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As certain dark things are to be loved

Chapter Text

Friday, November 1st, 1985

 

Steve and Robin are driving around in his car and he's singing along loudly to Billy Joel to piss her off and to get her to stop picking at him for not enjoying the latest terrible, old people film she demanded he watch - Casablanca. It's a film Steve is certain he will never understand the point of but instead of trying to explain this to her for the tenth time this afternoon alone he reaches for the volume dial on the radio, cranks it up and makes sure his voice cracks and goes extra pitchy on the chorus. 

Then, bam! It happens out of nowhere. A hand snakes out from the backseat and turns the radio back down. A voice belonging to a guy Steve's pretty sure is dead says, "Stop singing or I swear to god I will find a way to crash this car from the backseat."

Steve jerks his head around so fast he almost gives himself whiplash. Billy Hargrove is sitting in the backseat of his car like he belongs there, like he's always been there, like they're... friends?

Robin screams and Steve almost joins her, is about to start screaming about there being a dead guy in the backseat of his car when he starts to feel said car drifting to the left. Robin's hands are over his in an instant, twisting the steering wheel and jerking the car back towards the right.

"Jesus Christ, Harrington! Watch the road!" she yells. He ducks, fully expecting her to smack him across the back of the head but she doesn't. Billy does. Steve turns back around to face the road but not before catching Billy grinning at him like a jackass, but a human jackass and not, you know, a demon-controlled psycho murderer. It makes no sense. 

He looks over at Robin to gauge her reaction to all this, to see if she can even see the dead guy in the backseat or if all the things he's seen have just finally driven him mad. She doesn't seem to think there's anything wrong so for a moment he starts to think the worst has happened, that he's actually, really and truly lost it.

"Just for the record," Billy says, leaning so far forward he's whispering in Steve's ear, his hair brushing Steve's shoulder and making him shiver, "I didn't actually want you to crash the car."

"I've officially gone insane," Steve says, just as Robin twists in her seat and punches Billy in the shoulder.

"Billy, knock it off," she admonishes, though there's no heat behind it. Actually, if anything she sounds a little fond and really? Steve can't take it. Like really. He can't take it, whatever it is. Whatever this is.

Demodogs he can handle. Being tortured by Russian spies he can handle. Giant, people eating monsters from the hell they call the Upside Down he can handle. Being constantly bothered by Dustin about how him and Robin should be together and not being able to tell him why he's entirely barking up the wrong tree there he can handle, but this? This is too weird. 

No, scratch that. This is too normal. 

"Steve, breathe." Robin nudges his shoulder with her long, bony finger and smiles at him like the world hasn't just flipped itself over. He tries his best to smile back, to fake it until he can get home and try to figure this out, but his smile comes out looking like a cheap, plastic imitation of the real thing and he knows it. So does Robin.

"I'd really rather not die today, please pull over and freak out once the car has stopped," Billy drawls, words coming out sounding bored with an undercurrent of irritated, but Steve peeks at the rear view mirror and catches a stormy look crossing Billy's face. He decides he doesn't want to know why before straightening his shoulders and adjusting his grip on the steering wheel. I can do this, he thinks, I can deal with this. I will.

"No, I'm fine," he says, determined as he can manage for someone whose hands won't stop shaking. 

"Well, if you're sure," Billy says, sounding like he believes that's anything but the truth. 

The song on the radio switches to some awful Prince song and Steve rolls his eyes. 

"How in any universe am I friends with you?" he mutters, not so much expecting a response as much as unable to avoid saying so out loud. 

Robin shrugs and makes a face like this is something he's said before and probably often. She responds with, "Well, you know, losers like us have to stick together." 

It sounds like something she's probably said before, too and there's something about the way she says "losers" like that isn't quite the word she really means. He wants to ask her about it but he's almost certain Billy wouldn't handle this particular question well, so he files it away for later. 

The rest of the drive is filled with Billy glaring out at the trees like they've personally offended him somehow, Robin pretending like she's not constantly sneaking worried glances at Steve and Steve pretending like the death grip he's got on the steering wheel is totally normal and not at all a cause for concern. Like there isn't a dead guy in his backseat. 

He drops off Robin and Billy as soon as he possibly can and heads home fully intending to go straight to bed (regardless of the fact that it's still only six p.m.) and pretend that whatever the fuck is happening isn't.

His plans, however, are interrupted by the static of his radio going off the second he steps into his bedroom. 

"Steve?" Dustin's slightly garbled voice crackles. "Steve, I am having a massive hair emergency and you have to help me!" 

Steve dives on to the bed and scoops the radio up off the floor. He hits the talk button just as Dustin starts moaning about how his hair won't sit right and no amount of product is doing anything to help. "Yeah, well, I am having an actual emergency," Steve spits. 

He doesn't explain what the emergency is, though. He isn't sure he wants to. He isn't sure he even can

"What's the emergency?" Dustin asks, suddenly all serious. It makes Steve happier than he's willing to admit. 

"I…" Steve panics. "I'll tell you tomorrow, okay? I can't over the radio." He's chickening out, he knows he is, but he also knows he won't be able to talk about this without a few hours sleep and a few hours distance. Maybe some sunlight. And in person. In person would help.

"Milkshakes?" Dustin asks. 

"Milkshakes. I'll meet you at the diner at eleven."

"Over and out," Dustin says. 

Steve laughs. Dustin is the only one who says it, insists on it, really, and every single time he can't help it - he laughs.

"Over and out, Steve," Dustin says again.

"Over and out, nerd," Steve says. He hears Dustin groaning as he tosses the radio off the bed to its' usual spot on the floor.

He lays on his bed and stares at the ceiling, both thinking too much and thinking of nothing at all before eventually falling asleep. 

 

---

 

It's the kind of late where even the street lights are turned off and that's when Steve is woken up by a noise coming from the window. A grunt.

Without thinking he grabs the bat he keeps by his bed. This one doesn't have nails in it (his mom would ask too many questions) but he always figured it would be good enough for emergencies and now he guesses he's gonna find out. He gets to his feet and crosses the room towards the sound, cursing his earlier, exhausted self for not having been smart enough to close or lock his bedroom window. 

He's halfway to the window, bat raised and breath held when he knocks into something solid. And warm. Someone solid and warm. 

He removes a hand from his bat to run his fingers up what seems to be a solid, muscular arm when he hears: "Were you expecting someone else?" 

He stumbles back. Billy. The person breaking into his room is Billy. What. The actual fuck. His hands choke up on his bat, preparing to swing if necessary. "Huh?" he asks and he sounds pathetically sleepy, even to his own ears.

"The bat," Billy says, suddenly on him and crowding his space. He runs his fingers up Steve's arm like Steve had just done to him but also… not. Because this touch isn't exploratory, isn't curious. It's demanding. It's pervasive and forceful. And Steve can't see him but he can feel him, all hot and warm and right there. And it's too much. It's way too much. 

Steve takes a step back and takes a deep breath but that only makes it worse, makes him aware of how he can smell Billy's sweat and his cheap cologne and the cigarette smoke lingering on his clothes. He chokes. Literally chokes, the breath spluttering from him in a way that has Billy grabbing him by the arm and leading him towards the bed. 

He can't help but notice that Billy doesn't trip, doesn't fumble. He seems to know exactly where the bed is even in the dark, which is terrifying in a way that Steve doesn't really want to poke at. 

He feels Billy reach across him, hears his bedside light click on and watches as soft light floods the room. He ignores the way it lights Billy's hair like a halo. 

"What the fuck, Steve?" Billy whispers, hand gripping harder around Steve's arm, layering in the menace his voice can't manage without waking Steve's parents. 

Steve can't help it - he chances a look over at Billy and in the light sees that it's not actually menace coloring Billy's face like he expects. It isn't rage, either. It's concern. Concern and… fear?

"Me?" Steve says, voice squeaking in the worst possible way. "What about you? What are you doing in my room this late at night? What are you touching me for?" He jerks his arm out of Billy's grasp with a grunt and shuffles over on the bed, putting as many inches of space between them as he can manage. He can feel the rage that ignites in Billy as he does this and he doesn't need to look this time to know it. Not that he has any earthly idea why this sets off Billy's rage-o-meter of course. But still.

"Is - what - no, fuck this," Billy says, and this time, as expected, he's angry. He makes a point of looking Steve in the eye as he says, "Fuck you." 

And then he's gone.

Steve flops down onto his bed and grunts in defeat. 

What the hell was that? 

What the hell is any of this?

He groans loudly then slaps a hand over his mouth, ears perked and panic bubbling to the surface at the thought that maybe his parents had heard that. He waits for a solid minute, blood speeding faster and faster through his veins until he thinks it might just stop entirely and kill him stone dead but nothing happens. The house is as silent as always. His hand slides slowly down his face to his side and he breathes a sigh of relief. 

The moment of panic was dumb and unnecessary and he knows it. He could be on fire and screaming his lungs out and his parents wouldn't bother to come check on him. 

He falls asleep trying not to think of the hurt look in Billy's eyes as he climbed back out the window. 

 

Chapter Text

Saturday, November 2nd, 1985

 

When Steve rolls out of bed the next day he feels… weird in a way he can't quite put words to. He finds himself checking every corner of his bedroom to see if anything is different. His childhood books sit untouched in the bookcase by the window as always, his baseball bat is by his bed, his dirty laundry is all over the floor. His favorite t-shirt is hung up in his closet along with his favorite jeans. He's got the same posters on the wall as always. Nothing's changed.

He's about to head downstairs for breakfast, assured that everything is right with the world when he remembers something he forgot to check - his hidden stash of Nancy photos. When they broke up, he tore through his room getting rid of anything to do with her except for the few pictures they'd taken this day they went out to the lake together. Those he's kept hidden under the back corner of his mattress. What for, he isn't sure, but he's kept them. 

His stomach clenches as he crosses the room. What if those pictures are gone? 

What if… what if whatever's gone twisted means they were never together? The thought hadn't occurred to him until now as he's kneeling in front of his bed, trying to gather up the courage to lift the mattress up and see if they're still there.

More than once he's wished that that particular relationship had just never happened. Because maybe if it never happened, maybe then it wouldn't hurt so much. Maybe then it wouldn't be so awkward every time he runs into her.

Now that he's facing the very real possibility of something similar to that actually being reality, he regrets every single time he wished for it. 

He puts his hands on the mattress and starts lifting, then stops as another thought enters his mind. If they didn't go out, then would she have dated Jonathan?

Maybe she wouldn't have. And maybe, then, he won't have to see that torn, crumpled look she's been wearing ever since the Byers' and Eleven left town. It's a similar look to the one he saw in the mirror for weeks after his own break up with her and he can't help but wonder if they've split. He hasn't been brave enough to ask and no one's exactly told him - after all, it's really not any of his business. And he knows this, of course he knows this but he can't help but be curious. Not that there's anything he could - or even really would - do with the information.

His knees start to ache and he realizes he's been sitting in front of his bed, fingers gripped tight to the edge of the mattress for a solid minute now at least. "Okay, get a grip and get it over with," he mumbles to himself as he finally lifts the mattress. He lets out a breath and feels a flood of relief so strong his skin tingles as he catches sight of the small stack of photos hiding in the back corner of the bed frame. 

Shifting the mattress' weight to his shoulder he scrambles for the photos and yanks them free before standing and letting the mattress fall back into place with a comfortably loud thunk. He sinks to the floor to look through the pictures and isn't able to stop himself from smiling as he notices that they're all present and accounted for and exactly as he remembered them.

He gets to his feet, relieved and really feeling like maybe the world hasn't gone mad after all when one of the photos falls to the floor face first. Without thinking he bends to grab it and turns it over. 

It's a picture of him and Billy Hargrove standing in front of Billy's Camaro in what appears to be the school parking lot, arms wrapped around each other's shoulders with big grins on their faces. 

He feels like he's jumped off the high dive at the public pool and unexpectedly crashed face first into cement. First, because what the fuck? Second because he's looked at lots of pictures of himself in his life. He's Steve Harrington. There are dozens of photos of him in last year's yearbook alone. But…

But he's never seen himself look as happy in any of them as he does in this picture with Billy freaking Hargrove.

He turns to head downstairs for breakfast a second time, still holding the photo and again he finds himself stopping short of the door. Instead he puts the photos of Nancy back under the bed, gets dressed, grabs his backpack with his work clothes and heads out of the house with the photo of him and Billy tucked safely in his back pocket. Somehow, the possibility of running into his parents with that photo anywhere other than hidden under his bed feels… wrong. Dangerous for reasons he can't name.

He doesn't even bother to check the time until he's three blocks away and is waiting for the light at the crosswalk to turn green. It's ten minutes after ten, fifty minutes before he's supposed to meet up with Dustin at the diner that's become their usual meet-up spot after the mall closed down. It's not long enough to really do anything and not short enough to get a table at the diner and wait without ordering, but he drives downtown anyway and finds himself parked in front of the pharmacy. 

He sits for a minute before the silence in the car starts choking him and he has to get out, has to move, has to do something

He walks into the pharmacy and wanders around, at a loss for anything better to do. He looks aimlessly at the magazine rack by the front, at all the pictures of the women on the covers with their glossy lips and ridiculously big hair and finds himself sneering at them. Looks at the toys on the shelves in the back and wonders if there really ever was a time he was young enough to have played with toys like that. 

Honestly? He isn't sure anymore. 

It feels like there's a million years between now and what, two years ago? Back before he knew his town existed on top of a portal to a hell dimension. Thinking of anything farther back than that feels like maybe it just never even existed at all. So who knows, really? Maybe child Steve, the one who loved coloring books and juice boxes and playing tag with Tommy never really even existed at all. Maybe this is all there's ever been. 

He doesn't know anymore.

Aimlessly he walks into a random aisle, looking at nothing in particular and trying to think of something other than counting down the seconds until he can safely go get a booth in the diner without driving himself insane with the wait when he hears footsteps approaching. He looks over and sees Billy striding down the aisle and straight towards him. Billy waves and he panics like a deer in headlights. 

"Hey," Billy says, like it's nothing. Like they talk all the time, like this is normal. Like he didn't sneak into Steve's room last night. Like he didn't magically appear in Steve's car out of nowhere yesterday. 

"Hey," Steve says back, his throat suddenly scratchy and dry. He can feel sweat breaking out on his forehead and he suddenly doesn't know what to do with his hands and what the fuck.

Billy smiles at him, comes closer then leans in so he's basically bracketing Steve with his body and for a second, Steve feels like his skin is on fire, every inch of him suddenly wound up and screaming for… he doesn't even know what. He finds himself wanting to reach out and run his hand through Billy's hair, feels his fingers stuffing themselves into his pockets to avoid doing just that. Then Billy's reaching for something and backing away but still smiling that perfect and perfectly lecherous smile of his. 

Something small and square catches Steve's eye and he looks down to see a box of condoms in Billy's hand. He spins around and notices that the shelf right behind him is packed with them. Because of course it is. 

"See you later," Billy says, somehow managing to make the words sound like a promise and a threat all at once. It's every bit as cliche as everything else Billy does and just as effective.

Steve doesn't move until he hears the bell above the front door jingle, signaling, he hopes, that Billy's gone. He waits another minute just to be sure then tears out of the building like he's on fire and running will somehow help put it out. He can't help but notice the Camaro parked next to his car. 

He runs the four blocks to the diner. 

Inside, he spots Dustin, already waiting for him and halfway through what, Steve is sure, was previously a very large strawberry milkshake. Dustin waves with his whole arm the second he looks up, like Steve won't notice him otherwise and Steve can't help but smile and wave back. Fortunately, he stops panting halfway to the booth and as he slides in he schools his face into an expression approaching normal.

Or not, because the second he's seated Dustin drops his straw into his milkshake and gives him this concerned look. "What's up?" Dustin asks, brow furrowing and lips still parted after he speaks. 

Steve shrugs. Now or never, he supposes. He digs into his back pocket and grabs the photo of him and Billy and slaps it on the table. 

Dustin looks confused. "I don’t get it. You’re friends with a jackass, so?"

"But…" The wheels in Steve's brain are spinning. Spinning and spinning and spinning. "But I'm not," is all he can think to say. 

Dustin rolls his eyes. "I'm not friends with jackasses," he says, doing a terrible imitation of what Steve thinks is supposed to be him. "He's nicer if you get to know him." Dustin contorts his face in a way Steve knows he's never done. "Whatever." 

"No," Steve grinds out. "No, that's not it. I'm not friends with him. At all." He taps a finger at the photo. "I don't remember taking this picture." 

Dustin still looks confused but now there's worry mixed in with it so Steve tries to explain. He leans in and whispers, "Yesterday me and Robin were just driving around doing nothing then all of a sudden, Billy Hargrove's in the backseat of my car."

"You mean like… he jumped in?" Dustin asks. He leans far enough back in his seat that he brushes up against the vinyl backing of the booth. "Were you stopped or…?" He looks like he's trying to picture how someone could jump into a moving car. Trying and failing. 

"No!" Steve hisses loud enough to get a disapproving look from the waitress wiping down the table three over from them. "No, I mean like poof. One second he's not there and then… he is." 

"Uh…" Dustin mumbles, and again he leaves his lips parted long after he's stopped making any sort of noise. It takes a second before he speaks up again. "Was he confused about this? Was he shocked?"

"No," Steve says, still whispering even though Dustin hasn't been bothering to. "That's the thing. It was just like he'd always been there." He doesn't mention his bedroom or the pharmacy. He has no idea how to explain that to Dustin. Or how Dustin might react.

"And Robin?" Dustin asks. He takes a big slurp of his milkshake, practically finishing it off. His eyes are as big as dinner plates and it's making Steve feel twitchy. 

"She acted like he'd always been there, like we're friends with him, like nothing happened," Steve says. He doesn't try to hide anything now, doesn't try not to look or sound terrified. He is terrified and looking at the photo and seeing the confusion that just won't leave Dustin's face isn't making it better.

Dustin opens his mouth to say something but the waitress from three tables over starts walking over to them and Dustin shuts his mouth.

"What can I get for ya?" the waitress says just before she's fully in front of their table. 

Steve blanches and for a moment his mind goes blank. "Um, pancakes," he says, going with the first thing that enters his mind. 

Dustin makes a face and Steve can't help but wonder if maybe with the way things have changed he's not supposed to like pancakes, or something, but then Dustin says, "We came here for milkshakes, didn't we?" and Steve finds himself letting out a relieved breath. 

"Right. Pancakes and two strawberry milkshakes, then," Steve says with a nod to the waitress. 

"Make mine chocolate," Dustin says, giving the waitress the biggest, flirtiest smile he can manage. She ignores him and nods at Steve before grabbing the menus Steve hadn't even noticed were on the table and heads for the kitchen to place their order.

Dustin takes the last sip of his now well and truly empty strawberry milkshake and says, "Variety," with a shrug, like that means something. 

It's another second before he says, "So…" He swallows. "I'm sorry, so you're not… friends with Billy?" 

Steve sighs. "No, I'm telling you, I'm not." He stops short of saying the next part. He hopes Dustin is going to get it, wants him to understand before he has to explain. 

He doesn't. 

"Okay," Steve says. He purses his lips and grabs at the edge of the table. The cheap wood on the underside of it bites into his hands and makes him feel braver somehow. "For me, before yesterday, Billy Hargrove was dead. He got flayed by the mind flayer and died at the mall." He squeezes his eyes shut halfway through saying "flayed" but finds himself peeking out of one eye at Dustin once he's done. 

Dustin's mouth has dropped open again, this time forming a near perfect 'o'. "It's like… alternate timelines!" he squeaks excitedly. He's excited and Steve wants to hit him.

"What…" Steve croaks out. "What does that even mean?" 

"Okay, so," Dustin says, hands toying with his milkshake straw. He's got this big excess of energy all of the sudden, clearly glad to be explaining more of his nerd stuff to Steve, to anyone probably, and have them listen, to have it be relevant. "For me, when we had that big showdown at the mall, the person that got flayed was that girl Heather." He gives Steve a serious, appraising look. "And you've always been friends with Billy, ever since he moved into town. Well, or, almost, anyway. There were a few weeks where you hated each other but then you both seemed to realize you could be King One and King Two and it was fine." He looks particularly proud of the terms King One and King Two. Probably came up with them himself. 

"But…" Steve wants to add something else to that but, he does, he just… can't. There aren't words.

"But you remember it differently?" 

Steve nods. Still says nothing. His mind has been reduced to crackling static and the white, fuzzy look a television gets when left on with nothing to play.

"Which is what makes me think we're probably dealing with two different timelines somehow being blended together," Dustin says, sounding like what he's just said is totally normal and something that happens all the time. Like it's no more frightening or even annoying than trying to figure out what part of your car it is that isn't working. 

Problem is, even then Steve's pretty well always the guy who looks for ten minutes before giving up and going and calling a mechanic. 

Or in this case, he guesses, Dustin. 

"We should tell the others," Dustin says, suddenly serious. 

"No!" Steve shouts before he even really thinks it through. He doesn't want to risk Billy being part of that group. He can't handle it. 

"Okay…" Dustin draws the word out to about three times its normal length. "So what do you want to do about it?"

Before Steve has to come up with an answer the waitress comes over with his pancakes and their milkshakes. Steve digs into his food fervently enough that there's no time for talking, not even in between bites. 

He has no idea what he wants to do about this. Fortunately, Dustin seems to get the hint and doesn't ask again.

 

---

 

Work that afternoon doesn't go much better. It's dead from the minute Steve gets there until the minute Billy comes strolling in with Jessica Carpenter draped on his arm and looking like she's about to melt, she's so happy to be there. 

Billy ignores him and Robin both until they get to the checkout counter and then it's only to sneer pointedly at Steve.

Once they've gone Robin turns to Steve and says, "Okay, what'd you do?" 

"What?" Steve nearly physically jumps back at the accusation. "Why do you assume I did something?"

Robin stares at him. "Because it's always you." 

"Me? Last night he -" Steve stops, checks to make sure the store is empty. It is. "Last night he was in my room and he tried to -" He looks around the store again. It's still empty. "He was being weirdly… handsy." Saying it out loud makes the hairs on the back of Steve's neck stand on end, whether the store's empty or not.

Robin rolls her eyes aggressively enough they look like they might just fall right out of her head. "Really, Steve?" she says, sounding as annoyed with him as she used to, back before they were friends. "I thought we were past all this." 

The door opens and a couple walks in before Steve can say anything, not that either half of the couple notices. They head straight for the romance section at the back of the store, hands roaming over each other so much it's like they think if they stop touching they'll stop breathing.

Steve watches them for a second before leaning towards Robin and whispering, "Past all what?" 

Robin leans in closer. "Your gay panic," she whispers back. 

Steve blurts out the first thing that comes into his mind. "But I saw Billy buying condoms earlier." 

Robin pushes away from him, closes her eyes for a moment and takes a breath. "Oh my god," she says, eyes still closed. Then she says it again, "Oh my god, " with more emphasis this time.

Steve doesn't say anything, just looks between her and the couple at the back. They're flipping through the boxes on the shelf, trying to pick between two tapes Steve can't see the covers of from here. They look like they're so caught up in each other they wouldn't notice if a tornado came down and blew the store down around them. 

Must be nice, Steve thinks before looking back at Robin. She's staring at him now and is starting to look concerned. "Seriously, Steve," she says. "You know condoms can be used for more than one thing, right?"

Steve feels his eyes going wide, like Dustin's had earlier. "Like for what?" Then it hits him. He grabs a scrap piece of paper and a pen off the counter, scribbles down Is Billy gay??? and shows it to Robin. 

The concerned look on her face gets worse. "Are you okay? Did you hit your head or something?" 

Steve rips the piece of paper with the question on it into teeny, tiny pieces before throwing it in the trash. "I didn't," he finally says. "But the rest of the world seems to have." 

The couple walks to the front and Steve checks them out. He looks at the tape they picked - Romancing the Stone - and wonders what it's about. He's pretty sure he hasn't seen it, doesn't recognize the cover, at least. But then Robin usually takes pity on him and doesn't force him to watch romantic movies, which he's pretty sure this is, based off the title if not the cover. 

Robin is poking him in the side before the couple's even fully out of the store. "So?" she asks. 

It takes less than a second for him to break and tell her everything. Dustin's theories. That Billy was dead before yesterday. Seeing him again this morning. Everything. 

Well, everything except for wanting to touch Billy's hair. That part he keeps to himself. 

Lastly, he drags the now slightly crumpled photo out of his back pocket and shows it to her. Watches as the smile blooms on her face that says she recognizes it. Tries to pretend it doesn't make him feel queasy.

"Oh, I remember this," she says, the words sounding soft and sweet. Then the expression on her face changes. "But you don't." She looks at him for a moment, then looks away. Steve can't help but feel like there's something to do with the photo she's not telling him. Or something bigger, maybe. 

"Does all this mean you're not…" She trails off and for a moment, everything is silent. She doesn't finish and Steve toys with the idea of not asking, of just changing the subject and being done with whatever this is. 

He wants to, but he can't. "Not what?" he asks.

Robin bites her bottom lip, uncertain and very un-Robin. "How do you not know this about yourself? How -" She bites off the rest of her words, leaving Steve to just stare at her and wait.

"So you don't remember being friends with me?" she asks. 

"I remember being friends with you," he says. "Just, for me, I met you this summer working at Scoops." But then, as he says it, it suddenly isn't true. He starts seeing things, tiny flashes of memories. Him and Robin under the bleachers at school, laughing. The two of them drunk at a party. Her cheering him on at a basketball game. Him giving her the dorkiest thumbs up as she flashes a test with a big red "A" on it at him. Being in his room and watching Sixteen Candles and her having a crush on Molly Ringwald. 

When he comes to he's sitting sprawled out on the floor with a very concerned Robin crouching in front of him. He rubs a hand across his face and it comes back smeared in blood. 

"Your nose is bleeding," Robin says.

 

Chapter Text

Saturday, November 2nd, 1985

 

The instant Billy wakes up he rolls over and looks at his alarm clock. It's 8:06. He's overslept. 

Silently he rolls out of bed and creeps towards the door. He listens, waits until he smells the scent of eggs frying and leans back, letting his toes lift off the floor so he's balancing on his heels. He stops for a minute and thinks, ultimately deciding that the first thing to do is pick out some clothes and do his hair. 

He takes as long as he possibly can, picks his best outfit and styles his hair until it's flawless then goes back over to the door and listens. Waits. He hears footsteps in the kitchen still and bites his lip to keep from making a sound. He was hoping they'd be gone by now, but if they're not (and they're not) then there's not much else for him to do, though he does eye himself in the mirror one more time, debates maybe doing something else with his hair. He reaches a hand up to touch it, to test it and knows near instantly that it won't work. Any more hairspray and it'll start to get sticky and then it'll start clumping up and then it'll be useless. 

No, the only way out now is out so he grabs his boots, laces them up, and curls his fists once, then twice. Once he's prepared he steps out into the hall and heads for the kitchen.

He manages to reach the door, even manages to grab his coat before Susan turns to him and says, "Would you like some breakfast?" 

He's about to say no when he hears the telltale sound of newspaper crinkling. Without even turning around he can practically see the way Neil's fingers are going white at the edges with how tightly they're gripping that paper so he turns around, coat still in hand and says, "Sure."

He sits down at the table and grabs a section of the paper, anything for a distraction while under the table his free hand clenches and unclenches around his coat like a wave crashing up against a rock it knows it can't break. 

He watches Susan eye the half-empty carton of eggs and the freshly scrubbed skillet before settling on grabbing the box of Eggos from the freezer and putting two of them into the toaster. They've never spoken about it but they both know how this game is played. They both know how dangerous it would be for him to be in the kitchen long enough for something like eggs to cook.

The Eggos pop up just as Neil says, "Do you have any plans for the day?" and Billy can't help but notice the way Susan busies herself with the butter and the maple syrup for the waffles, anything to avoid eye contact with either of them.

Billy sets his section of the paper down and under the table grips his coat with both hands. "Nope," he says, proud as anything. 

