Boltedfruit Archive

First to Burn

Chapter 15: part xi: fog

Published: 2020-11-07

Completed: 2023-03-20

Category: M/M

Rating: E

Chapters: 16/16

Words: 76,009

Fandom: Stranger Things

Ship: Billy Hargrove/Steve Harrington

Characters:

Steve Harrington, Billy Hargrove. Tommy Hagan, Nancy Wheeler, Jonathan Byers, Neil Hargrove. Maxine “Max” Mayfield, Robin Buckley, Susan Hargrove, Jim “Chief” Hopper

Tags:Slow Burn, Childhood Friends, Friends to Enemies to Lovers, Prompt Fill, First Kiss, First Love, Panic Attacks, Emotional Hurt/Comfort, Billy Hargrove Being an Asshole and a mess, Canon-Typical Violence, Mutual Pining, Alternate Universe – No Upside Down, Oral Sex, Internalized Homophobia, Angst with a Happy Ending, Hurt/Comfort, Mutual Masturbation,Protective Robin Buckley, Mental Health Issues

Summary:

Billy moves in next door on Steve’s tenth birthday. They grow up thick as thieves, sharing everything. When they become old enough to date…they turn to one another for practice.

 

“Since it’s us. Since I’m not Tina, and you’re not—you’re just you. It doesn’t count if we—if we practice.” Billy turns to face him, even though Steve can’t really make out his face yet in the dark. “Right?

 

Steve’s heart rate picks up. “Right. Yeah, that’s right.”

Author's Note

Another Billy POV!

Chapter content warning for: Suicide attempt, Neil beats Billy offscreen in front of Max, ER visit, puking.

Billy wags the pen, bounces it between his index and middle fingers. Journaling is hard. Harder than he thought it would be.

 

He wouldn’t have even started it, didn’t even consider it, until Maxine had dumped a small, brown leather journal and a bunch of dollar store pens on his bed one afternoon. He’d been laying down listening to music, taking advantage of the rare Saturday his dad got called in to work to cover somebody else’s shift.

 

“I know you aren’t doing what your doctor told you to.”

 

He was frozen lying there, forced to peer up into those all-seeing eyes of hers. She didn’t know shit from sticks but she was perceptive.

 

“I heard through the wall when I was in the waiting room.”

 

Of course she did. “Get the fuck out of my room, nerd.”

 

She didn’t move. “Do it. Please.”

 

“Don’t recall my life being any business of yours, least of all what I choose to spend my time doing.”

 

She didn’t budge an inch. Her chin quivered, a dangerous warning of what was to come. He hated when her chin wobbled.

 

It usually preceded him getting a new bruise or four.

 

But Neil wasn’t here, and Maxine wasn’t outright blubbering. So, that was something.

 

“Spit it out, I’m busy.”

 

“I don’t know how to help you.”

 

Billy blinked. Slipped his headphones off to better hear her.

 

“You’re always so angry,” she said. “And it makes me angry and–and I don’t want to be angry like you. You’re scary when you’re mad, and I know it’s your dad’s fault, mostly. But you’re gonna be eighteen soon enough and then you’ll be gone and–”

 

“Hey, hey, whoa.” He had to sit up, because she’d started squeezing out fat tears. But she wasn’t exactly crying, was the thing. That wasn’t something he’d seen from her before. Usually it was all loud shouting and woe-is-me sobbing. “Stop.”

 

He put his hands out, awkwardly trying to get her to do exactly that.

 

“He’ll kill you, Billy.” That stopped him, hands hovering. She’d never said it out loud before. Had never addressed it. Not since before they moved so many years before. “So please…please just do what the doctor says. Just do it.”

 

Back then, he’d watched Maxine leave and proceeded to stew in his own slow-broiling rage at her assumption that what Neil did to him was his fault. Like he needed to get control over himself to keep Neil from having a reason. But what she didn’t understand is that Neil rarely needed a reason, and never a good one.

 

He’d shoved his lamp on the floor. Cracked the bulb and strained part of the wiring. Narrowly avoided Neil throwing a fit when he got home later that night and saw Billy’s light flickering when he’d poked his head in.

 

So now here he was, trying to follow the pipsqueak’s orders.

 

Intermittent explosive disorder, he writes. It’s been a month of the pills and this writing bullshit, but the real kicker is I think it’s actually helping.

 

What are you even supposed to write about?

 

I’m still angry all the time, though. I hate everything. I hate Maxine and her assumptions and how Neil never turns his anger on her. I hate Susan for being spineless. I hate Neil for hating my mom. I hate my mom for never wanting me enough. I hate Steve for–

 

The thing is, Neil knows Billy hates him. If Neil were to find this journal project of his, he’d likely squeak by with what he’d already written. It’s nothing his smart mouth hasn’t already managed to blurt at some point in their miserable lives living under the same roof. But Steve.

 

Neil doesn’t know a goddamn thing about Steve. Far as Neil knows, Steve was the nameless, nosy kid who popped by one afternoon with cookies Neil threw away before dinner.

 

If he caught wind of a boy Billy was friends with–or used to be, at this point–in writing, then Billy was screwed. Forever.

 

He omits saying anything else. He scribbles over Steve’s name until it’s a black mess of ink and wrinkled paper.

 

He continues on the next line.

 

I’d usually be celebrating with Carol, but I screwed that up. I can’t ever go back.

 

He huffs, sending out a silent thanks to Carol for becoming the substitute for what would be meant for Steve.

 

Carol doesn’t talk to me. Doesn’t look at me. Avoids me in–

 

Gym. But he can’t say that, can he? Girls weren’t on the basketball team.

 

Avoids me in class. Ignores my existence. It’s so fucking weird. After I got back from California, I thought we were getting somewhere. Knew it was stupid to lie about a girl back west, but I figured it’d make her want to talk to me again. Faster. Make her feel like I’d forgotten about her.

 

He stumbles over the words, reading back what he’s written three times over.

 

He sounds so fucking stupid.

 

Childish.

 

It worked. Then I managed to do what I always do. I fucked up all over again.

 

He slams the journal closed, shoves it under his mattress and chews on the end of the pen until it’s time for school.

 

He takes two pills that morning, just for good measure.

 

 

It’s the same as it’s been since he fought Steve. Since he showed up soon after with a cast and some stitches.

 

He gets the cast off in a few days. The stitches have already healed into a nice scar.

 

Neil always lets him off the hook for a while when it’s bad enough.

 

He’s been sailing for long enough. Sooner or later, Neil will find a reason. Billy knows it’s better to just give him one.

 

But he keeps thinking of Max, silently crying as she tossed some pens at him.

 

So he’s been popping the doc’s pills and writing his stupid thoughts down and staying largely out of trouble.

 

But within minutes of arriving at his locker, he’s overheard there’s a party at Tina’s next Friday.

 

Everyone will be there he overhears next, and like a hawk homing in on a mouse in a field, he catches sight of Steve just at the other end of the hall making moon eyes at Nancy Wheeler as he talks and talk and talks.

 

She’s not happy.

 

But, eventually, she nods. And Billy sees from afar the same sort of smile Steve used to give him.

 

 

The hours crawl by, hungry.

 

Billy breezes through every class he doesn’t share with Steve. He hurries through the halls, cautious only on turns where he doesn’t know if Steve is heading his way.

 

He bumps shoulders with Wheeler, just once.

 

She says excuse me, until she looks up and sees who it is. He offers her a tight smile, because he’s not about to get Steve’s attention again by pissing off the girlfriend.

 

She frowns, an unpleasant wrinkle forming between her eyebrows. She steps to the left. He steps to the right. They do it again.

 

She sighs, places her hands on his biceps and moves him gently out of her way with a tiny amused huff.

 

Then she’s gone.

 

He goes to his next class.

 

Lunch he spends in his car avoiding Tommy and Heather. Tommy for his eagerness and Heather for her concern. He smokes and tries not to think about what comes later.

 

Chem is hell. It’s been hell since Steve’s kitchen.

 

He’d shown up the next day, smart enough to catch on that Billy had finished the project for him before they’d fought. He brought it in and ended up scraping by with a passing grade.

 

But then it meant Steve giving him the one and only acknowledgement he’s given Billy since the fight.

 

A single nod.

 

That’s it.

 

Since then it’s been a mix of sitting in tense silence, at least on Billy’s end, for an hour until the bell rang, and Steve skipping class entirely.

 

Any assigned partner work Billy does on his own. Let’s Steve sign his name at the end of class. It’s the least Billy owes him.

 

Today he hopes Steve’s skipped. He’s been thinking too much about the fight. About Steve showing up to school the next day swollen and bruised. Had sat next to Billy and didn’t spare him a single look past the nod.

 

That first day was the hardest.

