keep the object inside until you’re at the hospital. It’ll hold the blood in.” Saying that out loud makes this real. Steve could be dying, and they’re just sitting here looking at him. Dustin spots the yellow phone dangling from a receiver mounted on the kitchen wall. He nudges Lucas. “Call 911!”

Lucas jumps up, darts past Mike and Will, and yokes the receiver up by the cord. His hand shakes as he dials 911. Dustin swings his coat off and lays it over his friend’s torso to keep in body heat. Steve involuntarily sputters again. “Hey, hey, hey,” Dustin quietly assures him, smoothing his hair. “It's okay, buddy. Help is coming.” Then he takes Steve’s hand with both of his, two fingers gently pressing his pulse. It could be just his trembling, but he swears there’s a flutter of life. “It’s okay. You’re not gonna die. Right? You’re gonna hang on.” Holding back tears makes his jaw sting. “Please, please, please . Just hang on. Hang on for me.”

Working through his fear, Lucas explains the situation to the operator. He calls to Max, “What’s the address?” She’s staring absently at the floor, rooted to the spot by a weight no one but El can see. She reaches out and touches Max’s shoulder, breaking the trance, and nods her head towards Lucas. One word at a time she stammers out their address.

Their address.

Drawn by Max’s wavering voice and the mention of his family's name, Billy stops yelling. Five… two… eight… zero…  Their house number. Near him Dustin grovels, clasping Steve’s hand. Something softens and settles behind Billy’s eyes. He is present again, noticing his surroundings for the first time. Dripping in his own sickness, and no, he didn’t create this. Rather, he didn’t mean to. Always the excuse, and this time there is no apologizing. An ambulance has been called. Dazed, he scans the room. Through his shock he awakens to the horror on the children’s faces.

Watching him carefully, El intuits his thoughts: The horror on their faces, I put it there.

In her mind she answers, Yes. You did.

Billy jumps, no longer locked in place. “Who said that!”

Look.

He snaps his head back and forth, scrambling to a stand, but there is no one behind him. A few feet away Dustin braces himself, aware of the mayhem that can begin again at any second. Mike and Will shrink away. Lucas rounds them and takes a protective stance beside Max, still rooted to the spot next to El.

Billy takes notice now: she is the only one who’s calm. Centered. In the midst of chaos she is unmoved, and not because she is fearful, like the others. Instead, she is the eye of the storm. As he sees El for all she is, his words come into her head. You are the beauty in the storm. What is this? Something about Steve? She embraces the memory he is reliving. Listens. I am the storm.

She locks eyes with him and silently answers. Yes. You are.

His breath hitches, labored by the shock of waking up to what he’s done. His throat is tight when he speaks, as if it were some other person inside him screaming mere moments ago. “It’s you, isn’t it? It’s been you the entire time.”

She nods. “Yes.”

Marvelling, he steps towards her. “What are you?”

At one time she related to Billy, because they come from such a similar place. One where abuse comes disguised as love, and those who take care of you lie. Monsters haunt her sleep. For a long time she believed she was one. She is the furthest thing from it, but Billy?

“I am not you.”

Confused, he cocks his head. “Isn’t that obvious?”

She only shrugs.

“So you can…” His blue eyes trace the floor, the upturned furniture, the walls. Recalling. “You can control me?”

Instead of speaking, she shows him by using one hand to lift the kitchen table and chairs, carefully setting them upright in their place. Then she looks at the glass scattered on the floor. Closing her fingers together, the glass begins to recollect itself in the air. The chunk caught in his knee unsticks. So does the chunk under Steve’s ribs. Dustin shrieks and shouts at El to stop. She releases her hand and the glass inside him stays put, while the levitating glass falls. Panic is recharged, palpable.

“Can you fix him!?” Billy pleads.

Together they look at Steve. Helpless, blood soaking through Dustin’s coat.

“No,” she says.

“But, the bottle!” he gestures.

“I can’t fix that, either. I can only--” Her shoulders sag, saddened by the truth. “I can only destroy.”

You are not him , she reminds herself. He is a bad man. In attempting to escape his fate he succumbed to his base nature, fell into the hole he sought maniacally to avoid. She escaped her fate, or changed it, turning her defective power of destruction and control into an asset to help others. Her friends. Billy has no friends, and the only person he would help he has rendered unconscious, again.

Their similarities are nothing in the face of their differences.

“Then kill me.” With tears in his eyes, he moves closer. “If-- if I hurt him, I can’t face it. I can’t. Please, just kill me.”

Why is he saying it as if he hasn’t yet caused harm? He has. Doesn’t he know this? After all, he was there when it happened! Yet he postures for mercy, reaches out and touches her arm, eliciting a shout from Mike. “You have to kill me!”

Staring at a human villain, it is hard to discern whether or not ending him would be justice or mercy. Mercy is to end the unnecessary prolonged suffering of an opponent over whom you are already somehow victorious. She was granted mercy when Benny gave his life so she could be in a better place, and again when Mike, against the judgement of his friends, took her to a warm dry home. Will was granted mercy when he twice survived. Their deeds, well-intentioned despite their corrupted innocence, beckoned it. Were Billy’s actions ever well-intentioned? Was his innocence corrupted? Was it ever really there?

“No,” she decides.

“What?”

“I said no. I won’t kill you.”

“What’s wrong with you? Look at me!” Billy’s voice cracks. “Look at what I’ve done! Kill me !”

“Kill him!” Dustin agrees. “He’s a fucking monster!”

Mercy would be to end Billy’s life, but he doesn’t deserve that softness. He deserves to repent. Needs to, if he is ever to absolve himself and change .

“You coward bitch , do it!”

“Do it, El!” Dustin echoes.

She stands resolute. “No.”

“Oh yeah? Fine.” Billy begins to twitch, perversely motivated by the challenge. “You refuse to help me, just like everyone else!” He stoops, gropes about the floor for another chunk of glass, and inhales sharp when it slices through the flesh of his palm. Then he smiles and squeezes it. “Fine. If you won’t do it, I will .”

“Good!” Dustin shrieks, still holding Steve’s hand. “Nobody wants you here, piece of shit!”

And that is his reality.

No one stops him from positioning the glass edge parallel to the inside of his forearm. El, the only one who can, is too curious about this creature to interfere. Steve claimed to know him so well. To trust him. Billy feels her watching him and meets her eyes. She sees that his desire for death is conditional. Suicide is an exit, yes, but if he misses the mark he still succeeds in temporarily overriding the circuits in his mind letting him create this mayhem. Letting him , because he cannot accept that he is at fault. How could anyone accept-- own-- actions like these?

Billy doesn’t want to die. He wants to be stopped. A broken bone, in need of pins and braces and unable to find a single soul to stitch him. Every soul that could have he either devoured or frightened away. Staring down, he presses the edge into his clean skin, opening it with a thick red line down the center. Shaking, he switches the glass into his other hand and draws a crooked three inch line. A tide of pain weakens him. Sweat beads his forehead. He leans forward like he might be sick and drops the glass. Max stumbles back, caught by Lucas, who holds her as she vomits.

Heavy footsteps fall through the half-open front door, followed by a gust of cold evening air. Hopper marches into the kitchen, followed by Mrs. Byers. Cursing under his breath, failing to hide the panic rampant in his voice, he lifts the radio from his belt and buzzes the station. “Powell, Callahan! I need you, NOW. 5280…” In spite of the emotions written loud on her face, Mrs. Byers ushers the children from the room, starting with Max and Lucas closest to the door.

The absurdity.

To the rest of the town, this is just another day.

Chapter Text

Jim stands in the back of the ambulance, swinging eyes between two teens whose love laid them out to rest. He leans over Steve, watching carefully. For signs. Movement. Hard to see through all that blood. A bump makes Steve’s jaw slacken. Red bubbles over a ripped lip. There are missing teeth.

It’s sickening.

Jim shouts over his shoulder at the driver. “Need help findin the gas pedal up there?”

The paramedic dealing with Billy shakes her head, judging. In the face of Steve’s injuries, Steve’s broken heart, watching her wad up bandages around Billy’s gushing wrists is blasphemy. Just the sight of Billy angers him.

He crouches low next to Steve. “Come on, kid. Don’t leave us like this.”

These words, too similar to the last words he uttered to Sarah, the ones he uttered to Will, are all he has. Everything he and Joyce feared manifested. The worst happened. It’s done. Fate is in control again, as He always has been. Again Jim is reduced. An officer of the law. A man.

Powerless.


He comes to screaming when the first stitch goes through. Luckily they’d prepared for that. Jim and a male nurse hold him down while the doctor completes the stitches, first on the left arm, then the right. She works wordlessly, the only noise Billy's reckless shouts against the grunts of grown men.

After he’s sewn and bandaged, Jim sits him up on the edge of the bed and cuffs his hands behind his back. Then he stands guard at the door. The only reason he’s with Billy is because of the arrest. Second in three days. Three days. All it took for everything to unravel. Steve put his life in Billy’s hands one time too many, and now his life lies in the hands of medics. Professionals not treating a person, but a body. At the end of their day they go home, and this is just another story.

Billy clears his throat, drawing Jim’s attention to his blood encrusted face. “Where’s Steve?”

He rolls his eyes. “You gotta be kiddin me.”

“What?” Billy sounds small, genuinely confused. A little desperate. “Where is he? Is he-- is he okay?”

“Some audacity you’ve got, askin that, when you know damn well how he’s doing.”

Pool blue eyes soften as he becomes aware of himself, curls his head around to see his arms. Moving slightly, the cuffs click, and he winces at the pain in his wrists. Innocently he asks, “What did I do?”

Irate, Jim wishes Billy had bled out. He causes trouble relentlessly, it’d be easier without him. “You don’t remember? What, were you drunk again?”

“I was drinking when I called him, but I wasn’t drunk. Even when he came over, I wasn’t drunk.”

“Then why don’t you remember?”

“If I knew, I wouldn’t have done whatever it is that got me here.”

“That’s horseshit!” he shouts. “Complete horseshit. You knew, and you could have stopped yourself!”

"From what?" Billy gazes at him with odd intensity. “I don’t choose to be this way.”

“Jesus,” he drags out the name, angry that he’s hearing this now. “The fact that you’re sick doesn’t change what you did.”

“What did I do!?” A flicker of panic becomes a glint, then a darkness so glassy it’s bright. Specks of memory hit him. “All-- all I remember is blood. He just stopped fighting.”

“No shit! What did you expect? He loves you like a god, and what did you do with that?”

His response is trained, shame-laden. “I ruined it!”

“Sure did. You sure fuckin did. Put him in critical condition, we’re waiting to find out if he survives .” Aggressively he advances on Billy, bellowing. “And if he doesn’t make it, your sorry life just went from bad to worse!”

Billy flinches, then quickly covers his fear by studying the floor. Years of acting out scripts like this taught him better than to cry in front of an authority figure. In front of a father. That’ll get his ass kicked, which is what he expects, which is why he flinched. And Jim has to admit, that part's not his fault. He doesn’t choose to be this way. It’s obvious he has no control over himself. That comes as no surprise. Billy lives in a hostile house with a father who resents him. At the first signs of alcoholism and mental instability, Neil gave him the shaft. Add homosexuality to that, you’ve got a Molotov Cocktail. Take your anger out on your kid, teach him he’s a piece of shit, and he’ll act like one. He’ll fill the exact role you designed.

And he did.

Yelling in Billy’s face about it makes Jim no better than Neil. So, against every fibre in his being, he softens his tone. “Hey, kid.”

Surprised by the sudden softness, Billy looks up, his eyes glassy with tears. “Yes, sir?”

“Quit callin me sir. Just tell me what happened.” When Billy hesitates, unsure whether this space between he and Jim is safe, he adds, “Between us, I promise.”

“I called him, after school. Asked him to come over. I missed him, and I was scared about where I would go, because my dad is kicking me out. Steve came over, but he said we can’t be together, that it’s not…” His shoulder twitches, like he means to move his arm. “Anyway, I threatened to hurt myself, unless he stayed, and he wouldn’t. He said he can’t fix me, and that’s when I lost control. We fought, he got me good, but then he just stopped fighting.”

“Steve never fought you,” Jim points out calmly. “You always had the win.”

Absently Billy shakes his head. “I never wanted it.”

There’s a sharp knock, and a new doctor stands at the threshold. “Chief Hopper? Could I speak to you for a minute?”

“Of course.” His attention stays trained to Billy even as he moves to meet her. “Is this about my kid?”

“Your-- your kid?”

This doctor, he’s met her before. More than met. She was on the team trying to stabilize Sarah the day they lost her. Swallowing hard, he prays he won’t experience that again. The loss of a child-- even someone else’s-- is something no one deserves. No one deserves to walk the world bearing an invisible scar that cuts through the core, years after the wound has healed. Other people, they don’t see it. They forget about you, your pain, and your child, leaving you to stare into the chasm of pain loss creates. Alone.

“Steve,” he says. “The other one we wheeled in here tonight. How’s he doing?”

The doctor’s eyes flicker to Billy. She lowers her voice. “Sir, maybe you should step outside.”

That’s all the confirmation Jim needs.

“No. Oh, no…” He leans against the doorframe as his heart plummets through his gut, knocking the breath from him. The doctor, impersonal but not uncaring, uses terms like internal bleeding and brain damage . Fluid in places it shouldn’t be. Stress an eighteen year old body isn’t meant to endure. Isn’t that always how it goes? Teen believes he’s invincible, kills himself proving he can fly? The irony would be beautiful, if Steve’s life hadn’t been taken violently by the bloodied boy handcuffed on the bed five feet away.

Jim turns to him, ill-prepared to break the news. How does he explain that, even though Billy didn’t mean it, he hurt Steve so bad his body shut down? He can’t do it. Saying it makes it real, makes this not just a terrible accident but an irreversible crime.

“Please, don’t.” Billy shakes his head, feverish. Choking on his tongue. “D-don’t say it.”

He has to. There is no way to escape fate, and this is his.

“You killed him.”

For a full minute Billy doesn’t breathe. Then his chest cracks open. A nauseating, guttural scream fills the room as he slides off the bed and hits his knees, screaming loud enough to trigger gagging. Every gasping breath he catches is the crest of a new sob, each ripping out of him louder than the last. Unable to accept this new reality, he jerks his torso back and slams his head against the floor, again, and then again, drawing blood.

Springing into action, the doctor shouts for a sedative as Jim dives down and restrains Billy from behind, holding his arms tight against his sides, bucking with the force of Billy trying to break free. To break himself.

Moments later the doctor sprints back, followed by a nurse with a syringe, which she buries deep into the meat of Billy’s shoulder. As he slows to a lull and silences, Jim feels something warm against his stomach. He lets the kid slump onto the floor and notices that the agitation of being held forced blood to seep through his stitched cuts and bandages.

Jim scoots back, catching his breath. He swallows hard against the rising tide of emotion. On duty, he is not permitted to feel this loss, this familiar grief that never truly left. An unhealed wound needs only be reawoken.

The doctor and nurse gawk at him. “Chief, are you alright?”

He nods, casual and dismissive. Anything to fake his way away from this freshly updated reality.

“Whatever you think it is,” he says, “it’s always so much worse.”


After Billy regains consciousness, Jim and Powell walk him out to the police car. Although glaringly unwell, the doctors opted out of psychiatric evaluation. Given the kid’s track record, and the resulting body, they found it unnecessary to treat Billy like a patient. Regardless of the compounding factors, he took a life. Why diminish the vicissitude of his crime by blaming it on a bad mind? Unable to argue, Jim agreed to process Billy like any other criminal.

The truck Joyce followed the ambulance in, sirens blaring and bikes piled in the back, is gone. Good. Get the kids away from this surreal madness. Let them sleep off the terror of walking into a gruesome scene, and the grief of losing a friend. Let them sleep off witnessing Steve’s mother howling, collapsing in her husband’s arms as she was told in the waiting area by the Sheriff that her son was killed. Let them sleep off Steve’s father, stunned, like his dead child is a stranger he is unbound to.

Let them rest before remembering.

In the backseat of the cruiser Billy cries like a child, snot and saliva finding his shirt in loose strings. He is a child, Jim reminds himself, a child who also lost someone tonight. The only one who loved him. Billy is wounded inside and out, alone in this cold part of the world with no one to comfort him. Even if Jim had it in him to console Billy as a father figure, he wouldn’t be able to set aside the crime. There is no comfort for him tonight. Quite possibly no comfort for him, ever.

Inside the holding cell, as the officers fill out paperwork, Billy continues to sob. It is an eerie sound that bangs off bars. A sound much like laughter, with drawn out whines and involuntary wheezes. Offscreen agony, over your shoulder and just out of sight. Bound to haunt your nightmares until the day you die.


Driving home in the early hours, just past midnight, his strength threatens to crumble. He can’t imagine how the kids are doing. What he saw of them in the waiting room was enough. Dustin, seated and staring into nothing, silent tears streaming down his plush cheeks. Standing to one side, Mike, hugging both Will and El to his chest. Rocking them, face bowed to hide his wet eyes. Seated on Dustin’s other side, Lucas and Max, holding hands until Neil stormed in, ice blue eyes sharp enough to cut glass.

They jumped apart as if electrocuted, both standing at attention as Neil approached. Callahan had already informed him of Billy, though it was clear he wasn’t there to speak with his disgrace of a son. As he collected a stumbling, color-drained Max, rage radiated off of him. Briefly, Jim and Joyce caught each other’s eye. Her distress mirrored his insides. What would this mean for Max later, in that house with Neil, her mother, and all that blood? What would it mean for the Harringtons’ if Jim didn’t get them out of the waiting room immediately? Not that walking them down that long, antiseptic stretch of hall to their son’s stiffening body was a safer option.

Safe . A loaded word. A concept, rather than an assurance he could actually provide.

Rumbling through pitch black in a police car that’s not his, Jim wonders about Jonathan and Nancy, who must know by now. News travels fast in a town like this. News becomes a town like this. Precisely why Neil refused to come into the station to speak to his son after bringing Max home, and rejected the option to pay bail. A father like him is less concerned about the price of bail, set at five-thousand, and more about the embarrassment to follow. Can he afford the mortifying shame of letting his child, a sign of his failures, walk free until his court date? No. Besides, whether or not he lets Billy back into the world for a week, there’s no way out of this. Involuntary or not, he committed manslaughter. The county jail is a fine fit until he is charged with prison time.

Jim hears the echo of Billy’s crying as if he were still in the backseat. Paranoid by stress and fatigue, he checks the rearview. There is no one else in this car. Billy is behind bars, where Neil spit like venom he was always meant to be . Recalling the man’s words over the phone is another knock to the gut. Yeah, his kid got arrested twice in three days. It calls for action. But abandonment? Neil’s rejection tonight reaffirms the reeking message from Saturday: I don’t have time for you.

Again Jim realizes Billy is not a son, he’s an inconvenience. Sure, there’s nothing good waiting for him inside prison, but there’s nothing good outside of it, either.


He finds Joyce lying on her bed, awake, lights on, with El and Will asleep on either side. Thank God they're resting. Only a matter of time before the nightmares start up again. Both struggle, though it’s been better over the past few months. Spending time together as a family is healing. El has Joyce as a mother and Will has Jim as a positive example of what a father should be.

What about those without family support? What about Mike, who Jim came to understand suffered greatly the year he hid El? Do nightmares of her, or Bob, haunt him? What about Dustin and Lucas? And Max?

“How is she?” Jim whispers, hovering at the foot of the bed.

“Who, El?”

“Max. What happened after I left the waiting room?”

Slowly, with great care, Joyce slides down the center of the bed and stands, inches from Jim. He yearns to bury himself against her chest and inhale her sweet smell until sleep takes him. Pop a couple pills and chase them with shots for good measure. More than that, though, he wants to hear her side of the story.

“Come on.” She takes his hand, so much bigger than hers, and leads him into the kitchen, where she puts on a pot for tea. “Are you hungry?”

“Probably, but I can’t feel it.” He sits at the table. “Did you eat? Did the kids?”

She nods, setting up two mugs under the dim kitchen light. “At first Will refused, but El got him to take a few bites. I don’t know about the others.” Turning around, her face falls. “That man, Neil? I don’t think he’d care if Max ate or starved. He’s so wrapped up in himself.” She walks to the table and pulls up a seat. “She was devastated, Hop. I mean, they all were. Dustin…” Her eyes well with tears.

“What about Dustin?” He takes her hand, strokes the back of her palm with his thumb.

“I didn’t want to bring them to the hospital, but you know those kids.”

“They didn’t give you a choice.”

“Not at all,” she laughs through the tears.

He half-smiles. The party’s compassion and loyalty are the undercurrent of their survival. Without their commitment to each other, no one would ever be safe. At that thought, he frowns. After everything, Steve still wasn’t safe. Neither was Billy, who couldn’t be saved from himself. Never will be now. How did they let this happen? How did he ?

“I failed them.” Jim rubs his face, holding back emotions with all effort.

“What? No, no. Don't do that to yourself.”

“Joyce, Saturday night I spoke with both of them. After talking to Billy, I knew. In order to help Steve we were gonna have to help him, too. But it was too late.” His face scrunches, angry with himself. His jaw stings with wanting to cry. “I was too late.”

Back at the hospital, Steve was lain on the table, clothes cut, bare torso exposed. How can such a vibrant, loving person turn so small and cold? The way his ribs and hipbones pressed up against tight, pale skin marred only by a gaping, bloodless stab wound the circumference of a quarter. Clinical, how the doctor spoke to his parents.

Jim was there as Sheriff, observing and making notes while Powell and Callahan stood guard at sleeping Billy’s door, but he was also there as a father, despite feeling undeserving of a title bearing such responsibility. He hasn’t lived up to it. Not with Sarah, not with Steve. Having lost a child of his own made the Harringtons’ loss difficult to stomach, and his involvement with Steve, knowing a side of him his parents never did, made him feel like an intruder. A fraud, invading the family’s privacy.

“We should have taken it more seriously, Joyce. We should have pushed him harder, sooner, gone to the parents first, something .”

Joyce slides her seat closer, crying. “This isn’t fair for anyone, and I know this is the last outcome we wanted, but we can’t blame ourselves. You can’t blame yourself. You did everything you could.”

Sorrow and guilt gut him. For the first time in years his voice cracks. “No, I didn’t. I was given another chance. Another chance, Joyce. And I lost him!” Jim pushes his chair back and rests his elbows on his thighs. His body rocks with sobs.

Her arms wrap around him, hugging him tight. “It’s not your fault, you hear me? It’s not, no matter how much you feel like it is.” She’s right, but he can’t absorb it. After a minute, she sits up. “You know, Steve called before he went over.”

“What?”

“Do you want me to play the message?”

He nods. Joyce waves him over to the answering machine, lowering the volume as not to wake the kids. Hearing Steve’s familiar voice, preserved on machine for the last time, spikes him with adrenaline. I just want to let you know that I’m going over to Billy’s. To end it, I mean. He’s having a hard time and I think it’ll… Well, I know you said don’t see him alone, but I’m calling, you know? It’ll be okay… I promise.  Naive, hopeful, promising he’d be okay. Lying to himself. Walking unknowingly to his death. Now they’ll never hear his voice again. No air in his lungs, no light in his eyes. His heart doesn’t beat. Jim's races, as it did when he realized Sarah was gone, and years later when he believed Will was lost, too. There’s a certain pain, surviving a young person so soon departed.

“See?” Joyce’s eyes lift. “He knew our advice, Hop. He heard us. But he chose to go over there alone.”

“Why? Why would he do that?"

“For the same reason he got involved with Billy in the first place.”

Idiot, he wants to say, but that’s exactly what Steve believed he was, and it sunk him like a ship in his own harbor. In that way Joyce is right, it’s not Jim’s fault. It’s not his fault these teens pursued each other, or that they fought. It’s not his fault it ended this way.

“This is why Will called us at work?”

Joyce nods. “Apparently when they got to the Wheelers’ this afternoon, Dustin called Steve and got worried there was no answer. Then El…”

“We told her not to do that!”

