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Better Get At That Last Thing

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The Hargrove-Mayfield house had been quiet for hours - fire in the living room down to coals, lights and TV off, goodnights exchanged. Their heat had crapped out during the coldest weather the Indiana winter had offered yet, and bed had seemed the least miserable option to everyone. Billy had turned in early too, for once, to wrap up in his covers even if he was probably going to lie there without sleeping.

Then his bedroom door creaked open.

His stomach plummeted hard enough that for an instant the useless thought What the hell did I do? diffused every other thing on his mind, that it took a second for him to turn his head on his pillow and look for the person in the doorway. No light behind the outline, so that it was a dim figure in the night - but...

Billy sat up to take the situation in more clearly, wincing at giving up the protection of his comforter and three blankets, the air of a snowy January night finding his nerve endings through the shirts he was sleeping in. It was Max, not Dad, and now she was gently closing the door.

She obviously wasn't carrying the nailbat, either. The way she had her arms wrapped around herself, hands clutching her elbows, he'd also bet she wasn't holding another dose of cow tranquiliser or whatever. Max crept closer, footsteps muffled in thick socks, and reached the foot of his bed. The only movement Billy allowed himself was the tilt of his head as he followed her movement, to hide his remaining unease.

"I need to know what, exactly - if you can even explain! - your problem is," Max said in a firm undertone, lips barely moving, and climbed onto his bed.

Billy watched her get under the covers like it was happening on TV. "This is a single bed," he said, stupid as hell. He should be processing faster. It wasn't like he'd been asleep, or tired, really. It was that only hours ago, the two of them sitting on opposite sides of the living room, this was an impossibility complete enough the thought would never have occurred to him.

Max answered by moving to make space. Lying on her side with her back pressed to the wall, he thought she glanced up to gauge him. It was dark with the storm outside, but he caught the movement of her head.

"That means we'd get warm. Finally. Which would be great." Her teeth were chattering, percussion fuzzing the words. "And Mom and Neil will sleep later like they do when it's cold, and the place to fix the heating will only be open by nine, so we've got until almost eight. It's safe to talk. Well? Wouldn't you like to be able to sleep?"

There had been a couple of road trips during which they'd shared a bed, Dad and Susan on the other bed in the same motel room. Years ago, when they were little - these days Billy sometimes felt like he barely fit on a single bed when he was in it by himself.

"Even regular brothers and sisters don't do this," he hissed.

"You're shivering too, so we both benefit. I haven't slept right this whole stupid month and definitely not this past week, and..."

"And," Billy challenged. So he'd have an idea where the hell this had started and was meant to go.

"I meant what I said. When I came in," Max whispered. "Billy, I want to know why it's ... been different."

"Maxine, you ... castrated me," he said, mocking her earnest tone. "Almost literally, so fuckin' get this, you were the one who made it..."

She took his hand. One was on the mattress, the other gesturing to add emphasis, but his movements stopped instantly when colder fingers curled over the back of his already cold hand. He looked closely, and there was more than anger to Max's pinched expression. And where was the snap he was used to hearing in her voice? Why was she talking to him at all?

"...different."

"Ever since we moved here and you kept being so mad, all the time. That's what I mean."

"So now the fact that you think I'm the biggest jerk you've ever met started when we moved? Yeah right, Maxine."

"Trust me, I know you're a dick. No surprise there. You love fights, fine, you always got into plenty. But you and your friends had your st--" She choked like 'stupid' was a one-word tongue-twister, but she'd gone for it often enough in the past for him to hear it anyway. "--all your tough-guy rules when the fighting was between you guys, and you stopped when you won. It wasn't even something to wonder about, if you would stop or not. Once we moved to Hawkins, things really changed. Including that."

"And then it changed again." He made his voice warm, which would make the threat in it sound worse. "You got your way; what do you have left to whine about? In all honesty, I don't get it."

Max rushed to speak before he'd finished his last word. "What I mean is, it would be ... Wouldn't it be a good idea to, like, try and do something about all this stuff, to deal with it? So nothing gets worse for anybody. Either of us, you know?"

Her hand felt like it was getting colder. Billy kept glancing at that touch, because it was a far-out thing for her to do. It was something that came from way back when Susan had felt her little girl wasn't supposed to cross the street on her own, and never again. He could look as long as he liked, since Max wouldn't notice: She was keeping her eyes trained on the mattress directly in front of her.

Not confrontational but not sullen, and those were basically Max's only moods. He'd swear she was trying to avoid telling him what to do - that he was being negotiated with, no, managed, Max steering away from tripwires that she'd been yanking on for years.

His only two moods were supposed to be cool and pissed off, but now Billy was confused in a way he only could be in the darkness and quiet. He said: "Are you being nice to me?"

Max whipped her hand off his. He caught the broad strokes of a glare, familiar enough that he could superimpose her blue onto it as she bounced up and kicked off the covers. Leaving, hissing frustrated words. Both of them had started talking too loudly, and if the brat stomped her way to his door...

She wouldn't, she had a brain.

Billy wrestled her down anyway.

Getting an arm around the waist, he fell back to get her off-balance. The mattress springs made enough noise to also be a problem, especially since, of course, Max fought back. Pinning her arms to her body didn't stop her from kicking and wiggling.

"They'll hear, they'll hear, they'll hear. Sh, Max, shut up already. Shh!"

The idea finally got through to her. "So. Let. Go."

"Lie still. They won't see you from the door like this," Billy said, moving onto his side with his back to the door. "You're tiny, and I've got all these covers. So shut up. You're the one that came into my room - you'd be in trouble too."

He didn't add 'for once'. It wasn't true, so he left it off, the same way she'd tried to talk around things. Maybe that was what did the trick. The elbow in his stomach fell away.

His heart hammered, because something always had to be out of his control - what if she could feel it the same way he could feel the bumps of her spine against his diaphragm, her shoulder blades against his chest? They were quiet for long enough that the rushing noise in his ears subsided.

"Are you going to..." Max started. She took a breath, and he could feel that too. "Um, the blankets? Since they're kind of all over the place?"

She was bad at being (he was pretty sure the intention was to be) nice. Mad Max conversing without demands was weird. He had expected her to strategically avoid sounding uncertain around him again.

Billy adjusted his grip to keep a good hold on her with one arm - she made a swallowed sound he couldn't classify, but didn't struggle again - and pulled the bedclothes over both of them. He had to hoist Max up so she wasn't smothered and could get a piece of pillow, and this time she turned her head to give him a look. He avoided it, not sure what she saw at that angle, and fixed his eyes on a sliver of sky visible past the fall of the curtains. Thick clouds were visible by their movement, or by what his brain expected to see moving when the wind came louder around the corners of the house.

Warming up didn't take long, and after that, it was next to no time before Max dropped off. Another thing Billy hadn't expected. She'd been yawning and pale just about the whole month from being unused to sleeping in Indiana's midwinter, like she'd said - but he was holding her hostage for no reason and she should be pissed off. Scared. Tricking him. Instead Max was relaxed into deadweight.

Shit. He was still crazy. He shouldn't have started wrestling the kid. Two months since November, and this time he was going out of his mind with no warning - there had been cause to the effect, that night. Now he lay her with Max cutting off circulation in his right arm and he didn't want to let up on his hold in case she was waiting to get away from him, despite how well he knew she sucked at faking anything. Jesus Christ, the idea of moving, the feeling of muscles in his arm shifting to perform the motion, set off the noise in his ears again.

Part of him reeled in indignation that Max dared to talk about changing and differences, part of him freaked out that she'd noticed it too, part of him was laying out the reasons she'd have had to live up a damn tree in the woods to have avoided noticing. He didn't know what to think; he couldn't stop thinking. Dry-mouthed, sweating at his temples but shivering anyway ... crazy. Again. For good.

Fucking Maxine. How did she dare?

Like it was a surprise--he knew her better these days. If she could halfway kill him, she could ask him a question.