 

Now, his stomach flips the same time as it drops when Steve deigns to walk in the room. He’s busy with his backpack, looking for his book and papers.

 

Today might be the day Billy breaks first.

 

He slaps his homework on the teacher’s desk, turns with those big brown eyes sweeping easily and effortlessly over Billy like he’s not even there, and walks right back out of the room.

 

The teacher is pissed.

 

And Billy is too.

 

 

In gym, Steve isn’t there.

 

Billy’s been benched until his cast is removed, so he usually spends the hour watching Steve run around playing ball. It’s the one reprieve he allows himself. During practice, Steve doesn’t look at him, but it’s at least because he doesn’t have a reason to.

 

 

The days drag on.

 

He gets his cast off.

 

He pops his pills.

 

He writes in his stupid journal.

 

Neil leaves him alone.

 

And Steve ignores him.

 

 

Billy feels it coming on.

 

 

He sees Steve in the parking lot before school. He usually does.

 

Steve likes spending the extra time with Wheeler. Likes making googoo eyes at the princess while she talks about class or her stuffy choice in clothing or whatever it must be.

 

Billy’s had to stand by and pretend it doesn’t matter when Steve spins Wheeler through the air, his arms tight around her small waist. That it doesn’t matter when he opens the passenger door to the beamer while Wheeler climbs in, as they head off to whatever date night they have planned.

 

That it doesn’t matter that Steve’s attention is on someone else now. That he’s kissing someone else. That they’re probably doing so much more.

 

He wonders if Wheeler feels the same as Billy does, when Steve kisses her.

 

If Steve looks just as delicious, just as destroyed as he had when he fell apart beside Billy on that couch.

 

 

The weekend is a blur. Neil grumbles about everything and nothing and Billy recognizes it for the doomsday clock counting down that it is.

 

 

He has an appointment on Monday afternoon, so he misses chem and gym to drive into the city to meet with Dr. Toll.

 

He brings his journal because she asked him to.

 

She asks him questions. He answers them. She skims through his writing, picking up on the fact he replaced Steve’s name with Carol’s. Easy to match up the details in your head when they don’t match up on paper.

 

There’s no real reason to lie to her. She isn’t dangerous.

 

Everything, everywhere else is.

 

“Have you given any more thought to what you might want to do after high school is over?”

 

“Not really.”

 

“Did you read the material I–”

 

“Yeah, yeah I did.”

 

It’s too loud in the small exam room. He feels like the air he’s breathing is thick. Metallic.

 

“There’s power in decision making. Being able to set small goals and–”

 

A laugh that sounds too mean lurches from him. He can’t help it.

 

“You think setting a goal for yourself is funny?”

 

“I think there’s no point.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Because Neil is–because I…”

 

What? What is he trying to say. To pin down.

 

It’s on the tip of his tongue. A poison pill he’s always held precarious and precious between his molars. But having to name it? How the hell do you name something you’ve always lived with, a something that’s never had a name.

 

It’s never needed one.

 

What is it that Neil gives him, every waking moment? The thing that dogs his dreams. The feeling that’s sent him raging, crying, and wasted in turns.

 

That dread at the back of his skull. The cold sweat at his neck. The heavy palpitations of his heart after dinner. The resignation when he hears his father’s footsteps in the hall.

 

“I’m,” he swallows, again and again. He wishes he could see Steve later. “I’m afraid.”

 

He shivers as Dr. Toll holds his gaze. She offers him a delicate nod.

 

“Your situation isn’t forever. It’ll end one day. You’ll graduate and move out and you’ll live a long and full life full of choices that make you happy. Not him.”

 

He’s can’t think of an after. Life is waking up and getting through the day without getting hit and trying not to hit anybody else. It’s staring after Steve in the halls and wondering, pleading with his own memories to nut the fuck up and apologize. Make it matter. Make the past disappear.

 

But he can’t do that.

 

“Have you considered coming out?”

 

He blanks. Confusion sweeps through him.

 

“Come out of what?”

 

“Come out to your father. Take control back by being up front with him. Let him know he has no power over that part of you.”

 

“Like…like tell him I am g–” He inhales sharply. He can’t even say the goddamn word. “That I’m everything he’s always thought? The thing that makes him hate me?”

 

“It doesn’t have to be now. Or even soon. Maybe once you move out. Or go to college. The point is your identity is yours. Your truth is your own. He doesn’t own that part of you.”

 

It’s hippie bullshit is what she’s spouting. His palms sweat. What isn’t she fucking getting?

 

“I can’t,” he grinds out. “That’s just what he wants. A reason good enough to finally kill me.”

 

Lines appear around her mouth. She writes something down, tears the piece of paper off, and holds it out.

 

“If it’s that serious, then you need to call this number.”

 

He half expects it to say 911. But it’s a normal number.

 

“Whose is it?”

 

“A social worker I work closely with–”

 

He drops it.

 

“No. No fucking way. That’ll make everything worse. Just–”

 

God. God, he’s an idiot for ever coming here. For thinking a doctor could actually help him. How fucking dare her for not getting it, for not trying hard enough, for not helping him. She’s a doctor for fuck’s sake, that’s her job.

 

Nobody can help him out of his situation. He knows that. He’s known that.

 

She keeps talking. So many words he doesn’t hear, that hold no real meaning. It doesn’t matter, he tells himself. It doesn’t fucking matter.

 

It’s just talking. That’s all they’re doing. Nothing is set in stone.

 

She says those words, over and over again, in so many different ways. They all mean the same thing in the end.

 

There’s a hand on his shoulder. Breathing, in and out. His chest is seizing up. Caving in. He’s stuck.

 

Breathe, somebody, somewhere tells him.

 

So he does. He breathes. He breathes instead of shoving his fist through the wall like his muscles ache to do. He breathes and she says more placating things he doesn’t hear. He gets his journal back and he gets a refill for his prescription and he’s gone.

 

Life goes on.

 

 

The lot isn’t packed when he pulls up, but it’s getting there. He listens to Maxine struggle with her backpack and whatever new annoyance she has lodged between her teeth for the nerds she always seems to complain about. There’s wheels on blacktop and a door shutting just a little too hard. He barely winces as the chassis rides the wave, sending him swaying a smidge.

 

He smokes. Watches a few lanes across as Steve stands with Tommy and Carol and Wheeler–and he’s mad at something. Billy can tell.

 

He’s had that anger thrown at him more than a few times.

 

He thought Steve washed his hands of Tommy and Carol. Social leeches more than anything. Easy to use. To manipulate. To make fun of. And to pass the time when no better options present themselves.

 

But it’s Wheeler’s presence throwing him. Her tall friend hovers nearby, freckled face all pinched and magnified under her massive frames.

 

The town creep is standing between Steve’s car and, well. Steve. There’s paper strewn all over.

 

He’s shaking something around. It’s got a strap. Waves it through the air–

 

And then he’s dropping it on the ground. Billy thinks he drops it, it happens so smoothly.

 

But then Steve is laughing.

 

It isn’t like him, is the thing.

 

It’s only after Billy’s locked his car and is walking by that he realizes it was a camera Steve smashed.

 

Steve and the goons are already heading inside the school, so it’s not like Billy has any reason to linger, really. But Billy’s never really gotten the thing everybody has against Byers. The guy’s just skinny, needs a good haircut.

 

He used to buy pot off him before Munson staked his claim out by the trailer park. Easier with no cops to come sniffing their porky snouts around. And the trailer park was in general Hawkins’ no man land.

 

When Neil first dragged him out to Hawkins, Billy remembers seeing Byers around the middle school sporting the occasional and too familiar black eye. Hunched shoulders. Fists ready to prove a point that he always did very well. 

 

Billy always left him alone.

 

Byers casts him a furtive, nearly accusatory look as he comes to a stop.

 

“Seems Harrington’s got a bug up his ass this morning. You go pawing at his girl or something?”

 

And sure, Billy hasn’t missed the looks he and the princess toss each other when the other isn’t looking.

 

A sigh as Byers collects the plastic detritus at his feet. “What do you want, Hargrove?”

 

The breeze picks up, and Billy eyes the papers as they pancake over their shoes. Photos.

 

Billy squints. He picks one up while Byers goes to grab them.

 

It’s Steve’s pool. At night.

 

Wheeler is in this one, drinking a beer while her friend looks dour beside her. He thinks the blurry smudge to the right is Tommy.

 

Byers snatches the photo back.

 

Okay so maybe the guy really is a creep.

 

Before Billy can say a thing, Byers is hurrying off, all anxious shoulders and tense legs.

 

Billy shakes his head and steels himself for the day.

 

 

He thought it was a one off.

 

A fluke. A bad mood.

