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somewhere only we know

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"I wish you were here—or I were there—or something—I don’t know what—"

—Georgia O’Keeffe, from a letter to Alfred Stieglitz


September 20, 1996

“I don't like this.”

“Since when do you like anything?” Steve asked, stepping out of the truck and shooting Hopper a pointed look. Hopper grumbled, climbing out and setting his hat on his head.

“I liked you, before.”

“Before?”

“You got mouthy,” he said, plucking his cigarette from his mouth and grinding it out under his boot. “You were cute before your balls dropped.”

“I'll tell Joyce you said that.”

Oh,” Hopper said, long and exaggerated, “I'm so scared.”

“I'll tell Jane.”

Hopper's mouth tightened, lips pressed thin. He made a noise in his throat, deep and disgruntled. “Don't be an asshole, Harrington.”

Steve bit back a smile.

It was unseasonably warm for late September. The leaves had sprouted hot colours early, red and orange and yellow bleeding into green halfway through August, dangling a muddy brown before dropping off in recent weeks. Brittle from the unreasonably dry pre-autumn, they crunched under Steve's boots.

“Smoke, they said?” Steve asked.

Every other day they got a call from a Nosy Nelly, ready to tattle on their neighbour for burning leaves despite the daily fire danger warnings announced over the radio. Steve would never understand why Doug The Accountant or Walter The Bank Manager needed to flex his manliness by setting the entire neighbourhood alight, but he'd learned to accept it as part of the job.

There would always be idiots in Hawkins, and they would always argue with him. Hopper had told him that before he'd joined the force.

“Yep. White, they said.” He didn't sound convinced.

He sighed, pulling his flashlight from his belt and giving the sky a cursory glance. Nothing but a stretch of blue-black, speckled by bright stars and a half-full moon. No clouds or trails of smoke left by planes overheard; no signs of life from above to be mistaken for smoke.

Hopper made an unhappy noise in his throat. “I don't like this,” he said again.

Steve glanced at him and then to the building.

It had been a decade since the Hawkins National Laboratory had been closed. The year that had followed had been messy, according to Hopper. NSA and military police had milled about on and off—more on than Hopper or Joyce had cared for, but more off than they had been before—before finally disappearing one night all together. Hopper had been left with very clear instructions: The lab was to be off limits to citizens until further notice.

Further notice had never come. An agent in black showed up every few years to gather a report from Hopper, and the business cards they left behind collected dust in his desk.

Steve had spent much of his time chasing curious and rambunctious teenagers away from the area. In the years that had passed, the abandoned lab had become a sort of urban legend for the town. Odd things had happened in the mid-80s, they said, and it all led back to the closed-down lab. Ghost and ghouls, monsters and illegal experiments ran amok when they talked about it. Sometimes, the rumours edged too close for comfort; most of the time they didn't.

Whenever they got a specific call for the area, Hopper went, a strain in his face, lines bracketing his mouth and puckering between his eyebrows. Stress lines, Joyce would say, and laugh as she smoothed them away from Hopper's face.

Steve didn't ask if they should split up. Instead, he let Hopper take the lead, fingers itching to reach for the gun on his hip. It was creepy. He could admit that. Overgrown flora and decaying concrete, broken windows from the tornado that had blown through the county three years before; it looked like evil incarnate, one of those settings for a horror movie Dustin loved to drag him to watch.

Uneasy, he followed Hopper around the perimeter, eyes scanning for signs of life—or smoke, or fire, or anything at all. They looped around to the front entrance and Hopper said, “I don't fucking like this.”

Steve glanced at the door, mouth pinched. “Yeah,” he said, “I don't either.”

Hopper drew a set of keys from his belt, flicking through them while Steve angled his flashlight, the heavy feeling of dread coiling in his gut. The empty shell of the lab wasn't as bad as the Upside Down had been, but it left a bad taste in his mouth whenever he was forced to step inside.

Unlocking the heavy padlock from the door and unwounding the chain, Hopper opened the door. The scent of ozone, sharp and metallic and overwhelming, bore down on them as they stepped inside. Steve knew that scent. Once, years ago, it had followed him into his dreams, shaking him awake at night in a cold-panic sweat, the memory of jowls snapping and vines slithering beneath his feet chasing him into waking.

“Hop?” Steve said, nose wrinkling, eyes watering. It was worse than he remembered. “I don't like this.”

“Yeah. Me neither, kid. Me neither.”


Despite the late hour, Jane was awake. She stood on the front porch, barefoot, a steaming mug in hand, wrapped in an old blanket that looked like it had been plucked off the back of Steve's grandmother's couch.

She smiled as she handed him the mug, tucking strands of curly hair behind her ear. He took it, grateful, and gulped down a mouthful of perfectly sugared-and-creamed coffee. He planted a kiss on her temple and said, “Thanks.”

He followed her inside, toeing off his boots and settling onto the couch. Jane folded herself next to him, adjusting the blanket on her shoulders, drawing her legs beneath herself. The smile was gone from her lips. “It's open.”

Steve closed his eyes. “When did you know?”

“Tonight. I could feel something before. I didn't know what. But tonight...” Jane trailed off. She bit her lip. “It felt like it did before. Sort of.”

“Sort of?”

“I don't know how to explain it,” she said, picking at the loose threads of the blanket. She turned her face down, away from Steve. “It felt wrong. Polluted.”

Steve took another drink from his mug and leaned back against the couch. “Was it you?”

Jane flinched. He felt like an asshole for even asking. “No,” she said, her voice small. “It was someone else. Someone on the other side.”

Relief washed over him like a wave. He'd only been filled in about what had happened, when he had slept for three days and Hopper had shown up at his house to tell him he'd done good but there was more. Jane had become a fixture in his life after that, when Hop and Joyce went on dates and Nancy and Jonathan didn't want to babysit her and Will.

She'd opened The Gate before, Hopper had said, years ago, a frown on his face. Steve had seen that frown on his face when they'd driven back to the station. It was a relief, sweet and pleasant, that Jane hadn't lost her control.

He reached across the couch and took her hand in his, his fingers swallowing hers. For someone for scary powerful, she was still delicate, fine-boned and petite. She barely reached his collarbones when they stood side-by-side. “We'll figure this out,” he said in his best cop voice. “Your dad's calling the suits right now. They can deal with it.”

Jane lifted her head and gave him a wobbly smile. He squeezed her hand. “I promise,” he said. “You won't have to go there again.”

“You say that,” she said, “but I don't believe you.”

“I don't blame you. But I mean it.”

Friends don't lie. Even Steve knew he was lying.

She smiled again and shuffled on the couch, scooting until she was pressed against his side. Steve balanced his coffee on his knee, throwing his free arm over her shoulders. He pulled her close. Jane had always been tactile, and it had taken Steve a few years to adjust to it.

“Is Mike coming home this weekend?” he asked when the silence became too much. Despite Hopper's assurance that he would take care of it, he felt uneasy, unsettled. Jane seemed unsettled, too. It made Steve feel worse.

“Next week,” she said, and there was a softness in her voice. “He said he'd come home early. There's a lunar eclipse. I want to see it this year.”

“Is Dustin coming with him?”

“I think so.” Jane burrowed closer to Steve, tipping her head back and smiling at him. It didn't reach her eyes. “Should we tell them?”

Steve had never been a big brother. Even with Dustin, there was a line that Steve could never get close enough to, simply because he couldn't. He'd never been jealous of siblings before. It had served him well to be the only child. Spoiled rotten, the center of attention, filling loneliness with whatever new gadget his dad thought would amuse him.

Until he'd gotten closer to Jonathan and Will, he'd never wanted anyone else. The Byers' brothers spoke in a secret language all of their own, and a simple look meant nothing to Steve, but everything to them.

So he'd tried, with Dustin, and he'd gotten closer with Jane. He was still shit at it, it seemed, if he couldn't even keep her mind from the dark after a few minutes.

“I'll see what your dad says tomorrow,” he said, tapping his fingers against the side of his mug. “Just let him sleep tonight, alright? And hide the whiskey.”

Steve watched as the bottle was lifted off the bar shelf with an invisible hand, and whizzed down the hallway. He chuckled. “I didn't mean now.”

She smiled, brighter, sharper. “You said hide it.”

“Don't tell him I said that.”

“I would never,” she said, eyes wide. She looked innocent, underneath the wicked curl of her mouth.

“You just want me to get fired.”

Jane just smiled.

Steve switched his coffee for tea and they settled back on the couch to watch 12 Monkeys on VHS. Jane fell asleep halfway through and Steve turned the volume down on low, tucking the blanket around her shoulders. When Hopper unlocked the front door and caught sight of them on the couch, he frowned.

Steve turned off the TV and carefully extracted himself from Jane's sleep-slacked grip. He stood.

“What did they say?” he asked, softly.

Hopper looked between Jane and him, and back again. “What did you tell her?”

“Why do you think I told her anything?”

“You're here, aren't you?”

Steve sighed, relenting. “She told me it's open again.”

Hopper looked down to Jane again, lips thinning. “I figured,” he said, gruff. “I called Sam and left a message. He's not with them anymore. They're sending someone out in the next couple of days.” He shook his head. “They don't seem too concerned.”

“They don't?” Steve asked, incredulously.

“I know,” he said, dry as sawdust. He pursed his lips. “They said to stay away until the team's here.”

“You should listen to them.”

“Don't tell me what to do, Steve.”

“Don't make me tell Joyce.”

“Don't use my wife against me.”

“Don't do something stupid, then,” Steve said, glancing to where Jane slept on the couch. Eyes closed, chest rising and falling with her steady breaths; she looked peaceful when she was asleep. “Don't do that to her, either.”

The look Hopper gave him was scathing. “Don't be a jackass,” he said.

“I'm not. I'm worried about you,” he admitted. “Don't do something stupid. The Gate was open for months without a problem. Don't make it your problem.”

“It's already my problem.”

Steve said nothing, mirroring Hopper's face.

“Fine,” Hopper said, curt and sharp, “it's everyone's problem. It's all our problem. Happy?”

“Very,” Steve said, and tried for a smile. It was weak, loose on his mouth, but Hopper sighed, shoulders slumping.

“Have another coffee and go home. Don't wake my kid up, either,” he said. “I'll see you tomorrow. Nine sharp.”

Saying goodnight, Steve watched as Hopper ambled down the hallway, the bedroom door closing behind him with a gentle click. He stood motionless where Hopper had left him, eyes closed. He counted back from ten and breathed deeply. Calmed, he opened his eyes, turning to head to the kitchen.

Dark brown eyes peered at him.

“How much of that did you hear?”

Jane said nothing, pushing herself up on an elbow. The blanket fell from her shoulders. She shoved her wild hair from her face. “All of it,” she admitted.

He should've known. “Ah,” he said, and then, “I'll make sure he doesn't do anything stupid.”

She smiled, soft around the edges. “Thank you.”

“And I'll make sure the others don't get caught up in it all.” Not, at least, until they knew what they were dealing with.

Fixing himself an instant coffee, black and bitter and gritty, he sat down at the kitchen table. Jane shuffled over, sitting across from him, still wrapped in her blanket. They said nothing; Steve sipped his terrible coffee and Jane picked at her blanket. It was comfortable, despite the situation pressing in around them.

“Steve,” she said. “He's back.”

“He who?” he asked slowly, setting down the mug with a frown. His stomach flipped. “The Mind Flayer?”

“No,” she said, quick. She bit her lip, teeth worrying the skin so hard Steve thought it would bleed. She tugged at her blanket. “That boy—Billy.”

Breathless and numb, Steve picked up his coffee, nursing in it long swallows until it was empty. His stomach twisted up in knots, threatening to spill what he'd just swallowed onto the floor.

It had been over ten years. Of course Jane would know. She knew everything, even when he tried to bury it so deeply that even he couldn't touch it. When they'd both been younger, and she'd had less control, it had been harder for him to hide his secrets without her skimming his mind, and Billy had been the one he'd thought he'd hidden the best, the most.

“Oh,” Steve said finally. He shifted in his seat, uncomfortable. Even his skin felt too tight on his bones.

Jane peeked at him up through her bangs. “I didn't say anything. I won't say anything.” She paused. “I just thought you should know.”

Dumbly, he said, “Thanks.” He stood, taking his mug to the kitchen and washing it out in the sink. He set it on the rack, not looking back at Jane. “When did you—?”

“You had very loud thoughts at nineteen.”

Steve flushed, hot and stiff, red staining across his cheeks and down his neck. Of course. Of course he'd had loud thoughts at nineteen, wrapped up in second love and the sharpest lust, his thoughts curled around Billy and when he could put his hands and mouth on him again.

“Listen, I'm sorry you had to hear that.” Awkward, he cleared his throat, still not looking at her. “You could have said something.”

“You would have been uncomfortable.”

“I'm uncomfortable now.” Christ, she'd been just a kid back then. He felt sick, a queasy feeling lingering in his belly.

“I won't say anything.”

'That's not why—” He shook his head sharply, turning to face her. “Never mind that. It's fine.”

She didn't look placated, still worrying the strands of thread. “I'm sorry.”

“No, don't be,” he said, scraping together the tattered remains of his dignity and stepping toward her, a hand settling on her shoulder. He leaned down and kissed the top of her head. “I'm just surprised, that's all. You've got nothing to be sorry about.”

Jane looked up at him. “I don't like what he did to you,” she said, so sincere it hurt. “He caused you pain. You hurt for a year after he left.”

It was Steve's turn to flinch, hand tensing on her shoulder. She didn't seem to notice. He smoothed his fingers and shook his head again. “Don't worry. Nothing like that will happen again.”

When he left, after quelling Jane's anxieties, he sat in his car, hands on the wheel.

Billy Hargrove was nothing to him. Not anymore. Not really. It had been years since he'd thought of Billy Hargrove, in fact, and just because Billy was back in town didn't mean he was going to start now. So what if he was in town? It wasn't a surprised. Neil had passed just a few months before, Susan packing up and heading back to California to be closer to Max and Lucas. Billy hadn't come to the funeral. Their house had sat, vacant and lonely, for months. Maybe he was back in town to sell it, and then he'd be off just as quickly as he'd come.

Don't lie to yourself, a voice whispered in his mind, suspiciously like Jane's.

He dropped his head against the wheel, groaning.

Billy Hargrove was his past. A small piece of his past that didn't need to be dug back up. He was busy, with work and The Gate and whatever came with that. Billy Hargrove could fuck right off and back to where he came from.

That night, he drank three bottles of beer and ate a TV dinner in his lonely apartment. Before he laid down for bed, he drank down a few fingers of spiced rum. It warmed his belly and burned away the thought of the sweater buried deep in his closet, and the phantom scent of cologne that Steve swore lingered on his pillow.

When he dreamed, he dreamed of golden hair and a laughing smile, a harsh voice whispering dirty words into his ear, and the taste of Billy Hargrove in his mouth.

Chapter Text

He slept poorly, tossing and turning, waking an hour before the sun rose. Restless, he did crunches and pushups in his living room, until his body dripped with sweat. He showered, suited up into his uniform and made a coffee for the trip to the station. The sky was barely cracked by the brightness of the sun when he climbed into his truck.

Head full of thoughts of the Upside Down and Billy fucking Hargrove, he passed the station in a daze, forced to turn around.

One day with knowing Billy was in town and he was already a wreck.

Steve greeted the skeleton night staff with a nod of his head, tossing his jacket over the back of his chair and sitting down. The clock ticked away on the wall. Hopper wouldn’t be in for hours. He pulled paperwork from his desk, uncapped a pen and went to work, forcing his thoughts on trespass notices from the week before, and if it was best to use black or blue ink when writing his statements.

