Actions

Work Header

i just died in your arms tonight (it must have been something you said)

Chapter Text

Steve closes his eyes against the harsh fluorescent hospital lighting, sinking down into the waiting room chair, the rough upholstery scratching uncomfortably through the thin fabric of his uniform. Fuck, he wishes he’d had a chance to grab an extra set of clothes, but it was the last thing on his mind when he was running like hell across the parking lot of the Starcourt Mall, Billy’s limp body hanging listlessly in his arms. The fact that the Toddfather, dented and bent to shit, had still started when he hopped into the driver’s seat, after he and Max had placed Billy as gently as they could along the backseat, was only the second miracle that evening—the first being that when Steve had run over to Billy’s bloodied body laying on the tile not a minute earlier, and grabbed his wrist with shaking fingers, he found a weak, but very much present, pulse.

 

The rest of it—pushing the pedal to the floor, the speedometer dial crawling its way to 120, hearing the engine groan, screaming at Billy to “Stay awake man, don’t you fucking die on me!” while Max cried, repeating Billy’s name like a prayer from the backseat where she had his head in her lap—is nothing more than a fucking blur. Steve remembers pulling up to the front entrance of Hawkins General, nearly crashing through the glass ER doors. He remembers unloading Billy as gently as he could before racing like hell inside, leaving a gory trail of black blood in his wake as he collapsed onto the floor, screaming for help. He remembers Billy’s body, which felt far too cold to his touch, being lifted out of his arms amidst a sea of white coats and pale green scrubs, and then Steve is pretty sure he blacked out.

 

He came to in that same damn scratchy waiting room chair, which Max had apparently guided him to with the help of a couple hospital staff. She had assured them that he suffered from fainting spells, that this was totally normal, and that he didn’t need any medical attention (which, thank God, because the last thing he needed was to be wheeled away on a stretcher at a time like this). He assumed that Jonathan and Nancy were back at the mall picking up the pieces, and would probably drive the Party here once things had calmed down, but he didn’t have the luxury of waiting for them—- so he hopped up from his chair and found a doctor to try to get some answers, bringing Max to stand beside him because she was family and hopefully they would be more forthcoming when they saw her stricken, tear-stained face.

 

After explaining the situation to the nurse at the front desk (“My name is Steve Harrington, I brought my friend Billy Hargrove in earlier—He was in a really bad car accident, I’m here with his little sister, his parents are out of town, I just want to talk to the doctor and see what’s going on, please, Cindy—can I call you Cindy?—I’m begging you—”), a tall man in a white coat with a gray combover and glasses balanced on the tip of his nose came out to meet with Steve and Max.

 

When the doctor caught sight of Max’s grief-stricken face and asked to speak with Steve privately, he feared the worst. He sat Max down gently on a pea-green chair right by registration, smoothing the hair back from her face with shaking fingers as he promised her that he would be right back and would tell her everything. He made sure that he and the doctor stepped just around the corner, so that she wouldn’t be able to read Steve’s facial expressions, because he knew his stupid face and it would be a dead giveaway, especially if the news was bad.

 

The doctor began speaking softly to Steve, and when he heard “dead on arrival” he felt his knees begin to give way. The doctor’s hand shot out to grab onto his arm and steady him. “I don’t want to give you any false hope, young man—But we were able to start his heart again. He’s in surgery right now. It is my duty to tell you that the odds of him surviving are slim to none - He has extensive organ and tissue damage, major internal bleeding, and most dangerous of all, a collapsed lung. Whatever it was that punctured his chest just missed his heart - But if we can’t stop the internal bleeding and release the pressure in his chest cavity, he will either bleed to death, or the air outside of his lungs will continue to increase, and then his organs will fail, and he will die. I know this isn’t easy to hear, but I need you to know that we are doing absolutely everything we can to save him. And I also need you to know that the fact that you got him here so quickly is the only reason he even has a fighting chance.”

 

The doctor placed what was meant to be a comforting hand on Steve’s shoulder, but the touch left him feeling like ice. He walked back to Max in a daze, grabbing her by the hand and leading her to a quiet corner of the waiting room, where he told her in a hushed, gentle whisper, what the doctor had told him. He watched the reality of it hit her all at once, watched as her steel blue eyes filled up with desperate tears and she sank into his lap, sobbing. It was all too much for her, Steve knew—This sudden shift in emotions for Billy, from being terrified of him, maybe even hating him, to watching him sacrifice himself to save her friend and now praying for him not to die.

 

So there Steve was, slumped down against the rough upholstery of the back of the hospital chair, his hand mindlessly stroking through Max’s soft hair, when El bursts through the front doors, followed frantically by Lucas, Mike, Will, then Dustin, with Jonathan, Nancy and Robin bringing up the rear. Max immediately jumps out of her seat, running to throw her arms around Lucas and El with a heart-wrenching sob, El burying her face into Max’s hair and Lucas throwing his arms around both of them solidly as they sink to the floor in a heap of desperate limbs. Mike bends down next to El, placing a gentle hand on her back as she rocks Max back and forth while she cries, and Will crouches down next to Mike, looking devastated and helpless.

 

Dustin, conversely, runs right past his friends and immediately rushes to Steve’s side, his normally sunny expression so clouded with worry that it's borderline comical. “You just took off,” Dustin croaks, unable to hide the betrayal from his features, “You just left me on that hill, Steve. Nobody even told me what happened until Robin came to get us.” Nancy, Jonathan, and Robin are approaching Steve as well, but they say nothing, carefully settling into the row of seats beside him, Robin taking the one closest to him.

 

“I know, buddy, I’m sorry,” Steve begins, putting his hands on Dustin’s arms and squeezing apologetically. “There was no time left, I had to get him here. It was like I wasn’t even thinking, the adrenaline just took over. To be honest, I don’t even know how these—” he points to his (admittedly) skinny arms, “—were even able to drag his ass here, but here we are.” A ghost of a smile passes Dustin’s lips, replaced quickly by his previously concerned expression as he plops himself into the seat across from Steve.

 

“Steve,” Nancy’s voice is soft, and then her tiny hand is reaching over Robin to gently touch Steve’s knee. “Did he-?”

 

“He’s in surgery. He was… He was dead on arrival, though. The doctor doesn’t think he has much of a chance.” Steve wonders at what point, between feeling that faint pulse back at the mall, to collapsing on the hospital floor with Billy in his arms just before they took him away, Billy had died—When exactly came the moment where Steve had been carrying a corpse in his arms (albeit a temporary one, but a corpse all the same). A painful shiver zips from the bottom of his spine to the nape of his neck at the thought.

 

Nancy, Jonathan, and Robin just look at him somberly, before Robin reaches out to thread her fingers through Steve’s. He looks over at her, sees the beginnings of her trademark crooked smile, and feels instantly comforted. “You did the right thing, Steve. No matter what happens, you did everything you could for him. And that’s really fucking… heroic, if you ask me.”

 

Steve laughs, a bitter thing, though he appreciates her attempt at a compliment. “Thanks, Robin, but I’m pretty sure the real hero here is behind those doors,” he says, gesturing to the glass double doors labeled Emergency Room: Staff Only, where Billy had been wheeled through what felt like only moments ago. “And, you know, Mrs. Byers and Hopper.”

 

A stony silence suddenly descends upon the group, and Steve looks between them in confusion. “Wait. What—What am I missing here?” Steve asks, noticing how none of them will meet his eyes, not even Dustin. He rips his hand from Robin’s grip, as if she’s stung him. “Nancy?!” he demands, looking over at her expectantly, because he knows she won’t lie to him.

 

“Hopper didn’t… Oh, Steve,” Nancy’s voice breaks, then drops to a whisper as she looks over at El, “He didn’t make it. Joyce had to shut the gate while Hopper was still inside, and he was just… Gone.”

 

Steve tentatively slides his gaze over to look at El, any icy feeling beginning to spread through his chest as he notices how red and raw her eyes look. And yet here she is, comforting Max, when she had just lost the person that mattered most to her. His eyes begin to well up with hot, stinging tears and he scrubs them away hastily, because he is not doing this, not here. He has to stay strong.

 

Fuck,” he hears himself say, getting up and beginning to pace. He can’t sit still, not when Hopper is gone and Billy could be dying under the knife as they speak, it’s too much, it’s too fucking much. Max looks over and sees Steve is in distress, and hesitantly disentangles herself from her circle of friends to come over to grab his hand.

 

Steve,” she says softly, and the sound of his name and the gentle pressure of her tiny, clammy hand is enough to startle him back into reality.

 

“Yeah, squirt?” he murmurs, kneeling in front of her and covering her hand with both of his. She can barely meet his eyes, her cheeks turning pink, as she seems to be mulling over her wording.

 

“Can you, um,” her voice is wobbly with tears, “Can you tell them what the doctor told you?” She jerks her head back towards Will, Mike, Lucas, and El, who are now all sitting cross-legged in a circle, speaking quietly among themselves. “They’re all asking and I can’t—I can’t remember all the things that were wrong, o-or all the words he used, and I just—” she begins crying again, taking deep shuddering breaths in between, and Steve immediately pulls her to him, and he knows he needs to be the strong one now, he needs to be the fearless adult for these kids.

 

“Of course I can, squirt. Let’s go talk to them,” Steve whispers into her hair. He imagines for a moment scooping her up into his arms and carrying her to the group, but he thinks better of it, not wanting to embarrass her, and instead steers her with a gentle arm around her shoulder. He sits down cross-legged in front of the Party, folding his hands together and sighing, already feeling a headache forming from just thinking about all of the things the doctor had told him.

 

“So, look, you guys,” he begins, hearing movement from behind him as Dustin, Jonathan, Nancy, and Robin join their little campfire circle. “What you need to understand is that when I brought Billy here, he had no pulse.” He hears a collective gasp, and a lot of mouths opening to begin framing questions, but he pushes on, “But they got his heart beating again, and they’re doing everything they can to fix him. Now, I know that’s scary. But what we need to remember is that our pal Will here,” he reached over and pats Will on the knee, “And our pal El, have both stood at the very brink of death, and they’re still here. We need to remember that right now, okay? And they’re here because we, their friends and family, would not give up on them. Billy saved El’s life today. She has saved our asses countless times, and today, he did what we couldn’t: He saved her life, and he sacrificed himself to do it. I know Billy was an asshole to us before, and I know he beat the shit out of me, but he proved himself today. And he’s going to need all of us to believe in him right now, if he’s gonna pull through.”

 

Steve knows his speech sounds corny, but he wants all of them to be on the same page, and he wants Max to know that he’s putting the past behind him. He takes a deep breath, running his shaking fingers through his hair, before continuing on. “The doctor told me that Billy has internal bleeding and a collapsed lung. The collapsed lung is the scary thing - When the Mind Flayer pierced Billy’s chest, it missed his heart, which is the only good news. But I guess they have to like, empty his chest of the extra air from his lung, or the pressure will be too much for his organs, and he’ll die.” He feels like he’s totally butchering the explanation the doctor gave him, but he’s pretty sure they’ve gotten the gist.

 

The circle is surprisingly silent; Steve had been expecting more questions, and is actually quite stunned that for once, the Party had seemed to grasp the concept of “shut the fuck up.”

 

“The doctor also said that if Steve hadn’t gotten Billy here when he did, he wouldn’t have even had a chance,” Max announces to the circle quietly, glancing over at Steve bashfully before looking down at her shoes.

 

“He’s gonna pull through,” Lucas declares softly, taking Max’s hand in his. “He’s strong - Billy is tough as nails. If anyone is gonna make it through something like this, it’ll be him. And when he’s better, we can all visit him, and tell him thank you.”

 

An uncomfortable lump forms in Steve’s throat at Lucas’ statement, marveling at the fact that Billy had literally picked this kid up by his collar, threw him up against a wall, and threatened him, and Lucas has absolutely no qualms about forgiving him. Max and El mean more to him than Billy’s abuse, and as he looks around the room, Steve realizes that they're all in the same boat - That whatever Billy had done in the past didn’t matter now. He had stepped up at the most crucial of moments, and had he not inserted himself as an actual human meat shield between El and the Mind Flayer, there is every possibility that El would be dead. In fact, Steve has no doubt in his mind.

 

“I want to thank him,” El says sincerely, squeezing Max’s hand in hers. “Saved me,” she adds quietly, looking pensive. Max smiles at El, and Steve realizes that she looks proud.

 

Will’s timid voice cuts through the heavy silence, Steve’s eyebrows flying up in surprise because he hadn’t heard Will say even two words since they had all arrived. “El, how did you get Billy to… to wake up? It was like, one second he was the Mind Flayer, and then the next, he was himself. How did you…” Will trails off, his eyes glazing over for a moment, and Steve thinks he must be remembering the endless hours they had spent trying to free Will from the Mind Flayer’s grip last year, “How did you do it?”

 

The group turns to El, nine sets of curious eyes settling upon her as she takes a deep breath in, pulling her knees up to her chest.

 

“I-” she begins, gazing up at the florescent lighting above, the tears welling up in her eyes catching in the light, “I told him about his mother.” Steve’s throat goes dry as he watches Max’s lip begin to tremble. “I saw… I saw her. When I was trying to find the Shadow Monster. In a memory. I told him… I told him what she was wearing. I told him that she was pretty. I told him that he… that he was happy. And then he was looking at me, and he was… He was Billy again.” The tears fall freely down El’s face now, as if they had respectfully been waiting for her story to end, and Mike reaches out to catch them with his slender fingers.

 

“He loved his mom,” Max whispers, her expression so pained that it makes Steve’s chest ache, “She abandoned him, but I know he loved her. I think she’s probably the only person he’s ever loved.”

 

Steve wipes at some wetness on his cheeks, imagining what Billy would be saying if he could see him right now, in that fucking stupid, mocking voice of his: “Aw, are you cryin’ over me, Harrington?” Steve smiles at the thought; weirdly enough, he’s actually kind of looking forward to Billy Hargrove giving him shit again.

 

Please pull through, you asshole. We need you here.

 

As if on cue, the doctor that Steve had spoken with earlier comes pushing out of the Emergency Room doors. He makes eye contact with Steve for just a moment, and after taking in his current company, subtly inclines his head towards a hallway near the restrooms, before disappearing down it.

 

Steve waits a few seconds, most of the group having broken off into their own separate, whispered conversations, before getting up and mumbling about using the bathroom. He focuses on walking as slowly and naturally as he can before turning the corner in a rush, to find the doctor waiting for him.

 

Dr. Atkinson, Steve finally thinks to read on his name badge, clears his throat softly before making eye contact with Steve. Steve tries to analyze his facial expression, but he’s never been good at reading people, and he’s pretty sure doctors spend years developing a pretty goddamn solid poker face.

 

“Mr. Harrington…” he begins, suddenly looking very, very exhausted, “Mr. Hargrove made it through surgery, which I must tell you, is something of a miracle. I’m afraid, however, that is the only good news I have.”

 

Steve’s hand reaches out to press itself against the rough paint of the wall beside him, trying to ground himself as he braces for the worst.

 

“We were able to stem the internal bleeding, stitch up his various exterior wounds, and have drained the extra air from his chest cavity. We are using a chest tube to ensure his lung remains inflated, but the lung is so damaged that it is in great danger of collapsing again, which could immediately cause heart failure. We are currently prepping him for lung surgery.”  Dr. Atkinson sighs heavily, looking down at some notes he has scribbled on his clipboard.

 

“What’s this surgery, doc? Will he… Will he make it?” Steve asks, not sure if he even wants to know the answer.

 

Dr. Atkinson purses his lips. “The surgery is called pleurodesis. What is going to happen is that we are going to inject a medicine into the space between Mr. Hargrove’s lung and chest wall. The medicine will irritate and inflame the tissue, which will produce scar tissue, which will cause the lung to stick to his chest. This will eliminate the space where air could collect, and will help to keep his lung inflated. It should also hopefully prevent another lung collapse in the future. There are risks in every surgery, but I believe Mr. Hargrove will pull through.”

 

Steve wants to feel relieved, but he knows the doctor has more to say. “What I am concerned about,” the doctor says, pausing a moment to adjust his glasses on the bridge of his nose before continuing, “is whether or not Mr. Hargrove will wake up after surgery.” Steve feels his heart skip a beat. Dr. Atkinson looks at him sympathetically before continuing, “Because of the trauma that Mr. Hargrove’s body suffered, and the fact that his heart stopped, he has slipped into a coma. This was due to not getting enough oxygen to his brain during the time his heart wasn’t beating. Now, the fact that he is in a coma may be a blessing in disguise, because he has been spared from a great deal of pain. But the truth of the matter is, he may not wake up again, no matter what we try to do. By all medical logic, Mr. Hargrove should not have survived the accident, and our efforts to resuscitate him should not have been successful—but by some miracle, he lived. Unfortunately, after we repair his lung, there is nothing else we can do but wait to see if he opens his eyes.”

 

Steve feels like all of the air is rushing out of his body, and he sways slightly as he absorbs this new information. “But he could wake up, right? I mean, you’re not saying there’s no chance, are you?”

 

“No, of course not. There is always a chance. But when trauma is this extensive, it is hard for the body to come out of it. I just want to prepare you.” And with a quick squeeze of Steve’s shoulder, Dr. Atkinson disappears down the hallway, taking all of Steve’s hope with him.

 

* * *

 

Steve tells Max first, because of course he does. He takes her to the cafeteria, buys her a shitty ham sandwich that he knows she won’t eat, and sits with her at a crumb-covered table. He takes her hands in his, and her blue eyes start welling up with tears before he can even start to speak.

 

“Billy made it. They got him all stitched up, and now he’s in surgery again, and they’re working on repairing his lung,” Steve begins, choosing each word with care and precision.

 

Max nods slowly, but there is no hint of happiness nor a smile on her face, because Steve is such a goddamn open book and she knows something is wrong.

 

“What’s wrong with him, Steve?” she asks, her voice quivering.

 

Steve breathes sharply through his nose, squeezing her hands in his. “He’s in a coma, Max. And the doctor doesn’t seem real confident that he’s going to be able to wake up.”

 

Max stares at him, but he knows she isn’t seeing him. He knows she's running it all back through her head, all they did to get Billy here, and how it may not have even been enough.

 

“Here’s what we’re going to do.” Steve drags his chair over to Max so that he’s sitting right next to her and puts his hands on her knees, craning his neck to meet her gaze. “Billy is going to have this surgery to fix his lung, and then I’m sure he’s going to need to spend some time resting and recovering. But when we can visit him, you’re going to go into that hospital room, and you’re going to talk to him. You’re going to remind him that you’re here, waiting for him to wake up. You’re going to tell him how he saved your best friend, and how everyone is calling him a hero. You’re going to tell him—”

 

“That he’s my brother, and he’s a total dickhole sometimes, but I love him,” Max adds softly, tears dripping down the bridge of her freckled nose. Steve reaches out and pulls her into his chest, placing his chin on her head.

 

“Yeah, squirt. That’s perfect.”

 

* * *

 

It happens just after Steve updates the group on Billy’s condition: The saving grace of the fucking evening, an actual miracle, something so unbelievable that even when Steve sees it with his own eyes, he still thinks he might be dreaming.

 

First, Joyce Byers comes running through the hospital doors, in a funny green uniform with her hair sticking out in ten different directions, and she’s smiling. She pauses mid-step when she sees the group waiting in the hospital room, and when her eyes land on El, she gestures slowly to the doors behind her.

 

Steve watches as a silhouette approaches from outside, and a large man in a matching green uniform steps into the light as the sliding doors part. His face is mottled with angry, red burns, but the bushy mustache is unmistakable.

 

El leaps out of her seat, running and jumping into Hopper’s arms with a heart-wrenching sob, and Steve can’t help but think of Robin’s whiteboard, and how if she were keeping track of today’s victories, the Upside Down would now have two tallies under “You Suck.”

Chapter Text

 * * *

 

The chaos that follows upon the group seeing Hopper is the best kind: Joyful, uncensored, and loud. From Dustin screaming “Holy SHIT!” (earning several disapproving glares from the nurses working behind the counter)—to Will catapulting himself into Hopper’s embrace after he sets El down, Will’s tiny hands fisting themselves into Hopper’s shirt as he buries his head into his shoulder—to Steve’s calm, cool, and collected declaration of, “Oh my God, WHAT IS HAPPENING RIGHT NOW, IS THIS REAL, SOMEBODY PINCH ME” (which Robin happily did)—The reunion was raw, beautiful, and most of all, really happening.

 

Joyce looks ready to float out of her fucking skin; Steve doesn’t think he’s ever seen her look so happy and relieved, not to mention so at peace. There is no sign of the once-constant furrow of her brows, and something about the way she’s looking at Hopper makes Steve feel like he’s intruding on an intimate moment. Joyce is holding El now, stroking her pale hands through El’s hair and kissing the top of her head, looking on as Mike, Lucas, and Dustin noisily join Will in Hopper’s embrace. Steve sees Max hanging back by Robin, smiling but not quite ready to join in the joy, and Steve nods at her, letting her know that he understands.

 

He approaches Hopper at the same time as Nancy and Jonathan, and they all go in for a group hug without hesitation—and for just a moment, Steve feels the worry slip from his body as Hopper’s arms pull them in tight, like he would singlehandedly protect them from all of the bad things out there in the world.

 

“I’m glad you’re okay, Chief. So fucking glad,” Steve says as they pull away. Hopper nods as El tucks herself under his arm, his lips twitching up into a smile so genuine upon seeing her that Steve’s eyes start to sting and he has to look away for a second.

 

“Me too, kid. You’ve got no idea.” Hopper looks over at Joyce, the same blissful smile playing across his lips, and Steve takes a moment to survey the damage to his face. The burns are mostly contained to his left cheek, where the skin is mottled and angry red, but the worst part is near his eye, where the skin has an actual black burn mark that looks to be gushing white puss.

 

“Chief, do you think you should maybe get that checked out?” Steve asks, pointing to the wound and trying not to grimace.

 

Hopper laughs. "You seen your own face, kid?" Steve smiles in spite of himself, having forgotten, momentarily, how the Russians had attempted to rearrange his face. Hopper jerks his thumb over to where Joyce is sitting with Will and Jonathan, looking like the picture of happiness with one of their hands in each of hers. “Don’t you worry about me, someone has made it very clear that I am not to leave this hospital until I am given a clean bill of health. Speaking of which…” Hopper’s eyes fall to El, who is still clinging to his side, and he gives her an affectionate squeeze.

 

“I hear Hargrove saved my girl here,” he begins, his voice low as he glances over at Max, who is now sitting on the floor with her head on Lucas’ shoulder, looking forlorn. “Joyce told me that you brought him here. Have you heard anything yet?”

 

Steve sighs, looking down at his blood and puke-covered Scoops Ahoy uniform, thankful that now that Joyce and Hopper were here, at least he and Robin weren’t alone in their costume party. “He was dead by the time I got him here, but they were able to revive him. He’s in surgery right now, but he’s in a coma, and the doc doesn’t seem to be holding out a lot of hope that he’ll wake up.”

 

Hopper nodded in understanding, his mouth set in a thin line. “He’ll pull through, kid. Don’t lose hope.”

 

“Speaking of hope, are you going to tell us how the hell we went from having no hope of ever seeing you again to you here now, totally alive and stuff?” Dustin’s loud voice demands, hands on his hips as he looks up at the Chief expectantly. “Is it your mustache? Does your mustache make you invincible?” he whispers conspiratorially, the Chief ruffling his hair fondly before turning to address the group.

 

“I wish it was a better story than it is,” Hopper begins, running his hands through his hair and looking a bit self-conscious as everyone’s eyes turn to him, “Honestly, I thought I was dead meat. But for some reason, I thought I’d try running towards the gate, like maybe I could escape the worst of the blast if I got far enough, which was stupid and wouldn’t have worked. And  when I reached the ledge, there was a ladder. It was so dark I couldn’t even see where it went, and I figured I was going to die anyway, so I grabbed onto it and slid down and some sort of trap door opened up before the final blast and I fell right through. My face got burned to shit on the way down, so there goes my modeling career—” El giggles at this, a lovely and welcome sound, before Hopper continues, “I must have blacked out for a while, but I woke up in this tiny little safe room. The trap door had automatically locked above me, so I started banging like hell and some guy in a military uniform let me out. Those Russians are still pieces of shit, but I never said they weren’t smart—Their little party trick saved my damn life.”

 

Dustin sighs in disappointment. “That wasn’t nearly as cool as I thought it was gonna be,” he laments, “But glad you’re okay, Chief.” And then everyone is erupting in laughter, and Steve feels hopeful, like Hopper being alive isn’t going to be the only good news they get today. He prays, for Max’s sake, that’s he’s right.

 

Steve glances over at Max, who catches his gaze and smiles timidly before she whispers something to Lucas and slowly heads over.

 

“I’m really glad you’re okay, Chief Hopper,” she says quietly, reaching out to politely shake his hand.

 

Hopper shakes her hand with a kind smile, bending down to look her in the eyes. “Hey, kid. I know that your stepbrother had a real tough go of it, but I also know what he did for my girl. When he wakes up, I’d really appreciate it if you would be the first one to tell him thank you from me. Think you can do that?”

 

Max nods, sniffing as a silent tear falls down her cheek. El, with a sad tilt to her mouth, reaches out to carefully wipe it away.

 

“Chief, can I ask you something?” Max glances over at Steve quickly, looking a little nervous but pushing on as Steve nods his encouragement, “Do you have any idea what happened to Billy’s Camaro? It’s just—He loved that car so much, and I know when he wakes up he’s going to feel so bad if it’s gone. Steve told me that it caught on fire, I know it’s probably junk, but if there’s anyway you could check and maybe—”

 

Hopper reaches out to place a steady hand on Max’s shoulder, and smiles at her fondly. “You got it, kid. Let me make some calls and see what I can do.” He heads to the reception desk with El at his heels, leaning over the counter and starting up a conversation with the nurse, pointing to her desk phone.

 

“You’re a really great sister, you know that?” Steve asks, playfully bopping Max on the nose. She smiles, but it’s a bitter thing, and it doesn’t reach her eyes.

 

“My mom is probably wondering where I am,” she says softly, and Steve sees the moment the fear and panic take hold of her, her eyes widening. “And Billy’s dad…”

 

Hey, hey, hey, it’s okay, squirt.” His voice is soft as he bends down to meet Max’s eyes—she looks nauseated. Steve doesn’t know much about Billy’s dad, but he’s heard rumblings about him from the Party, and he definitely wasn’t a nice guy, especially not to Billy. There had to be a reason Billy acted the way he did, you don’t just become an asshole overnight. There’s always outside factors pushing you there, and parents can definitely be one, or all of them—Steve knew this intimately.

 

“We’re not going to tell Mr. Hargrove that Billy’s here, Max, at least not yet—”

 

“Steve, you don’t understand,” she hisses, grabbing onto his shirt roughly. He is taken aback at the fire he sees in her eyes and the angry twist to her mouth, so he leans in to listen as she continues in a fierce whisper, “My stepdad would be relieved if Billy died here tonight. He’s a fucking asshole, of the highest order. I don’t want him to know he’s here, and if…” she trails off, her eyes misting over, before firmly correcting herself, “…when Billy wakes up, he can’t go back home to his dad. He’s going to need lots of time to rest and recover, and all his dad is going to do is beat him up and make life hell for him. Steve, please. We have to figure something out.”

 

Steve ponders this for a moment, before looking over at the Chief, who is still on the phone over at the registration desk. Then he looks over at Joyce, and he has an idea.

 

“Okay, I think I have an idea, but we’re going to need Hopper and Mrs. Byers’ blessing, and their help.” Steve waves at Joyce, who comes shuffling over immediately.

 

“Max, honey, how are you doing?” she asks, in that warm, comforting mom voice, and Steve sees the stiff set of Max’s shoulders begin to relax.

 

“I’m okay, Mrs. Byers. I just… I just want my brother to be okay,” she says, looking up at Steve imploringly.

 

Steve clears his throat. “Mrs. Byers—”

 

“Steve, please call me Joyce,” she says in fond exasperation, having asked Steve about a million times to refer to her by her first name in the past.

 

“Okay, Mrs.—ahem—Joyce. Max and I have a favor to ask of you, and Hopper, if possible.”

 

 * * *

 

It isn’t a sophisticated plan at the end of the day, but it would at least get the ball rolling. Steve had already lied to the registration desk and said that Billy’s parents were out of town, and he has Hopper reinforce this story and list himself as the emergency contact in case something were to go wrong with Billy.

 

Joyce, in turn, calls Max’s house from a pay phone outside and asks to speak with her mother. Max and Steve wait with her, just in case Max needs to give Joyce some pointers. Thankfully, the Hargroves are home and not out looking for their children, and when Mrs. Hargrove comes to the phone, Joyce is the picture of calm when she speaks.

 

“Hello, Mrs. Hargrove, this is Joyce, Will Byers’ mother. I was just calling to let you know that Max is here with us, and she has asked to spend the night tonight.”

 

“Max, you have Max?” Steve hears Susan’s frantic voice on the other end of the phone, “Is she all right? I was worried sick, I heard that there was some sort of accident at the mall, she wasn’t there, was she?”

 

“Oh, no, she was with us, celebrating the 4th of July. Billy dropped her off early in the evening, but then he called a bit ago to let us know that he had some car trouble and would be spending the night with a friend until he could get a tow in the morning. He gave me your phone number so that I could call and let you know, and so that you could hear it from me that Max is safe. I offered to drive her home, but she was just having so much fun that she wanted to stay. I hope that’s all right, she’s actually already sound asleep on the couch.” Joyce laughs, and it sounds so damn convincing that Steve wonders if Joyce has ever considering professional acting.

 

“Oh, all right, that’s fine. We were wondering where Billy was as well, I’m glad to hear they’re both safe.” Steve swears he can hear Billy’s dad saying something rude in the background, but he dismisses it. “Thank you for calling, Joyce.”

 

“Of course, Mrs. Hargrove. Before you go—I would love to keep Maxine with us tomorrow as well. Her friends have a fun game planned and it usually takes up the whole day. I think she’d be pretty devastated to miss it, they’ve been talking about it all night.” Joyce pauses, giving Mrs. Hargrove a moment to respond.

 

“Oh, yes, of course. Thank you for having her, we can come pick her up tomorrow evening.”

 

Max is shaking her head, eyes wide and frightened, and Joyce immediately goes into survival mode. “Oh, Mrs. Hargrove, that won’t be necessary. I would be happy to drive Max home tomorrow night, truly. I’ll be bringing all of the kids home anyway, so I’ll be in town.” Joyce bit her lip, looking nervous.

 

“All right, I suppose that will be fine. I will look forward to seeing her then. Goodbye, Joyce.”

 

Joyce hangs up the phone triumphantly, and turns to Max. “How did I do, sweetheart?” she asks, smiling hopefully at Max. She’s just so precious, Steve thinks; like Max, he is determined to protect Joyce Byers at all costs.

 

“Thank you so much, Mrs. Byers. But what happens if they freak when Billy still doesn’t show up tomorrow?” Max asks, looking from her to Steve, so small and so scared.

 

Steve puts a hand on her head, ruffling her hair ever so gently. “Hopper and I already have a plan for Billy, but we’re not going to worry about that until he wakes up. Your dad is used to Billy going off on his own, right? He’s been out of the house a lot lately, especially since he was under the control of the Mind Flayer. Your mom knows that you’re safe, Billy has a backstory, the hospital thinks your parents are out of town, so, mission accomplished.” He gives her a high five which she returns half-heartedly.

 

“Let’s go back inside, yeah? Maybe Dustin will perform his rendition of Never Ending Story for us if we ask nicely.”

 

Steve is delighted when Max barks out a laugh.

 

 * * *

 

It’s going on midnight, and the group is thinning out. Dr. Atkinson had informed them that Billy was out of surgery about 15 minutes ago, but that he needed to be closely monitored through the night, so visitors wouldn’t be allowed until the morning.

 

Hopper had gone to see a nurse and now wore a thick bandage over his wound. He had also let Max know that he had a tow truck on the way to pick up Billy’s car, and he would store it at the Byers’ until they figured out if it was salvageable.

 

Joyce, being the wonderful and responsible mother she is, had called all of the moms and let them know that the kiddos were safe and that they’d be spending the night with her.

 

Steve, conversely, had suffered a brief moment of panic when he looked around and realized someone was missing. “Where is Erica??? Oh my God, we’ve lost a child, call the National Guard!!” Robin had set him straight very kindly (as in, not kindly at all): “Dingus, I dropped her off at Tina’s already, chill.” But then she had smiled and pulled him into a tight, crushing hug, whispering in his ear, “You did good today, Harrington. If I was into boys, we might have had some fun.” He had cackled as she had winked at him and then wished him a good night, heading home to get the stench of “puke, Russians, and Steve Harrington” out of her clothes.

 

Joyce, Nancy, Jonathan, and Hopper are currently collecting the Party members and arranging to get them all back to the Byers’ residence. Steve understands why they’re all heading there, why they don’t want to be apart tonight (plus, Hopper’s cabin was kind of destroyed, apparently). He thinks for a moment about the possible sleeping arrangements: Nancy and Jonathan, crawling into his bed together and him holding her close under the covers; all of the kiddos, setting up a sea of blankets and pillows on the living room floor, Mike and Eleven falling asleep holding hands while Dustin snores in the background, Lucas and Will taking turns throwing pillows at him to shut him up; and Hopper making a nice bed on the floor by Joyce’s bed, because he’s a gentleman, damnit. Steve can’t help but smile at the visual.

 

Once everyone is loaded into the cars out front (Steve has no idea who’s driving what car, and he’s a little too tired to care), Joyce comes back and looks at Steve questioningly, where he is slumped on the floor with Max’s head resting in his lap. He thinks she might be snoozing, so he raises a hand to his lips.

 

“Steve, are you two staying here?” she asks softly, looking at him with her brows knitted together in concern.

 

He remembers the panicked expression on Max’s face as she started noticing everyone getting up to leave, and he assured her they could stay if she wanted, they didn’t have to go anywhere. He nods, giving Joyce a thumbs up and assuring her that he’ll be okay.

 

She looks down at his Scoops Ahoy uniform (which, he’s sure she is noticing, is covered in old puke and Billy’s blood), tuts, and then disappears out the doors, returning with a brown bag.

 

“I had these in the car, they’re some of Jonathan and Will’s old clothes that I was planning to donate. Hopefully you can both change into something more comfortable.” Joyce hands him the bag and after lingering to look at Max once more, who is truly fast asleep and lightly snoring against Steve’s hip, heads out the doors and into the night.

 

Steve sighs, absentmindedly running his hand through Max’s red hair fanned out across his lap, still kinked from the previous day’s braids. Weirdly enough, he had always wanted a little sister; someone to help him get through the lonely nights when his parents would be gone for weeks on end, which started when Steve was about 8. He didn’t want a little brother, his adolescent mind rationalizing that he’d have to fight for his parents’ already-scarce attentions with another boy in the mix; a little sister would be an equal. But no matter how fervently he wished for it, he remained alone; he got to know the maid, and the nanny, but they didn’t play with him like he wanted. They wouldn’t play make-believe with him, or go on adventures in the woods. He mostly sat in his room, listening to music or just staring up at the ceiling, keeping a tally of the days his parents had been gone on a little notepad by his bed. He remembers the day he ran out of room on the page, and had to flip it over—That had been the day he had truly given up on them ever giving a shit about him.

 

Steve is startled from his reverie when a round-faced nurse with short blonde curls and a kind smile approaches him. “Mr. Harrington,” she begins in a hushed tone, bending down so that he can hear her, “Dr. Atkinson has asked me to invite the both of you to lay down in his on-call room, as he will be working through the evening to observe Mr. Hargrove, and will not be in need of it. Will you follow me, please?”

 

The relief Steve feels as he gently picks Max up in his arms, cradling her head against his chest, and follows the nurse is so great, he might seriously start crying. Quit crying like a little bitch, Harrington, he imagines Billy saying, and he steels himself, following the nurse. Max is starting to come to, but she isn’t pummeling him for carrying her like a small child, so that’s a good sign.

 

The nurse leads them down a quiet hallway, and uses a key to unlock the last door on the left. Inside is a small, cozy-looking bed, a bedside table with a phone and a lamp, and a desk. There’s also a small bathroom attached.

 

“Steve? What’s going on?” Max asks, gazing around at the room blearily.

 

“Billy’s doctor and this nice nurse gave us this room to sleep in,” he explains in a whisper, gesturing to the nurse who is smiling at them from the door as he lowers Max onto the cozy bed. The nurse hands him the brown paper bag of clothes she had carried for him.

 

“Now, before I go, Dr. Atkinson asked me to clean up the cuts on your face, and to check you for a concussion," she begins, and then holds up a sassy finger when she sees Steve beginning to protest. "This is non-negotiable, Mr. Harrington. Now, take a seat, and I'll be right with you."

 

She disappears out the door, and Steve looks back to see that Max is sitting up in the bed, rubbing her eyes. “We get to sleep here?” she asks in a daze, looking around the room. It might be tiny, but to their aching bones, it was the goddamn Taj Mahal.

 

“Yeah, it’s great, huh, squirt? Here, Joyce brought us some clothes. They’re Will’s and Jonathan’s, so we’ll probably lose some cool points, but I think our street cred will survive it.”

 

Max laughs despite herself, and comes up behind Steve to look at the clothes he’s laying out on the desk. She runs her hand along a faded Ghostbusters T-shirt among the clothes that belonged to Will, smiling, no doubt remembering those dumb Halloween costumes the Party wore to school the year she moved to town. She grabs that, along with a pair of white nylon shorts, before disappearing into the bathroom.

 

While Max is changing, the nurse returns with a first aid kit in her gloved hands, gesturing Steve to sit down at the desk as she takes out antiseptic, antibiotic ointment, and cotton pads. Steve can see in the dim light that her name badge reads Heidi. She begins gently dabbing at the swollen skin around Steve's left eye, and Steve winces at the sting. 

 

The bathroom door creaks open and Max slips out, the shirt and shorts a perfect fit. Steve smiles at her, and secretly hopes that she keeps the shirt—He knows that Max & Will aren’t super close like she is with Lucas and El, but he thinks it would make Will smile to see her wear it.

 

The nurse moves on to the nasty cut underneath Steve's lip, and Max gingerly perches herself on the edge of the bed, watching quietly. When Steve's wounds are sufficiently cleaned, Heidi gently applies the ointment, and then she asks him a series of questions, like if he has head or neck pain, if his mind feels foggy, of if he's had any nausea, vomiting, or dizziness. He mentions the fainting spell from earlier, but points out that he had literally carried Billy's body all the way across a parking lot, so he thinks he probably passed out from the exhaustion and stress of it all. He has none of the other symptoms Heidi seems to be searching for, so she nods in satisfaction, grabbing the first aid kit and making to head out of the room.

 

"There’s a water fountain just down the hall if you get thirsty; cups are in the bathroom. I’ll come and wake you up at 8am, visiting hours start then.” She smiles kindly at Steve, and he thinks about cracking a joke about where she hides her halo while she’s on duty.

 

“I’d hug you, but my clothes are covered in various… bodily fluids,” Steve says, reaching out to shake her hand. 

 

Heidi laughs in amusement. “Believe me, Mr. Harrington, I’m used to being covered in bodily fluids.” Steve grimaces sympathetically, and waves at her as she closes the door behind her.

 

Steve looks through Jonathan’s hand-me-downs, settling on a brown cotton T-shirt and a pair of cozy blue drawstring pants. He changes in the bathroom, not wanting to scar Max with the sight of his pale, bony chest, and unceremoniously spikes his disgusting Scoops Ahoy uniform into the trash can.

  

When he comes back, Max is sitting on the bed, her knees pulled up to her chest and staring at the wall. Steve gently sits next to her and pulls the covers back so that Max can crawl in, tucking the blankets in around her. “Aren’t you going to sleep, too?” she asks in confusion, stifling a yawn.

 

“Yeah, squirt, but I’m gonna go get us some water, okay? We’re no good to anyone if we die of thirst.” He realizes belatedly, as he grabs a couple Dixie cups from the bathroom and slips on his shoes to head to the drinking fountain out in the hall, that they haven’t eaten fucking anything all night. He is a terrible babysitter, he should have made sure Max had eaten something!  (In fairness, he had tried with the sandwich earlier, but she had taken one look at it, made a face, and handed it to a very delighted Dustin.)

 

Steve curses himself as he sips from the fountain, effectively quenching his thirst, and then filling up the two cups for Max. He’ll wake up early and find breakfast somewhere, he vows, as he shoulders the door open and tries not to spill water everywhere.

 

Max’s eyes are still open, but barely. Steve puts the two cups of water next to her, and watches as she downs both of them.

 

“Well done, kiddo.” He smiles down at her fondly. “Do you need anything else? We’ll get breakfast tomorrow, I promise, I know you must be starving.”

 

“I’m not hungry at all, actually. Too… nervous, I guess,” Max murmurs, pulling the bed covers up to her chin and closing her eyes, exhaling deeply.

 

Steve scoots the desk chair over to her bedside and reaches to switch the lamp off. “Steve?” Max’s voice is shaking.

 

“Yeah, squirt, what is it?”

 

“Do you mind if we keep the light on?” She flushes a bit, but looks at him with trust in her eyes, like she knows he’ll understand. He nods, smiling reassuringly.

 

“Of course, don’t have to tell me twice!” Steve leans forward and whispers conspiratorially, “Between you and me, I’m actually terrified of the dark. And spiders. And clowns. And very large birds.”

 

Max giggles, and the sound is music to his fucking ears. She scoots over under the covers, then pats the empty spot she has made for him in the bed. Steve pauses for just a second, because he doesn’t want to be awkward or anything, but she’s looking at him like she needs him and he’s always wanted a little sister.

 

He carefully clambers in, settling in against the pillow and keeping as respectful a distance as possible. Max has other ideas, however, and bridges the distance to snuggle up against his side, her head laying comfortably on his shoulder. Steve lets out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding, and his eyes begin to slowly close.

 

“I know this is probably the most action you’ve gotten all year, Steve, but don’t make this weird, all right? I mean, I have a boyfriend.

 

Steve’s eyes pop open, and he jerks his head over to see Max with a shit-eating grin on her face. He makes an undignified squawking sound in offense.

 

“Jesus, get me some cream, I was just burned by a 14 year old. Your brother would be proud. His smart ass personality has definitely rubbed off on you.” Max smiles, looking flattered, until Steve shoves her off of him. She gasps indignantly, looking at him in over-exaggerated shock.

 

“Yeah, that’s right! You just lost your cuddling rights, making me feel like a dirty old man!” Steve exclaims, pointing an accusing finger at her and trying and failing to look serious, until they both collapse into a fit of giggles.

 

They laugh until their stomachs are aching and tears are streaming from their eyes. God, it feels good to laugh, and for just a second, the weight of the world that sits on their shoulders dissolves.

 

After the room has gone quiet again, Steve looks over to see Max has put on a very convincing puppy-dog face, glancing down at his shoulder and the little spot she had previously cuddled into.

 

He sighs and pretends to roll his eyes before putting an arm out so she can snuggle into him. Joking aside, Steve had to admit—it was nice to fall asleep with someone else in the room.

 

(Even though she was right, this is the most action he’s gotten all year—The little shit.)

Chapter Text

* * *

 

Steve wakes up to pale sunlight filtering through the slate grey curtains—Max is snoring softly next to him, her tiny arms wound snugly around his bicep and her freezing cold toes tucked in between his legs. He looks at her for a moment, at the peace of her expression, and his heart aches as he thinks back on all she has gone through in the past 24 hours, and what other horrors await her today.

 

The clock on the wall reads 6:30—Steve gently extracts himself from her grip inch by inch, until he can successfully slip out of the bed. Max makes a quiet sound of protest but doesn’t wake, pulling the covers tighter around herself as she rolls away towards the wall. Steve scribbles a note on the memo pad he finds in one of the desk drawers—Squirt: Off to get breakfast for us, be back by 6:45, wait here for me—and places it gingerly on the pillow next to her.

 

After he grabs his shoes from the floor, he slips out the door and into the harsh fluorescent lighting of the hospital. He makes his way towards the cafeteria, running through the day’s agenda in his head: Feed Max. Call the Byers house with any updates about Billy (per Hopper). Make Max laugh, at least three times, before 8am. Bring Max to see Billy. Pray that he wakes up. If he does, call Hopper and commence Plan A. If he doesn’t… Steve’s train of thought stutters to a stop. If Billy doesn’t wake up, he doesn’t really have a Plan B for that. But a Plan B, he reasons, is only necessary if Plan A doesn’t pan out, so he wouldn’t worry about that until he has to.

 

Steve reaches the cafeteria and is pleasantly surprised by the breakfast selection. As he’s piling eggs, waffles, and bacon into a to-go container, he notices the middle-aged lady behind the counter is definitely checking out his ass, so he decides to play it to his advantage.

 

“Good morning, Gloria,” he reads off her nametag, sending her a winning smile. She has curly brown hair sticking out in various spots under her hairnet, and her lipstick is a little outside of her natural lip line, but the smile she sends back his way is glorious.

 

“Good morning, sugar. That’s quite a shiner you got there,” she comments, eyeing him as he gazes at the oatmeal, wondering if Max might eat some if he plays the “Come on, for me?” routine.

 

“Yes, well, I just can’t seem to stay out of trouble,” Steve replies charmingly, starting in on filling a second box full of food. He notices her quirk an eyebrow at how many waffles he is piling into one of the boxes. (Hey, if El likes waffles, odds were that Max liked them too, right?)

 

“I’m trying to feed one of my children,” Steve explains, earning a shocked expression from Gloria before continuing on, “I mean, she isn’t really my child, but I’m a babysitter for a lot of kids and I just kind of call them that because it’s easier. I mean, so many names to remember!”

 

Gloria laughs, a big, hearty sound, as he comes up to the register and fishes his hand into the pocket of his pajama pants, which he belatedly realizes is empty. He’d spent his last $5 on that shitty sandwich for Max last night that she’d never even eaten. He looks at the two heaping containers of food in front of him, his stomach sinking.

 

“Man, Gloria, this is real embarrassing, but I don’t have enough money to cover this. I’m really sorry.” He goes to turn away, praying that this woman would take pity on him, before hearing a throat clear behind him. He turns to find that she has bagged up his food, and is holding it out to him.

 

“Here you go, sugar. You go feed that child of yours, it’s on me.” Her smile is so genuine, Steve could cry from relief.

 

“Thank you so much, seriously, I owe you, Gloria!” He bows his head in thanks and then rushes back to the room, hoping Max hasn’t woken yet.

 

She is only just blinking awake when he creeps through the door. He sets the breakfast down on the desk, opening the boxes to let the delicious aroma waft into the room. He comes over and sits gingerly on the bed next to Max, who is now pulling herself up into a sitting position and smiling sleepily at him.

 

“Good morning, squirt. I got you some fine grub here,” he announces, gazing at her with a fond smile as he passes the box of eggs, bacon, sausage, and waffles to her. She watches him as he carefully sets a handful of salt and pepper packets, a container of syrup, and a plastic fork and knife on the top part of the box for her.

 

“You’re good at this, you know,” Max murmurs, gazing down at her food with a smile.

 

“Good at what, squirt?” Steve asks, as he settles next to her with his own meal.

 

“Taking care of people,” is all she says, as she empties some salt and pepper onto her eggs before taking a generous bite.

 

Steve pauses to swallow the piece of sausage in his mouth, touched by her words. He watches as she finishes her eggs and starts in on the bacon.

 

“You know, no one has ever said that to me before,” he says quietly. He can’t help but think back to Nancy telling him he’s bullshit at that party, which had cut so deeply because all he had ever really wanted to do was take care of her—but at the time, he hadn’t really known how. Maybe he was learning. Maybe he was getting better.

 

“Dustin talks about it all the time,” Max says through a bite of waffle, knocking her shoulder playfully against his, “You’re kinda his hero, and I can see why.”