Asking, for fuck's sake, as she attempted not to actually tell him to do anything. She'd been directing him for two months with looks, her glares and attitude saying nothing but "Leave me alone". Now - holding his hand. Playing along with all his old announcements that no one had the right to order him around, months after they'd been proven to be worthless by her even more than Dad. Acting like a teddy bear. However cold it was, it couldn't be cold enough to get Max doing any of this.

Billy wasn't big on confession. Moving by any tiny amount, though, made him aware all over again of the drape of the fine chain around his neck, and the weight of the pendant with the Virgin Mary falling between him and Max. Being crazy didn't mean you didn't know what you were doing, he thought, but that you did it anyway. His throat clicked as he swallowed, trying to work enough moisture into his mouth to speak.

"You're shit," he whispered to Max.

"'Do you understand, do you understand, say you understand.' Your mom's the only one left that's not a piece of shit! Susan's sure not living through that without a breakdown, crying into breakfast just because, one day - her and me both." He pressed his wet face into the pillow. "You heard all that all along, you saw him do that, you got enough of it and it's all yours now - from him and me and." He had to gasp up air. "You were supposed to be scared and. Easy to deal with and shut up and. Like any other fucking kid, not like you mattered more."

"Billy?"

He was taking care to keep his volume really low, but folded around her, he must be easy to hear.

"Now you're all-in on this disaster and it keeps on going Jesus Christ, like, like it's chucked in the van every time I got to pack up, leave again. As if even the 'real world' is actually this kind of garbage?"

"What the fuck?" Max slurred through sleep.

There were three phone numbers between him and the last person he'd really wanted to and been able to talk to. Maybe four, five by this point - Dad had wanted to get away from Mom in return for how she'd left, and she hadn't stayed in one place. Which meant that Billy had Max beat: He didn't think he'd slept right since sometime in December, nights providing a stage set up for the words that wouldn't stop circling inside his head.

"No escaping now, shitbird. Welcome..." He still wasn't going to tell her she was welcome to this family. "Only thing left for you to do is fuck up."

"Why would - what're you talking about?"

"Crash Dad's car, fuck a teacher, get caught stealing?"

"You're the one who was always shoplifting? I didn't start, Billy, I promised."

"Got it - you could be a firestarter. It goes with the hair! More original than plain old beating people to shit."

Max wrenched around like he was still holding her tight, and then sat up and didn't do anything. Had he cried in front of her before? Probably not up close like this, where neither of them could run off and pretend it away.

"You're getting loud," she said. She was definitely trying to be kind.

Billy went back to shoving his face in the pillow. He scrubbed off the snot and tears with one of the shirts he was sleeping in. He lay there feeling red-raw, heavy, brain stuffed with cotton like he'd got a cold in the past ten seconds.

"Fuck," he breathed, and rolled over in a jerky process to turn his back on everything about Max.

Because she was great at picking up hints, she pressed up against his back so they could fit in the bed. He felt her arms tucked between them, legs against his, breath sometimes hitting the back of his neck. She had herself a plan again, he was sure, and wasn't about to leave and give up on it.

Didn't matter. It should. But he was almost shivering again, so he let her take care of settling the blankets over the both of them, and let the cotton-stuffed feeling in his head take over until he was out.

 

-

 

Billy woke up knowing someone else was in his bed - feeling the mattress shift, the blankets and cold air getting unpleasantly tangled - but not remembering it was Max until she spoke.

"Got to get back before they realise," she whispered, and he couldn't help a gasp.

She hesitated long enough that he found out he couldn't bring himself to move in front of her, like Max might be fooled into thinking he was still asleep. She continued to clamber off the bed. She shuffled away cautiously, footsteps inaudible with the wind howling away outside. Finally, she was out the door.

Billy let his thoughts off the leash long enough to reason that Dad would keep him busy in the morning, helping to try and get the heat fixed. It wasn't something they could take care of themselves, so he'd be able to get away from the house once Dad got someone in.

After that, he could maybe stay stoned for the rest of any time he had to clap eyes on Max, ever.

Billy jittered through the day, flicking his lighter open and shut every minute his hands weren't occupied and kicking any stray object near his path, including the tyres of his own car when Dad let him get out.

It was just as well. By night-time his instinct for wrangling situations had emerged out of his nerves, and when Max sneaked in, he threw a pillow at her.

"Fuck off! I'm jerking it! Can't just walk into a guy's--"

She gave a tiny yell in her throat and barely kept the door from slamming in her hurry to escape.

That was all taken care of. For three whole days.

 

-

 

"I'll wait until you're done," Max whispered around his cracked-open door.

Unbelievable.

"You are a freak, Maxine." Billy didn't lower his voice.

This time she hurried to get inside instead of leaving, all while she kept an arm over her eyes. Billy pretend to be in a hurry to cover himself up, and she froze at the rustle of bedclothes but still didn't go. The arm stayed in place and she closed the door near-silently.

"You can't seriously be ... at it ... this often? Billy, come on."

The crazy freezing weather had eased off - on the news reports they'd made analyses of Arctic weather making its way down far enough to hit the Midwest - so Max had no excuse. She was here for him.

Billy gave up on it all. With no dignity left to preserve since last year, he could at least find out what was going on. Fighting would get him more shit, and would take him into negative numbers on satisfaction.

"Quiet. Come here."

Max risked squinting at him and saw his hands on top of the blankets. "You are so..."

This time she climbed on at the foot-end of the bed, sitting cross-legged on the covers, a lump of nightgown and hair that glared at the ceiling. He rolled his head to the side to stare across the room. Maybe if there was movement outside, he'd catch it in the gap between door and floor.

"So. I need to say one thing that you're going to call bitchy," Max whispered. "Two things total, but one of them might, like, bug you. OK?"

"Huge surprise." Billy mumbled it half into his pillow, because maybe being barely audible would mean she'd barely get pissed off.

"Just one. Singular."

That had a tone of asking permission. It messed with his head.

"You're supposed to be good at getting away with stuff!" Max yelled as much as was possible at just above breathing volume. "You constantly talked about how to push things and not get caught, or charm your way out of trouble, but suddenly you start..." A deep breath, and then a firm tone: "Attempting murder twice a week."

Billy felt a dumbass urge to tell her it had only been one time ... or maybe to say the problem was limited only to that one week, end October, beginning November, even if he had given it a shot twice after all. Who really knew?

"I've heard recently..." Max took a deep breath. "That you don't have to be a legal adult to go to prison and get tried as an adult. It wouldn't be juvie, Billy. It could be way more serious."

He squeezed his eyes shut as he waited to hear Harrington or Sinclair had pressed charges.

"You've been lucky, with Chief Hopper deciding not to do anything, or Steve or the Party."

Thank God.

"But if they had, you being almost eighteen could make a judge harsher if anything did happen! And Billy, did you know that serious legal sentencing could have happened practically any time? Like, they could have tried you as an adult back in California too?"

"Hey!" Billy jerked up to shout-whisper back. "I never did shit that bad before!"

"So then you do know this time it was really bad."

Too loud.

They were quiet a long time, Max starting to shiver where she huddled. Every creak of the house felt suspicious ... but their parents wouldn't have held back this long if they were up, even Dad trying to pick his moment to make the worst of things. The bathroom was also a buffer between the main bedroom and this one.

"Second thing?" Billy said. "And come up here. It'll be easier to keep you out of sight."

He didn't manhandle her out of nowhere like last time, and she listened. She was downright eager to burrow under the covers, settling with her back to him and trying to keep space between them.

Max's tone was choppy and careful, not quite rehearsed and not quite spontaneous. "I keep thinking about before, in Cali. Because sure, you weren't as bad," she conceded. "But you were always a dillweed. Sometimes cool to me or whoever else, sometimes a humongous jerk to everybody. Even though you were smart with getting out of trouble, I've been thinking there was always ... the potential to one hundred percent ruin your life for good, basically on purpose, like last November. And I'm seeing that now because I don't have a real escape. Not like before."