She winces. “I know, Hop, but how could we expect her not to when Steve might be in danger? Imagine if they’d never figured it out?”

“He’s still dead, Joyce,” he spits, angered by grief. “Steve is dead.”

“You don’t think I know?” Her voice squeaks. She looks up at him. “You think I don’t feel like I’ve failed, too?”

Now he holds her, reeling. He can’t believe the kids were exposed to this. Months ago, when sensitive Mike was exposed to Bob ripped to shreds by those— Dustin comes to mind— Demodogs , Jim swore he’d never let anything bad happen again. Too many traumas for kids so young. Tonight, all six of them in that kitchen, with Steve’s body. Between that and Billy’s slit wrists, there was so much blood.

“They shouldn’t have seen it,” he sighs into her frizzy hair.

“They shouldn’t have seen a lot of things. But they have, and they’re strong enough to handle it.” She cranes back to see him. “With our help.”

“Every time I help I make it worse.”

“You don’t.”

“Then how do we get them through this?”

For a moment she thinks. “Maybe Doc Owens knows someone they can talk to.”

“A shrink?”

“Why not? It’s worth a try. We’re parents, Hop. Not professionals.”

“I feel like a professional asshole tonight.”

She chuckles weakly. The tea kettle starts to whistle. Joyce trots across the kitchen and takes it off the heat before it gets loud. Jim follows, watches her tip the kettle. Hears the rush of bubbling water hit the mug.

“Where's Jonathan?” he asks.

“With Nancy.” She hands him a mug and starts towards the table, but he gestures her over to the couch. “They were at the library. I couldn’t call from the hospital because I was busy with the others, but I told them when we dropped off Mike. Jonathan said they’d heard sirens when they were studying and thought nothing of it.”

“Course not.”

She hangs her head. “This is awful. I feel awful . We both know what it’s like to lose people, and I’d never wish that hell on anyone else, especially not these kids.” She marvels. “They’re kids , Hop. Steve was a kid .”

“I know.”

He wraps an arm around her, leans in and kisses the crown of her head. They sit, snuggled together, until the tea cools enough to drink. Then they sit a bit longer, sipping.

Down the hall comes a whimper, then a cry. Both adults jump up, calling Will’s name in unison. They abandon their mugs on the coffee table and race into the bedroom. El is holding Will, stroking his damp hair, their foreheads pressed together.

“Bad dream,” El says without pulling away.

“You, too?” Jim asks.

“No.” She closes her eyes for a moment, listening, and then nods as if given a directive from Will. “Okay.” Pulling away from him and climbing off the bed she tells Jim, “You’re going to read to us.”

“I’m gonna-- what?”

“Read. His favorite book.”

“Oh, God, not some wizard crap,” he protests. Joyce swats his arm.

El reenters with she and Will’s stuffed animals, and an illustrated kids book titled Cars and Trucks and Things That Go . Jim remembers reading it to Sarah. How many more reminders of loss can he handle tonight?

Handing him the book, El hops comfortably back onto the big bed. Joyce joins, cuddling her babies up for the story. Jim kicks off his shoes and settles down with them, beginning in his best storyteller voice the tale of a pig family navigating the treacherous roads. Everytime the narrator mentions Goldbug, wherever you are! , Jim stops to let the kids locate the bug on the sprawling pages, bringing quiet fits of giggling that calm the frayed wire of his heart.

However, midway through the book he identifies a pattern that sends a hot rush through him. He remembers Steve and wants to be sick. See, Officer Flossy is on a mission to catch Dingo Dog, who knocked over parking meters, but no matter how hard she tries, she can’t catch him. Much like Jim, who failed to catch Steve and Billy in time.

Some pages later there’s a big accident Officer Flossy can’t stop. I never thought I would see an accident as bad as this one! Neither did Jim. He never thought he’d fail another kid, either. How could he allow such violence to befall Steve? They saw him yesterday , hugged him goodbye. Jim was at Hawkins High this morning reworking his schedule to keep him safe. Then tonight, just a body. Like those are two separate entities. Well, now they are.

Accepting this makes it hard to stay composed and continue reading. Fresh loss feels sacred, like it should be the only thing on your mind. Just a moment ago he was present with his children, who were present listening to a story. Short reprieves must be savored, because remembering always comes, scattering happiness into shadows. Remembering hurts.

After a few more pages, soft breathing takes the place of whispers. Joyce looks tiredly at the kids. Will’s eyes are already shut, and El’s are fluttering closed once more. A blessing when all else is cursed.

He closes the book and sets it behind him on the bedside table, then reaches over for Joyce’s hand. “I love you. Couldn’t do any of this without you.”

Bashfully she smiles, biting her lower lip. “I love you, too. So do they. We couldn’t do this without you .”

Thinking of all she’s accomplished in her years as a single mother, he smiles. “Yes you could. Out of everyone, you definitely could.”

Chapter Text

I love you .

Mouthed by Lucas as she peers over her shoulder and watches him get smaller and smaller and smaller. Neil catches her staring and pinches her, startling her into focus. She follows him out of the hospital with her head down, tail between her legs, feeling like the loss of Steve, at the hands of Billy, means the loss of all her friends.

The last thing she said to them? She can’t remember. Probably, I’m sorry .

Some last words.


The truck door slams but she doesn’t get out, paralyzed by the sight of a scarlet BMW haphazardly parked at the end of the driveway. Steve’s car. It’s here, he isn’t, and he’s never coming back. What will they do with it? Who has the keys? Flashing lights settle deep in her brain, a dizzy panic, like it’s her responsibility to find answers.

Halfway down the drive Neil notices her absence and marches back to the truck. She’s still belted in, resistant to being touched, moved, or taken back into the house where her friend was killed by her maniac step-brother. Uncaringly he rips the passenger door open and yanks her, hand wrapped clear around her skinny bicep, grumbling under his breath. “Gonna teach you what not to do, gonna clean up that mess.”

“No, no, no! Get off of me, please !” She tries to worm her arm free.

“You brought friends into our home, unannounced. You aired out our family's private business, and got involved in my son's sin!” As he reaches across her and grapples roughly for the seatbelt, she smells liquor on his breath. Instant flash to the sour stench of whiskey when the party braved the kitchen. Whiskey and rust.  Blood.

“Just leave me here, please! Please, please, I don’t want to go back in there!”

He finally unbuckles her and, with one hand around her arm and one digging angrily into her waist, drags her from the truck. She flails and kicks, red hair falling across her face, screeching, “Don’t make me go in there!”

“Honey!” Her mother appears at the edge of the driveway and rushes to meet them, still dressed from work.

Why didn’t she pick Max up from the hospital? Certainly Neil had no intention of seeing Billy before they brought him to the station, so why did he come collect her? Whatever.  At least her mother will comfort her now.

Shockingly, instead of coming to her aid, she approaches Neil. “Honey, the officers called.”

“I already know!”

“No, they called again  a few minutes ago saying they’ll send over a biohazard team to clean the kitchen tomorrow morning, so we don’t have to. It’s— just, please, don’t go in there.”

“I’m not going to.” He yokes Max up and forces her down the driveway, around to the front door. “ She is.”

“No, no way. I’m not going in there!”

Neil halts, tightens his grip and backhands her.  “Yes, you are.”

His hand is poised, ready to strike again. Max looks to her mother, a woman cinched by unbreakable fear. During their conversation in the bathroom early Sunday morning, she insisted they not get involved in Neil’s parenting. Now Neil’s parenting involves her, and what’s she doing? Standing there watching! Why? What did Max do to deserve this? She didn’t kill—

The thought of Steve makes her cry out. Reflexively Neil hits her again, harder. Feebly her mother calls his name. He ignores her and abruptly rips Max off her feet, through the front door and into the kitchen, where he throws her to the floor, towards puddles of blood, her own vomit, and scattered broken glass. In frantically trying to avoid the mess, she slips and slides belly first directly into the sticky blood Billy let from Steve’s fighting body.

A noise like an infant on fire lights the room. Who is screaming? She is, squirming in the mess that wants to suck her down. Finally landing on her butt, she wipes irrationally at the blood on her shirt, frantically tries to work it out of the tips of her hair. It’s thick, heavy, and sets in like glue. She gags, about to puke, when a bucket bounces across the room and hits her back.

Spinning around she sees Neil, throwing cleaning supplies into the room from the basement landing. “I don’t care if she’s in here all night, Susan. The girl needs to learn her lesson!”

“Neil, I’m not understanding. What lesson?”

He projects over Max’s uncontrollable whines. “Oh, she knows.”

Yes, she does.

In California she should have learned to keep her mouth shut. People’s private business is theirs , even if it hurts. Even if it kills. Whether Billy had ruined his last relationship or not, Max definitely ended it, because her bringing his sexuality, however accidental, to Neil’s attention, was the reason they moved here. Billy pointed that out a thousand times, but Max didn’t see it until now, after she put an end to another relationship.

By drawing attention to Billy again, by working with the party to push Steve to safety, she made things spin faster and more wildly than they would have alone. The demise of Billy and Steve’s love led to the exact outcome everyone feared, and now everyone is effected.

It is her fault.

“She shouldn’t have to do this. Her friend just passed, let her rest.”

Catching her breath and a wisp of hope, Max looks up at her mother, whose harried expression is overwhelmed by Neil’s frigid, steeled demeanor. He blinks. “Her ‘friend’?” Like his son, that eerily calm voice is the harbinger of so much worse. “Billy corrupted that boy, who was stupid enough to let him. Maxine needs to remember that type of behavior is unacceptable, and if you want to disagree, or go against how I’m handling our child, then I highly suggest you just turn around and go to bed.”

She won’t , Max thinks. She’ll get me out of this. At the very least, keep her company. Halve the time she’ll spend in here tonight by helping.

Powerless over Neil, she resigns, disconnects from her daughter and the trauma she can’t touch. “I’ll check on you in a little while, okay?”

No, not okay. Plus, that’s a total lie. Whether she’s afraid of Neil or the grisly crime scene is immaterial; her mother won’t come back, instilling a belief in Max she didn’t have before, although she knows someone who lives with it, crushed beneath its weight. Suddenly it makes sense to her, why Billy is this way, and why she is here, rapidly slipping into his place.

There’s something wrong with me. I am a problem.

And isn’t it a perfect fit?


A bucket of hot water and chemical cleaner steams beside her. Centered in the threshold, Neil watches, arms folded and legs spread just enough for him to look like a military drill instructor. Her skin itches with his eyes on her. There is only one exit from this kitchen, though. Through him. She’s not getting out until he’s done with her, and who knows when that’ll be, given he is burning her in effigy, so deeply betrayed by his son.

The phone on the kitchen wall interrupts his authoritarian pleasure. A smear of blood dried on the receiver. Steve’s, carried over on Lucas’s brown hand when he called 911. Before answering the soiled phone, Neil snatches up a clean dry rag. “If you make so much as a peep during this call, you’ll clean Billy’s room tonight, too. Trust me, he’s never coming back.”

Once he’s sure she’ll be silent he answers the phone, using the rag as a germ-guard. Entranced, visions of what happened hours before vying for attention in her head, she continues cleaning, soaking up congealed blood with a damp rag and wringing it out in the bucket. Her hands sting, skin cracked from an hour of washing in hot water. Those invisible cuts are absorbing blood. Can she become another person through minor transmittance? If she does, can she please become Steve instead of Billy?

Sadly, that’s already been decided.

Eavesdropping, she recognizes Chief Hopper’s baritone voice reverberate from the phone. Why are the police calling again ? To check on her, or talk about Billy? What happens when a teenager gets arrested, anyway? In answer to her question, Neil insults Hopper for having already called a judge into the station, this late on a Monday night. Moments later, he complains about the price set for Billy’s bail, berates Hopper for daring to assume he would give an ounce of time, let alone money, for his son.

Aware of the utter silence from the kitchen floor, Neil catches her listening and glares. Hastily she attends her task and swipes the damp rag across the pale pink floor. This time it catches. Another piece of glass? She got all of those! Lifting the rag and inspecting, she sees a pale pebble, blood browned and mottled. There’s another one, same slightly off-white hue. Extracting these, she rolls them suspiciously in her palm, spinning them to catch the light.

Teeth. There was only one boy who left with all of them, meaning these belong to Steve, whose life ended in this room, or mere minutes after being carried out of it like a murder special on prime time television. Except, of course, this isn’t television. It is her life.

Horrified by reality, she doubles over and empties the bile and mucus in her stomach onto the floor she just cleaned, oblivious to the edges of her friend’s teeth digging into the palm of her tightly balled fist. Whatever lesson Neil wants her to learn, she’s got it. Engraved on the back of her eyelids.

After he slams the phone down he studies her like a specimen. Better yet, a sick animal in a kennel. She is the dog, this house her cage, and he, the unforgiving master. Lifting her chin, long locks masking her bruised profile, she meets his eyes. Desperate for mercy from a cruel parent who has wholly betrayed her, this child he vowed to love.

He clucks his tongue and chuckles. “Looks like somebody just made more work for herself.”


Even sleep won’t have her. She lies awake, reliving Billy's sick voice, the sound of Will whimpering, Dustin breathlessly gushing hope into Steve's unhearing ear. Focusing on the noise of late night television and Neil popping caps off bottles of beer provides no comfort. She stares at the ceiling, willing time to pass, or consciousness fade, until a new sound joins the dissonance. Small clicks, like pebbles. Ignoring it, she rolls onto her side. Probably pieces of her mind falling apart and rattling around. Yet the noise persists, and she swears her name is called, distant through the glass.

Delicately she climbs out of bed, afraid, even though the TV is too loud for Neil to hear bare footfalls. On the other side of her bedroom window stands Lucas in the frosted grass, bike lain sideways at his feet. He sees her appear and smiles graciously, waves. Sweet Lucas, brave and courageous. Chivalrous, too, but she doesn’t need that. A damsel in distress doesn’t always need saving. In this case to save her would jeopardize his life.

Noiselessly lifting the window is another tricky feat. “What do you want, Stalker?"

"How are you feeling?”

“Incredible," she quips sarcastically. "Seriously, better than ever.”

“Yeah. We all are.”

Canned applause rings behind her like an alarm. This conversation is risky. Stupid. “Look, I can’t see you right now. Just leave.”

“Give me one good reason.”

“He’ll hurt you.”

Lucas sighs, sad for her. She doesn’t deserve to be pitied, she played a part in this! Can’t he see that?

“I’ll leave. On one condition.”

“What is it?”

“You answer my question, and you answer it honestly.”

She huffs. “Fine, shoot.”

He hesitates. “Did Neil hurt you tonight?”

Casting a glance over her shoulder, she listens for the sound of the TV. Still blaring, masking their hushed voices. Turning back to him, she considers the repercussions. Thankfully the dark of night masks the bruises along her cheek, but tomorrow at school she won't be able to hide it. Still, she doesn’t want to tell Lucas the truth tonight, and not just because it’ll hurt, but because he's a respectful boy of his word. Once she tells him, he’ll leave, and the last thing she wants to be is alone.

No. The last thing she wants is another friend dead because of her.

She shakes her head.

“Max,” he warns. “Friends don’t lie. The truth is safe with me.”

“Actually, it’s not,” she laughs bitterly. The truth is never safe, because the gripping claws of fate always snatch it up and cast it into the light.

“Well, it is with me. Whether you believe it or not.”

Less a girl, more a cavern now. Her chest is a hollow run for her heart to beat itself sore. Her body aches, empty stomach clenched by both hunger and the queasiness of gore. How could she tell Lucas what Neil made her do?

How could Neil make her do it?

Almost greater than her desire to protect Lucas is her need to climb over the windowsill and hold him. Be held. Prior experience presses the brakes. She raises her arms and rests her hands on the window above her, appreciates the sight of him: smooth starlit skin, glowing eyes, a cozy outfit thoughtfully picked.

She loves him.

So she closes the window, shutting him out, tensing every muscle in her small body to keep from falling apart in tears.

Chapter Text

Standing in the shadows outside the TV room, he watches Mrs. Byers deliver the news to his parents, Nancy, and Jonathan. If each word is a part that contributes to a whole truth, why do her words sound so fake?

Nancy’s hands cover her mouth and her eyebrows become little cups of disbelief. Beneath them her big blue eyes water, well, then spill. On the sofa beside her Jonathan is shell-shocked, harried, like suddenly he is somewhere else. Unaware of Nancy’s crying, his hands remain in his lap.

Crammed into Hopper’s truck on the way here, Will sat on Mike’s lap, with El next to him. He held both their hands, hypervigilant of any force that might sweep in and take them, too. Experiencing Steve’s loss was about the others, not himself, because Steve to Mike wasn’t Steve to Nancy. Or to Jonathan, who envied what Steve had-- his sister. It makes this difficult. To Mike, he was just… That douchebag Steve Harrington .

No, screw that. So what if Mike barely knew him? So what if he hated Steve's corny sports analogies and offbeat comments that showcased his lack of brains? Through secret conversations, Steve helped him survive the year without El. He saved Mike and his friends from Billy and the vines, and selflessly aided Dustin, whose curiosity led him to raise an intergalactic slug. Steve was there for Nancy and Jonathan, too, even after she rejected and abandoned him. He worked to help Will, who he’d never even met! Proved himself as a hero of sorts. A hero without a cape.

Shifting in his chair, their father says, “Well, he’s in a better place now. Shame the old man’s got no one to take over the business anymore.”

Resentment prickles up Mike’s spine. How could a father lack basic sympathy? Failing to console his grieving daughter, failing to be a decent human-- again! Fall of 1983 Mike stood not far from his very spot in the hall, wrapped in his mother’s arms after Will was allegedly found dead. Once more, after El disintegrated into ash, he found solace in his mother, who would never understand what he’d survived. She might have been blind to what her children were really doing, but at least she cared. His father was useless. Is useless.

Mike wants to cry thinking about the shitty parenting that has affected the party’s lives over the years. He wants to cry about the good ones, too. Hopper and Mrs. Byers crusade for good, always, and they succeed in bringing their friends home safe. Always. Steve won’t come home, though. They failed this time. Tonight the party suffers, along with Jonathan and Nancy, whose raspy, empty sobs further Mike’s discomfort. Tears blur his vision, his body grows lighter, his head dizzy. He spins around and throws open the front door, running across the front lawn towards the truck.

Instantly Will jumps out of the truck, followed by El. In the stiff grass the three crash into each other, a mess of arms and legs and ribs pressing together. Their hearts thump in sync.

“I love you,” Mike whimpers, arms tight around them. “Both of you. A lot.” They repeat the sentiment into his chest. He says, “I never want to lose you. Either of you.”

“You won’t,” El assures him, but that’s not a guarantee she can make.

In accordance with Steve’s stupid sports analogy, life is the coach calling the shots, and they’re just players on a bench, called to action at befuddling parts of the game. Control is a construct built by men who fear failure, and the illusion of control stops people from accepting the powerless players they truly are.

This overwhelms Mike. He wonders why Will’s hair is wet, and realizes he’s crying. He kisses the shiny locks and then kisses El’s wild curls. “You were so strong today.”

She replies quietly, “You were, too. For Will. Now we have to be strong for the others.”

“Like Dustin,” Will chirps, chin perched on Mike’s shoulder.

“And Max.”

Thinking of his friends and their respective anguish brings on an ache hidden deep in his bones. He cries harder, clinging to his friends. How long can they survive these monstrous, evil encounters, pretending they’re just a string of unfortunate incidents? How long can they stay together when life insists on cleaving them apart?

The front door opens and closes. Quickly Mrs. Byers crosses the yard. “Hey, are you guys okay?” She laughs apologetically, “Of course you’re not, silly me.”

She touches El’s arm, unfurling the knot of horror-struck kids. Although it seems impossible at a time like this, Mrs. Byers hints at a smile.  Compassionately she tells Mike, “Your sister’s going to have a hard time with this. If you ever need to escape for a while, call us, ride your bike over, whatever.” She isn’t saying be strong or help Nancy. Rather, she’s offering a reprieve. A refreshing offer from one of the only sane adults in his life. She gently wipes away his tears with her coat sleeve. “We’re here for you.”

“Yeah,” Will adds confidently. “We’re here for each other.”

Mrs. Byers nods. “That’s right. Here for each other, no matter how bad it gets, and we’re not giving up.”

El takes Mike’s hand. He sniffles and then echoes, “No matter how bad it gets.”


 

Pure adrenaline and the need to be with the party are the only reasons he’s standing.

Lucas leans against the locker beside him, equally worn. “I snuck over last night and tried to talk to her.” He frowns. “But she didn’t want anything to do with me.”

“Are you sure she wasn’t just afraid of her stepdad finding out you were there?”

“That’s exactly what she was afraid of, but there was something else. I’ve never seen her so… un- Max.”

“Un-Max?” Mike shuts his locker. They begin to walk towards Mr. Clarke's classroom. 

“Yeah. Like in those few hours we were apart after the hospital, she lost herself.” He sighs. “I think Neil hit her.”

Mike stops short. “Wait, what ?”

“You heard me. I asked her if he had and she shook her head no, but when I pushed her to tell the truth she said the truth isn’t safe with me, and that’s when she shut her window, without even saying goodbye.”

“Wow.”

“Right?”

“Well, we’re going to see her today, and you know she’s bad at hiding things. Even if she curses us out, it’s bound to give us an answer.”

“If she shows up. What if she pulls a Dustin?”

Less than an hour ago they stood at Dustin’s front door and asked Mrs. Henderson if he was ready for school yet. Radiating from the house was the smell of home cooking. The only times Mike’s mom ever cooked that early were Thanksgiving and Christmas. When they asked Mrs. Henderson what was going on, she said, Oh, boys, you’re sweet. I’m afraid Dusty won’t make it into school today. Mike had swallowed and looked away, drawing an inference he wished weren’t real. Losing Steve devastated his best friend. Lucas is right to wonder if Max will go missing, too.

“She’ll be here,” Mike assures him. “Neil definitely isn’t letting her sleep in. Besides, she wouldn’t want to be stuck in that house all day.”

Lucas cringes. “Would you?”

“No way.” He shivers.

Yesterday afternoon when they arrived, Mike hardly took more than a glance before Will’s whimpering caught his attention and he swept him into a strong hug, but that glance would last him years. And the bloody spittle flying from Billy’s mouth as Hopper and Powell held him down, snapping and kicking like a rabid animal, so the paramedics could wrap bandages around his gushing wrists. Blood pushed out heavier with each pulse; pretty soon the men didn’t need to exert pressure to keep him still. By then the paramedics surrounding Steve had him strapped to a stretcher. They lifted and carried him away, and Mrs. Byers had to physically hold Dustin from running into the ambulance after him.

Could that actually have been yesterday ? How can something so recent seem more distant than a dream, like when you miss school because you’re sick and wake up after a long nap not knowing what day it is, or where you are? Everything prior to the nap is distant, like last week, or maybe part of a play, who knows? It never seems like what it is: just another part of the same day, same week, same messed up life.


Whispers line the cafeteria walls, flit like battering moths above heads as Mike, Lucas, and Will pass to their table. Can you believe her brother’s a murder? No way, she’s related to that monster? Steve was a total babe, why’d he have to go? If they can hear the comments, Max can, too. Awkwardly they sit and pull lunches out of their book bags, though none of them are in the mood to eat, anxious about the ones missing: Dustin, hopefully grieving in the comfort of his bed, and Max, who showed up to school early but is late to lunch.

Minutes later she rushes in, books gathered sloppily in her arms. Slamming them onto the table she ignores the gawking boys, hair creating a veil around her profile, masking her appearance, fueling their suspicions. She busies herself with math homework-- her best subject, so she really doesn’t need to do it-- to avoid them.

Not even a minute passes when she loudly sets her pencil down and looks up, demanding, “What do you want?”

Now they see. Bruises climb her cheekbone, framing one blue eye like El’s purple punk rock makeup. The scab on her lip from the other night is still dark, reminding them Neil has hit her more than once, intentionally or not.

Lucas blurts, “Friends don’t lie.”