Neil stares him down over the top of the sports section he's been reading for who knows how long. He assesses. Analyzes. Probably finds Billy wanting in some way that only makes sense to him. "You're not gonna hang out with those friends of yours?" he says, sounding suspicious for reasons Billy simultaneously can't fathom and knows he doesn't like. 

Billy shrugs. "I dunno, maybe." 

"Well, were you planning on calling them or -" Neil's question is cut off by Susan setting a plate in front of Billy. In addition to the butter and syrup she's added neatly chopped strawberries on top of the Eggos, like that's gonna fix anything. 

Billy wolfs it all down fast enough that he knows it's going to give him a stomach ache later, but he doesn't care. His defensive instincts are starting to itch at the back of his throat and he doesn't want to risk listening to them. He carefully puts his plate in the sink and thanks Susan before putting his coat on and heading out. He just catches Neil saying something as he closes the door but whether it's to him or to her he doesn't know and he doesn't bother to stop and check. 

He's escaped. It's good enough. 

He starts the engine of his car and cranks the volume on his tape deck up loud enough to drown out his thoughts then takes off. He circles around town once or twice, hands tapping against his steering wheel along with his music. He's considering going over to Robin's to see if she's up yet when he sees Steve's tacky BMW parked in front of the pharmacy. 

He knows that after last night he should probably just leave well enough alone, but he also knows he's going to do it anyway. He's never been any good at avoiding the things he knows he should; the scars and cracked skin on his knuckles can attest to that. 

He finds Steve in the center aisle and feels his breath catch in his throat. Fortunately he's had enough practice faking just about everything in his life that his smirk doesn't falter for a second. It's harder to hide the way he feels his heart rev up and start crashing against his ribs like it's trying to crack them, especially when it feels like given enough time it might just succeed, but he finds a way to manage that too.

Part of him, ridiculously, wants Steve to notice all this. Wants Steve to put his hands on his chest and know that what his heart is galloping towards is him. Wants Steve to be able to somehow sense his sheer and utter terror at this situation, see through his bullshit and with one simple look make him forget everything like he's always done, even back before they were friends.

Steve looks up and sees him walking down the aisle and for a split second it even seems like things are going to work out. Like last night was a fluke and everything is back the way it was. Steve looks over at him and in that split second everything is good, everything is right, everything is fine. 

Billy waves at him like a dork and carefully says, "Hey." Testing the waters.

And then everything splits down the center and cracks open wide.

"Hey," Steve says back. He looks the same, is wearing the same clothes and if Billy were close enough he'd guess he even smells the same but the look on his face… it's different. Panicked. Steve looks panicked and that panic is charging straight for him and hitting him at full speed like a truck, making him grit his teeth and widen his smile.

In his mind Billy pictures his heart charging straight out of his chest, tearing a big, bloody hole right through the center of him and leaving blood splattered on his lips with the force of it all. It takes actual effort not to raise his hands to his chest and make sure that hasn't actually happened.

Because Steve is afraid of him and it makes him want to choke and to shake and to scatter but instead he decides he's going to play with the way Steve looks like an honest to god damn fucking rabbit ready to run. He positions himself like the apex predator he's always pretending to be and glides down the aisle heading straight for Steve with no plan in mind until he sees the wall of condoms behind him and thinks, Good enough.

Casually he leans in and puts his hands just past Steve's shoulders as he reaches in and grabs a box of condoms off the wall, pretends he doesn't see Steve sticking his hands in his pockets and decides he doesn't want to know why. 

"See you later," he says, letting his words sound just as predatory as he knows the sneer he lets overtake his face looks. It's a good cover for how desperate just the smell of Steve's stupid shampoo makes him feel.

He doesn't actually buy the condoms, either, just throws them onto the front counter, almost hitting the girl behind said counter as he does so. If she says anything about it, he doesn't hear her, just shoves his hands in his pockets and heads outside into the stupidly cold and disgusting winter.

He's just closing the door of his Camaro when he sees Steve running from the pharmacy. "Hah," he barks, even though there's no one to hear him. "Idiot," he says, though he isn't sure if he means Steve or himself at this point. 

He drives out to his favorite spot in the woods and digs a hand into the front left pocket of his jeans where he knows he'd stashed a joint two weeks earlier. Instead he finds his fingers wrapping around a thin slip of paper with torn edges. He closes his eyes as he drags it out, not that it helps any - he already knows exactly what it is. Or rather, exactly what's on it.

He cracks his eyes open and sighs as he reads over the words: Vincent Price - #2 2131 Acklen Ave. Nashville - 615-848-7149.

He fights between crumpling up the piece of paper and throwing it out the window or calling and yelling at the bastard. He wants to choose the first option, wants to just wash his hands of all of this and pretend it never happened, pretend he isn't like this, pretend he's normal and everything's fine. But, as always, he goes with the dumber option and starts his car up again, heading towards the gas station just up the road and the nearest pay phone. 

He then proceeds to stand in front of the payphone, not doing anything, for long enough for his hands to go numb and for anyone who drives by to seriously question his sanity. He smokes a cigarette and half the joint he had in his right pocket (not his left, like he'd first thought) then finally manages to dig the piece of paper out of his pocket again and get on with it. 

The guy answers the phone on the first ring and Billy lets him have it, screams and threatens better and more menacingly than he's ever managed before in his entire life and all to no effect. 

"Look, man," says Vincent, the slimy little bastard, "I told you, no refunds. I also told you that it probably wouldn't work exactly like you wanted. But I remember you said, and I'm quoting here -" He cuts off and laughs. The piece of shit actually has the nerve to laugh. "You said he can marry, what was her name? Nancy fucking Wheeler so long as he comes back? So I don't get why you're complaining."

Billy growls low and deep in his throat. "I don't care what I said, this is not what I paid for so you're gonna fix it or I'm gonna -" 

He's cut off by Vincent saying, "You try it and I'll set everything back the way it was," and then hanging up.

For a minute, Billy just stands there, dumbstruck. He's tempted to call the guy back and yell at him some more, but he knows it'll do no good. He's aware that he might not be exactly the smartest guy ever, but he's still not dumb enough to think that would work.

Then carefully, so as not to rip it, he starts flipping the piece of paper over and over in his hand. After a few flips he notices a number on the back, scrawled in pencil. He thinks back and remembers Eleven scribbling it down and telling him to call if he ever needed to. He dials the number and hopes she meant it.

This time it takes six rings and he almost hangs up twice before the other end gets picked up. "Hi, is El there?" he asks in his best, most sugary sweet tone, the one that usually gets him anything he wants when applied correctly.

"Hi, I'm sorry, but who's calling?" asks a voice Billy is pretty sure is El's… mother, or whatever she is now.

He panics. He has no idea how to explain this to her, what she knows, what she'd be okay with knowing. "You know what, nevermind," he says before hanging up the phone. 

Chicken, he thinks to himself. Bitch.

He snarls, picks up the phone and slams it into the receiver a good six or seven times. He screams so loud and makes so much noise that the guy working in the gas station comes running out to glare at him. 

"You break that, you buy it!" he shouts in this high pitched, uppity voice that makes the threat impossible to take seriously. 

Billy glares at him for it anyway and the guy practically jumps back a whole foot, he's so scared. It makes Billy feel a little bit better, knowing he can still scare someone, at least. He smiles viciously as he walks away from the payphone and this causes the guy to scramble back, looking like he might actually pee in his pants like he's one of those tiny little rat dogs Billy had seen back in California that loses it anytime so much as the wind gets too loud.

He gets in his Camaro and drives away, no plan in mind on where to go or what to do now. The day stretches out before him, long and looming and lonely. It's barely noon and he can't go home, obviously can't go to Steve's and he can't risk going to Robin's right now, either. He can't deal with the possibility of her not remembering everything, not right now and maybe not ever. 

He drives around the edge of town one more time before he remembers: Jessica Carpenter. She was all over him at lunch every day this week and again he finds himself thinking, Good enough.

He turns the car in the direction of her house and smiles, glad to again have a plan, a direction.

He pulls up to her house and knocks on the door real slow, like he hasn't got a care in the world. She answers a second later, bright blonde ponytail bouncing nearly as much as her boobs in her ridiculous, inappropriate-for-Indiana-in-November sparkly pink tank top.

"Oh, Billy, hi!" she says, perkiness flowing out of her like water from a faucet. "What are you doing here?" 

She crosses her arms under her boobs, pushing them up aggressively. It makes those barely chewed Eggos from earlier churn in his stomach but he flicks his eyes down and widens them momentarily, smiles in a way he knows signals he's very much interested in what she's got on offer.

"Not much," he says slowly, gaze lazily ping-ponging from her face to her chest and back again. "Just couldn't stop thinking about you." 

"Oh." She smiles like she's trying to outdo the sun but it does nothing to warm him. "Well come in, then." She spins back and waves a long arm at the big, ostentatious entryway to her big, ostentatious house. 

Billy steps inside and unties his boots as she says, "This is good timing, actually. My parents just went out." He looks up at her just in time to see her eyes start to twinkle suggestively. Like she needed to be any more obvious.

He gives her a look to match as he toes his boots off. "Oh, yeah?" he says. He reaches forward and runs his fingers through her ponytail then twirls it around his hand and grips it just hard enough to sting. 

"Uh-huh," she says, her voice all breathy and her cheeks all pink. And he hates it, hates it, hates it. He hates her, he hates this stupid house, hates her stupid, low cut, tank top and her stupid, bouncy ponytail. He probably hates the ponytail the most, out of all of it. Or maybe just hates himself.

He twists that ponytail just a little harder and puts his other hand on her shoulder. He smiles his well-practiced smile and pulls her up against him, burying his face in between her shoulder and her neck and placing the most delicate of kisses there. 

"Uhhh," she moans, breath coming out soft and weak. He can practically feel the way her legs are trembling. "My -" she whispers, "-my bedroom is just up the stairs." She points towards the large, beautiful, white staircase in the center of the room to make her point.

"Well," he says, dipping his voice in honey even if he'd rather it were filled with the static buzz of a thousand bees all with their stingers aimed at her. "We'd better make use of that then." He places another kiss on her shoulder, this one a little more firm than the last and scrapes his teeth along the skin there just enough to make her shiver.

Delicately, he unwraps his hand from her hair and slides it down her arm to link their hands together. He raises an eyebrow at her as if to say after you and she downright giggles. Her face lights up and a rock the size of the state of Indiana itself sinks into his stomach. She leads him up the stairs to her bedroom, delight and excitement coloring her every movement and suddenly the thing he hates most here is definitely not her but himself. 

She closes the door carefully, quietly, like maybe they're not alone in the house and he realizes he doesn't know that they're not. For all he knows she could have a younger sibling, a tiny terror of a brother or sister ready to report on every little naughty thing their older sister dares to do. Not that he bothers to ask. And even if she does, she doesn't seem to care enough to mention it, so whatever.

He raises the hand he's holding to his mouth and kisses her knuckles, then turning her hand over and extricating his fingers he kisses her palm. He looks at her with the most adoring gaze he can manage even though he's really starting to feel like those Eggo chunks might just start trying to make a run for the door any second now if he's not careful. 

He leads her over to the bed and pushes her on to it with a heavy hand on her shoulder and she grins with the excitement of it. She tilts her head back, clearly melting into what she's feeling and as she's peeling off her tank top and bra he decides the only way he's going to make it through this is to imagine her as someone else. 

He imagines it's Steve's arm he's tracing his fingers up, Steve's collarbone he's outlining, Steve's waist he's gripping like it's a lifeline and the only thing keeping him sane. 

He runs his thumb along the waistband of her jeans then dips it inside, tracing a slow and deliberate line along her skin, almost reaching low enough to get somewhere but not quite and she moans, deep and full, spurring him on and he imagines it's Steve crying out, desperate for touch, desperate for more, desperate for him.

He unzips and pulls her jeans down with little fanfare but pretends like the vision of her silky peach pink panties are an absolute joy to behold. She blushes and he presses kisses just above her belly button, then just below. Breathes over the skin there, feels the goosebumps that spring up and presses a kiss just slightly lower down before looking up at her suggestively. 

There are a few things he's learned about women in his life, but two of the most important are probably that one: while they all salivate and go mad for his whole bad boy Billy bit, most of them want to be treated a little more delicately in the bedroom. The shock of someone who looks and acts like he normally does being in any way gentle just adds to it, gets them all amped up without him ever having to work very hard. And the less hard work for him in these scenarios, the better. And two: almost all of them absolutely lose their goddamn minds when he goes down on them. Which is also good for him, because (and this is how he knows for sure he's broken) he's never been able to tolerate anything above or beyond that. He's never been able to tolerate them touching him, which, for the most part, they don't. He's acquired enough skill over the years to make them think that this is all for their benefit rather than for his. They all pant and moan about how generous a lover he is, regardless of their age. They all say the same thing and none of them, not one, has caught on yet.

Jessica doesn't either with the way her eyes widen with want and desire and oh, and yes, and please. Again Billy finds himself picturing Steve's eyes going that wide, Steve wanting him, needing him, begging him to please, please go faster. More. Please.

He places another kiss just off her hip, grabs the edge of her panties with his teeth and drags them down, imagining the entire time what the scrape of the delicate, soft fabric would sound like against Steve's skin, what sort of noises he'd make. 

He slides the panties down her legs in sickeningly slow motion, drops them on the floor then goes up to kiss her lips, looks her in the eye and smiles beatifically at her. He wouldn't have to smile at Steve, he thinks. He could just be with Steve, no faking it, no bullshit. 

He kisses her cheek, her chin, then just under her ear. He sucks at her neck and feels her pulse thundering just underneath her skin, at odds with the anxious way his blood is boiling over and how hard he's having to fight himself just to be here. 

He leans over her for a moment, grinning, teasing. Her eyes are almost rolling back in her head, lost in the pleasure of the moment and he hates everything about it. Hates how soft her skin is, hates how objectively beautiful he knows she is, hates himself for not being able to care, for thinking this would be a good distraction in the first place.

He makes a show of stripping his shirt off, but leaves his pants on. He always leaves his pants on. He leans in again and places a kiss right between her breasts, trails over to a nipple and licks around and around and around until it's stiff and erect. His cock hardens at the sight of it and she reaches out to put her hand over it. It hurts like he's being burned but he lets her. To not would be too suspicious. To not would be to risk bringing attention to the fact that he's only hard from picturing all the ways Steve's body would react to being  touched like this.

She smiles and it's fuzzy around the edges. He makes his face match hers then growls, deep in his throat like the sight of her naked before him is almost too much for him to bear and absolutely all he's ever wanted. The grin on her face spreads and he dips his head back to her hips, kissing from one side to the other and then down and down and down. She moans appreciatively, gripping her fingers in his hair and pulling and he continues his descent. He rests a hand on her thigh, nudging her to spread her legs wide and rewards her for doing so by spreading his fingers as far as they'll go and squeezing just as his tongue breaks into her. He blanks out the rest, swapping it for mental images of his mouth around Steve's dick, taking him all the way in and taking his time, imagining Steve calling out his name like he's praying for God and believes it. 

She howls when they're done and he's certain there must be no one else in the house; she's being the kind of loud that if anyone else were here they'd have run in by now. He finishes with a kiss to her thigh then rises and puts a hand gently around her neck, kisses her softly, thinks maybe he should be an actor with how good he is at faking it.

She makes a noise he knows he's supposed to think is cute and looks like she wants to say something, tries to, but only manages more wordless noises. He flops down gracelessly beside her and imagines pulling Steve next to him, wrapping his arms around Steve's chest and burying his face in Steve's shoulder.

"You," she says breathlessly. "Next time." The words and the idea behind them terrify Billy more than any fight ever has. 

"Mmhmm," he mumbles softly, feigning a sleepiness his body is way too on edge to actually feel. 

Then he hears the front door open downstairs and hears her parents call out for her. She groans like they've been interrupted from something wonderful and it takes him a second to realize that from her point of view, they have. 

"Up here!" she calls out as she hastily gets dressed and re-does her ponytail. He grabs his shirt and throws it on, wondering as he always does how parents never seem to catch on. It's not exactly like the redness in their faces is subtle, not to mention the way her room now smells. The way every room always smells after.

"Next time," she says sweetly, her too-white teeth all showing in her flawless, probably dentist-assisted smile. 

"Mmhmm," he says again, nodding. He adds a wink for good measure and she giggles and he can't help but feel like that massive rock in his gut is now crushing every single one of his organs rather than just his stomach.

"Once my parents leave again, wanna go get a movie?" she says, bouncing over to her vanity so she can re-apply all the bubblegum pink lipgloss she'd bitten and kissed off.

"Sure," he says with a shrug. 

They have to wait about an hour but manage to head out without her parents catching them or catching on that she had a boy in her room at all. He can't even say this is the easiest sneak out he's ever had; for something so many bemoan so much, most don't even really try to look that hard or even pay very much attention at all.

They drive to the video store in a silence Billy knows they have wildly differing opinions on the comfort level of and she repeatedly tries to put her hand in his lap, fingers always crawling up, up, up. One time she gets close enough that he almost crashes the car and again she giggles. He can't help but think she wouldn't be giggling if she knew he almost crashed out of fear and not out of desire.

 At the video store Billy zeroes in on Steve almost the second they step inside. He feels an urge to pry Jessica off his arm and hold it out to Steve, like Steve's the only one it's really, truly meant for, but instead he turns Jessica towards the horror section and tries to focus on picking out something. Anything. 

"I hate horror," Jessica whines. She sticks her bottom lip out and leans into him, her chest pressing into his side where she's attached herself to him. 

"Too bad," he almost says. He wants to abandon her here and run to the counter and beg for the forgiveness of a Steve he knows doesn't care. "You can hide behind me for the scary bits," he says instead. "It won't be so bad."

This seems to appease Jessica as she tightens her grip on his arm and says, "Oh, alright. So long as you pick a not too scary one." 

"Sure," he says, all the while scanning the rows in front of him for the worst, scariest movie they've got. His eyes land on Day of the Dead and, continuing with the apparent theme of the day, he figures, Good enough. He grabs it and drags Jessica to the front. 

He tries to say something to Steve but only manages to sneer and has to hand the tape to Robin to check it out instead. 

Once they're outside Jessica loosens her grip and says, "What, are you guys in a fight or something?" 

"Huh?"

She nods her head back at the store as they continue walking towards his car. "You glared at him like you're pissed at him or something."

Billy shrugs. "Or something."

They get into his car and she doesn't ask any follow up questions, seemingly knowing him well enough to know he's not going to give her any more answer than that, which is probably the first and only thing he's appreciated about her so far.

On the drive back she wraps herself around him as much as she can without actually crawling over the center console completely and for the first time in this whole wretched trainwreck of a day he finds himself thinking that it isn't good enough. Not this time.

 

Chapter Text

Saturday, November 2nd, 1985

 

"You okay?" Robin asks as she holds out her hand to help Steve up. 

He shakes his head, groans, then smashes the palm of his hand into his eye. "Uh, I think so?"

"You think or you know? 'Cause you just fell over and your nose is bleeding." Robin looks at him and tries not to worry, she does, but the whole situation is weird. Like Russian code level weird. 

"Yeah, I know, you said that already!" Steve snaps, moving his hand from squishing his eye to squishing his hair. He groans pitifully and squeezes his eyes shut.

Robin grabs the box of kleenexes Keith is perpetually stashing under the counter for his allergies and whacks him with it. "Considering how weird things tend to get around here, it's the sort of thing that bears repeating," she says.

Steve cracks an eye open and glares first at her, then the kleenex box. He grabs one and rips it in half, stuffing one half in each nostril and making himself look utterly ridiculous.

Robin doesn't mean to, even tries to stop herself but she can't she help it, she bursts out laughing. "I mean," she says, "it's not still bleeding now, it's just a mess." 

"Well…" Steve says, his voice coming out all nasally and making her laugh more. He makes a face and takes the balled up kleenex out. "I didn't know that." 

"Okay, come on, come here." Still laughing Robin turns Steve's face to her and starts cleaning up the mess he's made of it. 

She's almost done when Keith walks in. "What the hell happened to you, Harrington?" he asks. 

It's a question Robin would very much like the answer to herself, but she doubts she's going to get the truth with Keith standing in front of them the way he is.

Steve shrugs. "Nosebleed," he says. "I get them sometimes in the winter." Robin doesn't believe him but Keith seems to, which, she supposes, was the point. 

"You two could at least pretend like you're working, you know, instead of making kissy faces at each other," Keith says. The idea of kissing Steve is about as appealing as kissing a dead fish, but Robin lets it go. Keith decided about a month after they started working here that the two of them just had to be dating, because in the world according to Keith men and women just can't be friends and Robin's long since stopped trying to dissuade him of the idea. She figures it's better than him knowing the truth, at least.

Steve, however, is unable to control himself and makes a face like he's actually being presented with a dead fish to kiss and even adds in a "Eww, gross!" just to top it all off. All these months later and he still can't stop reacting to it every time Keith goads them. Robin sort of wonders if it has anything to do with the fact that for Steve the idea of dating a girl isn't completely off the mark the way it is with her and guys, like maybe with that involved it somehow bothers him more. 

Either way, Robin kicks him in the shin for his reaction then looks to Keith and gives him her best dead-eyed look. She waves a hand at the empty store dramatically before saying, "Maybe it escaped your notice, but there's not exactly a lot to do around here right now."

For a split-second, Keith looks angry. "Well-" 

Steve dives straight for just about the worst thing he could say in the moment and winds up going with: "We're almost off shift anyway, right?" 

Robin has to actively struggle not to groan or smack her hand to her forehead as she watches Keith check his watch, the little muscle in his jaw twitching to display for anyone who knows how to look just how irritated he suddenly is. Because Keith, well, Keith might not care about a lot of things but one of the few things he's a stickler for is time. And a glance down at her own watch tells Robin they've got fifteen minutes left. They're screwed.

"And you wanna clock out early, right?" Keith says, bland face almost forming a sneer. Almost. The chip crumbs on his shirt ruin the look. 

"Well, no…" Steve says. 

Robin rolls her eyes. "Dude, look at him," she says, pointing at Steve. "Does he look okay to you?"

Keith looks at Steve and the faint smear of blood still on his upper lip and huffs. "Fine. Go clean up your boyfriend's face and… whatever."

Robin runs to the back room to grab their things before heading back out front and saying, "Thank you." She wraps an arm around Steve and starts directing him towards the door. "Thank you so much, dude," she says to Keith, laying it on as thick as she can manage. "We owe you one." 

She knows from the way Steve tenses up with her arm around him that he hates what she's doing, the little show she's putting on for Keith's benefit, but she's been pretending to be straight her whole life. Pretending with Steve is probably the least awful that particular act's ever been, whether Steve gets that or why it's necessary or not.

 

---

 

Once they're outside and fully out of Keith's line of sight, Robin stops. "Okay," she says. "Now are you going to tell me what happened or what?" She shrugs her coat on and passes Steve his. He grabs it, but doesn't put it on, instead walking over to his car and shivering the entire time.

He pulls his car keys out before he answers her question. "I… don't entirely know. We were talking and then all of the sudden I started seeing things." 

"Seeing things?" Robin stomps over and snatches his keys from his hand. 

"What? I'm not -" He grabs his keys back. "I'm fine to drive, I'm not seeing things now." He puts the key into the lock and it makes Robin start seeing red. 

"No, you idiot, we need to talk about this!" She puts her hand over the car door's handle, doing her best to physically stop him from leaving. 

Then they just stand there like that, neither one of them moving for about ten seconds before his shoulders finally slump and he gives in. 

"You're probably right," he says.

"Damn right I am, now let's go. We can talk at my place." She's halfway to her car before she realizes he's not following her. She turns to see him still clutching his car keys and standing in front of his car. "Steve?" she says. "My car's this way." She even points helpfully towards it, not that he bothers to look. He just stands there, staring at his reflection in his driver's side window.

She lets this go on for a few seconds before yelling, "Yo, Steven! Come on!" in an attempt to provoke a reaction. Any reaction. 

She gets one, but it's small, slight and not at all like him. "Yeah, sure, I'll uh, I'll follow you there," he says quietly. He doesn't even mention her using the wrong name. And still he just stands there, staring at his reflection until she starts having serious second thoughts about letting him drive.

He shakes his head and seems to come to the same conclusion himself because in the next second he's pocketing his car keys and heading towards her. "Maybe I'll just come with you," he says. 

"I think that might be the first time you've used your brain in the last -" She pauses for dramatic effect. "-Twenty minutes. Good job." She smiles at him as he climbs in the passenger side. He doesn't smile back. 

The drive to her place isn't much better. Her car almost breaks down twice on the way there and then when she tries to liven things up by turning on the radio, looking for some of that cheesy pop shit he loves so much, he physically turns away from her. She attempts to sing badly, like he usually does, but that doesn't seem to help either so eventually she just lets that go too and watches as the car fills with empty, heavy silence. 

They trek up the three flights of stairs to her apartment in a continuation of the stony silence from the car. 

Inside her apartment they both shuffle their shoes off and she hangs their coats in the hall closet before waving a hand towards the living room. "Go," she says. "Sit down. Or whatever."

Steve nods in response but doesn't say anything and it makes her feel about ten different kinds of tense at once. She hates silence. Silence and her are not and have not been friends. She doesn't want to be friends with silence, either but it feels like Steve is starting to become obsessed with it and it's driving her crazy.

She follows him down the hall, unhappily staring at her feet the entire time, almost screaming just to make some sort of noise when she runs into him. She has just enough time to think, Oh, shit, but not enough time to do anything about it. She already knows Steve has stopped dead in his tracks because he's seen it, anyway. 

So slowly, regretfully she lifts her head to see Steve staring at the wall of photos of her, him and Billy taped to the wall behind the couch. She watches as he walks towards it and crawls up onto the couch to take a closer look at the photos. He runs his fingers over the photo of her and him and Billy at graduation, the one where Billy is yanking on the tassel on Steve's graduation cap, almost pulling it off his head. Then the photo of the three of them outside the school, leaning up against the brick wall of the PE building with her between the two of them, her hand on Billy's face as he's turned to look at Steve and Steve laughing. There's a photo from a day they'd spent at the lake, Billy lifting her over his shoulder and dragging her kicking and screaming to the water. She remembers Steve laughing as he took the photo, remembers the way her bikini top came untied as she hit the water and thinking, Thank god there's no one but these two dorks here to see me.

A brief spark of recognition crosses Steve's face and the hope that Robin feels wash over her at that one simple expression is overwhelming. She starts to smile, feels like she might start laughing and is about to say, "Thank god, you finally remember something real," but then he reaches into his back pocket and pulls out that crumpled photo of him and Billy that he'd showed her earlier and says, "This is the same photo." He taps the one he's holding against the matching one up on the wall and the spark of recognition fizzles, leaving Robin feeling like she wants to shrivel up and fall apart like the months dead ficus she's got sitting in a planter in the corner. 

"Yeah," she says. She's got nothing else. Maybe she'll have to become friends with silence, after all.

"Sorry, I…" Steve shoves his copy of the photo back into his back pocket. 

"No, it's okay…" Robin says, trailing off just as lamely as he had. She doesn't know what to say to him right now. 

"I just…" Steve sinks into the couch and without seeming to think much of it grabs the same throw pillow he always does and crushes it to his chest the way he always does and it might not be much of a sign that the boy that's one of her best friends in the whole world is still in there, is still here, but Robin is desperate and she'll take what she can get. 

"I saw you. I said we'd only been friends since the summer and then suddenly, I saw you," he says. He sounds so lost she can't help but rush over and sit next to him, her knee bumping up against his. The relief she feels when he bumps his knee back against hers is undeniable. 

"What do you mean, you saw me?" 

"I mean I saw you. Birthdays, parties, watching stupid movies together. One second all I remember is having met you over the summer, the next, there's all these memories I didn't have before."

Robin nods. "And these memories, they're just of me?"