 

A good reason. Because Byers had decided to do a late night stalker photo shoot and Billy knows if he was in Steve’s place he’d have smashed a whole lot more than the guy’s camera.

 

What would Billy have done, if he was in those photos? If he was still allowed in Steve’s life enough to be invited over to one of his typical get-togethers?

 

If he had to sit by and watch him get little priss Nancy Wheeler to drink.

 

So he doesn’t blame Steve, not at all. In fact kind of likes when Steve does something unexpected.

 

Saying yes to Billy’s practice time and again being chief among them.

 

But it’s not a one off. It’s all goddamn day.

 

Steve seems to be everywhere.

 

Billy overhears him being a prick to some freshman who did something to make Wheeler drop her book. Gets wind of Steve leaving some nerd in near tears for whatever reason between class shortly before lunch.

 

He draws a crowd during lunch. Tells a story of some party from a year before that Billy remembers only because Steve was about to get it in with some chick who puked all over his nice polo. He’d spent an hour complaining about it, pouting as he and Billy cleaned up his house after. It wasn’t the same story he blew up and bragged about for the entire cafeteria to hear, sans the hookup.

 

There’s the girl he’s been hanging with more recently. An argument after lunch. Billy sees Buckley–and yeah, he still feels shitty about what he said to her, but what the hell was he supposed to do to get her to back the fuck off–trying to get a word in edgewise and Steve just blows her off. Ignores her.

 

It’s not like him.

 

None of it is.

 

Not the Steve he knows.

 

Knew. Or, fuck.

 

Steve enters chem before he does, and Billy has half a mind to skip. He’s not ready for whatever mood Steve’s in to be directed at him. For whatever reason, the guy’s hellbent on getting attention today. All eyes on him as he plays up the cool guy act.

 

Steve’s always been cool, so Billy doesn’t fucking get it.

 

He grinds his teeth and decides not to give Neil a reason by missing more class than he already has.

 

He breathes.

 

 

Steve ignores him in favor of talking with everyone, and anyone else.

 

He’s charming their teacher. He’s flirting with Tina, but in a meaningless way. He’s talking about some date he’s taking Wheeler on this weekend with Chris, the guy who sits at the back of the class and never says a damn thing.

 

Billy slips up. Mumbles something because he’s just so fucking sick of watching the show.

 

He feels eyes on him, heavy. Like high beams in thick fog. And all his stupid brain can come up with is, finally.

 

“What was that?” Steve asks, and it punches out of him, faux smile painted on.

 

Steve hasn’t said a thing to him in so long.

 

It’s strange how startling it is, to have all that attention on him again.

 

He clears his throat. Keeps writing his chem notes. “I said, you’d think the guy’s bipolar.”

 

“Who?”

 

“You know who, Harrington.”

 

It’s automatic. It’s always served to piss Steve off, just a little. Steve is Harrington and Harrington is Steve, it’s all the same to Billy. There’s only one Steve Harrington. What Billy calls him shouldn’t matter. But the fact that it does, that it still does, is icing on a very measly cake.

 

And this shouldn’t be there first conversation after so long, after what Billy did to him, but it is. And he’s tired and equal parts morbidly intrigued and wary of the trail of carnage Steve has left throughout Hawkins High today.

 

“You must be bipolar because for months on end you mope around like a bitch and then today you’re all smiles and laughs and broken cameras. Telling stories that didn’t happen, and making your poor girl sit through it all.”

 

And she had, was the other thing. Had Steve’s arm thrown around her shoulders as she sat there, shrunken and mousey at his side like she was just praying for a chance to sneak off where she wouldn’t be noticed.

 

Steve’s face twists more and more as he keeps talking, a frown appearing at the mention of the party. They both remember, then. Good.

 

“Look who’s talking.”

 

The class is watching now. Listening. Waiting for the show to really start.

 

Billy keeps writing notes on elemental reactions. Feels not too dissimilar to a flame over fuel.

 

“Please, enlighten me. You are the dancing monkey after all. Today you have all the answers.”

 

He can tell Steve hates that. That he’s probably grinding his teeth trying to think of a comeback.

 

“Boys.”

 

It’s a warning from the teacher. More than what they deserve and not nearly enough to matter to either of them.

 

Steve taps his pencil. Faces Billy in his seat.

 

“Says the guy who’s my best friend one day and then beats me up the next.”

 

It’s personal. Steve has made it personal.

 

Billy turns slowly. Steve’s face gives nothing away. Billy can’t tell if he regrets that, if he means it, or if he just doesn’t care anymore.

 

But why would he mention it at all if it didn’t matter?

 

“That’s enough now,” their teacher says, clapping once to try and bring attention away from the main event.

 

But nothing is going to stop them. Not now.

 

Not ever.

 

It feels like salt in an open wound.

 

They’re going to do this forever.

 

What this is–how it feels, how Billy feels…it’ll never end.

 

“I’m–” he starts, his voice dying off as Steve eggs him on with uninterested eyes.

 

And he’s what, sorry?

 

The word barely scratches the surface.

 

He wished Steve dead.

 

That doesn’t just go away.

 

He breathes.

 

It’s never been fast.

 

Until it is.

 

Intermittent.

 

Moments between.

 

Explosive–destructive. Potassium in water. Open flame to oxygen. Corrosive, like rust.

 

Two kids who became friends because their houses happened to be next door to one another. Happenstance and a plate of warm cookies made by a mother who gave a shit.

 

A kid with a big mouth.

 

Too big, especially now.

 

Billy hates himself for being in love.

 

He stands. Takes nothing with him.

 

He leaves.

 

 

He sits in his car.

 

He breathes and he breathes and he fucking breathes and he fucking–

 

 

Gym isn’t as bad as chem.

 

It’s worse.

 

Steve rides his ass the entire time.

 

Billy wonders where this fire was when he first joined the team. Newly removed from the bench, Billy’s arm feels weak and shaky in turns. But he tries to keep up. He does. Forces himself to. Because Steve isn’t letting him slack off. Steve isn’t letting him gain a goddamn inch.

 

The second Billy gets out from under Steve’s dogged defense, Steve slaps the ball away. Dribbles and passes like it’s the air he breathes. He’s moving through water, all loose limbs and sure footing. He’s sweating through his shirt and his hair is fucked to hell.

 

He sticks his tongue out the whole time, breathless and flushed and victorious.

 

He’s so–

 

Billy’s chest aches.

 

 

It continues like that all week.

 

He dares to think this is the new normal he’ll have to settle into until summer. A couple more months, he’ll have all summer to figure out what to do. Avoid Steve, obviously. Pretend it isn’t as big as it feels. Pretend it doesn’t matter until it really doesn’t.

 

And maybe then he’ll actually go on to graduate high school and have a life. A real one. Where he’s in control.

 

It’s delicate and light and he writes it all down.

 

He breathes.

 

 

It’s Friday.

 

They’re in the showers, which is Billy’s personal hell for multiple reasons. But at this particular moment in time it’s Steve taking the shower right next to him, Tommy falling in on the other side. They soap up and talk about mostly nothing.

 

Then Steve turns to Billy.

 

“Shit game today. Wonder if you’re taking it seriously at all.”

 

Billy keeps massaging his scalp. “I play like I always have. You just decided to get ‘roided up this week. Trying to make up for your skinny legs.”

 

It makes Steve laugh, but it’s short and mean.

 

“Your arm is your weak spot. You’d do better not defending with that side. Could barely get the ball from me all week. All those muscles and no strength? Maybe you should work out more.”

 

His nails dig into his scalp.

 

“I haven’t used that arm in a while, if you don’t remember. What, couldn’t fit that in your head next to all the air taking up space?”

 

Billy dunks his head under the spray, mostly to avoid seeing whatever hateful look Steve is likely giving him.

 

“You’d think you’d be used to it by now.”

 

No.

 

He meets Steve’s eyes immediately, doesn’t even register when he opened them, the water and soap stinging. There’s just no way. Steve isn’t like this. Doesn’t do this.

 

This shit is Billy’s domain. He gets to be the mean son of a bitch.

 

Steve on his sixteenth birthday. In his headlights. So fucking angry at Billy for being late.

 

Anger melting away into tears and panic when he realized what Neil had done.

 

They’ve never talked about Neil. No in any real way that means anything.

 

Steve tried, once. A few times.

 

Billy only the once.

 

I’m stuck in this bumfuck nowhere town until I graduate or Neil kills me. Whichever comes first.

 

It’s the most direct, no bullshit detail he’s ever given Steve, ever given anyone who wasn’t Dr. Toll–and isn’t that a miracle in itself–and it’s not even close to a real explanation. To him actually laying out beat by beat just how much he and his father despise one another.

 

But it’s not–it wasn’t ever whatever the hell this is now.