Billy stayed drifted around the edges of his mind like a poltergeist. Haunting and taunting, reminding him of things unsaid and things done from years ago, he hung in the air like rain before the storm. Tense, Steve forced his eyes on the paper in front of him, unwilling to let his mind wander any further.

Thoughts of Billy disappeared as Hopper stepped into the office, smelling sharply of tobacco and bad habits.

“I thought you quit.”

“Yeah, well,” Hopper said, hanging his hat on the hook and sitting down heavily in the chair across from Steve’s desk, “I thought now might be a good time to start up again.”

“Joyce will be pissed.”

“She’s already pissed.” Hopper rubbed at his eyes. Dark shadows marred the hollows beneath his eyes. “Let her know what was going on this morning. She wants Jane out of Hawkins. Wants her to go visit her sister with her until this thing blows over.”

Steve raised his eyebrows. “Out of Hawkins?”

“Doesn’t think it’s safe.” He snorted. “She’s right, but that doesn’t mean Jane’ll go. Mike’s coming home next week and she doesn’t wanna miss him.”

“Running away never helped anyone before.”

“We’ve never tried it.”

Steve bit his lip and set down his pen. “Maybe it’s not the worst idea,” he conceded after a moment. “It was about her before, right? Maybe if she’s not here she won’t get pulled in. She said she didn’t open it this time.”

“I know,” Hopper said. “She told me this morning. She ate a whole box of Eggos.”

“Well, shit,” Steve said, and sighed, leaning back in his chair. “Is she okay?”

“Are you?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Hopper gave him a look. “Don’t think I forgot what you were like after last time,” he said sternly. “You slept walked into traffic a couple times.”

Steve flushed for the second time in as many days, warm underneath the collar of his shirt. He tugged at it with a finger. “I wish you’d forget.”

“Can’t, kid. You were as fucked up as the rest of them.”

Steve looked down at his hands, gun-calloused and blunt-nailed. Back then, he’d been soft-hand, delicate in a way that men who didn’t get dirty were. He’d been merely a boy then, someone who thought he’d known everything but hadn’t known more than what was inside Hawkins. After the Mind Flayer, his mind had been opened to the possibilities of the world—and he had been terrified. Traumatized, even if he couldn’t say why. Sometimes he, Will and Jane would sit up at night together with all the lights on, the TV blaring something dumb and casual, and wait out the darkness of night.

It was how he’d met Billy. Not the Billy who’d beaten his face in at the Byers’ house, but the Billy he’d whispered dirty-sweet things to in the daylight.

Steve swallowed hard, looking up. “I’m not a kid anymore. I can handle it.”

“Are you saying Jane can’t?”

“I’m saying Jane’s dealt with a lot of shit in her life, and I’d like to save her from any more of it, if I can.” Steve paused. “Don’t you?”

“Of course,” Hopper said, softly, and it sounded like a warning to Steve. Don’t suggest otherwise hung between them. “But she’s a grown woman now. I can’t make her do anything she doesn’t want to do.”

“You’re her dad. That’s what dads do.”

Hopper’s mouth twitched. “Maybe so, but she’s stubborn. Kinda like you.” He sighed and pushed himself up to stand, scratching the back of his neck. “I’ll ask Joyce to talk to her. Might not be the worst idea in the world, until we know what we’re dealing with.”

We’re dealing with The Gate, he wanted to say. What more was there to say? It had been bad the last time it had been open; Barb had died, Will had disappeared, and the entire town had been under an a hazy cloud of unease.  

“Did you hear from them again?”

His face dropped, lips turning downward. He looked like a disgruntled bear. “No, not yet.” He eyed Steve, calculating. “If they’re not here by tomorrow, I’m going in there.”

Hop—

“Hey,” Powell said, walking through the open door and skirting around Hopper to his own desk, coffee cup in hand, “you both look like shit.”

“Thanks,” Steve and Hopper said together, dry, and then Hopper said to Steve, “We’ll talk later.”

Powell watched Hopper leave, whistling, eyebrows making an escape for his hairline. “What was that about?”

“Nothing.” Steve stood, grabbing his mug to fill it. He’d learned to take it black, since Wallace used all the cream and never replaced it. “Just some family shit.”

“I didn’t know the Chief had adopted you, Harrington.”

Steve snorted. “It’s just some shit with Joyce,” he said, taking a sip of his coffee, grimacing. They may have finally secured the funds to purchase a new station two years back, but the coffee was still terrible. “Nothing bad.”

Powell didn’t look convinced. He harrumphed and sat in his chair, leaning back. He set his coffee on the desk. “You’re a shit liar.”

“Does Stella like when you nag?”

“Not really.”

“Neither do I,” Steve said, giving Powell a smile made of teeth.


Uncertainty itched under his skin like a thorn, burrowing itself deeper into Steve’s skin the more he picked at it. He’d always been bad at not picking. He spent his downtime in his truck, a pile of old newspapers stacked in the passenger seat. He poured over each page, looking for any minuscule suggestion that That Gate had been cracked open.

There was nothing there. No oddity or strange event to signal the Upside Down was breaking through the cracks between their world and it. Steve expected something. Agatha the Crazy Cat Lady reporting that her latest stray had gone missing would have been something, but Steve knew for a fact the cat was fine, because he’d been the one to fish it out of a tree.

Nothing. Nadda. Zip. Zilch.

He threw down the newspaper and rubbed at his face. Before, there had been something to do. The Demogorgon the first time, and then when Dustin had whisked him off to fight the one he’d tried to keep as a pet—all of it had happened so suddenly. Steve had never had to sit around and wonder what was to come next.

Setting his hands on the wheel, he rested his head back, looking up at the roof. It didn’t give him any answers.

The radio crackled to life. He glanced at it.

…noise complaint…5280 Moore Street…

Steve snatched the mic off the cradle.

He found himself sitting outside the once-abandoned Hargrove house, twisting his fingers long after he’d unsnapped his seatbelt and called in his arrival to the dispatcher. Mötley Crüe echoed from the house, from the cracked front window that had been boarded up after some local idiots had been caught trying to break in.

Plucking up his own courage and the keys in the ignition, Steve climbed out of the truck and made his way up the front steps. He rapped his knuckles three times against the door and took a step back, bracing himself for impact.

It came like it had the first and last time, like it always did when it came to Billy. Twelve years didn’t seem to be enough time for Steve to forget.

His hair was shorter, clipped close to his scalp at the base, bleeding up into a longer mop of curls at the top. Military-style, but grown out after a month or so. Silver studs in his ears, week-old stubble lining his jaw, paint-splattered shirt hanging open, baring his chest. He had a cluster of scars above his left nipple, round and dotted, like cigarette burns. There was one over his right arm, curve and arced like a sextant of white scar tissue.

Thinner than he had been a decade ago, less defined, lankier than Steve remembered.  

Billy leaned his shoulder against the door frame, arms crossing over his chest. “You look like shit. What do you want?”

“Noise complaint,” he said, glancing past Billy’s shoulder. The house looked empty, void of things and warmth that made it a home.

“It’s four in the afternoon.”

“Mrs Fielding still doesn’t like you very much.” He gestured with his thumb to the house across the street.

Billy made a face. “Fucking old broad is still alive?”

“Very alive.”

“Huh,” Billy said, and then he took a step back and nodded to the inside of the house. “You gonna come in or just stand there like a dumbass?”

Steve stared, much like a dumbass, at Billy. What was his game? What was he doing? An invitation into Billy’s house wasn’t something he’d had scheduled on the agenda when he’d taken the call. Steve had expected a hit to the face or a firm fuck off.

He must have stood there for too long because Billy rolled his eyes, grabbing the edge of the door. “I’m not going to kill you, y’know,” he said.

“Okay,” Steve said, clearing his throat. “I’ve got some time.”

When Neil Hargrove had died, Steve had been wrangled into lending Max and Lucas his truck while they were visiting from California. In the end, it had been Lucas and him who had loaded the truck and mattresses on and taken them to storage. The house had been empty when Steve had left, tobacco-yellow lines on the wall from where the pictures had hung and dust bunnies rolling around on the floor.

It smelled sharply of paint, chemical and burning. Half the living room was an almond shade. A beaten leather couch that had seen better days was shoved to one corner, blankets piled hazardously on one end, a pillow propped on the other. A turned over milk crate sat beside it, a boom box blaring away.

Steve stood at the lip of the room. He didn’t know what to do with his hands or the lump forming in the pit of his belly.

Billy hit the off button as he passed by it. “Beer?” he asked over his shoulder.

“I’m on shift.”

“Suit yourself.”

He came back in a different shirt, a cream-coloured sweater with holes in the sleeves and one at the collar. Uncapped beer in hand, Billy shoved the blankets onto the floor and sat on the couch. When Steve didn’t move, he raised his eyebrows and said, “Did you forget how to sit?”

Steve shot him a glare and situated himself on the end of the couch, putting wide berth between them. “Don’t be an asshole.”

“I’m always an asshole.”

“Yeah,” Steve said, crossing his arms over his chest, on the defense, “some things never change.”

“Do you really wanna get into that right now?”

Steve scoffed. “Get into what?”

“You know what.”

“I don’t.”

“C’mon, Steve,” he said, and the sound of his name on Billy’s lips made Steve want to vomit or kiss him. Caught between both feelings, he stared as Billy took a swig from the bottle. His eyes followed the line of Billy’s throat as he swallowed. “Don’t be like that.”

“I’m not being like anything.”

“Defensive.”

“Am not,” he said, childishly.

“Are too,” Billy challenged, setting down his bottle. He smiled. It didn’t feel warm. “You’re always defensive.”

“How the hell would you know what I am?” Steve asked, an edge to his words. He sat up straight, arms unfolding to rest on his thighs. “You haven’t been around.”

“Max keeps me in the loop.”

“No, she doesn’t.”

Billy laughed. Steve swallowed harshly. “You’re right,” Billy said, “she doesn’t. But you were never gonna change. That’s what you said to me, right?”

“You don’t need to remind me.”

“I think I do. You’re the one knocking on my door.”

“Noise. Complaint,” Steve said tightly. He forced his hands flat against his knees. He wanted to bunch them into fists. He wanted to leave.

He didn’t know what he wanted.

“You didn’t have to come in.”

“You invited me.”

“You didn’t have to say yes.”

“Jesus Christ, Billy,” Steve said, standing up abruptly. “Did you bring me in here just to be a dick?”

Billy picked up his bottle, setting it against his knee. “Honestly? Yeah.”

“You really haven’t changed.”

“Neither have you.”

“Yes, I have,” Steve gritted out, scowling. Like a child, he felt petulant.

Billy cracked another smile. It was softer this time. “You’re here arguing with me, aren’t you?”

“You could have stayed wherever the fuck you were,” Steve hissed, fingers curling into his fists finally. The words were spilling loose from his throat, pouring over his lips before his teeth could snap them back. “You didn’t have to come back to Hawkins. You didn’t need to play your shitty music so loud the crazy bitch next door called the cops on you. You didn’t need to do any of this shit.”

“It’s not shitty music,” Billy said dismissively, waving his hand.

Steve sighed through his nose and counted back from five.

“What the hell are you doing here, Billy?” he asked, quiet.

Billy sucked on his teeth and shrugged. “Susan is letting me stay. Pay the bills and she won’t charge me rent. Seemed like a pretty good deal.”

Skeptical, Steve gestured around the room. “You hate this place. You said you hated this house so fucking much you wanted to burn it down.”

“He’s dead.”

Steve swallowed around his shame, looking away from Billy. “Yeah. I know.”

“It doesn’t suck so bad when he’s dead.”

“I don’t know what I’m supposed to say to that,” Steve admitted.

“Sorry would be weird.”

“Yeah, it would.” He looked at Billy, at the image he made for him, sitting on the weathered couch in an oversized sweater, paint flecks on his hands, hair cropped and shorter than it’d ever been. Nausea coiled in his stomach, anxiety and anger and something so hopeless it felt like a little death. “Listen, just keep the music down. Edith is still batty as shit.”

“Edith?” Billy’s lips twitched. Steve fought the urge to smile back.

“Yes, Edith. You learn people’s names when you’re always answering complaints.”

“You look good in a uniform. You got the handcuffs, too?” Billy bit the tip of his tongue, a wicked gleam in his eye.

Billy, on his knees, stolen cuffs linking his hands behind his back. Steve’s hands twisted in his hair, his cock down his throat, a wild look of desperation and tears leaking from Billy’s eyes. He’d gagged and choked, thighs shivering from the strain when Steve had ground his face against his pelvis, until Billy’s damp-stretched lips touched his balls, nose buried beneath his navel.

Steve coughed. “You’re an asshole.”

“I’m not the one who stole them,” Billy said, and he grinned again, crooked, tongue brushing a canine. Like a cat that got the cream. Like he knew he’d trapped Steve.

“Don’t do that.”

“Do what?”

“You know what.”

“I don’t,” he said, setting the half-empty bottle down and standing. He stepped around the milk crate, head tipping to the side. He stopped less than a foot from Steve, eyes dipping to the where the mic sat on Steve’s shoulder, wandering to the badge at his breast, the buttoned up collar at his throat. His eyes flicked up. “You wanna explain it to me?”

“No,” Steve said, head light, dizzy with the closeness. It felt like intimacy, something deep and visceral that he shouldn't be allowed to touch. He took a step back. “I don’t.”

Billy licked his lower lip. “You sure?”

Not trusting himself to speak, he nodded tightly. Billy watched him, eyes searching for something. When he didn’t find it, he shrugged and stepped away, turning to swipe his beer off the table. “Suit yourself.”

“I’m suited,” he said stupidly. He grimaced.

Billy barked on a laugh, head tossing back like a hyena. “Jesus, you really haven’t changed.”

“You know what I meant,” Steve said, irritable, a scowl pulling at his mouth again.

“I do, but it’s funnier if you talk yourself in a hole.”

“Dickhead."

“I'll keep down the music," Billy said, swallowing down the rest of his beer. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "Can't promise anything about the power tools."

"I hope she steals your mail again."

"That's a federal offense. I can't believe a man of the law would say that."

"Only to you."

"Get the hell out of my house, Steve," he said, not unkindly, biting his bottom lip, a hint of a smile.

When Steve climbed into his truck, he thought, that didn't go so badly. Maybe it wouldn't be shit. Maybe, in the end, Steve wouldn't have to see Billy that much. Hawkins was a small town, sure, but it had grown in the past ten years, mostly due to the community college that had been built a town over. It was growing, the population blooming, and that meant there was a lot of space to put between him and Billy. Maybe he wouldn't have to see him at all.

The next day proved that, like most things in Steve's life, it was all wishful thinking.

Chapter Text

The day passed quickly for Steve. Little happened in Hawkins since the Gate had been closed years ago, and when Jane had been placed in Hopper’s care, the world had righted itself again. Every other Friday the station got a call for a domestic at the Booth home, where Mr Booth got so hammered and Mrs Booth got so bitter that one of them called the cops.

Every other day of the week, nothing happened. Traffic tickets and the odd teenager stealing a candy bar from the corner store filled his days; most of the time Steve could get halfway through the latest Stephen King novel he’d bought during his shift without missing anything.

He clocked out at five, went home for a shower and a change of clothes. He checked his mail and answering machine. Empty, as usual. Steve checked his hair in the mirror, combed back cowlicks with spit-slicked fingers and headed out the door.

Griffin’s was packed, as usual. The only decent pub in town, run by a man who swore up and down he was truly Irish but held a suspiciously Polish-sounding last name, it had decent food, better beer, and it was the least sketchy place to shoot a few rounds of pool after work.