"What do you mean, just of you? That's what I -" Steve cuts himself short and turns to look at the wall of photos behind him. "Oh."

"We need to tell Billy about this," Robin says. "He knows about all this…" She waves her hand around in a circle she knows explains nothing but she hates calling it The Upside Down. It sounds childish, but then of course it does, it was named by actual children.

Steve breaks away from the photos to look at her. "Knows about all what?" he asks. 

"The monsters and demons and death nonsense."

"Oh." It's only one word but Steve says it like there's more to it than that.

Robin nods. "Yeah. He was there with us and the kids when that giant monster tried to kill Eleven and killed Heather."

Steve twitches next to her. "He was?" She looks over at him and sees a look on his face that she can't quite decipher.

"...What do you remember of that night exactly?" Robin asks. "You gave me a rough outline earlier, but I need to know specifically." She bumps her knee against his again and tries to remind herself that he's still Steve, no matter what. Still her friend, no matter what. It's something that's harder to believe when this time, he doesn't do it back.

"I…" Steve shakes his head. "I… I'm not sure anymore." 

The moment feels like one of those choose your own adventure books Robin had always loved as a kid. She can either press him on it and insist, or back off. She takes a moment, weighs both options, choses to insist and hopes and prays she's not wrong. 

"I think you do," she says. "What do you remember?" 

Steve purses his lips. He looks like he's got something he doesn't want to say, like he's afraid of something he might break, which is funny considering the things she's holding back for fear of breaking him. Considering the details of the photos behind them that he's conveniently decided to ignore like all the meaningful looks between himself and Billy in almost every single one of them. 

"Well," he starts. "Well, I told you Billy was dead in the world I come from, right?" 

Nervously, Robin nods. She'd sort of ignored that part the first time she'd heard it for the obvious reasons you'd usually ignore information like that. 

"Well, he was there that night," Steve says, licking his lips. "He was there but he was the one who'd been flayed. He was the one the monster killed. Heather was just his accomplice." 

And that? Robin was not expecting that. The idea of it churns her stomach until she feels like she might just pitch over face first and slam into the coffee table. She almost does except for the comforting hand Steve puts on her leg. 

"I'm sorry," he says again. He waves his other hand at the wall. "I know that can't be easy for you to hear." 

"We need to tell him. He needs to know about this." Robin gulps and fights against picturing one of her best friends skewered by a monster. The first time she heard Steve say Billy was dead where he came from she had to fight off imagining him dying in a car accident or from drinking too much, not this. This is worse. She doesn't know why, but this is so much worse.

"I don't want to," Steve says. "Please, don't." There's a pleading tone to his voice that sets Robin's nerves even more sharply on edge than they already were. 

"Why not?" 

Steve takes a deep breath and pushes it out slow before answering and it only serves to ratchet up the tension for her further. "Because last I knew he was not the kind of person you're friends with," he says. He pauses another moment before continuing and Robin isn't sure she's going to be able to take whatever he's got to say next. 

"Because last I knew," Steve says, "he's a violent bastard who broke a plate over my head." 

"When… did this happen?" Robin asks carefully to avoid tripping over the words. She remembers back to when Steve and Billy first met. She knows they fought it out a couple of times, saw the bruises they both were sporting on the days after but she's pretty sure she doesn't remember hearing anything about any plates. 

"I…" Steve says again. He runs a hand through his hair, leaving it standing at awkward angles without at all trying to put it back into place afterwards. "I don't know, a while ago?" He sinks back into the couch and screws his eyes shut. He looks exhausted.

"Maybe we should call it a night, yeah?" Robin says, faking a yawn. Anything to bring some levity to the situation. Anything to avoid picturing one of her best friends cored and gutted, the light leaving his eyes.

Oops, too late. 

"I left my car at the video store, remember?" Steve says and it feels like it's out of nowhere, even though it's the exact opposite. 

"So stay here," Robin says, words ending on a yawn. A real one, this time. 

"But-" Steve starts to argue but then he seems to think better of it since the next word out of his mouth is, "Sure," which is good because there is no way in hell Robin was about to let him go home to that big, empty house alone tonight, not with things the way they are. Not having to argue about it just saves them both a lot of time.

"Okay then," she says, getting to her feet. "Now that that's settled, I'm going to go pass out. You know where everything is, goodnight." It's such a common thing for her to say she thinks nothing of it; he's stayed over enough times he should almost pay for half the rent. 

Then he clears his throat. "I kind of don't," he says. She hopes he's not looking at her. She hopes he can't see the look on her face as her heart sinks past her stomach and into the floor under her feet.

"Right," she says. "The kitchen is there." She points to the small kitchenette that's just off the living room. "The bathroom is there." She points to the first door on the far side of the room. "And the other door is my bedroom and you're not allowed to go in there unless you're trying to save me 'cause the house is on fire." 

"Thanks," Steve says. The cracked edge in his voice makes it sound like he did see the look on her face. He can probably see the look that's on it now. Hiding her big gay shame aside, she's always been a terrible liar. 

"Goodnight," she says again before heading to her room for the night.

Or that's what she means to do, anyway. That's what she wants to do. She wants to brush her hair and brush her teeth and wash her face, take her clothes off and go to bed. 

Instead she winds up pacing the floor of her bedroom, sock covered toes scrunching the thick, fluffy carpet - the one nice thing in her whole apartment - and worrying. 

She can't stop picturing it. Billy mind controlled. Billy dead. She can't stop picturing it. She looks over at the grungy, second-hand telephone on her bedside table and almost calls him, she even picks up the receiver and everything but then puts it down when she remembers it's late and he's in high school and lives with bastards. 

She paces for another ten minutes, brushes her teeth and her hair and tries to convince herself to just go to bed and check on him in the morning. It's not like there's anything wrong, she tells herself. He's alright, she thinks. I saw him what, yesterday?

Ultimately though, panic wins out. She has to see him. She has to know for sure. He has to be okay.

And besides, she thinks as she slips out past a now sleeping Steve, there's more than one reason for him not to be alright right now.

The drive to Billy's is like being on a rollercoaster, the tension just climbing and climbing and climbing. She hates rollercoasters. And she hates the way the images in her head just keep getting more and more and more terrifying with every block that passes like this is some sort of sick game her brain has decided is fun. She can't take it.

She parks a block away and sneaks slowly up the front yard, trying her best to evade detection. She heads to the side of the house, knocks on Billy's window carefully and waits, grateful and not for the first time that his bedroom is on the first floor. 

At first there's nothing, not a sound coming from anywhere inside the house and the monstrous images start piling up at the corners of her mind again, readying themselves for an attack. 

She's saved by a rustling noise coming from inside Billy's bedroom then a thump. Slowly the window creaks open and Billy sticks his head out, his curls a big, frizzy, flattened mess and his blanket drawn up as close to his face as it'll go. He grunts at her. "I was asleep, fuckwit."

"Oh, don't be a dick," she grunts back. "Now are you gonna come outside or not?" She doesn't tell him how badly she needs him to come outside, or why, just drinks in the fact that he's okay, that he's here, that pissed off at her or not, he's alive to be pissed off at her.

He glares at her, his eyes hazy and thick with sleep. "It's too cold out." The way his breath is visible in the air as he speaks does a good job of proving his point, but Robin doesn't care.

"Then I'm coming in," she says. She grits her teeth and starts hefting herself up by the window ledge without waiting for him to move. 

He slams a hand into her face and knocks her back to the ground. "Jesus, stop. Just give me a minute, will you?" The window creaks shut and she smiles. 

She hears some more quiet shuffling then the window creaks open again and he climbs out wearing the biggest, ugliest sweater she's ever seen him in. If she's not mistaken, it's not even his. She's pretty sure it's Steve's. 

Billy, for his part, narrows his eyes at her and rubs his hands together.  "This better be good," he says. 

She raises an eyebrow but doesn't rise to the bait. "Are you okay?" she asks instead. 

"Seriously?" he snorts. 

She folds her arms and stuffs her hands into her armpits. "Yes, seriously. Are you okay?" 

"You woke me up for this?" He shifts his weight from one foot to the other, annoyance radiating off of him with the motion.

"Yeah…" Robin trails off, trying to think of how to both not tell Billy about what's going on like Steve asked her to but also make sure Billy's actually alright. Because that sweater and the fact that he's wearing it outside where people might see him, even just her, suggests that he's not.

"Yeah?" he parrots back at her. He mimics her stance, fully intending to come off as mocking but she can see the hurt etched just underneath. He's not alright, but then that's not surprising. Billy's almost never alright. Not really.

Finally she settles on saying, "You and Steve were weird yesterday and I wanted to check on you. Jackass."

He sneers and looks off, but she catches the way his eyes go glassy. "I'm fine," he says. It's such a thin and hollow excuse she wonders if he believes it himself or if he said it because he just doesn't want to talk to her. Regardless of the reasoning behind it, it stirs up something in her and she can't help it, she reaches out and smacks him. 

He looks down at where her hand hit his shoulder then looks back up at her and any softness that might have been there is gone, replaced with something hard and challenging. 

"Oh, please," she huffs. "It's too late and I'm too tired and it's too cold for this sort of crap." She squares her shoulders and stares right back at him. He's never scared her before and there's nothing he can do to make her start being afraid of him now. 

Just like Steve did earlier, he deflates. "Just drop it, Robin, alright?" He edges a step back and before she can stop him he's crawling back inside and locking the window, leaving her standing outside. Alone.

 

Chapter Text

Sunday, November 3rd, 1985



Steve wakes up with a crick in his neck and Robin saying, "Look at that! He's finally awake!" 

He tries to give her a dirty look but he's too tired to bother. He shuts his eyes and slumps against the couch then finds himself sniffing at the air. He smells something indistinct and not at all like bacon frying.

"What time is it and what are you making?" he groans. Clearly she doesn't know that the only thing that should be fried in the morning is bacon and he finds it deeply disturbing.

"Ten-thirty and veggies and toast." 

He grunts. "I'm not eating that."

"And who asked you?" Robin says. "This is for me." He cracks an eye open to see her spin seamlessly from the counter to the fridge, spatula in hand. She grabs some butter out of the fridge, humming as she goes. She's got her hair in a loose ponytail and has on sweatpants with a hole in the knee on one side and an ambiguous stain on the other. It's the most casual and relaxed he's ever seen her and he can't help but stare a little. There's no question that she's one of his best friends, but he still can't help but feel a little like he's seeing something he hasn't earned, not really. Not yet.

She catches him staring and raises an eyebrow as she turns the stove off. "What?" She scrapes her pan fried veggies onto a plate and he makes a face, pretending the food is what's bothering him.

She rolls her eyes and sits down with her plate at her rickety kitchen table. After a couple of bites she points vaguely at the cupboards. "There's cereal, if you want," she says. 

He gets to his feet and nods, walking into the tiny kitchenette and experiencing a split-second of full body panic when he realizes he has no idea where the cereal is. "Farthest on the left," she says, without him asking and without looking. 

He grabs a box of whatever's closest - Lucky Charms, which is probably his least favorite cereal in the whole world, but it'll do - and chances opening the next cupboard over for bowls. He breathes a sigh of relief he hopes she doesn't hear when he finds them there.

"So," he says as he sits down across from her with his bowl of cereal in hand. "What are your plans for the day?" His words have an eagerness to them that he doesn't at all feel. What he actually feels is... well, it's not that he feels scared, exactly. It's more like there's a layer of plastic between himself and the world. Like he's been shrink wrapped. 

He honestly isn't sure if he wants to remove it or hide behind it, but Robin sort of makes that decision for him when she says, "Well, we don't have to work until tonight, so I was thinking the Library? We could go try and figure out what's wrong with you." She pushes the vegetables around on her plate and makes a face before getting up and walking to the fridge and grabbing, of all the things, the ketchup. She dumps enough of it onto her plate that half the plate turns red before she dips her toast in it and nods like that's exactly what was missing. 

He wants to argue with her about her comment, about there being something "wrong" with him but instead he points at the ketchup to change the subject. "Okay, but who eats ketchup with breakfast? Who puts ketchup on toast?" 

Robin narrows her eyes and points at the handful of cereal he's got raised halfway to his face. "Who eats cereal without milk?"

He shoves the cereal into his mouth and chews slowly. "Lazy people," he says. And people who don't know where the spoons are.

Robin huffs. "Whatever." She piles some veggies onto her toast before dipping it in the lake of ketchup again. "Do you have Dustin's number?" She waves the toast around, scattering some of the veggies to the floor in the process. She doesn't notice. "It's Sunday and I know that kid has nothing better to do than help us dig through some old books."

Steve sighs and lowers his head, shoving both hands into his hair and, he's sure, getting cereal crumbs all up in it. 

"Steve?" Robin asks. "Dustin's number?" 

"Right," he says. He sits up straight. "Dustin. Library. Fixing this. Right." 

Robin reaches across the table to put one of her hands on top of his. "We're gonna figure this out," she says softly. 

"Right," he says. He wishes he believed her. 

 

---

 

Steve spends four hours at the library staring at books with titles he knows he's never going to remember and full of information he doesn't understand before deciding that if he doesn't get up and go do something else for a little while his eyes are going to straight up liquefy in his skull. 


"I'm…" he says as he stands. He has no plan for the end of that sentence. 

"Uh-huh?" Dustin asks. He has one highlighter stuffed between his ear and his hat and another in his hand. He was thrilled by the idea of spending the day researching in the library. He packed five water bottles, six different colors of highlighter, ten pens and four different notebooks, one for each of them plus an extra, just in case. 

But no lunch. 

Steve stretches and smiles. Getting lunch is something he can do. "I'm gonna go get us something to eat," he says, rubbing at Dustin's hat in the same sort of way he'd ruffle his hair if he could reach it.

"Sure," Dustin says, eyes still glued to whatever book he's buried in. 

"Don't forget that I'm allergic to onions," Robin says, like he should know. He doesn't tell her he didn't. 

"Sure," he says before quickly backtracking out of the room. 

He wanders outside and takes a deep breath, several in fact, and savors the first moment he's been alone in what feels like days. 

He starts walking towards the parking lot on instinct before realizing that Robin drove them here and his car is still all the way back at Family Video. He pulls his jacket a little tighter around himself before heading down the street, deciding that he'll walk to somewhere downtown to get them lunch. Burgers, maybe. From that new place he hasn't tried yet. Yeah, that'll do.

He walks along the main road, hands in his pockets, just trying to enjoy the sunshine and the crisp air and for a little while, he manages. Manages to be as easy and as carefree as he used to be so good at pretending to be, manages to just enjoy it. But it doesn't take long for the twitchiness from earlier to settle back into his skin, itching and whining and making him look into the windows of every shop he passes to inspect them for even the tiniest of changes. Because who knows what else is different?

Nothing seems to be, but… how would he know? Did Robin tell him she's allergic to onions and he just forgot or did she tell some other him, the one who spent years huddling up next to her on the bleachers at football games, the one who knew her childhood bedroom and her hidden notebook full of Molly Ringwald pictures?

Then he really starts punishing himself. What happened to that version of him? Did he disappear? Are they blending together, merging and becoming one? Is he going to disappear? Because he didn't remember Robin's allergies but he also didn't know she had a secret notebook full of magazine cut outs of girls four days ago and now he does. So. 

Where does that leave him, exactly? Who does that leave him? 

As he walks into the new burger place he bemoans the fact that he's the one who has to think of these things, the one who has to deal with these things. Because he knows he's not up to the challenge. He knows he's not near smart enough to pull all of this apart and figure it out. He's brave enough to handle monsters and he can punch stuff, he's good at that, regardless of what Dustin thinks. But he's not smart enough for this. He knows he's not. And there's no shame in that, not everyone's a brain, but he's not and now more than ever it's a problem. 

He walks to the front and puts in his order, three burgers, one with no onions and extra ketchup, three orders of fries and three Cokes, then stands back and waits. He tries not to pick himself to pieces in the process but settles for picking apart his cuticles instead. He grabs the order once it's ready and pays the girl at the front, giving her the mutual service industry worker commiseration nod and setting out, again trying to act like there's nothing bigger to his world than working a shitty, low paying job and going nowhere with his life. 

It almost works, but two stores down he runs into Nancy and any subtle semblance of normalcy he'd managed to paint over himself crackles and fades so instantaneously it might as well have never been there at all.

"Steve, hey," Nancy says, voice all soft and eyes all big and he can't help but think, I so don't have the time for this right now.

Instead he says, "Nancy, hey, how's it going?" and lifts the takeout bag in a weird, clunky half-wave thing he instantly wishes he could forget ever doing. 

"Oh, you know," she says. She pairs it with the universal shrug for it's-terrible-but-I'm-trying and he hates that he finds himself feeling bad for her, empathizing with her. 

He nods. "Yeah, me too," he says, adding in his own terrible-but-trying shrug and meaning it. 

A silence that's part awkward and part mutual understanding falls and just as she's turning to leave he finds himself asking, "So how's Jonathan?" He regrets it almost instantly but also… he doesn't. He wants to know and why the hell shouldn't he ask? It's been long enough. 

"He's…" She twirls a strand of hair around her finger and sighs. "I miss him." 

"Oh," Steve says. "Uh…" he tries but he's got nothing. He has no idea if what she's just said means they've broken up and she misses him or that she just misses him because he isn't here. 

"I mean," she says, shaking her head as she seems to realize how vague what she just said was. "We're still together." She looks down at her feet, her hair falling over her face but not enough to hide the blush spreading on her cheeks. "And I miss him." 

"I'm sorry," Steve says, figuring it's at least a little better than saying "oh" again or saying nothing at all. 

She looks up at him with this little crinkle between her eyes, the one he remembers he used to love, and she shakes her head again. "No, that should be me," she says. He doesn't get it.

"I…" she breathes out, fingers suddenly gripping tight to the hem of her skirt. "I never really apologized to you and I should have. I…" She sighs again, but this time she sounds determined, and he remembers how much he used to love that, too, her determination. He expected this to hurt a whole lot more than it does, seeing her always has, but this time is different. It's more like running his fingers over an old scar than an active pain. 

"I treated you really badly," she says and he finds himself nodding because yeah, she did. But he also finds himself not minding that much anymore. Too much has happened between then and now for it to be the big, lumbering giant in the room that it used to be.

"I guess I just…" She looks just past him, looks wistful and he wonders why. "I was mad. You never quite looked at me like you looked at…" She shakes her head again and her fingers lift off from the hem of her skirt to push her hair behind her ear. The sadness that resonates out from her eyes reminds him of the way Billy looked at him as he climbed out of his bedroom window a few days ago and he gulps. 

"I should go," she says just as he's debating asking her who she means, even though he's already pretty sure he knows. 

The memories come quickly enough after she runs off that her lack of a real goodbye and the floral scent of her perfume are still lingering in the air. But this time he isn't just seeing things, he's feeling them too. He sees himself and Billy on the basketball team together, sees himself watching Billy in the hall, in the locker room, the cafeteria and the parking lot and he isn't sure why he's seeing these things when they're no different than the memories he already has. He remembers all too well the charged, electric feeling that would pull at him like Billy was a magnet making it so he couldn't look away, even if he wanted to. The memories keep speeding by and he starts seeing things he doesn't recognize: Billy and him sitting together on the bus to an away game and laughing, Billy and him sharing a cigarette under the bleachers, Billy and him kissing in his room late at night, the only light in the room coming from his bedside table lamp. The light makes Billy's hair look like a halo, same as before only this time he gets to actually have the feeling of running his hands through it, of getting to know how soft it is.

It leaves him thinking about the way he felt the first time he saw Billy climb out of his Camaro with his stupid, practically painted on jeans and that stupid smirk, like he could, and fully intended to, do whatever he wanted. He's hit with another wave of feeling like he's being dragged under, like there was, like there is, nothing he can do about it but watch and want.

It's not a feeling Steve wants to think about, especially considering everything that came after, like Billy insinuating that he was doing something with his thirteen year old sister and then the fight where Billy all but tried to kill him. Then there's the fact that Billy got turned into an actual, honest to god monster and died and it's all just best left stuffed into a dark back corner of his mind to slowly grow mold and rot until he can no longer remember any of it. Because the idea that there's this other world where things played out differently is something he can't handle. Because if Steve knows one thing for sure it's that he doesn't get what he wants. It didn't work out with Nancy, it didn't work out with going to college and it isn't going to work out here.

Period.

He realizes mid-step he's been walking without noticing and raises a hand to his nose to find it's bleeding again. He wipes it off with the sleeve of his jacket the best he can before continuing on his way back to the library and to Robin and Dustin.


---


That feeling Steve had been counting on, the feeling of having accomplished something, of having contributed something to the team is torn to shreds the second Robin looks in her takeout bag and frowns. 

"What?" He knows she can't tell just by looking at the burger's wrapper but he says, "I made sure to order no onions. And I asked for extra ketchup." 

She leans back in her chair and crosses her arms over her chest before saying, "I'm a vegetarian." It gets added to the list of things Steve realizes he was supposed to know but doesn't. 

"Oh," he mutters limply just as Dustin grabs for her bag and steals the burger out of it.

"I'll take it," Dustin says. He's already got it unwrapped and has it halfway to his lips as the words come out, clearly not intending for anyone to argue. No one does. 

"It's fine," Robin says, shifting so she's slouching forward just as Steve sinks into a chair across from her. "It's fine, I'll just eat the fries," she says. Steve pushes his fries at her as a peace offering and she takes it with a smile, but it's flimsy enough he knows she's still upset. Knows it doesn't really have anything to do with the food itself and everything to do with why he didn't know he was supposed to get her a salad instead.

He wants to crawl under the table and hide there forever, wants the Librarian to come over and kick them out, give them a distraction but she doesn't. The new Librarian here, Mrs. Carpenter, has never cared about anything as far as he's aware, even stuff she should care about, like people eating greasy takeout right next to open library books. 

Dustin seems to think of this at the same time as he does and pushes the book in front of him further up the table to spare it from any damage the food might cause, though the smudge of dark red barbecue sauce he's got on his fingers almost makes the attempt pointless.

"So, this is interesting," Dustin says, his tone pointedly blank. "It seems like there's a lot of little details that are different." 

"Yeah," Robin says. She scrubs a hand through her hair then snaps a french fry aggressively in two before biting down on both halves. "Real interesting." 

Dustin rolls his eyes heavenward before sucking a breath in through his nose. "I mean it might help us figure this out, if we can figure out how much is different." 

At the idea of cataloging every single difference between the two worlds Steve's skin starts crawling towards the door, not seemingly terribly interested in whether or not the rest of his body comes along for the ride. He really doesn't want to, especially when those differences involve a particular someone with long blonde curls and blue eyes that he'd really rather not think about just right now. 

"I don't see how," Robin says. She looks out at the table of books in front of them and sinks a little lower in her chair. They must have gone through every single book in the Library that had even the tiniest, most remote connection to magic, alternate timelines, even past life experiences, but so far none of it has helped and suddenly Steve knows it's not just him that's been exhausted by the search. 

"We can't give up, guys," Dustin says, hopeful as ever and Steve hates him for it. 

"This isn't -" Steve says. He feels more than exhausted, he's exasperated and he's more than had enough. "This isn't something books are gonna fix." He sneers as he waves a hand at the pile in front of them, knowing full well he couldn't tell anybody anything about what's in any of them, even the ones he read but also knowing he's not wrong. 

Dustin looks hurt, like he couldn't be more hurt if Steve had insulted him personally, but Steve keeps going. "Maybe this can't be fixed because there's nothing to be fixed," he says. 

"But-" Dustin starts but Robin holds a hand up, stopping him. 

"I agree with Steve," she says. "Maybe the best thing to do is just…" She sighs. "Wait it out. If nothing else happens, then, maybe it just is what it is." 

Steve doesn't like the idea. Doesn't like the possibility of replacing someone else, doesn't like the possibility of being replaced, doesn't like the conversation he had with Nancy, doesn't like this world at all, but he also knows that whatever happens, he's stuck in it. And there's nothing for any of them to do. What would they do, anyway? If they could? They're just a bunch of teenagers and this isn't like a monster they can figure out and kill, this isn't a code they can crack, this is just something that happened and now they have to live with it, whatever it is. There's no going back.

"Okay," Dustin says, the look on his face illustrating that the turn things have taken is anything but. "I don't like this but if that's how you both feel we can take a break."

Robin groans. "This isn't taking a break. We're done." She looks at Steve and Steve can't help but worry if what she means is that what she's done with is him.

"Yeah, I got that," Dustin says on an exhale. He looks at the ceiling again but this time it takes longer for him to come back down. 

"I'm sorry, man, I just can't deal with this." Steve says the words to Dustin but he's looking at Robin, trying to work up the nerve to ask her if even though they're giving up on this, they're not giving up on each other. He hopes she isn't starting to think of him as the stranger wearing her best friend's face rather than as her best friend. Because he's still her best friend. He's shaky on a whole lot of things right now, but he's still her best friend and she's still his. That's another one of the things he knows for sure.

The way she draws her leg back underneath the table makes him worry she disagrees, but then her leg shoots out and she kicks him in the shin and he feels nothing but relieved. "It's okay, you know, about the burger," she says with a smile that sits perfectly on her face. "You'll remember for next time." 

Next time. Like there's going to be a next time. Steve kicks her back and offers her a smile of his own. "Totally," he says. "Next time."

 

Chapter Text

Monday Nov. 4th, 1985

 

It's the first break of the day and Billy's first chance to smoke but before he can even get his cigarette lit he hears some girl saying, "You know he was only ever with me the one time?" 

He leans in closer to the wall he's leaning against and suddenly feels grateful he chose to stand under this particular open window. Or he is until the next thing he hears is, "Yeah, he's Billy Hargrove, what did you expect?" 

The unlit cigarette falls from between his fingers. He continues to listen as the first girl says, "No, like he went down on me the one time and then never again. And like, he never asked for anything in return. Don't you think that's odd?" Billy wishes he recognized the voice, but he doesn't. He isn't even sure if it would matter if he did, it's not like he keeps a running list of all the girls he's had sex with, which is a decision he's now starting to regret.

Then there's a noise like a bathroom stall door slamming open and a voice that's recent enough for him to recognize saying, "I had full-on, shake the walls, scream until you break sex with him last week," and he can't help but smile momentarily. There's the click-click-click of high heels on tile, then he hears Jessica saying, "Maybe you just weren't good enough to warrant the effort."

The first girl says nothing but her friend laughs obnoxiously as the sound of high heels click-click-clicks away until a door swings open and slams shut.

Billy sinks against the wall feeling simultaneously grateful, confused and terrified all at once. Why did Jessica do that? Did she do it to bolster her own reputation or for his? And if it was for him, how's she going to make him pay for it? Because girls like her are always making guys pay for it. 

Either way, he knows the game he has to play, so when he catches her standing by her locker later that afternoon he walks straight over. He leans up against the open door of her locker and smiles at her in a way nobody walking past the two of them could miss.

She smiles back with so much fire and so much need that he almost feels bad. "You can come over to my place later." She says this with no introduction, no small talk, nothing but the offer. "My parents usually go to bed around eleven." She twists her ponytail around her hand and pulls on it and he makes a point of licking his lips, but the smile she drags out of him is genuine. She has a truly respectable amount of confidence.

"I will try my best to wait until then," he says before leaning in and kissing her, softly at first, then harder. He ends it by biting on her lower lip and strutting off. It should give everybody watching more than enough to talk about, at least.

 

---

 

After school and after he's dropped Max off, Billy drives to the record store, like he does every monday afternoon. It's a ritual between him and Robin and one he can't break. He knows she won't either, though he does get a little annoyed when she's ten minutes late and he makes a point of telling her that. It's too cold at this point in the day to even take his hands out of his pockets, what was he supposed to do, just wait for her with nothing to do indefinitely? She grunts at him but gives him no more response than that and the two of them slip into silence. It's sort of part of the ritual of it at this point, the silence as they enter the shop.