 

This is my fault, he thinks.

 

But all his stupid, corrosive mind can think to shoot back is, “Fuck you.”

 

Steve just smiles. The lopsided, tired smile Billy’s seen too many times to count.

 

And he says, “Well, not everybody gets what they want, do they?”

 

Billy can only stand there under the spray. He’s barely registered what Steve’s said. He can only possibly mean one thing. He’s–the bastard is actually mocking him for–for–

 

Steve fell apart next to him. Steve came into his own fist and then kissed Billy–he’d kissed Billy. Billy merely reciprocated. Under the bullshit guise of practice, because Billy’s afraid, he’s always been afraid. Of everything and everyone. Most of all, the paradise wrapped up all neat and pretty in a Steve Harrington shaped package.

 

Billy’s always been afraid of his own messed up head, his own twisted around heart. But Steve’s never said no, not really. Steve’s never been so fucking cruel.

 

Steve’s friends with Buckley for fuck’s sake. He pulled that girl’s card the second he saw her. Surely, Steve must know. Right?

 

Tommy laughs as they both finish rinsing. As they move on to other topics. More important things than making digs at Billy and Steve’s secret. No, no. Not Steve’s. He gets that now.

 

He’s been a fool.

 

Steve slaps Billy’s tap off when he’s done. Billy stays standing there.

 

He isn’t proud of it, but he watches Steve walk away.

 

The soap in his eyes stings.

 

 

It’s Friday night.

 

Tina hugged him and pressed a wet kiss to his cheek when he showed up. Shoved a beer in his hand that he traded moments later for tequila. He wanted the thump of the bass guitar playing over the speakers to seep into his nerves, string him out, string him up.

 

A half hour into the party, he doesn’t miss Steve showing up with the priss on his arm, despite already being halfway to blackout drunk. He’s about to go to town on a keg. The crowd is cheering him on. Tommy is rambling gossip and praise into his ear, a tumor hanging off his side all night long.

 

The crowd is cheering keg, is cheering Billy, and Billy blinks and he’s upside down. Tommy and some other clown are holding his calves in an iron grip. He’s dizzy. He drinks and drinks and drinks.

 

Time skips.

 

He’s face to face with Steve.

 

Steve is so fucking angry. Defiant. And why? For what? Maybe because Billy’s a fool, always has been, probably always will be. That’s not Steve’s problem anymore.

 

Wheeler isn’t impressed.

 

Time skips again.

 

He’s getting blown by some blonde in Tina’s parents’ bedroom.

 

He moves away when she wants to kiss him after.

 

He knows it’s stupid, but he always thought that–

 

Time stutters, jumps forward. He’s standing over the front lawn, vomit staining the grass at his feet an ugly bile bland and smelling like rancid shit. Feels like a failure for always drinking until he’s numb, or nearly. Knows it’s because he can’t stop replaying Steve slapping his shower off, over and over and over–

 

He finds a beer and cracks the tab. Sips it to settle his stomach under the too-warm breeze and midnight moon of Hawkins.

 

Commotion from inside.

 

Wheeler comes stumbling out, her hand clasping at Byers’ elbow–and when did he even show up? They get into a beat up old car and disappear down the street.

 

More commotion minutes later. Cheering. Very loud cheering.

 

Keg, keg, keg.

 

Billy spins, feeling marginally more sober and confused because he’s the keg king tonight.

 

Then he hears the name. The name. And he understands.

 

Can only fucking laugh.

 

 

He avoids the background and the chaotic energy of the crowd until he has to piss. The nuclear cloud fuzzing his brain has cleared enough he’s mostly sober. He’ll have a hell of a headache come the morning, but that’s a problem for later.

 

He finds the bathroom. He shoves the door open with the toe of his boot all while unzipping his fly. Kicks the door closed again. He stands over the bowl and sighs.

 

He hears a sniffle and groan and his stream jumps. He swears and rights himself so he doesn’t cover Tina’s poor bathroom in piss.

 

He looks over his shoulder. Steve is laying in the tub on his back, still looking prim and polished even after his record breaking keg stand.

 

His eyes are squeezed shut, then his hands cover his face. He mumbles something Billy can’t make out.

 

Billy turns back around to focus on emptying his bladder. “Care to share with the class, Harrington?”

 

He shakes and zips up and flushes. Moves to the mirror to pretend to fix his hair, to look busy.

 

Then, loud and sudden, Steve moans out, “Why can’t you just leave me the hell alone.”

 

He pulls a curl too hard. Sweeps it away. It bounces right back in place.

 

Steve must lower his hands because his voice sounds clearer when he says, “You weren’t there.”

 

“Sad I missed your keg stand? So sorry.”

 

“No,” he says, and the syllable drags. “You weren’t there. You missed it. Science and–and practice.”

 

Billy turns until he can lean up against the sink. He crosses his arms.

 

“Excuse me?”

 

“You skipped. You–you just left. You always leave. Everybody always leaves.”

 

He sniffles again. Billy sees a tear slide down his cheek.

 

“You’re drunk, Harrington. Really drunk.”

 

Those squinted eyes open enough to glare up at him. “Stop calling me that. I hate it when you call me that. I don’t want you to call me that anymore. It’s not my name.”

 

It is, he doesn’t argue. Doesn’t miss it for the chance it is. “We don’t always get what we want. Harrington.”

 

Steve wipes at his eyes. Keeps glaring. “Oh fuck you.”

 

“No, Harrington, fuck you. You’ve been up my ass all week. Actually, you’ve been up everyone’s asses.”

 

“Fuck you,” he mutters.

 

Billy flips him off. “You’ve been acting like a total asshole.”

 

“Oh please,” Steve says, the words slurring. He starts to move, to push himself up on the lip of the tub, but he flops back down, slides back in place. “You’re the asshole. You’ve been a raging asshole for like, a whole year. I deserve a few weeks, at least.”

 

“Well maybe I wouldn’t have had to be such an asshole if you hadn’t gone and ratted me out to that fucking cop!”

 

He’s shouting by the end.

 

Steve is just looking at him.

 

Someone knocks on the door, and Billy is quick to lock it and shout, “Go find a bush to shit in! It’s occupied!”

 

“You…think I wanted what happened to…happen?” Steve breathes. “You blame me for what the state did to you?”

 

“What Hopper did to me, yeah.” He doesn’t. “Yeah, sure. You calling that pig ruined my fucking life.”

 

Nevermind that Maxine had called the chief out multiple times before Steve ever did.

 

Why is he like this.

 

More tears slip out. And there it is again, the guilt. The indescribable want to return to those last hours between getting the call his mom was gonna take him, to the moment he woke up in bed beside Steve for the last time and told himself he needed to go. That there was no going back.

 

He just wanted to stay in that moment forever. He wanted to sink back down under the covers and wake Steve up with a kiss.

 

Old dead things, his wants.

 

Steve’s throat works, all devastating angles as he tries to get up again. He ends up straddling the tub’s edge, facing the linoleum wall. He’s not looking at Billy anymore.

 

“I was afraid your dad had…” Steve taps his knuckles on the tub. “When you fell out of your car…at the quarry,” he says, slow and with difficulty as he fights past the alcohol, “I thought you died. You looked dead.”

 

Steve wobbles as he uses the wall to stand up all the way. He sways precariously as he steps over the lip of the tub to be on equal ground with Billy. He crowds in Billy’s space, doesn’t let Billy have an inch.

 

Steve meets his eyes, then quickly lets his gaze slide down. Want and guilt swell dangerous and low in Billy’s gut, a sick feeling.

 

Billy breaks out in a sweat the longer Steve stands there saying nothing.

 

“Don’t hate me for saving your life.”

 

“That’s bullshit,” Billy snaps and Steve–he winces. Flinches, really.

 

Steve hadn’t even flinched when Billy had been hitting him on the floor of his kitchen.

 

Clammy fingers go to his wrist, squeeze.

 

“Not that,” Steve whispers. “Just, please. Not that.”

 

His hand drops, slips away. Billy’s wrist burns.

 

“It’s in the past. It doesn’t matter anymore. We’re different people now, Steve.”

 

Steve breathes out, shaky. Billy can relate.

 

“I think you were right,” he says, and Billy’s heart sinks. “I’ve been making this harder. I do that, I know. It’s all bullshit. It is. I’ve always been slower, too stupid to catch on when it’s a lost cause. Guess everybody saw it before I did.”

 

When he breathes in next, he hiccups. Laughs and Billy can hear how drained he is, can hear the frustration.

 

“It’s bullshit. I’m bullshit.”

 

Billy can’t let Steve think like this. He’s not stupid. The words are stuck in the back of his throat again, heavy and useless. Why can’t he just say it? Why can’t he just suck it up and tell Steve that he’s the world’s fucking biggest and most terrible lying son of a bitch?