 

Steve resists the urge to begin sobbing into his oatmeal. She’s being so fucking sweet, and her hair is all mussed from sleep and her eyes are bright blue and he just really, really adores her.

 

“Thanks, Max,” he replies, his voice catching just a bit as her says her name. He thinks she notices, but she doesn’t say anything, happily munching away on the rest of her waffle.

 

After their to-go boxes are thrown in the trash and they’ve finished off a couple bottles of orange juice (a surprise in the bag from Gloria, that lovely woman), it’s nearing 7:30. Steve catches Max staring worriedly at the clock, and he reaches over to put his arm around her.

 

“Hey, it’s gonna be okay,” he murmurs as her head falls gently onto his shoulder, “You’re the best thing Billy’s got going for him right now, you know that, right? If he’s gonna wake up for anyone, it’s gonna be you. I know that you didn’t always get along, and he was a dick to you sometimes, but he was there when it counted—and now you’re gonna be there for him when it counts, too.” Steve screws his eyes shut, thinking that his speech-writing wouldn’t be winning any awards in the future, but then he feels Max’s arms winding around his chest.

 

“Thanks, Steve,” she whispers into his T-shirt, and he hugs her back tightly, hoping like hell that today would be good to Max.

 

* * *

 

It’s 7:45. At Steve’s suggestion, they’ve both rinsed themselves off in the tiny shower inside the room’s private bathroom, and are now heading out the door. Max looks white as a sheet, her mouth pressed into a thin line as they head to the nearest nurse’s station and Steve asks if Dr. Atkinson is still on duty.

 

“Yes, just one moment,” the nurse replies, before paging him. They take a seat near a water fountain, Max bouncing her fingers nervously on her thigh as they wait.

 

After waiting a few minutes, Dr. Atkinson rounds the corner, and the expression on his face doesn’t look like the TV doctors do when they have to tell the family the patient died, which Steve takes as a good sign.

 

“Hey there, Maxine,” he says, the ghost of a smile on his lips as she hops out of her chair.

 

“How’s my brother?” she asks, her hands balling into fists as if expecting the worst.

 

“Well, I’m happy to report that he’s stable. He made it through the night just fine, and there were no complications after surgery.” Max looks marginally encouraged, but she notices that the doctor doesn’t continue.

 

“Is he still… Asleep?” she asks, her voice small.

 

“Yes, unfortunately Maxine, your brother is still in a coma. We did a few tests, and he did respond to stimuli—namely, his pupils are able to dilate, which is a very promising sign. The X-rays of his brain do not show any severe damage—His heart was restarted as quickly as possible due to your & Mr. Harrington’s quick thinking, so the damage to his brain due to oxygen loss was very minimal.”

 

“Doc, why do you think he’s not waking up? If there isn’t much damage to his brain…” Steve trails off, looking at Max, who has grabbed onto his hand and is looking up at the doctor with a worried expression.

 

Dr. Atkinson sighs, tapping his pen against his clipboard as he mulls over Steve’s question. “Mr. Harrington, I think it is possible that Mr. Hargrove is suffering from trauma of both the mind and the body. This coma may be his way of dealing with that trauma. Our bodies have a built-in fight or flight response, and my theory is that Mr. Hargrove is not ready to relive the memory of the accident, nor is he ready to experience his current surgical pain. His body is in survival mode, and this coma could be his way of protecting himself. This is just a theory, of course. But, unfortunately, the reality is that the longer he is in this coma, the worse his outlook is.”

 

Steve is blown away by the doctor’s theory, because it makes perfect sense—Billy did terrible things when he was in the Mind Flayer’s control, and then he died and came back to life in what was probably the worst pain he’s ever experienced in his life. That trauma, of both his mind and body like the doctor said, would be enough to send anyone deep into darkness. If Steve were Billy, he would be afraid to wake up, too—Afraid to face up to what happened, to what he did, to how painful it was to die but how even more painful it would be to live.

 

Max’s grip in Steve’s hand is like a vice. “Do you think it will help if I talk to him? Do you think he’ll be able to hear my voice?” she asks the doctor desperately.

 

Dr. Atkinson bends down so that he can look at Max properly, and he nods kindly. “Yes, Maxine, certain studies show that comatose patients can hear sounds in their environment. If my theory is right, Mr. Hargrove might just need a push to wake up, and hearing your voice might be just what he needs right now.”

 

Max nods quickly, scrubbing at a couple tears that are leaking from her eyes, and Dr. Atkinson puts a gentle hand on her shoulder. “Would you like to see your brother now, Maxine?” he asks softly. She looks up at Steve, looking frightened but ready, and he nods, following Dr. Atkinson as he gets up from the floor and leads them towards a set of elevators.

 

They travel up to the 3rd floor, and Steve notices the lighting is a bit darker and the halls are a bit quieter as they follow the doctor until they reach room 342. The door is open, but the curtain around the bed is drawn.

 

“I’ll give you two a moment,” he says softly, “Press the call button if you need anything, I’ll be nearby.” And then, with one last concerned glance, Dr. Atkinson leaves them.

 

Max and Steve are both frozen in place, staring at the pale green curtain and trying to imagine what they’ll find behind it.

 

“You let me know when you’re ready, kiddo,” Steve says softly, her hand gripping his like an anchor.

 

Max takes a deep breath, her steel blue eyes staring into the room, looking more determined by the second. “I’m ready,” she says, her voice sure and steady, and she and Steve step into the room and approach the bed. Steve reaches out to move the curtain aside with a shaking hand, and he can’t help the gasp that comes out of his mouth. Max lets out a shaky sob, covering her mouth as she looks at the bed in horror.

 

If Steve didn’t know any better, he’d have thought he was looking at a corpse. Billy’s complexion is pallid and sickly, and his face looks skeletal somehow, as if his skin is stretched too thinly over the bones. There are deep purple bags under his eyes, and the area around his mouth is still stained with black blood,  the white breathing tube tucked underneath his nose a sharp contrast . His chest, visible above the hospital gown, is littered in grotesque black bruises.

 

The heart monitor next to the bed is beeping steadily, and Steve counts the seconds between them to ground himself, because he has to stay strong for Max right now, who is still looking absolutely petrified as she gazes at Billy. Steve gently lets go of her hand and guides her to the chair next to the bed. Max sits down, looking dazed, as he pulls up a chair next to her.

 

“Have you thought about what you want to say?” Steve asks softly, after deciding that discussing how Billy looks like an actual zombie wouldn’t be the wisest course of action right now.

 

“A-A little,” Max murmurs, shutting her eyes tightly and taking a deep breath. She reaches under the covers and finds Billy’s hand, an IV sticking out of his pale skin, and threads her fingers between his. Steve’s throat is dry, and he starts counting the seconds between Billy’s heartbeats again, waiting for Max to speak. She scoots her chair closer so that she’s right next to him, and she tentatively reaches out, her hand hovering by his cheek. Her fingers gently move a stray hair back into place, and she smiles.

 

“You really liked to do your hair,” Max begins, her voice quiet but steady, “I always thought it was kinda funny, like what kind of guy spends that much time on his hair, you know? But it always ended up looking so good that I couldn’t even make fun of you for it. No matter where we went, all the girls would look at you, and they’d giggle and fall all over themselves and you acted like you didn’t even care. They didn’t know how much time you spent on that stupid hair, how much you did care. But I knew.”

 

Max pauses, her lip trembling. “You know, I really thought I had you all figured out. You were always such a dick to me, and I just kinda thought ‘This is how things are always gonna be.’ I know I didn’t exactly make things easy on you. Neil put you in charge of me, and I’d run off and get you in trouble. And I’m sorry for that, I really am. For a long time, I didn’t know what he was doing to you.” She paused, tears welling up in her eyes, “I thought I knew you, and then you stepped between a monster and my best friend, and you gave your life for her. You didn’t even know her, Billy. You died for someone you didn’t even know, because it was the right thing to do. I was there, I watched you—And that’s when I realized that I really don’t know you at all.”

 

Steve watches as both of Max’s hands grip onto Billy’s tightly, the look in her eyes pleading.”I want to get to know you all over again, okay? And I want you to get to know me, too. I want to be your sister, for real this time.”

 

Her tears are falling down onto the hospital sheets now, and Steve’s eyes are stinging like hell as he reaches out to rub Max’s back.

 

Please wake up, Billy,” Max’s voice is soft, desperate, “I know I’m not much, but I’m here for you. I know you’re scared, and that you feel bad about what you did to all those people, but it wasn’t your fault. My friend Will, it happened to him too, he can tell you. You aren’t alone, Billy. We all know what happened, what the Shadow Monster did to you. We know it wasn’t your fault.”

 

She pauses, swallowing hard, before squeezing her eyes shut and saying in a rush, “I love you, okay? I know we don’t say that to each other, we’ve never said it, but I do, okay? You’re an asshole, but you’re my brother, Billy, and I love you. Please, please wake up.”

 

Max is holding his limp hand up to her face now, searching his face desperately for signs of life, but his eyes remain closed and the heart monitor continues beeping steadily. Steve feels like he’s been punched in the gut. He knows it isn’t Billy’s fault, he might not even be able to hear Max, but he had so been hoping this would work, especially for Max’s sake. It would have been so amazing for Max to have been able to wake him up, for her to have the superpowers for once.

 

Superpowers. Steve looks over at Max, who looks completely crushed and devastated, and puts his hand gently on her knee and squeezes.

 

“Hey,” he says softly, “What you said—That was amazing, okay? He just might not be ready to wake up yet. We’re gonna keep trying, we’re not going anywhere. We’re gonna give him all the time he needs.”

 

Steve makes to stand, but Max grabs at his hand and pulls him back down, looking frightened. “Where are you going?” she asks, looking nervously over at Billy’s sleeping form, still as a statue.

 

“I’m going to call Hopper real quick, I promised I would. You stay here and keep talking to him, okay? I’ll be right back.”

 

Max hesitantly lets him go, watching as he slips out the door. Steve lingers for a second at the doorway, listening to Max’s soft voice.

 

“There was that one day I fell on my skateboard and cut my leg up really bad, do you remember? You were so mad, you yelled at me for like a solid five minutes, but then you picked me up and took me inside, and you were wrapping it with bandages so carefully and getting me ice and you told me it was ‘cause you didn’t want Neil yelling at you, but I think you were actually kinda worried…”

 

Steve smiles and heads to the nurse’s station, where he politely asks to use the phone.

 

It’s barely 8:30am, and Hopper picks up on the second ring. “Hello, Byers residence,” he says gruffly.

 

“Hop, it’s Steve.”

 

“Hey, kid. Any updates?” Hopper’s voice sounds edgy, like he’s expecting bad news.

 

“Max has been talking to him, but he’s not responding. Something she said gave me an idea, though. Is El up?”

 

“El? What do you need her for?” Hop asks, sounding wary.

 

“I just… I kinda just want to ask her something, actually,” Steve says, which isn’t totally untrue.

 

There’s a shuffling sound, and then Hopper is handing the phone to El.

 

“Hello?” Her voice is a whisper, as if she’s trying not to wake someone up. Steve can hear her moving to a different part of the house.

 

“Hey, El. I gotta ask you something, is that okay?” Steve asks, running his hand through his hair. God, he hopes she can help.

 

“Yes,” she responds matter-of-factly, waiting patiently for Steve’s question. He loved El for this reason—Unlike Dustin, she never said more than was necessary.

 

“So Max has been trying to talk to Billy, you know, since he’s sort of… asleep, right?” Steve begins.

 

“Okay,” El replies. Steve can practically picture her nodding, her brow furrowed in concentration as she listens.

 

“But see, the thing is, I don’t know if he can hear her. And even if he can, I don’t know if he knows how to wake up, or if he even knows he’s sleeping. I was wondering if you might be able to talk to him. You know, like how you find people?” Steve glances nervously at the nurse nearby, but she is paying him no mind. He clutches the phone in his hands tightly, anxiously awaiting El’s reply.

 

“Find Billy,” El repeats, followed by a few seconds of silence. “Yes,” she says, sounding determined, “Billy saved me. I want to help.”

 

There is a brief noise on the other end of the phone, and Steve can hear El saying in the background, “Steve needs help, I can help,” as Hopper comes back onto the line.

 

“Listen, kid, I know what you’re trying to do here. But you know… what happened. I don’t know if she can do this right now.”

 

Steve listens to El repeating, “I can do it, I can,” in the background, and he can’t help but smile.

 

“I know, Hop. But if you give us the okay, I’d really like to give it a try. For Max.”

 

Hopper sighs deeply, and Steve holds his breath. “Fine. We’ll be there in 20.” Steve starts to say something, but Hopper interrupts him, “It’ll just be us, don’t worry. I’m not gonna bring the whole damn zoo.”

 

And then the line goes dead. Steve hands the phone back to the nurse, his body buzzing with excitement at the possibility of this idea working out. He knows El’s powers are iffy right now, but maybe it’s just the physical powers—maybe her mental abilities are just as sharp as they were when she found Billy before.

 

Steve is heading back into Billy’s room when Max suddenly bumps into him out in the hallway. “Steve!” she exclaims, her eyes lit up in excitement, “His fingers twitched, just for a second, but I swear they did!” She grabs onto his arm and pulls him into the room, and they spend the next twenty minutes carefully observing Billy’s fingers for any movement (sadly, the event is not repeated).

 

They both look up when there is a quiet knock on the door, and Max practically leaps out of her chair when she sees El, throwing herself into her arms. Steve watches as El wraps her arms tightly around Max’s shoulders, and El catches his gaze and nods once. He nods back at her as Max pulls away.

 

“What are you doing here?” Max asks excitedly, looking over at where Hopper is speaking with a nearby nurse.

 

“I’m here to help,” El says matter-of-factly, looking over at Steve and smiling. Max turns to look at him in confusion.

 

“Max, come sit over here with El,” Steve suggests, pulling out the chairs for both of them to sit. El’s eyes flit over to Billy as she sits, and Steve sees a flash of concern cross her face—but in typical El fashion, she respectfully says nothing.

 

“See, I had this idea,” Steve says, bending down in front of Max and El, but keeping his eyes on Max, “That maybe El could help us wake Billy up.”

 

Max looks from El to Steve, still confused. “I think… I can find him,” El says softly, pulling a blindfold out of the pocket of her overalls. Max’s eyes light up with new understanding.

 

“You… You really think so? Even after—?” Max trails off, looking at El apologetically.

 

El nods, unfazed. “Yes, I think so.”

 

Steve looks over to Max. “It’s up to you, squirt. El’s willing to help. Do you want to give it a try?”

 

Max reaches out to grab El’s hand, holding it like a treasure in her hands. “Yes, I want to try. For Billy.”

 

Hopper has come to the door now, and is watching El carefully as she settles on the floor and wraps the blindfold around her head. “You take care of my girl, Harrington,” he warns in a low voice as he pulls the door closed.

 

Steve nods, gulping, as he reaches for the TV remote and sets it to static.

Chapter Text

 

* * * 

 

The room is dead silent as El focuses: Steve watches as the lights above their heads begin to flicker, and a small drop of blood drips from her nose.

 

The lights begin flickering more rapidly, on and off, on and off, until suddenly they are still. El sighs in frustration, ripping off the blindfold.

 

“Couldn’t… Couldn’t find him,” she says softly. Max looks brokenly over at Billy, a couple stray tears falling as she nods, looking at El gratefully for trying.

 

“But…” El begins, and then she’s getting up off the floor and moving to stand next to Billy’s bedside. “Maybe we could find him… together.

 

El grabs Max’s hand and pulls her to a standing position beside her, then looks back at Steve and gestures for him to come over as well. He ambles over to stand where El points, so that he, El, and Max are gathered together in a small half-circle around Billy’s bed.

 

“What—” El shushes Steve with a finger to her lips.

 

“Steve, take Max’s hand, and Billy’s,” she instructs flatly, pointing towards the other side of the bed where Billy’s right hand rests.

 

Steve’s eyebrows shoot up in surprise at her request, but he follows her directions, threading his fingers through Max’s with one hand and grabbing Billy’s with the other, careful not to disturb the IV sticking out of his pale skin. Max and Steve both stare at El, waiting for further instructions. After a slow and steady inhale, El reaches up to tie the blindfold tightly around her eyes, and then she reaches out to take Billy’s and Max’s hands, completing the circle.

 

“Close your eyes,” she instructs softly, just as the lights above begin to flicker. Steve does as she says, squeezing his eyes shut, wondering what the hell was about to happen.

 

He starts to feel a weird vibration begin to course through his body, almost like a mild form of electrocution, but it doesn’t hurt. Steve keeps his eyes shut tight as the feeling overtakes him, and then his stomach drops out from under him, like he’s falling. He grasps onto the hands he’s holding a little tighter, trying to keep himself grounded, when the falling sensation abruptly stops and he feels a sudden urge to open his eyes.

 

He looks around, blinking in confusion, because they aren’t in the hospital room anymore. They’re in some sort of weird, dark place, and he’s standing in shallow water. He looks over at Max, who is looking just as lost as he is as they both turn to look at El.

 

“It worked,” El breathes, looking at them in amazement.

 

“Holy shit,” Steve murmurs, holding his hands up in front of him and turning them frontwards and backwards, just to make sure he isn’t dreaming.

 

“This is… This is where you go? When you find people?” Max asks incredulously, looking around at the endless expanse of darkness surrounding them. Each word she says is followed by a distant echo, the only other sound the gentle splashing of the water around El’s feet as she takes a couple steps forward, peering at something in the distance.

 

“Billy,” she says, pointing at an unrecognizable shape up ahead, and then they’re running, and Steve is wondering how long they have before El uses up all her strength and has to bring them back.

 

Max pulls ahead of both him and El, her arms pumping furiously at her sides as she runs towards the shape in the distance, her red hair stark against the darkness as it billows behind her. Steve keeps his eyes on her hair, not wanting to lose her in this strange place, until he sees what they’ve been running towards: An old, gray phone booth, with a single pale light shining through the glass panes. And inside, on the floor with his knees pulled up to his chest, is Billy.

 

“Billy!” Steve hears Max yell, but the sound is far away, and it sounds wrong. He looks around and is gripped by a sudden cold panic, because he can’t see El or Max anywhere, only darkness, and he falls to the ground, cold water splashing up around his outstretched hands. A warm hand places itself on his shoulder, and El is beside him again, pulling him up and leading him forward. The phone booth comes back into focus in front of him, and he sees Max, pulling frantically on the door and beating her hand against the glass.

 

“Billy, Billy!” Steve watches on helplessly as Max shouts Billy’s name over and over again through the glass, but he doesn’t respond, doesn’t even look up. His head is down, resting on his knees, and his shoulders are shaking. Steve comes over to try to help Max pull the door open, but El shakes her head at him, and he yanks the door with all his might but the damn thing won’t open.

 

Hiding,” El whispers to Steve, and his heart sinks.  If Billy didn’t want to wake up, if he wanted to just stay asleep until his body dies… Well, as much as Steve wanted things to play out differently, they couldn’t force him.

 

Max continues trying to punch through the glass until Steve sees that her knuckles are leaving bloody streaks. He steps forward to stop her, but El holds him in place, like she knows this is Max’s choice and he has to let her make it. He watches on as Max collapses against the glass of the phone booth, sobbing as she looks at her brother, trapped inside. After a few moments, she presses her forehead up against the glass and closes her eyes. Steve is startled to see a small smile spread across her face.

 

“Do you remember the first time we met?” she asks softly, her hand coming up to press itself carefully against the glass pane closest to where Billy is sitting. “Your dad introduced me to you. He made you shake my hand, and I could tell right away that you didn’t like me.” Max laughs, her eyes shining with unshed tears as she continues, “But you shook my hand, and then your dad told you to hang out with me for a while, get to know me. You brought me up to your room, and we climbed out the window and sat on the roof. I remember I could smell the ocean from up there, and we could see the beach. You had your stereo playing. We listened to all the good stuff—Def Leppard, Beastie Boys, ZZ Top, Van Halen, Whitesnake—And you quizzed me every time a new song came on, asked me if I knew who was singing…” Max smiles, looking down at the ground bashfully, "And I got every single one right. I remember that you smiled at me that night, like a real smile, and I thought maybe this wasn’t going to be so bad, that maybe we could actually get along.”

 

Steve’s crying now, big, fat tears streaming down his face, as he watches Max gaze inside the phone booth where Billy sits, crouched down and shaking, his face still hidden from view. Steve thinks he might see the shaking of Billy’s shoulders beginning to lessen at the sound of Max’s voice, but that might just be wishful thinking.

 

“I think I know why you don’t want to wake up, Billy,” Max murmurs softly through the glass. “I think you’re afraid that your life doesn’t mean anything. I think that some part of you believes that the world would be better off without you in it. That you deserve to die, and that no one will miss you.” Tears are running down Max’s face freely now, and she lets herself fall apart, one last desperate attempt before she lets him go.

 

“But I think the world is going to be better with you in it, Billy. I think you have so much life ahead of you, and you’re going to miss it if you stay here. And I would miss you, Billy. I would miss you every day, and—I need you, okay? I need you, I need my brother. I need you to come back to me.” Max closes her eyes, her shoulders slumping in defeat, forehead pressing up against the glass as she whispers desperately, “I love you, Billy. Please come home.”

 

El is gripping Steve’s hand tightly in her own, silent tears falling down her cheeks, as they watch Max stare despairingly at Billy, the echoes of her words fading into the darkness. Time seems to freeze for a second, and Steve holds his breath and counts down from three—Three, two, one—And he thinks for just a moment that this is it, that nothing is going to happen and that they’ve failed… until, as if he heard the countdown in Steve’s mind, Billy’s head jerks up, his tear-stained face settling on Max.

 

“M-Max?” Billy asks, looking terrified and small as he gazes up at her. Max lets out a heart-wrenching sob of relief, her hand pressing up against the glass of the booth, their gazes locked on each other.

 

Billy raises his hand and splays it out against the glass to meet hers, and then the phone booth and Max and Billy are dissolving into nothingness, and Steve feels like he’s falling again, squeezing his eyes shut as the darkness consumes him from all sides.

 

Steve’s eyes snap open, and they’re in the hospital room again—Eleven is tearing off her blindfold and Billy’s eyes are open, and he’s staring right at Max, his mouth slowly opening to say something. Before he can get the words out, Max is scrambling up onto the bed and collapsing into him, burying her face into the crook of his neck and sobbing. Billy looks surprised, but he doesn’t flinch away, instead threading his fingers through her hair, tears beginning to leak from the corners of his eyes as he holds her to him. Steve watches as Billy rubs gentle circles into Max’s back, making calming shhhing sounds until her sobs begin to quiet.

 

“I knew you’d wake up, I knew it,” Max murmurs into his neck, before leaning back to take a good look at him, as if she needs to convince herself that he's real.

 

“Yeah, you really don’t give up, do you, shitbird?” Billy asks hoarsely, and the smile that spreads across Max’s face at his comment is so precious and lovely, Steve thinks it could probably be classified as the 8th Wonder of the World.

 

Billy’s eyes find Steve then, and he keeps the eye contact for an uncomfortably long moment until his lips quirk up into the ghost of a smile, and he drawls,

 

“Am I dreamin’, or is that you, Harrington?”

 

* * *

Chapter Text

* * *

 

Steve is stunned momentarily, at how quickly and easily Billy has slipped back into his old self, but he still manages to crack a smile and respond, “Yeah, it’s me, don’t cream your pants.”

 

Billy grins like a happy cat, his tongue licking across his teeth—but this time, there is no malice behind it, just amusement. He still looks rough, like death warmed over, but his face is regaining some color and his eyes have a little bit of a sparkle to them.

 

“You look horrible,” Billy observes, gesturing at Steve’s bloodied face, “You lose another fight, Harrington?”

 

“Seriously? You want to know what you look like, Hargrove?” Steve asks, laughing incredulously, because of course the first thing Billy Hargrove does when he wakes up is give Steve shit.

 

“Steve, what is cream your pants?” El asks suddenly, her eyebrows furrowed in confusion. Steve makes an undignified squawk at the question, and Billy laughs so hard he falls into a fit of violent coughing.

 

“Well, hey look at the time! We should probably get the nurse and let them know that our pal Billy here is awake, and you should probably not mention that sentence to your dad like, ever, okay?” Steve begs, putting his hands on El’s shoulders and looking pleadingly into her eyes to show that he’s serious. They had already used up their daily miracle, so if Hopper killed Steve for corrupting his daughter, there was no bringing him back.

 

El nods, still looking confused, but smiles and holds out her pinky. Steve hooks his pinky with hers, sealing it with a promise, and reaches out to ruffle her hair fondly. “You did good today, kid,” he murmurs. El beams at the compliment.

 

Steve looks over at Billy, who has ceased coughing and is now batting Max’s hand away from fixing his hair. “Hands off, shitbird,” he says, with absolutely no bite to his words.

 

“We’ll give you guys a second to catch up. I’m gonna go let the nurse know you’re up, and fill Hopper in,” Steve begins, making to lead El out of the room, but she stops him.

 

“Wait,” El says softly, before wandering over to stand by Billy’s bedside. She just stares at him for a moment, and then she reaches out to grab his hand, holding it gingerly in hers. Billy looks surprised, almost like he wants to flinch away, but he doesn’t. His cool blue gaze settles on her, waiting.

 

“You saved me,” El begins softly, and Billy draws in a breath. Her fingers tighten around his and he looks down at their hands, before hesitantly looking back up at her. “You are not bad,” El says slowly, as if making sure Billy understands each and every word.

 

“I was. I was… bad,” Billy replies softly, but Steve watches as El shakes her head. Steve swears he sees tears filling up in Billy’s eyes.

 

Not you,” El replies emphatically, “The monster. The monster made you bad. You are not bad.

 

Billy can only stare at her, his mouth working but no sound coming out. “Thank you, Billy,” El says simply, squeezing his hand once more before turning away and joining Steve at the door.

 

Steve glances back at Billy once more, who is leaning back into his pillows looking-shell shocked. Steve’s gaze settles on Max and she smiles warmly at him and El, nodding as they slip out the door.

 

Hopper is waiting for them outside, and he jumps out of his chair immediately when he sees El. “Hey kid, how’d it go?” he asks, his tone cautious.

 

El smiles proudly. “It worked. Max talked to Billy, and he heard her. He is awake now.”

 

The look of surprise that crosses Hopper’s face borders on the edge of comical, but he schools his features, pulling El into a tight hug. “Way to go, kiddo. Always savin’ the day.” El grins and wraps her arms around Hopper’s neck, looking delighted at the praise.

 

Steve clears this throat and starts heading towards the nurse’s station, because he will not be crying at this precious family moment, thank you very much. The nurse is just hanging up the phone when he approaches the counter. “Excuse me, but Billy Hargrove is awake.” Steve watches as the nurse’s eyebrows fly up in surprise, and she immediately pages the doctor.

 

Hopper and El head back to the Byers’ house to eat breakfast with everyone, but Hopper promises Steve that he’ll come back in the afternoon to discuss Plan A, now that Billy was awake.

 

Steve stays. He doesn’t exactly know why—he thinks it’s because he doesn’t want to leave Max, but there’s also a part of him that genuinely wants to make sure that Billy is okay.

 

The next hour is full of all kinds of tests. Max remains perched on the bed next to Billy the whole time, and Steve’s heart tugs a little when the nurse takes out a really big needle for some blood tests, and Billy’s hand whips out to grab Max’s ankle when the needle pierces his skin.

 

The doctor (a new one—Dr. Atkinson had apparently finished his overnight shift) asks Billy several questions to check whether or not he has lost any of his memory. What year it is, his name, his birthday. Billy answers all of them easily, except when the doctor asks him if he remembers the accident. His blue eyes flit over to Steve in panic, and Steve immediately intervenes.

 

“Yeah, sorry, man—Pretty sure your Camaro is totaled,” he laughs, even as the doctor fixes him with a glare because Steve wasn’t supposed to be the one answering the question.

 

“I remember—The car hitting something. And then it was on fire. And then… Nothing.” Steve can see Billy begin to shift uncomfortably in the bed, discomfort evident on his face.

 

The doctor scribbles some notes down on his clipboard, and then he stands and moves to leave. Steve gets up quickly to follow him. “Hey, doc?” Steve asks, keeping his voice low as he glances back at Billy. “I didn’t see them give him anything for the pain. I mean, he was practically skewered like a shish kebab, you know?

 

The doctor looks at him, clearly unimpressed, but nods. “I’ll send a nurse in,” he says coolly, and Steve finds himself longing for Dr. Atkinson’s comforting smile, because this guy is a douchebag.

 

A nurse comes in and fixes something to Billy’s IV drip—Steve watches as the drugs take effect and Billy’s body relaxes a bit more into the pillows.

 

“Harrington,” Billy breathes, his eyelids closing for a moment, looking a great deal more peaceful. Steve watches as Billy hooks his finger, gesturing him closer. He scrambles into a chair and pulls it up close—Max hangs her leg off of the bed so that her sneaker is resting on Steve’s thigh, smiling at him playfully.

 

“Yeah, man.” Steve says, “I’m here.”

 

Billy’s eyes snap open, and Steve is stunned for a moment by the icy blue of his gaze. “Tell me everything. From the beginning. And don’t leave anything out. Not even the…” Billy swallows hard, his Adam’s apple bobbing, “Not even the bad shit.”

 

And hell, what choice does Steve have? So, he tells Billy. He tells Billy about where Will was for the week he was lost. He tells him about the Demogorgon, and about Eleven and the lab. He tells him about Will’s time possessed by the Mind Flayer, and how they had to burn the fucker out of him. He tells him about the demodogs, and the tunnels that he still had nightmares about. He tells him about El closing the gate. He tells him about the Russians and how they re-opened the gate, and that’s why the Mind Flayer had gotten Billy. He pauses at this point, because he didn’t really know everything that monster Billy had done, because he’d been underground fighting the Russians pretty much the entire time.

 

Max seems to sense his hesitation, because she reaches out to loop her fingers around Billy’s, effectively redirecting his attention to her. “Maybe it would be easier to tell us what you do remember, and then I can fill in the blanks,” she says gently, and Billy is looking at her with this soft expression and Steve really can’t believe this is the same asshole that beat his face in last year.

 

“I remember…” Billy squeezes his eyes shut, his eyebrows contorting painfully, like he doesn’t want to remember but knows he has to, “I remember driving by the old steel works building, and then… And then something hit my car. Broke the goddamn windshield, whatever it was. I almost crashed, and when I got out to look at what it was, something…” he shudders, “Something strong reached out and grabbed me, and pulled me into the building. I tried to grab onto something, but it was too fucking strong, too fast. And then… Something started like, sucking on my face, and I couldn’t breathe and I couldn’t see and it felt like I was gonna fucking die. Next thing I know, it let me go, and I jumped into my car and drove away. I pulled over and tried to call 911, but then the air smelled wrong and the lights were flickering and there was this crowd of fucking people marching towards me… And one of them looked like me. It was me. And it told me it wanted to build something.”

 

Billy reaches out and blindly snakes his hand around Max’s ankle again, gripping it like an anchor, and Steve doesn’t even think he realizes he’s doing it.

 

“Then I remember being back by the pool, and feeling like I was fucking burning alive. And I went to the shower, to try to cool down, and Heather was there. And I…” Billy’s voice catches, “I hurt her. I put her in the trunk of my car, and I brought her to that thing, and then we took her parents there too… And there were others…” Billy trailed off, looking over at Max. “And you. I remember you. You came to Heather’s house, with that girl, El… to see if we were okay. And then you were there in the pool locker room. You and your friends locked me in the sauna, and you…” Billy’s eyes widen with realization, “You were trying to burn it out of me. Like you did with the other kid.”

 

“Will,” Max gently reminds him. Billy’s hand squeezes her ankle. “Yeah, Will. But… your plan didn’t work. It was still in me. I tried to hurt you. And I was scared out of my fucking mind, because I didn’t know how to stop it. And it just kept… Making me do things. Making me build. This army, of so many fucking people… Innocent peopleAnd it wanted your friend, more than anything. That’s all it could focus on, was killing her. And I couldn’t disobey, it was like I was stuck in the passenger seat of a car and I couldn’t move, I couldn’t hit the brakes and I couldn’t fucking steer, I was just…trapped.”

 

Steve shifts uncomfortably in his seat, but he knows this is important, knows that Billy needs to get this off his chest if he’s ever going to move on from it.

 

“Your friend tried to stop me, so many times, but it always found a way to escape. And then, that night at the mall, I’d finally done what it wanted… I’d found her, and I’d laid her down in front of it, the sacrifice it had demanded… And she started talking to me. And it was like… It was like she was in my head.” Billy closes his eyes, a gentle smile playing on his lips. “She was telling me about my mom. It was weird, she knew exactly what she was wearing, the things she said… Almost like she’d been there. And I don’t know how, but it brought me back, just for a second. And I realized I couldn’t let that thing kill this little girl.”

 

Billy pauses, tapping his finger where it rested against Max’s ankle. “I remember feeling it slice right through me, so many fucking times, and I remember telling you I was sorry. And then everything went black, and I thought I was dead.”

 

Max’s eyes are wide, and she nods, urging him to continue. “Then I heard your voice. It was so far away, and I could barely hear it. Everything was still so dark. But you were saying something about my hair, and something about how I was an asshole but you still loved me.” Billy smiled, laughing as Max blushed a deep shade of red. “But I couldn’t… I couldn’t wake up. I don’t know why, it was almost like I didn’t even know how. And then it felt like that thing was still in the darkness with me, and I was terrified. I imagined myself running and hiding, hiding in that damn phone booth…” Billy trails off. “And there was your goddamn voice again, shitbird, but it was so much louder this time. And you were talking about the first night we met, and telling me to wake up, because you needed me. And then I wasn’t afraid anymore, and before I knew it, I woke up to Harrington’s ugly mug over there.”

 

Steve lets out a bark of laughter—he can’t fucking help it, because Billy was literally just at death’s door, and he’s still here cracking jokes at Steve’s expense.

 

“Hey, that mug is the reason you’re here, you know,” Max says, pointing at Steve. Billy’s eyes slide over to Steve, his eyebrow quirked up curiously. Steve shifts uncomfortably under the intensity of his gaze.

 

“It’s not a big deal,” Steve murmurs, looking down at his feet.

 

“It was a very big deal,” Max disagrees, “Steve picked your ass up, dragged you out to the car, and broke every posted speed limit to get you here. The doctors said that if he hadn’t gotten you here so fast, you wouldn’t have…” she trails off, looking nauseous at the mere thought. “He saved your life,” she finishes quietly.

 

Steve looks up to find Billy staring at him, his expression unreadable. He feels a light blush begin to creep across his cheeks, but Billy doesn’t look away.

 

“That true, Harrington?” Billy finally asks, his voice quiet and gentle, which Steve is definitely not used to. He almost wishes Billy would yell at him or punch him in the face, because this new nice Billy is kind of freaking him out.

 

“Like I said, it’s not a big deal,” Steve says, running a hand through his hair in agitation. “Anybody would have done it.”

 

“No, they wouldn’t have. Not for a guy that beat their face in.” Billy is the one who looks uncomfortable now. Steve watches as Billy releases Max’s ankle and holds his hand out to Steve, looking more at the floor than him.

 

“Thanks, Harrington,” is all he says, as Steve tentatively reaches out to grasp Billy’s hand. His skin feels cool to the touch, and Steve worries about that, like shouldn’t he be warm by now? But he says nothing, simply gives Billy’s fingers a quick squeeze and then drops his hand.

 

“Don’t mention it. Like, really, please don’t,” Steve says lightly, earning an amused laugh from Billy. “Max did all the work after that. I just got you here.”

 

Billy turns his attention to Max then, reaching out and tugging at a strand of her red hair. “I’ve been a shitty brother to you,” Billy says quietly, more to the strand of hair wrapped around his thumb than to Max, “And I’m sorry for that. It would be cool to…” he sighs, letting the hair fall back into place, “To get to know you. To be your brother, for real.”

 

Max’s face lights up and she falls into Billy, wrapping her arms around him, and she doesn’t need to say anything back because they both know.

 

Steve can’t help the “Aww” that comes out of his mouth at the sight, because even though he’s a little jealous that Max wasn’t actually his little sister, having an alive Billy for Max to hug was exactly what he had been praying for.

 

“Stuff it, Harrington,” Billy snaps, his icy blue eyes glaring at him through the red curtain of Max’s hair.

 

Steve smiles, because Billy’s still holding Max, and it kinda looks like he’s never gonna let go.

 

An all bark and no bite Billy Hargrove—Steve can work with that.

 

* * *

 

Hopper returns in the afternoon, in full Chief of Police uniform and a file folder in his hands. El and the others aren’t with him, Steve notes in surprise.

 

“I thought it would be best if we gave him some time to recover before we overwhelm him with the Brady Bunch,” Hopper replies nonchalantly when he sees Steve searching the lobby behind him.

 

“Yeah, you’re probably right,” Steve replies, and then gazes down at the file that Hopper is clutching. “Okay, so how does this work again?”

 

“Well, kid, he’s gotta give me a statement, which is probably gonna take some convincing. But he’s 18, he’s already legally emancipated. All that’s left is to make sure he’s okay with the living arrangements we’ve got in mind, and make sure he’s got income coming in. Then I’m going to head to his house, and take care of the rest.”

 

There’s a dangerous glint in Hopper’s eyes, and Steve wonders what exactly he’s planning to do when he gets to the Hargrove residence.

 

“Oh, and by the way—let Red know that I called in a favor to a mechanic buddy of mine, and he thinks he can fix up Billy’s car. He owes me some money, so he’s going to do it for free. I thought she’d be happy to hear that.”

 

“Aw, Red,” Steve coos. It’s a pretty damn cute nickname. Hopper rolls his eyes at Steve’s gooey expression.

 

“Cut it out,” he growls, pulling his hat down over his head, “Go fill Red in on what’s going on—maybe it would help for her to tell him the plan, soften him up a little bit.” Hopper gives Steve a quick nod before he strides purposefully towards the nurse’s station. Steve can overhear him asking for some sort of document, but he pays it no mind as he slips back into the room.

 

Max is lounging in a chair by Billy, who’s been sleeping soundly for the last couple hours. There came a point after their conversation where Billy had started to look like he was really struggling, when his breathing had become shallow and his forehead had started glistening with sweat. It had been pretty clear to Steve that the pain meds had worn off, and Max had frantically called for a nurse. Whatever the nurse had given Billy had effectively knocked him out in about 5 minutes, which was good, Steve reasoned, because Billy was probably really fucking tired.

 

“Hey, kiddo, why don’t you come out into the hall with me? We’ll only be a second,” Steve whispers, watching as Max looks at Billy frantically, like she doesn’t want to let him out of her sight ever again.

 

“Okay,” she says reluctantly, her pale fingers reaching out to press themselves into Steve’s outstretched hand and following him into the hallway.

 

Steve sits them down in a couple cozy chairs by the nurse’s break room. He can see Hopper over by the nurse’s station, scribbling some things in the file he had with him.

 

“Hop wanted me to tell you that his friend is working on fixing up Billy’s Camaro. He thought you’d be pretty stoked,” Steve begins, figuring he should start with the good news first.

 

Max’s face lights up at the news. “Oh man, he’s gonna be so happy! I can’t wait to see his face!”

 

Steve grins at her, and thinks to himself that a happy Max makes the world seem like a way less scary place.

 

“There’s something else, squirt.” Steve pauses for a second, trying to organize his thought process. He knows this is a good idea, knows that this is what Max asked him to do when she demanded he figure something out, but somehow he’s still afraid to put it out in the open. “I’ve been working with Hopper on a way to keep Billy safe. You know, from… well, what you told me about before.”

 

Max is sitting up stick-straight now, her eyes wide with fear.

 

“I wanna start by saying that you’re both too young to be dealing with this, Max. And that no one should feel afraid to go home.” Steve pauses, licking his tongue agitatedly across his dry lips. “But Hopper wants to help. You see, the thing is, the doctor—You know, Dr. Atkinson, the nice one we really like?—In Billy’s medical report, he wrote that he noticed signs of… previous physical abuse. Like, cracked ribs that had healed over, and broken bones that didn’t quite grow back correctly.”

 

Steve’s chest feels like it’s ripping open as he watches the color drain from Max’s face, but she simply nods, gazing at him stoically as she waits for him to continue. Steve knows that this isn’t news to Max, but it still hurts like hell to say it out loud in front of her.

 

“So, Hopper’s getting copies of the doctor’s report, and then he wants to take a statement from Billy. And then he’s going to take it to a judge, and he’s going to ask for what’s called an Order for Protection, so that your stepdad can’t even get near Billy. And if he does, he’ll go to jail.”

 

Max is nodding, and Steve thinks he might see the tiniest glimmer of hope in her eyes as she looks up at him. “But where will Billy live, then?” she asks quietly.

 

Steve glances over to Hopper, who is looking at them from across the room. “Actually, I was kind of thinking of having him stay with me for a while.”

 

Max’s mouth opens wide in surprise, and Steve is instantly reminded of Dustin and the very similar face he makes when he realizes his mother has run out of chocolate pudding.

 

“You would… You would do that?” Max asks incredulously. “Won’t your parents mind?”

 

Steve laughs—There is a bitter edge to it that he really hopes Max doesn’t notice. “They’re traveling around Europe all summer, so they’re not really around to mind.”

 

Max purses her lips, mulling Steve’s plan over. “Are you sure he won’t drive you crazy, though? I mean, obviously I’m going to be over like, all the time, but when I’m not there… you’re gonna have to take care of him. Is that really okay with you?”

 

She looks so serious and concerned that Steve wants to laugh a little, but he settles for reaching out to ruffle her hair. “Yeah, squirt. I’ve got this really sexy nurse’s outfit that Nancy wore one Halloween that I’ve been dying to put to use.”

 

Max practically guffaws at what Steve is sure is a horrifying image for such a young girl, and she smacks him in the arm. “Well, if the Mind Flayer didn’t kill Billy, maybe you in heels will finish the job,” she jokes playfully, and Steve raises a hand to his chest, pretending to be very much offended.

 

“Excuse you, judgeypants,” he says, reaching out to pinch her side. She squeaks and bats his hand away, her face flushed.

 

“I think it’s a really good idea, Steve. I just don’t know if Billy is going to want to give Hopper a statement. He’s really private, and he’s going to hate that this is out there, that people are talking about him…” Max trails off, chewing on the inside of her cheek thoughtfully.

 

“I think you should tell him, Max. It will sting less, coming from you. And you just have to tell him the doctors told Hopper, and that nobody besides us knows. I know he isn’t going to love the idea of staying with me, but I’m pretty sure he’ll see the upside once you tell him how absolutely delightful I am to be around.”

 

Max snorts, rolling her eyes and hopping out of the chair. “Yeah, I’m not sure that’s the word I’d use. But you’re pretty fucking cool, Steve. And it’s really cool that you want to help my brother.”

 

Steve follows her lead and stands up. Max wraps her arms tightly around his waist, burying her face into the soft material of his (Jonathan’s) T-shirt. “It’s gonna be okay, kiddo. We’re not gonna let anything bad happen to him.”

 

* * *

 

Hopper is waiting outside Billy’s room for Max’s cue, and Steve is fucking nervous. He had offered to leave the room and wait with Hop, would have preferred it actually, but Max had said that she wants him here for support. He thinks Billy is going to hate him being here, especially when the topic of conversation is something so obviously private, so he drags his chair into the corner and pretends to busy himself by flipping through a faded copy of a Smash Hits magazine.

 

Billy had woken up about ten minutes ago, and Max had kept him distracted for a bit with some needling questions about how he was feeling and if he wanted anything to eat or drink yet, but the food the nurse had brought in for him remained untouched. He was eyeing her suspiciously now, from where she was sitting cross-legged near the end of his bed, and Steve knew that Billy could sense something was up.

 

“All right shitbird, spit it out. You got something to say?” Billy asks, flicking his finger against the bottom of her sneaker.

 

Max nods, gulping—Steve can only see the side of her face from where he’s sitting, but he can see the determined set of her mouth. She isn’t scared of her brother—not of him hurting her, not anymore. This time, she’s scared of hurting him, by dragging something into the light that Billy has tried really, really hard to keep hidden in the darkness.

 

“Billy, I know you don’t like people knowing your business. And this is gonna be kind of hard for you to hear, okay? But the truth is out there, and I’m really hoping that you can find a way to feel relieved about it, instead of mad…” Max pauses, chewing on her lip as she looks to gauge his response.

 

Billy’s eyebrows knit together, and the expression on his face darkens, but he says nothing. Steve notes, with relief, that Billy’s hand is reaching out towards Max’s ankle, and Steve watches as Billy’s thumb quickly swipes across it. He can’t tell if it’s meant to be a calming gesture for Max, or if it’s more of a grounding tactic for Billy, but whatever it is, it seems to set both of them a little more at ease.

 

“Okay. Keep talking,” Billy says stiffly, and Steve can hear the waver in his voice, as if he’s trying hard to keep his anger at bay.

 

“When the doctor was examining you, he saw some things… Things that had happened before last night. Things that made him think that someone was hurting you.” Max squeezes her eyes shut, and Steve keeps his eyes glued to the magazine—He doesn’t want to look at Billy right now, either. It feels like an invasion of privacy.

 

“We listed Hopper as your emergency contact when we checked you in, and we lied and said your parents were out of town. Because I didn’t want… I didn’t want him finding out.” Max takes a deep breath in, steadying herself, “The doctor told Hopper about the… things he saw. And Billy, I know you’re mad, because you always said it isn’t anybody’s business, but the Chief wants to help you. We all do.”

 

Steve feels Billy’s gaze settle on him, and he’s surprised that it doesn’t burn a hole in the magazine page in front of him.

 

“Is that so?” Billy asks—his question is directed at Steve, and he sounds like he’s dangerously tipping on the edge of angry.

 

“Billy,” Max says softly, and she pulls him back into her atmosphere, his expression calming the tiniest degree as he looks into her big, concerned eyes. “Hopper wants you to give a statement about what Neil did to you. And then he’ll take the doctor’s notes, and your statement, and he’s gonna take it to a judge. And Hop thinks that there’s enough evidence that will convince the judge to approve an Order of Protection against Neil, and then…” Max pauses, her lip quivering “And then he can never fucking touch you again.”

 

“I don’t need to be babied, Maxine. I can handle my old man,” Billy says through gritted teeth. Steve can see Billy becoming defensive, can see it in the tense set of his shoulders and the snarl in his lip.

 

“Billy, look at yourself! You can’t even get out of bed by yourself right now. If you come home and Neil decides to pick a fight with you when your body hasn’t even healed, and we both know he would because he has no fucking boundaries, he could kill you. Please don’t be stupid about this, Billy. You know I’m right.” Max reaches out to grab his hand, but Billy recoils from her, looking away. A brief flicker of hurt flashes across her face, but she steels herself.

 

“And where exactly would I live, Maxine? Under a fucking bridge like a fucking bum?” Billy snarls, and there is a new, vicious bite behind his words.

 

“No, man. Of course not.” Steve decides to insert himself now, because Max kind of looks like she wants to cry and he can’t fucking stand it. He knows Billy doesn’t mean any harm—He’s feeling trapped, and much like a cornered dog, his teeth are bared and ready to bite at any hand that comes near him. Steve figures he can handle the sting a little better than Max can.

 

“I’d like you to stay at my place, actually,” Steve says casually, approaching the side of the bed and placing a comforting hand on Max’s back. “My parents are gone all summer in Europe, and I wouldn’t mind having someone else in the house. I already wake up half the time, convinced someone’s walking around. Might be nice to know those sounds are actually coming from a real person.”