A certain tension in Max made Billy think that if she cried it would be a relief, like she'd be back to the girl he knew, pretending to be tough and the brittleness of her little-kid idiocy shining through. He didn't get that, though.

"Your dad," he said at last. "Fucking told you."

"Whenever you talked about how bad I'd want to visit him, I just thought that of course I'd miss him after the move. I didn't really think that I'd miss him this way."

"Yep. No more running off and letting him take care of calling Susan every time you go to his place. No more weekends away."

"No more weeks away when school's closed," Max said in a horrified rush. "It sucks."

It sounded like she was too caught up in her thoughts to snap at the bait of him giving her a hard time. Billy had always got obsessively resentful when she'd got away from the Hargrove household - he'd dreamed up fantasies of her dad falling back off the wagon and screwing up her haven, he'd ignored her for days afterwards. He'd decided that it was the reason she wasn't family, whatever their parents said about it: Max had been able to opt out and be nothing but a Mayfield any time she could scrape up the bus fare and sneak out.

Then they'd moved. Then they'd all started living together seven days a week, three hundred and sixty five days a year and a little extra on the leap years for fun.

"The way it is now." Max said - and again the words came out not rehearsed and not spontaneous; there was the sense that she'd been thinking about all this a lot. "I figure I might not see him again til I'm eighteen."

"My dad would try to swing something like that."

"That's a long time. You have already been doing this until you're almost eighteen. I mean, living with this atmosphere. Like being on tiptoe permanently. Having the way someone puts down a coffee cup being a red alert signal - and all the stuff like that. It drives me totally CRAZY."

Billy nearly fell off the bed. "Jesus."

"If I think about doing nothing about it."

"Christ."

"Yeah."

He stared. Max's nose was practically glued to the wall and she'd put more space between them than ought to be possible on a single bed.

She started up again. "It's not like I think it would be easy to hit your dad in the crotch until he stops being a dillweed. Not exactly. But I can deal with a lot now. I know that. And it means I am not going to leave things alone if I can change them. If ... I'm not trying to piss you off, all right? But it'll work better if we figure stuff out together."

"I agree you're crazy."

"I'm embarrassed, too. So if you're freaking out about being helped by a little girl then rest assured, we're both embarrassed. It's whatever."

What kind of weirdo did something like this? Technically, it was better than Max dreaming up ways she could get even with him. Billy had been thinking she could manage a higher dosage of random tranquilisers, or that it wouldn't be hard to figure out how to cut his car's brake line with the help of a library book or maybe a chat with Harrington. It was just that helping him made a whole lot less sense.

He slumped back down on the bed. "'Whatever'. Yeah, sure. Let me sleep on it."

"I mean it." Max was uncertain, or maybe sad. Or tired - Billy was so tired that he couldn't believe the whole world wasn't.

"I figured."

The covers felt heavy enough Billy couldn't contemplate even blinking too much. If Max was in the same state - and she wasn't getting out - then let her sleep. Let go heavy against him, the spare inch erased. She hadn't fucked it up last time.

 

-

 

Max's bed was a double. Plus she hadn't had her bedroom key taken away yet. Billy resented that, but only with a leftover sliver.

"What--?" Max said when he came in, but as he locked the door she must have decided it was obvious. Billy thought about opening the window too, in case a rapid escape was necessary, but he decided against it - they'd freeze, and it would be easier to hide under the bed or in the closet.

Now they were set.

They, the both of them, Billy thought to himself, that was how it would be from now on. He could stretch out with his arms folded behind his head as long as he moved over enough to leave a side for Max. He could scope out the room with the idea of that key in mind. The room was his too, as of last night; that would keep things even.

Max heaved her blankets over him, proving he was on the right track. So Billy decided he could pick the conversation this time: "Hey. Who got you on to this idea of prison being on the table, anyway?"

It worked. Sort of - Max didn't get pissed off, but she didn't name names. She murmured about the New Year's party she'd gone to at one of her friends' houses, and "someone who'd know" cornering her and Harrington about legal steps they could take. Billy muttered a complaint about gossipy hicks, too half-hearted to press her about who it had been - Chief Hopper was the easy bet, anyway. He'd probably got drunk enough to decide he felt righteous about the way golden boy Harrington's face had ended up when Billy lost his mind.

Asking why the Chief had delivered Billy and Max to their doorstep and got them out of the worst trouble in the first place, or questioning any of the weirdness at the Byers house, could wait. He listened to Max get worked up about her reasoning again, the choppy phrases getting interrupted by snarling noises. It was good to get a sense of how much this had been bothering her long before she'd said anything out loud, as well as knowing why things had changed between Christmastime and now. He sure wouldn't have bet she was this soft on him.

It was something he ought to work to his advantage. Instead, he kind of admired it. Max had had the upper hand, and then she'd decided fuck it, she was going after the bigger Hargrove target instead.

Besides, he had got out of the habit of getting mad at her since she'd sprouted cojones. That also made it harder to think of ways of getting at her. Not being mad about some shit in his life felt ... it was fine, something to stick with, though it left him tired for days on end sometimes.

He told Max "sure", an easy way to deal with it, and to go to sleep. She sighed, turned onto her other side, and probably did. Billy found he was back to having a haze of thoughts that kept him out of deep sleep, smudging into both dreams and the times he stared at the ceiling. Actually relaxed and forgiven and Sinclair, Harrington, the Byerses and Max and cutting brake lines and what the fuck.

Any time he was on the verge of disbelieving her, he thought about where he was: A bed he could stretch out more in, no smell of cigarettes, light coming in from the wrong direction, big lump of Max beside him. No way she was kidding if she'd chosen and accepted this.

The patchy sleep meant he could sneak back to his room early. It meant a lot to share like that, way more than when they'd been saddled with each other as kids. They couldn't keep sharing night after night, though.

It took barely any thought to start keeping a bag of quarters in his car and add to it whenever he had change. After a few days went by it came up in conversation, and Max went real wide-eyed when she realised she had an arcade fund. That afternoon she started adding fifty cent pieces and the occasional notes, so that Billy had a cigarette fund.

Cool.

So Max got to choose the music in the car on the way home most of the time, but Billy had to pick in the mornings. Watching Miami Vice together was a brand-new habit, so Billy started voting on Max's side when it came to which movies and shows to watch on family nights. Sometimes she used the arcade/cigarette fund for payphone calls to Cali and she consulted with him about how much to tell her dad - how much to pave the way for if she (they, damn it) really did need to leave, without getting her dad calling the house. Max was willing to ask politely in front of her parents if she could spend time at the Wheelers' place, and then spend a few hours at the arcade so Billy could have a date without getting the third degree. And they kept sharing beds anyway, just spacing it out so it wasn't nights in a row. It was the best time to talk about real shit. He spilled his guts about life and the fuckups that rolled around inside his skull so fully he was pretty sure she ended up white-knuckling the blankets of their beds after he'd managed to fall asleep, or she wouldn't have a reason to be so pale in the mornings. Things came out of his mouth he didn't think of but on the worst days, things he'd forgotten as well as he could.

He was crazy. Fine! He'd throw the rest of himself on the fire. With nothing much left to feel pride in, or really, anything important about, why not show the kid trying to demonstrate otherwise what it was like. Why not shiver himself filthy with sweat, choke his words out for headaches and emptiness and lightness.

But he couldn't punish Max with story time uninterrupted. She got it. She was the one who'd started talking about this atmosphere. They both flinched at doors slamming a certain sharp way, it turned out. "Respect" was a dirty word for both of them, and Max figured out about the double-barrel of "Responsibility" though it hadn't been aimed her way yet. She seethed about some of the stuff her mother got told, passionate until screamy noises gummed together down in her throat, whether she had to mute it during sleepovers or she was ranting in the car. When it came to stuff that Dad told Billy, sometimes the white-knuckling ended up being on his sleep shirt, a fist or two tangled in tight with zero threat. There were hugs. For a tomboy, she could be girly.