“What?”

“I asked if he hurt you, and you said no.”

“I’m sorry,”  she cocks her head, “but since when is this your business?”

“Since you lied to me!”

“Lied to you?” she balks, nearly kicking Mike as she hastily stands. “You’re the one who showed up last night unannounced! Why would you do that when you know what’s at stake?”

He rises from the table as well. “Because I wanted to know if you were okay!”

“Do I look okay!?”

Lucas stalls. “No.”

“Exactly. And you can’t help me. So just leave me alone.” She collects her things and storms off, at first to another table and then, after a classmate jeers, out of the cafeteria altogether.

Will catches Lucas’s arm before he runs. “Let her go.”

“Yeah,” Mike agrees. “Let’s give her some space.”

Counterintuitive, because the last thing they want to give her is space. Comments worse than the last find them, like their peers want to get a rise from the AV club. She’s even worse than Zombie Boy. Only a matter time before she loses it, too. Looks like she’s already started! Mike finds it difficult to eat. His eyes, like Lucas’s, are trained on his food, while his thoughts are with Dustin, who missed school today for the first time ever, and Max, who’s suffering obvious abuse and is shutting them out.

H is brain tallies up problem after problem until he finally bursts, dropping  his half-eaten sandwich. “The party is supposed to stick together. We’re supposed to be here for each other, no matter how bad it gets.”

Confused, Lucas narrows his eyes. “We are.”

“No, we’re not,” he stresses. “We’re completely falling apart!”

“Mike, we are not falling apart,” Will insists.

“Yes, we are. I was wrong.” He heaves a sigh. “I was really, really wrong.”

“About…?” They press in unison.

“Steve was way too critical to lose.”

Entranced by this, silence befalls them, creating a bubble locking them into thoughts, deflecting gossip popping off around them. Mike can’t help thinking that the walls built to protect the party were destroyed last night at the hospital, crushed by waves of emotion-- waves that rose ten times higher for Dustin and Max. Broke them. They’re the ones who need protection today, but Dustin’s absent and Max ran away. What if she has lost herself, like Lucas said? What if she slips away entirely?

Since they’ve already lost more than they can handle, the sanctity of the party is at risk. As both Dungeon Master and paladin, Mike hates to admit defeat, but he has no clue how to fortify the party’s weakened walls.

What if they can’t be fixed?


Strangely, Hopper’s truck is parked in the Wheelers’ driveway after school, along with an unmarked black vehicle that eerily resembles the cars the bad men came in, the night they questioned Mike about Eleven’s disappearance.

Hesitantly, Mike pulls his bike around to the side of the house, entering through the basement in a weak attempt to evade the law. At least it buys him a minute. Standing at the bottom of the steps he considers calling Lucas and Dustin to warn them, but that would mean going upstairs. He turns to find his radio when the kitchen door opens and light pours down.  Chief Hopper gazes at him. “You comin, or am I gonna have to carry you up here?”

“What’s going on?”

Sidling downstairs the man explains, “We gotta question you and everyone else involved in Steve’s death.” He says it so matter-of-factly Mike gets mad. Teen murders aren’t a regular occurrence, or a nuisance he’s forced to deal with on duty. Well, maybe they are, but not this one.

Towering over Mike, he says, “We gotta piece together what really happened and how.”

“Why? We know what happened.”

We do. They don’t, and they’re not gonna unless we’re honest, so tell them everything, and I mean e verything . Don’t sugar coat it, don’t hold anything back.”

Mike scrunches his face. “Why would I do that?”

“Cause you might think you’re protecting your friends.”

“I’m not stupid.”

“You’ve had to do it before,” he points out.

Yes, he has. The night El vanished, Mike flat out told the authorities he’d never disclose her information, even though he did have a theory about where she might be. It was a hunch he couldn’t pursue. Plus, if he couldn’t have El, then no one could. In front of the adults his lips sealed shut, to protect her and also himself.

Hopper blinks at him expectantly, urging him on. “Yeah, okay. I won’t sugarcoat anything, but what’s the point of this? Won’t Billy go to prison, no matter what we say?”

“Oh, absolutely. See, thing is, a kid like him needs more support than he’ll ever get in prison. Mental, emotional, spiritual. There’s no help for him there.”

“Are you saying he shouldn’t go to prison?” Mike nearly shouts. "Are you trying to get him off the hook?"

“No, no, I’m not saying that. I’m saying he should be afforded help that’ll actually prepare him to return to the world someday.”

“Should he? We tried so hard to save Steve! Seems pretty counterproductive to help the guy who trapped and killed him.”

“One day he’ll be out of prison,” Hopper reasons. “Either he grows and changes so he doesn't hurt more people, or he gets right back into the same shit that landed him there. I know which one I’d rather, if he’s gonna be free someday.”

Yesterday afternoon, in this basement, the party discussed the issue of morality, and Mike had understood. Only focusing on Steve and ignoring Billy doesn’t solve the problem. Not if the root of the problem is Billy. However, with Steve dead and Billy locked up, there is no logical reason to help him. Unless Hopper knows something the kids don’t, and he usually does, which is why Mike presses the matter.

“He’s not in our party. Seriously, why do you care?”

Watching him struggle to prepare an answer furthers Mike’s suspicion. If he dares say Billy is one of them now, one of the group, Mike is going to rip his head off. The party is small and broken, and compiled of small broken people, but Billy, regardless of how broken  he is, will never be counted in.

By the time Hopper opens his mouth, the investigators call downstairs, ready to begin. He squeezes Mike’s shoulder and gives an unconvincing grin. “I hate this process as much as you do, but remember, I’ll be there every step of the way.”

Chapter Text

“‘His mind was crowded with memories…’” Jonathan mutters to himself, copying lines into a composition notebook. “‘Knowledge that they had outwitted a living thing, imposed their will upon it, taken away its life like a long satisfying drink.’”

“What are you reading?” Nancy asks, coming up from her calculus notes for air. Jonathan holds up the cover. “ Lord of the Flies ? Didn’t we read that in like, ninth grade?”

Smirking he explains, “I reread it over the weekend for this history project. We have to discuss one of the themes that come up and relate it to the faults of society today.”

“That’s interesting. What theme did you choose?”

“Well, civilization is constructed by rules, right? But also how these rules are enforced. Our society today is designed to mask the inherent defects of human nature, which really means we desire to hide the fact that at some point all of us lose our innocence to impulse and savagery.”

“Savagery?” Nancy laughs.

“Is it really an exaggeration?” He waves the book. “These stranded boys with no adults attempt to recreate the civilization they come from, but inevitably they fall apart. With no one to enforce rules and no need to conceal primalness, they get violent.”

“First of all, they’re boys . Second, we’re not stranded. We have people to enforce the rules. Like Chief Hopper.”

“Regardless, people still get violent. They can’t contain themselves within the confines of the accepted rules and standards. Our human nature finds us, and reveals itself, no matter what.”

“Meaning…?”

“Meaning, we can’t mask or minimize who we truly are. No matter what.”

Hearing his thought process amuses her. They’re always grounded in words, matter. Intellectual conversation with Steve was always one-sided. There was no intellect beneath that wild hair. Just a vapid, loyal boy who tripped over himself constantly. With Jonathan she can jump in, debate, and get stimulating responses. A perfect break from her notes.

She goes on. “That’s reductive, though, don’t you think? Plenty of people control themselves, and plenty more can, when confronted by law enforcement. We’re civilized because of that. The rules work on most, creating society.”

“The outliers can’t be molded by rules, and they spoil society for everyone.”

“Everyone? Your theme implies that rules are pointless, but the existence of outliers hardly proves that.”

“You don’t think that, if society fails even a few, it fails as a whole?”

An overhead announcement interrupts her, firmly stating the library closes is ten minutes. Have they been here that long? Come to think of it, she’s hungry. Her mother probably set aside leftovers. Hopefully Mrs. Byers did the same for Jonathan.

“Guess we better pack up.” He marks his place in the worn class copy of Golding’s novel.

“Yeah, guess so.” Nancy frowns. She was enjoying that, and she doesn’t want to say goodnight.


Every time a student dies, the school screeches to halt and acts like they actually cared, when anyone with half a brain knows the institution is too big to give a shit about a tiny speck like Steve.

Steve . Her Steve. No longer.

Nancy can’t be there. She can’t fake being okay, and she can’t stand to be in the gym with a couple hundred kids pretending to grieve, simply for the attention a peripheral death warrants. Tactless jerks. She’ll have to deal with them at the wake and funeral, whenever those services are. For now she and Jonathan have other plans. As herds are corralled into the gym, they cut out of the building and head to his car, breath fogging in the cold.

“You’re sure you kept the pictures?”

“Of course I did. You’re sure Mrs. Harrington is going to let us borrow from their photo albums?”

“Of course.”

About ten minutes later they arrive at the familiar Harrington house. How many times did she pull up here, a passenger in a scarlett BMW? How many times did Mrs. Harrington dote over her, spoil her in hopes of her sticking around? Did she foresee that Nancy would never truly love him? That she was miles above Steve, though Steve’s head was in the clouds? Thinking of their intellectual differences gives her guilt.

Jonathan notices. Again he asks, “You’re sure?”

“I’m sure,” she answers demurely.

Like Barb’s house, now sold, Steve’s appears darker, as if a solitary grey cloud shields it from sunlight. Losing a child must feel that way-- gloom, sorrow. A disorienting dance you can’t fathom, a journey your child wasn’t supposed to take before you.

The passenger door pops open, startling her. When did Jonathan get out of the car? He takes her hand and steadies her as she stands up and brushes her skirt flat, ignoring the flutter in her head. Is she dizzy because of emotions or hunger? Since last night she’s lost her appetite.

Together they proceed up the walk. Forcing herself to be strong, she knocks. Mr. Harrington answers the door, tall and slim like Steve, though they never resembled each other much. He’s weary, but not grief-stricken. Has it not hit him yet?

“Well, we’re just receiving one visit after another today. Tired my wife out. She’s upstairs resting.” He sighs, beleaguered. “But it’s good to see you, Nancy, even under these circumstances.”

“Mr. Harrington, we’re so sorry,” she professes.

He holds up a hand, stopping her. “Thank you. Who is this fine young gentleman?”

“Jonathan.” Awkwardly he thrusts his hand out. The man shakes it. “Jonathan Byers. Your son and I, we… shared mutual friends.”

His face brightens. “You knew Billy?”

They nod.

He swings the door open. “Please, come in.”


One wake? One wake, starting at four o’clock Friday and ending at nine that night, as if the Harrington’s couldn’t afford two viewings to honor their only child.

Furious yet indebted, she and Jonathan arrive early to set up the easels and canvas boards, artfully lined with photos. There are two boards, because that’s all they managed to fill. Mr. Harrington had graciously offered up photo albums; for more than an hour they sat around the coffee table flipping through albums of family and school events, including every important moment from when Steve was born to around seventh grade.

That’s where the pictures of him stopped, aside from the obligatory school year portrait. Once Steve moved up to high school, it seemed they had no reason to fuss. He was a well-mannered boy, even if cocky and antagonizing at times, but he never got into trouble. The Harringtons’ had no reason to worry about him, and subsequently no reason to celebrate him. Dad too busy with business, Mom too busy with… What takes precedence over your child?

Canvas A is covered in photos of cherub baby Steve, and fawn-like child Steve, a gangly mess of dark eyes and chestnut hair. School awards for effort and improvement, sports team photos, even the Boy Scouts. Conversely, Canvas B jumps several years, comprised of his handsome senior portrait, and every picture Jonathan had taken of him and the kids.

In the lobby they hang their coats on a rack, prepared to stay the duration. The funeral home director leads them towards the empty parlor where Steve’s viewing is. His full name is etched into a sign above the open double doors. Steven Isaac Gregory Harrington. Unseeing, Jonathan walks right past her, supplies under his arm, but a surge of adrenaline roots Nancy to the threshold.

At the front of the room Steve lies in a casket, hair cut short and hands neatly folded across his stomach, surrounded by flowers meant to mask the scent of a decaying body.

Nancy can go undercover in a government lab, shoot guns at monsters, and ace midterms all in the same month, but she cannot bring herself to enter the room. Deterring her is the same shock and guilt that paralyzed her at Barb’s memorial. Beneath Nancy’s strength are layers of unaddressed emotions and unanswered questions, quartered off in the guise of self-protection.

Now she’s forced to deal with what she feels. Pangs of confusion. Why did she stay with Steve so long if she knew he wasn’t right for her? Simply for his constancy, his optimism? Pangs of guilt. She fought hard for Barb, and Will. Why couldn’t she do the same for Steve?

“Hey, you alright?”

When she looks up, both easels are standing, large canvases mounted, on either side of a small table topped with a showy bouquet. Another time lapse. She didn’t even see Jonathan set them up without her.

“Yeah, I’m fine. It’s just weird, you know?” She feigns capability and then says, “I’m going to sit down.”

Dutifully he follows. The Harringtons arrive, with family members she recognizes from the photos. They’ve aged, and they don’t know her, but when Mrs. Harrington invites her up she puts on a confident air and shakes hands. Around them teenagers swarm in like locusts, overwhelming the room and distracting Steve’s parents.

Finding a calm spot is impossible. As they move to the back of the room Mrs. Byers finds them, frazzled in her work clothes. She wraps Nancy in a hug and compliments the black dress that stretches across her wire frame like a glove. Then she hugs Jonathan, while Nancy anxiously fingers the gold ballet shoe charm she always wears, marvelling at what big kindness fits in this petite woman’s heart.

Sometime later she and Jonathan get on line to view the body, encouraged by Mrs. Byers, who has already gone up. Coincidentally they are right behind Dustin, who stands alone and apart from his friends. Nancy taps his shoulder. Dazed, he slowly turns and sees her.

“Hey, how are you feeling?” she coos.

“Look at me, Nance,” he says darkly. “How do you think?”

Her smile falls, creeped out by his use of Steve's nickname for her. Dustin turns his back before she can attempt to correct the interaction. For the long minute that follows she studies her feet, the garish displays of flowers, and the prayer card stand. Anything to avoid intruding on the boy's space.

But when he kneels before the casket of his beloved friend, Nancy grows enraptured. How can one plush little boy be braver than her? Undaunted, he reaches out and lays a hand on top of Steve’s, bows his head and speaks under his breath, to Steve, as if no one’s around. As if Steve can hear him.

Can he?

A high-pitched mewl shakes the atmosphere. Everyone pauses and looks to the front of the room. Dustin is standing now, leaning into the casket with his forehead pressed to Steve’s, soft hand clasping cold fingers. Whining sobs rock him, and he mumbles something almost audible, but not for others to hear.

Gutted, Nancy lunges forward to comfort him. Jonathan holds her shoulders. “Shh, let him cry.” She looks at him, taken aback. He whispers, “Will told me his father passed away before Dustin moved here in fourth grade. He’s done this before. Let him feel.”

At least he can feel, she thinks, envious that Dustin can treat this solid corpse with the same love and humanity he treated Steve. Beyond the initial sobbing spell with her parents and Mrs. Byers, Nancy’s tears have teased her. Each time they tingle her nose, she catches herself, and the harder she tries to release them, the faster they disappear.

Seriously messed up to envy a boy who lost his father as a child, and now his role model. Nancy shakes her head, kicking herself. Face flushed red, she knows she isn’t capable of standing in this line any longer. This isn’t target practice, or a test she studied for. She can’t handle seeing others’ grieve, and certainly can’t stand close to the cold and rigid body of a boy who once moved muscled and warm above her, strong and hot inside her.

In a breath, she ditches the line, and rushes from the room.


Some time later she is composed enough to re-enter. Hidden among mingling family and so-called friends, Dustin sits alone in the second row, staring vacantly ahead at the casket. Perhaps against her better judgment, Nancy decides to give talking to him another try. At least the focus won’t be on herself. She scoots down the row to meet him.

“Mind if I sit here?”

He looks up blankly, and gives a noncommittal shrug.

“Thanks. It’s nice to have your company.”

“You didn’t go up there.”

She wrings her hands. He noticed. “I wanted to,” she justifies feebly. “I wanted to, but I’m just not--”

“It’s okay, Nance. Really. It’s okay.”

Nance . She’s heard that very line before. Steve’s words keep finding her somehow, long after she gave him up. Long after the damage she caused him was already done. Is this punishment? Embarrassed, she says nothing else.

Minutes tick by, tense and uncomfortable. Unable to move she stares at her hands in her lap, until a small, sure voice makes her look up.

“It’s okay. I’m here.”

Calmly, El guides Max to the casket. Nancy’s chest tightens. How can El be calm? She brushes Max’s hair over her shoulder. “It’s not your fault. He knows. He’s happy you’re here.”

Dustin’s ears perk up. They watch, perhaps both wondering how a girl with no experience at the formalities of society be this adept with death? Unlike the slobbering teenage girls from Hawkins High, here for the notariety. The impression.

Aggravating, honestly, how the second someone dies everyone loved them. She would commiserate with Dustin about it, but stone silent scowl on his precious face reminds her he wants to be left alone. Maybe he wasn’t admiring El how she was; the longer the girls are with Steve, the more quiet, rageful pain radiates off of his clean pressed suit jacket.

Around them are murmurs, memories of Steve at games and parties, before his life became smaller and smaller, until finally it existed only for Billy and then not at all. Another fact no one knew, not even her. No one except the kids saw how bad it was. God, how awful they must feel, having actually known and saw this coming. They were there with him as he died.

She shivers, disturbed by the raw depth of their experience.

El encourages Max to kneel, using what others before them did as reference. It’s hard to read Max today. Her parents aren’t here— Nancy’s never seen them— yet she’s properly dressed. However, her usual sparky demeanor has been squashed. She’s smaller than the others, if that’s possible. A small, sad dog, ashamed of a mess it made for its owner. Nancy holds back tears, not wanting to show weakness with Dustin next to her. He deserves to mourn openly, because he was there for Steve, unconditionally. Not her.


During the last half hour of the wake the parlor becomes even more crowded. Overwhelmed and ready to leave, she and Jonathan move slowly toward the viewing room exit. Halfway there, a snarky voice sings behind her.

“Well, well. If it isn’t Nancy Wheeler, the princess with a 3.99 GPA. The supergirl who let two friends die. Tell me, how does it feel showing up here, knowing you put your love life in front of their actual lives?”

Beside her Jonathan bristles. She holds Tommy’s stare. “Are you seriously going to antagonize me while Steve’s lying there, dead? Grow up.”

“No, Nancy, you grow up.” Tommy jabs a finger at her. His face hardens. “You come here with Zombie Boy’s brother, the guy you cheated on Steve with--”

“Cheated?”

“--and think you’re getting away with it? I don’t think so!”

Jonathan edges in. “She never cheated on him, alright? We were… We were taking care of something.”

“Oh! The freak talks.” Tommy grins wide and mean. “Last time I heard your voice it was whining about a broken camera. Isn’t that right?”

To think Steve genuinely thought this freckled moron was one of his friends is absurd. Then again, he thought Billy was so much more than a friend, and ended up losing his life for it. Her head spins. Compassion and forgiveness don’t always equal love.

“Yeah, the freak talks,” Jonathan snaps. “You didn’t know Steve the way we did, and you don’t know was going on around Halloween, so drop the conversation and get on with your night. You have a friend to mourn.”

Tommy advances on Jonathan, a circling hyena baring teeth. Surrounding them are other teens, and some adults Nancy assumes are family or Mr. Harrington’s employees. They cast sideways glances, and begin to stop talking.

“Excuse me? You saying I didn’t know Stevie Boy?”

“Good, you can hear,” Jonathan quips.

“I knew him better you than you or your pretentious girlfriend ever did,” Tommy seethes. “You want proof? Think about who was at the assembly Tuesday. I was. More than I can say about you and the princess. What happened? Had to run off again, to handle secret--”

Nancy sees a shadow pull over Jonathan and knows she’s lost him. He throws the first punch, sending Tommy tumbling back into a row of chairs. Adults and teens alike jump away, and suddenly the attention of the entire room is on them. Her cheeks flush red. How is this happening, again ? Tommy kicks Jonathan and wrestles him onto his back, but Jonathan throws him and pins him down.

Broad and big, Hopper pushes past Nancy and plucks Jonathan off Tommy. “What the hell is wrong with you!”

“He was insulting Nancy!” Jonathan tries to shrug out of Hopper’s grip to no avail.

Tommy crouches, then stands, and wipes his gushing nose on his blazer sleeve. “This isn’t over, Byers. This isn’t over.”

“Asshole!” Nancy barks.

“Hey!” Hopper’s eyes cut through her. “Let’s go. Outside. Now.”

As he tugs them toward the doors, Will flounces into the cramped parlor, buzzing around the chief without any regard for their stunned audience. “Dad! D-- Hopper, we need help! Please! Dustin and Max and El, and we tried to help but—”

With an eye roll, and Jonathan’s suit collar wound up in his fist, Hopper leads the three kids through the lobby and out the front door, into the disparaging dark.

Chapter Text

After insisting to Mrs. Byers that there’s no need to ring the bell-- he can explain to his mother why he’s late-- she lets him go. He casts his bike carelessly in the yard and trudges through the door, shrugging off his bag and coat. His shoes track in more than dirt tonight.

“There you are, honey! I was about to start calling around. Tews and I got a little worried. Didn’t we, Tews?” She kisses the cat cuddled in her arms, then notices her son’s blotchy face. “Dusty, what’s wrong?”

He sniffles. “Nothing.”

“Nothing?” She raises her eyebrows, finding the remote to lower the TV. “Seriously, I hope you know you can tell me anything.”

“I know, Mom! It’s just-- today afterschool something happened.” He walks into the living room, thinking I felt it . I knew something bad was happening, and I felt it. But I was too late.

“Dusty?”

“Mom, I…”

Steve died. He was murdered . The words roll across a teleprompter in his head, but he cannot form them with his mouth, and certainly isn’t prepared for her reaction. Maybe he should have let Mrs. Byers explain why Steve is gone.

Gone . A flash of El in a kiddie pool hits him. What she said about Barbara, dead in the Upside Down. Can she find Steve in her head, too? If she does, can she bring him back again?

Of course not, why would he torture himself wondering? Because he isn’t ready. This isn’t happening. They’ve always saved their friends before. What’s the point of the party if not to save people?

Jaw hanging open, Dustin starts to cry. His voice cracks, a distressed whine. “Mom?”

Hastily she sets Tews down and meets him in the middle of the room. “I’m right here, baby. Whatever it is, I’m right here.”

“I miss dad!” he gasps, falling into her arms.

Holding him tight, she sways slowly, cheek pressed against his hat. The pressure against his head is good, solid. He’s here, in the living room of his home, on Earth, even if his heart is far, far away.

“I do, too,” she says at last. “I miss him, too.”


Double doors loom over Dustin and his mother. He holds a tin of cookies, while she holds a fully prepared oven meal in a glass pan, wrapped in wax paper and tinfoil. An offering to show their condolences. Useless people send cards and prayers. The ones who understand death-- have met the bastard before-- bring useful things, like food. Cause honestly, who wants to cook dinner the day after their only child is senselessly slaughtered, like the wee little lamb he was?

Finally the door opens. A woman with Steve’s eyes smiles stiffly. “Can I help you?”

“Oh, hi, Mrs. Harrington! You might not remember me, I’m Claudia Henderson. Our husbands used the same mechanic for their bikes.”

At first her face is blank. Then it computes. Dryly she says, “He hasn’t ridden that thing in years. Was planning to give it to… to Steve as a graduation present this June.”

Shocked, Dustin’s eyes widen. Steve? On a motorcycle? Have these people met their child? Steve would own a minivan before ever owning a bike, and given his shit luck, any sane adult would discourage him from climbing on a motorized death launcher.

In the beat of silence that follows, he hears the slow music of a female singer swell in the living room. It’s the dream afraid of waking, that never takes the chance. He swears he’s heard the song before, maybe at his own house after his father died. And the soul afraid of dying, that never learns to live. Definitely a death song. That last line rings out, clinging like a summertime beetle, tiny legs digging into his head.

