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Oh, You Pretty Things

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Billy knows, okay? He knows that it’s not Max’s fault that his dad hates him and he knows that it’s not her fault that he hadn’t actually been paying attention to where she was going. He knows that this is on him, not her. But he also knows that if he comes home without her, Neil will kill him. And even though Billy knows better, he can’t help but feel, just a little bit, that if Max had used one fraction of her brain, she would have known that he would be the one to get screwed over if she went missing. So, yeah, he knows it’s all his problem. Respect and responsibility and all that shit that he still can’t get through his thick skull. It doesn’t mean he’s not a little worked up by the time he finally finds her. (And, Jesus, the things he has to do to find this girl. He’s out here flirting with moms and driving through creepy woods to the middle of nowhere. Would it kill Max, just once, to be in a normal place?)
And when he finally finds her? In a house that belongs to a certified creep with some nerds that he had told her weren’t worth her time and Steve Harrington, disgraced King and average basketball player? Well, then it goes up from a little worked up to downright pissed. It’s not safe, for Christ sakes. That Byers guy took pictures of people who were having sex- who knew what the hell goes down in that house? And Lucas? Her crush? If Neil ever finds out she’d been close to him, they’ll all be dead. No, no, this was the set up for a lot of bad stuff, all of it stuff that if Neil ever found out about, Billy’d pay the price. And of course she didn’t think about that, because she’s too busy trying to prove to these nerds that she’s tough. Of course she’s tough, she lives with Billy.
And then Steve Harrington walks out like Billy’s just some kid he has to chase off the lawn, and Billy’s had enough. One minute it’s a normal fight, and then it’s something much much more. And, yeah, a voice in his head is begging him to stop, and the voice in his head sounds a lot like his mom’s and a lot like his, but there’s another voice that’s screaming that he’s a faggot and a pussy and if he lets them get away with this, there’s nothing they won’t try to get away with this. (That voice is decidedly not his mom’s. He can’t tell if it’s his or not, though.)
So, yeah, it goes way, way too far, and he honestly forgets most of it because he’s too busy listening to the all the screaming in his head. And then all of the sudden his ears are ringing and there’s a bat between his legs and Max is demanding something, and his last lucid thought is that hey, she may not be blood, but Max definitely has some sort of Hargrove in her.

 

When he wakes up (after he lays on the floor for however long it takes Max’s fucking drugs to get out of his system) and he’s in his right mind he looks around and realizes that Max was in deeper shit than he thought because whatever this is, it’s fucked up. There’s drawings everywhere, the house is trashed, and when he goes to look in the fridge for any sort of drink there’s a......something in there. Max, he very well realizes, could be dead. And when he gets outside and realizes his car is gone, he decides that if she isn’t dead, he’s gonna kill her himself.
He goes home and waits for her. There’s the usual screaming match with his dad- a couple of hits, a few kicks, a head slammed into a cabinet door- and then he goes and sits on his bed and waits. If she doesn’t come back, he reasons, it’s because she’s dead. And if she’s dead, he’s dead too. (He realizes, with a small shock, that he doesn’t really want her dead. He doesn’t necessarily want to see her alive, not after that whole bat incident, but it’d been nice to see that she had some fire to her.)
Max returns at three in the morning, and when Neil walks in his room, he’s still sitting upright on the edge of the bed.
“Do you want to tell me,” Neil says in that voice, “why a cop just brought your sister and your car home?” And Billy can’t even lie because he doesn’t know.
Max has to hear it that night- they share a wall, for God’s sakes. He keeps wanting to say that to Neil- “hey, she can hear, and she’s not someone you want to mess with” - but it’s too hard to talk with a mouthful of blood. Besides, he thinks, before he blacks out the second time that night, it isn’t like she’d want to save him.

 

Max is different after that night. She’s not scared of Billy, that’s for sure. And Billy doesn’t know if that’s because of the bat or because of the thing he found in the fridge, but, either way, he can’t blame her. It’s hard to be scared of someone like him when you’ve seen monsters and own a bat full of nails.
Billy’s different, too. He had used to think it was his job to protect Max- keep her away from the dangers of the world, keep her out of Neil’s line of sight. Keep her safe, even if it meant terrorizing her a little. But now he knows that Max doesn’t need him. She made it out of whatever hellhole that night contained alive- all while he was passed out on the floor. She’s fine.
So Billy just stays away. Doesn’t talk to her, doesn’t scream at her, doesn’t touch her. He gives her rides in silence and says “yes sir” when Neil tells him to babysit. He’d screwed it all up with Max, he realizes- he’d underestimated her. She wasn’t some little girl. She had that fire- she could have been in this with him this whole time. They could have been equals. But he’d been too busy remembering himself at that age and being an asshole, and now they aren’t equals at all. She has the upper hand. So Billy just leaves her alone. Tries not to get in her way. Tries not to think about that night where he realizes he was just like his dad.

And then, on Christmas morning, after he’s watched her open all of her presents from Neil and he’s once again been forced to say thank you to Susan a million times for the jacket she bought him, something changes again. Just a little bit. But still.
He’s in his room, waiting. Christmas is bad for him and Neil- his mom had left around this time. A Christmas hasn’t gone by in eight years where Neil didn’t find some way to blame it all on Billy, and they’re on Christmas break, so no one even has to worry about hiding bruises from teachers. His face is just a free for all. He used to try to avoid the Christmas fights, to run from them, but he knows now that they’re inevitable. So he sits and he waits. The knock on the door surprises him-that’s not like Neil. What surprises him even more, though, is the little red-haired face that peers in through the cracked door.
“Hey, Billy.” Max says, and he tries to play it cool, like this isn’t the first time they’ve interacted in months where neither Susan nor Neil were around. “My friends are all having a Christmas party today, and I need a ride. Susan told me she’d give me one, but...” -she screws up her face here, like she’s reconsidering all of her life choices, and Billy’s heart is actually palpitating- “well, I told Neil that I want you to give me a ride. So that no one else has to bother. But it’s kind of far away- remember the Byers house?” And the question is literally the closest they’ve ever come to acknowledging that night. He realizes she actually wants an answer, so he nods. She nods back. “So I need a ride there, but there won’t be enough time for you to go home and come back again, so I told Neil you’ll probably just need to wait for me. We’ll be gone all day.” She tilts her chin defiantly. “Don’t be a little bitch about it, either.”
Billy’s heart is literally in his throat. This is the olive branch to end all olive branches. This is.... this is actually the nicest thing Max has ever done for him. It might actually be the nicest thing anyone has done for him since California. He clears his throat. “Listen, I’ll drive you, but when I say it’s time to go, you had better have your ass in the car, you hear me?” She flips him off.

Billy spends his Christmas sitting in his car alone at a house where his step sister almost castrated him and it is, honestly, the best Christmas he’s had in years.

Chapter Text

Billy’s not going to pretend that he and Max are friends or anything now. But they’re not enemies, and they’re not locked in a Cold War anymore, so that’s something.

He still annoys her, yeah. Still plays music as loud as he can and drives as fast as his car will go and still rolls his eyes at her behind Neil and Susan’s back. But he doesn’t tell her what to do anymore and he doesn’t scream and he tries -he really tries- to remember that she and him aren’t as different as he used to think.

And, for the most part, it goes pretty well.

She treats him different, too: she annoys him on purpose now, does things that she knows will make him roll his eyes mostly because she knows that she can get away with it. She calls him a bitch and flips him off and makes gagging sounds when he talks to girls but she kind of laughs when she does it, and she doesn’t wince when he walks in a room anymore.

They even watch TV together sometimes, and they sit on the same couch. And they’ll eat meals together, even when Neil and Susan aren’t home. And sometimes, on very rare occasions, out of the corner of his eye, Billy will catch Max silently singing along to the songs he plays in his car. (She always glares at him, though, if she thinks that he notices, and slams the radio off as fast as she can).

They don’t talk about that night, of course, and they don’t talk about Neil. But she’s more aware now- he can see how her eyes track Neil’s every movement when he’s in a room with Billy, how she flinches when Neil raises his voice, too. And sometimes, after bad nights, the door will open and she’ll be standing there with a bowl of water, towels, and bandaids that she’ll leave at the foot of his bed without saying a word. (After a couple of months, she starts bringing antiseptic, too, but Billy’s positive they didn’t own that before, and he realizes that she must have bought it, or stole it, or something, just for him. He can’t even make eye contact with her for days after this realization.)

Things are, he thinks, better than they’ve ever been before.

And when summer rolls around? Well, that’s the highlight of the year. Hawkins has always been too cold, but now the sun comes out and if he closes his eyes it feels -just a tiny bit- like he could still be in California. And that...well, that’s the best feeling there is.

 

Max is gone all day long every day, and, as a result, Neil is off his back a little more. Billy uses this time to get a job that lets him stay in the sun as much as possible, and every day women flock just to flirt with him. Life is really, really good.

He can’t believe it when Mrs. Wheeler- Karen- actually takes him up on his offer. He can’t stop from laughing every time he thinks about it. He had expected her to turn red and start stuttering, not to actually...well. It just proves it. This summer is going to be really, really good.

And then, of course, it’s worse than it’s ever been before.

Billy deserves this, he’s pretty sure. He was chosen. He was chosen because the Thing knew what he was- knew that he was like his dad, knew that he was wrong, knew that he was...unnatural. The Thing knew, and it picked Billy, and he was too weak to even stop it.

He managed to stop it from getting Mrs. Wheeler, but not anyone else. And when Max showed up at Heather’s house... well, one voice in his head, It’s voice, was screaming about the girl. But his voice, the one he couldn’t use, was screaming at Max. RUN, he was thinking, RUN NOW BEFORE IT DECIDES IT WANTS YOU TOO. But it didn’t want Max, thank God. Probably because she wasn’t a monster.

And then she tried to save him, which was just... of course. He wanted her to believe him, wanted her to know he was sorry, even as It curled his fingers around a shard and forced his hand into a swinging fist. He didn’t want to hurt Max. Not now. But the thing didn’t care.

Steve Harrington is the thing that stops him from killing Nancy and a car full of children, because of course Steve is wrapped up in this, too. Of course, Billy’s long gone by the time Steve shows up. He’s given up the idea of ever gaining control back. He belongs to It now. No point in fighting it.

But then, at the end, the girl... she saw. She knows. And she thinks that he’s good. Or that he was good. She doesn’t think he’s lost. Not all the way. And Max is in the background, still screaming, and this monster... after it kills the girl, it’s going to kill Max. And Billy’s made too many mistakes with Max to let that happen. So he stands up, his legs shaking, and he hears, loud and clear, his dad’s voice, taunting him. “Yeah, that’s right, run away like you always do.”

And so he does. He picks up the girl, and he runs. He runs and runs and runs, the thing chasing him, and he runs away from Max, so It won’t get too close to her, and he can hear It right behind him, and the girl is crying, and Max is screaming, and then he feels a horrible stab in his shoulder and he’s being lifted, still holding the girl, and, Jesus, the thing is about to eat both of them, and Steve Harrington is there, he can see him, and Steve’s screaming, too, and he’s about to die, and the girl’s about to die, and he closes his eyes and thinks about his mom, on the beach, in a long white dress and seven foot waves.

The monster screams, but it’s different this time, and Billy feels a searing hot pain in his brain, and the monster is dropping him, but Billy barely notices because the monster is screaming inside his head, too, and he can feel the screams and hear them and everything hurts and everything is awful and then it’s all over.

He must have passed out, he realizes, because when he opens his eyes, Max is literally on top of him, crying and screaming.
“Wake up, Billy! Wake up! You have to!!”
He’s never seen her like this before. He can tell -can feel, in his mind- that the Thing is gone and dead.
“Maxine,” he whispers, his voice raw, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” And then he closes his eyes, ready to give in to the pain in his shoulder and the crushing guilt that’s rushing over him now.

And then the little bitch slaps him. “Stay awake, Billy,” she orders him, and he’s reminded of the bat. “You have to stay awake. You can’t die now.”

And, well, that settles it.

Chapter Text

The nice thing about this time around, Steve thinks -and, yes, he knows it’s horrible to think anything about this situation is nice, not when people are dead and a literal 30 foot monster was involved- is that he doesn’t have to process it alone. And, yes, he had Dustin last time, but it was different. Because last time (and, God, this was so embarrassing) he wasn’t just processing a monster- he was also dealing with having his heart fucking ripped out and shredded, and Dustin wasn’t much help with that. So, for the most part, he had been alone. (And, yes, Nancy had wanted to talk to him about the monsters, to see if he was okay, but he couldn’t even really look her in the eyes then).

This time, though, he has Robin. Which is, honestly, incredible. Having Robin as a best friend is, in some ways, better than having Nancy as a girlfriend. Nancy, he now realizes, had truly believed that he was stupid and emotionally stunted and had just accepted it. (To be fair, he had accepted these things a long time ago). Robin, though, for whatever reason, is under the impression that he just lets himself be stupid and stunted and that he could, actually, be a lot more.

So Robin pushes him. She doesn’t let him pretend he wasn’t scared, she doesn’t let him act like he doesn’t have a lot of theories about what exactly the Russians were doing with the Upside Down. She forces him -literally forces him- to talk about what he was thinking about when the Russians were interrogating him (embarrassingly enough, he had been trying to time out how long it was until Dustin should be above ground again. And he had been thinking about Robin, and if they were hurting her or not. And he had even thought, just a little bit, about his mom). He feels, for the first time, like he isn’t shoving all of the monster stuff into a tiny corner of his brain. He’s actually thinking about it.

The downside of having Robin to go through it with, of course, is that Robin has questions. Hundreds of questions. Thousands of em. Questions that he, in the last three years, has never even thought to ask.

So that’s how they ended up here, for the third time in the two weeks since the mall attack, at Steve’s house, sitting in the living room with all the brats scattered around them. (All the brats minus El and Mike, that is. El hasn’t left the Byers house since the attack, and Mike spends most of his time consoling her. Steve can’t imagine- every time he thinks about Hopper, his throat constricts, and he barely even knew the man).

“Okay, so the flickering lights mean-“

“Presence in the Upside Down. We think.”

“We’ve never really tested it.”