 

But then Steve is sticking a hand in his coat pocket, is turning the lock and opening the door. Is saying, “Man, I’m drunk.” Is laughing again, and sniffling again, and walking away.

 

And he leaves Billy alone. Again.

 

 

Steve pretends the conversation in Tina’s bathroom never happened.

 

He misses Steve’s seventeenth birthday. He knows when it is. He skips that day. Steve doesn’t give him any hint that he expected Billy to remember the next day in chem, so he has no reason to bring it up.

 

I’ve never missed a birthday. Carol’s matters more than mine.

 

He writes and writes. He breathes.

 

It eats at him. He’s never missed a birthday. And given how the last one went…some part of him wants to make it up to Steve. Show him things are different. But they have been, they are. Nothing is the same.

 

And all the while, their new normal hasn’t changed.

 

 

His anger’s never been fast until it is.

 

But Neil beats him to it.

 

Another month comes and goes, maybe longer.

 

It’s been a mix of Steve largely ignoring him or mumbling a toneless reply to the occasional question Billy aims his way in class, avoiding Billy in gym entirely, and Billy skipping when he doesn’t feel like dealing with any of it. Steve generally acknowledging him is more than Billy could have hoped for, but the lapse between kills off the bittersweet aftertaste of the attention. Steve’s moods have always been prone to their ups and downs, but lately they’ve been untenable.

 

Summer looms. Just a few more short weeks and he won’t have to see Steve’s face for months. He can convince someone in admin to give him a schedule of classes free of Steve entirely for next year. Plead the case of it being better for everyone if they never had to see each other.

 

He’s even been considering giving up basketball. He can just join some other sport. Or get his exercise in at the rec center the next town over.

 

It’s weeks of going back and forth, wrestling with himself and his own whims.

 

It only happens because he’s lowered his guard. Because Maxine saunters into his room on a Sunday afternoon, a rare stretch of hours he gets to himself. Demands to be driven around and dropped off at one of her local haunts. It’s raining, she tells him. She needs the car.

 

It happens because he snaps back at her. Something curt. Stupid. Irrelevant.

 

He can’t even remember what he said.

 

He only remembers the hurt twisting her face.

 

How she spits back, “You’re such an asshole! This is why nobody wants you!”

 

And it just…hits wrong. Slides under his skin and stings. Pierces. Rips into muscle.

 

It’s long, loud minutes of him and Max shouting back and forth until Neil is shouldering the door open, his hands already fisted and covered in grease up to the elbow from working on his truck. 

 

The door lands against his dresser with a slam, silencing the two of them so thoroughly, he can hear Maxine’s small hiccup of fear at the sight of his father looming.

 

Billy steps in front of her and then Neil does what he does best.

 

 

It’s the lull between impact  when the pain hits its peak. A crescendo breaking out into a sheet of red rain dripping into his eyes, a splash of black at the edges of his vision, the puddle of his own fast-bruising flesh swelling against the scrape of the carpet. The way Maxine screams is the thunder. Neil’s eyes are the lightning.

 

He spits every foul thing Billy’s ever thought about himself as he just lies there, wallowing, allowing himself a moment to saturate in the hurt.

 

The fear went the second Neil started swinging. The leadup to these moments is always the worst part, and Neil’s favorite. Probably. Billy’s always suspected he likes the suspense, the way he can sow fear in his only son so expertly like he does with every woman he dupes.

 

Women and children, those are Neil’s favorite targets.

 

He can smell the black grease smeared into his skin. His bedroom is stained in streaks of it. In the midst of it all, his dresser had been tipped over. His ashtray was sent careening into the window, an attempt from Billy to get his dad away from Max. Max, looking so small and ashen in the doorway, never shutting her mouth or stuffing her lungs the whole fucking time. Susan, missing in action as usual.

 

Fear is the prelude. Hurt is the midpoint. The after is what Billy hates the most.

 

He hates the routine of it. Fear, pain, nothing. Pretend it never happened. Return to normal. Clean up, avoid the hospital if he can help it, and keep going about their lives like a son didn’t just get beat by his father.

 

It was fine before. Before Neil decided he got tired of only having Billy to beat on after his mother left. Decided he wanted another wife. Another toy to toss around after the honeymoon phase blipped out. Only this time, his newest distraction had a tagalong.

 

It used to be fine. It used to be just what they did. Until Maxine showed up, tiny and more breakable than Billy ever was.

 

He knows it like he knows he’ll never be able to pursue sports professionally because his back and his knees are shit from all the times he’s had to heal over the years.

 

When Neil gets tired of Billy he’ll just go for Max.

 

Max, who’s trying to reach him, but can’t because Neil’s hand is planted against her chest. His hand is nearly the size of her rib cage. If he ever went after Max how he goes for Billy, she’d go flying across the room.

 

And she’s so much more stupid, so much braver than he is. She’d talk back. Fight back. Would go down harder than Billy ever has.

 

He can’t.

 

He hates this part.

 

He hates it so much.

 

Hates that now, instead of relishing the way Neil is breathing hard, is winding down, is getting ready to give his last little lecture before letting Billy go free to vanish for the rest of the day to lick his wounds–all Billy can think about is Maxine, screaming. Is Dr. Toll telling him there’s another side of this shit life. Of Steve Harrington’s mouth against his. Of Steve Harrington crying alone in a bathtub.

 

He’ll be seventeen soon.

 

One more year.

 

He can’t do this shit anymore.

 

Neil narrows his eyes. “What’s so funny?”

 

He can’t stop. It’s never been his best quality. Some people sob when they break. He laughs.

 

It’s always been an ugly sound. Has always freaked people out, made them afraid. Made them whisper behind his back. It’s happened when he’s blackout drunk and can’t even remember the fight the night before. It’s happened on the bleachers. It’s happened in the halls. It’s happened before Hawkins and it’s happened after. It’ll probably always happen.

 

It happened less when Steve was around to rein him in, lure him back into his shining orbit.

 

He lost that a long time ago. He’s been drifting in the void for months.

 

It happens now, as blood coats his teeth from a bit tongue, as he singsongs, “So what if I am?”

 

He can read the question in Neil’s dark eyes.

 

Billy rolls onto his back, smiles up at the man who never wanted him. “So what if I am a faggot like you keep telling me? What then?”

 

The endless screaming stops. His ears ring. Maxine goes still, eyes flitting up and down, back and forth, wondering what’s next.

 

And Neil isn’t saying anything, is the thing. Not what Billy expected, wonders what’s next himself. He doesn’t know.

 

This is uncharted territory for them both.

 

Neil’s hamhock hand grasps Maxine’s wrist, crushing her as she yelps. He drags her out of the room, and practically tosses her across the threshold before he shuts Billy’s door.

 

The sound is jarring in the quiet. It bounces around Billy’s ears like a ricochet bullet.

 

Neil removed the lock years ago. Replaced it with a wonky knob and a latch on the outside. Anyone could walk in. Not everyone could freely walk out.

 

The door doesn’t open.

 

“Stand.”

 

Billy laughs again, the sound abruptly cut when Neil bends to fist his shirt collar. Gets him up on his knees and then his feet to shove him against the wall.

 

He doesn’t think he’s ever seen his father so furious. So angry he’s gone quiet.

 

“You have one more chance,” Neil warns, low. “My good mood might convince me I didn’t just hear what I think I did.”

 

Good mood. Sure.

 

Billy purses his lips. Sounds the words out long and slow, because Neil isn’t stupid, but he’s never been smart either. He’s a security guard for fuck’s sake.

 

Later, Billy will wonder why his first instinct wasn’t to just walk it all back. Pretend he never said a damn thing.

 

“I’m gay, pops. You raised a real winner with me. Got just what you asked the stork for–”

 

Neil shoves him again, but it’s not so hard as before.

 

This is new. Dangerous in its unpredictability. He has no idea what’s going on in his dad’s head.

 

Billy holds his breath until he can’t. It gusts out all at once, rustling his dad’s resolve. Neil blinks and lets him go.

 

He settles back on his own two feet, every joint and nerve hurting in tandem. He tries not to wince as he cradles his ribs. Something’s broken, somewhere. It hurts to breathe. The sound of it whistles inside his head.

 

“Get out.”

 

Billy huffs, because–

 

“Don’t make me repeat myself,” Neil says. “I told myself after the war I wouldn’t, not again. And looking at you now, boy, I don’t know what I’ll do.”

 

Everything hurts too much. He can’t concentrate on what Neil’s saying. Told himself he wouldn’t do what again? Neil never talked about Vietnam. He can’t grasp it. The meaning. The way Neil hasn’t run his own voice raw shouting the words down at him. Can’t see that great past the blood in his eyes. Can’t feel anything but blinding white everywhere.