“Anywho, we brought you food. This needs to be heated at 350 for about forty minutes, and these are-- Dusty?-- these are cookies we baked fresh this morning.”

His attention returns to Mrs. Harrington. He offers the tin to her. As she takes it, those eyes hold his gaze. Too close to Steve’s to be comfortable, yet too far to be right.

“Could I go up to his room?” The idea crosses his lips the moment it arrives.

“Dusty!” His mother scolds. “Mrs. Harrington, I do apologize, my son was quite fond of Steven.”

“Quite fond,” he echoes.

“Dustin?” Steve’s mom ponders. “I’m sorry, I don’t think he mentioned you.”

Or maybe you never listened .

“I’m his brother.”

“His… What?”

“His brother, I’m his little brother. He protected me from everything, including intergalactic monsters, and my own insecurities. Did he tell you about the Snow Ball in December, when he taught me how to talk to girls? What about arcade night? He’d keep an eye out for me and my friends. And in this town, it’s safe to say a lookout is necessary.” His green-flecked eyes bore into her. “Wouldn’t you agree?”

Confused, Mrs. Harrington says, “Well, I didn’t realize he was so important.”

Christ, she better have forgotten the words to you , as in, I didn’t realize he was so important to you . Anything less implies what Dustin suspected, based on the stories Steve told him when they were together, and the things he didn’t say. His chest burns. Steve was much more than anything they believed about him. More than he believed about himself.

To his surprise, Mrs. Harrington steps aside. “Sure, you can visit his room if you’d like. There’s not much there, but maybe it’ll give you, what’s the word?”

“Closure, sweetie,” his mother supplies. “I think you mean closure.”

“Yes, that.”

“Thanks, Mrs. Harrington.”

Mounting the stairs he hears his mother say, “While Dusty’s up there, why don’t I heat this in the oven for you? Save you the trouble of doing it later…”

Yes, Mom! Buy him time.

Upstairs he finds Steve’s room; the only one with the door shut. Trepidatiously, as if the knob might burn his hand, he lets himself in. Boring striped wallpaper, boring wooden furniture, boring bed. There’s no way he decorated. Although, Dustin reminds himself, Steve is-- was-- impressionable, moldable. Did his mother suggest it? Did he pick it because a friend, like that asshole Tommy, had a similar set up?

Above the low, long dresser is a wide mirror, the only fixture that makes sense. There’s something tucked into the wooden frame. Dustin crosses the room and sees a Polaroid photograph. Below the mirror, on the dresser top, are a balled up gold chain and Steve’s Ray Ban sunglasses. Looking over his shoulder at the bed, the floor, and back to the mirror, it seems these three items are the last remaining pieces of his friend’s life.

Carefully he takes the photo from the mirror frame. The Byers’ living room, that night Will fashioned him after Bowie. Steve sits on the couch, looking away from the camera, laughing, face brightly powdered with a gradient spanning from purple-pink to yellow. His messy bangs are pushed aside, and he’s pale against a dark sweater, gold pendant hanging over it. Dustin sets the picture down and picks up the gold chain, dangles it from his fingertips. Unthinking, he puts it over his head and tugs open his collar, slipping the cold chain against his bare chest.

Then he picks up the photo again. Where is this lively, expressive boy? In a steel box, embalmed and refrigerated until it’s time to be put on display. If a body is concealed in such a state, can it be confirmed dead or alive? Like Schrodinger's cat, there is no telling, until the box is opened and Dustin peers inside, he can hang onto the chance that the doctors were lying, and this is a giant mistake.

With Dustin’s father there was no question. By his mother’s side he attended both the daytime and evening wakes. Many thought she was crazy, bringing a seven year old around an open casket, especially after such a gruesome end. However, the funeral home recreated his father as best they could, and his mom rightfully felt he was old enough to learn about the most natural thing that happens in life.

What’s unnatural is the pasty makeup, fixed pose, and dry cleaned clothes meant to make a corpse more palatable. Whoever’s in the box doesn’t care about their looks, why should the loved ones? Death is for everyone, and besides, substance is of the soul, not the physical shell. Steve’s essence was optimism. It never mattered that he wasn’t book smart, or that his common sense lacked. It mattered that he was loyal, teachable. He changed from a preppy sports brat, to a playful dude of service, willing to befriend a bunch of eighth graders.

Then, he changed again. Loyalty made him putty in Billy’s hands. Did Steve watch himself disappear? The night Steve came over to deliver the Christmas gift, he had said, It’s like the only way I can see myself is through him. Crazy to think Steve didn’t know who he was. Did he die believing he belonged to Billy?

“You should have saved yourself,” Dustin tells the room. “You should have let us save you. Why did you keep going back to him?”

Listlessly awaiting an answer, he sits on the edge of the bed, shoulders slouched, weighted by grief multiplying cancerously throughout his body. He sets the photo on the blanket beside him, tapping Steve’s lit face, the mysterious gold chain. Keepsakes, totems to trick him into feeling close to a soul that’s gone.

“Are you homesick?” Steady silence. “I mean, it’s only been like, a day, but… I’ll miss you.”

Stupid, expecting an answer. Steve isn’t here. He’s said his last words. What were they? With a flash of panic Dustin can’t remember their last words to each other. How could a conversation weigh this heavy on the heart?

Then it comes to him.

It’s okay. You’re not gonna die. Right? You’re gonna hang on. He held back tears, determined to stay strong. Lack of consciousness isn’t equal to lack of senses. Steve could still hear Dustin, feel the grip of his hand. Please, please, please . Just hang on. Hang on for me.

Last words.

After his father’s funeral there was a reception, where family and coworkers and a whole slew of adults Dustin didn’t know came up to him, hugged and kissed him, squeezed his cheeks. Every person donated words of supposed wisdom. To a third grader, hearing He’s watching over you and Everything happens for a reason weren’t the least bit comforting. If anything, they made his poorly tethered bind to Sunday mass dissipate entirely. How can a person whose body matter is no longer alive watch over him? His father’s brains were grated along the pavement, shredded like cheese, his right leg nearly amputated. At that age Dustin was unable to understand consciousness, and he calculated that dead body meant no eyes to watch with. How could his father watch him?

Then, everything happens for a reason? If it did, how come no one could tell him why Dad died? Any time he asked his mother that burning question, she got upset. Dusty, we talked about this. He was in a bad accident. His stubborn reply: I know how he died, Mom. But why?

If God exists, He should be mandated to send a sympathy card to every survivor, explaining. For Steve’s death, He’d have to send an annotated essay with proper citations and a bibliography. What could the reason possibly be?

A voice rises from the emptiness. To give Billy a chance .

He had a chance! That night at the Byers’, he could have asked what the hell was going on, and instead he attacked. What else would he have done? Listened? That porchdick couldn’t listen in a thousand years, not if it saved his life. Let him rot in prison, get eaten alive by rats and roaches. Retribution!

Truthfully, retribution is not enough.

Overcome with rage, he finds a fetal curl and smashes his face into Steve’s pillow, screams until his lungs give out. Loud sobs like coughs rock out of his body, making his stomach hurt. His hat knocks off and falls beside him on the bed. He grips Steve’s pillow with both hands, a life preserver, collecting his tears, snot, and drool. The scent of that damn Faberge shampoo lingers, one last comfort before the cold.


Crying spells end, but there’s no returning once you’ve passed expired. As a child, Dustin repeatedly begged his mother for Dad to come home. Again and again she explained what it means to be dead, and how, despite losing an integral part of yourself, life moves on.

It’s already moving.

Wednesday he attends school, vaguely listening to Mike ramble on at lunch about Hopper and the questions, as, across town, arcade games click and sing, cars slow and stop at red lights, people walk dogs, run errands, and meet with bosses. A few months from now he’ll have to join them, the legions of survivors who accept that this is how life is now. Missing.

According to Mike, each member of the party has to tell their story to stuffy investigators. Even Max, who agreed to sit with them only if they leave her alone. Dustin has no problem doing that. In his mind she’s associated with Billy, making her part evil, too.

Later that day, Max finds a letter in her locker. Get out of our school, psycho!!! She hides in the bathroom until dismissal bell and disappears without saying goodbye. Vengeful, Dustin is satisfied by her hurt. However, Lucas is blabbers on to the boys about how worried he is. Invariably she’s damaged she is because of her stepbrother's actions, and Neil is burdening her with the same abuse he gave Billy. Mike and Will brainstorm ways to help Max. Resentfully, Dustin changes the subject, too engrossed in his own suffering to consider the sheer catastrophic effects Steve’s death has on her.

Mid-afternoon he gets his first chance to explode. As Mike predicted, Chief Hopper and two sturdy investigators are waiting for him at home, interviewing his mom about Steve. When it comes time for Dustin to recount his version of their tempestuous relationship, he violently screams. “That son of a bitch brainwashed Steve into believing he was an idiot! He manipulated him, threatened him, and cornered him until he had nobody else to talk to! That monster convinced Steve he was the only thing that mattered, and then killed him!”

He becomes too emotional to continue.

God, how badly Dustin wanted the doctor at the hospital to say Billy died from his wrists, slit right up the center.

What a living nightmare, to be told that Steve didn’t make it, but he did.


There is only one person in front of Dustin on the line now. To his right is a stand of prayer cards. Stealthily he grabs two and tucks them in the breast pocket of his suit jacket. Alone tonight, he’ll read the prayer, in a space where his ritualistic attempts at contact won’t be infringed upon by teetering wastoids. Do any of these teenage idiots actually give a shit, or are they here for the thrill of real-life drama? A dead classmate, an exciting teenage homicide shaking up their quaint, archaic town. Dustin’s hands ball into fists.

Finally at the casket, he blesses himself and kneels before the wax statue of his friend, hardly recognizable, sunken into a suit that death makes look larger, though Steve had already grown too thin. Dustin studies his glued lips, painted to look alive, and the blush and powder barely hiding cuts around his eye. He notices that Steve’s hair isn’t simply slicked back. It’s chopped off. Proof beyond measure that Steve’s parents had no idea who he was. They removed his proudest part to create an image of their son to remember. An image decidedly not him.

The Harringtons’ sit in the front row, over to the left. They’re surrounded by people, giving Dustin space to say what he needs. Carefully he lays one hand over Steve’s. Hard, leathery. Strange.

“I’m sorry they did this to you,” he mumbles. “If I had known they would do this, I would have stopped them. You know that, right?” He thinks about Monday, after school. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there to stop him. I’d give anything to go back, I would, but I… I can’t.”

As in Steve’s room, Dustin awaits a reply. A song comes to mind, the record Mrs. Harrington was playing when he and his mother left on Tuesday. She broke your throne, and she cut your hair, and from your lips she drew the Hallelujah. King Steve, taken down. Life, drawn from the lips, through words and laughter and shouts. What did Steve say to Billy to set him off? Why was that fight their last?

Powerless over the onslaught of grief, he squeezes Steve’s hands. “I love you, buddy. And I hope it doesn’t hurt.”

The box is open, confirming Steve is dead.


Near the end of the wake, Mike, Lucas, and Will find him on a bench outside, breathing loud under the starless sky. He isn’t sure how he got here. At least the cold air is refreshing, compared to the hot, overcrowded parlor inside. If he had to hear another teen girl complain, he was going to re-open the gate and commission D’Artagnan to eat them alive.

“Want company?” Will asks. When he receives no reply, he smartly stands away from the bench.

Although he studies the dead grass at his feet, Dustin feels the burn of his friends concerned stares. Anxious, he pulls out the pendant he’s had tucked under his shirt since Tuesday and fidgets with it.

“Let’s leave him be,” Lucas suggests.

“We can leave him be and still stand here,” Mike says. “We’ve gotta stick together, remember?”

“I don’t know Mike, between him and Max it’s pretty clear--”

“Pretty clear what , Lucas? We’re getting through this together, period.”

“If you say so.”

The doubt in their ranger’s voice adds another stone to the weight sinking Dustin down. Soon he’ll hit the ground and won’t be able to see anymore. He’ll dive six feet under, but that’s okay. At least he’ll be with Steve.

Several feet away the front door swings open, releasing a gaggle of girls and a couple douchebag guys reminiscing about keg stands and parties. Is that what Steve was to them, really? A pawn who was good at sports and fun at parties?

“Almost ready to go?” El asks Will.

She must have exited behind the gust of teens, along with Max. They’ve been together all night, and it frustrates Dustin. What right does El have to guide Max through this? Steve wasn’t anyone to them. A few months ago El didn’t even know his name! Tonight she comforted Max like she’s done this before. What has she lost? The bad men? Mama, who she never even knew? El hasn’t lost shit. Instead, she’s gained everything, while Dustin’s lost what truly mattered-- what he always needed . An older brother to serve as a coach for this messed up game of life.

“Yeah, almost ready,” Will replies. “Is Hopper still inside?”

“Yes. Jonathan and Nancy, too.”

“He’s giving us a ride home,” Mike chimes in.

Dustin picks his head up. Everyone’s wearing coats, except him. Dutifully he plans to stay until the adults kick him out. He would still be inside if Steve’s classmates weren’t more of a nightmare than the reason they’re here in the first place.

Suddenly Max’s blue eyes catch the gold chain he’s fiddling with and widen. Attention is drawn to Dustin as she urgently asks, “Where did you get that?”

He squeezes the pendant between his thumb and forefinger. “Steve’s room. Why?”

“I never thought I’d see it again, much less on you,” she shivers. Lucas side hugs her and rubs her arm. Dustin envies that she has two people to comfort her: El and Lucas. Who does he have? No one. Even those who want to comfort him aren’t allowed in, because they’re phonies pretending to care.

“Oh yeah? Why’s that?”

“It was Billy’s.”

Disgust etches his face. “I would never wear something that belonged to that monster.”

“Better take it off then,” she says. “Cause Billy wore it from the day I met him until the day he moved out. That’s when it showed up on Steve.”

How could she notice this, and not him?

“Whatever,” he dismisses. “It still belonged to my brother in the end.”

She scoffs.

“What?”

“Nothing, forget it.”

He stands up. “Not nothing. What ?”

“It’s just,” she shrugs, “Steve wasn’t your brother.”

Vengefully he sprays venom. “You’re just jealous I had a positive role model, and you got stuck with a killer.”

Shockingly, Max hangs her head, and for once accepts defeat. Her silence provokes him. “You know what? You don’t even belong here.”

“Dustin!” Will exclaims.

“Take that back,” Mike demands. “She’s our Zoomer, take it back.”

“Screw our Zoomer, Mike. What good has she done us? If Lucas hadn’t snuck her into the party she wouldn’t have been with us that night, and Billy would have never gotten involved with Steve, and--”

“You don’t know that!” Mike shouts. “Besides, we needed her to drive when Steve refused, so we could create a diversion in the tunnels.”

“Quit while you’re ahead, both of you!” Lucas warns. “Mike, there’s no use arguing when he’s this upset, and Dustin, you sound like one of those notes in Max’s locker.”

“Good, cause I was the only one who actually cared. When it was El and Will, we nearly killed ourselves to save them, but with Steve the best you guys came up with was telling the adults.”

“What were we supposed to do?” Mike presses. “We couldn’t kill Billy like the Demogorgon, or exorcise him like the shadow monster. It wasn’t as easy as relating their situation to a Dungeons and Dragons game. Billy’s human.”

“Steve was too, and now he’s dead!”

“Dustin,” El interrupts calmly.

The kids fall silent, turning to her. She moves closer and reaches out for the pendant, her lack of personal space annoying him tonight. In her fingertips she studies the pendant, then she closes her palm around it and shuts her eyes for a moment.

Opening them she says, “No fighting. Steve is glad you kept this.”

He slaps her hand away. “What the hell are you saying?”

“El, don’t tell him.” Will wrings his hands. Fueling the fire of his jealousy, Dustin realizes Will knows more than he does, since El practically lives with him now. Leaving him singled out, apart.

“No, Will, I want to hear this,” Mike says. “El, how do you know?”

“Because,” smiles at Dustin. There are tears in her eyes. “I can feel him.”

Impossible.

The universe wouldn’t dare pull a stunt that flagrantly unjust. Why should a girl, born by chance into an experiment that granted her powers, get to feel this boy she barely knew? Why should Dustin, closer to Steve than the rest, be left to suffer through loss alone, without an official goodbye? Staggering, how you can be so close to someone and yet have no rights to them, no ownership at all.

Through the hole she blew through his chest he pleads, “Don’t lie to me. Not about him.”

“Friends don’t lie.” She holds both hands over her heart, like the saint on the front of Steve’s prayer card.

His eyes glisten with pain. “Since when?”

“Tuesday morning. He was in my sleep, and again last night.”

“What are the dreams about?”

“Sleep. Not dreams. He came to me as a winged creature, and he—”

“El, stop.” Dustin winces. He can’t afford to believe this.

“He told me to tell you something.”

This blindsides him. He whispers, “What?”

She closes her eyes again, recalling. “‘Our world is a hybrid combination of the two possible worlds, and each world interferes with the other.’”

From Schrodinger’s Cat. A line Steve told him in a dream once. Are dreams an extension of reality? A plane of existence we can only visit in sleep? El has access to myriad worlds, and Dustin wishes that what she said isn’t true, but it must be. How else would she memorize that line? Hybrid and interfere aren’t in her vocabulary. She must have seen Steve-- reached him-- and that means there’s a chance.

“Can…” Dustin ventures, heart racing, palms sweating. Her answer has the power to shatter him completely. “Can you bring him back?”

Immediately her face crumbles, realizing it was a mistake to tell him. Her not-dreams pose a promise she can’t deliver. Her powers is limited, and resurrection is not on the list. Softly, she shakes her head. A futile gesture of apology. The party watches on, mistified.

“I’m sorry,” she says. “He’s gone.”

Those words do more than shatter him like the glass sprayed on Billy's kitchen floor. Dustin has been falling for days, from miles above, gaining momentum and speed. He hits the ground and detonates.

Foaming at the mouth, he rushes her. “Liar!”

“It’s the truth,” she backs away. “Promise.”

“Bullshit! You’re a goddamn liar!”

Mike shoves him. “Hey, watch how you’re talking to her. She’s our mage.”

“What’s the point of having a mage when she’s useless?

Lunging, Mike takes Dustin to the ground. Clumsily they flail and whack each other. Nearby Lucas guards Max, shouting for them to stop, and Will sways nervously, like he saw this coming. Moments later El separates the boys with her mind and they hit their asses, huffing and avoiding eye contact. Right away Mike bounces up, leaving Dustin doubled over, screaming through sobs, forgetting how to breathe.

He doesn’t even look up when tires screech, and a beige pickup truck jerks to a stop at the curb. Out hops Neil, alight with Hargrove fury. “Right where I thought I’d find you.” Intimidatingly slow, he approaches their sad group, eyes only for his stepchild. “Maxine, what did we talk about?”

“Respect and responsibility.” The answer is well-rehearsed.

“That’s right. I expected you to respect me when I told you not to be here. Having my stepdaughter seen at the services for the high school boy my son… put to rest, is not okay.”

“S-sorry.”

“Mm, I don’t want to hear that. Get in the truck. As soon as we get home we’ll decide what your punishment is.”

“But, the funeral’s tomorrow!” she blurts, then bites her tongue.

He squares up to her. “Are you really going to go against me, again, in front of your friends? Thought you were smarter than that.”

“Guess not.”

In a blink Neil backhands her, then grabs the back of her neck tight and forces her towards the truck. As Neil yanks the passenger door open and shoves Max as she scrambles to climb onto the seat, Will sprints back into the funeral home to get help. The truck speeds away as Hopper bursts through the front door, forcefully dragging Jonathan, with innocent Will and Nancy in tow.

“The hell is goin on out here!?”

Everyone is silent, aside from Dustin, still heaving with sobs, clawing and ripping the brittle grass. “She’s lying!” he howls, loud enough to disturb the visitors filtering out to their cars. “She says she can feel him but he’s gone!”

Hopper’s anger melts away. He lets go of Jonathan and turns to his adopted daughter. “Oh, El. Why’d you tell him?”

Silent tears paint her cheeks. “He got upset at Max. I--” she swallows, guilty. “I thought it would help.”

“Jesus.” He sighs and rubs a hand over his forehead.

As the kids begin to relay the scene, Dustin lurches to a stand and walks away, forgetting his coat inside. The party notices his absence and, one after the other, call his name. Even Nancy, who Dustin knows lied to him at the Snow Ball. He’s not her favorite. She faked it to make him feel better. What a pro! She faked being in love with Steve until she couldn’t anymore. Consequently, he fell apart, and in turn, they all did.

Ignoring these people he no longer considers friends, Dustin walks on, grateful for the cold wind shocking breath back into his lungs.

Chapter Text

“A fight?” She exclaims, appalled.

Across the kitchen table Jonathan hangs his head. “Technically, two.”

“Two? Wh-- what are you guys talking about?”

“The kids,” Hopper explains, waving a lit cigarette. “Dustin blew up at Max, and El tried to help by telling him about her not-dreams. Then he blew up on her, so of course Mike went after him.”

“Hop, I left a half hour before you did!”

“I know, Joyce,” he snaps. “Things went to shit pretty quickly!” Rightfully, he’s aggravated. While it was a stressful night for everyone, he’s had an exhausting, nonstop week, dealing with ramifications of legality during the day and those of emotion at home.

She frowns. “I’m sorry. Let’s start over. Tell me in detail.”

Between Hop and Jonathan, she learns about the amount of teens that flooded the funeral home at the end, Tommy antagonizing Nancy, and Will alerting them to the situation outside, which included Max being roughly handled by Neil. That worries Joyce the most. Undoubtedly, the party will make up, but Neil, having had his only son betray the basic expectations of behavior, must be lost in a storm. Someone already prone to acting abusively can fly completely off the handle, and little girls are easy to knock around.

“So,” she says once they’ve wrapped up, “what do we do about the funeral?”

“We’re gonna do our best to mitigate the tension,” Hop says, sucking in the last of his cigarette. His pack is on the table. Joyce reaches out for it and he flicks the lighter.

Tapping his fingers on the tabletop Jonathan says, “Nancy’s going to speak.”

“What?” This is news to both parents. Joyce exhales. “You mean, give a eulogy?”

“I told her not to, but she talked to Mr. Harrington about it on Tuesday when we went over to ask for pictures.”

“That was a nice thing you did.” She’s proud of Jonathan for initiating a project like that, even though he wasn’t fond of Steve.

He waves off the praise. “It was nothing. I’m just worried about Nancy. She hasn’t eaten much this week, and I don’t think she’s slept, either.”

“Have you talked to her today?”

“I went over earlier to review the speech with her, yeah.”

“And?” Hop prompts.

“And, it’s… not the truth.”

“Not the truth?”

“You’ll see.”

Joyce scrunches her face, consulting Hop. “Should I talk to her?”

“Come on, it’s Nancy. Our opinions won’t matter. Best to let her find out for herself if she can handle it.” He rests his elbows on the table, weary, and watches Jonathan expectantly. “What I wanna know is how that conversation with Mr. Harrington went.”  

Folding his arms, he leans back. “What is there to tell?”

“Was he devastated? Did he mention Billy?”

“Actually, he asked us if we knew Billy, and that’s why he let us in.” Jonathan hugs himself. “Honestly, I think he liked Billy more than Steve.”

“What?” Joyce reels.

“Mr. Harrington had started teaching him about the family business. He said he couldn’t trust Steve with accounting and inventorying, and not even with managing the staff, since he’s such a pushover.”

“He said that?” She can’t imagine talking crudely about her deceased child. Sons have faults and shortcomings. Steve wasn’t inadequate, though, he was human. If Mr. Harrington looked closer, he would see that Steve could excel with a little customer service training, because of his easygoing, lighthearted charm.

“Crazy, right?” Jonathan says. “He told us how smart Billy was, how steady and confident.”

“Delusional,” Hopper mumbles.