“Well, I mean, Will pretty much-“

“Yeah, but it’s not like it was consistent! Ergo, we’ve never tested it.”

All of the nerds basically trip over themselves to answer Robin’s questions, each answer escalating to a shout before it’s over. Robin, for her part, just nods like she’s actually getting all of this. Hell, Steve thinks, she probably is.

“Okay and the demodogs are just baby Demogorgons?”

“Yeah, we think.”

“Are they birthed? Or hatched?”

“Unsure.”

“I spit Dart out.”

“Demogorgon isn’t, like, the scientific name.” Steve feels the need to interject. “It’s a-“

Robin cuts him off with one of the most condescending looks he’s ever seen.
“I know what a Demogorgon is.”

All of the boys look at her like she’s Mother Mary incarnate, and Steve just gives up.

“Which, in a way, is way more embarrassing for you than it is for me.” He retorts, but she’s not even listening. She’s too busy asking about if the demodogs have humanoid characteristics.

The boys seem genuinely thrilled to answer all of these questions, and Steve realizes that, to them, even though they’ve almost died way too many times, there is a part of this that is still utterly fascinating to them. They have all this knowledge that almost no one in the world does, and they’re never allowed to talk about. Robin’s their dream. (She stays away from questions about the Mind Flayer, though, at least when Will’s around. That one’s a little too fresh and a little too awful to poke and prod with him in the room yet.)

Max, though, is uncharacteristically silent for many of these meetings. It can’t be that she doesn’t have opinions- Steve has seen her around these boys enough to know that she can and will hold her own in a screaming match. And she’s smart, too, so it’s not that she’s like Steve, who feels like anything he theorizes will automatically be proven wrong. It’s almost like...well, it’s almost like she’s in a whole different world while they’re talking. She’s physically with them, yes, but she just stares into the distance for most of it, furrowing her brow and frowning. She even passes up more than one opportunity to absolutely roast Dustin alive for saying something even Steve knows is absurdly stupid. (For example, at one point, Dustin posits that, maybe, Dart sought him out on purpose because the Demogorgon had been impressed by his fighting spirit in the first attack).

He asks Lucas about it, when they’re alone in the kitchen, trying to see if she’s okay, but Lucas just stares at him. “Me and Max aren’t like you and Nancy or Mike and El,” he says, the tone of his voice making it clear what exactly he thought about couples like that. “We don’t tell each other every thought that pops into our heads. And she’s fine. I mean, her evil stepbrother was just possessed by an even more evil monster, and he almost killed us, like, a hundred times, so there’s that shit. But she’s fine.”
“Has she said anything about Billy?” Steve asks, but Lucas shakes his head.
“Just that he’s leaving her alone.”

 

There had been a period of Steve’s life when he found it almost impossible to stop thinking about Billy. Every night, before bed, he wondered what would have happened if Billy had killed him. (He’d be dead, obviously, he knew that, but he wondered how people would’ve reacted. He wondered how Nancy would’ve reacted.) In the hallways, at school, when he saw Billy coming, he looked the other way. Every time he talked to a girl who wasn’t Nancy, he heard Billy’s voice in his head. “Plenty of bitches in the sea.” When his mind wandered in his class, he would find himself thinking about the fact that he’d almost died twice in one night, and that one of the causes was literally sitting in the same classroom as him.

Billy left him alone, though. Literally never even looked sideways at him after the night he almost bashed in his skull. And, over time, Billy just sort of faded from Steve’s mind. Other stuff became more important- getting into college, not getting into college, finding a job, slinging ice cream. Steve just stopped thinking about him.

It had probably been months since the last time Steve had thought about Billy Hargrove when Steve crashes into the Camaro. And, at first, he literally doesn’t even think twice about the fact that Billy’s there. Of course Billy is somehow there. He has a knack for showing up on the worst nights of their lives. Steve is so unsurprised to see Billy trying to kill Nancy, actually, that he initially doesn’t even realize that Billy is a part of this. He assumes that, like last time, Billy had just shown up with a blood lust when they all really had much bigger things to deal with.

It doesn’t take long, though, for him to realize that he was very, very wrong. Billy’s more than involved in the situation. Billy is the situation.

And then Billy, who had just minutes ago tried to kill all of them, is some sort of goddamn hero. And then Billy’s almost dead, and then it’s all over again, just as quickly as it had all started. (The others, Steve eventually learns, had had more of a heads up than the Scoop Troop that the Mind Flayer was back. For him and Dustin, though, there was no warning at all, just a thirty foot monster made out of human goop.)

And now, for the second time in his life, Steve finds himself unable to stop thinking about Billy Hargrove. He just keeps thinking about how lost and quiet Will was for months after the Gate was closed, about how fragile he had seemed. And he keeps trying to imagine Billy even remotely resembling that. Steve doesn’t think he’ll every forget the look on Billy’s face when the Mind Flayer was about to devour him- how terrified he looked, how he had closed his eyes like he was ready. He can’t forget the way Max screamed over Billy’s body, either, in those moments where they all thought he was dead and it was, genuinely, one of the worst sounds Steve had ever heard in his life. And he keeps thinking about himself, too, last October, when he felt like he had to deal with this all alone and there was no one to talk to and everything hurt (and he had only been dumped and almost killed, not possessed, too).

And, yeah, the guy almost killed him, but after everything that he saw at Starcourt, that’s hardly the first thing Steve thinks about when he thinks about Billy Hargrove. And so, after talking to Lucas in the kitchen and listening to Robin ask another dozen questions that are so nerdy it’s almost cringeworthy, Steve finds himself saying, almost without meaning to, “hey, Max, how’s Billy?”

And Max absolutely freezes.

Chapter Text

For as long as she’s known him, the question “how’s Billy?” has never actually meant “how’s Billy?” That was one of the first things Max learned about living with Billy Hargrove.

In the beginning, when her mom asks “how’s Billy?” what she means is: “how’s our new family? Are you okay? Are you going to forgive me yet?” And Max always says “he’s fine,” because she doesn’t want her mom to cry again.

When the girls at school suddenly all want to be her friend and they ask her “how’s Billy?” what they mean is: “is being your friend going to pay off? Is it worth being friends with you to see your stepbrother?” And Max always says “he’s fine,” because she knows it’s boring.

When Neil asks her “how’s Billy?” what he means is: “what has Billy done wrong today?” And Max, one time, in the beginning, said “he’s being an asshole.” After that, though, she always just says “he’s fine,” because she may hate Billy, but she hates the way he looks at her, scared and betrayed, even more.

When her new friends ask her “how’s Billy?” what they mean is: “are you safe?” And Max always says “he’s fine,” because she’s not scared of him, not anymore. Not after she swung a bat at him and not after she listened to his dad beat the shit out of him the same night.

When Steve asks “how’s Billy?” though, with no inflection and no bitterness, she doesn’t know what he means. What she knows, though, is that she can’t tell him the truth, because she’s afraid everyone else in the room will say “good,” and she can’t take having to fight for Billy right now. So she just nods and says “he’s fine,” because that’s what she always says. And Steve looks a little disappointed, and she wonders if he’s disappointed because Billy’s fine or because he can tell that she’s lying.

xxx

Neil isn’t happy about the wrecked Camaro. He isn’t happy about the hospital bills, either. He also isn’t happy that both of his children had been at a mall involved in some huge scandal when they were supposed to be at the 4th of July celebration. And he most definitely isn’t happy with the explanation that Billy and Max give him.

They both tell him exactly what they’re supposed to, of course. Before Billy leaves the hospital, everyone is prepped extensively by men in suits about exactly what to tell people about their involvement. It‘s a good story, too, about an electrical fire and falling beams and brothers who were just trying to look out for their sisters and kids who were at the mall because they had been promised free ice cream and ice cream workers who were trying to celebrate Independence Day with their friends. None of it matters, though. Billy knows that even as he’s being quizzed and drilled and signing papers pledging him to secrecy. Because Neil always -always, always, every time, no matter what- knows when Billy is lying to him. Without exception.

And when Billy and Max walk out the hospital doors, and they see Neil standing there talking to men in suits, his eyes locked on Billy’s face, Billy just turns to Max with his best shit eating grin.
“Told you, Maxine,” he says in the singsong voice he used to use when he was about to do something like try to run her friends over. “You shoulda just let me die.”

Max, however, just refuses to accept that Billy dying wouldn’t actually be that bad of an end to Billy’s story, at least not in his mind. She seems to think, for some reason, that the world will be better if he stays alive for right now.

And so, for the first week that they’re home, Max refuses to leave Billy’s side. At first, he thinks it’s because she’s still a little scared. And he can see it, too- she’s jumpy at little noises, she hugs her mom way more than she used to. Every night, she tells every single one of her little nerds goodnight before she can sleep. (Of course, she says things like “hey, Mike, shut the fuck up so I can go to sleep,” and “goodnight shitheads,” but her face is a lot more revealing than her voice). Max, Billy guesses, is just staying close to him because he’s the only participant of that night that she can be in close proximity to 24/7.

Billy is wrong, though. He realizes this after a few days. Yeah, she may be sticking close to him because she’s still shell-shocked, but there’s more to it than that. She’s trying to save him. She’s trying to save him from Neil.

It’s this weird thing their family does- pretending no one knows about the relationship between Billy and Neil, when, obviously, everyone knows. Susan’s watched Neil hit him before, for Christ’s sakes. He shares a bedroom wall with Max. It’s a whole thing, though. Neil may know that Max damn well knows that he beats his son, but he never hits Billy in front of her, because it would too permanently shatter the illusion. Hell, even Billy and Max have never talked about it, even if she’s bringing him bandaids and he’s bleeding on his floor. It’s just how it works. And Billy has always hated this about the Hargrove/Mayfield family, because it’s always reminded him that no one can never know the truth, ever, even if they already do.

Now, though, Max isn’t using it to keep Billy trapped. She’s using it to protect him, and that- well, that’s never been done before. It’s not gonna work, though. Like, yeah, it’s working in the short term sense, and Neil hasn’t even touched him since he got home. But, long term, it’s gonna backfire. Billy can see it. He knows his dad better than Max does, and he knows that Neil isn’t cooling down- he’s working up. And when he finally gets his hands on Billy? Well, he’s had a lot more time to think about just how angry he is.

Billy tries to explain this, on the eighth day. He hasn’t been able to talk much since that night at Starcourt. Just can’t find any words worth saying. And Max, who has never had problems with silences before, now can’t bear more than a second of quiet. For days now, every waking moment has been filled with the sound of Max’s voice. He’s not annoyed, though, because it gives him something to focus on. Because in those few seconds of silence, the places his mind goes when he doesn’t have anything to focus on? Well... Max should’ve just let him die.

Now, though, he finally speaks, cutting her off in the middle of an hour long explanation about how to do a certain skateboard trick.

“Max.” His voice sounds tougher than he remembers it, and she stares at him with wide eyes like he’s a ghost. “You’re gonna have to leave me, at some point.”

Her face -which has always been way, way too expressive, like, goddamn, Maxine, not everyone needs to know every emotion you feel as you feel it- first looks scared, then upset, and then angry. She answers with resolve.

“No, Billy, Neil will-“

He cuts her off, because he doesn’t want to hear her finish the sentence. “Max, listen to me. I know Neil. I’ve been doing this for awhile. And I- listen. It’s not like you can stay in the same room as me for the rest of our lives. And it’s usually a lot better in small bursts than one big moment. And right now? We’re building up to one helluva big moment.”

Her whole face crumbles, and she looks so guilty, and that’s not what Billy wanted, so he sighs and says the first thing that comes to his mind. “Max, I killed a lot of people. You don’t need to feel bad for me.”

She looks away from him, and says in the most neutral tone he’s ever heard from her: “Yeah. I know. But you saved my best friend.”

 

Max listens and leaves, eventually. Goes to Harrington’s house, of all places. And Neil is ready.

And when Neil finally lets him know how he feels? Well, a lot has happened in the last two weeks. And when Neil tells him he’s more trouble than he’s worth, Billy’s not gonna pretend that he doesn’t agree. And Billy’s not gonna pretend that Neil’s fists don’t feel a little bit like atonement.

xxx

When Steve asks “how’s Billy?” he means: “how’s Billy?”
And when Max says “he’s fine,” she means: “he hasn’t left his room in five days and I think he might be dead.”

Chapter Text

Max is clearly... lying? Not telling the whole truth? Being intentionally vague? Well, maybe it’s not clear what Max is doing, but she’s not being very forthcoming, that’s for damn sure. Three times now, Steve has asked her about Billy. Three times now, Max has looked alarmed and said “he’s fine” and then abruptly looked away.

The first time Steve asks her, it isn’t a very thought out question. (Not many of his questions are). The second time he asks, it’s because he’s hoping that it won’t catch her off guard as much and that, as a result, she’ll give him a real answer. The third time he asks her, it’s because he’s getting worried that her evasiveness means that the answer is really, really bad.

After the third, slightly more aggressive “he’s fine,” Robin turns to Steve with raised eyebrows and suggests, in a voice that is somehow both sticky sweet and vaguely threatening, that maybe he can lay off the Billy question now. Steve sits back and sulks a little bit for the next thirty minutes, until it’s almost dinnertime and he has to force the kids out because they all told their moms they’d be home twenty minutes ago.

“There’s something Max isn’t telling us,” he says as soon as the front door has shut, and Robin just snorts.

“Yeah, no shit, Sherlock.”

“Then why didn’t you let me-“

“If Max had wanted to talk about it, she would have, Steve.” Robin says, packing her notebook up. (She takes notes on this stuff. God, she is such a nerd that it makes Steve physically ache sometimes). “You don’t need to give her the third degree because she doesn’t want to talk about her brother who, quick reminder, has almost killed you. More than once.”

Steve just stares at her, his mind looking for another option. “But if Billy-“

“Billy’s not your business, Steve. Not if he’s not under mind control anymore.”

Steve works his jaw for a second. “Maybe if I ask her when-“

“No.”

“But what if-“

“Dude, no.”

Steve cracks a grin at her. “If we gave her the stuff the Russians gave us-“

“What the fuck?” Robin says immediately, but she’s smiling now. “Why does this matter so much to you, anyways?”