 

Steve feels a little raw after he says that, like he just cut himself open and let his guts spill onto the floor for both Max & Billy to see, but he knows that the last thing Billy needs, or wants, is to feel like a fucking charity case. And Steve isn’t lying—He wouldn’t hate having someone else in the house, even if that someone had pummeled him to the edge of brain damage last year. And if Billy was around, that meant Max would be around too, and Steve definitely didn’t hate that idea either.

 

“You’re serious, Harrington? You want to be roomies?” The malice from Billy’s expression is gone, Steve notes in relief, and he actually looks a little amused. Billy’s fingers are tugging absentmindedly at Max’s shoelace, and she looks over to cast Steve a stunning, grateful smile.

 

“The guest bedroom is literally on the other end of the house—You’ll probably barely even notice I’m there most days,” Steve replies easily. He watches as the tension drains from Billy’s shoulders.

 

“Yeah, actually Billy, Steve was just telling me about this nurse's costume he has—”

 

“Maxine, is NOTHING sacred?!” Steve screeches, but clearly his yelling isn’t fucking scary at all, because she’s burying her face in Billy’s sheets and crying, yes, crying, with laughter.

 

(Steve knows he’s a goddamn joke, but may it be noted that he’s a good fucking sport about it.)

 

Billy is smiling like the fucking Cheshire Cat, and when he very intently drags his eyes up and down Steve’s body, Steve feels violated.

 

You’re gonna have to tell me more about this outfit, Harrington. I’ll admit, you’ve piqued my interest.” He licks across his teeth and Steve wants to fucking punch him, he really does.

 

“Such privileges are earned, Hargrove,” Steve replies haughtily, hands on his hips, and Max is fucking choking from the laughter now. Goddamnit, this child.

 

Once Max’s laughter has faded away, Billy’s cool gaze settles on Steve. “Go get the Chief, Harrington. Tell him I’m ready to talk.”

 

Steve jumps out of his chair, eager to escape being the butt of literally every joke, when Billy calls to him, “Take Max with you, I don’t want her hearing this.”

 

Max doesn’t argue, just looks at her brother and nods encouragingly. Billy squeezes the toe end of her sneaker, the smile on his face not quite reaching his eyes, as she slips off of the bed and heads out the door with Steve.

 

Hopper is already getting up from his chair as they shuffle out into the hallway, placing his hat carefully back onto his head.

 

“Looking forward to seeing that costume, kid,” Hopper says under his breath as he passes, a shit-eating grin on his face as he claps Steve on the shoulder. Damn hospitals and their paper-thin walls, Steve thinks begrudgingly as he and Max collapse into the chairs outside the room, Max tired from laughing and Steve tired from being laughed at. Is this how Dustin feels, like, all the time? His sweet little Roast Beef—Steve is going to make a concerted effort to give him less shit from now on.

 

He turns to the side to see Max looking at him, her lips pursed tightly together as if she’s trying really hard not to laugh. “What are you thinking about?” she asks, her eyes sparkling with mirth.

 

“About how Dustin must feel when you little assholes constantly tease him,” Steve replies, but his tone is light.

 

Max smiles, bumping her shoulder with his. “Yeah, but the more we tease, the more it means we love somebody.”

 

Steve snickers. “Yeah? Well if that’s true, then your dickhole brother must be madly in love with me.”

 

Max laughs quietly. “Pretty sure stranger things have happened,” she responds, grinning up at Steve, and he snorts.

 

“There is nothing in this world stranger than your brother, Maxine. Nothing.”

 

She laughs at that, because of course she does, and Steve leans back in his chair and closes his eyes, thinking about how he definitely has to go home and burn that fucking nurse’s costume before Billy can get his hands on it.

 

* * *

Chapter Text

 

 

* * *

 

Hopper comes out of Billy’s room after about forty-five minutes. His eyebrows are drawn tightly together and his eyes have a distant, haunted look.

 

Max notices Hopper’s expression and bolts up from her chair, rushing back into Billy’s room without a word. She knows better than to ask.

 

Steve watches as Hopper collapses heavily in the chair next to him, sniffing loudly as he reaches up to pinch the bridge of his nose. “That son of a bitch. When I get my hands on him—” Hopper sucks in a sharp breath, closing his eyes and leaning back against the chair. Steve can see the rage boiling just beneath his skin, can see it in the way his fingers are twitching against the armrest.

 

There isn’t anything that seems an appropriate response, even as Steve’s brain sifts through the various options. Steve knows that if Hopper is this upset, that whatever Billy told him is really fucked up. As in, more fucked up than the Upside Down, the Mind Flayer, or evil Russians trying to kill them—Something a hell of a lot more sinister. His skin crawls as he tries to imagine exactly what kind of man would inspire the raw fear he saw in Max’s eyes, when she fervently insisted that Billy couldn’t go home. He remembers the crazed look in Billy’s eyes as he pounded punch after punch into Steve’s skull, as if he finally had the upper hand and wasn’t about to surrender it.

 

Hopper sighs, a loud and heavy sound, before glancing sideways over at Steve. “All right, kid. Here’s the deal. I’m going to head to the station and have Flo get this typed out,” he holds the file up, which Steve notices is a great deal thicker than before, “And I’m going to get the paperwork to the judge’s house and get it signed. Then, I’m going to circle back here and you, me and Red are going to head to the Hargroves’ around 5:00. Susan called Joyce at the house before I came here, wondering if she’d heard from Billy and asking her to bring Maxine home by dinnertime. Joyce didn’t say anything about Billy, but she couldn’t get Susan to back down about her daughter being back by 5:00, so we’re gonna have to bring the kiddo home. I know she’s not gonna like that.” Hopper sighs, removing his hat from his head to run his fingers through his hair in agitation. “What I need you to do, when we get there, is to take Max to Billy’s room and start packing up his things. I’ve seen this before, kid—When I inform Mr. Hargrove that he will not be permitted to come within 50 feet of his own son, things are gonna get ugly. After we leave, he’ll probably destroy any of Billy’s possessions that he can get his hands on. You have to be quick—Just bag everything up, and throw it out a window if you can. I’ll sit the fucker down and let him know about Billy’s accident, and that he will no longer be permitted to see him. Hopefully with his wife present, he’ll stay calm, and I won’t have to break his fucking nose.”

 

Steve nods, mulling over the plan and going over logistics in his head. “Okay, I think we can handle that,” he finally replies, his throat dry. He knows Max is going to hate leaving Billy, and he wonders if Susan is going to insist Max stay the night at home. An icy feeling creeps down the back of his neck at the thought of pulling away from the Hargrove’s house with Max in the window, watching them drive off.

 

“You go tell the kid the plan,” Hopper says gently. “I’m going to head to the station.” With a quick squeeze to Steve’s shoulder, Hop heads down the hallway and out of sight.

 

Steve takes a deep breath and steels himself before heading back into Billy’s hospital room. As he slips through the door, Billy’s head jerks up from where he had been looking at Max, laughing at something she’d said, and his hard blue gaze settles on Steve. He looks pissed and vulnerable all at once, eyeing Steve suspiciously, perhaps wondering if Hopper had passed along any sensitive information. Steve meets his gaze and nods once, reassuringly, before coming over to pull up a chair next to where one of Max’s sneakers is hanging off the bed.

 

“Hopper’s heading back to the station to get the paperwork sorted, and then we’re going to head to your house at about 5:00. Your mom really wants you home for dinner.” Steve looks apologetically at Max, but she just nods and rolls her eyes, like she knew it was coming. “Hopper’s going to sit down with Billy’s dad and your mom once he gets there.”

 

Billy’s hand snakes out to grip Max’s ankle, his knuckles white. She grimaces slightly, but says nothing. “You gonna be there, Harrington? With Max?” he asks, a dangerous edge to his voice. Steve watches Max’s tiny hand reach out to gently settle on top of Billy’s—his grip relaxes slightly at the contact.

 

“Yeah, of course. I’ll be there,” Steve says, more to Max than to Billy. She nods, smiling at him gratefully, but looks back to Billy when his thumb taps the side of her ankle.

 

“Max,” Billy begins, and his tone is similar to that of a parent giving their child a lecture, “You should stay the night with your mom tonight. Get yourself a pair of clean clothes, sleep in your own bed. My old man’s not gonna be happy after the Chief gives him the news, but he’s got a soft spot for you, you know he does, and it will help your mom if you’re around. I don’t want him to think you’re off visiting me, so please, do me this favor, and spend the night at home tonight.”

 

Billy gives her ankle a comforting squeeze, looking up at her imploringly, and Max sighs in defeat. Steve hates it, but he knows Billy’s right. “Okay,” Max begins begrudgingly, “But I’m gonna come right away in the morning to see you—right, Steve?” Max looks over at him, wearing a puppy dog face to end all puppy dog faces, and Steve wonders why she thinks he’d ever say no to her.

 

Steve smiles and says, “Of course, squirt—Try and keep me away.”

 

When he chances a glance at Billy, Steve is pretty shocked to see that Billy is not only looking at him gratefully, but he’s also smiling.

 

Will wonders never cease?

 

* * *

 

There comes a point, after the nurses comes in to administer his pain medication, when Billy’s eyes start to droop, and Steve can tell he needs to rest for a while. It’s going on 4:30, and Hopper’s probably going to be by soon to pick Steve and Max up anyway, so he figures this is a good time to slip out.

 

Max also senses that Billy is starting to drift off. Steve watches as she pulls Billy’s hand up to her lips, gives his fingers a quick peck, and whispers a goodbye. Billy smiles at her sleepily, giving her hand a gentle squeeze before letting go. Steve’s chest fucking aches at the interaction—Here were two people that had been gifted a second chance to be good to each other, and it’s clear how determined they are to do it right this time.

 

Steve’s arm loops itself comfortingly around Max’s shoulder as they head out the door and into the hallway. He knows she’s got tears in her eyes right now, and he also knows she probably doesn’t want to talk about it, so he settles for keeping her pressed into his side as they walk towards the front reception area together.

 

He remembers, as they take a seat to wait, that he hasn’t told Max yet about Hopper’s plan for gathering up Billy’s belongings. (He hadn’t wanted to tell Billy, because he’d probably hate the thought of Steve going through his things—Steve figured that when it came to Billy, it would be better to ask for forgiveness than permission).

 

When he tells her about the plan, Max’s entire face lights up, and she looks incredibly grateful to have something proactive to do. “We can bring all of it to your house, right? And I could get his bedroom set up for him, I know how he likes it and—” Max blushes, cutting herself off and looking down at her hands. “I mean, if that’s okay, I know he won’t be staying with you forever.”

 

Steve gently tips her chin up to look at him. “He’s gonna stay with me as long as he needs to, okay, squirt? And I think he’d really like to have his room all set up. We can work on that tomorrow, after we visit him in the morning.”

 

He swallows past the dread rising up in his throat like bile, thinking about what might be waiting for them at the Hargrove residence. Steve trusts Hopper, like infinitely, but he worries about what will happen if things get out of hand between Mr. Hargrove and the Chief. He promises himself that if things go sideways, his sole focus will be getting Max to safety, and he’ll let Hopper handle the rest.

 

A police car pulls up to the front doors, and Steve sees Hopper roll the window down and gesture them outside. Steve clambers into the backseat with Max, because she looks nervous and he doesn’t want her left alone to her thoughts.

 

The drive is silent besides the faint background music coming from the radio. Steve wants to say something, anything, but Max is looking blankly out the window and doesn’t look particularly in the mood to talk. When they’re about three minutes away from her house, her hand slides over on the seat and her pinky loops around his. It’s a subtle gesture, but Steve understands it, and he curls his pinky around hers and squeezes it in return. I’ve got you.

 

When they reach the house, Hopper pulls up farther down the road to park, so that his vehicle is out of view of the front windows. He kills the engine, taking a steadying breath before carefully placing his hat onto his head and stepping out of the car, file in hand. Max follows him, her hands balled into fists at her sides as she slowly walks up the steps leading to the front door. Steve comes to stand behind her on the front step, and watches as Hopper raises his hand to knock on the door.

 

Relief floods through Steve as he sees a red-headed woman open the door, and he remembers her name is Susan. Her eyes widen at the sight of Hopper, staring worriedly up at him.

 

“Is everything all right, officer?” she asks, glancing at Max, then Steve, then back to Hopper.

 

“Mrs. Hargrove? I’m Chief of Police of Hawkins, Jim Hopper. There is an urgent matter concerning your stepson, Billy, that I need to discuss with you and your husband. May we come in?” Susan looks absolutely petrified, but she opens the door anyway. The three of them step inside, and Hopper gestures to Steve.

 

“This is Steve Harrington, he’s a good friend of Max’s. He’s going to take her to her room, play some music, and keep her company while the adults talk.” Hopper frames it as a statement, not a question, and Susan is nodding as Max leads Steve towards the back of the house, where her room and Billy’s must be situated. As they pass through the kitchen, she grabs a roll of garbage bags from one of the cupboards.

 

When they reach her bedroom, Max goes inside and presses play on a small pink boombox on her dresser, and the peppy beginning of Angel by Madonna begins filling the room as she creeps back out into the hallway and pulls the door shut with a soft click. They follow the narrow hall until they come upon Billy’s bedroom, if the heavy smell of cigarette smoke and cologne is any indication.

 

Steve can hear Susan’s distant voice back in the living room asking “Is Billy all right? Is he hurt?” before he hears a door slam somewhere, and then Billy’s dad’s voice is filling the house.

 

“Christ! What kind of trouble has Billy gotten into now?”

 

“Sit down, Mr. Hargrove,” comes Hopper’s stern voice. Steve rushes Max into Billy’s bedroom and closes the door behind them, locking it.

 

“We don’t have a lot of time, let’s get moving,” Steve whispers softly, looking around at the various items strewn about the floor, end tables, and dresser in Billy’s room. Max has her music turned up just enough to mostly drown out the voices, but he can definitely hear Billy’s dad’s voice, and it sounds loud and angry.

 

Max hands Steve a garbage bag and he goes straight to Billy’s dresser, figuring Max would be more scandalized than he would be at having to handle Billy’s underwear. He quickly and methodically empties each drawer, while Max starts in on filling a bag with all of the clothes in his closet. Steve bags up each of Billy’s speakers, his stereo, and his cassette collection. He’s sweating from how fast he’s moving, but he’s desperate to get this done and to get the hell out of here. Max continues bagging up the loose items around Billy’s room as Steve opens the window, beginning to unload the bags out onto the lawn below. He very gingerly sets the sound equipment down first, just imagining Billy’s face if Steve has to tell him that he broke his fucking stereo.

 

Steve can hear Hopper’s voice rising above the music, and something that sounds like “I’m warning you—” but he tries to ignore it as he helps Max take Billy’s posters down from the wall and roll them up. They’ve gotten everything bagged up and out on the lawn now, he notes in relief, and the room is now just an empty bed and scattered pieces of furniture.

 

Max looks at Steve, her face ghost white as she hears Hopper’s and her stepdad’s voices booming from the living room, effectively drowning out the music.

 

“Go into your room, lock the door, and turn the volume up high, okay? I’m going to get this stuff to the car, I’ll be right back, I promise. Leave your window open so I can get back in.” And before she can protest, Steve is hopping out of the window, grabbing as many bags as he can carry and running like hell to the car.

 

When all is said and done, Billy only has about ten bags of stuff, and Steve is able to fit all of it in the trunk and backseat of the police car. He closes the car door with a sigh of relief, grateful that Hopper had parked out of the viewpoint of the house, as he books it back to shut Billy’s window. Max is waiting at her window to help him up, and just as he clambers back inside, the door opens.

 

Hopper is there, an unlit cigarette hanging out of his mouth, looking absolutely pissed. Steve sees that he’s cradling his right hand, and his knuckles are an angry red.

 

“Let’s go, Steve,” he says, his tone a warning that he will not be kept waiting as he stalks back towards the kitchen. Steve leans in to give Max a quick hug, whispering into her hair, “I’ll see you tomorrow, I promise, okay?” Max nods up at him, but then her eyes go wide, and she’s fishing her Supercom out from beneath her bed.

 

“Will you give your Supercom to Billy tonight, Steve? So I can talk to him?” Max’s eyes are wide and pleading, and Steve nods, his lips twitching up in a smile.

 

“‘Course I can, squirt. Hopper and I will go pick it up, then drop it off to him.”

 

Max looks so relieved, clinging to her Supercom like Billy is already on the other end. She gives Steve one more tight hug, burying her face into his T-shirt, before he hesitantly pulls away, shutting her bedroom door carefully behind him.

 

As Steve enters the kitchen, he sees Mr. Hargrove sitting at the dining table, holding a bag of frozen peas to a blooming bruise on his cheekbone. Susan sits across from him, her lips pursed unhappily.

 

“Next time, I’d think before trying to throw a punch at the goddamn Chief of Police,” Hopper spits venomously, leaning down menacingly over the table. Mr. Hargrove looks down at the woodgrain, his cheeks burning red. “You try that shit with me again, and you’ll be looking at jail time, Hargrove. This is my final warning. And you stay the fuck away from Billy, or suffer the consequences.” Hopper’s finger jabs at the paperwork scattered across the table. “Do I make myself clear?”

 

“Yes,” Mr. Hargrove says, softly. Hopper laughs at this, actually laughs, and Steve feels his stomach go cold.

 

“I’m sorry, I couldn’t hear you. DO. I. MAKE. MYSELF. CLEAR?” Hopper shouts, directly into Neil’s ear. Across the table, Susan flinches.

 

“Yes! Yes, sir!” Mr. Hargrove is trembling now, holding his free hand up in surrender. Hopper smirks, shaking his head in disbelief, as he grabs his hat from where he’d left it on the table and stomps outside, Steve following.

 

Hopper falls heavily into the driver’s seat, slamming the door shut behind him. He lights his cigarette with shaking fingers, taking a long, deep pull. “That motherfucker. He’s lucky he didn’t land that punch.” He exhales the smoke hurriedly before starting the car. “You get all the kid’s stuff?”

 

“Yeah, it’s all back there,” Steve says, pointing his thumb towards the backseat. Hopper grunts as he pulls a U-turn and they head back towards the main road.

 

“I got the keys back for your car, and I had it brought back to the station,” Hopper mumbles around his cigarette as they pull up to a red light. Steve is flooded with relief—He had been praying it hadn’t been destroyed out in the lot. “We’ll drop off this stuff at your place, and then I can take you to your car.”

 

Steve nods, looking over at Hopper. “You okay?” he asks, noticing Hopper’s hands are still shaking slightly while he tries to grip the steering wheel.

 

“Yeah,” Hopper mutters, pulling the cigarette out of his mouth, “Guys like that just drive me up a goddamn wall. Grown men, abusing their own children. Breaking their trust like that. It’s sick.”

 

There’s a heavy silence after that, and Steve knows that Hopper is thinking about El. Steve didn’t know the gory details about “Papa,” but he knew he was a monster of the highest order. He & Mr. Hargrove could have probably been poker buddies, or something.

 

Before Steve knows it, Hopper is pulling up in front of his house. Steve peers up at the dark windows, all of the curtains drawn, and wonders if his parents will ever actually come home long enough to open them.

 

“How long your folks gone for, kid?” Hopper asks, as he finishes his cigarette and throws it on the ground, stamping it out with his foot. Steve smiles, knowing the presence of that lone cigarette butt on their property would drive his mother crazy.

 

“Hell if I know,” he replies casually, as he starts unloading the garbage bags holding Billy’s stereo from the backseat.

 

Hopper looks at him carefully, and Steve swears he can see a flicker of sympathy in his eyes. “You just let me know if you need anything, all right? You can call me anytime, day or night.”

 

Steve nods hollowly, wondering what it’s like for El to have Hopper around all the time, being a dad and taking care of her and all that. It must be nice.

 

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

 

* * *

 

After getting his car back, Steve heads back home to shower. He changes into a soft blue T-shirt and his favorite pair of jeans, relishing in the feeling of being clean and in his own clothing. He stares longingly at his bed for a moment, but knows he has a mission, so he snags his Supercom from its place on the nightstand and heads back out to his car.

 

The drive to the hospital is a lot more relaxing when he’s not going 120 mph with a life on the line, which is good. He pulls into a spot in the parking lot and sighs, letting his head fall back against the seat.

 

Hopper had invited him to the Byers’ for dinner, but he had politely declined. He was sure that all of the kiddos would still be there, having another sleepover, and as much as he loved all of them, he was too damn tired to answer all of their questions. He knows, at least, that El must have filled them in on the basics, so they could wait one more day for answers. Plus, he’s so tired, he feels it down to his bones, not to mention that he’s sore as hell from the various bruises the Russians were so kind to leave him with.

 

Sighing, Steve opens the door and practically crawls out of his car, his body screaming in protest. He takes a moment to stretch his aching joints, and then heads through the doors, clutching the Supercom tightly in his hand.

 

Billy’s door is slightly ajar, and when he pokes his head in, he sees a nurse helping Billy back into bed. His face is contorted with pain and his forehead is covered in a thick sheen of sweat as he struggles to lift himself back into the bed, the nurse holding his arm tightly to steady him. Steve stays out of sight until Billy is settled back under the covers, not wanting to embarrass him.

 

He hears Billy softly thank the nurse, and Steve watches as she slips through the door, scribbling something on a clipboard. Steve waits a few seconds before slowly opening the door and stepping gingerly into the room.

 

Billy’s eyes are closed, his expression still pained, and Steve clears his throat softly so as not to startle him. His eyes snap open and find Steve, and the surprise at seeing him is evident on Billy’s face.

 

“Harrington, to what do I owe the pleasure?” he asks, his voice gravelly. Billy clears his throat, and then is fixing Steve with a worried stare. “Is Max okay?”

 

Steve nods reassuringly. “Yeah, she’s just fine.” Steve steps closer to Billy’s bedside, gazing worriedly at a couple spots of dark red blood on Billy’s hospital gown, down near his stomach.

 

Billy follows Steve’s gaze and laughs weakly. “Some stitches came open when I sneezed earlier. It was a real treat.”

 

Steve grimaces. “I can imagine.”

 

Billy closes his eyes and coughs, a wet, sickening sound. Steve pulls a chair up to his bedside, and when Billy opens his eyes, he quirks an eyebrow at him.

 

“Did Max put you up to this?” Billy asks, eyeing Steve suspiciously.

 

Steve laughs and places the Supercom carefully in Billy’s hand. “She wanted you to have this, so she could talk to you.”

 

Billy rolls his eyes, but his expression is fond. “Jesus, that kid.” He sighs, looking at the walkie-talkie in his hand like it’s a foreign object. “All right, what do I press here, Harrington?”

 

Steve shows him what to do, and then Billy’s mouth is up against the speaker, his voice soft. “Hey shitbird, I’m fine, all right? Quit worrying about me and get some sleep.”

 

The Supercom crackles for a moment, and then Max’s voice is cutting through the speaker. “Billy! You got the radio!” She sounds delighted, and Steve’s chest aches because he already misses her.

 

“Yeah, I did, kid. It’s getting late though—get some sleep, okay? We’ll talk more tomorrow.”

 

The radio crackles, and then Max’s voice comes through once more. “Okay, Billy. Goodnight, I hope you sleep well.” There’s a pause, and then there’s a quiet, “Love you,” and the radio goes silent.

 

Billy stares at the radio for a second, looking like he’s debating his response. “Goodnight, Maxine,” he says finally, before tacking on a quiet “You, too.”

 

Steve is trying with like, every bone in his body not to smile at the precious little exchange, but he just can’t help it. Billy rolls his eyes at his gooey expression and hands him the radio with a “Shut it, Harrington.” Steve places the radio on the nightstand by Billy’s bed, still smiling.

 

“She’s a really cool kid, you know,” Steve murmurs, looking over at Billy, who’s staring blankly up at the ceiling.

 

Billy nods, the ghost of a smile tugging at the corners of his lips. “Yeah, I’m starting to figure that out.” Steve grins, filing that statement away to tell Max about later.

 

“How did it go with my old man?” Billy finally asks. Steve is honestly surprised that he didn’t ask sooner.

 

“Hopper scared the shit out of him, actually. Your dad tried to punch him, but missed. Hopper didn’t.”

 

Billy barks out a laugh, but he immediately clutches his stomach afterwards, grimacing in pain.

 

“Hopper’s pretty cool,” Billy says hoarsely, once the pain seems to have subsided.

 

They sit in silence for a moment before Billy turns to him, the expression on his face an interesting cross between irritated and intrigued. “You spendin’ the night, Harrington?”

 

Steve looks at the clock, and realizes with a jolt that it’s nearing 9:00. Shit, where had the time gone? It feels like they had left to go to the Hargroves not even a half hour ago.

 

He looks back at Billy, his forehead still glistening with sweat and his eyebrows still drawn together in pain, and decides that he’s going to stay, at least until the nurse brings his next round of pain medication.

 

“I’m going to stick around for a bit actually, if that’s okay by you,” Steve replies smoothly, crossing his legs and putting them up on Billy’s bed.

 

Billy looks less than impressed, but he doesn’t argue with Steve, just continues to stare up at the ceiling. They sit in comfortable silence for a while, and Steve watches Billy’s chest steadily rise and fall.

 

“How long did it take for him to feel normal again?”

 

Billy’s voice startles Steve, who had definitely zoned out for a second.

 

“Who?” Steve asks in confusion, but Billy doesn’t look over, his eyes still glued to the ceiling.

 

“The little friend of yours that had that thing in him last year, like I did. Will, I think.” Billy’s voice is soft, and his eyes under the fluorescent lights are so blue.

 

“I mean, I can’t speak for Will, but I don’t think he’s ever really felt normal since then. I don’t think any of us have.” Steve pauses, searching for the right words for what he wants to say. “You know, if you ever wanted to talk about it, you could talk to Will. I mean, he knows exactly what you went through. Even the almost dying part.”

 

Billy laughs quietly. “I doubt some little kid is gonna want to sign up to be my therapist, Harrington, but thanks for the offer.”

 

“It might help him, too—to talk to someone that understands. Sometimes I feel like Will feels isolated from all of his other friends, because he’s been through so many things that they haven’t. Sometimes, I think he feels kind of alone.”

 

And Steve isn’t talking about Will anymore, but Billy doesn’t need to know that. Billy nods curtly. “I’ll think about it.”

 

The silence stretches on again, and Steve’s eyes are beginning to grow heavy with sleep when Billy speaks one last time. “Thanks for taking care of my sister, Harrington. And for, you know… Saving my ass.”

 

Steve whips his head over to stare at Billy in surprise, who has torn his gaze away from the ceiling to look at Steve. Steve is so stunned by the softness he sees in the icy blue depths of Billy’s eyes that he almost forgets to respond.

 

“D-Don’t mention it, man,” Steve stammers, not really sure what else to say.

 

Billy nods stiffly, then he closes his eyes, settling back against his pillows. “You mind turning the light off, Harrington?” he asks, and Steve is up in an instant, flicking the light switch.

 

There’s still a couple bright security lights that remain on overhead, but the lighting is certainly less harsh now. Billy’s face relaxes in the dimness, and he looks like he’s actually a couple minutes away from sleep.

 

Steve leans back in his chair, listening as Billy’s breathing evens out, eventually transitioning into light snoring. After a few minutes, Steve’s eyelids are closing, and he’s drifting off as well.

 

(For the first time in a long time, he does not dream.)

 

* * *

Chapter Text

* * *

 

Steve is startled awake sometime in the middle of the night. Somewhere nearby, he can hear a strange, gurgling sound—He peers around the dim room, his eyes adjusting to the darkness, when he meets Billy’s eyes, which are wide with panic. Steve jumps out of his chair as he realizes that Billy is choking, black blood gushing from his mouth in thick, grotesque currents.

 

He runs over to Billy, pulling roughly on his shoulders to tip him forward so that the blood can spill out onto the floor. Billy coughs roughly, the blood pooling into a dark mass on the tile. Steve keeps a steady hand on his back, whispering, “Hey, hey, it’s okay, just get it all out, it’s okay.”

 

Billy is taking deep, shuddering breaths now, spitting out the remainder of the black blood onto the floor. His hand is clutching Steve’s arm, hard enough to bruise, but Steve barely notices. He keeps his hand on Billy, rubbing comforting circles into his back.

 

When Billy’s breathing has returned to normal, he collapses back onto the pillows, his teeth and lips stained black and his eyes bloodshot.

 

“What the fuck just happened to me,” Billy whispers, his voice cracking. He looks over at Steve, terror swimming in his eyes, and Steve wishes he had an answer.

 

“I have no idea. I…” Steve trails off, thinking for a moment. “Will told me about something that happened to him after he came back from the Upside Down… That he kept puking up these slugs. Like, living slugs. He said it stopped after a few months, but he didn’t even tell any of us about it until probably a year later because he didn’t want us to worry. Maybe your body is just like, I don’t know… Ridding itself of whatever’s left of the Mind Flayer.”

 

They both stare down at the black puddle on the floor, a heaviness settling into the air around them. Billy’s face is expressionless, but his complexion is sickly and pale. Steve gets up and heads to the bathroom, grabbing the towels from the counter and beginning to mop up the mess on the floor. “We should probably let the nurse know what happened, maybe they’ll want to do a scan or something,” Steve says softly as he throws the blood-soaked towels carefully into the garbage.

 

Billy sighs heavily, leaning back against the pillows and closing his eyes. “This is a goddamn nightmare,” he murmurs, and Steve can’t really disagree.

 

Needing something to do, Steve heads back into the bathroom and wets a washcloth in the sink. He comes over and sits gingerly on the edge of the bed, reaching up towards Billy’s face with the washcloth. Billy bats his hand away, looking up at Steve in irritation.

 

“Have you lost your damn mind, Harrington? I don’t need you to play nurse with me,” he spits venomously, grabbing the washcloth out of Steve’s hands and wiping furiously at his mouth. Steve holds his hands up in surrender, but he makes no move to leave the bed.

 

Billy gets most of the black stains from his skin, but he misses a few spots. He hands the washcloth back to Steve, and Steve sighs, looking at him in exasperation. “You missed a couple spots. Just quit being a dick and let me help you, all right?”

 

He doesn’t look thrilled, but Billy yields and lets Steve gently wash away the last of the black staining the corners of his mouth and lips. Steve places his hand lightly on the side of Billy’s face while he works on getting the black from his lips, and Billy stares at him warily. “Lipstick isn’t exactly a good look on you, Hargrove,” Steve teases as he gives Billy’s lips one final wipe before his hands fall back to his sides.

 

Billy snorts. “I’ve had lipstick on me plenty of times Harrington, I just wasn’t the one putting it there.”

 

Steve rolls his eyes so far that he thinks he might be able to see inside his own skull. “Haha,” he says flatly, throwing the washcloth into the trash with the rest of the soiled towels. “Before I go get the nurse, does it feel like any of your stitches opened back up?”

 

Billy pulls his gown up and glances down his chest, frowning. “Fuck, I don’t know, I can’t really see past the bandages.”

 

“Can I take a look?” Steve asks, the words tasting funny in his mouth.

 

“Jesus, Harrington, you tryin’ to get me naked here?” Billy’s grinning, that stupid shit-eating grin that Steve hates, but he doesn’t give him the satisfaction of snapping at him like he really wants to.

 

“Yeah, you caught me,” Steve replies humorlessly, “Just let me take a quick look at it—I’ll try to keep myself under control.”

 

Billy grunts and scoots farther up on his pillows, reaching up behind his neck to untie the strings holding the hospital gown together. Steve gently peels the robe down Billy’s chest, his heart beating frantically in his ears and his cheeks burning. Joking aside, Steve is sitting really close to Billy, and his hands are grazing Billy’s skin as he pulls the fabric of the robe down—it all feels weirdly intimate. Steve tries not to think about it too hard.

 

The robe is now pooled down near Billy’s stomach, and when Steve goes to unravel his bandaging, he sucks in a breath as he takes in the damage. Billy’s chest and stomach are littered with dark, angry puncture wounds, held together by what looks like hundreds of stitches. His torso is a grotesque canvas of blacks, reds, blues, and purples, and blood is indeed seeping out from a couple of the wounds where the stitches have broken open. Steve closes his eyes, suddenly filling dizzy, and he hears Billy laugh bitterly.

 

“It ain’t pretty, is it, Harrington?” Billy asks, but there isn’t even a hint of humor in his voice. Steve shakes his head, still squeezing his eyes shut as he attempts to quell the rolls of nausea tugging at his gut. It’s a fucking miracle that Billy Hargrove survived these injuries. Steve would even go so far as to say the motherfucker is invincible.

 

“I’m sorry to report that some of your stitches definitely opened back up,” Steve chokes out, opening his eyes again, the nausea having passed. Billy is staring at him, the bright blue of his eyes a stark contrast against the deep, dark colors of his injuries. There’s a vulnerability swimming just beneath the surface of his gaze, likely from being exposed this way in front of Steve. With a deep, steadying breath, Steve carefully re-wraps the bandage and helps Billy pull the gown back up over his shoulders.

 

“You’ve got to be in so much pain,” Steve murmurs, which is stupid, because of course Billy’s in pain, but Steve had no idea just how fucking bad his injuries were.

 

“Yeah, Harrington, I’ve definitely felt better,” Billy replies sardonically as he reaches back to re-tie the gown strings behind his neck, grimacing at the movement.

 

Steve reaches out and lowers Billy’s arms back down. “You’ve already opened up enough of your damn stitches, don’t push your luck.” Steve gingerly reaches behind Billy’s neck and ties the strings into a neat bow.

 

“Thanks, Nurse Harrington,” Billy mutters, rolling his eyes as he settles his head back onto the pillows.

 

“Look, I know you like doing things yourself, and you don’t like people helping you. Really, I get it.” Steve sighs, running a hand through his hair and choosing a spot on the wall to stare at. “But you’re gonna be staying with me, and while you’re healing up, you might need some help now and then. I don’t really expect you to ask me, because you’re too much of a prick to be that polite, but I’m gonna be there offering you help if I think you need it. And it would be cool if you could maybe try to start trusting me.”

 

Steve drags his gaze over to Billy, who looks like he really needs a cigarette. “I’ll work on it,” Billy says gruffly, his cheeks turning a delicate shade of pink. Steve smiles in satisfaction, and Billy purposely doesn’t look at him, choosing instead to stare moodily at the ceiling.

 

“I’m going to get the nurse and see if we can get those stitches fixed up,” Steve announces, his fingers accidentally brushing against Billy’s as he hops up from the bed. Billy balls his hand into a fist at the contact, but says nothing as Steve heads out of the room.

 

* * *

 

It’s 3:30am and Steve, weirdly enough, feels wide awake. A nurse had come by to repair Billy’s stitches and to give him his hourly round of pain medication, and he looks much more relaxed and at ease. When Steve had told the nurse about the puking incident, she had scheduled Billy for some sort of scan first thing tomorrow morning, to make sure there wasn’t any fluid or blood anywhere it shouldn’t be in his chest cavity.

 

Steve knows he should leave, knows that Billy probably thinks it’s really weird that he’s still here. But when he thinks about his stupid, empty house, with its dark, lonely hallways and curtains pulled shut, he has absolutely no desire to go home (if he could even call it that).

 

For once, Billy doesn’t have a snide comment to throw at him when he sees Steve turn off the light and then settle himself into the armchair near the bed. In all fairness, had Steve not been here earlier, Billy might have choked to death, so he figures spending four more hours here before he goes to pick up Max wouldn’t be totally out of the question.

 

Just as Steve’s eyes are beginning to close, something soft comes hurtling at him from out of nowhere, hitting Steve square in the face. He takes the blanket into his hands and glances curiously over at Billy, who is looking everywhere but at Steve. The folded blanket that had once sat at the foot of Billy’s bed is mysteriously missing.

 

“Uh, thanks,” Steve mumbles, spreading the blanket over himself as he reclines back in the chair, which is actually pretty damn comfy.

 

After a few moments of silence, Billy’s voice cuts through the darkness. “You don’t want to go home,” he says matter-of-factly.

 

Steve opens his mouth to reply, but then shuts it, realizing he doesn’t really know what to say to that.

 

“Don’t get your panties in a bunch, Harrington, I’m not giving you shit. I get it, but I think we’ve got opposite problems. I don’t want to go home because of who’s waiting for me there; you don’t want to go because there’s nobody home.”

 

Nobody home. Even when Steve is there, it doesn’t feel like that house even has a fucking pulse. He remembers the nights he had with Nancy, and how good it had felt to hold her warm, lithe body tightly against his chest, burrowed safely under the covers and feeling like nothing could hurt him. His heart ached at the thought, because he’d be lying if he said he didn’t miss her.

 

“It feels like a prison, most days,” Steve admits, more to the ceiling than to Billy. A big, immaculately-decorated prison that smells like his mother’s Chanel.

 

“Yeah, shitty parenting will do that,” Billy replies, and Steve swears he can hear the tiniest bit of sympathy lacing his voice.

 

“By the way… Um, Max and I got all of your stuff out of your room, and it’s at my house.” Steve doesn’t know why he’s telling Billy this now, especially at 4am, but maybe it’s because he wants Billy to eventually feel at least somewhat at home in Steve’s house, even if it’s only temporary.

 

Billy is quiet for what feels like a long time, before he asks, “You didn’t fuck up my stereo, did you, Harrington?”

 

And Steve throws his head back and laughs, because as it turns out, he knows Billy Hargrove a lot better than he realized.

 

* * *

Chapter Text

  

* * *

 

Steve sleeps more restfully in that damn chair than he ever has in his bed at home. Billy’s gentle snoring had lulled him to sleep last night, like the gentle rocking back and forth of the sea, and he surprisingly hadn’t been plagued by the usual round of nightmares.

 

As he blinks awake, he squints against the faint rays of sunshine that are peeking through the slate grey curtains, giving his eyes time to adjust to the light. He looks over to see Billy, still sleeping quietly, and Steve can’t help but notice the way his long eyelashes splay out against the pale skin of his cheek, and the relaxed part to his lips as his chest steadily rises and falls. As Steve strains to hear the quiet sounds of Billy’s breathing, he reminds himself that Billy’s heart is beating, he is alive, and he wasn’t before—and maybe, just maybe, good things can still happen in Hawkins, Indiana.

 

It’s as he is pondering this thought that Billy’s eyes open, and Steve belatedly realizes that he was definitely staring and now Billy’s kind of looking at him like he’s a piece of chewing gum stuck to the bottom of his shoe.

 

“What are you staring at, Harrington,” Billy murmurs gruffly, his voice still thick with sleep as he pushes himself up to a sitting position. Steve can see how much pain the movement must cause him by the grimace on his face, but Billy wipes any traces of discomfort from his features in less than five seconds, like it’s something he has been trained his whole life to do. (Steve’s chest kind of aches at the thought.)

 

“I was just so taken by your beauty, especially when you were drooling just a second ago,” Steve replies smoothly. Billy rolls his eyes, but Steve sees him quickly wipe at his mouth when he thinks Steve isn’t looking.

 

The clock on the wall says 8:12, and Steve’s stomach is growling like crazy. He knows Billy hasn’t had much of an appetite, but he figures that might be due to the lackluster hospital food. He’s thinking of heading to get Max, and then grabbing some burgers and fries at that diner out on Randolph that Robin always insisted they go to after their shifts at Scoops. He smiles fondly, remembering the countless times Robin had ordered a chocolate milkshake with two straws, which she then stuck into her teeth and loudly proclaimed, “I am the walrus!” Steve was looking forward to catching back up with her, once things settle down a bit. (He can only imagine the blabbering monologue he can look forward to once she finds out that Billy Hargrove is moving in with him.)

 

“I think I’m going to go get Max and pick up some—Whoa, wait, what are you doing?!” While Steve was zoning out, daydreaming of burgers and Robin’s walrus impression, Billy had swung his legs over the side of bed and was attempting to stand, using his IV pole as a support.

 

“Gotta piss,” Billy mutters through clenched teeth, and Steve can already see his knees beginning to buckle before he’s rushing forward and looping his arms around Billy’s chest to catch him. This ends with their faces uncomfortably close—so much so that Steve can feel Billy’s hot breath hitting his cheek.

 

“Let go of me, Harrington,” Billy growls, but the anger is half-hearted, because they both know that Steve is the only thing holding him up.

 

“You know, I’d be happy to, ‘cause I mean, you don’t really seem like a hugger—” Steve is babbling nervously, but really, he was holding Billy like they’re dancing at junior prom and it’s weird, “—but I think we both know what’s gonna happen if I let go, tough guy. So, we’ve got two options. I can help you to the bathroom, or I can put you back in bed and get the nice, pretty nurse to do it.”

 

Billy glares at him, but Steve sees a begrudging understanding in his eyes. Steve gets it—For a guy like Billy, who is used to doing everything his way and on his terms, accepting his current limitations is going to be hard to stomach, at least at first.

 

“Just keep walkin’, Harrington,” Billy grumbles, and Steve hoists Billy’s arm up over his shoulders and they slowly begin their way to the bathroom.

 

Billy still feels pretty solid, even though he looks like he’s lost at least ten pounds, if not more. His skin is warm to the touch and Steve feels the tension lessening in his shoulders with each step they take, as if he’s slowly putting his trust in Steve to bear the weight of him. Once they reach the bathroom, Steve carefully guides Billy inside, keeping a steady arm on him as he reaches out to grip the hand rail inside. Billy gives him a curt nod, his lips pursed, and Steve shuts the door to give him some privacy.

 

It’s at this moment that the Supercom over on the nightstand crackles to life. “Billy? Are you awake?” comes Max’s voice. Steve runs over to the radio and grabs it, thinking that Max will likely worry if she doesn’t hear from Billy in the next minute.

 

“Hey, squirt, it’s me, Steve. Billy’s, um…. busy, right now, but he’s all right.”

 

“Steve?! What are you doing there? Are you visiting Billy without me?” Max asks accusatorially, and Steve can just see the pout on her face.

 

“Uh, well, it’s kind of a funny story, but I actually didn’t leave last night when I dropped off the radio,” Steve begins, just as the bathroom door opens. “Billy! Say hi to Max.” Steve shoves the radio into Billy’s face, and Billy fixes him with a withering stare.

 

“Hi, Max,” Billy says through gritted teeth, continuing to glare at Steve, “I’m a little busy right now.” 

 

“Call you back in a sec, squirt!” Steve turns off the radio quickly, smiling innocently at Billy, who looks like he wants to bash Steve’s teeth in. Steve cheerily reaches out to sling Billy’s arm over his shoulders and walks him back to the bed.

 

“Easy there,” Steve murmurs as he eases Billy down onto the mattress, before gingerly picking up Billy’s legs and swinging them up and under the covers. Billy squirms uncomfortably until he is properly sitting up against the pillows. His cheeks are flushed an enchanting shade of pink, and he’s avoiding Steve’s gaze. “You good?” Steve asks, sitting down delicately on the bed next to Billy.

 

“Fine,” Billy grunts, still averting his gaze. “Just hate feeling so fucking useless.”

 

“You just gotta give it time, man,” Steve says gently, putting a comforting hand on Billy’s leg through the sheets. Billy huffs, but he nods slowly, gesturing for the radio still clutched in Steve’s hand.

 

“Gimme that,” he says, and Steve hands it over, smiling as he watches Billy bring the radio to his lips. “Hey shitbird, I’m back. How did you sleep, everything okay?”

 

The radio crackles for a moment, and then Max’s quiet voice is coming through the speaker. “I slept a little… I was worried about you. Neil’s got a pretty nice black eye, though.” She laughs softly.

 

“Oh, yeah?” Billy asks, a fond grin tugging at the corners of his mouth. Though rare, Billy Hargrove’s smile was a pretty beautiful sight to behold (not that Steve would ever admit to thinking that).

 

“Yeah, my mom tried to cover it up with makeup—he hated it, and it didn’t really work.” Billy chuckles at this, and Steve tries to imagine big, bad Neil Hargrove in front of a vanity with Susan powdering his nose, and he laughs, too. “The house isn’t really the same without you, though. Too quiet without your stupid music blaring.” Max pauses before asking hopefully, “Is Steve gonna come pick me up soon?”

 

“Hm, I don’t know, shitbird. Harrington here was just about to give me a sponge bath.” Billy glances sideways and casts Steve that stupid shit-eating grin that Steve fucking hates, his tongue licking across his fucking teeth like a predator about to devour its prey.

 

“Ew, Billy!” Max squeals through the radio, “You’re disgusting! Put Steve on!”

 

Billy cackles and hands the Supercom to Steve. “Max, your brother is a liar and a dick. If you somehow weren’t aware,” Steve declares drily into the speaker, fixing Billy with a glare. Billy blows him a kiss and Steve flips him the bird.

 

“Oh, I’m well aware,” Max says, and Steve can hear the eye roll. “Will you come get me now?”

 

“Yeah, squirt, I was just about to leave. I was thinking we could get burgers and fries for all of us from Benny’s, that sound good?”

 

“Oooh, and milkshakes!” Max squeals excitedly, and Steve just loves her, he really does.

 

“I’ll be there in twenty, over and out,” Steve recites dutifully, waiting for Max to sign off as well before he puts the radio down.

 

“You ready for some real food, Hargrove?” Steve asks, leaning over to unceremoniously dump the long-abandoned hospital tray of pudding and some sort of weird gruel into the trash.

 

Billy nods, licking his lips. “I could go for a hot meal,” he says, leaning his head back into the pillows and closing his eyes. “Make it a double, yeah?”

 

Steve smiles, patting Billy’s leg before he stands up. “Sure thing. Want anything else?”

 

“A chocolate milkshake, ‘cause I know Max, and she sure as shit ain’t sharing hers,” Billy replies, a fond smile playing across his lips.

 

“All right, will do.” Steve fishes his car keys out of his pocket and is nearly to the door before Billy utters a soft, “Hey, Harrington? One more thing.”

 

Steve turns around, and Billy’s eyes are open now, his piercing blue gaze locking with Steve’s. “Bring the Byers kid, too. I mean… if you can. If he’ll come.”

 

Billy’s hands are absentmindedly fiddling with the covers, and he looks hesitant, bordering on nervous. Steve nods, a gentle smile playing on his lips because shit, Billy Hargrove might actually be taking his advice on something. “He’ll be happy to come,” Steve says confidently, “Plus, he’s the quietest one of the bunch, so he probably won’t drive you up a wall, at least not right away.”

 

Billy laughs at that—Steve likes the way it sounds.

 

* * *

 

“He wants to talk to me?” Will asks, his big brown eyes full of questions. Steve nods, his hand on Max’s shoulder as they stand in the Byers’ kitchen. Joyce and Hopper are seated at the kitchen table with El, all of whom are pretending to have their own conversations around their breakfast but are totally eavesdropping.

 

“Yeah, bud. Something, um, happened last night—” Steve had already filled Max in on the choking episode, but he knew that the crew at the dining table were none the wiser, so he purposely kept it vague, “—and it really freaked him out. I think he wants to talk to you, about what it was like for you when, you know… when you weren’t yourself. Maybe you can help him, I don’t know, cope with it, or something.”

 

Steve did not miss his calling as a motivational speaker, but something he says must land, because Will’s eyes light up ever so slightly. “I know how he feels. Maybe you’re right, maybe I can help.” Will pauses, looking down at his socked feet for a moment, before murmuring, “I feel like I’m always the one that needs saving, or rescuing. It would be nice… to help someone else, for once.”

 

Joyce’s pained expression is impossible to miss, but she stays quiet, staring at the steaming coffee mug in her hands. Steve bends down in front of Will, putting a comforting hand on his shoulder.

 

“What happened to you doesn’t just go away, I do know that much. It must be lonely, trying to deal with something that nobody else understands. But Billy understands. And I think maybe you could help each other, I really do.Steve’s voice is soft, but sure, and Will hangs to every word.

 

“He fought the Mind Flayer, in the end. He should be proud,” Will replies softly, smiling kindly at Max. Steve’s heart squeezes at how brightly Max smiles back at him.

 

Joyce is openly crying now, and Hopper has a comforting arm around her while El is squeezing her hand. Will comes over to take her other hand, smiling at her fondly.