Steve nudged his way through crowds of people, scoping out the backs of heads until he spotted Nicole’s bright hair. Her head was tipped back, white teeth flashing under the lights, a smile bright on her face. Tommy stood next to her, beer in hand, laughing along with her.

Billy next to them, in the same sweater as the day before, faded jeans. His hair was tousled, eyes bright.

For a moment, he thought about turning around and leaving before anyone saw him. Before he could make up his mind, Billy raised his arm, waving, smile sharpening like a knife’s blade.

“Harrington!” he called, and Nicole and Tommy turned in his direction, shouting their own greetings.

Swallowing his pride and dignity, he settled himself beside Nicole, raising two fingers toward the bartender. He nodded, shouted his own hello, and went to fill a pint of imported for Steve.

“I didn’t expect to see you here,” Steve said to Billy. Billy grinned, tongue touching the corner of his mouth.

“Billy’s back in town,” Tommy said, a little dumbly.

“Yeah, I know. I’ve already had to visit his place.”

“Oh?” Nicole said, cutting a glance between Billy and Steve.

“He was bothering Edith,” he said, reaching between Billy and Nicole for the mug the bartender slid toward him.

“Crazy cat lady Edith?”

“The one and only,” Billy said, grinning still.

Steve wanted to smack it off his face. He wanted him somewhere that wasn’t Griffin’s, where he always went after work when he wanted to unwind. Steve wanted him anywhere that wasn’t in his general vicinity.

Oh-oh,” Nicole said, eyebrows rising. “Does that mean you’re back in the house?”

Steve rolled his eyes and turned to Tommy, drinking down a mouthful of beer. He wished he’d ordered something stronger, like rubbing alcohol. Listening to Billy talk was picking at his nerves, scraping across them like a zester.

“How’s Carol doing?” Steve asked, leaning his hip against the bar.

Tommy shrugged. “Pissed still. She’s got her panties in a twist over Penny.”

“What’d she do now?”

Tommy cracked a grin, proud. “Beat some little fucker’s face in for pulling her hair.”

A hand settled on Steve’s shoulder. He froze, glancing down. There was paint underneath Billy’s nails, little specks of blue and white. Steve swallowed and glanced at him.

“Who’s Penny?”

Steve gestured with his beer to Tommy. “His and Carol’s kid.”

“You two have a kid?”

“Two of them,” Tommy said, preening. “They take after me.”

Billy whistled, low. “Poor kids.”

“Hey!”

“Don’t worry,” Nicole said, flicking her hair over her shoulder in that way she did when she was gearing up to flirt, eyes on Billy. “They look like her, act like him. Luckily.”

“You guys suck.” Tommy sniffed and turned away to the bar, ordering another beer.

Nicole grinned, head tilting as she looked up at Billy. Steve looked away. The night hadn’t even started and he already wanted to leave—or be drunk. Maybe drunk and at his own place, on the couch, wallowing in his own misery, where Tommy and Nicole could do their catching up without him.

He sat down heavily at the bar, waited until Todd the bartender had a free moment and ordered a burger and fries, turning his attention to the TV hanging above the wine racks. He sipped his beer, only half paying attention to the conversation around him. His brain zeroed in on Billy’s voice whenever he spoke; the way his voice ticked up when he asked a question, the sharp laughter, the way his smile was tangled up in the words he spoke.

The beer in his mouth tasted bitter, like something iron and off. The basket Todd placed in front of him tasted like grease and metal, a heavy anvil weighing in his belly.

He wished he’d stayed home.

A hand clapped on his shoulder and Billy slid into the seat next to him. Steve glanced over his shoulder, watching Nicole and Tommy head to an open pool table, laughing about something.

“Don’t you want to go with them.” It wasn’t a question.

“I’d rather be with you.”

Steve swallowed a fry and washed it down with a mouthful of beer. “Aren’t you here for them?”

“Nah,” Billy said, leaning an arm on the bar top, stealing a fry from Steve’s basket. “Just ran into them. I didn’t know you were friends with Tommy anymore.”

“A lot’s changed since high school.”

“Yeah, I can tell.” Billy popped the fry in his mouth, eyes sweeping over Steve. “Don’t you have a little missus to get home to?”

“No.”

“Single?”

“Does it matter to you?”

“Of course it does.”

Steve shifted in his seat, uncomfortable. Every inch of his skin was too tight to his bones. He took a sip of his beer and set it down, wiping his lips with a thumb. “Are you asking for something, Billy?”

A slow smile spread across Billy’s face. He reached over and stole another fry. “I might be. Can’t you tell?”

“I’m not a mind reader. We’ve been over this before.”

“That was before,” Billy said, leaning forward in the stool. Steve leaned away from him. He wanted space between them—preferably in the form of a titanium wall twenty feet tall. Billy was too close, saturating too much of the air around them. “This is now.”

“Now doesn’t mean anything.”

“Are you sure?”

Steve cast a look at the people around them. None of them were looking at them, attention on their own business. That didn’t mean they weren’t listening.

“I don’t want to talk about this,” he said, picking up his beer again, lips pressed to the rim to gulp down other words threatening to slip out.

“Oh, come on, Steve,” Billy drawled, and Steve suppressed a shiver. His name on Billy’s lips—Steve, not Harrington, not princess or pretty boy—had always sounded like a prayer or a sin. “You don’t want to play with me again?”

Steve cut him a sharp look, eyes narrowed. “I don’t want to talk about this.”

Billy bit his lip around a smile. Steve knew that smile. It knew him, inside and out, too well. “You wanna do, then?”

He looked away, to the TV, where the news was playing. Boring, the same old, same old; he knew the stories they’d report like the back of his hand. Nothing ever changed in Hawkins.

“Is that a no?” Billy asked. Despite the question, he sounded so fucking certain.

“Billy,” he said, sighing.

“Yeah?”

“Why are you doing this?”

“I missed you.”

“Shut up.”

He laughed. “You didn’t miss me?”

“No,” Steve said, swallowing down the last of his beer.

“Don’t lie.”

“I’m not.”

“I know when you’re lying.”

“You don’t know me anymore,” he said.

“I’ll know you until the day we die.”

Steve swallowed around nothing, saliva flooding his mouth. “Don’t say shit like that,” he said softly, weakly.

“Don’t lie, you mean?”

“Don’t fuck with my head.”

Billy tossed back his head and laughed. “This isn’t mind-fucking.”

“Really?” Steve asked, shooting him a dark look. “It feels like it. What the fuck are you doing here, Billy?”

“I told you. Susan offered me the house—“

“What are you doing here, sitting next to me?”

Billy glanced around, eyes heavy on the bartender making small chat with a duo of girls with matching wispy fringes. His hand slipped down, settling on Steve’s thigh underneath the bar. Steve tensed beneath his touch.

“You know what I’m doing,” he said, low and husky. It sounded like sex. It sounded like something to be whispered into Steve’s ear in the darkness, warm breath against his skin.

Billy.”

“That’s still not a no,” Billy said.

He covered Billy’s hand with his own, fingers curling around his. His skin was warm and surprisingly soft. They always had been. “Billy,” he said again, biting the edge of his tongue.

Billy leaned forward. “Is that a no?”

“Don’t.”

“Yes or no, Steve. I don’t have forever.”

“Hey,” Tommy said, leaning a hip against the bar beside Billy. He jammed his thumb over his shoulder at the pool table Nicole bent over. “You guys wanna play a round or sit around like a couple of losers?”

Shoving Billy’s hand off his thigh, Steve stood quickly and muttered out bathroom. He made a hasty exit to the back of the room, nudging people out of his way with his elbows.

He kicked the door shut behind him, relieved by the empty bathroom that greets him. He made a beeline for the sinks, turning on the cold tap and splashing frigid water across his face. It shook him awake, overheated and frazzled nerves soothed. Closing his eyes, he pressed handful after handful of water to his skin, until his collar was wet with it and his hair was damp.

The bathroom door swung open. Steve glanced up, blinking away the water from his eyelashes. A drop dripped off the tip of his nose.

Steve watched as Billy locked the door from the inside, sliding the deadbolt in place. He wiped his face with his hands and stood slowly, eyes heavy as he watched Billy through the mirror.

He moved, slow and sure, until he was behind Steve. He set a hand on Steve’s shoulder, fingers slipping underneath the soaked collar to touch his chilled flesh. Steve bit down a broken noise, eyes half closed.

“You didn’t say no,” Billy said, soft and sure, fingers curled in Steve’s collar, free hand settled on his hip, playing with the hem of his shirt.

“I was always shit at saying no to you.”

Billy pressed his body against Steve’s, hand slipping under his shirt to splay across his belly, chest solid to his back. “I know. I remember.”

A shudder ripped through Steve’s body.

A dam broke. A tidal wave of all the things Billy Hargrove he’d kept trapped behind rushing to the surface—all the want and need, all the tangled up desire and emotions he’d thought he’d done such a good job of drowning out crashed into him.

Billy kissed his neck and Steve turned, hands cupping Billy’s face and pulling him forward, lips slanting across his. Their teeth bumped together; Billy tasted like fryer grease and salt, the hint of tequila on his tongue. Steve sucked on it, pulling the taste off and into his own mouth. His nails bit into Billy’s cheeks.

Heat crackled between them, hot and thick, striking through Steve’s spine while Billy pulled at the bottom of his shirt, underneath his jacket, fingers scrambling as his nails raked over his skin, leaving red lines in their wake. Steve kissed him hard, hand diving into his hair to pull at the roots, turning them about to crowd Billy against the counter.

Dimly, Steve could hear the water rushing from the faucet in the background. He ignored it.

They kissed until Steve’s mouth hurt, lips burned by the rasp of Billy’s stubble, hands clutching at each other. They kissed after that point, when his lips singed with the movement, branded by the heat of Billy’s mouth and his saliva slicking his lips.

They kissed until Billy shook in his arms, hands curling in his belt, a noise as broken as the one Steve had made spilling from his throat and into Steve’s.

They kissed until Steve whispered into his mind, breathy and feminine, pleading.

Steve pulled away from Billy and looked at his face, the heavy-lidded eyes, the dazed look, the swollen mouth, red from his own stubble burning the skin around his lips and chin. Pliant in his arms, leaning into Steve’s touch, all Steve wanted to do was lay him on the floor, strip off his clothes and touch him, get as close as possible. He wanted inside Billy.

In the mirror, Jane looked back at him, dressed down in a pair of overalls and a stripped blue shirt, barefoot on the suspiciously sticky bathroom floor.

Steve closed his eyes and willed her away.

“Steve,” she said.

Billy was still shaking, little tremors wracking through his body, fingers twisting against the skin of Steve’s back.

Steve,” she said again.

Billy kissed him, lips trailing across his jaw to his mouth, soft and delicate, desperation still hidden behind his teeth.

“Steve!”

When he opened his eyes, Jane stared at him in the mirror.

“I have to go,” Steve said, pulling away from Billy. It felt like cutting off his own arm; the loss was aching, a wide chasm in the shape of Billy’s fingertips on his spine.

Billy stared at him as Steve left.

Steve didn’t look back.


Jane paced back and forth on the front porch, wearing the overalls and striped shirt, one of Hopper’s plaid shirts hanging off her thin shoulders.

Steve took the steps two at a time, heart hammering in his chest. “What is it?” he demanded, one hand clutching the wooden railing hard enough to give himself splinters.

His nerves were shot. It felt like the world’s worst hangover was coursing through him, bubbling in the pit of his stomach and biting at the back of his neck. The drive to Hopper’s had been hell for him; focus hadn’t come easy, and twice he’d considered pulling over until he could breathe easily again.

Jane didn’t appear to him often anymore. When she’d been young and playing with her own powers, they’d played hide and seek across the county, testing her limits without pushing herself into passing out. When she did now, it was for a reason.

A good reason, Steve hoped, desperately.

There was crusted blood around both of her nostrils. Steve sucked in a sharp breath.

“What happened?” he asked, softer.

Jane shook her head, arms wrapping around herself. Steve took a step forward, hand leaving the railing. “Jane?”

She shook her head again, tears clinging to her lashes. “She’s dead,” Jane said, small and quiet.

Steve swallowed and looked past Jane, into the open door behind her. Joyce was still at her mother’s, last Steve heard. His heart hammered in his chest, heavy like an anchor.

“Who’s dead?” Steve asked tightly, hands hovering in front of him, uncertain.

“I don’t—” She shook her heard sharply. “A little girl. She has blonde hair,” Jane said, voice shaking. “It took her like it took Will. I don’t know her name.”

Blood pounded in Steve’s ears, thick as molasses, drowning out the sounds of the night around them. Jane hiccupped, wiping at her eyes. Steve stared.

A little girl. Like Will.

Like Will.

“What were you—?” Dread swelled in his throat, working its way down into his esophagus and to the pit of his belly. He cleared his throat and tried again. “How do you know?”

“I saw it happen,” she said, wrapping her arms tighter around herself.

“Okay.” He looked up at the sky, clear and bright, the moon hung high and the stars tiny nightlights in the distance. “Okay,” he said again, and set his hand gently on Jane’s shoulder. At least she didn’t flinch. “Let’s go inside and I’ll call Hop, okay? Did you see anything else?”

“Maple Street. It happened on Maple Street.”

Of fucking course, Steve thought. Of course it happened on Maple Street. He smothered a bitter noise and ushered Jane inside, settling her on the couch and heading straight for the kitchen. He picked the phone off the cradle and paused, fingers hovering over the buttons.

“Jane?” Steve asked, voice tight.

She stood, pale as a ghost, swallowed whole by the plaid shirt. “Yes?”

“Why didn’t you tell Hopper first?”

She bit her lip and shook her head. “He went in.”

“In?”

“To the Upside Down. I can’t find him. I think he’s still there.”

Steve stared at the receiver, at the number pad. “You stupid fuck," he whispered.

“Steve.”

“Not you. Just—”

What was he supposed to do? Who was he supposed to call, if not Hopper? Steve’s entire career had been built on top of turning to Hopper when he needed help, and it was so infrequent that most of the time he could just wing it. Domestic? Talk them down. Traffic accident? Fill out the paperwork. It was easy. Simple.

This was neither.

He dialed the number slowly, looking out the kitchen window at the picturesque sky. His lips still stung from Billy’s bruising kiss.

“Joyce? We have a problem.”

Chapter Text

He left Hopper’s house with Jane in the passenger seat and Joyce on her way from her mother’s. Steve had tried to keep her in the house, but she’d stared him down with all the fire that had razed down the Upside Down a decade ago and Steve knew he had lost.

Eyes red and lips chapped from worrying them with her teeth, Jane looked out the window, watching Hawkins pass by. Families and couples lined the sidewalk, waiting to get into the only movie theatre; people hung in thick clumps outside the only coffee shop, smoking and sharing laughter. Totally unaware of what lay beneath the ground, hidden deep in the forest of Hawkins.

Steve wanted to laugh. He kept it in, barely.

Twenty minutes before, he had been held up in the bathroom with Billy, door locked and hands and mouth desperate for him. When he ran his tongue against the backs of his teeth, he could still taste Billy in his mouth. The places Billy had touched—fingers scrambling, nails catching on skin, all heat and undiluted desire—burned cold beneath his clothes.

He wanted to go back to twenty minutes ago. Complicated frustration twisted in his belly. If Hopper had just let it the fuck go, he could be home with Billy, wrapped up in his calloused and sun-kissed skin, getting reacquainted with how good it felt to have his undivided attention.

But Billy was Billy, and desire was never just desire. Their history was too shared for it to be anything but complicated.