Steve shrugs, hopping on to his kitchen counter. “I just want to make sure everyone’s okay.” He’s working on being honest, so he tells a big part of the truth, leaving out the smaller part where he has dreams about Billy being eaten by the Mind Flayer. “I’ve seen everyone but Billy since that night. And this stuff... it sort of fucks you up.”

Robin’s face goes soft. “Yeah, no shit, Sherlock,” she repeats quietly, looking at him with a tilted head. “I really have to go, because I now have a dinnertime curfew, because my parents now think that I’m the kind of person who would try to break into a mall, but. Are you gonna be good?”

Steve gives her a thumbs up and his best heartthrob smile -the one that used to make girls in the hallway blush- and she grins back.

“You’re such a loser.”

“And you’re a nerd!” He yells at her retreating form, the smile staying on his face until he hears the door shut.

 

Having parents who are both fairly important people used to be a pretty sweet setup for Steve. They both work late hours, and they’re almost always traveling for work and going to conferences and galas and events on the weekends. Steve’s had free reign for his whole life, and he’s made good use of it.

Now, though, with no girlfriend and no job and no friends left from high school, it gets kind of lonely, a condition amplified by the fact that he’s now the kind of person who gets nervous around flickering lights and loud dogs.

He’s gotten into the habit of wandering through his house when he’s alone, counting his steps and makings lists as he walks. The lists are a leftover habit from when he was a kid- he would say “Mom, I’m bored,” and she would make him sit down and write a list of literally whatever she could think of. Lists of colors. Lists of all the tall people he knew. Lists of green foods. She hasn’t made him write a list since he was eleven, but it’s a habit now, in moments of intense boredom, to start listing.

He’s halfway through the list “Things I Would Have Done With My Scoops Ahoy Uniform Had They Not Rudely Demanded I Turn It In After The Government Claimed I Broke Into A Mall To Give Out Free Ice Cream” (#5: saved it for Halloween and then made Dustin wear it, bloodstains and all) when the phone rings and he nearly jumps out of his skin.

It’s Max.

“What did you mean when you asked how’s Billy?” she says without preamble, her voice low and intense.

Steve scratches his head. “Just, uh, you know. I wanted to know if he was okay.”

“Why?”

“Because, um, I don’t- I don’t really know.”

There’s a long silence on the other end, and, for a second he thinks she’s hung up on him.

Then, though, in a near whisper, she says: “I need your help with something.”

xxx

Billy has his reasons for shoving a chair up under his doorknob, and those reasons are twofold.

One, it keeps Neil out. Billy is all about not enraging Neil further, obviously, but right now he doesn’t think he could survive another hit, and Max told him he wasn’t allowed to die yet. So.

Two, it keeps Max out. She doesn’t need to see his face right now. Or his body. Or his room. Any of it, really.

The third reason -which Billy doesn’t count as a reason because it’s really more of a result than a cause- is that ever since he shoved the chair underneath his door, he hasn’t been able to get out of bed. Maybe, physically, he could. He hasn’t tested it. He doesn’t want to, though, so he doesn’t know. He’s staying alive because Maxine told him to- surely that’s enough, he thinks.

Max, apparently, doesn’t think it’s enough, because she bangs on his door every time their parents are out of the house. Her tactics change- sometimes she yells, sometimes she demands, sometimes she pleads, one time she cries. And it’s not like Billy wants her to be miserable because of him. But he’s not getting out of bed. Not yet. It’s just not happening. He gets up to piss in the middle of the night and he drinks the glasses of water that Max leaves beside his door, but that’s it. He can’t be expected to do more.

(There’s a voice in his head that sounds like his mom’s that tells him he has to get up soon or he’ll die anyways, but the voice that sounds like his dad’s and that sounds a little bit like his reminds him that that’s probably for the best).

And then, one night -Billy’s really not sure how long he’s been in here- after he hears Neil’s car drive away, there’s no pounding on the door from Max.

Good for her, he thinks, even as his stomach grows heavier. She’s getting the bigger picture here. Maybe, he thinks, they’ve finally counted up how many people went missing or died in the first week of July. Maybe Max is finally understanding that Billy did a lot more damage than attack her friends a few times. Or, maybe, she’s remembering what it felt like to have Billy slam her head into a wall when she was still trying to save him.

Maybe she’s understanding he can’t be saved.

He closes his eyes, takes a deep breath. Now, maybe, he can go.

The sound of his window opening is immediately followed by a crashing noise and a whispered “shitshitshit” and an even louder “oh fuck.”

When he opens his eyes, Max is sprawled on his floor, looking around her with a pale face.

“Max.” He’s trying to figure out how the hell she got up here and also how to keep her from seeing his face when another head pops up in the window.

“Little help here? Max?”

He’d know that hair and that voice anywhere. A nasty grin spreads on his face, because he may be ready to die, but old habits die hard.

“Well, well, well. If it isn’t King Steve himself.”

Chapter Text

Max is looking at him like he’s some mangled puppy on the side of the road, her eyes wide and horrified, and she’s clearly trying to say something but can’t get the words out. Billy can’t look at her right now. He just can’t. And so he looks, instead, at Steve Fucking Harrington, who is still trying to crawl through his window.

xxx

Steve wonders if he’s made a mistake as soon as he hears the words “King Steve.” He had let Max convince him that this was a good plan, mostly because he was worried and she sounded desperate, but now, as he’s struggling through Billy’s window (because Max, who had just literally crawled up his body to get in, is sitting frozen on the floor), he’s wondering if maybe staying home was the better option. Because, what, he’s out here like an idiot on a stepladder, risking dignity and probably a broken tailbone for a guy who he’s not friends with? And that guy is, what, taunting him? Yeah, this is a load of bullshit. As soon as he gets in this fucking house, he’s going to-

His inner rant is cut off as soon as he tumbles into the room. “Shit,” he whispers, and Max turns back to face him, her eyes big and teary.

The room is absolutely destroyed- there’s a dresser overturned in the middle of the floor, all the drawers pulled out and tossed around the room. There’s music littering the floor, too, broken records and cassettes with the tape pulled out and a radio that looks like it was thrown across the room. The mattress isn’t even on the bed anymore, and there’s a broken mirror in the corner that- okay, yeah, that has blood on it. Steve swallows. Whatever he’s a part of now, it’s really bad.

“So did you two idiots have a reason for crawling through my window? Or were you just wanting to examine the decor?”

Finally, Steve looks at Billy, on the mattress on the floor, and...holy shit. Max crawls across the ground to kneel next to him, and he doesn’t even look at her. His face is utterly destroyed, with what looks like a broken nose that blends in to a black eye and split lips and a cut in one eyebrow and another cut that has his hair matted with crusted blood. It all looks old and dry, and the color of his face is more purple now than tan. He’s wearing a long sleeve shirt and Steve can’t see his body, but if his face is any indication...this is really bad.

Billy laughs, staring over Max’s head at Steve’s face. “Come on, pretty boy. Penny for your thoughts?”

“Billy...” Max whispers, and Billy flinches. He’s still staring at Steve. “You said you’d be okay.”

“And I’m doing great.”

Max’s voice is wavering now. “I thought you were dead, you giant asshole.”

He laughs. “You wish.”

Max stands up quickly, turning to Steve and wiping her eyes on the back of her hand. “We need to take him to the hospital. Before Neil gets back.”

“Not gonna happen, amigos,” Billy says, working himself slowly to a sitting position. “No hospitals. You know the rules.”

Steve feels sick to his stomach. Max is looking at him like he’s gonna fix this, and Billy’s looking at him like he’s a joke, and Steve is pretty sure that he is the worst person in the world to be standing in this room.

“You need help, Billy.” There’s a grit in Max’s voice. “Bandaids aren’t going to fix this.”

“Hey, listen, Maxine,” -Billy really is such an ass, Steve thinks, and then immediately feels guilty, because this is really bad- “if I go to a hospital, all the help in the world isn’t going to keep him from killing me.”

“Billy-“ Max starts, and, finally, Steve has a useful idea.

“I know where we can take him.” He looks at Billy now, tries to sound genuine and sincere. “No hospitals.”

Billy spits at his feet.

xxx

When Billy first got to Hawkins, he couldn’t do a single damn thing without first having to hear about how Steve Harrington had already done it, and, somehow, done it better. Everything- keg stands, basketball, girls- all the precedents around here were set by one man and one man only, and that man was Steve Harrington. It was annoying as hell, the way everyone talked about him like they would’ve lapped up the water he showered in, but what was even worse was that he didn’t seem to be active anymore. He had been domesticated, dating some priss, and yet, somehow, he was still king of the mountain. And he wasn’t even that good. There wasn’t a single record he set that Billy couldn’t beat. But people looked at Billy like he was a replacement -a filler, even, a placeholder- until Steve got back on his feet again.

It was infuriating.

Steve brought out something ugly in Billy, those first months here. Billy wanted -needed- everyone to understand that he wasn’t some watered down King Steve. He was Billy Hargrove, for fucks sake.

And then, you know, Billy almost killed him, and even he thought maybe it was time to back off a little. So he forgot all about Steve Harrington, tried to shove the memory of that night from his mind and forget the way it felt to break Harrington’s nose.

Now, though, Harrington has the audacity to climb through his window with his sister and look like a concerned mother and act like some sort of savior, and, well. Billy doesn’t have to stand for that.

xxx

Billy Hargrove is going to die in the backseat of Steve’s car, and it’s not going to be because of his injuries. No. It’s going to be because Steve kills him, because that’s how big of an asshole this guy is. He literally has not shut up since they managed to wrangle him into the Beamer, and every single word has been aimed at Steve.

“Hey, weren’t you wearing a sailor uniform the last time I saw you? Come on, princess, where’d it go?”

Steve tries to look at Max, but she’s staring out the window and sniffing.

“Tell the truth, was that really a mandated uniform? Or was it just sort of a kinky thing? With that girl? What’s her name? Bluebird? Robert? Batman?”

“Don’t talk about her.” Steve says, and it’s the first thing he’s replied to. It was the wrong choice, apparently, because Billy laughs loudly, mean and sharp.

“Oh, I see how it is. Tell me, what kind of stuff were you two doing in those uniforms? I know you-“

“SHUT UP!” Max turns and starts screaming so quickly that Steve jumps. She looks like she’s about to crawl into the backseat, and Billy actually scrambles backwards a little bit, immediately wincing from the effort. “SHUT UP! Stop being such an...such an ASSHOLE! You’re being a DICK, and you’re doing it ON PURPOSE, and I thought you were DEAD! So just SHUT UP!”

Billy freezes for a second, and then his jaw juts out and his whole body tenses.

“HEY, MAXINE,” he roars back, “WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME HERE? I’m not dead, am I? What, you want me to be sunshine and flowers now? Come on, MAX, WHAT DO YOU-“

“SHUT UP!” Max hits a note Steve didn’t know was possible. “SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP! SHUT-“

Billy is still yelling and Max is absolutely shrieking now, and Steve is pretty sure that if he doesn’t stop this, there’s going to be not one but two dead bodies in his car. (Maybe three. Neither sibling seems very keen on containing their anger right now).

“Hey, you guys, I think we all just need to-“

Steve might as well be invisible.

“WHAT THE FUCK DO YOU-“

“SHUT THE FUCK UP! JUST STOP FUCKING TALKING! I-“

Max’s eyes are probably seconds away from popping out of her skull, and what’s left of Billy’s face is so red it almost matches the bruises. Steve does the only thing he can think of- he slams on the brakes. Hard.

Max yelps, but, even worse, there’s a small whimper from the backseat as Billy catches himself from falling, and, immediately, Steve feels like the biggest asshole in the world. They’ve both been stunned into silence, though, so there’s no time to dwell on his guilt because Steve has a feeling they’re both about to yell at him next.

“LISTEN.” Steve says, trying his hardest to sound like someone with authority. He ends up, in his own ears, sounding like his seventh grade basketball coach, but, hell, he’ll take what he can get. “Max!” He points at her, eyes still on the road. “You called me because you wanted my help because you were worried about Billy. You wanted to get him help. And Billy.” He shifts his eyes to look at Billy in the backseat, who is now sprawled out and holding his ribcage. “You came with us. We didn’t drag you out of there. You got up and walked.” (Walking is a pretty liberal term for what Billy did, considering it involved half of his body weight on Steve and a very slow shuffle, but Steve feels like the point still stands). “Both of you” -he points between the two siblings now, and, god, he sees it, okay? He gets why Dustin says he’s a mom- “chose to be here. This is our best possible choice for this situation, and you both know it, so start acting like it!”

They both stare at him in silence, and then, very quietly, turn to face each other. There’s no verbal communication there, but something definitely happens, because after a few moments, Max looks back at him.

“You,” she says, her voice full of derision, “are soooo fucking bossy.”

xxx

Joyce Byers doesn’t really know what she expects when she receives a call from Steve Harrington saying quickly and quietly that he doesn’t have time to explain but he’s on his way and they need her help. (He hangs up before she can even find out who ‘they’ are). Her worst fear, of course, is that something else has happened with the gate and they’re about to get thrown into all of this again only two weeks later. Doing it again? She doesn’t know if she can. And without Hopper? God, it hurts to think about. She doesn’t want to scare her kids as bad as she’s scaring herself, so she doesn’t tell Will or Jonathan or El about the call (or even Nancy, who is under the impression that Joyce doesn’t know she’s here). She just goes and sits on the porch with a cigarette and tries to prepare herself.

What she’s definitely not prepared for, though, is for Steve to pull up with Max Mayfield and immediately start trying to drag Billy Hargrove out of his car.

She runs forward to help him and can see, up close, the way that Max’s eyes are puffy and the damage on Billy’s face. He visibly flinches whenever she or Steve touches him, and she does her best to be gentle getting him to the porch, but the boy is twice her size and even Steve is struggling to bear his weight.

The whole way, he’s laughing. “Hey, Harrington,” he says as he stumbles, “isn’t this the house where I broke your nose?”

Steve looks exhausted and angry and worried all at once, and Max hovers at Joyce’s side, clearly ready to try to catch Billy.

“What happened?” Joyce asks when Billy’s finally to her porch and his breathing is a little too labored for him to keep laughing.