 

“Don’t cry, Mom,” Will says softly, “Everything’s okay.”

 

“I’m sorry, ugh, look at me,” Joyce says to Will, wiping frantically at her eyes, “I’m just so proud of you. You’ve been through so much, and you still have such a good heart.” She places her hand on Will’s chest for a couple beats, smiling tenderly at him, her lip quivering.

 

“Thanks, Mom. We’re gonna go now, okay? Love you.” Will kisses her chastely on the cheek, waving goodbye to Hopper and El before following Steve and Max out to the car.

 

* * *

 

Max knows exactly how Billy likes his burgers, and Steve is honestly pretty fucking impressed at her memory.

 

“A double cheeseburger, extra cheese, with grilled onions, bacon, no lettuce, no tomato, and ketchup on the side please… with fries, lots of salt… and a chocolate milkshake with two cherries on top.” Max smiles proudly as the waiter writes the to-go order down, and Steve gives the rest of their order at the window while Max and Will wander over to sit down at some nearby stools.

 

Will had brought his sketchbook with, and he takes it out to continue idly sketching the beginnings of a drawing.

 

“What are you working on, bud?” Steve asks, sliding into the stool next to him. Will smiles shyly, turning the sketch so that Steve can see it.

 

It’s just a pencil outline, but Steve can very clearly see El, her hands outstretched and her mouth open in an impassioned scream. Squiggly lines that must represent her powers flow freely across the page, and Steve is taken aback by how real the sketch looks, from the fiery expression in her eyes to the blood dripping from her nose.

 

“This is from that day in the hospital,” Max murmurs breathlessly, her eyes wide, “When El threw the monster out the window with her powers.”

 

“Yeah. She still isn’t able to move things like she did before… but I want to show this to her when she gets her powers back, because I know she will. She was so excited when she came home yesterday, and said that she was able to find Billy. She thinks she was able to do it because she was drawing off the extra energy of having you both there. She’s tried to do it on her own a couple times, but she couldn’t… I think she’s still getting her strength back.” Will gazes down at the sketch fondly, and Steve’s heart squeezes—Maybe Will had always wanted a little sister, too.

 

“This is incredible,” Steve says softly, brushing his fingers across the edge of the page. “What else have you drawn?”

 

Will smiles, still looking shy, as he flips to a page and shows Steve. Steve’s heart catches in his throat as he looks down at a sketch of him—He’s got his dark sunglasses on and his nail-covered bat sticking out of his backpack, standing with his hands in his pockets in front of a sunset. Will had outlined the letters “BAD ASS” in the corner of the picture in big blocky letters.

 

Steve swallows, because he is not going to fucking cry, but he’s just so damn touched. Hell, Will even got his hair perfect.

 

“Oh my God, Will, it looks just like Steve! Holy shit,” Max breathes, staring down at the sketch reverently. Will is looking at Steve hopefully, waiting for his response, and Steve feels like the words he wants to say are superglued somewhere down his throat.

 

So, he settles for grabbing Will and pulling him into a tight hug. Will lets out a startled “Oof!” as he slips off of the stool, but Steve doesn’t let go, not yet.

 

“Are you crying, Steve?” Max asks, and her tone is teasing but also so fucking fond. And yeah, okay, he had some tears in his eyes, because he knows how long Will takes to finish a sketch and he spent that time drawing Steve.

 

“Shut up, Maxine,” Steve says, but there’s no bite behind his words, not like when Billy says it. He puts his hand on the back of Will’s head, who has wrapped his tiny little arms around Steve’s middle and is just letting himself be held. Nothing like Dustin, who would have squirmed out of his grasp about fifteen seconds ago because Boundaries, Steve.

 

“You’re the fucking best, you know that, Will?” Steve asks as he pulls away, ruffling Will’s hair fondly. Will’s smile is as bright as the fucking sun. “I wanna like, frame this and keep it forever,” Steve says softly, grabbing the sketchbook and admiring it.

 

“You can have it, I was gonna give it to you eventually,” Will says, and Steve looks at him for a second, so small and bashful and Will, and he thinks that Billy’s not going to be able to help being fucking charmed by this kid.

 

Steve still has tears in his eyes as he nods at Will, but they’re happy ones, and Max is smiling at him like he always dreamed a little sister would.

 

Their to-go order is up on the counter, and Steve grabs the bags and drink tray and heads out to his car, Max and Will pressing up against either of his sides.

 

And honestly? Steve feels on top of the fucking world.

 

* * *

 

Max is so excited to see Billy that she hops out of the car while Steve is still rolling into the parking lot, which like, not cool, but Steve doesn’t yell at her, because he gets it. He parks carefully in a nearby space and Will tucks his sketchbook under his arm and grabs the bags of food while Steve balances the drink tray in his hand and locks the car.

 

He sees Will’s shoulders tense up slightly as they approach the entrance (Will hates hospitals, and Steve doesn’t fucking blame him) but Will doesn’t say anything, just keeps walking with his eyes forward. Steve places a comforting arm around his shoulder as they head to Billy’s room, remembering that Will hasn’t seen Billy in his current state, and it might be kind of shocking.

 

Max is already sitting on the bed next to Billy, chattering away excitedly, when Steve and Will come through the door. Billy looks up and a brief expression of surprise crosses his face when he sees that Will is actually here. Will, to his credit, smiles shyly at Billy, not a single trace of fear on his face, as he pulls up a chair by where Max is perched.

 

“I’ll have you know that Maxine here has your burger order memorized,” Steve comments casually, earning a blush from Max as he takes Billy’s massive burger and extra salty fries out from the bag and gets it set up on the nearby tray for him.

 

Billy smiles wolfishly at Max, whose cheeks are still pink. “Aw, you do care,” he teases, reaching out to tug playfully on one of her red curls. Steve hands Billy the tray he has set up, the burger already oozing grease through the wrapper, and he’s pleased to see that Billy looks pretty damn hungry. He hands the milkshakes around, ensuring Billy gets the one with two cherries, which certainly doesn’t go unnoticed. Billy side-eyes Max and squeezes her ankle before popping both of the cherries in his mouth and ripping them from the stem. Max laughs, almost spitting out her milkshake.

 

Steve looks over at Will, quietly munching on his fries, and is happy to see that he looks comfortable, even with how weird this situation must feel. Billy has opened his burger and is wolfing it down now, and Steve is feeling relieved that he’s eating something, even if it’s more grease than protein. He watches as Billy glances over at the sketchbook Will has placed carefully on the nightstand.

 

“You draw?” Billy asks, dipping a fry into his chocolate milkshake and popping it into his mouth.

 

Will startles for a second as he realizes Billy is talking to him, but nods quickly, wiping a bit of stray ketchup from the corner of his lip. “Y-Yeah! I’ve been drawing since I was 5. It helps me focus, and… forget things, for a little while.”

 

Billy nods, mulling over Will’s answer as he dips another fry. Steve is kind of intrigued at this whole fry and milkshake combo Billy’s got going, so he tries it himself, and is pleasantly surprised at how well the saltiness and sweetness mix together.

 

“My mom used to paint,” Billy says, and Steve watches as Max drops a fry in her lap in shock. “I think it helped when things got bad for her with my old man. She’d usually paint the beach, but near the end, she started using darker colors, and they looked like more like storms.”

 

Will nods eagerly, like he understands. “Sometimes, you can’t really help it—Your mood just kind of slips into what you’re working on. I drew the—” Will pauses, his eyes darting nervously over to Steve before he swallows and corrects, “—him, a lot of times. Even after last year. A lot of times I’d rip it up when I was done, to try to convince myself he was really gone.”

 

“Did it work?” Billy asks softly, his hands stilling on his food and looking at Will curiously.

 

Will purses his lips and shakes his head. “Not really. I still had a lot of nightmares. Still do, sometimes.”

 

“What does help? Anything?” Billy asks, and Steve watches as Billy puts the remainder of his food off to the side, focusing his attention on Will. Max is gazing at Billy with a really gooey smile on her face, and Steve doesn’t blame her—He can’t really recall a time that Billy has ever spoken so carefully and gently to someone like he’s talking to Will right now.

 

“It always helped having people around. My friends, and my family. When I came back from the hospital the first time, after I was in the Upside Down, Mike, Lucas, & Dustin took turns sleeping over at my house every night for like, three weeks straight. I didn’t sleep much, but I slept better with someone there.” Will laughs, looking a little embarrassed, not able to meet Billy’s eyes. “I know that sounds dumb—”

 

“Not dumb at all,” Billy interrupts coolly, “What else?”

 

“Distractions,” Will says confidently, finally looking up to meet Billy’s gaze. Billy nods slowly, urging him to continue. “There were times when I felt like I was back there, or like I couldn’t breathe. And after he got me last year, there were times where I felt like some part of him was still inside of me.”

 

Billy’s breath stills, and Steve knows that Will’s statement has hit home. “What did you do, to distract yourself?” Billy asks, and Steve can tell he’s hanging on every word.

 

“Lots of things. Sometimes, if it made me feel better, I’d draw. Or I’d go on a bike ride with Mike or Lucas or Dustin, to clear my head. Or I’d play this mixtape my brother made me, and just sit on my bed, close my eyes, and listen to the words.”

 

“Your brother got good taste in music?” Billy asks, smiling and raising his eyebrows like it’s a challenge.

 

“Y-Yeah! I mean, I think so. The tape he made me had Joy Division, Television, David Bowie, The Smiths, The Clash. Should I Stay or Should I Go is my favorite; we would always listen to it together in my room.” Will smiles at the memory, and Billy actually looks kind of endeared.

 

“Not bad. Sounds a little angsty for my taste, but that seems like your brother’s vibe,” Billy teases, but there’s no malice in his words.

 

Will laughs at that, a quiet, breathy sound. “I think he’s going more for thoughtful, but yeah,” Will replies, still smiling.

 

There’s a short pause, and it’s weird, because it’s almost like Billy and Will have forgotten Max and Steve are still even in the room.

 

“How old are you?” Billy asks, peering at Will curiously as if he’s trying to do the math.

 

“I-I’m 14,” Will sputters, as if taken aback by the question.

 

“And you were what, 12 when you got stuck in that place? The… Upside Down?” Billy asks, looking incredibly perturbed.

 

Will nods, looking down at his hands. “Yeah. I think about it a lot… how I could have just died down there and no one would have known, how they were all up here having a funeral for me. I was really lucky that my mom and my friends didn’t give up on me.”

 

Billy purses his lips, his eyebrows drawn tightly together. “No fucking 14-year-old should have to go through what you did.”

 

Will shrugs. “We’ve all been through something, right? You know. The Mind Flayer…” Will shudders involuntarily, but continues, “He got to you, too. You went through something really terrible, even more than I did.”

 

Billy shakes his head, still looking really fucking pissed. “I’m 18, at least. I can’t imagine going through this at your age. It isn’t fucking right, what you all had to go through, you’re too fucking young.” Billy runs a shaking hand through his hair. “I don’t know if Harrington here told you,” his eyes slide over to Steve, who shakes his head, “but I had a little episode last night, and I kind of wanted to ask you about it.”

 

“What happened?” Will asks, leaning forward with big eyes as he awaits Billy’s answer. Steve’s chest aches a little, to see Will looking at Billy so goddamn sincerely.

 

“Well, all of this black shit came up my throat, and started fucking choking me. I think it was blood, ‘cause my blood turned black when that thing had me under its control. It made me feel like… Like something’s still in me.” Billy’s face is turning white, and his hand snakes forward to grab Max’s ankle and squeeze. Max’s face is pinched with worry as she looks at him, but she says nothing. “They told me about those slugs you kept coughing up. Kinda seems like the same deal. How long was that going on for? And did you ever feel like.. Something was still in you?”

 

The color drains from Will’s face, and he looks like he wants to bolt, but he steels himself, gripping the edges of his chair with white knuckles. “Y-Yeah. The slugs only happened a couple more times, but I had a lot of breathing problems after that, like I had inhaled too much of the air down there. And after the Mind Flayer—” Will’s eyes flutter shut, as if the memory is painful. “It was like I could still hear his voice at the edge of my mind sometimes, even after he was gone. Kinda like there was this extra… passenger, inside my head. Dr. Owens told me it was Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, that nothing was really there, that he was gone. But I knew the second the gate opened again in Hawkins, I could feel it in the back of my neck—and then it was like my whole body was freezing over, and I couldn’t breathe and…” Will sighs, looking up at Billy. “I don’t feel that anymore. I do think he’s gone, at least for now. But if he comes back… You and I will both know.”

 

It feels like the air has been sucked out of the room, Will’s words hanging heavily above their heads. Steve shifts uncomfortably in his chair, chancing a glance at Billy, who looks as close to terrified as Steve has ever seen him.

 

“So what’s happening to me right now… The coughing up blood, this feeling of like, something still being with me… You think it’ll go away? At least, as long as he stays gone?” Billy asks, looking to Will as if he has all of the answers.

 

Will nods, pursing his lips. “I think so. I think your body just needs some time to get rid of him, like my body needed time to get rid of the Upside Down. And I think it just feels like he’s still with you because you spent so much time with him so close. It’s an adjustment, to be alone in your body again.”

 

To be alone in your body again. Steve shivers at the thought of some foreign entity crawling inside of him, poisoning his mind. Billy is looking at Will in fascination, like he’s the keeper of all the world’s knowledge. And Steve knows how he feels—There was a reason the Party called him Will the Wise.

“You should try to find something that grounds you,” Will says suddenly, when the silence becomes too heavy.

 

“Grounds me?” Billy asks, quirking an eyebrow quizzically.

 

“Yeah—Something that helps you connect to yourself again, when you start feeling overwhelmed. Like drawing, painting, listening to music….” Will trails off, and Steve realizes that maybe with the exception of Max, nobody in the room really knows what Billy even likes to do in his spare time.

 

“I used to write,” Billy says softly, his eyes staring intensely at a spot on his blanket, “Nothing fancy, just like, my thoughts and all that. But I gave it up when my mom left.”

 

“You should write again.” There’s a brightness to Will’s eyes that wasn’t there before, and he looks excited, at this idea of Billy writing. “Honestly, it will make you feel better, to get it all down on paper. It’ll help you let this go and put it behind you. Doing something like that, getting it all off your chest… It’ll get you back to feeling like yourself again.”

 

“I’ll think about it,” Billy says coolly, but Steve knows he’s going to listen to Will, because he’s already been hanging off every fucking word the kid has said. “Why don’t you show me some of your drawings, and maybe someday I’ll show you something I write, yeah?”

 

Steve’s chest goes warm as Will reaches for his sketchbook, thumbing through the pages before settling on a colorful sketch and handing it to Billy shyly.

 

Max’s eyes go wide as she looks down at the sketch with Billy, who is making a low whistling sound. “Holy shit, Byers,” Billy breathes. Steve cranes his neck to catch a glance of the drawing, and his breath catches in his throat.

 

It’s a beautifully colored sketch of Max, looking off to the side, her mouth open in a laugh. She’s got her red sunglasses on her head, and Will must have used like, ten different reds to create the brilliant auburn color of her wavy hair. Her eyes are a perfect steel-blue, and Will even drew in her dimple just right.

 

“Check you out, shitbird,” Billy says, elbowing Max playfully, and he looks fucking amazed as his eyes roam across the drawing. “This is crazy good, Byers. You got anything else you can show me?”

 

Will gingerly gets up from his chair to reach for the sketchbook, but Max scoots over before he can, patting the bed next to her. Will flushes, but crawls up and nestles beside her. Billy, surprisingly enough, leans in closer as Will flips through the book that Billy is still holding. Steve tries not to pout, feeling a little left out, as he comes to stand behind them.

 

The sketch of Steve is next, and Steve is so ready for Billy to give him shit about it, all keyed up and already thinking of comebacks—but Billy just smiles as he gazes at the picture. “This one’s good too, even got his preppy hair right.” Billy’s blue eyes flick up to look at Steve, and there’s no ice to them this time, just a hint of amusement and something else kinda soft that Steve isn’t really sure how to name. “Tell me the truth, shitbirds, how’s Harrington here with that bat?”

 

“OhmyGod, so good,” Max gushes, looking up at Steve in admiration. “He’s got a killer swing.”

 

Steve clears his throat, and he can feel the tips of his ears getting hot. Billy chuckles. “I’ll believe that when I see it,” he drawls, and the way he licks his lips at Steve is so borderline obscene that Steve has to look away. Jesus.

 

Will shows them a couple more sketches - There’s a really cute one of the Party on their bikes that Steve likes, mostly because Will drew Dustin’s dumb, gummy mouth laughing so perfectly that it kinda makes Steve miss the little bastard. His second favorite is a colored rendering of Nancy, who’s chatting on the phone, while a frustrated Mike is rolling his eyes into eternity next to her.

 

Billy takes his time looking at the sketches as Will turns the pages, like he’s absorbing every minute detail. When they’re done and the sketchbook is closed, Billy looks over at Will, his eyes practically spilling over with fondness.

 

“Once I’m healed up, I want one of these of me, okay?” He taps his finger on the sketchbook, and Steve can’t really believe what he’s hearing. Billy Hargrove, asking for something. Asking Will for something. Asking Will to draw him.

 

Will looks beyond flattered, and his cheeks are bright pink. “O-Okay. Yeah, that sounds good. I want to read something you write, though.”

 

And Billy smiles—a soft, tender thing, no teeth in sight.

 

“Deal,” Billy says, nudging Will’s shoulder with his. Will’s smile is so big that Steve’s heart wants to fucking burst.

 

“Hey, Billy?” Will asks softly, looking down at his sketchbook.

 

“Yeah, kid?”

 

Will pauses, looking a little nervous, but he takes a deep breath and raises his timid, brown eyes to catch Billy’s gaze. “What you did—saving El like that—was really brave. I never… They tried to break the Mind Flayer’s hold on me. My brother, my mom, even Mike. And I couldn’t get free. You… You got free, and you did the right thing, and saved El even though you knew you could die. I know you feel bad about the things you did, I did too, but… You were a hero, in the end. We all think so.”

 

Steve looks at Billy, his own chest aching, because damn, did Will have a way with words. Billy’s mouth is open, staring at Will like he wants to say something, and Steve can definitely see tears glittering against the deep blue of Billy’s eyes. Will smiles at him, nodding in understanding at his silence, and reaches out to gingerly place a hand on top of Billy’s.

 

And Billy, who probably would have flinched away from Will not even a week ago, looks down at Will’s tiny hand on his and nods, clearing his throat self-consciously.

 

“Thanks, Byers. That means a hell of a lot, coming from someone like you.” And Billy’s voice is so goddamn sincere in his statement, and Will looks so honored at the praise, that Steve can’t help but smile like a goofball.

 

But, as all good things must come to an end, the touching moment is interrupted by Billy sneering at Steve, “What are you grinnin’ at, Harrington?”

 

Steve huffs out a laugh, rolling his eyes. “Not at you, that’s for sure,” Steve sneers back, albeit half-heartedly, as he's finding it next to impossible to wipe the smile off his face.

 

Billy grins at him, baring his teeth— And maybe not everything about Billy had changed.

 

(And maybe Steve was even a little bit glad for that).

 

* * *

Chapter Text

* * *

 

Steve has never seen Billy Hargrove take so easily to another person like he has taken to Will Byers. Will probably could have moved in to the hospital room and Billy wouldn’t have had a problem with it. With Will, Billy doesn’t have to stop and think before he speaks, or remind himself not to be an asshole, because it’s clear that Billy couldn’t even be mean to Will if he tried.

 

Will is really excited when he hears that Billy is moving in with Steve—bright eyes and big smile—and Steve has a sneaking suspicion that it’s because Will knows what Billy’s facing at home with his dad. Billy seems to pick up on this as well, because when Will and Max run off to grab some candy from the vending machine with a couple dollar bills Steve gives them, Steve turns to find Billy looking at him with a question in his eyes.

 

“His dad isn’t around, right?” Billy asks, nodding towards where Will had just disappeared out the door.

 

Steve shakes his head, pursing his lips. If this conversation is heading where he thinks it’s heading, Billy’s about to get really fucking pissed. Billy reads his expression in no less than two seconds (goddamnit, Steve has got to work on his poker face) and his fists are curling in anger.

 

“Tell me that son of a bitch didn’t touch that kid,” he says through gritted teeth, his ice-blue stare searching Steve’s face for a crack in the armor.

 

Steve slumps into his chair by the bed with a sigh, shaking his head. “No, but I’m pretty sure he smacked Mrs. Byers around. And he called Will…” Steve trails off, looking up at Billy nervously.

 

Billy raises his eyebrows, as if daring Steve not to continue and to leave him hanging. “He called him what, Harrington?”

 

Steve sucks in a deep breath, scrubbing a hand over his face. “Fag,” he whispers, and God, he fucking hates that word, wants to scrub his mouth out with soap just for letting it cross his lips.

 

He looks up and sees that Billy’s face has taken on the same expression that he’d been wearing when he had tried to cave Steve’s face in that cold November night—crazed, and thirsty for blood.

 

Thankfully, Max and Will’s chattering voices come filtering into the room from down the hall, and Billy has no choice but to snap out of it. As his fists slowly uncurl from their death-grip on his sheets, he whispers, “I’ll kill that fucker if he ever comes ‘round here again, mark my words, Harrington.”

 

And then he’s wiping the anger off of his face and plastering on a smile as Max and Will run inside and clamber excitedly onto the bed, showing off their spoils to Billy.

 

Steve gazes at Billy as he gently accepts the cherry Airhead Will gives him. “Max said this is your favorite,” Will says, smiling at Billy bashfully. Billy bops Will on the nose with the wrapper, and Steve wonders if he might be having a stroke, because did Billy Hargrove really just do something cutesy?

 

“My shitbird sister is correct, little Byers, this is my favorite,” Billy says, and Will looks over the fucking moon when Billy rips off a huge bite. Steve’s chest feels warm as he watches Billy grin at Will with cherry-stained teeth, and he wonders to himself if maybe, deep down, Billy has always wanted to be kind. Maybe the world had made him cruel, and all he’d needed was a couple people to just be good to him to remind him that he could be good, too.

 

“So Harrington gives you money for candy and you don’t get him anything, shitbird?” Billy teases, poking at Max’s leg fondly and glancing sideways at Steve. Billy’s eyes are so fucking bright and blue and endless—Steve’s pretty sure he could fall into them and never find his way back again.

 

Max’s eyes glint mischievously and she reaches into her pocket, pulling out a box of candy cigarettes. Steve watches as she carefully takes three out of the pack and hands one to Steve and Will, then puts hers delicately between her lips. She takes a dramatic drag and then throws her head back, shaking her hair back and forth slowly as she blows the invisible smoke out. It’s an unmistakable impression of Billy, especially when she makes eye contact with her brother and licks her tongue across her teeth with wide, crazy eyes. Steve finds himself raising his candy cigarette to his lips and doing the same thing, running his hands through his hair and pretending to blow smoke into Billy’s face.

 

Will’s giggle is a delightful sound as he becomes wise to the game, and raises his cigarette to his lips as well, puffing his lips out, and Steve laughs because he looks so much like Joyce.

 

“Oooh, look at me, I’m Billy Hargrove, I’m so cooool,” Max imitates, her voice dropping to a low timber as she sucks on her candy cigarette. Billy throws his head back and laughs, deep and hearty, and Steve wants to put the sound on a mixtape and play it over and fucking over.

 

“Yeah, you’re real fuckin' funny, Maxine.” Billy rolls his eyes as the three of them continue to smoke and toss their hair at him, but he can’t wipe the smile off his face.

 

(Steve is glad for that, because it looks good on him.)

 

* * *

 

Dr. Atkinson pays them a visit later in the afternoon. Will and Max are huddled on the bed with Billy, slurping down some Slushies that Steve had gone out to get (for which he had to go to two gas stations, mind you, because they were out of blue raspberry and it’s Max’s goddamn favorite so it wasn’t like he had a choice) and they both look up like startled deer when the doctor carefully slips through the door.

 

“Mr. Hargrove, you’re looking well,” Dr. Atkinson greets cheerily, and Steve is so fucking relieved to see the doctor actually smiling for once. Steve moves out of the way so the doctor can approach the bedside; when he sees Max and Will making to move off of the bed, he holds up a hand and smiles at them kindly, signaling that they can stay in place.

 

“I did want to chat a bit about your recovery today, Mr. Hargrove. I’m sure you know that the road will be long, but I’m quite optimistic.” Dr. Atkinson takes a seat in the chair that Steve has left vacant, and looks at his clipboard above his glasses. “Now, let’s start with the news you won’t like,” he begins, and Steve sees Billy stiffen.

 

“Lay it on me, doc,” Billy replies through gritted teeth, and Steve watches as Max’s hand comes down to rest solidly on the top of his, squeezing once.

 

“I’m afraid I really must advise you to quit smoking, Mr. Hargrove. The damage your lung suffered from the accident was extensive, and if you start smoking again after you recover, you’ll be in danger of your lung collapsing again. I also strongly advise against any form of weight-lifting or vigorous exercise for at least 6 weeks, and even then, you really need to take it easy.”

 

“Christ, doc, why don’t you just cut off my balls, too,” Billy mutters, and Steve smiles a little, because he’s seen the end of the world three times over, and even though Billy might disagree, quitting smoking and working out less don’t exactly qualify.

 

“I know it’ll be an adjustment for you, but the first step to recovery is accepting what happened to you, and moving forward.” Dr. Atkinson’s eyes are kind as he gazes at Billy, and Steve is really fucking grateful for all this man has done for them.

 

“Understood, doc,” Billy nods curtly. HIs expression is pinched and unhappy, but Steve notes that he doesn’t look quite pissed enough to start arguing against any of the doctor’s points. In fact, he looks resigned as he settles against the pillows, like he’s accepting his fate. Steve watches as Max smiles proudly at Billy; the doctor seems to notice this as well.

 

“It looks like you have a solid support system here, so I won’t lecture you any further, Mr. Hargrove. Now, as far as your recovery goes, I would like to keep you through the weekend, to continue observing your lung and run a couple more tests. But I think that as long as you come in weekly to get your stitches looked at, and that you immediately report any difficulty breathing, you could go home as early as Monday. Getting around will be a challenge for a while—I would suggest having someone close by to help you when getting in and out of bed, or in and out of a chair. With all of the damage to your torso area, it is imperative that you do not strain yourself or reopen your stitches. Will you have someone that can assist you?”

 

Dr. Atkinson peers at Billy over his glasses, and Billy nods, gnawing on his lip as he glances over at Steve, sighing in defeat. “Yeah, doc, I’ve got that covered. How long do you think I’ll be a fuckin’ cripple, though?”

 

Steve grimaces at Billy’s language (does he not realize this man is a professional), but Dr. Atkinson actually cracks a smile at Billy. “I get the impression that you’re not used to having to ask for help, Mr. Hargrove.”

 

Max snorts, and Billy fixes her with a withering stare. “You could say I prefer being on my own,” Billy says smoothly, and Steve knows what that really means—that the abuse Billy’s dad put him through made Billy not want to trust anyone, and made him push people away. For Billy, being alone had always been the safest option.

 

The doctor nods in understanding—Steve knows that Dr. Atkinson was the one who had observed the previous injuries that Billy’s body had suffered, and had concluded they were a result of trauma. And from the way Billy is returning the doctor’s gaze, Billy might know it as well.

 

“I would give yourself at least four weeks of taking it easy. I recommend walking daily, and sleeping with your back propped up on pillows to allow for better airflow. Your chest injuries should heal up nicely as long as you keep them properly bandaged, and at least for the first week, do not get the bandages or wounds wet. We’ll most likely remove the stitches after two weeks, to give the wounds ample time to close up.”

 

Steve thinks that Max is probably wishing she had a notepad, as she is listening so intently to what the doctor is saying. It’s pretty adorable.

 

Billy nods; like Steve, he doesn’t seem to consider this to be the worst news ever.

 

“Will he get any medicine for the pain?” Max asks, raising her eyebrows at the doctor expectantly. Steve laughs softly at her moxie.

 

Dr. Atkinson nods, looking at her in amusement. “Of course Maxine, I’ll make sure your brother has everything he needs.”

 

Max looks satisfied at this answer and pats Billy’s hand, like I’ve got you.

 

The doctor makes to get up to leave, and Steve quickly reaches out to shake his hand. “Thank you, Dr. Atkinson. We really appreciate everything you’ve done for us.” The handshake Steve receives in return is firm and sure, and the smile on the doctor’s face is genuine and comforting.

 

“Of course, Mr. Harrington. It’s not every day that Hawkins General witnesses a miracle case like this one.” Dr. Atkinson throws a pointed glance at Billy before heading out of the room. (Steve thinks it means something like Remember how lucky you are to be here.)

 

When Steve collapses back into the chair near the bed, Billy gazes at him warily.

 

“Look, it’s not going to be that bad,” Steve reasons, “You’re gonna heal up really fast, and I’ll only help you when you really need it. You’ll be back to your old, asshole self before you know it.”

 

Will and Max are both nodding encouragingly at Billy, but he looks less than convinced. “You know what would make me feel a whole lot better about this whole situation, Harrington?”

 

“Uh, what’s that?” Steve asks cautiously.

 

“If you wear that nurse’s uniform Max hasn’t stopped talking about. Laughter is the best medicine, you know.” Billy grins viciously at Steve, and Max smiles guiltily, while Will looks practically scandalized.

 

“In your dreams, Hargrove.”

 

* * *

 

When Steve heads out into the hallway to drink from the nearby water fountain, Max and Will follow him, whispering among themselves.

 

“Can we go to your house after this, Steve?” Max asks, looking up at Steve hopefully. “I want to get Billy’s room ready for him. Will wants to come, too—He wants to start on Billy’s sketch, so that we can have it framed in his room for him when he comes home.”

 

Home. Steve’s house, being described as somebody’s home. Imagine that. He hoped it would feel that way for Billy.

 

“Sure thing, squirt. I’m sure Billy probably wants to catch a nap anyway. Why don’t you go say goodbye to him?”

 

Max nods, running back into Billy’s room with Will. Steve watches through the crack in the door as Max gives Billy a very gentle hug around his neck, careful not to lean against his tender chest area. Billy looks a bit taken aback at the gesture, but his hand comes up to cradle the back of her head for just a moment before she pulls away. Will keeps it more casual, giving Billy a sweet little fist bump, but Billy’s smile at the gesture is blinding. Steve slips back into the room as the kids run out into the hallway to wait for him.

 

“We’ll be back… well, when Max instructs me to be back,” Steve admits honestly, and Billy huffs out a laugh. “Call us if you need anything.” Steve gestures to the walkie talkie on the nightstand, and Billy nods.

 

“Thanks, Harrington. Look, I know I’m an ass sometimes—”

 

Sometimes?” Steve teases. Billy fixes him with an annoyed glare.

 

“You’re not fucking helping here, Harrington. I’m just trying to say thanks, all right? Christ.”

 

Steve blinks a couple times in surprise. “Oh. Yeah, man. Don’t mention it. Like I said, there’s plenty of room at my place.”

 

“I’m not just thanking you for the place to crash, Harrington.” Billy glances down the hallway where Max and Will are chattering animatedly, and his eyes go soft when they land on Max. “You’ve been taking care of Max every fucking minute of every fucking day, and I know that you were the one that pulled the Chief in to deal with my old man.” Billy pauses, heaving in a deep breath before raising his sharp blue gaze to Steve. “You saved my fucking life. And I’ve spent a lot of time wondering why you’d go out of your way for me like you did—”

 

“The same reason that you sacrificed yourself to the monster to save El,” Steve says quietly, locking his gaze with Billy’s. “Because it was the right thing to do.”

 

Billy nods once, chewing on his bottom lip. “What I did to you last fall… That was really fucking shitty of me. I had all this rage burning up inside me, and I took it out on you. That wasn’t fair, or rightand I’m sorry.”

 

Billy’s eyes meet Steve’s, and the vulnerability Steve finds there steals his breath away. He nods robotically, extending his hand to Billy. Billy’s grip is warm and firm in his as they shake once—And even after Billy lets go, Steve can still feel his touch against his skin.

 

“It’s okay. We’re all good. Just don’t be an asshole to Max anymore, or I’ll stick my fucking nail bat down your throat.”

 

Billy laughs, looking up at Steve with something that looks suspiciously like respect. “You know Harrington, I’ll fucking kill you if you ever tell her I said this… but she’s actually kind of growing on me.”

 

It’s at that precise moment that Max pops her head in the door, looking at them curiously. “Do you two need some more private time, or—?”

 

Billy flips her off (but like, fondly) and Steve scrambles to the door, giving Billy a half-hearted salute of farewell. “Later, Hargrove.”

 

“Later, Harrington. Keep my sister out of trouble.”

 

Steve leans against the doorframe, a crooked smile on his face. “No promises there.” He laughs as he looks back at Max, who is sticking out her tongue at Billy.

 

Billy smiles at his sister—and Steve knows that smile, and what it means. He’s seen it before, softening Jonathan’s brooding expression as he watches Will pour all of his energy into a sketch; he’s even seen it on Nancy’s face, when she’d caught a glimpse of Mike giving El a very tender, very awkward kiss goodbye.

 

I’m glad you exist. You are important to me. And we may not say it a lot, but I love you.

 

* * *

 

When Steve pulls into his driveway, he doesn’t feel the usual numbing sensation of dread creeping through his ribcage as he looks up at the house towering over him. He know it’s because Max and Will are there with him, still chit-chatting away as they unbuckle their seatbelts and run towards the house. Maybe once Billy moves in, he won’t dread coming home at all anymore. Steve fumbles with his keys as he gets out of the car, and he strides forward to hastily unlock the door, gesturing towards the sprawling staircase.

 

“Second room on the left,” he tells them, and he watches as Max races up the stairs with Will carefully plodding behind her.

 

Steve had picked the biggest, nicest guest room for Billy, the one with the really good view of the pool and the nice, private bathroom attached. He figured Billy would appreciate the privacy, at the very least. He had loaded all of the bags into the room already, and had (with the utmost care and precision) set up Billy’s precious stereo, so at least Max could listen to some music while she worked on his room.

 

He realizes belatedly that he should probably call Mrs. Byers and let her know that Will is probably going to be staying for dinner. He also realizes that he hasn’t talked to Dustin in a while, and he should probably call him on the radio tonight, if only to avoid a repeat of the week where Dustin had been so angry at him for “ignoring” him for three days that he only spoke to Steve through the Party. (“Lucas, tell Steve that his hair looks stupid.” “Mike, tell Steve that this pudding is not a peace treaty.” “Will, tell Steve that his jokes are old and washed up, just like he is.”) Steve didn’t need a repeat of that particular brand of hell, thank you very much.

 

After rustling around in the fridge to figure out something to make the kids for dinner, he dials Joyce. “I’m so happy to hear that Billy and Will had so much to talk about. I’m glad they have each other,” she says after Steve fills her in on the day.

 

“Yeah, I’ve never seen Billy act like he did with Will. He was so… well, so not an ass.”

 

Joyce laughs quietly on the other end of the phone. “Will has a way of softening people,” she says, her voice dripping with fondness. Steve smiles, gripping the phone tighter to his ear.

 

“Yeah, he really does. Billy wants Will to sketch him too, can you believe that?”

 

They talk for a while, mostly just gushing over Will, until Steve hears Hopper ask to speak to Steve in the background.

 

“The car’s coming alone nicely, make sure you tell Red. I’ll drive it over when it’s done, hopefully before the kid moves in so we can surprise him.” Hopper laughs, and Steve is already picturing Billy’s face when he sees his prized car, back from the grave just like he was. “I got the paperwork all filed, and the judge is already reviewing the case. Coupled with my testimony about the son of a bitch trying to take a swing at me, I’ve got no doubt that the order will go through. Once the order is signed, I’ll deliver a copy to the Hargrove residence, and Billy will get one as well.”

 

“All right, sounds good, Hop. I should go—Gotta make sure the kiddos didn’t find Billy’s nudey magazines.”

 

Hopper is still laughing when Steve hangs up the phone.

 

* * *

 

When Steve makes his way upstairs and peeks in the door, he finds Max hard at work organizing Billy’s clothes, and Will sprawled out on the floor next to her, busily sketching. The screaming vocals and shredding guitar riffs of Metallica is playing faintly from Billy’s stereo, and Steve thinks that this is probably the last time he’ll ever hear those speakers at a respectful volume.

 

Max wants to wash all of Billy’s clothes (“To get the smell of Neil’s house out of them”), so Steve gets a couple laundry baskets and helps her load up the clothes and bring them to the laundry room. Thankfully, his nanny had taught him how to do laundry when he was 8, so he’s very proficient at it, and once the first batch of clothes comes out of the dryer, he patiently teaches Max the best ways to fold everything.

 

In between loads, Max goes back upstairs to keep Will company and keeps working on the room. She starts by hanging up all of Billy’s posters on the wall, and Steve helps her move the bed to a different spot (he’s pretty sure it’s because she doesn’t want this to look anything like his old room). There’s a sleek vanity tucked into a corner—Steve is pretty sure his mother had bought it on a trip to the East Coast and had never even used it—that Max puts all of Billy’s various colognes and jewelry on.

 

She’s so focused, and Will is engrossed in his sketching, so Steve heads downstairs to make them spaghetti because it’s easy and he knows they’ll both like it. When he comes upstairs to let them know it’s ready, he finds that Max has pretty much completed her project.

 

Virtually everything is unpacked and in its place. Max has piled several pillows onto his bed, likely because the doctor had suggested Billy sleep sitting up for a while, and his clothes are either folded neatly in his dresser or hanging up in his closet. The desk has stacks of Billy’s books and notebooks (Steve notes a well-worn copy of “The Outsiders”) and in the center is a leatherbound journal with a lock on it.

 

“I think this was his journal, back when he used to write. I couldn’t find the key, but I bet he knows how to pick the lock,” Max explains as Steve comes over to gaze at it. He finds himself dying to know what Billy has written inside.

 

“It looks great in here, Max. I think he’s really gonna like it. How’s your project coming along, Will?” Steve bends down to peer at Will’s sketchbook, but Will shields the image shyly with his hands.

 

“It isn’t done yet,” Will explains, looking up at Steve apologetically. “Hey, Steve, do your parents have any picture frames laying around?”

 

Steve thinks of his mother’s Closet of Useless Shit, and nods. “I’m sure they do. Why don’t we have some dinner, and then we can look for them? I made spaghetti.”

 

“Oh, spaghetti, my favorite!!” Max squeals, running out of the room and thundering down the stairs. Steve goes to follow her, but is stopped by Will’s tiny hand on his arm.

 

“I haven’t let Max see yet, ‘cause I want her to be surprised, but you can look if you want,” Will says, handing the sketchbook to Steve bashfully.

 

Steve blinks several times as he looks at the sketch, before backing up to sit on the bed because his legs kind of feel like jelly. Will sits gingerly next to him, searching his face for his reaction.

 

See, Steve had always known that Will had a kind of raw talent when it came to drawing. He saw it in the way Will captured the mischievous glint in Max’s eyes, the joy in Dustin’s laugh, and even in the delicate way he had drawn Nancy’s slender fingers. But this sketch in his hands? Calling it anything short of a goddamn masterpiece would be an insult.

 

“Will, this is… This is absolutely incredible,” Steve breathes, running his fingers reverently along the side of the page, his heart catching somewhere in his throat.

 

Will has drawn Billy, leaning up against the hood of his Camaro. He’s wearing his usual revealing shirt, unbuttoned past his navel, but the thing that’s different is that Billy’s exposed chest is covered in scars. The precision with which Will has drawn the scars makes them look like things of beauty, lovingly sketched as if each one is just as important as the last. The only color Will has added to the sketch so far is the icy blue of Billy’s eyes—he’s got the colors so perfectly blended that Steve has to remind himself that what he’s looking at is a drawing, and not a photograph. Billy’s trademark grin is tilting his mouth up, revealing his top row of teeth. His hair looks like it’s moving slightly in the wind, and his curls are falling delicately around his face. The sun is setting in the background, and even the Camaro is perfectly detailed, down to the California license plate.

 

Steve peers down at the faint letters Will has sketched on the plate, and a warm feeling floods his chest once he makes out what it says.

 

HERO.

 

Chapter Text

 

* * *

 

After the kids devour the spaghetti, Will, Max and Steve collapse onto the couch in a mess of limbs. Steve puts Ghostbusters on for them and watches the first ten minutes before murmuring something about having to make a call. He pauses for a second on his way out of the room, watching as Max casually plops a pillow onto Will’s lap and settles her head there. Will smiles down at her, completely unbothered, and Steve marvels at their easy closeness. His stomach aches as he thinks about how young they are, and how they should have spent their 4th of July shooting off fireworks and being kids, not trembling in fear inside of Starcourt Mall as the Mind Flayer pulled on Billy’s puppet strings and tried to fucking murder them all.

 

Steve shakes his head to rid himself of the images, feeling that familiar, icy sensation begin to creep into his chest that he really didn’t need to let in right now. He takes the stairs two at a time up to his bedroom, settling onto his bed and grabbing his Supercom from his nightstand.

 

“Heya, Gold Leader, do you copy?” he asks cheerfully into the speaker. There’s a short pause where he only hears static, but then a voice is cutting through the noise.

 

“This is Gold Leader, I copy. State your codename, over,” Dustin demands on the other end, and Steve sighs heavily before bringing the radio back up to his mouth.

 

“This is… Bat Man to Gold Leader, over.” This child is lucky that Steve loves him so damn much.

 

“Well, BAT MAN, it’s nice of you to FINALLY check in,” Dustin hollers haughtily through the speaker. There’s a pause (Steve knows Dustin isn’t done talking because he didn’t say “over”), and then Dustin’s voice comes back, quieter this time. “I was worried. Are you okay? Over.”

 

Steve laughs, his throat dry and his eyes growing wet at the genuine concern in Dustin’s voice. “Yeah, buddy. I’m okay. I’ve got a lot I want to tell you. Can I take you out for pancakes tomorrow morning? Over.”

 

There’s a whooshing sound on the other end of the speaker, and Steve can practically see Dustin fist-bumping into the air at the promise of pancakes.

 

“Yeah, I mean, I guess that would be fine,” Dustin says coolly into the speaker, and Steve laughs softly at his feigned nonchalance. “How’s Billy? Over,” is Dustin’s next question, and it honestly throws Steve for a loop, because he didn’t really expect Dustin to care enough to ask.

 

“Um… good. Really good, actually. Still kind of an asshole, but it would be weird if he wasn’t. I’ll tell you more when we get pancakes, I promise. Over.” Steve is suddenly counting the hours to the morning, because he really misses Dustin, and he wants the kid to know what’s going on (even though he knows he’ll get the lecture of a lifetime about Billy Hargrove moving into his house).

 

“Okay, what time will the ship be landing? Over,” Dustin asks casually, as if that was a completely normal thing to say. Steve rolls his eyes fondly.

 

“I’ll pick you up at 10am. We both know if I come any earlier, you’ll still be dead asleep, and as much as I enjoyed that one time you punched me in the face for trying to get you up, I’d rather not go through a repeat performance. Over.”

 

“I was ASLEEP, Steve, you know I can’t be held accountable for my actions!” Dustin squawks indignantly on the other end of the line. Steve laughs to himself, remembering how the little shithead had literally given him a black eye that day. Half-asleep Dustin was not someone you wanted to fuck with.

 

“I know, I know. Just be ready to go at 10am okay, Henderson? We can spend the whole morning together, just you and me. Over.”

 

It feels good to be making plans to do something as normal as sitting down and eating pancakes with Dustin, and Steve is really looking forward to doing as many normal fucking things he can before the summer ends.

 

“10am, I copy,” There’s a rustling sound and some distant yelling, and then Dustin’s voice is back on the line. “My mom says hi, she misses you, and you should come over for pot roast soon. Over.”

 

“Tell her that I’d love to, and we’ll plan something soon. Sleep good, kiddo. I’ll see you tomorrow. Over.”

 

“It’s sleep WELL, Steve. But thanks, you too. Over and out.”

 

Steve sighs as he sets the radio back down on his nightstand, flopping back against his pillows. This whole Billy thing was going to take a lot of explaining to Dustin, but he figures the sooner he gets everything out in the open, the better it would be for everyone.

 

He huffs another breath out and then traipses down the stairs back to the living room, where he finds that Max has fallen dead asleep in Will’s lap while the movie plays on. Will smiles shyly as Steve gently settles next to him on the couch, both of them looking down at Max’s peaceful expression, her red hair splayed across the pillow.

 

“I think she’s like me—she sleeps better when someone is nearby, too,” Will whispers, and he smiles happily at Steve, looking like he’s proud to be that person for Max. Steve nods, reaching over to ruffle Will’s hair gently.

 

“Thanks for today. For coming to see Billy, and talking to him. I know it probably wasn’t easy for you, reliving all of that.” Steve’s voice is quiet, and Will raises his big, brown eyes to look at him.

 

“I’m glad I went. It was really nice to talk to someone that understands. And Billy is actually really… nice?” Will giggles a little, and Steve gets it, because using the words Billy Hargrove and nice in the same sentence is still pretty weird.

 

“Yeah, he’s still totally an asshole, but at least he’s a nice one. He’s a… What’s that word, when something is the total opposite of what it should be, but it’s still true?”

 

“Paradox?” Will supplies helpfully, and Steve finds himself nodding. Yes, Billy Hargrove is a paradox, somehow managing to juggle bits of his old, asshole self with who he is now—the new Billy, who is learning how to love his sister and says things like “Thank you” and “I’m sorry.”

 

Max stirs, startling both of them as she props herself up and rubs her eyes.

 

“How’d ya sleep, squirt?” Steve asks cheerfully, and Max fixes him with a glare because apparently he is speaking too loudly.

 

“Thanks for letting me sleep on you, Will,” she says, her voice still thick with sleep as she reaches out to pat his cheek fondly. She yawns loudly and then looks over at Steve. “I slept well, thank you,” she replies, smiling at him angelically like she didn’t just try to turn him to stone two seconds ago. “What time is it?”

 

“It’s almost 8:00, which means I should probably get you two home,” Steve begins, and he sees both Will and Max’s faces fall in disappointment.

 

“If I call my mom and ask, can I stay here? Please?” Max begins, and she looks so damn hopeful.

 

Will chimes in too, saying, “My mom would let me stay too, I just have to call her. Please, Steve?”

 

Steve’s chest warms at the thought of his house not being empty when he lays down to sleep, so of course he says, “Yeah, okay. Let’s call your folks.”

 

* * *

 

Max’s mom is a bit hesitant when she tells her that she’s staying with her friend Steve, but after she explains that Steve is basically a professional babysitter and has been driving her to visit Billy, she agrees to let Max stay the night. Joyce, of course, is thrilled to let Will stay over, and only spends five minutes telling him goodnight versus her usual ten.

 

Steve grabs his Supercom for Max so that she can say goodnight to Billy, and he answers pretty much immediately when she calls into the speaker, “Hey asshole, do you copy?”

 

His laughter comes through on the speaker first, and then his sleep-laden voice says, “Yeah, shitbird, I copy.”

 

“Sorry if I woke you up, I just wanted to say good night. Will and I are sleeping over at Steve’s house!” she tells her brother excitedly, and Steve smiles, because she sounds like a kid on Christmas morning.

 

“Oh, you’re at Casa Harrington tonight, eh?” Billy asks, sounding fond. “Think I’ll like it there?”

 

Max smiles into the speaker as she replies, “Yeah, it’s huge, and it has a pool! And it’s really big, so when you’re a dick to Steve, which we know you will be at some point, you guys can divide the house right down the middle and have more than enough room.”

 

Billy’s laughter comes through on the speaker again, and weirdly enough, Steve kind of wishes Billy was here with them, and not still stuck in the hospital. He was ready for Billy to move in, ready to get him away those damn fluorescent lights, the uncomfortable bed, and the terrible food. Steve’s house may not exactly be cozy, but it was certainly better than that grim, lonely hospital room.