Listening to her rant was a little satisfying. Kindness might be part of what had started this, but Max also had strong ideas about how things ought to be. Billy turned it over and over in his thoughts, and decided it was a sense of justice. Maxine Mayfield the judge, jury, and working-on-it executioner. She'd probably won herself too many happy endings down at the arcade. It was funny. He liked it. Someone ought to have an idea of what counted as fair.

Max had nightmares too. It was like once she'd got enough nights of sleeping better - when he didn't get into the real shit, the shared warmth did seem to help with that - her brain started letting crap through. She twitched and gasped at night, and Billy had fuzzy memories of seeing her awake and big-eyed sometimes, maybe when she'd stiffened up enough that he'd felt it through his own sleep. Thirteen was about the age when his nightmares had started falling into cycles, he remembered, sometimes putting him through weeks of waking up wanting to scream, starting to run. "You cry less, fuck you," he complained one night, and fell back asleep before she could get mad about it. Billy had got used to biting back the urge to swear at her.

In front of their parents they stayed about the same, except that Max spoke to him more. He'd already noticed that Max had stopped speaking to Dad, and nowadays he'd tap her in the ankle with his foot when she should say something to try and wear the edge off of a moment. Dad would figure out about her sense of justice too, and he'd start figuring out a way use it - that was like instinct for him - so they could at least delay the inevitable.

Billy was vaguely contemplating the chances of Dad starting in on her with 'whore' at some point, the ride to their schools giving time to think as they inched through a late fall of snow. "Thank God you made friends with a girl, finally," he told Max. "Now they can give you less shit about all those guys. What's the chick's name, again?"

"Oh, sorry, Billy, you're too late. She's already got a boyfriend."

"You know, I get so confused when you act like you're cute. There's this whole minute where I have no idea what you're doing," he told her little shit-stirrer smile. "Come on. I have to make it sound convincing that I hang out at the Wheelers' some of the times you have nerd parties. She's dating Zombie Byers, right?"

"What? You haven't seen her and Mike make out? That's basically a miracle." Max rolled her eyes, grinning. "She's El Hopper. Sort of. I don't know if Chief Hopper adopted her or fostered her or what, but um, yeah, El Hopper. She prefers it."

"'Elle' sure doesn't sound like a name that guy would have had anything to do with. It's kind of cool."

"Her name's actually Jane Eleanor. Like, nobody calls her Jane. Because, right, it's better to go for the cooler option."

"She got off better than Zombie Boy and Stalker did."

He got a sharp look for mentioning Sinclair - always did, as well as for getting anywhere near him. Billy thought that pretending the kid didn't exist would be a dumb move, so he was trying to get Max used to the idea that he wouldn't do anything to Sinclair again. He'd spat up late night rants about going after the kid like that and how it was done now, but Max was as loyal to her friends as she was insisting on being to him.

"Anything else I need to know?" Billy asked. "Like a good brother should." Then a few seconds later he said "Hey!" like a nimrod.

Max was nervous. It was like a flashback or some shit to have her huddling into her seat at the edge of his vision. He hadn't done anything!

"What?" she said, startled out of it. Her lower lip was red from a bout of being chewed on, but she wasn't acting like she thought he'd done something to her either.

Billy snapped his gaze to the road. "Nothing."

"Look," Max said - back to being nervous! "I'm going to answer like... It has nothing to do with my mom or Neil, OK? And I'm answering you like a sister being really serious about her new friend. She's tough and everything, but she had a hard time growing up, like, that can not be emphasised enough. Our home life is shitty. El's was still worse before she came here. Hands down. She got gold at the Shitlympics. So ... I don't know. If I ever invite her over, or you hear her talk - she talks pretty weird - don't make a big deal about it."

"I like 'gold at the Shitlympics' enough that I'll listen to you. There's your reward."

Sister. He remembered six-year-old Max's bulldog-puppy face during their introduction, the kid not caring about anything beyond dodging her full name, getting an ice cream, and her mom. Damn. She really was trying.

"Get this," he said, "I won't even use it on Harrington in phys ed today."

"Or any other day! Maybe Tommy instead."

They didn't talk much for the rest of the drive. His mind lobbed around the thought of Max declaring herself his sister in-between wondering about El - not that an awful life for a little girl was that difficult to imagine. No wonder she was as quiet as the weirdo who'd 'risen from the dead'. At least it sounded like a move and a new family had done her good. Now she had Max on her side. That was a decent start for something not-shitty.

 

-

 

A problem came when Billy scored decent weed. He'd shelled out maybe more than he should have, but didn't regret it after the high he'd got from the joint a couple of his hangers-on had shared. It got him two sizeable baggies, and then he had to decide where to keep them.

"What are you doing with my pads?"

Max was practically fainting in horror. It was weirdly difficult to remember she had her girly moments, and Billy belatedly realised that keeping her underwear drawer tidy might not solve the biggest issue about scratching around in it.

"Hiding some weed in the pack. There's another baggie taped to the back of the nightstand. Dad hasn't started rooting around in your room yet, right?"

He was aiming for being chilled out, but Max really was not. She shoved him out of the room. Her hands bounced off his chest and then back in sharp smacks, like she hated touching him too long, until the last push with both of them pressed hard to his back. The door slammed, and Billy leaned against it.

No one else was in the house, so he spoke loudly. "This isn't how this works." He didn't hit the door for emphasis. It was a demonstration of how this was supposed to work, as if it would be noticeable how accusing that fragment of silence was.

"It really isn't! You can't go into my stuff like that!"

"I clued in long ago that you have girl parts, Max. Quit it with being all sensitive. Fine, I won't do it again if you just say so. Even if it is the perfect place to hide something, because Dad would freak out harder than you about catching a glimpse of those."

"Maybe because it's private? And not for you or anyone else to use? Or get drugs on!"

"The bag is sealed! Air-tight!"

"That's still not stuff for you to mess around in!"

"I have fucked chicks on their periods, it's not the biggest deal on Earth!"

The screech of "You what?" was blocked, because Max had to unlock the door before she flung it open, and Billy was grateful for that. Otherwise his ears would be ringing into the night. "Why?! Oh--oh my God. I can not believe that I believe you. Whyyyyyyyy."

"You're turning green," Billy observed. They both stared at each other, grossed out but fascinated.

Billy moved past her and went to sit on the bed. There was no fucking fit about it, which was surprising. "Jesus Christ, am I pissed off. Are we still supposed to be in this together or what?" He took a little breath. "It's not like I wouldn't let you have any. It's not cheap stuff, either."

"What gives you the right to be 'pissed off'? You're the one trampling over my privacy! And being gross. Double-gross, like a two-for-one special, because I don't have any clue why you'd tell me what you just told me, God."

If he weren't on the bed, this bed specifically, he'd have got up in her face, stoking up the anger that kept fading away into the disgust. The yelling match would have been out of the playbook for the past few years. She was letting him sit there, though, and he wanted that. Never mind learning to remove her from the target of his temper - that had done nothing much except make him tired for a long time, but Max had been working to do the same. Niceness didn't come easy to her, not in Billy's direction, and he had been able to watch her try ever since she came at him that January night. She'd picked her words, she'd swerved away from insults. And why, right? He didn't only get helped or forgiven, he got that much more from her - care and red-faced, strained attempts at consideration. For what? But Max had done it.

There had been times when she'd tucked her hands away practically under her armpits when talking to him, and it had really seemed like it was so she wouldn't give him a smack to make a point. Like he'd break from a playtime hit like that - he wouldn't notice, it was just how people talked. She'd come into this with the idea that he had the right to be sick of getting smacked. Now he really did not like Max muscling him out of the room. Their room.

"You got into my private business. Burrowed in with your three pairs of socks kicking at me." Billy flopped back onto the bed, eyeing the blankets folded at the bottom of it. When they were together, they usually tossed one or two of those to the floor, or it got too warm. "All the way in there. You wanted to hear about it - Dad and my mother and my fucking nightmares or deep dumbass thoughts about anything. About every reason I could figure out for losing my shit that bad. OK, I snotted it out all over you. It still wasn't nothing."