Steve looks at Max like she’s the one who should answer, and Max takes a deep breath, uncertainty on her face.

“He, um.” She starts, and Billy’s watching her with his one good eye. “His-“

“His Papa.” Eleven’s voice comes from the open door. She nods at Joyce, voice confident. “His Papa is a bad man.”

Billy’s head snaps towards her, and, in the porch light, his face looks even worse than Joyce had originally thought. “Max,” he says in a low growl, staring at Eleven, “get her the fuck out of here.” And then he throws up on Joyce’s feet.

Chapter Text

Max feels like time actually stops when Billy throws up on Ms. Byers. Everyone goes very quiet, and Billy freezes. Max has seen this look before on him, when he’s pushed back too far with Neil or been clumsy and broken something he shouldn’t have. It’s not good. And when he looks up and faces Max... she’s only seen that look on his face once before, and she knows that she needs to move fast.

And then, just as suddenly as it stopped, time starts going very quickly. Max is basically shoving El to her room, promising quietly that she’ll explain everything in a minute, and then Ms. Byers and Steve are pulling Billy in and laying him down on a couch, and his hands are starting to shake, which is REALLY bad, and then Will comes out, and she yells for him to go back to his room, NOW, and then Jonathan and Nancy come out and Nancy’s shirt is on backwards, and Steve winces, and Billy’s breathing weird, and Max yells at them, too, to GET OUT, and she asks Ms. Byers for a bucket, and then very quietly pleads for Steve and Ms. Byers to please, please, leave the room for one minute and just go get everything they need and to let them have one minute, really quick, PLEASE, and Steve hesitates, but Will’s mom pulls him out of the room and says, in a whisper, “you have five minutes,” and then, finally, it’s just her and Billy.

Time is still going too fast and Billy starts dry heaving into the bucket.

xxx

Billy tries not to make a habit of breaking down in front of Max. Hell, they’ve only been even vaguely amicable for less than a year now- she’s not exactly someone he wants to be a pathetic shitshow around.

It did happen once, though, back in California. He had been babysitting her, but she was too damn old to need a babysitter, and the weather had been perfect, so he had left her at the house with very clear instructions to not cause any problems while he went down to the beach to surf. When he got back, she had been standing in the middle of the living room, staring at a broken window. He’s still not sure how it happened- something about trying to do a skateboard trick inside- but the second he saw it, he knew he was dead meat. At first, he was furious. He was gonna kill her. But when he opened his mouth to scream, he couldn’t breathe. And then his body had just given up. It had been bad, and it had scared the shit out of Max. They never talked about it afterwards.

It happened again, in the sauna, when she was trying to save him. It was right before he tried to kill her and her friends.

Now, though, is a whole new level of humiliating. Because he didn’t even throw up on Neil or Susan- he threw up on a tiny woman who even he can tell has no intention of hurting him. But, for a split second, he had been waiting for someone to hit him, and now he can’t get the image of Neil out of his head, and what he’ll do when he finds out where Billy is and what he’s done. They all know, now, and people aren’t supposed to know. Billy’s a dead man walking. And that girl? Seeing her? Billy just spent an entire week helping create a monster designed just to destroy her. He tried to kill her himself. If anyone gets to kill him, it should be her. And part of him is so, so sure that Neil is going to burst through the doors and kill him, and the other part of him wants to go kneel at the girl’s feet and beg her to do it now and he can’t BREATHE.

He’s vaguely aware of being laid down on a couch, and of people coming and going and Max screaming like a hellion, but not much else. He’s going to die, he thinks, he’s going to die, in this living room, and what kind of fucking coward is he? Because an hour ago, in his room, he was ready to die and now he’s there and he’s fucking terrified but it’s just because his heart won’t stop beating so fucking hard and he’s so fucking weak and there’s a pounding noise in his head and Neil was right and he deserves this and he needs to just accept it but he can’t because his lungs are filling up with saltwater and-

There’s a voice, in the back. And it’s not Neil’s, and it’s not his, and it’s not his mom’s. It’s Max’s. And, slowly, he starts hearing words.

xxx

“Billy.” Max kneels in front of him, hands in her lap, and Billy’s chest is literally heaving and it’s like he’s a million miles away. It’s like seeing him Flayed again. She’s crying, and she’s cried more over Billy in the last three weeks than she has in the last five years and, honestly, she doesn’t think she can take it much longer. “You need to listen to me. Your name is Billy Hargrove. You’re my brother. My name is Max, but you call me Maxine sometimes, because you’re kind of an ass. You’re always kind of an ass, actually, but I kind of think we were about to be friends. Or something. One day. You’re gonna be okay, but you need to breathe. I told you” -she starts full on sobbing, and her heart physically hurts, and it’s hard to talk- “I told you that you couldn’t die yet. Remember? And you stayed alive. And you’re gonna keep doing that. And I know you’re scared, but you don’t need to be. Because I’m not gonna let you die. I promise, I’m not gonna let you die. So please, please, listen to me. You need to breathe. My friends are gonna help you, but you have to calm down. Please don’t be scared. Please. Please, Billy, I promise you, I-“

“Max.” Billy whispers, and time suddenly goes back to normal. “Hey, Maxine. I’m fine, okay? So stop- stop your blubbering, Maxine, you’re just embarrassing yourself. I’m fine.”

“You are just such a dick,” she whispers back, tears still coming. She grinds the heel of her palm into her eyes. “I hate you.”

“Yeah, listen, the feeling’s mutual.”
Billy visibly swallows, looking up at the ceiling. “Go tell your friends they can come in again.” He winces. “But not- not the girl, Max.”

She nods quickly, running out the door before he can change his mind.

xxx

The Billy Hargrove that Steve comes back to is not the Billy Hargrove that he left. He’s still angry, but it’s a quiet, sullen anger now, and he’s not yelling. He just looks...tired. He blinks up at Joyce, and he pays so little attention to Steve that Steve isn’t sure Billy even knows he’s in the room.

“Sorry about your shoes, ma’am,” he says in a tight voice, and Joyce shakes her head.

“No, no, I have- I have two kids, I promise, sweetie, that’s not the first time that’s happened.”

He doesn’t react to that, just closes his eyes. Joyce kneels by the couch, gestures for Steve to come closer.

“Will you please let us help you now, Billy? You need...I think you really need help, sweetie.”

Never in his life did Steve think he would hear anyone call Billy Hargrove sweetie with such kindness. Joyce is, truly, one of the most surprising people he knows.

Billy nods, eyes still closed. “First, you have to get Max home. If my dad- she needs to get home before Neil and Susan.”

Joyce and Steve exchange a look, and Joyce opens her mouth to say something, but Billy adds, quietly:

“She’s not- she’s safe in that house. No one will hurt her.”

“He’s right.” Max echoes from the doorway. “And I do- I need to be home first.”

“I’ll take you.” Steve volunteers, glad to be useful again and not staring at Billy like a dead fish.

Max, though, shakes her head. “No. You... will you stay here? With Billy?”

Bad idea, Steve thinks, and he wants desperately to say no. Whatever it is he brings out in Billy, it’s no good to anyone, but Max looks so desperate and so torn that he finds himself nodding. “Yeah. Yeah, I will.” These damn kids. It’s like he can’t say no to anything anymore.

Joyce stands. “I’ll go get Nancy to bring you home.” She exits the room softly, and Billy opens his eyes and looks at Max.

“Come on, Maxine,” he says, but the bite is gone. “What do you want from me?”

She stares back. “I don’t know. But right now, just- just stay alive. And don’t be an asshole.”

Chapter Text

Three times now, someone has tried to absolutely obliterate Steve’s facial structure right before he’s attacked by a monster. Two of those times, Joyce Byers has patched him up afterwards.

Steve remembers how kind she was and how gentle she was, and how she really did make him feel, after everything, that his black eyes and broken nose were just as important as anything the monsters had done that night.

That’s what convinces Steve to take Billy to the Byers- that and the fact that Joyce is not the kind of person who a screaming Billy will intimidate. She’s not scared of anything, Steve is pretty sure, not after watching her track down monsters and sneak into Russian bases.

Joyce, he hopes, will know what to do in a situation where he is clearly floundering.

And, of course, she does.

After Max leaves, the first thing Joyce does is hand Billy a handful of painkillers and a glass of water. She speaks to him in a quiet, soft voice, not asking any questions about what happened and saying, again, that she just wants to help him. Billy doesn’t say anything back.

They have to cut his damn shirt off because Billy can’t get his arms up high enough to take it off himself (the noise he makes in the back of his throat when he tries is so gut wrenching that Steve has to look away) and, when the shirt is off, Steve immediately wishes it wasn’t.

Billy’s whole torso is littered with bruises and cuts and dried blood and, in a cluster above his waistband, a few round burn marks. Cigarettes, Steve thinks, before he’s hit with a sudden round of nausea. Billy’s shoulder is still covered with half healed marks that look purple in the light- evidence of when the Mind Flayer lifted him in the sky and almost ate him. Jesus, of course his shoulder wasn’t even healed yet. Steve thought about being interrogated by the Russians, thought about what it would be like if it had happened while he still had a bum shoulder.

Shit.

Joyce doesn’t say anything, though, just very quietly asks if his back is hurt, too.

Billy closes his eyes and moves, slowly, so that they can see his back, and Steve’s stomach drops.

“Oh, sweetie.” Joyce whispers, hand to her mouth. Steve feels a dozen urges at once- to go throw up, to punch a wall, to cry, to go drive to Billy’s house and burn it down. To run out of the room and never look back.

Billy’s back is nothing but welts punctuated by short, deep cuts and ugly, yellowing bruises. The welts cover the expanse of his back, one actually crawling up his neck and disappearing under his mess of tangled curls.

God.

Steve has never hated any moment like he hates right now- not when he first saw the Demogorgon, not when he stood in a tunnel full of demodogs, not when Nancy told him he was bullshit. All of those moments, as awful and hated as they were, were things he could actually do something about. This...this was something that had already been done. Nothing in the world could keep this moment from happening.

“It’s not- I’ve had worse.” Billy’s voice is stiff and quiet, the first words he’s said since Max left. “You don’t need to feel bad.”

“You’ve had worse?” Steve blurts out, and immediately hates himself for it when Billy’s ears turn red.

Joyce just stares at Billy, and Steve has no idea what she’s thinking. She might cry, but she could also be about to yell.

She doesn’t do either, though. Just touches Billy’s hair so, so gently and whispers: “Let’s get you cleaned up.”

xxx

I almost killed your son, Billy wants to scream. I almost killed Steve. I attacked him in your house. I tried to kill my sister. I thought about running over your child with my car.

He wants to tell her to stop- stop, you don’t understand what you’re doing, you don’t know who you’re helping.

But he can’t get any of the words out, because he’s a fucking coward. He deserves for her to throw him out now that Max is gone- he deserves for Steve to finally say “listen, he’s not worth it, I was only doing this for Max.” He deserves it, and he knows that, okay? He knows it’s wrong to let this woman sit here and clean his wounds and be so, so quiet with him, and it’s wrong to let Steve Harrington, of all people, help her. He should scream and shout until they’re sent running.

But he’s a fucking coward, and so he doesn’t. He doesn’t want to see the hate on their faces that he knows should be there, doesn’t want to hear them call him all the words he should be called. Doesn’t want to see Max’s face when she realizes she went to all of this for nothing. So he’s just silent, and he lets it happen.

She cleans the cuts on his torso and back and carefully bandages them; she puts a cream on the bruises and welts; she wraps his ribs for him where he thinks his dad may have cracked one. Steve helps her, and Billy’s not really sure what hands are whose on his back, just knows that they’re being soft and kind and everything he doesn’t deserve. She does his face last, carefully cleaning the blood out of his hair and even working out some of the tangles with her fingers. She packs medicine into the cut that hurts every time he moves his eyebrows and puts a bandaid on it, and, during it all, no one says a word.

When everything is bandaged and covered, she very gently takes one of his hands in both of hers (and Jesus, this woman is tiny, Billy could break her hand without even really trying) and says, very quietly, “Billy, are you hungry?”

xxx

They’re in the kitchen warming up soup and Steve’s still considering throwing up when Joyce says, quietly enough that Billy won’t be able to hear her in the living room, “fucking bastard.”

“What?” Steve asks, rubbing his temple in a desperate attempt to stop feeling nauseous.

“If Hopper were here, we would’ve just shot him.” Joyce whispers, and, by God, the woman means it. “We would have shot the fucking bastard and made it look like an accident and no one would have ever looked into it because Hop was the goddamn chief of police. That fucking bas- I mean Jesus CHRIST, that man deserves to be in a hole in the ground. I- I can’t- shit. Shit.”

There are tears in her eyes now, and she’s stirring the reheated soup with such a vengeance that Steve wouldn’t be surprised if the spoon broke in half.

“I’ll kill him if he ever touches that boy again- I’ll kill him myself, Steve, I swear to God, I’ll kill him.”

She finally looks up at Steve, and he realizes that his mouth is hanging open.
Her face softens.

“Did you- did you know?” she asks. “About his dad?”

Steve shakes his head. “I didn’t know anything about Billy.” I still don’t, he wants to add, but talking after all that is harder than he had expected.

Joyce nods, blinks fast. “I should probably- I’m sure all the kids are wondering what the hell is going on. I’ll go talk to them. Will you bring Billy this food? And stay with him? I’ll be there in just a minute.”

 

Billy is in the exact same position they left him in, sitting on the couch, loosely clothed in one of Hopper’s old flannels. He doesn’t look at Steve when he walks in, just quietly accepts the bowl of soup in shaking hands.

Steve thinks about the Billy in the car, screaming and angry, and he almost misses him. That’s the Billy he knows, not this one, quiet and embarrassed and broken.

He sits down next to Billy and Billy flinches. Steve suddenly feels so, so tired, and like he’s still the least qualified person to be in this room.

He says what he’s been thinking for the last hour. “I’m sorry I slammed on the brakes. In the car. You were hurt, and I- I wanted you and Max to stop fighting. I should’ve figured out a different way.”

Billy turns and stares at him, looking at him for the first time in hours, and his face shifts from the blank look he’s had since taking off his shirt to a condescending snarl.