At the stop sign, Steve pressed his lips together, eyes closing for a beat.

If Hopper had just stayed put. If Billy had left him alone. If the Upside Down had stayed closed. If Billy had stayed out of Hawkins. If Hopper would have left well enough alone.

“Steve,” Jane said. A hand touched his shoulder.

He looked at her and swallowed, shaking his head to clear his thoughts. It didn’t help. Whatever spell Billy had cast over him hadn’t disappeared when Steve had fled the bar; it stayed with him, burning low, an ache that couldn’t be fed when there was a fucking emergency like this to tend to.

“Sorry,” he muttered, and stepped on the gas pedal.

They drove in silence for a few moments.

“Steve,” she said again, softer now. “I thought you weren’t going to see him.”

“Do we have to talk about this now?”

“You said you weren’t going to see him,” she repeated, firmer.

“I never said that.”

“You did.”

“Jane—” He cut himself off, biting on his tongue until he tasted metal. Could the night get any worse? First Billy, then Hopper, and the missing girl Jane claimed was dead—then Jane herself, who knew too much and didn’t keep it to herself.

“Steve,” she said, and it sounded like a challenge, hard like he hadn’t heard her voice in years. Jane was always soft until she wasn’t.

“Don’t—don’t fucking say my name like that,” he snapped, fingers tightening on the wheel. “You’re not supposed to know about that. You don’t get to interrogate me like I did something wrong. You’re not my mother, you’re not my wife. You don’t get to go into my fucking head and get mad at what you see when I didn’t let you.”

Steve stared forward. The reflection of Jane flinching and shirking into her seat was enough for the guilt to set in. He bit his tongue again, punishingly hard enough it bled and burned. Shame mingled with the guilt, twisting in his belly and into his throat. He wanted to throw up, scrape the taste out of his mouth and exchange it with an I’m sorry.

He didn’t.

They drove in silence for almost ten minutes. The street lamps disappeared and they pulled onto a dirt road before Jane spoke again.

“You love him.”

Jane,” Steve gritted out from between clenched teeth. It wasn’t the time. It would never be the time to face that, but it especially wasn’t the time to deal with it now. Not with Hopper and a dead girl; not with the Gate wide open to wreak havoc once again.

“You love him.”

Steve chanced a glance over to her. She was eyeing him, spine ramrod-straight and arms crossed tightly over her chest, brow and jaw set in something close to anger.

“You love him and you don’t want to talk about it. Why?”

He ground his molars until they ached and then said, “I don’t want to talk about it because I don’t want to talk about it. It’s complicated. He’s complicated.” He let out a tight breath and shook his head, flicking on his highbeams. “Because I broke his heart, okay?”

The crease between her brows smoothed and her jaw relaxed, lips parting around a silent oh. It looked like sympathy. It tasted like pity, right alongside Billy in his mouth.

“Don’t,” he said and sighed. “Just not tonight. Not right now. Some other time.” He sighed again, shoulders stiffening. “Let’s just get your dad out of this and we can talk about it tomorrow.”

Jane nodded slowly, arms unwinding from around her body as she settled back into her seat. They drove the rest of the way to Hawkins National Laboratory in silence, listening to the engine rumble and watching the quiet of Indiana at night swelling around them.

Hopper’s truck sat, quiet and empty, in the parking lot. Steve parked next to it, cutting the engine and reaching across Jane to the glove box. He pulled the flashlight out—useful—and his gun—useless as it was.

The last time, they’d fought tooth and nail with kitchen supplies, desperation, the will to live and a half-cocked plan taking them further than an entire army could. The gun was a poor security blanket when he had Jane next to him, but it was the only thing he had. The bat had been retired after graduation.

“Do you want to stay?” Steve asked.

Jane tugged her jacket closer around her shoulders, fiddling with the zipper. She shook her head. “I’ll go,” she said, soft as butterfly wings, barely above a whisper.

Steve studied her face, pinched as she looked out the window toward the decrepit building. It had been a long time since she’d been back. Not even the kids had been cruel enough to make her go back to explore the lab in their most insensitive moments.

He touched her hand gently. “We go in, get your dad and get out. Okay?”

Jane looked down at where Steve’s hand covered hers and then to his face. She nodded, lips pressed thin. “Got it.”

As they climbed out of the truck, Steve said a little prayer to God and hoped He was listening.


In the belly of the ruined lab, darkness swallowed them whole, broken only by the beam of light in Steve’s hand. Silence eclipsed them; their breathing felt like too much to Steve. The feel of his heart pounding in his ears was louder than a subwoofer pressed directly to his ear. Unease filled him, swelling with the dread that had planted itself in his chest when Jane had called him to her house.

He cut a glance to her, hands already cramping from clutching the gun and flashlight in position three stories down.  Face pale, she looked like she was going to throw up. If he had a mirror, Steve doubted he’d look much better.

“Can you feel him?” Steve asked.

Jane paused, fingers twisting in her jacket, before shaking her head. “No,” she said, strained. She sounded sick.

They made their way down another level and then another. The last time Steve had been inside the lab had been years ago, when a group of kids had broken in, and even then he’d never had to venture to the underground. That had been Hopper’s job on the few occasions it had been called for. It rarely had been.

Jane led the way, taking slow measured steps. When she paused, Steve did, too, hands steady on the gun and flashlight in his hands. She looked at him and nodded, and they continued their way down the long hallways, searching for signs of Hopper or anything spilling from the Gate.

Outside the lowest level’s door, Jane paused, hand pressed flat to the thick metal. “It’s here,” she whispered. She didn’t look at Steve as she pushed it open.  He yanked the bandanna he’d tied about his neck over his nose and mouth.

The scent was sharper than upstairs. Heavy and oozing along his skin like slime, it was worse than decay or rotten food.  Once, Dustin had told him about a flower that smelled of rotting corpses. Steve had never seen it before but he imagined if the Upside Down were a flower, it would be the carrion flowers.

His eyes burned. He swallowed the saliva flooding his mouth. Jane tipped her chin up, tears smarting the corners of her eyes, and led the way into the Upside Down.

The last time he had been in the Upside Down, he’d barely touched the edges of what it was. The tunnels had been connections, little pockets of the underworld Steve had spent less than an hour inside of. The ash-like spores floated around his face just like before; the vines crawling up the walls slithered, shifting away from the light when Steve aimed his flashlight at them.

He shivered. The Upside Down felt wrong, like a negative charge buzzing along his skin, swallowing them both.

“Jane.”

She raised a hand, a gesture to silence him. Lips pressed thin, Steve listened to the blood pounding in his ears and waited.

“He’s here,” she said softly. “I can feel him.”

“Can you find him?”

She licked her lips and nodded her head jerkily. “Don’t speak,” she said, and closed her eyes, palms covering her face.

It had been a long time since Steve had seen Jane stretch her mind to find someone. Ten years, a group of curious kids and Hopper’s watchful eye had taught her how to control herself. Steve had seen it firsthand. The last time had been three years before, when little Gregory Duggard hadn’t come home for dinner. Jane had found him in mere moments, trapped in a forgotten storm cellar on his parents’ property.

Blood dripped from her nose and over her lips. Steve started, flashlight lowering to touch her shoulder, mouth opening to speak.

Hands dropping from her eyes, she wiped the blood off her face and nodded to the left. “This way.”

Mutely, Steve followed, eyes flicking back and forth between the wide abyss of the Upside Down and Jane. She didn’t bleed anymore, Hopper had told him proudly a few years back. She didn’t hurt herself using her powers anymore.

“It’s blocking me,” she said softly, as they climbed the stairs of the Upside Down lab to the top floor.  “I can’t see him. I can feel him.”

“It?”

“I don’t know.”

“Mind Flayer?”

She shook her head and then paused, glancing at Steve. Her upper lip was stained red. “I don’t know. I can’t feel it here.” She stepped around a corner, pointing down at a pulsing vine for Steve to step over. “I couldn’t feel it until we were here.”

“The Mind Flayer…could it do that?” Steve asked.

When Jane looked at him, her eyes said it all.


Steve had heard stories from Nancy about the Upside Down. Devoid of life, a corpse of the reality they lived in, it had scared her for years after she’d left Hawkins. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, when Jonathan was at work and she was left alone, she would call Steve up and they would drink and talk about anything else until she fell asleep.

It’s death, she’d whispered one night, voice tinged with fear, high and thin in his ear. Everything is dead and you feel dead, too.

He understood her now.

A mirror image of Hawkins, Indiana, the Upside Down looked like home but felt like a funeral home. An eerie feeling of dread crawled its way up Steve’s spine as he followed Jane down the street, gun at the ready and flashlight tucked at his hip.

The wrongness he’d felt when he’d stepped through the Gate was magnified above ground. Dustin had told him about the concept of uncanny valley once: something so close to human, but just off enough to leave the onlooker repulsed.

He was repulsed. Thoroughly.

They moved through the deserted streets of Hawkins. No sign of Demogorgons or Demo-dogs followed them. The unease in Steve’s stomach sharpened. Where were they? They had to be there—and if they weren’t, did that mean they had already fled into the real world?

He swallowed down the taste of bile and let Jane lead him up the steps of Hawkins Police State. Vines slithered beneath their feet. Steve resisted the urge to stomp on them.

Jane pushed the door open. It swung open with a whiny creak, the door shuddering on rusty hinges. The black ash that floated around them thickened, drifting from inside the station. Bits of spores brushed his temples and Steve cringed. It made his skin crawled.

Jane walked through it, chin tipped up, stiff upper lip. She’d always been braver than him. She’d always been braver than anyone Steve had met.

Down in the basement, where stacks upon stacks of records and evidence sat, Steve pulled the flashlight out again, fingers tensing around the handle of his gun. His fingers ached, cramped and sore from the clutch he held.

“Where is—?” he started, grim and low, but Jane took off into a sprint before he could finish his question.

He stared dumbly at her back before taking off after her. “Jane!” he called to her back. She didn’t turn, disappearing between stacks. Her hair, knotted and long, drifted behind her.

Steve came to a stumbling stop, heart slamming into his ribs and chest tight from the exertion. There wasn’t enough oxygen in the Upside Down, it seemed; his heart burned with each sharp inhale of air. He sucked them in greedily as he fell to his knees next to Jane, gun and flashlight clattering to the concrete floor.

Jane ripped at the tendrils coiled around Hopper’s body, consuming him like a horrible cocoon. They flexed as she pulled, sliding across his sleeping face and vulnerable throat. Dried and flaking blood splattered up the side of one cheek; his hair was matted in it, clumped together at his temple.

She yanked, desperate and frustrated, at the vines, pulling with all her might. They refused to budge. “Daddy,” she cried, tears pricking her eyes again as she shoved her fingers beneath the vines surrounding his face. Hopper didn’t move.

Grabbing the knife from his belt, Steve flicked it open, pushing Jane’s hands away as he yanked at the vines, sawing at them with angry, bumpy movements. When one vine gave way, Jane tore at it, yanking it away from Hopper’s face and tossing it to the side, pulling at the next for Steve to cut through.

Down to his sternum, blood slicked Steve’s knuckles as he cut through the vines. He shuddered at the tangle of long blonde hair curled in with the tendrils, red-stained and delicate. They threaded in Steve’s hands as he grabbed another fistful of vine to shred through. His stomach roiled.

The vines cut away; Steve tossed the knife to the ground and rolled over onto his hands and knees. He spilled the contents of his stomach onto the floor, bile and anger bright on his tongue.

Wrapped in Hopper’s big arms was a tiny body—whatever was left of her tiny body. Missing both arms and half a leg, the slash across her torso left her organs to spill from her body. Her stomach was gone, along with her liver; the rest stayed attached, somehow.

One eye was missing, and her delicate mouth was torn to her ear, baby teeth stained red and broken. Her tongue was missing, a gaping chasm of devastation.

Steve heaved until nothing came out, until he was spitting saliva and the leftover taste of bile. Wiping his mouth with his wrist, he looked over to Jane.

Her hands shook as she touched Hopper’s face, eyes gleaming with tears in the low light. She said something, soft and quiet, lips forming dad over and over again. The ruined body in his arms was ignored.

Crawling over to Hopper’s body, Steve swallowed down the lump lodged in his throat. “Jane,” he said. She ignored him, fingers curling around Hopper’s shoulders to shake him.

Jane,” he said, louder. When she didn’t respond, he pushed onto his knees and brought the palm of his hand down. It cracked against Hopper’s cheek, an echo reverberating in the concrete room.

Jane’s head whipped around, eyes narrowed dangerously. Her nostrils flared.

Beneath them, Hopper choked on a gasp, eyes snapping open. Hand shooting up, he grabbed at Steve’s wrist, eyes wild as they adjusted to the light, flicking back and forth between him and Jane.

Steve’s hand trembled and he breathed out a sigh of relief, eyes closing.

“You dumb fuck,” he said, voice shaking.

“Don’t be dramatic,” Hopper croaked, shoving an elbow beneath himself to sit up. The girl’s body rolled, slipping off his lap. Hopper grabbed her and pulled her close.

Jane and Steve looked at each other and then to the body.

“Dad—”

“Hopper—”

“I know she’s dead,” he snapped, dragging a hand down the side of his face. He smeared old blood across it. Steve could see his hand shake where it sat on his cheek. “How long was I gone?”

“A couple hours,” Jane murmured, fists balling in her lap. “We have to go.”

“Can you walk?” Steve asked, gathering up his knife, gun and flashlight, handing over the flashlight to Jane. She took it, fingers curled tight around the handle.

Hopper looked down at the body in his arms. “We have to take her back,” he said.

Steve paused. “Do we have time for that?”

“I don’t care. We have to take her back,” he said stiffly, shifting his legs underneath himself to sit up.

“Chief—” Steve tried, only for Hopper to cut him off with a sharp look, venom in his eyes.

“Don’t fight me on this.”

Steve licked his lips. They tasted sickly sour. “Okay,” he said, shrugging out of his jacket. His stomach protested against the words coming out of his mouth. “Let me carry her.”

She was tiny enough to be covered by the fabric of his jacket, her legs dangling over the crook of his arm. Steve wanted to throw up again. Cold sweat dripped at his temples and nape. His head felt far away from his body. His blood felt too thick for his veins.

Hopper slung his arm over Jane’s shoulders but didn’t lean against her. He walked stiffly, a sluggish shuffle that made the climb up the stairs excruciating. Steve tried hard not to think about the dead girl in his arms.

They didn’t speak. Steve bit his tongue, trying to keep the vomit from bubbling to the surface again. Jane stayed alert, arm about Hopper’s waist. Hopper held Steve’s gun, steady and certain despite the shake in every step he took.

They stopped on the outskirts of town, Hopper leaning heavily against a tree and breathing hard. Jane clutched his hand like a lifeline. Steve stared at anything but what lay in his arms.

“What happened?” Steve finally asked.

Hopper shook his head and wiped a hand across his forehead, pulling off flakes of dried blood. “I was coming out of the station,” he said, looking over at Steve, eyes dull as he spoke. “She was just standing there, covered in blood. She was crying. I went to get her and it came out of nowhere.”

“It?” Jane asked.

“Demogorgon. Like the first one,” Hopper said. “It grabbed her and took off. I followed it in my truck.” He smiled, bitter and thin, and looked at the lump wrapped in Steve’s jacket. “She was screaming all the way. Didn’t realize we were heading to the lab until it was too late.”

“I saw her on Maple Street,” Jane said, head tipped back with a frown. “You weren’t there.”

Steve swallowed and adjusted the weight in his arms. Her hair, long and blonde and pretty, brushed his arm from beneath. “You said it was blocking you,” he said wearily.