Their agreement encourages Jonathan. “Having free room and board meant Billy was on his best behavior with the Harringtons. Steve’s dad talked about him like he was more of a man than his own son. I wanted to tell him there are all kinds of ways to be a man, and that, even if he refuses to acknowledge it, Billy’s behavior constitutes him as a monster, not a man.”

Hasn’t she heard that before? The night after Steve was raped by Billy-- the boy he was convinced loved him and would never hurt him again-- she told Steve about men being monsters. Poor thing couldn’t comprehend how Billy’s actions were monstrous, how they manifested at all. He felt responsible, like Billy’s loss of control was his doing.

Hopper says, “Billy’s not a monster. He’s a sick kid.”

“How can you say he’s not a monster?” Jonathan unfolds his arms and sits up.

“He’s still a boy,” Joyce shrugs, pondering morality. “Steve told me Billy wasn’t a monster, that he just needed the right help. He was right. Men are monsters, when left to their own devices for years and years. They morph into people like Papa, and Neil. Boys like Billy are the result of monstrous men.”

“So it’s not his fault?”

“Oh, he’s responsible. Make no mistake about that.” Hop toys with the cigarette pack in his hands. “The fact that he ended up like this isn’t his fault.”

“How can he be responsible for his behaviors and not at fault?” He judges them, like he’s another adult.

“You heard your mother.”

Joyce nods. “Right now it’s not his fault he’s like this, but it will be his fault if he stays like this.”

“Where was this attitude at the start of their relationship? You only want to help him because you feel bad Steve died.” He snorts. “As if Billy even wants to change.”

“He’s got time,” Hopper concludes calmly.

“He’ll be doing time, you mean.”

“Look, whether or not it’s cause I feel bad, I’m trying to get him real help. Remember the interviews earlier this week?”

As they hash it out, Joyce travels into thought. Thursday evening, the Byers’ were questioned about Steve and Billy’s relationship. Mike and Nancy had gone first, then Dustin, then them. Strategically Hop was waiting to interview Neil, Susan, and Max post-services, once he’d heard from everyone else. If the stories corroborated, a mental evaluation would be necessary for Billy. There was a chance he wouldn’t be incarcerated and ignored, only to be released later on half-rotted.

It is hard to despise a glaringly ill teen, regardless of what he’s done. Past the initial shock and anger over Steve’s death, and the ensuing outpour of empathy for his family, Joyce was upset Billy hadn’t already been taken into a hospital. He openly attempted suicide in front of six pre-teens, after begging one to take his life!

During the week, when she and Hop had time alone, they shared long, dark conversations about the surreal experience. Billy had been in a rage-induced blackout, and remembers little more than coming out of it and finding the kids standing there, traumatized. Dustin and Lucas hovered over Steve’s mutilated body. He had stabbed Steve in the gut with broken glass before cutting his own wrists, yet they denied him immediate mental services? Negligent!

“Mom. Mom? Are you okay?”

“Jesus, Joyce, you’re crying.” Hopper pulls his chair closer. She thrusts out an arm to fend him off.

“Jonathan!”

He bolts to a stand and she rises to meet him, burying her face in his chest. Simultaneously she feels protective and protected, given her son’s height. The muscles of his wiry arms flex around her and she tightly hugs his waist. “Sweetie, I love you so much.”

“I love you, too, Mom.” He chokes up.

Over a year ago, Will’s death was penetratingly real. She hated herself for burdening Jonathan with her rattled mind, abandoning him because of her emotions and fatigue. He had to be strong when she wasn’t there for him, and she should have been there for him. Once again, since Steve’s loss is peripheral, Jonathan is sturdier than her. She decides to suspend self-judgement about her own mothering, and let the sadness come.

“Alright, let me in here,” Hop sighs. Like a bear he smothers both of them. In his embrace Joyce senses the same gratitude for their found family, their safety, that she has. He admits, “I love you both. Plus the two magic brats down the hall.”

Jonathan giggles. “Magic brats for sure.”

They remain locked like that for several minutes, and Joyce understands that his love is true.


Sunday she arrives at the Hargrove residence for the second time. Shivering as she jumps down from Hopper’s truck, she perceives the small white house differently. It is now a haunted house. The investigators she spoke to earlier in the week park at the curb and meet them at the front door. Hopper raps impatiently, already fed up with Neil and ready for this to be over. They saved the worst for last.

However, these are also the most important people to piece the story together. In spite of his gargantuan mistakes, Billy could be a rare case and receive proper support. Problem is, women like Susan, and young girls like Max, aren’t likely to rat out the aggressive male head of the household. If Neil is truly abusive, he’ll have them frightened into submission. To keep themselves safe they’ll keep their mouths shut. Hopper hopes they’ll be honest, but Joyce is doubtful. If someone had asked her about Lonnie’s treatment of she and the boys before she was ready, she would have lied.

Neil answers the door, and as the crew file in, Joyce notices Steve’s car still parked on the edge of the driveway. His parents haven’t come to get it yet? Resolving to ask the Hargrove’s if Steve’s car key is here, Joyce follows the men inside.

First they interview Susan, using Billy’s bedroom as a makeshift office. Joyce hasn’t seen his room yet, or anything other than the living room and kitchen. She doesn’t need to. It’s clear that, while living goes on here, it’s disingenuine. A tension permeates the place, even the very square of wood floor she stands on.

Neil waits in the living room with Hopper, Joyce, and Max. Standing on the far side near the hall, it’s evident he wishes to eavesdrop on what his wife is saying. Her meek words are indistinguishable. It frustrates him, and he turns to Hopper, questioning why Joyce is here. Immediately Hop shuts him down with a fire-quick explanation made up off the top of his head. Always, his ability to work convincingly on the fly astounds her.

Clearly it astounds Max, too. She’s perched on the edge of the sofa, dead center, fully absorbed in the men’s interaction. She is incredibly ragged, wearing a long sleeved tee shirt and ripped jeans, Joyce wonders if the family made it to mass this morning, and more importantly, if Max has slept since Monday night. The girl is shot. How could someone rest here?

Once Neil shuts up, Joyce sits at the end of the sofa near Max. Poor girl wants space, and silence. Part of Hopper’s recount Friday night included Lucas attempting to comfort Max, and her refusing to open up-- refusing to sit with her friends at lunch unless they leave her alone. Tragic, that a sparky girl could lock herself inside bricks walls, only to have them cave in and trap her. Once Neil is gone Joyce will engage Max.

Minutes later, Susan exits Billy’s room, harrowed. Like Max, her hair is bright red, her cheekbones high and pronounced. Beautiful. How can beautiful women fall prey to belligerent men? How could Steve, a beautiful boy, fall prey to another who had no idea his own strength?

Neil is taken in for questioning, and Hopper accompanies him. Lost, Susan stands in the living room, eyes darting around, searching for an escape.

“How are you feeling?” Joyce asks. Next to her Max’s head picks up, anxious for her mother’s reply.

“Me?” A forced smile. “I’m alright. It’s safer without him in the house, I suppose.”

“Billy? Was he unsafe?” Obviously it’s true, but Joyce leans forward, curious for her opinion.

“Well, they fought an awful lot, Neil and Billy.” She lowers her voice. “Sometimes they got violent. Quite frankly, it’s a relief that’s he’s gone.”

Joyce raises her eyebrows and motions to the hall. “You told them, I hope?”

“What? Oh, no. No, I couldn’t.”

“Because you’re afraid of what he would do?”

Their eyes lock. Conversation is unnecessary. Joyce is right. Powerless over her husband, Susan chooses her safety and that of her daughter’s. Describing the violence between Billy and Neil implies Neil is abusive, and to say that aloud is a risk. Unfortunately, in order to get help, the risk must be taken, and Susan isn’t willing to-- as the kids say-- accept the risk.

Susan checks the dainty watch on her wrist. “Sorry, I’ve got to be off to town now. Errands to run. Max, when Neil is finished, tell him I ran to the store, please?”

Max nods. “Sure.”

Her voice is small, hoarse. Have there been screaming matches this week? Slammed doors, chases? Joyce scans the room and hallway for evidence of broken belongings, claw marks on walls or floors, blood. By the time Susan throws on her coat and grabs her purse, Joyce concludes there’s no evidence to suggest violence here beyond that of Monday night.

The front door closes, and she turns to Max. “How are you, sweetie?”

She shrugs.

“You know,” Joyce invites, “I’m not a cop. Anything you tell me, I won’t repeat. I want you to remember that, in case you want to vent, and just get it out.” She shakes out one hand, gesticulating her words.

“You’d tell Hopper, and he’s a cop.”

Usually quick-wit and logic serve children. Her own boys are intelligent and self-protective because of these virtues, but at times like this they can be hindrances. Max deserves to let this weight off. According to the kids, everyone’s had emotional release except her. Holding back whatever’s going on in that fiery head, resisting, can only make it worse.

“Sure, he’s a cop,” Joyce agrees, thinking. “He’s also my best friend.”

Max glances up at her, curious.

Joyce laughs. “Believe it or not, boys can grow up to be great listeners, and even better dads.” She tips her chin toward the hall, where they hear baritone grumbles. “Seems like he’s not too great, huh?”

“The devil incarnate.”

“Ah. Jonathan felt the same way about his father before we split.”

“Wait, their dad was an asshole?”

“A giant, stinking one.”

“But, Will and Jonathan are so… nice?”

“They are. Regardless of where you come from, it’s possible to be a good person.”

“I wish Billy knew that.” She shakes her head. “He could never change. Just when I thought he needed help too, he—” She can’t say it.

Joyce scoots closer to her on the smushy sofa. “How do you feel about him being gone?”

“Kind of relieved, like my mom said. And scared. What if he comes back? I mean, he’s already haunting my dreams.”

“That’s no fun.” She remembers the sight of Billy’s wrists, blood pulsing out and over the unmarred skin around the slits, the way he grew paler with each passing minute, until finally losing consciousness. Whether from the pain, or the overwhelming amount of gore in his own kitchen, was unclear.

A shout clangs off the walls in the other room, snapping their focus to the present. Flinching, Max makes herself smaller by hunching her shoulders and ducking her head, bracing for impact like Neil is going to burst out of Billy’s room and run her down.

“Hey, it’s alright.” Finally, alone with her, Joyce can say it. “I’m right here. While I’m here, nothing bad can happen to you.” Reassuringly, she touches Max’s hand. “Nothing.”

If Max took off like her mother, it would make sense, since genuine love and support are unfamiliar to them. Surprisingly, she leans into her side, and Joyce wraps an arm around her. No sooner does Joyce hug her in at the waist than Max hisses in pain. As she recoils from the touch, her shirt rides up slightly around her belly. Joyce’s heart skips a beat, then runs .

“Are those bruises?”

Max yanks the shirt down, sitting up straight. Did Joyce shoot herself in the foot? Frightened girls don’t trust easy, and Max’s survival may depend on having a solid adult in her life who is trustworthy. Blatantly asking a survivor about marks on their body is not a good move to build that sort of relationship.

“I fell off my skateboard, it’s no big deal,” she recites.

Even the boys, who practically live on bikes, dislike riding in February cold. “Oh, sweetie, you don’t have to lie. I had bruises once, too. Even cuts.” She pulls at the collar of her shirt, revealing a knick where Lonnie flung a remote at her during a throwing match.

“I’m sorry.”

“What, for me?” The girl nods. “Please don’t be sorry, Max. You have nothing to apologize for. I’d like to see the bruises, though, if you’ll let me.”

The concept of an adult checking to make sure she’s physically sound seems foreign to her, and Joyce assumes she’ll say no. Thankfully Max decides Joyce is trustworthy, and glances down the hall to make the door is still closed. She stands and faces Joyce and lifts her shirt with a shaky breath, as if pulling back the curtains on a performance, nervous about the crowd.

It takes effort not to gasp. Mottling Max’s white skin on one side is a thick band of rainbow bruises from ribs to belly button to hip. A pattern indicating she was repeatedly kicked.

Casually, Joyce slides to the edge of the sofa and asks if she can touch the spot. Max peers over her shoulder. Neil continues to rant. Turning to Joyce she nods. Gently as possible, Joyce presses fingers to her belly, the healthy side first, then on and around her injury, checking for differences, tightness or swelling beneath the bruises that could signal internal bleeding. She presses the ribs and looks up at Max, who grimaces the whole time. “How is your breathing? Does it hurt?”

“No.” When Joyce merely blinks, she rolls her eyes. “Okay, yes. But not that bad, I promise.”

“Did he do this because you went to the wake when you weren’t supposed to?” Joyce sits back and motions for Max to let her shirt down. Carefully the girl sits beside her, their thighs pressed together. Trust. She needs consensual parental contact. Again Joyce wraps an arm around her, this time only around the shoulders, and Max sinks into her.

“He broke my skateboard, too, which is stupid, because my mom got it for me with his money.”

“Has he done this to you before?”

“Billy has, because Neil always did it to him. Apparently I’m his replacement. Neil’s constantly angry with me.”

“You did nothing wrong, Max. This is not your fault.”

“Rationally that makes sense. I feel messed up, though.”

They sit in silence, Joyce calculating possibilities and next moves, smoothing Max’s long hair and marvelling at how fear can render parents useless. Finally she says, “Tell them.”

“What?” Max tenses.

“I’m serious. When you go in there to say your part, tell them absolutely everything, from before you moved here to now.”

“I--I can’t do that. He’ll find out, he’ll destroy me!”

“Hopper is in there, and if you trust me, you can trust him. It’s a risk, but it could help you and your mom get relief.”

She wonders if Max doubts their power, given how they failed Steve. As vehemently as she told Hopper it’s not his fault, Joyce is also guilty. Steve was theirs, yet he was someone else’s. They should have done more, sooner. However, Joyce is experienced enough to understand that fate often holds onto those it wants to disturb, until it’s finished. Max isn’t finished yet.

Lightly, Joyce squeezes her shoulders. “The only way out is through. What do you say?”

A great sigh, followed by a wince, escapes her.

Down the hall they hear a doorknob turn.


They return home around dinner time. Jonathan is teaching El how to use the stove, a skill Hop can’t offer. Anticipating the release of their new album next week, Queen is blasting from Jonathan’s stereo in his bedroom, loudly bumping the house. At the table, which is already set, Will draws, bopping his head and singing along. That critter was a bad guy, and I had to make him pay...

Over the din Hopper shouts, “Since when did you get a sous chef?”

Jonathan tips his chin at Will, who dashes down the hall and lowers the music. He comes back into the kitchen as El is explaining to the adults how she and Jonathan made spaghetti and meatballs. Stealthily Joyce eyes Will’s newest drawings. A winged angel that resembles Steve, a figure with red hair floating as if she’s underwater-- Max-- and another, darker character she doesn’t recognize. Similar to Steve’s angel persona, there are wings. However, they’re in tatters, and in the place of a healthy, elegant frame is an impish, twisted half-human form. Where Steve’s colors are gold and underlying green, those of this creature’s are cold blue, supported by a fading gradient of deep crimson to pale red.

“Who’s this?” She points to the drawing.

“Oh, that’s Billy.” He inspects the drawing scrutinously after having stepped away for a minute.

Over his shoulder Hop takes a peek, before heading down to the bedroom to change. There’s a drawer and a small section of closet space carved out for him now, and El has a drawer in Will’s dresser. She’s glad to have them stay over. Where Jonathan judged her choice to be with Bob, both boys react to Hopper as if he’s always lived here. Although Joyce wouldn’t call she and Hopper an item yet, there’s a definite love that’s powerful enough to create this sacred space-- a space for a found family to trust, to grow. Total opposite of what Max has.

As Joyce takes a seat beside Will at the table, her gut burns with disdain for Neil. She remembers Max’s small words, big bruises, and terror-filled eyes earlier today. Since Joyce wasn’t allowed in, she’d shared a telling glance with Hopper as Max and Neil switched places. Guide her, Hop. Please, guide her.

Awkwardly Joyce had waited on the sofa, studying Neil’s behavior post-interview. He walked to the kitchen and cracked what sounded like a beer, then returned a minute later empty handed. “Pardon me for being rude. Would you care for a drink?”

She wanted to yell at him, What are you thinking ? First, how could anyone treat children this way? Second, how could Neil crank up the charm, as if they didn’t just hear him losing it behind closed doors? Men who pretend are her least favorite. Thankfully her Hopper is beyond exasperated by life, and refuses to pretend.

Politely she had declined the offer. “I’m sure we’ll be out of your way soon.”

“Of course. Max won’t have much to say on the matter, considering Steve was a stranger to her.”

What a crock of garbage. Neil made no effort to connect with his son, and certainly has no idea who his step-daughter is. An abusive liar doesn’t deserve a girl like her anyway, nor a woman like Susan. How long until she’s released from his trap? Permanently leaving Lonnie was the best decision Joyce ever made, and her brief encounter with him during Will’s fake funeral was a blessing, a pertinent reminder why men like Bob and Hopper are safe, and why Lonnie should be cast from their lives forever.

Rather than rip Neil a new asshole, she inquired about the BMW. “Are the keys here? I’d be happy to move it for you.”

All this and more she had told Hopper on the drive home. Then he recounted each interview, though legally he wasn’t allowed to. Neil’s was an interrogation, really. He’ll be present in court tomorrow-- Monday-- for Billy’s hearing, plus more.

“Did she tell you guys?” Joyce had asked, eyes riveted on Hop. His face grew shadowy in the February dusk.

“Max? It was like pulling teeth. For a minute I thought she wasn’t gonna give us anything. Then she spilled it, stuff I’ve never heard. Started with Billy’s best friend in California, who was his boyfriend, and how she’d inadvertently told Susan and Neil he’s gay. She talked about moving here, Billy’s rage, and how his secret relationship with Steve seemed to quell that, until it spiralled.”

At that point his hands tightened around the steering wheel. “They asked her about Neil’s treatment of Billy. She described the abuse, their vicious fights. And when they asked if he’s ever touched her, she…” He stalled then, emotional, at the part she’d been waiting for.

“What, Hop? She what ?”

“She stood up, lifted her shirt, and just stared these two men down. Then she goes, ‘What do you think?’ Her torso was covered in bruises, and, well, tomorrow I get to push the investigation with  Neil.”

The dimming light hid Joyce’s satisfied grin. She had whispered, “That’s my girl.”

Abruptly, El asks, “How many?”

Broken from her trance, Joyce sees El holding a dish of delightfully browned meatballs. Jonathan has already spooned spaghetti onto four of the five plates. Hopper rejoins them, pulling up the sleeves of his frayed flannel. Joyce makes a mental note that, for his birthday, she needs to pick him up new shirts.

If only she could have shrunk Max and carried her here in the pocket of her coat, to stay. This is what home feels like. This is love.

Chapter Text

“You have to defer. Have to.” There’s no resolve in his voice. Only desperation.

“No, I don’t!”

“You spent last week worrying the party was falling apart,” Will points out. “I know I told you it wouldn’t, because I wanted to believe we’d be okay, but it has fallen apart, and you were one of the reasons why.”

Standing in a tight circle in the basement, exactly one week from the afternoon Dustin sensed something bad, it feels more like they’re trying to cast a spell than convince their leader to apologize. Mike trains his eyes on the carpet beneath their feet. “You’re right,” he admits.

“Oh, so when he says it--!”

The intensity in Will’s look shuts Lucas up. Much like his mother’s buggy brown eyes, his shine with deep determination and understanding. Everyone’s been pushed too far.

Saturday at the funeral, tension flexed the air. Dustin sat between his mother and Mrs. Byers in the second row, separate from the party that sat behind them. His face was haggard, hair an unbrushed nest. He wore the same dress clothes from the night before, evidenced by the wrinkles of a restless night and the crumbs of a forced breakfast. To Lucas he was more an apparition than a person, a ghost that wouldn’t respond to his name if you called it.

In the middle of the pew behind Dustin, Mike sat between El and Will. Silent tears ran their course for those three, the entire duration of the funeral. Makes sense, Mike being the loyal leader, Will being the empath and El being the mage. They absorbed every word the same, even Nancy’s eulogy. Lucas struggled to listen. Her words were like Erica’s dolls strewn around the house. Acceptably cute, and totally unrealistic.

Unsurprisingly, barely halfway through Nancy’s speech, Dustin had stood and edged out of the pew. He made his way to the heavy doors at the back of the church, making no secret of leaving. Torn, Lucas considered going after him. Will had turned to Lucas and given a slight shake of the head. Wait. They did, figuring after the services would be a better time to approach Dustin. Wrong.

Outside, when it was announced there would be no reception held to conclude Steve’s memorial, Dustin fell apart. Another incoherent fit, this time directed at the Harringtons. You sons of bitches couldn’t give a shit that he died! I bet you’re relieved to save some money and have the house to yourselves! Mrs. Henderson watched, with one hand over her mouth, mortified. It was Hopper who nearly lifted Dustin off the ground and dragged him away as he screeched, Go to Hell, bastards! Go to fucking Hell! Mr. Harrington stood there, absent, while Mrs. Harrington sobbed into a family member’s arms.

Currently, the three boys standing in Mike’s basement are the least affected. They should be a rock for others. Petty arguments, on top of huge blow ups, on top of disbelief and sorrow, are not what they need.

“Mike? What do you think?” Will asks.

“Two things.” He lifts his head. “First, we need to make sure Max is okay. She wasn’t at school.”

This morning Lucas waited at her locker until after Mr. Clarke’s first period started, holding the extra radio he’d picked up Saturday afternoon with his allowance money. At the funeral, Max’s absence urged Lucas to do something. The radio he got her is new, and should reach his house easily. If she needs help, she can call him. Stubborn Max won’t want to use it. Lucas hopes to talk her into agreeing on a code word for trouble.

Eventually he accepted Max wasn’t coming to school, and mosied on to first period. Max’s empty desk weighed on him all day. Had Neil hurt her again? Worse, this time, to where she couldn’t move? Adding to the stress was Dustin’s radiating darkness. He ignored their attempts at small talk and sat across the cafeteria at lunch. That’s when Lucas knew it was over. Like Will acknowledged, the party had officially disbanded.

“Second,” Mike continues, “I’ll apologize to Dustin-- after he apologizes to the girls. He’s not allowed back into the party until he does.”

Dejected, Will’s shoulders slump. “We can’t make him do that.”

His face scrunches. “I’m sorry, did we attend the same wake Friday night? Did you not see how he treated them?”

“We can’t make him do that now . It’s Dustin, and Steve’s only been gone a few days.”

“A week.”

“Mike!”

“Okay, okay, what’s your point?”

A step ahead, Lucas jumps in. “Remember how inconsolable you were after El vanished? You refused to participate in gym, then cursed out our teacher. Your mom got called in for a meeting.”

“And by then you were on the verge of flunking English, too,” Will tacks on.

“Because your paper on Flowers for Algernon was one sentence long,” Lucas recalls. “You wrote ‘Everything’s meaningless, and no one’s ever happy”, and refused to rewrite it.”

Again Mike surveys the floor. “It was hard, losing her.”

“We know.” Lucas puts a hand on his shoulder. “That’s how Dustin feels right now.”

“And imagine finding out that your friend with magic powers can do almost everything except bring people back from the dead?”

Mike deliberates. “You’re right. I’ll apologize. I drew first blood, and--” he sighs. “Honestly, I don’t want to make things worse.”


Immediately upon ringing the bell they hear Mrs. Henderson’s singsong voice. She opens the door and beams at them. “You three are too sweet, coming to check on Dusty. I’ll go get him.”

Even though Lucas isn’t the one making amends, his heart beats fast and he anxiously straightens his coat. Dustin appears, looking worse than he did on Saturday. Flannel pyjama pants and a ripped long sleeve thermal make him seem more like Jonathan than himself. The gold necklace that started the whole fight sits low against Dustin’s chest, and his eyes are bloodshot, circled in sleepless red rings. Where there used to be light, dancing flecks of green and blue, there is nothing. He stares blankly at Mike’s outstretched hand.

“I drew first blood,” Mike says. “I’m sorry.”