“Jesus fucking Christ.” Billy mutters and then, slowly, begins to eat. “Why are you even still here? Just fucking go home, Harrington.”

Steve gives the truth. “Max asked me to stay.”

“Do you obey every order 12 year old girls give you?” Billy asks around a mouthful of food, and Steve responds automatically, without even really meaning to:

“She’s fourteen.”

“Jesus fucking Christ.” Billy mumbles again. “Just stop- stop talking, Harrington.”

Finally, Steve thinks. Something he can actually do. And he closes his eyes.

xxx

Steve Harrington is falling asleep on a couch next to Billy in the house where Billy almost killed him after what has been, easily, one of the most humiliating hours of Billy’s life, and Billy’s not even confused anymore. Steve is just doing what Max told him to do, and if there’s one thing Billy understands, it’s the need to do what Max tells you to.

Jesus, he thinks as he finishes the soup. Next thing he knows, he’ll be as big a bitch as Harrington.

He should still leave this house. He knows that. They don’t have any sort of plan for what to do when Neil realizes he’s not home- no one even talked about it. If Neil finds out he’s here, he’ll be furious, and no one but Billy should have to deal with that. Billy should leave- honestly, Billy should leave before he gets kicked out, before all these people come to their senses and realize he’s not the kind of person they should be helping.

But he feels better than he has in days, and the soup is good, and the flannel he’s in is warm, and the voices in his head are calming down for the first time in awhile. So Billy looks at Harrington -who is actually snoring, like, dammit, was Hawkins really so starved for anyone decent that this loser was their heartthrob?- and realizes that, maybe, he’s tired, too. And Billy lays his head back and closes his eyes and hopes that when he wakes up he won’t still be too fucking scared to leave.

Chapter Text

Joyce feels lonelier tonight than she has in awhile. She’s been so busy in the aftermath of Starcourt- moving El in, helping El grieve, making sure her sons feel safe again, making sure that all of Hopper’s things aren’t thrown away. She’s had so much going on that it’s been easier to forget why all of this is happening in the first place.

But tonight, she feels so, so alone, and she misses Hop. Because there needs to be another adult here. She can’t do this alone. (She knows, technically, that Steve is an adult now, and Lord knows the boy is doing all he can. But he’s not old enough for this—not old enough to have learned that not all bad men are Russian or dressed in lab coats and not everything awful comes from the Upside Down). She needs Hopper here- wants him to flash his badge and arrest the son of a bitch, wants him to beat the man to a pulp. Needs him to grieve with her about the things that are being done to children in their town while they have no idea.

But Hopper’s gone, and Joyce is alone. And she had seen the look on Billy’s face, and she knows what’s coming. So she goes out onto the porch after everyone in the house is asleep (both Billy and Steve are slumped on the couch, and she really wants Billy in a more comfortable position, but doesn’t want to risk waking him) and she lights a cigarette and she waits and she wishes, desperately, that Hopper was smoking one with her.

Sure enough, at 1:00 am, Billy comes stumbling through the front door. His arm is wrapped around his rib cage and he’s panting, and he’s leaning heavily on the wall. Joyce wonders, a fist gripping her heart, how the hell he thought he would be able to get anywhere if he can barely walk out of the house. His jaw sets when he sees her sitting on the porch step, and he closes his eyes like he’s steeling himself.

“Thank you for everything, ma’am.” He says, and Joyce thinks about all the ways the kids used to describe Billy Hargrove -loud, angry, crazy, terrifying- and about what they would say if they heard the voice he uses when he talks to her. “I’ll go ahead and get out of your hair now.”

Hopper’s shirt is too big on the boy, and his hair is still matted to one side of his face from sleep, and even with the broken nose and black eye he looks so, so young.

Joyce sighs. “You’re not leaving, Billy.”

His eyes open at that, and he actually looks surprised, the poor kid.

“No, you...you’ve done enough.” He swallows. “Thank you, but I’ll go home now.”

Joyce would have laughed if the idea wasn’t so heartbreaking. “If I have anything to do with it, you’ll never go back there again.” She means it, too, but the boy just looks at her like she’s speaking Russian. “Besides, even if I did let you leave, we both know there’s no way in hell you’d be able to even walk to the end of my driveway. So just go back to sleep, Billy.”

She looks away from him then, mostly because he’s clearly so embarrassed about barely being able to walk and she wants to let him regain his composure. In a minute, she thinks, she’ll get up and help him to a bed where he can actually sleep. To her surprise, though, he slowly and stiffly takes a seat next to her.

He looks out at the tree line, takes a shuddering breath. “Don’t suppose there’s any way I could bum a smoke?”

She lights it for him, and he looks so grateful to have it that she can’t even bring herself to feel guilty about giving a high schooler a cigarette.

When he’s halfway through the cigarette he says, in a low voice, “I meant what I said. About Max. She’s safe at home- he’ll never even touch her.”

“I know,” Joyce says, and she really does. “I never would’ve let her go back if I didn’t.”

He nods. “So you don’t- don’t worry about it. You don’t have to...Max is safe.”

For a second, Joyce isn’t sure where this is coming from, and then she actually feels her heart break.

“Billy,” she whispers, very slowly laying a hand on his bicep. “I’m not helping because I’m worried about Max. I’m helping because I’m worried about you.”

Billy’s eyes close again at that, and for a moment he looks like he’s going to open his mouth and yell. But he doesn’t, just leans his forehead on his fist for a second and takes a long breath. “You don’t know shit about me, lady.”

Joyce smiles. “Probably not. But you don’t know shit about me, either.”

They finish their cigarettes in silence, and Joyce wishes that Hopper was sitting next to them.

xxx

Steve wakes up on a couch with a crick in his neck and a dire need for coffee.

Joyce, Will, and Eleven are already in the kitchen and, as soon as Steve walks in, Joyce pours him a cup of coffee.

“How do you take it?”

“Black.”

She smiles, lets him get seated before she turns to the kids and literally says the word “shoo.” It takes a few minutes for her to scoot them both out, and Steve almost feels bad, because they’re both clearly dying for more information, but, once they’re gone, she takes a seat with Steve.

“Jonathan’s at work already. I called in sick today,” she explains. “Seemed like I should be here.” She sighs, takes a sip of her coffee. “Billy tried to leave last night.”

Steve’s head snaps up at that. “What-“

She nods. “He didn’t, of course. He’s still asleep right now. But he did try.”

Steve splutters. “What would be- where would he even go?”

Joyce smiles sadly at him. “Home.”

“What the fuck?” Steve whispers. Dammit, Billy. “Why would he- we just got him out of there.”

“These things, they’re more.... they’re more complicated than they seem, when you’re in them.” Joyce says with a shake of her head. “It’s hard to imagine that you can have a way out. Billy’s just...it’s hard.”

Steve thinks about how Jonathan never really talks about his dad and how, when he does, there’s a general distaste in his tone. He wonders...and then stops himself, because he can barely handle Billy right now.

Joyce taps her fingers. “The thing is, Steve, I don’t think Billy needs a hospital. But he needs a place where he can rest and heal and be safe, and he needs to trust us enough to let us give him that place.”

Steve sighs. “How are we gonna do that?” He’s still stuck on the idea of Billy trying to go back to a home where his dad had broken his nose.

“I don’t know. Not yet.” There’s resolve in her voice. “But we’re going to figure it out.”

xxx

Billy isn’t sure where he is when he wakes up- the room is dark and the bed isn’t his and the house doesn’t smell like home. He’d know that knock and that screech anywhere though.

“Billy! Let me in! BILLY!”

“Maxine!” He yells, not bothering to lift his head from the pillow. His whole body hurts, he notes, but it hurts less than usual. “Shut the fuck up!”

There’s a pause, and then the pounding resumes louder and harder when, suddenly, the door swings open.

Max stares at it in surprise, her hand still raised to knock. “I guess it wasn’t locked.” She looks sheepish when she says it, and Billy rolls his eyes before closing them. “I biked here as soon as Mom and Neil went to work. I wouldn’t have bothered if I knew you were going to be rude.”

He feels Max’s weight settle at his feet, and, holy shit, Max is getting real comfortable with him real fast, huh? Even at their best she never would’ve dared sit on his bed. Apparently this whole trying to save his life thing is a real game changer.

“How was last night?” she asked, suddenly hesitant considering she was trying to barge into his room five seconds ago.

He grunts in response. He can’t believe he’s still at this house. He can’t believe he let Joyce tell him to stay.

“Neil still thinks you’re at home. Cause, you know, Steve shoved the chair up under the door and closed the window when he left so it still seems the same. So. You don’t have to worry. No one knows you left.”

He opens his eyes at that. He hadn’t known Steve had done all that before he crawled out the window- the whole process of getting out of the house is still a little hazy in his mind, because all he had been able to think about at the time were his ribs. That does buy him some time. But. Still. It won’t be enough.

“Max,” he says. “Neil’s going to find out.”

She shakes her head. “Not if we-“

“Hey, listen. He always finds out.” Her eyes go wide, but he keeps talking. “What’re we going to do when he does?”

Her mouth twitches. “I’m working on it.”

Billy can’t help it- he laughs. “Great, Maxine, that’s fucking great.”

She rolls her eyes. “Hey, I got us this far, didn’t I?”

“This wasn’t even your plan, this was Harrington’s-“

“That I set in motion!” Billy loves it when Max gets irritated. She starts speaking with a growl noise and her eyes, he’s pretty sure, actually grow two sizes bigger. She looks at his grin and grumbles a little bit. “By the way, I feel like I should warn you- Eleven lives here now.”

“Eleven?” The girl, his mind supplies, and his grin disappears. “I don’t wanna see her, Max.”

Max shrugs. “I know. I just wanted to give you a heads up.”

Billy closes his eyes again. This is just fucking great. “Is Harrington still here?”

“Yeah. He’s drinking coffee with Ms. Byers.”

Huh. Billy hadn’t been expecting that. Harrington, he assumed, would’ve gone home to his mansion as soon as he was done playing savior for the night. Maybe he’s still waiting for Max to release him.

“Tell him he can go home.”

Max snorts. “I did.” When Billy looks at her, she’s smirking. “He said he’d rather stay.”

Chapter Text

Billy knows that it’s illogical to want to avoid the girl this badly. He knows, okay? He knows that there’s a lot going on right now, like the fact that Neil is going to kill him when he finds out he’s not in his room and the fact that, for the first time, someone outside of his house knows about his dad. Those should be the pressing issues, and they are. It’s just that when he thinks about having to look in that girl’s eyes again, and know that she knows everything, and know that she saw him, and know that he tried to kill her...well, he’d almost rather face Neil again.

So he just stays in the room (in the light of day, he realizes the room must be Joyce’s, which sends a fresh wave of guilt through him. God, he tries to kill her kid and she gives him her room?), which, a small voice in the back of his head reminds him, is part of the reason they got in all this trouble in the first place. But this is different, he tells himself. He just doesn’t want to see that girl, especially not like this, taken in like he’s some some stray dog. He doesn’t really want to see Joyce, either, not when she’s taken care of him and told him she was worried about him and let him sleep in her bed all while he knows she’s making the wrong choice. And he really, really doesn’t want to see Harrington, not when Harrington had apologized to him last night, the goddamn idiot. Like they weren’t in the house where Billy had shattered a plate over his head.

There’s no one in this house that Billy wants to see, so he just stays in bed. It’s not hard to do- his body still revolts every time he moves.

Max, though, is apparently not going to take this as an option.

“You’re gonna have to do something,” she says as she barges in, her arms full of food. She’s got a thermos full of soup, a box of crackers, a bowl of fruit. She sits on the bed again -this is really becoming a theme- and begins eating the fruit. “Okay? You’ve gotta do something here.” She holds up two fingers, talking with her mouth full of apple. “One- let people other than me in this room. Two- start leaving this room. Because this isn’t going to work. Not anymore.”

Billy’s only been doing this for seven hours, and he wants to scream that he had just successfully stayed in his room for almost a week, so really, this is nothing, but he just takes the thermos. It’s a little hard for him to drink from it, but Max is watching him warily, and he sure as hell isn’t going to have her help him eat, so he ignores his ribs. “Why?”

Max throws her hands up in the air. “Because I have to go home in like an hour, Billy! I can’t- I’m not gonna let you hole up in a room again.”

“You know what, Maxine,” he rubs his eyes, and there’s some heat to his voice, “I’m getting pretty damn tired of you telling me what to do.”

She glares at him. “Well, maybe,” she spits, “If I thought you could do a halfway decent job of taking care of yourself, I wouldn’t have to!”

He sees red for a second. “HEY! LISTEN! I’ve been taking care of myself since I was ten years old, and I sure as hell don’t need some little snot nosed bitch to do it for me!”

He shouldn’t have yelled. That’s his first thought as soon as he takes a breath and he sees how Max is leaning away from him, how she’s watching him like a wounded animal. He shouldn’t have yelled, he thinks, and then he wonders when the hell he became someone who felt bad for yelling.

Max doesn’t yell back, though, and she doesn’t leave the room. She just stares at him, frozen, and then says, in a small voice, “he’s been doing this since you were ten?”

All of the fight goes out of Billy just as quickly as it came. Dammit. He sighs.

“Listen, Max-“

Her face contorts. “No, you listen,” she hisses, everything about her voice changing. It’s not small anymore, it’s angry, and she’s leaning towards him now, knuckles white. “Maybe you have been doing this for awhile, but if it’s been anything like this last week, you’ve been doing a shit job of it. It’s not your job anymore, okay? It’s mine. I said I wasn’t gonna let you die, and I meant it.” (Those words vaguely ring a bell, but Billy can’t place them, honestly isn’t sure what the hell she’s talking about). “So it’s my job, and I say that I’m not leaving you until I know you’re not gonna be alone.”

Billy just stares at her. This relationship, he thinks, is getting so goddamn weird. But he finds that he can’t yell at Max again, can’t point out that she’s too small to protect him if she wanted to. Can’t bring himself to point out that he’s really not someone she should be protecting. So, against his will, he finds himself nodding. “Okay.”

xxx

It’s become apparent that Billy has no intention of leaving the room, and Steve realizes it would probably make more sense for him to just leave at this point. It’s not like he’s doing anything useful- not like he’s really done anything useful, actually, since they got to the Byers. But every time he thinks about leaving, he thinks about going back home to an empty house and Billy still being here covered in bruises and Steve not knowing what’s going on. He thinks about Billy trying to leave again, trying to get back to the house where his room is destroyed and his blood is on his mirror, and Steve realizes that he can’t actually bring himself to leave. Not yet.