Because some people have churches and some people have libraries, but them? They have this. This crusty little shop crammed into the tail end of the last possible block of a tiny little road that only just barely counts as being downtown and basically only seems to exist if you already know that it's there. Its' got tiny windows so grimy they're basically just part of the wall and there isn't a square inch anywhere that isn't crammed full of milk crates carefully loaded with vinyl, tables with boxes full of tapes or bookcases stuffed with autobiographies, artist histories and sheet music. Then there's that smell that's so strong it hits you full force the second the door is open an inch and...

Billy's never been one for churches, figures if there's a god he gave up on him a long time ago. He gets the appeal of libraries, or at least the feeling some people have about the smell of old books if it's similar to the way he feels about the smell of old vinyl and cracking the plastic off of a new tape just before he puts it in.

He's grateful he has this. That they have this. This place that makes him feel safe, makes him feel invisible, like he doesn't have to matter, like whatever's going on in his life it's alright because he can always find something new to bury his pain in, something new to anchor him to his life even when he's so far gone he's not sure how attached to it he is or even wants to be. 

He feels that familiar, same ease spread over his skin the second his feet cross the threshold and he can't help but sigh with the relief of it as he does. 

Wes, the shop owner, gives him a funny look for this but says nothing. They've been coming here for about a year now and Billy can count on one hand the number of sentences he's heard Wes say in all that time. He likes Wes. 

Robin bumps him on the shoulder as they split off from each other, but says nothing either, leaving the only sound in the shop Leonard Cohen singing quietly about being terrible at love. Or at least that's what Billy thinks he's singing about. With Leonard Cohen it's sort of hard to tell.

As he starts heading for the metal section in the back he winds up running across the anemic pop section in his attempt to get there. 

He looks at the vinyls for Wham! and Madonna and tries to feel grateful this isn't something Steve ever comes to, feel grateful that Wes has all but banned Steve from the shop for his truly god awful musical taste, but mostly all he feels is disappointed. Disappointed Steve now probably has no idea this shop exists. Disappointed there's a difference between Steve now and Steve then. Just… disappointed. With everything.

But he takes a deep breath, inhales the awful, beautiful, musty scent of the place he loves so much and gets to work. He splits his time between flipping through the vinyl and the tapes, busies himself with dreaming of the day he'll be able to have a record collection because someday he'll have a home to play them in. 

After some searching he finds Slayer's Hell Awaits and Megadeth's Killing is My Business, neither of which he has the tapes of yet and takes them to the front.

Robin picks her way over to him slowly and casually knocks a shoulder against his. She's got The Cure's The Head on the Door and that Christian Death album she's been hunting for just about a year now, Catastrophe Ballet. He can't stand Christian Death, thinks they're trite and that Rozz Williams sounds tired, but they've had that argument before. And besides, they both know that what he really means is the singer sounds gay and it's depressing as hell that even famous people have to hide who they are.

"You ready to go?" Robin asks, easy as anything. Like the past couple of days never happened. Like this is any other week and Billy lets himself sink into that, lets himself believe it, lets himself pretend for a moment that after this he'll do the other thing he always does on mondays and go share his new tapes with Steve, try to forcibly get Steve to have at least some base level of musical appreciation and not caring if he fails to impart any because it's Steve. And any time spent with Steve is good, no matter how much he might pretend otherwise.

He almost believes that's what he'll get to do next, almost nods at Robin, almost, but then he remembers he hasn't got any money left which leads to remembering why he hasn't got any money left and he has to put his tapes down. "I don't actually have the money for these this week," he says.

Robin grabs the tapes he'd picked before he can stop her and puts them on the counter. "I'll get them for you then," she says just as easily. She doesn't ask him for an explanation of why he doesn't have any money and he isn't sure he could lie to her if she did. As it is he's halfway to telling her that it's because Steve was gone and he couldn't take it. Steve was gone and he spent all of his money to get him back and it didn't work. The words bubble up against his lips as Wes gives him the side eye, takes Robin's cash and hands him his tapes and hands Robin hers. The words bubble up but Billy shoves them down as far as they can go. She doesn't need to know about this. 

They head outside and are about to part ways when Robin puts a hand on his arm. "I'm here if you need me," she says. He knows she means it but he can't risk it. Can't risk breaking her with what he knows.

"I know," he says. She gives him a look that says, do you? but she lets it, and him, go.

At home he wanders around aimlessly for an hour before settling on watching television until it's late enough to head to Jessica's. 

It takes all of five minutes for Max to show up and park herself right next to him on the couch. 

"What do you want?" he grunts. He stares at the tv, pretending to be fully enthralled by Tom Selleck running across some beach with his ridiculous shirt and even more ridiculous mustache.

"Nothing," Max says.

"I'm watching something you hate," Billy says. He knows it's not his best effort, but it's been a long day and he only barely cares enough right now not to just shove her off the couch and leave the room.

"You don't know what I hate," she says, tone haughty in a way that were it anybody else, he'd respect. Coming from her it just grates. 

He flips the channel. "I'll find something you hate," he says as he flips it again.

He flips through a few more channels before she says, "Man, knock it off." She sounds exhausted in a way no fourteen year old should be capable of and that he remembers all too well from experience. 

He also knows that she's baiting him and that he shouldn't bite, knows he should just get up and walk away. That'd be the smart thing to do. But his curiosity, or maybe more specifically his need to always poke at everything until it bleeds is always there, simmering away in the background, waiting for him to tip the pot over and spill it. Some days he manages to avoid that. Not today, though. Today he's beyond caring, probably was five minutes after waking up, definitely was after what he overheard outside the girls bathroom this morning.

"What?" he asks, voice low as he can make it. He still doesn't look at her.

"You can stop the tough guy bullshit," she says, sounding certain underneath all of the exhaustion and it's the certainty that slides in under all his rough edges and slices, leaving hundreds of tiny, hairline cuts just deep enough to burn. He wants to curl his hands into fists but won't give her the satisfaction.

"And I'll repeat myself, what?" he says. He keeps flicking through the channels, even landing back on Magnum PI again but he keeps going, keeps hitting the buttons anyway. This is going nowhere good and he knows it.

Max sighs like she's the most long suffering person on the face of the planet and says, "Now that I know you're a human being with a heart," she pauses to reach over and poke him in the chest just to illustrate her point, "you can knock it off." The way she leans back into her seat after doing this, the smug smile he can see radiating from her as she moves - it makes him grit his teeth. 

"What do you want, Max?" he asks again. 

"Nothing, asshole. Just to watch tv. That okay with you?" 

He says, "Whatever," like nothing about this is bothering him whatsoever. Like maybe that'll work.

"What Steve loves about you I'll never understand." She says it quietly, but that she says it in the house is enough. 

He twists to face her, fists clenched, panic boiling and ready to split into rage and he whispers, "Are you trying to get me killed?"

Max rolls her eyes and he wishes he could say that she's faking it, that he's scaring her and she's faking like she's not bothered but he knows he'd just be lying to himself.  "Oh, calm down," she says. "No one else is home." 

"You don't know that for sure," Billy hisses, terror pulsing up and down his spine like a caged animal. He rubs his free hand up and down his pants leg and pretends he isn't breaking out into a cold sweat.

"Yes, I do. I checked," Max says. He refuses to look at her but he can feel her eyes burning into him.

"Why the fuck would you -"

"Like I said, I wanted to watch tv." 

For some reason that's the last straw. Billy throws the remote onto her lap, leaving the tv playing some dumb ad for… he doesn't care what anymore. "Okay, here you go." 

He's barely a step away from the couch before she's spitting out, "With you, jackass. I wanted to watch tv with you."

He sits back down and she puts on some dumb cartoon he doesn't recognize, something bright and obnoxious. 

"How you have a boyfriend and I don't is another thing I will never understand," she says. She says it quietly enough that no one outside the room could hear her, but he still winds up needing to breathe in slowly through his nose and out his mouth.

"You and…" he starts, but fails. He can't remember the name of the dork she's usually with. 

"Lucas," she fills in. 

"You guys not together anymore?"

"He's being a dick. Again," she says, like Billy should have some sort of context for that. 

"That's because guys are dicks," Billy says, going for his best attempt at supportive. 

Max snorts. "You would know." He can't disagree. She's not remotely wrong. Then she adds, "You found a nice one, though." 

He feels the words like a punch to the gut. He's taken punches that have hurt less. "I did," he says. 

She waits a moment before chancing her next question. "How's that going, by the way?" He looks over at her and sees the way her hand is gripped to her knee, the forceful way she's keeping her eyes glued to the tv and feels that familiar rock settling itself into his stomach. He's such an unrepentant asshole. 

"You couldn't have just asked that? You had to go through all this first?" He might be an asshole, no, he definitely is, but that doesn't make her not a pain in the ass.

She half-turns so she's facing him and he fights not to look away. "You're you, so yes."

He grunts. "Whatever. And it's fine."

She looks at him dead on. "You know you're a really terrible liar, right?"

He keeps her gaze, doesn't waver, doesn't flinch. "I'm not talking about this with you." At this point he figures he'll just deal with it. His plan failed. It's fine.

Max, smartly, gives up. "Fine," she says. "But you still owe me so we're still watching my show."

"Just so I have a frame of reference," he says, "how long are you gonna be using that argument?"

She smiles so widely the glow of the tv almost reflects off her teeth. "The rest of your life," she says. 

"Good to know."

 

---

 

At a quarter to eleven Billy slips out, gets into his car and drives over to Jessica's. He climbs the large oak tree outside her bedroom window and knocks as best he can without falling out of the tree. 

What she's wearing when she opens the window is not remotely what he expected. She's wearing a loose, long sleeve t-shirt and cotton pyjama pants and her hair is hanging loose instead of being in its' usual high ponytail. From what he can see she's not wearing any makeup, either. He'd say she must have forgotten he was coming but then the way her face lights up when she sees him says she didn't and it leaves him feeling confused. 

"Come on, come on," she hisses excitedly, waving her hand in an exaggerated circular motion when he doesn't move. "Come on." 

He shimmies himself inside the room and shakes himself off, then smiles at her languidly and starts removing his shirt. 

She giggles like she did last time but surprises him again by putting a hand to his chest, stopping him. "You don't need to do that," she says softly. 

She backtracks to the bed with these ridiculously slinky moves and he figures whatever game she's playing, he'll play too. He kicks off his shoes and makes a show of following her and again, she giggles. "No, really, you don't need to do that," she says. Her voice has lost at least half of its' usual bounce.

"Okay…" He's starting to feel awkward, exposed even though his shirt's still half-buttoned and all he's taken off is his shoes.

"It's okay, I get it," she says. "You don't need to be worried, it's not like you're obvious and it's not like I'm going to tell anyone or anything, just, like, I get it. And it's okay. I get it," she says, the words spilling out of her fast enough that he only really catches about half of them but it's enough to make him start backing towards the window. 

"It's a good act, but I get it. You don't like girls, right?" she says. He bumps up against the window sill and considers flipping a leg over it without looking away from her. His shoes are still in the middle of the room but he doesn't care. If he doesn't say anything that makes everything easier to deny tomorrow. In his head he starts planning out at least six different things he could say at school to throw this off course, starting with that she's crazy.

"Billy, wait!" She rushes up to him and he almost falls through the window but she reaches out and grabs his arms just in time to steady him. There's this desperate look in her eyes that has him suddenly thinking that maybe he's got it wrong, maybe he's not the school's only remaining all-star actor. 

"Wait… are you gay?" He says the words so quietly they're almost a mumble, almost not loud enough to be heard as words at all.

Jessica pulls him further into the room. "No, but my sister is," she says. "And it sucks."

A lightbulb fully illuminates above his head and he feels instantly, incredibly ridiculous. He starts stuffing his feet into his shoes and buttoning up his shirt, preparing to run. He can scale the tree in a minute, hell, he can jump if he has to, he's dealt with worse. 

Her eyes go wide. "No!" She puts a hand to her lips and he can't avoid noticing the way the shade of pink she's painted her nails almost exactly matches the pink of her lips. She's pink overload. "Oh, no, sorry. I meant it sucks because my parents don't talk to her anymore and I miss her and I can't go see her and I can't tell anyone why." Her shoulders slump. "And that sucks." 

Billy purses his lips, swallows, says nothing. He doesn't know how to re-align his worldview after so many sharp left turns. 

He tries to put together the way she acted and that she knows he was faking it. The pieces smash together violently in his head and fit. She must have been faking it, too.

"When'd you figure it out?" he asks. 

"Not at first. You're really good at what you do. But then we went to the video store and I saw the way you looked at Steve and I knew." 

Billy nods. Grunts. Steve. His achilles heel. 

"Is he dating the girl at the video store?" she asks. 

Billy snorts. "No."

She leads them to sit on the floor in front of her bed. He lets her. She bites her lower lip before asking her next question, clearly unsure. "Is he… I mean, maybe I shouldn't ask? I don't know… is he yours?" 

Billy snorts again. "Not anymore." 

She frowns. The look doesn't suit her. "I'm sorry." 

Billy swallows again, fighting against his instincts. Fighting his urge to get up and leave. "Are we good?"

She tilts her head to the side, confused for a second, then she smiles when she gets it. "Yeah," she says. She giggles then adds, "I mean you owe me for that completely passionless sex, but other than that, yeah." 

He can't help it. He laughs. 

"I mean," she says, leaning in and wrapping her fingers around his arm like they're old friends. "That was some of my best stuff, you know." 

He smiles. It feels… good. "I could tell," he says.

They spend the next few hours talking about her sister and about Steve (the normal bits, the how they met, how they went from punching to kissing to more) and it feels good. Feels like maybe he's found a way to keep Steve with him, even if he can't actually have him anymore.

 

---

 

The next day before school starts and after Neil and Susan have cleared out, Billy tries calling Eleven again.

It isn't long before someone answers. "Hello?" He recognizes Eleven's voice in an instant and his whole body freezes like the blood in his veins has been replaced with ice. 

"Hello?" she says again. Then, "If this is some prank call I'm hanging up." 

"Don't!" he shouts. "I... It's… Billy. I…" He doesn't know what to say. He doesn't really know why he called. 

"Hey," she says, familiar in a way he's probably never going to be comfortable with. He doesn't say anything. "So?" she says, prompting and gentle. He still doesn't know what to say. 

He tries and, "I don't know what's going on," fumbles its' way out of his mouth. 

"You mean like…" she pauses. "With Steve?"

"Yeah." 

"Huh." It takes a long second before she says, "Like how?"

"He doesn't remember anything," he says. It's more than he's been able to say out loud so far but it's still not everything. The words what if he's not linger in the forefront of his mind and he snaps the thought off before he can finish it. 

"And… you think he won't?" she asks, speaking slowly. He's never sure if this is just how she is, if she always places so much intent behind every single word she chooses or if it's something to do with him. Or worse, if she's just uncomfortable with the subject at hand. She seems to draw something out of his continued silence and says, "That's not really it, is it?" 

He lets out a pitiful, pathetic noise he hates himself for making. He looks over at the clock on the wall and knows he's going to miss his first class, but feels glad that Susan took Max to school today, something about spending some "girl time" together or whatever, otherwise he'd never hear the end of it. Or worse. 

"I don't know," he says. He's falling apart and becoming pathetically emotional. He might as well just chop his dick off and hand in his man card, at this point. "I don't know," he says again and his voice cracks in the middle. He sticks the phone between his shoulder and his ear and presses his hands to his eyes. Definitely pathetic.

"Billy, I…" she says. "No." She sucks in a breath. "I saw… he might not remember, but nothing could change what I saw."

"What?"

She sucks in another breath, a bigger one this time. "Do you want to know what snapped him out of it? What broke the Mindflayer's hold on him?" Billy, again, doesn't say anything and she blows out all the breath she'd been drawing in. "It was you. I showed him his happiest memory and it was kissing you." 

"I need to go now," Billy says. "Bye." He gently places the receiver back in the cradle as something inside him wrenches free and shatters into a million tiny pieces. The shrapnel embeds itself everywhere and it hurts . He then sinks to the floor and cries like the little baby he's become.

 

Chapter Text

Saturday, June 29th, 1985

 

It's a thought he's had before, but Steve finds himself thinking that kissing Billy is like kissing sunshine that's caught on fire. The fact that they could get caught at any moment only adds to it. But then he's almost to the point of not caring by now. He doubts his parents would even notice at this point if it came out that their one and only son was queer, if the whole town was talking about it, if everyone saw. 

He knows they can't let anyone see them, of course. And he knows why they can't. He knows it isn't safe for Billy, knows he'd get more than just ignored or disowned. He knows Billy would get hurt. He knows Billy might get killed.

He knows it isn't safe for people like them anywhere, not even in big cities, not even in California, no matter how much Billy talks about it being so much better there than here. Not that being better than Hawkins, Indiana is exactly the highest bar to cross.

Still, they have this. These stolen kisses in bathrooms and in their cars when they're parked outside of town and right now, in the storage shed at the pool, the smell of chlorine burning Steve's nose as Billy presses him up against the shelf at the back of the room, his hands dangerously close to the waistband of Steve's shorts, tempting, taunting, but not moving any closer. Not here. Not safe. But still, Steve wishes. Steve wants. He pours himself into the kiss, curls his fingers into Billy's hair and fights the urge to moan, to make noise. The pool's not open for another fifteen minutes but they still can't make any noise, just in case. They can't ever be heard, can't ever be seen and Steve tries to push away how angry that makes him, then tries to put that anger into the kiss, wrapping his fingers into Billy's hair tighter and pulling, but that just excites Billy, makes him push up harder against Steve in a way that makes Steve forget everything up to and very nearly including his own name. 

Still, he needs more. He needs so much more. He runs one hand down to Billy's shoulder then draws the other one up on the other side and digs his fingers into the muscles there. Billy sighs into his mouth and it's almost a moan, almost enough to break their "no noise" rule and Steve has to pull away. 

He leans his forehead against Billy's, completely unable to stop a smile from lighting up his whole face. "I…" he pants. He needs more of Billy, he always does, but he also needs to not be fired from his job. "I have to go to work," he says. 

Billy's response to this is to pout, his lower lip jutting out so enticingly that it takes a truly herculean amount of effort for Steve not to lean in and bite it. 

"You could be late," Billy says, voice husky and entirely ridiculous with how hard he's trying. Like after all these months he still thinks he has to try to get or to keep Steve's attention. Like he ever did.

"I have to go to work," Steve says again, like repeating it will change how he feels at all, make him less likely to just throw his hands up in the air, decide fuck it and lock the door so he can spend all day in this tiny, cramped supply shed with Billy. Because he wants to. He honestly can't think of a better way to spend his day than to be wrapped around Billy, touching him everywhere, mapping out every inch of skin and noting the corresponding reaction. 

Steve's never been much of a student, but when it comes to studying Billy he's dedicated like figuring out which spots on Billy's skin draw out which facial expressions, which touches make Billy's hands grip at his hips and which touches make Billy grip at his hair and which touches make Billy kiss him like they're drowning hold the answers to the universe. 

And maybe they do. Maybe Billy holds the answers to the universe just underneath his skin. Or maybe he just holds the answers to Steve's universe. 

Either way, it's the most enjoyable way to spend his time Steve's ever found and it makes leaving almost impossible. 

Literally. Steve has to think about losing his job, about potentially being homeless, about his grandmother calling with her nasty, raspy voice and harassing him about how he "had such promise, once" even just to force himself to turn away. 

"I'll see you after my shift is over, yeah? We could meet on the old side road by Steel Metal Works?" he says as he squares his shoulders, prepares himself to step back out into the world and put on the Steve Harrington mask everyone knows and… doesn't really respect anymore post-Nancy, but still. There's a particular version of him everybody expects to see and in love with another dude is miles away from it.

"Yeah," Billy says. His voice is soft this time, sad, and Steve spends a good ten seconds fighting himself before ultimately stepping outside and heading to work. 

 

Saturday, June 22nd, 1985

 

Of all the places they've ever made out, the bathroom of the cheap, knock-off McDonald's off of Interstate 74 is probably the worst. Not that it was planned. They'd just set out driving like they normally do, got hungry and stopped for lunch. Then one thing had led to another, Billy got that look in his eye and they'd wound up in the bathroom, making out. 

They've made out in tons of bathrooms but this one… it smells like a collection of things that Steve would rather not individually identify but that he knows add up to really bad. It has floors that look like they wouldn't know what a mop is, were it possible for floors to know things like that and overall the… Steve can't even use the word "ambiance" on the place. It stinks and that's it. 

But Billy, god bless him, is trying. He's tilting Steve's head back in that way he likes and pressing these kisses to his neck that are just shy of biting but Steve can't stop laughing. Because this place stinks. 

"This place stinks," he says out loud. He pushes up against the wall of the bathroom stall but this does nothing to deter Billy. "This place stinks!" he says again, still quiet but just barely. He puts his hands on his neck but this still isn't enough to deter Billy. Billy just starts kissing and licking long stripes along his fingers and it should be gross, it should be awful, but like everything else Billy does, it's obscenely hot and makes Steve's knees feel like they're about to be entirely incapable of holding up his weight any second now.

"Fine," Billy says roughly as he breaks away. When he looks at Steve he's still got this hunger in his eyes because of course he does. Because Billy could be turned on in the middle of a landfill.

Steve laughs as Billy disentangles himself and heads out. He waits the customary minute and fifteen seconds before heading out himself and finds Billy waiting in the car. 

Steve can't stop laughing the entire drive home.

 

Friday, June 7th, 1985

 

It's late. Like it's stupidly late. And Steve just got off an agonizing eight hour shift, the most terrible part of which involved an eight year old terror that started banging on the glass with his fists like he was King freaking Kong just as Steve was making his ice cream sundae with as the kid put it "obscene" amounts of sprinkles, causing Steve to jump and the jar of sprinkles to shatter all over the floor. The brat's parents hadn't apologized, either. They'd just shrugged at him with a sort of, "Kids, what can you do?" look, paid for the ice cream and left. 

Steve knows that's not just a kid thing. He knows a couple kids and none of them behave like that… that… monster. 

To make matters worse, he wound up having to pick up every single sprinkle on his hands and knees because the store's vacuum was broken and the manager had chosen that night of all nights to come and check up on them and the broom just couldn't quite get every last one.

It had taken him an hour. 

The rest of the night hadn't gone much better and now all Steve wants to do is take this stupid uniform off, shower, crawl into bed and dream of burning the stupid sailor's hat he's forced to wear by the great cosmic joke that is his life and just try to forget the whole day ever happened.

Or at least that's the plan before he pulls his car into his driveway and sees Billy sitting on his doorstep with a couple of vhs tapes and a six pack of cheap beer. 

Steve's parents aren't home (big surprise) which means they have the house to themselves. They set the vhs tapes and the beer down in the living room before Steve says, "Okay, but I gotta go shower. I smell like ice cream and I need to get out of these stupid shorts." 

"Nuh-uh," Billy grunts. He grabs Steve roughly and exaggeratedly smells Steve's hair. "I think you smell delicious." He then makes a point of grabbing Steve's ass and squeezing. Hard. "And I think you look really hot in these shorts," he whispers in Steve's ear. Steve is too tired to know if he's annoyed by this, turned on, or both. But he's definitely too tired to argue so he shrugs. 

"Fine. What movies did you get?" he says as he throws his hat behind the couch. He knows he'll probably regret doing that in the morning when he can't find it but for now it makes him smile. Stupid hat.

"Two classics. Halloween and The Thing," Billy says. He holds the tapes up in front of Steve's face and pretends not to be super excited about it. Steve pretends like he doesn't think it's cute.

"Uhhhh…" Steve mumbles. The fact that he hates horror movies is an argument he quit starting months ago. "You pick," he says. 

Billy purses his lips and thinks it over like the question might just be one of the most important of his entire life. Finally, he says, "Halloween."

They get settled in on the couch and since Steve's parents are two states away and not expected back for a week and a half, they actually get comfortable, their legs naturally resting against each others' on the coffee table and Billy putting an arm over Steve's shoulder. 

Steve barely makes it through the very creepy credits, his eyes continually dropping shut of their own volition. The last thing he notices before he passes out entirely is Billy brushing his hair back from his forehead and placing a kiss on his temple.

 

Wednesday, May 22nd, 1985

 

They drive a ways out of town and park in an empty field. The sky is dark and painted with stars - the one and only thing Steve likes about living in such a small town. 

They talk endlessly about music - well, mostly Steve listens during that particular topic, and basketball and stupid school shit and everything except the future. They both know Steve's graduating soon and Billy isn't graduating until next year. What they don't know is what comes next. Or rather, Billy doesn't. 

Steve though, he has a plan. He's not going to college. He knows there's not a chance in hell any of the four schools he applied to will take him anyway, not even the state school his mom turned her nose up at when he mentioned it. But it doesn't matter because even if any of them did accept him, he's staying. He's going to stay for Billy.

And Robin's deferring for a year to save up money anyway, so he figures he can just get a job somewhere with her. So he's staying for her, too. 

He knows he's not like Robin, whose so smart she'll knock it out of the park with absolutely anything she chooses to do, and he's not like Billy, who Steve knows could be dropped at random in a new city with no job and no money and still somehow manage to land on his feet. 

But he can do this. He can stick by the people he loves. That's one thing he's good at. 

"Okay, what?" 

Steve looks over at Billy. "What?" He shoves at Billy gently, attempting to break the tension that's suddenly heavy on his skin and in the air but Billy doesn't budge. He's got that bull-seeing-red look on his face that means whatever he's caught and latched on to, he's not about to let it go. 

"You're thinking about something," Billy says, flicking at Steve's temple with a finger. Steve shoves his hand away. 

"I was, actually," he says. "I was thinking about the future." 

"Oh," Billy says quietly. It's a little too dark to see for sure but based on the crestfallen tone in his voice, Steve would say all the color probably just drained out of Billy's face. 

In an attempt at comfort, Steve reaches out to grab Billy's hand but Billy snatches it away, dropping it in his lap and just out of Steve's reach.

"I'm staying," Steve says. 

"Oh," Billy says again, happier this time. Then, "Are you sure?" 

"Absolutely, positively, one hundred and ten percent sure," Steve says. 

"Just can't stand to be away from me, huh?" Billy says. He's got his swaggering confidence back in full effect but Steve knows him better now, knows without needing to see any evidence that secretly, Billy's nervous.

"I don't think I'll ever want to be away from you," Steve says. He means it. Maybe they haven't been dating all that long, maybe they haven't even known each other for that long, but he knows he won't. He knows it like the sky is blue and his parents suck and like he knows Robin is his best friend. This is something he never wants to be without. Billy is someone he never wants to be without. 

Beside him, he can practically feel Billy smiling. He's trying to hide how much this means to him, trying to duck his head, but Steve's not about to let that stand so he crawls on top of Billy, grabs both his hands and pushes him so he's laying back against the car. Up close Steve can see this lingering uncertainty in Billy's eyes and it pulls at him, almost makes him wince with the pain of it.

"I promise I will never leave you," he says. The look in Billy's eyes doesn't waver, not for a second. Steve kisses him, tries to express with physical affection the point his words aren't getting across, but it doesn't work. The look is still there, much as Steve knows Billy would never admit to any such thing. 

Steve raises Billy's hands above his head and holds them there, presses kisses along his jaw, on his cheeks, anywhere but his lips. Billy, impatient as always, sighs into the kiss and pushes until they're sitting up, gripping Steve's hands hard enough it almost hurts the entire time. He takes control and Steve lets him.

He figures it's okay if Billy doesn't believe him right now. They're young and they've got lots of time.

 

Friday, May 17th, 1985

 

Steve is running his list of errands through his head - buy gas for the car, get tylenol, get toilet paper, pick up the mail - when suddenly out of nowhere there's a pair of strong arms wrapped around his shoulders and pulling him towards - he looks around frantically - the dark and twisty alley behind the pharmacy. Great. He drops his groceries and twists, wrenches one arm free and makes a fist, is about to swing when he sees the person who grabbed him. It's Billy.