"I asked about it, Billy. You ... It's good you agreed, but you had a choice about doing it or not. You didn't ask me about this ... and it's not as big a deal, I know, obviously, but it's still - you could ask, is all I'm saying. For another thing, I'd be nailed if they found drugs in my room. Mom would never let me out of my room again."

Her eyes were swimmy in sympathy, along with her determination. Billy was such a kicked mutt to her, wasn't he? The sorriest thing. Max had never given him a hint at a hard time for it - even keeping a box of tissues in her nightstand or under the bed so they wouldn't be in his face. Sometimes she bit her tongue visibly but she tried - they were both supposed to try.

"The guts have been well and truly spilled. None of it is getting packed back in." He took a deep breath of the room, sweeter for the lack of lingering cigarette smoke, and got up. Walking to the door, he said, "I'm not thinking about stuff, like, this or that is off-limits, because it's just not. I'm not stealing, because that would be more of my same old shit even if nothing of yours ends up broken. But ... pooled resources. There we go. That's what you and I are supposed to have. Or..."

He couldn't ask what the point was, without that. There was a lot of other stuff to get out of their team-up. But this way, Max would be the one to come out of it lighter, a sister for another family more than this one. A good kid who couldn't face the life she'd got suckered into along with Susan and not like Billy, not for him.

 

-

 

"I am relieved you are making decisions just as weird as any I have," Max said, getting into his bed without announcement.

Billy steadied his breathing after he'd been holding it several seconds ago, since he had heard the door oh-so-gently open and close, and grabbed her up.

"It's still not OK! So not OK. I don't get it, all that stuff you said. But jeez. Guess I don't have to worry again about if you're taking this seriously."

He tossed a blanket to the floor so they wouldn't wake up sweaty and wrapped an arm around Max. She got comfortable, spooned in like they'd got used to doing, not the least worried about being in contact with him.

"Why would I want to share the weed anyway?"

Billy found his voice. "Oh, what, are you straight edge? Please. You're going to high school next year."

"Is this some kind of incredibly dumb pun about why it's called 'high' school?"

He snorted a laugh. "No, you just might want to rethink being such a nerd. Weed's as big a deal as cigarettes. I know our parents came straight from the fifties with no in-between, but you don't have to follow that example." A thought occurred to him. "As long as you're with me. Maybe your pack of nerds - they don't seem like they'd try much. After you know what it's like you can get high with whoever."

Max made a dubious noise in response to something in there, maybe for the simple sake of having a bitchy response. They drifted off the sleep.

 

-

 

Apparently "compromise" meant "finding a solution that's in-between, so you're halfway happy". It wasn't Max's usual type of cynical, but wherever she'd got the line from, it made her smile though she looked really awkward about handing over a pack of emergency pads for Billy's glove compartment. Dad liked searching Billy's car now and then under the excuse of making sure it was being maintained, but he'd get squeamish in any context when faced with the thought of monthlies and would probably insist himself that Billy keep it in a paper bag. Couldn't deny the things would be useful, after all, with Max riding with him all the time. So Billy actually was satisfied.

Max wouldn't let go of his reasoning about pooled resources being weird, though. Something to apologise for, she insinuated, though she'd probably settle for it getting explained more.

Turned out it was the one thing that Billy couldn't explain. Max should know. She'd been all-in with the beds, the money, with spilling every fear in their heads like the drunkest you could be without passing out, with just talking to him in an ordinary way. It was obvious. It made sense. How could she not know?

Billy felt the exponential rise of anger one Saturday while lifting weights uninterrupted, mind wandering in the otherwise silent house. Zero to sky-high in no time flat. The feeling wasn't familiar anymore, he marvelled, as it become more so with every passing nerve ending that sparked to life. He could sprint a mile. Could bellow in Max's face until she retreated, and until she finally got it. Could drive and find someone to fuck or organise a pick-up game with some of the basketball team or drive faster.

Had Max got him this far? Had she got him stopped dead in the Byers house when things were maybe seconds away from way too late, and then out of every shit comfort he had, and into something else entirely, and now back to fucking normal?

He dumped his weights on their stand and went out into the yard to start doing press-ups on the grass behind the house. Still himself, still strong, still here. The same old same old. Halfway across the country and a little older - but he'd be Billy Hargrove forever. Couldn't be put down easy. The biggest difference in his life was the sharpness of the chill in the spring sunshine, just to make him work harder.

He had to go in and light a cigarette when he thought, Max liked me when I was like this, too. What had she been stupid enough to like? Then he couldn't regulate his breathing around the cigarette like he usually did when he worked out. He was choking and coughing, but the added burn in contrast to the breeze trying to slice through him was still good.

Billy thought of when he'd been a calculated half cool stepbrother and half what he wanted to be. He'd sneaked Max into movies she was too young for, done bicep curls when giggly friends were visiting her, taught her to drive, kept people from hassling her at the skate park. It had kept her in line like his set of rules had. You keep disobeying me, and I break one thing of yours each time it happens. Don't snitch, or surprise! you won't like what happens next time your friends are here. Never talk in front of my dad about stuff you did while staying with your dad, or you'll be handing me every last cent of your allowance and getting called Maxine in public. Carrot and stick - worked like a charm on most people. It made sense to do, even when he'd known it was one hundred per cent the same thing Dad had sometimes pulled on him. He was the biggest part of Max taking her moment in the spotlight as budding killer. Not Dad, him - and still she...

As soon as he heard the front door slam, his hands slipped on the grass and he landed on an elbow. Heaving breaths, he let his cigarette drop to the ground and mashed it out. Their parents wouldn't make that racket, plus they were supposed to have dinner out after their movie.

"Max!" he hollered.

"Hi, Billy!"

She didn't come outside. They stepped into the kitchen at the same time through the opposite doors, and Max said, "Oh, there you are." So she had been looking.

Max went to dig through the fridge. "Why were you working out outside?"

He didn't know what this kid was. Hawkins seemed to steer its inhabitants down a whole different road sometimes. School king turned nobody with the patience of a saint, goody-two-shoes nerd splitting from the school king and both defending each other at every word of overheard gossip, scared, dumb kid gone Mother Teresa with a nailbat. If he had to explain to anyone, if he could begin to think that Tommy, Susan, or Dad ought to know, he'd start with little sister and then stall, confused and worked up out of his head.

"Driving lessons. We need to get back to those."

That was it? Wow.

Billy grinned through the grinding of his teeth and over-awareness of the reek of his workout sweat. It was easy to turn any troubles into anger. Turning anger into whatever the fuck else still had that new shine to it.

"Oh no," Max said. "Being yelled at for hours is not how I want to top off a pretty good Saturday!"

"I already made peace with the fact you're going to be hell on the transmission. Max, I am so Zen I'm past the stratosphere. Eat up, be ready after I'm done with my shower."

"Zen. Billy, please."

"One with the universe. Count on it." He yelled over his shoulder. "It'll be useful! Maybe you or your mom would need to get out and I'm at an away game, or something."

Billy pounded the shower wall a few times, his energy not letting up as he sang and squirmed around in there in place of dancing. The hits were with the meaty side of his fist, no harm done, and he felt around the fact that he didn't want to turn it into a punch. All he wanted was to take Max and drive. Trees whipping past, both of them untouchable in the eye of a storm.

Compromise.

Right.

He got dressed with not that much attention - he'd have to be back before their parents came home, so there was no point to getting spectacular. Then he went back out and grabbed Max, pulling her away from the kitchen counter where she was looking resigned and eating a sandwich. A nice family hug, who'd have thought - her head pressed to his chest, warmth between them in the light of day.

"You might have a point about how likely I am to stay Zen," he said. "I'm actually in the mood for more speed than you'll be able to handle yet. We can have lessons another time."

Max looked up without moving away under the press of his hand on her back, and Billy's chest went tight with an inability to handle it. Well, what else was new? He smiled.