 

But his blood is still pumping. His legs are still working, somehow. He’s still alive.

 

It’s raining.

 

It’s getting dark.

 

He hasn’t even got his shoes on. Or socks.

 

He looks over to his nightstand where his keys are–but they’re missing. He blinks, skating across the bed, the mess on the floor.

 

He moves too fast. Moves wrong. He gasps, needing to brace himself on the wall to avoid falling to his knees from the wave of nausea pummeling through him. Definitely a rib.

 

Neil takes a step back. Fists the doorknob. He stares Billy down before looking beyond him. Somewhere over his ear.

 

“I’m going to go get a pack of cigarettes. If you’re not gone when I get back, there’ll be hell to pay.”

 

Billy can only stand there, hunched.

 

“Am I understood?”

 

Billy grunts an affirmative. He can’t stomach the usual words he has to force out every time Neil leaves him be.

 

Thankfully, he doesn’t push it. He swings the door open and leaves like nothing even happened.

 

Billy moves.

 

He drops to the floor, ribs be damned. He pushes things aside he doesn’t need, tosses what he might on his bed. Underwear, clothes, homework. Someone’s shoving his shoes at him and it’s Max–impossibly small Maxine with her small white face and her big blue eyes, lighter than he’s ever seen them.

 

She goes to his closet after he takes the shoes to shove them on–gets his go-bag out, and his suitcase that’s been collecting dust since they moved to Hawkins, and gets to packing whatever she can reach.

 

He finds his meds.

 

She doesn’t ask questions.

 

She does find his keys.

 

 

The quarry is bitingly cold even through the multiple layers he swaddled himself in after ditching his house.

 

Or, not his. Not anymore.

 

If it wasn’t for Maxine, he wouldn’t have his favorite leather jacket and zip up, or his one decent pair of boots. He grabbed random shit. Maxine had the clarity of mind to go for things that would keep him warm, sane. She went for socks when he was slapping around for his pack of cigs.

 

He’s down to two cigarettes.

 

It’s fucking cold and Indiana is as shitty as it’s ever been, in this single moment. Billy kicks his legs where they dangle over the cliff’s edge, the water far below an ink stain in a larger blot. The wind whines through the trees and skates over the centuries-worth of old rock.

 

He wonders what shut this place down. Since he’s been in Hawkins, it’s never been used. It’s always been the place the cool kids go. Then when he was old enough, the place he would dance and get drunk and make out with girls two grades above him.

 

He’s not far from where he drove down to meet Steve. He can see it a few dozen feet below him, a ridge they sometimes met up at when they each needed to get away. To blow off steam. To just shoot the shit without anyone overhearing or getting in their way, to tell them to stop drinking or stop smoking or stop being.

 

Sometimes he wants to wonder what would have happened if Steve never called the chief that day. If he’d just let Billy lay low for a few days and recover like he always did on his own. It wasn’t that bad back then. It was only bad because Steve saw it for what it was, all because Billy had the stupid determination not to let Steve down on his birthday.

 

Hell of a sweet sixteen.

 

He fucked up.

 

He made a mistake.

 

He never should have left. Or at least, never should have come back so mean. Cruel down to the marrow.

 

I look at you sometimes and I see him. That’s not your fault, honey. I’m so sorry.

 

His eyes sting. From the haphazard way he scrubbed at the crusting blood over his brow or the fresh tears the recent memory of his mother’s words brings he’s not sure.

 

California turned to shit like everything else in his life. He’s still not sure why he’s surprised by that. Everything he touches turns sour. Rots through his fingers.

 

His old friends. His mom. Maxine. Steve.

 

He takes a long, burning drag, shuts his eyes.

 

The rain is a drizzle now, barely anything as it patters along his hood, slowly soaking through the cotton. He tries not to count each wet dot as his jeans go from light to dark.

 

He takes another drag. Opens his eyes and looks back down. Gravity plays war with his gut as his vision doubles for an instant.

 

He decides, no. Maxine finds her way to the quarry often enough. He doesn’t want her to see that.

 

 

He stops and buys a six pack of beer. Must look some kind of way because he doesn’t even get asked for the fake ID he keeps on hand.

 

He drives in circles for a little while.

 

Lands on the high school parking lot, because he likes his usual spot. It didn’t matter when it was already so late, but. He was always able to see the beamer parked just across from him.

 

The lot is empty. It’s raining a little more in earnest now. He parks but leaves the wipers going. The sound is almost soothing.

 

He drinks his way through three and a half beers, thinking about keeping his breathing soft. Thinking about Steve. About the first time they ever kissed. The last time, too.

 

He thinks about his own stupid heart. Wishes it never belonged to him. Wishes Steve had never been dumb enough to say yes to his game.

 

He imagines what it would have been like to kiss Steve, to keep kissing him. To be allowed that. Imagines how it would have felt to have Steve want that. To want him. What it would feel like to sit and watch a movie in his living room and hold hands. To eat out after. To go back to Steve’s house and fall asleep together.

 

He thinks of the smell of Steve’s sheets. That easy comfort. The early morning light falling along his mole-dotted skin.

 

He uncaps the bottle of pills and finishes his fourth beer.

 

 

Cold. A drag. Leather.

 

“Come on. Come on.”

 

His head falls the other way. More leather. It’s sticky against his cheek.

 

His wrist is cold. He grabs at his sleeve. Someone takes his arm and sets it back in his lap.

 

“Wake up. Come on, what did you take? What are these for, huh? How many were in here?”

 

Fingers along his face, his neck. Poking him. He groans, but no sound reaches his ears. He tries again, his voice is a scrape.

 

More poking, he turns away. Again, more pressure.

 

“Your pulse isn’t…” His face is tilted back, more aggressively. Sudden. A sound of a smack.

 

He tries to touch his cheek. It hurts in a distant way. “Th’fuck?”

 

“There he is,” comes a voice he can’t place.

 

Around it, behind it–echoing it maybe–is the rain. It’s pouring. That’s water on his wrist. On his leg. His cheek, his neck.

 

A weight across his lap. He blinks, or tries to. One eyelid flutters while the other stays glued shut. Who glued his goddamn eye?

 

A rattle. A plastic cap being ripped off. He didn’t like to leave that stuff just lying around. The pressure leaves him. He turns toward it, curious.

 

“Please don’t tell me it was the whole bottle?” the voice asks, and it’s swimmy. Glances off him and bounces around his head like his thoughts have been all night. “Come on. Billy? Can you hear what I’m saying? No, no, don’t close your eyes. Keep them open.”

 

He tries. When had the other one closed?

 

“Can’t.”

 

It’s what he tries to say. It doesn’t sound like the word he means.

 

Light pierces his brain. He grimaces, head lolling back.

 

A hand yanks him right back. Fingers pry open his eyelids one at a time.

 

It’s Wheeler.

 

He laughs. It sounds like a gurgle.

 

Then his throat tastes sour and bubbly and he’s coughing. Wheeler swears, which might be the first time in her life for all he knows.

 

He can’t catch his breath.

 

Hears Wheeler staunchly state, “Sorry,” before shoving her fingers down his throat.

 

Then he’s bent in half and retching for what feels like hours. Still, her fingers press. Her nails scratch him raw.

 

The whole time, her other hand stays on his back, constant between his shoulder blades.

 

Pills and beer and that morning’s breakfast all come up fast.

 

He paws at her elbow, gets her hand drawing back. She flicks her hand off to the side out of view, her other hand ever present.

 

He keeps his eyes shut when she lets out a little sound of surprise at the mess between their shoes.

 

“That’s a lot of pills.”

 

“Uh-huh.”

 

“You with me?”

 

“Sure.”

 

“You need the hospital.”

 

He shakes his head. Already the fog is clearing. Everything is patchy. His cheek still stings from where she slapped him. He swallowed three month’s worth.

 

He can’t even get this right.

 

He doesn’t need the hospital. He needs the quarry. Maxine will just have to deal with a life full of trauma. Boo fucking hoo.

 

“Billy,” comes Wheeler’s voice, soft but firm. “Can you walk?”

 

He can’t take her softness anymore. The touch of her hand feels too heavy.

 

“Sure I fucking can,” he slurs, barely understandable.

 

“Then prove it.” Her hand only presses harder, is joined by another at his waist.

 

He wants to pull away, to push her away, to run, to get back in his car and do a doughnut as he drives off into the night. He doesn’t want to be walked to Wheeler’s princess-mobile station wagon, one of his shoes covered in his own bile, having to be held because his legs just don’t seem to want to work right.

 

Her car is parked at an awkward angle. One door wide open.