“Blocking?” Hopper asked, looking down at Jane.

She bit her lip and shook her head. “I couldn’t feel you until we got here. I couldn’t—I couldn’t feel anything.”

Hopper’s jaw set and he pushed off the tree, raising the hand encircled with Jane’s and kissing her knuckles. “Let’s get out of here.”

Inside the front foyer of the lab, Steve asked, “What happened when you got here?”

Hopper shook his head. “Demodogs were everywhere. Must’ve been a hundred of them.”

“We didn’t see any,” Jane said softly, taking the lead once more. She walked them down the stairwells like she’d done it a thousand times before. “We haven’t seen anything.”

Uneasy, Steve cleared his throat. “Was she dead when you got here?” he asked, giving a vague nod of his head to the world around them.

Shaking his head, Hopper said quietly, “No. They ripped her apart in front of me.”

Steve closed his eyes and thought of the dead girl in his arms. She was probably in kindergarten; bright-eyed and full of big dreams, loved and adored by her parents. She was probably loved by all the kids at school. She was probably going to grow up to be a doctor.

Now she was just another stain on Hawkins. Just another tragedy consumed by the Upside Down.

He thought of Barb, of her red hair and curious eyes, of the way she lingered whenever he and Nancy had tried to get alone. He thought of Barb, with her book smarts and the way she always raised her hand first in class, eager to answer.

He wondered what she would have grown up to be.

“Steve?”

He opened his eyes and shook his head. “Coming,” he said, stepping over a thick vine beneath his feet and following Jane and Hopper down.


“Ow!”

Steve jerked around, hands clutching the bundle in his arms.

Nose wrinkled, Jane stumbled free from the Gate, hands groping for something to catch her fall. She lifted one foot in the air and hissed.

“What is it?”

“Nothing,” she said from between clenched teeth, eyes narrowed as she inspected her leg. She turned the flashlight on her calf; her jeans were ripped, gaping open. A line of blood lay against her skin. “Got caught on something.”

Hopper eyed her carefully and then nodded, setting one hand on her shoulder. The long walk from the Upside Down police station to the lab had taken it out of him; skin sallow and eyes heavy, he looked ready to keel over at any moment.

“Let’s get out of here,” Hopper said, hand still on her shoulder. Steve wanted to reach out and take her hand, hold onto something warm and solid and alive.

The girl in his arms was cold. Death seeped from her corpse into his bones, leeching away the life from them.

Or maybe that was just the Upside Down.

Everything is dead and you feel dead, too, Nancy had said. She’d been right. Death lay in his chest and in his arms, an ache Steve didn’t think any amount of life could salve.

He led them out of the lower levels of the lab, glancing over his shoulder to check that Hopper and Jane followed them. He looked over his shoulder for signs of the Mind Flayer or Demo-whatevers following them out from the mouth of Hell; there were none. It did nothing to ease Steve's worried mind. The gears clicked inside his head, pulling at thoughts, working in overtime until he thought steam might pour from his ears and eyes.

Jane climbed into the front seat of Hopper’s trucl. Steve, with care he didn’t know he still had, laid the girl in the backseat of the car, re-situating his jacket across her. After wiping his blood-stained hands on the backs of his jeans, he helped Hopper into the passenger seat of his own truck.

“I’ll deal with the body,” Steve said, numb. He felt numb, from the tips of his fingers to the tips of his toes. Even his eyelashes felt numb. “Joyce might be home by now. You should…”

Call the men in black. Call the station. Call someone. There was a missing girl in Hawkins, and the Chief had disappeared alongside her. If they were lucky, she wouldn’t be found missing until morning.

“Get some rest,” Steve said finally, avoiding the way Hopper’s eyes narrowed on his face. “I’ll deal with what I can tonight and tomorrow we deal with the rest.”

“Come by the house in the morning,” Hopper said, handing over a set of keys to Jane’s waiting hand. “We’ll talk then.” He paused, glancing at Steve’s truck. His voice was husky when he spoke. “Burn it, Steve. They don’t need to see her like that.”

“Yeah,” Steve said, and stepped back to shut the door. Jane waved a him, small and timid, a weak smile on her face, before she pulled the truck into reverse. Steve watched them go and then glanced at his own truck.

He hoped God wasn’t watching.


He drove to the other side of Hawkins and dumped the girl’s body in a ditch on the fringes of town. Streetlamps glittered in the distance. Steve stared at them as unwrapped her body from his jacket, wadding it up and tossing it in the backseat. He’d need to bury or burn it somewhere else.

The gas can in his backseat came in handy for once; he dosed her body, nose burning with the bright-sharp scent of gasoline.

Standing on the edge of the road, he watched the flames devour devour her body, until the scent of flesh burning made his stomach churn. He watched a moment longer, committed himself to the memory of her pretty blonde hair being eaten away by the fire, and then got into his truck.

He needed to go home and shower. He needed to get rid of the jacket in his seat. He needed to burn his clothes and maybe parts of his skin. A hot shower, turned to scalding, would do the trick. The bottles of Jack and Jameson under his sink could soothe him to sleep.

He needed to go home. He needed to plan. He needed to sleep.

He turned onto Billy’s street without a second thought.

Parking on the street, he left the keys in the ignition, stumbling up the front porch on unsteady legs. Fist balled, he knocked on the door twice, and then again, and then louder and harder, and louder and harder, until he heard the click of the deadbolt turning and was greeted with a sleep-grumpy face.

“The fuck are you doing here?” Billy mumbled, rubbing at his eye with his knuckles. He yawned and reached over, the light beside the door turning on in a flood of yellow-white.

Steve blinked against the brightness, squinting at Billy. His vision blurred, merging together a moment later.

Billy stared, lips parted, sleep gone from his face. Steve wondered what he looked like. He wondered if there was blood on his face.

“Steve,” he said, calm and smooth and slow, like he was speaking to a frightened doe, “what did you do?”

Throwing back his head, Steve laughed, sharp and edged, tinged with the hysteria of the night. Tears bit at the corners of his eyes and he laughed again. He laughed until he cried.

Billy looked alarmed, eyes wide and worried. He sucked in a sharp breath. “Steve—”

Another round of laughter bubbled in his chest, molasses-thick and frenzied. His chest rattled. The laughter broke into a sob, twisted and ugly in his chest. The tears spilled over, slipping down his cheeks.

He fell to his knees in front of Billy and grabbed his hips, hands strong and as heavy as anchors. He buried his face in Billy’s stomach and sobbed, grief shaking through his shoulders, trembling along his spine.

Gentle hands touched his hair, sliding through the strands. Careful fingers touched his temples.

“Steve,” Billy whispered, high and clear above the choked-off gasps breaking from Steve’s lungs. “Baby, what did you do?”

Chapter Text

He woke with a crick in his neck and his shoulder stiff. The hand tucked beneath him was asleep, numb to the world and heavy as he sat up. Rubbing the back of his neck, he blinked.

There was a pillow, flattened out from thousands of sleeps, bunched up beneath him and a threadbare blanket on top of him he didn’t remember having. Steve blinked again and yawns, rubbing a hand over his face. Crusted tears clung to the corners of his eyes. He wiped them away.

“Stop moving,” Billy said from a nest of old blankets on the floor. He was stripped down to sweats with a hole in the knee. A sketch book lay across his knees. He held a pencil in his hand, pointed tip laid against the paper.

Steve scrubbed a hand across his face and shoved up.

“Stop moving,” Billy said again, insistent as he looked up. He was frowning, deeply. He pushed a curl of hair off his forehead. “I won’t feed you if you move.”

Steve stared at him, blinking owlishly. Billy grinned, the tip of his tongue, pink and bright against white, caught between his teeth. They sat in silence for long minutes, the scratch of lead on paper and Steve’s own breathing filling the air between them. Steve tries to peek over the edge of the book to see what he’s drawing but Billy tips the pad away from him, carefully obstructing Steve’s view.

It reminded him of when he was eighteen and in love, when Billy had let him inside his room when Neil and Susan had gone out of town for the weekend and Steve got to see Billy. They’d spent the weekend naked and looking through college pamphlets and Billy’s drawings, from the crudest of stick figures to realistic sketches of hands, blunt-nailed and all identical to Steve’s. They’d eaten takeout and smoked the last of Billy’s roaches with needle-tipped pliers. They’d fucked and made love, kissed and spent the weekend soaking up each other’s body heat.

“You can move,” Billy says a while later, setting the pencil to the side and flipping the notebook shut. Steve crushed down the wave of disappointment. Had Billy kept drawing after Hawkins or had he started up when he came back?

Steve sat up, stretching out his legs in front of him. “What time is it?”

“Ten.”

Fuck. He scrubbed the heels of his palms over his face, pressing them to his eyes until white stars danced behind his eyelids. When he dropped them, Billy was frowning at him, eyebrows drawn together and head tilted.

“You gonna tell me I look like shit?”

“You already know that.”

Steve snorted. “Yeah, I guess I do.”

“You gonna tell me what happened?” Billy’s gaze was unwavering and relentless, narrowed down to whatever crossed Steve’s face.

He thought of the little girl’s body and the scent of burning flesh. He flinched.

Billy’s frown deepened. He shifted onto his knees and crawled to the couch, one hand resting on the cushion next to Steve’s thigh. On his knees, eyes soft, he looked like something out of a memory Steve tried his best to forget.

“What happened?” he asked again, softer, a whisper of concern curling around the words. “You can tell me.”

Steve looked down at the earnest expression, the knuckles grazing his thigh. He could smell ozone and rotten corpses. He could feel blood under his fingernails.

“I can’t,” he said, soft, forcing himself to watch Billy’s expression sour. A gate slammed shut, titanium and steel and iron bars keeping Billy in and Steve out. He swallowed down the guilt as Billy’s fingers curled into a fist against the couch.

“You come to my house covered in fucking blood,” Billy said, words gritted out from between clenched teeth, a stain of red high on his cheeks, “and you won’t tell me what the fuck happened?”

“I—” Can’t. Won’t. Don’t know how.

It had never been a conversation Steve had gotten around to having. The Gate had been closed, the Demo-everythings and the Mind Flayer kept on a plane of existence that didn’t intersect with their own, and Steve had wanted to forget. Losing himself in Billy Hargrove had never been the plan, and he’d never planned anything when it came to Billy.

Neil and being in love had consumed him. Eleven was safe and as normal as she could be; Will was delicate and healing. His life returned to normal and Max had never said a word to Billy, so Steve hadn’t either.

He didn’t know. He probably wouldn’t believe him, anyway.

“You what?” Billy’s eyes were hard, narrowed and sharp as nails.

“It’s complicated,” Steve said lamely.

“Life is complicated.”

“This is more complicated than life.”

“Did you kill someone?”

He jerked his head away, eyes on the wall. The living room was half-finished; one wall was still a hideous too dark walnut colour from ten years ago. Billy’s hand gripped his knee, fingers digging in. It felt like iron bands wrapped around his skin. He didn’t look down.

“Did you?” Billy asked. He used the hand on Steve’s knee to push up and sit on the couch beside him. His hand stayed there, hot through the borrowed sweats.

Steve closed his eyes and counted back from five. “I don’t know,” he said finally when he opened his eyes. He swallowed. “Someone’s dead. I didn’t—it’s not—it’s no one’s fault but they’re dead.”

For a long time, Billy didn’t say anything. Steve expected something. Something angry and hard, hysterical. Something condemning. An accusation or an allegation, blame to be thrown at Steve’s feet for something so horrible that the last time it had happened in Hawkins’ limits Hawkins itself hadn’t known it had occurred. Something that wasn’t silence.

He expected anything.

Billy sucked in a breath and then whistled, low and sharp in Steve’s ear. “Who?”

Steve shook his head. Everyone would know by the end of the day. Little dead girls tended to spread a moral panic in the shape of a plague, infecting one home after another. Barb had been overlooked but she had been mousy, unloved by most at school. She faded into the background. Will Byers had been the talk of the town for weeks, until he had come back to life.

“You can’t tell me?” Billy guessed. He shifted closer, hand tight on Steve’s knee. “Or you don’t know? Who was it, Steve?”

“Don’t ask me that,” he whispered. He looked at Billy and swallowed hard. It felt like a knife had been buried in his throat. “I can’t tell you. I’m not—”

Allowed.

He wasn’t allowed. It had been Steve who’d pushed for Nancy to keep Barb under wraps, to put what they’d seen that night behind them, even if it meant Barb’s parents lost their house and livelihoods to a lie. The second NDA the government had put in front of him had been signed happily, and when he’d become a cop and Hopper had roped him into patrolling the empty lab for the suits, he’d signed just as happily.

Always happy to sign and comply. Always happy to put it all behind him. Years had put distance between him and when he’d been freshly eighteen, arrogant and alive, and fighting Demodogs because some losers wanted to play a game come to life.

He’d thought he’d put it behind him.

How was he supposed to put her, torn and ragged and broken and burning, behind him?

“You’re not what?” Billy asked. His fingers dug into Steve’s knee until it hurt.

He pushed Billy’s hand away and shook his head. “I can’t tell you.”

I can’t tell you,” Billy mimicked. It sounded like nails on a chalkboard, bitter. It cut through Steve to his core. “You show up at my house, covered in fucking blood, and you can’t tell me anything? Not even what happened?” He jerked his hand away from Steve, and Steve felt it like a loss, like someone had cut off his arm and left him to bleed out. “Is this why you left last night? Had to run off and kill someone?”

Swiftly, Steve stood, taking two steps away from the couch and whirling around, anger grinding his teeth together. They ached from the pressure. “I didn’t kill her.”

Billy raised an eyebrow. “Her who?”

He bit his tongue and looked away, at the nicotine-stains on the walls that hadn’t been painted over, wondering how he’d gotten himself into this shit situation once again. “Don’t ask me again.”

“Because you’ll tell me.”

Like admitting defeat, he confirmed, “Because I’ll tell you.”

Billy watched him for a moment, eyes assessing, roaming over the clothes he’d borrowed and his hands. He nodded. “Who’d you kill?”

“Jesus Christ, Billy!” he snapped. “I didn’t fucking kill her!”

“Tell me and I’ll stop saying it.” He sounded almost smug, like there was something to be won and he was winning.

“I’m not going to tell you jackshit.”

“Yeah,” Billy said, “you will.”

“No, I won’t.”

“Will too.”

“Jesus—” He cut himself off and bit the edge of his tongue until he tasted blood. “Where the fuck are my clothes?”

Billy leaned back against the couch, tossing his arms up to rest on the back. “I burned them.”

He stared, incredulous. “You burned them?”

“And the jacket in your car.” He shrugged. “They were covered in blood.”

They had been. His shirt had been smeared, caked in it. His jeans hadn’t fared much better. Steve bit back the anger anyway, crossing his arms over his chest. “So you burned them?”

“The evidence. I shouldn’t have to tell a cop that.”

“You didn’t have to. You shouldn’t have.”

The look on Billy’s face said you’re a dumbass. “You’re a dumbass,” he said.

“You shouldn’t have touched them. It wasn’t your problem.”

How much did Billy know about wiping away evidence? Cop shows were bullshit, he found, and fire didn’t get rid of everything. He hoped he hadn’t left hair or spit or fingerprints behind on the girl’s body.

Steve wanted to forget. He wanted to lay back down on the couch and close his eyes until it was over and Billy had moved on to something that wasn’t a walk down memory lane. By then, maybe, Hawkins would have forgotten about the little girl and her mangled body. By then, maybe, The Gate would be shut again and things could be normal.