"OK. Wear a seatbelt or something. And you're going to be back soon, right?"

"Yeah, before they get back. I'll make you spaghetti."

Max broke away to take another bite of her sandwich. "Omelettes. I can never make those myself. Then you can have some of your million weekly eggs too."

"I want that pack of steak in the freezer, if we're talking protein," he complained - it was definitely intended for a family dinner or two - and realised something. "Let's go out instead. I'll take you for burgers. If we leave a note they can't be that pissed off at us."

He didn't have to explain Max to anybody. His shit could stay in his head and anyone taking a look from the outside could have their hearts warmed by the stepsiblings who had learned to get along. And Max got it. Ninety-nine per cent of it, which was beyond the best you could hope for from another human being. And he got ninety-nine per cent of what was up with her, or it wouldn't get to him that she thought holding back was OK.

He wasn't back to normal, he thought as he jogged to his car. Or he was, because getting mad like he had, wanting speed and ideally something rough was stuff from before he'd got tired so easily. He could be his usual self and keep it together like he was supposed to be decent - not when putting it on to get something, but most of the time. Max felt that too, or she wouldn't have leaned against him without hesitation.

Weekends were the best time for the sleepovers. When there was time for their parents to have a lie-in, they usually did, and if they woke early they usually still got a coffee and went back to read in bed.

Billy kept a close eye on his bedside clock; forty five minutes after the main bedroom's lights had switched off, he sneaked across the passage.

"Want to sleep," Max grumbled as the mattress dipped.

"Mhm."

Maybe the air seemed sweeter in here because of her hair, Billy thought as he dozed off. He could catch the scent of her shampoo, maybe on his pillow, maybe directly from her.

 

-

 

"When are we going to tell someone about your dad?"

Max was holding her own hands tightly, like a businessman she'd seen in a movie or like she'd prefer to hold his. They sat across from each other at the kitchen table and it felt absurd and serious. It would be an hour at least before Susan got home from her job, and Max had dragged Billy right out of the car and into this conversation.

"You've said he's hit you," Max said. "And my mom has been a witness. To more than the slaps. So that should be enough to do something about. Legally."

"You wouldn't have asked that New Year's party friend who got you worried about legalities in the first place about this, would you?"

She shook her head.

"Just checking. So you don't want to go and have this chat either, huh?"

"I'm not going to tell anyone without talking to you first! Jeez!"

"And I'm not telling anyone else at all. I'm a big boy, I should have this shit handled. And I don't, but that's not something I'm looking to put up a billboard about. You're it, Maxine!" Shit, he wasn't exactly supposed to full-name her anymore. "Look, all this big wet pussy crying I do around you, you think it's something - that Chief Hopper wants to see? He'd pull the 'you're a big boy, now, Hargrove' card himself. Or maybe your friends, or Harrington, because you can go to them for the absolute weirdest shit. Like they'd put in all that work you did, try that hard. They have even less reason than you! You got fucked up same as me, and they don't get that. Even the Byers kid, I know their dad fucked off years ago. It's not the same."

When she spoke, it was with that measured but halting quality that let him know she'd been thinking this over for a long time.

"I can say that I've seen it happen too, as another witness. I mean, I have seen some of that stuff." This time she didn't explain or apologise for how she'd treated it like normal, the same as the rest of them. Max on a mission, once again. "And that I'm scared it will happen to me too. I kind of am. We don't have to tell anyone we know. There are social workers."

"No? No."

Once he got over how it was so stupid he didn't want to believe he'd heard right, he nearly got up and - hit something, just a hand on the tabletop or storming out and slamming the door. Instead he went around the table and grabbed her, on his haunches with his hands around her skinny biceps. It was probably scary for her in the old way. Hopefully it helped that he'd put himself low instead of towering over her.

"Lying for me under fuckin' oath? We watch the same crime shows, you know that's a big deal." He made a crack out of it, and Max stopped looking uncertain and went back to the tense expression she'd started this conversation with. "And Mom tried social workers, I told you she tried that back before she went. It didn't go anywhere."

"We'd be trying it with different people, and it would be both of us. That would look worse, right? Two kids that need help."

"It'll get out!" He gave her a squeeze on the arms. "You want the whole town to know about everything we do in this house? Every asshole you walk by gets bleeding heart all over you? All your friends making sad cow-eyes and they stop talking the second you're close enough to hear? Do you want Dad to really lose it? Because when it comes to making his point, my old man's got us both beat."

Billy licked his lips, grunted at the need to make a concession. "I didn't mean it like that. But without raising a hand to you, he's still got his goddamn ways."

"That would be the only way to actually accomplish anything. What else are we really doing? It's bearable, but it is still shitty! There has got to be more we can do. Neil's some guy. It shouldn't be this hard to deal with what's basically a normal human being like anyone else..."

Max hated crying worse than he did. He let her go and dug out the tissues Susan stuffed her schoolbag with along with a bunch of other sweet touches, dumping most on the table and making the rest damp at the sink. "Do you want to take your chances in foster care?"

Give him the Oscar, because he put a face on like it was a reasonable idea. He let Max see him looking serious as he went back to his chair. Maybe it was reasonable, he reminded himself. If he didn't think about it from his experiences, there was something there.

"You've got your whatever going on with the Chief of Police. He pulled strings in November to keep things quiet for you and yours - you think he'd be able to pull off something so you land at a decent place? Or shipped back to your dad's?"

"I don't know if Dad would take you too," she said, voice small with guilt. She'd thought about it and discarded it. See? She was on his side.

Billy folded his arms and rested his head on them as Max calmed down enough to clean up her face with the damp tissues. He started thinking about stuff he didn't really get into.

"I never told you about thinking you might kill me," he finally said. "Like, you're a kid. So you can't throw your weight around when you're pissed the way I do, you'd have to strike hard first. But all you'd need to do is score more hardcore drugs off the Byerses or wherever the hell that came from, and there would be a bunch of ways you could take me out."

"What the fuck!" Max's face was scrunched with distress and outrage. "I didn't even hit you that night!"

"Got to admit, it's not the way Katie next door takes care of any of her problems. Or anybody bar maybe a US Marine or someone in the Mob. A guy gets to wondering about an incident like that. Especially since I was feeling fucked up over almost killing somebody myself. Anyway ... you're not looking to have it out for my dad that way, are you?"

Max put her face in her hands and moaned. It was starting to look like a crying jag but then she jumped up and dragged Billy up in a hug before thumping into one of the chairs beside his. She scooted it close enough to grab a hand with a grip of serious intent.

"No murder."

Billy couldn't help laughing. "Yeah. He is my old man."

"So if we make plans, they have to be more than making the day-to-day stuff easier, and less than you thinking I'm completely out of my mind!"

"You have that rabid look to you sometimes."

"Oh, you'd know," she mumbled, but what she really meant was the way she went for a double-handed grip on him and her eyes went big, earnest, at their brightest blue.

The big plans came first - he knew Max wouldn't be satisfied with less: College, sports scholarships, and the kind of money involved with those. For a while Billy bit back on wondering aloud if his dad was planning on paying any of that money, but he talked about it eventually. He'd already thought of places to work over summer and sent around his résumé; she'd see he wasn't sitting around with his head in the ground about everything.

They had a fight anyway. In the situation where there wasn't enough about money for him to attend college, Max was about ready to kick him out of the house, wondering if they should smuggle out things he might need in a new apartment and stash it someplace in the meantime. He bit her head off about what an awful idea it was - wasting money on rent, leaving her alone here, getting in trouble for carrying stuff out of the house, and didn't he get to make his own choice? She snapped back real smug that it would also give her a place to escape to, it would 'probably' save him money on bail or lawyer's fees or hospital fees in the long term, and sure, he was smart enough to make smart choices. They hadn't finished by the time Susan got back - it went on over the next few days.

When Billy ended up saying yeah, fine, he'd keep an eye out for cheap places to live as a back-up plan, that was the closest he got to being pissed at Max in the old way. He could feel it like always, the rush he could live off. They were in the car, and he had the urge to take the next few corners illegally, make the engine roar and Max scream.