"What the actual fuck?" he curses loudly as he runs back to grab his bags. "I thought you were a - " 

Billy cuts him off. "What? A kidnapper? A deviant?" Billy laughs, loud and obnoxious. He slithers up to Steve, presses up against his side and whispers in his ear, "A pervert?" He laughs again, but this time it's low and quiet and Steve can feel Billy's breath on his skin. He hates that it gives him goosebumps. 

He huffs as he spins away from Billy, yelling, "I thought you were a mugger, actually!" He's not quite ready to give up his anger just yet, even though he knows he's doomed to.

"Oh," Billy says, eyes wide. Hungry. "There's that fire you so love to keep hidden." 

Billy licks his lower lip as he stares nakedly at Steve and Steve wonders if Billy knows he's doing it, the staring or the lip licking. He seems so focused, so intent, it's a little scary. Steve gets lost in it, starts to feel his anger being overcome by this big, crashing wave of pure want he knew was coming that still somehow manages to steal his breath anyway. 

Even so he manages to push it aside for just a second longer as he sets his bags down again and crosses his arms across his chest. He glares at Billy. "Don't do that again," he says.

Billy grins wide like a shark and steps up to him slowly, thoughtfully. He brushes his lips over the shell of Steve's ear then whispers, "Never, King Steve." There are about about seven layers of sarcasm to what Billy's saying but underneath that the words have the ring of truth to them. Like he's calling Steve his King. Like...

Billy kisses the shell of Steve's ear and Steve has to fight to stand still. Billy wraps an arm around his waist and turns Steve around, pulling their bodies as close together as they'll go. Steve looks around nervously, but they're alone, surrounded on all sides by concrete and boarded up back windows. Steve runs his hands up Billy's forearms to his exposed chest and plants them there. Mostly he finds Billy's insistence at having his chest on full display at all times incredibly annoying and crass, but sometimes, like right now, he's glad. He knows he's not the only one who gets to touch Billy like this, but as he runs his fingers across the smooth skin there, he smiles because he knows he's the only one who gets this reaction.

He can feel Billy's heart racing just under his fingers and he can see the hunger in Billy's eyes stoking itself into a wildfire. Mine, he thinks. He leans in for a kiss. You're all mine.

 

Tuesday, May 7th, 1985

 

The only time Steve sees Billy all day is for five minutes between gym and biology. Billy drags him into the boys bathroom on the second floor, the one no one ever uses and checks under every stall then grabs a thin plank of wood from his back pocket and jams it under the crack of the door, effectively locking them in. Steve decides he does not want to know where Billy got the wood from. 

And Billy doesn't say anything, just stalks forward and kisses him like they haven't seen each other in twelve years, rather than three days, like it's actually been. 

"I missed you," Billy says, his voice raw. Steve's seen him say this line to dozens of girls, but this is different. He knows this is different. This means more, to both of them, than anything that's come before or anything else going on around them. This, Billy's hands in his hair, Billy pushing him up against the wall and crowding his space so Steve can see nothing else but him, the pressure and the weight of his body making it so Steve can barely breathe, let alone move, this is everything.

 

Wednesday, April 10th, 1985

 

Billy slips into Steve's car and instantly it's weird. Something's wrong. Usually Billy is all big smiles, lewd jokes and serious insistence that Steve change his god awful music to one of the tapes he gave Steve but tonight there's none of that. Tonight he just slides in silently, head down and puts on his seatbelt without having to be cajoled into doing it. It makes Steve feel more different kinds of wrong than he's sure the dictionary has words for, so he puts his foot on the gas the second Billy's got his seatbelt clicked in, leaving the eerie glow of the lights of the Hargrove house in the dust like a malevolent ghost he's desperately trying to outrun. 

They stop a few miles out of town and Steve is instantly unbuckling his seatbelt, twisting to face Billy, is about to make the awkward crawl to sit in Billy's lap, but Billy just holds up his hands, spreading his fingers and spreading his arms in such a way that there's basically a wall between them and if Steve was feeling wrong before it's nothing compared to the full-on red alarm panic he's feeling now that's got his stomach sloshing around from side to side like it's decided to be a tumultuous ocean instead of a stomach and his heart picking up speed like it's preparing itself for a long cross country journey.

Billy drops his hands to his sides, curls them into fists but still says nothing. Steve counts to ten, breathes in deep and tentatively reaches out to run a hand along Billy's shoulder to test the waters. Billy doesn't make a face when Steve's fingers make contact, doesn't clench his fists. The sharp intake of breath is the only signal he gives but it's enough.

Neil hit Billy. Steve doesn't have to ask to know. If Billy had gotten into a fight with anybody else he would have come into the car smiling and at least ten times handsier than usual, not like this. Like he's trying to sink into the leather of the front seat and disappear. 

Steve gulps and tries again, reaches out for Billy's side, wants to run his fingers delicately up and down Billy's ribs as reaffirmation. He'd say words but he doesn't have any. None for Billy, anyway. 

When Steve's fingers make contact with Billy's ribs there's another sharp intake of breath and still Billy just sits there, eyes focused dead ahead, no expression on his face. There's no fire, there's no jokes, there's no... Billy. He's disappeared into himself. 

Steve wants to scream, wants to cry, wants to grab his nail bat from the trunk of his car, maybe his crowbar or maybe even both at once and let Neil see if he can still hit someone he hasn't spent years upon years programming to fear him. 

Instead he turns his music off, puts in the mix tape labelled "Songs You Should Know, Stupid" and grits his teeth through some of the loudest screaming and the loudest drums he's ever heard. He can't help but smile when he sees Billy unclench just a little at hearing it, though. He waits through two songs before reaching over again and putting his hand just over Billy's head, close enough for Billy to know its there but not quite close enough to touch and waits for Billy to close the distance. 

Steve watches the clock - it takes a full three minutes but finally Billy leans into his hand and Steve starts slowly carding his fingers through Billy's hair. 

They sit that way for at least an hour, Steve just running his fingers through Billy's hair nonstop before Billy twists awkwardly under Steve's touch and ducks his head to lay a kiss on the palm of Steve's hand before shifting back into place and letting Steve keep stroking his hair.

 

Tuesday, March 12th, 1985

 

They're walking along a deserted residential street and there's not a single light on in any of the houses they pass by. Late at night like this Hawkins feels like their own little world, like nothing can touch them, not the stupid townspeople and not the monsters Steve knows are hiding just beyond the shadows in a land he can't quite reach but that isn't as far away as it should be. He never would have thought he could feel this safe outside at night without a weapon to protect himself with, but with Billy, he does. It's unexpected, but then nothing of the last year has been anything close to what he would have called "expected". 

He'd expected to feel safe in his hometown and now he doesn't. That wasn't always the case. There was a time when he felt safe in Hawkins no matter what, when he expected he would get a job working for his father's company and that'd be it and that'd be fine. There was a time he'd expected he'd marry Nancy Wheeler, have some kids, live in the same tiny, rinky-dink town until he died and that'd be enough, he'd be happy.

He knows better now. He knows that all of that was a pale imitation, a cheap, half-smudged copy of what happiness really is. They're not even doing anything, not saying anything, just walking around aimlessly, footsteps in sync without effort. That's something he'd never really thought much of before, moving through the world perfectly in step with someone else, but here he is with this big, brutish, mullet-wearing asshole that somehow has become one of the most important people in the world to him, walking side by side and perfectly in sync. He can't remember that ever happening with Nancy, not even once.

Billy brushes up against his shoulder, briefly breaking their synchronisation and drawing Steve's attention. Billy's wearing this cheshire cat grin and Steve hates to admit how even just that makes something in his stomach flip. 

Billy reaches over, puts a hand on Steve's shoulder, gives him this short, delicate kiss, then keeps walking like nothing happened, leaving Steve scrambling to keep up. Steve's always feeling like he's scrambling to keep up but something in him loves it, loves the way he can never quite predict what Billy's gonna do next, loves the excitement and the mystery of it. 

He just… he just loves Billy, really.

 

Wednesday, February 27th, 1985

 

If Steve has to spend one more second trapped in this hell they call school with Billy staring at him like that he is going to pull his hair out one strand at a time. 

It's been like this all day. No, scratch that, it's been like this for over a week, ever since Billy sang that stupid song at him. Billy's been staring at him, watching him like he wants to tear him apart and eat him. 

Or something. 

It's the "or something" that has Steve worried. (And how desperately he actually wants that "or something" to actually happen? That's even worse.)

It continues on after school, too when Steve gets a ride home from Billy and the whole time Billy just stares at him over the top of Max's oblivious head. 

They drop Max off first and Steve thinks, good, maybe now we can talk, but neither of them says a word. Not about the song and not about anything else. Probably for the first time since Steve met him, Billy doesn't have any music playing, so the car just fills and fills and fills with this kind of never ending silence and Steve thinks he might just have to jump out of the car to get away from it.

When Billy pulls up to Steve's house he parks the car but neither gets out nor tells Steve to. This leaves Steve feeling more confused than ever, then when he looks over at Billy he finds the expression on Billy's face completely unreadable, which just makes it worse. And Billy just sits there, his hands on the wheel, keys in the ignition and the car turned off and Steve doesn't get it. So he stares. He stares and he stares and he stares until finally, Billy cracks.

"I want you," Billy says. And that's it. Three words that don't bring Steve any closer to understanding what they're doing here, either in this moment or in general so he just continues to sit there and to stare at Billy until he's offered an explanation he likes. 

"I...I want - I want you," Billy says again, sounding nervous and unsure in a way Steve didn't ever think Billy was even capable of. In all the time they've been friends Steve hasn't seen Billy drop his confidence even once; he just assumed it was something that didn't happen to Billy, like confidence was as natural to him as breathing.

But it's happening now. There's a bead of sweat forming at his hairline and Billy's started gripping the steering wheel hard enough for his knuckles to turn white. Steve has to put him out of his misery.

"I want you, too," he says. 

Billy's lips part in the tiniest possible hint of a smile and that's all it takes to have Steve scrambling to undo his seat belt so he can lean over, grab Billy's face with both hands and kiss him senseless.

"God, I've wanted…" Billy whispers as they break apart, both panting and gasping for air. 

"Since the day I met you," Steve says. He looks away as he says it, feels his cheeks heating up as he does. 

Billy runs one of his long, powerful fingers under Steve's chin and turns Steve's head to face him. "Me, too," he says.

Their second kiss is so much better than their first that it makes Steve excited to find out what their third is going to be like. Kissing Billy is like kissing sunshine that's caught on fire and it makes Steve think maybe it's contagious. He hopes it is, anyway, hopes he can steal some of that fire for himself and keep it. Even if it isn't, even if he can't, he will take whatever he can get for as long as he can get it. Because he's never experienced anything remotely close to this good before.

 

February 17th, 1985

 

They're driving around, doing nothing, same as any other day when this song comes on and Billy starts singing along. 

"I've been up and down, I've been all around, I was mystified, almost terrified. But late at night I still hear you call my name," Billy sings the words softly and, Steve thinks, does a better job of it than the guy on the tape. The song is vaguely familar, like maybe he's heard it brfore but Steve can't place it. He's too entranced by Billy singing to care much, anyway. 

With the next verse, Billy gets a little bit braver, a little bolder. "I've been on my own, I've been all alone, I was hypnotized, I felt paralyzed. But late at night I still want you just the same." Billy takes the next corner a little too sharply, barely bothering to look and see if there's anybody crossing the street before charging through the crosswalk. It makes Steve nervous and has him wrapping his fingers around the edge of his seat and clinging to it.

"I've been a gambler, but I'm nobody's fool," Billy sings and Steve finds himself nodding along both with the beat of the music and the statement itself. Billy continues, 

"And I sure know something, sure know something. You showed me things they never taught me in school. And I sure know something, sure know something. No one can make me feel the way that you do. And I sure know something, aha." Billy is full on belting it out at this point, getting really into it and moving his body along with the music. If Steve didn't want him before, this little performance would definitely be enough to throw him over the edge. 

As it is he feels like he might be in danger of actually throwing himself over something at this point because he isn't sure how he's going to keep it up anymore, pretending that being friends with Billy is enough for him. Not after seeing something like this. 

"I was seventeen, you were just a dream. I was mesmerized, I felt scared inside. You broke my heart and I still can feel the pain." At the words "you broke my heart" Billy rips his eyes from the road in front of them and looks at Steve with such sincerity that it drags a weird, unintelligible noise halfway between a word and a grunt out of Steve's mouth. 

Because… Billy couldn't actually mean any of that, right?

Billy keeps staring at him and Steve starts to worry about him crashing the car. "I've been counted out, I've had fear and doubt, I've been starry eyed, never satisfied. 'Cause late at night I still need you just the same." The song keeps going after that but Billy stops singing. 

He turns his eyes back to the road, acting like nothing at all out of the ordinary just happened. 

Maybe it didn't, Steve thinks, his fingers still gripped to the edge of his seat. Maybe I want this so bad now I'm losing my mind.

He can't deny that he wants it to have happened, though. He can't deny that he wants it to have meant something. He wants to, no he needs to know, but he can't stand to ask so instead he clears his throat and says, "Uh, that was great. What song was that?" His voice comes out as reedy as a fourteen year old that's just had his first voice drop and he hates it. He wants to bury his head in his hands in shame but instead he keeps his eyes focused straight ahead and his fingers gripped to the edge of the seat, even though they're starting to cramp up. 

""Sure know something" by KISS," Billy says, sounding incredulous. "You can't honestly tell me you don't know who KISS is," he says. They've been friends long enough by now that Billy really should stop being surprised by Steve's lack of musical knowledge, but he's always surprised, every single time, like he just can't (won't) wrap his mind around it.

Steve shrugs. "I can honestly say that I don't." At least his voice comes out normally this time. "Or, well, I've heard of them but not enough to recognize them." 

"How am I even friends with you when you don't even know who KISS is?" Billy says, laughing. 

"I don't know," Steve shoots back. There are a lot of things he doesn't know. Like how he's going to survive the rest of this car ride without blurting out how in love with Billy he is. 

Somehow, though, he manages. Barely. When Billy drops him off a few hours later, he almost says something. He hangs onto the open car door for a few seconds too long, stares just a little too openly, but ultimately he manages to keep his pitiful self-respect in tact, closes the door and heads into his big, stupid, empty house and stuffs his face with the two day old lasagna in the fridge that his mom didn't even make herself and manages to focus on that rather than obsess like an idiot over the way Billy explicitly said the words, "you broke my heart" while staring at him.

 

Chapter Text

Saturday, November 9th, 1985

 

Steve wakes up with a plan. He's going to track down Billy and talk to him, if for no other reason than to wipe away (or at least minimize) the sad look Robin's been wearing for the past week like it's been permanently grafted to her face.

He also wants to do it to… well, it'll probably be useless, it probably won't help, but… maybe actually talking to Billy like he feels like he should will wipe out some of the fear that's been eating away at him ever since this all started. Like maybe that might help.

Like maybe it's something. 

Or maybe it's nothing. 

Steve doesn't know anymore. 

This whole experience has been forcing Steve to be more honest with himself than he's ever wanted to be, than he probably ever would have been if he'd never had these memories in his head. 

Because the truth is… the truth is… he's always had a thing for Billy. Even the version of Billy that smashed a plate over his head. Even the version of Billy he smashed a car into. But before, those feelings were small, those feelings… they were ignorable. 

They were harder to ignore than say, the way he noticed Tommy's freckles or the color of Sam Brewster's eyes in seventh grade, but they were still easy enough to ignore that he could run towards girls (and only girls) instead. Because it's not like he doesn't like girls. He loved Nancy and he meant it when he said he liked Robin before finding out that particular road was a dead end. 

But now? Now he plays the memories in his head on a loop, the feeling of Billy's hand in his, Billy's laugh in his ear, Billy's hair knotted up around his fingers and Billy's hands splayed out on his chest...

Because he didn't… he didn't think any of that was really ever a possibility. Without these memories, without this knowledge, he never would have gone near the feelings he has for guys, the fact that they make him feel the same way girls do. 

But it's also more than that, too. He never would have thought that being with Billy was an option. He knows its' not exactly going to happen now, knows it would be wrong to essentially trick Billy into thinking that he's basically someone else, but...

Looking back and comparing the two sets of memories in his mind, he thinks that not noticing any of it was probably pretty dumb. Because Billy, regardless of which version, was not and is not subtle. There are a lot of similarities between his old life and his new one, between that version of Billy and this one. Both versions of Billy looked at him the same way, with that same hunger burning in their eyes, they both pushed him down and got too close a few too many times during basketball practice for it not to mean anything. Especially considering that basketball is not a contact sport. 

Then, there's the big tip off, the most obvious part, the thing Steve knows he's a complete and total idiot for missing - the way Billy talked to him and looked at him in the showers. The way he paid attention while every other guy (Steve included), always avoided eye contact. Even if any conversations were held, there was always a heavy avoidance of any real eye contact. 

Not Billy, though. While everyone else was busy covering themselves in towels and pretending not to notice each other's business, Billy just let it all hang out. And Steve very much does mean 'all'. Billy never cared about who was looking at him, or why. 

And Steve figures that if he's into both men and women, and this other version of himself was into both men and women, well then it's probable both versions of Billy are into men, right?

As Steve gets dressed he wonders about what could have happened, how things could have been different, had he known. Because looking back, now that he knows… it's pretty obvious Billy wasn't teasing him and calling him "Pretty Boy" just to rile him up.

He's halfway through doing his hair when it occurs to him that nothing would have changed where he comes from, not really, because in the version of events he comes from, Billy's dead. He knows this, hasn't ever been able to forget but now he's really thinking about it and the memories of seeing Billy fighting the monster start taking over playing in the loop in his mind.

He can't stop thinking about it and has to fight not to snap his comb when he feels his fingers tightening their grip on it. He looks down at his hairspray and wants to throw it across the room. He looks at himself in the mirror, sees his own wide-eyed panic staring back at him and squeezes his eyes shut. He breathes in slow and breathes out slow, then does it again. 

He tries, and not for the first time, to fit the image of kissing Billy in alongside the image of Billy being stabbed by giant monster tentacles into the thousand piece puzzle his brain has become and can't make them fit together.

Suddenly, he doesn't know if going to find Billy is such a good idea, after all. 

But he knows he's going to do it anyway.

Because they're supposed to be friends, right? Under or over anything else they're supposed to be friends and that's supposed to mean something. And different person or not he can't just stand by and watch, he can't just hear Robin talk about how Billy seems to be an inch away from hitting his own personal self destruct button without trying to do something about it. Not when he knows he's the cause of the pain. 

 

---

 

Heart in his throat and feeling like he's going to be sticking his head in a bush and full-on throwing up any second now, Steve knocks on the Hargroves' door. 

He's surprised, though he doesn't know why, when Max answers quickly followed by Lucas. 

"Uh, hey, Max," Steve says awkwardly. "Is your brother home?" 

The look Max gives him is curious, part annoyance and part something else, something that Steve has trouble completely defining, though if he was going to guess he'd have to say it looks a little like she wants to grab a shovel and hit him with it. 

"He's not here," she says. 

"Oh, uh…" Steve panics. He hadn't really thought any farther ahead than showing up here and knocking on the door. "Do you know where he is?"

Max crosses her arms over her chest. "No, I don't," she says. She's studying him intensely and the fact that he has no idea why just makes it worse. Behind her, Lucas looks just as confused as he feels which somehow helps a little. But only a little. 

"He left about an hour ago," Lucas says. Max looks back at him and from the fearful look Lucas suddenly sprouts Steve guesses she's probably glaring at him like maybe she's going to hit him instead.

"What?" Lucas blurts out. "He did!" 

Max whips her head back around, levelling her gaze back on Steve and trying to crush him with it. "Whatever," she says. 

"Right, well, thanks," Steve says with the best smile he can manage. It does nothing to change the look on Max's face. "I'll just be going, then." 

As he's heading back to his car Steve overhears Lucas asking, "What? Do we hate Steve now?" and then hears the sound of Max hitting him, probably elbowing him in the gut if the "Oof!" Steve hears is anything to go by. Steve files the whole interaction away under "things he's probably never going to understand" and gets into his car.

He goes to every place he can think of to look for Billy starting with that record shop he's heard Robin mention, then the arcade and then the movie theater. He even tries driving out to the quarry, but Billy isn't there, either.

It's as he's driving past the school, having pretty much decided to give up that he catches a flash of blue and decides to slow down. 

It's the Camaro. He's found him.

Steve's almost tempted to just keep on driving, pretend he hadn't noticed and just go home. Part of him wants to do just that, to give up, to not do this, to shrug and to say he tried and just leave it be.

He wants to do it, to just keep on driving and give up on his earlier plan but instead his hands start turning the steering wheel towards the school parking lot and he starts grinning. Weirder still, when he parks beside the Camaro, when he knows for sure Billy's here, he's excited

That excitement quickly twists into nervousness when he can't immediately find Billy. Because Billy's not in his car, he's not in the parking lot and he's not anywhere near the front of the building. It's Saturday, so the building itself is locked up tight, not that Steve doesn't check because yeah, that'd be a very Billy Hargrove thing to do, break-in to school on a Saturday for no reason.

Steve wanders around back to the football field and that's where he finds Billy - sitting on the bleachers, reading a book like he belongs there, like he owns the place. He isn't wearing gloves and Steve can see from here that Billy's fingers are pink from the cold. But Billy's sitting absolutely still, just turning page after page like his breath isn't coming out visibly, like the cold isn't bothering him, like he's used to it, which is entirely unexpected for the California born and bred boy that he is. 

Steve's from here and it's been maybe five minutes since he left the safe warmth of his car and already he's done with the cold. He's done with the way it bites at his cheeks and the way it seeps through his boots and the way it makes his nose go all red and ugly. 

Most people are ugly in the cold. They wear big, frumpy coats with big, frumpy hats and scarves and their noses run and their cheeks turn a hideous shade of pink.

But not Billy. 

Billy's cheeks are pink but it's the most beautiful sort of pink, it makes his already much too beautiful face even prettier. He's wearing a winter coat but rather than make him look stupid or goofy it just showcases his big, broad shoulders."

"Can I help you?" Billy drawls, only barely just looking up from his book and Steve realizes he's been staring and is now only about ten feet away from the bleachers and from Billy. 

"Uh," Steve says, mind drawing a complete blank. He looks at the book instead of at Billy. He's reading something called Books of Blood IV. Steve's never heard of it, but from the monstrous looking cover he's willing to bet it's a horror novel and something he wouldn't at all be interested in, if books ever interested him in the first place.

He asks about it anyway. "So what book are you reading?" It's pathetic, he knows it's pathetic, but it's what he's got. 

"Clive Barker," Billy says slowly. "It's a collection of short stories." 

"Mmm," Steve mumbles. "Cool." 

Billy doesn't say anything else and refuses to meet his eyes, so they're just left in awkward silence. Steve tallies up the top most awkward, uncomfortable moments from his life - those dinners with Barb's parents, the day after the party where Nancy called him bullshit where everyone was staring at him all day, the time at the Mall where Robin came out and told him he forgot his hat at work and handed it to him when he was in the middle of flirting with a girl and the girl laughed at him harder than anyone else ever has, the time in sixth grade when Tommy pulled his pants down in front of everyone on the playground in the middle of a fight - this tops them all in terms of sheer mortification. 

"Why are you here, Steve?" Billy asks, still not looking at him. Billy calling him Steve throws him, he still half expects, okay entirely expects, for Billy to call him Harrington and he can't help the flinch being called by his first name draws out of him. It feels too personal, too… real. 

"We're supposed to be friends, right?" Steve says. 

Billy continues staring at his open book but his eyes aren't moving on the page anymore, he's stopped reading it and now he's just pretending to. "I suppose so," he says after a silence long enough to fill Steve's head with enough worry to drown in. 

"So we should act like it," Steve says with a sort of bravery he doesn't remotely feel. 

There's another long silence before Billy says, "Okay," and waves a hand at the bench next to him, eyes still mostly trained on his book.

Steve scrambles up gracelessly and can't help but notice Billy noticing him do it and barely holding back from laughing. He wants to shout "tah-dah!" and throw his arms wide once he makes it up, wants to actually make Billy laugh, but instead he just sits down quietly, leaving just enough space between them that they're not touching. 

The cold metal of the bleachers cuts into Steve's legs in seconds and he can't help but wonder how long Billy's been out here, why he's out here, what could possibly possess him to be out in this cold alone rather than at home?

This time the memories hit him with a burst of rage that hits like a punch to the gut. He sees himself slowly petting Billy's hair, sees the bruises layered new over old on his back, sees the tears Billy refuses to shed. He sees himself sitting in his car outside the Hargrove house at night, his eyes glued to the bright light of the windows and hearing Billy and Neil screaming insults at each other. He sees Billy come flying out of the house like a bull that's just had red flashed in his eyes then got destroyed for reacting to it. He watches Billy fling himself into the passenger seat and sees himself put his hand over Billy's, sees Billy whip his hand away like the touch burns his skin. They drive away as fast as Steve's car can go and Steve wants to scream. He gets now why Billy isn't at home. Gets that "home" for Billy, well... isn't.

"I… I have to go," Steve stammers, picking himself up and almost throwing himself off the bleachers. Billy says nothing as he runs away. Steve isn't even sure Billy's looking and he doesn't look back to check. 

He makes it to his car and gets in quick, the new memories still so fresh in his mind that he thinks that maybe it's not safe to drive even as he's turning the key and starting the engine. 

He makes it downtown before another wave of memories hits him - Billy's banging on a door and shouting his name and Steve wants to get up, to go to him, but he can't. It's hot, it's so hot Steve almost forgets what time of year it is in reality, everything is just so hot, so unbearable. And fuzzy. Everything is fuzzy. 

Somehow he manages to pull the car over and park it, or at least he's pretty sure he does. Everything is just so fuzzy, like there's static in his head, like there's static in his eyes , if such a thing is possible. He keeps hearing Billy calling his name over and over and over. He reaches out for him, but his hands only grasp air. He sees the darkness swirl around him and swallow him whole, making Billy's voice sound faint and far away. It gets muffled to the point of not even sounding like words at all before it disappears completely, before the whole world disappears completely and takes Steve with it.

 

---

 

The first thing Steve thinks when he wakes up is, Shit, fuck, ow. The second thing he thinks is What? Huh? Why? as he notices a pair of hands banging heavily on his driver's side window. 

He sits up with a groan that sounds like its coming from the dead rather than from himself and blinks heavily as he realizes the hands are attached to Dustin and a very worried looking Dustin at that.

He rolls down the window and tries not to squint. "What the hell is wrong with you?" he asks, each word feeling like a separate sentence in his head. Thinking hurts. Looking at Dustin hurts. Everything hurts and it's worse than any pain Steve's ever felt, even worse than that time he and Tommy got drunk on that entire bottle of cheap whiskey they'd stolen from Tommy's Dad's secret stash.

"Me? What the hell is wrong with you? I found you unconscious in your car with a nosebleed!" Dustin almost screeches, like he's some sort of animal or something. He certainly looks spooked and if Steve's brain wasn't currently dead set on making him want to avoid sunlight for the rest of eternity, he'd feel bad.

No, he does feel bad. Dustin's eyes are a little glassy and he looks like he might actually cry, poor kid, so Steve sits up a little straighter and puts a believeable smile on his face. "I'm fine, dude, really," he says. He stretches his shoulders and yawns like he's just waking up from a good, long nap, even though the motion does nothing for him.

It doesn't do anything to convince Dustin either as the next words out of his mouth are, "You are so clearly not fine." He then yanks on the door handle like he thinks its' somehow magically going to be unlocked. Like he hasn't tried that already. 

Steve gulps as he thinks of Dustin standing there, yanking uselessly on the door handle and banging on the window for who knows how long. Given the way Dustin's shoulders are still bunched up around his ears, it was probably a while. Steve sighs and unlocks the doors, watches as Dustin runs around and hops in the passenger side.