A tense stretch of silence follows, in which they hear the game show Mrs. Henderson is watching. Then Dustin sighs. “Although it's incredible to hear you of all people admit that, I have no interest in rejoining the party. Count me out.” He starts to shut the door.

“Wait!” Mike throws his hands out.

Obliging, Dustin holds the door open enough for them to see each other’s faces. “What?”

“I was wrong, okay? About a lot of things. Most of all I was wrong to downplay your warnings about how bad it got with Steve. After the day Billy attacked Will, I just… I gave up on him, and, well, I’m sorry. To you and him.” His brown eyes dart between the floor and Dustin’s unaffected expression. “Then I made it worse Friday night by defending El instead of you.”

“No, you didn’t make it worse at all.” Dustin’s sarcasm is dry, uncomfortable.

“I’m sorry.” Mike’s voice cracks. “Steve didn’t deserve to die, and you don’t deserve to hurt over this.”

“Honestly, Mike, why are you here?”

“I-- I want you to be alright.”

“Bullshit. You want to make things right in the party, that way you’ll feel like the righteous leader again.” He seethes. “No matter how bad you feel, it pales in comparison to how I feel, and how Steve felt as he died in that goddamned house. So I think you can handle a little guilt and remorse.”

Crying, Mike begs, “What do you need me to do?”

His hand tightens around the doorframe. “Keep the focus on your girlfriend.”

This time, he slams the door and locks it.


Fighting his heart’s temptation to call the Hargrove house, or ride over and peer into Max’s bedroom window, Lucas lies on his bedroom floor flipping through an old X-Men comic he won off Will last year. Impossible to read, when every three frames his mind wanders to horrible scenarios: Max starving, locked in a closet in that house as punishment, or hitchhiking in a strange man’s truck to California to be with her dad.

Restless, he rolls over and grabs the walkie talkie on his bed stand. Rather than reach out to Max, he calls Dustin.

In death, a person gets erased; however, their entire page remains, creating a paradox. How can God’s removal of a single human create such unrest? On the surface, Dustin’s emotional upheaval Friday night was triggered by the girls. Beyond that, waiting, was the sadness and anger of losing his father. One death affects countless lives, like blood flows unseen through veins and stretches to the furthest capillaries. Billy, Max, Neil, Susan. The Hargrove family, if there’s more of them, and the Mayfield family-- does Max’s dad know about this? Dustin’s life has been upturned, and subsequently the entire party. A single erasure, hundreds of pages altered. Makes no sense.

It would make sense to Dustin, who finally answers.

“Not in the mood. Over.”

“I’m not here to argue. I’m here to offer a compromise. Over.”

There’s a beat. Impatiently Dustin says, “Spit it out. Over.”

“Leaving the party is your choice, but I still want to be your friend, and I don’t care how awful you are for the next few weeks. Over.”

“I’m more than awful, Lucas. Try furious. Irate. You know, after you guys left earlier I sat with my mom on the couch thinking, man, I’ve gotta tell Steve about the insanity cursing our party. Then I remembered! He’s dead. I can’t bitch to him, I can’t ask him for advice, and I can’t have his company. Do you know what that feels like? Over.”

In earnest, he didn’t. Lucas lost his grandparents, and old people don't count. Death hadn’t touched his life as it had Dustin, whose grief was an avalanche wiping away unplagued cities and towns.

“That’s what I thought. Thanks for trying, man, but I don’t need friends who have no idea what this feels like. Over and out.”

“No, not over and out!” He shouts and buzzes and curses. Erica cracks the bedroom door open. Lucas throws the comic across the room at her and she disappears, giggling. Another piece of the paradox-- happiness and misery exist in tandem.

Dustin ignores each succedent call.


Late Monday night, a week after the murder, Lucas resumes his position outside Max’s bedroom window, gently tossing pebbles to catch her attention. A dim light flicks on, and her figure moves close. She’s wearing her grey sweatshirt, zipped all the way, hood up. Systematically she unlocks and opens the window, careful not to make a sound. Silhouetted in the soft lighting, he can’t see her face. The hood casts shadows. Anxiously he wonders what she’s hiding now.

She leans on the windowsill. “I told you to leave me alone.”

Convinced his arrival isn’t what she’s upset about, Lucas casts regret aside. This anger is self-protective bite. It has to be! Why else would she have continued to sit with them at lunch last week, barely participating in conversation or acknowledging them? Wanting their company shows they’re still friends-- she just can’t express that right now, obviously. Family life is in shambles, her house is practically haunted, and the other kids at school are spreading rumors.

“Look,” he says. “I wanted to, I really did, but I had--”

She scoffs. “Had to know I’m okay?”

A sudden noise in the house startles her. She swallows hard, staring back at her closed bedroom door. After a moment she releases her breath in a sharp huff and turns to him. “You need to leave, before he gets back.”

“He’s gone?”

“For now.”

A relief, despite that Lucas had prepared for the risk of encountering Neil. Packed in his bag is the wrist rocket, along with a flashlight, her radio and, in true Dustin spirit, snacks.

“Max, please let me be here for you. I’m hurting, too, and it’d help me to…” He wants to sound mature, and imagines his father comforting his mother. “It’d help me to have your company.”

“My company’s no good right now, and you need to leave.”

“I’m not going anywhere. I brought you something.” He shrugs his backpack off.

“Jesus, Stalker.” She rolls her eyes. The whites of them glimmer. “You’ve gotta be kidding me.”

He expects her to slam the window on him again. Instead she climbs out, her face twisting in pain, leading Lucas to believe Neil mistreated her again. His heart skips a beat when she lands gingerly in the grass and the orange glow from the nearby streetlamp reveals scabby bruises around her eye. Shiny, fresh. That’s why her hood is up.

Upset, he busies his hands by digging the radio out. “Would you hear me out?”

“Would you respect that I need space?”

“You don’t need space, and you’re too trapped to see it!” He hates pushing her boundaries, but it’s necessary. She’s trapped and burning, and even though she doesn’t need to be saved, she needs someone to knock down the walls so she can breathe. “If you could trust me with stuff about the Upside Down, and monsters, and those things you told me about Billy, why can’t you trust me now? Neil’s not here. You can talk to me. It’s safe.”

“Safe? It’s never safe.”

“Max.” He leaves his bag in the crisp grass and offers her the radio. “Trust me. Please, trust me. I love you.”

“Don’t.” She sees the gift, and all it implies, and shakes her head, hard, as if she can loose bad memories through her ears. Her hood shifts and he sees a strikingly short lock of hair. “Seriously, don’t.”

“I do, and I’m not leaving you. Promise.” He speaks with deliberate calmness, as he did that afternoon in the arcade. “If you don’t trust me, you’re going to get worse, and worse, and what’s happened in your life is going to eat you alive, like it did Billy.” He pauses. “You told me you never want to be like him. So don’t be.”

Around them airy snowflakes start to fall, light and lazy. Mocking the dread of the long dead day, the reasons they are engaged in a restless tug of war. Grateful for this small allowance of time alone, he gives her space to think. A minute passes, and he’s nervous she won’t say anything. He traces the grooves of the radio, feeling like an idiot, lacking the right words to say.

At last she breaks the silence. “Hopper said he wouldn’t find out it was me who told the truth. Stupid, I should have known better. After we got home from court, Neil chased me around the house with scissors until he finally…”

In a fluid motion she reaches up for her hood and pulls it back, revealing the dark scabs and bruises, as well as something unthinkable. Her long hair has been hacked off in chunks, leaving an uneven bob that hardly meets her jaw. Wind rustles it, reminding Lucas they’re standing dumbly in the cold, and she without a coat. Nervously, she plays with the sleeves of her sweater, avoiding his eyes. Her cheeks flush red, ashamed.

“Hey, you’re not stupid.” Pain melts him. He steps closer. “It’s okay to not be okay, Max. Life has given you Hell to deal with. It’s okay to show your hurt.”

Unable to formulate words to explain that she is beautiful regardless of this crime against her, he sets the radio on top of his book bag and musters up the courage to cup his hands around both her shoulders. A lame attempt at comfort. Shockingly, Max closes the distance between them with a tiny squeak and collapses into him. He catches her in his wiry arms as she breaks open, sinking to the ground. He draws her close, settling gently with her, his back flat against the siding of the house. She sits half in his lap and sobs into his coat. He rubs her back and rests his cheek against her chopped hair, shushing in a slow rhythm.

All he can do is hold her, and for tonight, that is enough.

Chapter Text

Spreads of stargazer lilies, irises, gradients from pale pink to stunning purple, rising on stands and easels around a cherry wood casket, propped open and lined with white satin. Inside, the stiff puppet of a boy he was always envious of. Nothing to envy now.

Flushed faces of teenage girls, big hair and garish eyeshadow, crying crocodile tears over a classmate they assumed they knew. Pictures of his life glued on canvas, reflecting only a fraction of who he was. People are ignorant, imperceptive. They care nothing, until it’s too late.

The sight of Steve’s body made him uncomfortable.


Five kids cram into the Byers’ bathroom Tuesday afternoon of the following week, before the parents get home. Against the doorframe Jonathan stands with hands stuffed in the pockets of his black jeans, as Will set out scissors, a comb, and the spray bottle of water Mom uses to dampen their hair before cutting it. El sits on the edge of the tub and watches Nancy, the reluctant helper, run her fingers through uneven locks of flaming red hair.

“And, you’re saying a classmate did this to you?” She narrows her eyes, searching Max, who sits on a stool with her arms crossed over her chest.

“No questions,” El reminds Nancy. “You promised.”

“Sorry, of course. No questions.” She retracts her fingers, letting a chunk of Max’s hair fall back against her face. Her cheekbone is bruised, and there’s a scab that suggests she was slammed against a wall or the floor. Nancy nods at the sink. “Will?”

First he hands her the spray bottle, then the comb. Max shifts and sits on her hands, arms straight and shoulders tensed. She meets Jonathan's eyes. Like Nancy’s, hers are blue and piercing. They are both beautiful, intimidating girls, with silent, surprising strength. That’s the thing about girls, they rarely wear their strength on the outside.

Sensing Max wants them to leave, Jonathan nudges Will’s shoulder. They exit and make their way down the hall to Will’s room. On the dresser there’s a stereo and piles of mixtapes. Jonathan slips in a tape he made his brother last year and presses play, the volume loud enough to mask their voices in case the girls can hear.

“Who actually cut her hair?” He sits beside Will on the bed.

“W-what?” His eyes are wide. Such a bad secret keeper.

Jonathan chuckles. “You don’t honestly expect Nancy and I to believe a classmate did that, do you?”

“I mean, the kids at school have been horrible.”

As Will explains, Jonathan’s heart plummets. He remembers the way he was treated when Will went missing, and when he was reported dead, dredged up from the quarry. Nancy was a part of that torment, when she was with Steve. If high schoolers can act immature and cruel, middle schoolers must be worse. However, Jonathan still can’t believe Max’s classmates did that. After debating the morality of aiding Billy, with Hopper on Friday night, he knows enough about Neil to believe Max's hair and bruises were his work.

“Come on, Will. You can tell me anything. I won’t repeat it.”

“I trust you, but she doesn’t want us to tell anyone.” He drums his fingers on his knees.

Billy’s mistake hurt more than the people Jonathan loves most-- its set into motion a grinding wheel, crushing anything in its path. It is satisfying that, by now, the prison cell door has clanged shut, and until further notice, that monster-- boy, whatever-- is locked up. Hopper can’t waste energy helping him if he’s otherwise occupied.

“I’m sorry. Max doesn’t deserve that.”

“No. And Dustin’s bruises are all inside, which makes it all harder.”

“Why?”

Somberly Will explains that yesterday Mike attempted to make amends, and Dustin rejected the three boys almost as harshly as he had the girls. Jonathan recalls the isolation he felt during the short time Will was dead, before Nancy befriended him and proved to be trustworthy and smart. Smarter than him. Having a champion got him through. Despite the boys’ efforts, Dustin doesn’t want a champion. He wants to live in his anger because it’s the only thing that makes sense.

“He’s our bard,” Will says to the floor. “Without him, the party falls apart. It already has.”

Jonathan feigns confidence. “The party hasn’t fallen apart. You guys have fought before, and you always make up.”

“Can’t you see? This isn’t a fight, it’s a total loss. Dad says he’s going to get Dustin counseling, and even if it helps, it can’t bring back Dustin’s faith in the party. That’s gone.” He’s misty eyed. “How do we fix that?”

For once Jonathan fails to console his brother, because there is no clear answer.


Later that night Hopper returns home emotionally drained. Mom fell asleep early, leaving Jonathan with the kids at the kitchen table, finishing their homework. Heavily, Hopper settles down at the table and shakes a cigarette out of a soft pack.

“El, how’s it comin along?”

She’s working out of her math book. “Hard. Will is helping.”

“Hope that’s not code for givin you the answers.” He takes a drag, glancing at Will.

“No way, I would never. She has to learn!”

“That’s right.”

“He’s a good teacher,” El confirms.

They continue to work as Hopper descends into a wormhole of thought. He forgets his cigarette until it burns his fingers, gathering their attention. Absently he stubs it out in the ashtray on the table.

Sliding off her chair, El moves closer to him, places a hand on his. “I’m sorry it got him.”

“What’s that?” He looks at her, standing there. They are eye level like this. Instead of being sweet, the sight is harrowing. A private moment the other two are wrongly witnessing.

“The black hole. It got him.”

“Oh, sweetheart.” He exhales sadly and pulls her into his arms. After a long embrace he lets go and pats her shoulder. “Why don’t you and your bro-- and Will get ready for bed? He’s got school tomorrow, and your tutor is gonna come here.”

“Yes.” Eagerly she helps Will collect their books.

Marveling at Hopper’s slip of brother , like Will’s slip of dad earlier, Jonathan closes his notebook. If any other man said it, he’d flip. Against the odds, he’s grown to appreciate the stubborn sheriff as a parent. Sloppy and human as he is, he makes a far better father than his own ever could be. As their family’s story plays out, Mom being with Hopper makes sense.

Once the kids are gone, Jonathan clears his throat. “So, how’d it go?”

“Billy’s officially locked up, if that’s what you’re askin.”

“And his sentence?”

“With the psych evaluation we got it cut from murder one to involuntary manslaughter. Six years. Could have been shorter, maybe a couple years in the nuthouse, but he plead guilty. Wants to be left in there to rot as long as possible. Repentance.” He chuckles. “Kid’s set on makin his life a lot more difficult than it has to be.”

“What do you mean?”

“Depending on a prisoner’s behavior, they can have years docked off their sentence, or added on. If Billy believes he deserves to be in there forever, he’ll manifest that.” Hopper exhales pale blue smoke. “Why bother behaving, right? There’s nothing good waiting for him once he comes out of there.”

Jonathan absorbs the truth in that. Nobody wanted him when he was free, why would they now? Aside from his Mom and Hopper, who oddly want to help. He thinks of their discussion Friday night, and while it’s starting to make sense, he’s still not sure Billy deserves help.

“What was he like?”

Hopper shakes his head.  “Numb. Doesn’t know what hit him. Even a shithead kid like that doesn’t plan on takin a friend’s life.” He lights another cigarette. “We got lucky with your brother, twice. We got lucky with El.”

“But not with Steve.”

“Nope, and not with Billy, either. That’s why it’s important to me that I try with him. His entire life has been a curse, and maybe once, just once , he could have a little luck. If he wants it. You can’t save everyone, trust me. I get it.” He ashes the cigarette. “It’s easier to write people off. Harder to do the right thing, especially when it’s counterintuitive.”

“How do you know helping him is the right thing to do?”

“Only way to find out is try. He’ll show me if wants to get better. Change.”

“You honestly believe people like him can change?” He wants to tell Hopper about Lord of the Flies , how there is no way to mask man’s true nature.

Confidently Hopper says, “Of course. Look at Steve.”

“Steve’s dead.”

The words hit the table like rocks, Jonathan’s own insensitivity startling him, like the night Mom scolded him for not connecting with Steve. For a moment he tries to imagine himself in Billy’s position, bound by his defects in a cement box, head filled with nightmarish memories of murdering his only friend. Fathoming it is impossible, like envisioning the ends of space. The mind can’t capture it, because there are no limits. Perhaps also for Billy, in his suffering, there is no end.

A flicker of guilt tickles him, a true understanding of why Hopper wants to open his services up to another damaged kid. Enforcing the rules isn’t all there is to shaping society. As fallible as humans are, they are also malleable. Like his mother said last week, it’d be great to prevent Billy from becoming a monstrous man. Is it possible to reverse the curse fate has brought upon him?

“I’m sorry.”

Gravely Hopper snubs out the cigarette. “For?”

Suddenly two sets of feet pad down the hall and into the bathroom. Water runs, a toothbrush clatters into the sink, and giggles erupt. When Hopper smiles his eyes crinkle. “Man, I thought having one kid was a challenge.”

“Now you’ve got three,” Jonathan laughs, unaware he counted himself as one.

“Twins, no less!”

He remembers Hopper’s descriptor the other night. “Magic brats.”

“Magic brats,” he echoes. Then he leans on the table, ponderous. “Promise me somethin, would you?”

“Yeah?”

“Don’t try to go it alone.”

“What?”

“Promise me, no matter what happens, whether it’s to you, one of the kids, or Nancy, you never handle it alone.”

“Of course not. Why?”

“I value you too much to lose you, and that’s how this shit happens. Billy appealed to Steve’s need for purpose, and he ignored the first signs of danger. Pushed his gut instincts aside cause it was more important to be needed and desired.” He strokes his beard. “When Nancy got with you, Steve lost himself. Whatever confidence he boasted wasn’t real. At least, it depended on others. Not sayin Nancy was a trophy, but having her on his arm made him a better person, you know?”

Jonathan nods. He never imagined he’d have that in common with Steve Harrington.

“So, you got a problem, tell us. Even if we can’t solve everything, we can sure as hell try.”

“Alright, I’ll tell you guys.”

“Thank you.” He relaxes against the back of the seat. “And, thank you , by the way, for letting this happen.” Jonathan stares, so Hopper gestures. “This semblance of a family. You’ve been the man of the house for years, then I start comin around with my daughter, stayin longer and longer. Hard to read your impression of all this.”

“Oh, it’s fine.” Awkwardly, he avoids eye contact. “I mean, it’s cool, yeah.”

Hopper smirks. “You know, if you let me, I’ll gladly take over as man of the house. Wouldn’t be pushing you out, just letting you be a kid for once. Spend the last year before NYU as an older brother, not a--”

His leg twitches. “You know about NYU?”

“Why wouldn't I? You’ve mentioned it, your mom and Will have mentioned it. He's convinced you’re gonna be a famous photographer one day.”

“Yeah?” He attempts a grin. It falters, overcome by emotion. “Even my father didn’t know I want to go there.”

“Figures. Sometimes blood family ain’t real family. You gotta find your own. Better that way. Puts you in charge of your own circle.”

The bathroom door opens. El and Will disappear back into their room. Hopper and Jonathan share silence until he collects himself and speaks from the heart. “You’re a good dad to El, and Will. I can tell he loves you. My mom does, too, and even when I thought she was losing it, you never treated her like she was crazy.” He inhales. “It’s alright if you stay.”

Touched by the blessing, Hopper reaches over and claps Jonathan’s shoulder. “Means the world to me, kid. Thank you.”

“It’s no big deal,” he dismisses, uncomfortable under the watchful eye of this dutiful man. “Besides, you saved Will, so really I owe you.”

Recognizing his discomfort, Hopper squeezes his shoulder. “This isn’t about evening the score. Letting us in is a big deal, regardless of what I did for your brother. Allow me to credit and thank you.”

Why is being credited so itchy? Jonathan shifts, trying to lose Hopper’s firm reassurance. In spite of himself, he begins to cry.


It was no tough call to throw Will’s birthday party at the arcade. Before the kids arrive with Mom, pizzas, and cake, Keith lets him in to set up the little attached dining room.

Set up would be easier if Nancy came along. Since Steve’s death last month, there’s been a disconnect. At first Jonathan thought it was his disapproval of her eulogy that turned her off, or maybe Tommy’s badgering at school. He tried to reconnect with Nancy by assuring her that the judgement of classmates means nothing. Instead of relaxing her, his words amplified the tension. At lunch Jonathan noticed she went from eating, to eating lightly, to hardly eating at all. Her already angular face shrank, gaunt. Round eyes and a sharp jaw hidden by wavy hair.

Fixing the tablecloth, he remembers how, earlier, when he reminded her about Will’s party, she claimed she had a bad headache and took the bus home. As he sets out paper cups and plates he makes a mental note to check in on her tonight when he drops Mike off.

Around five his mom arrives with food, trailed by kids. After eating with the group, and singing happy birthday to Will over cake, the girls drag her into the arcade, pockets jingling. Max is bubbling, excited to teach his mom Dig Dug, disregarding El’s warning that she sucks at video games. Considering what Max deals with at home, she couldn’t care less-- it’s pure fireworks to bond with a mom who cares enough to engage.

After Billy’s trial last month, Neil disappeared for a few days, raising suspicion that almost warranted an arrest. Upon his return, however, he proved less aggressive, and according to Hopper’s sources-- namely, the kids-- Neil hasn’t physically touched Max since cutting her hair. Graciously Nancy salvaged it, morphing chunks into layers that now bounce around the girl’s face, giving Max the confidence to go about her life. It’s a relief to have her here, healthy and laughing. A far cry from the sleepless, scabby mess she was a month ago.

Clean up is quick because the boys help. Jonathan insisted he could clear the room himself, but they wanted to catch up. Interestingly, between Steve’s death and Nancy’s detachment, Jonathan has been granted the privilege of frequent updates. He’s grateful to be included, especially after promising Hopper he won’t handle anything alone. Maybe, if he and Nancy were brought in sooner, Steve’s fate might not have been death.

Collecting empty paper cups Lucas says, “I invited Dustin, but he made an excuse about why he couldn’t come.”

“How do you know it was an excuse?” Jonathan asks, thinking of Nancy’s headache.

“Because he knew Max and El would be here,” Mike mumbles, grabbing napkins and tossing them into the black trash bag Keith gave them.

Jonathan checks the pizza boxes for leftovers, fitting extra slices into one box. “Is he still angry with them?”

Mike shrugs. “I know he’s still angry with me.”

A couple chairs down Will stacks messy paper plates. “Maybe, but Doctor Owens is helping him.”

Doctor Owens, the man who secured a believable birth certificate for El, agreed to pose as counselor for the kids. The rationale is that speaking to an adult who knows about the Upside Down, and the complications that led to Steve and Billy, will aide in recovery. Only Max, mandated by courts, is seeing a regular, non-supernaturally affiliated counselor, a big reason she’s brighter.

“How is he helping?” Mike demands, emotional. “Dustin ignores us at school, he won’t answer the radio, and he hasn’t been to the arcade with us in over a month!”

“It takes time,” Lucas tells him. “What did you expect him to do, immediately go back to the way it was?”

“The rest of us did.”

“Not Max,” Lucas points out.

“That’s different. She lived with Billy.”

“My point is, Dustin isn’t the only one struggling.”

“And remember how you were with El,” Will adds.

Mike closes his mouth.

“They’re right,” Jonathan observes. “All of us changed after the Demogorgon took Will, and we changed again when the Shadow Monster possessed him. Now Steve was killed, and you guys were there . How could you possibly stay the same?”

Mike reasons, “Easy. We never abandoned each other.”

“Well, Dustin feels like you guys abandoned him, even if you never did. Give him space to heal. Everyone handles loss differently.” He thinks of Nancy.

Mike slouches. “I know.”

Lightly, Jonathan elbows him. “It’s only been a month. I bet by the time you guys graduate in June, things’ll be normal again.”

Will snickers.

The boys stare at him. “What?”

“Things were never normal .”

“How could I forget?” Jonathan laughs. “My brother and his friends are a bunch of freaks.”

That earns a collective smile, and the boys proudly accept their oddity as badges of honor.


At the Wheelers’ that night, he asks for Nancy. Dressed in different day clothes than she wore at school, she descends the steps and meets him in the foyer. “Hey, what are you doing here?”