Normal, where he shot pool after work and drank too much on New Year’s Eve. Normal, where he dated enough to soothe his mother’s demand for him to settle down. Normal, where he didn’t have to think about Venus flytrap jowls and psychic experiments and things that laid underneath the ground.

Normal, where he hadn’t roped Billy into a burned corpse and a missing girl.

“Billy—” he started when Billy didn’t say anything, but he cut Steve off by standing, taking two steps until they were chest to chest and Billy poked him with two fingers to the sternum.

“You showed up at my house,” he said, conviction strong, fingertips firm to Steve’s chest, “covered in blood. You made it my problem. I dealt with the problem, since you were being too much of a pussy to. So you can tell me what happened or you can keep that shit to yourself, but it’s still my problem.”

Steve grabbed his wrist, fingers encircling the bone. He held Billy’s hand still, thumb touching the jut of bone. Warm skin, smoother than it had been at eighteen. He’d had worker’s hands then, strong and calloused and used to clutching wrenches and basketballs. They were softer now; they felt delicate under Steve’s touch.

He pressed his lips together and studied Billy’s face. The hard look in his eyes didn’t fade. “I’m sorry,” he said, finally, thumb stroking over his wrist. “I shouldn’t have got you involved. I’m sorry.”

Billy wavered, eyes slipping between soft and hard, deadly and angry to gentle and forgiving. He settled somewhere in between, jaw tight and eyes placid. “Fine,” he said tightly, flattening his palm against Steve’s chest. Steve let him. His fingers grazed the dip at the hollow of his throat. “What about last night?”

“Last night?”

“Are you sorry for leaving me like that?”

Hard and aching, smoldering beneath his skin. Lust gone to his head, as desperate as Steve had been and left abandoned in a dirty bar bathroom with no explanation.

Steve was surprised Billy hadn’t hit him yet.

“A bit,” Steve admitted. Billy’s fingers crept up, firm against the column of his throat. Steve tilted his head back, eyes heavy on Billy’s face. “A lot.”

“Say it.”

Time stood still as they watched each other. Between one heartbeat and the next, an entire lifetime stretched between them. Against Billy’s fingers, Steve’s pulse fluttered. The world seeped away to nothing but Billy’s palm curve along his throat, until he was pushing down and his fingers closed gently.

“I’m sorry,” Steve murmured thickly. He swallowed and felt it deeper, under the press of Billy’s hand.

Billy smiled, pointed and feral, an edge of animal against blunt teeth. “Good,” he said, just as low.

He leaned forward, breath hot on Steve’s lips. Steve stood still, breath caught in his throat. Billy licked his lips. His tongue brushed a butterfly kiss against Steve’s lip. Inside his chest, his heart stuttered and something hot and thick, on the edge of lust, pulled at his belly.

Billy pulled away and smiled. “Hungry?”

It took a moment for Steve to work his tongue. “For food?”

His smile sharpened, a predator’s grin. “What else for?”

Pushing Billy down would be easy. Stripping them both down to nothing but skin and heat, holding his head back by the hair and sucking a mark into his throat. He could shove him onto the couch, fold him in half and press in, fuck him until he was keening and panting and begging, until he was a mess underneath Steve’s touch.

He sucked in a breath and held it. “You know what.”

“What if I’m not interested?”

“You’re not?”

“I’m still pissed,” Billy said, fingertip tapping a steady beat against Steve’s Adam’s apple. “You owe me.”

Steve resisted the urge to reach out and touch him. “What do you want?”

“Dinner. Tonight.”

He thought of Hopper and the dark look on his face, the anxiety in Jane’s eyes. He thought about the dead girl that would be plastered across the news. “Tonight?”

Billy nodded.

“I can’t,” he said, and reached out to touch Billy’s shoulder when his face hardened. “It’s because of work. It’s paperwork night. Hop’s gonna have my balls on a platter if I slack off.”

Billy’s eyes stayed hard, assessing, until they softened. He dropped his hand from Steve’s throat. It felt like a loss, cold where Billy’s skin had pressed against his. “Come here when you’re done.”

“What if it’s late?”

“I’ll be up.”

“You need a job.”

“I have one.”

“Where?”

Billy grinned again, looking down to where he’d set the sketchbook aside. “I’ll show you tonight.”


In the bathroom, he showered and scrubbed the layer of invisible grime that clung like a bad cold off his skin. He dug out the blood from under his nail. He brushed his teeth with Billy’s toothbrush, pausing only for a moment—they were sharing saliva, they’d shared more than that, why did it feel too intimate?—before scrubbing them with the same vigor he had his pink-flushed skin and teeth.

Clean and feeling better than he had, he changed into a pair of Billy’s jeans—too tight—and the sweater he’d been wearing when Steve had been called to his house the first time. At the bottom of the stairs, he listened to Billy move around the kitchen and ducked his head, pressing the collar of the sweater to his nose and inhaling. It smelled like him; fabric softener and something softer and all Billy.

Billy thrust a mug into his hand as he stepped into the kitchen. Steve glanced into it. “What is this?”

“Coffee.”

“With?”

“What do you think?”

He sniffed it. Deciding it probably wasn't spiked, he took a sip. “You got a phone I can borrow?”

Billy nodded, waving off toward the hallway while he rummaged in the fridge. He pulled out a cart of eggs and a bag of cheap white bread. Steve ambled off to the phone, nursing his coffee like it could fix anything and everything.

He dialed Hopper's number. No one answered. He called Hopper's extension at the office, wedging the phone between his ear and shoulder, leaning back against the wall.

It rang twice and then Hopper picked up, barking out a terse, “What.”

“Good morning to you, too.”

“Go fuck yourself,” Hopper said, voice raising with each word. “I've been calling you for hours. Do you know that? I sent Jane to your place and she said you weren't answering. Where the hell are you?”

Steve winced, shifting the mug in his hand and glancing at his hands. “Sorry,” he said. The last time Hopper had been made enough to tell him to go fuck himself had been never. “I went to a friend's last night. Didn't want to be alone.”

The silence in his ear stretched on uncomfortably. “Uh?” Steve said, clearing his throat. “You still there.”

“I'm here,” Hopper said, voice considerably softer. If he were in the flesh, he would be looking down at Steve, unwavering and demanding entrance into Steve's most intimate thoughts. “You're okay?”

“Yeah,” he said, and sighed. “I'm just really tired.”

“You drinking coffee?”

Steve frowned. “Yeah. Why?”

“They found her body.”

Steve grimaced and glanced into his mug. The ripples mocked him. “Did they ID her yet?”

“Not officially. Her parents came in last night and filed a report. The mother's hysterical, the dad's thinking it's not actually her.”

“He tell you that?”

“Right after he told me to go to Hell.”

Pressing his lips into a thin line, he closed his eyes. “How bad is it going to be?”

“Worse than Will the first time,” Hopper said, and he sounded so tired, worn down and exhausted, that Steve felt the weight of his words on his own shoulders. “Mutilated little girl burned in county lines? It's bad press, kid.”

“I didn't want to take her over the limit,” Steve said. He swallowed down a mouthful of coffee. “We don't have jurisdiction there.”

“Smart.” He sighed into Steve's ear. “I tried calling the suits again. They said they're on their way.”

“Did you tell them about last night?”

“Hell no.”

His mouth twitched into a smile. “Smart.”

“Listen,” Hopper said, “get your ass here in twenty minutes.”

“Make it forty.”

“Bring me one of those bacon sandwiches from Allen's, then.”

“The ones Joyce doesn't let you have?”

Hopper snorted. “What she doesn't know won't kill her.”

He hung up the phone and finished off his coffee. When he wandered into the kitchen, there was sausage and eggs sizzling in a pan and Billy was cutting into a honeydew melon. Steve watched him, hip resting against the door frame, arms crossed. The muscles under Billy's back moved as he did, shifting like waves on the surface of the ocean. He watched the long line of his spine, the cant of his hips, the swing of his arms as he cut into the melon.

“I can feel your eyes, y'know,” Billy said, looking over his shoulder as he popped a piece of melon into his mouth. He licked juice off his fingertips. Steve's eyes followed the line of his tongue. Billy grinned, pink tongue caught between his teeth.

Unabashed, Steve shrugged and set the mug down on the counter next to Billy. He stole a piece of melon, wrist brushing against Billy's hand. “Do you want me to stop?”

Billy's throat worked and then he laughed. “Don't you have to get to work?”

“In half an hour.”

“Don't start things you're not going to finish.”

“I thought that was my line,” Steve said, lips twitching into a smile. Billy shoved a piece of melon into his mouth and turned to the stove.

They ate in silence, the turn of a newspaper between them rustling along with the scrape of forks and knives. Steve drank another cup of coffee and watched Billy from the corner of his eye. A surreal peace sizzled between them, one that would be easily destroyed with one word spoken wrong.

Steve kept his mouth shut as he set the dishes in the sink and watched Billy top up his coffee. It felt like something out of a daydream Steve had had as a teenager, one filled with a swimming pool, a living room, a house on a hill and children's names. Young and dumb, drunk on love and his own arrogant youth, he'd dreamed it up and breathed it into Billy's skin when no one else had been looking.

In silence, Billy walked him to the door. They stood in the foyer, Steve's shoulders hitching to his ears. Billy raised his eyebrows. “Are you going to leave?”

Rocking on his heels, he nodded. “Just promise me something?”

“What?”

“No matter what you hear today, don't think badly of me.”

The frown stayed stuck to Steve's face even as he kissed the corner of Billy's mouth, soft and delicate and inexorable as the dread lingering in his belly.


“Took you long enough,” Hopper said gruffly as he ushered Steve into his office, closing the door behind him. He snapped the blinds shut.

His eyes were heavy as anchors, deep pockets of bruised-blue underneath. “Didn't sleep?” Steve asked, sitting himself down.

Hopper snorted, sitting across from him. He rubbed the back of his neck, rolling his shoulders. “Not a wink. Jane slept like the dead. Joyce was up all night on caffeine.”

And anxiety. Steve had seen her work herself into a tizzy before. Unless there was a Valium bottle rattling around in the medicine cabinet, she tended to trouble herself into frustrated tears faster than even Will did.

“And you?”

Hopper's face was grim as he looked at Steve. “Don't ask stupid questions.”

Steve grimaced. That was fair. “Okay,” he said. “Joyce at home?”

He nodded and leaned back in his seat. His chair creaked with protest. “Yep. She got a call from Mike this morning. Jane told them all.”

“That's—well,” Steve said, sinking in his seat and stretching out his legs. Billy's jeans were uncomfortable. “Are they coming home?”

“Trying to.”

“Tell them not to.”

“I'm not their dad.”

“Tell Will not to.”

“Joyce did.”

“He not listening?”

“About as stubborn as a brick wall, that one,” Hopper said, not unkindly. His eyes were fond, a shade brighter. “I don't know if Jonathan knows yet.”

Steve sucked in a shallow breath and nodded. “I'll call him tonight. Him and Nancy.”

There were a lot of thing Steve would rather do, like have all his teeth root canalled or have his fingernails pulled off, but he'd do it if Mike didn't beat him to it.

Nancy would yell at him for not calling for months and ignoring her when she left messages on his answering machine—and then she'd go calm and quiet, mind ticking away as it formulated a plan of action. Jonathan would come home because Joyce and Jane and Hopper were there, and family was family, and his was too close to The Gate again.

Steve wondered if Dustin knew. He wondered if his meager savings account would be enough to bribe Dustin into staying away from Hawkins.

“Was the girl identified?” Steve asked when Hopper didn't say anything more.

Hopper picked a picture up off his desk and handed it to Steve. Pretty and blonde and hazel-eyed, wearing pink icing on her chin and a shiny tiara on her face. In the background, a banner screaming Happy Birthday Hillary! was tacked on the wall.

Steve stared at it, committing her face to memory. It wasn't bloodstained and ruined here. It was young and carefree and full of life.

He wondered if that's how her parents would remember her, or if they'd demand to see her remains. He wondered if there was anything left to be seen but charred bones and burned flesh, unrecognizable in the light of day.

Handing the picture back, he said nothing. He rubbed at his nose. The scent was stuck there, wrong and morbid and following him.

“She wanted to be a garbage collector,” Hopper said quietly as he set the photo down.

“Garbage collector?”

“Just like her daddy.”

Steve looked at the clock above Hopper's head. They lapsed into uncomfortable silence. He could still feel her blood underneath his fingernails. The weight of her limp body had sat in his arms on the drive to the station.

The only ghost Steve had entertained the notion of was the Holy Ghost, but maybe this was a haunting. Maybe this was punishment.

There was a knock on the door. Anna, the secretary, popped her head in with a worried look between Hopper and Steve.

“There's some men here to see you, Chief,” she said, casting a look over her shoulder. “They say they're with the Energy Department but...” She lowered her voice as she looked back to them. “They're wearing suits. And they're scary looking.”

Hopper and Steve exchanged a look. Hopper pushed back from the desk and stood. Steve followed suit. “Send them in.”

Chapter Text

“Well,” Steve said once the door had latched shut with a gentle click, “that didn’t go so badly.”

Withering, Hopper muttered, “I’m going to pretend you didn’t say that.”

Steve stared at the door, at the quiet shuffle of papers on Anna’s desk, the whir of the lights above. Some part of him had assumed this wouldn’t be a rerun of his least favourite part of his life. He’d been running on the assumption that the suits would clean it up, untangle the mess they’d made all those years ago, and Steve wouldn’t have to get involved.

His hopes were dashed. Destroyed. Completely trashed.

He pressed the heels of his palms to his eyes and said, “We’re fucked.”

“Fucked doesn’t come close to describing it, kid,” Hopper said, gruff, and leaned back in his chair. It gave a squeak of protest. “So what do you want to do?”

Steve split his fingers, peeking through them. “You’re supposed to tell me.”

“Since when have you ever listened to me?”

“All the time!” Steve insisted, dropping his hands. “You tell me what to do and then threaten me until I do it.”

Amused, he said, “You’re not eighteen anymore. Tell me what you want to do. You want to leave it to the suits? We leave it to the suits. If you want to go back down, we got back down. You gotta tell me what you want to do, Steve.”

“It tried to eat you, Hop.”

“I said what do you want to do, not what I’m gonna do.”

“You think Joyce would like that?”

Hopper raised his eyebrows. Steve knew he was screwed the moment his mouth twisted, the crossed fine, we’ll go there look on his face.

“Who were you with last night, Steve?”

Succinct. To the point. Stabbing at the tender underbelly Steve had been trying to hide since Jane had opened her mouth and said what he’d been beating to death since Billy had left.

That was what desire was, in the end. Beating a dead horse, because Billy was old news, the past, everything that Steve had let go of to stay in Hawkins, Indiana, just like he always knew he would. It was sick, in the way obsession was, too--or maybe that was just the way he loved Billy. Aching for it, like an itch in his gums and a parched tongue he couldn’t drown.

He’d wanted it every day since Billy had left. If Steve could just see him one more time, he could rewrite the history. He could fix it and them and Billy, maybe, if threadbare bandages and too much whisky could do it.

He’d never told anyone about it, even in his drunkest moments.

Sucking in a breath, he curled his fingers into his palms until his chest burned. “Billy Hargrove.”

“When were you going to tell me?”

“What does it matter?”

“I’m not actually an idiot,” Hopper said, lacing his fingers together and setting them on the desk. His eyes were sharp, clear. All seeing. “Billy Hargrove leaves town and suddenly I’m scraping you out of the gutter every Friday night. It’s simple math.”