 

Some of his things are on the ground. Wheeler toes them out of the way, indelicate and stubborn about it as she shoulders him to the station wagon’s passenger seat. He at least tries to help her get the door open.

 

She unceremoniously dumps him there, out of breath enough for him to be offended. He lifts his legs up to readjust himself in the seat, and his fucking eyes squeeze out a tear or two because he can’t even manage that. Wheeler takes pity on him and moves his legs one at a time, thigh first.

 

“Don’t move,” she tells him after she’s buckled him in. She shuts the door and shields her eyes from the rain as she jogs back to his car.

 

And she starts tidying up. Getting his things inside. The beer bottles, his book bag, a few books, the box Maxine had tossed him from his vanity. His mother’s jewelry, the few things of makeup he kept hidden from Neil, his weed and spare cash and his–his fucking journal.

 

Dr. Toll’s journal.

 

Wheeler’s got her prissy little hands on his most vile secrets and she–she places it in his car like all the rest. She makes sure to lock it and shut the door and then she’s back and handing his keys over.

 

“We can come back and get it later, okay?”

 

He doesn’t even acknowledge it. He knows nobody’s looking for him. Neil isn’t going to come after him after what Billy confessed to tonight.

 

“Time’s it?”

 

“Oh, it’s…” As she gets herself situated, she checks the rear view mirror and hits the gearshift, backing up at a speed that has his nerves jumping as much as his unsettled stomach. “It’s just a little past one in the morning. I’m never usually out this late,” she admits, turning sharply onto the main road. “I’m practicing to get my license and it’s just easier at night, you know?”

 

She merges into the left lane and doesn’t signal before snapping on the turn. Billy wonders if he failed at offing himself only to die by Wheeler’s hand.

 

It would fucking figure.

 

Then he recognizes the street they’re on. And where it goes.

 

“No hospital.”

 

“You need–”

 

“No fuckin’ doctor–”

 

“Nope.” Her hand shoots out and fists in his zip up. She holds on even with her eyes on the road. “You’re in my car. You’re going to follow my rules. And rule number one is I take you to the hospital and you don’t complain.”

 

He sits up and Wheeler presses him right back into the seat. She holds up a finger.

 

“Stay. It’s good you got the pills up, but you need a doctor, Billy.”

 

“No fucking–”

 

“Why?” she asks him suddenly. The hospital looms in the distance, not particularly big, but tall enough with its shining red neon sign for the ER blazing in the darkness. “Because you don’t want anyone to find out your dad did that to you?”

 

He whips around. It still feels slow, sluggish. Everything feels like he’s trudging waist-deep through mud.

 

She glances at him, her mouth all pursed and frowny.

 

His anger then is slow, drudgy. “Steve better not’ve–”

 

“He didn’t.” It’s all she says as she pulls into the ER parking lot. She finds a spot right up front. Inside he can see two people, one of them staff. She turns her key and the station wagon goes quiet. “I figured it out on my own.”

 

And what is there to say to that?

 

He didn’t think anyone ever paid him so much attention.

 

“Why d’you care?”

 

She grips the steering wheel at ten and two and frowns out the windshield.

 

“It’s not that I don’t, but,” she pauses. “Steve does.”

 

And then she’s opening the door and rounding the other side to help Billy out.

 

 

He doesn’t meet the receptionist’s eye. He doesn’t meet the nurse’s, or the doctor’s when he and Wheeler are ushered back to an exam room. They’re either lax on rules or think they’re a thing because nobody pesters Wheeler to leave.

 

Why she isn’t just up and taking off, he can’t figure. But it hardly matters anyway.

 

She’s dutiful and silent as they ask him questions. She answers for him when his mouth doesn’t want to cooperate with his tongue. It’s only a few questions between the front desk and the exam room before he’s given an IV and a host of monitoring equipment. He has to breathe into a stupid mechanism that whirs every few minutes. It hurts.

 

“Keep doing it,” she orders. He does, but only because she keeps pushing the damn thing at his mouth.

 

They give him something. To counteract what he took and then, later, for the pain. He dozes. He dreams. He wakes now and again between the doctor and a rotating carousel of nurses. They ask him things, take X-rays, ask him more.

 

They ask him why he’s so hurt.

 

Wheeler fends that one off a little too well for him to be comfortable.

 

They ask him why he tried to OD.

 

Wheeler doesn’t have an answer for that.

 

He can’t give them one either.

 

 

Billy wakes up in a different room where dawn light creeps through the drawn blinds. He glances around, feeling much less like a balloon with rubber lips and more like himself with a hell of a headache. A look up tells him he’s on what must be his second bag of saline.

 

He spies Wheeler in the hall from his cracked door. She’s on the phone with someone. She’s got the wire curled around her fingers.

 

 

He’s drinking from the cup of water at the hospital table when Wheeler returns. She moves to help him but stops when he glares at her.

 

After rolling her eyes, she says, “They said you have three broken ribs. The rest is all surface level mostly. They stitched up your eyelid and cheek.”

 

So that’s why he was bleeding so much.

 

“They said for broken ribs to heal, there’s really nothing–”

 

“Yeah, yeah, Wheeler. I know. Nothing for it. I’ve had worse.”

 

It’s a reflex. You should see the other guy usually came next. But she knows. She knows because she figured it out on her own.

 

“I know what I’m dealing with,” he adds. Because he fucking feels bad. “You can head out, go back to whatever it is Nancy Wheeler has to do on…” The clock reads past eight. Fuck. “Wait, why aren’t you at school?”

 

She looks at him like he’s stupid. She gestures at the room at large.

 

“I’m not going to just leave you here like this.”

 

“Aren’t your parents gonna flip when they realize you never came home?”

 

“Oh. I just told them I stayed over at Barb’s for the night.”

 

“Ballsy, princess.”

 

Her lips tilt up. She looks almost bashful. “They really don’t care what I get up to, honestly.”

 

They lapse into silence. Billy feels awkward. He’s vulnerable, at the mercy of his…his whatever’s girlfriend. Steve hasn’t even seen him this messed up for this long.

 

He’s certainly never had to stick his fingers down Billy’s throat.

 

Billy winces remembering it. “Sorry about your hand. For, you know.”

 

“It just kind of happened.” A strained smile. “I almost didn’t pull over, but you were half out of your car. You were kind of freaking out. Throwing all your things around.”

 

He doesn’t remember any of that.

 

“I don’t remember that.”

 

“One of the nurses said that might happen. They, uh. Also wanted to call the police and report it since you’re underage.”

 

He tenses up, the pain in his ribs going sharp even through the pain meds.

 

“I said I would call. I haven’t,” she says, “yet. You should do it.”

 

“The last thing I’m doing is calling the police.”

 

“Billy, they can help you. The chief, Hopper. He’s–”

 

“No. No fucking way!” He slaps his hand down, sending the water everywhere.

 

He curses and grabs the hospital sheet to try and sponge at it. He tears up again, because he’s useless and angry, and all for what?

 

“No,” he repeats, empty. “No pigs.”

 

“Hopper is good. He–”

 

“Wheeler,” he bites out. He knows Hopper is a good guy. That’s why it’s a shit idea. It makes everything so much harder. “Stop talking about shit you know nothing about.”

 

She does, but barely.

 

 

It’s not too much longer–helped along by Billy’s stubborn refusal to report his injuries or talk much past saying he wanted to get going–before he’s discharged.

 

He’s still slightly off his feet, but he’s able to get into the car by himself.

 

He expects Wheeler to go straight to school. To dump his ass off at the camaro and head to class.

 

Instead, she pulls through McDonald’s and orders them both breakfast. She shoves an orange juice his way and sips at a Coke as she drives, janky and edging too far to the right of every lane.

 

“Where we headed, Knight Rider?”

 

“I’m taking you somewhere safe.”

 

“Safe? Safest place is my car right now.”

 

She hums and keeps driving.

 

Billy nurses his fries, too focused on how wonderful the salt tastes to realize when exactly she turns into Loch Nora.

 

“Wheeler.”

 

“It’s better than your dad’s house.”

 

Yeah, but barely. Steve’s house is the second worst place she could take him, really. But how can he explain that?

 

“Me and Harrington aren’t friends, Wheeler. What, you expect him to just let me crash on his couch?”

 

“I know you two had a fight. A few of them.” She sends a stern glance his way. “I don’t know the whole story of what happened between you two. But before we broke up it was like all he could talk about was you. He misses you. I think you both need to sit down and talk things out.”

 

His brain skips. “You broke up?”

 

“It wasn’t my finest moment.”

 

“You broke up with him?”

 

She sighs. “It was the party a while back. You were there. Of course, I’m mad at him. I’m mad at myself. I…it’s complicated, a lot of moving parts. Stuff that doesn’t really matter right now.”