“How’s your head?”

“My head?”

“Jeez, must have been some migraine.”

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

His chest seizes, terrified he has caught her in a lie. She lied to Steve for a year. If Nancy lies to him, then the trusting foundation of their relationship doesn’t exist, and all the energy he invested to her is meaningless.

No, their love exists. It means something. It has to.

He takes a deep breath. “You went home on the bus earlier because you had a bad headache.”

“Oh, right,” she says. “Yeah, I feel like shit.”

“Have you eaten?”

“Why is that important?” she snaps.

He steps back. “Why are you getting defensive? I’m just checking on you.”

“I don’t need--”

“Don’t need me to check on you? Nancy, come on.”

She huffs irritably. “Can we do this outside?”

Without waiting for an answer, she brushes past him, leaving the door open. Bad omens: her outfit, the possible lie, the open door. He steps outside and closes the door behind him, staring at her under the outside light. To still his hands he stuffs them in his coat pockets. “What’s going on?”

“Nothing! Nothing’s going on.”

“Then why are we out here?”

Tense, she grinds her teeth, fighting to swallow her words. In spite of her, they tumble out, heavy and blunt. “I can’t do this anymore.”

Every day he thanked the universe for her, and dreaded the inevitable break up, praying it was a fruitless fear. Yet here they are. She has devastated him, as she once did Steve. His stomach clenches, and he stammers. “What did I do wrong?”

Pitying him, her eyebrows turn up and her lips purse. She starts to say his name and he cuts her off. “You know what? Don’t answer that. Guess I was bullshit, just like him.”

Hoping she’ll fight that, he waits. All he sees is the truth in her deceiving doe eyes. Is there anything in the world that isn’t bullshit to Nancy? It’s all a playhouse to her. Each prop and player is part of a carefully calculated script to create the ends she’s hunting for. Nauseated, Jonathan turns and bolts to the car.

Minutes later he arrives home, rushes into his room and shuts the door. Collapsing onto the bed he breaks into tears, wishing for the first time in his pathetic existence that he could talk to Steve.


Chapter Text

“You told them!” he bellows, chasing her through the house. He catches her by the hair and yokes her up, kicks her legs from under her and uses the momentum to swing the side of her face against the floor. She crashes into a heap on the hardwood, howling.

“Neil, stop!” Susan shouts, watching in terror. He ignores her.

Six years.

Billy’s sentence, six years.

Out of their life until age twenty-four, and by then they’ll be gone. Moved on, to a place he cannot find them. Ever. Neil cannot believe he raised a monster, and he can’t contain his rage.

Involuntary manslaughter? It should have been first-degree murder. They shortened the original sentence and lessened the charge because of so-called extenuating circumstances. Compromised mental health. Abuse in the home. It’s not abuse when the child deserves it! Whatever happened to good old discipline? Plain and simple, if a child needs to be taught a lesson, the father teaches it.

Foolish to think moving to Hawkins would absolve Billy of sin. Bore him to death in the country, no faggots here! He’ll have to pay attention to school. He won’t have time to look at boys, and besides, any boy he makes eyes at is bound to knock the snot out of him for looking. Rescind the tarnish of their name, right? Wrong. The damned town did nothing to lift the Hargrove curse. Why, for one second, would he ever deign to assume his son would change?

And now the ginger demon threw him under the bus, got the cop on his case. You’re part of this, you know, and you’re under watch. If I hear you so much as raised your voice at her, you’re done. Earlier, Neil swallowed the threat, rigid in the presence of the law. However, behind closed doors he can express how grateful he really is for a step-daughter intent on making his life worse.

“Little bitch,” he snarls, pinning her down.

She struggles to breathe, the ribs and belly he put his boot to a few nights ago grinding like meat against the floor. Determined, she tries to buck him off and pull her knees under her, squealing in pain. Blood from her cheek stains the floor. Straddling her, he twists her arms and squeezes her wrists together. Then he settles his entire weight onto her hands, against her lower back and hips, disregarding what part of him she is put in contact with.

Roughly, he gathers her thick red hair into a ponytail, gripped tight in one fist. Susan continues shouting at him to stop. She doesn’t shut up until he promises to deal with her after Max, who by now understands what’s coming. Defeated, her muscles no longer strain beneath him. Snipping scissors and shallow, hitched sobs are the only sounds for miles.

Later, those sounds reverberate in his head, Max’s crying a ghoul’s lament, as he drives into town, carrying nothing but an overnight bag and whatever cash he’s got.


It’s a mansion compared to his shack in Hawkins. Walking up to his oldest brother’s house, Neil wonders what his life would have been like had he never married her. Would he have settled? Excelled? Gained wealth and a wife who would tend to the home and children as she should? At least, would his life have been easier?

To break the pattern was his goal as a father. He missed the mark by a longshot.

Forcefully he rings the doorbell. He is hungover, unaware of date and time, eyes rimmed red, because even alcohol won’t let him sleep. His sister in-law answers and worriedly calls her husband, who comes to the door, astute and handsomely aged, dressed in running shorts and a tee shirt. Living the white collar dream, complete with a home gym.

“You look like Hell,” Troye says as his wife retreats.

“I am,” Neil grumbles. “I am.”

“Those are your words, not mine.” He opens the door wide and motions. “Come in. Food should be on the table any minute.”

Troye leads the way into the kitchen, where his wife is preparing a savory breakfast. Politely she pours two mugs of coffee and carries them to the kitchen table, along with a miniature pitcher of cream. The men settle into adjacent seats, and Neil marvels at the neatness of a home well kept. Troye’s children are college age and no longer live at home. Everything is spotless, bright.

His brother pours cream into his coffee until it's beige. “Are you and Susan on the rocks?”

“What? No, no, we’re fine.”

“Then why did you show up unannounced on a Thursday morning? Am I wrong to assume you’re in dire straits?” He passes the creamer. “Did you discover Billy has another boyfriend?”

Through gritted teeth he admits, “Billy got arrested a week ago because he killed his… lover.” Certainly the term boyfriend doesn’t apply. Any way Neil says it, the reality scallops his tongue and burns his esophagus. Even with cream, the coffee is too bitter.

Troye stiffens. “Are you kidding me?”

“Wish I was.”

“You’re saying,” he leans forward, steaming mug between his hands, “that my nephew murdered the boy he was seeing?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“He has no idea. They were at my home after school last Monday, and had a fight. Then the kid was dead.”

Resting back, Troye shakes his head. His wife piles hashbrowns, eggs, and meat onto three plates and delivers two to the table. “Honey, you might want to call in and tell them you’ll be late.”

“Oh, yes. Good idea. Excuse me.”

She carries her breakfast into another room to give them privacy, while Troye goes down the hall to is personal home office. Again Neil takes in the charm of the house. This past Christmas he and Billy were here. Beautiful decorations, seasonal music, and the magic of a whole family together. Something he couldn’t contribute to. Susan, after deliberation, had decided to stay in Hawkins. At first Neil was upset by her decision, simply because she made one. Then he figured it was a relief. She wouldn't disappear with Max to visit her ex-husband, and he wouldn't have to keep up appearances while they were gone. Keeping up appearances with Billy alone was stressful enough.

Troye returns and tucks into his meal, asks about court and Billy’s sentence-- information Neil readily and honestly supplies. Then Troye asks how often he plans to visit Billy over the next six years, and Neil lies, claiming he’ll visit once a month. It’ll be a cold day in Hell when he enters prison to see his son.

“What do you think went wrong?”

By this Troye means what did he do wrong to create such an outcome? Neil has already analyzed this. He picks up his fork and finds his appetite lacking.  Anyone who has a child plays God. As God, you rear the child in the image of your liking. Neil wanted a wholesome American boy. Unfortunately, he raised a criminal. Is that who he is? Neil shares as much with his brother. They go back and forth, pitching questions and answers, eventually coming around to their childhood.

“Growing up how we did,” Troye says through a full mouth, “it’s hard to avoid repeating the pattern. Chaos and abuse are what we knew and saw, and that’s not our faults. What is our fault is treating our loved ones the same way we were treated. Leaving Eilene early on was a good choice, given her addiction, but it hurt you and Billy. You couldn't raise him alone.”

“I didn’t need help.”

“Yes, you did, and our sister was right there. You actually appreciated Beth’s help at first! Then you ruined a perfectly good thing, because you found out she wasn’t living how you thought she should. Who are you to say how people should or shouldn’t live?”

“The Bible says--”

“I know what the Bible says. You think I liked seeing her live in sin? No, but I prayed about it, and in spite of her lifestyle choices, I remained in contact with her, and you know what? I’m glad I did, because she and Dawn had a great relationship.”

“You can’t call what they had a relationship.”

“Can’t you?” Troye’s eyebrows raise. “They were warm, generous, churchgoing people, and whether or not you want to hear it, they loved your son. They were good to him, which is more than you can say for your ex-wife.”

Embarrassment seeps up through the woodwork, the coarse grain of his being. Response is unnecessary; his brother is right, these are truths he doesn’t want to hear, and he’s not in a position to get defensive. He forces down a bite.

“What did you do when you learned that Billy is into men? Punish him?”

“His behavior was sinful. It called for discipline.”

“He was a teenager discovering himself.”

Neil’s eyes fix on his. “Like you’re the perfect father. You would have done the same thing.”

“Absolutely not. Work takes me away from my family, yes, and in turn I make time for them. Plus, money allows us to have a home like this.” He gestures. “We sent the kids to private schools that prepared them for careers. They're going to earn money, and live comfortably.”

“Lucky brats.” He pushes food around his dish.

“No. Not lucky. Earned. We looked at our father in fear, Neil, and I never want my children to look at me like that. They respect me. Quite frankly, Billy never respected you.” He points his fork at Neil. “He fears you, and that’s a shame.”

“I did what I had to do.”

“Lie. No father has to abuse his child.”

“I never abused Billy!” he snaps.

“Spare me. There’s a line between punishment and abuse. Discipline doesn’t mean beatings. A couple times I saw bruises on him and I thought, he’s a boy, they get banged up. But I’ve watched your interactions with him over the years, how you demand he call you sir , how you force him to contact Eilene. I’ve witnessed his words light a fire behind your eyes. Where’s that rage coming from? Huh?”

Neil’s jaw hangs open. Troye is the authority here, and has him stuck, pinned between his lies and the hard truth. That bite of breakfast rolls in acid. His stomach aches.

Like this is casual conversation, Troye clears his plate. “You drag Billy over hot coals, and what’s it worth? He knows he’s a disaster. He knows you hate him, and don’t dare lie and tell me you don’t. It’s written all over you, and yes, I know you’ve abused him. Teenagers don’t just become killers. There’s always a reason.” He sets his fork down. “You should have given him to Beth.”

Anger swells. He pushes his plate away, nearly catapulting off the chair. “I kept him because I tried--!”

“You kept him because you couldn’t handle the blow to your pride! And I promise you, Ryan and I would rather see you ashamed but healthy, than proud and absolutely miserable. We’d rather see Billy homosexual and happy than miserable under the gun of a stone cold man. Beth and Dawn were warm.”

“They made him how he was.”

Troye slams his hand on the table. “You suspected Billy was queer before they ever started watching him! Even I know you can’t turn someone gay, the same way you can’t teach someone piano just by playing it yourself. Let it go .”

“I have.”

“No, you’ve let him go. Abandoning your son because he’s too difficult to care for makes you shameful. A sinner-- far worse than Beth! All you wanted was to break the cycle, in spite of the odds. Just like Ryan, just like Beth, just like me. Instead, you fell into the exact role we were avoiding. You hate the child you created because he’s not how you want, like you hated our sister. There is nothing admirable in you, nothing noble.”

Neil shuts down. He came here only to pick a fight and lose. Perhaps this is another reason he hammered Billy-- a sense of control in his life, where growing up he had none. A stretch of silence passes. In the living room, the local news channel’s jingle sounds. In Hawkins, part of the morning news must be about the Hargrove family, the tragedy that befell them, and Billy’s promising future behind bars. At least he’ll be out of the way. Six years of peace for Neil. That is, if the nightmares stop.

“Are you going to tell Eilene what became of her child? She’s been sober awhile.”

“Good for her.”

“My God, Neil.” Troye exhales, exasperated. “What are you going to do?”

He mutters, “Paint the walls with my brain.”

“Are you that cowardly?”

Yes. Neil is made of cowardice, and it’s time to accept that. Life has been jabbing him for years, sharp reminders he has been rejected. Clearly rejecting life in return is the best decision he will ever make.

Absently he answers. “What else would I be?”

“Responsible. Respectful.” Troye collects their plates and carries them to the sink. Once he returns to his seat he says, “Listen, I’m sorry it happened this way. I truly am. But it’s no excuse. There’s another way to live.”

“If there is, I would have heard of it years ago.”

“Ryan and I spoke to you a couple Christmases ago. Probably weren’t listening, too busy waiting for Billy to drop something in the other room so you could backhand him for being a clutz. He was what, fifteen?”

Vaguely he remembers a Christmas where he did hit Billy, semi-publically. It wasn’t long after that he and Susan transplanted to Hawkins. He folds his arms protectively and waits for the oncoming lecture, once again a little boy subjected to a harsh and critical eye.

“A couple years ago Ryan and I started going to A.C.A..”

“Why? You’re not an alcoholic.”

“A.C.A., not A.A.. Adult Children of Alcoholics is a twelve step program that works specifically with adults who suffered as kids, including those raised in dysfunctional households. Our family fell into both categories-- alcoholic and dysfunctional. I’d say yours does, too.”

Neil stews. Beth was a member of A.A. for years before she died. He figures other programs are similar. “I don’t need to hear about some cult.”

“Cult!” Troye guffaws. “Try life preserver. No man sound of mind would join this program if it weren’t for wanting to survive.”

“Your life is fine, Troye, same as Ryan’s. You guys were always luckier than me.”

“Are you ever going to listen? I’m not lucky. All of this is earned, because of hard work and the willingness to get honest about my pain. ‘We became isolated and afraid of people and authority figures’, ‘We are frightened by angry people and any personal criticism’, ‘We live life from the viewpoint of victims, and we are attracted by that weakness in our love and friendship relationships’.”

He sits up, pulse quickening. “What are you saying? Stop it.”

“Oh, does this sound like you? Or maybe it doesn’t, but how about the flip side? Because you feared authority figures growing up, you became one. You lived life as a victim for years, and then you created some, with physical beatings and emotional manipulation. You grew up feeling guilty and responsible for everything, and felt guiltless turning that criticism on someone else-- shaming Billy verbally. Sound about right?”

He holds his hands up in surrender. “I don’t know what this is, but it isn’t me.”

“It’s exactly you, and that’s why you’re sweating. Recover, before it’s too late.”

“It’s already too late.”

Wearily, he nods. “I wish you didn’t believe that. Recovery is worth every second of pain it takes to change. Wouldn’t it be a relief to look at Billy, just once, and love the boy you’ve created? Empathize with his pain and guide him? He needs you, Neil, but not like this.” Troye is misty eyed, more emotional about his nephew than Neil ever will be about his son. It's shocking, because, growing up, his older brothers swung between explosive and unfeeling. Same as him. Why is he the outsider?

Resolutely he shakes his head. “Billy doesn’t need me. He doesn’t deserve me. Back in January, we had a fight. He came home upset and asked me about Beth and Dawn, why I didn’t let them take him.” He folds his hands in his lap. Every morsel of truth Troye served is poison. It hurts to hear the truth about yourself. Neil’s truth turned a boy into a killer, quite possibly ruined his entire life. “I called him ungrateful, and he said, 'How am I ungrateful, when I’m living a life I don’t want to live? Be honest, Dad. Why the fuck would you have a kid you didn’t want?’ So, I admitted it. I told him,” his voice breaks. “Because we couldn’t abort.”

Troye’s hand covers his mouth, shocked. Neil sees now that what he told Billy surpasses the damage even the worst physical abuse could create. He folds. “How could Billy ever need me. I’ve-- oh, God! I’ve destroyed him!” He covers his face with both palms and hangs his head. Shame beats down on him, the heavy wall of a tsunami.

Reaching across the table for him, Troye says, “You haven’t destroyed him completely. He might hate this life, but he hasn’t taken it.”

“He’s tried. Twice.”

His brother hisses, as if stung, and weeps, a sight that scares Neil out of the idea that attending an A.C.A. meeting would improve his life. Approaching this pain is enough to blow a hole in his chest. What would happen if recovery cracked the ribs and stepped inside?

“He’s fighting, brother. Clinging to life, desperately hoping things can be different. Probably thought that boy’s love would save him. Love is never a solution in itself, though it helps. There’s time for him to recover.”

“He took the boy’s life , Troye. How do you come back from that?”

“People do it all the time. You said the sentence was reduced, right? They found Billy to be mentally afflicted! He has partial recollection of the event-- this wasn’t premeditated murder, like I assumed. This was an accident. A horrible, horrible accident.”

“You honestly believe that?” Neil’s breath comes shallow, but he can’t cry. “That it was an accident, and a kid like him can come out of prison better for it?”

“People do it all the time,” Troye repeats. “He just has to want it.”

“He’ll never want it.”

“Show him how, Neil.” Again he reaches out, takes his brother’s hand. “Show him how.”


In the dream he is beating Billy. Strangely, he simultaneously sees the fight through Billy’s eyes. As Billy, he smears blood off his upper lip, grinning maniacally as he stares into his own livid blue eyes. “It must be real nice having someone to take your anger out on, huh?”

Billy laughs as Neil curses, then feels the crunch of a rib beneath his fist. Sputtering a wet cough, he tastes copper. His grin becomes a grimace, red rivulets shimmering in the pale yellow light of a cheap bulb. Why did Billy laugh through the pain when he knew damn well it provoked Neil further?

Nightmares about Billy have frequented his sleep since February. It’s June now, yet nothing has improved. Always conglomerates featuring his own father, places and events from his youth, as well as Billy’s youth. Many incorporate the number 19:18. He recognizes it from Proverbs. Occasionally he sees his ex-wife. She’s healthy, sober. Howling at him. You son of a bitch, how could you let this happen? You were supposed to love him! You did love him! Where did it fall apart?

He never responds.

Hit me again,” Billy dares. Suddenly he’s screaming at the top of his lungs, throat torn to shreds, blood spittle projecting into the air. “Hit me again! Do it, you son of a bitch, you never stop!”

You never stop.

Neil draws back, and both he and Billy realize it's gone too far. In waking life, did Billy ever fear he took it too far? There were times Neil did. In this nightmare of strange awareness he has no control over mind or body. There is no stopping.

As Billy, Neil feels tears streaming down his face. He chokes on blood, drowning. Red splatters across his lips as he coughs, and pink droplets of bloody tears drip onto the floor beneath him. He grins, even as he hears the front door opening and a gasp, followed by the sound of groceries hitting the floor as Susan runs to the phone to call 911.

How did she know to take such a logical step? Why didn’t she or Neil, in waking life, ever think to call 911, or call the cops and report him? In this country it’s normal for parents to smack their children around, but as Troye pointed out, Neil used Billy as a stress reliever. A personalized home gym. In the dream he's cognizant of this.

Sinner.

Sinking to his knees, Billy grins. Noises grow fuzzy, focus is lost. All Billy can do is smile, looking right into the pale face of his abuser. Now Neil sees through his own eyes. He glares down at Billy, who sucks in his last breath, and bids a sweet farewell.

“See you in hell, motherfucker.”


Neil jolts awake on a Monday night in June, slippery with sweat, and swears his son is sobbing. Listening over the sound of his labored breathing, he hears it. Please let me go, Daddy. Please! I want to say goodbye! He was ten, and Neil knocked him unconscious for wanting to attend his aunt’s funeral. Beth, his own sister. Who was he to keep Billy from those he loved? Even himself. In tandem, Neil’s fear of what he son was, and the potential he had to destroy it, grew, and so did the distance between them, until one glance at Billy was enough to set him off. All he saw in those blue eyes was anguish.

The horror on his face. I put it there.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this, honest. Billy a disease, a contagion he created, then caught. No— the other way around. The wound that is Billy festers behind bars, as it festers also in Neil’s chest, a living, burrowing thing. These nightmares are never ending because they aren’t nightmares at all-- they are a continuum of waking life. Increasingly, his experiences awake or asleep mold into a knot he can’t untangle. He is trapped inside the knot, body threaded into a position he can’t escape, his mind stretched taught by stress, a tight drum the next beat will split open.

This final nightmare achieved the split, spurring him to answer the question burning in his gut since the visit to his brother’s in February: is recovery possible for him, or not? Troye promised it hurts. To recover is harder and more painful than staying the same, but the payoff is everything. Over the past few months Neil considered it. Even came so close as to pull into the parking lot of a Church. The car idled as he watched people crossed the lot and entered the church basement, laughing like they weren’t going inside to discuss their greatest traumas and regrets. Admirably, they had scaled the sheer cliff of pain and landed safely in recovery. Neil stands separate, alone at the top, staring down a drop he knows he won’t survive. Why bother trying?

Presently, the week before Max’s middle school graduation, he realizes he cannot recover. He cannot stand another nightmare, waking up to hallucinated memories of the son he irresponsibly brought into the world. Neil ruined him; he’ll never be able to help.

There is an empty cigarette box of ammunition inside the bestand drawer.

There is an unloaded gun under his side of the bed.

Chapter Text

Pop .

She isn’t woken up as much as she is blasted from the bed, in a rush of self-protective anticipation. Usually she wakes to screaming, but Billy doesn’t live here anymore, and the only person Neil screams at is her. Quickly she gathers the blanket about her shoulders and rises to a trembling stand, wondering what she did wrong and what will remedy this.

Heavy footfalls precede her bedroom door blowing open. Neil throws on the ceiling light, revealing blood spray on his pale face, and looms in the threshold. Breathing heavily, he levels his gun at Max. She had no idea he owned one. She had no idea that he would pass the point of no return and use it on his family. Her mother, in the next room over. Maybe she’s hurt but alive.

Who is she kidding? Her mother is gone, and she will be, too. Unless she moves. Now.

 

Pop. Pop.

Silence.

The stillness of the house, and the audible intricacies beyond, engulf her as her back hits the floor. Gazing at the harsh ceiling light, she hears for miles. Televisions the neighbors’ leave on to sleep. A lone car rolling by on the highway, two miles south. Crickets in the backyard. No one in this house is breathing. Until she sips in a shallow breath, her eyes welled with tears that never fall. She neither sobs nor screams, lacking both air and energy. Rather, each succedent breath is an abject sound that comes as if through mud. Lying under her window, she sees the wall across the room by her bedroom door is marbled with blood, brain, and bone. She doesn’t move until she feels a warm puddle bloom around her thighs and backside. She’s wet herself.

If breathing is difficult, walking will be worse. She won’t make it over Neil’s near decapitated form to call 911 from the kitchen phone. However, if she continues to lay here she’ll make a third body in a family composed of the dead. Joining them might not be a bad idea. Being rid of the tension, misery, and pressure would be a dream, but she thinks of Lucas, and El, and even Dustin, who’s going to have to talk to her at some point. She isn’t ready to leave them.

With what energy she has, she gathers her blanket and rolls over, balancing on hands and knees. Strenuously she crawls to the window and opens it a few inches, initiating an emergency plan she and Lucas constructed in February. Then she crawls between her wall and the bed, where she finds the radio Lucas gave her the night she finally released the brunt of her pain. Now there’s more of it. Always, in her life, so much pain. What did she do to deserve this?

Collapsing on her back, wrapped partially in her blanket, she buzzes the party’s channel. Pain registers now, immense and unyielding. Afraid of dying alone like this, she coughs up his name repeatedly, her voice strangled and weak. One minute stretches into centuries, and finally Lucas answers.

Chapter Text

Lucas .

In the dream the tunnels are full of smoke. He’s far enough away now, the fire they set is an ember. Staring at it, he racks his brain trying to place the voice. Where is she?  

Lucas.