So he spends his day with Joyce, Will, and El while Max dashes in between them and Billy’s room all day long. Will and Steve play card games with Joyce while El whispers with Mike on the phone in the background. Will, remarkably, doesn’t ask any questions about Billy (this, of course, may have to do with the conversation on the walkies that Steve overheard earlier, where Mike asked Will what the hell was going on at his house and why couldn’t he come over today and Max had responded, at top volume, “IT’S NONE OF YOUR FUCKING BUSINESS”).

When Joyce hands Max soup, crackers, and fruit for dinner, she says, very kindly, “I need to change all of the dressings on Billy’s bruises and cuts, Max. He’s gonna have to let someone in.”

Max sets her jaw, and nods with a determined glint in her eye before running back to Billy.

Steve sends Joyce a look, about to ask if they shouldn’t go in there and just get Billy, but she shakes her head like she’s reading his mind.

“We have to let him decide to let us help him, or it won’t do any good.”

Steve guffaws. “Yeah, but what if he decides not to?”

“He let us last night.”

“Yeah, because he was, like, shell-shocked or something. You should’ve heard him in the car before we got here. I thought he would kill us. If he’s like that again...”

Joyce purses her lips. “I don’t think he will be.”

“And if he is?”

Joyce’s answer is interrupted by the clear sound of Billy shouting, and Steve automatically stands. He resists the urge to say “I told you so,” which he thinks is pretty noble. The shouting stops almost as soon as it begins, though, and Joyce shakes her head again at Steve.

“Max will get us if she needs us.”

Sure enough, fifteen minutes later, Billy’s door opens and, this time, Max doesn’t exit alone.

 

Steve is beginning to feel like every time he sees Billy, it’s a different person. The Billy who heckled him in school wasn’t the Billy who beat his face in, and the Billy who beat his face in wasn’t the Billy trying to run Nancy over with his car. The Billy who stood up to the Mind Flayer wasn’t the Billy in Steve’s car last night, and the Billy he talked to on the couch wasn’t the Billy who he helped Joyce patch up. The Billy who comes into the living room leaning on Max, true to form, isn’t a Billy Steve has seen before, either.

His face is still royally fucked up, but it’s not as harsh in the daylight, and the bandaids and general lack of blood make him look a little more held together. He’s putting some of his weight on Max but is still holding his chin high, and the arm wrapped around his ribs isn’t as desperate as it was the night before. He doesn’t look angry, for once, and all of the shame and humiliation of last night is gone (thank God, because Steve would rather watch Billy start screaming again than see him look so defeated). Instead, Billy looks almost...resigned. Tired and wary, but not like he’s two seconds away from losing it.

“Hi, Billy.” Joyce says with a smile. “Would you like to take a seat?”

Max, a self satisfied smile on her face, helps Billy sit down across the room from Steve.

“Hi, Billy.” El says softly, and Max’s breath hitches.

There’s something there, Steve realizes, which makes sense, considering Billy had literally thrown up when he saw her last night. They had all seen it at Starcourt- hadn’t been able to hear what El had said, but they watched her touch Billy’s face like he was a baby and watched Billy pick her up and save her.

Now, though, Billy silently nods without even looking her way. El doesn’t seem offended, just watches him for a few minutes before exchanging a look with Max and retreating to her room.

Joyce clears her throat, and the card game starts back up again, but everyone’s having a hard time focusing with Billy in the room (at least, Steve is). Steve feels like he’s not supposed to be looking at Billy, but, at the same time, Billy just looks so different that he can’t look away.

It’s just that everything about him looks softer, somehow, and Steve is used to only seeing him painted in sharp lines. But something about the bruises and the calm and the oversized flannel make him seem so...not Billy. He doesn’t know what it is, but-

“Good God, Harrington.” Billy says in a tired voice. “Just stop staring.”

Steve blushes -actually blushes, which is ridiculous, because since when does Steve Harrington blush?- and ducks his head.

Behind him, he hears Max stifle a laugh.

xxx

That night, when Susan and Neil get home, Max is sitting in the living room, watching TV.

“Is Billy still in his room?” Neil asks, and his tone is casual but the look he gives Billy’s door makes Max freeze.

“I think so,” she says, trying to speak at a normal pace. “I haven’t seen him come out.”

Neil grunts. “I don’t know how much longer I’ll stand for this kind of laziness.” He shakes his head at Max in a knowing way. “Respect and responsibility, Max. It’s gotta be learned.”

Max just nods and sits on her hands so he can’t see the way they’re shaking. Shit, she thinks. Shit shit shit.

Chapter Text

Steve can’t sleep. He’s sure that at least a part of that is because he’s on one of the lumpiest couches he’s ever seen, and also because the crick in his neck never really went away. The other part, though (okay, fine, the much bigger part), is that every time he closes his eyes he sees Billy.

He sees more than Billy, of course. He sees all of it- the Mind Flayer, El being dragged to the front like a sacrificial lamb, kids screaming and throwing fireworks, Billy being hoisted into the air while screaming in pain. He sees Max screaming over Billy’s body. He sees Max crying on Billy’s floor, Billy laying in a bed looking like death. He sees Billy yelling in the car, sees Billy looking like a shadow of himself in Joyce’s house. And, over and over again, he sees Billy’s back. Sees the way he shakes when Joyce and Steve touch him.

And, God, Steve just can’t get it to stop, no matter how many times he rolls over or counts sheep or makes a hundred different lists. He just keeps seeing Billy.

He’s starting to accept this as his new fate- he used to not be able to go to sleep because of demodogs and the way Nancy’s mouth moved when she said “bullshit,” and now he can’t go to sleep because of Billy Hargrove. There are worse things, he tell himself. This, like everything else, isn’t permanent. But every time he closes his eyes he sees Billy’s back and his stomach absolutely wrenches and Steve thinks that maybe this will always hurt just this bad.

He closes his eyes. Starts a new list. Places He Could Bury a Body. #1: The quarry. #2: Behind the school football field. #3: the-

He hears movement and opens his eyes just in time to see Billy close the front door behind him. His stomach drops and he scrambles off the couch. No, he thinks. No, no, no. How could Billy be so hellbent on leaving? How-

Billy is sitting on the porch steps, lighting a cigarette. He raises his eyebrows at Steve, who nearly trips in his rush to get out the door.

“Going somewhere, pretty boy?”

All of the air rushes out of Steve in one big breath, and he feels, for a moment, nothing but relief. He’s not going to have to drag Billy back. Not right now.

“I thought you were leaving,” he admits, and Billy smiles lifelessly at him.

“Can’t.” Billy takes a drag of the cigarette, and Steve doesn’t miss the way he winces when his arms comes above his ribcage. “Max won’t let me.”

He sounds so serious that Steve can’t help but laugh. How is it, he wonders, that he and Billy, arguably two of the coolest people in Hawkins, are constantly bowing to the will of middle schoolers?

He takes a seat next to Billy, reaches out a hand expectantly. “Come on, man, give me a smoke.”

Billy passes the box, eyebrows once again raised. “Didn’t take you for the bad boy type, Harrington.”

“Hargrove, you don’t know shit about me.”
Steve feels so relieved to see Billy like this -beat to hell, yes, but nothing like he is when Steve closes his eyes- that he can’t keep a small smile off his face.

When he finishes lighting his cigarette, Billy’s looking at him like he’s grown a second head. All of that energy that has always defined Billy (the energy that has been deafeningly absent since they came to the Byers) is back, just a little bit, crackling below the surface of Billy’s eyes. Steve feels suddenly nervous. He wonders if Billy’s about to start screaming again.

But Billy just stares at him, licks his teeth in a way that makes Steve feel like they’re on the basketball court. “I don’t know shit about you,” he repeats, voice pitched high. God, is that how he thinks Steve sounds? “Well, you got that fucking right, buddy. So come on. Why don’t you tell me?” He’s sounding a little angry now, and Steve really isn’t sure where this is coming from or where it’s gonna go. Billy breathes deeply, clamps the cigarette between his lips, and says, with gritted teeth, “why you?”

“Huh?” Steve repeats, and wow, if only Robin was here to see him now, she’d have a field day with how eloquent he’s being.

“Why you?” Billy repeats, voice gravelly. “Come on, Harrington. Why you? My bitch sister is calling around Hawkins for someone tall enough to boost her through a window and she picks you?” Finally, Steve understands the question. “Why you?”

His eyes are hot on Steve’s skin, and Steve has to remind himself not to be defensive. He’s been afraid this whole night that Billy was going to try to leave- he can’t be angry with him now that he’s stayed. “I don’t really know,” he answers, trying to be honest. “The brats are always asking me for stuff. Maybe this was just one of those things.”

Billy shakes his head. “Don’t give me that bullshit. Max calls you up to say I need your help and you just hop in your car and come? I don’t think so.” His whole face flinches, so quickly Steve almost misses it, and he blows out some smoke. “Come on, Harrington. What’s the deal here?” He inhales sharply. “What’re you getting out of this? Why are you still here?”

Steve’s stomach clenches again, and, once again, he just feels so damn exhausted with all of this. Of course, he thinks. Of course Billy thinks he’s only here because he’s getting something out of this. He sighs.

“Billy,” he says slowly, “I just wanted to help. I asked if you were okay, and next thing I know, Max called me and I was crawling through your window.” He rubs the bridge of his nose, brings the cigarette back to his mouth. Wonders if he sounds as genuine as he’s trying to. “I’m just here to help.”

Billy snorts. “Whatever.”

xxx

Steve Harrington is full of shit. Billy’s sure of this. Yeah, maybe, it’s possible that he helped Max because he was just trying to be a good guy. But there’s no reason for him to still be here after Max told him he could leave, after it’s clear that Billy doesn’t need a hospital. Billy can’t figure out what Steve’s getting out of this- maybe it’s just the satisfaction of seeing Billy look so pathetic. Billy doesn’t know. Whatever it is, Steve’s not telling him.

“Whatever.”

Steve scoffs. “Whatever,” he repeats. “Think what you want to.” He doesn’t seem angry, though, not like Billy feels. He just seems tired.

Then again, Steve never really seems angry. Annoyed, yeah. Irritated. Not angry, though. Not like Billy. Billy was only able to get him angry a couple of times before- once on the night when he broke his nose. Billy wonders what that’s like- how does Steve have energy for anything? Billy would never have the energy to do a damn thing if he wasn’t angry. Again, Billy just doesn’t understand. How the hell is this tired boy sitting next to him the King Steve that was so hard to replace?

Billy snorts. “Ya know,” he says, snubbing his cigarette butt and lighting a new one, “when I first got to Hawkins, I couldn’t find one damn person in the whole fucking school who would shut up about you. Everyone talked about you like you shit gold or something- I didn’t buy it, but hey, I figured you had to be at least kinda hot shit for them to all be kissing your ass like that when you weren’t around. I was excited to meet you, Harrington. But just- just look at you.” He gestures at Steve’s whole body, noting the vaguely amused look fixed on the boy’s face. “I’ve never been so goddamn disappointed in my life.”

Billy doesn’t really know what he’s going for- to rile Harrington up, to make him mad, to get him to leave. He doesn’t know, okay? The words are coming and he doesn’t have the energy to stop them. What he knows he wasn’t planning on, though, is for Steve to laugh.

Steve’s laugh is soft and real, not cruel or offended. He lays back on the porch, hands behind his head, and his shirt rides up a little bit, showing a strip of his stomach. Billy looks away.

“The problem, Hargrove,” Steve says, waving the cigarette in the air to punctuate his words, “is that you caught me at a bad time. I was hot shit, okay? The hottest. But by the time you got there... well, I was in love and I had already started swinging baseball bats at monsters. I had bigger stuff going on.” He laughs again, returns the cigarette to his lips. “If you had gotten here a year earlier? God, Hargrove.” Steve grins big and wide, eyes closed. “You woulda eaten your heart out.”

Billy likes the sound of that.

“You never would’ve beaten me, Harrington, don’t kid yourself.”

Steve laughs again. “Yeah, maybe not. But I’m telling you, Hargrove. The fight would’ve been good.”

Billy laughs now, can’t stop himself. The idea of him trying to beat out Steve Harrington -who wears Polo sweaters and drives a BMW and probably listens to Cyndi Lauper- and Steve actually fighting back and, well. It sounds fun. A lot better than whatever the hell it ended up being.

Steve, apparently encouraged by the laugh, keeps going. “Hawkins wouldn’t’ve known what to do with themselves. God, Hawkins is a... I don’t know if you realized this, Hargrove, but I didn’t have much competition to worry about here. Both of us? At the same time? We woulda had the school on its knees.”

Billy grins, looking up at the sky, and he can feel Steve’s eyes on him.

Steve pauses, and then says, very quietly: “Maybe we would’ve been friends.”

Billy barks out a laugh, and he knows it sounds harsh, and he wants it to. “Don’t shit yourself, Harrington.”

Steve sighs, closes his eyes. “Yeah, that’s what I thought.”

Billy can feel the anger rising again, and he doesn’t even know why. But the idea that he and Steve would’ve been friends...they wouldn’t have been. That’s all there is to it. They’re not the same, no matter what Steve thinks he was. Steve has to be able to see that, has to be able to see that he and Billy were never gonna be the same, not even before Billy tried to kill him and became an actual monster.

But Billy also feels...something, when he sees the way Steve’s face falls and the bags under Steve’s eyes. Guilt, maybe? He doesn’t know. He wants to hear Steve laugh again, though. Wants him to stop looking like he’s about to drop dead from exhaustion. So, once again, Billy just lets the words come out of his mouth without bothering to stop them.

“Did you know I almost fucked Nancy’s mom?”

Steve bolts up into a sitting position so quickly that Billy has to lean back to avoid being hit, and the look on Steve’s face is so cartoonish that, for the second time tonight, he laughs.