 

“Sounds perfect, shitbird,” Billy replies, and he sounds really fucking tired. Max seems to sense this, because she wraps it up quickly.

 

“Get some sleep, okay? Steve is going to drop me off at the hospital in the morning. I was going to bring some of your books, I thought maybe we could read something together.”

 

“Yeah, bring The Outsiders and The Lord of the Flies,” comes Billy’s soft voice, and it sounds like he’s smiling, “I think you’ll like those.”

 

“Okay, I will! I’ll see you tomorrow, Billy. Love you.” Max says the two words freely and easily, not like last time when she rushed it, and she doesn’t wait for his response because she knows her brother. After Max sets the Supercom on the nearby coffee table, Steve is pretty sure all of them are shocked when they hear the speaker crackle back to life and Billy’s quiet voice saying, “Back at you, shitbird,” before the line goes silent.

 

Max fucking beams at the radio, and she glances up at Steve, and he remembers Billy’s words to him earlier that day: She’s actually kind of growing on me.

 

* * *

 

Will and Max want to sleep in the living room, so Steve opens up the couch to pull out the bed underneath, and gathers all of the pillows and blankets throughout the house to pile onto the mattress so that they’ll be extra cozy. He loans them some old T-shirts they can sleep in and puts on Raiders of the Lost Ark, turning the volume down to low so that they can fall asleep to it. He heads to the bathroom to change into his pajamas and brush his teeth, but when he comes back to the living room to tell them goodnight, they both look up at him in confusion.

 

“Aren’t you going to watch with us?” Will asks softly, peering up at Steve from underneath the mountain of blankets he has wrapped around himself. Max sticks out her lip in a sad little pout, and Steve caves fucking instantly, clambering into the bed between them.

 

“Twist my arm, why don’t you,” Steve mutters, settling into the pillows between them. His eyelids begin to droop somewhere around the time Indiana Jones begins fighting the Nazis in Marion’s tavern, and before he knows it, he’s fast asleep.

 

Steve wakes in the middle of the night to find Max curled up snugly against his left side, and Will’s tiny arms looped around his right arm, both sleeping soundly. He settles back against the pillows with a smile on his face, because he’s never been so fucking happy to be home.

 

* * *

 

Max wakes Steve by gently tickling his nose at 7:00, because she’s eager to see Billy right when visiting hours start. He stumbles out of bed and into the shower, before making the kids a quick breakfast of scrambled eggs and toast. They’re all dressed and ready to go by 7:30, and Steve loads Max and Will into his car, Max clutching the books Billy told her to bring and Will holding his sketchbook tightly to his chest.

 

He manages to drop Max off outside the hospital at 7:55, and she waves frantically at him and Will before running inside, her red hair billowing behind her. Steve pulls out of the lot and glances over at Will, who still looks half-asleep.

 

“How long do you think before you finish Billy’s sketch?” Steve asks, because honestly, he’s dying to see the finished product.

 

Will smiles at him, a mischievous twinkle in his eye. “I actually finished it last night, after you fell asleep. Max and I found a couple frames in one of the closets upstairs, and we framed it and put it in Billy’s room for him, right on the desk.” Will beams up at Steve, and Steve can’t wait to get home and look at the completed sketch.

 

“I’ll bet Max had a lot to say when you showed it to her,” Steve says softly, turning onto the road that would lead them to the Byers’ residence.

 

Will nods, looking proud. “She said it’s the best thing she’s ever seen, and that Billy would love it.” He pauses, looking sheepish. “I also kinda put another sketch in his room, too, when Max wasn’t looking.”

 

“Oh yeah? Which one?” Steve asks, as the Byers’ house comes into view.

 

“The one I drew of Max. I could tell Billy really liked that one, and I thought he might want to have it.”

 

Steve smiles, a warm feeling spreading throughout his chest as he thinks about Will’s sketch, the perfect rendering of Max’s laughter and joy, sitting there in Billy’s room, a rare bright spot in his house’s usual darkness.

 

* * *

 

Steve decides to go inside to have coffee with Joyce and Hopper, since he still has a while to wait before picking Dustin up. As Steve is sitting down with the steaming mug of coffee Joyce had poured for him, Hopper spreads out a collection of Polaroids on the dining room table before him, and Steve realizes they’re photos of Billy’s Camaro. The first photo must be the Camaro before any work was done, bent grotesquely and looking pretty beyond saving. But then the second and third photos show the Camaro looking progressively better and better, with the frame straightened out, the windshield and window glass replaced, and the dents popped back into place. The Camaro looks so good in the last photo, Steve can hardly believe it’s the same car.

 

“It’s just waiting on a fresh coat of paint and a few other interior adjustments. Some of the dents are still gonna show, it won’t be perfect, but I think the kid’s gonna be pretty happy. You tell Red yet?” Hopper asks, lighting a cigarette and leaning back in his chair.

 

“Not yet, I was hoping to surprise her—These pictures are perfect, can I borrow them?” Steve asks, already picturing Max’s overjoyed face when she sees them.

 

Hopper nods, grunting, “Of course,” around his cigarette.

 

Steve gazes down at the last photo. The Camaro might have some damage, and it might not be quite the same as it was before, but it had survived—Just like Billy.

 

* * *

 

Dustin is waiting patiently on the front steps of his house as Steve pulls up at 9:55, which has Steve grinning ear to ear because he knows that Dustin wanted to show Steve that he indeed could be on time. Dustin bounds into the car, collapsing into the front seat, and they take a moment to perform their ritual secret handshake, Dustin giggling when Steve gets a crucial part of it wrong.

 

“Don’t worry, statistically, you’re up to a 20% chance of proper secret handshake execution, as compared to last month’s pitiful 5%,” Dustin explains matter-of-factly, and Steve shoves his shoulder playfully.

 

“Shut it, Henderson. You know math gives me a rash,” Steve says in mock-seriousness, pulling away from the curb and heading back towards the main road.

 

“Your face looks a little less beat-up,” Dustin supplies cheerfully, and Steve huffs out a disbelieving laugh. He’d been avoiding mirrors for a reason; every time he sees the red, shiny skin around his eye, oozing and swollen, it brings him back to that tiny room, and the cold grip of fear that had paralyzed his body as he felt the cold bite of metal slip beneath his fingernail—

 

Steve.” Dustin’s looking at him worriedly, and Steve looks down to see that his knuckles are white against the steering wheel. He relaxes his hold, taking a deep, steadying breath.

 

“Sorry, man. I’m okay, I’m good,” Steve says, and it sounds a hell of a lot like he’s trying to convince himself more than Dustin.

 

Dustin nods, his eyebrows still furrowed in concern as he tears his gaze away from Steve to look out the window. “It’s okay if you’re not,” Dustin says softly, fiddling with a loose string on his shorts. “You know that, right?”

 

Steve smiles, his heart constricting painfully in his chest as he glances over at Dustin, who’s looking at him with absolutely no pity in his eyes—just genuine, unconditional understanding.

 

“I know, bud. Thank you,” Steve says softly, tousling Dustin’s brown curls fondly as he pulls into the diner’s parking lot. “You ready for these pancakes?”

 

Steve is answered by the frantic unbuckling of a seatbelt and the slamming of the car door. He watches as Dustin scrambles up the steps to the diner’s door, narrowly missing being smacked in the face by a big, burly man who is opening the door to exit. Dustin gestures flamboyantly for the man to pass, complete with a formal bow, before casting Steve a toothless smile and a thumbs up.

 

Doofus, he can’t help but think as he gets out of the car to follow Dustin inside.

 

(Steve wouldn’t change a single thing about him.)

 

* * *

 

Dustin orders chocolate chip pancakes—with extra chocolate chips and chocolate syrup on the side, oh and whipped cream with cherries, and then a side of bacon please, and a tall glass of chocolate milk, not the kids’ one, thank you Darlene, you’re a peach—and Steve just orders a black coffee and a bagel, because he’s feeling a little anxious and he hopes that another dose of caffeine will soothe his frayed nerves.

 

“You look like you have to poop or something. What’s your deal?” Dustin asks, peering at Steve suspiciously as Steve clutches the hot mug of coffee in his hands, long enough for his skin to start to burn.

 

Steve laughs, because Dustin just has a way of loosening the tension that tends to twist itself up in knots inside of Steve’s chest. He’s making way too big of a deal out of this, and he just needs to man up and tell Dustin what’s going on. He sees the waitress coming over with their food, and he gives her a moment to set the plates down before speaking.

 

“Billy’s gonna move in with me,” Steve begins matter-of-factly, and he watches as the bite of syrup-soaked pancake Dustin had been about to shovel into his mouth falls off of his fork back onto the plate, Dustin’s eyes wide in shock. “I know how this sounds, okay?” Steve continues, holding his hands up, “Believe me, I get it. But there’s a lot you don’t know, and I’m gonna fill you in, but only if you promise to listen before you freak out.”

 

Dustin narrows his eyes at Steve, looking like he does not appreciate this deal, but he shoves the fallen piece of pancake into his mouth and nods for Steve to go ahead.

 

“All right. I don’t know how much Max has told you, but I’m guessing you kind of have an idea that her stepdad is—”

 

“A dickhole,” Dustin supplies helpfully, popping a whipped cream-covered cherry into his mouth.

 

Steve nods sagely. “Yes, a dickhole. In particular to Billy.” Steve looks meaningfully at Dustin, willing him to pick up on the weight behind his words. Dustin nods, and there’s a kind of dark understanding in his eyes. He winds his hand in a frenzied circle, impatiently urging Steve to continue.

 

“Billy’s in pretty bad shape, and Max didn’t want him to go home because she was afraid of what his dad would do to him. So Hopper came by and talked to Billy, and now Billy’s dad isn’t even allowed near him. But obviously, Billy needed somewhere to stay. And he’s gonna need a lot of help, you know, getting around and stuff, while he recovers. So, my house made the most sense, since my folks aren’t really around much.” Steve pauses—he’s pleasantly surprised to see that Dustin doesn’t look as pissed as he thought he would, so he pushes on, “I know that we all have kind of a… complicated relationship with Billy. But I’m telling you, he’s different. He’s nice to Max, and he even asked me to bring Will by, to give him advice.”

 

“What does Will think of Billy?” Dustin asks, and Steve knows that out of all of the Party members, Dustin holds Will’s opinion in the highest regard, because where Dustin jumps ahead without thinking, Will thinks everything through several times over before drawing an informed conclusion.

 

“I mean, you can ask him yourself, but Will really got along well with him,” Steve begins, thinking about Will and Max snuggled up against Billy in his hospital bed, admiring Will’s sketches together. “And Billy was really nice to Will—like, weirdly nice. He even asked Will if he’d sketch him.”

 

Dustin chokes on his pancake then, grabbing his chocolate milk and frantically gulping it down. “This is Billy Hargrove we’re talking about?” he asks, sputtering, “The same guy that beat your face in last November and left you concussed? The guy that threatened Lucas and scared the literal shit out of all of us?”

 

Steve nods, holding his hands out like, I know, right? “Yes. He also apologized to me, and said thank you. Like, more than once.”

 

Dustin’s eyes are as wide as saucers at this new information. “He apologized to you?” he asks incredulously, as if that is the most unbelievable part of Billy’s story, and the fact that he survived being filleted by an evil inter-dimensional monster was just par for the course.

 

“Yeah, he did. In his own weird way, I think… I think he’s trying to start over, with everyone. Like he doesn’t want to just be an asshole with no friends at the end of the day.” Steve fixes Dustin with a pointed look. “Sound familiar?”

 

An image of Nancy the Slut Wheeler, in blocky letters and crimson paint, flashes across Steve’s mind, followed by Jonathan’s fist landing on his temple with a sickening crack. He begins tearing his bagel to pieces, needing to keep his hands occupied, as Dustin lets his question sink in.

 

“That was different, Steve,” Dustin says quietly, grimacing, like it hurts him to remember that past version of Steve, the one who couldn’t see past his own reflection long enough to care about other people.

 

“Was it? Because last I checked, I did some fucked-up things to someone I cared about. I used my fists on someone who didn’t deserve it. How does that make me any different than Billy Hargrove?”

 

“Because you changed,” Dustin begins defensively, and Steve picks up his butter knife then, pointing it at Dustin.

 

“Bingo. I changed. I’m telling you, Billy’s trying to do that too. And the least we can do, especially after what he did for El, is give him a second chance.”

 

Dustin chews the last few bites of his pancakes thoughtfully, mulling over the points Steve has made. He polishes off his chocolate milk and slams the glass onto the table, wiping his mouth with his sleeve. “I’ll consider it,” he says coolly. “I don’t like it, but I’ll give him a chance. One chance. But if he hurts you, or Max, or anyone else in the Party, the deal is off.”

 

Steve nods, leaning back in satisfaction and popping a piece of bagel in his mouth. “All right, glad you’re on board.”

 

“I just don’t want what happened with you and Nancy to happen with you and Billy,” Dustin says softly, and Steve’s heart stutters to a stop in his chest, because, what?

 

“What do you mean?” Steve asks incredulously, leaning forward over the table.

 

Dustin fixes Steve with an Isn’t it obvious? expression, but Steve has no clue in hell what Dustin is talking about, so after a heavy sigh, Dustin explains, “Sometimes you give too much, especially to people who don’t deserve it. I know you weren’t a great boyfriend to Nancy, but she was an asshole to you, too, Steve. And yet, you always come over when she calls you, you go out to movies with her and Jonathan, and you act like everything is okay when it really isn’t. I’m not saying that it’s a bad thing, you know, forgiving people, but you can’t let them walk all over you. I just feel like you’re doing a lot for Billy, and I don’t know if he’s the type of guy who will really appreciate you.”

 

Steve feels his shoulders hit the booth as he leans back, stunned. Sometimes he forgets how observant Dustin is, and just how much he cares about Steve. It’s not that Steve’s other friends don’t care about him—It’s just that Dustin has always cared the most. When Steve came down with the flu after Christmas, it was Dustin who had visited him every day for a week straight, to bring Tupperwares full of his mom’s chicken noodle soup and a new comic book for Steve to read, because he knew Steve wasn’t a really good reader, and “There are lots of pictures!” It’s Dustin who always speaks up for him when the Party makes a jab at Steve, jokingly or not—“Hey dickholes, remember how many times Steve has saved your ungrateful asses? Do me a favor, and shut up.” And it’s Dustin who constantly fucking worries about Steve, always hovering in his space to make sure he’s okay and that he’s not falling apart on the inside (which sometimes, he definitely is, and Dustin is always the first one to notice).

 

Swallowing thickly, Steve leans back over the table and extends his hand to Dustin. “I promise I won’t let Billy Hargrove walk all over me, okay? I promise. I just… For whatever reason, this feels right—like I’m the one that’s supposed to do it. Billy saved El’s life.. and he’s been so good with Max, and he made Will laugh, and I just… I don’t think he’s bad. Not anymore.”

 

Dustin nods slowly, then spits loudly into his hand, gazing at Steve expectantly as he holds out a saliva-covered palm. Steve spits delicately into his own hand and grabs Dustin’s, grimacing as he feels the gooey spit of the handshake meet his skin.

 

“The promise is sealed,” Dustin announces officially. “Now, I’m ready for a chocolate sundae.”

 

“… You can’t be fucking serious.”

 

* * *

Chapter Text

 

 

 

* * *

 

A trip to the arcade follows breakfast, and Dustin talks so much that by the time Steve is dropping him off at his house at 2:30, he’s fucking exhausted (but in the best way).

 

“See you soon?” Dustin asks hopefully, after he clambers out of the car.

 

Steve nods. “You bet. Tell Suzie I say hi. Later, Henderson.” Steve smiles and gives him a salute, and he’s rewarded with a toothless grin as Dustin runs up to the porch and waves goodbye at him.

 

After he makes sure Dustin gets inside, he figures he’ll stop by the hospital and see how Billy is doing, because he knows he’s going to have to drive Max home anyway. The sun is shining brilliantly through his windshield, so he slips his sunglasses on, inhaling the smell of freshly cut grass through the open window as he drives through town towards the hospital. He makes a quick pit-stop at a gas station for a couple Slurpees (cherry and blue raspberry, which thankfully they do have this time).

 

The nurse behind the station smiles at him as he heads to Billy’s room, and Steve gives her a friendly nod. He can hear Max’s voice reading something to Billy as he approaches the door, and he pauses to listen.

 

It seemed funny to me that the sunset she saw from her patio and the one I saw from the back steps was the same one. Maybe the two different worlds we lived in weren't so different. We saw the same sunset,” Max reads, and Steve smiles to himself because she sounds so focused.

 

Steve slips through the door with a goofy grin on his face, holding up the Slurpees. “Special deliveryyy,” he sings as Max looks up from the book in surprise.

 

“Steve!” she exclaims, closing the book and hopping off of the bed to hug him. Billy smiles at him too, which is like, different, as Steve hands off their respective Slurpees.

 

“Harrington, I’m touched,” Billy purrs as he takes a sip, casting Steve a playful grin around the straw.

 

Steve rolls his eyes as he pulls up a chair while Max clambers back up onto the bed next to Billy. “How are you feeling?” he asks tentatively.

 

Billy shrugs, and Max turns to Steve and says excitedly, “He gets to try walking tomorrow!” She frowns disapprovingly at Billy as he groans.

 

“Yeah, with a fuckin’ walker. Like an 80 year old woman,” Billy complains bitterly.

 

“Well maybe they won’t make you use the walker if Max and I help you,” Steve suggests, and Billy pauses, his sharp blue gaze flicking up to meet Steve’s. Billy holds the gaze for an extended moment, and Steve shifts uncomfortably under his scrutiny.

 

“I might hate that a little less,” is the response that finally slips smoothly from Billy’s lips.

 

Max rolls her eyes, glancing sideways at Steve. “What he means is thank you, Steve, that’s really nice of you,” she says pointedly at Billy.

 

Billy fixes her with a withering stare, unamused. Max returns the glare fearlessly, and a startled laugh bubbles up from Billy’s mouth.

 

“Christ, Maxine, tone it down, I’m about to burst into flames here.” Billy laughs again, a free and easy sound, and all Steve can do is watch in fascination as Max throws her head back and joins in his laughter, because their interactions are so effortless, when not even a week ago they were forced at best.

 

Billy catches Steve smiling at them out of the corner of his eye, but instead of giving him shit for it like he usually does, he gives him a quick nod, and an answering smile ghosts across his lips. Steve nods back, the echoes of his heartbeat fluttering somewhere inside of his ribcage, before he taps on Max’s sneaker.

 

“Hey, why don’t you keep reading?” Steve asks softly, grabbing Billy’s copy of The Outsiders that Max had set carefully on the edge of the bed. Max smiles and flips through the pages until she finds where she had left off.

 

“Read the sentence about the sunset again,” Billy murmurs, gazing down at the page Max has open and pointing about halfway down it.

 

Max takes a deep breath and begins reading. “I pictured that, or tried to. Maybe Cherry stood still and watched the sun set while she was supposed to be taking the garbage out. Stood there and watched and forgot everything else until her big brother screamed at her to hurry up. I shook my head. It seemed funny to me that the sunset she saw from her patio and the one I saw from the back steps was the same one. Maybe the two different worlds we lived in weren’t so different. We saw the same sunset…

 

The words hit Steve differently this time, and Max’s voice seems to fade away for a second as the significance of the quotation lands.

 

Steve’s eyes are moving before he even realizes it, and he’s met with a piercing blue stare.

 

Maybe the two different worlds we lived in weren’t so different.

 

Steve immediately redirects his gaze to the grey tiles below his feet, a burning sensation clawing its way across his cheekbones and up the tips of his ears. He keeps his eyes glued to the floor while he continues to listen to Max’s steady voice as she reads.

 

(And if he thinks he can still feel Billy’s gaze lingering, Steve convinces himself he’s just imagining things.)

 

* * *

 

The rest of Saturday night is occupied with Max finishing reading them the story—Steve hasn’t ever read The Outsiders, so he finds himself blinking tears from his eyes as Max reads Johnny’s last words, “Stay gold, Ponyboy. Stay gold.” Steve begins to notice that Billy will gaze pointedly at him during key scenes, like he wants to see his unfiltered reactions. When Dallas gets shot, Steve tries to keep the shock from his expression, but as usual he’s a goddamn open book. Once Max reads the last sentence and closes the book, Steve is surprised to find Billy looking at him, a soft smile spreading across his features.

 

“Did you like it, Harrington?” Billy asks, and he takes a moment to clear his throat, because his words hadn’t been louder than a whisper.

 

“Yeah, I mean, I know I missed some of it, but it was fuckin’ sad,” Steve replies, his eyes still feeling misty. He thinks about Johnny and the letter he left for Ponyboy—how he says the lives of the children he saved are “worth more than mine.” He can’t help but think of Billy, standing tall in front of El as the Mind Flayer loomed above him, the stench of death hanging heavy in the air.

 

It takes a lot of gentle convincing on Billy’s part, but Max agrees to let Steve drive her home so she can spend some time with her mom.

 

“Why don’t you ask her to do your nails or something? You know she loves doing that girly shit with you,” Billy suggests softly as Max gives him an extra long hug goodbye. She sighs, but nods in agreement. Steve watches from the doorway as Billy buries his hand in her long hair and smooths it down.

 

“Yeah, okay,” Max murmurs as she pulls away. She lingers on the bed for just a moment longer, until Billy gives her a playful shove.

 

“Quit stalling and let Harrington drive you home, shitbird,” he teases gently, and Max hesitantly climbs off the bed and joins Steve at the door.

 

“Remember, you’re walking tomorrow,” she says sternly, pointing a threatening finger at her brother, “So get lots of rest, asshole.”

 

Steve laughs and give Billy a two-fingered salute as Max marches out the door. “See you tomorrow, bright and early,” Steve promises Billy, who returns the salute.

 

“Later, Harrington,” Billy murmurs, a crooked smile tugging at the corner of his mouth, and Steve swears his voice sounds kind of fond.

 

When Steve gets home after dropping Max off, he crawls into the bed that’s still made up in the living room. He burrows under the covers, inhaling deeply, and he swears he can still smell the faint traces of Max’s strawberry shampoo and the powder-fresh scent of the Byers’ laundry detergent clinging to the pillows.

 

He falls asleep easier than he has in months, and sleeps soundly through the night.

 

* * *

 

The sound of the Supercom going off wakes him, and Steve fumbles for it in the early morning darkness, his fingers finally seeking it out from where it was buried beneath the covers.

 

“Good morning!” Max’s voice greets cheerfully through the speaker, far too loud and far too peppy.

 

“What time ’s it,” Steve mumbles groggily, running a hand through his hair as he peers blearily around the room, shielding his eyes against the weak rays of sunshine peeking through the blinds.

 

“It’s um, almost 7:00,” Max replies, still sounding annoyingly awake and alert. “I was thinking we could maybe pick up some breakfast on the way? Billy really likes French Toast, but Neil would never let us have it because it wasn’t healthy, so I was thinking it would be a nice surprise.”

 

“By almost 7:00, do you mean it’s 6:36, Maxine?” Steve asks in exasperation, squeezing his eyes shut as he catches a glance of the wall clock.

 

“Um, maybe?” Max says through the speaker, sounding guilty but not exactly sorry. “I just don’t want to be late, I want to be there when Billy tries walking.”

 

Steve’s heart squeezes at her sincerity and he sighs, collapsing back onto the pillows. “All right, squirt. You gotta give me a little while to get ready, then we can get breakfast on the way, okay?”

 

“Okay! Thanks, Steve, you’re the best.” Max hangs up in a hurry, and Steve suddenly remembers the photos from Hopper, which are still burning a hole in his jeans pocket. He takes them out and looks at them once more, deciding he’ll show them to her when they stop to pick up breakfast.

 

He really fucking hopes today is a good day.

 

* * *

 

Max’s face when she sees the photos is more than worth the wait. She’s sitting in the passenger seat, carefully tucking the bags of food by her feet, when Steve hands her the stack.

 

“Check these out—Hopper made good on his promise,” Steve says, watching as Max flips through the pictures and her eyes widen in amazement.

 

“Oh my gosh, Billy is going to freak,” she gushes, running her hands over the last photo. “I hope having his car back will help him feel a little more normal,” she murmurs, and Steve thinks it’s more to herself than it is to him.

 

When Max bursts into Billy’s hospital room, eager to deliver his breakfast, they’re both surprised to find Dr. Atkinson sitting at his bedside.

 

“Doctor,” Steve greets cordially, his eyes sliding to look at Billy to see if his expression might hint anything about the nature of their conversation. Billy looks tired, but he doesn’t look pissed off or even irritated, which is a promising sign.

 

“Mr. Harrington, perfect timing,” Dr. Atkinson says, gesturing for Steve to take a seat. Max carefully takes her spot on the bed by Billy, placing the bag of food next to him.

 

“We got you French Toast for breakfast,” Max informs Billy with a proud smile, and Dr. Atkinson’s eyes crinkle with amusement at her declaration. Billy’s tired expression slowly breaks into a smile, his hand coming out to squeeze her ankle once, which to Steve looks like an awful lot like thank you.

 

“Mr. Hargrove and I were just discussing his possible release tomorrow, and what we need to accomplish today to make that happen,” Dr. Atkinson begins, and Steve and Max both lean in intently to listen. “I’d like him to work on walking up and down the hallway—with assistance, of course. He has informed me that a walker will do significant damage to his reputation, but he did let me know that you two volunteered to help him.” The doctor laughs, a raspy but pleasant sound, and Steve is surprised that he’s being so accommodating when Billy is clearly not being an ideal patient. “We also discussed weekly physical therapy visits, and daily strengthening exercises that Billy can work on at home. Due to the high levels of trauma, both physical and emotional, that he suffered due to the accident, I am also recommending a weekly therapy appointment, at least for the first six weeks he will spend recovering.”

 

Billy kind of looks like he wants to curl up and disappear into his pillows, but he says nothing, and Steve knows it’s because Max is in the room and she’ll demand he listen to whatever the doctor advises.

 

“I’ll be back in a few hours to check on your progress, Mr. Hargrove. I have a nurse posted outside your room to observe you. Take your time, don’t push yourself, and let your sister and Mr. Harrington help you.” The doctor fixes Billy with a meaningful stare over his spectacles, and Billy nods to show he understands.

 

Once the doctor leaves, Max starts pulling out Billy’s French Toast, eggs, and bacon. He casts her a grateful smile as she busies herself with setting up the butter and syrup for him, and then he digs in, while Max and Steve enjoy their respective breakfasts as well.

 

“Thanks, shitbird,” Billy says around a full mouthful, “This is delicious.”

 

“Thank Steve,” Max says, pointing at him with her fork, “He’s the one who bought it.”

 

Billy gives him a curt nod and mumbles a quiet, “Thanks, Harrington,” before polishing off his eggs. Max casts Steve an exasperated expression but Steve just smiles, because that quiet admission of gratitude is more than enough for him, especially coming from Billy Hargrove.

 

Once the breakfast boxes are cleaned up and put away, Max hops off of Billy’s bed and looks at him expectantly.

 

“We gonna do this or what?” she asks, eyebrows raised and hands on her hips.

 

Billy sighs heavily, sliding his gaze nervously over to Steve. Sending his discomfort, Steve approaches the bed, patting Billy’s leg comfortingly through the blanket.

 

“We’ll help you. Baby steps, all right?” Steve assures him, holding out his hand. Billy glares at Steve’s hand for a moment, but he eventually gives in, clasping Steve’s hand tightly. Max scrambles over and grabs his other hand, and together she and Steve gently pull Billy up into a sitting position. He grimaces at the shift, and takes a moment to catch his breath.

 

“Feels like my chest is on fucking fire,” he says through gritted teeth. Steve looks up at Billy’s IV drip.

 

“Did they give you something for pain today?” Steve asks in concern as Billy slowly begins to swing one of his legs off the bed.

 

“Yeah, the doc knew today was gonna be tough, so he upped my dosage. The meds help me relax I guess, but everything still hurts like a bitch.” Billy swings his second leg over and dangles them there for a second, breathing in deeply.

 

“Are you ready?” Max asks, practically buzzing in her eagerness (Steve wouldn’t be surprised if she were to break into a jig). Billy glares at her, but there’s no malice behind it. His blue gaze slips over to Steve, and he already looks exhausted.

 

“I swear to God, Harrington, if you let me fall on my ass today—” Billy warns, and Steve sighs in exasperation.

 

“Jesus, Billy, if you could trust me for like, one second, this would be a hell of a lot easier.”

 

“Billy, we’re not gonna let you fall, so quit being a dickhole to Steve,” Max scolds, grabbing Billy’s hand and turning around to place it on her shoulder. “Now, quit stalling!”

 

Billy laughs, squeezing her shoulder fondly. Steve can’t help but echo the sound, because Max is offering her shoulder as leverage to Billy with absolutely no hesitation, and Steve honestly wouldn’t be surprised if Max could singlehandedly handle Billy’s weight through pure stubbornness alone. Not wanting to test that theory, however, Steve reaches out and grabs Billy’s other arm, and together, they slowly lift him to a standing position.

 

Steve holds Billy steady, one hand still clasped in his and his other arm wound securely around Billy’s back. Max stands tall, not even so much as flinching as Billy’s weight presses down onto her shoulder. Billy’s legs are shaking like a leaf, but his knees aren’t showing any signs of giving out, so Steve waits patiently, giving Billy a moment to adjust to the shift in equilibrium. Billy’s hand is gripping Steve’s so tightly he’s pretty sure it’ll lose feeling in a couple seconds, but he says nothing, just waits for Billy to signal them that he’s ready to move.

 

“Okay,” Billy says shakily, and Steve can see him nodding out of the corner of his eye. “Let’s get this over with.”

 

Steve carefully twists around so that he is standing next to Billy—Billy takes the hint and loops his arm up and around Steve’s back, holding tightly to him while keeping his other hand firmly on Max’s shoulder. Steve wraps his left arm around Billy’s middle and takes the IV stand with his right arm, and they begin a slow shuffle towards the door.

 

Billy’s breathing is labored and shallow, but he’s moving, a determined set to his lips as they cross through the doorway and into the hallway. Max has raised her hand to where Billy’s rests on her shoulder, her fingers splayed over his, and a gentle smile plays on her lips as she tips her head back to watch him.

 

Christ!” Billy stumbles slightly when they turn down the hall, and though it’s sudden, Steve catches him easily, tightening his hold around Billy’s middle and gently righting him. Steve sees the flash of embarrassment cross Billy’s face, the tips of his ears reddening, but he says nothing, because he just wants Billy to fucking trust him.

 

Steve can see a nurse following closely behind them; when she sees that Steve has spied her, she quietly approaches and takes over rolling the IV stand forward so that Steve’s other hand is free. She stays far enough back that Billy doesn’t really notice, which Steve is glad for, because the last thing Billy needs is feeling like he’s got a fucking audience.

 

He wants to tell Billy that he’s doing well, but he knows Billy’s weird about compliments, so Steve keeps quiet, instead casting Billy an encouraging smile. Billy huffs out a laugh when he looks over at Steve and catches his expression; Max looks up at Billy quizzically, trying to figure out what’s so funny.

 

“Harrington, you look like a damn pageant mom,” Billy teases, trying to bite back a smile but failing.

 

“Yeah, well, you’re doing a good job, so shut up before you ruin the moment,” Steve bites back, and Max throws her head back to laugh.

 

“Admit it, Billy, this isn’t so bad,” she says, tipping her head back to look up at him as she sweetly squeezes his hand.

 

Billy smiles at her fondly, like he just can’t fucking help it, and he nods. “It could be worse,” he admits, his grip tightening around Steve as he takes another hesitant step forward. Billy is definitely still unsteady on his feet, and they’ve probably moved a grand total of two feet, but it’s progress all the same, and Steve is just so fucking glad. He thinks back to holding Billy’s lifeless body in his arms, the dead weight of him, and he shuffles in closer, relishing in the feeling of the warmth of Billy’s very much alive body against his. Billy quirks an eyebrow at him but says nothing—when he turns away, Steve’s gaze lingers for a second longer, marveling at how long Billy’s eyelashes are as they sweep down to kiss his cheekbones.

 

For as long as Steve could remember, he had never really felt like he had done anything right. Before his parents had left for Europe, his dad had pounded it into his head that he was a failure, that he was never going to get into a good college or get a good job until he “shapes up.” But that hurts a little less now, because Steve knows that he did at least one thing right: He had saved Billy Hargrove’s life, to the fucking minute. When so often it felt like he was always one step behind, Steve had come through and acted quickly when it counted. Billy is here, walking in this hallway, blinking with those stupidly long eyelashes, because of Steve.

 

And as Billy glances sideways at him, a glimmer of gratitude cutting through the bright blue of his eyes, Steve feels really fucking proud.

 

* *  *

 

They eventually make it all the way down to the end of the hallway, where it becomes pretty clear that Billy needs to rest. Steve and Max gently lower him into a nearby chair and he collapses into it, his head lolling back as he attempts to catch his breath. The nurse that had been observing them had left a while ago; Steve was glad it was just them.

 

“Jesus, I feel like I’m 80 years old,” Billy laments, leaning his head back against the wall and closing his eyes against the harsh fluorescent lighting above.

 

“It’ll get easier,” Max says encouragingly, placing a gentle hand on his arm. “You’ll get stronger every day. You’ll be back to lifting weights and being a pain in my ass in no time.”

 

Billy laughs weakly. “I wasn’t aware I ever stopped being a pain in your ass, Maxine,” he replies sarcastically, cracking open a eye to look at her, a playful smile tugging on the corners of his lips.

 

Max pretends to think for a moment before smoothly replying, “Good point,” and Steve laughs in spite of himself. Billy opens his eyes to grin at Steve, his tongue darting across his teeth.

 

“That funny, Harrington?” Billy teases, his eyes sparkling playfully, like a fucking cat about to pounce on a ball of yarn.

 

“Yeah, Max is hilarious,” Steve replies, meeting Billy’s sharp blue gaze unflinchingly.

 

Billy nods, his eyes lingering on Steve, looking like he wants to say something else but seeming to think better of it. Steve catches Max looking curiously at Billy, because it’s weird when he doesn’t have a comeback. Steve clears his throat self-consciously to break up the silence.

 

“So, should we head back? According to my calculations, at the pace you’ve been going, Billy, we should make it back to your room in about three hours,” Steve says matter-of-factly, glancing at his bare wrist as if he’s checking the time.

 

Billy’s arm snakes out and pinches Steve in the ribs, just hard enough to sting. Steve laughs, startled, as he looks over to find Billy grinning wolfishly at him.

 

As he rubs at the tender spot, he thinks yeah, he probably deserved that one.

 

* * *

 

The walk back to the room goes much faster this time; with every step, Billy seems to grow more confident. His complexion looks healthier, too; his previous pallor has deepened to a healthy peach color, and his cheeks are a delicate shade of pink.

 

Steve notices when they’re nearing the end of the walk that Billy is shivering, and he can see goosebumps up and down Billy’s arms—when Max & Steve cross the threshold into Billy’s room and help him carefully sit back down onto the bed, Steve grabs his bomber jacket off of his chair.

 

“Here,” Steve says, offering the jacket out to him. Billy opens his mouth to protest, and Steve holds up a hand. “Look, asshole, I can tell you’re freezing. It’s cold as hell in here. Just take it.”

 

Max snags the jacket from Steve, smiling at Billy as she sings, “Arms outtt, please!”

 

Billy rolls his eyes so far back into his head that they almost disappear before he concedes, begrudgingly lifting his arms up so that Max can slip the jacket on.

 

Max clasps her hands together as she takes in Billy, looking like a proud mom. “Aw, you look so good. So Soc,” Max gushes, and Steve doesn’t miss the reference.

 

Billy’s cheeks are turning an enchanting shade of pink, and Steve’s chest feels warm suddenly, like someone lit a match somewhere deep inside his ribcage. “You gonna ask me to the sock hop next, Harrington?” Billy jokes weakly, but he keeps his eyes cast downward, avoiding Steve’s gaze.

 

“Only if you agree to go steady with me,” Steve teases back, and Max laughs delightedly as she helps Billy get settled back into the bed. Billy doesn’t laugh, however, and he’s got a strange, far-off look in his eyes as he settles back onto the pillows.

 

“Can we read Lord of the Flies now?” Max asks, climbing onto the bed next to Billy, the book ready on her lap.

 

Billy glances up at Steve, his cheeks still flushed, before casting his gaze back down to the book in Max’s hands. “Yeah, shitbird, read it to me and Harrington.”

 

Steve settles comfortably into the chair next to the bed as Max begins, “The boy with fair hair lowered himself down the last few feet of rock and began to pick his way toward the lagoon…

 

After a few paragraphs, Steve feels eyes on him. He chances looking up and meets Billy’s steel blue gaze. Billy smiles at him—a timid, gentle thing—before pulling Steve’s jacket tighter around himself and glancing back at the book as Max reads.

 

Steve tries to focus on Max’s words after that, but he can’t help stealing furtive little glances at Billy in between pages.

 

(He’d be lying if he said Billy didn’t look really fucking good in his jacket.)

 

* * *

Chapter Text

* * *

 

Steve wakes up bright and early on Monday morning, his body practically buzzing with anticipation of the day ahead. Billy was getting out of the hospital today. Dr. Atkinson had signed the release papers, his follow-up appointments had been scheduled, it was all fucking happening.

 

The rest of last night had been spent with Max finishing reading Lord of the Flies to them, and then having Billy practice walking one more time. This time, he’d held on to Max’s hands tightly for balance as she slowly guided him forward, Steve hovering behind Billy with his hands out, ready to catch him if he fell. But he didn’t, he had walked independently for at least ten feet with only Max as an anchor—And Max had gotten so excited that Steve swears she had excused herself to the bathroom to cry a little, because she came back with red-rimmed eyes but an absolutely brilliant smile on her face.

 

Dr. Atkinson stopped by in the early evening, and he couldn’t have been more pleased with Billy’s progress. He wrote him several prescriptions—something to help with pain and something to help him sleep, Steve is pretty sure—and then scheduled all of his weekly follow-up and therapy appointments, handing the print-out to Max for safe keeping.

 

Max probably would have slept at the hospital if Billy had let her, but he assured her he was fine, Maxine, it’s just one more night. Go home with Harrington, I’ll see you tomorrow.

 

Steve and Max had gotten home and immediately snuggled into their couch bed, burrowing under the covers and talking excitedly about their plans for tomorrow. Hopper had called a few minutes after they’d gotten home to let them know Billy’s car was ready, and Steve told him to drive it over tomorrow with Will, El, and Joyce after they brought Billy home, so they could make it a big surprise. After the call, Max had jumped on the bed in her excitement, and Steve had joined her, because why the hell not?

 

They’d finally fallen asleep somewhere around midnight—but just before Steve had drifted off, he’d heard Max whisper, “Hey, Steve?”

 

“Yeah, squirt?” he’d asked sleepily.

 

There was silence for a moment, and then she’d whispered, “I’m really glad you’re in my life. And in Billy’s.”

 

(Steve had not fucking cried, goddamnit—but it was a close thing.)

 

As Steve blinks himself awake now, the grey light of dawn filtering in through the blinds, he looks down at Max, still sleeping peacefully beside him. Her red hair had fallen loosely over her face sometime in the night, the strands moving gently each time she breathes in and out. Steve smiles down at her fondly, gently tucking the loose hair behind her ear.

 

He figures he’ll let her sleep for a little while longer, so he gets up and starts brewing himself coffee while he throws some waffles into the toaster. He finds himself humming as he pours creamer into his coffee, which is kind of weird, but he’s honestly fucking excited for today. He’s looking forward to having someone else walking around his big, empty house, even if it is Billy fucking Hargrove.

 

The smell of the waffles must wake Max, because suddenly she’s out of bed, bounding into one of the stools at the kitchen island. Steve jumps when he sees her, his coffee spilling out over the edges of his cup.

 

Jesus. Good morning,” he greets drily, pushing the plate of waffles towards her along with an empty plate. Max takes two waffles and coats them in butter and syrup, eagerly digging in.

 

“I can’t wait to see the Camaro,” she gushes around a full bite of waffle.

 

“You can’t wait, huh?” Steve asks, chewing his waffle with his mouth open obnoxiously. “Me neither.”

 

Max wrinkles her nose in disgust, but takes the hint and chews her food a little more politely until her plate is clean. “I’m going to go grab some clothes for Billy, and make sure his room is ready to go.” She bounds up the stairs, and Steve smiles, because he knows that Max is going to see the framed sketch of her that Will left.

 

When Max bounds back down the stairs, Billy’s clothes clutched tightly in her arms, her smile is blinding.

 

* * *

 

Billy is already up and waiting patiently for them when they arrive, perched on the edge of the bed. The IV is gone, and Steve notes with a start that Billy is still wearing his jacket. Billy smiles as he sees Max rushing forward towards him; she throws his clothes and boots onto the bed before wrapping her arms around him in a loose and careful hug. He buries his face in her shoulder and breathes in deeply, peeking at Steve over her shoulder, and all Steve can think when their gazes meet is how looking into Billy’s eyes always feels like falling.

 

“I brought your favorites,” Max announces proudly as she lays out the clothes she picked out for Billy. She brought his leather jacket (obviously), a black button-up shirt, and a pair of dark jeans, along with a well-worn pair of black boots. She reaches carefully into one of the boots and lifts his gold earring out, dangling it so that it catches the light. A soft smile plays across Billy’s lips as Max reaches out to gingerly place the earring in his ear. “There,” she says quietly, placing her hand gently on Billy’s check, “Perfect.”

 

Billy opens his mouth to say something, but no sound comes out. He clears his throat self-consciously before gesturing to the bathroom. “Gimme a minute to get changed,” he murmurs. Steve reaches out to help him up off the bed while Max trails behind with his clothes. She passes them to Billy once he’s in the bathroom, and the door closes with a soft click.

 

Max stares at the door for a moment before turning to Steve. “He’s so quiet today,” she remarks, her brow furrowing in concern.

 

Steve shrugs. “He’s probably tired, and ready to get the hell out of here,” he reasons, but she’s right, it’s weird to see Billy so subdued.

 

The door opens and Steve rushes forward to grab Billy’s outstretched hand, because even though he was getting pretty good at walking on his own, his balance still wasn’t the best. Billy takes his hand gratefully, and Steve swallows thickly as he looks Billy up and down.

 

Even with all of the weight he’s lost and his hair that hasn’t been washed for several days, Billy still looks really good—like, sinfully good. Billy has the button-up almost all the way buttoned, which is definitely out of character for him, but the leather jacket still looks perfectly natural on him, the jeans still fit, and it all kind of makes Steve’s head feel a little dizzy.

 

Billy passes Steve’s jacket back to him, which he had been clutching tightly in one of his hands. “Thanks, Harrington,” he says softly, and Steve fingers the material absentmindedly, wondering if Billy had slept in it last night.

 

“Don’t mention it,” Steve replies, slipping the jacket on and realizing that it smells faintly like Billy’s cologne.

 

Max notices that Billy is still holding his boots in his hands, and Steve realizes that bending over to slip them on was probably too painful. Max takes the boots from her brother gingerly and sprawls on the floor next to him, carefully slipping them on and zipping them up for him while Steve helps Billy keep his balance.

 

“You ready to go?” Steve asks him once Max gets both boots secured.

 

Billy nods sharply. “Yeah, get me the fuck out of here.”

 

* * *

 

Walking Billy out of the hospital kind of feels like a parade, because nurses and doctors alike were stopping to stare. Steve had forgotten the effect that Billy has on people, especially women, and it seems the leather jacket has turned the spell back on.

 

After they check out at the nurses’ station (one of them had kindly handed Billy a cane, which once out of sight, he had promptly thrown at Steve), Dr. Atkinson meets them at the front doors, a folder tucked under his arm. He hands it off to Billy and taps it, a smile on his face.

 

“Your prescription information and physical therapy exercises,” he explains when Billy looks at him quizzically.

 

“Hey, doc, about the bill—” Billy begins, shifting uncomfortably where he’s leaning against Max.

 

The doctor holds up a hand to stop him, smiling at Billy kindly. “Your hospital stay has been taken care of, courtesy of a—” the doctor peers down at his clipboard over his spectacles, “Dr. Owens. All follow-up appointments and therapy visits as well.”

 

Billy’s brow furrows in confusion, but Steve just laughs softly, clapping Billy gently on the shoulder to reassure him. He’s sure Hopper had something to do with this.

 

“Thank you, Dr. Atkinson. Seriously. For everything,” Steve says, giving the doctor a firm handshake, as does Billy, who murmurs a quiet but grateful “Thanks, doc.” Max, naturally, goes in for a hug, and Dr. Atkinson’s eyes crinkle around the corners as he pats her on the head fondly.

 

“I’ll see you in a week, Mr. Hargrove. Don’t ever hesitate to call us if something doesn’t seem right.” The doctor nods a final goodbye before proceeding back towards the ER with purposeful strides, his white coat billowing behind him.

 

Billy watches him go, and then turns towards the front hospital doors, looking a little lost as he gazes out at the parking lot. Max gently takes a step forward, and Billy follows her lead, heading outside. He holds up a hand against the bright sunlight and stumbles briefly, but Steve is there to catch him by the arm.

 

“Let’s go home,” Steve murmurs, and Max and Steve each take a side to help guide Billy towards Steve’s car.

 

* * *

 

Billy lets out a low whistle as they pull up to Steve’s house. “Jesus, Harrington, you didn’t say you lived in a fucking palace,” Billy breathes out in disbelief, looking over at Steve with raised eyebrows.

 

Steve shrugs. “Yeah, I know, it’s ridiculous. Blame my mother and her expensive taste.” He hops out of the car and runs around to help Billy out of the passenger side. He can tell the movement really fucking hurts by the way Billy’s face pales and how his breathing grows shallow, so Steve gives him a second to recover once he’s upright. Max hovers nearby, her fingers twitching at her sides like she wants to help but doesn’t know how.

 

Once Billy’s breathing has returned to normal, they walk him up to the stairs and through the front door. Max plops herself onto the floor and busies herself with sliding Billy’s boots off while he looks around.

 

“Christ, Harrington,” he says, his voice low. “This is a really nice place.”

 

“Welcome home,” Steve says, holding his arms out and gesturing to the rest of the house. He thinks of how fake his mother always acts when she hosts parties, and he hopes to hell he doesn’t sound like her.

 

Billy nods slowly, limping forward towards the living room, a hand on Max’s shoulder for balance. “All right, Maxine, you gonna show me my room or what?”

 

Steve can tell that Max is practically bursting with excitement, but she steels herself and says casually, “Yeah, it’s upstairs. This way.”

 

The stairs are tricky; Steve opts to walk behind Billy, just in case he tumbles backwards, and Max stays on his right side as he uses the left bannister for balance. It takes a while, but they make it to the landing, and Max gently guides Billy forward to the second room on the left.

 

He pauses in the doorway, and Steve sees him take a startled step back as he takes in the room. Billy’s eyes scan over the room’s contents—the king size bed, the bay window, the attached bathroom—until they settle on his desk. His mouth opens, his jaw working but no sound coming out, as he gingerly steps forward and takes the sketch Will drew of him into his hands.

 

Max and Steve are quiet as Billy gently lowers himself into the desk chair, holding the framed sketch carefully in his lap and gazing at it. There’s an extended silence, and when Billy looks up, his eyes are wet.

 

“Is the kid gonna stop by today?” Billy asks, his voice gravelly, as he scrubs quickly at his eyes. Steve knows Billy means Will.

 

“Yeah, I invited Hopper, El, Joyce, and Will over later. I mean, if that’s okay with you,” Steve amends quickly. Billy just nods dazedly.

 

“That’s good by me. I just, um… I just need a minute… alone, if that’s okay,” he murmurs, setting the sketch on the desk next to him.