Steve closed his eyes and swallowed. Maybe he should have slit his own throat in the Upside Down. It would have been easier than facing the question. His nails flexed into his palms, pain blooming where they cut. A curl of anxiety swirled through him, starting from his chest and reaching to the pit of his belly, the bottom of his throat.

“Who told you?”

“No one.”

“Jane?”

Hopper paused, and then asked, “Do I want to know why she’d know?”

His mouth twitched, palms damp. He felt like laughing, if only to make a noise that wasn’t his own desperate breaths. “She reads minds. She told me he was back.”

“Is that going to be a problem?”

“No,” he replied, too fast. He opened his eyes and avoided hopper’s gaze. “Maybe. I don’t know. I doubt it.”

Hopper studied him like a big cat, lazy and careful, like he was deciding if Steve was prey. “Don’t bring up my wife and I won’t bring up yours.”

Steve stared, stupid, until Hopper tilted his head and said, “Now tell me what you want to do.”

“You’re asking the wrong person.”

“You want me to call your mom and ask her?”

Steve shook off the stupour, kissing his teeth and standing. “There’s no need to be an asshole. You know what I mean.”

“That’s still not an answer.”

“They,” Steve spat out, flinging a hand toward the door, “told us to do nothing. The last time they were in charge, we all almost died. Book of Revelations died, Chief. And the last time this was even a problem, we were fighting with kitchen gloves and bike helmets.”

“That’s still not an answer,” Hopper said, cool as a cucumber.

“My answer is I don’t know. Do we call Lucas? Dustin? Do we gather Max up while we’re at it?” He sank into his seat again, nervous, flexing his fingers. “What’s it even want?”

“Probably to take over the world, but I’m not betting on anything.”

“It took you. Why?”

“I don’t know.”

“It blocked out Jane. It couldn’t do that before.”

“It grew up. Hell, Steve,” Hopper said, picking up his to go coffee. He didn’t drink from it, swirling it instead, eyeballing the bottom of the Styrofoam cup like it held all the answers. “I don’t know what it’s doing but it’s nothing good.”

“You didn’t feel anything from it?” he asked, desperate.

Hopper’s eyes lowered. “I don’t remember anything about it. I didn’t even see it down there.”

“That’s weird. Right?”

Hopper snorted. “Really weird.”

“So what do we do?”

The clock hanging above Hopper’s desk ticked away loudly. The silence smothered Steve, a hot, jittery energy bubbling in his chest.

“We’re gonna fight this thing. Right?” he asked finally.

“We don’t really have a choice,” Hopper said.

“We could ignore it and hope it goes away.”

“When has that ever worked?”

“Never,” Steve said, and glanced up at the ceiling. He pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. “Maybe we’ll get lucky and no one will die this time?”

“When have we ever been that lucky?” Hopper cracked an embittered smile. “I’ll call Will. You call Dustin.”


His hand shook on the wheel of his truck, the other balled into a fist, knuckles jammed against his teeth. Steve understood the willingness to chew off your own arm to get out of a situation, but there was nothing to chew on because there was nothing pinning him down.

Hopper knew. Hopper knew.

It was stupid to be surprised. Steve had been stupid to think no one knew but Jane. Hopper knew everything, and if Hopper knew, that meant that Joyce knew. If Joyce knew, maybe Jonathan and Will knew. Maybe Nancy knew. Maybe Dustin and Lucas and Max knew.

Maybe they all knew.

Steve pulled into the parking lot of Becker’s Convenience Store, jitters crawling through his body like bugs beneath his skin. He perused the magazines, let his hands flutter over the soda and cases of beer until his mind was blank with prices and not of Hopper knowing and judging and telling everyone from Mr Clarke the science teacher to Father Raymond who gave sermons about the sin of homosexuality like clockwork.

He dragged a pack of Coors to the front cash.

Mrs Becker peered at him over the tops of her horn-rimmed spectacles, hands pausing on the cash register as she eyed him up.

“I heard about that little girl,” she started, and Steve swallowed the urge to vomit again.

“Yeah,” he said, heaving the pack onto the counter. “It hasn’t been a good day.”

Mrs Becker clucked her tongue and tapped on the register. “Nothing like this has happened in Hawkins before.”

Steve stayed silent, let her talk, let her paint a picture of the terrible state of the world while she rang him up at a snail’s pace and picked a pack of Marlboros off the shelf with all the vigour of an arthritic church biddie.

“No leads?” she prompted as she counted out his change.

He cracked a stiff smile, eyes dead. “You know I can’t tell you that, Mrs Becker.”

She sniffed. “I’ve known Abigail since she was a child. I just want to know what happened to her daughter.”

The stiff smile stayed. It felt like pulling teeth to keep it fixed on his face. “I understand. We all want to make sure whoever did it is brought to justice.”

When she handed over his change, lips pursed around more words, he snatched it from her hand and swiped his goods off the counter. Excusing himself, he ducked from the store, each step faster than the next.

Steve fumbled with the pack of cigarettes, jamming one between his lips and struggling with a book of matches.

The smoke burned all the way down, harsh in his lungs. He coughed and hacked, swallowed down saliva, and took another drag despite the tears smarting his eyes.

Billy had left town and Steve had quit smoking. They reminded him too much of Billy’s mouth. He hadn’t touched one since Billy had bolted. He was itching for one, for something to soothe his battered nerves and remind him that Hillary’s death wasn’t his fault.

That he could handle this, again. That he’d faced down the Upside Down when he’d been stupider and loved to tell the tale. That Billy Hargrove wasn’t the be all and end all of Steve Harrington.

Only dumb luck didn’t tend to happen twice. Only Billy was back and he’d been a barely contained mess since he’d left. Only they were probably all going to die this time, and he’d spent twelve years pining after a man who’d left without a second look.

He tossed the pack of cigarettes into the passenger seat and threw his truck in reverse.

Def Leppard growled through the house. Steve stood on Billy’s front step, arm loaded with beer and cigarettes, chewing on his lip as he knocked. There was no answer.

He tried again and again, until his knuckles ached from rapping on the wooden door. Annoyed, he tried to the door handle. It was unlocked.

Some things really never did change.

Steve left the beer and cigarettes on the upturned milk crate in the barren living room. The music blared from the back of the house. Steve walked through the hallway, glancing through the half-open doors. The den was empty. Max’s old room was covered in drop sheets, three of the four walls painted an off-white colour. The window was open, a biting breeze wafting in. The scent of latex lingered.

He nudged the master bedroom door open, slipping in quietly.

Stripped at the waist and dressed down in paint-splattered jeans, Billy stood in front of a canvas. It was nearly as tall as him, nailed to the wall crudely, and covered in dark shades of green and blue, the lighter yellow and pale beige, the dark browns dotting white.

Steve crossed his arms, studied the canvas. The last time he had seen himself splayed out, he’d been younger. This was him, younger, but the sharp lines of his jaw, the bulk of his shoulders, the short cut of his hair was all recent.

“My dick doesn’t look like that.”

Billy flinched and turned, eyes narrowed for a moment before blissing out into a smile, wide and bright. He set down his palette and brush down, switched off the boom box and turned back to look over the painting.

“It’s always looked like that.”

“It’s never been that big.”

Billy grin turned sharp. He pushed onto his toes. “It’s felt that big.”

Steve gave him an unimpressed look. “You haven’t touched my cock in ten years, Hargrove.”

The smile didn’t fade and he said, “You killed a little girl, Harrington.”

Billy was as good as Hopper was at disarming Steve with a few words.

Steve looked over Billy’s shoulder at the painting, studied the lines and curves, the shades. The moles spotting his left thigh, the ones he knew were there only because Billy had been the one to kiss them into being meaningful. The slant of his eyebrows, the gape of his mouth as he orgasmed, the come running over his knuckles and dripping on his belly.

Cooking flesh filled his nose, gone as quickly as it had come. It was supposed to shake him. He knew that. Instead he felt numb, unmoored.

“I didn’t kill her,” he said, too gentle, and looked at Billy. Billy wasn’t smiling anymore.

“You wanna try that one again?”

He studied Billy like the painting. His eyes were guarded but his shoulders were lax, lazy. Everything about him was lazy, from the curl of his hair to the way he picked at the chipping paint of a brush.

“If I did,” Steve asked, careful, mouth full of rocks and tongue as dry as sandpaper, “would you turn me in?”

“Did you?”

“Answer the question.”

“I burned the fucking jacket,” Billy said, fierce and low, sharper than the chemical twang in the air. “I burned the fucking bloody jacket. What do you think?”

It was harsh and fuming, like the acrid taste of the Upside Down. Steve had almost forgotten how bitter Billy could be in the flesh, how ready for a fight he always was.

He felt numb, untethered, the bits of him that had been made of the Earth cut off from his brain. He knew he was supposed to fight back, spit venom and angry you left me, toos at him. He was supposed to be angry.

He was just tired.

"I loved you," Steve said thickly. "Once."

"Once, huh? What happened to forever?"

"You left."

Billy didn't say anything for a long time. He turned the paintbrush over in his hand, calloused fingers dancing over the handle, flicking over the cheap bristles. "You didn't tell me to stay," he said, soft, tortured.

“I told you to stay every fucking night until you left.”

Billy scoffed. “That didn’t count.”

“It counted.”

“Did not.”

“Did too.”

“How?” Billy asked, dropping his paintbrush onto the makeshift table. “Your dick was down my throat. That doesn’t count.”

“How the fuck doesn’t that count?”

“You were getting off! People say stupid shit when they’re getting blown all the time!”

The conversation had veered off course somewhere, but Steve couldn’t figure out where. He pinched the bridge of his nose, rubbed his eyes with his knuckles, wondered if he was in some lucid fever-dream leftover from the Upside Down.

“I said,” Steve said, “it to you after. After. Not during. It fucking counted. You really want to fight about this now?”

“You’re not talking about the dead girl.”

“I didn’t fucking kill her,” he ground out. Steve pressed his knuckles to his until they ached, breathed deep until he felt the knot loosen in his belly. He dropped his hands and said, kinder, “I didn’t kill her. She was dead when I found her.”

Billy set down the paintbrush and looked Steve over, scrutinized him with eyes that saw down to his marrow. Old shame swelled in his throat like acid. It burned as he pressed it down, as he let Billy assess him, take him in, strip him apart with his eyes.

“I almost believe that,” Billy said finally. “You make it real convincing.”

“Do you really think I could kill a little girl?”

“I don’t know what you’re capable of,” Billy said, harder, and took a step toward him that was as menacing as Steve remembered.

He crowded into Steve’s space. Steve held his ground and swallowed down the panic.

“That’s the point,” Billy continued, mouth twisted into something ugly. “I don’t know you anymore. I haven’t known you for a really long time. How the hell am I supposed to know?”

“You’re supposed to trust me.”

“You were covered in blood!”

Steve growled low in his throat. Frustrated, he looked away and crossed the room, put enough distance between him and Billy that he could think clearly. “If you think I’ve changed enough to kill a little girl, Billy, you can just shoot me here and now. Gun’s in the truck, if you want it.”

“You’re so stupid, Harrington,” Billy said and laughed. It sounded hollow. “You keep showing up here like I wanna see you and pretend like I’m not owned an explanation for--for everything.”

Steve braced himself and looked at Billy. He was running his fingers through his hair, pulling at the ends, rocking back on his heels like he couldn’t stay still.

Steve wanted to call him baby, drag him onto the shitty couch and hide his face in Billy’s neck until the aforementioned everything was over.

“I don’t keep showing up,” Steve said, tasting the air quotes in his own words. Disgusted with himself, he stepped away and tried to shake off the shame. “It’s my job. You’re the one who came looking for me the other night. I didn’t do anything fucking wrong.”

Billy had the audacity to look nonplussed. “There’s no one else to fuck in this backwoods town.”

“I’m glad I mean so much to you.”

“You don’t get to pull that childish shit with me.”

“Me? Fucking me? I’m the childish one?”

“You won’t tell me anything!”

“I’m not allowed!”

“When has that ever stopped you?”

And that—there is was, at its core and the crux of it all. A little rebellious in his youth, but walking the straight and narrow until the Upside Down and Billy Hargrove had rolled into town. It shouldn’t have surprised him that the best and worst things to happen to him would occur at the same time.

He wasn’t supposed to be gay or use blow or drink too much when no one was looking. He wasn’t supposed to kiss Max's step brother or fall in love with him or steal his dad’s car and disappear for a weekend with him. He wasn’t supposed to be a lot of things that he was with Billy.

“That’s a cheap fucking shot,” Steve snapped, agitated. He felt twitchy in his own skin. He felt like everything was too small, like Billy was taking up too much room. It wasn’t much different from when they’d been young.

Billy smiled a wolf’s smile. “When haven’t I been cheap?”

“I didn’t come here for this.”

“What did you come for? Sympathy? A little kiss on the cheek and a pat on the head?”

Steve went silent and looked at anything but Billy. “I don’t know. Maybe I just wanted to come home.”

“You killed a girl.”

“I didn’t kill her.”

“Who did?”

“I can’t tell you.”

Billy snorted. “You could at least look at me when you’re bullshitting me. Give me a lie, at least.”

“Does it really matter?”

“I burned your fucking clothes. It matters.”

Steve smiled, thin, weary, and looked at the half-finished painting, still wet and filling up the room with a sharp scent. “You haven’t called the cops yet.”

“You are the cops.”

“Call Hopper. Knock on his door. Hell,” Steve said, “go to the station right now. Tell Langley I killed her. Tell him I came to your house and fucking cried and I was covered in blood and you burned my clothes. Tell him everything.”

“I’m not gonna do that.”

“Then we’re going to go in circles all night.”

“That’s not new.”

Nothing is, he wanted to say, but instead he shrugged and held up his hands. “Either kick me out or let me stay. Your choice.” He paused and then added, a little desperate, “I brought beer.”

Billy looked at him, hard, unreadable but the tic in his jaw, and then sighed finally, heavier than Steve had ever heard him. “Go get it and take off your clothes.”


Steve had expected sex. It was all Billy had been vying for since Steve had knocked on his door, since the night at the bar, since the morning before. Sex was how they’d collided. Naked and desperate and wanting, filling up the empty spaces with each other. Steve had spent almost a year drowning in Billy.

Maybe they’d both grown, he thought as he sipped his beer, eyeing Billy from his spot stretched out on the bed of pillows and sheets Billy had procured from somewhere in the house. Naked, a little chilled, arm draped over his stomach, he sat on display for Billy.

Billy sat in front of him, cross-legged, using an old yearbook as a surface. The scratch-scratch-scratch of lead on paper and the minute rustle of Steve’s body against the stiff sheets.

It wasn’t the most surreal moment in Steve’s life—it didn’t even touch the top ten—but he could see it for what it was. He was supposed to pretend he was an adult, a man of the law that made his mom proud. He was supposed to be out with the rest of the town, crying over a little dead girl he didn’t know. Naked and vulgar, drinking crappy beer with Hawkins ex-bully.

“You didn’t come back for the funeral.”

“Hmm?”

“The funeral,” Steve said, resting the beer against his bare thigh. “I went. I didn’t see you there.”

Billy looked at him through his lashes, pencil scratch-scratch-scratching on the paper. “Why would I?”

“I don’t know. I just thought maybe you would.” Steve’s mouth twitched. “Thought maybe you were going to spit on his grave.”

“That’s too melodramatic, even for me.”

“No, it’s not.”

Billy laughed and set down his pencil. “You’re right. I still didn’t do it.”

“Why not?”

“I think,” Billy said, pushing the sketchbook off his knee and reaching for his own beer, lukewarm where it sat in the last dying stream of sunlight, “you’re the only person who’s ever asked me that. Susan just threw the will at me and told me to shove it up my ass.”