“You- WHAT? Mrs. Wheeler?”

Bills nods. “Karen.”

“KAREN?” Steve actually yells, and then immediately claps a hand over his mouth, looking back at the house. When no lights turn on, he looks back at Billy, mouth open wide. “You didn’t.”

Billy shrugs. “I didn’t,” he admits. “But I almost did.” He grins, loving how wide Steve’s eyes go. “Had a hotel room and everything.”

Steve blinks at him, and then begins- well, the only word Billy knows for it is cackling. “Holy shit!” Steve wheezes, doubling over. “Holy fucking shit, Hargrove! You” -Steve is laughing so hard he can barely get the words out- “you almost slept with Mrs. Wheeler!” He looks up at Billy, tears in his eyes. “Damn, Hargrove, you don’t fucking play around, do you?” He laughs into his arm, and Billy feels something warm in his chest that he immediately tries to ignore. “Did she actually- did she meet you?”

Billy shrugs. He remembers, hazily, Karen saying something to him -an apology- but mostly he remembers trying to keep himself from bashing her head in against his will, so he’s really not sure. “Don’t know. I was on my way when- you know.” He waves at his face, remembers what it was like to have that thing clamp down on his mouth. “It got me.”

The smile drops from Steve’s face, and Billy wishes he hadn’t told the whole story.

“Well, fuck.” Steve whispers, still wiping tears from his eyes. He grinds his cigarette butt under his heel, and Billy watches as the orange glow disappears into gray ash. Steve rubs his face. “Listen, Hargrove. I can’t sleep, and I can’t stay awake, so I’m just gonna go make some coffee, okay? You want some?”

Billy nods, quiet as Steve pushes himself to a standing position. Steve waves a hand at him.

“Just don’t- don’t leave, okay?” he says as he opens the door. “I can’t take Max killing me right now.”

Billy watches the door shut behind Steve, finishes off his second cigarette. Looks up at the sky.

Maybe we would’ve been friends, he repeats in his mind. He knows they wouldn’t have, knows a lot of stuff Steve doesn’t seem to grasp. But. Still. It’s a thought.

Maybe we would’ve been friends.

Chapter Text

Billy wakes up to the pale kid with a bowl cut standing in his doorway, a walkie in his hand.

He’s staring at Billy with wide eyes -though, to be fair, every time Billy has seen this kid his eyes have been wide- and, from the walkie talkie, there is the unmistakable ranting of Billy’s stepsister.

“Everyone turn off your walkies NOW, do you understand me? NOW.”

“Max, that’s completely unfair, you can’t use the party channel and then expect-“

“Turn them off NOW, dipshits!”

The Byers kid slowly raises the walkie talkie and almost whispers “Max, I have Billy. Over.”

Billy pulls the sheet up over his chest, trying to cover the bruises, and the kid blushes. He holds out the walkie talkie, his body as far away from Billy’s as possible.

“It’s Max,” he says, as if the screeching hadn’t made that obvious, “she needs to talk to you.”

Reluctantly, Billy takes the walkie. He hates these things, he really does, has hated for months the way he’s been subjected to hearing 12 year old voices in his house at all times of the day and night. The kid -Will, he tells himself, the brat’s name is Will- lingers in the doorway for a second, still looking at Billy like he’s an alien, before firmly shutting the door behind him.

Billy groans. This is not how he wanted to start his day. (But, then again, when was the last time Billy got to start his day the way he wanted?)

“Listen up, lardasses,” he growls into the walkie, trying to throw all of his annoyance into menacing the hell out of these dumbasses. “Get off. Now.”

For a good bit, there’s total silence. And then, finally, Max starts speaking again. “I think they’re gone. If they’re not, I swear I’ll gut them like pigs.”

How did these kids even keep themselves in line before Max? God, no wonder they’re so lame. “You better have something damn good if you had to wake me up for it.”

“Ok, first off, Billy, it’s 11:30, so that’s really on you, not me.” Billy looks at the clock. Shit. He and Harrington had stayed on the porch late last night, drinking some of the worst coffee he’s ever had. He has no idea how long he’s been asleep. “Second off, I can’t come over today, okay?” Max’s end cuts off for a moment before crackling back on. “Mom and Neil want us to take a family trip to the movie, or some shit. But, Billy...” she’s silent for so long that Billy thinks she’s gone.

“WHAT, Max?”

“Neil’s getting angry again.” Max says it so fast that it takes Billy’s mind a second to catch up to what she’s said. “He says you have to come out of your room soon. Or else.”

Billy’s stomach drops. He’d known this was coming. As far as Neil knows, he’s been locked in his room for over a week now- honestly, Billy’s amazed it’s taken this long for Neil to get upset. (It shouldn’t have taken this long, something in his mind screams. Neil should’ve been worried way before now. He should be scared that Billy was dead).

“Billy? Did you hear me?”

“So what’s the plan, Maxine?” He snarls into the walkie, ignoring the way his hands are starting to shake. “You said you were working on one, and it sounds like it’s fucking time to me.”

“I don’t know, okay?” Max sounds angry. Frantic. “I’ll figure it out. I just wanted you to have a heads up. I’m sorry, okay?” The anger dissipates and she just sounds scared. Of Billy? For Billy? Something. “I’m sorry, and I’m going to figure it out.”

You’ve got to stop getting so angry at her, a voice in Billy’s head says, and he hates that it’s right. She’s the only person who has your back, the voice insists, and a different voice screams back that that’s her own damn fault. She knows what Billy’s like.

(Maybe we would’ve been friends, a new voice says, but Billy ignores it).

He sighs. Rubs his forehead, pulls at the bandaid holding his eyebrow together. There’s a haze growing in his mind, and it’s getting hard to breathe. “This isn’t gonna last much longer,” he says, and his left hand is shaking so bad that he almost drops the walkie, but he tries to keep his voice stable. “I just need to come home.”

“NO!” Max screams, cutting through the haze. “Billy, listen to me, do not come home. No matter what. Do not come home. You can’t. We’re going to figure this out, we are. Just stay- just stay there, okay? STAY THERE.” Her voice cuts out, and then comes back, much quieter: “I have to go, Billy. But you can’t...don’t. Promise me, now. I have to go. But say it. Say you’ll stay there.”

Billy is so fucking tired. The haze is growing. “Max-“

“Say it, Billy. Say it now.”

Yes sir, his mind prompts out of habit. He closes his eyes. “I’ll stay here.”

Silence. “Thank you. I have to go, Billy, I have to go, but- I’ll call when I can. Bye.”

Billy throws the walkie at the wall. Clenches his hands. Tries to breathe through the saltwater.

His dad is going to kill him.

xxx

In the kitchen, Eleven, Joyce, and Steve all stare silently at each other over the walkie sitting on the table, while Will quietly pulls his ear away from Billy’s door.

Shit.

xxx

Listening in on Billy and Max’s conversation isn’t a decision that Joyce is proud of. She feels guilty about, hates knowing that Billy never would’ve sounded so defeated if he had known that anyone other than Max could hear. But she needs to know what’s going on, and neither Max nor Billy have said anything other than what was necessary. Neither of them have even said out loud that it was Billy’s dad who destroyed him- they just let El say it that first night and never said it again.

(Not that she blames them, of course. You do what it takes to survive. She just needs them to trust her to help them survive).

Steve and El are both looking at her like she needs to make a statement, and Will has just shown up in the kitchen with a look on his face that lets her know that he heard it all, too.

Joyce hates this. She misses Hopper.

“Billy’s papa,” El says again, repeating the words that have been clanging around in Joyce’s head ever since they were first uttered, “is a bad man.”

“Can you see him?” Will asks. “Did you get your-“

El shakes her head, glares at the table. “No. They’re still gone. But I saw- before. With the Mind Flayer. His papa is a bad man.” She glances at Joyce. “He’s scared. All the time.”

Joyce knows that, of course. But it hurts to hear it. Steve makes a small noise in the back of his throat at El’s words, busies himself with digging his fingernail into the table.

“What do we do?” Will asks, and Joyce wishes she had an answer.

“I don’t know.” Joyce is fucking sick and tired of not knowing what to do. She’s sick and tired of doing this without Hopper. What, she’s just supposed to live like this now? “But we keep him here, and we take care of him. That’s what we can do right now. We keep being kind.”

Steve looks up at her, face twisted. “That’s not enough.” He stands and stalks out of the kitchen. “That’s not fucking enough.”

I know, Joyce thinks, ignoring the way El and Will are staring after Steve in shock. Trust me, I know.

xxx

Last night with Billy had seemed so...well, the word normal isn’t right, because ‘normal’ between Billy and Steve usually involves tension and threats and anger, and last night hadn’t been that. Like, sure, Billy hadn’t been exactly pleasant, but he hadn’t been terrifying and he hadn’t been miserable, and those are really the only two modes Steve knows Billy in. Last night, though, had been...nice.

Okay, nice isn’t a good word either, but it’s all Steve’s got.

He had liked it, though. As much as he could like a conversation that involved an abused teenager and his ex girlfriend’s mom and being possessed by a monster. He had liked thinking about what could’ve been- and yeah, he’s obviously glad that he’s not a douche anymore and that he’s not who he was when he was fifteen, but it’s kind of nice to think about how much fucking fun he and Billy would have had if they had just met earlier, before the monsters and before the heartbreak and before it all.

(Billy doesn’t have a before, though, Steve’s mind screams at him. He lives with Neil. The Upside Down didn’t start all of this for him).

For a moment, over really bad coffee -why is it so hard to remember ratios?- Steve had genuinely thought that, maybe, he and Billy could be friends one day.

And then this morning had happened and he had listened to Max tell Billy that Neil was mad and he had heard Billy so clearly be afraid and he remembers, now, that this isn’t about him and Billy learning not to hate each other. This is about Billy really, truly needing help, and Steve just can’t fucking save him.

He wants to save him -wants to take a baseball bat to Neil like he was another Demogorgon and call it a day- but Steve can’t even tell if Billy wants to be saved, not when he’s ready to go back to that house at every sign of fear, and Steve can’t figure out a plan where no one goes to jail.

God, what is Steve supposed to do? What’s the right thing here? Snapping at Joyce obviously wasn’t it, but she didn’t know what to do either, and Steve just needs someone to tell him what to do.

Stay with Billy, Max had said. And, well, Steve can still do that.

So Steve leaves the kitchen and goes to Billy’s room, ready to go in and, hopefully, have another conversation that just seems...nice.

So Steve opens the door without knocking -not his best idea, no, but when has Steve ever gone with his best idea?- and that’s how Steve finds Billy Hargrove, scariest high schooler he knows, crying on the floor.

Shit.

Chapter Text

Billy can’t BREATHE. He can’t and he’s trying but there’s no air and his lungs are full of saltwater and his dad is going to KILL him, he’s going to do it this time, no more threats, he’s just going to kill him because Billy TOLD and all of these people KNOW even though Billy didn’t want them to but they do and it’s too late and Neil is going to find them and Billy’s going to die because even if Neil doesn’t kill him he’s going to die, right here, right now because he can’t BREATHE.

Billy’s heart is beating so fast that it’s hurting his chest, and maybe this is a heart attack, maybe this is how he dies, maybe Joyce and Steve come upstairs and find him dead and oh GOD Joyce and Steve what if Neil finds them too and they shouldn’t know and they shouldn’t be helping and Billy’s done really bad, awful, terrible, disgusting things and he’s not the kind of person Steve Harrington should get hurt for and no no no and Billy can’t breathe.

Someone’s in the room now and Billy doesn’t know who but maybe, maybe, it’s finally Neil. They can stop pretending anything’s going to change. This is it. Billy’s going to die.

xxx

Billy Hargrove is crying on the floor and holding a hand over his chest and breathing like he’s being attacked and his eyes are a million miles away.

Steve should go get Joyce, but now Billy’s scrambling away from him and Steve is thinking about Billy’s back and oh God what if Billy hurts himself and Steve can’t leave but also Steve has no idea what the fuck he’s supposed to be doing here.

“Billy, Billy, you’re okay, it’s-“

“I didn’t mean to!” Billy rasps out, and Steve can’t tell who he’s talking to. “I didn’t mean to! They brought me here! I wasn’t going to tell, I swear, I never told, I didn’t mean to!”

Shit. Shitshitshit. “Billy, it’s Steve, please, I-“

Billy’s breathing, somehow, gets even faster, and his chest is heaving. “Steve,” he repeats, and his hands claw at the ground. “I didn’t mean to. I didn’t mean any of it.”

Steve really doesn’t know what’s happening, but Billy stops speaking, thank God, but then he starts shaking all over, literally sobbing, which is worse. This is worse.

Steve doesn’t have a lot of experience dealing with crying people. Hell, Steve doesn’t have a lot of experience with crying. (Robin says he needs to get more in touch with his emotions). But Nancy liked to be held when she cried, and Steve can’t hold Billy, first off because he’s Billy, but also because he’s covered in marks and Steve can’t hurt him anymore, but, really, Steve’s mind is racing, and this is the only thing he can think of.

So Steve does what he can.

xxx

The someone is holding Billy’s hand and they’re not trying to break it.

xxx

Steve is HOLDING Billy Hargrove’s HAND and what the FUCK.

xxx

When Billy was little, really little, and he would cry, for stupid reasons, like falling or getting yelled at, his mom would sing to him and hold him and make quiet shushing noises and right now Billy thinks that maybe the someone in the room is his mom, because the hand that’s holding his is firm and warm and the voice is saying very quietly “Billy, it’s okay. You’re okay,” and Billy is starting to believe it.

His heart isn’t trying to crack open his ribcage anymore, and the water in his lungs is going back with the tide. He’s becoming aware that his face is covered with tears and snot and he realizes that oh, maybe he’s been crying, and he’s on the floor, and this is all pretty fucking embarrassing, isn’t it? But he can breathe again, a little, and he’s starting to get control of his own mind back, and no one in his head is screaming anymore, except for that one voice that keeps whispering “maybe we would’ve been friends.”

xxx

It’s not so much that Billy opens his eyes and sees Steve as it is that life comes back to Billy’s eyes and he actually looks at Steve.