 

“Sure man, whatever you need.” Steve begins backing out of the room, and Max starts to follow him until Billy says, “Hey, shitbird. C’mere.”

 

Max comes back through the door and once she’s standing next to him, Billy gestures around the room—to the posters on the wall, his stereo, and his clothing hung neatly in the closets. “You do all this?” he asks her, tipping his head to look at her. She nods, smiling shyly at him.

 

“I just wanted it to feel like home for you,” Max murmurs, and Steve bites his lip, because she’s just so damn sweet.

 

Billy nods, looking thoughtful, and he gently takes one of Max’s hands and clasps both of his tightly around it. “Thank you,” he says, and it’s so genuine that it kind of makes Steve’s chest hurt. “You’re too fucking good to me, you know that?”

 

Max shakes her head, but she’s smiling. “You’re an asshole sometimes, but you’re my brother, and I do give a shit about you,” she replies easily. Billy squeezes her hand in response.

 

“Back at you. I mean, I even have my own shitbird portrait here, if you haven’t noticed,” he says, gesturing to the framed sketch of Max. She laughs, and Steve sees the tense set of her shoulders finally relax.

 

“Steve and I will be downstairs. Just yell when you’re ready to come down, okay?” Max asks, as Billy lets her hand go and she backs out of the room.

 

The door closes with a soft click, and Max looks up at Steve.

 

She’s fucking beaming.

 

* * *

 

Steve retrieves the cane from his car and gently leans it outside Billy’s door—He knows Billy is probably too stubborn to use it, but maybe he will if Max and Steve aren’t looking or don’t say anything about it. Through the door, he can hear the stereo playing softly, and he smiles to himself as he heads back downstairs.

 

He and Max spend some time in the kitchen together for a while, making BLTs for lunch and trying to plan out the rest of the day. Steve calls Hopper and lets him know that Billy is home, and asks if they can swing by around noon with Billy’s car. Hopper says that’s just fine, and he’ll go pick it up from the shop now so that it’s ready. (He sounds ridiculously excited to drive it, which makes Steve and Max laugh.)

 

Billy stays upstairs for a couple hours—Steve figures he’s probably resting on the cozy bed, propped up by the many pillows Max had set up for him. At about 11:30, Billy comes limping down the stairs, wearing a plain navy T-shirt and a pair of heather grey sweatpants. His hair is slightly rumpled from sleep and he still looks tired, but he perks up when he sees the BLT waiting for him on the counter.

 

Steve helps Billy onto a kitchen stool and pushes the plate towards him. Steve waits for Billy to take the first few bites before speaking. “So, Hopper and everyone will be stopping by around noon. They don’t have to stay long or anything, they just want to say hi and see how you’re doing.”

 

Billy nods agreeably as he continues eating his sandwich, but says nothing. Max is pursing her lips and bouncing her leg on the stool next to him, and Steve knows she’s dying for it be noon.

 

Suddenly, the doorbell rings, and Steve jolts in surprise. He hadn’t heard Billy’s car pull up, and the damn thing is too loud to not hear it, so who could be at the door? Steve holds up a finger at Billy and Max, excusing himself, before he hurries over to the door. He wrenches it open and finds Dustin standing on the porch holding a huge Tupperware, his face breaking into a huge, toothless grin when he sees Steve.

 

“Henderson!” Steve exclaims in surprise. “What are you doing here?”

 

“My mom made cookies, for Billy,” Dustin explains as Steve opens the door wider to let him in. “I may have sampled some on the bike ride here,” Dustin admits, wiping some stray crumbs from his shirt.

 

“Ah, well, it’s the thought that counts. Come in and say hi.” Steve gestures to Billy and Max behind him, and Dustin carefully slips off his shoes before padding into the kitchen on socked feet.

 

Billy turns when he hears Dustin approaching, and Dustin comes to stand right next to Billy’s stool, holding out his hand.

 

“Dustin Henderson. I guess we sorta met, you know, the night you tried to kill Steve and Lucas, but I figure we should do it over again,” Dustin says matter-of-factly, and Steve fucking chokes.

 

Billy, however, is completely unfazed—he looks amused, even. “Nice to meet you, Henderson. Sorry about before, I’m working on my temper,” he replies evenly, casting Dustin a smile that’s all teeth.

 

Dustin grabs Billy’s hand and gives it a stiff shake. “You get one do-over, so don’t mess it up,” Dustin warns, before wandering over to the oven and plucking a piece of bacon out of the pan.

 

Steve laughs nervously and shrugs when Billy looks between him and Max, a confused expression on his face like Is this kid for real?

 

There’s the sound of an engine revving in the distance, and Steve’s heart starts to beat nervously in his chest. Showtime. “Hopper will probably be here soon,” Steve says, trying to keep his voice steady as he goes to the front window and opens the blinds. The window provides a perfect view of the driveway, and he can hear the distant sound of the Camaro rumbling up the drive. Max comes to stand near him, peering out the window, and they both look back at Billy, but he doesn’t seem to have noticed anything out of the ordinary yet. Dustin is munching away on his bacon cluelessly, while Steve’s heart is about to hammer out of his fucking chest.

 

The blue car comes into view on the first bend of his driveway, and the loud roar of the engine is unmistakable. Steve watches as Billy’s head slowly turns to look out the window, and his eyes widen in shock. Steve smiles at Billy quickly before looking back at the Camaro, which is now pulling up to the house.

 

Suddenly, there’s a crash, and Dustin is shrieking, “MAN DOWN! MAN DOWN!”

 

Steve turns around to find Billy has fallen from the stool and is now halfway collapsed onto the floor, Dustin crushed beneath him, barely holding him upright with shaking arms. Steve and Max rush forward to lift Billy back onto his feet and Dustin scuttles out from beneath him, hissing like an angry cat.

 

“Jesus Christ, you’re heavy,” Dustin proclaims loudly in Billy’s direction, dusting himself off and straightening his hat. Billy, who Steve was worried had passed out or something, is laughing hysterically.

 

“Man, Henderson, that was a real good save,” Billy says, wiping tears from his eyes as his body continues to shake with laughter. “No thanks to these assholes,” he teases, pointing to Max and Steve. Steve sputters indignantly and Max just rolls her eyes.

 

“Yeah, what the hell?” Dustin asks, clearly affronted. “You guys call yourselves our friends? I could have died,” he declares, pressing a hand to his chest dramatically.

 

Billy is still laughing to himself when they hear the sound of a car door slamming loudly outside. “Get me outside so I can see my fucking car, shitbird,” Billy says, ruffling Max’s hair playfully as she leads him outside.

 

Hopper, Joyce, El, and Will are all piling out of the car when the group heads out onto the porch. El and Will immediately light up when they see Billy, and they both run excitedly over to him.

 

“Your car is fun to ride in!” El tells Billy matter-of-factly as she approaches with Will. Billy smiles fondly at her, nodding.

 

“I think so too,” Billy tells her kindly, and then his eyes shift over to Will. “Hey, Little Byers. You and me are gonna take a walk later, okay?”

 

Will smiles shyly, nodding. “Okay, Billy, that sounds fun,” he says, just as Hopper approaches from behind them.

 

“Now, before you ask, I had nothing to do with this—It was all Red’s idea,” Hopper begins, throwing the keys up into the air before handing them off to Billy. Billy grips the keys like a lifeline, looking over at the Camaro in disbelief before looking down at Max.

 

“This is the nicest thing anyone’s ever done for me. Well, besides Harrington saving my life, I guess.” Billy pulls Max into a tight hug, holding her to his chest for a long time—Steve doesn’t think he’s ever seen Max look so happy.

 

Hopper gestures for Max and Billy to come over to check out the car, and explains the work his mechanic friend did while Billy listens intently, his arm still wrapped tightly around Max. Steve watches as El, Dustin, and Will crowd next to Billy, and Steve can’t help but think that Billy’s got some sort of magnetic pull, the kind where everyone just wants to be near him.

 

Joyce approaches Steve then, pulling him into a soft hug. As Steve pulls away, he sees she’s holding a pan of something, but it’s hidden beneath a dishtowel. He looks at her quizzically, and she laughs.

 

“These are for Billy. And for you, if you want. But not for the kids,” she stresses, as she pulls the dish towel aside to reveal a pan of brownies.

 

Oh. Oh.

 

Steve and Joyce burst into laughter at the same time, and Steve shakes his head in disbelief as  he quickly replaces the dish towel, because Dustin was going to smell these brownies out in a second.

 

“It’s for pain management,” Joyce explains defensively, trying to bite back her smile but failing miserably. “I know he can’t smoke anymore, and that’s going to be hard enough.” She glances over at Billy, who’s now looking under the hood with Hopper, and she smiles tenderly as she watches Billy pointing at something inside and explaining it to Dustin, Will, and El.

 

“Thanks, Joyce,” Steve says, finally feeling comfortable enough to call her by her first name.

 

He looks over at Billy then, too, and he smiles to himself, because he’s never seen Billy look more at home in his body than he does right at this moment.

 

Billy and Max’s words from earlier echo in Steve’s head, and he laughs softly as he watches Billy dab a bit of engine oil on Max’s nose, Max screeching in indignation and hitting him playfully on the arm.

 

“You’re too fucking good to me, you know that?”

 

“I just wanted it to feel like home for you.”

 

* * *

Chapter Text

 

* * *

Billy grabs the cold beer that the Chief cracks open for him gratefully, wrapping his fingers tightly around the cool can, the perspiration dripping through his fingers. His body fucking aches everywhere, but there’s a lightness in his chest that he hasn’t felt in years—it’s a foreign sensation, almost like it doesn’t really belong to him, but it leaves him feeling warm all over. He tries not to think about it too much, or even give it a name, because he knows that whatever it is, it’s fleeting. Good things always are, at least for him.

 

They’ve all settled into the chairs that surround Harrington’s ridiculously huge pool, and Billy watches the still blue water shimmering beneath the bright afternoon sun. Joyce and the Chief are sitting next to him, talking amiably about something to do with Jonathan’s college plans, while Max sits with Byers, El, and Henderson nearby at the pool’s edge, dangling their feet in the water. Max turns to look at him approximately every thirty seconds, as if he’s gonna fucking die or something while her back is turned. He wants to be irritated with her, but each time she looks back at him, she fucking smiles, like he’s something actually worth smiling at, and he can’t believe there was ever a time where he actually thought he hated her.

 

He glances over to see Harrington slipping through the sliding glass door with a pitcher of lemonade, a platter of cookies, and a stack of plastic cups balanced precariously in his hands. Billy laughs, because Steve Harrington is nothing if not an excellent hostess. He watches as the kids swarm the lemonade and platter of cookies as Steve sets it all on a nearby table, grabbing a couple cookies from the tray before wandering over to plop himself next to Billy.

 

“Dustin brought these for you—his mom made them,” Steve mentions off-handedly as he hands Billy a cookie. The old Billy would have said something rude, like “She has nothing fuckin’ better to do?” but he nods instead, taking the cookie gingerly from Steve and basically inhaling it in one bite. Billy can see Steve’s eyes widen slightly out of the corner of his eye—He thinks that if he and Harrington were better friends, he’d make a joke about bigger things he can fit into his mouth, but Steve kind of strikes him as a fucking prude, so he finishes the cookie in silence.

 

“How you feeling?” Steve asks tentatively, looking at him with those stupid, big brown eyes full of concern. Billy snorts.

 

“Like I got hit by a fuckin’ truck,” he answers honestly, “But—” Billy looks over at the trees lining the Harrington’s backyard, sifting through the words in his head and trying to choose the right ones to say. “I haven’t had a day this good in a long fucking time,” he finally settles on, glancing over to where his Camaro is still parked in the driveway, the sunlight bathing the windshield in gold. He glances back to see Steve gazing at him, a pleased smile ghosting across his lips. “It’s weird… To have people giving a shit about me, and doing nice things for me,” Billy says softly, averting his gaze from Steve to stare down at his hands. His palms still bear the scratches from that thing, when he tried to hold it off, but they’re starting to heal over. He hopes the rest of his body will follow.

 

“Well, you should get used to it,” Harrington says casually, and Billy looks over to see him gazing over at where all of the kids are sitting. “All the people here give a shit about you. You want to know why?” Steve turns towards him then, his eyes settling on Billy. Billy meets his gaze unflinchingly, because he’s not a fucking pussy. “Because you’re someone worth giving a shit about,” Harrington concludes, casting Billy a wry smile before calmly settling back into his chair, as if he hadn’t said a word.

 

Billy’s heart hammers uncomfortably in his chest as Harrington’s words settle in—he wants to say something, anything, but it’s like the words are stuck to his tongue. Steve looks over and smiles at him like he understands.

 

“I—“ Billy flounders, flexing his hands into fists because getting tongue-tied around Steve Harrington is not in his fucking playbook, “I might need some time. You know… to get used to that. I think I liked it better when everyone hated me. People don’t expect things from you when they hate you—They just expect you to let them down.”

 

He knows it sounds fucking pathetic, but he’d be lying if he said that wasn’t how he’s feeling. Billy knows how to be the kind of person that people hate—Things like anger and cruelty had always come naturally to him, like a second skin. But now, he thinks about how easily Max says “Love you” to him, like she doesn’t even have to think about it, and he has no idea how to be someone that people like, much less love.

 

“Take your time, then.” Steve’s voice startles Billy out of his reverie, enough to make him jump slightly in his chair. Harrington glances sideways at Billy, and his stupid, pretty eyes look so goddamn sincere. “There’s no rush.”

 

Billy nods, swallowing thickly. His gaze flits over to where Will is sitting at the pool, wiggling his legs back and forth absentmindedly through the water as Max, El, and Henderson giggle at something. “You mind getting something for me?” Billy asks, keeping his eyes glued on Will, who seems to be in his own world even as the others continue to laugh uproariously.

 

“Yeah man, what do you need?” Harrington asks, already rising out of his chair.

 

“The notebook, on my desk,” Billy replies, still staring at the back of Will’s head. “And—” Steve pauses mid-step, looking back at Billy curiously. Billy hates himself for it, but he grunts, “And the stupid cane, Harrington.” He watches a gentle smile cross Steve’s lips, and he nods, before disappearing through the sliding doors. Billy tosses the beer back, the cool liquid tumbling soothingly down his throat. Steve returns shortly with the notebook in his hand, and the cane hidden less-than-skillfully behind his back.

 

“Here ya go,” Steve says cheerfully, passing them along to Billy.

 

Billy grips the cane handle in his hands—It feels unfamiliar and wrong, like it’s part of some sort of costume, but he knows he’s going to need it.

 

“Thanks,” he murmurs, reaching his hand out to Steve. Harrington immediately gets the message and grips Billy’s hand tightly, pulling him up to a standing position. Billy holds the cane tightly, leaning it solidly against the concrete. Steve slowly lets go of his hand, and Billy is pleased to find that he is successfully managing to stay balanced.

 

Max looks back to see Billy in his precarious state of uprightness, and she scrambles to her feet and comes to stand next to him, her face pinched with worry. She opens her mouth to say something, but Billy interrupts her.

 

“I’m fine, Maxine. Look at me, I’m standing up all on my own—You aren’t even a little proud?” He casts her a shit-eating grin, and Max purses her lips together, trying to bite back her answering smile but failing.

 

“Where are you going? I’ll help you,” she starts, but Billy gently shakes his head.

 

“Nah, Byers and I are gonna take a walk.” He says it loud enough for the group at the pool to hear, and Will immediately perks up, an excited smile blooming across his features as he looks over at Billy. (Billy kind of wants to give him a hug, which is fucking weird.) “You ready?” he asks Will, who immediately scrambles to his feet and runs over.

 

“Yeah, I’m ready,” he says a little breathlessly. Max glances between Will and Billy, looking a little displeased that she’s being left behind, but Billy knows that Max has a soft spot for Will and won’t hold it against him.

 

“Let him use your shoulder for balance when he walks, okay? Like this.” She gently places Billy’s free hand on Will’s shoulder, and Will looks up at Billy with big, brown eyes and nods up at him: I’ve got you. Max nods as well, apparently satisfied that Will will not allow Billy to somehow meet an untimely death on their short walk. Steve, who had been hovering nearby, hands Billy’s journal to Will, who takes it reverently, looking up at Billy excitedly.

 

“Got something I want to read to you,” Billy explains as they start a slow walk towards the forest line, Billy trying not to lean on Will too much as he adjusts to using the cane.

 

“He’ll fall right on top of you if you’re not careful, Will! Stay alert!” Henderson shrieks from beside the pool, and Billy hears a loud splash echo behind them. Will giggles as he looks back, and Billy doesn’t have to turn around to know who pushed Henderson in.

 

* * *

 

They find a worn footpath leading into the forest, and follow it until they’re just out of view of the pool. Billy spies a large stump on the side of the path and gently lowers himself onto it, gesturing for Will to sit next to him. They sit in companionable silence for a few minutes, listening to the wind twisting through the trees and the birds chirping in the branches above.

 

“So, I saw your sketch,” Billy begins softly, folding his hands together as he looks down at the forest floor. Will is silent, waiting patiently for Billy to continue, and Billy remembers how Steve told him he’d probably like Will the best because he was “the quietest one of the bunch.” He wasn’t wrong, on either count. “I think it’s the best thing anyone’s ever given me,” Billy admits quietly, feeling brave enough to look over at Will.

 

The smile on Will’s face is so fucking joyful and so full of innocence—It honestly makes Billy want to tear all of the trees in the forest out by their roots, because this kid has such a good fucking heart, and had seen nothing but suffering and darkness for the past two years.

 

“I want to try to be a better person,” Billy confesses, his voice cracking. He feels a tear slip down his nose, unbidden, and wipes it away hastily. “I don’t want to let the shitty things that have happened to me define who I am. But it’s hard for me. It’s hard because I’ve never seen the best in people, and I’ve definitely never seen the best in myself. The way you drew me… It made me want to be that person. It made me want to be better. I’ve just…I’ve been in the darkness for so long. So fucking long. And today, everyone was nice to me. It made me feel weird, like I wanted to claw my way out of my own fucking skin. Because I feel like I don’t deserve it, I guess. I see Max looking at me, and she always looks worried, like I’m going to break to pieces. And I wonder what I did to make her care so much.”

 

Billy pauses, his eyes stinging. He feels a warm hand on his, and he looks over to see Will gazing up at him, his big, brown eyes practically spilling over with empathy.

 

“Sometimes it’s hard to let people in, and it’s even harder to let them worry about you, but that’s what people do when they care. And it might feel annoying and suffocating sometimes, but you have to remember that all they want is for you to be okay, and sometimes they just feel helpless.” Will pauses, tracking a bird that’s flying overhead. “My mom worries about me constantly, and it was really hard for me at first. But I realized she only worries about me because she loves me, and she’s afraid to lose me. That’s how Max is feeling. She almost lost you once, so she’s hanging on tighter this time to make sure she doesn’t lose you again.”

 

Will’s words bury themselves deep inside his chest, so poignant in their wisdom that his breath stutters to a stop for a moment. She’s hanging on tighter this time to make sure she doesn’t lose you again. Billy feels tears welling up in his eyes, threatening to spill over, and he lets two of them fall, unabashed. Will’s hand is still on top of his, a warm, steady presence, and it helps ground him.

 

“You’ve really got it all figured out, Byers,” Billy says softly, laughing wetly as he scrubs at his eyes with his free hand. He feels Will’s tiny fingers squeeze his hand, and he looks over at Will gratefully.

 

“I really don’t,” Will admits, “I’ve had to figure out a lot things along the way, like you have. And I drew you just like I see you—As a hero. As someone who fought the darkness, and won. As someone who saved one of my best friends. Wanting to be a better person is a really good thing, Billy… but maybe you can’t see that you’re already on your way there. What you did changed you; we can all see it. Maybe this is who you’ve always been, underneath it all.”

 

Billy thinks of his childhood; how he used to plant flowers in the garden with his mother, his hands patting down the dirt. Gently, his mother would tell him. He remembers sitting on the roof outside his bedroom that first night with Max, inhaling the sharp scent of the sea in the air and hearing his music drifting through the open window. He remembers thinking the color of her hair was pretty, and that maybe having a sister to talk to sometimes would be nice. He used to be kind. He used to be gentle. And then his family had ripped at the seams, and he had let the storm unleashed by his father twist him into everything he hated.

 

He wants to be that person again, the boy who planted flowers and sat peacefully outside on a beautiful night with his sister. He wants to be that person again for Will, for Max, for himself.

 

“All right. A deal’s a deal, right?” Billy asks softly as he gestures to the journal that Will has been carefully holding on his lap. Will passes it to him, and he fiddles with the lock for a moment before it pops open. He rifles through the journal until he finds the earmarked page, and takes a deep breath before he begins to read:

 

“Somehow,
It’s always in bed,
In night waking with a fright,
Washed over like splashes of boiling water singeing my skin.
Where have I been?

Visions of grandeur turned delusions of something that I was supposed to obey.
A lifestyle, a code,
An ode.

So stealthy through the night my conscience wakes with a fright.
Words uttered before resounding on the walls.
Paper-thin and yet no noise gets in.

The silence makes me quiver.
Pin dropped on the floor, the cold floor, the pin dropped.
I cannot see it anymore.

I cannot ride with this fear on my back,
Feel the cords go slack.
Six miles out, and two from heart attack.

Run, run, run.
Wick’s lit.
This is it.
Burrow deep.
Borrowed sleep.

3 things that you have to do.
Live.
Love.
Die.
Repeat.”

 

Billy closes the journal when he’s finished, his fingers shaking slightly. He feels vulnerable having read this to Will, like he had cracked open his ribcage and handed over his still-beating heart. Will is silent, looking pensive as he absorbs what he has heard, before looking up at Billy—And Billy is startled to see a deep understanding there.

 

“It’s about nightmares,” Will murmurs, his eyes glazing over with a far-off look as he turns his gaze forward. “I cannot ride with this fear on my back,” Will whispers to himself. “That part sounds like… The Mind Flayer. How it’s always lurking in the back of your mind, waiting to strike.” Billy is blown away, because Will actually understands his words and the meaning they carry, in a deeply personal way that Billy would have never thought possible. “Burrow deep—When you were in the coma, and you were hiding inside your mind, and El found you. Borrowed sleep—You being on life support. And live, love, die, repeat—Like how you got a second chance at life, and you get to do it over again.”

 

Billy sits besides Will in stunned silence, staring down at the words on the page. It feels like Will is literally sifting around inside of his mind, unearthing his deepest secrets and his most intimate thoughts. He wonders if somehow, they’re connected in some unseen way by the fact that they were both prisoners to the Mind Flayer. He has never felt so seen, so understood, than in this precise moment, where the words he had written somehow have come to life under the light of his and Will’s strange, spiritual connection.

 

“How are you only 14?” Billy finally asks, once the waves of shock have ebbed away. Will laughs, a quiet, breathy sound, and shrugs.

 

“Well I’m only 14 according to the artificial timing frequency,” Will replies simply, and Billy laughs, because what the fuck does that even mean.

 

“You’re such a nerd, Little Byers,” Billy says, shaking his head. Will straightens suddenly, as if remembering something, and fishes a rectangular item out of his pocket.

 

“This is from Jonathan,” Will explains, handing over a cassette. Billy turns it over in his hands to read the title:

 

Billy’s NOT-ANGSTY Playlist

 

He chuckles as he skims the track list, pleasantly surprised that Jonathan Byers has actually managed to guess some of his favorites. “Tell him thank you for me, will you?” Billy asks Will, and he finds that accepting the gift and saying thank you for it feels normal, and good, even. “And thank you for the sketch, and for talking with me,” Billy continues, and as Will smiles up at him, he can’t help but think about how he’d face the Mind Flayer a million times over for this kid, too.

 

“You’re welcome. Thank you for reading your poem to me—You have a really beautiful way with words. I hope I can read more sometime,” Will says hopefully as Billy leans over to grab the cane he had left leaning against the stump.

 

Billy smiles wryly at Will. “Only if you draw more sketches for me,” he counters, and Will nods enthusiastically.

 

Will carefully takes Billy’s journal and the mixtape into his hand before helping Billy up from the stump, and together, they begin the trek back to the pool.

 

When the group comes into view, Billy doesn’t feel as overwhelmed as before—In fact, he’s happy to see everyone, especially Max, who immediately comes bounding up to him and grabs him in a hug, like he’s been gone for years.

 

He holds her tightly in his arms—And for a long time, neither of them let go.

* * *

Chapter Text

* * *

 

The day bleeds into evening far too quickly, and before Steve knows it, Dustin’s mom’s car is rumbling up his driveway. Steve loads Dustin’s bike carefully into the trunk while she chatters cheerfully with him about the new pot roast recipe he just has to try when he comes for dinner next. Steve glances over at the front entrance to see Billy and Dustin standing in the doorway, saying their goodbyes.

 

“Thanks for almost crushing me to death,” Dustin deadpans, but he fist-bumps Billy anyway.

 

The corner of Billy’s lips quirk up in amusement, and he chuckles. “Thanks for catching me, Henderson. That was some regular white knight shit.”

 

Steve frowns at Billy, inclining his head slightly towards Mrs. Henderson, but Billy just smiles like a goddamn asshole.

 

“I’ll see you around, I’m sure. You know, ‘cause I’m Steve’s best friend, and all that,” Dustin says pointedly, glaring at Billy. Billy nods, gazing over at Steve with a wry smile.

 

“’Til I fall on you again, Henderson,” Billy quips, raising two fingers upwards in a sarcastic salute.

 

Dustin rolls his eyes and skips down the steps, pausing in front of Steve. “You’re really gonna let that asshole live with you?” Dustin whispers, but like, loudly.

 

Dusty,” his mother admonishes, smiling charmingly up at Billy, who’s trying very hard not to burst into laughter. “You take care, Billy! Feel better soon!” Billy waves cheerfully, smiling lazily at Ms. Henderson as she tucks herself into her car. Steve can see she’s basically preening under Billy’s attention as she backs out of the drive; next to her, Dustin looks thoroughly repulsed. (Steve can’t help but marvel at how Billy, even with his filthy hair and his busted-up body, has still managed to maintain his status as the goddamn sex symbol of all the Hawkins moms.)

 

As Ms. H’s car disappears down the drive, a police cruiser pulls up, one of Hop’s deputies in the front seat. Hopper and Joyce gather up El and Will, who had been engrossed in one of the Star Wars movies with Max in the living room. El and Will wander their way towards the door with Max, and they stop in front of Billy, who smiles fondly at all of them.

 

Steve watches as the kids, as if they’d rehearsed it, gently wrap their arms around Billy and encircle him into a really sweet group hug. Billy looks shocked for a moment, but then his free hand is coming down to rest on top of Max’s head, the tense set of his shoulders relaxing. They all cling to each other for a while, and Steve thinks about how intertwined they’ve all become: Will and Billy, who were touched by the same darkness and are now forever entwined; El and Billy, who had saved one another’s lives when it counted; and Max and Billy, who were learning how to love each other one day at a time.

 

Steve is struck by how small and lost Billy looks as the kids release himHe realizes belatedly that physical affection isn’t something that Billy would really be used to yet, and it makes something ache deep inside his chest.

 

The kids are heading towards him now, falling over themselves as they surround him, tiny arms and hands snaking around Steve’s waist.

 

“Steve, I have the Force,” El announces proudly, looking up at him with shining eyes. Steve chuckles, as does Will next to her.

 

“You’re not wrong, kiddo,” Steve replies easily, carding his hair fondly through her brown curls. Will clings tightly to his torso, and Steve can see him glance at Billy out of the corner of his eye. He finds himself wondering what Billy and Will talked about on their walk, because Will sure looks happy.

 

“You guys ready?” Joyce asks cheerfully from the doorway, Hopper’s hand resting casually on her shoulder. El and Will give Steve a final squeeze before racing out the doorway.

 

Will turns his head one last time as he crosses the threshold to wave at them, wearing a smile that Steve thinks is only really meant for Billy.

 

Steve stands at the window, watching the cruiser disappear down the drive, and he’s happy to find that he doesn’t feel the familiar loneliness that usually tugs at his gut when guests leave.

 

(Probably because he can hear Max and Billy behind him, already fighting over what movie they should watch next).

 

* * *

 

Max is fast asleep on the couch when the Harrington house phone rings; Steve scrambles to his feet from where he had been sitting next to Billy watching an episode of The Dukes of Hazzard, and runs to answer it.

 

His heart sinks when Susan Hargrove introduces herself on the other end of the line.

 

Neil is out of town for work this evening, and I would really like to spend time with Maxine. If you could give me your address, I can come get her—”

 

“No, Mrs. Hargrove, I’m happy to take her home,” Steve quickly interjects, because there’s no way in hell he’s going to let Susan anywhere near his house, what with the Camaro parked out front like a goddamn neon sign.

 

He barely lets her finish saying thank you before he hangs up, turning back to Billy. He’s standing now, with the aid of the couch arm, his expression hard and unreadable.

 

“Everything good, Harrington?” he asks, keeping his voice low so as not to disturb Max.

 

Steve nods. “Yeah, everything’s fine. Max’s mom wants her home, though.” They both look down at Max, who’s still dozing softly at the end of the sofa. “Do you want to break it to her, or should I?”

 

Billy takes on the Herculean task of waking Max—When he lightly shakes her shoulder, she burrows deeper into the couch, grunting unhappily. After a few more gentle prods, she blinks awake, scrubbing at her eyes before glaring up at whoever has dared to disturb her.

 

“Hey, shitbird. Steve has to take you home—Susan called. Neil’s out of town,” Billy whispers, and Steve’s heart squeezes in his chest as he watches Billy gingerly tuck a piece of loose red hair behind Max’s ear. Max groans softly, but she slowly sits up, giving herself a few seconds before looking up at Steve.

 

“Carry me?” she asks, doing her best to look pitiful. Steve laughs and crouches down in front of her; she wraps her arms around him and he hoists her up onto his back. Billy smiles in amusement as Max tucks her chin snugly into Steve’s shoulder.

 

“I’ll see you tomorrow, I’m sure,” Billy says, nodding at her.

 

“You’re not coming with?” Steve hears Max ask, sounding crestfallen.

 

Billy leans back into the couch, shaking his head. “My body’s had it for today, shitbird. Plus, I don’t think Steve can carry both of us.” He smirks playfully at Steve, and Steve kind of wants to prove Billy wrong and just fuckin’ grab him and carry him out of here, but the few reliable brain cells Steve has left remind him of the many reasons that would be a terrible idea.

 

“We’ll just see about that, Hargrove,” Steve says, hoisting Max farther up on his back and pointing at Billy. “When you’re all healed up, I’m gonna fireman carry both of you out of here, just you wait.”

 

Steve raises his eyebrows suggestively at Billy, and then he’s full-on galloping to the front door with Max giggling delightedly in his ear.

 

The sound of Billy's laughter follows him all the way out to the car.

 

* * *

 

It’s going on 10:00 when Steve returns home, throwing his keys onto the end table by the door. The stereo in the living room is playing softly; Billy’s still awake, pressed lazily back into the couch cushions, thumbing through his journal. Steve had thankfully remembered to pick up Billy’s prescriptions on the way home, because, like a dumbass, he had forgotten to call earlier to see when they’d be ready. Steve plops next to Billy, holding up the white bag and shaking the pills inside like a maraca.

 

“Joyce also brought you pot brownies, by the way,” Steve mentions as Billy takes the bag from him, reading through the instructions pinned to the side.

 

“You’re kidding,” Billy says, looking at Steve in disbelief. Steve gestures his head towards the freezer, where he had successfully hidden the treats from Dustin’s damn bloodhound nose. Billy throws his head back and laughs. “Why didn’t anyone tell me that the Byers are cool?

 

Steve leans his head back into the couch cushions, casting Billy a shit-eating grin. “You like Will,” he says simply, as if Billy had ever stood a chance not to like Will, “Told you he’d be your favorite—just had a feeling.”

 

A corner of Billy’s mouth quirks up. “That kid gets me,” he says softly, running his thumbs over the journal still in his hands, “Kind of scary how much.”

 

Steve is really fucking glad, because he knows Will has had a tough summer. All of his friends had ditched him, for their girlfriends or whatever other bullshit excuse it was that week, and Steve could see how it had worn on him. Will just wanted someone to pay fucking attention to him, and Billy was kind of becoming his person. It was like they were tethered together by an invisible connection, something left over from their time with the Mind Flayer—but this time, it was something good, like a phoenix that rises up from the ashes.

 

“You know, all Will wanted to do this summer was play Dungeons and Dragons with his friends. It was his first normal summer, you know? I mean, before…” Steve trails off, wringing his hands together. “From what Dustin told me, Mike and Lucas just shrugged him off when he tried to show them this really cool campaign he’d written. They thought time with their girlfriends was more important, I guess. That day, Will biked all the way home in the pouring rain, and he destroyed the clubhouse that he and Jonathan had built together.”

 

Steve chances a glance at Billy then, and he sees a quiet fury burning beneath his sharp blue gaze. “That kid has so much to fucking give, and he just gets stepped on,” Billy murmurs angrily, his hands closing into tight fists.

 

Steve nods thoughtfully. “They’re all growing up,” he says softly, and he can’t fucking help that his eyes get a little misty. “Which means they’ll probably all be assholes at some point. But you and Max… I think you make Will feel safe, and wanted. I’m pretty sure that Max broke up with Lucas for like, the 18th time when she heard how he and Mike treated Will that day.”

 

Billy barks out a laugh, looking proud. “Maxine doesn’t fuck around, that’s for sure. Little Byers is welcome here anytime; hell, Henderson, too. But Wheeler and Sinclair are on my shit list until they get their heads out of their asses.”

 

Steve gazes at Billy for a little too long after that, and Billy quirks an eyebrow at him. “You got something else to say, Harrington?” he asks, and Steve shakes his head.

 

“Nah, nothing,” Steve lies, but the truth is that he’s so impressed by how far Billy has come, and pretty fucking touched at how easily he’s come to care about Will. “You should probably take your meds,” he says, gesturing to the white bag that Billy had discarded on the coffee table.

 

Billy nods, ripping open the bag before taking out 3 white pills and popping them into his mouth. Steve is halfway up to get him a glass of water when he realizes Billy just swallowed them dry.

 

“You animal,” Steve comments, shaking his head. Billy grins, flashing Steve his teeth. “It looks like walking is getting easier, yeah?” Steve asks, remembering how unsteady Billy had been on his feet only yesterday.

 

“Yeah, just gotta rebuild my strength is all. Not like they’re broken or anything,” Billy replies off-handedly, running his hands lightly against the fabric of his sweatpants. “That fuckin’ hospital bed did a number on me, though. My neck feels like someone drilled a goddamn screw into it.”

 

Steve hesitates, his fingers flexing at his sides. He thinks Billy is starting to trust him, but he isn’t quite there yet, and he doesn’t want to push it—But he also wants to do whatever he can to make Billy feel better. He can’t fucking help it; and it’s not just Billy, it’s everyone. Steve's English teacher had gotten a nasty cold once in the fifth grade, and he’d brought his mother’s soup to her every day for a week, for fuck’s sake. It’s just a part of him—the overwhelming need to fix it and make it all better.

 

“Come here,” is all Steve says to Billy, laying one of the large decorative couch cushions across his lap and patting it. Billy, as expected, does not move, just raises a quizzical eyebrow at Steve.

 

“You’ve lost me, Harrington,” Billy admits, staring at him warily.

 

“Do you trust me?” Steve asks, and maybe it’s a dangerous question, or too soon, but he’s asking it anyway.

 

Billy pauses, chewing on his bottom lip. “I’m working on it,” he replies, and Steve couldn’t really ask for more honesty than that.

 

“Then come here,” Steve challenges. “I’m not gonna hurt you Billy, Christ.”

 

Billy narrows his eyes at Steve, still looking unconvinced, but scoots over on the couch and gently lays himself back onto the pillow, wincing at the movement. Steve rubs his hands together a few times to warm them up, then very gently places them on Billy’s neck. His thumbs begin rubbing into the taut muscles there, and he can already see the set of Billy’s shoulders relaxing as his eyes flutter shut.

 

“My mom says I have magic hands,” Steve says casually, laughing softly. Billy lets out a deep breath as Steve rubs circles into the sides of his neck.

 

“Mommy’s boy,” Billy teases, and a contented sigh follows as Steve pushes against the pressure points at the base of his skull.

 

Steve can feel how much tension is in Billy’s neck; can feel it in the crunch of knots beneath his fingers as he tries to work them out. Billy’s eyes stay closed, and little, breathy sighs slip out of his mouth every few seconds. Steve can feel a light blush creeping across his cheeks at the noises Billy is making, but he elects to blame it on the summer heat.

 

“This okay?” Steve asks, and he sounds out of breath—the fuck is that about.

 

Billy makes a soft groaning sound, and Steve’s hand twitches in surprise and accidentally brushes against the shell of Billy’s ear. “I don’t hate it,” Billy murmurs, and the fucker looks like he’s about to fall asleep, he’s so relaxed under Steve’s touch.

 

“Wow, high praise,” Steve responds drily, and just to fucking spite him, he runs his nails gently up the slope of Billy’s neck into his hair, scratching lightly across his scalp. Billy makes a surprised sound, something like a moan that he immediately tries to swallow back down, and then his eyes are fluttering open. Steve looks down and lets himself get lost in the icy blue of Billy’s gaze, just for a moment.

 

“You trying to get me worked up, Harrington?” Billy asks, and Steve watches Billy’s tongue as it licks slowly across his teeth—he reminds himself it’s just a fucking habit of Billy’s, it doesn’t mean anything.

 

Steve swallows thickly, the sarcastic I don’t know, is it working? getting stuck somewhere deep down his throat.

 

“My mom used to do this,” he says instead, scratching his nails lightly at the nape of Billy’s neck, “It made me feel relaxed. I don’t know if you know this, but you’re like, the least relaxed person I know.”

 

Billy laughs, muttering a quiet, “Touché, Harrington,” his eyelids fluttering closed again as Steve resumes his gentle massaging of the tight cord of muscle at the base of Billy’s neck.

 

Steve finds his gaze slipping down, unbidden, and his eyes roam curiously across Billy’s face—at the relaxed slant of his brow, the gentle part to his lips, and the way his dark eyelashes lay delicately against his tan skin. He notices, not for the first time, the smattering of freckles dusting Billy’s nose and cheekbones, and a part of Steve longs to reach out and brush his fingers across them, connecting them like constellations.

 

Steve wonders how long it’s been since someone had touched Billy this gently; he’d be lying if he said he wasn’t surprised that Billy was letting Steve get this close. He knows that Billy is used to a touch that leaves bruises, blood, and painhe can see it in the way Billy’s body stiffens defensively whenever Max hugs him. But when Max pulls him in close, he holds her tightly to his chest, and each time it seems to get easier—like he’s trying to unlearn that part of himself, that not all touches are bad.

 

The track switches on the stereo, and Springsteen begins to play softly in the background—Steve can hear Billy humming just under his breath.

 

Sometimes it's like someone took a knife, baby
Edgy and dull and cut a six inch valley
Through the middle of my skull

 

At night I wake up with the sheets soaking wet
And a freight train running through the middle of my head
Only you can cool my desire
Oh oh oh, I’m on fire

 

Steve moves down to the tops of Billy’s shoulders, his thumbs working a knot he finds there, and Billy becomes even more pliant beneath him, relaxing fully into the pillow. Trust. Billy trusts Steve—or at the very least, his touch. It feels like an important moment, something that Steve should file away and keep close to him.

 

After a few more minutes, Billy’s breath quiets, and Steve realizes that he’s fallen asleep. Steve watches Billy’s chest gently rise and fall, listens to the rhythmic sound of his breaths in and out, until his eyelids begin to grow heavy and he too, succumbs to sleep.

 

* * *

 

When Steve opens his eyes, he immediately jolts up in the darkness, his stomach sinking. Something is wrong. He can feel it, deep down in his bones and in the goosebumps that are prickling across his arms. He fumbles around in the darkness for the nearby lamp and switches it on, light flooding the room, and his fears are confirmed. Billy is gone.

 

Steve takes the stairs two at a time, praying that Billy is safe in his room, that maybe he was so desperate to sleep in a bed that he didn’t want to wake Steve and just risked making the climb by himself. When he switches on the light, he finds the bed still made and the room empty. Steve runs down the hallway frantically, checking inside his room, until movement from below the window catches his eye. His heart beats deafeningly in his ears as he approaches the window, visions of a flower-shaped maw with rows and rows of sharp teeth flashing like a warning sign inside of his mind, but what he sees when he looks down is Billy—standing stick-straight at the pool’s edge, his hands in fists at his sides.

 

Steve hears an ominous crack of thunder in the distance as he races downstairs, the wind whistling ferociously outside. He wrenches the sliding glass doors open and runs to where Billy stands, but as his hands reaches out, something deep in his gut tells him to stop. Steve walks forward to catch sight of Billy’s expression—his eyes are blank, staring ahead, unseeing.

 

Sleepwalking. Nancy had studied sleepwalking as part of a unit in one of her advanced science classes, and Steve remembers helping her study for the test. He can see the flashcard: How to Safely Wake A Sleep Walker. He remembers quizzing her, holding up the card, and he wracks his brain for the answer she had given.

 

-Don’t shake them, or try to wake them suddenly, or they might lash out and attack you.
-Try to guide them back to their bed, gently. If this doesn’t work, use a loud noise from a safe distance to wake them.

 

Except Billy was standing right next to the fucking pool, and Steve wasn’t about to do anything that would make him fall in. Even if Billy fucking punches him, Steve has to do something, because Billy is wobbling unsteadily on his feet and the fact that he’s even still standing is a fucking miracle.

 

“Billy,” Steve says softly from his side. “Billy, it’s Steve. You gotta wake up.” Thunder rumbles again in the distance, and a flash of lightning follows. Steve sends up a silent prayer to the sky, asking the rain to hold off for just a few minutes longer.

 

Billy blinks once, but his intense gaze at the forest ahead doesn’t falter. “Build? Build what? I don’t understand,” Billy whispers, his voice sounding cracked and broken.

 

“Billy,” Steve says again, “You’re okay, you’re safe. Wake up, it’s me, Steve.” Steve puts a gentle hand on Billy’s shoulder, and he can’t help but brace himself for a fist flying towards his face—but it doesn’t come.

 

“I’m scared,” Billy whispers, and Steve’s chest aches as he watches a single tear drip down Billy’s cheek.

 

“I know, Billy. But it’s okay. It’s over now. You’re safe, I promise. You just have to wake up.” Steve tightens his grip on Billy’s shoulder and tries to pull him back from the pool’s edge, but his feet stubbornly won’t move.

 

“It’s not my fault, Max. Please, please believe me, Max, it’s not my fault,”  Billy whispers, and he’s crying openly now, the tears running down in thick currents that drip off his chin. Steve flounders, having no fucking idea what to do, because for whatever reason Billy can’t fucking hear him.


Billy,” he says once more, louder and with a desperate edge to his voice, “You have to wake up, please, come on, man.”

 

The wind is picking up in speed, the leaves of the trees rustling loudly around them, and the next crack of thunder sounds way too fucking close. Steve is finally forced into a decision, stepping in front of Billy and wrapping his arms securely around him, walking him backwards. As expected, Billy begins to fall the moment his feet move out of place—Steve catches him with a grunt, dragging him inside just as icy drops of rain begin to pelt down onto his back.

 

Billy is starting to come to as Steve drags him slowly over to the couch; as Steve lifts him up and sets him firmly against the pillows, he reaches out with shaking fingers to wipe the tears from Billy’s cheeks.

 

“Hey, it’s okay,” Steve says softly as Billy blinks awake, looking around the room in confusion. “You were sleepwalking, but you’re okay.”

 

“Sleepwalking?” Billy asks, his voice thick with sleep. “I was… having a bad dream. A really bad fuckin’ dream.” His eyes cloud over as he remembers; Steve crouches down and places his hands gently on the sides of Billy’s face, not giving himself enough time to overthink it.

 

“I know, I have them too. All the time. It’s okay,” Steve says softly, and Billy looks at him, tears shining in his eyes and raw terror still swimming in their depths. “You’re at my house. The Mind Flayer is gone. You’re safe, Max is safe, everyone is safe. Everything is okay, I promise.”

 

Steve watches as Billy slowly comes back to himself, his eyes focusing more intently on Steve’s face as his awareness returns to him. He nods once, a signal to Steve that he’s back, and Steve runs his thumbs gingerly along Billy’s cheekbones before dropping his hands back to his sides.

 

“I’m sorry,” Billy murmurs, scrubbing at his eyes and looking away from Steve in embarrassment.

 

“You didn’t do anything wrong,” Steve replies gently, “I’m just glad I woke up. I really don’t want somebody else to die in my pool.”

 

Billy looks at Steve curiously, like he doesn’t quite remember Steve’s heroic rescue of both of them from the pool’s edge, but he says nothing, just mumbles a quiet, “Thanks, Harrington.”

 

“Let’s get you upstairs, all right? It’s late, and that bed up there is way more comfortable than the couch.” Steve grabs Billy’s hands and pulls him to a standing position; Billy wobbles forward slightly, struggling to adjust to the change in equilibrium, and his lips accidentally graze Steve’s ear—Steve tries not to shiver at the contact.

 

Steve notices that Billy has to rely on him a little less to get upstairs, which is good because it means he’s getting stronger. Once in his room, Billy excuses himself to use the bathroom while Steve gets the bed ready, pulling down the covers and arranging the pillows so that Billy can sleep slightly elevated as the doctor had ordered. Billy comes out a few minutes later, and waves Steve off when he offers his hand, instead limping carefully over to the bed by himself. Progress.

 

Billy tucks himself carefully under the covers, wincing a bit as he settles back against the pillows. Steve comes to sit on the other side of the bed, waiting to see if he needs to help Billy adjust his positioning.

 

“Are you comfortable?” Steve asks hesitantly as Billy exhales a shaky breath.


“Yeah,” Billy replies, his voice gravelly. He clears his throat. “Thanks.”

 

Steve reaches over to turn off the bedside lamp, enveloping the room in darkness.

 

He wants to ask, Do you want me to stay? But Steve knows Billy—knows that Billy doesn’t need Steve to coddle him or hold his fucking hand, and more importantly, he doesn’t want him to.

 

“All right, um, sleep… well,” Steve says, remembering Dustin’s grammar lesson from a few days ago. He starts to get up from the bed, feeling around in the darkness for the edge of the nightstand so he doesn’t bump into it, when a hand curls gingerly around his other wrist.

 

“Harrington,” Billy says, his voice barely above a whisper.

 

Steve turns towards the sound, his hand frozen in place by the featherlight touch of Billy’s fingers. “Y-Yeah?” he asks breathlessly.

 

“Will said it helps,” Billy says, hesitantly, his voice cutting through the darkness.

 

“Will said what helps?” Steve asks softly; his skin underneath Billy’s touch feels warm.

 

“To have someone around—when he was having the nightmares. He said he slept better when someone else was there,” Billy replies, and Steve can hear him shifting uneasily beneath the covers. “… You could stay.” The three words are so soft that if Steve hadn’t been listening so intently, he might have been able to convince himself he had imagined them.

 

“Yeah, okay,” Steve whispers breathlessly, “I can stay.” Billy’s fingers uncurl themselves from Steve’s wrist; he misses the warmth of his touch the second it leaves him.

 

Steve takes a moment to undo his jeans, discarding them on the floor, before pulling the covers down and slipping into the bed. It’s a king size bed, so there’s plenty of room between them, and Steve almost wishes the bed was smaller. He hears Billy sigh, and Steve’s fingers ache to reach out to touch him again, to massage the tense knots in Billy’s neck and back that he knows are still there.

 

“Goodnight,” Steve whispers, keeping his hands closed in fists at his side just in case they try something sneaky.

 

“G'Night, Steve,” Billy murmurs, already sounding half asleep.