"Steve," Dustin says, and god, this kid. The amount of heart he can put into one single word is enough to break a person. He's lucky he does actually have a girlfriend from camp because otherwise highschool girls are just going to wreck him. "Steve, you are not okay." 

Steve huffs. "I'm fine," he says. He knows its' a lie, he does, but if he can spare Dustin at least a little bit of pain, he has to at least try. The kid takes everything to heart, like he's got no protection from anything whatsoever and sometimes Steve can't take it. He just can't take it.

His attempt at sparing Dustin doesn't work, of course. "No," Dustin says, crossing his arms. "No, you're not. And we need to tell the others." 

"Okay, fine," Steve says, relenting. "But we're not telling Billy." I don't think I can tell him that I saw him die, he thinks. I can't deal with that I saw him die anymore.

The knowledge he has now, the feelings he has… it was unfair that Billy had died before. It gave him nightmares before, like the kind that have you shaking awake from screaming. Now he can't deal with it. Now it's not just unfair but downright criminal. Like he'd take the world to court and sue for the sheer level of unfair it all is, if such a thing were possible. It isn't, though, and Steve has no idea what he's supposed to do, how he's supposed to handle this otherwise.

Dustin makes a face. "Who said anything about telling Billy?" He says Billy's name like it causes him physical pain and Steve can't help but wonder if Dustin knows, if any of the others know. He wonders how Dustin would take it, if he told him.

Steve shrugs. That's definitely a conversation for another day. "Well," he says. "So long as we're on the same page."

 

Chapter Text

Tuesday, November 12th, 1985

 

On Tuesday Billy rolls into school with Jessica riding shotgun. 

"You ready?" she asks as she pulls a compact mirror out of her pocket and reapplies her already perfect and perfectly over-the-top sparkly pink lip gloss. It makes the interior of Billy's Camaro smell overwhelmingly like bubblegum, making Billy turn his nose up in disgust.

"Absolutely. You?" he says, trying to breathe around the smell. It's so pervasive, which, going off the smile she gives him, is probably why she picked it.

"Yeah, this is gonna be fun," she says.

He gets out of the car first and waits for her with his arm out; she takes it with her war paint smile, making  any girl that goes by do a double take then look away. She puts her hand into his back pocket - he's wearing his tightest, best jeans today and he feels every bit of her hand on his ass. Even if he weren't wearing his tightest jeans, even if he were wearing those terrible, sloppy, poorly fitting ones that so many of the guys around here seem to love it'd be impossible to miss the way her hand squeezes as he walks. 

He puts on a smile like he likes it, like he loves it, even going so far as to nod at Carol as they pass by her and Tommy just outside the front doors. When he opens one of the doors with one hand, he gives Tommy a wink like, "Girls, what can you do?" even though the reality is closer to that he can't believe people are buying this.

Not that Jessica's not just as good at her act as he is at his own. She is every inch as good at it as he is, maybe even better, but it's different now that he knows her. The real her, the girl with dreams of studying art history at the University of Chicago and working for a big, famous art museum in a big, famous city someday. The girl who loves old sweaters and old movies. The girl who loves her older sister with a level of determination and passion he can't help but admire. 

It's interesting seeing the differences between that version of her and this one - the bubblegum chewing, not a hair out of place, perfect vision of all things feminine.

She's meant to rule this school just as much as he is and she was right - this is fun, the way people are all but scrambling out of their way as they walk towards her locker. 

As they reach it she draws her hand out of his back pocket with the saddest of longing looks then cracks open her locker in just such a way so as to have her ponytail bounce as she does it. He pretends to watch with an entirely different sort of fascination than he's really feeling, though he is fascinated with seeing someone else put just as much effort into every move they make as he does.

After she's grabbed her books and sprayed herself with just the right amount of perfume she looks at him appraisingly. "Meet me for lunch?" she says sweetly. 

He grins his big, killer wolf smile. "Oh, you know I will." 

They spend the day trading notes everyone in school is whispering must be full of details of all the sex they must be having, what with the way they keep looking at each other like that but that are actually filled with stupid jokes and name suggestions for what she's going to call her cat when she gets one. 

At lunch they sit together and share their food - he got the sloppy joe, which she keeps plucking bits off of to pop into her mouth delicately and she got the fruit salad, which he keeps stealing grapes from and sucking on lewdly. It's nice, having someone to sit with that, even though they're putting on this ridiculous show, he doesn't have to lie to. He hasn't had that since Robin and Steve graduated. 

Steve. He'd managed to go all morning without thinking about Steve and now Steve's stupid bambi eyes are all he can think about. Steve's stupid bambi eyes and the way he bolted like a deer seconds after saying they should act like the friends they're supposed to be. 

Friends. Christ, being "friends" with Steve Harrington might actually kill him. Billy has no idea what Steve knows and he really can't ask, "Hey, so are you still gay or what?" and he's fucking sick of it.

Jessica looks like she's about to snap her fingers in his face but instead she pushes a note towards him. On it, scribbled hastily in plain black ink are the words, You okay?

He waves a hand at her, wordlessly asking for the pen still dangling from her fingertips. She passes it over without a word, just waits and watches. He writes down a single word as an answer - No. 

He pushes the scrap of paper back at her and as she reads it she smiles like he's just written something incredibly naughty, but behind that, the look in her eyes says she gets it. She leans across the table to whisper in his ear, "Steve?" so quietly he can only barely just hear her over the noise of the cafeteria.

He nods. It's answer enough. 

"It'll be okay," she whispers as she pulls away, bright grin still on her face. She grabs the last strawberry from her fruit cup, nibbling at it delicately before getting to her feet. 

"I'll see you after?" she says, like it's a question, even though they both know it's not.

"I'll be waiting," he says. He gives her his best "I'm going to fuck you into next week" look. "This afternoon can't get here fast enough." 

Her smile spreads but she shrugs a shoulder like she's not really all that impressed. The whole thing looks impressive, just as intended, but he can tell that what she's actually doing is trying really hard not to laugh. 

She spins on her heel and walks off after that, carrying her empty lunch tray like it's a fashion accessory and the lunch room is her catwalk. He has to put a hand over his mouth and hide his face so that no one can see him breaking into laughter after hearing some girl a few tables over saying, "Man, I wish my boyfriend wanted to devour me like he so clearly wants to devour her." 

After school, as promised, Billy waits for Jessica by his Camaro. She comes sauntering over, her heels click-clacking on the pavement with each step and he wonders how she manages to walk in them. They're ridiculously tall, almost enough to make them the same height. He figures there has to be some sort of art to it, but you wouldn't know it to look at her - she makes it look effortless.

They get into his car without saying anything and for a moment he doesn't put the keys into the ignition and he doesn't start the music. They sit there in this mounting silence, not looking at each other until finally, he breaks. "You're so nice to me and I really don't deserve it," he says, the words feeling like sandpaper on his tongue.

She giggles like she always does, flipping her hair behind her ear like it's a natural extension to the sound of it. To anyone walking by in the parking lot it probably looks like they're flirting. "You suck," she says.

In the next second her eyes go wide like she's just caught her own joke and she grins this big, cheshire cat grin. "Hah! You really do suck!" Her face quickly morphs into something more somber, but only for a split second, there and gone. "But that doesn't mean you don't need people." 

Billy shakes his head. "People keep being nice to me and I really don't deserve it," he says again. 

"Yes, you do," Jessica says, sounding more sincere than he's ever heard her. The kindness of it makes his skin crawl. "You probably need it more than most, from what I've seen." 

"You don't act like you're this smart," Billy says. The observation hits him quickly and he's not able to avoid saying it out loud. Not that he would if he could, anyway. 

Jessica's expression sours. "Excuse me, but what the fuck?" she snaps, that bubblegum smacking, hair flipping, one eyebrow arched dominance he's seen her use at least a dozen times since he's started paying attention to her rearing its ugly head again.

"I meant that like I said it," he says. "Why don't you act like you're this smart?" 

Jessica shrugs and for a moment she looks a little bit smaller. "I dunno," she says. Her gaze trails to her shoes. "I don't look the part?" 

Billy sits up straighter, squares his shoulders and puts the key in the ignition. "Fuck that," he says. "You're better than that." 

"You're one to talk," she snaps back. 

He thinks this over as he picks out a tape, deciding on Slayer's Show No Mercy and realizing in the moment that "show no mercy" might as well be Jessica's catch phrase. "Fair enough," he says. 

Jessica settles back in her seat as he pulls the Camaro out of the parking lot. "So how about we make a deal?" she says.

"What's the deal?" 

She steeples her fingers, clicking together her long, arched nails. They're painted fire engine red today. She smiles again. "We continue to call each other on our bullshit."

Billy nods. "Okay. Deal."

 

---

 

If asked, Billy would deny it, but things with Max have been better. He hasn't had to pick her up from school every single day this past week but she always tells Neil he does. And Neil hasn't been home until around six lately so it's not like he's actually there to notice the lie. Susan doesn't care, either, but then Susan never cares about anything until it gets her into trouble. This hasn't yet, so she's fine.

Regardless, the point is Billy knows that he and Max now trust each other at least enough not to completely fuck each other over and that's something. It's weird and it's tenuous but also? 

It's kinda nice. 

It's something.

He's in the garage, working on his Camaro's engine when out of the corner of his eye he sees Max's sneakers approaching. It takes her a while before she speaks up, saying, "I'm thinking of getting back together with Lucas."

He almost drops his wrench on his foot. "Don't," is all he can think to say. They might have a bit of a truce going but that doesn't mean he's remotely prepared for this older brother giving advice shit. Even if he was ready, he's terrible at advice. Christ, a three second look at his life should've told her that.

But then she asks, "And why not?" like she thinks they're really going to have this conversation, like this is a thing they're going to be doing now whether he likes it or not. In other words, he's fucked and while he's terrible at giving advice he's smart enough to know at least that much.

"You've broke up with him how many times now?" he says, the words feeling like teeth being pulled from his mouth. Not to mention that they're probably entirely the wrong thing to say, too.

She sighs, her feet shifting awkwardly on the concrete. "Six, but -" 

He cuts her off. "You deserve better than someone who pissed you off enough to break up with him six times." He finds himself shocked to realize that he actually means it. Max deserves better and not just in terms of boyfriends. She deserves better from him, too.

"One of the times, he dumped me, actually." 

"That doesn't make it better." 

With a grunt he stands back from the engine, admiring his work. "Hand me that cloth over there." 

She walks around the hood of the car to throw it at him, hitting him in the face. He rolls his eyes but says nothing, just wipes his hands off. 

"Who else am I supposed to go out with?" she whines. 

Billy rolls his eyes and throws the cloth, now much dirtier, back at her. "Stay broken up with him for more than a week and I'm sure someone will ask you out." As he says these words he realizes he really doesn't want anyone to. Having to deal with the twerp he knows is bad enough. Having to chaperone her and some new idiot sounds even worse. 

"But he knows about the Upside Down. That's not something anybody else knows about," she says. 

It's a good point but also, "Is that the only reason you're with him?" 

She pauses, turns the idea over in her mind as she twists the cloth in her hands. "No," she says. "It's not." 

Billy really doesn't want to know why she likes this idiot boy, but he asks, "So what are you going to do about it?"

She frowns. "What if he won't take me back this time?" 

This is getting to a point where Billy is distinctly uncomfortable. "Look, he might, he might not. I've got no idea and I'm terrible at this sort of shit besides. But we could… maybe go for ice cream?" he asks, his voice going up uncomfortably at the end. He's never volunteered to spend time with her before, but then she's never told him anything about her life, either. Maybe they can both try something new.

She makes a face like he's just suggested he could grow wings and fly and almost instantly he starts to regret that idea. "We don't have to, nevermind," he says just as she's shaking her head. 

"That might actually be kind of nice," she says. 

So they go for ice cream. And it is actually kind of nice. That is until she drips fudge mint all over his just cleaned front seat and he bitches at her for it and they start fighting. But, still.

It's something.

 

---

 

It's just after school on wednesday when Billy gets a phone call. He's sitting in the living room pretending to read when Susan calls out, "Billy, there's a girl on the phone for you." 

He's expecting it to be Robin or maybe Jessica so he's surprised when he hears Eleven's soft voice coming through the line. "Billy?" 

"Yeah?" He glances quickly around the kitchen - Susan is hovering nearby, pretending to chop up vegetables for some stew she's making. He glares at her but says nothing, not wanting to risk her telling Neil about it later. Neil's not home right now, at least.

"I have something I have to tell you," Eleven says. Billy's skin prickles. Neil might not be home but this still isn't the time for this. 

"Go for it," he says anyway. 

"Mike called me last night. He told me that Dustin told him that Steve's 'not okay'." He can hear the unspoken quotation marks around the words 'not okay' like they're a direct quote. He sneaks another look back at Susan - her grip is loose on the knife in her hand, her face directed down towards her cutting board too pointedly. She's absolutely listening in.  

"Billy?" Eleven asks, soft voice tinged with worry. 

"Yeah," Billy groans. "I'm still here." 

"What do you think we should do?" she asks, so hesitant each word crackles under the delicacy she's trying to apply to it.

Billy's grip on the phone tightens enough that he hears Susan making a "hmm" noise about it and he forces himself to loosen his grip, to drop the tension from his shoulders and stand loose and easy even as it feels like the rock that's all but taken up permanent residence in his gut might just roll out and crush him completely. 

"Not okay how?" he says with great effort. He wants to snap, to bite the words off roughly, but he doesn't. Instead he speaks with the flattest, most disinterested tone he can manage and all for Susan's benefit. Fucking Susan. 

"I don't know, all Mike said was he's never seen Dustin this worried before." 

"Shit," Billy curses. "Okay…" He breathes out. Okay, he can handle this.

No, he can't.

"I think we should tell them," Eleven says on a sigh and Billy can tell instantly that this is what she's been building up to. He hates that she's not wrong. 

"You're probably right," he says, hating every single syllable of it. Behind him, Susan has gone back to loudly chopping her vegetables, clearly having decided that his conversation is no longer interesting enough to pay attention to. "Just give me a couple of days, alright?" 

"Alright. I'll call you again in a couple of days, then?" She says it like it's a question and he wonders if she meant it as one. 

"Yeah, sure," he says. 

They say their goodbyes and hang up and Billy feels himself start to crack. He looks over at Susan, sees her humming and swishing along to some song in her head and he wants to scream. He wants her to poke him, to prod at him, to say anything he doesn't like and give him a reason, any reason to lash out at her. He wants her to tell Neil and for Neil to come at him with both fists, give him something to fight, something to do

But she doesn't. She just keeps humming, sliding her vegetables into the pot on the stove like she's completely forgotten he's even here. 

He brushes past her and storms out to his car. He starts it but doesn't put on any music, his whole body vibrating with the need to get out, to get away, to be literally anywhere else. 

He's downtown and has just decided to head out to the Quarry when he comes across Dustin. The little twerp's got one of his dumb hats on and has his hands gripped tightly around his backpack straps. 

Perfect, Billy thinks. 

Without looking Billy pulls a u-turn in the middle of the empty street and pulls up next to Dustin. 

"Get in," he snarls.

"What? With you? Hell, no!" Dustin shouts. He starts walking a little faster, like he thinks he can out-walk a car. Idiot. 

Billy follows him. "Get. In," he says again, drenching the words in menace. 

"Run me over if you want to but I'm not getting in your car," Dustin spits. He drops his hands from his backpack straps and curls them into fists. 

"You're gonna tell me about what's going on with Steve or I will run you over with my car." Billy throttles the engine, makes it purr in warning. "I know how to hide a body." 

"Jesus christ," Dustin says, one of his hands unclenching to settle over his chest. "Fine!" 

Billy hits the brakes and waits for Dustin to get in. The kid takes his sweet time doing it and if he thinks Billy doesn't notice the way he doesn't do up his seatbelt, like that's gonna help him get away or something, he's an even bigger idiot than Billy previously thought. 

"What's wrong with Steve?" Billy asks as he takes his foot off the brake. 

"How do you know there's anything wrong with Steve?" 

Billy growls low in his throat. "Don't lie to me, kid and don't make me ask again. It won't go well for you."

Dustin sighs and with it deflates like a balloon. "I don't know," he says. He sounds like he means it, but it's not a good enough answer. 

"What do you mean you don't know?" Billy turns the car around, heading back towards the center of town. He might be trying to scare the kid into talking, sure, but he's not actually trying to kidnap him or anything. He slows down just enough that if Dustin wanted to open the door and jump out, he'd survive. The doors are unlocked. 

"He…" Dustin blows out a breath. "See, what happened is… Oh, god, how do I explain this…" 

"Look, I," Billy starts. "I know Steve's not himself, so just start from there." He agrees with Eleven, they're going to have to tell Steve about what they did, but that's telling Steve. He's not telling this kid. 

"Not himself is an understatement," Dustin mutters low enough that Billy isn't sure he was supposed to hear it. He waits until Dustin speaks up again, saying, "This Steve's not our Steve and he keeps getting these nosebleeds and now he's getting headaches and he's passing out and I don't know what to do. I keep researching everything I can, I told the others, I asked Mr. Scott, I even thought about going to a doctor and telling them the symptoms like they were mine, but I didn't because then my mom would find out and my mom can't find out about this and I don't know what to do, I can't find any answers and I don't know what to do."

"I got about half of that," Billy says even though it's a complete lie. He understood all of it and he's having a hard time focusing enough to make sure he doesn't crash the car. I did this, he thinks. There's something wrong with Steve and it's my fault. I did this. "Slow that down by about fifty percent and say it again," he says. 

Dustin looks about as rattled as he feels but the kid takes a deep breath and repeats himself more slowly as well as adding in the background details he doesn't know Billy already knows. As he talks Billy's glad to be driving just so he has an excuse not to look at him; he doesn't have any idea what to say. The words my fault, my fault, my fault, keep spinning around in his brain until they take up every inch of available space.

"I want to think he's going to be okay but I don't know anymore. I don't know what any of this means and I don't know what to do," Dustin says.

"Yeah." Billy sighs. "Me either." 

Dustin looks at him like "and who asked you?" but he doesn't say anything. 

Billy licks his lips. "I know you don't get it." In more ways than one. "But I care about Steve, too." 

"You're right, I don't get it, I haven't gotten it from day one. I will never get why Steve is friends with someone like you." Billy can hear it whether Dustin's aware he almost said it or not - I don't get why my Steve is friends with someone like you. If Billy didn't know that Dustin has a girlfriend, if he hadn't seen firsthand the way Dustin looks at girls and not at boys he'd almost be worried. Not that Dustin's any kind of competition, definitely not with his dorky taste in hats and that terrible haircut at the very least.

Billy almost feels sorry for the kid. He can see that Dustin is worried, that the kid's not far from crumbling entirely but his pride spikes and takes him over. Billy's allowed to think he's shit, but this kid doesn't get to. He hits the brakes in the middle of the crosswalk between Main Street and Seventh. "Get out," he says. 

Dustin gawks at him so he repeats himself: "Get out."

Dustin still doesn't move so he says, "Don't make me ask you again." He makes the threat bleed into the words until they're heavy with it.

"Fine," Dustin snarls. He grabs the door handle and as he yanks it open a look crosses his face like he's surprised the doors weren't locked. Like he's surprised Billy's not quite that kind of monster. 

The thing is he's not wrong. Billy is a monster. Just not the sort of monster Dustin thinks. 

Dustin slams the door and Billy peels off. The words rolling around inside his head - it's my fault, it's my fault, it's my fault - reach a fever pitch about a mile outside of town. Billy screams.

Something is wrong with Steve and it's all his fault. 

The image of Steve jumping off the bleachers and running away pops into his mind unbidden and he thinks, Well, that makes a whole lot more sense now. He pulls over to the side of the road, thinking about how something is wrong with Steve and whatever it is was probably happening that day and Steve's first and only instinct was to run away from him as fast as possible. 

Billy folds over in his seat, his forehead coming to rest on the top of the steering wheel. The words it's my fault merge together with the words I'm a monster to make an entirely new breed of disgust that multiplies like rabbits fucking until there's no space for any other feeling. His chest gets tight with it, like there's not even any room for air around the feeling anymore.

It's true. All the bad things people say about him are true. 

He is a monster.

 

Chapter Text

Monday, October 7th, 1985

 

Mornings are always the worst for El. Jonathan's always running around getting things ready for one thing or another, Joyce is always smashing her purse around like she's trying to break something as she heads off for work and Will's quiet but in this really loud way where he drags out the same chair at the breakfast table every morning and swings his legs back and forth, back and forth until he bangs his knee on the table then starts all over again. Whip-whip-bang. Whip-whip-bang. Sometimes he throws in an "Ow!" for good measure, but not always.

El's used to quiet. She's used to the sound of nature outside her window and the smell of Eggo waffles. 

She's used to her Dad popping his head in to make sure she's awake, then knocking on the door to make sure she's dressed, then a third time to tell her that her Eggos are gonna get eaten before they get cold. 

Here she does all that by herself. Not that she'd ever needed the reminders, exactly. It was just a thing they did. 

And now they don't.

She waits until everybody's gone off to do their own things before coming out of her room. She grabs a box of cereal out of the cupboard, slams some into a bowl with some milk and eats it quick. She goes to put the box back before thinking twice, stuffing the box into her backpack. She's not sure how long it's gonna take her to find Billy and she figures she might need it later.

She doesn't.

She finds Billy at the first place she thinks to check - the graveyard. She can smell something bad as she walks up to him, something familiar that she can't quite place. He's also sort of leaning to one side, like he's having trouble standing upright by himself, leaving her to wonder if the bad smell has something to do with it. 

She doesn't wonder for long, though, the memory of her Dad leaning against the railing of the back porch at home in just the same way hitting her right between the eyes in the next moment. She remembers that smell, remembers how her Dad would try to hide it when he was having a really bad day. She figures this is the same, figures from the look and the smell and the way Billy's leaning like standing is just too hard right now, maybe is too hard now all the time, that this must be a bad day for him. So she grunts, pushes her shoulders back and her chin up like Max has taught her "means business". This isn't going to be easy, she can already tell but she's not about to let that stop her.

"Hey," she says once she thinks she's close enough for Billy to hear her. Billy doesn't respond so she takes a few steps closer. She's almost close enough to reach out and touch him, not that she would, before she says it again. "Hey." 

Billy's head snaps to her sharply, his eyes all squished up, and he snorts. His hand shoots out to rest on the top of the large stone thing with Steve's name carved into it like he's protecting it. There's a big purple bruise that's just visible over the collar of his jacket and up close the smell is even worse. "What are you doing here?" he asks. 

"I know," she says softly. 

"You know what?" 

"I know you loved him." 

Billy snarls, sounding a lot like the animals she came across in the woods in the winter before she had a home. She puts her hands out to knock him back if she needs to, forgetting for a moment that she doesn't have her powers anymore. "And what are you gonna do about it?" he barks. He looks a little like a wild animal, too.

"I want to help," she says. She takes a step back just as he stumbles forward then falls to the ground in a heap.

He scowls, rights himself as best he can then points at Steve's grave. "He’s dead. That's not something you can help with," he says, snarling again in a way she knows is supposed to be threatening but only makes her feel sad. He looks at the grave like he wants to be in it and she wishes she didn't know anything about that exact feeling, but she does. It's why she's here.

"That might not be true," El says. She sits down next to him, pulling her backpack off as she goes. She unzips the main compartment carefully and fishes around inside for the folder she'd put in there earlier. "I found this while going through my Dad's things," she says as her fingers close around the edges of the folder.

Opening it up she reveals to Billy a single page. It's a large photo of a boy with pale skin and long black hair wearing what looks like really ugly, really rough pajamas. There’s a stamp on the bottom of the picture saying Hawkins National Laboratory - Experiment 009 - DOB - August 22nd, 1964 - Talent - timeline manipulation. She waits for a moment then flips it over to show Billy the information scrawled on the back in big, fat black marker - a name, Vincent Price, with the word Nashville??? written underneath it.

Billy leans in and looks down barely long enough to read what the photo says before leaning back and glaring at her.

"Okay," he says, drawing the word out weirdly. There's a look on his face like he's not quite all here that Eleven both doesn't get and is really uncomfortable with. He licks his lips and looks away before saying, "But going back a bit, you said you knew I loved Steve. What do you mean by that exactly?" 

"Well…" Eleven grabs at a blade of grass near her sneaker, rips it from the ground and twists it with her fingers. "You remember how me and Max found out Steve was… flayed?"

Billy nods. "Yeah, you guys were spying on everyone with your little -" He holds his arms out stiffly and waggles his fingers in a way El assumes must mean powers.

"Yeah," she says with her own nod. "Only I saw something else that day. You and Steve were holding hands and kissing." She takes a breath, picks the blade of grass in her hands to pieces, then watches as it blows away into the wind before saying, "Like me and Mike do."

Billy's eyes narrow and he gets that wild animal look on his face again. El throws her hands up in warning. "I didn't tell anyone that part," she says. "But I saw." Without meaning to she shudders, causing Billy to give her another look, this time like he's confused. 

"What's with the twitch?" he asks. 

She shrugs, her whole body slumping to the side; she tries to keep up the whole "means business" thing but she can't. She's too tired.

"Remembering," she says. 

"Remembering what?" 

"I saw you holding hands with him but then he saw me. He saw me and he got up and he pushed me out." 

"And that's how you knew he was flayed," Billy says, finishing for her.

She nods. 

"I'm sorry," she says. She looks at the big stone with Steve's name on it. "If it was Mike…" 

"Whatever," Billy says. He looks down but not before she catches the way his eyes are shining like he's about to cry. She remembers the way he tried not to cry that day and it hurts.

"I should've saved him," El says. "I should have."

Billy snaps his head back up to look at her again, his eyes are still shiny but now he's got an eyebrow arched. "You're fourteen," he says, like it means something.

"You're seventeen," she says. She doesn't get what either of their ages has to do with this.

"And I couldn't save him, either."

Eleven nods. "But maybe we could fix that." She taps the picture. 

"Right," Billy grunts. He stares at the picture. "What the hell is timeline manipulation, anyway?" 

Eleven shrugs. "I don't know. But it might help." 

Billy makes a face. He huffs out a breath and the bad smell gets worse. "Wait, I get it. You just want me to drive you to Nashville so you can try to save Hopper, don't you?"

This time El's the one who makes a nasty face, she can feel it spreading without really meaning for it to. "No." 

Billy leans in towards her, menacing as any wild, vicious thing. "Yeah," he says. "Yeah, you do. You came here all soft and sad and pretending like you're here to help me but you just want a ride." 

"No!" Eleven shouts. She pushes his shoulder and he topples over too easily for how lightly she pushed him. "We can't bring my Dad back without opening the Upside Down again. He wouldn't want that. I can't fix that."

Billy sits up but doesn't look at her. 

"But maybe we can fix this," she says. She grabs the photo and the folder and stuffs them back into her backpack. Billy looks at Steve's grave, then back at her, then back at Steve's grave. Thinking. 

"Okay." He gets to his feet with great effort. "I've done dumber shit for dumber reasons, let's go." He offers her a hand up and as she takes it she can feel his hand shaking. She wants to mention it, wants to ask why, but she doesn't.

"Like right now?" she asks. He does not look like he's able to drive all the way to Nashville right now and she doesn't want to let him.

"No," he huffs. "Right now I'm going to take you back to wherever it is you're supposed to be. 'Cause I'm guessing it's not here." 

"I don't think you're supposed to be here now, either," she says before she can think not to.

"You would be correct," he says. "Not that it matters."

Again she wants to ask why, but again she doesn't. The sad look in his eyes is something she doesn't need explained.

They spend the walk to his car planning the trip for tomorrow. It makes El feel better than she's felt in weeks. Like finally she has something she can actually, really do. Finally a goal. A plan. Something.

She'll take anything at this point that isn't sitting in her room, packing up boxes and crying over things she can't change.

 

---

 

The next morning, Eleven tries to get out of the house as fast as she can but she's held back by the sounds of Joyce hunting for her purse, Jonathan cleaning the kitchen and Will just generally taking forever with whatever it is he's doing. 