Relief was a rush too, though - thinking about getting away from his home, thinking about telling Dad no and goodbye, and thinking that those felt like things that could change how his life had to be lived. Actually, eventually, maybe.

Max had developed a tendency to trip over a dozen ideas over the course of a conversation with him. It was pretty OK - it gave him time to think of new things to say, and it felt like reminders that she wasn't writing him off. As soon as she won the apartment argument, she asked him to go find her friend El since they were in the car already, as part of a plan to get more of her old freedom come summer vacation.

Apparently it was common for her friends to stay over at each other's houses in a travelling pack in summer - from Mike's to Lucas's to Dustin's to Will's, out of the house for night after night. El's place was too small to be on the list, but a girl telling the story along with Max would convince their parents more easily.

"Especially the chief of police's daughter!" Max said.

She was bouncing in her seat, and probably not only from winning the fight. Bright-eyed and playing drums on the dash as she reminded him of the way to Dustin's house, where El was hanging out after school - it was more than that.

"So you like this chick, right? Not just as a ticket out of the house. You're about to make a bunch of friendship bracelets at the drop of a hat."

"I'm kind of just glad she likes me," Max mumbled. "The guys were making her out to be so cool - and then she totally was when I met her. But she's awkward at the same time, in, like, a different way from being cool? And that I didn't get the first time. It did not go well..."

Billy glanced over for the simple sake of seeing Max make a face. She got expressive; it was funny. He let her talk on with just a few questions and interjections, mostly keeping quiet as he felt out the idea of neither him nor his father having to struggle with concessions around each other. Wasn't that the simplest way? Not putting up with each other anymore. Susan would argue in favour of that too, maybe send Dad a message via smoke signals or however she got her point across when she was constantly nervous about opening her mouth. It could be simple.

He kept an ear out for the information on El, too: She'd got mildly obsessed with Mrs Henderson's cat, she continued to be wildly obsessed with Mike - but OK, it was pretty cute how she got into it and lost in the story when he was doing his Dungeon Master thing - she won all snack competitions except when going up against Lucas, she and Hopper were as into Miami Vice as Billy...

The girl sounded normal, or like her friends got the best mileage out of treating her that way. Then Billy would go with that, and not let on if he was thinking about whatever had happened to her before.

Before popping out of the car at the Hendersons', Max warned Billy it might take a while to get El to come, or that they might end up inviting her over on a different day. Instead, it took barely five minutes for the girl he'd seen in passing before to appear at the door of the house. She marched towards him.

This didn't seem like a moment where anyone would appreciate flexing, like Max's old friends who'd visited half for a glimpse of the stepbrother. He gave an awkward wave of acknowledgement.

She stuck her face by his open window. "Billy."

"Yep."

"You haven't hurt my friends again. Lucas. Steve."

"Accurate." Where the hell did conversation like this go? Well, he knew what she was waiting for, he guessed. "Not planning on doing that again."

"Good." She stared like there was something to mine out of his face. "Do you want them to forgive you?"

"No. Go get Max."

"OK. It would be tough for them, anyway. And Max might be - a while. Dustin's mom is talking. And probably hugging." She looked a little pleased, and then strode back to the house.

"See Spot run. Run, Spot, run," he muttered. Well, that took care of wondering how to act around her.

Dad was going to love this kid - fearlessness got his goat as much as cowardice did. At least he couldn't call her slutty if she dressed in the Chief's hand-me-downs or whatever that shirt was. Meanwhile Billy was going to shut up around her before he made fun of how she talked where Max heard.

He ignored El as much as possible the three times she was over for dinner. The visits were enough to convince Dad that endless summer sleepovers were a respectable, All-American Midwest Family thing to do, and their parents assumed it would be girls-only without needing to be fed any stories. As luck would have it, Dad also mostly ignored her like he did Max. Girls were Susan's domain, and Susan knew the kid's life hadn't been the easiest and tried to be sympathetic.

El ignored Billy back - except she liked his car. When he drove her to the police station to drop her off with the Chief, she leaned forwards in her seat each time he revved the engine. Not in a way where she got giggly, and not flinching or withdrawing if he happened to make a sharp move... One of Max's friends, neutral about him. Mark that down on the calendar.

Another actual change.

 

-

 

The weather warmed, their parents stopped sleeping in so late, and the single bed got unbearable to share. Plus, Max barely walked past that room without complaining about the boy-smell, and groaned dramatically when Billy reminded her that her high school years would be filled with it, especially after gym classes.

Sharing the double was still OK. When Billy had something to say, he'd set the alarm clock for early and muffle it with a pillow and blankets, to get back to the other room before daylight had really hit.

"Your narc got rumbled, by the way," he whispered to Max.

"What?" She wriggled closer to speak more demandingly. "What, Billy?"

"It was Nancy Wheeler who wanted to get me put away, right? One of the times I had to sit around waiting for you to finish with your nerd game, she said we ought to study together. As soon as her mom left us to it, she was laying down the law about how I ought to treat Harrington and you. That party was at the Wheeler place, so I figured."

Max was tellingly silent - probably worried about what she would do if he decided he was pissed. Who to pick: Sane people or brother?

"She looks like a doll of a librarian, where does she get off getting aggressive? I was so fuckin' confused I went, yeah, Nancy, but what about this trigonometry? It was the only thing that would come out of my mouth. Then she looked confused too, and we just studied. She makes good notes."

Another second, and Max snorted a laugh. "She, um. Nancy gets determined. She's always trying to fix things."

"Ohh, like you. Now I get it. Max has a role model, a hero, and it's not just someone who can do more moves than you on the board."

"Shut uuuup."

"Hey."

"Mmm?"

"Are you ever going to tell me what happened that night at the Byers place? I figure we can talk about that now. You know I won't say anything."

"I do know that." Max sounded pleased enough it felt like a little thrill, a little warmth. "Will was really sick. Like, so much he could have died? And I thought if it was that big a deal, I should help. The guys were freaked out and felt like they could use it. And I did end up helping a lot."

"All that shit all over the walls, the drawings or whatever. Was that part of Little Crazy Will being sick?"

"And it's one of those things you please, please need to keep not telling anyone about. People already never let the Zombie Boy thing go."

"He had a funeral, didn't he? It's no wonder. He's got to get out of this town or it's sticking with him til the actual day he dies."

"Rachel likes him and she acts like it's a cute nickname? I don't get it. That's how she asked him to dance, did I tell you that? Ugh, he should have stepped on her feet."

"How come you like me?"

Max's head popped up off her pillow so she could stare at him.

"You heard me."

"That's, um, kind of a subject change."

"Think of this as the last stuff I couldn't get out of you. Or ... thought I didn't get to ask. I don't know."

"You're fun to fight with. You and Dustin."

Billy had been set to be disappointed in himself until the second part landed. "You had better know another Dustin aside from Henderson!" he whispered furiously.

Max muffled laughter. "Seriously! I ... get too mean sometimes? Without thinking I am, but then Mike gets quiet all of a sudden or Lucas and Will back off like I'm going to bite. But Dustin is always willing to yell himself blue in the face, and if I get too much he's like, 'woah, crossed a line'. Then I know where the line is and say sorry and we can drop it, or move on. And the next time he like, rubs his hands together and is all, 'ah, vigorous debate' and fights with me some more."

"This one time I agree with our parents. Get new friends."

"When you and I are talking about TV or comics or skating versus surfing, it's the same. It's fun. You get it. If you're not being an asshole. But now I don't have to watch out for that all the time."

"Anything else?"

"Fish for compliments from your basketball coach and your dates, Billy."

"And every reflective surface I pass by," he added. That crack led to Max practically choking herself to sleep with the giggles, and then it went on the whole next day. She spent all morning red from how hard she grinned at him. When he sat down on the couch in the afternoon to watch MTV she gasped, "Billy! I think I see a hair out of place!" and tweaked his hair until he had to lift her up to dump her into an armchair out of reach - laughing again.