 

Steve closes his eyes and tries to quiet his racing heart enough to allow himself to sleep before Billy’s words settle slowly into his consciousness, like falling snow. He’d called him Steve. Billy never calls him by his first name; hell, he hardly calls anyone by their first name.

 

He drifts off to sleep easily then, thinking about how much he likes the sound of his name on Billy’s lips.

 

* * *

Chapter Text

* * *

 

The first thing he sees when he opens his eyes is the early morning sun peeking through the blinds; he winces, squeezing his eyes shut against the brightness and burrowing deeper under the covers. It’s then that Steve feels something warm against his cheek, and realizes with a jolt that he isn’t alone; he opens his eyes slowly to find Billy, his face inches from Steve’s, so close that he can count every freckle. Billy’s arm is tucked loosely under Steve’s neck, and Steve’s cheek is pressing against the smooth skin of Billy’s bicep. Under the covers, he can feel Billy’s ankle hooked over his, their legs intertwined.

 

Steve holds his breath, searching for any signs that Billy is awake and somehow aware of their current predicament—blessedly, his eyes stay closed and his gentle snoring continues. Steve is sure that the frantic hammering of his heart against his chest will wake Billy if the sun doesn’t, but his body makes no effort to move from its place. Billy’s skin is warm against his, and Steve would be lying if he said it didn’t feel good to wake up next to someone like this.

 

Waking up with Nancy had always been his favorite part of their sleepovers—She looked so soft in the morning, the sun illuminating the ends of her curls and the gentle curves of her face like a goddamn angel, sent to Earth just for him.

 

Billy looks soft too, but in a different way—where Nancy was all gentle edges, like a camera just out of a focus, Billy is a little sharper, his dark eyebrows drawn together thoughtfully as he sleeps and the sun slanting down the hard edge of his jawline. Steve realizes, not for the first time, that Billy is like, objectively, really fucking beautiful. With his sloping eyelashes, the tumbling golden curls of hair, and the delicate pout of his pink lips, Steve isn’t sure he’s really seen anyone with a face like Billy’s—the kind of face some dead Roman guy would have carved out of marble hundreds of years ago.

 

Billy yawns suddenly, and Steve’s heart drops immediately down to his ass. Fuck fuck fuck. It’s too late to pull away, too late to disentangle himself from Billy, so Steve does the only logical thing he can think of—He pretends to be asleep.

 

He hears Billy sighing and feels him shift a little next to him, but what follows is only silence. Billy’s ankle is still wrapped around his, his arm is still around him, and Steve is totally full-blown panicking because he has no idea what’s going on or what Billy is thinking or doing or—

 

“Anyone ever told you that you really suck at pretending to be asleep, Harrington?” Billy asks, and Steve can hear the shit-eating grin in his voice. He cracks an eye open and all he can see is Billy’s stupid teeth.

 

“You’re really gonna give me shit right now, Snuggles McGee?” Steve bites back, and the comeback is horrible but it’s fucking early, okay?

 

Billy laughs, not looking even a little embarrassed as he gingerly extricates his arm and legs from Steve. “Yeah, Harrington, you just try and act like that isn’t the most action you’ve gotten since Wheeler,” he throws back casually, and Steve hates him because he’s a dickbag, but mostly because he’s right.

 

“Does everything have to be a sexual innuendo with you? I mean, Jesus, can’t I wake up first?” Steve grumbles, sitting up in the bed.

 

“You were tossin’ and turnin’ like crazy; you stopped when I got close,” Billy says off-handedly from behind Steve, like that isn’t fucking embarrassing.

 

Steve’s body feels kind of weightless, like an untethered balloon floating up into the sky, as he thinks back to how he was watching Billy sleep and thinking about how beautiful he is. It’s fucking weird that he was thinking about that, and he wants to get the fuck out of this room like, now, because the walls feel like they’re closing in on him.

 

He jolts up to a standing position, but pauses, realizing that running out of here without an explanation might be not be the best plan of action. Billy is looking at him with raised eyebrows, but he’s still fucking smiling like the cat that got the canary, and Steve wants to fucking die.

 

“I’m gonna… make breakfast!” Aha, yes, a perfectly logical reason to leave right at this very moment.

 

Steve watches as Billy tries to pull himself up to a sitting position, and sees the flash of pain cross his face before his arms are giving out and he’s landing back onto the pillows. Fuck.

 

“Here,” Steve says, his voice gentle, as he reaches down and loops his arms under Billy to pull him up. The quiet admission of pain that slips from Billy’s mouth and the rattling sound of his breathing is enough to make Steve pull back and look at him, his chest icing over with concern.

 

“You okay?” Steve asks, which is a stupid fucking question because of course Billy’s not okay, he hasn’t been okay for a long time, but he doesn’t know what else to say.

 

Billy’s eyes are squeezed shut and his breathing is still ragged. Steve sits down on the bed next to him, his hands fluttering uselessly at his sides because he doesn’t know what to do to help.

 

“What can I do?” Steve asks quietly; his voice sounds so broken when it comes out that it scares him a little. “I can go get your pills, I can—”

 

Billy’s hand reaches out to anchor itself tightly onto Steve’s thigh. Steve pauses, looking down at Billy’s fingers splayed across the bare skin of his leg, sucking in a breath.

 

“Just stay with me for a second, yeah?” Billy asks gruffly, his eyes still closed. “I just need a second. Then I want you to take me downstairs, ‘cause I want the pills, a huge bag of ice, and your big, stupid couch.”

 

“Okay. Yeah, you got it, man.”

 

Billy’s hand is still on his thigh; Steve wouldn’t mind if it stayed there.

 

* * *

 

Steve has just gotten Billy carefully settled into the couch cushions—pills taken, a literal garbage bag of ice laid carefully onto his chest, and steaming mugs of coffee for both of them—when there’s an abrupt succession of knocks at the front door. Steve rushes to answer it and finds Max on the other side, her arms crossed and an annoyed look on her face.

 

“I’ve been calling you literally all morning,” she says in irritation, waving her Supercom in Steve’s face. The same Supercom that is sitting by Steve’s bedside, in his bedroom that he definitely did not sleep in…

 

“Fell asleep on the couch. Sorry, squirt,” he says, which isn’t exactly a lie.

 

“Leave Harrington alone, shitbird, he’s not your fuckin’ butler,” Billy shouts from the couch, and Max’s irritated expression immediately breaks into a smile at the sound of her brother’s voice.

 

“Mind your own business, asshole!” Max yells from the door, and then she’s pushing past Steve and running over to where Billy’s propped up on the couch, plopping down happily next to him.

 

“Soooo, how was your first night together?” she asks both of them cheerily, innocently.

 

Steve chokes on his coffee, and spends the next five minutes coughing it out of his lungs.

 

* * *

 

Max is laying down on the couch, her head resting comfortably against Billy’s thigh, reading Catcher in the Rye to him when Steve decides to step out to buy some groceries. He and Billy had finished off the rest of the spaghetti last night, and Steve had used the rest of the bread in the house on turkey sandwiches for lunch. His mother, during one of her episodes no doubt, had gone through the cupboards and thrown out all of the food that was within even just a month of expiring, because she simply could not stand the thought of mold in her precious kitchen. Even when she isn’t around, his mother still finds a way to make life difficult for him.

 

Steve slips on his sunglasses, and when he passes the couch, he gently pats the top of Max’s head. She pauses her sentence to smile up at him, and Billy murmurs a quiet, “Later, Harrington.” When he raises his blue eyes to look up at Steve, there’s something soft in his expression—Steve’s jaw works to try to form a response, but no sound comes out.

 

“Yeah, l-later,” he finally chokes out, thankful for the protection of his sunglasses as he grabs his car keys and slips through the front door.

 

Steve is grateful for the fresh air—it helps ground him, his mind still spinning from the events of this morning. He takes a deep, steadying breath, before twirling his keys around his fingers and promptly dropping them.

 

Fuck. He snags the keys from the ground, dusting the dirt off of them. He needs to get the hell out of here.

 

* * *

 

He’s in Aisle 13 grabbing soft shells for tacos when someone comes up behind him, pressing clammy hands against his eyes.

 

“Guess who,” a familiar voice sing-songs in his ear. Steve wraps his fingers around two delicate wrists, pulling the hands off his eyes and whirling around.

 

“Robin!” he exclaims, pulling her in for a hug. She stiffens at first, because they aren’t the kind of friends who hug a lot, but she eventually wraps her skinny arms around his neck and returns the gesture. Steve holds her for a second longer, because he fucking missed her and everything about today felt weird, and seeing Robin feels normal and good.

 

“Geez, dingus, let a girl breathe,” she jokes easily as his arms fall back to his sides. He smiles in embarrassment at her, scratching the back of his neck.

 

“Sorry, it’s just… It’s nice to see you. Today has been… weird,” Steve finishes lamely, scuffing his sneaker against the tile floor. He looks up to see Robin gazing at him sympathetically.

 

“All right,” she says, in that soft way of hers, before grabbing the shopping basket out of Steve’s hands. “I can handle some more weird in my day. Talk to me, Harrington.”

 

Steve walks down the aisle alongside her, stuffing his hands in his pockets. He tips a bottle of taco sauce into the basket, humming thoughtfully.

 

“How’s Hargrove doing?” Robin finally prompts, after it’s clear Steve isn’t going to be initiating the conversation.

 

“He’s good. He got out of the hospital a day ago, and he’s um… He’s kind of, staying with me?” Steve lets the statement hang in the air for a second, casting a sidelong glance at Robin to gage her response. Her eyebrows are raised in surprise, but she nods, urging him to continue.

 

“He’s… I mean, he’s in pretty bad fucking shape, obviously. His situation was bad at home, so he needed somewhere to go. My folks are gone all summer, so my house kind of made the most sense.” Steve pauses, feeling his stomach clench. He knows that he could literally talk to Robin about anything, that she had trusted him enough to tell him her deepest, darkest secret, but he also doesn’t really know what to say to get rid of the weird feeling twisting around in his gut.

 

“How has it been?” Robin asks carefully, swinging the basket back and forth in her hands as they turn into a new aisle.

 

“It’s been… Surprisingly good. Like, he’s not as much of an asshole. He still gives me shit and all that, but he’s just… different. He’s being really nice to Max, and Will, and even Dustin. It’s just—”

 

“Weird?” Robin supplies helpfully as Steve throws a box of spaghetti noodles into the basket.

 

“Yeah, weird. But like, I don’t mind the company, you know? I hate that fucking empty house, and it’s been nice having someone around. But I also feel like I’m having trouble getting used to him… like who is he now. I thought I had him all figured out, like he was this giant asshole that beat my face in and was always trying to one-up me at school, but it’s like every day he just like… I don’t know, surprises me.”

 

Robin hums thoughtfully, knocking her shoulder lightly against Steve’s. “Do you think that people can change?” she asks, her tone sincere.

 

Steve chews on his lip as he ponders her question. He thinks back to himself two years ago, laughing with Tommy and Carol as he held a can of red paint in his hands, secure in the knowledge that he was the fucking King and Nancy deserved what she got. He thinks about Nancy back then, too—how she had transformed from an innocent suburban girl to a badass holding a gun, ready to fucking take down possessed Billy Hargrove racing at them in the Camaro in order to save the kids. So yeah, Steve definitely believed that people could change. The question was, how much?

 

“Yeah. I mean, yeah, of course people can change,” he begins, running a hand through his hair in agitation, “But like, can everything about them change?”

 

“I think that almost dying might have a way of reorienting your priorities in life, Steve,” Robin says, and she just makes it sound so fucking logical.

 

“I guess,” Steve replies quietly, stuffing his hands into his jeans pockets. “I just… It’s a lot to get used to. I think I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

 

And he isn’t exactly lying when he says that—He does find himself wondering if the old Billy might slip out, in a moment where he might feel angry or frustrated and his hands curl into fists and his pupils blow out wide. But Steve doesn’t want to tell Robin the way this new Billy is making him feel—How his heart races a little whenever he feels the warmth of Billy’s skin against him, or how looking into Billy’s eyes always feels like falling. He doesn’t understand it, and he’s not ready to—anyway, he’s always liked girls, and all this is probably just because he hasn’t gotten laid in like, forever.

 

“You okay there, dingus?” Robin asks from somewhere behind him. Steve startles, realizing he’s been staring at the ketchup selection for probably a little too long.

 

“Yeah, sorry,” he murmurs quietly, turning around to look at her, keeping his eyes glued to the ground.

 

Hey,” Robin says softly, reaching out to put a comforting hand on Steve’s shoulder. “It’s okay. It sounds like you’re just trying to adjust to everything, Steve. It’s normal, and understandable, to feel a little overwhelmed. I mean shit, the world almost ended a week ago. We almost got killed by Russians. Billy Hargrove grew a heart and saved us all, and then you saved him. And now he’s living with you? It’s a lot to take in. Give yourself a break; it’s gonna take time to get used to everything.”

 

Steve takes a deep breath in, nodding. Robin, as always, has a point. He just has to give it some time, and things will start to feel normal again. They have to.

 

“Yeah, you’re probably right,” Steve admits softly, “I just… I don’t like feeling weird like this, you know?”

 

Robin nods, but Steve swears there’s something knowing in her gaze as she smiles at him. “We’re all a little weird, Steve. It’s okay.”

 

Somehow, hearing Robin say that makes Steve feel like maybe his world isn’t spinning off its axis, at least for a few seconds. And really, that’s all he needs.

 

“Thanks, Rob,” he murmurs, giving her a fist bump. She grins at him, and as he gazes at her sharp blue eyes, her perfect white teeth, and the millions of freckles dusting her face, he isn’t surprised he fell for her, but he’s just grateful she’s in his life.

 

“Quit looking at me all gooey, dingus,” she teases, elbowing him in the ribs. “Now, what else is on our shopping list?”

 

* * *

Chapter Text

 

 

* * *

 

By the time Steve pulls into the driveway and begins unloading the groceries from the back of his car, his head feels markedly less jumbled and the tightness in his chest has slowly begun to uncoil. Talking and laughing with Robin, and simply being in her atmosphere, had been just the right amount of normal he’d needed to help himself feel grounded again.

 

He hefts the bags up the stairs, twists the knob open, and is met with silence. He peers around the corner and finds that the couch is empty, with no sign of Max or Billy. Shrugging, he brings the groceries into the kitchen, figuring they might have gone for a walk or something. He busies himself with getting things put away and organized, and then remembers he’d put a load of towels into the dryer for Billy’s bathroom that he still needed to fold and bring up.

 

Steve pads down to the laundry room, pulling the towels out of the dryer and folding them neatly before loading them into his arms and heading upstairs. It’s weird, the house being so quiet, but he tries not to think about it too much as he crosses through Billy’s room and opens the bathroom door.

 

He immediately freezes in the doorway, his hand on the knob, as his brain scrambles to make sense of the scene before him.

 

Max, her head whipping around to face him and her mouth opening, horrified, as she flings her shampoo-covered hands up in surprise at the sound of the door. Billy, laid out in the bath tub, his chest bare except for the layers of bandages (and a pair of red swim trunks on, thank fuck), slowly turning to stare wide-eyed at Steve standing in the doorway, a beehive of shampoo on top of his head.

 

Karen Carpenter croons in the background, as the three continue to stare at each other in horror.

 

I can take all the madness the world has to give

But I won’t last a day without you…

 

Steve’s jaw works, but no sound comes out. Billy is glaring at him, so forcefully that Steve wonders if it’ll break through skin. “Max,” Billy says through gritted teeth, his eyes still glued on Steve, “I thought you said you locked the fucking door.”

 

Max looks down guiltily at Billy, muttering, “I thought I did,” before Steve lets out a surprised giggle which eventually turns into full on cackling, his body shaking with his laughter. He can’t help it—seeing Billy pissed as hell with a fucking hilltop of shampoo on his head is one thing, but knowing that he had actually allowed Max to wash his hair for him and tried very much to hide it from Steve is quite another.

 

Steve is wiping at his eyes as Max joins in with him, throwing her head back and laughing openly. Billy looks like he wants to shrivel up and disappear down the drain, which only makes Steve laugh harder. “You know, I didn’t peg you for a Carpenters fan, Billy,” Steve teases once he finally catches his breath.

 

Billy rolls his eyes so far back into his head they practically disappear. “This is obviously Maxine’s tape, Harrington,” he scoffs, but the slight shake of Max’s head as she side-eyes Steve confirms his suspicions: Even big, bad Billy Hargrove is not immune to the charms of Karen Carpenter’s angelic vocals.

 

“Well, I’m hungry, so I’m gonna go see what Steve got from the store,” Max proclaims suddenly, hopping up off the edge of the tub and prancing out of the room, leaving Steve and Billy to stare dumbly at each other until they process what just happened.

 

“Max, you still have to RINSE. Max!” Billy calls after her, but to no avail, and Steve wonders what the hell he ever did to Max to deserve this.

 

“How exactly were you gonna get out of the tub, huh? How did you even get in it?” Steve asks, plopping himself down onto the edge of the bathtub, much to Billy’s chagrin. Billy eyes him distastefully.

 

“Max is stronger than she looks,” he replies simply as Steve reaches over to detach the shower hose from the wall. Billy looks up at him, miserably, but sighs in defeat as he leans forward slightly to give Steve a better angle.

 

Steve tests the temperature first before he begins gently running the water over the shampoo on top of Billy’s head. After some initial hesitation, he brings his hand up and slowly works it through Billy’s hair, his nails lightly scratching along Billy’s scalp. He hears Billy sigh softly and something twists low in his gut.

 

Billy’s eyes flutter shut as Steve continues to rinse the shampoo out, and once the water runs clear, he reaches over for the conditioner, squeezing a dime-sized amount into his hand before gently working it through to Billy’s ends. “Am I gonna have to pay you for this salon visit, Harrington?” Billy teases softly, his eyes still closed and a smirk playing across his lips.

 

Steve laughs, tugging lightly at one of Billy’s curls, eliciting a quiet, breathy sound of surprise from Billy. “First appointment’s on the house,” Steve murmurs, and he tries not to focus on the way his cheeks are burning.

 

I mean, this is fucking weird. Steve is literally washing Billy Hargrove’s hair in his goddamn guest bathroom, and the weirdest part is that it’s actually kind of nice. The music is playing softly in the background, the smell of coconut from the conditioner hanging pleasantly in the air, and Billy’s hair is soft between Steve’s fingers. Billy’s eyes are closed and there’s no tension in his expression. He looks fucking blissed out and relaxed, and Steve can’t help but think they’ve come a long damn way from that November night at the Byers’.

 

He places a gentle hand on Billy’s neck to incline him slightly forward so that he can rinse the conditioner out without getting his chest bandages wet. Billy follows his lead, sitting up slightly with a grunt, and Steve makes quick work of rinsing the last of the conditioner out.

 

Steve reaches over to turn off the water, and Billy leans back against the edge of the tub, closing his eyes and exhaling deeply. “Thanks,” is all he says, but Steve knows that even just that word took effort on Billy’s part, and he appreciates it all the more for that reason.

 

“Come on, I’ll help you get out,” Steve offers, reaching his hand out. Billy opens his eyes hesitantly, huffs out a sigh, and begrudgingly takes Steve’s hand. Steve winds his free arm carefully around Billy’s back and gingerly pulls him up to a standing position, Billy wavering precariously for a moment before Steve is able to help him step over the edge of the bathtub onto the soft rug beneath. Steve grabs a towel and hands it to Billy, who is very pointedly avoiding Steve’s gaze.

 

It’s at this point that Steve decides fuck it—if Billy’s going to get all weird and shy on him now, he’s going to at least have some fun with it.

 

“Wait here, yeah?” Steve asks, disappearing momentarily into Billy’s room before returning with the chair from the desk. He gestures to it, and Billy stares blankly at him.

 

“What’s this,” he asks gruffly, reaching up to rub the towel quickly through his hair and grimacing at the movement.

 

“You let that air dry, and we both know it’s gonna look like shit,” Steve begins, bending down to grab the blow dryer his mother keeps under the sink for guests. He gestures to the chair, his eyebrows raised expectantly. Billy looks like he wants to make a break for it, but they both know he’s still unsteady on his feet. (Honestly, Steve would love to see him try.)

 

“Jesus Christ, you’re impossible, Harrington,” Billy mutters, lowering himself into the chair and fixing Steve with a do your worst glare.

 

Steve smirks at him, grabbing a comb out of one of the drawers and gently detangling Billy’s curls. Billy’s glare lessens in intensity the longer Steve works, and pretty soon, his eyes are closing again. Steve feels a little glimmer of satisfaction at this as he opens a nearby cabinet to grab some fancy styling cream his mom had bought during a trip to Paris, working a small amount into Billy’s hair. He happens to know this stuff is good for curls, because Nancy had used it a couple times when she stayed over, and her hair had looked so wavy and soft afterwards. He notices that when he thinks of Nancy now, he still feels that familiar ache in his chest, but for only a moment—unlike before, it doesn't linger.

 

He turns the blow dryer on and gently tousles Billy’s curls as he dries. Billy leans back in the chair, his eyes fluttering closed, and as he looks at Billy’s reflection, Steve thinks of the marble statues in fucking Rome again. Billy's cheeks are turning a delicate shade of pink from the heat of the dryer, and Steve watches, mesmerized, as Billy's tongue gently licks across his slightly chapped lips.

 

Billy’s curls are drying perfectly, falling delicately down his shoulders and back, and Steve can’t help but get lost in it for a second as he runs his fingers through a piece of golden hair. The scent of the styling cream lingers in his nostrils, and it smells just like the freshly cut roses his mom would always put out in the kitchen when guests were coming over, to give the illusion that their home is actually lived in and cared for.

 

He turns the blow dryer off once Billy’s hair is dry enough for his satisfaction, and then he ducks under the sink to grab the hairspray, giving it a few spritzes. He has to admit, he’s pretty impressed with his handiwork—Billy’s hair looks magazine-worthy, his gentle tumbling curls shining underneath the mirror lights.

 

“All right, you done?” Billy asks, his eyes still squeezed shut, crinkling his nose at the smell of the hairspray.

 

“Yes, I’m done,” Steve announces proudly, setting the can of hairspray onto the counter with a flourish as Billy opens his eyes. Steve sees the flicker of surprise cross his face, and the ghost of a smile, but Billy quickly schools his features into a neutral expression.

 

“I don’t hate it,” he concludes, and Steve rolls his eyes.

 

“You better quit the tough guy act and tell me that it looks good,” Steve begins, slowly reaching for the hairbrush he’s left on the counter, his eyebrows raised in expectation, “Or you’ll regret it.”

 

Billy scoffs, looking up at Steve with an amused expression. “Oh yeah, Harrington? And what exactly are you going to do if I don’t?”

 

Steve smiles wickedly, raising the hairbrush to his mouth, and he sees the smile drop off Billy’s face as Steve tilts his head back, opens his mouth, and begins to very loudly sing,

 

BEAUTY SCHOOL DROP-OUT! NO GRADUATION DAY FOR YOU! BEAUTY SCHOOL DROP OUT! MISSED YOUR MID-TERMS AND FLUNKED SHAMPOO—”

 

“What the fuck Harrington—” Billy is staring at him in the mirror, his eyebrows furrowed in disbelief and his mouth open in horror.

 

Steve is dancing across the bathroom now, twisting and twirling while he brandishes his hairbrush microphone. He sees Max appear in the doorway out of the corner of his eye, but he doesn’t falter.

 

BABY GET MOVIN’! WHY KEEP YOUR FEEBLE HOPES ALIVE? WHAT ARE YOU PROVIN’? YOU’VE GOT THE DREAM BUT NOT THE DRIVE—” He leans in to sing right into Billy’s ear, and Billy shoves him away.

 

“Harrington, seriously, shut—”

 

WELL THEY COULDN’T TEACH YOU ANYTHING, YOU THINK YOU’RE SUCH A LOOKER—

 

Steve is fucking delighted when Max bursts into the bathroom then, grabbing a comb and singing the next lines with him right into Billy’s ears, “BUT NO CUSTOMER WILL GO TO YOU, UNLESS SHE WAS A HOOKER!”

 

They start the chorus again, dancing around Billy, Steve singing “BEAUTY SCHOOL DROP-OUT!” and Max echoing him, until Billy finally throws his hands up in defeat.

 

“My hair looks GOOD all right, Harrington?” Billy practically yells, putting his face in his hands, “Please, just stop the fucking singing before I bust open all my goddamn stitches.”

 

Steve drops the hairbrush onto the counter, raising his arms into the air triumphantly, and Max laughs in disbelief. “That’s what this was about? You wouldn’t tell Steve he did a good job on your hair? God Billy, you’re such a dickhead,” she says, but fondly, as she looks at him in the mirror and tucks a stray curl back into place behind his ear. “Honestly, I’ve never seen your hair look this good.”

 

Billy looks like he wants to be annoyed, but he totally gives in and smiles at Max, a soft, gentle thing—Steve feels his chest grow warm at the sight. “Whatever, shitbird,” Billy replies, elbowing her half-heartedly. Max glances pointedly over at Steve before casting Billy an expectant look, and he sighs. “Thanks, Harrington,” Billy murmurs begrudgingly, before adding on, “I could have lived my whole life without hearing you sing fuckin’ Grease, though.

 

Steve rolls his eyes, huffing out a laugh. “You realize that now, I know you like Karen Carpenter and have confirmation that you’ve seen Grease?”

 

For once, Billy doesn’t have a comeback.

 

* * *

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

* * *

 

Billy takes some extra time in the bathroom after Steve and Max leave him, and when he limps downstairs to join them in the kitchen, he smells like cologne and Steve’s mom’s lavender body wash. He’s wearing a faded grey Metallica shirt with dark jeans, and Steve can’t help but smile a little about how much Billy looks like himself.

 

Max is grinning widely at Billy as he plops onto the stool next to her. “Staring is rude, you know,” Billy comments drily, side-eyeing her as he grabs the cold beer Steve hands to him, cracking it open loudly and taking a long swig.

 

“I’m just admiring Steve’s handiwork, is all,” Max says sweetly, sipping at her Cherry Coke and raising her eyebrows at Billy challengingly. “So, what are we doing tonight?” she asks, looking over at Steve, who’s currently busying himself with browning the taco meat on the stove.

 

Steve opens his mouth to answer, but is cut off by Billy reaching into his jeans pocket and slamming two crumpled twenties onto the counter. “Harrington and I have plans, so you’re gonna call Sinclair and go on a date with him tonight,” Billy says easily, looking over at Steve as if he had had a single clue what he was talking about. Steve drops the spoon he’d been using to stir, cursing as a clump of ground beef flies across the stovetop.

 

Harrington and I have plans. What? What plans? Billy had not informed Steve of any plans. He tries to ignore how fast his heart is beating as his brain scrambles to figure out what Billy could mean.

 

Max gazes at the bills with furrowed brows before looking up at Billy. “What now?” she asks, eyeing him suspiciously.

 

“You heard me. Go call Sinclair. How long’s it been since you’ve seen him, anyway?” Billy asks, nudging her playfully on the shoulder.

 

Max grimaces, looking down guiltily. “Ummm, the last time was at the hospital,” she mutters, keeping her eyes downcast. Steve abandons the ground beef mess and walks over, leaning against the counter and trying to catch Max’s gaze.

 

“He probably misses you,” Steve adds softly, grinning when he sees Max blushing.

 

“It’s not like I don’t want to see him, it’s just, a lot has been going on,” she says defensively, and Billy nods like he understands.

 

“Yeah, shitbird, you’ve been spending all your time with your loser brother,” Billy replies, knocking his knee lightly against hers.

 

Max huffs out a laugh, rolling her eyes at him. “You’re not a loser. An asshole, maybe, but not a loser,” she replies, smiling wryly at him.

 

“Touché,” Billy responds coolly, grinning crookedly at Max. “Call Sinclair, shitbird. Ask him to meet you at the arcade, and tell him to bring his bike. Harrington and I will drop you and your bike off, you and Sinclair can get dinner, and you can kick his ass at PacMan or whatever the hell it is you play, then he can bike home with you and make sure you get in okay. Just don’t let Neil see him, you know the drill, and be home by 9:00. Harrington’ll call Susan and tell her you’ll be home by then.”

 

“What kind of plans do you and Steve have, anyway?” Max asks, narrowing her eyes as she glances between Steve and Billy. Steve tries not to look just as curious as he looks over at Billy, waiting for an explanation.

 

“Adult stuff,” Billy responds casually, shrugging. “Quit stalling and go call your fuckin’ boyfriend.” Billy slaps the $40 in her hands and Max smiles gratefully at him, scooting off the stool.

 

“Thanks, Billy.” She loosely drapes her arms around his shoulders in a quick hug before running upstairs to grab Steve’s radio.

 

Steve looks at Billy then, his eyebrows disappearing into his hairline as he sends Billy a what the fuck expression. “Adult stuff?” Steve asks skeptically.

 

Billy smiles, all fucking teeth, leaning forwards on the counter to unflinchingly meet Steve’s gaze. “You still got those brownies, Harrington?”

 

* * *

 

“My hair looks gross,” Max complains, gazing at herself in the living room mirror. They had finished their taco lunch a while ago (the ground beef only slightly burned; nobody’s perfect, okay?) and now Billy, Steve and Max are lounging in the living room, looking for something to watch to kill time until Max is due at the arcade to meet Lucas.

 

“What do you mean? It looks fine,” Billy says offhandedly from the couch, flipping mindlessly through the TV channels.

 

“It’s all frizzy,” Max whines, and Steve can’t help but grin because Max is worrying about her hair because she has a date, and it’s really fucking cute.

 

“You got a curling iron lyin’ around, Harrington?” Billy sighs, sliding his gaze over to look at Steve. Fuck, his eyes are extra blue today for whatever dumb reason, and Steve momentarily forgets how to speak.

 

“Uh, y-yeah. A million of them, probably. I’ll go grab one.” He hurries off the couch and up the stairs to the master bedroom near the back of the house, rifling through his mom’s drawers until he finds what he’s looking for, also grabbing a brush and hairspray for good measure. He pads back down the stairs and hands it to Billy; Max is looking at him quizzically.

 

“Grab that chair and get over here, shitbird,” Billy instructs Max, gesturing to one of the dining room chairs. Realization begins to dawn on her face, and she can’t hide her excited expression as she rushes over to grab the chair. “Harrington, grab me a longer cord, yeah?”

 

Steve fishes in the junk drawer in the kitchen until he pulls out a bunched up extension cord, plugging it in and bringing it over for Billy. Max pulls the chair carefully in front of the couch, settling into the chair so that her back is to Billy. Steve settles onto the end of the couch, watching as Billy plugs in the curling iron and begins carefully brushing Max’s hair.

 

Max purses her lips, bouncing her knee as she focuses on trying to keep her upper body still. Billy smiles good-naturedly at her as he takes his time brushing all of the tangles out of her hair. Steve watches, transfixed, as Billy picks up the curling iron and deftly wraps it around a strand of Max’s red hair. After holding it in place for a few seconds, he releases the curl, and it falls beautifully down Max’s back.

 

Steve takes in the scene before him, wanting to commit it to memory, because he knows this is who Billy has always been, underneath it all—someone kind and gentle, with all kinds of love to give but not knowing how to express it, or even where to put it. He’d shrug this off later, tell Steve that it was no big deal, that he was just trying to shut her up about her hair, Harrington. But Billy can’t see Max’s face right now; he can’t see the subtle, proud smile tugging at her lips from knowing that her big brother had willingly put aside his tough guy bullshit just to do something thoughtful for her.

 

Billy has Max turn to the side so that he can do the pieces close to her face, and as she moves into place, he momentarily meets Steve’s gaze. Looking into the icy blue depths of Billy’s eyes feels like being doused in cool water, and Steve feels frozen, unable to tear his gaze away. An amused smile plays on Billy’s lips, and he slowly looks away to focus back on Max’s hair, leaving Steve’s heart pounding jackrabbit-fast against his chest.

 

Max’s finished hair is so beautiful that Steve has to resist the urge to go full mom-on-prom-night and take like, a million pictures of her. Billy gives her a couple spritzes of hairspray and runs his hands gingerly through the curls a few times to get them to lay a bit looser before leading her to the mirror.

 

The smile that spreads across her face is breathtaking—it makes Steve stupidly emotional, because Max didn’t used to care about this kind of stuff, but he can tell how much this moment with Billy means to her and it’s just a lot to take in, okay?

 

“How’d I do, shitbird?” Billy asks, trying for casual, but Steve can hear the emotional waver in his voice. Billy can deny it all he wants, but this moment sure as hell means something to him, too.

 

Max says nothing, instead turning around and enveloping Billy into a tender hug, her small arms wrapping themselves carefully around his waist.

 

“Christ, Max, it’s just hair,” Billy says, laughing wetly, and Steve will be damned if he doesn’t see a fucking tear glittering in one of Billy’s eyes.

 

“Whatever, asshole,” Max says, her voice coming out muffled from where her face is buried in his T-shirt.

 

Billy places his hand on her head, holding it there for a few extra seconds before she pulls away. They look at each other for a suspended moment, as if seeing each other for the first time, before Max looks over at Steve.

 

“We should go, Lucas is always annoyingly early,” she says brusquely, wiping any evidence of the touching moment Steve had just witnessed from her eyes before tossing him his car keys.

 

Steve catches them with ease, looking sideways at Billy with a knowing grin. “You ready to go?”

 

Billy scoffs, placing a steady hand on Max’s shoulder as she helps him to the door. “Why wouldn’t I be, Harrington?”

 

* * *

 

When they pull up to the arcade, Lucas is already waiting outside, and by God, the child is holding flowers. Sunflowers, to be exact, which is so fucking Max that Steve has to give the kid some credit.

 

“Looks like Sinclair’s stepped up his game,” Billy comments, grinning and waggling his eyebrows at Max in the backseat. Max rolls her eyes, but Steve can see she’s definitely blushing.

 

“Hey, do me a favor?” Billy asks softly as they pull into a parking space. Steve turns to look at him, and Billy is staring straight ahead at where Lucas is standing; Steve watches his Adam’s apple bob up and down as he swallows. “Take Max inside, and let me talk to Sinclair for a second.”

 

Steve nods, looking back at Max, who doesn’t show any signs of protesting; she simply hops out of the car and helps Billy out of the passenger’s seat, and then gestures Lucas over.

 

“Hey,” she greets him, grinning as he ambles over nervously and stiffly hands her the flowers. Steve swears he smells aftershave, and his heart squeezes a little because these kids are crushing on each other so hard. “Thank you, they’re beautiful,” Max gushes, pulling Lucas into a tight hug. “Sorry I haven’t been around, things have been crazy.”

 

“I know,” he replies, hugging her tightly, his eyes flitting over to Billy as they pull away. “It’s okay, I get it.” Lucas straightens and gives Billy a formal nod. “Hey, Billy. It’s good to see you.”

 

“You too, Sinclair,” Billy says, giving Lucas a gentle fist bump. “I wanna talk with you for a sec, if that’s all right.”

 

“I’ll be inside, kicking Steve’s ass at Dig Dug,” Max says, grabbing onto Steve’s hand and pulling him through the glass door of the arcade. And well, they’re both fucking liars, because they immediately press themselves to the nearest window and try to make out what Billy and Lucas are saying.

 

Steve watches as Billy sits down on a bench outside, gesturing for Lucas to join him. Max clings the sunflowers tightly to her chest as she observes them. Billy folds his hands together and looks over at Lucas, and Steve sees the word “Sorry” cross Billy’s lips. Lucas shakes his head, and Steve sees Billy smile at him as Lucas says something with a shit-eating grin. Billy replies and they both laugh, and then Lucas is reaching out his hand. Billy shakes it once, firmly, and then he happens to glance over to find Max and Steve in the window. Billy frowns and flips them off, and Lucas looks over and sticks his tongue out before screwing up his eyes and puffing his cheeks out to make a truly hideous face at Max.

 

Max laughs, sticking her tongue back out at Lucas, before running to the door to meet him. Max swings her arm casually around him, still clutching the sunflowers, and together they make their way back into the arcade. On his way out the door, Steve pats Max fondly on the head. “Have fun, you two,” he says as she and Lucas heads towards Dig Dug.

 

“Thanks, Steve,” they both say in unison, before turning to the machine and chattering away excitedly as Lucas loads quarters in.

 

“Hey, Steve?” Steve pauses at the door to find Max behind him, looking out at the bench where Billy is still sitting. “Tell Billy thanks, okay? Like, for everything.”

 

Steve nods, tapping her on the nose fondly. “You got it, kid.”

 

On his way out, he hears Lucas tell Max, “By the way, your hair looks pretty. Like, really pretty,” and all Steve can think about is how Billy fucking Hargrove, of all people, had truly gone out of his way to make this night happen.

 

He joins Billy outside on the bench, plopping down unceremoniously next to him. “How was the talk?” Steve asks. Billy’s fingers are twitching like they want to be holding a cigarette, and honestly, Steve could really use a smoke right about now, but like hell if he’s gonna smoke around Billy with his lung still healing.

 

“It was good. The kid’s fuckin’ funny, actually. Said he forgave me, but that I was gonna have a hell of a time convincing Wheeler. I told him I don’t give a flying fuck about Mike Wheeler, and he thought that was pretty hysterical.”

 

Steve snorts, because Lucas had a point: Even though Billy had ultimately saved El’s life, he knew that Mike would still take issue with the fact that Flayed Billy had tried to kill her, no matter if he had been in control of the decision or not. And though it was touching that Mike was so protective of El, it also made him kind of a dickwad sometimes.

 

“Eh, you’re already in with El. Mike will have no choice but to come around,” Steve reasons, shrugging and smiling good-naturedly at Billy.

 

“Contrary to what you might believe, I’m not desperately seeking the approval of your munchkin squad, Harrington. I just wanted to apologize to Sinclair for putting my hands on him like I did. I told him that it was more about my dad than anything, and that he’s gotta be careful that my old man doesn’t see him with Max, or there’ll be hell to pay.”

 

“God, your dad’s a dick,” Steve breathes, leaning his head back against the building. “I’m so glad you’re out of there.”

 

“Me too, Harrington. You’ve got no fucking idea.” Billy looks out across the parking lot, a haunted look clouding his eyes. Steve places a gentle hand on his shoulder.

 

“You ready to do some Adult Stuff?” Steve asks, waggling his eyebrows suggestively.

 

Billy snorts. “You bet your ass I am, Harrington.”

 

* * *

 

When they get back to the house, Steve is buzzing with nervous energy. The last time he’d been high had been with Tommy and Carol, and he has no idea how getting high with Billy is going to go. He hopes that they’ll just laugh a lot, get sleepy, and go to bed—but when it comes to Billy, things are rarely ever that simple.

 

Steve pulls the brownies from the freezer and tosses them into the oven to warm them while he and Billy both crack a beer. He helps Billy sprawl onto the couch and settles in next to him, the delicious aroma of the brownies beginning to fill the air as they sit in companionable silence.

 

“That was really nice, what you did for Max,” Steve says softly, gazing pointedly at Billy as he takes a sip of his beer.

 

Billy rolls his eyes. “Whatever, Harrington,” he replies dismissively, grabbing for the stereo remote. He hits play and the opening bars of Stairway to Heaven begin to play softly. Billy leans back and closes his eyes for a moment, his fingers tapping expertly on his knee to the rhythm—Steve stares at him for a second, smiling to himself, before getting up to pull the brownies out of the oven.

 

He cuts out four squares and puts them carefully onto a plate, re-covering the pan with tinfoil. Steve can hear Billy singing softly from his place on the couch, and pauses for a moment to listen.

 

There’s a feeling I get
When I look to the west
And my spirit is crying for leaving
In my thoughts I have seen
Rings of smoke through the trees
And the voices of those who stand looking…

 

He gently wanders over with the brownies in hand, settling onto the couch beside Billy, who abruptly stops singing and cracks an eye open.

 

“Ready to party, Harrington?” Billy asks, grabbing a brownie and stuffing it unceremoniously into his mouth before washing it down with the rest of his beer. (Which like, ew.)

 

Steve laughs, holding a brownie up in a Cheers gesture before taking a bite. There was only a slight bitter aftertaste, but he knew from his experiences with Tommy and Carol that it was never a good idea to have more than one at first, that it was better to wait it out and if the high wasn’t enough, you could always eat another.

 

Billy, however, either had never gotten this message or simply didn’t give a fuck, because by the time Steve has popped the last bite of brownie into his mouth, the plate is empty.

 

“Did you just eat the rest of them?” Steve asks, mortified. Billy grins, chocolate staining his teeth. “What if it fucks with your meds or something??”

 

“I haven’t taken any since the morning ‘cause I knew we’d be doing this tonight,” Billy replies off-handedly, tipping his empty beer can towards Steve. “You mind grabbing me another, Harrington? Gotta get a buzz going before this shit kicks in, it’s best that way.”

 

Steve sighs heavily, praying that Joyce didn’t make these brownies too fucking strong, before getting up to grab two more beers from the fridge. Before he brings them back to the couch, however, he eats another brownie, just out of spite.

 

Stairway to Heaven is ending as he sits down, and as the last line fades, his body starts to feel like it’s slowly floating upwards, and the inside of his head grows fuzzy. Everything sounds louder, too - He hears the click of the stereo as the track switches, and the rumbling guitar riff in Whole Lotta Love feels like it’s pounding inside of his skull.

 

He looks over at Billy, who has sunk deep into the couch, his body lax and his eyes closed. He wants to say something, but his tongue suddenly feels too heavy for his mouth. He swallows, staring at Billy, looking so fucking relaxed and soft. His hands twitch at his sides, eyeing a stray curl laying on Billy’s forehead and wanting to brush it aside.

 

“This is good shit, Harrington,” Billy slurs, his eyelids fluttering open. As Billy’s gaze settles on Steve, the bright, cutting blue of his eyes blows out wide, engulfing the room and everything around them. Steve feels like he’s floating up somewhere near the ceiling before Billy’s voice brings him back and the blue dissolves, bringing the room around them back into focus.

 

He has no idea what Billy had said, but his tongue has finally unglued itself from the roof of his mouth, and as he looks over to meet Billy’s curious gaze, one word slips through, unbidden. “Pretty,” Steve murmurs, blinking slowly as he sees the word settle into the air between them, his eyes still glued to Billy’s.

 

Billy laughs, or more like, giggles, and Steve, even in his current altered state, can recognize by the slackness to Billy’s mouth and the size of his pupils that he’s high as a fucking kite. “What’s pretty, Harrington?” Billy slurs, leaning forward. Steve can smell the beer on his breath, and up close, he can see there’s a bit of chocolate in the corner of Billy’s mouth.

 

He reaches out to gently wipe the chocolate away; Billy doesn’t flinch. “You,” Steve replies, frustrated that he even has to say it, because don’t people tell Billy how pretty he is all the fucking time at school?

 

“Me?” Billy breathes, and he’s still so fucking close, only inches away, and Steve doesn’t know what to do with that. “I’m flattered, Pretty Boy.”

 

The nickname brings a hot flush to Steve’s cheeks, and he turns his head away, his thoughts racing around inside his skull, colliding nonsensically into each other like a car crash on repeat. Billy’s fingers reach out to grab his chin, pulling Steve’s face back to look at him.

 

“You wanna talk about pretty—” Billy murmurs, and suddenly, his thumb is brushing itself across Steve’s bottom lip, “You seen these, Harrington? How many girls’ve you kissed with these pretty lips?”

 

Steve is stunned, fucking breathless, and he has absolutely lost the ability to think, much less speak. Billy’s thumb is still on his lips, and Billy’s hooded eyes are gazing at his mouth, and the weirdest part is that he doesn’t mind—he actually kind of likes it.

 

“I-I don’t know,” Steve replies dumbly, and Billy smiles, his tongue licking torturously slow across his teeth as he lets his thumb drop from Steve’s lips. His eyes have a dangerous glint to them, and Billy scoots impossibly closer, until his lips are hovering inches from Steve’s. Steve freezes, holding his breath.

 

“And what about this?” Billy asks softly, his breath blowing gently against Steve’s lips, as his hand comes down to settle itself on the outline of Steve’s dick in his jeans, “How many girls has King Steve been inside of?”

 

As his brain catches up to what is currently happening to his body, Steve prays for a lightning bolt to come down somewhere from the sky and strike him—not enough to kill him, just enough to zap the life out of his dick, because he should not have a hard-on from Billy touching him right now.

 

But alas, the gods did not take pity on him tonight.

 

Billy grins broadly at Steve, because they both know how hard he is under Billy’s hand right now. Steve fumbles to answer Billy’s question, to provide a distraction.

 

“Not as many as people think,” he blurts out, shifting uncomfortably under Billy’s hand, which Billy of course does not move.

 

“Oh, yeah?” Billy asks, and then his thumb is moving down the seam of Steve’s jeans, and Steve is about to lose his fucking mind.

 

“I… I can count them on one hand,” Steve stammers helplessly. He could move Billy’s hand, he could push it away, but why isn’t he?

 

Billy nods, looking at Steve solemnly. “That’s a shame, King Steve. Seems to me that a lot of girls out there are missing out.”

 

Steve stares at Billy then, feels Billy’s thumb rubbing at the head of his dick through the denim, and in a sudden burst of bravery, he reaches down to settle his hand lightly on top of Billy’s.

 

“You think so?” Steve asks quietly, chancing a glance at Billy, whose pupils are blown wide as he stares at Steve in that intense, soul-searching way of his.

 

“Yeah, I do. Especially Nancy goddamn Wheeler,” Billy replies, sounding almost bitter, and then his hand is pulling itself out from under Steve’s and he’s settling back into the couch pillows, sighing and shutting his eyes.

 

Steve’s hand immediately reaches down to adjust himself in his jeans, his cheeks flaming and his chest icing over with embarrassment. What the fuck.

 

“Nancy and I just… didn’t work. It was never gonna work,” Steve defends weakly, subtly scooting away from Billy on the couch. His skin is itchy, like he wants to claw his way out of it. He has no idea what the fuck just happened, and even if he wasn’t high out of his mind, it still wouldn’t make sense.

 

“Her loss,” Billy replies, his eyes still closed. “Byers has nothin’ on you.”

 

Of all the things that Steve had imagined might happen while he got high with Billy Hargrove, getting his dick felt up and then getting a pep talk afterwards was not one of them.

 

“He’s a good guy,” Steve responds softly, throwing back the rest of his beer before laying back onto the couch cushions. “He was good to her when I wasn’t.”

 

Billy snorts. “You fuckin’ worshipped her, Harrington. Everybody at school talked about it. Tommy H. kept callin’ you a pussy-whipped bitch, which is funny because we all know Carol holds his fuckin’ balls for him.”

 

Steve laughs in embarrassment, hoping that he’ll keep sinking into the couch cushions until he disappears. He’s really dying to change the subject at this point.

 

“You ever been in love with anybody, Hargrove?”

 

Billy’s eyes snap open and his head rolls over slowly to look at Steve. His eyes look soft, thoughtful.

 

“Once. But like I always do, I fucked it up.” Billy turns his head forward and gazes at the blank screen of the television, chewing his lip thoughtfully.

 

The stereo changes tracks, and a song by Heart begins to play. Steve is quiet for a moment, listening to the lyrics and letting Billy’s answer wash over him.

 

Wasn't it you who brought me here to the place lovers go
Just look at these arms reachin' out to you
You said that you'd always care
I just turned around and there's nobody there

 

Don't leave me like this, don't leave me stranded
If you walk away now, you leave me empty-handed
Don't leave me like this, don't leave me stranded
Don't leave me now…

 

Billy’s fingers are tapping to the beat of the song, and Steve watches as his eyelids start to droop. “You wanna head to bed?” Steve asks. This shit always makes him tired, and he’s sure it’s starting to hit Billy, too.

 

“Yeah,” Billy whispers, sighing before opening his eyes. Steve has already clambered to his feet and is holding his hand out to him. Billy grabs it and Steve slowly pulls him into a standing position, where both of them sway unsteadily on their feet.