She taps her fingers on her legs as she sits on her bed, waiting. And waiting. And waiting. 

She groans and flops back on her bed then looks at her watch, the new one Joyce got her last week. She's late. They haven't even started anything yet and already she's late. 

She groans again, louder this time and drums her fingers on her legs some more. Tap tap tap. Tap tap tap. The sound her fingers make against her jeans echoes in her head and makes her more nervous. 

Tap tap tap. Seconds pass with each tap and with each second her goal, her plan, her something gets farther and farther away.

From the kitchen Joyce calls out, "El, honey, are you okay?" 

Tap tap tap.  

"Yes, I'm fine!" 

Tap tap tap. 

She's really not.

"Okay, well, there's some cereal left out for you! We're heading out now!" Joyce calls out. The door slams shut a few seconds later and El passes the time until she hears Joyce's and Jonathan's cars driving away by pacing. 

She waits two whole minutes after they leave before slipping out the back door. It's as long as she can stand it but it's still, as it turns out, too long to have waited because she finds Billy already sitting in his car, waiting outside his house when she gets there. 

She bites her lip. She was hoping maybe he would be late, too. She was hoping maybe he wouldn't notice, that it wouldn't matter but here he is, waiting and looking like he's been doing it for a long time. 

She watches the way he drums his fingers along the outside of the car door bang, bang, bang in time with the music blasting out of his stereo, head bobbing along, sunglasses on. His movements look practiced, easy, but she also sees the tense way he's holding himself under all that ease and she shivers. 

She gets close enough to notice that there's no bad smell today before he notices her, startling enough for his sunglasses to shake. 

"Jesus!" he shouts. "Fuck, warn a guy next time, would you?" He waves a hand at the passenger's seat in a way she assumes means he's telling her to get in it. "Don't just do that creepy, silent shit where you just show up," he says. 

She nods and only just puts her hand on the door when Max skates up, glaring at her, then at Billy. "I knew something weird was going on when you asked me to get to school by myself this morning, Billy, but I never would have expected this." Max spits the words out like they taste bad and gets all up in El's face. "You're not dating this asshole, are you?" She leans over El's shoulder to stare at Billy before adding, "Because Mike can be kind of a jerk sometimes but trust me, Billy is worse."

 El reacts on instinct. "Ew, gross!" 

Billy does the same, throwing in a, "That's disgusting!" almost instantly afterwards. 

Max leans back slightly but doesn't remove herself from Eleven's space. "So what the hell are you two doing together then?" she asks, the anger she's wearing all over not fading in the least.

"We're going to Nashville to save Steve," El answers simply.

"What?" Max looks confused, like Eleven's answer only brings up more questions.

Billy leans over so his face is as close to either of them as it's going to get without getting out of the car. "Look," he says with a grunt, "it's a long story and an even longer drive so please just get the hell out of the way."

Max shoves Eleven's hand from the passenger side door where it'd been resting to yank the door open as wide as it'll go. Without asking she climbs into the backseat, almost hitting Billy in the face with her skateboard in her rush to get there. "Like hell I'm leaving you alone with my best friend for who knows how long. I'm coming," she says.

Billy shakes his head slowly, the light reflecting off his sunglasses in a way that scatters over the front seat of the car. "Sure, why not, I've already lost my goddamn mind." 

El can't help but wonder if that's true. If maybe she's lost hers, too. She hasn't felt right since her Dad died and this is not a very good plan. It's more of just an idea than a plan, really and now here she is, standing in front of this car with her best friend and her best friend's brother. And what does she think this will fix, again?

"Hurry up and get in already," Billy barks. She slides in without a word and he puts his foot on the gas almost before she gets the door closed. 

Maybe they've all lost their goddamn minds. 

 

---

 

It takes an entire hour before Max starts asking questions. 

"So, what the fuck are we doing, exactly?" she asks, her hand reaching out to lower the volume of the crazy loud music coming from the stereo. It makes El breathe a sigh of relief when Billy doesn't immediately turn it back up. She hasn't been able to say so, but she really hates it. It's too loud for music. There's too much yelling.

"We're driving to Nashville," Billy says. 

"Yes, jackass, I know, but why?" Max demands.

Billy's hands twitch on the steering wheel. "Show her," he says. It takes El a second to realize he means her, means the photo in her backpack, but once she does she quickly gets it out and hands it over. 

Max takes it better than Billy did. "So we're hoping this guy can bring Steve back?" she asks after less than five seconds of looking at the photo front and back.

Billy shrugs, looks like he doesn't believe it, like he thinks this is what El once heard her Dad call "a fool's errand". She'd had to ask him what an errand was, but once she got it, she remembers that she'd disagreed with the idea. 

She disagrees with it now, too.

This isn't a fool's errand. It can't be. They can't be out of their minds. This is the only thing that will put their minds back together. She has to believe that.

"You didn't need to come, Max," Billy says slowly. His hands wrap tighter around the steering wheel again and it makes El twitch. It reminds her of something dark, something bad, something she doesn't want to think about.

"I told you I'm not leaving you alone with my best friend but also…" Max sighs. "I figure if I help you get your friend back you'll stop being such an insufferable prick and stop driving me to school drunk, so yeah, actually, I did." El sees in the rearview mirror the way Max looks uncomfortable after she says this, sees the way she crosses her arms across her chest and looks down. Eleven doesn't get why Max can't just admit that she's here for Billy as much as she's here for her. 

Then a thought occurs to her. There's a word Max used that she doesn't know but she thinks she might get anyway. 

"Is that what that smell is?" she asks. "Drunk?"

"Yeah, probably," Max says. Billy cranks the music back up but Max just shouts over it. "When?"

"Yesterday, at the cemetery," El shouts. "He smelled bad." 

In the rearview mirror El sees Max's whole body go tense, frustrated. She leans forward, hands squeaking on the leather of the seats where she grips them. "You skipped school to get drunk in front of your friend's grave? Really?" she asks. 

Billy barks out, "Fuck off, Max," almost before Max is finished. Eleven wishes he wasn't wearing sunglasses, wishes she had a better view of his eyes right now, wishes she knew what he was really feeling.

"No," Max says. Blunt.

"I hate you, you know, I really do," Billy says back.

Max smiles but it's fake, twisted. "I doubt that," she says. 

"No, I mean it. I really fucking hate you." 

"Well…" Max grips the seats tighter, her fingers going white at the tips. "I hate you less than I did yesterday."

 

Chapter Text

Tuesday, October 8th, 1985

 

The second they pass the Nashville sign Max pops an aggressively loud bubble with the bubble gum she's been chewing for - she checks the clock in the dashboard - an hour now. The gum started out tasting like strawberry, fresh and ripe on her tongue, but now it just tastes stale and bitter and the only reason she hasn't spit it out long before now is it's her last piece and she has literally nothing else to do. Except maybe the homework she's still got half-unfinished in her backpack, which, no, thanks. Chewing stale bubblegum isn't better than much, but at least it's still better than doing homework.

Beside her, Billy twitches, his shoulders continuing their slow climb to be one with his neck. He's been getting more and more surly and dickish the closer they get to the city limits and now that they're in the city proper Max is just waiting for him to explode. She keeps debating on whether or not she'll do anything about it if and when he does and ultimately figures it'll probably come down to whether or not he snaps at El. 

Like if he snaps at her, that's fine, she's used to it, but El? Nobody gets to say or do anything mean to her. She's been through enough and if Max can protect her she will.

"So…" El says slowly, like slowly even for her and Max perks up, curious about what she's going to say next. "We should stop soon and look up Vincent's number." 

Max's stomach lurches just as the car hits a pothole and Billy curses. "Wait," she says. "Is that your whole plan?" 

"Yes?" Eleven says, sounding appropriately nervous, like she at least knows the plan is dumb. Billy, on the other hand refuses to meet Max's eyes, just stares out the window and cranks up whatever dumb scream-heavy metal tape he's been blasting this entire trip and it sets something off in Max.

"Seriously?" she shouts, reaching out and punching Billy in the shoulder. "That's your whole plan? Drive all the way out here and look up this guy's phone number in the phone book and what, just call him and hope that he's home and that he'll help?" 

Again, Billy's response can barely even be called a response, he just grits his teeth until a muscle in his jaw starts to tick and he grips the steering wheel more tightly. Again, it sets something off in Max, this time darker and more foul than the last.

"Seriously?" she says again. She uses one hand to turn off the tape deck and the other to punch Billy in the shoulder, harder this time. "Seriously?"

"Actually," he grits out and now he looks at her, gives her this look that's just over the edge of feral and has her scrambling back to the far edge of her seat. "My plan is to find this guy if I have to comb through the entire city to do it and then camp out on his doorstep until he comes home and force him to give me what I want, until he brings Steve back because Steve is -" he cuts himself off abruptly before he gets to saying what Steve is, though Max has a sneaking suspicion he was probably going to say something along the lines of "everything" which is something Max has no idea what to do with so she turns her head to the window, to the sprawling field of grass before them and imagines throwing the information out into that grass and out of her mind.

"Okay, sorry I asked," she mumbles, drawing her feet up onto her seat, still staring out the window. She avoids looking at Billy and avoids the thoughts she's starting to have about him. 

"Whatever," Billy says. He turns his music back on and not another word is said until they pull into the parking lot of a cheesy, busted up looking diner five minutes later.

They all crawl out of the car the second the engine's turned off, all stiff and sore and aching and as Eleven pulls open the door to the diner Max is assaulted with the smell of fresh cooked french fries, fresh baked apple pie and something heavenly but indistinguishable aside from the way it makes her mouth water and her stomach grumble. She hasn't eaten since breakfast and she's suddenly hungry enough to eat the vinyl off the big blue spinning stools at the diner's long front counter. 

She scrounges through her pockets and her backpack looking for spare change but comes up empty. She looks to Billy but before she can so much as ask he says, "I don't have any money," and walks off to smile at a waitress and ask her for a phone book, which she gives him, plus a cup of coffee on the house and a booth for them all to sit in while they look for their lovely friend's phone number. She drops a single menu between Max and Eleven to share, gives them a glare like she's certain they won't order anything anyway and walks off with her heels click-clacking and her hips swish-swishing in her too-tight uniform in a way that's clearly all for Billy's benefit and that he doesn't notice at all. He's already got his head buried in the phone book. 

It's weird - the waitress is gorgeous; she's all long, lean legs, soft skin, long, fluffy brown hair and big, doe-like brown eyes. She couldn't be any more Billy's type if she'd researched it and constructed herself to fit but there's no response from him at all and Max isn't sure if she should be ignoring that or if she should be keeping score of all the weird little things he's done so far today but she distracts herself by looking at the menu full of food she wants and can't afford. 

The waitress swings back around with the coffee pot a minute later,  bending over next to Billy suggestively, even going so far as to press her arms in against her chest to deepen her cleavage as she refills his cup, but she might as well have not even bothered to show up at all for all the attention he isn't giving her for her efforts. She stomps off in a huff that means she'll definitely be back to try again and still, nothing; Billy just flips a page in the phone book, his finger sliding down the list of names, focused on his task like it's the only thing in the world he could possibly be doing right now, like it's the only thing there is to care about, like the waitress wasn't ever even there in the first place, like maybe she doesn't even exist at all.

And Max would think it's a bit he's doing, that he smiled and flirted with her and is now ignoring her just to get her to like him more - it's certainly something she's seen dozens of guys do hundreds of times before, but it doesn't really seem like that's what this is because every time a guy is doing that, at least every time Max has ever seen it, the guy doing it stares at the girl he wants every time her back is turned and Billy hasn't looked up from the phone book, not once. 

"I have about four dollars," El says as she fishes change and a few crumpled dollar bills out of her pockets, like they're in the middle of a conversation and somehow Max just missed it.

Maybe she did. This weirdness with Billy is really getting to her. 

"You want to share something?" El asks, smile bright and curious and too hopeful for something this inconsequential. 

"Yeah," Max says, offering her own smile in return. She's going to miss El so much when her and the Byers' leave town. The Party just won't be the same without her and without Will. "French fries?" she says, her voice cracking with her sudden need to avoid crying but she can't stop thinking about it. El's the first female friend she's ever had and now she's abandoning her just when the boys are getting dumber than ever.

"I also have enough we could share a piece of pie," El says, all happy and god, Max is gonna miss her. She's gonna miss her so much.

"Sure, that'd be great," Max says. She looks over at Billy and sees he's got the phone book open, his finger on a name and he's looking out the window at the Camaro and everything behind it. He looks so sad, so broken, like… so heartbroken and human and sad that it makes Max uncomfortable. 

She's always been perfectly happy with their roles. She's always been good with thinking of him as an antagonist in her life and nothing more but ever since this summer that's been changing. 

This summer she saw glimpses of Billy's humanity, saw the way his friends treat him, that he has real friends and… it's been making her recalculate things in her head. She doesn't like it. She came on this trip to protect her best friend, not to learn more about Billy the Human Being. 

"Find something?" she asks him, the equilibrium of her voice's usual sharp edge firmly returned. 

Billy grunts and shakes his head. He won't look her in the eye but Max is sure his eyes are tear-bright. "Maybe," he says. 

She leans in to look at the name printed on the page just under his finger - Vincent Price - #2 2131 Acklen Ave. Nashville - 615-848-7149 -  just as above her, El says, "We'll have one order of fries and one piece of cherry pie with two forks, please," to the waitress who grunts as a response and walks off.

Max digs through her backpack and grabs her notebook, ripping out a page and writing the information down on it - they'll need it for later and she's not about to let Billy rip a page out of the phone book and risk getting their waitress (or someone else) in trouble just because Billy is an ass and doesn't think about things like that. She rips the extra space off of the page and is about to pass it over to Billy when El says, "Wait," and grabs the pencil out of her hand without asking. 

Eleven scribbles her phone number down in her messy, barely legible handwriting and taps Billy on the shoulder. "Here," she says as she slides the piece of paper across the table to him, "in case you ever need to call me." 

Billy's tongue darts out over his bottom lip as he looks at the paper and just when Max thinks he's going to say something terrible and mean and she's going to need to protect El like she's been preparing all day for, instead he ducks his head and says, "Thanks," all soft and quiet, like that's a thing that he can just do now.

The waitress arrives with their french fries and their cherry pie soon after that and Max busies herself asking El all about her new house and her new life while Billy just stares out the window like a guy that's lost everything and doesn't really hope he can get it back and Max still doesn't know what to do with that so she imagines throwing it out into the parking lot, imagines it melting into the asphalt and tries her best to listen to El go on excitedly about her new bedroom in a way they both know isn't as sincere as she's pretending it is. 

 

 

 

---

 

2131 Acklen Avenue is, as it turns out, a honky tonk bar with what looks like apartments above it. Maybe. Possibly. If you squint real hard.

They'd called this guy, Vincent Price, from the diner's phone after they'd finished their food and it had turned out luck was on their side after all, he was home and he was available and they could come over right away, if they wanted. 

Max doesn't like it. 

She hadn't liked the sound of the guy's voice on the phone, hadn't liked the too willing way he just invited strangers into his home like it was just part of what he did for a living and she hadn't liked the look on Billy's face during the entire conversation, so hard and so desperate at the same time, but she also knew that there was no way they were leaving town without finishing this so here she was, standing outside of a honky tonk bar grasping El's hand and watching the vein in Billy's neck pulse half in what she knew he'd never admit was fear and half in the sort of rage she knew she'd be hearing about later. 

A man drunkenly stumbles out of the bar, the saloon style doors attached to the front of the building swinging wide with the effort. Country music pours out of the bar as the alcohol pours out of the drunken man who is now clutching on to the pink stucco wall of the building for dear life. Max catches Billy sneering, probably at the music but maybe at the guy and then watches him fumbling around in his pockets, eventually fishing out a cigarette and a lighter. 

The shadows that splay out over his face from the way he holds his hand over his cigarette makes Max's stomach flutter and then clench like it's releasing something nasty into the rest of her body and she shivers. 

She has a bad feeling about this. What if this doesn't work out? What if they're wrong and this guy can't help? Billy hadn't exactly been clear over the phone, so for all she knows this guy could've thought what they wanted was to buy drugs off of him and then where would they be? If this doesn't work, what will Billy do? He's already chomping on his cigarette rather than really smoking it, almost like he wants to break it in half, like he wants to - 

No, Max thinks, this is a bad idea and we should leave, just as El squeezes her hand tighter and Billy takes a deep breath and says, "Let's get this over with."

They head in through the rickety side door of the building and up some equally rickety (and dangerous looking, Max notes) stairs before knocking on a small brown door with a rusty bronze '2' on the front of it. 

For a second there's no answer and Max feels her heart rocket up into her throat. 

Billy knocks a second time and the same voice Max had heard on the phone earlier calls out, "Yeah, yeah, just give me a second!" Then, more quietly, "Jesus!"

There's the sound of things being rustled around, then the door is cracking open, revealing the most perfect match up of a face to a voice Max has ever seen. The guy is tall and thin, reedy, and is coated in about an inch of oil and grease, like he doesn't know what a shower looks like, let alone how to work one. He is every inch the sleazy slimeball his voice made her think he'd be and she's certain the guy has to think they're here to buy drugs. 

"Can I help you?" the guy says, running a hand through his long brown hair. It's just as oily as the rest of him and just as discomforting. 

"I called about twenty minutes ago, you told me to come over," Billy says, voice neutral in a way Max is pretty sure she's never heard before. She didn't know neutral and Billy were things that could ever go together, and yet, apparently, here they are.

"Oh," the guy says, suddenly all smiles. "Right." He steps back and waves a hand at his dimly lit, crappy apartment. "Come right in."

Billy steps inside without a second's hesitation, again, so desperate but Max stops short and shares a worried look with Eleven before they both follow Billy inside.

The second they're inside and the door is closed the guy looks them all up and down like he's assessing a threat and it makes Max's stomach plummet into her shoes and makes El's face twitch like she's about to raise her hands, like she's preparing to fight if she has to but then her face goes slack like she's remembering she doesn't have powers anymore. It's something Max has seen her do at least a dozen times in the past month alone. 

Max gives El's hand another squeeze and gives her a look she hopes gets across the thought that while those powers of hers might be down, Max's fists still work just fine.

"So," the guy says, looking directly at Max and her balled up left fist and the death grip her right hand has on Eleven, "I'm Vincent, in case some of you don't know and what exactly were you looking for, again?" 

Eleven is the first to do anything. She whips her backpack off her shoulders in an instant and hands over the picture of a younger (much younger, much less disgusting) Vincent to him. "We know about your powers and we need your help."

"Huh," he says, like he's been handed an essay with a slightly less-than-awesome grade on it or a receipt with the wrong price, something mildly interesting, not what must be his biggest secret in the whole world. "Well, that's certainly the weirdest way anyone's ever figured out about what I do but, yeah, you got me. Now what exactly did you need?" He looks over at Billy. "You were kinda vague over the phone." 

It's such a weird response and Max has so many questions, starting with weirdest way anyone's found out? Like he's done this before? But before she can ask Billy's tongue flickers out over his lower lip, same as it did earlier and he says, "A friend of mine died and I need you to bring him back," sounding so eerily calm that Max decides to drop all of her questions right there on the spot.

Vincent nods like this makes perfect sense and heads to the back of the room where an old, yellow fridge stands beside a plastic folding card table with a microwave on it, which is apparently what passes for a kitchen in this 'apartment'. The fridge is empty except for a can of beer and a jug of milk and he grabs the beer, taking his time popping the tab, looking or pretending to look, like he's thinking. 

"All right," he says, slowly meandering his way back over to them. "I can do that, I've done it a couple of times before, but I'll warn you now, there are no refunds and this person you want back, they won't come back the same, they never do." 

"That's fine, I don't care," Billy says. He's still radiating that same calm but it's starting to crack. 

"Alright, two things," Vincent says as he slams down half of his beer in one long gulp, the muscles of his obscenely long throat working in such a visible way that Max feels one of her eyes start to twitch in revulsion. "First, I need a name and a picture."

"His name's Steve Harrington," Billy says as he takes his wallet out of his pocket. "And I have a picture right here." He carefully removes a folded, clearly worn photo out from the back of his wallet and Max finds herself leaning forward to see what it is as he unfolds it. 

It's a picture of Billy and Steve standing in front of Billy's Camaro in the high school parking lot with their arms wrapped around each other and they're both… looking at each other and smiling. Like real, genuine smiles.

And…

Billy has just been carrying this photo around in his wallet this entire time. 

And…

He didn't pay any attention to the waitress at the diner. 

And…

He stopped himself from saying Steve is… whatever big, important thing he was gonna say Steve is when she asked him about his plan to get Steve back.

It's like a code is being cracked open in front of her and Max has to dig her thumbnail into the side of her leg to stop from making a noise as it all comes together. Billy and Steve aren't friends. Billy loves Steve. Like she loves Lucas. Like Eleven loves Mike.

And in that instant, in that one single second, everything makes sense. The hairspray. The tight jeans. His disdain for every girl he's ever been with. His anger and his rage.

Neil. 

Max sees it all now. There's been a common thread running through everything this whole time, she's just been too blind, too ignorant, too stupid to see it.

Billy's gay. Billy's gay and they're not here to save his friend but the boy he loves. 

How could she not have seen this before? 

She looks over at Billy and finally she understands. This is what grief looks like. That's what this has been. Grief over losing someone you love. 

She'd thought he was just fucked up because of the situation, because of the way things had gone down, like she doesn't know Steve all that well but seeing him die like that... its done things to her. Its given her nightmares she has to scream into a pillow about just to deal with. Dustin, who viewed Steve half as a brother, half as a best friend, has been destroyed by what happened. And Billy and Steve were friends and she figured Billy was just worse at handling it than the rest of them were.

But that's not it. 

It's so much worse than that. Billy isn't just messed up, this isn't just something bad that he can't get over. This is his whole life destroyed. 

"What's the second thing?" Billy asks, impatient. 

"Hmm?" Vincent's staring at the photo, has a hand raised to his face, the edge of a hangnail on his thumb between his lips. He looks like he's trying to decipher the hidden meaning of the photo and Max feels a swelling wave of protectiveness overcoming her but this time it's not for El. This time it's for Billy. 

"You said there was a second thing," Billy says, all previous calm completely eroded. He looks like he's about ready to stop using his words and start letting his fists do the talking, but Vincent doesn't seem to notice. He looks up at Billy, his eyes half glazed over and he nods. 

"Right," he says. "There's a price." 

Billy stands up a little taller. This guy has a few inches on him but Billy's got a lot more muscle and takes up a lot more space. "How much?" he asks.

"Just." Vincent sucks his bottom lip between his teeth and looks back down at the photo. "You know he won't be the same, right?" 

Billy blows out a long breath, giving the impression of a bull just looking for red. "And I told you I don't care. I don't care if he comes back and marries Nancy fucking Wheeler, so long as he comes back." 

Vincent nods his head and hands Billy back his photo, which Billy hastily but gently puts back into his wallet. Vincent seems to take this as some sort of sign and Max knows nothing good can come of the look he starts giving Billy. She glances over at Eleven and Eleven just shrugs. There's nothing for either of them to do right now and they both know it.

"Now how much?" Billy barks.

Vincent leans back, stretches, lazy and relaxed as anything. It's several good, long seconds before he says, "Five thousand dollars. And no refunds."

Billy's eyes almost pop out of his head. "Five grand? How the hell am I supposed to get that kind of money? Rob a bank?" 

Vincent shrugs. "If you have to." 

"I…" Billy starts but doesn't finish. It's the first time Max has ever seen him speechless. There's a long pause before he says, "I need some time to think," and storms out. 

Max follows him out on autopilot, dragging El along with her and just as her foot hits the first step on the staircase she hears Vincent calling out, "Take all the time you need! I'll be here all day!" It almost sounds like he's laughing at them, the bastard.

Ahead of them, Billy grunts like the noise has been punched out of him and Max feels the same protective urge rising up again, pictures walking back up the stairs, back into that apartment and slugging that loser right where it hurts most. 

She almost does, but then El squeezes her hand again and she doesn't, just follows Billy as he flies out the door and prowls around to the front of the bar to pace in front of the Camaro.

"Five thousand dollars…" he groans, hand raised to pinch at the bridge of his nose, eyes closed. "Five thousand dollars, how the hell am I gonna…" He stops. Opens his eyes. He looks at his car. 

His eyes widen in what Max knows is the dumbest plan he could possibly have, knows that he must love Steve because she knows he loves that car and to even think of giving it up for anybody…

"Uh, guys?" Eleven says softly, causing both of them to whip their heads towards her in a way that has her jumping hard enough that the hand still gripping tightly to Max's shakes a little bit.

"I think I have a better idea." She lifts her arm up so her sleeve slips down enough to reveal the small, black tattoo printed on her forearm. "I think we can offer him a trade."

They head back upstairs after they talk it over but just before Billy raises his fist to knock on the door, Max pulls Eleven aside and says, "Are you sure you want to do this? To tell this guy about you and what you know? This could be really dangerous." 

Eleven nods. "If it'll bring Steve back, I have to do it." Max squeezes Eleven's hand again and Eleven squeezes back. Max's hand got all numb and sweaty forever ago, but no way is she dropping it now. 

Billy spares the two of them a glance but pretends he doesn't and raises his hand to the door. It swings open after just one knock and Vincent is standing there, giving them a curious look. He waves them in, same as before and they all step inside, none of them hesitating this time. 

"That was the fastest bank robbery I've ever seen," Vincent says, smiling at his own cleverness. It makes Max want to punch him. Billy too, if the way his knuckles crack is any sort of indication.

Eleven moves forward, towards Vincent, dragging Max with her and awkwardly shoves her sleeve up with their clasped hands. "We have information to trade," she says. 

Vincent stumbles forward a step, mouth literally hanging open. "Wait. You're from Hawkins, too?" he says, and this time, this time he actually sounds appropriately freaked out. 

"I am. And there's a lot about that lab and the people there that I can tell you if you'll take the deal," El says. She has her chin up and her shoulders pushed back, all business, and it makes Max wants to smile, but she holds off, not wanting to give anything away in front of Vincent. She doesn't want to think about what he might do with it, what he might interpret from it.

Vincent cocks his head to the side aggressively. "Hmmm." He clasps his hands behind his back and shuffles over to Billy. "I think I'll take her information, if it's good, plus what you've got in your wallet and that should about cover it." He nods sharply at Billy's pocket and at his wallet before looking back at El and Max and smiling. "Man's gotta eat," he says.

Billy grunts but removes his wallet again. He pulls five bills out and hands them over. "Hmmm…" Vincent says again, making Max want to punch him again. He licks his fingers before flipping through the bills, counting them. "Is five hundred all you've got?"

Billy nods sharply. "Yeah," he says. "Five hundred dollars is all I've got." 

"Well…" Vincent rolls his eyes to the ceiling like he's thinking real hard. "I almost never work this cheap, but you guys are real cute, so I guess that'll have to do." Vincent stuffs the money in the back pocket of his faded jeans and sighs like he's the most magnanimous human being on the face of the earth. 

"Was that…" Max finds herself unable to stop from asking. "Was that…"

"All my summer job money, yeah," Billy says.

Vincent laughs like that's the best joke he's ever heard. "Summer job money." He shakes his head. "Now aren't you precious." Billy grits his teeth and steps up to Vincent, his fists rising, fight response fully engaged.

"I wouldn't do that if I were you," Vincent says sweetly. He doesn't move an inch, just looks down at Billy with the brightest of smiles. "I'm the only one who can bring your friend back." 

Billy still looks like he wants to punch him. Max really wants to punch him. But Eleven clears her throat and says, "If you want to hear my story, I can tell it to you now," and exactly as intended it has Vincent turning to her with his full attention. Billy folds his arms across his chest and kicks the wall. 