 

“He won’t be there,” he says, thinking back to the moments in the halls and the cafeteria when Wheeler was missing in action. How the hell did he miss that? “He’ll be at school.”

 

She slows as they approach the Harrington household, huge and imposing on its individual drive in.

 

The beamer is parked out front.

 

“He knows you’re coming.” Then Wheeler just says, like it’s nothing, “Steve never really looked at me the way he looks at you. Or maybe it was just too much when he did.”

 

It can’t be what it sounds like. Paying attention to bruises and cuts was one thing, but this? She couldn’t. She can’t.

 

She parks in front of Steve’s house.

 

She catches sight of the glare he has trained on her. “I’m not your enemy, Billy.”

 

After everything that’s happened in the last twenty-four hours, it’s too much. Too much to process.

 

The knock on the window catches him off guard, has him gasping in pain as he turns and sees Steve, smiling a little warily at them both. His worst nightmare come true, given recent events.

 

Then his eyes land on Billy’s face and Billy knows he’s in for it.

 

“And neither is he,” Wheeler says softly just as Steve opens Billy’s door.

 

Those deep brown eyes roam over his face, the bruising, the stitches, the swelling.

 

“Jesus, dude. I only have so many bags of frozen peas.”

 

 

Billy’s wasting time on the second floor landing. He left under the pretense of going to clean up in the bathroom, but he’s listening in on Steve and Wheeler hashing it out in the kitchen.

 

“I can’t picture him being nice through all the hospital stuff. He wasn’t too much of a jerk to you, was he?”

 

“I handled it. He’s just scared I think.”

 

There’s a scoff. “Billy doesn’t do scared.”

 

“Steve.”

 

There’s the sound of movement, some hushed exchange he can’t hear. He strains to keep his breathing as quiet as possible to get a picture of what he can’t see.

 

“I just don’t get why he would do that. He’s never been–he’s never done something like that, Nance. Was it really the whole bottle?”

 

There’s no reply.

 

Then Steve’s groaning. “God. What the fuck. What the fuck. Nance, you–you saved him, you know that?”

 

“You would have done the same thing.”

 

“I don’t know if I would have.”

 

It hurts. Makes his breath catch. He feels sick.

 

But he gets it. It’s no less than he deserves.

 

“Stop feeling sorry for yourself,” Wheeler says. “I don’t even like the guy and I can clearly see he needs a friend. He needs you. You need him too. You’ve been so…so mean since he came back. Like you’re playing into the fanfare of King Steve. You weren’t that guy when we started going steady. That Steve would have stopped, no questions asked.”

 

“Nance…”

 

“I don’t really get it, and I know we aren’t on the best terms right now…but this is serious, Steve. You didn’t see how he was when I found him.”

 

“…How was he?”

 

“He was sobbing. Throwing things in the air. Shouting. It wasn’t until I got close enough I realized how hurt he was. He just kept begging me not to call the police, then he passed out. That’s when I saw the empty bottles.”

 

Billy doesn’t remember any of that. He thought people swallowed their poison and passed the fuck out, forever. It would figure he’d embarrass himself and freak the fuck out before kicking the bucket.

 

He should have just gone to the goddamn quarry.

 

There’s more movement, and then Wheeler walks into view. She’s heading for the entry, Steve hot on her heels.

 

Billy steps out of sight, leaning back against the wall.

 

“Just help him. You’ve been miserable and moody for months, and he’s at rock bottom. Fix your friendship.”

 

“I…” a big sigh. “I don’t know how.”

 

Billy bites his tongue. Swallows down the surge of hope that flutters through him. That Steve might want to fix things. That maybe whatever threads of friendship Billy tried to burn away aren’t ash like he thought.

 

“Talk to him. Make him listen. He’s not as tough as he thinks he is.”

 

“You don’t think anyone’s as tough as they think they are.”

 

“Speaking from experience?”

 

“Maybe I am.”

 

“You’re not happy, Steve. You haven’t been for a while. We weren’t happy together. I didn’t know how to fix that.”

 

“We could have tried.”

 

“We’d been trying. It didn’t happen like you and your friends think it did.”

 

“I know that.” Then, less biting, “Sorry. Sorry, I. Shit, I’m sorry. I know.”

 

“Oh, Steve.”

 

“No, no. I’m fine. Or, I will be. I guess.”

 

“You know it’s okay if you…What Tommy said. If you’re, you know–”

 

“Stop. Just please stop.”

 

The door creaks open after a few long moments. The same creak it’s had for years.

 

“Hey, Nancy?”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Thank you. And I am, you know. Sorry. For everything.”

 

“I know, Steve.”

 

The door shuts and Billy doesn’t hear Steve move again for a long time.

 

He bites his own bitterness away and goes to finally shower.

 

 

When Billy cracks the door open to the hall, he sees a fresh change of clothes folded neatly at his feet. His heart flips painfully. He takes them and changes again, glad to be rid of his bloodied clothing.

 

When he pads downstairs, Steve’s missing in action. He’s too winded from maneuvering to get himself clean in the shower and doing the stairs twice so he just figures Steve went to school and left Billy to his own devices.

 

He sets himself on the couch, determined to steal an hour or two of shuteye before he makes the trek to the high school to get his car. He’ll be gone and out of Steve’s hair before he even realizes he’s gone.

 

Then he can figure out what the hell he’s going to do.

 

 

Billy jerks awake.

 

“Sorry! Sorry, I was trying not to wake you. Just go back to sleep, man.”

 

He looks around, sight bleary and head pounding.

 

Steve’s leaving the kitchen with a sandwich and a drink in hand, looking guilty.

 

He gestures at the coffee table.

 

“Your car’s in the drive, by the way. I know how you worry about it.”

 

Sure enough, his car keys are laying on the coffee table a foot away from him.

 

He won’t have to walk all that way.

 

He won’t have to hurt so much getting it done.

 

“Oh, hey, uh. What are you doing? You should be resting.”

 

Billy’s on his feet, keys in hand, by the time Steve’s got his lunch somewhere on a flat surface. He needs to see it. See the mess he made. Needs to know if he ruined the interior. If he’ll have to get her cleaned before taking off. 

 

Steve doesn’t exactly do much to stop him from opening the door, even though he’s developed a bit of a wince and wheeze with every step he takes. Now that he’s showered and gotten a few hours of sleep in, his body is waking up to the hell it’s been through the last day or so. If he stops now, he won’t be able to keep going. It’ll hurt too much.

 

The camaro is shining blue outside in the morning sun in the Harrington driveway. The beamer’s been moved to the street, which isn’t something Steve had to bother doing. He’ll just have to move it back when Billy leaves.

 

He walks out, barefoot, ignoring Steve’s complaints behind him as he goes.

 

He braces himself for the damage.

 

He shields his eyes and peers through the window. Bites his tongue, expecting the worst.

 

It’s pristine.

 

He can’t get the door open fast enough.

 

The beer and pill bottles are missing. His school bag is on the floor of the passenger seat and he can tell by the bulge that his books were placed back inside. He leans down in spite of his broken ribs and sees the ashtray’s been cleaned out.

 

The backseat is the same.

 

There’s not a single piece of trash anywhere. Zero evidence of the havoc he wreaked the night before while he was barely conscious enough to do it.

 

Steve approaches him, hands on his hips with a wary expression across his face.

 

“I went through the car wash on third, if that’s okay. You know, the place with that big fake dinosaur outside, with the weird eyes? They have those self-serve vacuums and everything. I figured it’d be better than coming back to…you know. She drives smooth.”

 

Billy takes a closer look. There’s not a speck of dust on the leather seats. The carpeted flooring is spotless. The wheel and dash glitter in the light. Now that he’s looking for it, when he inhales he smells a faint trace of lemon.

 

When Billy straightens and turns to meet Steve’s eyes, the wariness is tenfold. He starts fidgeting in a way Billy hasn’t seen him fidget in months.

 

He hasn’t let himself watch. And maybe Steve hasn’t let his guard down enough in Billy’s presence.

 

He misses him, right then. So fucking badly.

 

“I’m sorry. I know you’re really picky about your car and who drives and all that. I promise I took every corner slow and double checked every blind spot–”

 

He’s been so goddamn stupid.

 

Billy pulls Steve into his arms. Buries his face in his shoulder. Hears the surprise breeze out of Steve before his arms come up gingerly around Billy’s middle, carefully avoiding his ribs.

 

“I’m sorry, Steve. I’m so fucking sorry.”

 

He can’t stop saying it. Over and over and over again. Runs the words into the ground he says them so much, and all the while Steve just holds him.

 

He hugs Steve so hard it hurts, but that’s probably all him.