Steve’s heart is going so fast. So, so fast. He had wondered, for a minute, if maybe Billy wasn’t going to come back from wherever it was that he went. Steve doesn’t know how these things work, just knows that he’ll do anything in his power to keep Billy from ever doing that again.

Shit.

Billy looks at Steve and sees him, and he looks down at their hands, fingers still intertwined, and he doesn’t pull away, not immediately, which is kind of what Steve had been expecting.

(He had been expecting for Billy to scream and call him a fag and throw stuff at him and honestly, Steve hadn’t even cared, he had been so desperate for Billy to stop crying).

Instead, Billy just looks at Steve, wiping his face with the back of his other hand and taking a few deep, shaky breathes. And then, slowly, he moves his hand away from Steve’s.

(Steve is alarmed to realize that he doesn’t want Billy to).

“Harrington,” he says, and his voice is calm and lucid and completely free of anger, “you need to leave. Now.”

Steve wants to say no, wants to say that he’s here to stay, but Billy still looks so fragile and he sounds so serious and so determined and Steve’s heart is pounding now and he’s scared, okay? He’s scared. He can’t do this. He’s not equipped to put Billy Hargrove back together. And so he gets up.

And Steve leaves.

xxx

Steve leaves. Thank God. Because if Steve leaves, that’s one less person who will get caught in the wake of Billy’s mess, and Billy just wants, desperately, to stop hurting people.

He ignores the way his chest feels when Steve shuts the door behind him, ignores the way his hand goes cold as soon as he takes it out of Steve’s.

Steve had to leave, he just had to. Billy can’t... it’s wrong to let people get too invested in him. This is all going to go very badly.

Steve’s gone, thank God. Next, Billy will work on Joyce. And then, finally, Max will see that this isn’t her job, that she doesn’t have to be involved in all of this.

And then it’ll just be Billy, just like it’s always been.

xxx

Steve makes it all the way to his car when he remembers that he’s done this before. He’s been scared shitless and run from the Byers house before, and he’s left people behind him in danger. This isn’t new.

Last time, though, he had turned around.

He’d done it once. And he can do it again.

xxx

Billy’s finally made it to a standing position when Steve Harrington barges back in, eyes wild.

“Sorry, Hargrove.” There’s a fire there, and Billy thinks that maybe, just maybe, he’s looking at King Steve. “But you’re the one who told me to plant my feet.”

“You,” Billy is forgetting how to talk, “are a goddamn idiot.”

Steve nods. “Yup. Kind of my thing.”

Billy doesn’t want to smile. He doesn’t. But it just kind of happens.

Maybe we would’ve been friends, his mind whispers, and another voice whispers back: maybe we still could be.

God, he’s getting to be as stupid as Harrington.

Chapter Text

Neil doesn’t say anything about Billy when they get home from the movie- just knocks on his door, shakes his head at Max’s mom when there’s no answer. And Max’s mom just frowns, and what the hell? It’s not NORMAL for someone to lock themselves in their room for over a week, and everyone should be way more worried than they are because they don’t even know if Billy has FOOD in there and they both know that’s he’s beat to hell so why the HELL aren’t either of them more worried?

Obviously, Max knows she shouldn’t be upset about this, since it really works in her favor. But it’s WRONG, and if she knows it, so should they.

It’s not Neil she’s upset with. (Well, she’s upset with Neil, but it’s on a different level. She HATES Neil). It’s her mom.

Because her mom is kind and caring and she still brushes Max’s hair when she feels feverish and she’s Max’s mom, but she knows what’s happening to Billy and she doesn’t care. And, yeah, Max used to know without doing anything, too, has known for longer than she’d like to admit. But she didn’t KNOW, not at first. She knew Neil hit Billy and she knew he yelled and she knew he scared the shit out of Billy, but she didn’t know that there was more than the open handed slaps she sometimes saw. She didn’t know that he made Billy cry. She didn’t know that he broke Billy.

Max knows now, though. And now that she knows, she knows that she should’ve known earlier -she should’ve known back in California, it shouldn’t have taken her until she and Billy shared a wall- and she knows that her mom definitely knows.

But her mom doesn’t fix it. So it’s up to Max.

She doesn’t have a plan, okay? She’s looking for one. She really is. But they can’t go to the cops, because no one is going to believe Billy over Neil because Neil seems like a good guy and Billy seems like an absolute asshole and she’s pretty sure Billy wouldn’t talk to cops, anyways. (He HATED that Max was friends with the Chief’s daughter. He would almost refuse to ever drive Max to their house, even when he was in his super submissive phase directly after the demodogs attack. It was a whole thing).

It’s only a matter of days before Neil starts looking for Billy, and Max has no plan and she’s pretty sure from their conversation on the walkies that Billy is minutes away from crawling back to their house so that he can get his ass kicked again.

(Billy’s used to getting his ass kicked, though, so maybe he could make it. But Max thinks about the way he looked on that mattress and the way he looked when the Mind Flayer was about to kill him and the way he looked on the Byers’ couch and...well, Max isn’t sure Billy wants to make it much longer, and so she’s sure as hell not going to risk it).

Max has no plan.

Max has no plan, and they’re running out of time on both ends.

xxx

Harrington is hovering. Billy doesn’t love the word, but it’s the only way to describe how no matter what he does, Steve is just...there. If Billy’s in the room, Steve is sitting on the floor. If Billy goes to the living room, Steve is on the couch. If Billy goes to the kitchen, Steve is five feet behind him.

Billy is pretty sure that Steve is afraid to leave him alone after he found him crying like a bitch and half out of his mind, which is... Billy doesn’t want to think about it. He doesn’t let people see him like that, okay? No one. The idea of Steve seeing him like that...it makes his skin crawl. And Steve holding his hand, which is worse. Billy simultaneously can’t think about it at all or get it out of his head.

Between that and Steve coming back (and saying that Billy told him to plant his feet, which, goddamn, Harrington, Billy had just said that because he was sick of watching Steve suck and he just wanted to actually win a basketball game one day), Billy has a hard time even looking at Steve.

Steve doesn’t have a hard time looking at Billy, though. Billy can’t move without feeling Steve’s eyes on him. No wonder he’s so weird with those kids- he’s probably the best damn babysitter in the world. (Billy thinks he looks away when Joyce changes all the bandages and reapplies all the creams, though, which Billy doesn’t blame him for. It’s disgusting).

Finally, after dinner, when Billy’s back in the bed and Steve is still just sitting there, Billy feels like he has to say something.

“Do you not remember that I tried to break your nose?”

Steve snorts. “Oh, you succeeded.”

Billy has to consciously keep his mouth from falling open. “So is that your deal, Harrington? Someone tries to kill you and you just become their... like fucking shadow or some shit?”

Steve stares at him. “You think I should still be mad about the fight.” He says it like it’s a new realization for him, and he is really actually such an idiot.

“It wasn’t a fight, Harrington. I beat the shit out of you.”

Steve rolls his eyes. “Whatever. Yeah. Look,” he shrugs, “I figure we’re even, you know? You wrecked my face, I wrecked your car. And you’re not-“ Steve cuts himself off suddenly here and looks down.

“I’m not what?” Billy pushes, and Steve sighs.

“You’re clearly not a stranger to having the shit knocked out of you.” Steve mumbles quietly. “So I just figure, ya know. You’ve probably paid your dues.”

Billy laughs. “It’s gonna take a lot more than this for me to pay my dues.” He’s thinking about Heather, about her parents, about that kid, about all of it, but he shouldn’t have said anything, because Steve’s face just goes soft and Billy hates the way Steve’s eyes look when he does that. Billy is beginning to just sort of hate Steve’s face in general, actually. He rolls his eyes. “Fuck you, Harrington.”

Steve’s frown changes. He’s annoyed now. Thank God. It’s twenty times better than the sad puppy eyes. “Why do you pull this shit, Hargrove? What’s your deal?”

“Hey, I don’t have a ‘deal’-“

“Yeah, you do. People are nice to you and you’re an asshole.”

“What do you mean people are-“

“I’m being nice to you right now! Max is always nice to you! And you’re just-“

“HEY! You don’t know SHIT about me and Max, so-“

“You do this on purpose!” It’s like a light goes on in Harrington’s eyes. “You pick fights and honestly, what the fuck? Don’t you ever just get...I don’t know. Don’t you ever get tired of it?”

Tired of it? It’s the only way Billy finds any energy at all. But he can’t say that, so he just snarls: “Not all of us are pussies, princess.”

Steve sighs and he just seems...disappointed? God, what does he want from Billy?

“Maybe you’re not tired of it.” His voice is losing all of its heat. “But I fucking am, so just...Just stop it, Billy.”

Bill had held hands with this boy earlier today, and it was the safest he had felt in weeks. Billy had held hands with this boy, and the boy had seen him cry, and the boy had stayed for Billy, and now he...what? What does he want?

Billy looks at the ceiling. It’s like Steve makes him feel angry and makes him feel warm and makes him want to scream and cry and laugh and makes his breathing tight all at the same time. Billy doesn’t know what it is, but it’s not fucking great.

When he looks back down, Steve is still staring at him, because of course Steve is. Steve is clearly trying to decide if he should say something or not, and Billy is inwardly begging him not to.

Steve doesn’t get the message.

“When this all started,” he says quietly, and then winces. “And I mean, ya know. The monster stuff. It started because- well, it started with Will. But it also started with a girl. In my pool. She was Nancy’s friend, and she was over with Nancy, and I took Nancy upstairs to sleep with her and we just...left her. I thought she went home. But she didn’t. And she died. And I always thought...maybe that was on me, ya know? Like, if I hadn’t been a douche or I hadn’t been so horny or something, she would’ve made it.” Steve’s still watching Billy, and his voice is so quiet that Billy’s leaning forward to hear him. “But I thought, no. It’s not on me. And the monster was dead, and Nancy and I were in love, and everything seemed so good. But then...” something flickers in Steve’s face, and he looks down at the floor. “I was wrong. Nancy and I weren’t in love. And she was still angry about Barb. Still hurt. And I thought, ya know. If I was wrong about Nancy, what else was I wrong about? And then the monsters came back, and I had been wrong about them being gone, too. And then you happened. And I’m not gonna lie, Billy,” Steve looks back up at him, and he looks so vulnerable that Billy wants to look away, but, for the first time today, he can’t take his eyes off of Steve. “I thought that maybe you trying to kill me was my price to pay for Barb. So I get it, okay? I know what it feels like to feel...guilty. I don’t know. I get it, though. But you...you’ve paid your dues, man. You’ve just gotta keep going now.”

Billy feels something hot rising in his throat, and he wants to be angry, but Steve just doesn’t get it. Still. “Listen, Harrington. I didn’t accidentally let one girl die in my pool. I gave people to It. On purpose. Okay? It told me to do it and I did and all those people died. So don’t act like you and I are anything alike.” He breathes heavily, and he’s horrified to feel tears coming to his eyes. Shit. He swallows it all down. He’s cried in front of Harrington once today, he’ll be damned if he ever does it again. “Why are you here, Harrington?” The question still won’t stop running through his head.

Steve shrugs. “Like I said, Hargrove. I’m planting my feet.”

“Why?”

“Cause I’m a goddamn idiot, Billy. God, you think you’d get tired of having the same conversations over and over.” Steve stands up. “I’m not gonna...I’m not gonna, like, watch you sleep, so I’ll leave you alone. Just...” he shakes his head. “I don’t know, Hargrove. Have a good night.” He shuts the bedroom door behind him without another word.

xxx

When Max gets to the Byers house, Steve is asleep on the floor in front of Billy’s door, which is pretty damn weird. She almost mentions it to Billy, but there’s really no telling how Billy will react, so she doesn’t bother. Instead, she says: “I think I have a plan.”

Billy doesn’t even really react, just raises his eyebrows. “Okay,” he says with no enthusiasm. “So do I.”

“If your plan is coming home-“

“I’m coming home, Max.” God, he’s such an asshole. “If you can hold off Neil for a couple more days, I think I could climb through the window if you and Harrington give me a shove.”

Max is pretty sure she’s not supposed to be annoyed with Billy right now, but it’s how she feels.

“I’m not gonna let you come home.” She tries to steel her voice. “And I’m not gonna let him find you.”

“Ever? Come on. We both know I’m gonna have to go back.”

Max shakes her head, already knowing Billy is going to hate her plan (mostly because it’s not a real plan, she thinks, and then immediately tells herself to shut up). “I’ve been thinking,” she says slowly. “And now that you’re out...”

“No, Max...”

“I mean, why WOULD you come back?” Billy shakes his head while Max just picks up steam. “I mean, you’re almost eighteen. We just have to make it until then, and then he can’t-“

“That’s your plan? That’s MONTHS, okay? He’ll find me before then.”

“But what if he didn’t? We could just-“

“He WILL, and if he finds me before I come home, he’ll-“

Billy speaks so confidently that Max just knows. She feels something twist in her gut and she knows.

“You’ve done this before.” Max whispers, and Billy freezes. “Run away. You’ve done it. You have, haven’t you?”

He looks like he’s about to yell at her, and she braces herself, but then something in his face changes. “Yeah. Twice,” he says quietly.

Max’s breathing gets heavier. “And he found you?”

“Yeah. Both times. Listen, Max. He’ll find me. I know he probably seems like he doesn’t care if I live or die, but he’ll....he’ll find me. I’m gonna have to come home.”

Max hates Neil. She HATES him. Because if Billy’s ever run away, it was before he lived with her. And if it was before he lived with her, he had been...okay, so yeah, Max knows it’s been going on since Billy was ten. But still. Twelve is just too little to run away from home. Twice.

Something hardens in Max’s heart, and Max had thought her heart was already as hard as it could be. But then she thinks about a ten year old Billy again, and...

“You didn’t have me last time.” Max tilts her chin up. “But you do now. And I...we’re gonna do it this time, Billy. I’ve killed monsters, okay? We’re gonna do it this time.”

xxx

Billy knows she’s wrong. But the voice in his head is chanting some sort of combination now of “you’re always an asshole” and “maybe we would’ve been friends” and “maybe we still could be” and Billy doesn’t have the strength to shut it up so he just looks at the ceiling.

When this all goes to shit, Billy is going to do whatever it takes to make sure Max isn’t caught in the crossfire.