Steve looked at the sketchbook and set his bottle down. Reaching forward, he tugged it toward himself, turning it the right side up. It looked something like him. Refracted, off, in the way it looked like him but through the eyes of someone else.

“He left me shit, you know,” Billy said, and when Steve looked up, he was studying him carefully. “Twenty grand.”

Steve paused, fingers spread over the page. When he lifted them they were smudged with lead. “Twenty?”

“Ye-p.”

“Why?”

“I think you’re the only person who’d ever ask me that.”

“It’s a lot for someone you hated.”

“Maybe he felt guilty.”

“I doubt it.”

Billy laughed and unfolded his legs, stretching them out. Steve let his lead-stained hand hover over Billy’s ankle a moment before settling there, thumb running circles into the delicate skin. When he looked up again, Billy’s eyes were dark.

“What?”

“I don’t think you’d believe me if I told you.”

Steve rolled onto his belly, hand still curled around Billy’s ankle. He laid his cheek on his forearm and said, “Tell me anyway.”

“I don’t think I ever got over you.”

It should have hit him. It should have been a shock to the system, a jolt to his soul. Sharp like a knife, dry as the drought of ‘88. He expected something a little more than the warm feeling in his belly.

“Don’t try to butter me up,” Steve said, squeezing Billy’s ankle lightly. “I’m not telling you anything.”

Billy narrowed his eyes. “Not everything I do is to manipulate you.”

“Isn’t it?”

Billy smiled, all teeth, no heat and said, “Maybe I’ve changed.”

“Have you?”

“No.”

Steve laughed and tugged on Billy’s foot until he scooted forward. He propped up on an elbow and leaned down, kissed the skin of Billy’s inner ankle, hand slipping up his leg.

“Is it true?” he asked, lips brushing Billy’s skin. Steve felt Billy’s leg go rigid beneath his hand.

“I thought I was just manipulating you.”

“You loved me once.”

“Did I?”

“Yeah,” Steve said, rough, fingers pressed into Billy’s inner thigh. “You said it when I was inside you. Remember?”

Billy swallowed loud enough to hear. “Remind me.”

“Are you asking or telling?”

“Asking.”

Steve moved slowly, shifting onto his knees between Billy’s legs, playing with his waistband. A decade had changed them both. Billy was thinner, slender in the shoulders, raised and knotted white specks across his body, along with a particularly long and smooth one that wrapped around his side with surgical precision.

Steve’s fingertips skimmed it. He swallowed the question down and said, soft and sweet, sweeter than he’d ever been, “Ask nicely. Show me you remember how.”

Billy bit his lip, a flush of red spreading over his chest, high on his cheeks. He was prettier now. Less bulky, less pointed like a knife. Less likely to cut Steve when all he tried to do was touch him. Steve wondered what changed him. He wondered who changed him.

He leaned close to Billy’s face. Their noses brushed. “Use your words.”

Billy smiled, wobbly, and closed his eyes. Steve smacked his cheek with his fingertips, hard enough to sting. Billy’s eyes flew open, startled, mouth dropping open but no words coming out. Steve cupped his jaw, brushed his thumb over Billy’s open mouth and said, “Look at me when I’m talking to you.”

Billy swallowed, Adam’s apple bobbing along his throat, head tipping back as Steve slipped the pad of his thumb into his mouth, pressing into damp heat. Billy’s tongue flicked against it.

“Words, Billy,” Steve said, dragging his thumb over Billy’s lip, down his chin, leaving a damp trail of saliva over his throat. He bent down, kissed Billy’s prayer muscle, worshipped his collarbones. He heard the rumble of a sigh in Billy’s chest, the hitch in his breath when Steve bit down.

Hand pressed to Billy’s chest, Steve nudged him down, licked over the curve of his shoulder, kissed and touched the smattering of freckles across his skin with revering hands. Billy was clean, salt and earth, free of blood and ash and fear. Alive, warm, his hands knotting through Steve’s hair, Billy tasted like salvation.

He ran the edge of his nail across Billy’s nipple, letting his teeth graze across the other. Billy inhaled, sharp, and tugged on his hair.

“Words, Billy,” Steve reminded him, lips brushing his nipple. It pebbled, hardened against his mouth, and Steve dragged the flat of his tongue across it, bottom teeth catching at the tip. He sat up.

His eyes were dark as night, heavier than the weight of their shared secrets. It had been so long since Steve had been looked at like that. Like he was a prayer, the gospel, a saviour. It had frightened him as a kid, to be someone’s entire world. He’d spent his adulthood searching for that feeling.

Billy’s hands fell from Steve’s hair, settling on his shoulders, fingertips dancing inane patterns on his nape. Steve cupped his jaw with own hand, rubbed his thumb along his mouth, and squeezed.

“Say it.” He held Billy down, forced him to look in his eye. Billy’s dick was hard against Steve’s thigh, a pink flush spreading across his chest. Steve wanted to lick it off until he tasted blood.

“I…” He trailed off, swallowed twice, closed his eyes and licked his lips. His tongue touched Steve’s thumb. “Make love to me.”

It was what they did—had done. It was all they’d done, since Billy had let Steve get him naked, let him leave marks on the inside of his thigh and a jagged S cut into the flesh of his palm. It’d been what they did from the start. Steve had fucked enough people to know the difference.

Having Billy beneath him, flushed and hard and wanting, mouthing at his thumb like he wanted to taste any part of him, was more than he could have asked for.

He kissed him, cupping his face as his free hand dipped down, popping the button of his fly. The teeth gave way with a groan, mirrored by the noise Billy made when Steve kissed his Adam’s apple, scraped his teeth across the delicate skin and licked the hollow of his throat. Peeling off Billy’s jeans, Steve settled between his legs, pushing them apart and resting them over his shoulders.

Palming Billy’s ass, he kissed the junction of his thigh and the lines of faded scars, carefully hidden from gym shorts riding high. He kissed every inch, dragged the flat of his tongue over them. Billy palmed at his back, raked his shorn nails over his neck. Steve bit over the scars. Billy hissed.

“Come on, come on, come on,” Billy chanted, twining his fingers in Steve’s hair, tugging.

Steve rested his cheek against Billy’s thigh and looked him over. He brushed his fingers over the curve of his hip, over the flat plane of his belly. He kissed the side of Billy’s cock, let the tip of his tongue drag to the head. The muscle beneath his hand leapt. Steve held it flat to Billy’s stomach, thumb rubbing a slow circle over the head. Slick touched his skin, cock jumping beneath his palm.

Steve smiled, sweet, and said, “Safe word.”

“I—” Billy bit off his words, shook his head and reared up, hands slipping free of his hair and jamming beneath him. “What?”

“Safe word.”

“I don’t have one.”

“Pick one.”

“We never used it be—fore.”

He gritted a noise from between his teeth, fists clenched against the floor as Steve pressed a cruel nail into the slit at the head of his dick. Billy twisted, swore, and spat out, “Steve.”

It was sweet. Billy had always been so sweet for him like this, spread out and at his mercy.

He held Billy’s eyes, lips trailing down to the base. He mouthed over Billy’s balls, sucked one into his mouth and rolled it over his tongue. Saliva pooled at the corners of his mouth, spilling over as he pulled back. Slow and wet, keeping his teeth tucked behind his lips, he rolled them in his mouth, tasted heat and salt and Billy. Billy jerked again.

“Remember the candles?” Steve asked, finally, wiping saliva off his chin onto Billy’s thigh. He smiled, stroked a butterfly-light touch over his dick.

He could picture Billy tied up with his belt, hands bound behind his back. Tie wrapped about his eyes, naked and splayed and twitching with anticipation. He remembered the wax, hot and deep blue, falling over Billy’s belly. He remembered it dripping, leaving red in their path. He remembered the strangled way Billy had begged, less, more, less, more.

Steve remembered the way he’d shook afterward, trembling like he was freezing into the warmth of Steve’s chest.

 Billy shivered, full body. Steve felt it in his teeth. “Yeah.”

“Pick something.”

“Hawkins.”

“Seriously?”

Billy choked on a laugh, kicking a heel against Steve’s back. “If you don’t get on with it, I’m gonna find someone else.”

“I’m not that easy to rile anymore.”

“Steve.”

“Billy,” he mocked, light, and kissed his thigh, let his lips trail down.

Steve.”

Laughing, he pushed Billy’s thighs up, held him  off the ground until Billy got with the program, folding his knees toward his chest.

When Steve licked over him, dragged the wet, flat of his tongue over his hole, Billy coughed out a sigh, fingers scrambling for the nothing he laid on. Fingers splayed on the backs of Billy’s thighs to keep him still, Steve tasted him, let himself get sloppy with it. Spit slipped down his chin, made a mess of it and Billy, of them both. Billy’s fingers scrambled for his hair, clutched at the strands like a lifeline.

He moaned and hissed, hips hitching helplessly, said Steve’s name like it was all he knew. Steve curled his tongue, pressed it inside and Billy sucked in a breath of air, edged off to scrape his teeth over the curve of his ass and shape his lips across his balls.

Steve reached up, cupping Billy’s cock. The head oozed across his palm. Steve smeared it down the shaft, squeezed at the fat base until Billy hiccuped on a sob, heels digging painfully into Steve’s shoulder.

It was a moment of awkwardness to work Billy’s fingers free of his hair, all while he petted across his dick and rocked onto his heels, kissing his way up the inside of Billy’s thigh to his knee. His legs slipped from Steve’s shoulders. Spread open, cock blood-flushed and hard, leaking pre-come onto Steve’s fingertips.

Billy reached for him. Steve pressed his slick fingers into his mouth. Billy swallowed them easily, curled his long fingers around Steve’s wrist and sucked. His tongue curled and coiled, sucking them down to the third knuckle. Flicking his tongue between them webbing of his fingers, Billy looked at him, eyes wide and wet at the corners. Steve’s dick ached, pulsing hot between his legs.

He left Billy on the floor, splayed out like one of his paintings on the makeshift bed. There was lube in Billy’s bag in the bathroom, half-used and that was something Steve tried really hard not to think about. The hot, sharp twist of jealousy jolted through his gut anyway.

Dropping it next to Billy, he sank to his knees, leaning over Billy to kiss him. It was a needful thing. Famished, like he’d starved for years just to get a drop of Billy inside his mouth, Steve held his face and kissed him, thorough and deep. He cleaned off the years sitting between them with his tongue.

Billy was the one to take his hand and grope for the lube, pressing it into Steve’s palm as he lifted his hips, rutting the head of his cock against his stomach.

They said nothing as Steve bit off the cap, dump too much slick onto his fingers and fitted them around his own dick. It was a half relief, barely enough to quench the desperate burn that had started in his bones. Billy tried to pull him down again to kiss, hooking his heels on Steve’s back and pulling himself closer.

Steve kissed the corner of his mouth and Billy growled.

“Don’t—fucking—God, just please don’t stop.”

“Beg,” Steve said, rough, against the side of his mouth.

Billy shook in his arms, squirming to rock his hips up, dick rubbing against Steve again. Steve lifted away, until Billy was rocking up into air, swearing loudly as he clutched at Steve’s shoulders.

“Please, please, please, please,” he chanted, red flush crawling across his cheeks and face. Embarrassment or arousal, or both. Steve didn’t know but it turned him on all the same.

He pressed his head back into the sheets, thighs falling open like an offering. His fingers shook where they caught against Steve’s neck. “I’ll do anything,” he said, and it sounded more like a plea. Steve felt something possessive tug at his belly. “I’ll do anything, you know I’m good for it, baby, please. God, Steve, I’d let you do anything to me. Just, please—I need it.”

Billy swatted his hand away when it snaked between them, slick fingers pressing against his rim. “I don’t care. Just—get in me. Please.” He pulled at Steve’s hair until it hurt, bared his throat in submission and said, “Please.”

Steve kissed his mouth, pressed his cock inside him with the reverence of a priest touching Christ. Billy clenched, stuttered out a breath and relaxed; he let Steve in slowly, tongue working in his mouth and throat working around bitten-off noises that sounded wounded and wanton.

Steve kissed him, drank down his moans and sighs, tasted the way he tightened up, a hot clasp around his cock that made him want to bite Billy’s neck until he screamed. He petted over his hair, kissed him wet and sweet, and licked sweat off Billy’s temple as Billy groaned, burying his face in Steve’s neck.

They kissed, sweet and slow, as Steve took Billy’s hand, bringing it down to press his fingertips against his own rim, at the stretched out skin pulled taunt around his cock. Billy convulsed, spasming around Steve’s dick. It went straight to Steve’s head, stoking the desire to bury himself deeper, to leave a mark inside and out.

Knitting his fingers through Billy’s, Steve pressed Billy’s hand into the bed beside his head and fucked forward, ground in hard and deep. Billy gasped, free hand ripping a line of marks down Steve’s back. White sparks lit up behind Steve’s eyes and in his balls; he arched into it, groaned into the icy-hot pain dancing over his skin.

Each thrust shoved Billy a little further up the sheets, slipped another of the pillows mounded around them free. Each thrust shoved another noise from Billy, another sound of relief when Steve’s thighs slapped against the meat of his ass. Each thrust drowned out the rest of the world until it was just Steve biting teeth marks into Billy’s neck until he tasted blood.

There was no Mind Flayer or Jane or Hopper knowing or dragging Dustin back to the hellhole of Indiana. There was no dead girl and blood he couldn’t scrape out from under his nails. There was just him and Billy. There was just Billy and him.

Steve tasted orgasm on his tongue, echoing from the pit of his stomach and the tightness in his balls. Drawing back, he set a hand on Billy’s chest, keeping him down. The other snaked between them to curl around his cock, plump and full where it had glided wetly between their bodies.

A deep red flush flamed over Billy’s chest and he sobbed, head thrown back, neck exposed. A  ring of teeth marks stood proudly red and proud against his golden skin. Steve squeezed his fist as Billy’s dick dragged through his fist, tip barely slipping free before Steve stroked down, wrist twisting. He fucked forward, a brutal thrust that pushed Billy another inch up the sheets. Billy choked on his name, and then another sob, cock jumping in Steve’s hand.

Steve’s fingers inched up until his palm was set on Billy’s throat, fingertips grazing his lips. Billy watched him through wide eyes. Steve paused, hips stuttering to a standstill, hand pausing on his dick.

He covered Billy’s mouth and nose, squeezed his cock and drew his hips back.

Billy choked on a gasp behind his skin, eyes fluttering shut and fingers scrambling at the sheets. Steve thrust, hard, thighs flexing hard and sweat gathering at his temples. An angry red spread across Billy’s face, eyes flying open. Startled, a deer in headlights, he pawed at the sheets and pillows, hands safe from stopping Steve.

When he came, it was like fireworks. Like a bright, neon painting flashing in pieces in front of his eyes. His cock pulsed in Steve’s hand, come spitting out across his belly and dripping over Steve’s knuckles. The red stain on his cheeks deepened, crawling down his neck. Saliva wetted Steve’s palm.

He twitched, convulsing like he was possessed, hips rocking up as Steve ran his thumb in circles over the tip. A gasp tore from him like a wave, loud and wet and desperate. He choked on a cough, fingers scratching at Steve’s sides until he let go of his cock and fell to his side, pulling Billy close.

He ran his hands, palms flat and fingers spread, down Billy’s back. Over the nicks of scar tissue and flawed skin, over the lines of his spine and hips. Billy panted into his neck, arms curled against Steve’s chest. 

Ignoring the burning heat, Steve closed his eyes, kissed the side of Billy’s head, and said, “I love you.”