The boys scream for him to hurry. Fire is behind them, but smoke catches up, filtering hungrily to find the hole they lowered themselves through. Suffocating them in its travels, smoke loves liberty, even at the expense of a few young lives.

Lucas.

Sweating, he jolts awake. The radio beside his bed buzzes again, and he scrambles to pick up the call. “I’m here! I’m right here, what’s going on?”

“Help.” Max sounds far away, and not because of the connection. “Neil, he’s… gone.”

Gone. A word loaded like a gun.

“Neil’s dead?” Scenarios light his mind like fireflies. Max must have killed him in self-defense. Why else would she sound so far away? Like the ember of fire they set in the vines.

His head is floating. “Are you safe?”

It’s a challenge for her to answer. “911. Hopper.”

“I’ll call them as soon as I get off the line, okay? But I’m coming over right after that. If you can’t get to the door to unlock it, remember, just leave the window open.”

She coughs. It sounds wet. “Already is.”

A string in his heart snaps. Nearly four months ago they devised this emergency plan-- Lucas gave her a radio, and she agreed to use it, as well as open her bedroom window so help could reach her. They discussed it gently, because the threat of Max being in danger again was real. Very real. Still, that night when Lucas went home, a part of him believed the plan would never need to be enacted. Max would use the radio like the boys always have, to compare notes on arcade money and argue about the last campaign. Now she called, Neil’s dead, and her life depends on him.

“Max?”

No reply. Fighting the desperation creeping in, he calls her name again. Still nothing. She’s hurt, she’s definitely hurt.

“Max, if you can hear me, I love you.”

After a beat he inhales deeply, bracing for the moment he’d be a fool not to prepare for. They’ve been too lucky. The six of them, they’ve always made it out alive.

Static crunches the still air— or is that her rattling breath?

“Love you.”

He doesn’t say ‘over’, because he doesn’t want it to be.


Spastically, leaning on trembling hands, Lucas climbs through the window and plants his feet on the bedroom floor. Catching his breath, he shuts the window and surveys the room. He’s wearing camouflage pajama pants and a white tee shirt.

Across the room a spray of blood and brain matter draws his eye. Neil is sprawled on the floor in the doorway, face in a pool of blood, half lit by the ceiling lamp and half shrouded by the dark hall. A portion of his head is blown out. The self-defense theory is out. Lucas is nauseous.

Consciously he draws his eye across the floor, slowly pulling his gaze to the blanketed figure a few feet to his side. Seeing Max might break him. If he was too late, if her case is incurable, if this surreality becomes hard, solid truth.

But the bottom line is, a party member requires assistance, and it is our duty to provide that assistance.

She lies on her back, half-wrapped in a blanket, eyes open, darting around, terrorized. Same as his. Lucas drops to his knees beside her, loudly calling her name. Wildly his hands shake, his entire being hyper aware of how similar this is to Steve-- and how that ended.

“Max, help is coming. Are you hurt?”

In answer, she coughs up blood.

Stupid. Neil entered her room with a gun, increasing the odds of her getting shot by one hundred percent. He has to evaluate her for injury, in spite of his heart pounding in his throat, his pulse thumping in his ears. Apprehensively, he folds open the blanket and sees a gunshot wound in her chest.

Adrenaline latches on, a vice grip injecting him with decisive bravery. Gingerly he lifts her torso enough to slide one hand underneath. He feels an exit wound around her ribs, near the shoulder, meaning no bullet inside to slow blood flow. Next to the bed is her balled up grey hoodie. Hastily he grabs it, folds it a few times, and lines it up with the exit wound. Then he swiftly lifts his white tee overhead, and presses it down on the entrance wound on her chest.

His other hand finds her radio and buzzes the party’s channel. “Dustin! Dustin, come in! Dustin!”

Suddenly Mike is whisper-yelling. “What do you want? It’s 3:26 in the morning! Over.”

“Who cares what time it is, Max is dying. And Neil’s already dead. Where’s Dustin? Over.”

Static. Then a hushed, “What?”

“You heard me!” Lucas shouts. “The ambulance is almost here, but after Steve, I don’t have a good feeling. I need Dustin. Over.”

“What’s going on?” He yawns. “Lucas, did you have another nightmare? Over.”

“Max is dying and Neil’s dead,” Mike huffs. “Over.”

“Dying!?” He’s alert now. “Lucas, describe her.”

As he does, sirens sound in the distance. A rush of gratitude floods him to the point of making him swoon. After he releases the button Dustin rattles off a list of organs the bullet could have hit. Finally he settles on lung, and tells Lucas to sit her up, so the blood doesn’t pool and spill into the functioning lung.

“Are you crazy? Remember we tried moving Steve and--” Lucas can’t finish the sentence, because if he loses Max the same way he’ll break. “I don’t want to hurt her more. Over.”

“Trust me. Most nights I can’t sleep, so I’ve done a lot of reading about shit like this, in case it ever happened again. And it did, so sit her up and hold something over the wound to stop more air from getting in. Is the ambulance there yet? Over.”

“They’re close,” he sighs. “I think you guys should meet us at the hospital.” He forgets to say ‘over’ and sets the radio on the floor, figuring out how to move Max.

Dustin says, “Absolutely. Mike, I’ll be at your place in five. Over and out.”

Somehow he manages to lift Max and shift her, so her back is flat against the wall. Blood dribbles out of her mouth like it did Steve’s. Her eyes grip Lucas, who pretends he’s not completely shaking apart.

The radio continues to buzz.

“No. Why are you going to see Max when you don’t even like her? Over.”

Impatiently Dustin buzzes back in. “Newsflash, asshole, I’ve liked her the whole time. I was just dealing with my own demons and didn’t wanna make things worse. Now get your shoes on and meet me at the end of the driveway. Over and out !”

Steeling himself, Lucas stands on his knees and straddles her thighs, close enough to support her weight and press the shirt to her wound. Max watches him, unable to speak, the desperation in her eyes cracking him. “You’re gonna make it,” he tells her.

But honestly, he isn’t so sure.


Flashing lights from each direction create a purple haze. Police barge in. Diligently he recounts his version of the event to officials, dutifully pressing his shirt-- now soaked red-- to her chest until a paramedic moves in. Then he watches them cover Neil, handle Max, strap her to a stretcher like a surfboard. Two people carry her out, and Lucas follows, effectively controlling the panic in his gait; Dustin wasn’t allowed to ride with Steve because he lost control.

Blinded by lights against the stark dark of morning, he hears the chief before he sees him. “You did good, kid. You did so good.” He moves, tall frame blocking the warm breeze and spinning lights that make Lucas dizzy. He sees the chief’s drawn expression, strained and worn by repeated crimes involving his own children. Wouldn’t wanna be him.

“Sir, would it be alright if I--” He clears his throat nervously. “If I rode with her?”

Stuck in his head, Hopper’s reaction is delayed. Lucas is embarrassed he asked. It’s not his place. Then Hopper nods. “I’ve gotta stay behind to deal with the murder--”

“Murder?” Lucas squeaks. He forgot about Max’s mom.

“-- Joyce’ll be there any minute with the twins. El woke up screaming right before I got the call.”

A paramedic interjects as Hopper helps him into the ambulance. Kids aren’t allowed to ride along. Hopper changes her mind in one sentence, and Lucas sits on a narrow bench across from Max. He is sad for her, sad for El. For all of them.

“Hey, kid. Look at me.” Hopper leans against the ambulance door. “Stay cool, alright? Talk to her if you can, she can hear you.”

Nobly he nods. “I will, Chief. Promise.”


Invisible dawn climbs over the hills. Lucas sits in his own world, elbows on his knees, head in his hands. He’s wearing a dressing gown as a makeshift shirt, since he was still bare chested in the ambulance. Beside him Mrs. Byers calms a quietly crying El, who’s anxiety shows in the form of levitating objects. Will occupies himself by pushing them all back down before anyone notices-- magazines, paper cups of water, even the rickety corner table they rest on.

Squeaking sneakers cut the hushed air.

“Lucas! Lucas, is she okay?” Dustin spills into the space, trailed by a flushed Mike.

“Shhh,” Mrs. Byers says, gesturing towards empty chairs. “Here, have a seat.”

“Right, right,” Dustin sits, making brief eye contact with El as he pulls the chair closer. Mike follows suit so they form an enclave, then reaches for her hand. “Can you answer my question? Is she okay?”

“We don’t know yet,” Lucas admits. His heart hasn’t slowed since Max buzzed in on the radio. If she dies, he’s not sure he’ll breathe steady again. Out of all the risks they’ve taken in the past two years, dealing with monsters and magic and government secrets, none were greater than the risk Max took existing in Neil’s sphere of abuse. And it wasn’t even her choice.

Across from him, Mike shakes his head. “I can’t believe this.”

“I can.” Dustin sits up. The others are surprised. “Remember the day Steve died? Max said in order to help him we’ve gotta help Billy, too. You guys know that if I ever see that dickhead again, I’ll rip his head off and spit down the hole, but I’ve gotta admit, Max was right. They were connected, and they both needed help. She and Neil are connected, too.”

Were connected,” Mike points out.

“What are you saying, Dustin?” Will presses.

“I’m saying, that the second Hopper found out what Neil did, he should have thrown his sorry ass in prison right there next to his son. Help the bastard by locking him away, and in turn, help Max by letting her live.” He glances at Mrs. Byers. “No offense, but your boyfriend’s kinda dumb.”

Unphased by his candor, she shrugs. “No offense taken.”

Busy panicking over Max, Lucas hadn’t considered the folly of Hopper’s misjudgment. Below his ribs is a well known burn. How could Hopper be so dumb? Wasn’t there proof enough Neil was abusing Max? Too late for Steve, too late for Max. He understands Dustin’s fury now, like they’ve traded off. Dustin wears a soft confidence tonight-- this morning, rather. Evidence that his experience and therapeutic talks with Doctor Owens are paying off. His darkest moments can actually be referenced now as means to keep his friends afloat.

In particular, Eleven. Eventually Dustin bucks up the nerve to break the silence and dismantle the wall he built between them. “Hey, El?”

Unthreatened, she lets go of Mike’s hand and meets his eyes. “Yes?”

Months ago, he threw daggers at El and Max during Steve’s wake. Combined, the girls’ conjured an anger so wild Lucas thought Dustin had permanently rejected the party. However, that fury is gone. Despite how sick Lucas is of having to come close to, or actually lose people in order to strengthen the party’s bonds, he appreciates that Dustin has officially reunited with them, proving, as he mentioned to Mike on the radio, he harbored loyalty and protectiveness over the party all along.

“I’m sorry,” Dustin tells Eleven. “I shouldn’t have exploded. You were only trying to make me feel better.”

El nods in agreement. “I’m sorry, too. I shouldn’t have… It was too soon.”

“It’s still too soon,” he laughs lightly.

She cries, “Max can’t be gone.”

“Listen to me, El.” Dustin leans forward, reaches for her hands. She lets him. “I don’t want her to be gone. But if she dies, you and I are gonna have a huge thing in common. I’ve been living without my friend for months, and I’m surviving, even though most days I still don’t want to get out of bed.”

Comprehending, El repeats, “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. What happened isn’t your fault. It wasn’t Max’s, either. It was Billy’s, and we won’t have to see him ever again.” He pauses. “At least, I hope we don’t, cause I can’t be held accountable for my reaction.” The thought of Dustin giving that jerk what he deserves is amusing.

“You’re strong,” El says.

“Psh, no way. You’re the one who--”

“You’re strong, Dustin.” She sniffles and squeezes his hands, thumbs rubbing circles. “Someday, if you want, I’ll show you.”

“Show me what?”

The boys steal glances at each other. Overseeing all of this, Mrs. Byers holds back tears of her own, empathy overflowing. El’s basically her daughter now, so she knows what’s coming. It wouldn’t surprise Lucas if El has already shown her.

“Steve.”

“El,” Dustin sighs and stares at his feet, seemingly deliberating whether he can handle the turn of conversation. Courageously he looks up and asks, “Can you still feel him?”

She smiles, the same way she did outside the wake. Mature beyond measure, lifted, the convergence of all things spirit, soul, and temporal physical form. “Yes.”

Reverently Dustin stands, pulling El with him. Time suspends, and for a moment the others worry he’s upset again. Only love passes between them as they forge a new connection, grounding each other in a galaxy of hurt. On the wall a clock ticks. Dustin folds El into his arms and holds her tight, chin resting on her shoulder. Perhaps in effort to feel Steve, he closes his eyes. After a moment she wraps her arms around his waist and returns the hug, closing her eyes in gratitude, and they remain this way until Hopper’s voice blows away the peace.

“Hey, Joyce? Can you come here please? It’s about Max.”

Chapter Text

In the dream they’re on the bus. Instead of a junkyard, the bus is stuck in sand. Outside the windows, broken and barricaded with steel scraps, is the ocean. Rays of misty light sneak in, the calls of gulls and cresting waves swell like Billy turning the volume up on the stereo. Ocean waves full like his eyes, dark like Camaro polish. Syncing up with waves, a new kind of bird. Soft whir and beep, like a machine.

Sitting comfortably on a mound of pillows and blankets someone dragged here, she watches the surfers. Shirtless boys. They are special to her, laughing and joking. She knows they’ll return soon and be grateful she waited.

“Hey.” She gazes up at the voice. Lined by the sun is a halo of hair, sticking out and curling at the edges. “Can you hear me?”

“I’m blind, not deaf. Move out of the light so I can see you.”

They’re sitting in the sand. She’s fully clothed, slips off her Vans as Steve talks to her. “I’m sorry. Seriously, sorry, and you know I wouldn’t say it unless I meant it.”

“What are you talking about? You apologize all the time.” Wriggles her toes. There are shells and pebbles in the sand. She picks up a small white pebble and rolls it in her palm.

“Yeah, well, uh, I’m sorry, and it wasn’t your fault. I was wrong.”

“To date my brother? Pretty sure that’s obvious. You’re not even alive.”

“Max.”

The tone catches her attention, the slight lisp. Dustin is speaking to her, borrowing Steve’s form. Abstractly she understands this, and rolls the tooth between her fingers to self-soothe. A totem of a friend she lost. “What?”

Steve gazes at her, caramel warm, hair wet, body wave worn. “You belong.”

“Gee, thanks,” she says sarcastically to the tooth in her palm. It occurs to her that, although she’d love to return the bone to its rightful owner, it might embarrass him. No one wants it pointed out that they’re missing teeth.

“I’m serious,” he grins. All his teeth are there.

Reaching around, he pulls her into a hug. She leans into it, tugs herself closer and buries her face in the crook of his neck. Smells like Dustin-- his mom’s laundry detergent, books, earth-- but she swears she sees a green gold feather folded into a curl of hair.


A paper bag rustles and snaps.

“Shhh, you’re gonna wake him up!”

“Him? What about Max? Her rest is more important.”

Is that Mike? The voices sound far off at first, then closer, like there was cotton in her ears and someone removed it one piece at a time.

“Yeah, but she’s been sleeping for days, he’s been up almost the entire time.” That has to be Dustin. Where is she? How many days has she been out?

“She got shot , you idiot,” Mike points out.

Shot? They can’t be talking about her. Last she remembers she was laying around her room, doing her best to complete homework, in spite of herself. Ever since she was involved in Steve’s murder and Billy’s trial a few months ago, it’s been hard to focus. Plus, Neil’s drunk almost every night now, blasting TV or shouting at no one. Just because he treats Max okay today doesn’t mean he’ll be kind tomorrow, and that ongoing anxiety hinders her progress at school.

Dustin retorts, “Oh, I’m an idiot now?”

“Newsflash, asshole, you’ve been one the entire time.”

“Guys, seriously, be quiet!” Will hisses. “Let’s just enjoy our breakfast in peace. We’ll feed them when they wake up.”

“Is Max even allowed to eat through her mouth yet?”

Mike groans.

There’s crunching, chewing. Dustin says, “Hey, at least I’m an idiot with a bagel. Will, remind me to thank your brother for this shit.”

Max’s eyes flutter open at the same time as Lucas’s. Warm, dark. He smiles openly and squeezes her hand, a gesture that ripples through her leaden body. How long have they been linked like this? Her other hand, she observes, has an IV needle stuck through the skin.

“Morning,” he says.

Glazed over, she nods. Blankets and pillows color the floor of the hospital room like rafts and lifeboats. Her best friends are spread out, eating breakfast, and Lucas sits in a cushioned chair, pulled right up beside her. Down the hall, a nurse drops something.

Pop.

Her heart beats erratically, frightened for no reason. Half-memories invade her doped up mind. She starts to cry.

“Oh, look,” Dustin badgers Mike. “You broke her!”

“Me?” Mike balks. “She’s probably mortified by the sight of you!”

“Or maybe,” El points out sadly, “she’s remembering.”

That shuts them up.

“I’m going to get the nurse.” Will stands and brushes crumbs off his shirt.

“What about, you know?” Mike intones.

“Yeah, I’ll get him, too. Don’t say anything yet. Lucas said she’s never really mentioned him. We don’t know how she’ll feel.”

As he exits, El abandons her soggy deli waffles and makes her way to the side of the bed opposite Lucas. Lovingly she leans down and kisses Max on the lips, quickly, then thumbs tears off her cheeks. Dustin leans over and mutters to Mike, “You’re gonna let your girlfriend kiss another girl like that?”

Mike elbows him. “Shut up and finish your bagel.” Then, quietly, with a slight flush, “She can kiss whoever she wants.”

“Crazy bisexual,” Dustin sighs, biting back into breakfast. Mike doesn’t deny it.

A nurse bustles in, steps over the kids like she’s used to them, and wordlessly checks machines. Assessing. Max is a subject instead of a person. Strangely, she feels disconnected from her body. What happened? Not worth asking, she decides. If everyone’s here, including Dustin, and one stupid loud noise made her cry, it must be bad.

Then there was the mention of him . There’s only one person she hasn’t told Lucas or El about. Her dad. Why would he be here, in Hawkins? From the end of her parents’ relationship her Dad took it too far, and during the divorce made matters worse. Neil made it clear he wasn’t welcome in their lives, and blamed their move on his behavior. Of course Dad flipped out, not wanting his daughter halfway across the country. This inadvertently urged Neil and her mom to hasten the move, and, the last time she saw Dad, his drinking was bad. Max wished she could have told him the move wasn’t his fault-- it was hers. She had told on Billy, revealed who he was, and sure as a river flows, this garbage unfolded. She fought to stay in California, but eventually succumbed to her powerlessness; she is just a kid, forced to take whatever hand life dealt her. A total catch twenty-two. Drunk adults don’t take good care of kids. Neither do ignorant parents.

As she thinks this, she knows in the back of her mind that Neil is gone, similar to her dream, where she knew Steve was Dustin. Perhaps she’s blocking out the memories, her head protecting her from that which cannot be accepted, or, the drugs are messing up her memory. Regardless, she’s thankful. Violence was promised not to follow her. It isn’t welcome in her life. Still, it has become her.

Will edges into the room and assumes a spot against the wall, swaying. Everyone turns to him. “He’s coming.”

“Crap!”

Lucas kisses Max’s hand quick and lets go, finds the others at the wall. Dustin and Mike scramble to grab paper bags of food and yank pillows and blankets into a pile in the corner. The nurse watches wearily. Can they stay in her company if her dad comes in? Sure, she thinks. If he’s the same guy who raised me. Then it occurs to her that not a single person, including her, is the same as they were the last time she was conscious.

Dad enters. It’s been almost a year. On the outside he looks mostly the same. Stocky, blue-eyed, dressed in biker gear. He’s wearing the tattered, patch covered leather vest she used to bury her face into as a child. Seeing the vest strikes her. She missed him! She missed his long grey ponytail, and his tan, weathered face. She missed those ugly tattoos blurred by the California sun.

He grins. “There’s my girl.” Same slight southern lilt. Deeper. Has he been smoking more? Trepidatiously he approaches, as if he might hurt her. His calloused fingers brush her hair. “Woah, you finally cut it?”

She shakes her head.

“So who did? And,” he gestures to the line up of sentinels along the wall, “who the hell are these runts?”

“My family.”

At once she realizes her slip, and how painfully parched her throat is. The nurse, who had been charting stats on a clipboard, holds out a cup of water and helps her take a sip. Then she exits, with a promise to return in a few minutes with the doctor.

“Your family, huh?” Dad turns and gives each member the up-and-down. Intimidating them. “Which one of you is Lucas?”

Bravely Lucas raises his hand.

“Aha.” Dad steps closer to him, and Max can tell he’s fighting the urge to shrink against the wall. Her mother chose a man like Neil as means to get away from her dad, and both Neil and Billy hated Lucas. It’s safe for him to assume Max’s dad is the same, or worse.

But he isn’t. Dad’s never cared about race. He claps Lucas on the shoulder and says, “Thank you, boy. Sincerely, from the bottom of my broken heart, I thank you for saving my baby girl’s life.”

“Th-they told you?”

“Everything.”

“Oh. Cool. You’re welcome, sir.”

Dad nods and crosses the room, takes up the seat Lucas sat in a minute ago. Warmly, he asks them to introduce themselves, and they do. Fear finally leaves their faces as he jokingly inquires about his daughter. What is she like now that she lives in bumfuck Indiana? After a bit of coaxing, the truth comes out. Bossy, funny, competitive, a total lead foot. Dustin colorfully describes her stealing Billy’s car. Her dad beams, because it’s no surprise a girl of his successfully committed grand theft auto at age thirteen. It makes her giggle, which sends searing pain throughout her torso. She wants to hunch into a ball and can’t.

“Woah, woah, stay back.” He pats her shoulder gently as she relaxes against the pillows. “You got popped in the lung, girl. Goin nowhere fast.”

“What?”

“Shit, I forgot you just woke up.” He studies her, then her friends. “Mind if I talk to Max alone? Got a lotta news.”

News? He’s going to tell her all the things she half remembers. She doesn’t want to remember, and sadly watches her friends exit. Dad reaches out for her hand and squeezes it.

“Your Momma’s gone, baby. Stepfather shot her, shot you, shot himself.”

It floods her, memories blinding. Slept on emotions cascade, pulling the world from under her. She weeps, squeezing Dad's hand hard enough to grind bones. He lets her, repeating softly, “I’m sorry, baby. I'm sorry.”

Eventually she calms and her grip on his hand loosens. He clears his throat. “Listen. You’re smart enough to understand that marriage ain’t easy, and neither is bein a parent. My biggest regret is lettin your mother take you away from me. If you’d stayed, things would be different. I’d like to think they’d be better, but I don’t know that. All I know is, now I get to be here for you again, and I’m gonna do right by you this time.”

Why would he do better for her? He lives across the country, and she lives here. It occurs to her then, the scene she just recalled. That's reality. Her mother and Neil are dead. The house they bought in Hawkins exists, but it’s empty. Chief Hopper called Dad to come out and claim Max, and her mother's body. They'll return to California once she's well. Unfortunately she has to leave home again. But home, she has learned, is not a manifestation or physical space. It is something you find, or create. Max grew accustomed to the party, her dweeby friends. She loves their quirks and courage, and their unconditional loyalty. That’s family. Not Billy and Neil, who fought and fought until they destroyed each other. Not Mom, who overlooked Neil’s toxicity to salvage her marriage and avoid repeating fate.

The summer before seventh grade Dad lost his job and started drinking a lot. When he drank he was an asshole to her mother. A pattern her mother wouldn’t want to trigger again in another man. Ironically, ignoring Neil’s treatment of Billy factored into her ultimate end. Dad was a sad jerk, but Neil was a sadist.

To protect herself, Max had put the thought of Dad, and missing him, out of her head. Easier to freeze a relationship, build walls between, than allow the ache of missing to overwhelm her. She tried to build walls with Lucas, to protect them both, but he’d refused to accept being placed on standby to helplessly watch her hurt. She appreciates that, holding her dad's hand, knowing the party is outside waiting. She appreciates everything she's survived with them, k nowing now that these last four months in Hawkins were her last.

Chapter Text

Billy has done more than commit a crime.

He is the crime.

In the beginning, he belie