It was sometime after that that Billy went back to having trouble sleeping.

He'd lie in bed thinking about getting out of his father's household, making himself miserable over needing to do another year of school first, or feeling full of determination as he tallied the savings he would do up from his job, and wanting to tell Max about both. Or have her rant about middle school shit, or lie next to him like a peaceful lump if it wasn't a nightmare kind of night.

Despite that, he didn't really get tired. The occasional yawn would ambush him but mostly he wanted to get out, do something. Once the pool opened he went there on his free afternoons, driving with Max after school, for something to get the energy out as much as to put in work to come across as lifeguard material to management.

She horsed around with him a lot when neither of them were trying to swim seriously or were talking to kids from school, and it was so weird. She wasn't sick of being around him, and he didn't feel like he was getting his style cramped by a brat or like he was scoring points for being the tolerant big brother, either. It was more ... energy, pure energy, he didn't know where the hell it came from sometimes when Max's hands clasped slippery around his wrist as she made him tow her, yelling that he was improving his speed, as he just goddamn helped towel all her hair dry before she got in the car.

Max told him off for taking her out to eat too much. She sweet-talked her mother into an allowance increase for her birthday and started splitting bills with him.

One Friday night he went out to a party to celebrate the end of the semester, and he did not go to Max when he got back to the house. Billy was the quietest drunk on God's earth and could make it in there without the parents hearing, but knew she'd whine about him smelling like cigarettes and booze. He laughed in his bed at the thought that the dumbass might not recognise the smell of pot yet, and he wished he could go and laugh right at her, into her hair, probably sweaty at the soft curls on her nape. Even better, she should be here to laugh at where there would be no space left, so that she could absorb some of his energy that wouldn't go away and tap comfortably into the tiredness of a night out. Maybe it would help Max sleep better too.

Something was ... in the atmosphere. Something new.

Billy continued to be drunk all Saturday - on nothing at all, the mild hangover passing into feeling loopy and loose again. Agitated, he did yard work, cleaned his car, stuffed his face at lunch and trying to remember if he'd bothered to have breakfast or dinner. He was waiting.

If he could string thoughts together reliably he could figure out what he was waiting on. Dad was in a good mood, since Billy had been so very responsible with chores without being told, so for once it wasn't him.

Billy would figure it out with Max tonight. He pictured himself sneaking in, locking the door behind him with the quietest clicks of the tumblers, stretching out in bed and listening to whatever Max murmured before he set the alarm clock for 4:30 AM. It was calming.

It made the waiting easier.

When he got in the bed, he still couldn't calm down until he touched her. She was on her side with her back to him, and she didn't see him staring first, for a long time, before he moved a leg closer to hers.

He got up on his elbow and leaned in to kiss Max's shoulder because it would feel just as soft, and she shrugged away from the brush of lips. "It's summer," she muttered, and Billy curled away from her onto the edge of the bed, fingers digging into the side of the mattress.

Did she realise? Maybe she thought it had been his fingers. She yawned like it wasn't a thing that she'd want to kill him over and definitely would stop trusting him for, tucking around a pillow.

His heart hammered - something always had to be out of his control. He had forgotten about that.

"Third Mad Max movie's out this summer," he said. With his voice low, the way it croaked wasn't so obvious. "Might make it out here to Nowheresville, with the new mall. You think you want to see it?"

Max rolled over to squint sleepily at him. "Oh man, seriously? I totally have to see it or the guys will give me crap about not living up to my name. Thanks for the warning."

"Sure. My treat on the tickets. We can split on the snacks."

It took a second, then Max smiled so widely she turned back over and buried it in her pillow. "Sounds good." Very softly: "Thanks, Billy."

Apologies and bribery were often the same thing. Dad had taught that by example. If Max didn't know he'd offered either, did it count?

He got out of the room as soon as he was sure she was asleep without looking at her too much.

That night put an end to sleeping together the way that nervousness about their parents noticing hadn't been able to. Come next winter, she'd have to pile on the blankets; by then she might be used to the winters out here anyway. In the meantime Max didn't notice, summer heat its own explanation for why Billy kept a new distance. She still dug her toes under his legs sometimes when they watched TV.

 

-

 

Bringing girls home during the open summer days was definitely worse than the thing with sharing beds, though.

Way worse. Incredibly so. That was enough to land Billy a hospital stay or getting his food cut off for the rest of the time he lived here. Max would get real shit for that too.

It was an accident the first time she heard him have sex with someone. No one had been home when he and his date came in - everybody was supposed to be out all day. Instead, what could have been a break in a marathon ended with his date going out the front door like seeing Max reading a magazine in the living room had set her ass on fire. Billy nearly did the same. Then Max made a crack about making sure no one was dying, what with all the screaming, giving him a dark look, and marched to her room.

Two weeks later, Max asked for details.

She said she'd heard him and a girl go at it three times by that point, and had no defence but not having to leave her own house whenever he tried to get laid, and then that she wanted real advice. There was stuff she couldn't ask her mom and figured Billy knew all about by now.

Billy hadn't been aware of time two or three. He shouldn't have brought the girls home anyway, not after incident number one, but he had called out for a hello in reply and glanced at the closed bedroom door across the hall from his own. Now he knew Max had been hiding, lobster-red with embarrassment and so curious she could explode, like now.

First thing, Billy warned her to watch out for the high school seniors that went directly for freshmen. Then he almost taught her the definition of "irony".

She probably knew already; she liked reading. He lit a cigarette and told her how he set the girls to screaming so nice.

She asked him again after that time, never looking at him, but listening intently to exactly what he did. He'd watch the tops of her ears start clashing with the colour of her hair, wonder if her eyes were as much darker as he thought, and then she'd leave him at the kitchen table or on the back doorstep or on the couch.

When Billy finished after that session, he asked as she was getting up: "Are you a dyke?" She flounced with the grimmest look he'd seen in months and he yelled after her. "I'm not telling! And you wait until we're back in a city before you go around flirting, all right?"

Max stamped back into the room. "What would you know about it?"

"Got to know a lot of people back home. Didn't want to get kicked out of too many good parties. I minded my business."

"Why are you - why would you even say that?"

The things he could say about her reactions to their story time sessions felt too much to voice. It was that she listened every time to him talking about what to do with girls - he was instructional as much as he could be, like putting the filthy details that way made the situation better. She didn't have questions about what she could do if she wanted to keep a guy happy. With a boyfriend, you'd think that would come up, even if they were only fumbling at this point. She was all right hearing about girls, though.

Billy shrugged. She went off in another huff.

Maybe Max was a lesbian, or maybe that was wishful thinking because it would mean his problem could not go anywhere. When he saw her come out of the room looking thoughtful rather than interested after one of his dates had left, he put a hand on her head in a reassuring, brotherly way. Hopefully. He didn't let the touch linger.

Max kept sticking around the house during his dates and didn't complain, not to him or their parents or anyone. It wasn't like she stopped hanging out with her friends, they were all out together constantly - but when she did happen to be at home she'd mostly stick to her bedroom during the day, closing the door and being quieter than usual, and none of his dates after the first one realised she was there. Billy remembered porn getting passed around between him and his classmates at Max's age. A live audio version worked for her, he guessed.

It got him worked up. It wasn't like he wanted to touch Max, especially because she never hinted at anything like that. What he wanted was Max coming to him for ... whatever she wanted. He was ready when it came to that, anything at all, including if it stayed at questions he shouldn't really answer. He just missed sleeping beside each other a lot.

That was not happening.

Billy's extra energy had a lot of targets to latch on to at his job, at least. Karen Wheeler was a knockout, and gagging for it, and with how sweet she got over Holly during swimming lessons, wouldn't develop unreasonable expectations about him if she got a taste. No need to feel any kind of bad over it but the best kind.

He went for it, made the date, and felt uncomplicatedly into as he drove to Motel 6 down empty back roads.