Eleven tells Vincent everything. She tells him about the lab, about how all the children's parents were told that they were dead, about how her mom was pretty much killed by the lab, about how the lab got shut down and then she gets to a part of the story Max has never heard before - about a girl from the lab with powers like them named Kali and how she's out there getting revenge on the people from the lab for people like them.

When she finishes, Vincent is smiling, but like a real smile this time, none of that passive-aggressive, nasty bullshit he'd been doing before. 

"Thank you," he says and it's the first sincere thing Max has heard him say since they've been here. It doesn't last for long though, two seconds later he pulls that old "I don't care and I'm a sleazeball" mask right back on. "Alright," he says, rubbing his hands together, "let's make this happen."

He steps into the middle of the room and holds out both of his hands. "Okay, so we have to all be holding hands while I'm doing this. Partly because I need the connection with the people whose lives I'm altering and partly because you need the connection with me so you don't forget what happened here today."

It's a very matter-of-fact explanation of a very unusual thing and yet somehow he manages to make it sound like he's trying to sell them a used car.

Billy steps forward and grabs one of Vincent's hands with a look like he's sticking his hand in a toilet and El goes next with a look that's not far off, leaving Max to complete the circle.

"Are you going to be joining us or what?" Vincent asks. 

Max shakes her head but says, "Yeah. Yes, uh, yeah." She can feel the tension gathering in every corner of her body and doesn't miss the dirty look Billy gives her as she grabs his hand.

"Okay, now that we're all ready..." Vincent says. He closes his eyes and Max watches as Billy does the same. She and Eleven both keep their eyes open, El squeezing her hand tighter as Vincent's nose starts to bleed just like El's used to. Max squeezes back and prays, to who she isn't sure, she's never been religious before this moment, but she prays that this works. 

Because Billy is an ass, but he doesn't deserve to have to live with something like this. He deserves to have someone who makes the crap hand he got dealt by life just a little bit easier. He deserves to be with the boy he loves. 

He deserves for this to work. And so does Steve. 

Vincent lets out a long breath, opens his eyes and drops their hands. 

Nothing happens.

"I don't feel any different," Max says. She fights against it but she can feel her heart starting to rattle around in her chest again. The smug look on Vincent's face makes her wonder if maybe he really is just a used car salesman and he just sold them a lemon. Like maybe his power is actually something useless, like making milk curdle and that's what the milk in the fridge is for and that's how he escaped the lab. He was so useless they let him go.

"Did it work?" El asks bluntly.

Vincent rolls his eyes. "It'll take a few days, but it worked, yeah." He rubs his grimy shirtsleeve at his nose. "When it changes, you'll know." 

Billy narrows his eyes, balls his hands up into fists and for the first time ever, Max hopes he punches this guy. "And we're just supposed to believe you on that?" Billy says.

Vincent smirks, raises his thumb to bite at his hangnail some more. "This is why I get payment up front. Because I know you don't. No one ever does."

Billy raises and cracks his fists. Max only barely stops herself from cheering him on. 

Vincent takes a step back, but he's still smirking. "Do that and I can take it all back."

Billy drops his hands to his sides, fists unclenching as his whole body sags towards the floor.

"Nice doing business with you," Vincent says. "Now if we're quite done, I have some other shit to do."

Billy's nose curls up like he's about to say something mean but instead he just shouts, "Eleven, Max, we're leaving, let's go," and storms out of the room. 

This time, Max says something. "You're a bastard," she calls out behind her as Eleven drags her away. 

 

 

 

---

 

It's dark out by the time Max and Billy get home and again, Max has a bad feeling. She looks over at Billy and she knows he feels it too. It's like there's something in the air, something sharp and spiky, foul and acrid. 

Something dangerous.

Billy turns the headlights off, then cuts the engine and for a moment they both just sit there in the silence and the darkness, not speaking, not moving, barely even breathing. 

This is big, what they've done, it's big and now there are gonna be consequences.

The porch lights turn on and Max gets hit with a wave of nausea so violent it makes her dizzy. 

"Let's get this over with," Billy says as he steps out of the car. He's got this wary, resigned look on his face that Max realizes she's seen before. This time she feels bad for him for it and that… feeling bad for Billy? That's definitely going to take some getting used to.

They walk inside and there's Neil and her Mom, waiting for them right by the door, like guard dogs. They don't even get to taking their shoes off before Neil is screaming, "Where the hell have you been? What the hell did you do?" at Billy. 

Billy shakes his head and averts his eyes and doesn't say anything. It's the second time Max has ever seen him speechless and it freaks her out, seeing him defanged like this. 

Neil charges forward and shoves Billy up against the door with a bang and Billy lets him. "Look at me when I'm talking to you!" Neil snarls, hands gripping so tight to Billy's shirt it has to hurt

Billy slowly raises his eyes to meet Neil's and for this obedience, Neil slaps him. "What the hell did you do? Do you have any idea how worried we were? We've been out all night looking for the both of you! We almost called the police to report Max as missing!" 

Max hears her Mom sob loudly; she imagines there are probably tears flowing down her face unchecked but she can't take her eyes off Neil and Billy. 

"I'm sorry, Sir," Billy says quietly. He has to fight to keep his eyes on Neil and Neil slams him against the door again. Billy's head hits the glass panel in the middle of the door almost hard enough to break it, the sound is near deafening and for the first time, Max looks over at her mother and wonders why she isn't doing anything to stop this, but Susan is just standing there, wringing her hands and bawling like a child.

"What the hell is wrong with you?" Neil roars. "I've tried so hard to make you into a man worth knowing but then you go and you pull a stunt like this and you make it clearer to me than ever that you're never going to be deserving of my respect, of anyone's respect. You're just a waste of time and you'll only ever be a waste of time!" He drops one hand from Billy's shirt, drawing it back almost in slow motion and Max knows Billy sees it coming but he doesn't even flinch, he doesn't even flinch and that, that is what finally has Max shouting, "It was for me!" 

Neil's fist re-directs last second, going from aiming for Billy's face to his collarbone, landing with a crack sounding so solid it leaves Max imagining deep, dark purple bruises and has her flinching and fighting not to throw up. And Billy? Billy just takes the hit, his only reaction to the pain being that he swallows roughly and dips his head for half a second. 

That's it, half a second and he's back to looking straight at Neil.

"It was for me!" Max shouts again. "He's covering for me! Me and Jane took the bus to her new house and didn't have enough money to get tickets back. Billy came and got us."  The lie flows more smoothly off her tongue than anything else ever has but Neil doesn't quite look like he believes it, looks pissed he's lost an excuse to punch his own son some more. Max's Mom hiccup-sobs and for the first time instead of making Max want to comfort her, it twists something in her gut, makes her angry. 

Neil's face twists and he looks from Billy to Max and back to Billy. "Is this true?" he asks Billy, a fist still gripping tightly to Billy's shirt, still pressing him up against the door.

Without so much as looking at Max or even blinking, Billy says, "It is." 

Neil drops his hand from Billy and turns to Max and as he does it's like a light switch is flipped, the expression on his face going from one of pure rage to one of soft understanding so, so fast it makes Max's skin crawl. 

"Max," Neil sighs gently. "If you wanted to go, you should have just asked us. We would have taken you." 

Max shrugs and does her best to look repentant like a normal kid getting a normal lecture from her normal parents and not like she's just had her whole worldview violently shattered. "I didn't know if you'd let me and I wanted to see it before she left," she says. 

"And it's better to ask forgiveness than permission, right?" Neil says, smiling. There are even tears shining softly in his eyes, like he's a normal parent and this is a normal lecture and it makes Max want to scream. It makes her want to find Steve's old nail bat and threaten Neil with it. 

Instead she nods and says, "Yeah. I'm sorry," all the while knowing that this is going to be added to the rotation of her nightmares and that she's going to be spending a lot of time picturing hitting Neil with that nail bat and anything else she can imagine from here on out.

"Well, next time ask, okay?" Neil says softly, so softly and Max can't believe she ever bought into any of his crap. Like she knew he and Billy didn't have a good relationship, she wasn't dumb, she'd noticed, but this is the first time it's been like this, this is the first time Neil's hit Billy in front of her, this is the first time he's done that and then done this, turned and looked at her like he loves her, like he's a concerned parent, like he's a normal person right after saying such mean and awful things to his own kid. 

Because Billy, she realizes, is like her, is still just a kid, no matter how much older he looks or what kind of car he drives. He's still just a kid. Tears spring to her eyes at the thought and Neil rushes forward to hug her, clearly thinking she's crying for entirely different reasons and it makes her feel like she's never going to be clean ever again, no matter how many showers or baths she takes.

"We were so worried about you," Neil says as he strokes her hair. Max looks up at Billy and sees the rage building up inside of him, she can see it in his eyes and in the stiff way he's holding himself.

"You terrified us half to death!" Susan wails, rushing forward to get in on the hug. After a moment she holds her arm out to Billy, to include him, but it's clearly an afterthought. 

Billy doesn't move a muscle, just stays right where he is, feet planted like he's bracing for another hit. But no other hits come. Instead, Neil just ruffles Max's hair, ends the hug and drags her Mom off to their bedroom. 

Max waits until she hears their door click closed and their tv turn on before she looks over at Billy. He looks like he's halfway between rage and tears and one hundred percent looks like he's going to shatter, either way. 

There are so many questions she wants to ask, so much she wants to say, so much she wants to do, starting with stealing his car keys, shoving him into the car and driving him to the hospital to get his collarbone looked at but…

She can't. She knows she can't. She knows that just because she has a better understanding of the way things are now doesn't mean he does. Just because he hasn't forced her away after what just happened, that doesn't actually mean anything.

It might actually be a bad thing, honestly, with the way he's staring blankly ahead like he is. So she does the one thing she's actually brave enough to do and grabs him by the hand and drags him outside. 

He lets her and it makes something inside her twitch; Billy is not supposed to be this quiet, not ever. He's all rage, all fire, all…

Isn't he?

She can feel tears starting to well up again and if Billy notices, he doesn't say anything. She puts it off like she's just cold, even shivers and rubs at her nose like it's running - because it is - and even stomps her feet a couple of times to add to the act. 

They stand there in the not-quite silence for a few minutes, the laugh track from whatever show Neil and Susan are watching echoing through the walls and making Max actually shiver. Because how can they…

How can they just…

Settle in and watch a sitcom like nothing happened? How can they…

The tears start encroaching again and this time, finally, Billy notices.

"Don't," he says, voice all sharp and weirdly brittle. "Don't be crying over me. It's weird."

She sniffles and decides fuck it, if she's gonna cry, she's gonna cry and yeah, it's over him and his stupid fucking boyfriend and this stupid fucking day and their shitty fucking parents and her shattered fucking worldview. 

"Fuck," she curses. She wipes at her nose openly. "I…" She doesn't know what to say. 

"That about covers it," Billy says. He pulls out another cigarette and this time the flame from the lighter as he flicks it on illuminates his face rather than casting it in shadow; it's oddly fitting for the day they've had and it makes her skin itch with the need to ask, to know more, to see if maybe she can get more illuminated than just his face, makes her want to see all of him lit up like that. 

She wants to ask about Neil so badly and someday she will but for now the scariest thing she can think of is for Billy to get that blank stare on his face again and for him to stop talking, so she goes with something else. Something she hopes is easier. Something good.

"It's not just-" She swallows. 

"You really miss Steve, don't you?" 

Billy looks over at her, face unreadable in a way that has nothing to do with the dim lighting on the porch and for a moment Max thinks he might just up and walk away without answering. 

"Don't tell anyone," he says, finally, words coming out as sharp as knives, like he thinks she's trying to attack him. Which, considering everything both tonight and in general, makes sense.

"I won't," she says, solemn but loud. 

It takes a long moment, long enough for Max to start holding her breath before he says, "Okay."

"Do you…" Max whispers, watching as he blows out a long plume of smoke. "Do you love him?"

He turns to her and again he looks so heartbroken and human and sad it breaks her heart. This time it breaks her heart. "I drove all the way to Nashville and gave a crazy man all of my money on the word of a fourteen year old girl that it would bring him back. What do you think?"

She nods and shoves her hands in her pockets. "I think I hope this works." 

He nods and they stay out on the porch together until they're both shaking with the cold and have no choice but to head back inside.

Chapter Text

Friday, November 15th, 1985

 

It's been about a week, or almost a week, before things really come to a head and Robin's cornering Steve in the back room at work with that feisty look on her face, the one that says there's a problem and she's decided to use her brain to fix it.

"Movie night," she says, "My place, tonight after work. You're coming if I have to drag you." 

Steve eyes her curiously. "And you'd have to drag me because?"

She huffs, tries to look irritated, but she's obviously nervous - it's crackling so close to the surface of her skin it's almost like he can see it. "Billy's going to be there," she says, quiet, brittle.

"Oh," Steve says, the noise of it punching out of him. It feels like those five words have drawn all the air out of the room. Billy's going to be there. Billy's going to be there. Billy's. Going to be there. Five words and suddenly Steve feels like he needs to sit down.

He's been avoiding Billy since that day on the bleachers and he feels like an ass for it. He just… he doesn't know what he's supposed to do, anymore. It doesn't feel right. Like more and more he feels like he's just taking up space in someone else's life, like he's taken something from someone else and he just keeps thinking of Billy and…

It's not that…

Like he knows he wants Billy, memories that are entirely his own or not, he knows he feels how he feels because he knows what he wants is what he wants. Like that much he knows belongs to him.

But Billy?

More and more he feels like he belongs to someone else. Like Billy probably wants someone who isn't him but rather someone who just happens to have the same face as he does.

And that…

That makes Steve's head hurt. A lot.

"Steve?" Robin asks, clearly nervous, almost twitching with it. "You okay?" 

Steve raises a hand to his face, covers his eyes, closes them, nods anyway. "I'm fine," he says. His name should just be Steve "I'm fine" Harrington, at this point, honestly, with how much people have been asking him that lately. He is, though. He's fine. Really. "I'm fine. A movie night sounds good."

"Okay," Robin says, sounding like she doesn't at all believe him. "Take a minute if you need to." She puts a hand on his shoulder, squeezes briefly, and leaves the room, leaving him to his thoughts and the darkness he can feel settling in behind his eyes. 

 

---

 

Billy is waiting for them outside Robin's apartment building when they get there and Steve can see the tension in his shoulders, the way they're steadily creeping up and up and up from halfway across the parking lot. It makes Steve's insides squirm and his knees go weak and his palms start to sweat and by the time they get to Billy he's just a complete mess. 

"Hey," Billy says, curt, and something in the bluntness of that single word crushes something in Steve like it's a cement block and he's the softest, most easily flattened thing in the whole world; he must be, if that one word is hurting him so much.

"Hey," he says back with the world's dorkiest little handwave which Billy nods at but then he also looks like he's trying to fight off a scowl, so, ultimately Steve doesn't know what to think, doesn't know what's going on. Beside him, Steve can feel Robin getting prickly and tense, actually irritated this time rather than merely pretending to be just to save face. 

"So I've got The Terminator," she says as they start heading inside. "And we can either watch that or if you'd rather we could skip my place and head out to see Nightmare on Elm Street 2." As she speaks it's made clear she's decided to just barrel her way through this, act like things are fine, like they're all just friends and this is any other friday night, like if she pretends everything is alright, then that means it is. 

Steve risks glancing over at Billy as they step into the elevator and Billy gives him a look that says he agrees with him rather than with her - this is definitely super weird and they are most definitely not alright.

"I vote Terminator," Billy says as he looks away from Steve. "I've already seen Nightmare and Steve here would hate it." He even bumps Steve's shoulder like they're friends, like he's decided that even if he agrees with Steve, that this is not alright and things are not fine, he's going to go along with Robin's plan of pretending like they are, like it is, because that's easier for him. He still won't look Steve in the eye, though, and that hurts Steve more than he wants it to, more than he'd ever admit if asked. 

But… somebody asking would mean somebody admitting to the problem and clearly that's not going to happen here today so Steve says, "I probably would," all quiet but still determined to put a good face on it anyway.

"You'd love it though, Robin," Billy says, then lower, more conspiratorially, "It's one of the gayest things I've ever seen." 

And Steve, he just keeps staring at Billy. He wants to get on board with their plan, he does, but all he can do is watch Billy as he and Robin have a whole conversation about all the so obviously gay movies they've seen. All he can do is stare at Billy and Billy won't look at him and things are so not fine right now.

And yet.

And yet.  

When they get into the apartment and Steve sits down on the floor in front of the couch, Billy sits next to him, like this is just a thing they do, like Billy's knee pressed up against his is normal, natural, casual so Steve decides to actually get on board the whole pretending-things-are-fine train, even if it's just for tonight because at some point he became embarrassingly, achingly soft and he needs the heat seeping through Billy's jeans and into his own leg like he needs the air he's breathing. 

And that is utterly and truly pathetic, he knows he is. But instead of admitting to that he says, "So what's this movie about, again?" as Robin puts the tape in and hits play. 

"This robot from the future comes back to kill this woman that's going to give birth to the guy that's going to save all the humans from the robots in the future," Robin says as she climbs onto the couch behind him, behind them.

"Huh. I don't think I've seen that," Steve blurts out then bites his tongue, afraid he's ruined the whole pretending-it's-fine bit already by admitting he hasn't heard of something Robin and/or Billy have already shown the other version of him.

Robin sighs and for a second Steve holds his breath, but then she says, "That's because you're hopeless," and Steve has no idea if she's saying that because it's true or just as a part of this game that they're all playing, but when he looks back at her she's smiling at him, so he decides to go with the first one. Because, he decides, even if it's actually a lie, just for tonight, it's the truth. 

Just for tonight, it's nice to sit and watch a movie with his friends, with the people he loves. It's nice to make jokes and throw popcorn at Billy for being obnoxious. It's nice to pretend, just for tonight, that he's a normal guy, a normal person not dealing with… whatever the fuck is happening to him.

But then… 

But then there's this scene in the movie where Kyle Reese is kissing Sarah Connor and Billy's leg is still pressed up against Steve's, hot like a branding iron, and Steve snaps and before he's even thought it through, he's leaning over and he's kissing Billy.

And this kiss?

It's the best thing Steve's ever tasted, ever experienced, ever done. It's a hundred times better than the memories and it's a thousand times better than kissing Nancy because this is real, because Billy is real, is right here and is kissing him back, is wrapping one hot, possessive hand around the back of his neck as the other is moving into his hair. Billy is anchoring him here, holding him down and Billy is moaning into his mouth, moaning with so much desperation, his tongue pressing into Steve's mouth with so much sheer force, like he's been waiting, been waiting for Steve so patiently and -

It's too much. The love flooding through Steve right now is too much, it's burning him up, the room is too hot and he's burning up, burning alive, so he puts a hand to Billy's chest and pushes him back, breaks the kiss, even though there's a part of him that never wants to stop, there's a part of him that wants to drown kissing Billy just like this. 

He wants that, a big part of him really does, but a bigger part of him has hit his internal panic button and he knows that if he doesn't stop he'll burn alive and it won't be cute, it'll be real, like there'll be real scars if there's anything left of him at all.

"I'm sorry," he says, voice kiss starved and harsh. "I'm sorry." 

Billy looks at him like he doesn't get it, like there's something he's missing, like a man that's just been offered everything he ever wanted and now it's being dragged away again. "Why?" he asks, his voice just as rough but also wearier, so much wearier than Steve's. 

Above them, Robin says nothing and she doesn't move, either, like she's a statue and if she moves or speaks she might break something, might break them.

Trouble is, they're already broken, both of them, Steve knows they are and he doesn't have the slightest idea on what to do about that; there are oceans captured behind Billy's eyes and the waves are crashing onto the shore with such brutality, such ferocious intent, it's honestly a little terrifying.

But, Steve thinks, thoughts tumbling into his head in that unavoidable, car crash on the highway at three am sort of way, the sort of way you later look back at and see for what it is, what it really, truly is - unavoidable, completely outside of your own control - that's not it, that's never been it. He's not afraid of Billy, never has been, even on that night, the one with all the screaming and Billy breaking that plate over his head, the one that left scars that have since disappeared, even then, even in that world, even with that version of Billy, Steve was never afraid of him. He knows, knows with every single cell of his body and every inch of his soul that whatever Billy's got, whatever he's going to do, he'll take it. And he'll take it gladly. And maybe that's not a good thing in its entirety, maybe Steve's just a little too desperate by nature, by his very design, but it's still the truth. 

He wants absolutely everything to do with Billy, even the bad parts. Even the dangerous ones.

This realization, this startling truth makes Steve's mouth dry up, makes his tongue shrivel and yet somehow some part of his brain pushes out the words, "I can't do this right now, but we should talk about it?" and he watches, internally frozen as Billy's eyes go sharp, waves cresting big enough to drown not just a man but an entire village and somehow, still, even with this, Steve continues on, like he's not even in control of it anymore, "Like I want to talk about it, I do, but..." he trails off, insides frozen and outsides catching up quick. "I need some time to sort a few things out." He swallows. Like processing this massive shift, crossing this unavoidable line is something he can sort through, deal with in a few hours after having struggled with it actively for a few weeks now. Right. Sure. "So maybe we could meet up tomorrow? I could come to your place and pick you up around ten am?" 

The waves in Billy's eyes freeze, stock still like they couldn't possibly drown anyone, like Steve's not already gone, not already buried in their depth. "Tomorrow at ten," Billy says and Steve thinks it's supposed to come out sharp, commanding, but instead it's soft, so soft, like a promise - one Steve intends to keep.

"Ten," he repeats, taking a big step back from Billy and his eyes, from Robin and the tension in her shoulders, the magma quake in her gut Steve doesn't have to see to know is there. "Yeah."

Each step back he takes he feels like he can breathe just a little bit more, just a little bit easier, until finally he's backed into the door, the handle pressing into his spine like a warning and a beacon telling him he can go, like he can, in fact, get out, and he fumbles for it, steps out backwards, still staring at Billy until the door is closed in front of him, sealing them off from each other. 

He heaves a deep breath, satisfied, finally, and heads out for the parking lot and his car. 

When he gets in he doesn't put on any music, doesn't do anything but breathe as deeply as he can and grip the steering wheel hard enough to turn his knuckles white, hard enough to hurt. 

There are other parts to this. 

Like it's not just that he loves Billy. Like really, ferociously, deeply loves him to a truly terrifying degree. 

It's also that Billy's a guy. 

And Steve knows… he knows… he's thought about this before, okay. He's dealt with this before but… 

There's something different about thinking about a guy, about having memories and fantasies about kissing a guy and then actually doing it in real time, in real life. Like all of a sudden it's real now, and it's not just about Billy, but that he likes guys in general. Because he does. He really does.

He still likes girls, that part hasn't changed but… guys… guys are great too and that one kiss, brief though it might have been, it opened up a whole new world for him, a whole new set of possibilities he hadn't actively seen before now.

And as he reaches the center of town another thought occurs to him in a way that has him pulling over and getting out.

I like guys and if I'm going to date one, I'm going to have to tell people about it.

He walks down the street, passing by random people, some he knows and some he doesn't, some he recognizes and some he doesn't, and suddenly he feels completely alien in his own skin, his own life, his own town in a way he's never felt before, in a way that's different from how he'd felt earlier, like he's taking up space in someone one else's life. No, this… this is like… waking up and realizing he's separate from all the people around him, separate in a way that will always be there, has always been there even when he didn't notice it and it's in a way that's got nothing to do with what timeline he's in. Like no matter what timeline he's in, no matter how any of that plays out, he's still going to be different than everyone else, always will be and there's nothing he can do about it, never was.

He loves Billy and he has no idea what Billy wants from him, who Billy thinks he is or how badly he might react once he knows, but being with Billy would mean…

Being with Billy would mean, will mean, because he knows he's going to do it, be with him if Billy will still have him…

But...

Being with Billy will mean painting a target on his back. On both their backs. Even if they leave Hawkins, even if that, it's not exactly like there's anywhere that's safe for guys like them, not really.

And what is he supposed to do about that, exactly? How is he supposed to deal with this? How does anyone?

He starts to wonder how the other version of himself dealt with all these thoughts, with all these problems and that's when it happens, memories start peeking in through the cracks, slower this time than before, like the memories themselves this time are tentative, afraid, like such a thing is possible. 

There are blurry images of driving down a dark road at night, of a feeling of something crawling along the back of his neck then disappearing, of everything being too hot, images of being at Scoops and Robin staring at him like he's from another world and not being able to do anything as his body just shrugs at her and goes back to cleaning the ice cream freezer, and then - 

And then he's in Starcourt again but this time it isn't Billy staring down the Mindflayer, it's him. This time it isn't Billy hovering over Eleven like he's going to hurt her, it's him. This time Eleven reaches out to touch his face and she half says, half chokes out the words, "You are loved, you matter, you don't have to do this," and something in it, something in the emotion in her voice, it has him pausing. He's completely absorbed into this memory more so than any of the other ones, so much so in fact that he actively feels the urge to drag her over to the monster, feels something pulling at him from somewhere deep inside, something telling him to feed her to it. 

He wraps his hands around her shoulders and plans to keep on dragging her forward to her death and to his own when she says, "You were kissing him at the pool, in the storage closet. He was wearing that white tank top and the whistle around his neck and you had your hands in his hair. You love him."

And he remembers, or… well, the version of him that's kneeling over Eleven remembers, so he drops his hands from her shoulders, somehow catches a flash of gold and looks up at the second floor landing to see Billy standing there, watching him, eyes bright even from here and Steve remembers so he stands up tall and screams at the monster. Screams and this time he's the one pushing back at it when it goes for Eleven, this time he's the one getting stabbed.

And he feels it, feels the sharp, stabbing tentacles break through his body and tear him apart, feels it happen again and again, feels his lungs fill up with blood, feels himself choke on it, feels his eyes slam shut and not open again.

He feels himself die.

And this time, when he comes out of it, he's not standing where he was. Instead he's in this weird, dark space he can't quite call a room because it doesn't seem to have walls, or windows. It doesn't have doors or a ceiling and those are basically all the parts that make up a room, so…

"Hello?" he calls out. He waits. There's no answer. He walks forward and his footsteps echo. He stops.

Something walks forward, somehow simultaneously appearing out of nowhere but also like it's been there this whole time and he just didn't notice it before now. 

And this thing?

It has his face. This thing has his face.

"Hello," it says and the voice it uses is almost like his own, almost but not quite, there's malice as thick as a river current in it and he - while maybe he used to be kind of a dick, he knows he's never sounded quite like that, not even on his worst days.

But it keeps walking towards him and he wants to turn and run but he can't. He's stuck. Like he's actually, physically stuck. The thing with his face keeps walking, it's getting closer now, closer, and all he can do is watch. 

"Billy!" he screams but there's no sound. "Robin! Dustin!" Still, no sound. He's not even sure his lips moved that time or if he just wanted to scream. His hand comes up to his throat and the thing with his face is in front of him, now and -

And - 

Its eyes are black and its hands have black tendrils instead of fingers. He jerks back as much as he can while still unable to move his feet but the tendrils attached to its hands just lengthen and trail softly, slowly down his face.

"You're mine," it says. "All mine." It trails its hand down to his arm then his hand and links them together, intertwining its slimy, black tendrils with his fingers like they're a couple, like he'd wished he could have done with Billy even just the once but instead he's getting to do it with this… this thing. Then the other… well, what was the other arm only seconds ago is now a branching, twisted mass of tendrils pulsating in various shades of gray and black, almost like they've been lit up from the inside, but, no, lit's the wrong word, no, whatever this is, it's darker. It's darker and it's wrapping itself all over his shoulder and slip-sliding its way down his back. It's taking him over, he can feel it with each breath, with each and every beat of his heart; he's being dragged further and further away from himself, from his body until everything is hazy, fuzzy, soft and blurry.

He feels his feet moving again, this time of their own accord and he feels its tendrils continue to wind their way around his body, feels like he should be panicking, should be suffering through labored breathing and pain in his chest, but he's not. Everything is calm, his breaths keep coming out slow and even, even as the thing leads him away, he knows not where.

But he knows he's lost. He knows that much.