 

Billy falls forward slightly, and then his entire body is pressing up against Steve’s. Steve’s stomach drops out from under him as he feels his dick harden from the contact, but then his eyes widen as he feels Billy’s also stiffening against Steve’s thigh. Billy laughs softly, pushing himself away from Steve just enough to free up an inch of space between them.

 

“I’m tired, Pretty Boy,” Billy slurs, his eyes fluttering closed dreamily, “Get me to bed, yeah?”

 

Steve loops his arm around Billy’s shoulders and helps walk him slowly up the stairs, trying to organize his stupid fucking thoughts and also trying not to focus on how nice Billy’s warm body feels against his side.

 

They make it to Billy’s bedroom, and Steve gently helps him sit on the bed. He pauses above Billy, his hands flexing uselessly at his sides.

 

“You good?” Steve asks, gazing at Billy, feeling stupid and unsure about pretty much everything.

 

Billy nods stiffly, glancing up at Steve quickly before focusing back on the bedspread. “Yeah, I’m good. ‘Night.”

 

Steve nods and heads through the doorway, shutting the door with a soft click behind him. He hears the covers rustling and the click of the lamp shutting off through the door, and then he heads back to his room, shutting the door behind him. He sinks to the carpeted floor, his back hitting the wood with a loud thunk, and sits there until the fog in his head lifts.

 

He needs a hot shower, and he needs it now. The feeling of Billy touching him is still burning a hole in his head, and he just needs to scrub his skin clean until he feels normal again.

 

The water is scalding hot under his touch, the bathroom filling rapidly with steam, but Steve doesn’t care. He sheds his clothes and steps under the steady stream, yelping as the water hits his skin. He stands still for a moment, letting the boiling-hot water seep into his pores and shock him back into his senses.

 

He squirts some shampoo into his palm and quickly scrubs it through his hair. His hand is reaching down before he even realizes what he’s doing, and suddenly he’s stroking himself, his shampoo-covered hand sliding easily down his length.

 

He thinks of Billy, his pupils blown wide and his thumb settling gently on Steve’s lips—Billy’s hand on his jeans, exploring, his touch warm even through the thick denim—Billy’s dick hard against his thigh, his laughter soft in Steve’s ear as he pushes himself away...

 

Steve groans involuntarily, his hand working faster as an image of Billy crosses his mind, unbidden—Billy laid out on Steve’s bed underneath him, skin glistening with sweat, his hair splayed out against Steve’s pillow and his blue eyes hazy with want as Steve sinks down—

 

He comes with a shout, spilling all over the shower wall, gently stroking himself through it until he’s completely empty. He collapses roughly onto the bottom of the tub, panting heavily.

 

What the actual fuck.

 

* * *

Chapter Text

* * *

 

Steve wakes up the next morning with a pounding headache and a sticky feeling to his skin. He burrows deeper under the covers, shifting uncomfortably as he realizes his wet hair from the night before had effectively soaked his entire pillowcase. The memories of last night come flooding back to him in a sudden rush, and he feels a hot twist of shame coiling deep in his gut.

 

He likes girls. He had always liked girls. But where Nancy once had been, her skin flushed and her hair splayed out over his pillows while he carefully pressed himself inside of her, he had imagined Billy instead. And it had unlocked something inside of him—a deep yearning, a fiery want the likes of which he had never felt before. Steve remembers waking up next to Billy that morning, Billy’s arms wrapped around him like he fucking belonged there, and marveling at how one single person could be so beautiful.

 

It’s confusing as he thinks back, because he can’t recall a time that he had ever even considered a boy in that way. It had only been girls—their pretty pink lips, shiny with gloss; their warm breasts pressing against his chest; their long, silky hair that he loved to run his fingers through.

 

Boys were stupid, and gross, and loud, and nothing about their bodies had ever interested Steve—They were all hard edges, not soft in the way girls were. Boys weren’t beautiful or delicate; they were just there, occupying space as his teammates or his friends.

 

But as he settles back against his pillows, he realizes that he sees Billy differently. Billy isn’t all hard edges—Billy has that same softness to him that Steve had always loved in girls. The perfect pout of his lips, his long sloping eyelashes, the frosted blue of his eyes—There was a reason Billy turned heads everywhere he went. Steve just hadn’t realized until now that he was one of the people looking.

 

He thinks about the way Billy’s hand had felt on his jeans last night—How it hadn’t felt like an intrusion, how it wasn’t unwelcome. Like he’d let Billy touch him if he asked. Like he’d enjoy Billy touching him. And then he remembers the way Billy had hardened against his thigh—That was the part that didn’t make sense. Talk of Billy’s conquests had filled the halls of Hawkins High for weeks after his arrival. Steve had overheard a group of girls in his English class swapping stories, talking about how Billy kissed, how Billy fucked, how Billy does this thing with his tongue…

 

It doesn’t make sense. None of it makes sense. And was it even normal, anyway, for Steve to like a boy when he’d only ever liked girls? Wasn’t it always one or the other? Was he just imagining things, or having an early midlife crisis?

 

He groans and buries his face into his pillow. It was too fucking early and he could feel a cold, familiar anxiety clawing its way through his chest.

 

He’s in the midst of considering how long he could get away with hiding in bed when he hears a broken groan come from Billy’s room. He hops out of bed quickly, running to Billy’s door and opening it hastily.

 

Billy’s lying in bed, stiff as a board—all the color has drained out of his face, and thick beads of sweat are dripping down his forehead. His breathing is shallow and labored as Steve rushes over to the bed to sit by him.

 

“Hey,” Steve whispers, putting a hand to Billy’s damp forehead, “Feels like you’ve got a fever.”

 

“Feel like shit,” Billy whispers hoarsely, “Like my fuckin’ chest is on fire.”

 

“Can I take a look?” Steve asks, his hands hovering above Billy’s chest uncertainly. Billy nods stiffly, his eyes fluttering shut as Steve pulls the covers down. He gingerly rolls up Billy’s shirt, and his heart stops in his chest when he sees a spot of bright red blood blooming through the bandage.

 

“I have to take the bandage off, okay? You’re bleeding.” Billy sucks in a breath and nods, his eyes squeezing shut as Steve gently peels the bandaging off.

 

Tears spring to Steve’s eyes as he takes in Billy’s chest—he can’t fucking help it. The skin is mottled, a horrifying collage of red, black, and blue. Billy’s central chest wound, the one that had only just missed his heart, is oozing blood, but the stitches still look intact.

 

“I’m gonna clean you up, okay? You’re bleeding. Then I’m gonna call the doctor and see if we should go back in; I’m worried about your fever.”

 

Billy groans. “I just left the goddamn hospital, Harrington,” he murmurs hoarsely, but he makes no further protest as Steve gets up and leaves the room. Steve takes the stairs two at a time down to the living room, where Billy’s discharge information is sitting by the door. He leafs through the doctor’s notes about caring for the stitches, and decides the best course of action will be to soak up the blood with a clean, damp cloth and call the hospital about the fever.

 

He rushes back into Billy’s room, laying a cool cloth on his forehead before rucking up Billy’s shirt and working on soaking up the blood and gently cleaning the wounds. Billy keeps his eyes shut the entire time Steve works, shuddering as Steve dabs at the chest wound. Once the blood is soaked up, he looks the wounds over carefully, to see if he can see any pus or abnormal swelling. Satisfied that the rest of the injuries look relatively normal, he gingerly re-tapes a clean sheet of bandaging into place to cover Billy’s chest.

 

Billy’s eyes open once the bandaging is in place, and he gazes warily at Steve as he pours a few of Billy’s pain meds into his hand. Steve gestures for Billy to open his mouth and he obeys, Steve carefully placing the pills onto his tongue and tipping the nearby glass of water past his lips so that Billy can swallow. Billy grimaces as the pills go down, but smiles at Steve gratefully.

 

“Thanks, Nurse,” he whispers softly, grinning at Steve weakly.

 

Steve smiles wryly at him. “Maybe we overdid it last night,” he says quietly, before he can stop himself.

 

Billy blinks at him once, then twice. There’s an unreadable look in his eyes before he sighs. “Gotta be honest, Harrington, I don’t remember much of last night,” he murmurs, averting his gaze away from Steve.

 

Steve’s chest ices over at Billy’s admission, and he finds himself immediately standing up from the bed, desperate to create some distance between them. “I’m gonna call the hospital,” Steve replies, trying to mask the hurt in his voice, “I shouldn’t be long. Don’t try to move until I get back.”

 

He rushes out of the room, making his way blindly downstairs to the phone in the kitchen. He dials Dr. Atkinson’s direct line that he had scribbled on Billy’s discharge papers, and waits patiently while it rings.

 

“Atkinson, how can I help you?”

 

“Hey Dr. Atkinson, this is Steve Harrington.”

 

“Hello, Mr. Harrington. How is Mr. Hargrove doing?” The warmth of the doctor’s voice immediately floods Steve with a sense of calm.

 

“Um, that’s why I’m calling… He has a fever and one of his stitches bled through his bandages. He really doesn’t want to go back to the hospital, but…”

 

“I understand. I’m glad you called. I can send our on-call nurse out to check on him, so you don’t have to worry about getting him here. Is the address in Loch Nora still correct?”

 

Steve breathes a deep sigh of relief, sagging against the kitchen wall and sinking to the floor. “That’d be so great, thank you. And yes, that’s the right address.”

 

“I’ll give her a call now—She should be there within the hour. I’ll be sending her with a round of antibiotics and some further instructions. We’ll get this all taken care of, don’t worry.”

 

Steve knocks his head against the wall, squeezing his eyes shut. “Okay, yeah. That sounds great.”

 

He hears the click on the other end of the line as the doctor hangs up, and Steve lets the phone fall to the floor with a clatter. He sits there for a moment, staring at a dry spaghetti noodle laying forgotten on the tile, trying to steel himself before he heads back upstairs.

 

Steve closes his eyes, thinking back to Billy’s thumb brushing against his lips. Of course Billy didn’t remember last night—he wasn’t even in his right mind. Steve feels like such a fucking idiot, for even thinking it could mean something. For even wanting it to mean something.

 

The kitchen tile is cool under his fingers as he pushes himself up, swaying slightly and bracing himself against the wall. With a few deep breaths, he makes his way back up the stairs, to where Billy is laying against the pillows, looking like death warmed over. Steve immediately softens—It’s hard not to, when Billy looks so vulnerable.

 

“They’re sending the on-call nurse here, so you don’t have to go anywhere,” he reassures Billy softly, flipping over the washcloth on his forehead to the cooler side. Billy nods weakly, his breath rattling in his chest as he exhales shakily.

 

“Okay,” he whispers hoarsely. Steve frowns at him in concern.

 

“Are the meds helping at all?” Steve asks, sitting down gently on the bed next to Billy. He’s surprised when Billy reaches out to gingerly wrap his fingers around Steve’s arm.

 

“A little…” Billy murmurs, his voice slurring. Steve knows the drugs are starting to kick in; he had given Billy one more pill than the usual dose, hoping it might help Billy sleep for a while.

 

“Why don’t you rest for a bit, all right?” Steve suggests softly, “I’ll wake you up when the nurse gets here.”

 

“Don’t,” Billy whispers, urgently, his fingers tightening around Steve’s arm.

 

“Don’t what?” Steve asks, gazing down at Billy’s hand.

 

Go,” Billy whispers earnestly, and within seconds, he’s asleep.

 

* * *

Billy’s arm eventually had fallen from Steve’s arm back to his side, giving Steve the freedom to leave if he wanted.

 

He didn’t.

 

Billy never asked Steve for anything, and hearing Billy say Don’t go wrapped around Steve’s heart like a siren’s call—Steve couldn’t fight it even if he fucking tried. So he sat on the edge of the bed, watching Billy sleep, wondering why Billy had wanted him to stay. Wondering why Billy did anything, really. He was such a fucking mystery to Steve, like something he could study for his entire life and never really figure out.

 

Steve gazes at the peaceful expression on Billy’s face while he sleeps, and his racing heart starts to calm a bit. When Billy had been discharged from the hospital, Steve had honestly been terrified because it felt like Billy’s life was in his hands now. If something goes wrong, if Billy’s heart stops in the middle of the night, would Steve be able to save him again? He wants to believe that Billy is a fighter, that he can get through anything—but Steve knows that at the end of the day, Billy’s body is just as breakable as anyone else’s.

 

Billy’s fingers twitch against the covers, and Steve takes his hand into his own, turning his palm over to look at the deep red gouges etched into the skin. He gently runs his fingers over the wounds, already scabbing over in their desperate attempts to heal. He remembers watching Billy raise his hands up when the Mind Flayer pulled back to strike—how desperately he had fought against it, every muscle in his body straining to keep it from advancing while his screams echoed throughout the mall. How no one had stepped forward to help him. How Steve had just stood there and watched, when if it had been one of the kids he would have already been running. Why didn’t he do anything? Why hadn’t any of them helped Billy sooner?

 

“If you wanted to hold my hand, Harrington, all you had to do was ask,” comes Billy’s slurred voice. Steve jumps in surprise, Billy’s hand falling into his lap.

 

“I was reading your palm,” Steve responds casually, blinking innocently at Billy as he meets his gaze. Billy laughs softly, his voice still thick with sleep.

 

“Oh, yeah? What’s my future then, Harrington?”

 

“Well, it says here,” Steve says, picking up Billy’s hand and running his hand gently down the central crease of his palm, “That you have a nice, long life of being an asshole ahead of you.”

 

Billy laughs, louder this time, and the sound makes Steve feel like he’s coming alive.

 

Steve smiles, looking down at Billy’s hand still in his—he squeezes it once before carefully releasing it. “The nurse should be here pretty soon. You feeling any better?”

 

Billy hums, licking his lips. “Would it make you feel better if I said yes?” he asks, grinning wryly at Steve, who rolls his eyes at him.

 

“It would make me feel better if you told me the truth,” Steve replies earnestly, taking the washcloth off of Billy’s forehead and feeling his skin—It’s still hot to the touch. “Damnit. You’ve still got a fever.”

 

“Help me sit up,” Billy says gruffly, reaching out an arm to Steve.

 

Steve gently pulls Billy up into a sitting position, rearranging the pillows behind him so he can lay back. Billy sinks into them, exhaling shakily. “I feel worse today than I did when I first woke up. How’s that even fuckin’ possible,” Billy murmurs, tipping his head back and closing his eyes. Steve has a weird urge to run his thumb across Billy’s cheek, but he shuts that down real quick.

 

“Your body’s healing, and trying to fight its way back. Nobody expects you to get better overnight. It’s going to take time, and there’s no hurry. Okay?” Steve voice is gentle, reassuring, and he sees when his words land in the way Billy’s stiff muscles begin to relax back into the bed.

 

The doorbell rings downstairs, and Steve gazes at Billy for a few extra seconds before slipping off the bed and making his way to the front door. When the door opens, a rosy-cheeked young woman with a round face and long brown hair smiles at him from the porch.

 

“Hi, Steve, my name is Jessica,” she says cheerfully, extending her hand to him. Steve smiles gratefully at her; her kind brown eyes are warm and comforting.

 

“Hi Jessica, thanks so much for making the trip. I hope you found the place okay.” Steve gestures her inside, giving her a moment to take her shoes off before leading her upstairs.

 

Billy is laying back against the pillows with his eyes closed when they come through the door, but when his eyes open, he immediately zeroes in on the nurse. “Hey, doll,” he says, casting her a winning smile, “You here to fix me up?”

 

“I’m sure gonna try, darlin’,” she says fondly, pulling up the nearby desk chair to sit beside Billy. Billy looks over at Steve, who is noticeably confused, and grins.

 

“Jessica here is my girl. My first night alone in the hospital, she stayed up all night bullshitting with me ’til I finally passed out.” Billy smiles fondly at her as she gingerly rolls his shirt up and peels the bandages back.

 

“Your chest wound looks like it might be getting infected, which is what Dr. Atkinson suspected,” Jessica explains, poring over the rest of the stitches before putting a hand to Billy’s forehead, “That’s probably what’s causing your fever. Are you drinking enough water?”

 

Billy laughs softly. “Probably not,” he replies honestly, casting her a winning smile. Jessica tuts disapprovingly.

 

“It’s important to stay hydrated, rest, and to take your medication,” she says sternly, pulling a bottle of pills out of her pocket. “Dr. Atkinson prescribed you a round of antibiotics - Take one pill in the morning for five days. He also wants you to put this ointment on your stitches, to prevent the growth of bacteria.”

 

Jessica holds up a tube of ointment and leans back to slap it into Steve’s hand, winking. “I assume you will be putting this on for him,” she says, looking sternly at Billy.

 

“Yeah - In the nurse’s costume, right, Harrington?” Billy asks, grinning suggestively and licking his teeth. Steve fixes him with a death stare.

 

“I’ll take that as my cue to go,” Jessica teases, laughing as Steve continues to glare at Billy. “You have a follow-up appointment on Monday, and your first therapy appointment. And no amount of charm or sweet talk will get you out of it,” she says firmly, pointing an accusing finger at Billy. Billy leans back against the pillows, groaning dramatically.

 

“I’ll walk you out.” Steve follows Jessica out of the room but pauses at the door, looking back at Billy. Billy smiles at him and winks.

 

(It shouldn’t make Steve’s heart beat as fast as it does).

 

* * *

 

Steve opens the front door as Jessica carefully slips her shoes on. She pauses for a moment, leaning against the doorframe and smiling at him.

 

“You know that night Billy was talking about, when we stayed up talking?” she asks, slowly. Steve nods, his brow furrowing in confusion.

 

“He told me all about this guy he went to high school with… A guy he’d never even been nice to. And how one day, that same guy pulled him out of a car wreck and saved his life. How that guy was coming to see him every day in the hospital, and taking care of his little sister.” Jessica smiles at him, and it makes Steve feel warm over. “He’ll kill me for saying this, but I want you to know that you mean a lot more to Billy than I think you realize. He said that you’re the only person in the world he feels like he can actually count on.”

 

Steve blinks a few times, letting her words sink in. The only person in the world he feels like he can actually count on.

 

“I… He said that?” Steve asks incredulously.

 

Jessica mimes locking her lips and throwing away the key. “Our little secret.” And then she pulls the door shut behind her, leaving Steve standing alone in the foyer, his mind racing.

 

Steve heads back up the stairs robotically, focusing on putting one foot in front of the other until he reaches Billy’s room. He hovers in the doorway, suddenly feeling weirdly exposed. Billy looks like he’s dozing off, so Steve steps softly into the room, settling carefully into the chair by the bed.

 

For a while, he just watches Billy sleep, until Billy cracks an eye open. “Jesus, Harrington. How much time you gonna spend watchin’ me sleep today?” he asks gruffly.

 

Steve grins. “Until I am confident that you’re not going to die on my watch. Now,” he reaches for the ointment he’d left abandoned on the bedside table, “Shall we?”

 

Billy groans, rolling his eyes. “How about we don’t, and say we did,” Billy suggests, flashing his teeth at Steve.

 

“Jessica said, Billy,” Steve admonishes, uncapping the bottle. “Now shut up, and let me nurse you back to health.”

 

Billy laughs—a deep, hearty sound—and Steve thinks about Billy laying in his hospital bed, brought back from the edge of death, talking to a nurse he doesn’t even know about how Steve Harrington had saved his life. How Steve means something to Billy.

 

Steve gently rolls Billy’s shirt up, peeling the bandage down to reveal the patchwork of stitches. He squeezes the ointment onto his fingers and gently dabs it onto the jagged lines. He sees Billy stiffen, his eyes fluttering shut, but he stays quiet.

 

“So, when you and Jessica stayed up all night, what’d you talk about?” Steve asks casually, because he can’t fucking help himself.

 

“Not much. Mostly about her. Talked a little bit about California, and when I saw Metallica in concert. She’s got good taste in music.”

 

Billy twitches when Steve reaches the set of stitches down near his hip—Steve grins. “Sounds like a good talk,” he replies, purposefully grazing Billy’s hip bone as he pulls his hand back, enjoying the way it makes him squirm. Who knew Billy Hargrove was ticklish?

 

Steve is quiet as he busies himself with treating the other wounds, taking a little extra time to run his fingers down each row of stitches, hoping (stupidly) that if he’s gentle enough, something in his touch might help speed up the healing process.

 

“You finished yet, Harrington? This shit is cold,” Billy complains as Steve spreads the ointment onto the last set of stitches.

 

“Yeah, I’m finished,” Steve replies, capping the tube and setting it on the bedside table. He re-tapes the bandage back into place and replaces Billy’s shirt, his fingers lingering over the center of Billy’s chest—As his hand comes down to meet the fabric, he can feel the strong, sure heartbeat underneath his palm.

 

Billy doesn’t say anything, instead fixing Steve with a razor-sharp gaze so intense that Steve has to look away.

 

“You should drink some water,” Steve says suddenly, because he doesn’t know what else to do with Billy fucking looking at him like that. He gets up stiffly and pads to the bathroom, letting the water run cold and filling up the glass he’d grabbed from the nightstand.

 

He comes back into the bedroom and shoves the glass into Billy’s hand; Billy throws one of the pills Jessica had brought into his mouth before downing the entire glass of water.

 

“Thanks, Harrington,” Billy murmurs, wiping at his mouth before handing the glass back to Steve.

 

“It’s still pretty early. Do you wanna sleep for a bit?” Steve asks hesitantly.

 

Billy shrugs. “I probably should. I slept like shit last night.”

 

Steve nods, reaching behind Billy to adjust his pillows so that he can lay down properly. Billy eyes him warily as he settles in beneath the covers. “I’m not gonna be able to sleep if you’re sittin’ there staring at me, Harrington,” Billy mutters.

 

Steve thinks back to just an hour earlier, when the pain medication was dragging Billy under and he’d asked Steve not to go.

 

“You want me to go?” Steve asks, because if Billy’s gonna play that way, he’s gonna have to say it.

 

Billy blinks at him for a moment, his brow furrowing in confusion. “Do whatever you fuckin’ want, Harrington. ’s your house,” Billy finally spits out, pulling the covers up over his head.

 

Steve smiles triumphantly, looking at the Billy-shaped lump under the covers before heading over to the other side of the bed and sitting down. Billy immediately peeks out from under the blankets, glancing sideways at Steve with narrowed eyes.

 

“The hell are you doing?” Billy asks gruffly.

 

“Wake me up if you’re dying, okay? Max will kill me if anything happens to you,” Steve says breezily, scooting under the covers and turning his back to Billy.

 

He hears Billy sigh in defeat and murmur a soft, “Jesus Christ, Harrington,” before the room is silent.

 

Steve falls asleep in a matter of minutes, trying to imagine what exactly Billy had said about him that night in the hospital.

 

~ ~ ~

 

“You know… The guy that saved my life? I barely even know him. When we did talk, I was a fuckin’ dick to him. I even beat the shit out of him once.”

 

Billy pauses, licking his lips and grimacing as he tries to adjust his position in bed. Jessica reaches out to carefully untangle his IV line, nodding for him to continue.

 

“But he still saved my fuckin’ life. As if none of that shit even mattered. And he visits me every goddamn day, and he’s taking care of my little sister. I mean, who does that? Who’s that fuckin’ nice? Doesn’t even seem real to me, but he keeps showin’ up.”

 

“It sounds like he wants to be your friend, Billy,” Jessica says gently.

 

“And then he invites me to live with him. Can you believe that? I bashed his fuckin’ face in, and he invites me to live with him. I just… I don’t get it. I didn’t even know there were people like that. People who forgive so fucking easily.”

 

Billy sucks in a deep breath, closing his eyes for a minute. “I don’t know if I deserve somebody like that in my life.”

 

“Billy,” Jessica murmurs, reaching for his hand and holding it gingerly in hers, “Everyone deserves to have someone who cares about them.”

 

“Even if you treated that person like shit?” Billy asks, his eyes stinging with desperate tears. These questions have been haunting him all day, ever since Steve had left, his words playing in a constant loop in Billy’s mind: "It's okay. We’re all good."

 

“Billy, you don’t get to choose what you do and don’t deserve. He’s in your life, and he’s made the decision to move past what happened. So, let him be in your life. Let him be your friend, like he’s trying to be,” Jessica replies, squeezing Billy’s hand encouragingly.

 

“I think, out of everyone I’ve ever met, in my whole goddamn life… That he’s the one person in the world I could actually count on. Like he’d never fucking let me down, even if he tried.” Billy looks up at the fluorescent lighting above their heads, laughing softly in disbelief at what his life has become.

 

Jessica smiles fondly at him. “He sounds wonderful, Billy. Try not to be so hard on yourself. Just… let things happen the way they’re supposed to. Let the people that care about you treat you well. Try not to question it.”

 

“That’s a big ask, Jessica,” Billy says, laughing weakly, “But I’ll try, just for you.”

 

“Just do your best, Billy - Take it one day at a time. Now, what’s this I hear about you seeing Metallica live?”

 

~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

“Should we wake them up?”

 

“No, they are cozy.”

 

“Why do you think they’re sleeping in the same bed?”

 

“Steve was probably worried about Billy and didn’t want to leave him alone.”

 

Steve hears the whispers before he completely comes to, but when he does blink awake, he can’t help yelling in surprise when he finds Max, Will, and El less than three inches from his face.

 

“Jesus CHRIST!” he yelps, bolting up in bed. Apparently, his admission also startles Billy, because before Steve knows it, he’s doubled over in pain from a very swift punch to the gut.

 

“The hell is everyone yelling about,” Billy grumbles, groaning as he struggles to sit up in bed.

 

“How are you still so strong with a bunch of fuckin’ holes in you,” Steve complains, holding his stomach.

 

“It was a reflex; thought we were being attacked when I heard your girly scream,” Billy replies casually as Max comes over to sit on his side of the bed, her eyebrows raised in expectation.

 

“Tell Steve you’re sorry for gut-punching him, Billy,” she admonishes. Billy rolls his eyes, but mumbles a quiet, “Sorry, Harrington,” before peering at Will and El, who are standing at the end of the bed smiling nervously at him. “You know, shitbird, I’d normally be pissed at you for inviting your little nerd squad over without warning, but I’ll let it slide this time because you brought my favorites.” Billy smiles charmingly at El and Will; Steve’s heartbeat triples at the sight.

 

Steve pulls his knees up to his chin, watching fondly as Max gingerly helps Billy sit up against the pillows. El crawls up onto the bed between Billy and Steve, pulling Will with her.

 

“Hi, Steve,” she says in that soft, shy voice of hers, “You were having nice dreams.”

 

Steve’s eyes widen in surprise, because he was probably never gonna get used to that. He pulls El close to him, ruffling her curls. “Was I, kid? Well, that’s a nice change.”

 

He looks over to find Billy gazing at him, a ghost of a smile on his lips; Steve lets himself be swallowed up by the piercing blue of his eyes, just for a moment, before Max startles him out of his reverie.

 

“What are these?” she asks accusingly, poking her head past Billy’s shoulder and rattling the bottle of antibiotics at Steve.

 

“Chill out, shitbird. I had a fever, a nurse brought me some pills. Steve’s been takin’ real good care of me.” Billy tugs on a strand of red hair hanging by his face, and plasters his hand over Max’s mouth when she begins to protest.

 

“Are you feeling better?” Will asks timidly from beside Steve. Billy grins at him, nodding.

 

“Yeah, Little Byers, I am,” Billy replies smoothly, “I got a question for you, though.” He reaches behind him to grab Max, pulling her closer from where she’s stationed herself protectively against his back, and grabs both sides of her hair, draping it over his head so that it completely covers his own. “How do I look as a redhead?”

 

Everyone on the bed dissolves into a fit of laughter - but no one laughs harder, or louder, than Steve.

 

* * *

 

“You’re really good with them,” Steve murmurs softly to Billy in the kitchen later, when he’s working on grilled cheese sandwiches for the kids. Billy had taken over tomato soup duty when he saw that Steve was going to microwave it (“What are you, some kind of animal, Harrington?”) and is now sitting on a stool Steve had pulled up for him, stirring the soup as it warms on the stovetop.

 

“Hm?” Billy asks absentmindedly, glancing over at Steve. Laughter filters out of the living room, where Max, Will, and El are amusing themselves with some sort of mini-version of Dungeons & Dragons Will had made up.

 

“The kids. You’re really good with them,” Steve repeats, flipping over the grilled cheese in the pan to brown the other side, “I don’t really know if you realize how much they look up to you.”

 

Billy waves him off, but Steve can see the tips of his ears turning red. “They’re good kids, and they’ve all been through a lot of shit. They don’t need anyone to be an example for them - ‘specially not me. They’re gonna forget about me eventually, and move on. And that’s fine by me; they’ll be better off.”

 

Steve scoops the last completed grilled cheese onto the plate near the stove before leaning in close to Billy. “Don’t give me that bullshit, Hargrove,” he murmurs; he can see his breath move the loose curl that’s always falling against Billy’s forehead, “None of those kids in that room are ever gonna forget what you’ve done for them. How you made them feel like they fucking matter—”

 

He thinks of Will, and how much brighter he shines with Billy around; he thinks of El, and the look on her face when Billy had sacrificed himself to save her, when all she’d ever done was protect other people,

 

“—and how you let them in, like it’s easy, when we both know it isn’t.” He thinks of Max, and how desperately she had clung to Billy, even when he was slipping away. How tightly she’s still holding on, and how he’s eventually learning to hold her back.

 

Billy’s pupils are blown wide; Steve’s face is inches away from his. Steve hears the wooden spoon Billy had been holding fall to the stove with a clatter, but he doesn’t move.

 

“Jesus, Harrington,” Billy breathes; Steve can almost taste the mint of Billy’s toothpaste, “Don’t waste your pretty words on me.”

 

“Just listen, all right? You matter to those kids. And they want you around. Hell, I want you around. I know it’s weird for you, but you better start getting used to it, ‘cause it’s not gonna change.”

 

Steve meets Billy’s piercing stare unflinchingly; he can see the cracks forming in Billy's armor, little glimpses of vulnerability, as Steve dives headfirst into the blue depths. Billy tears his gaze away after several seconds of silence, quickly wiping at his eyes before grabbing the spoon he’d dropped. “Soup’s done,” he declares shakily, grabbing the bowls he’d set aside.

 

After Billy’s got the soup poured into all of the bowls and Steve has the sandwiches cut to the kids’ specifications (triangles for Max, squares for Will, no crust for El), their eyes meet one last time on their way to bring the food out to the living room. Steve steps forward to block Billy’s exit, gazing at him expectantly.

 

Billy huffs out a long sigh, pursing his lips. “I heard you, Harrington. You talk too fuckin’ much, but… I heard you. All right?”

 

“Now, was that so hard?” Steve asks sweetly, backing up into the living room before hollering, “GRILLED CHEESE TIME, YA FILTHY ANIMALS!”

 

Steve smiles as he watches Max rush over to help Billy take the rest of the soup bowls into the living room. She offers a helping hand as Billy carefully lowers himself onto the couch; Max settles in on Billy’s right, Will on his left, and El leaves Steve a spot between her and Will.

 

They eat in companionable silence for a while before Billy reaches for the stereo remote, hitting play. The hypnotic voice of Steve Nicks starts floating out from the speakers; Max gently puts her hand over Billy’s, where it's hovering over the 'Next' button.

 

“Don’t change this one, okay?” she asks softly. Billy grins crookedly at her, helpless to resist, and lets the song play.

 

You could be my silver spring
Blue-green colors flashing
I would be your only dream
Your shining autumn ocean crashing


Don’t say that she’s pretty
And did you say that she loved you?
Baby, I don’t want to know…

 

After a few moments of closing his eyes to enjoy the song, Steve looks over to find Billy staring at him, something unreadable in his gaze. Billy huffs out a soft laugh before resuming his task of dipping his grilled cheese into his soup; Steve finds himself enraptured by Billy’s mouth as he takes a bite, a stray drop of the red broth dripping from the corner of his mouth.

 

The song plays on; Steve hangs on to every word.

 

Time cast a spell on you, but you won’t forget me
I know I could’ve loved you
But you would not let me…

 

* * *

 

After they're done eating, Billy's fondness of Will is only made that much more apparent when he asks Will to teach him about the game that he, Max, and El are playing. Will explains that it’s like a pocket version of Dungeons & Dragons, and that’s he’s created a bunch of mini-campaigns that can be played in less time than the days-long campaigns the Party used to play together.

 

Steve can’t help but smile at how passionate Will is while he explains the gameplay to Billy and shows him the little campaign book he had created - He thinks about how Mike and Lucas had constantly blown Will off whenever he’d wanted to play D&D over the summer, and how easily Max and El had filled their spaces.

 

Once Will has explained the premises to Billy, Billy looks at him and says, “All right, I want to play.”

 

Will’s eyes go wide. “R-Really?” he asks, looking up at Billy with a smile that could rival the July sun.

 

Billy nods, “Yeah, really. You’re gonna have to help me, though. How do I decide what my character is?”

 

Will flips to a page in his book. “Oh, that’s easy! Write down the answers to these questions, and the quiz will tell you what you are.”

 

Steve watches as Billy fills out his quiz answers carefully on a separate sheet of paper; there must be at least 100 questions, all hand-written in Will’s neat, looping script. While Billy is distracted, Steve quietly collects the lunch dishes and brings them to the kitchen, quickly scrubbing them down and putting them in the dish rack to dry.

 

“Did you make up these questions yourself?” Steve hears Billy ask Will.

 

“Yeah, I did!” Will answers proudly; Steve can hear the smile in his voice.

 

“This is pretty damn impressive,” Billy remarks, “I’m glad it’s multiple-choice, I wasn’t really ready to write an essay.”

 

Steve hears Max snort at Billy’s joke. “If there’s a question where it feels like none of the answers really fit you, you can skip it. Your result will be more accurate that way,” Will explains.

 

“All right, I think I’m done,” Billy announces after a few minutes have passed; Steve ambles over to the living room and leans against the doorway, watching curiously.

 

“So, your alignment is Chaotic Neutral,” Will concludes after totaling up the first page of the quiz.

 

“And that means?” Billy asks, frowning.

 

“Well, Chaotic Neutral means you follow your own path, and that you’re an individualist. You value your own freedom, and you don’t like feeling restricted or tied down, especially by authority.”

 

Max laughs good-naturedly. “That sounds about right for Billy.” Billy rolls his eyes and sticks out his tongue at her, but doesn’t argue.

 

“Your ability scores are really good, too - You scored really high on Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, and Charisma. You're a Human, like most players are. And then, your class is… Oh, wow.” Will gazes down at the quiz, apparently re-totaling the answers to make sure. “I’ve never seen this before, but you actually tied! You’re a Paladin-Barbarian.”

 

“A tie, huh? Is that allowed?” Billy asks.

 

Will shrugs. “I’ve seen in the rule books that you can have a primary and secondary class—so technically, you can be both.”

 

“All right, well, what’s a Paladin and what’s a Barbarian, then? Maybe that’ll help me decide,” Billy reasons, pointing towards Will’s playbook.

 

“Well, a Paladin takes their adventures super seriously, and every mission is an opportunity to demonstrate their bravery, learn new tactics, and find ways to do good. They’re also protected by divine power, which they can use to help others, heal wounds, and even destroy evil,” Will explains, flipping to a page in the playbook where he’s drawn a sword-wielding Paladin.

 

Destroy evil. Steve has a sudden flashback to the mall, fireworks illuminating the ceiling, watching Billy’s hands shoot up to hold off the Mind Flayer’s limbs as they came hurtling towards him. He remembers how determined Billy had looked—his mouth open in a righteous scream as those monstrous tentacles had torn through him, his arms held out as if to say, Give me all you’ve got, motherfucker.

 

“All right, fair enough. And how about a Barbarian?” Billy asks; Steve thinks it’s pretty adorable how focused he is on Will as he launches into another explanation. He shows Billy a sketch of an ax-wielding Barbarian, adorned in furs.

 

“Barbarians are really brave, but sometimes kind of reckless. They have really powerful rage that makes them stronger, tougher, and better able to withstand attacks. They have impressive running stamina, and the ability to sense danger and dodge enemy attacks. The only drawback is that since their rage is so powerful, they only have so much energy to use for those kinds of attacks per day.”

 

“All right, so if I decide I want to be both—I could help people and destroy evil, while also being a badass fighter?” Billy asks, folding his hands together and looking to Will for confirmation.

 

“Yeah! Your ability scores alone are totally high enough to allow for multi-classing - I’ll just fill out your character sheet using both.” Will leans down to fill out Billy’s character information; Steve watches a fond smile spread across Billy’s face as he watches over Will’s shoulder.

 

Steve doesn’t say it out loud, but he can’t help but think that Billy’s combination of Barbarian and Paladin is kind of paying homage to the person Billy used to be, and the person he’s growing into - from the raging maniac that had bashed Steve’s face in, to the person Steve sees now, trying every day to be better. Steve is glad that Billy decided to keep both parts; after all, he wouldn’t be Billy Hargrove if he didn’t have a touch of Barbarian in him.

 

“What are you, shitbird?” Billy asks curiously, looking over at Max’s character sheet.

 

“I’m a Chaotic Good Human Rogue,” Max announces proudly, “Basically, Chaotic Good means I’m a rebel - I have a good heart, but I’m also a free spirit, and I hate when people tell me what to do. As a Rogue, I’m a really skilled thief, and my specialty is sneak attacks.”

 

Billy nods, looking thoughtful. “That sounds like you. And how about you, El?” he asks; Steve notices Billy’s voice is always softer and gentler when addressing El.

 

El blushes, looking over at Will as if she’s unsure if she should be the one explaining. Will nods at her in encouragement. “I am… Lawful Good,” she recites, looking towards the ceiling as if trying to remember the exact details, “I fight against bad things, tell the truth, and help people. Because of my powers, I am not a Human - I am an Elf. Will says that Elves are graceful and magical.” Will nods at El, grinning, as she continues, “And I am a Mage. My strength is spell casting - I have to study very hard to learn new spells and make my old spells work better. When I am ready for battle, I am very powerful, but when I am caught by surprise, I am vulnerable.”

 

El smiles shyly at Billy, and Steve realizes immediately that they must be thinking of the same moment: When El was vulnerable, powerless, lying on the floor in front of the Mind Flayer… before Billy Hargrove, the Paladin, had stepped in to save her.

 

“You gonna join us, Harrington, or you gonna keep standin’ there staring?” Billy asks offhandedly, tipping his head back against the couch cushions to glance at Steve.

 

Steve grins, heading over to join them. He plops onto the end of the couch next to Max, gesturing at the playbook. “I want to take the quiz,” Steve announces. Will looks at him in confusion.

 

“I thought Dustin gave you a character already?” he asks. Steve rolls his eyes.

 

“Yeah, he did, and he basically made me the village idiot. If I’m gonna be the village idiot, it’s going to be on my terms.” Steve snatches the book dramatically as Will hands it to him; El giggles.

 

Once Steve’s character has been properly established (“You’re a Lawful Good Human Fighter - You use your fighting skills to protect the innocent, and you’re trained to use all weapons and armor.” “See, that’s more like it. So I can use my nail bat?”), they begin playing.

 

Steve much prefers Will as Dungeon Master than Mike (or God forbid, Dustin) - Will is way more patient with questions, and he takes things at a pace that works for the whole group. Max and Billy, to no one’s surprise, both get way too into the game, trying to outdo each other’s every move. As the game nears its end, El, Will, and Steve are left to watch helplessly as the siblings’ mutual competitiveness dissolves into screaming at each other over the party’s next action, but thankfully, Will (who is, indeed, Will the Wise) finds a way to satisfy both of their wishes.

 

“Billy, now that Steve has fought off the demo-dog with his bat, you are able to do critical damage to the Demogorgon with your ax; it is momentarily stunned and unable to retaliate,” Will declares, peering at Billy’s dice roll, “And Max,” he pauses to wait for Max’s dice roll, and smiles triumphantly when it lands, “You are able to further wound it with a sneak attack. It is now vulnerable, giving El the chance to cast a final spell…” El throws the dice, squealing hopefully, and Will cheers when the dice lands, “… which is successful!! The Demogorgon dissolves with a piercing shriek, and the demo-dogs disintegrate into ash. The Party is successful!”

 

Max and Billy whoop triumphantly and high-five each other, as if they hadn’t just been screaming at each other two seconds ago. Steve fist-bumps Will and El, grinning like a fool; he honestly thought he hated this game, but he had to admit, it was a lot of fun now that he actually understood what the hell he was doing.

 

“That was sick, Byers,” Billy says, slapping Will jovially on the back. Will grins proudly at Billy, gathering up his book and the loose pages.

 

“Thanks, Billy. I’m really glad you guys played with us - It’s always fun with more people,” Will replies gratefully.

 

“I’ll play this with you any time you want to, all right?” Billy tells him earnestly, “And I know I’m useless right now, but once I’m healed up, I could help you rebuild your clubhouse with you and your brother. I mean, if you want.”

 

Steve doesn’t miss the way Will’s eyes go misty at the offer. He clears his throat once, looking down shyly. “That’d be great, Billy. Thank you,” he says quietly. Max gently reaches for Will’s hand and squeezes it.

 

“Count me in, too,” she says, “We could all help! Plus, Billy’s gonna need a lot of exercise to get back in shape.”

 

Excuse me, you little shit—”

 

Steve tips his head back against the couch and closes his eyes for a second, listening to Max and Billy argue while Will and El giggle at their antics.

 

He loves the way his house sounds, and feels, with so many people inside it; like it has a heartbeat, and isn’t some sad, dying thing.

 

Like it’s home.

 

* * *

 

Steve offers to drive the kids home, but they had all biked there together and Joyce had invited Max over for dinner.

 

“Do you wanna come?” Max asks, looking hopefully between Billy and Steve. Billy smiles, but shakes his head.

 

“I would, shitbird, but I should probably lie down and take it easy tonight,” Billy replies gently, putting a comforting hand on her shoulder, “Have fun with your friends and take a break from worrying about me, all right?”

 

Max huffs out a sigh and pulls him into a loose hug, careful not to press too closely against his chest. “Fine. I’ll see you soon, okay?”

 

They all take turns hugging goodbye until only Will is left. He looks nervously over at El and Max, who nod at him encouragingly, before tentatively coming over to stand in front of Billy.

 

“I, um, drew something for you. El and Max helped me with the details. Max told me to tell you not to open it until we’re gone.”

 

Will reaches into his backpack and pulls out a manila envelope, handing it to Billy. Billy takes it from him carefully, smoothing out a crumpled edge with his fingers. Steve smiles when he notices that Will has decorated the corners of the envelopes with little Billy-themed doodles, including the Camaro and his (douchey) smoking skull tattoo.

 

“Thanks, kid,” Billy replies softly. Will nods, still looking a little nervous. Billy smiles reassuringly and pulls him into a loose hug. Will looks shocked at the gesture, but his tiny arms don't hesitate to wrap around Billy's middle.

 

“Have a good dinner. Tell your mom hey from us,” Steve says, sending Will off with a tight hug of his own.

 

“I will. Feel better, Billy!” Will traipses over to the door where Max and El are waiting.

 

“Take your meds and don’t be an ass to Steve!” Max shouts at Billy as they head out the door.

 

“No promises!” Billy yells back as the door swings shut. He grins at Steve, setting the envelope on the kitchen counter and puling up a stool.

 

“You gonna open it?” Steve asks, gesturing to the envelope as he pulls up a stool beside him.

 

Billy nods, beginning to untie the strings holding it closed. “Not really sure why Max said for me to wait to open it, but…” He pulls out the drawing, and his face immediately goes blank.

 

Steve glances over Billy’s shoulder, first seeing the brightly colored sketch of a white beach and bright blue waves, before he notices the figure Will has drawn standing in the sand.

 

The woman in the sketch has long, wavy blonde hair that’s blowing in the wind, and her mouth is upturned in a gentle smile. She’s wearing a long, white dress with a blue and red flower in the center, and carrying a pair of yellow sandals. Her arms are outstretched, and the sketch is bathed in sunlight, with a cluster of seagulls taking flight across the crystal blue sky.

 

 

“I told him about his mother,” El says. Steve’s throat goes dry as he watches Max’s lip begin to tremble. “I saw… I saw her. When I was trying to find the Shadow Monster. In a memory. I told him… I told him what she was wearing. I told him that she was pretty. I told him that he… that he was happy. And then he was looking at me, and he was… He was Billy again.” The tears fall freely down El’s face now, as if they had respectfully been waiting for her story to end.

 

“He loved his mom,” Max whispers, her expression so pained that it makes Steve’s chest ache, “She abandoned him, but I know he loved her. I think she’s probably the only person he’s ever loved.”

 

 

Steve’s breath catches in his throat as Billy flips the sketch over to find a small, scrawled message in handwriting he doesn’t quite recognize at first:

 

 

Thank you for sharing this memory with me. It belongs to you, so I wanted to give it back.
-El

 

 

Billy laughs wetly, running his thumb along the carefully written words. Steve suddenly feels like he’s intruding on an important moment, and wonders if he should give Billy some privacy; but before he can think too much on it, Billy speaks.

 

“I see a lot of myself in Will, you know,” he says softly, turning the sketch around to gaze at it, reverently running his fingers over the beautifully drawn ocean waves, “I think I would have been more like him if my mom had stuck around. It’s tough when your old man is always giving you a hard time, but moms… They can be a soft place to land. When she walked out, it was like I lost everything. I wanted to punch anything I could get my hands on, I wanted to be mean, I wanted to hurt people’s feelings. It was easier to hate the whole damn world than to face up to how fuckin’ broken up I was inside.”

 

Steve lets the admission hang in the air between them, giving it a moment of respectful silence, before he replies. “I think you’re more like her than you realize,” he murmurs, gently knocking his shoulder against Billy’s. Billy turns to look at him, his eyebrows raised with a yeah, right expression on his face. “I mean it. I love those kids, man, but Dustin’s the only one that’s ever just randomly shown up to my house. They came here today because they wanted to see you. You’re a soft place to land for them.” Steve points at the sketch to reinforce his point.

 

Billy is quiet for a moment, staring intensely at the sketch, seemingly deep in thought. “I’m only gonna say this once, Harrington, and I’ll deny it if you ever repeat it,” Billy begins, slowly turning his head to look at Steve, bracing his hands against the counter, “I don’t know what you saw in her in the first place, but you gotta fuckin’ know: Nancy Wheeler is an idiot for letting you go.”

 

Steve’s breath catches his throat, and he blinks once, twice, absorbing Billy’s words. “At the time, I just thought… I don’t know, that being with her might make me a better person,” Steve murmurs in response.

 

“And that’s the fuckin’ problem,” Billy says angrily, jabbing a finger at Steve, “You don’t need to be a better person. You’re already the best fucking kind of person. It’s about time you see that.”

 

They’re both silent for a moment, staring at each other. The tension in the air is thick enough to cut with a knife. Billy’s back is straightening, his knuckles are balling themselves into fists, and for one stupid moment, Steve wonders if he might hit something.

 

“I feel like… we should hug this out,” Steve says suddenly, syrupy-sweet, a goofy grin spreading across his face as he opens his arms and leans in towards Billy.

 

“Get the fuck away from me,” Billy shoots back, but he’s laughing as he scoots off the stool and stalks into the living room. “Your bullshit has me all stressed out. You owe me a fuckin’ neck massage,” he yells from the living room, settling onto the couch and leering at Steve from behind the cushions.

 

“Sounds like you’re looking for an excuse to get these hands on you again,” Steve teases, raising his hands up in the air and wiggling his fingers suggestively at Billy.

 

“Yeah, well they’re not getting any other action, are they?” Billy counters, leaning back leisurely onto the couch and turning on the TV.

 

Steve rolls his eyes, but he smiles to himself as he grabs a couple beers from the fridge; after all, he can think of worse ways to spend his night.

 

* * *